The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 415
Chapter 413: False Memories
My entire body quaked with convulsions that I couldn’t suppress as the power within me clawed and hammered its way out. Beneath me, the small bed I’d finally come to accept as my own rattled against the floorboard, the wooden frame crackling like pine needles in a fire. My eyes wouldn’t close, instead staring wide-eyed around the unadorned room, the line of their gaze determined more by wherever my head bucked and bounced than any intention of mine.
There was a furious punching sensation against the inside of my chest, and for a wild moment, I was certain the power was trying to rip its way out of me. Then I heard voices behind the heavy iron door of my room, and I realized the sensation was only my heartbeat as it gave a sickening lurch.
I wanted to shout out, tell them to go away, that there was no way they could approach. It was too much this time. I could see the ki in the air, cutting in every direction.
But the door was opening, and I could not push air through my constricted throat.
Framed within the opening, I could just make out Headmaster Wilbeck and a couple of others. Randall, the big man who helped clean up after all of us children, was leaning forward, one hand up to shield his eyes from the energy whipping around inside my room. He hesitated, and just before he forged forward, a much smaller figure darted into the room in front of him.
Nico, I thought, my heart seizing with equal parts fear and gratitude.
Nico dodged a blast of ki that hit Randall in the chest, lifting the big man up and throwing him back into the wall.
“You can’t!” I said, the words finally grinding out between my clenched teeth. “You’ll get h-hurt.”
But something was wrong. Whether caused by the storm of ki destroying the room or my own weakening sense of perception, Nico was beginning to blur—or rather, Nico stayed brightly, vibrantly clear, the clearest thing in the room, while a blurry halo surrounded him. I tried to focus, but staring at the halo made my head ache terribly.
Nico was crawling toward me, reaching out for me. I couldn’t look right at him, and so turned away, but I could still see him out of the corner of my eye. The crystal clear image of Nico and the fuzzy halo separated into two individual images.
One was Nico, clean and clear, his face set in a heroic grimace as he powered through the onslaught of ki my fit was unleashing.
The other, the blurry image, was a boy our age, sweat pouring down a face twisted in desperation as ki swelled within him.
The bed came apart, the feathers and fabric and chunks of wooden frame swirling up into the air and spiraling around me like they were trapped in a miniature tornado. I felt myself being lifted up. The two boys were as well, Nico pulled to one side, the blurry boy to the other. Every few seconds, they would overlap, becoming one figure, then burst apart again, tumbling end over end.
Then the room was coming apart, then the orphanage, as the storm of my ki grew and grew, peeling away layer after layer of the world and leaving it all bare.
Nico and the blurred boy suddenly split into dozens of copies of themselves, each slightly different, like light through a kaleidoscope. They began to fall like snowflakes, drifting down into as many overlapping scenes, pictures of my life—memories—each one played side by side, Nico—still crisp and visible—going through the same motions as the blur that moved like a shadow just behind him.
My eyes snapped open.
Leaning over, I released the pressure that had been building within me. An attendant shoved a bucket under my face just in time to catch the contents of my stomach, and someone patted my hair and cooed soft, comforting noises.
“Tell the High Sovereign she’s awake,” a disembodied voice said quietly from nearby.
Now that the dream was over, my waking mind could feel the gaps between the dual memories—places in my brain where Agrona had replaced my original memories with manufactured ones. But even acknowledging them was like sticking a finger into an open wound, triggering another wave of vomiting that made my mind go blank.
Grey, I realized, the context of the memories bleeding through the haze obscuring my mind’s eye. So much Grey in my life…so many empty holes filled in, or paved over with Nico…
Feeling a surge of nauseous panic that triggered another wave of vomiting, I tried to search my memories for the parts much later in our relationship, times I’d never fully come to terms with when seen through this body, terrified of what I would find.
But…those were intact. That was real. Our love was real.
As the nausea eased from my tired, aching body, I leaned back and closed my eyes, catching only a glimpse of the dark-haired attendant who reached out with a rag to clean my lips and chin.
“There now, love, you just relax,” she said with a hint of Vechorian lilt.
I had no sense of the passage of time, and lost all coherence as my thoughts drifted from memory to memory. I could feel the fault lines between real and manufactured memories in the same way one’s tongue feels the gap of a missing tooth. Without any direct guidance, my mind seemed to rush from memory to memory, exploring the inner depths of itself, mapping out and making sense of the shift in my awareness.
Whether a minute or an hour later, a stifling presence appeared at my side, pushing everything else away to make room for itself.
My eyes fluttered open. Agrona was at my bedside, gazing down at me with a slight frown that communicated both worry and concern.
