The Beginning After The End - Chapter 293
Chapter 293: Devil’s Deal
If the pyramid was difficult to piece together, the last shape proved nearly impossible. It wasn’t as simple as a flat circle, of course, but thinking of life as a circle had led me to the shape I was now trying to construct.
During my life as King Grey, I had studied a wide variety of subjects, including symbology. The “regular polyhedra” were an oft discussed topic in such studies, as the ancient philosophers of my previous world had spent a lot of time discussing their existence and meaning.
Which is why I found myself trying over and over to build a perfect regular dodecahedron from hundreds of irregular puzzle pieces. The dodecahedron represented a fifth element, the binding that held the universe together, and it was considered the mediation between finite and infinite.
I couldn’t think of any better geometric symbol to represent the future.
It was just too bad that I couldn’t figure out how to make the damn thing.
I’d lost track of how long we’d been in the mirror room. Our meager rations had run out days ago, even though I hardly ate any of my own and the others rationed carefully. If it wasn’t for the water I’d brought, Kalon, Ezra, and Haedrig would have been out of that too, since drinking the salty fountain water would’ve caused them to die of dehydration even faster.
On the bright side, the phantom in Ada’s body seemed to sustain itself, requiring no food or water. Though I worried about the condition of her body when we found a way to return her to it, for now she seemed to be holding up fine.
My eyes fluttered open as I left the realm within the keystone after yet another fruitless attempt to solve the spherical puzzle. I was met with the sound of shouting.
“—just wait around anymore! We have to try it. For all we know, Grey is just waiting for us to die! After all, that freak doesn’t need food or water like we do—”
“—have no idea what will happen if you do what he’s asking—”
“—least we’d be doing something, rather than just sitting around waiting to die—”
“—a trap, making things even worse!”
Kalon and Ezra were standing nearly chest to chest, yelling into each other’s faces. Ezra looked diminished somehow. He had lost a few pounds from lack of food, but there was something else. He had shrunk in on himself, losing his bravado as he withered away into someone weak and scared.
Haedrig was lying on one of the benches, apparently doing his best to stay out of the family conflict.
I sighed and got up.
Regis, noticing my movement, said, ‘They’ve been going at it like this for about ten minutes. The kid’s been talking to one of the reflections and thinks it can help us get out of here.’
What the hell does he think I’m trying to do?
Taking a deep breath, I stepped into the siblings’ argument. “Both of you, take a step back and let’s talk about this.”
Ezra looked at me with purest loathing, practically spitting the words, “Oh, fuck you!”
I repressed the growing desire to cuff him like the brat that he was, but held back. I knew it would just make things worse.
“I’ll handle this,” Kalon said, his tone uncharacteristically brusque.
I raised my hands in a gesture of peace. “I’d like to hear what Ezra has to say.”
Ezra looked at me warily, clearly not sure whether to believe me or not. His eagerness for action won out, however, and he shouldered past his brother and walked toward one of the mirrors, his heavy boots thunking dully on the stone floor.
“Here,” he said, gesturing for me to look at the mirror, which contained the ascender with the tall onyx horns on his helmet. The man stood straight with his arms crossed, just as he had when we entered. “This is Mythelias, once an ascender. He knows how to escape this place.”
I inspected the reflection again, taking in the little details. He was about my height, though thinner, and he held himself like a soldier as he stared back at me seriously. His skin was incredibly pale, making his coal-black eyes stand out like empty voids in his sharp face. A single lock of grey hair had escaped his helmet, hanging down the side of his cheek.
The black leather-and-plate armor looked light and flexible—the armor of a skirmisher. It seemed likely that it was magical; the shining jet runes inlaid in the steel plates weren’t just decorative. The helm was particularly impressive. The long onyx horns extended over two feet from the top of the helmet, making him look even taller and thinner than he already was.
My eyes caught on something. A small detail, just the curved edge that outlined the horns. It wasn’t a joint, fastening the horn to the helm; it was a hole, allowing the horns to pass through the helm.
The man was a Vritra, or at least of Vritra blood.
“What exactly is Mythelias’s plan?” I asked, not immediately pointing out my discovery to the others. It probably wouldn’t mean the same thing to them, anyway.
Something in my tone must have given away my incredulity about whatever this plan was, because Ezra gave me another wary look again before continuing. “He says he knows how to use aether, and he also knows how he can escape the mirror. He’s seen it done.”
The young ascender hesitated, so I pressed him to go on.
“He—he said that the spirits from the mirror can inhabit bodies. Dead bodies.” Ezra glanced down the hall, to where Riah’s remains now lay. We’d been forced to relocate her away from the bench after the first few days due to the smell.
Kalon, who had been standing behind Ezra, listening and looking thunderous, said, “There is no way in hell we’re giving Riah’s body to this liar.”
