The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 372

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Chapter 372

ARTHUR


Nico took a half step toward me, jaw tensed and a vein pulsing visibly at his temple. Black spikes thrust up out of the ground at his slightest movement, his skin tinged with faint wisps of soulfire flames. “Even after two lifetimes, you haven’t changed.”


The false smile fell from my face at his words, and I bit back more goading words. Any pride I’d felt at my own ingenuity in drawing Nico into this fight—one where he couldn’t run away or call for backup—vanished now that he stood in front of me. His face, on which only a mere shadow of Elijah’s features now remained, filled me with conflicting emotions.


He’d been my best friend in two lives, after all. First as Nico, then as Elijah. And I had failed him in both. It was those failures, in part, that had led him to become who he was now.


Hateful. Desperate. An inhuman shell of a man.


Still…I didn’t blame him for hating me.


I couldn’t.


I couldn’t even blame him for what he’d done in this life…no matter how easy it would be to do so. He was reincarnated here only to be manipulated and used as a tool by Agrona. Fate hadn’t given him the opportunity to learn from his past life’s mistakes. Instead of a second chance, Nico’s fear, insecurity, and rage had been manipulated into a tool and weapon from the first moments of his life.


But, regardless of how we’d both arrived at this point, we’d come much too far for apologies, for reconciliation.


Despite knowing what Tessia meant to me, Nico had aided Agrona in Cecilia’s reincarnation, using Tess’s body as a vessel—the ramifications of which I still didn’t understand. Cecilia, who had wanted to avoid being someone else’s weapon so badly she fell on my sword to do it…


And he, in his infinite selfishness and ignorance, had handed her to Agrona.


“Say something!” Nico growled, almost shouting. A burst of soulfire ate away the ground beneath him, leaving him hovering in the air.


“Like what?” I snapped, his petulant whining working at my nerves like an old wound. “That I didn’t kill Cecilia? That I never meant to abandon the two of you? Would you even listen if I told you the truth? And what would it change, Nico? Certainly not the fact that you’ve killed thousands of innocents, that you took Tessia out of pure selfishness—”


“I just took back what was mine!” he yelled, his eyes full of dark, hateful fire. “What I was supposed to have. That’s fate. Just as much as it is for you to die. Again.”


I don’t know why, but the finality of Nico’s statement caused a sharp ache deep within me. I wished, in that moment, that I could undo everything that had happened. That Cecilia could have survived, and they could have run away together just like they were planning. That I wouldn’t have shut them out so I could train with Lady Vera, and would have tried harder to help Nico find Cecilia when she disappeared.


There was so much I could have done differently.


But I hadn’t. And although I could look backwards at the path I’d taken, I couldn’t change its shape. Nor could I change where that path had brought me. But I could look forward, and make new choices—different ones—to change the direction I was headed.


Ever since waking up in the Relictombs, I’d been cold and detached. I’d had to be, I knew that. I didn’t fault myself for it.


The persona of Grey was like a shield, one I wrapped around my mind, keeping out thoughts of those I couldn’t help right now: Tessia, Ellie, my mother, everyone back in Dicathen…Instead, I focused on the Relictombs and pursuing the ruins as Sylvia’s last message had instructed, and on understanding my new abilities and the new world I found myself in.


But it was time to go a different direction. And that started with Nico.


I couldn’t help the softening of my expression, knowing the full weight of my sadness and pity was plain on my face.


“Don’t. Don’t look at me like that,” Nico said, shaking his head in defiance. “I don’t want your pity.”


My body relaxed as I accepted what was about to happen. “I wish things could have turned out differently.”


SERIS VRITRA


I clicked my nails together, a nervous habit from my childhood that I’d long since cured myself of, or so I thought.


Arthur’s machinations had sped past my own, yet again, it seemed.


I found myself off guard, vacillating between a rushed attempt to put the pieces into place and a mute acceptance that I didn’t fully understand what was happening.


Still, I had not arrived at my current station by being dense, and after giving myself a moment to ponder, I realized that Arthur’s plan had really been quite simple, although effective.


Nico’s stumbling and impatient alliance with the Granbehl’s, who shared his hatred for Arthur. Arthur’s less-than-cautious reprisal and bare attempt at a cover-up.


