Author's Notes: I apologize for the inhumanly long wait. :) Does anyone still remember this story? If you do, rest assured: I'm not going to abandon it, I just had some trouble completing this chapter. Contrary to what I used to think a year ago, writing about Albel being tortured is not a pleasant experience. Hence my reluctance to get down to work, and then finish things.

Once again, BlueTrillium did a wonderful job of fixing my grammar mistakes and occasional typos. Remember, if you need a great beta... just leave her alone, because I'm sure as hell not going to share her with anyone. :)

Many thanks for all the reviews I've received so far. I'm sorry I didn't reply to every single one of them, but they've all been read, analyzed and stored in memory for further use. :) I'm grateful for all your support, and even more happy that you're here right now, still interested in my fic.

After the duke had finally left, Albel was given quite a lot of time to stare at the opposite wall and contemplate the infuriating hopelessness of his situation. This was, no doubt, yet another part of Vox's strategy, an unsophisticated but efficient type of mental torment. Tell your exhausted prisoner that the torturer would come soon, and then leave them waiting for hours, so that they might go half-insane from fear mixed with false relief, or at least reconsider their resolve to resist. Some people might have snapped right away, Albel figured; brought to the verge of despair by their own imagination, begging for mercy at the very first sight of the Inquisitor…

It wasn't going to work in his case, though. He didn't look forward to being tortured, for sure, but he had already sworn to himself that he would sooner rot in this place for the rest of his days than choose the easy way out, a semi-painless death on a scaffold. Signing the prepared document, confessing to a crime he had never committed was simply out of the question, especially considering the nature of these accusations. Albel knew he couldn't just go down without a fight, let alone tarnish his family name by making himself a traitor, even if it was only a declaration made on paper. He would never, ever give Vox the satisfaction.

The young captain didn't care much about the role his family had played in the history of Airyglyph. The things that mattered to him most were based on 'here' and 'now', and so the portraits of his noble great-great-ancestors that decorated his mansion's walls held almost no interest for him. He actually spat and snickered every time some ignorant courtier addressed him using the word 'milord'—he was a military commander, for hell's sake, not a bloody aristocrat. Besides, Albel had met enough people with so-called special backgrounds, people who could only be described as worthless trash, to realize that a person's value often had absolutely nothing to do with their inherited name. He also knew, having seen it with his own eyes quite a few times before, that an ill-conceived notion of honor could easily lead to idiotic mistakes, huge disasters, or meaningless sacrifices.

Nevertheless, it didn't even cross the young man's mind to regard his resolve as a meaningless sacrifice. He was determined to bear all sorts of torture and fight Vox to the last breath. Pain and death didn't mean as much to him as signing—or rather, not signing—the fabricated confession.

Ironically enough, his own honor was almost nonexistent. He had already disgraced himself by failing that fateful ceremony nine years ago, rendered his own life useless by making his father die in his place, and the huge amount of regret and self-loathing that still lingered in his heart didn't make the final outcome any different. He had never been the ideal well-mannered lad his mother had wanted him to be, either; not that that had ever given him sleepless nights. He had killed indiscriminately, dared to show open disrespect to the king, treated women like disposable toys. It was because he had always lived for himself, he figured, not for other people's sake. He couldn't care less about his reputation in some maggots' eyes… and yet certain things were just painfully clear to him.

Glou Nox had been perhaps the only person whose opinion had truly mattered to him. In a way, the man's death hadn't changed a thing in that aspect. He had become his son's conscience, or whatever was left of it; a voice at the back of his head he couldn't simply ignore. His dubious honor aside, Albel felt that to die as the last descendant of his family, with the glaring mark of a traitor metaphorically branded on his forehead, would be equivalent to spitting on his father's grave.

