My gaze stayed pinned to Grey’s back as we navigated the labyrinthine tunnels, silent except for Kage’s constant wheedling. Despite now appearing perfectly healthy, it was difficult to dismiss the image of Grey lying motionless, his throat cut…
I squeezed my eyes shut, blinking away the image and instead focusing on the persistent prattle coming from Kage as he guided us toward the hidden exit portal.
“—not really my fault at all now, see? When Rat saw how people would just leave after a while, after they decided the relic couldn’t be claimed, he came up with the idea to close the portal and force people to stay. I just went along with it is all…but what else was I supposed to do?”
“And were you forced to make the female ascenders who found their way into this zone your playthings, as well?”
Kage’s hulking form shrunk under my gaze despite the fact that we hadn’t bothered to restrain him with mana shackles. Still, the dog had some bite left in him, and I could feel his mana flaring in anger.
“Keep walking, grunt,” Regis snapped as he stalked closely behind the scarred ascender.
My eyes found themselves settling on Grey’s back again as he moved mutely behind Regis, letting the shadow wolf herd Kage to our destination.
An uncomfortable, writhing frustration was worming its way through my insides as I considered again what Grey had asked me to do.
He knew that Kage wasn’t a threat to me, but the truth was that Grey still had silently demanded his complete trust. I was left on my own as collateral, like some damsel in distress—a stereotype of weakness and fragility I’d been fighting against my entire life—and Grey had expected me to put myself in a state of vulnerability without even the opportunity to question or understand what he was doing.
It took every fiber of self control to keep myself from killing Kage when he had withdrawn a pair of mana suppression cuffs and announced that we would be following after Rat and Grey together.
I rubbed at the faint bruises on my wrist, the dull aches a physical reminder of the danger in trusting too much—something I had never been guilty of before. I chose to let my power be taken away, trusting in Grey that nothing would happen to me.
Nothing too bad anyway, I conceded as I pressed the bandages against the bloody gash on my palm.
Preoccupied by these thoughts, I found myself nearly bumping into Grey, not realizing that Kage had stopped.
“It’s right here, just so,” he mumbled, giving Regis a gap-toothed grin, like a beaten servant seeking his overbearing master’s approval.
“Do you want a cookie or something?” Regis’s burning mane flickered with annoyance. “Open it.”
Kage blanched before raising his hands to the bare earthen wall. The soil trembled, then melted away to either side, flowing like mud in a sudden landslide to reveal a hidden tunnel. Regis herded our unwilling guide into the passage, which led to a dead end. Kage repeated the spell, opening up a second hidden tunnel, which led to a third and fourth before finally opening into a round cave.
Veins of glowing red rock grew in a circular pattern on the ceiling, lighting the cave with an eerie glow and bathing the portal in rusty light. The portal itself, which sat at the very center of the room, looked like a scarlet curtain falling through the brick-red stone of the frame.
We all walked around Kage, who had stopped dead at the mouth of the tunnel, nervously watching us. As soon as our attention was off him, he spun and sprinted back in the direction we’d come.
Regis watched him go with a look of faint amusement on his lupine face.
Without even looking back, Grey said, “Get rid of him,” and Regis took off at a run.
Grey seemed to have already put Kage out of his mind, his attention entirely on the portal. He walked around it twice, staring into the opaque depth as if he could see what was waiting on the other side.
His clothes were torn where he’d been stabbed, and stained red with blood. I didn’t yet fully understand what had happened. Grey hadn’t explained how he’d deactivated the shield, only how he’d taken the relic and ordered Kage to lead us to the portal. He’d been silent nearly the entire way.
He stopped suddenly and his gaze fell to my injured palm. “I’m sorry about that.”
I flexed my cut hand, which was wrapped in a piece of Grey’s torn shirt. The wound burned, but it wasn’t particularly deep and would heal quickly. “I’ll forgive you if you explain exactly what happened back there.”
“Fair enough.” He turned thoughtful for a moment. “Rat’s demeanor was unnatural for someone being held captive. Little things. But it all really clicked when I saw the glyph and realized they had no idea how to really open it.”
“What do you mean?”
Grey bent down and used dirt from the floor to scour away some of the blood staining his hands. When he looked at me, his eyes were cool and calculating. “I thought about what I’d do if I were in their position. How I would motivate the strong, often intellectual, ascenders who arrived in this zone…”
“But if you figured out the glyphs right away, why let yourself be cut to ribbons?”
Grey’s fingers unconsciously played with the holes in his tunic where Rat’s blade had pierced him. “Because I needed him to. They were right in that it demanded a blood sacrifice, but it had to be from one who had harmed the blood of the djinn.”
