The Beginning After The End - Chapter 268
Chapter 268: Trading Knowledge
Caera’s voice grew dangerously quiet as she regarded me with bloodshot eyes. “I asked you…why are you wielding my brother’s dagger.”
“Answer, Effeminate One,” Taegen insisted with a commanding voice.
I thought I heard Regis chortle in my head but it could’ve easily been one of the other ascenders around us. Either way, I was growing impatient with the situation around me. Despite the temporary reprieve I had felt from seeing other people in these desolate beast-filled ruins, it had quickly become more of a hassle than a comfort being with them.
“Would you like to test whether your blade is faster than mine, swordsman?” I challenged, turning to meet the brown-haired ascender’s eyes.
I felt Taegen trying to pry my hand away from Caera’s throat, but I kept my eyes planted on the swordsman, unflinching.
After a beat of hesitation, the swordsman dropped his sword and held up his hands. Taegen released his grip and reluctantly stepped back. Still, despite her position, Caera’s gaze never faltered as if she still expected an answer.
“I found it on one of the flo—zones I encountered before arriving here,” I answered.
Caera’s face was a motley of expressions; she somehow seemed afraid, happy, crestfallen, and hopeful all at the same time.
She opened her mouth to speak but hesitated, almost afraid at what she might hear.
My gaze flickered between Taegen and the swordsman. Their eyes told me they were still looking for an opportunity to strike, but I didn’t mind. It was obvious that both were prioritizing this Lady Caera’s safety over anything else.
Letting out a breath, I spoke. “I’ll tell you what I encountered in the zone where I found this dagger, and I’m even willing to part with it…but I want something in exchange.”
“We don’t carry money in the Relictombs and we’ve yet to find any accolades but once we leave, if you come—”
I shook my head, cutting her off. “I don’t need money or accolades. I just want some answers.”
The four of us walked away out of earshot of the other ascenders after I released my grip around Caera’s wrist and put the dagger back in its sheath.
“Shall we start?” I asked, calmly regarding the trio just a few feet away.
I could see Taegen’s body bristle, the striations in his muscles literally seeming to stiffen as he prepared for anything I might throw at them.
Letting out a sigh, I took a seat on the hard ground.
The swordsman’s eyes narrowed as he studied me. “You could’ve kept Lady Caera as hostage and simply forced answers from us. What keeps us from simply killing you now and taking what rightfully belongs to Highblood Denoir?”
“Arian, enough. We both have things we want from each other,” Caera said curtly.
If Alacryans referred to family as ‘blood’, then did ‘highblood’ mean that Caera was from nobility? It made sense considering that she had two highly capable guards more than willing to risk their lives for her.
“The three of you seem too noble to do something as backhanded as that unless…Lady Caera was in danger,” I said, giving them a knowing look. “Besides, I can assure you that killing me will by no means be ‘simple’.”
“We’ll answer your questions to the best of our ability,” Caera assured, lowering herself on the ground as well in a heel-sitting position. Even apart from her proper and refined swordplay, every bit of her movements and behavior spelled out the fact that she had very strict and proper training on behavior and etiquette.
I paused to think for a moment before speaking again. “I’ll ask a series of questions, some with answers that I already know and some that I genuinely want answers for—you will not know which is which. You can’t ask why I am asking the questions I ask, and if you don’t know it, simply say so.”
Taegen dropped to the ground with both his arms and legs crossed and glared at me. “Make haste, Effeminate One. We’re wasting our resting period before the next wave.”
This time, I definitely heard Regis chortle.
“How many more zones do we have to cross until we’re able to leave the Relictombs?” I asked.
“The number and difficulty varies depending on the ascender since the Relictombs adjust to the abilities of the ascenders within their respective zones,” Caera answered immediately.
“Then how are parties able to travel through zones together if everything changes depending on the individual ascender?”
“Simulets,” answered the swordsman simply.
I let out a sigh. “How do ‘simulets’ work?”
Caera took over again and answered. “If I recall correctly, a female caster offered one to you. Holding one synced with the rest of the simulets held by members of the team ensures that the gates that members cross leads to the same zone, although the difficulty is still determined by the strength of the ascenders present.”
I nodded before asking the next question. “Why do ascenders come into these Relictombs?”
Taegen shot up angrily. “Even unads know th—”
“Taegen.” Caera’s voice was sharp and it was enough to make the large muscle-clad mage promptly sit back on the ground with the rest of us.
“Only the strongest mages given the title of ‘ascender’ by your domain’s Scythe are allowed to explore the Relictombs. In turn, ascenders are able to gain treasures that would never be found on the surface, called accolades. Furthermore, if a relic of the ancient mages is found and given to your Scythe, it is said that the ascender will be taken to the mighty sovereigns themselves and be bestowed a powerful regalia,” Caera explained.
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“Right, the Vritra,” I affirmed.
Caera’s eyes tightened into a sharp glare but didn’t say anything at my response.
I recalled some of my encounters with the Alacryans back in Dicathen. I couldn’t only ask these ‘basic’ questions. Thinking back to the noble Alacryan that I had questioned back in the Forest of Elshire, I asked, “How influential is…the Vale blood?”
Arian’s gaze turned inquisitive as he answered. “Blood Vale is one of the few military bloods in Etril, so compared to the other named bloods in a domain known mostly for its farms, they’re influential. But in terms of influence in Alacrya as a whole? They’re…nowhere near any of the true highbloods.”
