The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 390

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Chapter 390

Chapter 388: Defending Vildorial


The shifting earth of the battle map rotated around under the careful control of three dwarven mages working in concert. The three-dimensional blueprint showed the tunnels and egress points in and around Vildorial in detail, the image of it held in the dwarven tacticians’ minds. In the short time since our arrival and ouster of the Alacryan forces, most of the tunnels had already been diverted or capped off, isolating the Darvish capital from the larger underground network that connected it with other dwarven cities.

“Just a handful of tunnels remain open to the north of the city, here.” Carnelian Earthborn, Mica’s father, pointed to a section of small tunnels that laced into several much larger thoroughfares. “But they’ll be closed off in the next of couple hours. All mining and farming operations outside of the city have been halted, and all civilians have been brought into the city.”

“Fast work,” I said appreciatively. “And the city gates?” I asked, turning to Daglun Silvershale, who had been given charge of the work within the great cavern itself.

“The city’s sealed up tighter than a rockworm’s sphincter,” he confirmed, nodding grimly. “And the Royal Palace has been opened up to provide shelter for a few thousand, at least.”

I bit my tongue. This had been a part of the plan I hadn’t agreed with, but the dwarvish lords had insisted that the highest-ranking dwarves—themselves, in other words—and their families be evacuated to the Greysunders’ Royal Palace. Carnelian himself had wheedled a promise out of Mica that she would stand guard over the estate.

Despite this frustrating waste of resources, I had been forced to acknowledge that the Lances were not “in charge” of the dwarves, and had no right, other than that provided by our power and prowess, to give orders or make proclamations. We had already agreed that the Lances would not force control away from the lords in some kind of authoritarian military coup.

There had been enough in-fighting already, and we needed to be focused on the Alacryans. The dwarven people had a lot of soul-searching to do when this war was over. Again and again, their leaders had failed them. If the people wanted the Lances’ help to rectify that after the war, I would be more than happy to acquiesce, but we had to survive the oncoming storm before we could begin to clean up the mess that was our own house.

However, I didn’t try to hide my contempt for their plan as I met Lord Silvershale’s eye. “And fortifications to the other city structures, as I requested?”

He cleared his throat. “Ongoing, Lance.”

Carnelian stepped in with a grim smile. “A squad of mages from the Earthmovers’ Guild can be reassigned from the tunnels into the city to strengthen fortifications.”

Silvershale tugged at the braids of his beard, and he looked like he wanted to argue, but eventually seemed to think better of it, deflating slightly. “Aye, we could use the assistance.”

If the Alacryans attacked the city, they would have to blast their way in. This placed the many dwarves whose homes were built into the walls of the cavern directly in harm’s way, and stones dislodged from the cave’s ceiling would have the velocity of catapult stones by the time they reached the lower levels, easily demolishing unfortified structures. Simply instructing people to shelter in place wasn’t enough. Not nearly.

“There is no telling how long we’ll have to prepare,” I reminded the two lords. “We’ve bitten the Alacryans’ hand, but somewhere, that hand is curling into a fist to strike back.”

As if conjured into reality by the weight of my words, an ominous rumbling shook the foundations of the Earthborn Institute, sending tremors up through the soles of my boots.

Carnelian rushed to the door of the chamber and looked out into the hall. Panicked voices could be heard echoing through the school. The three-dimensional map crumbled back into dust as the mages turned to their lords for direction.

“Defensive positions,” I said immediately. “Get a squad of mages to those northern tunnels to finish closing them off.”

“They’ll be right in the line of fire if the Alacryans come from the north,” Carnelian said, his tone hesitant and lightly questioning, as if asking for confirmation.

“And our defenses are breached before the battle even begins if those tunnels are not sealed,” I replied, fully understanding the risks. This was hardly the first time I had sent soldiers to what could very well be their deaths. “And send up the alarm. People need to take shelter wherever they can.”

