The Beginning After The End | Chapter 297

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Beginning After The End Manhwa Novel

Chapter 297



 Chapter 297


My fingers ran over the arch’s frame, tracing the jagged, broken edges where parts of the large structure were missing.


Was this another challenge or just bad luck? I had hoped that crossing the frozen wasteland was enough to leave this zone, but clearly that wasn’t it.


I turned to Caera. “Do you see any pieces of the arch in that pile? It looks like there are at least four or five separate chunks that’ve been broken off, judging by the damage.”


She sifted through the large pile for a moment before looking back up at me and shaking her head. “There’s quite a bit to sort through here, but I don’t see anything else in the same white stone the arch seems to be made of. Maybe here under some of the bones…” She kept rummaging, but I wasn’t hopeful. Things were never that easy in the Relictombs.


Regis popped out of my side, landing on the platform and shaking himself like a dog, the violet flames of his mane flickering. He gazed up at the ancient structure towering over him before speaking. “Do you even need the pieces? Maybe that fancy new power of yours can just…fix it.”


“You can’t just fix…” The rest of my words died in my throat as I realized my companion had a point. Pressing my palm to the arch, I ignited the newly acquired god rune that sat latent within me. Repairing all of the mirrors in the last zone had given me more than enough practice utilizing Aroa’s Requiem, but the sensation still felt new and raw, almost foreign.


The rune glowed golden from beneath my clothes as aether circulated through it, and purple motes of aether began to swirl around my hand. The motes left me and flowed along the arch, concentrating where the broken edges stood out against the flawlessly smooth carvings.


Aside from some light scuffs fading away, nothing happened. I kept concentrating, imagining the missing fragments of the arch rebuilding themselves. The sparkling particles of aether had simply worked when I’d used the rune before, repairing the cracked mirrors and releasing the imprisoned ascenders with no direction from me.


But I had seen what to do in the vision of the future…


Maybe I needed more understanding of how to repair an item, or what its purpose was, to affect it with Aroa’s Requiem.


Or maybe that wasn’t it either.


Frustrated more at myself than the circumstances we were in, I let out a sigh.


“It’s not working,” Regis said helpfully.


“I can see that,” I muttered, withdrawing aether from my god rune. The purple motes flickered out one by one as the rune’s glow faded. “Try searching the rest of the hall for any pieces of the arch. Maybe if we can find them I’ll be able to repair it.”


“Maybe? I mean, I’m as much an optimist as the next guy, but ‘maybe’ sounds like—”


“Do we have any other choice?” I snapped, glaring down at the shadow wolf pup.


Regis’s ears drooped. “No, I suppose not.”


I sighed as my companion hopped from stair to stair and began sniffing around the outside wall of the huge space. Sylvie and I had never fought like this—but that wasn’t Regis’s fault. Sylvie had always been my counterpoint, providing me wisdom when I was being foolish, temperance when I was reckless, bravery when I was afraid.


Regis, on the other hand, was more like me, reinforcing both my strengths and my weaknesses. Was that why I was harder on him than I had been on Sylvie? I thought back to those first moments in the Relictombs, when I woke up alone and powerless—alone, except for him.


Without him, waking up in that sanctuary room without Sylvie, knowing she sacrificed herself for me…


Sitting down on the edge of the platform with my legs dangling down the side, I withdrew the rainbow colored stone that held my bond. It had been quite some time since I had tried pushing aether into it, but I could feel that I hadn’t grown strong enough yet. Despite everything I’d faced and all that I had learned since waking up magicless and broken in the Relictombs, I had barely scratched the surface of what was possible with aether.


I’m going to get you out of there some day, Sylv. I promise. When you meet Regis you’re going to—


“Another relic secreted away from the Vritra?” Caera asked as she slid to a seat beside me, my bedroll pulled tightly around her shoulders. Her navy hair fell in front of her eyes and she leaned down to inspect Sylvie’s egg.


“Not exactly,” I said, turning my eyes back to the iridescent egg.


“It’s beautiful,” Caera said, her words barely a whisper.


“Thanks,” I said, hurriedly stashing the egg back in my dimensional storage rune before she was able to study it any more closely.


I started to stand up when strong fingers gripped my forearm and pulled me back to my seat. I turned to make some excuse to Caera, but she was staring at me, flabbergasted. “What was that?”


My eyes narrowed. “I don’t think I’m obligated to tell you what my—”


“I’m not talking about the colorful stone,” she said, waving my words away with her free hand. “How did you do that? Where did it go?”


