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The Beginning After The End - Chapter 418
The zone trembled as its behemoth protector collapsed, its chest pierced with translucent mana arrows and stone shards, its final piteous roar choked with black blood.
Mica, sweating and caked with dirt, nudged the behemoth with a toe, making the massive, fur-covered corpse rock slightly. Its tiny black eyes were staring sightlessly past me from above the piggish snout and tusks.
“And…another one…bites the dust,” Mica said, flopping down on one huge forearm like it was a shaggy couch.
A shiver ran through the aether in the zone, and I scanned our surroundings.
We stood atop a column of dry, crumbling rock. We’d had to cross from column to column, fighting various monsters of increasing size and power, to reach this final battle. The ground was an indistinct sandstone wasteland a mile below, so far that the columns blurred together before reaching the bottom. The zone seemed to go on forever in all directions, with the columns slowly fading out into a heat haze where they met the soft blue of the sky on the horizon.
Boo moaned, and I glanced in his direction. Ellie was standing beside him, giving him comforting pats.
Regis chuckled. “Who would have guessed that an asura-bred guardian beast could have a fear of heights?”
The shiver happened again.
Ellie had started to give Regis a dirty look, but stopped when she saw my face. “Brother, what’s wrong?”
The stone at my feet cracked. All eyes turned to the crack, only a few feet long at first, but even as we watched, it began racing across the rough surface of the column’s flat top. Boo and Ellie jumped to one side as the crack split the column’s face nearly in two. Then, with a guttural grinding that vibrated in my bones, a dozen other fractures split off the central crack, and the stone beneath our feet began to shift.
All around us, the zone exploded with the avalanche cacophony of shattering stone, and a thick cloud of dust choked the air.
The exit portal, which was inset into the floor and had been guarded over by the behemoth, flared to life, offering us passage to the next zone.
Lyra sprinted for it, her feet hardly touching the crumbling surface as she ran.
“Don’t go through!” I shouted, and she slid to a halt just beyond the square frame. “Stabilize the platform if you can!”
As Mica and Lyra hurried to follow my order, I scooped Ellie up and leapt half the width of the column’s top to land by the portal, the Compass already in hand.
Setting Ellie down, I channeled aether into the Compass and focused on the portal. If my mental map from Sylvia was correct, the third djinn ruin was just on the other side, but sincewe didn’t have simulets, the others might not end up there unless I stabilize the portal first.
Mica jumped to the center point of the crack and slammed her hammer down into it. Instead of sending the column bursting apart, magic raced from the hammer along the spreading cracks, pulling stone back against stone. Lyra sprinted around the outside of the column, a gust of magical wind flowing out from behind her and down around the edge of the lip to stabilize it by buttressing the structure with a supportive band of hardened air.
“It’s like something else is controlling the mana!” Mica shouted, an edge of panic in her voice.
“The landscapes of the Relictombs are immutable,” Lyra huffed as she ran. “They built this place using aether, and their creation resists tampering by even the most powerful mages…”
With the sliver of my attention I’d given to everything except the Compass and portal, I realized I had never considered this fact before. I’d lost my mana core before entering the Relictombs, and so had always relied on aether to survive here. While it made sense that the djinn’s intention would preclude allowing those testing within to simply remake the zones with mana, it also suggested that, with the proper utilization of aether, the fabric of the Relictombs itself could be rewritten.
There was no time for such considerations right now, though. From my periphery, I saw as Mica began to tremble, her biceps bulging as she held onto her hammer with all her strength. The stone beneath Lyra’s feet collapsed, and she vanished into the hole. From somewhere below, I felt the mile-high column shift and twist, the noise of it lost in the cacophonous tumbling of rocks from every direction.
The column shattered.
Lyra and I were standing on the edge of the portal frame, which didn’t move. Ellie was standing right beside me, but one foot had been off the frame. When the surface crumbled, her eyes went wide and her hand reached for me as she was pulled backwards by gravity.
