This was a week ago, on the morning of the day Zagan and Nephie met.
In the trade city of Kianoides, there had recently been a series of kidnappings targeting young girls. The culprits were a group of mages, and it seemed they were using the girls as sacrifices to enact horrifying magic.
Chastel and her detachment were a squad sent to subjugate those criminals.
The main mage involved with the incident defeated, the captured girls saved, their triumphant return — it was just before that. They had entrusted the rescued girls to their reinforcements from the church, and just as they were on the verge of returning to Kianoides, Chastel had just left an early-morning bath and wasn’t wearing her armour.
The man who had been protecting her until then suddenly drew his blade and turned on his allies. While she had managed to escape with her other allies’ aid, with no weapons, she was soon cornered.
However, the man was someone else, a mage that skinned people. Their husks would be found, washed up in the river in the future.
Chastel should have had a similar… no, an even worse fate awaiting her, but she was saved by ‘someone’.
I’m sure… it wasn’t a dream.
The man had far crueller eyes than the man that had attacked her. In truth, he had killed the attacker as he begged for his life without hesitation, even if he was a heretic.
However, she still thought.
He seemed… kind of lonely.
With a little investigation, she soon learnt that he was a mage called Zagan. Since then, she hadn’t been able to think of anything but him for some reason. That’s right, that morning, the one that was attacked while lost in the forest, and saved by Zagan, even if he had doused her in blood, was Chastel.
She shook out her red hair, and slumped forward onto her desk.
And then, let out that sigh.
“Does something trouble you, Holy Knight Captain Chastel?”
Chastel shot up as she was addressed from behind.
“I-I beg your pardon, your holiness, Clavell.”
Standing there was an old man, wearing the robes of the top-ranking priests. He was a Cardinal, actually one of the most highly placed in the church, and was Chastel’s direct superior. The old man gave a gentle smile and shook his head.
“Don’t be so formal. If I were to have the hero that subjugated the perpetrators of those kidnappings humble herself to me, I would be faced with hostility from the people. To say nothing of the fact that you are the Maiden of the Holy Sword, no?”
‘Maiden of the Holy Sword’, that was the title Chastel had been given. The name of an individual given one of the strongest swords of the church, that sliced through magic circles and nullified magic, and should twelve be gathered, they were said to even be able to defeat a Demon Lord.
Unlike when she was saved by Zagan, she was currently clad in her blessed armour, with a large sword, about as long as she was tall, resting next to her. It was both equipment for fighting mages, and her full dress uniform for formal places such as this.
“…I lost four holy knights assigned to me by you, your holiness. It was a result of my inexperience, how could I accept honours for that?”
Maias, Emilio, Jamil, and Dolan, they were proud and gallant holy knights. That morning, they had fought against the mages without even a surprise attack, and won. It was Chastel’s negligence after all of the kidnappers had been defeated that caused the tragedy.
The aged Cardinal shook his head affectionately.
“It is not your fault. The ones you should hate are the mages that use foul magic. You avenged your comrades and returned, you can hold your head high.”
Chastel nodded with a conflicted expression.
She wasn’t the one that avenged her comrades, it was a passing mage. If he hadn’t been there, Chastel wouldn’t be here now. And yet, Chastel was the one acknowledged.
Chastel was a devout believer, but also understood that the church wasn’t as holy an organisation as it claimed. She was made a Holy Knight Captain because of her aptitude with the holy sword, but had no intention of abandoning her own beliefs. If she were to put it into words, she intended to stick to the distinction of not doing so.
The Cardinal stared steadily at her.
“Chastel, you have been researching the mage Zagan, have you not?”
Chastel answered clearly, with a nod.
“The one who took Maias’ place and attacked us called himself Zagan.”
The mage that had attacked Chastel had called himself that.
But, Zagan was the mage that saved me.
In other words, he’d falsified his name and committed evils. The desire to prove his innocence was one of the reasons Chastel had investigated him. She faced the Cardinal and spread out the documents she had researched.
“However, when I investigated, I found that Zagan was another mage that was completely unrelated.”
The Cardinal nodded as if he knew that.
“Most likely, it is a mage known as Face Skinner. As the name would imply, he skins people and performs foul magic, there is a subjugation order out for him. Somehow, it seems that he was supporting this kidnapping too.” At that, she understood that the Cardinal had been investigating this as well. “Chastel, this matter is not over. Our investigation shows that there is still a true perpetrator at large other than the mage.”
“…Has there been another victim?”
The Cardinal shook his head comfortingly.
“Calm yourself, Chastel. Through your efforts, the mages’ plan was indeed prevented… However, investigating the mages’ hideout made it clear that the true perpetrator has been overlooked by us.
There was still a survivor other than the one that had attacked Chastel.
Will I still be able to avenge my comrades?
As she swallowed at the tension, the Cardinal solemnly spoke the name.
“The mage Zagan is a mage that has been gathering power at a terrifying pace over recent years.”
“Wha—” Chastel called out without meaning to. “That man can’t be the culprit.”
“This unrelated mage’s name has come up twice within the same incident. It is too much to be a coincidence.” With that, the Cardinal proclaimed in a heavy voice. “Mages are evil. They must be destroyed. Even if he is unrelated to this incident, it makes no difference to our judgement of evil. Therefore, we of the Kianoides branch of the church have determined that the mage Zagan must be eliminated.”
That was the precept the church held up as something that must be absolutely adhered to. You could possibly call it a curse.
The church will hunt mages until they are destroyed.
Even if Zagan was being framed, once the church decided to hunt him, they wouldn’t repeal that decision. Even if the holy sword wielders like Chastel were defeated, even in the face of thousands and tens of thousands of corpses, the church wouldn’t stop until the mage was killed.
There was no meaning in Chastel claiming his innocence here. In fact, she could be seen as a traitor, and put on trial as a heretic.
I do not hold my life above all else, but it would be the same as doing nothing.
If she wanted to return the favour of him saving her life, she couldn’t be so foolish as to rant and be caught here. She should take measures to protect him, or to let him go free.
After holding her eyes closed for a while, Chastel opened her mouth with resolution.
