The Beginning After The End - Chapter 288
Chapter 288: Full Circle
“Ada of Blood Granbehl, Ezra of Blood Granbehl, Riah of Blood Faline, Grey, and”—the uniformed woman paused, glancing from the ascender card in her hand to Haedrig and back—“and Haedrig of—well—yes…Your identities have been verified,” she finished, smiling widely as she handed us back our cards. “Principal ascender Kalon of Blood Granbehl, the stipend will be automatically transferred to your runecard after the candidates have successfully received their official ascender’s badges post-preliminary ascent.”
“Aw, can’t I receive the stipend now? It’s not like there’s going to be any foul play; I’m guiding my siblings,” Kalon complained.
“There are no exceptions. Please understand that these rules are for the safety and well-being of all ascenders,” the thin, black-haired woman stated as if she had been asked this question countless times.
“Have there been situations where principal ascenders extorted candidates in the past or something?” I whispered to Haedrig as the two of us waited in the back.
“Worse. There are accounts of some principals taking candidates on their prelims after collecting the stipends only to kill the candidates and loot their bodies, then blaming their deaths on the Relictombs,” the green-haired ascender explained with an expression of distaste.
After our preliminary ascent had been recorded, our team headed to the center of the terrace, where the towering arch stood over us. Complex runes scored every inch of the massive edifice, making the teleportation gates I’d seen up until now look like toys in comparison.
The longer I stayed in the Relictombs, the more I found myself marveling at its beauty and complexity. The flying city of Xyrus was the marvel of Dicathen, but even it paled in comparison to this place.
Admittedly, the Alacryans were quite impressive as well. What they had managed to do with the first two floors of the Relictombs—creating a capital for ascenders to better prepare themselves for the unpredictable dangers lying ahead of them—was nothing less than remarkable.
The amount of resources and time invested into making sure ascenders were not only well-equipped and rewarded for ascending into the Relictombs, but also idolized by the citizens of Alacrya, spoke volumes of how much Agrona needed the ascenders.
Even these preliminary ascents had been devised to give candidates a safer experience within the Relictombs.
‘So why does Haedrig seem to be expecting trouble?” Regis asked, having read my thoughts.
I was wondering the same thing. What did he mean when he hoped Kalon was ‘strong enough to get us through this ascent’?
Everything I’d heard up until then had made it sound like the preliminary ascent was merely dipping your toes in the water, especially for those trained in academies.
‘Maybe he’s not as tough as he pretends to be?’
“Is everyone ready?” Kalon asked, stirring me from my internal deliberation with Regis. We stood just a few paces from the massive arch housing the white-gold portal.
“Shouldn’t we do a supply check?” Haedrig replied seriously.
“Is that necessary? Prelims usually don’t take longer than a day,” Riah responded impatiently, her body practically gravitating toward the humming gate, which she gazed at in wide-eyed anticipation.
“We should treat this as if it’s any other ascent,” Haedrig insisted, already taking stock of his own rations. “I have enough water for myself for a week and dried rations for two days.”
“Haedrig makes a good point. You can never be overprepared for the Relictombs,” Kalon chimed in, pulling a large leather waterskin and a bundle of dried meat wrapped in cloth from his dimension ring. “I have enough water for three days and dried rations for one day.”
The rest of the team pulled out their rations as well. Surprisingly, I had the most food and water, courtesy of Alaric. The old drunk had packed two weeks’ worth of water and air-sealed rations for three days.
‘The man may be a grumpy old drunk, but at least he really seems to have your best interest in mind,’ Regis said with a chuckle.
“All right, we’re packed more heavily than some of the deeper ascents I’ve gone on,” Kalon said, looking at Riah with an amused expression. “And Riah here seems to think she’s going on a picnic, with all of the sweets she’s brought.”
Riah flushed and let out a string of curses under her breath. “Whatever. I was going to share…”
“Sure, sure,” Kalon chuckled. “You all have your simulets, right?”
We each took out a polished, rune-inscribed amulet the size of my palm, which would bind our team together as we travelled through the teleportation gates.
Kalon nodded and turned to face the shimmering pane of golden-white light that would lead us into our first zone.
“Blood honor me, light guide me, Vritra protect me,” Kalon recited, followed by his siblings and Riah.
Haedrig and I looked at each other, neither participating in their ritual. I couldn’t be sure, but I almost thought I saw Haedrig roll his eyes. Not thinking much of it, we then stepped through the gate.
We entered into complete darkness. The air was dry and stale with a crisp breeze blowing from underneath us. Even with my augmented vision, I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed.
