Aether coursed through my body, igniting my channels with liquid fire before coalescing into the deep well of my core. Despite my thoughts being elsewhere and the fact that Id done this countless times before, the feeling was still intoxicating. This profound and elusive power that not even asuras could fully control was inside me, waiting to be unleashed.
I think we got it, Regis sent as we finished piecing together our memories. Sylvias last message hadn shown the four djinn ruins, but they did show the zones that led to them. Only, it took time for both of us to recall the details clearly enough for the Compass to get us there.
Yeah, I answered simply, visualizing the image of narrow earthen tunnels winding like a maze of giant wormholes in every direction.
I pried my eyes open to be greeted by the chitinous corpse of the giant millipede, which I was sitting on top of while siphoning its aether.
With my core mostly replenished and our destination set, I dropped to the ground just in time to see Caera getting up from her brothers improvised memorial. The whites of her eyes had turned red from crying, but her gaze had hardened, her jaw set firmly with resolve.
No words were exchanged, only a simple nod before we moved on.
The exit portal was hours from the den, and the rest of the journey through the empty zone was uneventful. We moved quickly and in silence. Regis stayed inside my body, regaining his strength after the use of Destruction. His control over the ability had strengthened significantly since hed last used it, but I could feel the toll it took on him.
”You should get some rest before we go through, ” I said as we finally reached the exit. ”Its been a while since you slept. ”
”Im okay, ” she replied, casting a glance behind her. Though she didn say it, I knew that she was ready to get out of this zone.
Focusing on the image of those winding tunnels, I activated the Compass, and Caera stepped through. The zone beyond was thick with dust that hung in the air, making it difficult to see what we were walking into, and all I could make out of Caera was a dark silhouette.
Arthur, Regis barked inside me just as two more silhouettes appeared on either side of her.
Stay inside for now, I ordered, focusing on the dull red light glinting off their weapons.
The shining portal evaporated behind me as I stepped through, my eyes immediately searching for Caera and her attackers.
Caeras red blade flashed in the thick dust, ringing against her attackers weapon. Deep-throated shouts filled the small space, and a glowing spear thrust out of the obscuring dust. I grabbed it just before it would have struck Caera in the back. The mana-reinforced steel haft screeched as I ripped the spearhead from its shaft and hurled it back at the wielder. The jagged tip pierced the attackers chest, and his dim shadow was lifted off the ground and slammed into the bare dirt wall.
The dust began to settle, revealing another man—large and caked in dirt and clay—hacking and slashing at Ceara with a serrated, frozen scimitar, and two Strikers flanking a narrow earthen tunnel that led out of the small room we were in.
God Step brought me behind them, amethyst lightning arcing across my skin. The first died instantly as my aether-clad hand struck the back of his neck, breaking his spine despite his chain gorget. I backhanded the second as he began to activate one of the runes displayed along his spine, sending him flying into the tunnel wall. He landed on his own spear, impaling himself through his bare biceps.
He hissed out a curse before rolling over and tugging futilely at the spear, his spell forgotten.
Caeras opponent growled in bestial rage as their blades clashed, a sound that cut off in wet gurgling as her sword plunged through his chest.
I dug my heel into the last mages bloody wound, ignoring his desperate attempt at defending himself with a shroud of fire.
”Why did you attack us? ” I asked evenly, leaning down to meet his eye.
” the man yelled out, his dirt-caked face contorted in pain.
e just doing what we were told! ”
I tilted my head, raising a brow. ”Am I supposed to be familiar with that name? ”
”Our leader, ” he panted, his panicked eyes trained on the blood gushing from his wound. ”Any…anyone who steps through that portal belongs to him. ”
Caera had knelt down to check on the man Id impaled with his own spearhead, but now she stood up and leveled a fierce glare at the surviving ascender. ”Why would any ascender elong to him? ”
My ears picked up the faint sounds of footsteps approaching. Lifting my foot off his bloody arm, I took a step back.
The mage was panting, his eyes losing focus. Gauging by the bloody mud pooled beneath him, he didn have much longer. ”The relic needs blood, ” he said. ”So we…we— ”
A stone spike erupted from the floor and impaled him through the chest, spraying blood across Caeras face.
