The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 407

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Chapter 407

Chapter 405: Tell Him


“Report,” Seris said, her tone commanding.

My mentor had been more serious and straightforward than usual since her brief conversation with Scythe Nico and his strange companion, the woman who wore the body of a Dicathian elf—the Legacy.

“The bombardment in Rosaere has started,” Cylrit answered with snappish military precision. “We estimate twenty thousand troops currently, although forces are still being rallied. The shield is holding.”

“And the Legacy?”

Cylrit’s handsome features darkened at the name. “She has so far seen fit to command from the rear.”

A frown, hardly perceptible, creased Seris’s brow. “Anything else?”

“A fleet of twenty steamships left Dzianis this morning, heading south,” Cylrit answered immediately, glancing out the open window toward the glittering ocean in the distance. “We expect them to make for the Vritra’s Maw and Aedelgard.”

Seris’s piercing gaze shifted to me. “Do we know if the Redwaters were able to complete the plan you suggested?”

I tapped one of the many two-way communication scrolls that littered the large table at the center of Seris’s war room. “Wolfrum sent word late last night that friendly sailors had been successfully relocated to Dzianis to help ‘fill out’ the steam ship crews.”

“Good,” Seris said with a nod. “Have we received any additional confirmations?”

I glanced at Cylrit, who responded with a slight shake of his head. “No.”

“I see,” she said softly, clicking her nails together. Realizing it, she stopped and straightened. “Then I shall leave for Rosaere at once. Cylrit, you are to stay here and ensure the shield battery remains operational. Caera, relocate our strategic operations to the city of Sandaerene. You will be safer there.”

I bit my lip but didn’t speak the thoughts that came to my mind.

Seris’s brows rose a fraction of an inch.

“Forgive me,” I started, still grasping for the appropriate phrasing, “but I have no interest in remaining ‘safe.’ I am not—”

“Expendable,” Seris said unexpectedly. My mouth snapped shut in surprise. “No one knows your strength better than I, Caera. But I have soldiers. What I lack is an abundance of Vritra-born highblood foster children with in-depth knowledge of both the intricacies of noble politics and the Relictombs.”

She paused, giving me an opportunity to speak, but I had no response. “This is not a contest of power and strategy between two sides, where strength of magic and arms will win the day. This is a revolution. This is about reshaping the world so that it works for the people who live in it, instead of the deities who simply use it. And even if it isn’t the role you would have chosen for yourself, your part in all this is to guide your peers toward understanding.”

My head fell, my unfocused gaze on the ground at Seris’s feet. She quickly closed the distance between us, her hand gently but firmly lifting my chin. As she had so many times before, she seemed to peel me apart with her eyes, lying bare my frustration and fear.

“Even I can’t foresee everything that will come to pass,” she said, more gently. “But I know for certain that any plans I make require you to succeed. Without good people to care for the world we seek to build, what would be the point?”

Her grip tightened on my chin, and she forced me to look her directly in the eye. “Now, you’ve wheedled enough compliments out of me for one day, and you’ll get no more. Make the arrangements with my contacts in Sandaerene. And reach out if you must, otherwise continue stirring the pot outside of Sehz-Clar.”

She glanced at Cylrit, who gave her a shallow bow.

Then she was marching out of the room, off to lead the primary defense at Rosaere.

I glanced around the war room, where I had spent many, many hours since coming to Sehz-Clar. It was a sprawling, undecorated space on the west end of Seris’s compound, dominated by a long oval table, with smaller desks pressed haphazardly to the walls around us. Open arches led out to a wide balcony that overlooked the western half of Aedelgard and gave a grand view of the Vritra’s Maw Sea and the ocean beyond it.

“Lady Caera, please let me know if you need any assistance,” Cylrit said with a bob of his horned head, then he started out of the room in Seris’s wake.

Just before he passed under the arched opening deeper into the compound, I said, “Do you think she’s all right?”

He stopped and turned to consider me. It took a moment for him to come to an answer. “She doesn’t think about things like her own health and well-being. For her, it’s all about the plan.”

I couldn’t help but smile at the chagrined reverence in his tone. “Is that why she has you, then? To think about her health and well-being?”

