Chapter 239: Passage Of Time
Instinctively, I shrouded myself in a sphere of wind, keeping the sand away as I gently floated down to the ground. Sylvie did something similar as I saw a black sphere slowly melt to reveal a petite girl with two large horns.
Virion and Bairon, with their cores damaged and their magic widely unusable, didn’t fare as well.
Fortunately, Virion was at the epicenter of our descent so he slid down the large mountain of sand that had accumulated below him. Bairon, a figure whose lightning magic was so powerful that it heightened his reflexes, rolled down the sand dune in a fit of desperate screaming and coughing.
He flailed his arms like a drowning puppy before he realized he was on solid ground. Virion shook his head while Sylvie turned away to hide her laughter.
Bairon spat out a mouthful of sand while glaring at me with dagger-like eyes. “You! Should a lance be so selfish as to leave his… commander to plunge down into unknown dangers like that?”
“The only one that thought they were in danger was you,” Virion countered, dusting the sand off of his robe.
It was the first time I saw Bairon’s cheeks flushed in embarrassment. He quickly bolted up to his feet, wiping his sandy mouth and tongue on his sleeve as he coughed. His spiteful glare never ceased as he did this but Bairon and I both knew that he couldn’t do anything about it. With the state he was in right now, I could kill him with a slap—not that I’d want to, of course.
“Everyone,” Sylvie said, her voice echoing slightly. “Look around.”
Her words brought our attention to the mysterious underground tunnel we were in. I looked around and I finally realized that for a place without any sources of light, it was surprisingly easy to see.
“Are those glowing symbols runes? I’ve never seen anything like them,” Bairon muttered in wonder as he hovered his hand over a rune that pulsed with faint light on the wall. “It must be runes, but I don’t sense any fire or lightning affinity mana around them.”
Sylvie brushed her hand over the runes that seemed too perfect to be engraved by hand. “That’s because it isn’t powered by mana.”
Bairon furrowed his brows. “What? That’s impossible.”
“No, she’s right,” I said, cycling Realmheart Physique through my body once more. Sylvie’s thoughts had leaked onto me and I just had to verify it for myself. And to my utter amazement, the entire cave lit up like a starry night, basking the area in purple. “It’s powered by aether.”
My mind spun as I tried to make sense out of this revelation. I ran the conversation I had with Sylvie’s grandmother, Lady Myre, in my head again. Everything she had told me about aether being an entity that couldn’t be manipulated like mana—but rather, influenced or coaxed into action—went against what was going on in front of me. Aether wasn’t something that could be confined and used so permanently like this, yet it was clear as day that someone or something had figured out how to do so.
“Let’s continue walking,” Virion announced, taking the lead. “There’s more of this down here.”
Prying my eyes away from the runes that filled these walls, we continued to walk. Much like in the desert above us, the air here was dry and stale. The only sounds came from our footsteps echoing through the tunnel that led out of the cave we had arrived through.
It couldn’t really be called a tunnel, though, as the smooth, polished floors and light coming from the runes made it seem more like a narrow hallway. The ceiling above us continued to rise as we made our way down the hallway, soon reaching so high that it became lost in darkness.
Despite Virion’s familiarity with this place, I couldn’t help but be cautious. My eyes darted left and right, looking for anything odd, but except for the unusually high concentration of aether gathered here, there was nothing off about this place.
‘You’re feeling uneasy here as well,’ Sylvie noted, sticking close to me.
I think it’s just because of all the aether here, and the runes that are practically trapping them to use as light. I thought aether only influenced time, space, and life?
‘I suspect that the walls aren’t just made of stone but some sort of living thing,’ she responded.
I carefully touched the walls for the first time, and realized that Sylvie was right. It wasn’t stone, like I had assumed—it felt more like a smooth tree trunk.
So aether is giving this… tree… life? I guessed.
‘Your guess is as good as mine at this point. I may be able to utilize aether but you can at least see the ambient mana; I have to go by my gut feeling.’
We continued walking in silence. The straight passage seemed to go on forever, with no end in sight. Despite the scores of runes on the walls, the lack of variation amongst them made it impossible to tell how long we’d been walking.
“How far away are we from reaching the actual shelter?” Bairon asked, unable to hold in his impatience any longer.
“I’m not sure. It hasn’t been long since we arrived so be patient,” Virion replied.
Bairon’s eyes widened. “Not long? Commander, It feels like I’ve been walking for nearly the entire day! I think the journey to find this underground tunnel was shorter.”
“Bairon, aren’t you exaggerating too much? I’d hardly be this fine if we had to walk that long without using mana,” Virion argued.
I tilted my head in confusion. He was right; Bairon might’ve been exaggerating but it did feel like I had been walking for quite some time. Yet, Virion, the one that was the weakest amongst us was doing just fine.
Sylvie, how long have you been walking for? I asked, turning on Realmheart once more.
‘Not more than an hour… wait, a few hours has passed for you?’ she asked, surprised.
I nodded. Sylvie, can you try utilizing aether?
Reading my thoughts, she replied, ‘But I can’t use it to control time.’
I know. I don’t think you have to, though.
Taking a deep breath, Sylvie began calling upon the ambient aether. Her body began glowing in the faint purple light she gave off while using vivum to heal herself and her allies.
