The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)
Chapter 404: A Bloodless Exchange

ARTHUR LEYWIN

“You’re doing the right thing,” Jasmine said, her steady voice rising above the noise of the crowds milling around below.

Lines of disarmed Alacryan soldiers queued uncomfortably in front of the rows of teleportation gates being manned by loyal Dicathians. Jasmine and I had found a flat rooftop to watch Vanessy’s soldiers work from above.

I let out a heavy breath. “I know.”

The resistance against my plan had been stiffer here than in Blackbend. The hostility between the two sides hung in the air like a viscous mist. Many of the Alacryan soldiers didn’t understand why their highblood leaders had given in so easily, and they were still eager for a fight. Their control here had been iron-clad, and the people of the city had suffered with nowhere else to go.

The city felt like a powder keg, and sparks were flying in every direction.

Even as we watched, I saw a Dicathian augmenter shove an unarmed Alacryan hard in the back when the man didn’t immediately move forward to close the gap in his queue. The man spun and pulled back his fist, which sprouted stone spikes, but the augmenter already had his sword in his hand, and the tip was pressed to the Alacryan’s chest.

“Just say the word,” Regis said as he lifted a leg off the edge of the roof. “I can piss down a stream of Destruction on them to set an example.”

I felt the same urge to intervene as Regis. It wasn’t in my nature to watch this strife and do nothing, especially since I could end it with a wave of a hand.

“You relegated management of this city to Commander Glory and the Helsteas for a reason,” Jasmine voiced, her perceptive gaze catching the slight shift in my posture that gave away my thoughts. “To intervene now is to show that you don’t trust them.”

“That’s true,” I said, forcing myself to relax.

As if conjured into being by Jasmine’s words, Vanessy appeared through the crowd and forced the fighting men apart, shouting down her man while promising swift justice to any Alacryan who brandished weapon or spell against the Dicathians.

I stood up, letting Regis return back to my body. “We should get moving.”

Together, Jasmine and I hopped off the roof and marched across the broad street that connected all the portal frames.

Most of the portals were busy, sending a non-stop stream of Alacryans beyond the Wall into a small town in the Beast Glades, which just happened to be the location of the only surviving teleportation gate on the other side of the mountains. But a single portal at the very end wasn’t currently being used, as I’d requested.

As we passed through, heads turned in our wake. Every human emotion was present, written on the faces and burning from the eyes of those gathered there, many mingled together into an incongruous alchemy of uncertain feelings.

I kept my focus forward, however, letting the fear, hatred, respect, and adoration of both Alacryans and Dicathians spill past me without absorbing it.

The teleportation gate hummed to life as the attendant calibrated it for Etistin City, and the world lurched around me when I stepped into the portal.

It was a significant journey from Xyrus to Etistin, crossing nearly the entire breadth of Sapin. As the blurred landscape ripped past, I felt myself settle, leaving the problems of Xyrus behind.

My vision lurched, and the inside of the stone structure housing the receiving teleportation gate came into focus. It was empty. No guards manned the receiving gate, or guarded the iron-banded doors that led to a broad plaza beyond. Through one of the open windows that circled the structure, I could see the royal palace in the distance, gleaming white in the bright sun.

Jasmine appeared behind me a moment later. Her daggers came out, but I gestured for calm.

Beyond the open doors, no less than fifty battle groups stood arrayed throughout the plaza. The soldiers, standing stiffly at attention, wore their gray and red uniforms, but they were not armed or armored.

As I crossed the tiled floor of the portal chamber, our footfalls were the only sound save for the distant crowing of some sea bird circling the bay.

Standing out in front of the gathered force was the retainer, Lyra Dreide, her fire-red hair blowing like a flag in the steady breeze coming off the sea. She stiffened at the sight of me.

“Welcome, Lance Arthur Leywin,” she said, her honey-sweet voice carrying easily throughout the silent plaza. “I am Lyra of Highblood Dreide, retainer of Central Dominion and regent of this continent on behalf of High Sovereign Agrona.”

