The Beginning After The End - Chapter 392
Chapter 390: Apathy and Ecstasy
The scene around me seemed frozen in time.
Richmal’s face was slack, his focus on the magic coming undone as he watched with awe. At his side, Ulrike blazed with internal light, more and more mana pouring out of her, the web of electricity growing brighter in coordination with her efforts. Her crimson eyes avoided me as she focused on her spell, the muscles of her jaw working as she ground her teeth.
Behind them, Ifiok sagged, sweat pouring down his face, the ruins of his arm hanging limply at his side, his channeled mana trickling away to nothing.
Blaise and Valeska had retreated down the tunnel toward Vildorial, and Blaise was fumbling with a tempus warp. The familiar anvil-shaped device hummed as it collected and condensed mana.
I was still reeling from my discovery of the interplay between aether and mana. Even though I still didn’t fully understand yet what Realmheart was capable of, I had no time to question what I was doing. It took a tremendous effort just to lift one foot and place it in front of the other. There were still five half-Vritra Wraiths to deal with, and I could feel Regis’s life force weaken by the moment.
The orbiting field of spikes and blue-black lightning shifted as I moved, rotating away as I passed, my aether containing and redirecting the mana making up the various spells. The force of my will was matched against that of the three opposing mages. I had to maintain a more forceful hold over the aether than they could enforce on their mana, but there was also something else, some resistance from the aether I didn’t yet understand.
Moving the short distance to Regis sapped even my asuran physique of its inhuman stamina and strength, and by the time I reached the cage of lightning, my legs were trembling. I released the pool of acidic sludge, which splashed back together and then sank between the cracks in the granite tiles and vanished.
Richmal gasped and sucked in a deep, desperate breath, as if he’d been holding it the entire time. “Valeska! Go, now!” he barked, his voice raw.
Releasing aether from my core, I manipulated it around Ulrike’s spell, looking once again for the metaphorical curtain separating the two powers. It was just like in the keystone, when I’d practiced with Ellie. I had to let my mind refocus, shift my perspective. Three Steps had once told me something very similar as well, and even Kordri’s lessons had required that I experience the motion and interplay of our bodies differently.
Perhaps that’s what all knowledge boiled down to: new experiences that shifted one’s perspective slightly, revealing more of a world that was already there, but which we couldn’t see.
My breath caught and my mind stuttered, and I wrenched myself back into the moment. Dozens of poisonous slime-darts were hissing through the air at me.
My hand raised, too slowly, my mental fortitude drained and exhausted. The darts parted, their path shifting as they swarmed around me to either side, and I let out a breath simultaneously full of wonder and fatigue. I could feel where each particle of mana and aether interacted, how the aether took hold of the mana and redirected it to create a momentary sympathetic binding of the two forces.
But I was also shouldering the combined force of all that mana, trying to hold each of the individual spells separately in my mind, and, as the darts curved to avoid me, I was forced to release my hold over the spikes and lightning web the other Wraiths had used to pin me down.
The field of black spikes fired away wildly, nearly impaling Ifiok and crashing against Ulrike’s shield. The lightning, which she had continued to pour mana into until it burned to look at, condensed into a single bolt and struck the ground, exploding in a blinding flash.
The chamber quaked.
Turning my attention swiftly to the small cage of lightning, I looked for the place where the two forces moved to allow each other’s presence, and tugged, peeling control of the small cell away from Ulrike. It snapped and seared the air as I pulled it away from Regis. The wisp bobbed drunkenly as it drifted up around my ankles. Reaching out, I closed my fist around it. It sank into my flesh and drifted toward my core.
Regis offered no response to my sudden presence, but I could sense his consciousness, distant and unaware but alive. I could only hope he would recover if we survived this battle.
Mana flared from the hallway as the tempus warp began to activate.
The bright mana was clear, as was the rim of atmospheric aether that moved to encircle it. Valeska trembled as she leaned toward the mana, her hand stretched out, her fingertips brushing the surface of the portal as it manifested.
I reached out, my gloved hand curling into a claw as I attempted to seize the portal. The aether jumped at my command, contracting around the portal and compressing the mana. The tempus warp’s magic seized, leaving the half-formed portal wavering tenuously in the air.
“I can’t get through,” Valeska screamed as she scratched at the portal’s surface.
“Take him down!” Richmal’s deep voice cracked as he roared, and spells rained down on me from every direction.
