The Beginning After The End

Chapter 478



Chapter 478

3Chapter 478    

Chapter 476: Ji-ae    

TESSIA ERALITH    

As the portal swallowed us, my last thought was of disappointment. For a moment, it had felt so good to see Arthur, but that feeling crumbled with the stone structure of his golem’s body.    

Space and time inverted, stretched out and flipped upside down by the portal as it dragged us away, and then…    

And then I was surrounded by nothing. Absolutely nothing. Emptiness in every direction.     

And I was alone.    

I was alone.    

I couldn’t sense Cecilia or hear her thoughts. Nor could I feel the body that I shared with her.    

Tentatively, I tried to speak her name, but no sound came out. I had no fingers or toes to wiggle, no neck to turn my gaze left or right.     

Then, like I was stepping out of a thick black fog, space materialized in front of me.    

I was looking across a ground made of black glass at Cecilia. Not Cecilia in my body, but the way she pictured herself in her head, an athletic and feminine figure with cream-colored skin and dusty brown hair tied up in a tail. Beyond the strangeness of looking at her in a way I had only seen in thought before, something else was wrong. She was flat, like a reflection of herself in a dark mirror, and she was very still, making only occasional, unnaturally jerky movements.    

“What’s happening?” I asked, and my voice came out distorted and strange to my own ears.    

Across from me, Cecilia’s face pinched into a scowl. ‘I should’ve known you would attack me as soon as you had the chance.’ Her voice resounded hostilely inside my mind.     

I shook my head. I wasn’t exactly hiding that fact. Whatever delusions or reasons you have to act the way you do, that applies to me too. But that’s not important right now, is it? Look around us. Where are we?    

‘Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. When I escape this, whatever it is, I’m going to leave you here.’ In her frame, Cecilia’s hands came up, and it looked as if she were pushing against the surface of a flat piece of glass.    

Muted as my senses were, my nerves were still on fire throughout my body as I considered the full implications of what Cecilia and I were experiencing. We had fallen through a portal and been transported somewhere, but more than that, we had somehow been separated from one another and imprisoned. How is Arthur capable of this?    

‘Oh, Vritra take me,’ Cecilia cursed, letting her hands drop. ‘I can’t believe I fell for his trap. I…Agrona is going to be furious. Not only did I disobey him, but I failed as well.’    

I felt myself frown in a distant, numb sort of way. Surely you’re more angry at Arthur for trapping you than you are afraid of Agrona?    

When Cecilia looked across the emptiness at me, I could see I was wrong. Her emotions were distant and clouded, but the expression on her face was easily readable. ‘You don’t understand. He’s losing patience with me. I’ve sensed it. And I’m afraid that…he’ll do something to Nico to punish me.’ She turned left and right, up and down as she searched her prison for any hint of a way out. ‘I need to escape this place.’    

Cecilia’s thought brought me up short, and I had to be careful to not send any more thoughts to her. I was scared, and I wanted to escape too, but…Arthur had done this on purpose, knowing Cecilia and I would both be trapped here.    

I had to ask myself what Arthur’s intention was. I didn’t know where we were, what the purpose of this place was beyond the obvious, or what would happen if we remained. Arthur knew I was still conscious inside of my body along with Cecilia—or at least I thought he did. He would have expected me to be here. That could have been why he devised this prison to separate us. Perhaps that meant he would be coming to free me…but was he really capable of such powerful magic?    

Fear turned my stomach. It was also possible that the separation of our minds had nothing to do with Arthur’s actual plan, and he had finally decided that removing Cecilia was worth sacrificing me in the gambit. I couldn’t bring myself to disagree with the sentiment or be angry at Arthur if this were the case, but I still felt afraid.    

‘I can feel your mind whirring over there,’ Cecilia interjected, interrupting my thoughts. ‘It’s annoying. If you’re not going to help me figure out how to get out of this prison, the least you can do is shut up.’    

I sighed and wrapped my arms around myself. I don’t know what this place is, but to be honest, I don’t really care. Arthur finally beat you, Cecilia. There is nowhere for you to go, nothing for you to do now. Sit and seethe in your silence and fear.    

