The time to relax eventually came to an end, and the peak season arrived with vengeance right at my doorstep.
From here onwards I needed to steel myself and perform a continuous stream of one funeral after another. Not only that, I'd be doing that during the coldest and harshest time of the year too.
"We came here to escort you."
The Paladins showed their mugs again as promised after a month.
I wrapped myself in a cheap blanket and climbed aboard the horse-drawn carriage.
Goddammit, it's so freaking cold! I might get frostbite while working in rubbish weather conditions like this. It'd be a huge relief if I didn't have any of my limbs cut off from a hapless mistake or something.
After going past the forest of the steep mountainside, we finally reached the village nearest to the monastery. The villagers had all packed up their luggage and were slowly marching out of their homes as well. Gril and Charlotte were also among the group.
She was carrying luggage far bigger than herself, which was quite an amazing sight to behold. She saw me in the carriage and bowed her head a little, either out of respect or as a casual greeting.
Wow. Hey you. You're pretty strong, aren't you? Probably much stronger than me, right?
I inwardly clicked my tongue.
All the villagers here were also evacuating to the Ronia fiefdom, to escape from the upcoming 'Tide of Death'.
"Just how big is the scale of this Tide of Death anyway?"
I had this feeling that most of the books I read about this subject were works of pure unbridled over-exaggeration. However, if it really was as dangerous as they say, then it'd no doubt become rather troublesome for me.
"The exact scale is still unknown, your highness. However, we are certain to be attacked continuously for a month to coincide with the coldest day of the year. Last year alone, we had about five thousand undead creatures showing up to attack the fortress over the span of one week and on December 25th, the day when the Necromancer King died, we recorded the highest number of undead throughout the Tide itself."
Five thousand, was it...
"How many people are stationed in the fortress then?"
"The Ronia fiefdom boasts a combat force of about twenty thousand strong at all times, with more convicts regularly being shipped in to supplement that figure. We also have additional criminals, numbering around two thousand or so, scheduled to join our ranks in the near future, your highness."
Well, in that case, it shouldn't be all that dangerous, right?
I shifted my gaze over to the distant fiefdom.
Unfortunately, the fortress wasn't as big as I had hoped. It was rather shabby, if I was being brutally honest with myself.
The castle walls were actually a collection of wooden palisades and stone barricades, and they were only around twelve meters high. But they still surrounded the fiefdom with nary a visible gap, as if to emphasize their role of protecting the city hiding within.
This place was referred to as the 'Castle of Sacrifices', right? The place where all the 'sacrifices' were gathered to placate the anger of the dead?
"If only these walls were like the Wall from the Game of XX..."
With the authority of the Holy Emperor, a fortification wall that dwarfed the Great Wall of China in scale could've been built already. Of course, building such a grand wall didn't mean its enormous length could be effectively policed, and if one spot were to receive a focused attack, the wall would've been easily breached anyway.
This was why it was wiser to gather the 'living' to lure the huge hordes of the undead to a single spot, and stop them right there and then.
In one month's time, the 'Tide of Death' would significantly weaken. If we manage to endure that long, that was.
And, when the warmer spring and summer season arrive, the dead would shuffle back to the far north once more – to the Land of the Dead Spirits in order to preserve their bodies from rotting away and to gather more demonic energy in the process.
"There really are a lot of convicts here," I commented.
A lengthy procession of shackled-together prisoners and slaves were being ushered into the Ronia fiefdom at a similar time as our traveling group. They were the so-called 'soldiers' who were assigned to defend against the soon-to-be arriving 'Tide of Death'.
Every single one of them were supposedly serious felons saddled with heavy sentences, such as capital punishment or life imprisonment.
All sorts of convicts had been brought here; from murderers, rapists, to armed robbers – they were rather well suited to serve as sacrificial tools. In a way, this was a smart and logical way of dealing with the matter at hand, but...
"It was a misunderstanding! I only stole a loaf of bread! I didn't kill anyone... That... that bastard Paron, he framed me...!"
One of the prisoners resisted bitterly, only to get beaten up black and blue by the soldiers stationed around the area.
I had no doubt that there were a fair few wrongly accused people among the shuffling procession. Regardless of what the truth was though, their sacrifices should ensure that the rest of the continent enjoys yet another year of relative peace.
"Hang on a minute. I won't be fighting on the frontlines, now will I?"
Since such a thing could happen, I felt compelled to get some clarification on the matter as soon as possible.
The head Paladin spoke up. "Of course not, your highness. Only the prisoners will be forced to fight on the frontlines."
Well, that's a relief.
"Your role will be to heal the injured and perform the funeral rites for the deceased, your highness. Every year, we see around two to three thousand victims."
Well, that's not a relief at all.
"What about other clerics who will assist me?"
"There are about eighty Priests available besides you who are also able to perform the purification ceremony. However, the soldiers will assist you with the funerals, your highness."
"Are you seriously suggesting that a measly eighty people should heal at least two thousand people, while also performing purification ceremonies for the dead on top of that?"
"Your highness, if you take into account all of the undead that are coming from the Land of the Dead Spirits, your estimate should at least be tripled."
"Although you might encounter a few from our side dying from overwork every now and then, it'll work out favorably in the end, your highness."
Hey, you. Be honest with me. You're an assassin sent by the Holy Emperor, right?
I glared at them with pure dissatisfaction, but perhaps wisely, the Paladins all ignored my clearly discontent-filled eyes.
We soon reached the fiefdom and I was immediately summoned by the lord of the place. The feudal lord happened to be a well-rounded man in his mid forties who boasted a rather extravagantly-groomed moustache.
I heard that he was demoted to this place on the suspicion of diverting a portion of taxes meant for the Imperial Palace.
Was that the reason why?
"W-welcome, your highness!"
The feudal lord treated me quite affectionately for some reason.
"There, there. Please have some tea, your highness. We have other refreshments available for you to enjoy as well. Ah, you might be feeling weather-beaten, so how about taking a relaxing bath with warm water...?"
Forget about being a feudal lord, he acted more like a manservant with how he kept bowing his waist and rubbing his hands.
I already had a pretty good idea as to why he was acting so openly friendly towards me. Most likely, he desperately wished to return to his original domain by borrowing the power of the 'Holy Emperor's grandson', the Imperial Prince. Which was me.
I've begun sensing that maybe, I used to enjoy a status far, far mightier than what I initially thought.
I recalled how the villagers acted around me so far, then glanced at the Paladins still ignoring me. Yup, they were still standing around in utter silence.
Would you look at these cheeky bastards?
"Well, your highness... We'll prepare a warm meal for you in a minute, so..."
"Give me a room."
"I want to rest for a bit, you see. And I'd also like someone to serve me during my stay."
A maidservant approached us and placed a couple of snacks and cups of black tea on the table. I looked at her with a slimy grin etched on my face.
She flinched in surprise and began shivering away.
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