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Published at 29th of July 2022 05:10:04 PM


Chapter 395

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Beneath Taegrin Caelum

 

 

NICO SEVER

My feet pounded along the bare floor of the long hallway. It was so, so long…had it been this long before? The pale lights blinking on and off, on and off…

I could hear them, the idiots in the crowd, cheering as if my entire world wasn’t about to end, as if he wasn’t going to kill her. When had my friend become so blinded by his desire to rule?

In the distance, I could just see the miniscule arch of a paler light at the end of this tunnel that seemed to stretch from the beginning of my life straight to its end.

Something moved to my right, and I flinched away from it, then slowed, my rushed steps becoming an awkward sideways shuffle as I tried to both stay still to watch and continue to move forward. Through a sort of window in the hallway wall, an image was playing.

A group of adventurers were gathered in a small clearing in the woods. The Beast Glades, I remembered. Introductions were being made to a young boy in a white mask that covered his face, but not the telltale auburn hair draped around it. “Elijah Knight. A-class, dark orange conjurer. Single specialization in earth.”

The voice shivered through me like an electrical shock. It was my voice, except…it also wasn’t. This was my memory, but not. Elijah Knight had been my false name growing up in Dicathen, when my real self was subdued, hidden—no, taken from me.

I’d thought most of these older memories were buried. I’d purged them. Elijah’s purpose had been to grow close with Arthur, but he was weak, a tool that had served its purpose and been tossed aside. That wasn’t me. He wasn’t me. These weren’t my memories.

I could hear Grey and Cecilia fighting in the distance. The sounds of their blades hammered against one another, each resounding clang a near-death blow in my electrified, nerve-wracked mind.

I began to run again.

More memories of Eiljah Knight’s brief life flashed by to either side: The Dire Tombs, Xyrus Academy, his growing bond with Arthur, the kindness from the Leywins and Helsteas, Tessia Eralith…

Enough with these things, I ordered. I don’t care. I don’t want these memories.

“What a mess,” one of the lights said, flickering nervously. 

I slowed again, staring at it. Since when did lights speak?

“This? I thought it cleaned up well enough. A few more hours and he won’t even know he was cut open,” a man said, his voice coming from a television screen tucked away in the corner between the shallow ceiling and unadorned wall of the endless hallway.

“Didn’t you hear? Vechor was attacked. A staging area for the war in Dicathen completely wiped off the map,” the light answered with a pulse of brightness.

“You know I’ve been down here for days. I haven’t heard anything. What time is it, even?” The man on the television looked around, a comically weary expression on his face. “We’ve been the only ones down here for hours. I’m tired as a wogart boar after breeding season.”

“Sovereigns. You’re gross sometimes, you know that?”

Below the screen, a window into another memory showed young Arthur stepping into the room we’d shared at Xyrus Academy. “Arthur!” Elijah yelled, grabbing Arthur firmly.

“There, there. Yes, I’m still alive. You can’t get rid of me that easily,” came the sarcastic response.

“I know,” Elijah said with a wet sniffle. “You’re like a cockroach.”

I had been so thrilled to have my best friend back. Bile rose up in my throat. The best friend who murdered my one true love…

“No,” I ground out through clenched teeth, tears welling up from the corners of my eyes. “I don’t care about any of this. Where is Cecil? Show me Cecilia!”

I felt the light grow brighter, almost like it was leaning toward me. “Did he say something?” it asked.

“Shit, let’s finish cleaning him up and get him back to his room,” the man in the television said. “Agrona won’t be happy if he wakes up on the table, and I sure don’t want to be the one to explain what happened.”

Wakes up? I thought, repeating the words to myself. Why would… 

A dream, I realized with a jolt. Only a stupid dream.

Wake up!

My eyes snapped open. The damp-darkened stone of a low ceiling filled my vision. Two blindingly bright lighting artifacts on moveable stands were illuminating my bare, blood-covered torso. There was a cross-shaped incision over my sternum, the edges raw as the flesh slowly knit itself back together, the entire wound shining with a chemical-smelling ointment.

A woman in red robes approached, focused on wetting a square of cloth from a bowl on a table next to me. Then, she met my eyes, and froze. Her mouth opened, but no sound came out.

I tried to move and realized my wrists were shackled to the table. Kicking out experimentally, I confirmed my legs were as well. I tensed. The thick, worn leather creaked as I strained against it. A feeling of panic rose up in me as my strength flagged, then the bindings finally snapped, and there was a loud ping as a rivet ricocheted off the wall.

 

The woman let out a startled gasp, and the other voice cursed as something metallic clattered to the ground.

