The Beginning After The End - Chapter 456
Chapter 454: Amongst the Fallen III
39 minutes ago
The asura strode past me, and I couldn’t help but take a step back as my stomach churned and my strength wilted from her aura. Despite my best efforts, I’d been trying to avoid turning my thoughts inward to examine my many wounds, but the crushing force of the asura’s presence made my own pains inescapable.
Every inch of my body was battered and bruised, my ears rang, and there was a consistent, angry throbbing coming from the back of my head. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at my hand, much of the flesh of which had sloughed off to reveal the discolored meat beneath.
Ahead of me, the dragon looked up, but her gaze was aimed away from the stalled battle above the mountain.
To the south, a small cluster of dark shapes was approaching rapidly over the mountain peaks. They weren’t bothering to hide their mana signatures, and there was no mistaking them for anything other than what they were.
Every nerve in my body began to unravel at the sight, and I felt truly hopeless for the first time since the dragons arrived. “Was it all really for nothing?” I asked, the words a whisper on my lips.
The weight of the dragon’s mana swelled, the air thick with it, her pressure palpable on my skin. Pain wracked me as I fell to my knees and stared up at the inhuman entity, sure that her mere presence would destroy me utterly.
The asura sighed.
Tears streamed from my eyes, and I involuntarily turned away, unable to bear the sight of the asura’s raw power, only to see a streak like a black star bearing down on us. Unable to even utter a cry of alarm, I felt my body go rigid, then the dragon’s aura manifested as a silver shield, capturing me within it by nature of my proximity.
A seething morass of black metal spikes churned around us, chewing at the barrier like a thousand grinding teeth. With a grunt, the asura shoved outward with her shield. Beams of silver light pierced the cold metal, and the spikes all burst at once, the dust of their remains drifting out over the valley below.
I had a second of pure terror to watch as the ground cracked open beneath me before I slid backwards, being swallowed by an enormous, earthen maw. Broken stone, rock, half a carriage, and several tons of dirt collapsed all around me.
Reaching out, I clawed the air and watched as the one-armed asuran woman floated into the air and sped toward Perhata, then everything but the falling mountain was gone and darkness closed in above me.
Desperately, I struggled to conjure a protective barrier of water around myself. The mana sputtered and stalled as my broken concentration flailed, then swelled into existence, embracing me in a cold but buffering sphere. I bounced around as gravel, stone, and soil battered me from every direction, only intermittent flashes of light visible through the cascading rubble, then, with a suddenness that made my head spin, I came to a jerking halt.
The noise of the mountain’s collapse continued everywhere at once, the rumbling inside my head, my chest, my guts. I couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. My barrier was collapsing, being crushed inward toward me by the weight of the mountain. I was trapped by my own spell, pinned, paralyzed, my concentration fractured.
The spell burst. I wrapped my arms around my head, and the dirt and rocks settled on top of me. Something heavy crushed down on my leg.
I screamed, but the soil swallowed the noise. My heart was beating fast, so fast I felt like it would run up my throat.
This was it. Everything I had done—learning magic, rebelling against the Alacryans, surviving the war—had brought me here, to my literal grave. Buried alive. Better to have died alongside Jarrod, I thought wildly, bitterly. At least it would have been quick.
Then, though, I remembered the man climbing down the mountain with his family. I remembered the couple with the baby. And the boy.
They had struggled to survive, not giving up during the war or after, even continuing to fight for their lives as deities rained death and destruction down all around them.
Regular folks—farmers, herdsmen, crafters—went through all that and chose to keep trying to live…
I wriggled my arms, careful to protect my head, and made just a little bit of room for myself. Then my shoulders and hips, and made just a little more. The protective spell had prevented the soil and small stones from compacting around me, but something both hard and heavy was pressing down on my leg.
I closed my eyes, even though it made no difference to what I could see. Taking a deep breath of the thin, musty air, I listened and searched with every sense available to me.
My breath caught.
Below, not far, I could sense mana—a large collection of atmospheric water-attribute mana.
Shaking with nerves, I carefully—very carefully—began using what little mana I still had to spray jets of high-pressure water into the ground, carving out a little space.
