The Beginning After The End - Chapter 391
Living with this constant fear of being unable to protect my loved ones…I had nearly forgotten what that felt like. In Alacrya, my battles had been entirely distant, separate, from my friends and family. It was only ever my own life on the line, or at worst, the lives of strangers and people who I had, for most of my unintentional stay there, seen as enemies.
Now, as I God Stepped from Varay’s side, I couldn’t stop considering the potential death toll of a full-scale assault on Vildorial. The people here were tired and afraid, the Lances only recently recuperated from very nearly dying, and our most powerful warriors, mages like Curtis and Kathyln and the Twin Horns, could not stand against even retainers, much less Scythes.
Another God Step took me from the edge of the city down two levels to where a series of arched gates opened into a long, straight tunnel wide enough for thirty dwarves to march abreast.
A miasma of brutal, animalistic killing intent was radiating from the portal room ahead, purposefully projected to loudly announce their presence. I ignited Realmheart, and five distinct mana signatures became clear, each burning with the sickly intensity I’d come to understand as the corrupted deviant mana used by the Vritra. Read first at “. o r g”
Hesitating, I looked over my shoulder up to the highest level, where my sister and mother were sheltered with a thousand dwarven nobles. The Royal Palace was much too close.
’This definitely seems kind of sus to me,’ Regis thought, sharing in the same nervousness that quickened my heartbeat.
I stepped beneath one of the arches leading toward the portal room, resting my hand on the cold stone pillar. Of course. It’s a trap, after all. Even if I defeated whatever enemy was giving off such an awful killing intent in front of me, there were still the enemies behind me to consider. I didn’t know if the Lances could hold the line. If it took me too long…
The pillar crunched in my fist, which came away full of pinkish dust and stone shards. But what other choice do we have?
Hurling the mess to the ground, I took a step forward. And then another. And with each cautious step, I pushed down another question and source of anxiety. The truest way to protect those I cared about was to make any fight as swift and decisive as possible and to do that, I couldn’t be shackled by my own uncertainty.
At the end of the tunnel, there was a matched set of arched openings carved of some light red stone. They opened into a huge, empty cave that surrounded the thirty-foot-high, fifty-foot-wide portal frame, which provided enough space to stage a small army if necessary. Columns of gray and red rock held up a series of balconies that encircled the cave thirty feet up.
The room was lit by the natural glow of the still active portal.
My eyes moved quickly from the portal’s opaque screen of undulating energy the four dwarven corpses bleeding out in front of it, their bodies impaled by black metal spikes, and then to the five figures spread out throughout the chamber.
Within me, Regis trembled with a mixture of anticipation and nervous energy. I felt Uto’s memories bubbling up unbidden in Regis’s mind and bleeding over into my own. I saw the sons and daughters of the basilisks who followed Agrona from Epheotus, the interplay of asuran and human magic fine-tuned over a hundred generations. I knew what these beings were. Windsom had told me about them, long ago.
’The Wraiths,’ Regis thought, giving a name to Agrona’s hidden half-blood soldiers.
“You must be my welcoming committee,” I said curtly, taking in each figure.
The foremost was a tall, broad-shouldered man. Flowing locks of earth-brown hair tumbled around thick, corkscrew horns that stuck up several inches from the top of his head. He wore red chainmail under black half-plate armor that glowed with protective runes.
His dismissive eyes met mine. “We are here to eliminate a threat, not engage in witless banter.”
“Oh come on, Richmal, we hardly ever get to have any fun,” one of the others said, whipping thick blond braids around his head and staring at me with hungry eyes. “If it is true that this one killed Cadell, we should have some fun with him before releasing him to the oblivion of death.” Like Richmal, this second man also had blood-red eyes and onyx horns. His curled out and down from the sides of his head, nearly touching again under his chin.
While they spoke, Regis’s Uto-memories continued to ripple across the mental connection we shared. I saw a distorted, half-remembered thought of the man called Richmal standing over the gaunt, ashen corpse of a woman with brilliant white-blonde hair, through which two lightly-curved black horns protruded—a dragon, I was certain of it.
Her golden eyes stared lifeless up at Richmal as the Wraith bent down and wrenched one of her horns free of her head. The noise of it breaking sent a psychic tremor through me that made my stomach turn violently.
With an acute sense of urgency, I reached for the thread of aether that always connected the djinn’s relic armor to me. The black scales feathered into existence across my body. There was a comforting weight and coolness to it as the armor wrapped itself around me, and I felt the swelling of aether as the limited amount in the atmosphere pulled closer.
