The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 335: Haunting Peace
“Wow,” I said, genuinely surprised by the sight in front of me.
Darrin’s home in rural Sehz-Clar was twice the size of the Helsteas’ manor in Xyrus, and it was surrounded by rolling green and golden fields that stretched as far as I could see. A little town was tucked in between two hills a few miles away, and a handful of other, similar estates dotted the surrounding countryside.
The main structure was two stories, but flared out into low wings that opened to either side. The entire mansion was made of light red brick highlighted with white stone columns. The house was surrounded by a well manicured yard of green grass and dense, flowering shrubs, and a path led away to the east, where I could see some kind of walled off area higher up on the hill.
The rural serenity of the estate had calmed everyone’s nerves, still on edge from the assault in the Relictombs. Looking at the painting-like scene around us, I actually began to look forward to at least a small rest devoid of any torture or attempts on my life.
“The benefit of living rural,” Darrin said, beaming. “Property costs a quarter of what you’d pay in the more densely populated dominions, and these hills have poor soil, so you don’t have to fight the farmers for land rights, either.”
“I’m a little surprised you don’t live in the Relictombs, though,” I said as I ran a finger along the edge of a bright purple flower. “Considering what you do.”
Darrin began leading us across the wide lawn, which we had appeared in the middle of, toward the bright white double doors of his home. “I couldn’t afford a property there, so the best I’d be able to do is rent a two-room suite in one of the nicer inns, and that would still cost a small fortune.” He paused, taking in the rolling hills and bright, wide sky. “No, I think I’d rather live here, and pay the teleportation fees.”
I followed his gaze, taking in the sight again. “I guess I can’t blame you. It’s quite the view.”
Darrin put a hand on Alaric’s shoulder. “Never would have managed it all without my mentor here. You’re in good hands, Grey, even if he does feign a rough exterior.”
Alaric huffed, his already ruddy cheeks darkening, and his gaze landing everywhere except on Darrin. “And a fat lot of good it did me, considering you only ended up owning a single estate in the middle of nowhere…”
Grinning, Darrin knocked softly on the door.
A moment later, it flew open and a young girl, no older than seven or eight, threw herself into his arms. “Uncle Darrin!” she yelled, squeezing her arms around his neck and grinning over his shoulder.
When she realized Alaric and I were there, her eyes, green as emeralds, went wide, and she squealed and wriggled free of Darrin’s hug so she could hide behind him and peek out at us.
Giving the girl what I hoped was a friendly smile, I waved. She immediately ducked behind Darrin, who laughed.
“Pen, these are my friends, Alaric and Grey,” Darrin said, gently maneuvering her back out into the open and ruffling her dark blonde hair. “It’s okay, they’re friendly. Well, Grey is.”
Alaric’s face twisted into a menacing snarl and he growled low in his chest. “But I’m the mean one, and I bake little children into yummy pies!”
The girl giggled and looked up at Darrin. “Your friends are funny!”
“They think they are, anyway,” Darrin replied, rolling his eyes at Alaric. He scooped the girl up and carried her across the threshold, waving for us to follow.
“Any word about your mom while I was gone?” he asked her as they led us into the entry hall, where two curved stairs led up to the upper floor.
She shook her head and pouted. “No.”
Darrin pulled her into another hug and patted her back consolingly. “That’s okay, I’m sure she’ll be back soon.” He set her down on the granite-tiled floor. “Why don’t you go tell the others we have guests?”
Nodding seriously, the little girl vanished through a door to our right, which must have led into one of the other wings of the house.
“Yours?” I asked, watching her bounce away.
“Oh, no,” Darrin said, running his hand through his hair. “Her mother is one of my teammates from back in the day. She’s still active. Pen stays with me sometimes, when her mom’s on an ascent.”
My eyes followed Pen out of the entrance hall, catching on a figure leaning against the wall in the corner. It was a young woman with bright orange hair that faded to sunny blonde where it ended just past her shoulders. She was wearing a white blouse with silver buttons and tight leather pants, and a long, slender sword hung from her belt.
But it was her hazel eyes that stood out, or rather, it was the way they traveled slowly across me, from the toes of my boots all the way up to my pale blond hair, before spinning in a dismissive eye roll.
