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The Beginning After The End Chapter 474

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Chapter 474


Chapter 472: Reckoning


ARTHUR LEYWIN


Nico looked at me and gave a mischievous smirk. “There’s going to be a new one today. Another girl. Draneeve let it slip this morning.”


I only shook my head as I proceeded with my stretches to prepare.


“I hope she’s as cute as that Maylis girl.” Nico watched me eagerly, knowing that talking about this stuff always made me blush. I tried to hide it but still felt the heat creeping up my neck. Nico laughed, watching me stretch without making any effort to do so himself. “I think that one liked you.” The grin became forced. “More than she liked me, anyway.”


I rubbed the back of my neck and brushed a lock of auburn hair out of my face, mumbling, “I think you’re missing the point.” 


I hated it when he tormented me like this. I had the feeling he’d always been like that, even in our past life, but my memories of Earth and being a king weren’t very clear anymore. Some stuff, like all the physical training I’d done, stuck out clearly, but my life itself seemed all fuzzy.


“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Nico said, rolling his eyes before casting a vacant stare across the training chamber. “We’re searching for some mythical third Musketeer for our dynamic duo.” Nico frowned suddenly, an expression I felt myself matching.


“What’s a Musketeer?” we both asked at the same time. 


Nico shrugged, chuckling, but I couldn’t release the question quite so easily. We often found ourselves drawing on some shared fact or piece of cultural memory from our lives on Earth, but they just as often made no sense to either of us. I couldn’t help but ask myself if it had always been like that since my reincarnation, but like the memories of Earth, my life before Scythe Cadell saved me from that dragon and brought me to Alacrya was also fuzzy.


I suppose they would be though, I considered. I was only like four or five when that happened.


My thoughts lingered on this subject, picking futilely at the fabric of those memories without gaining any new insight into them as I completed my pre-training warm-up. Only when Scythes Melzri and Viessa appeared did Nico hurry to follow my lead. The two Scythes watched us silently, Melzri appearing bored while Viessa radiated a constant undercurrent of disappointment.


When Scythe Cadell arrived shortly after, I hopped up and stood at attention. With him was a girl who appeared to be about my age. She had navy hair the color of the deep ocean water I’d seen when visiting the coast of Vildorial with Cadell, but it was her eyes that really stood out. They were like two s.h.i.+ning rubies inset in her slightly round face.


Cadell snapped his fingers, and I jolted to attention, realizing I’d been staring. Beside me, Nico kept shooting expectant glances at me, but I ignored him as best I could.


“Grey. Nico. This is Caera of Highblood Denoir.” Cadell watched us closely, his red eyes dark in comparison to the girl’s. Aside from his lips and eyes, not a muscle twitched. He stood so still he might as well have been carved of stone. “She is descended of Vritra blood, though she has not yet awakened. She will be training with you for the next few days. This opportunity is a great honor for the Denoir blood.” His tone changed as he said this last bit, making it clear he was speaking to the girl without even looking at her.


She bowed deeply, her navy hair falling down over her face. “Of course, Scythe Cadell Vritra! Thank you for this incredible opportunity. Highblood Denoir will prove its purity to the High Sovereign.”


They’re all the same, I thought, remembering every other young Vritra-blooded foster child that had been brought to train with us over the last couple months. It was hard to see the world from their perspective. To them, the High Sovereign was this mystical, unknowable force, a G.o.d among men. And he was a bit intimidating—and so weird—but mostly, he was just Uncle Agrona.


Cadell gave me a meaningful look, forcing me to straighten even further, then turned his attention to the other Scythes. “I’ll leave the minutiae of today’s training to you.”


“As always,” Melzri said under her breath as Cadell swept from the room. I knew he had insane hearing and must have heard her, but Melzri was always snide, and he always ignored her. I liked Cadell, but I couldn’t imagine smarting off to him—or being anything other than completely and perfectly respectful, actually. In some ways, he was a lot scarier than even Uncle Agrona.


