The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 351: Minimally Catastrophic
Chapter 351: Minimally Catastrophic
“Did you get it?” I asked as Caera let down the hood of her cloak and closed the door. Her blue hair was clinging wetly to her head, and water dripped from her to pool on the tiles.
“Of course,” she said confidently, a mischievous glint in her eye.
With a flourish, she activated her dimension ring and withdrew a pewter-colored orb the size of both my fists held together. The metallic shell was pock-marked and covered in ridges and crevices, making it look like a round metal sponge.
Caera held it out and I carefully plucked it from her grip.
“It’s heavy,” I commented, shifting it up and down in my hand to feel the heft. “Is that going to matter?”
She unclasped her sopping cloak and hung it by the door. “I certainly hope not. I didn’t see any runes that indicated pressure sensitivity engraved on the display pedestal, did you?”
“No, that’s true,” I replied. “And it seems unlikely the dead relics are removed from their cases often. By the time anyone discovers the switch—”
“Professor Grey and Assistant Professor Denoir will have long since moved on from Central Academy,” she finished.
Caera had been surprisingly receptive to my idea. I knew from our adventures in the Relictombs that she had a rebellious and somewhat reckless streak, but I had still expected her to take some convincing. Always perceptive, she understood my intention immediately and was quick to agree. We’d then spent the rest of that afternoon and evening formulating a plan.
Together, we had discussed the strengths of each relic—or at least what we could learn about them from books and Caera’s careful questioning of the curator. Personally, I had wanted to take two or three, but Caera had rightly suggested that would add an unnecessary layer of risk. After discussing what the theft would require, we eventually decided on a single dead relic to “liberate” from the Reliquary. Of all the relics available, I didn’t see how any single one would give me a sizable boost in power, so we ended up choosing the one that the Alacryans knew the least about, which also happened to be Central Academy’s most recent addition.
Although the curator had been quiet on why Scythe Dragoth had brought the orb to Central Academy, he had been more than happy to discuss its powers—what little was known about them—with Caera.
According to the old man, the dead relic was unique in that its form provided no hints about its function. The pock-marked surface wasn’t by design, but rather wear; when the relic was first discovered, it was unblemished, a perfect silver sphere, but when removed from the Relictombs it decayed quickly. The Instillers had surmised that it was some kind of tool—perhaps something used in the construction of the Relictombs itself—and the sudden degradation was a kind of defense mechanism to prevent the ancient mages’ secrets from being discovered. The curator couldn’t provide Caera any more information than that, though.
The idea of having a tool of the djinn, something that would let me manipulate the Relictombs directly, was too good to pass up.
“And you’re sure the artisan—”
“It’s not unheard of for highbloods to have fake dead relics made in order to impress their friends—and rivals.” Caera indicated the orb with a smirk. “She’ll be quiet about it, as loose lips, in this case, would likely result in her death.”
“Still, if she were to—”
Caera waved my concern away. “I was disguised, as you know, and pretended to be representing a different blood. So even if she did talk, I wouldn’t be implicated.”
Imbuing my extradimensional storage rune with aether, I stashed the fake relic. “What blood did you impersonate?”
The mischievous glint in Caera’s eyes returned. “Oh, I think you know.”
Regis barked with laughter, nearly toppling back in his diminutive form. “Serves those Granbehl jerks right. Almost makes you hope this shady craft-lady does turn over on them—or us, or whatever.”
I threw my own white cloak over my shoulders, giving Caera an amused smile. “If things do go poorly, at least there will be a silver lining.”
Caera pulled out the teardrop pendant she always wore and whispered an incantation. Her features blurred in a way that made my eyes twitch with discomfort, then reformed as the familiar green-haired ascender, Haedrig.
“That is really strange to watch,” I said, scanning the face and body for any hint of Caera beneath.
Haedrig cocked out a hip and batted his eyelashes at me. “What’s wrong, Grey?” he said in his croaky voice. “Don’t you find me attractive anymore?”
Regis walked a slow circle around Haedrig, sniffing at his boots. “I don’t know how to feel about it, to be honest. For one, what happens to your boo—” 𝑓𝙧𝘦𝘦we𝘣𝙣𝘰𝘃𝗲l.com
“Can we maybe be just a little more serious?” I cut in as I pulled up my hood. “We’re about to commit a major crime.”
Haedrig, who had just conjured a filthy green cloak from his dimension ring, frowned and scratched the stubble on his chin. “Don’t know what you’re going on about. I’m just going for a stroll over to the Reliquary…”
“Don’t mind him,” Regis said. “Just pre-larceny jitters.”
“Let’s get going,” I said, gesturing for Regis to return to my body. “The Reliquary should have just closed.”
