The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 374

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Chapter 374

TESSIA ERALITH


I stood lifelessly, unmoving as if paralyzed, my eyes unseeing as my thoughts turned inward.


Agrona was shouting, but through the blood rushing through my head, his words were muffled like thunder in the distant mountains.


This man who’d supposedly been my friend once—I ignored the nagging sense that almost every memory of him continued to elude me—had tried to kill me. Again. But more disturbing than that, I had lost control of my own body.


I had almost let him run me through. But no, that wasn’t entirely true—she had almost let him run me through.


Choppy and full of turmoil, my thoughts raced back along the short span of my new life, and I realized she’d always been there, hidden inside this body, tangled up within the elderwood guardian’s will. Rooted inside me.


And she’d taken over. Just for a second, but long enough to show me she was more than her memories.


But that was wrong. This body…Nico and Agrona said it had belonged to an enemy combatant, a princess, but she’d been wounded in the fighting, her body living on but her mind gone…


Lies, always lie—


Now that I could fully sense her, knew what she was, I recognized this thought as hers, not my own, and silenced it. I thought about how it had felt for Agrona to muffle the memories, which had constantly plagued me in the first days after my reincarnation. Reaching for this feeling again, I instinctively wrapped the beast will in mana, creating a dampening barrier between her mind and mine.


My thoughts are my own, no one else's, I thought angrily.


There was no reply.


I drew in a deep breath. The stadium smelled like tar and cold ash, overwhelming the subtle fragrances of ambient mana still in a disarray after the battle.


Agrona glanced in my direction, frowning slightly. Beyond him, I saw, in the stands, rows and rows of bystanders, still kneeling, some slumped over, clearly passed out from Agrona’s intent. Those faces I could see—the ones brave enough to raise their head in the presence of the High Sovereign—were tired masks of fear and wonder.


“What did you sense from him, Cecil?”


I shook my head and a loose strand of gunmetal gray hair tumbled into my vision. Maybe I should have it dyed? I thought to myself, before remembering that Agrona was waiting on me. “Nothing. I sensed no mana from him at all, even when he was clearly using magic.” I paused, searching Agrona’s blazing scarlet eyes. “Would you have let him kill me?”


His gaze went back to the sky, searching. “You were never in danger. I knew he would try, and I knew he would fail.”


Nodding, I turned away. My breath caught as I noticed Nico’s prone and battered form lying just within one of the many staging areas surrounding the combat field. I took a step toward him, but Agrona took hold of my elbow.


Without looking at me, he said, “Leave him. The boy is no longer of any value to either of us.”


Scowling, I shook free of Agrona’s hold. “He matters to me, Agrona, and so he should matter to you.”


Floating up from the ground, I flew over the field of spikes and charred earth, then drifted to a knee at Nico’s side. His breath was halting and ragged, and his dark hair stuck out wildly. Sweat beaded across his pale, dirty face


There was a blood-stained hole in his armor, just above his sternum. The wound was no longer bleeding, already healing around the edges, but whatever elixir he’d been given couldn’t save his core. The mana ignored him. A few particles of earth mana clung to his skin, some blue water mana trailed the flow of blood in his veins, but his core was empty. Broken and useless.


“I’m sorry, Nico,” I said, wiping a spot of grime from his cheek. “I should have protected you. You get so…angry…I should have realized you were going to do something like this.”


Nico’s chest was rising and falling. His eyelids fluttered. All around him, mana lay heavy in the ground, blew on the breeze, basked in little fires left burning from Cadell and Grey’s fight…


But none of it was drawn into his mana veins or fueled his body via his channels. The runes etched into his flesh sat empty and manaless as well, no different from the plain ink tattoos of my previous world.


That wasn’t fair. That wasn’t right.


I felt Agrona’s oppressive power approaching from behind, could sense his curiosity even without looking at him. His gaze was like a spotlight, lighting up the world wherever it turned. “After all his work and pain to grow stronger, Nico will never use magic again.” Agrona didn’t sound sad, made no attempt to affect emotion at all, merely commenting on the fact.


His words rang hollow in my ears. A wound that didn’t even kill the body shouldn’t be able to steal a mage’s magic. To give someone this gift only to snatch it away from them? It was a fate worse than death.


Agrona was speaking again, but I couldn’t process his words through the spiraling of my thoughts. My vision tunneled on the motes of mana lingering around Nico. There was something here, some potential, something only I could do.


My body began to move as if in a trance, drawn by some deeper instinct. My hand drifted to Nico’s sternum, then my fingers pushed down into the still-healing wound. They moved down through his warm insides until they bumped against something hard: his core.


