The Beginning After The End - Chapter 428
Aldir looked uncertainly at the iridescent stone in my palm while Mordain sucked in a shocked breath. Avier shuffled across the top of the portal frame and leaned down to peer curiously. Regis’s attention honed in on the others, sensing that there was some understanding about the egg that we lacked.
Behind the others, Wren Kain whispered something under his breath. He had lounged back in his floating rock throne, absently making several stone spheres orbing above his curled hand.
“This is old magic,” Mordain said, unable to take his eyes off the stone. “Do you have any idea what it is that you carry?”
“I know Sylvie is inside this stone, and I’ve been slowly bypassing a series of…locks, I suppose. My hope is that, when I’ve finished, she’ll come back to me…”
Mordain reached gingerly toward Sylvie’s egg. When my fingers instinctively curled around it, he blinked as if waking from a dream and let his hand fall. “There is a legend—a myth really—told as a bedtime story to our children that described a phenomenon like this. True self-sacrifice being rewarded to the brave and genuine. That, though the body may perish, our mind and soul will mold themselves into a physical form and be reborn.”
Wren Kain scoffed as he floated closer on his moving throne to better see the egg. “How is it that beings with world-altering abilities still manage to fall victim to fables of impossible magic? It's mind-boggling that you would think it’s appropriate to bring up a bedtime story in this situation. He’s asking for help, not to be tucked to sleep.”
“Bedtime story or not, Sylvie is inside,” I stated, looking between the two ancient asura. “Regis can inhabit the egg, and I can feel that it’s her. And it just…appeared, after she…” I trailed off, not wanting to relive the moment of her sacrifice. “Somehow I was transported from Dicathen into the Relictombs, and that egg came with me.”
The stone spheres Wren had been controlling fell still as the asuran artificer’s face wrinkled in thought.
Mordain took a shaky breath. “Some members of the phoenix race have learned to control their own rebirth, guiding the soul into a new form, but these old tales describe this as something else. A recreation of body, mind, and spirit, just as it was before…” Mordain’s gaze traced from the egg in my palm up my arm to my torso. “The draconic aspects of your body…she destroyed herself giving them to you, didn’t she?”
I could only nod, unable to speak past a sudden lump in my throat.
“And does Lord Indrath know of this?” Mordain asked innocently enough, but there was an intensity in his burning eyes that suggested some deeper context to his question.
“He does,” I admitted, “but he wouldn’t give me any further details. I…was hesitant to give away my own ignorance by asking too many questions.”
Mordain gave me a wry smile. “Kezess was likely doing the same. Still, if he knows his granddaughter will be reborn…” He trailed off with a shake of his head. “I will have to think on this. But do not let the musings of an old man hold you back from your purpose. You want Aldir’s help with something? What, exactly?”
Instead of answering immediately, I stepped up beside him and activated Aroa’s Requiem.
Bright motes of aether danced down my arm before jumping eagerly to the portal frame, causing Avier to leap off and fly to Mordain’s shoulder. Mordain took a step back, watching with wary interest as the motes flowed into all the cracks and crevices. The portal frame rapidly began to repair, as if time was being turned back before our eyes. In moments, the last cracks had sealed and the final loose pieces of stone were drawn into place.
A dim, purple portal hummed to life within the frame.
Aldir’s single amethyst eye lingered on the egg as if he could burrow down into its core and see the asuran spirit resting there. “I will do what is needed.”
As concisely as I was able, I explained the portal and the Relictomb’s relationship to the “aether realm” in which it existed. Sparing them the details of our fight, I told them how I’d drawn Taci through into that place, accidentally discovering it. I was careful not to give them the impression they could use this technique to breach the Relictombs itself, however, whether it could be done or not. The djinn had chosen to keep even their phoenix allies out of the Relictombs for a reason. I wouldn’t be the one to kick the door in for them.
“Sounds utterly stupid and dangerous to me,” Wren Kain said, catching me off guard. “You did what you had to last time, but it sounds like you nearly couldn’t escape.”
“That was because I was fighting an asura hell-bent on keeping me from escaping,” I shot back.
