The Beginning After The End - Chapter 292
Chapter 292: Missing Pieces
It was with a pang of regret that I sat down with the stone cube I’d received from the djinn projection during my first adventure in the Relictombs. After my early attempts at understanding the relic back in Maerin, I had spent very little time studying the geometric shapes within.
Still, my previous interaction with the keystone must have done something; the Relictombs had sensed that I had some knowledge of this edict of aether, whatever it was, and drawn us into this zone to test me. Or perhaps it sensed the cube itself, tucked away in my extradimensional storage rune, and that alone was enough to bring us here.
For being a peaceful people, the djinn seemed to have a very dark methodology in how they trained and protected their aetheric arts.
Settling myself cross legged on the floor with the cube in my lap, trusting in Regis and Haedrig to watch over me while I worked, I began.
As before, I imbued aether into the relic, and its aether reached back out to me. My vision faded into a wall of purple, and I pushed through it, finding myself once again surrounded by the countless floating and spinning geometric shapes.
Using aether, I was able to manipulate the shapes, moving and sorting them to try and make sense of their meaning. I felt like an infant playing with alphabet blocks. There was no rhyme or reason to the geometric forms, and although I could interact with them, I didn’t have any foundation for understanding, no idea what I was supposed to be doing.
Still, I had to believe the djinn wouldn’t have given me this relic if there was no way for me to solve it. I started by collecting similarly shaped symbols and organizing them into groups. Next, since they were geometric and not rune based, I looked for ways in which they fit together, treating it like an abstract puzzle.
This seemed easy at first, as there were enough shapes that I was always able to find a piece to fit. Once I had a couple dozen pieces locked together, however, I realized the problem. Before me, a sprawling, multi-directional fractal had taken shape, but I had run out of pieces that would connect to the shape I had created.
With no other choice, I broke the puzzle down and began again.
All the while, I felt my aether being drawn from me and consumed by the cube. Its sucking force wasn’t as bad in the Relictombs as it had been when I’d studied the keystone in Maerin, allowing me to stay in longer, but it still put a limit on the amount of time I could spend working on the relic in a single sitting.
I organized my pieces again, then began building the puzzle for the second time, keeping in mind which pieces I had used during my first attempt. This time, however, I found myself at a dead end even sooner, but I was too tired to restart again.
My eyes snapped open, and it took a moment for my mind to make sense of the mirror room with its constant movement and small army of reflected figures.
Regis was curled up in front of me, one eye open and tracking the others closely. Ezra and Haedrig appeared to be asleep, while Kalon watched over Ada. Her mouth had been covered to muffle the constant stream of vitriol and lies.
“How long was I out?” I asked, startling Kalon, who practically jumped up to his feet.
He cleared his throat and sat back down. “Several hours, at least. Did you do…whatever you were trying to do?”
“I made some progress,” I replied elusively. I had a feeling he wouldn’t like to hear that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
From his bench on the other side of the fountain, Ezra said, “It’s been hours, and all you can say is you’ve made ‘some progress’?”
The young ascender stood up, glared at me, and turned away, stomping off into the gloom.
“I’d already spent hours studying the…device before we got here,” I said, speaking to Kalon. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I’m doing what I can.”
His expression stoic, Kalon asked, “Are you sure there isn’t anything we can do to help?”
“Just don’t let your brother stab me while I’m in there,” I said, raising an eyebrow.
Kalon laughed, causing the restrained and gagged Ada to snarl at him and twist within her bindings as if the sound pained her. Kalon gazed at her sadly for a moment before turning back to me. “Do what you need to do, Grey.”
I felt like a well-wrung sponge; nearly every drop of my aether had been expended. I didn’t need much sleep, but I did need time to replenish my aether core.
Standing, I ran through a series of martial movements Kordri had taught me back in Epheotus to help me get the stiffness out of my limbs. After several minutes of the routine, I sat back down beside Regis and began the process of absorbing ambient aether.
I felt my companion shifting nearby before I heard his voice in my head.
‘What’s it look like in there?’
I’m not sure how to describe it, honestly. I thought about the disparate shapes, the patterns I had designed, the walls of aetheric energy caging it all…What does it feel like when you go inside my body?
‘It’s sort of like swimming.’
I opened my eyes, breaking my meditation, and stared at Regis. The shadow wolf shrugged his shoulders.
Closing my eyes, I focused on the aether around me, on drawing it through my aether channels and into my core. Inside of that relic, it’s pure knowledge. I feel like I’m trying to understand the contents of a complicated book by burning it and breathing in the smoke.
‘Any idea how much knowledge you need to inhale to get us out of here?’
