The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 380

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Chapter 380


‘Just trust me.’

Rinia’s words echoed in my mind as Taci and I collided with the portal. It bulged out and away from us like the surface of a bubble, fighting back against the asura, refusing to allow him entry.

Anger burned through the fear I should've felt facing an asura. The only thing keeping it in check was the presence of my friends and family. Even within the cloud of raging emotions, I knew Rinia was right. It would be impossible to defeat Taci while keeping everyone around me safe.

The portal’s surface warped to wrap around us, rippling dangerously. I could sense the aether struggling to maintain its form as we pressed against it, simultaneously attempting to accept me and reject Taci.

It’s going to break. I hesitated, my mind racing for another solution. Regis, we—

The world fractured.

Purple shards of portal-stuff sprayed across an empty-nothing limitless expanse of aetheric twilight, refracting the everywhere-from-nowhere light like shattered mirrors.

A hungry omnipresent something devoured each shining shard, disintegrating them back into pure aether, then into nothing at all.

There was a sharp pang of something missing, like I’d lost a limb, though I couldn’t make sense of it.

I was drifting, afloat or maybe falling, but where and in what, I wasn’t sure.

What had I been doing just now?

I knew I was angry. Or that I had been angry. Now I was just…out of place.

No, not hungry, I considered, my derailed train of thought leaping back to the something in which I was drifting. Just there, but what…

I squinted, peering through the hazy amethyst light at a ghostly shadow below me. Drifting in the twilight purple sea was a rolling landscape of dunes, their shape discernible. Familiar.

Instinctively, my head tilted forward as I tried to fly toward the dunes, but there was no sense of movement, and the familiar-but-not landscape didn’t come any closer.

“W-where are we?” a strained voice said from somewhere above and behind me.

Turning without thinking, my body started to spin, bringing the figure of a bald young man into my vision.

My memories collided with my current dazed state of mind like two icebergs crashing together in an open sea.

The elation I had felt at finally finding a portal that was already linked to Dicathen, waiting at the bottom of a ravine under a dune-filled zone, washed over me, as did the fury and terror of activating the portal only to watch a spear plunge through my little sister…

Zone after zone had come and gone as I searched, focusing on Dicathen each time I used the Compass, finding nothing but dead portals that were no longer connected anywhere waiting at the end of each one.

But I knew there had to be at least one Relictombs portal in Dicathen somewhere. I just didn’t understand how to even look without a memory map like the ones Sylvia had left for me.

My head splintered in pain as the memories came together in a muddled, half-senseless mess.

Alaric had helped with the preparations. Acquired the portal rune key. Bought or stole a collection of items I wanted in case I couldn’t return to Alacrya.

When I learned of the Victoriad, I knew attending could mean exposing my real identity, which would mean going into hiding. There was only one place to go: back to Dicathen. Home. To my family. Finally.

And I had made it. I had made it only seconds too late…

I had fought Taci, heard Rinia’s voice in my head…

‘Just trust me,’ her voice sounded again, bringing my spiraling thoughts full circle.

I searched the pink-stained shadow of the dunes, my attention sticking on it, confusion entangling me like a giant spider’s web. This was the last zone I’d gone through before arriving in Dicathen. A huge canyon split the ground. The remnants of the zone’s guardian, a hydra made of living glass and liquid fire, still lay shattered next to it.

The Relictombs were somehow programmed to prevent asuras from entering, but this aether realm was separate—more, maybe—than the Relictombs themselves, which seemed only contained within the greater expanse.

We must have bounced off the Relictombs and ended up in this between-space.

As I stared down on the dim landscape, a gust of wind kicked up the sand, whipping across the dunes with impossible speed and wiping them away. When the windstorm faded, the zone seemed to…reset. Back exactly to the way I’d found it. I could see the hydra’s form writhing just below the canyon’s edge, lying in wait for the next ascender to challenge it.