I closed myself off to her before she could reply, lapsing into a sullen and fretful silence. But I still had to watch her; I couldn’t look anywhere else. Seeing her thrashing and gesticulating inside her two-dimensional prison brought me neither pleasure nor comfort. I expected her efforts to be short-lived but was surprised as the tenacity of her efforts only built. No magic or spells manifested in the open air between us, but a charge built within the strange prison that made the hair on my neck stand on end and roughened my skin with gooseflesh.    

A tremor ran from my toes up to my scalp, and something tugged me forward. I flowed through a thin layer of glassy energy and found myself standing on the smooth surface I had seen before. I spun around to see an identical window like the one Cecilia was still trapped inside; I could feel her burning eyes stabbing into my back.    

Beyond the window, around our smooth flat platform, which couldn’t have been more than twenty feet wide, was an endless ocean of emptiness. It was so black that my eyes played tricks with me, inserting color in a haze of purple and shapes like shadowy creatures crawling over each other inside the dark and the void.    

I turned away and hurried to the very center of the platform between the two windows, each labored breath aching in my chest. “What have you done, Arthur?”    

As if from a great distance, Cecilia’s muffled voice was shouting my name.    

My hands trailed up my arms to my shoulders, then to my face, feeling the warmth of my skin, the shape of my nose, cheeks, and lips. My hair, I thought, running my fingers through it, lifting a lock of the silvery gray strands.    

“Tessia!” Cecilia shouted again, her voice cutting through my revery like a bonesaw.    

I wrapped my arms around myself in a sort of hug, hunching over and closing my eyes. “Just…give me some time, please. Let me have this moment.”    

My legs were trembling, and I sank to the ground and pulled my knees to my chest. Pressing my face into my knees, I began to cry. My body shook with the relief of it. Slowly, I exercised the pent up emotion of my long imprisonment, and the tears eased. My breath came easily. Every muscle in my body relaxed.    

Cecilia cleared her throat. “How did you escape?”    

“Imagine, the two of us fused together for so long,” I said, my voice empty of all the emotion I had just released, “only to find ourselves imprisoned together when we are finally separated.”    

“Tessia, please…”    

My gaze slowly lifted to meet Cecilia’s. I had spent so long now inside her thoughts that I knew her probably better than she knew herself. I’d seen her switch from a megalomaniac to a vulnerable girl like I might switch on and off a lighting artifact, but I also had to remind myself that she was a child who had been manipulated into being little more than a weapon—not only once, but through two different lives.    

“I don’t know. I felt you pushing mana across this platform, and a charge built up inside my window, then suddenly I was drifting out—”    

“That’s it!” Cecilia said desperately. “These windows or whatever must have to be opened with mana or—” Her face fell suddenly, growing pale with fear. “Or aether.”    

I thought back to the moment Cecilia had used Arthur’s own weapon to strike a blow against him and went silent.    

“If I moved enough mana, it is possible that some aether interacted with the window as well…but I can’t pull mana to me in here,” she continued softly.    

I didn’t answer.    

“Which means you would have to be the one to release me,” she finished after a few long seconds.“We have to work together. You’re going to have to let me back in.”    

She was referring to the mental block I had placed shortly after arriving inside the zone, cutting her off while I was imprisoned inside the window. I’d left the barrier up, but now it slipped away, joining our minds yet again.    

Cecilia’s tangle of emotions burned hot and uncomfortable, like an ache behind my eyes.    

“Except there is one other problem,” I started, digging my fingers into my temple with a grimace. “Even if I wanted to release you—I don’t know if I do—I can’t control mana.” I could sense the mana contained within the strange prison, but although I had my body back, I hadn’t regained my ability to cast spells. I tried not to think about the fact that I did not have a core at all.    

Cecilia didn’t respond immediately, but I could feel her thoughts turning over and over. I stepped away from her window, moving to the edge of the platform and staring out into the nothing beyond. The writhing shadows, black on black, made my skin crawl even as I wondered if it was real or if I was simply seeing things.    

‘Why can we still hear each other’s thoughts?’ Cecilia asked, her voice seeping into my head unexpectedly.    

I returned to her window. “I don’t know, but then, I can’t even imagine what kind of magic could separate us to begin with.”    

