Chapter 576: Shooting Yourself in the Foot
In the dim corridor, Thales face turned grim as he put his hands on Morat’s “wheelchair” that was covered with black-veined vines (he struggled with the idea for a long time before touching it reluctantly), and became Morat’s reticent mobility aid, pushing The Black Prophet forward as instructed.
The black-veined vines seemed to be able to sense his presence. Hissing and squirming, they “politely” made room on the back of the wheelchair, just enough to accommodate a pair of hands.
This only made Thales feel weirder and more hesitant.
“Don’t worry, they don’t bite people.”
As if he could see the duke’s expression behind him, The Black Prophet chuckled.
‘They just eat them,’ the elderly Chief of Intelligence thought casually.
Thales twitched the corners of his mouth and continued forward.
It wasn’t that he never thought of refusing, but since a vulnerable(?) and disabled old man made such a request, he had no choice but to do as asked.
‘But where the hell are all the other Secret Intelligence Department agents?’ the youth ranted to himself, ‘To the point that a first-time guest is asked to help out on such…trivial matters.
‘Shouldn’t this task be done by that silver-tongued wolf in sheep’s clothing, Raphael?’
The wheels covered in strange vines rolled along the ground, but weirdly, did not make any noise.
Raphael’s figure was swallowed by the darkness ahead. Only the sound of his footsteps could faintly be heard, guiding Thales forward.
They proceeded in silence.
Staring at the back of Morat’s head that was bald to the point that it revealed the shape of his skull, Thales felt more distressed and uncomfortable.
Despite wearing gloves, the odd tactile sensation was still unsettling—the parts that had been covered by the vines were moist and warm, and had a strange stickiness.
But Thales attempted to find gaps on the back of the wheelchair where he could place his hands to avoid touching those disgusting black vines, even though it was difficult. This made pushing more inconvenient.
“Is it alive? Does it have a consciousness?”
Without turning around, The Black Prophet responded, “Are you alive?”
“Most people are muddling through life. They’re no different dead or alive,” Morat’s tone was indifferent and vague, “Whether it’s alive or not, whether it has a consciousness or not, does it matter?”
Thales sighed helplessly.
He had once pushed the wheelchair of Gleeward the veteran in Dragon Clouds City.
In fact, the roads in Shield District at night were bumpy and uneven, winding and full of obstructions. Coupled with the fact that the old cripple from Northland had a potty mouth, it was a memorable experience for the beseeching youth who was made to feel miserable.
But now, Thales would willingly bear whatever Gleeward could throw at him without complaint and push his wheelchair for a year if it meant that he did not have to spend another second with Morat.
“What actually is it?”
“Oh, Your Highness,” The Black Prophet shook his head and sneered softly, “You’ve seen them before.”
‘More than once.’
Thales exhaled long and hard from his nose, as if he was expelling from his body Morat’s ambiguous remarks as well as the anxiety deep within himself.
Thales turned away awkwardly as he forced himself not to look at the strange vines that were hissing and contracting and expanding as if they were breathing. He found a topic to divert his attention. “Six years ago, his palm was clearly cut open, but was still intact. His telepathic ability was undiminished and he could still communicate with you from thousands of miles away.
“When he faced the Fire Knight, his sleeves were set ablaze many times by the Rising Sun Saber. He kept covering them up and retreating.
“In Heroic Spirit Palace, my attendant mentioned skeptically that he saw his heart being pierced through.”
The back of Morat’s head was still and no longer swayed leisurely from side to side.
“And as the troublemaker of Secret Intelligence Department on Dragon Blood’s Night, he only behaved himself in one place.”
Thales’ gaze converged. “Bright Moon Temple.”
The pace at which they advanced was unchanged. The path ahead was still dark.
There was a slight change in Morat’s tone when he responded, “So?”
Thales slowed down a little.
The vines were still wriggling on the wheelchair. Occasionally, they would switch angles and coil around other parts of the wheelchair with a different posture.
The Duke of Star Lake recalled something Zakriel had said before, and muttered distractedly, “They feed on blood and flesh, and hunt for souls.
“They reveal themselves in flames, and vanish before the gods.”
Thales stared at the vines. “This is the flesh of the demon.”
