The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 409

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Chapter 409

Chapter 407: Yet Another Step


The Earthborn Institute’s dim halls blurred past as I rushed downward, deeper into the labyrinthine mass of tunnels. No alarm had been sounded, and the few dwarves I passed appeared unaware of any strangeness, though my hurried descent drew nervous and questioning looks from most.

The aether had appeared in a rush, then dissipated almost immediately, from the direction of the laboratories. There were few enough people or artifacts who could cause such a phenomena, and although she wasn’t one of them, I was conscious of Lyra Dreide’s presence in the institute.

Is our guest minding herself? I thought to Regis.

‘She didn’t have anything to do with that spike of aether, if that’s what you’re asking. Want me to come with you to check it out?’

No, stay where you are for now.

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‘Yippee,’ my companion groused, his boredom and irritation leaking through our mental connection.

As I moved off in nearly the opposite direction, my thoughts lingered on Kezess. He had promised assistance in defending Dicathen, but hadn’t been clear about the specifics of what that might entail. However, I didn’t think that meant portaling in asura without informing me. I couldn’t entirely trust his word anyway—that would have been the height of foolishness—and I knew it was within reason he might reverse course and take some hostile action instead.

Still, this didn’t feel like Kezess. There was nothing to gain in either case, as far as I could see. No, the more likely scenario led me down familiar tunnels, and when I saw two burly dwarven guards, each fully outfitted with shields, spears, and heavy plate armor, standing outside Gideon’s lab, I felt certain my guess was correct.

The two shifted positions as they heard my approach, tensing but then relaxing almost immediately. Simultaneously, they slammed the bases of their large shields against the ground. “Lance, sir!” they barked together. One went silent, and the other continued, almost apologetic. “Gideon has given strict orders that no one bother him—”

The doors shot open, and Emily’s bespectacled face poked out, her eyes wide behind the lenses. She looked at the guards, opened her mouth to say something, spotted me, then seemed to change tack in the middle of her thought. “Arthur, you’re a healer!”

She was breathing hard and slightly flushed around the cheeks. “I mean, I’m glad you’re here.” To the guard, she added, “Go get a healer.”

The guard snapped a salute, then jogged away at a quick pace, his heavy armor clanging with every footfall.

Emily pulled the door open and I slipped through, then she let it swing shut behind me.

The lab, I was surprised to see, was empty. “Where is—”

“Come on, through here,” she snapped, already rushing away.

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I followed her through an arched door at the other end of the lab, then down a flight of stairs and into another hall. Hidden beneath was a series of smaller chambers I hadn’t visited before, each one blocked by a heavy stone door inscribed with runes. Emily stopped at the third door on the right, empowered it with mana, and pushed hard.

On the other side of the thick stone door was a wide, dimly-lit chamber with a low ceiling. A single table had been dragged down here, but the main feature of the room was a protective circle in the center. A small shield generator was connected to several mana crystals, and when activated would create a very dense, dome-shaped mana shield around the protection circle.

Sitting on the floor, his bare back against the curved wall, was Gideon. His gray hair was a mess, and there was a gaunt, pale look on his face, but when his eyes settled on me as I followed Emily into the chamber, they were full of fire.

“I figured it out!” he croaked, heedless of Emily’s worry. “The bestowals, the artifacts, the spellforms, all of it.”

A manic grin spread across his face, and words began to spill from his mouth. “The hard part was the sequencing of the runes in the robe. I suggested before it was like a password, and your summons was right in that there is a trap woven in—if you channeled mana into the runes out of order, they will keep drawing on your mana until you either break the connection or run out, incapacitating or even killing the wearer, and before you say it, getting out would be no easy feat, as there are belts within the robes that are tricky to do and undo, and they have to be buckled correctly for all that mana to move properly.”

Gideon drew a deep breath, and I opened my mouth to ask him a question, but he immediately continued barrelling onward. “In fact, the robes use the wearer as a kind of conduit for certain aspects of the manipulation, so just holding them on your lap or touching them with one hand doesn’t work, they have to be worn. It’s rather devious, honestly.”

Gideon shook his head, looking impressed. “But,” he continued, “I figured out the correct sequencing, naturally.” He gestured to Emily, and I realized with a sinking feeling in my stomach that she was wearing the ceremonial robes.