The sudden mention of a specific family must’ve thrown them off because they began answering my following questions more seriously.
Despite the conditions I had set for this ‘questioning,’ I was limited in what I could ask in terms of learning more about Alacrya itself. Instead, I tried to learn more about the magic system that Agrona had devised in Alacrya. These questions didn’t seem to raise any flags to the three since I had some basic knowledge from my questioning of Steffen Vale.
Interestingly enough, their ‘mark-based system’, as I so casually dubbed, was largely a mystery to the Alacryans as well. Because of the awakening process that all children went through in order to become a mage, the Alacryans thought that magic was given to them by the Vritra themselves, or ‘the sovereigns’. Thus, nonmages or ‘unads’, which seemed to be the widely-accept slang for unadorned, were widely discriminated against since they weren’t ‘blessed’ by the sovereigns.
Just like Caera was afraid of hearing what happened to her brother, I was afraid to hear the answer to this next question.
Taking a breath, I asked, “What was the last news you’ve heard about the war going on with Dicathen and…how much time has passed since then?”
“The latest news that was delivered to my estate right before we prepared for our ascent was that Scythe Cadell had managed to conquer the Dicathian’s sacred flying castle,” Caera answered with a hint of pride. “So taking into account the time flow within the Relictombs, I’d say it has been almost two weeks since then.”
Almost two weeks. It hadn’t been more than a week at most since I escaped the Castle with Sylvie, Virion and Bairon and I fought against Cadell and Nico. I had hoped for time to work differently within the Relictombs because of the abundance of aether in here, but I couldn’t help but feel relieved knowing that despite everything I had gone through, not much time had passed.
“Do you worry for a member of your blood out in the war, Effeminate One?” Taegen asked. “It is a shame that an ascender’s exemption from the war does not extend to their blood members, but know that it is an honor for them to serve.”
I was a little taken aback by Taegen’s words, but responded with a nod.
Silence lingered for a time before I eventually stood up.
“Last questions,” I said. “How far is the power source from here?”
“It’s about another day’s worth at the pace we’ve been moving, and that’s not including the time it’d take to fight another wave or two.” Arian frowned, staring up at me with an utterly serious expression. “You’re not planning on going off alone, are you?”
“I’ve wasted enough time in this zone,” I replied curtly.
“The effect your presence has in this zone speaks for your strength, Effeminate One,” Taegen said as he stood up as well. “But even if you manage to survive the next wave by yourself, it’ll be impossible for you to fight the guardian protecting the power source alone.”
I tilted my head. “You know…the more you speak, the more I realize you’re not the meathead I thought you first were.”
A vein in Taegen’s forehead literally popped out at my comment but Arian responded with a stifled laugh. “Taegen indeed gets that a lot. It doesn’t help that his temper is shorter than a husked boarling with its behind on fire.”
I watched as Taegen stomped down on his comrade while Arian casually dodged the attempts.
Turning back to Caera, I tossed her the dagger. “A deal is a deal.”
Her lips curled up into a smile for a split second as she squeezed the dagger tightly before looking at me seriously. “What about my brother?”
“I didn’t see your brother in that zone. However, there was a beast in there both large and powerful enough to eat ascenders whole, and judging by the pile of human-sized equipment left in its lair where I found that dagger and this cloak…” I let the sentence trail off, not having the heart to finish.
Her expression remained calm despite the news—almost serene—but it was easy to see the emotions she was holding back. Her trembling hands gripped her brother’s dagger with such strength that her pale fingers had grown several shades lighter.
I stared out into the distance where the power source would most likely be once the sky turned red again. As I prepared to leave, however, a voice shouted at me from a distance.
It was Daria running toward us with most of the other ascenders behind her. Even from here, I could tell that the expression on their faces spelled out trouble.
“I knew it. You’re thinking about going off on your own,” she huffed, her thin brows furrowed together.
I responded calmly. “Is that a problem?”
“Don’t you have any sense of responsibility? Because of your presence, the carallians have been augmented to such a degree that five of us died in that last wave! That’s unprecedented in convergence zones!”
Caera stood up, storing the dagger in a dimension ring. “Even if he leaves, a part of the wave will follow after him and if he dies, the carallians will revert back to their previous form. Where exactly does the problem lie?”
“H-He should take responsibility and stay here to protect the rest of us until we get out of this zone!” Daria sputtered, her cheeks red in anger.
A few of the ascenders behind her nodded in agreement. The only one that didn’t think the same was Trider, who was just idly kicking a loose clump of dirt on the ground.
I looked back at Caera, who remained unfazed as she responded. “Don’t you mean, he should stay here and protect you?”
Daria let out a scoff before she whipped her gaze to me. “So this is why you didn’t accept my offer. I didn’t realize you were a dog of the Denoirs.”
“Careful, Miss Lendhert,” Arian said as he finally got up, patting the dust off his matte armor. “While exploiting your blood name is frowned upon in the Relictombs, everyone here should know that Lady Caera doesn’t take lightly to insults and Denoirs are rather known for settling scores.”
“Enough. I plan to reach the power source before the wave begins.” The dirt beneath my feet picked up as I cycled aether through my limbs. The expressions on the ascenders told me that they all felt the change in the air. “Anyone who can keep up is free to follow me.”