The Beginning After The End - Chapter 296
“What the hell?”
Caera lifted one delicate hand to her face, feeling her cheek, then pulled a lock of her long hair out in front of her face so she could see it properly. She paled visibly as her hand reached up and touched one of the onyx horns that grew from the sides of her head. Each horn had two separate points: the main horns swept forward and up, while the smaller fang-shaped pair jutted back behind, framing her head like a dark crown. Thin golden rings adorned each of the smaller spurs.
“Grey, I can expla—”
My hand shot out in a blur, gripping Caera by her thin neck and lifting her off the snowy ground. A small gasp escaped her lips as she tried to pry herself free, but my eyes were focused on those black horns.
She’s a Vritra! I thought, feeling foolish for letting someone I knew so little about get so close to me. No, she wouldn’t be able to enter the Relictombs if that was the case. I wasn’t sure what to make of this sudden revelation. Is she just Vritra-blooded?
‘I know you’re shocked—so am I—but I don’t think we’ll get any answers from her if she’s dead,’ Regis chimed in, sobering me.
I loosened my grip, letting the Alacryan woman fall to the ground, where she coughed fitfully and rubbed her throat.
“Please…Grey. I don’t mean…any harm,” Caera pleaded, her red eyes locked on me.
“Stop,” I warned, drawing the white dagger from my dimension rune as I studied the high-blooded Alacryan woman.
What was Caera’s purpose—to kill me? That didn’t make sense. She could’ve killed me anytime while I was in the keystone realm. Did she need proof to take back to her blood, a Scythe, or maybe even Agrona himself, so that they could find and execute me?
In the end, regardless of her reasons, it boiled down to two choices.
The thought of simply killing her right there and mitigating any potential risk surfaced in my mind, but holding the dagger brought up memories of Caera giving up her late brother’s blade so that I could have a weapon. Not only that, Caera and I had parted on good terms after our temporary allegiance in the convergence zone.
Even then, she and her two guards had several chances to kill me while I was unconscious after our fight against the titan, though it was also true that she could have guessed my identity after returning to Alacrya.
She’s still calling me Grey, though, which means she might not know who I am after all…
My grip around the bone-white dagger tightened as I struggled to come up with the right decision. I had trusted Haedrig, but the green-haired man that had fought beside me never actually existed. Instead, it was a woman wrapped deeply in the veil of Alacryan nobility—with Vritra blood coursing through her.
Regis let out a chortle. ‘Why are you thinking so deeply about this? Maybe she just likes you.’
“What?” I blurted, startling Caera, who was still on her knees in the snow.
“Nothing,” I said, clearing my throat and silently cursing my companion for his flippant attitude.
I could feel Regis roll his eyes. ‘Kill her or not, it’s up to you, but chop chop. I don’t fancy finding out what happens to me if you freeze to death standing here.’
My face and hands felt stiff from the cold, but my asuran body made this deadly weather a nuisance at most. Caera, despite her obvious Vritra ancestry, didn’t share my fortitude, and she had already started to shake.
Letting out a sigh, I reluctantly made up my mind. I withdrew the wool bedroll from my rune—yet another piece of equipment that Alaric had thought to pack for me—and tossed it to her. “Wrap yourself up in this. We need to find shelter—then we’ll talk.”
She took the soft bedroll and draped it around herself like a blanket. “Thank you.”
My eyes quickly scanned our surroundings. Like before, the portal we’d come through had vanished, leaving us stranded in a pure white expanse. An icy wind kicked up a lot of snow, making it difficult to see very far.
“Let’s get moving,” I replied curtly, turning away.
‘I would’ve gone for the nice gentleman play, but aloof bad boy works too,’ Regis teased.
Do you want me to cut you off from my aether?
‘No, sir. Sorry, sir.’
Rolling my eyes, I continued walking, paying close attention to the soft crunch of Caera’s footsteps just a few paces behind me.
