The Beginning After The End - Chapter 425
By the time I stepped out of the descension portal into my family’s room in Vildorial, the others had already spread out. Boo was in the kitchen slurping up something out of a cast iron pot, and Ellie was wrapped in our mother’s embrace. Mica had thrown herself down on the couch, heedless of how filthy and blood-stained she was. Lyra was standing near the small fireplace on the far side of the sitting room, her arms crossed and a faraway look in her eye.
Mom pulled back from Ellie just enough to take my sister’s face in her hands, inspecting her closely. “You’re back in one piece…”
“Mom, you’re embarrassing me in front of a retainer and a Lance,” Ellie complained, trying in vain to wriggle free of our mother’s grasp. “I’m fine, I promise. I mean, okay, I did die like ten times, but—”
“What?” Mom exclaimed, looking incredulously from Ellie to me and then back again.
“She’s clearly in one piece, like I promised,” I said, giving my sister a warning look. When this didn’t immediately quell Mom’s furious worrying, I gave her a smile and pulled her into a hug. “How long were we gone, anyway? It always feels much longer in the Relictombs.”
“A few days,” Mom answered, giving Ellie a side-eye look that suggested she wasn’t done with the whole “died ten times” conversation. “It’s been busy here though. Lord Bairon has been here multiple times looking to see if you’d returned yet. Apparently some very important visitor is waiting for you at the palace. And Gideon has been driving me a little crazy, if I’m being honest. He’s absolutely desperate to study any advances Ellie has made.”
My sister collapsed into Mom’s favorite chair and started to kick her boots up on the footrest, but she froze when Mom’s brows shot up. With a chagrined smile, she eased the dirty boots off her feet and set them aside carefully, then leaned back and put her feet up. “He’s going to flip out when he sees everything I can do. I bet he’ll be so surprised his eyebrows will fall out again.”
I shook my head at my sister’s antics, but was still focused on what Mom had said before that. “Who is this important visitor? Do you know anything?”
Mom sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “No, the general didn’t tell me much, just insisted that you be sent to the palace immediately upon your return.” Her mouth pressed into a thin line, revealing her irritation. “I told him I may be your mother, but I wasn’t going to order you about. I also reminded him that you’d likely be tired and in need of a good home-cooked meal after traipsing around for who knows how long in the—”
“Mom,” I said, laughing lightly. “It’s all right. Thank you. I’ll go see him immediately.” I turned to my companions. “Mica, you’re free to do as you wish. Ellie, you should clean yourself up and get some rest. Don’t let Gideon pressure you, but track him and Emily down when you’re ready to debrief them on the ascent.”
“Aye aye, captain,” she said sarcastically, saluting me with two fingers at her temple.
“General,” Mica muttered sleepily.
“And me, Regent Leywin?” Lyra asked, letting her arms fall and standing straighter, an edge of defiance in her posture. “Will you be escorting me back to a prison cell?”
The tension hung in the air like an electric charge. It would have been the safe thing to do, of course. Disabling her core and putting her on trial for her crimes would have been completely justified. She would always be remembered as the Alacryan who paraded the corpses of Dicathen’s king and queens from city to city while praising the Vritra Clan for their kindness and good will.
“So you can rest? No, I’m not letting you off that easily,” I stated. “I’m sending you beyond the Wall to check on your people, see what they need. Consider it both punishment and recompense for your crimes against this continent.” To Mica, I said, “Arrange transport back and forth. Lyra of Highblood Dreide is free to move between the Elenoir Wastes and Vildorial.” My gaze went back to Lyra. “Just there, understand? This isn’t freedom.”
Lyra lifted her chin as she regarded me. “I understand, Regent. I acknowledge this punishment and accept an opportunity to aid both your people and mine.”
“I want you to represent your people on this continent,” I said, softening somewhat. “Those soldiers in the Wastes should know they haven’t been forgotten. But all isn’t forgiven, either.”
Mica had sat up to watch this conversation play out with a growing frown.
“Problem?” I asked, addressing my fellow Lance.
“No, just thinking. Things might have been a little boring if we’d actually killed this skinny Alacryan back when we had her chained up in the Beast Glades.”
Lyra snorted and rolled her eyes. “This continent has many positives, but as torturers and jailors, you are woefully lacking.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I suppose this is not a bad thing, though.”
The two devolved into familiar bickering as they headed for the front door of my mother’s rooms. Just before it closed behind them again, Lyra met my eye. She gave a small bow, then let the door close.
Ellie smirked. “The great Lance Godspell showing his soft underside to the enemy, who’d have guessed.”
