Chapter 20 – A Different Approach
Awakening to the foul stench of blood, Lea's entire body shivered in response and tried to curl itself up. With her limbs tied to a cold, steel-like table, however, she was unable to move a muscle. Anything that could be a Magecraft Construct had been stripped away from her as she was chained to the table stark naked. Dozens of shackles, each thicker than her arm, kept her in place, and no amount of struggling could break her free. Her efforts didn't last long when she was overwhelmed by a weakness that almost caused her to fall unconscious again. She was barely able to gather her thoughts as she studied the situation she'd found herself in.
But the shackles around her neck didn't allow Lea to actually scan her surroundings. She soon lost all will to do so anyway when she saw that man noticing her awakening. A bundle of emotions erupted within her, overshadowing the feeling of weakness as she was filled with a short burst of energy.
“Who are you working for?” Lea wanted to shout out, but only a whisper escaped her quivering lips that tried to hold back the tears welling up inside her eyes. While she couldn't see the entire room, she'd found out more than enough from a few glances. Regardless of her body's condition, the sight of a magus would always be there. There were no constructs in her view, but the mysterious yet familiar runes on the ceiling revealed their existence. Glowing in a faint light, they cut the dungeon-like room off from the outside world. One rune prevented the use of Divination Constructs to locate her whereabouts, and the other would prevent all sound from leaving this place.
“The House of Celesta.” Aien didn't mind telling her the truth this time.
Even at this point, Lea didn't want to believe the reality that was unfolding before her. The amiable fellow who had followed her around for a year chose to betray her. The time she'd spent with the man who'd earned her respect and affection had turned out to be nothing more than a farce.
“Why...?” She stammered with the little strength left in her. In the corner of her eyes, she saw something that caused the rest of the color on her face to vanish. There, behind the small door that led to the dark corridor behind it, the severed arm of a corpse lay listlessly on the ground. On its finger, she saw a construct in the shape of a ring that was once in possession of one of her students. The truth of everything that had been happening slowly dawned on her as she hysterically asked him once more.
“Why are you doing this, Aien!? What could they possibly give you to make you do this?”
“Except for this building, they aren't giving me much more,” Aien said, unfazed by her small outburst.
“The disappearance of people was your doing?” She asked but already knew the truth as tears finally began flowing down her cheeks. Aien had spent less and less time with her, yet she hadn't paid the matter any heed. Instead of noticing all of the obvious signs, she had ignorantly listened to his every word, never doubting anything. When had she become this useless? This stupid? Even a fool should have realized his true intentions. An endless amount of regret filled every part of her body, but it was of no use. She couldn't change the past, and her future was uncertain. The only thing she could do was drown in the guilt of standing by as Aien had murdered dozens of innocent people she could have saved.
“I needed specimens...” Aien continued, but a shriek interrupted him.
“I don't care!” Lea seemed to find some strength as her voice echoed in the cellar. Whatever he'd wanted from the people, she didn't want to know. Neither did she want to find out what had happened to them, but the disgusting stench of blood in the dark dungeon only became more intense as the realization dawned on her against her will.
“You know my body is... defective in some way.” Aien continued, nonetheless, enlightening her in his recent research. If it weakened her spirit, it might make what came next easier for him. Therefore, Lea was forced to learn about the fate of the missing people.
“I figured that something was wrong with my body. Something physical. So I decided to find out what it could be. For that, I needed to learn more about the human body. I'm already quite familiar with my own... But I have yet to study the anatomy of other humans. At first, I focused on regular people. Similar to me, they didn't have enough talent, but they were not completely devoid of Aer. I wondered, where exactly is Aer stored? Do others have an organ that I do not? Does a system similar to veins exist through which Aer is transported through? As regular people were easier to acquire, I started with them and took them apart piece by piece.”
Lea wanted to shout out defiantly and call him a monster, but her spark of energy was long used up as she was forced to continue listening to him talking about humans like they were expendable parts to be experimented with.