It would have taken more restraint than Nico could muster to build up his allies’ strength enough to be a threat toward Arthur, the subterfuge working contrary to his impulsive, wrathful nature. When his ill-planned scheme failed, Arthur knew it would lead to a tantrum.


Nico had always been a temperamental boy. He embodied a weak man’s concept of power, a fool’s idea of intellect, and a child’s view of maturity. And yet I had never discounted him. The other Scythes didn’t yet see it, but none of the reincarnates were what they seemed. They were each a force of change—of chaos—in their own way.


Seeing Nico and Arthur—or Grey, who was in many ways an entirely different person than the boy I’d saved in Dicathen—standing across from each other on the battlefield, I felt a sudden thrill.


“An unscheduled interruption, but perhaps this will be an opportunity for little Nico to prove himself,” Dragoth mused with a carefree laugh.


“Prove himself?” Viessa asked, her voice a low hiss. “Merely by fighting this—what is he, some kind of school teacher?—Nico embarrasses himself, and us by extension.”


Sovereign Kiros let out a huff of irritation, his bored eyes traveling aimlessly around the high box, which had been appointed with every comfort imaginable. “So long as this doesn’t slow things down too much,” he grumbled. His gaze lingered in the darkest corner of the room. “Perhaps you should go chastise your brother-in-arms.”


Cadell stepped out of the shadows and bowed to Kiros. “Forgive Scythe Nico’s impudence, Sovereign. The High Sovereign has let him off his leash too long and too often, I’m afraid.”


Kiros’s lips twisted in a wry half-smile. “Do you question the High Sovereign’s actions or judgment, Scythe?”


Cadell sank to one knee, resting both arms across the other. “No, Sovereign Kiros, of course not.”


“They’re saying something,” Melzri said, leaning against the balcony rail and turning her head slightly. “Pointless, pratling banter.” She exchanged a dark look with Viessa. “We should have beaten Nico more during his training.”


“Who is this Grey, anyway?” Dragoth asked, looking around at the rest of us. “He seems somewhat familiar.”


Cadell, once again on his feet, was watching from the shadows instead of stepping out onto the balcony with the rest of us. “A dead man,” he said simply, meeting my gaze as he spoke.


So Agrona did not confirm Arthur’s presence in Alacrya with the rest of the Scythes, but he has told Cadell. Interesting.


I wasn’t sure how much I believed Agrona’s insistence that Arthur no longer mattered to him. The High Sovereign often played his own games, some with purpose, some purely for entertainment. There were times where he worked at cross purposes to himself, perhaps simply to confuse anyone who was keeping track, including his allies, or maybe because he enjoyed the thrill of not knowing exactly how things would unfold.


Below, Arthur pulled the white cloak from his shoulders and made it vanish with a flourish. No hint of mana or intent leaked from him, a fact the others were quick to notice as well.


“His control over mana is perfect,” Viessa said, her black-on-black eyes squinting as she peered at Arthur.


I didn’t try to hide my amusement at this statement, and she turned her gaze on me. It had been quite some time since I’d spoken with the Scythe from Truacia. As we matched gazes, I took in her stance, expression, and features.


Her skin was as pale as her eyes were dark, and a sea of purple hair spilled down over her shoulders and back. She was taller than me, made even taller by the heeled leather boots she wore, their teal coloring matching the runes stitched into her fine white and gray battlerobes. The black voids of her eyes were always unreadable, and emotion rarely interrupted the porcelain coldness of her face.


Of all the Scythes, Viessa was the one I was most unsure of.


But I didn’t spare her any additional thought just then. There were more interesting things to focus on. “They’re going to fight.”


In the arena, Arthur and Nico had separated, putting twenty feet of distance between them. Nico was an inferno of black fire. Arthur could have been carved of ice.


With an angry scream, Nico hurtled forward. The ground came apart beneath him, collapsing in on itself as black spikes grew like weeds wherever his shadow touched. A vortex of black flames coiled around and extended in front of him as he prepared to bathe Arthur in hellfire.


