The Beginning After The End - Chapter 362 - Fate Intertwined
I marched from Taegrin Caelum’s primary tempus warp chamber through the castle’s cold halls, moving purposefully toward Agrona’s private wing. Servants bowed and pressed themselves to the walls as we passed, and even the many elite soldiers and high-ranking military leaders shrank back in fear of me—as they should. I was in no mood to be disturbed or interrupted; I wanted answers, and wouldn’t be dismissed until Agrona himself delivered them to me.
I took the spiralling stairs to Agrona’s chambers two at a time, my grip firmly around Cecilia’s wrist as she lagged behind me. The stairs opened up on a hallway that connected the main body of the castle with Agrona’s private chambers. Unlike the cold stone halls we’d just come from, this chamber blazed with warm light.
The walls were covered in artifacts and souvenirs of Agrona’s many victories. Scattered among the dead relics and artifacts of Agrona’s favored highblood families were more gruesome keepsakes: a phoenix wing, mounted so that it was spread out, displaying the feathers that still gleamed red and gold; a headdress made of pearlescent dragon feathers over an ornate necklace of claws and fangs; and a pair of dragon horns that sprouted from the wall.
I stopped short. The way forward was barred.
“I am here to speak to Agrona. Move, Melzri.”
The other Scythe pressed a hand to her heart and let her mouth hang open mockingly. “Now is that any way to speak to the one who trained you and took care of you after we got you back from that trashy little island, little brother?”
I scoffed, letting a murderous intent seep out into the fancifully decorated hallway where Melzri stood guard. Though I glared at her, she only smiled back, looking exactly as she always had: perfect silvery-gray skin, pure white hair plaited into a thick braid that ran down her back, and dark lips and eyes that matched the two pairs of shining onyx horns that sprouted from her head and curved sharply back, a smaller pair directly beneath two larger horns.
“I’m not your brother,” I said waspishly. “What are you even doing here, anyway?”
She gave me a simpering little giggle, which she knew I hated and did purely to irritate me. “Just some Victoriad business. Viessa was here too, but she left only minutes ago, I’m sorry to say.” Her red-black eyes, the color of congealed blood, drifted to focus on Cecilia. “Ah, the famous Legacy. You wear the elven girl’s skin well, I must say. That hair is to die for.”
I growled, stepping between Melzri and Cecilia. “Shut up and leave her out of this.”
I felt Cecilia shuffle next to me. “Nico, it’s okay. Why don’t we just go wait in our rooms?”
Melzri’s smile sharpened into a predatory grin. “What’s wrong, little brother? Not willing to share your plaything…although, I suppose really she is the High Sovereign’s pet, right? Which makes you…what? Her nanny? No…” Melzri put a hand over her mouth as she gave another little laugh. “You are her plaything, I think…”
“I don’t care what you have to say, Melzri,” I said, trying to sound like I meant it. I thoughtlessly reached for Cecilia’s hand, but she dodged it, and the anger rushed out of me like air knocked from my lungs.
Melzri saw, but instead of mocking me, she gave me a disappointed frown and stepped back to block the way forward. “The High Sovereign is not available to speak with you at this moment. You may wait here or return to your room.”
“This is urgent—”
Melzri sniffed. “I’m just looking out for you, little brother. If you storm in there and interrupt the High Sovereign’s meeting with Dragoth and Sovereign Kiros, you might find yourself with something other than your little feelings hurt.”
This caught my attention.
“The Sovereign of Vechor is here?” It was rare for the Sovereigns to leave their dominions. Although I was paraded around before each of them when I was named a Scythe of the central dominion, I had never met any of them again.
Melzri didn’t bother to answer, and so I turned my back on her and walked to the farthest corner of the room, next to the stairway door, where I stood and glared at a matched pair of ruby blades, crossed over the crest of some long defunct highblood.
Did the members of this ancient blood see the end coming for them? I wondered. Did they feel safe in their nobility, as if they had carved out a place for themselves in this world, or were they always waiting for someone to put a knife in their back?
