The Beginning After The End - Chapter 355 - Just His Name
Lifting my hand, I reveled in the response of the mana. The red particles jumped and danced, full of energy. The yellow hovered low to the ground, rolling and tumbling like tiny stones. The blue mana washed over me like the incoming tide and clung to my skin like dew. The green ones were my favorite, though. They had a cutting quality, like a sharp blade, whipping and snapping like the wind they represented, but there was also something cool and clean about them. The wind mana was both hard and soft at the same time.
I was standing on a nameless plateau, high in the Basilisk Fang Mountains. Not far from Taegrin Caelum. There was nothing around for miles that I could accidentally destroy…but I wasn’t out here because Agrona feared I might lose control. Rather, he knew the extent of my power, and he wanted me to let loose.
Reaching into the sky, I focused on the mana, pulling it to a specific point high above. Water and wind condensed, smashing into each other to build into a huge, black storm cloud that darkened the mountains for miles all around us.
My small audience watched in silence. Nico was there, of course, along with three of the other Scythes. Draneeve, Nico’s attendant and a few other ranking figures from the fortress had come as well. Agrona hadn’t, but I’d never seen him leave the castle before.
Fire mana drifted up from the sun-warm stones and fused into white, hot bolts of lightning that crashed back down to shatter boulders and cast shrapnel across my training ground. Water condensed into ice, which began to fall like catapult stones to smash craters into the hard mountain soil.
Even at the height of my strength on Earth, I’d never been able to do anything like this with ki.
My memories had been much more stable in the weeks since Agrona promised I could leave his fortress. He said that I would begin to feel more like myself the longer I was in this body. The runes covering my flesh helped hold me together, helped keep the other voice quiet.
Wind mana coalesced into wide, cutting streams that wove around me like a dragon, separating me from the others. Wind, both soft and hard…
My life—my previous life—had required me to harden myself to endure the constant and torturous training I had received. But there had always been a piece of myself that I kept in my heart, that piece where I had felt loving warmth for the first time in my life, and it was that warmth that maintained me until…
I refocused on the mana, recoiling from the shattered remnants of those memories. I still couldn’t remember my death, and Nico had only said I would learn about it in time.
I glanced at where he stood, watching me cast spells, his dark hair lashing his face. I couldn’t help but notice how he stood well away from the others. Poor Nico, an outsider even here.
Draneeve clapped his hands and shouted into the wind, his mask giving his voice a grating quality that I found uncomfortable to listen to. Nico motioned for Draneeve’s silence, and the masked man stopped shouting, though he continued with a slow, inconsistent applause.
Reaching out, I tugged at the corners of the huge storm and drew it inward and downward until it hovered just above me, hardly the size of an apple tree. The creation, moments ago a deadly manifestation of raw power, was now something entirely different. Tiny winged creatures made of air wheeled within the clouds, while little watery dolphins jumped and splashed below them.
It was beautiful. Mana was beautiful. Ki had been energy, capable of being gathered and unleashed but never really formed, not in the same way mana could take shape. This was real magic.
My attention twitched nervously over to the three who stood apart from the rest: the Scythes. Technically, Nico was one of them, but they held him apart, or he kept his distance. Or both.
Their varying shades of gray skin, black horns, and red eyes all served to define them as something firmly other. Their gazes held both curiosity and unease, like an audience watching a lion tamer at a circus. It made me believe what Nico kept telling me: they knew I’d be stronger than them eventually.
“Very, very well done!” Draneeve piped up in his purposefully grating voice. “You’ve grown so much more quickly than Lord Nico. Barely weeks in the skinny elf girl’s body and you’re—”
There was a loud crack.
Draneeve straightened his mask—a plain white thing with small holes for eyes and a crudely drawn smile—and rubbed the side of his head where Nico had backhanded him. I frowned at Nico, who had the good grace to at least look embarrassed. He hated Draneeve, I knew, but he wouldn’t tell me why.
