The Beginning After The End

Chapter 321
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Chapter 321

ARTHUR LEYWIN

It felt like the ascent had taken us ages . So much had happened within the three zones that, when the sanctuary came into view on the other side of the portal, I couldn’t help but smile with relief .

Even though I would be going back out into the very continent that Agrona ruled, at this moment, anything was better than the snowy wasteland .

“We really did it,” Caera whispered with a trembling smile as we exchanged glances .

The two of us quickly gathered up our belongings . I was storing them in my dimension rune when a sharp tingle spread from my right arm .

‘What was that?’ Regis asked .

I stared at the intricate rune carved on the underside of my forearm . I’m not sure .

“Is everything okay?” Caera’s scarlet eyes were laced with concern as she stood by the portal .

“Yeah . ” Squeezing in the last of our scarce belongings, I headed back toward the portal to stand beside her .

I looked around one last time, realizing that I might never see Three Steps again . She was the only reason this ascent had been truly worth it . Her teachings and the improvements to God Step I had made with her guidance were worth more to me than every one of the Spear Beaks’ treasures combined .

Letting out a sigh, I turned back to the glowing portal . “Let’s get out of here . ”

Caera grabbed onto my sleeve as we stepped forward, even though we both had a simulet, just to make sure we wouldn’t be separated .

Our short step through the shimmering portal felt anticlimactic . The sparkling white interior of the small room greeted us with a warmth that was almost uncomfortable after days of weathering below freezing temperatures . There was a sterile smell to the space, as if it had been recently cleaned .

A round pool dominated the center of the room and a low white bed rested against one wall . Past the bed, there was a closed door that undoubtedly would lead deeper through the Relictombs . The main feature of the room, however, was the second portal that took up most of the wall to my left .

While distorted from the water-like movement of the portal window, I could make out the second level of the Relictombs on the other side, the very floor where Caera and I had begun, alongside the Granbehls .

There were an unusual number of moving figures gathered in the plaza beyond the portal, but my attention landed back on my right forearm, where my dimension rune was burning against my skin like hot iron .

The once-dead relic that I had acquired from the old man that taught at Stormcove Academy practically leapt from the dimension rune into my hand . Its cloudy white surface was glowing visibly and emitting probing filaments of aether .

‘What the shit?’ Regis blurted, summarizing my own reaction as well .

“Grey...something’s wrong,” Caera said, her voice sounding from the portal leading back outside .

But my eyes were glued to the glowing crystal in my hand . The violet tendrils were coiling around my arm, and I felt a pressure...an insistent tugging from the relic .

“Just a second,” I muttered absently as the feeling grew stronger .

Caera’s voice carried a rare edge of panic as she said, “No, really, Grey, I think those are the—”

Reaching out with my own aether, I probed the relic, causing the countless tendrils of violet energy to intertwine with my own . My vision blurred except for the crystal .

At that moment, a single question, in a voice that was strange and distant and hauntingly familiar, rose to the surface of my consciousness .

‘Who do you most desire to see?’

With a single thought that carried the emotions and memories I had held on to for years, my vision plunged downward into the crystal’s many smooth facets .

A wide expanse of velvet clouds rolled by in the sky beneath me . Even as the clouds drew closer, I felt no movement, no cool wind rushing across my skin or whistling in my ears . All I felt was a sense of vertigo at the suddenness of the transition .

The clouds rippled apart so that I was staring down at blue water marred only by the occasional white crest of a wave . The ocean gave way to a shoreline, but the ground went by so quickly I couldn’t tell where I was until all I could see was a forest from horizon to horizon .

Elenoir, I realized . Why am I seeing the elven homeland?

My vision seemed to zoom into the forest, magnifying it until I could make out a small village surrounded by a ring of clear-cut trees .

I didn’t even have time to question the clearing of the magical forest, something the elves would never allow, before my vision settled on a crowd of people in front of a large wooden building . From their dress, it was obvious that these were all Alacryans, except for a group of dirty, half-starved elves who had been pushed to the front of the crowd and were surrounded by guards .

My attention was forcefully drawn to three young student-soldiers . Two of the boys were whispering back and forth and nudging each other, but the third was facing the Alacryan nobles ahead .

It was only when that third boy looked up that I was able to see under his visor .

That’s when I realized he wasn’t a “he” at all .

It was Ellie .

A flurry of emotions stirred within me as I saw her serious, matured expression: confusion and fear as to why she was there, dressed like that, heartache from seeing her sunken cheeks and hollow gaze, and overwhelming relief just from knowing that she was still alive .