“S-Scythe N-Nico,” the woman sputtered, taking a step back and bowing.

With my free hand, I unstrapped my other wrist and sat up.

I was resting on a cold metal table at the center of a sterile, largely empty room. The air pressed close around me, heavy with moisture. The woman slowly lowered her rag back into its bowl, which sat on a small bench next to a tray of tools, some still slick with blood. A larger table was pressed against one wall, and several implements I didn’t immediately recognize were arrayed across it, along with an open notebook.

Metal scraped on the ground, and I turned to see a man in the same white robes. He was slowly putting several metal pins back onto a tray that he must have dropped when I woke.

“What did you say?” I asked, but when the man looked confused, I realized it had been some time since anyone had spoken. “What don’t you want to explain?”

I wasn’t sure what was happening or where I was. The last thing I remembered, I’d been in Vechor, and—

Grey!

My hand went to the cross cut into my sternum. I reached for my mana, a half-remembered nightmare of my core being destroyed lapping at the edges of my mind. 

My core felt strange. Distant, both mine and not mine. Just like the Elijah memories. I ground my teeth against the thought.

A blood iron spike manifested from the shadows beneath the table and sank into the man’s chest. His eyes bulged madly as he clawed at the spike, but his movements quickly became lethargic, and within seconds his limp body sagged, his blood running along the smooth black metal in little rivers before dripping to the damp floor.

Icy claws raked at my insides, my core a heavy ball of pain in my sternum, and it was all I could do to hold on to the magic.

“W-what happened to me…” I turned back to the woman, holding myself on one trembling elbow. “What were you doing to me?”

She had shrank back a step but was paralyzed by my gaze. “The High S-Sovereign, he…he…”

Both her hands came up, and a weak shield of light blue transparent mana hummed into existence between us. She turned to run and slammed into a second spike. From my angle, the sharp point speared out of her lower back, and a crimson ring began to stain her white robes.

Cold sweat broke out across my brow at the effort of casting and the pain it caused me. My arms shook as I broke the ankle restraints, and I had to support myself on the side table as I maneuvered around to the woman’s front.

The spike had gone in just above her hip and was pinning her in place, but it was thin, its form a weak, trembling thing, just like me.

Despite the pain and fatigue, I took hold of her chin and forced her to face me. “What were you doing to me?”

“W-wanted to understand…examining your…core,” she gasped. “She…healed it. But it’s…imperfect…”

I pressed my fingers into the incision marks again. These two had opened me up and poked around inside my body. They hadn’t asked, hadn’t even planned on telling me. I felt no anger at this, which in itself seemed remarkable. I was always angry, now. My temper burned like a forgefire right beneath my skin, and any gust of adversity made it flare bright and hot.

Except…

I looked at the woman. Really looked at her. She had dull brown, unremarkable eyes, and mousy hair that matched it almost exactly. Worry lines were etched into her face, and she had patches of chewed skin on her lips, which I could picture her biting with nervous curiosity as she peered at my insides like I was a bullfrog pinned to the table.

“What happened at the Victoriad? Did we capture Grey? Kill him?”

I read the answer in the woman’s face. Her eyes dilated, leaking frightened tears that mixed with the snot dribbling from her nose. Her lips parted then squeezed shut, the muscles in her jaw working silently.

And I felt…

Nothing.

Soulfire jumped to life over the metal of the spike, then raced along the trail of her blood and into her body. Her brown eyes rolled back in her head, and she screamed, but only for a moment. The soulfire was in her lungs an instant later, and she was dead. Not because I was angry, but simply because she didn’t matter.

I dismissed the two blood iron spikes I had summoned, letting the bodies fall unceremoniously to the floor, then slumped back against the wall and slid down it into a sitting position. There, I could only wait for the pain and weakness to recede.

My attention turned back to the room.

There were two exits. Through an open door led, I could see a small room with a desk and shelves full of scrolls and journals. After a few minutes of rest, I pushed myself up on the wall and moved to investigate the contents, but there was nothing there of interest. It did, however, lead me back to the open book on the table in the examination room.

The notes were in runic shorthand. I flipped through several pages until I got the jist of it, then spent a few more minutes perusing the contents.

 

It only confirmed what I’d already guessed.

Cecilia had saved me. She had used her powers as the Legacy—her absolute control over mana—to heal my core after Grey destroyed it. But it wasn’t as strong as it had been before. With time, perhaps I could regain what I’d had. Agrona would allow me another rune or two, I was certain. That would force my core to clarify further.

