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The Beginning After The End Chapter 468

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Chapter 468


Chapter 466: Words Almost Said


SETH MILVIEW


The couple hours after the Wraith’s arrival and Agrona’s message seemed like a fever dream. Lauden Denoir, Sulla Drusus, and the others weren’t the last to succ.u.mb to our cursed runes, and there was just no way to come to terms with the person next to you spontaneously combusting in a cloud of their own destructive magic.


Just as there was no way to come to terms with the fact that I was being asked to pick up a weapon and take lives to save my own—the lives of people who Professor Grey had convinced to give us a chance.


We didn’t spring into action immediately. Our people had to be collected from across the borderland—the farthest of which was a journey of a few hours—Lady Seris was receiving our strategy and instruction from Perhata, and we were waiting for additional mages from Alacrya.


Lyra had handed me over to the quartermaster to help distribute equipment, and I was almost glad to be shuffled off to the large meeting hall, out of sight and out of mind, where I stood behind a crate of spears and handed them out one by one to all who approached. In the absence of a need for logical thought, my mind wandered desperately, almost vindictively.


When Circe went to war in Dicathen, she had little choice, but at least she had been a soldier going to war. She’d thought that she was fighting for her home and blood, and that by doing it well she could provide me a better life when our parents couldn’t. But this was different. I’d made friends with Dicathians and had seen the rot at the heart of Alacrya. It would be wrong to take the lives of others just to extend my own. Just because the High Sovereign held a guillotine over my neck…


I glanced at Lyra Dreide, who was overseeing things, encouraging those who hesitated, pus.h.i.+ng all to action. Lady Seris and Lyra had seen so much more of the High Sovereign’s cruelty than I ever would, and yet they both chose life. What did that say about them?


What does it say about me? I wondered, handing a spear to a young woman I recognized from Central Academy but whom I didn’t know personally. She nodded firmly and moved on to collect a s.h.i.+eld from Enola of Highblood Frost, who was standing grim-faced nearby.


Maybe…maybe it would be better to refuse, like the others. Go up quick, burn out like a candle flame. I felt my throat constrict as I considered it. Not so long ago, I might have welcomed death as an end to my sickness and suffering. Then Circe had succeeded where all other Sentries had failed in charting the elves’ magical forest, and we’d been elevated, and Mother and Father had gone away to establish themselves within Elenoir, and I’d been cured…and had met Professor Grey and Mayla and the rest of the students at the academy.


For the first time in my life, I felt like I truly had something to live for, and yet the cost was too high. How many lives would I have to trade for my own? I bit back a sudden dark, humorless chuckle. None, probably. I wasn’t a soldier. It was more than likely that I’d be cut down in the first minute of the fighting, and I’d die anyway.


That thought brought a sort of peaceful calm with it, easing the tortured ache behind my eyes. I shouldn’t die on his terms. If I have to end, shouldn’t I do so the right way?


I closed my eyes, unresponsive to the line of men and women still waiting for their weapons, and took a deep breath. High Sovereign. I hope you can hear me. If you can, listen very carefully. My name is Seth Milview. My sister was Circe. Silas was my father and Cerise my mother. They have all died for this war, for you, but I will not. I ref—


A commotion from outside interrupted my thoughts. The lines for weapons and armor were breaking apart as people tentatively made their way out into the sunlight, looking around. Enola cast me a dark look and then left her posting.


Curiosity waging a war against the unthought words still burning in the back of my mind, I followed more slowly, almost clinging to the walls, nervous to leave the shelter they provided from the chaotic swell of activity throughout the encampment.


Outside, in an open s.p.a.ce near one of the raised fields, several Instillers had set up a large rectangular frame out of some dark material. It was powered by metallic blue wiring connected to large mana crystals. A portal already s.h.i.+ned within the frame, and people were beginning to step out.


My heart sank.


I recognized some of them as members of the bloods that had accepted the High Sovereign’s invitation to abandon the rebellion and return to their normal lives, yet they supposedly offered to end the fighting in response to the dragons’ presence in Dicathen.


Those who arrived looked afraid and confused. They were armed much more effectively than our ragtag collection of weapons and armor, but they utterly failed to maintain any semblance of order. Seris, shadowed by the Wraith, Perhata, attempted to maintain at least a bit of organization, offering the force’s leaders quick instructions about where to go and how long it would be.