“In which case, your holiness. Please, give me, Captain Chastel of the Holy Knights the mission to subjugate this Zagan. Allow me the opportunity to atone for the dishonour of my past mistakes.”
The Cardinal let out an “Ohhh…” of admiration at those words.
“Well said. That truly is the captain of my holy knights, the Maiden of the Holy Sword.”
Chastel may be ruined. But even so, she had her convictions.
Things she couldn’t yield on, even if she ended up turning her back on the church. Even if no one would thank her, even if the people of the world spat on her, she would choose death over throwing away her convictions for her own gain.
That was exactly why she had been entrusted with the power of a holy sword at a mere seventeen years of age.
And besides, she thought.
That man… had awfully lonely eyes.
They were eyes like that of a stray dog, that wanted warmth in the bottom of its heart, but didn’t admit that and pushed everything away. So much so that it made her think the one that truly needed saving then may well have been him, and not her… So, Chastel took that duty as her own.
“Are you awake, master?”
Zagan generally slept while sitting. His throne was the centre of the bounded fields, and a place where he could focus on all of their functions. If he sat there, then however he was attacked, he wouldn’t lose his life to a single strike. And above all, if something suspicious approached, it would immediately let him know. In other words, the throne was a place of even stronger protection within the already strong protection.
And if anything happened, he could react quicker if he was sitting rather than lying down, so sleeping here became his custom.
It was that morning.
“Good morning, master.”
Nephie greeted him, dressed in an attendant’s clothing. She hadn’t woken him.
Zagan answered, and Nephie gave a swift bow.
“Breakfast has been prepared in the dining room, will you be eating?”
“Eh, breakfast? That you made?”
She had certainly said that she would cook yesterday morning, but to think that she’d do so immediately the following day. Then, he had a sudden doubt.
“Were you waiting there the whole time?”
“…Wake me in that kind of situation.”
“You were fast asleep.”
Zagan thought doubtfully at being told that.
Come to think of it, it’s strange for me to not wake up with someone right in front of me.
Just a day without sleep wouldn’t make him sleep that deeply. Even as he cocked his head in thought, he realised Nephie had been standing there, stock still.
“Isn’t it tiring, standing there?”
“It’s okay, I think it’s because of the magic in the boots.”
The saleswoman at the clothes shop did say that they reduced fatigue. They seemed to be rather effective.
“Did you just do that the entire time you were waiting?”
“No, I looked at your face, master.”
Zagan covered his face when she said that straight to him. That aside, she’d gone out of her way to make breakfast, he couldn’t make her wait for so long.
“You mentioned breakfast, right?”
Zagan stood up, and Nephie bowed as she moved out of the way.
She was already acting like a professional maid.
As he went to head to the dining room, Zagan let out an ‘ah.’
“What is it?”
“One minute, Nephie.”
Zagan scratched the back of his neck as he awkwardly spoke to the girl that had tilted her head.
The words he couldn’t return right away yesterday. Nephie blinked twice in surprise, then spoke, somewhat happily.
“Yes, good morning, master.”
It felt strange, like the inside of his chest had warmed up.
Descending to the entrance hall and then opening the right-hand door brought them to the dining room. The large room had a single table, big enough for twelve people to be seated around, and a wondrous chandelier hung above. This had been a graveyard-like place, full of spider webs and skeletons, but it was now so clean that it was as if that was a lie. Even the tablecloth looked like new, with not a single wrinkle upon it.
It seemed like Nephie was a girl that worked fast once given a job. Lined up on the now clean table were an oiled salad and soft, fluffy bread. As he thought that there was an empty dish, Nephie poured some heated soup into it. It seemed that she’d even considered and prepared for Zagan not waking up immediately.
There wasn’t a large amount, but even Zagan could tell that it was a nutritionally well-balanced meal. And then, he tilted his head.
“Huh? Did we buy bread yesterday?”
“No, I baked it earlier.”
“You can make bread? By yourself?”
Nephie tilted her head in turn, like a small bird, at Zagan’s incredulity.
“Is that strange?”
“I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve met someone that can make this kind of thing. At the very least, there’s no one around me that can make something this delicious looking.”
She murmured monotonously, but Zagan didn’t miss the tips of her pointed ears twitching.
Is she happy, perhaps?
He remembered the tips of her ears went red when she was embarrassed. They said that the eyes said as much as the mouth, but in Nephie’s case, perhaps her ears would be the easiest to understand. Even as he thought pleasantly on his discovery, he noticed that Nephie was still standing. The only thing on the table was Zagan’s portion.
“Nephie, have you already eaten?”
“I have not.”
“Then eat with me.”
He supposed just him eating made him feel uncomfortable. Nephie moved slightly as if she was troubled by something.
“I… only made enough for you, master.”
It really was just like her. Setting a pure girl like her free, she couldn’t take a meal for herself.
“Then we can split it in half, right?”
He tore the bread in half. The freshly baked bread was still slightly warm, and separated into two like pulling threads. A savoury scent tickled his nose, and he let out a sound of appreciation without realising it.
However, Nephie still didn’t move to take a seat.
“Why not sit?”
“…Um, there wasn’t enough time… to prepare more than a seat for you, master.”
The room was originally so filthy you couldn’t take a meal in it. After not only cleaning the room, but cooking as well, of course she wasn’t able to prepare seats.
Zagan would have sat without caring if it was dirty, but the other chairs had all been put away.
I could sit on the table and give her the chair… no, I can’t sit on the table that she’s cleaned.
However, there wasn’t another chair to be found. They could each use half of the chair, but the chair wasn’t that generous, and he could see them both falling on the floor.
No, she can sit, right?
They couldn’t each use half of the chair, but what about sitting on his lap? Nephie shouldn’t weigh enough to be painful for the time it took to eat, and they could both eat, so wasn’t it a good idea?
Zagan may still have been half asleep from just waking up. So, he didn’t doubt himself that that was the best solution. Confirming his thoughts to himself, he nodded with a hmm.
“Then, you can sit here.”
Zagan mercilessly pointed to his lap as Nephie let a confused question out.
At Zagan telling her to sit on his lap, Nephie’s deep blue eyes wavered and widened, and even her pure-white hair seemed to bounce up. From her reaction, Zagan finally realised he had said something strange.