“Even still.” His baggy-eyed gaze turned to Mordain. “In all the years you sheltered djinn, no one ever told you about this?”
Mordain stepped up to the portal and reached out to it. It responded by projecting a repulsive force, like a magnet pushing back against another of the same polarity. “No, the phenomena Arthur has described was never explained or, to my knowledge, used by the djinn who came to live in the Hearth.”
Avier hopped up onto the top of the portal arch. “Perhaps they didn’t tell anyone because it could be dangerous. For the travelers, the Relictombs, even this world.”
“Thank you! Finally, someone speaking sense,” Wren said with a scoff. “It sounds like breaking something. And while I may not be a mighty dragon or member of the Indrath Clan, I can tell you that, when it comes to either mana or aether, breaking things is generally pretty bad.”
“It is equally as likely that they knew it was too important to keep this knowledge from Lord Indrath to trust even us with it,” Mordain countered thoughtfully. “Asuran lives are very long, and the last surviving djinn had every reason to expect the worst of the future.”
“You’re all assuming they even knew about the realm,” Regis said from where he was lying in the moss. “No matter how smart these guys were, the djinn were idealists to the point of silliness. They definitely didn’t understand everything that they created. We’ve seen that with our own eyes.”
I recalled what the last djinn remnant had said. “They were fracturing at the end, too, I think. The Relictombs is…a dark place. Out of character with the way the djinn attempted to live—and the way they chose to die. I think they definitely had a pretty grim outlook on the future of our world, based on what I’ve seen. Enough to poison their trust even in their only allies.”
“Perhaps it is for the best that we’ll never see their creation,” Mordain said, stepping away from the portal. His face fell for a moment, but quickly brightened again. “I know you are eager to proceed, so I won’t press you any further, except to ask how long we should expect you and Aldir to be gone?”
Regis joined me in front of the portal before stepping into me and sheltering near my core. We hadn’t discussed if he should come or not, but it felt right having him with me.
Aldir immediately followed, standing just beside me. He was expressionless, neither tense nor placid. Despite my earlier anger with him, I couldn’t help but appreciate his fearlessness in this situation.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” I answered.
With an understanding nod, Mordain rested a hand on Aldir’s shoulder. They exchanged no words and yet still communicated something very clearly between them, even if it was unreadable to the rest of us. When this moment passed, Mordain moved around us to the exit of the small cave, and Avier again flew to his shoulder. Together, they watched in silence.
Wren Kain suddenly drifted forward. “Listen, there is no reason to rush this without a better understanding. That stone or embryo you’re carrying isn’t going to expire. Lady Sylvie isn’t going anywhere. You’re being stupid.”
My brows rose, but Aldir clapped Wren Kain on the arm. “Urgency is a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Why forgo doing now what we may lack time for in the future?”
Wren Kain shrank further into his floating throne. “Well, if you rip a hole in the fabric of the universe and wipe out this continent, I guess that’s on you two.” He focused on Aldir. “Whatever. Just get this done and get back here, all right? If Indrath is sending dragons to Dicathen, we need to prepare.”
“You know I didn’t bring you here to fight a war, old friend.”
Wren Kain blinked and a somber smirk tugged at the edge of his lips. “Yeah… but I was kind of hoping you had.”
Aldir returned the sober smile, then turned to face me.
Each gripping the other’s forearm, we stepped closer to the portal and immediately felt the repulsive pressure meant to prevent an asura from crossing through the portal’s boundary. Aldir’s vicelike grip clenched down hard enough to hurt, and we both leaned into the portal.
It wavered, bending away from us. We leaned farther, then took another shuffling half-step.
The stone of the arch shook, and the purple energy of the portal’s surface flexed farther, trembling.
As before, I could feel the opposing forces within the portal attempting to draw me in while rejecting Aldir, but I kept his arm clamped in mine as we took another small step.
My stomach lurched as I sensed the portal reaching its breaking point, like I had stepped on a rotting board in a bridge.
The portal imploded.
