Chapter 23 – Quarantine
“Iri... Can't you do something about this?”
One of the guys complained. They had descended down into the darkness where they walked through a tight corridor. It was barely wide enough for a single person to pass through. The bigger problem, however, was the terrible stench coming from the distance that kept getting worse the further they went. Although most of the group pinched their noses to endure the unbearable stench, they didn't think much of it. They merely assumed it to be some kind of sewage that had seeped into the corridor where it thrived and rotted over the years.
Rustov and Izmir, on the other hand, had turned quite serious the second they caught a sniff. Unlike the others, who had never been in a real battle, the two were very familiar with this smell.
“I could, but I might chop off your nose. Do you still want me to try?” Iria quipped, apparently still bothered by the earlier remark. She played around with the bracelet on her fingers, twirling it through the air, which resulted in a high-pitch sound that was ready to saw through anything it passed through.
“No... thanks..., I'm fine.”
The man shuddered, just imagining what could happen if Iria used her construct. In hindsight, it was a stupid question of his. As the only Outer Focus Magi in this group, Iria was their main firepower. Naturally, her construct couldn't be used for something delicate like preventing the air from entering their nostrils.
“Enough nonsense,” Izmir grunted. “Focus and be on your guard. Something is wrong.”
In response, the group instantly ceased their meaningless chatter and sharpened their senses. The damp corridor was clad in darkness, and the only thing that existed within it were the echoes of the wailing banshee. At this point, however, it became painfully clear that it wasn't one of the Silent Ones but the woes of a pitiful woman.
Since they had smelled some sort of gas, they couldn't risk lighting a torch, but with their eyesight as Magi, they could rely on the mana that was imbued into the walls to guide them. They could also see the trail of mana that led down the corridor, where it accumulated in a bright blob. The group eventually arrived at the end, and what they saw left them bewildered.
“...What is this?”
Instead of a cave as they'd expected, a spacious room was unfolding in front of them that was clearly made by humans. The narrow corridor they had gone through spread into the hall that could accommodate hundreds of people. It was created with unaesthetic bricks and otherwise completely empty. There was nothing there, except for seven corridors that led into further darkness.
“Zaest!” Izmir shouted.
A few minutes passed as the group waited for the man called Zaest to speak up again. His eyes were closed, and from the outside, you couldn't see what he was doing. Only his bulging veins and the drops of sweat that trailed down his forehead revealed the enormous stress he was under. During his efforts, two small piercings that resembled jewelry shone brightly on his earlobes.
“I don't think there is any danger...” Zaest finally spoke with ragged breath as the earrings lost their luster, turning into inconspicuous jewelry again.
“However... something is interfering with my divinations. It's quite strong, but I know it's nearby.”
Zaest pointed to the corridor where he expected the interfering construct to be. Meanwhile, Izmir pondered about the new information and how to proceed. Since the divinations mostly worked out, there shouldn't be any danger. Whatever was interfering would soon lose its function on its own as Zaest was already able to find traces of it. That also meant that whoever owned this place had abandoned it some time ago.
“I'll take care of that one.” Izmir walked in front of the passage Zaest had pointed to. “Iri go outside and inform the academy. The rest of you split into groups of two and search through the corridors. Rustov, you go alone. Disperse!”
Everyone did as they were told and left for their assignment. There were neither unnecessary disputes or worries. After they had worked together for years, they knew each other's capabilities very well. Since their leader had deemed splitting their party to be safe, they trusted his judgment.
Izmir waited until everyone left the hall before turning to the corridor with the 'banshee.' He felt an unexplainable unease that caused goosebumps on his entire body – something he hadn't experienced for a long time since he withdrew from the military.
All reason told him that there was no danger to be found, but his battle-hardened instincts screamed at him that this was a place not fit for the living. If he didn't know any better, he'd also start to assume that they were dealing with an actual Ghost. He knew that Rustov must have felt some apprehension as well, but there was no doubt in their trust towards each other so he didn't mention anything.
Taking one last breath of the foul air, he stepped into the pathway with walls of stones that remembered him of the dungeons of the worst prisons he'd visited. Unsanitary walls, filled with dampness as critters hurriedly hushed around. The voice became louder and louder until he arrived at the end of the corridor, and what he saw left him speechless.
Shouts of horror and sounds of splatter echoed from a distance throughout the entire dungeon, but he ignored them blatantly, too startled by the surreal scenery in front of him.
There was a beautiful woman bound to a table of fortified steel. It shone brightly in the darkness, and so did the woman as they were filled with an immense amount of mana. Catching a glance in the corner of his eye, he slightly tilted his head to look up where an empty barrel was hanging down from the ceiling. He couldn't guess what it was used for.
The floor, he then realized, was covered in water that overflowed from another barrel in the corner. Above it, he saw a second empty barrel with no purpose. After taking note of the failing runes on the ceiling, his gaze focused on the woman again. There was nothing wrong with her. Despite being brutally chained to the table, her skin shone with a mesmerizing green luster that remembered him of grass that tenaciously flattered in the spring wind.