But what exactly was I seeing? When exactly was I seeing? Aside from the fact that it had reacted to the energy within the keystone, I had no idea what the relic was or what it did .

The timeline was definitely after I was defeated, that much was clear . Beyond that, I had no idea if what I was seeing was happening now, had happened already, or was going to happen in the future .

Ellie was gazing up at something, and I followed her attention to a small balcony . Elijah—or Nico—was standing next to Tess . The vision I was seeing refocused on Tess as I became captivated by how she looked...and by the runes that lined her fair skin .

What had happened to her? What was she doing there? Why was she standing next to Nico? And why was my sister dressed like an Alacryan soldier?

What the hell is happening in Dicathen?

Nico’s entire body went tense and he rose suddenly from the balcony, flying up into the air and out of sight of the vision . Only when Ellie turned to look was I able to redirect the relic-vision’s focus to the sky behind the village .

The air was warped, rippling like melting glass . Though I couldn’t hear anything, Ellie’s face scrunched into a wince and she covered her ears with her hands, telling me some kind of tremendous noise was resounding through the village .

The air shimmered, bulged out, and burst, leaving a black scar in the bright blue sky . A portal .

Through the portal floated two familiar figures .

The three-eyed asura, Lord Aldir, came first . Gleaming silver armor covered most of his body, and he wore a helm over his white hair that left a gap for the third eye .

Behind him was Windsom . The asura was entirely unchanged from when I had first met him . His short, platinum hair was carefully swept to the side, his deep-set eyes gazing nobly from under permanently furrowed brows .

Unlike Aldir, Windsom had not come dressed for battle, but instead wore a simple military-style uniform denoting him as a servant of the Indrath clan .

Nico flew upward toward the asuras, and I wished that I could hear what was happening as he exchanged words with Aldir . Nico sneered, but the asuras were expressionless as they responded .

Their words made Nico go even paler than usual, and he drifted back several feet from Aldir and Windsom .

It was only then that I realized Tess had flown up from the balcony as well . She hovered awkwardly next to Nico, apparently having difficulty maintaining the flight, but the unsure expression she’d worn earlier was gone, replaced by something steel-hard and impossibly self-assured .

The expression was very unlike my childhood friend, yet oddly familiar .

Windsom shook his head in response to whatever she’d said, then held out his hands, which suddenly gripped a long silver spear . Almost as quickly, Tess’s sword-staff was out, and Nico’s fists were gauntleted in black hellfire .

Fear curdled deep in my stomach . No!

The asuras of Epheotus couldn’t attack Agrona’s forces in Dicathen . The only reason either side had agreed to any sort of truce, even as ineffective as it had been, was because the alternative would be the destruction of this world .

Nico and Tess were no match for an asura like Windsom, much less two asuras together, but the fallout from the battle would almost certainly destroy the entire town, maybe even more .

And considering what I’d learned about Clan Indrath in the Relictombs, I doubted the asuras would be mindful of the lessers below .

How many elves would die if they fought now?

Would my sister survive?

Why were they there?

This direct intervention was against the terms Lord Indrath had established with Agrona . After their failed assault on the Vritra, the asuras of Epheotus weren’t even allowed to contact Dicathen’s defenders . Breaking that truce—ineffective as it had been—could mean all out war between the Vritra and the rest of the asuran clans .

If the asuras went to war against each other, the entire continent would be destroyed...

And all I could do was watch from the other side of the world .

I could feel my heart pound even in this disembodied state .

Windsom hardly moved, just a short, sudden cut of his spear, so fast the eye couldn’t follow . The shockwave carved a mile-long trench in the forest to either side of the village, sending up a cloud of dust that darkened the forest for as far as the eye could see .

A shimmering sphere of dark spikes surrounded Nico and Tess . Though the shield shattered and fell to pieces before dissolving, it had saved them from the attack, and not only them . Below, the village and clearing around it were untouched .

Ellie!

As I thought about her, my perspective shifted so I could see her again .

Ellie was frozen, rooted to the spot, just like the rest of the crowd . The full force of the asuras’ presence had been unleashed, and it was crushing them .

Run! Get out of here! I tried flailing my arms and yelling, anything to get my sister’s attention, but she couldn’t see or hear me .

My mind whirled with the options Ellie had available at hand . Even though I couldn’t do anything, she wasn’t without hope .

It was doubtful she’d be able to get far enough away to escape the battle even if she ran, but she might have one of the djinn’s medallions . Better yet, the phoenix wyrm pendant that I had given her might still be intact .

