The Beginning After The End - Chapter 331 - The trial
“This trial shall be adjudicated by High Judge Blackshorn, Judge Tenema, Judge Falhorn, Judge Harcrust, and Judge Frihl,” the central judge, apparently High Judge Blackshorn, said as the five black-robed Alacryans took their seats.
“The purpose of this trial,” he continued in his slow, clear voice, “is to determine the truth of whether Ascender Grey”—he gestured to me, chained in the black chair—“murdered Lord Kalon of Blood Granbehl, Lord Ezra of Blood Granbehl, and Lady Riah of Blood Faline.”
“And,” he added after a short pause, “to decide upon an appropriate punishment, should the ascender be found guilty.”
Whispered conversations drifted down from the onlookers behind me, but my focus was on the judges as they began shuffling through documents laid out on their desks. High Judge Blackshorn was an older man, in his seventies at least. There were dark smudges under his deep-set eyes and mottled gray spots across his wrinkled scalp.
‘He looks like he could drop dead any second now,’ Regis said.
Knowing my luck, they’d probably blame me for that too, I replied.
Regis snorted, his incorporeal form radiating amusement.
Blackshorn cleared his throat. “Judge Tenema will provide a procedural briefing.”
Tenema was even older than Blackshorn, with thin white hair that seemed to float around her head and thick glasses that magnified her eyes to cartoonish proportions.
She tried to speak, coughed, then tried again. “This panel will hear opening statements from both Blood Granbehl and Ascender Grey’s council, after which witnesses will be called.” Her voice cracked and faded as she spoke, the volume fluctuating. “If there is physical evidence of the crimes, it will then be provided, followed by closing statements and this panel’s deliberation.”
The old woman took a deep, rattling breath as she finished, as if the effort of saying those few sentences had exhausted her.
Judge Harcrust, the youngest of the judges, was staring at the old woman, his nose wrinkled in disgust. His blue-black hair and goatee reflected the cold light of the lighting artifacts and gave his face a severe, humorless look.
Blackshorn nodded to Tenema. “Now, the representative for Blood Granbehl may stand and provide their opening statement.”
Unsurprisingly, it was Matheson who stood and addressed the judges. “Thank you, High Judge.”
He stepped forward just within my peripheral view before continuing, his voice projected so the people behind us could hear him clearly. “As we all know, ascenders are the fists that swing the swords of our progress. Those who risk themselves to search for relics of our past—hidden within the Relictombs by the devious ancient mages—have always been treated with respect in Alacrya, even with love and adoration.
“Ascending through the Relictombs is a time-honored tradition of our people, a role that directly serves the will of our High Sovereign himself. When the Ascenders Association tests prospective mages, they aren’t just assuring their strength of body, but the power of their will and the pureness of their hearts, as well.”
Matheson let his voice fall, giving the silent crowd a crestfallen glance over his shoulder.
“Which is why it is so rare that there is violence between ascenders in the Relictombs…and why it is so tragic to be standing here today, discussing the unfortunate loss of three young mages, all named bloods, pillars of the common folk. Their families rose up to nobility to give them bright futures,” Matheson pointed a trembling finger at me. “Futures that were taken from them by this man!”
“Ascender Grey lied to the young Granbehls, assuring them that he was on his preliminary ascent in order to gain their trust and access to the Relictombs—but within, they found a hellish nightmare zone full of creatures far beyond their expectations for a mere preliminary ascent, which of course was exactly what Grey wanted.”
Matheson gazed imploringly up at the five judges. “I have seen with my own eyes the callousness, the lack of empathy, shown by this man over the last three weeks. Despite my lord’s pleading, Grey has refused to acknowledge his own crimes, or to show even a flicker of regret at the deaths he caused.”
Regis let out a chortle. ‘Huh…didn’t know the words “torturing” and “pleading” were interchangeable.’
“Whether by malice, hostility, or base cruelty, we can show this court with certainty that Ascender Grey led Kalon, Ezra, and Riah to their deaths, purposefully and with motive.”
Matheson spun around toward the crowd, his robes swirling dramatically. “It is for this reason,” he said, practically shouting, “that Blood Granbehl asks for the harshest possible sentence for this terrible crime: public execution!”
