The Beginning After The End - Chapter 328
Chapter 328: 328
Chapter 328: Face to Face
Petras leaned over me, his rancid breath a form of torture in and of itself.
“Poke, poke, poke,” he chanted, following each word with a swift thrust of his knife into a different part of my body.
It had been a week since Caera and I had left the Relictombs, and every day had been almost exactly the same.
“This is becoming tedious, Ascender Grey,” Matheson said from behind the torturer. “Surely you can see the writing on the wall. Save yourself from two more weeks of pain, and admit to the murders of Lords Kalon and Ezra.”
Though the Granbehls’ steward kept his face passive, he repeatedly fumbled with the cuffs of his sleeves. Over the last week, I had decided that this was Matheson’s tell for when he was becoming frustrated.
“Or,” I returned calmly, batting my lashes while gazing doe-eyed at the old man, “you could be a dear and let me go.”
Inside me, Regis let out a chortle.
Matheson returned my gaze with a glare of his own, adjusting his sleeves yet again before turning to Petras. “Spend some more time with him. Lord Granbehl has been most…disappointed with your service as of late. He expects results.”
He turned and strode out of the cell, leaving me shackled to the wall. Petras, who was so close he was practically leaning against me, stared after the steward for a long time.
“Well,” he said eventually, his high-pitched voice lower and gloomier than usual, “you heard Master Matheson. We get to spend some extra time together today.”
After another hour of burns, cuts, and the stench of Petras’s breath, the lanky Alacryan seemed to give up. He left without a word or even a backward glance, his arms hanging down at his sides and his steps slow and plodding.
‘I’m actually starting to feel bad for him,’ Regis said, after the torturer was gone. ‘Throw him a bone…give him a grunt or a wince, at least.’
I stretched out my arms and legs as the wounds quickly healed over. By spending a few hours every day focusing on absorbing aether from the atmosphere, I was able to keep up with the cost of healing the many wounds left by the Granbehls’ torturer.
‘So, another stimulating day spent staring at that toy of yours?’ Regis asked as I reclined on my cot and pulled out the dried-fruit toy. ‘I’m dying to get out and stretch my legs.’
You know we can’t do that right now, I told him for the tenth time.
A violet claw grew from my finger, and I slid it into the slot at the base of the dried fruit. After rattling the seed around inside until it rested over the hole left by the fruit’s stem, I pulled with the claw.
The aether held for a moment before bending and losing its shape like wet clay.
I sighed before reforming the claw and trying again.
When I’d learned how to use God Step with Three Steps’ help, she had been able to show me how to change my focus and see the world differently. I was sure that there must also be some kind of mental “trick” to using aether to form a physical shape but I felt stuck in the same pattern, doing the same thing over and over.
Still, it calmed my mind to focus entirely on summoning the aether claw. I spent hours trying to claw out the seed, and even though every attempt was met with failure, I wasn’t frustrated by it. It felt right somehow, like this was what Three Steps had intended.
Eventually, though, I had to admit when I’d done enough for one day, and stored the toy back into the dimension rune.
Thoughts of Tessia began to drift in the moment I stopped focusing. I had no intention to confront these thoughts right now, and searched for something else to keep me busy.
Habit caused me to withdraw the seeing relic. It was dull and lifeless; I’d used it again only a day ago to check on my sister and mother. First, I tried to find Tessia again, but it failed, just like before. After that, I watched Ellie train with Helen until the stone’s power faded.
‘There’s that goofy grin again. You’re thinking about your sister again, huh?’ Regis asked, invading my thoughts.
Yeah. She’s growing to be a really talented mage, you know? And brave…
‘Yet you still worry about her dating life,’ Regis grunted.
I groaned. Enough with the whole overprotective brother label. I would be…glad if she finds a good guy that makes her happy.
‘Tell that to the cot rail you just bent with your bare hand.’
I looked down to see that the metal pipe used to support the cot was dented.
That says nothing, I retorted, straightening out the dense rail.
‘Just promise not to force your sister’s would-be suitors to beat you in a duel or some crap like that…’
That’s actually not a bad—
Halting footsteps on the stairs interrupted our conversation, and I quickly stored the relic and stood, facing the gloomy hallway.
The person standing on the other side was familiar, but she’d changed a lot since I’d seen her last. Enough to feel a pang of guilt.
“Hello, Ada,” I said, keeping my tone and expression flat and calm.
The youngest Granbehl sibling had cut her long blonde hair so it was shorter than mine. She’d lost weight, too, making her girlish features sharper and more mature, but also gaunt and sort of…haunted, in a way.
