The Beginning After The End | Chapter 313

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Beginning After The End Manhwa Novel

Chapter 313



 Chapter 313


I smirked at Elder Rinia . Her wry sense of humor was one of the things I really liked about her . While everyone else in the underground town walked around as if every day was one long funeral, the old seer could still find humor despite everything that had happened .


The smirk slowly slid off my face as Elder Rinia fixed me with a piercing, humorless stare .


“Wait, are you being serious?” I asked uncertainly .


“Serious as a…as a…” Elder Rinia trailed off, her mouth open slightly, her eyes rolling up toward the roof of the cave as she grasped for whatever she was trying to say . “Damn, I forgot the phrase—but yes, I am very serious . If you think you’re ready for the dangers of battle, then prove it . The creature that haunts these tunnels is a genuine danger—to me, to you, and everyone else in the colony . Want my wisdom? Well, you’re going to have to earn it, Ellie dear . ”


I again found myself not really sure what to say . Elder Rinia was an enigma; I couldn’t even begin to guess at the reason behind her actions, so I had to assume that hunting down and killing this blight hob was important to the mission in Elenoir somehow .


The image of blue slime spilling out of my mouth and nose came to mind and I tasted peppermint again . Or perhaps Rinia needs some part of the blight hob for her stores?


“Do I need to bring any part of the beast back?” I asked .


Elder Rinia grinned slyly . “Clever girl . Yes, kill the creature and bring me its tongue as proof . ”


I nodded to myself, my heart racing in both excitement and fear . I thought about the battle at the Wall, how the thrill and adrenaline of the fight had clashed with the terror I felt as I watched the horde slaughter our soldiers on the battlefield…


It was always like that, I guessed . Even my brother must have been afraid sometimes, but I knew he’d been eager to fight—and to grow stronger—too .


He said he just wanted to be strong enough to protect his family, but if that was true, why did he sacrifice himself for Tessia?


I wasn’t sure I’d ever understand .


“Now, there are a couple things you should know,” Elder Rinia said, interrupting my thoughts . “The blight hob won’t just stand around and try to fight you, especially not with that giant bear protecting you .


“If it can’t sneak up on you, it’ll try to lead you into a trap . Don’t let it . If you can catch it lying in wait for you and put an arrow in its black little heart before it has a chance to move, that’s your best bet .


“And whatever happens, don’t let the thing breathe on you again . That was the last of my frost snail blubber for who knows how long . ”


“Shouldn’t you know when you’ll get more?” I asked . “Being a seer and all?” Despite my nervousness and my fear, a giddy energy was starting to wash over me, and I couldn’t help the big, silly grin that appeared on my face .


Scowling, Elder Rinia said, “Why, you little—” then rocked herself to her feet and began to shoo me away . I hopped up and, still grinning, let her usher me toward the “door” of her cavern home . “Don’t come back until you’ve learned some respect—and don’t forget that tongue!”


Giggling, I slipped through the crack and out into the dark tunnel . My bond was a big, fuzzy shadow guarding the entrance . He turned his wide head to face me as I approached, and I ran my hand up his snout and between his eyes, giving him a scratch . Boo closed his eyes and huffed in pleasure .


“You ready for some action, big guy?” He grunted, a rumble from deep in his chest that would have been terrifying if he wasn’t my bond . “We’re going hunting . ”


***


We started our hunt by returning back to where we’d encountered the pack of cave rats . Two more of the creatures had already found the bodies and were busily cannibalizing the remains .


We approached in total darkness, the light artifact now hidden within a deep pocket of my loose trousers . I had decided it was safer to move in the dark than to give away our location with the lantern stone, relying instead on my mana-heightened hearing to guide us .


Still, Boo wasn’t exactly stealthy, and the cave rats heard us coming . They puffed themselves up and hissed threateningly, protecting their meal, but they turned and fled when Boo charged them .


When I was sure they were gone, I pulled out the light artifact and held it up . “Boo, see if you can get the blight hob’s scent from the roof . ” I pointed at the rough stone above our heads .


My bond stood on his hind legs, reaching his shiny black nose right up to the tunnel ceiling, and began to sniff around . After only a few seconds, he dropped back to all fours and lowered his wide snout to the floor, continuing his deep sniffing .


