Volume 1 — Chapter 5: Immolation
It looked like our interests were in alignment—I wasn’t against working with dog-face toward our goals, as I was by and large a utilitarian.
“Do ya have any leads or anythin’?”
Dog-face snapped to attention.
“Like I said, I’m lookin’ for the Book of Zero. If yer ‘little lady’ has it, then I’ve got some business with her. I’ll help ya find her, but I’ll be takin’ the book in exchange.”
If I found the book and took it back to that woman, how would she react to my return? There was a ninety percent chance that she’d become angry, peeved, or offended—instead of just thanking me. I was going to reclaim that myself; this is for me alone to deal with; you betrayed me, and you mean to return to me now with this? She’d grumble, and snatch the book out of my hands.
Would she make me her mercenary again if I apologized for doubting her?
“—But that witch you were draggin’ around…where’s she now?”
Suspicious that he had just read my mind, I turned toward dog-face with a start.
“She smelled a bit like little lady, that one. Witches’re hard ta track by smell ‘cause they’re covered with the odors of medicinal herbs ’n such, but there was a lingerin’ scent I could sense. I tried ta make sure, but I got turned into this…”
“Oh, that thing back then…”
When we’d first bumped into dog-face at the inn in Foamicaum, he’d taken an interest in Zero’s scent because he’d picked up a bit of little lady’s scent. But that doesn’t mean ya lost yer fur ‘cause ya tried ta confirm what you were smellin’, dog-face. It was ‘cause your very existence bothered Zero ‘n I, I tried to convey through my expression, but of course dog-face didn’t get the message.
“I was always with that witch though…can’t ya smell it on me?”
“Nah, fallen beasts smell too much for a lingerin’ scent ta last. I think I can smell it a bit from you—no, it’s there.”
Dog-face opened his eyes wide.
“You, where were you before now? There’s a big chance little lady might still be there!”
I was in Prasta only briefly, and before that, in desolate La Téte. Which naturally meant that the last time I had been in contact with a lot of people was back in Foamicaum.
“Seems that we need ta set course fer Foamicaum then. Your little lady’s probably in that neighborhood.”
Oddly enough, the horse-drawn carts going from Foamicaum to Prasta seemed hurried this day.
This was a path to the imperial capital, which meant busy traffic, but I thought that things were calmer when I was plodding along yesterday. We’d already had several close calls with horse carriages today, nearly colliding headlong with them. In the end, we moved into the woods running alongside the highway to avoid an accident.
Who the fuck are ya callin’ yer bro? I ain’t like you, ya dog-faced wolf.
I frowned as hard as I could while looking over my shoulder at dog-face, who was walking rather spiritedly for someone with a hole in his abdomen.
“Ain’t there any way ta get my fur back? Little lady’s gonna laugh at me for lookin’ like this. It sucks ta have clothes rubbin’ right up against me. The wind’s blowin’ right by it too. It’s cold. Seriously.”
“Well, I can’t help ya with that, can I? Go ask a witch, not me.”
“The one in the fortress at the capital? Ya wanna tell me how?!”
“I dunno. If ya promise ta treat ‘em to a meal, they might just help ya.”
“Can ya please take this seriously?!” Dog-face pleaded in a pitiable tone, whimpering the way a dog would. I’d sort of seriously thought that a meal would be enough, but—perhaps it wasn’t very logical after all.
Just then, another carriage moving with unusual haste appeared on the highway. Snatches of conversation wafted from the passenger car:
“—A witch’s execution—”
I heard only that single phrase. Instinctively, I looked over my shoulder toward dog-face.
“…They say there’s going to be a witch’s execution at noon today—“
I realized my fur was standing on end.
—Cooperate, or burn at the stake.
Thirteenth’d forced Albus to make his choice between the two. He was promised further knowledge if he bowed to Thirteenth, and a fiery death if he refused. No way, I thought.
No way it was Albus. I set off at breakneck pace for the kingdom’s capital.
—Noon this day, a witch’s execution will be taking place in the capital’s central plaza.
The morning of, a notice worded thus had been swiftly disseminated, and sightseers crowded the square. I ran without caring about the risk of dog-face’s abdominal wound opening up, and now, it was slightly before noon—the sun was just approaching its zenith. One nice thing about being a fallen beast was that when running, my top speed matched that of a horse-drawn carriage. I was no match for an unburdened horse, but I was about as fast as one pulling a cart loaded with bulky luggage.
I dove into the crowd, pushing people aside, and arrived at a plaza packed with a sea of bystanders. I saw from afar that a figure was bound tight to the enormous post that stood in the square.
No way—it was Albus. My prediction was spot on.
