Toaru Majutsu no Index:AgneseSS
Some fields of work were done in secret.
No one living a normal life would ever need their services and their stories were never told in movies or dramas. But in reality, those necessary evils were crucial for the seen and unseen sides of society to run smoothly.
Such jobs existed in the magical world as well.
A strange figure marched through an old, dark stone street of Barcelona in Spain’s autonomous community of Catalonia.
He stood two meters tall and his long hair was dyed red. His black cassock seemed at odds with the cigarette in his mouth and he even had a barcode tattoo below one eye.
He looked unbelievably bored.
The presence of a predator implied the presence of prey.
The woman looked more gaunt than simply skinny.
She had silver hair and brown skin.
Her navel and thighs were visible, but not because she had intentionally chosen a revealing dress. She wore tattered rags that could not have smelled pleasant.
She recognized the large presence behind her. She knew who he was, but had never actually met him. If she had met him in the field, she would not have survived to tell the tale. The legends she had heard were more than enough to tell her that.
And the ones who had spread those legends were no more.
The entire magic cabal had been reduced to ashes.
So she had no choice but to escape on her own. She could not see anyone else around, whether to ask for help or to use them as human shields.
Assuming her pocket watch was accurate, it was past 11 at night.
At first glance, Barcelona looked like an old historical city full of stone buildings with ages measured in centuries, but it also had a shopping district with an impressive number of bars and nightclubs. No matter the hour, this central area would never be entirely deserted.
There had to be more to it. The answer was found on the old stone walls and the streetlight supports.
A people-clearing field had been established by rune cards engraved with the Opila character.
This had to be him. The bane of all magicians had arrived.
The voice from behind was short.
He called her name.
That alone felt like some kind of powerful curse. The enemy knew exactly who and where she was. That was enough to bind her body with unbearable tension. She lost track of which leg she had just taken a step with, so the silver-haired brown-skinned woman named Isabella tripped over her own feet and tumbled to the ground.
Not that she had anywhere to go regardless.
She found herself at a dead end with thick stone walls in every direction except back the way she had come.
Feeling trapped at the bottom of a well, she placed her hands on the wall and looked up at the moon to check how far out of reach freedom was. The answer was over 10 meters. The wall was made of smooth concrete, so she may have been able to climb it like someone going bouldering, but he was bound to attack her back as she climbed.
She heard a solid footstep.
It seemed to block off the path she had taken here.
Sweet cigarette smoke reached her nose.
He did not let modern etiquette stop him from smoking. In fact, he seemed to use it to announce his presence before he attacked: “You will die here, so this toxic secondhand smoke is inconsequential.”
“Do you know why this is happening?”
“N-no, I don’t.”
“Then again, we no longer bother with that old-fashioned inquisition stuff. It doesn’t matter to us if you or anyone else understands. I was told I could eliminate you on sight.”
“This must be some kind of mistake!! I really don’t know anything!!”
Something spiraled around Isabella. It looked like a colored tornado, but it was in fact an exceedingly long piece of cloth. It was a spiritual item made by sewing together burial garbs obtained through graverobbing.
She was a mere 10 meters from freedom.
In her world, that height might as well have been nothing. The cloth tornado bent down like a powerful spring and then launched the gaunt woman upwards with tremendous force.
The word necromancy might bring to mind techniques of controlling a rotting corpse, but the field was divided into many different factions and schools. For example, summoning a spirit of the dead and having them predict the future was a form of necromancy. So was wearing the clothing of the dead to become one with them.
(This can’t be happening! This can’t be happening!! I’m not letting myself get killed over some stupid misunderstanding!! How in the world did I find myself here!?)
She arrived on the rooftop in a single bound.
And once she was out of that dead end, the rooftops extended around her in all directions as far as the eye could see. She could escape. This would all work out. That guy might be the bane of magicians, but he was helpless to do a thing if he lost track of her.
That imaginary optimism was cut off by a very real explosion.
He was not up there with her.
Instead, all the roofs around her were covered in rune cards that would ignite when approached by someone containing magic power refined from their life force.
Isabella was knocked off balance the instant she set foot on the rooftop and she fell right back down into the dead end. Almost like her pursuer had yanked back on a leash.
She was rejected from the freedom above and dragged back into the darkness below.
She slammed back-first into the ground and struggled to breath while a tall figure stared quietly down at her.
He was Stiyl Magnus, a killer priest of Necessarius, the Anglican Church’s 0th Parish.
“Is that a hybrid created by mixing that indigenous Caribbean religion with the Christian Shroud of Turin?”
Every one of his statements was precise.
And in the magical world, having your trick revealed was akin to a death sentence. Magic was a system of laws and techniques, so a countermeasure could be found once the structure of your spell was divulged.
Clothing was a symbol of one’s position.
A king wore a crown and a priest wore a habit to display the power of their position to themselves and others. Criminals would have such clothing destroyed in public. The same idea applied to the field of magic. For example, some magic could draw out great power by dressing up as the Egyptian or Greek gods and putting on grand plays. It was also said that witches would dress in male clothing to gain special power.
So what would happen if the living stole and dressed up in a cloth wrapped around the dead?
This was an extreme example.
“The Gnostics also believed the physical body was a nuisance and wished to free their soul from that prison, but with no clear definition for the soul, you will have a hard time becoming an omniscient and omnipotent being through nothing more than death. If that was all it took, the losing side of every war would have obliterated the victor in revenge.”
“Y-you misunderstand. You’re making a terrible mistake here.”
The physical damage from the fall was too much for her to get up.
Nothing could be more frustrating for a magician who had tried to solve everything with their magical logic.
“Yes, I did dig up some graves because I needed their burial shrouds for my spell, but necromancy is nowhere near as dangerous as it sounds! I haven’t actually harmed anyone, so this isn’t a job for you!!”
Stiyl Magnus called someone else’s name, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Tellia Harleos, Rinka Sawaue, Jane Balgowa.”
But the list had a purpose.
The priest pulled a rune card from his pocket and let it go.
It attached to Isabella’s right cheek with a heavy and sticky sensation. But it was not alone. Others attached to her shoulders, chest, hips, thighs, and more.
Those were people.
People who Isabella knew better than anyone should not – could not – have been here. The necromancer was surrounded by the illusory presence of those girls.
“Church graveyards have been increasing their security these days. Of course, it’s mostly meant to stop the people who have started sneaking in hoping to earn some clicks after filming their ‘adventure’ on their phone and uploading it to a video site.”
Skill with magic did not necessary translate to skill with science.
Especially when a powerful barrier had been constructed between the two sides.
That security may have been put in place for a silly non-magical reason, but if traditional methods could not break through, the magic side was shut out just as well. Much like a thoughtlessly placed concrete structure could cut off the path for salmon to swim upstream, thus destroying the ecosystem.
“So tell me, Isabella. Where did you obtain those burial shrouds? Or was sneaking in too much trouble, so you started burying people yourself to make your own graveyard?”
“Was the Armada cabal’s ideology really so attractive you were willing to bury people alive to pursue it? Were you that dedicated to reclaiming Spain’s lost naval superiority to remake the world with Spain in the center ‘as it should be’? Well, Spain is a crossroads for several different cultures, so I can see how you had the groundwork to include everything from the Christian Shroud of Turin to Voodoo zombie powder.”
“Detach the Ti Bon Ange and place it within me!!”
The collapsed and supposedly incapacitated woman used the strength of her jaw to break open her own canine tooth.
Or rather, the zombie powder capsule hidden there.
An invisible explosion followed.
Even Stiyl Magnus was forced to take three steps back.
The supposedly unmoving woman stood back up. Unnatural creaks and cracks came from the joints and cartilage of her beautiful brown body. As abnormal as it looked from an anatomic and biological perspective, only someone who could see her life force and magic power could see the full extent of it. The ordinary circulation was entirely ignored and her body moved on its own – her own will had nothing to do with it. But that was no surprise since someone other than her was moving it.
“You have guts to accept that when the soul is so poorly defined.”
Stiyl Magnus narrowed his eyes a little.
When he opened both hands and closed them again, red and blue flames erupted from them. Those violent flames took a straight path like a blowtorch. They both functioned as swords containing a tremendous force.
As a priest, he had a standard line when it came to witches.
“No woman who uses magic can be left alive.”
He did not even allow it to come to an exchange of attacks.
First, he let the right sword collapse into a deluge of flame to stop her as she tried to leap at him. Once she flinched back, he used his left flame sword to slice horizontally through his own flame wall and the target’s torso.
He gave the briefest of glances to Isabella’s upper body as it spun by overhead.
“Hm, so not even death is enough to stop you.”
He once more slashed at her supposedly dead form. This time, the sword entered at her shoulder and sliced diagonally down across her torso. Octopus or squid tentacles had started to emerge from the bottom of the severed torso, but this attack burned the entire upper body away in an instant. At the last second, the back of the skull burst open and something soft frantically leaped out. Surrounded by a transparent shell and supported by countless tentacles, the disembodied brain looked something like a giant jellyfish.
By stealing the clothing of the dead, a necromancer could become one with the dead and draw out their power.
In a way, necromancy was a technique of controlling humans, living or dead. After all, some necromancers would take a summoned soul (or what seemed to be a soul) and sealed it inside their own body, so they had to understand how a living body worked as well. Using that knowledge, they could also begin to experiment and see how much could be eliminated from a human body while still remaining themselves.
(Since she modeled herself after a poisonous animal in the very end, did she also store her prized zombie powder in thousands and thousands of microscopic cnidocytes?)
“You put up a good fight. You really did.”
She may have tried to shout something, but the disembodied brain had no speech organs.
Red and blue.
The priest raised his two flame swords and approached the magician who finally had nowhere left to run.
“But it is time you slept. Forever.”
“Soooo was that good enough, Stiyl?”
“The point of the training is to prepare them for anything that could realistically happen. If we do not keep it somewhat realistic, they cannot develop the skills they need, Isabella.”
“What kind of training is this, you morons?”
A short nun was terribly frustrated.
Blood and gore were splattered everywhere.
If the Anglican magicians did not clean up all of that red and black before it was seen, it was sure to cause an international incident. This was the Roman Catholic nation of Spain, so things worked very differently than in the English capital of London. They could not leave behind any chance of trouble.
Agnese Sanctis had originally led a team of Roman Catholic nuns, but they had since joined the Anglicans instead.
“Even so, this is honestly impressive.”
A taller nun in an identical habit sighed next to her. Sister Lucia was something of a clean freak, so she viewed the mess with obvious disgust while repeatedly crossing herself.
“This is very high quality for an imitation. What did they say they did? Rearrange pig and cow bones and organs to match human anatomy and then treat them with chemicals?”
“AEDs and epinephrine are apparently off limits. Trying to revive this could cause the soulless doll to get up and start moving.”
A Necessarius magician could conceivably make something like that.
The nuns were here for training, but not against Stiyl Magnus or Isabella Theism. Their task was to clean up afterwards. The combat magicians were not going to hold back, so the logistical support nuns had to show up after the fact and erase anything that risked an international incident. That was why those two Necessarius members had traveled to a foreign country, fought an imitation of a real battle, and left a fake corpse splattered all over the scene.
They had of course not informed Spain of this and the corpse was so realistic even the average magician would mistake it for real. In other words, a real international incident was still very much a possibility.
“Wh-what do you think he meant when he said this could ‘realistically happen’, Sister Agnese?” asked Angelene, whose hunched back made her look even shorter than she really was.
The answer to that was obvious enough.
“I imagine he meant exactly what he said. A magic cabal called Armada probably really does exist here.”
The Anglican Church, and especially Necessarius, were second to none when it came to eliminating magicians who had strayed too far. They never stopped gathering intel on existing threats and they could easily create identical models for training purposes.
Agnese pointed her thumb at the red splattered on the walls and ground.
“Anyway, we need to get to work. Let’s get this over with already.”
“I would rather not. There isn’t much I would like to do less.”
“B-but they’ll be mad at us if we don’t. And we need to meet our quota if they’re going to keep us around.”
A clattering sound came from Agnese’s feet.
They already had all the necessary tools: buckets, mops, spray bottles, rags, etc.
“Let’s do everything we can. I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces when they see our Catholic thoroughness .☆”
This kind of work was known as forensic cleanup.
It had begun as a service for real estate owners. When a mummified or rotting corpse was discovered inside an apartment or hotel room, every last trace of the corpse – including any stains on the floor after it was reduced to a stew – had to be removed lest it bring down the value of the room. Even though forensic cleanup often required handling a dead body, no special license was required and it was done by cleaning professionals (for an extra fee) instead of by the police or fire department.
When magic was involved, the cleanup job had to include some more unseen areas.
“Residual thoughts are our top priority. Make sure you eliminate any readable impression of who did this or what happened here.”
“That rune freak put those cards everywhere around here, but does he expect us to collect all of them!? How many thousands is that!?”
“U-umm, Sister Lucia? Don’t some of those explode when they sense magic power nearby?”
Now they had to play the bomb squad as well. If you were not familiar with the magicians who fought on the scene, you could run across some unpleasant surprises while cleaning up. They didn’t want to be cursed while dragging the corpse around, and triggering an explosion while removing a card would create lots more material evidence needing to be cleaned up.
They needed to be careful so that did not happen.
The trick to cleaning was to “loosen up” and then “wash away” the filth.
If you did not know what was filthy and what was dangerous, you would miss something.
Thus, Agnese started by clapping her hands together in front of her flat chest.
She kept her eyes open but focused them on some unseen place while speaking under her breath.
“Apas of Prithvi, you are a silver crescent moon shining within a yellow square. Open the door of otherworldly afterimage and provide us with the eye that perceives the unseen realm.”
A buzzing groan ran through the space around her and the objects, bloodstains, and anything else with traces of human-altered magic power glowed with a faint light. The rune magic with a faint blue and the necromancy with a faint red. Angelene groaned like a young wife who discovered a clump of wet hair in the drain of her brand-new home.
“Ugh. Y-you can’t get away with anything, can you?”
“This is what you get with the short-term memory of something that happened less than an hour ago. Now, we need to clean all this up so it doesn’t become long-term memory and soak into this location.”
If Agnese could do this, so could other magicians.
To prevent that, they had to erase all hints leading back to the Anglicans and then make themselves scarce. Of course, they also could not let anyone see them in the process of cleaning it up.
Lucia stuck a mop in a bucket and sloshed it around.
“Are we using water for this?”
“92% water, 6% protein, and then some salt and other minerals for flavor.”
“Th-that isn’t the recipe for holy water.”
Stoop-backed Angelene was right.
The Roman Catholic Church would add salt when sanctifying water, but this included more than that.
“Basically, we are making artificial human blood. Although it will be transparent since it won’t have any red or white blood cells. Wipe up the bloodstains with this to eliminate any residual information before the cleaning begins. It’s the same idea as adding a decoy stamp over the addressee’s name on a letter so that personal information is no longer readable. Even if someone catches on that this place was cleaned, they won’t be able to recreate what was cleaned up. Once that’s done, we can get to the actual cleaning.”
“We also have to worry about that zombie powder and the rune cards, right?”
“The Haitian toxin can be decontaminated with heat of 1000 degrees or higher and that isn’t enough to melt the stone walls. But Stiyl’s cards are resistant to flames, so that method won’t work. Still, it would take all night if we tried to manually remove them all, so would acid be the best way to deal with them all at once?”
“What makes you think that?”
“Runes were originally carved into stone and I hear acid rain is a real threat to cultural preservation. Something made from nitrogen oxide or sulfur dioxide would probably be best.”
That might sound awfully ordinary for this kind of work, but that was normal. Almost anything found in everyday life could be used for magic. In particular, things used for cleaning and sterilization could be used for purification and things that led to pollution and decay could be used for curses. Good examples of the former were water, salt, and fire. Good examples of the latter were mud and animal blood.
“Well, it’s a pain, but let’s get started on this thankless work.”
Magic could seem all-powerful, but all the preparation and cleanup it required were actually a pain in the rear.
And every field had annoying tasks that were traditionally left with the newcomers. A top-rate stage magician would carefully check over the stage and props that could kill them if not properly set up, but they would not clean the theater bathrooms themselves.
“Umm, Sister Agnese? Am I imagining things or are the clumps of flesh on the ground moving? Ah! I’m not imaging it! They’re definitely throbbing!”
“Argh! We need to gather those up before they run off and form a globster!! Everyone, prepare the tarps. We’ll wrap up these stubborn Iberian pigs and roast them in the incinerator!!”
“Plastic tarps don’t burn, Sister Agnese.”
They were left filthy and disgusting.
But now Agnese Sanctis wore a thin pink fabric with surprisingly cute frills.
She groaned while laying on a sofa bed in her underwear.
From the outside, this looked like a plain metal container, but from the inside, it even had a bathroom and kitchen. Basically, it was a mobile home, but unlike the commercial models, this one had removed all unnecessary decorations, such as the windows and doors, to make it indistinguishable from a cargo container.
Her right leg slipped from the bed and hit something.
She barely had time to realize it was a silver staff leaning against the wall before…
“Ow!! Do you not know how to look after your own spiritual item, Sister Agnese!?”
“Why are you sleeping on the floor, Sister Angelene?”
It had apparently fallen over and hit someone on the forehead.
The staff had an angel carving curled up at the head, but it was known as the Lotus Wand. That magical item functioned as an all-purpose Symbolic Weapon in modern Western magic.
They had finished the work shortly before 4 AM – or just barely before dawn – but their struggles had not ended there. Necessarius was being excessively thorough for some simple training, so the nuns had showered and showered to no avail. The stench of death, that unique scent reminiscent of rust mixed with rotting eggs with a few drops of vinegar added as a special touch, still clung to them. They had somehow avoided being cursed, but that meant it was closer to midday than morning when they finally climbed into bed.
And they had a good reason for not using an ordinary hotel.
They were in the Anglican Church’s care for the time being and their former home of the Roman Catholics had more than 2 billion followers around the world. If they were seen working outside of England, it could easily develop into something more than mere training. They had no idea who would be watching or listening in, so they could not leave a paper trail by renting out a hotel room.
“Sister Lucia, aren’t you on cooking duty today? Whip us up something. Something filling but kind on the stomach and something tasty enough to make me forget all about that curse-ridden corpse.”
“You need to dial back your demands unless you’re trying to set me up for failure. Or better yet, let’s go out to eat.”
Agnese, Lucia, and Angelene donned their habits and left the container together.
It was 10 AM and Barcelona was still caught in the middle of the morning rush hour. No one expected the trains to arrive exactly on time in Europe and people generally had a more relaxed view of time, but Spain was especially that way. They were even the country that had introduced the concept of the siesta to the business world. The handwritten boards in front of the cafes tended to say morning business hours ended at 11.
Agnese’s group entered a random restaurant and sat at a table in a corner.
Spanish food differed greatly between the coastal areas and mountain areas. On one side you had seafood paella and on the other you had spit-roasted Iberian pigs. Barcelona was a coastal city, so this place naturally served a lot of shrimps and shellfish. Spain had the distinctive trait of being a European country that regularly ate octopus and squid.
“What were our plans for the day again?” asked Lucia while using her fork to poke at a large salad with plenty of seafood piled on top.
“Don’t ask me. That brokenhearted barcode arsonist insists on making it a surprise, so he’ll probably show up with some kind of training at some point.”
They were still seen as outsiders within Necessarius.
The work they were being given seemed entirely pointless, but it was possible they were actually completing some special task without their knowledge. For example, 99% of their late-night forensic cleanup work may have been done on imitation scenarios, but it was possible the last 1% had some real evidence mixed in. The on-site workers had no way of knowing what role they played in the big picture.
The Anglican Church – and Necessarius in particular – was a monstrous system created to efficiently kill, so they likely had worked out long ago how to get people to do horrific things without guilt.
“Clams, clams, delicious claaaams.”
Stoop-backed Angelene was chowing down on some elliptical shellfish.
Agnese was munching on some pizza toast flavored with sliced olives and anchovies.
“Well, as long as they’re still telling us it’s training, the situation can’t be too serious,” said Agnese. “I imagine the danger level is between yellow and orange. We need to be cautious, but nothing is about to happen.”
“Are you sure that’s not being overly optimistic?”
“Upsetting your superiors by digging deeper for no good reason is not a good way to live a long life. So until something happens, I say we enjoy some sightseeing here in Spain. The sunny side of this city looks so much brighter after experiencing that shadowy mess of curses, death, and blood.”
She said it herself, but Agnese could not shake a sense that something was wrong.
“Something isn’t right about this restaurant.”
“Hwut dho you mwean?” asked Angelene with her mouth so full her cheeks swelled out like a squirrel’s.
Lucia tugged on her ear as an expressionless punishment and responded to Agnese.
“Yes, it’s too clean. I can’t sense any naturally-occurring magic here.”
Magic was not known to the ordinary people living their ordinary lives, but that ignorance often led them to unwittingly stumble into it. For example, few people knew the shushing gesture of holding your index finger in front of your lips had its roots in an Ancient Egyptian ritual. Amateurs performed those ordinary actions all the time, so there was no need for anyone to wipe all trace of it clean.
Small jinxes could be found in the greetings people exchanged on a daily basis without knowing a thing about the magic world. Even when you did not know how to actually refine your lifeforce into magic power, you could still gather some power as a faint margin of error. It was a lot like leaving behind invisible fingerprints.
But this restaurant contained none of that.
They could only assume that someone with enough knowledge to notice those slight risks had wiped everything clean.
Agnese glanced around the restaurant.
“Did someone perform magical forensic cleaning here?”
That question came back at her and inspired a further question.
For example, there were ways of erasing blood stains. It was hard to do so completely, but if you only needed to avoid a luminol reaction, special oxygen detergents available for purchase online would do the trick.
Of course, washing a spot clean with that was a sign that there had been a bloodstain there. There was no reason to go to all that specialized effort to wash a spot clean if there was nothing suspicious there in the first place.
And this was the magic side’s forensic cleaning, which was designed for situations where a dead body might just stand back up all on its own. Only someone familiar with their world would even know that needed doing.
So why had the restaurant been wiped so clean?
Had something happened here requiring it?
“Well, we just stumbled into some trouble,” said Agnese once they were back in the mobile home.
They had not contacted Stiyl and they did not know if they should tell him about this even if they had. Again, they were still seen as outsiders within Necessarius.
They could think of two broad possibilities.
“First, this is a continuation of last night, making this a part of our Anglican training. If we do nothing, we might lose a ton of points.”
“Ugh,” groaned Angelene who was already growing tearful. They had spent all night cleaning up a mess that made cleaning up dog poop seem more appealing, so it was distressing to think all that effort could go to waste because of some second round.
Also, there was no chance some other group was being tested in the same area. If the two teams ended up interfering with each other due to a failure on the supervisor’s part, the entire training session would be for nothing. If they were told all of this had not counted because they could not be graded properly, they might just murder the grader.
However, the real danger was the second possibility.
“Second, something real is happening. That would mean this isn’t training and this really is something Necessarius should be dealing with. I don’t know what it could be, but this hint is enough to know the culprit is aware they’re up to no good.”
Unfortunately, actions taken to hide evidence did not immediately work as evidence of misdeeds. Just because someone thought they had committed a crime did not mean they had. Some people were overwhelmed by fears that they had done something truly terrible even though no crime had ever occurred. It fit the same pattern as someone taking in an abandoned puppy on a rainy day and later fearing that counted as theft because they did not have the original owner’s permission. In that case, the original crime was entirely imaginary, yet the actions taken to hide that they had taken in the puppy would be all too real.
They did not know enough to say in this case.
If they overlooked this, it might lead to some otherwise avoidable disaster, but if they made a fuss about it, it could turn out to be nothing.
“Whichever it is, you know what we have to do next, right?”
“Gather enough information to make an informed decision. We need to know if this is simple training or a real battle and, in the latter case, we need to know whether or not we need to intervene. We need more information before we can hope to figure any of this out.”
She had hoped to reach a different conclusion, but nuns tended to be diligent. The odds of this being wasted effort were around 75%, but they had to go to the effort regardless.
After all, if this was the remaining 25%, someone’s life could be hanging in the balance. Those odds were too high for them to irresponsibly pretend they had not noticed anything. When the odds were even worse than a game of Russian roulette, they could not just let it slide.
So they had a plan.
“Okay, everyone, I hope you’re ready for some more thankless work☆”
The unnaturally-well-cleaned restaurant was the location of interest, so they first had to look into the identities of the owner and all the workers. If any of them was a professional magician, the danger level would immediately rise.
“B-but what kind of magical ritual could you even do at a restaurant? Ah!? Th-this doesn’t mean there was a corpse hidden below the floorboards where we were eating, does it?”
“What would they gain from that?”
Angelene began to tremble, but Agnese responded with obvious exasperation. Lucia took a more businesslike view of the issue.
“So, Sister Agnese, where do we begin the investigation? We should be able to find information on the people at the city hall and the restaurant at the labor office.”
“Let’s go somewhere we know better than that,” casually replied Agnese. “Namely, a church.”
It could seem strange to the Japanese since most of them celebrated Christmas and then visited a Shinto shrine a week later, but churches contained plenty of personal information. After all, in Christian cultures, children were brought to the church to receive a baptismal name shortly after they were born. The local church would generally have all the information you could want on the local residents. Agnese’s group were part of the magic side and they would prefer to sneak into a place that operated under familiar rules. It especially helped that Spain was a Catholic country.
They needed to visit the church’s record storeroom.
“Th-that’s a Catholic church.” Angelene was nervous. “If we’re caught there, our lives are over.”
Magic was supposed to be a noble thing and not a tool to fulfill one’s immediate worldly desires.
Yet there were an awful lot of spells to hide your presence, sneak into places, or transform into the opposite sex.
“I swear these spells must have been developed by peeping toms and panty thieves.”
“Sister Agnese,” chided tall and fastidious Lucia.
Agnese had just undergone a transformation.
She did not need the Lotus Wand for something as simple as this.
Specifically, she had constructed a spell by taking the familiar Christian ritual of death and rebirth and rearranged it based on the story of a goddess from a different mythology. The Golden magic cabal, said to have once been the world’s greatest, had researched how to gain a mythology or religion’s power using a stage performance. Part of “getting into character” for those performances was to dress up as a god.
“While supported by the holy tetragrammaton of YHVH, we don the clothing of Isis, goddess of the lunar hexagram, so we might be resurrected from death and ascend here as new beings altogether.”
A change came over them.
However, they could not see the change themselves since they were on the inside of the spell. Just like someone in a mascot costume could not see the costume they were wearing.
Lucia was a clean freak on the mental side of things as well.
She considered herself a nun who served the one true god, so she looked extremely displeased with this.
“Dressing up as Isis, huh?”
“Deal with it. It’s only a symbol.”
Instead of disguising themselves as some specific person, they had turned themselves into “nobodies”. They would not stand out in the crowd, but no one would remember what they looked like after taking a few steps away.
“But it isn’t perfect. If someone sees you six times, they’ll see through to your true face, so no pacing back and forth on the same road and no doing anything suspicious enough to earn a double take. Just focus on our goal and keep walking.”
They slipped through the main double doors to enter the church.
The documents they wanted were further in than the public chapel.
“(There sure are a lot of people here.)”
“(Eh!? Are they doing a wedding!?)”
That was perfect. A wedding might seem like a solemn occasion, but there would actually be a lot of people running to and fro behind the scenes. With so many unusual people in the church, fewer people would think to stop a few nondescript “nobodies” on their way to an off-limits room.
“In sickness and in health.”
They glanced over at the happy couple while quietly walking along the chapel wall to remain as inconspicuous as possible.
The priest continued the vows.
“May your bond be a strong one, never to be broken even by a curse.”
“(Hey, that’s not the usual vows, is it? Is the priest really allowed to adlib here?)
“(S-Sister Agnese, I bet he forgot the next line and is stalling until he can remember it.)”
They made their way to the back.
The place was fairly cluttered. The chapel items not needed for the wedding must have been stored back here. It was kind of painful to see the silver candlesticks and the glass container of holy water just sitting there on the floor. The scent of that water consecrated with a pinch of salt reminded the trio of home.
Once inside the actual document storeroom, they instead smelled musty old papers.
You could call up a church pilgrimage map on your phone these days, but churches still tended to rely on analog data.
All four walls were covered in drawers, with just barely enough room left for the door. The place was a treasure trove of personal information on all the people who had been baptized at this church.
Angelene grew unnecessarily nervous about being in here.
“Um, where should we start looking? Actually, do we even know the names of all that restaurant’s workers?”
It did not matter how much information a search engine had at its disposal if you did not know what name to type in. Similarly, they needed a name to look up anything in here.
Which was why Agnese decided to cheat.
“Tejas of Vayu.”
With a buzz, the space around them shook. The drawers containing the information they sought began to faintly glow and they opened those to find the necessary pages giving off light as well. Handwritten documents had their advantages. With residual thoughts soaked into them, you could perform a search like this.
There were 24 workers in all.
That might sound like a lot, but with three shifts, that was just barely enough for everyone from the waiters to the cooks. Although that was probably normal enough for a privately-owned restaurant.
“Benito, Juan, Cecilia, Pablo. Hm, they use part-timers for everything that doesn’t need special qualifications. Only four of them are full-time employees: the cooks and the accountant.”
It might seem unusual that a list of baptismal games given to newborn babies had so much information, but churches also had confessionals where people revealed their daily worries.
Angelene seemed disturbed by the level of detail found here.
“This always seems like a type of profiling to me.”
“They prefer to call it factually-supported fortunetelling, Sister Angelene.”
The ruling class had been indiscriminately gathering personal information long before the term “big data” was ever coined.
Gathering everyone’s hidden worries could help predict misbehavior before it happened or resolve local troubles. When a priest or fortuneteller seemed to see right through you, it did not necessarily mean they were using some supernatural power.
And they found another notable entry.
“Let’s start at the top with the owner: Nihili Padpois.”
“Um? I don’t recognize that last name. Is that what Spanish sounds like?”
“You need to learn some Latin, Sister Angelene. Spanish and our native Italian both come from it.” Agnese sounded exasperated. “He must not be from around here. He never received a baptismal name here because he moved here later in life.”
“Where did he live before?”
Lucia and Angelene tilted their heads at yet another unfamiliar term.
“That is the capital of Haiti, located between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.”
Also, the restaurant was privately owned yet none of the four full-time employees had that same last name.
“Is Mr. Padpois single?”
“He hasn’t always been.” Agnese tapped at a point on the document and read off the red text there. “His move from Haiti to Spain was the result of a certain event. He originally had a family of three, but his wife passed away and he apparently did not want to continue living somewhere so full of painful memories, so he moved to Spain with his daughter.”
That alone would have been a tragedy.
But Agnese’s group had come here to investigate the possible use of illicit magic at his restaurant.
“How did his wife die?” asked Lucia with a frown.
“No one knows.”
Someone had definitely died and the cause would have been thoroughly investigated, yet that was Agnese’s answer.
But some people did have their theories.
“She died a seemingly supernatural death when several coincidences coincided with seemingly astronomical odds. It was apparently rumored back in Haiti that she had died of a curse.”
Restaurant manager Nihili Padpois had supposedly lost his wife to a curse.
Even after leaving his hometown and moving to Spain with his young daughter, there were signs of someone cleaning up all signs of magic in his restaurant. That suggested he was still using some kind of magic.
“Hmm,” groaned Agnese while lying back onto the sofa bed.
After getting the information they needed at the church, they had returned to the mobile home.
“Mr. Padpois did make a pretty extreme decision, didn’t he?”
She understood the general idea.
If the one person in the world you had decided to spend the rest of your life with was unfairly taken from you, it had to feel like your heart was torn in two. Although Agnese was nowhere near the point of even considering marriage, so she found that part hard to imagine.
Still, would that really be enough for him to cross the ocean to a new country?
Where would he have found the money for that?
“Just because you can cook doesn’t mean you can immediately start a restaurant. I mean no offense, but Haiti isn’t exactly a wealthy nation. Even if he worked his ass off and saved up everything he could, it might not be enough to overcome the price differences between countries.”
There was an extremely simple solution to that problem.
She sighed as she spoke it.
The term had an unavoidably dangerous ring to it here.
When someone died, you were handed an opportunity along with the loss. There was nothing wrong with using that to move to Europe, but they also had reason to suspect he was still using magic – which could mean a curse.
“How is the restaurant doing financially?”
“Why not check it out for yourself?”
They had slept in too late. After taking the time to investigate and return here, it was already late evening.
The trio left the mobile home and walked to that restaurant again.
They were on a serious mission, but something occurred to Agnese on the way there.
“Wait! You haven’t cooked a single thing today, Sister Lucia! You’re supposed to be on cooking duty!”
“You must be imagining things.”
They checked inside the restaurant to see a fair number of customers at the tables and counter, but it was not so crowded you would have to wait for a table if you showed up without a reservation. They took a seat and looked around to see the place maintained its focus on food over alcohol even at this later hour. The only alcoholic drinks they served seemed to be mass-produced beer and cheap table wine.
Angelene was soon staring at the menu.
“They have a bunch of options that weren’t offered this morning! I want to eat this ajillo! And these skewers!!”
“You need to specify what kind of ajillo and skewers they are.”
The focus on seafood meant anything cooked in oil or on skewers was probably shrimps. Sea bream and salmon were also likely options. Despite having had them that morning, Angelene went ahead and ordered a bunch of clams. All of the alcohol had been cooked off, but the beer and wine were apparently primarily stocked for cooking dishes like that. The customers were probably drinking the extras that the restaurant ended up with because the minimum order with the distributer was more than they needed.
The spicy and garlicy ajillo came with bread. You were supposed to tear off pieces of the bread and dip it in hot bubbling olive oil, so it presented a fairly high hurdle for those girls.
“It’s delicious, but what kind of bread do they use in Spain? Spanish bread?”
“Work on your vocabulary, Sister Agnese. This is focaccia and it’s from our native Italy.”
Agnese felt someone looking at her, so she looked over to find that someone much closer than expected. A brown girl of about 5 was clinging to the edge of the table with both hands. She looked a lot like someone peering over a fence.
And for some reason, she looked extremely proud of herself.
“Do you like it?”
“You do? You actually like it?☆”
She began wiggling side to side like Agnese had complimented her.
There were a lot of races around the world, but she did not appear to be of purely African descent. She did have the dark skin, but her facial features and hair seemed more like the nuns. Agnese belatedly realized the girl was probably mixed race.
She was reminded that a lot of the beautiful gods and goddesses in Voodoo were depicted as mixed race.
“You chose a good day to eat here. This chef is really good.”
(So is this the daughter?)
“Solène, come here please,” called a deep adult voice.
The girl immediately turned around, so that had to be her name.
“Coming! Why does papa have to interrupt me when I’m letting the world know how great he is?”
She vanished into the back of the restaurant while grumbling some kind of complaint.
Agnese watched her leave.
“The restaurant seems to be doing fairly well. Based on the ingredients and prices, he seems to be running such an honest business I can’t imagine the profit margins are great, but he shouldn’t be in the red either. This place is definitely beloved by the local populace.”
“This location is, yes,” nonchalantly began Lucia. “But he expanded to a second location and that one is apparently struggling. Without the founder around to watch over things, the work has gotten sloppy.”
“How bad are we talking about here?”
“I don’t know the actual numbers, but I would guess they get only about a third the business this location does.”
That was devastatingly bad.
So bad it would honestly be best to immediately shut down that location and focus on this one. Did he have some reason why he could not do that?
Once they had finished eating, Lucia paid their bill.
She coldly continued the conversation as they left the busy restaurant.
“Let’s say this location really was started using life insurance money and now he’s run into more financial troubles. When someone manages to solve some crisis via criminal means, it can apparently start a cycle of criminality. A mugger will start mugging their way out of any future debts and a burglar will start burgling their way out of any future debts.”
“Wait, what are you suggesting?”
Angelene seemed confused at first, but Lucia’s meaning gradually dawned on her and her face paled.
“Th-then this is an emergency! I mean, that restaurant already showed signs of hiding magic use. If he needed another life insurance payment, he would only have one possible target…but, but that’s too awful to think about!”
“Voodoo is most well-known for its zombies, but it has many more curses to offer. Of course, the actual Voodoo zombies are nothing like how they are generally depicted,” explained Lucia. “The most horrific of those curses involves making a deal with a demon. Your every wish is granted as long as you kill and sacrifice someone once a year. Worse, it has to be a family member or lover whose loss will tear your soul asunder. And if you fail to deliver, you yourself will be sacrificed. The deal doesn’t sound remotely worth it to me, but it wouldn’t be so well known unless a fair number of people decided to use the spell. I also don’t know if what they call a demon is the same thing as our demons.”
Who was in harm’s way here?
And what would the culprit gain from it?
When spelled out like that, it was a very simple situation. Enough so that they wanted to remove that brown girl from the restaurant immediately.
Agnese Sanctis brought a hand to her slender chin.
“This is troubling.”
It was the middle of the night, but the church still had its lights on. Did they believe they had to show their willingness to welcome in any lambs no matter the hour?
Agnese walked right into the chapel and saw a small room built in one corner. It was only the size of two phone booths attached side by side.
The two spaces were separated by a thick latticed window to allow the occupants to speak secrets without seeing each other.
When Agnese set down a heavy bucket, entered one side, and rang the handbell, someone entered the other side.
“What brings you here at this late hour?”
“Something I didn’t feel like I could discuss at any earlier hour.”
That could not be too unusual.
This was a confessional, a place prepared for people to confess their own sins. If someone was not worried about other people seeing them, their problems could not be all that bad.
The unseen person on the other side must have grasped that this was a serious discussion because he cleared his throat.
“You may share anything here. This is a seat of forgiveness provided by god.”
“Yeah, but on second thought, maybe this isn’t a good idea. Ah ha ha. Maybe I’m overthinking this and it isn’t a big deal at all. And to be entirely honest, it really isn’t any of my business.”
“I learned something.” Agnese paused for a moment. “I happened to learn the truth behind a certain crime. It’s an extremely grave issue that could mean someone’s death. But on the other hand, it might be a bad thing for some people if it goes public. I’m trying to decide if I should share what I know or if I should stay quiet, but first I wanted to hear the opinion of the priest who protects the peace and safety of this part of the city.”
No actual statistics were known, but it was said to be surprisingly common.
Confession was only meant as a ritual for eliminating the guilt for the little things people did during their daily lives and it was not designed to unconditionally forgive actual kidnapping or murder. Nevertheless, people would sometimes hint at what were obviously serious crimes. Whether or not the priest would contact the police depended on their personal religious beliefs. But either way, they would prefer to not have that burden thrust upon them. This priest may not have looked happy about the discussion, but Agnese could not see him through the latticed window.
Finally, the priest whispered back in a heavy tone.
“As a servant of god, I must not alter my response based on the type or severity of your troubles. Similarly, you should not bend the truth. God shall purify all of your worries through me, so speak and get this great burden off your chest.”
“If you insist.”
Agnese sighed quietly.
In a way, hearing those words had removed a burden from her.
“How dare you speak like that after using professional techniques to frame an innocent man. Scum like you is an insult to the priesthood.”
With a great crash, the Lotus Wand burst through the latticed window from Agnese’s side and a golden sword did the same from the priest’s side. The two glittering weapons entered the inviolable territory on the other side.
But only one of them groaned.
“I felt that one land.”
The golden sword passed by a few centimeters to the side of Agnese’s cheek, but the head of her Lotus Wand jabbed accurately into the center of the man’s chest.
“I was suspicious from the beginning. I can buy just about anyone learning to use magic, but the skills to clean up all trace of the magic afterwards are much more unusual. Plus, the exact technique used was identical to our Roman Catholic style of forensic cleanup.”
She had been the first to notice something was off.
Only they used a liquid made by adding blood-like substances to water consecrated with a pinch of salt.
Anglican and Russian Orthodox holy water did not include salt. Only the Catholics allowed that impurity.
Noticing the familiar cleanup method had been enough for them to figure out the rest.
“That clear bottle looked like it was simply moved into the back to make space for the wedding, but that wasn’t ordinary holy water, was it? It wouldn’t look so muddy in the light if all it had was some salt.”
Everything else they discovered suggested this was Haitian Voodoo, without Catholicism playing a role. Even though she had originally assumed something had happened in the city requiring a priest or nun to exorcise a ghost or something.
“So the restaurant owner from Haiti couldn’t have been behind it. Yeah, there were signs of someone hiding magic use at that restaurant, but no one ever saw any signs of the magic itself. So it’s just as likely someone cleaned up an already clean location to frame someone else.” That must have been what happened.
She did not know what happened to the owner’s wife, so maybe someone back in Haiti really had cursed her. But that family fell squarely into the victim category and they hadn’t done anything wrong since arriving in Spain. It had only looked that way because someone had used that unnecessary forensic cleanup to make things look suspicious.
Even though there was nothing to be found there.
The owner had simply grieved his wife’s death and used the money he would have preferred never to receive to start a small restaurant in the hopes of getting a fresh start while bringing some happiness into his young daughter’s life.
What would have happened if the suspicion of that man had continued to grow?
He had already lost the person he loved most in the world, so what would have been taken from him next and what crime would he have been framed for?
The Roman Catholic Church had 2 billion followers worldwide, so was this any way for one of their priests to be acting?
“Why do this? I doubt it was simply anti-immigrant sentiment which has been on the rise recently. Or have you really forgotten that Christianity is meant to save all the peoples of the world, regardless of race?”
She badly hoped he was not so far gone he did not even believe in that basic principle.
During the Renaissance, Europeans had proclaimed that all peoples were equal even as all the angels and saints in their religious artwork were still depicted with lily-white skin, but Agnese saw no need to be so narrowminded in the modern era.
“He is cursed.”
“No, you tried to frame him for being cursed.”
“I did, but Nihili Padpois really has come in contact with a real curse!!”
The priest howled so loud his chest swelled out from within.
Agnese frowned, but he continued shouting.