I followed as he led us away from the chewed up corpses, moving slowly, his nose pressed to the ground .


After about a minute, Boo stopped and turned to look at me, his intelligent eyes shining green in the dim light of the lantern stone . He huffed, his sides expanding, then shook his shaggy hide like a wet dog .


He had the scent . “Okay, let’s go get him, Boo . ”


My bond grunted, then took off, moving quickly now . I stowed the light artifact again and followed, my bow ready .


The blight hob had covered quite a bit of distance since it had attacked us . We followed its scent for an hour, then two, but we still hadn’t caught sight of it .


The tunnels around our underground town were a winding, criss-crossing maze, and the blight hob moved erratically, doubling back as though it knew we were hunting for it . Based on what Elder Rinia had said, I wondered if the mana beast was paranoid, always creeping around as if something was stalking it .


I was walking just behind Boo, my right shoulder pressed against his left flank, so when he jerked to a stop I knew immediately .


The bear’s entire body went rigid, his tough hide quivering slightly .


I waited, my fingers on the string of my bow, ready to draw in an instant .


From somewhere ahead, my mana-enhanced ears picked up the faint sound of claws scraping across stone . I listened intently, trying to figure out how many there were .


Eight, I thought nervously, wondering how many cave rats my bond could safely fight off . The pack was moving in our direction, but they were slow and unhurried, and they hadn’t picked up on our scent yet .


It sounded like there was a gentle curve in the tunnel maybe fifty or sixty feet ahead . Deciding on a plan, I pressed down on Boo’s back so that he crouched down in front of me, flattening himself against the hard earth so that I could see—and shoot—over him .


Drawing my bow, I conjured a brightly shining mana arrow, squinting against the sudden glare, then fired the arrow down the tunnel, where it lodged into the stone wall . I focused on keeping the arrow in place, its blazing light a beacon in the pitch black dark .


The reaction was immediate . Farther down the tunnel, the pack of cave rats burst into a sprint, racing toward the light . Just before they came into sight, I conjured a second arrow and pushed mana through it, causing the arrow to swell and the air around it to shimmer .


At the same time, I let the brightly glowing arrow that had drawn in the mana beasts fade away, plunging the tunnel ahead into darkness . I listened carefully as the cave rats scrabbled around ahead of us, scratching at the walls and floor of the tunnel as they searched for the source of the light .


The string of my bow thrummed as I took my shot . The bulging, shimmering white arrow left a white trail behind it as it streaked down the tunnel, then exploded in mid-air right in the middle of the pack, sending the cave rats flying .


Boo shook with eagerness, ready to rush down the hall and finish them, but I couldn’t be sure how many cave rats had survived, and I didn’t want to risk my bond getting hurt for no reason .


I focused more mana into my ears and conjured another arrow, and when I heard the scuffling sound of a cave rat trying to pick itself up off the floor, I let the mana arrow fly . I was able to shoot faster than the pack could collect itself, and within moments the cave rats were completely silent .


When we were sure the threat had been dealt with, Boo stood up and humphed grumpily .


“Sorry, Boo . I’m just saving you for the real fight, okay?” My bond grumbled again, and I patted his thick fur . “Let’s make sure we got them all . ”


I followed Boo down the tunnel, then waited as he sniffed at the cave rat corpses, nudging at them with his snout . When one hissed breathlessly, he crunched down on it with his powerful jaws, and though I didn’t see it, I heard the mana beast’s flesh tear and bones break as it gasped out its last breath .


With that out of the way, Boo found the blight hob’s scent again and we moved on .


I hope we find the beast soon, I thought . The journey to Rinnia’s and back should not have taken more than a couple of hours, and I’d already been gone longer than that . My mother would be worried…


It occurred to me at that moment that my mother would be furious if she knew what I was doing . I hadn’t even discussed my participation in the coming mission to Elenoir with her, just said I was going to visit Rinia, then run off with Boo .


She hadn’t even had time to pepper me with questions about the council meeting, which I knew she was curious about, even if she pretended not to want anything to do with the leadership—or survival—of our little colony .


That conversation was going to be hard enough; maybe it was better than she didn’t find out about my solo hunt through the tunnels .


My ears twitched as I heard the tinkling sound of little pebbles bouncing down stone walls .