“What the hell’s that dumbass doin’?! Why’d he go against Thirteenth?!”
Even from my distant vantage point, I could see Albus’s trembling frame, threatening to give out at any moment. However, his face was by no means hidden. He glared openly at the throng of onlookers, and his gaze caught mine for an instant.
He pursed his lips. —Albus had noticed me.
Idiot, who’re ya pretendin’ to be brave for? You’re gettin’ put to death, burned at the stake, for that matter. It’s gonna be long ’n painful. Do ya understand, ya brat?
“That’s…bro…you said that’s someone ya know?” asked dog-face, gasping for air as he finally caught up, narrowing his eyes.
“He’s some kid sorcerer that attacked me. I made him take us to his academy, ’n he got captured by Thirteenth—but when he got ta choose between servin’ Thirteenth and gettin’ burned alive, that shit picked the latter!”
“Huuuh. That’s pretty brave of ‘em,” replied dog-face nonchalantly as he scrutinized the faraway stake.
Ah shit, I answered him. Now I’m stuck being his bro, damn it.
“That child…does the child have blond hair?”
“What about it?”
“And golden irises?”
It was true; Albus did in fact have eyes the color of gold. How did dog-face know that Albus had golden eyes though? At this distance, there was no way that a canine—even a lupine—fallen beast could determine the color of Albus’ eyes.
What did he mean by that? Albus was a guy. I began to ask dog-face, but silence quickly fell over the noisy square. I looked back to the center of the plaza. Thirteenth was standing there.
The hem of his robes appeared to drag along the platform, and he wielded a hefty staff. His back was hunched, and he wore a dark expression. The man who looked the very picture of an evil sorcerer stood as the arbiter of justice at the stake.
“—Today, we will immolate a witch.”
Thirteenth’s low voice quietly reverberated through the plaza. Beside him, Albus was still tied fast to the beam.
Today, we will immolate a witch, he says. That’s puttin’ it real lightly ain’t it, Thirteenth?
“You must not feel compassion simply because it appears to be a child. What you should consider is how many humans this witch has killed thus far, and how many more it will kill in the future.”
Thirteenth stressed the word witch as he spoke. I understood his intent. He was telling the people that witches were something other than human.
Through this, they would stop seeing witches as human. The masses would think of them as evils which deserved to die, and gradually, they would be able to cheer and be jubilant at the sight of the screaming figures burning to death.
In any era and any nation, during times of war, the enemy armies would be cursed at and badmouthed as rubbish and bugs to be squashed. There was always special significance to the practice. The significance was in providing an indubitable and sufficient reason for having their armies kill other humans, and glorifying their killing.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am also a sorcerer. However, I neither harm humans with sorcery, nor do I condone the act of inflicting injury upon others. I have never once wished to carry the power of sorcery and use it to further mine own ego!”
The air trembled, almost as if it were about to be torn asunder. Thirteenth’s clear and sonorous voice, along with his words and authoritative posture, earned the onlookers’ rapt attention and kept them perfectly still.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I practice sorcery. However, I am not reluctant to employ that power in purging those who have learned the same sorcery I have and gone astray. Please, I want all of you to direct your hatred toward those evil witches. I wish for all of you understand that sorcery is not evil in and of itself, and that there exists only evil that employs sorcery.”
How could he have the nerve to say that with the same mouth that told me that “witches see others merely as tools, and nothing more”?
Even more horrifying was the fact that there “wasn’t a single lie” in Thirteenth’s words. He presented both statements as true: that other people were simply tools to witches and sorcerers, and that he would not hold back when purging those witches who had strayed from the straight and narrow.
Zero had said that Thirteenth was skilled with the truth. It was the power to “speak without lies”. Born from the confidence that one was dealing with the truth was an attitude of great authority and majesty. People were fooled by this imposing air.
Doesn’t that make him a great swindler, then? It seemed that I had been tricked as well. Thirteenth had simply wanted to distance me from Zero. —Was it out of envy? That’s real honorable ain’t it then, Thirteenth.
I ground my molars and stared at Thirteenth, admiration and rage coursing through my gaze.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I shall devote myself to serving you. I swear to you that I shall dedicate this body, along with all of the strength I possess, to upholding the peace of this nation. I swear that I shall work toward eradicating all of the evil witches of this land, and protect this kingdom with the power of sorcerers. For that purpose!“
Thirteenth lifted his arms. The eyes of the spectators turned as one toward Albus.
Thirteenth paused, briefly and abruptly.
“Will set this witch aflame!”
A joyous roar rose from the crowd. —The flame, the flame, the flame!