“And if it doesn’t…” I said aloud, but stopped, surprised that the numbness I felt was captured so clearly in my voice. I was certain the weakness of my core and my magic would infuriate me later, but right now, in the moment, in this place, within the aftereffects of whatever these researchers had done to me, I only felt calm.

No, not even calm. I felt…nothing. Except, perhaps, a mild sense of curiosity.

The second door was closed and barred. I pulled the bar from its housing and let it drop heavily to the floor, then opened the door.

I found myself in a wide, high-ceilinged corridor.  I could sense the weight of the earth-attribute mana pressing in around me; wherever I was, it must have been deep underground.

To my right, the corridor opened up into a large space that looked and felt like a cross between a scientific laboratory and a dungeon. I’d been in too many similar facilities in Taegrin Caelum, being poked and prodded and tested.

Bitter bile burned the back of my throat, and I spit on the floor.

The lab wasn’t currently occupied, and I sensed nothing interesting in that direction, so I turned left instead. Several sources of mana radiated weakly further down the hall, and I was in no hurry to return to the fortress above. The surgical wounds on my bare chest itched, and my core ached.

I wasn’t ready to face any of that yet, not Agrona’s disappointment or Cecilia’s worrying. Down here in the cool dungeons, I felt at home in the loneliness. It was difficult to admit even to myself, but I was enjoying the apathetic catatonia that had replaced the ever-present rage always burning in my chest.

And so I followed the hallway, curious about what secrets might be buried beneath Taegrin Caelum.

The stone of the floor and walls were occasionally marred with gouges like claw marks, and old blood discolored it in streaks and smears. Labs, offices, and surgical rooms opened off both sides, some closed and locked, others open, but all empty and uninteresting.

Then I reached the first cell.

A vibrating barrier of repelling force separated the cell from the hallway. Inside the ten-by-ten square, three naked dwarven corpses hung upside down by hooks in their legs. Their bodies gaped open grotesquely, the flesh of their bellies affixed with pins and clamps to their sides, revealing that the yawning cavity of their torso had been hollowed out, all organs removed.

I scanned the details of their faces, searching my submerged Elijah-memories for some connection to these corpses.

The two men, I couldn’t find memory of, but there was something familiar in the plump lines of the third figure’s face. Now, hanging like a slab of butchered meat, her jaw unhinged and her bloated tongue filling her mouth, she looked monstrous and unreal, but the memory of her I had was different. In it, she was firm but not unkind. A hard-working woman who had helped train me when I was young, some servant of Rahdeas’s.

Even though she was a tough teacher, she had never beaten me or experimented on me, unlike so many in Taegrin Caelum. I should have remembered her name.

But I didn’t.

I turned away from the corpses and the uncomfortable squirming they caused in my guts, not yet ready to give up the impassivity that had wrapped itself around me like a heavy wool blanket.

Each cell in the hallways contained a similar scene: corpses of men, women, human, elves, Alacryans, mana beasts, and even a scaled and horned man who I thought must be a half-transformed basilisk. The walls of the cells were lined with tables containing piles of notes and trays with stacked and numbered bones and offal, patches of flesh, and any number tools for the purpose of harvesting these objects.

This was where the Vritra’s true power came from; they accepted no barrier to their pursuit of knowledge. Nothing was too cruel, too inhumane, for them, as long as it advanced their understanding of the world.

That hallway ended at the intersection with a perpendicular corridor, again full of cells. I sensed nothing of interest to my right, and so followed the vague mana signatures to the left.

I was brought up short at the very first cell I came to.

Inside, through the barrier of transparent mana that sealed the room, a young woman was chained to the wall. From the fiery orange color of her eyes, the way her red hair fell in flat sheets like feathers, and the smokey, gray-purple dusk of her skin, I knew she must be an asura of the phoenix race.

“Not young then,” I said to myself, my voice sounding loud in the silent corridors of the dungeon.

The phoenix shifted, and her blazing eyes seemed to engulf me. “Not compared to you, child of another world…” Her voice was like warm coals. Once it had blazed, I felt certain, but it was cooling as the asura herself dimmed.

“You know me?” I asked, genuinely surprised.

She shook her head, the only real motion allowed by the tightness of the thick black chains binding her. “No, but I smell rebirth in your very cells. You are a reincarnate.”

My brows rose and I moved a step closer to the mana barrier. “What would you know about reincarnation?”

She cocked her head slightly as she peered at me, suddenly reminding me very much of the birdlike image often used to represent phoenixs. “My kind knows much about rebirth. Do you wish to more fully understand what you are? I will exchange knowledge for freedom, reincarnate. Release me, help me escape this place, and I will take you to the wisest members of my clan, those who have themselves traveled the paths of death and returned.”