Huh? Wait, isn’t sitting in my lap essentially the same as hugging?
Coming back to himself, even Zagan wanted to die at what he’d said. The girl dressed as a maid resolutely opened her mouth.
“I would never do something so rude.”
Well of course not.
That was the best answer in this situation. Zagan just had to nod and it would all be solved. But, in the face of Nephie’s quick-witted answer, a shaken Zagan was even more pointlessly obstinate.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine with it.”
What am I being stubborn about heeeeere!?
Was it that he didn’t want to admit his faults or something? If there was something that could be torn off, he wanted it to be those lips of his.
The tips of Nephie’s ears went red, and seeing her face slightly tear up…
What is this? I want to corner her a little more.
Of course, he knew it was mean, but he wanted to see more of such a moving sight. Zagan cleared his throat and once more patted his lap.
“Hurry up, the food will go cold.”
With a ‘kuh’ or some other kind of faint sigh, her pointed ears drooped. She seemed resigned. “As you command… master…”
Timidly, Nephie sat on Zagan’s lap.
She actually sat down!
The soft sensation of her rear passed through her skirt. He wanted to hug and stroke her from behind. Zagan couldn’t help but let out a gulp. But as the one that gave the order, he feigned calm and tore off a piece of bread.
“There, you can eat.”
“…It’s embarrassing, master…”
Nephie’s ears had gone red right to their bases.
“Hmm, you’d get it if you could see.”
“…You’re mean… master…” Nephie let out in a near-crying voice, and then moved her face to Zagan’s hand, and from there, took the piece of bread between her peach lips. “Um, I can eat the rest myself, so…”
He wanted to see more of her embarrassment, but Zagan soon reached his mental limit for guilt and embarrassment himself. Then, he noticed Nephie’s ears quivering slightly. She was embarrassed at it, but it didn’t seem like she hated it that much. Somewhat relieved, Zagan spoke.
“Next time, make food for yourself too.”
“Well, we can do this next time too.”
“I’ll prepare it.”
She answered firmly.
Zagan went to have some soup while it was still warm, but Nephie stole the spoon from the side.
His eyebrows furrowed, and the maid-uniformed girl lifted some soup with the spoon. She cooled it by blowing on it, then raised it to Zagan.
“Please, go ahead, master.”
Her expression was as blank as always, but she seemed somewhat angry.
So she’s getting even, huh.
But, how should he put it? It seemed like it was embarrassing for her too. The tips of her ears were practically alight, and the hand she held the spoon with was trembling slightly, and when he thought of her blowing on the soup to cool it, it felt more like a reward than a reprisal.
I’ve got a feeling I’d like to do this every time too.
So Zagan opened his mouth as he was bid. With clumsy movements, Nephie moved the spoon to his lips. It looked like the soup was lamb and root vegetables, boiled in milk, but it seemed to warm him from his stomach as it flowed down his throat.
“Ah, you know, the soup?”
Of course, Nephie sitting on his lap was also warm, but Zagan frantically denied that. Nephie looked blankly at him, but finally nodded slowly.
“…Yes. It’s… warm.”
She said, as if she was chewing something.
I hope that we can keep going like this.
He thought from his heart.
That day ended while cleaning Nephie’s room. She had said that she would clean herself, but moving heavy things like the furniture with her slender arms would be difficult, so Zagan carried the bed, wardrobe and things.
That aside, her clothing right now amounted to the dress she wore at first, her maid outfit, and several pairs of underwear. He wanted to get a few more things for her.
I need to think of a way to make money too.
Selling his knowledge of magic was a way he could get vast amounts of money, but it also had the disadvantage of being easily tracked. It might be possible if he was alone, but if he crossed the church and something happened to Nephie, then even killing all the enemies wouldn’t bring her back.
In which case, hiring himself out to people like the bandits’ accomplice the other day would be quick and easy, but that would mean long hours, and days where he couldn’t return to the castle.
While there were things money couldn’t buy, it was the truth that having no money would mean they would live in want. They still had a little left from the reward for helping the carriage the previous day, so needing to eat wouldn’t suddenly become a problem, but he needed to think of something, quickly.
And so, several days passed with them cleaning up the castle like that.
Nephie asked Zagan, who had spread grimoires all over the archives.
“Master, what are you always researching?”
Even with his life with Nephie being like a dream, Zagan didn’t forget his study of magic. She handled the cooking and cleaning so well, that even if he helped her a little, he actually made more progress than before.
Zagan tilted his head back at her in question.
“What, does it look like something other than magic?”
“I… think so, but I don’t understand what meaning drawing that picture has.”
At this, Zagan’s eyes went wide.
“Is elf magic different than this?”
Nephie shook her head, her pure white hair following the movement.
“I cannot use magic.”
That was a completely unforeseen answer.
Even though she was supposed to have much better mana than humans.
He thought, regretfully. But with that being the case, Zagan pointed at the magic circle he was drawing.
“This is a magic circle. It’s a ‘blueprint’ to cause the phenomena the mage wishes.”
It seemed like that was a word she hadn’t heard before.
“That’s right. There was a water wheel, or a carriage in town, right? Unlike simple blades and hammers, they’re made of lots of parts. If those parts don’t come together, it won’t work, so to fit them together, you record the measurements and such in a blueprint.”
A carriage used countless pieces of wood, nails, and metal fixings, from the size of the wheel, the door, all the way to the seats. A water wheel was even more complex, the gears had to mesh, with their size and the number of teeth. That wasn’t something you could do by practice, you needed a diagram anyone could understand at a glance.
Nephie nodded in understanding.
“Magic is actually no different from doing that kind of thing. First, you draw the blueprint called a magic circle like this,” As he said that, Zagan drew out a crest in the dust on the floor with his finger, “these symbols are concepts that have power. The cross that the church lifts is the same kind of thing. People say that these things are characters left by the gods, and proof of contracts with demons, but I don’t know if that’s actually true.”
Or perhaps the thoughts of humanity, that believed there were gods and power within them gave rise to that power. If you came into contact with magic, you’d understand that the world is a vague and uncertain thing. Next, he enclosed the symbol in a circle.
