The Beginning After The End - Chapter 277
Chapter 277: One Step Forward
As my vision was flooded in a sea of purple, I could feel my aether core slowly draining. As my senses entered the stone cube, I attempted to look deeper inside. It felt like the further in I ‘traveled’, the more difficult it became. As I wafted through this space, the mud-like viscosity soon thickened and hardened until eventually it felt like I was pushing against a brick wall.
Even while I was disconnected from my body, I could feel my breath coming up short and ragged, as if I was breathing through a wet cloth. Straining to push through this wall stopping me from venturing forth, I pumped more aether out of my core until finally I was able to shift through the wall.
To describe the experience of my mind touching the surface of the cuboid relic into words would be undermining the sheer complexity of it all.
Geometric shapes in seemingly random patterns and movements floated around me. I couldn’t see an end to how far these polyhedrons went but for some reason, I knew that there was a boundary within this chaos.
As more aether flowed out from my core and into this realm within the relic, the polyhedrons began to change. I was no longer just observing but actually affecting these geometric shapes as if my aether was resonating with these things.
I found myself lost in a trance as I tried to make heads or tails out of the patterns, movements, shapes, and sizes of all of these polyhedrons that made up this realm within the relic. Using the aether within me as the metaphorical limbs, I combined, sorted, and categorized these polyhedrons in an effort to understand what this convoluted guidebook was trying to tell me.
Finally, when my aether reserves fell to around a tenth of its capacity, I was pulled out of the realm. As my consciousness returned, I found myself seated in the same position I had been on the couch. The only thing that had changed was that the room—once brightly lit by the afternoon sun—was now almost completely dark.
“You’re finally done?” Regis asked, lifting his head while curled up beside me.
I stared at the crescent sun. “How long have I been out?”
“About five or six hours. I lost count after falling asleep.”
“You need sleep?” I asked.
Regis let out a wide yawn before answering. “It’s like a battery-saver mode. I consume less aether when I’m asleep so I can accumulate more ambient aether.”
“What a peculiar dog you are.”
“Shove it,” he groused before hopping off the couch. “So did you learn anything from the cube?”
“I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be learning.” I let out a sigh. “And the worst part is that I use up aether trying to study this piece of rock.”
“Damn, and I thought learning this reality-bending ability was going to be easy,” Regis said sarcastically as he walked away.
I kicked him below the tail, getting a sharp yelp out of my companion.
“Never thought I’d miss the days when I was incorporeal,” he grumbled before turning to me. “So what’s the plan now?”
I paused, thinking for a moment. “We have a few days to kill anyway so we might as well learn a bit more about the locals. The bestowment event is something I’d want to check out along with the schools tomorrow.”
Regis looked at me silently with a slightly stunned expression.
I frowned. “What is it?”
“Nothing. It’s just that, I thought you’d be scratching off your skin trying to find some way to get to the next Relictombs or something,” he muttered.
“I have been pretty on-edge lately, haven’t I?” I scratched my cheek.
Regis shrugged, his mane of purple fire fluttering. “It’s understandable. I don’t have a family aside from you but I’d be pretty nervous if I didn’t know what was going on with the ones I cared about.”
I stood silent, taken aback by Regis’ nonchalant mention of me as his family. It never occurred to me that he didn’t have anyone else except me. Even in this canine form of his, did I still see Regis as a weapon?
Regis narrowed his eyes. “What. Why are you staring at me like that?”
“I-It’s nothing.” I got up from my seat and headed toward the door.
“Where are we going?” he asked, trotting along behind me.
“Didn’t you hear what Loreni said earlier? There are a ton of mana beasts just outside of town.” I shot my companion a smirk. “I haven’t had the chance to really practice the limits of God Step.”
“We get to stretch our legs a bit and earn some money.” Regis mirrored my smirk. “Sounds good.”
I breathed in the crisp night air, our feet crunching against the foliage as the two of us rushed through the woods. We wanted to get further away from the town in case someone spotted us using aether, but that didn’t mean we didn’t kill a few rocavids on the way. These massive deer-like mana beasts had antlers not only on their heads, but down their spine and thick tails that they used as deadly clubs.
