The Beginning After The End - Chapter 346

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Chapter 346: A Dim Spark

My eyes took a moment to adjust to the sudden dimness as I stepped out of the ascension portal.

I sucked in a lungful of aether-laden air, and it felt like the first real breath I’d taken in weeks. The tension faded from my muscles, and there was a hungry jolt from my core as it reacted to the dense atmospheric aether.

I was standing on a small floating island. The portal had faded, leaving behind only an empty frame overgrown with sharp purple crystals. Dozens of other floating islands hovered at the heart of what appeared to be…

Regis let out an appreciative whistle. ‘Whoa.’

A few strides were all it took to cross the island I was on. I gazed down into the gloom below before looking up at the roof high above; the curving walls, floor, and ceiling of this cavernous structure were made of enormous purple crystals. Similar growths dotted the many islands as well, some the size of small bushes, while others grew into huge, jagged boulders.

It was like standing at the heart of an enormous, glowing geode.

Regis’s shadow wolf form coalesced next to me, looking down as he licked his lips. “Imagine how much aether is stored in all these crystals.”

My eyes focused on a black spire that rose from an island in the center of the zone. Augmenting my vision with aether, I could just make out the carvings covering the entire three-story structure. It was also the only thing in the zone that contained no aether. “What is that?”

My companion managed to pry his hungry gaze away from the aether crystals to take a glance at the black spire. “Beats me…but knowing the Relictombs, it’s probably going to try to kill us.”

“Reasonable assumption.” I nodded in agreement before turning to the archway shimmering with opalescent light on the far end of the geode. “At least the exit is within sight.”

“Seems too easy,” Regis said, sniffing around the edge of the platform. “We’re supposed to just play leapfrog from island to island until we reach the portal?” Regis sprang across the twenty-foot gap to the closest island, then back again to prove his point.

“Feel free to play leapfrog by yourself.” I began charting the aetheric paths all the way to the portal before shooting my companion a wink. “See you on the other side.”

Regis cursed as I started to God Step across the zone.

As I stepped onto the next island, however, the pathways began to shimmer before twisting and melting away in a fuzzy haze. The atmosphere trembled with a sickening vibration.

Suddenly dizzy, I stumbled to one knee.

“Wha—”

The howl of a rushing wind filled the entire zone. Clouds of purple motes flew from the thousands of glowing crystals, being drawn toward the obelisk at the heart of the geode. My instincts took hold and I forced the gates around my core shut, but it was no use; my reservoir was emptied, the aether I had collected since our training session forced out of me and drawn away on the receding tide.

A thin, strained voice cried out over the howling wind.

My eyes widened in horror at the sight of Regis, collapsed, his physical form rapidly dwindling as the aether that bound it together was forced away. The shadow wolf became a pup, then a will-o-wisp, before fading into a dim spark.

I reached out a trembling hand as the glowing strands of his black and violet form faded. My fist closed just as the final spark began to disperse, and his incorporeal form drifted into me, his mind dark and cold.

The wind faded, as did the horrible vibration, though the sensation lingered behind my eyes and deep in my aching core. Backlash sent spasms through my chest and stomach, but I resisted the urge to be sick, and instead forced myself back to my feet in order to figure out what the hell had just happened.

Every inch of my body ached as I moved. Dragons needed aether to survive; their bodies consumed themselves if they didn’t have enough—and my physical form was mostly asuran now. I couldn’t be sure how long I had, but it felt like even my blood had dried up into sand. And there wasn’t a single particle of aether left in the atmosphere.

Regis was silent, his minuscule spark floating near my empty core.

The zone had gone dark except for the obelisk. Now containing every mote of aether within the geode—including my own—the obelisk glowed like a neon light, burning with impossible power. I was stunned.

Even as my tired, aching mind had trouble focusing, my eyes were locked onto the glowing spire like it was an oasis in the middle of a desert.

But the obelisk continued to grow even brighter.

I cursed, pulling my gaze away and scanning the other islands. Most of them had crystal protrusions, but mine didn’t. If the growths had all been suffused with aether when we arrived, it made sense that—

I cursed again. The twenty feet to the nearest island felt a lot farther now that I couldn’t strengthen my body with magic, but there was no other choice but to make the jump.