A raging aetheric wind dragged the two of us inward, and the world dissolved into fractals of interdimensional connective tissue. For just the barest instant, I recognized the network of aetheric pathways that I saw when activating God Step, then everything went dark.
I was anticipating the mental backlash this time and managed to retain my senses and intention as the aetheric void coalesced around us. Purple-tinged space stretched away in every direction, broken only by the last of the portal energy that was being absorbed into the aetheric soup and an unknown Relictombs zone floating off-kilter below us.
‘Whoa,’ Regis thought, a mental shiver running through his incorporeal form. He flitted out of me but didn’t take the form of a wolf. Little eddies of aetheric current swirled around the dark wisp as he began to absorb the boundless aether. ‘We’ve come a long way since the days of sucking up millipede poop crystals, haven’t we?’
He was right, but my mind stayed on the task at hand. Regardless of what the aetheric void could do for me, I needed it for something much more important first.
Drawing out the stone, I clenched it in my fist. Sensing my thoughts, Regis broke off of his gorging and merged into it.
‘Nothing has changed in here,’ his thoughts came floating back to me a moment later. ‘Her mind is here, still sleeping.’
I want you to stay in there and monitor everything that happens, I thought, starting to grow nervous without knowing why.
An upside-down Aldir drifted in slow circles nearby, his amethyst eye wide and staring.
I opened my mouth to interrupt his reverie, but reminded myself how I had felt the first time I’d been drawn into this place, with Taci. The urgency to get here and to begin imbuing the egg cooled. Suddenly, I was…afraid.
“I saw something in a djinn memory…” I said softly. “In it, Kezess claimed that Epheotus was built somewhere like this. A different dimension.”
Aldir hummed in thought. “According to asuran legend, some of our earliest ancestors removed and expanded a piece of your world, creating Epheotus within it. Some believe that the asuras only discovered the path between these two dimensions. But yes, Epheotus is shielded within its own realm, connected to, but not a part of, your world.”
We floated in silence for several seconds as Aldir gazed into the distance, obviously deep in thought. Then his visage sobered, and his attention went to the stone in my hand.
“Do not hesitate on my account,” he said, drawing his legs up toward his body so it looked like he was sitting cross-legged in the air. “Please, do what you set out to do.”
Taking a deep breath, I cupped the iridescent stone between both hands. Simultaneously pushing and pulling, I began imbuing aether into the stone while drawing it from the rich atmosphere. Aether rotation, based on mana rotation, the very art taught to me by Silvia, now the lesson I’ll use to save her daughter. This and many other thoughts flitted through my mind, but I kept my focus on the flow of aether now filling in the complex geometric designs inherent to the stone’s inner structure.
Several minutes passed as I balanced on the precipice of this exchange, absorbing and imbuing. It became clear that, despite the depths of my aetheric reservoir, I wouldn’t have been able to complete the layer outside of this realm with its endless supply of aether. My mind wandered, trying to piece together the wider puzzle that the egg presented.
If Sylvie’s egg was a naturally manifested phenomena, how could it have such a complex structure? The comparison to the godrunes I received was immediately obvious, and just as equally a mystery. Sophisticated magical constructs didn’t appear by coincidence, an accident of a universe always in motion. Unless…
I considered the aether itself. Particles of magical force capable of divining intent and responding accordingly. The dragons believed that aether had its own designs and purpose, and even the djinn’s teachings suggested it was conscious. Was it somehow the source of both the egg and the godrunes?
With no answers, only questions, I forced my mind quiet and let myself be absorbed into the rhythm of the process.
‘Something’s happening,’ Regis said after several more minutes.
I focused on the stone; it was nearly full and starting to throb in my hands. The pulses came faster and faster, like a quickening heartbeat, and then something cracked.
Outwardly, there was no change, but I had been expecting this and immediately pushed more aether into the structure.
It didn’t take it.
Regis, what can you sense?
‘Her mind stirred when that layer broke, but now…I’m not sure. I think there’s another layer, but I can’t feel it the same way.’
Neither can I…
I felt sick. I was missing something, clearly had missed something, but what?