A number of voices broke out in surprised muttering, but the courtroom was quickly silenced by the hammering of Blackshorn’s gavel.
“Silence!” the old man ordered to the already quieting room, the word ringing like an echo of the gavel. His droopy eyes scanned the courtroom before he spoke again, turning to the steward. “Thank you Master Matheson, you may be seated.”
My gaze followed the steward as he walked back to his seat. His facade faltered as our eyes locked, and he flinched before looking nervously away.
“Next, we will hear the opening statement from Ascender Grey, to be made by…” The high judge leaned toward a scroll he was reading from, his wrinkled brow creasing as he frowned down at it.
Blackshorn turned to Falhorn, sitting to his right. “Is this accurate?”
Judge Falhorn was a large man with graying auburn hair and a pockmarked face. He leaned forward and whispered something to Blackshorn, who peered down and to my right, his face twitching.
“We call Darrin Ordin to make Grey’s opening statements.” I could have been wrong, but there was something distinctly grumpy about the way the high judge said Alaric’s friend’s name.
The man stepped confidently forward, straightening his suit as he stood on my right side, and a burst of noise rippled through the people in the stands, prompting another hammer of Blackshorn’s gavel.
“This is a courtroom, not a combat arena,” he said, glowering around.
Darrin half turned and gave a little wave to the audience before addressing the judges. “My counterpart would have you believe that they have proof of some malicious intention on Ascender Grey’s behalf, that he set out to kill these three young ascenders. He has painted Grey as a cold-hearted murderer, bereft of any redeeming qualities.
“But do the Granbehls have any proof of their accusations?” he asked, his voice ringing through the courtroom. “Even after being allowed by this court to hold Ascender Grey in their own private dungeon, with no oversight from the High Hall and no access to his own council, during which time the Granbehls tortured him every single day, they don’t have even a speck of evidence to show for it.”
Darrin stepped closer and rested his hand on my shoulder. “If Grey intended the deaths of these young ascenders, why did he rescue Lady Ada? Surely if he were capable of murdering the famed Kalon Granbehl, then his younger sister wouldn’t have posed a challenge. And how would a first-time ascender know how the Relictombs would react to his presence, even if the Granbehls could prove that the supposed difficulty of these zones was directly influenced by Grey’s presence?”
The courtroom had gone deadly quiet as my council spoke, and I could tell the audience was soaking up every word. The judges, on the other hand, appeared anything but compelled.
Blackshorn’s natural grumpiness had sagged into a glower. Tenema, on the other hand, had a dreamy expression as her eyes travelled slowly over the faces in the crowd. Beside her, Harcrust was twirling his goatee like a storybook evil wizard, his dark eyes locked on Darrin. Falhorn’s fat face was bent low over a document, ignoring our opening statement entirely, but it was Judge Frihl that really caught my attention.
Frihl had been quiet so far, but now he seemed to be talking to himself in a quiet but furious diatribe. The other judges were ignoring him, and Darrin’s voice easily carried over Frihl’s, but it was slightly disturbing to watch.
“The sad truth is,” Darrin continued, “the Relictombs are a dangerous place, even for those of us who have stepped through an ascension portal dozens of times before. All it takes is a moment’s overconfidence, a single missed step…and sometimes not even that. Every ascender has a story about ending up in a zone they weren’t prepared for. At least, those who make it out alive.”
“There is no evidence that suggests this was anything but a tragedy. No foul play, no murder plot, just a preliminary ascent gone wrong. For Blood Granbehl to make baseless claims against Grey threatens the very institution on which ascents are based: the trust and faith in each other that every ascender must have.”
Darrin returned to his seat while the judges exchanged looks that varied from exasperated to completely hostile.
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‘Did this Ordin guy piss on all their mothers’ graves or something?’
There’s clearly some kind of history there, I agreed, wondering if that would end up being a good or bad thing for me.
I assumed someone would ask for me to speak, or make a statement of my own, especially since I’d never even met the man now defending me before the trial, but so far no one had addressed me directly at all.
Judge Tenema flinched at a small tap on her shoulder from Blackshorn. Her bleary, magnified eyes widened, and she shuffled quickly through the notes on her desk..
