Dear Not Cunning Witch - Chapter 5
“Sniff……. I’m sorry. Lucas, Alvi, Edgar, Cecil, Paul…….”
In a dark passenger car illuminated only by the light of a candle. Someone’s cries echoed endlessly like the chilling noise of steel grating against steel.
“I’ll get revenge for you guys without…….”
But Morgan, the weeping man, could not finish his sentence. He stared, stupefied, at the pile of his comrades’ corpses for some time before he abruptly buried his face against the chest of one of the corpses. The hardening bloodstains and the body, growing only colder, tore at his already exhausted heart.
He was originally a medical student from the Tutel region of northern Ingram. The Tutel region had been turned into Ingram territory just fifty years ago, and the people who lived there had faced all sorts of discrimination and cried out for their independence, but Morgan had simply devoted himself to his studies.
But the chance to turn everything around had come without warning, as it was always wont to do.
Morgan had a younger brother for whom he cared so much that it created many rumors. He hadn’t been intelligent like his older brother, who was one of the brightest minds in town, but Morgan’s younger brother was kind and easygoing —the type person that everyone had no choice but to like. But Morgan’s brother, who had not been able to endure the injustice they had been born into, had enlisted in the Tutel Independence Army while Morgan was away. Only his brother’s cold corpse had welcomed Morgan back home once he had returned after his semester was over.
Morgan, who loved his brother more than he loved himself, had immediately enlisted in the Independence Army. But unlike Ingram, which was flourishing more by the day, Tutel took loss after loss and was in decline. The combination of the Ingram government’s policies, which were purposefully meant to starve Tutel dry, and the industrialization of the regions around them had utterly devastated Tutel’s economy.
The Independence Army could not support Tutel as it crumbled. Discouraged, Morgan had left the Independence Army with a few of his comrades who shared his sentiments and enlisted in the Ingram Armed Revolutionary Army, which had once been infamous for their wicked deeds near Ingram’s borders. He knew that the chains suffocating Tutel originated from Ingram and that Ingram must fall for Tutel to truly be free.
The Ingram Armed Revolutionary Army was an organization on the brink of collapse. It did not take long for Morgan to rise as one of its leaders. The only problem lied in their lack of opportunity. Ingram had entered a golden age under the reign of the Arclight Dynasty. The Revolutionary Army could engage in guerilla warfare in the rugged mountains near the borders, but they were ultimately no better off than the Tutel Independence Army had been. They had left the Independence Army because they had wanted to stand against Ingram with more violent, radical means.
And then, Morgan had encountered a mysterious wizard just at the right time. He spoke with so many foreign accepts that it was difficult for Morgan to estimate where the wizard was from.
‘It looks like I might be able to help you,’
the wizard had said gladly after he heard about Morgan’s plight.
Things had progressed quickly after that. Their plans progressed so smoothly after that —it was almost as if the gods themselves were watching over them. Until a wizard in black robes had appeared the very day before they planned to hijack the train and stage their revolt, that is.
“Do you mean to say that you’ll do this alone, Niolo?”
“I need a place where I can spread my wings to my heart’s content. My magic was forcefully sealed for ten long years —how could you possibly understand how I feel?”
There was something strangely chaotic about this newcomer wizard, Niolo Pagliacci, even in the eyes of someone as ignorant of magic as Morgan. The wizard who had set up their plans with them had idly asked,
“Very well. I suppose I won’t have to worry since it’s you.”
Then, the wizard had advised,
“In that case, why don’t we change the destination to Penzas? The wizard who can summon winter resides there. He’s a genius who’s lauded as the true successor to Israel Alpheus, but it’s late spring now and he has poor affinity with you, so I’m sure he’ll make the perfect opponent. He’ll also be a good way to tell the world that the Mad Niolo has made his spectacular return.”
And so, the mysterious wizard had left, leaving only Niolo Pagliacci behind. But Morgan hadn’t been too concerned. The Ingram military headquarters probably hadn’t even dreamed that the Armed Revolutionary Army, which had only ever been considered a threat to the borders about thirty years ago, would be cooperating with a wizard. At the time, Morgan had only been thinking frantically about how he would set Ingram ablaze.