“It’s a punishment,” I said, glowering at my sister.
Mom rested her head on my shoulder. “With all your many responsibilities, you may have an image to uphold to the public, but it’s just us here. No need to put up a facade in front of your family.”
Ellie broke into a fit of giggling, but I ignored her as Mom pulled away from me and headed through the kitchen arch. She had to shimmy around Boo, who took up nearly the entire room.
“Do you want anything to eat? Or will you be rushing off right away?”
I considered ignoring Bairon’s request for at least an hour or two so I could spend some time with her, but the fact that he had come here, to our home, multiple times in my absence made me uncomfortable.
“I should go,” I said. “Hopefully I’ll be back shortly. I wouldn’t mind something hot to eat, if you can reclaim your kitchen.”
“If there’s any food left in it when I do, you mean,” she said, standing on her tiptoes to see over Boo’s back. “Go on, then. The world might fall apart if it goes without you for an hour, but your family will hold itself together.”
Waving, I headed toward the door. On the way, I carefully kicked the footrest out from under my sister’s feet, making her sink half out of the chair.
“Hey!” she grumbled, flicking a spark of mana at me that sizzled away against the aether clad around my skin.
I laughed and opened the door.
I looked back. Ellie wore a serious expression despite the slight flush to her face.
“Thank you, y’know, for…letting me come with you, and protecting me and stuff. I—it was really…cool.”
“Love you too, El,” I answered with a knowing wink, then left.
The hike through the Earthborn Institute was uneventful. You’ve been quiet, I noted of Regis as I walked. Normally he liked to get out of me as soon as he could, but he had remained in wisp form near my core since before the last ruin.
‘I was just thinking,’ he noted, his tone more serious than usual. ‘This world is fucked up.’
I scoffed. “It really is, isn’t it.” Memories of the djinn trial played behind my eyes, lingering on the city in flames.
‘Just makes moments like this, with your family, with Caera back in Alacrya… all of it a bit better.’
All I could do was agree, and we continued on in silence.
At the Earthborn institute gates, I looked up and down the highway at the crowds of people. My passage always drew attention, but at the moment I had no desire to be the object of their stares. Instead, I channeled aether into God Step.
A web of interconnecting violet lines appeared, overlaying the city before me, each line connecting two points to create a network that seemed to connect every point to every other.
Looking at them now, there had been a subtle shift in my perspective, more an awareness of potential than any visible change in the aether paths themselves. When I had learned to stop just “seeing” the paths and to hear and sense them under Three Steps’ tutelage, it had felt like a significant paradigm shift in my insight. Now, I felt compelled to do more than simply see and hear them. I wanted to grasp them.
The aetheric pathways weren’t simply doors, tools to be used for simple navigation..
I raised my hand, drawn to these streams of amethyst light that represented another dimension. My fingers twitched as they drew closer to the paths, and I felt a draw from the godrune as it reacted to my intentions.
External to the aetheric pathways, a descending pressure sent an icy shiver down my back.
My arm whipped toward the oncoming source of energy, aether coiling around my fingers and palm as I released God Step.
The aether wound around my hand faded as I saw the vaguely familiar sight of olive-green feathers.
As the shadows receded from the flying figure, I was able to make out its avian body and the single horn sprouting from the owl’s head.
Avier, I remembered.
This owl had been the bond of Cynthia Goodsky, director of Xyrus Academy. But he’d vanished after her imprisonment and eventual death.
“I’ve been waiting for your return,” the owl said, bobbing its horned head as it landed on a post.
“So you can speak,” I said. Most bonded animals could communicate with their tamer, but very few could speak to anyone else. “You’re the one who’s been waiting for me?”
“You’re confused,” Avier said. “I understand my appearance hasn’t been expected, and you might be hesitant.”
I raised a brow. “Hesitant, suspicious, either works.”
Avier’s head tilted as he regarded me with wide, intelligent eyes. “To get straight to the point, Aldir has sent me.”
I sobered instantly, but the mention of Aldir’s name only raised more questions. “You were Cynthia’s bond. Why are you working with Aldir?” I asked, voicing the most immediate one.
The owl ruffled its green feathers. “I am not. But I have been waiting too long already, Arthur. I need you to come with me. We can discuss more on the journey.”
Motion drew my eye to the highway, where two dwarves followed by a cadre of guards were rushing toward us. Looking more closely, I recognized Lords Daglun Silvershale and Carnelian Earthborn. I could only watch, mystified, as Carnelian waved off their guards as the two dwarven lords slowed to a quick walk for the last fifty feet. Both were breathing heavily as they arrived, bowing first to me and then to the owl.