“Yes, yes, witnesses, of course.” The ancient woman cleared her throat and she peered down at a scroll. “As the first witness, the panel calls—”
Darrin was on his feet again already. “With all due respect to the esteemed panel of judges, I believe written testimony is to be read before calling witnesses—”
The sound of the gavel cut Darrin off. “We do, in fact, know our own rules,” Blackshorn said coldly. “However, there are no written statements to read, Ordin. Please, Judge Tenema, continue.”
Darrin Ordin’s jaw clenched, and I caught him shoot another quick look around the room before taking his seat.
“Where was I…” The old judge was quiet for awhile before she let out a croaky “Aha!” and continued. “We call upon our first witness, Gytha of Blood Algere.”
‘Who the heck is that?’’ Regis asked as I racked my brain to remember a Gytha.
I couldn’t recall the name, but I recognized the thin, black-haired woman immediately when she stepped up in front of the judges.
The official who took our information before letting us into the Relictombs…
Falhorn leaned forward, looking down over the edge of his tall desk at her. “You are Gytha, of Blood Algere?”
“I am,” she answered. The woman was standing awkwardly, hands clasped together in front of her, wide eyes staring up at the judges.
“And you are familiar with the defendant, Grey?” Falhorn’s voice was croaky and wheezing at the same time, like a bullfrog that had just been stepped on.
“I’m a clerk, and I took the Granbehl party’s information before they entered the Relictombs, including Ascender Grey.” The woman’s eyes flicked to me as she said my alias. She looked absolutely terrified.
“And what was your impression of this ascender at the time?” Falhorn attempted a friendly smile, but it came across as aggressively hungry, just making him look more like an overgrown toad.
The Relictombs official glanced at me again, wringing her hands. “I thought it strange that someone with no blood would be traveling with such high company. The older brother, Kalon…well, he seemed comfortable enough, but the younger brother kept shooting what I thought were angry glances at Grey, and I got the distinct impression he didn’t really want him there.”
I couldn’t help but notice how both she and the judge entirely avoided mention of Haedrig, or Caera. That can’t be a coincidence, I thought.
“And what of Grey himself?” Falhorn probed.
“He was quiet, standoffish. Maybe even a little uncomfortable. Like…like he was hiding something.”
I closed my eyes and let out a sigh.
“I see. Thank you, Gytha. You may leave.”
Darrin jumped to his feet. “Judge Falhorn, I would like the opportunity to question the—”
“In the interest of time,” Blackshorn interrupted, “only the judges will be given the opportunity to ask questions of these witnesses.”
I caught my council’s look of confusion from the corner of my eye. Clearly, this wasn’t normally how an Alacryan trial would proceed.
The chains tightened around me, making me realize I’d been unconsciously flexing against them, and my aetheric intent was leaking out into the room so that the judges, Matheson, and even my own council eyed me warily.
“Check those bindings,” Harcrust snapped, and a black robed figure rushed over to examine the chair and chains. They nodded and returned to their post beside the row of high desks.
I forced myself to take a deep breath and released the arms of the chair, holding my hands loose and relaxed as I leaned back against the cold iron.
By the time I turned my attention back to the proceedings, Gytha had vanished, and Judge Tenema was calling a second witness. “Would Quinten, blood unnamed, please come forward?”
Another name I didn’t recognize, until I saw the man enter my line of sight as he made his way toward the judges. He had exchanged his dark leather armor for black pants and a loose tunic, and he limped slightly as he walked.
I scoffed aloud as I remembered my first moments in the second level of the Relictombs, when a friendly young ascender led me into an alley and tried to mug me.
‘Why the hell would they be calling him as a witness?’ Regis asked angrily.
Ignoring my companion, I watched the crook with both amusement and annoyance as he stepped up before the judges.
“You are Quinten, blood unnamed, and an ascender?” It was Harcrust who asked the questions this time. His nasally voice practically oozed self-importance.
“Retired ascender, Judge,” Quinten said, his voice weak and tired. “But yes, I’m Quinten. No blood name, as I’m just a nobody from a little village in Vechor.”
