Chapter 189: Inside the Vault
My thoughts veered back to the sight of Sylvie’s form changing as she absorbed the mana from Uto’s horn. It had been a few days since that night but her unexplainable shift in form worried me. My days had been hectic; if I wasn’t training, I was either in a meeting or advising Gideon with the train project or personally advising Virion on various aspects of the war. Even then, my thoughts always drifted back to what I saw that night.
Sylvie, didn’t seem to feel like anything was wrong—just the opposite, rather. My bond had become fully infatuated in the horn and the mana it provided for her. After that night, she had asked me for a private space so that she could continue absorbing the retainer’s mana without interruptions. I haven’t seen her since then—the only thing comforting me being the calm traces of her mental state she emitted through our bound connection.<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>
I jolted upright in my seat by the booming voice, only to see that everyone in the room had their eyes on me. The large round table that had replaced its smaller predecessor had the three remaining lances aside from myself and the five members of the Council all sitting in large cushioned chairs. Joining us today for the exciting and fun-filled meeting was Gideon, who seemed to be wholly concentrated on picking something out of his left ear.
<i>Oh right, I was in a meeting. </i>
“Are you feeling okay, General Arthur?” King Glayder asked, his expression laced more with irritation than concern.
I shifted in my seat. “Of course.”
The king’s line of sight lowered to my hand. I followed his gaze, only to realize that the quill I had in my hand had snapped in half from my grip.
Clearing my throat, I faced everyone. “My apologies. I was lost in thought for a moment. Please continue.”
“We were moving on to the topic of the so-called ‘train’ that you and Artificer Gideon are planning on. We were hoping the two of you would be able to give us an update on how that’s coming along,” Queen Eralith stated, her gaze switching between me and Gideon, who was sitting a few seats to my left.
Gideon and I had discussed just the day before on the final details of the project. We were ready to move on to actually building the vehicle in order to secure a safe and fast supply route from Blackbend City to the Wall.
“Ah yes”—the artificer smoothed out a crease on his dirty lab coat—“the landsh—I mean the <i>train</i> will be able to hold at least twenty times more supplies than utilizing squads of carriages like we have now.”
“What about the potential dangers while traversing between Blackbend to the Wall?” Varay asked with an inquisitive look. “From what I read, this ‘train’ seems to have a set path that it’s limited to. Wouldn’t this make it easy for bandits, or even Alacryans to attack and siege?”
“I agree. I’d imagine it being easy to destroy a portion of the track that the train relies on,” Aya added casually.
“Both good points, generals!” Gideon exclaimed. “Arth—General Arthur and I saw that as one of the pitfalls as well and came up with a solution.”
“Oh? And what would that be?” Virion asked with a raised brow.
The artificer replied with a snarky grin. “To put it underground, Commander!”
There was a moment of silence where the royals and lances present pondered the solution before King Glayder spoke up with a gruff tone. “The cost of doing all of this would be excessive, don’t you think?”
Gideon let out a cough and looked to me, his eyes practically begging me to take over. Being the renowned artificer that he was, Gideon had the wealth and influence to build most of the inventions that he wants, but actually calculating the cost and benefit of creating something as large-scale as this was foreign to him.
Luckily, having read numerous books on economics and being personally taught by the shrewd and resourceful leader of the Council in my previous world, Marlorn, I had the answer. “You’re thinking about it the wrong way, King Glayder. The costs up front might seem like a lot but this project serves to potentially solve three problems at once.”
“I’m listening,” he replied with a raised brow while everyone leaned just a bit closer.
I took a breath and gathered my thoughts. “Aside from the main problem we’re trying to resolve, which is a more efficient way to transport supplies for soldiers stationed at the Wall, building the train helps to work out two peripheral issues. One is the detrimentally rising cost of purchasing domesticated mana beasts because of the state that the Beast Glades is currently in, while the other is the increasing poverty.”
“Increasing poverty? What nonsense.” Bairon blurted. “Because of the war, business is booming!”
“Let General Arthur finish!” Queen Glayder clipped sharply, surprising me.
“Thank you,” I addressed to Kathyln’s mother before continuing. “Not to sound cold but booming business benefits mostly business owners and highly skilled patrons, not those of lower class citizens. Queen Glayder, I’d imagine that your reports from various cities mention increasing number of riots from increase in taxes and prices of basic goods because of the demand from the war, correct?”