Iron and fire broke against my armor and aetheric cladding. Lightning and acid glanced aside, bursting or burning into the ground, shattering the stone with the fury and hellfire of my enemies.
But with most of my focus on forcefully distorting the tempus warp portal, it was all I could do to deflect even half their attacks. Acid and lightning burns scarred my face and metal spikes ripped through both armor and flesh. My face and skull burned where the metal spike had punched through it earlier.
Too much aether was being focused through Realmheart to defend against the Wraiths’ spells and the portal.
But I knew I couldn’t let the Wraiths retreat. Not even one.
In Agrona’s hands, information was a weapon. I couldn’t give him that. I couldn’t let them escape to report on my abilities.
They all had to die.
Ulrike was repositioning to stand between me and the half-formed portal. Her leg, sheathed in a cast of pure mana that sparked and jumped at every subtle movement, dragged limply behind her. Richmal’s arm was pressed down over a huge open wound in his side where armor, flesh, bone, and organs alike had been cleanly removed to reveal sharp bits of rib poking through a fleshy red mess, a wound caused by Regis’s last desperate burst of Destruction.
I hesitated even as spell after spell pummeled me, deflecting what I could, absorbing the rest, the pain at once all-encompassing and nothing at all as I focused past it to the thing waiting dormant in Regis’s meager form.
I hadn’t attempted to use the godrune on my own since the mirror zone, but even then Regis had been conscious, flying to my hand to help me concentrate all of my aether in one specific direction. I knew all too well the risks of using it now, without Regis to help me focus and control it. With the abundance of aether in my dual-layer core, I could burn through all of Vildorial.
The spells were becoming more random and madcap, their movements jerky and difficult to follow, and I realized Ulrike was imbuing her lightning-attribute mana into the others’ spells. The resulting fusion of magic was faster, wilder, and much more difficult to counter.
As lightning infused bolts of burning brine struck me like cannonfire, and my pain-wracked mind fought to maintain concentration, I understood that there was no other choice. I couldn’t defend against the bombardment and keep control over the portal and fight the rest of them.
Eventually my focus would slip, the portal would open, and one or more of the Wraiths would escape.
Even then, I would still have to defeat the others. But what would keep them fighting? If they withdrew to the city, made me fight in the great cavern…
I imagined the power of these Vritra half-bloods unleashed on the defenseless people of Vildorial. If that happened, nothing else would matter.
I clenched my fists. The godrune contained within Regis’s essence came alive with hunger and power, and the violet flames burst to life in my hands, giving off a bright, jagged, deadly aura.
A spasm of pain came from my back where the Realmheart rune burned with golden light, and my vision and sense of mana jolted. I found myself caught off guard by the difficulty of maintaining both godrunes, but couldn’t release Realmheart. Not yet.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I considered that the hungry, eager power of Destruction was all I needed.
I lifted my hand.
Destruction lurched forward, wild, uncontrolled flames expanding and devouring as they shed their rageful light across the chamber.
Ifiok’s iron spikes thrust forward to meet it. Purple flames raced across black metal, unmaking his magic as it leapt from spike to spike, chasing them back to their source. Unshackled from Regis’s more compatible insight, Destruction rushed wildly, like a stampede of stallions on fire, and Ifiok began to scream. It raced up his arm and across his chest, converting his flesh and blood and mana to purple light and then to nothing at all.
I spun with a poorly suppressed sense of giddiness, spreading the wave of Destruction haphazardly in every direction.
Richmal dragged himself and Ulrike out of Destruction’s path with his watery tentacles while sending out a flood of green sludge to douse my fire, but Destruction only ate that as well.
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“Agrona thinks these lessurans are going to kill asuras for him?” I asked the flames, my voice undercut by the force of Destruction vibrating within it. “Pathetic.”
I grabbed a spear of black iron out of the air and watched as Destruction pulled the spell apart and unmade it.
Noxious fumes were pouring out of Richmal’s skin, staining the air with a greenish murk and filling what little remained of the chamber with the smell of death and rot in a feeble attempt to cut me off from the portal.
Above me, the same static guillotine that had destroyed Regis’s physical body was forming again.
I slammed my will into it, and the mana trembled, caught between my force and Ulrike’s. Wherever Realmheart conjured the purple runes, I began to burn and sweat, but I only pushed harder, Destruction consuming my pain and fear, until Ulrike’s spell broke.