I spun to see a dozen more ascenders huddled together farther down the tunnel. One man stood at the forefront of the group. He was as dirty as the rest of them, but under the layers of filth, I could see a network of scars criss-crossing his face, arms, and hands. His hair was a fine stubble that looked like it had been shaved with a dagger instead of a razor, and a knotted blond beard covered his face. He wore a mismatched suit of armor that looked like it had been scavenged from a dozen different sources.
”Would you care to tell us what the hell is happening in this zone? ” Caera asked as she calmly wiped the blood off her face with a handkerchief.
”Hell is the appropriate word, ” the scarred ascender drawled, grinning. He was missing more than one tooth, and those that remained were filed to sharp points. ”Youve reached the very bowels of the Relictombs, where ascenders come to die. ”
Caera took a confident step forward, her dark blue hair fluttering as she leveled her thin blade to the mans throat. The ascender matched it, a small crater forming beneath his feet as he stepped forward and pressed his neck against the tip of Caeras blade.
”Theres no way out of here, ” he continued, his dark eyes wide and more than a little mad. ”Except by blood. Everyone either gives it or takes it, but no one who stays neutral survives for long. ”
I shuffled tentatively in between the two and held up an arm. ”We have no desire to fight you if you don make us. But can you explain what is happening here? Less cryptically, this time. ”
The leader—Kage, I assumed—seemed to dismiss me immediately, instead frowning intensely as he sized up my partner. Caeras ruby eyes blazed in the dark despite her gaze being frigid. Their standoff ended suddenly when his frown cracked like thin ice and his face shuddered into a forced grin.
Kage tapped his dirty finger against his temple.
”I can tell your blood isn the letting kind. You
e just the flavor of fresh meat ”—his goons chuckled darkly at this— ”that we need here. You see, minds, bodies, and spirits go stale in this purgatory. ” As Kage spoke, one eye began to twitch. ”The longer you stay, the worse it gets, but the only way out is by emptying your friends and comrades of their lifes blood. Cruel, those ancient devils… ”
The scarred ascenders eyes lost focus for a moment.
”I believe we asked you to be less cryptic, ” Caera said impatiently.
The men behind Kage shuffled, hands tightening around weapons as their glares cut toward my companion. One raised a weapon that crackled with electricity. Kages hand flashed out, catching the man in the side of the head. ”Don go rattling sabers when Im talking! ”
He graced Caera with his gap tooth smile.
”I can tell you
e people of means. Wyverns, not woggarts, as the saying goes. And so Ill level with you. Youve found yourself trapped in a zone with no exit. The only way out is to claim a relic held at the center of this maze of tunnels, but that can only be done by blood sacrifice. And so far, no one has managed to spill enough of it to bypass the wards. ”
I hadn heard wrong. Kage said it as well…
There was a relic in this zone.
My attention remained on Kage as he spoke: his hands constantly gravitated toward his weapon, his grin would fade only to be forced back on his dirt-caked face, and he swelled up like a fanged musk as he spoke. It all created a subtly threatening image, like an animalistic defensive measure to ward off potential threats.
”Wed like to see this relic, ” I said gently. ”Can you take us to it? ”
”Piss off, twig! ” one of the men snapped, pointing his sword at me.
Kage let out a craggy laugh and took a backwards step, then spun on his heel like he was in a military procession. A narrow spear of stone burst out of the ground and skewered the offending ascenders hand, sending the sword flying. Kage kicked the mans knee, causing it to crack and bend backwards, then took him by the throat and slammed him to the ground.
”I don remember telling you to speak! ” Kage roared in his face, spittle flying. The runes on his back flared as he raised one hand over his head, and a crust of black and glowing-orange stone formed from his elbow down, radiating a heat so intense that I could feel it from several feet away.
The smoldering gauntlet hit the mans face like a sledgehammer. It fell again and again, filling the cave with the smell of scorched flesh. The rest of the ascenders had backed away. Some watched with a wicked sort of anticipation, but most averted their eyes.
