The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 417

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Chapter 417


“This would be much easier if we just flew,” Mica said grumpily as she wiped a glob of blackish-greenish sludge from her face, all that remained of yet another beast that had attacked us.

“You can’t simply bypass the rigors of the Relictombs,” Lyra pointed out, sounding exactly like a school teacher. “The point is to ascend through them, defeating their challenges, not circumventing them. Otherwise, you gain nothing. Besides, flight is mana intensive, and you’ll need to learn to conserve your strength.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Mica scoffed. “I didn’t realize this was a day trip to kooky school.”

Something flopped in the muck to our right, and my head twitched nervously in that direction. The light in the zone was diffused and hazy, making visibility weird. The green murk hid the distant walls and ceiling, giving the uncomfortably impression that the place just went on forever and ever. It also swallowed sound, making it difficult for me to tell whether it came from right beside us or halfway across the zone.

The smell was the worst, though. Like boiling rotten eggs layered over moldy manure and decomposing animals…

“This might be the first time I don’t appreciate having your enhanced senses, big guy,” I muttered, patting Boo on the back. He rumbled back, agreeing.

My bond with Boo made me the best scout and lookout, and so I was sitting on top of him and watching for signs of geysers exploding or terror leeches—a name I’d invented myself—attacking from beneath the acidic pools, while also scanning the horizon for any sign of an exit.

“I wouldn’t need to conserve mana if Arthur would just show us the way through this place,” Mica went on, her knuckles creaking audibly around the haft of her hammer.

“Think of it as your first test,” Arthur answered humorlessly.

Catching sight of a dim glimmer through the gloom, I pointed it out to the others. “I think that shiny thing over there might be a portal.”

Mica floated up off the ground and squinted in that direction. “Mica doesn’t—I don’t see anything.”

Regis chortled in amusement. “Then that means we made the right choice in making Eagle

Eyes here our scout.”

“Oh, L-Lyra!” I burst out, catching sight of a crimson ball of slime oozing its way up the back of her boot.

Her head snapped around, and she quickly followed the line of my wide-eyed gaze to the blood slug. Her hand scythed down and a blade of wind sliced the thing off her. With a sharp stomp, she crushed it. A circle of blood sprayed around her foot like a gory halo.

“You’re all getting distracted,” Arthur said, his arms crossed and one brow raised judgmentally. “Focus.”

Lyra nodded deeply, almost like a shallow bow. “Of course, Regent Leywin. You are correct. During an ascent, one member of the team should always be given leadership authority, even among freshly forged groups. I would suggest—”

Mica scoffed for about the hundredth time and spun toward Lyra, but, before she could speak, a massive tentacle snapped out of the pool of acid she was hovering above. I gasped and fumbled with my bow as it wrapped around her leg.

“Oh, rock and root, get off me!” she snapped, swinging her conjured hammer into the slimy appendage.

Instead of bursting, the tentacle seemed to stretch, absorbing the impact. As it stretched, it sort of melted, coming apart in sticky strands that very obviously defied the normal laws of nature, then solidified again in a loop around the hammer, trapping it while still holding Mica. Tendrils of smoke were rising from wherever the acidic tentacle touched her.

I drew the string of my bow and mana formed into a white beam of light nocked against the string. With the twang of release, the arrow drew a bright line through the murky air and struck the tentacle with a wet thump.

Mica pulled against the tentacle, attempting to fly upward and break its grip, but it somehow resisted even the strength of a Lance.

Stone spikes thrust up from under the surface of the water, each one pointing in a slightly different direction, many piercing the not-quite-real looking tentacle, but still it held onto her.

The air began to vibrate. The noise this made was so low I doubted anyone but me could hear it. For a second, I wondered what kind of new monstrosity was attacking us, but then I sensed the mana pouring out of Lyra and into the tentacle. I held my breath for a second as I waited for something to happen, then the tentacle burst apart into a shower of inky, slithering snot blobs.

Boo lurched beneath me, dodging a splattering of the stuff.

“Gross,” Mica said, shaking like a wet dog as she brushed the hissing slime and bits of tentacle off her.

