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Published at 17th of September 2022 04:48:07 AM


Chapter 401

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The Least of the Scythes

 

NICO SEVER

The sterile glow of my workbench lighting artifacts illuminated an array of parts that were spread out over the dark wood. Silver runes ran around the edge and across the surface of the Imbuing workbench in circles of varying sizes.

I picked up two nearly-identical objects: hexagonal fittings with a series of grooves and notches etched into the inside. Both were alloys of silver rather than pure silver—I speculated these might perform better for housing active mana crystals, but I would have to experiment to see which silver held up better and resulted in a cleaner transfer of mana.

There were a thousand variables to consider while undertaking an Imbuing project as complicated as this, and I couldn’t afford anything less than perfection.

My eye caught on a blemish on the edge of one of the interior grooves in the fittings. With a frustrated breath, I tossed it back on the charwood workbench surface.

Yet another delay. That blemish is going to prevent the mana crystal from seating properly. And I’ll have to order a replacement from a different silversmith too.

My right eye twitched, and another memory of Earth invaded my focus. 

In it, I was perhaps eight or nine, sitting by myself out behind the orphanage. With a small pocketknife in hand, I was whittling a stick I’d found in the street. Nothing special, just carving a bunch of circles around it so that it kind of looked like a pretend magic wand.

I’d carved just over half of the stick when the knife slipped, slicing deep into my thumb. It hurt, but I was more afraid of being caught with the knife. Headmaster Wilbeck would have taken it away and scolded me, then I’d have had to see that stupid I’m-suffering-with-you look on Grey’s face for a week. It was a small but important lesson.

Be more careful. Pay attention, but don’t draw attention. Hide when you’re hurting.

A life was made of thousands of little moments like this…the fear and the pain clear over everything else, teaching a person not to touch a hot surface or put their thumb on the wrong side of the blade. It was a large part of the material that forged a personality.

Without those memories, what did a person become?

Faced with questions I couldn’t answer, I reached for the apathy I had felt after waking up in the laboratory far below…after Grey destroyed my core and left me to die.

After Cecilia did the impossible and healed me again.

One fist hammered on the workbench, making the prepared parts jump.

The dragon core I’d stolen rolled out of a circle of runes and toward the edge of the workbench. The rage I’d felt was washed away by a sudden pang of alarm, and I practically lunged across the table to grab the core, cradling it in both my hands.

Holding the cold hard shell, it was easier to push away the angry voice within me and focus on the apathy instead. I would need that control. As much as these invasive memories of my past life—on both Earth and Dicathen as the fool, Elijah—were troublesome, I also felt fiercely protective over them.

They were mine. And now that I had them back, I wouldn’t give them up again.

Which meant I would have a secret from Agrona. There was something thrilling about that prospect. He was not a man who could easily be fooled, however. I would need to feign a lack of control while actually holding an iron grip over myself and my emotions. I couldn’t give him any reason to tamper with my mind.

This line of thought caused a sharp twinge of guilt that I couldn’t ignore.

Cecilia…

Despite my eagerness to speak with her after the resurgence of my old memories, I’d only crossed paths with her briefly, and I hadn’t found it in myself to start the discussion I knew we needed to have. At that very moment, any number of falsified memories were clouding her mind, memories that I had helped develop. More than that, though, I had no way of knowing how many little moments of her previous life she might be missing.

How much of what made you the person I love most in all the world is still intact? I wondered, biting the inside of my cheek until I tasted the metallic tang of blood.

I closed my eyes hard, scrunching up my face and tightening my muscles, then released the tension. If I tumbled down into the deep, cold darkness of these thoughts now, I’d never complete my current task.

Carefully, I eased the core back onto the workbench and examined the array of parts and equipment I had managed to get hold of quietly. It would have been much simpler if I hadn’t also felt the need to keep my activities shrouded from Agrona—or whatever much of it was possible.

The problem was that I couldn’t make everything myself. Sure, there were facilities inside Taegrin Caelum to do so, but everything I did there would be watched. And if I ordered all the materials from the same Imbuers and smiths, I risked giving away too much of my design. And so I’d quietly gathered everything piecemeal.