Daglun cleared his throat. “Ah, Lord Avier, you left so quickly we didn’t finish our conversation. Before you leave, I would like to extend the respect of this great city, and welcome you back into it any time you wish.”
Not to be outdone, Carnelian added, “Indeed, the Earthborn Institute”—he waved a callused hand to the gates behind us—“would be most interested in hosting you for a longer stay next time. There is much we could learn from one another, I believe.”
Avier’s bushy brows rose as his head turned halfway around to face them. “I’m afraid I do not see that happening, but I thank you both for your hospitality. Farewell.”
The two dwarven lords could only stare, astonished, as the owl hopped into the air and fluttered to my shoulder. “Leave through the third eastern gate. I believe that will take us most quickly to the surface.”
Considering, I realized I really had no choice. If there was a chance to meet with Aldir, I had to take it. Addressing the dwarven lords, I said, “Please inform Virion, the other Lances, and Alice Leywin that I’ll be leaving the city for…” I trailed off, raising my brows questioningly to the owl on my shoulder.
“A few days, at least,” it answered.
“Of course, Lance,” Carnelian said quickly.
“And what of the Alacryan, General?” Daglun asked, stepping forward to be a few inches closer to us than Carnelian was.
“General Mica has heard my instructions and can take responsibility for the prisoner until I return,” I said, uncertain why Daglun had thought to ask.
The two dwarven lords exchanged a confused look, but I was already moving past them toward the highway. Skarn Earthborn, Mica’s cousin, was among the dwarven guards, and we exchanged a terse nod.
Curiosity bubbled from my companion. ‘I wonder where Aldir’s been all this time. He’s not exactly inconspicuous, is he? But Windsom pretended to be a shopkeeper, so maybe Aldir is, like, tending a bar somewhere.’
Avier guided me up the highway and out one of the many side tunnels. From there, he flew ahead of me, leading me toward the nearest passage up to the surface. We reached the barren desert at dusk, just as the sun was setting behind the dunes.
“How are we traveling?” I asked as Avier wheeled around above me.
“I will carry you on my back, if you’ll allow it,” the owl said, stopping to hover in front of me. “That will be the fastest way.”
I looked the olive-green owl over carefully. It was larger, slightly, than a normal owl, but still small enough to comfortably ride on my shoulder. “And how’s that going to work exactly?”
‘Uncomfortably. By balancing on your tippy-toes.’ Regis chortled at his own joke.
The owl made a sound that was more reptilian than avian, then began to grow.
Its wings expanded outward at a rapid pace, the olive-green feathers morphing into scales of the same hue. As the short neck lengthened, frill-like spikes grew along the spine. The thick, scaleless flesh of his wings and frills was a dim golden color. His beak elongated and widened, becoming a reptilian face with a gaping mouth full of dangerous-looking fangs, and two long horns swept back from the rear of its skull. The thick, powerful legs ended in curved talons like scythe blades, and a heavy tail dangled just over the sandstone.
“You’re a wyvern…” I said, recalling what I’d heard about them. They were exceedingly rare, supposed descendants of the dragons that hardly ever interacted with humans, elves, or dwarves. And yet this one had been bonded with a human woman, and an Alacryan at that. “I never knew.”
“Cynthia kept my true form a secret at my request,” Avier said, his voice deeper and richer than in his owl form. The beating of his wings kicked up sand all around us, but he landed a moment later, the clawed protrusions on his wings curling inward so he could walk on them like front legs. “Now, we have a long journey ahead of us.”
“Where are we going?” I asked, not moving to climb onto his back.
He huffed, and the force of his breath blew my hair back. “If you do not trust me, you shouldn’t have come this far. But I will tell you. Aldir is in the Beast Glades. I can answer any more questions you may have on the way, but there are things you should learn in the proper time, and from the proper source.”
I don’t see how we can refuse, I thought, probing Regis for his perspective.
‘If it’s a trap, sending a strange mana beast you haven’t seen since you were, like, fourteen is a weird way to set it,’ he pointed out. ‘At worst, I’m sure you can turn the experience of being eaten by a thirty-foot-long flying lizard into some kind of training.’’
I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes, aware that Avier’s fiery golden gaze was leveled intently on me. After another second, I gave in and jumped up onto the wyvern’s back, settling in between two separate ridges.
Avier wasted no time, pouncing straight up into the air then snapping out his wings to catch the hot desert breeze. Wheeling, he turned away from the setting sun and shot like an arrow westward.