But I didn’t take in any of her words. My focus—my entire consciousness—honed in on a single point.


Even with her long brown hair hidden beneath a leather helm, Mayla was unmistakable. Her bright eyes, wet with tears and crinkled in worry, shone like beacons through the press of bodies that surrounded her. She clutched an oversized pike close against her chest, the sharp tip pointing straight up into the air, and she looked around her with obvious terror.


Breaking into a run, I pushed my way past other people, barely registering that they were just as out of place and uncomfortable as Mayla, trying to reach her. She was being pushed along with her battle group within a larger patrol of mostly young Alacryans, none of whom I recognized aside from her. I searched their faces for an older girl who looked like Mayla, but no one matched that description. Although it wasn’t much to be relieved about, at least it seemed as though her sister hadn’t been sent as well. As an unadorned, it was unlikely that Loreni would have survived even moments in battle with Dicathian mages.


“Mayla!” I shouted, waving one hand over my head. “Mayla, over here!”


She frowned, her neck twisting this way and that as she searched the milling soldiers for who was shouting. Through a gap between two huddled battle groups, her eyes met mine, and she broke down into sobs.


I burst through the others and had to reign myself in so I didn’t knock her down when I ran into her. Still, we came together like storm-tossed waves against seash.o.r.e cliffs, knocking a struggling breath from both of us. A breathless laugh wheezed through Mayla’s crying, and I choked on the many competing emotions tumbling through my own chest.


A heavily armored young man who was a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than me grabbed Mayla’s shoulder. “Back in line, Fairweather, we need—”


Despite his obvious physical advantage, I pierced him with a white-hot glare, and he jerked his hand away as if he’d been burned, regarded me uncertainly for a couple seconds, then shrugged and rejoined the rest of the battle group.


“Vritra, Seth, what’s going on?” Mayla asked after a few more long moments, her voice strained. “What are you doing here?”


“Didn’t they tell you where you were going?” I asked.


She shook her head weakly. “We’re in Dicathen, right? We…we were all rounded up and brought to Taegrin Caelum. I thought they were going to kill us! And they did…a few, anyway. When they said they wouldn’t fight. Because that’s why we’d been gathered together—to be armed and sent to fight in Dicathen.”


I was shaking my head in disbelief. “It’s worse than that, Mayla. The High Sovereign, he’s searching for Professor Grey. That’s what we’re doing: fighting our way across Dicathen to search for him. And if we refuse…” My eyes narrowed, a hot blade of anger cutting through the confusion of all those other emotions. “He’s turning the runes against us, Mayla. Burning us up with our own magic.”


She somehow paled even further, her eyes flaring. “That’s not…”


“It is,” I a.s.sured her desperately. “He can sense it in us, that hesitation and refusal. If you even think you aren’t going to follow him, he’ll scorch you from the inside out.”


I quickly explained everything that had happened, my will to refuse service waning. Mayla grew more shocked with every word and was left empty and drained by the time I’d finished. Unexpectedly, she suddenly brightened as some thought struck her. “But Professor Grey…Arthur Leywin. He can fight back against Agrona. If we do find him, we can—”


I shook my head frantically and squeezed her hand tight. “Don’t. Don’t even think about it. Whatever happens or doesn’t, just focus on fighting our way through to the professor. That’s it.”


She seemed hesitant. “But what if…” She swallowed, clearly not wanting to finish the sentence.


“We’ll take care of each other,” I said firmly, trying to believe it. Even if I had been ready to make that decision for myself, I couldn’t ask Mayla to do it too. Neither could I take the easy way out and leave her to fight and maybe die in this battle, alone. “We’ll form our own battle group and do what we’ve been told in our own way.” I was scrambling, searching for any path through this, but I was careful to control my thoughts. I wasn’t refusing service, and neither was Mayla. We are complying, I thought forcefully.


Holding her hand, I began pulling her away from the lines of Alacryans still filing through the portal, and I had another revelation. Seris and Lyra…they aren’t fighting back against these orders because…they can’t ask us all to sacrifice ourselves. That was it, that was the trap. Even those of us who wouldn’t fight to save our own lives would for our bloods…our families…the people we—my eyes jumped to Mayla and away again even more quickly—loved.


“Where are we going?” Mayla asked, stumbling along beside me.


