Volume 1 — Chapter 4: Thirteenth
Thirteenth shook his head in a silent but forceful repudiation. I felt unsettled, as if he were calling me naive. As if I were ignorant of some obvious mistake I’d made.
“Witches possess the power to charm, and can easily twist the instincts of bestial warriors to view them in a benevolent light. You saw Zero’s eyes, no? The first time you saw her, wherever it was.”
It was back when Zero, Albus and I had met for the first time—when I first saw Zero use magic to repel Albus. I’d thought that she was strikingly beautiful, and was entranced by her visage. I stared into those eyes, thinking how strange of a color they were. I hadn’t realized then that those were the eyes of a witch.
Hmm, so that was why I hadn’t felt any fear when Zero told me that she’d have me be her guard. I’d been manipulated by her from the very start.
“When I launched my attack against her in the underground chamber, you acted like it was natural to protect her. That’s when I noticed. You were enthralled by Zero, and under her control. There was no way a wary, alert bestial warrior such as yourself would leap to Zero’s defense. There is still time. But that pleasant feeling you gain from accompanying Zero will soon turn into an instinctive servility. I don’t know how long you’ve spent on the road with her…but you’ve seen it at least once, I suspect.”
Seen what? I was about to ask when it hit me. The owner of the thrift store who’d gleefully put himself at her service and would’ve licked the mud off her boots if he could’ve.
“Do you wish to become like that? I won’t make a move to stop you if you do. There are many who would prostrate themselves before her. Even in our cave, she was extraordinary.”
“No fuckin’ way! Who’d do that for a witch?!”
Thirteenth’s lips warped slightly. Perhaps he was smiling.
“Zero must be interested in you for that very attitude you possess. Yes, to Zero, you are—“
—just like a novel pet.
For some reason, this man’s words weighed heavily on my chest.
The sheer amount of praise Zero had heaped on me. How she’d said she liked me. That she wanted us to remain together. I realized now that she’d said those things because she didn’t see me as a human at all. It felt exactly like she loved me as she would a cherished cat.
I felt my throat tighten. The area below my tongue tasted strangely bitter.
“Still, she is a fellow student of mine. Zero is the last and only of my compatriots, and I thank you for leading her all this way. —That is why you must run. I cannot help you beyond this, but…”
Thirteenth handed me a travel permit. I had come to Prasta without passing the gate, thanks to Thirteenth’s summons, so if I didn’t have this with me, then there’d be trouble when I tried to leave.
“No, that’s enough. I’m in your debt.”
I hurried back to my quarters and stuffed the bottle into my bag.
Now that I thought about it, I’d felt disturbed by a lot of what Zero’d said in the past. Even when she’d hired me to be her guard, she’d said “I won’t take your head, as a guard needs his limbs.” Did that mean once she didn’t need me as a guard anymore, or if she got tired of me, that she’d chop off my head? —This was fuckin’ serious!
On top of that, I couldn’t remain involved with witches. She was a devastatingly good looking woman, but I valued my life above the desires of my body’s lower half. What I wanted from Zero was now in my possession, too. All this considered, why did I need to stay here? I was a man who’d take his supper over the world any day. If I could become a human again and live my days without being chased by witches, then I wouldn’t give a shit about whether or not they had been wiped out.
Ah, yeah. I’d go back to the country. My old mom ’n pops were probably running the bar even now. I hadn’t seen ‘em for over ten years now. They might not even believe that I was their fallen beast kid once I became human, but I’d cross that bridge when I come to it. I’d even be fine as just a wanderin’ traveler earnin’ his keep. Eventually, I’d get hitched to a cute girl. Heck, It’d even be okay even if she wasn’t cute. A naggin’, strong woman’d be good. The kinda woman who’d hit me.
I’d want three or more kids. Every day’d be busy and tough and irritating. We’d get into arguments and shout. I want that kind of life. I can be human again. I can be human. And as a human, I’ll be able to live.
How many times have I dreamt that dream now? I burst out of my room and froze in place.
“—Are you getting ready for a journey, mercenary? Without me?”
Zero was standing before the doorway. Amazingly, I didn’t yell in surprise.
Wearing a strange expression, Zero acted as if this were all a coincidence and gazed up at me.
“If you are leaving, then you do plan to bring me along, no? You are my mercenary after all. Perfect timing as well. Thirteenth got so worked up about this and that that he could barely breathe. I will be taking my leave with—”
Zero took a step toward me.
Reflexively, I retreated a step. Zero paused at my odd behavior.
“…Mercenary, did something happen? Why do you remain silent?”
This bewildered act—not bad, Ms. Witch.