Behind her, Boo, Regis, and Mica plunged down with the broken rubble, the guardian bear giving out a despairing roar as its claws scrambled for purchase against stone no longer capable of supporting it.
I nearly lost hold of the Compass as my hand snatched out for Ellie. My fingers brushed hers, but I had been focused on stabilizing the portal…
Her hair flew up past her face, whipping in the wind like a flag, her hands clawing at the air as if she could take hold of it somehow or catch herself on nothing. Belatedly, a scream pierced the air, pleading and helpless.
Cursing, I leapt off the side after her and activated God Step.
The paths flashed past at a speed that was difficult to process, especially with my heart in my throat. With my eyes on Ellie, I let the rest of my senses focus on the paths.
Aiming my body toward her and making myself as aerodynamic as possible, I sped after her. It felt like it took a very long time. Her body was twisting around in freefall, and when I caught up and wrapped my arms around her, it was with enough force to knock the air from her lungs. She scrambled to take hold of me however she could, pulling my hair and jamming her thumb into my eye. We both began tumbling end over end, locked together by her grasping fingers and my arm around her waist.
“El…Ellie! You have to”—my fingers finally closed around her wrist, and I pulled her around to face me—“calm down!”
She pulled closer and wrapped me in a tight hug, screaming, “Boo!”
About twenty feet to our right, the guardian bear’s huge bulk was rotating end over end. A long, low, mindless growl was issuing from him, and he was trembling wildly.
Regis was closer, nearly straight ahead. He did a kind of twirl and spun to look at me, his tongue lolling from the side of his mouth. ‘I always thought I’d like skydiving,’ he thought. ‘And dodging several million tons of killer rockfall definitely adds to the experience.’ His shadow wolf form melted away, leaving behind only a small wisp, which began drifting back up toward the portal frame.
“We need to save Boo!” Ellie screamed in my ear.
“You’ll have to summon him from the top,” I hollered back over the wind.
Ellie’s brows furrowed in determination as she nodded despite the wind-whipped tears streaking across her cheeks.
My focus turned to the aetheric paths, searching for one that would return us to the portal frame now high above, but then Ellie’s grip tightened on me again. Noticing her horrified gaze, I followed it.
Mica was nearly a hundred feet above us, the aetheric paths shifting and fading as her relative position to us kept changing. I cursed, struggling to calculate how I could get to her and then the portal frame in time.
“Brother, hold me still!”
Ellie raised a glowing white hand as she clutched tightly to my robe, stabilizing herself as she took aim at the lance. A misty white bolt shot out, barely grazing past a falling rock before finding its target.
With a sudden infusion of mana, Mica stopped falling. She hesitated, looking down at us, but I shook my head. She nodded and flew straight back up into the air.
I spared a second to watch the ground growing rapidly closer, then tried to bring all my focus to the aetheric pathways. When they didn’t immediately coalesce in my mind, I closed my eyes, feeling them the way Three-Steps had taught me.
With Ellie firmly in my arms, I “stepped” into the aether. We appeared atop the thin edge of stone surrounding the glowing portal.
“Boo!” Ellie screamed, her voice shrill.
With a faint pop, a shadow appeared overhead, and the enormous guardian bear crashed down on top of me.
From under a fringe of fur, I saw Mica’s boots land next to us.
“Boo!” Ellie exclaimed, her sobs muffled as she must have shoved her face into her bond’s side.
Careful not to send the mana beast tumbling off the edge again, I extricated myself from his bulk and brushed myself off. Regis drifted into me, humming a tune, heedless of the fact that everyone had nearly just died.
The rest of us all shared a look, but no one had any words.
Once again, I pulled out the Compass and set to work stabilizing the portal so that it wouldn’t send the others off on their own. I nodded when it was ready, and Lyra stepped in, looking like she was sinking into a pool of quicksilver. Mica reached up to rest her hand lightly on Ellie’s shoulder. The two shared a look and a pale smile, then Mica hopped in after Lyra.
