The Beginning After The End - Chapter 345

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Chapter 345: Socialite

Setting down the scroll detailing the lessons I was expected to teach, I sighed and leaned back in my chair. I was forcefully reminded of the military academy I had attended in my previous life, and not in a good way.

The warrior in me—the man who had been a master swordsman, a king, a Lance—looked at these drills, which focused on mastering repeated movements and perfecting the minutiae of stance and the placement of hands and feet, and saw the kind of iron-fisted control over training that defeated creativity in battle. This part of me knew I could do better than grinding students on form.

But then there was another part, too: the brother, friend, and son. I was a Dicathian, displaced and surrounded by enemies, being asked to train soldiers that may one day use these abilities against the people I loved most, just to keep myself safe. Although it had only been two days, it had grown increasingly difficult to focus as that part of me kept asking the same question.

What is the point? I asked myself for the tenth time since the Scythe, Dragoth, had appeared at Central Academy. That anger had clung to me since then, coloring every interaction, poisoning every thought.

I wanted to be doing something more than just going over papers behind a desk.

All of Alaric and Darrin’s arguments felt so far away now that I was here, sitting in an office in Central Academy, preparing to teach. Had there really not been a better way for me to escape from the political knot I’d been tied up in, trapped between the hostility of the Granbehls and the manipulation of the Denoirs?

Is all of this even worth it?

“Is all of what worth it?” Regis cut in from where he lay in the corner. “The political protection, the free, no-questions-asked access in and out of the Relictombs? Or maybe the trove of dead relics and textbooks we have access to?”

I closed my eyes. “You know what I mean.”

“Just admit that you’re scared you’re going to see these Alacryans as real people instead of devils incarnate,” he said with a smirk. “I imagine humanizing your enemies can’t be easy on your already-messed-up moral compass.”

Prying an eye open, I threw a scroll at the big roll of fur and fire. Just as it should have bounced off him, his body flared with purple flames, engulfing the projectile.

Regis’s smirk merely widened as his tail wagged annoyingly. “I hope that wasn’t anything you needed.”

I opened my mouth to retort, but a soft knock at the door interrupted me.

‘Do you want me to go back in?’ Regis asked.

I shook my head. At this point, it should be fine.

“What is it?” I said aloud, the words coming out more bluntly than I intended.

The office door swung inward and a woman stepped in, her floating waves of blonde hair trailing after her slightly as if she were surrounded by a gentle breeze. “Grey! I hope you don’t mind my stopping by.”

I acknowledged her with a terse nod. “I’m sorry, I’m a little busy—”

“Oh, do you need help preparing for class? I’m sure you have so much on your plate.” She bounced across the room and leaned one hip against my desk to look down at the materials spread out in front of me. “This is the third season I’ve taught both my classes, so I’m all set, myself. I’d be happy to spend some time with you—helping you, I mean.”

Frowning, I considered how best to get rid of the woman without burning a bridge, but Regis shuffled, his flames flaring, and Abby squealed and retreated back across the small office.

“Wh-what is that?” she exclaimed, her amber eyes wide with fright.

“My summons,” I answered nonchalantly.

“Wow, a summons?” Abby asked breathlessly, her cheeks flushed from fright. “I’ve never seen one quite like this before.” Taking a few tentative steps away from Regis, who was having a difficult time maintaining a serious face, she hiked herself up onto my desk, one leg crossed over the other. “That’s really impressive. Do you mind if I ask, though”—her lips quirked up into a teasing smile—“having your summons out, do you feel in danger or something?”

Regis waggled his brows as he watched Abby lean in closer toward me, obviously enjoying my discomfort. I was tempted to call him back with the verbal cue that Regis and I had agreed on beforehand for cases like this, but my companion shook his head now that Abby wasn’t looking at him.

‘I like the view from here, if you don’t mind,’ he said with a satisfied smile. ‘And watching you squirm makes it even better.’