But Arthur did not flinch in the face of Nico’s rage. I might have thought him as mad as Nico if I didn’t know better.


My eyes widened and I leaned over the rail next to Melzri, well past ready to finally see for myself the power that Caera had described.


With a hungry roar, Nico’s soul flames burst forward. Arthur’s hand rose, and a cone of amethyst energy spilled out to meet the fire.


Where the two powers touched, they intertwined and ate away at one another, each perfectly canceling the other out.


“Impossible,” Cadell grunted from behind us.


“Oh, now that’s interesting,” Kiros said, leaning forward on his throne. “You there, Melzri, scoot aside, you’re blocking my view.”


Black spikes punched out of the ground all around Arthur, but they shattered against a layer of glowing aether that tightly clad his skin.


Nico burst through the crackling cloud that remained behind after the aether and soulfire collided, a dozen more blades of black metal orbiting around him. With a shove, he sent them flying like missiles at Arthur.


A sword shimmered to life in Arthur’s hand. A blade of pure aether, glowing vibrantly amethyst. The air around it warped in a way that made my eyes ache, like the blade was pressing away the fabric of the world to make room for itself. In movements so quick that most wouldn’t have been able to follow, Arthur cut through spike after spike, letting the pieces careen past or ricochet harmlessly off the protective barrier over his skin.


Then Nico was on him.


Their collision sent tremors through the foundations of the stadium, and for a moment I lost sight of the action as it was happening. Arthur’s weapon was a line of vibrant purple light glowing through a screen of dust. Nico was a silhouette, highlighted by the nimbus of black fire that still surrounded him.


The line of purple light intersected the dark silhouette…


Then…Nico was hurtling past Arthur, tumbling through the air like a tossed ragdoll.


Nico’s body struck the arena floor with a crash, digging a deep furrow half the length of the coliseum behind Arthur.


“Wait, what happened?” Dragoth asked, his deep voice thick with confusion.


Viessa let out a slow breath. “Nico’s core…”


She was right. Already, the mana was abandoning Nico. I could sense it flooding from his ruined core and disbursing into the atmosphere around him.


“Oh,” Dragoth grunted. “I guess I was wrong about him proving himself.”


“Shut up, you oaf,” Melzri said, leaping off the railing and striking the ground below with enough force to crack it.


Finally, Arthur turned. His golden eyes followed the line of Nico’s crashing descent to where the broken Scythe lay in a tangle. They fixed on Melzri, but when she stopped to kneel next to Nico’s prone form, they traced a line up to the high box.


Time, which had been crawling slowly by, suddenly caught up with itself.


I heard the gasps and frightened screams of the crowd, the shouted questions of the guards and event officials seeking direction, the tumbling of stones and broken timber as tunnels beneath the combat field collapsed.


I took in Melzri’s worry, Viessa’s frustration, Dragoth’s curiosity, Cadell’s cold detachment.


I was already considering the ways in which I could get Arthur out of this, but I stopped myself. This had been a part of his plan. He would already have prepared his own method of escape, if escape was even necessary. What were my fellow Scythes going to do, after all? Nico challenged Arthur—or accepted his challenge, based on his own words. And it had been Nico who interrupted the Victoriad. Arthur had done nothing wrong…but had still sent a message.


Loud and abundantly clear, indeed.


I thought—hoped, even—that Arthur would simply walk away, ending the confrontation there before it escalated. Instead, he strode purposefully toward the high box, walking right past Melzri as she inspected Nico’s wound.


“I apologize for the delay this duel has caused in today’s events, but I’m afraid a further interruption is necessary,” he shouted, making sure his voice carried not just up to the high box but throughout all of the coliseum.


“This duel was an unsanctioned challenge,” Viessa answered cooly, her voice effortlessly projecting across the stadium. “Whatever the reason for your assault on our fellow Scythe, know that defeating him has earned you nothing from Sovereign Kiros or the High Sovereign, and gives you no right to claim Scythe Nico’s position, or to ask us for anything at all.”


Arthur met Viessa’s black eyes unflinchingly. The sharp line of his jaw was relaxed, his lips firm and straight, his stance attentive but composed. He looked for all the world like he was the one in charge here.


