The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 405

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Chapter 405

Chapter 403: A Match for my Talents


Something heavy was grabbing me, pinning me down. And it was dark, all so dark. Wetness clung to me, slicking my bare skin, while something soft was pressing against me like the tongue of some giant creature, giving life and texture to the sickly-sweet onion smell sticking to everything.

I thrashed suddenly, certain that I was being devoured. A heavy blanket, which had been draped across my face, slid off the side of the bed and onto the floor.

I gasped, sucking in cold air that made me sputter and cough. Rolling onto my side, I meant to hang my head over the edge of the bed in case I got sick.

I wasn’t alone.

Standing at the foot of the bed, now staring down at me with a look of disgust, was Agrona. Cecilia lingered next to him, her expression caught between nervousness, dismay, and embarrassment.

“I’ll take my leave then,” Agrona said, his ruby eyes turning on Cecilia. “No more delays, Cecil dear. You leave in the morning.”

“Yes, High Sovereign,” Cecilia said as she bowed deeply. “I’m ready.”

My thoughts moved like molasses as I struggled to understand what the two were saying. A spark cut through the sluggishness, however, bringing me back to the last thing I remembered. “The regalia…” My tongue was thick and unwieldy, my mouth desert-dry. I moistened my lips and tried again. “What happened during the bestowal?”

Agrona gave me an unreadable look, then stepped up to me and rested his hand on the top of my head. I felt a thrill at the contact, but bitterness immediately oozed up, a counterpoint to the initial emotional response. Am I a hound that wags its tail at any sign of affection from its distant master?

“As usual, Nico,” Agrona said, his voice vibrating in my chest, “you have managed to fail in the most incredible fashion.” He didn’t sneer the words. They weren’t filled with bitterness or insult. It was said simply, a statement of fact. “I had hoped perhaps your recent experiences would instill in you the sort of drive which you have always lacked. But alas, this new regalia is a perfect match for your talents.”

His hand pulled away, and his brows rose a fraction of an inch in a silent question, asking, Do you have anything to say about that, idiot boy? When I didn’t reply, I seemed to confirm something Agrona had expected, because he nodded his head, then marched away, the ornaments in his horns jangling slightly.

When the door clicked shut, Cecilia hurried forward to the edge of my bed, sinking down to her knees and pushing sweat-damp hair from my eyes. “Oh, Nico. Are you okay? You’ve been unconscious for a whole day.”

I rolled onto my back and focused on breathing so I didn’t vomit in front of her. “Fine.”

Her graceful fingers laced into mine, and she rested her head on the mattress and watched me silently.

“Agrona said you’re leaving,” I ventured after a couple minutes of silence. “Where is he sending you?”

She sat up, releasing my hand to brush a strand of gunmetal gray hair out of her face as she did so. “I’m to lead the assault on Sehz-Clar. Agrona wants me to put on a show of force to assure this rebellion doesn’t spread.”

I closed my eyes and bit back the bitter words that leapt to my tongue. It was the news I had been expecting, and yet I was still having trouble drawing breath. “You sound…pleased.”

I heard Cecilia shuffle as she got to her feet, then the mattress shifted. I opened my eyes again to find her sitting next to me.

“Of course I’m pleased,” she said, frowning. “I’ve been training for this since I was brought to this world. It’s finally a chance for me to prove to Agrona that I’m worth everything he’s given me—us.” She met my eyes and held them. “This is how we earn our lives back, Nico.”

I swallowed hard. My tongue felt swollen, and I was suddenly afraid I might choke on it.

She leaned in closer, still staring deep into my eyes. “But I’m not going anywhere without you. So rest up, all right? I’ll be back in the morning, and then, we’re going to kill a traitor.”

With a big smile gracing her gorgeous face, Cecilia ran her fingers through my hair, then jumped off my bed. She stopped to look back from the doorway. “Oh, I almost forgot.”

