The Beginning After The End | Chapter 317

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Beginning After The End Manhwa Novel

Chapter 317



 Chapter 317


The journey to Eidelholm passed quickly, though it took nearly two full days .


We traveled in silence, mostly . Tessia and Albold were forced to slow their pace, guiding the rest of us carefully through the outskirts of Elshire . Hornfels and Skarn had it the hardest; they weren’t woodsmen, and had spent very little time above ground . They hated the mists as much as I hated stepping in puddles of mud…which happened often .


Boo and Grawder, on the other hand, seemed completely at home . We let them move at their own pace, sometimes rushing ahead, charging through the forest like a couple of wild animals, and other times lingering behind to dig in the soft soil or sniff after some mana beast trail . I didn’t worry about them, though . I knew that Boo would always be able to find his way back to me .


Though we stayed cautious, Tessia and Albold weren’t worried the Alacryans would find us in the forest . They expected that we would already be at Eidelholm before the prisoner caravan was reported as missing, and the Alacryans couldn’t navigate Elshire well enough to have effective patrols .


When we did actually talk, it was largely to discuss optimal paths we should take to scout out the area without being discovered . While neither Albold nor Tessia had a map, both knew the area well enough for us to have a good sense of what to expect by the time we reached the elven village .


Signs of the Alacryans were all over the place before we got our first look at Eidelholm .


The first was the corpse of an elven man lying face down at the base of a dying tree . A hole the size of an apple had been burned completely through him and the tree both .


I kept my gaze fixed on the sight, despite wanting to spin away and puke . This was something I had to get used to .


Albold leaned over the corpse, his usual cheery expression nowhere to be found . “He was most likely trying to flee . ”


Agreeing in silence, we didn’t linger to investigate more closely .


We slowed our pace as we got closer to the village, moving carefully in case we ran into Alacryans in the woods . As we approached, the sound of axes thudding into trees grew louder and louder .


Tessia held up a closed fist, and we all went still and tense . She leaned toward me and pointed ahead . The mists had cleared, but the trees were still dense enough to limit my line of sight .


Using mana, I enhanced my vision to try and see what Tessia was pointing at . There was no movement, no enemy that I could see . Just trees, with sunlight shining on brown earth beyond .


Then it snapped into place . Where the sun shone, the forest simply ended . We crept forward again until we were just at the edge of the treeline . The Alacryans had cut down all of the trees around Eidelholm, an uncountable number of trees . A large field of deforested land lay between us and a sad, gray little town .


I was sure the elven village must have been really pretty, once upon a time . Now the twisted timbers and boughs that made up the structure of the buildings seemed withered and dead, and the green roofs had turned brown like fallen leaves .


I could see where a lot of the houses around the edge of the town had burned down . A few square buildings, minimal in design, had been built in their place, and a handful of Alacryan men and women could be seen going about their day, doing normal, ordinary things like hauling buckets of water or armloads of wood .


Tessia stood to my left . The set of her jaw and the angle of her body made her look like a predator . She was so tense I could practically see her quivering, like a silver jaguar waiting for its prey .


I wasn’t the only one who noticed .


“Let’s find someplace with some shelter so we can wait for the cover of night,” Curtis said, stepping up beside Tessia .


“No,” Tessia said simply . “We need to get a good look at the village in the light . Albold, you and Curtis make a circuit to the west . Ellie and I will go east . Kathyln, Skarn, and Hornfels, you three take the mana beasts and find someplace to shelter, somewhere we can use as a base of operations . ”


Curtis must have noticed the looks of confusion all around . “I’ll be able to find Grawder when the four of us meet back up after our circuit,” he explained . “We always know where the other is . ”


Skarn spit into the dirt . “I can’t wait to be done with this hiking nonsense . C’mon you great brutes, you’re with us . ” This last was directed at Grawder and Boo, who looked hesitantly toward Curtis and me .


“I’ll be back soon, Grawder,” Curtis said, smiling warmly at his world lion bond .


I ran a hand through Boo’s fur, then scratched him under his chin . He looked at me in a way that said he’d rather be by my side . Smiling, I booped his nose . “You stay with Grawder, silly . We’ll be right back . ”


Curtis gave his sister a hug, and over his shoulder she shot me an embarrassed look, forcing me to turn away to hide my grin .


To the dwarves, Tessia said, “Thank you for being here, friends . The elven people owe you a great debt . ”


Skarn simply grunted, but Hornfels gave Tessia the slightest bow . “We’re all in this fight together now . It’s Skarn’s and my hope that, some day, we’ll be able to free our own kin from the poisonous ideas of the late king and queen Greysunders . Until such a time, though, we’ll deliver our boots to Alacryan asses wherever we can find them . ”


Tessia returned the bow, then turned her turquoise eyes on me . “Ready, partner?”


