Translator: Kell | Editor: Ryunakama
So soft. So warm. So fragrant.
It was an oddly pleasant morning, and I seemed to be embracing something. I opened my bleary eyes to see the extinguished bonfire and the blackened ground underneath it. My mind told me something happened last night, but I couldn’t recall a single thing. I thought it had something to do with witches.
Then I heard a groan coming from my arms. Oh, a witch.
“Wait, what the hell?!”
In an instant, I was wide awake. I heard a squeal, like a frog being crushed, as I jumped to my feet. Glancing around, I spotted the witch—Zero—in her horribly tattered cloak lying sprawled on the ground like a corpse after I accidentally sent her flying. Her hood had come off, exposing her breathtaking beauty under the morning sun.
Apparently the concept of age and gender didn’t apply to those gifted with extraordinary beauty. Zero, who appeared to be androgynous, possessed both the pure innocence of a young maiden and the allure of a prostitute. It made me feel awfully uncomfortable.
“Wh-Wh-What the hell are you doing?!” I screamed.
Zero opened her eyes slightly, still half-asleep, and fumbled around as though searching for something. She then frowned, clearly grumpy.
“Fur…” she muttered.
“So cold… I need my warm and fluffy fur…”
“Wake up!” I snapped, smacking her on the head.
Zero yelped as she leapt to her feet. “That hurt! Why would you hit me?! I was simply sleeping.”
“I don’t care! How and where were you sleeping?!”
“How… Where?” she repeated drowsily as she rubbed her head. “Hmm… I believe I crawled under your cloak and slept buried in your fur.”
“It was a rhetorical question! Can’t you see I’m mad at you?! Now apologize!”
“It is too early to be shouting. Your vicious face and terrifying voice will scare all the animals and cause the forest to wither. What are you so angry about anyway?”
Zero yawned. Squinting at the brightness, she put her hood back on. She looked suspicious with half of her face hidden underneath, but now I could finally relax. Excessive beauty was not good for the eyes.
“You are unhappy that I encroached upon your personal space? I had no choice. You have fur, while I do not—only bare skin that cannot keep the cold away. Or are you suggesting that I sleep out in the cold while you sleep cosily?”
“It’s not like I wished to have fur…”
“That is beside the point. I am talking about hard facts. Besides, I am sure you found the experience to be quite delightful, no?” A subtle smile danced on her lips.
I recalled the soft and warm sensation I felt when I woke up, and I was speechless for a moment. Zero nodded in satisfaction, as if reading my mind.
“Sleeping alone is both cold and lonesome. If you have a companion, it is only logical to sleep together. More than anything, you were able to sleep with a stunning woman. Rather than being angry, you should be thanking me.”
“Did you really just call yourself “stunning”?”
“It is a hard fact.” She repeated her words with a smug look.
I clicked my tongue. “Don’t witches have any modesty or shame?”
“You must discard such things if you wish to be a witch. Oh, did you perhaps find me arousing?” she asked in a strangely delighted tone.
“Hell no!” I snapped. I think I didn’t. No, definitely not.
“What a bore,” she mumbled, clearly disappointed. “I do not see any problem, then. Just think of me as an inorganic material. You are a bed, and I am a body pillow. Both parties will benefit from this arrangement. So we have an agreement.”
“You didn’t even ask me for my opinion! I—”
“You are my mercenary, are you not? Mercenaries should obey their employers.”
She had a point. But the thought of cuddling with a pretty lady every night made me feel more restless than happy. Then out of nowhere, Zero’s stomach rumbled, breaking the silence.
“I am hungry, Mercenary,” she said, her gaze fixed on me.
I dropped my shoulders. Arguing with someone like her is stupid and pointless. I have that bird I caught last night.
“Will roasted meat do?” I asked.
Zero’s mouth curved into a slovenly smile. “Make it quick!” she urged.
“I was supposed to help with the witch hunt, but somehow I ended up escorting one.” If I told this story at some pub, it would surely elicit laughter from the crowd. Of course, I wouldn’t dare mention it, unless I wanted to get burned at the stake together with Zero.
While I prepared the bird for roasting, I discussed future plans with Zero. I had no idea where we were headed to begin with. Verifying what the job entailed was necessary. Zero, however, didn’t know a single thing about Wenias, so we had to rely on the map to confirm our destination.
“Where are we right now?” she asked, tilting her head.
I pointed at an area on the map with my claw. Nodding, Zero traced her slender finger from our current location to the north—about the length of two fingers—to the capital Plasta.
“Thirteenth is most likely around here,” she said indifferently. “I can feel it.”
Well, that’s just great. Plasta was my original destination, where I was supposed to assist with the witch hunt. The royal capital recruiting Beastfallen suggested that skirmishes with the witches had reached all the way to the center of the kingdom. Escorting a witch there would have dire consequences.
