Read The Beginning After The End (Web Novel) - Chapter 473 - NovelBuddy (2024)

Chapter 473

Chapter 471: Falling into Place

CECILIA

Everything was falling into place.

With shield generators keeping the dragons at bay, the Instillers were able to work freely and establish a ring of disrupting artifacts that worked to distort and interrupt the rift between Epheotus and Dicathen. While the shield generators protected us from the dragons in Dicathen, these disruption artifacts prevented Indrath from sending support from Epheotus, effectively cutting the two worlds off from one another.

The dense ambient mana of the rift itself powered both arrays. If Indrath were somehow able to stop the flow of mana, we had enough power in batteries to implement the next stage of the plan. And if that fails, the Wraiths themselves become the source of mana.

Instinctively, I waited for the judgemental evaluation of my thoughts from Tessia, who hovered near the surface of my consciousness.

‘You’ve already considered your justifications for why such a cruel act is necessary,’ Tessia said in answer to the spotlight of my attention. ‘All I’ll say is that you’ve come a long way, Cecilia, if you’re feeling guilt for your cruelty to these soldiers, since before now, you’ve only ever looked at them as tools.’

I bristled, but knew there was no point in arguing against the feeling of guilt worming its way through my guts. Not when the person I was arguing with was already in my head. It may be unpleasant, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary. Besides, it’s Agrona’s plan, and they’re his soldiers to do with as he wills.

I sighed even as the words formed in my head, knowing how it sounded. Regardless, I don’t need your affirmation.

‘And yet recently, you’ve been poking around inside my mind to see what I think more often.’

Your insight into these events is valuable, I admitted while forcefully pushing down the more honest, but also more embarrassing, reason for my behavior.

‘I’m glad you recognize this fact.’ Tessia’s voice, projected into my head, was even and without sarcasm.

Shaking off the brief but frustrating conversation, I returned my attention to my immediate surroundings.

The dragons continued their bombardment of the outer shield for another hour but stopped with the arrival of their leader. I recognized Charon of the Indrath clan by description: a big, bone-white, battle-scarred lizard with purple eyes and tattered wings. He spent some time conferring with the other dragons present, of which there were now many.

It’s almost like they’ve brought every dragon in Dicathen, I mused.

Eventually, Charon approached the barrier, flying in his dragon form. His wings beat slowly, and his voice issued from him as a bone-deep rumble. “The Legacy, chief hope of a mad basilisk, who has herself been convinced she is a god.”

I regarded him coolly but didn’t rise to his bait.

“Straight to the point then,” he rumbled. “What does Agrona want? He has captured the rift to Epheotus, but he cannot use it, nor can you hope to keep it, which means this is a bargaining tactic. Tell me your master’s offer, and I will confer with Lord Indrath.”

I raised one brow. “Don’t lie to me, dragon. Travel between worlds requires this rift to be accessible, even with your teleportation artifacts. You are cut off. The High Sovereign has no message for you, no request. You are irrelevant in this and all things.” From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the Instillers on the ground reviewing a message, his eyes darting to me every couple of lines. “Feel free to exhaust yourselves against the shields, if you must. Or don’t. The noise is as irritating as your efforts are futile.”

Turning my back on Charon Indrath, I flew toward the ground, feeling good about the brief exchange. It gained me nothing to have won the verbal spar, but I was already beginning to chafe at my role as stationary guardian of the impenetrable shield, and releasing some of that frustration as barbed words made me feel a little better.

“What is it?” I asked as my feet touched the ground.

The Instiller, who had watched me approach from the corner of his eye, swallowed visibly. “A dispatch from Scythe Nico.” He held out the magical scroll, which displayed the words written on a matched scroll in Nico’s possession.

I read through it once rapidly, then forced myself to go over it again, slower. “An emanation…powerful mana, sustained somehow, wrapped around a pocket of amethyst magic that can only be aether.” I felt myself frowning, struggling to comprehend everything that Nico had attempted to explain in the short message.