“See, Lance?” Lyra said with a poorly suppressed smirk. “It all comes down to knowledge and your ability to act on said knowledge without panicking. I was able to save you because—”

“I wasn’t panicking!” Mica practically shouted, followed quickly by, “And you didn’t save me—”

I jumped so hard I nearly fell off Boo’s back as a flash of violet light suddenly filled the zone, accompanied by a bonfire roar. I looked away, but not quickly enough, and suddenly found myself blinking rapidly as tears came to my stinging eyes. Boo grumbled, backpedaling away from the light and bumping into Regis, who had been walking just behind and beside us. The huge shadow wolf was knocked sideways, sliding down the edge of the raised lip of dirt we had been following until his paws hit the burning goop that filled the pool.

I turned back in time to see dozens of wriggling bits of exploded tentacle dissolving back into the acidic pool, blown away from Lyra by Arthur’s aetheric blast.

“I’m sorry!” I said immediately, the words directed somewhere between the cursing Regis and glowering Arthur. “I should have seen that those bits were still moving and alive.”

Regis was grumbling as he crawled back up the slope, his paws sizzling. “What a total cluster—”

Arthur shot a glare his way, and the shadow wolf’s jaws snapped shut.

Boo gave a quiet grumble, and Regis shook his head in response. “I know, right?”

Mica had already landed back on the ground, and both her and Lyra were looking at Arthur sheepishly.

“For some reason, Ellie is the one apologizing even though she’s actually doing the task she’s been given,” Arthur said pointedly. He ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. “Lyra, you’ve been in the Relictombs before, but never with me. And Mica, you’re used to the Beast Glades, where there isn’t much you can’t handle. This place is different. The strength of the monsters grows with the people inside, and this whole place has adapted to my presence. You can’t rely on just brute-forcing your way past every encounter. You have to be strategic, fight smart. The Relictombs is designed to test you…or kill you.”

Mica lifted her chin and met my brother’s eyes unflinchingly. “I’m not afraid of anything this place can throw at me.”

Lyra scoffed, but cut off at a warning look from my brother.

“But that’s part of the problem. You have no idea what this place can do and I need you to understand why you’re even here. Ellie is travelling with me so she can practice her new ability, and Lyra needs to be kept close to me because I can’t trust to leave someone as powerful as her locked up anywhere”—“Thanks for that vote of confidence,” she said under her breath—“and so I need you to keep an eye on them both.”

Mica’s brows rose so high they vanished into her hairline, and her mouth hung open. It seemed like a rare thing for the dwarven Lance to lack any words, but I was too tense to see the humor in it at that moment.

As Arthur was speaking, I watched another blood slug start to crawl up the back of Mica’s leg. “Um, Mica? You’ve got a…”

She grabbed the pulsating red lump in one hand, gritted her teeth, and squeezed. Crimson pulp oozed out between her fingers. “I understand,” she said, tossing the mess into the closest pool of acid with a heavy splash.

“All right, let’s get moving again then,” Arthur said, gesturing for Mica and Lyra to take the lead.

Moving together, they started off in the direction I’d indicated. Arthur immediately lit up with a dim violet light, his blond hair floating up from his head. I watched him curiously. Even though I’d seen it several times now, it was still kind of eerie. Arthur already looked so different than from before he’d disappeared, and the strange runes only highlighted his alien nature. With Realmheart active, his head shifted from side to side and up and down, scanning our surroundings.

As we passed the pool, I was distracted by something strange.

My arrow, the one I’d shot at the tentacle grabbing Mica, was floating on the surface of the acid. Boo, sensing my attention shifting, stopped and let out a grunt.

“What’s up?” Regis asked, staring hard into the pool, perhaps expecting some other monstrous manifestation to jump out at us.

“Nothing, it’s just…” Mentally, I reached for the arrow. I could feel it, sense the mana still compacted into that form. My regalia tingled, and I realized the arrow was still tethered to me by the spellform. I purposefully released that tether, and the arrow dissolved, the mana dispersing. “That’s weird.”

Boo whined, informing me that the others had moved on ahead. “Go on, catch up,” I said, but my thoughts stayed with the arrow.

I’d always had a talent for forming my pure, elementless mana into shapes outside of my body. Although I didn’t do it often, practicing making shapes with Arthur had really helped me to extend the range and power of my arrows. And Helen had taught me how to shoot a mana arrow that formed into a protective shield around the target instead of harming them. But all the abilities I’d ever learned required me to focus and keep channeling mana, otherwise the effect ended.

Holding out my hand, I pictured a ball. As mana flowed from my core to my palm, the ball appeared, formed of glowing white mana. I tossed the ball aside, where it splashed into one of the pools. It bobbed up and down for a moment, then was batted aside as a tentacle slithered across the acid’s surface.