Nonplussed, I showed her the back of my hand and the dimensional storage ring that I wore. “In my—”


“No, you didn’t.” She shook her head, her usual calm demeanor replaced by a childlike excitement. “You didn’t activate the ring just now, I could tell. Wait, you can’t…” Caera’s eyes widened in realization. “Of course, how did I not see it before? You don’t have mana to activate the ring.”


My mind whirled for lies to explain what had happened: my ring could be another relic that didn’t need mana, the egg could’ve had similar powers to Regis, or some other convenient excuse…


But as I opened my mouth to speak, I hesitated…tired of it all.


What was the point of lying? Caera knew I could use aether. She knew I had at least one relic—which was already punishable by death—and probably assumed I had more. She’d even seen Regis talk and absorb aether but still chose to scratch him like he was just another household pet.


“I…” Letting out a sigh, I pulled up my sleeve and imbued aether into my forearm to activate the dimensional rune. “I have a rune—a spellform—that operates on a similar principle. The ring is just for show.”


“Fascinating.” Caera’s ruby eyes shone with intense curiosity as she stared at the complex runes engraved in my skin.


I felt a slight smile tug at the corner of my lips as I watched her inspect my arm like a child opening a brand new toy.


Catching myself, a wave of guilt forced myself to remember who this girl was. Caera had followed me and lied about her identity. She was not only an Alacryan but of the same blood as Agrona and the rest of his monstrosities that had wreaked havoc on my people.


A dark part of me reasoned that I could always kill her before leaving the Relictombs if I told her too much, but I also knew I was just making excuses. Being honest with myself, it simply felt good to have even that small weight of having one less secret off my shoulders.


A cold touch on my arm snapped me out of my thoughts, startling me.


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Caera pulled her hand away. “M-my apologies! My curiosity tends to get the better of me at times, and I wanted to see how the rune felt…”


“It’s fine,” I said, clearing my throat.


I pulled my sleeve back down to cover the rune, but Caera was still staring at me.


“Is there something on my face?” I asked, cocking a brow.


“It’s just…Who are you, Grey?” Caera asked.


“Just a soldier that was mortally wounded,” I said with a shrug. “You should remember, you met me only shortly after.”


Caera narrowed her eyes as she stuck her lips out into a pout. “That’s a bit of an oversimplification, Grey. If you were to ask me, I’d speculate that you’re some sort of aberration of the Relictombs, conjured of aether to lure me into the deepest depths of the ancient mages’ endless fortress.”


“Lure you?” I scoffed. “Excuse me, but if I recall correctly, you were the one who somehow tracked me down and tricked me into taking you along.”


Caera stiffened before clearing her throat. “That, I admit, was a bit unbecoming,” she said, turning away.


“So…” I said quietly. “Isn’t it about time I get an explanation?”


Caera fidgeted uncomfortably, still unable to look me in the eyes as her hair fell over her face like a curtain. She raised a hand and pointed at my chest. “The medallion,” she said finally.


“The medallion?” I echoed, confused. “What meda—”


Realization struck me and I withdrew her brother’s bone-white dagger and gazed at the golden coin strapped to its handle. Etched into it was the sign of Denoir House: feathered wings spread out from a wreathed shield.


Of course.


“Can anyone track me with this, or just you?” My voice came out cold and collected as my narrowed gaze locked onto her. If Agrona or his Scythes were able to hunt me down with a magical tracking beacon, then I would be in danger as soon as I left the Relictombs.


Damn it. If I was still able to use mana, I wouldn’t have fallen for this.


“Only I’m attuned to the medallion,” she said hurriedly, turning to meet my eyes. “No one else can track it, I swear.”


She held my gaze for a moment, her ruby eyes sincere and unwavering until she dipped her head. “Again…I apologize.”


I held out the dagger and coin. “You said that you expected these back one day. Here, take them.”


She didn’t move to accept the offered items. “Grey, I—”


I set the dagger and medallion down on the platform between us, just loudly enough to cut her off. “You’ve told me how. You still have to tell me why.”


Aether leaked from me, rippling in the air to give a tangible weight to my emotions.


“What I said back in the mirror zone was all true,” she said, flinching slightly. “I could tell you were different and…I wanted to know more, to see for myself.”


“Then why not reveal yourself?” I asked icily. “Why go to all the trouble to disguise your identity?”


“No offense, Grey, but passing dogs can tell how standoffish and untrusting you are. Would you have really let me travel with you had you known who I really was?” she asked, raising a brow.


Surprised by the blunt response, I opened my mouth to reply, but Caera continued speaking.


