The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 337: Layers

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I just stared at the old Alacryan, not entirely sure I’d heard him correctly.

“Academy faculty are outside the normal societal ranks,” Darrin said, following quickly on the heels of Alaric’s statement. “At least at the prestigious academies. Even a powerful highblood couldn’t pull you away from a teaching post, and the Granbehls would be stripped of their name immediately if they were caught arranging an attack on Central Academy grounds.”

I leaned back in my chair, arms crossed, unable to keep one eyebrow from raising. “You said they wouldn’t attack again anyway.”

Alaric snorted in amusement. “C’mon, kid. Don’t change the subject.”

“The post is for an initiate-level melee combat instructor,” Darrin continued, drumming his fingers on the table. He was watching me intently.

“Easy street, don’t even have to teach the little wogarts magic,” Alaric added with a grin. “Just swinging swords and running drills, that kind of thing.”

“You’ll only actually have classes a couple days a week,” Darrin continued, “so once you’re settled, you’ll have time to—”

A faint knock at the door brought him up short.

A moment later, the door opened and Sorrel came in with two heavily laden trays full of food. “All this back and forth is hungry work,” she said, smiling sweetly as she slid the trays onto the table.

‘I know what you’re thinking, obviously,’ Regis chimed in while we waited for Sorrel to arrange the table and lay out a few utensils, ‘but you and I both know that, logically, this is a pretty solid plan.’

What about this plan seems logical to you, Regis? I shot back, unable to suppress a flare of annoyance.

‘For carte blanche to keep doing our thing without interference, teaching some rich Alacryan brats how to hit each other with sticks seems like a small price to pay, princess.’ Regis’s tone was smug, since he knew he was pulling thoughts right out of my head to argue back at me with.

You mean teach Alacryan kids how to kill Dicathian kids?

‘Is that what you were doing when you helped little Belmun in Maerin Town get a crest? Or what about Mayla and her emblem?’

I didn’t have anything to—I cut myself off, waving the thought away. The truth was, I suspected that the reason the two children received such powerful runes in Maerin had something to do with me. I didn’t know what, but it was too big of a coincidence to ignore.

‘Haven’t we moved past treating every Alacryan we meet like a mortal enemy by now?’ Regis asked, letting the sharp edge in his voice fade to something almost sympathetic. ‘Hell, aside from you, I’ve only met Alacryans…and I’m not being sympathetic, I’m being convincing.’

I focused on Sorrel laying out the last of our dinner as I considered Regis’s argument. He was right, but I tried really hard to keep that thought from leaking out to him. She beamed at the three of us before whisking back out of the room.

As soon as the door clicked shut behind her, Alaric started up again. “Remember where I first found you, kid? That little library in Aramoor City? You go to Central Academy, and you’ll have access to one of the biggest libraries in Alacrya. And with information a little closer to the source, if you know what I mean. Not so…thoroughly curated as what you found in Aramoor.”

I ignored the old drunk in favor of stabbing a slice of some ruby red fruit with a fork before taking a bite.

“Ascenders do well in academy circles,” Darrin added, smothering sweet-smelling butter onto a thick chunk of steaming bread. “And Central Academy in particular is very prestigious. A professor can easily arrange to get to and from the main Relictombs ascension portal when they want…or make accommodations to gain access to a secondary portal, or even a private portal somewhere. A lot of professors still go on ascents, so you won’t stand out.”

I frowned as I chewed on the fruit, which had a rubbery, jerky-like texture. My most immediate concern was returning to the Relictombs. If pretending to be a professor at this academy wouldn’t be a barrier to that…

“You’d be surrounded by experts in a dozen different fields,” Alaric went on. “The kind of people who love to show everyone how smart and talented they are. Mages who know everything there is to know about how runes work, about the Relictombs, about relics from the ancient mages…”

Swallowing heavily, I leaned forward and took a wedge of hard cheese from one of the trays. “Do they study relics at this academy?” I asked, trying not to sound too interested. By the way Alaric’s face lit up, I knew I hadn’t been entirely successful.

