The Beginning After The End - Chapter 344 Eyes Locked
The afternoon sun warmed my back, its bright rays reflecting off the yellowed pages of the book I was reading. From my secluded corner of the campus cafe, which was located near the administration building, the din of students and faculty conversing over drinks and dessert made for a pleasant change of pace from my room.
And while this was a bit more socially active than I would have preferred, it still beat having to listen to Regis complain about being bored.
“Here you go, Professor.” A young waitress in her mid-teens slid a small plate of food and a mug of tea onto my table.
“I didn’t order the food,” I said as I picked up the mug and blew steam across the surface of the hot tea.
“On the house,” she said, bouncing on her toes as she vanished back into the kitchen.
From my head, Regis let out a groan. ‘Your looks are wasted on you. If I were you, I’d—’
I thought we agreed you wouldn’t bother me if I came here, I replied as my gaze swept through the cafe.
The academy was already much busier than it had been only two days ago. Students were arriving regularly, some with their family and attendants, while more of the faculty began appearing throughout the halls.
Sipping the fermented nettle tea, I continued to flip through the pages of my book, passing over several sections until I found the one I was looking for, then began to scan through the information. I had already glanced through the law book and the treatise on relic powers, but neither contained what I was looking for.
Fortunately, the third book I’d borrowed from the library was a bit more interesting: a catalogue of relics brought back from the relictombs. I’d already known that Agrona himself kept any relics that were functional, but I was surprised by how much the Alacryans knew about the dead relics they recovered.
Through a combination of interviews with the discovering ascenders and the work of dedicated Instillers who specialized in relics—all of whom operated out of Taegrin Caelum, Agrona’s fortress—most dead relics were identified, including the powers they once contained. Not all dead relics were thoroughly understood, but with the Relictombs at their disposal, the Alacryans had made much more progress in their study of the ancient magical technology than the Dicathians or even the asuras of Epheotus.
Although the book contained details regarding well over a hundred dead relics, I was most concerned with a specific group: those housed within the Reliquary at Central Academy. Throughout the centuries, they had managed to procure eleven, and I read each one’s description carefully.
Safe to say, however, I was mildly disappointed. It was my own fault. The knowledge that I—and only I, as far as I knew—could revive and use any djinn relic had encouraged all kinds of fantasies. Reading through the descriptions, though, I was reminded that the djinn were peaceful people.
Not that the relics were useless, necessarily, but I wasn’t looking for tools and trinkets. I wanted a weapon.
‘Thank you for acknowledging that I am neither a weapon nor your possession,’ Regis commented with a snort. ‘But this stuff isn’t all bad, you know. What about these Binding Chains? Just think about someone, activate them, and wham! The chains wrap your target up and then follow you around? I can think of several uses for those.’
According to the author, the relic labeled the Binding Chains had other functions as well, including mana and aether suppressing abilities, preventing speech, and even putting the affected person or creature into a paralyzed stupor if necessary.
While the idea of dragging Agrona across Alacrya—bound, gagged, and powerless—so his people could witness his end held a dark appeal, I had my doubts about how powerful any single dead relic might be.
I don’t know how much I trust the author’s deductions here, I pointed out. Like right here. It says, ‘While the Imbuers weren’t able to confirm this theory, it is possible that the Binding Chains can search out a target anywhere on the continent.’ It’s just fluff.
‘What about this one then?’ Regis sent, focusing on a drawing of a gladiator-style net.
Labeled the Mana Net, the relic could “catch” mana out of the air like a fishing net caught fish. The author theorized that it was a defensive device meant to absorb incoming spells.
It certainly seemed useful, especially since I could no longer use the spell cancellation ability I had developed utilizing Realmheart and my quadra-elemental abilities. But how effective would it be against Scythes or even asuras? If not, would it help me find the remaining ruins within the Relictombs?
‘Maybe the real question is: why aren’t we just going to take everything?’
I knew Regis was only asking because that was still a question in my mind as well. Since I could use Aroa’s Requiem to reactivate all of the academy’s dead relics, I could just take them and worry about how helpful they would be later. But I couldn’t imagine a scenario that would allow me to steal the priceless collection and maintain my cover at the academy, or even stay in Alacrya.
Then of course, there was the other question that constantly nagged at me.
How long am I going to keep this up?
Closing the book, I absentmindedly popped a bright red berry into my mouth. The rich sweetness of it was a pleasant surprise. I’d gotten out of the habit of eating regular meals, since aether kept my body alive without it, but I realized that I missed the tastes and textures of food.
I ate a couple more berries, chewing slowly to relish the flavor.
