The Beginning After The End - Chapter 385

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Chapter 385


ARTHUR


There was too much to do after the Alacryan attack. With the djinn sanctuary exposed, it was no longer safe. Somehow, we had to move several hundred people across the Darvish desert, keeping them safe both from the elements and the Alacryans.


As people continued to pour out of the tunnels, the leadership gathered across the stream near where I’d fought the Alacryan forces. Varay flew up through the holes in the ceiling to scout while the rest of us discussed what the next step would be.


“Xyrus would make more sense,” Madam Astera was saying. She was leaning back in a conjured chair of soft earth, massaging the stump of her leg, the broken prosthetic abandoned on the ground nearby. “We can disperse the non-fighters throughout the villages around Sapin’s southern border. If we can make it to Blackbend City, General Arthur can easily get us to a teleportation chamber.”


The old soldier wore a cold smirk as she added, “Then we just unleash him on the forces guarding the city. It would be ours in a night.”


There were a few murmured agreements at this idea, but Hornfels Earthborn was quick to step in. “The Sapin border is twice as far as Darv’s capital city, and there aren’t any tunnel systems that far north. Plus, we’d be abandoning the civilians if the Alacryans pursued them after we’d left.”


“But surely they wouldn’t waste their time, would they?” the elven council member, Saria, asked softly. “The Alacryans will almost certainly pursue the stronger force.”


Madam Astera gestured to Saria in agreement, but was looking at the dwarves. “Exactly. Plus, we can trust the people of Xyrus—”


“And what the bloody hell is that supposed to mean?” Skarn Earthborn, Hornfels’ brother, growled.


Hornfels pressed his hand against Skarn’s chest, holding him back. “The meaning is clear enough, but you’re mistaken, Madam Astera. The dwarves—”


A thin, almost childish voice silenced all others as a pulse of heavy, frustrated intent pressed down on everyone present. “The dwarves have suffered from some very poor leadership, and have been exposed to constant propaganda since before the war even began.” Mica paused, her gemstone eye glinting as she stared around. “But the people of Darv are not cruel or evil, and Mica…I know they have started to see through the Vritras’ lies.”


Madam Astera nodded deferentially. “As you say, Lance. Still, we should hear from everyone.” She eyed Bairon and Helen, who had largely stayed silent. Virion had insisted he needed to look for something and excused himself before the meeting started. “Do the rest of you have anything to say for yourselves?”


“The people of Xyrus may prove less trustworthy than you hope,” Bairon said, an edge of poorly suppressed bitterness in his tone. “If Generals Arthur and Mica believe the dwarves will work with us, then I stand with the Lances.”


Helen shrugged. “It’ll be a fight wherever we go. Arthur gives us the best chance of victory, so the Twin Horns will be staying close to him.”


She looked at me with a blend of fierce pride and respect that reminded me of my father, and a warm tightness moved up from my chest and into my throat.


‘Look at you getting all mushy. Being surrounded by your enemies for so long has made you—’


You must be bored, I pointed out to my incorporeal companion. Go help my mom if you’re just going to be narrating my emotions.


‘Meh. She’s better company than you anyway,’ Regis thought with a mental snort before jumping out of me and loping off toward the town. There was a chorus of gasps and a choked yelp from Saria at his sudden appearance, but then it fell quiet again as the group watched him bound over the dammed stream.


Everyone reluctantly turned their gazes back to the meeting when Madam Astera began to struggle to her feet, doing her best to hide a scowl. Hornfels took her arm to steady her as he conjured a simple stone prosthetic around her leg. I was glad to see that, despite any disagreements they might have about our course of action, they still treated each other with respect.


“We should leave immediately,” I said, looking pointedly at the sunlight still streaming in from the cracks in the ceiling. “I caught them off guard just now, but we don’t want to give the Alacryans time to regroup and attack again.”


“I advise you to give these people some time,” Astera replied, countering my suggestion with her own. “Both to rest and to gather what little remains of their belongings. And we need to prepare defensive positions, map out our path, conjure transportation for those who can’t walk.”


