Volume 1 — Chapter 4: Thirteenth
Albus seemed his usual self as he strode along, swinging his arms, chatting about this and that in a lofty and loud voice.
Looking over the map, I saw that La Tête wasn’t at all far from Foamicaum. It would take at most two hours for a horse-drawn cart to traverse the distance while going at a slow pace, and around double that for a person on foot. Since that was the case, it wouldn’t have been weird to see more traffic on this route, but I hadn’t encountered anyone else on our way here.
“Sure is quiet…feels like there ain’t a person around.”
That wasn’t the feeling one should get in the vicinity of a town where people lived. Being near a town was usually reassuring; the vibe I was getting now was more disconcerting than anything. I had a bad feeling about this. The hair on the back of my neck prickled, and I began to feel uneasy; the closer we got to La Tête, the stronger that feeling became. My feet began to feel heavier and heavier with each passing step, as if my instincts were screaming at me to keep away.
Zero tugged on my clothes.
“—Do you sense it?”
She was sudden with her words. I grouchily scratched my cheek and looked around nervously.
It couldn’t just be a figment of my imagination if even Zero was taking notice of it.
“I can sense a watchful presence.”
It didn’t feel like we were being watched, but I was vaguely aware of a watchful presence here. It was that kind of sensation. It felt as if there were a threat in the inky darkness of the forest, yet neither of us were visible to the other. Either way, something was there.
This oppressive atmosphere pressed in on us from all sides.
“Youngling. Has this place always felt like this? It seems to be quite gloomy for what is supposedly a small yet lively town.”
Albus stopped in his tracks. He seemed baffled when he turned to face us.
“Um,” Albus mumbled.
It looked like he had been talking so noisily in order to hide his own unease.
“Past this hill is the town…but there’s usually a lot more people here, and it’s usually a lot busier too…”
Albus’ jaw clenched shut.
“I’m gonna go take a look!” He ran off. I knew something had to be wrong. The most suspicious thing about this place was the deathly stillness this close to a human settlement.
“What’re we gonna do, Ms. Witch? Is this a trap?”
“For whom? Me? Or, perhaps, for you?”
“You, ain’t it?” I answered after a short pause.
“Do you think that Albus informed his comrades of my search, and is now leading us into a trap in order to defeat me?”
“I don’t think so, but it sure is the first thing that comes ta mind. After all, he’s the one that’s led us into this situation.”
“I see, you used the process of deduction to arrive at that conclusion. However, your intuition is much more effectual at revealing the truth than either your powers of deduction or common sense. What is your intuition telling you?”
“To get outta here right this instant.”
“And to leave the young one behind?”
I was caught off guard when she asked that, because my instincts weren’t telling me anything of the sort. After all, if Albus had purposefully led us into a trap, then ditching him would of course be the correct course of action. But instead, my intuition was telling me to escape with him. Seeing my grimace, Zero’s eyes softened.
“Well then, let us make our exit. With Albus.”
“You sure it’s okay ta leave without gettin’ yer book back?
“It would be wiser to seek out Thirteenth first, if there seems to be danger ahead.”
“Alright, I gotcha. Oi, ki—“
Completely overriding my call, Albus’ shrill yell sounded from some distance away.
For a moment startled into inaction, Zero and I ran up the hill together, where our field of view was vastly expanded.
“What’s wrong, kid? Did somethin’—“
Seeing the answer spread out below me, I couldn’t even form the word “happen”.
At the foot of the hill which we had just ascended, there was a small town. That was probably La Tête. Standout structures included the basilica in the middle of town and the town square itself, followed by a disorderly crowd of shops and homes of various shapes and colors, all bunched together. To traverse this town from one end to another would take no more than thirty minutes. I estimated the population of the town to be, at most, two thousand people. Compared to Prasta, which boasted a populace over fifty thousand strong, this place was no more significant than a backyard garden.
The cluster of buildings thinned as one moved outward from the center of town, until all that was left was sprawling pasture. And in these open plains—there was nary an animal set out to pasture.
It was clear that they had been attacked, and that the town known as La Tête was no more.
“No…no, it can’t be! It can’t be! It can’t be! It can’t be!”
“Oi, kid, wait for us! It ain’t safe!”
Even he himself most likely didn’t know why he was yelling what he was. As if stricken with panic, Albus bolted down the hill without a moment’s hesitation.
If the place’d been raided by marauders, some of them might still be there. Even assuming there weren’t any remaining adversaries, there’d definitely be filthy scavengers around scrounging for carrion. Either way, there’d be dead bodies. Albus might be a sorcerer, but be that as it may, he was still a kid. The town in its current state was no place for a kid.
“—For heck’s sake! What a brat!”
Exasperated, I gathered Zero into my arms and bounded down the incline. The eerie and uneasy atmosphere only intensified as we worked our way down the hill, and I broke into a cold sweat.
“Do not worry, mercenary. Do you remember what I told you?”
Tap tap, Zero knocked on my head.
“I shall protect you.”
I gave Zero a glance, tutting silently at her self-assured smile.
A few short words from a witch ain’t gonna make me feel relieved. Anyway, I could hardly be called a mercenary if I lowered my guard.
As I chased Albus into town, I saw that the devastation was far, far worse when viewed up close. Enough to make me grimace. I saw a demolished wall, a fallen sign—and all around I saw bodies, bodies, and more bodies. In the middle of all the blood and the dead stood Albus, dumbstruck, blank golden pupils fixated on the bodies strewn left and right.
“…Hey, don’t just keep starin’,” I said.
“They probably got attacked by bandits. It’s rare for ‘em to be so messy…but I guess these people just got real unlucky.”
“Bandits,” Albus whispered, his eyes darting around in their sockets. His lips curled in derision.
“Do you see it?”
“See what?” I asked, looking at the dead body Albus was staring at. I didn’t see anything but a burnt corpse; most likely burnt alive. Although its features had been disfigured to the extent that I could no longer determine its gender, it was clear that the victim’s final moments had been a violent attempt to put itself out.
But something was off. The structures looked too clean for a town filled with blackened bodies.
Obviously, fire itself couldn’t just pick and choose who or what to burn; that’s why if even one uncontrolled fire started, the rest of the town would go down soon after. Yet after seeing the corpses, it seemed that this fire had burnt only humans and nothing else. You could always count on humans to run around and panic when set aflame, spreading the blaze, but there wasn’t a single charred home to be seen.
“Is this…magic?” I muttered. Zero nodded.
“I believe Flagis was the spell invoked. It is a spell that conjures fire which harms only your victim. As such, if summoned in a forest or hamlet, the conflagration would not spread. It seems quite clear to me that they were assailed by a witch.”
A nearby town was attacked. I remembered hearing that at the gates of Foamicaum. Had the gatekeeper meant this one?