Morat turned slightly and cast a sideways glance at the prince.
Thales snapped out of his daze and, reminded of Morat’s status, immediately felt vigilant.
He quickly added, “It’s just something I’ve heard, when I was in the Nor…taken hostage.”
There was a moment of silence in the corridor, except for the hissing of the black-veined vines, which sounded at times like the crackling of flames, and at times like the babbling of flowing water.
“Hmm, you seem to be able to find out the answer on your own.”
Morat looked straight back ahead and continued with a smile, “As always.”
“So, demons and hell.” Thales ignored Morat’s mockery. “They exist, right here, at the Secret Intelligence Department.
“And they have been developed by you into, erm.” Thales glanced at Morat’s disgusting wheelchair. “Medical prosthetics?”
Seemingly intrigued by Thales’ words, Morat clicked his tongue and shook his head.
“Not us, Your Highness. Not us.
“We merely inherited and emulated. We’re far from the first unscrupulous ones in this world to covet the mysterious taboo.”
‘Unscrupulous, covet the mysterious taboo.’
Thales narrowed his eyes.
“Magic,” the prince said quietly as he picked up pace to keep up with the faint footsteps ahead.
“Another legacy left by wizards, is it?”
He continued sarcastically, “It seems that the kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Department is the orthodox successor to Magic Tower.”
This time, Morat’s reply was cold, “I thought Priestess Melgen had already reminded you, Your Highness.”
Hearing this familiar name, Thales was mildly surprised. “Priestess Melgen—You know her?”
The Black Prophet scoffed but did not respond to his question. “Trust me, Your Highness. Magic is far less mystical and fascinating than it sounds—its grand appearance is comparable to its sins.”
“But you seem to have no qualms with inheriting the legacy of your antecessors,” the prince looked at the living creature that was wrapped around the wheelchair and went on with a frown, “Whether it’s the Prison of Bones, the magical lock outside, or…this.”
Morat shook his head. “You may not understand it yet.
“But let me put it this way: the Secret Intelligence Department is like a lock on the door that prevents the world from walking towards self-destruction.”
He lamented on, “Like all attachments in this world, overdoing it and pursuing it too deeply may eventually come back to bite you.”
‘Pursuing it too deeply.
‘May come back to bite you.’
Thales raised his eyebrows.
He suddenly remembered the Three Great Declarations of Mystics that his teacher had once mentioned:
Never investigate one another.
Stay true to oneself.
With that in mind, he asked tentatively, “For example…Mystics?”
In that second, goosebumps covered his arms and Sin of Hell’s River surged!
In the next instant, the vines on the wheelchair wriggled quicker and expanded and contracted furiously!
Frightened, Thales instinctively let go of the wheelchair and stopped in his tracks.
Fully on guard.
The figure of The Black Prophet trembled on the wheelchair, shaking volatilely.
He let out a low and strange guttural sound, as if expressing dissatisfaction, but also like something done instinctively during contemplation.
Like an asthma patient.
This made Thales frown.
‘What the heck?’
After a few minutes, the black-veined vines reverted to their original shape and became subdued.
“Are you alright?” Thales asked warily.
After a short while, Morat, who seemed like he had just overcome a severe illness, panted in reply, “Still alive.”
“Let’s move along. We’re not there yet.”
Thales put away his anxiety, placed his hands on the wheelchair and started walking again.
“Look at this thing carefully, Your Highness,” Morat said sluggishly, “Do you think it’s something beautiful?
“Our good neighbors in hell are beyond imagination, and their variations exceed that of Powers of Eradication,” the head of the Secret Intelligence Department said weakly, “Even the flesh cut from their bodies vary from piece to piece.”
Thales stared at the squirming vines and had more doubts.
“And this piece…
“Looks extraordinarily energetic and able to adapt to its host—a surprise gift to physicians when they are at their wits’ end.”
Morat’s tone became tense. “But they multiply endlessly in the dark and erode their host. They are the unholy things most detested by priests.”
‘Just like this world, charming yet deadly.’
Thales was silent for a while.
“So it can help you through difficulties for the time being but will eventually kill you?”
“Worse, son.” The Black Prophet sounded somewhat morose. “Much worse.”
Thales looked ahead subconsciously.
