Volume 1 — Chapter 3: The Coven of Zero
Without waiting for permission, Zero placed her hands on my back. She worked up a lather with the bar of soap as she ran her fingers through my fur. It tickled like hell.
“Hey, mercenary. Towns sure are fun places, are they not?”
“Many people reside within them, and each person has his or her own duty to fulfill and his or her own way of thinking, yes? I think that is amazing. Not only that, but the food carts’ cuisine suits me well.”
“If that’s all ya want, anywhere in the slightly bigger towns—“ I stopped mid-sentence.
Oh, right. Zero had never even taken a step outside of her cave before, much less been to a town.
That being the case, of course she’d be all amazed and excited. The congestion in the streets was annoying to me, and the food from the food carts was nothing to rave about, but from Zero’s perspective, these things were new experiences.
There was no doubt that Zero, being a witch, had more knowledge than I could even imagine.
However, she was lacking in her knowledge of the outside world. What Zero would think of as common knowledge would not be so for me, and what I thought of as normal and widely known would not be so for Zero. We may look at the same things, but we each perceive the world around us differently.
“…It’s ‘cause Vanias is a country of tourists and travelers, and Foamicaum is the heart of all that tradin’. People ’n goods come here from all over the world. It ain’t that wide in scope, but it’s condensed.
“Ah,” Zero’s eyes sparkled.
“I would not have been able to enter this city on my own. Even if I had managed to gain entry, I would most likely have caused some kind of disturbance. You have, in this short time, made me aware of things I knew not. I am thankful that we crossed paths.”
—Was this also because she lacked common sense? I frowned as Zero uttered her embarrassing lines, and looked over my shoulder to scowl at her.
“…You, stop sayin’ stuff like that.”
“Stuff like that?”
“Like sayin’ that ya like me, that yer thankful that we crossed paths, shitty lines like those. Women don’t just give people their favor for no reason. ‘Specially not to a man like me.”
“Favor?” Zero repeated strangely.
“But it is the truth. I enjoy speaking with you, so I find it unbearable to remain silent.”
“I just told ya ta stop that—“
“Is it disagreeable…to converse with me?”
With a gulp, I shut up.
That wasn’t it. That wasn’t it, but…
“I don’t understand yer way of speakin’…basically, the only conversations I have are where everyone curses at ’n insults each other.”
That was why I really couldn’t understand when I was spoken to with kindness. Still frowning, I spat out.
“Is that so,” Zero muttered.
“Then it will be good to practice with me, yes? I will continue to speak often from here on out.”
No way. I wasn’t able to convince her otherwise. It didn’t seem like there was anything else to do but to just get used to it.
“Don’t get mad if I ignore ya, aight?”
“Of course I shall be angry. I wish to converse. It’s no fun to speak on my own.”
“Then get as angry as ya like.”
“You are such a heartless man. It would not hurt to behave more kindly toward me. I am your master, you know?”
“A mercenary doesn’t do anythin’ besides what they were hired ta do.”
“Humph,” Zero made a dispirited noise and began making strange finger movements on my back as she washed it. It felt as if she were writing something. I wondered if they were letters and tried to focus, but couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
Then, Zero chuckled.
“Somethin’ goin’ on?”
“That is a secret.”
“You will know soon enough. And then you shall be grateful to me, and unable to resist serving my will. This is that kind of a spell. Frightening, isn’t it?”
“Stop jokin’ around! Get it off me right now!”
“I-don’t-wanna. Here, turn your back toward me. I cannot wash it the way it is now.”
My threat had no effect on Zero; and if threats didn’t work, then I had no choice but to obey. I obediently turned my back toward her. Having cleaned my body thoroughly and washed all of the soapsuds off with boiling water, I felt rejuvenated. Zero looked over me and put on a troubled expression.
“All clean. Hm…ah…you look completely different now.”
“Yer sayin’ I look like a wet cat, ain’t ya…”
Just like how drenched animals were the epitome of all things pitiable, drenched fallen beasts looked just as deserving of compassion. As she rubbed my fur with a dry cloth, Zero began looking around at our surroundings.
