The Beginning After The End - Chapter 318
The night was brisk . Low-hanging mists had seeped northward from the Elshire forest, floating just over the ground and making it look like we were walking on clouds . It was quiet except for the cry of some distant nightbird .
The wide ring of clear-cut forest was just ahead, the round tops of the tree stumps jutting out above the gray mist like stepping stones leading to the still-sleeping village .
A strong hand rested on my shoulder, and I turned to meet Curtis’s eyes .
“Fight well, Ellie . ”
“F-fight well,” I echoed, the tremor in my voice obvious .
Hornfels grinned at us all . “See you on the other side, aye?”
Tessia gave them a small wave . “Whatever happens, remember the plan . ”
Tessia, Albold, and I stayed where we were while the others turned and headed around the village to where the prisoners were being held .
We were giving them fifteen minutes before Tessia and Albold launched the attack .
Tessia spent the time mussing her hair and clothes, and dirtying her skin . She stripped dozens of tiny twigs from a low branch and rubbed them into her hair, then, with a small knife that Albold carried, gave herself a tiny cut an inch from her left eye and smeared blood across half her face .
I winced as I watched, but the cut healed in seconds . The blood that stained her fair skin remained .
“It’s going to take you forever to get those twigs out of your hair,” I said with a smirk .
“A small price to pay,” she replied with a soft smile . “Do you need to go over your part again?”
I nodded my head firmly . “I stay out of sight and watch . Once I’ve confirmed that the retainer takes the bait, I send the signal to the others to move in, then make my way through the forest to their location . Once the prisoners have been freed and everyone has teleported back to the sanctuary, I send you the signal to fall back . ”
“Perfect,” she said, her expression turning firm . “You’re strong, Ellie . More than you realize . ”
I tucked a stray piece of hair back behind my ear as an excuse to hide my burning cheeks, turning back to Tessia only when I’d been able to regain control of my face .
“Thank you . ” I let out a shuddering sigh before mustering a smile . “And I’m not sure I ever said this to you, but…I forgive you, Tessia . ”
Our leader’s eyes widened, her mouth opening just a bit as if she were about to say something when Albold stepped into our view .
“It’s time,” he muttered, his appearance equally disheveled as Tessia’s .
She nodded, then looked at me and twisted her facial features so her eyes were wide and glazed while her mouth hung a bit crookedly .
“Yeah, that’s definitely going to scare some people,” I told her seriously .
Letting the mask fall for just a second, she reached out and squeezed my hand . “Stay safe . ”
Then they were gone, rushing quietly through the forest toward the village . They had broken free of the treeline and were halfway across the misty clearing before a guard noticed them .
The yell cut through the silent night, but that was part of the plan . Tessia gave the man just enough time to shout out a second time before a condensed gust of wind hurled him through a nearby wall with a crunch .
Shouts went up throughout the village as the rest of the guards were alerted .
Three, all mages, came running from the east, bursting out between two short buildings and almost colliding with my companions .
Albold’s bow was already up, and, with a guttural roar, he let loose an arrow at the closest Alacryan . Dozens of small panels of stone burst from the ground, deflecting the arrow as they began to spin around the Alacryans .
The biggest of the three had icy gauntlets around his huge hands, and he lunged at Albold and threw a punch . The stone plates shifted to avoid striking him as they spun round and round .
Albold jumped back, and Tessia’s swordstaff was already cutting toward the Alacryan in an arc . One of the flat stones moved to intercept, but the blade sheared through it, then through the Alacryan’s outstretched arm .
His hoarse scream was cut short an instant later when an arrow struck him in the heart .
The mage still being protected by the shield-caster, a broad-shouldered man in a green robe, had been gathering his power and hadn’t yet cast a spell .
As Tessia began hacking at the spinning disks of stone, the mage held up both hands, and a billowing cloud of yellow vapor poured out of him, engulfing Tessia and Albold, as well as his dying companion .
Layers of mana shimmered around my companions as their protection fought against the caustic cloud, but I could tell the spell must be strong by the way Albold slumped under the weight of it .
Tessia spun her swordstaff like the blade of a fan, using it to focus a jet of wind that pushed the gas-spell back over the Alacryan mages . The caster seemed immune to his own magic, but the one holding up the shields wasn’t .
He screamed in pain as his flesh began to run like hot wax, and within moments he was dead .
I glanced away for a moment, trying not to throw up . When I looked back, the last mage was dead too, but six non-mage warriors had appeared from the west . They might as well have been children with sticks instead of swords .