I shook my head, locking my gaze with Abby’s and returning a soft smile. “Perhaps I just wanted to impress a fellow colleague.”

“O-oh,” The blonde-haired professor’s eyes widened, taken aback. Regis’s eyes did the same.

After a brief pause, I gave her a wink. “I only jest, Miss Redcliff. Though, I’m sure you’re well accustomed to shrugging off leering suitors.”

“You’re too much,” she said with a giggle, her ears burning bright as she looked away. “And please, call me Abby.”

“Very well.” I stood up and walked around my desk, leaning against it next to her.

I held out my hand and waited for her to take it. Her fingers barely touched my own as she returned my gesture.  “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Abby.”

“The pleasure is mine,” she replied with a light squeeze of my hand.

Pulling away, I took a peek at my companion, whose jaw was slack, before turning my attention back to my guest. “I hope I’m not sitting too close. Talking to you from behind my desk makes it feel like I’m talking to my students.”

“No, I prefer this as well, I mean—I’m not a student, after all,” she said, shaking her head.

“Good, I’m glad,” I chuckled happily before letting my grin fall. “Though we may have to keep our conversation short today.”

Abby kept her expression impartial, but her shoulders slumped at my words. “Oh? I take it you’ve made plans for the rest of your day?”

“I plan to enjoy a lovely date with these piles of papers over here,” I said with a tired smile.

“Like I said before, I’d be happy to help you prepare for your class, Grey,” she said.

“It’s not really about my class, per se.” I scratched my cheek while looking away, feigning shame. “Nevermind, it’s a bit embarrassing for me to say aloud.”
“What is it?” Abby’s amber eyes twinkled in curiosity as she leaned closer to me. “I promise I won’t tell.”

I let out a sigh. “Well, I’m from a rather detached area of Sehz-Clar so I’m terribly uninformed about much of what everyone here would consider common knowledge.”

Abby’s face brightened in realization. “Oh! You couldn’t have told anyone better!”

I raised a brow, shooting her a timid upward glance. “What do you mean?”

My colleague gave me a mischievous grin. “You see, I’ve known most of the other professors here long before I took a teaching post myself, and a lot of us like to talk.”

I leaned closer to Abby, just enough to let our shoulders touch. “Really now?”

She glanced at our shoulders before looking back up. “And a common gossip topic we all share is about the students here, especially which highbloods we have to watch out for.”

“I’m jealous.” I let out a meek chuckle. “I really want to make a home out of this place and fit in, but asking for you to share so much with me would only be a burden on you.”

“It wouldn’t be a burden at all!” She lit up like Xyrus during the Aurora Constellate. “Oh, where do I even begin?”

***

I let my hand rest gently on her arm for a moment as I gave Abby a wistful smile. “You’re a lifesaver, Abby. That was really helpful.”

Beaming, she slid from my desk and bent into a curtsy, holding her white battle robes out like the hem of a dress. “At your service, Professor Grey. Please”—those honey-tinted eyes held mine with fierce attentiveness—“don’t hesitate to call on me again, okay? Maybe for drinks next time?”

I walked after her, leading her toward my door with a light touch at the small of her back and a smile to accompany it. “Let me walk you out.”

“Quite the gentleman for someone so socially disinclined, or so you put it,” the Caster said with a shy smile before stepping out of my office.

As soon as I closed the door behind Abby and her hair, which billowed in a wind she was obviously conjuring around herself, my shoulders slumped and a breath escaped my lungs. The lingering anger had finally burned itself out, but I was left feeling cold and detached.

Turning around, I was faced with a dumbstruck Regis, his uncomprehending eyes staring at me.

“What?” I snapped.

“Who are you and what have you done with my antisocial, charming-as-a-grumpy-log owner?” he asked with a mixture of suspicion and admiration leaking into my head.

“Just because I choose to be reserved, doesn’t mean I can’t be charming when need be,” I argued, sinking back into my chair.

Regis followed me to my seat and put his muzzle on my desk. “Aren’t you worried that Miss Loose Lip over there will tell other professors all about her conversation with you?”