What is—

The cutting pain, the sense of something missing, came back, drawing my attention to a void within myself.

Regis! I shouted mentally, searching for my companion’s mind. He was nowhere to be felt.

Our connection had been severed.

I followed this thread back to those moments—a few seconds—I’d stayed in Dicathen. Regis was still there, I had sent him into Ellie to…I didn’t know what. Help. Somehow. I saw again her thin frame lying on cold stone, bleeding out, my mother—her hands had been so red—struggling to heal her.

I’d needed to hold back my anger. Losing control risked killing everyone there, including Ellie and Mom. All the rage I’d felt in that moment rushed back into me as the shock wore off.

I wouldn’t have to hold back here.

Before I had even fully formed the thought, aether coalesced into a sword in my right hand.

Gnashing my teeth, my entire body going tense, I leaned toward Taci. But I didn’t move.

The bewildered frown on Taci’s face had slowly morphed into a furious grimace that mirrored my own. “Where are we, Leywin? What did you do!”

Then he was on me, his crimson spear—stained yet redder with the blood of my friends and family—knocking aside my weapon and driving through my shoulder. I grabbed the spear’s shaft with my free hand and used it as leverage to kick Taci in the chest, sending him spinning away.

His spear ripped free of the wound, leaving a bloody gash just below my collarbone. Blood drifted out in little globules, and despite the danger Taci posed, I couldn’t help but watch them float through the aetheric nothing-space.

The red was quickly infused with purple as particles of aether clung to them. The sharp pain in my shoulder lessened, and I realized aether was flowing into the wound from the atmosphere, not out from my core. The wound was healed in an instant.

Drawing on the atmosphere for the first time since appearing here, aether rushed into my core. The atmosphere wasn’t just thick with aether—it was aether. All of it. Everything. That devouring presence I had sensed was an endless ocean of aether eager to reabsorb the tiny fraction of it that had been shaped into the Relictombs portal.

Taci was watching me warily, his eyes focused on my shoulder where the wound had vanished. “What have you become, Arthur Leywin?”

Letting out a scoff, I called on the relic armor. Waves of obsidian scales coalesced around my body, practically quivering against my skin as it reacted to the ocean of pure aether.

My left hand thrust forward, palm outward, and a cone of blazing violet energy scorched the space between us. Taci flew backwards, hacking at the aether with his spear, but the blast followed him, writhing like a snake as it grew and grew, a living torrent of aether eager to devour him whole.

With no ground to shove off of, he could fly but couldn’t use the Mirage Walk technique to reposition. Still, his mobility far outstripped my own, which seemed limited to spinning in place as I very slowly drifted away from where we’d appeared. If I had any hope against him, I needed to figure out how to move.

Dismissing the aether blade—but still concentrating on the coiling stream of aether flooding from my hand—I mentally felt around me. Flying would be optimal, but even if I just had something to stand on…

My feet came to rest against something solid. Caught off guard, I lost focus on the aetheric torrent as I looked down at a small platform of purple-gray, slightly luminous energy. It was perfectly smooth and radiated a gentle warmth.

This is aether…

My head snapped up at a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. The amethyst sword hummed to life in my grip just in time to deflect a sweeping cut aimed at my neck. Taci used his momentum to slam into me, hurtling me off the platform toward the dunes below. I spun out of control, flying wildly through empty space, but was quickly jarred to a stop as my back struck a solid, vibrating surface.

Taci was on top of me, his spear leaping and thrusting so fast it was nothing but a red blur. Each strike was a near-instant burst of movement, as Mirage Walk sped not only his movement, but his attacks as well.

Getting my feet under me, I matched the asura move for move. We fell into the patterns taught to us long ago by Kordri, but it quickly became clear that Taci’s training had gone far beyond my own, his every strike countering mine with brutal efficiency. If not for my asuran physique, he would have outpaced me in moments.