If only Kezess or Mordain had know more, maybe—
A pair of strong hands wrapped around my own. Aldir was floating right in front of me, all his eyes open, giving me an understanding smile. “Aether isn’t enough,” he said simply, and then I understood.
Unfolding my hands, I let Aldir press his own on top of the egg. Instinctively, I activated Realmheart to watch the process. Aldir’s mana—bright, strong, and pure—was flowing rapidly into the stone. A minute passed, then two, then five…
Nerves began to eat at me. I knew the pantheon general was powerful, but here, in this place with no mana, would he be able to sate the starved egg?
The aura around Aldir began to dim as more and more of his total mana reserve was given over to the egg. After ten minutes, I was about to demand he stop when the internal structure of the stone suddenly shifted again with an inaudible crack. Sweating and sagging under the weight of his own body, Aldir pulled back.
For the first time since I had known him, the third eye gleaming in his forehead was closed.
‘It worked, another layer opened up. I can’t be sure but…I think this may be the final lock.’
I firmly resisted the impulse to look into the egg, focusing instead on Aldir. The act of giving up his mana had left him diminished. “This isn’t why I asked you to come here.”
“But it is why I came,” he said weakly, forcing his two normal eyes open and regarding me with weary sincerity. “I knew before we entered the portal that I would not be returning.”
“What do you mean?”
“As punishment for my act of war against Dicathen and my treason against Lord Indrath, you will imprison me in this place,” he said, his voice unwavering. “It is a fitting punishment, and will be a victory you can take to both your people and to Kezess.” A silver rapier shimmered into existence in his hand. He held it out to me. “My sword, Silverlight. Proof of my death.”
I stared at the blade but did not take it. My jaw worked as I gritted my teeth, considering my response carefully, then finally saying, “Keep it. Use it to fight beside me, against Agrona and Kezess both.”
Aldir smiled sadly and gave a small shake of his head. “I believe that my days of fighting are done. I won’t kill more of my own kind, even to get to Kezess. Both your world and mine deserve more than endless war. I hope you find a way to end the threat posed by the Indrath and Vritra Clans without mass casualties.”
“Quitting is a luxury people like us don’t have,” I pushed back. “We don’t always get to live life as we’d choose, Aldir, especially when it is over. We both have a responsibility to that world…”
I took in his expression, the way he held his body—like an old man struggling to stay upright—and the flagging focus of his mana, and my words died on my lips. I could only stare at him, my churning thoughts suddenly still. His mind was made up, and any argument I could make seemed futile. Unable to meet his eyes, my gaze slid away from him, settling on the distant Relictombs zone without truly seeing it.
“Don’t look like that on my account,” Aldir said, straightening to his full height. “I have lived a very long, very violent life, and for the first time, I am truly tired, Arthur. This place…it offers me a quiet, peaceful end. Perhaps more than I deserve.”
Carefully, slowly, I took the sword. “So be it then.”
Aldir’s third eye slowly opened. He gave me a respectful nod, then turned and began to drift away. I could only watch as he grew smaller and smaller against the endless purple sky. Eventually, I blinked, and when I opened my eyes again, I couldn’t find him at all.
Between Regis and me, there was only silence. We shared the same sense of loss for words, not yet able to comprehend the repercussions of this decision.
I took a deep breath and looked sadly down at the stone in one hand and the sword in the other. “Silverlight,” I whispered into the void, gripping its hilt in a white-knuckled fist. It vanished into the dimension rune, and all that remained was Sylvie’s egg.
Aether rushed down my arm, and I resumed the act of simultaneously imbuing and absorbing.
This layer appeared as a series of complex runes, like spellforms or godrunes. I couldn’t read them, but their meaning was plain. They described the shape of a person. Of Sylvie…
Unlike the last layer, which had taken ages and unquantifiable amounts of aether, this layer filled up rapidly. I was finished almost before I realized it.
I held my breath and felt as if my heart would stop.
The color drained from the stone as it began to glow with pristine golden light. Then, little by little, particles broke away from the stone, condensing and taking shape in front of me…
In that timeless, motionless place, it seemed as if all the universe had come to a stop except for the unraveling embryo.
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