A bone-crushing shockwave of pure force, created by the static distortion’s failure, hurled both the Wraiths backwards into the wall. I leaned into the force of the explosion and Destruction jumped to wreath my body in a jagged aura of flame, the violet flames curling between the scales of my relic armor, eating it from the inside.
Instinctively and without consideration, I dismissed the armor, and it dematerialized. I didn’t need it anyway. Destruction was better armor than any old djinn relic.
Ulrike hunkered behind her shield as Destruction caught up with her, but it accomplished nothing. Destruction ate away the runes, then shield, then Ulrike, her armor, flesh, and then bones vanishing layer by layer.
Richmal stumbled back, but he didn’t try to run. Instead, he threw himself in front of the exits, and a wall of steaming, stinking liquid rose up to block the way.
“Valeska, Blaise, go!” he shouted, and I was surprised to hear something akin to genuine care in his voice.
“Weak,” I snarled, the word burning like a chant, the force of it sending a tremor through my enemy.
Through the semi-transparent wall, I could see Blaise and Valeska both fighting with the tempus warp, pouring magic into it in an attempt to rest control of the portal’s mana away from me.
The misshapen glowing oval shook and striations of distortion ran across its surface, but I held it entirely, the apathy of Destruction shielding me from the growing pain of focusing on both godrunes.
Valeska turned and met my eye. Now, there was something akin to real terror in them. These creatures had been trained to wage a quiet, shadowy war against deities. But they were children playing at being gods. They understood nothing. They were nothing.
Still holding her gaze, I sent Destruction to roll across Richmal. Mana poured out of him in the form of a thick, greasy steam, momentarily holding the purple flames back as they consumed his power instead.
With Realmheart, I looked for the curtain separating the light and shadow, and ripped it aside. His spell was snuffed out like a candle flame, and then his flesh lit up like much the same, and then he was gone.
Somewhere deep within me, something cracked.
My vision and sense of mana blinked out, and I had to squeeze my eyes closed against sudden vertigo and nausea. When I opened them again, the glowing oval of a portal appeared over the tempus warp device. Blaise was shouting and shoving Valeska toward it, but she was still staring at the place Richmal had been only seconds before.
I stumbled. Looking down, I realized that violent flames were burning along the backs of my hands and forearms, and my skin was unraveling beneath the fire. I was losing control.
“Go!” Blaise screeched, shoving Valeska hard.
Her arms flailed, and her hand, arm, and then face vanished through the portal.
A groan escaped my lips as I forced aether back into the Realmheart godrune and it sputtered to life with a wave of sickening agony. I wrenched hard on the aether around the portal, crushing it.
The portal shivered, rippling violently. The mana particles compressed, and the force binding them shattered. The portal died out with a grotesque squelching noise, and what remained of Valeska on this side of the portal collapsed wetly to the ground.
I trembled as the Realmheart godrune cut out again, severing my connection to the mana for the second time. I spit out a mouthful of blood and bile.
Blaise howled. An enormous serpent of soulfire filled the tunnel, racing toward me. Violet fire subsumed the black, and then flowed into Blaise’s eyes and nose and mouth before burning him away from the inside out.
Grinning and burning, I laughed. A single long, mirthful, insane laugh as the last of the Wraiths, Agrona’s supposed “asura killers,” fell before me, the entire essence of their beings wiped away by my power, not even the stain of their corrupted mana remaining.
The laugh cut out, and I sank down to one knee.
The fingers of my left hand were beginning to disintegrate. There was so much aether in my core now for Destruction to feed on. It was a beautiful sight. I could just picture it burning and burning and burning and—
In the distance, I vaguely sensed the flaring of powerful mana signatures and a storm of mana raging throughout the cavern of Vildorial.
I could burn the city. All of Darv, if I wanted to. Dicathen and Alacrya and Epheotus…
I felt my face crack into a wide, vicious, victorious grin just as the flesh of my arms began to crack and bleed under the force of Destruction.
I thought of Valeska’s face and arm tumbling through a portal somewhere in Alacrya. “That will be a very different message than she intended to give Agrona, I imagine,” I said aloud, my voice crackling with fire.
With some amusement, I realized my arms had burned away up to my elbows. Destruction was in the stones now, eating away the chamber and tunnel, searching out more fuel, more, more, reaching for the city where there was so much substance, so much life…
Regis’s voice, distant, hollow.
