Soft. Warm. Fragrant.
I was hugging something, whatever it was. Regardless, it was an unusually pleasant morning.
I opened my eyes lethargically and saw the burnt-out campfire, along with the blackened ground beneath it. I tried to recall what had happened last night, but couldn’t remember a thing. Something about a witch?
“Zzz…” A noise came from within my embrace. Oh, the witch. I thought sleepily.
I was instantly wide awake. Something went “gueh” like a squashed frog as I leapt to my feet. Looking over, I saw the witch, Zero, clad in robes which were nothing more than rags. She had been sent flying by my sudden movement, and was now lying on the ground, still as a corpse. No longer obscured by her hood, which had fallen to the side, her unbearably beautiful face was illuminated by the sunlight.
It seemed that for humans, once one attained a certain degree of beauty, the concepts of age and gender no longer applied. As for Zero, who appeared sexless, she possessed both the innocence of a young girl and the allure of a prostitute. Either way, it unsettled me.
“Wha…what’re ya doin’?!”
Zero opened her bleary eyes slightly and began moving about restlessly as if she were looking for something, all with a displeased look on her face.
“So cold…my fur…head…so soft and fluffy…”
“Wake up!” I yelled, striking her on the head.
“Gah!” Zero jumped, startled.
“O… ow! Why did you have to hit me?! I was only sleeping!”
“You’ve got a problem with everythin’, huh? What were you doin’ while you were sleepin’?!”
“What…was I doing?”
Zero groggily repeated my question back to me as she gingerly rubbed her head.
“Um…if I’m not mistaken, I was sleeping in your mantle, buried in fur.”
“Why’re you answerin’ me so calmly…? I’m scoldin’ you! Say sorry once you’ve caught on!”
“Don’t start the day off yelling with such an infuriated look on your face; you’re going to scare the animals. What are you so mad about, anyway?”
Yawn, she opened her mouth wide and yawned. Zero narrowed her eyes as if the sunlight was too bright, and cheerfully pulled her hood back on. It hid the upper half of her face from view, and was unfashionable—not to mention suspicious-looking—but I finally felt at ease after she did so. Extreme attractiveness was poisonous to my eyes.
“Were you bothered by my intrusion into your personal space? There’s no helping it, since you have lots of fur, and as you saw, my skin doesn’t protect me very well from the cold. Unless you want me to freeze while you get to sleep snugly all by yourself?”
“But, y’know, I didn’t choose to have a fur coat…”
“It’s not a question of whether you chose to or not. It’s about how you aren’t shivering in the cold. Besides, you didn’t find the experience displeasing, right?”
Her mouth was etched into a thin smile. I thought back to how soft and warm and fragrant she had felt when I had woken up, and my retort caught in my throat. As if she’d read my mind, she nodded with satisfaction.
“It’s cold and lonely to sleep by myself, so since there are two of us here, it only makes sense to sleep together. And above all, you were able to sleep with someone as exquisite as I am. I would say that you should be thankful and not angry.”
“You really just called yourself ‘squisite…”
“The fact still is that you’re resistant to the cold.” She repeated her words from earlier with a triumphant expression.
“Do witches lack modesty or shyness or somethin’…?” I tutted.
“Someone with those qualities couldn’t possibly do a witch’s duties. What, have you fallen for me?” she said in a strange, almost gleeful voice.
“No!” I cut her off immediately.
Probably. No, definitely.
“Ugh, how boring.” The witch really did sound bored.
“So…well, it doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s fine if you likewise think of me as just some inanimate object. You will be my bed, and I will be your hug pillow. That way, we both benefit. I’m glad we’ve reached an agreement.”
“Don’t assume that I agree to this! I—“
“You are my mercenary—right? A mercenary must obey his employer.”
She was right, but the thought of cuddling with a beauty every night made me more tense than overjoyed.
As if to break the silence, Zero’s stomach rumbled.
“…I’m hungry, mercenary.”
I released the tension in my shoulders as I saw how she was gazing at me.