Before I could do more than meet her gaze, the young woman swept from the room, and my attention was again redirected.
“Mister Darrin!” a happy voice said from a room behind the stairs. A plump woman with mousy-brown hair appeared from it, wiping her hands with a towel. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear the door.”
Darrin gave her a warm smile, though the direction of his gaze lingered on the passage where the young woman had disappeared. “No problem, Sorrel. We have guests for the evening.”
The woman curtsied, her tightly curled auburn hair bobbing around her round face. “A pleasure! Are the three of you hungry at all, Mister Darrin?”
Alaric’s stomach rumbled audibly in response, which he patted appreciatively. “Never mind that, where are you hiding the good stuff?” Without waiting for a reply, the old man strode purposefully away.
Shaking his head at his friend, Darrin said, “Why don’t you show Grey to the bathing room first?” Turning to me, he added, “I assume it’s been awhile since you had a warm bath?”
Darrin’s housekeeper eagerly led me deeper into the mansion until I found myself standing in what, at first glance, appeared to be a cave. The walls of the bathing room were craggy stone, and the bath itself was sunk into the smooth rock of the “cave” floor. After Sorrel left me, I took some time to examine the room.
Aside from the bath, there was a mirror inset into the wall, a series of racks and hooks where clothes could be hung up, and a person-sized niche that I didn’t immediately understand, until I found a small copper button next to it.
The button clicked when I pressed it, and a wave of heat rolled out. I stuck my hand in; the air was dry and warm.
Clicking the button again turned the effect off.
‘Ooh, fancy,’ Regis said admiringly.
Turning my attention to the bath, I found a row of buttons along the edge. During my life as King Grey, I’d grown to enjoy warm baths in water heavy with salt. It had been a luxury that I hadn’t enjoyed since being reborn in Dicathen. So when I saw the button labeled “Salt Bath,” I knew I had to try that one first.
Pressing the button caused warm salt water to seep out of the sides of the rocky bath, and it was full before I finished peeling off the simple clothes I’d worn to the trial.
Sinking into the water, a chill ran down my spine despite the warmth.
When was the last time I enjoyed such a simple comfort? I wondered, letting my head fall back so the salt water covered my ears, drowning out all noise except for my own thoughts.
And Regis’s. ‘Maerin Town wasn’t so bad, but that was like a hundred years ago now, right?’
I let out a laugh before splashing some of the water across my face. After wiping it away, I replied, It does feel like that. Do you want to come out for a bit?
Regis leapt from my body to stand outside the pool. He stretched, pushing his front paws forward and yawning widely. “You know, sometimes I forget how quiet it is when I don’t have your broody thoughts running through my head all the time.”
“I’m not broody,” I replied defensively, glaring up at my companion from under half-closed lids.
Regis snorted as he walked around in a slow circle before lying down. “Okay, princess.”
Kicking outward, I send a wave of warm salt water cascading over the edge of the bath to soak my companion. He leapt up, sputtering with indignation. “I just got comfy!”
The shadowy flames that flickered around his mane flared, drying him instantly, and he found another spot to settle down. He let out a yawn and stretched his long limbs before asking, “So, what now?”
I let my eyes drift shut. “Right now? Let’s give ourselves a few minutes to relax, then we’ll figure out what Alaric and his friend have up their sleeves.”
I felt the heavy fog of sleep settling over me soon after. Although I didn’t really need to sleep, I relished the idea of drifting off for a while, and I didn’t fight the sensation.
The sound of a crowd chanting came from all around me, like the noise of waves crashing against a cliff face; It was distant and muffled, like I was hearing it from a very long way off.
Slowly opening my eyes, I looked around. I was standing on a square dueling platform, surrounded by stands filled with familiar faces: Claire Bladeheart and the rest of the Disciplinary Committee, the Lances, Jasmine and the Twin Horns, Virion, the kings and queens of Dicathen’s Council, the elders who trained me in the four elements, Lady Vera, Headmaster Wilbeck, Caera, Ellie, with Sylvie’s little white fox form on her lap, my mother…my father.
Someone else was on the dueling platform too: Cecilia. She held out a hand, and a dual-bladed sword shimmered to life in her fist, a beam of hot white light that hummed with deadly energy.
