The Beginning After The End - Chapter 285
Chapter 285: Ascension 101
As the three giant spiders, each one clad in rune-covered armor to protect their bulbous bodies and twitching legs, let out a series of chittering hisses, I couldn’t help but wonder how they had gotten these beasts out of the Relictombs.
‘Maybe they’re just normal mana beasts from the surface,’ Regis answered.
Ah. You’re probably right, but aren’t these supposed to test—
One hulking, armored form skittered toward me, cutting my conversation with Regis short. Despite the spider’s large frame, it moved incredibly fast.
The runes on my suit began glowing brighter as one of the spider’s clawed legs slashed past me.
‘Hey, do you think the runes on your gear react to the runes on the spider’s armor?’ Regis asked.
Artificing was not my field of expertise, but I thought Regis was probably onto something. Perhaps the shadowy judges above could track my performance with the runes, similar to how Emily had helped me train back in the castle. I could just imagine how fascinated Emily or Gideon would be if they saw something like this firsthand.
Actually, Gideon would probably feign disinterest while getting grumpy out of envy, I thought with a smile.
I dodged another barrage of strikes from the spider, glancing toward the other two, which were still waiting at the edge of the assessment hall.
The giant spider lunged at me and I grabbed its fangs, holding it at arm’s length. “Uh, excuse me?” I called out as I turned into the momentum of the spider’s attack, using its own weight to send it tumbling away. “What exactly am I supposed to do for this assessment?”
There was no response.
Frustrated, but hesitant to do anything that might give away my strength, I continued to defend against the relentless assault of the first spider, feeling like a mouse fleeing from a tarantula. As I threw myself back from a slash of the spider’s claws, a warning sounded in my mind and I was forced to spin and dive to the side to avoid the stabbing fangs of the second spider, which had suddenly burst into motion and joined the battle. Had the mana beasts’ armor been designed to be more silent, I might not have heard the creature’s hurried approach in time.
‘What do you suppose happens if those things bite you? Do people die in this test?’
Thanks for the concern, but I’m fine, I thought back, sliding under one spider’s thick legs just as the other leapt at me, causing them to collide with a crash.
‘I’m not concerned, I’m bored.’
My companion’s words got me thinking, and so I started to experiment, purposely allowing a few of the spider’s strikes to hit me.
Surprisingly, despite the speed at which the spider struck, most of the force was dampened upon contact, as if the foam suit I was wearing was several feet thick, rather than several millimeters.
‘You should find out what happens if you get hit in the face,’ Regis suggested, half out of curiosity, half for his own amusement.
Despite Regis’s obvious intentions, I was curious too. I waited until the third spider had sprung to life and joined its brethren, then, right after I had dodged one of the spider’s fangs, I let spider number three swing down at my cheek with its front limb.
The runes around the collar of my suit lit up, encasing my entire head in a silvery dome. The runes surrounding the limb that was about to strike my cheek also flared to life, and, just as it made contact with the protective barrier around my head, both of us were blown back by a concussive force.
I spun in the air, landing on my feet, but the three spiders’ bodies slumped. They scuttled slowly toward the tiles that they had come out from as if they’d been scolded, then the tiles closed behind them.
“The next assessment will now begin,” the examiner watching behind the glass window declared, his voice echoing through the chamber.
Before the last echo had faded, the entire testing chamber began trembling, and the tiles on the ground and walls began sliding outward, forming square pillars. The tile on which I’d been standing lifted me upwards a few feet, then water began flooding the room below me.
“Seize the gem located at the top of the assessment hall before the water touches you,” the voice commanded. “Begin.”
I rolled my eyes. At least this time I had some clear instructions.
Wasting no time, I channeled aether into my legs and leapt from platform to platform. The entire chamber had been transformed into a sort of vertical maze, with rectangular platforms criss-crossing each other to block my view of the top.
Additionally, the platforms moved at random intervals, keeping me on my toes more so than the oversized spiders.
Regardless, with my draconic physique and aetheric enhancements, the assessment was little more than a casual climb up a children’s play structure. High above the floor where I fought the spiders, I found a fist-sized crystal hanging from the center of the ceiling. Below me, the water had filled less than a quarter of the space.
As soon as I grabbed the crystal, the platforms slowly receded, and the water drained through a series of empty tiles in the floor. The pillar I stood atop lowered until I was again standing in an empty square room.
After the water had completely drained and the chamber was back to its original empty form, the central squares of the room began to glow with a dull blue light. A single square at one corner glowed white.
