The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 378
The ancient elf was weightless in my arms as we rushed between houses toward the edge of the cavern. The streets were still filled with people, some standing idly, confusion etched across their faces, but most were hurrying in the same direction as us.
A cascade of voices rose up and then faded away as we rushed past. Virion addressed each and every one without stopping, directing them toward the deeper tunnels. Those who were most loyal to Virion had hesitated to flee, but at his words, they quickly followed with whatever family or friends they still had.
The tunnel entrance was overwhelmed by a crowd of people. At least half the sanctuary was there, already packing into the narrow hole that led out unto the network of caves and tunnels.
“Remember, stick with the appointed leaders!” the elven refugee, Feyrith Ivsaar, was shouting from atop an earthen platform that had been summoned next to the tunnel mouth. “They’ll lead you somewhere safe! We’ll send a message to them when the danger has passed!”
Rinia wriggled out of my arms, patting my elbow once her feet were back on the ground. “Thank you for your service to Dicathen, General Wykes. I need you to organize a group of guards and search the village. We must make sure everyone escapes this cavern. Virion and I will take the lead while you cover the rear.”
I looked to Virion for confirmation, and he nodded. “I’m relying on you to make sure these people have time to get away from the cavern.”
I snapped a salute. “Of course, Commander.”
Turning on my heel to leave, a strong hand grabbed my arm. Virion met my eye and said, “Don’t linger. I expect you back when this is over, understand?”
I nodded sharply, and Virion let go.
Those on the fringe had noticed Virion and Rinia, and in moments the pair was swallowed up by the frightened crowd, dozens of voices all shouting out at once.
I turned away from them, scanning the scene for any of our guards. A few had gathered above the path on one of the many rocky outcroppings, while others were intermingled within the crowd, helping Albold and Feyrith in their efforts. I took careful note of who had been quick to join with the pair of troublemakers, then started toward the rest of the guards.
“You, head back out into the village and look for any stragglers. Everyone needs to evacuate.” The men cast uncertain glances toward the clogged exit into the tunnels. “Now!” I snapped, making them jump.
“Yes, sir!” they said in unison before rushing off.
I flew upwards, watching them sprint back into the underground town from forty feet in the air. The chaos below reminded me uncomfortably of the castle’s fall. I tried to press the flashes of memory to the back of my mind, but images of lightning ricocheting off gray skin kept intruding into my thoughts.
Nothing I had thrown at the Scythe had hurt him. And now, something even stronger and more dangerous was coming.
My gaze swept across the crowd as the fear grew. I hated it, the impulse to flee, the questions that came unbidden to my mind. Should I have stayed with my family, abandoning Virion and all these people to their fates? Should I leave now, to save myself? Did I owe these people my life?
Lightning jumped from my skin and ran across the surface of my armor. It crackled between my fingertips, eager for direction.
I focused on that sensation. That urge to strike. I let its brightness blind me to my own weaker impulses. Like Virion, despite everything he had faced and the losses he had suffered, I would make myself a beacon for everyone to draw strength from.
With an efficiency born of desperation, the refugees under our care continued to funnel out of the cavern. Virion and Rinia had already gone on ahead, leading the main group toward some unknown destination. My soldiers had swept the village twice; the only people who remained now crowded around the tunnel entrance, awaiting their chance to escape.
I was the first to sense the shift in the mana. Just beyond the last building at the edge of town, a tremor ran through the air, and light began to coalesce into a hovering oval. Someone shouted.
I dropped to the ground between the portal and the remainder of the people still trying to flee. The guards were hollering directions, urging them to move faster.
Two figures appeared. The first was clad in the same immaculate uniform he always wore, his inhuman eyes taking in everything in a blink.
The second was younger, fiercer. He was lean and clean-shaven, a head shorter than Windsom, with angry black eyes that reflected no light. Instead of a fancy uniform or armor, he wore loose red training clothes as if he were here for a simple sparring match.
The crushing weight of his intent was a sharp counterpoint to his appearance.
“Asuras!” I shouted, my voice crashing over the stone like a thunderclap. “You are no longer welcome in this place. Leave now, or—” An intense pressure squeezed my chest, cutting the words off.