Deadly for normal mages, anyway. The mana beast couldn’t even react as I sunk my dagger between their eyes, since their hides were what was what we would need to sell.
Regis had a harder time keeping his kills clean, but between the two of us, it took less than an hour to hunt down half a dozen of the rocavids roaming around the dead of night. The only reason we stopped was because we ran out of space in the extradimensional rune.
“I thought the talking crystal said you can’t put organic things into the rune on your arm,” Regis commented as we neared a small clearing that led to the base of the hill.
“It seems like I can only put it in once they’re dead,” I answered, my eyes spotting a large boulder in the center of the clearing.
Stopping in front of the boulder that stood at least a foot over me, the words, ‘Danger. High-level mana beasts ahead’ were carved with ominous splashes of dried blood on its surface.
We crossed over to the other side of the clearing, where the ground began to gradually slope up as we trekked up the hill. While my vision had been enhanced by my new physique, being unable to sense mana now made finding mana beasts a much more challenging task.
While I was able to augment my senses using this new source of magic, I’d been unable to find a way to utilize aether to sense non-aetheric beings and objects.
However, not having any sort of mana signature coming from me or Regis meant that the stronger and more predatory wildlife here saw us as an easy meal.
The first mana beast that came after us was one I hadn’t seen before in Dicathen. It reminded me of my sister’s bond, Boo, if he had four arms and a crocodile-like jaw with three rows of serrated teeth.
“Keep watch in case of any passerbys,” I ordered Regis while I faced the beast.
With a gruesome snarl, the bear got down on all six of its limbs and charged at me with surprising speed. Putting away my dagger, I faced it head on.
While my aether reserves hadn’t been fully restored, tonight’s goal was merely to test out my new godrune. I didn’t know what tier this mana beast would be classified under but it would serve as a good guinea pig.
Aether surged out of my core, clinging to my skin. As the familiar warmth of the rune spread from my lower back, I focused on the location I would try to land.
The experience of initiating the aether art this time felt completely different from when I had first used it. My perception of the world around me changed, as if everything had been stretched in all directions. Particles of ambient aether now conjoined and looked like intertwining streams of purple coursing in the air, creating fluid pathways that interconnected and branched off.
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Taking a ‘step’, I felt my body being carried by a jet stream as I rode the currents of aether. The problem was that there was no direct ‘route’ to the location I had determined—I had to ride these currents of aether that branched off to every inch of space that surrounded me. These streams didn’t extend infinitely though. The streams surrounded me in a ten yard radius, which was probably my current range of God Step.
Despite my limits, the result was astounding. Although my landing location wasn’t as accurate as I would’ve liked it to be, I had traveled ten yards in the blink of an eye.
The biggest difference between God Step and Burst Step, however, was the control of momentum. Since I was no longer bound by the inertia upon reaching my destination, it really felt like I was on the cusp of reaching true teleportation.
Tendrils of violet lightning coiled around me from using God Step as I appeared just beside the charging bear-like mana beast. It skidded to a stop but by the time it turned around, my aether-clad fist had already sunken into its side.
The beast’s giant body tumbled on the ground, crashing and breaking several trees in its path.
‘Are you setting off explosives or something?’ Regis voiced his complaints.
Sorry. I held back.
Due to its thick, mana-coated fur, the bear still lived but it scuttled away, letting out low whimpers.
I continued scouring through the woods, training God Step while hunting down mana beasts until the rocavid corpses within my ring had all been replaced.
Regis hunted as well, which allowed me to see what level he was at. Aside from the distance that we could be apart and his increasing capacity to hold aether, Regis’ growth in terms of strength wasn’t at a level where he could keep up with me. He needed to consume more aether, but the problem was, so did I.
Apart from collecting the relics, both in the Relictombs and out here in Alacrya, I needed to get my aether reserves large enough to awaken Sylvie from her comatose state.
“You okay?” Regis asked as we neared the base of the hill. “You’re rubbing your left arm again.”
“I’m fine,” I said, sticking my hands in my pockets.
Getting closer to town, Regis retreated back into my body and I found myself enjoying the quiet night, right up until I neared the site of a rocavid corpse I had left behind to make space in my extradimensional rune.
There was a figure, whose small frame indicated they couldn’t be older than ten, ripping apart the rocavid.
