The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 342: Duality
It was cold. Really cold. But the sensation of frigid air biting at my skin—my skin, I had to remind myself—was exhilarating. It reminded me that…
Resting my bare hands on the icy-cold railing that ran around my ten-foot-wide balcony, I stared out at the endless range of snowy mountains, miles and miles of jagged peaks that rose up from the earth like the teeth of an enormous dragon.
No, not the Earth, not anymore. Despite reminding myself of this startling fact at least a hundred times, I have yet to come to terms with it. Who could have known there were other worlds out there? And that you could be…reborn into one. New episodes will be published on lightnovelpub.com.
My gaze was drawn to the series of runes marking my bare arms, glowing faintly with warm light. These arms were more slender than those I’d had before…
I closed my eyes hard against the fog in my head, squeezing until I saw stars before opening them again.
It had been worse—much worse—the first time I had seen the thin arms and the tattooed runes. Nico had been there, standing over me—although I hadn’t recognized him, of course. His alien eyes had stared into mine from beneath his new, dark brows. I had immediately vomited all over his shirt before passing out…
In the distance, a winged creature the size of an airplane was wheeling around one of the peaks, hunting. What had Nico called the creature?
A mana beast.
As I watched, letting my attention move entirely away from my own body and the glowing runes that marked my now fair skin, the magnificent monstrosity suddenly tucked in its wings and dove, vanishing in the dips and valleys. I wished I could join it, flying through the mountains, nothing between me and the jagged rocks but the magic I’d inherited with this body.
Of all the amazing things I’d seen and learned, flying was definitely my favorite.
Flying, though, made me think of my first battle in this new world, of the impossible strength of our enemies, and a chill ran through me that had nothing to do with the cold, raising gooseflesh along my arms.
We hadn’t expected an attack…I had barely known what was going on still, only that my new friend Agrona—the one who gave Nico and me another chance at life—needed my help. I simply repeated what they told me to, until…
I flew, I thought dizzily. I’d never done that before.
Turning suddenly, I whisked back into my room and shut the door against the cold and the alien landscape. A twisting sense of vertigo threatened to overwhelm me, so I threw myself into a chair in front of the blazing fireplace, rubbing the bridge of my nose forcefully, my entire body rigid against the nausea.
An unwanted memory surfaced. I was walking across the school campus on a day like any other, when my body began to ache and tremble, the swelling ki washing across me like waves over a stormy ocean, and when those waves of ki broke land…I was lying on the floor, my body jerking and twisting within a cocoon of dark, spear-tipped vines, the angry presence hidden within me lashing out, roaring with hatred and confusion…
Shaking my head violently, I recoiled from the images, tucking my legs up to my chest and wrapping my arms around them.
Breathe, just breathe, Cecilia.
This dizzying sensation of wrongness had been common at first. Nico said it was just my mind acclimating to my new physical form, but—
A knock at the door made me jump.
Unfolding from the chair, I stared at the back of the door. “Yes?” I asked after a few seconds.
“Cecilia, it’s Nico. Can I come in?”
I turned back to the fire, dancing in shades of orange and yellow, and took a deep breath to push back the lingering dizziness. “Yes, of course.”
The heavy wooden door swung smoothly inward, revealing a figure a head taller than me, with alabaster skin and jet-black hair. He stepped inside and let the door close softly before crossing the room to sit stiffly on my bed.
Nico looked so different, and not just his physical features. Whatever had happened to him in this new life had been hard on him. It had made him hard. You can find the rest of this content on the lightnovelpub.com platform.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, his piercing eyes burning into me as if he were trying to see my soul, hidden beneath the skin I was wearing.
“Fine,” I replied, too quickly.
“I had an attack of vertigo, just now,” I admitted. “But I’m okay.”
Nico was off the bed and kneeling beside me in an instant. When his hand came to rest on mine, I pulled away as something inside of me recoiled.
“Sorry,” I whispered, but I didn’t put my hand back.
“No, Cecilia, it’s okay. It’s fine, really.” The obvious hurt this caused him shone back at me from those unfamiliar eyes, but he took his hand off the arm of my chair. “I know this is all so confusing.”
Confusing doesn’t begin to cover it.
“Do the exercise,” Nico suggested.
Nodding, I closed my eyes and began to focus on the orange glow of the fire playing across the inside of my eyelids. Then, breathing deeply, my focus followed the breath in through my nose and down into my lungs, where I held it.
As I breathed out, my focus stayed on my lungs, on the way my sternum shifted as my chest rose and my stomach expanded, causing an intricate interplay of the muscle, bones, and internal organs. There, I searched for my mana core, trying to feel it, to be consciously aware of it.
It took a minute, but eventually I found it near my solar plexus. Once I had it in my mind, it felt impossible to miss: a ball of white hot power, waiting for me to draw on the gusting hurricane of energy contained within. Sort of like my ki center, but…more.
But there was something else there, too.
Within the core, I could sense another will, separate from my own, just like in the memory. Angry green tentacles wriggled, making my stomach churn.