Waiting only long enough to see the two lords’ sharp nods of understanding, I wheeled around and flew out of the room, along a series of square tunnels, and then out through the front gates of the Earthborn Institute.

Mica flew up from some lower level, the black gem in her eye socket giving her a menacing look as she glared through the stone walls in the direction of the rumbling. “Someone is opening the blocked tunnels…or trying to. They must have set off one of the stone-sheath traps.”

The dwarves were, unsurprisingly, quite adept at hiding all manner of devious traps within the tunnels of their home. Even if the Alacryans had dwarves among their forces, they would find it difficult to brute-force their way through the many obstacles the Vildorians had erected around the city.

The approach of a powerful aura made Mica and me turn in unison, but it was only Arthur appearing from the Earthborn Institute’s gates. As he strode purposefully toward us, I couldn’t help but stare at him, my eyes traveling slowly across his features as I tried, again, to match this man to the sixteen-year-old boy he had once been.

His wheat-blond hair was set waving by the speed of his own movement, hanging down around a face that could have been chiseled from stone, any youthful softness erased by the trials of this war. The most startling, though, were his eyes. Those golden orbs burned like the sun, his gaze carrying a physical warmth, a raw and indefinable power, whenever it fell on me. HIs sudden presence caused goosebumps to raise along the backs of my arms and neck, uncomfortably reminding meof how I’d felt in the presence of General Aldir.

Small. Insubstantial. Without purpose.

“What’s the situation?” Arthur asked, stopping next to me.

I gave myself a mental shake before answering. “Movement in the tunnels. No word from the scouts yet, but some of our traps have been set off. The Alacryans are coming.”

“Then, let’s get ready for them,” Arthur answered, his tone unwavering.


After the hurried rush of preparation, Vildorial fell into a tense, quivering stillness. I had ensured the defensive forces were moving into position as directed, then fallen back to a remote curve of the highway that ringed the city so that I could see the entire cavern at once. Watching. Waiting. But there was no sign of the Alacryans. Not yet.

An approaching mana signature drew my gaze upward, and I watched as Mica flew across the open expanse to land next to me.

“The lords and their families, as well as a few select…important residents, have been seen safely to the Royal Palace,” Mica said, her cheeks red with clear embarrassment. “Mica…I mean, I’ll be, um, guarding the palace. Is there anything you need before I…?”

I shook my head, trying not to target my irritation at her. “The dwarven forces have been posted around the city at the most likely points of entry should the Alacryans reach the city. Bairon and I will rotate between these forces.”

“Has the scouting party returned?”

Again, I shook my head. We’d sent a dozen elite mages, all highly capable of earth-attribute manipulation, out into the eastern tunnels to investigate the source of the original disturbance, but they’d been missing for hours.

Almost as if he had heard our wondering, the air thrummed, and Bairon appeared, flying at speed. A cloud of dust burst from the ground at the force of his landing. “A handful of mages just returned from the northern tunnels,” he was saying before the dust had cleared. “Less than a quarter of the mages sent to close the tunnels.”

“What happened?” Mica said, her agitation setting the stones beneath my feet vibrating.

“They claim they were attacked by shadows,” Bairon said, his voice low and cut through with an edge of superstition. “And then the corpses of their own dead.”

This proclamation was met with a moment of silence.

Then, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“What kind of magic could do such a thing?” I asked, ignoring Mica’s foul language.

“None that I’ve ever encountered before,” Bairon said ominously.

I clenched my ice-fist and let soothing mana flow through me, cooling my nerves. “Did they succeed in closing off the tunnels before the attack?”

Bairon floated up into the air, a gust of wind rippling across him as electricity arced over his armor. “They did, though not as thoroughly as should have been done. It may not hold, especially if the enemy is already there.”

“Bairon, see that the wards are in place over the last two entrances. Mica, to your duties.”

The other Lances both gave me grim solutes, then they were off, leaving me alone. Dwarves scurried like ants below, hurrying to whatever safe-haven they’d arranged for themselves. Most of the elven refugees had been taken to the Earthborn Institute, while our strongest mages—the Glayders, Twin Horns, and surviving guards—had joined in the defense throughout the cavern.