But Raphael’s figure had long disappeared.
“Don’t worry,” Morat noticed the direction of Thales’ gaze and said softly, “He’s not me. He’s still young, he can take it.”
The Black Prophet fell silent again.
‘He’s still young, he can take it.’
“All to save those pair of hands that Duke Arunde crippled?”
The Black Prophet looked at the black vines on his legs and shook his head. “What it saved, was not just his hands, son.”
‘Demons are always around, they just stay quiet.’
For some reason, Thales was reminded of this sentence.
“The then Crown Prince Midier.” Curiously, Thales thought of this incident. “As the conceiver of the ‘Dragon’s Blood’ plan, he once led the Secret Intelligence Department, or at least worked with you, did he not?”
Morat looked up; his gaze was keen.
“Did he ever use it?”
Thales looked towards the black-veined vines that wrapped tightly around The Black Prophet’s legs. “Did he use this thing to cure his crippled legs?”
The silence lasted longer this time.
“It wasn’t that no one suggested it.”
Morat uncharacteristically expressed emotion, as he replied in a tone of fond remembrance toward the deceased, “But His Highness Prince Midier, he refused with a smile. He said…”
Morat stared at his frail arms, then at the vines on his legs. “Even without those legs, he can still stand upright and be a complete and healthy person.”
A gleam flashed across Thales’ eyes.
“He lives up to his name indeed. His words are always thought-provoking,” he said sincerely.
Morat stooped a little and lamented, “The defect that most people need to mend, is not a physical one.”
This version of Morat before him gave Thales an illusion: covered by vines, weak and suffering, Morat seemed to have shed the terrifying exterior of The Black Prophet and was behaving like an ordinary sentimental old man.
Perhaps he could gain more from interacting with this version of Morat.
A thought came to him. He tapped the wheelchair, causing the vines to writhe. “So how did you get your hands on this thing? Don’t tell me you have a mine that leads straight to hell?”
Morat was silent for a while.
Just when Thales thought he had no intention of answering the question.
“According to our agreement, the leader of Blood Whistle should be standing here right now to continue negotiating our cooperation.”
Morat sighed. “But unfortunately, he has failed to turn up.”
Thales was stunned. Then his eyes widened. “Who…do you mean?”
Morat burst into laughter.
“You know, son.” His weak body trembled slightly in the wheelchair. “I can read minds.”
Thales’ expression changed.
“That’s right. I know about Ricky. I know about Disaster Sword. And I know that you spent at least a few hours together,” the old man on the wheelchair said calmly.
As he thought about that “Crassus” of Disaster Sword with a strange identity, Thales put aside his shock.
‘Continue negotiating our “cooperation”.’
The Duke of Star lake recalled what Ricky had said in the dungeon.
“Our relationship with the Secret Intelligence Department of Constellation is closer than you can imagine.”
Disaster Sword and the Secret Intelligence Department.
He was just testing the waters, but he actually got…real intel out of it?
“I thought you said you wouldn’t read my mind today?”
Thales leaned forward a little and carefully observed The Black Prophet’s expression.
Thales understood. “It was Norb.
“It was him. He came back and reported the incident in Western Desert to you.”
‘That’s how he knew that I met with Ricky.’
Morat looked up and met Thales’ gaze.
“Compared to six years ago, you’ve become more perceptive, Your Highness,” he whispered, “I’m seeing you in a new light.”
Thales pursed his lips.
‘Then who at the Secret Intelligence Department keeps reporting to King Kessel that the prince “acts presumptuously without considering the consequences”?’
But in the next moment, Morat asked softly, “Since you were there in person, Your Highness, I wonder if you can clear up my confusion.
“In Blade Fangs Camp, what made the mercenary Ricky break his promise, voluntarily give up the long-term cooperation he had with us, leave everything behind and flee?”
Thales caught this key phrase.
His gaze fell upon the wriggling vines on the wheelchair.
‘Flesh of the demon.’
Somehow, Thales suddenly remembered what Morat had just said about “the flesh cut from their bodies”.
‘So this was what they cooperated on.’
The Black Prophet’s words brought him back to reality. “Do you know?”
Thales snapped out of his daze.
‘What made Ricky break his promise and flee?’
