The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 406

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Chapter 406

Chapter 404: A Battle of Words


Windsom waited, his otherworldly eyes trained on me, his expression unreadable.

My head turned slightly so I could see the cavernous arched entry to the palace, where Jasmine’s silhouette was just visible within the shadows. Inside the darkened outline of her form, Regis’s violet glow was like a beacon.

I placed a foot on the bottommost of the ethereal stairs leading up to the portal Windsom had manifested. “Did you try to talk him out of it?” I asked, stopping.

Windsom frowned and ran his fingers through his platinum blond hair. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Elenoir,” I said, turning back to him, staring into those galaxy-like eyes. “As envoy to this world, did you try to talk Lord Indrath out of the attack on Elenoir.”

“No,” Windsom said, relaxing. “I volunteered to go along and ensure General Aldir was able to complete the mission.”

“I see,” I said with a nod.

Unhurried, I climbed the rest of the stairs until I was standing just in front of the portal. Windsom's crimes would be punished eventually, I told myself. But at that moment, my mind was on much more important beings than him.

Drawing in a deep breath and mentally preparing myself for what was to come, I stepped through.

The palace, Etistin, all of Dicathen melted away into golden light.

Even before Epheotus resolved in my sight, I felt the distance yawning between Regis and me. The tether requiring physical proximity between us had been broken when I dragged Taci into the Relictombs, but there had been no time to consider the ramifications during that fight. At that moment after the battle, I had felt no change in whatever aetheric binding connected us. Now, in the instant where I was entirely within the golden beam of light, no longer in Dicathen but not yet in Epheotus, I felt my connection to him fade, leaving behind a biting kind of emptiness that would have felt like madness if I hadn’t already understood its source.

Then the light faded and I was welcomed by that familiar feeling of being in another world, just like the first time Windsom had brought me to Epheotus, and all thought of Regis was driven from my mind.

There were no twin mountain peaks, no shimmering bridge, no pink-petaled trees, no towering castle. Instead, I was standing on the carefully-trimmed lawn of a simple cottage with a straw roof.

My heart skipped a beat.

Turning in a quick circle, I confirmed that the cottage was surrounded by towering trees with sprawling canopies of leaves that wove together, leaving a small clearing where the familiar cottage stood out strangely.

Windsom appeared beside me, stepping through the golden light with his thin blond brows raised. He barely glanced at me before gesturing to the cottage door.

“Why are we here?” I asked, but he only repeated his gesture, more firmly this time.

I hadn’t seen or spoken to Lady Myre, Kezess’s wife, since I had trained here years ago. But I thought of her often, especially as my own understanding of aether increased and revealed the failure of the dragons’ perspective.

I didn’t allow my uncertainty to show in my movements or expression, however. When Windsom made it clear he wouldn’t answer, I moved with outward poise to the door.

It opened with the lightest tug.

The bright, clean light of a magical lighting artifact spilled out.

The interior was exactly as I remembered it, nothing moved, nothing out of place. Well, almost nothing.

In the center of the room, lounging in a wicker chair, was Lord Kezess Indrath. He wore simple white robes that caught the light like liquid pearls, and jagged, blood-red hoops through his ears.

I quickly scanned the rest of the visible cottage, but he appeared to be the only one present.

I stepped inside. The door closed behind me, seemingly of its own accord.

Kezess’s eyes—lavender at first, but shifting to a darker, richer shade of purple as I entered—followed my every movement, their hardness and intensity at odds with his otherwise placid expression and body language. The smooth lines of his youthful face and relaxed angle of his thin limbs were likewise out of alignment with the air of unassailable power radiating from him. Not his intent—King’s Force, Kordri had called it—because I still couldn’t sense his mana or aura, but there was nonetheless a constant and inexorable force around him, like gravity or the heat of the sun.

Kezess shifted in his seat, and his mid-length silvery hair waved slightly. The silence between us lingered.