Morgan could hardly believe what was happening now. His comrades from his time with the Tutel Independence Army had all died and only he remained. The passenger car was filled with his comrades, yet he was the only person alive and breathing. Everyone else had become cold corpses before they had the chance to liberate their home.
Morgan sobbed into his comrade’s chest for a long time before he slowly looked up. He had to escape the train immediately if he wanted to at least keep his own life. His feet refused to move when he thought about how he was about to leave his comrades behind, but he knew that at least one of them must survive lest the others’ deaths were rendered vain.
Just then, a sudden thought struck his head like lightning. He was determined not to simply hand the corpses of his comrades over to Ingram, and he was resolved not to simply return the train in perfect condition.
Morgan’s eyes, which had been soaked in grief, regained their piercing light. There was something he had left behind in the freight cars just in case something like this happened. Niolo Pagliacci may have sneered at him for preparing something so pointless, but things had still come to this anyway.
He staggered as he made his way to the rear of the train. Only the flimsy light of a candle lit the dangerous path before him.
* * *
The passenger car was dark.
The breathtaking tension never broke away even as the beautiful whispers of the golden Dulcinea flowers resounded. Not only did it not break away, but it seemed to close in on them like a sharpened blade.
Diana was frozen stiff as she observed Niolo. Her only saving grace was that the moon was shining down into the window that Niolo was standing near. She could not read the expression on his face because he was standing with his back to the light, but it was perfect for keeping an eye on his movements. Moreover, the moonlight did not reach the corner in which Diana was awkwardly sitting, so, presumably, Niolo could not see her and was simply observing her presence like a coyote.
Diana swiftly made a decision. She did not know how it had happened, but Dulcinea, the King of the Stars, had definitely risen. The king that symbolized order itself had arrived, so Muzetta, the Inverse Star that took advantage of chaos to broaden its influence, would surely disappear soon. Besides, it looked like Niolo already couldn’t use his magic properly, judging by how the fireballs had disappeared. This was a great opportunity that she would likely never get again.
Diana took a short breath and steeled herself as she stood up. Her left ankle throbbed painfully, but she had managed to take a step toward the door without making a sound. She was even prepared to use magic if she had to. Her birth star, Callisto, the Star of Darkness, was located far out in the furthest reaches of the heavens where neither order nor chaos mattered. It didn’t matter to her that Dulcinea and Muzetta were causing chaos as they fought for dominance over the heavens.
But Diana suddenly felt like her eyes had met Niolo’s just then. His doubts, which stemmed from the fact that he could not see in the darkness, only lasted for but a moment before he promptly ran toward her like a beast. Diana didn’t even have the time to use her magic.
She tumbled to the floor when he stubbornly caught her by the shoulder. She could not help but cry out when Niolo put his heavy weight on her sprained ankle. Diana was in shock and did her best to break free of his grasp, but she was far too weak to put up a proper fight against a wizard who had survived being imprisoned in Gwaltiello Velli.
Niolo suppressed her with just one hand. Then, Diana heard his frightening growl by her ear. Tears streamed down her face as she was seized by extreme pain and she unwittingly cast a spell.
All sorts of miscellaneous things fell on top of Niolo. Bags, clothes, dried fruit, and even steel bars from the train showered upon him like hail. Niolo faltered, and Diana took the chance to crawl away. But even then, her efforts had been too weak.
He grabbed her by her sprained ankle. Diana screamed as she sank down to the floor. Then, a pain so vivid that she could not even scream pierced through her abdomen.
Niolo growled like a wild beast. But Diana couldn’t hear him. She was in such agonizing pain that she felt like she was being seared by hot iron. The tremendous pain rendered her unable to think.
Diana struggled for her life. She flailed her limbs just to get a little farther from the pain, just to get a little farther from him. Then, she felt something soft at her fingertips.
She crushed it in her hands before she even had the time to make a decision. She used all her strength, as if she meant to gouge it out. Then, she heard a thunderous scream before the weight pressing down on her body suddenly vanished. The dreadful and horrible screaming continued from behind her, and she did not dare turn back.