“Don’t disturb the pools,” Arthur said over his shoulder, his voice vibrating with the energy channeled by Realmheart.

“Sorry,” I said immediately, biting my lip.

In my hands, I conjured another ball, taking my focus away from the first, but I was careful not to actively dismiss the innate connection my regalia maintained with it. Even though my focus was on the ball in my hands, I could still sense the other one floating in the acid.

Somewhere up ahead, Lyra shouted out, and Mica struck down a terror leech with her huge hammer.

Dismissing the sphere in my hands, I twisted around on Boo to better see the other ball, which was now about fifty feet behind me. The draw on my mana was barely noticeable, but the form seemed unaffected by my lack of focus. Curious, I attempted to manipulate the physical structure of the sphere.

The mana imploded, causing a burst of energy that sent acid spraying up in the air like a miniature geyser.

I spun around, my gaze jumping guiltily to Arthur, but he dismissed the noise after a perfunctory glance, apparently mistaking it for one of the many natural geysers that were going off constantly.

“That was pretty cool,” Regis said, plodding up to walk next to Boo as the path widened briefly. “You were using your spellform, right?”

“Oh, um, yeah,” I said, feeling awkward. “I’m not really sure what it’s doing though—or what I’m doing with it.” The rotten-egg smell intensified, drawing my attention to small bubbles forming on the surface of the pool next to us. “On our left!”

An earthen wall sprouted from the ground, curving over us like a half-arch, and I heard the spray of sludgy water on the other side. “Thanks,” Mica shot back over her shoulder.

“Try again,” Regis suggested after the noise had passed.

I thought about what I wanted to do for a moment, then began shaping the mana. When I was ready, I tossed it onto the path behind us, but maintained active focus on it, attempting to continue to manipulate the shape so that it moved with us.

A small blob with four stubs for legs trotted stiffly after Boo and Regis, glowing white in the dim light.

I turned around so I wasn’t looking at the conjured figure and scanned our surroundings. When I found what I was looking for, I drew my bow, conjured an arrow, and loosed. The white beam of mana thunked into a fat Blood Slug that was hunkered at the edge of the path, ready to latch onto the first thing to get close enough.

“Nice shot,” Lyra said, kicking the remains down the ledge.

Quickly looking behind me, I saw that the four-legged blob had stopped moving. It was still there, frozen with its stubby legs lifted as if it was in the middle of taking a step, but it was no longer following us. I tried to start it moving again, but like the sphere in the pool, it burst, creating a nova of mana that expanded outward for several feet before dissipating.

“The mana holds its shape after I stop focusing on it, but I don’t seem to be able to reconnect with it. When I try to change the shape again, it collapses,” I told Regis, glad to have someone to bounce my ideas off of.

“Collapses…or explodes,” Regis shot back, giving me a wolfish grin. “Maybe it’s just because I’m a walking, talking weapon, but I wonder…can you make something burst with more energy than that? Maybe if you compact a larger amount of mana into the shape? Or forge it with the intent that it, y’know, goes boom?”

I giggled at the excitement in his tone, but went quiet when Arthur cocked his head, turning his ear back toward me.

Is right now really the best time to be playing around with your power? I asked myself with Arthur’s voice. What if I draw in a bunch more of those monsters? Or something goes wrong, like Lyra said, and I go into backlash?

As I considered this, I noticed the golden glow emanating from Arthur’s lower back glow brighter. “What’s he doing?” I asked aloud, mostly to myself.

“Meditating,” Regis answered. “He’s been focused on Dicathen, and hasn’t made much effort to continue improving himself lately. This isn’t just a chance for you and the insane dwarf to train. It’s his, too.”

I set my jaw. That made sense. And if even my invincible, god-killing brother was doing what he could to train and become stronger, I had to too.

I didn’t worry much about the physical form, just shaped the mana into a kind of rough, flat, very dense disk.

When I was satisfied, I tossed the disk behind us. It landed on the hard dirt with a quiet thud. Inside my head, I disengaged my focus from the mana but left the tether with my regalia intact.

This time, I waited until we were almost a hundred feet away from it. There was a dull aching sensation coming from the spellform by then. I was nearing the outer range of the tether. That’s good to know.

Instead of just trying to change the mana’s shape, I specifically attempted to force the mana outward, imaging it as a violent explosion—

A huge boom shook the ground and tore the raised lip of solid ground apart, collapsing it into the acid pools on either side. Three geysers went off one after another, set off by the explosion, and several terror leeches and huge tentacles burst out of the acid to slither toward the wreckage.