I gave Cecilia a low bow, but she only glowered back at me before lunging across the platform, her weapon leaving a trail of light in the air. I lifted Dawn’s Ballad to block the attack, but the teal blade shattered in my hand, and I felt white hot pain as Cecilia’s weapon bit deep into my shoulder.
For a moment, we were face to face, her turquoise eyes blazing malevolently.
She yanked the blade from my shoulder and spun, driving the other end toward my stomach. I looked for the aetheric pathways to God Step out of the way, but there was nothing.
The blade sunk into my stomach and burst out my back.
Behind Cecilia, someone was running down a long tunnel toward us. Although he seemed miles away, I met Nico’s eyes, blind with hatred, twisted by fear, and felt a thick layer of ice grow over my heart, and the cold detachment I’d learned as King Grey spread from it.
Cecilia jerked her blade free and twirled it around, a gold-green light emanating outward, staining the edges of my vision and shining off the frozen faces in the audience. A beam of pure light lifted her off the dueling platform, her blade pointed at my chest like a lance, then she streaked toward me.
The scene froze. Standing, I clenched my fist, holding in it Dawn’s Ballad, the translucent teal blade, now whole again, refracting the light and sending green-blue beams dancing across the dueling platform. In the distance, Nico was still running toward us, the only thing moving besides me.
And history repeats…
Cecilia was moving again, crashing down on me like a comet. When our blades clashed, a shockwave rippled outward, obliterating the platform, the stands, the arena, and wiping away the audience—all those familiar faces from both my lives—in a cloud of dust.
My blade was blazing with violent amethyst light from where it had run through Cecilia’s chest. But it was Tess, not Cecilia, who slumped forward, her body falling into me, her life’s blood rushing out over my hands, quickly staining the dueling platform red.
My mouth fell open to gasp out…something—anything—but the words were stuck in my throat, as if a giant hand had wrapped around my neck and was choking me. All I could do was watch, paralyzed, as the light faded from her eyes.
Her fingertips brushed my face, running down my cheek and across my lips.
The icy fist gripping my chest burst, and my eyes snapped open.
Heaving a strained, half-choked breath, I pulled myself up out of the salt bath and rolled over to lay on the floor, panting.
“Hey!” Regis barked, as I’d sent a wave of bathwater splashing over the cave floor. “What’d I do this—whoa, you okay?”
“Fine,” I muttered, rubbing hard at my face. “Just a bad dream.”
“Want to talk about it?” he asked, resting his chin on his paws.
“Not really,” I said as I rolled up to my feet, the images of the dream already growing muddy and distorted in my mind, except for Tess’s blood staining my hands.
I’ll find you, Tess. I promise.
Sorrel met me in the hall outside the bathing room after I had put on a clean set of clothes from my dimension rune. One eyebrow rose as she looked me up and down, barely suppressing a smirk. “Don’t you clean up nicely…” she said. “Mister Darrin and the rest are sharing a drink on the back porch. I’ll show you the way.”
The housekeeper swept through the mansion until we reached a sunroom entirely surrounded by glass. It contained plants of a hundred different varieties, and was filled with the rich, sweet, earthy smells of flowers and herbs. I inspected the collection as we passed, but only recognized a handful of the plant species. A door led onto an open porch that overlooked the endless rolling green-and-gold hills.
Outside, I found not only Alaric and Darrin, but the girl Pen, the young woman with the orange-blonde hair, and three other children of various ages.
Pen was the first to notice me, and immediately ducked her face down into Darrin’s shoulder.
Alaric looked up and gave me a mock frown. “I was starting to worry you’d drowned in the bath, boy. Would have sent Sorrel to check on you, but Darrin told her not to do anything I asked.”
“Do you blame me, after what happened last time you were here?” Darrin asked, patting Pen’s back lightly.
Alaric’s cheeks, already ruddy from alcohol, turned a brighter shade of red. “You said we weren’t going to talk about that again.”
Darrin caught my eye and winked. “I did, and we won’t. Grey, come join us!”
I sat in an empty wooden chair and all eyes turned to me, even Pen’s, who was staring out from behind a curtain of her own hair.