“Ah, I think he wants to be one of us!” a rich, feminine voice drawled. “Look at his little horns!” The speaker was a marble-skinned woman in heavy black plate armor. Only her face and head were exposed, showing off her short, bright blue hair, which was styled into spikes around her ridged horns. Runic lightning bolts were tattooed across her scarlet eyes. Ulrike, I knew, her name manifesting from Regis’s uncontained stream-of-consciousness.
“Cadell must have been sauced on elder nectar to let this skinny lesser best him.”
The rasping voice crawled like bugs out of the shadows and into my ears, making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I traced it back to a Wraith whose robes were dark with burn marks, the hood of which was pulled half up over his bald head. Two daggerlike horns thrust forward from his forehead. Blaise. The bright red of his eyes was interrupted by dark splotches that seemed to float over their surface, matching darker, ash-gray patches that marred his cold, marble skin.
Next to him, the fifth Alacryan was half-hidden in living shadows. I caught flashes of jet-black hair curled up into horns atop her head and dark, ox-blood eyes surrounded by gray-black skin. Valeska.
“Enough,” Richmal ordered, the deep well of his baritone burying the other voices. “You demean yourselves.” A coiled lash of dark green, stinking liquid shivered into existence in his fist, and he met my eye. “We will waste no more breath on you, lesser.”
In the same moment, I activated God Step. The room shifted in an amethyst flash, and I appeared just beside and behind Richmal. “Suit yourself,” I said, conjuring an aetheric sword and sweeping it backwards.
The room exploded into chaos.
Black iron spikes shot from the ground to deflect my blade, and a gust of black wind seemed to enfold Richmal. I felt the aether blade strike home, then the wind carried my target away. A breath later, he reappeared across the room from me, his armor torn and blood seeping from a wound in his side. Read first at “. or g”
This enemy was fast, and they worked together with flawless efficiency. I couldn’t afford to hold anything back against them.
Regis, the blade.
Mana condensed within the dust and shadows hovering in the air, and a ring of black iron spikes thrust out of nothing to stab at my face and core. Using Realmheart to sense the formation of the attack, I sidestepped, pivoted, and ducked around the spikes, slashing through those I couldn’t dodge.
A specter shaped from black flame reached for me, soulfire claws scraping over my armor. My sword spun around, flicking out toward the specter’s throat. Just before it made contact, Regis reached the sword, and the thin amethyst blade bursted in dark violet fire.
Destruction devoured the specter, leaving behind nothing, not even a residue of mana.
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All five opponents were moving, casting. Shields of black wind and soulfire moved with them, turning the room into an inferno.
Twin torrents of black fire and sluggish, bubbling ooze sprayed at me from different directions. I leapt upward, grabbing the railing of the balcony and flipping myself up onto it. The metal twisted when I Burst Stepped away again, ripping apart under the force of my movement, and then hissing and melting as a cloud of soulfire chased behind me.
The room became a dark blur as I moved near-instantly toward my next target, the blue-haired Wraith, Ulrike. I had only an instant to be surprised as her crimson eyes followed me, her shield shifting up to block my strike just as her spear lowered into a position to catch my momentum and use it against me.
The Destruction blade crashed against her towering shield, which was wrapped in a thick shell of blue-black lightning. Her conjured spear hit my armor like a battering ram, just above my core.
A concussive burst of pure energy shook the chamber as we were both thrown away by the force of our simultaneous blows. I tumbled, landed on my feet, and had only an instant to take in the sight of violet flames engulfing her shield before acidic tentacles wrapped around my legs. I slashed down through them, and Destruction ripped the spell apart.
The soulfire cloud caught up to me, inundating me within an opaque black mist of seething fire that tried to force itself into my nose and mouth. I burst outward with an untargeted nova of aether, nullifying the flames.
The ground heaved beneath me as a partially-formed golem made of hundreds of interlocked spikes ripped through the granite tiles and reached for me. I slid one foot back across the broken tiles as spiked claws closed on nothing but dust, then flicked out with the Destruction blade once, twice, three times.
Violet flames raced across the golem, which crumbled and burned. Read first at “. o r g”
Greenish mana condensed beneath me, and I dodged back just as the floor began to ooze thick, poisonous sludge. A cyclone of black wind forced me to dodge again while deflecting a three-pronged bolt of lightning with the Destruction blade and releasing an aetheric blast to ward off the clouds of soulfire.
There were too many of them, and they left me few openings between their combined spell attacks to go on the offensive. As I pivoted to stay out of the gusting cyclone, I considered my own capabilities. I needed to maximize my mobility and rebalance the scales.
