Volume 1 — Chapter 1: The Witch and the Fallen Beast
“Never!” I yelled back.
“You may want to calm down before making a decision.”
“I don’t needa think hard about it. I hate witches.”
“Wait, hear me out. We witches offer up sacrifices to demons in order to realize our desires. In fact, forming contracts with demons and paying them sacrifices commensurate in scope with one’s wishes are key concepts in the study of sorcery.”
“I don’t care ’bout your stupid law of equivalent exchange. I’m in this country only to be a witch exterminator, ’cause a world without witches is a world that’s gonna be safer for me. So as you can see, protectin’ you wouldn’t be like me at all.”
“A man who speaks his mind, huh… but why do you despise us so?”
“Can’t you tell from lookin’ at my face?”
The witch, gazing at my visage, cocked her head.
“It is pretty handsome; I can’t say that I dislike it.”
“’S that sarcasm?”
“Not really. You have a magnificent coat, keen eyes, and a robust jaw—all the hallmarks of an apex predator. Furthermore, the human visage hidden beneath your bestial exterior is pleasant-looking as well.”
A human face—beneath my fur? I ran my hands over my face, but it was still that of a beast.
“You can see a human’s face here?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t be able to call myself a witch if I couldn’t. By the way, you’re incorrect in calling yourself a “fallen beast”. Your appearance is actually the result of the returning spell ‘Beastgranting”.
“‘Beastgranting’ was an attempt by witches to grant humans the strength of animals. It ended up changing the humans’ bodies into those of beasts. I hear that thousands of years ago, when states did nothing but fight amongst each other, such humans were mass-produced by the millions.”
“You tryin’ to tell me that witches made us fallen beasts?!”
“That’s not entirely correct. Although returning spells are similar to normal spells, the two are actually quite different. Spells are actively cast, while returning spells are the end results of specific chains of events.”
“You’re not makin’ any sense.”
I frowned. As if she were dealing with a struggling student, the witch began to speak animatedly.
“I shall demonstrate. First, hand me that pebble.”
She pointed to a benign-looking piece of rock next to me. After I handed it to her, she began playing with it in her palm.
“Let this stone represent sorcery. Being a witch, I cast it.”
She threw the pebble with force I had not imagined to be possible from such thin arms. It ricocheted off a tree, somehow went around her, and hit me square in the head.
A solid crunch that would not be out of place in a boxing match resounded around the clearing. Thankfully, I was a fallen beast, so I avoided having my head cracked open.
The witch turned toward me and shrugged, as if to say “it was an accident”.
“The rock hit the tree, bounced back, missed me, and continued along its path until it hit you. The same principle applies to sorcery.”
“How it bounced off the tree and hit me?”
“Exactly. When the aforementioned beast warriors die, their spirits return to the witch that made them. But, if the witch is dead, then these spirits instead ‘return’ to the witch’s closest relative. The process is analogous to fertilization. So these spirits inhabit women’s wombs, and are reborn as what you would call ‘fallen beasts’.”
“In other words, you’re sayin’ that I had a relative who was a witch, and I was born a fallen beast ’cause she died? No way!”
“Even if it’s not common knowledge, the truth is still the truth. I’m a witch. I don’t kid around about things concerning sorcery.”
Contradicting her claim was the Church’s proclamation that “being born a fallen beast is an indication of evil deeds in past lives.” Accordingly, public knowledge stated that fallen beasts were warlike, had violent tendencies, and spent all their time fighting.
As for me, who would do anything for a peaceful life, I wanted to tell the Church to “stop joking around and get lost,” but most people believed its message. It was extremely disheartening.
“But… havin’ a witch in my family tree…”
“Witches are generally estranged from their families, and live for an extremely long time. When a family forgets that there was once a witch in their family tree, the spell returns.”
The witch let out a sigh, staring melancholically into the now-empty pot.
“—Do you wish to be human again?” the witch asked.
“—Can I be human again?” I countered.
The witch smiled.
“I can turn you back. Quite easily, in fact. But will you accompany me in return? Make your choice, mercenary.”
My dream was to open a bar somewhere out in the countryside, meet a nice girl, and live a tranquil life.
If this witch was true to her word, then I could claim the normal life I’d long ago given up on. I wouldn’t have to hide my face, live in fear of witches, or scare away harlots anymore. The only question was whether or not I could trust her. She was a witch, after all.
“What use could someone as dumb as I am be to a witch?”
“Perhaps I simply want you because you’re fascinating. I’m not a particularly picky witch. Above all else, above even that head of yours, I want you. My guard would need limbs to fulfill his duty.”
“You’re not sayin’ this just to make me let my guard down, are ya?”
“Oh, come on. If I really wanted to kill you, I would have done so a long time ago and without pointless conversation.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. In all my years of dealing with witches, I haven’t seen a single one be so trustworthy. I wouldn’t say that this witch was deserving of trust, but she wasn’t to be immediately discredited either.
I wanted to be able to trust her, but if she was lying…
She was a witch, after all.
