The Beginning After The End - Chapter 312
I heard the creatures skittering through the darkness before I saw them . The dim light artifact I carried only lit up about ten feet around me, enough to walk without twisting my ankle but not enough to show me what was coming .
There were three, maybe four of them, and they were still at least fifty feet down the tunnel .
Cave rats .
We’d first discovered them when exploring the tunnels around the refuge . The beasts hadn’t posed much of a threat to the refugee shelter; in fact they’d proven really useful since we could eat them . They didn’t taste great, but without them, bringing enough protein into our refuge would have been a lot more difficult . Still, people had to be careful, because the cave rats could be dangerous for someone traveling on their own .
Thankfully, I had Boo with me, so I wasn’t too worried about one pack of cave rats .
The rodent-like mana beasts were about the size of wolves and moved in packs like wolves too . From what we could tell, they were the dominant predator in these tunnels, surviving off the smaller vermin .
I swung my bow off of my shoulder and drew the string, conjuring an arrow into it . Boo huffed, but we’d practiced this before . He would stay behind me, out of the line of fire, until the enemy got close, then I could fall back while he charged forward .
The scratching of the cave rats’ claws on the rough stone floor of the tunnel suddenly quickened, but I waited until I saw the first pair of eyes glowing red in the reflected light of my little lantern stone .
The string hummed as the beam of white light flew into the dark . A second arrow had been conjured and nocked by the time the first found its mark right between the lead rat’s eyes .
The beast tumbled end over end, just a shadow at the edge of my vision . My second arrow sped past it, thudding into another cave rat I couldn’t see yet .
The third beast sprinted past its dead companions, trundling heavily like a little bear, but it didn’t make it much closer before one of my arrows struck it in the joint between the neck and the shoulder . Its legs gave out and it slid forward on its chest, wheezing horribly .
I put it out of its misery with a final arrow through the skull .
The tunnel was silent except for the soft sound of my own breath and Boo’s deep snorting behind me .
“Sorry boy,” I said with a smirk . “I promise I’ll leave some for you next—”
Movement from above drew my attention: a fourth cave rat was using its hard claws to creep slowly across the tunnel ceiling . It was shrunken and mangy, its mottled black-and-gray fur sticking out wildly .
Moving slowly, I set my hand to the bowstring and began to draw back, but the creature reacted much more quickly than its dead companions . It dropped to the ground, spinning in the air to land on its gnarled little feet, then opened its grotesque mouth and hissed, spewing out a cloud of greenish gas .
I loosed my arrow, but the cave rat—if it even was a cave rat—leapt to the side, spun, and bolted down the hallway, quickly moving beyond the range of my faint light source .
Stumbling backwards to escape the fumes, I sent another arrow speeding down the tunnel after it, hoping to hit it blindly, but the arrow only impacted against stone and then fizzled out .
Boo roared and barreled past me, tearing through the dark after the strange cave rat, ready to tear it apart .
The tunnel smelled sweet and putrid, like rotting fruit, making my eyes run and my nose burn . I stepped back further and waited, a cold shiver running up my back . What the hell was that? I wondered, rubbing away the goosebumps that had appeared on my arms .
After less than a minute, Boo came lumbering back down the tunnel . From the absence of fresh blood on his muzzle, it was clear that he didn’t catch the creature . I didn’t like the idea of that creature hiding somewhere out of sight, clinging from the ceiling like a bat, watching me…I shivered again .
“Let’s get moving, Boo,” I said resting my hand on his thick, shaggy fur . Then, to reassure myself, I repeated the mantra that Helen had taught me: “Eyes up and bow steady . Never falter and always ready . ”
Moving quickly and quietly, I held my breath as I passed through the foul mist that still hung in the air . The dead cave rats lay in twisted lumps on the floor, and would soon enough draw more of them in from the surrounding tunnels . I’d have to be cautious on my way back to the underground town .
I looked at every jutting protrusion of rock on the ceiling and walls, and on two different occasions I shot an arrow at what turned out to be loose stones that had fallen from the roof, but in the dim edges of my light they had looked like cave rats lying in wait .
Each twist and turn of the path leading to Elder Rinia’s little cavern made my heart beat more and more as I crept around the blind corners, bow at the ready, waiting for the mangy beast to jump on me from above or breathe out its noxious fumes .
Finally, I saw the steady glow of the light artifact that hung over the crack in the wall that served as Elder Rinia’s door . Letting out a deep breath of relief, I realized that the burning in my nose had moved down into my throat and lungs, and that it was painful to breathe .
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Rushing forward, I slipped through the crack and burst into the small cavern that Elder Rinia had claimed as her home .