More insistent, a note of panic bleeding through the apathy and glory of Destruction.
It was a voice that would grow silent soon enough. All would be Destruction in the end. Everyone, everything.
I thrust my ruined arms outward. Destruction boiled forth to consume the walls and ceiling and floor beneath my feet.
An image pierced my mind like a crossbow bolt. I could feel Regis holding it there, projecting into my consciousness with the last of his strength. Ellie and Mom. They were holding each other, shivering in fear where they huddled with a mass of nameless, faceless dwarves as the ground beneath them trembled and buckled as it was being eaten away by bright amethyst flames…
Above me, the ceiling collapsed, and elsewhere I dimly heard the crashing of stones as part of the cavern fell in on itself, but everything within sight was only violet fire.
No, that’s wrong, I thought, the effort of holding even a simple thought like walking across broken glass. Mom. Ellie. Everything I’ve done…
But this is victory, a voice uncomfortably like my own replied. This is finality. This is the end of our enemies.
And of everything else.
Gritting my teeth, I leaned forward and frantically smashed my head into the rough stone of the crater I was sinking into, trying to jar loose Destruction’s hold over me.
When that failed, I attempted to slam shut the gates that controlled the flow of aether out of my core and cut off the flow of aether to the Destruction godrune, but I couldn’t.
I pushed at Regis, intent on forcing him out of my body, removing my connection to the rune, but the feeble wisp form wavered, and I stopped, afraid that separating him from my aether would destroy him.
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My arms were gone up to my biceps. Destruction burned in their place. Soon, it would replace me entirely, leaving only the void.
I thought of the mirror room again, the void beyond it, how I had exhausted all my aether by sending Destruction into the empty nothing to save Caera. Except I wasn’t in the Relictombs. I didn’t have the luxury of burning away all my aether into nothing. Here, there was always something to burn, something to consume.
A sharp spike of adrenaline partially cleared my mind as an idea manifested. I didn’t take time to consider what I was doing or what it would mean if it worked. I couldn’t let the guilt stay my hand, not if it meant saving my family.
Moving as quickly as my failing form could, I clawed my way free of the crater, then stumbled out into the tunnel toward Vildorial.
Sitting against one smooth, Destruction-scoured wall, was the tempus warp.
I collapsed in front of the anvil-shaped device. It was half in ruins.
Closing my eyes, I focused on the godrune for Aroa’s Requiem. It was distant, and even when aether flowed into it, no rush of power announced the rune’s activation. Destruction clouded everything else, and my body was failing, but I pushed harder. That power couldn’t be erased, even if my body failed.
Warmth bloomed across my back, and I began to shiver uncontrollably.
Destruction was jumping from me to the stone walls and floor, eager for more matter to consume. Flickering motes of purple energy began to trickle away from me and into the tempus warp device. I focused on keeping Destruction away, sending it everywhere but the tempus warp, but I only half succeeded.
Destruction and Aroa’s Requiem pushed back and forth, the artifact dissolving in places while being rebuilt in others.
Dragging in a deep breath, I pulled Destruction into myself.
The aetheric motes danced along the pockmarked metallic surface of the tempus warp, and the artifact reconstituted before my eyes, the holes and gouges filling back in, the runes reappearing.
My breath turned ragged as the fire reached my chest and lungs. I could feel Destruction wrapping around my core, pulling more and more and more aether from it. The feeble form of Regis hunkered in close, huddling incoherently within the core’s shell.
Aroa’s Requiem finished its work, and I gratefully released my focus on the edict. The motes faded into nothing. Above the tempus warp, the portal relit, a gray-blue-purple-white oval through which I could just see the ghost of whatever was on the other side.
Aroa’s Requiem had returned the device to the same state it was in just before Destruction reached it.
Something hot and wet welled up from my eyes and ran down my face as I crawled on claws of Destruction and my burned legs into the portal.
The world wrenched nauseatingly around me. Empty space ripped past. I hurtled through a blurred nothingscape. With no other matter to turn on, Destruction feasted on my aether and my body.
Then I was…somewhere else.
A rush of cold air. Hard ground beneath my knees. The vague impression of sharp, fanglike peaks in the distance.
There were people all around me, dozens and dozens of them, surprised faces jerking away, swirls of color as shields were cast from a dozen different sources, incoherent shouting—questions, commands, pleas—and staring up at me from the ground was part of Valeska’s face, disembodied and sitting in a pool of blood.