From a pouch, she withdrew the slightly-rough sphere of the dragon’s mana core. “I don’t think Agrona would have been very happy if he’d found this. You need to be more careful.” Despite the admonishment, she smiled as she set the sphere next to me. Then, with a quick wave, she was gone.

I blew out a gusting, frustrated breath. “Shit.”

A few hours…that was all the time I had to get ready. Cecilia was going to war. And I’d be right beside her, protecting her.

A dark laugh bubbled up unbidden from within me. “How exactly am I going to do that?”

I let my eyes drift shut again.

And then shot upright as if on a spring. “Idiot,” I cursed myself, jumping out of bed

Mana poured out of my weakened core, empowering the new regalia that rested across my spine just below my shoulder blades. I didn’t know what to expect, which was an odd sensation in itself. Normally, the officiants would explain the runes, but from what little I could pull from my foggy memory, they hadn’t known what my regalia was.

It was something new.

Something that matches my talents, I thought bitterly, the words sounding in Agrona’s voice.

The light of my chambers shifted as the regalia activated. It was a subtle thing, hardly noticeable at first, like clouds slowly creeping in overhead while the lighting artifacts activated in the street.

I followed these new points of brightness as I scanned the room. The walls, floor, ceiling, furniture—everything mundane within the room—seemed dull and shadowy, while the lighting artifacts glowed more brightly. There was a subtle shine to the metal knob and lock of my door, but, curiously, no glow at all from the dragon core.

I picked the sphere up and rolled it around in my hand, inspecting it from multiple angles, but it was dim and dark. This seemed strange to me since something as small and inconsequential as the Imbued quill on my writing desk burned in my altered perception, as did the sending parchment I’d collected for ordering some of the materials for my new artifact.

As my mind touched upon the staff, I hurried to the door into my workspace and opened it. Inside, it was much the same, except there, all the items arrayed across my workbench glowed with various potency.

It was more than a visible sensation, though. I could feel them, almost as if they were connected to me—and to each other. Each magic item, and even those that were not yet magical but had the capacity for being Imbued, stood out to my senses.

Glowing most brightly of all in this altered form of perception was the charwood branch itself, inset with a single fitting. The silver metal of the fitting was dull against the bright black wood. On the table, set aside for further experimentation, was a collection of different fittings molded from a different alloy. These burned brightly.

Curious, I set down the core and picked up a fitting. Nothing changed. As I moved it closer to the twisted branch, however, both sources of this connection shifted, but the change was less a glow and more a vibration. There was something shared between them, an attunement…

And then, with a crashing, world-shifting realization, I knew what my regalia did, and a wide grin broke across my face. “Something that matches my talents indeed.”

Grabbing the specialized carving tool in one hand and holding firm the staff’s base in the other, I set to work, knowing I had only a few hours to make myself ready.


The sun’s light had only barely turned the horizon gray-blue behind the distant mountains when a knock came at my door. I ignored it at first, so engrossed in my work I had forgotten the reason for its urgency. The knock came again, louder and more insistent, and time and space coalesced inside my mind, bringing me back to reality.

“Come in,” I shouted from the workbench, certain Cecilia had come to collect me for our mission to Sehz-Clar.

The door opened, then closed again, and I heard her soft footfalls cross to the inner door. “I’m sorry, Nico, I—where are your clothes? Have you rested at all?”

I looked down at myself.

When I’d woken after the bestowal, I had been stripped down to my briefs. Only now did I realize I had been so engrossed by my regalia and the artifact I was creating that I hadn’t even dressed myself.

“Here, look at this,” I told her, too excited to care about any of that.

Grabbing her hand, I pulled Cecilia to the workbench and grinned proudly down at my creation.

Where a twisting branch had lay before, now there was a smooth and polished staff of purest black. The head of the staff flared outward subtly, and where it widened, four gems had been inset into the charwood.

An emerald as green as a viper’s eyes, a sapphire bluer than the deepest depths of the ocean, a topaz bright as a flash of lightning, and a ruby rich as crystalized blood.