Viessa stepped forward and motioned the three of us into a line. Melzri took three imbued training blades from their stand and handed one to each of us. They were made of charwood, a black wood that was hard, dense, and difficult to work with, but that held magic easily. 


“Nico, Grey, you will start,” Viessa said, her voice sending a s.h.i.+ver up my spine as always. “Show Caera the speed and intensity of sparring that we expect. Focus on form and proper delivery of your strikes. Your equipment will be set to correct sloppiness.”


I felt my muscles tense, and Nico stiffened behind me. The runes carved into the blades and handles of our training swords helped to track the speed, force, and precision of our movements. They could also be set to deliver painful shocks to either the target or the wielder, depending on the performance of both sides. When Viessa led the training, it was often both, and the painfulness of the “correction” was always intensified.


“Caera, we expect you to be able to match these little idiots’ pace without the aid of any mana usage,” Melzri told the girl. “Pay attention. Internalize their speed and style. Remember, we’re looking to see if you can train together effectively, and that means smoothly duplicating their efforts.” She gave Nico a meaningful look. “Unless they’re slacking, then don’t hold back, and definitely don’t worry about hurting them.”


Caera’s eyes flicked uncertainly toward Melzri for a heartbeat before her expression settled again. “Yes, Scythe Melzri Vritra!”


“Come on,” Nico grumbled, struggling to keep the pout off his face. As much as he was happy to be the teaser, he hated when Melzri picked on him, which only made her do it even more.


He moved to the center of the training area, spun, and stepped into a tail stance, the blade of his sword facing backward from me with his arms across his body. I raised my brow questioningly, and he gave a small nod. Taking this seriously today, I guess. But his gaze kept slipping past me to the girl, and I’d trained with Nico enough times to know this was already over.


With my own left leg forward, I let the point of my sword dip down into the fool’s stance and took a breath, letting most of my body relax. Then I waited. Nico was never very patient, but he was a lot more impatient when he felt like he needed to prove something. Like when there is a girl around. We stayed like that for only a few seconds before he tensed.


He opened with a sweeping upward cut, which I avoided with a quick backstep without even bringing up my own weapon. Nico’s sword swung around from right to left, maintaining the momentum of the heavy charwood, then sliced down toward my shoulder. Instead of dodging left, which would have been the natural direction, I ducked my head and stepped right, moving beneath his blade and bringing my own up into his side with a soft thud.


He grunted and backed away, gritting his teeth.


There was a jolt of mana from my training sword, racking my arms and chest with shooting spikes of pain. I clenched my fists, trying not to let the pain show as I looked at the Scythes questioningly.


“If your opponent was wearing armor and had the protection of mana, he would not even have been wounded by the force of your strike,” Viessa explained in her cold manner. “Do not fail young Lady Caera by showing weakness in front of her. You know better than to think that level of force would be acceptable, boy.”


Frustrated, I nodded sharply and reset. This time, Nico was more patient, and I went on the offensive first. The heavy charwood blades cracked together loudly several times, followed by a p.r.o.nounced thump and a growl of pain from Nico. We reset again.


“Better. This is the speed we expect.” Viessa said to the girl. “Any traditional forms are acceptable. There will be an opportunity for training later that encourages you to break free of established stances, but today, we wish to see if you are trained well enough to identify and counter the styles used by Nico and Grey.” Speaking to us again, she snapped, “Well? What are you waiting for? Do not waste my time.”


Nico and I sparred for twenty minutes, exchanging three times that many strikess. Of every strike that landed, three out of four were mine, and my training sword did not “correct” me again. Nico, on the other hand, started to twitch at each pause after the fifth time his sword shocked him.


After that, Viessa called a halt and brought the girl forward, and Melzri pulled me to the side. She forced me to stand with my back to the sparring session with my eyes closed. With her powerful mana signature so close and only barely restrained, it was difficult to focus on any other sense but that of my mana core. “Narrate the sparring session,” she ordered.


