I came here for Zero. To see her. Zero surrendered herself to the Murky Darkness Witch for me. Now she couldn’t come out because of me. But why?
The Murky Darkness With said that if I hadn’t asked for it, the Nameless Demon King wouldn’t have come to the Altar, and she wanted the demon to come. In other words, she wanted the two of us, me and Zero.
But Zero turned me into a human, left me in the woods, and headed to the Altar alone. In exchange for my safety, she surrendered her body to the Murky Darkness Witch.
Transactions are always made in arm’s length. No one party should influence or exploit the other.
Zero’s cooperation was valuable enough that the Murky Darkness Witch agreed to a deal. Put it another way, the witch was afraid that Zero would oppose her. If their powers were on par with each other, then cutting off whatever was holding Zero back should allow her to fight.
But what’s holding her back?
“Oh.” Then it hit me. It was simple. So terribly simple, in fact, that I almost laughed. Actually, I did.
“Have you lost your mind?” the witch asked.
“Uh, no. Well, actually, maybe I have. Let’s just say I came up with something more practical and easier than trying to take you down.”
“I see. So you will surrender to me now?”
“Are you stupid?” I pulled out my knife. “All I gotta do is die.”
With me out of the picture, there would be nothing to hold Zero back. It was plain as day that I was the shackles on her feet. Once those shackles were broken, Zero would be able to kill the Murky Darkness Witch and drive the demons flooding the world back to Hell. Then she alone would make a triumphant return to Knox and strut around as a hero.
I could see the anger on Zero’s face. She’d probably yell, “I didn’t want this,” like I did when she turned me human. But I didn’t give a damn about any of that.
Sorry, Zero. I wish I was stronger than you. If I was more powerful than you, I wouldn’t have to die and put everything on your shoulders. Unfortunately, the only one I could kill in this situation was me, a powerless human.
I didn’t hesitate for even a moment. I pressed the knife onto my chest and pushed it in as hard as I could.
“No, Mercenary! Stop!” Zero cried.
Yes, the real Zero.
She leapt onto me, causing the tip of the knife to slice through my armpit and hit the wall.
The whole place went silent. Clinging to my body, Zero regarded me with a pale face.
I smiled. It was her. The real her. The Zero that I came here for.
“You buffoon! Fool! Dunce! Oaf! You are not a prince on a white horse. You are not some immortal hero, so don’t you ever do that again!
“And you’re not a princess trapped in a castle. Don’t you ever do anything stupid like this again.”
Zero, wearing a miserable face that I had seen before, punched me in the shoulder. When I saw the blood dripping down my side, I tried to cover the wound with my hand.
But suddenly the walls of the Altar burst from the inside, the debris flying straight at us. Behind a thick cloud of dust stood the Murky Darkness Witch that I saw in the frozen forest. She had long silver hair that almost reached the ground, a face that looked just like Zero’s, and a bewitching figure.
“She still had that body, huh?!”
“I can use different vessels,” the witch said. “Now, Zero. My foolish daughter. You broke your promise. I think you need a little chastisement.”
The Murky Darkness Witch’s piercing gaze bore through me. As if to block her stare, Zero stood in front of me.
“I will not let you kill him, Murky Darkness. Strangely—and fortunately—enough, everything turned out just as previously planned, except now Mercenary is human. But this is a battle between witches in the first place.”
Aaaaand she just left me out. I mean, I know I can’t do anything in this situation, but still.
“Do you think you can defeat me, your mentor and mother? I have lived for five hundred years.”
“I do. I am an extraordinary prodigy. There is no one who can match me. Back then in the woods you were only a phantom, but the body before me now is real. A body with a soul. And I will reduce you to ashes!” Zero raised her arms wide.
Zero raised her hands once more, then turned pale. “It cannot be. My Magic!”
“You cannot cast a spell?” the witch asked. “Of course not. We are inside a powerful ward set up by the Church. Casting Magic here is impossible.” The Murky Darkness Witch raised her arms. “But I can.”
With a snap of her fingers, ice blades appeared in the air.
It was hopeless. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought that if I could just get Zero back, it would all work out. I believed she could defeat anyone easily, Murky Darkness or not. I only needed to think about the reason why Zero surrendered to the Murky Darkness Witch in the first place to know that it wasn’t possible.
Zero had voluntarily surrendered to the Murky Darkness Witch to protect me. She also knew that if she were to antagonize her, she would not survive unscathed. And her hunch came true.
