Chapter 194: Man Behind the Veil
I could feel the blood drain from my face, but I held my ground. Despite the casual disclosure, I could tell that Syl—Agrona was carefully observing how I’d react. The same two gleaming yellow eyes that looked so innocent and confused just moments ago were now bright ruby and carried an unwavering confidence and authority—he could’ve just as easily said he was some sort of sentient shapeshifter from a different planet and I would’ve been compelled to believe him.
Giving no indication that his words had any effect on me, I made a simple gesture with my hand, casting multiple spells simultaneously. The door closed shut and a thick stone slab sprouted to barricade the entrance while a swirling layer of wind surrounded the two of us, muting any sound that might leak from the room. I also layered the floor around the room’s vicinity in case anyone came close by.
“Is Sylvie safe while you’re in control of her body?” I asked.
“Sylvie… a good name. ” Agrona breathed as if savoring the sound. “Yes, what I’m using to speak with you like this is a harmless spell that I’ve embedded onto her while she was still an egg. Sylvie’s simply sleeping.”
Two stone chairs popped up from the ground and I took a seat, gesturing at Agrona to do the same.
Agrona sat down, leaning back in the seat contently. “Thanks for the hospitality, and for keeping your wits together. Makes communicating so much easier without you trying to kill me.”
“You’re possessing my bond, so hurting you like this wouldn’t be very effective,” I replied calmly.
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t have been able to put much of a fight regardless since I can’t use any mana arts like this, but I digress. Shall we talk about something a bit more important than the various flaws of this method of communication?”
Seconds ticked by in silence, with only the faint whistle of the field of wind surrounding us while the two of us stared at each other.
My brain whirled with activity, trying to make sense of the sudden change of events while devising a clever way to take full advantage of it. Afterall, it wasn’t everyday that you could calmly have a one-on-one meeting with the enemy’s leader in the middle of a war. But whether it was because I was still having a hard time believing all of it or because my worry over Sylvie was constantly nagging at me even with my calm facade, my mind couldn’t keep a coherent train of thought. So I asked the one question that had bugged me ever since he first took control of Sylvie.
“You said you were grateful that I happened to be in the same room when you made the connection. Why did you only seek me out?”
“Fair question. First reason, and the more obvious one, is that I’m sure most of the members of your leadership wouldn’t take too kindly of me intruding on their home turf in the form of a little girl. Assuming that they even believe me, it would scare the living shit out of them given the fact that I could intrude their most ‘secured’ location in the continent,” he answered. “Although… it would be amusing to see their reaction.”
“And the second reason?”
“Because”—he leaned forward and grinned—“you’re the only one on this continent that I’m interested in.”
I didn’t expect that answer. What did the leader of a rogue asura clan that was hundreds, if not thousands, of years old find interesting about me. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be a good thing.
My expression must’ve betrayed me because the asura abruptly let out a laugh. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to just suddenly pin you to the ground and have my way with you. Assuming my tastes suddenly skewed that way, it’d still be a little inappropriate in this form, no?”
I rolled my eyes as the supposed mastermind behind the intercontinental war, unable to make heads or tails of his character.
“You’re a lot more eccentric than I imagined… almost sociable,” I commented.
Agrona raised a brow, amused. “Did you perhaps, see me as some poised dictator hell-bent on making the world all mine while donning a silken cape?”
“Something like that.”
He put on a grave expression while leaning forward. “Well…”
“You’re partly right!” Agrona flashed a smile.
He leaned back again, as if unable to find a comfortable position to sit still in. “Don’t let this pleasant demeanor fool you. I have my goals and ambitions and a face I show my people in public. But as for my personality, after spending generations upon generations amongst you lessers that seem to change your ethics and social mores on a whim, it’s a pain to keep up with appearing dignified and cultured. For instance, even in my continent just a couple hundred ago, it used to be normal to have public torture and executions—hell, they even brought snacks and watched it as free entertainment. Now? It’s somehow become shockingly horrifying to them.”
He waved a hand dismissively. “I have my people to handle and run the lessers based on their ever-changing sense of right and wrong.”
Wow, he talks a lot. Still, there was a lot of knowledge contained in his little rant. From what I’ve seen facing the Alacryan soldiers and, truthfully, my own prejudice based on the crazy Vritras like Uto and the witch, I imagined that the enemy continent would be some horrid wasteland full of lessers enslaved to do the Vritra’s bidding.
But from what Agrona just said, Alacrya seems to be like any normal developing land with leaders that actually care for the citizens.
“That look you have right now.” He pointed a finger at me. “That annoying look of pleasant surprise… you were thinking that it’s weird that I actually give an ass about the lessers in Alacrya, huh.”