I honed my natural senses toward the sounds and movement of the much dimmer mana signatures of Nico and the girl. Their turnshoes scuffed across the floor. The skin of their hands creaked as they tightly gripped the leather-wrapped handles of their training swords. Nico’s breathing was heavier and faster than the girl’s.


“Caera struck first,” I began narrating, doing my best to picture their fight in my mind’s eye. A series of wood-on-wood cracks resounded through the chamber. “Nico is fighting defensively, not striking back. He”—there was a pulse of mana followed by a m.u.f.fled groan—“is holding back.”


“Good,” Melzri said, sounding slightly bored. “Continue.”


I kept up a constant narration of the sparring session for the next twenty minutes, receiving a sharp rap against a thigh or biceps whenever I missed something or got the flow of combat wrong.


But as I listened, I felt my att.i.tude beginning to change.


The girl had clearly trained extensively. The problem with these foster Vritra-bloods—from those I had met—was that they were simultaneously treated like weapons and like they were made of gla.s.s. Haughty and filled with self-importance and unearned social power, none of them had been focused or put in the work. Naturally talented, yes, but well-trained, no.


Except for this girl. Slightly on the heavy side, she was stronger than even the boys we had trained with, but still fast. She only missed a few steps over the whole twenty minutes as she fell smoothly in and out of a dozen or more stances. As much as Nico wasn’t exactly the hardest worker in Taegrin Caelum, he was still better than any of the other kids we’d trained with by a mile, but this girl kept up, landing a strike for every one Nico gave her.


By the time they were done, I found myself reconsidering my earlier thought. Perhaps they aren’t all the same after all.


“Nico. To me,” Melzri snapped, marking an end to Caera and Nico’s sparring. “Grey. Go. Do not disappoint me.” She looked at my training sword meaningfully as she handed it over.


Having studied Caera carefully over the last twenty minutes, I a.s.sumed I knew what to expect when our turn to spar began. She surprised me immediately, mimicking the fool’s stance I’d adopted earlier against Nico only to feint her first strike forward, step back into the tail stance, spin, and deliver a leaping downward cut at my left arm. I only just brought my own blade up in time, catching her strike and driving forward so her own blade was pushed back at her. She rotated in the air, her feet flying forward, and she crashed onto her back, her head bouncing off the stone tiles.


Nico cursed and spun around to see what happened only to get a strike across the back of his knees from Melzri. I instinctively moved forward to offer Caera a hand up and make sure she was all right, but a cold glare from Viessa stopped me in my tracks.


Caera rolled over, pushed herself up, and rubbed the back of her head gingerly. Her fingers came away spotted with red.


“Do you require a healer, girl?” Viessa said, the question sounding more like a threat.


“No,” Caera said immediately, straightening. She wiped the blood off on her pants, then turned back to me, her training sword held tightly in both hands. “Nice move. I thought I’d catch you off guard with the jump, but—”


“But you sacrificed your ability to adjust your stance and absorb the pus.h.i.+ng force from a strong defensive maneuver,” I interrupted.


She only nodded. With a command from Viessa, we began again.


Our twenty minutes pa.s.sed by in what felt like moments, and I realized when it was over that I’d actually been having fun. Caera was experienced, but she was also very intuitive. Whether due to a balance in our talents or her own quick ability to gauge an opponent and adjust, she matched Nico and I near perfectly, much better than any of the others. I knew even before the first hour was over that she would be the one.


The thought made me inexplicably nervous. What is she really here for, though?


“Not bad, you little beasts,” Melzri said, eyeing us with an uncomfortably predatory gaze. “Drink. Take a few minutes to rest and talk. We have several more hours of earth-shatteringly exciting training ahead of us today.” She walked away, taking Viessa with her.


I filled three stone cups from the fountain running down one wall of the training chamber and handed them to the others. Nico only grunted, but Caera took the cup with both hands and bowed slightly to show respect. “Thank you.”


“So where’d you learn all that?” Nico burst out, failing as usual to compose himself. “You’re better than you should be.”


Cup halfway to her lips, Caera bristled. She slowly lowered the cup and regarded Nico with poorly veiled irritation. “And how good should I be, exactly?”


