The Beginning After The End - Chapter 294
Chapter 294: The Faintest Hope
No, I thought, my heart pounding in my throat. That’s not possible.
The explosion had broken the closest benches and wrenched Ada hard enough to loosen her bindings, and she was quick to rip free of the rope.
My focus was drawn back to the dodecahedron as the last piece fit into place. Like before, it shimmered and glowed, the outlines of the individual pieces I’d used to complete the puzzle fading away and forming a solid shape.
In the present, Haedrig and Kalon had fallen into a rhythm, working together to keep Mythelias on the defensive, but any time they scored a hit, the wound instantly sealed over.
Half of Riah’s corpse was now covered with scabrous growths, but neither Haedrig nor Kalon had escaped injury themselves. Kalon was bleeding badly from a cut on his leg, and Haedrig appeared to have taken the butt of the spear to his cheek, which was swollen and already changing color.
Finally, the opalescent shimmering on the faces of the dodecahedron smoothed out and stopped moving, and each face displayed a different moving picture.
In one, the hall of mirrors had been obliterated. The entire end of the hall had been burned away, its blackened edges opening directly into the void. Every mirror was shattered, and most of the frames had been incinerated. There was no sign of life in the room.
In another face of the dodecahedron, I saw myself standing with Haedrig and Ada, who was crying furiously as we pushed Ezra’s remains through an empty mirror frame and out into the void.
The hall was scorched and blasted, the fountain empty, many of the mirrors broken, but it was overall intact.
Haedrig pulled the girl into a tender hug, but I turned and walked away.
My eyes were drawn to a third image. Mythelias, in Riah’s corpse, was stalking across the hall of mirrors toward me. Behind him, Kalon and Haedrig had been entirely subsumed by the dark boils; they were clearly dead.
Ada lay unconscious near me. Mythelias leaned down over her and pressed one blackened hand to her cheek. I turned away, pushing the dodecahedron with aether so it spun, removing the awful image from my line of sight.
The revolving dodecahedron brought different images into sight. Some were variations on what I’d already seen, but one in particular caught my eye.
In it, I saw myself activating a god rune that glowed golden through my clothes. Purple motes of aether spun and swirled through the room like dandelion seeds, and everything they touched glowed with aetheric energy.
I watched, awed, as the mirrors mended before my eyes and the pieces of the fountain flew back together as if time was being rewinded, the smoke and steam from the air literally coalescing to reform stone and water.
When the purple motes landed on Ezra, the boils began to shrink, receding until they faded away entirely. The young ascender gasped and his eyes flew open. He was alive.
Just before the glass of the shattered mirror through which Kalon had been hurled snapped back into place, Kalon himself drifted through it, settling gently onto the ground in the hall of mirrors. The wounds he’d sustained from his battle with Mythelias closed; even the damage to his clothes and armor was reversed.
The terrified, heartbroken image of Ada in her mirror dissolved into pinkish smoke, which flowed out of the mirror, then moved purposefully across the hall until it found her unconscious body, returning her to herself.
Where the floor of the hall was most blasted and burned, ash began to swirl, creating a miniature cyclone. As the ash condensed, a form began to take shape.
Riah’s body, still missing one foot, hung in the air like a rag doll, lifeless and somehow incomplete. Then the gnawed flesh of her foot began to regrow, healing before my eyes. When her eyelids fluttered open, she stared around the now pristine hall with confusion and fear before drifting down to the ground where she was met with a running hug from Ada.
Though the visions of the past and present had suggested the possibility that the third puzzle might show visions of the future, I hadn’t dared to hope such a thing might be possible, yet there I was, watching events that hadn’t happened yet.
Each face of the dodecahedron seemed to show a different potential future, some showing our other failure, true, but there was at least a chance we could defeat the Vritra-blooded ascender and escape the hall of mirrors.
Still, fear bubbled in my gut at what I had seen, or not seen; Regis was nowhere to be found in any of the futures I could see, even the one where I was somehow able to bring back the dead.
