62 The Winter Wind Chills*
Aegin did not attempt to hide it. He was angered that Rassa had been left to the whims of a mad man. Everyone amongst the Ridge Men knew who Doctor Sagen Zaroth was. He was the man who had suggested to the Duke that the Ridge Men should be on the front line for testing of the Volotun Fruits. Aegin might not have been alive when it had happened, but the stories were enough to scare even the sturdiest of their breed. Aegin knew that whatever that Doctor had in store for Rassa, the boy would not come out of those mines the same.
Still, it was not Aegin's place to protest the orders of his Master.
And yet, that nagging question still resounded in his mind, Rassa's strong yet curious gaze peering at him from his memories.
It felt right to ask that question. It may have not been his place to ask it, but nevertheless, he felt he should. So upon returning to Fountain Ridge, he summoned the courage to ask his father, who had been silent much of the journey back.
"Why is the Duke so interested in that boy?"
His father had spun on him so quickly that Aegin had barely enough time to process it before he was pinned against a wall in the shadows by his neck.
"Shut your mouth, boy," his father snapped, "We do not protest orders. We are not curious. We simply do as we are asked".
Aegin's eyes hardened, pushing his father off him with a burst of strength.
"Well maybe we should," Aegin hissed, "He was just a kid, and we handed him over to a monster".
His father glared at Aegin, then turned away, "I don't know what's gotten into you. That thing that was in that cage was not simply a boy. It needed Anthrite chains to contain it. Anthrite! The strongest metal known. Did you ever stop to think that perhaps we were handing it over to someone like-minded?"
Aegin's expression fell, "You didn't speak so much as a word towards him. You don't know anything. Rassa is not a monster, at least no more than you or I".
Then Aegin turned and left his father. He didn't ask the questions again. He simply went through the motions. In the weeks that followed, Aegin barely ever approached his father. He attended training, went on small assignments and kept to himself.
It was not until nearly a month after his return to Fountain Ridge that Aegin was summoned by his father. His father never phrased a summons as an order, so Aegin decided that this was worth listening to.
Aegin's father took him to the small reception room where the Ridge Men officially received their orders. It was only accessible from a balcony five stories up from a cliff. Their orders were received through a letter shoot in the far wall that dropped small scrolls from the Duke's office above to their small room. There was always a guard in the room to inform the head if orders were pending or not, but as Aegin and his father landed on the balcony, they noticed no one was present.
Aegin pondered for a moment if something was wrong, but seeing his father's stoic expressed, he realised they'd been ordered away.
Aegin waited for his father to receive the orders by the balcony door, but rather than reading them, Aegin's father handed the scroll straight to Aegin.
"Your orders, take them seriously," Aegin's father stated, then he left the room, dropping back down off the balcony.
Aegin held the scroll for a moment. If his father was personally handing him orders, then they weren't for a simple assignment, this was a proper mission. Likely one of high importance, otherwise his father wouldn't have seen to it.
Aegin hesitated a moment longer, then opened the scroll. The text in it was short, but clear:
Report on the progress of Doctor Sagen Zaroth's charge. Report expected every three months unless otherwise instructed.
It was then signed by Duke Cornelius Kildare himself.
Aegin tilted his head. It seemed the Duke had a personal stake in Rassa's case. Was he simply seeking a greater power like he'd done with the Volotun Fruit? Or was this something more. As Aegin remembered the sighting of the lost third son that he'd seen on his previous mission to Cordon, he couldn't help but lean towards the latter.
Aegin paused. He was asking questions again. This wasn't his training.
Two weeks later, Aegin arrived at Jerrica once more, and couldn't help but shiver at the chill that came over him. Winter was only a few weeks away, he'd seen everyone preparing for it on his journey here. But Jerrica? They seemed to be treating it as if it was just another day. Aegin gained entrance with the crest he'd been given, and was taken to Zaroth's laboratory promptly.
The Doctor himself was not impressed at being disturbed.
"To what do I owe the interruption of my work?"
Aegin was unphased by the Doctor's harsh tone, "I've been ordered to report on your progress by your benefactor so surely you can spare a few minutes".
The Doctor frowned, then turned to look at the clock on the wall. A clock was an item for the rich, but in mines like those at Jerrica, where sunlight was rarely seen, it was an essential item. Zaroth sighed, "Very well, we shall go down to check on his progress".
Aegin raised an eyebrow, "You set him a task?"
"Of course not," Zaroth snapped.
Aegin couldn't think why the word 'progress' would be applied in any other way.
It took them some time to descend to the place where Rassa was kept. It was so cold and dark that Aegin wondered if the boy had gone mad down here, all alone.
Though the torch light was minimal in aiding him to see, Aegin knew immediately upon looking at Rassa that something was terribly wrong.
"What did you do?" asked Aegin, his voice cold and distant.
"He was told the consequences should he not cooperate. He was not smart enough to listen," Zaroth replied, "Though admittedly, this is as fascinating as the other tests I would have performed".
Aegin waited as the cage was unlocked, then he snatched a torch from one of the guards, entering the cell only to pause a few metres from the wooden cot that occupied the otherwise empty space.
The figure on the cot was horrifying. And if Aegin hadn't known what he was looking at before he'd entered, he would have figured it was a rotting, naked corpse.
Because that was exactly what Rassa had become.
Gone were his pale skin and lean muscles. His fair features just beginning to undergo the change from boy the man. His dark hair too was long faded to grey and falling out in clumps. His flesh gone in places, grey and rotting in others. His face was sunken and skeletal. His eyes white. And all while he was chained to the cot by all four of his limbs, the mask had been removed to reveal his open, gaping mouth and protruding fangs. Even in his state he seemed to be begging for relief from his hunger.
"What could have possibly been bad enough for you to kill him? He was already your prisoner!" snapped Aegin.
"He'd not dead," Zaroth stated.
Aegin spun around, then pointed to the cot, "That, is a corpse".
Just as Zaroth was about to reply, the Corpse to a long, distinct and wheezy breath. Aegin looked on, wide eyed.
"This is what happens when he is starved beyond his turning point. I admit it scared me too to see the corpse-like state he was in. Especially after he was so active the day before. I immediately insisted on him being fed, concerned I would lose my only subject. Imagine my surprise when, after he drained three of the feeding slaves I'd procured, he was restored completely. Of course, that just piqued my curiosity," Zaroth admitted, "He has been like this for two weeks now, and he still breathes, though from the begging I heard before he entered into this state I assume he is being forced to stay alive".
Aegin looked to Zaroth, who appeared unshaken by his confession. If anything, the Doctor looked excited.
Despite how Aegin tried, he could not keep the utter disgust off of his face at the Doctor's behaviour. And all the while, the question circled around in Aegin's mind, a question he found he had no problems asking.
What the hell had Rassa done to deserve this?