Caera—or Haedrig—led the way out into the hallway that connected the many suites in Windcrest. Haedrig went left, taking a more direct route to the exit, while I turned right, following the roundabout path. 𝒇𝔯e𝚎𝘄𝑒𝑏𝙣𝑜𝚟𝗲𝑙.c𝘰𝚖
The weather was grim. Rain poured from the sky and occasional flashes of lightning revealed a bedraggled campus. The weather was a lucky coincidence; it meant there would be a lot less people moving around in the open.
Pulling the brilliant white cloak more closely around me, I dove into the storm. The rain was punishing, but, whether due to its magical nature or the quality of the craftsmanship, the cloak kept me both warm and relatively dry.
I couldn’t see Haedrig, but I could hear a lilting, drunken tune from somewhere ahead, muffled by the noise of the downpour.
‘I never would have expected fair lady Caera to know such a suggestive song…’ Regis said, humming the tune himself.
The bright lanterns lighting the Chapel entry slowly became visible through the thick curtains of rain. Haedrig was already stomping up the stairs to the still-open double doors and the guard who stood beside them.
Haedrig paused as the guard addressed him, but they were too far away and the storm was too noisy for me to hear. I assumed the guard was simply informing him that the Reliquary within was closed, but we already knew that. Haedrig nodded and proceeded into the building, stumbling on the threshold.
An exterior hallway ran in a rectangle around a large central space where the dead relics and other more valuable contributions were displayed. While the entry hall was left open—but not unguarded—the Reliquary itself was closed and locked after hours.
The guard was watching Haedrig closely. After a moment of apparent indecision, he abandoned his post to follow the apparent drunk.
Moving quickly, with my back hunched and my cloak still pulled tightly around me, I headed for the Chapel doors. To anyone watching, I would just look like someone caught in the storm and seeking shelter.
Clearing the stone steps three at a time, I paused to listen just outside.
“—told you, it’s fine,” Haedrig was half-shouting from down the hall. “I just want to pop in and get a look at my old”—Haedrig belched loudly—“armor.”
A clear, authoritative voice answered. “And, as I told you, it is not fine, sir. You will have to come back tomorrow when the Reliquary is open.”
Haedrig replied with a phlegmy snort. “I have friends, you know! Powerful friends. I know damned near everybody. I’m sure someone will let me in.”
“Sir!” the guard insisted. “Sir, if you don’t—”
A long peal of thunder cut off the rest of the guard’s threat. I peeked into the hall just in time to see Haedrig turning the far corner with two armed and armored men following closely behind.
I knew there would be two more guards in the outer hallway. Focusing aether into my ears, I listened closely for their footsteps: It sounded like they were on the far side of the building, circling back toward the source of the commotion. I winced as Haedrig began to shout about having them all thrown into the sea before cutting off the flow of aether to my ears, letting my hearing return to normal.
Before entering the building, I let my eyes refocus in order to see the aetheric pathways connecting every point around me. I couldn’t see beyond the far wall and door into the Reliquary, but I took careful note of the paths from the door back out into the rain.
Darting across the hall to the Reliquary door, I examined the black iron handle. As was popular at the academy, the door was locked with a runestone. Unlike my room or office doors, however, there was a glowing rune placed at the base of this handle. It combined symbols for fire-attribute mana and mana transference, suggesting that touching it would result in a bad time.
Regis, in his shadowy black wisp form, drifted out of my chest and directly through the door.
Although I couldn’t see through his eyes, I could feel my companion’s emotions and hear his thoughts as he scanned the interior of the room for additional defenses.
In the far hallway, Haedrig began to shout about “respect” and “honor” and “the good ol’ days.”
‘The floor behind each door is marked with another rune. It…’ Regis trailed off in thoughtful silence as he attempted to read it. ‘Anyone who walks over this thing will have their mana core drained. The rune traps the mana…probably so they can identify who it was.’
I smirked at the door. Easy. What about the lock? Can you open it from that side?
‘Less easy,’ Regis said, his worry transmitting along with his words. ‘There’s no handle or way to release the latch from the interior.’
In our reconnaissance of the Reliquary, Caera and I had spent nearly two full hours inspecting the building and displays as closely as we could without drawing suspicion. Although it had been clear the doors had handles only on the outside, we hadn’t been sure if they could be opened some other way from within the room.
I had an idea, but wasn’t entirely sure it would work. Regis, I need you to picture your surroundings as clearly as you can and send me that thought. As clearly as you can, all right?
‘Yeah yeah, I got it.’
I took a step back from the door and focused on the aetheric pathways again, right up to where they stopped at the closed door. When the mental picture of the Reliquary interior began to form in my mind, I connected it with the purple fractal paths I could see, forming a mental map of where I thought they continued to.