“How do you feel?” he asked, his scarlet eyes locked onto mine. “My best doctors and healers have been to see you, and they say that, physically, you are unharmed.”
“I’m fine,” I assured him, the words feeling scratching in my throat. When the horns spreading above his head tilted slightly, I said, “Honestly. He didn’t hurt me.”
Agrona, whose hands were clasped behind his back, was entirely motionless as he asked, “Cecilia, can you tell me what you were doing in that cell block?”
I furrowed my brows, putting on a frustrated frown, and looked at my feet. “Forgive me, Agrona. I know I shouldn’t have been, but…” I trailed off as I felt the tendrils of Agrona’s magic probe my mind. Like fingers kneading the soft tissue of my consciousness, they searched out my thoughts, hunting for both truth and untruth. But…
“Go on,” he said, still motionless.
“Nico’s attendant, Draneeve, came to me…said that Nico was acting strangely, that he was obsessed with the idea that Sovereign Kiros had information we needed, something he was afraid to ask you. Draneeve said that Nico had snuck down to interrogate the Sovereign, and so I followed.”
As I spoke, I kept half my mind on the probing magic. It traced along the pathway of my thoughts and caressed the words as they formed in my head, even before they reached my tongue. I’d felt this same sensation a hundred times before, but something was different just then.
“I should have come to you and told you straight away,” I admitted, letting my eyes drift shut. “Kiro’s tried to kill me.”
Strong fingers gripped my chin and turned my head slightly. When I opened my eyes, I was staring up into Agrona’s face. “Yes, you should have. Nico was foolish not to ask me his questions directly, and you were foolish for chasing him down to save him. That is a weakness, one easily exploited by those out to do you harm, even right here in Taegrin Caelum. If you truly wish to win me my war and return to your original lives, you need to keep him safe.” Agrona’s nose wrinkled slightly in distaste. “Especially from himself. Which may mean shortening his leash.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said noncommittally.
I always found it difficult to discuss these kinds of things with Agrona. He made it sound so simple, when in reality it was anything but. Nico was sensitive, self-conscious, and prone to heroics. I knew he felt increasingly sidelined by my increasing power, something he found very difficult to manage. Not because he wanted to be the strongest or most important, but because he wanted to keep me safe.
“Where is he?” I asked, suddenly realizing that Nico hadn’t been present when I’d woken up, and what that might mean. “Nico?”
Agrona gave me an understanding smile and reached out to brush his fingers over my hair. “He’s been temporarily confined until I could gain a more complete understanding of the events with Kiros. I will see that he is released to come see you immediately. Now that I know you are unharmed, though, I’ll leave you to rest.”
He started to turn away, paused, then glanced back at me. “Although, there is one other question I should ask you.” His tone was light, curious, almost nonchalant. “Did you absorb any of Kiros’s mana when he tried to kill you?”
The probing tendrils were still in my mind, but I finally realized what was different than before: he was being reserved, limiting his use of mana.
Is it kindness, or something else? I wondered. He’d told me before how dangerous his kind of mental magic could be, if not wielded carefully and by one with appropriate control and insight.
If not for that realization, I don't think I would have had the courage to do what I did.
“No, Agrona. You had forbidden it. Even though it almost cost me my life, I didn’t take any mana from the Sovereign.”
The thin line that formed between his brows was the only outward sign of his feelings. He nodded, setting the ornaments in his horns jangling. I thought he intended to leave, but instead he turned back to me, patting my shin with one hand. “You should focus on processing the phoenix’s lingering mana in your body. Your core is nearing Integration, I can sense it.” He bared his teeth in a hungry smile. “You will be the first in many, many generations of lessers to do so.”
I was silent. The tendrils of magic in my brain had subsided, and I couldn’t read Agrona’s intentions.
“Integration is a strange quirk of your lesser biology,” he mused, looking past me and through the wall into some distant vision only he could see. “For an asura, such a thing is unimaginable. As we grow in strength, our cores grow too. The longer an asura lives, the more they grow. Not in size, but potency and strength. And yet, strangely enough, we are still constrained.”
“In what way?” I asked, hesitating. Agrona was not usually prone to simple conversation, and I felt certain there was some deeper purpose behind his words.
“Integration, I believe, is the key to unlocking a new level of magical understanding. I have pursued it among my followers for decade upon decade, but it has proven quite elusive. Your role as Legacy, however, has put you on the cusp of only a fraction of the time I’ve invested. It is quite remarkable. You ask why the asura are constrained, and I will tell you.” The pressure of his hand on my shin tightened. “We have power, but we do not evolve. You lessers, you replicate like insects, and each generation changes, molting the shell of their forebears and becoming something new. In change there is opportunity, and in opportunity power.”
