Shortly after dawn, a shrill shriek pierced the forest.
The foliage of the dense trees spread out like a ceiling, blocking out the sun’s rays. It was a place called things like the ‘Forest of the Lost’. In the centre of this forest lay an old, abandoned castle, covered in vines, and it was rumoured that the deceased, demons, and mages resided within.
Zagan walked through that eerie forest. He was a youth that would turn eighteen this year, with black hair and silver eyes. He had a handsome face and wore a black robe that was lined with red fabric. If he wore a neater outfit, he might have been able to call himself a noble from somewhere.
“Please, stop, Maias! Come to your senses…”
A woman could be seen, being restrained by a man that looked like a knight. The woman was still young, probably young enough to still be called a girl. She had beautiful hair like burnished copper, and deep, blue eyes, with ethereal, pale white skin. From the smooth curve of the bridge of her nose, she seemed to have the refined grace of a noble, but the tomboyish impression she gave was even stronger than that.
However, even that lively face was currently twisted in fear.
They could have been a young nobleman’s daughter and her knight escort, thought Zagan as he walked nonchalantly towards them. As he did, the girl was fighting the man fiercely, clawing at his face.
However, the one to pale was not the man. The man’s face peeled smoothly off with the girl’s scratch. The skin was torn off, and blood mixed with chunks of meat fell to the floor in drops.
The girl let out a strangled shriek at the gruesome sight. Underneath the skin that had come off, there was no face. The man’s ear and nose had been torn off, and it was misshapen, the cheekbones broken.
The man’s a mage then, huh.
Zagan knew this was the price of magic.
With that grotesque face in such proximity, the poor girl trembled badly. The man drew a knife from his waist, letting it slide above her chest as if he were stroking her.
The shirt fluttered to the ground as she whimpered wordlessly, it wasn’t hard to imagine what awaited her.
The man laughed at the girl, unable to speak from shame and fear.
“Haha, that’s a pretty arousin’ face there. Sorry to disappoint, but I ain’t gonna rape you like yer hoping. Virgins are pretty valuable to mages, y’see.”
I won’t be defiled.
The girl’s face was tinged with relief for a moment at the man’s words, but, the girl didn’t know.
That she would meet an even more horrifying fate than defilement.
“Skin peeled from a living virgin’s face makes a good cat’lyst. Don’t just die on me, ‘kay?”
The discarded flesh on the floor was reflected in her eyes.
The man smiled even wider, as if the screaming girl raised his spirits.
“An’ y’see, skinning good lookin’ girls like you is person’lly satisyin’. Once I’m done with yer face, I’ll take good care of yer body, so don’chu worry. Hihyahyahya.”
Just as Zagan arrived behind him, he grabbed the man’s head in a claw-like grip and yanked him up with one hand.
“H-huh…?” The knife he was pressing into the girl’s cheek moved away, and the man gave a dimwitted exclamation, “W-who the hell are you!?”
He had had enough of the angry voice of the man that didn’t seem to understand the situation he was in.
“No, who are you? I don’t care if it’s rape or torture, but causing a ruckus in someone’s garden when they’re sleeping is going to wake them up.”
A nuisance in the night, let alone the man, the girl was astounded at the words which held no hint of compassion or moral outrage.
The forest around the abandoned castle was Zagan’s territory, and simultaneously, no one could win against him here.
A mage could probably understand that, and the man threw the knife away and raised his hands.
“W-wait! Yer a mage too, right? Killin’ me doesn’t help you, if you overlook this, I’ll share my research!”
He was begging for his life, and on top of that, it was on the order of surrendering his fortune. For mages, their individual research was their power, because obtaining knowledge would allow the use of many magics. Despite this, Zagan glared at the man suspiciously and spat.
“Magic that requires skinning people… don’t want it.”
Immediately afterwards, the man’s head was crushed like a fruit.
The man was straddling the girl, so because his head had been crushed, the chunks of meat and blood rained down upon the girl. Covered in blood, the girl fainted, and would probably have one or two psychological wounds if she awoke.
Naturally, guilt welled in Zagan’s chest at treating a young girl like this.
C-calm down. I’m a mage, I can change something like this back right away.
If there was no blood, the girl might be able to be convinced it was all a dream and forget about it. Zagan took a calming breath and twirled his raised index finger.
