The Beginning After The End - Chapter 376
My boots felt as if they were covered in thick mud, each step through the empty halls heavy and dragging. The weight of confrontation bowed my shoulders and made my temples ache. The impromptu rally, or rather my response to it, was already chasing in circles through my mind as I reconsidered each word and phrase, fearing that I hadn’t articulated my thoughts well enough.
When I reached my private chambers, I turned to close the door only to find that Bairon had shadowed me from the rally, and was now standing in the hall and watching me carefully. His presence was a comfort, and I couldn’t help but consider the path our relationship had taken. I had never liked the human Lance, considering him selfish and egotistical. There were many times I would have dismissed him if I’d had the power, or perhaps consigned him to a purgatory of some demeaning, inglorious task.
At some point, however, in our long days within the ancient mages’ hidden sanctuary, it had occurred to me that these traits were perhaps not intrinsic to Bairon himself, but were fostered by both his family and the Glayders. Whether due to their absence, his own near-death, or the failure of the Council and Lances to protect Dicathen, Bairon had changed.
Now, he was a level head and steady hand at my side on the council. Still prideful, perhaps, but not vainglorious as he had once been.
I started, realizing I had just been gazing at him like an old dottard for several seconds. “Bairon. Have I expressed my appreciation to you for your assistance these last long months?”
He eyed me, uncertain. “Sir?”
“Things like a simple ‘thank you’ are so often let slip in dire times,” I mused. “As I likely haven’t said it enough, thank you for your service to Dicathen.”
He swept aside the blond hair that fell down across his bright green eyes—features of the Wykes family. “Such things don’t need to be said between men like us, Commander.”
I scoffed. “Perhaps once I would have thought the same, but I’m too old and tired for masculine pride.” Bairon’s lips twitched, but he didn’t reply. “Now leave an old elf to rest.”
The Lance hesitated, grimacing, then blurted out, “Are you sure about this, Commander?”
I could only offer the young human an uncertain shrug. “We haven’t had a king or queen who didn’t try to throw their people to the mana beasts for their own gain. Not in this war. Maybe…maybe the time of rulers is past. The people need to choose for themselves how they’re going to die.”
Bairon’s face fell as he bowed, turned sharply on his heel, and marched away. As I watched his broad back recede, I considered just how separate—even lonely—our positions had left us.
Bairon had gone to what remained of his family soon after regaining his strength, hoping to help them flee Xyrus for the sanctuary. With his level of power, it would have been an easy matter, but he hadn’t been prepared for what he found in Xyrus.
It wasn’t the Alacryans, who had quickly arrived in force after taking control of the teleportation gates at the flying castle, that stymied his efforts, but his own family members.
The Wykes were a powerful and renowned house. They could have rallied the other houses and organized a defense of the city. Instead, they were one of the first to swear service to Agrona, likely in some short-sighted effort to ingratiate themselves with the invaders. Bairon went to help his family escape, but instead found them actively working alongside the Alacryans to suppress whatever small pockets of resistance had survived so long.
It had nearly broken him again to return empty handed. I had to wonder if the old Bairon—the person he was before our defeat at the hands of the Scythe—would have come back at all. I shuddered to think what would have happened to us if he’d followed his family instead of me.
Once he had turned a corner and left my sight, I eased the door closed and moved to my desk, taking a seat. With my elbows rested on the stone desktop, I let my face sink into my hands.
Learning that the asura, our allies, had destroyed Elenoir was a blow to our morale. I knew when I accepted Windsom’s proposal that it was a risk, but I agreed with him that the truth could have broken our spirit entirely. And I stood by that assessment, though I couldn’t help but second guess my decision, now that the truth had been revealed through gossip and whispered conversation.
Through my splayed fingers, I looked at the three long boxes resting on my desk. Gingerly, I reached out and flicked the latch on the first box, then opened the lid. The rod’s lavender gem flashed in the light, and I ran my fingers along the richly red leather of the handle. There was a crackle of energy, and the hairs on my arm stood on end.
These artifacts had given me hope, and I’d expected my people—both my people, the elves, and all those under my care within the sanctuary—to share this feeling. Windsom’s timing couldn’t have been better. With the artifacts in hand, I had the tools necessary to dampen the shock and despair we all felt, show them a future where we had the strength to be victorious.
Perhaps it was shortsighted of me that I hadn’t foreseen Rinia’s involvement. But then, I wasn’t the seer.
Chuckling darkly, I pressed my palms hard into my eyes to relieve the pressure building there. I was already wondering whether my offer to allow a vote on the artifacts’ use had been an act of wisdom or weakness.