 

A flicker of my old anger burned beneath my skin, and I took a step away from the cell. My curiosity had wilted. “I’m not interested in bargaining with you, asura, and I certainly won’t work against Agrona to help you. If you don’t want my conversation, you can go back to the silence that is slowly swallowing you.”

Her head fell to her chest as she let out a defeated sigh, then slowly raised again so she could look into my eyes. “Go then. Chase your tail in pursuit of the mad basilisk’s approval, foolish, yipping little animal. When you end up where I am, perhaps you will understand.”

The ever-present rage coiled around my insides like a hades serpent, but I pushed it back down and pulled the heavy blanket of apathy close around me. Instead of further agitating myself by arguing with the phoenix, I turned my back on her and walked away.

The next few cells passed by without my focusing on them beyond acknowledging that they contained more prisoners. No one as interesting as the phoenix asura, but then, I was regretting having stopped to speak to her. Her attempts to barter for her freedom had instantly upset the fragile balance of my emotions, and I could feel the blessed blankness being eaten up by my anger. Acknowledging this only sped up the process.

Foolish, yipping little animal, I heard in my head, repeated over and over. The thought of simply turning back and killing her where she was, chained to the wall and defenseless, crossed my mind. Would they call me the “Asura Killer” if I did, I wondered, the thought only serving to further rile my temper.

Because no, of course they wouldn’t. Cadell had killed an old, half-dead dragon, and that made him the “Killer of Dragons” for another fifteen years, but if I did the same? No, Agrona would only punish me for my actions. Even if I ran to him now and told him his asuran prisoner was attempting to escape, he would only scold me for being down here or tell me how that didn’t matter because it didn’t involve his precious Legacy.

I jerked to a halt and sobered instantly.

“I won’t let you make me hate her, too,” I said into the silence, looking up to the ceiling as if I could see through the tons upon tons of stone that separated us at that moment.

Everything I had done for Agrona in this life had been to secure Cecilia’s reincarnation. Everything. Nothing mattered except that we had a chance at a life together beyond this world. Agrona would see to it that—

Chase your tail, she’d said. You’ll understand.

My feet began to move of their own accord, following the corridor as my thoughts skirmished in my skull.

Something was different inside me. My hand drifted up to my sternum and my fingers pressed into the still-healing flesh, but it wasn’t my core I was feeling. It was like…a door had opened, letting a hot breeze blow through the dark corners of my mind. Just like with the Elijah memories—memories buried and suppressed for years now—I was feeling and remembering things differently than I had before the Victoriad.

Whatever Cecilia had done, it had altered more than just my core.

It had broken Agrona’s spells on my mind.

A dull, displaced sickness gripped my guts. How much of what’s in my head is me, and how much is Agrona?

I understood his power, knew he’d used it on me many times, but that had always felt like a good thing. I’d never taken to alcohol, but I’d seen people who gave themselves entirely over to it, sinking into a bottle in order to soothe the pain of the past and forget. Agrona’s power was something like that.

But now, looking back with a clear head…

Cecilia…

I’d done that to Cecilia. I’d let Agrona tamper with her mind—helped him, offered suggestions, made demands…

The dull sickness surged into nausea, and I sagged against the wall between two cells.

I had wanted her to trust me so badly that I’d begged Agrona to implant that trust in her mind, to change even the memories of our past life together. All I had ever wanted was to be with her, to keep her safe, and give her a life free of the pain and torture that she’d endured because of her ki pool—because some fools thought she was something called “the Legacy.” But I hadn’t trusted her. I’d never just trusted in her to be able to take care of herself, to know what was best for herself.

She needed to know. I had to tell her.

The closest mana shield buzzed horribly as the cell’s occupant pressed against it, and I jumped back, my heart racing.

I had to squint and do a double take to make sure I was seeing things correctly.

“Please, tell Agrona I’m sorry. Scythe Nico, tell him, tell him I’ll make it up to him, I promise!”

“Sovereign…Kiros?” I asked, dumbfounded.

The large asura was dressed in tattered rags, and his hair hung in dirty, shaggy locks around his horns, the points of which were crackling with energy where they touched the mana barrier containing him.

“You’ll tell him, yes?” His red eyes flashed, the pupil’s narrowing into slits, and golden scales rippled across his skin. “Tell him!”

It was all too much. The weight of memories—a conflicted tumult of Earth Nico, Elijah, and my life in Alacrya—of guilt, and of the asura’s fury and terror, threatened to rip me to pieces, and so I turned and ran. I sprinted back along the corridor blindly, running like I was a child in the streets again, being pursued by some angry shopkeep or city guard because I’d filched a book or a handful of berries…

The cells flashed by at my sides. The corridor felt like it was unfolding around me, peeling apart and leaving me exposed, the sanctuary of its cool darkness suddenly a trap I couldn’t escape.

