The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 414
Chapter 412: The Lie You Believe
My fingers drummed across the surface of the charwood staff, the beat creating no discernible rhythm but acting as an outlet for the chaotic energy dancing nervously within me. Though I’d tried to embrace the cold, emotionless state again to help me progress without distraction in my work, the vision of Lady Dawn’s shriveled and desiccated body still haunted me, appearing every time I closed my eyes.
It was also impossible to keep up any coherent train of thought with the constant wasp-hum droning of Draneeve in the background, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to shut him up. There was something equally comforting about the noise that I had gotten used to over the years of his servitude.
“When I saw you, I think I about died right then and there, horrified into a heart attack,” he said, chuckling. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor like a child, rolling a wooden ball around in circles, while I was standing at my workbench and staring down blankly at a collection of artifact parts. “I didn’t know—never thought—’cause when I first went to Dicathen, you were safe in the dwarf-home, weren’t you?”
He paused, taking a rattling breath, the noise of the rolling ball stopping for just a second, then going on again. “Well, that’s what done me in, wasn’t it? Bad luck, that was all. Cursed bad luck.”
Without looking back at him, I said, “I think disobeying orders and nearly destroying Agrona’s plans had something to do with it.”
Draneeve let out a simpering noise that was part laugh, part the whine of a kicked dog. “A cautionary tale, isn’t it? Maybe my ill luck will save some wee little mage a whole catastrophic heap of consequences one day.”
Hearing a strange note in his voice, I turned from my work to look at Draneeve. He had taken off his mask and set it aside. Beneath it, his features were unremarkable. When I’d first been brought home and returned to myself, I had found this lack of interesting scars or gruesome disfigurement both strange and a little disappointing. Even now, despite his constant talking and retelling of the same old stories, he’d never explained why he wore the mask. When asked, he would simply pretend as if he hadn’t heard and change the subject.
Now there was a faraway look in his eyes, and a lopsided grin on his unassuming face. “They’ll call it ‘The Dreary Ballad of Draneeve, the Would-be Retainer.’ A fable about how ambition, when not tempered with patience and good sense, leads even the greatest of heroes to ruin!”
Feeling my brows rising up my face, I licked my lips to speak, caught myself, and suppressed a sigh. Silently acknowledging that any interruption now would only prolong what was to come, I returned my attention to the unfinished artifacts on my workspace and tried to focus, letting Draneeve’s words roll past me like wind against the window panes.
“Our intrepid hero, Draneeve, sought to prove himself in the eyes of the High Sovereign, and so gleefully accepted the most dangerous of tasks. He took an unstable portal to a new and distant land full of strange magic and monsters, where he began the careful process of forging contacts and testing the locals, discovering who among them would be amenable to the High Sovereign’s will.”
Imbuing my regalia, I searched yet again through the now-glowing parts arrayed across my workbench, occasionally shifting them around to see how the different pieces attuned with one another. When I had the pieces I wanted, I moved them closer to an incomplete pair of cylindrical devices, each not much larger than a charcoal pencil. The result was unsatisfying, so I redistributed the individual parts and began again.
“The races of Dicathen were divided, and Draneeve found what he was looking for in the depths of the dwarven kingdom. The desert sands were fertile planting ground for promises of a better future, and Draneeve worked himself up from lords to the king and queen themselves, until they agreed to support us.”
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I stopped, distracted. This was when my earlier childhood memories were locked away and the persona of Elijah implanted into my mind. Thinking about it now, with both sets of memories unlocked, caused a dizzy rocking sensation to run up my legs and into my core, like I was standing on the deck of a small boat bobbing in the sea. So much of the damage Agrona had done to my mind still lingered, like scar tissue.
“Networks of spies were established, branching out from Darv and into Sapin, with Draneeve at their head, and a plan formed, a devious and ingenious plan. Draneeve saw an opportunity, weakness in the loose thread that wove the races and nations together, and an eagerness for hostility as they were pushed closer together.”
“An old enemy, a spy like Draneeve, a traitor, pushed back at every opportunity, but Dicathen was struggling, and the task of holding it together was far more arduous than that of pulling it apart. But alas, our hero finds failure in success, because in his avarice of ambition, he went beyond the High Sovereign’s design, and in doing so threatened a plan of which he knew not, risking the lives of both reincarnates and the vessel for a third yet to come…”
Draneeve trailed off with a long, long sigh.
