The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 400
Chapter 398: Descension
Leaning against the base of a squat apple tree and chewing on the last of its ripe fruit, I stared out at the fields south of Blackbend City.
Once these flat plains and low, rolling hills would have gleamed gold with endless fields of wheat, but large swaths of farmland had been crushed flat by the tent city now ringing Blackbend’s southern edge and the ten thousand or more troops stationed there. The gray-and-black clad soldiers moved with stiff, short steps, and I saw many heads bent in conversation and furtive glances being cast about. More than once, ranking officers stopped to shout at a group of gossipers as messengers rushed about with a frantic air.
After a brief jaunt to the Relictombs to ensure both Regis and I were at full power, we’d followed the wide swath of churned sand that marked the Alacryan army’s passage through the desert and into the foothills separating Sapin and Darv. The tempus warp I’d recovered from the Wraiths would have made it a simple matter to teleport the distance, but I needed to ensure that the Alacryan force didn’t split or divert to a different destination.
Despite their multi-day lead, the soldiers who had retreated from Vildorial had only recently arrived. From my distant vantage point, with my senses heightened with aether so I could more clearly follow the bustling of the many soldiers, I tracked the comings and goings of the war camp for a while, content to just watch as the Alacryans stewed in their own uncertainty.
It had already been a couple of hours while Regis and I waited under the apple tree. Unforunately, there had been no sign of the retainer and regent, Lyra Dreide, or of the two Scythes. They would have made a convenient prop for the spectacle.
It felt good to be in the field again, an enemy in front of me. My return to Dicathen had been defined by furtive rushing through underground tunnels and living in fear for my family and all the Dicathians under my protection. I was tired of skulking about and hiding. This was a war. It was past time to fight it.
But I could only do so now because of the Lances. The damage to their cores, forced on them in the same ritual that bound them to their respective kings and queens and catapulted them to white core, had been healed. Varay, Bairon, and Mica were, at the very moment, back in Vildorial, meditating over the remains of the mana in the Vritra horns I’d acquired in order to grow stronger for the first time in a very long time.
When the Lances next faced the Scythes, I was confident the results would be very different.
A horn sounded in the war camp, and soldiers began to gather.
Regis drifted free of my body and condensed into the form of a full-grown shadow wolf. “Oh, this is going to be fun.”
Together, we began moving quickly from the hilltop where the lone tree grew, down into a slight valley that opened up into the trampled fields, and directly toward the sprawling encampment. Once in plain sight of the guards watching to the south, we slowed to a steady march. It didn’t take long for them to spot us.
Another horn blew, then another. These were more wild and, I thought with some amusement, somehow afraid. Several men jumped on broad, quick-moving lizard mana beasts called skitters and rushed to cut me off.
Still a hundred feet away, one of them gave a shout, and the sand-yellow lizards all skidded to a stop, holding well back.
Their leader, a man in his early twenties with a thin blond beard and dark, steady gaze, took in my appearance and went pale. The other soldiers all turned in his direction, and I could tell that they all recognized me from the rumors even if they had never seen me directly. The skitters, sensing their riders’ discomfort or perhaps made nervous by Regis’s presence, shied and tried to pull back.
“St-state your identity,” the leader said, his voice cracking slightly. He cleared his throat and sat taller. Without waiting for me to respond, he immediately asked, “Are you the traitor to Alacrya known as Grey? If so, know that the regent Lyra of Highblood Dreide has given orders that you are to be killed on sight.”
I looked him right in the eye and said, “What are you waiting for then?”
He raised his chin, one hand on the bridle of his skitter, the other on the handle of his sword. “What do you want here?”
“That’s easy,” I said, pointing past him to the tent city. “That, gone. You, gone. Now.”
The boy’s jaw tightened beneath his blond beard. To his credit, he did not immediately flee, although I could tell he was thinking about it. “You are only one man. There are several thousand soldiers at my back. Surely you don’t—”
I reached for the relic armor. The sight of it unfolding over my skin made the soldier yank hard on the reins, and his skitter danced sideways and nearly threw him. “If you’ve seen me before, then you know I always offer the opportunity to lay down your arms and leave with your lives. The Vritra Clan is my enemy, not the people of Alacrya. Disband this encampment and prepare to leave Sapin immediately.”