More, I thought. A lot more.
The third attempt to put the puzzle pieces together wasn’t exactly a charm, but I did reach an unexpected moment of understanding. Without consciously making a decision to do so, I stopped trying to use all the pieces and instead just built a large cube.
The shape was relatively straightforward, fitting together naturally in my mind. Once I’d decided what to build, it almost seemed as if the pieces presented themselves to me when they were needed.
When the cube was complete, it began to glow and shimmer like oil on water, then the lines of the individual pieces faded away until a solid, shimmering box floated in front of me. The oil-slick ripples settled and fell still, and each of the cube’s six faces lit up like an electronic screen from my previous life, showing me the hall of mirrors.
Regis was still at his place by my side. Kalon now slept while Ezra watched over his sister. Haedrig, I was surprised to see, had his hand against one of the mirrors, apparently deep in conversation with its inhabitant. Nothing they said was audible, however. In fact, no sound came from the cube at all.
I was at a loss. Though I’d clearly made some kind of breakthrough, I didn’t understand how this window to the outside world helped me, or what it revealed about the edict of aether I was attempting to master.
Leaving the cube for the moment, I began building a second, smaller box with the remaining pieces. What I ended up with, however, looked more like a sharp-edged lump of dough than a true cube, as I lacked the pieces to make it perfect.
It took three more attempts, building the shape smaller each time, to create a second perfect box. I waited, but nothing happened—no lights, no coalescence of energy, no visions of the outside world.
That’s when I had my second moment of understanding.
What if the cube—or, theoretically, any shape—represented the subconscious knowledge of some aspect of the edict of aether I was trying to learn? If I assumed that the act of this puzzle-building was metaphorical for studying the edict itself, then studying the same thought—represented by the shape I built—would not move me further toward understanding the whole.
With this in mind, I deconstructed the smaller square, but by then my aether core was near empty.
When I opened my eyes, I found things just as I had seen them projected by the screens.
“H-Haedrig,” I said, finding my voice croaky from misuse.
The ascender’s hand pulled away from the mirror whose inhabitant he had been speaking with and he quickly walked toward me.
I took a long drink from the skin of water that rested at my side, dribbling some down my chin.
“Careful with that,” Haedrig said. “We may all regret not packing as many supplies as you before we escape this place.”
“I’d say maybe twelve…fifteen hours since you went in.” Haedrig was watching me carefully, almost nervously.
‘Actually, it’s been thirteen hours and forty-eight minutes. Not that I’m counting or anything.’
“Wow. I’m lasting longer at least.”
“And we’re about out of food!” Ezra cut in, looking at me incredulously. “Are you hoping to just stay in there until the rest of us starve to death?”
“You should be rationing your supplies,” I snapped, but before Ezra could respond I drew my food bundle from the extra dimensional storage rune on my forearm and tossed it to him. “I can get by for a few days.” Glancing at Haedrig, I added, “Make sure that gets split up—and rationed this time.”
Ezra tossed the bundle onto the bench next to him and sat back down. “Thanks, hero.”
Haedrig took a seat next to me and drank from his own flask. When I stayed silent, he turned to me and raised a brow. “How are you doing?”
I shook my head. “I made some progress, but no epiphany yet.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Haedrig took another drink, then abruptly stopped himself before storing his flask in his dimension ring. “Look at me, not heeding my own advice.”
We sat in silence for a moment as I began replenishing my aether.
Haedrig cleared his throat. “So, aether…”
I sighed. Though I was loath to discuss it, I was also surprised it had taken so long for one of them to bring it up after I mentioned aether to the false-Ada. The best way to lie, I had decided, was to tell as much of the truth as possible.
Speaking quietly so Ezra wouldn’t overhear, I said, “This isn’t my first trip into the Relictombs, though you couldn’t call my previous visit an ascent, really.”
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Haedrig seemed entirely unsurprised by this revelation, giving me a deadpan look. “Thank you for finally stating the obvious.”
“I woke up in a sanctuary room, half-dead, with no memory of how I’d got there. The first room I came to was full of these awful, zombified-chimera-things, and they almost killed me, but while I was fighting them I realized I could use a new kind of magic. Aether.”
Haedrig gestured toward Regis. “The wolf?”
“Yeah, he was the first manifestation. Then I learned that…teleportation trick I used to get us out of the last zone.” When Haedrig only nodded, I turned to meet his eye. “You seem surprisingly relaxed about all this.”
“I knew there was something different about you,” he answered with a shrug. “I could sense it. To be honest, it’s why I wanted to join you on your ascent. To see what would happen around you.”