Arguing seemed foolish when my opponent was in a state like this. I did have some birds I caught last night…
“ ‘S roast bird with salt okay with ya?”
Zero just grinned nonchalantly and pestered me to hurry up.
“I wanted to hunt witches, but somehow wound up escorting one instead…” something like that would probably get laughs at the bar. But of course, there was no way I would go around advertising myself as a witch’s escort. I’d get burnt at the stake right along with Zero.
Preparing to roast the birds, I discussed our plans for today with her. I needed to know where her destination was, as she hadn’t told me yet.
Zero didn’t know any of the place names in Wenias, so I took out my map and had her indicate where she was going.
“Where are we right now?”
Holding the map open, Zero tilted her head to the side. I pointed to a spot on the map. She nodded and said “hm…”, sliding her finger across the map.
Two finger lengths from the spot I was pointing to—there it was. Prasta, the imperial capital.
“Thirteenth is around here. At least, that’s how I feel,” Zero answered blankly. I was perplexed; Prasta was where I was heading. That is to say, it was witch hunt headquarters. The fact that the capital was recruiting fallen beasts because skirmishes with witches went all the way to the kingdom’s heartland meant that there was no way I could lead a witch there without consequences.
“Prasta’s fightin’ some witches right now, so there ain’t no way that a sorcerer’s gonna be there. Ya probably just made a mis—“
“I did not use logic based on common sense to arrive at my conclusion. Instead, you should think of it simply as a reflection of reality. If you trace Thirteenth’s trail of magic, there is no doubt that he is there somewhere. He should be there.” Zero nodded confidently. It seemed like she was hell-bent on going to Prasta.
But what the heck was “Thirteenth” doing in the conflict-ridden heartland?
“It’s gettin’ more and more suspicious, ain’t it? How can ya be so sure that this “Thirteenth” guy ain’t tryna help take over the kingdom?”
“Thirteenth loves to laze around. He knows that taking over a country would only mean more trouble for him.”
“Then what’s he’s doin’ in Wenias?”
“I think I already told you that he is searching for that book. If you think about the kind of knowledge the book contains, it makes sense for him to be searching in places where witches are rebelling.”
“Oh yeah, the book that’s totally gonna destroy the world.”
Without realizing it, I had spoken in a mocking manner. Zero didn’t seem angry at all, merely nodding her head, lending my words an eerie sincerity. A chill ran down my spine. I grabbed the branch the salted bird meat was spitted on, and planted it upright in the ground, where it began to sizzle as I roasted it in the open fire. I posed Zero a question, whose eyes sparkled with anticipation as she gazed at the meat.
“When all’s said ’n done, what kind’a book is it anyway? The book ya say can ‘destroy the world’.”
Zero managed to wrench her gaze away from the browning meat and faced me, breaking into a conceited smile.
“It was written in unfading ink, on parchment perfumed with the finest incense. It was bound with ebony polished to the point that you could see your reflection in it, hinged with gold, and embellished in unsurpassable detail. After an initial glance, anyone would—“
“I ain’t askin’ ‘bout what it looks like! I’m askin’ ‘bout what it says!”
No, the book’s appearance would be useful to know since we were looking for it, but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear about. Zero’s expression turned sour. “It really is a magnificent book,” she muttered in complaint. “I don’t think you would be able to wrap your head around the content even if I explained it…”
“If ya can’t make someone understand even after explainin’, then it was probably a third-rate explanation, eh?”
Zero stared at me silently. Likewise, I silently stared at her. We glared at each other, briefly—
“How much do you know about the study of sorcery?” she suddenly asked. It seemed that I had won the stare-down.
“I dunno ‘bout the specifics an’ such, but… somethin’ about summonin’ demons and doin’ mystical stuff, right?”
“Well, you are correct about that. But do you know by what means?”
“By drawin’ a summoning circle, chantin’ some spell, and performin’ a sacrifice.” I answered without hesitation, and Zero nodded with satisfaction.