Jasmine let out a sharp breath as she appeared beside me halfway through Lyra’s speech. Exchanging a quick glance, the two of us stepped out of the wide double-doors and looked around.

A gap had been left between two lines of battle groups where thirty corpses had been neatly laid out on the cobbles. My first thought, felt with a flash of fury, was that it was yet another ploy from the Alacryans, and I was afraid of the faces I might see among the dead. Their garb, though, was Alacryan.

Behind the corpses were piles of weapons and armor.

Lyra Dreide followed the line of my gaze. “This is what happens to Alacryans who won’t follow orders.”

None of the remaining soldiers let their attention settle on the corpses. Those closest—the ones who would be able to hear the buzz of flies beginning to swarm the bodies—kept their eyes firmly forward.

Still, I remained wary of some trap, and so I activated Realmheart.

A ripple ran through the crowd, like wind stirring the leaves of a great tree.

Realmheart lifted my wheat-blond hair from my head, and I could feel the warm glow from my back and beneath my eyes. The fear I instilled in them shone from their own eyes, reflected back at me in the shape of the violet Realmheart runes.

And I couldn’t help but wonder, what did these men and women from that distant and alien continent see me as? Had I made myself a symbol for mercy, or could they only see me as an embodiment of death?

And, perhaps more importantly, regardless of which it was, would it be enough to overpower their fear of the asuras who controlled them?

“What is all this?” I asked, returning my attention to Lyra Dreide.

She raised a hand, and all of the soldiers present went down on one knee and bowed their heads. Slowly, she followed them, although she did not bow her head but rather kept an unflinching eye-contact. “This,” she said with a slow, exaggerated enunciation, “is my surrender.”

A subtle movement to my left made me turn. Jasmine’s fist was white-knuckled around the hilt of one dagger, and she was chewing the inside of her lip. For most people, it would have been little more than a faint tick, but I could read her surprise, caution, and distrust clearly.

I took a step closer to the retainer and looked down into her quick, curious eyes. “What are the terms of this surrender?”

Her tongue darted across her lips as she considered how best to respond. After a long moment, she said, “I have not come to bargain or plead with you, Regent Leywin. There are no terms. Alacrya’s forces in Dicathen surrender.”

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“Then what’s keeping me from killing you now?” I asked. “Or these men?”

Lyra Dreide gave me a tight-lipped smile. “You offered men who were actively trying to kill you their lives, and yet you would slay those who now stand before you, unarmed and at your mercy?”

‘I told you you were starting to be predictable,’ Regis pointed out.

It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I argued.

Jasmine took a step closer to me. “Perhaps executing the retainer would make removing the soldiers simpler?”

Lyra cleared her throat. “Regent Leywin, I—”

“I’m not regent,” I interrupted, considering both Jasmine’s and Regis’s words. “Lance or general, maybe, but—”

“Excuse me, Regent Leywin, but I have ceded authority over this continent to you.” I glared at the woman as she interrupted me, but she didn’t back down. “Until such a time as you reestablish your own form of government, I believe that does, in fact, make you regent of Dicathen.”

“This is no place to have this conversation,” I said with a meaningful look at the crowd of enemy mages in their tidy rows. “Lyra of Highblood Dreide, you are, for the moment, my prisoner.” She bowed ever so slightly. “If I sense any treachery from you, you die.”

“Understood,” she said without missing a beat, a stark reminder that, in Alacrya, the price of failure at her position was always death.

“Is this all the soldiers in Etistin?” I asked as I turned toward the royal palace.

Jasmine and Lyra fell into step behind me.

“No, the greater bulk of our force here is still being escorted out of the city. Since Etistin has remained a hotbed of rebellious activity, there is a large force of troops here. Over sixteen thousand in the city alone, and nearly as many scattered throughout the surrounding countryside. The majority are currently being relocated into camps outside the city.”

“Don’t bother with camps,” I said over my shoulder.