Thales thought about Zakriel in the Prison of Bones, about the Blade of Purification drawn on paper, about the former king who went up against the world whom the Knight of Judgement told him about…
‘No, I don’t know,’ Thales wanted to reply.
But he could not.
Because he did.
Thales kept Yodel’s advice in mind: when facing Morat, he could not lie.
“Yes,” Thales continued the conversation naturally and smoothly, “Williams.
“Legendary Wing caused chaos with Ricky’s mercenary squad, recaptured Blade Fangs Camp, then threatened him to get lost, as far as possible.
“I guess he took it to heart.”
Upon hearing this name, The Black Prophet’s gaze froze and he was silent for a few seconds.
‘Perfect,’ Seeing Morat’s reaction, Thales thought to himself, ‘If Sabor is really taking bets about “the fierce dog that bit off a certain someone’s leg”…
‘I might actually be able to win some money.’
“So Disaster Sword and the Secret Intelligence Department go way back?”
Thales was determined to keep digging. He suppressed his unease and prodded the vines, provoking the thing to tremble and curl up.
“Did Ricky give you this thing?”
‘The black patch of skin on Ricky’s face, Raphael’s arm, The Black Prophet’s wheelchair.
‘Not just these.
‘The Disaster Sword from more than a century ago, Crassus and the Red King, mercenaries and the Secret Intelligence Department.
‘It’s all coming together.’
Morat was silent for a while.
But this time, he responded to Thales with an eerie cackle.
Which made the second prince uneasy.
“I say, you have become more perceptive, Your Highness.
“But you’re still not cautious enough.”
Thales was slightly taken aback.
‘Not cautious enough.
‘What does that mean?’
Morat stopped laughing and said out of the blue, “Raphael’s report was right.”
Thales knew things were taking a turn for the worse. “What report?”
Morat took a look at him, clicked his tongue and shook his head. “After six years of observation, he said…
“When faced with a problem, Prince Thales, possessing both ability and mentality, is good at gathering information from multiple sources, collating the intel, piecing together the clues, and observing and thinking from a different perspective. Then, using your imaginative brain, you are able to grasp the key points and come up with a creative solution that no one else could.
His tone changed. “You are too stubborn, too focused on the questions you have raised, and lack the prudence and rigor required for intelligence work. It is inevitable that you will be misled by the story logic that you yourself have devised, and overlook insignificant but vital details.
“For example, your sudden public appearance at the National Conference.”
Thales’ breathing staggered.
“You are also too emotional, too concerned about the particular nature of things, and lack the artfulness and comprehensive outlook required to deal with complex problems, often restricted by principles and ignoring the price, making impulsive decisions that cannot be understood by ordinary people.
“For example, going all out at Heroic Spirit Palace.”
The Black Prophet squinted. “And stepping forward last night.”
Thales felt his arms that were pushing the wheelchair turn stiff.
‘Why. Why is he suddenly talking about all of this?’
But Morat’s voice could still be heard, like an unstoppable magic sound. “So, after taking a decisive move to recover lost ground, you tend to fall into unpredictable bad consequences.
“You correctly guess the opening, but miss the ending.”
The Chief of Intelligence, The Black Prophet, Lord Morat Hansen continued subtly, “Commonly known as: trying to be smart.
“And shooting yourself in the foot.”
In that moment, Thales could not help but think of the unit under Raphael: The Prince’s Ass.
A wave of indignance surged within him.
But in the same instant, Morat took a slight turn and steered the topic back on course. “I mentioned Ricky, and said we were cooperating, but never said that we were cooperating on this thing.”
He stared contemptuously at the black-veined vines on his lower body. “But why did you connect the dots confidently and resolutely, thinking that this thing must have come from Ricky?”
The Black Prophet cast a pensive look at him. “It seems that you already know what the leader of Disaster Sword is.”
Thales suddenly understood. He was lost for words and his face turned pale.
“So therein lies the problem: this is his most guarded secret. It was impossible that he told you about it voluntarily when he introduced himself.”
Morat continued interestedly, “So the next question is: during the chaos created to break out of Prison of Bones, with Ricky’s skills and Blood Whistle’s attacking power, what did he encounter and what threats did he face…
“To have been forced to show his cards in front of you and reveal his true self?”
