The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 388
Chapter 31: 387
Lord Indrath's great hall was as full and loud as I remember it ever being. Representatives of all the great clans were present, but Lord Thyestes had brought an unusually large entourage, rivaling even the Indraths in number. The other clans mingled between the dragons and pantheons, but not freely. One only had to open their eyes to see how the political turmoil shaped the room.
The Eccleiah Clan of the leviathan race had also brought a large delegation, and the leviathans carefully moved between Indrath and Thyestes, making sure to give both clans time and attention.
That was in contrast with the Mapellia Clan, chief among the hamadryad race. Their alliance with the dragons was as old as the foundations of Mount Geolus, and they honored it unflinchingly, lingering among the dragons while giving the pantheons only perfunctory greetings.
The titans, on the other hand, had long been friends of the pantheons. Though they showed no outward signs of enmity toward the dragons, the members of the Grandus Clan gravitated to my own. Conversation between my clan and theirs was open and accessible, whereas the few titans who spoke to dragons did so in a more formal manner.
There were few sylphs in attendance, as the carefree people did not enjoy subjecting themselves to such tensions. Lady Aerind had come herself, however, and the few of her clan to accompany her mingled carelessly between the other clans.
Even fewer were the phoenixes. Their antipathy toward the dragons was deep-rooted and slow to burn, and the Avignis Clan largely kept their people out of both politics and courtly turmoil. After their predecessors, the Asclepius Clan, were removed from the Great Eight, it had been difficult for the Avignis Clan to rebuild trust between the phoenixes and other races of Epheotus. Lord Avignis and his daughters kept to themselves amidst the frustration and anger of the pantheon warriors smoldering in the air.
As I scanned the great hall, my brother caught my eye. It was rare for Kordri to attend court, but, as Taci's trainer, Lord Thyestes would have demanded his presence. The death of an asura—any asura, much less a pantheon warrior—at the hands of a lesser was unheard of. Our clan demanded answers.
"Ah, General Aldir."
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Turning from my brother, I realized that Lord Eccleiah had appeared at my side. The leviathan was an elder of his long-lived race, nearly as old as Lord Indrath. Unlike the lord of dragons, Lord Eccleiah wore his age proudly. His pale skin was thoroughly wrinkled, and the ridges that ran along his temples had lightened from the deep-ocean blue of youth to a light, nearly transparent hue. A milky-white film covered his once sea-green eyes. Even of those with several working eyes, only few could see the world as clearly as he seemed to, however.
"An unpleasant setting for a pleasant meeting," he continued. "It's been at least a hundred years, I'm sure. Far too long. Please, allow me to extend my great sorrow for your clan's loss."
He held out a hand to me, palm down. Taking it gently in my own, I bowed and pressed my forehead to the cold skin on the back of his hand. "Thank you, my lord."
He smiled, deepening the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. "Should Lord Indrath ever allow you even a moment's rest from your duties, you must visit our clan, Aldir. Zelyna still harbors feelings for you, I believe. She's settled down a bit now, you know. Not quite the firebrand she used to be."
I said nothing, and Lord Eccleiah's cheek trembled as he tried to suppress his amusement. "Well, can't be seen playing favorites between the clans. I suppose I'll have to find some dragon to talk with until Lord Indrath makes his appearance." He gave me a quick wink, turned, and melted away into the crowd.
After my odd conversation with Lord Eccleiah, I kept to myself, exchanging simple greetings with a few dignitaries, but otherwise doing my best to avoid being pressed into conversation and staying to the rear of the crowd. There was a gnawing sort of guilt growing in me, and it sharpened each time I heard Taci's name. Although I had no way of knowing the truth, it was possible my actions had contributed to his death.
While I had hoped he would fail to wipe out Virion Eralith and his refugees, I had never imagined he would die in the effort. He was a pantheon. A youth, perhaps, but with decades of advanced training within the aether orb. Had he returned form his mission, he would have been welcomed back as an adult.
The white flames of Lord Indrath's throne flared, interrupting my thoughts. The myriad voices filling the great hall went silent in an instant.
Lord Kezess Indrath appeared before his throne, stepping through the flames. His perpetually youthful face was carefully impassive, lightly welcoming, and entirely controlled. When his purple eyes swept across the still, silent crowd, however, there was a predatory intensity to his gaze.
