Volume 1 — Chapter 6: Forbidden Spell
It was a miracle that we had managed to stay in one piece.
The horse hated being driven by a fallen beast and went wild, causing our cart to tip over and tumble down a cliff, upon which we were saved by the miraculous presence of a river, and though we were swept downstream and met with misfortunes including torrential rain, if one discounted the moderate burns dog-face had received, we were by and large all right.
After dropping an unconscious Albus off in the middle of the cave we had taken shelter in, I applied some herbal medicine I had foraged onto the entirety of dog-face’s back and then dressed the area, wrapping bandages around him. —The day was still young.
“Fur is nature’s armor…”
As he worried over his burned and apparently pained back, dog-face gave me an envious look.
Unlike dog-face, who was worn ragged, and Albus, who had slight yet noticeable scratches, I was without injury whatsoever.
“So? How’s little lady doin’?”
I looked at Albus, curled up in dog-face’s arms as if cold, while I skinned a rabbit I had caught in the forest. I had built a fire to warm the inside of the cavern, but falling in the river had been quite chilling. We had changed Albus into my dried cloak and dog-face had her always in his arms, but I didn’t expect a furless fallen beast’s embrace to be very warming.
I could have taken his place, but dog-face seemed like he would challenge me to a fight to the death were I to even touch a hair on Albus’s head, so I decided against it. I didn’t feel anything for the kid’s naked figure, though Albus was more or less a woman. —Probably a woman. Even looking at her in this state it was difficult to work out a sex.
In Albus’ words, Solena’s granddaughter was an attractive person with a voluptuous chest, but that most likely was only how she perceived herself to look.
“She’s fine. Just sleepin’ ‘cause she’s tired.”
“Good. But…why’d this kid pretend to be a boy and hide the fact that she’s Solena’s granddaughter?”
“Probably ‘cause Thirteenth was lookin’ for her, ’n probably ‘cause the Coven of Zero made her. Since ‘that person’ won’t show himself, little lady’s the heart of the Coven. If little lady were ta get killed, then the rest a’ Coven wouldn’t last one minute. It was probably decided that she shouldn’t tell anyone her true identity besides people she could trust entirely. On top of that, a lone woman travellin’ around’d draw suspicion of bein’ a witch.”
“Ah, right…” I said, slitting open the rabbit’s abdomen and pulling out its entrails.
“Uh—“ Dog-face exclaimed.
He seemed to have a problem with my move to throw the rabbit’s guts away.
“You ain’t gonna eat that?”
“I don’t eat raw meat.”
Dog-face adopted an unusually serious expression at this.
“…Have you felt like ya want to…eat humans?”
I didn’t respond.
We fallen beasts are guided by our bestial souls. Those of us who give up all sense of humanity and wholly become beasts end up consuming humans as feed.
Once a fallen beast has reached that point, they will have become nothing more than a monster.
“Have ya…eaten any?”
I laughed bitterly as I speared chunks of rabbit flesh with a branch and cooked the sizzling meat over the fire.
“I’m just barely holdin’ back. I can’t live on nothin’ but leaves, but even though raw meat makes me drool, it makes me want to vomit at the same time. That’s why I’m bad at fightin’ rough. I want ta avoid killin’ if I can help it.”
“What kinda bestial warrior doesn’t like killin’?”
“You ’n I are different in that I’m not in this body ‘cause I want ta be. I’m stuck with this way of livin’, so all I can do is make the best of what I’ve got. But even when we hold ourselves back, fallen beasts’ll always end up leavin’ a trail of bodies.”
It didn’t matter if I wanted to or not. To borrow Zero’s words, it was an intractable truth.
I sprinkled salt over the meat. The fire popped and glowed yellow.
Thinking back to Zero’s impatience, I looked over at Albus.
“—Save Zero…right?” I murmured. Albus stirred, and her eyes opened but slightly.
“Little lady!” Dog-face exclaimed, peering into Albus’ face.
Idiot, don’t do that just as she’s wakin’ up. We look like wild animals right now.
Sure enough, Albus screamed and punched dog-face in the mug, fleeing behind my back as if to escape the clutches of a monster.
“Why, little lady… I can’t believe when you saw me, someone who took care of you for all those years, you screamed and went for my bro, who I’ve known only since yesterday…”
“How was I supposed to know?! I can’t tell that it’s you on sight since you don’t have fur anymore!”
Wolfing down the rabbit flesh, Albus replied bluntly to dog-face.
Albus was sitting in my lap. She’d complained about being cold and grumbled about how it wasn’t fair that I had fur, and so we ended up like this.
Dog-face was glaring at me bitterly, but I wasn’t enjoying this anymore than he was.
“Plus, I was with mercenary recently, and I saw him at the square too.”
“What? W-wait little lady! What about me?!”
“Hm? Were you there?”
Dog-face slumped, seemingly heartbroken. He looked so pitiful, I decided to send him a lifeboat.
“The one that jumped in the burning straw, cut the ropes tying you to the pole, and saved ya from the explosion was this guy, ya know?”
Oh, Albus acknowledged quietly, looking at dog-face’s bandaged body.
“Besides, if he didn’t rush in ta save ya, I don’t know if I would’ve.”
