The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 341: Ashes and Dust
Ash and dust.
Everything—every tree, every beast, every lesser being—for hundreds of miles, had turned to ash and dust. This was the power of the asura. I scanned the barren landscape for anything, any sign of life or speck of mana, that might have escaped my attack.
But there was nothing.
My steps crunched through the broken surface of the ground with every step as I wandered the wasteland that had once been Elenoir. Even the ground was not stable, threatening to collapse beneath me at any moment.
I was a soldier, doing my duty and following the orders of my lord. The scorched forest should have instilled in me a sense of pride, knowing I had struck a terrible blow against our enemies. Pride, however, was not the emotion I felt at the sight of this grim image. Not nearly.
When I was sent to kill the Greysunders, I had done so without hesitation. There had been no pride—because one does not feel prideful at the swatting of a gnat—but neither was there pity or remorse. It had merely been a necessary moment in the war, the elimination of two important enemy agents.
When Lord Indrath explained what was to happen to Elenoir, however…
“I can no longer afford to sit idly by while Agrona expands his control over the lessers. Alacrya was a sacrifice I was willing to make, allowing him to keep busy with his mutts and experiments, but his continued expansion into Dicathen will not be allowed, especially now that he has somehow succeeded in his efforts to create a weapon of untold power through reincarnation.
“Dicathen is but a stepping stone toward Epheotus, and I refuse to let that traitorous snake bring this war here. For generations, we have worked to make sure Dicathen could fight back against Agrona, but they have failed. We will not sacrifice ourselves to keep them alive. New episodes will be published on lightnovelpub.com.
“What we will do is send a message that Agrona cannot ignore. He has so far used the lessers as a shield, holding their lives hostage to protect his own. No longer. If the choice is between giving him the power to move against us or tearing down the world, then I will see it all burn.”
Windsom was the first to step forward, bowing so low he could have kissed Lord Indrath’s boots. “I volunteer for this honor, My Lord. I will strike the first blow.”
Lord Indrath did not smile, but there was a victorious light in his eyes. “You will continue to serve in your role as guide and protector, Windsom, but you will not swing the axe that is to fall. No, there is only one among us who is capable of wielding the World Eater technique.”
The secret technique of the Thyestes clan is Mirage Walk, an ability that made us unparalleled combatants, but long ago, when the asura often warred with one another, we had another technique, so powerful and devastating that it was forbidden to be used when the Great Eight formed, and was no longer taught, except for one student in each generation.
Which made me the only living member of the Thyestes clan with the knowledge Lord Indrath required.
The World Eater technique allowed the caster to channel an incredible amount of mana, compacting it until the individual particles began to burst, causing a chain reaction that would spread out to the atmospheric mana and continue until not a spark of the caster’s own, purified mana was left, causing unparalleled devastation. Follow the lightnovelpub.com platform for the latest episodes.
“This technique is forbidden, Lord Indrath,” one of the Thyestes clan leaders insisted angrily. “Knowledge of the World Eater is kept alive so that our clan will never forget the horrors of limitless power—”
“This moment is exactly why the technique has been taught to one talented young member of your clan since time immemorial, which I myself commanded as you may remember.”
Although there was grumbling from my clan, no one else challenged Lord Indrath as he summoned me to stand beside Windsom.
“General Aldir, I call on you now to prove your loyalty. You and Windsom will travel to Dicathen, to the forest land of Elenoir, and locate the Alacryan Scythe Nico and the elven princess Tessia Eralith—or her physical body—and activate the World Eater technique. Give my message to Agrona, and rob him of his new weapon in the process.”
In that moment, I had felt something inside me crack, something I thought had been unshakable: the foundation on which my entire identity as a servant of the Indrath clan was built.
Kneeling, I ran my fingers through the dry, gray nothing that I had created when I followed my lord’s command—a command I knew was wrong the moment it was uttered, but to refuse would have risked the future of my entire clan. Lord Indrath would not hesitate to lift one of the other—more servile—pantheon clans into the Great Eight, and label the Thyestes clan as anathema…
Even so, our failure to destroy the reincarnates had drawn Indrath’s ire. We had not expected that they had any method to teleport away so quickly, and Windsom had gotten carried away toying with the angry, black-haired child. And yet, still, the lord’s wrath fell on me.
Do not mope, Aldir, I told myself. It is unbecoming of a member of the Thyestes.
My fingers continued to trace through the thick layer of gray nothing, and I found myself examining the bumps and folds in the landscape for some reminder of what this place had been: a fallen tree, the rubble of a collapsed house, even the charred bones of one of the millions of lives I had extinguished.
The World Eater technique left nothing, though, no sign that this place was once a beautiful forest inhabited by millions of elves. The combustion of mana destroyed absolutely.
