The Beginning After The End - Chapter 359

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Chapter 359: Potentials


ELEANOR LEYWIN


The long tunnels between the sanctuary cavern and Elder Rinia’s little cave were empty and devoid of life. We had already hunted the cave rats to extinction, apparently. There were a few hundred people to feed in the sanctuary now, and even though the mana beasts tasted like a treeskunk smells, they were edible—if you burned the meat black and didn’t think too hard about what you were eating.


Although Elder Rinia had said she was too ill for visitors, I couldn’t just stay away after what I’d overheard between Virion and Windsom. I had to talk to someone, but I was terrified to tell anyone else. Since Rinia would already know—she was a seer after all—at least I wouldn’t be endangering her by revealing what I’d learned.


When we reached the mouth of the narrow crevice that served as an entrance to Rinia’s home, I scratched Boo under his chin and behind his ear. “You wait here, big guy. I’ll be right back.”


There was a bitter, earthy smell wafting out of the cave that reminded me of dandelion leaves.


I shimmied through the crack in the solid stone. Before I even poked my head out into the cave, a tired, croaking voice said, “Well, come in, I suppose.”


A fire was burning in the far wall, and Rinia was sitting in front of it in her wicker chair, covered in a thick blanket. The cave was sweltering hot and thick with the bitter scent.


“I seem to recall telling you I wasn’t in the mood for visitors,” Rinia rasped, her back to me. “And yet, the curse of the seer is that I can’t even be surprised that you didn’t listen.”


I glanced around the cave before responding. Aside from the natural alcove in which Rinia’s fire blazed, she had a small checker-board table covered in stones, a massive cabinet against one wall, and a low stone table that was covered in cuttings and pulped plants, likely to brew whatever was bubbling away in the pot over her fire. A small alcove contained her bed and a very fine, very out-of-place dresser.


“I’m sorry for disturbing you, Elder Rinia, but I needed to…” I hesitated, taking in her current status, “Are you okay?” As much as I wanted to speak to her about Elenoir, I couldn’t suppress the feeling that something was wrong.


“Fit as a flitter flea,” she japed, pulling the blanket more tightly around her.


I slowly crossed the room and walked around Rinia’s chair so I could get a better look at her. Her skin was withered and dry, and her eye sockets sunken and dark. Thin, white hair draped over her face and loose strands clung to the blanket, having fallen from her head. Most startling, though, were her eyes: they stared at the fire, milky white and sightless.


“Rinia…” I started, but my throat constricted and I had to pause and gather myself. “Why? What have you been—”


“Looking, child,” she said, her voice low and croaking. “Always looking.”


I went to my knees in front of her and took her hand in both of mine, leaning forward to rest my cheek against it. Her skin was dry as parchment and uncomfortably chilly considering the blazing heat in the cave. “For what? What could possibly be worth this?”


“It’s all in the balance, now. My home…Elenoir…” Rinia trailed off, her hand twitching feebly against my cheek. “It was just the beginning. Dicathian, Alacryan…human, elf, or dwarf…kindling. Our homes—our entire world—will burn unless I see…”


“See what?” I asked after a prolonged pause. “What are you looking for?”


“Everything,” she whispered.


We sat there in silence for a long time, and I thought for a while that she had fallen asleep. My mind felt numb, and I realized that I hadn’t really believed Virion or Rinia when they talked about her being ill. Seeing her now…she was like a ghost of herself, barely clinging to life. I couldn’t help but wonder at how much she must have used her power to decline so rapidly.


Our homes—our entire world—will burn…


A shiver ran through me as those words echoed in my mind. “What can I do?” I asked, my voice escaping my lips as little more than a whisper.


“Be in the right place at the right time,” Rinia answered, making me jump.


I scooted away from the fire and sat on the floor with my legs crossed, gazing up at Rinia’s craggy face. “Where is the right place, and when is the right time?”


“That is always the question,” she answered vaguely.


My heart was hammering in my chest. I hated these games, but felt more pity for the old woman than frustration. It was more clear than ever that she really was trying to help. “This has something to do with what Virion and Windsom are hiding, doesn’t it?”


She turned, shifting her body under the blanket to a chorus of popping and creaking. “Don’t get involved, child. It is a…delicate situation. Your instincts on this were right: just keep it to yourself. Whatever we think about what was done, fighting against Virion now only leads to catastrophe. We both know you didn’t need to come see me for affirmation of that.”