With that chant, a large ring spread out on the ground. A magic circle of delicate characters and diagrams. As if time was rewinding, the viscera separated from the girl and gathered at the man’s corpse, along with the gore sticking to Zagan’s hand.
This was magic.
Magic was generally performed by drawing magic circles. Within these figures, the laws of physics could be ignored, and phenomena were enacted as a mage wished. Through devising those processes and structures, differences in individual strength became apparent.
Spells put that meaning into words, and bypassed the time to draw the magic circle, but they were fundamentally the same thing.
Naturally, the magic was just to move things, so while the accumulated viscera was gathered into the shape of the missing head, it soon fell apart. Regardless, the girl had been restored, even down to her torn clothes; looking at her face once again, Zagan let out a deep sigh.
He then noticed a pendant around the girl’s neck.
“…A cross — is she from the church?”
The church loathed mages, and were followers of a self-proclaimed god. And they maintained that justice with Holy Knights.
A knight was ordinarily a distinguished soldier who offered their loyalty to a monarch, but they couldn’t stand against mages. However, the church had miracles from their god that allowed them to do so. The monarch’s knights were not the ones that marched to battle with mages, it was the Church’s Holy Knights. In other words, they were long-standing foes of mages.
What do I do, I get the feeling they’ll think I did it…
Zagan had more or less helped the girl, but from their point of view, it’d probably look like the evil mages had fought amongst themselves. And on top of that, he’d doused her in blood.
It might still be difficult to resolve the misunderstanding even if the girl awoke. However, killing the girl that he had saved, after a fashion, would leave a bad aftertaste.
“…Well, I guess it’s fine.”
After worrying some, Zagan decided to abandon her outside. Someone would probably find her if he left her on the main road out of the forest. If she was found by a thug who would add to the unconscious girl’s wounds, that was her bad luck. He didn’t feel any duty to go so far as to look after her.
Lightly stamping his heel into the ground, another circle, different than before, was drawn out underneath her. It was a magic circle of transfer that connected the interior and exterior of his territory. However, before the girl was transferred, something came from the circle’s destination.
Zagan’s eyes opened wide.
Someone usurped my circle?
This was within his territory. In case of intruders like this, Zagan had practically covered his castle and its lands in magic circles. They were bounded fields. A field to alert of intruders, a field to halt them, a field to weaken other mages’ strength, and a field to strengthen his own. In other words, the area was advantageous to Zagan in all things.
And thus, usurping the circle was not a feat that could be accomplished by an average mage. It was an unusually skilled intruder, but Zagan’s reaction was carefree.
“Don’t just use people’s circles, Barbarus.”
The one that appeared was a lanky youth. He was probably around twenty, two years older than Zagan. However, his cheeks were sunken, and black rings surrounded his eyes. He was wearing a hooded robe, and several amulets around his neck. It was obvious from the fact he breached Zagan’s bounded fields that he had an extraordinary amount of power.
“Yo, Zagan. Ya look as unhealthy as always.”
“You’re the one that looks unhealthy, Barbarus.”
Of all the mages in the world, the only one that would intrude so brazenly upon Zagan’s territory was Barbarus. He was Zagan’s sole partner in crime.
“And again, don’t just use people’s circles.”
“If I didn’t, I couldn’t have used it to come here, could I?”
Magic circles were a mage’s strength. He had overwritten Zagan’s circle with his own and used it to invade, which was easier said than done. Even though the area was advantageous for Zagan, it was doubtful he would win if they fought directly. He was that kind of mage.
Barbarus gazed at the unconscious girl and the corpse that still lay on the floor, and his eyes closed into a smile.
“My, did I crash a party?”
“It’s just a little punishment for a villain getting carried away in someone’s garden.”
“Heehee, coming from you.”
The creatures known as mages were, without exception, villains. Their concern was strengthening themselves, others’ lives and fortunes were negligible in comparison. If they felt it necessary, they would steal without an ounce of guilt.
Even Zagan saving the girl earlier wasn’t due to morals, but was a simple matter of disinterest. Barbarus stared at her.
“Well now, this girl has a fair amount of magic, doesn’t she? Going to use her as a sacrifice?”
“Sacrificial magic isn’t my thing.”