There was something so…normal about sitting at the small cafe enjoying a meal in the fresh air. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken a moment for myself like this.
Leaning back in my chair, I took a deep breath of the bittersweet herbal aroma from my tea and forced away my thoughts.
‘Getting pretty comfortable, aren’t we?’ Regis asked teasingly. ‘Hopefully you don’t get too used to this lifestyle.’
You don’t need to remind me why we’re here or what’s at stake, I pointed out, setting my cup down.
With the books under one arm, I stood and left the cafe patio. Reading about the dead relics was one thing, but it seemed like a good time to see them for myself.
The campus was bustling with activity, but the atmosphere had changed from when I first arrived. Instead of milling around and chatting, the students I saw were all focused on preparing for classes. Most were either sparring or exercising, but there were also quite a few students reading quietly in the fresh air.
Quick footsteps from behind made me spin around. The look on my face must have been hard, because the approaching young man stopped short, his jaw working silently as he struggled for something to say.
Forcing my expression into something more placid, I nodded to the young man. It was the clerk who had originally given me the tour of campus and showed me my rooms. I realized I’d never gotten his name.
“Professor Grey,” he mumbled finally. “Sorry if I interrupted, I was just—”
“It’s fine,” I said, waving his apology away. “Resting professor face. What did you need?”
The small joke got a chuckle out of the clerk, and he settled in beside me as we began walking again. “Oh, nothing really! I’m off duty this morning, but I saw you wandering and thought I’d check in and see if you needed anything. I know the academy can be a little hard to navigate when you first get here.”
“No thank you, I was just going to visit the Reliquary after I dropped these books off at the library,” I answered, dismissing the young man.
“The Chapel is such a fascinating building! And those dead relics…Did you know that Central Academy officially has the largest collection of any school in Alacrya? Director Ramseyer himself has overseen many of the acquisitions.” His eyes wandered enthusiastically until he caught sight of another professor being followed by a group of students.
“Oh, and that over there is Professor Graeme. He’s one of the academy’s top researchers,” he said in a nervous whisper.
My guide went silent as his face turned down into a thoughtful frown. Speaking quietly, he added, “He’s also a bit, well…harsh.”
My gaze followed the student’s to a man in silky black dress robes. Azure lines ran down the sleeves to the cuffs and from his neckline to trace the opening along his spine. He had six runic tattoos on his exposed back.
A group of students trailed along behind him, listening intently as he talked. A familiar head of orange hair that faded to yellow near the tips stood out among the others. The professor said something I couldn’t hear, causing Briar to laugh and toss her hair.
‘I didn’t think Briar was physically capable of laughing,’ Regis deadpanned. ‘Maybe she’s been possessed.’
As if he sensed our attention, the professor stopped and turned. He had burnished brown hair that hung in loose curls down to his shoulders and a youthful, cleanly shaved face. Bright, intelligent jade eyes took me in at a glance and his lips quirked up into a half smile.
“Students!” he announced, lifting both arms to gesture toward me. “It seems we have the good luck to be introduced to Central Academy’s newest faculty member. Will any of you be taking Melee Enhancement Tactics this season?”
The professor glanced around his group. A round of snickers went through the young men and women, most of whom were shaking their heads in denial. Briar was looking at her feet instead of me, and winced as another girl elbowed her and whispered something in her ear.
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t be, would you?” He flashed the group a knowing smile. “There are of course more important topics of study for such accomplished students than learning to punch each other like drunken unads.”
My guide fidgeted nervously beside me. “When I said harsh…”
‘What you meant was sandpaper asswipe harsh,’ Regis finished for the young clerk.
“I do hope that you’re better fit for the duty of teaching than the last professor who taught that class.” He gave me a simpering smile. “It’s such an embarrassment to the academy when we employ such useless mages.”
Keeping my face blank, I said, “Pleasure to meet you,” and began to walk away, but the man moved swiftly to cut me off. I paused and met his eyes expectantly.
“There is a certain hierarchy among both faculty and students here,” he informed me. “It is best to figure it out quickly, or you’ll fare no better than your predecessor.”
“I’ll pretend to keep that in mind,” I said politely, eliciting a few bug-eyed looks from the students.
With a nod, I stepped around the stunned professor and walked away, ignoring his near-tangible gaze on my back.
‘At least you can’t be racist about his behavior,’ Regis thought.
I held back a smirk thinking back to the professor I beat on my first day of school in Xyrus. Whether it’s here or Dicathen, or even Earth, there are always going to be those sorts of people.
“Sorry about him, sir,” the clerk said, reminding me that he was still there.