The trueness of color was important, as was the purity of the gem, the cleanness of the cut, and the strength of my intention when each gem was set. That was what my regalia did. It connected my mind to the truth of the materials that I worked with. I could see, feel, even taste the way the different materials fit into the world.

But that was just the beginning, I was certain. The more advanced and powerful a rune was, the harder mastering it became, but the greater the results. With time, practice, and patience, I could only begin to conceive of what would be possible with the regalia.

“—it do?”

“Sorry?” I asked, realizing that Cecilia had been speaking.

“It’s beautiful! What does it do?” she repeated, eyeing me warily.

I lifted the staff, feeling the nearly imperceptible network of glyphs, runes, and connective elements that had been carefully scored into nearly every inch of the charwood surface. Taking it in both hands, I imbued mana directly into the staff. My mana was drawn across the surface via the circuitry of silver inlaid into the invisible grooves before being absorbed into a specially-designed mana crystal hidden between the four visible gems.

Cecilia’s eyes followed the trail of mana, and once again I was amazed by her enhanced senses. In part, the design of the staff was intended to shroud its abilities. After all, it would be a poor amplifier of my power if it also gave away exactly what I was doing. Despite this, however, Cecilia had no trouble following the mana through its journey.

Around the staff’s head, the atmospheric mana began reacting to the mana imbuing the staff. I could sense it, but I knew she could see the individual particles being drawn into the respective gems.

“It’s amazing…” she muttered, her fingertips stretching out toward the wood but not touching it.

“The purified mana within the internal crystal gives shape to the magic, which then draws from the stored atmospheric mana to materialize as an elemental effect, becoming a spell,” I said, pride swelling within my chest. “It was the dragon core that gave me the idea for the structure, but I couldn’t have reformed the mana crystal without the regalia. Here, let me show you.”

Although the staff had been charged for less than a minute, it had enough mana for a simple spell. Through the connective circuitry, I could still feel and manipulate my stored mana. I shaped it into the spell I desired.

The gems flashed, and a whirling jet of hissing steam billowed from the staff, out my open window, and off into the distance.

“That was water, fire, and air mana,” she noted with some curiosity.

“With this, I can hone my own spells the way they do in Dicathen,” I said, breathless with excitement and the flush of victory. “Shape them however I want, without relying on only my runes. And”—my grin widened—“I can utilize all four standard elements.”

Perhaps it was my imagination, but something dark passed over Cecilia’s face for just an instant. Then, she was grinning with me, her hands on mine around the staff. “This is really amazing, Nico. But…” She hesitated, and something squirming and hot wriggled around in my stomach. “Is now really the best time to be experimenting? We’re going to war. What if…” Her words trailed off, and she bit her lip.

“What?” I asked, ice now seeping out from the hot thing worming through my guts. Can’t you see I did this for you?

“Your core is still recovering,” she said finally. “I don’t want you to get hurt by pushing yourself too hard. What if the staff fails? What if it hurts you somehow, or…or doesn’t work like you hope?”

“Don’t you have any faith in me?” I asked, my voice coming out thin and painfully whiny.

Her fingers closed hard around my hands. “Nico, now isn’t the time for this,” she said firmly. “You brought me here, now let me do my part so I can get us home. Okay?”

This is wrong, I wanted to say. I was wrong…

“Yeah, okay,” I said instead. “I’m ready to go.”

She looked me over for what felt like a very long time, then the shadow of a smile broke the tension. “You should probably put on some clothes first, though.”

After quickly dressing in dark battlerobes, I was whisked through Taegrin Caelum without truly registering where we were going. My excitement had melted into melancholy, and I found myself drifting within a dreary fog.

A portal was ready for us. Cecilia exchanged words with a handful of officials and high-ranking mages, but I didn’t take any of it in. Then they were activating the tempus warp, and we flitted across half the continent in an instant.

I blinked several times as we appeared under the bright early-morning sun, which wasn’t hidden by the mountains in Sehz-Clar. It took a moment for our surroundings to come into focus.

