The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 408

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Chapter 408

Chapter 406: Interruptions


ARTHUR LEYWIN


Golden light again enveloped me, and for the first time since arriving in Epheotus, I felt the tension leave my body. Even though I was returning to a war, the threats I faced here were simple in comparison to the yawning abyss of negative possibilities Kezess presented.


The golden light faded from my eyes, revealing the inner courtyard and surrounding walls of the royal palace in Etistin, exactly where I had left. As the conjured stairs were no longer there, I immediately plummeted toward the ground, landing with enough force to crack the paving stones and kick up a cloud of dust.


Shouts rang out from several different sources, and the silhouettes of armed and armored soldiers encircled me. The sea breeze carried the cloud away, and I watched as the hard eyes of the royal guards widened with surprise before they quickly scrambled to stow their weapons.


“General Arthur!” an energetic female voice sounded, conjuring a chorus of chanting from the soldiers.


I focused on the speaker, a half-elven woman that regarded me with a warm smile. “I need to speak to the Glayders. Are they in the palace?”


She jogged forward, quickly breaking free of the surprise that made the rest of the soldiers hesitate, and pointed toward the palace doors with one heavy battle gauntlet. “I can take you to them, sir.”


I nodded and let her take the lead.


The palace halls were much busier than when I’d left Etistin. Dozens of well-dressed people gathered, chatted, and marched about, all of them doing so with an air of importance. Their conversations stopped as we appeared, and wandering eyes began following me.


“The Glayders have been busy,” I mused, more to myself than my guide.


“It’s been a hectic few days, that’s for sure,” she said over her shoulder. “Who would have expected that so much could change so quickly?”


I stopped, and she turned around and gave me a quizzical look. “A few days?” I asked, surprised.


Her brows rose as she gave me an uncertain smile. “Well, yeah. It’s been a few days since the Alacryans retreated and the Glayders…” Her uncertain smile edged down into a frown. “Is everything okay, General?”


“Fine. Yes. It was just a lot less time for me.”


In fact, my quick trip to Epheotus had only felt like hours. How long did I walk the Path of Insight? I wondered.


The guard gave me a helpless shrug, as if she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, then continued leading me deeper into the palace. It was as I trailed behind her, idly watching her curly hair bounce up and down as I considered the next dozen steps I needed to take, that I realized who she reminded me of.


“My apologies if this is a strange question, but did you know a soldier named Cedry?” I asked.


The woman’s shoulders stiffened as she missed a step, and she seemed to pull into herself. Slowly, she glanced back over her shoulder. “Wh-what?”


Even as I said the name aloud, it felt so foreign, so long ago. I had only shared a brief conversation with the half-elven soldier, but perhaps it was because she fought with the same style of gauntlets as my father that I still remembered her name.


And of the many lives I had failed to save during the Battle of Slore soon after, her radiant gaze and playful smile stood out, and the way Jona’s voice had cracked as he told Astera and me that he’d intended to marry her…


“She, ah, was my sister,” the soldier said, her gaze falling. Then her face pinched into a tentative frown. “Did you know her, General?”


“We met at Slore,” I said gently, watching as the soldier’s face hardened to keep the tears forming in her eyes from falling. “She was a fierce and brave warrior.”


“Oh,” she said softly.


We began walking again, more slowly. “What happened to her friend, Jona?”


She took a long moment to respond. “He died,” she said quietly. “Here, in Etistin, during the battle of the Bloodfrost.”


I didn’t say anything. There was little to be said. But it served to reinforce my decision to work with Kezess. I would do everything in my power to keep their story from becoming everyone’s. Alacryan, Dicathian…no one deserved to die in the petty squabbling of the asura.


We exchanged no more words until Cedry’s sister bid me farewell outside a conference room. As she walked away, her head hanging, I realized I hadn’t even asked her name. Before I could do so, however, something shifted within the shadows of a nearby column and Jasmine stepped out into view.


Arms crossed, she leaned against the pillar and looked me up and down. “About time.”


‘Welcome back to the land of the lessers,’ Regis said with mock reverence. ‘I’d ask how tea with old Kezzy went, but I can already see it in your mind.’


“No problems here?” I asked to Jasmine, while at the same time thinking to Regis, You can come out now.


“A lot of side-eyeing and thinly veiled irritation, but no violence,” Jasmine said with a casual shrug.


‘Oh, I’ll come out when the time is right,’ Regis said, veiling his thoughts.


Although unsure what antics my companion was getting up to now, I had more pressing matters to attend to. With Jasmine at my heel, I made my way into the conference chamber where I could already hear Curtis’s low baritone.