Backing up until my heel was pressed against the quiet portal frame, I gathered all my strength before bursting into an all-out run. I hit the edge of the island at full speed and kicked off, hurling myself through the air toward the neighboring landmass, but my backlash-weakened muscles resisted, and I knew the moment I jumped that it wasn’t going to be enough.

My chest impacted the stony cliff with crunch. I scrambled for something to grab onto amongst the bare stone and loose dirt as I slid down the side, but failed. Just as my lower half swung out into the open air, my left hand closed around something hard and sharp: a knife-like shard of crystal growing out of the dirt.

I hung that way for the space of a single breath before the obelisk flashed. A sphere of aetheric fire burst out from it, quickly engulfing the closest islands. A pained yell ripped out from my throat as I heaved myself up—the crystal cutting deep into my palm—until I could kick one leg over the side of the island.

On pure instinct, I threw myself behind the large crystal growth and curled up in a ball, my back pressed against it just before the nova engulfed me.

Rather than burning my flesh, the aether was drawn into the crystal growth at my back. The explosion continued to expand past me, but the small area just behind the barrier was shielded.

I was able to watch from relative safety as the expanding sphere of light crashed against the distant walls, infusing them with aether and lighting up the entire zone again.

With no way of knowing how much time we had, I struggled back to my feet, each breath a pained gasp, and pressed my bleeding hand to the boulder-sized growth. My core hungrily devoured the aether stored within, and I was finally able to breathe. It wasn’t much, but enough to heal my hand and fortify my body to stave off the backlash.

I fought the urge to check in on Regis and focused on getting out of the zone. My stomach twisted and churned as I searched for aetheric pathways.

There was no path to the exit portal. At least, there was no path I could follow. The branching, interconnected points—which usually made a kind of road map from one space to the next—were tangled in a convoluted knot.

To make matters worse, I could already feel the nausea-inducing vibration building up again, trembling through every particle of aether in the zone simultaneously.

With no other recourse, I threw myself back behind the crystal shield and hoped it would protect me again. When the obelisk activated, all the aether in my core was ripped away for a second time. All I managed to maintain was a thin layer that I wrapped around Regis to keep him safe.

The pain was immeasurable. As my eyes rolled back in my head and my mouth opened in a silent scream, I focused every ounce of my remaining strength on staying conscious.

The second explosion rippled past me, a visible wave of dark purple fire that washed over the series of islands, lighting up clusters of aether crystals one by one until it hit the far walls. The cavern burst into light again.

I can’t die like this. There has to be something I can do, I assured myself over the sound of my teeth grinding against each other. My sluggish mind struggled to sort everything I knew and what I could potentially use.

The obelisk on the central island absorbed all the aether from the zone, then utilized it in some kind of explosive attack. I didn’t know what would happen if I was struck by the explosion, but with no aether to defend myself, I was sure it wouldn’t be pretty. Aside from whatever destructive effect it had, the explosion also redistributed aether throughout the zone.

The time between the first wave and the second had been different by several seconds, so it seemed likely that there was some randomness involved. Unfortunately, this meant I couldn’t rely entirely on timing to move through the zone.

But the crystal growths on the islands acted like shields due to their reabsorption of some of the aether. It was just too bad that they didn’t also protect against the part when my core was drained over and over again. If I couldn’t find some way around that, the backlash would kill me before anything else got the chance.

When my brain cells and the blood in my veins began to shudder again, I clenched my teeth and prepared for the worst. It had come faster this time by at least fifteen seconds, and I hadn’t even absorbed any of the aether from the protrusion I was sheltered behind to protect myself with.

This time, though, was different. The amethyst light playing within the clear crystals dimmed as the aether particles were drawn away, but I felt nothing. The tiny piece of aether I had held on to, wrapped protectively around Regis, had trembled with the vibration, but hadn’t been pulled away from me.

The puzzle clicked into place.

Knowing I would have to move quickly, I rose up to one knee, making sure my body was still entirely blocked from the blast that came shortly after. I was already absorbing the aether from the crystal barrier before the rest of the explosion hit the outer walls. Once I had absorbed the entire reservoir, I strengthened my body and sprinted to the edge of the island, clearing the twenty-five-foot gap with room to spare.

I barely had time to lunge behind a large, curved growth of the clear crystals before the warning vibrations shivered through my core again. When the stones at my back dimmed, and the walls released streams of amethyst particles, my own aether gave a faint tug but stayed safely in my core.

A shuddering breath escaped my lips.

“That’s it…” I gasped in relief.