“Right again. We then negotiate with the summoned demon to perform supernatural tasks. That is essentially sorcery.”
Even to people unfamiliar with sorcery, this was common knowledge, found everywhere from the church’s preaching to children’s books. This was because witches were playing very active roles as villains in today’s culture.
“Now, those arrows of light that attacked you last night—I called those ‘Staim’. What did you think after seeing them?”
I was a bit confused. Zero laughed when I remained silent.
“There’s no need to overthink it. You were stunned, I assume?”
“Humans would be stunned, mercenary, because it was completely unexpected. Because they subconsciously believe that something like that could never happen.”
For sure, the “arrows of light” that the hostile witch had used and the “suddenly appearing earthen box” that Zero had created had both made me revise what I thought I knew about sorcery. I didn’t recall seeing the hostile witch drawing summoning circles while she walked, and neither had I seen her offer up any sacrifices. Naturally, I hadn’t seen any demons either. I had heard rumors that Wenias’ witches had recently started using sorcery of an unknown nature, but what I had seen had proven to be beyond my imagination.
“So my common sense was wrong?”
“It’s the other way around. Your common sense was simply misled. Strictly speaking, ‘Staim’ is not sorcery.”
“It…it ain’t sorcery?”
What the heck it is then? Before I could say a word, Zero answered my thought.
“Yes, it is not sorcery. It is ‘magic’.”
I repeated the unfamiliar word back to her, but silently forming the word over and over with my mouth wasn’t getting me any closer to its meaning. Zero burst out laughing. Was I making a really weird face just now?
“What the hell’re ya laughin’ at?!”
“Oh—I was just thinking that, for a supposedly violent and fierce mercenary, you were actually making a pretty cute face just now.”
“C-cute—?! Yer callin’ me…!”
“Don’t be so embarrassed, mercenary; you’re getting cuter by the second. I can barely hold myself back from hugging you.”
To a mercenary like me, being apprehended and called cute was unbelievably insulting.
To soothe my discontent, I sprinkled some crushed dried herbs and salt on the meat, which had begun emitting a mouthwatering smell. The fire crackled and spat yellow sparks as some salt fell in.
“Even though it does not concern you, I will still give you a proper elucidation. After all, it would sully the name ‘the witch of earth and darkness’ to be thought of as ‘third-rate’. But before I discuss the details of magic, I must share some preliminary knowledge with you first. I’m talking about understanding what sorcery is, of course. If you don’t know how sorcery works, then I won’t be able to explain magic to you.”
Zero picked up a tree branch and began engraving strange symbols into the ground. After finishing one glyph, she would move on to the next—until, in front of my eyes, a circle composed of many, many markings was formed.
“—A summoning circle?”
“Correct. A summoning circle is required for the summoning of demons. Witches consider summoning circles to be sacred ground. They possess the ability to amplify the power of witches’ spirits and are essential for witches to protect themselves from any demons they summon.”
Zero circumscribed the ring of glyphs with a single circular line. It was so perfectly round that there was no way a human could have drawn it with a tree branch. There were four smaller circles inside the outer circle, evenly spaced away from one another, and crammed with minuscule letters and symbols I could neither read nor understand.
“Protectin’ themselves from demons? Do the demons attack ‘em or somethin’?”
“Far from attacking; if there is any imperfection in the summoning circle, the demon will devour the witch. That is why all witches master the art of drawing summoning circles before anything else. Perfect circles, perfect lines, perfect calligraphy. If you cannot master those techniques, it is impossible to become a witch.”
“Ain’t that riskin’ your life then?”
“Yes…summoning demons is always a risky business.” Zero declared, finishing the summoning circle.
Don’t tell me she’s actually gonna use… with that, I looked at Zero with terror.
“Wait! No way…you gonna summon a demon?!”
“Exactly. Well, just watch. I feel like you’ll find it fairly interesting.”