Nico’s eyes widened, and he almost took a physical step back. “That’s not—I just meant…” He looked to me for help, but I pretended not to see as I took a deep drink, draining my cup. “I just meant that you’re really good is all.”


“Of course I am, I’m of the Denoir blood,” she said, her chin raised. Although it was perfectly practiced, there was a hint of being forced that undercut her haughtiness. Softer, and with less att.i.tude, she added, “I’m going to be an ascender one day. I have to train to be ready.”


Nico’s eyes lit up, and the tension dissolved as the conversation turned to the ascenders a.s.sociation, the Relictombs, and the accolades that could be found within it. I found myself smiling through the conversation, and more and more I couldn’t take my eyes off of Caera of Highblood Denoir.


Time rushed by, and everything except the three of us melted away. As I lost myself to a blur of fighting, training, and tutoring, Caera’s face always stayed in focus. As she was tempered by the grueling pace of Uncle Agrona’s training over the following years, her face thinned, never entirely losing its roundness but becoming more defined, more mature. More beautiful.


Her hand was clammy as it squeezed mine. She didn’t look at me out of the corner of her eye, but I could feel her attention on me, her desire for comfort and support. It wasn’t like her to be so nervous, but then again, this wasn’t exactly a normal day.


Nico, Caera, and I were standing together quietly in the outer foyer of Agrona’s wing of Taegrin Caelum. Not wanting to break the tension, I simply stared ahead. A huge wing covered much of the wall across from me. The thick membrane connecting the framework of bones had been torn and then repaired in a couple of places, and the white scales looked dull and faded in the dim light. I wondered if the wing had belonged to the dragon that took me from my family when I was just a boy, the one Cadell had saved me from.


I felt eyes on me and glanced at Nico. He looked away, but not before I saw the expression on his face as he took in Caera’s hand holding mine.


I would have sighed, but I didn’t want to break the tense silence.


There had always been a compet.i.tive rivalry between Nico and me. I progressed faster, trained harder, and received higher-level runes; it was only natural that he occasionally grew frustrated by always coming in second. I didn’t blame him for it. He had been my best friend through two lives. We were bound together by fate, or so I thought. But the dynamic between us had changed when Caera arrived. She had been…well, whatever Uncle Agrona was looking for. Talented, driven, and striking a perfect balance, socially, between Nico and me. At least, until previously mentioned feelings.


There wasn’t a lot of room to figure out things like relations.h.i.+ps in the way we lived, and I didn’t exactly get pointers from people like Scythes Cadell, Melzri, and Viessa, who were our primary teachers, among dozens of other powerful mages who served Agrona. And I didn’t ever plan for it. We just kind of stumbled into it as the mutual attraction between us started to invade into our constant training and schooling. We spent almost every waking hour together, after all. Maybe it was inevitable.


So, though, were Nico’s feelings. I knew he’d been smitten with Caera from the moment she walked through that door into the training chamber years ago. He couldn’t help himself, it’s just who Nico was. He also, unfortunately, couldn’t help his resentment at always coming in second to me. And he’d pulled back from us almost immediately the first time he caught us holding eye contact with each other just a little too long.


The air pressure in the room changed, and I realized the doors had opened. Uncle Agrona, dressed simply in a loose-fitting tunic but with his customary ornamentation draped from the antler-ish horns extending up from his head, regarded the three of us with a pleased smile. “Ah, here they are, the three most important people in all the world. Come in, come in, we have much to discuss.”


Caera squeezed my hand again then slipped her own free, following Agrona first. Nico raised his brows and shrugged, falling in beside me as we trailed after.


We proceeded through a series of lavishly decorated hallways and rooms until we reached a chamber I didn’t remember visiting before. The heady smells of rich soil and a mixture of many different kinds of plants wafted out of a half-open door that led into a kind of indoor garden. Sunlight poured in through a gla.s.s ceiling, and water trickled in small streams down the walls and into troughs inset into the ground. 


