Albus raced through the forest and burst into the lair, rushing immediately to the doll. No words came out of her mouth.
Holding the doll to her chest, Albus sank down on the floor. “Grandma. Are you listening? What should I do?”
The doll didn’t answer.
Still, Albus continued talking. “His Majesty came back… with Thirteenth! He’s acting like I did a bad thing. There’s a reason for us to start a war with the Church, but he doesn’t understand that. If he thought about it even a little bit, he should know that now is the time to fight! Don’t you think so, Grandma?”
It was the doll who encouraged Albus in the first place.
When it heard that Thirteenth would not return the prince to the castle, the doll said, “That’s strange.”
If the prince did not return to the castle, people would inevitably suspect that Albus was planning to take over the kingdom. The doll thought that was Thirteenth’s plan.
As a matter of fact, everything went according to the doll’s prediction. Albus’s position was rapidly worsening, and it was only a matter of time before the people, incited by the Church, would start pushing to kill witches.
“If only the Church wasn’t around,” the doll had said. “If only we could get them out of the kingdom, we could live in isolation.”
A war would break out sooner or later, anyway. Rather than panicking when the Church suddenly attacked, it would be better to start the war from the witches’ side, resulting in fewer casualties.
It was the ideal response, based on sound logic. If only Thirteenth hadn’t gotten in the way, everything would have been fine, but why couldn’t the king see that?
“Don’t cry, sweetie. You’re a strong witch, aren’t you?”
A hand made of cloth brushed Albus’ eyes, and she looked up.
“You said the prince returned to the castle to take the throne? And he brought Thirteenth with him?”
Realizing that the doll had been listening to her, Albus nodded repeatedly. “Yeah, that’s right! He said the war must be stopped. I’m sure he’s going to release all the hostages too. They’re our precious bargaining chips to keep the Church’s allies in check!”
“Oh, you poor thing. It sounds like the king had been completely brainwashed by Thirteenth.” The dool shook its head slowly.
The discomfort that had been lurking in Albus’s chest instantly vanished. “I see,” she muttered, and heaved a sigh of relief.
Thirteenth deceived him. He took the prince away, brainwashed him, and then returned him to the castle as king.
I knew it. Thirteenth’s the enemy.
“I… I have to wake His Majesty up! Make him come back to his senses!” Albus stood up.
The answer was there if she just put her brain to work. Running away all shaken was exactly what Thirteenth wanted.
“Unfortunately, Thirteenth is a terrifying sorcerer,” the doll said. “It’s not going to be easy. The kingdom will be ravaged before you can even undo the brainwashing.”
“Then what should I do?!”
“Oh, sweetie. I don’t want to say it. You’re so nice. It’ll only destroy you.”
“It won’t. Tell me, Grandma. I can do it.”
“But…” The doll paused.
“Please,” Albus urged.
After pondering it over for a while, the doll sighed, and reluctantly told Albus what she had to do.
“You have to kill the king.”
Albus stared blankly at the doll, speechless.
“Wh-What are you saying?”
“Killing Thirteenth is difficult, but you can assassinate the king, can’t you? You will carry out what the gossips have been whispering about. You can protect the kingdom if you kill him.”
“I-I can’t! That would be usurping the throne! I’m not even popular. If I do that, no one will follow me!”
“But no one can kill you, either. If you die, the wards around Wenias will disappear. With the one thing keeping the amateur witches in check gone, they will go on a rampage. Do you think helpless humans who can’t use Magic would want that?”
“I can’t! The old witches would never allow it!”
“They will. The old witches and the Mages will follow you. You are, after all, the descendant of the great Solena.”
Albus dropped the doll. For the first time, it called herself Solena. Something felt odd.
“Amateur witches might not know this, but the great Solena is a title that others called her,” said a low voice. “A witch would never utter her own title.”
Albus jumped. She was in the sacred forest of Solena. No one but those seeking salvation could enter this place.
