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The Beginning After The End - Chapter 420: Shackles
The oppressive gusts of void wind pressed in on me from every direction, blinding and deafening me. I could sense nothing but the rapidfire beating of my heart and the cold metal pressing against my wrists. Even the omnipresent hush of the ocean lapping against the shore was obscured.
“You two, get the tempus warp packed up for travel.” Muffled by the spell, Wolfrum’s voice was distant, only barely audible. “The rest of you, over here. I’ll lower the spell. Disarm her and move her outside of the shield. Scythe Dragoth Vritra will be here soon.”
The darkness changed, swirling as if it were being moved by the wind. I felt its hold on me lessen and smoothed out my expression, unwilling to give Wolfrum the satisfaction of seeing me struggle.
Just as the void wind spell faded, strong hands took me by the arms, and something sharp dug into my back.
“How anticlimactic,” Wolfrum mused, studying me. “I’ll admit, I did sort of idolize you when we were younger. Now, I have no idea why.”
I lifted my chin, not flinching away from his unnerving gaze or his words.
“Still, you’re quite the prize for Dragoth. With a little…incentive, I imagine there is a whole lot you can tell us about Seris’s operation, hm?”
𝕋𝕙𝕚𝕤 𝕔𝕙𝕒𝕡𝕥𝕖𝕣 𝕦𝕡𝕝𝕠𝕒𝕕 𝕗𝕚𝕣𝕤𝕥 𝕒𝕥 𝕟𝕠𝕧𝕖𝕝-𝕓𝕚𝕟.𝕔𝕠𝕞
I didn’t fight back against the mages holding me, letting my arms sag in their grip. “Nothing that will save any of you,” I said, keeping the quaver out of my voice.
Something small and bright caught the sun above and behind Wolfrum, and I tensed.
Mana surged, and a ray of black light shot from it. Wolfrum, sensing the mana, grimaced in surprise as he spun, attempting to conjure a shield of soulfire at the last second. The soulfire passed just above his shield, striking him at the base of one horn.
With a resounding crack, the horn shattered, spinning off into the sand. Wolfrum howled in pain as his eyes went wide with rage.
“Reinforcements!” one of the mages shouted, letting go of my arm as they conjured a spell.
The sharp object at my back pulled away, leaving only one mage still holding on to me. I drove an elbow up into his nose, snapping his head back, then wrenched forward out of his control.
My blade was on the ground at my feet, knocked from my grasp by the manacles. Catching the blade with a toe, I kicked it upright so that the handle stuck in the sand with the long, scarlet blade pointing straight up.
There was a second burst of mana, but the lance of soulfire flew a few feet to Wolfrum’s left. It bypassed his shield and struck my blade. The scarlet steel burst into black soulfire.
With all my manaless strength, I drove the chains down on the point of the burning blade, and several things happened all at once.
The four mages were shouting all around me, caught between searching our surroundings for their attackers and stopping me from escaping. Wolfrum had both hands raised, one emanating the fiery shield, the other—pointed at me—swirling with void wind.
Utilizing the limited pool of mana I had already charged into it, two additional silver shards released from the bracer and rushed into orbit around me, firing off lances of black fire. Wolfrum reacted with lightning swiftness, reshaping his spells and combining them into a vortex of ashen wind and fire, absorbing the barrage of attacks.
The point of my sword lodged up through one link in the manacle chains. My pulse spiked as the sword’s handle sank deeper into the sand, deadening the force of my downward strike. Then it caught, buttressed by something hard deeper down.
The flames clawed through the Imbued steel, and the chains shattered with a bright spark.
Something cold and sharp slashed across my hip, and I dodged forward, pulling the scarlet sword from the sand and slashing behind me as I moved.
A steel-hafted spear blocked my rushed strike.
Finally, I got a good look at the four Redwater mages surrounding me: a Shield, two Casters, and a Striker.
Both Casters were holding fire in their hands. The Striker was already spinning his spear around to go on the offensive. Sand formed into metal discs and floated up to defend them as the Shield retreated to a safe distance. They were potent mages, and as my sense for mana returned, I got a feel for their power. Their mana signatures suggested emblems, but Seris had encouraged our forces to cover their runes, so I couldn’t be sure.
The vortex shield around Wolfrum exploded outward.
Conjuring soulfire along my blade, I stabbed into the ground. A shield of fire sprung up around me.
