Volume 1 — Chapter 3: The Coven of Zero
The next morning, the sky was clear and cloudless, with no rain in sight. Just as he had done yesterday, Albus walked ahead of us on the path, but today he stopped frequently to tell us to hurry up.
“Hurry! The gates are gonna close!”
Ahead of us, an impatient Albus waved his fist and yelled.
Of course a town protected by walls would also have a gate. Such gates are closed at sunset, and remain so until the next morning. Still, the sun now hung at its zenith, and it would only take us a short while to reach the town. I didn’t think that there was any reason to rush, but I decided that it would be good to get there early and find my billet.
“Aren’t ya gonna hurry up?” I asked Zero.
Stubbornly maintaining a sluggish pace, Zero yawned listlessly.
“Well, I abhor sweat.”
“Eh, well…then how ‘bout this?”
I gathered Zero into my arms and ran past Albus, leaving him in the dust.
“Hey!” Albus yelled as he ran after us. “Wait for me!”
And so, we arrived in Foamicaum.
“Form a line! Single file! Merchants should prepare their special licenses, mercenaries their letters of introduction, and the rest their entry permits! Do not delay!”
Set in a wall that seemed capable of withstanding a day’s bombardment, a two-leaf gate was open just wide enough to allow a single cart to pass at a time. In front of the gate were four gatekeepers, as if to say that anyone without an entry permit would have no chance of getting through. One of the guards was yelling as he ordered the line of people waiting to enter, while one of the others—higher-ranked, by the different color of his uniform—kept a vigilant watch as he looked over entry permits.
“You may proceed! Next!”
With that, the frontmost-queued merchant’s unease vanished, supplanted by an expression of relief as he led his wagon onward and disappeared through the gate. We inserted ourselves midway into the line, and I felt hopelessness wash over me.
To enter any major city, one almost always needed something called an entry permit. When a villager felt the urge to embark on a journey, he first needed to visit his village chief and obtain a letter of introduction. Then, he needed to take this letter and bring it to a town’s governmental office, where he would receive an entry permit after providing his name, birthplace, and profession.
Merchants received special passes from their guilds, which were renewed when they paid a yearly fee, while mercenaries received letters of introduction by surviving battles.
But obviously, a witch and a sorcerer like Zero and Albus would have no entry permits. Meaning that I would have to request their entry as my companions, but…
How was I going to explain the rag-wearing beauty and the loser of a kid?
“I’ve always wanted to visit Foamicaum! I can’t wait!”
“Shut yer mouth. Don’t get so worked up. I’ll kill ya, shitty kid.”
“Zerooo! The mercenary’s glaring at me!”
“Don’t pick on those weaker than you, mercenary. The youngster is saying that he is fortunate to be able to travel with you. Be glad.”
“That’s not what I’m saying!”
“I ain’t gonna be thankful for that!”
Suspicious looks were directed toward me, as I’d raised my voice without thinking. Although I already stood out enough just by being a fallen beast, it didn’t bother me to be obtrusive. I heaved a sigh.
In the space of my sigh, the queue progressed forward, and it was my turn to talk with the gatekeeper whether I wanted to or not. I held out the letter of introduction I had been issued by the border patrol.
“I heard that yer gatherin’ troops ta fight them witches, so I’m headin’ to the capital ta help out.”
I repeated to him, somewhat stiffly, the words I had rehearsed countless times. It wasn’t a lie. At least, it hadn’t been two days ago; but as expected, it was difficult for me to utter those words while accompanying a witch and a sorcerer.
Sure enough, the gatekeeper honed in on Zero—who wore her hood over her eyes and whose appearance screamed “I am, without a doubt, a witch”—and Albus, who appeared frail and far too childlike to be a traveler.
“Are these two your companions? What is your relation?”
Ah, here it comes. It wasn’t that I didn’t have an excuse, but…
“We are his body-slaves.” Zero swiftly answered.
All of the fur on my body stood on end.
Just a sec, this woman—
“Y-yes! We perform services for our master, and are no more than lowly slaves. Of course. We also perform nighttime services…”
Woah there, Albus. You’re a guy. What’re ya pullin’, blushin’ like that? Yer kinda cute ta begin with, so things ain’t gonna turn out well. I’ve been made out ta be a complete pervert, haven’t I?
“I…I see…oh. I see…”
And you, guard, investigate ‘em more. Investigate ‘em and figure it out. It’s completely wrong. It’s so wrong, but I can’t say a thing. This is why people say fallen beasts ‘re depraved. With a gaze that betrayed neither his fear, his hate, nor his envy, the gatekeeper looked at me and my two body-slaves.
“Yes…these two slaves appear to be empty handed. There is a tax for each slave, however it is waived for lone travelers such as yourself. A few days ago, a small town near here was attacked by witches, so witch hunting warriors like yourself are greatly welcomed. How long will you be staying?”
“Ah—…’round…three days…I guess…” I managed to squeeze out a few words. I didn’t plan to stay any longer than a night, but it was a good idea to declare an extra two days in case anything happened.
“If you’re heading to Prasta, then be sure to get a confirmation of entry stamp on your letter of introduction. And when you depart, make sure to return your sojourner’s permit. —You may proceed!”
Just like that, we were granted entry into Foamicaum.