Most of the kingdom of Wenias was untouched forests. Some of them were open to hunters for hunting, while some were protected areas where entry was severely restricted.
Thirteenth was currently standing in the middle of a protected forest not far from the royal capital of Plasta.
He had left the castle in pursuit of Albus. After walking through the woods for a while, her presence suddenly disappeared.
He tried to detect her magical power, but it didn’t work. There was no trace of her, as if she simply vanished from the world.
Thirteenth took a few random steps. When he realized that he was subconsciously turning back the way he had come, he finally understood what was going on.
“So this is the place.”
He had expected this. There was no other place where Albus’ mind could be at ease than Solena’s lair, but now that he was facing it, he realized how terribly troublesome it was.
Solena’s lair drew in those who needed help. Those who did not need salvation could never enter her domain, no matter how many they were.
The great witch had set up a living ward.
As the forest grew in complexity and power over the course of centuries, the ward could no longer be sensed. Even if the forest was destroyed by force, the area within the ward would still remain, unperceived.
Solena lived in this forest long before Wenias became known as the center of the continent.
It wasn’t that Solena’s forest was located near the royal capital. A town was built near the forest, and eventually it became the capital. That’s how important Solena was to the Kingdom of Wenias.
The ward still remained even after Solena’s death, as if to say that the body was just an ornament of the soul for her. It fueled Thirteen’s awe and reverence for the old witch.
Even now, he could definitely feel the presence of Solena here. This forest was her sanctuary.
But a vermin had infiltrated it, a vermin that must be exterminated.
“Do you hear my voice, great Solena?” Thirteenth called.
There was no answer, only the slight rustling of leaves, spreading like a whisper through the dark forest.
Thirteenth thrust his staff into the ground and stretched out his remaining right arm to the sky. “I am aware that I am not fit to enter your sanctuary, but I beg you to lead me to your descendant.”
A soft breeze brushed Thirteenth’s fingertips.
Feeling a push on his back, Thirteenth started walking. A red flower had fallen at his feet. It must have been the wind.
He looked up to see red flowers falling in the forest. They seemed to be guiding him somewhere. He followed the flowers.
Before he had gone very far, he spotted someone running from the opposite side. They stopped quite a distance away from him.
The figure twitched its nose and let out a groan. “You look different, but I recognize that scent. You’re Thirteenth, aren’t you?”
It was a white-furred wolf Beastfallen. His name was Holdem, Albus’s attendant and a formal knight of the castle.
“The Mooncaller’s servant,” Thirteenth muttered.
“I’m Solena’s servant,” Holdem corrected. “I thought there was something wrong with the young lady. So it’s because of you. What did you do to her?!”
“Show me to Solena’s lair,” Thirteenth demanded, ignoring the Beastfallen’s question.
Holdem gave a menacing frown, then suddenly relaxed when he saw the red flower at his feet. “Solena always dropped a flower like this when she called me back into the forest. And now those flowers are surrounding you.”
Thirteenth directed his gaze to his feet for the first time. Only his path was stained red. It looked like a carpet made of flowers.
“So you noticed Solena’s soul,” Thirteenth said.
Holdem let his ears droop. “I’ve been a witch’s servant for a long time, but this is the first time I’ve ever been so sure that she’s there. It seems Solena wanted me to come to you.”
“To kill me?”
Holdem laughed. “Solena never once ordered me to fight, and she would never tell me to sacrifice myself by fighting someone clearly stronger than me. I don’t like you, but Solena wants me to be your guide.” He walked past Thirteenth.
A breeze brushed Holdem’s cheek. He watched it with nostalgic eyes.
“Are you going to kill the young lady?” Holdem asked as they walked through the woods.
Thirteenth knew that even if he didn’t answer the question, Holdem would still guide him, but he did anyway. “No.”
“So you’re gonna lock her up forever in the castle?”
“So no charges, then.”
There was a short pause. “No.”
Albus would be forced to step down from her position as Chief Mage. Although she was deceived by Sanare, she herself made the decision to wage war against the Church.
No matter how legitimate her reasons were, the Church would not allow Albus’s presence in the peace talks.
Thirteenth, with his name and appearance changed, would oversee the Mages of Wenias. Fortunately, a rumor had spread in the kingdom that a silver-haired sorcerer was gathering Mages.
The best course of action would be for him to claim to be the sorcerer and make it look like he killed Thirteenth and saved the king.
Needless to say, the Church would strongly condemn Albus for executing the sons of noblemen, who were followers of the Church themselves, and detaining the bigwigs from the neighboring nations.
But the groundwork had already been laid for that. If they could effectively use the “hidden gem” that Albus had been holding, they should be able to bring this war to an early end on the promise of huge reparations, some restrictions on the Magical State, and allowing intervention in domestic affairs, as dishonorable as that sounded. Of course, they had no intention of paying for everything.
No one, not even the Church, wanted a drawn-out war against Wenias. The kingdom couldn’t lose this war with a total surrender, however. The important thing was to use this war as an opportunity to make peace with the Church.
“Did you not notice anything?” Thirteenth suddenly asked.
“You mean about her grandma?”
“Yes.” Thirteenth nodded, considerably surprised that the Beastfallen gave an immediate answer. What’s more, he hit the mark.
“I did,” Holdem added. “I mean, the young lady told me. She took me to the hideout, saying that her grandmother had returned. Apparently, a doll was talking. I didn’t actually see the doll talking, but anyway, I didn’t think Solena would possess a doll. I told the young lady that it wasn’t Solena. After that she started keeping me away from her and the lair.”
“How foolish,” Thirteenth spat out.
They were fools. Albus, for distancing herself from her only clear ally. Holdem, for not convincing Albus, even it meant the young lady snubbing him.
Thirteenth, too, for not noticing the situation and letting Sanare snatch Albus away.
“I’m useless,” Holdem muttered to himself. Suddenly a hard nut fell on his head. The Beastfallen crouched down, holding his head. “Ouch! Where’d that come from?!”
“Witches do not like it when their servants are being looked down upon,” Thirteenth said. “If you value your life, do not call the servants of the great Solena ‘useless’, as true as that may be—”
There was a dull thud, and a nut fell right at Thirteen’s feet. The assiduous Thirteenth shut his mouth quietly.
Holdem picked up the nut that had struck him on the head and smiled bitterly. “If it weren’t for you, Solena would still be alive.” His tone was not reproachful. He simply lamented Solena’s death.
“You’re right,” Thirteenth agreed.
“I’ll never forgive you, but you can help the young lady.” He didn’t even bother asking. His was a firm declaration.
Thirteenth nodded silently.
“Dawn’s breaking soon. The lair is just around the corner.” Holdem started walking again.