From Vox's point of view, it had to be much simpler than that. Yes, Albel's arrest was undoubtedly a source of personal triumph for the duke, and some sadistic part of him surely wanted to see his imprisoned rival put up a long fight and suffer the consequences, but at the same time, he probably didn't give a damn about the younger man's inner struggle, his honor, or the lack thereof. Albel wasn't hopelessly ignorant, despite Woltar's teasing claims otherwise. He knew damn well why Vox didn't seem interested in prolonging his own little game, or why he cared about Albel's forced declaration so much. After all, there was a huge difference between executing a confessed traitor, and a man who stubbornly claimed to be innocent. Arzei might have believed in the ridiculous accusations, but he was not blind, and he probably still had his doubts, which was why he had insisted on giving his knight a proper trial as soon as possible. The majority of the king's doubts, however, could be dispelled with a single signature. Albel's confession would justify the charges and give Vox a reason to skip the lengthy procedures and execute the young man on the spot. He wouldn't have to deal with difficult questions from Woltar and other people, but most importantly, he would save time.

Airyglyph was currently in the midst of war, and under these circumstances, every single day mattered. Vox must have already seized control of the Black Brigade, but as long as the younger captain's status remained unclear, the troops' loyalty could only be described as questionable. Albel realized that he had never been loved by his subordinates, but at least he had earned himself a healthy dose of fear and a small amount of respect. Most probably, his soldiers kept asking themselves not whether their commander was really guilty, but whether he would ever be coming back from the dungeons. From their point of view, it had to be the most important question; after all, they had to choose the lesser of the two evils. If Albel were to be executed, there was little sense in opposing Vox now, for it would mean a death sentence for them as well. On the other hand, if they decided to follow the new captain eagerly, without a single word of complaint, they risked facing Lord Nox's wrath, should he ever be acquitted and released. Albel himself knew that they had every reason to be terrified of this possibility. He didn't care about his men's blind obedience, and found an open rebellion against the powerful noble a very unlikely scenario, but at the same time, he despised traitors and gutless idiots who placed their own survival and convenience above everything else.

He didn't hate them even half as much as he hated Vox, of course; the foul bastard who had to resort to trickery, all in the name of gaining more authority. Albel himself had never been interested in power as the object of ultimate victory; the insignia that marked his status as the captain of Airyglyph's infantry had been but a pretty trinket to him, not something he would wear unless absolutely necessary, and yet the mere thought of his rival holding it in his grasp was making him furious. So easily—too easily—the man had taken Glou's position, and now he had stolen Albel's own. It went beyond saying that he was the real traitor, the person who deserved to be rotting in these dungeons, chained like a dog and starving.

Although… there was a treacherous voice at the back of Albel's mind that dared to question this straightforward train of logic. He couldn't ignore the fact that Vox had been able to seize both things with so little effort, which in turn made him wonder if he was at fault… if he hadn't just enabled the man to fulfill his ambitions.

The dungeon was completely cut off from the outside reality, and even time obeyed different rules in this place—it moved in rapid jolts, like a skittish mount, often slowing down to a standstill, until you could choke on it, only to jerk away a moment later. Physical discomfort, thirst and starvation had taken their toll on Albel's body, and yet anger, directed at Vox, at himself, at everything, kept him awake in spite of his fatigue. Still, he had no idea how long he had been forced to wait until the door opened once again. It might have been anything from thirty minutes to three hours. The prisoner didn't care either way.

Knowing exactly what to expect from the sound of the badly oiled hinges, he reluctantly raised his head. His guess had been correct. It was the Chief Inquisitor.

Albel had seen the man only a couple of times before, because the torturer hardly ever left his private kingdom underneath the castle. Ostracized, ridiculed and feared by those around him, he had no other choice but to keep to the shadows, like some sort of a twisted cavern troll. He actually looked like one; stout and deformed, wearing a hideous mask that made him resemble a smiling monster. No doubt it left an indelible impression on the majority of his victims, and yet, as the Inquisitor slowly walked down the steps of the cold dungeon, Albel couldn't help but wonder at his own indifference.