I understood the game well enough. No doubt Windsom would have stood at attention for hours waiting for Kezess to acknowledge him should the lord of the asuras deem it so. But I didn’t accept him as my sovereign, and I hadn’t accepted his invitation to simply stand in his presence.

“How long have you been following my progress?” I asked.

The corner of his lips twitched and his eyes darkened further. “Arthur Leywin. I should welcome you back to Epheotus. Now, as before, you are brought before me just as war stirs in your world.”

“Stirs?” I asked, shifting my weight from one leg to the other. I was very aware of the physicality between us, with Kezess still sitting, almost motionless, and me standing before him. “You know all too well the state of the war between Dicathen and Alacrya.”

“That conflict is no longer important,” he said with the tone of one discussing an expected change in the weather. “I told you before that I saw you as a necessary component in that conflict, but you failed to heed my advice, which led to your inevitable failure. Now it is time to determine if there is a place for you in the upcoming war between the Vritra Clan and all of Epheotus.”

Something he said stuck out to me, and I couldn’t bring myself to move past it, despite other aspects of our conversation being more important. “Your advice I ‘failed’ to heed…you’re talking about Tessia.”

His brows rose a fraction of an inch, and his eyes flashed magenta. “Through you and the other reincarnate, Nico, Agrona groomed the perfect vessel for the entity known as the Legacy. And through her, you have given him knowledge and power enough to be a threat to Epheotus, and in doing so all but assured the destruction of the world you’ve come to love and everyone in it. You think yourself wise because you have lived two short lives, and so you refuse to listen to well-meaning advice, forgetting that those giving it lived for centuries before King Grey was born, and will live centuries after Arthur Leywin’s bones have turned to dust.”

I suppressed a scoff. “I don’t think you know half as much as you pretend to. If you’d understood any of this before Cecilia’s reincarnation, you would have had Windsom kill Tessia, or Nico, or even me.” I crossed my arms and took a step closer to him. “How has Agrona gotten so far ahead of you?”

Without the appearance of moving, Kezess was suddenly standing. His eyes were the color of angry violet lightning, but his expression remained placid except for the tightening of his jaw. “You aren’t making a good showing of yourself right now. Before, you had your bond with my granddaughter to shield you. As you have, in your many failures, allowed her to die in battle, you can no longer claim such protection. If you do not prove to me that you yet have a part to play in the war, I will destroy you.”

I’d been expecting this, both the threat and his mention of Sylvie. I couldn’t guess how much Kezess knew about what had happened to Sylvie, but there was a certain way to find out. Empowering the spellform on my forearm, I reached for the iridescent stone egg I’d recovered from the Relictombs after waking.

The stone appeared in my hand, wreathed momentarily in aetheric particles. “Sylvie didn’t die.”

Kezess reached for the egg but stopped just short, his outstretched fingers lingering just inches away. “So. It is true then.”

I waited, hoping Kezess might give something away. Asking any questions about the egg or what Sylvie had done would reveal my own points of ignorance, and I didn’t want to give the ancient dragon any more leverage over me.

But he was just as careful, and, after searching my eyes briefly, he let his hand fall and shifted back subtly. “I trust you will continue to work to revive her.” A statement, not a question.

“Of course. She is my bond.”

Aether reached out to grab hold of the egg and withdrew it into the extradimensional storage space.

Although Kezess hadn’t given much away, his response told me two very important pieces of information. First, he knew what was happening with Sylvie. I still didn’t understand how she had transformed into this egg or been transported into the Relictombs with me. Obviously Kezess knew what the egg-stone was.

Second, he couldn’t revive her himself. If he could, I felt certain he would have tried to take the egg from me. This most likely meant that only I could complete the process of imbuing the egg with aether.

Kezess turned and, unhurried, made his way across the cottage to where several herbs and plants were hanging from the wall, drying. “Lady Myre will be sad to have missed you,” he said conversationally, pinching something that smelled like mint between his fingers. “Although, I can’t help but wonder if her attachment to you was due more to the presence of our daughter’s will within your core than any innate characteristics of your own.”