“No one move,” Kalon said, his voice cutting through the dark in a hushed whisper.
I saw the soft glow of someone’s rune lighting up before a burst of sparks flashed in front of me, lighting up the area. Giant, gnarled faces glared at us from the darkness.
Riah, who was only a few steps ahead of me, raised her fan-shaped dagger and jumped back, nearly tumbling off the edge of the narrow raised path we were standing on. Haedrig’s hand darted out and caught her by the elbow, holding her firmly until she had her feet under her again.
Riah turned to look down over the edge, then the burst of sparks died, hiding the grotesque faces and their contorted, anguished expressions.
“Give me a second to modify my spell.” Kalon spoke softly as a rune on the exposed area of his lower back glowed once more.
This time an orange flare manifested from the ascender, brighter and more controlled than the sparks. It bathed the area in a warm light, revealing a huge chamber, or maybe a hallway. I could not make out the ceiling, or anything in front of or behind us. The narrow pathway where we had been deposited was about four feet wide and seemed to float amidst a sea of darkness.
Lining both walls were what looked like carvings of faces, vaguely humanoid, though grotesque and misshapen. This wasn’t for lack of apparent skill, though; so detailed were the expressions that it looked almost as if they were once alive, and had been petrified in their final moments of pain and rage.
‘Quite the morbid taste in decor,’ Regis said. ‘Look, you can just make out the screaming one’s tonsils—and you can see that one’s teeth through the tear in its cheek.’
I can see them, I thought, though they were so hideous I did not look closely.
“Don’t stay too close to the ledge,” Kalon ordered, no trace of leisure left in his voice. “Spread out an arm’s length apart from each other; Ezra, give yourself a bit more room for your spear.”
We spread out in a line, walking slowly and keeping to the center of the stone pathway. Haedrig and I walked at the rear while Kalon took the lead, lighting the way with his hand bathed in bright flames.
“I can’t tell how far this path goes, but it’s the only course I can see,” Kalon said.
“I can conjure some light as well,” Ada said, her eyes darting nervously between the faces peering down at us from the distant walls.
“Save your mana for now,” Kalon replied. “And don’t be so nervous, Ada. We’re going to be fine.”
“Don’t forget that you’ve prepared for this for years,” Ezra growled.
“Ezra’s right,” Riah said comfortingly, despite her uneasy expression. “This is just the first zone. Don’t be fazed by the distractions.”
“I just didn’t expect the Relictombs to be this scary,” Ada whispered.
“Are you okay?” I asked Haedrig, who had been surveying our surroundings silently, his stance low, his saber held firmly in hand.
“I’m fine,” he muttered, not meeting my eye.
The six of us walked in a line, heading deeper into the dark zone, our pace careful but steady. The lack of change in our surroundings—aside from the diverse array of creepy faces—made it impossible to judge how far we had walked.
In addition to staying watchful and keeping my feet on the path, I also had to acclimate to the high level of aether in this zone. I hadn’t felt much different in the first two floors, but stepping through the portal had been like opening another eye, and it was staring straight into the sun.
That was probably why I didn’t notice them sooner.
‘Arthur,’ Regis warned in a grave tone.
I sense them too.
I hesitated for a moment, worried it might be suspicious for me to warn the rest of the group if even Kalon hadn’t noticed anything yet. I was supposed to be a wet-behind-the-ears nobody on his first ascent, after all.
“I think there’s something coming from below,” I said finally, deciding it was better to warn them than risk them being taken unawares.
Kalon stopped in his tracks, leaning over the edge of the stone path with his blazing arm stretched out. After a minute, he did the same on the other side, then looked back at me.
“Are you sure? There’s nothing down there, and I haven’t sensed any other mana signatures,” he said, giving me a searching look before turning to Ada. “Send a homing flare down on one side.”
Ada spread her arms apart, and, as the rune on her back glowed, a swirling orb of fire the size of her head manifested. She pushed the fireball into the abyss as the rest of us peered warily down after it.
We watched the large ball of condensed fire descend. It didn’t drop like a stone or sail through the air like an arrow, but instead weaved through the air almost as if it was alive, turning and twisting wherever Ada sent it. In its path, the fireball lit up the smooth wall of the bridge we were standing on as well as the hideous statues on the far wall of the wide hallway.
Then, as suddenly as if a curtain had been wrenched away, dozens of humanoid faces appeared far below, their large glassy eyes reflecting the orange light.
A startled yelp rang at my side and the fireball dispersed, plunging whatever creatures were down there back in darkness.
