The Beginning After the End (Vol. 8.5): Amongst the Fallen
Not a Safe Life (Part 1)
Not a Safe Life (Part 1)
Dec 16, 2021
The heels of my shoes clacked on the stone slabs of the street and echoed back at me from the tall walls of the surrounding houses, making it sound like I was being followed. I kept looking behind me just to make sure, but I was the only one in the street, and for good reason. It was past curfew, which meant trouble if an Alacryan patrol caught me, but I'd been kept late at Xyrus Academy, again.
The Testers must have found it humorous to let us out so late that we had to scurry home in the gloom of twilight, like mice rushing for our dens. Damned these Alacryans, I thought bitterly. It'd been less than a month since they'd occupied Xyrus, but already it felt like a lifetime, or maybe like they had arrived only yesterday.
Time had taken on the uncertain quality of a dream, where it seemed to move fast or slow on a whim, and generally in opposition to my needs.
This felt inextricably connected with the presence of our new overlords. The Vritra, I thought, the word ringing in my mind like a curse.
The Vritra, who had defeated our Lances. They had even killed Arthur. When I thought of the strange, otherworldly boy who had moved in with us when we were just children, I grew melancholy. Arthur was the reason I'd become a mage; without his training, I wouldn't have awakened. He was also, I remembered with some embarrassment, my first love.
Love? I asked myself. Yes, I think so. Young and foolish, perhaps, but love.
I'd never had a chance with him, of course, not when I was competing against the likes of an actual princess…
I shook away the thought and actually laughed out loud at myself. How long ago had that been? It seemed like a different lifetime.
Movement ahead caught my attention and I stopped, immediately tense, my heart beating in my throat and all thoughts of anything but my own safety rushing out of my head. A figure had walked from the alley and stopped in the middle of the street, watching me. The figure was wearing a hooded cloak with the hood pulled down, but there was something familiar about the build, the way the figure stood…
"You're out late," he said. The voice was cold and angry, grinding through his teeth in a way that scraped off the kindness and self-assuredness that I had always heard in it before.
"J-Jarrod? Jarrod Redner?" I took a step forward, peering into the shadows of his hood. "Is that you?"
Jarrod threw off his hood and glared at me. The handsome boy who had served with me on the student council at Xyrus Academy was almost entirely gone. A gaunt scarecrow, made loosely in Jarrod's likeness, glared back at me, his face twisted with malice.
The ferocity of his glare made me flinch back, and I nearly lost my footing as I stepped on a loose stone.
"Scared, Lilia?" He sneered. "You should be. I can't believe you of all people turned dog for the Alacryans, but I'm going to make you pay. I'm going to make your whole family pay!"
I fixed my frightened gaze on the boy who had been my friend, at once confused, angry, and very afraid. "What the hell are you talking about, Jarrod? What's wrong with you?"
"What's wrong with me, Lilia?" he asked through gritted teeth. Jarrod took a threatening step forward, giving me a clearer view of his gaunt cheeks, sunken eyes, and yellowing bruises. "You Helsteas are all a bunch of filthy traitors, that's what!"
Mana built up in his right hand, but he hesitated, his eyes softening as he stared at me.
I raised my own hands in a placating gesture. I couldn't imagine what had been done to him, and I certainly didn't want to fight him.
Unfortunately, he didn't give me a choice.
With a grunt, Jarrod sent a disk of condensed air toward me. I waved my hands, conjuring a sheet of water in front of me to quietly absorb the force of his spell.
A face momentarily appeared in the window of the house adjacent to me: a wide-eyed, frightened old man. He disappeared almost as quickly.
"We're not traitors!" I shouted, my voice shaking. "Just give me a chance to—"
"Stop, Lilia," Jarrod hissed, cutting me off. "I know your dad made a deal with the Alacryans so you would be spared the worst of their experimentation." Mana condensed in his hand as he prepared another spell.
I matched him, conjuring five floating balls of pure mana, each the size of my fist. They orbited around me, waiting for his attack.
Jarrod formed the wind-attribute mana into a spear and hurled it at me, then threw two crescents of condensed air behind it. Three of my little white moons shot outwards, intersecting his spells and deflecting them or breaking them apart.
The last two I fired directly at him, forcing him to expend mana to conjure his own shield.
"Jarrod, this is stupid. We shouldn't—"
Jarrod leaned forward and pressed out with both hands, creating a tunnel of wind that blew my words back into my face. I conjured a liquid panel of water to dampen the full force of the spell, but the wind tunnel began to break apart into spinning disks and cutting crescents that curved around the barrier.
