The Beginning After The End - Chapter 349 - Hope and Lies
My mana arrow struck the clod of dirt dead center, causing it to burst apart in a dusty cloud. The arrow continued along its path to the golem that had just thrown it, clipping it in the right temple. Although part of the golem’s head collapsed, it apparently wasn’t enough to count as a kill, because the animated pile of dirt and rocks shuffled to the side, preparing another attack.
At the same time, a second golem appeared, growing up out of the ground like it was melting in reverse. It had a huge stone axe trained at my head. I let out a snort.
“Dirt clods and blunt axes? I’ve trained with a Lance, Hornfels,” I said flippantly as I sidestepped a clumsy swing by the axe-wielding golem.
The axe came up in a side-hand cut aimed at my hip, but I rolled backwards over my shoulder. Reinforcing my bow with mana, I swept the golem’s leg out from under it, then had two arrows glowing against the string of my elven bow before I was on my feet again. Splitting the mana arrows with my finger, I sent them on slightly different trajectories so that one pierced the axe-wielding golem’s chest, while the second took the clod-thrower in the throat.
“Nice shot, Ellie!” my new friend Camellia whooped.
I flashed the young elf a toothy grin, then yelped in surprise as the ground beneath me turned to muck. As I sank up to my knees, three more golems grew out of the ground and glowered down at me.
I threw myself flat in the muck to avoid a crushing blow from a stone fist. The ground hardened again, trapping me half in the rocky cavern floor. I spit out a mouthful of mud.
“Yuck,” I moaned, trying to adjust my position but completely stuck.
“Don’t forget, I’ve also trained with a Lance, you overconfident little twig,” Hornfels said jovially.
Soft footsteps darted toward me. “Are you okay?” Camellia asked.
Hornfels let out a low chuckle, and the stone turned to sand, releasing me. “She’ll be just fine. Don’t fawn over her, girl. The lass has a big enough head as it is.”
I drew myself out of the sand pit and brushed myself off. “I do not have a big head!”
Someone huffed sarcastically, and I turned to see two familiar figures walking toward us.
“Jasmine! Emily!” I shouted with excitement. “Come to see how awesome I’ve gotten?”
“No, not big-headed at all…” Camellia teased. I shoved playfully at her shoulder, and she poked me in the ribs, then jumped away before I could get her back.
“I just needed to make sure this one wasn’t getting into trouble,” Jasmine said, nodding to Camellia.
The serious adventurer hadn’t changed much since I was a little kid. I liked all of the Twin Horns, but was secretly a little scared of Jasmine. When Helen, Durden, and Angela Rose had originally been brought to the sanctuary, Jasmine hadn’t come with them. Camellia had told me all about how Jasmine saved her, though, so I was glad she’d come back.
“Actually, we were looking for Hornfels,” Emily piped in. “Helen suggested we get some training time in too.”
Unlike Jasmine, Emily had changed a lot in a pretty short amount of time. There was a hardened edge to her that she definitely hadn’t had before, and sometimes I’d notice her go sort of blank and cold. She’d chopped off her hair after it’d been burned in an explosion, but at least her eyebrows were growing back.
I’d been so happy when she arrived with the Twin Horns and Gideon. We weren’t best friends or anything, but Emily had always been nice to me, and she had even made a custom bow back then that took advantage of my pure mana techniques.
She was a total genius, though, so it wasn’t exactly surprising that she’d found a way to survive. She and Gideon had been captured by the Alacryans and forced to work for them, but the Twin Horns had helped to save them. Or they’d helped to save Jasmine? I was still a little fuzzy on the details.
She had been almost as bummed as I was to hear that my bow had been destroyed. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any of the tools or resources she needed to make another one in the sanctuary so I was stuck using a practice bow.
It was still really good to have them both back. And seeing more familiar faces had been good for Mom, too. She’d started to come back to life a little as she realized that a lot of our friends were still alive out there, just waiting for help.
“I’m about done with Princess Leywin anyway,” Hornfels jeered, making Camellia giggle.
“Hey!” I said indignantly.
“Another princess? Just what we need…” Jasmine said, and she seemed so serious that I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.
“Don’t mind her,” Camellia said, wrinkling her nose. “She’s just not very good at expressing herself.”
Jasmine raised a brow at the elven girl. “Careful, Skunk.”
Camellia crossed her arms and stuck her tongue out at Jasmine.
“All right then,” Hornfels said, laughing loudly. “The Watsken girl I’m familiar with, but you’ll have to walk me through your abilities, Miss Flamesworth…”
My attention drifted away from the others as Jasmine and Hornfels began to discuss sparring.
