The Beginning After The End - Chapter 352 - Relic, Revived
The torrential rain blocked out everything but the wet slapping of my own boots on the cobblestones and the rapid-fire beating of my heart.
“Go after him!”
The shouted order was nearly washed away by the rainfall. Even without the downpour, I knew how to evade unwanted attention and avoid prying eyes, so I wasn’t fearful of being caught. No, it was something else that made my pulse thunder in my ears.
What the hell had he been doing there? How much had he seen?
What is Grey going to do to him?
My throat constricted as I remembered the feeling of Grey’s powerful hand around my neck, lifting me off the ground. I had no doubt that Grey would kill Kayden if he thought it was necessary.
Depending on what the professor had seen, I wasn’t even sure I could disagree. I likely wouldn’t be punished in the traditional sense; I was still a Denoir, and knew as well as anyone that Alacryan law worked differently for the highbloods. Still, too much attention could result in the discovery of my Vritra blood’s manifestation.
I knew I would do whatever was required to prevent that from happening.
Turning down a wide alley between two academy buildings, I used the window sill of one to launch myself up into the second story window of the other, then jumped back across the alley onto the roof of the first. The tiles were slick, but I was able to crawl up over the peak of the roof and slide down the other side. When I reached the edge, I kicked off the roof, soaring a dozen or more feet to land on the ledge of a second story window leading into Windcrest Hall.
The shutters were closed and locked against the storm, but using my brother’s white-bladed dagger, I tripped the latch. Before pushing the shutters open, I withdrew my mana from the relic hanging around my neck, letting my appearance return to normal.
Slipping down from the sill, I found myself at the end of one of the many long hallways carving the building up into the various quarters and suites. Grey’s suite was a few doors down the hall.
I froze as I realized someone was standing just outside his door, her body swaying nervously. She didn’t appear to have noticed the noise of my entry into the building.
Her blonde hair hung straight and damp, and the white battle robes she wore clung to her figure, soaked half through from the storm. I could tell from the puddle that had formed around her that she’d been standing there for at least a few minutes.
“Hi,” I said as I carefully closed the shutters behind me.
The woman gave a startled yelp and slipped in the puddle. She threw out a hand and released a gust of wind to keep from tumbling over. “Where in the world did you…”
Trailing off, she took in my appearance and the shuttered window behind me. Her hand raised so that her palm was pointing toward my chest, fingers splayed out, and her expression hardened. “Please note that I am a professor of this academy and more than capable of defending myself and the property of those who live here.”
“Glad to hear it, considering I live here,” I said, pointing at the hallway ceiling. “Third floor, actually, but the second story window was a cleaner jump.” I gave her a shallow nod, then tucked back the wet strands of hair that had fallen into my face. “Caera of Highblood Denoir. And you are?”
Her hand drifted down to her side as her eyebrows rose up. “Oh. Oh! Oh Vritra, I’m so sorry!”
I shrugged, gesturing at myself with a handwave. “I don’t blame you. Looks like we were in the same boat.”
The woman grabbed a handful of her robes and squeezed water onto the floor. “Tell me about it. I was only out there for like two seconds.”
I let a knowing smile play at the corner of my mouth. “So, you and Professor Grey…”
She froze, one hand still wrapped up in her robes, her wide amber eyes lingering on the door to Grey’s rooms. “N-no, I just—the storm, and—thought that…”
The woman paused and forced a smile. “I’m sorry, I’m Abby of Named Blood Redcliff. Can I help you with that?” She gestured to my clothes, which were dripping water onto the floor in a steady stream.
Without waiting for a reply, she waved her hands and conjured up a gust of warm wind that blew through my clothes and hair. I squinted against the draft and grabbed the edges of my cloak to keep it from flapping about. After several seconds, I was dry and warm again.
“Thanks,” I said. “Why didn’t you already do that to yourself?”
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“Um…” The woman smoothed her soaking clothes, refusing to meet my eye. “Well, it appears that Professor Grey isn’t home right now anyway. Uh, pleasure to meet you, Lady Caera.”
Swirling so quickly that an arc of water droplets sprayed across the hallway, the woman began a quick march down the hall. As she turned a corner at the far end, she cast a wary glance back in my direction. Her lips tightened when she saw me still watching her, and then she was gone.