Ellie hesitated. “I’m sorry,” she said after a moment. “I should have—”
I held up a hand to forestall her continued apology. “Stop feeling like you need to apologize for everything.”
Glancing over the edge, a shiver ran through her and she nodded. Boo needed no encouragement to wade into the portal, and Ellie followed with a look of grim determination.
I looked around the zone one last time, taking in the destruction with a sigh, and then stepped into the portal.
On the other side, we found ourselves in a familiar corridor, brightly lit by panels of light running along the top of the walls. Mica, Lyra, Ellie, and Boo were staring around. Feeling a sense of deja vu, I turned to watch the portal we’d entered through vanish.
“Well, this is eerie,” Regis said as he stepped from my shadow. I shook my head, realizing that he’d said exactly the same thing when we found the first ruin.
Before, the sterile environment had put me on edge, but now I knew what to expect. Sure enough, a moment later, runes lit up along the walls, and the lights faded to a low violet color.
Once again, an irresistible force took hold of me—of us all—and suddenly our group was skidding across the tiled floor, bringing us to a massive, black crystal gate.
Cursing, Lyra spun around, but the white hallway was gone. “What’s happening?”
“It’s all right,” I assured her. “On the other side of that gate we’ll find what we’re looking for. I’ll face some kind of test or challenge. You won’t be able to help me, so you should have the chance to rest there.”
“Who needs…rest…” Mica asked, leaning against Boo’s side to hold herself upright.
‘Welcome, descendant. Please enter.’
“What was that?” Ellie asked.
“Did you hear the words?” I asked as the runes on the gate pulsed brightly.
“Not words, just…something. Like a whisper beyond the edge of my hearing.”
I frowned, considering. It would have made sense if Ellie could hear the message too, since she was also a descendant of the djinn, but she didn’t have any insight into aether, so maybe the Relictombs saw her differently.
Better get inside me, just in case, I suggested to Regis. I don’t want you trapped on the wrong side of the door.
He became incorporeal and drifted into my body, his wisp form settling near my core. ‘Wake me up when something interesting happens.’
“This next part can be a bit trippy,” I said, reaching out and brushing my fingers across the smooth surface of the gate.
My fingers went through, the crystal clinking lightly as it folded away from my hand, making room for my passage. Taking a deep breath, I stepped into the solid surface, my skin tingling from the strange, warm caress of the black crystal flowing around my skin.
Everything went dark for a moment, and it felt like I was walking along the bottom of a warm ocean, then the crystal veil parted again. This time, when I saw the geometric patterns, I recognized them as being similar to those I’d seen in the keystone when I learned Aroa’s Requiem. Something about that magic and this was the same, although it was still beyond me to comprehend exactly what.
I wasn’t expecting danger, but I still quickly scanned the space on the other side of the crystal door.
It was brightly lit by a large number of lighting artifacts giving off a sunshine-like glow. The room was lined with glass display shelves, and the middle of the room contained over a dozen low, glass-encased tables.
Stepping up to the closest display, I searched for a plaque or card that might explain what I was seeing, but there was no label on the contents. Inside the glass, resting on a purple velvet cushion, was a featureless cube.
The air changed behind me, and the shifting black crystals folded into existence just long enough for Lyra Dreide to step through into the room, then the apparition melted away again.
Wide-eyed, she stared around, her mouth hanging open. “Is this…some kind of museum?”
I walked slowly down the aisle between two rows of display tables, examining the artifacts. “Something like that, yeah. This is different from what I’ve seen before. And I don’t recognize any of these artifacts.”
The tinkling whisper of the crystal door came again, and this time Ellie stepped through, followed immediately by Boo. “Whoa, this is so cool,” she muttered, bouncing on the balls of her feet in excitement.
Boo’s bulk was so great that he couldn’t move without bumping into something, but the displays seemed fixed in place, not moving even when the guardian bear rubbed up against them.
