Read The Beginning After The End (TBATE) ❤️ From Chapter 1 - MEOW (2024)

Chapter 470: Caught

The Scythe, Melzri, drifted forward through the thick clouds of dust. The front wall of the Earthborn Institute was a ruin beneath her, the rubble strewn with prone dwarven warriors. Her stark white hair was pink with blood, and she supported one arm with the other even as she flew. She was entirely focused on me, her expression cold and businesslike. There was something so terrible about the simple math of her bloodlust that I had to look away.

Seth and Mayla were nearby, half trapped under a pile of broken stone tiles, a quivering bubble shield holding back the heavy chunks of crumbling wall. Seth grimaced in concentration, his eyes shut tight, sweat scoring little lines through the muddy dust caking his face. Mayla was tucked into the crook of his arm.

Boo growled furiously as he dragged himself free of the rubble. The Alacryan student, Valen, was in the hollow Boo’s body left behind. I couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead.

I didn’t see Caera, Claire, or Enola anywhere.

Rocks sliding beneath unsteady feet drew my gaze to the rear of the room. Mom was picking herself up off the ground, her own wide eyes tracking quickly across the chamber until she found me. She seemed to shrink as she let out a breath, then her focus shifted, and her face transformed with fright.

My head snapped back around. Melzri was flying just above me. Bivrae’s spiderish silhouette was visible behind her, lurking ominously in the dust-choked void.

There was a roar from Boo, and he threw himself at the Scythe, claws out and fangs bared. She vanished, only to reappear on the other side of me. She reached down to grab me, but instead of closing around the front of my leather armor, her pale fingers wrapped around a bright line of silver that appeared above me. We both regarded the manifestation with some confusion, then the silver line twisted violently, jerking out of her hand and sending her reeling back.

Boo stepped over me as Silverlight settled onto my chest, motionless once again. Mom scrambled to my side a moment later, healing magic already glowing around her hands. Bairon, leaning on the crimson spear, appeared in the corner of my eye.

My breathing eased as the scrapes and deep bruising of the explosion were washed away by Mom’s touch.

“It’s okay, Eleanor, we’re here,” Caera said from somewhere behind me as Hornfels moved aside the rocks crushing down on Seth and Mayla, freeing them.

Melzri let out a manic laugh, half-turning toward Bivrae, still mostly hidden in the cloud of dust. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Do you all really plan to die for this brat?”

No one moved. No one spoke. Pressure built and built in my chest until it threatened to push tears from my eyes as I considered the people around me. Using Silverlight like a cane, I pushed myself up. Mom tried to move in front of me, but I rested my free hand on her shoulder. She searched my eyes, an emotional alchemy of terror, acceptance, and desperation reflected in her own. It was a look that told me, quite clearly, that even though she knew she couldn’t protect us from this enemy, she would die trying, and she was at peace with that.

But I wasn’t.

Hey, you found me here, meow

With a gentle but firm pressure, I encouraged her to move aside and stepped forward. A low moan like a whine quivered from Boo, but he stayed where he was. My left hand balled into a tight fist around Silverlight, still in the shape of an unstrung bow; I had no idea where my other weapon had ended up. “Killing me won’t bring your sister back.”

Melzri regarded me as if I’d told her that two and two made green. “Bring her back?” She scoffed. “You misunderstand. I have no love for Viessa, nor she for me. Your death simply balances the scales. It is a duty, not some wrath-filled pursuit of a broken heart. I am Vritra-born, a Scythe, not some angry child storming across both continents seeking revenge.”

“I am Vritra-born as well,” Caera said, her voice strong even if her mana signature radiated weakly. “But there is no need to be a slave to the Vritra clan’s selfish wishes just because their black blood runs in my veins. Scythe Viessa died doing the High Sovereign’s bidding, did she not? Blame him for your misfortune, not—”

“Oh shut up,” the Scythe snapped. A muscle twitched in her jaw, making her look slightly crazed. “I’m tired, and I’m sick of this pointless fight. Either let the girl die, or die to prolong her life by mere moments. Either way, do so quickly and quietly because your whining exhausts me.”

