The Beginning After The End - Chapter 377
The familiar shape of Dicathen’s flying castle slowly came into view through the dark clouds looming high over the Beast Glades. The castle seemed cold and dead, no longer the vibrant hub of Dicathen’s Council.
One of the large bays that allowed flight in and out had been smashed open. I banked in that direction, passing through the thin layer of mana that contained the castle’s atmosphere before coming to a stop just outside of the castle itself. The door had been crushed inward, and the floor beyond was littered with corpses.
Landing among them, I kicked the body of an armored man over to reveal the cut-away portion of his cuirass. Runes marked the skin along his spine, which was slightly bluish and clad in a layer of frost.
The castle was quiet. No noise of battle echoed through the halls, no shouted orders or death yells. Distantly, I could detect only three mana signatures within the structure. Everyone else, it seemed, was dead.
Just as well. There would be fewer distractions for what was to come.
A line of corpses guarded the hallway I took as I followed the mana signatures. Their bodies had been crushed into the floor as if by an enormous weight.
In the stairwell leading up to the next floor, several more Alacryans were draped over the steps, their own weapons embedded in each other’s bodies, their faces frozen in masks of utter terror.
It was much the same as I continued moving through the castle toward the three mana signatures, my own carefully suppressed. Instead of investigating corpse after corpse, however, I was considering my purpose here. Despite having an entire day to think as I flew over the Beast Glades searching, I was no closer to a decision.
Would I act as a soldier, doing as my lord had commanded me? To do anything else would place the entire Thyestes Clan in danger, but then, I knew that Indrath had sent me for exactly that reason.
A test. Of loyalty, not of skill. It would be another member of my clan who received that trial.
My steps grew soft as I approached my quarry. Their voices drifted out of the Council chambers, still breathy with the exhilaration of battle.
“—could, but I’m not sure it is worth holding.”
“I still say we should destroy the portal controls and just leave.”
“Perhaps, but that could not be undone, Aya. We may do more harm to Dicathen’s future than to the Alacryan forces.”
“Mica has always liked it here! Why don’t the Lances set up shop in the castle? If the Scythe returns, we will just kick his ass.”
I stepped into the doorway, examining the women. Aside from looking battle-worn and rugged from their time in hiding, they did not appear injured. Varay Aurae’s white hair had been cut short, cropped in a military style, only highlighting her severity. She was leaning against the far wall of the chamber, her eyes downcast.
Mica Earthborn seemed entirely unchanged since her time in my service, grinning like a child even while covered in the blood of her enemies. Her needlessly large hammer rested beside her.
The elf, Aya, on the other hand, seemed like a ghost of her past self. Her eyes were dark and sunken, her skin pale, and every muscle in her body seemed to be held taut. Her gaze lingered on a body slumped in a chair in the corner. From the look of the man, he had been tortured severely before his death.
“That won’t be necessary,” I said before any of them noticed me.
The three Lances jumped up, weapons in hand and magic swirling around them. Color drained from their faces, and their spells writhed and nearly slipped away as panic broke their focus. Despite being Dicathen’s most powerful warriors, they were no match for me, and they knew it.
“General Aldir,” Varay said, the tip of her ice-sword trembling only slightly as it pointed at my chest. “What are you doing here?”
“The Scythe, Cadell, won’t be returning,” I said, standing straight, one hand raised non-threateningly in front of me.
“What?” Mica asked, frowning in confusion, her hammer lowering slightly.
I gave her a slight nod. “He was killed in a duel with an unknown Alacryan.”
Mica and Varay exchanged a glance, but Aya’s eyes never left me.
“How do you know this?” Varay asked. “In fact, how did you know we were here?”
I kept my eye on Aya as I answered. “Alacrya is momentarily distracted, a fact which certainly aided in your assault on this fortress. Our spies are still attempting to sort out truth from exaggeration. But…that is not why I am here.”
Aya’s eyes fell to the ground. Her voice was cold as frostbite when she spoke. “Was it you?”
Both Varay and Mica turned in her direction, but before they could intercede, Aya looked up to meet my eye and took a step forward, a gust of wind whipping her dark hair around her face. “Did you destroy my home? I felt it…your power…”
Opening my other two eyes, I held her gaze with the full force of my attention. “I did, Aya Grephin. And now I’ve been sent her to kill you and your sisters-in-arms as well.”
Varay stepped toward the elven Lance, but Aya was already moving. Her hands raised toward me, fingers spread wide, and visible tendrils of wind coalesced around her, knocking the others back. Her mouth opened, unleashing a banshee screech of frustration and fury, a wind lance firing from each tendril.
I didn’t move as dozens upon dozens of semi-transparent spears of condensed wind-attribute mana crashed into and around me. The stone wall splintered, cracked, and crashed down, spraying debris across the room. The floor beneath my feet gave way, a foot of solid stone shattering and falling into the space below, but I continued to hover in place.
Eventually, the barrage brought down the ceiling, and stones tumbled past me like rain. When I determined that the Lances were in danger as the room’s stability quickly degraded, I decided to move.