 

I slid to a stop, breathing hard.

I’d reached the end of the hallway.

The world seemed to settle back into place around me. The fear and anxiety and frustration and self-loathing were all still there, clinging to me like a million little spiders, but each breath pushed more of the panic out of my body, and the urge to flee morphed into a bone-deep fatigue. Had it not been for what I was seeing, I might have laid down and closed my eyes right on the floor.

But I couldn’t take my eyes off the contents of the cell before me.

I must have run past the intersection of the previous corridors and gone down the right path without realizing. At its end was a huge cell, at least seventy feet square.

The coiled form of a fully grown dragon filled the space. Her white scales glistened in the soft light suffusing the cell, and the way her huge head rested on her front arms made it look like she was sleeping.

But…I could sense no mana or intent from her. And there was no steady rising and falling of her body, no expanding and contracting of breaths taken, even shallow ones. She was entirely, perfectly still.

In my still-resurfacing Elijah memories, I found a familiar description to this asura. Arthur had told me all about the wounded dragon who had saved his life and given him the egg that hatched into Sylvie. Stepping to one side and sinking into a crouch, I could just see the ancient wound that marred the dragon’s chest. Around it, scales had been removed, but I couldn’t see well enough to guess what else Agrona’s researchers might have done to the body.

“Grandma Sylvia.” The name slipped from my lips without intention, but once I’d heard it, I was certain it was correct.

Pulled by a morbid curiosity, I stepped up to the mana barrier and rested my hand against it. It resisted. I pushed harder, imbuing my hand with soulfire despite the pain, and the barrier rippled and pulled away from the flames. I stepped through, and it resealed around the hole I’d made.  

A dizzy wobble shook my entire body, and I lurched forward and caught myself on the dragon corpse’s cold nose.

There was some kind of powerful magic in the room. I squinted my eyes hard against the vertigo, waiting for it to pass, and when it eventually did, I walked a slow circle around the massive form.

Around the barrier inside the cell, and in the seams between wall, floor, and ceiling, fine runes were etched into the stone. A complex structure of spells was interwoven to maintain the barrier, among other things, but the runes were so complicated I couldn’t follow everything they did. Part of the spell, though, maintained a kind of stasis within the room, preventing its contents from decaying over time.

Several tables had been left against the back wall, although they were mostly bare. A large tome of bound parchment was open to the first page, which read: “Observation on the Dragon Sylvia Indrath’s Remains.”

A tag of fabric marked a spot about a third of the way into the tome. When I pulled the tag, the heavy parchment fell open to a second title page. This one read: “Observations on Dragon Physiology, Cores, and Manipulation of Aether.”

Next to the book, resting on a metal frame, was a round object the size of both my fists together.

The white sphere had a slightly rough, organic texture to its surface, and was slightly transparent, revealing a faint purple tinge to the inside.

It was a core. A dragon’s core. Sylvia Indrath’s core.

But it felt empty and lifeless, as if any hint of mana that once might have been contained within it had been scoured away. The dragon’s will, I knew, had been given to Arthur just before her death. So what was this, then? Could it really be nothing more than an empty, dead organ, like a heart with all the blood squeezed from it?

Reaching out, I let my fingers brush across the core’s surface, and a brilliant electric shock ran up my arm.

My vision shifted, revealing swarming particles of energy moving in and around the core, like bright purple fireflies.

I snatched my hand back, and the particles vanished.

Gingerly, I reached back out and pressed one fingertip against the core.

But…nothing happened. The vision did not reoccur. No purple particles, no rippling vision. Carefully, I picked the core up and turned it over in my hand. It was very light, almost weightless, but the surface was hard and inflexible. I didn’t put any pressure on it, though, afraid it might be brittle. I couldn’t really explain to myself why, but I didn’t want to break it.

Neither, I thought, did I want to leave it here in this cold place, forgotten and abandoned.

Although I had no idea what I would do with the core, I made the reckless decision to take it for myself. With a pulse of mana, I activated my dimension ring and hid the core within it.

This minor act of rebellion made me feel unexpectedly light, helping to buffer the overwhelming flood of emotions I’d felt only minutes ago.

With a conspiratorial smile at the dragon’s remains, I burned my way free of the cell, feeling less strain this time, and began searching for my way out of the dungeon and back up into Taegrin Caelum.

I needed to find Cecilia.

We needed to talk.

 

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