This was a question I had asked myself many times before, and it was almost comforting to think that I would never know the answer.
Judging the correctness of my actions would be left to future generations. If there were any future generations. If what Rinia had said was true, if she’d foreseen catastrophe and destruction across the continent, perhaps there wouldn’t be. But then, what was the alternative? It seemed the choice was that we either grew strong enough to destroy ourselves in the fighting or be destroyed because we were too weak to fight back at all.
And that, I suppose, is exactly why I called for the vote.
Should these people not be allowed to choose their own end? I had grown too old, commanded too long, sent too many to their deaths to bear the weight of this decision on my own.
Taking a key from my belt, I unlocked the single drawer in the desk and slid it open with the rough grinding of stone on stone. Pushing items out of the way until I found what I was looking for, I carefully withdrew a crystal orb about eight inches in diameter.
The artifact was a dear possession, but something I used sparingly, trying to move on from my past. But I found myself growing more and more dependent on it, using it to escape to a better time in my life.
The orb swirled with misty light, which seemed to grow agitated as I set it on the desk, holding it with one hand to ensure it didn’t roll off and shatter.
“Lania…” I whispered, staring deep into the swirling light.
At the sound of my voice, it began to coalesce into a bright image…a face, molded of liquid light. It was the single most beautiful face I had ever laid eyes on, one I hadn’t seen in person in many, many years.
My wife smiled out at me from within the memory orb. “The king of the elves shouldn’t look so glum. What weight is it that drags the corners of your lovely lips down so?”
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The voice in the orb was hers, but there was a subtle echo to it, like it had been resounding through the years and was reaching me from far away and a long time ago.
My own voice, though many decades younger, sounded from the orb in response. “I’m sorry. The war…it’s gone on too long. Far too long. I’ve started to question the price we’ve paid. I’m afraid, Lania. Afraid that this makes me weak.”
“No, my love. You are not weak. You are brave and beautiful.”
“Beautiful, huh?” my younger self replied with a snort. Though the memory was from my own point of view, I could picture the elf who spoke, a younger man, face not yet creased with wrinkles, shoulders unbent by the burdens of command. A tear trailed along the path of the laugh lines she’d given me. “That’s not exactly the kind of compliment kings hope to hear.”
“But it’s true, now and always. Inside and out, you are a beautiful man, and you have lived a beautiful life. And I will always protect you.”
Another snort issued from my past self, but I remembered the way my face had softened as I gazed lovingly at her. “Don’t you mean I’ll always protect you?”
“No, my love.” Her hand rose up to caress my cheek, and I could practically feel the softness of her fingertips against my skin.
The image faded back to a swirl of misty light.
I sat hunched over the crystal orb, staring at my wrinkled hands through its transparent surface.
Would these same hands be here had it not been for my wife’s gifts?
Would Dicathen’s fate have been better without me in it?
Feeling more empty now than I had before using it, I shoved the memory orb back into my desk before pushing away.
“Damned future-sight,” I cursed, bitter that my whole life seemed almost entirely defined by the visions of seers.
Whether it was a gift or a curse, I thought, as I had many times before, that we were better left to our own devices, navigating our lives as best we could within the range of our own vision and forethought instead of relying on pictures of futures that may or may not come to pass. Even the wisest of us could drive themselves mad attempting to decipher the impossible branching pathways that lay ahead of each and every elf, human, or dwarf.
But I had seen first hand how heavy such foresight weighed on those who possessed it. The responsibility of knowledge is, in many ways, even heavier than that of command. No matter how many times I begged my wife to stop looking forward, to stop trying to protect me at the expense of her own life, she could not. If something had happened to me when she was in a position to prevent it, it would have broken her.
But had she ever considered what my life without her would be like?
Rinia had always understood my bitterness towards her gift. When the war between humans and elves finally ended, she did not offer to use her abilities to help me lead. After what happened in the flying castle, though…it was difficult to forgive her for not sharing what she’d foreseen sooner.
“You old hypocrite,” I mumbled to myself, standing and beginning to pace around the small square room.
Regret prickled in my chest. Seeing Rinia, who looked even older and more worn than I felt, drove home how much of herself she had sacrificed over the last months. She was following my wife’s—her sister’s—path, but I wouldn’t thank her for that. Still, I had to believe that she had done so with purpose, and had chosen to step back into the light for a purpose as well.
I would be a fool to discount everything she’d said.
