The Beginning After The End - Chapter 289
Despite the fast-approaching ghouls both behind and below us, we stared dumbly at the large chasm that Kalon had made, collectively unable to understand why it was in front of us.
“We—we were running in a circle the entire time?” Ada said, her voice quavering.
“That’s impossible!” Ezra panted after felling another ghoul with his spear. “We were running in—a straight line. I’m—sure of it!” I could hear the strain in his voice; he was starting to grow tired.
“Ezra’s right. There’s no curve in the bridge.” Kalon spun his weapon and swept the heads off two ghouls that were trying to reach me. He, at least, seemed to have retained his strength so far.
The idea of a straight path looping in circles seemed impossible, yet was completely plausible if one took into account the edicts of aether. I couldn’t help but wonder if the Relictombs had brought us to this zone because of me.
I looked down to see that Riah had lost consciousness in my arms. Perhaps it was for the better; Ada had coated her wounds with a thick paste that had stopped the bleeding, but her strained expression said it did nothing for her pain.
“What do we”—Haedrig unleashed a flurry of slashes at a trio of ghouls that had managed to reach the path—“do now?”
‘Still think they’re in control?’ Regis chimed in snidely.
Fine. Come out, but remember not to talk.
Regis’s large wolven form leapt out of my back, startling our team and drawing their attention away from the ghouls around us.
Kalon instinctively tried attacking Regis, and while I was curious what would happen if he struck my companion, I intervened.
“Stop! It’s my spell,” I snapped, immediately halting Kalon’s spear before turning to Regis. “Go scout ahead and see if you can spot anything.”
‘Roger,’ my companion sent back before leaping across the chasm. He was nearly out of sight before a realization dawned on me.
Since when have you been able to communicate telepathically when you’re not inside me?
There was a momentary pause, then I heard Regis’s voice in my head again. ‘Not sure. My guess is, I’m either getting stronger, or the ambient aether density in this zone is allowing us to. Or we might just be getting more…connected.’
I groaned. Can you not say it in such a gross tone?
Turning my attention back to the battle, I realized that Ezra, Ada, and Kalon were looking at me with shocked expressions. Haedrig was the only one who didn’t seem fazed; if he was surprised by Regis’s sudden appearance, he hid it extremely well.
Fortunately, the group’s attention was forced back onto the growing horde of ghouls surrounding us. We abandoned our line formation, tightening into a close knot around Riah and Ada and inching closer to the chasm.
“What’s the plan?” Kalon shouted, glancing at me.
“We wait,” I said as my foot connected with a ghoul’s sternum, sending it flying back down into the abyss. “I want to make sure that this place really is looping.”
We held our position, restricting our mana consumption as best we could out of fear that our war against the nightmarish ghouls would last for hours more. Considering that I was surrounded by people I felt responsible to protect, and that I couldn’t even reveal my own strength as I did so, there was little else I could do.
‘Good news! Well, I guess it’s bad news, but I see you all ahead of me now,’ Regis thought to me.
I cursed under my breath.
So that confirms it.
‘Did you want me to help fight? I took down about a dozen or so of these bastards already.’
No. I don’t think we’re going to get out of here by just killing more of these beasts, I sent back. I want you to go around and carefully scan the walls.
I could feel a wave of curiosity coming from Regis. ‘You mean the gross faces?’
Yeah. Something about them has been bothering me. Just let me know if you find something out of the ordinary.
‘Out of the ordinary from gross stone faces…got it,’ Regis responded, turning to race away from us once more.
A stifled groan pulled my attention behind me.
“Ezra!” Kalon roared. His form flashed, appearing next to his brother and decapitating the ghoul that had wedged its claws through a slit below Ezra’s pauldron.
With Ezra unable to freely move his left arm due to his injury, he became a crack in our defence. It wasn’t long before a ghoul was able to slip past his weak side, forcing me to throw myself into its path to save Riah. The creature’s putrid claws carved a series of deep gashes into my hip and thigh.