I was indeed significantly motivated by dog-face’s actions. When I told Albus this, she gave dog-face a slightly guilty look, but immediately took on an unconciliatory attitude, like a spoiled child.
“It’s not like I asked you to save me…I didn’t really care if I died either way!”
“No, little lady! How could I face Solena again if I let you die?!”
“Grandma’s already dead, so you can live as you like!”
Dog-face’s ears weakly flopped down. This was a completely different dog-face from the dog-face who had had women wait on him at the inn.
“Don’t ya think it’s kinda rude ta say that you didn’t care whether you died or not after he’d saved you from gettin’ burned to death?”
“I wasn’t scared of a little thing like that!”
“Humans who’re immolated clench their teeth from their pain and fear, and those teeth then dig into their gums and shatter.”
Gulp, a small noise of fear leaked from Albus’ throat.
“Didja think that you’d get burned and die in an instant? First the heat would cook your windpipe and lungs, so you can’t breathe. Next would be your eyes. All of your weak spots’d get baked one by one. Your skin’d sizzle and split as it burned, and those newly exposed bits’d get seared by the fire too. You’d be lucky if you passed out, but if you didn’t, you’d struggle and suffer agony ‘till the moment you die. You’d scream, squirm and fracture your bones—“
“Stop, that’s enough!” Dog-face yelled. Give her some sympathy, his expression seemed to be saying, and I realized my slip of the tongue.
It was how Albus’ last surviving family member had died.
“My bad…I shouldn’t ‘ve said all that…”
“No…it’s fine. I’m alright,” Albus said, biting her lip. Her face was drained of color, her eyes were glistening and wavering, but she was just barely able to contain her tears. I admired Albus’ willpower. Her bravery and steadfastness were surely stronger than mine by far.
But even if it was in resistance against Thirteenth, it was a bit much.
“…Just what happened in the dungeon? You knew that goin’ against Thirteenth meant you’d be immolated, right?”
That Albus had found out something in the dungeon and rebelled against Thirteenth’s wishes was incontrovertible. When I asked her, Albus simply weakly shook her head.
“I had no other choice…’that person’ stole Zero’s book and killed all of Zero’s companions. I couldn’t go back to the Coven of Zero that ‘that person’ created, nor did I want to. But, Thirteenth is a pretty shitty man too!”
“That’s the thing, why do ya think that? He’s tryin’ ta clean up the mess the Book of Zero caused. He’s tryin’ ta protect Zero’s name from more harm.”
“That might be true…but all he cares about is that! He doesn’t care if all the witches in Wenias die, so long as he gets what he wants!”
“Thirteenth told me to lead the Coven of Zero into a trap. He said it was time to end the fighting…he would lay the trap, and then I was to lure everyone there. Thirteenth knew I was representing ‘that person’ as Solena’s granddaughter. That’s why he pulled that ploy at the academy: he was waiting for me to show myself.”
The conflict would then end, and when that happened—
I thought back to what Thirteenth had said to Zero. He saw the conclusion of the yearlong war, which was to be achieved through the demise of every witch in this kingdom.
“Thirteenth would use me to destroy the Coven of Zero, the wayward sorcerers—any and all witches who knew magic, because leaving the rampaging witches to their ways would continue to damage Zero’s name, or so he said…but that’s not right! Sure, there are witches who cause chaos, but there are also lots of witches who are fighting to be able to live peacefully, and witches who use magic in the way it was meant to be used…and just because he can’t tell them apart, Thirteenth would kill them all!”
“Yeah…maybe so,” I answered vaguely.
“It’s true!” Albus answered, indignant. “If he had told me to tell the Coven of Zero the truth about ‘that person’, and convince them to stop fighting, I would’ve helped. It figures that we should combine our power and get rid of just the wayward sorcerers, right? But Thirteenth said that wouldn’t work. That’s why I…”
Why she chose to burn at the stake, and gave a rallying cry to her comrades.
If Albus hadn’t done so, then there would simply be a one-sided slaughter by Thirteenth of the witches.
When Solena’s granddaughter, Albus, had shouted to “defeat Thirteenth for the sake of peace,” I doubt that there was a single person there whose heart was not the least bit moved. There was now a high likelihood that those witches “skilled in sorcery and possessed of power,” who had chosen to watch but not take action, would set out to overthrow Thirteenth.
If they were to join forces, even temporarily, with the Coven of Zero, I doubt that even Thirteenth could weather their assault without injury. Albus had sought that alliance.
“To start off, everyone will come together to defeat Thirteenth. Afterward, we would mop up the wayward sorcerers. And once we were done with that, we would request that the king put an end to the witch hunts, since we would have gotten rid of all the evildoing witches. From there on we would find and capture ‘that person’, and let Zero do whatever she wants with them.
“Good idea, right?” Albus appealed.
“Possibly,” I once again gave a nebulous answer. It just wasn’t going to be as simple as Albus described.
I understood Albus’ opposition toward Thirteenth, but to stop an explosively spreading art and its misuse would require the perfect governance of the people who used it, because otherwise there would be no choice but to kill them.
And Thirteenth had chosen to gather up all the magic users and slaughter them.
If Thirteenth, while enacting his murderous plan, were to clash with all the witches of the land, that would cause disorder utterly incomparable to anything history had ever seen.