“I don’t know how exactly it happened because I have no way of investigating something that happened across the Atlantic, but his family really was cursed and that’s all that matters!! I cleaned up this town. I kept this district of Barcelona so clean you can’t find even a hint of filth!! But…but those efforts are meaningless when a true source of impurity moves in. Everything I did was for nothing!! I had to get rid of the cursed one, no matter what it took!!”
“So you’re a clean freak.”
This fear may have been what had originally motivated him to get into theology and choose the path of god.
He feared curses.
He wanted a way of fighting them. And if he could not fight them, he at least wanted to push them away.
He must have decided such things could not reach him if he worked in a church, the house of god.
Sneaking into the church to check the baptismal name records had been Agnese’s idea, but even she had thought those records were unusually detailed. However, the priest had not been so thorough because he cared deeply about protecting the people in his part of the city. No, he was simply afraid, so he made sure he could pick up on the earliest sign of a curse and set up a trap to protect himself. He would frame the cursed person, intentionally have someone – such as the witch hunting specialists of the Anglican Church – discover it, and use those strangers to indirectly eliminate the “threat”.
Agnese Sanctis sighed.
And she gave her response.
“What the hell is wrong with you, you petty villain?”
“You’re like a living curse yourself, you asshole. Mr. Padpois was devastated by the loss of his wife and decided to cross the sea to Barcelona to grasp at any hope he could find. He could have gone anywhere in the world, but he chose your city. I would expect you to be proud of that, not fear him and try to get rid of him. Remind me again what your job is. Not only did you use divine miracles for your own selfish ends, but you decided to pick and choose who is worthy of salvation. No one that despicable is fit to defend the house of god!!”
“Say what you like, but I will protect my own little world.”
With the sound of scraping metal, more gold revealed itself.
Around the globe, that precious metal held great value because it did not rust and retained its shine forever. That may have been why it was so often used to repel impure curses.
“This is my sanctuary. I spent many long years creating the perfect paradise for myself!! I refuse to let anyone contaminate it. My world needs only the things I want in it!!”
It looked like he had sprouted golden wings, but in fact countless swords had fanned out behind him.
That was an angel’s weapon.
(He wasn’t just hiding those under his habit. Has he fused them with his body?)
Becoming one with something allowed you to take on its traits. He may have thought of it as an extreme form of defense against curses, but at this level, he was not that different from a necromancer digging up a grave and stealing the dead’s clothing.
(Swords are also a symbol of separation. And not just in religion and mythology. A story used to introduce the concepts of chivalry includes placing a sword between a man and woman sleeping next to each other as a way of severing the connection between them.)
Countless pieces of metal strained as they gathered strength.
Getting hit by this at close range would concentrate all that damage onto a single point, much like a shotgun blast at point-blank range, so it would be horrifically destructive. Agnese would be reduced to mincemeat. While he was not morally fit for the job, this man was still a Catholic priest and he had demonstrated enough skill to pull off forensic cleaning, so he was bound to have some combat skill.
However, that only mattered if he could actually hit her.
“Tejas of Prithvi, you are a red equilateral triangle shining within a yellow square.”
This was a form of meditation normally done using cards.
It was a technique used to see and learn things.
It was a simple method, but the Golden cabal had warned that you must not take it lightly or lose sight of your objective when using it. According to Mathers, pressing the card to your forehead in a misguided attempt to strength the image in your head would trigger a malfunction in your mind during the meditation.
Or to put it another way, if you slapped that card against someone else’s forehead, you could force them into a state of confusion or hallucination.
A golden explosion erupted within two meters of her, but it all passed by to her left. She had not swiftly sidestepped it. After being dragged into a meditative state with the wrong method, the priest had messed up his aim and attacked the empty air.
This time, the outer wall of the confessional was reduced to splinters and blown away.
Agnese Sanctis showed no fear on her face.
In fact, all the cowardice here was found in her opponent.
She sang a profane lullaby as she dragged her target into a living nightmare.
“One piece of advice.”
“While pure gold is used as a symbol of the incorruptible, it’s also a popular choice for gathering curses. For example, the Norse Andvaranaut, the Greek golden apples, and even Egyptian Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus. Its rarity has a tendency of leading people astray. It often becomes a source of resentment and jealousy.”
It was too late for him to catch on now.
He had been in her grasp from the moment he failed to hit a target within two meters of him.
“Yes, yes. Its meaning changes drastically depending on what interpretation you use. And no matter what I say, you can’t fight it for the next thirty seconds or so thanks to the failed meditation I placed you in. The thoughts are already crawling up from the back of your mind, aren’t they? It feels disgusting, doesn’t it? Yet that spiritual item is supposed to be what protects you from all curses, isn’t it?”
Goose bumps spread from the priest’s hands and up his arms to his torso with such intensity she swore she could hear it.
His eyes rolled around wildly.
He had effectively developed an allergy for curses. And people with serious enough allergies could sometimes show an allergic reaction from simply seeing photos and videos of the thing. In the same way, there was no escape for this priest now that the doubts had started to grow in his mind. At this rate, he might just start to claw into his skin and tear out the precious metal that was attached to his skeleton.
“I happen to have a ‘battery’ right here. So how about I charge up that gold of yours?”
Why was Agnese here in Barcelona in the first place?
It may have only been for training, but the magic used there had been very real. She could think of far too many disgusting things that would continue to stink even if you worked at cleaning it up throughout the night.
She put on a truly sadistic smile as she spun her Lotus Wand around.
Before entering the confessional, she had set down a bucket full of a sticky substance, so she lifted its handle with the end of the wand.
“This right here is supposedly a corpse infected with an authentic Voodoo curse, courtesy of Necromancer Isabella Theism. You know your stuff, so I know an imitation wouldn’t be good enough for you. This is a stain that will never, ever come out, so I hope you enjoy it☆”
A pathetic scream followed, but Agnese ignored it as she made full of use centrifugal force to dump the entire bucket of rotting flesh and gore on top of the priest’s head.
They had a saying in a distant Eastern island nation: curse others and prepare to be cursed yourself.
“Eh heh heh. So how are they doing, Stiyl?”
“They’re a busy bunch, that’s for sure.”
This conversation was held atop a tall building giving a view of the city’s night.
“Are the other two stationed outside?”
“They are. Lucia is maintaining a people-clearing field and Angelene is setting up traps to prevent his escape in case he tries to flee. Although their positioning suggests they trust Agnese’s ability to win this battle.”
The gaunt, silver-haired, and brown-skinned woman named Isabella Theism was using a natural drinking straw to sip at a handmade drink made by squeezing lime juice into colorless carbonated water. She was an eccentric woman who chose to wear the tattered clothes of the dead, but she was an expert at creating lumps of flesh and Necessarius would occasionally have her create a corpse to inspire fear and confusion in an enemy.
Nothing affected the human psyche more than a dead body.
She was a powerful ally since she could design a corpse after an enemy or an ally and leave it at some crucial location. If she created the corpse of a nation’s president, it was possible she could even start a nuclear war. And yet she only used cows and pigs to make them. Other magicians might produce better results, but she was nigh untouchable when it came to cost-performance.
She was the queen of doubts and confusion.
Necromancer Isabella Theism was the type of magician who could win without actually fighting, but that did not mean she could not fight if she had to, which made her very difficult to deal with. On several occasions, Stiyl had seen her casually cut down a magician just as they escaped that labyrinth of doubts and thought they were finally safe again.
It might be simplest to think of her as the master of a spiderweb.
A butterfly could not defeat the spider just because it had managed to slip past the unseen threads.
“They have a bad habit of goofing off too much on the job, but I suppose it’s within the margin of error,” said Stiyl.
“It’s not like we get paid all that well. If you can’t find enjoyment through something other than money, you’re not going to last long here.”
“Did you think a priest would choose his job based on the pay?”
“Yeah, says the guy who brings his personal feelings to the job more than anyone else I know☆”
He could only clear his throat in response.
“They’re such cute girls,” said Isabella with a laugh. “They didn’t have to do that job and they even chose to leave without visiting that restaurant again. Ah ha ha. They’re just like the gunman from a Western! Oh, but they’re Italian, so would that make it a Spaghetti Western?”
“Based on this, I say we can let them handle it.”
These two had been running a test.
If the test subjects had failed to meet their standards, they would have immediately had that trio leave.
But Agnese, Lucia, and Angelene had passed.
Which meant they could no longer quit this job.
The female Necessarius magician gave a bewitching smile.
“They are about to be very busy indeed.”
The Strait of Dover between England and France was only 40km wide. It was possible to cross it with long-distance swimming if you really tried.
This story begins above that narrows strip of ocean.
A nun’s voice was drowned out by the deep rhythm of rotors. She was riding a transport helicopter with two main rotors, one in the front and one in the back. The gentle nun was viewing the outside world through the open side door.
Specifically, she was viewing the ocean directly below her.
There was no missing the 262.1m mass with a displacement of 42,670 tons.
But did any of that advance information really mean anything?
“Everyone, I have located the ghost ship,” she reported in an awfully gentle voice. “This confirms that it does indeed exist. It is traveling from England to France at a constant speed. The data I was provided says its top speed is 31 knots, but it is moving slower than that. Regardless, it will arrive at the French port within an hour.”
What would happen then?
Also, it would be a good idea to explain what exactly this ghost ship was.
Sister Orsola Aquinas held a hand to her ear as she continued.
“This is indeed the HMS Hood, a British battlecruiser built in 1920. It was supposedly sunk in the northern Atlantic during the Second World War in the 40s, yet here it is.”
Calais, Pas-de-Calais, France.
They were in a panic here as well. After all, taking the shortest route from England to France would naturally bring you to this port town. Unless the Hood made a sudden detour, it would almost certainly reach the coast here.
Angelene reacted the way she did to most crises: tears filled her eyes and she waved her hands around wildly.
“It’s over! There’s nothing we can do!! This is a World War Two warship, isn’t it? Its firing range has to be at least 20km, which is half the Strait’s width! Its 38.1cm shells can reach here whether it does itself or not!!”
“Since when does she know so much about this stuff? Although her understanding seems fairly shallow.”
“Did you sleep through the plane ride here, Sister Agnese? They were playing an anthology of short black-and-white war films. Let me warn you – you do not want to mention U-boats around her because she will talk your ear off for 3 days straight.”
Agnese’s group was running through the harbor district of the city of Calais. Incidentally, as a French city, that s is silent.
“The camera tossed into the northern Atlantic showed the rusted hulk of the warship is still there, right?”
“The ocean currents and fishing grounds are also unchanged. Most likely this is not a case of the actual ship being brought back with healing magic or something. We suspect Telesma or some other power was guided in to meet the conditions necessary to summon the ship.”
Summoning was generally thought to involve “weird creatures” such as angels, demons, and spirits. The Olympian spirits assigned to different parts of the heavens are a good example of summoning planetary power into an amulet. On the other hand, a ship was a curious motif. After all, there were plenty of legends in which they were used to travel between the world of the living and the afterlife. There was the ferry used to reach the afterlife in Greek mythology and there was the Treasure Ship talismans standardized by Onmyojis to provide good dreams when placed below the pillow.
Whatever form it took, an item capable of traveling between the two worlds could be called to this world by human means.
Or could it?
“Hmm, that explanation isn’t all that convincing. Angels and demons exist in that other phase, so it makes sense you can draw on a portion of their power to summon them, but how are you supposed to extract power from a hunk of metal to summon it? The Hood is certainly large, but it’s a purely industrial product without any kind of occult foundation like Charon’s ferry or the Japanese Treasure Ship.”
“Sister Agnese, can’t we just ask the culprit for details on the summoning method once we track them down?”
Containers were stacked up like metal pyramids on the concrete bordering the sea. This city was developed as an entrance from England, so if it were destroyed, there was a fear of their historical friendship falling apart.
However, Agnese’s trio was not preparing to face off against the battlecruiser itself.
They had another plan.
“We know that ghost ship is the product of some form of summoning and that it was summoned from France.”
“So did they stage this attack themselves to cut ties with England?”
England and France might seem friendly, but a look back at their long history showed more than their fair share of less than peaceful interactions. And in the modern field of weapons development, France refused any help from England as they worked to produce things on their own. England could become an enemy in the future, so they did not want them interfering in the weapons that would be crucial to their national defense.
However, Agnese readily rejected that idea.
“There are way too many people who would benefit from that to draw any conclusions. This feels more like some third party intervening to me. And to be honest, it doesn’t really matter who this is or what they’re after.”
From their(?) British perspective, top priority was ending this while keeping the damage done by the Hood to a minimum. They were playing their role in that here. Someone else could deal with the cleanup afterwards.
Only one thing mattered here.
“The summoning appears to have been carried out in this container yard.”
“B-but that’s suicide!” protested Angelene.
“And also hard to track down. Our simple map fortunetelling only managed to narrow it down to a 10km block, but all the other summoning ceremonies in this area are experiencing ‘interference’, so this has to be it.”
That method may have been similar to measuring rainfall using the interference in TV broadcast signals.
“Okay, if we capture this magician and stop their spell, the phantom Hood should disappear. Time to find their modular ceremonial ground!”
The leader of those three girls tried to psych them up, but Angelene came to a stop and looked around in shock.
She saw nothing but piles upon piles of metal containers.
There had to be well over a thousand of them in all.
“W-we have to find it in here?”
“That’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack! Are you serious!? D-don’t we at least have some kind of hint?”
“Of course not. Managing to narrow it down to this harbor at all was a miracle. Now, Sister Angelene, do you remember what you said earlier?”
“Eh? No, I’m not letting you twist my words to force me to help! Yeah, I never actually said I would do this job, did I? So I’m safe. I can just go home now.”
“I’m not trying to twist your words.” Agnese pointed her thumb out to sea and shrugged. “Didn’t you say the Hood’s shells could reach us while out at sea?”
“W-wait. But now that I think about it, isn’t it a ghost ship without any crew onboard?”
“Empty or not, it seems to have regained all its functions as a ship. That means it can fire on us here. So don’t let the number of containers get you down. We just need to start searching☆”
By the time they could hear it, it was too late.
A metal meteor dropped from the stratosphere and crashed into that harbor district.
The sea split and the mountains crumbled.
Or more accurately, the concrete embankment split and the mountains of metal containers crumbled.
“A-are you kidding me?” groaned Angelene while lying nearby.
She looked up to see the shockwave had twisted a sturdy gantry crane like a sugar sculpture.
She expected a crater or three to be visible with a satellite.
“Is this supposed to be a joke!? We’ll die! There’s no way we won’t! What is this garbage!? This is game over already! Isn’t it over from the moment France is attacked!!!???”
For some reason, Sister Agnese responded with a distant look in her eyes.
“Sister Angelene, you haven’t seen the worst of it yet.”
“Impossible. How could it get any worse?”
“If a few shots was enough to shatter all diplomatic ties and start an all-out war, England never would have left any of its people in France. They would have given up any hope of stopping it, withdrawn everyone, and prepared for war. So why didn’t they do that? Because this isn’t the final defensive line.”
If the Hood only wanted to fire on France, it didn’t need to continue charging toward the coast. It could stop once within firing range.
Then what did both England and France fear the most?
“It’s going to continue on inland.”
“The Hood is taking the shortest route and it has been seen passing right through areas it should have run aground on. So in the worst case, it might be able to continue going even after arriving on land. Maybe it will phase right through the land and maybe it will slide across the land like the ice ships did.”
The mention of the ice ships earned a short silence from Lucia and Angelene.
Agnese understood why.
“The problem is that its current course could take it straight to Paris. It still has around 300km to go, though. They say all roads lead to Rome, but France is a pretty big place too. I suppose that’s how it has enough land for all the wheat and grapes. France is letting England handle things for now, but they apparently intend to begin the next phase once the ship arrives on land.”
“W-wait, so the ship can phase through the land, but the shells still hit? How is that fair!?”
“Don’t ask me for the logic behind it, but ghosts can strangle you, right? If you want details, go ask the Russian Orthodox Church.” Agnese made a shooing motion while bringing the discussion back on topic. “Simply put, France is preparing for a defensive war under the assumption that England is trying to attack their capital. As you know, the Strait of Dover between the two countries is only 40km wide. An all-out war fought from that close range will do serious damage to both sides. So as you can see, they’re in quite the pickle☆”
“I-I’ve had enough of this!! Let’s just give up and leave! I’m not staying somewhere so dangerous!!!!!”
“And if England is destroyed, who’s going to protect us from that giant religious organization with 2 billion followers? We need that country that’s known for its tea and rock music but can’t make decent pasta to save its life. We’re in trouble if we lose its defenses, so we have to protect it. Do you get our situation now, Sister Angelene?”
The blonde braided girl groaned with a frown on her face.
“(I don’t know why she can’t just say she wants to repay them for taking us in,)” whispered Lucia. “(She just misses that women’s dorm, doesn’t she?)”
Agnese smiled and silenced the taller nun with a low kick.
Besides, if the Hood was going to arrive at Calais and trigger a war within an hour, they couldn’t escape the initial attack even if they decided to leave now. Even a conservative estimate said everything within a 200km radius was in danger. Driving an ordinary car fast enough to escape would burn out the engine and the highway did not conveniently take them directly outside of that range.
Lucia leaned back against the bent gantry crane with her giant wheel in hand.
“So that’s why we’re stopping the summoning ceremony instead of the Hood itself?”
“We don’t even know if that ghost ship can be sunk using conventional means. The Russian Orthodox Church might have a good method hidden away, but we don’t have time to negotiate them for it. If they knew we’re pressed for time, they’re sure to insist on some exorbitant price.”
“Which is why we want to make sure the Hood disappears before doing anything without us having to ever come in contact with it. Instead of attacking the Hood itself, we destroy the ceremonial ground supporting it, causing the ghost ship to disappear on its own.”
But Agnese had noted that this seemed like a weirdly small number of people to dispatch when war between the two countries was imminent. All the truly important people had probably prepared some nice excuse that let them escape outside the range of the initial wave of attacks once war broke out. There were 300km between Paris and Calais and the magical elites were probably busy defending the VIPs who lived there. Because if they acted as bodyguards, they got to escape to safety as well. …Agnese really wanted to cast a curse that would crash their private planes.
But regardless, they had to stop the Hood from reaching France and they could not predict when more shellfire would arrive. They had no choice but to take action here.
“The first shot is generally a test,” muttered intellectual Angelene who had apparently learned a lot from that war films anthology. “The second shot is the real one. We’re goners. The next shot is going to be perfectly aimed.”
The first shot had caused most of the stacked-up containers to collapse, but they had not received word of the ghost ship vanishing. That pointed toward one of the uncollapsed ones. With things narrowed down that far, Agnese adjusted her grip on her silver staff and spun around on the spot.
“Iron is Mars, lead is Saturn.”
Not just anyone could perform a summoning at any time and any place.
The appropriate direction, time, location, and more had to be precisely set up for the summoning target. Magic circles for summoning were so complex and intricate because they were essentially writing out a lengthy address to make sure they summoned their target.
“Gunpowder includes sulfuric acid, making it sulfur, so that’s earth. And since it’s a ship, would that be quicksilver? No, the salt would make it ether, I think. Now I need to apply the current latitude, longitude, and date to those four symbols and check the positions of the planets. The flow of energy most likely to interfere with the planetary movements is the path that enters from the south and leaves to the west-northwest. Which means…”
This was much like using the hands of an analog clock and the sun’s position to determine the direction.
If you knew how, you could work out the location of your target.
“It must be a container 400m ahead and with an unobstructed wall facing the ocean!!”
They did not have time to chase after a fleeing magician this time. If they did not destroy it the instant they found it, they could not stop the Hood from arriving. Agnese ran with her fellow nuns while holding her Lotus Wand tight. They only had one shot at this. If they screwed it up and war broke out, they were dead and so were a lot of people who had trusted in them.
They had to avoid that no matter what.
“There, that’s it!!” she shouted.
The container they wanted was in one of the stacks that had not fully collapsed. Part of the pyramid remained and one of the containers on the second level up looked suspicious. Fortunately, magicians did not have to worry about the height.
(Gravity is but an illusion. Everything past the ground is air-filled outer space. Eliminate the earth’s influence and you can fly.)
Eliminating the power of the planet was the foundation of creating a magical lab as well.
Agnese hopped up on top of a container in a single bound.
As short as that was, it still qualified as flight, so she could not forget the risk of being brought down by the spell the Apostle Peter had used to rebuke the Magician Simon Magus when he had used a demon to fly.
Lucia flew up after her while holding her large wooden wheel in both hands. Angelene remained on the ground to provide support. Angelene used a guided projectile, so she had the best bet of hitting a runaway magician in such a wide open area.
Agnese and Lucia exchanged a silent nod as they faced the metal double doors.
It was finally time.
They were up against the magician who had summoned the Hood to have it run aground at Calais and ignore how ships supposedly worked to keep cruising along the land to attack Paris. The resultant war between the two nations may have been part of their plan too. If they were still working here, one of the first places to be enveloped by the flames of war, then their own survival must not have been part of the plan. This did not seem like the end result of purely logical thought processes. People like that could cause far more damage than their base skill level suggested if things went south. And they could also have a high level of skill to begin with, so the nuns could not to let their guard down even in a two-against-one battle.
“(Let’s do this.)”
Agnese placed her hand on the large lever used to open the door.
Tension ran through them.
If the enemy was currently preparing a spell to blast through the door, they would be reduced to mincemeat. They wanted to believe they were a step ahead of the enemy, but there was no way to plan for the bizarre insights illogical people could have.
Agnese inhaled and exhaled.
And she gathered her resolve.
She used her full weight to lower the lever and then flung open the door.
The loud bang of the door pounded on her eardrums.
“Put your hands up and get down on your knees!! Or we'll murder your ass, you magic nutjob!!!!!!”
A whole world seemed contained within that space.
In the criminal world, specialized containers filled with the machinery needed to manufacture drugs or guns were apparently sold as “factories”. That let the buyer endlessly create new products, so they were an even bigger problem than normal smuggling. This was the magical version of that. If you knew the accurate name of what you wanted to summon, you could calculate out all the necessary numbers, colors, circles, directions, dates, and more using the many sliders lined up along the wall. The boxy space looked something like a planetarium and the many lines displayed in the darkness showed where to paint in order to draw out intricate magic circles on the floor, walls, and ceiling.
This could become any temple and it could prepare the optimal environment for anything you might want to summon.
Even a near amateur could use this to calculate out everything they would need.
“Wah! Wah!! Waaahhh!? Wh-wh-wh-who are you!? This is a lab, s-so I’m not illegally living here or anything. I’m not using it as a residence!!”
A twig of a young man raised both hands in a corner of the container and began making excuses about a different issue altogether.
Lucia looked skeptical.
“Wait a second, Sister Agnese. Are you sure this is the right place?”
Her certainty did not seem to quell Lucia’s doubts.
She viewed the circle covering the container and then the sliders on the wall that spelled out the initial summoning request.
“We’re after whoever summoned the Hood battlecruiser, right?”
“Yes, of course.”
“But this is set for ‘mandrake’.”
Agnese’s mind went blank.
That was entirely different.
And sure enough, a small potted plant sat at the center of the makeshift magic circle.
“D-did I do something wrong? Okay, I’ll admit it! If I’m going to research a plant, I would prefer for it to look like a beautiful woman, but is that so wrong!?”
They ignored the self-styled researcher who was shouting at them about something irrelevant.
This was definitely where the Hood had been summoned.
But the container was currently being used to summon something else entirely and the young did not seem to know anything about the ghost ship. If he knew this coastal area would be engulfed in flames once the chaos caused by the Hood led to war between England and France, it seemed unlikely he would be here engrossed in his botanical love. France’s leadership had implicitly stated that they had set up a defensive line along the 300km between the coast and Paris. That meant they had abandoned this area to the fighting.
What did all this mean?
“A-a shared ceremonial ground!? That’s a thing!?” exclaimed Angelene after the other two emerged and explained the apparent situation.
Agnese found it hard to believe too.
Magicians traditionally constructed their own magical items and temples and refused to let anyone else touch them. That strengthened your connection with the items and reduced any noise from other people. However, none of that had been done with this container. You could say it was so coated with other people’s grubby fingerprints no one could tell who it belonged to.
They could not investigate the residual thoughts like they had before. Too many people had been in there, so they would have a hard time determining whose thoughts they were detecting.
“I really wish you’d come to me sooner if there was a problem.”
The plant-loving twig of a young man introduced them to a gray-haired old man. He was short but had thick muscles covering his entire body.
He apparently ran the container yard’s hidden side while officially working for the harbor.
“The magic world has settled into its own bloc economy these days. You have the wide influence of the powerful cabals like the Dawn-Colored Sunlight to thank for that one. As time passes, the people forced out of those cabals have had a harder time constructing their own ceremonial grounds, which creates a market for shared ones like this.”
Basically, he was lending out rooms to shady people and receiving money under the table for it.
“It’s necessary.” The old man did not seem to feel any guilt for being involved in the magic world for such a worldly reason. “When you’re trying to stay hidden, the last thing you want is to stand out. So to avoid that, I have to participate in the economy using worldly money. If you never eat any food like an Asian Xian, the neighbors are gonna get suspicious. If you never leave to shop or put out any trash, they’ll wonder if you’ve died.”
“So it’s only for camouflage?”
“Being ‘normal’ is harder than you would think. I do my best to roleplay the boring old man with no real interests for the most part, but the world out there just isn’t pure enough for that to be enough.”
The aboveground part of the world (if you could really call it that) also had secretly rented rooms for runaway criminals preparing to flee the country or to hold illegal workers. In more recent years, there were apparently also rooms used to create guns with 3D printers or grow illegal plants with UV lights.
Instead of keeping the container ceremonial ground in one place, it was apparently moved around the yard at irregular intervals to make it harder to track down.
The person running that business could not let anyone see the room or even hear rumors of it. At a glance, the place looked like a yard with over ten thousand containers. If they were shuffled at random, there was no real threat of a third party figuring it out.
“For the past month, only 5 magicians have used that container. Including that customer there. If that container was used to summon the Hood, then it must have been one of those five.”
Agnese wanted to scream.
This was like knowing which rental car had hit someone but not knowing who was driving it at the time. Identifying the car did not identify the culprit. And since the whole point of the container yard was to ensure its own secrecy, there would not be any guards or security cameras.
Their only option was to investigate those five.
And all the while, time was passing and the Hood was drawing ever closer to France.
“Just to be sure, destroying that container wouldn’t make the ghost ship out at sea disappear, would it?”
“It would not.” The old man shook his head. “As I’m sure you know yourself, summoning ceremonies like this have a corresponding exorcism ceremony. Forcibly stopping the summoning ceremony isn’t the same thing as completing the exorcism ceremony. And since the ship is still out there after the magician left the ceremonial ground, this summoning must have grown autonomous. The Hood won’t disappear until the corresponding exorcism ceremony is completed. And you’ll actually need the ceremonial ground intact for that.”
This principle could be seen in the Asian folk belief of the Kokkuri-san. If the human got bored and ended the ceremony partway through, what they had summoned would not just go away. To safely end it, you needed a magical charm made from the scrap of paper or coin used in the summoning.
(Is it possible the Hood is headed to Calais so it can destroy the container that could be used to exorcise it? No, that may be reading too much into this.)
“Let me guess, the only person who would know how to perform the exorcism ceremony is the magician who summoned it, right?”
“Right you are.”
Angelene began scratching at her head with both hands.
“Are you kidding!? Rent out the containers if you want, but can’t you at least have them write down what they’re summoning!?”
“They could just lie and it’s not like I’d get paid any more if I monitored every ceremony at all times. In a business like this, you make money by providing a location, not an actual service. You don’t want to call over a waiter every time you want a drink at the self-serve station, do you?” said the old man. “Besides, the people renting out a ceremonial ground are generally trying their hand at some dangerous spell beyond their level, so I’m not going to risk my life by sitting in on that gamble. It’s like the people who head out to an internet café to look at foreign porn because they’re afraid their mom will check their browser history. Oh, but maybe that’s not the most relatable example for some nuns.”
“Anyway, if those 5 are the suspects, we’ll just have to speak with all of them.” Lucia did not look happy about any of this. “The names they gave you aren’t fake, I hope?”
“There’s a decent chance they are, but I have ways of tracking them down. I’m fine with them having their secrets, but I’d be out of business pretty quick if they could skip out on paying me that easily.”
The plant admirer gave a start at that one, so the muscular old man grinned.
“I only take payments in cold, hard cash. Most people assume that’s to not leave a paper trail, but that physical handoff means you can’t fully eliminate your residual thoughts from the euros. It might not tell me what you summoned or how, but it will give me your name and appearance.”
They had less than an hour.
The Hood battlecruiser was moving at a constant speed and there was no sign of that changing as the Anglicans altered the weather and ocean currents, laid explosive traps, and otherwise tried to stop it. At this rate, that heavily-equipped ghost ship would arrive at Calais on schedule.
Even if they were able to contact all five (which included the mandrake guy they had found earlier) without any delays, they could only speak with each one for about 10 minutes. And there was no guarantee the culprit would be cooperative once identified. This was not over until they had fought the culprit, defeated them, and gotten the Hood eliminated.
Lucia leaned toward Agnese and whispered in her ear.
“(If necessary, we might have to take desperate measures.)”
“(We know it was one of those five, so it would be fastest to load them all onto a small boat and send it toward the ghost ship. Whichever one summoned it will have to stop it to protect themselves. That’s the most surefire way to avoid a meaningless war between England and France.)”
That would mean letting all 5 die if the culprit wanted to die and the Hood remained after their death.
Fortunately, all five lived nearby.
Calais was France’s busiest naval traffic base, but it was a small city with a population of only a few ten thousand. There were plenty of other cities where magicians gathered, so only the locals would have been renting out the old man’s containers.
“What’s going on!? Help! Take this burlap sack off my head!!”
“A-are we going to be sold off to some foreign country?”
But even if they lived nearby, taking the time to pay them all an individual visit would have taken too long, so the Anglican agents working secretly in France had “invited” that very energetic group to the harbor.
The first young man (who secretly adored mandrakes that looked like girls) was horrified by the sight. He had apparently realized what would happen to him if he was less than cooperative.
Isabella Theism, a beautiful woman with silver hair and brown skin who wore rags that faintly stank of death, clapped her hands together with a smile.
“Okay, okay! Quiet down, everyone! If you’re all magicians, you must be constantly considering the cost of life that goes into your magical pursuits. Whether that means your own life or others, you know you need to retire once the cost grows too high, right? Well, you might just need to rethink your life plan if you manage to make it through today alive. And that ‘if’ is entirely dependent on your choices here.”
The word “life” held a lot of weight when coming from a necromancer.
Most of them fell silent after that, but one of them apparently had an irritating amount of guts. He crossed his legs confidently with a sack over his head and his hands bound behind his back.
“I have nothing to tell you. A magician only reveals the success of their research by showing off the results thereof!”
“No matter what we might do to you?”
“Of course!! I will show you what it means to be a true magician!!”
Isabella moved her smiling lips toward the ear below the sack.
“Let’s see…I believe I forgot to introduce myself. I am a necromancer who works with corpses.”
Then she lowered her voice to a whisper and spoke in an almost apologetic way.
“(Are you aware what kind of skin that sack covering your head is made from and what other kind of skin that is binding your wrists? Let me tell you, this is a gruesome sight for those of us who can see.)”
Agnese grimaced at the vomiting she heard coming from within the enclosed space of that sack. This was a nonviolent example of overdoing it.
Isabella placed the back of one hand against her cheek and laughed like she was nobility.
“Oh ho ho! A cowhide sack and a snakeskin belt are too much for you? And you call yourself a ‘true magician’!? Now, everyone, welcome to the forest of confusion and doubts. Are any of you still feeling defiant?”
“Hey, if you don’t help him, he’s going to drown in his own puke!!”
“Does anyone still want to resist after hearing that?”
At any rate, they had all the suspects now.
It was time to figure out which magician had summoned the Hood.
“You first, Monsieur Gosetti.”
“I am Gosetti, a 5=6 of B∴A∴’s recruitment division.”
“Monsieur Gosetti, do you understand your situation here?”
“I am Gosetti, a 5=6 of-”
Agnese came back to her senses when the other nuns restrained her with shouts of “Sister Agnese, take a deep breath!” and “Why are you clenching your fist!?” He said he was part of a cabal’s recruitment division, but she was pretty sure he was just bragging about being from an even more niche part of an already niche community. Like not just being a sock fetishist but also rejecting knee highs and stockings while insisting on thigh highs and only thigh highs. Which was a problem when they had no time for this nonsense.
“I was only using a summoning ceremony to create a talisman. From Taphthartharath. To be honest, I wanted to bolster my mental side to make sure my thoughts were not dragged down by the materialism of this metal-driven age.”
The magician was using a protective charm for his own purposes, but he was going about it in the right way. There were talismans that were activated with a command and amulets that had a constant effect, but all such protective charms were spiritual items that had to be filled with some form of energy. Just like charms for good business or good grades, people would not prepare something like that unless they felt the need for one to clear some hurdle in their life.
“Sadly, we screwed up the succession process after our previous boss died. Our passcode was lost and now no one can enter our ceremonial ground.”
“So the original crypt was a mental thing?”
“Do you really think it would be smart to head down into the vast catacombs beneath Paris with a candle in hand to perform suspicious rituals every night? If you want to hide what you are, you avoid any actions that would raise eyebrows. When you get down to it, you don’t want to construct a physical building as a ceremonial ground at all.”
That was one way of thinking about it.
If every single member of the cabal could mentally picture an identical building, they could acquire the same sense of community as if they really were all gathering in the same place. Of course, reaching that point was easier said than done, so they would use something as a jumping off point for their imagination. Just like you could create identical ice crystals by preparing impurities that were identical on a microscopic level. They called that their passcode. In their case, a random number was distributed to all their members at set intervals so they could share that, but that sequence had come to an end when their previous leader kicked the bucket.
“But, Monsieur Gosetti, that means you prefer to use a mental temple. Sharing a location with outsiders introduces the risk of being directly attacked like we have done to you. So why did you feel the need to create a talisman now of all times?”
“Fuck you and your beard!! We don’t have time to care about your cabal’s rules. Can’t you tell we’re a little bit pressed for time!?”
Agnese scratched at her head and yelled, but Pierre Gosetti apparently had a different reason for falling silent.
When he did answer, he could no longer look her in the eye.
“I did nothing wrong.”
“It was a talisman for a safe birth because my wife is approaching her due date. Is that a good enough reason to want a physical protective charm?”
The girl appeared to be wearing her pajamas. She was around the same age as Agnese, but she was wearing a shockingly see-through negligee.
“Ummm, I was researching nightmares.”
She insisted on correcting Agnese, so this was sounding like another magician with an annoying obsession. Much like a waitress that ignored anyone calling to her in English. Was everyone in France like this?
“I’m basically looking at astral projection, but instead of the journey to ‘the other side’, I’m interested in the marks left on your body afterwards. Um, are you familiar with Dion Fortune?”
“What’s your point?”
“Ummm, that wasn’t enough for you to figure it out? Peh heh heh.”
Agnese was really mad now, so Lucia had to restrain her.
And after that needless waste of time…
“I wanted to perform a ceremony where I summoned myself elsewhere to extract my soul or the core of my mind from my body. I thought the best way of accomplishing that would be to leave my home and cut myself off from the outside world.”
“So you wanted the tension of an unfamiliar environment? With the slight spice of something a little bit illegal?”
“Ah ha ha. Pretty much, yeah. They say there are more ghost sightings at hotels, hospitals, and campgrounds because the unfamiliar environment makes people sleep less deeply, which makes it easier for them to experience hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations. For me, you can think of it like a booster helping my mind reach a higher level.”
It was not uncommon for people to think they would find special knowledge in things, places, or people found “elsewhere”. Necromancy was one example. That field had developed from the crude logic that the dead could answer your questions since hey were not constrained by the rules of this life. John would still be John after he died and, as a human, he could always lie, but the believers of those in “the great beyond” seemed to think death made everyone both smarter and more honest.
(The Son of God was made whole when he ascended into heaven, so by focusing on just that fact and twisting its intended meaning, you could conclude that people level up upon death. But at least in Europe, necromancy isn’t a religious thing. It’s more like a type of fad.)
Extracting one’s mind and traveling to another world was the polar opposite of necromancy. The living were the ones encroaching on another territory to feast upon the otherworldly wisdom found there. Of course, that presupposed that a collection of exactly the knowledge that person wanted did in fact exist “out there”.
However, the world had not been created for humans, so it was wrong to assume things had been set up for human use.
After all, god had “expelled” Adam and Eve into the outside world for their sin, so life here was meant as a punishment. In that case, it was best to assume most of the world created by god was made to be unpleasant for humans. And the realm beyond the physical world would be even less pleasant. That was not a line humanity should cross before the last judgment.
“Umm, but like I said, I don’t really care about that part.”
“I’m interested in the body left behind. Or more specifically, the marks of unknown original that appear on it during the journey. Dion Fortune mentioned receiving scratches all across her back after a dream world catfight with some old woman boss of hers.”
That seemed like an awful way to refer to the other party, but a nun like Agnese had no obligation to speak up in defense of some powerful magician from the past. So she let it slide.
“Why are you interested in that? Some bizarre form of self-harm?”
“Don’t assume I’m some kind of weirdo, dammit. Don’t those scratches sound really amazing if you could fully control them? Eh heh heh. I mean, that would give you a placebo effect that could take care of inoperable brain tumors and aortic aneurysms. So I wanted to intentionally mess with the alchemical principle of salt to see what kind of wounds it left on me.”
“I wanted to kill someone.”
This woman started right off with a shocking statement.
The old man in charge had likened this rental ceremonial ground to an internet café, so this would be like someone wanting to send a death threat from somewhere other than their home machine. …As someone pursuing a criminal, Agnese felt that attempt was fairly naïve, though.
This woman wore a bloody mourning dress and glared up at Agnese with a sticky look in her eyes.
“What? Did you think all magician had some upstanding reason for what they did?”
“No, of course not,” replied Agnese with a smile.
Anyone who had engraved a magical name into their heart would be someone who had grown “twisted” after coming face to face with some unfair part of reality. It was said people only relied on god in their time of need. Similarly, people would only rely on the occult when they had enough of a reason to do so.
(That saying sounds awfully disrespectful though.)
As a genuine nun, Agnese hid that thought behind her smile. She did not have time to get into that right now. She had to get more out of the woman.
“Who did you want to kill?”
“That is a secret.”
“Then why did you want to kill them?”
You might think that question would similarly go unanswered, but not necessarily. Saying who you tried to kill would count as confessing to a crime, but saying why you wanted to kill someone had no set punishment. Also, people who wanted to personally punish someone often believed strongly in their own righteousness.
Eventually, Plum opened her mouth.
Agnese felt certain that revenge would never come to fruition.
Whether or not it was justified, planning was everything when it came to attacking those more powerful than yourself. This woman was letting Agnese affect her attitude here, so it seemed unlikely she had much of a plan. It was like a chess player getting so mad their bishop was taken they insisted on taking their opponent’s queen. People like that would forget that the aim of the game was to take their king and that they had to take that king’s no matter how many other pieces were taken along the way.
However, giving this woman advice would allow her revenge to succeed.
Agnese was a proper lady, so she simply smiled and prompted the woman to continue.
“And you chose to take revenge through…summoning?”
“Heh. Heh hee hee. No one could ever follow my logic. Yes, there is no need for me to plunge a blade into his heart myself. I need only disturb the balance and he will destroy himself. So I will extract his physical form through the three alchemical principles. By summoning the pillar supporting that holier-than-thou asshole to me, he will lose his internal balance. Then he’ll be at the mercy of the great power he himself attempts to wield. It’s perfect. Heh heh, heh hee hee. I scare myself with my own brilliance sometimes.”
This was the twig of a young man they had met first of all.
He had said he was researching plants and, if they were going to have a humanoid shape, he wanted one that looked female rather than male.
In other words…
“Oh, it’s the pervert.”
“Hey, wait! What are you writing down in your notes there!? Don’t you have some questions for me!?”
Did he really understand the situation here?
If they did not get to the bottom of this, the Hood battlecruiser would arrive here and trigger a war between England and France. France was most interested in protecting their capital of Paris, so they had made the “painful decision” to sacrifice the 300km leading up to Paris as a defensive line. That meant this city was bound to end up engulfed in flames during the fighting.
“Do you want the mandrake to make medicine from it? I do hear that there are male witches out there.”
“No, I am simply researching environmental maintenance. Fill the field with strange things, and strange things happen more easily. Now, I don’t intend to remake the natural environment right away, of course. I start by summoning things and then I plan to move on to growing things in a sealed glass greenhouse.”
“And the insistence on femininity is…because you’re a pervert?”
“Enough leading questions. By including that opposite nature, I can increase the masculinity inside me.”
“In other words, by looking at roots that look like a woman’s crotch, you can increase the disgusting male desire within yourself? And you were too afraid to do it at home, so you made the same decision as a kid who brings his phone to his secret base?”
“You seem intent on branding me a pervert, but masculinity means sulfur in alchemical contexts!! You must know this!!”
He was a large muscular black man. He looked like he could solve most of his daily troubles a lost faster with his fists than by chanting a spell.
Agnese scratched her head while recalling what happened before.
“Um, Mr. Puke?”
“Did I do something to insult you, or do you just like tormenting people!?”
“Oh, sorry. Now, to get on topic, what were you using the ceremonial ground to do?”
“I was studying food.”
“Food? As in, the stuff we eat?”
“The very same. If I can find a method of cooking that directly extracts the compositional elements, it would greatly enhance the possibilities for all humans.”
Agnese understood the logic behind that, but she imagined studying it would only lead him to ancient Chinese alchemy. Hopefully he was not going to drink mercury while thinking it would give him eternal life.
“I have demonstrated the heating and cooling of elements within the enclosed space of a glass container, but I cannot extract the result. It vanishes the instant it contacts the outside world. So the cooking part can be done, but you cannot consume it. Just like the elixir of life that Ayton of the Golden cabal created. What I wanted was a way of keeping the volatilized element in place.”