Too distracted to have been properly paying attention, I jerked my bow up, an arrow forming nocked against the string, and aimed at the ceiling, looking for the shrunken, mangy form in the subtle white glow of my mana .


I didn’t even have time to decide if a shadowy shape protruding down from the roof was actually my prey or just a lump of stone before my left ankle twisted and slipped away from me .


A panicked scream burst out of my mouth as my left leg plunged into an unseen gap in the floor, then was cut short when the stone lip of the hole hit me in the ribs . I scrambled to catch hold of something, trying to use my left arm and right leg to leverage myself in place so I didn’t slide any further down, but the wind had already been knocked out of me and I didn’t have the strength to support myself .


Boo bellowed above me, but when he whirled around to help, he practically stepped on me, then one massive paw smacked against the back of my head, jarring me so that I folded up like a piece of parchment as I slipped farther into the hole .


My body jerked to a stop as my bow caught, braced across the mouth of the hole I’d slipped into to create a sort of handhold . Holding most of my bodyweight with just my left hand on the grip of my bow, I tried to disentangle my right leg, which was bent painfully so that my foot was next to my head .


That, it turns out, was a mistake .


As soon as I shimmied my leg free, my body slipped again, ripping my hand away from the bow and sending me into a tumbling fall down the narrow crack in the stone, bouncing painfully off the walls .


Realizing there was nothing else to do, I coated my entire body in mana and tucked my head into my arms to protect my skull . Moments later, the punishing walls vanished and I crashed noisily onto the stone floor of another tunnel .


Fireflies danced in the dark all around me—or were they stars? Little stars, twinkling like snowflakes…


A worried roar echoed through the tunnels, shaking the stone like an earthquake and jarring me back to reality . I realized with a fresh wave of panic that I wasn’t breathing—that I couldn’t breathe . The fall had knocked the wind out of me and I gasped for air, trying to fill my lungs .


Dust and small stones rained down around me as, somewhere above, my bond dug frantically at the crack connecting the two tunnels . I tried to say something, to make sure he knew I wasn’t dead, but without breath I couldn’t get the words out .


Then I received another shock as I heard the sound of wood rattling against stone: my bow, falling down the hole .


My head burst with pain and the stars seemed to explode all around me as I rolled out of the way just in time to avoid being bludgeoned by my own weapon, which hit the ground next to me and sprung away, clattering to rest several feet farther up the tunnel .


I took a deep, sucking breath and was finally able to get some air . For several seconds I just focused on breathing . The stars winked out, one by one, leaving me in darkness .


Finally, when I felt like I had the air for it, I yelled croakily for my bond . “Boo! It’s—it’s okay, big guy, I’m okay!”


The scraping of claws on stone stopped and a pitiful moan resounded from the tunnel above .


“You’ll never make it down that fissure, Boo,” I said, but then I had to stop to take several more shuddering breaths . Each one sent a stabbing pain through my side and pulsed in my head . “You’re going to have to find another way . ”


Boo grunted nervously .


Rolling over, I pushed myself up with still shaking arms . A jolt of pain shot up my right ankle and into my knee, but when I tested its strength, the leg didn’t give out .


Reaching up with one arm, I felt around in the air above me for the tunnel roof . Preparing myself for the backlash of pain, I infused my legs with mana and leapt upward, but I could just barely scrape the ceiling with the tips of my fingers .


“There’s no way I can climb back up . I’m—I’m going to keep moving . You do the same . Try to find my scent, Boo!”


A dismayed, almost whining rumble .


“And be careful! The blight hob could be anywhere…”


I shivered as I realized the truth of my own words . Deciding that, without Boo’s protection, it was too risky to walk blindly through the dark, I dug around in my pocket and pulled out the light artifact, which immediately spilled its warm, dim light around me, illuminating the tunnel .


It was nearly identical to the rest of the tunnels I’d seen down here: a rough tube about seven or eight feet wide and high . Tessia thought that some giant worm-like mana beast must have burrowed here a very long time ago, leaving the tunnels in its wake, but Mom thought they were lava tubes .


Dusting myself off, I walked gingerly to where my bow lay in the ground . A moan of pain escaped me as I bent over to pick up my fallen weapon .


I sound like an old lady! I laughed at myself, which only sent another wave of pain through my back, neck, and sides .