“Silence, human,” Windsom said. There was no hint in his expression or tone that we were or ever had been on the same side of this war, entirely empty of empathy or regret. “I have come with a proclamation from Lord Kezess Indrath of the Indrath Clan of dragons, chief among the asuras of Epheotus.
“Our alliance has failed.” These words vibrated through stone and air, seeming to come from every direction at once, even echoing back out at us from the tunnel mouth. Fearful shouts followed. “You have shown yourselves to be lacking in judgment and weak in faith. You are a danger to your own nation, to the future of your own races. For this, Lord Indrath has deemed it necessary to eliminate this sanctuary and all that reside within.”
I strode forward, chin raised, a longspear of molded lightning crackling into my hand. “Your lord has no authority here. Go back to your home and leave us to ours. We’ll win this war without you.”
The younger asura scowled, his nose wrinkling as if he’d just stepped in something foul. It was Windsom who spoke, however. “You know what to do, Taci. Lord Indrath has high expectations of you.”
The galaxy-eyed dragon turned and vanished back into the portal, which faded away.
Behind me, the last few refugees were shoving and pushing to get into the tunnel, the mouth of which was clogged with scrambling, screaming, frightened people. The guards encircled them, their weapons turned toward the young asura.
Gathering my power, I thrust forward with my spear, which extended outward in an arc of lightning, but the asura, Taci, flashed to the side several feet, and the bolt blasted a crater in the stone floor.
The world seemed to slow as electricity coursed along my nerves, heightening my reflexes and perception—something I had learned from the Leywin boy before his death. Thin tendrils of lightning arced out from me like extensions of my nervous system, allowing me to sense attacks from any direction, and before they even reached me.
The noise of the explosion was still resounding off the walls—dull and muffled to my sped-up senses—when Taci moved. Even under the effects of Thundercap Impulse, I could barely follow along. He took a single step, and the ground seemed to pull me toward him. I only just managed to dodge sideways to avoid his scything hand, the tendrils of electricity helping to disburse and redirect the force of his attack, but even as he flashed past, I could see his black eyes tracking me.
The asura’s momentum changed mid-strike, his form blurring and leaping inhumanly, too fast for me to react.
Suddenly I was hurtling toward the closest building. My breath left me as I crashed into and through it. Dust and debris blinded me, and I heard the groan of stone shifting, then felt the weight of an entire building crash down on top of me.
Even through the dense rubble, though, I could hear the death screams of the guards.
Thunder exploded outward from me, and the weight pinning and blinding me was blown away. I wrapped myself in a cloak of lightning and flew with all speed toward the tunnel entrance. Stones from the rubble pile I’d just blasted were raining down all throughout the cavern.
The mutilated corpses of my soldiers littered the ground, their blood staining the gray stones red. It looked like an army had charged over them, butchering them where they stood.
Taci stood over the prone form of Lenna Aemaris, head of Virion’s guards since we first escaped to the sanctuary. She turned in my direction, coughing up blood, her eyes wide and disbelieving. Then his foot came down, crushing out the last of her life.
Though he could move faster than the eye could follow, Taci took his time as he began walking toward the huddled mass of people just inside the tunnel mouth, each step leaving behind a bloody footprint.
Lightning crackled between my fingers, condensing into a vibrant blue-white orb, then arced through the air. It flew several feet over the asura’s head, hovering in the air between him and the people, then flashed. A bolt of lightning crashed into the wall above the tunnel, and a section of the wall collapsed, heavy stones tumbling down over the tunnel mouth, muffling the screams from within.
At the same time, the orb began to spin, shedding sparks that coalesced into long javelins of lightning and launched themselves at the asura. As he batted each javelin aside, they embedded into the ground all around him.
Lightning jumped from the end of each javelin, sticking up all around him like pilons, and formed chains and manacles that wrapped around Taci’s wrists and ankles. My entire body radiated mana as I flew across the cavern and crashed into him.
There was an explosion of bright white-blue energy, followed by a thunderclap that shook the cavern, resounding off walls and buildings to build into a deafening shockwave.
My head spun as I pulled back, readying a lightning spear and again charging my nervous system with electricity, my eyes dilating as they jumped around in search of my opponent, who should have been right in front of me but wasn’t.
