The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 389

If audio player doesn't work, press Reset or reload the page.
Chapter 389

Chapter 387: Long-Worn Shackles


The violet markings of Realmheart burned hot against my skin as I focused on the godrune. Now that I could once again see and sense mana, I felt connected to the physical space around me in a way I hadn’t since waking in the Relictombs.

Read first at ""

The smell of sweat and ozone, the sight of mana particles rolling and tumbling out of Mica’s core, the sound of Bairon’s heavy breathing, and even the weight of my own body pushing down on the ground beneath me all wove into one intertwined tapestry of sensation.

I focused on the mana along Mica’s arms as it rushed into the huge hammer she swung with both hands. The hammer thickened and hardened, swelling to become even more unnaturally large. The sound of thunder crashed and rolled through the cavern, and the hammer shattered, exploding into a million knife-like shards.

Mica rolled under a lightning spear as the stone shards all shivered to a stop in midair, turned, and hurtled back at her target. Crackling static shivered through the air, and the stones became magnetized, snapping to each other and veering off course. The few that managed to reach Bairon burst against his mana barrier.

Next to me, behind a layer of transparent ice that protected us from any stray spells, Varay shifted. Her eyes were half-closed as she focused more on sensing the two sparring Lances’ cores and the strength of their mana manipulation than the physical aspects of their fight. “Their cores both feel strong. Nearly replenished.”

I bit my tongue. It is true that they’ve nearly returned to their full strength, but…

‘Their full strength barely dented a toddler asura,’ Regis cut in, looking up from where he lay in the corner, uninterested in the sparring.

The air in the room grew heavy as the gravity swelled. Going stiff, Bairon strained against the massive weight of his own body, which threatened to pull him to the ground. Sand was swirling up all around him and hardening into boulders that immediately flew in his direction.

Another thunderclap shook the training cave, lightning-attribute mana shivering and sparking in my Realheart-enhanced vision.

The stones quivered but didn’t break, their forms momentarily seeming somehow indefinite, and then they hit him. Instead of solid rock meant to crush and bludgeon, the stones exploded across Bairon like mud—or maybe quicksand—caking him from head to toe. Mica’s core again thrummed with the release of mana, and the sand became stone, hardening around his body.

Bairon’s eyes dilated, and the hair on his head stood on end.

A cloak of lightning coiled around him, and the crack of thunder shivered through the stone, causing it to burst apart before it could fully harden.

Read first at ""

Lightning spread out like a web across the floor around his feet, creating many individual bolts that snapped up from the ground to destroy the pieces of stone that Mica tried to control, including the hammer forming again in her hand.

The currents of electricity—visible as streams of bright yellow mana—raced up Mica’s arm, causing her fist to spasm and tighten around the hammer. Her eye went wide as her muscles were swiftly paralyzed by the overload of electrical energy. But even when she suddenly reversed gravity and sent Bairon plummeting up toward the ceiling, it wasn’t enough to break his spell.

With Thunderclap Impulse active, Bairon was able to react with near-instant precision. He spun in the air, stabilized himself so that he was hovering upside down, and activated the lightning web burning across the floor.

Each individual tendril of electrical energy formed a small bolt and struck out in a seemingly random direction, ricocheting off the walls and ceiling to create a chaotic maelstrom of lightning bolts filling the cave.

The mana felt so close, like I could almost touch it. The muscle memory was still there, and it twitched as I watched the fight, like a one-armed soldier trying to lift his missing arm to ward off a blow.

With a sigh, I glanced at Varay’s conjured arm of ice. A thin but constant stream of deviant ice-attribute mana was trickling from her core into the arm, holding its form. If she could use mana to duplicate the effect of having a physical arm, was there a way that I, too, could replicate what I’d lost?

A haze of fine sand had risen to fill the cave, absorbing the electricity and nullifying Bairon’s spell. A new hammer was growing in Mica’s second hand, this one formed of dull iron. The lightning mana paralyzing her muscles was drawn out of her and into the metallic hammer. Bairon’s hair fell flat, signaling the end of the Thunderclap Impulse spell, just as Mica hurled the lightning-infused chunk of iron at Bairon. At the same time, gravity flipped again, and this time he was slammed backward into the closest wall.

I focused on how the atmospheric aether reacted—or didn’t react—to the mana. It seemed to ignore the mana completely, while at the same time always fitting into the space not occupied by mana. It was neither avoiding nor shaping the mana, not really. It was more accurate to think of the two forces as shaping each other, like a mountain stream following its banks after having formed the banks through erosion.