Ignoring my pleas for her to stop, Zero held out her hands toward the summoning circle and began to mutter, chanting out a spell. I wanted to stop her, but at the same time I was afraid of messing up the sorcery somehow and causing something bad to happen. I half-rose to my feet, ready to escape at a moment’s notice. However, I couldn’t muster up the nerve to run, so I stayed, trembling with fear, glancing between Zero and the summoning circle.
—Around five minutes passed. Zero still stood there, chanting the same spell.
By that point, I’d gotten tired of being vigilant. Is anythin’ gonna happen at this rate? The moment those thoughts materialized in my head, the summoning circle began to glow. It was a pale, blue light. Something appeared on the other side.
—Shit, it’s here. What the hell is it…?! I leapt away from the circle with all my might.
A second later the light vanished, and I stared at the thing that Zero had summoned.
Its body was similar to that of a human’s, but it was definitely inhuman. It had deep emerald-colored eyes without any whites in them, and insect-like wings sprouting from its back. And—it was surprisingly small.
It’s smaller ’n the palm of my hand, this thing.
“Yes, it is a demon. But…aren’t you a bit too scared of it?”
“Shaddap! There ain’t a human alive that’s not scared of demons, ‘sides witches!”
I was standing as far away as possible, so on edge that the hair on my tail was standing on end. Zero looked astonished at my reaction.
“Come take a closer look, it’s perfectly safe. He won’t bite. In fact, this is technically a sprite, even though it is called a demon.”
“Fine, so there might be some difference between sprites ’n demons, but—“
“There is no difference. Essentially, they are the same thing. What they are called depends on the time period and geographic location, but we witches refer to any inhuman creature by the generic term ‘demon’. This includes sprites, spirits—and gods, of course.”
I was shocked.
“Ain’t it wrong to lump gods in with demons?”
“The Church makes no distinction between pagan gods and demons. In other words, even the Church admits that the public’s perception of their God as being different from demons is simply a misconception caused by their faith.”
I calmly accepted that revelation. I didn’t worship any deity anyway, so her explanation was much more believable to me than there being only one true God.
I edged toward the summoning circle and gazed at the tiny and clearly unnerved demon. It went bzzt bzzt like a buzzing insect.
“…Is this guy scared?”
“Seems so. Low-ranking demons like this one are almost never summoned, so he’s probably not used to it.”
“So demons have ranks ’n such?”
“They do. There is a strict hierarchy in the world of demons. The higher-ranking ones possess great power, and have numerous lower-ranking ones as slaves. Thus, if you manage to summon a high-ranking demon, you can learn the summoning procedures for many lower-ranked demons from them. Thus the study of sorcery has flourished and grown like the branch of a giant tree.”
“So, what rank’s this ‘un?”
“It’s exceedingly close to being the weakest. So weak that you could probably crush it with your hand.”
It looked like I had been scared for nothing. Still, it was shocking to discover that there were demons weaker than I was.
“O tiny demon—please grant my request.”
The demon stared at the branch Zero held out, took a deep breath—and exhaled fire.
Having ignited the branch, the demon looked at Zero inquiringly.
“Right. Now for my side of the bargain. Thank you for the hard work.”
Nodding her head in satisfaction, Zero reached into the pouch at her waist and pulled out a small nut. She cracked it open and put the kernel in the demon’s mouth. It shook its shoulders and disappeared.
I went from staring at a demon to staring at empty space, letting out a breath of astonishment.
“That’s amazin’…it’s the first time I’d seen a demon ’n sorcery with m’own two eyes.”
“Was how I drew the summoning circle, recited the spell, summoned the demon, and bargained roughly how you thought it would be like?”
Zero blew out the flame on the tip of her tree branch. It had been exactly as I had imagined. Disregarding the demon’s benign appearance, the process had been exactly as described in public knowledge.
“—Now, time for me to address the aforementioned book. The grimoire contains instructions on how to perform sorcery by simply speaking the appropriate spell. It is split into four sections called ‘books’: the book of Hunting, the book of Capturing, the book of Harvesting, and the book of Safeguarding.”
While speaking, she waved her finger once. A small flame flickered on her fingertip.