She crawled and crawled. Her abdomen hurt so much she could not even register the pain from her ankle. Cold sweat was dripping down her chin. But she could not stop. She felt like his stubborn grasp was still lingering by her feet. Diana wept and sobbed as she crawled. But she did not dare let her cries escape her lips, so they simply rumbled inside her stomach.
Eventually, the pain she could not bear erupted as tears from her eyes. Tears rolled down from her eyes as she just barely managed to crawl in the space between two seats. A sigh escaped her as she leaned back against the shadowed seat behind her. The pain she had been holding back escaped with her breath.
She gritted her teeth together as she endured the pain. She was about to moan, but she just barely managed to hold it back by chewing on her lips. Then, she slowly brought her trembling hand down to her abdomen.
Something slender and sharp was wedged into the taut skin of her stomach. Diana startled and brought her hand away. She could not see because it was dark, but she could imagine what was going on in her head. Diana was frightened, and she squeezed her eyes shut as she clamped her hands over her mouth. But her tears refused to stop. Her jaw was quivering, and her hands kept slipping over her cold sweat.
“Help me, Sister……,”
Diana wept quietly.
She was in a corner seat where not a single ray of light touched her. Diana sobbed like a young child as she shuddered from the agony that made it difficult for her to breathe.
And she hesitated —caught between calling for someone who could not hear her and saying a name she dared not utter.
* * *
“Are you Diana?”
Diana had met Hester for the first time at her mother’s, whose face she did not know, funeral. Hester had crimson hair and grey eyes just like her. Diana, who had never known her family while growing up, had fallen in love with Hester at first sight.
But the sisters had not been able to stay together for long. Hester had been a young witch who was still an apprentice, and Diana had needed to find a teacher of repute to teach her magic. Luckily for her, Barbara Jiles, the Witch of Dawn, had learned of her circumstances and had readily promised to take in the motherless child.
And so, Diana had needed to leave the cemetery with her unfamiliar new teacher as soon as her mother’s funeral had ended. She had looked out the carriage window continuously, in want of seeing her sister again, but her apathetic teacher had only continued to urge the horse forward.
That was how Diana had become apprenticed to Jiles at the age of seven. Her teacher, Barbara Jiles, was a relatively kind witch, but as usual, she did not care much for others. Barbara had been indifferent to even her own children, so it wasn’t as if she would treat some random girl whom she had taken in out of a moment’s pity any better.
Diana had found her teacher difficult to deal with. She had not been able to sleep at night during the days when her teacher would look so puzzled by how clumsy she was with magic. When she was younger, Diana had thought that her teacher might discard her lacking disciple at any moment. And Diana had precociously understood that an abandoned disciple would never get the chance to learn again.
And there had still been something else that had driven her to the edge of a cliff when she was younger.
The manor had been empty, and there were hardly any people to be seen in it. Living there had been her teacher’s three children, whom her teacher had not told her about in advance. Sullivan Jiles, who was a cut taller than his peers, was the eldest, the mean-spirited Chesterty Jiles was the second, and Cedric Jiles, who had been peerlessly rough even though he was a year younger than Diana, was the youngest. Barbara had introduced Diana to them and had told them to get along in passing, but the three siblings had not looked kindly to Diana. Especially Cedric Jiles.
Cedric Jiles had been tentatively named as Barbara’s heir apparent because he was her only child by blood. The problem, however, was that inheritance were matrilineal in the world of magic. Unlike in human society, where people inherited their father’s surnames, people in the world of magic inherited their mother’s surnames and lived under their mother’s households. Cedric was Barbara’s one and only child by blood, but he was also undeniably a son. This meant that Cedric had a fatal flaw that <Cunning Jiles> could not tolerate. The world of magic was old-fashioned, and the witches and wizards of House Jiles, the most prominent house of magic in Ingram, had refused to wait and see how Cedric would grow up.
Relatives of House Jiles had sent letters advising that Chesterty should be named as the heir apparent at every chance. They had even asked Barbara, who had separated from her husband, to get remarried. And Cedric, too, had been growing only more anxious by the day as his position as heir apparent came into question.
And then, in the midst of all that, his mother had taken in an apprentice, and Cedric had disliked her. Sullivan had laughed cynically and Chesterty had been excited to find a new toy to play with, but Cedric had simply glared at Diana with ice-cold eyes. Naturally, it had only taken Diana a single moment before she found herself frightened and daunted by her unfamiliar situation.