Despite saying he would answer my questions, we spoke very little as we flew. He moved with a speed that rivaled even Sylvie’s, and the wind cutting past his spine fringes howled against my ears, drowning out all but my own thoughts. I felt myself drawn into a melancholic reverie, the flight on wyvernback drawing my recent failure to bring Sylvie back to the forefront of my mind.
I started paying more attention when we flew over the mountains into the Beast Glades. As the rocky slopes gave way to dense forests, I activated Realmheart, watchful of anything powerful enough to be a threat. The longer we flew, the more the landscape changed; we passed over barren, lifeless wastes, putrid swamps, and glass-smooth lakes. We were headed into the heart of the Beast Glades, where S-class beasts that had scared even Olfred Warender resided.
Nothing bothered us, though, a fact I attributed to Avier himself. Cynthia’s former bond surprised me once more, making me question how powerful he might actually be when he began putting off a tremendous warding aura, warning away any predatory mana beasts that got too close.
“What have you been doing out here since Cynthia’s death?” I yelled over the wind, finally voicing a question I’d wanted to ask since Avier revealed his true form in Darv.
“While imprisoned, she released me from my bond,” he answered, his voice carrying easily on the wind. “She didn’t want me to risk myself attacking the castle to free her. I think she had an inkling of her fate and didn’t want me bound to her when it happened. At her request, I retreated into the Beast Glades.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, quiet enough that I didn’t expect him to hear me. “She deserved better than what happened.”
Avier let out a sharp cry that seemed to cut through the air like a blade. Once it died away, he said, “She was very fond of you.”
I waited, but the wyvern said no more, and so I lapsed back into thoughtful silence.
Not long after, he began descending toward the forest below. Trees a hundred feet tall with canopies just as wide and trunks thick as watchtowers rose up to meet us. Burning orange leaves swayed in a constant breeze, making the canopy look like a bed of smoldering coals.
When we dipped below the boughs, though, the shadows were as deep as an overcast night, and my vision was nearly overwhelmed by the abundance of mana particles. The leaves, the trees, the ground itself, every aspect of natural growth was alive with mana. And lurking in the distance, each one bearing a forceful mana signature, were mana beasts of impressive size and strength.
Yet even these S-class mana beasts were kept at bay by Avier’s warding aura.
Suddenly we dipped down again, and I thought we were going to crash straight into the ground. A deep black shadow within the dim light under the canopy became clear only in the moment before we entered it, and Avier threw out his wings, catching a gentle updraft and hovering. Slowly, we descended down a natural crack wide enough for two wyverns to fly side by side.
Strangely, I could sense no mana from within the crevice, but there was an uncomfortable pressure against my eardrums that made me wary.
As we neared the bottom, flames flared to life in sconces set around the crevice, lighting up the floor beneath us, presumably so Avier didn’t accidentally crash into the floor.
Chalky white shapes covered the floor, and when Avier touched down, his talons crunched in the detritus. The bones of hundreds of mana beasts carpeted the floor.
Avier paid this no mind, however, walking carelessly over the boneyard and into a cave that opened up off the ravine. The cave seemed dim and empty except for a few more scattered bones, until more sconces lit on the opposite side, revealing a large set of doors carved from matte black wood.
The source of this content is nov//el/bin[./]net’
“A dungeon,” I said, sliding off Avier’s back and approaching the door. Barely visible in the dim light, a scene of some sort had been etched into the wood, but it was too dark, and the engravings too faded, to make sense of. I looked back into Avier’s gold eyes, which glowed subtly in the dark. “Aldir is here?”
“Yes,” Avier confirmed. “Though we may have to fight our way to him.” Reaching out one wing, he sent a complicated series of mana pulses into the wood: a code or combination of some kind.
The doors swung open silently, and the dungeon’s fetid breath spilled over us, heavy with death and rot. Regis manifested next to me, the flames of his mane stiff, like a wolf with its hackles raised.
Side by side, Regis and I stepped into the dungeon. Avier, his wings folded in on themselves as he walked on the knuckled joint, followed. As the doors closed behind us, more torches lit up by magic, revealing a wide chamber carved out of the dark bedrock. Bones, and even some more recent corpses, lined the walls. The floor was caked with dark stains that crackled under our feet. The instant the torches lit, a shadow flitted down a tall, broad tunnel that opened ahead of us.
“What is this place?”
“No adventurers have reached this dungeon to name it. We simply call it Hollow’s Edge,” Avier answered. “Its inhabitants are referred to as ebon scourges. I expected to be back before the dungeon reset, but you were too long in returning.”
There was an edge of wariness in Avier’s voice that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
Something moved in the dark tunnel ahead of us.