He turned, and his eyes had softened to lavender again. “It was an impressive feat that you reached the third phase of connecting with Sylvia’s will. Too bad it killed you, or would have without Sylvie’s intervention. And yet, even though you lost her will, you have retained the ability to influence aether—even grown more proficient in it.” His eyes burrowed deep into mine, and the sensation of maggots crawling into my skull made my stomach turn. “You will tell me everything, Arthur.”

Aside from a minute twitch in my right eye, I kept my discomfort off my face. “What are you going to do for me in return?”

The bright lights of the cottage dimmed as Kezess’s nostrils flared. “As I have already stated, you will be allowed to live if you convince me of your use.”

I chuckled. Without answering, I moved to a wooden rocking chair and took a seat, kicking one leg up to rest over the other. “You want to bargain for my knowledge. I understand. After all, you have sought this insight for centuries, even committed genocide only to fail to acquire what I learned in a year.”

His eyes narrowed. “If you know what happened to the djinn, then certainly you see that I won’t hesitate to sacrifice one lesser life for the greater good.”

I stared at the dragon, deadpan, rocking slightly back and forth in Myre’s chair. “Greed and greater good may share a few letters, but you’ll rarely find them sharing company.”

“Show me,” Kezess ordered, ignoring my jibe. “I can sense the aether around you, burning inside you, but I wish to see you use it. Prove to me this isn’t more than some parlor trick.”

I bit my tongue to keep from speaking more barbed words. I wasn’t afraid of Kezess, but I hadn’t come here just to provoke him, either. He had a purpose in summoning me, and I had a purpose in accepting.

I considered the runes at my disposal and what would cost me the least to reveal, but there was an obvious choice.

Sending aether into the godrune, I activated Realmheart. The heat of the magic brought a flush to my cheeks as it infused every cell of my body, and the air was filled with color, the godrune making visible the individual motes of mana that infused everything around us. Immediately visible as well were the borders between aether and mana, as the atmosphere here was rich with both. They seemed so obvious now that I had learned how to look properly.

I wondered if Kezess could see them.

Kezess made a short, sharp cutting motion with one hand, and aether flared outward from him, rippling through the atmosphere, causing the world itself to harden and go still. The mana particles drifting in the air were motionless, and a string of herbs, which had been slowly rotating in the subtle air currents, froze. Then the ripple rolled over me, and I felt time stopping.

My mind flashed back to a time before the Relictombs, before my draconic form, before Sylvie’s sacrifice.

I remembered sitting with Elder Rinia. I’d been suspicious about the nature of her powers, and so activated Static Void without warning. She’d used aether to counter me, freeing herself from the time-stop spell.

Reacting on pure instinct, I pushed outward against the ripple with a burst of my own aether. It clung to my skin like a thin film, repelling Kezess’s spell.

His eyes went wide, showing real surprise and even, I thought, uncertainty for the first time.

Everything else in the cottage was frozen, motionless. But my chair kept rocking slightly, and I felt one brow quirk up as my lips curled into a wry, humorless smile. “I think you’ll find my understanding of aether sufficiently worth your time.”

Kezess glanced around, frowning slightly. He bent down to inspect something, and I realized there was some kind of spider clinging to the leg of Myre’s table. Kezess pulled the spider from its perch, examining it closely. His fingers closed, and the spider’s insides stained his fingertips. He tossed the tiny corpse to the floor, then returned his attention to me.

“You have come by this knowledge within the series of dungeons known as the Relictombs,” Kezess said, an echoing dissonance resonant within his voice. “But Agrona has been sending mages into the djinn’s final redoubt for many years.” His eyes narrowed as he peered at me, time still stopped. “What made you different? How did you conquer where all others had failed?”

Experimentally, I pushed back against the time stop spell. The aether around me flexed, but I wasn’t able to expand the barrier beyond myself and the chair on which I sat. “I’m willing to give you information. But only if we can come to some kind of agreement.”