“I had to perform a lot of tests...” He continued, but while he did so, he didn't stop moving. Lea couldn't tell what he was doing, but it seemed that he was carrying a few barrels and adjusting them to the ceiling and floor. A barrel that was as big as Lea was hung right above her, but she couldn't make out its uses. Was he going to crush her with them? But why go through such trouble just to kill her?
“I compared the dead and the living by using small amounts of concentrated mana to see if Aer diminishes over time. It takes weeks, but eventually, the Aer returns to the world as it is to be expected. Since I wanted to gain a precise understanding of the human body, however, I had to keep my subjects alive while I continued my experiments. It turned out that humans are unexpectedly fragile if they aren't strengthened in some way. Therefore, I needed an immense amount of health potions to help them recover during my experiments. There was also the problem of abducting people. After a few dozen had disappeared suspicions and security had risen to an alarming degree, so I needed a method to keep each one alive a little while longer.”
“Just stop...” Lea whimpered, her eyes no longer capable of producing tears. Against her will, her mind imagined the agonizing torture each of the victims had to go through to satisfy this monster's curiosity. The cries of his victims echoed within the hall of her imagination, increasing the guilt of having disappointed her citizens and students.
“In the end...” Aien ignored her as he was more focused on recalling all of the experiments he had done, which caused an unsightly frown to creep onto his face.
“I got nothing. However mana works, it doesn't involve anything tangible. It fuses with all of the organs of the body and its blood, but the method on how it does so remains unknown to me. How does the body actually split the wild mana in the air into the less harmful and useful Aer so it can be absorbed? One would imagine that this was done by an organ. Like the kidneys that remove unwanted substances, it would follow that mana is processed similarily, but...”
Aien shook his head to disperse the growing irritation. He'd taken a lot of risks to take his research in a new direction, but in the end, it was all pointless. Although the two of them had been working on a solution for his problem before, it was all a facade in which Lea had played along. Aien knew that their efforts were wasted and that it might take decades with their pace to create an actual construct that was independent of magi if that was at all possible. Lea had simply taken pity on him and helped, trying to make him feel slightly better about his situation.
He then realized that research in human anatomy was severely lacking so he'd decided to take the matter into his own hands. It made sense for the people of this world to not thoroughly study the human body when Magecraft and the Blessings of priests could cure anything that was curable. While he only had access to the information of the one public academy, the overall attitude regarding the study of Magecraft remained the same. The military interfered with genuine scholarly interests, which had led Aien to believe there was a lot of promise in this kind of research that had yet to be fully explored. But, despite his extreme methods, it turned out insufficient.
“The anatomy of all my subjects are the same. Nothing indicates why some have a better aptitude regarding mana. Of course, that excludes special cases like you who have a fundamentally different body. You never did tell me why you were born with alignment towards the wind element.”
“So you want to cut me apart too?” Lea whispered in a desolate voice. She recovered slightly faster from the shock than Aien had expected and she slowly came to terms with her fate that came to be through her own mistakes.
“I'm more interested in you answering a question of mine,” Aien responded. “You see, not only the House of Celesta but also I am very interested in where the blueprints of this city are kept...”
Lea couldn't hide the shock on her face when he approached a matter she hadn't expected to hear from him.
“So, that's what this is about...” She gave him a derisive chuckle accompanied by her defying attitude that would never yield. No matter what there was not the slightest possibility of her divulging this kind of information to her enemies.
“Then do your worst, scum.”
“They told me that you'd know, and it seems to be true.” Aien didn't give a response to her taunts as he finished his preparations with the barrels. But before he revealed their purposes, he studied her left arm that was being held open by a makeshift clamp that was made of metal fragments.
It was the same principle how Aien had kept Karzek on the verge of death, but it turned out to be far more difficult. Even in her weakened state, Aien couldn't use a single utensil of his to cut open a wound. Contradicting to the appearance of her smooth skin, it was incredibly tough, causing any knife or needle he had to dull without creating any damage.