The receiving platform was at the heart of a sprawling garden. Large bushes, small trees, and dozens of types of flowers surrounded us. The air was heavy with sea salt. It made for a strange transition from the dark depths of Taegrin Caelum. I had expected a war camp, soldiers surging through the streets, destructive artifacts arrayed toward the massive shields conjured by Seris.

As my eyes adjusted, I saw the shields in the distance. “Wow. But how? How could she wrap an entire dominion—or even half of one—in such a thing?”

Cecilia stepped down from the raised platform we’d appeared on and started beelining for the garden’s exit. Over her shoulder, she said, “Agrona only has theories at this point. I’m relying on you to discover the source of this power.”

The melancholy I had felt only moments before faded as my mind set to work considering the implications of Seris’s creation. But it just didn’t make sense. Even with a mountain of mana crystals, it wasn’t possible to store enough energy to maintain such a colossal conjuration. And even then, charging the crystals would require more mana than could possibly be maintained, no matter how many mages she had working in concert.

The gears continued to spin as Cecilia led us toward the shield.

As we approached, it became more clear that the barrier had split the city cleanly in two. Behind the transparent bubble of mana, steep cliffs rose several hundred feet into the air. Soldiers and mages were busy at work on that side, but the streets were strangely empty and quiet outside of the shields.

“Where are our soldiers?” I asked Cecilia.

She didn’t look at me as she answered. “Forces are being gathered outside of Rosaere, and all civilians who live within a mile of the barrier have already been sent away.”

“What are you looking for?”

Her turquoise eyes were jumping rapidly across the shield’s surface, like someone speed-reading a scroll. “The seams stitching this spell together.”

As if from nowhere, a gust of wind grabbed me and lifted me off the ground. Cecilia flew ahead of me, following the curving arc of the barrier.

Those on the other side had taken notice. Indecipherable shouts rang out from a dozen different sources, and those closest to the shielding began falling back.

My stomach flipped, and I worried I might be sick again. Though I had been able to fly myself before Grey destroyed my core, it wasn’t the same as being carted around like an infant with someone else's magic. I can’t say that I enjoyed it in the slightest, even with Cecilia, but I kept silent and let her consider the barrier.

After a handful of minutes had passed in stationary silence, I felt a familiar mana signature approaching from the other side of the shield.

A lone figure flew down from the clifftops, moving fast. In a moment, she was before us, hovering just on the other side.


“Ah. The Legacy. I was starting to wonder what was taking so long,” she said, her voice only slightly muffled by the mana between us.

“Is Sovereign Orlaeth still alive?” Cecilia asked back, her demeanor entirely calm.

I found myself staring at the fine elven features she inhabited and wondering where this poise came from. We were a very long ways away from the training rooms of Taegrin Caelum, and she was largely untested. Facing Seris was unlike anything Cecilia had done in either of her brief lives.

So why wasn’t she afraid?

Seris flashed us a wry smirk as she said, “Actually, he is with us at this very moment. He is everywhere in fact, still guarding Sehz-Clar as he always has.”

“I’m not interested in your word games,” Cecilia said, and I sensed the mana all around us tremble. “Drop these shields. Order your men to stand down, and allow my forces entry. Come willingly before the High Sovereign to face judgment, and he promises a swift end. The longer you drag out this farce, the longer he will do so with your death.”

Agrona’s words, I thought, sensing him behind each syllable. His words from her mouth. I hate this.

“Surely, there are a thousand other messengers Agrona could have sent to threaten me,” Seris said dispassionately. “You aren’t here just for this unpleasant conversation, are you? Because I’ve no interest in engaging in a battle of wits when my opponent arrives so poorly armed.”

Mana surged, a tempest of crushing, rending force from the clear blue. Cecilia reached out and clawed downward, and the mana forming the shield shook like castle gates being struck by a battering ram.

“If you won’t…bring it down…then I will,” Cecilia ground out through clenched teeth.

We flew closer, and Cecilia pressed her hand against the barrier. The air thinned around us, and I struggled to draw breath. I felt helpless, not in control of my own body, and all I could was watch.