This was better for keeping things quiet, but not so much for efficiency. In addition to the scuffed fitting, I’d already received three mana crystals with imperfections, a piece of charwood three inches too short, and an order of refined quicksilver that was contaminated with cinnabar.

But the resurgence of my old memories had reminded me exactly where my strengths lay. For far too long now, I’d relied on the inherent raw power that came from being reincarnated into a Vritra-blooded body. The ability to master even one of the Vritra’s decay-type mana arts made me stronger than most other mages in this world, and I had leaned on that almost exclusively throughout my training in Taegrin Caelum. Even the runes marring the flesh along my spine seemed paltry afterthoughts by comparison.

But with more of my old memories returning in bursts, I realized I had something else, too, something no other Alacryan had.

On Earth, I’d been a technical wizard, mastering advanced scientific principles at a young age to achieve feats like suppress Cecilia’s ki and allow her to function in something like a normal life. After her death…I spiraled, throwing myself into my research, learning everything about engineering, physics, and ki-related studies that I could.

A surprising amount of this knowledge was directly transferable to working magic, especially Imbuing and artificing. Energy had to be sourced and efficiently transferred, instructions were presented, power outputted to provide a specific result.

Efficiency, I repeated to myself. That is the real problem. If what I’m doing is going to work, it has to allow entirely efficient manipulation of the mana, with no delay or loss.

In Dicathen, I’d been trained to manipulate atmospheric mana, not just my runes and the spell formations they provided. I’d gone to one of the best magic schools on the continent and studied under talented professors, learning mana theory and a type of manipulation that wasn’t studied in Alacrya.

Mages learned to understand the shape of a spell, to mold the mana with their mind and their intention through chants and other devices, like wands. It was harder, and it took longer, but it was much more versatile. The mage could adjust the focus of their intent or the words of a chant to change a spell’s output, or even invent an entirely new spell.

Runes, on the other hand, could be mastered but never changed. They were fixed, as was the benefit they provided to both the mage’s core and body. And without new runes being slowly doled out by Agrona’s servants, no Alacryan mage could make true progress, even among the Scythes.

But there was no reason I had to rely on Agrona to gain power. Not with all the knowledge and skill I had at my disposal.

I saw everything more clearly now that my core had been ruined and rebuilt.

Cecilia had worked a miracle I still didn’t understand in returning the gift of magic to me, but it wasn’t without a cost.

My core was weak.

And that meant everyone would see me as weak.

But the world was changing. Everything was shifting around us, becoming more dangerous by the day. Cecilia had been so busy since I’d recovered, and I knew there was only one reason that would be.

Agrona was preparing her for war.

If she thought I was too weak, she would leave me behind. There would be sadness in her eyes when she did so, and she would truly believe it was for my own protection, but it would destroy us. She’d never look at me the same way again, and Agrona would slowly cut me out of the picture. Soon, she would be nothing but a weapon for him, and worst of all, she wouldn’t even know that she’d wanted to be anything else.

I had to stay by her side. I had to protect her.

And I would do anything to make sure I was strong enough to do so.

With a firm grip on my purpose, I lifted a long, twisted black branch of charwood—one I’d risked raiding from Agrona’s private stores after the first sample had been inadequate. Charwood came from Agrona’s home in Epheotus, and was as hard as steel and perfect for working runic magic, but also very rare and expensive. The six-foot-long staff came to a dull point at one end but was splintered on the wider end where it had been broken free of its tree.

I took up a tool that looked somewhat like a shallow spoon crossed with a scalpel and pressed it against the charwood. Mana jumped from my hand to the tool’s handle, and runes hidden beneath leather wrapping converted the mana to heat. In moments, the blackened metal scoop was glowing orange.

I pressed hard on the raw charwood, and the tool bit into it, giving off a thin wisp of smoke that smelled of vanilla. Fueling my muscles with mana, I drove the tool into the wood, but still managed to scrape away only a thin shaving. Gritting my teeth, I repeated the process, then again, each time coming away with a paper-thin wafer.

After twenty minutes, I had scoured a shallow divot into the staff. After an hour, I had an uneven pit. In two, I was able to carve out a precise facet.

