Chapter 13

Is Magic Worth This?

Rin slumped to the floor with a thud. He wiped his tearing eyes in frustration and glared up at the sole source of all his problems.

The ring loomed above him. Impassive. Unmoved. Firmly flush with the wall.

He jumped back up and stamped a foot. What am I supposed to do?! Both hands buried in his hair, he continued his upward glare.

Give up, whispered the dark, little voice. Who are you next to Aapo? A third son? Nothing more. Certainly no fit substitute.

Shut up. Rin bit his lip, refusing to release even a sound. No matter the scream of frustration and fear building in the back of his throat.

Aapa was clever and smart… had been. He had been. The brutal tense plucked at Rin as he gnawed his lower lip. But it still stood: Aapo had always been smarter than Rin. Nika was like that too. Always reading. Always learning. Rin could barely sit still through Grandmother’s lessons.

If this room had stumped Aapo…

What can I do? Eyes roving over the ring for the thousandth time, he wheezed in and out like a dying bellows. It’s like it’s broken. The sigils aren’t even glowing!


Was that the trick?

Fragile hope blossomed. Rin whirled back around to the rest of the room, gaze darting about intently, searching.

Magic didn’t come from nothing. Everyone knew that. It needed a source, whether ambient or internal mana, and something to direct it, usually a sigil or mage. The Pyramid was full of ambient mana. So Rin needed to find the focus.

No mages here. Rin eyed the unmoving bones, then nodded. No mages. That means it’s a sigil or something.

The walls were covered in etchings. Runes and sigils and random lines connected everything together into one blurring mass of arcane writing.

Rin gulped, then squared his shoulders. I can do this.

Stop fooling yourself.

He shoved that doubtful voice back down deep and stepped up to the ring wall.

Five lines—etched deeper than any others—extended out from the embedded ring. They ended where each of the five mana sigils were engraved upon the ring itself.

Picking the sigil at easy eye level—water—Rin traced the gouge in the stone from the ring, across the wall, up to the ceiling. It then slashed jaggedly across the ceiling in large steps, mingling with other lines and geometric carvings in an effort to shake Rin from its trail. It succeeded a few times, forcing him to start all over again from the ring.

But Rin finally stood before a close cluster of mana sigils etched into a far corner. Floor-to-ceiling columns of the now-familiar hexagonal script surrounded the miniature ring, while slashes and interlocking diamonds wove through the entire engraved mass. Four other deeply gouged lines joined the one he’d followed in a lone dot at the center of the sigils. To be sure, he also traced the line from the illusion sigil back to the ring, and let out a gusting sigh when he proved right.

Rin glanced back at the ring, then at the sigil cluster. And back again. Then he nodded. The sigils were all in the same places relative to each other as the real ring. So this was probably the thing he wanted.

At least…I guess it is… He’d heard of enchanting. It was a Franstric art involving runes and sigils, stone and ironwood. He knew it was about putting magic into objects. But that was the extent of his knowledge.

He looked back at the big ring again. It was still flush with the wall. Of course it is! I haven’t done anything!

Okay… none of the sigils on the ring are glowing. He crouched down and considered the knot of engravings. But most of these are. Nearly every miniature sigil glowed with an iridescent shimmer that reminded Rin of Mum’s mage mark on a sunny day.

Only the darkness sigil remained… dark.

So… I just make this one glow… and then the ring will work? Now, how did he go about doing that?

Rin sat down so the dark sigil was level with his eyes and stared at it, as if he could will it to activate with his mind alone.

The uncooperative gouge remained unlit.

He huffed and stood. Beginning with the highest bit he could reach, Rin worked his way down the wall to the floor. Then from one corner to its opposite. He pressed random tiles and traced engravings, poking at whatever might hide a secret switch.

No such luck.

Going to die— He cut that thought off fast.

Rin considered the columns of hexagons. The line after descending line of tiny, ordered symbols all slotted neatly together in perfectly straight columns. They spoke of some kind of long lost knowledge that he just couldn’t fathom. It was beautiful, in a way, like the head of a spear catching dawn light.

But not the point. He recognized a few symbols from the ancient girl’s storage chest. But dozens more were utterly unique.

Columns, Rin realized. Not clusters. A finger trailed across several ranks of hexes before ending once more at the circle of sigils. They were obviously the same language as before, but ordered systematically. Five particular columns stopped abruptly a finger’s width from the miniature ring, each capped with a broken hexagon.

And… what does that mean? Is it important? Rin chewed a thumbnail, teeth gnashing. It was all so complicated!

The bone pile drew his gaze before he could refuse it. Yellowed bones gleamed in the silvery light, like a moonlit swamp out of some spirit story. Aapo couldn’t even solve this. What makes you think you can?

Rin wrinkled his nose and squeezed his eyes shut at the return of his doubts. I don’t even know if Aapo was here. He probably had a different path. Very different. Merchant compared to warrior and all that.

