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