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Indrath didn't speak until the silence had reached the point of discomfort. "Lords and Ladies. Greatest among your great clans. It is too rare that we meet in this way. You stand in the heart of my home, and I welcome you."
As one, the attending asuras all bowed. "Hail and welcome to his grace, Lord Indrath."
The ceremonial greeting carried a rough edge, drawn begrudgingly from the lips of my clansfolk. Though I was certain Lord Indrath noticed and kept a carefully mental tally of all who replied without the expected vigor, his demeanor didn't change.
Once the last asura had stood, Indrath eased himself back on his throne, the white fire dancing harmlessly around him. "I have brought you all here because one of our own has been lost. We all understand how easy it is for lies and misinformation to spread among our people, which is why it is essential you know the truth of this unfortunate death."
Lord Thyestes stepped forward but did not immediately speak. Instead, he waited for Lord Indrath to address him.
Lord Indrath looked him in the eye but continued speaking. "As war with the Vritra Clan creeps closer, pruning our relationships in Dicathen is ever more important. It was also an opportunity for me to see for myself how the young pantheon, Taci of Thyestes Clan, handled himself on the battlefield."
Lord Thyestes took a firm step forward, putting himself directly in line with the throne. Read first at ReadNovelFull.com
"The rumor has already spread that Taci was defeated in battle by the lessers," Indrath continued gravely. "At best this is a ridiculous falsehood born of fear. At worst, a cruel lie meant to disrupt relations between the clans."
"And who would wish such a thing?" Lord Thyestes snapped, speaking out of turn. My clansfolk burst out with a low rumbling of support for our lord, and those present who were not already watching him carefully turned to stare.
Indrath's face stayed cool and impassive as his attention settled back on Lord Thyestes. "Ademir. Go on then, speak. You clearly cannot contain your thoughts any longer."
"Nor should I have to, your grace," Lord Thyestes shot back.
The lord of the Thyestes Clan, Ademir, was tall and lean, like most pantheons. His four front eyes stared fearlessly at Indrath. His long black hair was shaved along the sides, revealing two additional eyes, one on each side. These bright purple eyes tracked with a jittery quickness across the faces of the other asura, no doubt scanning the room for support.
Lord Thyestes was in a difficult position. Our clan demanded answers and satisfaction, but if he pushed Indrath too far, the Thyestes Clan could fall just as quickly as the Asclepius Clan had. But pantheons were not easily cowed, and Ademir would find it difficult to back down from Kezess's threats in front of his peers, a fact Kezess understood full well and would not hesitate to take advantage of. We were a warrior race, and we responded to threats with strength.
"Taci was a talented and promising young pantheon," Ademir said, his words directed to the half of the great hall where the Thyestes pantheons had gathered. "I was unsurprised when Lord Indrath expressed interest in testing the boy. Taci had trained extensively within the aether orb with Kordri, had studied alongside young dragons in this very castle, and was whispered to be a suitable heir to learn the forbidden World Eater technique, currently safeguarded by General Aldir."
A few eyes turned in my direction—most notably Lord Indrath's—but most of the hall remained fixated on Lord Thyestes.
"But this will never come to pass, because his future has been taken from him, and for what? Why have we been deprived of a son, a friend, a pantheon with thousands of years of grace, strength, and life remaining to him?" Ademir's eyes turned back on Kezess, who hadn't moved, not even the flicker of an eyelash. "Tell us, your grace. Explain this escalation. First you fail to destroy the outcast, Agrona Vritra, then you break our treaty with him by using the Thyestes Clan's forbidden mana art, and now you lose a pantheon warrior to the lessers." Read first at ReadNovelFull.com
As Ademir spoke, his tone became harsher and sharper and the force of his mana swelled until it distorted the air around him. "You must forgive us if some of your subjects have begun to question your judgment."
Raised voices crashed through the great hall like waves against a rocky shore, rising and falling, tumbling over one another as asura turned against asura.
"How dare you—"
"—not a justification for—"
"—removed from the Great Eight immediately—"
"—damned good question!"
A shadow fell over the hall, and the outpouring of Indrath's power stole the oxygen from the air, quenching the arguments like candle flames. Each asura in attendance was considered among the strongest of their clans, and yet we all flinched away from our lord, knees going weak, breath shuddering out of our lungs.