“Hooligans, this is Ascender Grey, another student of Alaric’s,” Darrin said in introduction. “Grey, this is my ward, Adem.”
The indicated boy appeared to be in his early teens, around my sister’s age, maybe a little older. His dark blue eyes met mine without a hint of fear or intimidation. We matched gazes for a moment before he gave me a shallow nod.
“And these,” Darrin said, “are my trainees, Katla, Ketil, and Briar. The twins’ parents are farmers here in Sehz-Clar and are trying to get them into one of the ascender academies. Briar is the oldest daughter of Blood Nadir, and is here to train in preparation for her second year at Central Academy.”
The twins shared the same bright blonde hair, almost as light as my own but more vibrant, and were stocky and muscular, likely from growing up on a farm. Katla nodded, but kept her eyes to the ground. Ketil, on the other hand, adjusted his posture to stand taller as he interposed himself between her and the others protectively.
Briar of Blood Nadir was rolling what looked like a shiny silver arrowhead around in her hand, except it wasn’t in her hand, but hovering about an inch over it. She didn’t look up or acknowledge the introduction.
Looking at the children, I couldn’t help but think about Headmaster Wilbeck, her face still fresh from my dream. I knew it was partially the sentimentality leftover from the strange nightmare, but I couldn’t help but like Darrin Ordin. He reminded me of the Headmaster, and even a little of my father when Reynolds had been young…
Prying myself away from my thoughts, I gave them a faint smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you all.”
Katla mumbled her greeting in return, although her brother was louder.
Adem stood and bowed stiffly. “Welcome to our home, Ascender Grey. We’re honored to have you.”
Darrin’s lips twitched as he hid a smile at the boy's proper greeting, but it fell to a frown when Briar let out a derisive snort.
Adem glared at her as she returned to her seat, but didn’t respond.
“So, Briar,” Alaric said into the awkward silence that followed, “you survived a year at Central Academy, aye? Good for you, kid.”
The young woman tossed her multi-colored hair as she leveled a defiant gaze at the old man. “Of course. Despite Central Academy being one of the best, and toughest, military and ascender training academies in Alacrya, I scored above average on all of the assessment criteria.”
Alaric whistled in appreciation. To me, he said, “Most of the ascender-focused academies grade by the same metrics the Ascenders Association uses. Easier to track progress that way.”
I nodded, saying only, “I see.”
“Do you?” Briar asked pointedly, her brow raised in obvious skepticism. “It’s doubtful, given that my teacher had to bail you out for getting your teammates killed in a measly prelim.”
“Don’t be mean!” Pen said, pouting at the older girl.
“Briar,” Darrin said firmly. The young woman stiffened, turning to him but focusing on a point over his shoulder instead of making eye-contact. “Rudeness toward my guests extends to rudeness toward me. If you can’t hold back your frustration, I’d encourage you to head down to the training rooms and sweat it out.”
I could see her jaw clench in frustration, but the young woman relented, dipping her head toward her teacher before marching back into the house.
“She didn’t even apologize,” Adem muttered under his breath.
Darrin let out a sigh as he ran a hand through his blonde hair. “I’ll apologize on her behalf. Briar is…prideful of both her upbringing and her personal accomplishments.”
“Quite the bucket of sunshine, that one,” Alaric said as he took a generous sip from his glass of wine.
“I’ve seen worse,” I said with a shrug, my gaze lingering behind where Briar had stomped off.
The retired ascender let out a chuckle as he lifted Pen from his lap. “Now then, the three of us have some things to discuss.”
The twins shared a relieved look as they scurried inside, but Pen had to be shooed away by the housekeeper. Adem lingered, looking at Darrin hopefully, his face falling when the ex-ascender waved him inside as well.
Darrin watched the boy sulk back into the house.
“He’s your ward?” I asked, curious about why a wealthy ex-ascender seemed to be running his own halfway house for Alacryan youth.
Darrin nodded and sipped from a wooden mug. “His parents were both killed in the Relictombs. I didn’t know them, but Pen’s mother did. The boy didn’t have anyone else, and he would have ended up in the slums somewhere, or given to some rat-hole academy that’d only half train him before sending him off to die in the war.”
“So you adopted him instead?”