Partner…


It was strange, being referred to like that by her . We’d come so far together since that first tense exchange in the underground town after Arthur disappeared . Past me likely would’ve killed present me for thinking this, but I sort of looked up to Tessia now . She was also one of the few people that treated me…as me . And Tessia had been the one to push for me to be involved, for me to have the chance to help our people .


With a deep breath, I reached for the feeling deep in my core and manifested the first phase of my beast will . “Yeah, I’m ready . ”


With a backwards glance at Boo, who stood up on his hind legs and waved one big paw, looking as sad as I’d ever seen him, I set off after Tessia .


She led us east, always keeping under the cover of the trees . We moved slowly . Tessia scouted the village while I kept a lookout for any threats in the forest, especially Alacryan soldiers .


We hadn’t been moving for more than ten minutes when I stopped Tessia after catching a whiff of something familiar . We both fell flat on our stomachs, using the undergrowth to hide as best we could while I searched for the source of the scent .


“There,” I mouthed, pointing west .


A young elven woman came around a large tree less than twenty feet away . She was carrying a wicker basket in the crook of one arm . Her blonde hair had been cut short, exposing red marks and bruising across the side and back of her neck . She walked with a slight limp .


I was surprised to see that she wasn’t chained or manacled in any way . There are probably other, less obvious ways to bind someone, I thought, my mind going to Tessia’s parents, the late king and queen of the elves . The Alacryans are good at things like that .


Distant shouting and the splintering crash of a falling tree made the girl stop . She stared sadly in the direction of the noise for a moment, then moved on .


Tessia took a step toward the elven girl but stopped herself . It looked like we both wanted to help her, but it wasn’t the right time . Tessia and I waited until the limping elf had moved off, leaving the forest and stepping into the light, where she jogged awkwardly back toward the village .


After that we crept along even more cautiously, our eyes mostly on the village, but my enhanced hearing and smell was trained on the forest, cautious of anything approaching . We’d gone a little more than halfway around the village before I had to withdraw my beast will to rest .


Shortly afterward, Tessia stiffened, then stabbed her thumb down to signal us to drop . We both dove behind a large berry bush .


I couldn’t see anything, so I watched Tessia’s face carefully in case I needed to conjure an arrow in an instant, but after several long seconds she relaxed and stood up . Hesitantly, I followed her lead, my bow at the ready .


Nearby, Albold stepped out from between two trees where he was waiting for us alongside Curtis, and I let out a relieved breath .


“Things seem quiet on this side,” Tessia said softly, waving them over . “No sign of where they’re keeping the prisoners yet . You?”


Albold nodded, face tense . “Makeshift cages—little more than kennels—have been constructed at the edge of town . There are a couple hundred prisoners at least . I counted thirteen guards . ”


“But only three mages,” Curtis added . “The rest were just normal soldiers—unadorned, they call them . ”


Tessia tugged thoughtfully at a loose lock of her hair . “Okay, you two complete your circuit, put a second set of eyes on this side of the village . Ellie and I will take a look at the prisoners ourselves . ”


“There is a large logging party working on that side of town, too . We had to go well out into the forest to avoid them,” Albold noted .


Tessia nodded in understanding, we said our farewells, then we split up again .


As we rounded the far side of the village, the consistent thudding of axes into wood grew louder, and, as Albold had said, we found a group of men and women working to fell, cut, and carry away lumber . The first thing I noticed was that all the workers were Alacryans . In fact, there were no elves assisting with the logging at all .


We were crouched behind a naturally fallen tree a couple hundred feet from the nearest Alacryan, watching them work .


“Even under threat of death, my people wouldn’t cut down the trees,” Tessia whispered, answering my unasked question .


Without another word, she took off deeper into the forest, giving the workers a wide berth . It didn’t take us long after that to find the roughly built cages were housing elves like animals ready to be butchered .


It was hard to believe anyone could survive long in such awful conditions . The elves were nearly all standing, their bodies pressed against one another . They had just enough room for a few to lay down at once in the cramped cages . The elves looked pale and thin, their dirty skin stretched too tightly across their faces, giving them a ghastly, skeletal look .


The cages were made of wood, but were little more than roughly milled frames connected by narrow planks . I wondered for a moment why the elves didn’t try to break out, but then I realized that they were probably so tired and weak that they didn’t even have the strength to break the wooden slats, much less escape from the guards .


My eyes caught on an elven man who was pressed up against the side of one of the cages . He was slumped down unnaturally, his eyes open but glazed . I couldn’t bear to continue looking at the sight of his body left to rot next to his own family .


Animals, I thought angrily . My fingers trembled, itching to send mana arrows flying at the guards right then and there .


The voice in the back of my mind that sounded like Arthur’s told me I was thinking like a child . It reminded me that we were just here as scouts . Looking at these prisoners, though, I doubted that they would last much longer .