“What if we haven’t been separated?” she asked, her voice soft and echoing as if resounding up from the bottom of a well.    

“What do you mean?”    

She gestured at my torso from within the window. “You have your body, but I look like myself—like before, on Earth. And yet the runes that bound my reincarnated spirit to your body still mark your flesh. You are walking around inside an Integrated body and should be able to use magic, while I have a ki center and not a core, but I can manipulate mana.”    

I couldn’t hide my surprise as I regarded her. “Of course. I should have seen that before. So you think…that we are still in the same body? Only our minds are divided?”    

“I think we’re in the Relictombs,” she confirmed. “If there is anywhere that could trap our minds in a prison while our body sleeps somewhere else, that would be the answer.”    

Cecilia had been taught about the Relictombs, although not extensively, and I shared her limited knowledge. Together, we considered what we knew. “That must have been an ascension portal that we fell through.”    

Cecilia nodded at me from within her window. “Grey would only have chosen this zone if it was somewhere he thought we couldn’t escape.”    

“Which means that it likely does require control over aether to navigate,” I said, circling back to our earlier line of thought. “So we really are stuck here.”    

“No,” Cecilia said, now shaking her head. “I already released you. That means we can interact with this zone, even if not in the intended way. You can release me, and together we can clear this zone and find our way out.”    

I bit my lip, unsure what to do. “Is this place any worse than out there, where I’ll be a prisoner in my own body again?”     

“Please, Tessia,” Cecilia begged, sagging in her frame. “I can’t stay trapped in here. I have to get back to Agrona, to explain myself…” Her eyes burrowed into mine. “I can’t let him punish Nico for my mistakes.” When I didn’t immediately respond, she added, “I know you don’t understand why I do the things that I do, but…”    

“I don’t, but I also can’t say I haven’t done something similar.” I swallowed down a lump in my throat, wondering at the simulation’s ability to create such a realistic sensation. I chose to go to my parents that day, and Arthur and Sylvie almost died—no, in a sense, they did die—because of my decision.    

I knew that Arthur wanted to keep us—to keep Cecilia—in this place for as long as possible. Maybe he meant her to stay here forever, or maybe he knew she would break free eventually. I could only hope that my actions were a part of his plan, because the more I thought, the more my mind felt made up.    

“What do you want, Cecilia?” I asked. “Really? In the end, I mean.”    

Cecilia let out a deep breath, her eyes never leaving mine. “I want it all to have been worth it. In the end.”    

Nodding my understanding, I made a decision that I could only hope I wouldn’t grow to regret. “You’re going to have to give me control and…to teach me how to use magic without a core.”    

What followed was a difficult back and forth as Cecilia and I both worked against our instincts. If we were right, the zone was a kind of projection, little more than a dream, and for Cecilia to release her hold over my body and allow me to manipulate the mana within the dream, we both had to accept that the zone was simultaneously not populated by our real selves while also allowing our real shared body—and magical ability—to be utilized by both of us at the same time.    

It would have been far easier to simply wake up, but whatever magic formed the zone and held us within it wasn’t so easily beaten. Still, I had been right beside Cecilia for all of her many advances in mana manipulation, and the pain that I had been subjected to was not without some benefit.    

Many hours, maybe even days, passed as I sat in front of Cecilia’s mirror and sought the magic. Despite the passing time, Cecilia seemed to calm as she stepped into the role of guide and teacher, simultaneously handing me the reins of our detached physical body while guiding me toward the magic and teaching me how to manipulate it without the lens of a core to focus through.    

I followed her impromptu exercises with a singular focus, and we both embraced the trial and error necessary to impart her insight and understanding.    

“Okay, that’s not working, but I think we can change tactics slightly,” Cecilia said after one of many failed efforts. “I can sense the mana reacting to your focus, but you’re not taking hold of it, at least not yet.” She looked at me with her brows pinched in confusion. “What?”    

I realized I was smiling and quickly smoothed my features. “Nothing, it’s just…you seem so motivated. Almost like you’re having fun.”    

“I…” she started before trailing off. “I guess it’s just nice to be working together for a change.”    

I nodded, understanding what she meant. “We’re almost there, I can feel it.”    