We had chosen a flat ridge overlooking most of the cavern to be our training ground. It was far enough away that we weren’t likely to accidentally break something in the process. I also liked it because it looked down on the village, and I could see almost every house from up here, and most of the tunnels out of town.
Curtis and Kathyln Glayder were marching quickly toward the tunnel leading to the teleportation gate. After what happened in Elenoir, most of us never left the sanctuary anymore, but the Glayders, along with a few other strong mages, were still going on missions to look for more refugees.
The members of our expedition to Elenoir had stayed pretty close after we all got back from Elenoir. Kathyln described it as a “shared guilt.” Each of us thought we could have—should have—done more to make sure Tessia was safe.
The only one who didn’t seem interested in checking in with us at all was the elven guard, Albold. Apparently he’d wanted to return to the forest almost immediately when Tessia and I didn’t come back, but Virion wouldn’t let him. Then, when Bairon confirmed that Elenoir was entirely gone, well…
I shook my head. I’d tried to consider how it would feel to know Sapin was just…gone, but…
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“Ellie, you okay?” Camellia asked, nudging me with her elbow.
“Of course,” I said as I slung my bow over my shoulder. “But I’m pretty tired. I’m going to call it a day, okay?”
Waving to the others, I turned and began the long descent into town, unsure what to do with myself. I was tired, but I was also…
I didn’t even really know. I never knew how to feel anymore, and so I’d started just pushing it all into the background.
Was that how you dealt with it, Brother? I wondered.
Sighing, I kicked a stone down the size of the natural ramp I was walking down. It clattered away over the edge, eventually landing with a splash in the stream.
It didn’t help that I was surrounded by people who had lost everything. I’d lost my dad and my brother—and my childhood—to the war, but then I thought of Camellia…her entire family had been killed during the invasion, her home was gone, most of the people she’d ever met were dead…
I wanted to understand it. I wanted to help Camellia and Virion and all the others, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around what they’d experienced.
Albold was the only other elven member of our group. Maybe it was selfish of me, but it felt like he was my connection to what happened. I wanted him to help me understand what he was feeling, but he’d pretty much gone into hiding.
There were other elves I could talk to, of course. Commander Virion was in meetings all the time, though, and, as much as I had wanted to speak to him, I hadn’t been allowed in weeks.
Rinia said she was too weak for visitors, but she hadn’t moved back into the sanctuary. I couldn’t help feeling that something was going on between Virion and her. I just couldn’t guess what. And since neither one was speaking with me, well…
Having Camellia was great, at least. There were a few other kids in the sanctuary, but no one who understood what I’d been through the way she did. Maybe it was because we were so much alike that we both struggled to really understand what had happened. Before Jasmine saved her, she had already lost her whole family, and seemed kind of numb when it came to the attack on her homeland.
There were others, too, but no one I felt like I could talk to. If Tessia were still here, she could—
Could she? I flashed back to that moment in the little elven town, with Tessia, looking beautiful, standing above her shocked and confused people…
Shaking my head, I turned away from that thought. Instead, my mind went back to Albold. I’d gone looking for him a few times over the last few weeks, but hadn’t found him. Still, trying again wouldn’t hurt, I told myself, and maybe he needed to talk to me as much as I needed to talk to him.
Although I was sure he wouldn’t be there, I headed for the town hall first. Albold hadn’t been at any of his regular guard shifts since I’d given my report to the council, but I really wasn’t sure where else to look.
As I’d expected, two unfamiliar guards flanked the door, while the elven woman named Lenna stood at the foot of the stairs. She was watching me approach.
I hadn’t made it within thirty feet of her before she said, “Sorry, Miss Leywin, the Commander is not available.”
“Actually,” I started nervously, “I was looking for the guard, Albold. Do you—”
“Albold is still on his leave of absence, due to his injury,” she interrupted me, speaking firmly.
I happened to know that my mother had personally tended to the elf’s wounds moments after he teleported back to the sanctuary. Although there would have been some lingering discomfort for a bit, he had gone back to his duties almost immediately. Still, there was no point arguing with the head guard. I also knew what she’d say when I asked where he was now, but I tried anyway.
“As I said before, Albold has been given a private cave outside of the town, and has asked not to be disturbed. I’m sure he’ll let you know when he is feeling better.” The way she said this made it very clear just how likely she thought it was that Albold would seek me out for anything.