A sudden chill swept through the chamber, like a dark cloud had just crossed over the sun. I felt an outpouring of power from the city behind Melzri, then a mass shifting of mana. As I instinctively focused more fully on my enhanced senses, I felt the distant army of mana signatures snuffing out like so many candles.

Mayla gasped, sinking to her knees. One of her spellforms was active, radiating mana. Her eyes were shut tight but moving rapidly behind the lids. “The battle, it’s—”

I’d felt people die before, but this was different. Someone had done something, figured something out…

“Tell her,” I urged Mayla, taking another step toward Melzri. I knew the Scythe could snap me in two before I’d even see her move, but she’d already fallen into the trap of talking instead of fighting. Seris and Cylrit were still out there, along with Lyra. And an entire army of beast core-powered Dicathian warriors. If I could just delay her long enough… “Tell her what you see, Mayla.”

“Clouds of black mist spilling from Lady Seris,” Mayla said at once, her voice raspy. “Like an army of locusts, burrowing into their skin and eating their mana.”

Mezlri’s expression darkened, and she turned away, looking out through the smashed entrance.

Only then did I notice that a different silhouette was standing where the retainer had been only a moment ago. A sharp-angled lump of a body lay in a heap at the newcomer’s feet, emitting no mana signature.

Melzri sneered. “Cylrit. Stabbing poor Bivrae in the back? How dishonorable of you.”

How do you find me I wonder, m eow

“I come with a message from Lady Seris,” Cylrit said, stepping forward. His black hair was windblown and messy from the battle, and his armor had several deep gashes in it. “She would like to speak to you herself, and asks that you wait until she has resolved her current task before you do anything that can’t be undone.”

Melzri blinked at him, her grip tightening around the two swords she carried. She spoke mechanically as she turned her back on him, saying, “I’ll do my duty.”

Cylrit flew forward, his sword a dark blur. Both of hers came up to deflect the blow, then Cylrit slid to a stop between her and us. “You need not wait long,” he said, his voice as level as if they were having this discussion across a desk, not at the point of each other’s blades.

“Scythe Melzri Vritra.”

Yet another person appeared, limping out through the obscuring clouds. Her pearl hair and white robes seemed to glow with some inner light, banishing the dust as she passed through it.

Melzri turned again, watching her approach with an inscrutable expression. “Seris, unnamed, fugitive and blood traitor,” she said, sucking her teeth in annoyance.

With her focus on Seris, I let my right hand inch toward where the string would appear if Silverlight had one.

“Stand down, Melzri,” Seris said warily.

“You don’t give orders here,” Melzri replied in the same tone. “I’ll have the blood I’m owed.”

My fingertips pinched the air, searching for a string I couldn’t see. Please, Silverlight. You chose me, so help me. I wouldn’t just stand there like frozen prey if Seris couldn’t talk Melzri down.

Pearl hair spilled over the bright white shoulder pads of Seris’s battlerobes as she shook her head. “If your heart beats so fiercely for blood, why didn’t you kill the Lance?”

“Because you have interrupted me!” Melzri barked, but something in the catch of her voice told me she wasn’t telling the truth.

Bairon stiffened, looking affronted. “Our battle wasn’t finished yet, Scythe.”

I'm here for you meo w

“You have not killed him because he is interesting to you,” Seris said in the same tone Mom used when I was young and she had to explain my own childish decisions to me. “You crave adventure and excitement. You yearn to be challenged. It’s a trait you haven’t been able to escape since even before your blood manifested. To kill him would be to cut the thread of fate on his potential.”

My fingers plucked at the air again, futilely searching for a string that didn’t exist, expecting and hoping that I could manifest it through sheer force of will alone.

“You know what your problem is, Seris?” Melzri asked, her back fully turned to us now, almost as if she’d forgotten we were there. “You think you know everything, all the time. Of all the Scythes, you’re actually the most like him.”

Seris nodded in acceptance. “Perhaps this is why I can see what you have not yet accepted: in a future where Agrona has dominated both this world and Epheotus, what role will Scythe Melzri Vritra play? What, in that future, would there be to excite you—if Agrona had a place for you at all.”

This time, Melzri was silent.

