The Path of the Dead (1)
Julian sat up in his bed, his head leaning back against the wall.
High on the opposite wall, out of reach, was a lone barred window. On another wall, a heavy wooden door only had a single small window to the dark hall outside, also covered by thick iron bars. The last wall was made up of featureless stone.
As he gazed at the wall, Julian muttered to himself.
“Playing you off as a ‘tragic heroine’ was a bridge too far, huh?”
“What’s with that!?”
From the other side of the wall behind him, there was a muffled retort. As that voice bit back at him, Julian smiled faintly.
“It didn’t really fit you at all.”
“Nonsense! I played the part perfectly, didn’t I? Meek, emotional and innocent… was there ever such a perfect lady as me? I was really popular, you know?”
“Just imagine if they had learned what you were really like.”
Julian let out a small laugh. He couldn’t see her, but he could imagine the pout on her face as he said that.
“Do you still remember it? The first time we met.”
“This old story again…!?”
She sounded grumpy. Well, she never was a fan of this story.
“You climbed up a tree in our garden and threw a caterpillar at me. What kind of lady does that?”
“I was only five years old at the time, though!?”
“And after I dove to catch you when you fell, you actually offered me another caterpillar as a thank you present. It wasn’t even the same kind of caterpillar, were you hoarding them?”
“That was over ten years ago now, you know? Back then, I was a little…”
“I never thought that the girl from back then would ever become my mage.”
Julian closed his eyes. He still remembered those days as a child in Mohnton.
The nostalgic sensation of miasma on the wind, the memories of his parents who were still alive back then. When the major families that were vassals to his father visited constantly, there was one girl who left an impression on him.
They never got to spend a lot of time together. But, still, she came to love Julian. And for Julian, an only child, she was like a real sister to him.
“I really was shocked when I heard your name, you know? To think that caterpillar obsessed girl would be playing such a pivotal role in the royal palace.”
“…I did my best.”
Her voice sounded defiant.
“I worked really hard to see you again, Lord Alois. So I studied magic and etiquette a lot.”
“It feels like it’s been a long time since you’ve called me by that name.”
“Well, it’s just now we’re alone… Ah, sorry. I think I hear someone coming. Be quiet for a moment.”
The voice on the other side of the wall suddenly took a serious tone. Even though Julian strained his ears, he couldn’t hear anything. He couldn’t hear the sound of a door opening, either.
– Are they coming to interrogate us again?
Looking up at the dark and featureless ceiling, Julian sighed.
The royal family, which has based their rule on peace and benevolence for many years, would want to do their best to avoid appearing harsh. So, for now, they were only being questioned. But, sooner or later, a decision would have to be made.
It was quiet on the other side of the wall. The room he sat in was also deathly quiet.
But, somehow, he knew that they didn’t have long left.
“Jeez, what is it? I was trying to sleep.”
With a yawn, a tired voice came from the other side of the wall.
“You sure can sleep well, considering everything…”
“A magician’s body is her best asset, after all, so I’ve got to look after it… That being said, it seems like there’s some kind of seal on this room.”
Julian muttered in agreement. She probably didn’t hear that, though. The walls were thick enough that even if they were pressing their ears against them, they could only barely make out what the other person was saying. If he didn’t speak clearly, his words would be lost to this barren room.
“You really are a full-fledged mage, aren’t you?”
“What are you talking about now?”
“It’s just, if someone told me you’d become one back then, I’d never have believed them.”
Back during those caterpillar days. Julian would always remember that little girl who followed him around the garden.
“I’m quite good though, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Well, I was still no match for the real thing, though. That was just foul play, really.”
He heard a sarcastic laugh. Although he could hear her laugh, he knew that she wasn’t smiling.
“I just wasn’t a match for him at all…”
It felt like she was talking to herself, but her voice still carried.
“It’s so unfair it had to be those two. Pitting the real against the fake like that. But, if I… if I was a better mage, then maybe I wouldn’t have let you down like that, Lord Aloi-”
As her voice grew darker, Julian stopped her.
“Don’t blame yourself. You’re the best magician in the history of the Ende family. That’s why I trusted you, after all.”
The truth was, her abilities really were incredible. There was no one better the Montchat family could have chosen to realize their wish.
Julian knew that he was the one to blame. That girl who constantly followed him around whom he thought would be a useful pawn… he had completely underestimated Camilla Storm. Not taking on the hit to his reputation that executing her back then would have incurred was his biggest mistake, considering it ultimately lead to their ruin.
Because of that decision, both she and Julian were now in this situation. The people who pledged themselves to the Montchat cause were probably facing a similar fate as well.
– Despite being the head of the family, I…
He heard a slam on the wall behind him. As he jumped in surprise, his thoughts trailed off.
“Lord Alois, I love you.”
“…Why this, all of a sudden?”
“No, no reason in particular. It just came to mind.”
She laughed on the other side of the wall. Julian, meanwhile, crossed his arms and sighed.
“You know, I really did my best, Lord Alois.”
Julian frowned as he answered her curtly.
The laughter on the other side of the wall didn’t stop for some time.
“Have you heard anything about Vilmer and the rest?”