“You’re wary of me, yet you’re exposing your back to me. Are you that confident?” Caera asked, her silvery voice cutting through the howling of the wind.
“Do you want to find out?” I asked, not bothering to look back.
“Perhaps next time,” she said softly after a beat of silence.
‘Ooh, so she wants there to be a next time,’ Regis snickered.
I ignored my companion’s comment but mentally gave him his second strike.
“Keep an eye out for any kind of shelter,” I called out, my own eyes scanning every shadow and wrinkle in the frozen wasteland for something that could be a cave or ravine, or even just an overhang that would get us out of the biting wind.
“I can barely see past you. Even with mana, I don’t think I could find anything unless it was standing right in front of me,” Caera said, frustration laced in her voice.
‘Maybe you guys will have to dig yourself a shelter and cuddle for—’
Coalescing aether around Regis’s incorporeal form inside me, I directed it to the palm of my hand and pushed outward.
To my surprise, Regis’s fiery cub form actually burst out of my hand, limbs flapping in surprise.
‘Hey! What the—’
Caera gasped and burst into action. Flinging off the bedroll and drawing her thin, curved sword, she cut swiftly downwards, cleaving Regis in two.
I watched with a raised brow as Regis’s bisected form faded away, dissolving into the windblown snow.
Caera’s sharp eyes darted around the terrain, but when she didn’t see any more threats, she smoothly stored the blade once again. Then she noticed the look on my face, and her own confident expression slipped away.
I pointed nonchalantly at the area where Regis had disappeared and said, “That thing is going to reform in a few seconds. As amusing as it was, please don’t attack him again.”
Her eyes went wide. “That was something you did?”
“That was my wolf, yes.”
She was cut off as a pocket of dark ash began to spin within the light snow, condensing down until it was a perfectly round ball, then bursting into flames. Finally, Regis’s bright eyes popped open, and the dark shadow of his mouth twisted down into a comical frown.
The will-o-wisp floated down to the ground where it shifted again, bulging outward as it transformed back into the small, wolf-like puppy. “You know, I’m not sure I like either one of you very much right now.”
Caera’s brows furrowed in confusion as her gaze shifted from Regis to me and then back again.
I shrugged. “This is Regis. You two have met before in the last two zones.”
Her eyes shone in realization, then she tilted her head. “But he was a little bigger then.”
“Yeah, well you were a dude,” Regis snapped angrily.
“You’re right.” Caera’s lips quivered as if she were trying very hard not to smile. “I’m sorry, little friend.”
The Alacryan leaned down and scratched Regis behind one pointy little ear. His bright eyes glared at her, but he couldn’t stop his shadowy tail from wagging in pleasure.
This time, I let out a chortle, causing my companion to stiffen.
Letting out a growl, Regis snapped at Caera’s finger, startling her so that she jerked her hand away.
The tiny shadow wolf pounced ahead of us, bounding through the snow with some difficulty. Without looking back, Regis said, “Stop staring and start walking, before you both turn into meat popsicles.”
I met Caera’s strange red eyes, narrowed in a pleasant smile, and forced myself to turn away. Scooping up my bedroll, the Alacryan shook the snow off and wrapped it around her shoulders, then we followed after our fuzzy little guide.
“It’s a bowl,” I muttered, stopping so that Caera, who was walking in the track I left in the deepening snow, bumped into me.
“What?” she asked, taking a step back and peering around us.
I took her by the shoulder and turned her so that she was looking down into a wide dip in the land. Visibility was poor enough that I hadn’t immediately noticed it, but we were walking along the ridge of a massive, shallow crater.
The wind let up at that moment, and a beam of silvery light cut through the gray blanket above us, spilling across the snow and highlighting the entire basin. Far below us, perhaps a mile or more, there was the clear outline of a large, round bulge under the snow—much too round and perfect to be a natural formation.
Then the wind picked back up, and the clouds closed in, and the shape was lost behind a white curtain.