I wondered idly where Virion was holed up. He had been absent from most of the preparatory meetings, and I hadn’t seen him at all in the last day. Though my blood oath had been sworn to the Glayders, Virion had been our commander during the peak of the war, and I had great respect for the man. Watching him fade away caused a slow-moving, glacial ache that I wasn’t prepared to navigate at the moment.

A flash of purple light cut through my thoughts, and I took a quick step back before realizing that it was Arthur. “I will never get used to that,” I muttered, chagrined.

Arthur’s stoic features were carved down into a slight frown. “Have you seen my mother or sister?” he asked without preamble. “They aren’t with the refugees at the Earthborn Institute.” Then, looking slightly embarrassed as he rubbed the back of his neck, he added, “I just wanted to make sure they were someplace safe before—”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me,” I said, saving him from explaining further. “And yes, to set your mind at ease, I did see your sister and the bear leading your mother to the highest level earlier, toward the Royal Palace. And”—a tiny smirk forced its way across my lips despite myself—“I may have overheard Eleanor berating Alice about how the palace would be the safest place for her, considering Lance Mica will be guarding it.”

The hardness of Arthur’s features relaxed, and he let out a sigh of relief. “Oh. Good. I was…worried she might run off into battle again.”

I cleared my throat, then turned my attention back to the movement below. “I hate this waiting.”

Arthur flashed me a smirk that very much reminded me of the boy he’d once been. “Is the unflappable General Varay, perhaps, slightly flapped?”

I laughed, caught off guard by his teasing. “I shouldn’t be. After all, we have the mighty Lance Godspell present to protect us.”

Arthur’s smile faltered, twitching into something more wry and, I thought, even slightly bitter. “A title I’m not sure I ever earned, Lance Zero.”

I hadn’t expected such self-deprecation, and had to take a moment to consider a response. It was easy to forget that Arthur was still just a boy, really, no older than perhaps nineteen or twenty. Although he had tremendous power—more than I could safely wrap my head around—he had been subjected to horrible trials and great pain both before and during this war.

But then, perhaps that is what makes a Lance, I thought before immediately cutting myself off and returning my mind to the conversation at hand.

“If not that one, then maybe another? I’ve heard some of the sanctuary survivors calling you Godkiller…”

Arthur snorted in disbelief. “I wouldn’t exactly—”

A piercing static hum vibrated through the air, making my ears ring uncomfortably. “What in the—”

“People of Vildorial,” a magically magnified voice announced, resounding from every surface at once, folding in and over and through itself, like a wave striking and then receding from the face of a cliff.

“Lyra Dreide,” I hissed, searching the cavern for her mana signature.

“Please listen carefully to what I have to say,” the voice pleaded gravely. “You have committed a most unfortunate error in fighting back against the Alacryan soldiers in your midst. By aligning yourself with the rebels known as Lances, you have angered High Sovereign Agrona.”

She let these words bowl over each other, echoing round and round within the great cavern. “But the Lord of the Vritra is not without mercy. He knows that many of you feel as if you have no choice. He does not blame you for your confusion, your lack of courage. You will be offered a second chance at a life in his new Dicathen, so long as you simply don’t fight back.”

Arthur cursed. “More likely, he’ll kill everyone in this city to make sure the rest stay in line, if we let him.”

“We won’t,” I assured him. “We’ve already defeated the retainer once. She can’t hope to stand against you in combat.”

“Please, people of Vildorial. As your regent, I do not wish to see you slaughtered…but I will ensure all who stand against High Sovereign Agrona are appropriately punished.”

Her words stuck grotesquely to the insides of my ear. “Awful creature,” I muttered, shaking my head as if I could dislodge the voice.

“Generals!” a hoarse voice puffed. I turned to see a stocky dwarf sprinting furiously in our direction. “The—the…” He coughed, choking on his own tongue as he struggled to form the words without enough breath in his lungs.