Choosing a prototype part made with an alloy I’d invented myself, I slotted it into the artifact I’d been feverishly struggling to build. I’d worked without sleep since the moment I had the idea, in the aftermath of Cecilia’s altercation with the phoenix, but every step had been a bitter and difficult process. Even as I examined it again under the effects of my regalia, I knew I wouldn’t be certain until I actually used the artifacts. There were too many variables, too much that could go wrong…and yet, what other choice did I have?
I considered my other choices, as I had been doing every hour for what felt like days, and cast them aside for the last time. No, I’d already made a decision. There was no point in hesitation now.
Turning around again, I looked at Draneeve. He was staring down at the ball in his hands.
“And so Draneeve retreated home, removing me from where I was supposed to be and failing even to acquire the vessel,” I said, continuing the story for him. “The High Sovereign was furious, and nearly had Draneeve executed, but felt that was too easy a punishment. And so you were demoted and assigned to be my attendant instead, after which I spent years trying to make your life as miserable as possible.”
Draneeve’s eye twitched. “A sad end to our hero’s tale—” He snapped upright suddenly, leaping to his feet as he realized what he was saying, then falling into a deep bow, so low his crimson hair pooled on the floor. “Forgive me, Lord Nico, I did not mean to…to…”
“Agree with me?” I asked, amused despite myself. The moment I noticed my amusement, it soured, and bile rose up in the back of my throat. I felt the childish impulse to apologize, but kept the words back. “Draneeve, would you like to be free of this life?”
His back unbent slowly, and when I could see his face again, his uncertainty was obvious. “As difficult as things can be, Lord Nico, I’m…not eager to die.”
I blinked at him a few times, then realized the confusion. “Vritra’s horns…no, I didn’t mean I was going to kill you. I need something. I’m hesitant to confess this to anyone, even you, and would only be willing to do so if there is some way I can reciprocate this favor.”
Draneeve’s eyes slowly widened. “You mean…be released from your service?” He paced quickly left, realized there was no room to pace, and froze. “But the High Sovereign would never allow it. This is my punishment.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said, giving him a genuine smile. “What if I can release you, help you escape this life? No Agrona, no more punishment. If I could do that, would you help me with something very important?”
He hesitated, his eyes darting away, returning to mine, and then jumping off again several times. “I am already committed to doing as you wish…”
My smile turned slightly predatory. “And reporting everything back to the High Sovereign. But this is something that needs to stay a secret. If you can do that, I will help give you a new life.”
The wooden ball clinked against the wall, having rolled slowly away when Draneeve stood, making him flinch.
“I’m sorry for how I’ve treated you,” I said, recognizing the right time for those words. “The spymaster of Dicathen shouldn’t flinch at every pin-drop. That is, at least in part, my fault. And I’m sorry.”
Finally, Draneeve’s head bobbed in acknowledgment. “What do you need me to do?”
An hour later, with the finished artifacts stashed in my dimension ring, I hurried along the corridors until I reached the stairs back down to the cells where the phoenix had been imprisoned. The stairs were empty, as they usually were, but when I reached the door at the bottom, I found it sealed shut.
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A crystalline panel was mounted to the black stone of the wall beside the door. It sensed certain mana signatures and only opened the door when it found one it recognized. Touching the tip of my staff to the panel, I began cycling different kinds of mana through it, in different strengths, to simulate a variety of mana signatures. It would have been easier if I’d known any of the researchers who worked down here, but still, such a lock wasn’t designed to defend against a quadra-elemental mage, and after a couple of minutes it hummed as the pulling force was deactivated, allowing the door to swing open.
I froze halfway through the door. Inside, sitting around a table playing some mundane game, were four guards. Two more had been pacing the room, but their steps faltered at the sight of me. A half-dozen researchers and Imbuers were at work in the room, and they all went stiff and silent as the grave, likely remembering what had happened to the two who’d “inspected” me after my core was broken.
Straightening, I glowered around at the guards. “What are you doing down here? Lazing? Names, immediately. I’ll have you reported to the master-of-arms and see you lashed for avoidance of duty. And you lot,” I snapped, directing this at the researchers, “I need the level cleared immediately. Now go!”
The four seated guards leaped up, knocking their chairs about as they hurried to solute. “But S-Scythe, we were assigned here. A new duty shift,” one of them said, stumbling over his own tongue in his haste.
Half the researchers had taken a few halting steps toward the door, but they stopped when the guard spoke.
