Volume 1 — Chapter 6: Forbidden Spell
Though I still could not move, I grumbled as menacingly as I could. Thirteenth looked at me coldly.
“Was she a foolish and thoughtless witch? Did she want this war? Who set the stage for the Revels of Revenge? Who caused the plague?! Solena used her sorcery just ta save the village, didn’t she?!”
“Again, everything is the result of the choices of the witches of this land. A few witches who had learned magic became interested in its underlying sorcery, and conducted a test of plague sorcery. Thus, as anti-witch feelings were running high, it was obvious that performing a conspicuous ritual there would only ignite the people’s anger, regardless of whether the ritual was truly intended to cleanse the village of the affliction. It was Solena’s choice to disregard such dangers and proceed with her sorcery.”
Hey Dog-face. Your guess was way off. It wasn’t ‘that person’—Thirteenth—who spread the plague, just some wayward sorcerers. …Either way though, it was Thirteenth who made it possible in the first place.
Nevertheless, it was indeed Solena’s own choice. She knew that she would be wrongly accused if she saved the village, but did so regardless. I suppose one could call her a shortsighted witch.
“Fine…but what about Albus? Sure she chose to fight, ’n sure she’s impulsive, but she’s just a kid! They killed her parents, the family she loved—her mentors! So you get her on false charges, and when she doesn’t listen to ya, you treat her like nothin’ but a tool ‘n burn her at the stake?!”
Along with my cry of anger I strained my muscles, and my upper body rose a wee bit. A faint shadow of irritation fluttered past Thirteenth’s gaze. Those with anger in their hearts will fall to the mind of every other—was it?
Better not get mad then, Thirteenth. Do you not like how I spout facts and logic?
“Real picky, Thirteenth. Do ya just ignore facts that ain’t convenient for ya? What about you ’n Zero’s teacher? Her comrades? Were they foolish, shortsighted, and wanting war?!”
“To shun change and live a closed-off existence is also foolish! Each day was simply constant rehashing of circular arguments! She and the others halted all attempts at thought, and had died on the inside long ago. The singular exception was Zero. I proposed we direct our attention toward the outside world, provided some options, and tried persuasion. However, the answer I received was a stubborn no. They were afraid of Zero’s power, and wanted to stifle it.”
“Then what about Zero herself?!”
Thirteenth’s expression changed instantly. A deep furrow chiseled itself into his brow with clear malevolence and contempt. It seemed like jealousy to me. Ain’t it pleasant, Thirteenth. Bein’ jealous of someone like me.
Thanks to it—though just barely, I could move again.
“When’ve you ever given Zero any options, eh? Do ya even know what she wants? Look at her well, Thirteenth. Do ya think she approves of what you’re doin’? When’s she ever told ya, with a smile on her face, ‘thank you for killing those troublesome sorcerers back then’?!!”
For a moment, Thirteenth’s gaze darted from me to Zero. Taking advantage of his lapse, I got up and at the same time broke into a sprint.
I covered the distance between Thirteenth and myself in a flash and, grabbing at something in my bag, hurled it at him. The item flew past Thirteenth and shattered on the floor.
With but a cut on his cheek caused by a flying shard of glass, Thirteenth slashed his arm like a scythe and a bolt of lightning arced through the air, striking me. I fell to the ground.
Shouting, Zero reached out from between the bars of her birdcage. I wanted to take her hand, but this wasn’t the time. Just a little while longer.
“Ugh, it is such a pain to hold back…”
Thirteenth spat as if irritated. He held back on that lightning? I’d known for a long while that static shocks were unpleasant, but this one just now was real strong. I couldn’t get up.
—But eh, whatever.
Thirteenth suddenly struck his staff against the floor. As he etched a circle into the ground around him, thin tongues of flame burned around me. —A magic circle.
“You have committed no crime. With the resolve you showed by climbing a sheer cliff using but two knives for Zero’s sake, perhaps I would have welcomed you as Zero’s attendant in happier times. However—Zero has become far too engrossed in you.”
Through the thin veil of fire that separated us, I glowered at Thirteenth.
“She’d spent ten years alone, in a cave, after being abandoned, ’n you think it’s weird she’s engrossed after finally meetin’ a decent, honest person like herself…?! Don’t resent me, Thirteenth—and definitely don’t blame Zero, that’d just be barkin’ up the wrong tree. You stole Zero’s comrades from her, ‘n gave her loneliness and pain! Can ya imagine how starved she must’ve been for some conversation…how starved she must’ve been for some company?!”
“Everything was for Zero’s sake!”
“Don’t lie, Thirteenth! It was all for yourself! It was all ‘cause ya wanted it that way! There’s no hidin’ that!”
“You’ve been with her for a few days at best—and you think to understand her? You make me laugh!”
“Cut the bullshit! How could someone understand that gluttonous, lazy, cocky, selfish, common-sense-lacking, impulsive witch?! But, Thirteenth. I ain’t gonna let you shut up a beautiful woman like that with your intimidation, or stand there while ya piss her off or make her cry. I’m a man and a mercenary. It’s a man’s job to love women, ’n it’s a mercenary’s job to follow his client’s orders for pay! Oh, and I forgot to mention somethin’, Thirteenth!”
I bared my teeth and snarled.
“I don’t want that gift of yours. I’m still the witch’s mercenary, ’n my client never forgets to give me my pay. —That’s why I’m givin’ it back to ya.”
“That magic medicament ya gave me.”
Thirteenth paled and whirled to face the birdcage. Unfortunately, he was too late. The liquid from the broken glass bottle had already seeped onto the magic circle imprisoning Zero. With a final dull glow, the circle vanished from the floor.
Thirteenth began to say something, but was cut short by an explosion that threatened to burst my eardrums. The birdcage that had been Zero’s prison was blown to smithereens.