“Did you personally transform him from a normal person into a mule’s ass?” I asked, not looking at the young man.
“Then why be sorry,” I said firmly. Stopping, I took another look at him. He was tall with dirty blonde hair and an easy smile. His uniform was a little wrinkled, and he had messy hair sticking out at odd angles from his head. “What was your name?”
“Oh, jeez, so rude of me…Tristan, sir. Of Blood Severin. We’re from Sehz-Clar, small blood, I’m only here because I got lucky enough to—”
“Tristan,” I interrupted before he could get lost in a self-deprecating spiel. The boy’s mouth snapped shut. “I appreciate your company but I can find the library on my own.”
Dipping into a bow, he flashed me a wide grin but said nothing else as he spun on his heel and walked quickly away.
‘A bit of a teacher’s pet, but he seems like a useful one to keep around,’ Regis commented as Tristan left.
Technically, you’d be the teacher’s pet, I replied with just a flicker of a smile.
‘If you’re still thinking of a way to get all of those girls off of you, just keep telling jokes like that,’ Regis retorted.
Dehlia, the old librarian, wasn’t on duty when we arrived in the library, so I dropped the books unceremoniously at the front desk with one of her many assistants.
Before leaving for the Reliquary, there was one more topic of research I knew I couldn’t keep running away from. Since I couldn’t activate the catalogue system, I began to wander the library at random in search of the right section.
‘Why do you need to read books when you have me?’ Regis asked, understanding my intent.
No offense, but you haven’t been particularly timely or reliable with your cultural knowledge, I thought as we walked through the “Epic Poetry” section.
‘Offense taken,’ Regis huffed.
I’d been lucky to find people eager to be helpful, like Mayla and Loreni in Maerin Town, and later Alaric and Darrin. At the academy, though, I was surrounded by Alacryans who would be paying closer attention to me, and it was suddenly much more important to have some basic knowledge of Alacryan terms and customs. To that end, I was searching for a book or two that might help give me context to the simple daily normalities of Alacryan life that I wasn’t familiar with.
As I passed the “Folktales” section, I heard the heavy thump of a fist impacting flesh, and a gasp of pain.
‘Hey, that sounded pretty interesting,’ Regis perked.
It also sounded like it wasn’t our business, I countered indifferently.
Beyond the rows of Alacryan folktales, I found a section labeled “Customs and Traditions.” The shelves were full of bound books detailing the differing customs of Alacrya’s five dominions. Some looked at the topic from a more historical view, exploring how these traditions came to be, while others functioned more like guides for travelers or the nobility.
A low, threatening voice reverberated through the shelves from a nearby section, distracting me from my search.
“—stop pretending you’re one of us. Just ‘cause your family all got wiped out in the war doesn’t make you a real highblood.”
“I never said I—oof!”
I paused after hearing the familiar voice before he was cut off by another blow.
“Don’t speak without permission in the presence of your betters.”
Letting out a sigh, I moved slowly and rounded the corner.
Regis let out a snicker. ‘What happened to minding our own business?’
Moving along the lengthy bookshelf, I found a gap that opened into a secluded corner.
Four boys had crammed into the shrouded nook. They all wore the black and azure uniforms of Central Academy, but the disparity between them was clear.
Two of them had Seth, the scrawny kid who had helped me pick out my books, pinned up against the wall. One was very tall and on the thinner side, giving him a stretched appearance. Braided locks of red, black, and blonde hair hung from his head. The other was shorter, but with broad, bearish shoulders and a mop of wild red hair.
The last young man, whose skin was dark ebony and his hair a darker black, stood back a few feet, his arms crossed. He was more classically highborn in appearance than the others, and he wore his nobility openly, in the set of his shoulders, his stance, and the careful pacivity of his face, his nose upturned slightly slightly, lips parted in a practiced smile.
“A homeless orphan like you has no place here,” grunted the heavy-set boy.
“Go home,” wheezed the other, wrapping his hand around the back of Seth’s neck.
“Oh wait.” The broad boy twisted Seth’s arm, causing him to let out a pitiful moan.
“You don’t have a home, do you?” asked the thin student as he shoved Seth’s head back into the wall.
Stepping into the aisle, I wordlessly passed the dark-haired student and approached the other three.
“Excuse me?” he asked incredulously as I stepped between him and his friends.
The thinner student looked me up and down, his hand still pinning Seth’s head to the wall. “Need something?”
Stepping up next to him, I raised a hand. He flinched back, then scowled as I reached past him to pluck a book off the nearest shelf. As I flipped it open to read the title, I made sure my spiraling ring was plainly visible.