“No, relics all go to the High Sovereign, who probably has some super secret lair where his instillers do their experiments”—I felt my face fall as Alaric’s words doused the brief excitement I’d felt—“but they do have quite a bit of dead relics on display there!” he finished in a rush.

Darrin was nodding enthusiastically. “That’s true. I was a guest speaker there about a year ago, and they showed off what they call their ‘reliquary,’ sort of like a little museum for dead relics they’ve attained over the decades.”

An entire room full of dead relics? I considered the possibilities. If I could get my hands on more relics like the—

What should we call this thing, anyway? I asked Regis, thinking about the multi-faceted stone that allowed me to see my sister and mother.

‘The Orb of Long-Range Stalking,’ Regis said, drawing the name out theatrically. ‘I’ve already been calling it that in my head for weeks.’

Just…no, I responded. But whatever we call them, having a few more relics at our disposal wouldn’t hurt.

“Okay,” I said out loud, “let’s say, for the sake of argument, I go along with your plan. How’s this going to work?”

Alaric thumped the table and grinned, spitting a few crumbs of food into his beard, and Darrin launched into a more detailed explanation.

That evening found me sitting cross-legged on the floor in one of Darrin’s comfortably appointed guest rooms, considering my situation, while Regis snoozed on my bed, his huge bulk sinking into the soft mattress.

As much as I didn’t want to admit it, Alaric and Darrin’s idea did have some merit. Director Goodsky had made me a professor when I was only twelve, and I’d trained my hand-to-hand combat skills for years inside of the soul realm with Kordri.

The academy would provide me political protection from both the Denoirs and Granbehls, and it sounded like I’d be able to delve back into the Relictombs almost immediately.

The Relictombs…

Somewhere, three more ancient ruins were waiting for me to find them. I couldn’t be sure if the zones Caera and I had ascended together were the same ruin or a different one, but I felt instinctively that I hadn’t been successful in my second ascent.

Although I’d made significant progress with God Step—thanks to Three Steps—I hadn’t had a major breakthrough, or found anything that guided me toward insight into a new godrune, since the keystone containing insight into Aroa’s Requiem had technically been from the first ruin.

I couldn’t help the thought that, to master the aspect of Fate, I had to find more zones like the ruined room where I’d spoken to the talking magic crystal. Why else would the djinn have left a remnant of themselves there, just waiting to hand out the keystone to the first worthy “descendant” to come along?

I cleared my mind and reached for the locations of the four ancient ruins, as Sylvia had described them. The implanted memories flashed through my head, but I found no guidance there; none of the places I could see were familiar, except for the one I’d already been to, and I had no way to guide myself to them within the Relictombs.

“We’re just stumbling around here in Alacrya,” I said softly. “What if Agrona gains insight into Fate first?”

Regis’s head lifted from the bed, cocking slightly to the side. “Then…we lose, I guess. Your girlfriend leads his army into Epheotus, and Agrona uses Fate to—I don’t know—turn all the other asuras into dandelions or something.”

Shaking my head, I let myself lean back until I rested against the cool floor. “Whatever Agrona and Nico did to Tessia, whatever those tattoos or spellforms were…I have to save her, Regis.”

“For a girl you’ve been dancing around for your entire life—second life, whatever—I’m sensing a lot of mixed feelings here.” Regis paused to consider his words. “Are you saving her out of love or guilt?”

I let his words steep before eventually letting out a sigh. “I’m not sure, maybe both? It’s complicated…”

The shadow wolf yawned and rested his chin on his paws. “Coming from the guy who figured out how to rewind time to bring objects back to life.”