“Like…insects?” I asked, almost amused by the unflattering comparison.
Agrona waved his hand dismissively. “Once you have reached the Integration stage, then you will be able to fully come into your power as the Legacy. Until then, do not let minor setbacks disrupt your progress. Yesterday’s defeat becomes the lesson that informs tomorrow's victory.”
He straightened and smoothed the rich purple fabric of his shirt. “Beings like the two of us cannot afford to let slip even the smallest of lessons, Cecil. You must absorb it all, internalize every lesson, and then weaponize what you’ve learned. Do you understand?”
I bit the side of my cheek, uncertain if I really did understand, but after a moment I nodded.
“Rest, then, and consider my words,” he said, and then strode away. Only then did I realize I was alone, and that all the attendants and healers had left me.
I sank back into the bed and stared at the nondescript ceiling of my bedroom, forcing each breath in and out, deep and consistent. Despite everything Agrona had said about absorbing and internalizing and Integration, I found my thoughts drifting away from his unheeded advice and to Nico.
I had always known what Agrona was capable of. When he soothed my emotions or helped me bury her memories, I knew what we were doing. He’d even limited my access to my own previous life’s memories with my knowledge, waiting until I was strong enough before revealing certain things to me.
But this had been for my own protection, and often at my insistence. Or so I’d thought. Why Nico and Agrona had felt it necessary to change some of these memories, inserting Nico in place of Grey…I couldn’t wrap my head around. Much of my relationship with Nico—all the best parts, even—were real and true. But they had built him up, tried to make him more…heroic.
And they all but erased Grey from my life. Just to help me hate him?
That had been unnecessary. I hated him on Nico’s behalf alone—except, as I examined the emotion building in my chest, I had to acknowledge that it wasn’t hate I was feeling. I clamped firmly around the resolve I felt in killing him to free Nico of his rage. That, at least, was still true. I didn’t need to hate him to destroy him.
As I considered this and a great many other things, my eyes grew increasingly heavy, and I drifted off to sleep.
It felt as if I’d only closed my eyes for an instant, however, when a small knock at the door woke me again.
A sleepy smile spread over my face. “Come in.”
The latch clicked, and Nico stepped into the room. He eased the door shut again behind him, then moved to the foot of the bed, looking at everything everywhere except at me. He sat down stiffly, supporting himself on one arm but carefully not touching me. The silence between us built until it was awkward.
“Were they unkind to you?” I asked when I couldn’t take it anymore. “If they were I’ll—”
“No,” he answered belatedly, his voice soft. “Do you…how are you feeling?”
I watched the side of his face as he stared down at his lap. He was pale—well, more pale than usual—and he had a withdrawn expression. His fingers fidgeted nervously against the side of his leg. Despite the way his body seemed draped in on itself, it was also tense. Something was clearly wrong.
“I’m fine, honestly. Except, well…” I swallowed heavily. “I lied to him, Nico. You made me do that. You were letting him out, but I don’t understand why. Please, tell me why we did this.”
Nico glanced at me, but only for the barest instant. “I’m sorry, Cecilia.” He went quiet, and I could see him chewing on the inside of his cheek. The silence went on long enough that I didn’t think he was going to answer me, but then he started to speak again. “I’m really glad you’re okay. I didn’t think that—should have guessed Kiros would do something like that. I didn’t want you to get hurt, just thought, well, he could—I don’t even know, really—that if you…um…” He trailed off, cleared his throat, and then looked at me for real.
I sat up, pulling my legs under me so I was sitting cross-legged, then leaned toward him. “You’re lucky Draneeve saw fit to come tell me. If he hadn’t you—you’d be…” As I mentioned Draneeve, Nico’s fist balled up in the fabric of my blanket. “Don’t you go taking this out on him, Nico Sever. It’s because of Draneeve that you’re alive.”
“No, it’s because of you that I’m alive,” he ground out through clenched teeth. “Draneeve is a traitor. You have no idea what he’s done.”
“Is it any worse than what you’ve done? What I’ve done?” I asked waspishly, then immediately regretted allowing myself to become frustrated as Nico shrank in on himself. “Let’s just…not fight, okay? I’m sorry.”
He nodded quickly. “I know. Me too.” He searched my eyes for a long time before speaking again. “Are you sure you feel okay? Is anything…different? Y’know, with the basilisk mana,” he added quickly.
Aside from feeling myself unravel one memory at a time? I wanted to say, but held back. I had no way of knowing how much Nico might know about what exactly Agrona had done, the kinds of changes he had made, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask.