“This is the simplest form of magic circle. This one causes a flash of lightning, if you pour mana into it, this is what happens.”
Nephie probably didn’t expect him to use it here and let out a panicked cry. Even so, Zagan touched the circle and some small sparks scattered around with a crackle. Nephie seemed to blink in disappointment after bracing herself.
“That… is lightning?”
“Yeah. Well, it soon disperses into the atmosphere, so it doesn’t really look like it.”
Zagan let out a laugh at her not completely satisfied response.
“That alone is just like floating leaves on water. Just striking flint doesn’t make a fire, right? So here we add a symbol for the effectiveness, one to determine the power, one to determine the range, one to determine the length of time, and so on.” He drew several symbols surrounding the one for lightning, making yet another circle around them. “And now it’s finally a circle that will make something like the real thing.”
He added mana to it, and this time, a streak of lightning came from the ceiling. Zagan let out a laugh at Nephie’s small scream.
“Sorry, sorry. But, just doing this makes a circle anyone can use by adding mana. If you go to the trouble of drawing a circle and your enemy can steal it before you can use it yourself, there’s no point. So next you add restrictions so only you can use it.”
In a manner of speaking, it was magic to protect magic.
When Barbarus had infiltrated the bounded fields, and when Zagan had nullified the enemy’s magic, they had rewritten these parts and taken the magic circle over.
“If you don’t make it complex, other mages can take it over easily. It’s here where a mages skill is visible. And, a magic circle made like this is called a ‘circuit’.”
How efficiently a mage could surround the crest at the core of the circle with a strongly defended circuit showed their strength. Replacing magic circle with a spell could be called another of those methods.
There, Nephie stared intently at the magic circle.
“Is something wrong?”
“No, you added the ‘circuit’ outside, but is it possible to add it inside?”
Zagan made an appreciative sound.
“Good eye. The answer is that it’s impossible, but it’s possible.” Nephie cocked her head as if he was talking double Dutch. He continued in an amused voice. “Adding more to the inside of a magic circle makes another magic circle, which disrupts the flow of mana, meaning it might not work, or might activate spontaneously. However, magic itself is in the flow of mana, so it should be possible in theory.”
Nephie fell into thought for a while, and then opened her mouth, not seeming quite sure of herself.
“Would that be controlling magic that has already been activated?”
This time, Zagan’s eyes opened wide.
“That’s right. And if a mage could do that, no magic would reach them.”
Magic attacks would all become a source of power for that mage. It was different from taking over a magic circle, it was like waiting to see what your opponent chose before you played rock, paper, scissors. And because they would be able to activate magic as they wished, there would be no defending against it.
“In other words, in theory, they’d be the strongest mage.”
Though he said that, Zagan shrugged.
“Theory is theory. If it was that simple, no one would have any troubles.”
“…? Mages lengthen their lifespan, and claim that everything is possible from researching magic. Are there still things it cannot do?”
“Rather than that, it’s because no one researches that seriously.”
Nephie tilted her head again, as if she didn’t understand even more.
“Mages aren’t warmongers like soldiers and knights. They research for things like perpetual youth, because they wonder how far magic can go, and to find out if it’s possible to resurrect the dead.”
In other words, mages only thought of themselves in all things. Someone who only wanted for themselves would have no reason to compete with others.
“Of course, there are those that hire themselves out like the mage from the other day, and those that participate in wars. However, even if that’s a method they use, it’s not their goal. Magic research needs money, so they just do it to get that money.”
Nephie opened her mouth, seeming reluctant to say something.
“…I’ve heard… about using magic… to torture people.”
“Yeah, there are morons who do that to pass the time. But they don’t just learn magic for that. There’s plenty of more efficient methods for torture than magic.”
Tools for torture had a long history, getting secrets from people and making them confess had been necessary long into the past. It had been cleaned up a lot, but there was a mountain’s worth of torture implements in the castle, because there were magics which used people’s suffering and hatred as reagents.
“Going back to the topic, that ‘strongest mage’ from earlier would have magic to fight mages. It might be useful to steal other mages research, but it wouldn’t be of any more help. So no one researches it.”
Well, it’s not like there aren’t idiots that research it…
But there was no reason to speak of that, so he stayed silent.
Nephie nodded in apparent understanding at the explanation thus far.
However, she murmured like there was something she wasn’t fully satisfied with.
“I feel like I understand the logic of magic, but…”
“What? Go ahead.”
Nephie spoke, puzzled.
“However, wouldn’t anyone be able to use magic if they understood the structure?”
Nephie has a good sense for magic that’s got nothing to do with being an elf.
If she didn’t have that collar, Zagan was sure she’d make an excellent mage. Possibly one even better than him.
Zagan nodded in pride at his excellent student with that sharp insight.
“Yeah, that’s right. We mages gain knowledge, but gaining power follows directly. How efficiently and effectively you can use it depends on skill.”
Zagan wasn’t born as a mage. The reason he was able to become a well-known mage at a mere eighteen years old was that he stole the knowledge from ‘a certain mage’.
It’s been about ten years since then, huh…
It happened when he was eight, but it wasn’t related to the current conversation, so he shook his head and continued.
“So mages pull all kinds of tricks and set traps so their research isn’t stolen… Make sure you’re careful touching things in this room, okay?”
At that, Nephie went bolt upright in surprise.
“I’m joking. I made sure the traps wouldn’t go off for you.”
“…You’re mean, master.”
Her voice held a subtle note of both relief and reprisal, and then, the tips of her pointed ears started to shiver in happiness.
“Hmm? You seem happy, did something good happen?”
“Hee?” At Zagan’s questioning tilt of his head, Nephie shot up in a panic, and then touched her face in puzzlement. “How… can you tell?”
“Well, you’d probably get it if you could see.”
This time, her ears drooped, and hen lifted up and shivered back and forth. The shaking was probably because she was happy.
As she covered her face, she looked up timidly through her fingers at Zagan. Like that, her expression itself didn’t change, so he admired it as all the more helpful.
And then, she spoke shyly.