“Did…” I struggled against the urge to press her on what she’d known and when. It seemed like that always ended up with me feeling bitterly disappointed. But the tension built up inside me until the words just kind of tumbled out. “Did you know what would happen to Tessia—to me—when I asked you about the mission?”


She let out a rattling laugh that quickly turned into a cough. “Every choice, every future, all leading to a single outcome. Always, always.”


“What do you mean?” I asked, insistent.


“It was fate that Tessia would fulfill her role as vessel for Agrona’s weapon,” she said, closing her eyes and sinking back into her chair. “All I could do was attempt to arrange for the most positive circumstances in which that would happen.”


“You could have said. You could have told me Tess shouldn’t go. Virion would have stopped her, he—”


“In the future you describe,” she snapped, “the slave caravan is saved, but Curtis Glayder elects not to go on to Eidelholm and rescue the rest of the elves held there. One of those young women, while begging her new master not to desecrate her, offers up a piece of knowledge, the only thing she has of value: the name of a man who has helped others escape the Alacryans.


“They find him. Then they find us. Many of us die. And Tessia is taken anyway,” Rinia finished bitterly.


“Then what about Arthur? Why tell him not to let the Alacryans have her?” I asked, my voice cracking a little when I said my brother’s name. “Why did he have to…have to…” I choked on the sentence, turning away from the elder to hide my tears.


“Because it wasn’t time yet,” she sighed.


I stared at her, my tears drying as quickly as they’d appeared when anger quickly took over. “But he died!” I hissed. “And they captured her anyway!”


“I know, child.” She reached a trembling hand out toward me, but I scooted a few inches farther away, and eventually her hand slowly fell. “I know.”


“Was it his fate to die?” I asked quietly. “Did it have to happen?”


Rinia shivered, a slow tremble that seemed to start in her chest and work outward until it had passed through her toes. “Oh, how the hell should I know. A puzzle piece that doesn’t fit, that’s what your brother was. I could never really see his future, not like everyone else.”


“It’s always games with you,” I muttered angrily, my temper getting the better of me. “Arthur wasn’t some piece on a game board. He was my brother!” I shouted, then immediately felt guilty as Rinia’s blind eyes slowly fluttered open. “I’m sorry.”


She only shook her head. “It’s not easy, child. Your entire life is moving a small stick floating in a pond, from one side of the water to the other. But you can only move the stick by throwing pebbles into the pond and letting it ride the ripples. And the thing is—you’re blindfolded. Sometimes the wind kicks up and blows the stick about. I’m no different. One eye open, maybe, and I can see all your little sticks and the ripples that move them, but everyone is always disrupting the flow by throwing their stones in at random, disrupting the whole mess…”


Lifting my knees up to my chest, I curled up around them. My eyes were burning, my throat swollen, but I didn’t let any more tears fall. I ground my teeth and pinched myself. The suppressed tears weren’t for my brother, or Tessia, or even myself…it was everyone, everything. A deep-rooted sadness had settled over me, cold and somehow comforting, like a blanket of snow. I felt the pressure, the drive to do something, to fight back and change things, fading away. The world’s problems were so big, there was nothing else I could do to save it.


The realization that I could just let go brought me a kind of peace.


But I didn’t want to be hopeless. I didn’t want to give up, to let everyone else fight to take back our future while I hid, comfortable in my hopelessness.


Mentally, I called out to Boo, and a moment later his huge bulk popped into the cave, just behind me. He filled the small space and could have easily made a wreckage of Rinia’s things, but he seemed to sense that I needed comfort instead of protection; he lay down behind me, and I leaned against him, letting my fingers play through his fur.


“Well, that’s new,” Rinia said, the ghost of a smile on her lips.


A flood of warmth issued from my core, clearing my mind and burning away the cold blanket of apathy.


“Give me hope,” I said softly. “Please Rinia. In all your looking, you must have seen some glimmer…”


The old woman pushed the blanket aside, letting it fall to the floor. I would have sworn I could hear her bones creaking as she began to stand, but when I moved to help her, she waved me back down. Once free of the chair, she took a few slow, shuffling steps toward me, until she could rest her hand on Boo’s back. Very carefully, the old seer began to lower herself down next to me.


“Rinia, you shouldn’t—”


“Don’t imagine you can tell me what I should or shouldn’t do, child,” she snapped.