I thought back to Alaric’s description of the Relictombs, and how it changed based on who was within it. Some ascenders, he had told me, would take every ascent with a new group, hoping to discover new and unexplored reaches of the ancient mages’ creation.
“And the djinn?”
“It’s what the ancient mages called themselves,” I answered truthfully. They were gone, thanks to the Indrath Clan, and I couldn’t see any harm in sharing the name now. “I found a…spirit, or manifestation, or something…it’s what gave me the relic.”
Haedrig shook his head and gave me a look of purest amazement. “You’ve discovered more about the Relictombs in two ascents than I have in twenty. You lucky wigeon.” His eyes fell to the relic in my lap. “Still, risky to have held onto that. The Vrita—Sovereigns would skin you alive if they knew you’d discovered a relic and not handed it over the second you were out of the Relictombs.”
“Fortunately for me,” I said, thinking about the imbecilic guards who met me at the exit portal in Maerin, “I came out in a little backwater town. They were as surprised to see me there as I was to be there.”
“Lucky wigeon,” he said again, shaking his head.
“How are things out here?” I asked after a short pause. It felt good to just…talk, and I realized I didn’t want our conversation to end so soon.
“Tense and sullen,” Haedrig answered matter-of-factly. “The boy’s near to boiling over. He’s eaten through his rations and half of what we pulled out of Riah’s dimension ring. Subjecting himself to the anger and fear from the reflections isn’t helping, but he didn’t stop even when his brother commanded him to.”
“They’re practically manifestations of his own inner turmoil,” I said, thinking about my life as Grey after Headmaster Wilbeck was murdered. I had fanned the flames of my rage in any way I could. “I guess it’s cathartic for him.”
Haedrig only grunted, and we lapsed into silence.
Casting about for a topic of conversation, I suddenly remembered Haedrig’s reaction when I had asked the false-Ada about aether earlier.
“Back on the topic of aether,” I started, somewhat unsure how to ask what I wanted to know. “Earlier, when I mentioned it…well…you seemed surprised.”
Haedrig met my eye then looked down at the ground, letting his green hair fall over his face. “You’re observant, Grey. You’ve—you’ve shown a lot of trust in me. If the wrong person found out how you’d come to that relic, you could be executed.”
There was no hint of a threat in Haedrig’s words. Instead, he sounded genuinely grateful for the trust I’d shown him; I’d told the others only that it was a device for housing knowledge, and hoped that would be enough to satisfy their curiosity for the time being.
“I’ve studied aether a bit,” he continued, “but that’s not something I can talk about often. It’s not a…polite topic of conversation in most circles, and my family doesn’t approve. In fact,” he added with a bitter laugh, “my family doesn’t really approve of anything I do. They expect me to sit at home like a good little—”
Haedrig cut himself off and shot me an embarrassed glance. “Sorry, family is a bit of a sore subject for me.”
“I can empathize,” I said with a sad smile. “No matter how hard we try, we can’t be perfect sons.”
“No, we cannot,” Haedrig replied, somewhat bitterly. “Perhaps my birth parents would have thought differently, but I wasn’t raised by my own blood. The house that brought me up—well—they do not appreciate my aspirations as an ascender.”
“But ascenders are so highly regarded in”—I stopped myself from saying “Alacrya,” instead fumbling for a moment before finishing—“in most families.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong; my adopted blood is very eager to establish renown as both soldiers in the war against Dicathen and as ascenders, whether through blood or patronage. But I wasn’t meant for this life…at least, not according to them.”
Before I could say more, Headrig stood and straightened his armor. “I’m sorry, Grey, but I think I’d like some time alone with my thoughts. I’ll leave you to your meditation.” After a moment’s pause, he added, “Thank you for listening,” then walked away.
‘I didn’t think it was even possible, but that guy seems to have as many secrets as you,’ Regis said with a chortle. The shadow wolf was curled up between me and Ezra, his eyes closed, though clearly he had been paying close attention.
You think he’s another Dicathian stranded in Alacrya and hiding his identity to avoid being hunted down by the Vritra? I grinned and pushed at Regis’s backside with my boot.
‘No, you fool, but he’s definitely not telling us everything.’
You may be right. Still, I can’t help but trust him. I hadn’t realized it until that moment, but it was true. Despite myself, despite our short accaintence, I trusted Haedrig to watch my back. I couldn’t say the same from the Granbehl brothers.
‘Whatever. Trust away, but if he does anything weird I’ll still bite his arm off.’
Smiling and shaking my head, I went back to my mediation, preparing myself for yet another attempt at the keystone.