I had been nervous the bow would be ruined by the fall—or by being used as a lifeline to save mefrom the fall—but it was undamaged beyond a few scrapes and dings . I pulled the string back and held it, just to make sure the shaft wouldn’t snap in half under pressure . It was stable .


“Well,” I said quietly, “that could have been worse . ”


Then something rammed me from behind .


I threw myself forward into a roll, jarring my shoulder painfully against the hard ground . Using my bow like a staff, I swung it around behind me as I came back up to my feet and felt it strike my attacker .


In the same motion, I twisted around and got my fingers on the bow string, preparing to draw and fire, but instead I had to jerk it up, holding it in front of me like a shield . Two gnarled, black-clawed hands grabbed the bow and shoved .


With mana surging through my body, I was barely able to keep myself from falling back . The blight hob continued to press forward, snapping its slimy jaws toward my throat as I struggled to push back .


Infusing mana into my arms, I heaved forward, trying and failing to throw the blight hob away from me . The creature made a choking noise in its throat that reminded me of laughter, then sucked in a lungful of air .


It’s going to use its breath attack!


Desperate, I conjured an arrow onto the bowstring so that it appeared between the blight hob and myself . Then, I let myself fall back as the gross mana beast continued to push toward me .


The blight hob, its claws still wrapped around the shaft of my bow, jerked forward from the sudden change in momentum, and my mana arrow impaled its shoulder .


A horrifying cry burst out of it, interrupting its attack, and the blight hob scurried backwards and away from me, clawing and biting at the mana arrow as it tried to dislodge it .


From the ground, I drew the bow and summoned a second arrow, but the shot went right over the blight hob’s deformed, ratlike head and fizzled out when it hit the wall . A second shot missed by several inches as the blight hob leapt onto the wall and skittered, spider-like, onto the ceiling .


It jerked to a halt as a third arrow struck the stone just in front of it, then dropped from the roof to land an arm’s length away .


It’s too fast!


On the verge of panic, I fired another explosive arrow . The rippling bolt of mana soared over the blight hob’s head, then exploded a couple of feet behind my target, flinging us both away .


I was flattened by the force of it, tumbling backwards in a sort of reverse somersault .


The blight hob bounced across the stone floor, stopping somewhere behind me and to my right .


A voice inside my head, which sounded a lot like Arthur’s, was screaming for me to Get up!


Somehow, I’d kept hold of my bow . I was lying on top of it, face down against the rough floor of the tunnel . I tried to push myself up, but there wasn’t any strength left in my arms . Instead, I rolled painfully onto my side and levered myself up onto one elbow, then twisted to look around behind me for the mangey, skeletal mana beast .


It was recovering faster than I was, already dragging itself awkwardly along the ground toward me, its beady little eyes alive with hatred .


I heaved on my bow, trying to bring it up for one more shot, but one end was still lodged under my hip . I shifted, trying to pull it free, but it wasn’t enough . I screamed with pain and fear as I rocked to the side and yanked again, and the bow finally slid free . I rolled up into a half-sitting position to better draw back the bowstring, but a scraggly hand with black talons for claws grabbed at the bow and tried to rip it out of my hands, causing me to tip back onto my side .


I hit the cold, damp floor hard, nearly knocking the wind out of me as the blight hob’s weight pressed down on me and its mouth still snapped for my face . Mana burst through my arms as I wrenched my bow up so that the twisted and misshapen fangs buried into the wooden shaft instead of my exposed throat .


I watched with horror as the blight hob ripped and tore at my beautiful bow: the same bow that Emily Watsken had made me back when we all stayed at the castle together .


The horrible mana beast seemed almost delighted by the fact it was destroying something precious…so much so that it was entirely distracted from me for just a second .


The wood around the arrow shelf began to splinter and crack . The blight hob’s front hands or paws, with their long, clawed toes, were still wrapped around the bow, but its back claws were digging and scratching wildly . When one caught my leg and tore my trousers, leaving a long, deep gash along my shin, I screamed again .


The beast’s beady, dark eyes shifted, focusing back on my face . Its horrid, eel-like tongue lolled from his mouth, its rotten-fruit breath nearly gagging me .


