Chapter 196: Questioning
Letting out a sigh, I sank down on deep moss and leaned back against a tree. I pulled out a water skin and took a long sip, letting the cold water sit in my mouth before I gulped it down.
There was a faint glow now as the sun came up. Looking at the sky covered in trees, I took in the view of lush green with specks of orange peeking through to provide a little warmth in this damp and cold forest.
Distracting my mind from thinking of the upcoming task that I would have to undergo, I thought back to a few days ago. Despite the weighty conversation that I had with Agrona, things seemed to be getting better.
My core had advanced to white, and every moment my body acclimated to the change, I felt stronger. The scars around on my neck and wrist hadn’t disappeared but had become noticeably lighter. My legs that had endured several substantial injuries felt lighter than before.
I knew that my body hadn’t physically changed. This meant that I still couldn’t use any sequence of Mirage Walk, including Burst Step, without accruing damage to my lower body, but using organic magic, magic that was didn’t have a set purpose predisposed by gestures or chants, had become infinitely more natural and with it a method of becoming even stronger.
Sylvie, on the other hand, didn’t have it as easy. While she looked younger than my sister in her new form, she had the coordination of a toddler.
Her frustration was visible as she frequently tripped over her own foot or lost balance for no apparent reason while standing still. Perhaps even more amusing than her stumblings was her attempts at using her newly-acquired thumbs. More than once did a maid have to clean broken plates and shelf decors in the room.
I let out a chuckle, still clearly able to picture the faces of everyone when they saw Sylvie in her human form for the first time. Everyone had taken it a different way.
Kathyln’s eyes had widened as she bolted away from my door while repeatedly apologizing for the intrusion, leaving Hester with an amused grin as I tried to explain.
My sister had pointed at me with a trembled finger, asking when Tessia and I had a child together. While I didn’t blame her since Sylvie did have this sheen wheat-colored quality to her hair that might have been a result of a shade of brown mixing with gunmetal silver, but I responded as any older brother would. I smacked the back of Ellie’s head and asked her how Sylvie could’ve been my child if she looked only a few years younger than her. At the mention of Sylvie’s name, my sister turned ecstatic and the two have been spending more time with each other ever since.
Virion’s reaction had been relatively muted; he seemed to have sensed it was Sylvie the moment he walked into the room. That didn’t mean he was going to pass up the opportunity for a witty remark though. Rubbing his chin in thought while muttering that he now knew my preference counted as such.
Surprisingly, though, Emily’s reaction had disturbed me the most. The way she turned beet red and covered her mouth was reasonable enough, but she just stood there in the doorway, her curved lips peeking out from behind her hands.
It was a duly noted reminder to me to introduce a boy to the poor lonely artificer.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I let out a deep breath. I had left Sylvie behind since she was still getting used to the changes to her body in her new form now that the seal her mother had placed on her was broken, and while I felt isolated here despite the activity going around from the aftermath of the recent battle, I knew I made the right decision.
I didn’t want her—I didn’t want anyone I knew—to see what I would have to do to the boy I had kept alive.
I just hope that things are better on General Aya’s side, I thought.
The two of us were ordered to confirm and aid in the defense against the attacks of the Alacryans assuming that the messenger’s news was correct.
With my eyes still closed, I took in the symphony of sounds. Birds sang in varying notes while insects harmonized with their chirps and drones, all accompanied by the background of rustling leaves.
“Maybe it’s actually more peaceful here than in the castle,” I muttered optimistically, imagining the chaos in the meeting room right now as the members of the Council fought for the proper distribution of soldiers and mages now that significant attacks weren’t just happening on Sapin’s doorsteps.
“General Arthur!” a familiar voice called out from a distance, prying my eyes open.
It was the elf that I had ordered to carry the Alacryan. He ran toward me deftly, never missing a footing despite the unevenness of the ground. “The Alacryan has awoken!”