“Well, from what the asuras told me. You’ve been conducting experiments on the lessers and breeding with them before you were even kicked out of Epheotus,” I remarked.
I expected him to get mad—at least annoyed—but instead his expression turned somber. “The best lie is only telling half the truth, I suppose. Kezess or that lackey of his, Windsom, never told you the reason why I did all of this, did they.”
So Lord Indrath’s first name is Kezess, I noted internally before replying. “It was to build an army capable of bringing down the other asuras, no?”
“That’s all they told you?” Agrona rolled his eyes, tapping his fingers impatiently on the chair’s armrest. “Arthur, do you think I one day just woke up wanting to commit genocide against my brethren?”
“Any reason you have isn’t justification for what you’re trying to do,” I stated firmly.
He let out a scoff. “I should’ve more or less expected you to have the same mindset as Kezess and the rest of his underlings.”
Annoyed, I asked, “What do you mean?”
“Let’s suppose you lived in this continent without being able to use magic; how differently would everyone you know have treated you today? The royal families that you know? They wouldn’t bat an eye in your direction. Your peers from Xyrus? You would’ve never met them and probably just befriended thugs and farmers from your own social class. Your family? Well, they might be the only ones that love you, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be inwardly disappointed at your lack of talent.”
I raised a brow. “And… this hypothetical person is supposed to relate to you?”
“Basilisks in general were notorious amongst other races, but imagine if your very clansmen and family looked down on you for the miniscule talent that you had no control over. The same Lord Indrath that approved of you in that brusque and lofty way of his didn’t even find it worthwhile to breathe in my direction,” Agrona spat, his fingers clawing away at the armrest.
“And you found it justifiable to inhumanely toy with the lives of countless ‘lessers’ in order for you to get stronger?” I shot back.
He tilted his head. “Do you shed tears for the ants that you step on?”
Rage smoldered in my stomach, but by his tone and expression, it didn’t seem like he was looking down on me. He truly felt that lessers were bugs to him.
I let out a breath. “It was naive to think we could have a rational conversation.”
Agrona spread his arms, looking at me with a proud smile. “What I achieved through those experiments have benefited not only myself, but the lessers in Alacrya to such a degree where they worship me—not out of fear, but out of reverence. To them, I am their savior.”
“Savior?” I let out a scoff. “Did you somehow wipe the memories of killing and torturing your people’s ancestors or something?”
“Killing and torturing… I could taste the bitterness in your words from here in Alacrya, Arthur,” he said, feigning a hurt expression. “Why, I’ve merely utilized the many lessers that were available to me in order to strengthen my own kind’s inherent abilities. I’m sure those test subjects are grateful that I made use of them in order to accomplish something unimaginable for their future generations.”
I wanted to slap the snide look off his face, but this egotistical maniac truly believed what he did was right.
“What have you managed to accomplish for their future generations that is so great that it supersedes decades of you conducting experiments on the inhabitants of Alacyra? I asked, playing along.
“I’ll answer that question with another question,” he gestured. “I know that the rough statistic of mage to nonmages in Dicathen is one in one hundred. What do you suppose the statistic is in Alacrya?”
I remained silent.
Agrona smirked. “It’s one in five.”
“One in fi-five?” I sputtered.
“Unimaginable by your standards as well, right?” He gave me a wink.
“I’ll admit that what you manage to do is impressive, but aren’t you afraid that with so many of the population as mages, that those who still hold a grudge will band up and revolt?”
Agrona looked at me for a second in silence before he burst out laughing.
“Oh… you weren’t joking,” he said in between laughs after seeing my expression. “Like I said earlier, my people, whether they have some of my genes or they’re still full blooded lessers, revere me. Because of the structured process of awakening that I devised for them, so many of them can utilize magic to improve their mundane lives.”
“You’re telling me that you spent the time and effort to devise this method for what… the actual benefit of Alacryans?” I asked, skeptical. “I’ve heard from the asuras, but since they’re apparently so skewed in their views, I want to hear it from your mouth. What is your goal in all of this?”
“Ooh, is this the part where the villain falls into a monologue and reveals his nefarious plans to the righteous hero?” he replied excitedly, steepling his fingers.
I shook my head. “You’re insane.”
“Insanity is relative,” he said, unwavering. “And as for your question, I have no intention of telling you anything.”
“You said you were interested in me earlier. I assumed it was because you wanted my help, but withholding your goal in all of this hardly makes me want to jump to your side,” I pushed, hoping to get an answer out of him.
Agrona leaned back. “I never expected you to come to my side through this little conversation. I told you all of this because in hopes that you will remove yourself from the war.”