The Black Prophet stared coldly at the vines on his legs. “Which made you believe that this thing and him originate from the same source?
“Can you answer me?
Thales clenched his teeth and gulped.
‘What did Ricky encounter in the Prison of Bones that forced him to reveal the true body of the demon?
‘They reveal themselves in flames, and vanish before the gods.’
The somber yet unstoppable figure of the Knight of Judgement flashed before his eyes.
The youth shook his head and forced himself to get a grip and answer Morat’s question.
‘Don’t lie, Thales.
The prince strived to maintain a steady pace of speech. “He daringly beat up Ricky—we all saw that face. It was just like this thing, like something dug out of a black mine.”
The Black Prophet fell silent again.
“Very well. You are telling the truth,” the Chief of Intelligence said slowly after a long stretch of silence, “At least you think you are telling the truth.”
Thales let out a sigh of relief inside.
But, in the next second.
“However, it’s the second time.”
Morat’s tone became indifferent again. “Legendary Wing.
“This is the second time that you’ve used his name to answer a question.”
Thales’ complexion changed slightly.
“As if you have identified him as your shield, and believe that he will verify your words.”
The Black Prophet rubbed his thin wrists and pondered, “Both incidents are related to him. Is this a coincidence?”
Thales pursed his lips.
“Or is it that, you, Your Highness, are unwilling to speak more about the situation when Ricky revealed his true body, not willing to breathe another word about your encounter in the Prison of Bones, and prefer to dispatch a troublesome busybody like me to ask Williams, and dump all the annoying and detailed questions to that murderous and hostile fiend?”
‘My encounter in the Prison of Bones.’
Thales could hear his own breathing.
The black-veined vines on the wheelchair started its next bout of writhing, making Thales uncomfortable.
But he was too occupied to be bothered by this thing now.
“If I had to guess, maybe you have some understanding with Legendary Wing to conceal something, something that forced Ricky to reveal his real body and even break his relationship with the Secret Intelligence Department…”
The Black Prophet contemplated, “Is it Shadow Shield?
“Or the reason Secret Room came all the way to Blade Fangs Camp?”
In that moment, the figures of Stake and Quick Rope flashed across Thales’ eyes, making his entire body tense.
‘No. Quick Rope…’
But Morat shook his head. “No. You used Legendary Wing as an excuse, but the person who would have been able to make Ricky reveal his true body must have been someone of equal standing as him…”
Finally, when Thales was still in shock, The Black Prophet’s furrowed brows smoothed out as he exhaled and put an end to his conjectures.
“So, after not being sighted for over a decade…” Morat looked at Thales calmly. “How is he, our beloved former watchman, Lord Zakriel?”
Thales felt a chill run through his spine.
“As for those prisoners who tried to escape and were executed by Williams in the Prison of Bones, as described in the official notice.” The Black Prophet looked at him with much interest, like appraising a prey in the crosshairs.
“Although the ruthless Baron of Blade Fangs Dune has not produced a specific list of names, but I’m guessing…
“This must have included some former royal guards who colluded with the enemy during the Bloody Year. Am I right?”
The Black Prophet spoke softly, his every word laced with poison. “That’s why they were not executed.
“But released by you and Williams.
“And the mercenary Ricky witnessed this.”
Thales lost his ability to think.
He merely…mentioned one additional thing.
But Morat was able to…
“See? This is what we call…”
Morat chuckled and tapped his fingers on the wheelchair.
“Trying to be smart.
“And shooting yourself in the foot.”
Thales continued to push the wheelchair woodenly. It struck him.
He was wrong.
The prince’s gaze converged in mid-air.
Just as how, even if he wasn’t king, he could threaten Williams.
Even if Morat was in a wheelchair, elderly, and dying.
He was still the master of the Secret Intelligence Department, King Kessel’s imperial Chief of Intelligence.
And the Black Prophet of the entire kingdom.
“So, Duke of Star Lake, as the heir to the throne, by privately releasing this group of wanted colluders who have sensitive identities, are highly-skilled and have extensive knowledge of the workings and secrets of the palace, what are your intentions?”
Morat took his time with the next sentence, like a viper extending its tongue. “If your father knew about this, what would he think?”