The Beginning After The End

Chapter 467



The sourc𝗲 of this content is 𝐟𝗿𝗲𝗲𝐰𝗲𝐛𝗻𝗼𝐯𝗲𝗹.𝗰𝗼𝗺

JASMINE FLAMESWORTH

As the mana surged violently off to the east, another dragon flew over the Wall, speeding away with frightening urgency. I glanced over at Helen but found no answers; she was just as uncertain as I was.

The Wall’s defenders, adventurers from guild halls all over Sapin, lined the top of the colossal structure, staring nervously eastward over the Beast Glades. There was little we could do except watch and hope nothing approached, but it seemed like Arthur’s caution was borderline prescient; it hadn’t even been a full day since he went into his refuge beneath the Wall.

Lance Mica Earthborn came down from where she had been flying high above, hovering in the open air in front of us. Her stone eye, black as a cloudy night sky, gave her a fearsome look. “That was one of Vajrakor’s guards, I’m certain of it. Unbelievable. If they’ve left the cities undefended, I’ll…” She trailed off with a sigh and a shrug. “By rock and root, what exactly am I going to do about it? But they shouldn’t be leaving their posts. The rift must be under attack so they’re going to defend it. The only thing that makes sense, really.”

“If there is a force in this world that can defeat the dragons, then this is all for naught anyway,” Helen said matter of factly. “As for us, all we can do is the job that was entrusted to us. Arthur lies vulnerable beneath our feet. We need to keep him safe and whole long enough for him to accomplish his goal. That boy’s been fighting for us since he was fourteen years old. Now it’s our turn to fight for him.”

Lance Mica nodded gravely. “He’s our best hope, dragons or no dragons.”

“I wish he was here now,” Angela Rose said, leaning over a crenelation and looking down. “Whatever’s happening out there, it’d be a lot less scary if I knew our resident Lance Godspell was protecting us, and not the other way around.”

Lance Mica scoffed. “Well, you’ll have to make do with just me, but I’ve been—”

“What’s that?” Angela asked, leaning a little farther out and staring into the trees. “There’s something moving in the shadows.”

The Lance flew twenty or so feet away, then cursed and wheeled around. “Man your posts, the enemy is—”

Dozens—hundreds—of spells erupted from the shadows of the trees. It shouldn’t have been possible; no sizable force could move so quietly and without a glimmer of mana signatures, and yet somehow the Alacryans were right on top of us.

Lance Mica batted away a handful of spells and dodged others while conjuring plates of stone to deflect as many more as possible. Bolts of fire and lightning, spears of ice and air, and bullets of every element collided with the front of the Wall or the gates far below, while more spells were aimed at the adventurers standing atop the structure.

Like ants, hundreds of Alacryans poured out of the trees that were cut back a couple hundred feet from the base of the Wall to provide better line of sight to the ground—not that it’d helped.

Spells began to rain from the top of the Wall, but shields of a dozen different shapes and colors absorbed or deflected most of the damage. All around me, adventurers were shouting for orders or running to get to their positions, caught out of place by the suddenness of the assault. Helen was directing traffic, but she had her bow in hand, and with every order shouted, she loosed an arrow down into the oncoming army.

“Angela, you’re supposed to be with Durden at the vault!” Helen ordered, letting off another shot.

Angela Rose hesitated before nodding and hurrying away, pushing past other adventurers who were rushing to the Wall’s edge to start casting their own spells. There was too much traffic to wait for the long elevators, so she leaped down a flight of stairs and vanished from sight.

A round blade of wind hissed through the air between Helen and me, forcing us both to dodge away. It clipped a conjurer across the side of his neck behind us, taking him to the ground with a surprised yell of pain, then curved around and came back. I caught it on a wind-imbued dagger and deflected it back in the direction it had come from, but it carved a wide arc through the air and returned once more, this time bearing down on Helen.

A shield of dark rock appeared in front of her, catching the disc but shattering under the force of its impact. A mana-infused arrow hissed through the remaining rubble, carving its long arc down into the army below. I didn’t see who the arrow struck, but the cutting disc of wind-attribute mana dissolved only a moment later.

Below, I saw a black blur speed away from the enemy forces, and then a cacophonous crack rent the air, followed by the trembling of solid stone beneath my feet..

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A single towering, broad-shouldered, horned man had stepped forward from the enemy’s front line. The black streak had come from him. Now, a sphere of gleaming darkness—solid, black metal—appeared in front of his outstretched hand before again flying at the reinforced gate at the Wall’s base.