Mica arrived only a few seconds later. After looking around for a moment, she shrugged. “So this big test thing is happening in a dusty old museum? Isn’t that kind of weird? I think it’s weird.”
I didn’t respond, finally seeing something that I recognized. On the opposite wall from where I’d first appeared, one of the shelves held three identical spheres. More Compasses, I noted, tracing my fingers along the edge of the glass front. Carefully, I attempted to shift the glass or otherwise open it, but it didn’t respond to subtle force.
“I don’t see any way to open them either,” Lyra commented as she ran a hand along the bottom edge of a table. “We could smash them open. The contents of this museum—”
Balling my fist, I struck the front of the glass hard enough to rip through steel. The case neither resisted the force nor shattered under it. Instead, my fist passed through it, the image wobbling incoherently until I pulled my hand back. Once the case was solid again, I pressed my forefinger against it. It felt solid.
When Caera and I had reached the second djinn ruin, the place had been collapsing. The entrance hall and the library on the other side had been merged into one another. They weren’t quite real. This museum was probably the same, a visual representation of a place that didn’t exist.
“It’s more like…” I trailed off, trying to think of an appropriate metaphor.
“Like a picture made real,” Ellie said, gazing curiously at an engraved rod made of dull metal, about a foot and a half long.
“Yeah, something like that. Even the Relictombs zones we’ve cleared reset after we leave. They’re meant to be manipulated, though, to test us. This room is nothing, really. Just a distraction.”
“It’s certainly working,” Lyra said, her voice full of awe as she nearly pressed her face up against one of the displays.
I craned around to see what she was looking at and felt a sudden jolt of recognition at the handful of many-faceted crystals resting on the velvet cushion. Images—djinn faces—were projected across each facet with steadfast but forlorn expressions. Imbuing aether into my extradimensional storage rune, I called forth a matching crystal, which I had taken from the second ruin and then forgotten about.
When the crystal appeared in my hand, Lyra immediately reached out for it, then caught herself and slowly lowered her hand. Her eyes darted back to the collection of djinn crystals protected underneath the glass display, her confusion clear.
“These are sort of like books. Or journals,” I said in answer to her unasked question. “Or at least, that’s the impression I got before. I’ve been carrying this one around for a while.”
“What does it say?” she asked, almost reverent.
“I’m…not sure,” I admitted. “I’ve never listened to the creator’s message.”
Ellie came close, leaning into me for a better look. “So you could have been walking around with the secret to ancient magic in your pocket and not even known it?” Her brows rose and she shook her head at me.
“I very much doubt that,” I said, but Ellie’s words made me uneasy.
I’d taken the crystal from the collapsing library, which had overlapped the second ruin, more or less on a whim, and had felt guilty about it at the time. My focus afterwards, though, had been entirely on the keystone, and I’d never given the crystal another thought.
“Can you activate it so we all can experience it?” Lyra asked. “I have never heard of such a repository of ancient mage knowledge, and I would be incredibly interested to hear what this man had to say.” She pointed to the face speaking silently across the various facets.
I turned the crystal over in my hand, considering it, then sent it back into my dimension rune. Lyra looked put out as she gazed at my empty hand, but I ignored her. Something was wrong. Before, even in the collapsing library of the second ruin, I’d only had to activate aether to access the ruins hidden below the surface. But I’d just used aether to access my dimension storage twice.
Mica said something, maybe asked a question, but I didn’t register any of her words. Holding up my hand, I channeled aether, releasing a harmless burst of formless energy that manifested as glowing purple light.
Again, nothing happened.
In order to be more intentional, I reached down and put my hand against the floor, then pushed outward with aether. Nothing changed.
I tapped my fingers on the floor, and Lyra’s words atop the crumbling column came back to me. “I wonder…”
I imbued the Realmheart godrune.