It was difficult to describe, but it felt like there was a scale inside me, and that scale was tipping slowly, lifting me up and bringing me into balance with the opposing force—Cecilia. And as that scale balanced, my sense of the mana drifting around us heightened until I could feel something brushing across the tips of my reaching fingers.    

And then, finally, my fingers closed around what I’d been reaching for.    

I drew in a sudden, shivering breath, and my hands clenched into fists. The mana particles lit up in my vision the way Cecilia could see it. The particles were sparse, floating over the platform but not suffusing the void beyond.    

“See how the mana moves?” Cecilia used our mental connection to draw my focus to a specific point. There was a sort of tension in the suspended mana particles. “This place is much thicker with aether, and that tension is the two forces pressing against each other. If you press all the mana toward my window, you can’t help but move some aether too. That has to be how I released you, I think.”    

I stood and took a few steps back, working to slow and steady my breathing, which was threatening to run out of control as the flush of success and the joy of controlling the mana washed over me. My concentration tightened on the mana, taking hold of it particle by particle but not yet enacting my will. I tried to visualize all the aether particles that were filling the gaps between the reds, yellows, greens, and blues. The thought that Arthur must be able to see the entire picture flitted into my head, and thinking of him helped steady me and give me confidence.    

‘Now push with all your might,’ Cecilia ordered.    

I hesitated.    

“What are you waiting for?” Cecilia asked, a hint of her desperation leaking back into her demeanor.    

“If I help us get out of here, you owe me one,” I said, watching her carefully. “As long as it is in your ability, I need you to promise that you’ll do one favor for me in the future.”    

Now Cecilia was the one to hesitate, her jaw working silently in the window, her thoughts shrouded momentarily. “I promise.”    

Letting out a deep breath, I pushed.    

The flat plane of the window containing Cecilia rippled, and she drifted out onto the platform. Behind her, the mana I had projected spilled out into the void and was swallowed by the darkness.    

Cecilia looked down at her hands, then spun in a circle, her eyes wide as she gazed around.    

I smiled, but almost immediately, the expression faltered as a sleepy fatigue gripped me. I stumbled suddenly. Cecilia’s eyes widened with surprise and she grabbed me to keep me from falling. Her worried face grew blurry as the dark void behind her pulsed, fading in and out.    

I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again I saw only a flash of darkness and claws. Closed again, then open—a waterfall in the distance, sparkling under a red sun—a blink, and howling, explosions of mana, monsters falling beneath a wave of spells…    

Pain leaked through the fugue state, and I came to, realizing Cecilia was marching quickly through the halls of Taegrin Caelum. What happened?    

‘You’re awake again,’ Cecilia replied. ‘I thought maybe that zone had done something. Destroyed your mind.’ There was a hint of relief in her words that surprised me. ‘I had to fight my way through a handful of zones to escape the Relictombs, but we’ve made it back to the fortress. I’m on my way to report to Agrona now.’    

Weakly, I considered just what sort of horrific trials the Relictombs must have conjured for someone of Cecilia’s strength. Considering the way she was limping and favoring a number of still-healing wounds, her struggle was clear.    

Cecilia’s tension rose with each step as we hurried through the fortress toward Agrona’s private wing. The doors were open when we arrived. I could feel Agrona’s presence emanating outward from deeper inside his private chambers, and Cecilia followed that aura like a beacon.    

We found him waiting on one of the many balconies overlooking one of the central courtyards of the sprawling mountain fortress. He made a show of reading a scroll that he had stretched out in front of him, not immediately taking notice of us. A minute passed, then two, and Cecilia became almost physically ill as she waited to be acknowledged, standing within the frame of the open glass doors to the balcony.    

Finally, Agrona rolled up the scroll before tossing it over the intricate railing. It caught fire as it fell, smoldering into ash and smoke. Only then did he turn. Dark fire smoldered in his eyes, and his body language and expression were both stiff.    

“Cecilia. You return. I hope you do so with an exceedingly interesting tale to tell,” he said, his voice a threatening baritone rumble.    

Speaking in a rush, Cecilia began to explain what had happened. She rambled, speaking too quickly but without enough detail, rehashing her journey out of the Beast Glades and her battle against the asura, then giving a spotty explanation of the trap we had found ourselves in. She kept jumping back to details she had omitted earlier, making her explanation difficult for even me to follow, and I had been there.    