My eyes went wide open, and I stepped back to distance myself.
“This is the power of the demon you saw just now: to start a small fire. I neither drew a summoning circle nor summoned anything, yet the result is the same. This is magic. In the past, I would have had to recite ‘Karlo, rai… fire, lodge here… the Book of Hunting, verse one: «Leks»… Sanction this! I declareth myself to be Zero,’ but no more.”
“Y…you can even skip the spell?”
“If you have enough experience and proficiency, yes. Now, spells are composed of three distinct elements. In the spell I recited just now, the phrase “karlo, rai” is meant to spur the demon to action. The phrase “fire, lodge here” is a clear declaration of intent meant to guide oneself, and bringing the recitation to a close with the spell’s name and one’s own name is analogous to a battle cry.”
Battle cry…? Reading my thoughts, Zero nodded with vigor.
“Enunciating one’s own name along with the spell’s name is very helpful while practicing magic. As one gains experience, the need for this aid diminishes. After enough practice, one can simply chant the spell silently—almost like a prayer, if you will. It’s pretty convenient, right? You can start a fire without having to keep a piece of flint handy.”
It did seem really useful. My hands were larger than a normal human’s hands by far, so although I could start fires with flint fit for human hands, it was tough and frustrating. Zero blew out the flickering fire on her fingertip as I sighed with envy. I finally began to grasp what Zero had meant when she had said my common knowledge was not wrong, but simply misguided. Still…
“How’re ya borrowin’ the power of a demon that ain’t even been summoned if ya really do need’a summon it first?
“No, that’s not it. It’s just that…no one had ever tried to borrow a demon’s power without summoning it first.”
No one had ever tried…? That meant—
“That’s…stupid, ain’t it?! Then…what was the point o’ summonin’ demons in the first place? Were ya wastin’ time on purpose?”
“Exactly. No one tried to stop the practice, so we just continued to summon demons, trying to minimize the risk they posed to the world. That was sorcery. It was not that we lacked the means to perform sorcery without summoning demons. It was more of a self-inflicted inconvenience.”
—They had blundered right at the beginning.
And sorcery had developed with this mistake at its roots. For god knows how many centuries, this mistake had gone unnoticed. I was speechless. Facing me, Zero continued.
“The founding principle of magic is written in that stolen book; namely, the fact that sorcery does not require the summoning of demons. It also includes documentation on countless demons’ names and powers, along with spells and the sacrifices demanded by each one. The tasks one can perform through the help of demons are set in stone, and there is no room for negotiation. Just as pouring salt into a fire will color it yellow, such predetermined behavior is found with demons as well.”
“I call this the Demon Contracts Principle—magic for short.1”
At last, I managed to grasp the meaning of the word “magic”.
Magic was a new technique that got rid of the most labor-intensive part of sorcery, the summoning of demons, and made sorcery quick and easy to perform.
It could be thought of as the difference between summoning the king into your own room to hear your request, and simply writing your request in a letter to the king. No matter how you thought of it, the latter was obviously the simpler way, but witches used the former method and studied it tenaciously.
—But, what if one book were to correct this error?
It took thousands of soldiers to take down one witch, yet just one witch to slaughter thousands of soldiers. But, the Church—the world would be able to overpower the witches, because sorcery was both labor and time intensive. In the middle of their ceremonies, witches were defenseless and easy to kill. Few witches possessed the ability to command powerful sorcery, so the death of even one of them could be called a victory.
But if knowledge of magic, a simpler and faster version of sorcery, spread across the globe…
“Seems like that sure ain’t somethin’ ta laugh at.”
There had been great technological revolutions in the past. The discovery of iron revolutionized warfare. The invention of the wheel and subsequently the horse-drawn cart revolutionized commerce. How was the discovery of magic going to change the world…?
First, witches would probably become stronger. If there were more witches like Zero and the witch from the woods yesterday, then there would be a high likelihood that a second war would erupt between the Church and the witches. Actually, there wouldn’t just be a likelihood of war—there would be war.