The elderwood guardian’s beast will…
My eyes snapped open as I was shunted out of the meditation by the queasy feeling the beast will gave me. From the corner of my eye, I saw Nico watching me closely.
“Better?” he asked when I opened my eyes.
I only nodded in response.
“Anyway.” Nico stood and took a hesitant step back. “Agrona would like us to join him for dinner in an hour, in his private rooms. Want me to wait for you to get dressed?”
I shook my head this time, then tucked a stray lock of gunmetal hair behind my ear. “No, I’ll…see you there.”
With a nod, Nico fumbled behind him for the door handle, then backed out into the hallway, not taking his eyes off me until the door had snapped shut.
Sighing deeply—something I couldn’t remember doing often in my past life, but felt the need to do frequently now—I sank down into the chair and moved my feet closer to the fire, close enough to be uncomfortable.
Like the cold, the sensation of the too-warm flames licking at my bare toes made me feel…
Remembering what Nico had said about dinner, I jumped up and dashed through a door on the other side of my bed that led into my own private dressing room. Inside, there was a desk with drawers full of perfumes and makeup, several mirrors, three dressers for different types of clothes, and a closet that ran the length of the room.
It was, I thought a little guiltily, my favorite place in Taegrin Caelum.
I’d never had my own stuff before, not really. Or at least, I didn’t think so. So much of my previous life was still a blur, although Nico and Agrona assured me that it would all come back with time. But I remembered the orphanage, and Headmaster Wilbek, and I remembered the testing…
Pulling away from the memories to avoid another fit, I began to sort through the clothes hanging inside the closet. It contained mostly dresses and strange robes of a hundred different colors and designs, and all just for me.
My fingertips brushed a simple, onyx-colored dress with black runes along the back that I thought would make my new hair stand out, but dismissed it for an ankle-length green dress with golden leaves embroidered up the side.
As I quickly changed, I prepared myself for a conversation with Agrona, ordering my thoughts and preparing answers to the bombardment of questions I knew I’d receive.
Once I was dressed, I started the long walk through the fortress to Agrona’s private rooms without even glancing in the mirrors to check my appearance; looking at the stranger’s rune-covered body and unfamiliar face staring back at me would only give me vertigo again.
Taegrin Caelum’s halls were always bustling with activity: hundreds of servants rushed about, tending to the needs of the many soldiers, aristocrats, and military leaders who frequented the mountain fortress. The castle was like a city unto itself, contained within the towering walls of dark stone.
Each hall was lined with paintings and portraits, or artifacts hung in rune-marked glass cases. Stuffed mana beasts were common, every one posed as if it were about to lunge and attack passersby. I was fascinated by the grotesque and alien forms, and had mapped out much of the fortress by learning the location of the many stuffed monsters, but there was no time to linger and examine them today.
Wherever I crossed paths with a servant who was polishing an artifact or scrubbing stains from the scarlet carpet that ran down the center of the hall, they would press their backs against the walls and bow deeply until after I’d passed.
Early on, I’d tried to talk to a few of these servants, but they wouldn’t speak to me, except to answer direct questions, and they never made eye-contact. In fact, aside from Nico and Agrona, I had no one to talk to.
They want you to be isolated, to see only what they’re showing you.
I shook my head, knowing this wasn’t a fair observation. Too much stimulus overwhelmed me, especially after the attack…They had to introduce this new world slowly, and even then I found myself having a hard time retaining information. Visit lightnovelpub.com for a better experience
Like where things were in the huge fortress.
It was when I passed the lunging form of a feline beast with two heads and three tails for the second time that I realized I’d turned myself around while lost in thought.
“Was it the second right after this cat-thing, or the third?” I muttered to myself, peeking down corridor after corridor.
Turning at the third corridor, I increased my pace, hurrying to the door at its end, which I thought opened into a narrow, spiralling staircase that would take me up several floors to the level on which Agrona maintained his private rooms.
Instead of a staircase, I found a large, dimly lit suite. Surprised, I froze in the doorway, my eyes tracking slowly across the chamber as I tried to figure out where I was.
“Who's there,” a thin, tired voice said from deeper in the chamber. “Just leave whatever it is by the door and go away!”
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “I’m a little lost. Do you—”
Something was scrabbling against the floor near the corner, and I could just make out a lithe silhouette unfolding from where it lay and stalking toward me into the ring of light from the open door.
I stepped back out into the hallway, my heart suddenly pounding in my chest, although I wasn’t quite sure why.
The woman seemed to fill the doorway, despite her stick-thin stature. She rested her hands on the frame on either side of the opening and scowled out from behind thin, greenish-black bangs. I was taken aback by how ill and…inhuman she looked.
Her cheeks were sunken beneath dark, red-rimmed eyes, and when she sucked in a hissing breath through her thin, gray lips, I saw that her teeth had been filed to sharp points. The black robes she wore exposed her arms and sides, which were skeletally thin.
“Are…” I trailed off, my voice failing as I struggled to overcome whatever instinct was urging me to flee from the woman. Swallowing heavily, I tried again. “Are you okay?”