No flicker of emotion broke the stoic expression Cylrit always wore. “Perhaps.” He started to turn away, then stopped. “We’ve set up several recording artifacts around Rosaere. If your mind won’t settle, perhaps being able to see what is happening will ease your thoughts.” Then, like Seris, he was gone.

I wondered how he stayed so calm and collected all the time. Despite looking relatively youthful, Cylrit had been Seris’s retainer for many years. Together they had led Sehz-Clar’s forces against the Vechorian invasion, back before I had even been born. Most of the time he seemed just as poised and confident as Seris. Sometimes, when I struggled to see a positive outcome, it was Cylrit I attempted to emulate. As my mentor and a Scythe, Seris had always felt like something other, beyond reckoning. In contrast, Cylrit’s story was very similar to my own, which somehow made modeling myself after him feel more attainable.

But nothing at all will be accomplished by standing here thinking, I told myself. Straightening my stance and pulling my shoulders back, I began rifling through the many maps, missives, and communiques, sorting them into hasty piles to be relocated.

I stopped suddenly, irritated with myself for forgetting that I had an entire staff of attendants to aid me with this sort of thing.

As if summoned by the thought, a young woman named Haella of Highblood Tremblay—a cousin of Maylis’s—poked her head in the door. “Oh, forgive me Lady Caera, I saw Commander Seris and retainer Cylrit leaving and—”

“No need to apologize,” I said with a wave of my hand. “Call everyone in, actually. We’re relocating.”


After a quick meeting with the rest of our small clerical entourage—all trustworthy individuals who agreed with our cause and had talents or runes that helped with the distribution of the many missives we sent out—I retired to my private quarters and began to collect my things.

I chafed at the idea of hiding in Sandaerene, a city in the near center of the west half of Sehz-Clar, as far as possible from any potential fighting. But I knew Seris was correct in her assessment. And, while I would have liked to stay in Aedelgard and help watch over the shield battery array and the Sovereign at its heart, Cylrit was more capable than I.

To help still my mind and stop second-guessing my commander, I did as Cylrit suggested. Set into one wall of my sitting room was a projection crystal I often used to keep apprised of Agrona’s messaging to the people of Alacrya. With a pulse of mana, I activated the crystal, then set about attuning it for the mana signature of our recording artifacts.

It didn’t take me long to locate the artifacts Cylrit had mentioned.

The image showed the towering curve of the shield splitting the city of Rosaere in twain. The device seemed to be located around the city’s central boulevard, facing outward.

The image it captured made my pulse quicken.

On the other side of the shield, several hundred battle groups were lined up and hurtling thousands of spells. Bolts and bullets of every element, green beams, black rays, and bright missiles crashed into the shield, many dozen per second.

The artifact wasn’t portraying the sound of the battle, but I could imagine the cacophonous crashing of the spells, a noise to shake the bedrock foundations of the continent.

But, so far as I could tell, the shield barrier was holding without strain.

I adjusted the attunement again and found myself looking at nearly the same image, but from a higher and farther angle. This vantage point allowed me to see the depth of the enemies—I frowned, realizing I had taken to calling these Alacryan soldiers the ‘enemy’ without even noticing—and the war camp far in the distance, beyond the eastern borders of the city.

Changing the attunement for the second time revealed a sweeping, rushing image of the city from a bird’s eye view, and my frown curved up into a smile. I found the simple birdlike automatons, one of which I knew was carrying this recording artifact, endlessly charming. They were a relatively new invention, according to Seris, having been piloted in the war against Dicathen but never put into full-scale use due to the difficulty of crafting such things.

I watched for some time, forgetting what I was supposed to be doing. Seris had gathered just over five-thousand soldiers in Rosaere as a failsafe should the shields be breached, and from the high, circling vantage I could see them in their defensive positions throughout the western half of the city.

I tried not to think about how much I would have preferred to be with them, closer to where the action was.

A noise like thunder reverberating inside a bell jar ripped through the air, so loud it shook the floor beneath me and made the projected image jump and blur.

I reached out and grabbed the nearby tabletop to steady myself. The noise came again, and the compound shook even harder, and for a moment I worried it might slide off the cliff face and into the sea.