He kept up eye contact for a long moment while his skitter still strafed side to side, now actively attempting to pull away. Finally, he let it, and the mana beast whirled around and shot off toward the war camp. The rest were quick to follow.
“Tired of sounding like a broken record yet?” Regis asked, letting his tongue loll from one side of his mouth.
“It gets harder to offer clemency each time they refuse it,” I admitted, crossing my arms as I watched the skitter-riders hurry away. “But it’s the right thing to do, Regis. If I could snap my fingers and send all these Alacryans back to their own continent without any violence, I would. But…” My voice grew firm as I felt my will harden. “Anyone who would make themselves a pawn of the Vritra—whether they’re born in Alacrya or Dicathen—has chosen their own fate.”
The scouts had reached the camp, and a muddle of chaotic activity followed. Shouts and arguments rang across the hills. I watched as the higher-ranking officers clashed with growing animosity and the camp’s organization quickly dissolved under a lack of leadership. I thought the Alacryans might collapse into violence, but then a booming voice drowned out all others.
A gargantuan woman in heavy black plate armor hurled a man to the ground and pointed at me with a burning greatsword, and the Alacryans began falling into line. While a few groups of soldiers broke ranks and fled north, most hurried into well-ordered rows of battle groups at the woman’s direction. Shields flared, empowered weapons and armor blazed to life with mana, and a rainbow of spells were activated.
I couldn’t help but be disappointed as I looked across the field at the thousands of Alacryan mages.
“This really would be so much easier if they had sense enough to run for their lives,” I muttered.
“Much less fun though,” Regis japed, chuckling darkly. “Maybe it would help if they got a good look at me in all my glory?”
I nodded my approval. “Do it.”
With a wide, lupine grin, Regis activated the Destruction godrune. His body blazed with the purple flames, his physical form expanding and transforming, growing huge and bestial, all hard, sharp angles and jagged fire and long black spikes. His head widened and flattened as obsidian fangs grew out of his mouth. Wings sprouted from behind his arched shoulder blades, and then I leapt onto his back.
Regis lifted up off the ground and gave a roar that shook Blackbend. He breathed out flames of pure Destruction as he wheeled through the air high above the enemy.
A tremor of terror shook the awestruck Alacryans. A Shield ceased conjuring and turned to flee, but the woman who had taken charge of the army appeared before him in a flash of white-hot fire, her sword already swinging. He didn’t even have the chance to conjure another protective shield before he fell into two burning halves.
“Any other who shames their blood by turning tail condemns their blood as well! By the Vritra, I’ll make sure your mothers and daughters bleed for your cowardice!”
At the woman’s threat, spells began to fly, filling the sky with blues, reds, blacks, and greens. Cutting rays and bursting missiles erupted around us like fireworks. Regis’s Destruction-infused breath burned away several of the strongest spells. Others, I batted aside with aether. More missed or reflected harmlessly off the relic armor or the thick layer of aether cladding Regis’s bulk. What little damage we took healed almost instantly.
“Cockroaches,” Regis rumbled in his much deeper voice. “They’ll be less than ash when I’m done with them.”
“Wait,” I said, counting on one last gambit to break the line without a full-scale slaughter.
I didn’t have to look for the aetheric pathways between me and the Alacryan leader. As I imbued the godrune with aether, it guided me, and I vanished from Regis’s back and appeared in front of the leader, just inside the effective range of her overlarge sword.
She grunted in surprise and brought the blade up defensively, both the flames and the purple lightning wrapping around my limbs reflecting in her dark eyes.
Faster than she could react, my hand snapped out and caught the blade. Realmheart flared to life, making visible the mana in her weapon. I severed the flow, snuffing out the mana, then pushed aether into the steel. Although of fine make, the metal couldn’t handle the pressure and exploded, peppering us both with shrapnel. Although harmless to me, a piece slashed across her cheek, and she snarled as she stumbled back from the explosion.
God Step took me behind her. My gauntleted fist drove into her spine where her armor opened to reveal several runic tattoos. The bones shattered, and her lifeless body flew into the backs of a nearby battle group, knocking them to the ground.
The exchange had been so fast that most of the Alacryan soldiers hadn’t noticed and were still slinging spells at Regis. Only those closest at hand had witnessed their leader's demise, and most of them could only stare in dawning horror. The smart ones, however, broke ranks and fled. And as soon as a few had done so, dozens more followed.
