Dear Not Cunning Witch - Chapter 3.1
Chapter 3: The Winter To You
The promised morning was bright.
The temporary camp that had been set up far away from the tracks was melancholy. Most of the soldiers present had been making light of the Ingram Armed Revolutionary Army, much like Colonel Oxley, their commanding officer. They had thought that dealing with the Armed Revolutionary Army would be but a simple matter, and they had good reason for it —not only had the Ingram Armed Revolutionary Army long since been known as a threadbare organization that had nothing to it but its name. But now a renowned mage was collaborating with them.
But not a single soldier who had been sent out for reconnaissance last night had returned. Those who had gone to collect their fallen allies’ corpses when daylight broke reported that it had been a gruesome scene. Colonel Oxley had kept his silence, but rumors that the enemy had a wizard with them had already begun secretly spreading. Those who had gone to collect the corpses had said that they could barely bear to even look at the corpses.
No ordinary person could have shredded human bodies into such fine pieces. It was something possible only for a wizard.
Someone had insisted that Colonel Oxley requested reinforcements. One of his aides had pushed his luck and had gingerly suggested that they requested more soldiers from HQ, but the colonel had quietly shaken his head no. There was no point in increasing their numbers now that it was clear the enemy had a wizard. There was nothing more pointless than attempting to use numbers as a battle strategy against a wizard. Not only would they only increase their casualties exponentially if things went poorly but they still wouldn’t be able to take down the wizard even with greater numbers.
The only way to deal with a wizard was to either devise a brilliant strategy or to use a wizard themselves. They were fortunate in that they had two skilled wizards in their camp, but they could not use magic recklessly because there were so many passengers being held hostage in the train.
Colonel Oxley had summoned all his aides at midnight to review their strategy. Their plans were shoddy, because they barely had any intel on the enemy wizard, but there wasn’t much they could do about it because one of their own wizards was out of commission.
The wizard Hugo Alpheus had fainted as soon as last night’s operation had concluded.
But it wasn’t because he had pushed himself during last night’s operation. For better or for worse, the biggest reason Hugo Alpheus had fainted was because of the fatigue that he had accumulated by not sleeping for three days straight. Not only had he cast long-distance magic, which required one’s utmost concentration, while he was already exhausted, but he had also suffered the shock of his left eye, which he had connected to his nerves through magic, being destroyed. On top of that, Muzetta, a star with poor affinity to Valdivia, his birth star, had been in power last night. It had been a bad time for him to cast magic for several different reasons.
Hugo Alpheus had regained consciousness before daybreak. He had stubbornly insisted on returning home even despite his exhaustion. The army doctor had begged him to rest, but Hugo had insisted on sleeping in his own home. Ultimately, after a bit of quarrelling, Colonel Oxley had grown sick of him and had sent him home on a carriage. The colonel had ordered his aide to bring Hugo back before noon, but he had no way of knowing if his aide was capable of making it happen.
“Are wizards unable to sleep outside their own homes?”
Colonel Oxley deplored. Hester Sol readily replied,
“I suppose he was worried about his pet lizard.”
Unlike Hugo Alpheus, who had been out cold for five or six hours, Hester Sol had not slept a wink until daybreak. She had stayed inside the command tent even as her head hurt to devise strategies with Colonel Oxley’s aides, and she had continued to quietly observe the train afterward. The colonel had no way of knowing what she was thinking, but judging by the way she kept turning to stare at the train, she was probably worried for her younger sister, her family who was one of the hostages.
It felt very strange for Colonel Oxley, who had never seen a witch act human before. He had heard that research was the foremost priority in the world of magic, but he could not help but wonder if witches and wizards still actually cared for their own blood.
But they could not lose Hester Sol too now that Hugo Alpheus had collapsed. Colonel Oxley called out to Hester, who had greeted the morning sun with a haggard look on her face.