A wind-crescent nicked my arm as I tried to dodge a disk, and I realized I would be cut to ribbons if I didn't do something. Working quickly, I cast Sunken Tomb, a difficult spell I'd never had to use before. A thick barrier of dense water-attribute mana formed around me, entirely encasing me, but also pressing down on me so that I couldn't move.
Attack after attack sunk into the barrier, but nothing got through, and after several more seconds the gale subsided and the attacks stopped.
I released my concentration on the spell, letting the water splash down to the ground at my feet.
Jarrod was panting, his shoulders drooping, his hands clenched into tight fists. He looked more like a wild mana beast than the boy I'd gone to school with.
Clearly, something horrible had happened to him. I wasn't angry with him anymore. I felt bad for him…I felt bad that my family had escaped the worst of the Alacryan occupation, while so many others suffered horribly at their hands.
"Jarrod…" I took a careful step toward him. "Talk to me, Jarrod. What happened?"
A shiver ran through him and Jarrod deflated, sinking down onto his knees, his hands pulling at his dirty blond hair.
"They—they took—took my family!" he said, his words choked out through a constricted throat. "They took everyone, and—and now they're l-looking for me…" He looked up to meet my eyes. "I'm sorry, Lilia. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have…I don't know what to do."
I heard a shout in the distance. Guards.
Forcing myself to be brave, I rushed to Jarrod and kneeled down in front of him, resting my hand on his trembling shoulder.
"Listen to me very carefully, Jarrod Redner. I'm not the enemy. I bear you no ill will whatsoever, and I'll help you if I can, but the guards are coming." The sound of armor-clad boots on stone emphasized my warning. "Go. Quickly! Meet me at my house in a few hours. Wait until after midnight."
Jarrod's tired, dirty face turned up to me, confusion clear in his shining eyes.
I reached under his arm and hoisted him to his feet. "Or would you rather get caught!" I hissed.
My gaze flicked back down the road, where the sound of running steps was quickly growing louder, and I felt Jarrod stiffen.
Finally, my old friend stumbled weakly toward the alley and disappeared into the darkness—and not an instant too soon. Four Alacryan soldiers came around a corner about forty feet away, weapons and spells ready.
I glanced quickly around at the windows, hoping no one had watched our altercation too closely, then threw my hands up and yelled, "Oh, thank goodness you're here!" and began jogging toward the soldiers.
"Stop!" one yelled as another pointed a glowing spear at me. I did.
"Please," I said, effecting my most damsel-in-distress voice, "I was just attacked."
The front guard's eyes darted from me to the puddle of water still soaking the ground, then to the buildings around us, where a few of Jarrod's spells had chipped away bits of brick and wood.
"Why are you out after curfew?" he asked, his gravelly voice laced with suspicion.
"I'm coming from the Academy. My name is Lilia Helstea, daughter of Vincent Helstea. He's a merchant, licensed to continue working by the new governor. Please, the man who attacked me went that way!" I pointed down the street, away from the alley where Jarrod had disappeared.
The mage with the glowing spear still had it trained on me, but one of the others had walked up to the closest building. He ran his fingers along a deep cut in the stone. "Definitely spell damage, sir."
The patrol leader nodded at his comrade and waved a hand at the others. His features softened and he took several steps toward me. "Not the first report we've had of natives attacking upstanding citizens. What did this attacker look like?"
My mind raced as I invented a description for my imaginary attacker. "He was cloaked and hooded, but he was older, maybe in his forties…reddish beard…dirty, like he'd been living in the streets."
The patrol leader nodded seriously. "We'll find him. You get home now. Don't want anyone to think you're up to something. It wouldn't be good for your family's status."
I looked at the man's boots and gave him a deep bow, hoping he couldn't hear the grinding of my teeth as I did so. "Thank you for your kindness and generosity, sir."
I didn't look up until the four Alacryans had rushed off in the wrong direction to search for my attacker.
The war between Dicathen and Alacrya is over and Arthur Leywin has vanished. In the uncertain aftermath of this decisive loss, a few familiar faces navigate peril both political and moral as they are now forced to make a difficult choice: accept life under Vritra rule or keep fighting despite impossible odds? As Dicathen falls, Mica Earthborn, Lilia Helstea, Emily Watsken, and Jasmine Flamesworth must each answer this question for themselves.
NOTE ABOUT READING ORDER: to get the best reading experience, Amongst the Fallen should be read after volume 8 of The Beginning After the End (make sure you've read up to episode 868).