So saying, he stamped his heel into the ground once more. The girl’s body was covered in a pale light, and vanished. This time, she was sent outside Zagan’s territory.
“What a waste, you could have given her to me if you didn’t want her.”
“Don’t kidnap people from others’ territories. I’d get treated like the culprit.”
“Heehee, that’d be good, let’s go with that next time.”
“…In that case, I’d send your base flying, you know?”
Zagan glared dangerously at him, because he was just the type to actually do it. However, that too was only for a few seconds, before he grew tired of glaring.
“Oi oi, what you looking so sleepy for?”
“I stayed up all night reading a grimoire. I’m going to sleep, if you need anything, come back later.”
“Hah, if you’re sleepy, a little shot of adrenalin will wake you right up, yeah? Don’t be so cold after I’ve come out of my way to visit.”
“It’s because you do that kind of stuff that you look so unhealthy.”
Mages were those that spent their lives researching magic, aiming to overcome humanity. To research magic, one had to live. So mages first learnt how to operate their body. Not just the application of physical movements, magic to control the body on the cellular level was the basics of magic. Therefore, mages were beyond illness, and even a natural lifespan. It was upon reaching that level that one could call themselves a mage.
Even so, they would waste away without food and water, they could manipulate the need for sleep, but not eliminate it. It was this that had lead to Barbarus’ appearance now, so Zagan didn’t particularly wish to use that kind of magic too much.
Barbarus gave a strange laugh.
“Don’t say that, I’ve got something interesting to tell you.”
With a relatively wicked face, Barbarus threw a friendly arm around Zagan’s shoulders.
Jostling his irritating friend’s arm, Zagan asked in return. A smile found its way onto Barbarus’ sunken face.
“That’s right. You know that one of the Demon Lords, Marchosias, fell?”
At that name, even Zagan’s eyes opened wide.
‘Demon Lord’ didn’t refer to the king of demons, spoken of in stories. It was a name given to those lords that reached the very pinnacle of magic.
Along with that title, they were given vast amounts of magic, and could take other, low-level mages as servants. If mages desired power and influence, then this would be the pinnacle. There were normally thirteen, but one amongst them had finally breathed his last at a thousand years of age. Mages held off their lifespan, but it seemed that that still had its limits after a thousand years. Hearing about that Demon Lord, even Zagan couldn’t ignore it.
“Oh? My my, isn’t that a curious face? Ah, wait, didn’t you say you wanted to sleep? Ahhh, what a shame that it’s not something interesting enough to be worth earning your enmity.”
“Quit making a show of it and speak already.”
“…As rude as always.” Spoke Barbarus with a sigh of irritation. “There’s that city, Kianoides, right? Marchosias made his territory there, but there’s a huge auction there. From proper things to the things we like, it’s all there.”
“It can’t be…”
A gulp came from his throat.
“It is! This is it, the Demon Lord’s bequests!”
His first thoughts were suspicious, but Marchosias was a millennium old, his bequests weren’t likely to just be a thing or two. For one of them to turn up in an auction wouldn’t be strange.
Barbarus nudged Zagan with his elbow.
“So come on, you come too. You can pick up a woman or two as well. And after that, reckon you could help me with a little support?”
At that, he made the shape of a coin with his fingers. In essence, he wanted to take part in the auction but didn’t have enough money. While he let out a sigh, Zagan didn’t refuse.
“Then the bequest would be mine, right?”
“Eh, no it wouldn’t? I’m the one that told you.”
“If you’re not happy with it, find someone else.”
“There ain’t another mage that would lend me money, is there?”
With Barbarus clinging to him on the verge of tears, Zagan resigned himself to going to the auction.
However, his thoughts were:
Zagan was a man, and it wasn’t like he had no interest in the female form. The girl earlier had actually hit right home. However, his thoughts upon imagining a scene with several women waiting upon him went to it being bothersome before they went to alluring.
They could be thought of and treated as tools, but then magic tools that accomplished their given tasks without opening their mouth were far better. It wasn’t that he didn’t wish to be loved, but the thought of having to treat her in the same way was bothersome too. Rather than the allure of the body, the disadvantages that it would give rise to came to mind. So Zagan had not known a woman until now.
And more importantly, humans that aren’t strong die quickly.
No matter what was done to a weak human, they couldn’t complain, if they wanted to protect themselves, they should just become stronger.