A pained grunt escaped from my throat as I drove my open hand straight through the ghoul’s throat. It spit out a mouthful of blood and collapsed before Ezra could turn to drive his spear into its back.
The boy’s face was pale and wet with sweat, but after that he redoubled his efforts, refusing to let another ghoul through.
Have you found anything? I asked Regis.
‘Just a lot more hideous faces. There aren’t any patterns I can see either.’
Keep looking, I sent, pulling a ghoul off of Ezra and shoving it to the ground so he could finish it.
“What are we still doing here? We have to get moving!” Kalon shouted, his relaxed demeanor completely gone.
“And go where?” I asked. “I’ve already confirmed that this zone is looping back on itself, taking us in circles. I sent my summon to check for any anomalies on the walls.”
“Can you share senses with your summon?” Haedrig asked, redirecting a ghoul’s tackle and causing it to fall back down into the dark.
“Kind of?” I hesitated. “It has a limited amount of sentience.”
Ignoring my companion, I turned to Ada, who had been helping out where she could, standing over Riah at the center of our circle. To conserve mana, she had resorted to firing small bolts of fire and lightning at the ghouls climbing up from the sides, but even that had been a huge help in keeping them at bay. I could tell she was at the end of her power, however. “Focus on replenishing your mana reserves.”
“But there’s too many of them!” Ada stammered, wiping away the beads of sweat rolling down her face. “I-I should be helping…”
I sat her down with a slight push and gave her the closest thing to a smile I could muster. “I’ll keep you safe.”
After a moment of hesitation, Ada nodded in determination before closing her eyes.
“Haedrig. Do you have an extra sword?” I asked, turning toward the green-haired ascender.
Without a word, Haedrig withdrew a thin shortsword from his dimension ring and tossed it to me.
Grasping the handle and pulling the sword out of its sheath, I was suddenly overcome with a sense of calmness. It was a silly thing what a weapon could do, but after fighting so long with Dawn’s Ballad in my hand, I realized how much I had missed the sensation of wielding a sword.
I let out a sharp breath as I imbued aether into the sword; a fine crack appeared in the blade, leaking a subtle purple light that only I could see, and I knew it wouldn’t hold up long. Still, though the sword was simple and obviously just a spare weapon, it was perfectly balanced with a good weight on my hand.
It would do.
The world around me seemed to slow and the sounds distracting me became indistinct. My first strike seemed to confuse even the ghoul, who didn’t know what happened until it slumped and fell off the bridge.
The next series of slashes killed any and every ghoul within my reach. The sword in my hand travelled in a flurry of narrow arcs that shimmered, catching the reflection of Kalon’s fire-clad spear.
My eyes constantly scanned our surroundings, making sure none of the ghouls managed to slip by. I hoped to see some sign that the onslaught was beginning to slow, but it seemed that, if anything, the ghouls became even more desperate the more of them we killed.
Kalon and Ezra’s side had it the worst, since the chasm in the bridge allowed the ghouls to climb up more easily. With Ezra injured, Kalon had to keep the ghouls from getting past him and protect Ezra.
Haedrig’s movements, on the other hand, hadn’t slowed down at all, even as pools of both sweat and blood had formed beneath his feet.
I was confident that we could hold on for a while longer, but it would all be meaningless unless we found a way out of here.
A blinding flash lit up the hall, followed by a torrent of voltaic streams that obliterated the horde of ghouls that had managed to climb up from the chasm.
I was gazing around to admire the pure destructiveness of Kalon’s spell when Regis contacted me again.
‘Uh… Arthur?’ he said, his confusion clear in my mind. ‘You should come see this.’
“Let’s move!” I yelled out immediately. “Ezra, can you hold Riah?”
The younger spearman’s brows furrowed in annoyance. “What? I should help guard—”
“Ezra!” Kalon snarled, cutting his brother off. “Carry Riah.”
Following Kalon’s order without hesitation, Ezra put away his spear and picked up our unconscious teammate.
Leading the way, I cleared the path of ghouls while Kalon remained in the back of the line as our rear guard.