I rose to my feet, patting the dirt off of my clothes. I prepared my mind, reaching out for the emptiness that would help me interrogate the enemy without remorse or sympathy, all the while trying to bury the memory of my past when the situation was reversed. “Strip the prisoner and remove everyone else from the room.”
The encampment of the elven troops was in the middle of a small clearing that seemed unnatural just a few hundred yards north of the battle. Or so I thought. My senses even at white-core weren’t fully accustomed to the direction-disturbing effects of the Elshire Forest.
By the holes in the ground that had been packed with fresh dirt and the trees that seemed to be unusually dense just outside the camp, it seemed like the elves had a mage with strong wood affinity to manipulate the trees like this. Tents of thick fabric filled the clearing while elven soldiers moved about in activity.
A few bowed when our eyes met, while others glanced wearily at the human kid that was perhaps several times more powerful than the entire camp combined.
The elf pointed ahead. “This way, General. The Alacryan is in the tent at the rear. Our head is waiting just outside.”
I saw the large canopy made up of twisted roots and branches and a thick cloth draping over it. A swirling dome of wind covered the wooden tent and waiting with her attention to the entrance of the tent, arms out and mana continually circulating inside her, was the same armored woman that I had managed to save from the prisoner himself.
Upon seeing our arrival, she visibly relaxed and held out a hand. “I forgot to introduce myself earlier. My name is Lenna Aemaris, head of the southeastern unit in Elenoir.”
“Arthur Leywin.” I shook her hand before turning to the tent. “He’s able to talk?”
A look of disgust traced Lenna’s face. “He’s been screaming and yelling since waking up, which is why I had to put up a wind barrier. It’ll also give you some privacy.”
“Thank you.” I took a calm breath, dissociating myself from the events about to unfold as I walked through the sound protecting barrier without disrupting the spell—a feat that was much harder than it appeared. I wouldn’t think of myself as Arthur right now. I was an interrogator from this moment.
Inside, my ears were already filled with an angry boy shouting idle threats.
“My arm! Where’s my arm? If you primitive beasts know what’s good for you, you’ll untie me. I am of blood Vale, a distinguished family of the—”
My hand cracked across his face, snapping it back with the force of the blow.
The boy looked at me, stunned. “Y-You… You slapped me! What’s your name? I’ll have you—”
I bent forward after slapping him once more to lock eyes with the boy. “I don’t think you truly understand the gravity of the situation you are in, so allow me to enlighten you.”
I stepped down on his pinky toe until a sharp ‘crack’ could be heard.
The boy screamed and flailed but the chair he was tied to never faltered.
I stared, deadpan, as he struggled to cope. A few moments later, I could feel him cycle mana to his broken toe, trying to heal and alleviate some of the pain.
Good. The boy will last a while.
Despite strengthening his body with mana, I broke another one of his toes. Again, a shrill cry tore out of the boy’s throat as his eyes watered.
I removed my foot from his toe and waited another moment. Then, I stepped on and broke another one of his toes.
His shouts and curses soon turned to sobs and pleas to stop, but he wasn’t completely broken yet.
I moved my foot from his toes, just below his ankles, and stepped down. A series of ‘cracks’ and ‘snaps’ resounded along with the boy’s piercing shriek.
“Pl-Please. Why are you doing this? What do you want? I’ll give you anything,” he muttered in between sobs as he stared at his mangled left foot.
“Your name,” I demanded without emotion.
“Why do you need to know—” the boy let out another howl as his left fibula snaps in two. “Steffan! Steffan Vale. Please… no more.”
“Steffan. Even from a glimpse, I know your family—or blood, as you call it—is distinguished, meaning you are as well. Unlike the other soldiers we’ve captured so far, you’ve made no attempts to kill yourself and wish dearly to live. Am I correct so far?”
“Yes!” he blurted. Not giving his interrogator an excuse to break another bone.
I chose my words carefully before speaking. “I won’t kill you if you cooperate. In what condition you make it back home, however, will depend on how helpful you are and how honestly you answer my questions. Do you understand?”