I helped to guide her as best I could, until she was resting on the ground next to me, her back against Boo’s side, just like mine was.


“Hope isn’t always a good thing,” she said, panting slightly. “When lost, it can break a person’s spirit. When false, it may keep people from taking care of themselves.”


“Then give me real hope,” I said, reaching for her hand again and squeezing very gently.


Rinia leaned sideways so that her head was resting on my shoulder. “There is a right place and a right time. And I know when and where that is.”


***


I stayed with Grandma Rinia for a couple more hours, eventually helping her back into her chair, getting her a bowl of soup, and reminiscing about the time when Mother, Father, and I had hidden with her in a different secret cavern. But eventually she grew tired, so I helped her to her bed and left.


The conversation had worn me out. There was just something about trying to wrap my head around Rinia’s seer-talk of potential futures and positive circumstances that exhausted my mind and made me feel small and childish. But then I reminded myself that when Arthur was fourteen he was off in the land of gods, training with deities to fight a war that would change the entire world.


I patted Boo’s side as we hiked silently through the winding tunnels. “Mind if I ride, big guy?”


The guardian bear grunted an affirmative and stopped. I sidled up onto his back and leaned forward to rest my head on my forearms, just letting myself float atop his broad frame. “Whatever happens, we’ll always take care of each other, right Boo?”


Another grunt.


“Just like Arthur and Sylvie, together until the end.”


He huffed at the comparison, making me laugh.


Boo didn’t need any guidance from me to find the sanctuary, so I closed my eyes and replayed my conversation with Rinia. It had been long overdue, and I was glad to have left her on positive terms. Seeing her had made me realize just how little time she likely had left. I wished she could have told me more about this “right place and right time” she kept talking about. If she slipped away before the time came… I could only trust that she knew when the end would come.


ELDER RINIA


Once the Leywin child and her beast had finally left, I returned to my work.


Lying in bed, I stared at nothing, my physical eyes now useless. But that hardly mattered. Only my third eye was needed, the one that could see beyond the here and now to what could be.


My core ached when I reached for the mana, and I struggled to build up enough strength to cast the spell. Damned old body, I cursed to myself. But I knew that, in truth, my physical body had held together far longer than it ever should have.


It had been my sister who learned of the potion that could strengthen our bodies, even as our life force faded. Too late to do herself much good—but then, even in the midst of her impassioned efforts to save Virion’s life, she had never pressed herself the way I did now.


I sent a silent thanks to her, wherever her spirit rested in the afterlife. I couldn’t yet be sure if my efforts would make a difference in the end, but I’d gained months of time to look thanks to the potion still bubbling over my little fire.


Casting Sight, I felt myself relax as the third eye opened in my spirit. Through this metaphysical eye, the aetheric world became visible, revealing an infinitely complex web of intertwining threads spreading out into the future. Just seeing them wasn’t enough, however.


As my master had taught me, I reached out toward the aevum…slowly, tentatively, like one would approach a half-wild animal. But it was my affinity for aevum that gave me my diviner’s powers, and as it had a thousand times before, the aether reacted, drifting toward my third eye and connecting my mind to the tapestry of possible futures that was laid out before me.


I ignored the way they all cut off at the same point.


Now where was I…


Picking a thread, I plucked on it. It pulled back, drawing my consciousness along the timeline it represented.


When I didn't like what I saw, I found a branching thread and plucked it instead.


It was even worse.


I knew where I needed to be, and when. But there was more to it than just being in the right place at the right time, regardless of what I’d told Ellie. The journey was equally as important as the destination.


Which only made it all the more frustrating to know I was running out of time.


Heaving a shuddering sigh, I picked the next thread, then the next, and the next after that.


ELEANOR LEYWIN


I was woken from my doze by the sensation of falling, like stumbling in a dream.


The tunnel was foggy and the air had a heavy, sickly-sweet smell that made my stomach clench up and my head swim.


“Boo?” I asked, my tongue stumbling thickly over the familiar name. “What is it?”


My mind was slow from the nap, and I couldn’t shake myself awake, but I was sure something was wrong with Boo. He was walking sluggishly, taking deep, snorting, labored breaths…


My bond let out a nervous whine. I patted his neck and said, “Hey, it’s just fog, Boo, we’re…”


I sniffed at the air again. The fog…


Closing my eyes, I focused on the beast will lurking in my mana core, which was now dark orange. Reaching into myself, I prodded the will, igniting it and receiving a burst of smells and sounds from my enhanced senses.


