The Beginning After The End - Chapter 264
Chapter 264: Branch of Destruction
As the giant shadow sentinel dissolved back into the black platform, it felt like—rather than calming down—my adrenaline rush from the battle was growing more intense. My breathing grew shallow and I could feel my heartbeat quicken by the second. Blood pounded against my ears, dulling out everything except for the sounds of my own ragged breaths. It was an overbearing yet intoxicating sensation which had me scared that I’d lose my mind.
I tried to withdraw the violet fire clad around my right hand but it wouldn’t budge. The cool flames clung to my skin, throbbing, and the rune on my back now felt like a scorching brand pressed against my very spine.
I didn’t know why this was happening but it felt like either my body was rejecting the rune, or the other way around. A scream tore at my throat as the violet flames grew stronger and more wild, engulfing my entire hand.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Regis frantically rushing toward me before disappearing into my body. It didn’t take much longer after that for darkness to overcome me.
When I came to, the shimmering purple sky was the first thing to greet me. The second thing was the pain. My right hand felt like it had been marinated in a vat of acid, a dull throb still lingered on my lower back.
My lower back…the rune!
My eyes widened as I finally recalled what had happened to me. I pushed myself off my back, wincing at the pain from putting weight on my right hand. As my gaze lowered to my right hand which looked unscathed, I finally noticed that the platform I was on wasn’t black, but white.
“Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty,” a gruff voice sounded behind me. My battle instincts flared as I whirled around while unsheathing the white dagger using my left hand, only to find myself face-to-face with a shadowy entity in the form of a wolf.
It remained seated on its hind legs like a large dog, no threatening intent leaking from it. The only details that set it apart from what would normally be a very black wolf was the fact that it had a pair of horns protruding out of its head, each twisting like a gnarled branch as they came to a sharp point behind its ears. The other detail, and the one that stood out the most, was its glowing violet mane that looked more like flames rather than fur.
“Check me out. I’m majestic as fuck!” the wolf said with a toothy grin, its shadowy tail wagging excitedly.
My jaw dropped. “R-Regis?”
It took me a few minutes to swallow everything, but once I did, my curiosity only grew.
I bombarded him with questions. “What happened to me after I passed out? What happened to you? Why do you look like that?”
“Easy, pleb,” Regis said haughtily, holding up his giant black paw. “This one shall explain.”
I shot him a glare, eliciting an uncomfortable cough from the shadowy wolf.
“After you killed that giant golem, that purple flame was trying to consume you so I did what any loyal companion would do and went into your body to save you.”
“Loyal? Is that why you’re a dog?” I quipped.
“I’m a wolf!” Regis emphasized, offended. “I don’t know why I’m a wolf, and not some badass dragon, but this is what I came out as.”
“So how did it happen?”
“Well, I felt this huge surge of aether fuse with me.”
“Fuse with your body?” I repeated blankly before it finally dawned on me.
I expelled aether from my core, trying to siphon it through the rune on my lower back. Except there was no rune. I recalled the knowledge that had been ingrained into me upon forming the rune but it felt like a blur, like trying to recall the events of a drunken night.
“It’s gone,” I mumbled. “I-I can’t feel the rune anymore.”
My eyes locked onto Regis in an icy glare. “You stole it.”
“It’s not like I expected this to happen,” Regis retorted back. “And besides. You were dying.”
I seethed. “I had it under control.”
Regis let out a scoff. “Sure. Writhing in pain and blacking out was all part of the master plan, right?”
“You don’t understand! I need that power, Regis. Give it back!”
Regis bared his fangs. “You don’t think I tried? After dragging your sorry ass out of the black platform—you’re welcome, by the way—I tried going back inside your body and giving it back to you but I didn’t even know how!”
My brows furrowed as I reached out my hand toward Regis. “Come here.”
With a sigh, my companion relented.
As soon as his form entered my body, though, I felt the change. It started with a pressure building inside my ears, as if I was sinking deep underwater. Then a growing pain began building in my temples as the knowledge of the rune in my mind and the actual rune now held within Regis connected. I recalled everything that I had learned as the warm touch of the rune spread from my lower back.
Destruction. That was what the rune that had been engraved on my back meant. Destruction, however, wasn’t something tangible, so the aether residing within me had shaped it into something I was familiar with: something destructive like fire.
Was it the result of my aether core being formed from the fragments of my white stage mana core?
It could’ve been. I didn’t know.