Agrona’s eyes never left us, and the longer Cecilia talked, the more agitated his aura became.    

“I’m sorry,” Cecilia finished, going to one knee and bowing in front of Agrona. “Please forgive me, High Sovereign. I made a terrible mistake in judgment.”    

I watched from the prison of my own body as Agrona approached. When he spoke, there was a biting edge of poorly concealed sarcasm laced through with disappointment. “I have overestimated your maturity, Cecilia. If this had been a test, I would say that you failed spectacularly.” His jaw worked silently for a moment. “And yet perhaps I have also underestimated the way in which Arthur Leywin affects those around him, including you.” There were ripplelike heat waves in the air around Agrona. “It isn’t the man’s personal strength that changes the balance of power. Rather, it is the way the world reacts to him.”     

Agrona gave a small shake of his head, and I realized that as angry as he was, some of that was turned toward himself. “I see my mistake clearly now. Thankfully, the dragons continue to fall into line just as expected, so I can afford to turn more of my resources to locating Arthur. What you’ve told me aligns with all of the reports I have received; Arthur has been very thorough in his attempt to avoid my countermeasures. But the time for play and experimentation is over. At this point, there is no other choice but to take care of things myself.”    

Cecilia rose smoothly, but she was trembling as we followed Agrona, who led us down into the reliquary Cecilia had visited previously.    

What does he mean, take care of things himself? I asked, but the question bounced right off of Cecilia, whose own agitated thoughts were a chaotic muddle.    

Agrona took us on a winding course through the reliquary halls to a door that was different from all the rest. Powerful enchantments emanated from it, and the dark gray metal surface was covered with geometric patterns, which upon closer inspection revealed themselves to be row after row of small, tightly arranged runes.    

A black crystal was affixed to the wall beside the door by a bronze fixture. Agrona placed his hand on the crystal, and it glowed with white light through the black. Several locks released, and the door swung open on its own.    

The room beyond was larger than those Cecilia had looked into before, including the room where she’d discovered the strange rune-covered table. The interior walls shimmered with a mana barrier that encompassed the entire chamber. A large pedestal dominated the floor, nearly filling the room. The pedestal itself stood ten feet high but was made even larger by a series of glowing stone rings that gyrated smoothly around the pedestal, somehow without striking each other. Indecipherable runes covered both the pedestal and the rings.    

Above the pedestal, in the middle of the stone rings, there was a glowing lavender crystal. It pulsed slightly as we entered.    

“Cecilia, meet Ji-ae,” Agrona said, extending one arm toward the artifact.    

Cecilia walked slowly around the platform, careful to stay outside of the arc of the gyrating rings. ‘What is this? He said that as if this was a—’    

The crystal pulsed brighter, and a rich feminine voice with a strange accent vibrated sourcelessly through the air. “A pleasure to meet you, Legacy. Your presence here is the culmination of many djinn lifetimes of theoretical aetheric study. Quite amazing, really.” The voice grew sharp with excitement as it spoke, almost gushing by the end.    

What does that mean? I wondered, but Cecilia either ignored or didn’t notice my thoughts. Her own mind had only grown more clouded and confused.    

“Ji-ae, have your power levels evened out after the brief interruption to the Relictombs?” Agrona asked, speaking to the crystal as if it were a trusted companion.    

“I’m still recovering, unfortunately,” the voice answered. As if to demonstrate this fact, the crystal flickered feebly. “I expect it will take another twelve days or so to fully replenish my reserves of aetheric storage and return to normal operating levels, Agrona.”    

Cecilia had stopped walking and was now staring through the gyrating rings at Agrona, who was leaning against one wall and absently clinking one of the ornaments dangling from his horns. “What is this?”    

Agrona’s expression was unreadable, but he kept his eyes on the crystal as he said, “Ji-ae was one of the djinn—a genius, even among her people. Her mind was stored in this housing, which was connected to the first level of the Relictombs as a kind of index for all the knowledge that lay within.”    

What? I thought. At the same time, Cecilia asked, “What?”    