Kezess twisted his wrist, and the spell faded away.

I breathed easier, only then realizing what a drain it had been to hold off the aevum ability.

Before continuing, Kezess returned to his own simple wicker chair, lounging into it in a way that made it seem like a throne. He watched me for a while after that, considering. Then, slowly, as if tasting the words as he spoke them, he said, “The retaking of Dicathen has been a surprise, both for me and Agrona Vritra, but it can’t last.”

I nodded. “I’m aware that Agrona’s attention has been turned to his own lands. Once he’s resolved the rebellion there, his eye—and his forces—will return to Dicathen. He may not have a complete understanding of my capabilities, but he knows I took down a squad of his Wraiths. Next time, he’ll send a force he knows will win.”

“Indeed. Your time is running short.”

I dropped my relaxed posture, instead leaning forward and resting my elbows on my knees. “You want knowledge. Dicathen needs time. You spoke of a war between the asura, but before, I’ve always been told such a war would destroy my world.” I paused, letting my words hang in the air, then said, “I won’t let that happen, Kezess. That’s my price.”

Kezess was suddenly standing, again without my perceiving any physical movement. At the same time, the cottage melted away, dissolving like a cobweb caught in a rainstorm. The woodsy brown tones gave way to shades of gray, which materialized into the hard lines of stone and soft curves of clouds, and we were standing high atop the Indrath Clan’s castle, in the very highest tower.

The clouds were thick, rising halfway up the castle to hide the mountain peaks and the many-colored bridge below. Eddies of white, gray, and gold clouds swirled in between the towers and around the statues and stonework. Pink petals occasionally appeared tumbling through the mist, plucked from the hidden trees below and carried high into the sky by the updraft.

But the part I found most amazing was that I had only sensed the barest application of aether from Kezess, and unlike his time-stop spell, I hadn’t been able to react or deflect the teleportation, if that’s even what had happened. My mind raced to consider the implications of this and where the power stemmed from. If the situation ever devolved into violence between us, I couldn’t allow him to simply shunt me around Epheotus at will.

Kezess placed his hands on the sill of an open window and stared out at his domain. The room around us was plain and empty, but there was a circular groove worn in the purple-tinged gray tiles that made up the floor. Like someone has paced endlessly around in a loop for hundreds of years.

“You will explain the powers you have gained,” Indrath said, still not looking at me. “And you will tell me in detail how you have managed this insight, and how you created a core that can directly manipulate aether. In exchange, I will guarantee that no conflict between asura spills into Dicathen, and I will assist you in preventing Agrona from retaking the continent.” Read fir st at l i g h t n o v. e l r e a d e r . o* r g

I swallowed my surprise. I hadn’t expected him to make such a fair offer so quickly, but was glad to avoid an extended back and forth, threatening and bargaining in turns. Still, I knew the lengths Kezess would go to in order to understand my power. “The people of Alacrya shouldn’t be harmed either,” I said firmly, adopting the mannerisms of a king making a proclamation, something I had done often enough as King Grey. “What happened in Elenoir can never happen again, on either continent.”

Kezess finally turned to look at me, his gaze piercing me like a lance. “It is interesting that you mention Elenoir, because there is a second part to my offer, but we will get to that in due time. I won’t use the World Eater technique in Alacrya, but preventing large-scale losses there willreduce my ability to assure safety for Dicathen.”

“That’s fine,” I said, giving him a nonchalant shrug. “I won’t trade millions of lives to protect thousands. Until Agrona is ready to move the war into Epheotus, he won’t sacrifice his foothold in our world. So the onus is on you not to escalate the conflict.”

Kezess nodded. “This is true. But can you deliver on my request?”

“We both know insight can’t be directly transmitted from one person to another,” I said, thinking about everything the djinn projections had told me. “I will explain my powers and how I received them, as well as my own process for gaining insight into the individual godrunes. What you do with the information is entirely up to you.”

His eyes darkened as he considered. “You offer me mist and maybes but expect concrete results in return.”

