The Beginning After The End - Chapter 358 - Blood Relic II
Feigning nervousness, I crept warily through the tunnels behind the man called Rat, my eyes jumping from shadow to shadow. The way was winding and twisting like a knotted rope. We moved cautiously and stopped often to listen and peek around corners, but the zone was quiet except for the light scraping of Rat’s foot as it dragged behind him.
‘I kind of feel bad leaving Caera with all those murderous thugs,’ Regis said, the warm ethereal ball that was his presence hovering around my core.
I know, I acknowledged. I can’t fathom what she’ll do to them without us there to keep her in check.
We passed a collapsed section of the tunnel, and I noticed a churned, loose patch of wall that made me wonder if some beast—or ascender—could tunnel through the dirt. Thinking back to Kage’s rapid appearance at the zone’s entry portal, it made sense. The ability to pass through solid earth was fairly common among more powerful earth-attribute mages back in Dicathen.
We took a right turn that reversed sharply back on itself a moment later to dive below the tunnel we had been traversing. There were many more loose patches of wall that suggested someone travelled this way often, and the veins of red rock that lit the passages grew thicker and brighter the longer we traveled.
The aether in the atmosphere grew denser as well, filling the air like a purple mist. I was confident that Rat was leading me the right way, and that I could find the shrine even without him using the ambient aether.
I expanded my focus in order to feel the aetheric paths connecting each point in space around me. However, with how large these networks of tunnels and caverns were, it was impossible to make sense of the feedback I received.
‘As boring as it was getting to watch you act like a pansy woggart, I’ll admit it was the right call.’
I know. That’s why I so rarely listen to you, I mocked.
“It’s unfair, isn’t it?”
“Excuse me?” I asked, slightly caught off guard when Rat suddenly started speaking.
“How we are expected to serve like pets, but in the act of doing so, we become reliant on our masters’ strength to keep us safe.” The pale, quiet man gave me a tight-lipped smile.
“Is that why you serve Kage?” I asked, altering my inflection to sound as if I was afraid to even say the maniac’s name.
Rat’s hunched shoulders shrugged. “His brutality has made him effective in this place. You may not believe me, but things were worse before he came.”
“You…don’t think he’ll hurt Lady Caera, do you?”
Although I wasn’t particularly worried about Caera, knowing her to be more than capable of taking care of herself, I hoped to strike an emotional chord with my guide. If I could get him to open up to me, I could more easily navigate to the truth of what was happening in this zone, including finding out how to escape it.
Rat’s back hunched further at my question. When he spoke, it was hardly more than a whisper. “Kage and his men are…not kind to womenfolk. I won’t defend it, but…” He paused as I faked a frightened noise from the back of my throat, stopping and turning to face me. His black eyes peered at me searchingly. “We should keep moving. We’re still some distance from the shrine.”
Rat’s ears twitched and he paused for a second before moving on. We travelled in silence for a time, until we reached a tunnel where thick stranglers had grown from floor to ceiling, blocking the way forward. Rat reversed course, finding another tunnel that he said would bypass the overgrown passage.
“How long have you been here?” I asked softly.
“A year…maybe more.” His shoulders bobbed up and down in a helpless shrug. “I fought for a while, like the others. Then hid. Then Kage came. At least with him we have some form of order while we figure out how to claim the relic.”
“Do you really think it takes a blood sacrifice to get it?” I asked, unsure.
Rat sniffed and spat on the ground as he led us through a crossing of several different tunnels. “I’ve seen a year of blood drained into the glyph, and it’s never been enough. A few months ago, Kage dragged all the ascenders he’d imprisoned to the shrine and had their throats cut at the same time, sure that no one had ever spilled enough blood at once…but even that wasn’t enough.” Rat halted, listening around before addressing me. “There are some in these tunnels who think it must be something else. That maybe we read the runes wrong…” A shiver ran down his spine, and I could practically see the weight of those deaths pressing down on him.
“Which is why”–he dragged the thought out, again giving me that searching look—“I have made arrangements for you to see more than just the shrine.”
I watched him uncertainly, but said nothing.
“I think we are very much the same,” he continued warily, with just a hint of hope tinging his words. “We may not be made for bloodshed and battle, but we are worth more than our masters give us credit for.” He hesitated, then shook his head with a nervous smile. “My time here has dulled my manners. I haven’t even asked your name.”
“Grey,” I said, returning his smile awkwardly. “Do you have a name other than…” I trailed off, rubbing the back of my neck.