Then, the Jiles manor had become as an unspeakable hell to her. Chesterty, who took great pleasure in teasing others, had started bullying Diana within a day. It had never been the simple or cutesy kind of teasing. It wasn’t unusual for her to put lizards in Diana’s soup or pour icy water over Diana on a cold winter day, and she had even set Diana’s clothes on fire once.
A generally talented wizard might have been annoyed by Chesterty’s pranks, but they would have never been harmed by them. But Diana was not nearly as skilled a witch as Chesterty was. All she had been able to do was grow pale with fright or cry sorrowful tears.
And Chesterty had cackled at Diana’s refreshing reactions. Diana probably would have suffered at Chesterty’s wicked hand for much longer had Barbara Jiles not happened to see one of Chesterty’s pranks by chance.
But Cedric Jiles had been the bigger problem. Chesterty had been troublesome, but Diana had always known that she was not malicious. But that was not the case for Cedric. He had always been clearly spiteful of Diana. There had always been sharp and cold poison in the words he said to her in passing, in the glances he cast her way. And Diana had always suffered, unable to withstand it.
“‘You must be the most worthless witch in existence.”
That had been the first thing that Cedric Jiles had ever said to her. And,
“Have you no shame, Diana Sol? If you know that my mother only took you in out of pity, then you should at least do your share of the work properly. Can’t you see that all you’re doing right now is smearing mud on the Jiles name?”
He had even said the following right in Barbara Jiles’ presence.
“I see Griselda Sol must have screwed around for an entire year. How could such an amazing witch have given birth to a mistake like you?”
He had said things like that to her almost every day while seething in contempt.
Cedric had never bullied Diana physically like Chesterty had, but he had also never treated her like an equal. In other words, he had not seen the point in raising his hand against her because she was simply so beneath him.
Even if she had hardened her heart, it was only natural that Diana’s self-confidence had plummeted after living day after day with someone who despised her so. Cedric’s spiteful remarks had mutilated Diana’s heart without end. She had denied his words at first, but a day had passed, then a month, then a year, and she had begun to wonder if he was actually right.
The young Diana had grown more depressed by the day. But the indifferent Barbara Jiles had not understood her anxieties. Diana had slowly wilted away in the manor without her teacher’s protection. The child who had earnestly wished for love because she had never known her family while growing up had been tormented by malice and apathy instead. The only person who had ever whispered their endless love to Diana was Hester, but Hester was always far away. And the Jiles manor was much too ruthless a place for Diana to survive only by waiting for her sister’s next letter.
In the end, Diana had broken taboo as she shuddered in her loneliness.
She had only found that book in the study completely by chance. There were many rare books in the study, as House Jiles had a long history behind it, and it was only natural that it carried at least one or two forbidden texts. But these forbidden texts had been too enticing for the young girl who had been forcing herself to survive day after day. Diana had begun indulging herself in the forbidden texts before she even realized it, and it had led her to do something that she should have never done.
Diana always regretted it. Why hadn’t she understood back then that there was a reason why it was forbidden to break taboo? But man always regretting his deeds only after the fact, and Diana, too, regretted and regretted her actions every day as she ruminated over what she had done. Her regrets would never erase what she had done that day, but she could at the very least determine to never do it again.
But Diana could no longer be certain of that anymore now that things had come to this.
After all, she simply wanted to stay alive.
Diana was leaning weakly against the wall. Her vision was blurry —perhaps she had lost too much blood. She blinked repeatedly in an attempt to clear her vision, but it was to no avail. In the end, her eyes closed feebly.
She began hearing something unpleasant in her ear about then. It was coming from afar, and it was weirdly periodic. She leaned her ear toward the sound that tugged at her heart. It was gradually growing louder. The sound shattering the silence that clung to the train like bloodstains was the sound of someone coming closer.
The sound was as loud as thunder now, and it boomed against the floor before it stopped just short of her. Only the sound of her breathing and the sound of someone else’s breathing resounded in the newfound silence. Slowly, Diana opened her eyes. The moonlight that had been shining down through the window on the other side of the aisle was nowhere to be seen. The figure of a large man had covered it as he looked down at her.