Plants sprouted up from the soil haphazardly, winding into and through one another as if they each fought for their own survival. Flowers that looked too delicate to compete stabbed up through thick, thorn-covered brambles. Grasping vines hung down the walls, and they recoiled visibly as we entered.


Agrona chuckled and reached up to stroke one of the vines. “You are very lucky, Caera,” he said. His back was to us, but I could hear the smile in his voice. “Very few in this world will ever have the opportunity to fulfill their purpose so completely as you.”


Caera swallowed heavily. “What is my purpose, High Sovereign?”


Agrona paused and turned to look at her, one brow raised above the other.


“Uncle Agrona,” she corrected with a small bow.


He resumed moving through the room, bending to smell a flower here or plucking a petal there. “You are the vessel, Caera,” he said, as if that explained everything.


I felt myself frowning, but I knew better than to interject. A vessel is something you put something else into…


“Your friends have fulfilled their purpose as anchors admirably, forging for me the perfect vessel,” Agrona said, which didn’t exactly clarify anything. “You are going to change the world, dear one.”


Caera shot me a slightly panicked look. “I’m sorry, Uncle. I don’t understand.”


Agrona turned with a flourish, his hands extended out to his side. “But of course you don’t! How could you. The Legacy is beyond your comprehension, but not for long. Soon, you will understand perfectly.”


My eyes twitched to Nico’s at Agrona’s mention of the Legacy. Our expressions were so identical, it was almost like looking into a mirror.


Cecilia…


Cold fury like hot coals settled into the bottom of my stomach as I finally understood. I looked away, unable to meet Caera’s eyes, unable to accept what I had done to her. I didn’t really listen as Agrona continued, and when he dismissed us, I went straight back to my own room and didn’t answer the door when Caera came knocking later. I couldn’t face her. I didn’t want to hold her hand and look into her eyes and know I had killed her.


Instead, I threw myself into our training. I lived for it—the progression, the power it provided. I’d never felt powerless in this life until I learned what Agrona had in store for Caera. I hated that feeling more than anything, and so I decided not to be powerless. One day, I would be stronger than them all.


Charwood thudded heavily against steel in rapid succession. The mana imbuing the two blades crackled and sent sparks flying around them. Nico was on the defensive, all his effort exhausted just in keeping my blade away from him, but his hands alone weren’t fast enough, and he was forced to retreat back a half-step with each blow.


I varied my attacks, striking swiftly from alternating directions while continuing to press forward, waiting.


He missed his footing, and his blade twisted out of position. The charwood—shaved down to a deadly sharp edge—struck him high on the arm. The mana clinging to his exposed flesh and the outer surface of his armor sundered, carved open by my own mana, which also sliced through the mana beast leather beneath it. Nico twitched in pain as my blade met flesh, scoring a shallow cut along his upper arm. Instead of falling back and regrouping, he drove his shoulder forward, pus.h.i.+ng the edge of the blade deeper and forcing me to pull my strike or risk causing him real harm. 


I didn’t see the punch coming until it was too late.


Nico’s fist, wrapped in flames, cracked against my cheek. My own mana blunted the strike, but the soulfire sent agony shooting across my cheek and up into my eye. I stumbled back before going to a knee, then laid down my weapon in a sign of surrender to end the bout. “What the h.e.l.l, Nico…” I grumbled, rubbing my eye, which was watering and immediately irritated, blurring my sight on the right side. “This was supposed to be infusion only. No mana arts.”


“Especially not Vritra-based spells,” Melzri drawled, amused. “Still, it was a good tactic. Sacrifice a small wound to deliver a—if this were a real battle against a different opponent—fatal attack. Nicely done, Nico.”


I turned to glare at Melzri. “It was hardly ‘nicely done.’ Nico took advantage of my adherence to the established rules of our fight to strike an unfair blow.”


“Following rules of engagement in battle is a paradox,” Melzri answered, watching me carefully. “Slavish adherence to such rules only serves your enemy.”


“But we’re not enemies.” Standing beside Melzri, Caera’s face looked pensively between Nico and me. 


