Translator: Kell | Editor: Ryunakama
“When I attacked in the underground chamber, you moved to protect her without a second thought. That’s when I realized you were enthralled by her, and she was manipulating you. Beast warriors are cautious beings who avoid danger with their instincts. You promptly putting your life on the line to defend her was unthinkable. Right now, you’re still fine. But the comfort you feel when being with her will gradually turn into subordination without you knowing it. I don’t know how long you’ve been together, but you’ve witnessed it at least once, yes?”
Witnessed what? Before I could ask my question, the answer popped in my mind—an image of the secondhand clothes store owner who happily served Zero.
“If you wish to be her slave, I won’t stop you. There are many who would prostrate themselves before her. She is special, even among the witches in the cellar.”
“Fuck no! I’ll never become a witch’s slave!”
Thirteenth’s lips twisted slightly. A smile, perhaps.
“Zero finds you interesting because of that attitude of yours. To Zero, you’re nothing but a rare species of animal.”
Every word from him somehow made perfect sense. I recalled the words that Zero said to me. She said she liked me. She said she wanted to be with me. Only now did I realize that she could only say those things because she didn’t see me as human. To her she was simply showing affection to a pet, no doubt about that.
It felt like my throat tightened, the base of my tongue strangely bitter.
“However, she’s still a fellow student. My one and last living brethren. I thank you for bringing her all the way here. Now, go. This is all I can do to help.” Thirteenth handed me a pass.
Being summoned directly to the castle meant I entered the capital without passing through the gate. Without the pass, there would be trouble once I left the city.
“No, it’s more than enough. Thanks.”
I immediately returned to my room and shoved the vial inside my bag. Thinking back, there were times when Zero’s words made me shudder. When she hired me, she said she wanted the whole me because a headless body could not possibly do its job as a bodyguard. What then would happen if she didn’t need someone to protect her anymore? If she got sick of me? Would she cut my head off?
Yeah, I’m not having any of that shit. I can’t be around a witch any longer. Doesn’t matter if they’re gorgeous. I care for my life more than my urges. I already obtained what I wanted. There was no need to stay. I was the type of man who would choose my dinner over the fate of the world. I couldn’t care less about the demise of witches, as long as I could become human once more and live my life in peace, not being hunted by witches.
I know. I should head back home to the sticks. My parents, who should be pretty old by now, were probably still managing a tavern. Ten years had passed since I last saw them. They might, however, not believe I was their son if I returned as an ordinary human. I’ll just cross that bridge when I get there. I can just claim I’m a passing traveler and ask them to hire me. Then I’ll get me a pretty wife. Actually at this point, it doesn’t even matter if they’re not pretty. I want someone naggy and cheerful, who won’t think twice of hitting me. I want at least three kids. Every day will be jolly, exhausting, and irritating. We’d fight, scream, and shout. I’ll start building towards that kind of life. I can return to being human. I can be human. I can live my life as an ordinary human being. I had dreamt of such a life countless times before.
I bolted out the room, and froze.
“Are you going somewhere, Mercenary? Without me?” Zero was standing right at the door. For once, I didn’t scream.
Zero looked at me, a curious expression on her face, and she acted like her being here was purely coincidental.
“If you are going out, then you should take me with you as well,” she said. “You are, after all, my mercenary. Perfect timing. Thirteenth’s nagging had stressed me out. Let us go together.”
Zero took a step forward, and I reflexively took a step back. She stopped, noticing my abnormal behavior.
“Is anything the matter? Why are you quiet?”
Heh, acting all baffled, eh? Gotta hand it to you, witch. You’re good. How did she even know? Was she watching me so I wouldn’t escape?
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked. “I simply want to go outside. Today is the weekly day of the goddess. I heard there will be a performer in the plaza. I wish to see it, so why don’t we—”
Before she could finish, my hand reached for my sword and gripped it tight. I gotta get away from this witch, or I’m dead. But I don’t think I can win in a head-on fight. I quickly looked around, searching for an escape route. I could get back inside and jump through the window, or choose the riskier option—catch her off-guard and then push her aside.
“I see.” A smile suddenly appeared on her face, a bitter one. “Thirteenth tricked you. He is as devilish as always. To think he could influence my mercenary so easily.”
What the fuck is she saying? You’re the one who tricked me, bitch! I glared at her. She held my gaze, looking me straight in the eye. No! Not her eyes!
“You fool!” she shouted.
Quickly I covered my ears. How a slender body could produce such a voice, I didn’t know. Zero took a step forward and snapped her fingers right in front of my eyes. It felt like I suddenly woke up from a dream. The urge clawing at me to leave the castle, to run away from Zero, vanished the instant she snapped her fingers.
“Were you in doubt, Mercenary?”
“You did not trust me. You feared me. Thirteenth got to you because you did not fully believe in me! Thirteenth excels at using facts. He uses them to fan the embers of doubt into flames of suspicion and eventually turn it into a raging fire of fear and rage.”
She forced the last part out from deep within her. Her voice was strained, and her clenched fists trembled ever so slightly. It was hard to believe she was the same frank and bold Zero.
Her fierce gaze bored into me, her teeth grating like she was suppressing something. She looked like a child holding back tears.
“Did Thirteenth tell you I wanted to kill you?”
I gave a start and went silent. It sounded as though she accused me of betraying her. I directed my gaze to the floor, unable to look her straight in the eye.
“And you believed him. Words, no matter how much Sorcery is laced on them, can only grow seeds of doubt. There cannot be fire without a spark. Which means you doubted me. All this time, you did not trust me! What was the point of that contract then?!”
I felt like I had to say something, but I didn’t know what exactly. Words were stuck in my throat, making it difficult to even breathe.
“I gave you my word, Mercenary,” she continued. “I swore I would never take your head. We made a blood pact! I promised to make you human!”
I glanced at the scar on my thumb. It hadn’t been long since she bit it.
I swear, Mercenary.
The image of her holding her bloodstained thumb dearly came to mind. No, that was just an act. It had to be. After all, she was a witch.
But why… If that was simply an act, why did she look so hurt? Why was she on the verge of tears?
Then all of a sudden, Zero’s body loosened up. “I almost forgot. You despise witches.”
Damn right I do. ‘Cause they hunt me for my head.
Her feeble voice dug at my heart.
“I should not have helped you come back to your senses, then. Just like how you drove those children away, I should have threatened you for your own good.”
Back to my senses? So right now I’m acting normally. Then what was I doing a moment ago? Does that mean I wasn’t in my right mind when I desperately tried to escape?
Zero turned around. “Get out of my sight. Run away from me. Worry not, I will not go after you.”
I could only manage a low grunt.
“Our contract is hereby nullified. You will no longer protect me, and I will not make you human. Thirteenth probably gave you the item you needed anyway. Farewell, Mercenary. It was fun while it lasted.”
She walked away without looking back, the bottom of her long overcoat flaring behind her.
“I should not have hired you.” Her voice was weak and low, almost a whisper, but I caught it with my keen ears.
Zero then disappeared around a corner in the hallway. It was a firm and decisive parting. Not even the sound of her footsteps remained.
She didn’t turn around, and I didn’t stop her. The words stuck in my throat slowly sank to my gut, accompanied by a dull pain.
If I go after her now, I can still make it. But my legs wouldn’t move. I couldn’t go after her. I no longer had a reason to.
Filled with regret, I stood still in the hallway even long after Zero left.