Hearing me approach, the child’s head shot up, looking around frantically until our eyes locked. The small boy leapt to his feet, pointing the jagged knife that he had been using to skin the rocavid. His sunken cheeks and tattered clothes spoke volumes of his status but it was his eyes that made me pause. His eyes were filled with desperation and fear as he stood between me and the rocavid corpse, but at the same time, I could see the determination within them.
His gaze reminded me of… me. Not as Arthur, but as Grey. It was the same gaze that I had when I first met Headmaster Wilbeck when she first found me on the streets.
“Boy,” I called out, eliciting a startled step back from the little kid. “Do you plan on using that knife on me?”
The kid slowly lowered his knife, wavering, before he lifted it back up and stepped toward me. “Th-This rocavid is mine.”
I tilted my head. “Did you kill it?”
He paused, lowering his head. “No…”
I stepped toward him. “Then why is it yours?”
“I f-found it first. I hid and waited but there wasn’t anybody to claim it,” the boy spoke, his tenor voice haggard but strong.
“What do you plan on doing with it?”
The boy held his ground as I continued to walk toward him, holding his trembling knife aloft. “My family needs it. If I can sell the hide, we can eat.”
I let out a scoff. “Wouldn’t it be simpler to just eat the rocavid’s meat?”
His shoulders slumped. “I…can’t carry it.”
I walked toward the boy without responding, startling him. Instead of backing away, however, he charged toward me with one hand over the other gripping the knife that was pointed at me.
Tripping his feet while slapping the knife out of his hands in one quick motion, the boy fell face first on the ground. Shaken but still determined to fight for the rocavid corpse, he jumped back up to his feet and lunged toward me with bare hands.
I side stepped and tripped him once more before picking up the corpse by its back legs. “Where’s your house?”
The boy got up, confused by my question.
I tilted my head. “Didn’t you want this corpse?”
“Yes!” he quickly sputtered. He whirled around and began to lead the way before stopping. Turning toward me, he gave me a fearful gaze. “Y-You’re not going to hurt my family, right?”
Staring at the boy, I let out a sigh. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Belmun,” he said warily.
“I’ll leave this close enough to your house where you can have your family come and help you take it after I leave,” I replied. “Does that sound okay?”
Belmun nodded before scurrying off. I smelled Belmun’s house before I could see it—the area that Chumo and Sembi had told me about. Shacks made from splintered wood and other discarded material lined the fenced ‘zone’ on the outskirts of the town. Torches were sparsely lit, leaving most of the homes shrouded in darkness.
“You can just leave that here,” Belmun said.
“Yeah,” I muttered, my gaze still taking in the sight in front of me.
To my surprise, Belmun bowed, his tattered clothes showing his exposed ribs. He gave me a toothy grin that finally made him look like a child. “Thank you, Sir.”
I arrived back at my residence, my mind unable to forget what I had seen. Even in Dicathen, the few slaves that I had seen before they had become banned were in better shape than Belmun.
“Didn’t think you were such an altruist,” Regis said, curling up on the leather couch. “Especially considering your hate for Alacryans.”
“I’m not an altruist,” I retorted, taking a seat as well. “He just reminded me of someone.”
Regis just shrugged before going back into his battery-saver mode. Although he didn’t need to breathe, the purple fire-like mane around his nape started pulsating rhythmically and I could see the aether particles slowly being absorbed by him.
As the peaceful silence lingered in the air, I checked what I had. I wasn’t a king anymore, nor was I a lance. The only things I had were my clothes, Caera’s knife, Sylvie’s stone, the relic cube, and corpses of some mana beasts.
Still, despite my limited belongings, the thing that weighed the most on my mind was the little kid. This was the society that Agrona had created. A society where—even more so than Dicathen and even my previous world—without strength, you were tossed aside as trash.
It’s not my place to intervene, I reminded myself. I have bigger things to worry about.
With sleep eluding me, I began meditating, refining the ambient aether into my core with a bitter taste in my mouth. From the bestowment tomorrow, to the exhibition and even beyond that, I was curious but also afraid to see what this continent would have in store for me. This continent ruled by deities that only saw these people as weapons and tools.