Chapter 21 – A Big Mistake
It had been three days since Lea disappeared, and the academy was in an uproar like never before. All the previous students' disappearances seemed utterly insignificant compared to the missing teacher that caused a shockwave that was equal to enforcing martial law. The increase of security was no longer kept low-profile as the academy openly admitted that an outside enemy was threatening them. It made Aien suspicious of what had changed to his previous abductions, but on the other hand, it was the first missing magus that couldn't be attributed to deserting. On top of that, Lea was a full-fledged Rank 3 Magus, who was accomplished in both the Inner and Outer Focus – someone not to be underestimated.
Nevertheless, this response exceeded his expectations by far. Therefore he didn't act thoughtlessly and carefully calculated each of his moves while internalizing his lies until he convinced himself that they were the truth. That being said, he didn't change much of his schedule, which included visiting the forest from time to time.
In the evening of the same day, a knock on his door pulled him out of his thoughts. When he opened the door, he found two teachers standing in front of him, both of which were Rank 3 magi who he'd never interacted with before.
“Come with us.” One of them said in a tone that left no room for disobedience. With Aien in the middle, the two led him along a familiar stairway until they arrived in front of the headmaster's office.
“Come in.” Zeristin's voice called him from behind the door. After nervously fiddling with his robe and hands, Aien went inside the office with some slight hesitation while the two teachers waited outside.
“I'm sorry to have called for you in such a manner again...” Zeristin said with his back turned to Aien while he watched the chaotic scenery in the city. From this viewpoint, he could see the more than a thousand sentries swarming the entire city as well as the groups of magi that had banded together to search for any suspicious activities.
“I'm sure you're aware that people have begun missing over the recent months.” Zeristin continued in a monotone voice, not even looking at Aien.
“We swept it under the rug... But this time it's different. A teacher of our academy went missing within the city's bounds, and you were the last one who was in contact with her. Tell me, where is Lea?”
“Eh-!? Lea?” Aien slightly gasped in surprise that slowly turned into horror just as he realized the meaning of the question. There was not the slightest sign of deceit in his actions. Simultaneously he appeared to be a little perplexed as to why the headmaster was asking him this.
“We lost contact with her since the day the two of you visited the restaurant in the Outer District...” Within Zeristin's voice, there was nothing to be found. Not a trace of emotion or any signs of his objectives as he calmly interrogated the man who seemed most suspicious.
“I... We...” Aien stuttered at a loss of words. Despite Zeristin turning his back to him and not forcing any pressure on him, he still avoided looking in his direction.
“Aien... If you don't tell me everything you know, then... I'm sure you realize what will happen. Since you are the last person who saw her, I hope you understand your position.”
Although Zeristin said so, he was deeply conflicted within. All reason told him there was no possible way for Aien to have maliciously acted against her. Not only was Lea an outstanding magus, who very few in this city could rival, she was also extremely cautious. That was something he was very well aware of.
“We got into a fight...” Aien finally said, his head hung low in shame. “I pushed things too far, and eventually, she stormed out of the back...”
Zeristin closed his eyes and focused on his connection with the sentries. After a few seconds, he saw the restaurant in his mental landscape as several sentries surrounded it to send him the full scope of the place.
Afterward, he gathered his focus once more and compared the back alley that led to the north with the present and the past. If he remembered correctly, then the security was indeed lacking in that alleyway. If Lea did storm off as Aien claimed to, it was not at all unlikely for her to not be caught in the footage of the sentries...
“I see,” Zeristin answered him.
“She'll be fine, right?” Aien asked concerned, his eyes containing a luster created by the tears he desperately held back. “There shouldn't be anyone who can harm her, right? This... This is all my fault... I hope she didn't run off too far...”
“I hope so too,” Zeristin said without providing him any information. However, he knew that this was not merely the case of an aggrieving maiden. The tracking device he had on Lea was no longer sending him any signals when he probed for it, and all Divination Constructs in the academy returned without results. This told him that someone with sufficient backing had gotten involved, but that was all of the information he had on his hands.
“Headmaster, may I ask a question?”
“I know that Lea is an outstanding teacher and magus. She's also someone I hold very dearly, but does it warrant this much of a commotion? She's only been missing for a few days... I'm afraid to have troubled the entire city just because of my inappropriate behavior. Not to mention that as a capable magus, I'm confident that she should be able to take care of herself.”
“Indeed, as long as we have no confirmation of anything serious happening, this reaction might seem a little out of proportion. She might have even just run off by herself to look for the missing students... But you see, the reason for all of this is quite simple.”
Zeristin sighed once before turning around to stare down at Aien. At that point, the latter could see both of Zeristin's hands that were balled into a fist with such a strength that caused his veins to bulge out as drops of blood stained the floor beneath. His eyes contained the same calmness as always, but deep within, there was a fury restrained to its utmost limits.
“She is my daughter, after all. As a father, this is the least I have to do.”
Hearing that, Aien's eyes shrank drastically in response to this revelation. Unable to form the right words, his mouth hung wide open while he processed this sudden turn of events.
“I have to ask you to keep this a secret for now. It was for her own safety, but maybe it did the exact opposite.” Zeristin gloomily thought about whether this had been a mistake of his. But he quickly dispersed this thought. Regardless, whether it was public or not, the chance of Lea being in danger could be the same. At least, in this case, he hoped to have the strength to rescue her since whoever was going against him might not know who they were dealing with.
“What's wrong, boy?” He returned his attention to Aien, who was still rooted on the spot while he realized the implications of this new information.