Some warrior.

Rin shook his head and focused. I can do this, he reminded himself. I can. A spark of triumph flickered when no other vicious thoughts responded. That spark flared and died when he glanced back at the stubbornly broken darkness sigil.

What am I doing here?

Rin sighed and let his forehead drop to the wall. Edges of engravings dug into his skin. The columns of unreadable script stretched down to his bare toes. Script he couldn’t even read! This isn’t fair!

Okay. He tried to breathe evenly through a tightening throat. Okay. There’s five sigils. And one’s not working. And there’s hex-script all over the walls, but not right around the mini-ring.

What does that mean?

Rin sighed again. He lifted his head and dropped it back to the wall.

What. Does that. Mean?!

He forced himself to stand straight, scrubbing one hand over his face and up into his hair, where it burrowed into the curls and yanked. “Stop that. You’ll drive yourself bald,” Mami Kaira berated him from so many memories. With a growl and another yank to tighten his hair tie, Rin obeyed.

His dark gaze followed the column of hexagons that ran down to the darkness sigil. And stared at it.

Rin could feel each moment as it drained away. Yet another moment lost to the Pyramid. Another. And another.

I can’t even read this!

Bam! His fist connected with stone.

“Ow!” Rin shook out his hand and sucked on freshly bruised knuckles. I should stop doing that. With a groan, he shifted around, bringing the large, blue-gray ring into view.

His dilemma was simple. How do I activate runes?

The answer was equally simple. Magic. Obviously.

Except… that wasn’t quite right. Curls brushed against his cheeks when he shook his head. Facts clicked together.

Sigils just represented the mana. The run for darkness was just a squiggle without the darkness mana to power it. And mana is just the energy meaning of that thing.

Rin bit his lip and sat back on his heels, studying the problematic sigil. It wasn’t like he could cart a part of the wall back out into the dark corridors.

Could he… maybe… just cover it? Would that even work?

Awkwardly, the price of failure at the forefront of his mind, Rin smothered the darkness sigil with one hand. His hands weren’t that big, but the darkness rune was a slender thing, not as complicated or broad as others.

He waited.

And waited.

Is it working? Was there even enough ambient darkness mana for this to work? He had no idea. And the thought of peeking prematurely and ruining the process terrified him almost as much as the nekhesa.

What process? snarked that niggling voice from the depths of his mind. You have no idea what you’re doing.

Shut. Up!

Alright, fine! So yes, maybe Rin didn’t have a clue as to what he was doing. But he was trying, and he was still alive, and that had to count for something!

If this doesn’t work… Rin didn’t know what he’d do.

Fingers clenched at the heavily worked wall, nails digging into trench-deep engravings. Rin swallowed hard, then wrenched his hand back abruptly.

The sigil glowed. Bright blue, like lightning, then it dimmed to the iridescent shimmer of the other sigils. Stone ground behind Rin, and he whipped around.

The bricks in the very center of the large ring slid backwards, farther into the space behind the ring. The surrounding bricks then twisted and rotated like a Solian puzzle cube, shifting away from Rin alongside the others. Brick after brick slid back and out of sight as the ring opened up, revealing a large recess with more than enough space to walk through.

Rin whooped, sprang up, and ran across the room. “Ha! I did it! I—”

His voice abruptly choked out as his foot crossed the threshold of the ring.

He collapsed as every joint in his body boiled and his bones creaked under a sudden pressure. Cold sweat drenched his form from head to toe before evaporating instantly under an intense fever spike. Swirling, explosive clouds of color overtook his vision, brightening to eye-searing before darkening into total blindness. His heartbeat skyrocketed. Then stopped. Then it fluttered again like a caged florgust against his ribs. Breath came in faster and faster and seemed to do absolutely nothing to keep his mind working.

I’m dying, the thought there and gone in a moment, swept along by the host of contradictory experiences that had overtaken his mind, body and soul.

His soul. That not-quite-full but no-longer-empty spot pulsed with cold fire. Shards of lava shot down every limb, pearls of ice blocked every vein until he screamed he must be screaming there was no way he couldn’t be screaming this hurt. So. Much!

Like a puppet with cut strings, Rin dropped back into himself. He curled against a wooden box and dry heaved onto the floor. Thin watery liquid came up, but not much else. He shook. All over. But he could once more feel his skin, and, he couldn’t be sure, but it felt like it connected to all the right places again.

Rin shifted just enough so he wouldn’t pitch forward into his own vomit. Uncontrollable tremors thrashed him. Any small motion, such as breathing, took painstaking effort and thought. Anything grander than shivering was an impossible undertaking of legendary proportions.

Magic isn’t worth this, Rin thought, hugging an arm around the box and pressing his face to a smooth stone wall. Not at all.

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