Arthur vanished and reappeared at the man’s side, clad in dancing purple lightning. “What is it?”

“The…portal!” he gasped out, coming to a stop with his hands on his knees. “A group of dwarves…took it—reactivated it.”

I met Arthur’s eye, my mind spinning. “If they’re drawing our attention to the outskirts…”

“Then their strongest force is likely coming through the portal,” Arthur finished for me. I watched as his unyielding gaze swept across the cavern, lingering on the Royal Palace where his family was. Then something clicked into place in his expression. “I’ll hold off whatever forces come through the portal, destroy it if I have to. Can you and the others—”

“Of course,” I answered firmly, drawing myself up to my full height. “I’m done losing battles, Arthur.”

His jaw tightened, and then he was gone, leaving nothing behind but the purple-white afterimage of a bolt of lightning.

“Sh-should we gather reinforcements to guard the tunnel mouth in case any of the attackers escape Lance Godspell?” the man asked, stumbling over his words.

“No,” I said, my eyes still on the place where Arthur had vanished. “We need the resources elsewhere. If this enemy can get past General Arthur, then we are lost in any case.”

The dwarf, shaken and slightly pale, soluted. “Yes, General.” Then he was off again, huffing back down the wide spiral of the highway.

I was looking from sealed entrance to sealed entrance, sensing for any mana signatures, trying to guess which direction they would come from, when my vision flickered strangely, and I had to hold out a hand to steady myself. Screams of complete and utter terror trembled up to me from the lower levels, thousands of voices so piercing they cut through rock and earth to fill up the cavern.

I watched, horrified and paralyzed, as a black scythe of energy slashed through several buildings, collapsing them on the civilians huddled inside. The screams only grew louder.

“No,” I breathed out in disbelief. How had the Alacryans gotten inside the city?

Stepping forward, I plummeted off the edge of the highway and toward the commotion below. The light changed again, like a shadow crossing over me from above, and I wobbled mid-flight. A pressure stabbed at my temples, white-hot pain bleeding in behind my eyes, making the world go dark…

At the last instant, I pulled up, but I still struck the ground with enough force to shatter the paving stones. Nearby, the frame of a partially-collapsed house shifted and fell in on itself.

Down here, the screams were louder still.

Where is everyone? The dwarven forces? Bairon? Who is making all that noise?

I spun around, searching frantically for any signs of life. But it was just the voices. Screaming, screaming…and there were words in the howls of pain.

I sucked in a choked breath that caught in my throat.

“You! Your fault!” the screams said. “You could have protected us! Saved us!”

“Why?” other voices pleaded through their piteous dying moans. “Why didn’t you make sure we would be safe?”

“You saved the lords and left us to die! You should have done more!”

My pulse quickened, and a sense of dread seemed to steal the air from my lungs.

A cold, bitter voice sounded in my head, cutting through all the other noise. You can hide your fear and self-doubt from the rest of the world, but not from yourself. Put on your ice-queen mask and take shelter behind your own inadequate power, but when the frost melts, the real you will always be just under the surface.

I closed my eyes hard, squeezing until I saw snowflakes glittering in bright rainbow light. Deep breath in, long, steady breath out. A half-seen shadow writhed just at the edges of my vision.

You can never escape what you truly are. Frightened, lonely, and weak. Even the strength that made you a Lance isn’t your own. You couldn’t save Alea, or King and Queen Glayder, or Aya. You lost the war, and soon everyone you know will be dead. Just lie down and die, coward.

My eyes snapped open. I’d heard these words before. Whispered them to myself in the dead of night in our dark, hopeless cave in the Beast Glades after we’d been defeated and sent into hiding. When I’d watched King and Queen Glayder continually succumb to their own weakness and selfishness, I’d heard these words in my plush rooms in their castle. And I’d heard them when the Scythe, Cadell, had sneered down on me, his red eyes burning with disdain, just before he’d swatted me like a fly.