A face peered down at us from the second-story window of a well-constructed estate: a girl, maybe seven years of age, her eyes wide as dinner plates and blue as the bay. I wanted to give her a smile, maybe even a wave, but I simply watched as she ran back out of sight.

“All Alacryans are being relocated beyond the Wall until this war is over,” I continued. Now that I was looking, I could see other signs of movement from the residents of Etistin. Lyra Dreide hadn’t told the people what was happening, I realized.

“Regent, perhaps I can—”

I stopped and turned, pinning her with a sober scowl. “Was there a part of ‘you are my prisoner’ that you failed to understand?”

She paused, waiting for me to finish speaking, then went on. “—offer you some insight into the situation in Etistin that might provide some options beyond just your current plan.”

Next to Lyra, Jasmine raised her eyebrows very slightly and slid a dagger partially out of its sheath. I gave her a subtle shake of my head.

I immediately found myself more curious than annoyed by the retainer’s daring. Groveling, begging, pleading…that was what I’d expected. Where did this boldness come from, I wondered.

When we reached the palace gates, armed Alacryan guards immediately laid down their weapons and marched away, following some pre-given orders. Several people curiously watched us approach from the palace entry, but scattered to get out of our way, and no one engaged with us.

I’d been in the palace briefly before the Battle of the Bloodfrost, but not enough to know my way around. Jasmine and I allowed Lyra to lead us through the grand entry and into a series of solars and apartments until we reached a private study.

I looked around curiously.

The room was tidy, but stuffed full of scrolls, maps, stacks of parchment, and books. Picking up a piece of heavy waxed parchment, I realized it was a detailed drawing of the palace itself. The piece below it in the pile was much the same, but from a different angle and with a cutaway revealing the palace interior.

I set the parchment down. Lyra and Jasmine were both watching me expectantly. “We need to fill the void left by your absence,” I said after a moment.

Lyra rested one hip against the side of the desk dominating the study and fiddled with the edge of a scroll. “Many of the previous Dicathian king and queen’s servants and courtiers still reside in the city. Some are imprisoned in the bowels of this palace, others have taken up new lives, new careers. I’m certain they will make themselves known when you publicly announce my surrender.”

What she said was true, but I knew I couldn’t just pull some courtier out of prison and tell them they were in charge of Sapin’s capital city. No, I needed people who knew the city well, who understood the politics and players, and who would immediately have public support.

“Wait here,” I said, reaching for my extradimensional storage rune.

The heavy metallic tempus warp appeared in my hands, and I carefully set it down next to a crowded bookshelf. Warmth flooded my body as I activated Realmheart again, through it using aether to manipulate the mana required to calibrate the device for Vildorial.

After a moment, a portal shimmered into existence beside the tempus warp.

“Would you mind bringing the Glayders here for me?” I asked Jasmine.

She nodded before vanishing through the portal without hesitation.

Lyra pushed away from the desk and approached the tempus warp, kneeling down to examine more closely. “Impressive. Only the High Sovereign himself is allowed to commission artifacts capable of such long-range teleportation.”

I continued to peruse the stacks of parchment and scrolls. “The Wraiths I killed brought it with them,” I said casually. “An emergency escape route in case things went poorly, I assume.”

She scoffed, standing upright, her lavender eyes settling on me. “That certainly backfired on them, didn’t it?”

I leaned against a shelf, arms crossed, and met her gaze. “You know a lot about what has been happening. On both continents, it seems.”

“That is my job,” she answered simply. “To know things. For example, perhaps it has occurred to you that the defense of Dicathen was rather ramshackle and ineffective? Well, it might interest you to know that Agrona’s attention has been forced back home. Treachery at the highest ranks. Maybe even civil war.”

Regis manifested from the deep shadows around me, his eyes wide with interest. “Ooh, do spill the tea.”

Giving no other indication that she was surprised by Regis’s appearance other than a step back from the shadowy wolf, the retainer plucked a scroll from the desktop and tossed it to me with a forced smile. “Scythe Seris Vritra somehow defeated or otherwise removed one of the Sovereigns and claimed half of Sehz-Clar for herself.”