It left him perplexed as to why such a beauty was chained in this desolate dungeon. Her heavenly appearance and almost perfect body were too much of a contrast to the eery cell.
Furthermore, with the amount of mana that she exuded and the lack of any exterior injuries, it should have been easy for her to break the shackles binding her. But instead, she merely lay there, shouting the same thing over and over.
With each word she uttered, her head twitched and convulsed violently as if she was trying to shake something away. But there was nothing. Accompanied by a manic laughter that turned into quivering whispers, she struggled in the chains that should never be able to hold her back.
Seconds that felt like hours later, Izmir finally took hold of himself and tried to process what he'd found. Was this another facility of a noble's sick hobby? No, this was too distant and unsanitary to be the case.
What else could it be? A prisoner of war? Izmir didn't come to a conclusion as his thoughts raced through all the possibilities he could think of.
A sudden voice ripped him out of his thoughts, and he turned around to find his comrades. Rustov's face had turned slightly pale, but other than that, he was fine. The rest, on the other hand, were off much worse.
Without exception, they trembled in fright like newborn deers. All color had drained from their faces, making them appear like the living dead that would fall over at any time. They had already emptied all contents from their stomach, but it wasn't enough to quell the nausea that assaulted their senses. Their instincts were screaming and pleading to get as far away from here as possible.
“It's horrible...” Rustov said, the only one beside Izmir able to gather his wits. ”The missing people... are all here. They are...-
“I see.” Izmir interrupted him. He could guess of their fate without having his teammates relive the images that were sure to be burnt into their minds for eternity.
“Anyway, I'm glad you sent Iri away.” Rustov continued. “It must have been a fluke or 'thank the nonexistent gods' for all I care, but this wasn't something she, or anyone for that matter, should see.”
Silence fell among the group, but the hysteric woman didn't stop. Even to this point, the woman had yet to notice that someone was there. That her saviors had appeared to rescue her.
Izmir took a few more breaths before commencing his duties. He took out several pieces of paper and activated them by infusing them with some of his mana. The papers depicted a single lock that shone in a bright light before a drawing of chains appeared and surrounded it whole.
“This is a gag order of the highest degree,” Izmir said with renewed calmness and flung his arm to toss the papers. The five talismans flew through the air before accurately landing in front of the mouths of anyone else that was present. Whether they were too weak, didn't care, or were used to the process didn't matter. No one resisted as the paper that was glued onto their mouths disappeared into their skins.
“Anything that you have seen or heard in the last hour and until we leave is restricted information that can only be told to either the emperor or me.”
Since the group heard the order of the man who issued the gag-order, they were bound to obey. Anyone would subconsciously think about a topic when it was mentioned by another person. Thus, when someone approached them with the events of today, they would also subconsciously remember the order Izmir had issued. This, in turn, would activate the effects of the talisman and restrict anything they want to say that can be connected to the topic.
Finishing his duties, Izmir turned to the pitiful woman. He had never met her before, but the compassion he felt for her was equal to that of a close friend. What did it take for her to reach this state? To be this broken? Even when Izmir stood right in front of her and stared her directly in the eyes, she had yet to register his existence.
Instead, her focus was on the ceiling with her eyes shot wide open, stammering the same thing without pause.
He gave her a last, long sigh before separating his emotions from his work.
“Rustov, I'll need help with the chains. We have to be careful not to injure her while we break them.”
Suddenly a rumbling traveled through the room and before they knew it, a young man stepped through the corridor. No one could contain their shock at the sudden appearance of the man who had seemingly come into existence out of nothingness.
“H-Headmaster!” Izmir shouted as he dropped to his knees. The rest of the group quickly followed suit despite their ragged conditions, each being equally puzzled as to why Zeristin Wezlak had personally appeared here.
Zeristin completely disregarded their existence. The world around him turned silent when he saw the little girl who was cruelly bound to the table in front of him. He waved his arm once, creating a small tempest that shattered her bindings. They effortlessly pierced into the walls, without leaving any trace of them on her body.
“Calm down, Lea... Daddy is here to save you.” He gently caressed her head before taking her in his embrace. But even with the appearance of her father, nothing changed. The shouting didn't stop, and neither did she realize that she had been freed. Her mind was already lost in the refuge it sought in itself, without leaving a path for return.
The woman known as Lea was no longer there.
With a pain-ridden expression, Zeristin held his daughter in his arms. To release her from her suffering, he put his hand on her neck, causing a jolt to travel through her body. After a few convulsions and incoherent sounds, she sunk into a deep and peaceful sleep, returning to the angel-like being she used to be.
“No one is to hear of this,” Zeristin said, his back turned to the group that hastily nodded with their heads like some screws on their necks got loose.
Izmir was no exception, as no amount of experience could prepare him for the event that had transpired this day. Without hesitation, dozens of papers flew out of his pouch. They glued themselves onto their mouths, his own being no exception. There was no point in using more than one gag-order, but the group didn't argue as all reason had already left them at the realization of what they had witnessed.