I focused on shielding my core at the same time as I gathered mana into my hand. The shadows shifted at the edge of my vision. An ice-spike flew.

The world twisted sickeningly, then snapped back into place. The shadows vanished, and the reality of my situation came surging in.

I was on my knees in a crater at the center of the city’s lowest floor. Several buildings around me had collapsed, and dozens of people were huddled in corners and behind whatever meager protection they could find. Bulging, terrified eyes stared not at me, but a woman standing at the edge of the crater staring down.

She lifted a hand to her neck and wiped away a thin trickle of blood where my spell had wounded her, then licked the blood from her thumb. “Given Cadell’s stories about how pathetic you Lances were in the war, I’m surprised you were able to break through even part of my illusions.”

Dark purple hair flowed down over her shoulders and framed the pale gray skin of her face. Her eyes were colorless in the gloomy cavern light, two black coals set in her expressionless face. White and gray robes, fit tight to her wispy frame, were hung with silver cord, and from these cords dangled gray-yellow lumps that could only be dozens of vertebrae.

Her expressionless mask didn’t change as she followed my gaze to the chunks of bone. “Macabre, I know. But each represents a life, a story. Some even carry the faint aura of the previous owner’s mana. Yours will go here,” she said, tapping a cord that ran from beneath her ribs and across her body to her opposite hip.

“You're trying to wear me down by playing on my worst fears, but something like this…” I paused, my mouth suddenly dry. “I see and hear worse whenever I close my eyes, Scythe.”

She nodded as I stood to my full height. “I am here because you Lances have scurried around in the dark and avoided this fight for too long.”

“Rich of you to accuse us of cowardice,” I said, fighting to keep my voice even. “Where have you been during this war? Safe at home, hiding behind the Vritra Clan’s skirts.”

The Scythe did not bat an eyelash, only looked off to our right.

There was a crash of stone and the head of a huge hammer exploded through the wall of a half-fallen building. I tensed, ready to attack alongside Mica, but then I saw her.

The dwarven Lance scrambled through the hole she’d made, eyes huge and shining, like two moons reflected in the surface of a lake. Her pale face was smeared with dirt and blood, and she was swinging the hammer around her in short, sharp jerking motions. Several civilians scrambled away, crying in fright.

“No, Olfred, stop! M-Mica is sorry! Please…”

Her plea choked off, and she flipped the hammer around and smashed it into the floor. The Stone gave out, and she tumbled into the chasm she’d made with a scream of absolute terror.

“Mica!” I lunged up the side of the crater, prepared to hurl myself into the chasm after her, but the light flickered sickeningly, and when it came back she was gone, along with the hole she’d tumbled through.

A harsh growl emitted unbidden from the back of my throat, and I sent the blades of ice hurtling at the Scythe. They passed harmlessly around and through her to shatter against hard rock. “Where is she? What are you doing to her?” I demanded, conjuring a new arsenal but not wasting my energy in attacking again.

I needed to figure out what this Scythe’s power was, and how to defend against it.

“The dwarf has a staggeringly complex labyrinth of inner demons to navigate,” she said, wiggling her fingers. When she did so, I could just hear the echo of Mica’s voice, like it was seeping up through the solid floor, but I couldn’t make out the words. “You, on the other hand, are quite simple, really. Boring. Cliche.”

I felt the white-hot pain behind my eyes again. Reaching inward, I found the cold comfort of my power waiting for me. Ice began to form along my skin, racing from my sternum up over my shoulders and down my legs, finally enveloping my head. The touch of it soothed the burning and dimmed the Scythe’s power and voice.

“Get out of my head, witch.”

Throwing out both hands, I sent the array of spikes and blades hurtling at her. A black shadow slashed the air, and the projectiles exploded. The Scythe took a step back, her form seeming to ripple as she did so, splitting into three images. For one, hideous moment, the figures seemed to be several people at once, and then they solidified. In the middle, Lord Glayder looked down at me disapprovingly. He seemed taller and stronger, but his look of cold disapproval was as bitter and sharp as it ever had been. To one side, Alea Triscan was glaring at me out of ruined, empty eye-sockets, her leggless body hanging in the air like some horrible mannequin. To Glayder’s other side…Aya. My longtime friend and companion had a gaping hole where her core should have been.