The ground that was pressing in all around me gave way little by little. Afraid to be careless and yet knowing there was no time to collect myself, I used small bursts of water to carve down toward the atmospheric mana I could sense, trying to make enough room to crawl forward in my little cave. But the boulder on my leg was holding it fast; I couldn’t move an inch.
Closing my eyes, I stopped moving and casting for a moment, focusing on my breath. My head was foggy, my body had dissolved into one connected agony, and my core was nearly empty.
Pushing up onto my elbows, I gathered my strength and cast a jet of water at the stone, trying to shift it. Some chunks of rock flaked away, but the boulder didn’t move. I gathered my strength, then struck it again and again, each jet in the same spot, until, with a muffled crack, the boulder split. The halves slid just a little, and suppressing a scream of sheer agony, I yanked myself free.
Dirt rained down on me, then small pebbles, as the ground all around me shifted as well.
Gathering what felt like the last of my strength, I blasted downward with a powerful jet, and the floor of my little hole gave way.
I plunged into open air, there was a brief sensation of light against my eyes, then I hit solid rock with a jarring impact that knocked the breath from my lungs and all sense from my skull. My senses flitted in and out as I struggled against the impulse to go to sleep, then something jolted me back to awareness.
I stared up at the ceiling, which had partially crumbled where I’d blasted my way through.
What had that been? Something experienced on the outer edges of my failing senses…
Turning my neck was pure torture, but I had to find whatever had jarred my senses back to life. Next to me, only a couple feet away, a spike of black metal protruded from the floor and up into the ceiling, with a network of filaments extending from it to keep the ceiling lodged in place. As I looked farther, I saw another, and then a third black spike.
Then it happened again, and I realized what it was: a voice.
Despite the bone-deep pain, I turned in the other direction, rolling onto my side and propping myself up on one elbow.
In a dim, sourceless light, I could just make out the shape of a man curled into a fetal position next to the glassy black of an underground body of water. Red eyes stared back at me, glowing in the gloom.
I sucked in a breath, and my ribs gave a stab of pain. Squinting, I realized he had long, corkscrew horns that poked up from his head, and there was a sharpness and definition to his features that made him look inhuman.
“The Sovereign,” I muttered weakly.
“Ah, you know me, good, that’s good…” He tried to give me what he must have thought was a disarming smile, but it only made him look even more predatory.
Except…something was wrong. He has no mana signature. Looking more closely, I realized that he was tightly bound with heavy chains and cuffs.
“You’re a Dicathian lesser, yes? But a mage, at least.” A dark tongue flicked across his pale lips. “I’m in need of your assistance immediately, as you can see. Release me at once, and I’ll—”
“What?” I yelped, unable to help myself.
Irritation flashed across the man’s face. “Do not be stupid. I am no longer an enemy of your nation. If the noise out there is any indication, your dragon allies are currently fighting against the soldiers who abducted me. Release me, and I’ll turn myself into whichever lizard is in charge, and you’ll be a hero.”
I blinked, unable to process what was happening through the pain and exhaustion pressing on me like the fallen mountain above.
“Excellent,” he huffed. “After all this, a breathing magic user falls into my lap, so to speak, and she is an imbecile. Or concussed.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “Lesser. You do speak this language, yes?”
I swallowed and eased myself into a sitting position. My wounded hand jumped to my ribs, which I thought must be broken. “Yes, of course,” I said through gritted teeth. “But I don’t think I can help you. You’re a—”
“A coward,” a new voice said, a voice that had been ringing across the mountainside all throughout the battle.
I froze, unable to turn around, but then, I didn’t need to.
“Sovereign Oludari Vritra of the Dominion of Truacia.” Perhata’s feet crunched across the sediment dusting the bare stone of the floor. “Sworn in service to the High Sovereign, Agrona Vritra, father of our nation and our people. Betrayer, traitor…failure.” Perhata materialized out of the darkness. “Have I missed any of your titles, Sovereign?”
He seemed to deflate as he released a deep sigh.
Perhata kneeled beside me, took my chin in her hand, and pulled me around to face her, examining me closely. “If it isn’t the girl I promised to let live. Have you been a good little girl?”
I suddenly felt like I was back in the lightless hole, trapped and waiting to die, blind and suffocating. A cold chill trembled through my body, offset only by the wet warmth spreading through my stained and ruined pants.