Another crash, another tremble.

A surge of mana responded, buttressing the structure’s stone and metal with magic. “The reinforcement is holding!” someone shouted, their words heavy with relief.

“But for how long?” Helen asked under her breath.

A brightly burning comet appeared in the sky above the battlefield, hovering for only an instant before plummeting down toward the man. I had to look away from the brightness, but the following flash and concussive blast nearly knocked me off my feet. I grabbed the soldier next to me, steadying myself and her at the same time, then returned my gaze to the battle.

The ground all around the horned man and the Alacryan frontline was scorched and blasted, but he didn’t seem harmed at all. In fact—though it could have been the distance playing tricks on me—it looked like he was grinning. With a whip-crack flourish, he sent another projectile at the gates, and the Wall trembled.

“Not long enough,” I told Helen, already moving.

Instead of wasting time with the elevator, or even the stairs, I bolted across the top of the Wall, planted one foot firmly on a merlon, and leapt out into open air. The buildings of the Wall’s interior town were far, far below, but they rose toward me rapidly.

Concentrating air-attribute mana beneath one foot, I caught some of my own momentum, slowing me perceptibly before my weight broke through. I repeated this again with the alternating foot, and then yet again, like I was running down the air itself. Despite flying down the Wall’s interior side at great speed, when I hit the ground a few seconds later, I didn’t burst apart on the hard stone but instead pushed the collected momentum forward into a dead sprint toward the interior of the main eastern gates.

Dozens of adventurers were already gathered there, conjurers holding fireballs in their bare hands or swirling with freezing air next to augmenters imbued with mana, some wrapped in stone or with burning weapons. Stone pillars had been pulled up from the ground to support the gate, and the soil was grown over with venomously green, thorny vines.

The gates rang like an enormous gong as another projectile struck from outside. The mana pouring through the Wall’s interior to reinforce it was like a physical presence in the air, but there was a whining, strained element to it that told me the defensive measure wouldn’t hold out much longer as hoped.

A scream punctuated through the resounding crash at the gates, and a man plunged down the inside of the Wall, only to be caught moments before striking the ground by a condensed cloud of wind and water. Outside the gate, I heard the earth shifting and stone grinding against stone.

The gates burst apart as an enormous black iron spike ripped through it, large enough and with so much force that it cracked the foundations of the Wall around it. fre(e)webnovel.com

As one, the defenders flinched back. Many had already conjured shields or other protective barriers that saved many lives, buthe giant spike split into hundreds of spear-sized slivers, scattering death like so many thrown dice. Stone burst, mana cracked and collapsed, and ice shattered as the spears carved a bloody swath through our number.

Crawling to my feet—having thrown myself beneath a barrage of the black iron spears—I stared through the newly punched opening. Hundreds of Alacryans were charging toward us, weapons and spells raised. Outside the shattered gates, the battlefield was littered with gleaming shards of some black crystal. The Lance kneeled amidst the wreckage. She seemed stunned, as if she’d taken a mighty blow.

As I wavered on whether or not to rush to her side, the shattered remnants of crystal began to rise and fly to her, snapping into place all over her body like plates of armor. She stood, and a wall of gravity, visible as a distortion in the air that raced ahead of her, pulling the dust to the ground and crushing the soil down several inches, barreled out toward the approaching soldiers.

The hard-packed ground moved beneath her feet, and five black fingers curled up from the soil, closing in around her like a fist. She raised one arm, and a huge stone hammer was suddenly clenched in her fist. She swung it straight down into the metal palm with all her might.

Stone and metal screeched as both hammer and conjured appendage shattered, but the gravity wave had been interrupted, subsiding just before striking the charging army. Lance Mica cast a calculating look back through the tunnel mouth, and then she was flying through it at speed, back into our ring of defenders.

“For Dicathen!” she bellowed, hovering ten feet in the air above us, her hammer gripped in both hands.

“For Dicathen!” the adventurers shouted in response, their voices resounding through the fortification.

A gout of green flame spread out ahead of the charging Alacryans, burning away the thickly tangled vines, then an obscuring mist spilled out of the tunnel mouth, hiding the enemy from sight. An instant later, spells began firing out at us. As one, our cohort returned fire, dumping everything we had into the gap.

“Choke the breach with the bodies of their dead,” Lance Mica growled.

Suddenly the mist fell out of the very air, revealing the progressing soldiers, hidden behind their conjured shields. They struggled to progress forward, their feet dragging across the ground as if they couldn’t lift them.