As fast as my mind searched for hope, doubt trickled in as well . Would Ellie even be able to use the medallion under the asura’s pressure? Even if she had the pendant, would it be enough to save her against the power of an asura?

Through gritted teeth and the sound of my own pounding heart, I forced myself to look back up at the battle .

Behind Windsom, Aldir had closed his eyes—except for the third eye, which never closed—and had his hands held out in front of him so they intertwined in a complicated gesture .

The very light bent around him as he coalesced power . I could see raw mana being channeled in through the ring he’d made with his fingers, up his arms, and into his third eye .

Nico responded to Windsom’s attack with a barrage of black spikes . They flew from his hands like javelins, each one unerring . I could hardly track the asura’s spear as he deflected one after another, his motions so fast and precise that he hardly seemed to move .

Tess darted forward and thrust with her sword-staff . Rather than using her beast will, the elf princess unleashed a barrage of mana strikes . Windsom’s spear twirled, deflected all of them before countering with a thrust of his own . His spear seemed to grow longer as it raced toward her, forcing her to drop suddenly out of the way . She seemed to have difficulty holding focus on the flying spell and nearly struck a tree before righting herself .

What was Tess doing? Why was she holding back like that? Why wasn’t she using her beast will?

Nico was screaming at the asuras, flying rapidly around Windsom to draw his attention away from Tess . A moment later, the asura vanished as a globe of hellfire engulfed him .

A nova of pure mana split the dome in two, and the hellfire faded away . Inside, Windsom was unhurt . I watched as the nova spread farther and farther across the sky, dispersing the low clouds of dust .

Black spikes appeared from the shower of hellfire sparks, each launching inward toward Windsom, and each batted away just as quickly . The asura’s steady gaze didn’t even flicker as he made another short diagonal cut .

Nico was thrown to the side as a dozen of the black spikes appeared to deflect the blow . In the distance, the shockwave leveled a section of the forest at least a mile wide and three miles long .

My attention turned fearfully back to the ground . The crowd of Alacryans and elves was still paralyzed, but Ellie was moving .

Her arm shook with effort as she slowly reached into her armor and pulled out one of the djinn medallions .

A wave of relief washed over me as she clenched the device in one pale hand, but instead of activating it immediately, my sister’s gaze crept across the crowd to rest on the small cluster of elven prisoners .

Fear and frustration replaced my excitement as I watched her turn and take a single painful step toward them .

Just get out of there, Ellie!

She took another sluggish step, then another, like she was walking under water . A few sets of eyes turned to her in surprise, but most couldn’t see anything except the battle above .

From the treeline just outside of the village, a beam of pure mana cut through the sky, aimed at Aldir . Windsom blocked the spell, deflecting it directly at Nico .

My old friend dipped under it as his entire body burst into hellfire . He shot forward like a burning arrow and two gouts of dark flame erupted from his hands . The fire dispersed against a translucent shield of mana, but gave Nico just enough time to ram bodily into Windsom . The hellfire jumped from Nico to the asura’s uniform and began to spread across the rich fabric, blackening it .

Windsom threw a seemingly casual strike, and although a huge metal spike appeared to block it, it wasn’t enough . The asura’s blow shattered the metal and glanced across Nico’s shoulder .

Nico was sent spinning wildly through the air before crashing headlong into the forest just outside of town with such force that he dug a quarter-mile long trench in the earth and leveled dozens of huge trees .

Aldir’s eye had grown brighter and brighter as he continued to do...whatever the hell he was preparing . I couldn’t imagine what kind of ability would require an asura of his strength to power up .

Why wasn’t he helping Windsom fight?

Below, Ellie had reached the elves . She grabbed the first one by the arm and turned him around, trying to stir him into motion, but the elves were far too weak in their current condition . Instead, she pushed her way into the middle of their group and held the medallion above her head . Her arm trembled with the effort .

The sky above her darkened .

Shifting my perspective, I watched with awe and dawning horror as Aldir began to expand .

As the asura grew, his third eye glowed even brighter until it shone like a golden sun from his forehead . Tendrils of golden mana writhed like holy flames from his silver armor as he continued to grow .

Where his feet approached the ground, the golden flames caused the trees to combust, burning them to ash in seconds . The fire quickly spread, racing around the perimeter of the village so that it was ringed by fire .

Ellie stood like a statue, her arm still raised, but her wide-eyed gaze and slack jaw were turned upward toward the impossibly large asura .

Tess and Nico rose up over the burning trees, supporting one another . The question of why she was fighting alongside Nico came to me once again, but at that moment, it didn’t matter .

It was obvious now what Aldir was about to do . This wasn’t a threat, or an assassination . He was sending Agrona a warning .