When there was nothing left of the ascenders face but a burnt pulp, Kage straightened. He was panting slightly, and gouts of smoking fire were flashing around the conjured gauntlet. With a crack of his neck and a sigh, he faced Caera. ”It takes a firm hand, you know, ” Kage said, chuckling. ”A firm hand, get it? ”
Caeras nose wrinkled in disgust, but Kages men let out scattered laughter. I kept my face blank. ”Waste of blood, though. Bah. ” The molten gauntlet fell away in ashy chunks as Kage released the spell. ”Heres the thing, newcomer. Trust earns trust. First, you and your servant boy will come back to camp with us. There, we can decide who gets to see what, aye? ”
Caeras mouth opened, and I could tell from the look on her face she was about to dismiss Kages offer. I grabbed her sleeve and gave it a small tug. ”Lady, no good can come from rejecting this mans offer. Look what he did to his own ally. We should go with him and see what he has to say. ”
”Fine, ” she answered, searching my eyes questioningly. To Kage, she said, ”well go with you. ”
”A wise little sidekick you have there, ” Kage grunted. ”Can be an unad. Must be a pissy Sentry hiding his mana, eh? ” He looked me in the eye and spit on the ground. ”Or maybe the lady keeps you around for other purposes, eh boy? ”
I flinched away from his gaze, which only made him and his men laugh.
”Well then? ” Caera asked, maneuvering between us. ”Your camp? ”
”Guests first, ” Kage said, gesturing down the tunnel like a doorman welcoming us into Alacryas finest inn. His men split apart, leaving a narrow space for Caera and me to walk through.
Is just killing everyone and everything that comes our way starting to bore you? Regis asked. Whats with the meek and fragile act?
Just stay inside and keep your eyes open, I snapped.
Fine, he grumbled.
The zone was made up entirely of earthen tunnels, like I had seen in the false memory. They twisted and turned continuously, like some giant worm had eaten through the ground here, leaving a maze of paths behind. Veins of some red hot stone broke through the dirt in places, shedding rusty light through the tunnels.
Occasionally a thick vine or root would protrude from the tunnel wall, and Kage was quick to direct us around them. ”Id avoid the stranglers. Doubt I need to explain the name. ”
As we walked, turning this way and that so regularly that I struggled to maintain a sense of where we were, Kage continued to speak. ”Its a war youve found yourself in, friends. Chaos and bloodshed as ascender turns on ascender for a chance at a real, honest-to-Vritra relic. Even if we could leave, most wouldn . Not with that kind of prize on the line. ”
”There must be more to it than that, ” Caera said. ”Ascenders are not wild animals. ”
”Was worse when I got here, ” Kage said proudly. ”A total bloodbath, every man set on killing his way to the top. ”
”What happened when you arrived? ” I asked, carefully moving around another large vine that was blocking half the tunnel.
Kage snorted in delight. ”Exerted a little order, of course! Cracked enough skulls to prove my strength, then made the rest of them stop killing each other. Forged a tribe, gave em purpose. We took control of the shrine, and from then on, I decided who lives and who dies. ”
I didn miss the subtle threat in his tone as he said this.
”If you think about how fewer people have died since I got here, Im actually a hero. A savior, not some butcher like you might be thinking. ”
I shot a glance behind us. Kage was nodding his head, smirking as if pleased with himself.
”How far out do these tunnels go? ” Caera asked. ”Is there an end? ”
”Its a kind of maze. Roughly a big circle, with the relic shrine dead center, ” he answered. ”Big enough you could get lost and starve to death before anyone found you. ” I could practically hear the cold sneer in his voice as he added, ”But the tunnels are still full of mad ascenders just waiting to slit your throat in the dark, and theyd get you before then. ”
Knowing the relic was at the center of the maze was something, but I didn have any reference for where we were yet. But, as interesting as the presence of yet another relic was, my curiosity was focused somewhere else.
”If this place is that big, maybe you just haven found the exit portal yet— ”
”No! ” Kage snapped, his footsteps halting. I turned around to find him scowling at me, his fists clenching and unclenching. Short, burning spikes pressed out of the tunnel walls all around us. ”Are you doubting me, boy? Plenty of strong men have withered away in the tunnels searching for the way out. We know where the door is, so only an idiot would keep looking. And the key is ”—Blood, Regis thought sarcastically at the same time Kage said it— ”so we just got to figure out how to use it. ”
I nodded, taking a timid step back. My foot bumped against a vine that slithered along the side of the tunnel, and it struck like a snake. The strangler wrapped around my leg and receded into the dirt, trying to pull me with it.
Caeras blade flashed, severing the root just above the ground. It released its grip, writhing like a dying worm at my feet. I scrambled backwards in the dirt to get away from it as Kage and the others broke into an uproar of wild laughter.