“But I can free you of Agrona’s hold over you and show you a different vision of the future. One in which you help me to kill a god, and in doing so, see a new age of the world born.”

“You—” Melzri cut herself off with a humorless bark of desperate laughter. “You claim to know me so well, and yet you expect me to turn my back on everything I’ve fought for my entire life? To abandon my purpose? I take back what I said, Seris. You are a fool.”

My fingers snagged something, and a string of glistening silver mana manifested beneath them. The bow’s body bent into shape, taking form. I imbued mana into it, forming an arrow, and pulled back.

The string wouldn’t budge.

“You strive for a purpose that is and has always been an illusion. Has this war not already proved it? At every step, some new power has been revealed that has made the battles before insignificant. We were made redundant by the Wraiths, who will in turn fall to the asura. If this continues to its natural conclusion, in the end, all that will remain is Agrona himself. And you will have spent your entire life fighting to ensure his future at the cost of your own.”

I couldn’t help the surprise I felt as Melzri appeared to actually listen to Seris, but I did not give up on my effort to draw the bowstring. No matter how I pulled, though, Silverlight refused to bend further.

“You can’t resist him,” Melzri said after a moment. “Even if you’re right, and our entire lives are made pointless by the war’s outcome, it doesn’t change anything. The result is the same regardless of which side you fight for.”

“The proof that it is possible to resist Agrona stands right there,” Seris said, indicating Caera. “Tell her how you’re still alive, Caera.”

please come again, me ow

“It was Eleanor and her mother, really,” Caera said, then continued on to haltingly explain some of what had happened.

Seris smiled victoriously, shedding some of her fatigue. “See? A regular teenage girl with only a single spellform broke the power of Agrona himself. These people here, Alacryan and Dicathian alike, have risked everything to stand against him and protect each other as best they can, even against the most terrible odds. Do not tell them the result of this war doesn’t matter, that their effort doesn’t matter.”

It grew so quiet that I could hear the distant shouted orders and mechanical whirring of the mana beast suits’ movement.

Melzri stared at Seris for a long time before her gaze swept across the rest of us, settling on me. I couldn’t read the look we shared, but after a tense moment, she scoffed and flew up into the air, speeding over Seris’s head and vanishing into the distance. Her mana signature receded until no sign of her was left.

Seris turned to watch her go, her expression blank. After a few seconds, she looked back at all of us, and it was like the breaking of a spell.

Mom wrapped me in a crushing embrace, all the tension of the last few minutes seeping from her, but she didn’t stay. After gently touching her forehead to mine, she hurried away, first to Valen, then to Enola, healing enough of their wounds to bring them back to consciousness.

Silverlight’s string vanished, and the body of the bow straightened again. Seris scrutinized it with a hint of sadness, then her focus moved to Caera. “I’m…glad that you discovered how to defeat the curse on your own, although I had hoped you would.”

“Well, yes. Thank you,” Caera said, her brows furrowing as she gave Seris a slight bow.

Seris’s observant eyes again flicked to me, then she moved on to regard the four Alacryan students. Enola struggled to her feet to stand stiffly before Seris, but Valen stayed sitting in the rubble, his eyes slightly unfocused. Seth and Mayla stood slightly apart from the others, holding hands so tightly that their knuckles were white.

“These others, though.” Seris approached them, suddenly businesslike. “You have done well to keep your thoughts in check, but I fear it is only a matter of time. For now…”

Black mist spilled out of her and pushed through them. Faint against the flood of her mana, I sensed theirs being pushed out of their bodies, almost in the inverse of what I could do with my spellform. As one, they each sagged, forced to the ground by the sudden backlash of their cores emptying.

“This will keep you safe until we discover a more permanent solution,” Seris explained. “Do not actively attempt to refill your cores. Your body will do so unconsciously, but if you expel your mana before it can build up, you will remain safe.”

Hey, you found me here, meow

To Bairon, she said, “You fought well today, Lance Wykes. I only regret it took me so long to convince you of the truth. Regardless, your Commander Eralith is above, arranging…accommodations…for all the Alacryans in the city. I believe he could use your assistance.” When Bairon hesitated, she added, “Retainer Bivrae is dead, and Melzri is no longer a threat to you. The fight may continue in other parts of your continent, but Vildorial is, for the moment, safe.”