Perhata regarded me with disdain. “You have survived, which I suppose should be worth something. And yet…”
Her brows pinched together, and she pursed her lips thoughtfully, then stood and moved to Oludari. There was a spark of mana, and she set a device down on the ground next to him. “Sorry for the delay, Sovereign. We were waiting on this, which Khalaen’s battle group was kind enough to bring for us. With five more Wraiths on our side, the battle above should be about over, don’t you imagine?”
She sucked in a deep breath and released it with almost giddy energy. “If there has been one good thing about your fruitless attempt to defect, it was that my purpose was fulfilled this day. Dragon blood spilled…” One elongated canine bit down on her lower lip as she suddenly closed her eyes and turned her face toward the ceiling, visibly tensing.
Then her smile faded, her eyes snapped open, and Perhata spun around, staring up through the mountain as if she could see the sky beyond. Even in the colorless light, I could see her face turning pale.
It took a moment longer before I sensed the approaching intent.
A seething, furious anger seemed to harden the air. Three more mana signatures—even more powerful than the dragons already there—and among them, something else. Something cold and rageful and…dangerous.
Perhata spun, diving for the device. Oludari squirmed in his chains, lashing out with a knee and knocking the anvil-shaped artifact sideways. It slid in the dirt, rocking toward the water, and Perhata scrambled to get hold of it, mana building up as she tried to activate it.
“Lesser, the tempus warp!” Oludari urged. “Disable it—”
Perhata, who had for a moment seemed to forget my existence, flicked out her hand in irritation. A dark streak sped toward me, so fast I didn’t even have time to close my eyes.
There was a bright purple flash in front of me, and then someone was standing between us, a figure wreathed in violet arcs of lightning. In the figure’s hand, little sparks of the purple current jumping around it, was the spike that had been aimed for my throat. Violet flames licked between his fingers, and the black spike burned away to nothing.
The burning silhouette of a wolf burst from him, launching itself at Perhata, while his head turned slightly, mid-length blond hair waving like a curtain, and a single gold eye meeting mine as his profile was revealed. “Go,” Arthur said, his voice, like his expression, dark and solemn, but beneath that, frosted over with such a bitter, cold fury that it sent a shiver down my spine.
Even as Perhata struggled against the creature in the background, spells starting to flash and fly all through the cavern, I reached out and clutched his arm. “The dragons, they…they didn’t care, they let us—”
That boiling, wrathful intent I had felt flared, and Arthur’s eyes blazed. “I know.”
Before I could say or do anything else, Arthur blinked away, his arm melting from my grasp as he reappeared on the other side of Perhata, cutting her off from the Sovereign and the artifact. A bright beam of amethyst light swept across the dark cave, and the Wraith threw herself back, dragging the lupine mana beast with her.
A spray of black metal spikes filled the cave, launching outward from the Wraith. My senses weren’t quick enough to follow them all, but at the same time, several swords molded from violet energy appeared in the air, slashing in several directions at once, each one deflecting or destroying a spike.
One speared the ground beside me, barely missing my leg after one of the swords parried it aside.
Shaking loose of my paralysis, I tried to stand only to realize that my crushed leg wouldn’t hold my weight. The pain of it was a distant echo that only manifested as I began to move, but it contained no strength. Instead, I rolled over and crawled desperately toward the underground body of water.
More projectiles cracked the stone all around me, and with each agonizing jerk forward, I expected one to pierce my flesh and pin me to the ground. It was almost a surprise when my body slid down the wet slope and entered the cold water with a small splash. Shoving out with mana, I projected myself along the narrow river, pushing the current to carry me even faster. A second later, I slipped into a crack where the water drained out and was quickly pulled away from the battle.
The underground stream wasn’t large, and I had to navigate entirely by my sense of mana and the current. There was no way to know if there was an outlet ahead or I would find myself trapped in a continually narrowing gap, but I knew I couldn’t stay in the cave.
When the stream became too narrow, I shoved out with as much water-attribute mana as I could still manage, breaking away outcroppings of stone that created impassable pinch-points. I swam for a minute or more, until my head began to feel light and my lungs screamed for air, before I reached the end of the crevice.