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I unrolled the scroll. It was a missive detailing the events of the rebellion in Alacrya. So Seris finally made her move, I mused. “But even if she had the support of all Alacrya, she can’t win a civil war against the Vritra Clan,” I said aloud.

“It does seem like an unnecessarily roundabout way of getting herself and all her followers killed,” Lyra answered. She shifted her weight and dug the toe of her boot into the polished wood of the floor. “Unless…”

I followed the thread the retainer had laid out for me. “Unless she isn’t trying to win. When exactly did this rebellion start?”

“Almost immediately after you destroyed a secret military facility in the dominion of Vechor,” she answered.

I frowned. It had been a week since the Wraiths ambushed me in Vildorial. More than enough time for Agrona to respond to their defeat. I’d made it more difficult for him to send additional soldiers to Dicathen, but not impossible. And even I couldn’t fight all his forces, especially if he sent more Wraiths or even Sovereigns.

A fact Seris would know well.

I recalled that first meeting, looking up—bloody, broken, manaless—from the bottom of a crater, Sylvie beside me, pinned to the ground by Uto’s blood iron spikes. Even then, before we had ever met, Seris had shielded me from Agrona’s servants.

Is that what she’s doing now? I wondered. There didn’t seem to be any other likely explanation.

“Do you mind my asking,” Lyra began, “what you will be doing next? With Vildorial, Blackbend, Xyrus, and Etistin under your control, it is only a matter of time until the rest of Dicathen falls back to you.”

“I’m expecting company after this,” I said vaguely, but at that moment, the opaque portal shivered, and a ripple passed over its colorless surface as Jasmine materialized.

Just behind her, Curtis and Kathyln Glader came through.

I smiled to see the wonder on both their faces. Kathyln took a faltering step toward the desk, her hand reaching slowly out, fingers trailing across the smooth mahogany surface.

Curtis’s focus was on me, a grin lighting up his square face, but then his head turned, and the grin collapsed into an outraged snarl. “What the hell is she doing here?”

Lyra, who had stepped back into the corner of the study, bowed to the Glayders. “Welcome, Lord and Lady Glayder. I understand this is—”

Suddenly Curtis was moving. Golden fire blazed from his fist up the length of his arm, which cocked back to deliver a mana-reinforced blow. But, quick as Curtis was, Kathyln was even quicker.

With a single step, she interposed herself between her brother and the retainer, her black hair flying behind her like a flag. Her hand came up and pressed against Curtis’s chest, forcing him to stop.

“Kat, this is the woman who—”

“I know who she is, brother,” Kathyln said, betraying no emotion.

Jasmine kept glancing in my direction, perhaps hoping for some guidance on whether or not to intervene, but I only watched. It would build resentment in the Glayders if I forced them to stand down or appeared to side with Lyra Dreide. They needed to work through this on their own. Besides, Lyra was a retainer. From what I’d heard, she’d put up a half-decent fight against Varay, Mica, and Aya all together. Even if the Glayders attacked her, I doubted they could kill her.

Kathyln had turned around, leveling an icy stare at Lyra.

The retainer cleared her throat. “I understand your hatred of me, but know that I only ever did as I was commanded by Scythe Cadell or the High Sovereign himself. After all, each one of us is but a piece on the board, it is the Sovereigns who—”

Kathyln’s hand crashed against Lyra’s cheek with a sharp crack, snapping the retainer’s head to the side. “Your excuses are feeble and pointless,” she said, completely in control of herself. “Regardless of whether you butchered our parents for fun, or only paraded their bodies around the countryside for fear of death at the hands of your own lord, you are a monster, and if it were up to me, you’d already be dead.”

“Ooh,” Regis whispered before I shot a glare at him.

Curtis, arm still blazing, pointing a fiery finger at me. “Arthur, what’s the meaning of this? Why did you bring us here? Why isn’t this creature’s head on a spike already?”