That was why Zagan had become a strong mage at a mere eighteen years of age.
…Well, him putting on such an aloof mage’s act also only lasted up until that moment.
Kianoides was a canal city. Boats floated upon the canals that stretched like branches towards the four corners of the continent, and it was a prosperous town based on distribution. It wasn’t just goods, but various races gathered there as well.
Besides humans, there were therianthropes, with beast-like claws and fur, people with wings upon their back, dwarves that specialised in delicate decorations, at odds with their short and boorish appearances.
Boats sailed past, with their various coats of arms hoisted, and even the wind blowing in from the canals couldn’t cover the tumult and scent of the earth. It was probably one of the most beautiful cities in the country, and it was said that every day, more than a million people passed through.
There were several within that beautiful city wearing collars with chains attached. Slaves.
There were humans, but also those of other races, and the people they were with weren’t limited to humans. There were dwarves striking at huge men with canes, humans accompanying beautiful winged women, and therianthropes lapping up milk from plates on the floor like dogs.
Some of them were no doubt ‘goods’ to be auctioned off.
The difference between those who were slaves and those who were not was in money, power, and luck. Zagan had desperately sought strength, so he wasn’t sympathetic.
However, he murmured.
“It feels oddly charged.”
He was talking about the town’s atmosphere.
This wasn’t the first time he had come to Kianoides, but the Church’s knights were patrolling everywhere. The citizens seemed frightened too, and full of rage. It was a presence that wasn’t normally tangible.
Barbarus smiled cheerfully.
“It seems like some morons are exclusively collecting young women for a magic experiment.”
“Sacrifices, huh? That’s a pretty risky bridge to cross.”
By using sacrifices, it was possible to control magic that you could not individually. Using reagents was common, so it wasn’t that rare in itself. However, using bought slaves or captured vagrants was the minimum required to not get caught. Going out of your way to draw the attention of the Church like this by kidnapping normal girls was incomprehensible. It seemed that someone was picking a fight with the Church.
“I wonder? When you start to put on so many restrictions, like their age and such, it’s no wonder that it would only end up with such girls getting kidnapped, is it?”
“Maybe they’re trying to summon demons?” The name of monsters spoken of in stories, with horns and wings. It wasn’t certain that they existed, but there was evidence of ‘something’ like gods or devils existing in this world. To summon one, a ritual like Barbarus was suggesting would be required, but Zagan thought it was a pipe dream. At his exasperated expression, Barbarus laughed cheerfully. “Speaking of, Zagan, apparently they think you might be one of them, you know?”
“Pathetic, what use is magic that requires sacrifices when the time comes?”
“Heehaha, you’re not wrong. That said, you don’t even have any allies you’re around.”
When that was said, his shoulders dropped unintentionally.
Well, I don’t need allies.
He was used to being alone. He was used to it.
Even as they spoke, the mages’ goal wasn’t sightseeing. Barbarus lead them to an underground area within the city.
There were old ruins within the area, probably an arena, and they had been repaired and made into a market, dealing in things that wouldn’t sell well above-ground.
The auction hall was in the main area of the arena. There was a circular stage with chairs arrayed around it. It seemed that the auction had already begun, as several voices resounded, calling out numbers.
Only the stage was lit, the seating didn’t even have candles. This wasn’t a discourtesy, it was a measure so the bidders could not see each others’ faces.
…Well, it didn’t mean much to mages though.
Securing their seats, Barbarus let out a whistle.
“Oi, look, Zagan. There’s Black Edge Cimeries, and there’s Seductress Gomory, and there’s even Apparition Valefar over there.”
Even without light, if you were to call yourself a mage, being able to use night vision magic was only natural. Looking in the direction Barbarus indicated, he saw the silhouettes of several clad in an overbearing presence.
Zagan didn’t know them, but they were all well-known mages. The majority were human, but other races were visible here and there. Black Edge Cimeries, for example, was a therianthrope with a gallant mane, and Apparition Valefar was covered completely with a hood and robe, so it was impossible to tell their race.
The prefixes such as ‘Black Edge’ were the mages aliases, and could be thought of as titles, given to those who held a certain amount of power. Amongst the most famous would be Demon Lord Marchosias’ ‘Grand Elder’. Barbarus was also called Purgatory.