“You knew what you were asking me,” I said, leaning back against the wall. “You tortured and exterminated an entire race chasing their insight, but you didn’t learn a damned thing, did you?”

“That is the second time you have mentioned this,” he said, his voice taking on a low rumble as a stormcloud darkened his face. “Take care, Arthur, that you do not overstep. The events of that age are not a subject for polite company, and mention of that ancient and dead race is forbidden here.”

I weighed my response, torn between pushing him further and letting it go. Indrath’s atrocities against the djinn were unforgivable, but there was no point interrupting the current tenuous alliance we seemed to be forming over it. Not right now.

“You said there was a second part to this agreement,” I said at length. “So let’s hear it.”

Indrath crossed the empty chamber to a different window. The view from the window shifted as he approached, one moment showing a distant mountain peak just barely piercing the clouds, like an island in the sea, and the next endless rolling fields of tall grass in colors ranging from deep blue to turquoise. A narrow road ran winding through the grass. The ground was shattered and covered in blood and corpses.

“In addition to sheltering Dicathen—and Alacrya—from the coming war,” Indrath said, his tone wary, the words drawn out tiredly in a way I hadn’t heard from him before, “I offer you justice, if you will give me the same in exchange.”

I don’t think you would enjoy the kind of justice I’d offer you, I thought. Still, I was curious about what had happened and what he meant. “Go on.”

“I ordered Aldir to use the World Eater technique. You and I both know he was a soldier doing his duty.” Kezess turned to face me. His eyes shifted through several shades of purple, settling as a cool mauve. “But to the people of your world, it was his power that unleashed such devastation. Aldir is the wraith in the darkness they now fear. And so I offer you his life to placate the masses. Punish him for his crime and heal the wound the World Eater left in the hearts of your people.”

For the first time since opening Myre’s cottage door and finding Kezess waiting for me, I felt wrong-footed, entirely caught off guard by this unexpected proposition. “What justice do you want in return?” I asked slowly, buying myself a moment to think.

Kezess looked back at the blood-smeared grasslands. “Your justice is my justice. I asked too much of my soldier. The World Eater technique was not forbidden for its destructive capabilities, but because of the damage it did to the caster. It degrades the mind and corrupts the spirit of the pantheon who uses it.

“These red smears were once brave dragons, soldiers who fought beside Aldir, trained under him.” Kezess placed a hand on either side of the window, staring hard down at the alien landscape. “He abandoned his post, and when they reached out to him, sought to help him, he butchered them.”

I let out a barking laugh.

Kezess sobered immediately, the emotion he’d exhibited vanishing as his normally placid expression returned. “You walk a dangerous line, boy.”

“So your idea of giving us ‘justice’ is to have us clean up the mess you yourself made?” I asked incredulously. “I know you don’t think much of us ‘lessers’ but come on.”

Kezess eyed me for a long moment, then turned back to the window and waved away the view of the grasslands. The slowly rolling sea of clouds reappeared. “Then let this be a warning to you instead. Aldir has left Epheotus for Dicathen, and he is dangerous. If you give him shelter or attempt to ally with him, the rest of our bargain will be void.”

He’s serious, I realized. Aldir must have really tweaked the old dragon’s tail to get him this mad.

“Noted,” I said in answer. “And agreed. If you keep your war with the Vritra Clan from escalating in our world, and you help me keep Agrona from overrunning Dicathen again, I’ll tell you everything I’ve discovered about aether.”

Kezess reached out a hand. I hesitated, knowing better than to trust him but unsure what kind of insult it would be to refuse. He waited.

After a moment, I took his hand. Tendrils of purple light appeared around our conjoined hands, then extended outward along our wrists and forearms. The aether gripped tightly, binding us together almost painfully.

“An agreement has been made, and you are bound to it,” Kezess said solemnly. “Break it, and this spell will devour your core.”