“Besides, I’m always in disguise, no matter where I go.” She smiled solemnly, her hand touching one of her dark horns.


I stared at the Alacryan noble. Even after enduring two zones and a deadly winter storm, her posture remained poised as she sat across from me. But underneath that polished exterior was something that reminded me of myself when I had first wound up in the Relictombs. I could tell how alone she felt…


Letting out a sigh, I spoke once more, breaking the silence. “I want to trust you, Caera, but I can’t.”


“Then don’t, Grey.” Her gaze hardened as she swallowed audibly. “If I harm you in any way, impede your goals, or do anything to cause you to think that I’m sabotaging your purpose here…kill me.”


I remained silent, taken aback by her confidence and resolve.


Thankfully, the sound of little paws plodding across the silky stone floor drew our attention to Regis.


I slid off the edge of the dais we were sitting on, landing the ten foot drop with ease, before walking toward Regis. “Did you find anything?”


“Not a damn thing,” Regis muttered, shaking his head.


“Which likely means we’ll have to venture back out into the snow,” I added with a sigh.


I glanced back at Caera, who hopped off the edge of the platform as well, landing deftly before joining us. Tossing the bedroll that I had given her over her shoulders, she gave us a nod. “We should get going then.”


I shook my head. “The blizzard sounds like it’s getting worse. I doubt you’d last very long out there.”


Caera frowned. “While it would drain my mana reserves by quite a bit, I should be able to endure if I clad myself in my soulfire.”


“It’s not just that. The storm makes it almost impossible for me to see anything even with my enhanced senses. We should set up camp here for now and get some rest while we still can.”


Caera nodded, wrapping the thick blanket tighter around her. “That also doesn’t sound like a bad plan.”


I managed a faint smile before turning to my companion. “And Regis?”


“Yeah, boss?”


“You better spend some time gathering aether. We’re going to need you back at full strength.”


The little shadow wolf grinned hungrily before jumping into my body.


***


The camping situation wasn’t ideal. We weren’t equipped for the cold weather, though at least the light orbs floating around the dome shed some heat. Alaric had packed a surprisingly large amount of blankets for some reason, but I couldn’t find any sort of matches to start a fire. Worse yet, Caera’s dimension ring had been damaged in her fight against Mythelias, which meant the matches and other survival equipment she had packed was inaccessible.


“What about your soulfire?” I asked as the two of us sat on the thick pile of bedrolls we had spread out along the edge of the platform near the staircase.


“It doesn’t produce any heat like a normal flame would,” she said, igniting a black fire on the tip of her finger.


The two of us idly watched the shadowy flame as Caera made it bigger. Her gaze followed the tip of the flame when her eyes suddenly widened. Extinguishing the flame, she pointed up. “We can use those!”


I looked up to see the floating orbs of light hovering high above us in the room. Before I could argue, Caera had already jumped up to the pedestal and was climbing the arch. Reaching the top of the arch, she was just under the height they were hovering.


Curious, I watched as Caera crouched down atop the white arch, got her feet under her, and waited. After a few minutes, one of the lights drifted close enough. Her scarlet eyes locking onto the target, she leapt from the peak of the arch, soaring through the air and landing right on top of it…


Or, she should have landed on top of it.


Instead, she went right through it.


Caera let out a soft squeal as she fumbled in the air before crashing gracelessly to the ground twenty feet below her.


‘Ouch,’ Regis groaned. ‘That’s gotta hurt.’


The Alacryan noble bolted up to her feet as if nothing had happened. Her hair, however, was in shambles, and dust was caked throughout her clothes and parts of her face.


I stifled a laugh as she turned away.


“You alright?” I asked, watching her pat the dust off her clothes.


“I’d appreciate…if you could forget that ever happened,” she said, still facing away from me.


“You were waving your arms so hard that, for a second, I thought you were actually going to fly,” I smiled slyly. “That image is pretty hard to forget.”


Caera whirled around, cheeks red and eyes glaring angrily. “Y-you…”


I couldn’t help but laugh even as Caera ripped out a bedroll from under me and spun on her heels, marching to the other side of the room before huddling with the blanket over her head.


Feeling a tinge of guilt for making fun of her, I let Caera have some time to herself while I went back outside. Ignoring the biting winds that cut through my clothes and armor, I scooped snow into our waterskins and a small wooden cask that Alaric had packed for me before going back inside the dome.


“How is it outside?” Caera asked, leaning against the wall beside the entrance.


I held up the cask and waterskins for her to see. “Water shouldn’t be a problem once this melts.”