She flipped through several pages of the neat stack of papers in front of her. “How did you… know that?”
Explaining everything would become cumbersome so I merely shrugged. “Simple cause and effect. This war is taking precedence over<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>everything else, which means that priorities will be given to people who are a part of this war. To those not part of it simply means an increase in the cost of living while their wage might not necessarily increase. More than that, because of the various attacks near the coasts and borders, fishers aren’t able to fish and farmlands have been destroyed.”
“And so you’re saying that this project will be a means to create jobs for those people?” King Eralith finished.
I nodded. “This underground path using the train will be a big project that can’t be finished with just a few competent earth mages. And while mages will be necessary for security of the tracks in predetermined locations, there are lots of duties that can be done by normal workers during the building process and for maintenance.”
“Those are good points, General Arthur, but what about just using slaves?” King Glayder argued. “Wouldn’t it just be more efficient and cost-effective to have slaves doing the labor rather than paying workers?”
Rather than answering, I glanced at Virion. One of the many topics we discussed involved slavery and Blaine’s question just now fell into one of the explanations I had given to the commander.
“Slave labor has its limits as work becomes more skilled, King Glayder. I don’t think we should think of this train project as a one off venture, but the beginning of a new era. The introduction of<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>the steam engine provided a new line of work for laborers that did not need magic. This too, whether it’s workers actually building the tracks or the designers planning the routes from one city to another all require skills that will never stem from what a slave is forced to do,” he stated with confidence.
The meeting room was quiet for the first time in what seemed like hours until a white-sleeved hand shot up.
Everyone turned to Gideon, who was leaning his head on one hand while he raised his other. “I didn’t know if it was appropriate to speak in this rather uncomfortable silence. Anyway, I just wanted to say that this project will indeed be the beginning of many, and it’ll be a breeding ground to foster new skill sets. If possible, I’d prefer not to work with slaves forced to be there since they’ll no doubt be doing the bare minimum which will cut into the productivity of this rather urgent project.”
With that the discussion came to a close and everyone cast their vote anonymously on a piece of paper. After going over the results, I was glad that the hours of discussion on the issue weren’t for naught. The project to build the underground route and train was granted along with several policies pertaining to the project—one of which included the ban on slave labor. I trusted Gideon, who would be the head on this project, to be able to properly manage the chain in command so that the people working on this project will be able to work—if not lead—the next train route project.
It was interesting to see a new era slowly that only existed in textbooks in my old world unfold here. This ‘industrial revolution’ that perhaps started with my introduction of the steam engine was undoubtedly hastened by the war with Alacrya.
While I would never be one to support the war, I had to admit that it did bring some favorable aspects to the table.
“Our little ‘talks’ seem to be bearing fruit,” Virion chuckled as we walked down a narrow hallway barely wide enough to fit three people abreast.<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>Two armored guards followed closely behind while one led the way just a few steps ahead of us.
“You mean my insightful lectures on war and economics?” I corrected.
“Oh shush. I consider it payment for housing you while you were a wee child for over three years,” the old elf retorted.
I shrugged. “I don’t mind. I’m sure you would’ve come to a similar conclusion about using slave labor anyway.”
“Probably not so eloquently as I put it in the meeting though,” Virion admitted. “Elves have prohibited slavery for over a hundred years now, but it was for moral reasons. I hadn’t thought about the economic benefits of it until you pointed it out last week.”
“Well, in a world mainly divided by people who can either use magic and people who can’t, it’s hard to see past a lot of things,” I said as we continued our walk down the descending hallway.
“You sound as if you’ve been in a world that isn’t divided by magic users and normal people,” Virion teased.
I replied with a smile that didn’t quite reach my eyes, opting for some silence that lasted until we reached a thick metal door with only one guard present.
The young elf—evident by his long ears sticking out from his cropped hair—was small-framed but toned with flexible striated muscles that minimally protected by armor. I could tell by his rich yellow aura that, like me, any form of thick armor would hinder more than protect. The stationed guard had two unadorned short swords that curved at the tip hanging by his waist as opposed to the gaudy spears of the soldiers following us, but even at a glance, I could tell that he would easily wipe out all three soldiers ‘protecting’ us.