“And how,” I said loudly, cutting their argument off before it could begin again, “does getting this ascender out of his mirror help us leave the zone?”
Glaring at his brother like he wanted nothing more than to stab him, Ezra said, “He knows how to use aether. He can’t tell me how to escape, but he can show us if we set him free.”
“He’s lying, of course,” Haedrig said suddenly, not bothering to get up from his bench. “I’ve spoken to some of the trapped souls here as well, and they’ve promised me all kinds of things if only I’d help them escape.”
Ezra turned on him, snarling like a cornered woadcat. “He’s Vritra-blooded! One of the Sovereigns’ own. Who the hell are you to question his honor?”
Haedrig rolled his eyes, but Kalon started, now looking unsure. His gaze drifted to the mirror, taking in the horns, the man’s features, then shaking his head. “We can’t be sure, brother.”
Ezra looked his brother in the eye and spit at his feet before shouldering past him. “I don’t care what any of you say, I’m doing this.”
Kalon snapped. The elder Granbehl sibling grabbed his brother from behind, pulling him into a chokehold and then slamming him to the ground. The false Ada cackled through her gag, her eyes wide and ecstatic as she watched the scuffle.
Suddenly Ezra’s crimson spear was in his hand, but he didn’t have any room to use it, and Haedrig was quick to roll off the bench and kick the weapon out of his hand. It spun away into the shadows with a clatter.
“Get off me you coward!” Ezra roared, slamming his elbows backwards into his brother’s stomach.
Ada was flailing so wildly that the gag slipped from her mouth and she began shouting, egging the brothers on. “Knife him! Kill him! Kill him!”
With a heavy sigh, I stepped forward to replace the gag. Regis stood at attention behind me, practically quivering with eagerness to get involved.
Deal with this, I instructed him.
My companion lept forward and his jaws were at Ezra’s throat in an instant. The boy quit struggling, and both Ezra and Kalon lay on the ground panting.
I let the moment linger, wanting Regis’s fangs to leave an impression on the boy.
We had passed a point of no return. Now that our internal strife had devolved into violence, trust was broken. I couldn’t simply let Ezra stand up and go back about his business, but I didn’t like to consider the alternative.
Making a decision, I mentally ordered Regis to let him go and gestured for Kalon to disentangle himself from his brother. Ezra stayed where he was, staring up at me wild-eyed and red-faced.
Kneeling down next to him, I spoke in a low, cold voice, injecting it with as much self-assuredness and authority as I could: “I understand how you feel right now. You may not believe me, but I do. However, I can’t accept your aggressive actions or your insubordinate attitude.
“Listen carefully, because I’m only saying this once. From this point forward, if you don’t follow orders, if you attack me or anyone else in this group, if you try to pursue this senseless plan of yours against my wishes, I will kill you. I will—without hesitation—throw you into the void.”
I met Kalon’s eyes, and I could see the tumult of emotions warring within them: protectiveness over his brother, anger at Ezra’s behavior, and his own fierce grip on what little remaining hope he felt.
“And if your brother tries to stop me, I’ll throw him in too. Understood?”
The Granbehls stared at me, fearful and angry, but I could tell they believed me. Kalon nodded, then nudged his brother in the shoulder with the toe of his boot.
Ezra scoffed. “Understood.”
I walked off without another word. Regis started to follow me, but I stopped him.
Stay with Ezra. Watch him and don’t hesitate to take him down if he tries anything.
‘Aye aye, captain,’ Regis said, eager to have a task to commit himself to after long days of boredom watching me sit with the keystone.
Five minutes later, I was deep in the gloom, far down the hallway from the fountain. It was strange. No matter how far I walked down that hall, I always seemed to be only a few steps away from the fountain. It was like the aether trap that protected the djinn’s underground city back in Dicathen, where—hopefully—my family was still sheltered.
All my life—my second life, that is—I’d been surrounded by artifacts of the djinn: Xyrus, the castle, the teleportation network…upon my reincarnation, I had accepted it all as normal, never thinking to question the ancient mages’ accomplishments or make any effort to learn more about them.
Was that what was holding me back now? The ways in which the djinn passed down their knowledge were much more complex than textbooks and tutors. Even when threatened with extermination, they had not been able to teach the Indrath Clan their secrets, because the dragons weren’t capable of learning the way the djinn did.
I had exhausted the capabilities of my current method. It was hard to admit but, without a fresh perspective, I wouldn’t be able to learn what the keystone was trying to teach me.
Putting into practice a mental practice I’d learned as King Grey, I began to categorize everything I knew about the djinn and aether. I thought through every lesson from Lady Myre, Sylvie, and Elder Rinia. I relived my battles with the retainers and Scythes, as well as the aether beasts within the Relictombs. I let Sylvia’s message replay in my mind and recalled the words of the djinn projection.