Sharp-edged tongues of violet flame tumbled out of me, and I felt only relief as the Destruction found something else to feast on.
“Th-that’s him! Grey!” several voices shouted, and the people—mages, soldiers, Alacryan soldiers—surged backward.
A few spells flew at me, but Destruction pulled them out of the air and devoured them.
“Move aside!” a vaguely familiar voice snarled.
The feverish confusion I felt cooled, and my mind seemed to shift back into focus. I was in an enclosed courtyard surrounded by heavy gray buildings. In the distance, the faded blue outlines of the Basilisk Fang mountains clawed at the sky. I was in some kind of military base or encampment, probably around the eastern edge of Vechor based on the position of the mountains and the brutalistic, military styling of the encampment.
The soldiers and mages in the courtyard were all wearing the red and black uniforms and armor of Alacryans. A man in clean, azure-lined robes had pushed through the line and was staring at me with a vindictive grin.
“What are you all so afraid of?” he crowed, his bright jade eyes gleaming from a cleanly shaven face framed by carefully styled brown hair. “Look at him. There’s barely anything left—”
Violet fire began to spill away from me in waves, tumbling across the hard black stone of the courtyard floor and toward the lines of Alacryan soldiers.
A soldier grabbed him by the shoulder and tried to pull him back behind the line of shields. “Professor Graeme sir, it isn’t—”
Janusz Graeme’s victorious sneer shattered as realization dawned across his face.
Destruction caught up with him as he turned and tried to drag himself over the soldier, knocking the young man down. They both went up like so many dry pine needles, and then were gone.
I laughed. A mindless bark of pure delight, empty of empathy or care. The sound of it sobered me instantly.
More shields flashed into existence as dozens of voices crashed together in a concentration of fear and confusion. I pushed, and pushed, and pushed, all my focus turning back into myself as I tried to force out every particle of aether in my core, projecting the wild, uncontained Destruction as I did.
Tears or blood—I couldn’t tell which—welled up behind my eyes as I watched line after line of Alacryan soldiers vanish within with violet fire. Then the blaze moved into the buildings enclosing the courtyard, and everything and everyone within them, and still there was more.
Destruction spread beyond my line of sight, but I could feel it gleefully leap from structure to structure, leaving no tile or brick or timber behind, destroying utterly and without consideration.
But I’d regained myself, and I no longer felt the apathy and ecstasy of the ruination I was causing. I felt hollow, like the flames had burned away something intrinsic to my being, like I was shedding a piece of my humanity with each passing moment as the violet inferno spread and massacred all within the base.
I pictured Ellie and Mom again and steeled myself. There was no choice, not this time. Not when it was between my loved ones and the people who sought to murder them.
But I still couldn’t help but picture the ring of force speeding through the forests of Elenoir and leaving nothing but devastation in its wake.
My core gave a last, final, painful squeeze, and the flames guttered out with sudden finality. My reservoir of aether was exhausted. There was nothing left. And with no aether to fuel it, the Destruction godrune dimmed and went quiet.
I turned in a slow circle, staring around at what I had wrought.
The base was a large complex at the center of an entire town. A circle of ashen nothing spread for half a mile in every direction. The devastation ended suddenly with simple, functional stone buildings, many of which were partially collapsed or destroyed. A three-story complex sagged and crashed to the ground as I watched, sending up a tall plume of dust.
In the distance, I could hear the ghosts of screams, dozens of them, perhaps hundreds.
Just behind me, the hovering oval of the portal remained intact, the tempus warp on the other end continuing to project.
Turning away from the desolation, I felt something hard turn underneath my boot and almost stumbled. Sheltered by my own body, Valeska’s single remaining horn had escaped the worst of Destruction. Tiredly, I bent down to retrieve it, then stepped through the portal.
The sickening rush of long-range teleportation, and then I was stumbling back into Dicathen. I kicked the tempus warp aside, breaking its connection with the conjured portal, which shivered, cracked, and blinked out of existence.
My body and mind gave out, and I slumped to my knees, then onto my side. The true pain of my wounds was gripping me, and without any aether in my core, I couldn’t heal.
Deep inside me, the wisp that was Regis shook itself awake, nudging me wordlessly, the only comfort my companion had the strength to give.
I returned the simple gesture, then sank into unconsciousness.