“And why, may I ask, has a young, strapping man such as yourself been forced to retire?” Harcrust continued.
Quinten rubbed at his leg and gave the judge a pained look. “A few weeks ago, I had a run in with another ascender—this man, Grey—right here on the second level. He tricked me into thinking he was a woga—a, uh, first timer, and needed some help finding his way around.”
He took a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. “I believed him, of course, and showed him around a bit—not expecting anything in return, just being friendly—but when we were off the main road, he knocked me out, stripped me…naked…and tied me up.”
Harcrust’s scowl deepened as Quinten spoke. “Despicable. And what happened then?”
Quinten shot me a furtive glance, like he was afraid to be standing on the same platform, and swallowed theatrically. “He threatened me…tortured me. Shattered my leg, so I can’t risk going back into the Relictombs…”
“And why did he torture you? What did Grey want?”
“He wanted to know about the Granbehls, Judge—”
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The sound of shearing metal cut across the proceedings as I accidentally ripped one iron armrest free of the chair. The chains constricted around me, pinning my arms down even more tightly and burning my skin with their cold.
Quinten leapt away from me, no longer limping, and Harcrust paled as he took in the damage to the chair.
Turning, he scowled at the hooded official. “Are you quite sure the mana suppression is working properly?”
I couldn’t hear the official’s muffled words over the blood pounding in my head.
‘Boss…’ Regis’s anxious worry leaked out into me, pulling me back from the precipice of my own anger.
I scanned the judges’ startled, fearful faces before dropping the broken piece of chair. It thudded heavily against the floor, resounding through the chamber.
Finally, the chains slackened as I stopped pushing back against them, letting me breathe again.
Harcrust cleared his throat before asking, “And why do you think Grey wanted to know about the Granbehls?”
Quinten was gaping at the twisted piece of metal on the ground. Harcrust cleared his throat again, making the pale, sweaty ascender flinch. “I-I was too afraid to think properly at the time,” he blurted out, stumbling over his words, “but…it, um, became clear afterward that he had something bad planned for them. I wish I’d have come forward earlier, but…he’d threatened to kill me if I told anyone about any of it.”
Harcrust was nodding along, as if Quinten’s story made perfect sense. “No one blames you, Ascender Quinten. But we do appreciate you being here today. Standing in front of your attacker and speaking the truth required great courage, but finding justice always does. You may leave now.”
Quinten gave a stiff bow and turned to leave. For an instant, our eyes met, and there was a twinkling amusement there, and a twitching at the corners of his mouth that could have been a smirk, but it was erased by my cold glare. He forgot to limp again as he hurried away.
Darrin had stepped forward once again. “I’d like to call for a brief recess to speak to Grey, so that we might appropriately refute this witness’s claims,” he said, his voice constricted with forced calm.
High Judge Blackshorn scoffed. “You’ve had three weeks to arrange your refutations. In the interest of time, we will not be recessing until deliberation, and only then if necessary for the judges to pass their final decision.”
Darrin clenched his fists and gave a shallow bow before returning to his seat. I could hear him and Alaric whispering back and forth, but couldn’t make out what was being said. There was some conversation from the crowd, too, but it was silenced by a hard look from Blackshorn.
Tenema cleared her throat. “Would the final witness, Lady Ada Granbehl, please step forward.”
Ada appeared from my left, but she wasn’t alone. Both her mother and father walked beside her, Lord Granbehl’s thick arm around her shoulder, while Lady Granbehl held her around the waist, sandwiching the girl between them.
It was Blackshorn who addressed them. “Lord and Lady Granbehl, Ada, let me start by saying how sorry we all are for the loss of Kalon and Ezra, and thank you for attending this trial in person.”
Alaric snorted, then belatedly disguised it as a cough. Blackshorn threw him a warning look.
Lord Granbehl’s voice boomed through the courtroom when he spoke. “We are here to ensure that justice finds the monster who murdered our children, High Judge Blackshorn. Though the pain is still fresh, my daughter insisted on being here to look into Grey’s eyes and condemn him to his face.”
Ada did look into my eyes then, but I didn’t see condemnation, just confusion. I saw a girl, scared and alone without her siblings. Then Lady Granbehl pulled her tight, breaking our eye contact.