“I understand that you’re worried for your sister, but you must get some sleep. You might not be able to help out during a crucial moment if you collapse like Sir Hugo did.”
Then, Hester obediently retired into a tent. The colonel almost felt foolish for being prepared to deal with her obstinacy.
It was two in the afternoon when Hugo Alpheus returned to camp. Colonel Oxley was startled as he greeted the wizard —despite what he had ordered his aide, he hadn’t expected Hugo to return until evening. Thankfully, Hugo looked significantly more energetic upon his return. But that simply meant that the circles under his eyes had faded somewhat and that there was a new artificial eye in his once-empty left eye socket.
“Nothing much has happened to me.”
It was customary in the world of magic to state the news about oneself before asking after others. It was very appropriate, as wizards were generally very self-centered. Colonel Oxley, who had grown accustomed to this by now, was just about to reply when he saw his aide opening a door from afar.
“What is all that……?”
he muttered hurriedly. Hugo turned around and nonchalantly replied,
“Your things? The door belongs to you?”
Colonel Oxley hid his sour expression as he led Hugo inside the command tent.
Hester was already there waiting for them. Colonel Oxley sat down and opened up the map while Hugo and Hester exchanged simple nods in greeting.
“Let me explain the situation first. The train did not move last night, and neither did we hear any word from the Revolutionary Army. We’ve been at a standstill since the skirmish last night.”
“Has the enemy wizard been quiet?”
“Yes. We approached the tracks to collect our allies’ corpses before dawn, but he was quiet even then.”
Hugo furrowed his brows as he fell into thought. The most urgent task at hand when confronting a wizard was to figure out his name. They could figure out his birth star through the Encyclopedia of Names once they knew his name, and that would make devising a strategy and tipping the scales of battle significantly easier.
Thus, the current situation was not in their favor. The enemy knew about Hugo Alpheus, but they knew nothing about the enemy wizard. It even looked like they had targeted Penzas, where Hugo lived, on purpose, judging by how composed the wizard had been.
“……At any rate, it would be for the best if you kept low for the time being, Lady Hester.”
But there was something that the wizard didn’t know. The wizard didn’t know that Hester Sol was here too. Hugo continued,
“The enemy wizard believes that I am the only wizard here, and there is no need for us to go out of our way to correct him.”
“I agree. I’m sure you must be concerned for your sister, Lady Hester, but it will be for the best if the enemy doesn’t see you. They say that your enemy’s overconfidence is a sure path to victory, after all.”
Colonel Oxley seconded Hugo’s opinion. Hester, who had been quietly studying the map, looked up.
“Actually, there was something I’ve been meaning to say regarding that,”
she said. She continued,
“I have a plan.”
“Please don’t worry. I concur with what you suggested just earlier.”
Then, she turned to Hugo and said,
“But I’ll will need to borrow your strength in return, Sir Hugo.”
Colonel Oxley was very uneasy.
“Is that even possible?”
“It must be, since Sir Hugo said it is.”
the colonel turned forward again as the words fell from his lips. There were soldiers levelling the ground on Hugo’s orders not too far from the command tent.
“Is this enough?”
a soldier asked as he put away his shovel. Hugo stared quietly at the ground for a moment before he nodded. At the same time, the door, which had been kept neatly in the back, slid down onto the ground on its own. The soldiers scattered reflexively, started by the sudden magic, and Hugo knelt on the ground and began studying the door.
“Finally, there aren’t any gaps.”
Hugo had requested a wall after listening to Hester’s plan. And a very sturdy one at that.
“But there are no walls in the vicinity. We only have makeshift tents in camp, as you’re very well aware, and the town is far away.”
“Still, I don’t wish to waste magic by teleporting. A flat surface on the ground will do if you don’t have a wall.”
And so, a few soldiers who had been on break were called to work. They had even used a protractor as they leveled the ground because Hugo had emphasized the fact that there must be no gaps where the door met the earth.