Alarms continued to be shouted throughout the village . I activated my beast will to better hear what was happening .
My senses were instantly overwhelmed with the scent of rot, decay, and death . I spun around, looking for anyone nearby, but Boo and I were alone in the forest .
I turned my attention back to the village, trying to made sense of the jumble of shouted orders and questions:
“—from the east!”
“—a mad elf woman—”
“—tearing our men apart!”
“—Bilal! Where is Bilal?”
Then Tessia’s voice boomed over them all . “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all for what you’ve done to my home! Justice for the elves! For Elenoir!”
She’s overacting a bit, I thought to myself . I could tell by the sudden hush that fell over Eidelholm that it had been effective, however .
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I reached out to pat my bond, but my hand froze halfway . Boo stiffened, ceasing his pacing . An aura of black fear enveloped me, gripping my insides in an icy fist . I couldn’t move, I wasn’t even sure if I was still breathing .
The retainer stepped out of the shadows not ten feet from Tessia, suddenly appearing from nothing . It was his murderous intent I was feeling, even so far away in the safety of the forest .
Albold flinched back from him, but Tessia took a confident step toward the retainer, her face twisting into a snarl .
“Oh my, it’s the lost princess, daughter of the betrayer king and queen,” Bilal said, quiet and mocking as his eyes probed Tessia up and down . “She appears to have gone well and truly mad . ”
Without replying, Tessia activated her beast will . Emerald light infused the air around her, and the weight of the retainer’s presence vanished from my chest . I took a deep, shuddering breath, and Boo growled next to me .
Emerald vines burst from the ground in a ring around Tessia, Albold, and Bilal .
Sickly green mana extended from the retainer’s arms into two long blades that dragged across the ground, causing it to sizzle and pop and stink .
As Albold nocked an arrow, I found myself already trying to get away from the fight as much as possible .
Not yet, I told myself, planting my feet . I need to make sure that Bilal is fully engaged before I go signal the others .
“This willbe interesting, elf,” the retainer said in his harsh, dead voice . “I’m quite curious to see what the famed Tessia Eralith can do . I have heard the stories of your glorious failure to push back our assault on this land . ”
Tessia glowered . “And I’ve heard the word retainer spoken in fear so many times since this war began . Honestly, I expected something more from the one who replaced Jagrette . Or are you really the best they could do?”
She must’ve struck a nerve with her taunt, because the retainer’s arrogant sneer wrinkled into one of rage .
“I’ve earned the title of retainer through my skills, ignorantprincess,” he growled . “Self-assured stupidity truly is the trademark of you Dicathians, isn’t it?”
Tessia opened her mouth to reply, but the retainer lunged forward, the mana blade around his right hand extending forward until it was several feet long . The sickly green mana swept toward Tessia’s neck, but she easily dodged, and countered with a swing of her glowing swordstaff .
Bilal brought his other toxic blade up in time to block the swing, creating a small shockwave from the mere impact .
Tessia’s attack had been just a diversion, though, as the earth exploded upward under the retainer’s feet, releasing dozens of thorny emerald vines around him .
With a grimace, the retainer retracted his mana blade and the sickly green energy dispersed around him like a suit of toxic armor that Tessia’s attack couldn’t penetrate .
The retainer jumped with such incredible strength that he broke free of the vines and flew fifteen feet in the air . Two arrows sizzled against the energy shield, then both blades extended again until they were each several feet long, and he plummeted toward Albold .
Tessia’s form blurred across a framework of the vines before leaping between the pale Alacryan and Albold . She swung her swordstaff once more, and it forced Bilal to use both of his mana blades to block her swing .
The retainer followed up with a mana-clad kick, sweeping Tessia’s legs from underneath her, but the vines pulled her to safety before he could take advantage of the opening . When he tried to reform his blade, Albold fired at the exposed parts of his body, forcing Bilal to stay on the defensive .
Tessia didn’t give the retainer a chance to focus on Albold as she launched a barrage of piercing stabs with her swordstaff . Her emerald vines seemed to each have a life of its own, serving to either attack Bilal or grab onto his arms and legs to make it more difficult for him to deflect her blows .
Still, while Tessia was able to put a few bloody gashes on the retainer, she hadn’t managed to land a deciding blow . The layer of pale green mana that flowed around his angular body held strong, dampening Tessia’s attacks while dissolving Albold’s mana-clad arrows .
I need to send the signal now! I thought to myself, stepping away from the fierce battle .
If Tessia and Albold could keep up their current momentum, not only would we be able to rescue the prisoners, but we could also kill another retainer .