“Am I…? Am I okay?” she hissed, staring at me as if I’d suddenly grown a third arm. “You speak to Bivrae, last of her blood…and ask if she is okay?”
“I’m sorry,” I muttered, unsure why the woman repulsed me so completely.
She looks just like him.
This thought took me by surprise, but the moment I had it, I knew what it meant. I could picture the man, puffy and skeletal at the same time, with seaweed green hair and sunken pits for eyes…
Bilal. The retainer. Her…brother?
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I choked out, overwhelmed by a strangling collision of emotions I couldn’t explain. “Forgive my intrusion.”
Bowing slightly, I fled back down the hall.
“Wait!” she screeched, but I didn’t stop, rounding the corner and nearly colliding with a servant woman.
I dodged around her and was halfway to the next corridor before I heard her yelp of surprise, then increased my pace still more, practically flying through the halls, hammering through a door and shooting up a winding staircase.
Only after I’d burst through another door into a wide hallway with an elegantly curved roof covered by a long, detailed fresco did I skid to a stop, breathing hard.
Jumping, I spun around only to realize that Nico had been standing near the stairway door, admiring a gold and silver shield hung on the wall.
His expression fell when he noticed my heaving breaths, and what I assumed was a wild, panicky stair. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“N-nothing,” I stammered, working to collect myself. “Just…got turned around—didn’t want to be late.”
“You’re perfectly on time, actually,” a deep voice said from down the hallway, the rumble of it carrying through the stones and vibrating up into the soles of my feet. “No need to have gotten yourself worked up, Cecilia dear.”
Turning toward the voice, I bowed deeply, but the motion made my head swim as a wave of vertigo crashed around me, and I stumbled forward. A powerful, marble-gray arm caught me, and I felt myself being lifted like a child and set firmly back on my feet.
Standing in front of me, his hands on my shoulders, was Agrona, his vibrantly scarlet eyes staring right through me. The lord of the Vritra clan, and my new home of Alacrya, was handsome, with smooth skin and a sharp jaw that reminded me of an actor. His frame was lithe and graceful, and he moved with an easy confidence that drew your eyes to him.
Enormous horns sprouted from the sides of his black hair like an elk’s antlers, except shiny and black, each prong coming to a spear-sharp point. Several gold and silver rings wrapped around the many prongs, and bejeweled chains traced the lines of the horns. On anyone else, it would have looked gaudy, but to Agrona, it only added to the sense of power that hung from him like a cloak.
Lost in the twisting vertigo, I couldn't help but stare as his presence overwhelmed me.
“Oh, those pesky memories,” he said softly. “Riling you up again, aren’t they? Let me help.”
No! Please don’t—
Then Agrona was in my head, in my mind, poking around like a potter molding clay. The confusion of memories and thoughts that weren’t mine began to recede, as did the cascading avalanche of emotions.
As his mental fingers kneaded my brain, I took a deep breath and let myself relax. First, he removed her memories, pushing them away and burying them down deep, then he began to sift through my own, giving a tug here or a prod there to help me remember things from my previous life.
A rush of images played in my mind’s eye, flashing by in quick succession:
Nico, just a boy, inviting me to play with him and his friend, even though I was too shy to even speak.
Nico dodging between blasts of ki energy, moving faster than his age should have allowed, to press a gloved hand to my stomach, saving me and everyone else in the orphanage from the surging unstable ki threatening to explode out of me.
Nico handing me a medallion that he’d made just for me, to keep me safe, his nervous smile speaking more than his words ever did.
Nico saving me from violent men in an alley, men who wanted to take me away, who were willing to kill to get me.
Nico, his arms wrapped around me in congratulations after we’d been accepted into the military training institute we attended together.
Nico, his arms wrapped around me in…
My eyes snapped open and I took a quick step back from the towering Vritra, who gave me a knowing smile before straightening. “There there, all better now, isn’t it Cecilia.”
“Yes, Lord Agrona,” I replied calmly, the noise in my head finally settling. “Thank you for your assistance.”
Next to me, Nico’s fingers were fidgeting at his side, and I knew he wanted to reach out and take my hand, but he held back. I didn’t make any effort to encourage him, appreciating the distance. For some reason, physical contact with Nico, no matter how innocent, always triggered the sickening sense of vertigo. You can find the rest of this content on the lightnovelpub.com platform.
“Now, I’ve had an exquisite meal prepared for us,” Agrona went on, turning and gesturing for us to follow. “Star fruit and moon oxen from Elenoir—bit of a rare delicacy now, all things considered—but that’s not the reason I wanted to speak to you both.
“I know you want to get out and see the world, Cecilia dear. This all still seems very alien and otherworldly, and I don’t want you to feel like a bird trapped in its cage. Which is why I am sending Nico—with you at his side, as it should be—to investigate some strange goings on at the High Hall within the Relictombs.”
Smiling up at the Vritra lord, Nico and I followed him into his private dining chamber, eager for the opportunity to prove myself to the High Sovereign.