How did she know? Was she watching me this whole time to make sure I wouldn’t escape?
“Why do you look at me like that…? I just want to head out for a bit. Today’s the goddess’ day of the week, and I heard that there are performers putting on a show in town square. I would like to see what all the fuss is about. Let’s—”
Without waiting for her to finish, I gripped my sword.
I had to get away from this witch. Otherwise, only death awaited me. Though I didn’t think I could win against her head on—. I glanced around for a getaway route. Should I go back into my quarters and jump out the window? Should I take the witch by surprise and shove her out of my way? This was a matter of life and death.
“Ah…is that so.”
The witch, who’d been looking at me in evident confusion, unexpectedly made a face that resembled a smile. However, it was quite bitter for a smile.
“Were you deceived by Thirteenth? A most devilish performance as always. He was able to take in my mercenary so easily…”
What the hell’re ya goin’ on about? You’re the one that deceived me.
As I scowled at her, the witch abruptly locked eyes with me.
Shit. Those eyes—if I look at them—
“This—fool!!” Zero roared. I instinctively covered my ears. Somehow, that slender body made this fearsome noise. Zero advanced toward me, and snapped her fingers before my eyes.
Immediately, I felt as if I were waking from a dream. The urgent need I felt to get out of this castle and away from Zero disappeared in that instant.
“What caused you to doubt, mercenary?”
“What did you doubt? What angered you? Your confidence in me wavered, and that is what Thirteenth pounced on! Thirteenth really is skillful. He is a prodigy of fanning the flames of unease and inciting doubt, converting them into bonfires of fear and rage.”
The last part of her sentence was delivered in a strained voice. Without seeing her clenched fist trembling, I never would have imagined this from the frank and dignified Zero I knew.
Zero glared at me, clenching her teeth as if she were holding something back. It was behavior like that of a child trying to restrain her tears.
“Did Thirteenth tell you that I intend to kill you?”
I was startled, but didn’t say a word.
—It felt like she was asking me if I’d betrayed her. Unable to bear the brunt of her gaze, I turned to look at my bed.
“And you—you believed those words? No matter how much sorcery is laced within them, words have only the power to nurture the seeds of doubt. Fire cannot be born without embers. This means, in other words, that you were fraught with doubt—even until now—toward me! If you’re going to doubt me, then why did we form a pact in the first place?!”
I felt like I was bursting to say something. The only problem was that I didn’t know what to say. The words caught in my throat, and seemed almost to clog up my windpipe.
“I swore, mercenary. I swore through our blood pact not to take your head! I swore to make you human again!”
I turned my eyes to the scar on Zero’s thumb. It hadn’t been many days since she had made the incision.
—I swear, mercenary.
I remembered Zero, cradling her bloodstained thumb as if it were a matter of the utmost importance, swearing her oath. No, that too had been merely an act. It had definitely been nothing more than an act. She was a witch after all. But if that had been just an act, then why was Zero now wearing such a pained expression—a hair’s breadth from bursting into tears?
Sigh, all of Zero’s strength seemed to vacate her body.
“…So, you really do hate witches.”
Damn right I hate witches. They all want to take my fuckin’ head.
Though I thought so, why did that defeated, drained voice cause such an ache in my heart?
“Then I suppose you had no need for me to lend a hand and return you to sanity…Just as you scared away the children, now that I think about it, should I have done the same to you?”
Return me to sanity?
—Am I sane now? What was I earlier, then? Is she trying to say that my initial, pressing desire to leave this castle, even this kingdom behind, wasn’t sane?
Zero whirled around, turning on her heel.
“Leave my presence. —You may run away. From me, that is. Do not worry, I will not pursue you.”
“This is the end of our partnership. I will not turn you human, and you will no longer protect me. —And at any rate, it seems to me that Thirteenth has given you a substitute for me. Farewell, mercenary. It was enjoyable for what it was.”
Zero walked off without so much as a backward glance, the hem of her overcoat swirling behind her. Then, thanks to my sensitive ears, I heard a whisper. It was a small, fragile voice.
“I didn’t employ—someone like you.”
With those words as her last, Zero disappeared around a corner in the corridor. —It was a brisk parting. Not even the sound of her footsteps remained.
Zero never did turn around, and so I never did call out for her to stop.
The words that had caught in my throat, accompanied by a dull pain, slowly but steadily made their way down into the depths of my stomach.
It might not be too late if I chase after her now. But no matter how I tried, my feet refused to move.
I won’t go looking for her… I have no reason to.
Still I stood for a long while, filled with lingering regret, in the passageway Zero had departed.
END CHAPTER FOUR