“We’re not supposed to let anyone in who isn’t already assigned to this level,” an older guard said, less shaken than the others. I took him to be the ranking officer and faced him directly. “Even Scythes,” he added after a moment. “This order comes directly from the High Sovereign. Feel free to take it up with him if—”
I moved faster than he could respond. My core wasn’t what it had been, but I still far outstripped normal mages. Grabbing him by the neck of his armor, I lifted him up off the ground. “Then I would suggest you hurry to report my intrusion to the High Sovereign. If you don’t get out of my way, I’ll kill you all. Perhaps his annoyance—and your corresponding punishment—will be less than your lives if you simply choose to leave.”
Setting the man back on the ground, I shoved him toward the door. Not hard enough to send him hurtling, but with enough force that he stumbled several steps before catching himself. As he righted himself, all other eyes turned to him. He seemed to consider for a very long time, then said, “Alright, men, out.” When they didn’t immediately respond, he shouted, “Now!”
Everyone lurched into a hurried retreat from the room, Imbuers leaving work half-finished, researchers abandoning their projects, the guards moving to usher them through the door.
As I watched the last few of them rush from the room, I considered the guards and what they meant. I had expected it to take twenty, maybe thirty minutes for word to spread from the laboratory workers to the point where Agrona would take notice, but the presence of guards could speed or slow that time, depending on how afraid of punishment they were. In the end, though, it changed nothing. If Agrona arrived too soon, all would be lost, but I wasn’t ready to abandon my plan.
Taking out a simple mana detection artifact, I affixed it to the inner edge of the door frame and activated it, then hurried along the corridors to the phoenix’s cell. Her remains had been left there, still strung up by her wrists. If I hadn’t watched Cecilia drain the mana from Lady Dawn, though, I wouldn’t have recognized the body, shriveled and decrepit as it now was.
I turned away. The phoenix wasn’t my reason for being here.
A few cells down, I found Kiros staring wearily out of his mana-shielded cell, as if he’d been waiting for me.
“I need information,” I said without preamble, watching the Sovereign closely.
How he reacted would tell me a lot about his state of mind, and if I had any hope of success, I needed to gauge him accurately.
Kiros loomed less large here, trapped and chained. Some of the bulk around his middle had shrunken, and his marble gray flesh had gone sallow and murky. Absent all his ornamentation, he seemed much less imposing. But then, who could manage to look intimidating while manacled with their arms out and spikes shoved through their wrists.
Grey could. I ground my teeth as if I could crush the intrusive thought between them, and then took a step closer to Kiros, whose gaze had sharpened, but who hadn’t replied to my statement.
“What do you know about Agrona’s plans for the Legacy?” I asked, growling the question.
Kiros puffed himself up as best he could, lifting his chin and staring down his nose at me. “Scythe or not, how dare a lesser speak to me that way.”
I only stared, unblinking. After a moment, all the bluster oozed out of him and he deflated.
“The Legacy is a being capable of ultimate control over mana. A weapon to use against the other asuras.” He tried to shrug, but it was a feeble movement chained up as he was. “Always sounded like a fairy story to me.”
“Can she do it?” I said quickly. “Can she destroy asuras, defeat Kezess Indrath and the dragons? Does she have that power?”
He grunted. “Not yet. But maybe someday. If she lives that long.”
“And when she’s completed his mission? What plans does he have, then?” I hadn’t meant to ask this question, but I was surprised by Kiros’s transparency, and my fear for Cecilia surged forward, drowning my other concerns.
Kiros spit phlegmy saliva against the inside of the shield. It sizzled and popped, boiling away in a moment. “The High Sovereign keeps his own council. If he has plans for an after, he has not seen fit to share them with the rest of the Vritra Clan.” The sneer smoothed out into a cruel smirk. “If I had to wager, though, I’d guess the same will happen to her as happens to most weapons after a war. They either get put on display or melted down and turned into something more useful, don’t they?”
I forced down a half-dozen other panicked questions that surged into my mind. This is not relevant, idiot, I chastised myself.
“And if she wanted to prevent such an outcome? If the Legacy wanted to…preemptively strike back at Agrona himself…” Each word was voiced carefully, my enunciation painstaking and exact as I thought through each syllable. “Perhaps, if you were to be useful enough, there is a future for you outside of this cell.”
Kiros was already shaking his head halfway through my speech, his horns scything through the air from side to side. “You’re daft. All that muddling about the High Sovereign has done must have scrambled your brains, boy. But…” Kiros trailed off, growing thoughtful. “Perhaps, with me by her side, she might have a chance. Release me, and I’ll help the girl take Agrona’s head.”
