Volume 1 — Chapter 3: The Coven of Zero
Ah, so it applies to both genders. I breathed a sigh.
“Did something happen, mercenary? Is it possible that you are jealous?”
“Don’t flatter yerself. I just feel like throwin’ up from how fond ya sound.”
As I licked the tip of my nose, Zero’s shoulders shook with laughter.
“If you hear fondness in my words, then I am sure it is jealousy. I was simply speaking of him as a man worthy of acting as my coworker.”
“Yer definition of ‘coworker’ prob’ly ain’t the same as mine, as I’m a merc.”
“Then it should be no surprise that working with him so closely has enticed my fancy. Thirteenth is an adept sorcerer. Sly and devious, he is indeed a wicked sorcerer of a man.”
“I’m beginning to see that you’re plenty evil yerself.”
“I’m hardly comparable to him. You would know if you met him, but even I would pale before him.”
“Can ya really trust someone like that…?”
“It is impossible to say. He is an adept sorcerer, but he is the embodiment of pure utilitarianism and egoism. One could almost call him demonic.”
Unexpectedly, Zero’s voice was filled with tenderness as she spoke about this “Thirteenth”.
“Then let me ask ya for reference…when ya say ‘coworker’, whaddaya mean? Are ya talkin’ about livin’ together? Ya mentioned it was in some cave.”
“Right. The study of sorcery, mercenary, is fundamentally bothersome. Sharing knowledge is mutually beneficial toward its research, so there are many witches who live together in hiding. We were the same. Thirteenth and I were a constant pair; we had arguments together, researched together, even fought together.”
In the end, it wasn’t mere fondness, was it? Hoping to change the topic from Thirteenth to something else, I pressed onward.
“Whaddaya do when yer studyin’ sorcery?”
“Well, to learn to summon demons, we peruse tomes, learn, study, and repeatedly experiment.”
“What a scholar…”
“Yes, witches are scholars. Sorcery is a science after all, and sciences take time to learn. It also takes great work to apply learned sorcery. There are certain cases in which rituals requiring up to a year’s worth of preparation time are needed. That is why witches are not prospering, and why the spread of sorcery has stagnated. And that is why—in that war five hundred years ago—the witches were defeated by the Church.”
“But now ya have magic. Can’t ya win now? Against the Church, that is.”
“Hm?” Zero made a questioning noise.
“Ah—that may be possible…it is just such a troublesome ordeal that I had never even given any thought to it…”
Just then, the sound of a horse-drawn cart’s wheels grew closer behind us, and I guided Zero out of the way, toward the edge of the road. The luggage-loaded cart passed by us—then abruptly slowed to a speed we could match at a walking pace. When we caught up with it, I found a friendly middle-aged merchant smiling at me from the driver’s seat. It was my first time experiencing something like this.
“Ah, just as I thought. Laddie, you’re a fallen beast, arentcha? You’re here to help out with the witch hunts, eh? Thanks a bundle. The way things are right now, no matter where I go, I’m always shivering in my clothes wondering if witches are goin’ to attack.”
“Back in the old days,” continued the merchant, “we were on good terms wi’them witches. I heard that, around the time when I was born, my Grandpappy went to Solena’s for medicine. Apparently he’d broken out into a real bad fever. It’s like a fairy tale that actually happened.”
“—Didn’t they burn that witch at the stake? ‘Cause she’d caused some epidemic.”
Hearing that, the merchant frowned. Albus, too, drew closer, once he realized what was going on. He maintained some distance, but situated himself so that he could hear the conversation.
Suddenly, I had an idea. According to Albus, Solena had used sorcery to protect a village from the plague. If that was true—
“Hey…ain’t there a chance that Solena used sorcery ta cure the plague?”
The merchant’s eyes opened wide. He then wrinkled his brow and slowly shook his head.
“There is. Er, there was, but…not anymore.”
“No one’d think badly of me if I got into a brawl, right? Before the Revels of Revenge, there were lots of people criticizing the ones who burnt Solena to death. They were sayin’ that ‘there’s no way Solena’d infect people with disease.’ But after the village was burnt to a crisp, everyone began to support the witch hunts—myself included.”
Looking exhausted, the merchant fished around the cargo in his driver’s seat and tossed me some fruit, which landed with a plop.
The merchant said that they were overripe and couldn’t be sold. Just as he said, the fruit were mottled with brown patches and gave off a sickeningly sweet scent.
“But, everyone’s rather weary of it all. We don’t want it to go on any longer, but we don’t want to lose either. That’s why I look forward to it.”
Leaving his sentence there, the merchant sped up his cart again. The cart travelled out of sight before I could say “ah”, yet Albus kept his gaze on the back of the cart until it vanished out of sight.
Due to rain, we were forced to spend an all-nighter in a deserted house. We stopped at the first house we saw on a side path from the main road, and discovered that it was empty after meaning to borrow the barn for the night.
Starting a fire on the stove, I began making a simple meal of boiled oats in salted water. It would normally take time to start a fire on the stove, but with Zero’s magic, lighting the stove became frighteningly simple. Magic sure was convenient.
“Hey, can’t I use that? ‘Leks’, I think it was.”
“That would be impossible. Even if you tried reciting the spell, I doubt that anything would happen.”
Being told that I didn’t have the talent for the Book of Hunting made me slightly depressed. If it could let me light fires without flint, I could hold interest in even the frightening magic employed by witches.
“What determines if ya have the talent for magic anyway?”
