The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 379
The ancient bedrock trembled beneath my feet. I felt how the atmospheric mana quivered at the release of such enormous power. It wouldn’t be long now.
Someone laid a hand on my shoulder. “Do we have enough time?” It was Albold’s voice. “Should we set up an ambush somewhere, slow the asura further?”
I scoffed. “Our hope now is in haste and good luck, not by force of arms. Do not be so ready to die a meaningless death, any of you.”
Another voice, from farther back in the line. “You could join me on the beast.” It was Madam Astera, who Eleanor Leywin had allowed to ride her bond, seeing as though she was missing a leg. It was a kind offer coming from someone who hated my guts.
“I know the way by foot and feel, not by bear. I’ll walk.” I squeezed Virion’s arm as he guided me along. “We need to go faster.”
I felt his concerned look, despite not being able to see it, but he did as I asked., and I pushed my old body to keep up.
This was the point where paths of potential diverged, and my ability to influence a specific potential future was limited. Our group was sixty, perhaps seventy people: some council members, the adventurers known as the Twin Horns, the artificer Gideon and his assistant, and those among the refugees who had shown the most faith in me.
They would need it.
Smaller groups had broken off to head down dozens of different tunnels, led by the Glayders, Earthborns, or other strong mages. If the Lances fell too quickly, or fought too long, preventing the asura from reaching us at the right time, we would all die. If Taci hunted us down too quickly or spent too much time prowling the tunnels, again, we would all die. The timing was crucial.
My right foot brushed a sharp outcropping of stone. “Take the next branch right and downward,” I told Virion, and after another fifty steps he guided me to the right, and the path sloped under my feet.
An explosion from somewhere far behind and above us shook loose dust from the tunnel ceiling. Someone muffled a scream.
At the bottom of the decline, the tunnel curved sharply left. “You’re all going to feel a strong disinclination to continue onward. This is a trick of the ancient mages to prevent this place from being discovered. You must push past it.”
We wound along through another handful of turns before the creeping sensation of unease set in. It was mild at first, just a twinge in the back of our minds that said, “Something is wrong here. Be wary.” The sensationhis increased rapidly as we pressed forward, becoming a near-overwhelming sense of dread.
Those we guided began to whimper and complain, and our pace slowed despite my encouragement and the thudding of spells breaking stone in the distance. Even the bear was panting, each breath sharp and desperate.
“Albold, take all the guards to the rear. Keep these people moving forward. Don’t let anyone turn around,” I said.
“Y-you can’t force us on!” someone choked out. “You’re leading us to our deaths!”
Several sets of footsteps ceased, and I heard people pushing and shoving. Guards moved to intervene, but there was a sharp pulse of intent from right beside me, and everyone grew still.
“You can all sense the danger behind us. It is very real, while this magic works against only your imagination. If Rinia says that salvation lies ahead, then we will press on.”
Virion’s confidence and command settled the riled crowd, at least for a moment. When he turned and began marching again, his body stiff at my side, everyone else followed.
Thrum, the mana responded to the distant battle. Thrum. Thrum.
It was almost enough to keep even the most frightened of the refugees moving forward against the magical dread that sought to push us away.
But not entirely.
After only fifty more steps, some were halting again. After a hundred, I heard weeping. After five hundred, the guards in the rear were dragging the weakest forward. After a thousand, the guards lacked the strength, and the first of those too weak to face the fear broke away, sprinting back along the tunnel, their cries echoing throughout the dark depths.
“Let them go,” I demanded, hearing Albold’s light steps start to follow. “Anyone who turns back now isare doomed, including you.”
Our pace slowed to a crawl. Each step felt like moving deeper into a tar pit, waiting for the blackness to close over my head and choke the life out of me.
I had known we would have to cross this barrier. I thought I was ready.
I was wrong.
My feet stopped moving. Virion tugged at me, his frown audible. He was saying something, but I couldn’t hear through the roaring of my own blood in my ears.
It had all been for naught. I’d pushed my body too far, and now it didn’t have the strength to continue on.
The earth seemed to tremble, then go silent. The mana stilled. The asura’s battle against the Lances was over. Our last line of defense had fallen. There was no time. Not for doubt, not for fear.