When I pushed through the purple wall surrounding the field of geometric shapes, I found the cuboid screen still intact. Within it, I watched Haedrig walk down the shadowy hall, his eyes down, his expression thoughtful.
My perspective shifted, focusing instead on Ezra as he stood up and walked toward me. Regis immediately abandoned his pretense of being asleep, lifting his head and gazing at Ezra. The young ascender stopped, met the shadow wolf’s eyes for several seconds, then turned to walk away, though he stayed close enough to keep an eye on Ada.
I forced my consciousness away from the screen, focusing instead on the remaining shapes. I already knew that creating another cube served no purpose, so I began building the first thing that came to mind: a pyramid.
It was more difficult than the cube. The pieces didn’t seem to fit together correctly. They didn’t jump out at me like they had before, guiding me, and so I found myself dismantling and rebuilding the shape again and again. By the time my aether core was empty, I still hadn’t discovered the right pieces to complete a satisfactory pyramid.
Still, once my mind was set on it, I felt compelled to see it through. I knew instinctively there had to be a way to combine the shapes and figures into the image in my mind, and the next time I entered the keystone, I tried again.
But it wasn’t until my third day—my trips into the keystone were lasting nearly sixteen hours by this point, with the remaining time dedicated to replenishing my aether and getting a little sleep—that I succeeded in forging a perfect tetrahedral pyramid.
As before, the pieces shimmered and formed a solid shape, and when the glow receded, each of the pyramid’s faces showed an image, just like the cube. Each image was of the mirror room, but there was something very wrong with what I was seeing.
In the first picture, I could see myself sitting cross-legged on the floor with the keystone in my lap, Regis sitting in front of me, and Kalon watching over Ada. The strangest sense of deja vu washed over me, and I realized that this had been the moment I had first seen in the cuboid display when I had completed it.
What in the world?
In the second image, the mirror room was empty except for the dozens of imprisoned ascenders. Then an opalescent portal appeared hanging in mid air, and I stepped out.
Despite being in a room full of mirrors for the last few days, I hadn’t spent much time looking at myself since my body had been rebuilt. It was strange to think that the man in the image flinching and preparing to defend himself was me.
My pale wheat hair whipped around when I turned toward the reflections moving in the mirror, thinking I was going to get attacked. My golden eyes narrowed as I glared around the room, then widened in surprise at what they saw.
“Who—who are they?” I heard myself ask.
Then Kalon and Ezra appeared, bumping into me. “What the hell?”
I was seeing the past, I realized, as if it had been captured by a recording artifact. The cuboid shape showed me the present. In the faces of the pyramid, I could watch the past play back like a home video.
Using aether, I spun the pyramid around to better see the third and forth sides. The mirror rooms shown by those facets were empty of people, but when I looked closely I realized more of the mirrors were empty in these visions.
They must be older than the others, I thought, which made sense when I considered the two different sides showing me and my party.
If the first shape shows the present, and the second shape shows the past…
My heart beat rapidly as I considered the third shape. Was it possible?
My attention was drawn back to the cube. Haedrig sat next to Regis, his fingers running through the shadow wolf’s thick mane. Regis’s eyes were closed, his tongue lolling from the side of his mouth—the very picture of a satisfied pet enjoying a good scratch.
Traitor, I thought, smiling.
Behind them Kalon was sitting with Ada, his head in his hands, and Ezra was standing before one of the mirrors, his hand pressed against it.
I let out a sigh. Fool. The boy was only torturing himself by interacting with those spirits. They had nothing to share but their madness and hatred. Listening to them would only drive him to darkness and despair.
Turning back to the images visible on the sides of the pyramid, I watched as our time in the mirror room played out again. I found it difficult to turn away, watching for the second time as Ada was taken by the phantom.
The false-Ada skittered across the room unseen, distracted as we all were, and crawled up on top of Riah. Riah seemed unconscious, but she still flinched away when Ada leaned down, then pressed her lips against Riah’s.
Riah convulsed, one sharp, unnatural jerk, then fell still, pale as a ghost.
The phantom had somehow drawn the lifeforce directly out of Riah, killing her instantly. I had assumed it was some kind of aetheric being, like most of the monsters in the Relictombs, but I hadn’t seen anything as powerful or deadly as this.
In front of me, the false-Ada, now restrained, snapped forward, almost biting Kalon. No, not biting—almost kissing Kalon. We’d had no idea how close to death he had been in that moment.
I shook away the thoughts spiraling in my mind. Reliving these past moments was a trap, like living life in a circle.
I needed to start building the next shape…and I knew exactly what it needed to be.