The problem was, I just didn’t know enough about relics or how the djinn had used them. Though I’d learned a lot since waking up in the Relictombs, my exposure to relics themselves was entirely limited to my time spent in the keystone, and I had the dead relic sitting half forgotten in my storage rune.
I withdrew the dead relic I’d won in Maerin and began inspecting the dark, unimpressive stone, but only a moment later my attention was drawn to the sound of footsteps echoing along the hall, moving toward me.
I looked up to see Haedrig approaching, both his steady gait and poise expressing a refined sense of grace despite his haggard cracked lips and sunken cheeks. Remembering how valuable even a dead relic was for Alacryans, I quickly hid the lumpy stone away.
“I didn’t think you’d be the type of person to carry around a dead relic,” the green-haired ascender said as he raised a brow, a hint of judgement in his voice. “Is that a blood heirloom or something you use to charm materialistic nobles?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes. This is what I use to seduce all of the attractive women I come across.”
“Assuming that your physical appearance isn’t enough?” he added with a soft chuckle.
“Are you complimenting me or judging me? I can’t quite tell,” I said, unsure whether I was amused or annoyed by his interruption.
Haedrig took a seat a few feet away from me, appearing uninterested in the supposedly rare and expensive ancient artifact that I held in my hand.
“I’ll admit that, objectively, your facial features can draw some attention. But I wouldn’t necessarily call it a good thing,” he noted before clearing his throat. “Anyway, things turned rather tense earlier.”
I rubbed the back of my neck, looking away from Haedrig. “I—”
“You were right, though. I think you handled it well.” Haedrig reached out, hesitated, then patted my shoulder. “Anyway, it seems that I’m interrupting. My apologies.”
I shook my head. “It’s okay. I needed the distraction.”
“Ezra would probably disagree,” Haedrig responded as he got back up to his feet, the corner of his lips curving into a smile. “Good luck, Grey.”
Letting out a chuckle, I focused my attention back on the dead relic in my hand. Except for the purple haze of aether surrounding it, the stone was bland and uninteresting. It was the type of rock a child might thoughtlessly kick out of the road.
I pushed aether into the dead relic, the same way I interacted with the keystone, but nothing happened. Next I tried to draw the aether out of it, but stopped immediately. I could tell there was very little aether still contained within the dead relic, and I didn’t want to blindly destroy it for such a paltry amount of aetheric energy.
Letting out a sigh, I took a glance at Haedrig, who was seated back on the bench beside the fountain in a meditative state.
With a flick of my wrist, I tossed the relic into the air, watched it arc up until it nearly touched the low ceiling, then snatched it out of the air as it came back down.
With no more straws to grasp at, I slipped the relic into my pocket, closed my eyes, and began replenishing my aether yet again.
As I next pushed through the purple wall into the realm within the keystone once more, I could immediately sense that something had changed. The previously completed shapes were still there, displaying the present and past within the mirror room. The remaining geometric shapes—my puzzle pieces—had drifted apart in my absence, as they always did.
It wasn’t something I could see, but there was a static charge, a sort of latent energy suffusing the atmosphere.
Quickly, I gathered and sorted the pieces, hoping the sensation I felt was some sort of unconscious understanding achieved by my efforts to revisit my own knowledge of aether. Yet when I had the pieces in front of me, I felt no new insight into the edict.
Like when I followed the aetheric vibrations that allowed me to step through space, I let my mind unfocus and drift along in the wake of the electric hum. It seemed to fill the space, to fill my whole mind, but there was one small, unassuming spot where it was clearer, more present.
Using aether like a pair of forceps, I reached into that node and pulled something through.
The dead relic.
Stunned, I watched as the unexceptional rock drifted through the air, just like the other shapes I’d found in here. Instinctively, I pushed aether into it, as I had tried while sitting in the dark in the hall of mirrors.
The dull, rough surface of the stone shattered as if it’d been struck with a hammer, revealing a blazing diamond burning with white light. The diamond dissolved as it spread its radiance across the keystone realm. Wherever the light touched, I felt the dull ache of sudden growth, as if my mind were expanding to contain it.
The field of geometric shapes seemed to absorb the light, glowing white hot themselves, and suddenly I understood. Just like when I was building the cube that became the window into the present, the pieces practically presented themselves to me, and I quickly began placing them together.
In my excitement and the euphoric rush of understanding, I nearly missed it. An alarm bell rang in my mind, and my focus turned toward the cube.
The mirror room was in chaos.
Kalon was struggling to fend off Ada, who was free of her bindings. She clawed and bit at him with furious, barbaric strength, but he moved as if afraid to injure her.
Haedrig was crawling out of the fountain, moving slowly as if dazed. A trickle of blood from his ear diffused into the water and stained his cheek and neck red.