Read first at ""

However, like the water and cup metaphor, this idea failed to properly explain the relationship between the two forces.

Pinned against the wall, Bairon couldn’t react in time to avoid Mica’s electrified metal hammer. It crashed into him, and he was lost in a cloud of dust and debris.

The visible mana particles faded away as my concentration on Realmheart gave out.

“Bairon?” Varay said, stepping out from behind the protective layer of transparent ice.

A dry cough came from the dust, then Bairon’s silhouette appeared, hunched slightly. He straightened and cracked his neck as he strode back out into the open. Behind him, the dust faded, revealing a hole in the cavern wall several feet deep. “Well fought, Lance Mica. I’m feeling nearly recovered. You seem to be as well.”

Mica flexed the arm that still held her oversized hammer. “Mica does feel much better, yes.”

The Lances had been strained to the point of backlash during their fight with Taci, with wounds that would leave a mark for the rest of their lives. Although the scabs around Mica’s eye had already fallen away to reveal shining scars beneath, the eye itself would never heal.

Varay’s arm of magical ice and the onyx stone resting heavily in Mica’s eye socket would stay with them as stark reminders of their near-deaths, but for me, they were something else entirely.

The other four Lances together hadn’t been able to defeat Taci. Aya had sacrificed her life just to slow him down. And Taci was only a boy by asuran standards. How could I expect them to stand against the likes of Aldir or Kordri, much less Kezess and Agrona?

The truth was that we were preparing for a war against deities, but we’d already lost a war against men, and our most powerful mages not only hadn’t grown in strength, but couldn’t.

Read first at ""

‘There is still Fate,’ Regis reminded me. ‘Maybe they wouldn’t have to fight if we went back to the Relictombs.’

Or, by the time we came back, there might not be a world left to save, I thought, feeling a dark melancholy creeping to overtake my mood.

Instead, I turned back to the Lances and forced a smile onto my face. “So Bairon, how did Mica manage to win with only one eye?”

A scowl flashed across Bairon’s face, but it quickly transformed into a wry grin as he took in my expression. “Well, you know how grumpy she gets when you don’t let her win.”

Mica stamped her foot and crossed her arms, making her look more childlike than ever. “You let me win, did you? Maybe if you were more versatile, Bai, you wouldn’t have ended up buried ten feet into the wall.”

I chuckled and felt the sourness leaving me. Even one side of Varay’s lips quirked up in something that almost looked like a smile.

“I’m curious, though, what were you doing with the lightning tendrils while you were under the effects of Thunderclap Impulse?” I asked. “I couldn’t keep up with the micro-movements while your reactions were so fast.”

Bairon’s head turned to the side slightly as he regarded me in surprise. “You noticed? But how? I…” He cut himself off with a disbelieving laugh. “Nevermind, nothing you do surprises me anymore. As for your question, I can extend my senses out through the lightning-attribute mana when casting Thunderclap Impulse.”

“So you’ve even improved on my spell. Impressive.”

Mica snorted. “If you’re going to be a one-trick pony, it better be a good trick.”

“Perhaps your head has grown too big for your small body,” Bairon said, flexing his hands and making electricity jump between his fingers. “I think a rematch is necessary.”

“Actually,” Varay cut in, raising her brows at me, “I was hoping Arthur might agree to a bout with me. It’s been a very long time since we sparred. I know I speak for all three of us when I say that we’d like to get a closer look at your capabilities.”

Read first at ""

I thought about this, then shook my head. Although I knew I needed to help the Lances grow stronger—somehow—I didn’t think that sparring was the way. “Actually, I was just about to excuse myself. I’ve been waiting on Gideon for something, and I’d like to check on his progress.”

“Understood,” she replied. “I suppose I should check in with Lords Earthborn and Silvershale on the defensive alterations they are making to the city.” I could sense the mostly-concealed hesitation in Varay’s voice. When I gave her a wry smile, she sighed. “Their bickering is tiresome.”

Chuckling, I said, “Well, good luck with that.” I gave the three Lances a small wave in farewell, then started down the long tunnel back to Vildorial, where I circumnavigated the city to arrive at the Earthborn Institute. Regis padded along silently behind me.