Grey hadn’t been at the Wall. As expected, he had carefully hidden his real location, even from his own people. The emanation of aether was interesting, though. The mana signature I sensed before the battle…

It was camouflage. A false signal that mimicked the presence of his bond and the distortion caused by aether could only be intended to disguise his real location, of course. And I was the only person on Dicathen that might be able to sense it. Unless he hides from his own dragon allies as well…

The dispatch then went on to detail the efforts in Vildorial and the Dicathians’ new weapon that had been revealed. A fusion of organic mana beast parts along with magical and mechanical components? I couldn’t picture what Nico described, but I felt certain that even Agrona hadn’t accounted for such a thing.

The ex-Scythe, Seris, had discovered a way to end the fighting in Vildorial and keep her people safe from the curse Agrona had hidden in their blood and their runes, but Nico expressed a strong sense of confidence that Arthur had not hidden himself in the city. Additionally, the ulterior objective—to capture the sister or mother—had failed, and Scythe Melzri had gone missing.

As I read through it all for a second time, my focus returned to the part about the aetheric emanation at the Wall.

Biting the inside of my lip, I wracked my brain for what else it could mean, but I could think of no other way to read it than my first impulse: Grey was calling me out directly. This conjuration was meant to blind me to his real location, and he intended me to know and understand that fact as well.

I found myself wishing Nico were here instead of just his note. I considered sending him a reply and waiting for a response, but I didn’t want to give him the impression that I couldn’t think for myself.

Besides, I already knew exactly what my mission parameters were. The real question was whether or not I would continue to blindly follow them. After all, the rift is sealed. I am wasted here.

There was little room to get away from anyone within the shielded area. The Wraiths flew in a perimeter, staring out at the dragons, just as pent up as I was, while the dozens of Instillers ensured the equipment continued to function perfectly. But I moved to a secluded corner and sank to the ground between two of the shield generators. Closing my eyes, I let my focus expand out into my surroundings.

The balanced flow of mana in and out of the rift no longer existed, leaving the atmosphere around the shield thick with it, though it was dimmed by the blinding presence of so many asuran mana signatures. But like before, I continued expanding my reach farther and farther, until my senses reached the Wall. There, I again felt the hint of his bond’s mana, as well as that telltale distortion that gave away a powerful source of aether.

But I didn’t stop there. Instead, I continued pushing, reaching, sensing even beyond the Grand Mountains and across the Elenoir Wasteland to the north.

As if I were Zeus looking down from the top of Mount Olympus, I saw the tide of mana as it moved in waves across the entire continent spread out before me. Breathless at its beauty, I eased my mind into that ocean, letting my focus be pushed and pulled not by my purpose but by the mana itself. I thought I already understood mana, better than anyone else in this world, but I’d never experienced it like this. I had no words to describe the wonder of the phenomena.

Do you still see this world as…fake?’ Tessia thought, her voice like a stone in the calm ocean. ‘Some kind of limbo that will cease to exist once you’ve returned to your old world?’

What?

‘This gift you have…you may be the only one in all the world who can see this.’ She was quiet, musing, then continued. ‘I look down on this and feel my heart break, knowing the turmoil and suffering happening beneath these vistas. It just made me wonder if the sight affected you…but what kind of impact can this have on someone who doesn’t believe in the reality around them, and more importantly of their effect on that reality?’

I didn’t answer, because the truth was I had no answer. I had used the thought of this life as a kind of temporary purgatory to soothe my own guilt at what I’d been asked to do, but I was not a child who had convinced herself that this world wasn’t real.

The thought brought me out of my reverie and firmly back to my purpose. I was no longer floating on the tide of the ever-moving surface of that ocean of mana, but instead I was fighting against it, pressing outward, expanding to cover more and more of the continent with my senses. The feeling of peace faded, and I was once again aware of the dragons massing around the shield, my tense soldiers and scientists filling the small space, and the dispatch from Nico in my hands.