“What was that?” Mica asked, flying back over us and hovering between me and the site of the explosion.

“S-sorry!” I squeaked, my heart fluttering in my chest. “I didn’t think that it would be so…so…” Panicking, I pointed at Regis. “It was his idea!”

The shadow wolf barked out a gleeful, manic laugh. “Hell yeah it was.”

Arthur was beside me, one hand resting on Boo. He’d stopped channeling his godrunes, and the alien light that had infused him was gone. “You did that?” he asked, his piercing golden eyes tracking over the collapsed patch of trail. “How?”

A little haltingly, I explained what I had noticed about the arrow and the discoveries that had spiraled from that observation.

As I talked, Arthur activated Realmheart again. “Create something,” he suggested, watching me carefully.

I formed another ball, but paused before I did anything with it. Tilting my head slightly to the side, I listened. “Does anyone else feel that?”

Suddenly the ground where my mana mine had gone off ripped apart, churning as if being swarmed by Darvish sand sharks. The handful of terror leeches still milling around the spot disappeared into the ground, where their bodies were pulverized by something I still couldn’t see.

Lyra hurried to Mica’s side, between me and the cacophonous noise. Regis started forward with them, but he stopped, shot Arthur a questioning look, then shrugged his shoulders helplessly.

As the ground gave way, something started to surface from beneath it. A wormlike body rose up and up, rivers of muddy acid running down its shining crimson carapace. It was as tall as an elshire tree before it stopped growing, and I had to wonder how much of it was still hidden beneath the ground. It didn’t have a head, only a huge hole for a mouth, filled with rows and rows of triangular teeth that rotated around within the chasm of its mouth, like one of Master Gideon’s crazy inventions.

Even Mica didn’t have anything flippant to say as we all stared at the humongous monster.

The gaping maw bent toward us, unleashing a roar so loud I had to cover my ears with my hands. Three tentacles slithered out of the mouth, each one covered with dozens of smaller, tooth-filled sets of jaws, just like the terror leeches. The tentacles swayed back and forth, each one letting out a low, irritating hissing noise.

“Work together,” Arthur said. “Ellie, you stay back. Regis will be at your side.”

“Let’s get it done then,” Mica said. Cocking back her arm, she hurled her hammer with incredible speed. It hit one of the leech-tentacles and burst straight through, only to turn in the air and zoom back to her hand. “Huh, maybe this won’t be too hard after…all…”

As Mica’s words trailed off, the severed tentacle—Is it a tongue? Or maybe a head?—began to grow back, its stump dividing into two at the base and forming twin leech-tentacle-head things.

“Oh, great,” Mica muttered.

As one, the four heads reared back and sprayed streams of swampy green acidic slime from all their mouths.

Jagged black lines scored the air with a noise like nails on glass, shielding us from the attack. Wherever the acid touched the black lines, it sizzled and seemed to be pulled apart into its base components, steam rising and clear water falling as the mana was destabilized.

But all the noise was drawing other things, too. More terror leeches and blood slugs were swimming through the pools of acid in our direction, coming from all sides.

With a battle cry, Mica threw herself into the air, moving like a ballista bolt. She spun midair, her hammer swelling with mana as she enhanced gravity’s pull on it, until she collided with the two freshly-grown leech heads.

They burst apart like sacks of half-melted butter, spraying acid in every direction—including all over Mica herself. She gasped in pain, but didn’t slow down as she redirected her hammer, swinging at one of the two remaining heads. But it slithered away from the blow, which missed, while the other head snaked around behind her.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a black slash bisect the attacking head so that it peeled apart down the middle, flopping grotesquely. But I had my arrow trained on one of the terror leeches speeding toward us. Waiting for it to crest up out of the thick acid, I aimed for one of the many mouths and loosed. My aim was precise, and the arrow sank into the rubbery flesh and out of sight, but the leech kept coming.

“Boom,” Regis said, an unnerving gleam in his eyes.

Following his meaning, I focused on the tether of mana connecting me to the arrow, and pushed outward on the mana.

Inside the terror leech, my arrow burst apart with a bass-heavy whump. The monster’s sides swelled with the force, then collapsed inward like a deflated waterskin, and it tumbled end over end for a couple of seconds before splashing to a stop, floating on the acid’s surface.