“This is where you escaped to?”
Niolo asked insidiously. Diana looked up at him with her blurry eyes and barely managed to say,
she whispered weakly.
“Run away? Why should I?”
Niolo walked up to her and knelt down on one knee. The blackness of night obstructed her view, but Diana’s eyes had already adjusted to the darkness and she could make out his silhouette clearly.
Niolo had taken off his robes. His face, finally revealed to the world, was twisted by the heartless torture he had been subject to. In particular, one of his eyes were bizarrely swollen. Diana could easily smell the blood coming from him. Niolo continued,
“I felt extreme pain for the first time in a long while thanks to you. It reminded me of what the religious fanatics of Gwaltiello Velli used to do to me. You made me recall things I never wanted to remember, so I think I’ll have to make you taste the same pain I did.”
He grinned. Diana replied a beat late as she leaned against the wall.
“……You’re going to kill me?”
“But I don’t want to kill you.”
Her lips quivered as she continued,
“You might be an evil wizard, even one who deserves to die, but I don’t want to kill you. So please……. Please run away.”
Then, Diana began sobbing. Niolo simply stared back at her blankly. An astringent look crossed his face as he could not understand what she was trying to say for the life of him, but then something strange seized his vision.
It was just before dawn. It was the darkest hour of the day, and yet there was a shadow towering over his head.
A shadow blacker than night and deeper than darkness.
Niolo turned around as if he was bewitched. There, he found a mysterious creature.
It had the head of a goat and a body that looked like that of a man’s. Its large, reptilian tail extended from its spine and dug into the air. ‘It’ was easily five spans taller than Niolo —Niolo had lived through many things, but this was the first time in his life he had witnessed anything as bizarre as this.
Diana choked over her words as she shouted,
“I warned you. I told you to run away, I told you I didn’t want to kill you……. Why couldn’t you listen to me? —why……?”
But Niolo could no longer move his body. He instinctively knew that he had to run away right now, but he could not tear his eyes away from the mysterious creature’s idol-like figure.
He knew what it was.
[You aren’t my contractor.]
Then, the mysterious creature asked him,
[What are you?]
It was a demon.
* * *
How on earth had this happened?
Niolo Pagliacci had many names. The Wizard of Flames, the Shame of the Pagliacci, Mad Niolo, the Stain of Mutirè……. Everyone had pointed their fingers at him and called him crazy, but no one had guessed that he had brutally murdered their renowned brethren. Pagliacci, the house Niolo hailed from, was too lofty a name for that.
People had only started doubting him after a certain separate incident. His eyes had suddenly turned red one day. And the witches and wizards had begun gossiping about how Mad Niolo had summoned a demon. Niolo hadn’t said a word about it at first, but he had ultimately ended up spilling the truth before a solemn judge.
He had summoned a demon before.
To be honest, Niolo had always been unusually interested in demonology ever since he was young. The anecdote about the demon that had massacred an entire town out of boredom, the story about a witch who had been rendered sterile at a demon’s touch, and the legend about a wizard who had betrayed his brethren because he was enchanted by a demon. Those were the kinds of stories Niolo had enjoyed as a child. His mother had burned all of their forbidden texts out of fear when she learned of her son’s twisted personality —he likely wouldn’t have stopped at just summoning a demon if she hadn’t.
Thankfully, Niolo had grown up ignorant about demonology, just as his mother had hoped. But he had found a forbidden text purely by chance while he was visiting Banzè as an adult. Banzè was a respectable Central Kingdom that practiced the Faith of Santigma as its state religion, but the Church’s regulations were still laxer than that of Messina’s, which was a theocracy with a lot of clergy in positions of power. That was where Niolo had picked up demonology. And it was also in Banzè that he had summoned a demon.
To be fair, he had not thought that he would actually succeed. He had already tried countless times before and had failed every time, and he had quietly assumed that he would fail yet again. But the summoning circle had suddenly begun glowing, and a strange creature, like an amalgamation of a rhinoceros and a snake, had appeared before his very eyes. Niolo had instinctively known that it was a demon.
[How will you entertain me, human?]