I matched her steel-hard gaze for a moment, then nodded.


“So that’s it?” Skarn Earthborn said, focusing on me. “Just, ‘Let’s all run off to Vildorial, meeting end’? Nothing about how you just sent a hundred Alacryan soldiers pissing themselves back into the desert?” Skarn threw his hands in the air and glared at Mica. “What in the red blazes are the rest of us supposed to be doing then, eh? If this boy can crush armies and asuras alike, what is the purpose even of Lances, cousin? I just—” Skarn stopped suddenly, spitting on the stones before marching away.


Hornfels gave the group an apologetic shrug, then followed his brother.


“He does have a point,” Bairon said, frowning at me. There was a complex emotion in his expression, something existential that was leaking up from the deepest roots of his sense of self-worth. “How are any of us supposed to help you, Arthur?”


Mica looked down and away, not meeting my eyes. The others did the opposite, peering hungrily at me, eager for my protection and the hope my presence gave them.


“This war isn’t over,” I said simply. “Alacryan soldiers—even retainers and Scythes—they aren’t the threat Dicathen has to be ready for.” My lips turned up in a wry, mirthless smile. “Taci was just the beginning, Bairon. The gods themselves are our enemies now. And…whatever you all think, I can’t fight them alone.”


Bairon’s jaw clenched and a tremor ran along the muscle of his neck. Through gritted teeth, he said, “Then we must find some way to grow stronger.”


“Yeah.” Reaching into my dimension rune, I withdrew Taci’s long spear and threw it to Bairon. “This will be a start.”


He snatched it out of the air, then seemed to realize what he was holding and nearly dropped it.


“I don’t want the weapon that killed Aya,” he said after a moment, spinning the handle toward me and holding it out for me to take back.


“Don’t be a thickhead,” Mica grumbled, though she looked at the scarlet spear with unsuppressed loathing. “That is a powerful weapon, and there is no better way to pay your respects to Aya than using it to kill a few more asura.”


She reached out and flicked the head of the spear, making a clean, silvery ringing. Then she was moving off after her cousins, her despair and rage a nearly physical thing burning like a mantle of fire around her.


Bairon’s fist clenched around the haft. By simply holding the weapon, the Lance already seemed stronger, more present. “Thank you, Arthur.”


I nodded, and Bairon spun on his heel and marched away, effectively ending whatever was left of our meeting. Saria gave me a small bow, then took Astera’s arm as the pair began making their slower way back into town.


“You all right, kid?”


I looked up to realize Helen was watching me. “Kid?” I asked, my lips quirking up in amusement.


She mirrored my expression. “I’ve seen your mom wipe poop off of you. You’ll always be a kid in my book.”


I rubbed the back of my neck, chuckling. “Well, I guess that’s fair.”


The two of us began moving back toward the sanctuary, which was swarming with activity as people did their best to reclaim what items they could from the ruins. Although Ellie had wanted to stay with me, I’d asked her to keep an eye on Mom, who was worn down after so much healing. But there wasn’t time to rest yet.


“I’m fine, you know,” I said as we crossed over the rubble-dammed stream. “Just…feeling impatient, I guess. But I am glad to be back. To be…” I trailed off, not sure how much I could tell her.


“Home?” Helen filled in for me. There was a lilting curiosity in her tone, an unasked question buried in that single word.


I nodded, and we walked in silence as the noise and motion of hurried preparations grew around us.


A man’s ankle turned on a loose stone and he stumbled under the weight of his pack as he marched by, but I caught him and helped him straighten.


A crying child sat on a collapsed wall squeezing a battered and torn stuffed mana beast as her tired, red-faced mother struggled to wrap their belongings in an old blanket.


An older woman scrabbled frantically at the ruins of a house only to collapse back on her rear with a crumpled piece of parchment in her hands. She held the paper gingerly to her chest and wept.


“They’ve lost everything. Again,” Helen said softly. Then she cleared her throat and squinted down at the ground, looking embarrassed.