But all I felt was a growing dread as a dozen more followed behind it. “There are too many!”

To compound this, the giant hydra worm had gone from four heads to seven. Mica was flitting around between them, dodging spraying acid and snapping mouths, striking instead at the towering wormy body, but her blows hardly seemed to do any damage.

I released arrow after arrow, each one bursting within a terror leech body and stopping it in its tracks. On the other side of the path, Arthur had started unleashing aetheric blasts to fend off the swarm of monsters from that direction.

A scream drew my attention back to the hydra worm.

One of the heads had finally caught Mica, several mouths biting down on her legs and torso. When she drew her hammer back to strike at it, another coiled around the head of the hammer, holding it fast.

Lyra slashed her hand through the air, but yet another head moved to intercept the spell. The black slash sheared the tentacle-like head from the body, and two more grew in its place.

My heart was racing, and I could feel the panic start to cloud my mind. Drawing my bowstring, I conjured two arrows and used my index finger to part them slightly, giving them different angles. Focusing on maintaining both arrows separately, I took my shot.

The bright white beams flew just inside the two newly formed heads. One sank into a mouth on the trunk holding Mica, but the second missed its mark, impacting against the thick flesh of the second head, which had pinned her hammer.

Both arrows burst in a shockwave of mana.

The head biting Mica shivered and went limp, while the second was jarred forcefully enough that it released her weapon. Wasting no time, Mica shot straight up into the air, only to be followed by several arcing streams of acidic slime. Spinning, she hurled her hammer straight down. Even from a hundred feet away, I felt the swelling of its gravity, and watched as it flew faster and faster until it vanished into the writhing mass of tentacle-like heads.

The ground shook as the hammer impacted somewhere deep inside the hydra worm’s body. It squealed, the humming of its many heads taking on a sickening resonance as it was amplified several times over. My stomach churned, and I distantly felt my body wobble atop Boo’s back.

With unfocused eyes, I watched as two more heads grew, splitting off the trunk of the limp head that I’d shot to free Mica. There were so many I could no longer count them…

Lyra spun, sending a vitriolic glare at Arthur. Her voice was barely audible over the continued screeching. “Lesson’s will help none of us if we are all dead. This beast is matched to your strength, not ours!”

The ground shook again. The hydra worm was lunging upward toward Mica, growing taller and taller as its many heads strained after her. She flew straight up until her small form disappeared into the gloom and the fog. The beast on her heels was sixty feet tall, then eighty, then a hundred…

Arthur didn’t respond, but something in his posture changed, then he was gone, vanished into a bolt of amethyst lightning.

Regis jumped into action at the same time, his jaws opening and purple fire rolling out over the oncoming hoard of terror leeches. Whatever the fire touched vanished, not even ash remaining.

My brother had reappeared above the hydra worm, his distant body wrapped in coiling arcs of purple lightning, a beam of pure violet energy in his hand. Although I should have been helping Regis, I couldn’t do anything but watch, all my focus on Arthur. His blade spun in an arc, severing several of the heads.

But the huge maw from which they all grew was still rising, and I could picture how those spinning rows of teeth were closing around Arthur.

At first I thought it was a trick of the light, but by squinting and focusing mana into my eyes, I realized the truth. Arthur’s sword was growing, lengthening into a huge two-handed weapon that rivaled Mica’s hammer in size. When he slashed again, several heads went tumbling away, including some of those just now regrowing.

Regis had spun to the other side and was unleashing another blast of purple fire that devoured any remaining terror leeches. Mica was out of sight, but Lyra, like me, was just staring up at the fight overhead.

As the heads formed and started to grow again, Arthur kicked off one of the trunks, hurling himself out of the way of the grinding mouth, then brought his huge blade over his head, swinging downward as he fell.

Where Mica’s hammer had done little to the hydra worm’s armored body, the aether blade cut effortlessly through the side of the gaping maw. As Arthur plummeted downward, he dragged the blade through the beast’s body, opening it up like a fileted fish. The humming screech came again, but as more and more of the towering body gaped open above the falling point of light that was Arthur, the noise died into a grotesque gurgle.

Then, feet from the acid pool around the hydra worm’s base, Arthur vanished in a violet flash, only to reappear back where he had been seconds earlier, wreathed in electricity.

Black blood and green acid rained down from the gaping insides of the hydra worm as it swayed back and forth, then it tipped toward us, the flaps of its opened body pushed out by the rush of wind. Lyra darted back past us, and Boo moaned as he turned around and trotted farther down the trail, putting more distance between us and where the body would fall.