Next, I took up one of the metallic fittings, double-checking to ensure it was perfect. I pressed it into the facet, then took up a small hammer and drove it into the opening. The hammer’s ringing drowned out all the other subtle noises of the castle, such as servants moving back and forth in the hallway outside and muffled bursts of magic from one of the training rooms below.

After setting down the hammer, I inspected the results: the silvery fitting had settled perfectly into the carved facet, and suddenly the plain stick appeared to be something more than it had been. No longer a piece of nature, but something crafted and given purpose.

Taking up another item from the workbench, I slipped a hexagonal jewel into the fitting. The bright red stone looked bloody and dark against the black wood and silver metal. But I didn’t permanently set the stone. Instead, I shook it loose and placed it back on the workbench, turned the staff over, and picked up the carving tool again.

“That looks like a fascinating project.”

I flinched so hard that I scraped the scorching tool across my knuckles. It burned hot enough to pierce my mana barrier and flay the flesh underneath. I cursed and threw the stupid thing back on the table.

“Oh, sorry!” Cecilia hurried to my side, leaning down and taking my hand in her own.

I wondered nervously how long she’d been standing there, then realized she must have come in while I was hammering.

She bit her lip as she inspected the wound, and when she looked up into my eyes, her own were shining. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” I said, my voice hard, then added, “I’m fine,” in a softer tone.

Mana trickled out of her fingertips and across the wound, cooling the flesh and easing the burning sting. My own mana was already circulating through my body to enhance my rate of healing as well.

“I’m glad you’re here, actually,” I added after an awkward pause where we both just stared at the cut. “I need to talk to you about something.”

She flashed me a chagrined sort of smile and subtly rolled her eyes toward the door. “It’ll have to wait, I’m afraid. Agrona has called for us. For all the Scythes, and me.”

Her tone carried the same uncertainty I felt at this news. It was rare for all the Scythes to be gathered at once.

“Do you—”

“No, but he’s…riled,” she said slowly. “I’ve never seen him like this before.”

I wanted to tell her that she hadn’t been with him that long, didn’t know him well at all, hadn’t seen him at his worst, but I kept my thoughts to myself. Whatever this news was, it didn’t bode well that Agrona had allowed himself to appear outwardly upset.

Before following Cecilia from my chambers, I took a moment to look over the workbench. I used a rag to wipe my blood from the carving tool, fiddled with a few items to line them up better in their respective runic circles, then, realizing it would be exceedingly foolish to leave it here while I was gone, I surreptitiously grabbed the core and slipped it into an inside pocket of my jacket.

“What are you working on, anyway?” Cecilia asked as we stepped out into the hall.

I turned around and set the mana lock. “Oh, nothing really, it’s…”

She smirked at me and I trailed off. “I can tell it’s something you’re excited about. You don’t need to say, of course, but I’m glad you’ve found something to occupy your time.”

Sticking my hands in my pockets, I rubbed the core with my thumb through the fabric of the lining, but I didn’t elaborate.

Cecilia turned right instead of left down the hallway, catching me off guard.

“Aren’t we going to Agrona’s private wing?” I asked, hurrying after her.

“No. He’s called us all to the Obsidian Vault.”

I didn’t have anything to say to that. I wasn’t even sure what I felt. The Obsidian Vault was where the highest echelons of Agrona’s subjects received their bestowals: Wraiths, Scythes, retainers, and occasionally even highblood warriors or ascenders who captured Agrona’s attention.

There was only one reason he would call us to the Obsidian Vault.

There was going to be a bestowal. Maybe it’s not bad news after all.

“Nico, I wanted to say…” Cecilia’s voice drew me back out of thought, and I turned to look at her.

I’d come to terms with her change of appearance, just as I’d accepted my own. Seeing the fine elven features—the pointed ears, almond-shaped eyes, and silvery gunmetal hair that she kept threatening to dye—now, though, wrapped up with all Elijah’s memories of Tessia Eralith, caused more conflict than I was used to.

“—sorry that I haven’t been around much these last few days. I have wanted to speak to you—I’m sure coming to terms with what happened at the Victoriad has been difficult—but there is a lot going on in both Dicathen and Alacrya, and Agrona has kept me unusually busy, so…”

That only confirmed what I’d already guessed. Agrona was getting ready to unleash Cecilia, send her into real battle.