“It’s because it’s the first time… you’ve spoken to me like this, master…”
He knew that his own face had gone red, and at the same time, he was filled with a strong sense of regret.
That’s right! I can never help talking around the point!
In the same way as Zagan was troubled when he couldn’t read Nephie’s expressions, she was probably troubled when she didn’t know what he wanted to say.
He cleared his throat with a cough and calmed himself.
“Well, magic’s all I’ve got, I can talk more easily about my field of expertise.”
He didn’t know what she was nodding in agreement to, but she seemed happy even without looking at her ears. Then, she opened her mouth somewhat hesitantly.
“Master, may I ask a question?”
When she spoke so formally like this, it was when she had resolved herself to question him.
Zagan straightened himself and nodded.
“What is it? Go ahead.”
“You already seem to have a great deal of power. Yet you are researching to gather more.”
She paused here, and gulped before continuing.
“Master, what do you want when you have that power?”
Zagan couldn’t immediately answer her question.
What do I want… when I have that power…?
What did he want, that he gathered power for?
Nephie’s expression clouded.
“I apologise, I should not have asked such a thing.”
“No, that’s not it.” Scratching the back of his neck, Zagan spoke hesitantly. “I just, haven’t really thought about it.”
“Haven’t… thought about it?”
How foolish it sounded, having it repeated. Zagan let his gaze drift through the air as he nodded.
“If I had to say, I guess… to live?”
Nephie’s breath caught.
“Yeah. Back when I was a kid, I didn’t have money or a place to live, I lived by stealing, back in those days, I couldn’t go against strong people like adults, but it was still good, because I wasn’t killed.” Thinking back on it now, he felt they were all good people. He was stuffed in a cell, but he was still fed, and wasn’t killed. “Then one day, I was caught by a mage. Even if I wasn’t an elf like you, a brat would make a decent sacrifice.”
As he said it, he thought it was rash. Nephie had been caught like that, and it wouldn’t have been long ago. But it would have been unnatural to stop there, so Zagan hurriedly continued.
“Well, just before he killed me, I got an opening and managed to kill him instead, and then I realised that if I wanted to live, I needed power. So I wanted to get stronger. That’s probably what I want, I guess it sounds cliched, but to be perpetually youthful.”
Perhaps in disappointment, Nephie held her chest and hung her head.
“…I couldn’t… be that strong…”
Zagan and Nephie’s circumstance truly were similar. And because she didn’t get the opportunity to become stronger, she might be looking down on herself.
Zagan boldly began to talk.
“If you’ve got an interest in magic—”
As he spoke, Zagan’s expression became grim.
“What is it?”
“…It seems we have a guest. I’ll go to greet them, you prepare dinner, please.”
“Certainly, how many people should I prepare for?”
“Just me and you is fine. They’ll be leaving soon anyway.”
Zagan left Nephie tilting her head in the archives.
With no power, you can’t live.
He’d had that carved into his mind, all too deeply.
“There’s a mage’s dwelling here…”
A knight spoke in bewilderment.
Four men and women had entered the forest around the castle, three were men, and one was a woman. The men were in their twenties and thirties, and all clearly skilled holy knights. The three men were guarding the woman. But the one that felt it a nuisance was the one they were protecting.
She was still at the age she could be called a girl, but she had a large sword on her back.
It was clearly unfeasible for her to wield it with her slender arms, but she was wearing ‘baptised armour’, one of the tools of the church. Those that wore it could have physical abilities on par with a mage.
The swords that the church’s knights — holy knights wielded were strong against magic, exorcist swords could even cut through a mage’s defences, but the sword the girl held was clearly letting off a different level of power.
The rumoured holy sword, huh…
He thought he recognised the girl’s face, but he was more concerned with the holy sword, so couldn’t remember who she was.
One of the knights grumbled.
“The true kidnapper, huh? To think he lived here.”
“…That isn’t certain yet. That’s why we are here, to confirm that.”
Hearing the knights’ conversation, Zagan understood.
That’s right, Barbarus said that they thought I was one of the culprits too.
They seemed to be here in the name of subjugating that perpetrator. It was good that they were off the mark, but because they knew that, the church wouldn’t withdraw.
They judged mages themselves as evil and their enemies. Proving his innocence wouldn’t change that. Zagan was a mage, and therefore must be destroyed.
The other knight laughed at the girl’s remonstrating voice.
“That’s our Maiden of the Holy Sword, Chastel, compassionate even to mages.”
“We’re proud to be able to fight with you, Lady Chastel.”
The knights praised her extravagantly, and the girl had a conflicted expression.
And there, the knights stopped.
“This thicket again, we can’t go any further.”
It seemed that one of the bounded fields against intruders was causing them difficulty, they had lost their sense of direction and were orbiting the same place.
Zagan watched this scene from the trees.
Before him was the path to the castle. It was around where he’d saved the girl that was attacked by the mage the other day. The knights were confused at the fork in the path. Watching them, he had a sudden thought.
How did that mage break my field?
It was a bounded field that thwarted even holy knights. They couldn’t have gotten this far by accident and luck. Having said that, he didn’t seem to have enough power to break Zagan’s field, he was someone that had begged for his life when faced with Zagan.
That aside, it was the holy knights in front of him now.
It’d be nice if they’d give up here and go home.
Of course, they weren’t so easily overcome.
“Move, please. It’s probably a magic barrier. I’ll…”
The girl stepped forth and drew the sword on her back. There was a strange symbol engraved on its blade. It was fairly different from those used for magic, but the logic behind it was much the same. If magic symbols were characters, it was like another country’s characters.
That symbol shone weakly.
The girl brandished her sword.
He knew that it had broken the fields covering the castle.
It took about half of it, huh.
There were still several left to strengthen him, but all the bounded fields to drive away invaders were destroyed with the swing.
In a single swing.
With the field to bedazzle the knights broken, Zagan was stuck having to appear in front of them.
“…Geez, don’t the church’s people have any manners when they visit someone?”
They finally noticed Zagan when he spoke, and the knights cried out in alarm. The men stood as if to protect the girl, but she waved them off.
She stared at Zagan directly and then murmured somewhat bitterly.
“…So it is you.”
“Have we met?”