Taci vanished. I let my senses unfocus, searching for the aetheric pathways with the God Step rune, but…there were no paths here.

Something hit me like a battering ram between my shoulder blades, the relic armor only just withstanding the blow, and I was knocked forward. Taci appeared in front of me, and the long, winged blade of his spear plunged through my armor just above my stomach, the black scales bending and shearing apart.

I felt it as the spear impacted off the twice-hardened shell of my aether core. A sickening ripple went through me, every atom of my being recoiling in horror. I jolted painfully when the spear’s point wracked against the armor over my back, lacking the force to puncture completely through.

Panic rising like bile in my throat, I turned my senses inward, focusing on my core.

It was intact.

Despite the pain of my wound, the fear drained from me, replaced with a cold fury as I slashed at his throat with the blade of my hand.

The spear disintegrated as Taci moved to catch my arm. I twisted, breaking his hold, then snapped a jab into his chin, letting off an aetheric blast directly into his face. His arm coiled around mine as he reeled back, using the momentum to pull me up off the ground, spin, and send me flying.

Through the pain haze, I realized where we were; we’d been fighting on the side of some kind of barrier encasing the dune zone. It was a rough, transparent shell that separated the zone from the aetheric expanse. In the half-second I had to consider this, my mind rebelled against the idea. The dunes had seemed endless from within the zone, with no walls or ceiling, and yet…

Taci landed on my back, smashing me into the shell. I felt the aether pushed aside as he raised his spear, heard the creak of his teeth and jaw as he snarled down at me, poised to drive the weapon through my skull.

Aether was rushing into me. My core was brimming with it, the wound in my chest already healed.

I shoved away from the “ground” as hard as I could while conjuring the aether blade in a reverse grip, sweeping it behind me.

The spear glanced off the armor around my neck, and Taci howled in agony.

I spun, the aether blade automatically shifting to a forward grip as I brought it up defensively, but Taci was fifty feet away, one hand pressed against a bloody wound in his side, half his face scorched a dark, sooty gray. His chest was rising and falling rapidly, his breath hissing between gritted teeth, eyes bulging.

I stretched my neck as aether healed the bruise Taci’s blow had momentarily caused. “First time you’ve had to bleed for Lord Indrath’s ambitions?”

With an angry shout, Taci reared back and hurled his spear at me. It streaked like red lightning out of the purple sky. I took one shallow step, letting it cut through the air less than an inch from my face.

It struck the zone’s shell like a hammer striking a gong, sinking into it. A series of cracks raced out from the impact, and purple motes began to leak out and vanish into the atmosphere.

Instinctively, I took the spear in my hands and jerked it free of the shell. The shaft bowed in my grip as I flexed, intending to break it in two, but it was heavily reinforced with mana. The next second, I was holding nothing. The spear had dematerialized and reappeared in Taci’s hand.

A thick stream of aether particles was now leaking out of the hole it had left in the shell at my feet.

Spear in hand, Taci flew farther away, only coming to a stop when there was a hundred feet or more between us. “Whatever half-breed mongrel beast you’ve made of yourself, Arthur Leywin, know that it is my honor to unmake you,” he shouted through the void.

Then he began to transform.

Broad, black horns burst through the skin above his ears, growing out and forward until they crossed over one another in front of his eyes, then melding together into a flat plate that masked the upper half of his face. Two additional pairs of arms pushed out of his sides, ripping off his shirt and stretching inhumanly. His tanned skin hardened and feathered outward into golden scales that shone dully in the defused purple light. The wound just above his hip closed, the skin melting back together as scales grew over it.

Finally, four eyes, two on each side of his head, opened, their brilliantly white irises seeming to stare outward in every direction. “See what a pantheon—what I—am truly capable of, lesser.”

Held in four hands, the red spear swept from the side as air hissed like pistons from between the scales that lined his arms. I felt the distortion in the aether as the attack was projected, and dark aetheric sparks flew from the zone’s shell.