Too late, I heard the near-silent swish of his clothes cutting air. Even with my enhanced reflexes, I couldn’t get my arms up in time, and his blow took me in the chest as he appeared right in front of me, sending me tumbling across the ground. I thrust downward with my spear, impaling it into the stone, which cracked and screeched in protest as I jerked to a sudden halt, my muscles screaming in complaint.
A dull, throbbing ache deep inside me immediately pushed this lesser pain out of my mind. Looking down, I realized the front of my armor was caved in and pressing painfully on my sternum.
Soft steps drew my attention back to Taci, who was watching me curiously as he approached. “I thought Lord Indrath said this was supposed to be a test of my strength…”
I snorted and pulled my spear free from the stone. “Indrath should have waited until you were out of your swaddling clothes before sending you here, boy.”
Taci’s black eyes narrowed, then his body blurred around the edges and he repeated the single-step maneuver. My spear swung around to intercept him, but he shifted his momentum, taking a near-instant step to the side and around the spear before closing the rest of the way. The point of his elbow came down on my shoulder to the sound of metal shearing and bones breaking.
My vision darkened, then I was looking up at him from the ground, my entire body numb, all of my spells fizzling out as I lost focus.
He held out a hand. There was a rush of mana, and then he was holding a long, blood-red spear. The spear lifted over his head, but instead of thrusting down into me, it kept raising up into the air, taking Taci with it. I blinked. Taci was below me, falling toward the cavern ceiling, and I was plummeting after him.
The world seemed to have turned upside down. I caught a flash of Taci’s face as he scanned the cavern thoughtfully before something hit me hard from the side, jarring the broken bones in my shoulder.
The sounds of spells—shattering ice, rushing wind, crashing stones—exploded from nowhere and everywhere at once.
I blinked, trying to see what had hit me. A pixy-ish face looked at me and winked, then we were swerving violently to avoid something—a streak of red—and somewhere stone collapsed on stone.
“Mica?” I said, my thoughts sluggish with pain and exertion.
“Always the show-off, aren’t you? Fighting an asura one on one without waiting for the rest of us.” Mica hummed as we touched down, the impact again jarring my whole body. She set me on my feet, her gaze turning back to the Taci. “How long since the population fled?”
“Not long enough,” I ground out, shifting my arm as I attempted to assess how bad the injury was. “We have to hold him here.”
She studied me for a moment, the air exploding with frozen missiles in the distance behind her. “Well then, you better pull yourself together quick.” She flashed me a jaunty grin, then flew off to support Aya and Varay, who I could see flitting like flies around Taci, their spells cutting colorful lines through the air.
I turned my attention inward, trying to get some sense of what was wrong with me. The asura had only struck me twice and hadn’t even used any spells, but the entire area around my core was tender, swollen, and bruised. My clavicle was broken at least, perhaps more bones, and there was a grating ache that went up my neck and into the base of my skull that suggested my neck was fractured as well.
I stood and pushed mana into the injured sections of my body, supporting the broken and fractured bones. Without an emitter, there was nothing I could do to speed the healing. I would simply have to fight on as I was.
The air above the village had become pure chaos.
Even from where I stood, I could feel the chill of Varay’s spells as she froze the very air, causing heavy flakes of snow to fall down on the ancient buildings. Ice formed over Taci’s arms and legs, and though it shattered when he launched himself at Varay, it slowed him just enough that she was able to avoid the attack, conjuring a wall of opaque ice between them and hurtling away at full speed.
As soon as he slowed down the ice began forming again, clinging heavily to him. His dark eyes seemed to lose focus for a moment, staring into the distance instead of scanning the sky for the other Lances.
A shiver ran down my spine at his passive, slightly curious expression. His mouth was a straight, dark slash across his face, one brow slightly raised in consideration. It wasn’t the look of a man fighting a life and death battle, but closer to that of a young mana beast testing its limits as it played with its prey…
Despite his lack of focus, Taci easily batted aside a series of spells before fixing his attention once again on the battle. Wherever he looked, however, pillars of ice appeared to interrupt his line of sight, and a strong headwind blew in his face to distract him no matter which direction he turned.