By hiding behind stones still full of aether while the obelisk drew it in, then absorbing it for myself after the following explosion, I could jump from island to island while refilling my core and avoiding the djinn’s trap. The only variable became timing.

Before maneuvering to the next floating island, I turned my attention to Regis. It took a quarter of my aether reserve, imbued directly into the tiny wisp, to bring back any signs of life. A sluggish confusion leaked from him before quickly sharpening into panic as he flew into my core, drawing on the rest of my reserves in a rush.

Don’t take too much! I warned quickly. I need as much as I can if we want to get out of here.

Regis didn’t respond. Instead, I felt a cold, numb fear…something I’d never felt from him before.

You all right now? I asked tentatively. He hadn’t been this weak since he first formed from the acclorite given to me by Wren Kain.

‘How’d that even…I almost…’ Regis let out a resigned sigh. ‘That fucking sucked.’

We’ll get through this, I assured him. Just stay near my core and focus on recovering when I absorb more aether.

Another explosion rolled by. This one had been forty seconds from the previous, and ten seconds since the absorption process.

And Regis?

‘What?’

Glad you’re not dead, I thought evenly, suppressing the fear and worry that had plagued me when he nearly disintegrated.

My companion let out a groan. ‘Don’t get all emotional on me now.’

I was just worried that all of the aether I fed you would’ve gone to waste if you had died back there, I lied.

‘Ah, there’s my loveable master,’ Regis said, his weak voice still oozing with sarcasm.

While I’d been checking on Regis, three more blasts had gone off. The shortest gap between the explosion and following absorption was seven seconds, which didn’t leave a lot of time to maneuver around. The next time a blastwave emanated out from the obelisk, I quickly drained the crystal shield and leaped to the closest island. It was a barren little patch of stone with no protrusions, so I moved on immediately, sliding into cover a full ten seconds before all the aether was sucked in again.

I waited, catching my breath and allowing another phase to go by. The jet black spire blazed amethyst as the power built up before being released yet again. Wrapping my hand in a thick protective barrier, I reached up into the oncoming blast.

Now that I had a better grasp on my overall situation in this zone, I wanted to test the strength of the blast while simultaneously attempting to absorb aether directly from the explosion. The blazing wall of light burned away my protective aether, then my hand along with it, leaving behind nothing but a cauterized stump.

‘That turned out nicely,’ Regis noted.

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“The sarcasm…I don't miss,” I hissed breathlessly. "Hand. Now.”

The wisp drifted down my arm to the scorched stump of my wrist, and I released nearly all of the aether from my core. It rushed through my aether channels, further condensed by Regis, and began to rebuild my hand, knitting flesh, blood, and bone from the purple particles.

The destruction of my appendage made me realize that I had, at some point, stopped fearing the Relictombs. I’d come to think of it as a personal training ground, like the flying castle or Epheotus, and forgotten that it was designed to kill me; its difficulty would always grow to match my strength.

By the time I had restored my hand, nearly all of my meager aether reserves had been depleted.

‘Have I ever told you that you’re a masochist?’

“Once or twice.” I mustered a weak grin as I leaned back against the cool glowing barrier.

When the vibration came again, signaling the start of another phase, I burst into motion.

Several islands passed by quickly, each in the same fashion, and by the time I was halfway to the exit portal I was feeling better. My core was rich with absorbed aether, and my body had healed. My companion wasn’t as lucky.

‘This is the worst,’ he complained from within me. Even though I had absorbed more than enough aether to share, it was impossible for Regis to draw on it as quickly. After experiencing something akin to muscle atrophy, he would need to spend time rebuilding his strength.

“Just stay in there and absorb what you can,” I said while also counting down the time since the obelisk had drawn in the zone’s aether. It had been over a minute, but the black spire was still growing brighter, building up toward the inevitable explosion.

Finally, it burst with the sound of a thousand cannons. I waited for the ripple of aetheric fire to roll past, then quickly drew out the energy trapped inside my protective barrier and prepared to leap to the next island.

The obelisk exploded a second time.

My course took me in the direction of the oncoming nova, so for a moment I was suspended in the air, watching the blaze overtake one island after the next as it expanded toward me.

I hit the ground in a roll, slamming hard into a small cluster of crystals just barely big enough to cover my whole body. When the blast struck the crystals, already burning with purple light, they trembled and began to splinter with sharp cracking sounds.