Freshly churned dirt and stone blocked the way forward. In a sudden panic, I clawed at the dirt with my good hand, but it was no use. Digging through might take hours, but I had mere seconds…
Conjuring bullets and beams of water, I blasted the obstruction. Each spell was weaker than the last. Again and again I struck it, until the water turned to mud and my core cried out with each spell. Realizing I wouldn’t make it, I tried to turn and swim back upstream, but the crack was too tight. I couldn’t reverse direction, and I didn’t have the strength to send so much water coursing against gravity to pull me back.
My need to breathe was overpowering my ability to hold my breath. When it did, I would choke down lungfuls of muddy water and drown…
I felt my mind sliding toward unconsciousness, and I was thankful. At least I wouldn’t be awake for it.
Even as I accepted my fate, a sharp force tugged against my body, and I slammed against the rock wall. I was moving! The crack was so tight I scraped constantly against the walls, but the current was once again flowing, pulling me forward at increasing speed. A few, desperate seconds passed, then the walls widened before vanishing. I opened my eyes.
Murky water surrounded me, but I could see light, and I swam toward it, my movements wild, no wherewithal left to cast a spell to speed my ascent. It seemed so far, and I felt certain that I would still drown, that I couldn’t possibly make it such a distance.
My head burst from the water and into open air, and I took the most painful breath of my life.
Somewhere very close, a child screamed.
Coughing wildly, I flailed to keep my head above water. On the shore, several figures rushed about in hurried movement. There was a splash, and strong hands took hold of me, pulling me toward solid ground. I collapsed into soft soil, heedless of the muck molding around my face. All I could do was gasp for breath.
There were voices, several, all around me, but I couldn’t process their words.
A shadow passed over me, and I instinctively focused on its source. Everything was blurry, and it was loud. So loud…
The mountain, the Sovereign…
“Arthur!” I sat bolt upright, searching my surroundings.
I was on the edge of a murky, slow-moving river. Tons of stone and dirt have collapsed into it from the mountain above, nearly stopping the flow. I was in the valley at the base of the mountain. Above, it was still collapsing in on itself, the cacophonous grinding of stone on stone loud enough to make me ill.
But it was above that, far above, where my eye was drawn.
A truly enormous dragon dominated the sky. The battle-scarred monstrosity had bone-white scales and vibrantly purple eyes that I could see even from the ground. His wings, though tattered and worn, stretched so wide that their beating cleared the dust from the sky.
A smaller dragon, black as night and almost lithe in comparison to the big white one, flew at his flank, staying in formation. Just behind her was a man—no, an asura, I thought—keeping pace through the air, flying like he had wings.
The three were wreaking havoc among the Wraiths while defending two of the original three dragons that had arrived in search of the Sovereign. I quickly counted seven Wraiths, though it was difficult to keep track of them as they flitted about faster than my eye could follow. Despite his size, the scarred white dragon moved with incredible speed and precision, dodging the Wraiths’ spells or batting them away with his wings as he shot dense silver beams of energy from his mouth.
The humanoid asura didn’t attack but seemed entirely focused on protecting the black dragon, countering any spell that came even close to her. I couldn’t be certain what the black dragon was doing, only that her mana signature seemed to fluctuate strangely.
I had only seconds to take everything in before the figure crouching next to me pulled my attention back to the ground. A painful gasp burst from me. “Tanner! But what…”
The blade wing rider, who had worked for Vanessy Glory throughout the war, was bloated and discolored all down his left side. His skin was mottled smokey gray and green, and open sores wept thick yellow fluid. Before the Wraiths had first arrived, Tanner and his blade wing had been struck by a spell and knocked from the sky, and I had assumed he was dead. Looking at him now, I was even more surprised to find him alive.
“Nice to see you too, Lady Helstea,” he said with a somber smile, wrapped simultaneously in grief and relief. “How’d you get…you know, nevermind. We need to move.”
As he said “we,” I focused on the other people standing around.
There were at least twenty people hunkered on the river’s edge, all staring at me. I immediately saw Rose-Ellen, the boisterous beast tamer who had teased Jarrod at every opportunity, and her stoic bond, a large birdlike mana beast. The brawny man who’d ignored my pleas to help the elders was there, as was his family, and—
I nearly burst into tears as I saw the couple with the baby that I had helped escape the mountain. And I felt a sudden spark of hope and pride when I saw that the boy I’d rescued remained with them.