It’s been months, and I’m still doing that, I thought, frustrated with the situation and myself. Somehow, it was still so hard to think of the person beneath that navy hair, those ruby red eyes, and her crown of horns as not Caera. And yet it was impossible to view her as Caera, either, because the two were so different. And so I thought of Caera’s hands, her face, her arms now covered in runic tattoos that ran up her neck, instead of thinking of her by name.


Cecilia, I told myself, standing slowly. Her name is Cecilia.


“You…okay?” Nico asked, finally, if fleetingly, meeting my eyes.


“Fine,” I answered firmly, staring into the side of his head until he cleared his throat and made a show of turning his back on me to walk away, acting as if he were simply resetting the battlefield.


Melzri chuckled as she tossed her snow white hair back, settling it around her horns. “I think that’s enough swordplay for the moment. Grey, Cecilia. Spells only. No movement.”


Nico sent his blade into an extradimensional storage device around his wrist and hurried away from me. I looked down at the charwood sword in my hand. It wasn’t a training weapon, even if it looked mostly like the blunt sticks Nico and I had been hitting each other with since we were children. Its edge had been carved down to be sharp as a razor, and the flat was imbued with several runes that bound the weapon to me, making it difficult and painful for anyone else to use, but also fortified the charwood. In the end, it still wasn’t as durable as a steel sword, but the charwood channeled mana much better than any metal weapon I’d ever held. With enough application of mana, it would be far stronger than the simple blade Nico wielded.


Regretfully, I too reached for the mana that would open my dimension ring, then stored the blade away. I knew what was coming, and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.


As Nico and Cecilia pa.s.sed each other, she reached out and squeezed his hand, then pulled him to her and quickly kissed his cheek.


My gaze fell to the ground.


“Hey, none of that s.h.i.+t on my watch,” Melzri barked. “You’re the Legacy, not some love-sick school girl. I don’t care if you have been dead and separated for however long.”


“Sorry, Scythe Melzri Vritra,” Cecilia said, blus.h.i.+ng and offering the Scythe a quick bow before hurrying into place opposite me.


I tried to clear my head, but the throbbing in the side of my face only intensified as I watched Cecilia approach. Channeling wind-attribute mana, she conjured a cus.h.i.+on of air beneath herself, carefully crossed her legs, and settled atop it, hovering about two feet off the ground.


I couldn’t help but grind my teeth. A few months, and already she is capable of something like that.


The rapid purification of her core and expansion of her abilities had been far beyond anything I could have expected. It seemed to defy every law of magic I had learned in this world. I myself had a regalia, two emblems, and a crest, providing me apt.i.tude with three of the four traditional elements. I also learned some of the Vritra mana arts, focusing on bile water and void wind to compliment—or counter—Nico’s specialization of soulfire and blood iron.


But Cecilia had only needed time to grow acquainted with the body she now inhabited before almost immediately displaying affinity with all four elements and each of their possible deviants, and without any additional runes bestowed after her reincarnation.


This was another thing I found myself doing often: I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge the full truth of Cecilia’s presence in this world with us. Because it hadn’t simply been her reincarnation; she hadn’t randomly inhabited a body, or been reborn into her own. No. Her spirit had required a vessel. And Caera’s had to be displaced in the process, I thought with a building anger. Agrona killed her. Cecilia killed her.


Melzri said something that I didn’t catch, and then mana swirled into a visible spell around Cecilia.


Jerking out of my stupor, I formed a barrier around myself, already on the back foot due to my poor focus.


A blue bolt of lightning crashed against my s.h.i.+eld, followed by the crack of concentrated thunder. The sound-attribute deviant mana, purified in Cecilia’s core, s.h.i.+vered through the barrier protecting me, starting at the point of the lightning strike and rippling outward, like a stone thrown into a pond.


I leaned into the barrier, reinforcing it with all the mana I could muster. I felt Cecilia pus.h.i.+ng into the center of the ripple with her will, not casting a spell but simply pus.h.i.+ng on the mana directly by opposing my control over it.