“And you used summoning to do that?”
“It should be possible. I would be using the magic circle that surrounds the summoned object.”
“Ummm, are you saying you would do the cooking within the giant magic circle and then eat it while you extended the time until it was naturally destroyed?”
“Um, but. Aren’t the summoning circle and the protective circle generally separate things? Well, some ceremonies use just one circle and have either the human or the angel be the one inside the circle, but the basic idea is to keep the summoned thing and the summoner in separate fields or else the summoned thing will bare its fangs against the summoner. What you’re talking about sounds like keeping the zoo visitors in the same cage as the lions.”
(Oh, that look tells me he hasn’t solved that problem yet.)
He was of course renting out a ceremonial ground to perform those experiments. If he already had an answer, he wouldn’t need to keep coming back for more summoning. The old man who ran the place was a greedy realist, so renting out the container of course cost money.
Also, magic circles tended to get more complex as time passed. Mathers had created an English translation of (what he claimed was) the magic circle of King Solomon and even that included four smaller circles for incense in addition to the main circle.
“There is a way.”
“If you say so.”
“There has to be!! The ingredients needed to enhance humankind are right there, yet we aren’t allowed to consume them!? Listen, we need only clearly define who is the predator and who is the prey. Do that and we can enter that cage without any worry of being the ones consumed!!”
“Sure. Fine. Whatever.”
The clock was ticking even as they called in each of those five to gather information.
And there was no getting that time back. If Agnese got this wrong, there probably would not be time to try again.
“Y-you can see it, can’t you?” Stoop-backed Angelene was looking out toward the sea. “Isn’t that the Hood there!? If it’s close enough to see, we only have a few minutes before it arrives!”
That was close enough to fire its main cannons directly instead of along a mountain-like arc. However, Agnese was most afraid of it “landing”. France would begin fighting a war for real once that happened. A largescale magical shootout would begin between England’s Dover and France’s Calais and it could cause enough damage to require redrawing their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.
They could not escape even if they abandoned their work and fled to safety now and the social system protecting them would fall if England lost its capital of London and ceased to function. The distance from Dover to London was only 100km.
“Pierre, Rini, Plum, Harris, and Rouen. Those are the five who used that shared ceremonial ground. One of them must be the summoner, so have you noticed anything suspicious about their testimony?”
All five were suspects.
The Hood had been summoned from that container ceremonial ground, so one of the five had to have done it. Nothing else made sense.
But at the same time…
“They couldn’t have been lying.”
“True, we did set it up that way.”
Agnese pulled out a pair of scissors she had been hiding behind her back.
That had been a piece of magic where the scissors would turn like a doorknob if the target knowingly lied. The spell normally worked with a pair of scissors stabbed into a sieve. Lie detectors based on fortunetelling were common in their world. But they required being in a limited one-on-one space just like ordinary fortunetelling and required focusing on a conversation with the other person. That made it a difficult trick to actually use.
Agnese held a hand to her chin.
“The scissors didn’t move, so all five of them are renting out that secret ceremonial ground for the reasons they gave.”
“Could they be hiding a smaller objective with the larger one? They could be telling the truth but not the whole truth. Like someone saying they went out to make a delivery for work, but their true reason was to talk with the attractive housewife receiving the package.”
That was of course a possibility.
If the scissors could reveal everything, the Tower of London would not need all its cruel equipment. This was only the first hurdle used to see how the other person would avoid telling the truth when they could not just lie.
The ceremonial ground was definitely this container yard.
The information they had gathered on the way here proved that. There was zero chance of this being a decoy and the real one being elsewhere.
That left one question.
“How did they avoid telling the truth?” asked Agnese. She lost herself in thought. “How did they hide that they summoned the Hood?”
Agnese Sanctis thought back on what she had said. She had made her own predictions about the composition of the summoning magic circle when she located the container.
Iron was Mars and lead was Saturn. Gunpowder included sulfur, so it was earth. The ship was salt, so it was ether. The energy entered from the south and left to the west-northwest.
Of course, the seven metals, the three alchemical principles, and the five elements were some of the most basic principles in the magical world, so most any ceremony would include them. Even Agnese’s beloved Lotus Wand had them hidden within the spell. But the odds needed to find the exact same sequence lined up like that were astronomical. Everyone used random alphanumeric sequences for their passwords, but no one could guess it perfectly by pure chance.
This was the same.
The explanations gave by those five might partially match, but none of them could be used to summon the Hood.
“One of the five has added something extra to their ceremony.” Lucia must not have been able to bear the silence because she spoke up, sounding fairly impatient. “And so they created an environment capable of their original purpose and summoning the Hood. That lets them tell us a partial truth without actually lying. Isn’t that what must be happening here, Sister Agnese!?”
A white lighthouse stood at the very tip of the harbor.
However, that was well within the Hood’s firing range. The container yard and embankment had already been destroyed, so coming here was risking your life. People died for no good reason all the time. Modern harbors were the result of humanity trying to harden the sea and control the waves to eliminate some of that ubiquitous death, but once they failed to function, that death would bare its fangs once more.
Nevertheless, someone had chosen to come here without fear.
A spiral staircase led up within the metal tower.
It was midday, but the windowless tower remained dark save for a single old lantern. The distinctive aroma of slowly melting wax hung in the air as that person climbed the rusty metal stairs one at a time. The lantern cast an unusually large and flickering shadow on the curved wall.
They were almost there.
They were about to reach their destination. Despite the severity of what they had done, they climbed the stairs with just two legs and reached a perfectly ordinary hand toward the rusty knob of the metal door at the top. Magicians never did seem able to rid themselves of their human side. At any rate, they opened the door at the top of the lighthouse.
They froze in place afterwards, but not because ordinary sunlight had dazzled their eyes.
How had she gotten ahead of them?
A girl was staring into the distance with her small butt seated on the railing surrounding the viewing platform. She was staring out to sea.
“Why didn’t you run away?”
That question explained everything.
In fact, the nun had clearly known everything from the moment she showed no surprise at this person’s arrival. So the person put up no resistance after coming this far.
They had achieved their goal.
The Hood was visible cruising this way even as they spoke with Agnese Sanctis.
“Come to think of it, I never asked your name,” she said.
“Not that that tells me anything, she said with a bitter smile.
“I usually keep it hidden, though.”
Compared to Pierre or Rouen, that name did not sound at all French.
Agnese, whose name came from an Italian saint, shrugged.
“The Hood is a British warship.”
“Did you think a British summoner would be spared in the attack? And depending on France’s response, England could be destroyed too.”
“I didn’t summon it for any of that.”
Thinking back, a lot was unknown about how this came about.
The five people who shared the container ceremonial ground had been attacked in their homes and forcibly taken to the harbor by the Anglican Church. So until they had been abducted and told why they were there, they had not even known the Hood had been summoned.
However, one person had already been there without needing to be attacked.
Before even the mandrake guy.
“I said my name was Jack, didn’t I?”
Calais was the entranceway linking France and England. It was right across the 40km Strait of Dover, so a fair number of British magicians would end up there.
“Each of the five you rented out that ceremonial ground to covered a piece of the puzzle. Iron, lead, sulfur, and salt. Each of them covered one symbol, but none of their individual spells looked like enough to summon the Hood.”
“But combine them all and you see something else altogether. Almost like placing multiple panels on top of each other to create a single colorful piece of woodblock art. None of them could have set that up. It had to be the landlord who could view it all from a step removed and had the master key necessary to manage that rented space.”
All five had been the summoner, but none of them had been aware of it.
They had been oblivious to their position as a gear in a larger machine.
That explained why none of them could be found lying. Ignorance was the strongest mental defense. No device or drug could break through that barrier to reach the truth.
If the nuns had shoved those five onto a small boat, they would have run out of time without an answer. Letting them all sink out at sea would not have made the phantom Hood go away and it would have crashed right into Calais.
“What were you hoping to accomplish?”
Agnese remained seated on the railing while kicking her legs in the empty air off of the lighthouse.
“Looking at the big picture, war will begin once the Hood reaches Calais, whether or not it ever arrives within range of Paris. Because the 300km to Paris will be used as a defensive line. That will mean severe damage to France and England alike. Simply being British or French doesn’t seem like enough to explain this.”
“I have no interest in destruction.”
“The Hood was a ship constructed based on the lessons learned during World War One.”
“Were you aware that the Magician Crowley predicted the outbreak of that first war?”
That name was taboo.
Everyone on the magic side had benefited from his actions, but his sins were too great to earn him any praise.
“The ship contained his ‘genes’. It was given the ruinous element of that magician who insisted the entire world must be stained with blood before the great ceremony could begin. Without that, the Hood may have been victorious in the northern Atlantic.”
He had summoned a ship.
There were examples, such as Charon’s ferry to the afterlife or the Treasure Ship talismans standardized by Onmyojis, but it still had not seemed convincing. It meant summoning a purely mechanical object with a magic circle, instead of the usual angels, demons, or magical elements.
But what if this were true?
What if the symbolism of the Magician Crowley had been unwittingly included?
Then it likely would be possible.
That would put it on an entirely different level from Charon’s ferry or the Treasure Ship talismans. If, intentionally or not, that had been worked into the basic design of the entire ship, then it could conceivably have gained the ability to travel to and from some other realm. Then it would be possible to summon the Hood battlecruiser via occult means, as absurd as that sounds.
(Since it has indeed been summoned in the same way as an angel or demon, then it must have been converted from a simple physical object to a great mass of energy. Maybe it happened when the ship passed to another phase, or maybe it was done by inheriting something from Crowley, but it must have happened. That would mean the rusted hulk at the bottom of the northern Atlantic is only a small sliver of its true power.)
It was exceedingly rare for a summonable object to appear naturally.
It was like the odds of seeing the moment at which an angel descended from heaven.
Agnese doubted this old man could have put together a plan like this on short notice. This may have been the result of badly wanting to find that sunken ship at some point in the past.
Once something was summoned, it would generally remain until the corresponding exorcism ceremony was performed. Of course, it also required a massive amount of energy to remain in existence in that autonomous state.
(The Treasure Ship. I can’t forget that Crowley liked to travel and he even visited Japan by ship. The arrangement of symbols has transformed the ship itself into the talisman, so instead of having great power to begin with, maybe it’s gained an invincibility similar to that of an original grimoire. The Hood is starting to lose the restriction of numbers. Enough so that it could be used to mass-produce Gabriel talismans you could carry with you.)
“I do not know if that magician managed to insert his will into the Second World War as well. After all, he was an eccentric person whose legend was one of repeated failure and defeat. …But the Hood ended up with a piece of him within it, even if by pure coincidence. I couldn’t stand to leave it like that.”
Agnese’s kicking feet came to a stop.
Two things had entered her mind.
He was an old man, so he would have lived in a world she had not experienced.
“Are you saying you actually fought in that war?”
“I’m not that old. But my father would always tell me stories about the Hood. He even told me vivid tales of how a German warship blew a hole in it and how he had to dive into the icy seawater as the ship sank.” Jack sighed. “My father was a decent magician himself, but that didn’t mean much back then. Academy City and the science side weren’t around yet. I mean, we’re talking about an age when witches danced in the midwinter forests until they froze to death in an attempt to delay the Third Reich’s invasion.”
His father had always told him stories about it.
The images had worked themselves into his mind until it felt like he had actually experienced them himself. It was a lot like a small child writing a story about his father at work.
Maybe that explained it.
His father had proudly served aboard that battlecruiser, so he could not allow anything to stain its reputation. And he had taken action based on nothing more than that.
“So…do you know exactly how long you have?”
“I was told I have half a year to live.” The old man smiled a little and kept smiling as he continued. “It’s been 2 years since then, so I could keel over at any time.”
He did not seem afraid.
That was a moment that would come for everyone eventually.
He made it sound like he would prefer it if he spent his final moments working to help the Hood or even if he died along with the Hood.
“Did this give you what you wanted?”
“Not yet. I want to experience the Hood myself. I want to feel like I’m reaching out and touching it.”
“I doubt that will happen. The phantom isn’t that powerful.”
That made him realize the destructive landing still had not happened.
He could see the massive form on the ocean horizon. That was less than 5km away. At the battlecruiser’s max speed of 31 knots, that meant it was right on top of them, yet it never seemed to arrive at the harbor. Almost like a mirage oasis that seemed to move further away the more you pursued it.
“Do you mind if I discuss something too illogical to be proper magic?”
“This is already over. Have your say as the victor.”
“The largest driving force necessary to summon something is probably the desire in the summoner’s heart. You must strongly picture the summoning target in your mind and gather your willpower using the magic circle and the incantation necessary to give it physical form. But your spell was lacking in that sense. It was doomed to be since the five actual summoners were oblivious to the Hood’s existence. The created spell was bound to be full of interfering thoughts. You can create a beautiful face from a montage of different faces pasted together, but that won’t be anyone that exists. And since they don’t exist anywhere, you won’t ever find them even if you put out a wanted poster. Right?”
“You overly complicated the process out fear of being caught. You prepared this secret base and then dragged in five other magicians to ensure the ceremony would continue even if the magic circle’s location was discovered. But that was why it failed. If you had performed the Hood summoning ceremony on your own, that ship would have arrived here. You would have gotten what you wanted.”
He had prepared for every eventuality and that was why it had not worked.
His excessive planning had allowed the Hood to slip from his fingers.
The summoning had failed from the beginning. The shimmering appearance of the ship proved that. The Hood would never arrive anywhere. The wandering ghost ship would disappear all on its own before long.
“So I couldn’t do it after all.” The words fell from his lips like flakes of rust. “I’m not my father – I only ever heard the stories. My generation had it easy, so maybe it was presumptuous to think I could purify that legendary ship.”
“It’s pretty obvious, I guess.”
Silver-haired brown-skinned Necromancer Isabella Theism tilted her head, causing her death-smelling rags to sway.
Agnese sighed and continued.
“The current era is built on that former one, so some people will remain obsessed with the world of the past. Even when everyone who actually fought in that war are gone and no one alive experienced it themselves.”
The Hood had disappeared without a trace.
As if to say it never should have been there in the first place.
All that remained were the scars of destruction in the Calais harbor and the empty expanse of the sea.
She had not defeated that old man.
Because it had already been over.
The battlecruiser he had summoned would never have arrived here. The shock of learning he could never actually experience it for himself would be punishment enough. And with so little life left, Jack Prometeria would not have time to put together a new plan.
However, Isabella seemed anything but respectful.
If you were not willing to break some taboos, you would never specialize in necromancy.
“It’s our job to fulfill that sort of desire☆”
“Necromancers, I mean☆ We rob graves, steal the stained clothing within, and wear them to become one with the dead so we can provide otherworldly answers from the mouths of the dead. That might sound like a cursed thing to do, but ours is the correct way to hear the words of a specific dead person. Jack, was it? There is a simple way to help him work through his regrets. Summon one of the Hood’s crew and ask them what they think. Or we could summon his own father for him. He can ask them if their loss was due to their own lack of strength or if it was due to the Crowley curse dragging them down. And he can ask them if they regret what happened. Wouldn’t that solve everything without going to all the trouble to summon a big ship and possibly start a war?”
Was she trying to claim she was a pure shaman instead of a necromancer who reeked of death? She was like one of the ancient witches who had been labelled as evil by the intentional misinformation spread by a global religion.
On the other hand…
“How can you say that when we don’t even have a clear definition of the soul?” asked Agnese.
“As long as enough people come seeking our techniques, our field will never die out.”
Even if they knew it was wrong.
Even if they understood intellectually it was grotesque.
Isabella Theism smiled as she continued.
“Eternal life will bring only loneliness. It is much more comforting to contact the dead and speak with the deceased. Twisted as it might seem, that’s just how humans are.”
The stage: Frankfurt, Hesse, Germany.
The problem: fucking Angelene.
She had been acting weird lately. That undisciplined stoop-backed freckled nun normally did nothing but eat sweets and laze about, but after returning from “work” (Let’s not get into what exactly that work entails. It was the usual dirty job that placed them below even the roaches that ate and broke down insect carcasses!), she did not return to her bed in their mobile home and instead started vigorously move around outside. That should have left her more exhausted than the others, but her face always looked weirdly bright when she returned. And she would fail to clean her plate at dinner, saying she was full.
That settled it.
Agnese and Lucia worked to capture her before their night shift began.
“Oh, what’s this, Sister Angelene? A delivery job using your phone and a bicycle? An admirable work ethic, but one question: why is a nun lining her pockets with a side job and spending it all on snacks?”
“Ow, ow, ow, owwww!? Y-you really shouldn’t grind your fists against people’s temples like this, Sister Agnese!!”
She was not even given the opportunity to turn the other cheek as she was hit by an infinite combo from both sides at once. Urban rental bike services were similar in every country and phone service was generally global, so you could start a part-time job no matter where you were as long as you signed up.
Unable to escape the endless temple-grinding, Angelene began some desperate shouting.
“B-besides, it’s wrong to visit Frankfurt and never eat a single frankfurter! We were so focused on work we never did eat a hamburger steak at Hamburg, so I decided I wasn’t going to let that happen here!!”
“You’ve been eating meat dishes as snacks? Those are full-blown meals.”
“No, they aren’t!! They’re basically meat bananas, so they count as a snack!!”
That assertion left both Agnese and Lucia trembling.
“First of all, bananas are considered a breakfast food around here,” said Lucia. “Second of all, ‘meat banana’ is far too obscene to shout in public.”
“Hm? How is that obscene???”
“Hm? How is that obscene???”
Once she realized she had self-destructed, Lucia began slamming her forehead against a concrete wall to end her life. Not realizing it took a dirty mind to notice how dirty something sounded was a common mistake.
Agnese was tilting her head along with Angelene, but now was not the time to be taking that girl’s side. She could not go easy on her, so a thorough punishment was in order.
“By the way, Sister Angelene, I assume you were working this very un-nun-like gadget-filled side job because you had heard the rumors.”
“Young bike delivery workers have been going missing. The story is they receive a fake order to an abandoned building and the person themselves is received as the delivery item. By a dangerous magician, of course.”
“Procurers really have evolved with the times. You only need a phone and a finger to get what you need. And the deliverer doesn’t even know what they’re carrying, so it’s pretty clever.”
Angelene had a bad feeling about this.
Procurer was a dangerous term in the world they lived in.
It referred to people who could procure whatever items an escapee or wanted criminal needed to live their lives. That sounded simple enough, but it was a serious issue. Criminals could not receive the usual services everyone else could, so a cavity or appendicitis could be deadly for them. The more irregular a life someone lived, the greater the risk to their health.
On the other hand, a procurer would be meaningless if they were conspicuous enough to be tailed. It was a boring job that required a number of unique skills. For example, how could a male procurer purchase women’s underwear while remaining inconspicuous? The job required solving thought puzzles of that nature.
Angelene already had tears welling up in her eyes when Lucia joined in with red blood dripping down from her forehead.
“Such devotion! This was an independent investigation meant to prevent any new victims by sacrificing yourself instead, wasn’t it!? If you had only let us know, we would have given you as much assistance as you wanted!!”
“Um, uh, but.”
“That’s right, Sister Lucia!! Sister Angelene is our shining star of hope, so she would never doing something as silly as abandon her duties to earn some pocket change to satisfy her own desires!! This was all a service to the lost lambs out there. So now is not the time to be falling for such an obvious trap as ‘meat banana’! We need to support her!!”
“Hm? Wait, Sister Agnese, are you saying you knew how dirty that sounded but played dumb!?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about, Meat Banana Lover.”
The girl feigning ignorance here was their leader. She was making an unspoken threat of permanently giving Lucia that unwanted nickname if she pursued that line of questioning any further.
But that aside, Agnese and Lucia both slapped one of stoop-backed Angelene’s shoulders. There was no escape for her. The world’s rules had already chosen her fate.
“Now, let’s get this sting operation started!! Sister Angelene, I really am impressed to see such devotion after we traveled all the way to Germany!!”
They needed to all be on the same page, so they held a strategy meeting in a dark parking lot.
“This unseen magician is using an ordinary delivery app to gather the materials they need.” Agnese raised a finger. “Namely, human bodies. The boys and girls who pedal on over to the destination, unaware that they are the true product being ordered. They deliver themselves to the execution ground. They enter the abandoned building, thinking something is suspicious, and then they’re killed right then and there. The magician vanishes along with their ‘product’, so all that remains is a large pool of blood and the deliverer’s bike. Who is responsible for such a cultish and inefficient ceremony? Are they after the bones or the organs?”
“Ugh.” Angelene was already groaning.
That alone made it sound like no more than a gruesome crime.
Simple tasks had a way of dulling people’s inquisitiveness. Pedaling a bike loaded with some kind of package was obviously going to wear you out. As someone made delivery after delivery over the course of a day, their thoughts would dull and they would stop questioning the information displayed on their phone. Once they became no more than a cog in the phone-guided machine, the fateful order would arrive.
Their phone’s map could not be wrong.
They were protected by a vast system that everyone used.
So they would be fine.
And once those assumptions prevented them from actually thinking, they would not hesitate to walk right into an abandoned building. Even though the international corporation that had supplied the map did not actually send out guards to protect the people using it.
Since she had been working just that kind of job, Angelene was very hesitant to ask further.
But she also wanted to know what all they knew at the moment.
“Um, uh, do they use a different abandoned building each time?”
“Obviously. The phone they use to order and the building set as the destination are all stolen. That’s why checking through the electronic order data isn’t enough to identify the magician. That would only lead us to the Dietrich or Wilhelm whose name was used for the order.”
People with dirty minds (which she was proven to have) must have had an excess of energy because her bleeding did not slow her down a bit.
“How is the ‘ordinary’ world viewing these incidents?”
“The teenagers who work that bike delivery job tend to be gathering money to run away from home, so any suspicions have been buried in an ocean of statistical data.”
Was this a clever way of abusing the system, or did modern people just not care about strangers anymore?
Either way, the magician was continuing to use that loophole to acquire human bodies.
They clearly had a task that required them to continue taking lives.
“Our sting operation is simple,” said Agnese. “These delivery apps tend to give the job to whoever’s fastest. When an order is made, the addresses of the restaurant and the delivery location are displayed and any nearby part-timers can show their intention to fulfill it by tapping the ‘accept job’ button. So as soon as we see a job with an abandoned building as the goal, we just have to tap that button faster than anyone else.”
Of course. Ordinary users would just have the address displayed for them. They would have no way of knowing who lived there or if that location was even occupied. The overhead view on the map did not tell you what kind of building it was. That was why the past users had fallen for it and charged right into that spiderweb.
On the other hand, if you linked the app up to a database that could display the ownership of any address it was given, the magician’s trap was easy to detect. They only had to work out which of the many available jobs was to an abandoned building.
Lucia placed a hand on her slender chin.
“Does that use church data?”
“Unlike Tokyo or New York, Europe uses a lot of apartments and offices built hundreds of years ago. Even if the area is being modernized, the church can intervene in the name of preserving the scenery. The church has a strong connection to the real estate business. If people live somewhere, people will eventually die there, but the intermediary company doesn’t want the property to lose value over that, so they always make sure to call in the church to exorcise the place☆”
That gave the Roman Catholic Church a ton of city information that they could use to proselytize. And they did not let anyone else use that data, of course. Convenience stores on opposite sides of the same intersection sometimes received very different levels of business. In the same way, the church always checked their data to see where to build their churches and where to distribute pamphlets on the streets to proselytize most efficiently.
Agnese licked her lips while viewing a list of data that had started with old maps and continued to be updated until it even had the latest smart buildings.
“Now, then. I think we’re ready to get started.”
An ordinary person could have accomplished this same thing by checking the city hall database, but they would have needed to know there was a trap waiting for them to even consider doing so. And the heavy users who spent all day pedaling their bikes on the job could, as previously stated, stop questioning anything due to the exhaustion and repetitive actions.
“Now, then. Now, then. Now, then.”
“Ahhh,” sobbed Angelene, but a punishment was a punishment.
Today she would have to work toward bringing peace to the world.
“Wow, those girls have found one hell of a job for themselves. This might be a talent of theirs.”
“Isabella, was that meant as a criticism of me?”
“No? They’ve proven themselves capable, so of course we’re going to exploit them for everything they’re worth. Even if they’re just cute little rookies, if they want to do this work, they need to do real professional work.”
“That doesn’t do us much good if it gets them killed, though. And there is no way they’re winning this time.”
“And, Stiyl, I can hear the voices of those dismembered corpses☆”
The bicycle had small wheels.
It was best described as a folding bike that did not actually fold.
It must have been designed mostly for its looks because the height not provided by the wheels instead came from the extra-high handlebars and seat. That allowed even an adult to ride it without difficulty, but it had a poor torque ratio between one turn of the pedals and one turn of the wheel. Simply put, it was exhausting to pedal it up a steep slope.
Angelene was reminded that the world’s first bicycle was thought to have been in Germany.
She was so out of breath that she seemed to be complaining just by existing.
She was not sure if it was also designed mostly for its looks or if this design protected the contents from the shaking, but the waterproof backpack lent to her by the company was shaped like a round sphere. The stoop-backed nun wore that as she pedaled the bike through the Frankfurt night.
Procurer Angelene was on the job.
“(Her journey to the realm of the dead has begun. Sister Lucia, we need to begin following her.)”
“(We know where her destination is, so can’t we just go there ahead of her?)”
“(If the magician was kind enough to wait around in the same spot the entire time, we wouldn’t need to sneak around like this in the first place.)”
Also, they did not actually know for sure that the attack happened at the delivery point. It was possible the magician erected a people-clearing field or used some other spell to attack before then and then scattered the victim’s blood at the delivery point after the fact. This was a sting operation, so preserving Angelene’s life had to be their top priority in every choice they made.
They jumped from rooftop to rooftop.
Angelene was riding her unfamiliar borrowed bike through the hilly city of Frankfurt, so there was no conceivable way for pros like Agnese and Lucia to lose sight of her.
“(Come to think of it, only the blood and bike are found afterwards, right?)”
“(What about it, Sister Lucia?)”
“(I was just wondering what happens to that round backpack. For that matter, what is Sister Angelene even carrying with her? She received some kind of heavy bag at the restaurant, but that was whatever the magician ordered, right?)”
“(Who knows. I mean, we’re talking about a magician who performs some kind cultish ritual that uses an ingredient as horribly inefficient as the human body. They might just be ordering ordinary food. Maybe there’s a spell user out there who hates to work on an empty stomach, so they munch on some pizza in one hand and slice open their restrained victim’s gut with the other hand.)”
It was a dangerous sign when they had decided their opponent was an unfathomable monster and thus gave up on thinking about the situation, but in this case, they knew for sure that the malicious magician’s target was Angelene. The app delivery service was only the decoy used to efficiently lure people in, so they did not have to worry about that part too much.
Part-timers closest to the restaurant or the person’s home would be given the job first, so Angelene did not have to pedal far. At a normal pace, she would arrive in about 10 minutes.
“(Where’s her destination?)”
“(Part of an ordinary warehouse district. It’s the kind of blind spot found in any industrial city.)”
So far, they didn’t see anything suspicious around Angelene. It looked like she would be able to reach her destination without incident.
It was late at night and there was no one else around.
But this was a big city, so there were plenty of streetlights and security cameras. The windows where the lights never went out were easy to mistake for human warmth. You might just think you were protected if you were looking at your phone while you pedaled along. Although you would fail to consider what you needed protection from.
Artificial light created with LEDs might not work against a true magician. And this magician was one who had kept up with the changing times. They would know where all the city’s blind spots and humanmade shadows were. They would be able to locate an isolated piece of this industrial city filled with millions of cameras.
(Doesn’t this violate the treaty between magic and science? Academy City really needs to uphold their end of that.)
Also, Frankfurt was an inland city, so while it was an industrial city, it did not have a harbor district bordering the ocean. Its international airport was primarily for travelers, so heavy equipment was transported either along land routes or along the giant river next to the city.
Angelene was on her way to a base for the land routes – a warehouse district next to the autobahn. Just like their advance info had said. It was hard to tell since there were not always people there to keep the lights on, but there were empty and abandoned warehouses. Homes and shops were not the only example of people being kicked out once they could no longer pay.
That said, there was no good way of telling from the outside which ones were in use and which were abandoned.
“(Angelene has stopped her bike,)” whispered Lucia while landing on the roof of a neighboring warehouse.
“(Be on the lookout. We don’t know whether this magician is working alone or as part of a group.)”
Most serial killers worked alone. Supposedly because such unusual and high-risk desires could not be revealed to an entire group. But that changed with a crime based on a simple shared goal like a bank robbery. Which was this? The key was the constant need for living humans.
Was it part of a major ceremony that required a large number of sacrifices?
Or was it a case of repeatedly failing the same ceremony and having to redo it?
At this point, it was hard to say how planned out this had been.
And the magician being incompetent did not make them any less dangerous. No one wanted to come face to face with someone wielding a blade because they had decided their life would never improve and they needed to be “reborn” to try again. A magician like that would never be satisfied and they would never stop.
Agnese and Lucia heard a creak as Angelene lowered her bike’s kickstand.
She looked worriedly around with the round backpack still on. She had not been told the other two were watching over her. That way she would not do anything that might give their presence away to the enemy magician.
This was odd.
Lucia held her breath and then tilted her head.
“(Did they catch on and leave?)”
That was a possibility, but it still felt weird. If they had detected Agnese and Lucia, when had it happened? If they had such excellent search magic, like fortunetelling or prophecy, would they even need to use the delivery service trick? It seemed like they could magically search out all witness information and attack someone when no one was looking.
Those two could not rid themselves of a feeling like a pebble rolling around in their chest.
They might have overlooked something.
(I need to review everything we know for a fact.)
Agnese made a point of taking a deep breath as she sorted through the information.
Some malicious entity was abusing the bike delivery system. Unsuspecting part-timers were lured to an abandoned building where they were attacked by someone and went missing. Afterwards, only a large pool of blood and their personal bike remained.
That much was certain.
There was one primary question here:
“Who’s doing it?”
That was the obvious question. This entire sting operation was meant to find the culprit.
Agnese’s group had never actually seen any of the attacks. The situation had definitely been set up by someone. Since stolen phones were being used to send people to fake delivery destinations, whoever was making the orders had to understand the part-timers were meeting a gruesome end.
But on the other hand…
“Could the magician behind it not actually be attacking them directly?”
That was a legitimate question.
However, the fact remained that there was blood and there were people going missing. It was hard to imagine the part-timers themselves were spilling a pack of blood they had prepared and then going into hiding.
There was a malicious attacker.
But that attacker might not be the magician who had set things up.
Then who was the most likely suspect?
In fact, what hiding places were even left?
“It can’t be…”
What was it Lucia had mentioned before?
Only the blood and the bike remained, so where had that round backpack gone? The object within it had been ordered by the malicious magician, hadn’t it?
“It can’t be! Sister Angelene, get away from there immediately!! And leave that backpack behind!!”
It was too late.
The bud of malice had already blossomed right behind the stoop-backed girl.
The true attacker opened its mouth to speak while clinging to her back.
What in the world was that?
It had sounded a lot like…a baby crying?
Just as Angelene arrived at her designated destination, her round backpack tore open from within and something like black branches burst out. No, they were more like multisegmented spider legs. She still could not see what it looked like in full. The backpack had been torn pretty badly, but its general shape still remained.
For some reason, she suspected she might die if she looked in there, so she used her trembling hands to pull her arms from the shoulder straps.
As she did so, the sharp end of one of those legs stroked across her cheek like a metal spike.
She threw the round backpack away.
It never hit the ground.
It was supported in midair by the many bizarre legs emerging from it. If those legs were to spread out, this thing would already be larger than she was. In fact, it had to be as wide across as a table for four. Needless to say, the sheer size made it more terrifying than a simple animal or bug.
It sounded like a baby, but this was no baby. It couldn’t be. That was something much more malevolent. And it was clearly more than just a hackneyed monster like a giant spider.
You could not let yourself know this thing.
Simply thinking its name in your mind would steal your soul away.
This terrifying thing was as far from human warmth as anything could be. The way the horrific creature cried like a baby seemed like a serial killer trying but failing to pretend to be a harmless neighbor. There was no way this thing could ever inspire you to protect it.
“Sister Angelene!!” shouted a familiar girl’s voice from atop a large warehouse.
Angelene looked up there on reflex, but the sharp voice rebuked her.
“Get away from there!! Hurry!! The killing was set up to be automatic too. The magician was back in the restaurant at the starting point, not in the abandoned building at the goal! They had you place the murder device in your backpack and then sent you to the scene of your own murder!!”
“H-how is this happening!? How can this be happening!?”
She started running, but tripped in her panic. She belatedly realized she had run into her bike. She righted the bike, climbed onto the seat, and placed her full weight on the pedals.
The babylike signal exploded.
Legs heavier than heavy machinery tore into the asphalt, all while crying just like a baby in distress. The horrifying “backpack” was on the move.
Angelene had become the definite target of that being that would take away your soul through simple knowledge of it.
A true crisis was underway.
“What am I supposed to do nowww!?”
The magician responsible had not even shown up, so they could not stop this thing by punching the person who had sicced it on her. What chance did she even have here? She doubted you could outrun this kind of “death” on a bike. The monster that tore into the scenery with spider legs and cried like a baby was the very concept of inescapable death. Understanding it would not reveal a path to survival – it would only close off your fate and guide you to your doom even faster. There was no thinking your way out of this absolute death.
She heard some light footsteps from up above.
She could guess Agnese and Lucia were following by jumping between warehouse rooftops. Or she hoped that was what it was. If this thing could mimic their voices too, then she could only give up and die.
“The magician made sure to distance themselves from the threat they created! If they could perfectly control it, they could have attacked you when you picked up that thing at the restaurant!!”
She thought her heart would freeze over.
Knowing she had been pedaling along with that thing on her back was terrifying enough, but the thought of it possibly attacking even sooner made it all the worse.
“So, Sister Angelene, your best bet is to retrace your steps and return to that restaurant! You just have to create a situation the magician doesn’t want!! Then they’ll have to do something about it!!”
(That’s all wishful thinking! What if the magician has already left the restaurant!?)
But she had no other options at the moment.
If she stopped here, she would meet the same fate as the previous victims. Did that thing chew up the victims and carry them back to the magician in its stomach, or was killing them with that thing enough to complete the ceremony? Either way, she would not see the sunrise.
She pedaled through the warehouse district at top speed.
She could tell it would catch up to her eventually, but she could return to that restaurant and make it the original magician’s problem before that happened. That was the only way she saw to survive. It was like playing catch with a cartoon bomb with its fuse lit.
“The area just outside the warehouse district is densely populated! Do you have a people-clearing field ready!?”
“If the magician detected the unnatural flow of magic, they could escape, so if you want to survive this, just rush on through!!”
“Are you serious!? I really feel like we’re crossing a line here!”
The almost metallic footsteps continued to pursue her. And the unnatural, baby-like crying was even closer than she had thought. She did not have it in her to look back. She was not even checking her phone. She was entirely relying on her own memory when a single wrong turn could mean failing to arrive at her destination and becoming a live snack.
She pedaled with a ghastly look on her face until she spotted a familiar light: the restaurant’s sign.
It still had its lights on this late. She looked to the register counter through the window and recognized the young woman staring wide-eyed back out at her.
Since the woman had not left, she must have been extremely confident her plan would work.
Or had she been too afraid to wander around “outside” before she knew how it had turned out? All while assuming the bike carrying the bomb would never return to the starting point no matter where it went.
Angelene shouted at the top of her lungs toward the roofs.
“Trash spotted!! She’s still pretending to be the real restaurant manager!!”
“Understood, Sister Angelene. Now’s your chance to deliver that package to its rightful owner!!”
With a deafening shattering of glass, Angelene and her borrowed bike crashed into the restaurant.
She broke right through the locked door and tumbled out onto the floor.
Her thick nun’s habit came in handy at times like this. Which was not too surprising since hers truly was combat gear.
She had fallen onto her butt.
Not Angelene. The magician woman who had set all this up.
“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeek!! Y-you!? Why would you ever come back here!?”
“Because you sent this magic after me!”
Angelene desperately shouted back, but received an odd response.
The terrified magician shook her head like a small child.
“It wasn’t me!! That brutal curse isn’t mine!!”
The woman had called it a curse.
She had very clearly done so.
“Baron Samedi is the fearsome death god who stands at the crossroads.”
She crossed herself with trembling fingers, but her words suggested it probably meant something different than Angelene was used to.
“But just as any priest can use any curse, any good god also possesses the aspects of any evil god. The opposite is also true. Oh, purifying death god with a red lack of eyes, separate me from the threat like the knife that slices the lime!!”
A powerful crashing sound followed.
The glass door at the entrance had been destroyed by Angelene and her bike, yet the spider-legged thing that cried like a baby was blocked from entry like there was an invisible wall there. Its front end was squished flat against nothing, like a dump truck that crashed into an unseen barrier. It was reminiscent of the distorted face of a murderer squished against thick glass.
“This way, hurry.”
“This will only buy us some time because the curse has already locked onto us. It will come in here to kill us no matter what!!”
The woman grabbed Angelene’s hand and guided her back into the restaurant’s kitchen. Even at these indoor walls, the magician woman would cross herself and create an invisible barrier at every door they passed through.
But again, this was only buying time.
This did not solve the fundamental problem, so the curse would catch up to them eventually.
Angelene belatedly realized her thighs were trembling.
That was half due to fear and half due to her simple exhaustion. They said crises gave you incredible strength, but she was still amazed she had managed to escape that thing on such a cheap bike. If she had to do it again, the same miracle would not occur a second time.
“Th-that spell. Is it…?”
“Yes. As you can see, it’s Voodoo.” The woman wiped sweat from her brow. “But Voodoo doesn’t actually have any fixed teachings or spells. It’s a culture that borrows the gods and ceremonies of other mythologies and religions, makes them its own, and adds in their own things to continually expand on it. It might even include familiar aspects of your Christianity.”
Hadn’t that come up during the incident in Spain?
Not to mention Isabella Theism of Necessarius.
“I was studying a curse,” spat out the woman. “Divine punishment and divine wrath are a part of god’s will, right? Just look at the stories of Saint Andrew or Saint Vitus. A painful demonstration to the people can be used to show the world god’s glory. And since Voodoo continues to grow while it incorporates all other mythologies and religions, I thought the key to quickly contacting god could be found there.”
“It’s apparently called the Ceremony of Ba Moun.”
Angelene had no idea what language that was or what it meant.
Maybe that was for the best.
She did not want to think about where that knowledge might lead.
“The spell allows you to bind a priority contract with a demon who will grant your every wish, but in exchange, you must sacrifice someone you care for once every year. And once you run out of people you care for, the demon will devour you. It’s the worst and most wicked spell in Voodoo. But I should have been able to control it with enough research. Keyword: should.”
She sensed some kind of link between the requirement to sacrifice people you cared for and the boys and girls who kept going missing.
“After losing control of the curse, you started forcing it onto unsuspecting people to escape it yourself!? You had them take your place every time you couldn’t escape it any longer!?”
“If that were enough to save me, I’d be out there enjoying my life right now.”
She did not even reflexively deny it.
Did people really become this self-centered when they were pushed to the limit?
“I wanted to get rid of the curse. No matter what it took. That habit is Catholic, but I get the feeling you aren’t a normal nun. A pro has finally shown up, so I hope you’re something special.”
She had tired to force it onto someone else to get rid of it.
She had wanted to let them dispose of the problem for her.
She was not even a procurer. She was more like someone who dumped babies or spirit tablets in a coin-operated locker or park trashcan. Knowing someone would find it before long, she abandoned the thing so no one would know it was her. She forced all responsibility onto whoever discovered it so she could run off.
And she would grimace each time the curse returned to her afterwards.
Yet she never gave up and kept doing it.
“There’s something wrong with you,” said Angelene. “And that’s putting it nicely.”
“You had that curse after you too, so you know how terrifying it is, don’t you? What was that nonsense about once a year? It doesn’t wait at all before it comes to devour you. It’s completely broken as a curse.”
Angelene did not want to die.
That was her primary goal here.
And when she calmly analyzed her situation, she found this supposed dead end actually had a path out. But only she could use that path out; the other magician could not.
This was a curse.
The Ceremony of Ba Moun was a spell to create a priority contract with a demon who would grant the magician’s every wish. The demon described there was very poorly defined. It simply required repeated sacrifices of people the magician cared for and, once the magician ran out of those, it would devour the magician themselves.
That might sound like a complete dead end with no escape and it could be described as the worst possible curse, but that was not quite accurate.
There was a very simple way of immediately ending the catastrophe.
The woman who had caused it all had to die to the curse.
That would complete the process.
No more sacrifices would be needed and the thing known as a demon would leave immediately.
Angelene heard a terrible crash like a thick wooden pillar had been mercilessly snapped. Her shoulders jumped and she looked back toward the door. She could sense a presence there. She could hear it. Something was clawing at a door, meaning it was inside the building.
How many more doors were in its way?
The woman had said that would only buy them some time and she had not just been being modest. Those barriers were not showing any more of an effect than she had claimed.
The solution Angelene had thought up was correct.
Even the most powerful curse could be eliminated if it had a set target and it finished off that target. Assuming the curse did not remain behind afterwards, creating a lasting house of death.
But could she do that? Was she allowed to make that choice???
“I can’t believe this.”
The woman bit her thumbnail without noticing the girl staring so intently at her.
She had demonstrated an ugly fixation on life.
But that also proved that she was most definitely alive.
“This is nothing more than a spell created by humans and meant to be used by humans. No matter what kind of power it’s borrowing to boost itself, there has to be a way of getting rid of it. If I analyze it enough, I should be able to dispel any and all forms of magic.”
The crying of a baby could be heard through the door now.
But those cries were not something a lovable life would ever produce.
This magician had saved Angelene from that once.
