The Beginning After The End - Chapter 384
My heart gave a painful squeeze as I saw my brother holding Feyrith’s body. Pressure built uncomfortably behind my eyes, but I didn’t have any tears left.
Albold, Feyrith, Rinia…and how many others, people whose names I don’t even know?
The shock of so many conflicting emotions scraped at me, making me feel raw, brittle. From certainty of my own death to wordless amazement and joy at my brother’s return…to the slow dawning realization of how much had been taken from us in the last several hours.
As if sensing my discomfort, Mom wrapped an arm around me and pulled me close.
We stayed back and watched as Durden hurried forward to conjure an earthen bier for Feyrith’s body. I felt a pang of guilt thinking of all the bodies we’d left down in that weird chamber, but reminded myself that the living were more important right now.
The dead had time to wait.
Then, we were moving again. Arthur and the Glayders walked ahead, and I found my gaze constantly settling on my brother’s back, watching his soft, strong steps and the effortless way he seemed to command the others without even trying. It was like his mere presence settled our minds and spirits…or maybe it just settled mine.
I caught Mom watching him too, her face slipping between little frowns and half-hidden smiles.
Just a couple minutes farther down the tunnel, Curtis and Kathyln broke away, heading to get all the people who had been traveling in Curtis’s group. He confirmed that all the refugees who had been hidden with Feyrith—at least fifty people—were dead. After that, we found the rest of the surviving groups one by one.
Hornfels and Skarn Earthborn had each led separate groups, but in similar directions, and had sealed the tunnels behind them, only letting the conjured barriers fall away when they sensed our group approach and Curtis confirmed through the walls that the asura was dead.
By the time we reached the main cavern, we were a long, winding river of tired, frightened, surprised-to-be-alive people. The tunnel mouth had collapsed, but the Earthborns easily moved it aside, revealing a pile of corpses: the guards who had been at the rear.
Arthur went through first, along with a group of our strongest mages, instructing everyone else to stay in the tunnels.
It was so comforting to have him there, to watch him step right back into the role of protector as if he’d never left, but I couldn’t help but also be a little sad. Seeing how the others looked at him, how even the members of the council seemed to walk just a step behind him at all times, it felt like he was there but still somehow just out of reach.
Like he was keeping us all at arm’s length…or maybe it was the other way around. By immediately treating him like he was some storybook savior, everyone was pushing him away, putting him in front of us like a shield instead of welcoming him back with open arms.
I shook my head to snap myself out of it. We would have time to do all the lovey-family stuff when we were safe.
From the mouth of the tunnel, I could see Arthur and the others fan out, carefully scanning the wreckage of the sanctuary, which had been our home for so long. The place was in ruins. Huge gashes had been carved in the ceiling and walls, giant boulders had fallen down on the village, crushing entire houses, and everything was blasted with ice and lightning.
There was movement to our left, and a figure stepped up onto a higher shelf of rock to look down at everyone else.
I slipped free of my mother’s grip and took a few quick steps out into the cavern, stepping over familiar bodies in order to see what was happening.
“Lance Bairon!” Curtis shouted, his voice echoing eerily in the otherwise deathly quiet. “You—you’re okay!”
Despite standing straight and tall, it looked for all the world like the Lance had been chewed up by some giant mana beast and spit back out. “I was lucky that the—” He cut off suddenly, staring down at the group of mages. “Who…?”
“Bairon,” my brother said. Anyone who didn’t know him might not have sensed it, but I could hear the undercurrent of tension in his voice. “I’m glad to know I’m not the last of the Lances—”
“Arthur!” Bairon burst out, sputtering.
The wounded Lance half-slid, half-jumped down a section of crumbled wall that made a ramp up onto the higher ledge, rushed toward my brother—whose eyes went wide with surprise—and grabbed him by the shoulders. The usually stoic Lance had tears in his eyes and he stared at Arthur in disbelief, then he leaned forward, resting his forehead against Arthur’s in a sign of respect and care.
Two more figures appeared on top of the ledge, and I felt my jaw fall slack.
Lances Varay and Mica looked a lot different from the last time I’d seen them—in the castle, before Elder Rinia had rescued us from the Alacryans.
Lance Varay followed Bairon down. Her long, snow-white hair had been cut short, and instead of her uniform, she wore battered and ruined silver armor. As Bairon finally released my brother and took a step aside, Varay stepped into his place, her arms slipping around my brother’s waist in a soft embrace. One of her arms was an icy, deep blue, and shined like glass.