His eyes that were glazed from boredom perked up when he spotted Virion and me. “Good evening, Commander Virion and…General Arthur. Or is it morning already? My apologies as there are no windows here for me to tell.”
“It hasn’t been that long, Albold,” Virion replied with a smirk before turning to me. “Arthur. This is Albold Chaffer of the Chaffer House. His family has been a strong military family that served the Eralith family for generations. Albold, I’m sure you’ve heard of who Arthur Leywin is.”
“I’ve been told that he might become the new heir to the Eralith family,”<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>Albold said, his sharp eyes sparkling with interest.
I let out a cough, shooting a sharp glare at Virion. “New heir?”
“Well you see, General Arthur, when the royal family doesn’t have a son, the man marrying into the—”
I put out a hand. “I get it.”
“I’d always wanted to meet the young general in person, but I’ve been stuc—blessed with the paramount duty of guarding this door,” he said, motioning at the thick metal door. “I made a guess that it was you coming here but it’s hard to believe that you’re even more imposing than I imagined.”
I tilted my head. “I’m pretty sure I’ve been holding back my presence.”
“The Chaffer family are known for their rather eerily keen senses,” Virion explained.
“What’s he doing here then?” I inquired, regarding the elf not much older than myself. “Your skills would be better suited for the field, no?”
“Albold was out in the beast glades until he defied a direct order from his head,” Virion sighed. “Usually, that would’ve ended up with him getting a demotion and some strict punishments but I knew the boy and I happened to be at the scene so I picked him up and placed him here.”
“And my appreciation for that gesture is as boundless as the northern sea!” Albold beamed, bowing deeply.
The guards behind us muttered a few words of disapproval but stopped when Albold’s gaze bore into them.
“Anyway, enough about this troublemaker,” Virion said dryly. “Albold, let us inside and lock the door after us.”
“Aye aye, Commander!” The elf saluted before unlocking the door and pulling it open.
A foul, musty smell infused with the stench of decay immediately bombarded my nose as the entrance to the dungeon was opened.
“Have a pleasant stay, everyone,” Albold said, gesturing us inside like a tour guide.
Virion rolled his eyes and muttered something about telling Albold’s father as he followed behind the leading soldier. It was amusing to see Albold stiffen and pale after overhearing about his father.
Surprisingly, the first level of the dungeon wasn’t as bad as I remembered it to be when I had first come here after the incident at Xyrus. The area was relatively well lit with spacious cells that seemed like they had been empty for a while. If the walls weren’t for the mysterious stone walls that inhibited mana manipulation and if the cells had doors rather than reinforced metal bars, it would just seem like the designers of this castle got lazy after getting to this area and just decided to dub it a dungeon.
Still, the lack of ventilation was stifling and, while the cells were mostly empty, it also looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in a long time.
“Does it bring up some unpleasant memories?” Virion asked, catching me studying the exact cell that I was locked up in.
“Sort of. I was thinking how funny it was that I just came back from a meeting with the man that plotted alongside the Greysunders and the Vritra to kill me,” I explained, ignoring the wary glances of the guards around us.
Virion’s voice became serious. “If it had been solely up to my discretion, I would’ve locked them up myself, but Lord Aldir was right in that we need the Glayders. The Greysunders always had a weak hold on their kingdom but the Glayders are respected—almost revered by nearly all humans. Sapin would be in chaos if they learned about what had happened. Not something we need for this war.”
I nodded. “Speaking of which, where is that three-eyed asura anyway. He hasn’t shown himself even after what happened with Rahdeas and Olfred.”
“Three-eyed asura… is it because of your journey to Epheotus that you can be so casual with the asuras” Virion let out a chuckle. “And I haven’t been able to communicate with Lord Aldir through the transmission artifact he gave me.”
“That’s not good,” I sighed as I started walking again to the far end of the dungeon. “We’ll talk more about it later.”
“Agreed,” Virion replied solemnly, following closely.
We made our way to the end of the floor where two cells had been fitted to become one large, spacious room. The cell had a large bed topped with stuffed animals and a couch with a decorated tea set laid out on a small table in front of it. Currently occupying the couch was a little girl nodding off to sleep while reading a book.