The gate into the school was guarded, but the dwarves there only watched warily as we passed by. The school’s carved-stone halls hummed with the constant rumble of machinery, folding in any noise Gideon’s lab may have made, and eventually, I had to ask for directions from a passing faculty member in order to track him down. Read first at ""

This led me deep into the bowels of the school where the hallways were plain and unadorned, looking more like a prison than an educational institution. Heavy stone doors lined both sides of the hall at regular intervals on my right, while those on the left were much more spread out. I found what I was looking for halfway down the hall .

The door was propped partially open, a fact that probably had something to do with the dry heat and burning stench that was wafting out into the hall, Gideon’s harsh voice coming along with it.

“Bah. Let’s start from the beginning. Emily, have you been writing all this down?”

“Writing what down, Professor? We haven’t covered anything new in hours,” she said, her tone teasingly insubordinate.

“Don’t call me that, girl, and just…write down everything I say.”

“Yes sir,” she answered, the rolling of her eyes practically audible from the hallway.

I slipped through the door and leaned against the frame, but didn’t announce my presence. Regis poked his head in beside me. ‘It smells like burnt ass in here.’

Gideon and Emily were standing next to a metal table draped with a ragged, scorched leather cover. Several lighting artifacts hung over the table, casting bright light down on several artifacts that had been carefully laid out atop it.

Read first at ""

“We know—”

“Think,” Emily interrupted.

“—that the obsidian staff is the primary device used in what we have been told is the ‘bestowal ceremony,’ a ritual using these artifacts to grant Alacryan mages ‘runes’—”

“Spellforms,” Emily said.

“—but simply channeling mana into the staff does not cause an immediate reaction.”

Resting lengthwise across the table was an obsidian staff, just like the one I’d seen used in Maerin Town during their bestowment ceremony. The gem at its head glittered green, yellow, red, and blue. Not visible to the naked eye, but clear as day to me, was the concentration of aetheric particles contained within the crystal.

Curious, I activated Realmheart.

Warmth flooded through my back, along my arms, and under my eyes as the godrune lit up. The world around me shifted as the mana became visible. Earth mana clung to the stone walls, floor, and ceiling. Eddies of wind-attribute mana were tossed around on the subtle currents that moved away from where fire mana blazed in a couple of low-burning forges built into one wall.

Emily tensed, and I could see the goosebumps forming on her arms from across the room. Slowly, she turned toward the door. “Arthur, what…?”

Gideon turned a second later. He stared at me, his head cocked slightly to one side. “You going to a party, kid?”

Read first at ""

I smirked at the joke, but my focus was on the staff: densely packed mana particles gave it its glow, and even without being activated, it seemed to be drawing more mana toward itself in a slow trickle.

Mana clung to the other items on the table as well, but being able to sense this didn’t tell me anything new, so I stopped channeling aether into the godrune. The mana particles faded away until they were once again invisible, and my ability to sense them cut out.

I blinked a couple of times as my eyes adjusted to the change in my vision. “So, it sounds like the research hasn’t been very productive?”

Gideon and Emily exchanged a look, and Gideon scratched his half-regrown eyebrows. “Hard to put a puzzle together when you don’t know what the hell it’s supposed to look like,” he grumbled, waving a hand at the artifacts. “Maybe if you would have graced us with your presence a bit sooner…”

“Well I’m here now,” I said as I crossed the room to the table. “And I brought a research assistant.” I gestured to Regis, who reared up to put his front paws on the table. “Understanding this technology is essential if we hope to match the Alacryans, much less stand against asuras.”

“So you implied,” Gideon said wryly, his consternated gaze on the shadow wolf staring thoughtfully down at the artifacts. “I think”—he shot Emily a sharp look—”the runes woven into the ceremonial robes have something to do with activating the staff. Like a key. But there is a sequence to the runes that isn’t immediately obvious, and I don’t want to just blindly try things. Someone could get hurt, or worse we might destroy the robes by accident.”

Emily’s brows rose as she considered her mentor. “Your priorities seem to be out of alignment,” she muttered.

“I don’t know, I think I agree with Professor No Brows,” Regis said off-handedly, eliciting a giggle from Emily. “The robes are definitely necessary.”

“Thanks, I think,” Gideon grumbled.

Read first at ""

“Do your memories from Uto contain anything useful about the bestowal?” I asked.