Boo grunted from behind me; he usually didn’t mind waiting out in the tunnel while I talked to Rinia, but he could sense my distress . I heard him pawing at the narrow opening behind me, as if he could claw his way through to help me .
The old seer was sitting in a wicker chair with her feet held to a weak little fire that burned within a natural alcove along the far wall of the cave .
She turned as I stumbled through her door, one brow raised . “Ellie, dear, what are you—” Elder Rinia stood up with surprising swiftness, peering at me with concern . “But what’s happened, little one?”
I tried to speak, but could only sputter . “I—I—c-can’t—”
The old seer was next to me in an instant, her rough fingers prodding at my neck, my lips, pushing me head back to peer into my nostrils, prying my mouth open to stare down my throat .
My panic only grew as Elder Rinia tsked,then rushed over to a tall cabinet that was pressed against the rough wall of the cave and began pushing aside the clutter of items within . “Where is it? Where isit!”
Then my breathing stopped being painful, because I stopped being able to breathe at all . I stumbled toward the old elf and fell to my knees, one hand raised toward her pleadingly . My lungs were on fire and it felt as if my eyes would burst from my skull .
“Hah!” Elder Rinia hooted from somewhere above me, though she sounded very far away . Then something shoved me roughly from the side and I toppled over, rolling onto my back .
A blurry face hovered over mine, and something cool was pressed against my lips . Thick, icy liquid filled my mouth and began to slide unaided down my throat, and it was like someone had cast a spell to freeze my insides solid .
The liquid, whatever it was, wriggled within my lungs and throat, but when I gasped, sucking in a lungful of frigid air, I was still able to breathe . The sensation of drowning in the slime was too much for my body, however, which immediately began to try and remove the cold ooze by forcing me to be sick .
Rolling over and pushing myself up on my hands and knees, I began to heave like a cat coughing up a hairball .
Bright blue sludge splattered against the ground between my hands, pooled thickly, congealed back together like patches of slime mold slithering across the stone, then shriveled, blackened, and was still .
I wiped spittle from my trembling lips and turned, horrified, to Elder Rinia .
The old seer smiled kindly and patted my back . “Alright, alright . Right as rain, now . ”
I sat back on my hands and took a deep breath . The air still felt as cold as a frosty winter morning and tasted slightly of peppermint . The burning pain and the lingering smell of rot were gone .
“What—what was that?” My eyes flicked toward the black goop, then back to her .
She turned and walked slowly back to her chair, settling into it carefully, suddenly the very picture of a frail old woman . “Frost snail blubber . Works a treat for burns . Doesn’t last outside of its casing, though . ”
Scooting away from the pile of black ooze, I looked at Elder Rinia in disgust . “So you shoved slug snot down my throat? But I wasn’t even burned . . . there was some sort of gas…I thought I’d been poisoned . ”
“Chemical burn,” she said dismissively . “The elder who taught me was also a gifted healer . I don’t have the ancients’ blood, though, so I’ve had to make due with more mundane remedies . ”
I’d never heard Elder Rinia speak of her past or how she’d learned her magical arts before . For a moment the excitement of learning more about the mysterious seer was enough to put the cave rat and my near-death experience out of my mind . “Was that the same person who taught you about the runes and aether and stuff?”
“Aye . You could say they were singularly talented . It’s taken me a lifetime to learn even a portion of what they knew…” Elder Rinia trailed off into thought .
She jumped, then smiled warmly when I said, “I can’t imagine anyone more knowledgeable than you . ”
“Perhaps . It’s truly unfortunate that the ancients’ wisdom died with them…”
The ancient mages’ had built wonders that we still didn’t fully understand: the floating city of Xyrus, the flying castle, the teleportation platforms that connected all of Dicathen . I’d read about them a little bit, but there wasn’t very much that we knew for sure .
“By the way, Ellie, would you mind calling off that great beast of yours before he tears down my front door?” Elder Rinia asked in amusement .
“Oh, sorry!” Shaking slightly, I jumped up and ran back to the crack that led back to the tunnel . Boo was still scratching at the entrance; he had forced himself into the gap up to his shoulders, but that was as far as he could go .
He stopped when he saw me . “It’s okay, Boo, I’m okay . You just rest now, I’ll be back out after I’ve spoken with Elder Rinia, okay?”
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My bond eyed me, then snorted and began scooting backwards, slowly dislodging himself from the narrow gap .
I patted his snout and went back into the cave, walking carefully around the black ooze to where Elder Rinia sat .
There was only one chair next to the fire, so I sat cross legged on the warm stone at Elder Rinia’s feet, feeling more like a child than I had in years . Despite being there for a reason, something the old seer said had stuck in my head .