Leaping up on Boo’s back, we took off into the forest and around the outer edge of the village . I needed to get farther away from the battle before I sent out the signal or else Bilal might notice .
Suddenly, Boo skidded to a stop, and before I could even ask why, I knew the answer .
A sour odor of rot circled around us like a jawfish that smelled blood . I hopped off Boo and readied my bow as he positioned himself on his hind legs .
“I’m glad I kept my distance from your group until now,” a shrill and breathy voice echoed from the shadows .
A black silhouette appeared between two nearby trees: a tall man, his stiff black robes clinging to him, pale skin ghostly in the gloom .
The retainer!I thought in an instant of blind panic, then my beast will-sharpened eyes focused on him properly and I realized that this was a different man .
Aside from the physical differences of being shorter with thin black hair, I was relieved to sense that the pressure this person emitted wasn’t as powerful as Bilal .
Next to me, Boo growled deep in his chest, a wild sound full of rage and fear .
The man held up his hands as his bulging eyes studied us . “Please, do not struggle . I would like to speak to you . The truth is, I’m powerfully curious what the plan is here . ” His thin voice scratched against my ear uncomfortably . “I know your companions are preparing to ambush the men guarding the prisoners while the princess holds off my brother . But you Dicathians possess neither the requisite magic nor the technology to transport so many prisoners, and you couldn’t hope to lead these people through the depths of the cursed forest . ”
He continued to look down at me, a thoughtful frown creeping across his pale face . “But then, I would have said the same for the attack on the slave transport . How exactly did you get all those slaves away, hm? Are the asura helping you?”
My mind spun, trying to estimate how long this mage had been following us for .
When I didn’t respond, he glowered . “Answer me, girl!”
Boo snarled and took a trembling step forward, but I put a hand on his shoulder to stop him from attacking .
The Alacryan leaned down and looked me in the eye . “These Dicathian rebels must be getting truly desperate to bring little girls such as you along . ” His eyes moved to Boo . “Then again, you are one of these bonded mages I’ve heard about . A strange tradition, joining yourself with mere beasts . How does it work, exactly? Do you matewith them?”
His dark eyes gleamed perversely at the thought . “Well, this is proving fruitless, I suppose I’ll just—”
The man’s words cut off into a hiss as Boo lunged at him, reacting to the smallest pressure from my hand . I jumped back and sent an arrow flying over Boo’s head, but the Alacryan was gone from my sight .
I wrinkled my nose, though, still able to smell him . His stench mingled with the trees as if he was inside them, and that’s when I remembered one of Jagrette’s abilities .
If Bilal could use the same kind of toxic magic that she used, then perhaps this mage, who seemed so similar to the retainer in every other way, might be able to as well .
Ignoring my pounding heart, I condensed an arrow of mana, thinner and longer than normal .
Catching a whiff of his rotten odor behind me to my right, I whirled around and shot at the base of a crooked tree where the stench was the strongest .
My arrow pierced through the tree trunk like a streak of light and barely—just barely—I was able to smell a hint of blood .
“Interesting brat,” he growled from within the tree, his voice muffled .
His movement shifted again, this time faster .
A light step crunched in the earth behind me, but I was too slow to avoid the punch to my side that sent me crashing into the dirt .
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Boo roared and rushed past me, but I could tell by his frustrated huffing that the man had gone again .
His rot-and-death scent washed over me as he crouched down beside me . One long, crooked, mana-clad finger pressed into my back, just below my left shoulder . It passed effortlessly through the light armor I was wearing as well as the layer of mana protecting me, then into my flesh .
I couldn’t even hear my own scream over the pounding of blood through my ears . Maybe that was what allowed me to act .
My hand snapped out and wrapped around his ankle . Like I had done against the blight hob, I condensed a spike of pure mana in my palm and fired it through his leg . I could hear the shattering of bone even over his horrible scream, then the pressure in my shoulder was released .
Grunts and snarls told me Boo had tackled the Alacryan before I could push myself up to look . The thin man was entirely hidden under Boo’s bulk, and for a moment I thought we had the upper hand .
Before I could even get to my feet, however, Boo was hurled into the air . My heart stopped as I watched the huge bear-like mana beast tumble over and crash back to the ground with enough force to send tremors up through my hands and knees .
A helpless scream tore from my throat . “Boo!”
“Damned beast,” the Alacryan muttered as he struggled to stand .
His right ankle was shattered and bleeding profusely, and he had several puncture wounds in his shoulder and neck from where Boo’s powerful jaws had pierced his protective mana .