Activating Burst Step, I dodged just under the force attack. Behind me, there was a series of sharp, sudden cracks, and the gash in the shell began to cave inward, the barrier itself shattering like an eggshell.

A small aether platform appeared beneath my foot, and I charged my body with aether before pushing off it with Burst Step again, aiming for Taci. But he moved just as fast. Deflecting the strike at his heart with one hand, the asura grabbed my wrist with another and caught the full force of my momentum with his knee into my stomach.

My armor flexed, and the ribs beneath it cracked. I started flying backwards, but Taci still had my wrist. He jerked me to a halt, rearing back with his spear.

Using him as an anchor, I spun around and planted my feet against his chest, then pushed outward, again activating Burst Step.

His grip broke, but my leg screamed in pain at the thigh as his spear punched through my armor and cracked my femur. At the end of Burst Step, I was left floating in the void, spinning around and shedding a thick trail of blood from my shredded leg.

It hurt like hell, but aether was already flooding to the wound, pulling the flesh back together, the armor sealing over it just as quickly. As I spun, I caught sight of Taci struggling to regain control of his flight, as he’d been catapulted away from me by the force of Burst Step.

Then my rotation brought the dune zone back into my eyeline.

Aether was spilling out of a thousand cracks across the surface of its shell, a significant part of which had collapsed. The dunes within were dissolving, solid matter breaking apart into aether particles before being blasted out into the void.

My skin was suddenly damp with a cold sweat as I watched the violet plumes be reabsorbed into the atmosphere. I sucked in a surprised, delighted breath, my heart beating like a drum at the realization.

Sylvie’s stone…

I nearly reached for it before the reality of my situation came crashing down on me—an instant before Taci himself did the same.

Our limbs intertwined as we hurtled like a meteor toward the collapsing zone below, four hands struggling to grapple me while the other two slammed the spear into my ribs. The wide-tipped blade slid over black scales with a metallic shriek.

I summoned the aether blade into one of my pinned wrists and twisted.

The violently purple light swept across one of Taci’s wrists. The fine golden scales shifted, changing angles to deflect the blow; my strike lacked the force to pierce through.

The asura scoffed and pulled me in close, the spear wrapped around my back to pin me to him, my arms trapped between us.

Taci’s head pulled back, then the horn-plate over his eyes slammed into the bridge of my nose with a crunch. Stars exploded in my vision, then winked into black-purple striations of pain as Taci headbuttted me again. I felt more than saw him pull back for a third blow, but something collided with us from the side, sending both of us spinning away from each other.

Before I could make sense of what was happening, I crashed into the side of a dune, the coarse golden sands swallowing me.

All around me, I could feel the matter breaking down, whatever magic the djinn used to bind and shape reality failing.

Still reeling from Taci’s last strike, it took real effort to push outward with a nova of aether, destroying the dune I had sunk into. I found Taci waiting for me, floating at the border where the still-collapsing zone met the void.

The once endless sand sea now seemed little more than an island in the purple void. The shell was visible from inside the zone now, the sky no longer vibrant blue by a dusky blue-purple with bright cracks running through it. The canyon containing the hydra and exit portal had already dissolved, leaving only this patch of dunes and the frame of the zone’s entrance portal, which stood in a valley at the very center.

Damn it, I thought, feeling myself grow pale.

That portal seemed like the only way out of this place. And the zone was rapidly collapsing around it. I wasn’t sure what would happen when the entire zone was gone, but I knew it wouldn’t be good.

Small platforms appeared at will as I stepped up into the air toward Taci.

There wasn’t much time, but I couldn’t activate the portal and risk him coming through it with me.

“You must have really hated me back then to bring us to this point,” I said, buying myself a second to think.

Taci scoffed, a sound like stones shattering. “You have nothing to do with my current mission. Although this has been an interesting encounter, and killing you will bring a certain redemption for the insult of being forced to train alongside you as a child, you have not stopped me from doing as my lord commanded.”