“…Shall we form a pact?” the witch abruptly suggested.
“A pact?” I asked, confused.
“The witches’ pact, a contract of blood. You agree to be my bodyguard, and I agree to make you a human; then the document is drafted using a mix of our blood. Anyone that breaks the agreement would be unconditionally annihilated.”
“A… annihilated… you…”
I faltered. In contrast, the witch smiled leisurely.
“There’s no need to be afraid. You’ll be fine as long as you abide by the terms of the agreement. Here, hold out your hand.”
She quickly grabbed my hand, giving me no time to object.
Her hand was soft. My heart skipped a beat.
She drew my index finger toward her lips and, without hesitating, put the tip in her mouth. I shuddered as she ran her tongue over my bare skin. It felt as if every hair on my body was standing on end.
A moment later, I winced as the skin on my fingertip was torn open. The witch nodded with satisfaction as she saw the steady trickle of blood running from my finger, and did the same to her own.
“With this mixture of our blood, I will write a contract in mirror writing. If it is burned, the contract will be annulled. If either of us dies, the contract will be annulled. Otherwise, as long as we clearly recognize abandonment as unacceptable, you and I will be bound by this pact. Unfortunately, I don’t have any paper on me, so I guess cloth will have to suffice.”
The witch tore a piece of cloth off the hem of her robe, which made her appear to be even more ragged than she already was. I watched the crimson blood drip from our fingers, strangely calm.
“Hey… why’re you choosin’ me? If you want to attract less suspicion, why don’tcha choose a less noticeable person to travel with? Bein’ near me’ll only draw more attention to you.”
“Since I wish to go unnoticed, it only makes sense to pick someone that will draw all the suspicion toward himself and away from me.”
The witch answered nonchalantly. I see. Whether or not that was true remained to be seen, although between a fallen beast and a witch, the former would definitely attract more attention.
“Also, you smell like the cave I used to live in.”
“The cave you used to live in?”
“That’s right. It was a limestone cave in the forest of the bowed moon, and was quite comfortable despite being dark and damp. I called it my ‘hole in the ground’. That’s a phrase we witches use to refer to our lairs.”
I lightly sniffed my arm, wrinkling my nose. I’d been running through the forest for a long time so I positively reeked of turf, but even so, I smelled strongly of animals.
“…Did ya keep livestock?”
“Livestock…? Oh yes, we had quite a few snakes and spiders.”
What did spiders have to do with livestock and snakes? I wanted to find the nearest inn and take a hot bath to rid myself of the thought.
Just then, I started chuckling.
Here I was, in front of a witch, about to form a blood pact and possibly facing annihilation—and I was thinking about taking a bath. It appeared that I had already subconsciously recognized that the witch meant me no harm. I had been foolish to rely on logic alone to judge her. After all, my intuition was the reason that I was still alive today.
I stroked my snout and picked up the rag she was holding.
“Wait! The contract isn’t—“
Before the witch could say “—done yet”, I tore the piece of cloth to shreds and scattered them to the wind.
The witch yelled in protest.
“Aah!! What are you doing?! Do you think writing on a rag using blood as ink is easy?!”
“A contract implies that we don’t trust each other. We don’t need somethin’ like that. Here, gimme your hand for a sec.”
This time, I was the one grabbing her hand. It was small and delicate, and blood was dripping from her finger.
I pressed our cut fingertips together, mixing our blood.
The witch looked at me with recognition in her eyes.
“I think I recognize this. Is it a blood oath?” she asked excitedly, pale cheeks flushed. “It’s done like this, right?” laughing, she intertwined our fingers, and firmly pressed her extended thumb against mine.
“It’s better than those formal contracts you witches use. This is more natural for humans—for mercenaries.”
I extricated my hand from her strong grip, the blood on my finger still surprisingly warm. I wondered if mixing fallen beast and witch blood would produce something unexpected. But seeing the witch standing there, thumb covered in blood, I no longer cared.
“I promise, mercenary, that I will not take your head.”
“Oh. ‘kay, thanks. So… what’s your name?”
“My name is Zero.”
Zero is a number, not a name. I considered telling her, but decided not to.
After that, the conversation lapsed into silence. I glanced at her searchingly.
“Aren’t you… gonna ask me my name?”
The witch shrugged drowsily.
“I’m not interested.”
“The only people I refer to by name are my underlings—my servants. Keep your name private in the company of witches. If you gave me your name, I could immediately turn you into an unquestioning lackey.”
The witch smirked from under her hood. She held out both hands as if to say “in your face”. She looked both childish and grandmotherly at the same time.
“Ultimately, you’re still a witch, eh?”
“Yes. I’m the ultimate witch.”
I chuckled, and the witch laughed in agreement: “It does sound pretty terrifying, doesn’t it?”
And so, our extraordinary relationship began. Neither of us had referred to the other by name, so it was as if we were strangers. However, I guess that was normal for a night-old fellowship.
It was a good distance to maintain in case our partnership ended prematurely.