It was strange. Mana was there, but normally the presence of mana particles aligned with the physical attributes of the space in question. One would expect to see a high concentration of earth-attribute mana clinging to the floor and walls, air-attribute mana floating in the atmosphere, and, in a place like this, only lingering traces of water- and fire-attribute mana.
But the mana particles didn’t line up with the space we were seeing at all.
It was like I was looking at a second image superimposed beneath the picture my eyes were showing me, a collection of dots loosely outlining the features of another space.
Because the mana is aligned with the realities of the chamber. The ruins, the pedestal, the ring, like in the other two ruins.
Again, I considered Lyra’s words. A mana-wielding mage may struggle to alter the physical characteristics of the Relictombs, but there had to be a way for me to pierce the veil of separation between the museum and the ruin just behind it.
Aether began to radiate out from me, filling the chamber with violet light. Mentally, I reached for the invisible seams, the places where the illusion contained itself in opposition to the real. It was like feeling for the gap around a hidden door—a place where the two separate pieces didn’t perfectly align.
The grasping fingers of my probing aether touched on a jagged edge, and the entire room wobbled in and out of focus.
Mica groaned, her eyes trying to follow along. “Reminds me of when I tried to beat Olfred in a drinking contest, ugh. Are you trying to make us all sick?”
I had to trace back over where I’d been twice before I found the edge again. As soon as I touched it, a static blur vibrated through the chamber, making my eyes go crossed. Boo grunted in agitation, and Ellie made soft cooing noises to calm him.
Closing my eyes to let my other senses do the work, I held on to that edge with aether. I pictured it like a piece of parchment laid over our senses, and so did the most appropriate thing I could think of. I tore it in two.
My companions burst out with dismayed moans, and it sounded as if Mica was very nearly sick as she wretched. Someone fell to their hands and knees. Lyra cursed under her breath—or offered a prayer to the Vritra, it was difficult to tell which.
When I opened my eyes again, we were surrounded by light gray stone.
The third ruin, I thought, still wary.
Unlike the last two, however, this place wasn’t a ruin at all. The stone walls and floor looked as if they’d just been quarried and shaped yesterday. There was no overgrowth, no broken walls or crumbling ceiling. It was all in perfect condition.
Even the structure in the center of the room was undamaged, but the four rings that should have been orbiting the pedestal lay dormant, and the crystal itself was dark.
“That was bloody horrible,” Mica complained.
Ellie was kneeling on the ground beside me, Boo moaning and nudging at her. I rested a hand on her hair, and she looked up at me. Sweat was pouring down her face. “Seconded,” she said weakly.
“It was like…having my eyes pulled out of their sockets, then thrown into the air while still connected to me,” Lyra breathed, leaning back against the unblemished stone wall.
Regis manifested next to me, his flames casting a jumping, purple light over the stonework. “You Vritra sure have a way with words.” To me, he said, “What now, boss? This place seems dead as barbequed roadkill.”
I set the palm of my hand against the crystal. It was cold, and there was no reaction to my touch.
Keeping part of my focus on Realmheart, I channeled additional aether into Aroa’s Requiem. Bright motes of restorative energy flowed down my arm and hand and onto the crystal. I pushed more and more motes into the large object, watching as they swarmed across the surface, congregating in every crevice as they searched for anything to fix.
Some was absorbed into it, melting right through the crystal’s surface. I kept in my mind my understanding of the artifact, its purpose and what was likely stored within, giving the godrune a pattern on which to build if it found anything broken.
But, after a full five minutes, nothing had changed.
I released the godrune, and the motes slowly faded away. “I don’t think it’s broken.”
“Maybe it’s more like…out of power?” Ellie asked tentatively. She had gotten to her feet and was slowly walking around the circular rings.
Frowning, I gathered aether into my hand and imbued it into the projection crystal. The crystal absorbed the aether, but it did not come to life.
Like she was moving in a trance, Ellie slowly reached out for the crystal as well. Her fingertips just brushed its surface, and a spark of mana rushed out of her core, through her veins, and into the crystal.