Sensing Regis following along with my thoughts, I prepared my maneuver, condensing aether into my fist until the bones began to ache.
God Step flared, and I was standing across the room, just inside the arched entryways.
The aether blade vanished, as did my connection to Regis and the Destruction godrune.
Extending my arm, I released the blast.
Ulrike and the braided Wraith, Ifiok, vanished in a cone of roiling purple aether. It engulfed the long-range teleportation portal beyond them as well, and the portal frame shattered with a sound like a thunderclap. The hard stone came down in a fluttering wave of glowing confetti as it dissolved. The opaque liquid energy of the portal itself swirled with the turbulence of its failure, then hissed and faded away.
At least they wouldn’t be bringing in any reinforcements that way.
Ulrike lowered her shield, which was pockmarked and burn-scarred from Destruction. Scarlet runes burned brightly across its dim metallic surface. Ifiok stepped out from behind her, his braids smoking and one horn cracked. The flesh on the side of his face was torn and bleeding.
Now, I sent.
In the breath that followed, Regis exploded into being between the two, fully manifesting his Destruction form in a rush of aether. Caught by surprise, the two Wraiths were battered aside by his bulk, and his huge, square jaws full of razor-blade teeth crunched down on the wounded Ifiok’s shoulder and arm. Destruction flicked between his fangs, its jagged edges cutting and snapping as they leapt across Ifiok’s pale flesh.
Simultaneously conjuring a blade and sending aether into every muscle, tendon, and joint, I Burst Stepped, blade thrust forward at the side of Ulrike’s head.
And sank into an ocean of pain and filth.
The air had turned into a jelly-like acid sludge that sucked me in and absorbed the momentum of my Burst Step. It hissed and popped where my aether struggled to keep it back, but the caustic substance was attacking every inch of me simultaneously. My eyes burned and the relic armor trembled as the acid ate away at its structure.
Although I couldn’t see through the sludge, with Realmheart active I could sense the locations of the five enemies, and even their Decay-type mana arts couldn’t stop me from finding the aetheric pathways. Focusing through the pain, I imbued aether into the godrune and ignited God Step, reappearing just behind Blaise. Read first at “. o r g”
With uncanny quickness, the bald Wraith diverted the stream of his soulfire away from Regis, who three of the others had pushed back against one curved wall, and into a shield between us. At the same time, I formed a sword and slashed across his side. Aether shivered against soulfire. My blade jolted with the force of the two opposing powers, then sank through his shield and slashed across his throat.
Blaise tried to shout but only gurgled up blood. His cloudy red eyes squinted into an agonized snarl, then black wind wrapped him up and yanked him away from me.
Claws of the same Decay-type wind mana raked at me and grabbed for my wrists. I released the blade and pushed aether into my hands, reinforcing my protective barrier until it shone as visible gauntlets of amethyst light around my clawed gloves, so much aether built up that the fine bones in my hands began to ache.
The wind scrabbled to get a hold, but was unable to grasp the aether.
Sensing multiple other spells targeted toward me, I made a sharp cutting motion with one gauntleted hand, releasing the pent-up aether in a wide, curving arc to eat away the barrage of pursuing spellfire.
A pained, enraged howl punctuated the sound of fire burning the air, black spikes erupting from the ground, and lightning crashing.
Across the chamber, Destruction erupted from Regis. A hot wind, like the leading edge of a charging inferno, flash-dried the sweat beading my brow, and all the active spells in the vicinity were burned away like dry leaves.
“Valeska!” Ulrike shouted, her drawling voice pierced through with a spike of uncontained fear.
In an instant, I took in the chamber.
Regis was on the far side of the room, pierced through in several places by blue-black barbs of solid lightning. The stone around him had been carved away by Destruction for twenty feet in every direction, and the balconies above him had collapsed. His jaws hung open, thick ropes of saliva dangling from between his teeth, and his bright eyes were entirely focused on his prey.
On the floor just beyond the ruins, Valeska was dragging herself away with one arm while conjuring a thick shield of wind between her and Regis. Parts of her black hair and the ends of her horns had been burned away, and her face was covered in ugly blisters. One leg was missing at the knee.
Ulrike was floating twenty feet off the ground, a bombardment of blue-black bolts spraying from her fingertips down on Regis. Some burned away in Destruction before they reached him, but not all, and he was making no effort to defend himself.