He did recognise her from somewhere, but…
He looked at the girl for a while and then finally remembered.
Right, the girl that was being killed.
She was a true beauty, but she didn’t have her sword or baptised armour then, and her hair was tied up now, so she had a different hairstyle.
Even so, she carried the symbol of the church.
If I’d known she was a holy knight, I wouldn’t have let her go like that.
He thought it was a failure, but to criticise her for that now would be unsightly. He decided not to touch on that.
“I don’t know who you are or where you’re from, but get lost, I’m busy.”
Irritatedly raising his finger, he preemptively brought it down.
Following that, the knights, including the girl, had lightning rain down on them. The magic he’d used to vaporise the mage the other day.
If they’re wearing baptised armour, they probably won’t die.
Their armour was exceedingly protective. Half-hearted magic would bounce right back. Even so, Zagan had made allowances in his own way.
“A surprise attack. So mages are nothing but cowards.”
A knight carrying a large shield had protected the girl. The girl behind him was a given, but the other knights seemed to have been unaffected too.
Well, I suppose so.
As much as he disliked it, they had broken Zagan’s bounded field, if this level of attack would have stopped them, they wouldn’t have made it this far.
“…You’re a bunch of idiots. Quit your bluffs and just go home.”
Closing his eyes, he taunted them, tempting them to attack.
If I don’t deal with this quickly, I’ll be late for Nephie’s dinner!
If he couldn’t eat it fresh out of the oven, it wouldn’t be fair to either him or Nephie.
Feeling his overwhelming drive, the girl backed off.
To fill that gap, the shield bearer and other two knights stepped forward.
“Lady Chastel, get back. We three knights of the Azure Sky will deal with a plebeian of this level.”
Exaggeratedly naming themselves, the knights faced Zagan. Now that they mentioned it, their armour was indeed blue.
The man that cried out was rather large, and hoisted a shield, with an axe gripped in their right hand. Behind him was a spear-wielding knight that was tall and thin, and behind him was a knight holding a longsword.
It seemed they used the shield to stop their opponents start, then contain them with the spear, before killing them with the longsword.
It was a rather common set of tactics, but it was so widely used because of just how effective it was. Against one opponent, it might even be called a perfect method.
However, Zagan scratched at his head as if they were only an irritant.
“So if I deal with you lot, you’ll go home?”
At the apparently provocative words, the knights’ faces were filled with anger.
“You impudent rat!”
The shield-bearer charged.
The shield and armour probably came to more than a hundred kilos. Even carrying that much weight, he was still as fast as a horse.
It was far from a human’s abilities, it was the power of the holy knight’s characteristic, the baptised armour. Like the armour, the shield had the symbol of baptism on it. Half-hearted magic would not destroy it, and he wasn’t a slow enough enemy to have the chance to use bigger magic on.
“Fuhaha! You won’t even have time to use magic.”
Charging with his huge shield made him essentially a cannonball. Even a mage would be pulverised by a direct hit. And even if he withstood the shield, the long spear would be waiting for him. If he miraculously withstood the spear, he wouldn’t be able to avoid the finishing blow from the longsword.
It was a setup for perfect victory, but Zagan calmly curled his right hand into a fist. He held that fist aloft as if he were going to throw a stone, and then swung it down at the shield.
The fist and shield crashed into each other. With a grin of victory, the knight yelled.
“You fool, get ready to d-”
In the next instant, the knight’s shield shattered like glass.
The fist continued on and ploughed into his stomach.
With his expression still uncomprehending of what had happened, the knight flew back faster than he had charged, and crashed into the spear-wielding knight behind him.
The huge armoured man must have weighed over two hundred kilos all together, and the Spearman wasn’t expecting to be hit by that out of nowhere.
Without even being able to scream, the second knight was squashed.
The third knight, the swordsman, had narrowly escaped it, but had been petrified with a disbelieving face.
“I-impossible, we three knights of the Azure Sky, our sure-kill battle formation…”
“…You lot know that if you’re going to invade someone’s castle, you should at least prepare? If you at the very least investigated what kind of magic I use, you wouldn’t have chosen such a worthless option.”
Zagan’s fist was wrapped in a delicate magic circle. The mana, amplified by the huge magic circles of the castle, was condensed into this circle.
The highly dense mana carried mass, so much so that it would even break the church’s baptised armour. Zagan excelled at magic to protect himself far more than that to defeat his enemies. He could recover from even a fatal wound immediately, and he faced with an un-winnable situation, he could escape faster than human perception. That was how he had strengthened his physical abilities. Charging at him with a shield that was like a scrap of paper in comparison was nothing less than the height of folly.
Zagan waved his hand like he was warding off an insect.
“Go on, get lost if you understand that. Or are you going to have the slender girl back there carry three bunches of weight like you lot?”
The knights’ faces were twisted into such an expression of hatred it seemed like it would kill a man.
“Not yet! I’m still here.”
“Oi, stop, get back!”
“I will not get back, Lady Chastel, uoooooooh!”
Taking his sword in both hands, the knight swung straight down from above his head. Zagan watched that with cold eyes and swung his left hand. With his hand covered in a magic circle, he had two fingers raised and used it like a sword.
The sword and Zagan’s fingers collided. With a squealing, high pitched noise, the longsword broke in half. The knight opened his eyes so wide it seemed like they might pop out.
Then, Zagan softly extended his arm.
“W-what are you…”
He lightly flicked the bewildered knight’s forehead. Like children often did as practical jokes.
With a single finger flick, the knight hit the ground with the back of his head. Zagan mercilessly stomped on the fallen man’s nose.
“Do you get it? If I put a little more strength into that, your head would have been crushed like a tomato. I’m sure if you hear your skull creak you’ll never forget it. I’m afraid I’ve not forgotten it yet either.”
It was when he was caught by that mage. It appeared that a sacrifice is better the more despair they held within them, and Zagan had a general knowledge of torture.
So he knew just how much this would make them fear.
As he spoke, he looked at the girl.
“Hey now, don’t do anything rash. This guy’s head will be crushed fruit before you draw your sword. You might be able to save him, but do you want something like that on your conscience?”
The knight let out a broken scream, and the girl removed her hand from the sword.