That was exactly what was going on in Wenias right now. Witches, having hidden themselves away for five hundred years, had started a revolt. Zero’s missing book had to have something to do with this state of affairs.
“So, that witch from last night used the magic from yer book?”
Zero dropped her shoulders in agreement as I summarized the situation.
“Was she the one who stole it?”
“No, she was still a novice. I tried to ask her about the book’s whereabouts, but gave up because she was in too much of a fury to converse with. Either way, it seemed that someone had taught her what she knew.”
“Someone had taught her… ah…”
Once read, one book’s knowledge would become the knowledge of millions.
The same thing must have happened to Zero’s book. The remaining question was whether or not only witches had knowledge about magic. From what I had heard so far, it was sufficient to simply recite a spell and provide the appropriate sacrifice to use magic…
“What you’re suggestin’ is that…anyone can use magic?”
“No…that’s not it. There is no gray area between those who can and those who cannot. You will be able to practice magic if you have the talent for it, but if you do not, then you will not be able to practice magic no matter how hard you try. Knowledge can only take you so far.”
“This talent o’ yours…how d’ya see if someone has it or not?”
“It’s simple. They simply need to try reciting a beginner-level spell. If the spell shows signs of activation, then they have the talent, and if not, then they do not. If they have the talent, then it takes at most five years to learn the craft.”
I see—there’s no way for this to be worse. Magic was terrifyingly powerful, and those with talent would need a mere five years to learn to use it. There were almost certainly people who would abuse this power for evil.
I realized why Zero was so anxious.
The world really might fall into ruin.
Far from the whole book, a single page would do. It was just as Zero had said.
I thought back to the tree trunk-piercing arrows of light from last night. Normally, to create that kind lethality with a bow, you would need a huge bow, iron-shafted arrows, and a monster of a strongman to draw and release the weapon. On the battlefield, a man like that would be plenty threatening. A group of people who could use magic like “Staim” would undoubtedly be able to force an enemy army to retreat with their tails between their legs.
If the group had proper leadership and behaved with army-like discipline, everything could still be fine. But what if the group of magic users devolved into a looting mob? What if some shady bastard discovered that he had a talent for magic? Who would be able to stop them?
If knowledge about magic were to spread, all sorts of power balances would be broken, and that would mark the beginning of chaos and conflict.
“That book’s a real pain in the ass. Why’s somethin’ like that…”
Zero shut her mouth, and nearly simultaneously, I shot to my feet.
Bloodlust—just now, from somewhere close by. Before I could look for the threat, I heard a strange sound and turned to face the direction from which it came. Zero seemed to notice it as well, and shifted her gaze to the woods.
That’s it—the woods. Something ridiculously large was ripping through the foliage nearby, heading straight for us.
“…No way. This ain’t a joke!”
Mowing down the trees in its path, the whatever-it-was flew out of the forest with a deafening roar and all the force of a cannonball.
The moment I saw it, some text from the map of Wenias floated to the front of my mind.
—Warning! Wild Ebru boars live in the woods.
It was an enormous boar. But even that was an understatement. This was—
“Hell, this thing’s way too big! It’s huge even compared to me!”
How could you not yell when something like this was coming to crush you? The Ebru boar possessed a towering body, no exaggeration whatsoever. As it met my easily two-meter high gaze, I couldn’t even laugh. Its ruined left eye and countless scars indicated that it was a veteran fighter who had repelled countless hunters.
Its remaining right eye was bloodshot, and drool dribbled from its mouth as it focused on me. Even now, it was ready to charge. Two razor-sharp tusks sprouted from either end of its mouth. Even a fallen beast like myself, if impaled by one of these, would be torn in two at the waist.
Fallen beasts were naturally disliked by animals. I had never had a problem with that characteristic before today.
Should I run? No, there’s no point. Considering the speed with which it had mowed through the woods, even if I reached the forest, there was no way I’d be able to escape. Carrying Zero, it would be even more impossible. Besides fighting, there were no other options.