Lord Kezess Indrath didn't move. He didn't scowl or even frown. His eyes became a slightly darker shade of purple, perhaps, but that was the only outward sign of his displeasure.
"You forget yourselves," he said after a long moment. "We are asura. We do not squabble and yell like lessers."
Lord Thyestes' hands curled into tight fists, his own King's Force radiating around him, pushing back at Indrath's aura. But he kept his silence.
"It is unfortunate that you over-represented Taci's abilities to me," Indrath continued. "Had you been more open, I could have sent another." Ademir's scowl deepened, but Indrath kept speaking. "For it wasn't a lack of martial prowess or control over mana that condemned Taci, but a lack of wisdom. He was not defeated by the lessers but tricked into destroying himself. There are no lessers in either Alacrya or Dicathen that post a threat to us. That is the message you must take home to your clans."
"What a load of—" Read first at ReadNovelFull.com
"Enough," Indrath said, smothering Ademir's curse. "My decrees are not subject to discussion, even among the great clans." Indrath's gaze traveled through the room, and he finally withdrew his King's Force. "You are dismissed, for the moment. We will reconvene when tempers have calmed so that I am not forced to do something…dramatic."
The sudden dismissal after so short a meeting caught the room off guard, but I didn't wait for Indrath to repeat himself. Moving quickly, but not so quickly as to draw attention to myself, I was at the doors by the time the guards heaved them open. Both snapped into quick salutes as I moved past.
I took the first side hallway, then turned again, and then again, losing myself in the sprawling interior of the castle. Tempers among my clan were sure to be running hot, and I had no desire to be drawn into the indignant debates that were certain to follow such a heated conference.
I hadn't gone far, though, before I became aware of the steps shadowing my own. At the next corner, I took a careful look behind me, but whoever it was kept out of sight. One of the guards? I wondered. Or perhaps Kordri, or some other member of my clan sent by Lord Thyestes to track me down.
Despite my desire to stay away from the well-trafficked areas of the castle, I took the most direct route to the front gates, which stood wide open. A cool breeze blew in, carrying little eddies of cloudy fluff that dissolved almost immediately. The sun winked off the translucent, many-colored bridge that spanned the gap between the two peaks of Geolus.
I hesitated before stepping foot on that bridge.
"Where are you going, General Aldir?"
I resisted the urge to sigh deeply and turned to face the man who had been following me. "Windsom. I didn't see you at the council."
"I hardly stand out among so many asuran leaders," he said, giving me a small, humorless smile. "You left very quickly."
"I've decided to return home," I said immediately, making up my mind that I would do so in the moment. "I will be away from the castle for some time."
Windsom's brows rose. "And have you informed Lord Indrath of this leave of absence from your duties?"
I didn't reply. We both knew full well I hadn't.
"I have become aware of two small but interesting facts, Aldir, which is why I sought you out." He gave me that smile again, and I felt an incomprehensible tremor run up my spine. Windsom was a dragon, but he'd spent his long life minding the lessers. He was no threat to me.
So why do I feel so threatened?
"When I returned for Taci, I discovered that the lessers' sanctuary was empty, but a tomb had been left behind. A tomb for one of the Lances, who you were meant to have killed."
I felt for the threads of mana that connected me to my weapon, Silverlight. "That is because I let them go," I said slowly, watching for any hint of aggression from the dragon.
He inclined his head slightly. "I know. I appreciate your honesty, though I should expect nothing less."
"And what is the second interesting fact?" I asked, unsure what game Windsom was playing.
"There was a certain amount of…carnage left at the lessers' sanctuary," he said, his nose wrinkling. "A large number of Alacryans were brutalized. Based on what I saw there, I am certain that Arthur Leywin has returned to Dicathen, and that it was he who killed Taci. Additionally, I believe Arthur to be the same person as this mysterious Grey who killed the Scythe, Cadell Vritra, at Agrona's Victoriad."
"You believe quite a lot," I said, crossing my arms and looking out over the edge of the mountaintop. There was nothing but an endless sea of clouds below. Read first at ReadNovelFull.com
Windsom took a step toward me. "Aldir, come with me to Lord Indrath. Throw yourself on his mercy, tell him what you've done." He paused as if weighing his words carefully. "Offer to go to Dicathen and complete your task. Prove that you can still be a leader among the asura."