She was of course being self-serving here. She was only keeping Angelene around to have someone to shove the curse onto while she escaped. But even so, Angelene would not be alive right now if not for that decision.
Could she really decide this was the right thing to do like she was throwing a switch?
Was it really allowed?
Whose approval could she receive to be freed from the guilt weighing on her gut like lead!?
“What did you wish for? Even if you only wanted to study the curse, you must have had some kind of wish you wanted granted. You must have used it at least once. So what was it?”
She sounded like she was only now remembering.
Or like she was thinking back to a time when she had still had a conscience.
“I wished no one else would ever have to suffer from a strange curse.”
That clinched it.
Angelene could not do it.
It was true this magician was beyond helping. She had gotten a bunch of innocent people killed and had even tried to force the curse onto Angelene so she alone could escape to safety. It was all so hopelessly self-centered.
She was still a human being.
That should have been obvious, but once you were reminded of that obvious fact, you could not go through with it. Angelene did not even know her name. Maybe she had been afraid it would keep her from acting if she knew. Once she accepted her as a fellow human, she could no longer abandon her.
But that terrible subconscious bulwark had just crumbled away.
This knowledge closed off her fate and guided her to her doom.
That seemed fitting for the person who had created this curse, so Angelene bit her lip.
She could no longer think of taking the easy way out.
“Tell me your name.”
The door to the kitchen finally dented in toward them. It bowed inward. Once that thing caught up, they would be devoured and killed. Angelene could just tell that the thing was not something you could think about “defeating” or “beating”.
But she still asked for that piece of information to make a clear decision for herself.
The woman looked taken aback.
She narrowed her eyes a little before answering.
“Frau Halveria. And you?”
That eliminated one option.
She could no longer abandon the coward and run to safety while pretending it was the right thing to do.
She had decided she would capture that woman alive and throw her into the Tower of London.
Agnese and Lucia had identified the restaurant Angelene had entered, but carelessly approaching it now would mean losing their lives. Then they could not hope to save the girl trapped inside.
So they chose to attack a different location.
They captured the loafer watching on from a nearby rooftop and tied her up.
An observer like that would only have been waiting there if she had known from the beginning this would happen.
“Fucking Isabella, how about you tell us what exactly is going on here?”
“Oh, my. Is this kind of kinky stuff popular in the Agnese Forces right now? As nuns, you should really act more like proper servants of god.”
“How much did you know?”
This sting operation might seem to have begun when Agnese used a story she had heard to punish Angelene, but there was more to it than that.
Where had Agnese come by the information in the first place?
If they had been intentionally lured into this, it was worth tracking down the provenance of that information.
“Heh. Eh heh heh heh heh. I-I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Sister Lucia, give me a hand. I want to build a giant DIY seesaw that can launch her all the way to that restaurant.”
“For a siege catapult, wouldn’t we need to roll up some rope to build up strength?”
“I’d die, I’d die, I’d die, I’d die!” tearfully pleaded Isabella. “Ahh, are you still stuck in the era when they honestly believed you could stuff someone in a cannon and launch them to the moon!?”
“That’s a Voodoo demon, isn’t it?” coldly asked Agnese. “So wouldn’t you have some countermeasure against it?”
“Oh, no. I couldn’t do that. It doesn’t matter if you’ve mastered the Voodoo arts here. I mean, we’re talking about the Ceremony of Ba Moun of all things. Besides, this is a spell that someone created but can’t control. All its abilities have been specialized toward granting your heart’s desire, safety be damned. Adding or removing anything to it would decrease its purity.”
“So it’s like a rocket built with a ‘to the moon or bust’ philosophy?”
“Yes, you might be half dead from heat and radiation, but you’d still set the record for the fastest manned flight, right? But decking out your ship with heavy lead panels is meaningless if won’t lift a single millimeter from the ground. Launching a rocket requires a lot of prior investment.”
It sounded crazy, but some people were in a situation so pressing they needed their wish granted ASAP. Like wanting to stop the giant meteor falling toward you, or wanting to save your sick and emaciated daughter. You couldn’t even wait a day longer for those wishes. And people had a way of feeling satisfied with even a halfway decent result. They would never rely on such a poorly-defined demon if their situation were not so pressing, but that very pressing situation left them unable to examine whether or not relying on that demon was really worth the price. Because if it failed even once, they would lose everything.
So person after person boarded that incomplete rocket to the moon, knowing it would leave them half dead. Just like people used to destroy their lungs with dust working in a mine to excavate a tiny piece of pure gold the size of their fingertip.
They were not in any position to properly consider the risks when they made the decision to try it.
They only learned the price they paid after the fact, once it was too late.
“But what does it even mean to ‘grant your heart’s desire’ here? That’s an extremely vague description.”
“When you look into it, it isn’t much.” The woman who smelled of death gave a thin and sticky smile. “The Voodoo specialty known as the zombie is not about making musty old corpses rise from the dead. You use special chemicals to intentionally harm someone’s body in order to remove the Ti Bon Ange from the five components of the soul. The spell is used to rob the person of their mind and remake them into a living unit you can control. The Ceremony of Ba Moun uses a demon as an amplifier to forcibly shift things up a level, bringing it from the micro to the macro. Simply put, it intentionally makes the physical world ill in order to control the diseased area. But that’s still only a small portion of the whole. The appendix is a tiny aspect of your physical body’s entire volume, right? And yet it can still bring you endless and excruciating pain until it is removed.”
“In Phase Theory terms, I guess you could call it corrupting the current phase instead of inserting a new phase of your own. But like I said, this spell has abandoned the entire concept of safety, so the corruption will reach the magician themselves sooner or later.”
That was very different from how Agnese viewed it.
Just like someone with a mastery of medicine might view medicines and poisons as the same basic thing, someone with a mastery of mythology might view gods and demons as the same basic thing. But Isabella’s way of combining Voodoo and Christianity inside her without any contradiction was not a thought process a nun could follow so easily.
The brown beauty herself seemed entirely carefree.
“Is there an affinity? You’d better believe it. Voodoo is a greedy religion that takes in every last miracle it runs across. I mean, they even include Yahweh as just one of their gods.”
“Enough talk.” Agnese sounded exasperated as she pointed her thumb toward the restaurant. “How exactly do you intend to solve this? We can’t lose Sister Angelene here.”
“Um, what do you think all that ‘talk’ was leading up to? If you were paying attention, you would have noticed I was going to great lengths to explain how the Ceremony of Ba Moun demon cannot be defeated.”
“Sister Lucia, prepare the catapult.”
“Okay, okay! I’ll figure something out, so just listen!!”
“Get to the point,” said Agnese in a voice much too threatening for a nun.
The necromancer put on a stiff smile and poked her index fingers together in front of her chest.
“Heh. Eh heh heh. Recall what our win condition is here. You just want to make sure those two survive even if we can’t defeat the demon, right?”
“I would have agreed to just saving Sister Angelene, but if you have it in your rotten heart to go that far, be my guest.”
“Then there is still a possibility.”
Isabella Theism lightly clenched a fist and struck the center of her chest with it.
She also winked and smiled.
“Did you forget I specialize in necromancy?”
They were inside the restaurant’s kitchen.
Frau Halveria had suggested a simple gamble.
“We make ourselves seem dead.”
“Like Romeo and Juliet?”
“In Voodoo, you can create an absolute poison with a single lime growing on a tree. And zombie powder is a drug that puts people in a state of pseudo-death to control them. I can create anything with this industrial kitchen to work with! There’s no escaping from the Ceremony of Ba Moun, so we just have to make it think we’ve passed on. If its target – me – is already dead, it loses its purpose and should be destroyed!!”
There was no time to see if anything she was saying was true. She probably was not 100% certain herself. She would not have killed all those people if she had been absolutely confident this would work.
“I-is there anything I can do!?” asked Angelene.
“Hold the door until I get the drug ready. Don’t let it in here!!”
She had to use force.
When she slammed her shoulder into the door, a force more than twice as powerful pushed back. The bent door was nearly knocked away. The barrier that Frau Halveria had put in place would be the only reason the door had not been splintered by the impact.
But who could say how long that would last.
There were Christian spells for blocking intruders and pursuers. A lot of them. After all, it was said the Son of God had spread his teachings while constantly on the run from people who did not understand him. But this door was already protected by Frau Halveria’s barrier. If she cast her own spell on it, there could be interference between the two barriers, causing a malfunction, so it was better to leave it be.
With a dull crack, the constant tackling against the other side of the door caused it to bend further while she held it with her small hands. It split and the splinters slashed her fingertips.
“Let me see,” said Frau Halveria.
She pulled out a suspicious-looking medicine bottle.
“Don’t worry. Voodoo drugs aren’t just used for zombies and assassinations. In fact, a priest’s job is to listen to the people of the city or country they rule over and solve their problems. The shambling zombies are just an extreme version of that. At times, making an example of someone or providing the ultimate punishment are the only way to preserve the peace.”
She had pulled out what looked like an empty seasoning bottle, but that was not what she actually used.
She set the empty bottle down on the corner of the countertop with an audible clunk.
“Loko Atisou,” she said while working on a different medicine than before.
It looked like no more than a few different meats and vegetables chopped up and made into a paste, but when she rubbed it on Angelene’s fingertips while saying something under her breath, the bleeding stopped and the small wounds themselves slowly vanished.
“The ceremony has now closed the wounds. Oh, Mystère of medicine and healing, I thank you for guiding us to the path of life leading out from the labyrinth of death. In the name of Brave Ghede, I demand you leave this place.”
“Don’t worry about it. No one likes to be in pain and everyone fears death.”
Angelene’s out of place words made Frau Halveria look away.
Then she bit her lip.
“Not that I have any right to say that after sacrificing innocents. I know I can never say those sorts of things ever again.”
This may have been like an interrogation room.
A strange bond of trust had been formed between the police detective and the criminal. They might have strayed from the straight and narrow, but when faced with the way things were supposed to be, they could regain their ordinary sensibilities.
Everyone feared death.
If she had the strength to not avert her gaze from what she had done while panicked, Frau Halveria might just be able to turn over a new leaf.
“It’ll be okay.”
“What’ll be okay?”
“There is no bringing back the dead. You even said Voodoo zombies don’t work like that. But part of you still wants to help people. No matter how little of it remains, you still have enough of a heart to go pale in the face when you see someone hurt. You should be able to turn that heart toward the people who have already died and not just the people you can still save. Even the dead have dignity that needs to be protected.”
“So you shouldn’t die here. Not as long as you can feel regret. You need to save the people who died by your hand. Their lives are gone forever, but you can still give them something.”
A dull crash came from the door.
It was the decisive sound of a wooden pillar breaking, so they were out of time.
“Once you take the pseudo-death drug, get inside the fridge. That will lower your temperature to complete the illusion of death! There’s no other way of tricking the Ceremony of Ba Moun!!”
Something occurred to Angelene then.
(Even if this drug can trick the demon, won’t it lock onto us again the instant we “come back to life”? We can’t feign death forever.)
But before she could ask about that, she felt a sharp pain in her neck.
That was enough to knock her out.
Evidently that woman could indeed create an absolute poison with a single lime.
Frau Halveria slowly exhaled, passed her arms below Angelene’s arms, and lifted the girl from where she had collapsed to the ground. Then she dragged her further back into the kitchen.
Angelene felt betrayed.
But she sensed an odd lack of hostility. Which brought an even greater sense of danger.
“The drug was to…save you.”
“Surely you understand.”
The woman was dragging Angelene to the large industrial refrigerator.
It was plenty large to fit someone inside.
“Even if I used the drug to temporarily stepped down from the stage, it would lock back onto me as soon as I recovered. So there’s no point in me taking it. This was only ever going to work for you.”
“I should have done this from the beginning.”
“But then…you didn’t have to do this to me.”
“No, I didn’t. But if I didn’t incapacitate you, you’d be killed too.”
What had given her a change of heart?
Was it Angelene insisting that it was wrong to get innocent people killed by the Ceremony of Ba Moun? Had she realized her partner here was too weak to accomplish anything, so she was giving up on her?
Was she thankful that someone had tried to free her from her lonely battle in some form or another?
Angelene clenched her teeth.
Even though she knew she would not have the strength to do so for much longer.
“I didn’t do all this to push you toward death!!”
Frau Halveria only smiled.
It looked like the face of a corpse to Angelene.
Then the door from the rest of the restaurant was mercilessly broken through. The time had come. No one could stop it now. The cold rules of the magic world would bare their fangs against a living human.
“Hello, hello. Coming through.”
An absurdly casual voice interrupted.
There was someone else inside the realm of death this restaurant had become. And they were very close. A woman with silver hair and brown skin stood so close to the sinister collection of spider legs extending from the shredded backpack that she could have rubbed her cheek against a thorny leg if she only bent her hips a bit.
“Well, I’d say your first mistake was figuring out how to draw out so much power from such a half-assed design. The cost performance on this thing is wild. Well, the spells that catch on as rookie-killers tend to be the easiest to set up. Like the Kokkuri-san or the Ushi no Koku Mairi.”
No one was allowed to enter this place.
Once that innocent-sounding curse was uttered, the woman who smelled of death had her right side mercilessly bitten away with what sounded like a wet explosion. Her overall silhouette now looked like a red crescent moon. Her blood and guts spilled out into the air, but they came to a stop before hitting the floor. But not because the spider legs had caught them. The woman herself remained standing tall.
Corpses were all she could create.
But if she had methods of manipulating corpses, she would also have a way of controlling them remotely.
“I see. Looks like my experiment was a rousing success. If it wouldn’t react to a corpse made from rearranged animal blood and meat, even I would have to give up. So we’re lucky it considers anything that moves a threat, whether it’s alive or dead.”
Angelene was speechless.
The Ceremony of Ba Moun had ruled over this place, but that atmosphere had been obliterated by the gore of this silver-haired brown-skinned new arrival.
“This shouldn’t be so surprising. The Ceremony of Ba Moun is admittedly powerful and nearly impossible to mess with, but it has one crucial different from normal spells. Since its power comes from a contract with a demon, the curse has a master. It is not a truly formless collection of malice or anything like that. It has a definite and physical source, so you just have to do something about that.”
Her pieces began to fall again, but she maintained her smile even as she piled up on the floor.
“With the Ceremony of Ba Moun, the demon itself will come to take the life of anyone who fails to follow the rules. And that demon is an individual. No matter how powerful it is, this will always be a one-on-one deal. In other words…”
The female cadaver smiled and calmly pointed at something with a remaining finger.
“You only need to present it with two corpses of the exact same person.”
How long had those been there?
They were Frau Halveria herself.
Or more accurately…
“Especially when that demon will bite at anything that moves, even a corpse.”
If Angelene had found one of those first, she would have doubted the woman standing next to her now was alive. She would have suspected she was speaking with a ghost. That was how detailed the doppelgangers were, yet it was really nothing more than large animal bones and organs patched together.
There were indeed two fake corpses lying on the floor.
There was a dull tearing sound.
The demon had just one body, yet there were two of its target lying at two distant points on the floor. As powerful as it was, it was a single being, yet it could never ignore its own objective. And what happened when it tried to move to attack both targets at the same time?
This time, it was not a baby’s cry.
This was much more brutal. It was a primal scream that seemed to deteriorate the soul of all who heard it. But make no mistake. That was not an adorable baby. It was something very different. If you felt even a twinge of guilt or any of your ordinary emotions were stirred, it would draw you into a vortex of inhuman malice.
The demon split itself apart and splattered itself across the floor.
All the pieces came in contact with all the perfectly ordinary shadows in the room and disappeared as if absorbed by them.
“That should do it.”
Someone other than the cadavers on the floor entered through the broken door.
It was the silver-haired brown-skinned necromancer.
“Ooh, I really nailed the colors today! The attention to detail really pays off when you see how the corpse splatters itself around. Check out how taboo this all this. The stickiness is subtly different from when a living human is crushed!!”
This one did not seem to be made from pig and cow parts.
It was obvious enough once you met her directly.
Isabella Theism wore the clothes of the dead with a childlike smile on her face. Those clothes were the source of her faint scent of death; it did not actually come from her skin. It was most accurate to say she was a living person who dressed up as the dead. But the woman from before had been nothing but death. She had carried the flat and simple scent of death found from no more than a corpse.
“Well, that should solve your Ceremony of Ba Moun problem. Although even that didn’t actually kill it.”
She made it sound so simple.
Should they fear that demon for living up to its name? Or should they breath an exasperated sigh at this wielder of death who had so easily dealt with it?
“If a demon is particular about its name, you just have to properly name it. If a curse is particular about numbers, you just have to use a numbers trick. If you can’t actually pull that off, you shouldn’t try to use those things. Do you get that now?”
The magician named Frau Halveria looked to the restaurant floor in shocked silence.
“What do we do about this? There are two corpses of me here, but if we leave them here, it’ll definitely lead to problems.”
“Well, it wouldn’t have fooled the curse if you could visually tell them apart from you.”
Isabella Theism grabbed a mop and tossed it over to the woman.
Frau Halveria caught it in confusion and the other woman winked while providing the name of the ultimate punishment game.
“Have you ever heard of forensic cleanup?”
“Not many people get a chance to clean up their own corpse. Did you know the word grotesque was originally an art term? Give this gruesome scene a good hard look and rethink your path in life if you don’t want to end up like this yourself.”
Agnese Sanctis had a question.
She gently crossed her arms while leaning back against the wall of a hideout built inside a huge metal container.
“It’s strange,” she said while looking up at the ceiling.
She was thinking back on something she had noticed before. The other two nuns must have noticed something similar because Lucia’s eyebrows shot up and Angelene dropped the cheese and cod snack sticks she was stuffing her face with, earning her a fairly serious slap to the food-filled cheek from Lucia.
“Bfoh foh mgoh!?”
“What in the world are those snacks!? What? They’re made a cheese beloved by nobility!?”
Unfortunately, the question worrying them was not the mystery of those cheese snacks.
The nun who boosted her height with thick-soled sandals gave a snort before getting down to business.
“Spain, France, and Germany. We’ve dealt with a few different cases now, but I have my doubts each of them could have been pulled off by a single individual. Yes, we did find a personal reason and objective behind each one, but the overall scale felt unnaturally large.”
Angelene’s response ended up sounding like a password from the 8-bit era before you could save your game. She was apparently willing to hold a serious conversation with her mouth full as long as she could avoid Lucia’s punishments.
Agnese uncrossed her arms and placed her index finger on her chin.
“Hmm, it’s kind of like using a nuclear missile to attack a local convenience store. If you have that much power, it feels like you should be able to find a cleverer use for it.”
After all, what would have happened if they had not solved those cases?
In Barcelona, Spain, that clean freak of a priest would have completely lost control and members of the Anglican Church might have even executed innocent citizens when they were meant to preserve order on the magic side.
In Calais, France, they had only barely avoided a war between England and France.
In Frankfurt, Germany, the curse would never have been stopped and it would have required more sacrifices indefinitely.
It was all so ridiculously overblown, like people attempting to leave serious scars on society based on no more than a childish dream.
“Isn’t that just how magicians are?” asked Lucia while folding up an unneeded flyer to create a paper fan for punishing Angelene.
“When they encounter the cruel side of life, they try to overturn everything for their own personal reasons. When forced to choose between themselves and others, they do not hesitate to choose themselves and let the world burn around them. Isn’t that why the Apostle Peter refused to let magicians fly?”
It can be deduced from the way she phrased that, but it would be best to state it outright.
Technically speaking, Agnese, Lucia, and Angelene were not magicians.
Using mystical powers did not make one a magician.
For example, Agnese did not have a magic name and she did not belong to a magic cabal. They were no more than nuns who followed the religion of Christianity and they viewed magic as tricks and vulnerabilities that took advantage of Christianity’s teachings.
In other words, they did not fully understand what a real magician truly was.
So if they were told that was simply how magicians were, they could only accept it.
On the other hand, something else felt off to them since they could wield “a small subset of miracles” as nuns.
“I think each of these cases was the work of a single individual,” bluntly stated Agnese.
“But someone else gave them the opportunity to do it. Just like someone dropping a gun in front of a person who wants to rob a bank or sending a pile of cash to a person who wants to take revenge. Could that be why the scale of each case seems too large for a single person’s crimes? And those people may have been entirely unaware how dangerous the thing they had ‘found’ was.”
Someone who granted wishes or who lent miracles to the weak might sound divine, but Agnese was not about to praise this Person X.
There was a Person X out there.
Her intuition told her that was almost certain.
And if Person X had given those three people what they needed, it painted a horrific picture. One of downright malice. For example, if you sent a pile of cash to someone who wanted to rob a bank, there would be no crime in the first place. It might look like Person X was being sympathetic and cooperating in a friendly way, but all they had done was find some small embers burning within someone and dump oil on them to trigger the worst kind of explosion.
That made them far worse than the actual criminals.
If Person X was allowed to go free, more large-scale cases were bound to occur.
“And you want to change your vague suspicions into solid evidence?” asked Lucia while swinging her oversized paper fan through the air to check on its center of gravity.
“B-but none of the people we caught said anything about someone else helping them.”
Angelene was right.
The Anglican Church was a world expert in anti-magic combat and witch hunting. Their interrogation and torture techniques had been polished over the course of a very long history. It seemed unlikely an individual could grit their teeth and keep a secret like that.
And yet no information had turned up.
That could only mean one thing.
“They were guided toward their crimes, but I have my doubts that they ever actually met or knew of Person X. Could they have been following the trail laid out for them without even noticing?”
But then who exactly had done it?
That brought them back to the original question, meaning that line of reasoning was a dead end.
Agnese sounded disgusted with it all.
“If sitting around thinking won’t give us an answer, then we just need more information to work with. But there’s no rule saying we have to gather up all the clues ourselves. We don’t have to give up just because we’ve reached a dead end. I’m willing to use anything available to us. Even if that means buying the information we lack.”
“Peh heh heh. You mean visiting an information broker?”
Angelene mocked the very idea, so Lucia slapped her on the face with a horizontal swing of her fan.
It was punishment time.
“Bwah!? B-but are information brokers even a thing? Aren’t they even rarer than a professional hitman???”
“It depends on what kind you’re talking about,” said Agnese.
For example, newspaper reporters and freelance tabloid writers would be the most above-board version of a job where you earned money by gathering information. There was also a form of journalism that used the threat of publishing scandalous information to blackmail the people involved, but that was a separate issue.
Also, no country or sufficiently-large organization would not have its own intelligence agency or department. Not to mention how search engines, online stores, social media, video sites, and most any IT company were doing everything they could to gather personal information from their users. Any of the corporate executives with a penchant for breaking taboos by dabbling in insider trading was sure to be on the lookout for any talk of a merger or buyout of related companies.
Meanwhile, criminal organizations also needed information. They needed it for their “business concerns” such as scams, abductions, and loan sharking, but they also needed it to defend themselves against traitors and criminal investigations, so they could use as much information as they could get (as long as there was no speculation or bias mixed in).
“Normally, the people who use that information want to keep it to themselves. If someone in a criminal organization shared their information with another gang or the police, they’d be viewed as a traitor. So it is unusual to find an information broker who gathers information from around the world and sells it to anyone for the same price like a convenience store or drugstore.”
That meant Agnese was talking about relying on an information broker that belonged to a specific organization or world power. Specifically, one that sided with the UK, greedily gathered information for the UK, and revealed that information only to people working for the UK.
“And we’ll find that here?”
“Yes, we will.” Agnese placed her hand on the door of the metal container and pushed it open. “Zurich, capital of the Swiss canton of Zurich. And what is Switzerland best known for? Its banks.”
Switzerland was a strange country.
First of all, it did not have a single unified language. Each of its 26 cantons used the language it preferred, so some parts of the country used German and others used French. The canton of Zurich used German, for example.
Second, the rest of the world recognized it as a permanently neutral country. There were plenty of self-proclaimed pacifist countries, but Switzerland had actual treaties spelling out that they had abandoned their right to go to war in exchange for the rest of the world agreeing to help eliminate the threat if Switzerland was ever invaded.
That made Switzerland useful as a place to arbitrate a conflict between two other countries. For example, does the word Geneva ring a bell? That is a city in Switzerland.
And third, the most well-known aspect of Switzerland – at least in entertainment – is not its history, its military neutrality, or its politics.
“When you think of Switzerland, you think of secret banks.” Agnese boldly made a highly biased statement. “People tend to shine the spotlight on the Cayman Islands these days, but when you want to hide your money, a spotlight is the last thing you want. Meanwhile, the Swiss brand remains steady and unchanged. There’s no unnecessary interest or investments, so the wealthy who just want to safely and indefinitely protect their assets prefer it here.”
“Th-then,” nervously cut in stooped and freckled Angelene. “Are you saying the Anglican Church has a vault full of documents here? Hm? But why would old English documents be kept in Switzerland?”
“It would be more accurate to call them British documents gathered by the Swiss. The Anglican Church probably sees it as a valuable opportunity to obtain an objective outsider’s view of themselves.” Agnese shrugged. “There is no single national religion in Switzerland, so the dominant culture differs between cantons. Some cantons side with the Roman Catholic Church and its 2 billion followers and others make it hard for the Catholics to get any headway. That makes this a useful frontline base for the Anglicans.”
Agnese raised a finger.
“By the way, comics and movies often talk about ‘Swiss banks’, but that isn’t a single large group. The national banking system allows people to open accounts with only a name and PIN and the bankers are traditionally very tightlipped, so ‘Swiss banks’ refers generally to all of the many banks in the country.”
You could choose whatever bank you wanted there, so there would be banks hostile to the Anglicans and those that were friendly to them. The Anglicans had found a bank that worked for them and used the safe deposit boxes for art and antiques to instead store dangerous documents and items, such as grimoires, old maps, cursed charms, star charts, and spiritual items.
“There are curses and grudges that only activate once they arrive on British land, after all. And there are things they don’t want returned to the UK, like someone’s adipocered head or the UK-made execution tools they exported. I think there was even a gross coat made from the hide of 1000 rats during the plague.”
“When they can’t let other countries have something but can’t store it in the UK either, it ends up here.”
Agnese’s group approached a large marble building. It looked a lot like a white cathedral and that was no coincidence. A former church had been bought and converted into a bank.
Lucia looked disgusted by it.
“Curse those greedy capitalists. This is no way to treat god’s house.”
“I believe it’s called reusing old buildings. Once everyone moves out, it would just fall into ruin otherwise.”
The bank president was a courteous old man in a black morning coat nice enough to attend an evening party. If someone had claimed he was in fact a clockwork doll, they would have believed it.
“Thank you for your visit, Miss Sanctis and company. I am President Helm Himmel. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
(Ah ha ha. That’s as fake a name as Suzuki Saburou.)
Smiling Agnese refrained from speaking that thought out loud.
“What brings you here today?”
He had to already know the answer, but the bank had to ask regardless.
Agnese rattled off her answer without even checking the memo.
“Religious Organization Account #3X5-8X1-9X2-0X1-7X4. The safe deposit box. I have our key here.”
“Understood, Miss Sanctis. This way please.”
“Of course. And if you don’t mind have our access to the box go unrecorded ‘by mistake’.”
These safe deposit boxes generally had two keyholes.
The customer kept one key and the bank the other. The customer and a bank representative would use their two keys together to ensure neither side could open it on their own. That security measure made it harder for the customer to use the box for illegal purposes (such as a stalker hiding their collection or multiple people sharing the key to make a delivery of dangerous herbs) and prevented anyone at the bank from swiping gold bars from a box.
But the president only smiled and let the pearl key slip from his white-gloved hand to land silently in Agnese’s palm.
“Your access to the box? Whatever do you mean?”
“I mean nothing at all, of course.”
With that, their secret was safe.
At the same time, the bank was essentially saying they were entirely ignorant of any possible criminal activity carried out using their safe deposit box.
They left the president and walked back behind the general counter.
Once they were alone, Lucia looked like she was afflicted with a headache and toothache at the same time.
“What is wrong with this world?”
“The president is an ordinary person. If he saw what was stored in there, the shock might just destroy his mind beyond the level of infantile regression.”
Safe deposit boxes came in many forms.
The most common were rows of metal drawers, each one with a number and two keyholes. They were about the size of a study desk’s drawer. Those were generally used for documents like wills and land deeds.
There were larger ones for jewels and gold bars and those could be as large as the janitorial closet at a school. The ones for art and antiques were like 3m cubes and resembled air cargo containers. Although the actual storage space could be smaller than it looked when they included equipment to regulate the temperature and humidity.
But Agnese’s group was on their way to something much larger.
It was located deep in the bank.
They walked down a corridor protected by metal bars and opened one of the silver vaults there.
The door led to a steep staircase.
Once on a basement floor not included on the building’s plans, they found a thick round door just like to a bank vault.
Agnese tossed one of the keys to Lucia.
“It’s the usual system.”
“You mean count down from three and turn the keys at the same time?” asked Lucia with a hint of exasperation.
Remote-controlled robot probes could be used to explore outer space or the deep sea these days, so a machine could easily perform a task as simple as turning a key, but it was all about the aesthetics. With Monaco, the Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands, sketchy online banks, and virtual currencies, there were plenty of tax havens that offered secret banks, yet the rich continued to choose Switzerland because they valued the tradition and stability there. People like that did not look for new services that carried a lot of risk and were not yet perfected. Because they had already made more money than they could ever spend.
With a deep clunk, the round door slowly opened toward them.
Inside, there were metal bars, a passageway, stairs, and an atrium lined neatly with…what looked like as many metal drawers as there were stars in the sky.
“Th-this is it?”
Angelene gulped and was briefly hesitant to enter.
She felt like she would be crossing some forbidden line if she did so.
“This is the Anglican Church’s remote database? This is the ‘information broker’ we’re using?”
“It apparently has around 28,000 in all. In that sense, it isn’t even close to matching her.”
Anyone with any knowledge of magic would know exactly what Agnese was so casually referencing.
The girl who had memorized 103,000 grimoires had become something of a legend.
She was known as the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
“Well, she was just one of many prototypes and the only one that happened to be successful. Which is why you can still find these failed Indexes that didn’t quite make the cut scattered around the world.”
It was possible that conferring with the Index Librorum Prohibitorum would have solved their problem right away, but she was highly prized. Being a member of the Anglican Church did not grant you access to all Anglican equipment and personnel. And in this case, Agnese’s group had previously tried to harm the Index Librorum Prohibitorum more than once, so it was hardly surprising the higher ups automatically refused to let them contact her.
In that sense, there was still demand for a failed database like this one.
Very few people could access the Anglican Church’s greatest secrets, but less-trusted members could still access these smaller secrets. So by searching here, they could avoid making an enemy of the sensitive higher ups.
Wield your rusty hoes and spades to kill the knight wearing brightly polished armor!
In every era, the commoners were asked pull off the seemingly impossible by gathering in large numbers.
“Now, then. Let’s get started on all the delightful work awaiting us.”
Needless to say, even 28,000 was a lot.
That was the size of a small library.
To check through that more efficiently, they would have to start by narrowing down what they were hoping to investigate. It was the same as a search engine in that sense. You needed to know what words to type into the box first.
“We want to find a point in common between those three cases.”
“I know that, but they all used completely different spells.” Angelene nervously expressed her pessimism. “The Barcelona one used Catholic forensic cleanup, the Calais one summoned a ghost ship using multiple types of spells, and the Frankfurt one used the Ceremony of Ba Moun, which is…um, a Voodoo curse, right?”
“If we wanted to force a connection, I guess the Barcelona one was linked to that Spanish restaurant run by Nihili Padpois, who was born in Haiti. And wasn’t it likely his wife was killed by a Voodoo curse? Still…”
Lucia trailed off there.
Yes, Voodoo referred to a lot of different things and they had no idea if that other case also had to do with the Ceremony of Ba Moun.
“If we were trying to link everything to Voodoo, what about the Hood battlecruiser that attacked Calais?”
“The Yucatan Peninsula is in the Caribbean Sea!” exclaimed Angelene. “There must be tons of ancient Mayan cities there!!”
Agnese was honestly confused. If that counted as a connection, they would have to research everything from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Chupacabra, but Angelene did not seem to care.
Agnese pulled her phone from her habit’s sleeve, started up the video app, and asked again.
“What about the Hood battlecruiser that attacked Calais? Now, Sister Angelene, repeat that shocking truth for us again! And make sure to smile for the camera☆”
“Stop that! You’re planning to dig this up 3 years from now to show it to me, aren’t you!? Okay, fine, I give up!! None of the 5 magicians who fit together like puzzle pieces were Voodoo, were they?”
“If we want to really overthink this, there’s the fact that the Necessarius necromancer named Isabella Theism was involved with all those cases. Her necromancy combines a number of different things, but she is well-versed in Voodoo.”
“Thank you so much for another of your crazy conspiracy theories, Sister Lucia! Don’t worry, I got a stunning profile shot of that one☆ We can all look forward to viewing this masterpiece at a later date.”
“Wait, you were still recording!!!???”
Lucia bristled and yelled, but that was what she got for suspecting people based on no evidence. They wanted the quickest route to the truth, so they did not want to start playing a game of concentration where they flipped over the cards at random. Especially when each card they flipped over could conceivably cost someone their life based on unwarranted suspicion.
Reasoning based on a foundation of mistrust and speculation would only lead to vague conspiracy theories.
They had to build a foundation of solid facts, no matter how insignificant they might seem. Otherwise, their visit to this vast database would be in vain.
“There is one thing we know for sure.”
“If you know the answer, then cut the dramatics and just tell us, Sister Agnese. Since when were you one of those detectives who sits around with a knowing smile until the murderer has killed a few more people!?”
Agnese grabbed her backtalking but beloved buddy Angelene by the collar and squeezed tight while continuing her explanation with a smile.
“We know that all three cases could be dealt with using our Catholic spells☆:”
“Agh, agagah, my throat!?”
“Sister Agnese, that goes without saying, so why bring it up now?”
“I’m saying that each enemy was someone we could defeat.” Agnese released her beloved buddy. “Maybe that was an issue of compatibility. Whoever Person X is and however they are boosting the methods used by the individual magicians, the end result was vulnerable to a Catholic counterattack. I’m not about to say all the world’s mystical powers can be generally classified as light magic and dark magic, but what if this is something similar? What if the toys distributed by Person X are extremely vulnerable to the glory of god?”
The mystical powers focused on the Son of God worked that way.
Believers would be saved.
And while taking the reverse might be going too far, it did imply that nonbelievers would not be saved. Christianity refused to accept the miracles and mystical powers (claimed to be) caused by those who worshiped other gods.
Lucia placed a hand on her chin.
“But wasn’t the person behind the Barcelona case a Catholic priest?”
“Are you familiar with Saint Vitus? Or maybe Saint Sebastian?”
Lucia fell silent.
She understood what Agnese was trying to say.
“With one, it was the Slavic god Svantovit. With the other, it was the Celtic hero Cuchulain.” Agnese shrugged. “Sadly, it happens. Christianity is supposed to be monotheistic, but sometimes older gods or legendary figures end up a part of it under a changed name. Although even those cases aren’t as bad as Saint Ursula who was said to have died along with 11,000 virgins due to a simple misreading of a number or Saint Christopher who was almost certainly a completely fictional creation.”
“Are you suggesting that priest’s spell was an adulteration?”
“Well, he seriously believed gold never lost its shine and repelled curses. That’s something you find in every part of the world, including Egypt and Scandinavia. But that’s why this calls for thorough research. They might have thought their spells were Christian, summoning, or Voodoo, but it’s possible those spells were actually part of an entirely different system. Fortunately, we have no shortage of research material here. Doesn’t that sound worth investigating?”
After about two hours, Lucia and Angelene looked up from their piles of documents, sighed, and pulled out their phones in perfect unison. They started up their video apps and began squishing the dumbass’s cheeks.
“So, got anything to say for yourself, Sister Agnese?”
“Do have any comment at all regarding our wasted effort searching for two hours without finding a single thing? Please, tell us again how clever your theory is! With that smug look of course! I just have to hear that pathetic excuse for a theory again!! Please!!”
A porcine snort came from Agnese whose face had undergone an ugly transformation thanks to the pressure from either side.
“They’re in Italian, Spanish, French, or whatever else…and then there’s a pain-in-the-butt cipher on top of that base language,” complained Angelene. “Argh, why do grimoires have to be so hard to read? It’s a complete waste of effort!!”
“Sister Angelene, how many times have I told you to learn Latin?”
“Oh? Why would Miss Piggy think she has any right to talk back to me after this?”
It was not often Angelene straightened her back and looked down on someone else.
Yes, it had all ended up how Agnese Sanctis had said it would. If they started with a foundation of baseless doubts, mistrust, and speculation, they would only create a “highly realistic-sounding conspiracy theory”.
No matter how insignificant it might seem, they had to start with a foundation of fact if they wanted to reach the truth.
And in that sense…
“After two hours, all we’ve figured out is that there doesn’t seem to be any magical system in common to all three cases,” said Lucia.
“But we already knew that when we started,” tearfully complained Angelene. “It feels just as pointless as spending an entire century proving why 1 times 1 is 1. What was the point of all this time and effort!?”
They had hit a dead end.
They saw hints of a Person X. They were certain someone like that was out there. But they could not find any solid clues there. It was like they could see a crime taking place, but they could not gather enough evidence to do anything about it. It was like watching a politician hold an apology press conference where they insisted over and over that it was all a misunderstanding and they had done nothing at all illegal. Finding nothing at all was actually more suspicious, yet there was no way to use that in an investigation.
This massive treasure trove of information went to waste when they did not know what to search for. Right now, a single idea or flash of inspiration would be more useful than all this information. Sitting at their desks any longer would only be a waste of time.
Angelene finally began to throw a fit.
“Arrrrgh!! I need a change of pace. We’re in Switzerland, remember? I want try the food! I want to see the sights! I can barely breathe in this thick vault!!”
Should I smack her? asked Lucia with a glance, but Agnese shook her head.
“I guess we can go get something to eat,” said Agnese in a resigned way.
“Fine, but what food is Switzerland known for?” asked Lucia.
“Cheese fondue of course! And mineral water!!”
Angelene’s view was fairly biased. Was she trying to say the Swiss lived on nothing but cheese and water?
But then Agnese threw a curveball.
“I believe they’re known for their instant coffee and freeze-dried food. Also their ready-made, canned, and frozen foods, their curry roux, their white stews, their instant soups, and so on. But not cup noodles. Those are a unique genre that only really developed in Japan, just like miso soup and flavor enhancers.”
“Switzerland is home to the world’s largest instant food company. Look around and you might find a museum or souvenir shop dedicated to it.”
Angelene pouted her lips hard at the thought of eating instant foods after coming all the way to Switzerland. Angelene understood the feeling, but instant foods were a necessity and a lifesaver for the mountain climbers who attempted the climb the Alps along the Swiss route.
They decided to leave the bank and take a walk outside.
In a city of banks and insurance companies, they had expected to see a lot of businessmen out at midday, but they instead saw a surprising number of men and women in religious habits. And Anglican ones at that.
“Wh-what is going on?” hesitantly asked Angelene.
“While Switzerland is a country of banks, most transactions are handled over the phone or internet. The people visiting directly are the ones with treasures physically stored in the safe-deposit boxes. And in this block of Zurich, that means Anglicans.”
It was a lot like a company town where the city was financially ruled by a single company, but that had its pros and its cons. When you knew people of a certain affiliation would be in a specific restaurant, it was not hard for a third party to eavesdrop while pretending to be a customer.
Whether she realized that or not, Angelene made her own complaint.
“Then everyone here was forced to travel all the way here for research while working outside of the UK, just like us? Everyone is supposed to be equal, but those of us at the bottom always get the short end of the stick.”
They peeked inside a variety of restaurants.
Most of them served thick bacon and potatoes. It looked German at first glance, but not all of Switzerland was like this. To reiterate, the country did not have a single official language or religion. Each canton chose German, French, or whatever other language to use.
Angelene had the dark look of a child who saw curry rice for dinner the third day in a row. Yes, she had only just finished fighting for her life in Frankfurt.
“It’s not bad. It’s definitely not bad, but it’s just not what I want. Ahhh! Why couldn’t we be working in an Italian-speaking area!?”
“Be careful what you wish for. Any Italian food you got here wouldn’t seem quite right. When you want a margherita pizza topped with tomato and cheese, you don’t want to be served Pasta alla Genovese covered in ham and avocado, do you?”
Because Italy was their homeland, they could be much more particular about Italian cooking. Just like the Japanese were particular about dashi, the French were particular about sauces, and Indians were particular about seasonings, Agnese’s group could be extremely demanding when it came to pasta. (Enough so that a simple disagreement could lead to a never-ending war.) They would never approve of someone who always went with long, skinny spaghetti regardless of the sauce or method of cooking and who assumed anything was fine as long as you cooked it al dente. So they might find foreign cuisine more familiar since they would fail to notice the small differences there.
They ended up grabbing a very German-smelling pizza for lunch. Simply put, cheese and tomato sauce were spread across a round piece of dough, fries and sliced salami were placed on top of that, and then the whole thing was cooked.
“It’s called a pizza patatine,” said Angelene while staring fixedly at the large plate carried to the table.
“Hold on,” cut in Lucia to point out the fundamental mistake here. “What kind of a crazy food did you order for us here? I mean, who puts fries on a pizza!? That’s carbs on top of carbs!”
“I will admit it looks pretty wild, but it’s actually a traditional dish. For kids. Admittedly, it’s more like a snack than a proper meal.”
“You mean people eat a meal in addition to this? How can that possibly fit into a healthy diet?”
Lucia was flabbergasted, but this was actually an Italian dish, not a German one. What Italian food meant changed a lot between different regions of Italy, so it was not that strange for Lucia to be unfamiliar with this one.
(Hm, we let Sister Angelene’s tantrum convince us to eat here. Even though eating Italian outside the country can only lead to trouble.)
“Now, now. Burgers generally come with fries, right? This is a lot like combining the two since eating them separately is a pain.”
“That is not a very appetizing description!”
