The aetheric blade in my hand—no larger than a simple dagger and hazy around the edges—drove into a winged creature made of stone before shattering partway, not yet able to withstand the impact.
My hand wrapped around the creatures throat. It looked like a bat with a petrified squashed face and a huge mouth. Its wide jaws snapped crazily just inches in front of my face as its jagged claws dug into my arms in a desperate effort to pull itself closer.
Holding the gargoyle back with one hand, I conjured the blade again in my other hand and plunged it into the beasts head, which split apart with a resounding crack.
The blade broke and faded away, leaving me with empty arms to defend myself as two more gargoyles plummeted toward me.
Twin bolts of dark fire struck the descending gargoyles, and the swooping beasts exploded. Their rubble clattered to the ground like hail and sent up little splashes where it landed in the stream bisecting the zone.
I glanced back to see Caera holding her arm out, revealing the silver bracer she had taken from the Spear Beaks treasure room. It seemed thin against her wrist, barely more than a decorative cuff covered in intricate engravings.
Two narrow silver shards were revolving defensively around her, blazing with dark light. In the next breath, they began to dim as they drifted back to the bracer and reconnected to it, fitting into the pattern of engravings.
Regis loped toward us, spitting out a chunk of rock from his mouth.
Behind him, the zone stretched out far into the distance, covered with the wreckage of our passing.
We were in a canyon with sheer, rocky cliffs to either side. They climbed so high that only a sliver of sky could be seen above us, like a reflection of the thin, clear stream that ran along the canyon floor. Loose rocks and rubble—the remains of the gargoyle creatures—littered the canyon floor.
”That rocked, ” Regis said, deadpan.
”I admit, it wasn bad once things got rolling, ” Caera replied, carefully maintaining a straight face except for the slightest quiver of her lips. ”In fact, it was rather…marbleous. ”
”I guess fun, like beauty, is in the eye of the boulder… ” Regis answered, his voice trembling as he desperately tried to keep from laughing.
I faced the exit portal with a deep sigh. ”Im so glad I brought you two. ”
Caera stepped up beside me. ”Oh, don be so stone-faced, Grey. ”
”Yeah, Princess. You shouldn take us for granite. ” Regis broke, barking with laughter.
Ignoring my companions, I focused on the portal, my mind working at a question Id been carrying with me ever since acquiring the Compass.
It had to be more than just a portal generator that took us in and out of the Relictombs at will. My mind kept going back to the djinn. As difficult as it was to believe, they had designed and built this place. They must have had a way to travel through it, and I already knew that the Compass could interact with a Relictombs portal.
An image flashed in my mind, the false memory implanted by Sylvia with her last message to me. The clarity of the memory had faded with time, but I knew it was one of the zones leading toward the next djinn ruin.
So far, I had stumbled blindly through the Relictombs, knowing that this place was guiding me toward my goals…or so it seemed, at least. But trusting blindly to the machinations of a long-dead race of aether wielders didn suit my needs. Not if I was ever going to master Fate.
Sitting down, I focused on the fading memory that Sylvia had left me with as I activated the half-sphere relic. It thrummed with aether as misty gray light engulfed the portal, replacing the oil-slick shimmer that hung like a curtain inside the cut-stone frame with a clear view of my room back at Central Academy.
”Damn it, ” I cursed, cutting off the flow of aether into the relic, causing the portal to shift back to its original appearance.
”Protein paste for your thoughts? ”
I looked up to see Caera holding out nutrient-filled rations stuffed in an insulated tube packaging.
”Just thinking about how to properly use the Compass, ” I answered, flinching away from the strong smell it emitted. ”How do you eat that stuff? It smells horrible. ”
She shrugged before squeezing the contents from the tube into her mouth. ”Unlike you, I actually have to eat to survive. This stuff is easy to carry around in bulk for long ascents. ”
”I guess Im glad I don need to eat, ” I said, wrinkling my nose.
Caera waved the tube around, fanning the smell of jellied meat in my face. I cringed and swatted her hand away, my knuckles ringing against the silver cuff around her wrist. ”How does your new artifact feel? ” I asked, eager to divert her from torturing me further.
”Ridiculously frustrating, ” Caera pouted. ”Its like Ive grown a new limb that I have to learn to use from the ground up. ”
”Eh, he does that all the time, ” Regis said, shrugging his lupine shoulders.