As he spoke, the coils of aether began worming their way into my flesh, digging through my muscles and into my nerves. It was painful, but not unbearably so. In seconds, the aether had reached my core, wrapping around it like chains, exerting a physical pressure on the organ.

“I didn’t agree to that—”

“We begin immediately,” Kezess said laconically, a sliver of a smile marring his otherwise expressionless mask. “You walk the Path of Insight.” My perspective of the room lurched, and I found myself standing on the worn stone path. “Walk, and activate your ‘godrunes’ as you called them.”

I stared at him, equal parts angry and uncertain. I hadn’t expected to begin immediately, and chastised myself for being caught off guard by the binding. Of course he wouldn’t just trust me to tell him everything he knew. There had to be a safeguard.

Damn it, I thought, then immediately redirected my mental energy in a more positive direction.

“You’re wasting time,” Kezess said. “Walk, and cast.”

I started moving, following the path of worn-down stone. Light immediately began to flicker and flash throughout the circle. Then I reached again for Realmheart. The circle burst to life with light and energy, forming a series of runes connected by dozens of bright lines. Mana particles of every color ran rich and eager around the circle, herded on by amethyst motes of aether. But I was only half looking at the sudden swell of mana moving through the runes.

Inside me, I could sense the foreign aether clinging tightly to my core. It reacted to my each and every thought, tightening if I even considered the possibility of lying or limiting what I showed Kezess. I knew if I hid anything, it would react violently and attempt to force my hand. And then kill me if I still refused.

It just wouldn’t do.

I wasn’t ready to reveal more about Realmheart than its presence. There was no reason for Kezess to know that I could move mana with aether. And so I let the godrune fade, then channeled aether instead into Aroa’s Requiem.

I felt Kezess’s hungry gaze on me with every step, just as I felt the cord of aether constricting around my core. Violet particles danced along my fingertips with nowhere to go, but that didn’t matter. The Path of Insight reacted, flickering and flaring, both mana and aether following my progress like one giant eyeball.

But inside my body, something else was happening. As I imbued the godrune, I also let aether leak from my core. But I kept it close, a halo of my own aether orbiting my core and Kezess’s binding spell.

If I was going to make a deal with the lord of the dragons, it was going to be on my own terms, not his.

Carefully shaping my aether, I drew it close around the invasive chains, and my aether clung as tightly to Kezess’s as it did to my own skin when I created a protective barrier. Then I pulled.

The spell resisted, the aether eager to hold its shape, to keep to its purpose.

I kept walking. A golden glow flickered across the room as the Aroa’s Requiem godrune burned at my back, bright enough to show through my shirt. The Path shined just as brightly in response.

Like a bird dragging a worm from its hole, my aether pulled Kezess’s slowly into my core.

This was the risky part. I’d never directly faced off against another aether-wielder before. But I’d also never encountered a source of aether I couldn’t draw from.

Within my core, I felt the aether being purified, Kezess’s influence overridden. Bit by bit, his aether became mine. Then, to help camouflage the change in case he could somehow sense it, I reformed the “chains” around my core with my own aether, no longer beholden to the shape of his spell.

With that complete, I felt confident enough to stop walking and step off the Path.

Kezess, who had been entranced by the Path of Insight itself, blinked back to awareness. “Why are you stopping? Surely that isn’t everything you’ve discovered.”

“It’s not,” I said with a light shake of my head. “You’ll get more once I’ve seen some progress on your end of the bargain.

“That’s not what I agreed to,” he said, an undercurrent of hostility barely detectable in his tone.

“It seems we both should have been more careful in our wording,” I replied. “I suspect you have enough to occupy your mind for a while already, anyway. And you still have your leash in place. Once I’m comfortable in the knowledge that Dicathen is safe without me, I’ll return to give you more.”

He looked at me. I looked back. He gave no outward physical sign of agitation, but I could still sense it rolling off of him in waves. After a minute or more, he finally gave in. “Return to your world, but be waiting for my summons. We are not yet finished, you and I.”

“No,” I said with a smile. “No, we certainly aren’t.”