“Did you see that?” Caera asked excitedly, pointing down toward the hidden mound.
She turned toward me, and suddenly she seemed very close. Her gaze then landed on my arm, which I suddenly realized was still around her shoulder. Immediately, I pulled myself away, taking a step back as Caera also shifted uncomfortably.
“See what?” Regis asked, trotting back toward us after having gone several yards ahead. “What’d I miss?”
‘And what were you doing with your arm around the spy, eh?”
“There’s something down there.” I gestured down the slope, ignoring my companion. “It looks like the snow gets deeper, though, so maybe you should get back inside me.” I looked at Regis pointedly, making it clear this was less a question and more of a demand.
“You know, it’s been nice to stretch my legs. I think I’ll stay out here. I don’t mind a little snow.”
I glared at the pup, and Regis wiggled his eyebrows in return, a gesture that reminded me of the cartoon animals in the shows I had seen as a kid.
‘I think I’ll keep an eye on things from out here,’ he thought to me, making it obvious that he was still upset about being cut in half.
Caera was watching us expectantly, so I waved my hand toward the slope. “After you, my mighty companion.”
Regis swished his shadowy tail as he trotted on ahead. Within sixty feet, though, the drifts were well over his head, and, even though the cold wasn’t bothering him, his tiny wolven body wasn’t equipped to swim through snow.
After struggling for a couple of minutes to keep up any sort of progress, pouncing and paddling through the snow, Regis gave up. “You know, I think I’ve stretched my legs enough. I better go back to gathering aether.” With that, my companion leapt up as if trying to jump into my arms, but instead faded into my body.
“What did he mean, gather aether?” Caera asked as we pushed forward through snow that was now up to my hips. I was leading, breaking a path so that Caera could more easily follow.
“My summons is powered by aether. When we used…the purple fire, well, we used up all his power. So he shrunk into this form.” I kept my tone matter-of-fact, as if it were perfectly normal to have an aether-powered shadow wolf for a companion.
“But he’s not really a summons, is he?” I could practically feel her piercing eyes burning into the back of my neck.
“No, I suppose not. Not the way you normally think of one.”
“And…” Caera hesitated. I kept my attention forward, shoveling through the deep, heavy powder. “And you’re not really a mage, are you? Not the way we’d normally think of one, anyway. You don’t use mana.”
I stopped walking, more out of realization than out of apprehension—realization of how tired I was of hiding everything about myself to everyone that I came across. There was no way I could answer truthfully without giving away who I really was, but any lie would be as obvious as the horns on her head.
“No, I suppose not.”
We marched in silence for a few minutes, and soon the snow was up to my ribs. A strong hand on my shoulder pulled me up short. I turned to see what was the matter, but was blinded by my own bedroll being tossed over my face.
Caera laughed for the first time, a refreshing yet elegant sound. “I’m no ordinary mage either, remember?”
I jerked the wool blanket from my face, already gathering aether into my extremities to defend myself if needed, but Caera wasn’t attacking me. She wasn’t even looking at me.
An ominous power was growing within her, however, and when she finally met my eyes, there was a dark fire in them. “You might want to move aside, Grey.”
I stepped back into the snow, getting out of her path as she drew her sword—her real sword. The dark, flaming aura I’d seen her use when fighting the giant monster in the convergence zone flickered around the red blade, turning it black.
This time, though, it was much more muted, less wild and dangerous.
Then Caera thrust the sword forward and the dark flames billowed outward, carving a channel in the snow for at least two hundred yards.
She turned back and walked toward me, sheathing her long curved blade. Snatching the bedroll back and wrapping it over her shoulder, she shot me an almost childish grin. “You look tired, Grey. Let me lead for awhile.”
“That trick was more impressive the first time I saw it,” I muttered, dusting the snow off of my clothes.
Snorting indelicately, Caera spun away and started marching through the wide path she’d made.