He frowned sadly, but said, “Amand. But in here…call me Rat. Everyone else does.” He straightened. “Grey, I think that together, we can end this awful cycle. I’m ready to go home, to see my…” He paused again, his frown deepening. “I have a mother…and brother…who probably think I’m dead…”
I opened my mouth, then closed it again, not having to feign my emotions as I thought of Ellie and my mother, hidden away under the Darvish desert, with no idea that I was alive.
Clearing his throat, Rat continued. “I hope you can appreciate the risk I am taking by telling you this but…for some time now, I have been passing information about Kage to the other factions in this zone.”
Regis chortled. ‘So our Rat is actually a mole.’
“It has been months since anyone but Kage and his people have been allowed to see the relic, or the ward that protects it. Although Kage keeps some semblance of order here, he is not particularly…intelligent.”
“And fresh eyes might find new meaning in old words,” I said, quoting a line from a book on spellcasting I had read while still a student at Xyrus Academy.
“Exactly,” Rat agreed. “So…you will help me?”
I nervously opened my mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “I just want to get my Lady away from this zone safely.”
Nodding in acknowledgement, Rat continued leading me to the shrine, which wasn’t far from where we’d stopped to talk. Several turns later, we found three women standing in the tunnel, their weapons drawn.
I froze, but Rat kept moving toward them.
“Who is this?” a tall woman with tightly-braided hair asked, pointing her golden spear at my chest.
“He’s new,” Rat replied breathlessly. “Not one of Kage’s.”
“Why is he here?” Her liquid brown eyes tracked distrustfully across me, seeming to linger around my sternum. Her frown deepened.
Rat scratched behind his ear. “The same reason you are, T’laya.”
She clicked her tongue, but moved to the side of the tunnel. Rat slunk between the women, each one several inches taller than him, his eyes lingering on their weapons.
I mimicked his wariness as I too passed between them, standing like sentinels to either side, regarding me coldly.
We came to a point where the path split, curving away to the left and right. Rat circled around to the left, then stopped at a bare patch of wall. He closed his eyes and pressed a hand against the wall, and a humming vibration shook the passage.
Like a curtain being drawn to the sides, the wall opened, revealing a chamber completely cut off from the rest of the zone. Three men, all ragged and filthy—obviously part of Kage’s gang—brandished weapons, then backed down at the sight of Rat.
An ogre of a man whose beard hung nearly to his belly set the butt of his massive two-handed axe on the ground and rested his hands on the head. He leered at the three women, showing off a mouthful of crooked, stained teeth, but his expression fell when he noticed me.
“You didn’t say nothing about another man,” he said gruffly. “Does Kage—”
“Would I be here if our master didn’t will it?” Rat wheezed. “Kage grows impatient for the relic. This man is a potent Sentry in service to a powerful highblood. Kage has instructed that he be allowed to see the shrine along with T’laya and her womenfolk.”
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The burly guard didn’t seem convinced, eyeing us skeptically.
“Do you ever wish to leave here, you bloodless oaf?” Rat snapped, shoeing the three guards off of a huge carving that took up most of the floor.
The man thought about this for a moment, then deferred to Rat and moved aside. Rat waved us in, gesturing to the floor.
My eyes were drawn past it, however, to what could only be the relic so many had killed and died for.
My immediate reaction was…disappointment.
The garment, which hung suspended within a golden beam of light, was best described as armored robes. They were thick and bulky, the fabric a muted grayish brown, with dark leather pauldrons, vambraces, and a gorget. Runes were embroidered into the seams and carved along the edges of the leather armor pieces.
Putting the dated style aside, the relic armor seemed to have been made for an ogre rather than man.
‘Oh, I don’t know. It seems rather fitting,’ Regis said thoughtfully. ‘A macho dress for a macho princess.’
Something about the way the aether was moving in the room caught my eye, and I looked closer. A subtle amethyst glow of aether infused the armor.
I think so, I confirmed, enraptured by the way aether seemed to swirl around the armor, drawn to it from throughout the zone. That’s why the atmospheric aether is so much thicker here.
T’laya crossed in front of me, breaking the relic’s spell. She kneeled down over the glyph, her fingers tracing the deep grooves in the stone floor.
The glyph was a complex series of runes, carefully arranged into concentric circles. It was ingenious, like painting a picture with words, but it was an untraditional design. I couldn’t help but think that even a professor of djinn runes would struggle to divine the exact meaning. This was made more complicated because parts had been worn away or damaged over time, and the grooves were stained reddish brown from all the blood that had been spilled here.