“It’s a few miles to the north and west before we reach road again,” Tanner explained, offering me his hand to help me up. “We need to get farther away from the mountain. You can see how far some of these rockslides are reaching.”
The gears of my mind suddenly began turning again, and I realized that, below all this stone and dirt not so far from where we stood, I could feel the bursts of mana as Arthur battled Perhata.
I grabbed Tanner, and he winced. “Not north. West, deeper into the marshes, as far from the battle as possible.”
Tanner looked uncertainly past me at the river. “I don’t know if we can—”
The ground shook—more so than it already was—and a towering obsidian lance at least forty feet high thrust out of the base of the mountain less than a hundred feet away. It arced through the air above us before crashing down unseen in the valley beyond. Just behind the spike, a shadowy figure sped out of the resulting hole at impossible speed.
Perhata, who clutched her side, her face twisted in a grimace of pain and fear, didn’t make for the battle above, but veered south and flew at all possible speed. The air in front of her crackled with amethyst lightning, and Arthur appeared as if from nowhere. A cone of energy roared from his hand, and the Wraith dipped beneath it, unleashing a barrage of deadly spikes back at him as she flew past. But Arthur vanished, once again appearing in front of her, this time conjuring and slashing with a blade of pure energy.
Perhata screamed in frustration and rage as an armor of hundreds of small black spikes appeared around her, and she caught Arthur’s wrist while blocking his blade with her upper arm. The two remained suspended for an instant before Arthur’s blade reversed, the sword end shrinking as a blade grew from the other end of the handle and drove into Perhata’s sternum, sparks flying where violet energy impacted the black metal.
Black flames erupted around her, throwing Arthur back and sending metal spikes raining in every direction. Even as they fell, though, they were swarming together, combining, and building on each other to form shapes.
Arthur vanished again, reappearing in the air where Perhata had been, but the Wraith was no longer there. Instead, Arthur was surrounded by several dozen armored forms, each one identically molded out of hundreds of tiny black spikes. Even as Arthur’s gaze swept across them, each figure darted away, flying in a different direction.
Arthur flashed to one retreating figure, conjured a blade, and sliced it in half. The spikes splashed apart, falling to the ground below like deadly hail. There was no flesh beneath them.
As the rest of the armored figures spread out across the sky, a couple dipped lower, flying directly toward our weary group. Beside me, Tanner shouted. Someone else screamed, and everyone began to run, splashing into the water or sprinting along its shore.
I could only watch until Tanner’s arm wrapped around my shoulders and he pulled me to my feet, supporting me, but it was already too late. Tanner spun me away from the nightmarish amalgamation of black spikes, putting himself between me and them.
Time seemed to slow. I felt the trembling of his tense body, saw how the spikes seemed to flow over each other like liquid, pulsing with such monstrous mana…
But my eyes were drawn to Arthur in the distance.
He was falling through the air as if sinking down through water, his eyes closed, his expression focused, thoughtful, almost peaceful.
His eyes opened with a golden flash, and his blade blurred in a sweeping cut.
A bright beam of violet energy stabbed out of the air, slashing sideways and bisecting the armored figures. Black spikes burst apart, spraying the ground in front of us and churning the soft soil to mulch.
Similar violet flashes appeared all across the battlefield, and a dozen other retreating forms came apart. The blade reversed direction, cutting back across the air in front of Arthur, and I saw this time as the blade itself seemed to vanish, and a few more of the conjured suits of armor collapsed as they were simultaneously struck all across the sky.
But some, too many, were still escaping, flying over the mountains and across the lowland marshes. And none of the forms Arthur had struck down had contained the living, breathing body of Perhata.
Arthur’s expression tightened with frustration just before he vanished from sight, crashing to the ground some distance away in the valley.
Taking a steadying breath, I tentatively put weight on my crushed leg, reinforcing it with mana, then pulled away from Tanner. “Come on, let’s get everyone out of here.”