Screams came from a dozen different directions all throughout Seris’s home.

My mind whirled, struggling to think through the reverberations left by the tremendous noise, then it was sounding again, sending a vibration through my teeth and eyes and into my brain, filling it with a dulling fog.

What in the abyss is…

It hit me all at once: the shields.

The shields were under attack.

Moving at a dead sprint, I slammed through the door to my chambers and along the hall, hurtling up the stairs three at a time and then peeling through one of the upper dining chambers and out onto a balcony.

Beyond the shield, which came up from the base of the cliffs far below to curve gently overhead, two figures flew high above the tumultuous waters of the Vritra’s Maw Sea.

The blood rushed from my face, and I had to clench my fists to keep my hands from shaking.

I knew these figures.

The pieces came together quickly. The Legacy must have ordered the bombardment of Rosaere to lure out Seris, then took a tempus warp northwest into Vechor before flying south over the sea. Whether she knew this compound was the source of all the energy currently powering the dominion-sized shield or was targeting this location only because it was Seris’s home and base of operations, I couldn’t guess.

I stood immobile as she reared back again, gathering a swelling force of mana to her, and hurled her hands outward. The thunder sounded yet again, a noise so great and terrible that it drove me to my knees with my hands clapped over my ears.

Through the railing of the balcony, I watched as jagged lines of white hot light spread across the surface of the shield, like cracks over thin ice.

Strong hands grabbed me beneath the arms and heaved me to my feet. Dazed, I struggle to focus on the face swimming just before me.

“Caera, listen carefully.” A familiar voice from that blurry face—Cylrit? “Evacuate as many as you can, then send word to Commander Seris. Go yourself if you can, but leave now—”

The thunder crashed again. I shook my head, blinking rapidly. Cylrit’s face finally came into focus, even more pale than usual. His jaw tightened and he flinched away from the noise, making me feel better—but also simultaneously worse. It was so much more frightening knowing that he was also afraid.

As the echoing vibrations receded, I risked a glance at the shield and was horrified to see how far the cracks had spread.

“Caera!” Cylrit said urgently, his hands gripping the sides of my neck with a tender firmness. “I will stay and fight, but—”

“Cylrit…” I said, his name barely a whisper on my lips. He followed the direction of my wide-eyed gaze, and together we watched as the Legacy flew toward the shield.

Both her hands reached out and pushed into the cracks, taking hold and pulling.

Like glass shattering, except a thousand times more cutting, the shield began to give way.

Cylrit launched himself toward the breach with such force that the balcony cracked. I threw myself back into the compound just as the supporting timbers shattered, and the balcony separated from the building with a sound like breaking bones.

By the time I had my feet under me, Cylrit had reached the barrier, a pure black greatsword as long as he was tall clenched in his fists.

All I could do was watch as the Legacy’s fingers clawed through the transparent barrier, ripping a hole the size of an outstretched hand. The shield crackled with desperate energy around her fingertips, surging against her power and control as it attempted to reseal itself.

Silently, Cylrit thrust his void wind blade into the gap, aimed right at the Legacy’s core.

“Cecil!” Scythe Nico shouted in alarm, his voice barely audible over the pounding in my ears.

Suddenly Cylrit jerked violently, attempting to pull away from the breach. He was struggling, but from my vantage, all I could see was his cloaked back. Belatedly, I ripped my own blade free of its sheath, but any attack I made would do more damage to my ally than the Scythe and Legacy still on the opposite side of the shield.

The barrier bulged inward like a distorted bubble, until Cyrilt was outside of it. It was then I realized his hands were empty; his sword had vanished, and the Legacy was gripping him by the front of his armor. The cracked section of shield snapped back into place as she ripped him through it, then shattered with a prolonged crashing, like trees being felled in a hurricane wind.

Despite Cyrit urging me to flee, I knew I couldn’t. The shield had been breached. The hole wasn’t large, perhaps eight feet tall and five wide, but it was more than enough for a person to come through, and I was the strongest warrior present aside from Cylrit himself. If I ran, many more might die.

As I stood, considering, Scythe Nico flew through the shield.