I wanted to be mad about her attitude, but then I just thought of Elenoir again, and my stomach folded into a knot. “Sorry to bother you. Thank you for your time and”—I scrambled for something to say, feeling myself grow more awkward with each word—“your service,” I finished with a wince.
Turning at the edge of the town hall, I intended to weave into one of the alleys and just walk for a while, but a noise from inside the large building brought me up short.
As I listened closer, I realized there was a sound dampening spell in place, but someone had shouted loud enough for my sensitive ears to pick it out.
Looking around to make sure no one was watching, I moved closer to the side of the town hall where the large conference room was, but there was something there, like an electrical charge in the atmosphere, or a crushing pressure, enough to make my ears pop. Even though I wasn’t sure what was causing it, I trusted my instincts enough not to get any closer.
There was a small communal garden right next to the town hall. It only grew roots and mushrooms and stuff, so I didn’t usually spend much time there, but it was the perfect cover now.
Taking a seat in the middle of the garden, I pretended to be examining the plants. Instead, I activated the first phase of my beast will. Noises from all over the cavern grew loud in my ears as my senses sharpened dramatically so that I had to take a few seconds to carefully tune it all out. I focused on the town hall, listening for Virion’s growling voice.
“—artifacts we were promised. This lie you’ve made me tell is only worth it if we—”
Another voice interrupted the commander. “The lie you’ve agreed to tell is best for all, Virion, as we’ve discussed at length. I understand you are eager to retake your continent, but the artifacts are not yet ready. Nor, for that matter, are the asuras.”
Although I hadn’t heard this second voice in many years, I knew immediately who it was. There was no way I could forget the man—or deity—who gave me Boo.
But what were they talking about? Lies? Artifacts? I didn’t understand.
Virion’s voice was a snarl when he replied, “Damned your games, Windsom. Don’t think I’ve forgiven your crime against my people. I spread your lie only because I have no other choice. Knowing what the asuras did would shatter what little hope remains in Dicathen.”
“You are correct,” Windsom said, his voice cold and emotionless. “You have no choice, Commander Virion. If you wish to lead your people—elves, humans, and dwarves alike—through this war, then convincing everyone that the destruction of Elenoir was an act of the Vritra Clan is essential.
“The story has played well in Epheotus,” Windsom continued. “Even the remaining basilisk clans have started coming around. Soon, Lord Indrath will have enough support to proceed with a full-scale war.”
“But Dicathen will be protected?” Virion asked—somewhat nervously, I thought.
“You have my word,” Windsom answered firmly. “Lord Indrath is fervent in his desire that Dicathen will be unharmed by this war. As for the Alacryan populace, well, it is unfortunate…”
“And my granddaughter?” Virion shot back. “Will she be more collateral damage for your war? You told me you’d find her, asura.”
“I’m afraid I have nothing new to report on this matter,” Windsom confirmed. “We know only that Tessia’s vessel—her body—is currently in Alacrya, but the clans of Epheotus have no knowledge of this reincarnation technique Agrona has used. In the event that it is not reversible, you must be prepared to—”
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Reincarnation? My heart was beating so loud in my chest that it drowned out Windsom’s words. Like Brother?
A faint pop made me jump, and suddenly all I could see was the big, hairy body of my bond. His head was swiveling around, looking for danger, and as he turned around his large rump knocked me over. My concentration on keeping my beast will active broke and the enhanced senses faded.
“Boo!” I grumbled as I tried to sit up, but couldn’t because of the wall of fur hovering over me.
He let out a grumble that shook the ground.
“No, I’m not in danger! I was just—”
Another rumble, this time accompanied by a whine.
“Well I’m sorry I interrupted your hunt, but I didn’t ask you to—”
The enormous, bearlike mana beast sat back with a humph, crushing a patch of glowing mushrooms.
“Hello, Eleanor,” a voice said from nearby, causing me to let out a yelp. Boo was on his feet again in an instant, his bulk obscuring the speaker.
Grabbing a handful of my bond’s fur, I pulled myself up and stepped around him. Windsom was standing just outside the garden, his hands held behind his back.
“Um, hello…sir?” I said nervously. Had he somehow realized I was eavesdropping on his conversation? What would he do to me if he knew that I’d overheard…?
To my surprise, the asura took a seat on a large rock just outside the garden and raised his hand toward Boo. My bond approached him warily, sniffing at the outstretched hand. Then my bond’s demeanor seemed to change, and he gave the asura a lick.