As my untethered mind reached across Sapin, Darv, and Elenoir, I felt those places where the mana was distorted by aether brush against the surface of my senses. In each place, there was a strong presence of aether mingled with the mana signature of Gray’s dragon bond. Based on what Nico had said, each one was likely a conjuration, a shell of mana housing a core of densely packed aether.

The closest was the Wall, and after that an isolated place deep in the Elenoir Wastes. This, by comparison, was a tiny blip barely sensible against the gray emptiness due to the lack of atmospheric mana. The outskirts of the wasteland were like storms where new mana rushed into the void, but the interior of Elenoir was still nearly empty of it.

The third signal to appear was in central Darv, where I thought the Dicathian rebels’ refuge must have been, which was discovered after Arthur’s escape from the Victoriad. It was stronger and brighter than the Wall. Not by a significant margin, but the difference was clear.

Others became visible as well, near the city of Etistin and on an island off the south-eastern coast of the Beast Glades, and then more still as my consciousness expanded to contain the entire continent.

But most of these matched the Wall in intensity, and I quickly wrote them off as decoys. We already had troops moving in those areas, which aligned perfectly with where we’d seen increased military activity, and they would verify whether or not Grey was really in each location without help from me.

The signatures in the Wastes and in Darv, though, were different. One nearly hidden, the other burning brighter and stronger than all the others. Neither had been a focal point of Dicathian troop buildup or fortification, like the Wall had been. Both were far enough from civilization to avoid collateral damage if the locations were attacked.

And both, I knew from Tessia’s shared memories, were important to him.

The emanation I could sense from Elenoir was very close to where the capital city of Zestier used to be. He had lived there—with Tessia—for much of his childhood. And the buried village beneath Darv was where he went when the Dicathians lost the war, where he was reunited with his mother and sister after Agrona very nearly captured them.

Either Grey is trying to hide where he thought I wouldn’t be able to sense him—in Elenoir, where there is little mana to give him away—or he failed to perfectly replicate his own aetheric signature, which causes a stronger disruption in the mana than these false beacons he has created. Either way, he has made a mistake. But which direction does that mistake lean?’

I struggled to bring to mind everything I knew about Grey from our world and combine it with what I’d learned of him in his life as Arthur Leywin.

The ancient mages’ village makes sense, if Arthur was confident in his ability to disguise his real position, my thoughts continued. To provide so many false positives only to hide where his real signature couldn’t be sensed at all within Elenoir would truly be the act of a coward.

‘Arthur isn’t a coward,’ Tessia thought matter-of-factly.

And yet, either way, he hides while his allies fight and die to conceal his location, I answered.

Tessia soberly considered my words and didn’t respond right away.

I agree with you, I thought to Tessia, making up my mind. He isn’t a coward. But he is overconfident in his own abilities.

The moment I decided on a course of action, I was presented with another problem.

Standing, I left the meager cover of the shielding artifacts and inspected the smooth shield that wrapped around our location, extending high into the air to contain the rift. A secondary ring of artifacts projected distorting mana directly into the rift, preventing anyone from coming through from the other side.

But I was kept within the shield just as effectively as the horde of dragons were kept out. I could penetrate the barrier, of course, but doing so would expose me to Charon’s army, and would even momentarily open up the equipment inside to their attacks. That wasn’t acceptable. I ignored the fact that Agrona would definitely find my abandoning my post to be equally unacceptable; if I brought him Grey, however, I knew that he would forgive me.

I flagged down Lorcan, the Wraith assigned to support me and deliver my orders down to all the others. Scarred and pale with jagged, unnaturally shaped horns, Lorcan had an unpleasant look to him, but he was a real soldier. He lacked the self-importance of so many of the other Wraiths and pursued Agrona’s goals feverishly and without question. “Legacy?” he asked, his ruby eyes empty of anything except expectation.

“The situation has changed, and I am needed out in the field,” I explained perfunctorily. “I’m leaving you in command of the rift. Keep the Instillers on task and the shielding arrays functional, and I have no doubt everything will continue to unfold as predicted.”