Kage jerked me to my feet and threw his arm around my shoulder, wiping tears and snot from his bright red face as he continued to chuckle. ”You know, boy, my court could use a good jester, ” he said between fits of laughter. ”Perhaps theres a reason to keep you around after all. ”
Regis let out a pleasant sigh. This is fun. I get to watch you get bullied while simultaneously looking forward to seeing you crush their gonads.
It took another hour to reach Kages encampment. I wondered how he had arrived at the exit portal so quickly, but the thought was driven from my mind as I entered into a large, smooth-walled tunnel.
Unlike the naturally carved paths that had led us here, the ascenders encampment bore obvious signs of having been carved out by magic. Whereas the tunnels had been low, barely high enough for me to walk standing straight in most places, the ceiling here was fifteen feet high. At least a hundred small lighting artifacts were suspended above us, casting a pale, but bright, white light over the men there.
About a dozen men in mud-stained armor occupied the tunnel, which ran nearly seventy feet from end to end and was thirty feet wide. A few were training, but most were sitting around small, red-flamed fires and speaking in hushed and tired voices.
Several more were half-naked and shackled at their wrists, ankles, and throat.
Caera sucked in a surprised breath as she took it in, but had the wherewithal to bite her tongue for the moment.
The shackled men were all skinny and brown with dirt, their beards long and tangled, their hair matted. But I could see the runes on their backs marking them as mages. Two were carrying a large earthenware jug between them—careful to avoid a huge strangler root that grew down one side of the cavern—while a third cast a spell over a similar jug near the far end of the camp. Another was turning a spit over the fire, roasting some kind of meat. I didn want to know what kind. A couple others stood by open doorways into a series of small caves that had been carved off the main tunnel, their eyes downcast.
Kages scarred hand clapped my shoulder. ”Welcome to my castle. Home of the Kaged Men! ”
”There are no women, ” Caera said softly, like she was speaking to herself.
”Ah, well, anything of value is rare in this pit of despair, ” Kage grunted humorlessly. ”Food, water, entertainment… ”
His eyes lingered on my companion, moving slowly up and down her body, as he said this.
”Savages, ” she said, matching his gaze.
”Oh come off it! ” He howled with laughter. ”Once upon a time, I was a highblood, just like you. In here, though, everyones blood is red and ripe for tapping. ”
He brushed past us, his arms open wide as he entered the encampment. ”Your savior has returned! ” he shouted, his voice booming. ”And I bring new recruits! ”
The ascenders all began to gather, with several more coming out of the caves lining the walls, but the men in shackles hardly seemed to notice. They stopped and bowed whenever Kage came close, but otherwise hurried on with their duties.
”Enough gawking! ” Kage shouted suddenly, pushing one of the men—a dangerously thin boy who couldn have been more than sixteen with the way his facial hair grew in uneven patches—causing him to stumble and fall, nearly landing in the fire. ”Get back to work! ”
I scanned their faces as we followed, taking in the sunken eyes, gaunt cheeks, and most of all the hard looks they gave us. Every one of them was ready to kill at a word from their leader, despite how he treated them. Men who fell into despair here were likely fed to the relic, so they embraced fury and hatred instead. These were the survivors. I could see the terrible things theyd done to make it this far in their eyes.
Kage led us into the largest of the caves, although to call it a simple cave didn do it justice. A talented mage had carved out a space large enough for a family of four. The floors were hardened into something like marble, while the reddish walls had been carved to look like bricks. Stone furniture was layered with furs and blankets—significantly more than one man could have brought with him into the Relictombs.
A huge bed took up the center of one wall, and was piled high with more furs and bedrolls bound together with silky cords.
”At least you haven had to give up your lavish highblood lifestyle, ” Caera said sarcastically as she took in his makeshift home.
Kage threw himself into a lounge chair and kicked one muddy boot up on a stone footrest. ”It hasn been all bad, Ill admit. Out there, I was the fourth son of a failing blood, but here I might as well be a Sovereign. ”
Caera rolled her eyes. ”And what happens when the Ascenders Association learns of what happened in this convergence zone? Youll be executed. ”
Kage grinned at her like a gap-toothed shark. ”Thats assuming we ever escape, my lady. And if we do, that means weve claimed the relic. No one will give half a shit what we did to get it. ” He put his hands behind his head and gazed up at the ceiling. ”Imagine it. The first live relic returned in how many years? Two decades? Three? Wealth enough for us all to keep our bloods strong for generations. ”
I could tell from Cearas sour expression that she knew Kage was right.