Stone crunched, and a jet-black mana beast the size of a bear charged out of the darkness. It ran on four muscular limbs like a gorilla, much faster than its size suggested. Its body was glossy black like obsidian, with a shovel-shaped, eyeless head that jutted out in front of it like a weapon. Three curving horns extended forward, two from the sides of the flat head and one from the bottom, where a chin or lower jaw would normally have been. In between the three horns, a gaping mouth full of yellow teeth the size of daggers gleamed like a grim grin.
Avier lunged past me, gliding on extended wings. One talon slammed down on the ebon scourge’s neck, which was protected by bony protrusions that extended back from the top of its skull half the length of its body. The mana beast, despite its size, was crushed to the ground under Avier’s weight, but his talon’s only scraped across the rock-hard exterior of the skull.
Wings still extended for balance, Avier used his free talon to rip at the scourge’s side and belly as it struggled against him, twisting enough to get one huge three-clawed hand around Avier’s ankle. Each claw was four inches wide and twice that in length, and, after a moment of struggle between the scourge’s strength and Avier’s mana, the scourge pierced Avier’s scales, while Avier’s talons struggled to wound the scourge.
Aether took form in the shape of a sword, and I dug my heel into the floor. The world blurred as Burst Step propelled me to the mana beast, the translucent blade piercing a hole in its thick skull with a crunch.
Even with a hole in its skull, the mana beast refused to relent, lashing an arm as thick as my torso like a battering ram.
I drove my elbow down to block its attack, but the force of the impact threw me off guard.
Regis was on top of it in an instant. With one of the horns locked between his jaws, he twisted its head around. The ebon scourge roared in defiance and rage, and Avier’s neck snapped downward like a striking cobra. His jaws opened, and a stream of emerald flames poured into the scourge’s open mouth.
The mana best trembled, its flesh cracking and fissuring in several places, allowing tongues of green flame to reach out.
Avier’s fire continued for several seconds before he relented. The smoking remains no longer moved, and both Avier and Regis stepped back.
I brushed myself off and got closer to look at the corpse.
The hardened flesh was formed of dense rock, more like an exoskeleton than hide.
Avier’s long, thin tongue snaked out and licked the bloody wound in his leg. Flames curled up from the spot, and the scales healed. “Let us continue.”
In the next section of the dungeon, we found a chamber that split off in three different directions. Ebon scourge corpses were scattered across the floor and piled against the walls. Some were shattered in half, the stone shells of others scored with deep claw marks. One had a scourge horn stabbed through its throat and into its skull, where it must have destroyed the beast core.
“Do these mana beasts often battle among themselves?” I asked Avier, but his head was on a swivel, and he did not immediately respond.
A hollow roar tore through the dungeon from the tunnel to our left, and we maneuvered into a defensive position, Regis right beside me, his flames rearing, while Avier circled around to the other side, acrid smoke rising from his jaws.
Conjuring a new sword and fixing my footing, I waited as heavy, thumping footsteps resounded down the corridor.
Except it wasn’t the squat, bestial silhouette of an ebon scourge that appeared.
It was a hulking statue of a man that stepped into the low light, flanked by a bearlike mana beast easily twice Boo’s size with rich mahogany-colored fur and black markings like scars down its face.
Avier relaxed. “Evascir. It is good to see you.”
The statuesque figure, I realized, was actually wrapped in a layer of stone, like a pilotable golem. As I recognized this, the stonework manifestation crumbled away, and a muscular man stepped out. His head was bald, his skin the color of gray limestone. Inside his earthen armor, he had towered to ten feet tall, but even without it he was still over seven. The weight of his aura would have been enough to crush most people to the floor.
This man was an asura.
“Good timing, Avier,” the man said, his gaze landing on the wyvern’s injury. “Since you weren’t back yet, I decided to clear the dungeon. Guess I missed one.”
“Regardless, you have saved us much needed time,” Avier dismissed. “Thank you for coming.”
The asura gave the wyvern a nod before eyeing me speculatively. “This is the one you were sent to fetch? Hopefully he is as powerful as he is pretty.”
“There’s a reason I call him princess,” Regis chimed in with a lupine grin.
“Is your initial judgment a formal test or an ignorant observation?” I asked, matching his unblinking gaze.
The asura—a titan, I thought—let out a booming laugh, pure and joyful. “No, not a test, and perhaps a bit biased rather than ignorant, lesser.” He gestured to his oversized bear companion, and it moved aside, making way for Avier, Regis, and me to pass. “Come. Let us leave the stinking wretchedness of these dungeons and return home.”
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