Three Steps had taught me not to just look for the paths, but to feel them and let them guide me along. This made the ability much faster and more efficient to utilize, but it also—theoretically—meant that I could use God Step to move somewhere I couldn’t directly see.
Activating the godrune, I vanished with a flash of amethyst light.
And appeared on the other side of the door, crackling with aetheric energy. Aside from the fact that it had worked—I just teleported through a solid door, I realized with delight—the more exciting sensation was how little aether the godrune had consumed. Although I hadn’t even been able to absorb enough atmospheric aether to fill my newly strengthened core yet, God Step took only a fraction of my aetheric reserves.
The thrill of using the godrune for the first time since forging the second layer of my aether core was interrupted by a tingling sensation all over my body.
Beneath my feet, the rune trap had activated and was attempting to draw out all my mana. I stepped off it, unharmed, my aether core undisturbed by the magic. I had to assume the rune would have drawn some ambient mana from my body—the traces of water or earth mana that would naturally linger near me—but with no mana core to manipulate it, the small traces of mana wouldn’t carry any signature of my identity.
I knew I didn’t have much more time before the situation between Haedrig and the guards escalated, so I forced my mind back to the mission. Moving quickly to my target, I examined the plinth holding it, looking for any wards or runes that Caera and I hadn’t noticed before.
Unlike the warding runes behind the doors, which hadn’t been there during the day, the stone base on which the dead relic was displayed didn’t reveal any new protections. But that didn’t mean it was unguarded.
A series of complex runes had been engraved around the base of the display to ward off anyone from touching it. A light touch would reward the offender with a shock, and the display would buzz in alarm to warn the curator. Anything beyond a light touch—for example, attempting to lift up the glass and access the dead relic within—would release a paralyzing jolt of electricity before issuing a screeching alarm that half the campus would probably hear.
I had only thought of one way to bypass the runes without triggering the alarm.
Manifesting aether into my hand, I formed a single claw. I also wrapped myself in a barrier of protective aether before kneeling down next to the plinth. Lining the claw up with the runes—starting with those responsible for creating the alarm effect—I slashed at the stone.
As the claw gouged into the marble, a bolt of vibrantly blue lightning leapt to my hand, burning through the layer of aether and scorching my knuckles before I could react. Reinforcing the aether, I focused on redirecting and channeling the lightning, forcing it to skitter and jump across the surface of the barrier.
It travelled up my arm, across my chest, and down my other arm. If I let the super-charged electrical current fly off into the room, I was likely to blast a hole in the wall or destroy one of the other dead relics. Instead, I pressed my hand firmly over the remainder of the runes so that the lightning bolt travelled in a circle, slamming back into the same runes that conjured it.
The marble split with a loud crack.
I froze, my heart racing, listening hard for any indication the noise had been noticed.
Thunder was rolling in the background, and I could hear Haedrig’s argument with the guards through the walls.
I hoped it was enough to cover the sound of shattering stone.
“—Vritra’s name was that?”
“Go check it out,” the same authoritative voice from earlier commanded.
‘Better hurry it up,’ Regis warned, his puppy form watching me with wide eyes.
I ignored the lightning-patterned burn already healing across my arms and torso, focusing instead on the relic before me.
The relic was also protected by a glass case, which was protected by a series of runes that strengthened it and protected it from magical attack, but it didn’t react as I lifted it from the plinth and set it carefully on the floor. Before touching the real relic, I withdrew the fake from my dimension rune and held it up next to the original, which was sitting on a square velvet pillow. They were identical.
Well done, Caera, I thought as I picked up the dead relic with my other hand.
It was light as a feather and felt weightless in comparison to the heavy pewter copy.
Taking great care, I slowly settled the replacement onto the pillow. It sank into the soft fabric and immediately looked wrong, but before I could work out anything else to do, I heard the heavy clunk of a magical lock being triggered.
‘Art, someone’s coming!’ Regis shouted mentally as he hopped around my feet.
The door closest to where Haedrig was shouting shifted as someone pulled on the handle.
At the same time, there was a hollow thud as a body slammed against one of the walls. “Get your hands off me!” Haedrig shouted.
The door paused, hanging open only an inch or two.
I stared at the false relic sinking into the pillow. With some time…but that was one thing I didn’t have.
Cursing again, I rushed to pick up the glass casing and fit it carefully over the top of the plinth.
Placing a hand over the lightning-scorched runes, I activated Aroa’s Requiem, filling the museum with golden light as the rune lit up beneath my tunic. Sparkling purple motes danced along my arm and across the pedestal, scouring away the cracks, burns, and claw marks and leaving behind unblemished marble. The warding runes along the base glowed dimly in the gloomy light, indicating they were functional once again.