“To find the rest of our battle group,” I explained firmly, searching the crowd for familiar faces. When I caught sight of who I’d most hoped to see, I waved. “Enola!”


Enola of Highblood Frost was easy to spot; her golden hair practically glowed in the sun. She was standing with some members of her blood, but thankfully her intimidating grandfather wasn’t present.  They all turned to look at me when I shouted her name, and I felt myself shrinking as my steps faltered.


Enola said something to the others, then broke away and marched swiftly toward us. I stopped, glad to be able to speak out of earshot of her blood.


“What is it, Seth? Shouldn’t you—Mayla!” Enola regarded the other girl skeptically. “Is it true, then? They’re forcing everyone a.s.sociated with Lady Seris to fight?”


Mayla filled Enola in on what she’d experienced, adding a few details that she’d omitted previously—like the pile of bodies that retainer Mawar used to make an example of anyone too frightened to comply with orders, or the fact that she was basically kidnapped from her own home by a couple of goons, leaving her mother and sister screaming after her. It wasn’t just those who had walked away from Seris’s rebellion in the Relictombs that came through the portal, however; their entire extended bloods—at least, those who were mages—were forced to fight as well, and many residents of Sehz-Clar who were only tangentially connected to the rebel forces had been caught up in this too.


“Vritra’s horns,” Enola cursed, her nostrils flaring. “All this for what? A wild woggart chase through Dicathen for the professor? I can’t believe that after everything, I still ended up fighting in the High Sovereign’s armies. Professor Grey, he said…” She trailed off and shook her head slightly. “Nevermind. So what is it you want from me?”


I cleared my throat and shuffled uncomfortably. “I…well, Mayla and I have no blood here. I haven’t received a battle group posting, and she is placed with strangers who don’t know her and whom she can’t trust with her life. We’ve trained together, and we all know what’s happening. If we stick together…”


Enola stare was intense and even a bit intimidating, but when I trailed off, she didn’t hesitate to answer. “My blood has formed battle groups of their own, but I wouldn’t see the two of you cast off. I’ll join you. Together, we can keep each other alive and proceed with this ‘mission’ in a way that will not stain our honor.”


I breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank you.”


Mayla practically fell forward and wrapped her arms around Enola, making the other girl look extremely uncomfortable. “Thanks,” she let out through a choked sob, then pulled away and cleared her throat, standing a little taller. “Thank you,” she said again more firmly.


“I’m a Striker, obviously, and Mayla, you’re a Sentry?” Enola asked. When Mayla answered affirmatively, Enola inspected me closely. “I can’t seem to recall talking to you about your runes or training, Seth. What role do you fill?”


I rubbed the back of my neck nervously. “I’m…flexible. It seems like we need a s.h.i.+eld most, but I can work as a Caster as well.”


Enola blinked. “What do you mean?”


Someone began shouting behind me, and I flinched instinctively. Irritated with myself for my skittishness, I forced myself to straighten. “My emblem is a bit more flexible than most, I guess.”


Enola’s light brows rose, but her eyes flicked past me, prompting me to turn and look.


“—simply unfair! A rotting branch is reason to prune it, not to rip up the entire tree by the root and cast it into the fire.” A young woman with brown skin and dark eyes was making a scene. Lyra was cutting through the crowd toward her.


I didn’t recognize the woman, but I did know two of the people who surrounded her, clearly her blood. Director Ramseyer attempted to speak to her, trying to a.s.sure her of something, but she was refusing to look at him. As startling as it was to see the director here of all places, though, seeing Valen standing several feet away, his arms crossed and back to his blood, a horrible scowl on his face, was even more so. But his eyes were red, and his dark skin wan and almost sickly looking, and I immediately felt a pang of worry for him.


Lyra raised her voice as well, pointing at the Ramseyer blood accusingly, when Valen noticed me watching him. He cast a disparaging glance over his shoulder and marched quickly away from the commotion, which had gathered quite a bit of attention.


“You were aligned with Lady Seris?” Enola said in disbelief bordering on disgust.


“Of course not!” Valen snapped with his usual superior air. “But my cousin, Augustine, failed to hold some city against Arthur Leywin, and my grandfather hired him and gave him significant support before his ident.i.ty was revealed, and that is apparently all it takes to d.a.m.n our entire blood. Sending an eighty-year-old man into war on a moment’s notice, can you imagine? The High Sovereign has lost his Vritra mind.”