I moved to the window and leaned against the sill with a shaky sigh. Below, a family of elves was working in the mushroom garden next to Town Hall. Three little elves ran and skipped through the garden, pointing out mushrooms to their father. At each one, he would stoop to see if the mushroom was ready, then either pick it or explain to the children why it wasn’t ready…
I wondered what he had done before coming to this sanctuary. Had he been a soldier? Or a woodsman? Perhaps he’d been a cook. I was curious what he thought about the artifacts, and even more so about whether or not he wanted to be responsible for the decision that would be made in three days’ time.
Because, regardless of his own desires, this man would be expected to lend his voice to the decision. I had put that pressure on him.
Had it been an act of wisdom that had led me to do so?
I was afraid that, deep within me, I had made that decision because I was just tired. I didn’t want to shoulder this burden alone, not when the future of my entire race was in the balance.
Not when we stood alone between the great powers of the Vritra and Indrath Clans.
Far below, the sanctuary village swarmed with lessers. A few hundred, by my estimation, all crammed together at the center of the underground town. If I closed my eyes and pushed mana to my ears, I could hear their muddled banter, like a field of mooing aurochs.
It was with some disappointment that I had learned of Virion’s recusal in the matter of the artifacts he’d been so eager to take ownership of. From an outside perspective, it seemed like he folded the moment his people discovered the reality of Elenoir’s destruction by the World Eater technique.
The lie was never meant to last forever, but simply to buy time for the next stage of Lord Indrath’s plan to commence. A hopeless Dicathen was of no use to my lord. I had even offered Virion several suggestions about which of his people here should be the first to be anointed by the new artifacts. He could have began this process at any point over the last three days, and mages like the Glayders, Earthborns, or even Lance Bairon Wykes would already be parading in front of these people as beacons of hope.
In a way, this made the immediate collapse of his judgment almost personal. All our long conversations—all my advice and guidance—were abandoned in an instant.
It had been Aldir’s decision to cast Virion as commander of Dicathen’s joint forces, back when the war began in earnest. Aldir saw him as a man worthy of time and training, but this failure was a stark reminder that all lessers had limits, and it appeared Virion was reaching his. Short-lived and even shorter in foresight, lessers had no concept of time’s true passage or what was at stake beyond their own lives.
So much time wasted, I thought, irritation clinging to me like road dust after a long journey.
As envoy to Dicathen, too much of my life had been spent tending to the continent, assuring that the lessers’ civilization didn’t implode before it was fully established. Though I hadn’t voiced the thought to my master, I was eager for this war to finally end so that I might seek a higher role in the court.
Of course, depending on what Virion and his people decided, my service to them could be over sooner than I’d imagined.
My body melted into inky blackness, reforming into the shape of a black cat, and I leapt off the ledge I’d been watching from, springing from stone to stone until I reached the path leading toward town.
Perhaps I should have dealt with the seer years ago, I mused, frustrated by Rinia Darcassan’s intervention. She alone among the lessers understood Lord Indrath’s purpose clearly, although she was blinded by the sacrifice asked of Dicathen as opposed to seeing the good they would do by fulfilling their given role.
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I reached the outskirts of the congregation before the meeting began. The garbled susurrus of the crowd congealed into individual voices as I grew closer. Each voice expressed an opinion, each opinion contrary to every other, creating an incomprehensible, directionless quagmire. How decisions could be made in such a way was beyond me.
As the lessers became more densely packed, I slipped between their legs and hopped up on a small ledge protruding from the side of a molded-stone building. I immediately regretted my seat of choice when the child below attempted to make a grab for my tail. There was no time to relocate before I sensed a shift in the crowd.
Across the square, the doors of the Town Hall opened and Virion appeared, carrying one of the rod-shaped artifacts Lord Indrath had gifted him. The human Lance walked just behind him, holding a second, its gem blue and handle silver, while a blond dwarf grasped the third, which was forged in gold and set with a red gem, as if it were a venomous serpent.
The crowd’s noise quieted in waves as they realized a few at a time that their commander was now present. He simply watched the milling people, which filled the square and all the nearby alleys, some even leaning out of windows or gathering on the low rooftops. When the entire cavern was silent, he began to speak.
“Dicathians.Thank you for being here today. The matter in front of us is one of dire importance for every soul within this refuge, and it is essential that every voice be heard as we determine how to move forward as a collective.” Virion paused, allowing a smattering of conversation to peter out. “I hold in my hand an artifact capable of advancing a mage to or even beyond the white core. This power is being given to us so that we may finally be on even footing with our enemies.”
There was some cheering and shouted questions at this. I found the lack of discipline and respect appalling, but Virion only waited for the noise to subside before continuing.