Regis’s lupine brows knitted together as he struggled to parse the mix of thoughts and memories that had originally combined to give him consciousness. “Uto’d seen a hundred bestowals, usually higher-ranked officers or highbloods. But only the officials who actually perform the ceremony, and I suppose the Instillers and Vritra who designed the things, are taught the specifics.”

“And nothing in the book helped?” I asked Gideon.

Next to the ceremonial black robes rested a thick, well-worn tome. Gideon reached out and opened it to a random page. “It’s a catalog of the many marks, emblems, et cetera that have been handed down by this staff in particular. Fascinating, but no help in using the thing.”

“I guess it was too much to hope it came with an instruction manual,” I said.

Regis’s snout wrinkled. “I think you’re trying to be funny, but that would sort of defeat the purpose of having a super-secret ritual.”

“Oh, good, he insults you too,” Gideon said, giving Regis a bemused look. “I was worried it was all just you pantomiming through your summons, and I was wondering what I’d done wrong.”

“I’m not being insulting,” Regis replied defensively. “I just call it like it is.”

Focus, I thought to Regis, then turned my attention back to the artifacts.

The plain black dimension ring given to me by Alaric was also on the table. Beside it, a necklace of small beads had been arranged in a coiling pile between the ring and the book. The beads were dull yellow-white, and I immediately thought they looked like bone.

“They are,” Regis said seriously, the flames of his mane writhing in agitation. “The carved bones of djinn whose remains were stolen from the Relictombs.”

I carefully scooped up the artifact and let the beads tumble through my fingers. Faint grooves were barely visible distorting the surface of the smooth bone. I squinted and pushed aether into my eyes. Although most of it flowed in the direction I indicated, some of the aether slipped away, drawn toward the necklace.

I thought I understood.

“This technology must have been co-opted from the djinn—ancient mages—and requires some small ability to channel aether,” I said, rolling a bead around between my fingers.

Read first at ""

“I don’t follow,” Emily said, looking from me to Gideon.

I set the necklace carefully back on the table.

Regis leaned down and sniffed at the old bone. “Most of Alacrya’s technological advancements have come from the Vritra’s research into this endless, monster-filled dungeon called the Relictombs. Half tomb, half creepy carnival, but full repository of ancient knowledge, you know? But the djinn mostly worked their magic with aether, which the Alacryans can’t use. These dead-djinn beads attract aether.”

“Which must simulate the capacity for direct manipulation,” Gideon suggested. He grabbed the robes and shook them out, then began tracing the runes embroidered into the interior lining with the tip of his finger. “I’m not entirely fluent, and the runes are complex, but I believe the robe serves a similar purpose, only for mana.”

I tugged down a corner of the fabric to get a better look. “You’re right. I bet these robes allow for channeling all four types of elemental mana. Not in a quadra-elemental spellcaster sort of way, but enough—in conjunction with the necklace—to activate a device that requires earth, air, fire, water, and aether to properly use.”

Gideon tapped his fingers on the table. “It seems unnecessarily convoluted.”

“But maybe that’s purposeful,” Emily suggested, her face brightening. “I mean, think about it. If magical strength were as simple as waving around an artifact”—she pointed to the staff—“then whoever controls this bestowment controls everything.”

“And lesson one of megalomaniac studies is that they don’t like to share power,” Regis replied.

I picked up Regis’s train of thought. “The bestowals allow Agrona to create mages and enhance the purity of their cores with little effort, but the same technology would allow, for example, one of his Sovereigns to do the same in an effort to challenge him.”

Gideon let out a thoughtful hum and leaned over the table, staring down at the staff. “By controlling who understands how the pieces fit together and limiting access to the secondary artifacts, you maintain control of the process.”

“Although…” Emily bit her lip hesitantly. “If the artifacts can simply be stolen…”

“Oh, there are definitely secondary means of protection,” Regis said, hopping down from the table. “Carefully manufactured ignorance is only one part of it. The threat of a horrifying death alone is enough for most. But I’d bet my horns there is some kind of ward or trap woven into all this technology for anyone who does try to steal it and use it against Agrona.”

We were all silent for a moment as we considered this thought.

Read first at ""

Then the silence shattered as an explosion shook the walls and brought down trails of dust from the ceiling.

Regis’s fiery mane bristled as we both turned toward the door. Orange-gray smoke was filling the hall outside.

Gideon chuckled. “Don’t worry, that’s just the new experiments I’ve been trying to show you.”