I motioned for the lead guard to unlock the cell and stepped inside. “Hey, Mica. Sorry for taking so long to visit you.”
The lance put down her book and stretched her thin legs and arms. “Hi, Arthur.”
We chatted a little while Virion and the guards waited on the other side of the barred gate. The old elf had a somber expression, undoubtedly guilty of having her holed up here while investigations were still ongoing.
Because of her position and the fact that both Olfred and Rahdeas had betrayed Dicathen, the matter had to be examined with utmost scrutiny before she was allowed her freedom.
The dwarven lance and I talked about unimportant things as I filled her in on how my training was progressing. She tried to give me some tips on gravity magic but I had trouble following along with her nonsensical explanations.
“It shouldn’t be long until the team that Virion sent has gathered enough evidence,” I consoled.
Mica shot me a smile. “Mica knows. Don’t worry about me and do what you gotta do. Mica doesn’t blame anyone but that old bastard, Rahdeas.”
“Well I’ll tell you now that his cell isn’t nearly as nice as yours,” I snickered.
She nodded. “Get Mica out soon, okay? Being alone here without being able to use magic is so boring.”
“Of course,” I promised, giving her a hug before walking out of the cell.
I waved once more before following Virion and the guards to the cryptic door at the end of the hall.
“Ready?” Virion asked, his expression grim.
“Let’s get this over with.”
I thought that the stench of the first first level of the dungeon was bad, but the lower level was vomit-inducing.
I could feel my stomach revolt at the acrid and metallic odor of chemicals and blood. Suppressing the increasing urge to gag, I followed Virion down the dark flight of stairs until we reached a small area that housed the most heinous criminals. I was surprised that I could use magic inside, but surveying the walls and the enclosed vaults in the room, I was pretty certain that the use magic was only limited to the tiny walkway between the cells.
A burly man in a bloody apron with his face covered by a black mask greeted us along with a thin elderly man with a hunched back and a hooked nose.
“Commander. General. We are honored to have you here,” the old man spoke with a grating voice.
“Gentry,” Virion greeted back. “Take us to Rahdeas first.”
The elder looked at me with uncertainty but responded with a hiss. “At your command,” the elder rasped.
We followed behind the elder as he practically slithered his way to a small cell to our left and gestured with a bow. “Here is the criminal.”
Despite being Elijah’s caretaker and basically his father figure, I had little affection for the traitor but even I had trouble confidently saying that he deserved to be in the state he was in now.
The cell was dark and shadows censored most of his injuries, but I could tell by the cuts and blood stains on his stark-naked body that he’s been constantly tortured. His hands that were tied to the chair he was sitting on were bloody at the tips.
<i>His fingernails were pulled,</i> I noted with a wince.
More than the physical injuries though, what gave me shivers was Rahdeas’ blank expression. His eyes were foggy and a trail of saliva ran down from the corner of his mouth.
“Ah, his current ‘state’ is from the side effects from my questioning,” the elderly man said, noticing my gaze.
“Gentry specializes in wind and sound magic to create hallucinations for questioning,” Virion explained.
It was at times like these that I thought about the true function of magic. Much like technology, magic could just as easily be used to destroy as it can be used to create something so great.
“The traitor is strong. It’ll take a little more time to break him, I’m afraid,” Gentry stated bitterly.
“It’s imperative that we can find out what he knows,” Virion replied curtly, casting a disdainful gaze at Rahdeas before turning back to old man. “Now, what of the retainer?”
“Ah, yes. He’s a most fascinating specimen. Very thick skin even with his inability to use magic and a strong mental fortitude. I feel we’re close to breaking him though. Keeping him in the small vault so his movement is limited has been driving him crazy,” the old man said with glee.
Virion shot Gentry a look of disapproval but didn’t say anything.
Letting out a cough, Gentry motioned for his burly associate to open the thick vault that had runes inscribed on every inch of the box that seemed more like a coffin for a child. “Please be careful, Commander. General. While the vault will keep the Vritra from using magic, he’s still fairly strong and he’s in a rather crazed state of mind right now.
The vault creaked open and I found myself with eyes locked with a disheveled Uto garbed in restraining clothes. Just one look was enough to tell me that he was far from broken.
The retainer broke into a grin as he shot me a wink. “Hello, <i>Pup.” </i>