She’s an understanding girl.
In reality, if she’d come at him with the sword, Zagan would have had some trouble. These three knights were no match for him, but the holy sword was different. It would probably cut right through the magic in Zagan’s fist. Even in his own territory, it was doubtful if he’d win.
The girl glared sternly at him.
“Kuh… Why are you acting like it’s a game, are you trying to make fun of the defeated?”
For some reason, the girl’s eyes seemed disappointed as well as angry when she said that.
Zagan made a shocked face as if he didn’t understand that.
“Do you know how to spread fear?”
Chastel’s face grew wary. Zagan needed to make them feel fear. To make them doubt that challenging him was worth it, whether they were safe, not just them, but he needed to make their superiors know it.
That was why he was going out of his way to play with them and not kill them. Him mercilessly stamping on the knight was to instil fear.
“Humans fear the unknown. But what spreads that fear is word of mouth. Even if I killed you all, the ones that sent you would only see that four people died. To spread that fear, you need to return alive and tell them. That’s what I’m doing.”
Putting more weight on his foot, the knight beneath it let out a cry like a crushed frog. He seemed fairly important in his own right, but seeing his face covered with mud, tears, drool, snot, and assorted bodily fluids was truly pitiful.
However, the girl said this.
“That’s a lie.”
Zagan opened one eye in amusement.
“There probably is a factor of self-preservation. Even the church has a side like you said. But those aren’t your true intentions.”
Zagan stiffened with a start.
Corpses on the grounds would scare Nephie…
So, he wanted to drive them off without killing them. The girl smiled with surety at seeing through him.
“…I was right.”
The girl placed a hand on her sword.
“Waid… I don’ wanna die…”
The knight at his feet begged for his life, but she didn’t take her hand from the hilt.
This is bad, she knows I don’t want to kill.
A hostage had worth because they could be used as a shield. But if they knew you didn’t want to kill, a hostage meant nothing as a shield. The girl finally drew the sword from her back.
“I am Chastel Lillqvist. By my master’s orders, I shall subjugate the mage Zagan!”
With a holy sword against him, he couldn’t go easy like he had on these knights. Even so, he didn’t want to kill a girl close to Nephie’s age. And killing a girl he had saved once gave a bad aftertaste.
At any rate, even against a difficult opponent, the girl — Chastel, wouldn’t run away.
Zagan kicked the knight under his foot away. The man rolled across the ground with the kick to his head, bumping into the other two that lay on the ground. As he did, Chastel had come into sword range of Zagan.
The holy sword swung straight down. Zagan parried the flat of the blade with his fist, but—
With that alone, cracks ran through the magic protecting his fist. He’d avoided the blade and parried it, but just touching it had done this. He dreaded to think what would happen if it cut him.
Chastel swung the sword up from the low position. Zagan couldn’t do anything but retreat from the flowing series of attacks.
But it doesn’t seem like there’s that much strength behind them.
It was certainly sharp, but the sword itself was light. Even with the divine protection of the baptised armour, strengthening an originally weak girl had its limits. As she swung, Chastel yelled.
“Why!? Why won’t you attack back? Are you saying I’m not a worthy opponent!?”
That’s right, Zagan was only dodging, not attacking her himself. Zagan answered as he threw his body back to avoid a horizontal slash.
“Don’t be unreasonable, I don’t like hitting girls that much.”
Or rather, he’d gotten weak to doing so.
Girls around the same age as Nephie that is.
Rather than be hated by Nephie, if he made a fist, the lovely girl’s face flashed across his eyes. If it had been another girl but Nephie, he might be able to hit her easily.
So if he could solve it without hitting her, he tried to search for another method.
Chastel grit her teeth.
“Why is a person like you involved with magic?”
Rather than anger and hatred, it sounded more like a cry of lament. Zagan tilted his head.
“I don’t really know what you’re saying, but is using magic really all that bad?”
Even if he thought of himself as a villain, that had nothing to do with magic.
Chastel cried angrily.
“It’s evil! Because you have that power, you oppress people and make them suffer.”
“Then what about your power? You unilaterally kill mages weaker than you, right?”
At that statement, Chastel’s face wavered, and her missed strike sent the blade into the floor. Immediately, Zagan stepped on it. Held by the flat of the blade as it was, even a holy knight would struggle to free it by force.
Zagan looked coolly at the groaning girl.
“I don’t intend to justify myself, but there are many who could not live without magic. People that live off them by trampling them underfoot can’t tout justice.”
Even as the girl tried to give a nice response, she knew it was true. She paled, and didn’t reply.
Don’t give that kind of response to that, it makes it harder to attack you…
If she’d yelled something unsightly, like her being in the right, he’d have easily been able to attack. Even so, she chewed her lip and put her strength behind the hand holding her sword.
“Even so… no, because of that, I won’t lose!”
The girl managed to pull the sword out by sheer strength. That ruined Zagan’s balance as he was standing on it.
Chastel lunged with all her might.
But, her sword’s sloppy.
Zagan didn’t dodge, and brought his hands together with a clap. Between them, he seized the tip of the sword. The protection of his magic circles was cracking. His palms felt like they would sear with the heat between them, but he still returned a fierce smile.
“Is a test of strength to your liking?”
“I’ll take you on!”
Rather than retreat, Chastel put her entire body behind her sword.
The symbol engraved on the holy sword shone dazzlingly, and as if acting in concert, her baptised armour was also enveloped in light.
It was hard to believe so suddenly, but the girl lifted the sword, and Zagan’s body.
She was hiding a trump card?
Just as Zagan was taking a wait-and-see approach, Chastel was hiding her true strength. And then, she continued on to swing the sword.
This dainty girl had swung a hunk of iron with a person clinging to it. It was hard to believe.
Even Zagan couldn’t bear that, and his hands left the sword. He was thrown into the trees behind him and the wind was knocked out of him.
She’s stronger than me within my bounded fields?
Bounded fields weren’t particularly meaningful against holy knights, but Zagan hadn’t lost the power that strengthened him.
Though it may have been with a holy sword and baptised armour, the girl had overcome Zagan with pure strength.
He looked at where his hands had touched the blade.