Given the circumstances, he knew he was supposed to quiver in fear, or at least feel slightly intimidated, just like dozens of his nameless predecessors. Even if the torturer was more disgusting than scary, the instruments he carried demanded a great deal of respect, not to mention appealed to every dimwit's imagination. Still, Albel's feelings at the moment had little to do with fear. He was filled with cold rage, some sort of hatred he had never experienced before. His anger was usually easily-triggered and passionate, but this was something different, and it could only be compared to his heart completely freezing over.

He closed his eyes and swore, on a god he didn't really believe in, that if he were ever to leave this dungeon as a free man, he would do everything in his power to bring Vox down, no matter the cost.

Meanwhile, the Inquisitor must have misinterpreted the gesture as a clear sign of weakness. Placing his tools on the table, he chuckled, "Wishing you were somewhere else, already? We haven't even gotten properly acquainted with each other, Lord Nox," the title was spoken mockingly, without a trace of respect, "but I'm sure we'll have plenty of time for that."

Albel reopened his eyes, still deathly calm, to find the torturer standing right in front of him. They were almost of the same height, yet the leather mask the other wore made his expression impossible to read. It would be safe to assume, however, that the man was smiling underneath his artificial grimace, because his very posture radiated satisfaction and self-amusement.

The Inquisitor was believed to love his job. Rumors spoke of his cruelty, ruthlessness, the perverse pleasure he derived from inflicting pain. His day was incomplete without some blood on his hands. He supposedly ate human flesh and did other sickening things… Come to think of it, the same things were often said about Albel the Wicked. The young noble couldn't care less—and he was rather glad, because it kept people at a distance—but he wouldn't stand being compared to a mere torturer, behind his own back or not. Several maggots had learnt this fact in a painful way. He had usually corrected them with a well-aimed hit to their face, or at least a couple of scathing words.

There was a huge difference between tormenting sniveling worms in some rotten dungeon, and cutting your way through them on a battlefield. Albel knew he was nothing like the man in front of him. The man who had just leant closer and mocked, "I guess you're not in a very talkative mood, but that doesn't matter. My toys can eventually loosen anyone's tongue. It would seem that Lord Vox has other plans for you, though."

Albel felt his blood boil once again at the mere mentioning of the duke's name, as it brought back hateful memories of their recent encounter; the kiss, in particular. He clenched his teeth and resisted the urge to spit at the Inquisitor's face—his own mouth seemed too dry for that, anyway. How long had it been since he had last drunk? It was best not to even think about it; the very idea of water made him feel ten times worse. By the look of things, he was bound to pass out from general exhaustion sooner than from any actual torture. The Inquisitor's next words almost confirmed this.

"It's such a pity I'm not allowed to use my favorite whip on you… but I digress." The man paused and drew back, apparently a bit disappointed. "Lord Vox sends you his kindest regards and reminds you of a certain document you might be willing to sign. It's right here with me. Say the word and we won't have to continue."

Albel's voice sounded strained from the recent lack of usage, yet it certainly wasn't hesitant. "Tell Vox to stick it high up his ass."

No doubt very few people had the audacity to speak about the duke in such crude terms, because the torturer was momentarily speechless, his little eyes blazing with rage and surprise. There was a brief pause, and then, sure enough, a heavy fist connected with the young man's temple. The blow had been expected, almost anticipated, but that didn't make it any less painful. Albel's head fell down, just in time for him to see another fist landing right beneath his ribcage. And another.

For a while he could only stare at the floor and concentrate all his efforts on breathing. It probably wouldn't have hurt so much if his chest hadn't been bruised already; a sad testimony to his fight against that blue-haired maggot, less than two weeks ago. Back then, he had ignored his wounds, too furious to treat them with anything but minimal care… and now was in for an extra share of pain.

The Inquisitor's voice rang above him, "You are one lippy dog, aren't you?"