Ifiok was on a balcony behind me. One fleshless, skeletal arm hung useless at his side, and the flesh of his neck was broken open and oozing. His remaining hand was waving as he conjured dozens of black spikes from the ground to hurl through the room in every direction, carefully cutting just around his allies as they targeted both Regis and me.
Blaise had relocated to just outside the series of arched frames that opened into the chamber. He was surrounded by an oval field of flickering soulfire, fingertips pressed to his throat. Purple-tinged soulfire flames danced inside the wound as the flesh knit back together, while clouds of conjured flame continued to burn in the air between us as he struggled to envelop me within his power.
Richmal was controlling several long tentacles of dark green acidic liquid that had boiled up from between the granite tiles. The wound in his side had healed, and even his armor seemed to have mended itself. One of his tentacles wrapped around Valeska’s waist and helped pull her away while two others began harrying Regis, going for his neck and legs. Read first at “. org”
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Meanwhile, three more came lashing at me, cutting whiplike through the air and spraying acidic slime in every direction.
Using God Step, I maneuvered out of the middle of the maelstrom of spells to the balcony, then away again immediately as Blaise’s cloud of fire seared through the air toward me.
Regis’s jaws were snapping furiously at the caustic tentacles when I reappeared standing over Valeska. An aetheric blade formed in my hands pointing down, and I thrust at her core. She let out a piercing cry that cut off suddenly as she was jerked away by the tentacle around her torso. My blade carved a smoking hole in her side and the granite beneath her.
A huge iron spike manifested from my own shadow and thrust upward. Bracing my blade against my forearm, I caught the momentum of the spike and let it propel me up into the air and away from the grasping tentacles. Spinning, I deflected a burst of lightning that had ricocheted off Regis, then landed just in front of him. The aether blade swept through the vines harrying him, and then those chasing me, but more spells were already bearing down on us.
’Move,’ Regis’s deep, half-mad voice sounded in my head. Destruction was swelling within him, building up like magma within the caldera of a volcano, and it was about to rupture.
Jumping up, I planted one foot against the edge of an expanding spike and Burst Stepped after Valeska, my aether blade searing through the granite tiles of the floor in a straight line toward her and Richmal.
Behind me, a nova of Destruction washed across the room, erasing everything it touched. But my focus was on finding Valeska. She seemed to operate as the group’s Shield, hiding them, protecting them, and even repositioning them when necessary. Without her, the rest would be exposed.
Richmal tried to repeat his trick of catching me mid-Burst Step, but I was ready for it. The aether blade swung up at the same time as the chamber blurred past me to the sides, and I sliced through his spell and slammed into him shoulder first.
He was hurled off his feet to crash against the chamber’s outer wall, and all his spells flickered out for just a moment.
Valeska had pushed herself up to one knee after Richmal had saved her. Despite her grievous wounds, she was still casting, surrounding herself with a buffeting force while cutting at me with wicked scythes of condensed air. I pivoted and dodged those I couldn’t block with an aether-wrapped fist, then, when I was nearly on her, invoked God Step.
Jumping, wild arcs of purple lightning ran along my firearm as I punched down at the side of her head from my new position. There was a crunch of bone as my fist connected, and then everything went dark.
Black wings were wrapped around my face, flapping and reeling, jerking me this way and that. With my hand still wrapped with aether, I raked my fingers through the spell, shredding it. But by the time I could see again, Valeska had already been whisked away.
Resummoning my blade, I leapt toward the downed Richmal, swinging at the back of his undefended neck. A blue-black blur flew at me from the side, hammering into me and pushing me off course. My sword cut up and sank through both rune-covered armor and flesh.
“Blaise, send Valeska back,” Richmal’s resonant baritone rumbled as he pulled himself to his feet. His expression was strained, and his tangled hair was matted to his head and stained red-brown.
Ulrike slid to a stop ten feet from me, pinning me between her and Richmal. Blood was gushing from her leg, which appeared to be nearly severed at the knee. She supported herself on her towering shield, which rested between us, and leveled a conjured spear at my face, snarling, her lax self-assuredness gone.
A bestial howl shook the cavern, and Regis leapt in from the side, his massive paws slamming Ulrike to the ground. Read first at “. o r g”
Dozens of sickly green darts flew from Richmal’s hands, peppering Regis’s side. I watched as the dark green mana seeped into him, circulating through his bloodstream in a matter of seconds.
Liquid fire ran through my channels as I siphoned aether from my core, down my arm, and into the palm of my hand, where it built up until the pressure forced it to explode outward, bathing the cavern in violet light and engulfing Richmal.