So you let him stab you? I nearly asked, but I was already putting the pieces together in my mind. Villains were often predictable, after all. All Grey had to do was give Rat a reason to spill his blood, making Rat himself the key to unlocking the relic. But then, that meant…
“So, you have ancient mage—djinn—blood?”
Grey shrugged nonchalantly. “I imagine plenty of people do. But the Relictombs called me “descendant” before, and confirmed I had a djinn ancestor…I guess that’s all it took.”
I opened my mouth to ask about this ancient mage ancestry, but slowly let it close again. Although I wanted to know more, I could tell by the way Grey was growing more deadpan and terse that I wouldn’t get the answers I craved. It was beyond frustrating that he continued to live behind this veil of mystery after I’d shown such trust in him, but then…I knew what I had signed up for when we made our agreement.
A brief moment of silence passed before I let out a deep breath. “What drives you to such lengths?”
Grey’s brows rose in surprise. He cleared his throat and stood suddenly. He was silent so long I didn’t think he was going to answer, but then a sad smile crept across his features, an expression that contained so little yet so much emotion. “I owe it to everyone I left behind to come back strong enough to take care of them.”
I tried to fit this answer into the broken mosaic that was my picture of Grey’s life—filled with gaps that represented everything I didn’t know about him—but it did little to resolve the mystery of what drove him to such extremes.
Before I could decide if I wanted to pry further, a scream, followed by a deep, booming voice resounded down the tunnel. “Only I get to call him princess!”
The tunnels trembled, and a light trickle of dust fell on us from above. I met Grey’s wide, golden eyes, and we both broke into a quiet fit of laughter.
Shaking my head, I asked, “So? Are you going to check out the relic or are tattered rags a part of your new image now?”
He rolled his eyes, but activated his dimension rune and withdrew the relic.
I stifled a laugh as he held up the set of ancient heavy battlerobes. The gray-brown robes were much too long for him, and would drag behind him like a wedding gown. “Try it on, Grey,” I said, unable to help myself. “Perhaps a pretty dress for the pretty princess will actually help you stay incognito…”
He ignored me as he investigated the robes, his fingers trailing along the rows of embroidered runes. The touch was gentle, a curious caress, and I could see his lips moving though he did not speak aloud. I knew he must be able to sense something from the robes, although I could feel only a small charge of mana within them, little more than the ring he wore on his finger.
Grey let the robes drape over one arm and pressed his hand down into the fabric. “I think…”
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The battlerobes vanished, leaving behind a vague nimbus of purple light that faded away a moment after.
“What happened?” I asked, unsure if he had simply stored the robed away again, or activated some kind of aether-based ability that I couldn’t sense.
The corners of his mouth twitching, Grey did something—a kind of mental flexing that pressed against the air around us and made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck—and the robes reappeared, now draped over his frame. He held his arms out to his sides, examining the effect.
He looked ridiculous. I opened my mouth to tell him so, but froze. The robes were moving, the dry fabric rippling like muddy water, shrinking to fit his frame.
The brown-gray coloring darkened to a brilliant black, and the heavy fabric that hung down to drag on the ground separated and reformed into individual legs. The relic—no longer a robe at all—continued to tighten until it fit Grey like a second skin. The material hardened into small, liquid-black scales that clung to his body, highlighting his lithe but muscular frame. Gold glittered between the scales, running along the length of his body like shining tendons.
Scaled sabatons molded around his boots, the overlapping blades held together by a gold mesh, just barely visible when he moved, and ridged pauldrons formed to cover his shoulders. Clawed gauntlets grew over his hands and up his forearms.
The robe’s cowl transformed into the same black scales, but shrank to cover Grey’s throat, chin, and the sides of his head, leaving his bright hair to hang over the void-black armor and keeping his face visible. Just as I thought the transformation was complete, obsidian horns formed over his ears, growing out of the armor and sweeping forward and down to frame his jaw.
I gasped, sucking in a choked breath as I realized I had forgotten to breathe.
I flexed my hands, which were entirely encompassed by the clawed gauntlets, and conjured an aetheric blade. The long dagger shivered, its form momentarily jagged, then stabilized. I could feel the pressure of it against my palm, uninhibited by the gauntlets. Dismissing the blade, I raised my arms and rotated my shoulders, then lashed out at the air with a series of kicks and punches.
The armor moved with me perfectly, leaving my motions unhindered.
A dark shape in the corner of my eye caught my attention, and I raised my hand to touch the horn growing from the half-helm.
“Whoa,” Regis’s familiar voice said as he loped back into the small cave. “What the hell happened while I was gone?”...
Smirking at my companion, I sent a pulse of aether to the armor, and it vanished, melting away in an aetheric nimbus.
His bright eyes bulged, then grew comically wider as I resummoned the armor with only the barest application of aether. It wrapped around me like a shadow, so light and well-fit that I could barely feel it.