I played through the events at the High Hall again, trying to make sense of it. There wasn’t a single doubt in my mind that this blond, golden-eyed Ascender Grey was really my Grey, despite the change in appearance. But I didn’t understand why Agrona hadn’t told me the name beforehand.
Was it some kind of test?
I had been tested often, and experimented on, and pushed to my limit. Sometimes these trials were painful, even cruel, but they had always made me stronger. There was always a reason.
I sighed deeply, failing to understand.
Cecilia had followed me, staying by my side but never touching me, never offering comfort…
Needing to look anywhere but Cecilia or Melzri, I let my eyes wander up to the ceiling, where an enormous fresco stretched the length of the hall.
It showed the flight of the Vritra from Epheotus, depicting the dragons of the Indrath clan as monstrous beasts swarming in a blood-red sky, while people—both lessers and the Vritra Clan basilisks—cowered behind Agrona, displayed here in shining platinum armor and radiating a golden light that kept the dragon’s at bay…
“Nico…?” Cecilia asked from my side. I could feel her gaze on my cheek, but I didn’t turn to look at her. I couldn’t. If I did, I was worried I might break.
It shouldn’t have been like this. I had spent an entire life trying to protect her, first from her own monstrous ki and then from the many people who sought to use her, and this new life had been dedicated to completing the reincarnation ritual and giving her a second chance, but when I’d finally accomplished it, it seemed like everything had gone wrong for me.
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Agrona had once fawned over me the same way he now treated Cecilia…but he had turned dismissive and sarcastic toward me. He had sent me to the High Hall knowing who this Ascender Grey really was. He must have, or why else chose me to go, and with so little information? But I didn’t understand his motivations. Was it nothing more than a cruel game?
He should have told me what he knew, or suspected.
My mind flinched away from these thoughts, rejecting them, because to linger there meant I would have to acknowledge the creeping fear that was stealing through my mind, corrupting every dark corner of it. Fear was unacceptable. It was weakness. The other Scythes, the Vritra…they could all smell it, and to show fear here meant being devoured alive.
“Nico,” Cecilia said again, moving to be in my line of sight.
“What?” I said, more coldly than I’d intended.
“How…” She trailed off, biting her lip. After several long seconds, she took a deep breath and tried again. “I want to know about my death.”
My jaw clenched and I ground my teeth together. Although I wanted her to understand—wanted her to hate Grey as much as I did—I couldn’t bring myself to speak.
“Experiencing the memory of a death can be quite traumatic,” Agrona’s rich baritone said from the end of the hallway, announcing his sudden arrival. “But I think you are ready, Cecilia.”
Melzri slid aside, putting her back to the wall and keeping her head down. Agrona’s red eyes took in everything within the hallway with an easy sweep, a placid movement that almost seemed like laziness, and yet I knew in that instant he had read everything in the room. He moved with an unhurried grace, obviously expecting the world to stand still and wait for him to arrive. As he passed Melzri, he reached out and ran a finger along one of her horns, but his attention was otherwise entirely on Cecilia.
“Do you really—” My mouth snapped shut at a glance from the High Sovereign, my argument dismissed before it could leave my mouth.
I wanted to wrap my arm around Cecilia, draw her close to me so I could comfort and protect her, but instead, I did nothing as Agrona approached. He brushed aside her gunmetal gray hair and placed his fingers against her temples. She closed her eyes as her body went stiff.
Although I couldn’t directly experience what the High Sovereign was doing in her mind, I knew well enough. Agrona was a master of direct manipulation of the mind, able to both remove and alter memories, and even able to directly control another person’s body to a limited extent. Right now, he was giving Cecilia back the memory of her death…in only a few moments, she would know.
She would remember.
I forced back the nervous, guilty energy tingling through my body. It would have been better if I could have told her all the truth from the beginning…but it was too great a risk. I knew that Agrona had twisted the memories she’d received, highlighting my role in her life while diminishing Grey’s. She just had to have someone in this world she could trust entirely, implicitly. Adjusting those little memories made sure she had that…in me.