Zagan was also a well-known mage, but he hadn’t been given an alias. It was partly because of his youth, but the Demon Lord that controlled this area, Marchosias’ death was also a large factor. Giving those aliases was one of the roles of the Demon Lord, but he had died before he could give one to Zagan.
In short, an alias was proof of strength. Though they were unrelated, he had a slight interest in those that held aliases.
“Are they strong?”
“They are, same as you and I, they got nominated to be the next Demon Lord.”
With Marchosias’ death, one of the seats of the Demon Lords was empty. The remaining Demon Lords were currently discussing how to fill that seat, and strong mages should have been nominated.
“Ha, if those lot are coming out of the woodwork, maybe this is a real bequest.”
“Let’s pray that that’s so.”
If it wasn’t, then there was no point in sacrificing his sleep to come here. The auction progressed as they did this.
“Ladies and Gentleman, next is, at last, the final, and greatest, lot for today!”
Barbarus leaned forwards at the auctioneer’s voice.
“Oi, looks like it’ll be soon, Zagan.”
They didn’t know if there really was a bequest, but today’s centrepiece would be taking the stage.
Finally, it appeared on stage, a slight person, their head covered by a hood. They were covered by a cloak down to their feet, and even their very race was unclear. They weren’t small enough to be a dwarf, but they could be a child of any of the other races.
Was the hooded person carrying the bequest in question?
With the attention of the people in the hall, the auctioneer began an explanation.
“This was originally a product that was to be delivered to our Demon Lord Marchosias. However, he passed away before the delivery, and we retrieved the unfinished order accordingly.”
At those words, Barbarus grimaced.
“So it’s not his bequest?”
“It’s probably one of the Demon Lord’s reagents.”
Magic wasn’t only performed by drawing magic circles and chanting spells, tools were also used. From the ink used to draw circles, the talismans the mage wore, to sacrifices to increase the strength of magic. Those tools were called reagents, but the advantages and disadvantages in a reagent would be shown in the difference in their strength.
It was unfortunate that it wasn’t a bequest, but there was a certain interest in a reagent that the Demon Lord themselves would choose.
Then, the auctioneer removed the cloak from the hooded person.
Beneath it was a lovely girl with long, pointed ears.
It was clear at a glance. This was an elf, one of the legendary race which only lived in Norden, where humans could not tread.
She had snow-white hair that fell to her waist, and a deep, red ribbon decorating that hair. On her small face were large eyes that were the deep blue of the summer sky, and her lips were relatively thin and a light peach colour. Her delicate body was enclosed in a pure white dress, and her appearance was such that she could be called a princess and it would be believed.
However, her limbs had shackles on, and there was a magic restraining collar around her neck. Zagan looked into the girl’s eyes and felt his heart quiver, and felt something run through his body from the tips of his toes to the crown of his head. Depressed, empty eyes.
Seeing nothing, thinking nothing, they were the eyes of someone that had given up all hope for the future.
Despite this, for some reason, he couldn’t tear his eyes from hers.
“This is one of the legendary elves, captured from Norden! And with such white hair as you can see. This isn’t dyed, it’s a natural, white-haired elf!”
Elves were said to be a race closer to the gods and spirits than humans. And regardless of race, individuals with white hair often had large amounts of magic power through something like a mutation.
Sacrificing a white-haired elf, the power of a Demon Lord would be attainable.
The auctioneer circled around behind the elf girl and smoothly pulled out a lock of that hair with a finger.
“Furthermore, as a female, this is a high-class item, it doesn’t just have value as a magic sacrifice, it’s valuable as a cherished slave. Of course, the customer is free to tease and lick as well!” The auctioneer proclaimed loudly. “Now then, let us start at ten thou—”
Zagan had already proclaimed by the time he came back to his senses.
What is this pounding in my chest?
Love, yes, that would describe it.
He wanted to save the elf girl standing there. He wanted to see her smile, he wanted to touch her skin.
Those impulses that he had never before felt drove Zagan.
Suddenly, the auction hall fell silent. Barbarus’ face twitched next to Zagan.
“One million, in Kuriotes gold.”
That was the entirety of the fortune in Zagan’s castle.
The bewildered auctioneer dabbed at the sweat on his forehead as he raised his voice.