In the end, the only thing he had left to use was the sword that was supposed to be used to summon a devil. After his fight with Karzek, he'd since kept it close to him to study it thoroughly. He didn't gain much from doing so but he'd assumed that it would one day come in handy.
There was some reluctance in his decision, but with no other option available, he'd shattered the swords into fragments. After using some creative methods to destroy the artifact (with the fortified table as a lever), he proceeded to use them to cut open her wrist. After a few more tweaks, he created a sort of clamp to keep the wound open. Unlike in Karzek's case, there was a constant stream of blood splattering on the floor like a pulsing river that would never run dry.
With the last few fragments, Aien decided to open a few wounds on her body to study them in case there was something different. He hadn't expected much, but after the third cut, his hand stopped abruptly. All of his movement ceased as if he was struck by lightning, and only after a few more seconds passed did he resume, entranced by his actions. Again and again, he cut open wounds on various different spots on her body, carefully studying them up close as they flawlessly stitched themselves back together.
“Interesting...” Aien mumbled to himself as a slight smile crept onto his face that he was unable to wipe off.
Eventually, the last fragment turned dull, and Aien was forced to stop. During this procedure, Lea had not once cried out in pain and barely reacted to what he was doing. She tried to remain indifferent, clearly refusing to answer anything regardless of what torture he'd put her through. Aien threw the last fragment away that became too brittle as whatever strength was left in them had been used up.
"You Inner Focus Magi never cease to amaze me..." Aien thought back to the ridiculous amount of poison he'd fed Lea over the months. He was certain that he would be unable to gather the same amount again in the forest he'd spent most of his time in. This amount would have been enough to cripple a small army, yet Lea had shrugged it off for quite some time until the effects finally accumulated.
"Regardless, this was an unexpected but pleasant surprise... Could it be true?... Haha!" The cellar was filled with the chilling sound of his laughter, and with a twisted smile covering his face, he returned his attention to the barrels he'd prepared. One hung from the ceiling, directly above Lea. Another one was in the corner of the room, where it also hung from the ceiling with another barrel right below it. At a first glance, there was nothing special about them as all three kegs were filled with regular water.
Using a drill-like utensil, he opened minuscule openings into the two barrels in the ceiling. Afterward, he made some slight adjustments until he was satisfied with the speed of the water that dropped out of the barrels.
The drops from the barrel above Lea fell right between her eyes. With each second, one drop fell, and after the third drop fell, there was a slight pause during which a single drop fell from the barrel in the corner. That particular drop fell into the barrel below, creating a small 'splash' sound that echoed within the dungeon.
Then, the cycle repeated itself.
One... Two... Three... SPLASH... One...
Meanwhile, Lea watched on in ridicule. The water was slightly annoying, but what was his goal?
“You are crazy.” She stated a fact he didn't deny. “At the end of all of this, what do you hope to achieve?”
“Strength,” Aien replied. “A strength that will give me freedom. And to gain that I will become a magus, no matter the cost.”
Lea didn't ask anything more. She clearly had a severe lapse in judgment to not realize what a lunatic she'd acquaintanced herself with. On the other hand, Aien ignored the implications of her question. When the day he'd achieve his goal arrived and become a magus, what would he do then?
He hated the world - That was a fact.
He also still had something left he cherished even if he didn't want to admit it to himself. Like distant stars in the endless night, they glimmered within the darkness inside of him. As much as he wanted to have an outlet for his hatred, something was keeping him at bay from completely lashing out. It was the last sparkle of warmth in this dismal world that had yet to be consumed by his wrath. This fragment of an emotion created a conflict within him that he didn't know how to resolve, sometimes even making him question his actions thus far.
However, he consciously chose to disregard these doubts as he always came to the same conclusions.
Everything could be decided after he gained the strength he needed. Regardless of what he'd do afterward, this was the one thing that was unquestionably required.
“I'll be back in a week. I hope it's not too late by then. But I'm sure you can last that long.”
With that, Aien left her alone in the dungeon with nothing else but the echoing sound of drops falling onto her face.