“I respect the rules you’ve put in place,” Arthur continued, shifting so his hands were clasped behind his back, his legs in a wider, more aggressive stance. “Nevertheless, it was your own Scythe that instigated and forced me to make this challenge out of order.”


Dragoth’s form expanded, growing by a foot, then two. With both hands on the rail, he looked down on Arthur, his reserved curiosity clear in the set of his jaw and subtle cocking of his brow. “Fine then. What is it you want? Maybe if you beg for it, we will be—”


“No,” Arthur said, his voice cutting across Dragoth’s pomp like the crack of a whip.


Dragoth, always more relaxed than the other Scythes, only chuckled at this offense, a crime punishable by death in any other circumstance.


When Arthur continued, he met my eyes for a bare instant, then shifted his gaze past me to Cadell, speaking with a calm surety that belied the extraordinary nature of his request: “I only ask for what I’ve earned. To challenge Scythe Cadell of Central Dominion.”


Viessa’s lips twitched in what I thought almost might have been a frown.


Beside her, Dragoth waved dismissively toward the battlefield. “We don’t have to entertain challenges from school teachers.”


Below, Melzri was holding a vial of elixir, her hand frozen halfway to Nico’s mouth, her eyes wide and mouth partially agape.


Just five minutes before, I would have assumed any conflict between Arthur and Cadell would be a one-sided victory. If Arthur would have confided his full plan to me—to not only draw Nico into a fight where no one would intervene on his behalf, but also to challenge Cadell before the entire Victoriad—I would have either dissuaded or discarded him from the tournament, if necessary.


Which, of course, is why he didn’t.


Now, any recourse I may have used to remove him—or help him escape—was gone. With my gaze lingering on Melzri and Nico, I realized I could no longer be confident of Arthur’s abilities. Though Nico was no Cadell, he was still a Scythe…but he had let himself be baited into an unknown situation, fallen right into Arthur’s trap. Cadell would not be as foolish.


I met Cadell’s eye. His frown turned down into a deep scowl. My eyebrows rose. His furrowed.


“No,” he said finally, loud enough for only those of us in the high box to hear. “Scythes cannot start entertaining every challenge that comes along. To do so would demean us and give a platform to every self-important fool who—”


“Who just defeated one of us with a single blow,” I cut in.


“Yeah,” Dragoth said with a throaty chuckle. “Don’t tell me that Cadell, the slayer of dragons, is afraid of a school teacher?”


“The people must be shown that we are not as weak as Nico has made us appear,” Viessa added.


Cadell’s eyes flashed. “This challenge is beneath me. He is not—”


Sovereign Kiros shifted. It was a small movement, but it silenced the building argument. We all turned to face him.


Kiros was as tall and broad as Dragoth, though he was softer around the middle. Thick horns grew from the sides of his head, curving up and then forward, ending in sharp points. Golden rings of varying thickness ornamented the horns, some studded with gems, others engraved with glowing runes. His golden hair was shorn close on the sides around his horns, then pulled back into a tail. Shiny red robes draped from his frame.


He popped a fat, purple fruit into his mouth, then began to speak as he chewed, dribbling juice down his chin. “Go. This strange little man has caught my interest. I’d like to see more of what he can do, so don’t end things too quickly.”


Cadell stood ramrod straight, then bowed deeply before turning and stepping off the balcony. Regardless of his own desire, he couldn’t refuse Kiros’s order.


It was with a deepening sense of apprehension that I watched Cadell float out over the battlefield, looking down on Arthur. He waited as Melzri scooped up Nico—or the boy’s body, I couldn’t tell, there was no mana circulating within him—and withdrew from sight.


“I accept.” Cadell’s voice was strained and bitter. “But this battle”— he paused, letting the words hang in the air with him—“will be to the death.”


The held breath of the rattled audience was audible.


“Yeah,” Arthur answered, taking several steps back toward the center of the half-ruined combat field. “It certainly will be.”


Cadell wasted no time, gave no warning. An aura of black flames ignited the air, both surrounding Cadell and billowing out and down in a wide cone. The arena floor where Arthur stood was obliterated, the earth blackened and burned away, leaving a widening crater the length of the battlefield, Arthur vanishing within it.