There was a flash, and a wedge of blue-black static disrupted the air around Regis. He roared, breathing out a gout of Destruction, but the static buzzed around and away from the flames before coalescing like a guillotine above him. At the same time, Ulrike was jerked out from beneath him by the lightning bolt in her hand.
The static moved through Regis’s body like a saw, cleanly dividing flesh, bone, and even aether. My companion howled as his huge, slope-backed torso came in two, the rear half stumbling on its shorter, thicker legs, the front struggling to balance as he lunged awkwardly after his prey.
Regis’s barely-contained rage and need to unleash Destruction crashed into me through our connection, warring against his survival instinct and a desperate edge of existential uncertainty.
A razor-sharp knife of panic slashed at my guts, and I could only watch the horrifying spectacle as I struggled to process Regis’s inner conflict alongside my own suppressed emotions. I missed the mana coalescing from the shadows above me just before a spear-thin spike thrust out from the nearest column and drove at my face.
I spun at the last moment, taking the blow to the side of my armored head where the horns sprouted out. The spike shattered, and a foot-long shard twisted in the air and drove into my cheek. I felt it scrape bone as it deflected downward to push out the base of my skull.
The force of the impact knocked me back into a supporting column, where I leaned for a moment, dazed, one hand scrabbling against the jagged butt of the spike where it poked out of my face.
The ground shattered beneath my feet, dropping me to one knee in a pool of burning sludge. Dozens of black iron spikes interlocked over the pool to create a sharp-edged dome, pinning me into the poison that I could already feel sapping my strength as it attacked my nervous system. The spikes tightened, forcing me down farther into the ooze. My lungs seized, and I felt my heart stutter.
The iron dome lit up with blue-black light, and hundreds of bolts of electricity began to crash back and forth between it and the pool of sludge. My body locked up. My mind went numb from the shock as the ooze continued to eat away at my armor. When I reached for God Step, I couldn’t sense it. I couldn’t feel anything at all past the pain of mana attacking every nerve in my entire body.
“Now, while he’s pinned! Valeska, report to the High Sovereign, inform him—” Read first at “. or g”
My ears popped and stars burst behind my closed eyes and my muscles began to spasm as I pushed back at the spikes, but to little effect. I lost all sense of Richmal’s words, only knew that the Wraiths were shouting at one another. Although I couldn’t understand what they said, the desperation in their voices was clear.
Blue-black particles of deviant lightning mana flashed and popped as they impacted the amethyst motes that made up my aetheric barrier. Dark green mana sizzled and burrowed into the aether before evaporating. Gray-brown deviant earth mana cracked and broke against the purple barrier.
Through a gap in the spikes, I saw Regis, or what was left of him. My companion had been reduced to little more than a wisp of aether trapped within a cage of Ulrike’s mana. I could feel him, but just barely, burning, his consciousness receding with each passing moment as more and more of his aetheric essence was exhausted just to keep his feeble form.
I reached for him, tried to pull him to me with the force of my will alone, but he wasn’t reacting, couldn’t escape the spell burning him away to nothing.
Time seemed to slow, almost like when I’d been able to use Static Void, before. Suddenly, I could feel the weight of all that mana clashing with my aether, see the way the particles bent and rippled and jumped as one, the shapes of the individual spells, how they were formed, their purpose, the metaphysical stitching that held them together.
The mana wove together in a shape formed by the will of the caster, while the aether both contained the mana and determined its natural behavior, but also moved to accommodate the mana’s passing, the two forces fitting together like light and shadow. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before.
My hand quivered as I reached into the turmoil. All along it, the interplay of metaphorical light and darkness—mana and aether—shifted and moved, always together, simultaneously in coordination and opposition. And, in between them, a kind of curtain separating light and shadow.
My fingers twitched. The curtain shifted. Aether wrapped around mana and moved it aside.
The interlocking spikes pinning me down released, floating out in the air around me. They trembled, uncertain, Ifiok’s will pushing them to one purpose, but the flow of aether repelling them, redefining what mana was allowed to do.
A web of electricity jumped from spike to spike, crackling threateningly, tendrils reaching out toward me, deflecting, and being reabsorbed into the whole, unable to strike farther than what they aether allowed.
The pool of acid parted, separating, pulling away from me. Read first at “. o r g”
As I slowly stood, my legs shook with the effort of enforcing my will on the aether, and through the aether, the mana. My enemies surrounded me, but gone was the physical force of their confidence and their brash expressions.
Instead, I saw wide red eyes amid gray faces turned pale with fear.