At the head of the glyph, it merged into a second, smaller symbol, where the suit of armor hovered within its protective barrier.
I bent down for a closer look, my fingers tracing the carved lines.
“Light guide me…” one of the ascender women breathed in wonder as she took in the shrine.
Rat sniffed. “What do you make of it?”
‘No wonder no one has figured out how to get the thing. That glyph is a mess,’ Regis said helpfully.
I reread the same section for the third time, struggling with the construction of the runes.
“It begins here,” Rat said, pointing to a break in the concentric circles near the golden light and the relic. “Perhaps it would help if you read from beginning to end.”
I moved to where he had indicated and began to translate with Regis’s aid.
‘That’s a lot of blood for a race of pacifists,’ Regis thought.
He was right. When Kage and Rat had revealed the reason for the violence infesting this zone, I had expected to discover that they were fools and had misread the djinn’s instructions, but the glyph was thick with references to blood.
‘…the blood of one who…what’s that rune say?’
I don’t recognize it, I admitted. Maybe it’s been damaged.
‘…of one who something something blood of our blood, may…be burdened? That doesn’t make any sense…’
T’laya pointed out the same rune we had struggled with, asking if anyone could read it, but they couldn’t.
My attention turned briefly to the three guards pressed against the wall. Each one was bigger—‘and dumber,’ Regis added—than just about any other ascenders I had seen, and I understood why Kage had chosen them to stand guard. Men like that showed no curiosity, and would be unlikely to think too deeply about the puzzle they stood upon, despite it being the key to a fortune they couldn’t even comprehend.
“The ancient mages were a people of peace,” I said, half to myself. “Their dedication to this ideal was so great that they didn’t defend themselves even when another race destroyed them. Instead, they built the Relictombs to keep their knowledge alive. They didn’t forge weapons or armor. That’s why this relic was locked away.” I pointed out a piece of the glyph. “They even call it ‘a shrine to futility.’”
“But the relic is also the key to leave,” Rat pointed out, picking at the whiskers on his chin. “Are you suggesting this is a dead end?” A sense of nerves settled over him. “That just can’t be…”
T’laya spat on the ground. “There is a way. There is always a way in the Relictombs.”
I returned my attention to the glyph, muttering to myself as I worked around it in a circle, translating it again from scratch. “Blood of our blood…burdened by purpose…one who…”
My brows furrowed as I reread the glyphs a few more times, focusing more on the seemingly contradictory portion of runes and piecing together what they meant.
I held in the urge to sigh at my revelation. Things were never easy.
Letting out a laugh, I got up to my feet. “I-I think I got it.”
Rat approached me, his eyes narrowing at the glyphs before giving me a guarded look. “What did you find, Grey?”
My mouth opened on its own in excitement. “The blood isn’t—”
Catching myself, I let out a cough.
I took a deep breath to slow myself. “It’s just that…I…the runes call for a certain lineage’s blood…”
Seeing my reaction, Rat softened, bowing slightly. “I apologize, Grey. Many times over the last year has someone claimed to understand the runes, but it’s never been true. I didn’t mean to discount you, I am just…wary.”
I nodded and let a smile slowly creep over my face. “It needs someone of…” Then I froze, letting my mouth hang open.
“Of what, Grey?” Rat snapped, taking a step closer to me, his expression a mixture of anticipation and frustration.
“Vritra, I’m Alacrya’s worst servant,” I moaned, looking at him in dread. “I’ve nearly forgotten about Lady Caera. Do you think she’s okay? I…I’m willing to tell you how to get the relic, but we need to make sure she is safe first.”
Rat shook his head. T’laya and her companions had stopped what they were doing and were watching me distrustfully. The three guards exchanged confused looks.
“It will be easier to free her from Kage after we’ve claimed the relic. Then we’ll have the upper hand,” Rat insisted. “Once we know how to leave…”
The ogre of an ascender took a heavy step forward and pointed his axe at Rat. “Kage didn’t send you this time, did he, Rat? You lied!”
Rat flinched away from the spittle that flew from the huge ascender’s lips. Before the man could come after us, however, a golden spear burst through his neck. The other two fell in the same breath, similarly impaled as T’laya and her companions ran them through.
The tall woman ripped her spear from the dead man’s neck and pointed it at me. “Explain.”
“The blood has to…to…” I swallowed heavily. “The blood needs to be from someone of asuran descent,” I finished in a rush.