“Is it to your liking?”
the colonel asked gingerly. Hugo nodded by coolly and readily opened the door.
And another world opened up.
“W-what on earth is that?!”
Colonel Oxley, who had been peering inside the door, startled and stepped back. But Hugo did not spare the colonel even a single glance before he calmly walked inside.
“I’ll be back soon. Please don’t touch the door.”
Hugo gradually disappeared inside the door as if he was climbing down a set of stairs. The colonel and the soldiers dropped their jaws in befuddlement as they witnessed two spaces being connected where there had only been flat ground before.
Colonel Oxley pointlessly cleared his throat before he turned to Hester and asked,
“What is that?”
“……It’s a door, as you can see.”
Her answer was so reasonable. The colonel, whose prided had wounded, curtly asked back,
“You think I can’t see that? But the door was placed on flat ground, and then a strange dark room appeared when Sir Hugo opened it.”
“It looks like he connected his warehouse to the door.”
“He connected his warehouse to the door? But he lives nearby, so why would he need to do that……?”
Colonel Oxley’s words trailed off. Hester calmly explained,
“I can’t say for certain, but Sir Hugo’s warehouse is probably located elsewhere. It will likely be the place that he considers to be the safest. It is common in the world of magic for people to build warehouses that are surrounded on all sides in a place unbeknownst to anyone else and to store it safely by connecting a door to it through magical means.”
The colonel nodded reluctantly. Wizards traditionally did not even trust the banks to hold their gold, so it was truly like them to be so meticulous.
“Then, what did Sir Hugo go inside to fetch?”
Hugo’s magic was crucial to Hester’s plan. And Hugo had walked inside some mysterious door as soon as he had heard it. Colonel Oxley had only ever seen wizards cast magic with their will, with their voice, or with a magic circle, so he was dying to know what kinds of tools were necessary to cast even greater spells.
But Hester did not give him a concrete answer. She simply stared at the unmoving door and said,
“……I’m sure it’s something that he needs.”
Hester’s plan was as follows.
“Can you call the winter right now, Sir Hugo?”
“It’s not impossible. The only problem lies in the place where I must call the winter.”
“You must call winter on the train. Will this be possible?”
“……Excuse me, but the two of you are aware that we cannot easily approach the train, yes?”
Generally speaking, one needed exponentially more magic in order to cast great spells, like changing the weather or the seasons, over larger areas. They could not come withing shooting range of the train because the Revolutionary Army had occupied it, and they could not rely on coordinates like Hester had before either. Calling forth the winter was very different from creating a simple one-time explosion. Not only did it take several hours just to invoke the spell, but it was likely that Hugo would miss the coordinates because it was not a spell he could control in minute detail.
And so, his only choice was to get as close to the train as possible while casting the spell while still being outside of shooting range.
“The train is 800m long and shooting range is about 100m, so the range of the spell alone will need to be around 80,000m2. And we’re also outside.”
“Can you do it?”
“Who can say? I can’t know for certain, as I’ve never cast a spell of that scale before. But why do you need the winter?”
“There were clear traces of residual magic on our allies’ corpses. It was like our wizard was bragging about his presence.”
“Do you know who the enemy wizard is?”
“Not yet, no. But I’ve figured out his birth star, which limits our options.”
Wizards manifested their magic by borrowing the stars’ magic, so one’s magically ability depended on their birth star. Thus, it was easy for Hester to ascertain the enemy wizard’s birth star by studying the magic left behind on the corpses.
“The enemy’s birth star in Muzetta, the Inverse Star. There aren’t many wizards born under the star Muzetta, since it’s commonly regarded as the star of misfortune. There are only twenty-nine wizards listed in the Encyclopedia of Names listed as being born under Muzetta.”
“His birth star in Muzetta. That’s not good. The heavens are inverted right now, and Muzetta’s at its strongest.”
“Which is why we need the winter.”