‘Well, that was dramatic,’ Regis thought from above. ‘The center of their line is caving in on itself. Most of them are running like hell.’
Lay down a line of fire just beyond the front line, I thought back. Avoid the fleeing soldiers where you can, but don’t hesitate to burn anyone who keeps fighting.
The jagged fire jumped and twisted in a way that expressed gleeful excitement. ‘You got it, boss.’
Tipping into a dive, Regis ducked and weaved between the bombardment of spells before leveling out just in front of the foremost shields, which made up a kind of wall of wavering flames, whirling water, crackling lightning, and transparent panels of mana. Destruction blazed from his monstrous maw like dragon’s fire, spilling over the field and splashing against the shields, devouring the mana.
I stood at the center of the chaos, a stone unmoved by the retreating sea. No one attacked me—most would not even look at me, as if avoiding me would somehow make me less real. They stumbled over each other, pushing and shoving as they ran around me, away from the violet flames and toward the city.
The encampment itself became an obstacle, but the surge of bodies trampled it under heavy boots, collapsing tents, overturning tables, and kicking campfire ash everywhere as they charged headlessly past.
I began moving toward the city gates, slowly walking amidst the chaos and insanity. The front lines had crushed back into the rear ranks, and where those who attempted to flee were blocked by those who fought on, all out brawls erupted. But no one came within fifteen feet of me, even if avoiding me meant diving through the high flames of a cooking fire or batting down their own allies.
The heavy, resounding vibration of large bells suddenly rang all throughout the city of Blackbend, the backdrop to our battle. Many of the fleeing soldiers were rushing toward the city’s open gates, although, as the army shed more soldiers, many were forced to flee east or west along the lines of the city wall or risk clogging the gates and being stuck outside.
‘Something’s up inside the city. Spellfire all over the place. People are fighting back.’
Through the narrow openings on the second level of the gatehouse, I could see men scuffling and fighting. Then, an instant later, a mossy-haired elf hurled an Alacryan guard from the gatehouse to be dashed on the stones below. In the next moment, the grinding and clanking of thick chains rumbled across the battlefield, and the gates began to pull shut, right in the face of the retreating army.
I appeared before the gates wreathed in aetheric lightning and conjured a gleaming violet blade.
I was surrounded by charging Alacryans. Some few had already breached the city before the Dicathian warriors managed to winch the gates closed, but many more were still approaching.
A woman barreling toward me shouted out in dismay and wildly swung her frozen mace, but my aetheric blade bisected her weapon effortlessly. I caught her momentum on my shoulder and sent her flipping over me, and for a moment tendrils of bright violet lightning connected us.
Suddenly, the Alacryan soldiers closest to me were stumbling and collapsing to the ground. I took a step toward the retreating force, and more fell to their hands and knees, bodies trembling. One more step, and my intent reached its peak, crushing everyone within a hundred feet of me into the churned soil.
Cries of dread and the sounds of grown men wretching and weeping lingered for a long, timeless moment, and then the battlefield went utterly silent, leaving them clawing at their throats or chests as the weight of the aura stole the air from their lungs.
Those still outside of the worst of my intent pulled up short, then quickly dissolved into pushing and shoving. Behind them, Regis let out a monstrous roar that shook the ground, and a wall of amethyst fire engulfed a dozen battle groups that were still fighting back.
“Listen to me,” I announced, easing the pressure I was exuding to refocus their attention. “This city is no longer under Alacryan dominion, and soon, the rest of Dicathen will be freed. You can go home so long as you do not harm any Dicathian. All Alacryans who refuse to leave or who harm any Dicathian will be executed immediately.”
In the distance, there were no more gouts of Destruction or answering spellfire from the ground. The Alacryan force at Blackbend had been routed.
“W-where will we go, then?” a thin Caster shouted.
An answer was shouted from the top of the wall behind me in a familiar, cutting voice. “Might I recommend the end of a blade?”
I turned to see a reed-thin man with a sharply angular face. His black hair was flecked with gray now, and shorter than the last time I’d seen him, but the rimless glasses perched atop his nose were the same, as were the clever, observant eyes. He had aged, developing worry lines down the side of his face and across his brow.