An answering bellow came from within the tunnel, and then the horned man burst out, flying over the Alacryan soldiers and colliding with the Lance. The two crashed through the wall of a nearby building and vanished from sight, as the Alacryans were once again speeding forward.

Ducking beneath a beam of orange fire-attribute mana, I darted forward and threw myself at the first enemy I reached. A panel of mana appeared just where I struck, catching the blow and turning it aside. He raised a spear in response, thrusting in turn at my ribs. Whirling, I caught the spear on one dagger and moved it aside as I tossed the other dagger in the opposite direction. A panel of mana appeared to protect a different Alacryan soldier, but the dagger, held within a fist of air-attribute mana, curved around behind my target and drove in between his shoulder blades. The spear went limp in his grasp, then my first dagger sank into his chest. With a twist of mana, the dagger in his back leapt to my hand.

Recalling everything I had been taught about how the Alacryans fought and the way their battle groups were structured, I searched for their Shields, those mages who focused on protecting the others. All over the battlefield, swirling barriers of fire and wind appeared to deflect the spells and blows of my allies, and we were quickly losing the game of numbers as more and more of the Alacryans poured through.

As I ducked past a Caster slinging bolts of condensed lightning, a building behind us exploded outward, raining rubble down on the battlefield. From the corner of my eyes, I saw Lance Mica swinging her hammer with enough force to distort the air around her, and each blocked blow seemed to ripple outward from the impact and send tremors through my bones.

Her opponent—a Scythe, I was certain—deflected the blows with a towering shield of black iron that rang like a giant bell with each strike. He wore a look of ecstasy, reveling in the combat. Thankfully, he had eyes only for her. But I had no time to gawk at their fight.

A Striker closed in on me, orbs of white-blue lightning spinning around them. A gusting barrier of wind moved with them, and not far behind, a Caster channeling mana into fiery bolts fixed me with a dire stare. As the Striker swung with his bare fist, the lightning orbs moved in an echo of the blow. I leapt back, imbuing mana into both daggers as I looked past the Striker to the rest of his battle group.

The twin daggers flew, curving out around either side of the Striker, one arcing toward the Caster while the other flew farther, aimed at the Shield’s core. The wind enveloping the Striker pulled away in a cyclone of dust, flying even faster than my weapons to intercept them. At the same time, I lunged forward, pushing a burst of air-attribute mana in front of me to knock the Striker off balance. His orbiting balls of lightning cast about in the wind like fireflies, and I flitted between them to drive a wind-wrapped fist into his solar plexus.

My daggers, which had been hurled off course by the wind Shield’s spell, flew right back into my hands as I rolled past the gasping Striker. A single quick slash across his exposed back finished the man, and I bore down on the Caster, whose flaming bolts pelted at me with dangerous speed.

Off to my right, two battle groups broke and fled into the town. There weren’t enough defenders to stop them.

Cursing, I deflected one bolt, let a second glance off my shoulders, and then dove between three more, my blades leading the way. The barrier of wind caught my forward momentum, sending me into a full backflip. As I landed, I flicked out with the right-hand dagger. The barrier jumped again, moving between me and the Shield, but the move had been a feint. Instead, the left dagger launched from my hand, propelled to lethal force by a gust of air-attribute mana.

The barrier lurched, trying to move back into place to protect the Caster, but too late, and the man choked in pain and surprise as the blade punctured his chest, shearing straight through him before spinning around to the right and embedding itself in the Shield’s side. The cyclone of protective wind wavered, and I ran through it, jumping and planting my knees on the Shield’s chest, driving him to the ground even as my second dagger opened his unprotected throat.

The Wall trembled above me as the Lance and Scythe slammed into it, bounced off its surface, and slammed into it again. The flow of mana into and through the Wall's physical structure pulsed rapidly, and hail-sized bits of stone rained down on the interior town, clacking off rooftops and bouncing across the street. A few bodies tumbled from the Wall’s top with them, landing with a wet crunch.

As I searched for my next target, I could only hope that Helen was not among them.

More Alacryan battle groups had broken away, running into houses or along the base of the Wall instead of continuing forward into the line of defenders. Dozens of adventurers had advanced behind me, and the street was slick with the blood of both Alacryans and Dicathians, bodies strewn about like felled trees after a hurricane.

“Pen them in!” I shouted, projecting my voice with a burst of wind mana through my lungs. “We can’t let them have the run of the Wall!” My mind turned to the mages whose efforts had been feeding mana into the Wall, the source of the reinforcing magic. “And send extra men to guard the support team.” Most of those mages were no longer fit to fight, too wounded from previous battles but still able to channel mana.