The crowd gasped as the inferno dissipated.


Arthur had not moved, except he was now standing at the bottom of a deep crater. His body was undamaged, and no soulfire mana burned within him, eating away his life force as it should have.


I had to bite back a chagrined smile at the sight.


It had been a good trick. From where Cadell was, with his vision obscured by his own attack, he probably hadn’t even seen, and the movement had been much too fast for anyone in the audience to follow, even with strong magic enhancing their vision. For a blink, just long enough for the wave of fire to pass, Arthur had vanished with a flash of purple lightning.


Caera had mentioned this ability, but the incredible speed and control Arthur exerted astonished even me.


This growing feeling of ignorance gnawed at me from the inside. What exactly was it that Arthur had done? How could he do what even the dragons could not? What more had he hidden from everyone?


The soulfire aura around Cadell flared as he dove, expanding behind him like giant wings. Fiery claws extended outward from his hands. His figure, flames and all, dimmed, turning to shadow as the Decay-based fire ate away at the light itself.


Arthur shifted, his legs separating, his hands clenching into fists. Again, the bright blade of aether shimmered into existence.


The two vanished in a nebulous cloud of black-purple fire and lightning.


The crowds screamed as the shields keeping them from being vaporized by the aftershock trembled and flickered.


Behind me, I heard the rustling of Kiros’s robes as he inched forward on his throne.


Arthur reappeared first.


My jaw clenched and my fingers sank into the decorative railing, twisting the metal until it sheared in my grip.


His uniform had been ripped from his stomach up to his ribs. Soulfire danced along the wound, burning into him. It would keep going, igniting his blood and scorching his mana channels until it reached his core. Eventually, it would consume his life force, killing him from the inside out.


As the combusting cloud of mana and aether fizzled out, I caught sight of Cadell on the other side of the arena, hovering thirty feet in the air. One hand was pressed to his neck, and blood was oozing from between his fingers. He grimaced with pain, but there was a vindictive gleam in his eyes. Already, I could see the purple-tinged black flames licking at his wound, healing it.


But Cadell wasn’t the only one healing. The soulfire burning in Arthur’s side dimmed as waves of purple light washed over it, dousing it bit by bit until the flames were quenched. Then, as if the wound had been nothing but a line drawn in sand, the same waves wiped it away, leaving Arthur’s flesh clean and unblemished.


“Fascinating,” Kiros mumbled. “Some surprise of the High Sovereign’s, perhaps? A staged fight to highlight some new magic he has unlocked?” I glanced at the Sovereign. His eyes were alight with curiosity and wonder, his lips curved into a silly smile. “What a wonderful surprise,” he added, drumming his palms against his knees with excitement.


Everything was a game to the Sovereigns. That’s what came of a life lived completely disconnected from real consequences. Especially to the basilisks of the Vritra Clan, who looked at the world like one big laboratory, everything inside of it an experiment. War, disease, natural disasters…little more than opportunities for the Vritra to dissect the aftereffects.


My mind tried to turn back to the last war between Vechor and Sehz-Clar, as it often did when I pondered both past and future, but I pushed the thoughts away, focusing instead on the scene unfolding before me.


Arthur had turned to face Cadell, who was slowly drifting toward him, his nose wrinkled in a sour expression as he tried and failed to hide his surprise at Arthur’s survival.


Arthur’s form shimmered, a transformation akin to how the asura were able to shift matter and take on pure, mana-empowered forms. I sucked in a breath, momentarily taken aback as black scales grew over his skin and onyx horns jutted from the sides of his head, pointing forward and down to frame his jaw.


Then he moved, gold shimmering between the black scales, and I felt off my guard again—a sensation I was not accustomed to, and yet seemed to happen with aggravating frequency in relation to Arthur. His armor was magnificent, its manifestation a wonder to behold, carrying the same elegance and prestige as the asuras themselves.


Arthur adjusted his stance and conjured a sword, which cast its purple light over the blackened and battle-scarred ground. “I’ve learned a few tricks since we last met,” Arthur said, his voice resonant in the ethereal silence. “I hope you have as well, otherwise this will be over far too soon.”


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