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Published at 8th of April 2022 06:07:32 PM


Chapter 381: 381

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Chapter 381 - Epilogue




 

 

A dry cough wracked my body, and I jerked awake to pain. A thick cloud of dust obscured everything but the blood-stained stone floor I had expected to be my funeral bed.

My last thought before falling unconscious floated back into my mind. This was how I expected death to feel. Every part of me screamed in anguish, the pain of each wound crowding against the rest, one overriding another in my mind until it felt as if my entire body had been cut to pieces by—

The asura!

Despite a strong desire to never move again, I turned my head, jostling my broken bones and creating a fresh chorus of agonies.

I couldn’t see anything through the heavy blanket of dust. But neither could I sense the asura’s unbearable presence.

Taking a deep, steadying breath, I rolled onto my side and heaved, pushing myself up to my feet. Rocks and debris clattered off me, and the gash in my chest pulled painfully, partially sealed by dust clotting in the wound.

My legs wobbled, the tattered scraps of my armor clanging together like empty tin cans. I tried to push mana out into my body to give myself strength, but was met only with a dull, squeezing pain from my core, which was all but empty.

The backlash made my stomach turn and bile rise in the back of my throat.

Flashes of the battle started coming back to me through the waves of nausea and pain, and my breath seized in my lungs.

Varay, Mica, Aya…

They were all— 





I spun around as stone clattered from the wall or ceiling somewhere in the distance. My senses were dulled, my thoughts crawling along like slugs in my skull, and there was a low roar in my ears like I was underwater. Only my sense of smell seemed to be functioning properly; the cavern stank of brimstone and scorched soil.

Dim, murky light cut through the obscuring cloud, a few quick flashes, and I sensed mana moving.

My mouth opened of its own accord, but I stopped myself from shouting. I didn’t know who or what was out there. It could be the asura, or survivors returned from the tunnels—or Alacryans, alerted by the disturbance our battle had no doubt caused in the desert above. And I was in no fit shape to defend myself if they turned out to be hostile.

The image of blood gushing out of shattered black crystals overlayed the last memories of my own “death,” and I felt a brief glimmer of hope, but just as quickly tamped it down.

I shouldn’t have survived that battle, and I couldn’t find it in myself to harbor even the smallest hope that any of the others had as well. I’d seen what Taci did to Aya and Varay, and despite the voice that had sounded in my head in those last moments of consciousness, I knew that not even a Lance could survive those wounds.

Still, I couldn’t simply ignore the presence of another here, and began limping in the direction of the light, moving as quietly as my battered body and ruined armor would allow.

The cavern floor was in ruins. The rubble of lightning-blasted and cold-shattered rock made footing treacherous, and I had to navigate around several deep gouges scored in the earth by Taci’s strikes. A partially intact wall from one of the many demolished buildings had been flung several dozen feet and was now resting at an angle against a huge boulder dislodged from the ceiling.

Carefully, I crept up the side of this wall, then from the bolder to a higher shelf of rock that curved around toward where I’d seen the light. The dust thinned as I moved toward the far edge of the cavern and I squinted through it for any sign of who or what had used mana.

It was difficult to believe what I saw.

“M-Mica?” The words clawed reluctantly out of my throat, the effort of speaking setting fire to my many other wounds.

The dwarven Lance glanced up at me from where she kneeled beside a second figure. The right side of her face was stained with tear streaks through caked-on dirt. Dozens of long, straight slash marks criss-crossed over the left side of her face, and a black, bloody hole was all that remained of her left eye. Her entire left side was soaked red-brown with dried blood and some kind of wet mud that she had compacted over her ribs.

There was blood dripping from her palms where she’d dug her fingernails into them, and her normally playful gaze met mine with a hollow emptiness that made me question if she was truly alive or just some dark aspect of my own subconscious.

When she turned her unsteady gaze back on the second figure, my eyes reluctantly followed.


Aya’s face was pale, her dark eyes staring sightlessly up to the cavern ceiling high above. Her stomach was a gory ruin where Taci had dealt her fatal blow.

 

“I…” I had to stop and clear my throat, then went on. “I thought I heard her, just before the end. She…she said…”

But I had to stop again, unable to speak around the lump in my throat.

Mica’s shoulders sagged, but she didn’t reply.

Sliding awkwardly, painfully, down the ledge, I moved to Aya’s other side and gingerly sat.

Once, it would have been impossible to imagine myself on the verge of tears over the death of another soldier—especially another one of the Lances. It was with little guilt that I remembered my callousness after Lance Alea’s unexpected death. She deserved better, and so did Aya. There was no shame in shedding tears for a friend taken far too early.