My mind turned swiftly to the staff, lying barely started back in my room, and I suddenly chafed at this waste of time. Whatever Agrona had to say, it couldn’t be as important as my ensuring I had the strength to defend Cecil.

A hand alighted delicately on my shoulder, and I realized that I had, yet again, become distracted.

“Nico, are you sure you’re okay?” Cecilia asked, her concern written in the frown lines creasing her otherwise flawless face.

“Like you said, it’s been…difficult. I’m sorry for getting distracted. I just have a…lot on my mind.”

She smiled the kindliest and most understanding smile I could imagine, and her fingers brushed my cheek. “Don’t apologize to me. We’re the only two people who can really understand what the other’s been through.” Emotion swelled up inside me, filling my chest with a warm sweetness, and then she added, “Well, except Agrona of course,” and the feeling withered and faded away.

I followed Cecilia down a series of narrow, winding stairs and into a roughly-hewn tunnel. At its end, we entered a chamber carved out of smooth, rippling black stone that glinted with a purple sheen, almost as if it were giving off its own internal light.

Agrona was already there.

He stood before a pair of doors carved with the image of a transformed basilisk with its long, serpentine body coiled into a “V” shape and its leathery wings tucked in against its sides. Runes tumbled from his claws down upon a series of upturned faces. Agrona giving magic to the people. I’d always found the carving serene, the sight of it somehow bolstering and peaceful simultaneously.

The real Agrona, standing before it with his arms crossed and his face the very mask of displeasure, was its exact opposite.

Melzri and Viessa were already there. I was stunned to see the two powerful women with their eyes averted, folded in on themselves like two thief-lamp eels drawing their hoods over themselves to appear as small and unthreatening as possible. It was not a look I had ever seen attempted by either Scythe before.

Behind each Scythe stood a retainer.

I was more than familiar with Mawar, the “Black Rose of Etril.” Garbed in pure black wispy robes, she nearly vanished into the gloom of the antechamber, except of course for her short white hair, which was so bright it seemed to glow. Although only slightly older than me—or, at least this body—she had been Viessa’s retainer for nearly four years, and we had trained together extensively.

The poison-witch Bivrae, on the other hand, I had largely avoided. She was a horrifying creature to look at, like someone had stuck together a handful of broken sticks with swamp sludge and then hung some ratty old rags over for clothes. Her brothers had been tepid mages at best, with Bilal hardly capable of holding off Tessia Eralith long enough for me to arrive, and of course dying in the process.

Mawar had the good sense to keep her eyes on Melzri’s back, but Bivrae stared at Cecilia and me as we entered the antechamber, and didn’t avert her gaze until, several very long seconds later, heavy footfalls announced another arrival.

Dragoth had to bend over to walk through the connecting tunnel without scraping his horns, and when he entered the antechamber he stood tall and stretched casually. With a careless grin at Agrona, he stepped around me and Cecilia in order to stand right in front of us, his back so broad it blocked both of us from Agrona’s sight.

Dragoth was followed by a mage I knew by name and reputation, but not by sight: Echeron, his new retainer. The man was tall and statuesque. Short onyx horns protruded like spikes from his carefully groomed golden hair. Silvery-gray eyes met mine, and the retainer’s chiseled features twitched into a scowl before smoothing out again. He stood beside and just behind Dragoth.

Silence filled the antechamber, growing more uncomfortable the longer it lingered.

Beside me, I could sense Cecilia’s frustration emanating from her like an aura as her turquoise eyes burned holes in Dragoth’s back.

Any sense of the intimidation I knew she used to feel in the Scythes’ presence was gone, but I wasn’t sure what was driving her current emotions. There was a sickly oozing in my stomach as I connected the brooding fearfulness of Melzri and Viessa with Cecilia’s simmering anger.

The Scythes had failed Agrona at something.

Which I found myself not giving a shit about, but seeing just how loyal and attached Cecilia had become to Agrona was a slowly dawning horror I didn’t know how to process. It was almost like looking in a mirror that showed a much younger version of myself, back when I would have hurled myself into Mount Nishan at Agrona’s command.