T’laya’s spear pressed against my throat. “Foolishness. Lies. That is impossible.”
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“It’s not,” I hissed. “‘Spill the blood of one who has harmed the blood of our blood.’ The asuras…the asuras were the enemy of the ancient mages…”
T’laya’s hard eyes seemed to bore into mine as she searched them for the truth. After a long few seconds, she cursed and stepped back, lowering her spear. “Then we truly are doomed to rot here forever.”
I rubbed at my throat, where a bead of blood was dripping down my skin. The wound was already healed, but no one seemed to notice.
Rat was staring at me intently. I grimaced. His eyes narrowed. “What is it, Grey?”
I hesitated until T’laya let out an angry huff, then said, “Lady Caera…she is of Highblood Denoir, but not by birth. She is Vritra-blooded.”
Rat’s eyes flashed, his gaze so intense that I could feel it like a physical presence, then realized there was some physical sensation, like kneading fingers working through my brain. Rat’s face split into a wide, satisfied grin, and he raised a hand.
My body simply stopped responding. Somewhere deep down in my consciousness I could feel a nearly-imperceptible hum that was more in my bones than my ears. A sound-attribute spell, directly attacking my nervous system to paralyze me. My back was to the others, but I was sure they were affected just the same.
‘It’s a regalia,’ Regis said in realization. ‘Some kind of sound-based paralysis spell. It’s pretty strong.’
That was true. The appropriate mana shielding would prevent it from working, but the way it directly attacked the nervous system made it very effective. Physical strength made no difference in my ability to counter it.
Rat’s beady black eyes twitched as he watched me, his hands clenched together in front of his chest. “You’re dangerously clever,” he said, licking his lips. “The ruse with the girl…Kage was a fool to make assumptions so quickly. I knew right away you weren’t just some Sentry hiding his mana signature.”
He tapped his head. “Another of my many very useful runes. I can hear the flow of your blood, the beating of your heart, the air whooshing through your lungs. I can tell when someone is lying. And since I know you were telling the truth just now, thankfully there is no more need for this charade on either of our parts. It has been an interesting duel—who can pretend to be more weak and pathetic—but I’m tired of it. Thank you, Grey, for your assistance.”
‘Art, what should I do? I—’
I told Regis what I needed from him, and he lapsed into silence.
With a lazy grin, Rat drew a long curved dagger from his belt and walked up to me. He kept eye contact as he drew the blade across my throat, and I could distantly feel the warmth of my blood spilling down my front.
My body collapsed to the ground, and Rat leaned over me. Although I couldn’t move, I could still feel it as the dagger plunged into my side, my back, and finally my heart. My eyes fluttered closed, and my breath stilled.
Blood pooled under the golden-eyed ascender’s body as he slumped lifelessly.
“Looks like you were of use after all.” I wiped the blade with the sleeve of Grey’s arm before standing up and turning to face T’laya.
The tall, proud ascender stood motionless, her companions flanking her. The rest of her people would fall quickly without these three, I was sure. I waved my dagger in front of T’laya’s bloodshot eyes. Although she couldn’t move, I could tell from the steady rhythm of her heartbeat that she already knew what was about to happen.
The sonic stasis spell was beginning to wear on me, so I didn’t take the time to savor their deaths the way I would have liked. Once she lay dead next to her companions, I released my spell and took a weary, joyful breath.
“One last sacrifice before the end,” I said, holding my dagger up to the relic like a toast.
Channeling mana into one of my lesser runes, I pressed my hand to the ground. “Kage. Bring her.”
If that degenerate had followed my instructions, he would already be nearby with the highblood. There was no way to be entirely sure that Grey could solve the problem of the relic, but I had sensed the unshakable confidence he held in himself.
It had been a genuine surprise to learn the woman’s secret. Although he’d left the most important part unsaid, I had heard the subtle variations of his tone that gave it away. Not only was Lady Caera Vritra-blooded, but her blood had also manifested. Without Grey’s assistance, I might have committed the error of piercing her core and giving her to Kage. Knowing that she carried Vritra blood, though…that changed things.
Kage arrived a minute or two later, dragging Lady Caera behind him. Her jaw clenched when she caught sight of her companion’s body on the floor. “Was killing him really necessary?”
“Lady Caera of Highblood Denoir,” I said, giving her a slight bow. Her mouth snapped shut. “Blood of the Vritra.” Her mouth formed into a tight line, and her face paled. I grinned with mirth at the sight. Moving to stand just in front of her, I tweaked the chains that held her wrists. “Do you have any idea how useful mana canceling restraints are on an ascent? And these are particularly high-level variations. You just never know when you’ll need to disable an enemy—or ally—when there are accolades to be claimed.”