I clamped my hand around Regiss muzzle before responding. ”It looked like you had the hang of it by what I saw back there. ”
A faint smile tugged at the corner of Caeras lips before it disappeared just as fast. She held up her silver bracer as she turned toward the portal. ”Do you think the Compass works kind of like my artifact? ”
”What do you mean? ” I asked as I let go of Regis.
”When I first channeled mana into the artifact, I actually thought it was just a defensive item because of the way the shards barely hovered in place around the bracer. It took me days of constant experimentation to realize that the shards were able to be controlled independently, ” she explained, tracing the grooves etched into the silver bracelet. ”What if the return function of the Compass is the default and for you to do more, it needs further guidance? ”
Caeras expression softened. ”It seems unlikely that the ancient mages would let their people traverse these zones aimlessly. Otherwise, what would have stopped them from being trapped, wandering haphazardly to their deaths? ”
I watched as she unconsciously fiddled with the silver bracer around her wrist. Her gaze was empty, focused on a distant memory. She wasn thinking about djinn, or me, or even herself. Because it wasn about her.
e scared of the possibility that the Relictombs sent your brother somewhere he couldn escape, ” I said softly, winning a surprised look from the blue-haired Alacryan noble.
”Is reading minds another of your otherworldly powers? ” she asked in horror. ”Please tell me you haven been hiding the fact that you can— ”
I let a small smile slip onto my face. ”Im good at reading people, but its not magic. ”
”Yes, ” she confirmed with a sigh of relief. ”Ive been wondering for a while now…was that zone you found his dagger and cloak in someplace… ”
”Someplace only I could escape? ”
She nodded hesitantly. ”Like the mirror room or the frozen mountains? Even the bridge of faces would not have been escapable without your… ”
”Weve been calling it God Step, ” I filled in.
”Without your God Step ability. ” She gave me an appraising look. ”Regis named it that, didn he? ”
I let out a loud laugh that resounded off the canyon walls. ”Howd you know? ”
She smiled wryly. ”Something tells me you wouldn be so…grandiose in the naming of your abilities. ”
”One, its a great name, ” Regis replied defensively after pulling his muzzle out of my grip. And two, you used to use a spell called Absolute Zero, so…
”No, ” I said in answer to her original question. ”The zone where I found your brothers dagger wasn like those. It was deadly enough to claim the lives of many ascenders before I found it, but it didn require the use of aether to escape. ”
”Thats something at least. Im glad he had a fighting chance, even if he didn make it out. ” Caera forced a smile before turning and walking away.
Regis remained by my side as I returned my focus back on the half-sphere relic in my hand. Like what Caera had said, maybe the Compass needed more guidance. Shutting my eyes, I visualized the zone that had left the biggest impact on me, the one I could recall with utmost clarity.
”Its actually changing, ” Regis said with disbelief before he let out a groan. ”You just had to pick that one. ”
I pried one eye open to see the smooth marble floor, high arched ceiling, and rune-covered doors capping both ends…along with the armed statues lining both sides of the hallway.
”It actually worked, ” I huffed, feeling the drain from my core as the Compass continued to siphon aether out of me in order to hold the new destination open.
Deactivating the relic, I began recalling the details of our destination in my head. Once the image was clear in my mind, I patted Regis on his side.
”Get Caera. We
e leaving. ”
By the time the portal had stabilized to the next zone we would be heading into, Caera had arrived with Regis, wide-eyed in awe.
”I can believe you actually figured it out so quickly, ” she muttered.
”Your advice helped, ” I said, holding out a hand as Regis disappeared back inside me. ”Lets go. ”
With a deep breath, the two of us stepped through, immediately greeted by a humid gust of wind. Around us were dense trees growing from both floor and ceiling, speckled with the occasional colors from the aether fruits, while webs of tangled roots spread endlessly beneath our feet.
”Well, this definitely isn your room, ” Caera observed. ”So this is one of the zones you need to visit on this mysterious quest of yours? ”
”No, ” I said quietly, turning to her. ”Its where your brother died. ”
The Alacryan nobles head whipped toward me, her intelligent red eyes wide and trembling before she turned away, letting her hair fall to shield her face. ”Thank you, Grey. ”
Ignoring the prickling sensation of Regiss taunting grin, I stored the Compass back into my rune before stepping forward. ”Don thank me yet. ”
The last time we were here, Regis and I had killed the giant millipede and all but one of its eggs so that we didn destroy the delicate ecosystem contained within the zone. But time worked strangely in the Relictombs, so we didn know what we would find here.
