The Beginning After The End - Chapter 290
Chapter 290: The Mirror Room
My mind reeled in confusion as I stepped through the portal and into the next zone. A figure lunged from my left and I jerked my hands up to deflect the blow, but nothing happened. Movement from the corner of my eye caused me to turn sharply, expecting a flanking attack, but no attack came from that direction either.
‘Jumping at shadows now, eh Princess?’ Regis chuckled in my mind. ‘Look.’
“Who—who are they?”
All around, people looked back at me through rectangular windows, each wearing a look of anguish, their faces wet with tears, twisted with rage, or contorted into soundless screams. Some sat still, though most were in the midst of manic fits, gesticulating wildly, striking and scratching at themselves or the ground, like wards in an asylum.
Before I could investigate further, Kalon and Ezra were stumbling into me, Riah between them.
“What the hell?” Ezra said, flinching back from me and from the figures within the windows.
At the center of the room there was a square fountain, six feet to a side and surrounded by benches. “There,” I said, pointing to a bench. “Set her down there.”
The brothers carried their family friend across the room, a steady stream of her blood running from the severed wreckage of her foot, spattering darkly across the marble floor.
Ada came next, her steps halting, her eyes glassy. “Is—is this the sanctuary?” She gazed at one of the nearby figures, her brows knitting in confusion. She actually leaned toward it and squinted to try and focus on it, as if she didn’t quite believe her own eyes.
The figure, a very portly man who wore only linen pants, a pair of steel boots, and spiked gauntlets, didn’t look back, but kneeled on all fours, hammering one massive gauntlet into the ground again and again and again.
Haedrig, the last in, set a hand gently on her shoulder and guided her past me, toward the fountain at the center of the room. “No, this isn’t a sanctuary room,” he said, his voice low and ominous.
Kalon was wrapping Riah’s stub with bandages from his dimension ring while Ezra looked on, helplessly fidgeting with his spear. He snapped around when Haedrig spoke.
“What do you mean this isn’t the sanctuary room? It”—he glanced around and flinched again, as if seeing the room for the first time—“has to be…”
Haedrig guided Ada to the benches and encouraged her to sit down before turning back to Ezra. “It clearly isn’t, and after that first zone you’d have to be a fool to think that we’d end up anywhere so expected as a sanctuary room.”
Ezra glared petulantly at Haedrig, but the mossy-haired veteran seemed entirely unconcerned. They held one another’s eyes for a long moment before Ezra huffed and turned away, this time looking to his sister.
I turned my attention back to the room. It was only about fifteen feet wide and eight feet tall, making it feel very low and claustrophobic after the enormity of the last zone.
Though the area near the fountain was brightly lit by orbs of light that hung down over the running water, the room faded into shadow beyond the light’s edge, making it difficult to tell how long the room was. The light reflecting off the many windows showing us the tortured figures made it feel as though the room stretched on forever.
‘Not windows,’ Regis thought, ‘mirrors. Look.’
Regis was right. As I approached the nearest mirror, I could see the room reflected within it, though, of course, the man in the mirror was not me, nor did he exist outside of that reflection. He was an older man with a thick gray beard. He sat cross legged, staring unblinkingly back out at me, his lips moving ceaselessly.
I leaned forward, cocking my head so my ear was nearly pressed against the mirror, and I realized I could hear the faint whisper of a voice, though I could not make out the words.
“Well,” Kalon said, drawing my attention back to the others, “Riah is sleeping. She’s lost a lot of blood, but that poultice you gave her saved her life, Ada. If we can get out of here quick enough, she’ll be okay.”
Kalon stepped up to a mirror near the fountain. The man within it wore a helm topped by sharp, onyx-black horns like scimitars, giving him the appearance of a Vritra. He stood with his arms crossed and a haughty sneer smeared across his face. Based on his armor—black leather and blackened steel plates with jet runes inlaid throughout—he was an ascender, and a wealthy one at that.
“They’re all ascenders,” Haedrig said, as if he’d read my mind.
“Look at the design and material of their clothes and armor,” Kalon pointed out. “Especially the horns. It’s been out of favor to wear horned helms for, what, several decades? They’ve been trapped here for quite awhile, haven’t they?”
No one answered, though a collective chill ran through the group as we all considered being trapped in this room for eternity.
“Why in Vritra’s name are we here?” Ezra said, moving to stand by Kalon. “This is a prelim. It’s supposed to be over!” The broad-shouldered young man turned toward me. “You! I don’t know how, but this is your fault, isn’t it?!”
“Enough,” Kalon said quietly. “Whyever we’re here, it’s just another test. This is a puzzle zone. We need to start looking for clues that’ll help us solve the room and move on.”