If Lorcan was surprised, he gave no indication. “Of course, Legacy. At the High Sovereign’s will.”

I nodded in dismissal, and he returned to the air to go notify the leaders of each Wraith battle group.

Returning to the relative solitude between two of the shield artifacts, I sat down cross-legged and waited. It had been maybe thirty minutes since Charon had arrived and the occasional attacks against the shield ceased. I didn’t think they would wait much longer before attempting an assault with their leader present.

While I waited, I extended my senses out through the ground, feeling for where the shield emanated and closed off beneath us, as well as where the soil was softest. If I were to leave, I needed to do so unnoticed if I planned to search for Grey without being hounded by the dragons.

Five more minutes passed in relative silence, then all at once, the atmosphere outside of the shield transformed into a storm of mana, the air going white as if we were caught in the heart of a lightning bolt. The hair on my arms lifted at the charge in the air, and my skin was prickled with gooseflesh. The ground and sky alike split open as dozens of asuran spells crashed against the shield.

I took hold of the earth-attribute mana, and the soil flowed like water, allowing me to sink down into it. At the same time, I clenched tightly onto my mana, preventing even the tiniest leak that might be sensible as a moving mana signature. To more completely camouflage myself, I smoothed over any movement in the atmospheric mana that might provide some hint of my whereabouts to the sensitive dragons.

The noise of the battle changed from the sharp crack of thunder to the deep rumble of an avalanche. Earth-attribute mana projected me forward through the ground itself, which folded out of the way before filling back in behind me as if I were swimming through the hard-packed dirt.

The tangible force that made up the barrier loomed in front of me. Reaching into it, I took hold of a thread of that mana and pulled. Like the seam in stitched fabric, it came undone, and I passed through. I waited on the other side for a few moments until the barrier healed itself, powered by the constant pressure of the array of artifacts above, then continued.

Even with my nearly perfect control of mana, it was still more difficult and slower to part the earth and the network of roots woven through it than to fly through air. But since the dragons could range so far so quickly, and more were still trickling in from across the continent, I wanted to ensure I wouldn’t be detected, and so I flowed along deep under the ground for a long time. Dungeons and caves dotted the landscape of the Beast Glades, but I maneuvered around them rather than slow my progress further by going through.

‘If Arthur is really unable to defend himself, then he has no choice but to hide. And his friends—all the people who love him—defend him willingly,’ Tessia said out of the blue.

It took me a moment to connect her thoughts to our previous conversation. And do you? Really love him, I mean. I didn’t think I needed to ask, since our minds were connected, but Tessia’s emotions around Grey were complex and difficult to parse even when she wasn’t trying to disconnect me from them.

‘I have since I was just a little girl,’ she said after a very long pause. ‘He was my first love, I think.’

But now you know what he is. Who he is. That he lied to you the entire time you’ve known him. With all that baggage, can you still really love him?

‘I don’t think Arthur ever pretended to be anyone except who he really was,’ she answered slowly, forming every word with care. ‘I can only imagine how hard it must have been for him—the loneliness, the guilt of having to keep such a secret.’

He lied to you because he had to, I continued, my mental voice softening.

‘What other choice did he have?’ she asked. ‘I won’t pretend I understand what it means to build emotionally on top of all this. Is the love of a child real? Maybe not. But I know that I care for him, respect him, and want him to have a happy life after all this. If that isn’t a foundation for real love, then I’m not sure what is.’

Her words helped me give context to my own complex emotions. I feel pretty much the same about the lies Nico helped Agrona placed in my head. They were for a purpose, and Nico felt like he had to do that. It was for my own good, like Grey to you.

‘That’s…not what I meant,’ Tessia said tentatively. She paused for a few seconds. ‘Arthur needed to protect himself with lies. Right or wrong, it wasn’t an action made to control me.’

It was not difficult to read the unspoken implication of her words, which I considered in silence for some time. You think you’re justified in forgiving Grey’s lies but I’m foolish for forgiving Nico and Agrona.