The tunnels were dank and smelled a little like rot. Boo’s heavy musk was everywhere, as was the stinky smell left behind by the cave rats that used to live here, but the rotten scent of the fog overwhelmed everything else. The tunnels were almost entirely silent. Somewhere below me, I could just hear the faint pitter-patter of water dripping from a cave roof to splash into a shallow pool, but the only other sounds were Boo’s uneven, scuffling steps and my own slow heartbeat.


Boo missed another step, sending an uncomfortable jolt through my stomach.


I reached for my bow, but couldn’t fumble it off of my back. One of Boo’s legs gave way, and I tumbled off to land heavily on the ground. I knew that it should have hurt, but all I could feel was the overwhelming desire to shut my eyes.


Boo’s powerful jaws closed on the back of my shirt and he began to drag me, but even through my foggy senses I could hear his labored breathing.


“Boo…?”


I let out a mindless giggle at the sound of my own voice, slurred and silly. I knew I should be scared, but really, I just felt like…going…to…sleep…


Boo released me, letting out a warning growl. I just barely managed to turn my head enough to look down the tunnel, where I could see two silhouettes approaching. Their faces were covered…or maybe that was just my eyes going blurry.


“Easy now, big guy,” one of the silhouettes said, their voice muffled by the cloth.


Boo roared and lunged, his massive paw slashing drunkenly at the figures. They dodged back, but I heard a hissing breath and a curse.


“You…get ‘em…Boooo,” I slurred.


Boo lurched forward and stumbled on the ground while swinging his claws. He let out a low, mewling grunt I thought was fear, then everything went dark.


Through the darkness, I could hear footsteps approaching.


“Don’t…mess…with me,” I mumbled weakly. “I’m…a…”


Strong arms scooped me up like I was a baby.


“Leywin…”


A voice, soft and sad, echoed out of the black nothing that surrounded me.


“Sorry, Eleanor.”


***


My eyes blinked open, or at least I thought they did. Everything was gray and fuzzy. My head felt like it was full of cobwebs, and my mouth and throat were so dry they hurt. I blinked again several times, slowly.


“Mama?”


I giggled at the sound of my own voice, which croaked like a fat old toad. The noise died instantly as my breath caught in my chest, and I realized with a spike of clarity that something really bad had happened.


“Mama? Papa?”


A shadow moved across my blurred vision and garbled voices ozzed through my cobweb brain. I couldn’t understand them.


“B-Brother? Brother!”


The voices were speaking nonsense, and one of the figures came closer. I lifted my hands to ward them off and was shocked by a metallic jingling and the sensation of cold on my wrists.


“Bro—”


Everything came rushing back to me, forcing out a choked gasp. My father and brother were dead. Rinia, the gas…Boo!


“Boo!” I shouted, not trying to hide my panic. He should be with me, I knew. He should teleport to me, be right beside me. “What did you do to Boo?” I began to sob.


Strong hands pressed down on my shoulders. A face was right in front of mine, blurry at first, then vaguely familiar, then—


“Albold…?”


“Please calm down, Ellie,” he said firmly, releasing my shoulders. “Boo is unharmed, though I can’t say the same for us. We left him in the tunnels. I would have preferred to do this a different way, but we must know what you know.”


“We…what?” I shook my head, trying to clear the last of the cobwebs. “You…you attacked me!” I glared at him accusingly.


A second figure moved into view to rest his hand on Albold’s shoulder. The gaunt elf’s hood was still up, but the cloth covering his face had been removed. “We need the truth, Eleanor. We didn’t think you’d tell us unless you had no choice.”


“Feyrith you…you…you jerk!” I snapped. Leaning back, I screamed, “Boo! Boo, help!”


Albold kneeled in front of me and grabbed the manacles chaining my hands together. He gave a sharp jerk that tweaked my shoulders and elbows uncomfortably. His eyes—colorless in the dark cave—pinned me like arrows. “Enough, Ellie. We took steps to ensure that your beast couldn’t follow us. Those mana suppression cuffs should—”


Pop!


A roar like earth and stone being ripped apart exploded from right beside me, and Albold was flung backward across the cave, slamming hard into the jagged stone. A hairy wall moved in front of me, breathing heavily, and snarling with rage and fear.


A thick barrier of water appeared with a whoosh and bisected the cave, separating Boo and me from Albold and Feyrith, though I could only just see the edges around Boo’s huge bulk.