“Please step onto the white square,” the judge announced in his eerie, echoing voice. I did as I was asked, though a part of my mind told me it was stupid. What did I really know about this whole place? They could have detected my lack of mana, or Alaric could have turned me in, and stepping on that white square might disintegrate me, or teleport me into a prison cell, or—
I caught myself before I dug myself into a hole and steeled my nerves. There was no reason for them to be suspicious, and I had already decided to trust the old drunk. I was in the heart of the enemy’s empire, but here I was Grey, not Arthur Leywin.
Once I was standing with both feet firmly placed on the white square, further instructions echoed down from the shadows above.
“Step only on the white tiles. Your goal is to reach the black tile”—one blue tile turned black in the opposite corner from where I stood—“without leaving the platform or touching the blue tiles. You must do so before you pass out from mana loss.”
‘Wait, what did he just—’
Regis was cut off as a sucking pressure began pulling at every inch of me, and I felt the aether in my body being drawn out through my aether channels. How the hell?
‘It’s like that platform in the Relictombs!’ Regis shouted in my mind. ‘They must have modeled this place after those crazy djinn’s tests.”
He was right, of course. I immediately pulled all of my aether back into my core, similar to what I had done with my hand back in the Relictombs, and it seemed to work. My physical body was weakened due to the lack of augmentation, but it drastically slowed the rate at which aether was being sucked out of my body.
I bet they don’t even realize what they’ve created here. There is no way they know that this place can manipulate aether as well as mana.
‘Probably a good thing, though. The sweaty, pained expression on your face doesn’t give anything away.’
I suddenly realized that, while I had been speaking to Regis, the tile in front of me had turned white, and the tile below my feet was slowly turning blue. I stepped forward quickly, and the title behind me instantly changed to the same glowing blue hue as the rest of the tiles. Besides the square I was standing on, one tile to my right, and one tile in front of me were also white.
This, too, was familiar. It wasn’t exactly the same as the revolving platform puzzle I had navigated in the Relictombs, but it was similar in premise: a maze that I couldn’t see until I was standing in it.
I chose the right hand path, and two more tiles turned white, one in front of me, one to my left. I stepped forward again, and the tiles forward and to my left and right all turned white. When I stepped forward once more, however, I found myself at a dead end as no new squares changed color, and was forced to return to the previous tile.
The path changed before me with each step, sometimes leading me backwards, other times stopping suddenly, forcing me to dart back to a safe square before the title under my feet turned blue. And all the while, the aether continued to leak out of me. After nearly two full minutes, I had progressed approximately halfway across the board when the voice from above spoke again.
“Your ability to manipulate and contain your mana is impressive. We will now increase the level of difficulty, but not to worry—you will be scored at a handicap.”
Behind me, the corner square where I had started turned gray, then fell out of sight, leaving a shadowed pit beneath it.
I waited, counting until the next square descended.
Twenty seconds between squares, unless they speed up as they go. That gives us…a few minutes at most.
‘Step on it, chief,’ Regis urged.
As I progressed across the platform, I twice found myself turned around and cut off by the collapsing tiles. Still, this maze was a much simpler version of the one I experienced in the Relictombs, and even that hadn’t been able to stump me.
It took only two more minutes before I was standing on the black square. Behind me, more than half of the tiles were missing. Internally, I could feel that I’d lost perhaps a third of my aether.
The missing squares reappeared, the lit tiles all faded back to their default dull gray, and the sucking pressure vanished.
A panel in the far wall slid open, revealing a second entrance to the assessment hall. A man and woman, each garbed in white mage robes with a distinct red band on the right arms, walked out, my “uncle” tottering behind them.
“Striker candidate Grey,” a thin bespectacled man said, reading off his clipboard. “Flexibility of offensive magic, below average. Manipulation of mana, above average. Athleticism, above average. Mental acuity, above average. Survivability rate, high.”
I cocked a brow, amused by the man’s reading that my mana manipulation was above average even though I didn’t have a shred of mana in me.
The bespectacled man finally looked up and gave me a smile. “Congratulations, Grey. You have passed the assessment.”
“Of course my nephew passed!” Alaric huffed before walking over to me and patting me on my shoulder.
“I have to say, your ability to obscure your use of mana is impressive,” the blonde woman said, echoing the examiner’s praise. “Even our suit wasn’t able to pick up on the minute traces of leakage while you augmented your limbs.”