When the man saw me looking, he nodded firmly. “General Arthur. The Alacryan highbloods managing the city have been quite upset for the last few days, terrified that you would show up and hoping fervently that you wouldn’t.”
“Kaspian,” I said, caught off guard by his sudden appearance. Kaspian Bladeheart had once managed the Adventurers Guild Hall in Xyrus, and was the uncle of my old friend, Claire Bladeheart. “You’ve gotten old.”
He scoffed and shook his head. “And you hardly look anything like the boy who I once tested to be an adventurer. But I suppose now isn’t the time to catch up, is it?” He gestured behind him. “The Adventurers Guild has managed to retake the city, General Arthur.” His gaze turned to the Alacryan army, sweeping across the hundreds of soldiers knocked prone around me to pin the thousands more hovering uncertainly between the city and the distant flames of Destruction. “Now, I strongly suggest you have your beast finish the rest before whatever you’ve done to them wears off.”
The world seemed to hold its breath. Then, “No, Kaspian. That isn’t my intention.”
A muscle in his jaw twitched and his voice strained as he said, “I don’t know where you’ve been, or what has happened to you, Arthur, but perhaps you haven’t seen the brutality and cruel vindictiveness of these Alacryans. I feel no shame in saying that every one of them should be put to the sword.”
I ignored him, instead watching Regis return, his enormous bulk casting a dark shadow over the Alacryans. He took a moment to hover in front of the gatehouse, staring Kaspian and the other Dicathian adventurers down before landing heavily next to me. The jagged flames of his mane trembled, and then he was shrinking in on himself, losing his more bestial features, until he was a shadow wolf again. His teeth pulled back from his deadly fangs and he growled menacingly before becoming incorporeal and drifting into my body.
How many chose death for Agrona?
‘A couple thousand at least. There was still a small force holding back, defensive positions only, no more chucking spells, but if I stayed in that form much longer I’d have been stuck as a pup again, and I don’t think either of us wanted that right now.’
Well, if my plan works, they’ll be dealt with by their own.
With Regis no longer swooping over the battlefield like a giant mutant bat, some soldiers were breaking away from the crowd and following the others who had already fled around the city. I let them go. I knew they were a risk—there were dozens of small farming communities to the north where trained soldiers and mages could cause havoc—but I had to deal with the larger threat first.
Releasing my intent, I scanned the Alacryans. It was unfortunate that the ranking Alacryans in the city had already fled. With Bairon and Virion’s assistance, I had already brainstormed a general plan for how to handle enemy soldiers who were smart enough to lay down their weapons. It wasn’t without its problems, however.
“You,” I said after a moment, pointing at a man who was gingerly lifting himself off the ground and brushing the dirt from his uniform.
He froze and stared at me. His hair and beard were carefully trimmed, and he wore what looked like a very expensive blade at his side, despite not carrying himself like a warrior.
“You’re a Sentry,” I observed. “And at least a named blood, by the look of it.”
His brows pinched together and he opened his mouth, hesitated, bit the inside of his lip, then finally said, “I am Balder of Highblood Vassere, sir.”
“Vassere? Oh, perfect,” I said, giving the man a placid smile that only made his frown deepen. “Balder, you are now responsible for the lives of every Alacryan stationed at Blackbend—even those currently running north like their lives depend on it.”
Color drained from his face, and he looked around in panic. “But I…um…” He cleared his throat. “I’m not commander of this force—”
“The men and women around us are no longer a force,” I said firmly, letting my gaze burrow into him. “They are stranded citizens of a far off continent, and if they ever hope to get home, they’ll need someone to keep them organized and out of trouble. That’s going to be you, Balder. Assuming you want to see home again. You do, don’t you? Central Dominion”—Balder startled at my mention of his home dominion, then went white as a ghost as I continued—“Drekker and all the rest.”
“Just listen,” I said, softening my tone somewhat.
I could feel Kaspian’s concerned gaze on my back as I explained loudly to Balder of Highblood Vassere what I expected of these Alacryans if ever they hoped to see their homes again. With the long-ranged teleportation gates in Darv deactivated—and reactivating them, even for a short time, a substantial threat—there was no easy way to relocate so many people. Until I was sure the continent was firmly back in Dicathian hands, they needed to be moved somewhere they wouldn’t be a danger.