A thin arm wrapped through mine, and Virion released my other arm, stepping away. Someone else, shorter and even thinner more thin than the first, replaced him.
Cool, soothing mana flowed through me. Most of my body had become one interconnected ache, so ever-present that I had almost forgotten it was there, but at the mana’s touch, this pain faded. My breath came easier. I stood straighter.
From the other side, a golden light was moving through me, warming my core and pushing away the darkness and despair.
“Thank you, Leywins…” I muttered once I was capable of speech. “Now, get moving. We’re wasting valuable time.”
Alice chuckled to my right, but Ellie only held on more firmly. “We’re going to make it. Right place, right time?”
I cleared my throat as it suddenly constricted with an upwell of emotion. “We’re nearly there.”
The two held my arms and helped me forward, Virion walking just ahead of us. The zone of dread seemed to go on and on, pushing against our bodies and wills with a mounting desperation to break us. Then, like plunging through an icy waterfall, we were free of it, every nerve in my body coming to life as the repelling aura vanished. My mind cleared, immediately calculating the approximate amount of time we’d lost.
Wordlessly, I set the pace, my body refreshed by Alice’s healing magic and feeling light as a feather without the ancient mage’s wards pulling me down.
A virulent intent entered the tunnels somewhere behind us, moving faster than I could imagine.
We began to run.
The rough stone floor grew smooth, and relieved exclamations from behind me echoed along a finished hall. I knew what they were seeing: gem-studded carvings, telling the story of a place called the Relictombs, made by the ancient mages before their fall.
But there was no time. Not to explain them, not even to spare the breath I needed to run, and so I pushed the others onward.
Virion’s light steps halted ahead of us, but I shooed him on. “Go, we must get everyone inside.”
The oncoming aura was like a red haze on the mana now, agitating it.
Though my blind eyes couldn’t see the room, I knew well from my visions. An arched door frame opened into a large hexagonal-shaped space a hundred feet wide. Steep stone benches led like steps down to a dais in the middle, where a rectangular stone frame stood.
“Take me down to the center,” I said, desperately focusing on the carved stone frame. There wasn’t long now. If it didn’t happen soon…
When we reached the dais, I pulled free of them and rested my hand on the stone frame, my fingers tracing intricate carvings.
It was cold. No mana or aether hummed within it.
“What is this?” Madam Astera asked as she was helped down off Ellie’s bond. “You’ve led us into a dead end!”
Others joined her, pleading for there to be more to this place, something else, anything that could save them. Someone knocked against the frame as if it were a door, hoping someone might let them through. Most rushed to the back of the chamber, getting as far from the approaching aura as possible.
“I have led you to where you need to be in order to survive,” I said, letting my tiredness and frustration bleed into the words. “If I planned on allowing you all to die, it would have been much easier to simply stay where we were.”
“Move away from the door,” Virion was ordering elsewhere. “Everyone to the back of the room!”
I nodded in his direction. “These people will need capable leaders when this is over. Do as he said, Astera. Survive this.”
A scream scythed through the cold air, and I heard flesh tear and bones break.
A figure so rich with mana that the outline of him glowed in my senses stepped into the archway above. His killing intent was like a murderous fist around my heart, squeezing the life from me.
The world seemed to jerk to a halt, the only sound a half-muffled cry of abject terror, the only movement the slow turning of the figure’s head as he scanned the room.
“People of Dicathen, followers of Commander Virion Eralith, I am Taci of the Thyestes Clan.” His voice was lilting and arrogant, the words echoing out of him and through the chamber stained with his disgust for us. “For your failure to see the way forward, your inability to understand the necessary evils of this war, Lord Indrath has proclaimed that you all must die to make way for a more sensible future.”
Virion stepped forward. Brave fool, I thought, though I didn’t try to stop him. We needed every last second now.
Mana surged from Virion as he activated his beast will. His voice was a low growl as he said, “False allies and betrayers. The Indraths are no better than the Vritra.”
He dashed forward, his movement lightning quick. I heard his sword slide from its sheath and cut the air, watched the radiant outline of Taci move to defend, then the chamber lit up with magic as a dozen other mages hurled whatever spells they could to support Virion.
I held my breath.