He nodded fiercely.
“A few of your troops have survived and safely escaped, but I strongly advise you get rid of the hope that the number of forces they can muster up and bring back here will not be strong enough to aid you.” The mana that I had grown accustomed to restraining was set loose.
The thick roots and branches making up the tent cracked and snapped under the full weight of a white core mage letting loose. The ground splintered as rubble shook below our feet.
As for Steffan, he was having a hard time breathing even while meager amounts of mana cycled profusely throughout his body. His bloodshot eyes bulged as his mouth gaped like a fish out of water until I withdrew my mana back.
“I-I under… understand,” he stammered, unable to even muster up the strength to be embarrassed by the foul, acrid stench emanating from between his legs.
“Good.” I nodded, taking a step away. I thought of going straight to the more pressing questions, but I wanted to see if he was actually telling the truth.
“List all of the males in the Vale house and your relationship to them.”
The boy looked fearful for a second, most likely thinking that I would use this information to kill off his entire house, but with a quick reassurance that killing his family wasn’t my intention, he succumbed. Steffan rattled off a list of names that had no meaning to me besides that they were some distant cousin or uncle until one name that I could verify came up. “… Izora Vale, my mother. Karnal Vale, my father. Lucia Vale, my sister.”
I put up a hand to stop him.
“What is the awakening process?”
“The awakening is the ceremony that unlocks the children their first mark so that they can become a mage,” Steffan answered, his voice hoarse.
“What is the difference between a crest and a mark?” I asked, remembering the terms from my glimpse into Uto’s memories through his horn.
The boy recited his reply like he’d memorized it out of a textbook. “A crest is stronger. Symbolizes a greater understanding of the specified route of magic that the mark enables the mage to utilize…”
My curiosity was beginning to win over me; I wanted to learn more about Steffan’s continent, but I could tell he was starting to withdraw. It would be a lot harder to get him motivated to answer my questions the longer this went, and without an emitter to keep him alive, it was a risk I couldn’t take now.
Again, I chose the words very carefully for this question. I wanted Steffan to think I had a partial idea and only wanted him to confirm. That was the best way to get truthful answers out of him.
“What stage is above marks and crests?” I said, gripping his leg in warning as his eyes began to shut.
“A-After crests are emblems, and then regalias,” he said hurriedly.
“How strong are mages with regalias compared to retainers?”
“I-I don’t know! My family’s highest power is my grandfather, and he’s only an emblem mage—I swear on the name of Vritra!”
“Swear on the name of Vritra,” I echoed distastefully. I’ve heard a saying similar inside the cavern in Darv. It seems the Vritra are considered almost like gods in Alacrya.
“Do you know how many emblem and regalia-holders are on Dicathen currently?”
He shook his head. “My commander is is an emblem mage but I know that he answers to a regalia-holder. I don’t know the exact numbers.”
I let out a sigh. This boy is too low in rankings to be of any use. From the sound of it, the House of Vale that he so proudly proclaimed wasn’t even very high up in Alacrya either.
Asking a few questions pertaining specifically to the orders that had been given to him, I found out that several other troops were heading north to Elshire Forest just like I had feared.
The last question I asked was more for my own curiosity, but it turned out to be the most useful knowledge that I had gained from Steffan.
“Please… let me go now. You promised. I answered every one of your questions truthfully!” The boy’s shoulders sagged, and the stump that used to be his right arm was bleeding through the bandages.
“Like I said. I won’t kill you.” With those last words, I left the tent.
Waiting for me was Lenna, the elven woman that led the troops here. I took in the sights of the encampment. Waves of elven soldiers were arriving, some carrying bloodied allies, while others moved what was left of their comrades’ corpses.
I stepped forward, stopping beside her. She flinched when our eyes met, but she remained silent, waiting for my orders.58
My gaze remained cold, not wanting even a shred of emotion to get in my way as I spoke.
“I’m done. Feel free to dispose of the Alacryan how you see fit.”