It had actually been Virion’s idea to use the ruins of Elenoir. Even with tens of thousands of Alacryans gathered there, they wouldn’t have enough resources to mount any kind of counterattack through the mountains or the Wall. Just staying alive by hunting the outer edges of the Beast Glades would take all their time and resources for such a large population.
Getting them there from the cities in the east of Sapin was relatively straightforward as well, and the Wall was apparently still under Dicathian control, so I wouldn’t even have to retake it to allow the plan to move forward.
“Start organizing your people,” I said after Balder had assured me he understood. “I want to know exactly how many lives make up your company. And, if you’ve managed to hold onto any skitters, send riders north. Find as many of those who fled as you can.” I let an edge of threat creep into my voice as I added, “I will hold you responsible for any crimes they commit.”
Balder swallowed heavily. “I u-understand.”
Leaving the Alacryans behind, I God Stepped to the top of the wall, appearing right next to Kaspian. He flinched and his hand went to the hilt of his thin rapier, the same blade he had tested me with when I was only a boy in this world. A handful of adventurers surrounded him, and half of them brandished weapons while the other half jumped back in surprise.
I ignored all the others. “What happened in the city, Kaspian? I was expecting to have to root out the entrenched Alacryan leadership after dismantling that army.”
He straightened his light gray tunic, which had bloodstains on the sleeves and chest, and waved for his men to lower their weapons. “The truth is, we’ve been waiting for an opportunity to strike back ever since the Lances raided the Blackbend Guild Hall. As the war camp organized to face you, the city’s so-called leadership was flying into a panic. As soon as we drew our weapons, they fled, abandoning the city.”
Turning, I rested my hands on top of a crenelation and took in the confused and milling crowd of Alacryans. Balder was shouting as he tried to sort out the highest ranking soldiers and other highbloods, but the army was in shock and largely unresponsive.
So much rested on this Sentry’s ability to create calm from chaos. I didn’t have time to linger in Blackbend, but I couldn’t just leave a disorganized and frightened army at the city’s gates, either.
But, to further complicate matters, I didn’t entirely trust the Adventurers Guild. It wasn’t an army, exactly, but many of Dicathens most adept warriors and most powerful mages were adventurers. Many branches of the guild had opted out of participating in the war, then quickly entered talks to work alongside the Alacryans when they won.
Kaspian Bladeheart seemed like a genuine and honorable man. Claire certainly had been, although, as Jasmine Flamesworth showed, sometimes the fruit ended up a long way from the tree. But without even a council to determine the direction of Dicathen or Sapin as a whole, this presented a unique opportunity for the Adventurers Guild to seize power and authority.
What I really needed was someone in Blackbend who I could trust implicitly, but was also a respected member of the Adventurers Guild.
The answer was obvious the moment I had the thought.
“Kaspian, are you the ranking member of the guild here in Blackbend?”
He had been watching me carefully through the glasses perched on the end of his nose, and he wriggled them back into position with a frown before answering. “No. The guild hall manager here is a close friend of mine, but many of the ranking committee members are also based out of the Blackbend Guild Hall now. Xyrus became…troublesome to navigate, especially after the Lances’ attack on the academy.”
“Xyrus is next on my list,” I said, turning to meet his sharp-eyed gaze. I held him there, pinned, impressing upon him the reality of my station with nothing but a look. “But before I can deal with the forces there, I need to know something. Can I trust you, Kaspian?”
His thin brows shot up in surprise. “Is this some move to seize power over the continent?”
I shook my head firmly, encouraged by our parallel thinking. “Only to reclaim it from the Alacryans. As for what happens when they’re gone, I promise that I have no desire to be a king again.”
“Again?” he asked, clearly confused.
“Nevermind,” I said with a laugh. “I just meant, I want to save our continent. Not rule it. Virion and Tessia Eralith are both alive, as are Curtis and Kathyln Glayder. And”—I couldn’t help the wry smile that crept over my face—“there are about a hundred dwarven lords who all think they should rule Darv.”
Kaspian shot a thoughtful glance at his men, sucked his teeth, then said, “I’ve only ever heard good things about you, Arthur, and my niece spoke very highly of you. I believe I can trust you, so, yes, you can trust me.”
“Good,” I said, reaching out a hand. He took it firmly. “Because I’m handing this city over to the Twin Horns, and I need you to facilitate a smooth transfer of power.”