“Would Lady Ada please recount Ascender Grey’s actions in the Relictombs?” Blackshorn said.
Ada spoke haltingly as she began to tell the story about how we met and our journey into the bridge zone. I had been expecting an embellished version, or even outright lies like the bandit Quinten had told, but Ada stayed close to the truth.
There was genuine horror in her voice when she recounted how Riah was wounded, but when Blackshorn tried to guide her toward blaming me, she stumbled around the question awkwardly.
“And it was Grey who got us out of that zone…” she was saying, describing our escape through the face of a statue that looked like me.
By now Lady Granbehl’s stoic smile seemed strained, and Lord Granbehl was shooting Ada frustrated looks. “It is clear,” he said loudly, making Ada jump, “that the rogue Grey’s intention was to lead my family deeper into the Relictombs before—”
“In the interest of time,” Darrin Ordin said, even louder than Lord Granbehl, “and High Hall procedure, the witness should be allowed to give her statement without interruption. Unless, of course,” he added with a wide smile, “the panel of judges is opening this witness up to questions, because I have quite a few.”
Blackshorn glared down at him. After a tense standoff, the high judge turned back to Ada. “Please continue, young lady.”
Ada didn’t get far in her story before Harcrust and Falhorn began pressing her for details of how I got across the chasm. They made her walk through, in detail, everything I said or did, and kept circling around to whether I had activated a relic to do it.
Ada couldn’t answer, of course, having no idea that I’d used a godrune, but they kept returning to this same line of questioning.
‘If they think you have a relic, or relics, that’d be quite the payday for whoever gets the loot when you get beheaded,’ Regis joked, but I could still sense the tension and worry emanating from him.
When it became clear Ada couldn’t give them any other information, they let her proceed to the events within the mirror room. Here, her story diverged slightly from the truth. She skipped over her entrapment within the mirror and the aether phantom’s possession of her body entirely, describing the scene as if she’d simply been sitting in a corner watching. Lord Granbehl started to relax as Ada described the growing tension and frustration as the days stretched on within the zone, and food ran out. But when she reached the part where the Vritra-blooded ascender, Mythelias, was released from his mirror by Ezra, Lord Granbehl again spoke over her.
“I’m sorry, High Judge, my daughter is suffering from the stress of these events, and missed an important detail. Ezra actually released this ascender to—”
“Who exactly is the witness here, High Judge?” Darrin said, exasperated. “I wasn’t aware that Titus Granbehl had first-hand knowledge of what happened on this expedition. If that’s the case, why wasn’t he called to be a witness?”
A susurrus of muttered agreement came from people in the stands, causing Blackshorn’s gavel to fall yet again. I couldn’t help but notice it didn’t immediately quiet the crowd this time.
Blackshorn drew himself up so he towered over the courtroom from his high desk. “I will remind all those present,” he said, practically shouting, “that procedure is decided by the high judge—in this case, me—and I will do what is necessary to provide timely justice for the murdered. It is not the place of council to question the High Hall’s procedures, or my decisions.”
Darrin turned his shoulder from the judge, his attention settling on Ada. “Ada, do you truly believe that Grey meant for your brothers to die? That he is guilty of murder?”
“How dare you address my daughter,” Lord Granbehl boomed.
Blackshorn’s gavel came down several times as he blustered wordlessly.
“Ada!” Darrin pushed. “This man’s life could depend on—”
“I demand you take a seat!” Blackshorn howed.
Falhorn and Harcrust were both nodding vigorously, while Tenema held her hands to her ears and glowered at the gavel that Blackshorn was continuing to hammer. Frihl had leaned back in his seat, arms crossed, and was glaring murderously down at Darrin Ordin.
The crowd grew louder. Their yells of indignation echoed off each other until their words blended into an unintelligible chorus.
“No!” Ada cried out, her pained voice cutting through the chaos like a siren.
Then, the room was deathly quiet, all eyes focused on the trembling figure of the Granbehl child. Her gaze fell, her blonde bangs covering most of her face as she spoke in a quiet whisper. “Grey didn’t kill my brothers.”