Several cyclones carrying chunks of ice and jagged stones were whirling in between all the ice, constantly attempting to pull the asura in and pummel him. As I watched, still focused on preparing my body, one of the cyclones swept over him. Instead of trapping him, however, it seemed to shatter against his defenses, the wind-attribute mana dissipating and the cyclone fading, its contents raining to the cavern floor far below.
In the same instant, though, he bucked backwards. Only a foot or two, but enough to prevent him from launching another attack. Then gravity shifted again, and he dropped a foot toward the floor, and again a few inches toward the ceiling, keeping him off balance.
Gritting my teeth, I took off into the air, already gathering mana in my hand.
Taci stopped attempting to resist the maelstrom of spells hitting him, his chest rising as he took a deep breath. One hand slowly came up, the fingers curling together. The mana all around him shivered, then he twisted his wrist sharply. There was a booming crack, and I felt the mana break.
Mica screamed, and from the corner of my eye, I saw her tumble out of the air like a bird struck by an arrow.
At the same time, Taci kicked off a pillar of ice and vanished. Instinctively, I turned toward Aya just as he appeared at her side. She was surrounded by a barrier of quickly changing gusts of wind, but Taci’s spear punched through it without effort.
I released the lightning held in my hand in the form of a flash of blinding light between Aya and Taci.
At the same time, the air around the asura froze solid.
For a moment, I couldn’t see what had happened. Then the block of ice shattered, and I watched as Aya slid from the end of the red spear and fell.
With a roar, Mica appeared like a catapult stone to crash against the asura. Her hammer shattered against his upraised arm, reformed, then broke again as he swatted it aside.
A jolt of electrical force leapt from my fingers to her hammer, and when the next blow fell, an explosion of lightning rocked Taci to the side. Just behind him, an orb of pitch-black nothing—a dark sphere that light couldn’t escape—appeared, and he lurched back into it.
But I had to turn away as I aimed for Aya’s falling body. There was a low boom as I reached my top speed, scooping her out of the air just before she would have crashed into the rubble of one of the many buildings destroyed in the fighting.
She was breathing heavily, her eyes wide, his teeth bared like an animal. “Damned he’s strong. That spear…”
I flew behind the cover of a house, hoping against hope that Varay and Mica could hold him for a moment so I could inspect Aya’s wound. But as I set her down and began looking her over, she pushed me aside.
“I’m fine, Bairon. That spear did something, interrupted my mana, but I’m not badly hurt,” she said, gesturing to a bloody wound in her side.
As she spoke, I took Aya in with fresh eyes. It had been months since I’d seen the other Lances. Aya was gaunt, her eyes dark. Gone was the mana vibrating alluringly in her voice, the pouted lips, the pretense of seductiveness that she used to wear like a suit of armor.
There was no time to wonder what the others had been through since the battle at Etistin and the fall of the castle, but I also knew we all might die here. “Aya, are you sure you’re all right?”
She shoved me aside. “There’s no time. Let’s—”
“We can’t fight him toe to toe. Even these delaying tactics will work for only so long. This isn’t a fight for him, it’s some kind of damned wargame,” I pointed out, drawing a glare from Aya at the interruption. “What about your illusions? Perhaps—”
She scoffed, floating off the ground and staring fiercely up toward Taci, her eyes full of hatred, the desperate need for vengeance carved in every hard line of her face. “Maybe—maybe—something like that would work once before the asura realized what I was doing, and what difference could it possibly make? No, I’m not playing games with this deity.”
Wind whipped around her as she bulleted back toward the fight, and all I could do was follow.
The black hole Mica had conjured was gone. Varay had closed in as well, her body encased in gleaming ice-armor, but the two Lances were on the defensive and couldn’t break away from Taci’s barrage of attacks.
Aya was screaming straight toward him. The air warped, twisting and condensing into curving missiles that fired in rapid succession, pelting the asura’s back.
I followed close behind her, sending arcs of lightning into Aya’s wind missiles, twisting the lightning into something more subtle as I cast Nerve Fracture. When the lightning-infused bolts landed, the electrical impulses spider-webbed across Taci’s skin, vibrating through his mana barrier and into his nervous system to paralyze him.
He barely twitched.
Aya closed on Taci, a dozen transparent blades scything toward him from every direction.