"Watch your tongue, knave," Albel growled at once, forcing himself to look up. Being insulted by Vox was one thing, but this worm had no right to talk like this to him.

The torturer's mask stretched into a long, thin smile. "Have I just hit a sore spot…? You might've been an important figure up there, Lord Nox," he chuckled, pointing his chin at the ceiling, "but down here, there are no lords and commoners… or should we rather say, I am the only lord in this place."

"You are nothing but Vox's lapdog," Albel spat, already unable to contain the rage swelling within him. "A disgusting piece of shit on his heels–"

He wasn't given the opportunity to finish; a new series of blows came, knocking him breathless in spite of his best intentions to continue. It seemed that the Inquisitor was more concerned about his own pathetic pride than about the duke's honor, because his hits were faster, more powerful than before. Still, the man clearly knew what he was doing – none of these punches were aimed at the prisoner's head, as if to keep him conscious.

A small part of Albel's mind registered the torturer's professionalism with cool detachment, while at the same time his legs gave up, and he sank down at last, still awake but no longer able to stay upright. Of course, the shackles around his wrists kept him in place, stretched like a parody of a cross. The Inquisitor saw this and stepped back, perhaps to view his handiwork from a distance.

"I don't take too kindly to impudence. You'll learn that simple fact soon enough."

Albel didn't bother to reply, especially because there wasn't any air left in his lungs. He only lifted his head to glare at the torturer. There was nothing but hatred in his crimson eyes, along with the promise of a slow, painful death. This expression must have seemed pathetic on a man who was currently too exhausted to stand, but still, the Inquisitor found himself looking away for a moment.

"You live up to your reputation, I'll give you that." The hesitation was gone, and the man chuckled. "But I will see you break, it's just a matter of time. I'm actually looking forward to it."

By now Albel had gathered enough strength to haul himself back to his feet. It allowed him to stare down at the leather-clad man, though not for long.

"So…" The Inquisitor took a step forward. "Any second thoughts about that document Lord Vox wants you to sign?"

"Fuck off."

The large fist once again landed in the middle of Albel's stomach. His vision swam, in and out of focus, but he was still able to hear the tormentor's voice. "How about now?" When there was no reply, another blow pushed him against the wall. "And now?" A pause, another strike. "Perhaps now…?"

Albel lost his consciousness somewhere after the sixth hit, but he was quickly brought back to reality by a sharp smack to his face.

"Ah, don't faint on me, yet," the Inquisitor said, cracking his knuckles with a grin. "I've just started to warm up."

His current reawakening seemed slightly different than the last one, not only because it wasn't accompanied by a new stab of pain and the torturer's taunts. The first thing Albel noticed was the absence of chains that would keep his arms outstretched. He welcomed this improvement with a groan of relief. Opening his eyes, he found himself lying on a large pile of rotten straw in one of the regular cells. The foul stench of urine was almost unbearable; he swore and tried to sit up, or at least raise his head a bit higher. A wave of dizziness washed over him, pinning him to the ground, but he was eventually able to gather enough strength to push himself up, until he could rest his back against one of the walls.

He realized that he wasn't exactly free: his wrists were still bound in front of him, this time with a regular rope. At least it was a minor discomfort compared to the previous few… days? Albel stifled a hollow laugh. How much time could have passed since he had first woken up in the dungeon? How many times had the Inquisitor brought him around, before he had been finally allowed to faint for good? How long before someone came to drag him back to the torture chamber? He knew he was too weak to stand up, let alone fight against the guards. Screw the searing pain in his stomach; his thirst would kill him faster, unless some of these maggots had been blessed with enough sense to leave him something to drink…

A pair of tired eyes looked round the cell, and then eventually fell on a clay jug in the opposite corner. Weary or not, Albel was there in just a few seconds, downing at least half of the water in one gulp. The burning pain in his throat had lessened; he could finally cough and lick his wet lips. By now, he had also noticed some bread and a bowl of fish soup lying next to him. The food looked about as inviting as only a prison meal might look, which was to say absolutely disgusting. Its flavor could be described in similar terms. It tasted much worse than anything Albel had eaten before, even that one winter when he had been seven years old, and the whole of Airyglyph had been starving, peasants and noblemen alike. He had to resist the urge to spit as he took the first mouthful of the cold goo, but in the end he devoured it all in less than five minutes, in spite of his tied and aching hands. Hunger had made him quite swift and undiscriminating.

