\"Chapter 360: Blood Relic III\"

sputtered as she glowered at my companion. ”We
e not calling ourselves that. ”

Regis circled me, sniffing. ”Its 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. Its like sticking my tongue on a battery. My mouths 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. ”

Caera frowned as she glanced at the tunnel into this small cave. ”What about the other people in this zone? Should we…? ”

”I don 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 theyll inevitably start looking again, now that Rat and Kage are gone. Theyll 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 portals destination would only be accessible to me and wanted to ensure we weren 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… ” Caeras voice came from far away, echoing as it folded over itself, repeating several times, but she wasn beside me. I wasn 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.

”Its okay, ” I said, taking her arm. ”Im 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 Id discovered the first djinn projection. Like the library, I could only see it when I didn look directly at it, and I didn know how to reach it, because it felt like we were already there.

The gate, Regis suggested. If we can get to it somehow.

Caeras 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 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 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.

Regiss voice sounded fuzzy around the edges when he said, We need to do something, chief. I don think Caera can last long here.

Caera wobbled slightly, her eyes shut tight against the painfully unreal vision of the breaking and reforming gate. ”Whats happening, Grey? I can 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 matter.

I grabbed Caeras arm and activated my godrune.

The zone resolved into a clone of the first ruin Id 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 womans 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. ”

”Your creation? ”

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. Shes a consciousness, contained in that crystal. They
e 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 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 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. ”

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