The fact that she’d come to see me wasn’t all that surprising; I’d been expecting it. The death of her siblings and her best friend in the Relictombs had been awful, but—although she’d blamed me at the time—she knew I didn’t kill Kalon, Ezra, or Riah.
The Alacryan girl didn’t reply, just watched me with her bright, cold eyes.
‘Is she just going to, like, stare at you, or what?’ Regis asked. ‘It’s kind of creepy.’
I took a slow step toward the door, trying to look as non-threatening as possible. Ada flinched back anyway.
“No,” she said, her voice raw. “I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.”
“Then why are you here?” I asked simply. If I could get through to Ada, then her blood would have to drop their accusations.
“It’s your fault…”
I replied with a gentle shake of my head. “I didn’t kill them—any of them. You know that, Ada.”
“But you did!” Her voice cracked, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she hadn’t used it much since returning from the Relictombs. “You took us to that place. Y-you knew it would get us all killed!”
Ada’s thin face twisted into a grimace as she suppressed the tears building up in her eyes. “You knew…” she repeated, her voice barely a whisper.
I took a deep breath. The truth was, I had known that my presence made the Relictombs more dangerous for regular ascenders. And perhaps I hadn’t really cared what that meant at the time. These Alacryans were—are, I reminded myself—my enemies. Did it really matter if a few died along the way because they couldn’t keep up with me? My goal wasn’t to make friends or babysit a bunch of mages who would immediately try to kill me if they found out who I really was.
I thought of Kalon’s friendly grin and Ezra’s protective stance and suspicious glare. Their family—their blood—were the type of people who kept a torturer on staff and jail cells in their basement.
Kalon and Ezra would have likely been just as bad as their father, given time.
‘Or maybe they would have turned things around for their blood, you know?’ Regis chimed in cheekily. ‘I mean…if they’d have survived.’
Thanks for that, I shot back.
‘What’s the point of having a voice in your head if it won’t give you some perspective?”
Ada, who had been watching me silently as I went back and forth with Regis, took a deep, shuddering breath. “And the w-worst part is, you don’t even care. My b-best friend, my brothers, died because of you, and you don’t care.”
I stared back, expression fixed. “Would you have cared for my death? A total stranger you met only a few days prior?”
“Shut up!” she snapped, her rough-edged voice catching in her throat. “You’re a monster…worse than those creatures in the R-Relictombs…”
“You may be right about that.”
“If you hadn’t been there, Kalon would have kept us all safe! A-and if I hadn’t touched that stupid mirror…” Ada fell silent, her small, pale hands balled up into fists and shoulders trembling.
I let out a sigh, only being able to see her as a wounded child and not as the horrific Alacryan that would’ve made this conversation so much easier.
“It’s not your fault,” I finally said, wondering if I was even entitled to give her comfort.
Ada’s head snapped up, her red-rimmed eyes glaring. “No one said—”
“No, but it’s why you came down here, right? Because at some point in all of this, you stopped believing in your own words.” My gaze fell as I remembered watching everything from within the keystone…stuck and unable to help.
Ada’s brows furrowed as she opened her mouth to reply, but the words stuck in her throat.
I leaned against the wall next to the door and slid down until I was seated on the hard stone. “Contrary to what you might believe after seeing me down at the Relictombs, I’ve managed to live this long and get this far only because of the sacrifices that others have made for me.”
I thought of Sylvia pushing me through the portal as a child, and Sylvie sacrificing her life in order to heal me.
“And every time someone I loved died just so that I could live, I would focus on nothing else but seeking out the ones responsible. Even if it meant chasing after shadows.”
Ada stomped her foot on the stone ground. “Why are you telling me any of this? What’s the point?”
I shrugged. “Because I hope that punishing me for your brothers’ deaths will at least help you feel less guilty for surviving.”
Ada gripped one hand tightly in the other. “I’m not doing this out of guilt! I’m doing this to get revenge for them. For what you did to them!”
I waited, letting her yell.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Tears began to flow freely down her cheeks. “Why are you looking at me like that!”
“Because I’ve been where you’re standing right now, and it’s not something I’d wish for anyone to have to go through,” I said quietly.
I listened to her hurried steps as she ran down the hall up and up the stairs, and felt a sobering numbness settle over me.
Staying on the ground, I leaned back against the cold wall as her steps grew fainter. A part of me hoped she’d come back again, but another part found it actually easier to be tortured.
The last footfalls echoed through the halls before a lonely silence filled its place.
What, no snarky commentary, Regis?
‘And cut short your well-deserved self-loathing?’ Regis responded. ‘Even I know when it’s not an appropriate time to make an inappropriate remark.’
I raised a brow. Is there ever an appropriate time to make an inappropriate remark?
‘Sure, if you’re as clever and funny as me.’
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