"When did being a leader among the asura come to mean destroying lessers…people who once relied on us, called us their allies," I said, trying to sound musing, but my words came out hard even to my own ears.
Windsom waved a hand dismissively. "The lessers of Dicathen only exist because of Lord Indrath. We both know very well what he'll do if it becomes necessary to wipe them out and start over again. What is a handful of lesser lives when held up against the well-being of all of Epheotus?"
Windsom's words slammed shut a gate in my mind. It blocked the way forward…or rather, the way back. This immediate and unthinking acceptance that Kezess could determine which lives had value and which did not, and that we were expected simply to be the tools of his will, was too much. I couldn't accept it.
"Anyone capable of labeling one group of lives as unimportant can just as easily make the same determination of another. How long until the dragons determine the phoenixes' lives do not matter, or the titans', or the pantheons'." Windsom opened his mouth to respond, already wearing a condescending, dismissive smirk, but I quieted him with a pulse of my King's Force. "The asura have lost their way. We have been led astray by the corruption and selfishness of Kezess Indrath."
Windsom darkened. I saw the edges of his true form flicker around him, the alchemy of fury, fear, and frustration boiling into something only barely controlled. "You know what this will mean," he said through clenched teeth. "Do not expect that Lord Indrath will tolerate such seditious speech just because of your long service to him, Aldir."
"I hardly expect loyal service means anything at all to him," I answered, spinning on my heel and marching across the bridge.
The colors flared wherever my feet touched, and I wondered what Kezess was sensing. It hardly mattered. He would not make a scene here, now, not with Lord Thyestes and so many of my kin in the castle. No, he would wait until a more convenient time.
As I expected, nothing happened as I crossed the long bridge. I had hardly stepped off it when a figure stepped out from the shadows of the tree arch. I stopped, again reaching for Silverlight, but did not summon it.
"A bit edgy, are we?"
I felt the tension ease from me. "Wren Kain. It's been a while."
The frail man looked as disheveled and emaciated as ever, hardly living up to the name of titan. His dingy hair hung down over his face, which was covered with uneven stubble. But I knew there was a steel-hard core to his outwardly feeble appearance.
"Lover's quarrel?" he asked, looking past me to the castle gates. Windsom was no longer standing there.
I grunted, unamused. "Epheotus is changing."
Wren chuckled and scratched his chin. "Is it, Aldir? Or is it you who has changed?"
I bent down and took up a handful of soil. It was dark and moist, full of potential. Full of life. I'd never noticed before. I hadn't looked.
Maybe I had changed. But…I didn't understand what that meant. If I wasn't General Aldir, keeper of the World Eater technique, then who was I?
Wren wiggled his fingers, and the soil came alive in my hand. It shifted and ran together, forming a small wolf with dusty clouds around its neck and tail. "Did you know that's the form Arthur's acclorite manifested? Fascinating, huh? Heard from the boy lately?"
"Don't bury your meaning with me, Wren," I said tiredly. "What are you doing here?"
He tutted, rolling his eyes and crossing his arms as if I'd offended him. "Just because Lord Grandus didn't see fit to invite me to the party doesn't mean I wasn't curious about what's happening inside."
The animated wolf in my hand melted back into soil, which I let trickle between my fingers. "Windsom believes Arthur killed Taci," I confided, curious what Wren might think of that. "But Lord Indrath wants the great clans to assure everyone it was a fluke, a trick."
Wren whistled, a low sound thick with disbelief. "What are you going to do?" Read first at ReadNovelFull.com
I straightened, careful of each word and movement. Wren had never been sychophantic in his service to Kezess, but this was a dangerous moment for both of us. "I believe my service to Lord Indrath has ended."
Wren's nose twitched. "You'll go to Dicathen, then? To Arthur? Try to teach the lessers the way of the pantheon warrior?" He gave me a wry smirk. "So that maybe, in a hundred years, they'll be slightly less incapable?"
I shook my head. "Nothing is certain at the moment."
Wren tapped the side of his nose, giving me a knowing look. "You know, Aldir, I'd love to get a closer look at that weapon of Arthur's…"
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