“Run!” Kalon roared, pushing Ezra and Riah ahead of him. He scooped up his sister with one arm, raising his other hand, still blazing with light, high in the air to extend the light to its limit as he took off running down the path just behind them.
Aether coursed through my limbs as I ran, and I found that I was able to keep up with the others with relative ease.
However, despite our breakneck pace, there was no end in sight. Worse yet, we could now make out the nightmare sound of the creatures below, a sort of moaning, chittering noise that grew steadily louder.
“I still can’t see an end anywhere near!” Ezra shouted from the front, his deep voice quivering.
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“Damn it! What the hell is going on,” Kalon cursed.
I looked back over my shoulder at Haedrig, stoically taking up the rear. He was surrounded by a dim white aura, and he ran with his hand on the leather-wrapped hilt of his sheathed saber. I almost turned back around, but the faintest glimmer caught my eye.
“Duck!” I shouted as I spun on my heels.
Haedrig dipped his head without hesitation, just barely enough to avoid a black blur that sailed past, right where his head had been.
“W-what was that?” Ada shrieked. She was still being carried by her eldest brother and had been able to see it the most clearly.
“Don’t stop!” Kalon urged.
We picked up our pace, the faces carved on the wall nothing but a blur now. However, I knew that it was only a matter of time before whatever aetheric creatures were lurking beneath us would catch up.
The distorted wail of the beasts, along with their chittering, grew to a deafening din before more shadows began rising up from the sea of darkness.
It was under Kalon’s illuminating spell that we finally saw the creatures we were up against, and they were something straight out of a nightmare. They had snakelike bodies the size and girth of a man, with two long arms ending in gleaming claws. Atop their long necks, each monster had a disfigured humanoid face, just like the statues. These, though, were alive with hatred and fury.
Kalon dropped Ada and drew his weapon for the first time. It was a spear, much like Ezra’s, except with a pitch black blade that seemed to blend in with our surroundings.
The ghoulish creatures tilted their heads as they climbed up onto the narrow path. Their boney jaws clacked repeatedly to create that eerie chitter, melding with the low moans.
Kalon’s spear flashed, decapitating three of the ghoulish serpents in a single swing.
“We need to keep moving!” he roared, slashing at another man-serpent and sending its chittering head falling into the abyss.
Ezra, taking the lead, followed his brother’s order, spinning his spear to knock away the serpentine ghouls rather than trying to kill them.
‘Should I come out now?’ Regis asked, brimming with anticipation as I struck a beast with my bare fist, absorbing some of its aetheric essence in the process.
Not yet. The others still seem to be in control for now.
Behind me, Haedrig moved through the ghouls like a dancer, felling one after the other with grace and precision.
Kalon, on the other hand, fought with the mechanical efficiency of a farmer cutting down wheat in a field. His spear cut wide arcs through the air, often shearing through multiple serpents at once and flinging others back off the bridge, easily making up for where his siblings fell short.
Ada, despite hanging over Kalon’s shoulder like a sack of grain, had summoned a circular saw of fire that was not only able to lacerate its enemies, but also grow larger with each foe it cut down.
Controlling this left her completely defenseless, however, as it clearly required all her concentration to maintain the spell. She held both hands out before her, making minute adjustments with her fingers to control the saw’s movements. With both Riah and Kalon by her side, though, she was defended as well as any of us from the attacking ghouls.
Still, more and more of the serpentine monsters flowed up from the darkness. They had begun to interlink with one another, creating chains of snake-like bodies down into the depths and allowing others to climb up with startling speed.
“We’re going to be run down if we keep going like this!” Riah shouted, trails of sweat lining her brows and cheeks as she blocked the sharp boney claws of one of the ghouls with the flat of her wide blade before hurtling it away with a gust of sharp wind.
“I’ll try to buy us some time!” Kalon shouted. “Ezra, focus on protecting Ada.”
Our line shifted as Ezra moved next to Ada, putting Riah at the front while Kalon went to the very back.
We ran, the three students leading the way. I took down a trio of ghouls, my aether-hardened fists smashing into their deformed faces, each contact allowing me to siphon more aether from their bodies as they collapsed in broken heaps or tumbled back off the path.
“Ada, now!” Kalon roared.
Another rune lit up on Ada’s back, and the whirling saw of jagged fire, which was now the size of a carriage, disassembled into dozens of thin ropes of fire that slithered in the air much like the ghoulish serpents we were fighting.
A spark of electricity erupted from the epicenter of Ada’s spell, using the writhing cords of fire as conduits for the tendrils of lightning. The chains of electrified fire dispersed, coiling around the ghouls closest to her, burning through them like a hot wire through candle wax and causing tendrils of lightning to leap from one to the next, creating a chain lightning effect that felled dozens of ghouls in an instant.