I leapt to the side as it charged, planning to flank its head. If I could put out its other eye, I’d instantly have the upper hand—the battle already looked to be in my favor. I pulled out my sword. The sunlight glinted off of the sword blade and robbed the Ebru boar of its vision, forcing it to make a blind charge toward me. I prepared to dodge to the side, but stopped after, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Zero standing flat-footed behind me.
This idiot, why—
“Ya idiot! What’re ya standin’ there for?!”
I twisted my torso, drew Zero toward me, and dropped to the ground. The boar’s cold tusks grazed past my back. I immediately jumped up and readied myself to get Zero to safety, but for some reason, she got up in front of me—directly between myself and the Ebru boar.
“Hm…how timely. I will be able to show you how magic looks in a real battle. I won’t omit the chant this time.”
“Watch.” Zero said, gracefully raising her arms over her head. The boar, its charge having missed its target, was preparing to charge again. At the same moment as it kicked forward, Zero shouted.
“Meaza, Li, Kib…writhing vines, capture this boar and bind him! The Book of Hunting, Verse Eight—Kabrata! Sanction this! I declareth myself Zero!”
—I couldn’t understand what happened next.
Before my eyes, countless vines flew out of the ground and wrapped themselves around the boar’s hooves, sending it toppling to the ground. The creepers continued to wrap themselves around the boar until it could no longer move an inch. It took only a few seconds at most for Zero to complete the spell. There was no doubt that this was some kind of inhuman power.
This was—magic. If Zero could perform feats like this, then it didn’t seem like she had a use for me. My raison d’être as a mercenary was in grave danger.
“By the way, mercenary…”
While I was staring blankly at the boar, which was on its back and looking comical as it waved its legs, Zero suddenly turned to face me.
“Is it edible? Delicious?”
“Uh huh,” I said impassively. I wasn’t actually sure. It was just that I couldn’t muster up the will to say anything else.
“Oh, so we can eat it?” Zero asked with a glowing expression. I rubbed my eyes, and proceeded to dampen Zero’s high spirits.
“No…I mean, sure, it could be tasty, but…huntin’ is forbidden. Let it go.”
Hopes dashed, Zero’s face fell as plodded toward the boar.
She lightly flicked her finger in front of the enraged boar, who had been frothing at the mouth. Instantly, the boar was dazed and stared blankly back at Zero.
“You’re lucky you aren’t going to be eaten after attacking me, you hunk of meat. Be grateful, and don’t show yourself again.”
As Zero chastised the boar, the vines restraining it smoothly slithered back into the ground. Freed, the boar trotted back into the woods, with Zero watching it hungrily. “Well then.” She turned her gaze toward the sky. Simultaneously, I saw something behind the trees by chance.
I spoke sharply, and Zero made a movement as if she were stringing a bow. It was “Staim”. Three shafts of light appeared in Zero’s hand and bore through the air, heading for one tree. All three arrows lanced through the bark, and a shrill scream rang out.
Alright. One way or another, I’d gotten used to seeing magic. Or rather, my sense of fear was partially subdued. If I got scared every time I saw magic, my body wouldn’t be able to take it. Seeing the figure that tumbled out from behind the tree, I shivered from head to toe and delivered a low growl. I had seen that gaudy blond hair before…
“Ya bastard…you’re the witch that was chasin’ me yesterday, eh?”
I unsheathed my sword. It was a good opening to strike, as my opponent was off-balance. Nevertheless, Zero abruptly reined me in.
“That is a child.”
I reserved my judgement and scowled down at the groveling blond. It was true that it was small, and one could say it looked like an innocent child. This was the person I’d run away from that frantically yesterday?
My thoughts quickly filled with pity. I gently sheathed my sword, and Zero motioned for me to stay where I was as she approached the small witch with great strides.
“You’re a feisty one, eh? Were you the one that set that boar after us?”
“Why—why did you have to interfere?! You’re a witch!”
The groveling witch didn’t answer the question, but gave a sharp yell and glared at Zero.