The door began to open again. On the other side was a young guard. One hand was on his sword, the other on the handle of the door, but his head was turned to look down the hall, his focus still, for that instant, on Haedrig.
I conjured a map of the aetheric pathways in my mind just as Regis leapt up and disappeared into my body. In the space of a single heartbeat I connected the pathways I could see with my mental picture of those on the other side of the door.
Drawing in a shallow breath, I activated God Step.
The first sensation I had was of the cold rain crashing against every part of my body at once. The aetheric lightning that jumped and danced across my skin arced out into the rain, causing the air around me to pop and sizzle.
The second sensation I felt was my heart skipping several beats as I realized a figure was looming out of the darkness, coming straight at me with their head down against the pounding rain.
Aether flowed to clad my body as I prepared to defend myself, but the hunched person stopped so suddenly they nearly fell to the ground when their foot slipped on the wet stones.
Reaching out instinctively, I grabbed them under the arm to keep them from falling.
“Vritra’s bloody horns!” a man’s voice exclaimed from under his hood.
We stared at one another.
“Professor Aphelion…” I said, still holding his arm.
“Professor Grey, I…”
His eyes were wide and searching, shifting from my face to the hand gripping his arm to the Chapel entry behind me, where I could already hear the noise of the guards struggling with Haedrig.
My mind raced.
I couldn’t be sure what the professor had seen, or why he was even there. If he had watched me appear out of thin air wrapped in amethyst lightning, then he was a liability. I considered simply breaking his neck and God Stepping away again, but that would definitely complicate the situation. Besides, I didn’t really know what he had seen, and murdering an innocent man—even an Alacryan—didn’t sit well with me.
A commotion from the entrance of the Chapel drew both our attention as three guards appeared, half dragging, half pushing a limp Haedrig.
“You two there!” one of the guards shouted. “What are you doing here?”
Haedrig was hanging from the guards’ arms, his eyes half-closed, but I caught the surreptitious glance he shot me, and the tightening of his jaw when he noticed Professor Aphelion. Another guard appeared in the open doorway to the Chapel, his lip bleeding and his brows turned down in a thunderous scowl.
The professor tugged his arm out of my grip and limped past me as I channeled aether in my hand and prepared to eliminate all the witnesses if necessary.
“Hello friends,” he said amicably, addressing the guards. “I’ll forgive your rudeness due to what appears to be a rather tense situation, but you are speaking to two of Central Academy’s professors. We simply noticed the absence of a guard at the Chapel’s door and were coming to investigate.”
“My apology, sirs,” the guard said quickly, snapping into a shallow bow that forced Haedrig down as well. “This drunk was causing a ruckus, and we thought—”
“That we were his accomplices, coming to aid in his mischief?” Professor Aphelion laughed loudly. “No, but the three of you do have the honor of manhandling…uh—”
“Ascender Haedrig,” I whispered in answer to his searching tone.
“—the once-great ascender, Haedrig, who it appears has fallen on hard times. Show a little pity and release him into our care, would you? No need to embarrass his blood over a mild case of public drunkenness, is there?” When the guards frowned and shared an uncertain look, he added, “It wouldn’t exactly look good if his blood made a fuss to the director, would it?”
“No, sir,” the guard answered, but he kept a firm hold on Haedrig’s arm. “However, I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t report this to campus security. They’ll decide on what to do with—”
While the guard was speaking, Haedrig continued to slouch lower in the guards’ grip. The apparently passed-out ascender suddenly kicked up from the ground, bursting out of the guards’ hands and flipping gracefully through the air to land at the base of the stairs. He snapped a lazy solute before bolting, his mana-enhanced speed carrying him out of sight beyond the veil of rain.
“Go after him!” the head guard exclaimed, causing the other two to burst into a run. Their armored boots slid on the rain-slick pavers, and it was immediately clear they had no chance of catching the quick-footed highblood.
“Well…uh…best of luck,” Professor Aphelion told the remaining guards, who shot us irritated glares.
He nodded to me as he pulled his hood up. “Until later then, Professor Grey.”
I returned the nod, watching his face and eyes carefully for any indication he had seen what had happened or guessed at the reason for my presence near the Chapel, but his face was blank except for the shadow of a sardonic smile.
“Yeah, until later…” I said cautiously, flipping up my own hood and turning away.
I couldn’t help but harbor some lingering unease about Professor Aphelion’s unexpected involvement in the heist, but as far as things that could have gone wrong, it seemed minimally catastrophic.
It was hard to be too worried, considering the prize waiting in my dimension rune.