“Hey, what’re ya—“
“It’s a secret.”
Laughing, Zero waved her finger lightly. In an instant, it had dried. My fur, that is.
I reacted without thinking—definitely without thinking.
“Amazing! Oi, what did you do and how did you do it?! It usually takes me half a day ta dry this stuff! It’s so soft and fluffy! I could be the quilt for a bed at the imperial castle!”
I raved out loud. Was calling myself a quilt at the royal castle a bit too masochistic? Even if it was, it was probably the greatest praise one could give to a pelt.
“Wait…are ya stupid? Whaddaya think yer doin’, doin’ that out in the open like this?”
I came to my senses. Zero looked at me with annoyed look on her face.
“You do know that, if you do not decide between berating and praising me, then the effects of both actions are halved…? I made sure that we had no spectators. We are fine.”
“If that’s true…well, then I guess there’s no problem.”
“By the way, mercenary.”
“Is it alright for you to leave your lower body bare? You made a big deal over my doing so in the thrift store, but you seem quite open about it yourself.”
Zero’s gaze fell on my lower abdomen.
I yelped and hurriedly stuck a foot into my pants as my cheeks flushed from Zero’s loud laughter.
At that moment, an unpleasant aura flooded the yard.
From around the corner of the building came four figures, three female and one male. What stood out was the man’s face; he had the face of a dog. The hairs on my back stood on end as a nasty smell wafted over; sure enough, it was another of my kind—a fallen beast.
“Oh. Oh? Eeeh? What, ‘re ya like me?”
I ain’t yer kin. Don’t lump me in with yerself, ya dumb mutt.
I hurried Zero as I gathered up the various tubs and buckets in my arms, and we began walking out of there.
Inherently, fallen beasts didn’t get along with other fallen beasts. We couldn’t stand each other’s bestial stench, and even if that weren’t the case, there was a strange revulsion we felt toward one other. It was like expecting a wild cat to be docile after stuffing it into a cage.
“Hey, hey, are ya ignorin’ me? You must be lonely. You’ve just met a fellow monster, and yet yer still ignorin’ him.”
“Sorry, but I don’t have the pack instincts of a dog.”
“I’m a wolf! Don’t fuck with me!”
I didn’t really see a difference between the two, but of course a lupine fallen beast would react this way when treated like a dog.
“Either way, us fallen beasts should each keep our stink to ourselves,” I put it bluntly.
The dog-faced wolf snorted, bored.
“Well, ya ain’t wrong about that…that’s why today I’m thinkin’ of havin’ my ladyfriends wash my fur for me. Look at ‘em, look at my ladyfriends. Look…ain’t they pretty?”
I attempted to leave, only to have him put an arm around my shoulders while pointing out his three female companions, who were frozen in fear. It was a pain, but it was silently understood that even though we didn’t get along, us fallen beasts would not oppose each other.
I obediently looked at the women that dog-face seemed so proud of.
Truly, they were pretty. They were all young adults, and, perhaps according to dog-face’s tastes, all possessed gleaming blond hair. Did he have some kind of harem? They didn’t seem like harlots—
It suddenly hit me, and my breathing halted momentarily.
“—Did you hunt them down?”
Hihihihiii… From dog-face’s mouth came an ear-splitting noise.
“Yeh. I hunted ‘em down. Those’re witches, ya know. I thought about takin’ em to the imperial capital ta get ‘em judged, but…judgements ‘re harsh. Don’t ya feel bad for ‘em? They’re so cute. That’s why I’m hidin’ ‘em.”
Gradually, all of the hair on my body began to stand on end.
He’d probably just gone to some village, made up some story about a witch amongst ‘em to use as a pretext, and had ‘em bring out their young women. If he’d told ‘em that he’d crush their village if they didn’t hand over the witches, there was nothing a farming village could have done to resist.
Fallen beasts are monsters, and monsters always prey on the weak.
Zero spoke up. Shit, I thought, and tried to shield Zero, but she was out of position. The moment he had realized he was hearing a female voice, dog-face had reached for her hood and torn it off.