When Julian called out to her, there was a reply straight away.
“I have… It seems like everyone was captured.”
Although he could only rely on that voice as a source, Julian nodded dourly. Despite knowing how the land of Mohnton as he knew it had come to an end, all he could do was stew in regret in this cold cell. He gripped both his hands into fists, but those dark feelings of helplessness only crept further into his mind.
“It seems like most of Mohnton has gone over to that man. It seems he’s not just happy being a prince, he’s got to take that too.”
The land where he was born and raised, along with all those vassals whom he was close with, had been taken away by that man.
The name of Alois, the name of Julian and now even the Montchat family itself, everything had been taken away by that ugly man.
He raised that fist in anger, but there was nothing for him to bring it down on.
It was several hundred years ago when his ancestor was unjustly robbed of the royal throne and exiled to the swamp along with his most trusted friends. But, now, everything that they had worked to build in that swampy land had been lost as well. And, Julian knew that the fault rested on him.
“…Will they resent me?”
As that fist he clenched fell limp, Julian sighed.
“Gerda and Vilmer did their best as well. I wonder if all those who followed me will come to hate me because I failed so miserably?”
“And you too…?”
His words fell heavily. But, he couldn’t keep them back.
Julian stared down at his hand. The hand that had carried the weight of so many people’s hopes now looked so utterly powerless.
“If you hadn’t been by my side, you would have never ended up like this. They’d never be calling you a criminal or my accomplice.”
The other side of the wall was silent. Julian had no idea just what she was thinking.
He didn’t want to hear these words either. But, it was as if some unseen force was drawing them from his mouth.
“The only reason I was born was for revenge. It was decided right after I was born that I was to be swapped with the Prince, so I was always prepared for it. I don’t regret what I did to the royal family. What I did was nothing compared to what they put the Montchat family through.”
Julian didn’t consider himself to be a villain. He had stood on a century-old mountain of blood, sweat and tears. All for the sake of revenge on the royal family. If he turned his back on all that and regretted his actions now, it would be spitting on the memory of all those that came before him.
How pathetic, he thought to himself. Even though he wasn’t supposed to have any regrets…
“…I regret that you got wrapped up in all of this. I dragged you down the same bloody path that I’m walking down… and now I’m dragging you down into this pit with me.”
If it weren’t for Julian, Liselotte could have lived a happy life back in Mohnton. Because of her personality, she might have even gone over to help those real people. At any rate, if she hadn’t have been lashed to his wheel, then she would have had a future.
But, now she had no future. Gerda and the others had been captured, and the entire grand conspiracy had become known to all. All that remained for them was to count the hours until the time came. The time when they would both feel the chill of steel against their necks.
“Lord Alois. Are you seriously saying that now?”
“Isn’t it only natural?”
When Julian answered her, he heard an exaggerated sigh from the other side of the wall. He somehow was able to hear it clearly. Deliberately.
“Haven’t I always been telling you? I came here because I wanted to. Because I wanted to meet you again, Lord Alois, that’s the reason I studied magic and how to be a lady of the court.”
Just like how that caterpillar girl had cocooned into a lady, the girl he considered his sister had become his fake lover. Although she sounded angry with him, there was something happy in the words she spoke.
“I didn’t just get dragged along. I knew just what kind of path we’d be walking from the beginning. I wanted to become your shadow. It was what I always wanted… Lord Alois, when you were in pain, or when it was too much to bear, I wanted to be there to support you.”
“…That’s how it was, huh?”
Julian closed his eyes. In the darkness, he imagined her face on the other side of that wall.
The girl he had met in Mohnton wasn’t a prim and proper young lady at all. With her soft golden hair and mischievous red eyes. Wearing that pale dress, she was always so bright and happy.
“I was just happy to be by your side, Lord Alois. When we got engaged, I spent so long choosing a dress for the wedding… I knew it wouldn’t be a real wedding, just two actors in costume putting on a play, but it really did feel like we were going to get married… There was no way I was going to give that up to anyone else! So, I don’t regret anything.”
“But, next time… if we can meet again in another life, we’ll definitely go through with the wedding properly! You better not forget, okay!?”
“Yeah, yeah. That’s fine, we’ll do it.”
“It’s a promise, alright! You absolutely have to-!”
“I got it, I got it. We’ll do it just like you said.”
Julian rubbed his forehead. That badgering attitude of hers hadn’t changed from when she was a child at all. Even though he was disgusted with himself, he found a smile spreading to his lips.
“You’ll want to have it in spring again, right? And the same dress, with the same bouquet of white flowers? Honestly…”
He remembered it all well. Even if it was only a farce, he knew just how much she was looking forward to that ‘wedding’… he remembered the big smile she had on her face.
But, just maybe… Julian’s face wasn’t so different after all.
“Well, I’ll be going to hell before I get any chance at reincarnation… Hey?”
There was no reply. It was strange for her to be so quiet suddenly after they’d been talking all this time.
“What’s wrong? Hey?”
Julian’s voice merely echoed in that dark room before seeping away.
“Liselotte… Liese? Liese, are you there? Liese…?”
I uploaded the illustrations for Volume 2, in case you missed them [LINK]