I cursed, and his gaze fell on me. Beyond him, the Legacy held Cylrit up by one hand. There was a surging conflict of invisible mana between the two. It was less a battle of spells than a contest of pure control over mana. Unfortunately, I’d seen enough at the Victoriad to understand who would win.

But there was no more time to watch. Scythe Nico was already moving toward me, flying on a shimmering cloud of air.

Leaping back, I slashed with my sword, rending a crescent of black flames clawing toward him, but he dipped below it, narrowly avoiding the soulfire.

I stumbled as I completed the arc of my cut. The floor had liquified beneath my feet, just for the blink of an eye, then turned solid again, and my feet were half stuck. In the moment it took me to wrench myself free of the stone, the Scythe had landed within the open arch in front of the shattered balcony.

A blood iron spike thrust up from the floor, just where my foot had been. I pirouetted away, bringing my blade up to deflect a second spike that thrust down from the ceiling. I was already breathing hard, too hard—much too hard—when I realized each breath brought me only the barest lungful of oxygen.

When I spun around to put my blade between me and the Scythe, the emerald on the end of his staff was glowing withradiant light.

He’s doing something to draw the air out of the room.

My blade burst to life with soulfire flames, and I thrust it into the ruined floor.

The stones shattered as the soulfire ate the floor out from under me, and I fell through to land atop a circular table. The legs snapped like kindling, and I leapt off its collapsing surface, twirling through the air to land on my feet several feet away. Gratefully, I sucked in a lungful of good air.

The room was dark, but I didn’t have time to take stock of my surroundings.

The floor beneath me burst upward, a solid column of stone hurtling toward the ceiling above. At the same time, several jet black metal spikes grew from the ceiling like so many stalactites.

Planting one foot on the edge of the column, I launched myself away, tucking into a roll and wreathing myself in a halo of soulfire as I went. Behind me, the column exploded, sending knives of solid stone pelting through the room, shredding everything inside.

The soulfire saved me, burning away all but one of the stone daggers, which slashed across my side, leaving behind a line of white-hot pain. As I rolled back to my feet, I quickly checked the wound; it was shallow, but not dangerous.

Scythe Nico appeared above, floating down through the hole I’d carved in the floor. I brought my blade up, ready to defend against his next attack.

“Lady Caera Denoir.” His voice was as quiet and cold as a tomb. “I’ve enjoyed reading your many missives. Seris has really kept you busy, hasn’t she?”

“If you’ve come to arrest me, I refuse,” I shot back, more to buy myself time than anything else.

There was a closed door to my back and an open arch to my right. I needed to move, to keep him occupied and hope that some of the other servants or guards managed to reach Seris. I had to be considerate about how and where I fought, though. The machines far beneath us were well-protected by wards and thick walls of metal and stone, but a battle here would still be dangerous.

And that’s not even taking into account the fact that I’m facing off with a Scythe, I thought.

Still, unlike the other Scythes, I could sense his mana signature and its potency. It was being distorted somehow—my eye was again drawn to the strange staff in his hand—but the signature was there, and it wasn’t as strong as I might have suspected.

“You still aren’t recovered from your battle against Grey, are you?” I prodded. Although I wasn’t ready to place bets on whether or not I could defeat even a weakened Scythe, the fact that he had started talking worked in my favor. The longer I kept him occupied, the more of our people could escape the compound.

His pale skin flushed, and his heavy, dark eyes narrowed into a scowl. “If you take me to Orlaeth or the source of power for the shield around this dominion, Cecilia—the Legacy—has agreed to spare your life. Refuse or stall for time, and I will immediately send word to our soldiers in Cargidan to begin exterminating your blood.”

As his face flushed, I felt the color drain from my own. I bore little love for my adopted blood, but that didn’t mean I wanted them all butchered. “Why bargain from a place of strength? Obviously the Legacy expects your surprise incursion to be countered. Perhaps she is not as strong as—”

The staff whirled in Scythe Nico’s hand, and the entire wall to my left was ripped free and came crashing inward. Channeling mana into one of my runes, I conjured a burst of wind that threw my sideways through the open archway to my right. The walls collided as I slid to a stop. The sound of collapsing stone and furniture swallowed everything else as the floor of the room I’d just escaped collapsed inward.