“How much karma you have accumulated, I would think. Your mental fortitude and personality—things such as those. I already explained that the grimoire is composed of four books, but one can also be gifted in some, yet inept in others. For example, in exchange for his complete ineptitude in the Book of Safeguarding, Thirteenth is unnaturally skilled in the Book of Capturing.”
“Yer tryin’ ta say…?”
“It is most likely because of his obsession with material things. Once he acquires something, he will never let it go.”
“Hey, is that guy really okay? Can ya really depend on him?”
I knew I couldn’t conceal my concern. Zero responded lightly with “I wonder,” and cackled.
“Do you want to try some magic from other books? The Book of Hunting is out of the question, but other books like the Book of Capturing may still prove of use. It is the most effective for capturing prey alive. You can catch many, many fish too.”
“I’m gonna stop here. If I find out that I’ve got no talent in any of the books, I’m gonna have my feelings hurt.”
“Even if you have no talent, if you pursue it for ten years, you may still be able to perform basic magic. I can assign you studies as well. That will give me an excuse to stay with you forever.”
I almost overturned the pot. What was this woman going on about all of a sudden? I looked down on her, mildly taken aback, but she did not seem as if she were kidding.
“Hey…with you sayin’ that, it seems ta me like ya wanna be with me forever.”
“What are you so astonished about? Surely that was what I said. It is enjoyable to be with you.”
It was a good thing I was clad in fur. I’d be colored an unsightly crimson if I weren’t. These lines from a witch with such an off personality made my face flush.
“Is there something wrong, mercenary?”
“There ain’t anythin’ wrong! Anyhow, I’m not gonna use magic!”
Yelling, I pushed Zero away into a corner of the room and concentrated on making dinner.
“Say, Ms. Witch…”
It was a while after we had finished dinner—I was slicing the merchant’s fruit in half with a knife, putting one half in my mouth and tossing the other to Zero, who happily bit into it.
Albus said that he “needed some fresh air,” and ventured outside into the pitch-black downpour.
I could see that he disliked sharing the same space with me. I saw that he couldn’t take the insults to Solena, and he’s always been glaring at me, so it would seem that he’s being vigilant.
“Speakin’ truthfully, whaddaya think? Do ya think Solena really started that epidemic?”
“Are you asking me, a witch, about that?” Zero asked cheerfully.
I shrugged and answered.
“There ain’t anyone else around ta ask.”
“—Then, mercenary, you will be asking me all sorts of things from now on, yes?”
“If yer tellin’ me ta shut up, then I’ll shut up.”
“No, that is not what I am saying.” Zero shook her head. She moved from her corner and sat down beside me with a thump. Sitting there, she rested her back on my shoulder and hugged her knees.
“I am happy, mercenary. Talking to you like this, I cannot help but be happy. You ask, and I answer. This way, each of us learns more about the other. —If you had someone else to pose questions to, then I would be horribly lonely.”
I didn’t say anything, but silently chewed my piece of fruit. Zero did the same, making sound as she chewed.
“Hey, why’re ya silent’? Hurry up and answer.”
“The question. —I believe I asked you.”
“Ah,” Zero laughed, “then I have no choice but to answer it. The likelihood that Solena caused the plague is decidedly low.”
“What makes ya say that?”
“Because, had she done so, she would have reaped no benefit.”
Twisting her neck looking down, Zero licked the fruit juice from her fingers.
“Plague sorcery is rudimentary sorcery. Although a novice witch may want to test it out, it is not something the witch of the Lunar Chant, of all witches, would. Especially since it would mean becoming the target of a witch hunt.”
“…So you’re sayin’ that when witches cause plague, it’s just them tryin’ somethin’ out?”
“If it is not done on request, then yes. On top of what has been said so far, a witch who establishes relations with neighboring humans often receives clothing and food for her divinations. So if a village is decimated by the plague, it would be to their disadvantage.”
Hmm, there are stories about how villages with thieves are, on the contrary, safe; locations with witches seemed to be the same.
“I do not claim that witches are kind. Witches often seek scenarios with the best outcomes for themselves. However, because of this, the possibility that the witch of the Lunar Chant was the bringer of the plague is low indeed.”
If we assume that, then humans really did mistakenly burn the very witch who had been protecting them at the stake. It was just that exactly at the time of the plague, she had been a sorcery-practicing witch. That was their only rationale.
—I had gone through similar experiences. I was falsely accused of murder and rape just because I was a fallen beast, and driven out of town. These occasions were not at all uncommon.
Assuming that Solena had been killed by the residents of the village she had set out to save, imagining the sadness and anger that had arisen was not a difficult task. So of course the witches had risen in a rage, and sunk the village in a sea of fire.
—If that was true, then it was the humans who had started the war.
“Even among witches, there is diversity, mercenary. There are witches who would harm humans, and those who work for the good of all.”
I had been prejudiced. I had thought that all witches were evil, that they left not a single survivor from their wrongdoings.
Achoo! A sneeze sounded outside the door. Albus entered the room, looking cold. From the unpleasant look on his face, I could tell that he had been eavesdropping.
But I didn’t pester him about it. No, instead—
“Sorry ‘bout that, insultin’ ya ’n all…”
Albus opened his eyes wide as if surprised, and frowned stubbornly. However, it was a frown of someone trying to stop their expression from softening.
“Well, idiots have misunderstandings all the time, and I’m pretty generous, so I’ll let you off the hook. So next time, think before you speak, alright?”
I felt like hitting him for a moment, but decided to forgive him this time for the sake of driving home my apology.