“Well, you’re with us now,” Mayla said with a weak smile.


She reached out her hand to Valen, and the simple gesture was enough to crack his stone-carved exterior. He took her hand, outwardly relieved.


We filled Valen in on what we knew and had planned, and his face grew stony and distant again. “That makes sense. Looking at how disordered this rabble is, no one will think to counter us. Not the most battle-tested of groups, but if we stay close to the Ramseyer and Frost bloods, we’ll be well protected.”


“While ensuring we adhere to the letter of the High Sovereign’s commands!” Enola said quickly, her voice growing momentarily thin with nerves as her eyes cast about like she expected to find the High Sovereign hiding in the shadows watching us.


“Then we have our battle group,” I said with a firm nod.


Enola and Valen left to inform their bloods of their intentions while Mayla and I shuffled out of the bustle. An awkward silence fell between us, swallowed by the greater noise of the preparations. Mages continued to file through the portal for a few more minutes with varying degrees of disorientation and resistance.


My thoughts were a complicated muddle, and I could feel the same from Mayla. We held hands, but I found it difficult to look at her, dressed in her leather and chain armor, the runes on her back proudly displayed. Her jaw was rigid with tension, her eyes downcast.


We’d been so close to a different life, but I felt like I’d woken up from a dream all of a sudden, and the worst thing was that I couldn’t even trust my own mind not to betray me. I had to keep my thoughts ordered and marching in neat little rows, carefully skirting around any rebellious intentions.


I squeezed her hand. “We’re going to get through this.”


She tried to smile, but the expression didn’t reach her eyes. All she managed for a response was a weak nod.


Enola returned first, grim-faced but set on her path. Valen was there a minute later, his gaze distant and haunted. We didn’t speak, only watched as people much older and more frightened than us struggled to follow orders and organize into battle groups. At length, the Instillers deactivated the portal, appeared to work on changing the settings, and then reactivated it.


“How do they know where to send us?” Mayla asked.


I thought perhaps it was a rhetorical question, but I’d overheard the Wraith explaining to Seris earlier, and so I answered. “The dragons have apparently all been drawn to the place where our world connects to theirs. We’re being sent into a city called Vildorial. They’ve deactivated their long range teleportation gates and even most of their local gates, but apparently this new technology can search out and link to any active portal. All we need is for them to miss even one of the portals, and we can connect and infiltrate the city that way.”


“And have they?” Mayla said. “Missed one, I mean?”


Valen gestured to the freshly activated portal and the Instillers gathered around it with Seris, Lyra, Highlord Frost, Highlord Denoir, and a number of other ranking Alacryans, all under the watchful eye of Perhata. “Seems they must have. I doubt there was any question. I don’t know anything about this city, but it seems unlikely the High Sovereign would have left such a thing to chance. Not for an operation of this scale.”


Suddenly Lyra’s group was breaking up, and someone sounded a signal. Group leaders were shouting orders, battle groups fell into line, and my heart began to beat rapidly.


Enola, I noticed, was looking away from the portal. I followed the line of her gaze to a large group of children being monitored by a handful of unadorned—who couldn’t, lucky for them, be forced into this war by the threat of their runes, since they had none.


When I looked back, Lyra was marching straight toward us. I straightened nervously.


“You’ve found some people you can trust to have your back, that’s good,” she began without preamble. “Place yourselves near the middle of the line if you can. Avoid being on the front line, but being too near the rear could result in you meeting an already-engaged Vildorian defensive effort. Don’t be heroes, but…” She paused, rolling her words around in her mouth. “This thing we must do…there is no reason to make yourselves villains, either. Trust that there is more to all this than what you can see, and protect yourselves while being true to what you believe. The world has changed a lot in the last two years, for all of us. Don’t despair that this change will result in nothing but a reversion to the worst of us. Understand?”


A chill ran up my back. Although Lyra’s words were directed to all four of us, her eyes stayed on mine the entire time. I nodded weakly. “Of course, Lady Lyra. And…thank you, for everything.”


She smiled very slightly. “I’ll see you on the other side, Seth Milview. You and your friends.”