“I guess our biggest problem is food then,” she said softly before taking a peek at me. “Or rather, my biggest problem.”


“When was the last time you ate?” I asked.


“It’s been about five days, maybe a week…so I’m not in any immediate danger of starving,” she said. Her stomach grumbled at that moment as if to argue.


“The pile of bones we found earlier means that there still might be some wildlife out there somewhere,” I stated.


Caera let out a sigh. “Whether it’s for sustenance or the missing pieces of the arch, it seems like all of the signs are telling us to venture back out there.”


“Do you regret stalking me now?” I asked with a smirk.


“Investigating for personal research,” the Alacryan noble corrected.


I handed her the wooden cask stuffed with snow. “Well, Miss Investigator, chew on this for now.”


Caera grabbed a handful and held it up like it was a glass of wine. “You’ve managed to find quite the delicacy, Grey. Is this S-grade ice?”


Rolling my eyes, I walked over to the bedrolls we had stacked on top of one another to make a makeshift bed.


Care to take the night shift, my gluttonous companion? I asked.


Regis emerged from my arm, falling to the ground on all four of his stubby little legs. “I take offense to that kind of language.”


“Tell that to your belly.” I pointed to the round bulge of a stomach that nearly touched the ground.


“Hmph! Let it digest and I’ll return to my adult form in no time,” he argued before waddling toward the stack of bedrolls.


“You should try getting some sleep,” I said, handing Caera a few more bedrolls. “The strength of the blizzard seems to fluctuate, so ideally this storm will subside soon. If not, we should still be ready to head out as soon as Regis is back to full strength.”


She nodded, accepting the bedrolls and curling up into a corner with the cloth blankets wrapped tightly around her.


I was lying underneath a single bedroll a few feet away, leaning against the smooth wall of the platform. With my asuran body constantly supplied by the abundant amounts of ambient aether in the zone, the teal, fur-lined cloak was enough to keep away most of the cold.


Sleep eluded me and closing my eyes caused unwanted memories to resurface, so I let my gaze wander across the large marble dome until it landed on Caera’s prone form, still shivering within her bedrolls.


“Maybe it would make more sense if we shared my bedroll,” I said softly, reasoning that our bodies’ shared heat in the confined bedroll might keep us warm.


Caera stopped shivering as her entire body seemed to tense up underneath the coverings. Regis, who was lying nearby, lifted his head, his eyes bulging.


Slowly, Caera turned toward me, eyes wide and blushing bright red all the way up to her curved horns.


It only took a split second to realize why both Regis and Caera looked so shocked. I held my hand up in front of me. “Wait, I didn’t mean—”


“Grey,” Caera said hoarsely, “while I admit you’re quite handsome, don’t think that getting me into your bedroll will be so easy.”


“Oh my,” Regis sang.


I opened my mouth, closed it, and opened it again before burying my face in my hand. “Forget I said anything,” I mumbled, turning my back to the two of them.


“I’m sorry, your forwardness just surprised me.” Caera’s voice still had a tinge of laughter in it as her soft steps drew closer to me. I felt the back of my bedroll being lifted as she climbed in under the thick blanket behind me. “Thank you, Grey.”


I didn’t respond as her body shifted closer to me, her constant shivers gradually subsiding. We lay back to back, and I kept my mind carefully blank as I listened to her breathing become more even, but it was obvious that she was still awake by her occasional shuffling.


“There’s been something on my mind,” I finally said. “Why do you hide your horns? I assumed that having horns would be something to take pride in.”


“I suppose it is normal to think so, and for many it might be,” she said, her voice soft. “But reality is never that simple.”


Caera paused, as if hesitant to reveal any more. After letting out a sigh, she went on.


“Every house that has had traces of Vritra blood in their lineage is recorded so that offsprings from those houses are immediately tested upon birth. If a newborn’s blood contains traces of the High Sovereign’s lineage, then they’re immediately taken away from that household and placed into a Highblood house capable of raising and training the baby to become a distinguished figure,” she explained.


“So, the Denoirs aren’t your blood parents?” My mind jumped to my own parents and my strange relationship with them. Though I’d been born to Alice and Reynolds, and I thought of them as my true parents, as Grey I had been birthed by a different woman, a mother I had no memory of.


“No, they’re not. I don’t know my blood parents. The Denoirs had the ‘honor’ of fostering me in the hopes that the Vritra blood in me manifested—which is quite rare.”


There was a hint of sarcasm at the word ‘honor’, but I didn’t press it, letting her continue.