I found myself in a small chamber occupied by nothing but a few tiered benches and a beautiful harp that dominated the center of the room. Moving with a speed born of desperation and wind-attribute mana, I conjured a fistful of soulfire and blasted through the outer wall of the compound, then dove through the opening as the walls behind me began to unfold. Bullets of liquid fire hissed passed me as I arched out into the open air.

All motion—the whole world—seemed to slow down as I fell.

I had rotated so that I could see where the hole in the barrier was. Beyond it, the Legacy was turning, her turquoise eyes snapping to the motion of my fall. Thirty or so feet below her, the ashy-gray-haired figure of Cylrit was tumbling end over end toward the sea and rocks far below.

I locked eyes with the Legacy.

Then the world lurched into motion again. I pulled in my body to turn in the air and grabbed a broken support from the balcony above, spun around it, and launched myself toward a lower balcony cut directly into the side of the rock.

I collided with something, an invisible wall, keeping me from the balcony. At the speed I was moving, my legs crumpled and I bounced off the surface before falling straight down. Stretching until my shoulder popped, my fingers just brushed the top of the balcony rail, but skated off them. I scrambled to grab onto the bars, failed, but then caught the bottommost ledge of the balcony itself, jerking to a halt, my fingernails scoring lines into the wooden boards.

Heaving, I pulled myself up and over the railing in one smooth motion. Behind me, a cloud blotted out the light. I spun around.

The Legacy had just reached the hole in the shield. It had shrunk down to the size of a window, but she was gripping the sides and pushing outward, forcing it back open.

But a dark cloud was growing in front of her and the hole, billowing up from nowhere, condensing and dragging in the mana all around it. It seemed to leech the color from everything in sight, turning the whole world shades of gray.

Awed, I watched as the mist rushed out through the gash, boiling over the Legacy. She shot backwards, abandoning the shield as she defended herself from the spell. With each wave of her hand, parts of the cloud were wiped away as if they were nothing more than soot smeared on the sky, but I could sense the raging mana pushing, ripping, and pulling from both directions.

Then Scythe Nico drifted down in front of me, interrupting my view of the battle.

“You’re good at running,” he said, feigning a casual air. But I could feel him flinch every time the mana burst behind him, and every muscle in his face was taut as a pulled bowstring. “But I was hoping—”

Suddenly he twisted around, and several blood iron spikes appeared, weaving together to form a shield. In the same heartbeat, a pure black jet of energy struck the shield, ringing like a giant gong. The blood iron burst apart, and the Scythe was sent tumbling down out of my sight with a yelp.

A figure, little more than a liquid pearl-and-black streak, flashed past my vision and through the shrinking hole.

On the other side, I realized the black mist was gone. The Legacy was flying fifty feet from the shield. She appeared unhurt. The pretty elven face she wore glowered, and a horrible aura shivered out from her that made the mana itself tremble.

Seris hovered before the closing rift in the shield, glimmering like a gemstone in her black scaled armor. Although I could hardly fathom it, she maintained her usual businesslike nonchalance as she said, “It’s pretty rude to show up at my home unannounced and uninvited, Cecilia.”

“Nico?” the Legacy shouted, her gaze flicking past Seris to the compound. “Nico, are you all right?”

Remembering the Scythe, I glanced down from the balcony, but there was no sign of him.

When there was no response, the Legacy’s expression hardened, and she drifted toward Seris. “This is over, Scythe. I control mana. All of it. And I can pull down your barrier. Submit and take me to Orlaeth. Now.”

“You’re winded,” Seris said, and although I couldn’t see her face, I could tell she was smiling. “You don’t have the strength left to fight me. Leave. Go back to Agrona and tell him you failed, that everything he’s sacrificed to bring you here was for nought. Tell him I’ll be waiting right here if he wishes to speak to me.”

A ripple passed through the space between them, and Seris’s mouth snapped shut. Her body leaned into whatever the Legacy was doing. Dark lines of void wind banded around her, flexing outward against the invisible force assailing her.

Then, starting with Seris and rapidly expanding outward, a sphere of pure inky black obscured them both.

A ragged gasp slipped uncontrolled from my lips.