“I’m counting on it,” I answered wearily, leaning my head back. “My fake background will be a lot more believable if it comes from someone else’s mouth.”

“Should I be scared of your uncanny proficiency in the art of seduction?”

“You make it seem like I just sold myself to her or something,” I scoffed.

“And the way you avoided her last question by putting your hand on her back…did you learn that from a textbook or something? Because I’d like to read that as well,” he said, shaking his head.

I ignored my companion as I kicked one foot up on the desk, resting the heel of my boot in the middle of the stack of parchment.

“Shouldn’t you be working on all that, anyway?” Regis pointed out.

“Yes, assuming I had any interest in actually teaching these kids.” Standing up again, I left the office. “Come on, let’s make some use out of this training facility before school starts.”

Regis tottered after me. “Ooh, a battle for the gravity-defying hottie?”

“Get your head out of the gutter. She’s not an object,” I shot back. “And besides, I thought you had a thing for Caera.”

“Why do I need to only like one?” Regis asked seriously.

I rolled my eyes as I made my way to the control panel. “Just go stretch or something so you don’t blame losing to a pulled ethereal groin.”

After fiddling with a few switches, the shielding barrier sprang to life with a low hum. Next, I turned the gravity within the ring up as high as the system would go, biting back a smirk.

“I’ll show you an ethereal groin,” Regis quipped, leaping up onto the platform and immediately stumbling under the weight of his own body. “Hey, wait a damned second!”

I chortled as I hopped up next to him. The force of the increased gravity was oppressive—maybe seven times normal—but nothing I couldn’t handle with aether infusing my muscles and bones.

“What’s wrong, pup?” I teased, beginning to bounce on the balls of my feet as I acclimated to the change in environment.

Regis let out a low growl and stalked back and forth across his end of the platform as he, too, attempted to adjust. “Oh ho. You are so lucky that I’d probably cease to exist if I blasted you with Destruction right now.”

Holding back a grin, I began to throw tentative punches and kicks in the air, feeling out the extra weight of my blows, then shifted into a set series of motions I’d learned while studying under Kordri. The minute, careful movement required to implement most of the asuran martial skills was made significantly more difficult by the intense weight of my limbs.

Regis twisted his neck with a resounding crack, and his entire body quivered with anticipation—or maybe it was the effort of standing in the increased gravity. “You ready for this, princess?”

Focusing, I narrowed my attention on the shadow wolf, blocking out the subtle hum of the shield and the sound of students’ voices that occasionally drifted in from the courtyard outside.

My companion’s haunches tensed, and in the next instant he was hurtling through the air like a ballista bolt, but I had already stepped to the side, the flat of my hand coming up to deflect his snapping jaws.

As he flew past, my other hand snatched at one of his rear paws. The simple disturbance of his momentum, combined with the increased gravity, was enough to send him spinning so that he crashed heavily to the mat, landing on his back and tumbling painfully into the shielding.

“Couldn’t have…turned on the impact dampening?” Regis huffed as he fought back to his feet.

“Finished already?” I asked in a tone of mock disappointment.

The flames around Regis’s lupine body flared, painting the classroom with splashes of purple light. Once he was on his feet again, he squared up for another leap, apparently out of things to say for once.

The tensing of his body was even more pronounced on his second pounce, but rather than lunging directly at me, he feinted forward only a few feet, waiting for me to step aside, then redirected his attack.

I brought up my aether-clad hands, intending to catch Regis in midair, but his form shifted and became ethereal, and he vanished into my body. I spun, expecting what followed, but with my body weighted down I wasn’t fast enough, and his jaws latched around my calf and pulled the leg out from under me, sending me crashing heavily to the ground.

The shadow wolf's fire-wreathed head smirked down at me. “One-one, boss.”

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Raising myself up onto one elbow, I inspected my companion thoughtfully. “Utilizing your ethereal form to outmaneuver me like that was pretty clever.”