By destroying Elenoir .

The enormous, blazing golden eye in Aldir’s head swelled with pure energy, rippling the very space around him . The asura’s face, now a hundred times magnified, gazed blankly down at where Tessia and Nico hovered above the ground, clinging to each other .

Ellie’s fingers twitched and mana seeped out of them and into the medallion . The mana bubbled up from it, curving over the top of the elves and surrounding them in a thin, shining dome . But the dome was flickering, inconsistent .

She’s not putting enough mana into it, I realized in horror . She wasn’t able to, with Aldir’s pressure weighing down on the area .

My attention jumped from Ellie to Aldir to Tess and Nico, and caught Tess and Nico’s shared gaze, hers uncertain, concerned, and yet not afraid, while he was looking at her almost...tenderly .

Then they were gone, leaving nothing behind but the faint ripple of whatever magic they’d used to teleport away .

There was a sudden massive swell of power, and a wide golden beam was unleashed from Aldir’s eye . The air around it rippled and burned away, sending out a halo of visible heat and energy .

Where the beam hit the ground, the ground was pushed up and away by the force of it . Trees were knocked over, splintered, then obliterated . The town began to vanish, the houses crushed to kindling by the force .

I tried to focus on Ellie, but the last thing I saw of her was the half-formed dome dimming before the wall of concussive force carried the village away .

My perspective was shifting upward, pulling away from the village, and I watched as the blast expanded out from where the beam still blazed into the earth, a constantly growing ring of destruction that leveled everything it touched, wiping away Elenoir and leaving behind nothing but a cloud of dust that rose higher and higher toward the clouds .

And just before Aldir’s form disappeared from view, I saw his gaze turned...straight towards me .

A palpable chill ran down my transient form as his giant golden eyes bore into mine with frigid, deadly apathy . He knew I was watching .

Our gazes locked for what seemed like eternity even as my form was dragged back away from Elenoir and Dicathen . And even as I stood once more in the plain white room of the sanctuary, I could still feel the asura’s gaze on me .

Blinking the sweat that ran down my brows and into my eyes, I realized that Caera had one hand around my wrist and was trying to pull the relic out of my fist . She was shouting something, but I couldn’t make out the words .

I was nauseous and weak, and I couldn’t breathe .

“—ey! Grey, what is it! What’s wrong?” Caera’s eyes were wide, her voice full of panic .

I fell to my knees and the relic slipped from my hand, bouncing off the white-tiled floor .

‘Where the hell have you been?’ Regis sounded uncharacteristically worried, and I realized not all of the panic I felt was my own .

I tried to speak, but there was a cold lump in my throat that made me gag .

Elenoir was gone .

Ellie...

I fell forward . My forehead pressed against the cold tile as I hammered a fist into the floor, causing the ground to burst apart with a sharp crack . A deafening scream ripped out of my throat as tears blurred my vision .

Only one asura could have given the command to destroy Elenoir . Lord Indrath must have realized the pact of non-intervention had failed and feared the Alacryan’s expansion throughout the forest, and so he sent Agrona a message in the only language either of them understood .

My jaw clenched as I ground my teeth .

Clan Vritra or Clan Indrath...it didn’t matter, these asuras were all the same . They didn’t care for the peace and well-being of the lessers . If anything, they were even more violent and greedy, willing to kill indiscriminately to get what they wanted .

No, maybe not all of them .

The memory of Sylvia in her last moments, dying alone to protect her daughter, surfaced in my mind .

I thought of the white dragon, dying alone to protect her daughter . She had understood better than anyone what Indrath and Agrona really were .

Was that why she had entrusted her daughter to me? So Sylvie could be raised outside of Epheotus, away from her own people and their inherent cruelty?

My hand slid over the rune on my forearm where my bond was in her egg-bound form . Even after all Sylvia’s sacrifices, it still came to this .

And not just for my bond, but my father, Adam, Buhnd, and so many others .

The cold, shallow voice of my former self rang in my mind, reminding me that it was because of them that I had become so weak, so emotional .

“Having people to protect only serves to hinder you from making the optimal and most rational decisions,” Lady Vera had repeatedly stated . It was why I had walked out on everyone I cared about as Grey .

I shook my head . But it was those same people that I cared about in Dicathen that had driven me to make it this far . Rejecting Caera’s outstretched hand, I pushed myself up to my feet .

I wasn’t going to let them down . This was only the beginning of my journey now . With aether, I could rewrite reality itself, it was only a matter of learning how .

Then these gods would see what I was really capable of .

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