They were red with burns. Even though he was healing them with magic, it was a slow process. This was probably an effect of the holy sword.
I should have killed her then.
He would have felt ashamed of killing an unresisting girl, but he should have been more wary of someone from the church. While he was groaning, Chastel cut forth towards him again.
He managed to stop the sword swinging down at him by the hilt, but the tree behind him was pulverised.
If it hadn’t been him, or if he hadn’t been within his bounded fields, he might have been pulverised along with it.
He let out a sigh. There was really nothing else for it.
I guess I’ll have to kill her.
He could run. However, Nephie was in the castle, and if Zagan escaped, Nephie would be attacked next, because the church judged those that allied with mages as ‘evil’ as well.
It seemed like even Zagan’s power didn’t match up with the holy sword. However, that didn’t mean he didn’t have other methods available to him.
It was as he gathered destructive power into his hands.
“Listen to me. Can you pretend to be killed by me?”
Zagan stared in wonder at those words coming from the mouth of a holy knight. Looking behind the girl, he saw the knights that he had laid out groaning and beginning to rise. Was it something she didn’t want them to hear?
“For what purpose?”
“The church won’t give up until you’re dead. If I lose, they’ll just send someone stronger. Pretend to die here, and give up magic, and live as a human.”
Zagan doubted his own ears.
“Not something I expected from a holy knight.”
“…You didn’t kill my subordinates. With making them fear, your eyes were kind of affectionate.”
They were words he struggled to accept immediately
I… was affectionate?
Zagan didn’t know that’s what his concern for Nephie was called. It wasn’t towards Chastel and the knights, but Chastel had seen through him that he was protecting her.
And then Chastel said this.
“And more importantly, I won’t forget that you saved me.” So saying, she looked truly apologetic. “…Sorry, there’s nothing else I can do.”
She couldn’t pretend he hadn’t saved her. It wasn’t the first time he had fought with holy knights. However, it was the first time he had fought a holy knight he sympathised with more than mages.
It seems like she’s struggling…
If a holy knight were to protect a mage, it wouldn’t just end with the revocation of their rank. They would be the shame of the church, deprived of even their human rights, tortured and executed so horrifically he would hesitate to put it into words. And for someone as beautiful as Chastel, it could go as far as the nightmare of sexual assault.
She didn’t seem so slow as to not understand that. They weren’t words she could say without real conviction. It got even harder to attack her.
However, I can’t do that.
If he did as Chastel said, he could make good on his escape, and besides, there wasn’t much left in the castle anyway. However, it would be impossible for Nephie to escape.
While Zagan was feigning his death, they’d investigate the castle and find Nephie. Because she still didn’t hold her life in that high a regard.
He was lost for what to do.
It was Nephie’s voice, who should have been in the castle.
Looking around, he saw her running towards them in her maid outfit. It seemed she’d come because he was too slow returning, or perhaps because she felt uneasy.
“Stay away, Nephie!”
“Eh, a girl…?”
Chastel let out a confused question. At that instant, they both showed an opening.
“Uooooh, don’t mess with me!” Amongst the three knights, the Spearman rose, he had light injuries from being hit with the other knights. And then, his gaze fell on Nephie. “The mage’s ally!?”
Zagan wasn’t sure what the knight was thinking as he hefted his spear at Nephie as she ran to them.
“Stop it, Torres!”
Chastel called for him to stop, but the knight hurled his spear.
Zagan pushed her aside and ran in front of Nephie. However, if he flung her away with his current strength, it wouldn’t end well for Nephie, as delicate as she was. He took her gently in his arms, but the spear was upon them there.
Zagan thrust out his left arm as a shield. With a squelch of torn flesh, the spearhead pierced through his hand.
Nephie cried out in sadness.
Even so, the spear stopped after piercing his hand.
“I’m okay. This is just a flesh wound.”
There was a light sheen of sweat on Zagan’s forehead as he said that.
With the holy sword inhibiting his healing, this wound meant his left arm was unusable for a while.
Blood dripped to the floor. It had been a long time since he’d seen his own blood.
Don’t get carried away, you shitty knights…
However, Zagan couldn’t give a voice to those abusive words.
Within his arms, he felt a shivering as if Nephie was cold.
“Don’t hurt my master.”
Zagan couldn’t immediately reconcile that voice with Nephie. It was a cold, dark voice that spilt from the normally lovely and languid girl.
Then, it happened.
There was a phrase, ‘the forest stirs’.
It was a phrase for when the creatures living in a forest moved, or a strong wind blew, making the trees shake.
No creatures ran from the trees, and there was no wind.
Yet still, the forest stirred.
Creatures gathered from the trees. There were infant squirrels, ferocious wolves and wild boars. They stared fixedly at the knights without making a sound. The trees themselves weren’t shaking.
The foliage grew on its own, and thorny vines crawled out from the shrubbery, and stirred, as if the forest itself had a will.
And then, something that should perhaps be called the displeasure of the forest stared at the knights.
What on earth is this?
It wasn’t magic. In the first place, Nephie was bound by the magic restraining collar. She shouldn’t be able to use magic.
Having said that, it also wasn’t the church’s power.
If he had to put it into words—
Is she controlling the forest itself?
It was too different in qualities and scale from the magic that Zagan used. He felt a chill down his back.
The knights seemed to feel a similar thing. The spear-thrower began to shake at the completely unknown power.
The weaponless knight — Chastel had called him Torres — went to run.
“You won’t escape.”
Nephie stretched an arm out.
Vines crawled from beneath his feet, seizing his legs.
From before the knight, thick tree roots advanced on him.
The trees pulsed like a living creature, swallowing up the knight’s body and dragging him into the ground. They were wondrously strong, and in the blink of an eye, his baptised armour had fissured.
At the sound of his bones being crushed, Zagan finally came back to himself.
“Enough! That’s enough, Nephie, stop.”
As he held her tightly, Nephie stopped her hand in apparent surprise.
The knight that had been pulled into the ground was still barely breathing.
Is this, Nephie’s power…?
It could be a characteristic of the elves, or because she was a variant with white hair. At any rate, it was a power Zagan didn’t know, that surpassed even magic.