The third orbital shard—the one I had “lost” while descending the cliffside—flitted past Wolfrum to join the other two, and they shifted into position just outside of the shield, their mana resonating with each other. I gritted my teeth as I struggled to maintain focus on both the soulfire and the artifact.
When the shockwave hit, the orbitals sent out a pulse of mana to counter it. They held for a full second before being knocked out of position and sent tumbling away behind me. I braced for impact as the soulfire shield emanating out from my sword quivered, cracked, and then flared out. But the remaining strength of Wolfrum’s spell was only enough to set my hair waving in the resulting light breeze.
The mages were huddled behind several metal discs, and their Shield was sweating profusely. Wolfrum had apparently been willing to destroy his own men without a second’s thought.
“I doubt you’ll be welcome at any more Vritra-blooded parties looking like that,” I said, standing and lifting my sword to point at his shattered horn. The bracer drew on my mana, and the three orbitals flitted back into place, hovering around me defensively.
Wolfrum snarled as he fingered the broken stub. “So, I’m not the only one hiding their real power. I should have guessed. Are you hiding your horns as well? Is it that bracer there on your arm or”—he focused on my pendant, which had slipped out of my shirt in the fighting—“that little bauble around your neck? An illusion? That would be Seris’s way. Go on, I want to see who I’m really fighting. Show me, for old time’s sake.”
“It’s almost a shame you decided to be a Vritra lap dog.” I conjured soulfire along the scarlet blade again, causing it to writhe with black flames. The other mages were holding back, waiting on Wolfrum’s command. I could now see the boat in the distance, being rowed swiftly along the shore. “If you’d ever actually listened to what Seris was trying to teach you, you could have been so much more.”
Wolfrum conjured black fire in each of his hands as he adjusted his stance. “I think you’ll find I learned much more than you.” To his soldiers, he barked, “Bring her down. Kill her if you have to.”
The spear-wielding Striker lunged forward. Twin bolts of fire followed, tracing a smooth arc through the air as they passed him on either side. In the distance, a large, transparent panel of mana shimmered into existence over the hole being held in Seris’s shield, cast by one of the two men who had been in charge of the tempus warp. The other, a Caster, conjured a cloud of caustic green haze to stain the air and make the path to them impassable.
Two lines of soulfire met the flame bolts, launched from the orbitals. The soulfire burned the spells to nothing. A third ray targeted the Striker. When one of the metal discs lurched into position to defend him, the soulfire scorched right through it, but the Striker was fast, and he’d already dodged. Still, the flames scoured the ground at the Casters’ feet, making them jump back and interrupting their next spells.
Behind me, Wolfrum thrust both hands forward, unleashing a torrent of soulfire pushed on a gust of void wind.
I lunged to meet the Striker. His spear licked out twice, three times, four, with the quickness of a lightning bolt. I parried each strike without breaking my stride, the soulfire wreathing my weapon burning through the spear so that when he thrust for the fifth time, only the short end of the ruined steel remained. He realized his defenselessness too late, and the edge of my blade effortlessly parted his armored uniform, mana, flesh, and bone.
In the wake of my blade, a crescent of black fire rolled toward the two Casters. Bullets of bright yellow flame shot back, flying all around me, a few scorching my flesh. All the metal discs shifted into position to block the soulfire, but it wasn’t strong enough. Not nearly. The black fire devoured the shields, then the Casters behind them, and the barrage of bullets ceased.
The Shield turned to run. As I focused on his back, I pulled on the three orbitals, like squeezing the trigger of a crossbow, and three rays of black flame lanced through him. His body tumbled in pieces.
Channeling mana into one of my runes, I conjured wind to push at my heels, speeding my flight as Wolfrum’s soulfire licked at my back.
I had no choice but to rush straight into the acidic cloud of water-attribute mana. It hissed and popped against the mana cladding my body. On the other side of the shield, standing atop the outcropping of rock in front of the tempus warp, the Caster waved his hands and the cloud condensed into viscous drops of rain, which immediately began burning through my protection.
Releasing the soulfire wreathing my blade so I could focus on both the wind-attribute spell and the orbitals, I aimed at the two mages beyond the shield. Twin lances of fire ripped through the barrier cast by their Shield, burning a large hole in each mage’s chest. The final orbital fired backwards blindly as I hoped to disrupt Wolfrum’s concentration.