It shouldn’t have surprised me. A man as striking and mysterious as Grey would have women flocking around him like birds. Even lacking a blood name, the fact that he had attained the level of professor at such a prestigious academy suggested he had connections and wealth. Many named blood women were expected to marry for political connection and enhancement of their blood, generally by creating a stronger bond between two named bloods of similar status.
The Redcliff blood was well known in the central dominion for their constant efforts to climb the social ladder. However, something told me this Abby wouldn’t be able to keep up with Grey even if she caught him.
In fact, it was exceedingly difficult to picture him with any woman. I couldn’t see how romance or love—even the kind that happened in a single evening—would fit into his “solo-ascender” lifestyle. I found myself trying to picture Grey doing something as simple as walking hand-in-hand with someone through the park, or preparing tea and breakfast for his lover in bed. I couldn’t manage it.
Wet footsteps on the stairs behind me brought me back to myself. I turned just in time to see a very bedraggled Grey appear in the hallway behind me.
He frowned at my clothes. “How’d you get dry so fast?”
“I ran into a friend of yours,” I answered, leaning up against his door. “You just missed her, I’m afraid. Professor Redcliff, I think she said.”
“Oh,” was all he said. He pulled out his runestone and flashed it at the door, which opened with a click.
Inside, he immediately unclasped his luxurious white cloak and tossed it into the corner, then began to peel away his wet tunic. Although I knew the polite thing to do was avert my gaze, my attention was drawn to the runes on his spine. Unlike most Alacryans, Grey kept his covered. Even in the depths of the Relictombs, I’d never caught sight of them.
They were strange and untraditional, but only someone who had traveled with him and seen him fight extensively, or perhaps a scholar of Alacryan runes, would question them.
The other runes, those that channeled his powerful aether abilities, weren’t visible.
Realizing I was getting distracted, I looked away. “So? Did you get the dead relic?”
In answer, something tapped my shoulder. Without looking behind me, I took the sphere. It was light, practically weightless. “The weight wasn’t a problem, was it?”
“It sits differently on the pillow, but I don’t think anyone will notice since the relic hasn’t been here long,” Grey’s voice came from his bedroom.
I took a seat and rotated the sphere in my hands as I waited for Grey to return. When he did, he was dressed in black trousers and an azure tunic with black embroidery. It suited him, making his hair and eyes seem even brighter.
I tossed the dead relic to him, and he plucked it out of the air. “Hurry! I’m dying to see what this thing is capable of.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he muttered, holding the sphere up in one hand.
The puppy form of Regis popped out of Grey’s side and then jumped up on the couch next to me. I gave his head a scratch as he leaned against me.
“Go on then, princess,” he said, pressing his head into my hand. “Make with the pretty sparkles already.”
Grey focused on the sphere. He must have activated his godrune, because a golden glow suffused the room, and brilliant amethyst particles began dancing along his arm toward the relic. When they reached it, the motes skittered across the burnished silver surface and vanished into the crevices and holes.
For a few seconds, it didn’t look like anything was happening. I tried to catch Grey’s eye, but his attention was entirely on the relic. I drew in a sharp breath as the wear began to vanish, the pockmarks filling in, the wrinkles smoothing, the burnished gray brightening. Then the flow of particles thinned to a trickle and finally stopped, and the last amethyst mote vanished.
Grey held up the perfectly smooth sphere, turning it so it caught the light and shined like a silver moon. As it turned, I noticed a line bisecting the top and bottom halves of the sphere, so thin it was nearly invisible. Grey must have seen it too, because he took a half in each hand and twisted lightly.
The relic came apart.
“Whoa,” Regis said softly.
The inside of the sphere was an organic framework supporting a crystal that cast pinkish light through the room. The crystal was shedding a fine dust that hung in the air, drifting aimlessly around Grey’s hand.
“What is it?” I asked, breathless with excitement.
Grey shifted slightly and lowered the empty half of the relic as his focus on the crystal intensified. The subtly glowing crystal immediately blazed with bright purple light.
“What the—” Grey exclaimed as that half of the sphere jerked out of his hand and floated to the ground at his feet.
My hand went involuntarily to my mouth, and we watched, stunned, as the crystal began to disintegrate before our eyes. A cloud of shimmering particles rose up to hover above the half-relic, each grain carrying some of the crystal’s light. When the last piece disappeared, the cloud let off a strobing flash of light that made my head spin, and I forced myself to look away.
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Puppy Regis winced as he held up a paw to cover his eyes. “I’m pretty sure this is how demon overlords are summoned!”