“—Actually, Mercenary, that’s called using it. Not giving it back.”
Brushing off bits of metal, Zero stepped out of the wreckage of the birdcage.
“Don’t go ruinin’ my good name. I tossed it back to him. Sadly, it broke on the ground when he dodged it. I guess he didn’t want it anymore. I ain’t got no fault for how that turned out.”
“Hm, a man with a demon’s tongue. —I don’t dislike that in the slightest.”
Cackling, Zero shook with laughter. Her emotion quickly vanished when she faced Thirteenth.
“—Thirteenth. My only brethren, and my final peer.”
“Retire, Zero. You stand no chance against me now.”
“So, you have taken every last bit of magical power from the witches you killed to bolster your own, Thirteenth? Do you forget the reason why I am Zero, and you Thirteenth?”
“It is an intractable reference value for a witch of the Murky Black—the nothingness from which comes everything. Nevertheless, knowledge and skill does at times surpass innate talent.”
“Then do you dare to test that claim? Thirteenth, I am but a bit displeased!”
As she spoke those words a rush of inky particles crowded about Zero, forming a magic circle in an instant. Thirteenth clucked his tongue in annoyance, and a second later conjured forth an identical magic circle. At the same time, the fire that surrounded me vanished. For all he could do, Thirteenth didn’t seem like he could maintain two skills at once.
Both simultaneously began chanting an incantation.
“Auldo, Geldo, Iin, Dei, Koa, Deya, Zeya—By the name of the sovereign of despair who gazes disdainfully forth from the crossroads of desire and thirst, I call forth from the murky black depths the Gate of Rot.”
Suddenly, the world changed. The chamber’s walls and floor began to rattle and crumble, and from the dark gaping maw that opened at my feet, something was—something which emanated an unbearable arctic chill was creeping up toward us.
I could feel the dread of death at the nape of my neck. Its jaws and teeth were tearing into my heart.
“Servant of strife bound by covenant of blood and flesh, descend now upon the fool’s debauch and feast!”
“Manservant of strife bound by covenant of blood and flesh, descend now upon the fool’s debauchery and feast!”
“The Forbidden Book, Final Verse—Segtol Meidis! Sanction this! I am he called Thirteenth!!”
“The Forbidden Book, Final Verse—Segtol Meidis! Sanction this! I declareth myself Zero!!”
And the darkness flowed forth.
The squirming darkness at Thirteenth and Zero’s backs surged mightily outward, each seeking to eat the other into oblivion as they swooped toward each other. They clashed in a frontal assault, and hell began as shadow consumed shadow. The air became pregnant with the smell of blood, flesh, death, battle—
I felt a violent urge to vomit surge upward. The two masses of darkness eating at each other were—both were masses of humans. They each devoured the other, each slaughtered the other, shouting, laughing.
Did Zero invent this magic? —What was the point of this? This was magic neither useful for hunting, nor protecting others, nor saving lives. Alongside the urge to vomit crept a fear that made me want to cry out and run away as far as I could. But where to? How?
Crunch, I heard a muted sound. I looked up, and my eyes went wide.
Thirteenth was gritting his teeth with a despairing look on his face. Zero in contrast was composed and smiling, her eyes filled with a deep, steadily wavering darkness.
To my surprise, Zero had Thirteenth completely outmatched. The colliding darkness steadily approached Thirteenth, and I could hear his teeth grate together.
“Impossible—this gap in power—!”
Cough, Thirteenth coughed up blood and somehow avoided falling to his knees.
He was pointing ahead as if exhorting the darkness onward, and as I watched, his outstretched finger split open and blood gushed from the wound.
—No, this couldn’t continue.
Thirteenth was going to die. —By Zero’s hand.
“Zero! That’s enough! It’s over!” I shouted at once. Just then, Thirteenth crumpled to his knees. Seeing the darkness sweep down on Thirteenth to consume him, I moved without thinking.
Why am I doing this for him?
It was too late for such thoughts. I covered Thirteenth and pushed us both to the ground, clenching my teeth, half-prepared to die.
It was my ambition as a man and a mercenary to die valiantly while guarding Zero. But to die protecting Thirteenth of all things, this was just comical. Whoosh, a gale carrying the stench of blood blew past, and silence returned. At this surprising turn of events, I remained collapsed on top of Thirteenth and timidly raised my head.
“What…? I’m alive—“
Thirteenth yelled, still pinned to the floor. The next moment, I was pushed away by a formidable force, and sent rolling across the ground.
What the heck happened? I thought as I approached Thirteenth’s figure, and there I saw Zero’s body, covered in blood.
—What had happened to Zero?
Zero had had the upper hand. Thirteenth had no way to win under those circumstances.
“W—what’s goin’ on?! How’s Zero hurt?”
“Do you still not understand?! Zero has taken on your burden. There must be a magical seal somewhere on your body signifying a bond with Zero!”
“I don’t got—“
Anythin’ of the sort, I was about to yell back when I started. I remembered that while I was bathing at the inn in Foamicaum, Zero had drawn something on me.
Could that—be it? She had told me I would thank her in the future, but this?
“To cut that bond between your souls and set Zero free, either she must release the spell, or you must perish in my bounded field. If it had been otherwise, I would have simply turned you into charcoal in an instant!”
I finally understood.
The night we were captured by Thirteenth—in other words the night I left Zero’s side—I was attacked by the witch Dog-Face helped along, and was run through the abdomen by magic. According to Albus, Zero coughed up blood and toppled over at roughly the same time.
I had taken a hit and was left with no wound, while Zero was injured in my stead.
—Hold your fire, you’ll hit Zero.
Thirteenth’s words then made sense now.