Hester spread opened a thick map as she spoke. It was an astral chart, a map that charted the stars, and it was crowded with lines and equations that Colonel Oxley could make neither heads nor tails of.
“Muzetta is strong right now. Last night was the fourth Day of Heaven’s Inversion, so Muzetta will be at its strongest two days from now, on the sixth day.”
Hester pointed to a particularly bright star on the western half of the chart.
“The six days a year that Muzetta is in the sky are when the astral charts are most disturbed. Dulcinea, the King of the Stars, loses its light, and all the stars under its rule also dims. This is also why the power struggles amongst the stars are the fiercest during the Days of Heaven’s Inversion.”
Dulcinea, which was located in the center of the sky, and the stars gathered around it like an escort that represented its rule were visibly dull. Stars at the edges of the sky, like Muzetta, grew stronger because the King of the Stars had grown weak.
“It’s difficult to predict when the Days of Heaven’s Inversion will come, so most wizards are unable to properly prepare themselves for it and are usually at a complete loss. Which is why we have a saying. Do not confront your enemies on the days when the heavens are inverted.”
“But didn’t you just say that the enemy’s birth star is Muzetta? The enemy is at his strongest right now, so wouldn’t that also mean that now is the worst time possible for our allies?”
“Yes. It is. But, while it isn’t possible to predict the Days of Heaven’s Inversion, it is still possible to put its effects to sleep, more or less.”
Hugo, who had been staring silently down at the astral chart, quietly said,
“So that’s why you need the winter.”
A sudden cold winter wind had blown across the astral chart. The spring and summer stars, which were in power, froze over, and the winter stars, which had long since lost their power, began glowing brighter. The chart, which had already been chaotic to begin with, grew even more chaotic still.
“The stars rise and fall according to the seasons. Spring and summer stars are stronger right now because it’s late spring, but the heavens will be thrown into chaos if you bring forth the winter, Sir Hugo.”
“The heavens are already in disarray because of the Days of Heaven’s Inversion —are you planning to make things even more chaotic?”
“That’s the only way to put Muzetta to sleep.”
Hester had stared down at the astral chart with a frigid light in her eyes.
Muzetta, which had been ferociously nibbling away at the light of its neighboring stars, slowly began growing weaker. The out of season winter wind had thrown even Muzetta into chaos.
“Fight poison with an even more potent poison, or so they say. If they want to throw things into chaos, then we’ll confront them with an even greater mess.”
It was only forty minutes later that Hugo came back through the door.
“It took me more time than I’d thought.”
Hugo, who was carrying an armful of odds and ends, clicked his tongue as he checked his pocket watch. Then, Colonel Oxley walked up to him and asked,
“What made you so late?”
“Nothing was where it was supposed to be because it’s been so long since I last cleaned my warehouse,”
Hugo replied monotonously. He continued,
“But I still found everything I needed in the end. Let us go.”
A wizard, a witch, and a little over thirty soldiers departed for the train tracks. It was in the middle of the day, so the people in the train could probably see them easily since they were approaching so openly. Still, their footsteps did not hesitate even when the enemy army immediately pointed their guns their way.
The Revolutionary Army was bewildered by their sudden approach and slowly rested their fingers against their triggers. The thirty or so unwelcomed guests stopped just outside of their shooting range. The Revolutionary Army grew antsy and shot a few warning shots, but they only managed to waste their bullets.
“Colonel. Don’t our guns have a longer range than theirs? We could shoot at them from here without worrying about getting shot back,”
said one soldier energetically. Colonel Oxley stared back at him woefully.
“Have you already forgotten that there are hostages on the train? Our biggest goal is to ensure the hostages’ safety. Arresting the Revolutionary Army only comes after.”
Hugo began putting down his trinkets as soon as he stopped walking. Not only could the soldiers, who were ignorant to the ways of magic, figure out what they were for, but neither could the great witch who was so skilled that her name was already written in the White Hall. Hester, who was staring quizzically at the feathered pen, bottle of ink, and the various mechanical devices, asked,
“What is all of this?”