“These artifacts have been crafted by the asuras of Epheotus and gifted to us by Lord Indrath. But, as I’m sure you are all aware by now, it is true that Lord Indrath also issued the order for the asura known as General Aldir to attack the Alacryans in Elenoir, resulting in the elven homeland’s destruction.”
“Murderers!” shouted a pot-bellied human.
“We won’t accept help from those devils!” an elf woman screeched. She was missing an eye, the ghastly hole where it had once been uncovered for all to see. “You’re just as bad as them! Traitor!”
“Beyond white core, fools!” hollered a deep voice I couldn’t locate. “We could take back our homes, your pride be damned!”
From a rooftop, a young human male cracked his warhammer against the stone. “Why vote? Commander, just let those of us who want to grow strong use the artifacts!”
A dozen voices rang out in a confused muddle of support and condemnation, and the crowd seemed ready to collapse into violence. Before it could progress further, however, the sound of a thunderclap shook the cave. The child that had been accosting me whirled toward its parent, wailing in surprise and fear.
I examined the Lance. Bairon Wykes could have been a firm hand to direct the Dicathians under different circumstances, but he was too closely aligned with Virion.
There were still the rest of the Lances, of course. Varay Aurae in particular would have been a potent figurehead. She had shown herself to be entirely loyal to Dicathen, however, and was unlikely to side with us over Virion and the lesser council.
“There is ample time to discuss how we will respond to the asuras, or indeed what the people wish to do with me,” Virion went on, his voice ringing through the cavern. “But today, we are here for a specific purpose, one of dire import that will change the face of this resistance. The choice is this: do we accept the gift of power, which we have been warned could lead us down a path of destruction, or will we refuse, spurning the Indrath Clan and perhaps setting the meager remnants of our nation against the asura themselves?”
Although I would have liked to close my eyes and ears to the circus that followed, I had no choice but to listen intently as, one by one, people began to speak their mind.
Some spoke of survival, others of right and wrong. Many tearfully mourned for the loss of their forest home, while others preached pragmatism. For all their words, it didn’t seem to me as if anything was accomplished. Still, I took note of what was said as I gazed around at them all, attentive to both their words and actions.
Eleanor Leywin watched with her mother and guardian bear from a porch to my left, but I didn’t let my gaze linger in case the perceptive young human noticed my eyes and connected this form with my normal appearance.
The inventor Gideon was present as well, his arms crossed, a sour look pinching his face. It wasn’t often that the asura took note of Dicathen’s artificers, but Gideon had an unusual mind. It would have been most unfortunate if the Vritra Clan had gotten their claws on him.
There were few enough other lessers in the sanctuary that had been of any real note.
An hour or more passed as they went back and forth like children playing boulder toss. More than long enough for me to consider the irony of feeling the minutes of my life ticking uselessly away, despite being older than even the most ancient of the elves. Just as I decided they must have forgotten the reason for this conversation, Virion called for silence.
“We will now vote. Friends, I would ask that anyone who is in favor of using these artifacts raise their hand.”
Hands all through the village raised, but there were too many people to be sure if it was more or less than half. Next to Virion, a mage raised her hands and sent out a pulse of wind-attribute mana that spread through the crowd like a ripple in a pond, pulling at my fur as it sped past. She bent to Virion and whispered a number in Virion’s ear.
He nodded. “Would anyone opposed to using the relics please raise their hand?”
Hands went up again. I noticed very clearly that Eleanor was among them, as was Gideon. I was surprised to see that Virion hadn’t raised his hand either time, and neither had the Lance.
Again, a pulse of wind fluttered through the cavern. The mage leaned into Virion’s ear. He did not immediately address the crowd, but when he did, it was with a clear tone of resignation.
“The people have spoken. We will refuse the artifacts, and in doing so refuse Lord Indrath’s hand of friendship. Our mages will not be bound to the asura, and we will continue to search for a way to resist the Alacryan occupation of our continent.”
“But those of us who want to should—”
“—demand a recount—”
“—made enemies of the deities!”
“—should stand trial as a traitor—”
I couldn’t help but sigh, my small shoulders rising and falling in disappointment as the lessers boiled over, the crowd immediately turning to screaming and shoving now that the niceties had failed. Guards and some of the stronger mages waded in, breaking apart quarreling groups and shouting for people to disperse and return to their homes. Wives clung to their husbands, parents enfolded shaking children into their arms, friends shared uncertain looks.
So foolish, I thought, hopping down from my perch and weaving through the stomping feet.
For so long they’d regarded us asura as deities. They should have been more grateful for what we’d done, held us in higher regard.
Or, barring that, they should have remembered to be afraid.
Perhaps history is destined to repeat itself after all, I considered, already mentally preparing my report for Lord Indrath.