Regis puffed out his chest. “I’m a literal weapon designed by a deity, for Vritra’s sake. You think I—” Regis stopped, staring down at me with wide eyes.

I returned his gaze with a wry smile, one brow lifted. “For Vritra’s sake?”

“Ugh, sorry. Some of Uto slipping through.” He sat back and smirked mischievously. “That part really enjoyed putting you on your ass, by the way.”

I heaved myself to my feet. “Let’s see if you can do that again.”

***

We continued to train and spar until our legs shook with the effort and my core ached from the amount of aether it took to strengthen my body against the heightened gravity. Regis was circling me, biding his time before another attack. Although he was trying to shield his thoughts, I knew he was at the end of his physical strength for the moment.

Which is why I thought he’d be caught off guard when I Burst Step across the dueling ring onto his back, but before his legs could collapse from the added burden, the shadow wolf vanished, drifting safely into my body while I slammed to the ground hard enough to shake the entire platform.

‘We’ve got company,’ Regis’s voice sounded from inside my head. ‘You take care of this guy. I’m going to take a nice, long nap in your aether core.’

Remind me to start locking that door while we’re in here, I groused.

Kicking up off the mat, I scanned the room and saw that a man was making his way slowly down the stairs toward me, limping slightly on each step. He looked ten or so years older than me, but something—maybe the way he held himself, the slightly soft lines of his face, or the expression of youthful amusement he wore—told me he was younger than he looked.

Once he saw me look up, he gave a little wave, which I didn’t immediately return. His hand went to his auburn hair, ruffling it so that it looked even more wind-blown and mussed than it already had, but my attention was on the other hand—or the lack of it, as it ended in a stump at his elbow.

“Hi there. Grey, right?”

“Yeah,” I said breathlessly. “Can I help you?”

He tilted his head curiously before giving me a polite smile. “No, not particularly. My classroom is just down the hall, and I wanted to stop by and introduce myself. I’m Kayden of Blood Aphelion.”

I gave him a single nod of my head, which sent a fresh wave of sweat rolling down my cheeks and nose. In my head, Regis said, ‘Even Uto had heard of the Aphelions. Highbloods, military family.’

A frown flitted across his face for less than a second, but was smoothed away just as quickly as he limped toward the dueling ring. “You’re as laconic as the rumors say, which is a welcome change around these parts.”

“Your tone suggests a dislike of gossip, but it seems like you’re rather well-inclined towards rumors yourself,” I replied with a raised brow.

“I choose to listen rather than partake, but I will admit to the minor hypocrisy,” he said with a chuckle, continuing to take careful steps down the stairs. “Anyway, I managed to catch your last movement and I have to say…your speed is almost as impressive as your mana control. Even now, I can’t sense even a drop of mana leaking from you.”

It wasn’t until he stepped over the boundary of the platform that I realized…

“Personally, I don’t spend as much time as I—oof!”

Like he’d stepped off the edge of a cliff, Kayden collapsed, his injured leg giving out immediately on contact with the platform as his weight increased seven-fold.

Ignoring Regis, who was roaring with laughter, I jumped down to the floor and hit the control to reset all settings. The mana shield crackled as it faded away, and the highblood Alacryan was able to push himself up into an awkward sitting position.

“Vritra’s horns, how were you even standing up here?” he asked, gaping at me. Then he let out a surprisingly genuine laugh. “Of course the man who broke his detention chains right in front of the panel of judges attempting to execute him would train like this.”

“Sorry,” I said, although in the back of my mind I was wondering just how many people here knew about the trial. “Are you all right?”

“No harm done,” he said with a grin. “I’ve had worse.”

“I…don’t doubt that,” I replied, looking down at his stump of an arm.

After a brief pause, Kayden stifled a laugh.

My brows furrowed. “Is something wrong?”

“No, it’s nothing.” He waved his hand, still smiling. “It’s just that, I’ve seen a lot of people look at what’s left of my left arm, but you’re the only one whose expression didn’t turn into pity.”