Ada slumped, her skin ghastly even under the warm light of fire.
“Good job!” Ezra said, breathing hard as he fended off another pair of ghouls with a swing of his crimson spear.
My eyes scanned our surroundings while my awoken aetheric senses picked up on all of the ghouls nearby.
“Riah, underneath you!” I yelled, spotting a boney claw about to grasp the short-haired striker’s ankle.
She tried to step back out of its reach, but a deafening explosion shook the stone path and Riah stumbled forward instead, right into the ghoul’s rigid claws.
With both Ezra and Ada in the way, my only option was to use God Step to reach her in time to save her.
But I hesitated.
I hesitated at the thought of exposing my aetheric abilities to these people.
In that moment of hesitation, Riah was dragged off her feet.
Despite myself, I turned back to see what the cause of the explosion was and saw that a large portion of the stone path had been blown to pieces by Kalon.
Haedrig was only a few paces behind me, completely occupied in fending off the droves of ghouls, which were practically piling on top of one another trying to reach him.
I jerked around at the sound of Riah’s panicked scream
“Ezra!” she cried in desperation as she clawed at the edge of the stone path, her fan-like blade spinning away into the abyss.
“Riah!” Ezra gasped, wide-eyed, unable to move past another pair of ghouls that were after his sister.
My mind spun in that instant. I could bypass Ezra and Ada by using God Step to reach Riah, but revealing that here and now would be too risky.
Instead, I utilized my imperfect, aether-version of Burst Step in order to close the short distance between myself and where Ezra and Ada were fighting.
Ada had resorted to using small bursts of lightning to temporarily stun the ghouls, even though it didn’t do any lasting damage, while Ezra focused on knocking them off the platform.
Grabbing the disfigured humanoid head of a ghoul trying desperately to bite down on Ada, I twisted, snapping its neck and causing it to slump.
Another blood-curdling scream pierced the air. Riah was clinging on with bloody fingers as more serpent ghouls climbed on top of her small body.
I pulled Ada behind me and met Ezra’s eyes. He didn’t waste time, rushing ahead to save Riah.
With the trail of ghouls behind us unable to cross over the large gap in the stone path, Kalon and Haedrig were free to dislodge the ones climbing up from the side before joining up with us, providing a moment’s respite.
While the rest of the ascenders were sweating profusely from the strain of constant battle, I had gained more energy than I had spent due to the limited amount of aether I was using.
“What happened, why did you guys stop?” Kalon asked, his breathing still steady despite how long we’d been fighting.
Before I could answer, Ada let out a sharp gasp, her face paling in horror. “Riah!”
Kalon’s eyes widened as his sister ran ahead. I turned around to see Ada pulling Riah off the ledge. Ezra had just killed the last of the ghouls that had nearly pulled the girl from the path.
Kalon rushed after them while Haedrig and I focused on killing any of the ghouls that managed to reach the path.
Even a quick glance showed me that Riah was in bad shape. Her right leg had been gnawed off at the ankle and deep gashes lined her back and her legs. Her face was twisted in pain, tears streaming down her cheeks as she clung desperately to Ada.
“We have to move,” I said, not even looking as I redirected a ghoul to slam into another ghoul, sending them both spiraling down and out of sight.
“Do you think she’s in any condition to move>!” Ezra shot back.
“Grey is right. We can’t stay here,” Kalon cut in, turning to me. “Can you hold onto Riah? Haedrig, Ezra, and I will be responsible for keeping the two of you and Ada safe.”
I nodded, hastily scooping Riah up in my arms.
Riah’s entire body convulsed as she let out a pained scream, but the small ascender managed to wrap her arms around my neck.
“Let’s move! Ada, give us some light!” Kalon said fiercely while striking away a ghoul.
‘Are you sure you—well, they—don’t need my help?’ Regis asked, apparently bored by the situation.
Not yet, I quipped, beginning to run.
Haedrig and Kalon were a flurry of strikes and slashes as they focused entirely on protecting me and Ada, but with the growing numbers of serpentine ghouls, I had to resort to ducking and weaving past some of the ones that had managed to climb up the walls and get ahead of us.
We only made it a few more minutes up the path before Ezra suddenly skidded to a stop.
“No way,” he gasped. “That’s not possible.”
The rest of us caught up to him, and the fiery orbs shined ahead, revealing a large chasm in the path, blocking our way.
The same chasm that Kalon had made.