“It is an impostor pretending to be me,” Zero said, wearing a frown.
The priest nodded in agreement. “That is the most likely the case.”
“But not many people know my name. Only a select few, in fact. Thirteenth, you two, the lass in Wenias, the governor of Ideaverna, the Saint and Hawk of Akdios, and the King of Black Dragon Island. And one more person…”
“Sanare.” My voice turned bitter. Just uttering her name pissed me to the extreme, making me sick.
I wasn’t sure I’d call her a witch; she was more like an instant Mage. Recruited to the Coven of Zero for her transcription skills, she joined Cestum later, an organization born within the coven, and was now using the copies of the Grimoire of Zero to spread Magic to the world.
She was the only one person I could think of who would frame Zero.
“Mercenary,” Zero said. “Do you remember her parting words back in Black Dragon Island? It was clearly a provocation and a challenge.”
“Where should I take the book next? What should I do there? Maybe something’s already happening. If you’re curious, come after me.”
It made me sick just recalling it.
I huffed. “So where exactly is Sanare—I mean, the princess who got possessed by Sanare—right now?”
“It took us more than ten days to travel from Black Dragon Island to here. She was long gone from Lutra by then. In the first place, the couple said that the rumor about the leader of the Coven of Zero began spreading a month ago. We can assume that it is not Sanare, but still a plot by Cestum.”
“An organized effort to harass you? They must have a lot of time on their hands.”
“It is only a means to their goal.”
“To create a world of witches, was it?” the priest said, disgust in his voice.
“Yes,” Zero replied. Her voice was hard as well. “If I come to a place where there are rumors of a silver-haired witch, the Church will try to capture me. If you were not with us, the tip-off a while ago would have led to my arrest. Of course, me and Mercenary would not go down without a fight. What do you think would happen then?”
I stroked my chin. “The Church will be completely destroyed?”
“A war will begin.”
I blinked repeatedly. “Sorry, you lost me there. Can you please explain it to me, Madam? How can a fight with the Church turn into a war?”
“The Church against witches. It will be the return of the war that took place five hundred years ago.”
I stared blankly at Zero. I still had no idea what she was trying to say.
“Listen closely,” Zero added. “If I killed someone from the Church and ran away, the Church will come after me with all they have. Am I right?” She looked at the priest for confirmation.
The priest nodded. “The Church will never let a witch go, especially one who has harmed it.”
“Exactly. The Church will intensify the witch hunt so they could burn me at the stake. Then, witches in hiding from all over the world will be agitated by the crisis. If Cestum, using Magic as a weapon, raised an army, many witches will stand up to end the Church’s rule.”
“Then a war between witches and the Church will break out?” I asked.
“It is very likely.”
“Ridiculous,” the priest said. There was an edge to his voice. He sounded as if he was mocking the situation rather than denying it. “Even with their otherwordly Sorcery, witches suffered a crushing defeat against the Church five hundred years ago. Starting a war now, when their numbers had dwindled significantly, is foolish.”
“Magic can make up for the difference in force,” Zero said. “You saw what it could do at Black Dragon Island. Magic is something that even a child can use. I intended that.”
“If you wish to atone for your sins, how about accepting execution instead of running away?”
Before I could say anything, Zero smiled. “You should set your priorities straight, priest. If I die, who will stop Cestum?”
“The Church, of course.”
“Then you need a source of information. If you do not obtain information from a witch who is knowledgeable about Magic, you will be two or three steps behind Cestum. Am I wrong?”
The priest didn’t reply, but the vexation on his face was a firm affirmation.
“That is why you disclosed the information about the appearance of the Coven of Zero to us and why the Church gave you permission to accompany me. If Magic is involved in this matter with Cestum, do you not think this is too much for this Gravedigger? Currently, there is no other adjudicator in the Church who has as much exposure to Magic as you do.”
“You seem to be suggesting that you see through everything.”
“It is but a simple inference drawn from the given circumstances. I am, however, almost certain about it.” She sounded confident.
Zero waited for a response from the priest. I also stayed silent, waiting for the man to speak. Unable to stand our silence, he clicked his tongue for what seemed like the umpteenth time.
“This adjudicator from Dea Ignis you call Gravedigger is known in the Church as Corruption,” he said.
Gravediggers, as the name implied, dig graves to bury the dead. Disdained by the public, they have very low status in society. A member of the Church having that kind of a nickname meant they were quite infamous.
“Even within the Church, there are many who call them Gravedigger. When I went to the cathedral, Corruption was there. They told me that someone informed them about the location of the coven’s lair and of the Grimoire of Zero stored there.”
“What?!” Zero and I exclaimed at the same time.
“Who informed them?” I asked.
I felt a chill run down my back. When it came to talking corpses, there was only one name that came to mind.
Zero’s expression stiffened. “Sanare herself made contact with the Gravedigger and told them of the copy?”
“Apparently,” the priest said. “It doesn’t sound good, does it?”