Through this very formation of power, however, I questioned whether aether had some level of sentience. It had given me knowledge of what destruction meant, and how it tied with vivum. Lady Myre had explained it as the influence over living components but that was wrong, that was only a part of it.
Vivum was more akin to the influence over…existence. And just as life was a part of existence, so was death, creation, and destruction.
I had barely touched the surface of destruction but even then, I had managed to gain more insight than Lady Myre knew—or at least what she had told me.
But perhaps even more shocking than that, was the revelation of what this rune signified. The fact that I had invoked this rune meant that I had a certain degree of mastery over what the rune meant. It was a rare projection of mastery over a specific edict of aether.
This made me question the differences in my newly-bestowed rune, and the runes that once encompassed my body through Sylvia’s dragon will…as well as the very runes that both Lady Myre and Sylvia possessed.
One difference was clear: The Indrath clan, as well as all of the asuras, thought that the only way to obtain these runes was through the rare chance of inheriting it since birth.
Were the specific edicts of aether they could learn limited by the runes that they possessed since being born? Were they given the knowledge and abilities that came along with each rune right away or was each rune ‘dormant’ until they could make the breakthrough themselves?
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It seemed unlikely that they’d get the knowledge since birth, given how painful just obtaining one rune was—it was likely that even an asura infant would die from the mental burden of dozens of runes instilling their brain with knowledge.
Hundreds of questions ran through my head along with my newfound knowledge of aether from my rune. There would be no way to get all the answers anytime soon, but the acquisition of this rune and the parallel I had drawn with the runes I had witnessed in the past made me sure of two things: one, I needed to make more breakthroughs in aether arts to obtain more runes; two, Argona most likely gained insight from these runes in order to create his own version to bestow onto his people. That was what the marks, crests, emblems, and regalias that the Alacryans possessed were—simplified mana-adaptations of aetheric runes.
“Agrona,” I said aloud, a boiling fury building up inside me. My hands ignited in the cool violet flames of destruction, encompassing even the dagger still in my left hand as my eyes scanned for anything to let loose this rage on.
I needed to kill something. I wanted to kill something, just like Agrona had done to so many of my people. If it wasn’t for him, the war would’ve never happened and Adam wouldn’t have died. My father wouldn’t have died.
With the last trace of sanity left in me, I plunged the dagger in my hand deep into my thigh.
I dropped to a knee as the piercing pain spread, clearing my head. Regis was still inside me but I was able to withdraw his power.
It was worse this time. It wasn’t merely a voice whispering words into my mind anymore. I could feel the emotions, the cravings for chaos and destruction, fusing into my brain and making these murderous intentions mine.
Was it Regis? Was it the aetheric rune of destruction itself? Or was it me?
“You okay, Princess?” Regis asked. He had left my body, his expression more transparent and somewhat boorish in this canine form.
I got up. I was still in a daze and there were a thousand things on my mind, but I knew, regardless of intention, that if Regis hadn’t absorbed the aetheric rune from me…
“Yeah, I’m okay now,” I said with a pang of guilt. “And I’m sorry for accusing you of stealing it. You were right. If you hadn’t, I would’ve died.”
“It’s okay. I know you feel pretty cruddy since you’ve been so hell-bent on getting stronger.” Regis’ ears drooped. “And if it makes you feel better, my body is stronger now but I can’t use those purple flames like you used to kill that golem.”
I nodded, suspecting that may have been the case. Lowering my gaze, I stared at my hands, wondering what had gone wrong. I had gained insights into vivum, but I only had half of the whole piece, with Regis carrying the other half.
He didn’t have the insights to use the power of destruction as well as I could and I didn’t have the rune to use it myself. And if I did continue using the rune held by Regis, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d go mad.
It was frustrating. Unlike the growth in my mana core and my ability to manipulate the elements, my growth in wielding aether wasn’t as linear and discernable. Obtaining this new powerful ability was the first step in bridging the gap between me and the asuras, but I was only given a taste before it was taken away from me.
But at least now I knew. If I could form a rune for a branch of destruction, then I could form one for other branches. I could only hope that the aether would mold and shape themselves to best suit me in the future.
Letting the wound on my leg close, I dusted myself off before shooting Regis a slight smile. “Come on. Let’s see just how useful this new form of yours is.”
Regis’s ears perked up and his tail started wagging excitedly as he shot me a toothy grin. “Try to keep up!”
Time continued to pass by unabated as Regis and I ascended higher through the glowing platforms. The expanse of purple shone overhead, ever-steady, making it impossible to track how many hours had passed.