“Wenias is in a state of war against witches. I doubt there would be a sorcerer right in the capital. Maybe you’re just mistaken—”
“We should only consider conclusions based on facts, not speculations based on common sense. I have been following Thirteenth’s mana trail. I am certain he is around here.” Zero nodded with conviction.
I guess we’re going to Plasta, then. What’s this Thirteenth fellow doing in the middle of all this anyway?
“He sounds more and more suspicious to me. How can you be so sure he’s not helping take over the kingdom?”
“Thirteenth is indolent. He knows taking over the kingdom will only result in more work.”
“Then what’s he doing here?”
“I told you, he is looking for a book. From its contents, it is logical to search for it where the rebellion is happening.”
“Riiight, the book that could destroy the world,” I said in a mocking tone without realizing it. Zero, however, simply nodded, unconcerned. Her silence seemed to give her words a strange sense of credibility, and it sent a chill down my back.
With prep done, I thrust a stick through the bird, planted it on the ground, and began roasting it over the bonfire. Zero stared at the meat with enthusiasm.
“So, what kind of book is it?” I asked. “You said it could destroy the world.”
Zero pulled her eyes away from the bird and looked at me with a proud smile on her face. “It is written in unfading ink, on parchment that has been treated with the finest perfume. The cover is made of ebony, so shiny that you can see your own reflection, and the hinge is made of gold. With its extremely delicate ornaments, one look and anyone would—”
“I’m not asking you what it looks like! I’m asking about the contents!”
I suppose knowing the appearance is crucial when looking for something, but that’s not what I want to know right now.
“It is a beautiful book,” Zero muttered, pouting her lips. “I doubt you would understand even if I explained it to you.”
“I guess you’re not really that good if people can’t understand your explanation.”
Zero regarded me silently. I held her gaze, and we glared at each other for several seconds.
“How much do you know about Sorcery?” she asked abruptly.
Looks like I won, I thought. “I don’t know much. Only that you summon demons to cause supernatural phenomena.”
“That is correct. Are you aware of the process?”
“You draw a summoning circle, recite an incantation, and offer a sacrifice,” I said fluently.
Zero nodded with satisfaction. “Yes. Then we negotiate with the summoned demon to bring about a miracle. That is Sorcery.”
Even people who were not familiar with Sorcery knew this much. In fact, it was common knowledge. This was because witches were portrayed as villains in the Church’s sermons and children’s books.
“Then what do you think of the arrow of light used against you last night? We call that Steim, by the way.”
I’m not sure.
Zero smiled at my silence. “No need to think too hard. You were shocked, yes?”
“Uh, yeah… I guess.”
“Humans, my dear Mercenary, find the unexpected shocking. Their minds tell them “this should not be happening.”
The “arrow of light” that the witch used and the “box made of earth” that Zero summoned completely shredded conventional knowledge about Sorcery. I doubt they could draw summoning circles while running, and it didn’t seem like they were offering sacrifices on the fly. Of course, I didn’t spot any demons either. I had heard rumors recently of witches using a strange kind of Sorcery, but what I witnessed was completely unexpected.
“So I was wrong?” I asked.
“Not at all. But what was common knowledge is no longer applicable. Strictly speaking, Steim is not Sorcery.”
Then what the hell is it? Before I could ask the question, Zero gave me the answer.
“It is not Sorcery, but Magic.”
“Ma… jick?” I repeated the unfamiliar word. But uttering it didn’t help me understand its meaning. I must’ve been wearing a bizarre look as Zero let out a chuckle.
“What’s so funny?!”
“I did not expect a brute like you to make such an adorable face.”
“A-Adorable?! Why, you…”
“No need to feel embarrassed. You look more and more adorable. Oh, how I want to embrace you tight.”
Calling a mercenary like me adorable was nothing short of insulting. Hoping to hide my embarrassment, I sprinkled crushed, dried herbs and salt on the meat as it started to smell good. Yellow sparks danced as salt fell onto the fire.
“You do not have to worry about a thing. I will explain it properly. Being called “not good” would be a disgrace to the Murky Darkness name. But before I get into detail, we must be on the same page first. What exactly is Sorcery? One cannot speak of Magic without first knowing what Sorcery is.”
Zero picked up a branch and started drawing a strange symbol on the ground. As soon as she finished, she drew another one beside it, and another one until eventually they formed a circle.
“A summoning circle?”
“Yes. A circle is absolutely required when summoning a demon. It is a sanctuary for the witch and has the power to strengthen their mind. Above all, it has the crucial role of protecting the caster from the demon that they summon.”
Zero drew a circle around the symbols so perfect that it was hard to believe a human could have drawn it with a tree branch. After adding four small circles at equal intervals within the circle, she then wrote letters and symbols I couldn’t comprehend in great detail.