“She can’t win,” a voice said from behind me.

I spun, bringing up my blade and wreathing it in soulfire, but Scythe Nico held up his hands placatingly.

“I’m not going to attack you again,” he said sincerely.

I waited, watching closely for any sign of aggression. His mana was still, his movements cautious and steady. There was a spark of curiosity in his eyes—or was that victory I sensed emanating from him like an aura?

A sudden jolt of panic surged through me, and I glanced at the shields. They were still operational. Surely he couldn’t have breached the complex below in such a short time, and even if he had, the shields would already be showing the effect.

“Maybe not, but what is to stop me from attacking you?” I asked to fill the silence, unsure what he could want from me or why his attitude had suddenly changed.

“This,” he said, drawing an item from an inside pocket of his battle robes.

It was a rough-surfaced sphere larger than his hand, transparent except for a light purple shading. I’d seen cores before, and felt certain this was one, but it was larger than any mana core I’d ever seen. There was something almost magnetic about it, as if it were calling out to me, pulling me to it.

“I don’t care about this rebellion,” the Scythe continued, pulling the core slightly closer to him as my gaze clung to it. “I don’t give a shit about Orlaeth or any other Vritra.” He focused past me, into the black sphere. “If you’ll do something for me, I’ll leave. I’ll even buy you time.”

I hesitated, then dragged my attention from the core up to Scythe Nico’s face. Everything I'd ever heard about him framed him as some kind of monster. A cold-blooded killer, careless as a sharpened blade, eager to cut anyone who Agrona targeted. But now, looking at him, his black hair clinging to his forehead, his dark eyes simultaneously furious and pleading, I could see he was hardly more than a boy.

“What?” I finally said.

“Take this core,” he said, holding it back out to me. “Give it to Arthur Leywin—Grey—on the other continent. Tell him…” He paused, and a pained look crossed his face. “Tell him he has to save her. He owes her a life.”

I frowned, uncertain. “I don’t understand.”

He took a quick step forward, heedless of the blade pointing at his throat, and pressed the core toward me. My sword nicked the side of his neck, drawing a thin line of blood on his sickly-pale skin.

“Take it, and tell him.”

Slowly, I took one hand of the hilt of my sword and took the core. It was cool to the touch. “What does this have to do with Grey?” Arthur Leywin. “Who is ‘she’? The Legacy?”

Nico had taken a step back. His jaw tightened, and his voice was strained when he next spoke. “I’m trusting you with the most important thing in this entire world.”

Before I could press him further, or think to refuse and hurl the core into his face, he had slipped the staff from his back and cast a spell to wrap himself in wind, then flashed out of the compound and toward the black sphere, vanishing into its impenetrable depths.

I clutched the core and stared into the abyssal dark. Not only could I see nothing, I couldn’t sense anything either. It was as if Seris—or the Legacy, I thought with a chill—had carved out a piece of the world and left behind only an empty patch of nothing.

Just when I wondered how long anyone could keep up such a spell, the sphere exploded.

Darkness swallowed all light, and for a heart-stopping moment—a breath that felt like eternity—I was utterly blind.

Just as quickly, the black melted back into light and color. I sagged against the wall and stared up to where Seris and the Legacy had been.

Inside the shield, Seris hung in the air, one arm holding the other limply against her side. Opposite her, well outside of the transparent barrier, Nico was supporting the Legacy, who leaned against him, her gunmetal hair hanging down across half her face. One mad turquoise eye glared out. Unlike Seris, though, the Legacy bore no signs of physical injury. Between them, the asura-powered shield was once again complete and unblemished, no sign of the rift the Legacy had torn.

Nico began turning the Legacy away, and she let him. At the last moment, he glanced away from her, just for a single instant, and our eyes connected. Then the two were hurtling away at speed.

Seris watched them go until they had vanished from sight to the east before finally drifting down toward me. She looked tired, a bone-deep fatigue I couldn’t have imagined seeing in her even at the very end of her power, and my heart skipped a beat.

“Go down and check on the battery array,” she rasped. “And have the technicians create an opening near the base of the cliffs.” She winced as she looked down toward the water. “I need to go find my retainer.”