Letting go of Seth’s arm, the large boy stuck out his chest and took a step toward me.
I looked up from the book. And waited.
His attempt at a threatening glower twitched. His friend glanced past me to the third boy, grimacing. I let my brows crease into the smallest frown.
The large boy deflated, stepping back again.
“You must be the new combat professor,” the black-haired boy said from behind me. “For the no-magic class.” When I glanced at him over my shoulder, he nodded slightly in a bow that would have been considered disrespectful in any formal setting. “Professor Grey?” His thin lips turned up in an amused smile. “Show the professor some respect, gentlemen. We’ll be seeing him often, after all.”
“My bad,” the large student grunted.
His companion flashed me a jovial smile as he straightened Seth’s uniform for him, causing Seth to flinch back. “Sorry, professor.”
Both boys skirted around me as best they could as they followed their ringleader out of the alcove.
“Thanks,” Seth said as he unfolded out of his defensive posture.
I scanned the bookshelf absentmindedly, not actually taking notice of any of the book titles. “Liking to read is fine, but you should probably learn how to defend yourself if you plan on staying at this academy.”
He was silent as I walked away, letting my words hang in the air.
With a couple new books in hand, I left the library several minutes later and headed for the Reliquary.
I was surprised to find a couple dozen students gathered around the Chapel—the building Tristan had gloated about earlier—watching a procession of mages march out of the portal. Two by two, the armed and armored mages formed a barrier leading from the portal arch to the dark stone steps of the Chapel.
When an unfamiliar horned figure stepped out of the portal, my blood turned to ice in my veins.
The Vritra-blooded man was colossal. He stood well over seven feet tall and had the physique of a titan. His horns jutted from the sides of his shaved head and curved to point forward like a bull’s.
‘Dragoth,’ Regis whispered in my mind. ‘A Scythe.’
Throughout the entire war, I had thought that word with fear and anticipation. The entire Dicathian army trembled at the mention of the title, terrified of the day one would appear on the battlefield and show us what they could really do as elite Alacryan generals.
This fear had only been amplified when the Scythes had finally made an appearance. I had watched Seris Vritra tear the mana-infused horn from Uto’s head as effortlessly as a child pulling the wings off a butterfly. I had witnessed the aftermath of Cadell’s destruction at the castle, where he overpowered a Lance and the commander of Dicathen’s armies without breaking a sweat.
Even at the peak of my strength, I had nearly killed myself to fight to a stalemate against Nico and Cadell—and I would have, had it not been for Sylvie.
These thoughts passed through my mind between one heartbeat and the next, and I realized something.
It wasn’t fear that I was feeling.
It was anger.
As one, the body of students took a knee, and suddenly I was exposed to the Scythe.
Dragoth’s wide head swiveled around until his blood red eyes locked on mine. He frowned, halting for a moment, and I felt as if he was looking through my eyes and into my mind, seeing my hostility as plainly as if I’d pointed a sword at his heart.
‘Art! Your intent, he can feel it!’ Regis sounded panicked, but distant, and I realized with a start that I had inadvertently suffused my entire body with aether.
Blinking, I withdrew my intent—which had only just leaked out and was still shrouded under the Scythe’s own oppressive aura—and the crowd of students stood, once again obscuring me in the throng.
“Scythe Dragoth Vritra!” a deep voice announced from the doors of the gloomy Chapel. “It is with great honor that we receive you!”
The speaker looked just like his portrait: short grey hair that contrasted sharply against his ebony skin, and a permanently stern expression on his face that didn’t break apart even in the face of a Scythe.
Relief mingled with regret as Dragoth turned away from me to face the director. “Augustine,” he answered in a warm baritone. He ran a hand through his thick beard. “I’ve brought the relic as agreed. In person, as Cadell required.”
Clenching my fists, I forced the anger down and took an iron grip on my intent. As I looked at the Scythe’s black horns, though, the image of Cadell’s demonic form standing over the dying Sylvia flashed in my mind. Then Alea, her eyes gone, her limbs nothing but blood stumps. Then Buhnd, on his back in the rubble, burning from the inside out.
Dragoth had said something to the crowd, but I missed it. The Scythe and the director were walking toward the entrance to the Chapel as his guards formed a line across the base of the stairs.
Chatter broke out amongst the crowd all around me, but I could only stare at the Scythe. He was right there. I could kill him now. I could deprive Agrona of one of his most powerful soldiers. I could—
‘—listening to me?’ Regis’s voice was suddenly shouting in my head. ‘We can’t just—’
I know, I thought, pushing back my emotions and turning away. Now isn’t the time.