Anger—hot rage like I’d never felt before—gave me the strength to throw myself to my feet before the Alacryan could finish standing up .
I caught my bow with the tip of my boot and kicked it up into my hand, then drew and fired a concussive bolt of mana . It didn’t pierce him, but the explosion was strong enough to knock him back to the ground due to his weak ankle .
Cold laughter met my attack . “You’re spirited, girl . You’d make a fine present for my brother, but I think I’d rather take the pleasure of killing you myself . ”
My mind continued to spin and I found myself searching for that voice in my head that sounded like Arthur . What would he do in this situation?
Seeing the self-assured grin on the dark-haired Alacryan’s face as he slowly unfolded from the ground and hobbled toward me, mana already beginning to heal his foot, a plan began to form .
Firing another arrow that was made to burst before hitting him, I used the opening to sprint toward Boo .
“Boo!” I shouted while keeping tabs on the Alacryan’s location using my nose .
I fired another arrow back, this one made to spin like a drill . The Alacryan dodged by plunging into another tree and I could smell him drawing closer…but it didn’t matter .
Reaching Boo, who was just now able to get back on his feet, I positioned myself between him and the Alacryan .
“To go to such lengths for a mere beast . I’d be touched, if it wasn’t so idiotic,” he said with a cackle, stepping out from a large tree nearby .
I should be far enough now .
Lifting my bow, I conjured another arrow, this one riddled with holes along the glowing shaft .
The Alacryan conjured his own sickly green knife of mana and hurled it at me .
Boo intercepted in time, smacking the knife away with his large paw . Some of his fur sizzled from the toxic mana, but it gave me enough time to finish my special arrow .
Letting go of the bowstring, the arrow let out a piercing screech as it sailed through the air at the Alacryan .
Brows furrowed in confusion, my opponent decided not to take the risk of blocking it, instead stepping out of the way and letting the arrow whistle past him .
Signal sent, I thought with a breath of relief .
Without wasting time, I fired again, this time with an explosive arrow that was meant to inhibit his line of sight while Boo sprinted toward him .
“Enough with the pathetic tricks, child!” he snarled, bursting forward with a toxic mana knife in each hand .
Seeing Boo’s giant form about to leap on top of him, the Alacryan’s smile curved into a wicked grin as he prepared to plunge his deadly knives into my bond .
My heart continued to pound against my ribs as I did all I could to stay steady . Nocked against my bowstring was another arrow, glowing brightly as it held the rest of my mana… and it was aimed straight at my bond .
Seeing this, the Alacryan’s expression only turned even more delighted .
My arrow struck Boo’s back with a flash of gold just as my foe’s twin knives plunged deep into my bond’s chest .
“Did you think your arrow would be strong enough to pierce both your bond and me?” The Alacryan cackled maniacally . “Looks like your beast’s sacrifice was in vain!”
I dropped my bow, falling on my knees…a smile flashing on my lips .
Boo, protected in a suit of gold mana, wrapped his arms around the Alacryan’s body .
“W-what? How!” Our opponent struggled desperately as he was lifted off his feet . Pale green mana burst wildly from his body as he tried to use the rest of his mana to break free from Boo’s grasp .
As it became clear that he couldn’t break free, his panicked shouts turned into terrified screams . “Bilal! Brother! Help m—”
Boo’s jaws closed over his face, ending his yelling with a wet crunch .
My bond released the lifeless corpse, spitting out whatever was in his mouth as he turned away . His small, dark eyes met mine for a long moment before bending to scrape at his tongue with a paw .
Peeling my gaze away from the Alacryan, I scanned Boo for any injuries . “Are you okay, buddy?”
My bond let out a triumphant snort, and it was only then that I fully realized what had just happened .
“I—I won,” I muttered, looking down at my trembling hands . “I won!”
I buried my face in Boo’s neck, wrapping my arms around him as I laughed and cried at the same time .
“I’m getting stronger,” I muttered into my bond’s thick fur .
I had mixed feelings as I glanced down at the body . I knew I shouldn’t be glad that anyone was dead, but this man had been cruel and evil . He had deserved to die .
My eye caught on a jet black ring worn around the middle finger of his right hand .
A dimension ring .
Despite the feeling of wrongness, I bent down and jerked the tightly fit ring from the dead man’s hand . The ring could have all kinds of useful things stashed inside it .
I’ll take it back to Virion, I thought, tucking it into my pocket .
Turning away from the corpse, I clenched my still-trembling hands into tight fists and nodded at my bond . “Let’s go free the prisoners . ”