We found ourselves being herded toward a growing line of battle groups queued up to march through the portal. Although the gate on this end was wide enough for several people to walk through abreast, word went down the line that the receiving gate could only receive four at once, and so each battle group would step through together, one after another.


It seemed, somehow, to take both a very long time and feel like time was moving very quickly, like it was fading in and out around me as the first battle groups—those brought by some of the highbloods from Alacrya, actual organized mages with proper equipment and training—marched into the bright, opaque rectangle of the portal behind Lady Seris, her retainer Cylrit, and Lyra, who took the lead. Like a puncture through a dam, we began flowing into the little gap, disappearing four by four.


My imagination surged and stumbled, conjuring all kinds of scenarios about what was happening on the other side, and then suddenly we were standing directly in front of the portal. Anvald, a broad man with shaved head who’d once been the high mage of the Ascenders a.s.sociation, was waving us through the portal. The Wraith, Perhata, was glowering at us with unconcealed derision from Anvald’s side.


I glanced to my left, but Enola was staring straight ahead into the portal. To my right, Mayla was clutching her weapon so tightly that her knuckles had gone bone white. On her other side, Valen sucked his teeth and gave me a sharp nod.


As one, we marched into the opaque surface of the portal.


The ground was ripped away beneath my feet, and I felt myself hurtling across the continent. The sensation lasted only a second or two, then I stumbled out into a dark, dusty, and cramped s.p.a.ce beyond, nearly running into the back of a middle-aged Caster who had been in line ahead of me.


The chamber containing the receiving portal had partially collapsed in some kind of magical explosion, and the mages ahead of us were forced to crawl over the rubble. Enola wasted no time in following them, forcing the rest of us to hurry after her as she pushed the mage ahead of us with a hand on his back.


Spellfire crackled and boomed from beyond the collapsed hallway. It wasn’t a long tunnel, but the difficulty in navigating it had caused our forces to become congested there, slowing our progress to a crawl. Through the rubble and the occasional s.p.a.ce between bodies, I could see other Alacryans fighting beyond the opening, and beyond them a ma.s.sive underground cavern the likes of which I’d never even imagined.


“Seth, be ready with a s.h.i.+eld,” Enola ordered with a quick look over her shoulder. “Mayla, you stay back with Seth. Use your abilities as a Sentry to read the cavern. Search for the professor, you remember what his presence feels like. Valen—”


“I’ve been through all the same battle group formation training you have, Enola,” Valen snapped. He had sweat on his brows, and there was a tremor in his voice. “I know how to handle my own magic, thank you very much.”


I swallowed, thinking about the runes marking each of our lower backs. “Be careful with your thoughts, everyone.”


The tension, already thick enough to carve with a battle axe, increased more still.


As the mages ahead of us breached the tunnel’s mouth, they immediately joined in the fighting, flinging spells, conjuring weapons, and ducking behind s.h.i.+elds as they attempted to make room for those of us coming behind them. If the tunnel became blocked, our forces would be divided and quickly rendered powerless, waiting to perish one by one as we broke loose. And I had no idea what would happen to the portal if it had no place to put new arrivals…


The gruesome thought spurred me forward, and I channeled mana into my emblem. The magic activated easily, swelling outward through my channels and veins to wrap me in a comforting sheath of magic that emitted a faint blue light.


It had taken a long time and a lot of practice to get to this point, and even longer to realize the emblem offered more. I had only reached the first couple stages of its activation, but that was enough to understand that it was unusual. The officiant of the bestowment ceremony hadn’t acted as if anything was strange, but I had never felt like the emblem fit into the strict categories usually given to Alacryan runes.


Once the mana was clinging to my skin, I pushed it out, and it flowed forward to cac.o.o.n Enola. An instant later, she broke free of the rubble, and a stone bullet struck her in the side, shattering and sending a forceful ripple through the conjured s.h.i.+eld—and an ache like a punch into my core as the spell pulled at my mana stores to support itself.


Still, it was better, having something to focus on. I buried everything else, all the fear and horror of battle and layers of conflicting emotions, beneath the focus required to hold the spell.


“Move, move, move!” a wiry mage was shouting, waving us forward. “Break through the defenses and make your way into the city! Finding their Lance is your only priority, so go!”