Food came in countless forms around the world, but it was actually very unusual to serve carbs on top of carbs when either one would have qualified as a main dish. With the burger example, the fries were only a side. The most prominent example of breaking that rule was Japan. They would put yakisoba between bread as a sandwich, serve rice with ramen, put rice cakes in udon, and otherwise mix carb-filled main dishes. The tendency had such deep roots that you would see things like a small katsudon or oyakodon listed on the menu for a soba place that was (obviously) where people went to eat soba. And that culture had been so deeply imprinted on the people of that country that they failed to even notice it was weird to assume a soba place would cook them some curry or an oyakodon along with their soba.
“Yum, yum. It has a pretty shocking visual, but I could eat this all day. It’s like an even better version of poutine!!”
“But in exchange, it has enough calories to keep you alive for a week stranded on a snowy mountain. And isn’t poutine that Canadian stuff that will fatten you up with ruthless efficiency?”
Angelene’s eyes were shining bright, but Lucia had a gloomy cloud over her face. Calling it a snack for kids may have influenced her view of things. Incidentally, poutine was a giant pile of fries with lots of melted cheese and gravy dumped on top. It was like a culinary trap because it was so delicious you never wanted to eat anything else, but it would fatten you up no time if you ate it exclusively. Specifically, it would fatten you up so much you could no longer fit through the door and needed to call a rescue team to extract you from your room.
“Not to worry, Sister Lucia,” said Agnese who (unlike Angelene) was keeping track of how many slices she had eaten. “We’re still growing girls.”
“You can’t just use that excuse for everything.”
“Everything we eat goes straight to our boobs. Isn’t the human body a miracle?”
“Just in case you are serious about that, women’s breasts are not the same thing as a camel’s humps.”
It was during that discussion that Agnese Sanctis noticed something odd about her surroundings.
She saw a latte.
A customer at another table had ordered that item that could be ordered just about anywhere in the world. However, it was somewhat unusual for the thick espresso and the warm milk to be carried over in separate containers. The customer took a small lick of the plain espresso with the tip of her tongue and then slowly poured the hot milk in with a thin metal spoon. The action was similar to carefully mixing several drinks together with a muddler.
You were meant to enjoy the drink at the bitterness you preferred, so that was the correct method.
If you just thoughtlessly dumped in the milk, you would end up with something like a coffee milk. And if it was brought out already mixed in a single container, the individual’s preferences had nothing to do with it.
This was correct, but…
(That’s an awfully Italian thing to do.)
You would not find this method listed in an etiquette book about Italian cuisine. It was more like a stubborn life hack the common folk had invented after getting frustrated with so many places serving them something like coffee milk no matter how they tried to order it. Only someone who really knew what they were doing would know about this.
“Sister Lucia. Angelene too.”
“Do not turn around, but I recognize the person eating three tables behind you two. …And this isn’t someone I met after joining the Anglicans. She acted as a guide for us a few times back in our Catholic days. It’s Sister Monica.”
Tension ran through them.
But that must have been too much.
The other girl looked up from her food and her eyes met Agnese’s.
She was quick to respond.
“Tch!! Sister Lucia and Angelene! Capture her!!”
Monica only hesitated for a moment.
She stood up so quickly she essentially kicked her chair away and then spun around. She shoved aside a waiter near the entrance to forcibly run outside.
Lucia and Angelene’s eyes widened as they pursued her.
“Why did she run away? We’ve been in that Swiss bank all day, so I doubt she was tailing us. Did we run across her by pure chance???”
“I don’t know, but she must be up to something to run away the instant we saw her!!”
This block of Zurich contained a lot of Anglicans. That meant you could pretend to be a customer at a restaurant to eavesdrop on all sorts of conversations, so it seemed likely Monica had at least been working as a spy.
And since she had run the instant her eyes met Agnese’s, she must have been warned in advance she could not let Agnese notice her.
That suggested she had been spying on Agnese.
(Is she connected to this string of cases?)
Agnese could not answer her own question as she ran full speed through the city.
(If so, are the Catholics behind it??? No, wait. It’s too soon to say. For now, we just have to capture Monica!!)
The fleeing girl in a nun’s habit ran into the small alleyway between two banks.
“Wait!!” shouted Lucia.
Agnese and the other two arrived in that same alleyway less than 10 seconds later.
The entire world seemed to change in that moment.
A rusty smell.
The color red.
The odor and hue of blood.
“Ugh!!” groaned Angelene as she came to a stop.
A dark red liquid was splattered across the ground and even on the walls up to a point even higher than the girls’ heads. Before even worrying about concrete threats like a curse or infectious disease, their legs were forced to a stop by no more than the sinister atmosphere.
Something had fallen into the very center of the pool of blood.
It was larger than the palm of a hand.
It looked like a flimsy piece of paper or plastic, but it had a few holes in it.
It had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth.
The skin of a human face had been torn away and abandoned.
“Sister Monica…” groaned Agnese.
“Since her ‘face’ was left here, does that mean this was someone else pretending to be her?” said Lucia while trying to remain calm.
There was indeed magic related to faces.
In the 16th Century, Gerolamo Cardano proposed metoposcopy that determined someone’s destiny based on the lines in their forehead. Similarly, Johannes de Indagine and several other magicians developed physiognomy that determined someone’s inner character by looking at their nose, mouth, and other facial features.
And if such methods had been developed, people would also develop methods of preventing a third party from analyzing their face or to alter their face to give them the destiny or personality they wanted.
Agnese slowly crouched down while careful not to step in the blood.
“This doesn’t look like one of Isabella Theism’s imitations. This is the real skin off someone’s actual face. I hate to think what’s become of Sister Monica.”
“E-eww,” said Angelene while going pale in the face. “You mean the person we were chasing had been living with someone else’s skin over their face in order to hide their identity???”
If being seen by Angelene Sanctis had been enough to do this, whoever it was must have been taking this seriously. Removing that borrowed face had to take a lot more effort than simply removing a mask. The gruesomely splattered blood was testament to that.
Lucia made herself take a deep breath before speaking.
“We need to report this to the higher ups. This might require a discussion or information exchange between the Anglicans and Catholics. I’m curious who that was, but finding out if the real Sister Monica is safe comes first.”
“Th-that’s right!! And if that person had stolen Sister Monica’s face, then they might have stolen documents from the Catholics too.”
“Hm,” said Agnese while crouching and bringing a hand to her chin.
Was that really what had happened?
She had been the first to start talking about the borrowed face, so she had nearly failed to view this objectively. If she had not heard Lucia and Angelene discussing it, she would have continued down that line of thinking without noticing this oversight.
They had originally come here to Zurich, Switzerland, in order to find a point in common between their past few cases. And in that sense…
“This feels familiar.”
Lucia gave her a puzzled look, but she did not look up and instead continued viewing the pool of blood.
“Doesn’t this feel familiar, Sister Lucia? All that remains is evidence of someone destroying all solid evidence and covering their tracks. That should tell us that there was a third party here doing harm.”
“Oh,” said Angelene. “That’s the same as that first case in Barcelona where we found unnatural traces of a forensic cleanup in Nihili Padpois’s restaurant!”
“And if the method is similar, there’s a good chance we’re looking at a group that reuses the same tricks. We need to at least keep in mind the possibility that no one was disguising themselves as Sister Monica at all. What if Monica tore off her own face and left it here to escape suspicion that she is Person X?”
“U-urp!?” groaned Angelene with a hand over her mouth.
Agnese pulled out a cylindrical container of fries she was hiding.
“Excellent work, Sister Angelene!! Heading out for lunch worked so much better than our time in that information broker vault! Have a reward. Don’t be shy – just stuff your mouth full of fries.”
“Bgweh, they’re so greasy!! And I have to know. A-are you being intentionally malicious here, or is it just second nature to you!?”
Living with someone else’s skin over your face was messed up enough, but tearing off your own face and leaving it behind in less than 10 seconds was terrifying in a different way.
But that method would allow Sister Monica to escape suspicion.
She would be “tearing” the Person X identity away from herself so she could abandon that identity here and escape.
Once she got her wound treated to stop the bleeding and was then picked up while wandering aimlessly around the streets of Zurich, she could walk around freely once more. She would be no more than a victim whose face had been stolen a few days before so that the wicked Person X could take on her identity.
“In that case,” said Lucia while placing her hands on Angelene’s small shoulders. “Should we stop here and investigate Sister Monica instead of chasing blindly after some other unseen villain?”
“Yes, but this does not mean the Catholics are necessarily behind this,” said Agnese with a shrug.
She was not about to defend their old organization that had abandoned them, but the Catholics had 2 billion followers. They were such a large percentage of the population that a lot of Catholics were personally up to no good or also part of some other organization. Even 0.01% of them would be 200,000 people.
It was just like a search engine.
Now that they had a term to search for, that vast collection of documents showed its true value.
Once back in the bank, Agnese’s group only had to search that pile of 28,000 books for just the one thing.
“I found something, Sister Agnese! Local folklore from Turin of Piedmont mentions a spell for tearing off your own face as a last resort to overturn a critical decline in your life. The idea is to throw out your old identity in order to leave behind the bad luck pursuing you!!”
If it was known simply as “folklore”, it was probably actually a witch’s spell.
But something not appearing in the Bible was no reason to take it lightly. There was a good chance it received power from a mythology or religion other than Christianity.
“How far did that spread, though? That spell isn’t the same as fortunetelling by picking a flower and plucking out the petals one by one. We’re talking about tearing off your own face here. To convince people to do that, you would need enough authority to conquer the pain, fear, and physiological disgust. That means it must have some kind of organization behind it.”
For example, people only accepted the pain of dental treatment because of the medical field’s seal of approval that it would heal your cavities. If some filthy old man in a rundown hut said he was going to drill at your teeth while chanting an original prayer of his, no one would ever agree to it.
It was all about providing authority.
People would accept far more from a source they trusted than from one they did not.
And to convince people that tearing off their entire face was a good idea would require a very powerful source of authority. Enough that people were convinced they would feel no pain at all if they tore off their face and that they would have no trouble at all after permanently losing the face they had possessed from the moment they were born.
The spell was from Turin, capital of the Italian region of Piedmont.
(I swear, this had better not come full circle and turn out to be the Roman Catholic Church after all.)
Agnese had a bad feeling about this, but then Lucia provided an answer.
“This mentions a ‘guild’.”
That was a fairly common term for anyone steeped in the world of magic. Just like lodges and salons, it referred to a collection of craftsmen or intellectuals with a certain specialty.
But that alone was not enough to determine anything specific. Just like knowing something was a “school” or “company” did not tell you anything specific about it. You needed a more specific name like the Such-and-Such School or the So-and-So Company.
But Lucia shrugged.
“That’s all it says.”
“It must be something big enough that saying ‘the guild’ is enough for locals to know what you mean. Just like world-famous cup noodle and cola brands become words that refer to their entire industry. So if we send someone to Turin, I imagine we can figure out just what kind guild this is talking about.”
Things had taken a sudden turn.
A large group of Anglican magicians had arrived on Greece’s Thira island of the Cyclades island group. They were there to destroy the Guild hidden in that small city of about 7000 that was made up of homes and long stairways clinging to the steep slopes bordering the Aegean Sea.
It was late at night, but that deep darkness was shredded by the many flares shining down on the ground with light brighter than midday.
Necromancer Isabella Theism laughed.
“Those girls are doing a pretty good out there.”
“They had better, since it’s their job,” casually replied Stiyl Magnus. “And our job is to identify the villains and slaughter them. The more sources of information we have beforehand, the better. We don’t want to attack an innocent person based on faulty intel.”
“So those girls are only insurance?”
“Insurance is worthless if you can’t trust it. Isn’t that how a second opinion works? So I will not disagree with your assessment of them.”
The flares were of course only a diversion.
Genuine magicians like Stiyl and Isabella did not secure a clear view through normal means before they attacked the enemy.
But the old-fashioned flares would put the enemy on alert while also accentuating the contrast between light and dark in the surrounding area. In other words, it made the light and the shadows stronger. The Guild magicians had no idea when they would be attacked and would want to escape being sniped from a distance, so the deeper shadows made it obvious where they would try to hide.
“We’re talking about a Greek secret society here, so what do you think? Orpheus, Dionysus, or Persephone maybe? I can’t wait to find out☆”
“What has you so excited? We’re only cleaning up the trash on a larger scale than usual.”
“Necromancers like me have a fondness for this genre. Like Japan’s Izanami or the Egyptian pyramids. …Yes, a true magician can’t just rely on the Arsenal. You need to see things for yourself! Yes, yessss! The world is awash with death!!”
The brown-skinned silver-haired necromancer held her shoulders as irregular tremors ran through her. Her words were inappropriate, but Stiyl knew it was accurate.
He was wielding two flame swords even as they chatted.
He wielded them casually and without batting an eye.
With each powerful explosion he caused, an artificial structure was swept away along the magician curled up behind it waiting for a chance to counterattack. There was no need to take prisoners. Or to leave behind any trace of their existence. Eliminating the Guild as quickly as possible was their top priority.
This city at least was indeed awash with death.
“What happened in Turin was a surprise, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it actually makes me worry for those girls. In our field, going above and beyond on the job is a good way to reach an early grave through overwork. Anyway, it looks like this guild dates back to the ancient Greek era instead of the Renaissance-era revival. The world heritage officials would probably be pissed if they knew we were secretly mopping them up like this.”
Isabella Theism did not possess an obviously deadly power when compared to Stiyl and his 3000-degree flames. Her specialty was to wear the clothes of the dead to “become one” with them and to create fake corpses indistinguishable from the real ones to make the enemy panic.
A dull sound burst out as the accumulated force was released from some twisted human skin being used in lieu of a rope.
A roar escaped from a giant seesaw-like catapult used to throw boulders at a castle’s walls and a rotting corpse that had become a mass of curses and infectious disease flew toward the enemy fortress. That would destroy sanitary conditions and cut off the water and food supply, so it was a standard method of taking a base.
“Do you really need to model those after the people I’ve killed?” asked Stiyl in exasperation.
“The originals are burned until not even the ashes remain, so it’s not like they can tell if it’s real or not. And the corpses of their ace fighters who led the charge on the vanguard are bound to scare them more than just any old corpse. Especially when it’s already rotted so much after such a short period of time.”
“You are not a nice person.”
“If you can’t enjoy this, necromancy isn’t right for you. It causes a panic and it camouflages our own methods, so it seems pretty effective to me.”
In that sense, Stiyl Magnus may have been the cleaner of the two since he insisted on burning the enemy away until not even the ashes remained.
“We’re after their spell book.”
Stiyl sounded bored and his cigarette wiggled up and down in the corner of his mouth as he spoke.
He was speaking to the killer Anglicans deployed around them.
“That’s their sample list filled with wax tapes that use the principle of a phonograph to record a standard voice sample for each of their members. Breathing is the most basic method of refining magic power and an individual’s idiosyncrasies there are hard enough to alter that a lot of magic cabals like to keep track of and manage them.”
“Their leader must really not trust their subordinates.”
“And you think our leader does?” spat Stiyl. “We need this solid evidence to track down all the undercover members they have around Europe. We don’t need to get any information out of prisoners this time, so don’t bother taking any. The Guild chose to enter our world and they violated a taboo while they were at it, so let’s show them how we do things. Commit an ordinary crime and you’ll find yourself convicted in court and thrown behind bars, but what if your crime doesn’t allow for that? Those fools may think they’ve found the master key to the universe, but they are in for a rude awakening.”
A small war had broken out.
Stooped and freckled Angelene was bent over lower than an old lady.
“Eeek!! I-i-i-i-is-is-is this really what our investigation led to!? What have we started here!?”
“Shouting will only make you a target, Sister Angelene. And this just means things had gotten so bad this was the only way to resolve it. It had to happen sooner or later, so I’m glad we managed to track down the Guild first.”
Tall Lucia remained calm even now. She may have had a switch in her head that could deactivate her personal feelings when it mattered.
“But why Thira?” asked Lucia. “It’s a pretty minor island as far as Greek mythology is concerned. Don’t they have plenty of more famous islands like Crete or Naxos? Even in the same Cyclades island group, there’s Delos.”
“If they’re trying to stay hidden, why would they choose a well-known tourist destination?” quietly scolded Agnese. “People like this are going to choose somewhere inconspicuous.”
The concept of a guild was not suspicious in and of itself. They were only organizations or groups where workers of a specific field – such as steel or food – would gather to increase the success of their field as a whole.
But on the underside of society, guilds became a gathering point for workers who could not put out a sign advertising their services, such as an illicit manufacturing guild (material procurement, manufacturing, product shipping, sales, etc.) or an assassination guild (weapon procurement, making the kill, disposing of the body, creating alibis, etc.). Different guild members being seen together could be a fatal mistake, so the members would use greetings, handshakes, special cards, or meeting places that only other members would recognize while trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Their base would be their biggest secret, so they would never place a suspicious statue out front or hang up a creepy sign.
Being nondescript was their most notable signature.
You could not assume you were safe just because you could not find anything suspicious. The only way to track down this sort of guild was to start wondering if your neighbors were a little too normal and average.
The magnesium flares being launched at set intervals were so bright they would damage the naked eye if viewed directly.
(Honestly, how does this not violate the treaty between magic and science? What ever happened to the world’s dividing line? Is Lola Stuart being paid off by Academy City or something?)
They were not using magical lights because those would interfere with the largescale search being performed by fortunetellers on a ship out at sea while the rest of them fought here.
Yes, the group on Thira might not be all of them.
The Guild was still lurking out there. If they let that slide, the same sort of major incidents would continue to occur. It was hard to say there had been no victims so far and it was not just the expert magicians like Agnese’s group that would suffer from it. Reclaiming peace required thoroughly crushing the Guild.
(To ho ho. “Crushing” them? Say what you mean, me. They must be killed.)
Agnese laughed at herself.
To eradicate all of the Guild magicians scattered across Europe and perhaps the world, they wanted the Guild’s spell book. And with that rune-obsessed priest blowing everything up, he might just reduce that treasure to ashes. Then Agnese would have no idea why she had dragged her sleep-deprived self out here for a late-night surprise attack.
She knew exactly why she and the other outsiders had been thrown onto the front line here.
“All that out there is a diversion.” The leader of those three girls spoke briefly but plainly. “We need to slip in through the back door and swipe their spell book before that smoker goes overboard and burns it all down. Once we have that, they won’t need to hold back. Then they can obliterate the Guild with a largescale magical bombing for all we care. That guy sticks his rune cards inside the target building through the cracks in the doors and windows and he claims he can burn the target building to the ground without getting a single ember on the neighbors.”
“C-couldn’t we just wait until the fortunetellers have their answer? Both sides’ attacks are coming through here, so this is the worst place to be! We’ll never survive if we search through here and then have to backtrack to check the location found by the fortunetellers!”
“The fortunetelling isn’t perfect. This place is full of magical noise thanks to the largescale attacks and there is no perfect countermeasure to magical stealth meant to intentionally hide something. That’s why we have to destroy all the interfering spiritual items and temples to increase the accuracy of the fortunetelling as we work our way in. The fortunetelling is only insurance in case we miss something.”
A ball of light fell nearby those three and sent an explosive blast in every direction. Worse, that was a piece of Anglican magic. If they had not immediately leaped behind a stone wall, they would have been killed by friendly fire.
(I guess outsiders will only ever be outsiders to them, dammit!!)
Retrieving the spell book was their top priority in this surprise attack, so there was a good reason outsiders had been sent in to do that part. It was a like a forced hiking trip meant to place the greatest risk on them. And as a hiking trip, it was a pleasant affair – just like prisoners of war forced to hike across a minefield with a tank keeping an eye on them from behind. But even if Agnese’s group managed to acquire the spell book through their efforts, the credit would be snatched away from them since this was just one part of a surprise attack carried out by the Anglican Church as a whole. It was a disgustingly simple setup.
(Tack the word “religious” on the front, and the most exploitative of environments driving its people to death through overwork can be swept under the rug as “the pursuit of asceticism”. History and tradition are a scary thing.)
Agnese held a hand to her still-ringing ear and grimaced.
“Damn, no human being deserves this kind of work environment. It’s times like this when I regret not learning how to send remote instructions to statues and things like that. I ended up putting that off so long I forgot to ever study it.”
“The magic world still has a ways to go before it can manage unmanned weaponry.”
“Even the internet is down to a pretty reasonable monthly price these days, so cost effectiveness really comes down to the quality of your idea. For example, what about a statue of the Virgin Mary that did some damage with its equipped sword and shield and then opened up like an iron maiden to chomp on the weakened target?”
“Sister Agnese. You need to go study the bible some more once this is over. Starting with the part about honoring our predecessors.”
That announcement from Lucia amounted to a death sentence. Angelene was trembling when it was not even directed at her.
Just as a flare burst and scattered light perhaps even brighter than lightning, Agnese spun her Lotus Wand around and an explosive blast filled the top of a watchtower. That spell selected and solidified wind out of the five major elements. And Greek mythology was a bow culture. It went without saying what had happened to the watchers who had been aiming into the distance with the bow belonging to a goddess of the moon and virgins. The magicians were thrown from the tower, their limbs flailed helplessly in the air, and they crashed down onto the city of stone and stairs.
“That was a lot of people,” commented Lucia, sounding both exasperated and impressed.
“An observer, an archer, and maybe an arrow supplier? That must be what you get with a guild full of highly specialized workers.”
By gathering people from a special field, they could move more flexibly as a group. A guild’s structure was a lot like a soft cushion made by filling a bag with lots of hard beads. It was a subtle difference from magic cabal magicians who learned to do everything themselves.
(Those poor fools. When you only know how to do the one thing, you must not even consider leaving the battle no matter how things are going. They’re like soldiers who line up in perfect ranks to be bombed to death.)
The island of Thira was distinctive terrain.
The rough waves of the Aegean Sea had worn down the coast to create steeply sloped cliff faces, small homes of white stone were lined up along those slopes, and white stairs linked those buildings in a complex pattern similar to a labyrinth or a ghost leg lottery. Being on an island covered in stairs must have been a challenge even for the online stores that had covered the planet. This historical city did not even allow the passage of cars, but the houses had small tray-sized heliports attached to the walls. Those were probably landing points for delivery drones.
That terrain made attacking the island a real pain in the rear.
You had to climb that steep slope when arriving from the sea and the Guild used the terrain to their advantage while holding the high ground. They took barrels filled with hot oil or quick lime and rolled them down the stairs, they sent countless arrows pouring down at their enemy, and they sent flashfloods down the slope. Having the earth’s gravity on their side meant a lot. Whether you followed the stairs or attempted to scale the cliffs, it was a hellish climb.
(It’s like an 8-bit action game.)
When the flare’s light faded, Agnese climbed on top of a nearby house’s roof and took aim at a messenger running down the stairs while grumbling silently to herself. As much as it felt like a game, people were actually losing their lives, so it was no laughing matter. That was why she kept a straight face as she jumped down onto the enemy and covered their mouth.
“You aren’t going to kill them?” asked Angelene.
“We can leave that to the damn long-haired priest. Our objective is the spell book.”
When the next flare swept away the darkness of the night, she dragged the limp messenger into the deep shadows between two houses.
“I found their encryption book. Sister Angelene, you share this with the others. But wait…a Caesar cipher???”
“You can ask your questions later, Sister Agnese.”
When discussing the origins of the world’s oldest whatever, you generally had to talk about either Greece or China. That was true of noodles, money, ships, wheels, flamethrowers, and even encryption. Still, something about this seemed off to Agnese. But before she could answer the doubt filling her chest, the other nuns dragged her up the long, winding stone stairs. At this point, they would not be remotely surprised if a giant round boulder came tumbling own at them like in an exploration action movie. They had to keep their focus on what was uphill of them.
“B-but I’m surprised.”
“About what, Sister Angelene?”
“We’re attacking a magic cabal’s HQ, so I was imagining more of a big battle between individuals. Not all these largescale traps like the quick lime and flashfloods.”
“This guild is the villain hiding in the shadows of history to provide knowledge, techniques, materials, and motivation to criminals all across Europe. That means they have been keeping themselves perfectly safe all the while. I doubt they want to treat their own valued lives as disposable now.”
They would probably want unmanned magical weaponry more than anyone. And the nuns could only thank god that their techniques had not reached that level.
After their allied troops silently neutralized the scouts up in the watchtowers and on top of the building roofs and then withdrew safely, Agnese heard a voice speaking directly in her head.
“This is Sister Agata. Excellent work, Sister Agnese. The ley line disturbances are gone for the time being, so we are receiving a reading with our scan using an old map and pendulum. The item in question is near the rain water storage tank at 25-DD.”
“Th-th-that’s really close,” said Angelene. “Oh, no! Does that mean we have to go get it!?”
“I’m sure that was part of the plan when they divined its location. C’mon, get going, lazybones.”
Agnese strongly urged her fellow nuns on.
When used right, her Lotus Wand could strike distant targets just by hitting the wand itself, but that was not always the best option. When you needed to silently knock someone out with the first attack, a simple blow like that could be insufficient.
Thira was a small island in the Aegean Sea and, like with any remote island, securing fresh water was a top priority. The greenery suggested that it did have a natural spring, but the locals would not want to rely on that alone. That was why large stone pools had been built at the top of the steep slopes.
“Those will have a smelly rotting corpse dumped in them soon enough, so we can ignore them. Our priority is securing the spell book and ending this ridiculous battle.”
“C-come to think of it, what’s happening to Thira’s ordinary people?”
“The harmless people have all been thoroughly petrified. They are swiftly and silently knocked unconscious and given defenses capable of resisting any stray shots that might reach them. And anyone who shows an unusual resistance to it is actually an expert magician.”
They casually put the people in stasis and casually fixed them afterwards, much like how a water bear worked.
That sort of largescale test worked even with a population of 7000. Necessarius was not humane enough to hesitate just because the civilians were being used as a shield. They were the world’s most powerful problem solvers who dealt with crimes and even wars.
Agnese’s group arrived at the top of the cliff after climbing the long stairway.
This area took advantage of the level terrain up here.
The artificial structure found there was still built with white stone, but it was built down into the ground in a bowl shape as large as a small baseball field. That giant crater was filled with dark water that reflected the flames, flares, and moonlight, similar to the ocean during a fireworks show.
“This must be the source of the flashfloods they’ve attacked us with a few times.”
“Wait, Sister Agnese. Is this what I think it is?”
“Yes,” Agnese replied exasperatedly. “This may have originally been an ancient Greek amphitheater or arena.”
It did not appear to be an ancient dam with a long history behind it. This reuse would make the investigators of ancient ruins faint if they saw it.
And it was also a major hint.
For example, the ancient theatre of Delphi contained a shrine to Dionysus, the Stadium at Olympia was Zeus’s holy ground, and the amphitheaters on Delos were all linked to Apollo or Artemis. Any large structure where people gathered would have a god’s name engraved into it somewhere and that would reveal what kind of spells or tactics the Guild preferred.
“We need to investigate it all. But our top priority remains the spell book.”
If this had been an ancient Greek theater or arena, then there would be more than just the bowl-shaped surface structure. Even normal theaters had underground paths and rooms built for the actors and props to be moved around without the audience seeing. And with an arena where slaves were made to fight lions, there would need to be prison-level cells to prevent the stars of the show from escaping.
It did not take much searching to discover an entrance. They found a square trapdoor on the ground outside the circular white stone dam. The unusually recent magic circle on the lock showed signs of updating by the Guild magicians using the place. Just like Venice, the City of Water, had wireless LAN signals filling the city to allow for a comfortable life. Since the circular arena was being used as a dam now, it was best to assume the whole ancient ruins had been tampered with. It had been remodeled beyond its original design and purpose.
Agnese crouched down and held out a hand.
She focused on the curving line surrounding the base of her thumb and the line that began between the base of her index and middle finger and continued diagonally down toward her little finger.
This was a Western form of palm reading. It used five lines and five bumps or “mounts” on the palm. The two lines she was focused on were the life line and the heart line.
It was unusual to use this technique to learn about others instead of yourself, but it was possible. For example, the life line indicated the presence of danger to or the extent of your life. If anything here would threaten her life or rattle her emotions, it would have an effect on the signs written on her palm.
That told her what plan to use. Lucia and Angelene took up their own positions around the trapdoor. They had worked together long enough that she did not need to give them a spoken command or a hand signal.
Just to be sure, she sent out a transmission.
“(Agnese here. We have arrived at 25-DD. We will now enter the ruins, so please have the diversion team drop an extra big one. Anything that makes a lot of noise will do.)”
Explosive flames even larger than the flares erupted in the distance. The Thira city on the steep slope was illuminated by an orange light similar to the setting sun. They could sense the enemy on the move even through the trapdoor.
They sensed extreme tension, humiliation, and a touch of relief.
That last inappropriate scent was just like the response of someone realizing that the aerial bombing had landed on something other than their own shelter.
“(The grave robbers discovered St. Benedict’s bones. There is no door his hand cannot open. Lock, be opened!!)”
Just as the enemy’s focus was drawn elsewhere, Agnese forcibly destroyed the magic circle on the lock. Lucia lifted the trapdoor just a crack and Angelene tossed in a single gold coin shining brighter than the sun.
That coin symbolized greed.
Its gold shine blinded all filled with wicked desire, causing them to lose sight of reality.
The trapdoor was shut once more just before the lightning-like flash filled the enclosed space. Agnese adjusted her grip on the Lotus Wand while her own eyes were protected.
She licked her lips and spoke in a singsong way.
“You’re so ugly you’d scare off your own cute puppies, you goddamn magicians!!”
“Okay, we really need to talk after this is over, Sister Agnese. With the bible in hand.”
The trapdoor was fully opened this time.
And several different colors of light entered.
Magical attacks using the silver staff, wooden wheel, and coin bags attacked the blinded magicians one after another.
Stooped Angelene had the coin bags at her hips float up into empty air. They had light sources attached to them: the headlamps worn on the foreheads of explorers.
Needless to say, any noticeable light source in the dark would be targeted first. Attaching that light to your own forehead was out of the question. In that sense, a light you did not even need to hold in your hand was safe and reliable. Not only would it not draw attacks to you, it would draw attacks away from you, making it the perfect diversion for an attacker.
They faced less resistance than expected inside, but Agnese Sanctis did not take an optimistic view of that. She instead felt the ominous atmosphere of finding your supposedly full tank of gas was now half empty. The lack of intense resistance meant the enemy had no real attachment to this place. Either the Guild’s main force was not located here, or they were escaping through some other exit.
(Who knows what kind of punishment awaits us if they manage to escape with the spell book.)
“Sister Lucia and Angelene.”
They were in the hidden portion of some ancient ruins that had existed since BCE times. They were walking through an underground tunnel that could not possibly meet modern safety standards, but its bumpy surface provided plenty of spaces to hide. They were at least spared having to push against an endless headwind of projectiles in a long straight tunnel with nowhere to hide.
They took a fairly quick pace while keeping a lookout for any possible cursed charms, dolls, or other booby traps on the floor, walls, or ceiling. They knew rushing would increase the risk of death, but they could not rid themselves of the fear that they would miss their target after coming so far.
Not everyone had survived the series of events leading up to this.
Including some ordinary people.
If the Guild’s main forces managed to escape, they would be back to square one. The Guild would throw fuel on the fire of people’s criminal motives to cause crimes around Europe. Both the victim and the criminal would end up suffering for it while the Guild laughed from a safe distance. Agnese hated being pushed to work so hard in this exploitative work environment, but she would also have trouble sleeping at night if she allowed that to happen.
She would end everything tonight.
She would bring an end to that chain of events.
Then she heard a dry sound much like rustling paper.
She held a finger to her lips and they all turned silently toward the source of the noise.
The long passageway circling the dam had other stairways and rooms built onto it, making it resemble a stone ant colony. The noise came from one of those rooms. Its original purpose was unclear, but they doubted it was for anything friendly given the remnants of a metal door that was pulled straight up by gears and chains much like a guillotine or sluice. Agnese would not be surprised to learn it had once housed a lion trained to devour people.
But was that really a thing of the past?
A deafening roar came from unexpectedly close by.
Agnese gulped and immediately chose a course of action. Her mind had gone blank, preventing her from refining magic power, so she would have a hard time fighting back with any kind of complex spell.
It would be too late by the time this beast leaped at her. But before the ordinary fear could freeze her in place, she thrust out the Lotus Wand on pure mechanical reflex. If something was held out in front of most animal’s faces, they would hold it in place with their front legs and bite at it.
For Agnese, anything was fine as long as she was not torn through by the first strike of those powerful jaws.
And she was not about to allow a second strike to happen.
Her call was answered by an explosion to the side. Lucia’s giant wooden wheel had burst on its own, scattering splinters like a shotgun. They slammed into the side of the lion that had misjudged its action, blasting away the 200kg beast like a kicked empty can.
Only after seeing the beast roll over and convulse on the floor did Angelene go pale and tremble.
“E-eek. What is that!? The Nemean lion!?”
“Based on the way my attack hit, I don’t think it’s a biological creature. Is it made of stone or metal? It may be modeled after the Mycenaean Lion Gate.”
So was this like a rooftop Shisa or a temple’s Komainu coming to life and attacking you? Of course, those more comical examples may have been Agnese’s way of distracting herself from the fear.
And defeating that unidentified lion did not mean the danger had passed.
The lion had leaped out at them, but they had yet to check its room. What was that sound of rustling paper Agnese had heard beforehand?
She was a moment too late in asking that question.
She heard a deep burning sound and an orange light emanated from the room.
“Oh, no! They’re burning something!”
She rushed into the room and found a stranger standing within.
No, perhaps it was better to say she found someone she did not recognize.
After all, this girl had all the skin on her face peeled away.
Agnese spoke to the criminal who had gone to such lengths to escape.
“Ah ha ha.”
Monica apparently had no intention of winning this fair and square. Siccing that lion on them had not been to kill them – it was only to buy time for this.
She held a burning collection of paper.
She did not let go. Not to the very end. The fire she had set spread beyond the papers and enveloped her arm as well.
“Ah ha ha ha ha!! Hah hah hah ah ha ha ah ha ha ha ha ha!!”
“Get ready, Sister Agnese!!”
Monica laughed and spread her arms even as her entire body went up in flames. Then she ran toward the three nuns. She may have intended to grab at Agnese to share her fiery fate.
But Lucia did not let it happen.
Her giant wooden wheel burst, the many splinters scattered, and Monica flew back toward the opposite wall with more than 10 times the force she had come running in with.
She must have been counting on that.
Something fluttered through the cold stone room like cherry blossoms while scattering embers everywhere.
“Th-the spell book,” bemoaned Angelene. Her voice soon grew to a shout. “Wasn’t that the spell book we were searching for? It was just blown away! Wh-what do we do now!?”
The paper had been set on fire, the wax tapes had been melted, and the entire book had been shredded by the wooden scattershot. Agnese’s group had helped destroy it in their efforts to protect themselves.
The destruction was so thorough that restoring it now would be difficult.
Agnese sat down by the wall and watched it continue to burn.
“Sister Lucia, how much lifeforce does Monica have left?”
“It is about to run out and there is no stopping it.”
She received a cold response, but she did not mind.
That was not the main issue here. She could let herself feel that guilt once the dawn arrived.
Right now, she had a more important task
She roughly grabbed some blank memo paper found in the same room.
“Check her leftover thoughts. I need help from both of you to extract the spell book from Sister Monica!”
“B-but isn’t the spell book a bunch of wax tapes with the sounds recorded on them? Extracting her memories of seeing the spell book won’t get what we need!”
“We aren’t looking in her head. The residual thoughts clinging to her clothing would be less strictly guarded. Any voices she’s heard even once should coincide with the voices in the spell book, whether she was aware of it or not!”
Normally, that level of accuracy would not be possible.
If it would, they could have solved some other incidents much faster. For example, the summoned ghost ship attacking Calais, France.
But in this case, the burning habit and lost spell book had been destroyed by the same fire. “Cause of death” made for a very powerful common factor, so they could use that to absorb the information from both the spell book and the criminal’s clothing.
Do not forget.
As seen in the Golden Bough, magic of the sympathetic and contagious varieties placed a heavy emphasis on relationships and connections. If there was a handhold there, why wouldn’t they use it?
They knew there was no saving that girl enveloped in the flames, but she was still breathing and thus still a survivor for the time being. But they coldly refused to treat her and extracted the necessary information even if it meant watching her die.
They were working toward peace.
They were working toward a bright future.
(This is certainly something we couldn’t let that spiky-haired boy see.)
It was a contemptible and inhumane act, but otherwise the spell book needed to defeat the Guild would be forever lost. Agnese clenched her teeth but continued her work with perfect accuracy.
“When martyred, the glass shards of St. Vincent’s prison turned to flowers and he saw an angel. Thou carry no pain and no secrets. This place contains naught but light. The truth shall not be embellished as the light shines bright to guide the lost lambs on this earth.”
While continuing her work, Agnese looked to the room itself instead of burning Monica. She was somewhat afraid of suffocating with no windows for the smoke to escape, but she was also curious what kind of room this was.
It was a large room - twice the size of a school classroom.
The walls were lined with bookcases and old tomes were piled up on the tables. But more than that…
(What is that?)
“Ugh,” groaned the torch.
Putting out the fire now would not save her and thoughtlessly dumping water over her head might only make it worse.
So Agnese continued her work, but she also moved her lips to speak some other words.
“Your lost lifeforce will not return. There is no saving you. Do you have any last words you want me to relay to a family member, a friend, a lover, a teacher, or anyone you want? I swear I will get your message to them.”
Monica smiled a little when she heard that.
And she did not hesitate to respond.
“Shut up, you hypocrite. I’ll see you in hell.”
That was the end of it.
The torch became nothing more than a torch. She was no longer moving in the slightest.
Her outstretched hand had simply wandered through empty air.
(What a sad person.)
She had betrayed the Roman Catholics and picked a fight with the Anglicans to side with this strange Guild, but she must never have managed to rid herself of the loneliness lodged deep in her heart. She had died alone. And even in the Guild she was willing to protect with her life, she must not have found anyone she wanted to leave a final message for.
Malice, hostility, enmity, and animosity.
Her life had been like a book left stiff and moldy after being soaked in filthy water and forcibly dried. She had desired freedom more than anyone, yet she had lived a life holding her breath while hiding in the dank shadows.
Had she betrayed all those people for nothing more than that?
Agnese did not know what promises had been made to recruit Monica, but she could only imagine the girl had been manipulated and exploited.
And even Monica must have known it.
Otherwise, she would not have wasted her final words like that.
Today was like poison to Agnese’s mental health. If she was not careful, she would end up being crushed by the dark side of the world. She took a deep breath to refocus her mind and then she tapped at the memo paper in her hand. She had written all over that paper without even noticing it herself. She had created a new book. She had even drawn out the waveforms that had been recorded on the wax tapes.
“We have the spell book,” she clearly stated. “Now we can hunt down the Guild.”
The Guild base on Thira was quickly taken.
So quickly they had time leftover before dawn.
(That was too fast.)
Agnese still carried anxiety in her heart.
It had all gone too smoothly.
After leaving the circular water storage pool, she rapidly organized the information in her head. There was something they had to do even after this battle was complete.
“There is one person who is only listed in the records by an alias. As the only person important enough to ignore the usual rules, they must be the boss.” Agnese swiftly explained her thoughts after meeting up with Stiyl and Isabella. “They’re only known as Tu. I have no idea what that means, but do you get the impression we defeated them?”
“No, I don’t,” replied Stiyl. “Everyone on the front line felt like disposable pawns meant to buy time. They may have been fighting to win, but it didn’t feel like they were fighting to survive. A VIP with an alias would have cared about their own life more than that.”
“Where does that name come from? Is Tu a chemical symbol???”
Isabella smiled while making a non-magical suggestion, prompting Agnese to sigh. She could not believe these superiors of hers. They really had not discovered anything themselves.
(Does that mean this Tu escaped the island during all the fighting? We must have had ships surrounding the island, so that couldn’t have been easy.)
“I also noticed a few curious facts about the Guild,” said Agnese.
They had acquired the spell book from Sister Monica, but they had discovered some other things along the way and there had been other interesting documents in the room where Monica had died.
Had Monica failed to destroy them, or was the Guild confident they could not be stopped even if that information got out?
“Their encryption uses a Caesar cipher. I would have expected the use of a scytale, a cylindrical strip of parchment developed in ancient Greece, but they used a method developed later in ancient Rome.”
“Sister Lucia. When we destroyed that watchtower, the sniper dropped their weapon, remember? That bow and arrow fills anyone it hits with a deadly disease and it has its origins in a goddess of the moon and virgins. We never let it hit anyone, though, so we can’t say if it only works on women or not.”
“Yes, it appeared to be the bow and arrow of Diana.”
Not of Artemis.
There was an obvious reason for a different god to be seen here.
“Roman mythology?” muttered Stiyl while exhaling cigarette smoke.
Roman mythology was very similar to Greek mythology, but it provided a position for a few emperors and heroes to grant legitimacy to the Roman Empire. Rome did have its own original indigenous religion, but that had mostly been lost as the stories of Zeus were applied to Jupiter, the stories of Hera to Juno, and so on.
Agnese continued her explanation.
“Furthermore, we were confronted by Sister Monica who was originally Christian. Since they managed to recruit her without being detected, the Guild must have a means of contacting Catholics in secret, right? That means the Guild has adapted with the times to work within a Greek, Roman, and Christian society. Just like the influenza virus develops a new strain every year to defeat the existing vaccines.”
This was not an outdated fossil clinging to life on the edges of society.
Quite the opposite.
They had maintained a network across all of Europe since the days of ancient Greece and they could still remain hidden wherever they went. That explained why they were so difficult to track down. When the Christian priests and nuns arrived after the fact to view things from the surface, they had a hard time seeing the Guild’s territory spread out deep underground.
They lived on the underside of society.
And they would change the names of their gods to match the current age to pull it off.
They were willing to compromise.