I felt his soulfire clash against mine as the inferno surged. Risking a glance behind me, I saw the full effect of his spell for the first time.
A huge, smokey skull, its mouth wide and eyes empty as death, trailing a twenty-foot trail of pure soulfire, was closing in on me. The orbital’s attacks were vanishing into the skull’s open mouth, never reaching Wolfrum.
I aimed for the tempus warp. With the way clear, there was no reason to stand and fight. Not when a Scythe was closing in on me.
A bead of dark mana condensed in the air above the opening. Wild lines of void wind began reeling out of it, spiraling downward until they touched the ground to form a cyclone that blocked the way.
I sprinted straight at it while recalling the orbitals, wind-attribute mana pushing me forward faster with every stride. They snapped into place in the bracer, and I released the mana and concentration powering it just as my blade flared with soulfire once again.
Slashing at the air with my sword, I felt a thrill of success as soulfire carved through the artifact they’d installed to hold Seris’s barrier open. The metal melted away as if it were woggart butter, and the arch collapsed. The shield around it flexed, pushing inward.
In my periphery, I could see the darkness of the encroaching spell starting to surround me.
Wrapping myself with wind, I leapt, making myself as narrow and aerodynamic as possible, shooting forward like an arrow.
The shield closed around me.
I was immediately picked up by the void wind cyclone, which cut through my own wind mana effortlessly. My senses reeled for a moment as I was spun end over end, then the cyclone released me.
Catching my balance, I rotated my body to land crouched on both feet, one hand pressing into the sand for stability.
Fifty feet out in the ocean, the tempus warp splashed down into the water. It had been lifted by the cyclone, then tossed away as the wind’s momentum vanished. My stomach plunged with it.
“If it makes you feel any better, we didn’t program the tempus warp anyway, Lady Caera,” Wolfrum said from the other side of the shield. “You were never going to leave here.”
I spared him no words. He was no longer a threat to me. The approaching ship, however…
The boat was close enough now that I could sense the monstrous mana signature emanating from it. Even as I watched, a silhouette, somehow still looming large even from such a distance, floated up from the deck and hurtled toward me, onyx horns gleaming.
Focusing on the ripples still rolling away from where the tempus warp had sunk under the water, I sprinted out along the rocks toward it, stowing my blade as I ran. There was a surge of mana, and the rocks under my feet heaved, rolling away from me like the deck of a ship. I would have plunged face first into the jagged stone if not for the wind-attribute mana already imbued around my feet.
Pushing off against the air itself, I leapt out over the open water, pulling my body into a streamlined diving position. When I hit the water, I shot deep down below the constantly rolling waves. The frigid cold bit at my skin, and the drag of the water pulled at my hair and clothes, threatening to tow me away.
I scoured the seafloor for the tempus warp, but it sloped steeply away from the beach, growing darker and darker as it went deeper.
Strengthening my vision with mana, I peered through the gloom, searching for the roughly anvil-shaped artifact. A cloud of silt obscured the ground, but there was a subtle emanation of mana within the cloud. Focusing on it, I pushed harder, swimming as fast as I could, all too aware of the Scythe’s mana signature growing closer by the second.
Using wind-attribute mana to cause a current, I pushed away the floating silt. The tempus warp was sticking up from the soft soil, half sunk into the ground. Dozens of scratches had been scored into the surface from the void wind, matching the dozens of raised welts all over my body.
Please work, I thought, the Scythe’s shadow moving across the top of the water in my peripheral vision.
I was certain Wolfrum had been lying about not activating the tempus warp. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have kept talking. He was trying to engage with me and keep me there. They couldn’t spring their trap until Wolfrum arrived and the shield opened, and it would have raised suspicion to prevent the other mages from preparing the artifact.
Or so I hoped.
The ground around the tempus warp moved suddenly. Mana swelled through the soil, and a giant hand made of black iron formed, with the artifact in its palm. A second hand punched up beneath me, slamming into me and sending me spinning off through the dark water. Bubbles burst from my lips as I gasped, every bone in my body aching from the force of the blow. As I reeled, the hand grabbed me, squeezing, and more bubbles rushed from my mouth as it crushed the air from my lungs.
Both hands began moving up toward the surface, but I could hardly see them through the stars sparkling behind my eyes.
Gathering the last of my strength, I pressed my own hands against the blood iron restraining me. My eyes drifted closed. I searched for the inborn confidence that always assured me I could do anything I attempted. Desperation kept it at bay. So I reached for my rage instead.