Without waiting for me to acknowledge his words, Gideon headed out into the hall and toward the source of the blast. Emily shrugged and gestured for us to follow. Regis and I exchanged a look, hesistant to leave the robe and the necklace given the implications we just unlocked, but followed Emily after she locked the lab door behind us.

Not far down the hall, thick red-orange smoke was pouring out of a set of heavy stone doors. Just inside, two dwarven mages were using what looked like scorched cloaks to wave the worst of the smoke away.

They blanched when they noticed Gideon leaning against the doorframe. “Eh, sorry, sir, a spark from one of the weapons ended up in a beaker of niter spirits.”

Gideon was wearing a wide grin, and he took a deep breath of the noxious smoke that was starting to clear. “You can’t make an omelet without causing a few explosions!”

Regis gave a throaty chuckle. “You know, I’m starting to like this guy.”

Emily sagged tiredly. “Great. It’s like there are two of them…”

The old inventor waved us into the room, then practically jogged through the lab to a second set of large doors. “The prototypes aren’t completely stable, as you can no doubt see, but I really think you’ll like what we’ve been doing.”

He yanked the doors open, revealing a much larger chamber. It looked like a warzone. The bare stone walls were scorched black in a hundred places. Along one wall, a scarred metal table held a handful of strange-looking devices.

“Ta da!” Gideon held out his arms, beaming at the arsenal.

I stepped up to the table and looked down at a series of long, tubular devices that looked vaguely like a cross between an ancient musket and a modern rocket-launcher from my old world. Only these were also inscribed with a series of mana-channeling runes. “Are these what I think they are?”

“If you think they are weapons capable of converting energy from dwarven fire salts into destructive blasts capable of incinerating even yellow-core mages, then yes, absolutely,” Gideon said, rubbing his hands together and grinning like some storybook evil genius.

Read first at ""

“Theoretically,” Emily mumbled, eyeing the weapons with clear distaste.

“I call them rune cannons,” Gideon added, oblivious to Emily’s hostility.

“I want one,” Regis said immediately, his tongue lolling from his mouth. “No, make that two. Quick, Arthur, strap them to my back.”

“They’re not perfected yet, but when they are—”

“By ‘not perfected’ he means they’re unstable and still require the presence of mages capable of channeling both fire and wind,” Emily pointed out. “They’re difficult to use, and incredibly dangerous—”

“Well that’s entirely the point, isn’t it?” Gideon snapped, glaring at his assistant. “And those bestowal robes actually gave me an idea how we could use mana crystals and focusing runes to fix the mage problem. The idea is that, with the right training, anyone could use them.”

Although I wanted to—planned to—win this war, I understood much better than Gideon the wide-ranging effects of his invention, as well as the barriers to its use. My hesitation must have shown on my face, because Gideon’s excitement faded away. “What is it?”

I’d decided a long time ago not to be the filter through which Dicathian technology was either held back or escalated, but I couldn’t hold my tongue. “I was just thinking of the Dicatheous.”

Emily crossed her arms and shot Gideon a vindicated look. “See?”

He pouted and kicked the floor with his toe. “Like I didn’t consider that myself? With the appropriate safeguards—”

“What about training?” I asked, cutting him off. “Manufacturing? Distribution? You’re talking about entirely changing the way Dicathen approaches warfare.”

Gideon leaned against the table and began to tap his fingers on its surface. “Yes, yes, but to balance the power dynamic between Dicathen and Alacrya, as well as mages and non-mages, a large-scale change is both necessary and warranted, isn’t it?”

“It does seem a little hypocritical to worry about putting weapons into the hands of non-mages in a world where single beings are capable of wiping out entire countries,” Regis added.

Read first at ""

“Exactly,” Gideon said, rapping hard on the tabletop.

I regarded the rune cannons, considering both Regis’s and Gideon’s words. Perhaps there was a way to utilize Gideon’s discoveries without handing untrained soldiers weapons that might literally blow up in their—and our—faces.

“Tell me more,” I said. “Especially about the fire salts.”

The eccentric inventor launched into a rapid-fire explanation of his many discoveries and many, many experiments that led him to this invention, and as he talked, an idea grew in my mind.

Gideon was right, though. We did need a way to make our non-mage soldiers more effective.

As I opened my mouth to explain the idea, another explosion shook the underground tunnels—this one larger and farther away. I shot Gideon a questioning look.

He turned from me to Emily and then back. His face had gone pale. “That wasn’t me.”

Read first at ""