The Beginning After The End - Chapter 315
I followed several feet behind Tessia, keeping my face carefully passive so that the soldiers bustling around us wouldn’t see how nervous I was . Most of them were elves out of necessity; humans and dwarves were at a disadvantage navigating the foggy forest of Elshire, even with the elves there to guide us .
Boo trailed along behind me, wandering in and out of the trees as he sniffed around, stuffing his nose in the dirt to search for grubs or other small forest creatures to eat . Just by the way my bond’s stub of a tail wagged, I could tell he was really at home in the deep forest and glad to be out of the caves .
We’d only been in Elshire for an hour or two, but I felt like the fog had seeped into my ears and was floating around inside my head, making it hard to think . I tried to pay attention as Tessia gave orders but constantly found myself gazing dreamily at some flower or tree or rock, only to snap back to the present when Tessia would ask, “Ellie, are you coming?”
Tessia stopped to check the progress on a pit trap that was being dug in the middle of a narrow road through the forest . Though it seemed like little more than a deer trail to me, Tessia had said that such clear paths only existed near the interior of Elenoir, connecting some of the larger cities and towns .
Three young elves were working together to build the pit trap . The first, a fair-haired boy with handsome emerald eyes, was using earth mana to dig out a large hole in the path that was at least ten feet deep .
The other two wore their hoods up, though I could still make out their serious expressions underneath, and were coaxing roots up out of the bottom of the pit and twisting them into sharp, spiraling spikes .
All three turned to snap quick salutes to Tessia before returning to their work .
“Make the pit just a bit wider, from there”—she gestured to a large chunk of granite—“to there,” she said, pointing at a space between the roots of a large, knobbly tree with patches of moss hanging from it like a hundred little beards .
“That way, even a soldier walking on the edge of the path will fall in . ”
“Yes, Lady Tessia,” the green-eyed elf replied, immediately starting to widen the hole so that it encompassed the entire path .
Tessia moved on and I trailed along after her, watching her long, silvery-gray hair bounce against her back . She had really taken to command . I knew she’d led soldiers before, and that she had been beaten badly by the Alacryans in Elenoir previously, but now she seemed confident in her role, and the mages we brought with us all showed her respect .
My mist-clouded mind was drifting randomly, and I thought of asking Tessia for advice on gaining control of my beast will, since I knew she relied heavily on hers in battle . I had to remind myself that now wasn’t exactly the best time for that .
I’d had a short talk with Commander Virion after he’d heard more about what happened in the tunnels, and he’d made it obvious that the more powerful a mana beast was, the harder it was to unlock its beast will…and of course, Boo wasn’t just any ordinary mana beast .
Then how the heck did Arthur unlock his beast will so fast?I shook my head, not wanting to fall into the trap of comparing myself with my brother .
Trying my luck once again, I brought Commander Virion’s words to mind .
“Feel for the powerful, foreign entity deep inside your mana core and bring it out,” I muttered, closing my eyes .
Feeling nothing except for Boo’s damp breath tickling my neck as he sniffed me curiously, I let out a sigh .
Ahead of me, Tessia stopped and turned back with a raised brow . “Ellie, are you coming?”
I nodded frantically and jogged to catch up .
A short distance from the pit trap, two dwarves were working some kind of earth magic, causing the packed dirt to shake and soften . I hadn’t met the dwarves yet, though I’d heard of their arrival: the brothers Hornfels and Skarn Earthborn, cousins of Lance Mica .
They stopped their casting and straightened as we approached, though they did not salute . The dwarves were both short and broad, like most of their kin . They had identical features: broad noses, red cheeks, and wiry blonde beards . Their expressions were so different, though, that it would have been easy to miss that they were twins .
One grinned, looking at Tessia as if she were his long lost best friend who had reappeared after having been missing for a decade or two, while the other glared at her as if she’d just said something very unkind about his mother .
“How are the preparations going?” Tessia asked as she bent down and ran her hands over the tilled earth .
“Well enough,” the scowling dwarf muttered . “This is just the preparation, as you said . The real spell’s cast when the carts arrive . ”
“Then, shoop,” the smiling dwarf interjected . “The carriage tires sink in and stick fast . It’d take a dozen horses to pull ‘em out . ”
Tessia pressed her hand down into the soft soil . “You may be the first dwarves to ever work dwarven magic in Elshire forest,” she said quietly before standing up straight . “And it’s a privilege to be working alongside you . ”
The grinning dwarf grinned wider, the scowling dwarf scowled deeper . Tessia gave them a respectful nod before turning on her heel and walking into the forest .
The dwarves’ eyes fell on me as I stood there, staring at them . I thought it was really too bad that the dwarven king and queen had betrayed Dicathen . They’d left their people in such a hard position . I thought it was very brave of these Earthborns to have sought us out, when most of the dwarven kingdom had gone into full revolt in support of the invaders .