“Haven’t I?” I quirked a brow at him, smiling wryly. “You don’t know where you are, or how to leave. Kill me or not, my family and friends are safe from you. You’re trapped here, Taci. Forever.”

Taci’s mouth bent down into a deep frown. “That’s a lie. You’re just trying to save yourself, because you know you can’t defeat me.”

I snorted derisively. “I’ll admit, I really bought into the asuras’ mystique, still thinking of you as gods. But the truth is, you’re just a frightened child, and Lord Indrath is a short-sighted coward.”

Taci’s spear flashed, and I Burst Stepped to the top of a neighboring dune. The hill I’d left behind burst in a shower of sand, cut completely in two. The spear flashed again, and I dodged, then again and again, each strike carving away at what little was left of the zone.

I activated God Step.

Inside the zone, my senses lit up as all the amethyst pathways connecting every point to every other burned bright to my senses. But they were unstable, collapsing alongside the zone, the points shifting and fading as I held them in my mind.

I stepped into them anyway.

And appeared right in front of Taci.

His inhuman eyes widened in surprise, but he managed to bring his spear up to defend as a blade appeared in my hand. I swung toward him, baiting him to move his spear to catch the blow, but let the blade dissolve at the last moment, using the force of my swing to strike him in the chest.

The spear came up and around, but God Step took me behind him. The golden scales shifted again, seeming to follow me, his four eyes offering him a clear line of sight in every direction.

My knee drove into his lower back, my elbow coming down on the base of his neck, and I God Stepped again, appearing just behind the arc of his spear. Aether rushed into my fist, releasing in a burst as I struck him just below the ribs, the force of it pushing me away.

But I appeared again at Taci’s side, grabbing two of his arms as I drove my elbow up into his chin and pushed off the back of his knee with one foot. Using the momentum of my own perpetual fall along with the subtle shifts my strikes and kicks created, I spun through the air, conjuring an aether blade and swinging it up under his arms.

Two fists hit me at the same time, sending me tumbling out of the zone’s limited atmosphere and into the aetheric space that surrounded it.

A vertical wall formed to catch me, and I slammed into it with enough force to crack it.

I jerked around, looking for Taci. He was staring at his right side, where all three of his arms drifted beside him, connected to his body only by the streams of blood spilling out of the severed joints and limbs.

But past him, I saw what was left of the zone. The portal frame stood at the center of an island only thirty feet across, golden sand spilling from the broken edges and transforming into purple aether particles.

Pushing against the cracked platform, I Burst Stepped again, aiming for the island, my entire mind bent on reaching it before it collapsed completely. The djinn projection’s words returned to me, and the aether reacted to my thought, seeming to wrap itself around me, lifting me, pushing me up and then speeding me toward my goal.

Strong hands grabbed my ankle, and I jerked to a near halt. Looking over my shoulder, I realized I was towing Taci behind me, two of his remaining hands holding onto me while the third jabbed with the spear. It glanced off my hip, then again off my back, my armor flaring with aether as it absorbed the impacts and turned the blade aside.

I slashed at his wrists, and he flailed backwards to avoid losing any more limbs. Turning back toward the portal, I rushed forward again, flying through the aether like I had wings.

The island shrank before my eyes. Fifteen feet wide, ten feet. Aether rushed into my storage rune, the Compass appearing in my hand. Eight feet. Infusing the Compass with both aether and will, I twisted it into two. Five feet of land remained beneath the portal frame, which was growing distorted around the edges, the aether struggling to hold its form.

Focusing on the Compass and the chamber where I’d found Ellie and Mom, I slowed despite every impulse to move faster, faster. Purple light began to glow within the sandstone frame, sharpening into a view through the portal.

I saw Virion kneeling beside Rinia, tears on his face. Mother was casting spells over my sister, her eyes dry, her face determined. My heart skipped a beat as I took in the redness of Ellie’s cheeks, the rising and falling of her chest. She was alive.