I wished there was more I could do, but for all my power, I couldn’t use Aroa’s Requiem to mend their broken hearts or God Step to take them away from their grief and fear. Their lives would never be the same, and although the holes left behind would heal over in time, there would always be the ache of loss, scars reminding them of everything that had been taken from them.


“I’m sorry,” Helen said, reaching out and grabbing my wrist. “Come on. We should take a moment to mourn properly. With settled spirits, we can straighten our backs and help these people carry their burdens.”


She led me to the far edge of the cavern. My breath caught as I looked down on a large, crystalline tomb. Even in the dim light, it shined with blues and greens. Floating in its center was a familiar body. Aya’s hands were crossed over a wound in her stomach, not quite hiding it. Her eyes were closed, her expression one of peaceful rest.


Several smaller tombs—simple slabs of cold gray rock—had been raised around Aya’s. To her right was a marbled tomb overrun with vines and bright, out-of-place flowers. The words, “Feyrith Ivsaar III” were carved into the top of the stone. In smaller lettering below, it said, “The most important truths are sought within the cracks of one’s own self.”


I ran my fingers along the grooves of the lettering, uncertain as to their meaning. Helen was walking in between the other slabs, touching each one briefly. When she saw me look in her direction, she smiled sadly. “Feyrith and Albold, they…well, your sister can probably explain it better than I.”


“You did good out there, old friend…” I said to the cold stone, echoing my own words from what felt like yet another lifetime ago.


Moving on to Aya’s tomb, I rested my hand atop it, looking down at the elven Lance’s serene face. I didn’t need to be able to sense mana to see how the other Lances had worked together to craft Aya’s resting place. Bright lights, like frozen sparks, gleamed within the crystal, and her body rested on a nest of fractal, frostlike patterns.


Closing my eyes, I nudged aether into the tomb. It rushed along the sharp edges and frozen contours, into the subtle striations within, grabbing onto the frozen sparks and filling in the fractal patterns.


Helen’s breath caught, and I opened my eyes. A light sheen of purple infused the blues and greens, seeming to move constantly inside the crystal, swirling and gusting like slow-motion wind.


“This tomb will be an enduring testament to all you’ve accomplished,” I spoke softly. “Because that’s something even death can’t take from you, Aya.”


***


Boo grunted irritably as he shook sand out of his coat, jostling Ellie atop his back. She scratched his neck fondly. “It’ll be okay, big guy. Not too much farther now.”


A gentle breeze had blown consistently into our faces for the last few hours, and, like Boo, everyone had sand clinging to them, which actually worked like a form of camouflage, helping to blend our long train into the surroundings.


Hundreds of people wound along in the rifts between shallow dunes. It was black and moonless in this part of the desert, with the only light coming from the bright stars overhead. We carried no lanterns or lighting artifacts, which would have been visible for miles across the empty central deserts of Darv.


Regis and I walked alongside Ellie, Boo, and my mother, near the head of the train.


Varay guarded the line’s rear, while Bairon and the Earthborn brothers guided us at the front, and Mica flew ahead to scout the route. If Hornfels and Skarn’s estimate was accurate, we were getting close to the outermost tunnels that would lead us to Vildorial.


“And so then there I am, getting ‘processed’ out the thing’s backside,” Regis was saying. Ellie laughed, and Mom’s eyebrows rose uncertainly. “But I got the better of the thing in the end. Well, Arthur helped, I suppose.”


“Another!” Ellie wheezed through her giggling. “I want to hear everything.”


“You know, Princess here has quite the temper. It almost got us in trouble a few times, like when—”


Mom stumbled as the sand slipped away beneath her feet, and she barely managed to catch herself.


“I’m okay,” she said before anyone could ask. “Just lost my—hey!”


As my mother had spoken, Regis slipped up beside her and scooped her off her feet and onto his back. The sight of my surprised and frightened mom frozen like a statue atop Regis would have been comical if I wasn’t so surprised as well.


“Um, Arthur?” Mom’s wide eyes turned in my direction.


“He’s just…trying to be helpful,” I said, reaching for the link between us. Uncharacteristically, Regis stayed silent, his bright eyes staring seriously ahead.