Scouting the nearby trees, I found one with strong branches and began hoisting myself upwards, avoiding the dangling fruit and the invisible creatures that used them as bait. Once I was seventy feet in the air, I scouted out our surroundings, looking for the millipedes lair.
Although the rough-dug hole that opened up into the millipede den was nondescript, the aetheric glow that emanated from it wasn , and it didn take long to find. It was less than a mile away. Before I could drop down to the others, though, movement caught my eye in the distant canopy. Treetops rustled as something moved beneath them.
The two-tailed monkeys weren big enough to make the trees shake…
Dropping from branch to branch, I was on the ground in seconds. I held a finger up to my lips before speaking to Caera in a bare whisper. ”The creature is out of its den. Its a couple of miles away, but we need to move quietly. ”
Nodding my head in the direction we needed to go, I began to lead the way, taking each step carefully to avoid making unnecessary noise.
Why are you so tense? We
e a lot stronger than we were when we first came here, Regis noted with a scoff.
I know, but its hard to let go of the kind of fear that grows in you when you
e weak. It grows along with you.
The jungle was quiet. Even the heavy footfalls of the millipede were too far away to hear. The lack of birds chirping or insects buzzing felt unnatural. But, aside from the voracious millipede, the zone was home only to the two-tailed monkeys, and they had adapted to be completely silent. Even as I listened for them, I couldn hear a single one.
I paused, scanning the dense trees. Aether-rich fruit hung like fat pears all around us, but there wasn a single two-tailed monkey in sight. Imbuing aether into my eyes, I focused on the ceiling, where trees grew down like clinging vines. Although I scanned the distant shadows for a minute or more, I saw no movement.
”Whats wrong? ” Caera whispered, her head swiveling from side to side. ”What do you see? ”
”Nothing, ” I admitted. ”Nothing at all. ”
I wasn sure why the absence of half of the local fauna made me nervous, but it did. I reinforced the layer of aether cladding my body and moved on.
We reached the entrance to the den without seeing any signs of life at all. Caera knelt down and peered into the dim tunnel. She sniffed and wrinkled her nose. ”What is that foul stench? ”
I copied her and nearly gagged on the smell of rotting flesh. I felt Regis wince inside. Its gross enough just by reading your thoughts. Ill just wait this one out.
”Maybe its the millipedes corpse, ” I whispered, taking a few tentative steps down the steeply descending tunnel.
The tunnel radiated faint purple light, like before, but it felt larger than it had, and the churned dirt of the floor had a red tinge to it below the purple glow.
We moved stealthily along the tunnel until it widened and opened to our left. Aether crystals were scattered across the tunnel floor, some crushed to gravel and no longer glowing. This eventually opened up into the huge cavern where wed fought the first millipede.
Caera put a hand over her mouth and nose. We had found the source of the smell, and it wasn the millipede wed killed.
Aether crystals carpeted the ground, no longer in piles but spread out and smashed. They were stained red by rotting, half-eaten monkey corpses mixed in among them like grotesque chaff. It was like something out of a nightmare.
”Grey… ” Caera looked like she might be sick, but I didn think it was just from the sight before us.
”It wasn like this before, ” I said gently. ”Nothing so gruesome. ”
I began to maneuver through the cavern, trying to avoid the worst of the mess. Cracked and broken aether crystals crunched under my feet, making an uncomfortable amount of noise. I was looking for the bowl-like nest where Id originally found the millipede eggs and the crystals containing armor and weapons—all that remained of the ascenders devoured by the beast—but it was gone.
Where the nest had been, the ground was dug up and trampled, the only spot devoid of crystals and corpses. As I approached the barren pit, my foot hit something beneath the crystals, and I pulled out a broken sword handle. It was the one I had imbued with aether and smashed, before I found Sevrens dagger and cloak. I tossed it back into the clutter.
”Sorry, ” I said as Caera came to stand beside me. ”I thought this would be more…sentimental. ”
Caeras hand came to rest momentarily on my shoulder. She didn say anything, but she didn need to.
Walking gingerly down into the center of the barren pit where the nest had been, she kneeled. Her fingers combed through the freshly tilled soil. I stayed quiet, letting her work through whatever thoughts she was having. I imagined she wanted to say goodbye, something her adoptive parents had never really given her the opportunity to do.
