Volume 1 — Chapter 2: “The Book of Zero”
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 Vanias, 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 Vanias?”
“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.