The mirrors nearest Haedrig and the fountain were nearly all shattered, now revealing only the void beyond.
Ezra was running along the hall, dragging Riah’s dead body behind him.
Regis was nowhere to be seen.
Abandoning all thought of finishing the dodecahedron now, I tried to open my eyes, to leave the keystone realm, but I couldn’t. Whenever I approached the smoky purple barrier, my consciousness flicked back to the incomplete puzzle floating expectantly amidst the field of geometric pieces waiting to be placed.
Across all the faces of the cube, Haedrig had rolled clumsily out of the fountain and was on his feet, stumbling toward Ezra. The young ascender pulled back his arm as if to hurl his spear at the green-haired ascender, and Haedrig threw himself to the ground, but it was a feint.
The ruse gave Ezra the time he needed to drag Riah’s body the rest of the way to the horned ascender’s mirror. My stomach dropped as I watched him yank the corpse around and press the dead hand to the mirror’s cold surface.
Frantically, I began placing the puzzle pieces again, moving as quickly as my aetheric manipulation would allow. At the same time, I kept one eye on the battle happening outside of the keystone.
In the mirror, the Vritra-blooded ascender was grinning malevolently. And then he was gone, and purple mist was oozing out of the mirror and flowing into Riah, just like when Ada had touched her own mirror.
Riah’s eyes shuttered open and two black voids stared up at Ezra. With one hand, the boy was warding off Haedrig with his spear, and with the other he reached down to offer his hand to Riah. When she took it, Ezra flinched, practically jerking away from her, but Riah’s puffy, dead hand tightened around his until it looked as if his bones had cracked.
Haedrig dashed forward, grabbing the spear and shoving it back and up, cracking Ezra under the chin with the shaft and knocking him backwards over Riah’s body. There was an explosion of energy from Ezra that pushed Haedrig away and shattered several nearby mirrors.
All three forms lay prone on the stone floor for a moment. Riah, or Mythelias in her body, was the first to move. As he rolled over and began to push himself up, the flesh around the severed stump of a leg began to bubble and grow, forming a black, gangrenous club of a foot.
Next to him, Ezra began to convulse with pain. Spreading from his hand, black boils were growing on his flesh, the skin around them turning gray. His face was twisted into a tortured, terrified scream as the pestilent growths rapidly subsumed his body…until nothing was left but a twisted, Ezra-shaped lump.
And still, despite the chaos, Regis was nowhere to be found.
While all this was happening, I had been working feverishly to finish the dodecahedron, unsure exactly what would happen when it was complete. I knew I couldn’t leave until I’d finished the puzzle; I only hoped I would be in time for the others.
Suddenly Kalon flew past Haedrig, his spear blazing ahead of him.
Rolling away from the attack, Mythelias came up to his feet with Ezra’s spear in hand, and immediately became a storm of cuts and strikes that forced Kalon to fall back into a defensive stance. Even then he seemed barely able to avoid the lightning-quick assault.
Mythelias kept pressing Kalon, but this put Haedrig at his back. Whether he had lost track of the green-haired ascender or discounted Haedrig’s ability, Mythelias was focused entirely on the last of the Granbehls when Haedrig struck.
The thin blade punched through Mythelias’s back, just to the left of his spine, then ripped outward through his side, half-severing his torso just below his ribs and leaving a horrific, gaping wound. Before I could so much as cheer, however, the flesh began to boil again, and a hard black scar formed over the gash.
Spinning, Mythelias cut at Haedrig’s ankles with the edge of the spear-blade, then let the spear’s momentum carry it around his body, lining it up for a thrust to the heart that Haedrig just barely parried.
Within the keystone realm, the last pieces of the dodecahedron were slowly falling into place, but I was distracted by the scene playing out on one face of the pyramid, which showed the recent past. It seemed to be catching up to the present, and was now showing what had happened only moments ago.
In it, Ezra was pacing up and down the hall, Regis prowling behind him like a murderous shadow. The boy had a nervous furtive look about him: his hands were jittery and he kept glancing around like he expected to be attacked at any moment.
Haedrig was sitting on the edge of the fountain, his feet in the salt water. Kalon was checking the bindings on the false-Ada, something we had to do frequently to keep the phantom from injuring Ada’s body.
As Ezra approached the fountain, his nervousness cemented into a look of dark determination. He suddenly took a sharp step to the side and activated his crest.
My heart hammered as an explosion pushed out from him, slamming Haedrig across the water and head first into the edge of the fountain. Kalon was tossed backwards so I couldn’t see him any more, and even Ada was jerked violently in her bindings.
The mirrors around Ezra shattered, and, to my horror, Regis was thrown through an open frame, disappearing into the emptiness on the other side.
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