“You were supposed to be the strongest of us,” the three said in unison, their voices bleeding together into a tinny, unrecognizable cacophony. “But you failed us all.” Alea’s one remaining arm rose.

Twenty feet to my left, there was a rush of wind. Four dwarves, huddled behind an overturned trolley, were lifted screaming into the air. Their wild eyes turned to me for a single devastating moment, then they burst into red mist as slashes of black wind erased them from existence.

I ground my teeth in impotent fury, then threw out my hands to wrap the remaining survivors in thick barriers of ice.

“You can’t protect them,” the blended voices said again. “How many were there, just like us? How many have you failed, how many have you sent to their deaths?”

Something burst up from the ground between my feet and grabbed hold of my ankle. I looked down in horror as more and more hands clawed free of the earth, reaching for me. I tried to fly upward, but the grip held, keeping me tethered. Then the heads were free, and I saw a dozen dwarves, recently dead, their flesh pale and torn, their eyes sightless and wounds bloodless.

Squirming horror threatened to rip my last meal from my guts, but I couldn’t turn away.

“You ordered us into the tunnels knowing we’d die,” one dwarf moaned around a gray, lifeless tongue.

“Join us,” another grunted, baring her teeth and brandishing a mud-caked ax. “It’s only fair, Lance.”

The ax swung, but I lacked the wherewithal to even try to block it. When it hit the ice around me, the shaft snapped and the head went tumbling away, leaving a shallow chip in my armor.

Unlike the images of King Glayder, Alea, and Aya, the ax wasn’t an illusion. She was animating the corpses of our dead and using them against us…

“I’m sorry,” I muttered, then let out a deep breath.

Frosty mist roiled over and through the walking corpses, then froze solid where it touched their skin, cocooning them in shells of ice. I yanked my ankle free of the murderous corpse still gripping it. The dead hand shattered.

“Your tricks are stale,” I ground out, doing my best to ignore the illusions as I searched for some sign of the real Scythe. “The others were more straightforward. They knew how to stand and fight!” I forced a sarcastic smirk onto my face. “Have the rest of you gotten cold feet since one of your own was butchered?”

I lifted an arm just in time to deflect a line of dark wind, then watched as the black line went through the ice cladding my body and then through my arm, which clattered to the broken stone tiles and shattered.

Shadows coalesced in front of me, forming the pale, purple-haired Scythe. The back of her clawed hand caved in the ice around my chest and sent me hurtling backwards. I felt myself glance off one of the ice-barriers protecting a group of huddled dwarves, then lost all sense of up and down as my body bounced along the ground like a skipped stone.

In the distance, I could hear the melded laughter of Aya, Alea, and King Glayder fading away.

She seemed to float as she approached, her dark eyes hellish voids that threatened to consume me. “This is over. My sister will have finished your ‘Thunderlord’ already, and the dwarf will soon succumb to my power.” The barest hint of a smile turned up the corners of her lips for the first time. “And if you think your guardian angel with the golden eyes will sweep in to save you, I’m afraid you are so very, very wrong.”

I pulled myself up out of the dust and brushed off my clothes, then stared straight into her dead eyes. “No reason to keep spitting pointless barbs at one another then, is there?”

The ground beneath the Scythe exploded upward as the head of a dragon formed entirely of deep-blue ice ripped through the stone tiles. The huge jaws snapped shut around the Scythe, lifting her up into the air as the construct clawed its way from beneath the earth. Inside its belly, stunned and nearly unconscious, was Mica.

Black lines of stabbing wind pierced the dragon's skull, but I reformed the ice before it could shatter.