“Do you know how valuable the heads of fallen beasts are to witches? I needed that head! Why did you interfere?!”
“Because this is my mercenary. I’d be troubled if he were to die.”
“I set my eyes on him first! You stole him away from me!”
I was startled.
Did he just say “I”2? That witch just now. I thought that all magic users had to be female because they were called “witches”, but apparently this young boy was a witch as well. Now that I think about it, wasn’t Thirteenth a guy too? Does that mean there’s no relationship between gender and magical ability?
“It doesn’t matter who set whose eyes on him first. What matters is who possesses him at this time. I wouldn’t give a tyke like you a single hair from his tail. And even if I gave you a hair, I wouldn’t give you his head.”
“To a pseudo-witch like you who can’t handle a single ‘Staim’, it would be an item far exceeding your aptitude. You should give up. With your strength, never mind me, you probably couldn’t even kill my mercenary.”
These people talked about people’s heads as if they were mere trade goods. I was annoyed, but it did not feel right for me to butt in, so I stayed silent. I valued my life over my pride.
The young boy gripped the dirt.
“That’s why I need his head!”
The boy got up, yelling.
“No matter what it takes, I must get stronger!”
He pulled out something from the bag at his waist, crushed it with his hands, and scattered it around him. Moments later, his clothes and hair began dancing as if caught by the wind, and the air vibrated with a strange, high-pitched noise.
“Bug, do, gu, raat—gather, world-destroying conflagration3; burst and burn!”
It was a spell. He was trying to use magic. If I didn’t kill him first, he would kill me. I gripped the handle of my sword.
“Ho. He’s going to use «Flagis»? —Interesting.”
Zero’s muttering brought my movement to a halt. The slight squinting and that smirk—it was how she had acted yesterday. I froze at the sight of her. The boy, meanwhile, spread his arms as if he were dancing, embracing the air. Fire in the shape of a snake coiled around his body, gathering between his hands.
“The Book of Hunting, verse six: «Flagis»! Sanction this! My name is Albus!”
The boy cried out. Zero drew in a small breath.
“«Rejection». Sanction this—I declareth myself to be Zero.”
Everything went silent, but that in itself spoke volumes. The flames, which had seemed like they were going to explode, dissipated in that moment, and the youth stared at his faltering hands with a look of confusion.
“How…why?! Why, why, why…?! The spell was taking effect!”
The boy shouted as if he were on the brink of bursting into tears. His shoulders quaked as Zero approached.
“Don’t underestimate me, brat. That is mine. My magic. My sagacity, my power. To attempt to wield it against me is absurd.
“What-that’s…what are you…”
“The technique of using the power of words and sacrifices to harness the power of demons without summoning them—last night, you made a big fuss about how you learned it from “the Book of Zero”, did you not? I am that Zero. I wrote that book.”
As if pressured by Zero’s silence, the boy backed up a step. He sat down listlessly, dumbstruck.
—Wait a second.
Zero wrote that book? The book that’s gonna destroy the world?
“Ah! Uh, oh, me? What?”
Just as taken aback as the boy, I literally jumped at being addressed so abruptly.
“I would like to hear an explanation from this youngster. What do you think?”
“‘What do I think…why’re ya—“
“askin’ me?” I was about to say, but was bewildered. I hated witches, and this kid had tried to take my life. We were going to hear from him, so Zero wanted to take my wishes into consideration.
If she had ignored me and continued on her own, I could have grumbled unhappily, but since she was paying heed to my opinion, I couldn’t just bluntly refuse her. I roughly scratched the back of my head, and grunted out a short “do as ya like.”
“…Just don’t give ‘im any roast bird.”
“Sure. I feel the same way.”
Kuku, Zero laughed. The boy’s stomach gave a great rumble in concert.
I exchanged glances with Zero and gazed at the boy’s crimson face.
“…We’re not givin’ ya any?”
A few minutes later, Zero and the boy were stuffing their faces with the browned bird. Needless to say, I was forced to look on with an empty stomach.