My mood turned melancholy as I thought of my father. I wished I had done more to memorialize him. Reynolds Leywin had been a great man—a hero—and had deserved more than a sudden death fighting mindless beasts. Then again, Caera probably felt the same way about Sevren.
”Grey? ” I looked down into the pit at Caera. She frowned. ”Did you hear that? ”
Id let myself become distracted, and so hadn immediately noticed the growing noise. It sounded like an entire army was approaching, like a thousand armor-plated soldiers sprinting through the jungle above.
”Shit, its here, ” I said, giving her my hand to help her out of the pit. ”Regis! ”
Do I have to? he grumbled, but the wolf appeared beside me anyway, his flames flickering in agitation.
We quickly arranged ourselves for battle. I stood near the center of the cavern, prepared to draw its attention. Regis crept around to the left, staying close to the far wall. Caera stayed well back, her sword drawn and the two silver spines orbiting her defensively.
The sound of its hard exoskeleton scraping along the tunnel walls made the entire den shake and sent trails of dust raining down from the roof. It slowed as it came closer, so that I could hear the mandibles clacking in a measured, steady rhythm. Clack clack clack. Again and again. Then it would scrape forward a little more. Clack clack clack.
Then its head inched into the cavern.
This millipede was easily half again as large as the one wed killed. Its body had turned a rusty red color, now only slightly translucent. Each mandible was as long and broad as a man and serrated like a bone saw.
It froze. Its head lowered a few feet. The mandibles clacked.
Then it burst forward in a rush of speed that should have been impossible for something of its size. I dodged back as the mandibles snapped shut just ahead of me, then rolled forward beneath it and grabbed the very front leg. With a sharp twist, the leg ripped free of the body, but the giant millipede was moving again, every leg stabbing downward, the body bucking and coiling, every inch of it in motion.
I could just see Regis darting around the back end, biting and snapping at whatever he could. From the other direction, black fire was slamming into the hard carapace like ballista bolts, but the flames only left dark scorch marks. The entire exoskeleton was covered in a thick layer of aether, which was shrugging off even the soulfire.
Imbuing the severed leg with aether, I tried to thrust up into the millipedes belly, but another leg slammed into my shoulder and the blow skated off the aether-coated chitin.
Throwing down the severed appendage, I conjured an aether blade instead and slashed out at the closest leg. My blade chipped it, then broke. Cursing, I willed more power into the aetheric dagger, focusing on its form, forcing it to expand and grow longer. The dagger swelled into the rough size and shape of a spade, then burst apart.
Caera braced herself as the millipede shifted its attention on her. It let out a whistling screech and surged toward her.
Gathering as much aether into my hands as I quickly could, I punched straight up. The chitinous underbelly cracked, and the millipedes body jerked, the legs scrabbling at the crystal-covered dirt. I punched again and again, creating a series of broken craters along the underside of its body, but it wasn enough to slow it down or reclaim its attention.
The silver shards of Caeras artifact were spinning rapidly in front of her, no longer firing projectiles. Instead, a steady beam of soulfire connected them, forming a thin barrier in front of her. As I prepared to grab the millipedes legs in a last ditch effort to hold it back, a third satellite broke loose from the bracer, then a forth, and they joined with the others.
The thin barrier bloomed into a wall of black fire an instant before the millipede struck it. Caeras eyes sharpened as she leaned forward, focusing on holding the defensive barrier in place. The impact shook the den, and the millipedes body crumpled up like a derailed train as the front end suddenly stopped, but the back end kept churning forward.
The mandibles opened wide, trying to close around the edges of the soulfire shield. Black-purple sparks flew wherever the aether-clad millipede touched the dark flames, scorching everything they landed on. The dark light reflected off the sweat clinging to Caeras face, highlighting her features. Her teeth were bared in a grimace of concentration, her scarlet eyes blazing like they too had been set aflame.
She was holding it back, but I knew she couldn hold it for long.
A sudden swelling pressure from the other end of the cave made me spin around, wary of some new threat. Instead, I saw Regis picking himself up out of a pile of aether crystals. His flames grew jagged, his form less obviously wolflike as his features melted into shadow while he transformed. I could see the edges of the hard spikes that were growing out from all over his body and the horns jutting from his head, but I could tell it was going to take time before he could rejoin the fight.