Not bothering to absorb the aether from the crumbling protrusion, I threw myself at the next floating island just as the obelisk exploded for the third time.

The crystal shield on this island was the largest I had seen so far and curved inward to create a small cave. As I scrambled into the shallow depression, a noise like shattering glass filled the zone in short bursts.

The crystal barriers, I realized just as the wave of aetheric fire roared past my shelter. Pressing both hands against the glowing walls, I began to absorb the aether as fast I could, draining the crystals to prevent them from bursting apart.

All around me, clusters of violently glowing crystals shattered, sending shrapnel spraying across the other islands.

Looking around the edge of my shield, I saw that the only protective barrier to survive was the one I had hidden behind. I quickly charted a path to the exit portal, but it was too far to reach before the next explosion.

Using most of my stored aether to activate Burst Step, I propelled myself across several islands.

‘Uh, that’s the wrong way!’ Regis pointed out as we sprinted and leaped toward the central island and the obelisk.

Lacking the time or mental energy to put my plan into words, I tried to project the idea directly into Regis’s mind.

‘You…sure about this?’ Regis asked.

“No,” I grunted as we landed on the central island, the three-story spire rising high overhead. “But it can’t be any worse than swimming in lava, right?”

The obelisk was dark and empty, but I didn’t think I had long before the next wave began. Hurrying to it, I pressed my hands to the smooth sides. It had a glassy texture and was cold to the touch.

I waited. Thoughts ran in a jumble through my mind. If this failed, then I would probably die.

When the vibration started, my eyes snapped shut and my lungs seized in my chest. It was much more intense this close to the obelisk. I prepared for the backlash.

Having my core suddenly and forcibly drained for the third time in thirty minutes made my legs shake and my palms sweat. I heaved for breath, trying to force my lungs to work again, but it felt like a titan bear was sitting on my chest.

I started to absorb aether from the spire before it had even finished taking it from me. I needed to utilize every possible second before the next aetheric blast.

The offsetting flow of aether kept me on my feet despite the pain of backlash. I sucked at the aether building within the obelisk-like a half-drowned man gasping for air. My hands were already pressed against the quickly-warming stone, but I leaned forward and rested my forehead against it as well, absorbing the swelling energy as quickly as I could.

The aether was pure. Much more so than any source I’d encountered before. It was like breathing in pure oxygen; my head swam with the power of it, burning like a bonfire in my solar plexus.

My aether core couldn’t even condense or refine it further. Instead, the purified aether was scraping the remaining impurities from my core, and my chest began to ache.

As my core filled to the brim, I continued to draw aether from the spire—I had no choice. If I stopped, it would explode and kill me—but it felt like I was trying to drink the ocean. My core was so full that it began to quake and tremble. A radiant bolt of pain shot out of it, and I tasted bile in the back of my throat.

The light from the obelisk grew brighter and brighter through my closed eyelids. I wasn’t even sure how long it had been.

I tried to expel most of the aether from my core, just like I had when I first began to trace my aether passages, but when I opened the gates around my core, the streams still running in from all over my body overwhelmed my attempt to push outward, creating a backflow that caused an uncontrolled flood of purified aether that I couldn’t stop.

‘I’m drowning in here!’ Regis shouted, his wisp form entirely inundated with aether.

Strobing flashes of light pierced my eyelids. I pushed my face away from the obelisk and opened my eyes; the spire flickered, struggling to release the intended expulsion of destructive energy but lacking the force to do so. I was acting like a release valve, giving the aether an outlet that kept the pressure from reaching the necessary level.

There was a resounding crack from my sternum.

Looking inward, I saw a dark fissure appear across the surface of my aether core.

My vision swam. Fireworks went off behind my eyes. A white hot blade of pain cut all the way through me.

No.

A second crack branched off the first, shivering like a slow-motion bolt of lightning around the circumference of my sphere, nearly breaking it in two.

No!

Taking a ragged breath, I bent every ounce of my formidable will on the task of molding the aether to my will. With somewhere else to go, it stopped overflowing into my weakening core, and I eased into a delicate balance between the obelisk’s continued efforts to explode and my inescapable absorption and reformation of the purified aether.

Despite the precarious nature of my position, a grin formed on the corners of my bloody lips.

Regis hovered within my core, watching me work. ‘No way.’

“Yeah,” I huffed, my smile stretching wider. “Definitely better than bathing in lava."

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