The Beginning After the End (Vol. 8.5): Amongst the Fallen
More Dangerous Than It Used to Be (Part 3)
More Dangerous Than It Used to Be (Part 3)
Dec 16, 2021
A ragged scream came from above.
The ravager stopped, its entire body quivering as it prepared to lunge up the tunnel and devour the girl.
Out of options, I dropped straight down, landing on the S-class mana beast's back just behind the head, and drove both blades toward a gap between two of the bulky plates that made up its exoskeleton.
Suddenly the ravager was moving, the body retracting backwards out of the entrance tunnel with surprising speed. I stumbled and fell to my stomach, my blades missing their mark, scraping across the hard shell instead. The ravager continued moving, twisting away from the tunnel to spin inward into the cavern, bringing me closer to the twin scorpion tails curling up from its other end.
My body slid across the smooth armored plating until I was rolling down the ravager's side.
Not wanting to fall into the path of the churning legs, I shoved outward, throwing myself away from the mana beast, then sent out a quick burst of wind mana to right myself and land on my feet.
The ravager encircled me like a living wall, its legs stomping through the soft soil while the wide, flat head floated back and forth, the long antennae feeling the roof, floor, and along its own back.
The barbed tails hovered above it, poised to strike. I expected them to fall down on me at any moment, but the ravager held back.
I kept my place, crouched on the ground in the midst of the writhing mass of legs and armored segments. The ravager was slowing down, and after a few more seconds, it stopped moving entirely, except for the feelers.
The whole massive body lowered down, pressing to the earth. The antennae ran across the floor of the cave, very slowly. The head—and mandibles—were pointed directly at me.
The ravager didn't have any eyes.
This mana beast was entirely subterranean, and, I realized, blind. It hunted large, powerful prey by the vibrations they made as they moved across the surface. It wasn't used to fighting things so much smaller than it, which normally wouldn't pose any threat.
But how sensitive were those antennae?
Carefully condensing a marble-sized bullet of wind-attribute mana in my hand, I fired it at the back wall of the cave, where it impacted with a dull thud.
The ravager twisted with horrible speed and its twin tails lashed out, gouging deep furrows into the dirt. The body unwound around me as it moved to inspect the spot, the antennae feeling for its kill.
I examined what I could see of the cave again, looking for a way out of the situation. It didn't look good.
I had no way to know where any of the other tunnels went, and I couldn't make it to any of them without drawing the ravager's attention. It could move faster than I could, and a killing strike could come from either end.
If I ran for the cave mouth, could I climb up and out quickly enough to escape the mana beast's mandibles? Perhaps, if the ravager could be distracted.
Earlier, it hadn't immediately found me after I fell off its back, which made me think that my movements weren't detectable over its own. If I could get it moving…
Condensing another bullet of mana between my fingers, I shot it over the ravager's wide back and into the mouth of one of the connecting tunnels. By the time it impacted the tunnel wall, however, it was so indistinct that even my mana-enhanced ears didn't hear it.
Since the mana beast didn't immediately lunge down the tunnel, I could only assume it hadn't noticed either.
The tunnel was too far away. As an augmenter, I could only send my mana so far out from me. The bullets just didn't have the energy to cause enough noise to draw the beast's attention.
A whimpering cry came from the vertical tunnel behind me, causing the ravager's head and antennae to turn in that direction.
The tunnel I had chosen for my distraction was directly across the cavern from the entrance, as far away as possible. I had wanted to lead it farther from where I needed to make my escape, but there were other, closer tunnels.
Before the ravager could decide to return to its trap and have the elf girl for a snack, I sent three quick bullets of air at the closest side tunnel.
The first hit the ground just in front of the tunnel mouth, sending up a spray of loose dirt. The second hit the wall of the tunnel a moment later, and the third thumped against the roof about twenty feet in.
The ravager was moving before the third bullet even impacted, unwinding its long body and filling the cavern with the sound of hundreds of rapid footfalls.
Disguised by the noise, I sprinted toward the exit and began leaping up the tunnel, each jump empowered by mana swirling around my legs.
The girl was still stuck in the webs, but I was amazed to see four vines winding their way down from the forest above, snaking through the webbing to wrap around her, trying to pull her free.
I shot past her and out of the mouth of the cave. Grabbing the thickest vine, which was wrapped around her waist, I heaved.
Sticky ropes of ravager's web clung to her even as she was lifted free from the cave and set gently on one of the large logs that obscured the trap. As soon as she was safe, the vines twisted toward me, becoming a barricade separating me from the girl.
She was looking at me with wide, fearful eyes the color of fresh mint. Her thin, angular face was smudged with dirt and blood, and her bright blonde hair was a tangle of leaves, twigs, and webs.
Very quietly, I said, "No time. We need to go," and gestured for her to follow me.
She didn't move.
I took a step toward her, but one of the vines snapped out at me like a whip. My forearm came up to block it, and when it coiled around me, I gave a sharp tug that snapped the vine in half.
The girl flinched and tried to scoot away from me, but her palm slipped against the slick moss covering the log and she tumbled backwards off it with a short, sharp yell.
An instant later, the rumbling sound of a couple hundred legs pulling a fifty-foot long, armor plated body up an earthen tunnel drowned out everything else.
I barely had time to spring up into the branches leaning out over the cave opening before the ravager burst out of its hole. I wasn't careful, going out of my way to break some of the thin limbs as I scrambled up the tree, making as much noise as possible.
The ravager was quick to follow, its long body rising up higher and higher out of the hole, then leaning into the tree with the crash of snapping limbs. The scythelike mandibles closed with a resounding crack just a few feet below me.
On the forest floor, the girl was scurrying away, putting distance between herself and the battle.
Planting my feet firmly at the base of a thick branch, I made a mana enhanced leap that took me nearly twenty feet up the tree, giving myself a second to breathe.
The ravager had pulled itself entirely out of the tunnel now, and had wound itself around the tree's trunk in order to continue climbing after me. There was a groan as the roots ripped free of the ground and the tree listed dangerously to the side, unable to support the massive mana beast's bulk.
Would it follow us if I jumped and made a break for it? Even if it didn't, how long before the ravager found the Wall? It could burrow right under the outer barrier and straight into town.
It would be a massacre.
The antennae were nearly at my level, wriggling back and forth as they sensed for me—and without which the eyeless ravager would be crippled.
I felt my face twist into a snarl of concentration as I dropped from the branch on which I stood, daggers ready. As I passed by the mana beast's head, I swept the twin daggers outward, each one moving in a smooth arc that bisected one of the long feelers.
The rubbery flesh parted easily, but the mandibles snapped shut like a spring-loaded trap, catching a few strands of my hair and ripping them out of my head as I fell past. Letting out an angry yell, I flipped both daggers around and drove them into the ravager's underside, which wasn't thickly armored like the plates on its back.
A shrieking noise like a giant cicada put my teeth on edge, but I held firmly to the handles of my daggers as I continued to slide down the length of the ravager's body, ripping two long gashes in its belly.
Yellow, slimy blood fell around me like rain. The noise grew so loud and so terrible that I worried I might pass out. Suddenly I was crushed between the mana beast and the tree, pinned there, stunning me.
Then I was falling again, surrounded by splintering wood and the deep red flesh of the ravager.
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).