Cadell and Dragoth were watching Nico.
Dragoth was enormous, as large as any man I’d ever seen, but he was otherwise cut from a familiar cloth. When I was rising through the ranks in the King’s Crown tournament, there were many like him. Cocky, self-absorbed warriors. Quick to laugh at their own jokes, and quick to fight at any perceived insult.
Cadell was stranger, scarier. He had a cold and cruel face, like the sharp side of an axe, but was businesslike in his manners. I didn’t like him.
But it was the third Scythe who I found most interesting. I’d only met her once before, and that was brief. Although she looked young—twenty at the most—there was a deep, curious wisdom in her eyes, and a worldly intelligence. I felt like she was dissecting me with her dark eyes, both then and now. Unlike her counterparts, she was still watching me. Not my spell, with it’s silly wind-gulls and water-dolphins, but me.
Looking into her eyes, it was almost like I could see the gears behind them turning, trying to figure me out. Did she see me as a threat? A tool? I wasn’t sure.
“Nico,” Cadell said, his tone full of frost and fire, “be nice to your pet. After all, it is Draneeve who returned you from that awful continent.” Draneeve fidgeted, his attitude unreadable behind his ugly mask… “He’d be a general now, perhaps even a retainer, if he hadn’t retreated from Dicathen to save your ungrateful hide.”
My spell faded away, the cloud dissolving to mist and then to nothing as I waited for Nico to respond. He clenched his fists and took a step away from Draneeve. “Don’t speak to me like I’m your lesser, Cadell. I’m a Scythe too, remember?”
Dragoth grinned, his teeth shining white as moonlight through his beard. “You are right, little Nico. You are a Scythe. And the name Scythe meant a little less the day we counted you among our number.” He laughed loudly at his own joke, but didn’t stop there. “Perhaps Bivrae should be a Scythe, or even Draneeve!” he said, practically shouting, his grin turning predatory.
Nico sneered. “And where was the mighty Dragoth during the war? Tell me, Titan of Vechor, why was it your retainer went to Dicathen and died while you stayed safe and—”
“Be careful what you say next,” Dragoth growled, his smile dropping quickly. He took a step toward Nico, his huge muscles bulging.
The ground swelled as a twisting, thorn-covered vine erupted between them, quickly expanding into a wicked briar fence. I hadn’t meant to cast a spell at all, but I was agitated by their fighting. My defensive instinct always veered toward plant magic, even when other elements would make more sense.
Dragoth leaned forward, resting both arms on the thorn-covered vines. “You are young and little, yet already at the peak of your power, reincarnate.”
Nico’s head tilted to the side. His eyes were cold as dead coals. “Everyone who might hope to challenge me is already here,” he said softly before turning to me. “It’s clear that you are ready to go. We’ve waited long enough—at Lord Agrona’s insistence, of course,” he added quickly, shooting a sour look at Cadell.
“Your ability to mold mana is impressive,” Scythe Seris said, her razorblade gaze cutting me apart bit by bit, “but don’t be clouded by what’s in front of you. Keep your eyes and ears open and do not reach beyond your grasp.”
“She is the Legacy,” Nico countered darkly. “The stars themselves are not beyond her grasp.”
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My first experience of this world was the forest homeland of the elven people. Its strangeness was lost on me. I was too confused and astonished by my own reincarnation to pay much attention to their enchanted forest. Even the appearance of the three-eyed giant—an asura, I reminded myself—had failed to impress upon me the otherworldliness of my new home.
It was in Taegrin Caelum when I began to understand how different this place really was from Earth. But there, everything I learned was filtered by Agrona. It wasn’t until Nico led me into the Relictombs that I appreciated the full depth of the strange and wonderful differences between the two worlds.