Ada’s discouraged expression disappeared as she got up to her feet, forcing a smile for us to see. “That’s right! We can do this! For—” Ada glanced at the sleeping Riah, her bandages already spotted through with blood. “For Riah!”
The first-time ascender’s bravery seemed to douse Ezra’s hot head, and he gave his sister a side-hug, wincing as he did so.
“What about you?” I asked him. “How badly were you hurt?”
“It’s nothing,” he said, his chin up, his gaze haughty. “I’ll be fine.”
Shaking my head, I turned away and began examining the mirrors, one by one, for any hint or clue about how to proceed.
Kalon stepped up beside me. “That was an impressive spell you used to teleport back there.”
“Thanks,” I said simply.
“I’ll admit, I wasn’t the best student at academy,” Kalon went on, “and I was particularly bad at ancient runes—I just never really understood the point, you know? I always knew I was going to be an ascender, and ascenders don’t fight each other.”
I turned to Kalon, meeting his eye. “What are you getting at?”
He raised his hands and smiled warmly, but I could see the tension in the way he held himself and the way his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Just making conversation, Grey—and, thinking about that spell. I’ve never seen anything like it. We studied all kinds of runes at the academy—making it more difficult increases the prestige, I guess.
“I was curious”—he paused, glancing up the hall toward his brother and sister—“if I could see your…What is it you have? An emblem? It seems too powerful for a crest.” When I didn’t immediately answer, Kalon broke into a surprised grin. “It’s not a regalia, surely? Is that why you don’t have your runes displayed? Who are you?”
“Listen,” I said, “there’ll be plenty of time for war stories when we’re out of here, okay? For now, let’s just figure out this puzzle room.”
Kalon shook his head and patted me on the shoulder. “I’ll figure you out yet, Grey.” He turned to walk up the hall, following his siblings, then stopped. “Oh, and sorry about Ezra. Don’t mind him, he’s just protective of the girls.”
‘And an imbecile,’ Regis said in my mind.
I smiled and turned back to the mirrors, focusing again on the task at hand.
‘Guesses here?’ Regis asked after we’d looked over a dozen or more of the reflections. ‘What are we looking for, Arthur?’
If everyone here is an ascender, then they’ve presumably been trapped somehow. Maybe by touching the mirrors?
‘Okay, so don’t touch the mirrors, check. But how do we get out of here?’
I stopped when one of the figures we passed by waved wildly with both arms, clearly trying to get my attention. He was a bearded man who also had a horned helm with locks of wavy brown hair that flowed down past his chin. His eyes were deeply sunken and ringed with shadows, but he perked up when I stopped.
They can see us, I thought, realization washing over me.
The trapped ascender pressed his hand to the inside of the mirror, gesturing for me to do the same. When I didn’t immediately respond, he grinned and nodded, then gestured again more urgently.
‘It’s a trap, you know it is. What if you get sucked in after touching that mirror? What if he gets loose and tries to kill everyone else?’
“Can you hear me?” I asked out loud, pointing at the mirror. The man shook his head and gestured again at his hand pressed against the inside of the pane. I shook my head back.
The man’s face fell, and when he looked back up there was such a pure and malevolent hatred in his eyes that I took a step back from the mirror. He began shouting, even going as far as taking off his helmet and using it as a pickaxe to try and break his way out.
‘Sheesh…someone woke up on the wrong side of the mirror,’ Regis said, laughing at his own joke.
Ignoring Regis, I moved on from the enraged ascender.
After a few more minutes of fruitlessly examining the mirrors, now conscious that the inhabitants were watching me as closely as I was them, Ada called out.
“It’s…it’s me!” Ada said, her voice carrying down the hall, which seemed to be much longer than it had at first appeared. Ada was standing in front of a mirror perhaps twenty feet away, and from where I stood I could just see the figure within.
The mirror-Ada waved and smiled warmly, a gesture the real Ada immediately returned. Then, moving identically so it was almost as if one was genuinely a reflection of the other, both raised their hands and made as if to press them against the glassy pane.
“Ada,” I shouted, “stop! Don’t touch the—” Ada’s right hand pressed against the mirror, as did the reflection’s, and purple energy—aetheric essence—rose like steam from Ada’s skin, then moved like wind-blown mist along her body until it was absorbed into the mirror.
Using God Step, I was at her side in an instant, but even that was too late. Her body slumped into my arms, and I watched in horror as blackish-purple energy from the mirror oozed across her and was absorbed into her skin.
Weariness settled over me like a warm blanket. Using God Step twice in such a short time had apparently taken a toll on me. I would have to grow much stronger before I could use aether in such a way more consistently. In the meantime, at least I could use Burst Step now without tearing my body apart.