The asura moved with the liquid grace of a lifetime of dedication and practice. Against it, Virion’s animalistic speed and ferocity were as impotent. Taci blocked several rapid strikes and shrugged off a dozen other spells. Virion lunged from side to side, always moving and slashing, a dark whirlwind, but his blows never pierced the asura’s mana.
Then Virion lurched to a stop. Several people screamed or shouted. His body slammed against the stone benches with a painful crunch.
Boo gave a mighty roar that cracked, becoming a tortured yelp, and a heavy weight crashed down the stairs. Behind me, Ellie shouted out in despair.
The asura flashed across the room, his mana signature melding into the atmosphere for the blink of an eye, and when he reappeared there was the sharp, wet sound of a blade cutting flesh. Then he flashed again, and again, and everywhere he went, a mana signature winked out.
But the portal frame stayed cold and lifeless, empty of magic.
“Stop!” I shouted over the screaming. I stepped forward, yanking myself free of grasping arms that attempted to hold me back. “Taci of the Thyestes Clan, I, Elder Rinia Darcassan of Elenoir, command you to stop!”
The asura stopped, and I had to listen as his blade slid out of a body, which then crumpled to the floor.
“Would you willingly, eagerly let them make a weapon of you?” I asked, taking another step forward. “You would be no more important to your lord than we are. A tool, to be sharpened, used, and replaced as necessary.”
He laughed. A simple, disbelieving, cruel sound. “I have been trained since I was a child, spending decades in the aether orb, to be my lord’s weapon. It is my purpose, seer.”
Throughout the chamber, people were whimpering, crying. Someone was choking on their own blood. You can’t save them all, I told myself for the hundredth time.
“I’ve never understood why we bothered with you lessers at all,” Taci went on, his aura focusing around the room, taking in the terrified, helpless people he was about to murder. “Epheotus doesn’t, has never needed anything from you. So why—why?—was one of your own, a boy, a stupid child, trained among us?”
Someone broke and ran for the door. Taci’s spear whistled, and blood splashed against the ground.
“It dishonored Elder Kordri. It dishonored me, and everyone else who had to spar with the brat. I—”
He paused, and I felt the full force of his consideration rest on me. Then he was standing directly in front of me, his intent a bonfire that threatened to consume me.
“You think I'm a fool,” he said, his breath like hot summer wind in my face. “I was warned about you, student of the lost prince. Now, though, I don’t understand why. Whatever stolen aether arts you have, you’ve burned yourself up with them. You are nothing but a leaf on the wind.”
His hand rested against my shoulder, and then pushed.
Like some horrible nightmare, I watched, paralyzed, as Rinia lifted off her feet and flew backwards until she struck the stone frame. Back in Xyrus city, I’d once seen a boy throw a sack over a rat and then stomp on it. It sounded just like this.
Her body slumped to the ground, motionless. I was screaming. Mom was clutching at me, trying to pull me away, shield me with her body, but I fought to get free, to pull my bow up. It was like I was watching everything happen from above, not in control of myself at all.
Several of the guards were already dead. Boo lay in a heap, unmoving except for the shallow rise and fall of his sides. Durden was bleeding from a wound to his head, though I thought—hoped, maybe—that I could still sense his mana. Jasmine and Angela Rose were shielding Camellia and Emily against the back wall. I couldn’t see Helen, wasn’t sure if she was okay, but it didn’t seem like a good sign that her bow wasn’t firing.
The asura’s black eyes scanned the room, settled on me, focused on my screams. An arrow formed against my string and flew. He moved an inch, the arrow hissing past his ear. A second jumped from my bow, and this one he caught, the mana breaking and fading away at his touch. The third came faster still, but he wasn’t there anymore.
A flash of red, and my bow fell to pieces in my hand, the arrow on its string fizzling to nothing.
I heard my mother’s screams over my own as the red spear lifted like a manticore’s tail. I wasn’t afraid, not really. I’d always known I was going to die fighting, like Dad, like Arthur. I wanted to be strong and brave, just like them. But in this world, the strong and brave people always died fighting.
The asura hesitated. Mom grabbed me, pulling me tight, the destroyed pieces of my bow pinned painfully between us. “Please!” she screamed, her voice ragged and choked with tears.