My mind went blank. Except for the mana—the soulfire that burned in my blood and my heart and my core. That, I embraced. I took hold of it with my entire being, gathered every ounce of my power, and pushed.
Black flames flooded out of my hands. The water began to boil wildly as it was destroyed. Soulfire ate into blood iron. The hand quaked beneath me. Metal began to dissolve. The grip lessened.
A funnel of wind whipped the ocean water into a frenzy, ripping me free of the giant hand’s clutches and shooting me straight at the other hand, and the tempus warp held in its palm. I slammed against it, scrambling to reach the tempus warp pinned under thick metal fingers.
Spikes erupted from the surface of the hand. I felt the pain, saw the red trails in the water, but had no time to check the nature of my wounds. My fumbling fingers found the controls.
I felt, rather than heard, the splash from above. Drawn as if by gravity, my head turned so I could see above me.
The large, muscular form of Scythe Dragoth Vritra drove down through the water like a bullet. His eyes gleamed like rubies, and there was a white crest trailing from his horns due to his speed. One of his hands was curled into a tight fist, and the other pulled back as if to swat a fly. The crushing press of his aura was enough to make my heart stop, but it was the unfiltered rage in his expression that drained all the warmth from me.
The blood iron fist next to me clenched harder. Metal shrieked against metal as the surface of the tempus warp began to cave in.
Trembling, I activated the artifact.
The world was ripped away from me, or I from it. There was no air in my lungs. My entire body erupted in pain. I thought the process must have failed. It was taking far too long. Everything was dark.
My body splashed, wet and heavy, against stone, but I had no wind left to be knocked from me. Gasping, struggling and failing to bring in air, I dragged my eyes open, uncertain when I had closed them. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. My hands clutched my chest, my body desperate for oxygen. Finally, a breath came.
Dimly, I became aware of something hard and sharp pressed against my cheek. A spear. Without moving, my gaze followed the line of the spear’s long half to the man holding it. I registered blond hair and green eyes, dark in the low light.
“Move, Vritra, and I’ll pin you to the floor,” he said, his voice carrying an edge of thunder.
The sound of his voice, the sight of him and his surroundings, melted together with pain and fatigue into a muddle. I blinked several times, my focus moving inward. Each breath came with a deep ache that suggested broken ribs, and I had been pierced by blood iron spikes in both legs, my side, and the inside of my left arm. But all these wounds were superficial and would heal with time.
I wouldn’t die.
Assuming, of course, this Dicathian didn’t follow through on his threat.
“I’m not your enemy,” I said, keeping my voice slow and steady as I met the man’s eye. Others had approached as well. Dwarves, by their stockiness, I guessed. Hopefully that meant I was in the right place. “My name is Caera of Highblood Denoir. I’ve come looking for—”
“You’re a Vritra,” the man snapped. “I can guess well enough why you’re here.” He frowned, focusing on my wounds. “Though you don’t look to be in any shape to attack us.”
I took a deep, steadying breath, unable to keep the grimace off my face at the resulting pain in my chest and ribs. “Please. Bring the Lance, Arthur Leywin. He knows me. I assure you that—”
“Arthur isn’t here,” the blond man said. To my relief, however, he withdrew the spear, keeping it pointed at my core, but at least it was no longer digging into my skin. “Which would be a convenient time for a spy to attempt to slip into Vildorial, especially one who presented themselves as too weak and injured to be a threat to us.” He sneered. “Perhaps it would have been a wiser plan to send someone without demonic horns sprouting from their skull.”
Momentarily confused, I reached for the pendant that normally hung around my neck.
It was gone.
I started to sit up, but the spear pressed against the side of my neck. I held out both hands. “I really don’t intend you, or anyone else here, harm. Arthur is my friend. I—” I bit off my words. I’d nearly stated that I worked with Scythe Seris, but I couldn’t be sure how such information would be taken. “He spent time in Alacrya, you must know this. We met, traveled together. If you’ll—”
“As I said,” the man interrupted yet again, “Arthur isn’t here. Perhaps you are some friend of his. Perhaps you’re a lying demon. Until we know for certain, you’ll wait in the dungeon.” He stepped back and gestured with the spear.
Slowly, I stood up. A dozen sources of pain bloomed hot and bright across my body, and I sucked in a sharp breath between gritted teeth.