“Gideon,” Emily said urgently.

She had crossed the room and kneeled beside him while he was rambling, but only then did he seem to even notice her.

Still grinning, he said, “Oh, of course. Miss Watsken was quite the help, testing the artifacts individually to ensure that our hypotheses—”

“Gideon,” she said again, exasperated. “I sent for a healer. We should—”

“Bah!” Gideon burst out, struggling to push himself up the wall to stand. “Arthur, you’ve distracted me. I need to move on to the testing phase immediately.”

“Hold on,” I said, raising a hand to stop him. “We should really talk this through before we try the bestowal on a person. If something were to go wrong…”

I trailed off. Gideon’s half-grown brows raised and furrowed simultaneously, his expression caught somewhere between confusion and disbelief. Behind him, Emily stared at the ground, rubbing her eyes with her hands.

My gaze tracked from Gideon’s thin, soft bare form to the table, where the staff and other artifacts rested.

Then Gideon burst out with a wild laugh and shook his head, his shoulders shaking with amusement. “What do you think is going to go wrong? I channel mana and my torso explodes?” He stopped, and a thoughtful look crossed his face for a moment. Turning to Emily, he asked, “Is that something we considered?”

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“Wait,” I said, feeling wrong-footed. Then, like a trapdoor opening in my mind, I connected the burst of aether I had felt with Gideon’s words. I drew a hand down my face with a sigh. “You already used it, didn’t you?”

Gideon flipped a switch, channeled a burst of mana into the shield artifact, and took his place in the middle of the protection circle. “This spellform? No, of course, not, I’m—oh! You mean the bestowal artifacts. Well yes, of course, I couldn’t sit around waiting for you forever, could I?”

I groaned. “Gideon, I say this with all due respect, but only an actual insane person would commit to a human trial of unknown and only partially understood magic on himself.”

Gideon closed his eyes. “All magic is the constant act of self-experimentation. If I recall correctly, you once caused yourself a near-crippling number of micro-fractures throughout the bones of your legs by experimenting with a spell.”

I ground my teeth but had to admit he was right. “Fine. But before you take this further, can I at least call in someone who understands the use of spellforms? Who can perhaps guide you on their use?”

Gideon opened one eye. “You just happen to have an Alacryan mage in your back pocket or something?”

“Not in my back pocket, no,” I shot back. “Just…don’t do anything else stupid until I get back.”

“Sometimes I feel like you don’t appreciate my genius.”

There was a dull hammering from the door, and Emily jumped. “Oh, that’ll be the healer.”

I pulled the door open to reveal the guard and a heavy set dwarven woman, whose scowl sent shivers up even my spine. She stomped into the chamber, glared around, and then settled her irritation firmly on Gideon.

I slipped out into the hall past the guard but could still hear the reverberation of her voice as she shouted, “This is the sixth time this week,” and then her words were lost.

Lyra Dreide’s vault-cell was not far, and I reached it quickly. Regis had sensed me coming, of course, and was standing in front of the bars with his flames waving fiercely.

“What’s going on?” Lyra asked as I appeared in front of her. “I sensed your beast’s agitation, but he’s even less communicative than you.”

Saying nothing, I God Stepped into the vault, took hold of her arm, and stepped back into the hall. “Stay close, and don’t try anything.”

The retainer let out a put-upon sigh. “Perhaps I was mistaken…”

For the second time, I made my way down into the lower halls where Gideon had his laboratory. The guards said nothing, but stepped well back from the door as I led Lyra and Regis into the lab, their hard eyes following the retainer closely.

Emily was quick to open the inner door when I knocked, and we all entered the chamber together. Lyra, who was looking around curiously at everything, immediately honed in on Gideon. “He has a rune.”

Gideon took in her dark eyes, her flame-red hair, her suppressed aura. His skin wrinkled as he frowned. “Isn’t that the regent?”

“Well spotted, both of you,” I said sarcastically. “She is my prisoner, and has forsaken service to the enemy and promised to make herself useful.” To her, I asked, “How could you tell?”

“There is a faint signature of the mana, brightest just after formation, though eventually hidden by the mage’s own mana signature.”