It flickered with cloudy, dim light from deep within.
“That appears to have done something,” Lyra said, twirling a strand of fire-red hair around her fingers. “Eleanor, can you give it more mana?”
“I think so,” Ellie whispered as she pressed both hands firmly against it. Her small frame flared with white light as pure mana poured into the device.
The crystal emitted a soft glow and an audible hum. The rings shifted, jolting slightly, but they did not rise up from the ground or begin to orbit the pedestal like I’d seen in the first ruin.
And yet my sense of foreboding grew. I could only hope the captured remnants of whatever djinn mind haunted this place still remained.
The runes covering the pedestal and dormant rings flashed, and a voice emanated from the crystal, sharp and ancient and wary. “Life—into my old bones—but…” The voice trailed off for a moment, and the runes dimmed, only to flash again as it said, “Is my mission not…complete? Tests given, keystone rewarded…I’ve slept for such a very long time. For what purpose am I now roused?”
I glanced down at Regis, sharing the bad feeling that was emanating to me from our connection. “Djinn, are you saying that the keystone in your care was already given to someone else?”
The light within the runes shifted, almost like it was focusing on me. “A worthy descendant presented themselves…a very, very long time ago. They passed my tests and claimed the knowledge I guarded, and so the structure housing my mind and memories went to sleep, the energy sustaining me utilized elsewhere.”
My heart gave a painful thump, and it suddenly felt strenuous to draw breath. Clenching my fists, I forcefully steadied my breathing. “Can you tell me who this descendant was? Or what knowledge was contained within the keystone?”
“That information is not stored within this remnant.”
I was acutely aware of my companions’ eyes all lingering on me, but I didn’t meet any of their gazes in return. “What about your test? The previous manifestations or guardians or whatever you call yourselves tested me, and through those tests I was able to gain insight. Even without the keystone—”
“This housing lacks the energy to commit to another test. Whatever arts you’ve used to wake me are sufficient only for the most surface-level application of my stored consciousness, and already I can feel it running out. My purpose is fulfilled. I can see the anguish in your mind, but I can offer you no balm for your pain. I…am…s-sorry…”
The voice lost integrity, gaining a tinny quality like it was echoing out of a can, then faded away entirely. The last of the light left both runes and crystal.
“Well, shit,” Regis said succinctly, sitting back on his haunches.
“Agrona must have it,” I said immediately, turning to look at Lyra for confirmation.
She shrugged helplessly. “It is possible. This ‘keystone’ may be what allowed him to form our nation to begin with, or to survive the assassination attempts sent by the other asura, or even unlocked the knowledge of the reincarnates and the Legacy. Or all of it. But I’m afraid I don’t know for certain.”
Mica flew up off the ground, suddenly in Lyra’s face. She pushed her hammer against the retainer’s shoulder, shoving her back into the wall. “Aren’t you one of his generals or whatever? How could you not know? Don’t lie to us!”
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Lyra lifted her chin and glared at Mica. “The High Sovereign is quite effective at compartmentalizing his forces. No one except Agrona himself sees the entire picture. The Scythes and retainers are political figures, both carrot and stick for the civilians. The deeper workings of his empire are largely left to the Vritra Clan themselves, those who still remain after fleeing from Epheotus beside him so long ago. His army of Wraiths do nothing but train and prepare, a secret even from most of his own continent.”
“A likely story,” Mica shot back, pushing harder with her hammer.
“But Agrona couldn’t have gotten in here himself, right?” Regis asked, careless of the tension between the two powerful women. “Who could have gotten in here besides you?”
I shook my head, unsure. Crossing the room, I took hold of Mica’s hammer and gently pulled it away from Lyra. “We don’t have time to fight against each other.”
Grumbling, she lowered her weapon. Lyra and Mica glowered at each other.
Ellie was watching them nervously as she played with the hem of her shirt. “So, what do we do?”
“There is still one more ruin out there,” I said firmly. “We need to find it. Now.”
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