Utilizing the Thyestes Clan’s technique, Mirage Walk, I empowered my body with mana and moved in a single near-instant burst to Aya’s side. My hand wrapped around one of her wrists, and I pushed outward with my mana in a rippling wave that slammed into every cell in her body all at once.
Aya stiffened as the mana feedback overwhelmed her senses, her eyes rolling back in her head. She went limp and began to fall, but I caught her and eased her to the ground.
A stone hammer crashed into my shoulder with enough force to shatter it, the impact shaking the dilapidated floor beneath our feet.
I met Mica’s gaze. She gave me a sheepish smile. Then the gravity in the room swelled several times over, and the floor gave way. Furniture and stone all crashed into the void below, along with Aya’s unconscious body, falling much faster and harder due to the gravity field.
The two Lances and I, on the other hand, remained flying. I shook my head slightly. “We’ve been through this before, Mica Earthborn. Have you forgotten that lesson already?”
“Mica isn’t going down without a fight, three eyes!” she shouted, sweat beading her brow as she attempted to amplify the force of gravity even further. The three walls still standing began to shake.
“You’re going to collapse this entire section of the castle,” I pointed out, keeping my voice steady. “This would damage several important substructures while doing nothing to me.”
“You sure, asura?” Mica shouted. “Mica thinks dropping the entire castle on you might do something.”
Though trembling, her flight unsteady, the human Lance was able to shift position so she was next to Mica. “If he was going to kill us, we’d already be dead!” She had to shout to be heard over the groaning of the castle. “Let’s hear what he has to say!”
Mica stared at her fellow Lance for a long moment before releasing her spell. A few more stones fell down into the room below, clattering amongst the rubble, then all was quiet. Suddenly her eyes went wide and began hurriedly scanning the dusty space below. “Aya!”
“She’ll live,” I noted as the dwarf plunged downward in search of her friend.
Varay was inspecting me carefully, her own face a cool mask of impassivity. “Why are you here if not to do as you’ve been commanded? I always had the sense that your loyalty was to your master, not us lessers.”
I considered my words as Mica reappeared, Aya draped across her arms.
“If my life were represented by a tapestry, yours would be but a single thread,” I said. “And while your world may change suddenly, and often, like a hades serpent shedding its skin, mine remains as static as that same tapestry. Epheotus is like a place trapped in time, unchanging, unevolving.”
I paused, unsure of the words, or even of my intent. I was a soldier, and had never been good at this. But then, I’d never had reason to doubt the path my lord took us on.
Lord Indrath had sent me to kill these Lances as a test of my loyalty, knowing how the use of the World Eater technique had strained it. Meanwhile, across Dicathen, a boy of my clan would face a much different kind of trial. If I failed and he succeeded, there was no doubt the World Eater technique would be passed on to him instead.
Knowing this should have solidified my purpose, or made it easier to follow through with this task, and yet, I found myself unwilling to submit to these games. It was a kind of stubbornness I had not seen in myself before. No matter how many stories of our history I explored, though, I hadn’t been able to convince myself that Lord Indrath’s way was the right one.
Mica scoffed, shooting Varay a disbelieving look. “Mica thinks the asura intends to bore us to death.”
Varay hissed for the dwarf to be silent, then nodded for me to continue.
“Instead of bringing you death, I have brought opportunity,” I said finally, still hovering in the air over the collapsed floor. “Your Commander Virion and Lance Bairon live, guarding over hundreds of refugees.”
Varay’s eyes narrowed, but before she could speak, Aya’s eyes fluttered open, her body stiffening. “W-what did you just say?”
Crossing my arms over my chest, I bowed at the waist. “Hundreds of your kin are there, evacuated from Elenoir only shortly before…”
“Before you destroyed it,” she choked out, pushing free of Mica’s arms and flying unsteadily until she was just in front of me. “Where? Where are they?”
“I will tell you,” I answered, straightening. “But I must also tell you something else. Virion has upset Lord Indrath, stinging his pride. All those in the sanctuary are in danger. They need their Lances.”
“Then we will—”
I held up a hand to forestall Varay’s comment. “But know that, in sending you there, I may still be killing you.”
Cold wind cut through the room, buffeting the rising dust. “Will we have a chance to save those people if we go?” Aya’s voice shook loose more stones, sending tremors down to the castle’s foundations.
The elf waited impatiently as I explained how to reach the hidden sanctuary, then turned her back on me, flying down through the collapsed floor and out a doorway with a gust of wind.
Mica only glanced at me before taking off after her companion, leaving Varay and I alone in the ruined conference chamber.
“If Virion and Bairon are still out there, why didn’t we find them sooner?” she asked. “We’ve watched for signs, and left those of our own.”
Flying down into the lower room, I pulled an unbroken chair from the wreckage and set it upright, taking a seat. Though my gaze was to the ground, truly I was seeing the distant mountains and valleys of my home. “The Lances were kept separate on purpose, to build desperation among your people. Lord Indrath thought perhaps he could use you, but recent events have changed his mind.”