A mental ping of mana notified me that Cecilia had just left the stairwell, passing in front of the device I had left at the entrance to this floor. There was no more time.
Activating my regalia, I followed the path of the mana, isolating the many individual parts that made the shield function. Within the wall, there were a series of housing units and translated power from mana crystals into the shield itself. Channeling my own mana through the regalia and into the shield, I forced it upstream until it ran back into those housings. The force immediately overloaded one, which caused a cascading failure of the others, and in a handful of seconds, the entire device gave a static crackle and the shield vanished. Kiros stared at me hungrily from within his now-open cell.
“Promise me,” I said urgently. “That you’ll help her. Promise.”
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“Sure, sure, I promise. On my honor as Sovereign,” he said, lapsing into an amused smile. “Just hurry up and release me.”
Working quickly, I forced open the manacles. Kiros squirmed as the spike inside his wrist shifted, and I shot him a warning look to be still. Slowly, I eased the rune-covered spike free of his wrist. As I did—interposing my body between Kiros and what I was doing—I very quickly but carefully stabbed one of my newly created artifacts into the same wound, before it could heal over.
“Damn, careful what you’re doing. That hurts,” Kiros moaned.
The artifact was slightly smaller in both length and thickness than the spike, and as soon as it had been inserted and the spike fully removed, the flesh of Kiros’s wrist began to heal over.
With the second artifact hidden in the palm of my hand, I moved around him and repeated the process on the other side, then much more quickly released the manacles around his ankles.
After releasing the last of the chains, I stepped back.
Kiros groaned, stretching his back and rolling his shoulders. Then, with an almost lazy motion, he backhanded me across the chest, sending me hurtling down the hallway. I felt myself bounce off one of the other shielded cells, then crumpled into a heap on the floor. My vision went in and out for a moment, the hallway wobbling violently around Kiros’s muddled form as he stalked in my direction.
In the distance behind me, a silvery halo of blurry hair peered around the corner…
“Pathetic creatures,” Kiros mused under his breath as he stared down at me. “Why the High Sovereign has such a perverse interest in—”
Kiros spun around, facing Cecilia, who had lifted up off the floor and was flying toward us.
“Perhaps if I take Lord Indrath your heads, I’ll be allowed back into Epheotus!” Kiros shouted at her, his hands coming up as if to wrap around the handle of a weapon. Mana seethed and boiled all around him, condensing into a shapeless mass in his fists, then bursting apart again, crashing like a tsunami all around us.
I groaned as the force slammed me down into the floor like a battering ram, and lights swam in front of my eyes.
Kiros snarled as even he was struck with enough force to be driven back into the wall by his own failed magic. He stared down at his hands in shock, but he had very little time to wonder what had just happened before Cecilia was on him. Even weakened by imprisonment and limited mana, he was far superior to Cecilia physically, and his huge hands balled into fists as he crouched and prepared to meet her head on.
Every cell barrier in the hallway blinked out at once, and dozens of sets of chains struck at him, looking like nothing less than metal vipers snapping and lunging to wrap around his arms, legs, throat, and waist, wherever they could find purchase.
“No, release me, I command you!” he shouted, his voice cracking.
Cecilia landed before him, leaning slightly to the side to see around him to me. I only stared back from where I lay awkwardly splayed across the floor, giving no indication if I was alive or dead, although I felt certain she would sense my mana well enough to know I wasn’t fatally wounded. The angrier she was, however, the higher likelihood of success we had.
Mana surged around Kiros again, spilling out of him and choking the breath from me, but Cecilia was unphased. His control over mana was too imprecise with my artifacts implanted directly into his wrists. Every muscle of his towering form flexed against the chains, and a couple even broke with the sound of shearing metal, sending a spray of sharp steel pinging off the walls and ceiling, but for every one that shattered, two more snapped out to bind him.
“What were you thinking, Nico?” Cecilia snapped, again glancing past Kiros to me. I didn’t respond, and so her attention moved back to the struggling Vritra. “You shouldn’t have attacked him. I bore you no ill will, Sovereign Kiros, I was even sorry to see what Agrona was putting you through. So why?”
“A…mistake,” he choked out around the chains, which were imbued with so much mana that they were beginning to glow, like metal left in a hot forge. “I can…see that…now. Release me, and I’ll…help you kill him.”
I held my breath. Everything hinged on this moment.
Cecilia’s expression crashed down into a confused scowl. “What?”