No, there is still something here, I thought, peering into the hazy air as if hoping to see the amethyst particles of aether suspended in the clouds of smokey ash. Though I could not, I knew it was there, all around me, undisturbed even by the World Eater technique. The thought gave me a sliver of peace, which was disturbed again immediately.
Two figures were approaching from a distance, drawing me out of my spiralling thoughts. Even when they reached me, I didn’t stand up, didn’t turn to look at them. Instead, I scooped up a handful of ash and let it run through my fingers to blow away on the wind.
“Back again, Lord Aldir?” the cool, confident voice said. “You’ve been here often since…well, you know.” Although it irritated me to know I was being watched, I wasn’t surprised. My act had reset the balance of power in Dicathen, sending a tremor of terror through every Alacryan on the continent.
Of course someone has been tasked with watching the wasteland, but choose to show themselves now? I wondered, my back still to them.
“They say ten thousand Alacryans died here,” she continued, her tone unreadable. “But we both know that was just a fraction of the casualties.”
The two stood well back, just close enough to speak without shouting. Their mana stood out like an oasis in the desert, since the atmosphere here was still empty of it.
“Is it confidence or naivety that you dare reveal yourself to me here, Scythe?” My words contained no threat, merely an observation. They knew I could move through them with no more effort than brushing away a spider’s web; there was no need for threats.
“I know genocide makes you somewhat irritable, Lord Aldir, but I wasn’t the one who ordered the deaths of millions of innocent elves,” she replied, gently mocking, devoid of any fear. “Do you think he considered what the act would do to you, asura? Perhaps he did, but then, if a sword breaks, you simply forge another, you do not mourn the loss of steel.”
Then, I turned my eye to her. To her credit, she didn’t flinch away, although the same couldn’t be said for her retainer. “What do you want, Seris?”
“I merely wish to talk, Aldir. Share a few words, in the hope that you’ll hear them.” She smiled, but it wasn’t mocking or amused, only…sad? “If I am right, at this very moment Kezess is busily spinning his web of lies, convincing the Dicathians that it was the Vritra who did this”—she waved one hand at the desolation—“so that the poor fools don’t even know who is really killing them.”
Strategically that would be the correct move, although it risked breaking what little spirit the Dicathians had left. To counter this, Windsom would be working with their Commander Virion—one of the few lessers I thought had any real leadership ability—to make sure that didn’t happen.
“But who do you think has killed more Dicathians in this war?” Seris continued, cocking her head to the side and tapping her lips with a finger. “Agrona’s forces have killed, what? Twenty thousand? Fifty? But Kezess, well…”
“Deaths made necessary by Agrona’s continued treachery,” I said, repeating Windsom’s words when I had shared this same thought in confidence after the destruction of Elenoir. It was unnerving to have this Vritra mutt throw the same words at me now. “And that’s Lord Indrath to you.”
“You sound just like him,” Seris said quietly, digging the toe of her boot into the ash.
I raised my chin and stood, letting my form expand until I was half again as tall as she was. The retainer tried to step in front of his Scythe, but she stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “I am proud to sound like the great Lord Indrath, and I will not be spoken down to by the likes of you, half-breed.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t mean Kezess. You sound like Agrona.”
Sneering, I summoned Silverlight, which appeared as a long, thin rapier glowing with moonlight, and pointed it at Seris’s heart. “You have exhausted my patience, Scythe. I can cut you both down right now, and there isn’t a soul in hundreds of miles to risk collateral damage.”
I regretted my choice of words immediately as Seris gave me a sardonic look.
“You already took care of that, didn’t you, Aldir?” she asked wryly. The retainer shot her a fearful glance, as if even he thought she was pushing their luck. “But is that all you are now, pantheon? An executioner? Assassin? Faithful automaton, devoid of empathy or the ability to think for yourself?”
Why doesn’t she fear you, Aldir? I asked myself.
Because she knows you are done with death, the answer resounded from the deep recesses of my mind.
I ground my teeth and released Silverlight. “If you expect me to abandon Lord Indrath for Agrona, you are—”
“Indrath, Agrona. Agrona, Indrath.” Seris ran a hand along the length of one curving horn. “You speak as if they are the only two beings in the world, as if there is no choice but to serve one or the other.”
I scoffed. So this was the mutt’s plan? To install herself as some kind of opposing queen to the Vritra lord? “This is a war of two sides. Everyone must choose a side, even you, Seris.”
“But is it, though?” A storm raged in the Scythe’s dark eyes as she held my gaze. “If the world is a coin, Agrona on one side, Kezess on the other, then someone else has flipped that coin, and no matter how it lands—whichever face looks up from the ground—it will be that someone who is looking back down.”