What is this power? I wondered, still watching the potential futures play across the faces of the dodecahedron. It seemed too incredible to be possible. Was it an aspect of Life, of vivum? A way to bring the dead back to life?
No, I thought, it seemed more like aevum, an aspect of Time. It was like the aether was turning back the clock on whatever it touched, undoing the damage done to glass, stone, and flesh alike.
Excitement surged within me. This was it! This was the power I needed to defeat Agrona and end the war with Alacrya. Not only that, but I could undo the damage Agrona had done. I could save everyone: Buhnd, Cynthia, Adam, Sylvia…my father.
I could bring them all back!
As the dodecahedron revolved around, the panel in which Haedrig, Ada, and I stood alone in the wreckage of the hall came back into view. In that version of the future, I began using aether on any mirrors that were still intact and had an ascender trapped within.
Like in the other vision, the cracks and chips in the mirrors began to disappear as if mending themselves. Then, one by one, the ascenders faded away. When they had all been released from their prisons, the light within the room shifted subtly, taking on a warmer tone, and a portal appeared within one of the empty frames.
In that version of the future, however, the others remained dead.
Why? I wondered fearfully. What is the difference between these two visions of the future? What do I need to do?
Then the images of past, present, and future faded away, and the three shapes I had constructed within the keystone realm began to dissolve into streams of purple sand that eddied around me on gusts of wind I couldn’t feel. Soon I was looking out through the eye of an aetheric tornado, and the scouring wind and rough sand were scraping across all the layers of my mind.
It’s too soon! I thought, panic taking hold of me. I don’t understand yet!
The pain and pressure built and kept building until I was sure the storm would tear my mind apart, rip my consciousness from my body, and cast it into the void…
Then it was gone. In place of the raw, tearing pain I felt a sense of freshness and calm, like I’d just stepped out of a cool shower on a hot summer’s day.
I opened my eyes. My mental cleansing had been so complete that for just a moment I forgot what was happening around me.
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It took a moment for Regis’s voice to sink through my foggy confusion. Was it coming from the past, present, or future? I felt as though time itself was meaningless, and wondered vaguely if this was how the trapped ascenders felt within their mirrors.
The trapped ascenders…The thought nagged at me. I had seen them in the vision of the future…or was that the present now? And then there was the Vritra-blooded ascender, Mythelias…He had escaped—or he would escape? I couldn’t tell the difference.
The room shook as, across the fountain from me, Kalon released his voltaic energy spell, the arcing energy striking Mythelias from several angles at once, nearly burning Riah’s body to a cinder and imprinting jagged, fiery afterimages into my retina.
I blinked rapidly, a creeping feeling that I should be doing something clawing through the confusion.
Kalon leapt at Mythelias, attempting to use the aftermath of his catastrophic attack to drive his burning spear down into the Vritra-blooded ascender’s heart. At the same moment, Haedrig cut low, aiming to take Mythelias’s leg off at the knee.
He was ready for them.
The flesh around his knee bubbled outward then hardened, trapping Haedrig’s sword in a knot of gnarled black tissue. In Mythelias’s hands, Ezra’s spear swung with the force of a battering ram, catching Kalon in the air and batting him aside like a bug.
A jolt of adrenaline hit me like a lightning bolt as I watched Kalon fly sideways, strike the frame of one of the mirrors, and spin out into the void. He was gone.
Riah’s face sneered at Haedrig. “As if you lesser scum could truly fight back against me.” The words slithered out between her stiff, blackened lips, sounding entirely unlike Riah. “You can’t even understand the honor I give you. In my time, only the greatest warriors died by my hand…”
‘Arthur!’ Regis screamed again in my head. He was inside me, I realized. I could feel his debilitated presence, his mind, his wild panic. And I could feel the Destruction rune raging like a wildfire, begging to be unleashed and burning away the last of my confusion and uncertainty.