What did you find? I asked Regis.
‘Something even more disturbing than the deformed stone faces,’ he answered cryptically.
“Did your summon find something?” Haedrig asked from behind me.
“Yes, though I’m not sure what yet. Keep moving!”
With me clearing the way, Kalon defending the rear, and Haedrig darting from side to side casting down any monstrous serpents that climbed up the sides of the bridge, we ran as fast as Ezra could move. He was wounded and carrying Riah, so it wasn’t as fast as I would have liked, but within minutes Regis’s shadowy form materialized ahead of us.
Several ghoulish corpses littered the path around him, with more climbing over the edges every moment.
“What is it?” I asked, letting my battle instincts run my body, cutting down the ghouls attempting to swarm Regis while I focused on scanning the distant faces around us.
Pointing with his muzzle, Regis directed my gaze to one statue in particular. From this distance, it took my eyes a moment to focus through the gloom and the dancing shadows, but when I realized what it was, I froze solid, forgetting for a moment that we were fighting for our lives.
Razor sharp claws raked across my shoulder and back, tearing into my flesh and scraping bone. Flipping the short sword in my hand, I thrust backwards and up, stabbing my attacker through its chest. I turned and kicked it, pushing aether into my leg. The blow sent the ghoul flying into three others, all of which tumbled off the bridge.
Haedrig gasped, his eyes wide as he stared at the gaping wound on my back. “Grey!”
“It’s fine.” I gritted through the pain, telling myself it would heal quickly, and turned instead back to the statue.
My own face looked back at me from the wall.
The statue had been carved as if in the midst of a fierce battle cry: the mouth was open wide, teeth bared, and even the tongue visibly carved as if in motion; the brows were turned down, angry and aggressive; the eyes were alive with fury, glaring out at the rest of the zone as if this giant Arthur was about to smash the place to dust.
That had to be it. Why would my face be carved into the wall otherwise?
Looking at the battered sword in my hand, crumbling from the burden of aether flowing through it, I tossed it out into the empty space between the wall and the bridge. It tumbled down into the dark and disappeared.
“Hey!” Haedrig grunted from a few feet away, where he was holding off four ghouls that were clinging relentlessly to the edge of the path.
“I was hoping for some sort of invisible bridge,” I admitted, shrugging apologetically.
‘You think that’s the exit?’ Regis asked mentally, his jaws busy tearing at the throat of a ghoul.
I think it might be, yeah. I think we’re here because of me, because the Relictombs knows I can use aether and is trying to test me somehow. That’s why this zone has been so hard for the others. I need to use aether somehow so we can escape, I’m sure of it. I just need to think…
‘Well think fast, or there will be a few less of us to leave once you do figure it out.’
Ezra grunted as one of the fallen serpent-ghouls, which was missing much of its lower half, grabbed at his heel and tripped him. Riah fell next to him and jolted awake with a scream of pain. The monster clawed toward her, pulling its slithering torso across the ground with its long arms.
From his back, Ezra spun his spear around and tried to drive it into the ghoul’s neck, but he didn’t have the angle or momentum, and he merely nicked its arm instead. Strong claws wrapped around the shaft and ripped the spear from his hand.
Riah tried to scramble backwards away from it, but in doing so slammed the stump of her leg against the stone path. Her entire body went rigid as she screamed again, and it looked as if her strength had left her.
Kalon was nearly overwhelmed at the rear, unable to disengage.
Haedrig had his back turned to the pair, and though he must have heard the screams, he couldn’t see the half-dead monster crawling toward Riah.
Ada was backpedaling away from two other ghouls, flashes of electricity jumping from her hands to their snakelike bodies, but she no longer had the strength to generate spells strong enough to kill.
Regis whimpered behind me as three ghouls fell atop him, their claws ripping and tearing at his neck, ears, and belly.
They’re all going to die, I realized with grim certainty. They aren’t strong enough to be here, and even with God Step I can’t—
It was like a jolt of electricity went through my mind. God Step! I couldn’t walk through thin air with Burst Step, but God Step would take me directly into the statue’s gaping maw.