Heavy footsteps from behind me announced Kalon and Ezra’s approach. I glanced from the unconscious Ada in my arms to the mirror, and my stomach lurched. Ada—the real Ada—seemed to be banging on the inside of the mirror with her fist, practically blind with panic and the tears that streamed down her face and dripped from her chin.
Even though I couldn’t hear her, her words were clear. “Please,” she said. “Please.”
“What happened?” Ezra snapped, leaning down over his sister’s prone form and placing his hand on hers. “Ada? Ada!”
As I opened my mouth to explain, Ada’s eyes fluttered open, causing us all to recoil in surprise; they were a deep, dark, glowing violet.
Kalon looked from the purple-eyed Ada to the mirror where the crying, frantic Ada was still screaming, “Please, please!” The eldest sibling’s eyes were bloodshot as he tried to muster every ounce of composure he had left, his hand reaching closer toward the mirror.
“Stop!” I released a pulse of aetheric intent, causing everyone—Haedrig had joined us only a moment before—to freeze in place. “Touching the mirror is what caused this. I think…” I paused, carefully considering how best to explain what I saw. “I think that Ada was drawn into the mirror, and that something came out of the mirror to inhabit her body.”
Ezra, seizing on this thought, grabbed Ada’s hand and pulled her toward the mirror. “Then we just make them switch back!”
I reached for Ezra’s arm, but Kalon stopped me. “Let him try.”
Before I could argue, Ezra—over the terrified objections of the purple-eyed Ada—had pressed her hand against the glass. On the other side, our Ada mirrored the gesture.
“Please,” Ada said, “Let go of me, Ezra. You’re hurting me.” A single large tear welled up within those otherworldly eyes. “Please.”
Ezra let go and stepped away, grimacing. He looked from Ada to Kalon and back, anguish written across his face. In the mirror, the image of Ada had fallen onto her knees, her hands over her face, her entire body wracked by sobs.
“How do we know,” Kalon said, speaking deliberately as tears welled up in his eyes, “that the Ada in the mirror is the real Ada? What if it’s some kind of trick—or trap?”
“The glowing purple eyes didn’t give it away?” I asked, unable to keep the annoyance out of my voice. Kalon didn’t respond, but Ezra stepped toward me aggressively, his fists clenched and his eyes full of dark fire.
I whipped my head around and met his gaze, a near-palpable intent leaking out of me. “Don’t do anything you’re going to regret, kid.”
Ezra halted and gnashed his teeth, his fists still raised in wary defiance.
“This isn’t the time to be fighting amongst ourselves,” I added gently, letting out a sigh.
Ezra held my eyes for a long moment, breathing hard. Then he turned suddenly and pressed his hand to the glass of Ada’s mirror prison.
Though I couldn’t sense any change, it was clear that something was happening to Ezra. His entire body tensed, and, when he turned back to look at Kalon, his face was pale and his eyes shined with tears.
“Ezra!” Kalon gasped.
“I can hear her,” Ezra said, his voice choked with emotion. “When I touch the mirror, I can hear Ada. She sounds so scared…”
Following his brother’s lead, Kalon pressed his palm against the mirror’s surface. Immediately Kalon’s expression darkened. He didn’t have to say anything for me to know that he, too, could hear her cries.
Wanting to give the brothers a moment of privacy while they shared their sister’s suffering, I turned to Haedrig, but he was nowhere to be seen. I looked toward the fountain, where Riah lay sleeping, but he wasn’t there. Neither could I see him in the dim light at the edges of the room.
A jolt of fear ran through me, and I began searching the nearby mirrors for any sign of him.
I passed a wispy haired young woman who lay naked on the floor, rolling back and forth with her hands stretched out over her head like a child playing in the grass; a figure in bulky armor whose face had been tattooed until only the shocking blue eyes were untouched; and a man who wore robes like a monk, but who had the mindless, murderous look of a mana beast.
Haedrig wasn’t there.
I glanced back at the others; Kalon and Ezra each still had one hand pressed against Ada’s mirror and the other set upon each other’s shoulder. In the mirror, Ada pressed her hands to theirs.
The purple-eyed Ada was crawling unnoticed away from them, toward the fountain next to which Riah slept. There was something alien and malevolent in the way Ada moved, and her glowing eyes narrowed into a glare as she caught me watching her. I stepped toward her, but stopped when the sound of shattered glass filled the room.
“Haedrig?” I called into the darkness, the creature masquerading as Ada momentarily forgotten.
“Fine, I’m fine,” Haedrig said, walking toward me out of the gloom, his sword drawn.