Glancing from the corner of my eye to make sure the flashing had stopped, I let out an astonished gasp. “Vritra’s horns…”
The cloud had coalesced into an opaque oval hovering in the air, which Grey was pacing slow circles around. It had an oily sheen to its surface and was radiating a dim purple light.
“It’s an ascension portal, it has to be,” I said, sinking further back into the couch. “But one you can activate anywhere…That means—”
“I can go to the Relictombs whenever I want,” Grey finished. Facing me, he held up the other half. “What do you think this one is for then?”
I considered the silver half-sphere and the matrix of organic supports within. “Well if the other one takes you in…”
“Then this one might bring me back?” Grey was nodding, and his serious gaze turned back to the portal. “Caera, wait here.”
I shot up from my seat, nearly sending puppy Regis tumbling. “What? You’re going to go now? Without any sort of research or tests?”
“This will be the test,” he stated, his eyes still glued to the shimmering gate.
“Then let’s at least go together,” I reasoned. “Even if you do end up inside the Relictombs, what happens if that half of the relic leads you out into one of the main gates? With me there, it’ll be easier to get through any sort of questioning.”
Grey’s brows furrowed in thought before he turned his leveled gaze at me. “I appreciate it, but I’d rather have you here to keep prying eyes away from this room.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but all that came out was a frustrated huff. “Very well. I’ll keep a lookout in case any other woman you’ve managed to seduce decides to pay you a late night visit.”
He regarded me with obvious amusement. “Come on, Regis.” The diminutive shadow wolf glanced at me and shrugged his little shoulders before following the command. “And I haven’t forgotten about our promise.”
The mention of our agreement brought a faint smile to my face. I wasn’t expecting any sort of compensation for helping Grey, so it had caught me by surprise when he said he would go on an ascent with me.
“I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much stronger I’ve become since our last ascent,” I said confidently.
“I hope training isn’t your excuse for losing to me in Sovereigns Quarrel,” he smirked just before vanishing through the portal.
I stared, open-mouthed, at the portal suspended in mid-air before letting out a chuckle. “How immature.”
Not long after Grey had left, the gate hovering above the relic half began to fade, the opaque oily surface growing transparent, like fog fading from a mirror. After a few seconds, it was only a ghostly shape in the middle of the room.
I approached the dormant portal and carefully reached toward it. When my fingers brushed the transparent oval, they passed cleanly through and I felt nothing. I waved my hand back and forth, but the movement didn’t disturb the shape.
“At least no one can chase after them,” I muttered.
Too restless to sit around, I began pacing the small suite.
Thoughts of Sevren came to me. I remembered so clearly when he’d left on his preliminary ascent after only his first season at Central Academy. It had felt a lot like this: the excitement tempered by disappointment that I couldn’t follow him or fight alongside him.
Withdrawing the white-bladed dagger from my dimension ring, I unsheathed it to reveal the symbol at the base of the blade. This dagger had been his first accolade. He’d carved the aether rune into it while telling me all about his ascent, still so excited about his adventure that he’d practically been vibrating.
It broke my heart to think of him now, dying alone in the Relictombs, a victim of some hideous monster. I thought he was going to be the one to unlock the secrets of the Relictombs. I’d been wrong.
But I didn’t think I was wrong about Grey.
As my thoughts turned to him, I realized that Grey had been gone for a couple minutes already. Considering how time functioned differently in the Relictombs, he should have been able to activate the relic and return already.
“What if it wasn’t actually an ascension portal?” I muttered, fidgeting with the tip of the dagger’s blade. Bending down, I peered at the half-relic, but it told me nothing.
Even if the portal did take him into a zone, it was possible he was in danger and hadn’t been able to activate the other half of the relic…or perhaps we’d been wrong, and he couldn’t immediately return. He could be trapped there, forced to clear the zone and find a descension portal before returning. The second half hadn’t contained a crystal, which could mean—
I squinted against a bright amethyst light as the portal flared to life again, the ghostly outline solidifying into opaque pearlescence. The figure that appeared from it looked a lot like Grey, but his fine clothes were in tatters and his face was coated with blood and grime.
When he was clear of the portal, it dissolved into a cloud that slowly settled downward, condensing back into a crystal set within the relic.
Grey’s grime-caked face broke into a grin and he held up the black horn of some beast. A glob of dark blood dripped from it to splatter on the floor. “It works.”