The s.h.i.+eld melted away suddenly, and a concentrated fist of wind struck me in the chest, lifting me off the ground only to slam me onto my back and send me sprawling.


“Grey, you moved.” Melzri’s voice was followed with the flare of mana, then a whip of black flames licked across my back.


My vision went white for several seconds as pain overwhelmed me.


“I think that was a new record, Cecilia,” Melzri continued, disregarding me writhing on the ground. “But your use of mana is lazy. While it is impressive that you were able to burst his s.h.i.+eld almost entirely by opposing his control over the mana, that ability is a crutch. If you learn only to overwhelm your opponents by sheer force of mana, then you will fail to foster the creativity necessary to make use of your full range. You are the only mage in Alacrya who can control all attributes of magic. Make use of that.”


“Yes, Scythe Melzri Vritra!”


“Grey, get your a.s.s up. Let’s go again. And focus this time!”


I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and pushed myself up with shaking arms.


Life became an unhappy haze of repet.i.tion as the gap between Cecilia, Nico, and I grew wider. My sense of powerlessness only deepened, a dark and empty well that yawned beneath me. And if I looked down into it, I knew I might fall and never recover. If not for Agrona’s continuing push for us to live, study, and train as a group, I couldn’t have bared it.


“You’re angry, Grey. Good.”


My jaw clenched until it ached, and I tried not to glare at the High Sovereign.


“Use it, boy. Don’t hold back. Your rage is a survival mechanism, meant to push you past the threshold of your abilities. To reign it in is to hobble yourself. If you make less of yourself than you could be, then you are simply waiting for death.”


I took my stance and glowered at Nico across from me. A heavy weight settled over my limbs as Cecilia suppressed my mana, forcing me and Nico to rely only on our combat training. I saw her mouth, “Sorry” out of the corner of my eye. If only Agrona would ever match me against her without our mana. Then I wouldn’t be so d.a.m.ned powerless against her.


I shook off the thought, focusing.


“Begin.”


This time, Nico lunged to my right, opening aggressively. His blade thunked against mine. I stepped into the attack, forced his blade out of the way, and planted my foot between his own. But his lunge had been a feint, and he pirouetted around me, his blade turning to a reverse grip and thrusting backwards at my stomach.


I struck the flat of his weapon with my palm and again stepped into his attack, too close for swords to be fully effective. My elbow snapped up toward his mouth, but he twisted and took the blow on the jaw as he pulled his sword back toward him, slas.h.i.+ng across my body. My own sword whirled into place, deflecting the cutting edge from my skin. Without mana imbuing the charwood, I felt the steel bite into the razor thin edge of my weapon, notching the blade.


Feigning a step back, as if I were correcting my stance, I unleashed a forward kick at the side of his knee. Too late, Nico tried to correct his footing, but my boot impacted firmly, bending his leg sideways with an awkward pop.


Nico grimaced and flourished his weapon defensively, creating a barrier between us, but there was blood in the water now, and I could smell it. Springing off my back foot, I lunged forward and struck directly at his sword’s handguard. His attempted block was clumsy, and the blade was jolted out of position. I thrust forward, pus.h.i.+ng the edge of my charwood sword across his ribs.


He tucked in toward the wound, bringing his head down into my knee, which connected with the crunch of breaking cartilage.


Nico stumbled and fell back, his weapon wheeling across the floor with a dull sc.r.a.ping noise.


I turned angrily toward Agrona. “We all know I’m the better swordsman. What is the point of this exercise?”


Agrona's smile sharpened. “Healer, get Nico on his feet. Then, we go again.”


My mana came back in a rush as Cecilia released the suppression in order to aid Nico’s healing. Nico was silent as the healer eased the swelling in his knee, set his nose, and stopped the bleeding from the cut across his ribs, but I could feel him seething. Cecilia watched everything nervously. She kept trying to catch my eye, but I ignored her.


When Nico was back on his feet, we returned to our starting positions and fell into our opening stances, waiting for Agrona’s word.