“Can we, perhaps, help you with something, girl?” the scowling dwarf asked, causing me to jump and look around for Tessia .
“Ellie, are you—”
“Coming!” I yelled .
Giving the dwarves an awkward wave, I leapt over a knee-high boulder and jogged toward Tessia .
She rested a hand on my shoulder once I’d caught up . “I have a few soldiers fortifying positions within the trees . ” Tessia pointed above us, where an elven archer was coaxing several tree branches into a sort of nest . It was amazing watching the tree move as if it was alive, responding to the soldier’s mana . “You’re going to be here . ”
“Got it . ” I traced the line from the platform above to the road: it was a straight shot to the dwarves’ sinkhole .
“These points—here, here, and there—form the kill box . ” Tessia’s eyes locked onto mine, her gaze deadly serious . “The mages up there will be the most important part of this battle, which is why I want you right in the middle of it . This needs to be quick and quiet, otherwise we risk losing the prisoners .
“I know the mist is making things difficult right now, but if you concentrate mana into your eyes and keep shifting your focus, it’ll help keep the effects of the fog at bay . The most important thing is that we keep the prisoners safe and stop any Alacryans from escaping . ”
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I returned her serious gaze, nodding in understanding . I couldn’t disappoint her, I needed to prove myself here—not as Arthur Leywin’s sister, but as Eleanor Leywin .
Tessia dipped her head down, gently caressing the back of my head as her forehead touched mine . “I know you don’t want to be coddled, but…stay safe out there . ”
Taken aback, I pulled away from her before answering with as much determination I could muster . “Of course . ”
Standing nearby, tall and straight backed and handsome, stood Curtis Glayder, a warm smile on his face . His sister, Kathyln, stood behind him, half-invisible in a deep shadow .
Boo perked up when he noticed Curtis’s bond, the world lion Grawder, and the two cautiously approached and began sniffing one another .
Curtis ruffled his crimson hair as he approached Tessia . “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I was hoping to further discuss the ground tactics before the battle . ”
“I need to see that preparations on the eastern line are progressing as expected,” she stated before nodding her head in the direction she was heading . “Walk with me?”
“Lead the way,” he said, making a well-practiced gesture with his hand .
I watched with growing annoyance as the two walked away, shoulder to shoulder . I knew it was nothing and that they had been friends since their days at Xyrus Academy, but I couldn’t help it . Tessia was Arthur’s girlfriend!
But Arthur was gone, and the creeping mushy emotions that were threatening to overwhelm me burst its dam, and my stomach dropped .
Damned mist, I thought, wiping a tear from my eye with the back of my hand .
“It’s still difficult, isn’t it?” I jerked around, just then realizing that Kathyln was walking next to me . “Moving on without them . ” Her skin was so white and her face so still that she could have been a porcelain doll, as cold and beautiful as an ice crystal .
I had grown to really like Kathyln since she and Curtis were rescued and brought to the underground shelter . She always seemed wise way past her years, and there was that weird, flowery, almost poetic way she spoke that I found refreshing .
Blinking, I realized I had been staring silently at Kathyln for way too long . “Yeah, I guess…” I murmured .
We crossed back over the path and followed Tessia and Curtis through the trees on the other side . They were speaking, but I couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying . Curtis said something that made Tessia smile, and she turned to look at him in what I thought was an admiring sort of way .
Maybe I’m just imagining things because this stupid fog, I thought, hoping it was true .
“Are you scared?” I suddenly blurted, my eyes falling to the forest floor, drifting along the contours of the tree roots and the sharp edges of the broad-leafed plants that blanketed the ground .
“Only a fool isn’t scared before battle,” Kathyln answered . “But these people need our help, so I’ll fight anyway . ”
Kathyln and I walked in silence after that . Tessia verified that the snipers’ nests on that side of the road were ready, then spent several long minutes reviewing what the ground team would be doing during the fight . Finally, she called the entire assault party together for one last pep talk .
Once everyone was gathered, Tessia began . “You all know why we’re here . The lives of over a hundred elven—no, Dicathian—prisoners hang in the balance . We only have one chance to free them .
“Based on our reports, we’ll match the Alacryan soldiers in number . But we have the element of surprise, and we have the forest itself on our side . This happens quick and clean . We don’t let anyone hurt the prisoners . Don’t let anyone get away . ”
Tessia’s piercing gaze moved from face to face as if she could memorize them all . “Now go, take up your positions . Be quiet, and be ready . ”
When the first crunch of the mist-muffled noise of carriage wheels on dry earth was heard in the treetops, it was like someone had struck me with a jolt of lightning . Suddenly my mouth was dry and my palms sweaty . My entire body felt alive with the anticipation of battle . I forced myself to take a long, deep breath, and focused mana into my eyes, making sure not to keep my sharpened gaze in one area for too long . It was as if the wind had blown away the fog in my mind .