“What did you mean, you don’t have the ancients’ blood?”
Elder Rinia scoffed and looked at me appraisingly . “Caught that, did you? Me and my mouth . ” Her expression turned thoughtful, as if she were trying to decide how much she could tell me—a look I’d seen many times before on the old elf’s wrinkled face—then she took a deep breath .
“This isn’t something most know, but when I was a girl I was taught that emitters—healers—carry the blood of the ancient mages in their veins . This, in fact, is the source of their aberrant form of magic . ”
“So, does that mean that Mom is descended from ancient mages? That…that Arthur and I are?” I wasn’t sure what that would mean . I wasn’t even sure if I believed the old seer . It seemed fantastical, even silly, to consider it . The ancient mages were figures out of stories, like the asura .
But then, the asura were real enough . Arthur had even gone to their homeland to train . . .
Elder Rinia shook her head . “I’m afraid I’ve taken us quite off track . Perhaps we can speak more about these things later . For now, I think it would be best that you explain what exactly you ran into on your way here?”
She had told me as much as she was willing, I knew . I also knew there was no point in arguing with her or trying to wheedle more information out of her . No one understood the power of simple words better than a seer, and there would be no convincing her to tell me anything she didn’t want to, so I scooted a little closer to the fire and began to tell her about the attack in the tunnels .
Elder Rinia leaned forward in her chair, her hands steepled together as she listened to my story about the cave rats and the strange, sickly mana beast that had nearly killed me with its breath attack .
When I was finished, she leaned back and let out a long sigh . “A blight hob . ”
“What?” I asked, having never heard of such a creature before .
“Wicked creatures that are able to disguise themselves in order to live among other mana beasts . Most mana beasts are just that, beasts, but blight hobs are full of hatred and cruelty . Thankfully, they’re not particularly strong, though they possess a mean cleverness that makes them dangerous to underestimate . ”
“Sounds like something you’d raise and train to keep people away,” I muttered grumpily .
“Only if you want to be throttled in your sleep,” Elder Rinia said, laughing darkly . “But you’re here to discuss something else, aren’t you? And since you’ve nearly died in the process, you’d better get on with it . ”
Caught off guard, I opened my mouth, coughed dryly, then closed my mouth again . Since the cave rat attack, I hadn’t even thought about Virion’s request, and now I realized that I wasn’t sure how to ask what I needed to know .
Nervous fear caused my palms to sweat and my mouth to go dry . Rinia was looking at me expectantly, but I couldn’t seem to order the words in my mind .
“Well, spit it out, child,” Elder Rinia said impatiently, though not unkindly . “Tell me all about Virion’s grand plan and ask me for my wisdom, I know that’s why you’re here . ”
“If—if you know why I’m here, why do you need me to ask you?” I stared into the fire, pointedly avoiding the old seer’s penetrating gaze . I tried to sound nonchalant, as if I was teasing her, but my words had come out whimpering, like a frightened puppy .
She sighed heavily . “My dear…” There was so much kindness and warmth and tiredness in her breathy voice that I couldn’t help but turn around and meet her eye . “You’ve nothing to fear here . You’re being shouldered with burdens you shouldn’t have to bear, but you need to know you can . ”
I want to go fight Alacryans, but I can’t even ask my friend a simple question without shaking,I thought angrily . I amnot a child .
“Elder Rinia,” I said seriously, wiping my sweaty palms on my trousers and clearing my throat, “we will be sending an group—an assault force—into Elenoir to rescue a caravan of elven prisoners who are being moved—transported—from Zestier into newly formed holds along the edge of the Elshire forest . Commander Virion asks that you share your wisdom and tell us anything you can about this—this mission . ”
Elder Rinia had closed her eyes as I spoke, nodding absently . I waited, watching her eyeballs dart around beneath her closed lids . I imagined that she was reading some secret book that only she could see .
Her eyes fluttered open and she leaned forward, resting her face in her hands . Her wrinkled knuckles went white as she pressed her fingertips to her temples . When she spoke, her voice was raspy and strained .
“Before I can give my blessing for you to join this expedition to Elenoir, I’m going to need you to do a little something for me . ”
Her answer surprised me . “I’m sorry, I don’t mean any disrespect, Elder Rinia, but I didn’t come here for your blessing . ”
The elder gave me a knowing smile as she rested her chin on her palm . “No, but you’ll need it if you hope to accomplish your goal . ”
I bowed, acknowledging the truth of her words . “What—what do you want me to do?”
“You’re going to hunt and kill the blight hob for me, child . ”