Blue, red, green, and yellow motes swirled around us, floating like glowing pollen in the air, then began flowing into his mana veins, winding their way through his body and back into his broken core. With the mana, I could feel the black scar marring his core and the roughness within it, filled with clotted and hardened blood.


The core itself—this strange organ found in this world but not in my last—didn’t react to the presence of the mana. It was as if the core were dead, despite Nico’s other organs continuing to function. Normally, a failed organ would cause a cascade of other failures, eventually resulting in death. But humans were capable of surviving without a mana core…


I had been reincarnated into a body with a fully formed, beautifully silver core, and so had never needed to form my own. The reincarnation process itself—or perhaps my status as the Legacy—had near-instantly purified the body’s silver core to white. But the lingering mana surrounding Nico’s core felt like a blueprint for what it used to be…for what it could still be.


Using the mana like steel wool, I scoured the dried blood from the inside while burning away the residue with careful ignition of fire-attribute mana.


Nico let out a low moan and twitched, but remained unconscious, which I was glad for. This process wasn’t quick. My ability to master new techniques, however, was, and within a couple of minutes I had cleansed the inside of the core.


The core itself was harder. Like one that had just been newly formed, the hard walls of the organ were contaminated with blood.


Taking hold just of the water mana, I pulled them through the core walls. Each individual particle leeched out some of the trapped blood, and the more I repeated the process, the cleaner and clearer Nico’s core grew.


This was a slower process, and so I stopped when his core was still a murky yellow color. For now, I just needed to know it would work.


But the presence of the cleaned core and mana alone did not seem to spark anything within him. He rested uneasily, his brows pinched and mouth curved downward in an uncomfortable frown.


Alacryans, unlike the humans in Dicathen, were born with their mana cores in place: One of the many mutations caused by Agrona’s experimentation and crossbreeding. The bestowals did the work of activating the natural core, harnessing mana for the mage so they could tap into the runes’ powers. In Dicathen, however, I knew that young mages meditated to collect and purify mana until they “awakened,” using the mana itself to manifest the core.


Reaching outward, I called to the mana filling the stadium, drawing it to me in swirling streams. I again siphoned it through Nico’s mana veins, into his core, and then out again through his channels and into his runes until his body was glowing with it, his dark features alight from the inside.


I heard the Scythes returning, but Agrona waved off their excuses and conjectures. He was focused entirely on me, his mind probing mine curiously.


I ignored it.


The shields—those that had survived the battle—dimmed as I stole the mana from them. Mana powered lighting artifacts flickered and went out. Imbued artifacts failed. I stopped only at drawing mana directly from the cores of the shivering, frightened people in the stands, otherwise taking every particle of mana I could reach and pouring it into Nico.


His eyes flickered open. “Cecilia?”


He began to cough. I released his core and slowly pulled my hand from his chest, carelessly wiping his blood off on my battlerobes. “I’ve done my part, Nico. I need your help now. Draw in mana, take control of it. Can…can you do that?”


Nico took a deep breath, choked, and coughed some more. “I can’t feel it.”


Taking his hand, I squeezed hard enough for it to hurt. “Children on the other continent can manipulate the mana in their bodies before they form a core. Surely, you can too.” Seeing the confidence leave his gaze, I spat the last words, trying to spark a fire in Nico. “Grey accomplished it in the body of a three-year-old, didn’t he?”


By the way he tensed, I was sure it had worked. Nico glared at me, then closed his eyes. A heartbeat passed, then two, then…the mana I had condensed into his body rippled. A small movement at first, like a light breeze over the surface of a pond, but it was enough to bring a smile to my face.


“What exactly did you do?” Agrona asked as he leaned down next to me and rested his hand between my shoulder blades.


I explained the process as best I could, keeping my voice low so Nico could focus. “But I’m not exactly sure if it’s working yet.”


“Once again, your reign over mana surprises even me,” Agrona said, his rumbling baritone warm with praise. “I truly believe there is no limit to your ability, Cecil. And I apologize for what I said earlier. I was too quick to give up on Nico.”


“It’s fine,” I answered coolly. “Because I won’t ever give up on him. And I won’t let you forget your promise, either.”


The mana particles within Nico’s core began to change, growing brighter and more pure. His channels woke up, too, pulling the newly purified mana out into his body to help him recover. His runes activated in brief flashes, one by one, like muscles being stretched.


Nico’s eyes fluttered open. The smile he gave me was full of softness and wonder and the tentative kindness I saw in my memories of him from the orphanage.


“How?”


I squeezed his hand again and realized the vertigo and nausea I’d previously felt at his touch—some abstract remnant of the feelings Tessia Eralith had for him—was gone. I considered leaning down to kiss him, but then remembered Agrona’s promise.