Taci’s form seemed almost to stutter and skip around, moving with such instant precision that it was like he was teleporting an inch at a time, only utilizing as much movement and effort as was absolutely necessary to avoid an attack or let it shatter against an arm or shoulder. With each movement, his red spear lashed out, slashing and thrusting in every direction at once, cutting through the spells he couldn’t dodge, breaking apart our spells and then reabsorbing the mana to fuel his own strength.
The others needed to fall back, but they were locked in place.
Scanning the ceiling, I found what I needed. There was a large chunk of iron-rich stone above where the others were fighting. I hurled a bolt of lightning-attribute mana into it, but instead of destroying the stone I infused it with the mana, then manipulated it to spin in a looping arc through the iron.
Taci kicked backwards, sending Mica spinning away, then whirled his spear around him in a circle. As he shifted his hold on it, I pulled. The iron became an enormous magnet, ripping the spear out of Taci’s unexpecting hands. It flew straight up into the air and hit the ceiling with a clang.
I immediately struck out with so much lightning that the stone melted, fusing the spear to the ceiling.
Varay took the opportunity, falling back, conjuring several barriers of ice as she did.
But Aya kept fighting. The sphere of blades encircling her expanded and condensed, so many moving so fast that Taci could no longer dodge them. Instead, he turned cold black eyes on her, letting the wind blades strike at him from every direction, but they did nothing.
“Do you know the purpose of this trial?” the asura said, looking Aya right in the eye. “To prove that I have the strength to learn the World Eater technique…the same one that destroyed your home.”
The battlefield seemed frozen. As if in slow motion, Taci reached out and grabbed the mana swirling in the air, as he had before. But the instant before he broke Aya’s spell, she released it. Her body became as the wind, which coiled around Taci and reformed, Aya now right behind him, her blade across his throat.
They moved simultaneously. Her blade flashed to the side as he spun, his hand pointed like the tip of a spear to strike her in the stomach, shattering her mana barrier.
With horrible clarity, I watched as his arm plunged through her stomach and burst out of her lower back. It was dripping with her life’s blood, and had a section of what I thought must be her broken spine clutched in a tight fist.
Even from where I flew sixty feet away, I saw the light leave her eyes. As her body fell, so did my stomach.
My eyes tracked her downward motion until she vanished, then snapped back to the battle just as Taci blurred away before smashing Mica into the wall with the back of his bloody hand.
A thick layer of glittering black crystal formed around Mica, but when the asura struck there was a sound like shattering glass, and cracks webbed across the surface. He struck again, and pieces of black crystal flew glittering into the air. On his third strike, the Black Diamond Vault spell broke, his arm sinking in up to the elbow.
When it ripped out an instant later, blood sprayed from between the jagged shards of black crystal.
A solid beam of white-hot lightning warped the air between us with the smell of burning ozone, and Taci rocked to the side.
Varay appeared from the frigid, misty air right beside me, a slight breeze feathering her short hair. Her icy cold hand wrapped around my wrist, and the lightning beam became a crackling ray of cold white energy. She met my eyes, her own full of determination. “Don’t save anything for later.”
I could have laughed. “Back ten minutes and already giving orders.”
Under the combined weight of our mana beam, Taci was being pushed back, a layer of electrically-infused frost building up over his skin. For an instant, I felt a flicker of hope.
There was a flash of red as the spear reappeared in Taci’s hand like a shield, splitting the beam in half so that it fired off to either side of him with a crash where it impacted the walls. An avalanche of stone collapsed onto the buildings below, crushing them and burying half the village in the rubble.
I pushed and pushed, concentrating everything I had into that singular attack, Varay’s grip getting tighter and colder on my arm as she did the same.
Taci’s spear swept through the mana beam, carving it in two.
I lurched sideways as the cavern exploded. An invisible blade of mana split open the roof and carved a deep ravine into the wall behind us with a deafening blast.
The air around me was clouded with red mist. With dawning horror, I slowly turned toward Varay. Her left arm, with which she had pushed me to safety, had been vaporized, leaving only a smoldering red-black gash at her shoulder.
Then Taci was on us. A shield-shaped panel of blue-white lightning appeared in front of me with the crack of thunder, but Taci’s red spear cut effortlessly through it, striking me across the chest. Blood gushed through the rent in my armor, and everything went black for a second before reality lurched back in.