This group seemed fundamentally incomprehensible to Agnese and the others who worshiped the Son of God. They could apparently use the full set of Roman spells, but it was doubtful they truly worshiped Jupiter from the bottom of their hearts.
“What matters here is the relationship between Greek, Roman, and Christian. If you look back in history, it looks like there’s a direct progression between them, but it wasn’t actually that simple.” Agnese sighed. “For example, when the Greek age led into the Roman age, the name of Rome swallowed up the weakened Greek lands. But by absorbing Greek culture, the Roman gods had a large portion of themselves overwritten by the Greek ones. Like Zeus and Jupiter becoming essentially the same. So you could say Rome won politically but was conquered culturally. Their views of good and evil weren’t consistent. The Roman Empire did not at all understand early Christianity and oppressed it like a new cult. That becomes all too clear when you look back on the legends of the martyred saints.”
“But once Christianity was accepted by one of the emperors, it was the Christians who began oppressing all other religions. Like the witch hunts. Any priest or priestess that worshiped any of the ancient gods was accused of being a witch, but those were the very people who had branched off from Roman mythology and developed their beliefs from there, right? The Christians ended up doing exactly the thing their ancestors had so decried.”
Was it simply human nature to be corrupted by power?
But that was not what mattered here.
“The Guild was searching for a way to survive while all this was going on.” Agnese explained it all as if confirming it for herself. “So they threw out their own religion and blended in with the masses. When Rome absorbed Greece, they became Roman. When Roman mythology was oppressing Christians, they joined in. And when Christians began oppressing the traditional witches, they threw stones at their own friends. When the witches who failed to escape in time were burned at the stake, they laughed along with the Christians. When Greek and Roman sculptures were the new hot thing during the Renaissance, they criticized the overly strict Christian culture of art. …As you can see, nothing about them ever remained consistent. They only wanted to be on the side of whoever was currently winning. They might know the winning side was wrong, but they would still join in without making any criticism. They readily spat on everything they held dear. Doesn’t that raise questions about whether they really are Roman magicians deep down?”
The whole idea was unbelievable for the nuns who believed in the Son of God and were willing to fight for their faith, but the Guild had used that method to survive.
“So they have nothing to protect. Good and evil are meaningless to them. Myths are mere tools to them, culture no more than a battery, and the world just a consumable product. Once one is too worn down to be of any use, they move on to the next. Once the time comes, they simply do it. It happened with Greece, it happened with Rome, and now it’s Christianity’s turn. The Guild is working to destroy Christian society. But only because Christianity has reached its zenith. They are willing to do this simply because the time has come to change out the battery. They have pulled the trigger on so much violence not due to an issue of good and evil, but because they truly believe the current age is forcing it upon them.”
The Guild’s violence was not based on a powerful grudge or depthless hedonism.
When the time came, they would act.
It was simple and unshakeable. There was no room for negotiation there.
The only solution was to slaughter them all.
“(This really is a job for me,)” muttered Stiyl below his breath. “(Kanzaki could never do it.)”
Then he spoke loud enough for the others to hear.
“That is the standard form for violence with no real ideology behind it. They go on a rampage of killing and looting and, when accused with the crimes they have so obviously committed, they blame the age of war and insist they are not responsible. But it all comes from their personal desires, not the age they live in.” After that exasperated assessment, Stiyl got to the crux of the issue. “This apparent boss of theirs known as Tu has disappeared. If that was not just for self-preservation, then they must have something left to do that was worth abandoning this base for. That is the real problem at hand.”
Before, the Guild had been adding fuel to the fire that motivated criminals around Europe, but that had not been enough.
So now they were attempting to accomplish something themselves.
Stiyl’s assumption carried another implicit question.
What exactly where they planning?
“The Guild can hide anywhere in Europe. And they intend to obliterate the Christian society as casually as you might throw out a dead battery. They thought they could accomplish it from here, but they failed. They may be feeling some frustration from that. Just like someone when their internet connection suddenly goes down or their train is stopped for hours on end.”
She breathed in and out.
Agnese was not just an impartial observer in this. It was directly tied to her own identity.
Yet she did not hesitate to make her next suggestion.
“So the obvious move would be to dress themselves up as Roman magicians and destroy the Vatican that guides its 2 billion believers around the world. What could be faster or more effective than that?”
A worldwide hunt had begun.
The spell book acquired by Agnese’s group could be used to locate and capture the guild members hidden all over Europe. But this spread beyond just Europe or even the Eurasian continent There were nearly 16 thousand members scattered around the globe. Looking at pure numbers, they may have rivalled the enigmatic Dawn-Colored Sunlight which was mostly known from its legends. That was far too much for three nuns to deal with on their own.
Leaving even a single guild member would allow it to all happen again. They would spread like weeds, whisper secrets, and grant their harmful power to more troubled magicians. And the victims would be ordinary people, not expert magicians.
So they would end this here.
A thorough reaping was needed and the Anglican Church could pull that off.
But that did not lead to a happily ever after. Let us return to the island’s underground room where the spell book was found.
“We still haven’t identified the leader,” said Stiyl Magnus, a priest with long hair dyed red.
His exhaled cigarette smoke floated through the subterranean space and filled an empty spot.
That felt symbolic.
Stone legs stood upon a pedestal where a statue had been destroyed from the knees on up. It had not been shattered. The stone had been vaporized and blasted against the stone wall.
As a flame magician, Stiyl seemed to have his thoughts on that firepower.
Someone had clearly worked to thoroughly destroy the statue.
“Tu. That name is the only information the spell book revealed on their boss. The voice sample was incomplete and those two letters are not enough to track down their real name. Since they abandoned this base so readily, they must still have a foundation for their plan. They have the funding, connections, equipment, and land plus the knowledge needed to bring all those things together as an organization. We cannot let them escape. We need to assume that they will create a new guild if all we do is destroy their hideout. Then this will all happen again, creating more unnecessary victims all the while. So you must end this before that can happen.”
“Are you telling us to search them out?” Agnese shrugged. “We don’t have any hints to go off of. Using two letters to search out a specific person who could be anywhere in the world isn’t possible. You can’t expect us to accomplish anything and everything just by giving us a goal and a deadline.”
“What was that statue?”
Stiyl was of course asking about the one with only the lower legs remaining. Based on the size of the white marble legs, it must have stood about 2m tall. And the muscular calves looked vaguely masculine.
“They went to the trouble of destroying it so thoroughly when they needed to escape as quickly as possible, so it must have been something they couldn’t let us see. But what do you expect us to do with that information? Do you know how many male gods there are in polytheistic Roman mythology???”
Being unable to identify a god was unthinkable for monotheistic Christianity, but it was natural enough for the guild.
“Oh, my, my.”
Then an oddly relaxed female voice reached their ears. The carefree mood clashed with the violent scene and it came from Sister Orsola whose thick habit could not hide the curves of her body.
She elegantly placed a hand on her cheek as she spoke.
“Then how about I connect you to it? The statue should be coated in its owner’s thoughts or their desire to conceal it through destruction. Someone should be able to see something if they dive into those residual thoughts.”
“Um…are you serious? I’m almost certain that would be a trap. Only the pedestal and legs are left, but Tu must have known someone would investigate them. Investigating the residual thoughts could get your mind drawn into a dream world.”
“Wait, really!? Like where making a mistake in the dream causes your heart to stop!?” Silver-haired and brown-skinned Isabella Theism leaned forward in excitement. And she was breathing awfully heavily. “Eh heh heh. Now, this is getting interesting. A fresh corpse with no external injuries is rare indeed. Drool. And this isn’t just a pickled Hand of Glory or a body compressed into a diamond! It’s a full corpse I could do anything I want with!! I need as much reference material as I can get for the corpses I construct out of animal meat and bones and I was hoping to try out some new things. This really gets my imagination running wild! Ahh, the ideas just won’t stop! Is this further proof that I’m a genius? I could do so many cool things with this!!”
(This sounds like an even worse idea than playing roulette with a round – no, two rounds – loaded in the revolver.)
That woman did not mind at all if they failed. In fact, she seemed to want them to fail.
Agnese gave her a look of extreme displeasure with her mouth a small triangle, but she knew it was the outsiders like her who would be forced to do this. Stiyl was smoking his cigarette with a relaxed look that said he knew it would never be him.
Oblivious to that, Orsola grinned and kneeled on the stone floor. Then she sat back on her heels in the Japanese seiza style. She even patted on her lap.
“Now, who shall I connect?” asked that master of unintentional temptation. “Eh heh heh. I’m no good at all that chaotic fighting, but I can always help guide you into a hypnagogic hallucination.”
Agnese was fairly sleep deprived, so she staggered over and nearly gave in to the temptation of the older girl’s soft lap pillow heaven, but she snapped herself out of it. Now was not the time to let her drowsiness get the better of her, so she shook her head to shake free of that near miss.
Then she turned toward Lucia and Angelene.
They appeared to be thinking much the same thing.
There was a traditional solution to this sort of problem.
“Rock paper scissors!!”
Orsola interrupted their game while offering up her lap free of charge.
Agnese had just grimaced after playing scissors when the other two played rock, so she quickly hid her hand behind her back and put on the biggest smile she could manage.
“Wh-what is it, Sister Orsola? Did you discover something new? Why, that changes everything, so we’ll just have to redo our game, which means that one didn’t count!!”
The rock players loudly lodged their complaints, but she ignored them while watching Orsola point toward the statue’s feet from the lower view point of her seiza.
“Isn’t this statue’s pedestal oddly new?” she asked with her head childishly tilted.
“I see.” The cigarette waggled in the corner of Stiyl’s mouth. “That means it was removed from its original pedestal and brought here. Which suggests it was not made by one of their guild craftsmen. Did they steal it from somewhere?”
Theft of magically valuable items was far from unheard of, so it would be difficult to track down Tu’s identity from that alone.
“Heh heh heh.”
But the Anglican Church was not shy about their title as world’s best in anti-magician combat. It had all begun with detecting witches hidden among the people.
Isabella put her hands on her rag-covered hips and laughed loudly.
“Ahhh ha ha ha!! So at long last you come crying to me for help. When you reach a dead end with no path to the truth remaining in the world of the living, just come to Necromancer Isabella Theism☆”
Agnese secretly elbowed Stiyl in the side.
“What’s with her? Did that calm downer of a girl grab an energy drink and flip some kind of switch in her head???”
“She’s just itching to get in on the action after you three did everything for us. Ignore her.”
“You two!” said Isabella while rudely pointing at them.
Her sudden burst of motivation was worrying to Agnese, but it was true they had no way of investigating that statue when only the lower legs remained. Plus, bringing that back up would only lead back to the result of the rock paper scissors game.
Isabella slapped at the center of her chest and gave a snort.
“Why does a necromancer wear the filthy clothes of the dead? What immediate benefit do they hope to gain from that? One answer is divination.”
“When no one in the world of the living can find the answer, it is time to seek the dead who have escaped all physical restrictions. When the link has been severed, it’s my time to shine.”
Agnese, Lucia, and Angelene all gave her extremely skeptical looks. For one, if she could reveal the truth this easily, why had they spent so much time running around Europe? Magic was convenient, but not all-powerful. The necromancer’s claim was too good to be true and they could not grasp the reality of what she could actually do.
Gullible Orsola, however, continued smiling in her seiza position.
“My, that’s incredible. Then could you ask a ghost to reveal all my embarrassing secrets?”
“I could not.”
“Like I said, it’s when the link has been severed. Generally speaking, the dead can only reveal lost information. I cannot draw out any information that could be found through methods available to the living, like carbon dating, alternate light sources, lie detectors, or truth serums.”
“Lost, you say?” Agnese grinned. “Then you could tell us how to become a Magic God?”
“If the dead cannot answer me, that means it can be achieved using known methods. But not necessarily known to me.”
She had a comeback for everything. Which was generally the case with people who claimed to speak with the dead.
The others remained skeptical, but they did not put up much of a resistance, which she seemed to take as a sign that she was free to try. The necromancer spread her arms wide and fluttering scraps of paper filled the area. A closer look showed they were all clippings from newspapers and magazines.
“A complete resurrection is the work of the Lord, but I need not go that far to invite in a being capable of answering your question. Once drawn in by the unsalted rye bread and unfermented grape juice, I demand thou don this temporary garb!!”
A mini-whirlwind formed.
The invisible storm was made visual by the floating papers telling of depressing crimes.
“I seek data concerning a lost connection. There is no boundary between life and death here, so draw out the information once formed by human hand but lost through death. Answer my call, for I desire just one thing from the wandering dead: from where was this statue taken!?”
The storm gathered together to take a certain form.
The thousands or tens of thousands of articles formed a life-size human. Although there was no way to tell if that was one of the dead or not.
The stooped and freckled girl’s eyes sparkled a little.
“Oh? I-it made something. Will it speak to tell us the answer? Or will it write it or making rapping noises???”
The silence lasted a while.
Then Agnese grabbed Orsola’s hand and tugged hard on that nun who was still smiling in the seiza position.
The dead made its move a moment later.
It made an attack like its fingernails were tearing into space itself.
Stiyl removed his cigarette from his mouth, looking very irritated.
“Eh? Oh, c’mon. This means it was a perfect success. Now you all need to attack the raging dead spirit to tear all those articles from it. The last one remaining will be the divination result.”
“I-Is she serious?”
Earnest Lucia’s temple was twitching at this.
And the careless woman bragged about it with a smile.
“Oh, and if you screw it up, you’ll be joining them in the afterlife. Of course, that just means more materials for me, so it’s not a problem at all☆”
Everyone (except for Orsola who was still not aware what was happening) sent a kick into Isabella Theism’s back, knocking her toward the article doll. It did not seem equipped with a safety device to prevent it from attacking its master. While Isabella screamed and rolled around to avoid the nasty scratching attacks, Stiyl ignited a flame sword in each hand. Thousands of rune cards were pasted around them, but no one else knew when he had done that.
“Disinfect it,” whispered Agnese. “And Isabella while you’re at it.”
The flame swords made multiple consecutive attacks.
Since Isabella put her hands over her head and curled up on the floor, this must not have been one of her corpses made from animal meat and bones.
At any rate, embers and the scorched remains of the articles scattered through the air.
Agnese reached out and snatched the one surviving clipping that floating in front of her.
She read the headline.
“Thieves break into a Nuremberg museum?”
The article itself was short, but a close reading showed a number of things that did not make sense: how had the thieves gotten the museum’s door unlocked and how had they carried out such a heavy statue without the guards noticing? That was why the local police had suspected it was an inside job and the guards had pretended not to notice. That suspicion had led the investigation astray in its earliest stages.
But Agnese thought the police would have failed to track down the crooks regardless.
Magic had clearly been used in that theft.
And sadly enough, theft was a thing on the magic side as well. For example, one historic Christian figure was in fact a relic collector who would bite off a piece of an important figure’s arm bone to keep it for themselves or stick their finger in a corpse’s nose to take home the eye socket bone.
When you wanted a powerful item badly enough but you could not create it for yourself, there were only so many options remaining: buy it, trick someone out of it, steal it, or kill for it.
And while biting off a piece of a holy figure’s bone to steal it might be praised, buying miracles with mutual consent was strictly forbidden. The act of simony was banned, but what did and did not qualify was an extremely complex issue.
Angelene lay flat down on the desk.
They were back to investigating, which was much easier said than done when they were manually fishing through mountains of documents. These unglamorous and obnoxious jobs were generally given to the outsiders.
They had been holed up in their trailer for three days straight.
“Fuck that slave driver of a priest,” cursed exhausted Angelene. “I-I mean, what kind of question was that, anyway? If she could get an answer to her question, why couldn’t she have directly asked for Tu’s real name or location?”
“Are you volunteering to risk your life against that monster again? And Isabella has an out in case her precious divination fails: ‘No answer means you can find the answer in the world of the living! Now you know the answer is within your grasp, so get to work! Hurry!!’ If she told me that after I risked my life a second time, I think I really might throttle her. Eh heh heh.”
Agnese laughed weakly with a shadow over her face, so Angelene zipped her mouth shut and said nothing more.
But that did not mean they had found nothing at all.
They had found some related articles in old European newspapers.
“There appear to have been 7 identical thefts.” Lucia sat up straight after waking herself with a hot shower. “And there was a temporary gap in the middle. They may have thought they had achieved some kind of goal, but discovered they were mistaken and resumed stealing. If so…”
“That gap was not part of Tu’s plan?”
They exchanged a glance.
Tu may have failed to “wipe everything clean” and left something behind.
If those nuns did not find anything after all this, they were pretty sure they would die of stress. This gave them one more job: had there been some sort of magic side incident during that gap? It was time to dive back into the mountains of old newspapers.
“A bloodline investigator went missing?” said Lucia.
“Wh-what’s that?” groaned Angelene while sprawled out on the floor.
The look on her face said she never wanted to see any small text ever again.
“Exactly what it sounds like: an expert who investigates the client’s bloodline and writes them up a certificate. They’re used by everyone from ordinary history buffs to mafia godfathers. They can confirm that a self-proclaimed bastard child is in fact entitled to a piece of a massive inheritance, they can help gather evidence of infidelity, and they can get chased by a shotgun-wielding maniac after shattering the dreams of someone who truly believed they were a descendent of some great king.”
“And that applies to the magic world too?”
Agnese looked skeptical because magic was generally the techniques taught to those without inborn talent. Even the Saints who had physical characteristics similar to the Son of God were something like a mutation and not something inherited from parent to child.
Even the Roman Catholic Church did not determine their pope by bloodline. It was the result of an election. Of course, they did not allow female popes, so you could not exactly call it a fair election.
“Magic itself is the result of effort and does not require inborn talent.” Lucia shrugged. “But connections to the past can still lead to trouble when it comes to conflict between cabals. If you looked into your own personal issues and found nothing, wouldn’t it make sense to look back to your parents or grandparents?”
And it was human nature to turn any need into a business.
Agnese was interested in any hints they could find related to the guild boss known only as Tu.
Visiting a salon to help her mental health could wait until later.
“So about this missing bloodline investigator. I don’t know if they skipped town or went into hiding in a secret shelter, but what’s their name and their last known address?”
“Brax Mizhine. Age: 28. Sex: Male. Location: Cambridge, England. If this trail goes cold too, Tu really will forever elude us.”
They were finally home again.
Although thinking of this as “home” made Agnese laugh on the inside. They were not treated very well here, but England was still their second home.
(They’ve really tamed us, huh?)
That phrasing was half serious and half a joke to hide her embarrassment.
She was less than pleased with the spraying sound surrounding her. But this was not a wet spray; it was a special form of incense. She sensed the sickly sweet scent while raising both hands in the metal container and waiting for the “cleaning complete” light to activate. She was of course not wearing any clothing.
(Naked) Angelene was blushing with embarrassment while the many metal nozzles sprayed their contents all over her as well.
“D-do they really have to do this to prevent us from bringing curses back into the country!? They’re the ones that ordered us to stick our hands in all that filth!!”
“Sister Angelene, you need to learn that making logical arguments is not a good way to get ahead in adult society.”
“Besides, doesn’t that unsanitary necromancer need a decontamination way more than us!? Then again, splashing disinfectant on her might kill her!!”
Agnese called her name again to silence her. Those words were not befitting of a nun.
At any rate, the light turned from red to green. Once they had been successfully purified (although Agnese doubted they had any traces of a curse left on them to begin with), they walked naked into the next train car. They donned the underwear and habits folded up there and then stepped outside of the freight train.
The ordinary blue sky awaited them there.
The sky viewed from London was pretty, but felt somehow artificial. Almost like they were viewing it through a plastic dome.
The color of the sea was determined by the sky, but the color of the sky was determined by the city. Unlike Italy’s historic cities, London had a mixture of old and new structures, giving it a jumbled look. The Ferris wheel and financial offices may have been to blame there.
(It still feels more natural than the area around Academy City, though. That place had a chemical look that made me afraid to let anything touch my tongue.)
They took a long-distance bus to Cambridge.
The container they used as a mobile home base would be transported there ahead of them by helicopter. England was a lot more accommodating than the rest of Europe as long as they did not ask the country to improve its nasty pasta that they seemingly went out of their way to make worse.
“We would have starved to death long ago without Sister Orsola to cook for us.”
“You said that out loud, Sister Agnese. Feeling homesick?”
She sent a low kick Lucia’s way. The shop at the bus station had some sandwiches inside the glass case at the register counter, but she grimaced and walked past them. Why did they insist on such gross combinations like tomato and cheese? Just add some basil sauce and you would have something workable, but they instead forcibly added some mustard-slathered grilled chicken (a cheap processed meat injected with beef tallow). That was supposedly to make it look more substantial, but it only got in the way. None if it made any sense to an Italian-born girl (who was a true gourmet thanks to her past of digging through the trash for scraps). She knew they would not find anything acceptable there, so she continued on to the bus terminal with an empty stomach.
“S-so why would this guy live in Cambridge?” asked Angelene who had stubbornly insisted on the window seat.
“People hoping for the prestige of that name usually have no confidence in themselves, unfortunately enough,” said Lucia.
Lucia apparently intended to spend the travel time catching up on her sleep because she already had an eye mask on her forehead.
Not everyone who lived in Cambridge worked for or had graduated from the famous university, but there were people who chose to live there to borrow its reputation.
It was evening by the time they arrived.
This was England’s leading academic city…but it did not have many smart buildings or labs. The look of the city made it clear they considered it a virtue to leave the historical stone buildings in their historical state. Of course, that was only to preserve the scenery, so the interiors had all been updated.
Fortunately, they had a place to stay even as night fell.
Despite all the historical stone buildings, plenty of aboveground and underground parking lots had been built out of necessity. One of the flat parking lots had a giant metal container sitting in one corner.
“Wh-what do we do about dinner?”
“You’re on cooking duty today, Sister Angelene. We wouldn’t be able to find any acceptable pasta if we tried eating out, so hurry up and boil some water, add some salt, and dump in the dried pasta. I don’t expect much originality from you, so a standard bolognese is fine. Even your lazily-made meals are better than the alternative. Oh, and I assume anyone with half a brain would know this, but please don’t try to pair that with a caprese salad or minestrone soup. Two tomato dishes would be too much.”
“That’s a mean thing to say and also a very specific request! It’s 100% odds that’s just what you want to eat right now, Sister Agnese! Can’t you give me a shorter request!?”
Tearful Angelene got to work, the other two ate their fill, and then they made the girl tremble by rating it a 5/10. By then, about an hour had passed.
“Sob, sob. I didn’t want to do something tomato-based because of how hard it is to wash the dishes afterwards. And you two stacked the dishes on top of each other before I could wash them.”
“Hey, it’s better than all the olive oil and garlic with pepperoncino. Now get those dishes washed so we can get to work.”
“If you have nothing better to do than lie on the couch watching TV, then come help me! I thought I had cooking duty, not cleanup duty!”
Angelene bared her fangs in her apron, but since she did not leave the sink, the hierarchy of power was plain to see. The cooking duty system was absolute.
After finally getting something to eat after arriving in England, the three girls left the mobile home. The sun had fully set and Cambridge’s night awaited them.
“I thought this city would be quieter,” said Lucia as she looked around. “But there’s a surprising number of people out this late.”
“Well, it is a college town. The year-round partiers will only now be getting started.”
“Eh? Then how bad is Academy City since it’s nothing but students???”
Stooped Angelene was dangerously close to touching on a forbidden fruit there.
They were in a college town at night, but not even the college students walking around with beer bottles in hand were crass enough to catcall nuns. They might have had cars chasing after them if they were in casual clothing, though.
“Where is Brax Mizhine’s office?”
“Not far. He used it as a home too.”
There it was.
It was indistinguishable from the university buildings scattered around the city. It was just one of the many historical buildings here. And just like an old home remodeled into an izakaya, the building was the only historical thing about it. The man had simply been buying prestige.
Instead of stepping through the front gate, Agnese circled around the wall surrounding the property.
“Pretty strict security.”
“Only someone who knows about magicians would defend against them, so this tells us Brax was part of our world.”
After making a full circuit, they stepped a bit away from the building and viewed the area from another building’s roof. That let them analyze the security well enough.
“I’m surprised how deserted the place seems. With a mansion this big, I would expect some servants or guards and maybe even some family over to visit. Using unmanned alarms might mean he didn’t trust anyone but himself. But the big garden has a fountain, which should require a specialist for upkeep of the pipes and pump.”
This meant they could not relax.
The inside would be full of traps, like a pyramid meant to kill graverobbers.
They had discovered some things from their visual observations.
“That gate detects artificial objects, which is simple but a real pain. Did he assume any product of civilization was violent? Thanks to that, any kind of spiritual item is out. That includes our Symbolic Weapons and our habits.”
“U-ugh. Y-you mean…?”
“If we want to sneak in without being detected, we’ll have to strip it all off first.”
They all fell silent.
Even if they did get through the front gate, they would then be in enemy territory. The inside seemed deserted, but that did not mean there were no hints to be found there. They did not want to have any documents inside self-destruct if they triggered some kind of defense mechanism. And if they were caught in the middle of that, they could be harmed themselves. On the other hand, they did not want to walk around naked, even if it was the middle of the night. They were bashful maidens after all.
Sinister shadows fell over Lucia and Angelene’s faces.
“Come to think of it, I seem to recall someone trying to escape the consequences of a rock paper scissors game.”
“As a matter of fact, so do I. And I still haven’t paid her back for insulting my cooking earlier. Hee…hee hee hee. Sister Agnese, got anything to say for yourself?”
They had more or less analyzed her rock paper scissors tendencies in that first game.
But the stooped and freckled nun had made a mistake when she allowed their cornered prey to speak.
“Rock paper scissors!!” shouted Agnese Sanctis.
“Whoever plays rock loses!!!!!!”
Angelene managed to course correct away from rock at the last second, but Lucia was too slow. She ended up trembling while holding out her clenched fist.
Agnese put on a devilish smile after playing scissors like normal.
“Ohhh? Sister Lucia, what’s this I see here? Care to explain whether that’s rock, paper, or scissors?”
“S-Sister Agnese! How could you do this!?”
Cool Lucia looked to Angelene for help, but the stooped nun had corrected to scissors at the last second and chose to look the other way for now.
Yes, playing scissors under the altered rules would always mean either a win or a draw. If Lucia’s protests were found valid, it would only mean the two scissors players would have to compete to find the true loser.
“A-Angelene. Look me in the eye, Sister Angeleneee!!”
“C’mon, get out of those clothes. We won fair and square.”
The streets of Cambridge were full of partiers.
The college students showed no sign of stopping anytime soon. The traffic laws had been thrown out the window as they drove around in convertibles with beer bottles in hand and young men in nothing but their underwear threw their hands in the air and shouted while breaking the speed limit.
But not even they took things quite this far.
“I am going to kill those two.”
She was entirely nude.
The moonlight shined down on the alluring contours of Sister Lucia’s body. That nun was more of a clean freak and got more embarrassed than any of the others, yet here she was with all of her soft skin exposed to the air and flushed a bright red. The tall girl was crouched down and covering her important bits with her hands while the other two grinned like crazy, watched from another building’s rooftop, and gave instructions.
“Test, test. Sister Lucia, continue forward from there. Yes, forward. Bloodline Investigator Brax Mizhine’s home/office is 20m directly ahead of you. This is our last chance to find a hint leading to the guild leader known only as Tu!!”
“Y-you’re lucky the mansion is deserted because that means no one can see you like that. Isn’t that great!?”
“How irresponsible can you two be!? There is a large road lit up by streetlights right over there! Gyaahh!!”
Naked Lucia hid behind a roadside tree until a convertible full of partiers passed by for the umpteenth time. If they found her like this, they would assume she was a pent-up slut participating in a rather unique form of volunteer work.
She breathed heavily with tears in her eyes while focusing on her ear.
“I am about to enter the mansion’s grounds. I will need to throw out this communication spiritual item, so you two collect it.”
“Will do. We’ll give the order to head in, so there’s nothing to worry about. Kee hee hee.”
She did not trust them in the slightest, so she removed the acorn from her ear and chucked it into some nearby bushes. She wanted those two to deal with disposing with it. She covered her body with her hands, crouched low, took a deep breath, and ran out across the asphalt lit up by bright LED lights.
Being naked outside had been enough to fry her brain, but the world had so much more to offer.
This felt like taking yet another step over the line.
(All technology can go to hell!!)
She was blushing bright, but she moved swiftly. She silently moved up to the large metal gate and jumped more than 5m straight up without the use of any kind of tool. Once her back just barely moved past the gate, she flipped around in midair and silently landed on her feet.
She was in.
Once on the mansion grounds, she could ignore the tool-detecting security. While avoiding an obvious pitfall, she grabbed a new acorn from a nearby tree and scratched out the necessary symbols with her fingernail.
Then she stuck it into her ear.
“O-oh, nooooo! Sister Lucia, how bold of you to bend yourself up into a bridge like that in the nude!”
“Stop judging a nonexistent performance. I’m not saving the world with gymnastics right now!! I assume you’re still up on that roof, so can you see any danger around here!?”
“No more jokes about me being naked! Take this seriously!!!!!!”
A bush split apart.
She quickly jumped behind a tree just before some sharp projectiles shot out. With more than 50 syringes flying horizontally her way, it was more of a barrage meant to cover a wide area than a pinpoint strike. They were packed too close together to dodge, so she did not even want to imagine what she would have been injected with if not for the tree to use as cover.
She saw a stumpy shape moving in the darkness.
It was larger than her while she crouched down and it looked like a hedgehog without its spines.
(An unmanned trap. Are some of them autonomously wandering around like that!?)
But if she focused too much on that, she might get trapped in a stationary magic circle. She clenched her teeth in frustration, but then her friends’ helpful voices reached her.
“So do you think that was an aphrodisiac?”
“W-wouldn’t a paralyzing drug be worse?”
“Ah ha ha. Oh, Sister Angelene. You have a sick imagination!”
“Ehh? You’re the one that brought up sketchy drugs.”
“You two are paying for this later,” muttered Lucia.
She had no weapons and not even any clothing. Whether she wanted to search or attack, there was only so much magic she could use with only the movements of her hands.
She threw a stick to the side as a diversion and rushed out from behind the tree while the hedgehog fired its limited remaining shots in that direction. She kept her eyes open for magic circles while giving the now spineless hedgehog a wide berth.
When she looked closer, she could tell the darkness was littered with threats.
A turtle carrying a bear trap on its back was crawling at her feet and bats with nooses for heads were hanging upside down from the tree branches. She decided it was best to keep a healthy distance from the roses that had barbed wire for vines. These combinations of plants and animals with trapping, torture, and execution tools probably had some logic and efficiency to it, but she felt like she could glimpse Brax Mizhine’s own cruelty in them.
She reached the back door.
Touching the keyhole would apparently get your torso bisected by pressurized water, so she destroyed the hinges and removed the impact-resistant door to get inside.
She rushed toward her top priority target, grabbed it in both hands, pressed her face into it, and rubbed her forehead on it.
“Yes!! A bedsheeeeeet!”
“Tch. She just boosted her defenses. That’s no fun.”
“S-Sister Agnese,” said Angelene. “Your standards have dropped significantly if you think walking around in only a sheet is a solid defense!”
Naked time was over.
Her skills were not on the level of the Amakusas, but she could construct a basic spiritual item with a combination of everyday household items. She went for the ceiling fan slowly rotating on the guest room’s ceiling.
Her usual spiritual item was based on the wooden wheel in the legend of St. Catherine. The wheel, rotation, and cross symbolism were all useful to her.
She pressed a hand to her ear.
“I have secured a basic weapon. So where in his home should I search?”
“I was afraid of that, goddammit!”
Too much clothing could also be a problem. When the sheet filled with air and inflated, it threatened to slip down. This may have been why bath towels were only made so large.
There were of course traps inside the unlit house as well, so every step she took was risky.
She had to keep her eyes peeled for anything on the floor, walls, or ceiling. She checked the good hiding spots for a person out of her usual habits, but mobile traps could approach her from pretty much anywhere – even from the ducts or the fireplace. Not to mention that the doors and chandeliers could be traps themselves.
The mansion was large enough to mistake for a university building.
It doubled as an office and a home, but if she searched at random, she could step on a trap at any moment. And all of this was wasted effort of she ended up in combat. All she wanted was a hint related to Tu, so she wished she knew exactly where to look to find that.
“Sister Agnese,” she said. “Check our information. Did Brax Mizhine use any fake names while staying at hotels?”
“Sometimes yes and sometimes no. He probably hid his real name when working on magic-related jobs.”
“Then how did he travel for the jobs when he used a fake name?”
“He avoided using his own vehicle or public transportation. He would take a taxi past his destination and then slowly walk back to it on foot, stopping at a few stores along the way. He may have hoped that would mask what his true destination was.”
(The roundabout method.)
Lucia sighed and lifted up the ceiling fan.
“Then I need to check the kitchen, not the study.”
“U-um, why???” asked Angelene.
“The ways people defend their secrets fall into a few different categories. Some keep their secrets at a distance, some prefer to keep their secrets on them at all times, some go for the ‘hiding in plain sight’ method, and some send it to the bottom of the ocean where no one will ever get close. Brax Mizhine would have wanted to sever any connection between himself and his secrets, so he wouldn’t keep it in his bedroom or office. But if it was completely out of sight, he was afraid someone might dig it up, so he wanted it close enough that he could check on it.”
“I-I see. And that means the kitchen?”
“A mansion of this size will have a gardener, a cook, other housekeepers, and maybe a plumber for the fountain. Outsiders would be coming and going fairly regularly, so he had it set up so any problematic documents could be pinned on the people he had hired if word got out. So it would be best to hide them in a room the master of the house would never visit. Or that’s what he probably believed anyway.”
“W-wow. You’re just like a porn hunter mom checking under her son’s bed while he’s out!”
Lucia looked up at the moon through the window. Something was wrong with those two. It was not a full moon, but this night seemed to be messing with their heads somehow.
She even focused on the intensity of the light and the weight of the air as she kept an eye out for traps on her way down the dark hallway.
She had decided on the kitchen as her first target, but she needed to have a Plan B ready. If she did not find anything there, the garage or boiler room might be good options.
She slowly opened the kitchen door.
It was as large as a restaurant kitchen and it had plenty of doors and drawers thanks to the cabinets, cupboards, refrigerator, oven, microwave, dishwasher, and more. She never knew when something would leap out at her.
She also had no idea what exactly she was searching for.
Any hint leading to Tu’s identity would work, so she had to consider the possibility of flash memory smaller than a kernel of corn or a magical charm pasted to the underside of a drawer.
The microwave and dishwasher seemed like likely possibilities, but she chose the refrigerator first.
“I’m the one out here working, so I should be the one getting information from you. But anyway, a fridge has more devices installed inside it than you would think, but it also has a lot of gaps. Plus, the insulation and the vibrations and magnetism caused by the large motor will mask it from a lot of searches.”
Of course, that would also make it a poor spot to hide a medium vulnerable to magnetism, but it was still worth checking. She stood in front of the red refrigerator that had two doors and a drawer. She cautiously grabbed the handles on the device taller than she was and pulled them toward her.
She fell silent, so Agnese called out to her.
Nevertheless, Lucia remained silent in front of the refrigerator.
The truth she had seen in the refrigerator’s lights remained real. There was no denying it, but she still wished those bright LED lights would go out.
She was hesitant to inhale, but she spoke all the same.
“…I found something.”
“What did you find, Sister Lucia? We can’t see what you’re seeing!!”
It was in the fridge, so it was of course nice and chilled.
The way it was so neatly stored showed this had been done by a tidy and orderly person.
There had to be about 60 liters in all.
An entire person’s worth of human flesh was chopped up and stored inside the fridge.
The guild leader known as Tu had gone around Europe stealing from museums.
But the thefts had stopped for a period.
During that period, a bloodline investigator named Brax Mizhine had gone missing.
Had Tu been involved in that? They had hoped to find some information by sneaking into his mansion that doubled as an office.
And this was the result.
The arms had been severed at the shoulders, elbows, and wrists and the legs at the thighs, knees, and ankles and then it had all been sealed in plastic wrap. The torso did not remain as a single part. Instead, each of the organs had been separated into plastic storage containers. The head had been chopped up as well. The parts of the face like the eyes, nose, ears, lips, and tongue had been neatly separated, but so had the scalp, the skin of the face, and the skull. The brain had been sliced into eight pieces with each one stored separately.
Even if they had been stored in the fridge, it was odd for them to remain unchanged. There was no clouding in the eyeballs, so it was like seeing one of those disturbing videos where a chemical-filled burger or convenience store bento was filmed for a long period of time without any bugs getting near it.
Lucia returned the small container holding both eyeballs to the fridge.
“I only the portrait hanging on the mansion’s wall to go off of, but this is probably him. Assuming that painting and any photos weren’t faked too, this is Brax Mizhine.”
“Yes, Sister Agnese. This was not a natural death and it does not look like the result of failing some kind of spontaneous ceremony. This was a gruesome murder. We should assume it was a sort of execution.”
“A-are you saying Tu did it?”
Angelene’s voice was trembling.
There were countless reasons for people to kill each other, but they could look back at Tu’s actions for this one.
Tu had attacked museums around Europe and stolen valuable items. They had stopped the thefts for a period, but then they had started up again.
Blood Investigator Brax Mizhine had gone missing during that gap.
They now knew he had been killed and dismembered.
Leaving the body behind may have been meant as a message to someone. And his family and the mansion’s workers may have stopped showing up because they had seen it and went into hiding.
“Tu was satisfied he had achieved his goal, so he stopped stealing. Or he thought he had. But after murdering Brax, he started stealing again.”
“We had already predicted he found out he didn’t have what he wanted, right?”
“Yes, whatever he had stolen was a fake and had no effect. Brax was a bloodline investigator, so he was an expert at looking through old records. Could he have screwed up an appraisal?”
That did not seem like enough of a reason to kill.
It was Tu who had stolen the fake from the museum, not Brax.
(If I’m right about this, then Tu may have killed him to silence him. But in that case, they wouldn’t have killed him in such a complicated fashion. They would have done it secretly in the ocean or mountains or made it look like an accident or illness.)
Why would he have been executed for getting it wrong?
Brax Mizhine was hiding something in the kitchen. After some more searching, Lucia found a sealed envelope of paper documents attached inside the small elevator shaft for kitchen carts.
It was a secret list of purchases.
The list included stone and wood from an old home, old wine bottles, parchment, ink, paint, and adhesives like beeswax and animal glue. The age of the items appeared to be important. They were categorized by era and region.
“What is that about?”
“He was probably gathering counterfeiting materials. To fake the will of an English noble from the year 1000, you need paper and ink from the year 1000. Paper and ink from France or China in the year 1000 won’t do. Nor will paper and ink from England in the year 1500,” explained Lucia while flicking at the bundle of documents. “A bloodline investigator reveals secret histories and bloodlines that ordinary people can’t research, but the people who hired him would want their beliefs to be confirmed. He was basically changing his answer to give the client what they wanted. The truth was irrelevant because the client would have no way of finding out it wasn’t true, so he would figure out what they wanted to hear and – true or not – give them that answer. Because when he put a beaming smile on his client’s face, it would come with a hefty tip.”
That was not limited to investigators like him. Quack doctors did the same. Honestly confronting a patient who was faking their illness would only lead to an argument, so they would give them some medicine and tell them to see how that worked. If that medicine was actually a harmless vitamin pill, they could be peaceably rid of an irritating patient who was trying to pass off their laziness as a health condition. And thanks to the convenient placebo effect, that meaningless vitamin pill might even trick them into improving.
“He must have appraised whatever Tu had stolen and given it the stamp of authenticity, which Tu must have been delighted to hear.” Lucia sighed as she approached the conclusion. “But that appraisal was a complete lie told to earn some money, so Tu only learned it was a fake when they began their big ceremony where failure was not an option. But it did fail and that harmed Tu in some way, so they came back to angrily confront Brax. And, well, we’ve seen how that turned out.”
“Is that why there was a gap in the seven thefts?”
“Brax must have seen it as no more than his usual lip service, but that lie was worthy of death to Tu who was risking their life on this.”
In some cases, information could pull a deadly trigger.
For example, if a doctor had told a patient what disease they had a little sooner, they could have prevented the unwanted spread of that information from locking them out of buying a certain company’s stock.
Tu had lost everything and been forced to go underground due to the usual pleasantries that the eloquent man had seen as no more than business as usual.
And if Tu had returned to this mansion to execute the man for it, they may have also retrieved and destroyed any hints leading back to them.
Yet they had not found the documents Lucia currently held. It seemed unlikely they would have intentionally left them behind. They had failed to clean up thoroughly enough, which was unsurprising in a mansion so full of traps.
She skimmed through the documents.
The purchase list for counterfeiting materials was divided out by era. Going from top to bottom would not lead her to the most recent job. She narrowed her eyes and then grabbed a magnifying glass lying nearby. She approached the window and gathered the moonlight with the lens.
“St. Catherine is a symbol of knowledge. She outtalk any and all scholars. Her wisdom shall show the way.”
It was like a laser pointer highlighting the important text on a whiteboard.
The spell ensured that the viewer was not led astray by the vast amount of information and that the answer they wanted was revealed to them. The effect of the spell differed based on the amount of knowledge the spell user had.
She had the answer.
“This appears to have been his last job.”
“The Sickle of Saturn. Run a search of Roman mythology as quickly as you can! If we can’t track this down, we never will find Tu!!”
“The Sickle of Saturn?” groaned Stiyl Magnus in a distant location.
In Greek mythology, that would be the Sickle of Adamant.
Necromancer Isabella Theism clapped her hands in front of her face while smiling.
“Oh, so Tu was Saturn!!”
As similar as they might sound, the names Saturn and Satan had nothing to do with each other. The Roman worshipers may have resented any similarity as the spread of Christianity had them viewed as demon worshipers themselves.
That solved the mystery of the destroyed statue.