“Who am I to pity when that could be your medal of honor or token of sacrifice,” I said simply.

Kayden’s lightheartedness disappeared as he stared at me like I had just sprouted wings before catching himself and shaking his head while muttering, “I’m really glad I brought this.”

Using my shirt to mop up my sweaty face, I considered the man as he sat up and kicked his legs over the edge of the dueling platform. He withdrew a bright white bundle from his dimension artifact, which appeared to be a simple golden bracelet around his remaining wrist.

He held out the bundle with careful nonchalance. When I hesitated, he gave me a knowing smirk. “Don’t worry, I’m not in the habit of giving gifts that might harm the recipient.”

I pulled the gift from his loose grip. It was soft to the touch. I shook it so the bundle unfolded, revealing a brilliant white cloak with a white fur-lined hood. It was trimmed in subtly shining silver that felt metallic to the touch.

A closer look revealed nearly invisible runes embroidered across the hood. “Magic?” I asked suspiciously.

The man grinned. “I thought perhaps you might appreciate a little anonymity when you travel outside the academy grounds, considering.”

I rubbed my fingers over the white-on-white thread forming the runes. “Some kind of concealment spell?”

Kayden nodded, his brows twitching upward. “Specifically, the cloak will conceal you from the attention of others, causing their eyes to slip away from your face. Only when the hood is up, and only when they don’t look too closely.” He cleared his throat and shuffled slightly. “I hope I haven’t misread the situation…”

Frowning, I glanced at the man, who was watching me closely. I realized I’d been staring at the runes as I thought about what his gift—and his words—implied. “This is a costly present,” I said, folding the cloak back up. I held it out to him. “I can’t accept this.”

Kayden’s expression softened, but he didn’t move to take it back. “I understand why you’d think that, but it’s nothing, honestly. Whether you choose to use it or throw it away, do with it what you will.”

After a beat of hesitation, I nodded, accepting the magical cloak. “You have my thanks,” I said formally, giving the other professor a small bow.

Kayden waved away my gesture before making a somewhat clumsy dismount from the platform. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Grey.” He began to limp toward the stairs, then paused and looked back over his shoulder. “Everyone around here has their demons, Grey. Most people won’t be able to see yours past their own.”

Smiling to himself, the man made his delicate way up the stairs and out of my classroom.

‘Weird dude,’ Regis noted. ‘But he brought presents, though, so I’ll forgive him.’

“Most people won’t see yours past their own,” I echoed, taking comfort in those words.

‘Yeah, stop being so paranoid. That’s basically what I’ve been telling you,’ Regis chimed.

I looked down at the refined white cloak. “How many days until classes start?”

‘Yes. Just yes,’ Regis said, reading my thoughts.

***

“And you’re sure you want to go in alone?” the woman asked me again. She was middle-aged, with a hint of gray in her brown hair. A burn scar covered the left side of her face. “There are plenty of groups looking for—”

“I’m sure,” I said with a stale smile.

The clerk finally relented with a shrug as she marked something down on the scroll in front of her. “Professor Grey of Central Academy, solo ascent. Your identity has been verified. All relics and accolades must be logged on your exit. May your ascent be fruitful.”

Stepping away from the booth, I pulled the fur-lined hood back up to hide my features and looked around.

A few dozen ascenders were gathered in front of the massive ascension portal, either lined up behind me or preparing to enter. I scanned the banners showing the sigils of the many high and named bloods hanging from the white walls and stifled a laugh when I saw that someone had defaced the Granbels’ banner.

A group of young men and women, no older than their late teens, was standing nearby, and one of them attempted to catch my eye. He was holding an artifact that looked like a simple black box with a mana crystal affixed to it.

“Hey, sorry to bother you,” he said, flashing a sheepish smile, “but would you mind taking our picture? It’s our first ascent without a principal—”

“No,” I said simply, walking past the surprised group and directly into the golden-white light of the portal.

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