Immediately, the surreal sensation akin to falling in your dream tugged at my body. And then, as if I had really woken up, an indescribable clarity spread through my vision.
‘Arthur, look behind you,’ Sylvie said, shaken.
I looked back to see that our hike of varying length down this hallway had only taken us thirty steps forward from the cavern we had arrived in.
Noticing the change in my expression, Bairon turned around. I couldn’t see his face, but judging by how his shoulders tensed and he took a step back, I knew that he was even more shaken up than Sylvie and me.
“Th-That’s impossible. I’ve been walking for hours. How—what is going on?” Bairon demanded, turning back around and shifting gazes between me and Sylvie.
“My best guess is that these runes carry in them the power of aevum and spatium,” I explained, my eyes turning to the mysterious and intricate runes carved into the walls.
“Aevum and spatium?” Virion asked.
“Time and space aether arts,” Sylvie answered, her brows knitted in confusion.
Bairon shook his head. “No, that makes no sense! Shouldn’t these time and space ‘aether arts’ affect us all the same way? How is it that Commander Virion only felt like he’d walked for an hour while it feels like I’ve been journeying for more than a day!”
I thought for a moment, looking around until my eyes landed on the white medallion.
“Because of that.” I pointed to the ancient artifact in Virion’s hand. “This ‘trap’ seems more like a precaution used to give whoever built this place enough time to react to intruders, rather than a full-on measure to stop them. And I’m guessing that having the artifact is enough to make passage a little easier.”
“That doesn’t explain why you two weren’t affected,” Bairon retorted, obviously upset.
I looked at my bond. “Most likely, it’s because Sylvie is naturally inclined to aether that she experienced only minor effects. For me, I can only guess it’s because I’m sensitive to aether that I was still affected but not nearly as much as you.”
After a long moment of silence, Bairon accepted the answer with a click of his tongue.
“Come on. Let’s continue,” Virion urged. “With Lady Sylvie using aether, the effects of the time and space aether doesn’t seem to affect us.”
We continued walking cautiously with Sylvie in the lead as she continued utilizing aether.
My brain pounded against my skull as I tried to wrap my head around what exactly had happened. It was easy to deduce all of the things that I had said, but so many more questions popped up in my head.
How had the ancient mages succeeded in harnessing aether arts to such an extent that they could devise traps like this? Was the time and space manipulation isolated to each person individually, or were we in some contained area?
Were the Indrath Clan’s teachings about aether wrong? Did these ancient mages originate from the Indrath Clan—and like the Vritra Clan, flee from Epheotus due to a difference in beliefs? Or were these ancient mages actually lessers that had learned how to harness aether?
As my mind swam in these questions, I continued to look behind us to make sure we were actually making progress. Bairon did so as well, even more on edge than everybody else. After a while, something luminescent appeared in the distance. A bright glow that didn’t pulsate like the glowing runes around us grew larger as we approached it.
“Finally!” Bairon muttered from the back.
He wasn’t the only one relieved. With the hope of an end finally within sight, our strides became longer and our steps more confident until we finally reached the end of the corridor. The hallway opened into a massive cavern with an elegant coved ceiling carved from the natural stone and sanded down to perfection. Pillars, the width of at least three grown men linking arms, supported the huge underground structure. Bright orbs of warm light lining the walls exposed the awe-inspiring expanse in front of us.
On the one hand, it reminded me of the cavern systems that the dwarves had made for their underground cities, but at the same time, those crude structures couldn’t even begin to describe the splendor and architectural meticulousness of this place.
My eyes immediately took in the cavern large enough to hold a small town and the various tunnels that led out of the cavern. Running through the entire expanse was a large stream that glimmered, reflecting the lights of the cavern. There were several multileveled structures on either side of the stream and bridges that crossed the width of the stream at various points along the cavern.
What caught my attention, however, was the flickering light that I spotted in the second level of one of the buildings just by the stream.
Sylvie and I exchanged glances, understanding each other with just a thought. I turned back to Bairon, who was still taking in the sight in front of us, and Virion, who was catching his breath.
Without saying a word, I got their attention and pointed to the only building with a light. Virion and Bairon’s expression both grew fierce, all signs of fatigue replaced by a guarded grimace.
Being the strongest of the group, I took the lead as we descended the set of stairs leading to the ground. We weaved silently through the empty stone structures that seemed like a home.
I took a mental note for myself to explore these buildings later on if I had the chance to see if I could find any sort of clue on these ancient mages. However, our goal was to find out who had lit a fire this far below the ground in a secret location.
Arriving at the building, I could hear the quiet mutters of several voices but the windows were covered by glass and even with enhanced hearing, I could barely make out how many voices there were.
Gesturing everyone to lean in close, I whispered to them. “I hear at least three different voices, but assume there are more than that.”
After receiving a nod from Sylvie, Bairon and Virion, we circled the perimeter until we found the entrance to the building. There wasn’t a door so we inched closer, keeping our backs against the wall until we were just beside the opening that led into the building.
I held up five fingers and slowly counted down. Once my last finger fell, I pivoted to face the entrance with mana coiled around my body.
I had expected to meet a guard keeping watch, and I was right… mostly.
My eyes widened and my jaw fell. “Boo?!”