As if anticipating what I’d say, she replied immediately. ‘I think you’re still trying to figure out who you are, Cecilia, and that you struggle to make decisions you are confident in because you constantly question the source of any thought you have. Is it you or Agrona? Or even me? I don’t want to be the voice in your ear guiding you to do things my way.’

Again, I had no answer, and so we both fell silent, our thoughts like two murky clouds just intermingling at the edges. I let the sight of the soil unfolding in front of me pull me in and wipe away any lingering thoughts about Grey or Nico…or myself.

I lifted up from the soil only after verifying that there were no dragons for a very long way, then flew out over the Grand Mountains. The cold air felt good after the claustrophobic tunneling of my underground flight.

The mountains and then the desert beyond flew by in a blur, reminding me of the teleportation gates utilized by the Dicathians. They were relics of the ancient mages, much like the underground village I found as I lowered myself through a gaping hole in the desert floor where the cavern ceiling had partially collapsed. Huge piles of sand had accumulated below, covering half the cavern. What I could see of the rest was completely demolished.

According to the rumors our spies had sifted through, Grey fought an actual asura here. Looking at the damage, I could believe it.

This close, I could now sense the aether-mana emanation from below even without forcefully extending my senses. Despite the winding network of tunnels that spread out from the destroyed village, the emanation was like a compass, pointing where I needed to go. Aside from a few huge rodent-like mana beasts, I saw nothing as I sped along the dark tunnels, my eyes enhanced with mana in order to see.

I was nearly at my target when dread suddenly came over me, dousing my anticipation like wind to a candle flame. My feet touched the ground, then instinctively shuffled backwards as I searched the square hallway for the source of my dread. It was like a miasma hanging in the air, an intangible thing with very real claws that wanted to rake at my eyes and lungs and heart, but there was no spell, no mana that I could—

An aetheric effect, I realized. A dread that can’t be passed through or cast aside. The perfect layer of protection.

Though I’d continued to waffle back and forth, second-guessing my decision to come to Darv instead of Elenoir, I knew then that I’d chosen correctly.

Gritting my teeth, I pushed outward with mana, both my own purified mana that circulated through my coreless body and the atmospheric mana that lingered in the tunnels deep below the ground. Cracks ran up the walls and spiderwebbed across the floor, and visible distortions of light and heat flickered in the air. Ice condensed over the walls then shattered and ran as water to pool across the floor before hissing to steam and circulating back into the air, where it was again forced outward from the pressure I exuded.

The dread lessened, then receded, still present but distant and lacking power. I couldn’t control the aether, nor could I break the spell and end its effect, but by moving a strong enough force of mana, I had disrupted it momentarily. Wasting no time, I sped forward, quickly leaving the zone of dread behind.

When I turned the next corner, I came to an abrupt stop.

A wall of living stone bisected the tunnel, moving constantly from left to right across the path. Despite the tons and tons of rapidly shifting stone, it hardly made a noise.

“What other trick do you have up your sleeve, Grey?” I asked, my voice ringing loudly against the muffled rushing of the spell.

As I watched it move, I noticed the small details. It wasn’t a solid wall of stone, but many smaller plates that fit together like puzzle pieces, all flowing within a groove cut perfectly to fit the machination. It radiated a powerful and alien flavor of mana. This, more than anything, suggested an origin that was neither Dicathian or Alacryan.

I pushed against the mana with my own, and it shoved back hard enough that I stumbled a step and was forced to catch my balance. A scowl fell across my face. Holding up one hand to help me focus, I grabbed hold of the rapidly shifting stone with earth-attribute mana, trying to grind it to a halt.

The interlocking plates of stone shivered as the power controlling them fought back against mine. Without releasing the pressure I was exerting, I reached for that power and tried to draw on it. It held, heavy and inexorable, as immovable as the roots of the world. I pulled harder, straining against the weight of that power until the plates forming the moving wall splintered, shattering and grinding to a halt, filling the hallway with broken chunks of rock. The walls trembled, and a terrible rumbling noise threatened to shake the very foundations of Dicathen to pieces.