Hugo quickly trimmed the nib of his pen as he answered,
“Not only is Muzetta in power right now, but it’s also late spring —there could not possible be a time more difficult to summon the winter than now. These are tools that will help me cast my spell.”
It took Hugo a rather long time to get his pen in order, perhaps because he had neglected it for too long. But a wizard’s magic was exclusively his territory. Everyone gave shape to their magic differently, so Hester did not urge him to hurry for no reason.
“Please arrange those machines in each of the four cardinal directions,”
Hugo said when he was finally done with his feathered pen.
Hugo dipped the nib of his pen in his bottle of ink as the soldiers used a compass to figure out where to place the machines, and then he suddenly turned to Hester and said,
“Will you be staying here?”
Many wizards disliked showing other wizards their spells. Each spell had a different incantation and formula, so it sometimes felt like they were being robbed of their personal arts when others watched.
“I will leave if I am making you uncomfortable.”
“……No. I don’t mind if it’s you.”
Hugo’s mien was as callous as ever as he replied,
“You have no reason to go out of your way to copy my methods, no?”
Colonel Oxley stiffly came up to him as Hugo walked in between his machines.
“We will repel any potential enemies while you cast the spell, Sir Hugo, since you will not be able to move until your spell is complete.”
“And how do you plan to oppose the enemy wizard?”
“I’ve ordered my aide to take the rest of the soldiers and attack the train’s rear. I’ve ordered them to shoot from as far as possible so they don’t get caught up in your spell, but the wizard most likely won’t be able to ignore them since we’ve blown up the freight car previously.”
They were over a hundred meters from the train. It was far enough that anyone on the train would find it hard-pressed to tell who was with them or what they were doing. Moreover, it was impossible to see Hugo Alpheus from the train with the naked eye because there were thirty robust soldiers lined up in front of him.
Hugo whistled whimsically as he surveyed his surroundings. His body began to float above the grass. The faint light of his ink sparkled on his pen. He looked up at the spring sky, filled with warm sunlight, before he finally began scribbling words in the air.
It was a very strange scene. The wizard was undoubtedly using a feathered pen and ink, but the letters he scribed elegantly in the air glowed faintly like starlight. He was writing in the language of magic —a language that ordinary people could neither read nor write. He was writing a poem of praise for the stars, which granted wizards power when they were born, and it was also a prayer he offered to the heavens to realize his wishes.
“What in the world……?”
Colonel Oxley expressed his wonder before he could stop himself. Hester calmly explained,
“It’s ink filled with starlight. The starlight was likely from Valdivia, the star Sir Hugo was born under.”
“I’ve met plenty of wizards in my time, but this is my first time seeing anything like this.”
“Most wizards cast spells informally. A very few wizards, including Sir Hugo, can cast magic with their will alone, but that won’t be possible with a spell great enough to change the seasons.”
Powerful spells required a lot of magic. Wizards borrowed strength from the stars to cast magic, so naturally, they needed to show the stars their sincerity in different ways when they wanted to cast greater spells.
They needed to show the stars more devotion.
They needed to show the stars more gratitude.
“Don’t you think the stars will be happier that he’s personally writing down his prayer instead of reciting it, and that he’s using starlight ink instead of normal ink to write it?”
Colonel Oxley looked at Hugo’s back in fright. Hugo’s hand continued moving without pause, and the colonel was frightened by the words Hugo was writing.
Hugo continued scribbling words in the air ceaselessly, and the gunshots riding the wind grew only fiercer. Colonel Oxley was sneaking glances at the train’s rear, unable to hide his anxiety, but Hester focused only on the words Hugo was writing.
The prayer Hugo was offering up to Valdivia was an alteration of Illika’s Prayer that had been created by Illika Astolfo. His modifications to the prayer were nothing special. Wizards commonly used both prayers and formulas. There were some abbreviations and symbols that Hester didn’t know, but she could guess what they meant when taken into context with the words that came before and after them.