Zeristin Wezlak had a daughter! The esteemed magus, closest to becoming an Archmagus, had a family!
But far more importantly.
Someone had dared harm this very child of his. There was no telling what repercussions Lea would suffer in the future. It was painfully evident that her mind had been severely damaged. While recovery might be possible to some extent, it was neither guaranteed nor could a full recovery ever be plausible.
“You can leave now,” Zeristin said with disturbing calmness.
Only a few seconds later, the group had run off, fleeing from the scene as far as possible to leave the father and his child alone in the dungeon.
After covering his daughter in a robe, Zeristin slowly carried her as he walked back through the passage. Instead of leaving the dungeon immediately, he visited the ends of the other corridor to see what his thoughtless inactions had resulted in.
Dissected corpses of men and women alike that were slaughtered like pigs and gutted into individual components.
Organs lined up into rows to be compared.
Strings of veins. Sheets of muscle tissues and nerves brutally displayed against the extinguished candle in the corner.
Familiar faces of students that had cheerfully walked his campus.
Far more people than had been reported missing. A lot of people who weren't liked or even hated, so no one would care if they disappeared.
With each corpse, his heart sunk further and further. This was his fault. He had neglected his responsibilities. These students had come to his academy to pursue the study of Magecraft and grow out from their past shackles that were their background. One day they would have brought honor and glory to him and the academy he had painfully built over the years. It was apparent they could become targets of the envy of the nobles. So the least he could do was keep them safe during the time they attended the academy before they prospered into capable magi that could take care of themselves.
But he failed. Miserably.
He thought the fate of humanity as a whole was more important, but he couldn't even keep those close to him safe.
Not even his very own, precious daughter who had been reduced to his state.
Letting loose the painful howl of a parent that griefed about the loss of his child, Zeristin shed tears of regret and guilt amidst the graveyard of his students.
A regret and guilt that he would never forget was ingrained into the depths of his heart.
But more so than that...
An unyielding rage filled every fiber of his being that rivaled the ire of the Gods.
When the turmoil outside grew, Aien sat thoughtfully on the chair within his room. He chose to ignore the rampaging students on the campus, but as the uproar grew louder and louder, he decided to step outside to take a look. He realized that everyone was gasping at an event happening in the sky. Thus, like every single person in the city, he looked up to see the cause of this commotion.
Waves of sentries that he'd grown familiar with over the year stormed through the city. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, flew out from beneath the city, through entrances no one was aware of. Before anyone understood what was happening, a crystal-like dome had been formed to encapsulate the entire city with all of its districts. From that point on, everyone was trapped in a birdcage made of sentries that stacked together to create this dome.
No doubt, panic quickly ensued. Without any explanation, the populace grew restless, and even the magi and teachers had no idea of what was happening as bad premonitions welled up inside them.
Only very few were aware of this function that was displayed before them. The crystalline dome made up of sentries created a barrier that few humans in the world could shatter by themselves. It was the pinnacle of human defense systems designed by non-other than the previous emperor.
Levestein - the man-made fortress created for the sole purpose of waging war.
The magi tried their best to quell the uproar, but no matter what they did, it didn't help. When panic threatened to turn into utter chaos, the academy sighed an accumulated sigh of relief at the sight of their headmaster who appeared in the sky.
“There's no need for panic!!” His voice reverberated through the city. The people felt their ears and chest vibrating in accordance with the strength hidden in his voice. Slowly the panic ceased and with the appearance of the steadfast beacon that was the headmaster, the people felt safer than ever before.
“There's no longer any reason to conceal it!” Zeristin continued with his booming voice. “The academy is under attack! The strength of the enemy is unknown, but do not fret, we will find and expunge the threat that has dared to infiltrate our home!”
Instead of fear, the people were filled with a sense of solidarity. Soon cries of agreement united within the city, letting the heavens know that they would stand together to defend their home.
“Until then, the city will be closed off! No one is allowed entry or departure! Please bear with my forceful methods until we can be sure that our city is safe once again!!”
Aien watched all of this unfold with some astonishment. The city indeed turned out to be some sort of war-machine. He wondered whether this was the headmaster's construct or if he just had the method to control it, but before he could adequately form his thoughts, he felt someone grabbing him by the collar.
In a fraction of a moment, his world turned upside down as a nausea attacked his body that couldn't withstand the force of the speed he was traveling at. Before it caused him any serious harm, however, the force abruptly came to a halt, which sent him tumbling through the air until he collided with a wall.
While coughing and ringing for air, Aien shook the confusion out of his head. He didn't have to look around for long until he realized that he'd been thrown into a prison cell. It wasn't even close to the appearance of the dungeon he'd used for his experiments. In fact, it was more spacious than the storage room he'd been sleeping in and much more comfortable to boot. Only the bars of steel indicated that this was not a place where one was welcomed.
“I'm sorry for the rough treatment,” Zeristin said, but there wasn't an ounce of apology in his tone. He left no room for Aien to argue as he continued.
“Until we know what's going on, everyone that is suspicious will be imprisoned. Don't hold it against me, but if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear.”