Then, with the uncomfortable recognition of my own stupidity, I suffered the chilling realization that Nico’s mind may have been manipulated just like mine. Only, without any way to break through Agrona’s magic, he would still be trapped in those false memories. My hesitance to speak about it suddenly seemed almost prescient, as drawing attention to the dual memories without first establishing some kind of framework might trigger any kind of reaction from Nico. He could fly into a rage, or rush straight to Agrona in some kind of pre-programmed response, or have a complete mental breakdown.
Did Agrona replace Grey in your mind too, to make you enemies? I wondered. Or did he only take the hatred you already felt and fuel it, trimming out the good times and leaving only the bad? Agrona was like a surgeon with a scalpel, careful in his nicking and cutting. But I had no doubt he could wield his power like an ax if it suited him.
“Cecilia?” Nico aked.
I blinked several times, realizing I had been drawn deep down into my own thoughts. “I was just…inspecting myself, I guess. But no…I don’t sense any major changes within me. Perhaps it will make it easier to manipulate the shield around Sehz-Clar, though? I mean, certainly if the phoenix mana would have helped, then basilisk mana has to be even better, right?”
Several emotions seemed to flash across Nico’s face at once before he reigned them in. “Yeah, of course. Silver linings, right?” He tried to smile, but it was weak and pained. “Why didn’t you tell Agrona?” he asked suddenly, catching me off guard.
“I-I’m not sure…” I stammered, leaning back and letting my head rest against the wall.
Nico resituated himself, sitting more fully on the bed and facing me directly. “And you don’t think he knew? He can sense lies…practically read minds, I think.”
I shook my head, certain in my earlier observations. “He was holding back for some reason. I think he was afraid to hurt me.”
Nico scoffed, but I quickly reached out and took hold of his wrist. “No, listen. I know you’ve suffered at his hands, Nico, and I’m so, so sorry for that. But he does care about us, and about this world, and his own world beyond it. There is a passion and kindness and loneliness deeply rooted inside him that he keeps wrapped up, but I know it’s there. Just like I know he can do what he says…give us a life together, a real life, in our own bodies, on our own world.”
Despite everything, I knew this to be the truth. Agrona had an inhuman mind, and he did things others might consider immoral, but it wasn’t fair to judge him on the morality of lesser beings. My mind was my own, unaltered by any foreign magic, with no outside influence insisting on my loyalty or care, and my feelings about Agrona and this world hadn’t changed.
I wished Nico and Agrona hadn’t thought it necessary to alter my memories, to hide those things from me, but nothing I saw in these false memories made any difference. My feelings for Grey, perhaps, were more complicated than I had realized; the ghost of his presence in my altered memories had been easier to deal with, simpler, and I could understand why that had been preferable for all of us, even me. But Grey wasn’t my priority.
I opened my mouth to continue speaking but choked on the words. A new memory surfaced, but I struggled to make sense of it as two voices spoke out as one, two people playing through the same role, one clear and the other a faded halo, just like in my dream. It was the last memory that Agrona had unlocked for me, and as I relived it—now holding both the fake and real memory together, one laid over the other—my eyes grew slowly wider, my breath shallow and weak.
“Cecilia? Cecil! What’s wrong?”
Hands on my shoulders, a gentle shake, warm breath on my face…
“N-nothing,” I stammered, struggling to collect myself, unable to hold the present and both memories in my mind simultaneously. “Everything just…caught up with me all of a sudden I guess.”
Nico jumped off the bed, running a hand through his black hair nervously. “Of course, I didn’t mean to…I’ll leave. You need your rest.”
As I struggled even to keep my eyes open and tear-free, I registered Nico searching my face one last time. Then, without even a farewell, he spun on his heel and bolted from the room.
I slumped over onto my side and curled up into a ball, squeezing my eyes shut tight to block out the visual present, allowing the split-memory to continue playing behind my eyelids.
In it, underneath the false version crafted by Agrona, I listened to myself say all those bitter, vile things to Grey. I taunted and insulted him, toyed with him…all the things I’d thought he had done to me. Except, in the end, after his sword plunged through my body, there was more. Only the false memory snuffed out, allowing what was layered behind it to come into focus.
As his blade pierced through my chest, my blood ran down his hands and arms. My full weight pressed down on him, the hilt of his sword between us, and I wrapped my arms around him, almost like an embrace.
“I’m sorry, Grey. This… was the… only way,” I said, blood bubbling in my lungs and staining my lips.
He released the sword, and my body sagged against him. “W-what—why?”
“As long as… I live… Nico will be… imprisoned—used against me.”
He stumbled back, and I fell atop him, driving his blade even deeper into me. I let out a gasp of pain, but I barely felt it. Most of my body was already cold.
“No… no, this can’t be…” Grey sputtered.
He held me in his arms, trembling, until the memory faded to black.