“Saturn is equivalent to Cronus in Greek mythology, right?” Isabella sounded excited. “Yes, Cronus the usurper god who staged a successful coup by cutting off chief god Uranus’s you-know-what with his sickle. Kyah☆ Of course, Cronus then had the chief god position taken from him by Zeus.”
The Sickle of Saturn.
A spiritual item that could bring down a god and usurp the ruling throne.
Of course, this was the same as the grimoire author Hermes Trismegistus. It was not actually made by a god and was simply a spiritual item that borrowed the name.
But that was not what mattered here.
Stiyl bit down on his cigarette’s filter as he spoke.
“I’ve seen the Sickle of Saturn and its owner. I thought I had burned even their bones to ashes.”
“Yes, the enemy’s ceremony failed there, didn’t it?”
Isabella casually referenced that intense battle from the past.
Anyone who worked for Necessarius would have no shortage of ridiculous stories that were so full of secrets they could not tell them at the pub.
“So did Bloodline Investigator Brax Mizhine’s unwanted lip service cause Tu’s ceremony to fail, nearly getting Tu killed by a witch hunting squad, so he angrily returned and executed Brax?”
Stiyl put out his cigarette on his portable ashtray and put a new one in his mouth.
“If so, what do you think is happening this time?”
“First, we need to go over what the Sickle of Saturn is. By stabbing that spiritual item into the ground, it takes over the local ley lines and remakes that area into the user’s territory. It’s similar to the Croce di Pietro that Catholicizes any land it is stabbed into, but this one is worse. That sickle can provide a ‘foundation’ to any land, cut it away from the surrounding land, and grants its user near-godlike authority there.”
“It’s basically a largescale field constructor that uses the ley lines running through the planet. And it’s powerful enough to wear down any unauthorized intruders’ souls to the point of death.”
The effect was simple enough, but there was no greater reign of terror.
This would search out and eliminate any defiance in that territory more efficiently than nanoweapons that selected people to kill based on race or skeletal structure. Auto-searching weapons was a new form of fear. Slaughtering all who did not convert was a very Roman mythology way to rule. And since this used the ley lines running through the planet, the sickle’s location could cause the field to cover more than just a single town.
The guild believed it was Christianity’s time to go, so they would destroy it.
“They failed last time.” Isabella’s relaxed words were like a sickening incense that artificially created the scent of death. “Their plan was to stab that sickle into the Vatican, the very center of the Roman Catholic Church, so they could steal away the vast land where their 2 billion believers live, but it ended in failure. Thanks to your efforts, Stiyl.”
“A lot of good those efforts did in the long run.” Stiyl Magnus audibly crushed the new cigarette’s filter between his teeth. “I thought it was odd even after I submitted my report. He slipped from our grasp, so we shouldn’t have been able to stop it. But now it makes sense. His spiritual item just so happened to be a fake.”
“And that’s why Tu was stopped by a last-second reversal that never should have happened. So many of his reliable subordinates were burned before his eyes and he was forced to go into hiding, but now he’s climbed back onto the main stage of magic. As if to say he no longer needs to hide his plans because he has long since been ready to go.”
“Doesn’t it seem likely he has the real one this time?”
Stiyl fell silent.
The enemy had been faster this time. And since they had not directly tracked him down, they could not immediately stop him.
Stiyl had known the answer from the beginning, so now he spat out the name of a man he thought he had killed.
A sharp blade swung down in the center of the Vatican.
His heart had literally stopped.
“Keep quiet, please.”
Something was wrong with his vision.
Stiyl Magnus could tell he was lying on his back somewhere, yet his body was swaying even more unsteadily than in a hammock.
The tall priest tried to get up, but he found he could not even move his fingertips.
Magicians wielded miracles by refining magic power out of their own lifeforce, so failing to understand the state of his own body was a critical failure for one.
Someone was peering down at him.
It was the silver-haired brown-skinned necromancer named Isabella Theism.
“Don’t try to move for a bit. For now, just breathe in and out. I apologize for the corpsy smell, but you should really just rest your head in my lap until your breathing rhythm is back to normal. Think of it as a special service from me☆”
“What happened, Isabella?”
The young woman sighed.
Her breath carried a forbidden scent that was sweet as could be but mixed with a faint odor of death.
“Your heart stopped for about 180 seconds.” Her blunt words tore into him. “Or to be more accurate, I had to stop it with the lime poison. If I hadn’t made you seem dead, you never would have escaped the real death sent out by Tu – by Albert Dying.”
“Don’t bother asking any stupid questions about how I’m fine after being hit by that. I’ve gathered all techniques related to death and the Greek and Roman mythologies are no exception. I was already madly in love with death that smells of pomegranate, so there was no need for me to convert. Of course, I love death that smells of lime, corn, and grapes just as much. My body carries far too much desire to remain faithful to just the one.”
The Sickle of Saturn.
Stab that spiritual item into the ground and it would establish a powerful field that claimed that land and physically eliminated the souls of any who disobeyed.
“There were a total of 7 museum thefts,” whispered Isabella. “We were focused on the point where they temporarily stopped, but maybe we should have paid more attention to the fact that they had ended for good with the 7th one. Because Tu had achieved his goal and no longer had to steal anything.”
“You mean he used it?”
“How far did it spread? How much of the world did Albert cut away with that one strike!?”
“Have you already forgotten where you were just before this happened?”
Isabella reached her arms around her unmoving colleague and gently lifted him into a sitting position.
They were inside a neon colored rubber boat.
Something was shining across the deep, dark sea. The light came from the horizon, but it was far from dawn and that was not the east anyway.
The entire horizon was glowing for some other reason.
So what was in that direction?
Stiyl Magnus was so stunned he forgot all about his cigarettes.
He finally remembered.
He had not returned to England. He had instead gone to Italy to search its plentiful ruins and art for any old documents, sculptures, or other material related to the Guild that Agnese’s group had discovered.
He had been caught in the attack there.
That meant the Sickle of Saturn’s effective range had spread well past a single city or region.
What exactly was happening?
He knew the answer now.
“The entire Italian Peninsula.”
“It appears to include the island of Sicily as well, so I think it must be all of Italy, including its more remote islands. We were lucky it didn’t include the ocean in between, to be honest. For now, anyway.”
The magician who had viewed more death than anyone was the same as ever even now.
“It seems the massive field only triggers its ‘deadly rejection’ if you give a clear ‘no’ when asked to convert to Roman mythology, so you’re allowed to put off answering or say you’re still thinking about it. So unless the Vatican’s VIPs decide to be unnecessarily defiant, we shouldn’t have a mass slaughter on our hands. But again…for now.”
“The bible is a well-defined book, but one look at history shows the current interpretation of it has changed several times at the ecumenical councils. And always in a way that benefits the contemporary royalty and nobility, curiously enough. The Vatican is the headquarters of a massive religion, but they do know how to make political compromises.”
Twice now, she had said “for now”.
That meant the situation could still be worse.
How much did you have to give up on to reach that point?
“The next step is to move back in time. When the Sickle is stabbed into Rome, the extent of its control differs depending on the era. If Tu alters the settings to redefine his territory as that of the Roman Empire at its peak, he will control all of Northern Africa and Eastern European nations like Romania.”
Stiyl realized what it meant for Albert Dying to control what Rome had at its peak, but he let the death expert say it.
“And if you look to the west, Tu’s territory of ruin and subjugation will reach France, Germany, and of course England.”
Every cloud has a silver lining.
Whoever invented that idiom had to either be the quintessential loser who would keep smiling no matter what was taken from them, or the ultimate sore loser who never gave up searching for a way to make a comeback no matter what hardship they faced.
At any rate, Agnese, Lucia, and Angelene were spared the worst of it. They had escaped the direct effects after returning to England for the investigating they were forced to do themselves.
“All of Europe’s ley lines have been contaminated.”
They were inside an inconspicuous London church.
They were not using official equipment provided by England. All the members of the Agnese Force had gathered silver candlesticks, stained glass, a pipe organ, and more so they could secretly connect to the Anglican equipment and magical symbols found around the city. By linking those together, they had created an observation post for themselves. It was similar to creating an access point to a government agency’s computers.
The pipe organ did the opposite of a normal one.
Instead of playing the notes written on the sheet music, pressing the keys caused information to appear on the blank sheet music.
Sister Agata, another girl in a Roman Catholic nun’s habit, was close to screaming.
“The unnatural tremor of plate movement has been detected centered on Mount Vesuvius and Mount Etna. It’s irregular but continuous. I can only imagine the plates are moving the opposite of normal!!”
“Like time is reversing?”
The Sickle of Saturn’s effective range was being reset to the peak of the Roman Empire. She had assumed that meant altering a setting within the spiritual item, but was that not it? Was Guild Leader Tu trying to redefine his region of control to the Pax Romana at the beginning of the CE era by altering the position of the crust that determined the flow of ley lines?
“Can he do that?” asked pale-faced Angelene. “I mean, the most he can control is Europe, not the entire planet, right!? If he does force the plates to move backwards, the distortion will concentrate at some point somewhere. That won’t just return the geography to what it was 2000 years ago. It will cause the land to rise up or fall away all over the place and cause tons of uncontrollable earthquakes! I bet it would also change the flow of water veins and crude oil. Those are a matter of life or death. It could even lead to an international war!!”
“I doubt he cares,” replied Agnese with her voice low. She was scared too, but she knew how to convert her fear into the strength needed to challenge it. “Tu’s only goal is the destruction of Christian society since its time has come. He wins if he can spread Roman mythology across western Europe, northern Africa, and parts of eastern Europe, but it isn’t a problem for him if an unexpected cataclysm destroys Christian society as a whole instead. He doesn’t care how it happens.”
What would change if the current world was destroyed?
The power structure put in place would not last long.
But Tu was not considering those realistic problems. The destruction was all he wanted. What came next was none of his concern.
He was almost too perfect an incarnation of destruction. He silently hid out of sight, carefully prepared his plan, and then brought about absolute tragedy. And even if his entire plan was brought down by a duplicitous bloodline investigator, he could feign calm long enough to recover and get back on track. It was all so perfect he felt like a machine designed for that one end. It was so calculated he barely seemed human.
They did not know what had become of the Vatican. Italy had been swallowed up right away, but they had no idea how well the treacherous Alps would act as a breakwater. France and Germany were at risk.
Agnese sighed softly.
“I don’t have a secret weapon for you.”
“I’m not hoping for a risky one-shot comeback. I want to know the harsh but accurate numbers. If things continue as is, how long do we have?”
“Do you want the optimistic estimate or the pessimistic one?”
“Again, now isn’t the time for groundless hope.”
“In the worst case, around 5 hours. We won’t even be able to see the dawn.”
Angelene looked like her heart had stopped, but Agnese was different.
This was better than an “I don’t know”.
Having a solid grasp of the desperate situation was the same as a ticket toward facing it.
“What do we do, Sister Agnese?” asked Lucia.
If they sat around and waited, the Sickle of Saturn’s field of control would probably cross the Strait of Dover and engulf the UK. And even if it did not, the unnatural movement of the crust would grow too great and a cataclysm would strike a large part of the planet.
“We are indebted to this country.”
“I am worried about our home country of Italy, but we can’t ignore our debt and fight for ourselves.”
“The question is whether they will trust us.”
Lucia kept her eyes dead ahead. She only glanced over toward the stained glass on the wall for a brief moment.
The complexly cut glass reflected the church’s entrance.
And the dark figure visible there.
“The Anglican Church, I mean. And Necessarius in particular.”
This was not someone who had transferred in like Agnese Sanctis or Kanzaki Kaori. They were probably an elite magician who had been recruited from the Anglican Church.
They had assumed someone like that was around.
Outsiders would always be outsiders, so the transfers like the Amakusas and the former Catholics would always be tailed by their “keepers” to secretly monitor everything they did.
But it became a lot more obvious when those people allowed themselves to be seen.
(A censer and a cross.)
Agnese took this as a warning. And from a nuclear state no less.
(Pretty standard for an area-of-effect attack, but not very flexible. They must usually be “dropped in” to wipe out a cabal on their own.)
“They probably fear we’ll use this moment of weakness to make an attack on the UK from within.” Lucia chose her words carefully. “They don’t think a group of around 200 can take out one of the major denominations, but they fear we could cause unnecessary losses.”
People could only believe their own eyes at times like this. No matter how much Agnese’s group insisted they wanted to fight for the UK, their supervisor would never listen. They saw very different things from their positions here.
(God must be weeping right about now.)
Agnese nearly looked up toward heaven, but she had to deal with this problem down in the real world.
The Anglican supervisor was telling them to stay put and watch, but that was useless if the world was destroyed in the meantime.
They did not carry a specific hatred of the former Agnese Force.
All the outsiders would be treated this way.
That meant they would be monitoring and wordlessly warning Orsola Aquinas in the same way even though she was harmless as could be. Talk about a waste of time. Orsola of all people would never pick up on a hinted warning like this. The fall of Christian society was spreading from a point in Europe to the entire world, but she was probably fast asleep in bed with a nightcap on her head. If the Anglicans had instead gathered those forces, they might have been able to sneak into Italy or the Vatican that the Sickle of Saturn was making so deadly.
What were they doing?
The Anglican higher ups were clearly in disarray if they had decided it was necessary to remind the outsiders of these misguided doubts.
Without some confusion at play, only someone who actually wanted to see the world destroyed would have given the go ahead on such a ridiculous plan. Besides, it was Agnese’s group that had pursued Tu all this time. It would be faster and safer for them to continue their mission than to have the elites work through all the documents to obtain the necessary information.
It was stupid.
Agnese began to wonder if this country was really worth protecting.
She raised her voice to cut off her endless thoughts.
She had worried over it and walked past this option, but then she had stopped and looked back.
That showed she did care. It showed she would feel sad if this country were lost.
“I’ll admit it!! London is a cluttered mess of old and new, but I enjoyed eating some bread in a park while listening to someone playing the guitar! I don’t care if it’s only for personal reasons and isn’t strategically or logically worth it! I don’t care about the Guild or Tu, but I’m not letting some bizarre ideology destroy all this!!”
“That settles it then.”
“I-I’ll accept the punishment with you. Even if I’m scared.”
Lucia smiled and Angelene gave a snort while clenching her fists.
It was time for more delightful service to the church.
Agnese Sanctis focused on the dark figure standing at the church’s entrance.
They would have to physically remove that obstinate Anglican from their path if they were going to repay their debt by saving the world real quick.
That said, they were talking about a Necessarius elite.
That Anglican magician had thoroughly trained himself to crush cabals on his own. The area-of-effect attacks using his censer and cross actually worked better against multiple targets. Enough so that the targets might end up fighting each other for access to the sliver of safety that remained. The former Agnese Force’s strength was in their coordination, but that would not work here.
Unlike transfers like Agnese, this pure Anglican would be a world expert in anti-magician combat. Knowing what you were fighting for would not be enough to overcome the absolute difference in their power rankings.
But Agnese’s group was not trying to take the top of the rankings.
They would win as long as they safely escaped the church and returned to working on the Tu case.
“Kyahhh!! S-someone! Someone please! It’s London’s infamous Panty Hunter, a threat to all laundry baskets full of women’s underwear!!”
The dark figure gave a start, but it was too late.
The Anglicans’ first mistake was sending a man to monitor the private lives of a group of girls. They had already removed the field that eliminated all presences and noises within the church, so Agnese’s scream rang across the neighborhood.
Fall to your doom, elite magician.
“Miss, has something happened?”
This area had a high concentration of English gentlemen.
Even in the middle of the night, they were willing to come to someone’s aid. Agnese had expected mops and golf clubs, but the local men instead emerged with shotguns for clay pigeon shooting.
“No, wait, I was only-!!”
The dark figure tried to say something, but then he stopped.
He could not come out and say he was an agent from a secret organization because he was dutybound to preserve that organization’s secrecy.
He was a magician through and through.
But that meant it was not just a side job for him. He had no identity outside of the magic world.
That was when Angelene nonchalantly sent a winged gold coin bag flying in just off the ground. She used that to send a balled-up piece of fabric inside the dark figure’s cloak.
“This guy’s hiding something!”
“Sir, doing this to nuns is simply beyond the pale!”
This was looking a lot like a porn video that began with a false charge of pickpocketing. Agnese stuck out her tongue so he could see and then ran toward the church’s back entrance.
Angelene kept looking back as she followed.
“Oh…oh, wow. Should we really have done that!?”
“You’re the one that shoved that solid evidence into his pocket, Sister Angelene. It’s too late to feel guilty now.”
God had to be sulking at this point.
Even at the back entrance, they could still hear the commotion out front.
“Kick his ass!! We can teach this gloomy bastard a lesson before we hand him over to the cops!!”
“Hmm, but I didn’t realize nuns these days wore this skimpy black stuff. Now there’s an exciting discovery.”
Lucia froze when she heard that.
“S-Sister Angelene? Wh-whose underwear did you stuff in that stranger’s pocket to frame him???”
“I honestly don’t know, Miss Black Lace with Yellow Ribbon.”
“Ahhhh, that was my favorite pair too!! But now it’s been contaminated and I can never wear it again!!!!!!”
Lucia sobbed with her hands over her blushing face.
This was not over now that they had escaped the monitored church.
They were in the English capital of London. According to Sister Agata, they only had 5 hours until the UK was swallowed up by a “submit or die” field, or the magic failed and triggered a global cataclysm. Either way, they needed to procure a vehicle capable of getting them to Italy.
Agnese’s thoughts were on something else as they ran through the London night.
It was late, but the city was not silent. She could hear the young voices of college students, a mother singing a lullaby for her crying baby, an ambulance’s siren, and some road construction.
The city was alive.
The breathing of London’s people reached her to let her know she was not alone.
She would not let this be destroyed.
She clenched her teeth and focused on that thought. She might be an outsider and they might give her nothing but odd jobs, but this was something only she and her fellow nuns could do.
A rhythmic beating of the air reached Agnese’s eardrums. The main wings were too thick and the two propellers too large to be an airplane. The wings also had joints that let them rotate a full 90 degrees at the base.
They were aboard a tiltrotor designed as a transport craft.
When she heard the din this thing made, she realized just how wonderful a design birds and dragonflies had.
“Who does this toy belong to again? The air force?”
“I think it’s meant to send in more navy personnel. Although these days they don’t often have naval battles deadly enough to require sending more sailors to a rundown ship.”
Lucia gave a serious answer even now.
The UK was an island nation and a major power, so they were of course traditionally known for their powerful navy. They were the ones that defeated Spain’s “Invincible Armada” at a pivotal point in history and took control of the Age of Discovery, so you could even say it was a source of national pride.
So it was one of history’s ironies that the invention of the airplane, which led to the shift from the Age of Sea to the Age of Air, had been the work of America after declaring independence from the UK.
Their time limit was 5 hours, so they did not have many options for reaching Italy and the Vatican from England. There were a few magical means of flight, but magical flight was easily prevented by other magical means. It was best to rely on ordinary technology.
The UK was the first country to develop and deploy practical VTOL aircraft.
“I can’t seem to relax,” said Agnese in partial exasperation.
She was not talking about the noise from the tiltrotor’s propellers.
Just because they were staying with the Anglicans did not mean they had unlimited access to England’s resources. Plus, they were currently on the run after escaping Anglican surveillance. Sending out an aircraft required a cumbersome process with several layers of authorization and they were taking things a step further by sending a military aircraft (a transport craft, but still) to another country.
They could never have received authorization.
Yet there Agnese, Lucia, and Angelene were inside the tiltrotor.
Angelene was pale and trembling.
“The higher ups must be really panicked and unsure what to do to overlook all that confusion we caused. Ugh…d-does that mean Tu really will destroy the world if we don’t do something!?”
“At least there’s some confusion. That means there’s a conflict between a group that wants to fight and one that wants to run away. If they had unanimously decided to abandon the UK and escape to some tropical island, we wouldn’t be seeing any panic at all.”
They had used some hastily-forged handwritten documents and just a bit of magical suggestion.
Their request had been readily accepted, so they were allowed into the airfield surrounded by a tall fence and allowed to borrow the tiltrotor along with a pilot. Even they were shocked by how smoothly it had gone. That proved the chain of command was in such disarray that the proper checks could not be performed.
(The UK is known for having more magical cabals than any other country, so I hope none of them use this chance to forge a document giving them access to the British Museum.)
Regardless, they had to stop the Guild led by Tu.
According to the report from Stiyl Magnus and Isabella Theism who had been damaged by it, the Sickle of Saturn’s “submit or die” field had swallowed up the entire Italian Peninsula. For now, its influence had not left the country, so they could avoid the field by staying in the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean was a narrow inland sea and a lot of European and African countries bordered it. A map of the territorial waters and EEZ had to be fairly complex, but the Royal Navy aircraft calmly flew through the late night sea breeze without receiving permission from the other nuclear state they flew across.
All of the land they passed was glowing gold, so the boundary between land and sea was clear as could be.
If they had not known better, they might have thought all of Europe was celebrating some kind of festival.
“It’s come this far?” groaned Lucia. “It isn’t limited to Italy anymore.”
The change had started in Italy, crossed the Alps, and was now working its way into France. They could not tell what was happening beyond the horizon, but it was probably happening to Germany as well. Were the current borders being rewritten, or was this based on some older map?
But they knew one thing for sure.
They had no time.
Once this crossed the Strait of Dover, it would reach England.
“I can see it,” said Agnese as she looked out the round window.
The contrast was more obvious for a country bordering the ocean.
It was so very gold.
The entire boot-shaped Italian Peninsula was engulfed in a pale gold light. The borders with the ocean were plain to see even in the darkness of the night. Calling it mystical would not be wrong. Any who saw it were filled with the same awe as when viewing the religious artwork in a great cathedral. Even though this was a ceremony of doom.
But one point was still enshrouded in darkness.
It looked like a city on the boot’s shin was experiencing a blackout. Just like a sunspot, the darkness stood out more in this case. Any Christian would know the name of that place.
“S-since it isn’t glowing, does that mean the Sickle of Saturn hasn’t managed to take over the Vatican!?”
“Hard to say,” replied Lucia. “The Sickle should have been stabbed into the ground at the Vatican’s center, so whether it worked or not, Tu must be in there already.”
Agnese nodded and gave her own guess.
“Tu made his attack on the Vatican with the Sickle, but it was blocked. Presumably by another magical field. So my guess is he’s instead taking over the rest of Italy to apply enough pressure from all sides to forcibly break through the Christian field.”
“Tu is more failing than succeeding. Or at the very least, it hasn’t all gone according to plan for him.”
But that did not mean things were looking good.
The success of his plan would mean the collapse of Christian society and the arrival of an age of Roman mythology. But its failure would mean simultaneous disasters around the world caused by the movement of the earth’s crust, which would still lead to the collapse of the current society.
They could not avoid a fatal blow no matter what happened.
“We still have a chance,” said Agnese. “We are trueborn Christians. We have carried on after the saints who were martyred after refusing to convert to the Roman religion. And unlike the ordinary believers, we have developed our faith into a concrete means of fighting.”
Combat experts were specialized in a different way from the Vatican VIPs. If people like the former Agnese Force entered the Sickle of Saturn’s range, they would be killed. There was no changing that.
“But the Vatican is still putting up a defense.”
“Yes. We can still go there. And conveniently enough, Tu is waiting there for us with the Sickle.”
If they could eliminate Tu and destroy the Sickle, they could stop the expansion of that “submit or die” field and that would protect the UK that had taken them in.
They still had a path leading to success.
The Guild leader might be smirking inside the Vatican, assuming the Christian-supported world would be destroyed whether he succeeded or failed, but he would not be expecting this third option.
They would do the last thing he wanted.
Agnese put on a smile much too violent for a nun, but Angelene was panicking next to her.
“U-u-umm! But how do we do that? As I’m sure you can see, the Vatican is completely surrounded. We’ll enter the Sickle’s field no matter which direction we approach from, so we’ll be killed if we try to approach!”
The Vatican had become the world’s smallest country after making various agreements with Italy in the past. It was officially a fully independent country, but it lacked the geopolitical conditions needed to survive without Italy.
This problem was as impossible as trying to sneak into an embassy or consulate located in England without entering England itself.
And some reports they had received told them they could not escape the field’s effects by flying to their destination without ever touching the ground. They would likely die as soon as they entered the air directly above the field.
“For now, the Sickle’s field only covers contiguous land and nearby islands. It hasn’t actually covered the ocean itself.”
“But the field is trying to expand based on the map. It will ultimately roll back to the peak of the Roman Empire.”
“What does that matter!? A-all I’m hearing is that Tu’s field is perfect and we’ll have an even harder time dealing with it later!”
“Will we, though?” Agnese grinned. It was one of the sadistic smiles she sometimes got when she had been fighting too much. “Sister Angelene, I have already listed his two weaknesses.”
“The ocean and time.”
Every step they took decorated their dark, damp surrounded with unnerving sounds. The still and stagnant air was the polar opposite of soaring through the sky on the tiltrotor.
Angelene was even more tearful than usual.
She was more than just stooped at the moment. Even as short as she was, she had to bend over to avoid hitting her head on the wet ceiling.
“U-ughh. A-are we really going to travel through here?”
“Tu’s barrier only covers the land for now, remember? That’s why we could approach by sea without issue.”
Agnese was using two flashlights, one with an old incandescent bulb and one with new LEDs.
Invisible toxic gas could sometimes appear as a haze when using lights of different wavelengths.
“He’s using a map of ancient Rome’s territory to determine where the field goes, so he isn’t interested in the modern geography. Such as underground. Rome is an old city with apartments and temples from centuries ago, or even more than a millennium ago, but modern plumbing and a subway system have been built by weaving in between the ancient structures. Tu is only looking at the old maps of the surface, so there are plenty of secret labyrinths he isn’t aware of.”
They had approached as far as they could get by sea and had used a drain to enter an underground route leading to the Vatican.
The plan had worked so far since they had been spared any punishment.
The threat of the field meant nothing in locations not found on old maps of ancient Rome.
“Oh, the air seems a lot fresher over there.”
“Do you want to die, Sister Angelene? That collapsed wall leads to a traditional waterway from the ancient Roman era!!”
Of course, they could not let their guard down just because they were underground.
The age of the tunnel changed between levels. This one was made of modern concrete. They removed their equipment from their large bags, set it down on the damp floor, and assembled it.
They prepared a small cart that looked like a toy.
They had no intention of running a late-night marathon all the way to Rome from the coast.
“A resistance force using underground routes is really more of a French and Eastern European thing.”
They had intentionally brought an old model to avoid violating the treaty between science and magic.
After climbing onboard, Agnese fixed her flashlights in place, checked on the steering wheel and pedals, and slowly drove the electric vehicle forward.
“But during the war, Italy was a fascist state that rejected freedom and diversity. There are legends of many Christians crossing the border through a complex array of tunnels in order to reach the Vatican and receive their valuable opinion on matters without the Italian authorities knowing. So in a way, this is a historical and traditional plan.”
“True,” agreed Lucia. “But there is one key difference, Sister Agnese. Unlike the believers back then, the Vatican has not invited us. We are uninvited guests who left the Catholics and sought out the Anglicans instead. Tu might not be our only enemy here.”
“I’m aware of that.”
They had been pursuing Tu all this time and they had just barely missed capturing him, but how would the Roman Catholic Church interpret that? They might suspect the nuns were working with Tu or had intentionally held back to allow more damage to the Catholics.
Or maybe they were using the chaos to sneak into the Vatican to take the heads of the Catholic leaders who had abandoned them.
The truth was, they could probably do exactly that if they wanted to.
Agnese Sanctis focused on her silver staff, the Lotus Wand.
She had trusted that weapon with her life and her faith, but it was a spiritual item for using magic that could take lives.
Vatican City was the world’s smallest independent nation with a population of less than 1000, including visitors.
It was the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, it was geographically located within the Italian capital of Rome, and it was the only entire country registered as a world heritage site.
It had fought over ownership of Rome after a military invasion by Italy, but it had become the current city state in 1929. It lacked a military of its own, but the Pope was traditionally protected by the Swiss Guard. But even if it lacked a military, any country that tried to invade it would be making an enemy of the other world powers.
As a country, you did need a passport to get in, but Agnese’s group ignored that rule.
Agnese stuck her head above ground after sliding a round manhole cover to the side.
The surface was dangerous.
She had not emerged in the wide-open St. Peter’s Square. This was a garden surrounded by tall walls. Needless to say, that open area out in front had strict magical security from the 140 saint statues overlooking the ground, so they had needed to avoid that area.
The nuns were not immediately killed upon arriving on the surface, so the Vatican really was a sunspot. It was the one exception to the Sickle of Saturn’s effects.
That was Agnese’s first thought, now that she had survived.
Of course, a low-level person like her had never actually been summoned to the Vatican during her Catholic days.
This was her first time here, but it still inspired these thoughts in her.
(We’re back. There’s something about this place that makes me feel that way.)
Lucia looked around.
“Where are we?”
Looking straight up showed an unnatural aurora-like light in the sky. That was the collection of protective barriers covering the entire Vatican. They were only so brightly visible because they were working to fight the Sickle of Saturn. Everything outside the tall walls was already a foreign world of gold.
“W-we’re between the Governor’s Palace and the Fount of the Eagle, so…we’re close to St. Peter’s Basilica!”
Angelene was right. Enshrouded in the shadows of the night, the large structure looked so different from the pure white church seen on the tours during the day.
It was covered in thick construction sheets and scaffolding due to the aftermath of Fiamma of the Right’s attack, but it was close to a miracle that the restoration was this far along already. That demonstrated the Roman Catholic Church’s great power. They could remake or add onto “history” as easily as someone pasting a new image in using photo editing software.
But the fear in Angelene’s voice was not just about returning to the home that had abandoned them.
Everything was quiet
Even when the population count was increased a lot by the tourists, Vatican City was not as busy a place as New York or Shanghai. And even less so at night once the ordinary visitors had all left. But even with less than 1000, there were a lot of church officials here and they were currently being attacked by Tu. The place should have been buzzing with activity, so this was strange.
(Did something happen?)
Agnese switched off her flashlights.
There were no lights on in St. Peter’s Basilica or the courthouse.
From now on, light would mean something very different. They were stepping into a world where the shadows kept you safe and switching on your light could get you killed.
The nuns were sneaking in, so they did not want to remain in this open space for long.
But they were afraid to move around blindly, so they crouched down and waited for their eyes to adjust. After ten minutes, they could make out each other’s hand signs without a light, so they took their first step. They walked across the carefully-maintained lawn to reach St. Peter’s Basilica’s wall.
No traps activated and no guards shouted at them.
It all went smoothly. Too smoothly. It felt like they were exploring a deserted ghost ship.
Lucia could not help but question it.
“What is going on?”
“Th-the Vatican is fighting back against the Sickle, aren’t they? Then they’re still holding on for now, right?”
Angelene’s opinion was more wishful thinking than objective fact.
Something was happening.
That much was certain.
The question was whether it was worse than their expectations, better than them, or beyond their wildest imagination. Those were the only three options.
“What should we do?” carefully asked Lucia. “St. Peter’s Basilica might not be what we’re looking for. Vatican City is less than a kilometer across. That’s about the size of an amusement park, so we could search through everything if we had to.”
“B-but this is the Vatican. It’s bound to have tons of secret passageways and vaults. I bet it has as many tricks and secrets as an ancient Egyptian pyramid.”
Angelene had a point.
They had entered the Vatican using a route not found on the official maps, so there were bound to be plenty of other secrets hidden around. The official maps and diagrams would not be enough for a thorough check.
But Agnese shook her head.
“This is indeed the Vatican, but that’s why we can’t take the easy way out and use magic. The multiple barriers might interfere with our magic and they might even be able to track us down using it. With as small a place as the Vatican, they can cover the entire place with high-level security.”
They had to thoroughly search every room while also not being spotted by anyone.
That would normally sound like conflicting priorities, but that was what they needed at the moment.
Since they could not find the priests and nuns who should have been here, even nervous and cowardly Angelene gradually grew bolder as she peered around corner after corner.
With a thorough search, it was best to deal with the more difficult areas up front when they still had strength to spare, so they first went to St. Peter’s Basilica below the wavering aurora in the night sky.
“D-did they all evacuate, maybe?”
“To where? One step outside the city and the deadly field there gets them.”
Agnese held a hand out to the side to stop Angelene and Lucia’s chatter.
A large door stood in front of them.
Agnese Sanctis had always wanted to visit St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican as a whole, so she knew more or less where everything was without having to check a tourist site.
There was a blank spot here.
Specifically, on the pathway connecting St. Peter’s Basilica with the Sistine Chapel. The arrangement of so many stone steps would be perfect for hiding a facility not found on the maps.
Like a monitor room that gathered footage from the security cameras around the city.
She pressed against the wall next to the double doors and focused on her ears.
Through the single thick piece of oak, she could her a quiet clicking sound. That was probably from a computer of some sort, which explained why she could not sense any human presences. Of course, she was still not about to crack open the door and peek inside.
This would be a gamble no matter how they did it.
“(Sister Lucia and Angelene. You two stand back while I go in first. Keep enough distance to avoid the blast if I screw this up.)”
“(What are you talking about? We’re going with you, Sister Agnese.)”
Angelene started to run off to take Agnese up on that offer, but Lucia grabbed her by the collar and refused to leave.
The oak door had small Latin text carved into it, so using magic would probably backfire on them. Christianity had a type of curse known as anathema. That was the power to cut off any rulebreakers from the community. Agnese stuck her silver staff into the crack between the double doors and used leverage to break the lock and kick the door inwards.
It made a lot of noise, but no one turned back their way.
The left and right walls were covered in monitors. Their light illuminated the place like an aquarium tank, revealing several men collapsed on the floor.
Agnese clicked her tongue.
“Not a good sign! Sister Angelene, how much medicine do you have on hand!?”
“Wh-why would I bring more than the three of us would need? We should just borrow the Vatican’s stuff! This is the Catholic headquarters!!”
Angelene snatched a first aid kit and AED bag from the wall by the door and tossed them both to Agnese.
“Ugh,” someone groaned.
When they spoke, it was in a unique dialect of German. Agnese belatedly realized he was a Swiss Guard, not a Vatican priest.
“We aren’t what you want. We’re uninvited guests.”
“But you don’t seem to be with him. And that’s all that matters right now.”
Still on the floor, the man in a suit pointed toward the many monitors.
What had that Swiss Guard seen?
Lucia moved close to the indicated monitors to see what they showed, but that was not what the man meant.
After he whispered something to Agnese, she approached the wall, grabbed the steel rack the monitors were connected to, and pushed it open. Just like a door.
The rectangular opening it revealed contained a stone stairway leading down.
“The rest is in your hands.”
That was all the man got out before his trembling hand dropped to the floor.
Angelene crouched down next to him and then shook her head.
“The circulation of his lifeforce is weak to the point of vanishing. Normal treatment won’t save him.”
“And abnormal treatment?”
“We could use recovery magic, but that would probably give away our position.”
They had come all this way despite the risk so they could stop Tu and the Sickle of Saturn. Their goal was to protect Christian society as a whole and save England from that “submit or die” field as a way of repaying them. They could not get distracted from that.
They had plenty of enemies here.
Tu of the Guild was the main one, but the Catholics of their old home would not welcome them with open arms. Even the Anglicans would be upset with them for disobeying orders. They could be interrupted at any time, so they needed to hide their presence here.
Giving into emotion and acting without thinking might mean failing to stop Tu.
Agnese understood that.
She accepted that fact. But…
“If we have a way to save him, then do it! We’ll accept the risks!!”
Lucia smiled and Angelene groaned with a hand on her forehead.
But once the decision was made, the rest was easy.
Christianity had no shortage of legends about the miraculous healing of injuries and sickness. One of the Twelve Apostles had even used a miracle to temporarily revive a dead body so it could walk around once more.
They brought the dying Swiss Guards back to stable condition.
This was a monitor room.
There was something like tape attached to the edges of the LCD screens, but it all turned red.
“They’ve noticed us,” said Lucia with the look of a mountain climber preparing for a treacherous climb.
“Yes, both the Vatican and Tu,” agreed Agnese.
But she looked refreshed. Now she could focus on just the one problem. If she had chosen to abandon the guards for her own safety, it would have stuck with her and tripped her up when it really mattered.
“It’s a race against time now. We have to take out Tu and destroy the Sickle of Saturn before doom can catch up with us.”
They took the stairs down from the monitor room.
An interminable stone spiral staircase led down and down.
That was bad.
First, it was a single path. If they were attacked, they could not escape to the sides. And the spiraling meant they could not see very far down. Some might think that was better than a straight staircase with a direct line of fire, but that was meaningless with fire or poison gas. Anything that filled the entire space could pass that curve with ease.
That was of course an intentional part of the design.
The first goal of a shelter’s design was to allow the VIPs to escape, but the second goal was to eliminate any approaching enemies. If anyone could approach, then they could reach the door and destroy it by force.
“Nothing’s happening?” asked Lucia while holding her large wooden wheel at the ready.
No attack was a good thing, but it was also disconcerting. It did not feel like Tu and the Catholics were clashing. They were surrounded by an unwanted tranquility, like it was over already. It would have been more of a relief to be met by a hail of bullets as soon as they opened the hidden door in the monitor room.
Eventually, they descended the final step.
They were at the bottom.
Agnese looked around to see a large round metal door just like for a bank vault.
Light was escaping from within, showing it was already open.
She stepped inside.
Whether it was designed to resist explosions or there was some religious meaning, the space within had a hemispherical shape. Even more so than the great hall prepared for the choir. Surprisingly, it had none of the everyday necessities and no diamonds, gold bars, or other assets for use in an emergency.
There was an altar.
There were pews.
There was stained glass on the walls despite being so deep underground and there was a giant cross.
The space was a chapel. And one meant for use in combat. The altar and stoup built into the wall and seat of honor for the lord of the castle were a lot like the chapels used to sanctify swords and such in Medieval European castles.
Although in the Vatican, the seat of honor was intentionally left empty.
Just like with a castle chapel, it was part of a giant building yet the thick columns and such appeared independent to it, but that was because chapels like that were designed to be the opposite of the castle’s great hall.
If the Vatican was a single bivalve containing everything necessary for life, then this chapel was like a small crab inside the shell. It was hidden within the great cathedral and was wholly independent from it, but it remained a sacred mystery in and of itself.
However, its defenses had not been perfect.
The solid defense of the bivalve had been pried open with a knife, exposing the squishy contents.
People littered the floor like fallen leaves.
The old men wore the special red robes denoting them as cardinals.
And in the center was the one man allowed to wear white: the Pope.
The only person still standing noticed the nuns.
The tall figure looked back and spoke to them.
“And here I thought I had cleared the final obstacle. No, I suppose you are not an obstacle standing in my way but the hounds pursuing me from behind. Perhaps it took me too long to break down this final wall.”
He looked like a blond priest in a stereotypical black cassock. He may have even obtained an official position in Vatican City so he could come and go as he pleased while undercover.
But that was no ordinary cassock.
It was more like a stage magician’s handkerchief. When the young man spread his arms wide, the fabric unraveled and became a pure white. The loose white outfit made him look just like one of the marble sculptures that Renaissance artists were so fond of.
It did not matter how much of this was an act and how much of it was just him.
That nameless group had survived for so long by clinging to the winners of each era and throwing stones at the losers. They knew no shame or defeat as they spat on yesterday’s beliefs and sent their old friends to the gallows so soon after enjoying their time together.
They had no set beliefs or principles.
They were reversible, like a Mobius strip. The more you tried to figure out what they were deep down, the further you would be led astray.
The time had come, so they would destroy Christian society.
They had done all this for no more reason than that.
Lucia and Angelene readied their spiritual items and Agnese took a step forward while starting a conversation.
“I have,” agreed Tu in a childish way.
It hardly mattered that it was one-against-three. His lack of attachment and his aimlessness were actually frightening when he had already proven how powerful he was. They could not predict what he would do next.
“I thought it would be over once I attacked the Vatican, but I met some surprising setbacks there. From the beginning, the Anglican interference came as a surprise. I had caused a few decoy incidents to give me time to secretly secure the Sickle and prepare for its use, but the idea was for Catholic special forces to take that bait in order to cover up those internal scandals.”
The Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church, and the Russian Orthodox Church were known as the three major denominations, so they were of course constantly clashing in secret, no matter how peaceful things looked on the surface. But that did not mean they wanted one of their major foes to collapse. Just like when America and the Soviet Union had aimed their nuclear missiles at each other after the war.
Enemies could be useful too.
Organizations had a greater influence then one might think. Whether they wanted to or not.
A moonlike glitter adorned the castle chapel.
It appeared like stage magic in Tu’s dominant hand. The source looked like a perfectly ordinary sickle, except that the blade was not made of metal. It was made of a rougher material fully coated with something like a transparent sand.
In Greek mythology, that was the Sickle of Adamant.
And that word was the source of the word diamond.
“This is over once I kill the ‘core’ creating the Vatican’s barriers. With nothing more to stop me, I can once more make this small country my own.”
“Kill the Pope!?”
Lucia’s eyes bugged out, but Tu was frighteningly gentle.
“Did you want to do that yourself? Sorry, but you will have to settle for a front-row seat.”
It was not over yet.
The cardinals and the Pope were collapsed on the floor, but they were still alive.
Agnese guessed Tu was not sure how to proceed. The Pope’s robes were as special as they came. They were on the same level as the Walking Church worn by that grimoire library. They would not be broken even by a point-blank blast from a high-powered divine punishment cannon.
This was the same as a shelter’s door. No door was impenetrable, but prying it open would require exposing your defenseless back. As long as Agnese’s group continued resisting, Tu could not focus on the work necessary to take the Pope’s life.
Or so they thought.
But the next thing they knew, they heard a series of solid sounds.
The noise was enough for Angelene to gasp.
Metal belts crossed in an X-shape and connected to a disk. They squeezed at the collapsed Pope’s chest and passed through the donut-shaped disk to press a metal stake down toward his heart. Great power slowly but surely built up pressure.