Then, as suddenly as it had happened, the shaking and grinding stopped.

I bent down to inspect a chunk of the stone. It had a slight luster to it, dimmer than obsidian and without the telltale smooth striations where the breaks happened. Instead, there were layers upon layers of compacted rock pressed together, almost like the rings of a tree.

It was difficult to put my finger on, but there was almost a kind of life to the stone. When I ran a finger along the rough surface of the break, gooseflesh roughened my skin, and I pulled away.

The hallway continued beyond the wall of moving stone into darkness. Standing straight, I stared at the gap. “I know you’re here, asura. I’m sure you can hear me. I suppose threats or promises will be met with equal silence, so I won’t insult you by trying to sway you from your course. But in ten minutes, when you are taking your last ragged breaths, remember this moment, and how you could have chosen differently.”

A dull chuckle echoed from the darkness, and a man stepped out of shadow and into the range of my mana-enhanced eyesight. His back had a slight hunch to it, enhancing the frail look of his physique. Dark, tired eyes stared at me from beneath a curtain of greasy black hair. “Bravado. That’s what happens when you give a child endless power. You spend far too much of your energy convincing yourself you really are as great as people keep telling you, despite the fact that you feel like an imposter in your own skin.” He co*cked his head slightly, letting the greasy mop of hair hang down. “Well, except that you’re an imposter in someone else's skin, but nevermind that.”

My jaw clenched painfully, and I lashed out with a crack of thunder and spear of lightning. The attack struck the asura in the chest, and he exploded apart, his flesh and bones spraying across the smooth floor with a clatter. Except, it wasn’t flesh and bones, but only more of the striated stone.

“I didn’t expect an asura to play children’s games,” I said, trying and mostly succeeding to keep my voice level. “If I’m not as powerful as they say, why run and hide?”

No words came back to me but my own voice resounding softly in the cramped space.

Cautiously, I stepped through the gap into the hallway beyond. The tunnel almost immediately split into a ‘y’ shape before turning again shortly in both directions, limiting the distance I could see. The walls were made of the same type of stone. When I ran my hand down the wall, I found it warm to the touch, then pulled away when it thrummed with a sort of pulse, much slower than my own heartbeat but no less real.

Grey’s aetheric signature resonated from my left, not far.

Tessia’s silent tension sat in the back of my skull like an impending migraine.

I went to the left, and the low, narrow tunnel turned left again after twenty feet or so, only to turn right shortly after that. When I reached the next split, I understood. A maze…

Closing my eyes, I honed in on the distortion in the mana I knew was Grey. When I pulled at the earth-attribute mana infused into the stone wall in that direction, the entire labyrinth quaked. I slammed my entire will against it, and the wall exploded.

The labyrinth became a churning thresher of stone plates moving in every direction around me. Ducking beneath a guillotine-sharp chunk, I wrapped myself in mana and watched breathlessly.

It seemed to be wild chaos, but it wasn’t. No, the roiling stone, in the form of tons upon tons of interlocking plates, was as controlled as the workings of a clock, fitting together just so and sliding past each other with perfect integrity. It was truly a work of art, a use of mana so inexplicably beautiful that I could never hope to recreate it.

Like a stone in the clockwork, I interrupted the mechanism, and a few plates cracked against my mana, but others shifted seamlessly to replace them.

In moments, the entire labyrinth had reformed around me, leaving me standing at a dead end, the broken wall replaced by an entirely new one.

Closing my eyes, I felt around me, tracing the lines of mana. The maze was thick with atmospheric earth-attribute mana, like a heavy dust that clung to everything and choked the air. Arthur’s signature radiated out from the center of the maze, but the brightness of the mana was such that I couldn’t cleanly follow the maze only with my senses.

I pulled back and slammed into the walls again. Again, they exploded, the plates forming them spinning through the air, reconnecting, and reforming new walls before sliding smoothly back into place.