“Ayy! Matching horns!” Regis gave a throaty chuckle. “We can be the horny trio.”
Caera sputtered as she glowered at my companion. “We’re not calling ourselves that.”
Regis circled me, sniffing. “It’s there, real and physical, but also…”
“A manifestation of aether,” I finished for him. “Like energy bound into a physical form.” Curious, I held out my arm. “Regis, bite me.”
Showing a worrying lack of hesitation, he bit down on my forearm, his teeth grinding against the armor. I felt it as a pressure, obvious but painless. Tilting my head at my companion, I goaded, “Is that all you got?”
Growling, Regis bit down harder, and the pressure increased. Focusing on my forearm, I pushed aether out to my skin in the same way I would protect myself with an aetheric barrier. The armor seemed to react to it, drawing on the aether to bolster its defensive capabilities and reducing the crushing pressure.
Regis let go and pawed at his tongue. “Yuck. It’s like sticking my tongue on a battery. My mouth’s all tingly now.”
Though I was curious to keep testing the abilities of this new relic, the low hum of the exit portal was drawing me in, and I was eager to move onto the next zone and test the armor properly. “We should go.”
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Caera frowned as she glanced at the tunnel into this small cave. “What about the other people in this zone? Should we…?”
“I don’t want to give anyone any more reason to think we were the ones who took the relic than we already have,” I answered. “The tunnel that leads here is obvious enough now, and they’ll inevitably start looking again, now that Rat and Kage are gone. They’ll find it.”
Caera looked uncertain, but moved to stand next to me in front of the portal. “Do your thing with the Compass, then.”
I reached out and took her hand, surprising her. We had matched simulets to keep us together as we navigated the Relictombs, but this time around, I felt certain that the portal’s destination would only be accessible to me and wanted to ensure we weren’t separated. “This portal already leads to where we need to go.”
Once Regis was back inside my body, we stepped into the scarlet curtain together.
And then, we found ourselves in a bizarre dreamscape that my mind struggled to accept. It was like the sterile white hallway Regis and I had navigated to reach the first djinn ruin, except…
Chunks of bright white floor and wall floated over—or under, or within—an endless black void, shattered and pulled apart, each individual section floating free, some spinning, others upside down or sideways…but in the gaps, when viewed from the corner of my eye, I saw a room like a library, except instead of books on the shelves there were rows and rows of rainbow-colored crystals, and in the facets of the crystals, images moved like memories…
“Grey…” Caera’s voice came from far away, echoing as it folded over itself, repeating several times, but she wasn’t beside me. I wasn’t sure when she had left, or even when I had released my grip on her hand.
I took a tentative step forward and my perspective shifted. Caera was there, leaning against an incomplete section of wall. The floor beneath our feet was slowly rotating, bringing into view another part of the disassembled corridor and, far away, a vortex of shattered black crystal, which was pulsating as the pieces recombined to form a gate, then shattered again, repeating this every few seconds in a way that was difficult to look at.
“It’s okay,” I said, taking her arm. “I’m here.”
The library—or the immaterial vision of it that I had seen from the corner of my eye—was gone, replaced by a crumbling ruin similar to the one in which I’d discovered the first djinn projection. Like the library, I could only see it when I didn’t look directly at it, and I didn’t know how to reach it, because it felt like we were already there.
‘The gate,’ Regis suggested. ‘If we can get to it somehow.’
Caera’s eyes fluttered open, and she slid her arm out of mine and straightened. She was pale and sweating slightly, but steeled herself against the sickening disorientation of the collapsing zone. “What a horrendous place…”
“I don’t think it is intended to be—” Looking at Caera, I realized with a jolt of panic that her horns were visible.
Afraid that the zone was somehow interfering with the magic, just like in the frozen zone, I checked my new armor, staring at the scales and reaching up to touch a horn…but the armor was intact. However, something in the zone was affecting it, causing it to emit a kind of aura that seemed, somehow, to stabilize the area around me.
When I bent my head to look through the narrow aura—a half-inch wide zone around me where space was bent back into the correct shape—I could see the whole and unbroken corridor wrapping around us.
With Caera at my side—she drew her long blade to help keep her balance as she walked along a corridor she couldn’t fully see—I led the way along the passage, using the image filtered through the hazy aura surrounding my armor to navigate until we stood before the black crystal gate.
In my mind, a broken, garbed voice said, ‘Enter-welcome-descendant-please,’ causing a spike of pain behind my right temple.
The million shards of the crystal gate folded outward, unfurling like a flag and dissolving into an ashy cyclone. I waited to find myself suddenly standing in the library I had seen out of the corner of my eye, but nothing happened. Then the gate was reforming, the crystal shards reappearing and flying back together.