Arthur and Regis didn’t move.

Ground and acid exploded outward as the corpse struck the ground, crushing the trail we’d been following, the longest of the heads falling just at Arthur’s feet. Then I lost sight of everything as a wall of dust and yellow steam engulfed the zone with a noise like the world coming apart.

I closed my eyes against the stinging spray of acid and dust, feeling it prickling along my exposed skin wherever it touched me, despite the mana cladding my skin. Boo rumbled out a worried groan, and I patted his neck comfortingly.

A gust of wind kicked up and pushed the caustic mist away. Arthur and Regis were walking toward me, the fallen hydra worm behind them. Its stench was unimaginable.

I felt Mica approaching before I saw her. She drifted out of the cloud, flying wearily, her skin covered in blisters from all the acid she’d been splashed with. Parts of her armor were ripped open, and blood was oozing from several bite wounds.

Instead of landing on the ground, she settled onto Boo behind me, her back resting against mine so she was facing toward Arthur and Regis. “Mica thinks this place kind of sucks,” she said under her breath.

“You need to practice your Mana Rotation,” Arthur said as he reached us. “You didn’t use it at all that entire fight.”

I felt Mica’s head lean back onto my shoulder. “Yes, Professor Leywin,” she mumbled tiredly.

“And you were all distracted by what was in front of you, so you ignored what you couldn’t see. The mana fluctuations from the main part of the body—mostly still underground—that happened every time you cut off a head should have told you where to strike.” His frustrated gaze focused on me. “Ellie, you should have been the first to notice this. Being on the backlines doesn’t mean simply fighting from the back. You need to see the bigger picture and communicate with your allies.”

I acutely felt the sting of his rebuke, but could only respond with a firm nod, not trusting my voice to speak.

The truth was, in that moment, Arthur didn’t even quite feel like my brother. Not here, in the Relictombs. The bond we had been reforming back in Vildorial had stayed there. Here, he was a cold and distant teacher, an emotionless protector…brotherly love was an obstacle, and so he was suppressing it.

I wasn’t sure how that made me feel. I don’t think I could isolate my feelings like that. My emotions are a part of who I am. Who is he, really, when he’s like this?

“We should leave this zone quickly,” Lyra said, just ahead of me. She was staring warily around at the surrounding pools. “We need rest, but this is no place to set up camp.”

Arthur gestured for her to lead the way, and she did so, continuing in the direction where I’d originally seen the distant glimmer of light.

“I’ve never seen such a strong mana beast,” I said into the following silence, trying to reduce the tension. “How did the ancient mages ever create such a thing? And why?”

“Alacrya’s most talented minds have been trying to figure that out for hundreds of years,” Lyra answered over her shoulder. “The ancient mages were a pacifist race, or so we believe. That they created things like this abomination…well, it seems contrary to our understanding of their nature.”

I was silent for a while, not having expected an answer to my rhetorical question.

“You did well, Eleanor,” she continued. “With practice, you will be able to increase the range and number of conjured creations you can maintain. With enough willpower, you will be able to make more complex and powerful manifestations as well, I am sure.”

I felt Mica shift behind me. “I thought this spellform thing was for handing off mana or something?”

“Oh!” I felt a wave of embarrassment roll through me. Half-turning, I set a hand on Mica’s shoulder and focused on my spellform, pushing mana into it. That mana rushed out of me, following the course of Mica’s mana veins into her core. “Sorry, I almost forgot!”

Mica took a deep breath, relaxing against me. “Thanks, kiddo. That’s…better.”

Lyra had turned around to look at us, and I caught her hiding a smile as she faced forward again. “Most runes have multiple levels or phases of activation, becoming more powerful as the bearer grows stronger and gains proficiency in the provided spells. Emblems and regalias often have potent innate effects as well, which do not require activation to provide their benefit.”

Mica shook her head. “Something I still don’t understand, I guess. Why aren’t all the Alacryan soldiers rocking a full-body ink suit of these regalias and stuff then? If one little tattoo can nearly put a teenage girl into the silver core stage, why don’t you guys have entire armies of white core mages? Or even beyond white core—Integration stage mages.”