The dragon kicked off the ground and began flying up into the air, while at the same time the pocket of air containing Mica slid lower through its body, eventually expelling her fifty feet up.

I held my breath, trying to keep the dragon’s form whole while also watching Mica plummet ten feet, twenty, thirty. When it was clear she couldn’t stop herself, I conjured a sloped ramp just beneath her body. She slid uncontrolled to its base and rolled to the ground just at my feet.

Above, ice shattered as the head of the dragon burst outward.

The Scythe, wrapped in a black cloak of her deviant wind mana, spun like a top. Dark lines slashed through the dragon in a dozen places, and I released my hold over its form, letting the ice dissipate harmlessly instead of crashing down on any nearby civilians.

Mica moaned.

Above, the cloak of shadows was expanding out around the Scythe, while at the same time curling inward like huge black claws, all pointed down at me.

Reaching for my core, I prepared to defend the attack, if I could.

But before it fell, a red line slashed through the air, straight at the Scythe. Her power coalesced into a shield, but the red line punched straight through. She twisted at the last second, avoiding the scarlet missile, but I could see the ripple running through her mana from the smoldering hole it had left.

The burning red line turned in the air and flew back past the Scythe and over my head. I spun around.

Reaching out a hand, Bairon caught the spear. A red gleam stained his blond hair as the spear flared with its own internal light. When the light faded, though, I realized it wasn’t only that staining him red.

Bairon was covered in blood from the tips of his well-trimmed hair to the heels of his boots. From the wounds I could see, it seemed to be his own.

He strode forward, favoring his left side. His leg dragged and his arm hung limp, but there was a blazing fire in his eyes that told me he was far from accepting defeat.

“A Scythe,” he said, his deep baritone strained with the pain of his many wounds.

I only nodded, looking back up at the purple-haired woman. She was struggling against the growing agitation in her magic as the shadows bucked around her like a wind-tossed sea.

“No, another,” Bairon said, leaning into the spear to take the weight off his left side. “I fought a horned woman with white hair. There are…two.”

Coughing, Mica pushed herself up to her knees. Blood dripped like a tear from her ruined eye socket. Her core felt drained; she had used up an inordinate amount of her own mana fighting against herself.

“Stop looking at me like that,” she grumbled, wiping the blood away. “I’m alive. And very pissed off.”

“The Royal Palace?”

Mica waved me away. “The Alacryan forces have…moved to block escape routes, but are holding back from the city. The lords are only in danger if we…lose down here.”

Wobbling slightly, a second woman appeared in the sky, flying toward the first. Two thick black horns sprouted from her brilliant white hair and curved outward. Her hand was pressed against a cut in her side, deep enough to expose ribs. Drops of blood shimmered like falling rubies beneath her.

“You fought her alone?” I asked Bairon, unable to suppress the wonder in my tone.

Bairon snorted. “The spear. A lucky blow. Cut off her mana, but just temporarily.”

I remembered well enough the feeling of the scarlet blade disrupting my mana as we fought a losing battle against the asura. “That’s how we hold them off,” I said, holding out a hand to Mica.

A harsh aura fell like an iron curtain down atop us as Mica pulled herself to her feet, and I heard the barriers of ice I was still focusing on shatter. The people beneath them screamed.

“Tricks and gimmicks won’t save you!” the second Scythe screamed, her blood-red eyes bulging in her head. The purple-haired Scythe had regained control of her mana after Bairon’s strike, and she was steadier than her counterpart, the only sign of any emotion a slight flaring of her nostrils.

Two Scythes…This was a battle we’d lost before, in Etistin.

Bairon stepped up beside me, the asuran spear held in a white-knuckled grip as he leveled it at our enemy. Mica moved to my other side, unable to keep the apprehensive frown from her face. I understood, as I was struggling to ignore the cold claws of doubt and uncertainty that clutched at my insides.

And then I remembered Arthur, the way he had looked at the Royal Palace, gauging his family's safety before entrusting us to protect the city, and then what I had told him. “I’m done losing battles.”

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