His frown deepened. “You must be Arthur’s sister.” His pure black eyes flicked to Mom. “And his mother?” The spear lowered. “It’s too bad that Arthur isn’t here now. It has been an honor to undertake this task for my lord, but I would have really enjoyed facing your brother again, to show him how small his potential really is compared to one of the pantheon race.”
Slowly, the asura grabbed Mom’s arm, pulling her away.
“No! Let me go! Don’t touch her! Ellie!”
My mother’s pleading screams fell on deaf ears as the tip of the red spear rose, slipping into my side beneath my ribs. My knees began to shake as I felt it pushing up through my body, as easy as cutting birthday cake.
Birthday cake? I wondered, watching my pale face reflected in the asura’s eyes. That’s a funny thing to think about when dying. But it made a silly kind of sense, too. I thought about the last birthday party I’d had before the war a lot. When we were all together, even Brother, when the world wasn’t ending…
I made sure not to scream. I decided, in the midst of my delusional, swirling thoughts, that I wouldn’t die screaming.
The spear slid out of me just as easily as it had gone in. My shaking legs failed and I collapsed to the ground.
Mom was on top of me, tears streaming off her face, splashing all over me. My back was warm and wet, but I could feel a coldness inside, spreading slowly outward. Mom’s hands were flashing with a pale light. “It’s okay, baby, it’s okay. I’m right here. I’ve got you, and I’m going to take away the pain, sweetheart, Ellie. I’m going to take care of you.”
Above her, Taci’s spear was poised to strike at the back of her neck, but all her focus was just for me.
No, run Mom. Get away, I wanted to shout, but couldn’t seem to get any air into my lungs.
Taci hesitated again. His gaze shifted to where the stone frame stood in the center of the dais, and I realized there was light coming from it. I had to struggle just to turn my head, but inside what had been a blank stone rectangle, now there was a brilliantly glowing purple portal, swirling with ethereal patterns.
Beneath my mother’s frantic chanting and the sobs of those waiting their turn to die, a gentle, rhythmic humming was issuing from the portal.
The liquid-purple curtain rippled as if a breeze had blown through it, and two silhouettes appeared.
The features were hidden, but there was something about the shape and stance that was so familiar. Almost like…
A smile crept across my face as my eyes drifted shut. I felt safe for the first time in a very, very long time.
The sound of sobbing came from nearby, working their way through the ringing and buzzing in my aching skull. It was a familiar noise. Alice. I sensed for Ellie. She was near, but fading. The asura was standing over them, but his focus was elsewhere…
I followed it to the aetheric glow of a portal, visible even without my sight. But it was a pale thing in comparison to the figure standing within it.
My heart thrummed.
What I sensed was beyond the scope of my understanding, but I knew it wasn’t my mind failing me. My body was broken, my life slipping away. This was the moment I had foreseen, where all the threads ended, but I could never make sense of how we might be saved, only the when and where. But now I knew why.
He’d been absent from my visions of the future since his disappearance, his future never very clear to me even as a child. I hadn’t fully believed him to be dead, but couldn’t scry him, or find any future in which he reappeared. Even though I had seen this moment, it had been like watching it through the bottom of a thick glass bottle: unclear, colored by my own lack of knowledge and understanding.
Now I could see him just as clearly as I could Taci, a radiant nimbus of amethyst light, the warmth of him spilling through the chamber like the noon-time summer sun.
“Regis, help my sister.”
A wisp of purple light—a living spark of aether—dove into Ellie’s fading mana signature, and life bloomed within her.
Taci stepped back, shifting the burning brand that was his weapon into a defensive position. “Who…Arthur Leywin?” His confusion and uncertainty was palpable, laced within his tone, woven into his stance.
Arthur’s aura grew darker, hints of deep, bloody red in the purple. A beam of pure aether in the shape of a sword rippled into existence, warping the fabric of reality.
Lightning-like tendrils of aether swallowed Arthur, and space seemed to bend to his will as he reappeared just behind Taci. Purple light clashed against red as Taci spun the spear behind him, catching the attack.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Taci snarled, his voice grating against my ears.
“You shouldn’t be,” Arthur replied, his voice a cold white flame of anger.