And sitting directly in front of the portal was Regis, concern etched into his lupine features, the fire of his mane waving in agitation.

There was only a foot of ground left on either side of the portal as I hurtled toward it.

A streak of red pierced the portal frame. Sandstone exploded outward, and the purple-tinted window rippled, faded, and popped with a sound like boiling tar. I landed in the wreckage an instant later. Around me, the last of the island dissolved, then the remains of the portal frame, and finally the last few shards of hard aether shell that had contained the zone.

We were stranded in the void, nothing but the two of us as far as I could see.

“You’re staying here with me, lesser,” Taci said, his three remaining hands holding the severed stumps across his body.

As I watched, the horns receded back into Taci’s head, the rest of his body reverting to his original shape an instant later. He looked pale and weak as he listed to the side, missing an arm, the bloody hole in his shoulder shining with mana to bind the wound. And still, somehow, he maintained his frustrating arrogance.

His lip curled up into a sneer, his eyes searching, digging into my own. “Shall we be two immortals, battling for eternity in this outer realm?”

I shook my head, willing the aether to move me up to his level so I could look him in the eye. “There is no mana here, is there? And you’ve expended all yours maintaining that form. I don’t have to fight you forever, Taci. In fact, I don’t have to do anything at all.” I looked him up and down pointedly. “With no way to replenish your mana, your body will consume itself. You’re already dead, and you know it.”

The facade of his overbearing confidence cracked, and for an instant he was just a boy—a terrified kid who wasn’t ready to die.

Then the spear appeared in a scarlet shimmer, and he pointed it at my core. “Then I won’t hold anything back.”

A large aether platform formed underneath us. I settled my feet on it. Seeing my intention, Taci did the same, his spear held down and out to his left. I conjured a blade into my right hand and set my feet.

“For Lord Indrath, may he reign forever under the golden sun,” Taci said proudly.

“Not if I can help it.”

Aether flooded to every point in my body, preparing it for Burst Step. Taci’s eyes narrowed. Then I was moving.

Taci hadn’t flashed forward to meet me. Instead, he settled back, his eyes tracking me even in the midst of Burst Step, his spear moving to catch me.

I let go of my aether blade and activated God Step. There were no paths, and no time to sense for them even if there had been, but the space around me warped, pulling me into and through the distortion, and I appeared behind Taci, aetheric lightning wreathing my limbs.

Infusing the blade of my hand with aether, I spun around and struck Taci at the base of his neck, just where it met his shoulder. There was a loud crack as his body folded inward.

The aether blade, which I had released while still moving forward, flew past Taci. I caught it in my free hand and plunged it between his shoulder blades. His body was turning, the spear spinning around to thrust backwards, but it slipped from his fingers as he instead stumbled down to a knee, his jet black eyes staring up at me in despair.

“You want to know what I’ve become?” I asked, driving my blade through his neck. “Godkiller should be appropriate.”

Taci coughed, spraying blood over the platform, then collapsed and went still.

I dismissed my armor and then the platform, releasing Taci’s body to drift in the void. I watched it float for a few seconds until Taci’s face turned in my direction and I met his wide, dead eyes, frozen in this last moment of surprise.

Then I turned away, refusing to take joy in his death. For all Taci had done, he was still just a tool for Kezess.

The crimson spear, its winged blade outlined in a shimmering haze as the aether in my blood was reabsorbed into the atmosphere, floated nearby. I plucked it out of the void and sent it into my dimension rune, knowing a proper inspection would have to wait.

After that, I spared Taci and his weapon no further thought, turning away from his body to examine the endless void around me.

Immediately, I noticed a deviation in the atmosphere’s coloration just where the exit portal had been, like a stain on the dark sky. The aether there fluctuated, rippling like water.