“That remains to be seen,” he said, eyeing her distrustfully. Finally, though, he gave me a subtle nod, which caused a warm flare of pride in my chest, and flew off.

Finally, Seris approached me, causing Boo to shuffle closer, pressing his furry side against me so I could feel the expansion of his breath and the quick rhythm of his pulse. Mom, who was now helping to heal some of the dwarves that had survived the explosion of the front wall, paused what she was doing to watch.

“There is much of your brother in you, Eleanor.” Her eyes seemed to draw me deeper and deeper in, like bottomless dark pools. “It is good, that you are strong. This world may rely on Arthur’s strength, but he in turn relies on you and your mother.” Her lips curved up as her brows furrowed, and she gave me a wry look. “You are like the two anchors that keep his power bound. Without you, he would be untethered, and who knows then what might become of the rest of us.”

My mouth hung open, but I could not for the life of me think of a response to her unexpected words.

But Seris’s attention was already turning elsewhere. “Caera, with me. There is much to do, and I have need of you.”

Caera swallowed visibly. “My blood…and Arian. He was wounded badly. I was seeking a healer—”

“Come, take me to him,” Seris said with a sharp gesture. Then she was walked swiftly away, her battlerobes billowing behind her.

Caera, like Bairon, hesitated, but there seemed to be little choice other than do as the commanding Scythe ordered, and so she followed. I considered following as well; with the danger so suddenly disbursing, I couldn’t quite convince myself that the battle was really over, and I wanted to stay busy and remain helpful. When I looked at Mom healing the worst of the wounded dwarves, though, a compulsion to stay kept me where I was.

Hornfels, who was in charge of the Earthborn forces, arranged to have Seth, Mayla, Valen, and Enola taken up to where the rest of the Alacryans were being gathered into groups under the watchful gaze of an army of the mana beast machines. Valen and Enola, at least, had families up there, and were eager to find out what had happened to them, or at least as eager as they could be given their current state.

Before they left, though, Mayla approached me, each step sending a flicker of pain across her face, and wrapped her arms around me. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“I’ll come find you soon,” I said, growing emotional and then embarrassed. “Get some rest.”

As we watched them pick their way over the rubble behind a detachment of Earthborn soldiers, they passed Claire, who was standing over the prone mana beast machine, which now looked like little more than a tattered griffon corpse. She activated a handful of heavy bangles that ran up both arms and a sort of wide belt around her waist, and the machine began vanishing one part at a time.

How do you find me I wonder, m eow

“Dimension artifacts?” I asked, walking up to her as she finished.

She regarded me thoughtfully before saying, “Yes, though not simply that. They order the components in a specific way, allowing activation of the dimension artifacts to store and then automatically rebuild the exoform. The artifacts were specially designed for use by a non-mage. I can’t say I entirely understand the principles, but it works. As long as you activate everything in the appropriate sequence, that is.”

I stared at the machine, my mind spinning futilely as I tried to understand it. After a few seconds, I echoed, “Exoform?”

She tapped one of the bangles. “The suits. Anyway, I had to overclock mine and something burned out, so it won’t be of any use to anyone until it gets repaired. I should check in with the rest of the Beast Corp, then report back to Gideon.”

“Thank you,” I blurted out a little awkwardly as she started walking away.

She didn’t stop or even turn around, only raised one bangle-laden arm above her head in farewell as she said, “Glad to be able to help.”

I watched her leave, feeling a sense of wonder at everything that had just happened, but my mood immediately soured again when she had to walk around the corpses of Bolgermud and the other guards who had been stationed along the outer wall.

Their deaths were so senseless, I thought, unable to clear my head of the image of their sudden, unstoppable demise.

I turned back to the Earthborn Institute, but the motion conjured stars behind my eyes, and I suddenly felt dizzy. I took a step, missed my footing, and went painfully down on one knee. Slowly, like a tree just starting to fall, I tipped over onto my side and lay on the broken courtyard tiles.