I’d never sensed anything like this battle before.

The world itself seemed to flex as Cecilia pushed in on the shield. The bubble warped, bending inward toward Seris.

My attention caught on my ex-colleague.

She didn’t move, didn’t flinch away from Cecilia’s assault. Her scarlet eyes tracked every movement, every fluctuation of mana, but it wasn’t wariness or fear I saw in that gaze. Seris was studying Cecilia, taking in and cataloging her use of mana, her strength.

It was then I knew Cecilia wouldn’t break the shield, not like this.

But she wasn’t backing off. Pressure built and kept building around us as she pulled mana from everywhere except the shield. She couldn’t control that mana, that much was clear, but I had no idea why.

“Cecilia,” I called, then louder, “Cecil!”

But she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hear me. I reached out, trying to grab her, but she was too far away and I was trapped.

“Cecilia, stop!” I shouted again.

Suddenly I was falling as the magic holding me aloft was withdrawn. I cursed as I hit the ground rolling. The butt of the staff, strapped to my back, cracked against my head.

Like the fool I was, I’d nearly forgotten it was there.

Ripping it free of its sling, I began channeling mana into it. There was no time to wait for a charge to build, so I immediately worked the mana into an air-attribute spell, copying what Cecilia had done to make me fly.

It worked. Soft cushions of air wrapped around my limbs and lifted me from the ground, and I shot back up to Cecilia’s side.

Her assault was flagging. Sweat was raining down her face. The depression she’d made in the shield was healing, strengthening, pushing her back.

I grabbed her wrist with my free hand.

Her head whipped around, and she glowered at me like some feral monster, her teeth bared and her eyes blazing. I shrank back, and something inside her snapped. The storm of mana faded away just like that. Her expression crashed into dismay as she stared at me, one hand over her mouth.

“Nico, I…”

But I wasn’t watching her. My attention was pulled to the knowing smile quivering on Seris’s lips.

I flew close to Cecilia, muttering, “Not now,” then interposed myself between her and Seris. “We didn’t come here to hurl threats from the other side of this wall you’ve conjured,” I said as firmly as I could manage. “Many, many Alacryans will lose their lives in a war between Sehz-Clar and the rest of Alacrya, Seris. Why? Why lead these people to their deaths in a war you can’t hope to win.”

“This isn’t a war, little Nico, but a revolution,” came her quick reply. “And Agrona knows well enough that it certainly isn’t Sehz-Clar versus Alacrya, but the people against the Sovereigns.”

“What people?” I shot back, gesturing to the empty city behind me. “What rebellion? This is the height of foolishness.”

“You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?” she replied. “Your entire existence is formulated on the premise, founded on foolishness. You two—reincarnates—have no understanding of what life is truly like in this world. To you, it’s a playground, a game, a dream you’ll wake up from one day.” She wasn’t smirking anymore. There was a hardness to her features that made the hairs on my arms stand on end. “I know what he’s promised you, Nico. But I also know that he can’t do it. He doesn’t have that kind of power.”

Her words went straight through me. I should have prepared myself, should have known better, but everything Cecilia and I were doing was so Agrona would send us back to Earth, to an Earth where we had a chance for a life together—a real life, as ourselves, not as the forms we’d taken when reincarnating in this world.

But I’d always feared it might be a lie. Ever since Cecilia’s reincarnation had been completed, a doubt had grown.

Agrona had barely been able to complete our reincarnations into this world. What had ever made me think he could so casually implant us back into another world?

Next to me, Cecilia’s expression faltered, but only for an instant. “Liar,” she said, breathless. “You’d say anything to save your pathetic skin. You don’t know Agrona, not the way I do. He’s more powerful than you can even imagine, and so am I.” She was huffing now, and even I was taken aback by the viciousness with which she addressed Seris. “I promise you, little Scythe, I’ll rip this barrier down one way or another, and then”—a cloud rolled in above us, casting its darkness over Cecilia—“I’ll come for you.”