Inside, seated around one end of an ornate mahogany table, Curtis, Kathyln, and Lyra Dreide were deep in conversation with a half-dozen well-dressed nobles.


Lyra saw me first and was quick to jump up from her seat and bow. All eyes went from her to me, and then everyone was standing.


“Arthur, you’ve returned,” Curtis said somewhat stiffly. “We were just discussing you, actually. Your sensational departure has continued to cause a stir over these last few days.”


One of the men present, whose shortness and roundness was only exaggerated by his proximity to the heroically proportioned Curtis Glayder, hurried around the table, his hand extended. “Lance Arthur Leywin! A pleasure, an honor, sir, truly.” Somewhat bemused, I grasped his hand and let him shake mine vigorously. “Otto Beynir, sir, at your service.”


“Beynir?” I repeated, certain I had heard the name before.


Curtis, who had walked up to join us, rested a hand on the man’s shoulder. “The esteemed Beynir House are old friends of my family. Otto here has been indispensable in putting the city back together.”


I looked more closely at the plump man. His brown hair circled up from his head in a color that didn’t quite match the darkness of his brows, and the skin of his face was rashy and pockmarked. His grass-green eyes were intense, and there was a sharpness—a cunningness—buried within them.


“And these others are?” I asked, pulling my hand away from Otto.


A quick round of introductions followed. There was another Glayder—a third cousin of Curtis and Kathyln—a big man from House Maxwell, an older woman of House Lambert, a paunchy middle-aged man from House Astor, and finally a nervous young woman named Dee Mountbatten.


A part of me questioned whether these nobles would be a good influence on the Glayder siblings. However, Curtis and Kathyln weren’t children anymore and, truth be told, I was tired and eager to return to Vildorial.


“How did the rest of the exchange go after I left?” I asked after nodding politely to the Mountbatten girl.


“As smooth as could be expected,” Curtis said, giving me a tight-lipped smile. He glanced back at his sister and Lyra. “Let’s retire to a more comfortable space for long-winded explanations, and we’ll fill you in.”


My gaze lingered on Lyra, who was staring at me with an intensity bordering on violence. “No time for that. I’m headed straight back to Vildorial, I just wanted to collect the retainer and Miss Flamesworth.”


The barest hint of a frown disrupted Kathyln’s stoic expression. “Are you certain, Arthur? There are a number of decisions we’ve made that I feel you should be apprised of.”


Lyra Dreide had edged away from Kathyln and was slowly approaching in a roundabout way that kept several feet between her and anyone else. “I’m happy to fill him in.”


A scowl flickered across Curtis’s face, but he quickly forced a smile. Interestingly, Kathyln was watching her brother instead of the retainer. The rest of the Glayders’ new council was watching the proceedings as if it was some kind of sporting event.


I looked from one face to the next. “I’m sorry, Kathyln. Could you put everything into a report and send it to me in Vildorial?”


“Of course,” she said quickly. “Let me take you to your teleportation artifact, at least.”


Curtis reached out and clapped my arm. “Don’t wait too long to return. The city is eager to hear how we plan to hold our continent now that we’ve taken it back.”


I reached up and took hold of his wrist, squeezing it firmly. “I have good news on that, but explanations will have to wait.”


Curtis laughed and took a step back. Emulating him, Otto Beynir did the same. The other nobles all joined in awkwardly.


“Until later then,” Curtis said. To his sister, he added, “I’ll be here with Beynir and the others when you’re finished, Kat.”


Turning on my heel, I led the strange procession of Lyra Dreide, Kathyln Glayder, and Jasmine Flamesworth out of the conference room and into one of the many grand hallways lined with paintings, statues, and other items collected by the Glayder royal family over generations.


“Your friend has hardly let me out of her sight,” Lyra mused, falling in beside me. “She would even sit through these interminable meetings, I imagine, if Lord Glayder allowed it.” Lyra cocked her head slightly, side-eyeing me. “What did you expect the poor girl to do if I went mad and betrayed you? She appears to have some talent, but she lacks true power.”


Regis chose that moment to manifest from Jasmine’s shadow, rearing up fully formed and glowering next to Lyra. “Then your body would have been reduced to a fine ash.”


Lyra’s brows knitted together, and one side of her mouth quirked up into a wry half-smile. “I see.”


Regis chuckled in my mind. ‘Worth the wait.’


“We moved your teleportation artifact to a safer location,” Kathyln said, moving up to walk beside me and guide us through the palace.


Lyra gave a soft scoff. “She means they hid it from me so I didn’t attempt to teleport away, forgetting that returning to my homeland is a death sentence.”