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The sight of mana particles burned into my vision as I activated Realmheart. Sure enough, layered behind Gideon’s own mana signature, there was the more subtle glow of the spellform. It was then that I noticed his core itself; it was still burning with mana, and within the mana currents was a thin trail of aether particles. As I watched, this swelling of mana began to fade, allowing me to see his core more clearly.

It was rapidly clarifying to a light yellow color.

“You have figured out how Agrona’s bestowment ritual works,” Lyra continued, her tone curious, musing. “A clever turnabout, but not without risk.”

“What risks?” Emily asked, keeping well back from the retainer and yet watching her with a kind of wary eagerness. “We assumed that, once a spellform was in place, it was only a matter of learning to control it.”

Lyra nodded along as Emily spoke, pursing her lips slightly. “Yes, practice and patience will allow a mage to master a new rune, but our entire culture is predicated on the training and knowledge to do so. Alacryan children prepare to wield runes even before their first bestowment, and still plenty of young mages have pushed too hard, too fast, and burned themselves to dust with a rune they didn’t fully understand and weren’t equipt to make use of.”

Gideon huffed, but Emily seemed slightly shaken as the color drained from her cheeks.

“But the greater risk is in the bestowment itself,” the retainer continued. “Our people are adapted to the bestowals. You might even say we were bred for it. We are born with our cores, and twenty percent of our population develops magic. Your people lack asuran lineage, something even the lowliest of Alacryan unadorned can claim. Do not discount the danger just because this single Imbuer has survived unscaled. The process may very well kill some who attempt it.”

“Bah!” Gideon burst out, losing his patience. “It’s easy enough to see the divide between Alacrya’s development of the mechanism involved in this ritual and the original magics formulated by the ancient mages. If it worked for them a thousand years ago, and then for the Alacryans now, why wouldn’t it work for us too?”

He shifted his focus to me, scowling darkly. “Perhaps your ‘prisoner’ is attempting to forestall our progress or sow doubt, eh?”

I considered his claim and the retainer simultaneously. Her placidity seemed a direct counter to his bubbling antagonism, but I didn’t sense any misdirection or untruthfulness in her words. “What she has said lines up with my own experience in Alacrya,” I said after a moment. “We proceed cautiously, understanding the risks and mitigating them where we can.”

Gideon tossed his hands in the air in a mockingly jubilant prayer to the heavens. “Great. Can I light this thing up and see what happens now, or do any of you have any more dire warnings for me first?”

Regis’s lips pulled back from his teeth in a lupine grin. “Only that having one of these runes tends to coincide with being a homicidal maniac set on following a living deity into war with the kingdom of the gods,” he tossed out casually. “I don’t think that’s a side effect of rune, really, but you never know.”

Gideon snorted in bewilderment, shook his head, and then closed his eyes. After a moment, he opened just one and looked at Lyra. “So I…uh…just push mana into it or…?”

Her lips formed a hard line as she nodded. “Feel for it. The rune itself is a part of you now, and you should sense it.”

Gideon closed his eye again, frowning deeply as he concentrated.

With Realmhart still active, I watched as mana flowed through him and into the rune. It lit up, and mana radiated out from it before rushing up his spine and into his brain.

Gideon gasped. His lips were moving, but no noise was coming out.

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“What is it?” Emily asked, her fingers kneading white-knuckled into the front of the ceremonial robes. “Professor Gideon, are you okay?”

“Oh,” he said, almost a moan. “This is…”

The flow of mana cut off as he released his channeling. He was breathing hard, and his eyes were moving rapidly beneath his lids.

Lyra was smirking. “Don’t worry. There is a heady rush to a new rune, especially a crest or higher.”

Finally, Gideon’s eyes fluttered open. “I don’t entirely understand what just happened,” he admitted with a quiet reverie. “It was like the magical equivalent of drinking far too much coffee in far too short a time.”

“A mental rune then,” Lyra mused, moving slowly around the protective shielding. “Probably either that of a Sentry or an Imbuer. A crest, certainly. Without the proper tomes…”

Emily held up the book containing a description of all the runes granted from this particular staff.