Tessia had been right . Though the forest’s magic was still disorienting, I felt clear-headed and ready for the first time in hours .
I shuffled atop the platform of woven branches, moving into a better position to draw and fire my bow, but I didn’t conjure an arrow . The glimmering of a spell would be a dead giveaway to the approaching Alacryans .
There hadn’t been a way to fix the bow Emily had made for me, so Tessia gave me one crafted by the elves . It didn’t feel quite…mine, but I supposed it would have to do .
Barely perceptible even though I knew they were there, I saw the slightest shuffling as archers and mages in other trees around me did the same, moving like leaves in a gentle breeze . Knowing they were there gave me courage .
It seemed to take forever for the first of the Alacryans to appear between the trees . Several guards marched in front of the train of prisoner carts . They all seemed so young .
The Alacryans marched in silence, their hands white-knuckled around their weapons, their eyes darting from shadow to shadow . It was almost like they expected to be attacked, but I told myself it was just the mist-born paranoia and disorientation .
Then I could see the first of the carts . The squat wagon was pulled by a single moon ox . The mana beast was nearly as tall and wide as the cart itself . Its pale blue hide shimmered wherever the rare sunlight touched it, absorbing the light and glowing dimly in the deep shadows of the forest .
The cart itself was an open cage set atop a simple wagon . Inside it, elves were pressed shoulder to shoulder, packed so tightly they couldn’t even move . Several of the elves were manacled to the bars of the cage, and I could sense mana whirling through metal collars around their necks .
Mana suppression collars, I realized . There were mages among the prisoners .
There were four carts that I could see, each as fully loaded as the last . Eight Alacryans marched ahead of the wagon train while four walked alongside each cart . I couldn’t see the end of the prisoner transport line, but I knew they’d have at least a few soldiers bringing up the rear as well .
I tensed as the first soldiers approached the pit trap .
The crack of thin branches breaking and a brief, panicked yell was the signal to begin .
Conjuring an arrow onto the string of my bow, I took aim at a surprised-looking woman marching beside the lead cart . She raised her weapon, but before she could even take a step forward, my arrow pierced her breastplate, striking her in the heart before dissipating .
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At the same time, a dozen other Alacryans stumbled and fell under a barrage of arrows and spells flying from the trees .
My second arrow flew at an Alacryan soldier who was rushing back from the front lines to the cover of the wagons, but it bounced off a magical shield . All around the Alacryans our attacks were deflecting off of translucent panels of mana, and bolts of fire, spears of ice, and crackling balls of lightning were now flying into the treetops as they responded with their own offensive magic .
Then the dwarves’ spell kicked in .
A cloud of sandy dust exploded upwards, briefly covering the carts and the Alacryan mages around them . Several voices cried out in surprise, then a gust of wind blew the dust down the road, forcing it into the Alacryans’ noses, mouths, and eyes while revealing our targets to us .
The carts had sunk into the road up to their axles, and many of the soldiers were stuck up to their knees . The poor moon oxen trumpeted in fear as they were caught in the spell as well .
In the confusion, a few of our arrows and spells slipped past the shields, and another handful of the Alacryans fell dead .
A second explosion—this one unplanned—kicked up another storm of dirt, obscuring the wagons . The Alacryan soldiers were almost entirely hidden, making it impossible for us to continue firing or risk hitting the captives .
“They’re trying to release the elves!” a voice boomed from within the chaos below, making my heart pound and my fingers tremble on my bowstring .
A long jet of violently blue energy struck my tree several feet below me, causing the whole thing to wobble . The fear crept up in me, stronger than before, but I focused on it this time, repeating Virion’s words over and over in my head .
The same gut wrenching feeling I’d had in the tunnels took over, and my already enhanced eyesight sharpened even further . But I focused on my smell . Even through the thick layer of dirt, dust, and blood, I could make out the subtle smells that distinguished everyone down below, even if I couldn’t see them . I could smell the rancid odor of the elves, deprived of any sort of hygiene, and I could clearly make out the foreign stench of the Alacryans .
With a short, controlled breath, I fired four mana arrows in succession . Two sounded as though they had deflected off mana shields, but with each of the others came a pained grunt that sounded like it came from only a feet away, and the faint smell of fresh blood .
Nearby, an elven soldier screamed in pain as a dozen needle-like darts of stone tore through him, tossing him into the air . I watched, detached, as he tumbled like a ragdoll then hit the ground below with dull thud before firing another arrow in the direction that the enemy’s spell had come from .