“Threat of death alone does not an ally make,” Kathyln replied calmly, her chin turned up and her eyes forward.


Kathyln led us through the palace in silence, down into the bowels of the undercroft to a guarded vault. There, we were allowed entry on Kathyln’s orders, and inside she took us to an individual room locked with a wardstone she was carrying. Within, resting on a metal table by itself, was the tempus warp.


As Kathyln stood aside to allow the four of us into the small room, I took in her stance, her expression, and where she was focusing her attention. “Thank you. I know this can’t have been easy, but Etistin—Dicathen—needed you.”


She rewarded my words with a small but warm smile. Then the smile faltered, and she looked away from me, her eyes losing focus. “I know you’ll be busy in the coming days and weeks, but Etistin still needs you. Please return when you can.”


“I will,” I promised, then turned my attention to the artifact.


Imbuing the Realmheart godrune with aether, I felt that heady rush as the mana came to life all around me. I quickly input our destination into the device and then activated it by manipulating the mana with my aether. An opaque disk opened flat against one wall. Aether reached out and tugged on the tempus warp, drawing it into my storage rune.


Jasmine nodded to Kathyln and went through.


“Thank you for your hospitality, Lady Glayder,” Lyra said, putting a hand on her chest and giving a shallow bow.


Kathyln said nothing as the retainer followed Jasmine through the portal. Regis went quickly after her.


The former princess of Sapin then gave me a nod before stepping back.


My gaze lingered on her’s. “Are you sure everything is all right?”


“These are complicated times, Arthur,” she said in that cool, distant way she had before giving me a small bow. “Farewell.”


Just as she began to turn around, I reached out and took her hand. For a moment, the two of us stayed silent as I watched a flush of color spread in her cheeks. But her expression mirrored my own; an expression more complicated than just pain or sorrow, but one forged throughout the time and tribulations we’d shared together.


Gently pulling her hand loose from mine, Kathyln wrapped her arms around me in a loose hug, her forehead resting on my chest. “Farewell, old friend,” she said again, more kindly.


She pulled away, and her fingers feathered through her hair where it had fallen over her shoulder.


“See you soon,” I assured her. Then, with no more to say, I turned and stepped into the portal. R ea d first at l i g h tn o v e l r e a d e r . o- r g


The scene shifted from the small, barren vault to the massive cavern of Vildorial. With the tempus warp, it was a smooth transition, nearly seamless, but the view itself was still dizzying.


Nearby, Lyra was looking out over the edge of the curving road with mixed emotions, while Jasmine and Regis watched her carefully. A handful of dwarves in heavy plate armor were already moving in our direction from the gates of the Earthborn Institute, our destination. One dwarf put himself out front, and I recognized him immediately as Skarn Earthborn, Mica’s cousin.


“Lance Arthur,” he said, stopping several feet away. His contingent of guards halted just behind him. His gaze lingered on Lyra Dreide. “I’ve been on the lookout for you for the last few days. Do you mind if I ask…nevermind, not my business.” He cleared his throat. “My uncle, Carnelian, needs to speak to you as soon as—”


I held up a hand, forestalling the rest of Skarn’s message. “I’ll make my rounds as soon as I’ve had a moment to check in on my family. Tell Carnelian that I’m back and will find him soon enough.”


Skarn’s always pinched, vaguely hostile expression darkened, but he held back whatever argument he obviously wanted to make. “Aye, Lance. I’ll tell him.” To his guards, he said, “Back to your posts!”


He hurried away, his armor clanking furiously.


“Do you want me to hang around?” Jasmine asked, looking pointedly at Lyra.


“Go get some rest,” I answered, certain she hadn’t been sleeping much as she babysat the retainer in Etistin. “We’ll catch up later.”


Jasmine punched my arm. “I’ve had enough of politics. If you’re going to drag me along on any more adventures, it better be something exciting.”


Chuckling, I shooed her off.


She turned away, waving over her head without looking back.


“You are a strange leader,” Lyra said from just beside me. She, too, was watching Jasmine descend the winding road. “But then, perhaps only one who doesn’t wish for authority can wield it without corruption. Assuming, of course, that you really are this paragon of purity that you present to the world.”


I stared down at the retainer placidly. She stared back, matching my expression, almost as if issuing a challenge. But she said nothing else, only followed as I made a beeline for the open gates of the Earthborn Institute.


The guards let us pass without a word, and then we delved into the stone halls cut into the side of the cavern. Instead of heading straight for my mother and Ellie’s rooms, I took Lyra well past the classrooms and living quarters. Although not a prison, the Earthborn Institute had a large number of secure vaults.