Before me, Mythelias casually reached down toward Haedrig, who tried to throw himself backwards but slipped in blood and hit the ground with a grunt. To his credit, the veteran ascender seemed calm even in the face of certain death.
As the bloated, puffy white fingers reached toward my friend, I raised my own hand and summoned the violet flame. Mythelias’s head snapped around as he sensed my power, and with astonishing speed he cocked the spear back and launched it like a missile aimed straight at my throat.
The spear seemed to slow until it looked as if it were hanging suspended in the air. Riah’s dead face was twisted into a hateful snarl, as still as a painting. Haedrig lay on his back at Mythelias’s feet, one arm up to ward off the blow that had been diverted toward me.
Without meaning to look for them, I saw the network of aetheric vibrations between Mythelias and me; all I had to do was focus on them and activate my rune, and I was able to pass through the vibrations with God Step, appearing between Haedrig and Mythelias, the power of Destruction still held in my hand.
The world lurched into motion again, and I watched as the spear flew into the distance. Mythelias’s eyes widened in surprise, still focused on where I had been just a moment ago, before twisting around with the speed of a razor grimalkin, his hand thrusting toward me like the tip of a poisoned dagger.
But it wasn’t fast enough.
“Burn,” I commanded, and the hungry flames leapt from my fist in a fan of pure violet destruction fueled by my aether.
Destruction engulfed Riah’s body, flinging Mythelias screaming onto his back. He rolled and beat at the flames, and his power caused a hard, black shell to start forming all around the body.
Even as he burned, he screamed out, “I am the Mythelias Dresdium—son of the Sovereigns—and I—refuse—to—”
“Die,” I said coldly.
The purple fire consumed the scabrous black lumps and the pale dead flesh alike, destroying the body faster than Mythelias’s ability could regenerate it.
As I watched the body of the kind girl—the girl who brought sweets on an ascent instead of rations—disintegrate, I felt only the flush of power, the knowledge that, with Destruction at my command, I could defeat anything. Even Agrona wouldn’t be able to fight back against this kind of raw destructive force.
Destruction fed until not even ash remained, but when Riah’s body was gone, Destruction remained. I felt the power pull at me, eager for more.
I clenched my fists and ground my teeth as I tried to snuff out the remaining flames, which had spread to the stone floor and were quickly eating through it, along with most of my aether reserves.
A gout of the violet fire erupted from my right hand, boiling away the water within the fountain and setting two of the broken benches aflame. All around me, purple embers floated through the air, and anything they touched caught fire.
It was beautiful.
Then a spark landed on Haedrig’s leg.
He would burn, I knew, like everything else. Kalon, Ezra, Riah, Ada…Haedrig. They were all collateral damage, but their lives had been the price I had to pay to make it this far.
No! That was wrong, I knew. That’s Destruction talking, not me!
I saw again the future I’d witnessed in the dodecahedron: the hall of mirrors destroyed, nothing but ash remaining of my companions. That was what would happen if I couldn’t control Destruction. In the end, it would consume everything. Even me.
Feeling control slipping away from me, knowing that Haedrig would be incinerated in moments if I didn’t do something, I shouted for Regis.
We have to exhaust our aether reserves. All of it! Gauntlet Form! Now!
Regis didn’t hesitate. When he was in my right hand, I held it out, pointing through one of the many broken mirrors and away from Haedrig, who was shouting my name, pleading for help.
With Regis in my hand to draw my aether, I turned Destruction in that direction and pushed. Purple fire boiled out of me like an inferno, spilling out into the darkness where there was nothing for it to consume.
More and more of the destructive energy streamed from me. I burned it all, every last breath of aether in my body. And when I was as dry and empty as a sun bleached skull, the last of the fire flickered and died, no longer able to draw from Regis’s rune.
My head whipped around, but I let out a sigh of relief when I saw Haedrig back on his feet, his armor scorched but otherwise looking unburned.
Then my knees buckled, and the world went dark.