More adventurers were finally arriving from down the long series of stairs that zigzagged through the Wall’s interior. I pointed out the direction of enemy troops and shouted orders where it seemed appropriate. Most knew me, and those that did were quick to comply.

This wasn’t my first battle in the Wall, after all. I didn’t like to think of my time here just after the first war, and I enjoyed my memories of the battle against the army of corrupted mana beasts even less—the battle where Reynolds had died—but I knew the fortifications, and I’d seen the Alacryans’ strategy before.

This was different. They didn’t have the manpower, and they were pinching their forces through the narrow gates and then scattering, a strategy that would get them into the fortification but never allow them to keep it. Their losses were too great, even with the Scythe present to punch a hole in the Wall for them.

“Hunt down and take care of the stragglers,” I told several adventurers from Blackbend as they charged down the street toward us. “They’re searching for where he’s hidden. Don’t let them find it. Root them out!”

Running back into the fray, I cut down a Striker standing over a fallen adventurer, a young man no older than sixteen. Helping the boy to stand, I indicated that he follow me. “Press forward to the gate! We have to close it off.”

Men and women rallied behind me, shouting their warcries, and we surged into the press of Alacryans forcing their way through the rubble of the gate and the collapsing arch that had once held it. Behind us, a three-story inn collapsed as a wave of force radiated out from where Lance Mica and the Scythe fought back and forth through the air over the town.

I focused on headhunting their Shields, flowing past the fighters like wind over rocks to bring down the men and women that kept them safe. Without the practice or natural talent for cladding themselves in protective mana, my adventurers made short work of them without their Shields. As we made headway, their force began to clog up the tunnel, stuck there, unable to progress forward against the backs of the soldiers in front of them.

A few of the adventurers threw spells into the tunnel, trying to take advantage of having them so crammed together, but the density of Shields made any such attack nearly impossible.

All through town, I could hear the sounds of battle as our people hunted down those who had slipped past us. Their assault was flagging, the intensity of it diminishing each second that they struggled to force their way through the gates and with each body that piled up, only adding to the barrier.

There was a lull, and I realized with some disorientation that I’d been tuning out the cacophony of crashes and explosions that were issuing from Lance Mica’s battle with the Scythe. Looking up, I saw her wrapped in a mid-air wrestling match with the much, much larger man. His shield was gone, as was her hammer, and they grappled each other bare-handed. She had one of his arms caught in the crook of her elbow, her fingers clamped tight around his wrist, while her legs wrapped around his other arm. Her right hand twisted one of his horns, yanking his neck around viciously.

For his part, the Scythe’s body was trembling with barely constrained power. The pounding of his pulse could be felt with waves of mana hammering down on us, thudding in my chest with more force than my own heartbeat. His lips curled back in a sneer, and his arms closed inch by inch. I suddenly feared that he would tear the Lance in half.

Then, with a sound like thunder, his horn snapped. The burst of mana that raged out in a sphere threw me to the ground and struck the side of the Wall with such force that it collapsed in on itself, the reinforcing mana finally seizing and failing entirely.

I watched with horror as a crack ran from the gate tunnel all the way to the top of the Wall. Stone shifted with a noise like an earthquake, then collapsed downward, a fifteen-foot-wide section of the Wall falling into the void of the tunnel. Distantly, barely visible through the ensuing cloud of dust, bodies were tumbling down with the stone.

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“Move, move!” I shouted, scrambling back to my feet and sprinting away as boulders bounced over the rubble and out into the street, demolishing houses and crushing entire battle groups of Alacryans.

Above it all, the Lance had released the Scythe. I could feel the wall of mana radiating out from her as she attempted to catch and stabilize the rockfall, both preventing it from taking down the rest of the Wall with it and from swallowing half our forces.

The one-horned Scythe reeled back, nearly tumbling from the sky, his broad face a mask of disbelief and agony. His right arm hung limply, badly broken, and he wept dark blood from dozens of wounds.

Audible even over the collapsing Wall, a horn suddenly sounded. It was a deep reverberation that came up through the soles of my feet, vibrating my teeth and pummeling me behind my eyes.

The Scythe’s shocked eyes searched the ground before he spun and shot off into the air, flying up and over the Wall and vanishing from sight.