“Most bestowments do not result in a rune,” Lyra explained. “And when a rune is granted, it generally matches the capabilities of the bearer. Simply performing the ritual more times doesn’t result in more runes. It is said that, in the early days of Alacrya, the Sovereigns attempted to do as you suggested, forcing their subjects to undergo years of forced bestowments, over and over again, even tattooing or burning the marks into their flesh in an attempt to recreate the ancient mages’ powers.

“But this is little different than if your Dicathian mages were to inject ink into your cores. The color of a mage's core is a byproduct of a myriad of factors, such as lineage, talent, and insight, as is the reception of a spellform for an Alacryan mage.

“Which, of course, explains why these efforts were a dismal failure, and tens of thousands of people died. That, at least in part, led the High Sovereign to combine the bloodlines. The bestowment doesn’t work on asuras, but lesser physiology can be enhanced with asuran blood, creating a new race of beings capable of handling more and stronger runes.”

“That’s so creepy,” I muttered, a shiver running down my spine.

“An entire continent birthed as an experiment in cross-breeding,” Mica said, her tone suggesting she was thinking the same thing I was. “It’s no wonder you’re all absolutely psychotic.”

Lyra’s shoulders stiffened. “One must step beyond the swamp to understand its fetid nature. I promise my pride in being named retainer and regent was no less than yours when you were made a Lance, Mica Earthborn. But experiencing a life outside the iron grip of the Vritra Clan, well…”

Her stride slowed, and she looked up into the gloom and mist above us. “At first, I thought it was you Dicathians who were mad. Your disorganized and ramshackle brand of magic, the way you bent the knee to lesser kings and queens, like poor imitations of our Sovereigns…and all that freedom. How could anything ever get done when every man and woman was free to skitter across the surface of your continent like insects in the dark?

“But the longer I stayed in Dicathen, the more clear it became to me…which of us was mad.”

We walked in silence for a minute or more, growing close enough to the edge of the zone that everyone could see the curving stone wall and the gleaming arched portal that Arthur would use to take us on to the next one.

“How many Dicathians d’you think you’ve killed?” Mica asked suddenly. I could feel her body tense against my back.

“By my own hand?” Lyra asked without hesitation. “Hundreds, I imagine. On my command? Tens of thousands, at the very least.”

Already tired and on edge, my stomach soured at the thought of all that death. So many people were killed in this war, and for what?

I glanced over my shoulder at Arthur, expecting him to intervene, to stop Mica and Lyra from falling into another fit of bickering. He was looking away from us, his profile clear against the dim backdrop of the zone, and I realized he wasn’t really listening to this conversation. I could see in the set of his shoulders, his stiff gait, the slight frown on his sharp features…

My brother was a million miles away. I wondered which of his many adventures was on his mind now. With the hydra worm’s corpse still visible in the distance behind us, it seemed impossible that anyone could be thinking of anything but that fight, but it seemed to be consuming only me.

Arthur had been through so much, and although he’d told me plenty of stories, I knew there was more he was leaving out. Was this talk about the war and all the unnecessary deaths making him feel guilty? It probably is, I thought. He blames himself for not being able to come back sooner. Not being strong enough.

“And what about you, Lance?” Lyra asked. “How many Alacryans have you killed?”

“Not enough,” Mica shot back, hostility oozing from those two simple words. Then, after a second’s hesitation, she added, “Or far too many. I won’t know, I suppose, until this is all done.”

“We’re here,” I said as the zone wall rose up in front of us, the only breach in the dark stone a single carved arch. The portal inside the frame was softly luminescent, but wherever that portal led, I knew it wasn’t where we were going.

Arthur seemed to come back to reality, marching ahead of us and drawing a metallic half-sphere from his dimension storage. “The path forward isn’t completely clear,” he said as he activated the device.

The opaque portal became translucent, like an open door, and several images melted in and out of focus in quick succession on the other side.

“I have a map in my head, but it’s just pictures. The way to the next djinn ruin—the next keystone—is confused. It might take us a few tries.”

“We’re in this together,” I said, immediately embarrassed by the childish optimism that came out in my voice.

Mica slid off of Boo’s back, her gaze moving from Lyra to me, then to Arthur. “Hopefully the next zone or whatever smells better than this place, yeah?”

Lyra shook her head, her flame-red hair tumbling around her shoulders. “Rarely do the zones become more pleasant as you ascend farther.”

Mica rolled her eyes and threw up her hands. “So my hopes of us finding a resort complete with hot springs and honey wine are out the window?”

With a wry, humorless smile, Arthur gestured to the portal. “Only one way to find out.”

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