Agrona’s private portal could connect to any other in Alacrya, allowing us to teleport much too close to our destination. I would have liked to explore, to spend time taking it all in as we meandered across the second level of the Relictombs. The sky alone nearly took my breath away as I gazed up into the vast blue expanse. I thought my storm had been an impressive piece of magic, but this…
I knew logically that the sky itself was a magical construct, but I couldn’t understand it. It seemed incomprehensible that anyone could create such a thing. When I shared this thought with Nico, he ignored me, focused instead on bullying his way through the crowds of armored men and women around us.
“Are you entirely immune to the wonders of this world?” I asked, keeping pace beside him. “You might’ve gotten accustomed to all of this, but I’ve only recently arrived here.”
“We have someplace to be,” he snapped. He must have seen me frown from the corner of his eye, because he slowed down a little. “I’m sorry, Cecil. I’m…a bit agitated. Lord Agrona hinted that what we’ll find here might be important to me, but he’s left out any sort of details and…” He trailed off, wincing. “I’m sorry, it’s not your fault. I’m just impatient to speak to these judges.”
“No, I’m sorry,” I said, feeling immediately guilty for my choice of words. He’d told me at length about his lives, both what it was like for him after my involuntary induction into the King’s Crown tournament and his divided life here. “I didn’t mean to make light of what you’ve been through.”
“I know,” was all he said.
I followed along silently as Nico led us straight as an arrow toward a large, intimidating building of dark stone and black spines. It looked a little like a huge porcupine with an army of gargoyles clinging to its back.
A woman with a head of hair like a beacon fire was waiting for us in front of the building. She was wrapped in dark robes embroidered with a golden sword and scales. Her eyes stayed on her shoes as we approached, and even when she began to speak, she did not look up.
“It is a great honor to welcome a representative of the High Sovereign.” Her tone was authoritative, even when she tried to be subservient. “Although, I must admit, we expected you sooner.”
Nico marched past her, and she spun around to follow, keeping just slightly farther back from him than I was. “The High Sovereign has little time for such trifling things as a few corrupt judges. I’m still not sure why a Scythe was needed at all,” Nico said briskly.
I wanted to look around, but we were walking too quickly for me to really take the place in. I nearly laughed when I saw a giant fresco of a man I assumed was supposed to be Agrona. It seemed like the artists had never even seen him, but I realized quickly that was a possibility. Then we were past it, with neither Nico nor the red-haired woman taking any notice.
Nico stopped at a black iron door, tapping his fingers impatiently while waiting for the high justice to open it. Waving her mana-swathed hand in front of the door, she motioned us toward a dimly lit stairway made of dark stone and gray tiles. Nico took the lead again, descending the stairs rapidly. By the time we reached the bottom, he was marching at an uncomfortable speed, forcing the high justice and I to practically jog to keep up with him.
A maze of narrow tunnels opened up to our left and right, lined with barred cell doors. In the closest cell to the stairs, a raggedy woman leaned forward into the torchlight, saw Nico, and immediately ducked back into the shadows, her face twisting as if she’d just seen a demon.
Nico ignored the branching tunnels as he led us straight down the middle path.
Then, something clicked.
His standoffishness, the way he was practically ignoring me after spending the last three weeks working tirelessly to prove to Agrona that I was ready, his ill temper…Nico was anxious about this interrogation.
It was hardly a stretch to say that my once-fiance was always anxious, but he had gone rigid, every movement stiff and awkward, and he wouldn’t even look at me. He wasn’t merely anxious; he was dreading whatever was to come.
The hallway ended in a pair of wide iron doors, black as night and entirely covered in silvered runes. They looked like they could keep a rampaging rhinoceros inside. Despite their size, though, they swung open all by themselves as the high justice approached, revealing a large, circular room on the other side.
My stomach did a flip.
“What did these people do to deserve this?” I asked, averting my eyes.
Inside the cell, five figures hung spread-eagle from the ceiling by their wrists and ankles. Bronze bands covered their mouths. Although there was mana in the chains and gags, I couldn’t sense anything from the prisoners. Either their mana was being suppressed or—I swallowed hard—their mana cores had been destroyed.