We had come out onto a kind of highway that corkscrewed around the outer walls of the huge cavern. Dicathian forces, made up mostly of dwarves but peppered with humans and elves as well, were penning us in from the left and right, giving our newly arriving troops little room to maneuver and almost nowhere to go. The defenders were still struggling to get into position, though, and had obviously been caught wrongfooted by our sudden appearance.


Spells rained all around us, and I expanded the s.h.i.+eld out from Enola so that it wrapped around all four of us as we crossed the highway to stare out into the dwarven city.


It was amazing. I wished there had been a chance to come here before all this happened. The architecture was like nothing I’d ever seen before, st.u.r.dy and purposeful and yet still quite beautiful. I should have been studying these people, not trying to kill them.


A stray bolt of blue fire impacted the s.h.i.+eld, which was both weaker and harder to manage at this size, and it wavered dangerously.


“Seth, pay attention!” Enola snapped. She pointed down the bend of the highway. “There, that side street. If we can get past those groups of Dicathians, we could lose ourselves in the cover of the buildings clinging to the cavern’s edge.”


“And how exactly do you propose we do that?” Valen asked scathingly, looking pointedly up and down the road. “Our forces are stuck. This portal has brought us in far too high.”


As if in answer, someone on our side conjured an enormous boulder of deep blue ice, which began rolling down the curved highway, glancing off the cavern wall and crus.h.i.+ng the front porch of a home carved into the side as it built up speed, quickly approaching the line of defenders. Several spells broke or melted pockmarks into the ice, but many of the Dicathians, I realized as I watched, weren’t mages.


They arranged their s.h.i.+elds in such a way as to catch and corner the boulder. It slammed into them hard enough to send several sprawling, and at least one looked unlikely to rise again. Those behind s.h.i.+fted positions to drive the boulder into the wall, using friction to counter gravity’s effects on it. They were trying, I realized, to prevent it from continuing to roll or to go off the steep cliff-like edge of the road, which would have seen it plummet down onto the structures below.


Several battle groups were following in the boulder’s wake, however, giving the dwarves little time to wrangle the wayward projectile. “There, with them!” Enola shouted, sprinting forward. I had little choice but to follow, and Mayla and Valen were right there with us.


Our side plunged into their scattered line with spells and blades, widening the gap and forcing the defenders back. My stomach jumped up into my throat as I watched a dwarf driven over the edge by a plate armor-clad behemoth who appeared to have no compunction against killing.


I had to pull the s.h.i.+eld in closer to us, forcing our battle group to run in a tight knot. Red-hot metal bolts pinged against the s.h.i.+eld’s surface, and Enola was forced to deflect the blow of an axe that managed to sink through the protective barrier before I stabilized it. Her counter strike sent a dwarf reeling, and I looked away before she could deliver a killing blow, but she didn’t go in to finish the dwarf off, instead leading us deeper into their lines.


A thunderclap from my left, out in the open air above most of the city, sent a jolt of shock through my chest and limbs, making my heart thump painfully and my feet stumble. I nearly tripped and fell, which likely would have been the end of our push forward, but Valen grabbed me by the arm and kept me upright.


I just barely caught sight of Lady Seris and Cylrit flying in circles around a man in thick metal armor and holding a long red spear. His blond hair was flying wildly about him, and his eyes glowed the blue-white of a lightning strike. Electricity raced over his armor and flashed toward the highway behind us, directly at the knot of Alacryans holding the tunnel entrance.


Black mist boiled out of thin air and swallowed the lightning, unmaking the spell.


With little attention to spare, I still felt a primal shock deep in my core as I watched the three exchange spells and blows, unable to believe that this single knight was holding his own against a Scythe and retainer.


A punis.h.i.+ng vibration, visible in the air as jagged black lines, rolled like a tidal wave across the Dicathian forces. Protective s.h.i.+elds of stone and metal appeared to disrupt the effect, but they all shattered. The dwarves around us clapped their hands to their ears and fell to their knees, making way for us to sprint past unharried.


Enola continued to lead the way, pounding down the paving stones of the curving highway in search for cover. More Dicathians were still pouring in from all over the city, and if we didn’t find a way clear of the battle zone, we would be isolated and…


I tried not to think about that part of it. I’d been so busy worrying about having to kill anyone, I’d almost forgotten that it was a very real possibility I would die in this battle. The knowledge settled over me with the weight of my own funeral shroud, and I angrily wiped away scared tears.