I was surprised by how small she seemed next to Arthur. How…normal.
Still standing on the ledge above, Mica snorted. “You’re late.”
The dwarven Lance was badly injured. An ugly wound marred the left side of her face, and a black gem glinted in the socket where her eye should have been. She was leaning on a huge stone hammer, watching Arthur and Varay with a look I couldn’t read.
I realized with a spike of alarm that I could barely sense the Lances’ mana signatures. Even though it must have been hours since their battle with Taci ended, they still seemed near the edge of backlash.
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Varay pulled back from Arthur, inspecting him closely. “It’s good to have you back, and apparently in the final moments before disaster. You must have been what the old elven seer saw coming?”
Arthur cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable. “That seems to be the case, yes, though I had no idea what I would be walking into.” He paused and looked around. “Where is Aya—”
“Brother!” I said, the word slipping out almost without my meaning to.
Everyone turned to look at me, brows raised in surprise or lowered in clear irritation, like I should know better than to interrupt when the adults were speaking.
Boo stepped around me, his eyes narrowing in the direction I had felt it.
“There are mana signatures coming,” I said past the lump in my throat, pointing toward where dim beams of light were piercing the cavern ceiling. Sand was raining down through the light, and as we all watched it seemed to pick up, becoming a steady stream. “A whole lot of them.”
I realized then that people had been slowly trickling out of the tunnel mouth behind me, because they all began to panic and surge back toward the tunnel entrance, pushing at the people just trying to come out, and I was suddenly caught in the middle of it, being jostled from all sides.
Boo gave a warning growl as he stepped in to shield me from the rushing bodies.
“Everyone, back to the tunnel!” Bairon barked, his voice still heavy with authority despite his injured state.
Despite his own words, he and the other Lances hesitated. Varay said something, questioning, her expression strained. Arthur’s reply was short and met with clear frustration from the others, but then someone bumped hard against my elbow and I stumbled, reaching out to Boo for support. By the time I looked back, the Lances were marching in our direction, though not without throwing resigned glances back at my brother.
Arthur’s form grew smaller, the only one still moving away as he walked toward the oncoming mana signatures. Alone.
“You can’t just let him go by himself!” I said as Kathyln hurried past me.
The once-princess gave me a wry, apologetic smile as she slipped her arm into mine. Wordlessly, she began pulling me gently, but firmly, back toward the others.
Boo gave me a sniff and nudged me hard with his nose, growling.
“Boo thinks we should fight too,” I muttered, a sense of foreboding filling me with nervous energy that made my fingers tingle and yearn for a bow to hold, since mine had, yet again, been destroyed.
“Boo is brave,” Curtis said from Kathyln’s other side, smiling sadly. “Grawder has been eager for battle as well, but to be honest, I think he’s enjoying his current duty.”
I looked into the dark mouth of the tunnel, but it was packed with people, and Grawder was too far back for me to see. I knew, though, that Curtis had set the giant world lion to guard the many children that were with us, including my friend Camellia, who was no doubt chafing at being treated like a little kid.
When I turned back to the cavern, Arthur had crossed over a pile of rubble that had fallen across the once-beautiful little stream that ran through the cavern. His steps were light, almost relaxed, as he approached where the sand pooled over the smooth stone floor.
The movement of the flowing sand shifted, taking on an undulating pattern of waves, then condensing into several smoothly flowing pillars. Up above, I could just make out a bunch of shadows descending down through the pillars like they were elevators, followed immediately by several more. At the bottom, fifty feet from where Arthur stood, Alacryan soldiers began pouring out of the sand.
The ground beneath my feet trembled, and walls of semi-transparent ice began growing up from the floor in a rough curve around the entrance. Only Arthur was outside the barrier, facing a literal army of Alacryans all by himself.
Helen Shard appeared at that moment, shuffling through the crowd to stand next to mother. She waved for me to join them, reaching out for me to take her hand. Next to me, the wall was growing quickly; it was already beginning to curve overhead, and in moments would entirely contain the tunnel opening and everyone inside.
Half the faces were turned inward, calming and encouraging, while the rest stared out through the ice, trying to see what was going on. The air was thick with tension and a smothering sort of silence. The other Lances stared most intently of all, some complex combination of hope, frustration, and fear written on each of their faces.
Once again, everyone was standing back, looking to my brother as a savior, no one standing at his side.
Has he been alone all this time? I wondered, trying and failing to imagine what might have been on the other side of that portal.