Again, I could hear the mana arrow deflect off some obstruction before it reached its target .
A wild, monstrous roar tore through the forest, and for a heartbeat everything seemed to stop as all eyes turned toward the end of the prisoner caravan . Visible through a burned patch of leaves, I watched as Curtis charged along the road, riding atop Grawder and gleaming golden, shedding his own light like the sun .
Boo ran at Grawder’s side, answering the world lion’s roar with his own as the mana beasts charged together along the line of carts, a gust of wind clearing their line of sight to where the last of the Alacryans were huddled between the front two wagons . Two huge stone golems followed the mana beasts, their heavy footfalls shaking the leaves around me .
“Kill the prisoners!” screamed one of the enemy soldiers, her voice shrill with fear . I sent an arrow at the tall woman’s throat, threaded carefully through the barest crack in the shields, but it rebounded off one edge and missed .
Fear surged through me as the enemy spellcasters turned their magic toward the packed carts around them, preparing to execute the dozens of elven prisoners inside, but there was nothing I could do . They tightened the protective barrier so that my arrows couldn’t pierce it, nor could any of the other attacks raining down on the Alacryans from around me .
The very air around me began to change color, taking on a translucent green hue, and for a second I worried it was some side effect of my beast will . Then thorny vines of shimmering emerald energy sprouted from the ground in the middle of the knot of enemy soldiers, inside of the dome of interlocking panels . The vines ripped and tore at the Alacryans, plunged into and through their bodies, filling the forest with their dying screams .
They all fell before even a single spell was cast, all except for the tall woman, who was bound in a cocoon of the vines, unable to move or speak .
Curtis, Grawder, Boo, and the golems fell upon the enemy just as the shields flickered and failed, ensuring that there were no other survivors .
Suddenly everything was silent as the twang of bowstrings, the hiss of spells burning through the air, and the shouts of dying men and women all stopped . Only the low moans of the trapped moon oxen broke the eerie quiet .
Then Tessia stepped into view, her entire body wrapped in a shroud of emerald light . Mossy grass bloomed in her footprints, and the plants and trees of the forest seemed to turn toward her as she strode calmly through the battlefield toward the carts and the last living Alacryan .
When she was face to face with the tall woman, Tessia encouraged her to be calm and asked for her name and rank . The bindings slithered away from the Alacryan’s mouth, and she spit at Tessia and shouted a vulgar curse .
Then the woman’s skin began to glow, burning brighter and brighter as if a star were being born inside her . I heard Curtis shout out a warning, then lost sight of both Tessia and the Alacryan as a solid dome of tree roots and thick vines burst from the ground around them .
An instant later, a huge explosion rocked the forest, shaking the ground so that my right foot slipped and I was forced to wrap my arms around the largest limb of my woven platform to keep from tumbling from my perch .
A thick cloud of dust enveloped the carts again so that I couldn’t see what had happened . Somehow, the Alacryan had erupted with mana right between the two lead wagons . There were at least fifty elven prisoners in those cages alone, and Boo and Tessia had been right there too…
Sliding so that I was hanging from the side of the platform, I let myself drop the twenty five feet to the ground, reinforcing my legs with mana to absorb the force of the landing, then I was sprinting toward the road .
Just inside the thick dust, I ran headlong into a large, hairy body: Boo . My bond rumbled with a low growl, but I ran my hand through his coarse fur and he relaxed .
“Tessia?” I called softly, fear making my voice thin and childlike .
“Stay back,” Curtis commanded from somewhere to my right .
Then a gust of wind carried the dust away yet again, and I saw the cocoon of vines, still intact and hiding the Alacryan woman and Tessia both . As I watched, the vines and roots began to unravel, slowly collapsing and revealing the charred wreckage within .
I was amazed that the prisoner wagons had survived, but Tessia’s spell had almost entirely contained the blast . The Alacryan woman was gone, nothing left but ash and the twisted remains of her armor .
Tessia turned, levelling me with a calm but otherworldly gaze, her beast will still active . She frowned as a giggle escaped from my mouth . Even though she seemed unhurt, her eyebrows and steely gray hair had been slightly singed, reminding me of the mad-scientist Gideon .
My giggle turned into laughter as Tessia released her beast will, letting the writhing emerald vines fade and the air return to its natural misty gray color . Her hand went to her face and gingerly felt at her scorched brows, and a slow smirk spread on her lips .
With her other hand, Tessia reached out and touched my cheek . “Ellie, do you have whiskers?”
I traced the faint lines on my cheek with my own fingers, struggling to hold back another fit of giggles . “My beast will…”
Around us, the prisoners were starting to come to life as they realized they had been freed . A woman’s voice shouted out a cheer, then several others joined her .
We had done it .