“They colluded with a noble house to convict an innocent man of a crime he didn’t commit,” the high justice said firmly. “Their blatant abuse of authority for their own personal gain deserves this and worse.”
I stepped toward the cell, despite not being entirely sure I even wanted to, but Nico stopped me. He reached out to touch my arm, but stopped. “I think it would be better if you waited out here.”
I was almost relieved. Taking a step back, I nodded. Once he and the high justice were inside, the doors began to close. At the last moment, as his eyes turned away from mine, his face changed, hardening like it was carved out of pale marble. Then he was gone, and I watched as yellow mana particles raced along the grooves between the doors, ceiling, and floor.
There was a wooden stool next to the doors, so I sat down. My mind kept fluttering back to the manaless figures in the room. I’d had my own mana core for such a short period of time, but still the idea of losing it terrified me beyond words. To discover that mana exists—and learn how to restructure the physical world with a thought—only to lose that power…
The Alacryans couldn’t have understood. Even Agrona, even Nico…
On Earth, I had learned early on that, although I had a relatively large ki center, that power would never be mine to wield. I was the weapon. That’s what they thought the Legacy was.
Agrona is no different.
I dug a palm into my eye socket, pushing away the irritating thought. Maybe it was true that Agrona hoped I would use my strength for him, but he had reincarnated me knowing it would be my power. He knew what I really was. And he wanted to show me what I was capable of.
They’re constantly hiding things. Like right now. What is Nico doing that he doesn’t want you to see?
Once this thought had invaded my brain, I couldn’t escape it. I was just as curious to know what was happening inside that room as I had been hesitant to enter it. I listened closely, but there was a layer of deviant wind mana creating a sound barrier around the cell.
As I focused on the mana, it rippled, and the sound of muffled conversation reached my ears. I remembered swimming at the academy, learning to focus my ki in different environments, and how the water distorted the voices of those outside the pool. It sounded exactly like that. I swam close to the metaphorical surface, and the voice became even clearer. I pushed through the barrier of sound, and suddenly I could hear Nico as if he were standing right next to me.
“—tell me every single damned thing you remember about him. Don’t leave out the smallest detail.” Nico’s voice was deep and hollow, like he was speaking from the bottom of a canyon.
A chorus of croaking voices answered, each one more desperate to be heard than the last.
“—cruel cleverness in his eyes as he—”
“—sat like a statue, like he never feared for a—”
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“—might be an unadorned, ‘cause we never did sense his mana or—”
“—exuded such a terrible pressure—”
“Stop. Stop!” Nico snarled. The cell went quiet. “If you keep shouting over each other, I’ll burn out your tongues so only one may speak.” I recoiled from his gruesome threat, but told myself he was only doing what he had to do. “You, tell me how this ascender came to your attention.”
There was some moaning and clearing of throats before a thin, nasally voice answered. “A servant of the Granbehl Blood brought us a strange story…of an ascender without any blood ties, who seemed unaccountably powerful, and who projected no mana signature.” The speaker paused, breathing heavily. “They suspected that Ascender Grey had smuggled a relic—”
The voice choked off as stone and bones both cracked. I could feel the weight of Nico’s rage through the warded doors.
When Nico spoke again, his voice was strained. “Why was I not informed of this ascender’s name?”
“I-it was in the report we sent to Taegrin Caelum,” the high justice said swiftly, her voice shaking.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Nico snarled under his breath, and I heard soft steps as he began to pace.
Standing, I moved tentatively toward the doors. The steel bolts retracted as I approached, and the doors swung open. Inside, the high justice had shrank back against the curved wall, her head down. Nico paced back and forth in front of the four remaining prisoners. The fifth, a man with a goatee, had been impaled by three black spikes. His blood ran in dark streams down the spikes before seeping into cracks in the floor.
“He’s dead,” Nico said firmly. He spun on his heel, pacing back the other way. “But he’s like a freaking cockroach. If anyone could survive…” He spun again. “Even if he survived, he couldn’t have come to Alacrya without us seeing.”