The mention of the grimoire’s copy wasn’t exactly surprising, considering Cestum was invovled. The problem was that Sanare left it behind. What’s more, she told an adjudicator where it was. They were clearly plotting something heinous.
“Taking into account what occured in Akdios and Black Dragon Island, the Church has deemed it risky to let Corruption, who has not encountered Cestum or Magic, handle the task. So, I was given orders to keep an eye on Corruption, take down the false Zero, and take the copy of the grimoire.”
Zero froze. Her sudden stillness caught the priest’s attention. “Is something wrong?” he said.
“Did you say “take” and not “dispose”? Zero asked.
“There is no safer place in the world than the Church’s treasury. Once all the copies are stored inside, there will be no more worries about Magic spreading through the books. The Church will also be able to take countermeasures if they gain understanding of Magic.”
“Now that is interesting. How do you know the Church will not misuse the copy?”
Tension crackled through the air. Zero was fundamentally indifferent towards priests and the Church, but she would occasionally say something criticizing.
“I do not trust the Church, priest,” Zero said. “Five hundred years ago, the Church designated witches as enemies in order to rule the world. The Church can reign as the righteous guardian of world order because it has a clear enemy: witches. In the future, when all witches have died out, if the Grimoire of Zero is in the hands of the Church, they will create witches themselves to demonstrate their own righteousness.”
“What the Church wants is peace and harmony,” the priest replied. “The Church started the war solely out of necessity. Because evil witches brought fear and chaos to the world.”
“Did the Church say that?”
The priest frowned. “All of history says so. Anyway, Corruption has already been tasked to killed the witches and take the copy, and I have been given the same orders. They told me to do everything I can. That’s how dangerous the Church considers Magic to be, and I think it’s the right mindset.”
There was a rattling sound, followed by the floor door opening. We all shut our mouths, and Credo poked his head from below, pulling a heavy bunch of cloths.
“Sorry for bothering you this late,” he said. “I brought some blankets.” He eyed the priest with an awkward look. “Father, are you sure about staying in the attic? I still don’t think it’s a good idea to let a churchman stay up here.”
“People of the Church value honorable poverty,” the priest said. “Please don’t worry about it. In fact, I think that a priest who suddenly barges in and takes the room of the home owner should start over as an apprentice.”
“I mean, this guy should be staying at the church or something anyway,” I cut in. “He could’ve used his status as a priest to stay anywhere, but he chose to stay here, so there’s no need to worry about him.”
“But, um… I don’t know how to put this, but we won’t be punished later for ridiculing a priest or something, right?
The priest’s expression stiffened a little. Just a moment ago, Zero said she didn’t trust the Church. Now even Credo doubted his sincerity. He probably felt uncomfortable.
“I swear to God,” the priest said. “You have nothing but my gratitude.”
“I guess that’s fine, then. I’ll drop by tomorrow once breakfast is ready. Good night.”
“One last thing,” Zero said as Credo was about to leave. “I have a question about this silver-haired woman. What kind of rumors have you heard about her and the Coven of Zero?”
“I’m not sure how to answer that.”
“They used Magic, did they not? What did they use it for? How? The rumors should have told you something.”
“Well, yeah… A little.” Credo shot the priest an uneasy glance.
The priest met Credo’s gaze and simply said, “The truth, please.”
Credo pulled his upper body off the floor and stroked his stubble. Reluctantly, he opened his mouth.
“I heard they saved the village. An epidemic ravaged the place, and all the workers collapsed, so they couldn’t harvest their crops. Apparently the witches harvested the crops instead using some kind of strange power. Thanks to them, the villagers didn’t starve to death. But of course, a part of the harvest was given to the Church as tax.”
I facepalmed. “They seriously handed over crops harvested by witches to the Church? That would explain the witch hunt.”
“Lutra has a cathedral and a lot of devout believers. A villager told someone by accident and the whole matter was reported to the Church. Some people escaped from the village, but the Knights Templar caught them. Their bodies are still in the square in front of Lutra’s city hall.”
The Church shows no mercy on both witches and those who cooperate with them. They grant clemency to those who were deceived by witches, but running away is tantamount to an admission of guilt.
But staying in the village wouldn’t guarantee their safety either. If the witches could not be found, the villagers would be charged with the crime of harboring them and subjected to torturous interrogation. Running away and staying both ended in torment. That’s why people stayed away from witches.
They were probably in a desperate situation where the only way to survive was to rely on witches. There were sick people who couldn’t move, and crops that were rotting away. Taxes had to be paid and the sick needed medicine.
Zero glanced at the priest, who was wearing a look of disbelief. It was understandable. In his mind, witches are evil who would never perform good deeds. He even suspected that Zero was simply concealing an evil heart deep within.
“Everyone… Well, actually I am not scared of witches,” Credo continued. “I’m just afraid of getting caught up in a witch hunt. It’s none of our business what the witches did. It’s not fair, though. If you’ll excuse me.” Credo descended from the attic.
“See?” A childlike, yet sharp smile spread across Zero’s face. “The people do not trust the Church.”