But the demon had truly transcended his every imagination. Niolo had done his best to wheedle a contract out of the demon, but the demon had simply looked bored as it said,
[You won’t do.]
Then, a burning pain had assaulted Niolo’s eyeballs. The demon had vanished while Niolo had been rolling around the floor from the sudden pain. The scent of sulfur lingering in the room had been the only trace that the demon had ever been there. The demon had also scarred Niolo forever and had turned his once-golden eyes crimson.
Niolo had never successfully summoned a demon ever again. People had grown suspicious of his red eyes and had sentenced him for life for his crimes, and he had thought that he would never see another demon for the rest of his life.
So, how on earth had this happened?
His vision was spinning around and around. The ceiling and the floor had swapped places hundreds of times as he blinked his eyes. He saw a headless corpse when the spinning abruptly stopped. Niolo stared at the corpse for a moment before he finally realized.
That’s my body.
[I’d heard before that wizards don’t die unless you destroy their heads —I see it was true,]
the demon said merrily. Niolo’s gaze naturally followed the demon downward when he picked up Niolo’s head with a bloodied hand. The demon continued,
[Can I take this with me, Diana? I think my underlings will like it if I give it to them.]
Diana was silent. She had only been clinging to the wall and sobbing ever since the demon had first appeared. But even her sobbing was losing strength, and Niolo could only hear the sound of her quiet breathing.
The demon studied her strangely for a moment before he suddenly exclaimed,
[Diana —Diana Sol. Do you still dislike my appearance? But I need you to understand. It took me decades just to find this body.]
The light in the demon’s eyes looked sullen. He continued,
[And there’s nothing I can do if it’s my face that you don’t like. My original form is that of a goat, so I can’t change it. Do you really hate my face that much?]
It was only then that Diana just barely managed to open her mouth. Her hoarse voice poured out from her torn lips.
The demon tilted his head to the side. Diana glared at him sharply, as though she found even that minute action disgusting.
“I don’t care what your face or body looks like, so screw off.”
[But it’s been fifty years since you last called me. I know that time passes more quickly in the underworld than it does here, but still. To say goodbye already…….]
“I said I don’t care! Just go away already! Get out of my sight right now!”
Diana shouted while shaking her head violently, unable to hold herself back. The demon was bewildered by her abrupt screaming and hesitantly stepped back. But then, he anxiously walked up to her again a moment later with anxiety written plainly on his face.
[Are you hurt?]
Diana only continued her labored breathing. The demon pushed his goat’s face closer to her as he fussed,
[Your wound there is deep! You need to treat that at once!]
“I thought……I told you to screw off…….”
[Let’s get you treated first. And you’ve lost so much blood too —how come you never said anything about it?]
The demon rebuked her as he reached out with his large hand. Diana startled and smacked him away. The demon stared back at her blankly, but Diana screamed back in loathing,
“I said, screw off! Do I need to say your name again to make you go away?”
[D-Diana. Calm down for a minute.]
“Go away, Margot! Just go away!”
Diana yelled desperately with her wounded body. Her face had been as white as a sheet for some time now, and her blood would not stop its flow. The demon was worried and at a loss for what to do. He could not help but be concerned as Diana kept pushing herself even though it wouldn’t be strange if she passed out at any moment.
Then, a loud blast sounded from far away.
It wasn’t just one explosion. Ear-piercing roars resounded one after another. And they were coming closer.
It had happened just as the demon was reaching out to Diana. He suddenly turned his head to the left. His subdued eyes carefully studied the dark corridor.
[……I suppose we must bid farewell for today,]
he whispered wistfully. He continued,
[Daughter of Griselda. Do not make me wait too long.]
The demon melted into the air. The dense stench of sulfur circled the passenger car, marking the demon’s presence, and the explosions only grew closer still. The noise pierced her eardrums and shook her to the core, but all Diana could do was blink slowly.
Her vision was already growing dark. Even the noise of the train blowing up sounded so far away.
She finally closed her eyes as the drowsiness took over her. She thought she heard a nostalgic voice just before she lost consciousness.
* * *
Late at night.
The soldiers were following the railroad tracks toward the train as the golden Dulcinea flowers blossomed in the grass and sang their endless song. They were only up against a wizard who had lost his magic, but they could not help but be cautious in every step they took because so many of their comrades had been killed horrendously at his hands.