Agrona raised one brow as he regarded Cecilia, making her shrink back into herself. “I have never shown her to anyone before. In fact, I’ve never even told anyone of her existence. You are the first—and the only—person I will tell.”    

“Why?” Cecilia asked.    

“Because I need you to understand,” Agrona answered stiffly. Still, there was a softness in his gaze that felt out of place. Is that…sadness? Hurt? “I feel it, Cecil. The tension that has been building between us. The distrust. Grey’s gravity pulls at you. The little voice in your ear manipulates you. Even Nico’s weakness infects you, making you doubt yourself and, by extension, me. After everything, what cuts deepest is that you still chose not to trust in me when you disobeyed a direct order and abandoned your post and your soldiers.”    

Cecilia swallowed, an existential quiver running from the base of her skull all the way down to her toes.    

I wanted to reach out to her, to support her and make her understand that he was manipulating her…but as she looked into his eyes, I couldn’t help but wonder. Was the emotion he felt genuine? Was this a crack in Agrona’s shield or a carefully portrayed facade of anger and hurt?     

Sensing my attention on her, Cecilia preempted any argument I might have made, thinking, ‘Don’t. Let me think for myself, Tessia. Please, just…don’t.’    

I considered the promise she had made me, wondering if I could force her to listen by calling on it, but I knew instantly that I couldn’t put words to the fear and distrust in my heart. I would only drive her away by pushing too hard here. I bit my metaphysical tongue, withdrawing deeper into myself and carefully watching the situation play out.    

“Go on,” Cecilia said, stiffly walking back around the platform so she could see Agrona clearly.    

“Ji-ae here has taught me much,” Agrona continued, his voice soft. “The mystery of the djinn spellforms, the presence of the ruins, even reincarnation. Though it was my genius that allowed for the implementation of the stored djinn knowledge, it was Ji-ae sharing that information that allowed me to bring you and Nico back to life on this world.”    

Cecilia waited, her mind latching onto a specific question she wanted him to answer, but she didn’t dare ask.    

Agrona pushed away from the wall and approached Cecilia. “And with that same djinn knowledge, she is why I will be able to send you home to a new life, just as you wish.” His eyes narrowed, and his demeanor hardened. “When our work together is finished, of course.”    

Cecilia’s jaw worked back and forth as she mustered the courage to ask. I resisted the impulse to urge her on. “And after my Integration? Those mages, the runes and table…there was more to all that than simply making sure I survived, wasn’t there?”     

“There was,” Agrona answered simply. “Seris triggered the Integration too quickly, and it was possible that this fragile elven body wasn’t strong enough to cope with it. I prepared the ability to transfer some portion of the Legacy’s potential to myself.” He met Cecilia’s eyes unflinchingly. “This is a war. In the event something happened to you, I couldn’t in good conscience fail to prepare a failsafe, or several even.”    

Cecilia’s teeth ground together, but I could feel his words swaying her.     

Agrona seemed to roll some unspoken word around in his mouth before turning suddenly back to the djinn artifact. “Ji-ae. I need to find Arthur Leywin. He has been in the Relictombs and visited the other ruins. He will project a strong signal of aether, and he has multiple spellforms. He should not be difficult to trace with so many of my people in Dicathen to cast the net.”    

“I’m not sure if I have enough power, Agrona, but I will try,” the feminine voice said, emanating from the air around us.    

“Cast the net?” Cecilia repeated, her own attention turning sluggishly to the glowing crystal and the gyrating rings.    

Agrona gave her a self-satisfied smirk, the earlier tension easing. “Part of the function of the runes I developed from the ancient djinn spellforms, the runes imprinted on every adorned Alacryan, is to provide a point from which Ji-ae can gather information.”    

Cecilia blinked with quiet awe. “Is that why you invaded Dicathen at the cost of so many Alacryan lives? To expand this web through the soldiers?”    

“I told you I needed eyes on the ground there,” Agrona said casually. “I just didn’t say whose eyes I was really looking through.”    

Seeming to understand, Cecilia quickly rattled off all the locations where she had sensed Arthur’s aetheric signature.    