“There!” Enola didn’t wait for us but jumped off the edge of the highway, fell several feet, and landed on the sloped, tiled roof of a dwarven house that was formed directly to the cavern wall beneath us.


Valen followed her without fear, tossing a bolt of crackling dark mana at a squad of approaching Dicathian soldiers as he flew through the air. I hesitated long enough to take Mayla’s hand, and we both jumped together, obsidian bullets colliding with my s.h.i.+eld in the moments before we slipped beneath the road’s rim.


I landed awkwardly, and my feet went out from under me so that I was plunging down the sloped roof like a child on a snowsled. Mayla’s hand slipped free of mine as she caught herself, but all I could see was the looming end to the roof before it plunged down three stories into a garden of jagged rocks.


My fingers scrambled to find purchase in the grooves of the tiles, but they only fumbled numbly. I felt my heart stop as open air yawned beneath me, the jagged rocks gleaming below.


I lurched to a stop, my plain brown leather armor choking me as someone held it by the back of the neck. Slowly, I was reeled back onto the roof’s edge. Looking around, I met Enola’s eyes. They were wide and red from the sweat pouring into them. “Thanks,” I wheezed.


“We won’t get far without our s.h.i.+eld,” she answered gruffly. But she didn’t let me go until she was confident I had my feet under me.


Above us, Valen and Mayla were carefully making their way down the slope. Above them, a dwarf peered down from the highway. His hands were swirling around in front of him, his lips moving swiftly beneath his beard in some kind of chant as orange light was condensedinto liquid magma in front of him.


“Go, go!” I shouted desperately, conjuring the s.h.i.+eld again—having let the spell fall while I did the same—and layering it over our heads.


Enola didn’t bother to verify what I was seeing before she jumped from the roof to a balcony several feet below. Valen was right behind her, Mayla a few steps after.


Blobs of bright orange lava splashed like thick rain on the s.h.i.+eld, my mana popping and hissing against the dwarf’s attack. Going down on one knee, I drew the s.h.i.+eld in tighter, thickening the barrier, then, hoping that I didn’t kill the man, I thrust upward. The s.h.i.+eld flung the lava away, spraying it against the cavern wall and up over the edge of the road.


The dwarf yelped and dove out of sight, and I turned and jumped down to the balcony with the others. Enola was already climbing down a pillar, with Valen waiting just behind, a jagged fistful of dark mana ready for anyone who attacked in the meantime. I sent my mana to Enola, protecting her while she was exposed and scanned the vicinity for enemies.


Through the gla.s.s-fronted balcony door of the home, I met the eyes of several dwarves all hunkered together on the floor near the far wall of a dwarven bedroom. My chest ached as I considered my orders: was attacking innocent civilians a part of my mandate?


I looked away, knowing deep down that I couldn’t do that, no matter the cost.


The ache in my chest moved along my spine and into my runes, and I felt the magic seething, just barely within my control, and the barrier rippled and came undone around Enola. Thankfully, she reached the ground without incident, but I was left gasping and shaking. Mayla was our Sentry—she could find Professor Grey, she could, I knew it, and I had to protect her—I was doing my duty, following orders—and the tension eased, the mana crackling under my skin soothing and returning to my control.


I conjured the barrier again, wrapping it around Mayla as she descended. Trembling, I followed, doing my best to keep the s.h.i.+elding mana in a place even as my mind went numb to the fear. Again, I leaned into the sensation of conjuring the spell, using it to force everything else beneath the surface.


“You all right?” Valen asked as he s.h.i.+mmied down after me.


Unable to speak, I only nodded before turning away and hiding my face.


Enola was scanning the narrow street. It was carved into the wall with surprisingly large houses lining either side. Yet more houses clung to the cavern wall below us.


“There!” a gruff voice said; two Dicathians had rounded the edge of the neighboring house, catching us standing open in the street.


Valen threw a spell as Enola put herself between us and them, urging Mayla to run in the other direction.


One of the Dicathians—an elf, by the look of her—was holding a strange two-handed blade. The metal was blackened and gleamed with dim orange veins, and there was a strange bulkiness to the guard and handle, which fit awkwardly within her hands. Even as I noticed it, it flared orange with a blistering heat I could feel from twenty feet away.


Elves can’t use fire-attribute mana.


The thought came up from nowhere, some factoid sealed away for later use during my study of Dicathen.