A bone-deep cold suddenly began to seep through the room, conjuring frost crystals across the walls and floor, and even the fabric of my jacket.

Then Agrona began to speak.

“First, you fail me at the Victoriad, allowing the boy Arthur Leywin to escape, then you somehow manage to lose Sehz-Clar to a traitor.”

My mind got stuck on these words, like a wagon wheel in a rut.

Sehz-Clar, lost? What? It was then I processed the absence of Seris and her retainer.

“Finally, two of my Scythes retreat before a wounded and likely near-dead opponent, leaving Dicathen under the authority of a single retainer, one we have now lost touch with.”

Agrona’s furious scarlet eyes swept through the room, burning like hellfire wherever they landed.

“Forgive us, High Sovereign, we feared that—”

The breath rushed from Melzri’s lungs as Agrona turned the full force of his ire on her, and whatever pleas she intended to utter died on her lips.

“You are weak.” He paused, letting this proclamation sink in. “The enemy has grown beyond you. And yet, as thoroughly as you have disappointed me, I won’t place the entire blame for that at your feet.” He uncrossed his arms and moved to stand in front of Melzri, caressing her horn. “I gave you what power you needed for the role I intended you to play. Now, it seems your roles will have to change. Our enemy has evolved, and so shall you.”

Melzri instantly went down on one knee. “Please, High Sovereign. Allow me to be the first to step within the Obsidian Vault.”

No emotion marred Agrona’s smooth features as he looked down at the back of her head. After a short pause, he said simply, “No.”

Then he turned and crossed the antechamber to stand before Dragoth. As he did, the proportions of the room and everyone in it seemed to change, so that the Scythe and the High Sovereign were of equal height.

I blinked several times, struggling to push away the strange sensation.

When I had cleared my head, Agrona was speaking again. “Of my four remaining Scythes, only one was brave enough to face Arthur Leywin in battle. The rest of you stood on the sidelines at the Victoriad, letting the best and worst of your number fall.”

All of Dragoth’s prodigious muscle mass went tense, then the lumbering goon shuffled aside, offering me a clear view of Agrona.

Agrona was looking directly at me. “Today, the least of the Scythes will be the first to enter the Obsidian Vault.”

I stiffened, caught by surprise. The taunts and jibes were nothing new, but in this case, it seemed Agrona was offering me a backhanded compliment instead of a straightforward insult. A soft hand came to rest between my shoulder blades, and I turned to look at Cecilia, who was smiling encouragingly.

I stepped forward.

The carved vault doors opened as two black-robed mages pushed from the inside. Agrona gestured toward the opening as the mages put their backs against the wall and waited.

I hesitated. Not that I could refuse even if I had wanted to, which I didn’t, but I couldn’t help but wonder why Agrona was really sending me first. Was it just a tactic to light a fire under the other Scythes, or maybe he wanted to see what effect a bestowal would have on me after my core was destroyed and subsequently repaired…

Games within games, I reminded myself.

Moving slowly but with purpose, I entered the Obsidian Vault and passed between the two mages, who closed the doors behind me.

The Obsidian Vault was a strange, twilight place. The walls, the ceiling, even the descending stairs, were all shaped from black obsidian and shined with purple reflections.

The smooth stairs went downward for a long time. Behind me, the soft steps of the mages followed, their whisper like a shadow of my own louder steps. After what seemed like several minutes, the stairs ended in an arched opening.

The room beyond the arch was not large, but the way the light twinkled off the million folds and facets of the ceiling made it look like the night sky opened above me, shining with a purple aurora.

Like the Aurora Constellate in Dicathen, I thought absently, the first memory of that distant phenomena to resurface in my healing mind.

The center of the chamber was dominated by an altar, a slab of charwood-topped obsidian large enough for a man to lie down on. It radiated power.

That’s weird, I thought. I’d never sensed that power before, even though I’d been to the vaults multiple times throughout my life.

Something had changed.

My thoughts turned immediately to the contents of my pocket, the thing I couldn’t bring myself to leave unguarded in my chambers. I recalled, too, the purple lights I’d seen when I’d touched it, down in the dungeons, how I’d seen them through the core as if it had been a kind of lens. Although I’d tried to recreate the phenomena several times, I’d failed.