“What did you do, Tu!?” shouted Agnese.
“Violator of the Peace,” whispered Albert Dying.
Was that the name of a spiritual item?
That was originally a term related to the Peace of God, one of the rules of war spread by the Christian Church. Even in the fiercest of fighting, one was never to target women, children, churches, or food supplies. Even a noble or knight who broke that rule would be branded a Violator of the Peace and excommunicated from the church. In Medieval Europe, the church had held near absolute political and social power and wolves had roamed outside the cities, so that had essentially been a death sentence.
Then again, that may not have meant much of anything to followers of Roman mythology who had already been kicked out.
“I prefer not to make people suffer needlessly, but it seems I must pry this open to take his life.” He sounded perfectly casual, like he was explaining how he needed a can opener since this can had no pull tab. “Four doors, three corridors, two bell towers, and – hm – one cross for a total of 10 equilateral triangles. Fascinating. We inherited these number games from the Greeks, so I’m quite good at them. From the look of it, I think I can get this open with an hour’s work.”
Agnese clenched her teeth and told herself not to let despair stop her. She had to count herself lucky the hurdle was within sight. The path to success was right there in front of her. She could still do it. If she refused to give up, this was doable.
“But what can you really do?” Tu knew that, but his tone remained casual. “This is the Roman Catholic Church, after all. Yes, it is the world’s largest church with 2 billion followers, but it costs a fortune to protect an organization of that size. They simply cannot perfectly manage everything that happens around the world. And the only reason anyone has been paying any attention to it of late was Fiamma of the Right’s rampage.”
“He was very obviously a rogue member, but without his efforts, the Catholics could never have remained in the center of the world. The current state of the world is the result of tragedy. The world has lost its core. The current age is ending. A culture that should have ended is stubbornly holding onto its former glory, mucking up the entire system. The only course of action is to hit the reset button. The time has come to destroy Christian culture starting with the Vatican.”
“You’re nothing but a dreamer,” spat Agnese.
Maybe it was wrong to refer to that as an underworld job. It was probably more of a nature or disposition.
But there were people who would list out the pros and cons and then intentionally deceive people with an unobtainable dream.
Yes, deceive not inspire.
“Destroy some great power now and you can liberate the world. Then we can reach the utopia we have all dreamed of.” Agnese confirmed her own stance while speaking as carefully as if she were defusing a bomb. “It’s a stereotypical dream. Every powerful person and revolutionary around the world has worked up the people with some variation on it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But no matter how many enemies they tore down, no perfect civilization was ever born. They all claimed they had the ultimate answer, but from ancient to modern times, they were about as successful in that as people proclaiming they have the perfect educational theory or a foolproof diet. That’s because no such thing exists. Only god is perfect, ultimate, and absolute. No human can see the future, so any who claim to have such a thing are frauds.”
“Maybe so.” Tu, aka Albert Dying, smiled softly. “But imperfect though we are, humanity can only decline if we do not strive for perfection. Even formless dreams have the power to change reality. And only those who know how to wield them carry the power to change the world.”
“If there is anything you want to do, you need only make the attempt. The possibility lies hidden even in you.”
It really was simple.
As simple as a song written for teenagers that you could listen to as often as you liked for a monthly fee.
The voice coming from the speaker was so pleasant and obeying it would provide a set amount of pleasure and exhilaration. It was not a perfect 100, but still a solid 70. It gave no complex answers, but if things did not go its way, it would criticize the questioner after the fact. It took as much as it liked without ever taking responsibility. Yes, these were very much the words of a dreamer. People who wanted to abandon needless effort and enjoy an efficient happiness would dive right into that ocean of words.
Yet the ones who would lose everything were the carefree listeners.
By the time they decided to complain, the dreamer himself would have vanished beyond their reach.
Agnese recalled Sister Monica.
That pitiable puppet had torn off her own face and set herself on fire for the Guild, but Agnese could now see what kind of words had convinced her to do that.
They had been enemies.
They had never reached an understanding.
But they had also been nuns who had once lived together.
(Did you really think I felt nothing after seeing how gruesomely she died, dreamer?)
“Tu. Albert Dying.”
“We have reached the finale. This has already ended. You showed up too late to change anything, but if you do interfere, the responsibility will still fall on you.”
“So you expect me to sit idly by and let this happen?”
“If you do not, you will only be harming yourself and those you care for. Even you must be aware that this world is imperfect. Humanity has not achieved equality. But at the same time, no one is at fault for that.”
“Everyone hopes to bring about an age of peace, but no one has managed it. There are no villains there. There is no single person you can defeat to end it. So we must stir up that stagnation from a position beyond morality. The time has come, so we must act.”
His tongue and throat formed those gentle words so very smoothly. What did those unnaturally kind eyes see in Agnese? Was it some dark part of her that even she refused to admit existed?
“You can be honest.”
When looking at this one moment in isolation, like the online news cherry-picking a single soundbite from a press conference, she could see it.
For a brief moment, everything faded away.
Lucia and Angelene stood immediately on either side of her, but even they seemed to grow distant. Her world was populated only by her own breathing and the dreamer’s words.
“No individual could have arrived at the truth of this, so you too must have companions. Are they friends from your hometown who were thrust down into the depths of hell along with you? Or are they the foreign saviors who took you in knowing the burden it would be?”
She wanted to say he was wrong, but she could not.
That likely meant he had arrived at the truth to an extent.
This was not just about herself. The Catholics had abandoned her and all of the companions she had lived with. The entire organization had lost control thanks to God’s Right Seat, but that was only an excuse.
“What do you even gain by solving this case?” asked Albert Dying with a slight head tilt. It was a genuine question. “Those using you are not even being intentionally malicious, but with each new job, you will be worn down and broken a little more. Do you intend to continue this until you inevitably collapse? I said I am approaching this from a position beyond morality, but that means I think everyone should have an equal opportunity.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You could always find a way to transfer back to the Catholics, but even then, you would still be outsiders. Once great chaos rocks Christianity, everyone will be vying for the positions of power. And when you know a catastrophe is coming, you can make sure you are ready. Yes, you are a weak group, but you can outdo the rest if you make sure you have a head start. Ally yourself with the chaos and you can name the new denomination.”
“You will not be borrowing power from anyone else. You will not be letting others use you while you are in no position to protest. Use the coming struggle for power and you can overthrow all those who would keep you down. You can become your own independent power. But to do that, the time to act is now.”
Sister Lucia feared the Anglicans would get after them for even the slightest mistake, so she was constantly fretting over the second hand on her watch and she never got a moment’s rest.
Sister Angelene feared they might have nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep tomorrow, so she had formed a habit of eating any food she could get her hands on and she had forgotten how to slow down and enjoy her food.
They were all the same.
Agata was and Caterina was. None of these things were entirely new, of course. Lucia had always been a perfectionist and Angelene a glutton. But it had all been twisted and exacerbated by the stresses of their current situation. Whether or not they were aware of it themselves, they could never fully relax. No matter how comfortable their lives were and no matter how many kind people they lived with, they knew it could all be taken away from them at any time for political reasons.
After having exactly that happen to them once, the fear of it happening again was hard to shake. They had belonged to the world’s largest denomination, but that had meant nothing. It had all been taken from them in the blink of an eye.
The church had been in an unusual position then.
They had been at the mercy of God’s Right Seat, so they had simply cast out so many people’s lives.
And if Agnese stood back and let Tu do his thing, he would take revenge for her. She would not even be charged with any kind of crime.
“Surely.” Albert Dying made his final plea as if tearing into her heart. “No one is at fault, but surely you feel powerless as you watch your companions fall. Don’t you hate to see how weak you are? But you can still save them. You can save them and prove you were right all along.”
Maybe he was right. Whatever she might have said, she had her thoughts about the Catholics who had cast her out and even attempted to kill her.
But Tu was no god.
He was only human, so the girl had noticed something off just as he was about to win her over.
“What would the Anglicans gain if we took revenge on our old home? And what about everyone who has found a new home there?”
“What are you- wait, it can’t be.”
“You’re right. I do hate the Catholics for casting us out. They did so much to us, but after Fiamma of the Right fell and World War Three ended, they never bothered to slip in an apology among all the congratulations. I loathe them from the bottom of my heart for that.” Agnese continued with a devilish grin. “But if acting on that will not help the people I hope to protect, I will swallow that hatred. I don’t want to save anyone for my own glory or pride.”
“You missed the mark, Tu. You misread my desire.” She had regained the composure needed to press a hand against the center of her chest and wink. “Doing it for myself just rings hollow in my ears. Now, if you had finished it off by saying it would help Sister Lucia, Sister Angelene, or even Kanzaki Kaori or Sister Orsola, I might have stepped aside for you. But you screwed it up, proving you’re only human. No matter how enlightened you try to sound.”
A prophet lost everything once they were proven wrong.
And the more people had believed them, the greater the backlash.
“Your dreams revealed nothing to you. You just laid out suggestive words in the hopes that you could instill your own desires in others. You convince people they can find happiness if they follow the flowchart found in your words. That is all you are, Tu. Your dreams are no more than dreams! There is no reality to be found there!!”
Agnese Sanctis raised the Lotus Wand in both hands.
This would be the final battle.
The tall nun wordlessly responded while readying the giant wooden wheel in her hands.
So did the stooped sister with heavy gold coin bags floating up around her.
One thing had not changed here.
They had no reward for Tu. Agnese Sanctis was satisfied with the reality around her, so she had no need for dreams!
“Let’s teach this silly dreamer a lesson!! We will wake you from that dream even if it means smashing your skull in, Albert Dying!!”
Their final enemy awaited them at the center of the chapel shelter below St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
“Fine then.” The man grinned. “Then this shall be a duel. We are both disposable pawns bound to a particular mythology or religion. We shall wear down our lives for a temporary thrill and to the victor go the spoils. I have no problem with that.”
“Sisters Lucia and Angelene.”
Agnese did not even listen.
Anything coming from that dreamer’s mouth was nonsense.
“Our top priority is the pope and the cardinals. Blow them away!!”
A giant wooden wheel exploded on its own and coin bags larger than clenched fists gave a roar of motion.
The splinters and the blunt weapons rushed toward the unconscious old men, but that was the correct choice.
Those VIPs were guarded by largescale spiritual items they wore as clothing, so it would take a lot to kill them. It was best to let the momentum of an attack launch them toward the exit to get them off the battlefield as soon as possible.
Stray attacks from Tu were much more of a threat.
(We got all the cardinals. That just leaves…)
In this case, his defenses worked against him.
One old man remained on the floor where he had fallen.
(We just need to collect the pope!!)
“Oh, dear,” Tu belatedly whispered.
Agnese gave a flourish of her silver staff and the angel curled up at the head spread its wings. The Lotus Wand could control fire, water, wind, earth, and even ether and it was now ready to use.
To reiterate, their opponent was a dreamer.
Nothing he had to say was worth listening to.
“Sisters Lucia and Angelene, use staggered attacks to keep him in place. I will use that opening to get the pope out of-”
“Theory: Angerona I”
By the time the explosive roar slammed into Agnese’s left ear, her vision was already spinning fast. By the time she realized she had been blown away, her feet had left the floor and she could not control herself.
She had been interrupted.
She could not even begin to analyze his very first attack.
Tall Lucia frantically held out her arms to catch her while Angelene unleashed her four coin bags to hold back the man.
“Theory: Faunus III”
No one had done anything, but the coin bags burst from within. Then all the scattered gold coins froze in midair before rushing toward Angelene like bullets.
The stooped and freckled girl could not even scream as they pummeled her.
From there, it was like dominoes.
Angelene slammed into Lucia, preventing her from catching Agnese. All three of them ended up crashing down to the hard stone floor.
The breath was knocked from them.
But Agnese kept her grip on the Lotus Wand. The pain in her back forced out all of her air, but she managed to gasp in just enough to get out her voice.
“What just happened? Sister Lucia, answer me. I can’t defend against something I don’t understand!!”
Lucia could not hold her head steady or get her voice out, but she did manage to move her trembling lips.
Massive jaws…tried to crush you.
Albert Dying did not need to wait for them to finish there. He had not moved a step and he smiled down at them.
“Care to see that one again?”
She saw it this time.
Agnese immediately slammed the bottom of her wand against the floor just as a vertical line split through empty space and a pitch black hole opened within. The impossible hole was longer vertically than horizontally and had to be around 2m tall.
The right and left sides snapped back shut like massive jaws.
The crack distorted and then vanished with a great snapping sound, but the pressurized air had nowhere to go and roared outwards. That was what had knocked Agnese from her feet before.
Her wrists hurt as she held the rattling wand.
She grimaced as she realized she could not resist this with brute force. It was even possible Tu would notice the balance of power and work to contaminate her from within using the vibrations. She forced out her voice.
“Angerona is the goddess of the returning sun from Roman mythology. She normally keeps her mouth shut and ‘seals’ it by pressing her finger against it, but once a year, she opens her mouth to unleash the power gathered within to overcome the winter solstice when the sun has weakened.”
“Oh, I see now. Agnese and Lucia have an Italian ring to them. Then again, the idea of giving power to the dying sun is hardly unique to Rome. You can find the motif in all sorts of cultures. I should have expected you to recognize something so well known.”
All of a sudden, Agnese noticed the man was holding a disc a bit larger than his palm. She thought it was a pocket watch at first, but it was not. It was a compass carved from an oily wood and with a glass cover placed on top.
(What is this sweet smell?)
Albert flicked open the glass cover with his thumb and the compass needle popped out. It would have been an extremely pointed diamond shape to begin with, but the twisted hunk of metal no longer showed any sign of that.
Directions were very important in the magical world, so had the needle destroyed itself by drawing an impossible power from an impossible direction?
Two such needles had fallen to the floor.
The one from just now she understood. That would be the Faunus needle. But when had he discarded the Angerona needle that had twisted into something like a distorted spring? She dug through her memories yet could find nothing. Even though she had been watching him the entire time.
“But no one actually knows where Angerona came from. Why does she gather power in her mouth and why does her power grow the longer she remains silent? None of it matters to anyone now. No one cares about some ancient queen.”
All of a sudden, Albert Dying was holding a sickle in his other hand. That was the Sickle of Saturn. But if the compass was all he needed for his spells, he would not need that.
She could not let its shape distract her.
That sickle was not designed for offense using its sharp edge. It was meant to create a controlling field around the ground it stabbed into. If he was showing that off, then he must have created a field to his liking.
(Is his magic so powerful that he needs that field to protect himself?)
“And Faunus is a god of treasure. The horns on his head were enough to have him overwritten by the Greek myths of Pan and the Satyr, but that does not erase his logic that prophesied a victory for Rome in a great battle.”
Albert had called this a duel.
But despite what the term implied, the people who used it most often were always certain in their own victory. They would fire up the crowds with talk of ‘a one-on-one battle’, ‘don’t be late’, and ‘let’s fight fair and square’, but they really wanted to ensure the poor victim could not escape while they were tortured to death in public. When a less-than-honest person challenged someone to a duel, they might as well have been demanding a public execution.
Tu had called this a duel when he was outnumbered three-against-one.
That meant he was confident he could win and preserve the execution format with three opponents. If he had thought it at all possible he would be harmed, he would have called them cowards in order to reset the game until he had all the cards needed for his victory.
Agnese wiped the blood from the corner of her mouth.
Her nose picked up a sickly sweet aroma, like a raisin with the sourness removed. It was not unpleasant, but she found it disgusting once she realized it was the oily wood mixing with the sweat on the man’s hand.
(This might still be better than trying to beat the house at a casino.)
“Are you…trying to preserve the pure Roman mythology before it was washed away by Greek mythology? Is that what you’re…so desperate to protect?”
He did not even give a strong denial.
He responded dismissively while holding the large compass and sickle.
“Just so you know, I am not a Roman mythology believer.”
She had been wrong.
The hook dangled below the water had failed to catch in the fish’s mouth.
“During the Roman age, it was Roman mythology. During the Christian age, it was Christianity. I blend in with the victor of the current age to keep myself safe and protect myself. Just like someone dressing in all the latest fashions and throwing out piles of usable clothing each season. Not even I know the answer. All I can do is line up endless ‘theories’ that no one can prove correct or not.”
Analyzing your opponent was everything in the magic world.
If you did not secure what clues you could in the few chances you found, you did not stand a chance. Just like a mountain climber following all the easiest routes only to run across a cliff face with no handholds whatsoever.
Agnese heard a scraping of metal against metal. It came from the compass.
Once again, she had failed to see it, but he had definitely “loaded” the next one.
“Theory: Larvae II.”
This was a new one.
Agnese Sanctis only survived because someone shoved her aside.
She was saved by her fellow nun, Sister Angelene.
A change came over the girl’s freckled face. She covered it with her small hands, but it was still visible through the gaps. Something crucial – maybe water and maybe fat – was drained from her body. It looked like her skin was clinging directly to bone.
“The same applies to what I am using here.” The man spoke calmly while swinging his sickle just enough to keep the side effects from reaching him. He did not seem to care about the commotion around him. “This is not what we had initially hoped to pass down. As the many mythologies and religions mixed together, the original forms were entirely lost. But I will still win. I will survive. The Guild will always view the world from the side of the winners.”
That was all the Guild did.
They did not want any particular side to win. Nor did they hope to gain something through winning.
They only wanted to preserve their status of “winning”.
Everyone had their ups and downs. They would win some and lose some. But the Guild refused to let that happen, so they distorted themselves and others to force a result that defied that law.
With a solid clink, a twisted compass needle hit the floor, having used up whatever its effect was.
That was the empty cartridge.
But by then, Albert had already loaded the next round and snapped the glass cover shut with his thumb. He squeezed the compass made from an oily wood – probably palm.
And he spoke his words of power.
“Theory: Venus Genetrix I.”
Agnese briefly froze.
That divine name did not immediately bring a form of attack to mind like Mars or Jupiter would have.
The air was split open by something too strong to call a whip. It was probably some kind of tree branches intertwined in a complex but powerful way. It would tear through flesh and bone on contact.
And Agnese was slow to react.
She immediately backed out of its range, but then something burst from it. The solid fruits attached to the branches burst and created a wall of sharp shards, like a grenade blast.
She had very clearly been too late to react, so her survival was not the result of her own skill. The dense wall of sharp shards had been forcibly pried apart at the last second by the explosion of Lucia’s giant wooden wheel. “Let’s ignore the Genetrix part for now.” The young man smiled thinly. “Everyone thinks of Venus as a goddess of beauty, but did you know she was originally an agricultural goddess of gardens? Also, a historical figure was absolutely fixated on her productive powers: an ancient Roman general by the name of Julius Caesar. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”
“Venus, Goddess of the Harvest, was known as the personal guardian deity of that strongest military man. Venus was a protector of Rome, but adding the Genetrix gives her name a special meaning. Caesar had thoroughly developed his abilities for harming and killing, so when he wanted to expand the Roman Empire, he may have been drawn to that productive power he lacked. He was hailed as the strongest when it came to military might, but that created a blind spot he hoped to fill with the divine mother of Aeneas. He wanted a solid protector who would gently support him. So that goddess will rush in toward any opening that presents itself.”
The force of the shards was doubled.
The sharp shards from the many fruits closed back together to form a wall and rushed toward Lucia. This spell was a lot like a carnivorous plant without eyes or ears letting itself be bit to accurately locate its target.
It was a like a giant pair of jaws lined with sharp teeth and fangs.
Agnese’s warning was drowned out by a great boom as if from a drum taller than she was. Lucia had barely managed to avoid being fully caught between the closing jaws, but she had not escaped unscathed. She had been hit from the right.
The many shards that did hit her slammed her against the wall, where she slid down to the floor and stopped moving.
Agnese heard the clack of metal against metal.
She looked over without thinking, but with her life on the line, she subconsciously kept Tu in the corner of her vision.
Nevertheless, she did not have time to intervene.
He had clearly replaced the compass’s needle and he should have been defenseless while he did so. She knew she could take away his weapon if she intervened at that moment.
“Now, then,” he said. An oddly sweet aroma hung in the air as he gripped the loaded compass. “How are you enjoying this safety bought with your friends’ destruction? Unfortunately, you have no one else to take the next attack, sister.”
She immediately leaped forward because Tu had stepped his foot on the pope’s stomach and raised his sickle.
The old man already had a sharp stake against his chest, but Tu did not hesitate.
As soon as she moved in the way, scorching heat assaulted her back.
This was not just a blade wound.
The Sickle of Saturn created a field of control over the land it was stabbed into.
(Is he trying to tear away my inner world!?)
“Ha ha ha. You help the pope after doing nothing for your friends?”
A straining sound came from within her.
This was not just her physical body tearing apart. Her skeleton itself shook, her individual organs wriggled like slugs, and she feared she was transforming into another creature altogether. She could imagine her shoulder blades splitting as wings sprouted from her back, webs growing between her fingers, her canine teeth growing disconcertingly long, and her mind deteriorating too far for bipedal movement.
Was she only imagining all that?
It all may have been possible with the Sickle of Saturn.
Albert Dying smiled.
“You did the right thing. If I pry open the pope’s chest here, no one can stop the spread of the Sickle’s field. But that also proves that people are not equal under your system. Thank you. Your bravery has shown me that this era must be destroyed.”
“Shut up!!” she snapped back.
He kicked at her side, placed a foot on her small back, and pulled out the Sickle of Saturn like he was removing a nail. The sensation of the blade pulling from so deep inside her made her shudder far more than when it had stabbed into her.
“Now, a question: are people still equal?”
Stabbed and stepped on, Agnese still lay protectively over the unconscious old man.
The pope might have been killed if she had not acted.
Nothing might have changed for her own little world if a new era had begun.
They lived a life of oppression, suspicion, and odd jobs that underestimated their abilities. It wore at them more every day they continued to live as outsiders without a real home.
But she still wanted to avoid this.
She did not want everything to change.
She had learned to relax during the short breaks between jobs. The Anglicans gave her the absolute worst jobs, but the group from Italy had worked to come up with recipes they could cook in the women’s dorm. She still felt out of place in London’s mixture of old and new, but she had not disliked her days off when she could munch on biscuits and watch video makers perform with a phone in hand.
Yes, yes. She would admit it.
Maybe they were being tamed and maybe they were being used.
But Agnese Sanctis liked those bland days that were too forgettable to even write in a diary!!!!!!
She thought about the Roman Catholic Church. They had abandoned her, but she could not have them collapse here. Just like she had her own world, this old man had his own world.
She could not let anyone trample that underfoot with a thin smile on their face.
They might live in very different places, but she was the only one who could stop it, so it was up to her to protect him!!
(This may be my arrogance talking, but I wonder if this is what it feels like to forgive someone.)
Albert Dying, the man who had nothing of his own, laughed.
“Then I’ll keep at it until they are equal.”
To be honest, Tu had no real reason to talk.
The more he revealed about his spells, the more of his hand his opponents could defeat. Telling the truth gained him nothing.
But he did it anyway.
(I have plenty of needles. If I can convince her that I can only use one of a few options, then my next move can take her by surprise.)
It was all to help him win.
It was all to remain in a constant state of winning.
He never would have bound himself with the term “duel” unless he thought his victory was assured. That term was a double-edged sword that would prevent him from escaping if he unexpectedly found himself losing.
And he had the next needle loaded.
(Now, what is your battle plan?)
Albert Dying thought to himself while gripping the large compass in his hand.
The Sickle of Saturn was the foundation of his offense and defense.
The compass was sufficient if he only wanted to crush and kill his opponent.
A battle plan appeared to eliminate the unnecessary options while building up an optimal route to victory, but it really only narrowed your field of view. And the narrower that field, the easier it was for an attack to slip in through a blind spot.
(If she thinks I was simply defeating them one at a time, then she will die next time. Keeping a set distance to fire projectiles creates a blind spot right in front of you. But protecting that old man does not restrict her quite enough. If I want to move in close enough, I should wear down her stamina a little further. I will wait two or three more moves.)
“Theory: Juturna IV.”
This one was a high-pressure water cutter.
The horizontal sweep could easily slice through the girl’s torso.
The attack played out properly, but it did not provide the expected result.
Why hadn’t it hit? Albert Dying took a step back while opening the transparent cover. He dropped the twisted needle to the floor and inserted the next one.
Or he should have.
He was interrupted by an absurdly casual voice.
Agnese Sanctis was no longer just protecting the helpless old man.
When had she moved so close?
“How can you keep up with me!?”
His hand was blocked from loading the compass, like someone had grabbed his wrist just before he made an iai strike.
To rid her grip from his arm, he clicked his tongue for the first time and swung the sickle with his other hand. He just barely escaped her restraint, but the needle he had intended to load slipped from his grasp.
The following unpleasant sound would not stop ringing in his ears.
The small sharp piece of metal hitting the floor was not part of his own battle plan.
Once the thought entered his mind, he came to a shocked stop.
He had violated his own rule.
(Outside my “battle plan”? You mean I too was narrowing my view with one of those?)
“The individual spells weren’t what worried me.”
Bloody Agnese Sanctis did not force herself in closer.
Was she being cautious?
Or was she confident?
“That compass was missing its ejection and reloading phase. Which makes sense because that’s the part you would most want to hide. You might have a million cards available to you, but you can only use one at a time. And you have to use that ‘theory’ incantation to activate it.”
“I might not know what’s coming next, but that’s nothing to fear as long as I know when it’s coming. If I can dodge just one of them, then the time it takes to reload allows me to fight back. The million different cards were just meant to overwhelm us, weren’t they? The real trick here was how you shifted the timing. Figure that out and neutralizing you is easy!!”
He took immediate action.
He had to load a needle in the compass to use it.
To keep Agnese away, he scattered several of the sharp metal pieces on the floor. Her high-soled sandals worked against her here. Afraid of tripping, she came to a brief stop and Albert managed to stick the needle inside and close the glass cover.
The loading was complete.
“Theory: Dius Fidius I!!”
She had been late to respond, but she dodged the formless divine punishment with a snort of laughter.
Even though he had spoken the name of “another chief god” said to be on the same level as Chief God Jupiter – who corresponded to Zeus in Greek mythology – but had vanished into the shadows of history.
“You always keep that round compass in your hand. I thought maybe you could keep casting the spells as long as you had the needles, but it’s awfully large. In an age of smartphones, you don’t often see compasses too large to fit in the palm of your hand. That means you have some secret hidden in there, doesn’t it? Something that warrants its larger size.”
The young man said nothing.
Agnese interpreted that as an admission he could no longer play games.
“You would open the glass cover, throw out the old needle, set the new one in the center, and then close the cover again.”
She paused between each step as if checking over them in her head.
“That would take a few seconds, wouldn’t it? But that doesn’t make any sense. While the Amakusas use everyday objects for everything, a combat spiritual item has generally been so optimized that it looks strange to the untrained eye. That unnecessary structure is needlessly delaying your actions.”
Agnese did not hesitate.
The look in her eyes said she already knew the answer. That young man used nice-sounding words to deceive and manipulate people, so that was the last thing he wanted to see.
“So what’s the trick here? The palm wood? Did you include that important religious symbol to create an acceleration spell that lets you move too fast for the eye to follow? Or is it the sweet smell? Are you using some kind of chemical to make me hallucinate? No, no, no, it’s none of that. This isn’t about any of the mysterious hints you’ve created to lead me astray. The answer is much simpler. Because the simpler the structure, the less risk of malfunction. I know what a coward would choose when his life is on the line.”
So she presented him with the decisive words.
“There never was a glass cover. With a silly scam artist’s trick, you greatly reduced the time needed to reload while deceiving anyone watching it happen. Right?”
Yes, the “glass” cover was no more than a frame.
That part was not needed to activate the magic.
Albert Dying would ignore the cover altogether to push the needle in with a finger and then exaggeratedly open and close it with his thumb.
That was why Agnese had always overlooked when the reloading happened.
No matter how carefully she watched as he popped open the glass cover, she was never going to see it happen when the reloading was already complete at that point. Just like staring at the train track was meaningless when the train had already passed by.
That was all it was.
The silly trick had eliminated the deadly few seconds when he was most defenseless.
They both viewed a duel as a chance for a dishonest person to hold a public execution and they both knew someone would only call for one when everything was set up to ensure their victory.
This revelation had erased his advantage.
But Tu still had a chance. Agnese had already stated this did not tell her what was coming next.
(You assume anything I use will be another projectile. Narrowing your vision like that creates a short-range blind spot. I will use your own battle plan to kill you. I will emerge victorious here and I will remain forever victorious!!)
As long as she remained trapped in her “battle plan”, Agnese would not even notice the blind spot she had created. She could only grimace from the wound she had taken to the back and struggle to keep her legs steady below her.
The tides could turn against Tu here, but she had only revealed the ancient god spells used through his compass. His true power lay elsewhere.
He did not hesitate.
He sliced down his own arm with the sickle.
Agnese tensed with surprise.
No, he had sliced his own shadow on the wall from shoulder to elbow. That damage was then transferred to Tu himself, just like someone injuring a doll to harm the target.
And that was an accurate comparison. The Sickle of Saturn overwrote who controlled the land it stabbed into and set up a more convenient field.
So it could also be used like this.
By slicing and tearing into oneself, it could overwrite the inner world of the human body. And by tearing down the wall between the micro inner world and the macro outer world, he could wield magic unusable by mere humans.
“Theory: Saturn 0!!!!!!”
He did not need the compass needle this time.
And people could not respond to something that caught them by surprise.
Nothing was more frightening than a lack of tricks.
Or rather, than being pushed to the point that all tricks were off limits. Magic was a logical system. It could be hard to tell since none of it was visible, but it was no different than sticking a branch below a big rock to lift it with leverage.
So if a magic user was pushed to the point that they could not use that kind of trick, they had truly been pushed to the limit.
Tu, Albert Dying, heard something soft being squashed.
He felt a dull sensation in his fingernails when it happened. In Roman mythology, Saturn was the king who usurped heaven, but before he was overwritten by Cronus of Greek mythology, he had been an ancient god named Satus. He was an agricultural god who controlled seeds and sickles. His name, his role, and even his world may have changed, but he had kept that weapon through it all. That suggested it was the only real thing he had left.
Thus, it retained the symbolism of the sickle that sliced open the earth and let a bountiful harvest grow.
Tu’s gaze wavered somewhat.
He looked down at his own fingertips. The deadly nails were split open and his fingers were bent in disconcerting ways.
Simply put, he had been stopped.
By the silver staff Agnese Sanctis had pulled back toward herself.
“Oh, dear. Did what I say lead you to believe I had only analyzed your compass? You were the one who stabbed me with your Sickle of Saturn to mess with my inner world, remember?”
But she shouldn’t have been able to dodge this even if she understood it. His speed had been absolute. She could not have responded to his attack in time, so how had this happened?
Something had happened.
But the groaning whisper had not come from Agnese Sanctis.
“He was a regionary bishop without a diocese of his own. But he built more churches than anyone else and provided many people with a place to rest.”
It was Sister Lucia.
Angelene also recited the words from the floor.
They crawled because they could not even stand up with all the pain and agony filling their bodies.
They clenched their teeth and set self-care aside in order to support the girl with whom they had shared the good times and the bad.
They spoke in unison now.
“His passion and powerful legs were second to none. Traveler with a worthy cause, feel the push at your back as you continue your journey. You will find your feet move quicker than anyone else’s!!”
That spell created a literal tailwind.
No matter which way you moved, the tiny miracle would summon a wind to assist you.
Agnese was not alone.
Their old home had relied on numbers for everything. And it was Tu who had called this three-against-one arrangement a “duel”.
He could not call it unfair now.
Lucia and Angelene had already fallen, but that did not make them insignificant. If this man would laugh them off as ignorable, Agnese would show him the power they had granted her.
She would show him that the very thing he had dismissed as insignificant could sometimes be the trigger needed to save the world!!
“Telling the truth gains you nothing. Isn’t that a standard principle in magical combat?”
Whether it failed to activate or merely injured her, his foolproof attack had failed to kill her.
She had never before seen Theory: Saturn 0, yet it had not worked.
That surprising result led Tu to change his battle plan once more. He clung to what he knew had worked before. He forced his aching hand to pop open the compass’s glass cover in order to load the next needle, but…
“That movement is an illusion.”
The words cut him off before he could act.
“Now that I know that, I have nothing to fear from your spells. I can ignore the compass and your movements. If I wait for you to speak the incantation, I can get the timing right. It doesn’t even matter if you use your compass or sickle to activate it.”
With a distorted clang, the end of Agnese’s staff knocked the new needle from the young man’s bloody hand.
He thought he could keep going even without the Sickle of Saturn, but…
“Yes. The Lotus Wand is a Symbolic Weapon capable of controlling fire, water, wind, earth, and ether. And in my case, I’ve constructed a further spell on top of that.”
She crushed that possibility.
“You could say it’s like the wax dolls used for curses. If I hit the wall or a chair with this, the damage to the wand is transferred to the linked target.”
Agnese Sanctis did not make a second strike.
There was no need.
“So I don’t even have to do anything. The wand was hit, so it’s already over.”
After a short delay, a heavy impact rattled Tu’s head.
He fell hard to his knees. That was proof of greater damage than if he had been thrown backwards.
He glanced down at his spiritual items for a brief moment, but before he could do anything more, Agnese kicked the large compass from him and stepped down on the sickle lying on the floor.
“I said it’s already over,” she bluntly stated.
“I…” Even so, Albert Dying was not done moving. “I will win. I must always be winning. I will do…do anything to ensure it.”
“You must always be winning?” She seemed to spit out the words. “But you gave into your anger and executed the bloodline investigator named Brax Mizhine, didn’t you? Our research suggests he was a pathetic scammer, but killing him did nothing to affect your score, did it?”
“Did you really hate Stiyl Magnus that much? Admittedly, he’s a condescending asshole constantly polluting his surroundings with cigarette smoke, but that isn’t why you hate him. Then why?”
That question crossed a line.
There was no kindness in her voice.
“You blame them both for your failed ceremony that forced you to go into hiding.”
Agnese Sanctis was still inexperienced.
When slapped on the right cheek, she would reflexively throw a punch. And she had a smile on her lips as she said this.
“You claim you must ‘always be winning’, but that died long ago. If you ask me, revenge is the last resort of a loser.”
A disconcerting sound filled the chapel.
What happened next defied logic. Albert Dying had already been hit by the finishing blow, but he got back up. His hands and feet dug into the stone floor to rise up like a beast.
“This isn’t…this isn’t over!! No one ever protected me, so I had to protect myself. Do you have any idea how hard it is to always be winning? I came all this way because I couldn’t allow a single loss, so…so I…!!”
Agnese’s voice was ice cold.
He was threatening her, but there was no dignity behind it.
He leaped at her, presumably to take back the Sickle of Saturn pinned below her foot, but she caught his face on her elbow, slammed her silver staff into his back while he curled up holding his nose, and then stepped on the back of his head after confirming he had collapsed to the floor. Finally, the wand’s attack hit him again.
He was like a ghost who had forgotten how to return to the graveyard.
His rash attempt to never face a loss was a lot like a senile old fool forgetting when to stop and struggling for much too long. His greatest misfortunate was in not encountering anyone who was willing to end this earlier. So now he scrambled vainly at the floor.
Agnese sighed as she looked down at him struggling like a roach with a pin through it.
(Well, I might have shown more mercy if he hadn’t hurt Sisters Lucia and Angelene.)
“From here on, you can start counting up your losses. One by one.”
Agnese Sanctis quietly sighed.
It was all over.
The pope was safe where he lay on the floor. With the defeat of Tu, aka Albert Dying, the Violator of the Peace spiritual item trying to force its way through the old man’s holy garb had stopped resisting. Agnese only had to crouch down and grab it for the X-shaped belts to unravel from the pope’s chest like no more than ribbon.
She tossed the Violator of the Peace aside and it hit another of the culprit’s spiritual items with a solid clang. It looked like nothing more than a small sickle made from crude materials, but even that could destroy the world.
That was what made magic so frightening.
She pressed a communication card against her ear and spoke into it.
The method used by the card had existed before the invention of electronic devices, but most people would assume she was operating a phone. Most cars around the world had round steering wheels and there was no real reason to make showerheads X or star shaped. Most everyone would settle on similar shapes because those were easiest for people to use.
“The Sickle of Saturn has been retrieved. Yes, yes, you check on things outside. Eh? It’s going to be stored and preserved in the British Museum? No, I’d rather destroy it here. Hand this to you Anglicans and who knows what your black-hearted Archbishop will do with it!”
She remained crouched and gently stroked the pope’s forehead with her empty hand while holding the conversation.
Lola Stuart at the top of the Anglicans was entirely different from this old man. That woman loved power games and kept her good and bad deeds perfectly balanced, so there was no point in worrying on her behalf.
“Stiyl, you agree that would be best, don’t you? Yes, yes, I know a poor middle manager like you isn’t allowed to say so out loud, so just dock my pay already. Ugh, I swear the world is edging toward destruction because saving it only gets you punished. Bye.”
That ended her magical call.
Now she spoke to someone in the same room as her.
“Hey, Sister Lucia. You still alive?”
“You too, Sister Angelene. I took out the bad guy, but do you also need some recovery magic?”
“Already working on it. Ugh, don’t those Larvae things suck all the fat out of you once they latch onto you? The legends say they also leave weird marks all over your body, don’t they?”
The three girls stopped talking there.
So when they heard a groan, it did not come from any of them.
There was no reason to stay here until he woke up.
Every last part of Agnese’s body was aching and she had been stabbed in the back to protect the pope, but she had not risked her life to place him in her debt.
Reluctant to leave, she rubbed the old man’s forehead once more.
That was enough.
“Sister Agnese, it’s time.”
“C-come to think of it, we’re in the country without our passports, aren’t we?” said Angelene. “E-eeek! There’s only one exit from here and if they find us, we’ll be thrown in jail for sure!”
Agnese Sanctis pulled her hand away and silently stood up.
“The pope is fine. What about the cardinals?”
“That shouldn’t be a problem. There is only one exit, so we check on them as we leave.”
“Then there’s Tu – Albert Dying.”
“Eh? We’re in the country illegally and now we have to carry an entire person back with us!? I-isn’t an unconscious person really heavy?”
Angelene started to fidget nervously.
But if they left him with the Catholics and he later escaped, it would be their fault. Anti-magician combat was the Anglicans’ specialty, so it would be safest to take him back home with them.
Agnese smiled at that phrasing.
This was supposed to be their home. It was the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. So how could they go “back home” from here?
She knew the answer.
And she knew what to say next. They needed to choose who would carry Tu on their way home.
“Everyone but me loses!!”
“Who put you in charge!!!???”
“Who put you in charge!!!???”
Agnese Sanctis had made a serious error by disobeying orders and acting on her own.
Destroying the Sickle of Saturn without permission was especially concerning.
Her meals were reduced from three a day to two and she was forbidden from snacking in between. And this was to continue until further orders were given.
The girl in the black nun’s habit looked half dead.
She had been prepared for punishment, but the higher ups knew her weaknesses too well. The ban on snacks hurt far more than the lost meal. How was an Italian girl supposed to live without her coffee? Solitary confinement would have been preferable to this.
She was back in London, England.
The world continued to turn despite everything that had happened. London’s famous colorful payphones were being removed and loaded onto trucks and the taxis polished as bright as leather shoes were being converted to electric models. Even the world’s most famous clocktower was apparently no longer named Big Ben.
Humans were like tuna that had to keep swimming or they would die.
Something unseen was pouring down on the world.
Anything that came to a stop – be it a culture or a mythology – would be sealed in that stratum, just like a specimen encased in clear plastic. History may have had no more weight than a long-forgotten meme.
The Guild and Albert may have found that absurd. They had wanted to reclaim what was buried in the stratum. But after slowly and carefully excavating it, they realized it was small enough to hold in their hand.
Was that why he had wanted to wield it to its fullest?
To prove it was more than that?
(And what about me?)
Not even she understood why she had rejected the idea returning to the Catholics. It was more than just her principles. She may have made the decision out of fear.
Fear that she would lose something if she returned there.
Lucia and Angelene rushed over to her.
The perfectionist girl was punctual and always kept her promises, so she continued to work hard even during their unfair punishment.
“We’re being scrambled to Piccadilly Circus,” said Lucia. “When people look inside a boxy ashtray left on the side of the road, they are sucked in and go missing. There were similar urban legends back when technology was shifting from CRT TVs or analog cameras, but it appears someone is copying those stories to feed their collection obsession. A battle is about to begin at the gathering point, so you need to get fully equipped and move to your post, Sister Agnese.”
“What is our job?”
“This magician keeps escaping because they are sensitive to the faint magic of a people clearing field, so the Anglicans want to do the same job through physical means. The ordinary people will be kept away by feigning drainage problems and covering the road with filthy water.”
Agnese Sanctis looked up toward heaven.
She had suspected it would be something like this.
They were still the bottom rung.
You didn’t get any extra allowance for saving the world.
“How can that be sanitary?”
“We need to wear full-body raincoats with rubber gloves and boots. But wearing that would stand out when it’s so nice out, so a bomber will soon be passing by overhead to support us by creating some artificial rain with dry ice. Sudden downpours not found on the long-term forecast are hardly uncommon these days.”
That strict girl had failed to read between the lines.
Her obsession with cleanliness had led her to focus entirely on how to defend themselves from the filth. Surely there had been other options.
Agnese winked over at Angelene.
“We need phone and social media countermeasures. The risk is especially great since we can’t use a people clearing field. There are so many cameras around these days and I don’t see why that would ever change.”
“Um, actually, I’ve already done that,” said Angelene. “All we need is for you to join us, Sister Agnese. Why do you think we ran over to get you? Because the phones aren’t working here.”
Agnese scratched her head at that.
She had hoped to find a flaw in the plan so she could boycott it, but it turned out Lucia and Angelene were the type to do everything right even when they gained nothing from it.
Agnese had no choice now, but there was a note of enjoyment in her voice as she replied.
“Then let’s get going. The time for some captivating service work is upon us!!”