I rushed to it, reaching out and just letting the tips of my fingers brush the surface. A tingling sensation like static electricity ran up my arm and made my teeth itch.

Something was forcing it open, holding it there for me. I pushed my palm against the distortion, but it resisted. There was a connection back to Dicathen, I could feel it, but the portal itself was gone. This was more like…a scar.

‘—thur. You…shit, you better not be dead or I’ll kill you myself.’

A tired grin spread across my face as I heard the sound of Regis’s voice in my head, echoing along the scar.

Regis. You kept the portal open. How?

I practically heard him scoff. ‘Yeah, I’m amazing, details don’t really matter right now though, because’—his mental voice was strained, like he was holding up a great weight—‘I can’t keep this here much longer. You need—’

Regis’s thoughts fizzled out, and I felt the distortion waver as it faded perceptibly before my eyes.

Almost without meaning to, I conjured Sylvie’s iridescent egg from my dimension rune. It was warm to the touch, and practically vibrated in the presence of so much aether. There was more than enough here to bring her back, I knew it. But—

A spike of panic surged through me. Not my own, but Regis’s. He couldn’t hold the portal scar in place any longer.

I squeezed the egg. “I’ll come back, I promise.”

The egg went back into my rune as I faced the scar, reaching for it with both hands, pressing on it with all my mental and physical strength, willing Regis to hear me.

Seconds past. I pushed harder, feeling the fabric of reality quake under my hands. Golden light suffused me as Aroa’s Requiem activated, the golden motes flowing down my arms and into the scar.

Regis’s thoughts came to me clearly as the dying connection suddenly strengthened.

There were no words, but a mental projection of what he was seeing: a dozen mages working to pull others from rubble, dozens more only staring at Regis, mouths open and tears streaming down their faces.

I focused on Ellie and Mom. I saw the space from me to them, pictured the web of interconnected aetheric pathways linking each point between us.

I activated God Step.

Walls of amethyst mist and violet lightning sped past. My core lurched as reality warped around me.

Then my feet touched solid ground.

Slowly, like waking from a long, deep dream, I opened my eyes.

The portal chamber had largely collapsed. Dust was heavy in the air, tinged with the copper smell of spilled blood.

A warm presence drifted into my back and settled near my core. ‘Welcome back. You can take things from here, yeah?’

My sister was staring up at me from the edge of the dais supporting the portal frame. Her blood and dust stained face twitched from one emotion to another, confusion pushing away lingering pain and a distraught sadness. Under it all, though, there was a hopeful glimmer.

“B-brother? Is that really you?”

I felt my expression soften and my body relax. “Hey, El. It’s been a while.”

Tears burst from her eyes as she jumped up and slammed into me, wrapping me into a desperate hug.

I hugged Ellie back, squeezing her tightly and picking her off her feet. When I set her down, she looked up at me, her cheeks streaked with tear trails. She had grown so much. There was a depth and maturity to her almond-shaped brown eyes I didn’t remember from before, and she was lean and athletic, like my father in his youth.

She frowned slightly and plucked at a strand of my pale hair.

Then she punched me in the arm as hard as she could. “I thought you were dead!”

My smile faltered, and I pulled her back into a hug, one hand patting the back of her head. I looked over her to where my mom had half stood. She was pale and shaking, her eyes wide, mouth hanging open. She seemed thin and weak, like she’d shriveled away in the months since I’d seen her. But she was still my beautiful mother.

I smiled at her the way Dad used to. “Hi Mom. I’m back.”

As if the words had stolen the last of her strength, she fell to her knees, her hands going to her face as she sobbed into them.

Dozens of other people stood or sat around us, all dusty and covered in blood. But my eyes settled on Virion, who gave me a faint nod before looking down to the person in his arms.

Elder Rinia, her body stiff and obviously devoid of life. She had exhausted the last of her lifeforce to bring these people here, where I could protect them.

My gaze fell back to Ellie, shaking in my arms.

“I’m back.”

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