I let out an absent chuckle, my mind drifting through all the stages of my relationship with Tess. From rescuer to little sister to friend and classmate, to something more. There was always some form of love amidst it all, but not in the way Regis meant it. Guilt of being a man much older than his physical body had kept me from examining my feelings in depth, pushing them away. Even the couple of kisses we shared were tentative, testing…

And then I’d disappeared to Epheotus, and Tessia had gone to war. We’d hardly seen each other during the war, and romance had been so far from my mind…

Then, suddenly we found ourselves together again at the Wall. The Tess I met there was a beautiful and talented young woman who had once promised to wait for me…

That night, that moment on the cliffs overlooking the Wall…that was, perhaps, the first and only time our relationship approached the label of love. Not that I’d been very good at it. Even with two lives, there were still some things I wasn’t good at…

Just like Tess had said…

“Should I have never gotten close to her?” I asked the room, my voice barely a whisper.

“Then how would your life here have been any different from the one before?” Regis asked, not bothering to lift his head.

I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t form a response. There were a lot of things I blamed myself for, but getting close to all of the people that I’ve come to love in this world wasn’t one of them.

Seeing me so conflicted, my companion let out a sigh and slipped from the bed. Turning in a circle, he laid on the floor next to me, his back pressed against my left arm.

I patted his slowly rising and falling side, then pushed my fingers through his fur.

“You’re weirdly soft,” I said, mustering a weak laugh.

“I know,” he said sleepily, his jaw cracking with a huge yawn.

“Thanks,” I said, knowing he’d understand what I meant.

Regis was silent, but I felt him fluff up with contented warmth.

“If only I could use the relic to see her…maybe we could figure out what’s really going on. I would know if she was…still herself ” There was a part of me that was glad I couldn’t, though. I was afraid of what I might see if the stone worked.

When I imbued aether into the extradimensional storage rune, Regis perked up again. “Are you going to try anyway?”

I only shook my head, forcing my mind away from the deep well of guilt and fear I felt whenever I thought of Tessia. She wasn’t my only concern right now. There was another old friend who needed saving, too, and I missed her just as much—perhaps even more—as the elven princess.

Withdrawing the iridescent egg, I turned it over in my hand, feeling for Sylvie within it. Unlike Regis, I couldn’t slip my mind into the egg, couldn’t console myself by touching her sleeping consciousness.

I couldn’t do anything about Tessia right now, but maybe…

Regis lifted his head up off the floor and looked over his shoulder at me. “It’s been awhile since you’ve tried to do your thing…crack the egg or whatever.”

Too long, I thought, considering the increases in power I’d made since Maerin Town. I’d been tempted to try during the long, tiresome days spent imprisoned by the Granbehls, but…I had also been concerned about what might happen if I succeeded.

“Well?” Regis prodded, scratching behind his ear with a paw. “Are you going to try or what?”

“I guess we’re safe enough here…”

I gazed nervously down at the stone, which would drain me of every drop of aether if I started imbuing it. And if Sylvie suddenly reappears in front of me? Would my bond come back as a fox, or a girl…or a fully grown dragon, demolishing Darrin Ordin’s home?

I wondered, not for the first time, if she’d be the same Sylvie who had been by my side since I was a child. Would she be angry with me? Would she remember everything that had happened, everything that we had done together?

What if she reappears, and she doesn’t even know who I am…?

“Only one way to find out, princess,” Regis said, stretching as he stood up.

Mind made up, I hopped to my feet and took three quick steps across the room, pushing open the large glass window that looked out over rolling hills. Since I didn’t know exactly what would happen, I wouldn’t risk Darrin’s home by imbuing aether into the egg here.

I turned to ask Regis if he was coming, but I could already sense the answer. This was something private, something I needed to do on my own.

I held his eyes, nodded, then turned and jumped out of the window, clearing a row of decorative bushes and a small fence before landing in tall grass. The hills were ghostly in the dark, the pale grass colorless in the starlight.

Imbuing aether throughout my body, I jogged off toward a tall hill about a mile from Darrin’s home, the softly gleaming egg in my fist.