There wasn time to second guess his use of Destruction. Aetheric lightning flashed around me as I God Stepped onto the millipedes writhing head. Infusing aether into my fists, I slammed them down into the aether-clad exoskeleton again and again, creating a spiderweb of cracks in the thick chitin.
The millipede recoiled from the blows, its head whipping out from under me so fast that I spun in the air before landing on my feet. The head shook back and forth and the mandibles clacked together threateningly. For a single breath, things in the cavern were nearly still.
Caera was breathing hard behind her shield, but when I met her eyes she inclined her head just an inch, assuring me that she was fine.
All our attention—even the giant millipedes—was drawn to Regis. The shadows melted away from him, revealing the full extent of his Destruction form. Just like when wed fought against the so-called ”Wild Things, ” he was huge. His chest and forelegs grew thick with corded muscles, his back sloping down slightly and afire with jagged, unnatural purple flames. Horns like sharpened battering rams curved forward like a bulls, while his snarling maw was filled with serrated daggers.
When he spoke, his deep voice reverberated through the den, more primal growl than speech. ”Try shitting this out, bitch! ”
Regis leapt half the length of the den to crash into the coiled millipede, his Destruction-infused jaws rending and tearing. He ripped off legs and tore huge gashes in the carapace, through which a thick, reddish muck spilled out. But the millipede was fighting back. Despite Regiss size, the giant beast was still much larger, and it curled around him like a python, using its bulk to crush him. Legs stabbed like daggers all over his body, deflecting off the hardened fur.
Burning black bolts of soulfire pelted the creature, firing even faster than before. The thick barrier of aether was fading, and for every ten bolts that dissipated against it, one made it through, causing the chitin to pop and hiss as the soulfire burned it away.
Suddenly the millipede went into a death roll, crashing manically through the cavern with Regis pinned against its body. Caeras artifact flashed back into defensive mode as part of the millipedes body crushed her against the wall.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, I conjured an aether blade in my fist. I guided the formation, keeping a clear picture in my mind: a long, thin blade, translucent purple instead of blue. I had the aether required—I knew I did—it was only the understanding I lacked. Some key insight into how aether could form a solid shape—a weapon—continued to escape me.
Still, I tried. The dagger lengthened, but the edge grew indistinct. The form wavered, coiling like the millipedes enormous body, which was twisting and crashing all around me. I hardened my will, and the blade straightened. The edges shivered and danced, more like forgefire than tempered steel, but the form held.
I tracked the path of the millipedes coiling frame. It was chaotic, mindless…but there was a pattern in all that chaos. Holding the blade with both hands, I split my mind. With one part, I held the swords form. With the other, I focused aether into every muscle, joint, and tendon. My head ached with the effort, my body screamed as it struggled to hold itself together against the tension.
Burst Step pulled the world beneath my feet, and then I was standing on the other side of the den, nothing left in my hands but a faint wisp of aether. Behind me, there was a steady, continuous crashing noise as the millipedes body slumped to the ground. A deluge of red sludge poured from a gash that ran half the length of its body, turning the ground into a gory soup of crystals, half-eaten remains, and the bloody goo.
You okay? I thought to Regis, who I couldn see among the folds of the millipedes corpse. The pressure put off by his Destruction form had waned.
Don mind me. Im just going to lie here in this stanky death soup for a minute, he thought tiredly back.
With a weary chuckle, I turned my attention to Caera, who was leaning against the far wall. I had promised to bring her on these ascents in return for her help in stealing the Compass. However, seeing the Alacryan noble hold her own in these last few zones, having her as a teammate felt less out of commitment and more like a genuine partnership.
”Caera, ” I called out as I saw her pushing herself back up to her feet. ”Nice wo— ”
Something about her expression kept me from walking closer to my blue-haired companion as she hobbled toward the center of the den.
Regis appeared around a mound of millipede, shaking off the muck clinging to his fur. He came to stand beside me, and we watched silently as Caera found a relatively clear space near the center of the den. Soulfire suddenly burst out of her, forming a sphere of black flames that faded as quickly as it had appeared.
Now standing at the center of a bare ring of earth, she withdrew something that flashed silver in the dim light, then plunged it into the ground. Her brothers dagger.
Dropping to her knees, she leaned forward and rested her forehead against its pommel. Her shoulders began to tremble as tears traced her cheek before dropping to the ground.
”Come on, ” I whispered before turning away. Regis followed, allowing her a moment of privacy to grieve. The half-choked sound of broken sobs resounded in the silence.
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