Her chin lifted, emphasizing how she looked down on me. “If you know my blood, then you wouldn’t dare lay a finger on me…”
Chuckling, I reached out and fumbled around her neck for the artifact I knew must be there. When my hand wrapped around the thin chain, I gave it a sharp jerk, tearing it off her neck.
Horns appeared from the sides of her head, sweeping forward and up, with secondary prongs pointing back, framing her head like a black laurel. I rang a finger along the hard, smooth surface, momentarily struck by them. She quivered in suppressed rage but didn’t pull away. Instead, she spoke with forced calm, her scarlet eyes narrowed into two bloody daggers.
“When we leave here, I will have both a living relic and a Vritra-blood. Imagine it, Lady Caera. I arrive with a tale of discovering you in this convergence zone, half dead, betrayed by your most faithful servant…You wouldn’t be the same, of course, not after everything you’ve seen, but you are alive. And with the wealth acquired from the relic, perhaps the Denoirs would even find me to be a suitable husband for your shattered self?” I gave her a mocking smile. “In a single day, I will become the most famous ascender in Alacrya. I bet I’ll even get an audience with the High Sovereign. Perhaps, for the relic-finder, he would deign to marry us himself?” My smile faltered as I had a curious thought. “Why did you do it? Why hide this beautiful gift?”
Those deadly scarlet eyes only glared back at me.
“Well, enough time for such intimate conversation later. For now…” Tugging on the horn, I dragged the struggling woman across the zone—making sure she had to step over the body of her dead companion on the way—and kicked the back of her leg so she fell to her knees.
Wrenching her hands up by the manacles constraining them, I drew a bloody line across her palm with my dagger, then shoved her to the ground, where her bleeding hand slammed into the carved stone of the floor, smearing across the glyph.
To my disappointment, she hadn’t so much as gasped in pain, but that was a trifling thought compared to what was about to unfold.
Letting out a put upon sigh, I felt some of my good mood slip away. “I was really hoping I could have both my prizes, but alas. We do not always get everything we hope for, do we, m’lady?”
Once again taking her by the horn, I spun Lady Caera to face me, doing her the honor of not slitting her throat from behind. Her eyes focused on something behind me, widening, and a smile spread over her face instead of the terror I should have seen.
Turning slowly, I found Grey on his feet, his wounds healed, his skin unblemished by my blade. But I knew I had stabbed him…cut his throat, pierced his heart…the blood still soaking his clothes proved I had!
Kage cursed and drew his scimitar, but he did not get the chance to attack. A black shadow burst out of Grey’s body, slamming Kage to the ground. I hardly noticed, unable to look away from Grey’s golden eyes.
It all made sense now: that impossible confidence the man couldn’t hide. Even now I couldn’t sense his mana at all. Not because he was some odd little Sentry, capable of masking his presence…no. It was because he was just that much stronger than me…but I’d taken down bigger, stronger, harder bastards than me before.
My core ached as I pushed mana into my regalia again, casting sonic stasis. A low hum of sound vibrated out from me, the exact frequency required to interrupt the nervous system, preventing all movement.
The shadow wolf froze in place, its jaws hanging over Kage’s face, drool dripping off massive teeth. Kage was paralyzed as well, on his back under the creature, his mouth open in a howl more fear than battle-cry. Behind me, I heard Lady Caera’s breath stop in her lungs.
The golden-eyed ascender was motionless. I smirked and twirled my dagger for him to see.
“Do I need to sever your head from your neck to ensure you don’t get back up again? Perhaps, after I’ve done that, I’ll burn it just to be safe.”
Impossibly, he shook his head. “I’d rather you don’t.”
Although I could see the certainty of my own death blazing within his eyes, I refused to go down without a fight. Spinning, I lunged for Lady Caera. If I could use her as a hostage, then—
Then he was next to me, the handle of a jagged amethyst dagger glowing between his fingers, the blade in my belly. In my core. My magic released with a burst of angry static that made my ears ring. I could hear the woman’s steady breathing, and Kage’s growling as the beast pinned him to the floor.
The strength left my body as I sank to the ground at Grey’s feet. My blood flowed freely, filling the grooves of the glyph.
Above me, the golden light began to flicker. With the last piece of my strength, I stretched to see the relic.
The barrier, so long impenetrable, faded away.