“It is impressive indeed,” the bespectacled tester agreed. “And it’ll serve you well in the Relictombs since many of the beasts within are attracted to mana.”
I simply nodded at this new information, but quickly added a smile and said, “Thank you,” when I noticed Alaric staring at me intently.
“I highly recommend that you party with a caster, as you specialize heavily in close combat. Even better if that party has a shield as well,” the woman added before offering her hand. “We hope to see great results on your initiation ascent.”
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I took her hand. “I’ll do my best.”
After I had changed back to my casual attire, Alaric and I were escorted back through the teleportation gate to Aramoor City’s ascender building.
“I guess you weren’t just spouting nonsense when you said you reached a convergence zone by yourself,” Alaric muttered before taking a sip of his rum. “You lasted for a pretty long time against those arachnoids.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised. “How long do ascenders usually last?”
“Well, if you saw one in the wild, the sensible thing to do would be to burn them down, but the arachnoids that they use for testing are protected heavily by runes,” Alaric explained. “You weren’t able to do any damage to them, which is why they marked you low for that, but you still lasted longer than a lot of the formally trained candidates from academies.”
I turned to Alaric, who was peering down the nozzle of the dark glass bottle, trying to see how much rum he had left. “Would you believe me if I said that the times I got hit were on purpose?”
The old drunk’s eyes shifted to me as he raised a brow. “You got hit…on purpose? Why?”
“To see how the runes on the suit worked?” I looked away and rubbed the back of my neck, suddenly embarrassed.
“So while you were facing off against a giant armored mana beast, you thought that, ‘Hey, let me try getting hit in the face to see if this suit protects me!’ was a valid train of thought?” he asked slowly as we walked down a quiet corridor leading back to the main hall.
“It wouldn’t really have done any lasting damage even if I got hit.”
“Oh right, your very augmented regenerative abilities, right?” He rolled his eyes. “I can’t tell whether you’re an idiot or just ridiculously overconfident.”
“Those two traits aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive,” Regis chimed in with a snicker, his head peeking out. “He can be both.”
Alaric raised his bottle of alcohol. “I can drink to that.”
“You can drink to anything,” I groused, shoving Regis back into my body.
Alaric eyed me seriously. “Regardless… Idiocy and overconfidence are two of the biggest causes of deaths in the Relictombs.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said dismissively.
“Good.” Alaric veered left at a fork into a larger hallway with marked doors on either side.
I followed closely behind the old man, watching his head turn left and right as if searching for a specific room.
“Where are we going?” I finally asked.
“My end of the bargain,” he said without turning back. “Now come on, the faster you’re briefed, the faster you can find a team and go on your preliminary ascent.”
“And then the faster I start making money?” I finished.
“Good-looking and smart. You’re just the whole package, aren’t you?” Alaric said mockingly.
Moments later, Alaric stopped in front of a door labeled “C28,” inserted a rune-inscribed key into the lock, and waited. The lock clicked, and he pushed his way through the door and slumped down at a large circular table, beckoning me to join him. The room had no windows and only a single entrance; inside, the table was surrounded by eight chairs. There was a projection artifact on the table and a drawing board hanging on the wall, but the room was otherwise empty.
“The rooms here are completely soundproof and impossible to scry into, even for regalia-holding sentries,” Alaric confirmed.
“Great! That means I can come out,” Regis exclaimed, leaping from my back and prancing once around the table before stopping to stretch.
“All right, we only have half an hour reserved so let’s get started,” the old drunkard declared, stamping his bottle of rum on the table as if it were a gavel.
He turned his chair around so he could reach the drawing board and picked up an ink brush. Regis and I watched in silence as he drew two wide ovals, one stacked above the other.
“These disks represent the first two floors of the Relictombs,” he began.
Regis raised a paw. “Question. I thought the different areas in the Relictombs were called zones?”
Alaric massaged the bridge of his nose. “They are…after the first two floors, which I was going to get to eventually.”
“Then please proceed,” Regis responded calmly.
“Anyway, I’m sure you two noticed already, but unlike zones, the first two floors are all interconnected,” Alaric explained.
“Wait,” I interrupted. “So all of the ascenders end up in the same place in these first two floors?”
Alaric raised a brow. “You sound confused. It would be impossible not to notice other ascenders on these two floors.”
“I wound up in the Relictombs in an…unconventional way,” I said. Regis scoffed beside me but I ignored him.
“Not interested,” the old drunk said, raising both his hands placatingly. “Just know that these two floors are vastly different from the zones you’ve explored.”