Two of the guards were playing some kind of board game, sitting at a makeshift table made of a stump . I closed my eyes and activated my beast will so I could hear what they were saying .


“—tired of the stink . Babysitting a bunch of unwashed, half-dead elves wasn’t what I had in mind when they told us we’d be taking this place over, you know?”


“Tell me about it . And with that Bilal creeping around, glaring down at us all the time . He’s even worse than Jagrette, and she was awful . Are you going to take your move or what?”


“I’m thinking, I’m thinking . But yeah, you’re right . I’m not sure why we need a damned retainer for this post, anyway . My kid sister could guard these elves all by herself . It’s those Milviews, I’m sure . Cowards . How they ever earned highblood status, I’ll—”


But I lost track of the conversation for a moment as my mind buzzed . Jagrette, where have I heard of that name before?


I turned to Tessia to ask her, but she held up a hand .


Not a second passed before a chill ran down my spine, my own bestial senses picking up the deathly aura that smelled even worse than the rotting corpses nearby .


A man stepped from between two of the buildings, approaching the guards . He looked like a walking skeleton . His face was pale and puffy, his eyes so sunken and dark that they looked like empty holes . Flat, greenish hair like dead seagrass clung to his forehead and cheeks . He was tall and awkwardly thin with sharp, spiderish limbs that his sheer black mage’s robes highlighted .


The back of his robes were cut away, revealing a series of dark tattoos standing out against the white flesh . His spine and ribs were sharply defined, their gray shadows intersecting the sharply inked lines in a way I found gross…almost inhuman .


Silently, the man walked around the end of the cages, then stopped suddenly, just outside of the enclosure with the dead elf pressed against the bars . He turned to look at one of the guards, a thick-chested man with a black beard . The rest of the guards stood well back .


“What happened here?” the pale man asked the ranking guard . “An early execution?”


“N-no, sir . They’re not in good health . A few have died of—of weakness . ”


“Is it not your job to guard them, soldier? The executions will be rather uninteresting if most of them have already succumbed to their…weakness . ” The man seemed mildly amused as he said this, but the bearded guard threw himself to one knee and bowed .


“Of course, Bilal . We will make sure the rest survive to be killed at the proper time . ”


The pale man stared down at the back of the guards head . “Just keep them breathing for another day or two . ” He turned away from the guard, gazing out into the trees .


I froze . There was no way he could know we were there, but still…


Tessia was the one to act, shooting a soft gust of wind at a nearby tree rodent perched on a low hanging branch .


The tiny mana beast, surprised, hopped off of its branch, drawing the pale robed man’s gaze to where it scampered off .


“This damnable forest,” Bilal cursed, shaking his head .


Sneering, he turned to leave, then stopped again suddenly . He waved the bearded guard over, then, his voice low and sickly, he said, “Pick out one or two of the livelier elves and have them sent to my abode, would you?”


The guard paled, his nose wrinkling in disgust, but he was quick to assure the retainer he would do so .


Tessia grabbed my hand, drawing my attention without speaking, and nodded into the forest . It was time to go .


We sneaked away from the treeline, moving deeper under the cover of the dense boughs, then turned and navigated quickly around the village toward our rendezvous with Albold and Curtis .


When we found the others, both Albold and Curtis were watching for us fearfully .


Curtis moved quickly to Tessia’s side . “Are you okay? We worried when you weren’t—”


“Yes,” Tessia said quickly . “We took our time at the prisoner cages . ” To me, she said, “Ellie, what did you hear?”


I recounted everything I’d heard . The others were quiet when I’d finished .


Finally, her face hard as a statue, Tessia turned and walked south into the forest . “Let’s find our companions . Curtis, you lead the way . ”


I glanced at Curtis, and he smiled and winked at me . “Do you regret following us yet?”


“Not at all,” I said, forcing a smile that fell away as soon as Curtis turned to follow Tessia .


We walked for over thirty minutes before we found Grawder and Boo . They were lying next to one another in a little patch of sun at the center of a clearing . Kathyln and the Earthborns weren’t with them .


Boo rolled to his feet and lumbered toward me . My bond rumbled deep down in his chest and nudged me so that I almost tipped over backwards .


I laughed and wrapped my arms around his neck . “I’m glad to see you too, Boo . ”


Grawder, who must have known Curtis was returning, only raised his huge head, shook it gently so his golden mane waved like wheat in a sunny field, then went back to his nap .


“Where are—” I started, but was cut off by the grinding of stone .


Just behind where Grawder still lounged, the earth shifted, folding in on itself to reveal an earthen tunnel . Skarn and Hornfels stood just inside .


“You weren’t followed, were you?” Skarn grunted, glaring past our group into the trees .