I was still wondering about it as the two Dicathian soldiers charged.


I stumbled back farther, keeping Mayla behind me and my focus on Enola in order to s.h.i.+eld her. Valen hurled his spells, but the elf moved with stunning quickness for someone without a mana signature, flowing like wind around the black bolts of mana. When the orange blade carved toward her hip, Enola dodged instinctively but didn’t bring her own blade to counter, instead aiming a quick counter blow at the elf’s arm.


A gasp burst from my lips as the sword carved through the mana I was conjuring, just barely missing Enola. Her own surprise sapped the strength from her swing, and her mana-imbued blade slid over the elf’s armor harmlessly.


But the sword was so hot it left Enola’s hip scorched black, and she immediately stumbled back, a hand pressed against the spot in horror.


The human man drove s.h.i.+eld-first against my mana the same instant that I forced it back together, sealing the wound left by the strange weapon. He spun, cras.h.i.+ng a hammer into it, aimed at Enola’s head, but the attack was deflected. A bolt of dark mana hit him in the chest an instant later, throwing him to the ground, the heavy metal armor over his torso blackened and torn.


It might have been a fatal strike if not for the Dicathians’ inherent ability to protect themselves with mana at all times.


The elf carved into my s.h.i.+eld again, this time attacking the spell directly and cleaving it open wide enough for her to leap through. She slashed at Enola, forcing her to stumble back, still wrong footed, then thrust forward toward Valen. Instead of trying to s.h.i.+eld him, I wrapped my mana around him and pulled him away from the blow, interrupting the casting of his next spell but getting him well out of reach of the fatal cut.


But the elf didn’t stop moving, lunging off her back foot and taking aim at my neck. My mana condensed around her arm, which stopped moving suddenly and with enough force to wrench her shoulder out of the socket.


I grew nauseous as she screamed in pain, the sword falling from her limp grip.


Enola’s blade sprouted from the elf’s chest. My mana slipped out of my control, releasing the woman’s arm, and she slumped to the ground, blood gurgling up from her mouth. I was frozen, unable to see anything except the woman I’d just helped kill.


How much of her family died in Elenoir with mine? I wondered, forgetting everything else.


A roar of battle fury ripped the curtain from my eyes just in time for me to watch the man’s hammer collide with the side of Enola’s helmet, snapping her head sideways and dropping her as if she was full of grain instead of muscle and bones.


Valen threw another spell, but it rebounded off the man’s rune-etched s.h.i.+eld, which hummed as it pulled mana from its wielder to support the enchantment. The man’s hammer flew through the air toward Valen just as I was conjuring my s.h.i.+eld again; I only barely deflected it away from him, but that forced it to strike Mayla in the s.h.i.+n, and she collapsed to one knee with an agonized moan.


I took a half-step toward her, distracted, and only saw from the corner of my eyes as the man dove for the dead elf’s burning weapon. Valen was falling back, hurling spells, but the Dicathian deflected one after another.


When he reached the blade, instead of continuing on, he fumbled with the hilt, and I felt a surge of magical energy from within it.


Acting on pure instinct, I wrapped him in a coc.o.o.n of mana, but he drove the blade through it, cutting his way free and issuing a wave of blistering heat that knocked me down and reddened my skin even through an additional layer of mana. He raised the blade with a trembling arm while fending off Valen’s spells with his large metal s.h.i.+eld, and I felt the power condensing inside of it like a building explosion.


A streak of silver arced through the air from our left and struck the sword, knocking it from the man’s grip and sending it flying. It stuck into the side of the house. There was a flash of heat and light, and I was suddenly lying face down on the ground ten feet from where I’d started. The Dicathian, Valen, and Mayla were similarly p.r.o.ne.


Soft-soled boots. .h.i.t the ground with a patter only barely audible over the ringing of my ears, and then a pair of legs appeared in my vision. I looked up into the gleaming point of a bright white mana arrow. Following the arm that drew the bow’s string, I found myself gazing in shock into a familiar face.


“Eleanor?”


She scowled, her eyes red within a face both fierce and full of rage. My only thought, empty of any real sense, was that the expression seemed so unlike the girl I’d met in the Relictombs.


“Don’t move, Seth. Don’t make me kill you.”

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The Beginning After The End Chapter 468 summary

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