“I’ll need to search one location at a time,” Ji-ae said apologetically. “I just can’t manage a wider search all at once.” Then, after a few moments, “The signature coming from beneath the ancient djinn refuge of…forgive me, the settlement’s name does not appear to be contained within my memory. The signature coming from beneath the desert of the Dicathian nation of Darv definitely isn’t Arthur Leywin, though from what you have said it was certainly created by him.”    

A picture of the chamber where Cecilia had fought the asura appeared in my thoughts, focusing on an egg-shaped ball of amethyst energy.    

One by one, Ji-ae repeated the process for each of the locations where Arthur might have been. I dreaded each one, then felt a sudden but short-lived relief as it proved not to be him before she quickly moved onto the next. In all the process took several minutes.    

“The density of signals capable of reaching the location indicated within the remnants of the elven nation of Elenoir are fairly limited. Based upon what I can sense, however, I would calculate that there is a…ninety-five percent chance that Arthur Leywin is not at this location.”    

Agrona’s face tightened into a slight frown as Cecilia fidgeted. “Clever, Arthur. So all of your hiding places are fakes, and your real signature was hidden well enough to fool even the Legacy.” Agrona chuckled. “This was a brazen gambit for one who claims to hold the lives of his friends and family in such regard. Okay, Ji-ae, focus on exactly those places where Arthur hasn’t attempted to draw attention. What is he trying to keep us from seeing?”    

“Of course, Agrona. This may take a moment.”    

Agrona and Cecilia waited in silence.    

A map flashed suddenly into my mind, followed by the disembodied voice. “Strange. There appears to be an aetheric anomaly present at this location.” A red light burned on the map in a spot near the Grand Mountains between the Beast Glades and what used to be Elshire Forest. “While not an aether source, this anomaly bears the same signature as the conjurations used to obfuscate Arthur Leywin’s physical presence. Based on the information I have access to at the moment, this carries all the trademarks of a conjured pocket dimension.” The crystal pulsed as the voice finished speaking, seeming proud of itself.    

Agrona’s face carved into a tight, predatory smile. “Ah, Arthur. I should have realized it myself. We think so much alike, you and I.” Reaching out, Agrona ran a hand along one of the spinning rings, which slowed to let him do so, the lavender light of the crystal flickering. “Well done, Ji-ae. Rest now. I won’t call upon you again until you have regained your full strength.”    

The crystal brightened. “Be careful, Agrona. Tampering with Fate is…dangerous.”    

The ancient asura winked boyishly at the glowing crystal. “You old flirt, Ji-ae.”    

Hurry, Arthur, whatever you’re doing, I pleaded, knowing no one but myself could hear.    

Agrona opened the door, and a shouting voice echoed through the halls to reach us. The voice was shouting Cecilia’s name.    

Cecilia hurried past Agrona, who stopped to secure the door behind us. “Nico!” she yelled, turning around twice as she tried to figure out which direction his voice was coming from. “I’m here!”    

Running footsteps resounded off the hallway walls, and Nico burst around a corner, sliding to a stop. He was red-faced and breathless, regarding her with relief and fear. “Cecilia…I was so afraid—they said you’d left the rift—what are you…” He stopped, struggling to catch his breath. “What happened?”    

Both Cecilia and Nico stiffened as Agrona caught up with them. He whistled jauntily, all pretense of his early anger and disappointment washed away. “Well well, Nico, you are just in time to return to Dicathen with us. We’re going to pick up your old friend, Grey.” Nico’s brows fell and his mouth opened, but Agrona kept talking. “Yes, we have in fact found him. And yes, he is in fact resting right where I sent you to look, inside Sylvia’s cave, the cave your report assured me was empty.”    

Nico only looked more confused, his eyes jumping from Agrona to Cecilia as if her gaze alone could answer his questions.    

Agrona rolled his eyes. “I swear, Cadell would have noticed a pocket dimension if it was staring him in the face. But then, you’re no Cadell…”    

Nico sagged, but Cecilia bristled. “Agrona…”    

Agrona took his hands from his pockets and raised them defensively. “Nevermind. This is a moment for celebration!” He wrapped one arm around Cecilia’s shoulders, then did the same to Nico on the other side. “Because together, we’re finally going to kill Arthur Leywin.”    

    

    

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