The small portion wasn't enough to give the starved young man a lasting feeling of satiety, but of course it was better than nothing. Albel's head had stopped spinning, and he could finally catch his breath, both literally and metaphorically speaking. He shifted into a more comfortable position, once again resting his back against the nearest wall. The stone was cold to the touch and damp with moisture, not that it came as any surprise, let alone made a big difference in this shitty hellhole. At least the straw on the ground provided some semblance of comfort, if you were willing to ignore the smell.

Albel swore and looked up to study his surroundings. He hated to be here, not only because of the obvious pain, hunger and disgrace, but also because of the fact that he had fallen prey to Vox's scheming so easily. His own future mattered very little to him; naturally, he wished to survive and have his revenge, but if Arzei decided to execute him for treason, so be it—he would die with his head up high; that was the only thing he truly cared about. For now, however, he couldn't stand wasting his time. There was a bloody war against Aquaria going on outside these walls, and he was left to rot here on the eve of the most decisive attack so far, completely useless, missing all the excitement, knowing that one of Vox's puppets would command the Black Brigade. The duke probably meant to use the armored infantry as cannon fodder, a shield for the dragon riders. Albel didn't give a damn about some maggots' lives, but on the other hand, those were his men, his property and responsibility. Vox had no right to give them orders, use them in his mad quest for power.

Albel swore loudly for the second time, biting back a scream of outrage. It was too late. Given the circumstances, he couldn't do a thing to change the course of oncoming events. Hell, he couldn't even stand up; he certainly didn't feel like trying unless it became absolutely necessary. Moving around seemed such a ridiculous waste of energy. Everything hurt, from his swollen face to a few heavily bruised ribs. He tried flexing his tied arms, wincing in pain only a moment later. The muscles were stiff, throbbing with a dull ache, almost unwilling to cooperate; exactly the same could be said about his spine, neck and legs. The beatings he had received hadn't been that terrible, and yet almost three days spent without food in those chains had temporarily robbed him of a great deal of his former strength.

Pain, in itself, was nothing new. In spite of his high social position, Albel was not a delicate lord used to luxury. No, he was more than just familiar with cuts and scratches, serious wounds, sleeping on the ground, sparse meals, let alone exhaustive training. He would often willingly push his body to the limits of human endurance, and he loved it. This, on the other hand, was a different kind of physical ache. Normal pain would wash over him and vanish, leaving him stronger and feeling more alive than before. It never lingered for so long, seeping into his bones, draining all power from his limbs, making him weak and vulnerable…

The young knight snorted and clenched his teeth, as if trying to dispel this train of thought. His head fell forward, and for a long moment he stared blankly at his reddened wrists, at the three remaining fingers of his left hand. It was a disgusting sight: scarred skin, no nails… in a way much more repulsive than the sharp claw that usually covered these stubs. Most people would find themselves averting their eyes rather quickly, but then again, it had never been a thing for the public to witness.

Albel's jaws twitched slightly. His good hand curled into a fist, but the damaged one didn't even stir, no matter how hard he tried to move it. He could no longer feel anything with this arm, not even pain or heat. The nerves had been burnt, destroyed almost ten years ago, along with his father's life. And just what would his father say if he could see him now, disgraced and humiliated…? The exact opposite of everything he had been meant to be.

To Be Continued…

Author's Notes: I admit that this chapter contained an unhealthy dose of angst and Albel's whining; it was too much even for my own taste. Feel free to flame the contents, as well as my terrible update scheme.