Despite my best efforts to keep myself calm, my heart thrummed in my chest as I sat cross-legged in the stiff grass. The last time I’d attempted to imbue aether into Sylvie’s egg, it had felt like I was throwing buckets full of water into a quickly draining reservoir. But that had been a lot better than my first attempt, shortly after I’d formed my aether core.

Based on my best guess—it was a lot harder for me to pinpoint the clarity of my aether core than it had been my mana core—my growth between Maerin Town and now was significantly higher than what I’d accomplished on that first ascent.

It hadn’t taken much aether to make the short run to the hill, but I still decided to absorb all the aether I could from the atmosphere before starting. The process was significantly slower than in the Relictombs, where the atmosphere was rich with it, but I kept going until my core was completely full.

To make sure I was maximizing my chance of success, I then released some of the aether from my core, letting it move naturally throughout my body and exerting no conscious influence over it. Most of the aether moved toward my hands—or, more accurately, toward Sylvie’s egg—and some of the excess was lost, but after thirty minutes or so of meditation, my core was overflowing and my body was swimming with free-floating particles of aether.

The sensation gave me a giddy feeling, like I’d had a few drinks and was just on the edge of being drunk.

“All right, Sylv,” I whispered. “Let’s see if this works.”

Gripping the incandescent stone firmly, I closed my eyes and felt the warm radiance of my aether core within my sternum. Imagining the aether channels that ran all throughout my body connecting to my core like little highways, each with its own gate holding back the aether until I released it, I took hold of those gates in my mind.

It was important that the aether all flow into the egg, but it was also important that I channel the aether fast enough to fill the reservoir within it. Of course, if I just sent out an uncontrolled blast of aether, most of it would dissipate into the atmosphere instead of flowing into the egg.

All at once, I opened the gates and pushed. My body grew hot as the flood of aether rushed through my lava-forged channels. At first I was too focused on preventing aether from escaping or being absorbed into my physical body to fully appreciate what was happening with the egg, but as more and more of my aether was imbued into the stone, I realized with a shock that it was working.

More of the purified aether was being drawn into the stone, now, with only a trickle of impure energy rushing out again—a significant improvement.

The spiraling path within, where the aether was drawn into the heart of the egg, began to glow with vibrant amethyst light. Around me, the hilltop was bathed in purple light, splashed through with green, red, and blue shadows.

My core began to ache dully, like an overstretched muscle, as the very last of my aether was pulled into the egg.

The light faded as the vibrantly glowing stone went dim, then dark.

Then, from deep inside the little stone I’d carried since awakening in the Relictombs, there was a crack. It was something I felt rather than heard, like stepping on too-thin ice and feeling it shift beneath my feet.

I waited for something to happen. Would the stone burst open as the aether coalesced back into the form of my bond, just as she had faded into nothing before my eyes? Or would she be reborn from the egg itself, crawling out the size of a newborn kitten?

A few seconds passed, and I started to grow nervous. After a minute had gone by, I knew something was wrong.

There was no longer any aether swirling down through the egg. It had devoured everything I had given it, but it hadn’t been—

I froze. Something was different. I could sense it, even if I couldn’t see it.

Although my core ached from being drained, I spent a few minutes gathering aether, just enough to send an experimental burst into the little stone. Sylvie’s egg took it hungrily, but unlike before, the aether didn’t spiral down into the egg’s center.

The line of purple motes followed a sharp-angled geometric path as they were absorbed.

I let my head hang, the wheat-blond hair I’d inherited from Sylvie cascading over my face. “Another layer.” The words fell like dead leaves, dry and paper thin.

If I took into account the complexity of the new pathway, I was certain this new layer of the reservoir would require even more aether than the first.

And it might not be the last.

My hands trembled as a bitter scoff escaped my lips. To have my excitement turn so abruptly to disappointment left me stunned, staring blankly at the egg until my vision blurred.

Letting out a shuddering breath, I recollected myself and wiped away my tears before pressing the iridescent stone against my forehead.

“Even if it takes all the aether in the Relictombs, I’ll get you out of there, Sylv.”