Varay only nodded. “Farewell, General Aldir.”
I closed my eye and rested my chin on my knuckles. “We aren’t generals anymore, are we, human?”
I followed the three mana signatures as they left the empty castle and sped over the Beast Glades toward Darv, but eventually, they moved beyond the reach of my senses.
I wondered if I should have told them about Arthur Leywin’s unlikely survival in Alacrya, but I wasn’t sure what it would mean to them, even if they survived the coming battle. If they didn’t, then Lord Indrath’s will had still been done, if not in the way he wished. If they did, and Arthur Leywin was somehow able to return to Dicathen…
In no hurry to return to Epheotus, I let my mind wander back to my conversation with Seris. What was it that she had said?
“Indrath, Agrona. Agrona, Indrath. You speak as if they are the only two beings in the world, as if there is no choice but to serve one or the other.”
“No,” I said, my breath roiling the dust still thick in the air. “Neither of you are worthy of service, in the end.”
“It’s time,” Lania was saying, her voice both old and young. Her eyes shone like aquamarines in the sunlight, her pale lips trembling as they curved into a gentle smile. “Virion, it’s time to go.”
“No,” I begged her. “Not yet. Please, not—”
“Virion,” she said again, her voice like cartwheels on gravel. “Virion, you old fool, wake up!”
I felt myself frown in the dream, the hardness of my bed pressing against me, and realized I was asleep. My eyes blinked open, struggling to focus in the dark room.
“It’s time, Virion,” a different voice said, older and rougher. “The evacuation has already begun.”
“W-what?” I pushed myself up on my elbows, struggling to pull free of the dream. “What do you mean? What evacuation?”
Finally, my vision settled on Rinia. She was wrapped in a blanket, hunkering in the chair in the corner of my chambers. Steam rose from a mug that she held in front of her face. She blew on it, sending a trail of misty gray swirls outward.
“Tell me what’s going on,” I said more firmly, sliding off my bed to stand.
Rinia’s milky eyes trailed trailed past me, her brows furrowing slightly. “I can’t see everything. What is coming, yes…where we must go, that too, but then…”
“There is something coming? What do you mean?” Frustration was beginning to burn away the fog of sleep. “How did you get in here, Rinia? What are you—”
My old friend scowled up at me with such ferocity that I went silent, my mouth slowly closing.
“If you want to save your people—not all of them, no, that’s impossible, but many of them—then please shut up and listen to me.”
We glared at each other, her sightless eyes none-the-less digging into me from across the dark room. My teeth ground together, and for a moment I considered shouting for the guards. But then my dream drifted back into my thoughts, and I sighed. “Go on.”
Rinia sipped from her mug, which made her cough. She drank again, then said, “Albold and the others are ushering people into the tunnels as we speak. Some are resistant, waiting to hear from you. I have seen a place, deep below us, and can lead us there. If we reach it in time, some of us may yet survive what is coming.”
“But what is coming, Rinia?”
“Our death, if things go poorly,,” she said simply.
My stomach fell. I knew, of course, that denying Lord Indrath’s gift would have consequences, but I never thought…
What could the asura lord possibly gain by sending one of his own after us, destroying us? We were no threat to him, likely wouldn’t even survive the Alacryans without his assistance. “So why?” I said, voicing this last thought out loud.
“Why does the storm-tossed sea sink a ship?”
Rinia, shaking, pushed herself up out of the chair, letting the blanket fall to the floor. She set her mug on the desk, then straightened, her old joints popping audibly. “And no, before you ask, the artifacts won’t help. To use them now would only ensure our immediate destruction.”
I knew she didn’t want to answer any more questions, but my mind was brimming over with them. “What will happen at this place? How will reaching it save us?”
“Sometimes you just need to be in the right place at the right time,” she said with infuriating nonchalance.
The last months and weeks flashed through my mind’s eye in an instant. It had been difficult to trust Rinia—no, not to trust her, to listen to her—after she failed to stop me from sending Tessia into Elenoir, and failed to forewarn me about the destruction that would follow. But, though she hadn’t always told me what I wanted to hear, she had never led me astray, either.
Especially in moments like these.
“I will follow your leadership, Rinia. Let’s save our—”
The door to my chambers flew open, cracking against the wall, and I reached instinctively for my beast will, sinking down into the second phase, the darkness oozing over my skin, every sense coming to life so that I could hear the shouting from across the cavern and smell my own fear lingering in the air.
A flash of lightning lit up the room as Bairon, already armed and armored, stared around the dark room. “Commander? There is…” He trailed off, his sight missing me entirely and focusing on Rinia instead. “What?”
I slipped free of my beast will. “Bairon, we need to organize the people. Everyone has to leave the sanctuary, flee into the tunnels.”
The only sign of Bairon’s surprise was a slight twitch of his eye. He considered me for half a second before snapping to attention. “Of course, Commander!”
He turned to rush away, but Rinia stopped him, gesturing to her trembling legs. “Actually, you had better carry me, or we’re all going to die.”