So much had happened so quickly, and I’d pushed myself so hard, that I could feel my mind and body both succumbing to the strain. It was almost like I was watching it happen from above, seeing myself lying there, each breath coming in a labored gasp, my eyes vacant…but I didn’t panic. I didn’t really feel or think anything at all, just let myself go blank.

Then someone was forcing something down my throat, and I sat up, choking as a jolt of mana sparked inside of me. A dwarven medic kneeled over me, an empty elixir container in his fist as he spoke soft, consoling words. Boo was next to him, one eye on me, the other distrustfully on the medic.

“I’m fine,” I insisted, blinking away the moment of emptiness and refocusing on what was happening around me. “Please help the others.”

I'm here for you meo w

Many more people had appeared, coming up from within the Earthborn Institute. Mom was healing the last few injured dwarves, and she didn’t seem to have noticed my collapse yet, which I was thankful for. Others—doctors, herbalists, and non-emitter healers—were now bustling around dealing with the wounds that weren’t as life threatening.

I stood despite the medic’s protests, shaking away the last of the cobwebs. Although I was tired and sore, and my core ached from using so much mana—even more than would usually be possible for me through use of the stored mana orbs—the elixir had reinvigorated me.

I gestured for Boo’s help, and we began assisting the Earthborns as best we could. The dwarves were efficient, and the Earthborn Institute was of course full of some of the best minds in the city, so although Bolgermud’s group was a total loss, surprisingly few of Hornfels’ soldiers died during the attack, and the earth-attribute mages rebuilt the wall within the hour.

“I need to rest and gather mana, then I’ll head out into the city to see what else I can do to help,” Mom said tiredly after we’d been dismissed with many thanks by Carnelian Earthborn himself, lord of the Earthborn clan.

I bit my lip, unsure whether to voice the thought that had been growing in my mind as we’d helped with the clean-up effort. The words built and built, though, until they burst out in a rush. “Mom I’m really worried about Arthur and I think we should—” I cut myself off almost as suddenly as I’d started, looking around nervously.

Mom eyed me with concern. “Let’s speak at home.”

I nodded, relieved that she understood, and we wound our way down into the tunnels of the residential area. After Mom let us in and Boo threw himself down in front of the extinguished fireplace, I continued. “I think we should check on Arthur. With the stone thing…the creeper’s stone.”

Mom’s brows flared dramatically, and she glanced around as if searching for anyone who might overhear us even there. “Ellie, your brother went to great lengths to hide himself even from us.” As she said this, she couldn’t help but let a hint of regret-laced bitterness seep out. I knew exactly how she felt. “We would be betraying his trust to search him out, and we don’t know if that would even work, anyway…”

From her tone, I realized immediately that Mom wasn’t trying to convince me; she was trying to convince herself. I had been about to sit down, but I stopped halfway, straightened, and began pacing the small space. “Mom, there was just no way Art could have foreseen everything that is being thrown at us now. The dragons disappearing? Turning Seris and all the other Alacryans back against us? Wherever he is, he didn’t give anyone else—us—the chance to guard or protect him. I just want to make sure he’s okay.”

Mom bit the inside of her cheek, her emotional struggle visible on her face.

On the one hand, she was right: Arthur clearly didn’t want us—or anyone else—to find him. But on the other hand, he wasn’t perfect, and he could make mistakes just like anyone else. Since he’d gotten his new godrune, I’d seen him pulled farther and farther away from everyone around him, even me and Mom. When he used it, it was like he became a slave to logical calculation. I couldn’t help the feeling that, maybe, he needed protection from himself as much as Agrona.

When Mom let out the breath she’d been holding in a rush, I knew she’d given in, as much to her own impulses as mine.

“Come on,” she said, speaking quietly. She hurried from the room and down the short hall that led to her bedroom.

please come again, me ow

My pulse quickened as sparks shot through my nerves. I double-checked that we’d locked the door when we’d come inside, then gestured for Boo to remain in the living room before following Mom.