The aether sword winked out of existence then back in the same breath, now thrust up and under the spear. Mana and aether screeched against one another and the sword slashed across the asura’s ribs.
With a growl of pain, Taci stepped back, again disappearing and reappearing, using what could only be the Thyestes Clan’s Mirage Walk technique.
I sensed aether swelling within Arthur, and he burst toward his foe, the aether sword carving an amethyst arc through the air. Taci’s spear again came up to deflect.
The clash sent out a shockwave that rolled me over, nearly toppling me off the dais. My body screamed at me that I was dying, as if I didn’t already know.
Arthur paused, glanced around. Alice had been thrown backwards off her feet. Ellie had been sent tumbling. Screams filled the chamber as many others had been knocked flat by the collision of these two titans.
Taci whirled his spear around in a wide arc, and I felt a wave of cutting mana fly overhead. Some of the screams stopped, cut suddenly short, and several mana signatures were extinguished.
Arthur was back on him in an instant, his purple blade moving faster than should have been possible in the hand of a human, but Taci matched him strike for strike. And with each clash, the chamber quaked.
They will bring the roof down on us if Arthur doesn’t do something.
I tried to shout, but my lungs could no longer make more than a muted whisper. Instead, I reached for the last dregs of my power. It wasn’t much. Mana flared within me, and I tried to reform it, shape it into a message, a vision, and send it directly into Arthur’s mind, but…there wasn’t enough of me left.
For the first time, the possibility of failure, despite everything I had done to reach this point, seemed horribly real. So often the world had asked more of me than I could afford to give, and yet I gave it anyway, and now, at the end of it all, I lacked the strength to see my visions through.
A section of the chamber roof fell.
The aetheric wisp I had sensed earlier emerged from Ellie’s prone form, throwing itself under the stones to shield a huddled group of survivors.
The two combatants forms became a muddle of color and power, white light fusing with purple, aether clashing against mana, their weapons humming against one another. Several times I sensed Arthur take wounds, and felt rifts of mana left behind where the spear struck, but he seemed tireless and inexorable as he pressed the asura.
Taci’s spear suddenly smote the ground. The earth shook and the dias cracked. More stones tumbled free from the ceiling, and the chamber was filled with the rush of mana forming into spells to deflect or destroy debris.
Arthur’s weapons vanished and he grabbed Taci’s spear. The two strained as they wrestled for control of the weapon. Taci lashed out with knees and elbows, mana surging into his strikes, each one creating another shockwave.
Arthur looked in my direction. I had to make him understand. Again, I gathered up all my remaining mana and formed the message. The room was full of aether, spilling out of the open portal like a ruptured dam. I reached for it, pleading, begging it to help me.
I felt Arthur’s mind connect with mine.
Arthur, use the portal! Take Taci away from here. I stared with wide and urgent eyes, unsure if he could really hear and understand me.
‘Asuras can’t go into the Relictombs.’
I felt the granite-hard coldness of his mind through our tentative connection. This wasn’t the boy I had known. He had sacrificed so much to return to us, leaving something of himself behind wherever he had been.
Just trust me.
Aether flared around Arthur, and he spun the spear up over his head, turning so that he and Taci were back to back, each holding the spear aloft. The two struggled, neither one able to gain leverage over the other, then Arthur blinked away in a flash of aetheric lightning, reappearing in the same spot only facing the other direction.
Taci stumbled forward from the force of his own strength. Arthur’s arms wrapped around him from behind, tackling him forward.
Into the portal.
And then…they were gone. The chamber was hauntingly silent, and the air seemed lighter and easier to breathe. I took a shaky breath, feeling a great weight on my chest.
Something shifted at my side, and a warm hand clasped my own, our fingers weaving together. Under the smell of sweat and blood, there was sunshine and maple leaves and sword oil. I wondered how long it had been since Virion’s skin saw the sun that the smell of it still clung to him.
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“Don’t talk. You’re hurt. But…we have—where is…?” His gravelly voice cut off, and I could tell from how he strained that he was gravely injured. “I need an emitter! Alice?”
His voice was fading, and I felt something wet drip onto my skin. The pain suffusing my body began to ease…and then it vanished, leaving me only the warmth of his hand around mine.
A shame. I wanted to tell him…
I was glad he was at my side here at the end.