Despite everything, I felt a spike of relief as Arthur’s weight pressed down on my back, the pulse of aether released by his use of God Step rippling against my scales. I kept tight against Charon’s flank, not allowing the Wraiths to separate us. Windsom was still sticking to me like my very own shadow, all his energy spent protecting me from the Wraiths’ flailing attacks.
My link with Arthur told me he was scowling despite my not being able to see his face.
‘Go after her.’
Which one? I asked, still sensing the remaining blood iron formations escaping in different directions.
Forced to dip down to the right, I avoided a jet of greenish-black mana and breathed out a bolt of pure mana back at the caster.
Arthur didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to. There was no way to know, and no reason to chase an empty suit of armor halfway across Dicathen when there were several Wraiths right in front of us, even if that meant this one escaped.
But I didn’t offer my bond any words of advice or comfort. It was neither the time nor the place for such futile gestures. Until the battle ended, I knew Arthur needed the armor of blistering fury that he had wrapped himself in, and so I remained silent. Even Regis’s thoughts were quiet as he guarded over Oludari Vritra below the mountain.
I sensed Arthur’s intention before he acted. His weight left my body, and he appeared midair thirty feet in front of a Wraith. Aether condensed in his fist, forming a weapon. Several more appeared around him, folding into being, each one a physical representation of the apoplectic rage boiling barely contained below the surface of his composure. The floating swords all lashed out simultaneously, sweeping through the air to slightly different points.
At the same time, his primary aether sword, the one in his hand, thrust forward. The Wraith predictably dodged the handful of flying swords, putting him in place just as another thrust through the aetheric pathways and into his line of retreat. Even for a Wraith, there was no time to react as the blade thrust down through his shoulder, heart, and core before blinking away a half second later. this content of novelfullbook.com, if you reading this content please go to website novelfullbook.com to continue reading, fastest update hourly
Gravity had barely started to pull Arthur earthward before he was on my back again, his cold fury unabated by the calculated death.
Arthur’s arrival on the battlefield finally broke the remaining Wraiths’ will to keep fighting, and all six of them split off and attempted to retreat in different directions.
“Get those three!” Charon thundered, banking sharply left and giving chase. “Windsom, stay with the patrol!”
I hesitated, knowing we were doing exactly what the enemy wanted of us. Windsom also clearly wanted to argue, but Charon was already speeding away, and Arthur’s focus was entirely on our targets. I let his fury guide me and wheeled about, dipping my head and wings and flying at top speed. One was heading south, the other two southeast over the mountains. I felt their mana signatures melting away as they focused all their energy on shrouding themselves from me.
I’m ready, I thought, holding the spell I’d been slowly weaving since our arrival.
‘Now,’ Arthur ordered, and I pressed outward with the tentative new aether art I had been trying to learn.
The air rippled in a nova around me as my magic spilled through the atmosphere. I sensed as everything—everything except Arthur and I—began to slow. In moments, the speeding Wraiths had oozed to a crawl, looking like three flies trapped in clear amber.
Arthur and I dropped suddenly, and I took a deep breath as I remembered to beat my wings. The spell took all my focus, so much that even breathing—even the beating of my heart—seemed difficult.
Arthur didn’t teleport away again. Instead, he stood and conjured his weapon. I felt myself shiver at the intensity of his focus. He carefully adjusted his stance, his form, the angle of his blade.
I knew I could only hold the spell a few seconds total. Already, the aether was fighting me, time unwilling to be bound in this way. But I didn’t hurry him, didn’t break his concentration. It would be enough.
So complete was his focus that I couldn’t help but be drawn into it with him. Aether channeled into the God Step godrune burning on his back, and the aetheric pathways lit up in our vision, painting the sky with jagged amethyst lightning bolts. Beyond the barriers of mana cladding their skin, past clouds of poisonous mana vapor and burning soulflame auras, into the points between armor and skin—that’s where Arthur focused.
His concentration clicked into place, and the blade slashed from left to right. I felt it slipping into the aetheric pathways, first one, then a second and third, all within the space of the blade’s near-instant movement. Deadly, chaotic as a maelstrom. And the sluggish, oozing Wraiths flashed with violet light.
My spell released, and I wobbled back and forth, struggling to keep us in the air.
Three streaks of bright blood sprayed across the horizon ahead of us.