Humming to herself, Lyra took the book and flipped through it. “Here it is. Awakened Mind, the crest of an Imbuer. Not surprising, of course, although runes do not always align with previous life experience. It has only been granted twice that was recorded in this tome, but the notes indicate mastering it allowed both Imbuers to convert mana into a sort of mental energy, providing wakefulness and focus.”

She handed the book back to Emily, who took it with both hands like it was a child.

“Yes, that’s what I felt, but it was a chaotic energy,” Gideon said, gingerly pushing himself up to his feet and stumbling through the shield. He flicked the switch, and the transparent barrier dwindled and vanished. “It’ll get easier?”

“Oh yes,” Lyra confirmed. “And the effect will continue to grow in strength as you master the rune. When you’ve done that, attempt the bestowal again, and you may receive another, more powerful rune. Often they are complimentary, although not always.”

Emily looked from Lyra to Gideon to myself, a slowly dawning horror falling over her features. “So he’s going to be even…more hyperactive?”

I chuckled appreciatively, but Gideon himself took no notice as he slipped a loose tunic over his bare torso and stretched, his back cracking like gravel crunching beneath a boot.

“Then we move on to the second experiment,” he said eagerly.

The chamber went quiet as we all looked at the old artificer in surprise.

“I know I said this is important,” I said, breaking the silence, “but you should rest, take time to make sure there are no side effects—”

Gideon wagged his finger in my face with almost comical violence. “You did say this was important! And I’ll be thrice-damned if I’m going to waste our momentum. According to our previous conversation, just being around you enhances the rune received. I’ve tested myself to ensure that the process won’t kill either the officiant or the recipient of the spellform, but I’m a middling case. We’ve spent a bit of time together since your return, but not an abundance. Now we need to bestow someone who hasn’t been around you at all.”

I met Emily’s eyes, but she only shrugged. She knew all too well how pig-headed her master was, and although she might not hesitate to voice her opinion, she wasn’t about to help me try and talk him out of charging onward with this.

Lyra stepped closer to Gideon and said softly, “My own caution, then, would be against pushing your officiant too hard. Performing the bestowment ceremony is taxing on both mind and body. Agrona’s officiants spend their entire lives training to handle the huge crowds that can show up to a bestowment, and often the load is shared between many people.”

She hesitated, then added, “I would be willing to lend my services as an officiant if you teach me what you have—”

“No,” I said flatly, crossing my arms. “We will consider who else to bring into this, but for the moment, Emily will be our officiant.”

Lyra shrugged, smiling pleasantly. “Of course, Regent Leywin. I am only trying to help.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Gideon asked, looking around at all of us. “Emily, go find me a dwarf. Arthur, you get the hell out of here so you don’t contaminate my experiment.”


“So, what next?” Regis asked from where he was curled up at my feet at the end of the hallway.

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It had been some time since either of us had spoken, and I had to collect the wayward shreds of my attention before replying. “After this second test?”

“No, after all that. We’ve mostly taken back the continent, broken Kezess’s limitation placed on the Lances, and now given spellforms to Dicathen to help even the odds in any future battles. But a couple of white core mages and a few magical tattoos aren’t going to defeat Agrona.”

I leaned back against the wall and let the back of my head rest against the cool stone. “Strategic provisioning of the spellforms may not defeat Agrona, but it will allow us to rapidly provide power boosts where they are needed and add a lot of new tools to our repertoire, you know that.” I thought for a few seconds. “Any one of the steps we take might be what allows victory in the end.”

“But,” I continued after another long pause, “I understand that you and I have other things to do. Seris is fighting a war for us in Alacrya, and there are two more ruins to hunt down.” I left unsaid the problem that loomed over everything else, the one I had done my best to keep to the back of my mind ever since Sylvie’s sacrifice and my appearance in the Relictombs…because I still had no idea what I could do about Cecilia and Tessia.

Regis lapsed into silence, and together, we waited for Emily’s return.

It took longer than Gideon would have liked to recruit a second test subject whom I’d had no interaction with. There was some worry that even incidental contact, such as my speaking to the guards out in the hallway, would sway the results, and most of the guards and soldiers in the Earthborn Institute had crossed my path at least once or twice.