I followed, my mind entirely occupied by Caera’s ability. When she’d used her power in the convergence zone, I had been too busy not dying to really examine it. This time, though, I had watched carefully as she manifested the dark aura and released the torrent of black fire.
The flames hadn’t produced heat. They destroyed without burning, kind of like the violet fires of the Destruction rune, but she wasn’t using aether. In the convergence zone, those same flames had eaten through the titanic guardian’s attack, literally carving a path through the beam of energy.
I flashed back to my battle with Nico, how he had controlled the dark flames to destroy my lightning storm. Caera’s ability seemed similar, able to destroy both energy and matter. Then I thought of Cadell’s soulfire, and how it was able to burn away someone’s life force from inside, preventing even vivum from healing them.
Then something I hadn’t thought about in a very long time returned to me. I was walking through the forest with Windsom, my asuran protector and mentor. Birds were chirping. The sun shining through the leaves dappled his wise old face as we walked. He was teaching me about the different asuran races and their magic.
He had described the nature of aether, though he struggled to communicate into the “lesser tongue,” and had settled on referring to it as a “creation-type mana art.” The Vritra were made up mostly of basilisks, a race that used a decay-type mana art, though he never gave me another name for it.
Was that what Caera was using? A unique deviant form of mana-based magic?
I watched Caera’s navy hair bounce around her onyx horns as she strode ahead of me like nothing could touch her. She was incredibly talented—and equally confident in her abilities. When I’d first seen the way she fought, I’d immediately been reminded of myself.
It was no secret that Agrona and his basilisks had bred with the people of Alacrya. Clearly Caera was the result of such experiments, but she hid her ancestry when we first met in the Relictombs—using her strongest ability only when there was no other option. Something about this zone had caused her disguise to fail, but even the first time I’d met her while she was with her two guards, she had hidden her horns.
‘Right? Personally, I think they’re hot.’
When we reached the end of the path carved by Caera’s power, the snow was deep enough that the channel had become a tunnel. Instead of a round, rippling tunnel of ice, though, the fifteen foot deep cave in the snow was rough and imprecise, like a dozen children had dug it out with their bare hands.
With no heat to melt the snow, allowing it to refreeze and harden, the tunnel didn’t seem safe to enter—but that wasn’t all that was bothering me.
Caera lifted her sword from her shoulder and pointed it forward, but I held out a hand. “I don’t think your power is best suited to this kind of thing. Save your strength. Based on my experience in the Relictombs, it won’t be long before something tries to kill us.”
“I concede the point. What do you suggest, Grey?”
As far as I could tell, we were still a quarter mile or more from the round bulge we’d seen from the rim of the caldera. The powdery snow made walking on its surface impractical, as either one of us could sink in over our head with each step.
‘You could blast a tunnel with aether,’ Regis suggested.
I had already considered this, but the aether cost of utilizing Gauntlet Form for something as mundane as drilling a whole through the snow seemed reckless. Drilling…
Regis, you’re a genius.
‘I…know?’ I could sense my companion’s confusion, but I was already preparing myself.
With a thought, I encouraged Regis to move to my hand to help draw the aether that I released from my core. I didn’t build up a large blast of aether like I might have if I were preparing for an attack, but instead I released a small burst of aetheric energy.
As I siphoned aether through my arm, I willed it to coalesce rather than surge out, but the manifestation faded in my palm; this was something new, and it required more control than creating a straightforward burst of energy.
Taking a deep breath and tuning out Regis’s stray thoughts and Caera’s boring gaze, I tried again—and again.
After the fourth attempt, the aether finally manifested into the form of a globular balloon that dispersed as soon as it left my palm. After the seventh attempt, the aether took shape into a sphere that grew larger as I fed it more aether.
It took every ounce of my concentration to keep the shimmering purple globe from dispersing as it grew to my height. Then I shoved, driving the aetheric sphere forward into the snow.