I gawked as Windsom let out a small laugh. “Apparently he remembers me.” He started scratching Boo’s forehead between the white markings above his eyes, and my bond’s rear paw began to thud against the ground in pleasure.
We sat in silence for a few seconds. My mind was blank with fear.
“You know, I had intended to return to you eventually,” Windsom said, his gaze on Boo’s wide head. “You need to know more about your bond, if you’re to begin the assimilation phase of…”
His head turned to face me, and I could practically feel his eyes burrowing down into me, looking at my core. “Fascinating,” he murmured. “You have completed the assimilation phase, and can utilize his beast will. And you accomplished this without aid?”
My tongue seemed to swell up to the size of Boo’s in my mouth, and I couldn’t respond. Was this some elaborate trick so I would reveal that I’d been spying on them?
“I’m making you nervous,” Windsom observed. “I speak to so few of your kind. My apologies.”
Boo turned back to me and nudged my arm with his broad head. When he touched me, warmth poured out of my core, pushing away the fear. I let out a shaky breath.
Windsom smiled, and I could see his eyes tracking the movement of the warm glow as it moved throughout my body. “You have indeed come a long way with your bond. Again, I apologize for not having this conversation sooner. I had not guessed you would complete your assimilation without my assistance.”
I looked at the backs of my hands and my arms, where the fine hairs were standing on end. “What…what kind of mana beast is Boo, anyway?”
“We call them only guardian beasts,” Windsom answered, shifting on his seat so he was facing me directly. “They are bred—or perhaps created is a better term—by the Grandus Clan of the titan race. A guardian beast’s entire purpose becomes the protection of its bond.”
“What else can he do?” I asked breathlessly, my eyes locked on Boo’s, my fear forgotten. I had known he wasn’t a normal mana beast, but I’d never guessed he was some kind of super-Epheotus mana beast.
“Their powers manifest differently based on their form,” Windsom went on, “but all guardian beasts are meant for protection, and so they can sense when their bond is in danger and teleport to them at great distance, if necessary. Eventually, this guardian bear will be able to protect you in other ways, too, such as absorbing physical damage to your body and taking the wounds himself.”
“Oh,” I said softly, running a hand along Boo’s neck. “I’m not sure I like that very much.”
Windsom gave me a curious look. “Such is the purpose of a guardian beast. A guardian bear can also inspire great courage in its bond, allowing you to push past your fear when necessary, as I believe you just experienced.”
“When I channel Boo’s beast will, I can…um…” I trailed off, realizing I didn’t really want to talk about my enhanced senses.
“It gives you insight into the beast’s own senses, yes,” Windsom said, picking up my train of thought. “It can be quite powerful. The second phase should then manifest some of your bond’s strength and fighting prowess, but it differs from asura to asura, and I honestly can’t tell you how a human will adapt to the second phase. It is possible—quite likely even—that you will never pass the integrate phase.”
I slowly nodded. Virion had said something similar when I asked him about my beast will. It was apparently pretty common for beast tamers to stop at the assimilate phase, and some couldn’t even assimilate properly.
“Why did you give me Boo?” I asked, unable to suppress the thought. Now that I knew the truth about what Boo was, it seemed pretty unlikely that a deity would decide to just hand me one of their special guardian beasts.
Windsom sat in silence for a while, pondering. A frown slowly creased his brow, and I felt his strangling aura leak out for an instant. Then he was on his feet. “I’m afraid I must return to Epheotus.”
He looked down at me, and rather than being drawn to his strange, cosmic eyes, I felt my body trying to pull itself away from him. It only took a second more to figure out why.
The night sky over Elenoir, that’s what his eyes looked like…Before he and Aldir destroyed the entire country, I reminded myself with a tremor of fear.
“Know that your brother is not forgotten among the asura, Eleanor. You were important to him, and so you are important to us. That is why I gave you a guardian beast.”
Before I could respond, the asura had vanished.
I sat in the garden for a long time after that, thinking. I still couldn’t be sure if Windsom had somehow realized I overheard him and Virion or not. Was that why he decided to tell me about Boo now? I wondered. To distract me? Or maybe show me that he wasn’t a threat, that he still cared about us?
I wanted to be mad, but if Commander Virion was willing to go along with this lie to save Dicathen, then what right did I have to question him?
Then I thought of Albold, who wanted to know the truth more than anything. Doesn’t he, and the rest of the survivors, deserve to know the truth? I asked myself.
Wrapping my forearms around my knees, I pulled myself into a ball and wished, not for the last time, that Arthur or Tessia were there with me.