Sitting stiffly, Mom wrapped her fingers into his fur, careful of the flames leaping and gusting around his mane.


Ellie hid her mouth behind her hands, but I could still hear her half-suppressed giggles as she shot me a what-is-happening-right-now look from Mom’s other side.


We walked on in silence for a few minutes, until the call of, “Alice?” came from somewhere behind. Some half-healed wound had become infected, and so, his chin up regally, Regis carted my mother off down to the line to help.


The sun was just beginning to brighten the eastern horizon, and Ellie was little more than a shadow atop her bond. Still, I could tell from her hunched shoulders and downturned head that something was bothering her.


Over the last few hours, Regis had kept his stories mostly lighthearted, and in exchange Ellie had told us what she’d learned about Boo and the training she’d done in my absence, but mostly she’d listened, eager to hear everything about my time away, especially in the Relictombs. She’d been a quiet and patient listener, asking a few questions but otherwise just letting Regis talk—something he could do at length and without encouragement.


“Brother?” Ellie asked after a few minutes of silence between us.


I looked at her expectantly.


She hesitated, then seemed to steel herself. “Why didn’t you come home sooner?”


My gaze settled on Durden’s broad back, which was slung with several heavy bags. The big conjurer was walking not far ahead of us, while the rest of the Twin Horns were spread throughout the train, constantly on the lookout for any approaching danger.


Although it hadn’t even been a day since my return to Dicathen, I had felt my inability to sense mana more distinctly. I was entirely reliant on the other mages to forewarn us of an approaching enemy. And, unlike the other Lances, I couldn’t even fly to scout. It was a limitation I had maneuvered around in Alacrya, but now, with many more lives than my own at stake…


Finally, I spoke up. “I did want to come back sooner…as soon as I realized where I was, but…I knew if I came back too soon, if I didn’t take my time, grow strong again….then the same thing would have happened all over. There would be no one to save me this time, and then I wouldn’t be able to protect you.”


Ellie’s body sagged in defeat and I quickly added, “But I did keep an eye on you.”


She rose again just as fast as she had deflated. “What do you mean?”


I withdrew the djinn seeing relic and showed her, turning it so the pink light of the horizon caught on its many facets. “It uses aether. Lets me see a person, even from a long way away. It only ever worked for you and Mom, though.”


“That’s…kind of creepy,” Ellie said, her face scrunching into a wrinkly frown.


I chuckled and stowed the relic. “That’s what Regis said you’d say.” I paused. “I am sorry, though, El. For being gone so long.”


She looked past me, her gaze unfocused, then said, “I know. And…I think I can forgive you for that, but…”


I raised a brow, unable to keep a frown from my face. “But what?”


“Coming home without even bringing me a present? That’s unforgivable.” She crossed her arms huffily, like she had done when she was a little girl, and stuck her tongue out at me.


Bending down, I scooped up a handful of sand and chucked it at her. She squealed and leaned to the other side of Boo, trying to use him as a shield, but not quick enough. Just like Boo had done, she shook herself to knock the sand from her hair and glared at me.


“You know, I forgot how annoying you can be.”


I gave her my widest grin. “Isn’t that what big brothers are for?”


She rolled her eyes, her mouth opening to respond, but she froze for an instant, focusing on the sky, and the light-hearted moment came to an end.


I followed her gaze to Mica, who was drifting down toward us. “Are we nearly there?”


She waved her hand and a stone platform coalesced out of the sand. “We’re flying ahead to scout the entrance.” She inclined her head to the platform.


I gave Ellie an apologetic smile, brushed sand off Boo’s face, then stepped on the platform.


Mica turned and sped forward, and the platform followed. We quickly outpaced the train, but didn’t go too far ahead. Hornfels, Skarn, and Bairon were waiting. They had taken shelter behind a formation of sharp beige rocks that grew up from a hilltop. In a valley below them, a dark rift broke the rolling waves of tawny sand: one of the entrances down into the spiderweb of tunnels that made up the dwarven kingdom.


“What’s the plan?” I asked as soon as my feet were on the ground.