I pushed away from the bookshelf and closed the distance to Curtis. Reaching out, I rested one hand on his upper arm—the arm that was burning. Golden flames danced between my fingers. He kept the conjured flames in place for a breath, two, then suddenly they vanished, leaving the room feeling much darker and less warm.

“Because, at least for the moment, we need her.” Curtis opened his mouth to argue, but I kept speaking. “This city is in shambles. I need a strong hand to help lift the people of Etistin back up, to provide leadership and security after the Alacryans are gone.”

“You want us to lead the city,” Kathyln said, one eye on me, the other on Lyra.

“You know the city, the people. Your name means something here, carries a natural authority.” I released Curtis’s arm. “There is a lot of rebuilding to be done. I trust you to do it.”

Curtis glowered around the study, his eyes focusing anywhere but me or Lyra Dreide. “What about the Alacryans? Rumor is you’re sending them all beyond the Wall.”

“Yes, I—”

Lyra Dreide cleared her throat again and gave me a smile simultaneously apologetic and yet very much not so. “As I tried to suggest before, I don’t believe sending so many Alacryan soldiers across the entire breadth of the continent to forage off your Beast Glades is the only—or the wisest—course of action, Regent.”

Curtis’s neck and cheeks flushed red. “Who said you could speak, demon?”

Such brazenness, I thought, almost amused. “What do you suggest then?”

Curtis’s teeth ground together as he glared at me, shocked.

Lyra hesitated a moment, apparently waiting to see if the Glayders were going to interrupt her, then said, “We have many ships in the bay. Allow any Alacryan—or Dicathian—who wishes it to depart for Alacrya immediately. We have surrendered. It would be a sign of good faith, and a sound strategic decision as well, as the journey is a long one. Any soldiers who spend the next month at sea can’t be used against you, but they are also safe from the High Sovereign’s wrath as well.”

“A sign of good faith?” Curtis sputtered, but Kathyln took his hand and squeezed it firmly, silencing him.

“And…” Lyra started but immediately paused.

“Go on.”

“I would suggest that anyone who renounces their service to the High Sovereign be allowed to stay in Dicathen.” She raised her chin as Curtis scoffed, her lavender eyes looking down her nose into the deep brown wells of his. “Many of these men and women have been here for over a year, Lord Glayder. They have homes, families—”

“Bullshit,” Curtis snapped. “As if any Dicathian would willingly form a family with an Alacryan. What you mean is our people have been forced into slavery, sold off, their homes and lives stolen—”

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“No,” Lyra said firmly. “In fact, the High Sovereign forbids such things. Our culture values purity of blood, and the Sovereigns were firm in their insistence that there be no intermingling of Dicathian and Alacryan blood.” She smiled, and there was a wicked sort of gleam in her eye. “But the Sovereigns are a long ways away, and love is a strange and powerful thing.”

“Love?” Curtis ground out. “As if the conquered can ever fall in love with the conqueror, except by force and fear.”

“You may have lived the last year in a hole in the ground, Lord Glayder, but I have not,” Lyra said sharply. “You will see for yourself soon enough.”

“Perhaps,” Kathyln said to Lyra, but she was looking at me. “I admit I’m uncomfortable with the retainer’s suggestion. Ships full of soldiers could just as easily circle the continent and attack from another direction. Or bide their time off the coast until the next major attack, then we would be dealing with a conflict on multiple fronts. If more of those Wraiths were to come…”

She made a good point. I understood the intention of Lyra’s plan, and it would be much easier to board the soldiers on boats than transport them all the way to the Wall, but that meant we were giving Agrona back several thousands warriors.

I glanced at Jasmine, who had been silent throughout the encounter. She only shrugged.

I found myself agreeing with Lyra’s judgment, but I was still wary of simply making decrees and expecting everyone to jump in line and follow orders. “The three of you will be working together on this. Lyra has surrendered, but her suggestions aren’t without value. However we proceed, everyone should be in agreement.”

There was a tense pause. Curtis turned to Kathyln, who held my gaze.

“I suggest we do as the retainer has suggested,” she said at length.