I tried to see through the hole before it closed, but the chaos blinded me until the maze had reformed.

Giving myself time to think, calm down, and absorb more mana—searching specifically for the pieces of the asura’s mana I could pluck away from the greater cloud—I began to follow the maze instead of attempting to smash my way through again.

Moving cautiously as I maneuvered through the twists and turns, I tried to be patient and methodical. That, unfortunately, was not my strong suit.

“Damn this place,” I cursed as I ran into yet another dead end.

Bit by bit throughout the maze, I drew in hints of this asura’s mana, and my insight into its particular attributes grew. It wasn’t the same as draining Dawn, the phoenix, of all her mana, but I could feel the scales tipping in my direction moment by moment.

“Your control really is remarkable,” a voice said from behind me, and I spun around to find the frail-looking asura not thirty feet away. “Gaining insight into titan mana by drawing directly on it, forcing it away from me? That is a kind of mastery I wouldn’t have thought possible.”

I inspected the figure closely, looking for anything that might tell me if this was the real asura or just another golem. I hadn’t noticed it before, but there was a subtle pattern to his skin, and a sharpness of his features, that replicated the texture of the stone maze. “Likewise, it’s pretty incredible that you can make such a convincing replica of yourself.”

I thrust forward with both hands and a storm of hailstones, each one vibrating with a core of condensed sound-attribute deviant mana, hissed down the hall. A wall of the moving stone plates shifted into place between me and the asura, and a sound like old Earth gunfire erupted through the hallway as the hailstones and wall both exploded.

The conjured wall collapsed, revealing the asura, half his face blown away. The remaining part of his mouth smiled, and then the golem tipped backward, struck the floor, and burst apart into a thousand sharp shards.

Instantly, I turned gravity against the stones, making them tumble across the floor to me. Mana was still wicking away from their surface, like gently smoking embers. I drew on the mana, pulling in as much as possible.

Something clicked into place.

I squared off with the maze wall that faced toward Arthur’s signature. I took time to gather my power, letting purified mana wash out of me, collect across the surface of the stone wall, and creep into the miniscule cracks where the connecting plates intersected.

Instead of slamming my will into the magic holding the walls in place all at once, I firmly but consistently ramped up the pressure, starting with a small push and then slowly applying more and more force. Soon the walls were quaking again, the opposing forces acting on the mana compressing the individual particles like they were caught in a vice, the plates of stone warping to reveal the cracks between.

Pressing clawed fingers of mana into the cracks, I peeled them apart, ripping my way through the wall. This time, when the surge of magic began to rebuild the labyrinth with me still inside it, I grabbed hold of the spell. Many thousands of stone plates separated, shifted, and then froze in the air, hovering deconstructed all around me, like the individual motes of snow with a snowglobe.

The dust and stone swirled before me, manifesting the asura yet again. He thrust forward, and a fist of stone struck my sternum, lifting me off the ground and sending me flying backwards. As my concentration broke, my hold on his spell released, and the stone plates spun and twisted into place, reforming the maze.

I smashed into a solid wall, which buckled, then went flying through it. Another wall rose to meet me, and then another, as I was driven through them like a hammered nail.

Fighting to retain my senses, I forced gravity to pull toward me from every direction, forcibly stilling myself at the center of a crushing gravity well. My teeth ground together as I fought to ignore the screaming pain that clutched at every part of my body. Releasing all that tension, energy, and pain as a wild shout, I shoved outward.

The maze ripped itself to pieces, a wall of gravity, wind, and pure mana-born force carrying an arsenal of stone plates away from me in a tide of bloody violence.

I sagged, resting my hands on my knees, unable to hold myself fully upright. The resistance seemed to shrink, diminished. Looking through the curtain of gunmetal gray hair, I saw a large, flat chamber opened up around me. It was smaller than I might have imagined, and almost empty aside from the rubble strewn about.