Hornfels pointed to the shadows. “Behind that door will be miles of tunnels to hide the civilians in, and a more or less straight shot to Vildorial. These smaller gates aren’t guarded, only patrolled at random, so with a bit of luck we’ll have time to get everyone inside without being bothered.”


“Then, you lot hit the city,” Skarn said, sounding even grumpier than usual.


“The Lances, he means,” Bairon confirmed. “The rest of the mages will stay and ensure the people are safe.”


Sending just the four Lances into Vildorial allowed us to keep a solid fighting force in the outer tunnels to deal with any random patrols, although the Twin Horns and other mages present in our band of refugees wouldn’t be enough to defeat a sizable Alacryan assault force.


“And you’re sure it won’t be guarded?” I asked.


“Not this far out, it won’t be,” Hornfels assured me. “There aren’t enough dwarves in Darv to guard every crack and crevice.”


“The priority right now is getting these people out of the open,” Mica chimed in. “The strike against Vildorial will need to be hard and fast.”


Skarn was scowling deeply as he tugged at his long beard. “If the dwarves fight with the Alacryans, it’ll be a damned bloodbath.”


Mica smacked her cousin’s arm. “We won’t let that happen.”


Skarn rubbed his arm and spit in the sand. “Aye. Well then. We better get moving.”


The brothers turned back toward the train as Mica, Bairon, and I made our way down the hill toward the entrance. Just inside the shadows of the small ravine, a heavy stone door was inset in the wall.


When I’d snuck into Darv during the war, to search for proof that the dwarves’ had betrayed Dicathen, I had been able to bypass the strange magical locks with Realmheart, but with Mica at my side, there was no need.


She reached into what looked like a patch of stone, and I knew she was releasing bursts of mana in a specific pattern. Moments later, the door began to grind open.


It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, which is when I saw five men sitting around a table in a small carved-out room off the side of the tunnel. They hesitated for a few seconds, then leapt to their feet, sending their chairs clattering to the ground.


Mica made a quick downward movement with her hand, and all five men and the table collapsed, crushed to the ground. One of them managed to send out a bolt of sickly green energy toward us, but it only burst against the stone wall of the tunnel, pulled off course by Mica’s gravity field.


“Alacryans,” I pointed out, noting that none of the guards were dwarves.


Mica clenched her jaw, and there was a wet crunch.


“I thought there weren’t supposed to be guards?” I asked, moving forward to inspect the remains.


“Do you feel that?” Bairon asked, looking at Mica.


She glanced around, the line of her gaze tracking something invisible through the stone. Then her eyes widened. “It’s an alarm. Shit.”


She held up a hand, her wrist and fingers working in the air as if she were manipulating some complicated pieces of machinery. When this apparently wasn’t working, she clenched her fist, and I heard stone shattering inside the tunnel walls.


“Subtle,” Bairon said, moving quickly into the tunnel. “Assuming that signal reached the city, we don’t have time to wait for all the people to file in. We have to go now.”


“Varay?” I asked, looking back out the door into the desert.


“She’ll catch up,” Mica snapped, already flying away at top speed.


Bairon made to follow, then hesitated. “Can you…?”


“Go!” I urged him, God Stepping well ahead of both of them.


Tendrils of purple electricity arced off me to ripple over the smooth walls of the passage, and I began to sprint, pushing aether into my muscles in order to keep up with the two flying Lances, whose speed were limited in the tight quarters anyway.


The journey of miles took us twenty minutes, and we didn’t even slow down when we approached the massive stone gates that closed the tunnel off to the city of Vildorial.


A hook-nosed Alacryan mage was leaning against the edge of a small square opening. He only had time to widen his eyes as Mica hit the gates. Instead of exploding inward, however, the stone rippled out from the point of impact, turning into sand that splashed down to the tunnel floor. Several Alacryans had been standing along a rampart that ran along the back of the gates, and their screams were cut off abruptly as they were swallowed by the sand.


We rushed through the now empty twenty-foot opening into the huge cavern of Vildorial. A wide road of reddish paving stones curved down to the right and up to the left, connecting different levels of the cavern.


