Translator: Kell | Editor: Ryunakama
Matter? I didn’t need to finish my question. The answer lay right below me. At the foot of the hill was a town, most likely Latette. There weren’t a lot of buildings that stood out—only the church in the middle of town, and the public square. The rest were unorganized rows of shops and houses of various colors and shapes. It would take less than thirty minutes to walk from one end of the town to another. With an approximate population of two thousand, it looked like a miniature garden compared to Plasta that boasted fifty thousand residents.
Buildings grew sparser the farther away from the center, eventually giving way to wide, but empty pastures, where not one animal grazed. Latette lay still as a grave. It was immediately apparent that the town was attacked.
“No… It can’t be! Why?! Why?! Why?!”
“Hey, wait! It’s dangerous down there!”
Albus himself knew not the answer to his question. Before I could stop him, he rushed down the hill hysterically without stopping.
If the town was raided by bandits, some of them could still be lingering around. Even if that wasn’t the case, it could still be dangerous as vile scavengers usually prowled ravaged places. Most of all, there is bound to be corpses. Being a sorcerer didn’t change the fact that he was still just a kid, and kids should not be near such places.
“Damn it. What a pain in the ass.”
Without much of a choice, I carried Zero and descended down the hill. Cold sweat ran down my back as the bad feeling in my gut and the eerie atmosphere grew ever stronger.
“Fear not, Mercenary. I told you,” Zero tapped my head. “I will protect you.”
I glanced at her. On her face was a smile filled with confidence. Damn it, me. How could you let the words of a witch ease your worries? And you call yourself a mercenary?
We followed Albus into town, and what waited for us was a scene far ghastlier than what I could glean from atop the hill. I grimaced. Bodies, bodies, and more bodies. All around us lay the dead, strewn among the crumbled walls and fallen signboards. Amid the sea of blood and corpses, Albus stood blankly, his golden, absent eyes fixed on the lifeless bodies sprawled on the streets.
“You shouldn’t look at them—” Too much. Albus’s shoulder jerked. “Must’ve been bandits,” I said. “Though it usually isn’t this awful. They were just unlucky.”
“Bandits…” Albus mumbled, his golden eyes trembling. His mouth curved into a self-depreciating smile. “Is that what it looks like?”
I regarded the figure he was staring at. Just a corpse burned beyond recognition. Whether it was a man or a woman, I couldn’t tell. There were, however, clear signs of them struggling desperately to douse the flames, indicating they were burned alive.
But something was off. Despite the number of burnt corpses, the town was relatively unscathed. Flames naturally don’t possess any sort of will. They don’t choose their target. Once ablaze, they would’ve engulfed the whole town and razed it to the ground. Yet from the looks of it, the fire seemed to have targeted the humans specifically. A burning man would’ve run around, inevitably spreading the fire, but not one house was burned down.
“No way… Magic?” I muttered.
Zero nodded. “Flagis, most likely,” she said. “It is a spell that sets fire only to the caster’s target. You can use it in the middle of a forest or a town, and the fire will never spread. This town was attacked by witches, it seems.”
So this is the town the gatekeeper was referring to. I was aware that the kingdom was at war with witches, the latter sometimes raiding settlements, but this was the first time I laid eyes on a town ravaged by witches. I didn’t know it could be so gruesome.
Bodies littered the streets like garbage. Homes showed signs of being looted. All I could think of was magic-wielding bandits committed this atrocity.
“But why?” I asked. “If the entrance to the Coven’s lair is in this town, witches should be protecting it, not attacking it.”
“There’s more than one group of magic-wielding witches out there,” Albus said in a low, strained voice.
My eyes widened. As far as I knew, there was only one group of sorcerers, the Coven of Zero, and they were staging a revolt against the kingdom, running amok. But from what I’ve heard from Albus, and from what I’ve seen of him personally, the Coven of Zero fought only to protect witches. Yet my intel and this carnage before me suggested there were witches using magic to slaughter and pillage.
“So there are other covens like the Coven of Zero?”
“No! We are not the same! They’re more like bandits, and they came here to steal the book. They attacked the town and then took advantage of the chaos to invade the campus…”
“What do you mean they’re like bandits? I thought the Coven housed the Grimoire of Zero. How did they even learn Magic— Hey, wait!”
Ignoring my question, Albus bolted once more, most likely to confirm the campus’ safety. I hesitated for a moment and glanced at Zero. She was standing quietly still.
“What are you—”
Gonna do now? What should we do? What’s going on? Too many questions, but not one left my mouth. Zero’s face was cold as ice, still as a doll.
“I did not know it could be used like this…” Zero muttered.
Crumbling houses. Fallen signboards. Burnt corpses. She eyed all of them before she began walking slowly, going after Albus.
Albus rushed into a very old church. We passed through a wrecked gate and entered the dilapidated chapel. God’s house was in a horrible state. Pews in disarray. Pieces of broken glass from the window scattered across the floor. Bodies lay sprawled here too. From a cursory glance, there were six of them.
But unlike the corpses outside—massacred victims who desperately tried to escape—the six here showed signs of fighting. Two of the corpses wore chokers embedded with red gems, similar to Albus’s, indicating they were members of the Coven of Zero.
So the other four are among the assailants.
“Members of the Coven and the attackers?” I said.
Albus nodded. “The Coven fought to protect the campus and the town.”
But they failed to protect the latter. They probably met the attackers here to try to at least save the campus.
“So they ended up killing each other.”
“Not quite.” Zero walked past Albus and approached the corpses, examining all six of them. I tried stopping her, but she simply ignored me. “First, the four assailants killed the two members of the Coven of Zero. Another one appeared afterwards and killed all four witches.”
“And how do you know that?”
“The method of killing is different. The Coven members show signs of struggle, but the four witches were killed without even having the chance to fight back. What’s more, all had their mana drained completely. There is no doubt that a third party was involved.”
So someone not from the Coven or the attackers showed up. Well that’s just great. Things were starting to get complicated.
Albus drew a deep breath. “Thirteenth…!” he hissed, his trembling voice full of fear and rage.
The same questions probably popped up in my mind and Zero’s. How do you know that name? Why bring that name up in this situation? But before we could voice them, something happened.
An eye opened.
Every strand of fur on my body stood on end. The vague sense of discomfort I felt while on the way to Latette had vanished, and now a fiercely intimidating gaze filled me with dread.
Eyes. Someone’s watching us. Where?
I looked up and immediately regretted it. A rift running the length of the ceiling formed above. It then opened wide, revealing an impossibly huge eye that darted between me, Albus, and then rested on Zero.
“It appears there is someone openly spying on us,” Zero said. “Mercenary.”
“Huh? Uh, right!”
“A forced summoning. It will knock you away! Grab the lad and take my arm!”
I had absolutely no idea what was happening, nor did I understand a word she just said. Nevertheless, I picked Albus up, grabbed Zero’s wrist and held her in my arms.
The next moment, the floor collapsed. No, that wasn’t exactly it. The floor, walls—the whole room itself had vanished. Thrown into a gaping hole of pure darkness, a scream escaped my lips.
We’re falling. I’m gonna die.