“What do you mean?”
“These two floors represent how far Alacrya has come in colonizing the Relictombs,” he answered in a low voice. He paused for a moment, then seemed to shake himself out of whatever reverie he had just lapsed into. “The first floor is where aether monsters are bred and raised for specific raw material. But there are also a lot of merchants on the first floor—never buy anything from the merchants on the first floor!”
I gave Alaric a curious look.
“There are a load of scammers that prey on new ascenders who don’t yet know any better,” he explained, shaking his head.
“Were you one of those scammers?” Regis asked with a chuckle.
“Hush, pup,” Alaric snapped, though he couldn’t quite hide the sly smile that crept onto his face. “Anyway, the second floor is where the majority of ascenders actually spend their days. You’ll also be able to buy some new armor and weapons there if you need it.”
“Is that why I haven’t seen any armories or weapon shops in Aramoor?” I asked.
“Yes,” the old man replied. I realized that he no longer gave me strange looks when I asked questions about what was probably common knowledge amongst the Alacryans. Apparently he had grown used to my ignorance. “You might find some small ones on the surface, but the majority of them are on the second floor.”
Alaric went on to describe what seemed like an entire city built within the second floor of the Relictombs. Aside from the smithies and shops, there were training grounds, inns, merchants who would buy your accolades, and even restaurants.
I shook my head. “I get that having some of these things in the Relictombs would be convenient, but is there really a need for an entire city catered to the ascenders?”
“You have to realize that the shop owners and workers there are also ascenders,” Alaric said, taking another swig of his rum. “It’s very hard to open a store on the second floor, but being right there when a party of ascenders stumbles half dead out of the Relictombs is good business. Some hardly ever leave, just returning to the second floor to rest and regain their strength before diving back in again. There are other perks, too, though. For example, there aren’t any taxes on goods or services within the Relictombs.”
“Another way for Agrona to promote the livelihood of ascenders?” I asked, gazing at the simple oval drawing and trying to picture a thriving city built around ascending alone. I thought of the Wall before the horde of mana beasts attacked; it hadn’t been so different there, where an entire economy had grown up around the Wall’s defenders.
“Yup! There’s even bigger rewards if you actually manage to find a relic, but it’d be foolish of us to bank on that,” Alaric explained.
After the drunkard finished his brief explanation of the workings of the first two floors, he explained what I should expect during this preliminary ascent. There was only so much he could tell me about the zones, since the portals from zone to zone could take me anywhere, but he explained where to look for a party and what to look for in potential party members that would be useful. Some of what he told me I could have worked out on my own, but it was Alaric’s insight into the ascender culture that I knew would prove invaluable.
“I understand,” I repeated for the fourth time as we left the room, Regis safely back inside of me. “A good party composition is the key to success. I should find ascenders who compliment not only my own skills but each other’s. I’m only required to go to one zone, so don’t over do it. Got it.”
Alaric narrowed his eyes as he looked at me. “You’re a very boring person, have I ever told you that?” he grumbled.
Ignoring him, the two of us walked down the brightly lit hallway, following the signs that directed us toward the ascension chamber, which was sensibly located right beside the ascender building.
The hallways got busier as we approached the edifice housing the ancient portal that would take me back to the Relictombs. Unlike adventurers in Dicathen, ascenders came in all shapes and sizes.
It was particularly amusing to see a herculean warrior, who must have weighed over three hundred pounds, standing politely in line behind a petite girl garbed in what looked like an academy uniform.
“This is as far as I can go,” Alaric said, gazing toward the portal with that faraway look I’d seen in the conference room. He jumped when a passing ascender accidentally bumped against him, then scratched at the back of his head awkwardly. “I’ll stand by in our room back at the inn.”
“Don’t trash the place,” I said, turning toward the line.
I turned back to see him reach out as if wanting to grab me.
“Was there something else you wanted to say?”
“Er…” Alaric cleared his throat. “Just…don’t die, kid. And don’t ever fall into one of those parties that require you to pay a ‘fee.’ They’re always scams.”
‘Aww, he cares about you,’ Regis teased.
“Thanks, Uncle. Did you want a hug as well?” I asked with a smirk.
“Snarky brat. Just hurry up and get your damn badge so you can start making money,” he grumbled before turning to leave.
I stepped into the growing line, excited at the prospect of making progress once more, frustrated that I wasn’t moving fast enough…and scared for what the future held. Pushing down the cacophony of emotions, I focused solely on the entrance to the Relictombs ahead.