Despite using only a fraction of the aether it would’ve taken to unleash a full aetheric blast, the large aetheric orb bored through over twenty feet of snow before it faded away, leaving behind a round, stable tunnel that we could easily walk through.
“Good enough,” I huffed. I had hoped to manipulate the aether into a cone-shaped drill, but seeing as even a half-decent sphere was barely possible, I quickly settled for something simpler.
‘You know, that’s pretty much exactly what I was thinking.’
Of course it was, I teased.
Caera walked carefully into the tunnel, her hand running across the wall and roof as she warily inspected my handiwork. “Clever. Can you do it again?”
Nodding, I said, “I should be able to get to that dome without totally draining myself, yeah.”
She stepped aside, gesturing into the tunnel. “After you, my mighty companion.”
Whether it was because I was tired from the amount of concentration that went into the aetheric spell—if it could even be called that—or just because I was still proud of my accomplishment, I actually let out a small laugh before building up aether in my right hand again.
By resting briefly after every few uses of the aether cannon, as Regis quickly dubbed it, I was able to keep my core topped up, just in case we ran into anything hostile under the snow. I took it as a good sign that we did not, however, and within an hour we found what we were looking for.
Behind me, Caera held up a light artifact, revealing a smooth, gleaming white wall. I ran my hand along the cold stone.
“I’ve never seen anything like it—like frost that’s been turned into stone,” I said, brushing away the snow at the outer edges of the tunnel. My aetheric sphere hadn’t even scratched the surface. “Let’s hope there’s a door somewhere.”
Utilizing my new aether cannon spell, I began to open up space around the outside of the white dome. Wherever the swirling purple energy touched the shining stone, my power seemed to disperse, rolling over the smooth surface like water across wax.
Then, with a final pulse of aether, golden-white light spilled from an arched door in the dome, causing our snowy tunnel to blaze so brightly that I had to shield my eyes.
Caera held up her hand to ward off the glare. “I hope that light is coming from a nice, warm fire.”
Blinking away the glittering stars in my eyes, I drew the white dagger, infused my body with aether, and moved cautiously up to the archway.
The inside wasn’t exactly what I had expected.
The dome was about forty feet tall at its peak, and nearly one hundred feet wide. Blazing balls of light drifted through the air like paper lanterns. A dais rose up from the floor at the center of the cavernous room, and on it was a beautifully carved arch.
Or, what was left of it.
Though the dais was twenty feet across and raised up ten feet over the level of the floor, it still looked small and forlorn in the huge, empty space. There was an atmosphere of neglect and loss within the dome that made my skin crawl.
From next to me, Caera said, “It looks…broken.”
Scanning the room again to make sure there were no enemies clinging to the ceiling or creeping along the walls, I stepped into the dome, then slowly crossed the open expanse to the stairs, feeling entirely exposed.
There was a pile of random items at the foot of the stairs. Caera kneeled down to inspect them.
“Bones, mostly, but look at this?”
She held up a pure white arrowhead. “It looks like it’s made from the same material as the dome.” I took it from her and rubbed it between my fingers; it was cold to the touch and silky smooth. “And look at this.”
Draped from her fingers was a leather cord hung with large, curved talons, like those of a hawk or an eagle, but larger.
“Made from something native to this zone, I imagine,” I said, pressing my fingertip to point at one of the claws. I winced as a drop of blood bloomed on my fingertip. “Damned sharp.”
“Made by what though, I wonder,” Caera asked, tossing the talon necklace back into the pile.
Although I was interested in the items and what they might tell us about this zone, I was more interested in getting out of it. Stepping over the scattered objects, I took the stairs two at a time until I reached the top of the platform.
The arch was ten feet high and just as wide. I ran my fingers across the designs, which were incredibly detailed, showing animals at play in gardens full of impressively crafted plants and flowers.
But Caera had been right. Several pieces of the arch were missing, which, assuming that this was the portal out of the zone, meant that we were stuck.