“I-I can't believe I tried to court the daughter of the esteemed Zeristin Wezlak...” Aien gave a wry chuckle as he smiled helplessly, accompanied by a slight blush. However, he quickly regained his composure, trying to look more steadfast and appealing with a hint of defiance showing in his eyes. Like a son-in-law that would never give up on his beloved even if her parents stood in their way.
“I'm sure I have nothing to worry about with Zeristin Wezlak taking matters into his own hands.”
“Don't worry. I won't interfere with her relationships, so do try to make up when she is back.”
After a few more exchanges, Aien left the room completely exhausted. The pressure of dealing with Zeristin wasn't something he could do for long, without leaking any faults in his acting. The two teachers were no longer waiting as Aien walked down the stairs, lost in his own jumble of thoughts.
This was a fatal mistake. He'd expected Lea to have some kind of backing, but for her father to be Zeristin Wezlak himself was not something he had accounted for. It seemed that even he sometimes took people's opinions too much at face value without thinking through the possible deceptions. Just because he hadn't found a reason for others to lie, didn't mean that they wouldn't.
Whenever he'd approached the topic of family, Lea gave him only vague answers. Her disdain for the Noble Houses was quite apparent over the year, and with the hints he'd gotten from her, he expected her to have some complicated blood-relationships with some house. It would explain her uncomfortable attitude regarding the matter of keeping her identity a secret.
Of course, he hadn't completely ignored the matter of her background. However, he didn't come to any reasonable conclusions back then. The headmaster's past achievements were well documented in the library, but there had never been any mentioning of him settling down. There was no plausible way for him to realize the relationship between the two.
Lastly was Aien's interactions with the House of Celesta. When they had claimed that Lea knew some secrets, he should have pressed for more information or done some more research on his own. There was no way they wouldn't be aware of such a crucial factor of their opposition. He could only blame his own naivety, but this was a favor he'd definitely be keeping in mind...
Aien shook his head to disperse the regrets. What's done was done, and he couldn't change that. Instead, he had to focus on how to proceed. He became the personal enemy of Zeristin Wezlak. Whatever he had done before was no reason for the infamous magus to intervene himself. At most, they'd have sent some random magi to chase after him after everything came to light.
But since he had abducted his daughter, this was no longer the case. The moment Zeristin caught wind and had confirmation that he was the perpetrator, no amount of scheming would help him out.
There was one silver-lining. Since Zeristin was a follower of Ryeka and abided by the God of Judgment's teachings, he wouldn't come after him unless he had proven him guilty with sufficient evidence. It was a quirk of some sort he became well-known for after he had only acted against one of the Noble Houses after they were proven guilty. No matter how others had provoked Zeristin in the past, he had never acted against them with open force.
With keeping all of that in mind, Aien had to make a decision. The abnormal increase of surveillance made it difficult for him to return to his secret laboratory that was provided by Jeren von Celesta. Even if he was able to circumvent this hindrance, there was another problem.
Aien looked down at the tattoo on his left hand. He had never seen anything like it before nor read about it in the library.
Zeristin had gifted him a piece of paper that could be infused into his hand. After it disappeared, it left behind an eye with a pupil that was divided into five separate rings. There had been no way for him to refuse it, as Zeristin had claimed it was there to keep him safe in these dangerous times. It was the least he could do for his daughter's boyfriend.
No doubt, it was a tracking device.
Maybe it actually had some defensive capabilities, but Aien had to expect that from this point on, his every movement was being watched.
Eventually, Aien thoroughly decided to abandon his laboratory. There was no feasible method for him to stay hidden, and he would no longer take any unnecessary risks. However, this decision caused a slight hesitation to well up within him. His newly acquired source of information was immediately cut off from him without getting any results, and there was also...
It didn't matter. The decision was made, and he no longer dwelled on it. All of his thoughts had to be focused on how to survive Zeristin's imminent wrath and leaving the academy safely.
Meanwhile, within the dungeon, Lea was still bound to the table. For four days, the water had continuously heeded the call of gravity as the splashing echoed loudly in the room.
But that wasn't the only noise anymore.
"I'll talk! I'll talk!" She screamed at the top of her lungs or at least as much as her limp body allowed her to.
"Aien!! Come back, please! I'll tell you anything, just make this stop!"
The drops she had deemed ridiculous drove her insane as they unendingly dropped onto her head. Each and every time, she flinched in response, struggling in her chains to break free until all energy left her. Even when the fourth drop didn't come, in accord to the splashing sound, she flinched as if something was hitting her again. Unable to move for days and even unable to fall unconscious due to her strengthened body, she endured until she could no more.
"It's in my father's office! The headmaster's office!! Buried into the ground and guarded by constructs to prevent intruders! I can guide you there! I can disarm the traps! Just make this stop!!"
Only after four days, it had driven her to the point she'd divulge any secrets, and just like Karzek, she cursed the toughness of her own body that wouldn't let her escape this psychological torment. As food and sleep were not a priority for her body that could regain energy from her surroundings, she fell less asleep, the more the drops bothered her, until sleep was no longer possible at all.
"You want the blueprints!? I'll give them to you!!" She continued, sincerely believing that at any moment, Aien would come out of the dark corridor to release her. Thinking that it wasn't enough to entice him, she continued. "I'll tell you another secret! Do you hear me, Aien!? You can find that black scroll there! I don't know what it is, but Father cares deeply about it! I'm sure it will be useful to you!! I don't care about the academy just, please... Make|This|Stop..."
Alas, no one would ever hear her pleading.