This memory, though, the memory of her death…even I didn’t want it in my head, and I wished, not for the first time, that Agrona would help me forget it. Cecilia shouldn’t have to remember it either, but she had to see, she had to know what had happened. With Grey alive, it was only a matter of time until they crossed paths. She needed to know who he really was. It didn’t matter how many names he’d taken or lives he’d lived…inside, he was still the same cold, selfish Grey. The man who chose kingship over his only friends—family—in the world.
I wouldn’t let him take her from me again.
Cecilia began to tremble. Her eyes stayed shut, but a pained whimper escaped her lips. Her knees threatened to buckle.
A crushing force wrapped around my throat, choking off my plea. My hands clawed at my neck as I sank to my knees, but Agrona didn’t even look at me.
Cecilia was falling, tumbling backwards, but he caught her, scooping her up and holding her in his arms like a child. “Hush, Cecil. I know, and I am sorry to burden you with the truth of your death. Rest now.” Agrona lowered his forehead until it touched Cecilia’s. There was a spark of magic, and her breathing became even and slow, and the whimpering ended.
Melzri was by their side, and Agrona handed Cecilia—my Cecil—to the Scythe. “Take her to her room. Guard her until she wakes, then return to Etril.”
“As you command, High Sovereign.” Then she was marching away, and taking Cecilia with her.
Only when they’d gone did the invisible fist around my throat release. I coughed and choked, falling to my hands and knees, gasping for air. I felt the dark aura building within me, angry and eager to burst out, but suppressed it utterly. With angry tears in my eyes, I looked up at Agrona. His face was impassive.
After my coughing had subsided, he said, “You forget yourself. You are so terrified of losing your fiancé for the second time that the fear is ripping you apart from within.”
I stood, finally, and raised my chin to meet Agrona’s eyes. “You were hurting her.” I nearly bit my tongue in half in frustration as I heard my own plaintive, whiny voice. “You swore that you’d—”
“Nico.” My name left his lips like a javelin, and I felt it pierce me somewhere deep within. “Do you understand what Cecilia is? What the Legacy is?” He shook his head, the decorative chains hanging in his horns jingling softly. His large, cold hand brushed the side of my face, but there was no warmth in his gaze. “Of course you don’t. She is the future. But you, Nico…there is room in that future—in the world I will build with Cecilia at my side—for warriors, but not for weak lessers who succumb entirely to their own stubborn impulses.”
I tried to swallow. It stuck in my throat, almost as if I were being choked all over again, but it was only my own rage, fear, and disappointment…My stubborn impulses, I thought bitterly. It wasn’t fair. My anger and rage had been cultivated since I was an infant, harnessed and turned into a weapon—by Agrona. It was the purity of my fury that made me powerful. Without it…
I knew I had peaked as a mage, that I couldn’t continue to grow stronger, and obviously Agrona knew it too.
I hadn’t been a powerful warrior or ki user on Earth, not like Grey or Cecilia. When I realized my potential in this new world, before my memories were stripped from me and I was transformed into Elijah and sent away, I was ecstatic. My new life would be nothing like my old one. I would have power, real strength—physical, political, and magical, and all because of Agrona. He had given me everything I needed—training, elixirs, the strongest runes, a body capable of channeling the basilisks’ decay-type mana arts—to make sure I would be strong.
But now, those I cared about were still reaching beyond me and leaving me behind. Again.
“Do you know why you were reincarnated?” Agrona asked, turning away from me to look at one of the ornaments hanging from the wall. “You were reincarnated because you were close to her. You and Grey both. To maximize the potential of the reincarnation—to make sure the Legacy was able to fully integrate into this world—a sort of array had to be formed between her lives. I needed anchors to hold and bind the Legacy’s spirit. That’s all you are.”
I couldn’t help but shake my head. “No, you said—”
“You see and encourage the lies I tell Cecilia, and yet you don’t think I would do the same to you?” Agrona smiled, a nonchalant, disarming expression that showed no guilt or regret. “Utilizing what I learned from the Relictombs, I looked across worlds until I found the Legacy, and next to her, you and King Grey.”