“What? Why would I—”
Agrona held up a hand. “Before you say no, consider this. Thus far, I’ve been progressing very conservatively in this war—refraining from unnecessary civilian deaths since I have use for them—but that does not mean it’ll continue being this way.
You’ve barely clung onto your life ‘til now, but this is just the start. Statistically speaking, how likely is it that your side can win this war with your family and other loved ones alive after everything?” He paused before speaking again. “You can hide, seek refuge in Alacrya, anything really, just as long you don’t become an opponent to my army. Guarantee that, and I will guarantee that you and your loved ones will be left untouched.”
It’d be a lie to say a small part of me wasn’t tempted. “What do you gain from me doing this? Telling me to keep hidden or go to Alacrya obviously means you want me alive. Why? If I’m not on your side, aren’t I a threat?”
“Despite how I may have been perceived and what I’ve done to get to where I am today, I don’t believe that allies can be made through force. If I want you on my side, I won’t do so through threats.”
The two of us stayed silent for a bit. He was waiting for me to respond, and I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to refuse—I should definitely refuse—but for some reason, his words carried a weight that made me truly think.
“It actually seems like you’re thinking about it,” he chuckled. “As a small thank you for that, I’ll divulge a few things that you may or may not have been curious about” Agrona smoothed out the wrinkles of the black dress that Sylvie’s body had been wearing. “First. Your parents were attacked not too long ago while transporting supplies to your forces at the Wall, correct?”
I bolted up from my seat, mana coalescing around my entire body.
Agrona raised his hands in a placating gesture though, still seated. His eyes, however, were fierce. “You may not believe me when I say this, but your parents were left untouched because I willed it.”
“Lastly. The asuras have been out of touch with your leaders, right?” He didn’t wait for me to respond. The asura possessing my bond rose to his feet, maintaining his poise. “It’s because a few asuras, including Aldir and Windsom, tried infiltrating my castle in Alacrya, hoping that they’d succeed in killing me while my forces are divided…”
“Tried? That means that they failed,” I replied, my heart beating faster.“Doesn’t that mean the treaty is broken?”
Agrona shook his head. “No. Neither my side nor the asuras in Epheotus wish for it, but they had to pay for disrespecting the treaty so we made another deal.”
I was afraid to ask, but I did anyway. “What is the deal that you made?”
“The asuras in Epheotus can no longer aid you in any way throughout this war,” he answered, stepping a bit closer. “Windsom, Aldir, and the rest of the asuras that you’ve met have abandoned you and Dicathen.”
I want to say that I remained unfazed and took the news in stride, but that’d be a lie. In my head, I was using every curse I knew to express the frustration and panic that was bubbling up inside.
Finally, after I gained enough composure to form words again, I spoke. “… Why are you telling me all of this?”
“To appeal to you of course. I’m trying to ultimately get you on my side willingly, remember?” Agrona winked. “Frankly, I don’t get where your loyalty to those asuras come from. Kezess and the other asuras that helped train you only did so for their gains and you simply went along because you needed to get stronger to keep your loved ones safe. Seems more like a business arrangement to me.”
I shook my head. “Even so. You’ve said that you’ve been conservative during this war, but while you come off as well-mannered so far, your retainers have massacred soldiers with glee.”
“Exactly as you said. Soldiers,” Agrona pointed out, snapping his fingers. “And really… I think it’s hardly fair to bring that up when your side has treated my men with just about the same amount of hospitality. I’d say freezing my poor Jagrette and displaying her corpse like some sort of trophy in front of your nobles is hardly any better than what she or any of my other soldiers have done.”
I was at a loss for words. I wasn’t even surprised that Agrona somehow knew all of this at this point, just that he was right.
Silence enveloped the room, bringing to attention the sound of the wind whistling around us.
“What we’ve discussed today isn’t something you can organize in a span of a few minutes so I’ll give you some time to think about everything,” he finally said, breaking the silence. “Besides, Sylvie seems to be stirring from her sleep so after you’ve thought about it, give me an answer after reciting this spell to Sylvie.”
He muttered a string of foreign words through mental transmission, allowing me to remember it. “I advise you to make a choice soon, though. Like I said earlier, we’re progressing into the next stage of this war, and I assure you it won’t be to your side’s benefit. Giving you this deal does not grant you immunity from harm should you refuse or withhold your answer.”
“Wait,” I called out. “What you told me earlier… that I was the only one on this continent that you were interested in. You never told me why that is.”
“I suppose it does no harm in telling you.” Agrona tapped his chin with a finger, thinking for a moment. “Let’s say I’ve enjoyed talking with an old friend of yours, King Grey.”