“Thirteenth?!” Albus shrieked. “What are you doing here?!” Her eyes darted to the white wolf Beastfallen standing behind him, and was stunned.
Did he bring him here?
Albus’s hair rose. “Holdem! How dare you?!”
The Beastfallen did not flinch. He simply shrugged, not showing any remorse. “Solena’s orders, young lady,” he said.
It was a line that Holdem often said to drag Albus back to the house when Solena was still alive.
Solena’s orders eclipsed Albus’s orders.
Glaring at Holdem, Albus picked up the doll she dropped. “Lies! Grandma’s been here the whole time! She wouldn’t have given you the order!”
“I keep telling you, young lady, that thing’s not Solena!” Holdem yelled. “How can you not see that?!”
Albus’s throat tightened. This was the first time that Holdem had ever raised his voice at her.
Albus looked down at the doll in her hands. It was a memento made by Solena herself. It moved and talked. It understood Albus’s worries and helped her. If it wasn’t Solena, then who was it?
“If she’s not my grandma, she couldn’t have entered this place,” she said.
“There are hidden paths,” Thirteenth said. “The beast warrior leading me here is proof of that. And a departed soul should be able to see other passages invisible to us.”
“Shut up! What do you think you know about this place?! Nothing! You killed my grandma!”
There was a sudden, out-of-place laughter. Albus realized that it came from the doll she was holding. She looked puzzled.
The doll shuddered, wriggled, and finally guffawed. “Oh, dear me. You made me laugh so hard. It’s all ruined now.”
“What is it, sweetie? Foolish child! Everyone is trying so hard to help you, but you look like a baby crying ‘Grandma! Grandma!’ I thought I could use you a little longer, but I guess not. I don’t stand a chance against Thirteenth. I can’t babysit you anymore, now that he’s here.”
The doll let out a crude laughter, like its personality changed completely. It twisted out of Albus’ hands, rolled to the floor, and stood up. “Ta-da!” It spread its hands wide. “Nice to meet you, Albus the Mooncaller Witch. I’m a member of Cestum and a student of our founder. My name is Sanare. I was tasked with the mission of tricking you into starting and intensifying the war between the Kingdom of Wenias and the Church!”
Albus staggered, bumped into a table, and crumpled to the floor. Her throat twitched with discomfort, as if a lump of rotting flesh had been shoved into the pit of her stomach. She could barely breathe. She felt extremely nauseous, but she couldn’t throw anything up.
Holdem rushed to her side and held her shoulders. She was grabbing her own chest, struggling to breathe. Albus tried to shake the Beastfallen off, but she didn’t have the strength to do so. When he rubbed her back, she burst to tears.
“I see,” Thirteenth said. “I am less trustworthy than this one.” He let out a sigh and shook his head. Then with a snap of his fingers, a small Magic circle instantly formed on the doll’s hat.
The doll—Sanare—tumbled down from the force. She touched her hat, head tilted in confusion.
“What’s going on?” she said. “What kind of a game is this?”
“I shut you inside that doll. I need to ask you some questions. It’s not a very complicated ward.”
Etching a warding on a doll at a distance in a matter of seconds was not something that any ordinary witch or sorcerer could do.
However, the ward would disappear once the doll was burned. “Amazing,” Sanare said. She did not seem to be flustered. “I expected as much from you, Thirteenth. Even the Boss was impressed with your speed and accuracy in drawing Magic circles. Your ability to transcribe and expand wards that covered the whole Kingdom of Wenias! As a former member of the Coven of Zero, I can’t help but feel proud!”
“It’s no use provoking me. You said that your goal was to wage war against the Church, but the witches don’t have the power to fight the Church yet. However, your leader is not so foolish as to wage an all-out war against the Church without a chance of victory.”
“Oh, you want to know about our odds? If I tell you, will you side with us?”
“Let’s hear it.” It was neither an affirmation nor a denial.