“Mana-suppression shackles!” the man ordered.
When a heavily armored dwarf clanked up with a pair, I nearly laughed at the irony. I held out my wrists, which were already bound with the broken manacles from Alacrya.
The dwarf eyed them curiously. “She’s…already wearing a pair, General Bairon. Not of Dicathian make, by the looks of it.”
The tip of the spear clanged against the broken cuffs as the blond man inspected them. General Bairon…
“You’re Lance Bairon Wykes,” I said as he indicated that the dwarf should shackle me anyway. As he slapped the cold metal around my wrists, I added, “Like I said, I’m a friend of Arthur’s.”
“As am I,” he replied, only redirecting the point of his spear when the dwarf nodded to confirm my shackles were firmly in place. “But I am also a protector of Dicathen, while you share the look of our enemies. In the event your words are proven true, I’ll offer you my apologies. Until then, you are a prisoner.”
Lance Bairon took hold of the shackles and inspected my wounds for a moment. “Send for an emitter. She looks likely to bleed out if we leave her manaless in a cell.”
One of the dwarves saluted, then hurried off. We went in the other direction, with the Lance leading me by the chains. A sea of dwarves parted to allow us through, some falling in line behind us, others watching as he led me up a curving road that ran around the edge of a truly enormous cavern.
“Can you send him a message?” I asked after a moment, trying to stay calm. “My reason for being here is an urgent one, and…” I trailed off as Lance Bairon stopped and turned to look down at me.
“Tell me why you’re in Dicathen.” I hesitated, and his nostrils flared. “I thought so. If you’ll only speak to Arthur, then I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait. I can’t send him a message.”
“But why?” The moment the words left my mouth, I knew why. “He’s in the Relictombs.”
This caused the Lance’s brows to rise. “I won’t be confirming any details. Know, however, that you haven’t found this city undefended. At this moment, you are only alive due to my good will. Attempt any sort of treachery, and that good will ends.”
I blinked. There was something about the straight-forward bombast of the Dicathian mage that felt…refreshing. “Noted.”
I followed Lance Bairon up the long road, taking in the sights and people of Vildorial as I went. Among the dwarves I saw a smattering of humans and even a few people I thought must be elves. Despite being underground, there was nothing cramped or claustrophobic about the city. In fact, I was quite taken aback by its beauty. The way the buildings and homes were carved into the side of the cavern, how the rays of light, generated by large crystals affixed to stone pillars or hanging from long chains, reflected off the cavern walls to glint like stars in the night sky, even the rugged, fearless way the people of the city—most not even mages—looked at me, their gazes inevitably drawn to my horns…it was all so charming, while still being undeniably solid and strong.
I thought we were making for a sort of stone fortress that filled the highest level of the cavern, but before we reached its gates, he took me instead through a plain, if heavy, iron door inset into the wall, and suddenly the place lost its charm.
The hall beyond was narrow and cramped. It led through a guard post, where several dwarves snapped to attention as we passed, into a series of unadorned corridors. Cells lined both sides.
Lance Bairon led me through the prison to what seemed to be the deepest cell farthest from the entrance, opened the door, and waved me in. I went without complaint. It wasn’t ideal, but this would be exactly the wrong time to create hostility between us. With time, even if Arthur didn’t return immediately, I was certain I could convince this Lance, or perhaps the lords of the elves or dwarves, that I meant them no harm.
The door, which was heavy oak banded with iron, closed with a dull thunk. Although I couldn’t sense it due to the mana-suppression shackles, I was certain the cell was magically warded and locked.
The cell itself was plain. A straw-stuffed mattress on the floor, with a single woolen blanket folded atop it. I grimaced at the bucket resting in the opposite corner.
“I understand these accommodations may not meet the standards of a ‘highblood,’” Lance Bairon said through the barred window inset in the door, “but I’m afraid the more comfortable cells normally reserved for nobles in the palace are occupied by families made homeless by the Vritra Clan’s invasion.”
I clenched my jaw, working it back and forth in frustration. Before I turned around to face him, though, I smoothed out my features, presenting a stoic front. “It was exactly that: the Vritra Clan’s invasion. My people have suffered under their rule for hundreds of years, yours for barely a single year. They are just as much my enemy as yours, I promise you that.”
The Lance’s brows wrinkled in a thoughtful frown. “We’ll see.”
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