I hesitated. If I’m wrong—
‘What the hell do you have these powers for if you’re not going to use them?’ Regis growled in my head, his voice thick with frustration and pain.
Choosing not to look behind me again, hoping against hope that I wasn’t about to leave Haedrig, Riah, and the Granbehl siblings to a gruesome death, I tuned out everything. I pushed away the pain wracking my body from both the injuries that I had sustained and the rapid healing of those injuries. I bottled my emotions of doubt, anger, guilt, and frustration, and I concentrated on the way forward.
I let my eyes unfocus, seeing the aether all around me. I found the immaterial path within the realm of spatium, the vibration to which I could attune, that would let me stop being where I was and start being where I needed to go.
Though I couldn’t see it, I felt the God Rune flare with warmth, glowing through the false-spellforms on my back. The aether reacted, the vibration intensifying, and I felt the path beckon me.
I followed it. Though my eyes told me I was standing in a different location and my ears detected the sudden muffling of the sounds of combat, the movement was otherwise so instantaneous that even my own senses didn’t feel it as a physical action of my body.
I was standing atop the stone tongue within the giant carving of my own face. The inside of the mouth was recreated with excruciating detail except, where the back of the throat should have been, there was a stone door.
For a single breath, nothing happened. In my mind’s eye, I watched as Haedrig was pulled from the edge of the bridge and cast down into the depths; as Riah, paralyzed by pain, was mauled by the crawling ghoul; as Ada was run down by the pursuing monsters…
Then a grinding noise like an avalanche roared through the zone, so overwhelmingly loud that it shook all thought from my mind. I felt as though the entire chamber—every piece of stone, every molecule of air—was about to be torn apart. Then the stone beneath my feet began to move.
Turning, I saw that the bridge, where my companions had only an instant ago been fighting for their very lives, was drawing slowly nearer. It was with a wave of relief that I realized they were no longer surrounded by the awful, snakelike ghouls.
Kalon and Haedrig both still had their weapons held at the ready, their heads turning back and forth as if scanning the bridge for enemies. Ada was kneeling down next to Riah and Ezra. Regis stood at the edge of the path, staring down into the abyss.
‘They just vanished!’ Regis practically screamed. ‘One second they were all creepy faces and nasty claws, then they just turned to shadow and—poof.’
The others turned to watch as my face approached the footbridge. The walls slowed, then halted, leaving no gap between the statue’s gaping mouth and the path.
I stepped over the statue’s teeth and back onto the bridge, now a narrow path between two high walls of faces. The statues carved on the wall, I noted, didn’t look grotesque and misshapen from up close. They were kind, regal faces, and I was reminded immediately of the djinn I battled before I was given the keystone.
“Is everyone alright?”
“Ezra’s a little beat up,” Kalon said, eyeing me warily, “and Riah really needs medical attention. But she’ll survive. At least it’s over.”
Ada looked up at me from where she kneeled next to Riah. “What happened?”
I wasn’t sure exactly what to tell her. My hesitation must have shown, because Haedrig stepped in to interrupt my response.
“Any sort of explanations can happen once we’re out of this hellish zone.” He nodded toward Riah. “Let’s get her up off the cold stone.” Haedrig caught my eye as he turned to look back into the statue’s mouth. From this angle, it was no longer recognizable as my own face towering over us. “Is there a portal in there?”
I nodded. “There is a door, yeah.”
“Lead the way then.”
I gestured to Regis, and the shadow wolf loped up to me and leapt into my body. The gaping jaw was perfectly placed against the path, making an easy step down and into the mouth. Kalon and Ezra lifted Riah and followed behind me.
The stone door opened easily to my touch, revealing an opaque portal. None of us said a word to each other, but we didn’t have to. Expressions of relief were written clearly on the faces of Kalon, Ezra, Ada, and even Haedrig.
‘Well, that could have been worse.’ Even Regis sounded like he just wanted some rest.