I found one that was easy enough to return to and currently appeared unoccupied. It had a barred front like a prison cell, and between each bar was a warding rune that would repel mana usage to some extent.


Reading my intention, Lyra scoffed. “Surely you don’t—”


I empowered God Step and grabbed her by the arm. Although the runes repelled mana, they did nothing to interrupt the aetheric pathways, and, in a flash of amethyst lightning, we appeared within the vault.


Her words cut off in a surprised gasp.


Before she could react, I God Stepped back out of the vault. With lightning still cascading across my skin, I looked through the bars to meet her eye. “We both know this vault probably can’t keep you, but I think we also both know it’s not in your best interest to break free.”


And just for safe measure, I want you to stay here and guard her.


‘How did I know that was coming,’ Regis groused. ‘When did I stop being your fierce asura-crafted weapon and become a full time babysitter?’


If you’re good at something, people will keep asking you to do it, I quipped.


“Is this really necessary, Regent?” Lyra asked with a sigh. “I’ve already—”


“Behave yourself, and maybe I’ll start to let out your leash,” I said over her, then turned and marched away quickly.


Finally, after what, for them, would have been well over a week, I found myself back before the door to my family’s quarters.


The smell of something hearty, like a meaty soup or chili, was drifting from under the front door.


I knocked, softly at first, then slightly louder. Voices exchanged from within, muffled by the thick dwarven door, and a few seconds went by. The door’s latch lifted with a resonant clunk, and the door swung open.


My sister’s sandy-brown eyes flew wide as she saw me, and she jumped into my arms with a delighted screech. “Arthur!”


I pulled her into a tight embrace and spun her around, making her squawk in surprise. When I finally set her down, she was red and her mouth was somehow both smiling and pouting.


“I’m not a child anymore, you know,” she said, sticking her tongue out at me. “Where have you been, anyway?”


It was my mother who answered. She had stepped out of the kitchen and was leaning against the wall, wiping her hands on an apron. “Off saving the world, of course.”


I rolled my eyes as I crossed the room and gave my mother a hug as well. “It smells amazing in here.”


“She’s been practicing,” Ellie said, bouncing past us toward the kitchen. “I was pretty sure she was going to poison us all in the first week, but she’s gotten better.”


Mom reached out to swat Ellie as she went by, but my sister dodged out of the way and ducked through the kitchen arch. Mom hurried after her, saying, “Keep your sticky fingers out of that pie, young lady!” She threw me an exasperated look over her shoulder. “Come on, you can help finish up. Or at least pin your sister down and keep her from eating everything before it’s ready. I swear, I’ve never seen anyone who could put down so much food.”


“Ish ah mah trainung,” she said around a mouthful of food. I followed mom into the kitchen, where Ellie again dodged her while simultaneously snatching another roll from a heaped plate.


Mom threw her hands up and went back to chopping up a pile of vegetables that were going into a pot over the fire. “Somehow she’s weedled the Lances into teaching her personally. By throwing your name around, I’m sure.”


Ellie swallowed hard, downing what looked like an entire roll at once. “Hey, after all the near-deaths and running and hiding, being a Leywin should come with some perks…”


Her voice trailed off as mother froze, and my own face fell.


“Sorry,” Ellie said quickly, immediately recognizing the shift in mood. “I didn’t mean it like that.”


My mom stood stiffly for a moment, but when she turned around she was smiling. “Don’t worry about it, dear. You’re right, we’ve been through a lot. I’m glad they’re teaching you, since your brother is too busy saving the world.”


They laughed together, albeit a little awkwardly, but that sound alone made all their teasing worth it.


“This again,” I shot back with mock offense. “You keep saying it like it’s a bad thing. I guess I could just let the world end. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about Ellie ever dating.”


Mom laughed even louder and a bit more genuinely this time around, as Ellie sputtered with outrage and chucked a roll across the kitchen at me. I snatched it out of the air and took a bite.


As I chewed, though, a force flared deep under the institute. I flinched at the mental impact of it, but Ellie and Mom showed no sign of noticing. Looking down at my feet, I stretched my senses.


A sudden, sharp wave of aether had burst like a geyser somewhere below, sending cascading flashes of mana ricocheting all throughout the institute. It was potent enough that certainly others should have sensed it…


“Arthur?” Mom said, noticing my faraway look. “Is something wrong?”


“I’m not sure,” I said, heading for the door. “Stay here, and”—I made eye contact with my sister—“summon Boo, just in case.”


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