“Until then, I was to be raised, educated, and trained under the safest of conditions because if anything were to happen to me, the sovereigns would strip the Denoirs of their nobility and land at the very least, or, in the most extreme circumstances, even kill the entire blood.”


“That must’ve put your relationship with the Denoirs on edge,” I chortled.


Caera let out a small laugh. “That’s a bit of an understatement, Grey. But yes, the only one that actually treated me like a person rather than a glass sculpture was Sevren, the original owner of the white dagger, and the only one I could actually call a brother.


“He would sneak me out of my room and the two of us would spar until sunrise. After he became an ascender, he would come back and always tell me stories of his ascent—the thrills and dangers of the Relictombs.” Caera shifted slightly under the blanket.


“That explains your fondness for the Relictombs,” I said, connecting the dots with what she’d told me as Haedrig. “That also explains why you have to disguise yourself as someone else, but not why you hid your horns even when I first saw you with your guards.”


“The fact that my Vritra blood has manifested has been kept a secret from the Denoirs—even to Taegen and Arian,” she divulged.


“What? How do they not—” I turned, only now noticing that Caera had been facing me.


Her scarlet eyes widened in surprise as we came face to face and I immediately pulled away from her, lying on my back and keeping a couple inches of space between us.


“My back was taking up all of the heat,” she quickly explained, flustered.


“No, it’s okay,” I said. “But how do the Denoirs not know that you’ve manifested your Vritra blood? I thought that was the whole point of taking you in?”


“It is, and in normal conditions, they would’ve been the first to know,” Caera agreed. “But at the time of my dormant Vritra blood’s manifestation, I was with one of my mentors—a Scythe sent by one of the Vritra themselves.”


I stiffened at the mention of the powerful Alacryan generals, who had nearly killed me on multiple occasions, but Caera didn’t seem to notice.


“My mentor immediately took me to a secluded area and helped guide me through the process before explaining what would happen to me, now that I was a true Vritra-blooded Alacryan.” A solemn smile appeared on Caera’s face. “She gave me a choice: I could be experimented on and molded into a soldier for Agrona, or I could continue on as I had been, the frustrated foster-child of an overprotective blood.”


“I’m assuming you went with choice number two?”


Caera let out a chuckle. “I don’t think I’d be in the same bedroll as a mysterious wielder of taboo magic with several relics in his possession if I had chosen the first option. Do you know how many laws you’re breaking?”


“Probably not many more than the girl hiding the fact that she’s able to wield Vritra magic,” I pointed out. “And I doubt it’s okay for you to be referring to the High Sovereign himself like he’s your least favorite uncle.”


Caera stared at me for a moment before bursting into laughter, startling me.


“I guess that’s true. Here…” She then reached down her undershirt, pulling out a small teardrop-shaped pendant before handing it to me. “It’s not working right now, but this is the relic that keeps my horns hidden and allows me to change my appearance to Haedrig.”


I held it in my palm, feeling the unmistakable traces of aether radiating from it. “Is it okay for you to be revealing this to me?”


“It’s unreasonable for you to trust me after how I deceived you, but a close alternative to trust is mutually assured destruction,” Caera said, giving me a somber smile.


I raised a brow. “You know I can destroy this right now…”


The Alacryan noble’s eyes widened. “Y-you can? That would be…problematic.”


I stared at the crystalline blue relic, studying the aetheric runes that seemed to have been engraved on the inside of the translucent gem by the djinns. Caera watched me closely, biting her lip nervously as I turned the priceless relic over.


She was right. If I held onto this relic now—or destroyed it before we left the Relictombs—her life would be in as much danger as mine.


After thinking the matter through, I tossed the pendant back to her. “You’d be no use to me if you got locked up as soon as we got out.”


Caera’s eyes lit up. “Does that mean you don’t plan on killing me yet, Grey?”


“Let’s get some sleep.” I turned my back to her, lying on my side under the cover as I asked myself that same question…


The rational side of me knew that it would be safest to kill her here and now, but I had vowed to myself after first winding up in the Relictombs that I would need to take risks if I wanted to kill Agrona. And if Caera, with all of her powers and connections, really was opposed to the Vritra as much as she had led me to believe, then having her on my side might just be worth the risk.


The sound of soft, even breaths behind me jogged me out of my thoughts. I peeked back to see that Caera had already fallen asleep.


‘No funny business. I’m a proponent of mutual consent,’ Regis japed.


I ignored my companion, thankful that he had at least kept to himself during our conversation, and closed my eyes, both hopeful and anxious for what this zone would bring.


*

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