“Together…we can kill…Agrona…”
Teeth bared, Cecilia reared back and slashed with her hand. A scythe of cutting wind and white fire bit into the basilisk’s neck and chest, spinning his body half around. The wound had barely left a scratch.
Cecilia pulled the chains tight, but Kiros let out a low, dangerous laugh. Without attempting to channel mana again, he flexed against the chains, and another broke, then another.
“You may be strong enough to drain the life from the shriveled remains of a long-imprisoned phoenix, girl, but I am of the Vritra, a Sovereign of this land, this world. Your strength is as of yet nothing next to—”
Kiros cut off with a choked gasp. Mana was pouring from him, swelling and streaming out of him like water through a ruptured dam.
Cecilia was taking it.
I did everything I could not to let my smile show through.
Kiros tried to speak, but he couldn’t. The chains around him grew continually tighter as his body diminished, shrinking in on itself, the mana that kept it strong and full of vitality no longer present.
Standing, I maneuvered carefully around the web of chains that bound him until I stood at Cecilia’s side. Her entire body trembled, and a trickle of blood ran from the corner of her eye, like a scarlet teardrop. Although I couldn’t see mana particles like she could, I was very aware of the way her physical body seemed to strain against the ocean of basilisk mana. Her core had no room for it, and so it filled every muscle, bone, and organ. Mana was bleeding from her veins into the atmosphere, but even that she grabbed and pulled back. Then, with a gasp, she had finished.
I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. “Cecil, are you—”
Suddenly her body was limp and falling. I grabbed her in my arms and eased her to the ground, wiping the blood off her cheek. She was unconscious, but her breath continued steadily, even though her heart was pounding like she’d been running for days on end.
As I stared down at her, hoping this had been the right course of action, another ping warned me of someone else approaching just as I felt the sudden swell of his mana grasping like claws at the entire level.
Spinning, I conjured blood iron spikes from the chains, focusing my entire mind, all my will and mana, on the task. What remained of Kiros’s body nearly exploded with them, dozens on dozens rending his withered flesh, pulling him apart into an unrecognizable, bloody mess. I felt a few of the spikes shearing into the fragile artifacts in his wrists, releasing a slow trickle of Kiros’s captured mana.
Just like the last vestiges of mana leaving a dead mage’s body.
Then, with terrifying suddenness, I was immobile, entirely frozen, my mind and body no longer connected.
“What is the meaning of this!” Agrona snarled from behind me, his uncontained rage threatening to flay the skin from my bones.
My body spun around to face him, and his scarlet eyes burrowed into mine. I could feel the probing of his magic worming into my brain.
“What happened?” he asked, only slightly calmer.
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I swallowed heavily as my facilities were partially returned to me. Not enough that I could move, but I was at least able to blink and speak. “I was talking to Kiros when Cecilia came to find me. She overheard him speaking of treason, and in her rage she attacked him. His magic overwhelmed her, and she fell unconscious, but he was weak enough that I managed to destroy him before he could do any more harm.”
The tendrils in my mind shifted about, poking and prodding each statement to verify its truth. I held that idea very carefully, confirming to myself that every word I’d just said was true.
“But what were you doing down here?” Agrona asked after a long pause, and the tendrils dug deeper. “Why did you threaten those assigned to this level?”
I was suddenly grateful that my body wasn’t my own, as I felt the overwhelming urge to squirm with discomfort under Agrona’s unblinking gaze. “I was afraid. I wanted to know…I had to ask, if she could really do it. Do the things you expect of her, defeat the other asura clans.”
Agrona’s thin brows rose in surprise. Then his gaze shifted to the ruined corpse behind me. “Well? Do you have your answer?”
I tried to nod but couldn’t. “I—I do, High Sovereign.”
I sagged in on myself, my body seeming simultaneously very light and very heavy, but it was mine again. I rubbed my chest where Kiros’s backhand had caught me.
Agrona bent low and eased Cecilia’s prone form from the floor, cradling her like a child. As he turned his back on me, he asked, “Did she drink from Kiros’s mana, Nico?”
I stared through him, past him, into the distance, completely out of this world. I imagined I was looking into a new world, a different one. In that alternative version of this world, she hadn’t. I could see it. So clearly. I made myself believe what I was seeing with every fiber of my being. “No, High Sovereign.”
Agrona hummed softly as he carried Cecilia down the hall. Before turning the corner, he glanced behind him and past me to the corpse, where he no doubt saw the last bits of Kiros’s mana trailing off into nothing.