“Begin.”


Nico came forward from a high stance. I opened with an overhead block, my feet already aligned with my path through the strike and behind Nico, where I would deliver a slash to the back of his legs.


Our two weapons met. Steel again bit into the unprotected edge of the charwood. The weapons caught each other with the expected resistance, jerked, then continued forward through each other.


A bright line of pain ran across my shoulder and down the outside of my arm.


The last two feet of black wood clattered to the ground, bouncing. In my hands, I held only the handle with a foot of blade, sliced cleanly off on the end.


I kept with my original motion, but instead of attacking the back of Nico’s legs, which my weapon was no longer long enough to reach, I spun and released the hilt.


Nico had stepped through his swing and half turned, hesitating as he looked down at the charwood blade as it bounced a second time, spinning as if in slow motion.


The remaining length of blade struck his unprotected sternum, sinking into the hilt. Nico’s eyes went wide with surprise, his mouth forming a soundless, “Oh.” He stumbled backwards once, tripped over the still-bouncing charwood blade, and fell to the ground with a crash.


There was a moment where no one moved, then Cecilia’s scream of, “Nico!” split the air like a thunderclap.


She ran to his side and reached for the hilt, but her hands hovered over it fearfully. “Help!” she called, casting about a frightened look for the healer, but he was watching Agrona, waiting for the High Sovereign’s command.


As Cecilia’s emotions surged with turmoil, her will crus.h.i.+ng down on my mana jerked back and forth like a wolf tearing at its prey. “Release my mana, Cecilia.”


“Agrona!” Cecilia yelled, staring at the High Sovereign with a sort of pleading confusion.


“Cecilia, release my—”


“Shut up!” Cecilia screamed, and something inside of me tore.


I collapsed like a puppet with cut strings, my hands clawing at my sternum. The mana, previously constrained to my core by Cecilia’s power, was leaking out and growing dim. Outside my body, the warm sense of mana that radiated from everyone in the room grew cold. I gasped, unable to breathe, choking on my own dread, drowning in my fear.


“Healer, see if Nico can be saved.”


My eyes closed. My ears rang so loud that the words became almost unintelligible.


“And the other, High Sovereign?”


“The boy’s purpose is complete. Leave him.”


My fingers went numb, and I could no longer feel them digging into my skin, desperate to reach the pain inside my sternum. Bile filled the back of my throat.


“Don’t worry, Cecilia dearest. Remember, while an anchor may give you stability, it will also hold you back. I think you have reached the point where the weight of such relations.h.i.+ps must be cut loose. It is time for you to fly free.”


Cecilia’s sobbing was the last thing I heard before the world went black.


And then, within the black, a faint bit of distant light.


The light grew closer, brighter, and then turned into a bright blur, forcing me to shut my eyes. Indiscernible sounds a.s.saulted my ears. When I tried to speak, the words came out as a cry.


“Congratulations, sir and madam, he’s a healthy boy.”


Everything came rus.h.i.+ng back in, and I remembered where I was and what I was doing. The context of the life I had just lived fit into place, as did the previous attempts. It all felt like a horrid dream, but it didn’t fade as I woke.


Because I’m not really awake.


I forced my infant body to quiet and ignored the fussing going on around me as I turned my focus to the puzzle of the keystone. I can’t lose myself every time I try to do something different, I thought in frustration. How can I solve a puzzle if I forget what I’m doing every time I pick up a piece?


Full of the chill of that sad, unwanted existence in Alacrya, a s.h.i.+ver ran through me. For the first time, I felt the fear that I might truly be trapped in the keystone forever. I clung to my mother’s warmth with genuine need but couldn’t escape the feeling of melancholy loneliness that subsumed all other feelings. In many ways, I had forgotten what it was like to feel alone, to be by myself in my own head. I wished I could take comfort from mother and father, but in that moment, with the life of Grey in Alacrya still so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t entirely accept them as real.


Sylvie, Regis, where the h.e.l.l are you?

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The Beginning After The End Chapter 474 summary

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