The asura was on one knee not far away. Bloody slashes covered his body—the real one, I was certain. He turned his head toward the center of the chamber, where a second figure rested atop a thick cushion, sat with his legs crossed beneath him and his arms resting over his knees, eyes closed. “Arthur, wake up!” the asura wheezed breathlessly.

Adrenaline and the flush of victory pushed down my pain, and I strode toward Grey. With a flick of my hand, stone plates scythed through the air, knocking the asura to the ground. Claws of mana reached toward Arthur, accompanied by a spike of fear and disbelief from Tessia.

Arthur’s eyes snapped open, and he gave me a wry grin.

My stomach lurched as the ground beneath me gave way. Bursts of mana exploded like fireworks in front of my eyes and echoed across the chamber, slamming into my senses from all sides. Mentally reeling, I wrapped myself in mana and tried desperately to dim my senses and catch my fall.

An external force pushed on me from above, driving me downward.

With a furious shout, I wrested away control of gravity and locked myself in place. My eyes fluttered open; the dark chamber was mostly lost beneath a sea of white spots sparkling across my vision, but I could see, right beneath me, an oily, dimly shining opaque surface within a carved frame: a portal.

Another battery of mana collided with me from above, forcing me down toward the portal, which opened beneath me like the maw of some great mana beast. Understanding, I shoved downward into the portal itself, warping the surface and pushing it away from me as I sank inch by inch toward it. My mana wrapped around the frame, and I heaved, trying to rip it apart and destroy the portal within.

But more and more mana was pressing down on me, tidal waves of mana. Inching around, I glared back over my shoulder.

Grey was flying above me. Where he had been, there was now a stone pedestal topped with a glowing ellipsoid made of silvery white mana and amethyst aether. His face, framed by waving wheat-blond hair and set with golden eyes, was sharp, his wry expression bitter and stiff.

With one hand, I clawed at the portal. With the other, I reached back and attempted to grasp him. If I could drag him down with me, into the portal…

Tessia’s panicked claws sank into the back of my mind as she struggled to exert herself. ‘I’m sorry, Cecilia, but I can’t let you do this.’ Emerald vines wrapped around my arms and my throat.

But after what happened with Mordain, I was ready.

Within me, vines of pure mana mimicked her own, finding her spiritual essence and wrapping around it, binding it, choking and crushing it.

My focus was too divided. I couldn’t fight Grey, Tessia, and the portal all at once.

I met those golden eyes and released my hold over the portal. Spinning my body in place, I wrenched the vines from Tessia’s control and sent them snaking up. They wrapped around Grey’s arms, legs, and neck, and, with a jerk, pulled him toward me. The vines closed crushingly around the trapped limbs, the thorns digging into his flesh and conjuring small droplets of blood that ran down his body.

I had him! And even better, I had interrupted his focus on the keystone. He would never control fate—

Relief washed over me, but not my own. Distracted, I looked inward toward Tessia. She was pulling back, no longer fighting me.

Above, cracks spread out from where the vines constricted around Grey’s limbs. Where the blood droplets ran, they washed away the color of his skin, revealing flat gray beneath.

My eyes widened, jumping from Grey to the ellipsoid conjuration of mana and aether sitting in the pedestal. I thought of the heavy earth mana blanketing this entire cavern, of the slightly imperfect golems and the asura’s apparent desperation as he struck out at me when I’d controlled his spell. Layer after layer of deceit, all performed perfectly.

Grey, who projected none of the tension between mana and aether that I should have felt, winked at me with one golden eye, and when it opened again, only gray stone stared out of a gray face. One arm shattered, and instead of blood and bone, stone sparked, revealing the same tight rings of compaction I had noticed in the stone plates.

As my back hit the portal and I felt it wrapping around me and pulling me in, Grey crumbled to dust. Behind where he had been, the asura sat in a floating earthen throne, one thin brow raised disdainfully as he glared down at me, a hand pressed over his blood-darkened side.

Then the world turned violet and gray, and the portal took me.


Read The Beginning After The End (Web Novel) - Chapter 473 - NovelBuddy (2024)

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