One hour passed, and then two.
Perhaps the aide was unable to hold out against the wizard for much longer, but he had sent over a soldier to ask how much longer the spell would take. But the colonel had nothing to say. Hugo had been writing through three such messengers already, but the colonel knew nothing about magic and did not know when the wizard’s hand would stop writing.
Then, another hour passed.
The sun had begun slanting to the west, and the soldiers’ shadows grew twice as long as they had been before. They had been standing with their guns for over three hours now, and they were sweating buckets. The endless gunshots from the train’s rear had quieted as well —perhaps the aide had finally retreated, unable to hold out any longer. The silence on the tracks was terrifying.
Colonel Oxley shot anxious glances at the train’s rear. He had a bad feeling about all of this. He didn’t know when the enemy wizard might discover them, but he also couldn’t stop Hugo in the middle of his spell and retreat. His hands were completely tied.
Just then, the feathered pen suddenly fell from Hugo’s hand. The colonel freaked out when he saw the pen tumbling over the grass and whipped his head around. But Hugo was no longer interested in the pen. Hugo was sweating so much it looked like he was being rained on as he stared blankly up at the stars above and slowly said,
A magic circle appeared beneath Hugo, who was still floating in the air.
The first thing to appear was a circle, followed by a pentagram, an hourglass, and a bluebuck, which symbolized <Just Alpheus>. The last thing to appear was a set of slowly moving clock hands that had already passed winter, meaning that it would have to pass both summer and autumn before it circled back to winter again. Countless lines and countless letters began shining on the magic circle, and the mechanical devices on top of the circle rattled as they began to move.
The day was growing darker as the sun sank down to the west, but the magic circle and the prayer offered to the stars only glowed brighter. It was only then that the enemy realized that something was amiss and began firing.
Hester only continued watching over the brightly glowing magic circle in silence despite the disorder around her. More specifically, she was staring at the mechanical devices on top of the magic circle. It was impossible to cast a spell perfectly no matter how precise one’s formulas were, but the mechanical devices managed to keep hold of the magic that kept trying to shoot outside Hugo’s formulas, outside Hugo’s spell. The devices were quivering, perhaps because the magic circle’s vibrations were being conveyed to them, but they were more effective that Hester had originally thought they would be.
Then, the starlight on the ground suddenly flickered off for a moment. The soldiers were perplexed because the magic circle had vanished, and Hugo collapsed weakly over the grass. Colonel Oxley checked his condition in a hurry.
“Lady Hester! Sir Hugo has passed out!”
The colonel shouted. But Hester didn’t even turn around. She was staring to the distant north —to the northern sky that was now growing dark.
In despair, the colonel asked,
“Did the spell fail?”
Hester did not reply. Colonel Oxley swallowed back his bitter despair as he lowered his head. His soldiers kept urging him to take action, as they thought that the enemy would exit the train any minute now. They would not be able to avoid combat if they stayed here for any longer.
And yet, Hester only continued to stare endlessly at the northern sky. Her ashen eyes swam through the sky as she searched for what should be there and what she still needed to see.
Then, a cold light suddenly crossed her eyes.
A shallow smile alighted her lips.
The star that had been pushed out of the sky because of spring and summer had finally appeared. It wasn’t time for it to wake yet, but it had awoken from its slumber upon hearing the long and earnest prayer offered to it by its beloved son.
Valdivia, the Winter Star.
An out of season cold breeze blew across the grass. The colonel startled as he felt the chill by his ear and jumped up. The soldiers were frightened by the sudden chill, and the enemy stopped shooting as they grew alarmed by the sudden and inexplicable change in the weather. Their breaths were turning white before they could even fully register the cold.
The newly sprouted spring and summer flowers froze, and the weeds curled into themselves from the cold.
Winter had come.