It wasn’t fair that all these people were just going to push their burdens off on Arthur. It didn’t matter how strong he was, he shouldn’t have to do everything by himself. He needed to know that there were still people by his side.
Without deciding to, I was moving. Helen’s eyes widened as I plucked the bow right out of her hand, then shot toward the still-growing walls. My mother’s voice cut over the general din, but I didn’t look back as I leapt up the stone wall of the cavern, caught my toes into a shallow indentation, and then pushed upward, reaching for the top of the curving ice.
My chest hit hard, and I nearly slipped and tumbled backwards as I struggled to hold onto the moving edge of the ice barrier. Swinging inward, I kicked off the ice and pulled my body up over the lip, so suddenly I was on the outside of the carve and sliding downwards. A moment later, I landed in a roll, curling myself protectively around the bow and then letting momentum carry me back up to the feet, already running.
I could still hear my mother’s yells for a few seconds, then the ice barrier must have closed over everyone and sealed them in, because the sound cut out.
Staying close to the cavern wall, I jumped down the rocky slope that led to where the now-dry stream used to run down into a series of cracks in the wall and floor that were too small for a person to get through. I leapt the algae-slick stones at the bottom of the stream and scrambled up onto a higher shelf of rock on the other side, then from there to another, before finally hiding myself in a fold in the cavern wall that perfectly hid me from the Alacryans.
Arthur’s eyes flicked to me. I was over a hundred feet away, but I could see into his bright gold eyes as if he was standing right next to me. He made a face like he was concentrating on something, the same face he always made when he would talk to Sylvie in his head, and the shadow-and-fire wolf leapt out of him and ran in my direction.
I felt a moment of uncertainty, and Boo appeared next to me with a pop.
The shadow wolf jumped up to me with a single leap. “Stay back, stay quiet,” he said gruffly before turning and settling protectively in front of me.
Boo eyed the wolf—Regis, I reminded myself—and moved next to him, matching his defensive posture competitively.
So much for staying hidden, I thought. But at least Arthur knew I was out here with him. He knew he wasn’t alone.
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Arthur still hadn’t attacked, only let more and more of the Alacryans come down through the earthen elevators. As each battle group appeared, they rushed into formation before conjuring swirling barriers of air, translucent panels of mana, and flickering walls of flame.
I didn’t understand why he wasn’t doing anything. Why let them prepare? He wasn’t afraid, anyone could tell that just by looking at him. Arthur was calm almost to the point of seeming casual, his golden eyes tracking across the enemy force intently, but without any sign of concern.
Finally, an Alacryan soldier stepped forward. He was a thin man in silky black battlerobes that were tied tightly to his body by a series of belts. Dozens of daggers were sheathed to the belts on his arms and across his torso. A bright white scar cut across the almond skin of his hard-lined face, and his dark eyes were watching Arthur carefully.
At the man’s back, at least fifty battle groups were arranged in rows, all of them focused entirely on Arthur, ready to launch spells at the man’s command.
“Give me your name,” the Alacryan leader shouted, his voice rough and slightly nasally. When Arthur didn’t immediately reply, he went on. “We are hunting Dicathian rebels. There was very recently a large-scale disturbance of mana in this location, and we have reason to believe that a sizable group of rebels is hidden here. Are you their leader? Tell your people to surrender peacefully, and we may avoid any unnecessary bloodshed.”
“Avoiding unnecessary bloodshed is what I would like as well,” Arthur said nonchalantly. Then, firmer, he added, “So turn around and leave.”
The Alacryan’s face reddened. He flicked his wrist, and the knives all over his body flickered out of their sheaths, hovering around him, the gleaming steel blades all pointed at my brother. At the same time, his soldiers all stepped forward, igniting spells and conjuring magical weapons and armor.
“By the decree of retainer Lyra Dreide, in her position of interim regent of Dicathen, all native-born Dicathians who raise arms against any faithful servant of the Vritra, or who willfully disobey any order by an Alacrya soldier or official operating in the High Sovereign’s name, may be struck down to ensure the peace,” the man said, rattling the words off as if he’d said them many times before.
“If you resist, you and all those who have been foolish enough to follow you will be put to the—”
My knees gave out, and I sank down to the ground, unable to escape the sudden weight pressing down on me. I felt lost and trapped at the same time, as if I was being swallowed up by an ocean of thick black tar. Boo spun, whining, his own huge bulk shaking with a fear I could feel in my bones.
Through the gap between the two mana beasts, I could just see the Alacryan leader sputtering out a series of wheezing, choking breaths. It was Arthur’s intent, I realized. Even from where I was, all the way at the edge of the cavern, it stole the breath from my lungs.