Someday, Nico and I could have our lives back. Our real lives—including our relationship with each other. But for now, in this body…intimacy felt like a desecration. I nearly laughed at the childishness of this thought. What a silly line to draw, I told myself. Was it ethical to fight a war in the body of another, but not to share a kiss?


But the truth was something else. Something more complex, and much stranger.


This would not be like a life at all, I decided. More like…purgatory. Though I wasn’t going to be merely a weapon in Agrona’s arsenal, neither could I be myself, not really, not as long as I wore this skin. Nico couldn’t either. But we would work together, changing the face of this world to Agrona’s design, and when the war was won, we could leave. Together. Be ourselves again.


Together.


Standing, I pulled Nico up with me. He grimaced, rolling his shoulders and stretching his neck. His eyes flicked to Agrona before jumping away again, focusing into the distance. “What happened to…”


“Grey?” Agrona said, raising an eyebrow over an otherwise impassive face. “After your spectacular failure, he vanished again.”


Nico’s face fell, but I took him by the chin and forced him to meet my eyes.


“Don’t lose yourself to the despair and anger,” I said, softly chiding. “I need you. If we’re going to kill Grey, we need to do it together.”


ARTHUR


My core groaned in protest as I completed the God Step.


Stomach lurching, I plummeted to the ground, my body crashing into a thick carpet of dry needles.


For a couple of seconds, I just stared up from my back. A thick canopy of tall evergreens blocked out the sky. Gray-brown trunks rose high in the air, thick limbs spreading out until they wove into those of their neighbors.


My hand clawed at the ground beneath, clenching the dirt into my palms. I slammed the fist down, and again as a frustrated shout tore free from my throat.


I knew I had made a mistake. But I wasn’t sure yet if the mistake was in trying and failing to kill Cecilia, or in trying at all.


It was painfully clear that she was not the person who had died on my sword in the King’s Tournament. Agrona had done something to her, either during or after her reincarnation. The look of loathing she’d given me…it wasn’t the look of a tortured girl who threw herself on a friend’s weapon to end her life.


But there was something else. I just didn’t know yet if it was good or bad.


Tessia was still in there. She had taken over her body, just for an instant, long enough to tell me.


I could have grabbed her, God Stepped away with her…


But I also knew that Agrona wouldn’t have let that happen.


A light weight suddenly pressed down on my chest as Regis appeared in his puppy form. The small shadow wolf pounced off me and began to patrol the perimeter of the small clearing we had just appeared within.


Thanks, I thought to him, unable to muster up the energy to say it out loud quite yet.


‘For what, saving your ass?’ Regis paused, cocking a tiny lupine brow. ‘Not the first time. Won’t be the last.’


I paused to gather my thoughts. That too, but for letting me have my battle against Cadell. It was selfish, dangerous even, but it was something I needed to do.


Regis gave a small, sniffling scoff. ‘You’re telling me.’


So, that power you used…


‘I’ve said it before…my strength hasn’t kept up with yours,’ Regis thought matter-of-factly. ‘I trained, sure, but I also spent a lot of time thinking. Meditating.’


A vision of Regis sitting on a rock, eyes closed, paws resting on his knees, bathed in cool mountain sunshine made my lips twitch. Meditating, huh?


‘Hey, don’t be fooled by my gorgeous set of teeth. I’m an intellectual. But the point is, I gave a lot of thought to how I could better keep us sane while you utilize your insights into aether…’


So, by restricting the application of Destruction to a specific spell… I considered, recalling the jagged violet flames sheathing the aetheric sword.


‘Exactly,’ Regis thought, then stiffened.


I heard the crunching of soft steps a moment later, and turned my head to look more closely around the forest.


A heavy blanket of orange and gold needles covered the forest floor, interrupted by dark green bushes that grew around the base of the trees, making it difficult to see more than a few dozen feet in any direction.


Just behind me, a weathered arch interrupted the natural landscape. It was carved of white marble, but the detailed engravings had long been worn away, and the stone had been stained yellow. Crawling vines crept up the sides, gripping it as if they would pull it down and drag it back into the ground where it belonged.


A wizened old man, portly around the middle but with broad shoulders that hadn’t yet lost all their definition, stepped around one of the huge trees, his bushy brows raised. “I thought you said this was a quiet operation, boy. Crashing out of the sky and shouting like a madman isn’t exactly that, is it?”


I pushed myself to my feet and gave him a tired nod. “All the more reason for me to get moving.”


Alaric stuck his thumbs into his belt and looked me over. “Well, considering the hints you gave me, I expected you to look a lot worse if you ended up here. Things otherwise went to plan then?”


“More or less.” I grimaced and rubbed at my aching sternum. “Did you get everything?”


Alaric harrumphed. “Straight to business then, eh?” Drawing out a plain ring of polished black stone, he tossed it to me. “Everything is there.”