I couldn’t see any surviving Alacryans on this side of the Wall, and there would be little left of those who’d been inside the tunnel when it collapsed. Although I couldn’t see them, I could sense enough of their mana signatures to know that those outside the fortifications were turning and fleeing back to the Beast Glades.

My mind reeled. The attack had come on like a summer storm and ended just as quickly, but why? My gaze drifted to the bullish horn still clutched in the struggling Lance’s hand, but it hadn’t been the Scythe who had signaled the retreat.

Cheers went up around me as people started to realize that we’d won and they’d survived. I could hear them all the way from the top of the Wall. Closest to me, the cheers became shouts for the Lance, her name repeated over and over.

I could tell with a simple look that no answers to my questions would come from her, however. The armor she had conjured around herself, made up of interlocking plates of the black crystal spell that had been shattered earlier, was in ruins, blood covering as much of her body as the remnants of her armor. Her mana signature was fading and spiking dangerously, and her one eye stared around as if she were in a daze, only half hearing the cheers.

My feet began carrying me away from collapsed gates toward a nondescript door in the base of the Wall, one of many that allowed access to the forges and other essential operations housed within the broad Wall itself. As the cheers faded behind me, I had the unshakeable thought that they were somehow unearned.

The door was open, and several soldiers—Alacryan and Dicathien both—lay dead in the plain stone room beyond. Following a tunnel into a series of identical labyrinthine passageways, I made my way down into the bowels, picking up speed as I went until I was practically jumping down stairs.

Reaching a lower landing, I found what should have been a secret door hanging off its hinges, smashed inward, the stone face shattered. Beyond the door, a narrow, hidden stairs went down in a different direction.

Conjuring a gusting barrier of wind that ran just over my skin, I gripped my daggers tightly and proceeded down the hidden stairway, circling around and around as it took me into the bedrock on which the Wall had been built. Below, I could only sense one mana signature alongside…something other.

Taking a deep breath, I jumped down the final stairs, preparing to face whoever was waiting below, but was brought up short with a gasp.

The guard chamber beyond the vault, itself locked and barred, both physically and magically, lay open. The room beyond was slick with blood and littered with the corpses of those who had been set here as a last line of defense.

“Durden?” I asked, my voice high and tight. My knuckles went white around the hilts of my daggers.

Durden looked up at me from where he sat in the blood. His face was smeared with scarlet, as was his arm and the prone form pulled roughly into his lap. It took a moment to see the features beneath all the blood, and I felt myself harden against the reality.

Wrenching my gaze up and away from the sight, I looked past the outer chamber to the vault door Senyir had crafted. It hung slightly ajar, and a silvery pink light was spilling out to reflect off the crimson pools. Stepping past Durden, who I could feel watching me—his heartbroken gaze attempted to find solace in my empathy, but I couldn’t afford to give it, not in that moment—I approached the vault door carefully, my blades ready, already imbued with cutting wind that spiraled around the blades.

“Arthur?” I asked, feeling foolish. I knew better than to hope. Still, I nudged open the vault door, which protested, its hinges twisted.

Inside was the same plain room I had watched Arthur step into a day earlier. Some kind of mana construct now glowed from atop the metal pedestal that Senyir had placed at the center of the room. The elongated orb filled the bowl that capped the pedestal, and itself seemed to be filled with a rich, purple energy that glowed out through the pure mana, giving the room its pink tinge.

Arthur wasn’t there. A cold realization spread from my guts outward, numbing me from the inside.

Turning my back on the beacon, I returned to the guard room, my boots splashing in the lifeblood of those who’d watched over this empty chamber.

Light, rushed steps on the stairs drew my attention past Durden once again, who was no longer looking to me for support. Helen practically jumped down the last flight, just as I had, and she too gasped at what she saw, though the noise she made was choked with an emotion I had been suppressing.

Now, though, I kneeled beside Durden and carefully wiped away the blood that shrouded Angela Rose’s features. Her eyes stared lifelessly, and it was that more than anything that broke through the hard shell I was trying to maintain. Those eyes, in life so bright and full of teasing amusement, now empty of their spark. With a shaking hand, I pulled down the lids, telling myself it would look like she was just sleeping, even though I knew it wasn’t true.

Durden opened his mouth to speak, but only a raw moan of pure, condensed lamentation bled from his lips.

“Arthur?” Helen asked, her voice strained as she took a faltering step forward.

I swallowed heavily, standing suddenly and striding away from the rest of the Twin Horns…both of them that remained. “Hopefully fine, wherever he is. Because he’s not here, and he never was.”

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