I was falling. Above, Varay had grabbed onto the red spear with an arm of semi-transparent ice. Taci spun the spear, shattering the arm, the long blade slashing through Varay.
My vision dimmed and my eyes lost focus. I blinked, then she was falling.
Varay’s head drifted in one direction, the rest of her body in the other.
I tried to stand, but my entire body howled in pain. Looking down, I saw that I had been cut from shoulder to hip, through both armor and mana. It was difficult to tell if I was already dead and my mind just hadn’t realized it yet, or if the blood spilling out between the jagged edges of my armor would be what finished me off.
But I was the only one left.
I drew in a trembling breath as my eyes shifted to where each of my companions had fallen. My chest tightened. An intense pressure built up behind my eyes. Growling low in my throat, I rolled onto my side and forced my way onto my feet, only vaguely acknowledging that my guts didn’t immediately spill out.
Taci was already moving toward the collapsed tunnel to begin his hunt.
“Asura!” I shouted, my voice hoarse, my vision blurry with welling tears.
He stopped and glanced back at me, his black eyes heavy-lidded and disinterested. A single drop of bright blood was smeared over the side of his neck where Aya had cut him, even though the wound itself had already healed.
My fists clenched, the stone beneath me quaking, a raging blaze of fury roaring to life inside me. The tears dried as my spirit hardened. I was prepared for death, but knowing that the Lances—the greatest mages of Dicathen—had all died to draw only a single drop of blood from this asura was unbearable.
I knew that ensuring the others escaped was the true goal of this battle, but that didn’t mean I had abandoned my pride. I was a Wykes, even if the rest of my family had proven unworthy of the name.
“Thunderlord’s Wrath,” I uttered. The spell took all my focus, every ounce of my anger and mana.
My blood turned to lightning in my veins. White light began to spill out of the wound across my torso, burning from my eyes and inside my skin. Deviant mana infused every particle of my body.
The asura shifted his spear into a defensive position, his matte black eyes burrowing into me.
My battle cry was a thunderclap as I screamed out my rage. A trail of lightning followed when I flew up into the air, aiming myself like a weapon at Taci. I moved like the lightning I channeled, jagged and unpredictable, and I was on him in an instant. The lightning bursting out of me stabbed at him from every direction, a thousand jolting, burning daggers plunging into every square inch of him.
His spear pierced my side, but lightning ran up the shaft and into his hand. When he ripped the weapon free, a thunderbolt struck him in the chest.
I smiled, lightning-infused blood between my teeth. “Burn, little deity.”
Shockwaves began to burst out of the long gash on my torso, each one slamming into the asura, scouring away his defenses. I wrapped a hand around the back of his neck to ensure he couldn’t flee, and when his spear pierced me again, it only let more of my power flow through.
A cool breeze caressed my cheek, and I closed my eyes. I was ready. I had held out as long as I could. This was a death I could be proud of.
Just before I erupted, a small, familiar voice whispered in my ear. “You’ve done enough, Bairon. It isn’t your time.”
My eyes bolted open, and I searched wildly for the voice, unsure how it could be real, afraid it was my own dying mind playing tricks on me.
As I lost concentration, the light spilling out of me dimmed. Taci’s spear came up, breaking my hold on him, then down again on my already shattered shoulder. I barely noticed when I cratered into the ground.
Taci brushed soot from his red uniform. Even the fabric he wore was unscathed, I noticed with detached bitterness.
I fought to get my elbows underneath me, to push myself back up, set on finishing my spell, doing whatever damage I could to the asura, but the voice came again, breathy and very real in my ear. “Don’t move. No matter what you see. Don’t move.”
Taci landed beside me. He did not grin at his victory, or offer me any meaningless platitudes about our battle. There was a thoughtful frown on his face as he raised the red spear one last time.
I let my body relax, finally setting down the burden I’d carried since the Council’s fall. I’d done everything I could. Though I hoped Virion and Rinia would reach their destination in time, there was a kind of peace in submitting to the softly spoken orders of this strangely familiar voice.
The spear fell, plunging into my chest and through my core.
As darkness overtook me and I let my eyes close for the last time, a fleeting thought settled into the cold drowsiness.
I expected death to hurt more.