Instinctively, I drew the white dagger I’d claimed from the lair of the giant millipede. Haedrig’s eyes seemed almost drawn to the weapon as his gaze fixated on the white blade. With a start, he seemed to realize that his own blade was out, and he immediately sheathed it within his dimension ring.
“I’m sorry if I startled you, Grey,” he said, his voice steady, his hands out to his sides to show that he was not armed. “I found my own image in a mirror farther down the hall, and—well, it may have been a bit reckless, but—I was taken by an instinct, and I smashed it.”
‘Oh, yeah, great idea, let’s just smash up the cursed mirror-prisons, I’m sure nothing bad will happen,’ Regis grumbled.
“That was—” I wasn’t sure whether to praise Haedrig for his bravery or admonish him for his thoughtlessness, but I was saved the trouble of finishing my sentence when Haedrig’s eyes went wide and he yelled, “Ada!”
Turning, already sure what I would see, I prepared to Burst Step to the fountain, where I knew I would find the false-Ada hunkered over Riah’s unconscious form.
You fool, Arthur! I chided myself. I shouldn’t have taken my eyes off her.
I activated Burst Step, intending to move almost instantly to the edge of the fountain, then leap the remaining distance and tackle Ada. Unfortunately, Kalon moved as well, darting toward Ada and stepping directly into my path.
I struck the eldest Granbehl sibling shoulder-to-shoulder, causing him to tumble head over heels through the air. Unable to maintain my footing or my trajectory, I found myself veering headlong directly toward one of the mirrors with no way to stop my momentum.
Twisting, I slammed through the mirror shoulder first, finding myself suddenly outside of the hall of mirrors. For a sickening moment, I saw empty blackness stretch out below me, but I was able to grab onto the frame of the mirror despite the jagged edges of the remaining glass biting into my fingers.
‘Don’t look down,’ Regis urged.
I looked down.
Blackness. Infinite blackness.
The only thing to break up the nothingness was the bright rectangle that looked into the mirror room, a window floating in the abyss. I was dangling from the frame, blood beginning to seep down my hands and forearms from the cuts on my fingers.
I tried to pull myself up and back through the mirror, but a cold lethargy was seeping through my muscles. My mind was foggy, my limbs weak and unresponsive. I couldn’t focus…
‘Arthur!’ Regis yelled in my head, his voice cutting through the mist like the beam of a lighthouse. I heaved, feeling the glass scrape the bones of my fingers, but I was able to get one elbow over the lip of the mirror.
Then Haedrig appeared above me, and he was hauling me up by my cloak, half choking me in the process. My strength came roaring back as soon as I was back on the right side of the mirror, and I tore free of his grasp the moment I had my feet under me, sprinting toward Ezra and Ada, who were scuffling over Riah’s prone form.
Ezra had wrapped both his arms around Ada’s body, pinning her own arms to her sides, but she was twisting and jerking wildly within his grip. She threw her head back, smashing her brother’s nose and almost slipping free.
I tackled them, knocking both Granbehl siblings to the ground, then helped Ezra to pin Ada. Her purple eyes blazed with light and fury and she kicked, scratched, and bit at us. When she couldn’t hurt us, she began slamming her head onto the ground with a hollow thud.
Kalon appeared, throwing himself onto the pile and helping to hold her still and keep her from hurting herself. “Ada, stop! Please…” His voice cracked as he pleaded with the creature controlling Ada’s body.
Regis, I need you to go in there and see what is inhabiting her body. I wasn’t sure it would even work, but I thought that if Regis could go into Sylvie’s stone, perhaps he could inhabit Ada’s body as well.
‘Gross. You want me to go into someone else’s body? What if—’ I could sense the revulsion leaking out from Regis, but there wasn’t time to argue.
Just do it. Now!
The shadow wolf leapt from my body, paced once around our roiling pile, then hesitantly dissolved into Ada. At first, nothing happened. Then the struggling lessened, and Ada went limp, though her eyes still blazed with violet light.
Kalon, Ezra, and I held our positions, waiting to see if Ada would resume struggling. My eyes darted around the room, taking in the scene. The figures in the mirrors all around us had stopped their wild gesticulations; every single one now stood still, their eyes locked onto the four of us lying on the floor in a heap. The broken mirror now looked out onto black nothingness, like an empty eye socket.
Haedrig stood over us, though he wasn’t looking toward our group. His gaze was turned toward the bench where Riah lay, quiet and motionless. The bandage on her leg had been partially unwrapped, revealing the gory, gnawed stump beneath. Blood no longer flowed from the wound.
Riah’s face was pale, locked in an expression of fear and agony. Though her glassy eyes still stared up at the low ceiling, I knew they no longer saw.
Riah was dead.
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