Several dozen dwarves were arranged along this road, rushing into positions, shouts of alarm accompanying the sounds of defensive spells being cast.


Up and down the path, cave-like homes were carved into the outside walls, and a few doors opened as the residents stepped out to see what the commotion was.


A cheer rose up from nearby.


A dwarven woman, her fist raised in the air, was shouting, “Down with Alacrya! Down with the Vritra!” A nearby man hissed for her to be quiet, but she only gave him the back of her hand across his stunned face and resumed cheering. A few others joined in.


The dwarves’ spells and weapons alike dropped, heavy steel clanging off the stones and the crackle of fading magic filling the air. A look of utter shock was carved into each dwarven face, surges of horror and guilt fracturing their features like tremors. Tears began to spill from wide, wet eyes, and, one by one, the dwarven soldiers fell to their knees before their Lance.


The rest of us stayed silent as Mica observed her people. She grimaced, her own eyes shining with the long hurt of watching her people betray Dicathen again and again. But, as she wiped a tear with the back of her arm, her expression softened into a sad smile.


She flew up into the air, making herself more visible while also being able to look down on the terrified soldiers. “First the Greysunders and then Rahdeas…they poisoned our minds with rose-colored lies, promising us equal footing with the humans and elves—no, superiority to them. But the whole time they were doing everything in their power to ensure that they were raised up but that their people—you—remained in squalor. You have been lied to! Betrayed. The Alacryans only use you, like tools, like livestock.


“Since before this war even began, our leaders have plotted against us, convinced us to fight against each other and our own well-being. Mica…I mean, I understand. And…I forgive you.”


There was a moment of stillness and silence as all the dwarves present to hear this message struggled to absorb it. This stillness was broken a moment later when a line of Alacryan mages appeared from above, marching around a granite tower and down the curving road toward us, shields hovering in front of them.


Mica conjured her huge stone hammer, and Bairon floated up off the ground, lightning crackling around him. Varay flew in behind us, taking in everything with a single glance before landing next to Mica. The two exchanged a nod, and an icy aura leaked out to freeze the ground around Varay.


A magically projected voice boomed through the city. “Warning, dwarves. Return to your homes! Vildorial is under attack. Return to your homes!”


Before the voice had even stopped echoing, a crimson lance of energy fired from the approaching soldiers. But it wasn’t aimed at us.


I God Stepped into the path of the spell and released a burst of aether that devoured the ray before it could strike its target: the woman who had cheered at our arrival. After a moment of delay, she gasped and stumbled back against the wall of her home.


Still clad in purple lightning, I moved out into the center of the road and away from people's homes, eyeing the approaching force. There were around thirty battle groups, all hardened men and women, but I still saw more than a few fearful looks tremble across their faces. It was hard to say, but I thought some might even have been at the sanctuary during the attack there.


Spells began to fly.


“Arthur!” Varay shouted, but I held my hand up to the other Lances.


Pushing as much aether as I could manage out to the barrier clinging to my skin, I let the spells hit me. Stones broke against it, fire fanned out and faded, wind dispersed. A few of the strongest spells broke through, cutting or burning me, but aether rushed through my body, coalescing around the wounds, and I healed faster than I was being hurt.


After a minute or more of constant barrage, the spellfire slowed, then stopped entirely.


The ground around me had been blasted black. The far edge of the road gave an ominous crack, and several large chunks of paving tumbled down toward the lower level of the city.


Light steam and dark smoke mingled around me, drifting up from the broken stones, obscuring me in mist.


I stepped forward.


A heavy, threatening silence hung like a stormcloud over the city. For several heartbeats, no one moved. Then, one by one, the Alacryans began to shift, looking at one another or back the way they’d come with pale faces. Shields flickered as the soldiers conjuring them struggled to focus, and the straight, organized lines of men wavered and broke apart, their strict training failing them.


I waited until the tension was nearly ready to burst apart. “Anyone who wants to live, go now. For the rest”—I activated God Step, appearing in the center of the Alacryan force and unleashing my aetheric intent—“I can offer only a quick death.”


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