Scuffling steps at the door announced the arrival of a newcomer, who bowed while trying to hold up a cask heavy with some sloshing liquid. He was ghostly pale with muted hair halfway between gray and brown that hung limp down to his shoulders. His flint black eyes just touched on Caera and me before he stumbled to the table, struggling under the weight of the cask.
”Ah, Rat, perfect timing. Is that the Truacian Stout? ” Kage asked, licking his lips. When he saw my questioning look, he winked. ”Some fool had half a tavern stuffed in his dimension device. All the better for us. ” His face grew sorrowful. ”Nearly done now, though, isn it, Rat? ”
The man called Rat wiped sweat from his brow as he went about tapping the cask. ”Im afraid so, my lord. Only one more cask is all, and its the pale from Sehz-Clar. ”
Kage snorted. ”Might as well be drinking Rats piss. ” He spat on the ground.
Rat wore a simple linen shirt and trousers, but no armor. He wasn outfitted with manacles like the others wed seen. He avoided looking at Kage, keeping his head averted subserviently, and when he spoke, his words were soft and nonthreatening. He immediately reminded me of his namesake, scurrying around the edge of the room like a rodent trying to avoid being stepped on.
Strangely, he was quite clean. There was hardly a speck of dirt on his clothes or his face, and his hair, although shaggy, was not full of muddy clumps like everyone elses. Only his hands showed any sign of the filth that clung to the rest of them like a second skin.
His darting eyes caught me watching him, but jumped away again instantly.
”Is it possible… ” I started, my voice trepid. ”To see the relic now? ”
Kage took a clay mug from Rat and tipped it back, chugging down several mouthfuls and dribbling at least half of it into his beard and down the neck of his chestplate. ”Ah, that is good. All the fine wines might come from Etril, but those Truacian bastards know how to make beer. ”
He set the mug down and leaned forward, giving me a curious look. When he spoke, though, it was directed to Caera.
e in my domain now. You
e strong, I can tell, maybe even almost a match for me, one on one ”—he smirked in a way that suggested he didn believe this, but was simply being polite— ”but I have two dozen hard bastards at my disposal, and youve got one timid meat shield. ”
Caera crossed her arms, looking unimpressed.
”You want to see the relic. You need to find a place for yourself in this zone, because you
e not leaving anytime soon. ” That ugly, predatory grin split his face. ”I have wants and needs of my own. So what are you willing to trade for your lives? ”
”If you had everything you wanted already, you wouldve just killed us by the portal.
” Caera leaned down so she was eye to eye with the scarred ascender.
”No, I think you need help, and you
e hoping that we can provide it. ”
”You think I need help? I know the way out. I solved it! All I need is more blood. ” Kage stood suddenly, knocking over the footrest before jabbing a filthy finger at my unfazed companion. ”And I can have you and your man-damsel killed any moment I want. ”
”Then there shouldn be a problem with showing us the relic, ” Caera answered coolly.
Rat was fidgeting while tapping his fingers rapidly on the table, his wide black eyes frozen on Kage. When he saw me watching, he stopped and busied himself preparing another mug of beer.
Kage glared at Caera. ”Rat will take your servant to the shrine to see the Relic. But you stay here with me, understood? ”
”No, she needs to come with me, ” I said quickly, moving a little closer to her.
”Afraid to be without your lady-knight, princess? ” Kage asked, fingering the handle of his scimitar.
”Your offer isn acceptable, ” Caera said flatly. ”I would see it with my own eyes, to best judge the situation for myself. ”
e confused. This isn an offer. Its an order. ” He said with a sharp toothy grin. ”He can go, but youll stay right here. By my side. ”
Both ascenders had their hands on their hilts at this point. I preferred not to leave Caera alone with this murderous lunatic, but I wasn quite ready to give up on my ruse, either.
Caera looked at me, searching my eyes for some guidance. I nodded imperceptibly and her hand left her weapon. Kages didn .
”Fine, ” she said, half-resigned, half-annoyed. She stepped up to the warlord, who was only a bare inch taller than her. ”Touch me, though, and Ill cut off the offending body part. ”
”Cheers to that. ” Kage raised the mug to Caera as he waggled his brows lewdly.
Rat hurriedly escorted me out. Despite the prospects of a new relic and encountering another djinn, my thoughts went errantly to Kage, considering how best to deal with him after all this was over.
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