“Thanks,” I said, slipping the ring on my middle finger. “They’ll be looking for me. I think they’ll keep things quiet, but I expect they’ll check up on anyone I’ve had contact with.”


Alaric looked right into my eyes and let out a loud belch. “Piss on ‘em all. I’m just a washed-up ascender, anyway. Too dumb and drunk to turn down easy coin when a stranger offers to pay me to guide him around, pretend to be his uncle.”


I snorted, watching the old man warily, feeling a crack run through the icy coldness that was creeping like frost through my insides. “Thanks, Alaric. I hope I haven’t made your life any harder.”


He kicked the ground lightly, scattering dead needles. “Indeed you have, but then, I imagine you meant those words as a half-assed apology, because you already know that.” Alaric’s eyes followed Regis as the shadow wolf pup continued his circuit. “I wasn’t exactly living the Sovereign’s life when you met me, after all.”


I stayed quiet, my thoughts only half on his words, turning instead toward what came next for me.


“I, uh…” Alaric cleared his throat, his bloodshot eyes darting to me, then away again. “I had a son, you know. Vritra-born.”


Caught by surprise, I looked up with knitted brows as he continued.


“He was taken, of course, the moment he was identified. Plucked away from us and fostered with some highblood.” Alaric leaned back against one of the nearby trees and closed his eyes. “Didn’t find out ‘til years later what they did, but apparently they were of a mind that for his blood to manifest, they had to push him. Hard.


“They…killed him.”


Alaric let the words hang in the dense forest air. “His mom had pissed off years before. Never saw her again. We weren’t allowed any contact, not even to know which highblood had him, and I guess she just didn’t see the value of continuing on together. I don’t know.”


Regis had come to join us, apparently satisfied that we were, for the moment, safe.


“Dug around in the Ascenders Association records with the help of some friends years later, when he’d have been old enough to go on ascents. No match at all for my boy, so I kept going. Don’t know why, really.” Alaric scratched his beard, below which a pained smile was hidden. “But it became a kind of obsession. One connection led to another, and eventually I figured out which highblood he’d been sent to.


“Got myself signed up to go on an ascent with some of their folk. Brought plenty of drink, got ‘em talking. Wouldn’t have even needed the drink.” Alaric’s eyes were far away now, staring into the abyss of his memories. “Proud to talk about how they’d pushed him. Pushed and pushed. They’d fostered three manifested Vritra-born already, he would have been the fourth. But…”


Alaric paused to clear his throat again. “He broke. Died when he was only eight. Got carted off to Taegrin Caelum to be dissected and researched. Quite a blow for the blood, they said. Stripped down to a named blood. For killing my son.”


A cool breeze blew through the trees, and a mana beast howled in the distance…yet, a heavy silence clung in the air as words of solace failed to form.


After all, I had been that boy. Taken from my family, raised first by Sylvia, then the Eraliths, my parents having no idea what had happened to me…


“I’m sorry, Alaric,” I said finally.


He swatted the words out of the air with one hand while fumbling for his flask with the other. “Don’t be. I’m telling you this so you don’t leave here worrying about me, thinking you’ve made some big mess of my life. Besides…” Alaric mustered a grin. “Where better to release some of my inner demons than onto a boy I might not see again.”


“Right,” I smiled back, holding out my hand. “Regardless. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”


Alaric took it. “You paid well and offered me some kind of…hell, I don’t know, purpose or something, in my old age.” His gravelly voice grew hoarse. “Well get going then, Grey, before a Scythe crashes down on our heads and makes this whole sad story for naught.”


I nodded, giving his hand a firm shake. “Arthur. Call me Arthur.”


“Arthur,” he repeated slowly. His brows furrowed in thought, and his eyes darted to me before going wide. “As in—”


“I better get going,” I said with an amused smirk.


“Right.” Alaric let out a stiff laugh, fumbling with the runic token in his hand before touching it to the marble. With a soft hum, an opalescent portal appeared in the frame. “You be coming back from…wherever it is you’re going?”


“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “But I expect I will eventually.”


“Well, when you do, look your old uncle Al up.” He leaned against the portal frame and crossed his arms over his belly. “Unless I’ve already drank myself to death, in which case, you took too bloody long.”


Regis trotted along beside me as we approached the portal, and Alaric bent down to give him a pat on the head. “Take good care of the boy, got it?”


Regis turned in a circle, nipped at Alaric’s finger, then jumped back into me.


‘I’m going to miss that old codger,’ he said, a hint of a whimper in his voice.


I gave the old drunk one last smile. “Goodbye, Alaric.”


He winked. “See you later, Arty boy.”


Shaking my head, I braced myself for what was to come and stepped into the portal.


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