“Who is it you speak of so reverently?” I asked, somewhat unnerved by her demeanor. “Who do you believe could rival these two, who are considered great even among the asura?”
The Vritra half-breed smiled coyly. “Oh, you know him well, Aldir, perhaps even better than I do. A certain human mage with a penchant for biting off more than he can chew.”
My eyes flew open—all three of them—as my mind went back to the moments before I finished casting World Eater, when I felt an alien presence watching me, almost as if some greater deity—a true god—had arrived to witness my lowest moment and judge me by it. I hadn’t known who it could have been at the time, but now…
I was cautiously optimistic as I held the asura’s strange, three-eyed gaze. Cylrit stood protectively at my side, wound more tightly than a spring, more than ready to lay down his own life for me were we to be attacked.
Although the conversation had gone exactly as I had hoped, I wasn’t yet ready to turn my back on Aldir. Instead, we stood like that for some time, him glaring down at me with an expression I hoped was thoughtful, me gazing back as placidly as I could manage given his crippling aura.
I knew it was risky, coming to Elenoir without the High Sovereign's approval and revealing myself to the asura, and I even felt just a little bit bad about giving Arthur’s survival away to the asuras as well. But the boy needed a push. Agrona had his new pet, and it would only be a matter of time before he decided to use her. If Arthur took too long running around the Relictombs playing pat-a-cake with young Caera Denoir, or hiding under the guise of “Professor Grey” at Central Academy, the escalating conflict between the Vritra and Epheotus would ruin everything. These episodes are published on lightnovelpub.com.
Finally, Aldir released a heavy breath—half irritated scoff, half world-weary sigh—and shrunk back to normal proportions. Wordlessly, he raised a hand, conjuring a black-opal portal, and vanished with a sudden rush of mana.
A sharp breath escaped my lungs as they deflated. I looked down at my trembling hand, then closed it into a tight fist in frustration. I refused to shake with fear, despite the gap in power between the asura and me.
“Will he tell Indrath about Leywin?” Cylrit asked as he reached out a hand to draw in the few lingering particles of mana from Aldir’s spell.
“Not right away, no,” I answered, considering my words just as I considered my knowledge of the asura. “He’ll ponder what we’ve said, agonizing over why we’ve shared this information, afraid it may be a trick or a trap. Then, eventually, his sense of duty will overwhelm his concern, and he will tell Indrath. Exactly like we want him to.”
A slow smile spread across my face as I considered our current situation. My plans were continuing to move forward, keeping just ahead of the war, but the reappearance of Arthur Leywin as the mysterious Ascender Grey was a welcome wild card. And with my protegee so conveniently placed at his side, well…
“Agrona will kill us if he finds out about this meeting,” Cylrit said quietly.
“Agrona cannot currently see beyond the walls of Taegrin Caelum, Cylrit,” I answered smoothly, elbowing my retainer in the shoulder. “He has eyes only for her right now, at least until he decides if this whole reincarnation gambit was worth it.”
“And if he does?” Cylrit’s voice carried an edge of nervousness I wasn’t used to from the stalwart retainer.
“I imagine he’ll grow significantly less careful with his Scythes and their retainers,” I answered.
There was a brief silence. Then, Cylrit cursed. “Sovereign’s horns. It’s eerie here, isn’t it? No mana, no noise, no life at all…”
“This,” I said, linking my arm through his, “is what our world will look like if Agrona and Kezess have their way. Agrona will happily take Epheotus in exchange for Alacrya and Dicathen, and Kezess is willing to rebuild life here from the ashes up if he has to.”
A shiver ran through my retainer at my words as he gazed around the empty waste. “Agrona wouldn’t really let this happen to Alacrya, would he?”
I snorted indelicately. “If, in exchange, he could rule over all the other asura clans—or destroy them and take Epheotus for the Vritra—then you know damned well he would. What is one mortal world in exchange for the land of deities themselves?”
“But there’s one thing I’ve never really understood,” Cylrit admitted, slowing slightly so that I had to release his arm. I turned to meet his serious, steady gaze. “Why the human? He’s strong, yes, but he only lived long enough to grow into his strength because of you. What’s so important about him?”
I floated into the air and turned southwest toward Darv. “Even now, I can’t say what Arthur Leywin’s part in all this is going to be. He’s an anomaly, a force of change. I sensed that the moment I laid eyes on him. In a world where deities have the strength to wipe out entire countries, one human shouldn’t matter. Even you and I are a ripple in the sea of power next to beings like the asuras. These episodes are published on lightnovelpub.com.
“It was the mana that told me, Cylrit. The way it seemed to be drawn to him, as if awaiting his command, like he was constantly reshaping reality without even trying. He didn’t just move through the world, the world moved to accommodate his passing.”