Hester was watching over them anxiously not too far away from the tracks. She was pale because she had spent easily half a day praying, but no one had dared convince her otherwise when she left the camp.
Hester had created a miracle tonight. She had made the Dulcinea flowers bloom —a feat that everyone had thought was impossible—, and she had guided Dulcinea, the King of the Stars, to the heavens to quell the chaos. There was nothing more she could do now. She had done everything she could do, so all she could do now was wait. All she could do now was trust that Diana was still alive, that the soldiers would deliver her safely from the wicked wizard’s clutches.
But the train had unexpectedly started exploding just as the soldiers were about to board the train. And the explosions wouldn’t stop. The second freight car had started exploding just as the first one had finished. The explosions progressed quickly from the back of the train, and everyone simply stared at the explosions in mute amazement.
“Get out! Get out of there! Retreat! Right now!”
Colonel Oxley yelled in alarm. The soldiers who had been about to step inside the train hesitantly stepped back.
Hester, who had been staring dumbfoundedly at the scene, asked,
“T-those explosions —can’t you do something about them with magic?”
“Look at the train! The cars are blowing up one after another! Those explosions will probably continue all the way to the passenger cars, but I can’t just send my soldiers to their deaths! We don’t even know where Little Diana is!”
The colonel’s voice was lost in the explosions as they grew louder. Hester, who had been staring at him in a daze, suddenly turned around. She began making her way toward the train before she even had the time to pick up her skirt. She walked past the soldiers and their torches, and she crushed the grasses wavering in the fierce winds beneath her feet.
But someone pulled her sharply back just then.
“Where are you going?”
Oliver asked as he panted. His hand was quivering slightly as he grabbed her by the shoulder.
“Where —where are you trying to go?”
“You know where I’m going.”
“……You’re not trying to go to the train, are you?”
Hester was silent. Oliver was dumbstruck as he furiously shook his head. He continued,
“No. You can’t. I won’t let you.”
“The train is exploding! You’ll die if you go!”
Oliver shouted. But Hester refused to budge. Oliver’s face twisted in grief as he pleaded,
“Please……. I can’t watch you die.”
Hester stared up at him in silence. The expression on his face grew truly pained in the swaying light of the torches in the midst of the exploding chain of train cars and the thunderous roars smashing against their heads. Perhaps it was his sincerity —it was her first time seeing it— that was cutting her heart to pieces.
Hester smiled sorrowfully.
“I’ll die even if I stay.”
Oliver looked back at her in forlorn. The hand holding Hester by the shoulder slowly withdrew.
Hester turned right back around without any lingering attachment. The explosions refused to stop, and the ferocious flames continued to soar into the sky. And then she disappeared.
Oliver simply continued to stare at the place where Hester had been standing in devastation. But then he looked up with determination etched into his face when a freight car exploded loudly and crumbled down.
The train was filled with dark smoke. Hester looked around herself as she coughed. She pressed forward while hoping desperately that Diana wasn’t inside one of the rear cars that had already blown up.
The passenger cars were a right mess —perhaps from battle or perhaps from the passengers’ escape. Hester had nearly tripped over stray luggage or corpses countless times. But she never stopped moving. The explosions were only growing closer, and yet she couldn’t find Diana anywhere.
She was wandering frantically when she had a sudden chilling premonition. It was a strange sensation that refused to allow her to move forward despite the danger she was in. Hester glared quietly that the door that led to the next car. Her sharp witch senses told her that there was something on the other side.
Eventually, Hester opened the door. Her premonition had proven true.
Diana was learning weakly against the wall by a window clouded over by smoke. Hester immediately ran to her and instantly grew pale. There was a narrow piece of steel wedged inside Diana’s abdomen. Hester was startled and absentmindedly put a hand over the mouth, but she quickly brought it back down as she grew frightened out of her mind.
Her hands, which she had been grasping at the floor with, were dripping with blood.
Hester’s hands were trembling as she shook Diana gently by the shoulders.
“Please wake up, Diana. Please…….”