“Thank you very much! A wonderfully large bid, one million! Are there any other takers? Are there?”
To devote themselves to their research, mages had a tendency to stockpile money. However, though they may amass large sums of money, millions didn’t usually appear that often. There were probably several people that had that much, but if they were to use it, it would be for their research. It was that kind of fortune.
“Oi, Zagan, what are you thinking? Even if it’s an elf, that much money…”
“There was something I’d always wanted, but I didn’t know what it was. I think I’ve finally found it.”
Zagan murmured incoherently, not sure how to explain his feelings. However, seen by outsiders, the bright flame in his eyes was awfully evil. Though that was only natural as he was spurred on by his passion. Barbarus opened his eyes wide in fear.
“What kind of magic are you planning to use…?”
It seemed he’d misunderstood something. Zagan shook his head.
“That’s not it. Maybe other magic isn’t even necessary. I can’t put it well, but it’s that kind of thing.”
“Getting another level of power, without even magic…?”
It seemed his phrasing had been misunderstood, as Barbarus shuddered.
If he spoke any further, it seemed that it would grow even stranger. Zagan laughed to say Barbarus was wrong, but even he had lost his head, so it sounded like the laugh of a demon.
Barbarus fell back, boneless, into his seat.
Did he misunderstand again?
While his justification to his partner in crime got worse and worse, the gavel announcing a successful bid finally sounded.
“Congratulations! Mage Zagan wins the white-haired elf!”
He didn’t remember naming himself, but the auctioneer guessed right on seeing his face. That alone showed that he was a well-known face in these circles, but that was inconsequential. Zagan stood from his chair and used flight magic, leaving Barbarus slumped where he was. He flew over the seating and landed softly on the stage.
He stood in front of the girl, but she still didn’t lift her downcast eyes.
What should I do, should I say something?
Leaping down was all well and good, but he hadn’t thought in the slightest of what came next. At his sudden hesitation, the auctioneer wheedled.
“Please, go ahead and take her. What a lucky elf to be won by the famed mage Zagan. Incidentally, the dress and magic restraining collar are a gift from us. Please be aware that there is the risk it will escape should the collar be removed.”
He didn’t listen to what the auctioneer was saying, but Zagan answered appropriately.
Won’t she at least look this way? But I suppose it is scary. That said, I’m not going to consign you to a terrible fate, you know?
Precisely because she was so beautiful, saying that would only earn a disgusted glare. The girl this morning was the same.
Uneasily, he gently reached out a hand to her chin. She had silky smooth skin, so much so that Zagan felt he’d injure her with his mere touch.
Even so, he touched her as gently as he could, and the girl’s face raised a little, her vacant eyes gazed at him.
A gasp escaped him unintentionally, she really was a lovely girl.
However, they didn’t seem to focus on him, it was doubtful she was even looking at him. No, more than that, he couldn’t sense any volition in her.
I-is she okay? Is she being controlled or something?
Magic that deprived one of their will wasn’t rare. The auctioneer nervously spoke to Zagan as he paled.
“Zagan-sama? Is there a problem?”
“…No, is she conscious?”
Coming from his dry throat, his voice sounded more ill-tempered than uneasy, so much so that he wanted to ask himself what he was angry about.
However, the auctioneer nodded as if in understanding.
“Please rest assured. The elf has been docile since its capture, It has been kept in its natural state. Besides, it posses a vast amount of magic for an individual, average magic would have no effect. Therefore, we guarantee its freshness.”
When used as a sacrifice, restraining something with magic and brainwashing would become impurities in the ritual, and lower its precision. It seemed that the auctioneer believed that Zagan was concerned about this.
However, the elf that was dressed up as a lady didn’t seem to have any wounds. She may have been treated as a slave, but the management weren’t foolish enough to wound a ‘product’ of this value. He could probably trust that.
Zagan finally sighed in relief.
“Believe me, if she can’t at least sing well, there will be a problem.”
He most of all wanted her to be able to speak properly… was what he wanted to say, but he got his phrasing wrong on a large scale.
The auctioneer retreated with a pale face.
The elf girl seemed to shake in fear too.
Ah, thank goodness. I was understood.
Zagan was relieved at that, but didn’t realise just how badly he had misled them.
This was the first love at first sight for this man who had thought ‘women are just a bother’ mere hours earlier.