“What the hell ’re ya doin’?! Don’t ya touch her!”
I ripped Zero free, pulled her hood back over her head, and hid her behind me.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey, what was that, where’d ya get her from? How’d ya get her? Did ya hunt her down? Did ya buy her? I ain’t ever seen someone that pretty. I want one too!”
Dog-face eagerly smelled Zero’s scent, and raised his eyes as if he’d realized something.
“—Don’t tell me, you—“
Did he realize Zero was a witch? I made a discontented noise in my head, and began walking while keeping Zero hidden. It would be a bad idea to stay here longer than we already had.
“She’s my employer. Don’t ya touch her like ya know each other. We’re leavin’.”
“Mercenary, those women are not witches.”
Zero’s voice was strangely loud. Zero pointed at the three frightened women and looked at me with a puzzled expression.
Do you understand? I can tell with but a glance that those women are not witches, she seemed to be saying. And—damn straight, I understood. Those women were not witches.
“Alright, let’s go.”
“I said let’s go—!”
“I am displeased!”
Those eyes and that voice. They were cold and hard, completely unlike the Zero who had been laughing but minutes earlier.
Warmth flooded back into Zero’s eyes as I muttered back to her. She may be displeased, but it’d be bad if we didn’t leave. To cause a ruckus here would mean trouble. If we testified that those women weren’t witches, the people from their village would confirm that they were. In that situation, suspicion would be cast on us.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey…that’s a false accusation yer makin’ there. Ain’t that right, ladies? You know sorcery dontcha? Ya know, the real reason I haven’t killed ‘em is ‘cause they used their sorcery on me, eh? ‘Cause if that weren’t true, then I’d ‘ve had my way with these cute girls ’n sold’ ‘em!”
“—Keep this between you and I.”
Smiling, Zero waved her finger once. In but a moment, they’d fallen out. All of Dog-face’s fur had instantaneously fallen out. A drenched fallen beast may look pitiful, but that didn’t hold a candle to how shameful a furless fallen beast looked.
Somehow I managed to stop myself from bursting into laughter, grabbed Zero, and fled the scene.
A moment later, dog-face’s despairing yell set the air a-tremble. At that, my self-control finally broke, and I burst into boisterous laughter. Zero, with one arm around my neck, was cracking up too, hugging her stomach.
I wouldn’t be laughing had our positions been reversed, but as long as I wasn’t the victim, there wasn’t anything funnier than this.
That night, dog-face shut himself in his room and refused to come out, as expected; moreover, the next morning, the three cute women he had been so boastful about abruptly vanished. I’ll own up to meddling just this once in something that had nothing to do with me.
See, I had gone for a nighttime walk, and I felt like I remembered wrenching open some room’s door in my half-asleep state—but that was probably just a dream.
More importantly, there was a personally urgent situation happing right now.
When I awoke in the morning, Zero, who was supposed to be in the single room by herself, was sleeping in my arms, with a justified expression on her face.
Of course my roommate Albus noticed this situation, and for some reason began attacking me. I had a torrent of abuse thrown my way as Albus called me a “brute”, and “such a fallen beast”. He’d then hurled a well-aimed chair straight at my head, which had been throbbing since early morning. This kid misunderstood a lot of things for someone his age, yet was somehow very attentive to detail.
“I told ya it was a misunderstanding. Anyway, why’d ya get so angry in the first place?”
“Shut up! Your head is mine! It’s the worst for the owner of the head I seek as a sacrifice to act so unseemly, do you understand?!”
No, I don’t understand. It was you who started hunting me in the first place.
“Look here, youngster. I have already spoken on this. Stop trying for his head.”
Ah, a pretty woman and a handsome youth are arguing over me…it’s dreadful, I ain’t happy about it at all.
“It’s fine, isn’t it—? Just the head is fine!”
I ain’t gonna give it to ya, I spat in my mind.
Ah—I wanna find the Book of Zero quick and be free from witches ‘n sorcerers.
As I casually kept an ear on Zero and Albus’ stupid bickering, we departed for the academy, leaving Foamicaum behind us.