He snapped his fingers and pointed at me before continuing to speak to himself. “He could have found an ancient portal, still active…but even he wouldn’t be self-absorbed enough to use that name…like lighting a signal fire in the dark…”
Is this the man you love?
I trembled as the vertigo surged through my body, beginning behind my eyes, then jolting down into my guts. I grabbed his wrist with a shaky hand. “Nico, what did you do?”
He wrenched his arm free of my grasp, baring his teeth at me like an animal. “Shut up!”
A monster roared to life inside me. The elderwood guardian’s will was all twisted, boiling rage. It was the trapped beast screaming against the chains that bound it, but it was also the grass and vines and trees that retake the world when humans abandon it. It frightened me, this wild thing sleeping inside me. It was too much like my ki in my last life: uncontrollable, explosive, relentless…
I had learned to touch every kind of mana. Even the so-called deviants, the use of which seemed simple as snowballs in winter…but Agrona had warned me away from the beast will. Perhaps some day I could tame it, but for now…
The light in the room took on the dappled green of the forest beneath a thick canopy, and a single emerald vine curled around my arm, reaching toward Nico.
The fury melted off his face, leaving him pale and green-tinged. He recoiled from me as if he’d been burned.
“Cecil, are you okay? I’m sorry, I’m…” Trailing off, he ran both hands through his limp hair.
The tendril receded, and the light returned to normal. But I could still feel the beast will vibrating with rage. “I’m fine.”
Nico cleared his throat and faced the four prisoners. The old woman had fainted, and the fat man had thrown up on the floor. They had been caught unprotected between the sudden surge of force from Nico and me.
He’ll hurt you.
That didn’t matter. Nico’s spirit was shattered. He wasn’t himself. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t be healed with time.
“What did this ascender look like?” Nico asked, addressing the central prisoner, a frail old man.
“Pale blond hair…” the old man rasped. “Golden eyes, more feline than man. Twenty years of age, perhaps, with sharp and proud features…”
Nico frowned, his eyes losing focus as he tried to picture the mysterious ascender.
“And regal,” the old man added. “He held himself like royalty…like a king.”
Nico scoffed, a vicious sound that clawed the air. “Like a king, you say?” Nico’s body erupted, his sudden swelling rage no longer able to be contained by mere flesh and bone. Black flames engulfed him, leaping from his body like hot ash.
“Who is a king!” he roared. “We have only Sovereigns here!”
I could see the mana, blackened by the basilisks’ decay influence, working itself into a frenzy inside the prisoners’ flesh. All of them were burning on the inside. On the outside, they writhed in silent torment, the pain too great to even scream.
Nico was panting heavily, and with every exhalation, the air around him seemed to distort. The high justice had already scrambled backwards out of the cell to avoid the black fire. She could only watch, unable to speak out in defense of the justice she claimed to represent.
“Useless old fools!” Nico shouted, his voice cracking. The old man’s flesh began to blister and crack, and little black flames leapt out of the wounds as the soulfire devoured them.
It did not take long.
“That wasn’t necessary,” I said, soft but firm. I didn’t want to draw Nico’s fury, but I wasn’t afraid, either. “They didn’t deserve to be burned away by your fear and rage.”
Nico closed his eyes. His breathing slowed, and the flames outlining him like a deadly halo receded back into his flesh and faded. “They are nobody. They are entirely insignificant.” His voice was utterly devoid of emotion.
“Grey again…” I said, my voice barely a whisper. “Why does this man have such a hold over you that just his name can cause such a strong reaction? Who is Grey?”
Nico, his back to me, seemed to shrink in on himself. “He was our friend…”
He turned, and for just a moment I didn’t see the stranger’s face that Nico wore. I only saw his eyes, red-rimmed and glistening with tears. I knew the sadness in them. He was looking at me now the same way he used to look at me, helpless. Desperate.
“And he was the one that murdered you, Cecilia.”