Her voice was choked with tears. A few droplets fell to the floor before Hester quickly wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. But her eyes grew quickly moist again because Diana wasn’t moving.
Is this how I lose you? Just like how I lost Mother so suddenly……?
Hester pressed against her eyes as she bit down at her lips. No. Not this time. She refused to lose someone yet again so suddenly. The promise she had made to her dying mother still rang loudly in her ears, so she could not allow everything to be over so fleetingly. She could not give up so readily.
‘I’ll look after Diana.’
Hester vowed just like she had once done as a young girl of twelve when her mother had passed away. This time, she was making the promise to herself. She would not lose anyone ever again. She would never be left alone in her solitude ever again.
The explosions grew much closer. Hester coughed violently as she looked out the window. But she could not secure a clear view because the smoke was too dense. If she could not see, then she would have to teleport while relying on coordinates alone. But she didn’t have a map on her.
Quickly, Hester decided. There was a simple reason why a witch replied on a map while teleporting. It was because you could die if your coordinates weren’t accurate. Even the smallest mistake could send you high up in the air, into the deep sea, or even underground.
But she truly didn’t have the time to spare. Hester glared quietly at the flames she could see through the crack in the door as she held Diana tight in her arms. Then, she cast a spell without using coordinates.
The acrid smoke blocking her airways vanished instantaneously. Instead, Hester snapped back to her senses as she felt the cold night air against her skin, and she held Diana tight as they tumbled fiercely to the ground. Her shoulder and back hurt as they rolled. They rolled for quite some time —she had probably teleported somewhere rather high up in the air— before they finally stopped.
Hester’s breathing was ragged as she barely managed to sit up. She hurt all over, but she didn’t have the leisure to care about the pain. She immediately began to check on Diana, who was still in her arms.
The dim light of the stars shone down quietly on the sisters. Hester looked like she was about to cry as she carefully stroked Diana’s face. Her face was deathly pale and devoid of blood, and her pulse was so weak it seemed like it would stop at any moment. Fresh blood kept pouring from her abdomen, but Hester had no idea what to do about it. Hester was not a witch who specialized in healing. She couldn’t even begin to guess what she was supposed to prioritize in her situation.
But she heard a familiar voice call out to her just then.
A certain man was running toward her with his back to the train burning in the distance. The torch in his hands looked far brighter to her than did the train exploding behind him. He continued,
“What happened to the little miss? Is she hurt?”
Oliver asked once he had suddenly gotten closer. Hester’s lips quivered as she forced herself to nod.
Oliver laid Diana on the ground and studied her wound under the torchlight as he frowned. The piece of steel pierced into her abdomen wasn’t very thick, but she had lost a lot of blood. Oliver handed the torch to Hester and promptly took Diana up in his arms. Hester stared at him in a daze before she staggered up to her feet.
“Let’s take her to the army doctor for now. The little miss will probably—”
“Diana will be all right,”
Hester answered firmly. The anxiety had been erased from her mien, and only her determined resolve remained.
She began walking ahead without any further delay. The torch, held high in her hand, pushed away the darkness as though it was heralding the dawn that was yet to come. One step, then another. Her footsteps gained strength as she kicked against the ground.
It was still nighttime, and the sun had yet to rise.
The world was still covered in darkness, but the dawn would surely come to make it brighter. Just as it always did.
* * *
Phoebe, the Star of Dawn, shone warmly as the first ray of dawn cut through the darkness from the east. Phoebe was the last star to wake at night, and it was the Star of Dawn that announced the start of each new day. The Star of Dawn drew away the still-lingering curtain of night and illuminated the new day, just like the shepherd who had driven away the monsters in the legends.
The dawn came over even that gruesome hill. The train had blown up and only its skeletal frame remained, and the scorched railroad tracks looked horrendous. The passengers, who hadn’t slept a wink all night, were standing near it with blank looks on their faces, and the soldiers were busy looking for any survivors.
A single owl had hidden itself in the night had that yet to fade. The owl, which had observed everything —the crumbling train, the bewildered army, the missing wizard, the frantic sisters with crimson hair— finally took to the skies as its eyes glowed teal.
The bird flew to the north. It flew north where the dawn had yet to reach, where it was still shroud in darkness, and where its master was calling it from…….