Among the rows of soldiers, many fell to their knees as I had, their held spells fizzling out in their hands. My senses sharpened as I instinctively slid into the first phase of Boo’s beast will, and suddenly, I could hear their whispered prayers to the Vritra and the heady stink of their fear.
With my sharper senses and instincts provided by the beast will, I could tell just how controlled and precise Arthur was being. This was only a warning, a stifled show of power.
“Casters!” the leader gasped out. “Release spells!”
I sucked in a terrified breath as dozens of spells shot toward Arthur. Regis stiffened, but did not move away as we both watched Arthur raise a hand.
A shower of bright purple light exploded forward, like ten thousand lightning-bolts all tied together at their tails. The hail of spellfire converging on Arthur vanished into the radiant blast as it kept fanning out from him. The leader’s eyes widened and he scrambled back, several shields appearing in front of him, but it wasn’t enough. He, too, vanished in the blast, shields and all.
The amethyst wave rolled over the front line of the enemy forces, then crackled out, leaving only a bright pink afterimage that I couldn’t blink away.
Arthur was unhurt. None of the spells had even reached him. The Alacryan leader was entirely gone, and the closest battle groups had been reduced to smoking lumps.
The rest were so motionless I would have thought time itself had stopped, except that Arthur took a single, steady step forward and leveled them with an imperious glare. “Leave now. It’s not too late.”
Like the breaking of a spell, the Alacryans burst into sudden panicked movement, stumbling over themselves and each other as they began to flee.
The columns of sand shuddered and reversed course, falling back up to the desert it had come from. The Alacryans were sprinting back into the columns, their shadows just visible as the magic lifted them up and out of the cavern.
I squeezed my eyes shut, hard, still struggling to catch my breath as the weight of Arthur’s intent chased the Alacryans away. I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen.
At least fifty men—trained Alacryan soldiers and mages—had just fallen before Arthur in the blink of an eye, and my brother hadn’t even been scratched. I’d seen him fight before, raining down spellfire on the mana beast hordes that attacked the Wall, but this was different…a casual kind of massacre. Arthur had waved his hand and snuffed the life out of the enemy, as simple as that. It was…scary.
As the last of the Alacryans hurried to escape, I slipped down from my hiding spot and made my way toward Arthur, who had only watched as they fled. His strange, golden eyes left the enemy and turned to me, a slight frown wrinkling his older, sharper features. The weight of his gaze made my back bend and my knees tremble as I found myself suddenly nervous to be alone with him.
Boo nuzzled my side, and that glowing golden energy that gave me courage pushed away the moment of hesitation.
Arthur smiled. “You’ve reached the Acquire stage. I wasn’t even sure if your and Boo’s bond worked like that, considering.”
“Oh, um…yeah,” I said awkwardly, caught off guard. My eyes jumped to what was left of the Alacryan corpses, and Arthur’s followed. “Why did you let them go?”
Arthur frowned toward the sand, which had returned to falling in rainy sheets, the magic affecting it broken. He put his hand on my head and mussed my hair lightly, his expression suddenly strained, like his sour frown was hiding a deeper, stronger sense of hurt. “Those people aren’t our enemies. They’re just following orders, trying to survive, same as us. I’d like to give them a chance.”
The sound of ice cracking fell away, and I glanced toward where the rest of the Dicathians were starting to spread out away from the tunnel entrance.
“Do you really think we can win like that?” I asked, wondering again what Arthur must have been through while he was gone. “It’s not like they’ve treated us like people. If we’re afraid to—”
Arthur wrapped his arm around my shoulder, cutting me off. “I’m not afraid to fight, El.” He gave me a wry smile. “Neither are you, obviously. But we should be afraid to become as bad as the thing we’re fighting against.”
Arthur left me to ponder his words, turning toward Lance Varay, who was the first to arrive, flying as she was, but Mom was right behind her, looking thunderous. She looked from me to Arthur as she approached, though, and slowed down, taking a deep breath.
I hurried to her, wrapping my arms around her waist, not saying anything.
She smoothed down my hair, taking my lead in remaining quiet. Most of the crowd stayed well back, and I could see the same hesitancy and intimidation I had felt only a minute ago written plainly across their faces.
“We can’t stay here now,” Varay said, eying the aftermath of the battle with a calculating expression. “General Arthur, did you have some plan for what to do next?”
Arthur glanced at Lance Mica, approaching on foot next to Bairon. “Yeah, I have an idea.”