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I flinched, my anger flaring at the reference to Grey’s kingship, won by taking Cecilia’s life. “But you needed me. You said so yourself. Grey’s reincarnation showed you how to bring me here. Without me, you—”
“I attempted the reincarnation on Grey first, that’s true, but his soul never arrived in the chosen vessel. A simple miscalculation, I thought. He had been alive still, back in your home world of Earth, while my preparations for the Legacy had assumed a soul passed on from its mortal sheath.” Agrona cocked his head to the side slightly, his tongue running over his sharp canines. “None of this matters now, you realize? There is little to no point in discussing it. But…I suppose I can humor you, Nico, if only to watch you struggle to understand.”
I glared back at him. His cool words—not cruel or mean spirited, but curious and demeaning, like a disappointed parent humoring their child’s foolish ideas—cut sharper than any knife, but I wouldn’t show it. I, too, could be cold and dismissive if I wished. “Tell me. I deserve to understand.”
Agrona shrugged his large shoulders. “Although I can explain it, I can’t make you understand it. Taking what I’d learned from attempting to spark King Grey’s reincarnation, I began the process of your own reincarnation next, into the body of a newborn child from a prominent magical family with some lingering Vritra blood. You arrived, as planned.”
Keeping my pace empty of emotion, I sat down onto a cushioned bench that ran along one wall of the hall. Leaning back against the wall, I crossed my legs and waited for him to continue.
“But I needed two anchors,” he continued, “and Cecilia had been close to no one else. We tried a few others, but none of their souls were strong enough to be reincarnated, and so eventually I set the experiment aside. Without the appropriate anchors, the Legacy’s reincarnation was too much of a risk; a proper vessel could not be forged.”
I thought back to my childhood in Alacrya, to the endless training and experimentation. The thought of having Cecilia back allowed me to endure any torture. Although I hadn’t known the full truth about my reincarnation and purpose, she had always been the carrot Agrona dangled in front of me, promising that, if I grew strong enough, some day he would be able to reincarnate her as well. That promise kept me from going insane.
“What about me, then? My childhood? Everything you did to me?”
“We didn’t know what benefits your reincarnation might provide, so I kept you here, ordered that you be raised and trained among the Vritra. We tested you, experimented on you, and you proved that a reincarnated soul was indeed extraordinarily potent. It kept my hope up that, some day, I could return to my plan, and the Legacy would be mine to control. And so…”
“Arthur…” I felt a twinge as I said the name, and memories of our time together at Xyrus Academy came rushing unbidden to my mind.
“Yes. Arthur. Somehow born a Leywin, a continent away, outside of my dominion.” Agrona shook his head with apparent amusement, causing his ornaments to jingle again. “Ah, Sylvia. Always the clever one. Hidden away in the wildlands of Dicathen, fatally wounded, and yet still a thorn in my side.
“It wasn’t until Cadell found her that we learned the truth. I’m sure Sylvia thought she had hidden the boy, but in the bare instant before she used her cursed aether art to freeze time, he saw. Who else could it be? What human child could be so important that Sylvia would drain herself of energy and reveal herself to my hunters in order to save them? As soon as I learned what had happened, I knew.”
“And so you took my memories and sent me to Dicathen, to Rahdeas…” My life as Elijah had begun with the dwarves, a blank slate. Even my real powers had been suppressed and hidden from me. I wondered, now, what I might have become if those years spent as Elijah hadn’t been stolen from me.
Would I have still reached the peak of my abilities so soon?
I didn’t think so. Agrona had stolen that potential from me, all just to bring me close to Grey.
“Couldn’t you have sent me as a spy? Why…” I swallowed hard. “Why take my memories? Why take that time from me?”
“Do you think you could have kept yourself from attacking Arthur the moment you saw him?” he asked with a taunting smirk. “Could you have forged a true friendship and bond in this life, if you were carrying the prejudice of your old life?”
“For Cecilia, yes. Anything,” I answered, wanting desperately to believe it, for Agrona to be wrong.
“Your anger was an unwanted variable. Why would I take an unnecessary risk just for your sake? By taking your memories—your knowledge of your own reincarnation and birth in Alacrya—I could more safely bring you together, the two anchors for the Legacy’s reincarnation.”