The shouts rumbled through the plaza, as if making the earth itself shake. Thirteenth, filled with power, raised both arms, and brilliant flames sprang up on the flambeaux around the stake. It was magic. The spectators were as riled up as if they were watching a performance onstage. The audience went wild at the sight of Thirteenth’s magic, drunk on the power of this righteous sorcerer. The knowledge that there was a greater power protecting them incited unparalleled joy among the masses.
I stared at what appeared to be oil-inundated straw around Albus, grinding my teeth together.
Thirteenth, are ya really gonna burn that kid to death?
Zero—Miss Witch. Are ya really gonna allow this? If he can’t help you find your book—if he’s no longer useful—are ya just gonna let him die?
And I’m just standin’ here—just watchin’ Albus be killed.
But then, a shrill voice split the square.
“Listen, my comrades! Listen, all those witches who have decided to fight for our liberation!”
The voice came from the center of the plaza—the voice of Albus, still fastened to the wooden pillar. I was amazed that he could assemble words not to jeer, to despair, or to beg for his life, even as he was about to be executed by fire.
“Today, this body of mine will be burnt to ashes! Just as Solena was a year past. Heed these words, my compatriots! Just as her blaze became the signal fire for war, so let us make this fire into another!”
“—I am the heir to the Witch of the Lunar Chant, who united this land—the great Solena’s successor!”
Albus’ shrill voice, completely different from Thirteenth’s, was filled with power and overwhelmed his surroundings.
Albus was the Witch of the Lunar Chant’s—was Solena’s heir. So it appeared that dog-face was correct.
Albus, you were a girl this whole time? Not only that, but your grandma was Solena—she’s dead, huh. Just like Zero’s mentor.
“Gather, noble witches who long for tranquility and peace! Defeat Thirteenth for the sake of attaining true unity! —All in the great Solena’s name!”
The straw was lit aflame. Thanks to the oil, the blaze spread immediately through the straw, and began assailing Albus’ small frame.
On the other side of the raging inferno, Albus looked directly at me. Her lips moved.
Are ya stupid? You’re surrounded by fire, ya know? Or should I say, how did ya know that I could read lips at this distance? It’s not time to be thinking about that though; what’s important is what to do now. What to do. What to do. Run, preferably.
But it was just that a witch I hated was getting burnt up. The idiot chose to get herself burned to death even though there was a choice that would save her. What the hell’re ya tellin’ me ta save Zero for? That weird witch ain’t gonna have any use for my help. She’s got Thirteenth now, anyway.
Why did ya say ta defeat Thirteenth though? Didn’t ya just confirm that the Coven of Zero is a bad group? Oh, so that’s why ya didn’t call witches to arms in ‘that person’s name, but in Solena’s. But if you were just gonna do that, I expected you ta join with Thirteenth and have it easier.
But if you’d refused and chose death by fire—well, that’s what you did.
Albus, you—what did you find out in that dungeon?
“Little lady!” Dog-face shouted and ran off. His flippant attitude had all but disappeared, and his expression was distorted by fear and despair.
Ah, this is gonna be troublesome. If you go and do that, then I’ve got no choice but ta do this.
Before I knew it, I was running and mowing down sightseers. There were two fallen beasts sprinting toward the execution platform. If I were a human there, I’d be quite scared.
The sea of humanity parted to my left and right, making an open path for me. I’d never attracted this much negative attention before in my entire not-so-short life. Screw you, Albus. Screw you, Thirteenth, dog-face—even Zero, you too. I pulled an explosive out of the pouch at my waist, and cut its fuse shorter by biting part of the cord off with my teeth. Borrowing the flame from the flambeau, I brandished my explosive vigorously.
“Protect the kid, dog-face! Everyone that doesn’t wanna die, duck yer heads!”
I tossed the bomb at the platform. As everyone—even Thirteenth—plugged their ears and crouched down, I cut through the shockwave and deafening boom from the blast, grabbing dog-face by the nape of his neck. Dog-face was already holding Albus tightly in his arms.
Rather than being dazed by the roar of the explosion, dog-face was alert. I’m beginnin’ ta like ya, ya bastard of a wolf.
The blazing pole and straw were sent flying by the detonation and spread the flames all around, causing the square to become an agitated beehive of commotion. The angry shouts from the guards and cries of the onlookers jumbled together, and served as a perfect cover for us to escape.
“The witch is getting away!”
“Archers! Nock your arrows!”
“Stop, hold your fire! —You’ll hit Zero!”
Hearing those shouts from behind me, I bowled over guards and anyone else who stood in my way, stole a horse-drawn cart and an unwilling horse, and with that, sped beyond the city walls.