By the time I reached her room, she’d already dug the dull, many-faceted stone out of its hiding place. She was sitting on the foot of her bed, cupping the relic in both hands. She didn’t look at me as I sat down beside her. I didn’t offer her any pressure or comfort. I didn’t say anything at all. As an emitter, only her healing magic would conjure the spark of aether needed to activate the relic. But I could tell she wanted to check on Arthur just as much as I did, and so I didn’t press her.

After a minute or more of tense silence, she took a deep breath and channeled her mana. It moved across the stone’s surface without any obvious interaction; the mana simply passed it by, with none being imbued into the relic. Regardless, the stone activated with an intangible sensation that couldn’t be simplified down to just something I was seeing or hearing, or even feeling with my core. It was more like the magic of it brushed up against every particle of my being.

Mom’s eyes went glassy, and I could tell she was somewhere else. “Show me,” I said, more pleading than I’d meant to sound.

She released the relic with her right hand and clasped mine. I felt her magic as something weird and ephemeral and distinctly other as it pulled me. My instinct was to resist, but I forced myself to relax. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself being pulled away from the room, rushing after a mote of power that I knew was Mom. We flew up through the cavern ceiling and then the desert above, and rushed across Darv in a blink.

My already rapidly beating heart only hammered faster and harder as we traced the path to our destination, ending in a small, roughly constructed chamber containing a pool of glowing liquid and little else. Sitting cross-legged in the pool, Arthur and Sylvie meditated side by side with the keystone hovering in front of them.

Neither moved, giving no indication of what they were experiencing. I knew their minds must have been inside the keystone. Trapped, at least until it is solved, I thought with a sense of foreboding. But they were unharmed; no one had found them. I let out a relieved breath and distantly felt Mom squeeze my hand. I wasn’t sure how long we stayed, but it wasn’t long. When Mom began pulling away and withdrawing from the relic, I was pulled along in her wake.

My eyes blinked open.

Windsom stood in the doorway, his inhuman eyes fixed on the stone.

Mom gave a yelp of surprise and tried to hide the relic behind her back.

“Forgive me,” the asura said, offering a very slight bow. “For both startling you and for my tardiness. Events conspired to keep me from immediately fulfilling Arthur’s request, but I am here to take you to Epheotus as promised.

Mom and I exchanged glances. “Of course,” Mom said, her voice a little higher than usual. “We’re all packed. Just let me—”

Hey, you found me here, meow

“Bring the djinn relic,” Windsom said, now commanding. Mom froze. “Aldir told me of his experience of being watched while cleansing Elenoir. I suspect this is how it was done, correct? It may prove useful, especially if you are able to see Arthur with it.”

I felt my breath catch. How does he know?

Mom hesitated. “I’m afraid I’m not comfortable with—”

“We are allies,” Windsom interrupted, his tone hardening. He took a step forward and held out his hand. “I shall hold onto it for you. Then you can gather your belongings and we will go. The path to Epheotus is difficult to navigate at this time, but still manageable for me, if few others. We need to get through before anything else changes.”

Mom still didn’t hand the relic over, and Windsom’s expression darkened ever so slightly.

I held out my own hand to her. Her chestnut eyes narrowed as she looked down at it, expression tightly guarded. After a short pause, she set the relic in my palm.

Windsom gave his hand an impatient shake.

I felt for the reservoir of magic inside the relic. I couldn’t sense aether, but I felt the way it moved against the mana. Not daring to gather my mana before acting, I let out a surge of pure mana into the heart of the relic, as sudden and forceful as I could manage.

It cracked, splintering through the many facets.

Slowly, I dragged my gaze away from the broken chunk of rock to Windsom, whose only reaction was a tightening of his jaw.

“Unwise, young Eleanor. Lord Indrath will not appreciate this outward sign of your distrust, not when he is risking so much to keep you safe.” Windsom shook his head, oozing disappointment. “Nevertheless, my role here is clear. Come. Epheotus awaits.”

I stood, cleared my throat, and tossed the stone under the bed. Windsom watched it roll but made no move to pick it up, instead turning on his heel and marching promptly away.

My hands shook as Mom laced her fingers through mine. I could only hope I’d done the right thing. Mom squeezed my hand again supportively and nodded.

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Read The Beginning After The End (TBATE) ❤️ From Chapter 1 - MEOW (2024)


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