‘Enter-welcome-descendant-please,’ sounded in my head a second time, driving the spike of pain deeper.
Regis’s voice sounded fuzzy around the edges when he said, ‘We need to do something, chief. I don’t think Caera can last long here.’
Caera wobbled slightly, her eyes shut tight against the painfully unreal vision of the breaking and reforming gate. “What’s happening, Grey? I can’t bear to open my eyes…”
Blinking hard against the line of blazing agony in my skull, I watched as the crystal gate shattered and started to reform again. Some survival instinct ingrained deep within me warned against stepping into the gate. I imagined being caught in its loop forever, pulled apart and rebuilt over and over until the Relictombs degraded and the zone collapsed…
I saw the circular room of ruined stone again from the corner of my eye. It was so close, like I could just…
In a flash of realization, I unfocused my eyes and searched for the aetheric pathways I could access with God Step, but they were warped and knotted amongst themselves. But if I was right, it wouldn’t matter.
I grabbed Caera’s arm and activated my godrune.
The zone resolved into a clone of the first ruin I’d visited, made up of bare gray stone, broken and crumbling in many places. At the center of the room was another rune-covered pedestal, around which rotated four stone halos. Or, there should have been four.
Instead, only two halos kept up their slow revolutions. From the shattered mass of stone at the base of the pedestal, it was clear what had happened to the other two.
Like before, a small crystal hovered just over the pedestal, pulsing with an inconsistent lavender light. And like before, something within the room, something other than the crystal, contained a monstrous amount of aether.
A woman stepped out from behind the pillar. Caera lifted her blade defensively, but I put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. She shot me a probing glance before slowly lowering the weapon.
The woman had ignored Caera entirely. Her glowing purple eyes were locked on me, or more specifically my armor.
She was barely five feet tall, and so thin as to be frail. Her skin was a muted pinkish-lavender color, her short-cropped hair more amethyst, and she wore only white shorts and a chest wrap that displayed the interlocking patterns of spellform runes that covered every inch of her body. Where the first djinn projection I had met was placid in both movement and attitude, this woman’s unflinching gaze and noble grace carried a furious intensity that seemed to radiate from her like heat off a bonfire.
She gave me a weak, sad smile. “So someone recovered my creation after all. In truth, I expected its shrine to sit undisturbed until the end of time.”
She dipped her head, gesturing to the armor I wore. “When it became clear that the Indrath Clan would rather destroy our people than accept we could not give them our insight into aether, I attempted to form a resistance against them. The very few who were willing to fight back helped me to forge that armor, but it was too little, and much too late. Rather than donning it myself and charging alone into a lost battle, I designed the zone where you found it in the hopes that it might one day be claimed by someone willing to fight against the asura.”
Caera gave me an uncertain look. “Grey, what is going on? Is this a…an ancient mage?”
I gestured to the crystal, which flickered like a dying light artifact. “No, not exactly. She’s a consciousness, contained in that crystal. They’re like…some kind of guardians or something.” To the djinn woman, I said, “The last projection I met was a lot more confused to see me. Why aren’t you?”
“I have some echo of his memory, and I knew you were coming. I only hoped you would arrive before the edifice housing my consciousness failed entirely.” She nudged a piece of the broken stone halos with her toe. “My sense of time is…inaccurate, but I know the time I have left is limited. We should begin the test soon.”
“Test?” Caera shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
I quickly explained what had happened last time I found one of these djinn projections, and how I believed each one protected a piece of knowledge—hidden in a keystone—that could help me unlock new powers.
“Will we fight each other?” I asked the djinn woman, who had watched us curiously while I explained.
She smiled wryly. “The irony of my placement here is that I was tasked to administer a different kind of test. Punishment for declaring our inaction against the dragons to be folly and failure as opposed to peace.”
She held up a hand to forestall the questions already forming on my lips. “However, it speaks to my compatriots’ inability to comprehend the desire to fight—to defend oneself—that they did not forbid me from passing on the martial techniques I developed in my life. By tasking me with a mental test instead of a physical one, they perhaps assumed that I would simply do as instructed and nothing else.”
She lowered her arms to her sides, and an aether blade appeared in her left hand. It was long, thin, and very slightly curved, its form startlingly clear without the degradation my own meager attempts yielded as I forced the aether into shape. The amount of energy contained within that single blade was enough to unleash several aetheric blasts.
“As I said: short-sighted.” Then a second blade appeared in her right. She crossed them in front of her, their sharp points searing twin lines in the stone at her feet, and when they touched one another, sparks flew hissing and popping through the air.
“You have shown the strength to fight back, to strike and spill the blood of our enemies. You are exactly who I have been waiting for, and I will train you to wield aether not only as a tool of creation, but as a true weapon of destruction.”