But the real delay was that, when Skarn Earthborn discovered what Emily was asking about, he insisted on informing his uncle, Carnelian, about the tests, so that the dwarven lord could voice his opinion. This inevitably became a struggle between the Earthborns and Silvershales to send forth a member of their house, but most had spent hours in close proximity with me in meetings with the Council of Lords.

But eventually, after what felt like many hours but was probably only one, Emily returned with a young dwarf lord called Daymor Silvershale, youngest son of Lord Daglun, Carnelian’s chief rival. Daymor kept his pitch-black beard trimmed to only a few inches and his hair slightly shorter. He looked every bit the royal as he appeared in a regally-tailored tunic and breeches, with rings on his fingers and a golden-hilted sword hanging at his hip.

I, of course, only watched from the end of the hallway with Regis at my side. Daymor met my eye before following Emily into the bestowal chamber, and his lips twitched beneath his beard. I thought he looked nervous, and he grew even moreso when the two guards and attendant who had trailed him down into these deep tunnels were made to wait outside in the corridor.

Although I could not watch the process, a fact I found somewhat disappointing, I listened to the muffled voices of Gideon, Emily, and Lyra explaining everything that was to happen. Still, I consoled myself with the fact that I had seen the bestowment ceremony before, in Maerin, and knew what was happening.

The ceremony itself took much less time than finding our test subject.

When the door opened again, the three dwarves were quick to hurry in. I followed behind, curious but hopeful. There had been no panicked shouts to indicate we had just killed off a member of the noble house of Silvershale, and indeed, when I peered through the door, I saw Daymor grinning as he rubbed at the bare flesh of his back.

He tried to turn around to look over his shoulder, as if he might be able to see his own spine, while Gideon shooed the other dwarves to the outer edges of the small room.

“Now, feel for the rune, and push your mana into it. It should feel natural, instinctual,” Lyra was saying.

Daymor turned his nose up at her and spit on the ground. “Like I said, I don’t take orders from Alacryan filth, and especially not the Bitch Queen of Etistin.”

“That’s enough, Daymor,” I said firmly. “What we are doing is important, and Lyra of Highblood Dreide is here at my order.”

The dwarf attempted to scowl at me, but his wide eyes and the twitching of a muscle beneath his beard gave away just how frightened he was. After a few seconds, he cleared his throat and said, “Aye, let’s get on with it then. This bloody thing itches like the dickens.”

Gideon sucked his teeth in irritation. “Fine, then perhaps you’ll listen to me. Stay within the circle, and empower the spellform.”

Daymor followed Gideon’s instructions, settling himself in the center of the protection circle and taking a deep breath, making his broad chest swell.

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Lyra had fallen back to stand beside me. “Thank you,” she said under her breath. “For defending me.”

“I wasn’t,” I said, also keeping my voice low. “But it will grow awfully tedious if every conversation has to wait for a string of expletives to be thrown at you first.”

Lyra didn’t answer, and so I returned my focus to Daymor, quietly activating Realmheart so I could watch the flow of mana. Like with Gideon, it poured from Daymor’s core and down into his rune, but this time the resultant spell flowed down his legs and into the ground.

Thin fissures cracked the ground inside of the protection circle, and wispy flames erupted from them. I could see the fine line where the protection circle’s runes rebuffed the flow of the mana, preventing the spell from affecting anything outside it.

“Fire, my lord!” the attendant said, clearly shocked.

Daymor laughed, a booming noise like a cannon. “Ah, but it feels strange. Good, but strange!”

All in all, it was not an impressive spell, but I knew Daymor was a single-attribute earth mage. The mark had granted him the ability to cast a spell of a different type than his natural affinity; that alone was a great boon for a Dicathian mage. It was certainly something his father could crow about in the Council of Lords meetings for the foreseeable future, especially as Daymor’s mastery of the rune grew.

As Emily and Gideon began explaining to Daymor what was expected of him—daily training and monitoring, reports on how the spellform impacted his magic, and so forth—I let my thoughts drift to the next question. Gideon would want to do a third test, of course. This time with someone who I had spent a significant amount of time with…

Although the list was short, that did not make it easy. Who had I spent enough time with since returning to Dicathen?

The better question, I thought to myself, is who among that short list am I willing to put at risk?

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