I expected Curtis to argue with her, but he seemed to be forcing himself to relax, releasing his balled fists and taking a deep breath. “If we’re going to allow Alacryans to stay, we should at least imprison them for a while…thirty days, if not more.”

Lyra frowned.

Kathyln’s brows rose as she considered her brother. “That will allow the ‘families’ some separation to ensure any such agreements are truly mutual, and protect both the people of Dicathen and the Alacryan soldiers. It’s a good compromise.”

A ripple of force disturbed the air in the study, casting a palpable veil over us and causing all five of us to turn in the direction it had come from.

“What in the—” Curtis muttered, his hand on his sword.

“So much mana…” Lyra said, her eyes widening.

I quickly activated Realmheart, and a smile slowly bloomed on my face as I recognized the signature of that mana .

I started for the door with Regis close behind, then stopped suddenly and turned to face the Glayders. “This should go without saying, but Lyra Dreide is my prisoner. For the time being, she will stay here and help you with the arrangements. I expect her to remain unharmed.” My focus shifted to the retainer. “When I return, I’ll decide her fate. Depending, of course, on how helpful she has been in that time.”

Three sets of eyes blinked at me uncertainly, but I knew I couldn’t spend more time lingering in Etistin. The next phase of the war was already beginning.

I pushed open the door and headed for the main gates, Jasmine a quiet shadow just behind me.

Once we were out of earshot of the study, I stopped.

“What’s up?” Jasmine asked as I turned toward her.

I gave her an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, I need to do this next part alone.”

She shrugged. “I figured.”

Then, thinking to Regis, I added, I need you to stay here as well. To keep an eye on Lyra. Stay out of sight and watch her. My gut tells me we can trust her sense of self-preservation, but I won’t risk the Glayders’ lives on that alone.

I felt Regis’s disappointment and frustration bleeding through our link. ‘I don’t know about this, Art.’

This is important, Regis. I don’t know Lyra, but I know Kezess. I won’t be in danger.

He sighed before turning to Jasmine. “I know this is weird, but do I have your consent to hide within the meat puppet you call a body?”

A shiver ran down her back as her red eyes widened with disbelief. “W-what…?”

I rolled my eyes and would have kicked Regis, except he’d already become incorporeal. “He’s going to stay behind to keep everyone safe, but I want him out of sight. Lyra shouldn’t know he’s here.”

Jasmine took a moment to compose herself, straightening her armor and smoothing the shocked expression from her features. “Whatever needs to be done.”

Without a sound, Regis vanished into Jasmine. Her jaw tightened as she clenched her teeth as the ball of aether that was Regis hovered around her core.

“So weird,” she ground out.

‘Hey, it’s not much better for me, okay?’ Regis thought, but by her lack of reaction, I assumed Jasmine couldn’t hear him.

“Stay safe. I shouldn’t be gone long,” I said. And you mind your manners, I thought at Regis.

Then I was marching through the palace again, now alone.

Outside, I found a roughly oval disc of opaque energy hanging before us. Shouts rose up from the palace as the few people who had snuck out to see what was happening rushed away from the area.

A blinding white silhouette appeared, stepping through the opaque disc to hang in the air before it.

Then the portal faded, revealing a man with platinum blond hair in a dark, military-style uniform, and his otherworldly eyes—each one like a window into a distant galaxy—settled on me.

“Arthur Leywin. It has been some time.”

“It’s about damn time,” I replied conversationally. “I wasn’t sure he would send you considering everything.”

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Windsom’s expression remained placid. “I am Lord Indrath’s envoy to this world. And as such, I am here to fetch you.” Mana hardened into a shimmering set of stairs that led up to the portal. “Come, Arthur. Lord Indrath would speak with you.”

I gave a throaty chuckle. “Yeah, I’m sure he does.”

A/N: I'm not sure if anyone caught on, but this line was a homage back all the way to the beginning of Volume 5 when Arthur said this line to Windsom when he came to break Arthur out of his cell. ;)

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