There were a few patterns we had noticed as we ventured higher through this almost game-like expanse.
The color of platforms remained the same: white, red, orange, blue, then black. Regis and I referred to this sequence of platforms as a single ‘set.’ This order never deviated and each color corresponded to a specific ‘challenge.’
As far as we could deduce, the white platform was the only safe platform. The red platforms were meant to be some sort of test for either your mental or physical fortitude. Apart from the first red platform that siphoned our aether, the latter ones imbued all sorts of interesting curses onto the people standing on the platform. From insatiable hunger that could drive humans to eat one another, to lust, depression, and so on.
The orange platforms were rather straight-forward as well. Each one conjured up enemies that Regis and I needed to kill in order to move on. The numbers and types of beasts varied and grew a bit stronger with each ascending set, but the rate at which Regis and I grew surpassed the rising difficulty of the stages.
The blue platforms were by far the most time-consuming. Each one was a puzzle of some sort, some with deadly traps and others meant to keep you for days to die of thirst and starvation. With my body needing very little sustenance apart from aether, this didn’t really apply to us, but it was a large waste of time, regardless.
While the blue platforms took the most time, the black platforms were the most deadly and challenging. There was only one beast to fight, but on a level far higher than the ones seen on the orange platforms.
I had come out of each battle with wounds that would’ve crippled or killed a normal person, only to have them heal without a trace. My clothes were littered with tears and holes but the black leather bracers and gorget along with my teal cloak managed to stay intact. I had also expected the white dagger I had obtained from the millipede lair to be broken down by now, but it held strong without a single chip or crack to blemish its pristine white blade.
Despite what awaited us on each platform, our ascent through the platforms had gotten easier—no, that was wrong; each platform proved to be more challenging than the prior. We had just gotten stronger.
While I wasn’t able to unravel another aspect of aether to obtain a rune, the rate at which my aether passages grew had increased. It most likely had to do with the knowledge that had been instilled and remained in my mind when I had gotten the first rune, even after Regis’ body had absorbed it.
I was able to coalesce all of my aether into either of my hands and about eighty percent of my aether into my legs. Minute control over aether felt impossible for now, like I was trying to mold air into a sculpture, but it was something I desperately needed to advance.
It was imperative to have precise control over aether to enhance my speed. I had grown somewhat confident in my resilience and power but without the aid of both mana and elemental magic, my speed had deteriorated even with the aid of aether and my stronger body.
The biggest change, however, was Regis. My black mutt—which he hated to be called—was no longer the cannon fodder he used to be. While he wasn’t yet able to use the violet flames of aether, his speed, strength, and razor-sharp teeth and claws made him a torrent of destruction nonetheless. The only downside to this change was that he was now much more corporeal than he used to be—which meant he was susceptible to injury.
His body didn’t bleed, but since his entire body was made of aether, getting too hurt meant that he needed to be given more aether…my aether, and a lot of it.
“After we get out of here, remind me to whip you into shape,” I huffed, resting on the giant head of the three-headed serpent I had just finished off on the seventh black platform. “My little sister can fight better than you.”
‘Bite me,’ Regis snapped, his discontent ringing in my head. ‘I’m still getting used to this form. It’s my first time having actual limbs you know.’
“Well, at this point you’re more of a liability to my aether pool than you are an asset in battle,” I remarked with a smirk.
Regis opted for silence, all out of excuses and witty comebacks.
He knew that as well. It was too dangerous to use Gauntlet Form, now enhanced by the violet flames of destruction, because of its escalating effects on my psyche, and the beasts that appeared on these platforms were too strong for him to properly adjust his newfound powers and form to.
The sight of the shadowy rails trapping us within the black platform stirred me out of my thoughts. The three-headed serpent began to dissolve back into the ground as well, the same as usual.
I expected to see the customary set of stairs leading to the next platform, but instead of a platform, what awaited me at the top of the translucent stairs was a portal.
Looking at the shimmering gate of iridescent light felt like falling upon an oasis in an endless desert.
“I think it is…” I rushed up the stairs with reckless abandon, wanting nothing more than to escape this hellish purple void.
I thought anything we would have to face on the other side would be better than being here. However, what awaited us made me question those very thoughts.
It wasn’t the ominous crimson sky that shone overhead that made me anxious. It wasn’t the hordes of various beasts advancing toward us. It was the dozen or so humans fighting against them… and the three Alacryans in particular that I had come across in the very first room of this dungeon.