“They’re hot on our tails!” Curtis gasped, his eyes going wide . “Quick, everyone inside . ”


I snickered at the handsome prince’s bad joke . Tessia’s lips quirked up in a wry smile, and Hornfels laughed loudly, but Skarn only glowered more deeply .


“Yes, jokes about our immediate and untimely deaths…my favorite . ” The dwarf spit on the ground . “Inside then . Couldn’t find a suitable shelter, so we made one . ”


Curious, I followed the dwarves down the earthen ramp into a smooth-walled cave, which was about twenty feet long and wide, and perhaps eight feet high . A handful of lighting artifacts, glowing stones like those we used in the underground city, had been set around the room to provide lighting .


A simple set of chairs and a table had been molded out of earth at the center of the room, and seven low cots were pushed against the walls . I plopped down on one and was surprised by how soft it was . The far end of the little cave had been left open for the mana beasts .


“This is pretty nice,” I mentioned, nodding my approval to the Earthborns .


Hornfels beamed at me . “The cots were my idea . ”


Skarn grunted and rolled his eyes as the rest of the group filed in . Tessia inspected the cave, and Curtis whistled in appreciation . Albold, however, seemed uncomfortable .


“I hate being underground,” he muttered .


Once everyone was in, Skarn used mana to close the entryway again, hiding us completely . Boo and Grawder pushed their way through the crowd, both sitting down at the far end of the cave . Their presence made the space feel a lot smaller than it had just a few minutes ago .


“Now that you’ve all finished your tour through our humble abode, may we have the honor of discovering what fresh slice of hell awaits us at the village?” Skarn groused, taking a seat at the table .


Tessia nodded, taking a seat at the table as well . “Almost everything was what we expected…”


Kathyln sat down across from her . “Almost everything?”


Curtis and Albold exchanged a knowing look, while the dwarves wrinkled their brows in confusion .


After everyone took their seat around the table, Tessia recounted what we experienced, from the female elf we saw all the way to the two guards’ conversation and our encounter with Bilal .


“A mass execution…” Hornfels said with a long breath .


“So much for our plan of coming back with a larger force,” Skarn chortled .


After a moment of strained silence, it was Curtis who shot up to his feet . “We can’t leave these people here . ”


Everyone’s head turned to the crimson-haired prince, surprised .


“What does the enemy force look like?” Kathyln asked .


Her brother’s determined gaze wavered as Albold answered . “Not many mages on their side, but…”


“There’s a retainer,” Tessia said simply .


“Well, that’s that then,” Skarn said with a shrug . “I say we teleport straight back to the sanctuary, we’ve—ouch!” Skarn glared at his brother, who had just stomped on his foot under the table .


“What my brother means,” Hornfels said, looking much more serious than normal, “is that, as much as we’d like to help these people, perhaps we should take stock of our abilities . Has anyone here ever faced a retainer?” The dwarf looked from face to face around the table, then turned to look at me for good measure .


I shook my head, as did the others . I expected Tessia to argue, but it was Kathyln that spoke up .


Turning to our leader, the ice mage asked, “What are your chances against a retainer?”


Tessia’s gaze fell as she thought for a moment before her turquoise eyes landed back on Kathyln . “At worse, a stalemate . At best, a close win . ”


Skarn let out an appreciative whistle while the rest exchanged excited glances .


“We have five silver core mages amongst us,” Curtis said with a confident smile . “We can do this!”


Kathyln nodded as she rubbed her chin . “And having more water and plant mages back in the sanctuary would help our settlements spread tremendously—”


“Kathyln, we’re not saving them for the value that they’ll bring back to our sanctuary,” Tessia said sternly .


A flash of red emerged on the ice mage’s pale face . “You’re right . My apologies . ”


“I won’t pretend to be as strong as Arthur was when he defeated Jagrette, but I don’t need to be,” Tessia said seriously . “I’ll hold off Bilal along with Albod, who’ll be keeping the other guards busy, long enough for the rest of you to secure the imprisoned elves and send them back to the sanctuary . ”


“If you are able to hold a retainer off alone, why not have the rest of us join you and finish this Bilal bastard off first?” Skarn asked .


“Because this isn’t just a simple one-on-one battle like Arthur had against Jagrette,” Kathyln answered . “Our priority is to get everyone out of here safely . ”


“Kathyln’s right . If we were all to charge after the retainer, he might decide to harm the prisoners . ” Tessia’s lips curved into a mischievous smile . “But if the distraught and emotional princess of the elves stormed the village with just her trusty aid for backup, wreaking havoc…”


“And the retainer will come running . He might not even notice that his prisoners are gone!” Hornfels finished, snapping his thick fingers . “I like it!”


“Me too!” I exclaimed with newfound confidence .


The crimson-haired prince turned to the two elves and said with a grin . ”Looks like the two of you will have to practice your acting . ”


*

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