Volume 1, Chapter 5 — Immolation
Eventually, I did leave the castle.
What was true, and what wasn’t? Since when was I mad, and what did it mean to be sane? I felt as if my brains had turned to mush, and that I was free-floating. But I did know one thing for certain: I had lost my right to stay at the castle the moment I’d let Zero walk away.
I had stopped being Zero’s mercenary. Even worse, it might’ve been of my own accord.
The castle seemed to be built on top of a cliff, as there was a long, descending staircase outside the side gate. That was the lone path linking the castle to its surrounding lands, and the likes of merchants and servants traversed incessantly this tediously long path. Slipping into the current of pedestrians, I set off down the walkway.
I took a single backward glance.
Idiot, who would’ve thought you to actually run away? I was joking. Be more perceptive.
I might’ve felt a little anticipation for Zero to come chasing after me angrily, saying those words. How foolish of me.
At the end of the seemingly interminable steps was a tremendous gate, where I was stopped by soldiers for not having a record of entry. Though when I showed them Thirteenth’s paper of passage, I was able to get through without trouble. Thirteenth didn’t seem trustworthy at first glance, but I thought he was very much so. Stepping through the gate, I found myself in an immense circular plaza with performers leaping and bounding left and right, attracting crowds of onlookers and encouraging them to toss coin into their collection hats.
Oh, right. Zero had indeed said today was the day of the weekly goddess festival. Just as one would expect from the imperial capital. It was remarkably lively, even compared to Foamicaum.
In the middle of the busy plaza was a mountain of straw, a stout log sprouting from its peak.
I gave the air a sniff. A charred odor permeated the square. They’d burned something big here. There were clear scorch marks visible on a large expanse of the ground.
I was pretty sure that if that pile of straw were to be set aflame, it’d leave behind marks just like those.
“—Burnin’ at the stake, eh?”
I looked up at the wooden pole. I knew that countless witches had been bound to that pole before. The straw would be set aflame. The conflagration would spread. The encroaching heat and the enshrouding smoke. The agonized, violent coughing of the witch and her agitated shrieks. Finally, the inferno would spread to the witch’s clothes, her hair would be set ablaze, and the crowd would let out a resounding cheer—it was as if I could see it all happen before me.
I shouldn’t have to worry about Zero getting burned at the stake, as she was under Thirteenth’s protection.
—Still, I felt strangely annoyed.
I hate witches. I think it’d be a great thing if witches all got exterminated. Burn ‘em at the stake? Cut their heads clean off? Both options are great. Just make sure they don’t die too quickly. ‘Till recently, that was exactly how I felt about witches.
But Zero—even Albus—if those two were tied to the stake and set ablaze, would I cheer with the rest? I couldn’t imagine myself doing that.
I hate witches. But there were exceptions to my hate. I learned that not all witches were evil. Even so, though, I was afraid of Zero.
I felt a vague fear of witches, in addition to other unpleasant sentiments. It was a prejudice that wouldn’t go away.
It was exactly like how people were scared of me simply for being a fallen beast.
I gave my head a rough scratching.
“Stop this shit, stop it! Just forget this nonsense!”
It was over. I was Zero’s mercenary no longer, and moreover, I’d betrayed her. She’d given up on me as well. I spat on the ground and, ignoring the strange looks I got for being a yelling giant, quickly took my leave.
“I should be relieved. It was a stupid job to begin with, and I should be happy it ended well. I even got a gift out of it,” I said in a deliberately happy tone, and checked inside the pouch I carried at my waist. Thirteenth’s bottle was chilly to the touch of my beastly fingertip.
This was all I’d wanted. A way to return to being human—that was it.
There were currently a lot of fallen beasts in Prasta, thanks to its efforts to raise an army. The residents seemed used to the sight of fallen beasts, as there wasn’t anyone shrieking at my presence or trying to stone me, as far as I could tell. Even so, I pulled the hood of my mantle down over my head, concealing my features.
Soon, though, I’ll be able to say farewell to this face. I can go back to being human at any time.
When, where, and how should I do it?
This planning should have made my heart race in excitement, but instead my emotions felt strangely flat as I did so.
In the end, I decided to wait until I’d moved to a slightly safer country before turning myself back. I couldn’t say it was a good plan to be a powerless human in Wenias while it and the witches were waging war.
It should be fine for me to just walk back to Foamicaum. The stagecoaches were fascinating and all, but it’d be fruitless if they just refused to let me board, and even then, the other passengers’ suspicious gazes would make me feel uncomfortable.
Horses are, by nature, easily scared. This was why so few drivers of horse-drawn carriages would allow fallen beasts to ride. Horses would get too spooked to do their jobs merely from being close to a fallen beast. Hated by humans, hated by animals, I had nowhere to belong to, as my own kind did not live together. This was the life of a fallen beast.
Words will fade naturally from memory.
As I walked alone on the path, I realized that just a few days ago—after having met Zero and Albus—we’d passed through here, chatting as we did. I’d asked questions, Zero’d provided the answers, and when Albus’d interrupted us, I’d whacked him. That was the kind of exchange we’d had, day and night, over and over again.