My heart hammered in my throat as I realized I was about to die . All my training, all that time with Arthur and Sylvie shooting down blocks of stone and flaming bears and whirling disks of ice—and for what? Dying without properly apologizing to my mom and leaving her alone…


If only I could control the stone like Arthur, or shoot mana from my hands like Sylvie—


The thought had barely formed in my head when I realized what I needed to do . But I’d never tried to recreate the magic I’d seen Sylvie use so long ago .


I don’t have time! Unless—


Using every ounce of strength I had, I pushed my bow up into the blight hob’s jaw, shoving it deep into its gross mouth . The uneven teeth bore down into the wood until, with a single, final crunch, my bow snapped in half .


The blight hob grabbed one half of the shattered bow with both claws and began to gnaw at the end, chewing it like a wolf with a broken bone .


Without even the time to mourn for my treasured bow, I raised my freed left hand, then focused on condensing pure mana into my palm . Helen had always said I was unusually gifted at manipulating pure mana into the shape of my choice, and her words ringing in my head was what gave me the confidence to conjure a thin, broad-headed dart in my palm with little effort . The next part was harder .


Seeing the blazing white arrow begin to form in my palm, the blight hob scrambled backwards, releasing the ruins of my weapon . At the same time, I heard it sucking in a ragged, rattling breath as it prepared to breathe deadly fumes on me .


Imagining the string of my now useless bow behind the mana arrow glowing from my palm, I pictured all that force, that potential energy, stored in me, and I shaped the mana in my mind until I could feel it pushing back against my hand, a ball of force straining to be let free .


I held it, waiting for my target to make a move, afraid I’d only get one shot . Time seemed to crawl to a stop as we both froze, each of us waiting for the other to make a move .


Then a monstrous, wild roar tore through the tunnel, causing the blight hob to spin around, its deadly breath billowing out around it in a cloud instead of being directed at me .


In that instant, like a punch to my gut, I felt the world around me change .


The dim tunnel, lit only by my lighting artifact, which was half-hidden in a dip in the floor somewhere behind me, came sharply into focus . Every fissure and outcropping was suddenly as clear as if a bright, midnight-silver moon shone down on me .


My sense of smell seemed to change as well . I could not only smell the blight hob’s fetid gas, but sense where and how fast its attack was spreading . I could smell the very sweat lining my own skin, the dust of the tunnel floor, and even Boo’s subtle musk, even though I couldn’t even see him yet .


As my senses became sharp and bestial, a ferocious courage overtook me, and I forgot my fear of death and failure . My hand was steady as I took aim, putting the how and why of my sudden transformation to the back of my mind as I focused on my newly-sharpened senses .


I let the bundle of force I’d gathered burst, flinging the mana arrow toward the blight hob as if it’d been shot from my bow . The glowing bolt hummed as it flew the few feet to my target, striking it just behind its shoulder and piercing deep into its chest .


The blight hob fell screeching to the ground, then tried to stand up, but fell down again . Hazy green mist seeped from its mouth as it stared wildly around, its eyes bulging and tongue lolling grotesquely .


As it went through its death throes, I scrambled backwards, getting as far as I could from the green cloud that was filling the hallway around it . The feeling of that gas burning my throat and lungs was still very fresh…


The sound of huffing and grunting, and of heavy, clawed feet sprinting across stone, came from the darkness on the other side of the gas cloud . Boo slid to a halt once he was close enough to see the blight hob’s corpse and the deadly cloud that surrounded it .


“Hey big guy,” I said tiredly, giving my bond a little wave . He reared back on his hind legs, stalking back and forth across the tunnel and huffing anxiously as he waited for the gas to disperse . “We did it, Boo . ”


He met my gaze, snorted, then settled down on his haunches .


The incredible clarity of my senses faded, and exhaustion crept into my sore muscles and tired mind, pushing away the weird, unnatural courage I had briefly felt in the process . It was like I’d suddenly discovered something that had always been inside me, but had now gone back to sleep . Something that felt a little like Boo .


Lying back, I rested numbly on the hard, rough stone . A sharp edge of rock was sticking into my hip, but I didn’t care . My heart pounded against my ribs with the excitement of my discovery and victory over the blight hob, though the moment was bittersweet .


The loss of my shortbow—an irreplaceable weapon designed just for me—was a heavy price to pay for the blight hob’s tongue .


It better be worth it .


*

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