Feyrith’s voice was muffled as he shouted, “Eleanor, please listen! We won’t hurt you, we just need to talk.”


“You have a funny way of talking,” I snapped back. Boo turned to look me over, making sure I was okay. I held up the chains. With an irritated snort, he bit down on them, crushing the enchanted metal links like they were old bones. The suppressive magic vanished, and I felt my core thrumming to life again.


“We…we needed to be sure, “Feyrith said desperately. “With everything that’s at stake, we couldn’t have you to brush us off or tell us you couldn’t discuss it.”


I stood and shook out my arms and legs, which still felt half asleep. When I was certain I wouldn’t fall over, I stepped around Boo and walked up to the wall of water, glaring at the elves on the other side. Boo moved like a shadow beside me, his teeth bared.


Albold was brushing himself off, and I noticed his pants had been ripped and he had a bandage around his leg, soaked through with blood. Both elves were eyeing my bond warily. I patted Boo’s shoulder.


“I can’t believe I’ve been trying to find you for weeks,” I grumbled, meeting Albold’s eye. He grimaced, but didn’t look away. “What do you jerks want? You get one chance. And don’t think Boo won’t eat you if you attack me again.”


Boo snarled threateningly.


Feyrith released his spell and the wall of water fell away, draining into the floor and leaving dry rock behind. His hands were up in a gesture of peace as he stepped forward. “We know Virion is lying, Eleanor. His story doesn’t make sense. And we know you spoke to the asura, Windsom, and that you have visited the old seer.” His hands fell to his sides and gripped the edges of his cloak desperately.


Albold ground his teeth audibly. “I have no idea why a twelve-year-old girl is so involved in all this, but we need to know what you know.”


“Fourteen!” I said indignantly, crossing my arms over my chest. “And whatever Virion has told you, it’s for your own good.” I remembered Rinia’s words. “Fighting him will only lead to catastrophe.”


Albold scowled. “That’s not good enough. We—all of the elves—deserve to know the truth. If Virion is working with the enemy—”


I blew a raspberry, acting like the age that they thought I was and drawing shocked looks from both of the elves. “The truth sucks! Knowing it doesn’t help, trust me.”


Albold had a hard, desperate look, but Feyrith seemed to be shrinking in on himself. “You aren’t an elf, Eleanor. You can’t know what this is like.”


I opened my mouth to snap back that I did know what it was like to lose people, but the words died in my throat.


What did Rinia say again? I asked myself, trying not to waver while wracking my stressed brain for the details of our conversation. Don’t get involved. It’s a delicate situation…


“I know you’ve lost people too, Eleanor…” Feyrith said, taking a half-step forward, but freezing when Boo let out a low growl. “I didn’t know your father, really, but…Arthur Leywin was my greatest rival, and a close friend. His loss affected us all.” Feyrith’s voice was shaking. “But I lost everyone, do you understand? My—”


The elf broke, his face twisting into a grimace as tears flooded down his cheeks and sobs wracked his shoulders. He pressed a hand over his eyes, curling in on himself even further. Through his sobs, he said, “My entire family…they…they’re all gone.” He sank to the floor, and Albold kneeled awkwardly next to him, his expression unreadable.


Feyrith wiped a sleeve across his face and took a shaky breath. “I tried to save them…but I got caught…never even got close. I left them against their wishes to attend Xyrus Academy…to be more than just the fourth son of a noble family, but I failed them, do you understand? And now they’re…just gone…”


Albold was pale as a ghost next to the red-faced Feyrith. His gaze focused into the distance, not looking at his companion or me. “Our king and queen, gone. Our princess, gone. Our home, our culture, gone. Our friends and family, teachers, lovers, rivals…our whole world, gone.” Only then did he meet my eye. “And we don’t even get to understand why.”


I couldn’t look away from his piercing eyes. What could I possibly say to ease such complete and bitter loss? If they knew what had really happened in Elenoir, would it actually make them feel better, or just more helpless—hopeless—like me? Besides, I reasoned with myself, Rinia told me to stay out of it.


But then, she hadn’t told me not to tell anyone else. I didn’t think the truth would bring the elves any sort of closure, but didn’t they deserve it anyway?


I leaned against Boo, running my fingers through his fur and listening to his heart hammering in my ears over the sound of my gnashing teeth. “Okay. I’ll tell you.”


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