Zero couldn’t fight the Murky Darkness Witch properly here on Generos Island, within the powerful wards.
“You are witnessing the power of older witches, Zero. This is what the war with the Church has given us. After summoning many demons, gaining much knowledge, I have learned how to pierce through the tiny holes in the Church’s wards.” The Murky Darkness Witch raised her arm, and lowered it.
I quickly grabbed Zero’s arm and pulled her into my chest.
“What are you doing, Mercenary?!”
A blade of ice pierced my back as I shielded Zero. My blood spattered onto her.
I tried to stay on my feet, but my knees buckled. A faint gasp from Zero’s lips turned into a roar that shook the air as I fell to the ground.
“Murky Darkness!” Zero raised her arms, and countless flaming snakes coiled around her body.
“Oh? Overpowering the ward using pure force?” the witch muttered in admiration. “Your demon blood is terrifying.”
Zero set the snakes loose. They instantly vaporized the witch’s ice blades, filling the area with a choking vapor that completely blocked vision. Even when she couldn’t see the enemy, Zero didn’t let up on her attacks. Countless Steim hit the ground, and Kudra had leveled part of the cathedral.
But Zero’s expression was hard, and I knew why. The demons outside the wards were laughing at the top of their lungs. Their presence meant the Murky Darkness Witch was still alive.
When the dust and steam cleared, the Murky Darkness Witch was still standing there, unperturbed.
“Is that all?” she said, cocking her head languidly.
Zero clenched her fists.
The Murky Darkness Witch smiled. “You can let rage fuel your power, but you can never cross that last barrier. Are you worried about the life of the man you are protecting? Are you afraid that if you destroy the warding, he will be devoured by demons? You cannot hope to kill me with such weak resolve.”
Zero looked over her shoulder. The look of resignation in her eyes paralyzed me with a terror much stronger than the fear of death.
Before I could tell her to stop, Zero dropped to her knees. “I have lost. I swear I will never oppose you again! So please, spare Mercenary.”
“The moment you realize that you are at a disadvantage, you beg for his life? You defied me without being prepared for the consequences? It seems I had erred in teaching you discipline. Actually, I never did teach you proper discipline.”
“I do not care what you say! I do not care how miserable I look! You need my body, don’t you? I can be of use to your plans. Just let him live!”
No. No, no, no. This won’t do.
I didn’t come here to make her say all this. If I knew it would end like this, it would have been better if I stayed away from this place.
“Hmm.” The Murky Darkness Witch narrowed her eyes. “They say that mercy sometimes creates stronger shackles than intimidation. Very well. I am a magnanimous witch. In retrospect, you broke your promise because the beast warrior tried to take his own life. Then perhaps it is not you who should be disciplined, but the beast warrior. Therefore, you must bind it by name now, and make it your true servant. If you do, I will allow you to raise that animal properly. I will allow you to heal its wounds.”
“Mercenary, give me your name,” Zero said, lifting my body up as I lay there motionless.
I shook my head.
“Please! Tell me your name!”
“Over my dead body! There’s no way in hell I’m giving you my name. I’m your mercenary. I will never be your servant!”
I coughed up another copious amount of blood.
“What do I do?! How can I save you?!”
“Witch,” I whispered in her ear, and our eyes made contact. I directed my gaze to the guardian statue. Realizing my intentions, Zero stared at me blankly.
Quick on the uptake. That’s a genius for you.
“Understood?” I said.
If the warding was destroyed, countless demons would come rushing onto this small island to kill the Murky Darkness Witch, with Zero and I right in the middle of it.
It was my plan all along. A last resort, but the first one that I thought of. If I found Zero dead, I would have done it already. I gathered all the information I could from the Director, and even read books on the Church. I went around Knox Cathedral and carefully examined the structure of its warding.
So I packed a lot of blasting powder into my bag. Fortunately, the flames from the lantern I dropped had spread, providing plenty of trigger, including one within my reach.
Zero didn’t say no. I grabbed my bag, tossed it into the flames, and got down. A violent explosion rocked the whole area, destroying the statue and obliterating a section of the island.
Just before I was hit by the shock wave and lost consciousness, my eyes went to the Murky Darkness Witch for some reason. Even with the warding gone and the demons charging in front of her, she was unfazed.
“I see.” Her lips moved. “So this is the fate you have chosen.”
We chose death? Well, yeah.
I refused to live or die alone, but dying together didn’t sound so bad.