I put my head in my hands and pictured ripping Agrona’s horns free from his skull and plunging them into his chest, again and again until there was nothing recognizable left of him. “How did you know I would even find him…Arthur?”
A heavy hand rested on the top of my head, and I closed my eyes. “You two were bound by fate. You, Grey, and Cecilia made up the three points of the array. I was certain you would find your way to each other. But I set my spies into motion, regardless, and they expanded our network across Dicathen, and I waited.
“It was years before he resurfaced in Xyrus. But our people were well placed there to find him, and once he’d revealed himself, there was no mistaking the signs: impeccable swordsmanship, a quadra-elemental mage, awakened at only two years of age. And he wore a dragon feather around his arm.”
“Rahdeas’s sudden insistence that I become an adventurer, despite my age…” I muttered, already understanding the rest. “And it was our closeness with the elven princess, Tessia Eralith, that made her the perfect vessel for Cecilia’s return. Just like on Earth…a girl who loved Grey first, who only even saw me because I was standing next to him…”
Agrona’s strong fingers wove into my hair before suddenly and painfully jerking my head up so I was staring into his scarlet eyes. “What did you expect to happen, Nico? That you and the Legacy would retire to a cabin in the woods and live the rest of your days carefree and peaceful, frolicking and copulating and forgetting everything that had ever happened to you? After I dedicated such time and resources to her reincarnation? No. You had a purpose, which you dutifully, albeit unknowingly, served.”
He released me and began walking away down the hall, but I wasn’t finished with him yet.
“What about Grey?”
Agrona stopped and turned, giving me a confused frown, as if he couldn’t possibly understand why I would ask about my arch-nemesis. “King Grey…Arthur Leywin…Ascender Grey…his name no longer matters, because he no longer matters. His role is complete, just as yours is. I suspect he survived because my daughter somehow sacrificed herself using the aether arts of her dragon mother, which serves me well. Sylvie was always the greater danger than your little quadra-elemental friend.”
“But how did you know this ascender was the same Grey? Why…” I took a deep breath, holding onto that image of Agrona desecrated at my feet. “Why send me to the High Hall if you already knew?”
“Seris told me some time ago,” Agrona said nonchalantly, as if he were referring to some mundane, unremarkable rumor. “She thought like you—that Arthur was somehow important, that news of his unlikely survival should matter. You lessers and your silly grievances. Ever since Dragoth’s retainer was slain in Dicathen—what was his name? Uto?—it’s been, ‘Let me kill him, High Sovereign!’ ‘Oh no no, please, give me the honor!’ There was a time when he could have been a threat, perhaps—when he had the asuras in his pocket, because of my daughter—but that time has passed.”
I felt the foundation that had held up my entire new life shift and begin to crumble beneath my feet. In both lives, Grey had been my closest friend and most hated enemy. Even more than Cecilia, his very existence had completely changed the course of my lives. I wouldn’t simply allow him to live, knowing what he had done.
And what he still might do, I thought. As long as Grey lives, Cecilia isn’t safe.
And yet Agrona dismissed him, dismissed us both. Why did he not understand the threat Grey posed?
“You are wrong,” I said coldly, standing and slowly approaching the towering Vritra lord. He smiled in amusement. “Please, allow me to hunt Grey down, High Sovereign,” I said, trying not to beg, but very aware of how my words were an echo of his own mocking imitation. “I thought he was dead once, but somehow he escaped my revenge. Let me have another chance. After everything you’ve done to me, you owe me this. You owe me Grey.”
Agrona’s smile twisted into something sour, almost pitying. “You are owed nothing. But if you wish to run off and reenact your revenge, be my guest. Perhaps killing him will do something to quench your eternal inferiority complex. Assuming he doesn’t kill you first.” Agrona shrugged as if he truly didn’t care either way. “First, though, return to the Legacy and relieve Melzri. And do not forget. Cecilia is the future. Make sure she has everything she needs.”
Agrona turned on his heel and moved with unnatural swiftness down the hallway, leaving me to stew in my disappointment and anger. I do not need your approval. I will find Grey. I will find him and I will kill him, and this time, he will not come back.