Darrin frowned at me in confusion. “Adopted? No, of course not. Only the named bloods or highbloods are allowed to formally adopt. Is it…different, where you’re from?”
I quickly shook my head. “I didn’t mean a formal adoption, no, just that you’d taken him on. That’s…very kind.”
Thanks for the heads up, I thought to Regis.
‘Huh? What? I wasn’t paying attention.’
Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I focused back on Darrin. “And the girl? Briar?”
“You mean Miss Superiority?” Alaric snorted.
Darrin shot Alaric a meaningful look before turning back to me. “Briar has just been a bit upset that I’ve been preoccupied with your trial instead of being here, training her. Her parents have paid me good money to mentor her, but she is in the mindset that physical and magical prowess is all that’s needed to survive the Relictombs.”
“It definitely doesn’t hurt to be stronger,” I argued, my gaze lingering on the door that the kids had left through.
Darrin’s gaze grew distant. “Yes, but coming out of the Relictombs alive is also a team effort.”
‘You hear that? Apparently we’ve been doing it wrong,’ Regis chimed in with a chuckle.
“Anyway, while my life is definitely missing that glamor it once had, it’s a lot more safe for me to be training kids than ascending.” He scratched his cheek, looking almost embarrassed. “While he’s not my blood, I couldn’t leave Adem alone and just go off on ascents when every one could be my last. If something happened to me…well, then he really wouldn’t have anyone.”
“Yep, Darrin here is a real softy. It’s why I knew he’d help you,” Alaric said with a lopsided grin before nudging his former student with an elbow. “Remember the time when—”
I watched silently as Darrin massaged the bridge of his nose, letting out a deep breath as Alaric reminisced about old times. Being around the likable young ascender—or ex-ascender—had become increasingly uncomfortable for me. Not because I was afraid of him finding out who I was, but because it was becoming increasingly difficult to see him as an enemy. His concern over Briar, his sympathy after adopting Adem, and even babysitting his former teammate’s child…I just couldn’t link him to the same people who I had gone to war against.
“I’m sorry, Grey. Alaric and I tend to get a bit sidetracked when we talk,” Darrin said with a laugh. “Now, where were we…”
“Aside from you being ‘a softy’, as Alaric put it, I’m still not sure why you chose to help me,” I answered, studying the retired ascender. “I’m not sure what Alaric promised you, but I don’t have much wealth.”
Darrin stood and crossed the porch, leaning against the railing. “Most of the people I help don’t. No, I don’t need money. I still make a little on the side by visiting the academies and telling scary stories to the students to keep them in line, and of course for taking on private students like Briar, but I made my fortune in the Relictombs, and it’ll keep me comfortable until I’m an old man.
“I just…don’t like to see the little guy getting stepped on by the nobility. And I really don’t like it when ascenders get thrown away, just because they don’t have highblood backing.”
“That explains why those judges hated you so much,” I noted, remembering their open hostility.
Darrin laughed softly. “Yeah, it wasn’t the first time I’ve been at cross purposes with Blackshorn and Frihl.”
“So…you expect me to believe you helped me out of the goodness of your heart?” I leaned forward in my chair, watching the Alacryan closely.
He turned his back to the hills and rested against the rail, meeting my gaze with an intensity I hadn’t seen from him before, even at the trial. “Not exactly.”
I watched him carefully, unsure where he was going with this.
“I invest in people, Grey. People like Adem, Katla, and Ketil. People like a dozen other ascenders who were taken to trial, over accolades rights, or accidental death, or expired badges.”
“You expect a cut, like Alaric?” I said, unsurprised.
Alaric snorted. “That’s exactly what I told him to do, kid! But he doesn’t have my business acumen.”
Darrin gave him a deadpan look. To me, he said, “I expect you to remember that people can be kind, and when you see someone who is down on their luck, or who isn’t as fortunate as you are, or who needs help, that you’ll do what you can.”
I blinked, waiting for a punchline or an “and” to come after, but Darrin just sat silently.
“That’s it?” I finally said. “You just expect people to…pass it on?”
Darrin gave Alaric a quick glance before turning back to me, his eyes sparkling and a boyish grin reappearing on his face. “Okay, there may be one more thing…”