Almost of its own accord, my hand slipped into my pocket and took hold of the core.

Nothing happened.

The bestowment ceremony suddenly seemed trivial and unimportant. I wanted to investigate this sensation further, but the two mages—officiants of the ceremony—who had followed me down the stairs were on either side of me, reaching for my jacket, then the hem of my shirt, trying to pull the clothing off me.

Anxiety and fear rippled through me at the thought of them finding Sylvia’s core. I wanted to push the men away, but knew it was futile. Whatever was happening here, I had to follow the protocols demanded by the ceremony. These officiants would allow no alteration, and I dreaded to think what Agrona might do if I harmed them in any way. These were no mere researchers hidden away in the dungeons, these officiants were the key to Agrona’s hold over Alacrya, and he would personally flay the skin from any man or woman who crossed them, even me.

Mechanically, I followed their demands. A man I hadn’t seen—distracted as I’d been by the altar itself—moved out of the shadows and into position on the opposite side of the altar. Carved into the obsidian around me was a ring of wide runes, and I knew a similar feature adorned the floor around the third officiant.

The other two guided me to the center of the runic circle, where I kneeled. My hands rested on the charwood surface of the altar, placed carefully over top of two complex sigils, each made of many small, interconnected runes.

Across from me, the officiant lifted his staff from where it was leaning against the altar. It clacked against the floor three times, loud in the stillness. The other two moved around behind me, each one taking up a staff that had leaned against the sides of the arched entryway.

There was no chant. No guiding words. Nothing but the quiet power of the altar, the subtle weight of the mountain, and the soft by sure movement of the three hooded mages.

Cold crystal pressed into either side of my spine from behind.

In response, warmth and a vibrating, nerve-tingling power rushed into my hands and up my arms from the altar, tracing across my shoulders and setting the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. Finally, it cascaded down my spine to meet the two points of cold.

For an instant, I was afraid. I’d never felt anything like this during a bestowal before.

What in all the hells is happening?

The vibration built and built, developing from a tingle to an ache into outright agony. I was certain something was wrong, wanted to scream at the officiants, but my jaw was locked, my muscles so tight they were unresponsive.

Somewhere very far away, or so it sounded to my pain-addled brain, a reedy voice uttered a prayer to the Vritra.

I began to shake and sweat. I was trembling from head to toe. Then, like a fist releasing, the pain subsided.

The room wobbled, and I would have collapsed except for the strong hands of two officiants. They pulled me upright and clumsily worked my shirt back over my head, then tugged my arms into my jacket.

Suspended between them, I was dragged clumsily up the stairs, one step at a time. Behind me, I heard the flipping of parchment and the muted mumbling of the third officiant.

My core began to ache fiercely.

One held me while the other struggled to force open the huge stone doors by himself. When one side finally ground out of its frame and swung heavily outward, tears sprang to my eyes at the brightness, and I could only blink them back as they trailed warm and wet along my cheeks.

I was hauled out of the stairs into the antechamber. Blearily, I stared around at a semi-circle of surprised faces. When my unsteady gaze landed on Cecilia, it caught and stayed there. The radiance of her beautiful hair and her turquoise battlerobes stood out against the rest like the moon in a starless sky. Concern was etched into her features, but she was holding back.

“What’s wrong with him?” Melzri’s voice. The hint of worry.

“Has the bestowment ceremony failed?” A deep baritone. Agrona’s voice. Drawling, almost bored. Unsurprised. Like he expected me to fail…

Suddenly I was being turned around, and my shirt pulled up so that the cold air bit at my hot flesh.

Words. More words, but harder and harder to understand.

I struggled to turn my head, looking over my shoulder. Cecilia’s hand was over her mouth, her brows knitted in concern. A series of emotions on blurry faces—curiosity, confusion, irritation—then Agrona’s features coalesced as he leaned forward to get a better look, his expression inscrutable. 

A regalia, the officiant was saying, but…something new?

Something not registered in the old tomes. 

Then the weariness and uncertainty and the deep, deep ache from my core proved too much, and the darkness reached up for me. Gladly, I embraced it.

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