The Six Lances had become only two, and—I glanced at Mica—there wasn’t much left even of us. That, too, was something to mourn. We should have been Dicathen’s greatest defenders, but yet, this is what had become of us.

The noise of a boot scuffing against hard stone made me jump up. My legs immediately gave way, and I stumbled painfully to one knee, grunting through gritted teeth. Mica wobbled as she stood, but kept her feet, and even managed to conjure a small stone hammer as her remaining eye glared into the darkness.

“Announce yourself!” she snapped, her voice raw.

A lopsided silhouette limped toward us, veiled behind the dust, one hand pressed against the side of its neck. It looked like a ghost.

The ghost of…


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Varay coalesced before our very eyes, as if she’d just stepped back out from the land of the dead.

Her left arm was missing, cut away at the shoulder, the wound frosted over. A patch of crimson ice also clung to her neck beneath her hand, but blood was running freely from several cracks.

Her eyes were dull, jumping between Mica and me in a bleary, unfocused way. She hurried toward us, her right leg dragging slightly with each step, but when she reached the edge of the rocky shelf, she missed her footing and sprawled down the side face first with a muted groan.

Mica rushed stiffly to her, rolling her over and dragging her up into Mica’s lap.

The ice around her neck had shattered and melted away, revealing a grisly cut that opened her neck almost to the throat. Blood poured out like a fountain, drenching Mica.

“Shit!”

Mica scrambled to scoop up a fistful of loose dirt. She focused on it, closing her eyes, her face scrunching up with effort, and I watched it soften and boil into a thick muck, which she hurriedly spread all over the wound. When this was done, there was another flash of mana, and the claylike soil hardened, stopping the bleeding.

I settled back, staring at Varay.

I had seen her die, seen Taci strike her head from her shoulders. “An illusion,” I muttered, turning to Aya’s body. Her wound was certainly no illusion, though. “She…she said the illusions wouldn’t fool an asura more than once…and used the last moments of her life to save us. Layering illusions of our deaths over our real bodies.”

I was stunned by her final show of strength, and her words suddenly made sense.

“You’ve done enough, Bairon. It isn’t your time.”

She was using the last of her strength, sacrificing herself to save the rest of us, even stopping me from burning myself out with Thunderlord’s Wrath.

“Don’t move. No matter what you see. Don’t move.”


I had been lying on the ground at Taci’s feet, his spear poised above me.

I probed at a deep wound in my right shoulder, then my fingers trailed across to my sternum. Though aching and bruised, there was no wound there. My core was intact.

A disbelieving snort burst out of me, which drew a tired, vaguely irritated look from Mica. “What?”

Varay’s eyelids dragged slowly open at the sound of Mica’s voice. They meandered sluggishly past me until they came to rest on Aya. Her lips parted, her throat bobbing as she attempted to speak, but nothing came out. She only sighed and sank even deeper into Mica’s blood-stained lap.

Mica petted Varay’s hair, but her gaze was drawn back to Aya’s body. “I felt the mana rush from her core. I thought…I thought she’d died instantly, but—” A choked sob cut Mica off, and she gnashed her teeth in frustration.

Varay shifted and tried again to speak. “She…emptied her…core…on purpose.” Her voice was thin and weak, scraping out of her. “To…make the…illusion…more realistic.”

“She needed the asura to believe what he saw and felt,” I added, regarding each of our wounds, considering how close to the edge of our power we’d been pushed. Our mana signatures must have faded to almost nothing in those final moments. “It was the only way he wouldn’t see through it.”

“But was it enough?” Mica asked, her voice scraping and raw. “For the people down in the tunnels?”

“Those lives are out of our hands now…” I answered. We lacked the strength even to walk, much less to chase after the asura. “Aya’s life, though. We can remember and mourn our friend. While we wait for whatever end to come.”

Mica broke into cracked, half-choked sobs. Varay forced trembling lids to stay open, letting fresh tears flow down her cheeks, but never looking away from our fallen teammate.

Turning, I reached shaking fingers out to Aya and gently closed her eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said, my voice a hoarse rasp. Normally, Varay would have been the one to handle things like this, but I knew what I wanted to say. “And thank you, Lance Aya Grephin of Elenoir. Your long battle is at an end, but those who you leave behind won’t stop fighting until it is our time to join you. Rest now.”

A/N:

Well, that wraps up volume 9 of The Beginning After the End. It's been a wild ride this past year writing this but I can't wait for Volume 10. Like I've announced a while a go, TBATE novel will be going on a two week break while I prep for Volume 10. For those that stayed a patreon despite this brief hiatus, thank you for your loyalty <3

Please report us if you find any errors so we can fix it asap!


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