The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 336: Protection
Hollow footsteps echoed against the fortified walls as Darrin led Alaric and me down a long spiral staircase that took us deep underground.
What greeted us at the end of the short journey was a thick rune-inscribed door that opened onto a large training area. My gaze swept the wide room as memories of the flying castle training grounds, where I had trained with Hester, Buhnd, Camus, and Kathyln after becoming a Lance, resurfaced.
With the nightmare about Tess and Cecelia still fresh in my mind, the past seemed to be floating closer to the surface than usual.
That seems to have been in another life cycle , I thought with a sigh, stopping at the door.
'That begs a good question: exactly how many lives do you have, anyway?' Regis asked, his disembodied form radiating amusement and genuine curiosity. 'Nine, like a cat, or are you more like a river nix, just moving and rising forever?'
A river nix?
'It's this little tube-shaped mana beast that lives in the rocks under water. It sheds its crystalline exoskeleton every morning, comes out like new again, and if you cut it one by two, both halves regenerate. '
As I entered the training room, I considered what it would be like to have a clone of myself every time one of my limbs was cut off.
Regis cursed in my head. 'Please forget what I said. That image is ghastly. '
Like the door, the runes were inscribed on the floor, along the walls, and on the ceiling. I followed a line of runes, trying to determine what they were for.
"Protective runes," Darrin confirmed. “To keep the house upstairs safe. It means that I can do my best here without even waking Sorrel from his nap. "
It was an impressive training room, although not as grand as the one in the flying castle.
"So, after going up against the high judges and a name blood for me, is this all you want?" I asked, still browsing the unadorned room. "A sparring session?"
Alaric touched his ear lazily. "He's that weird."
"Actually? I think it's normal for a fighter to always want to prove himself ” Darrin replied as he stretched out on the ground.
"Excuse me, Mr. Darrin!" Sorrel intervened from the door. The children were clustered around him, looking anxiously toward the training room. "Sir, were the children hoping they could come see?
Darrin looked at me, and while I wasn't interested in showing my combat prowess to more Alacrians, these were just kids. "I do not mind."
The retired Ascendant smiled with delight as he gestured for them to enter. "It will be a great experience for them!"
"I should have charged you for this," Alaric complained.
"The amount of alcohol you already inhaled from my shelves should be enough to even call us for this favor," Darrin said with a wink.
When the children settled into the far corner of the room, Briar walked through the door. With a towel draped over her shoulders and sweat glistening on her face, she sat down with the rest of our audience.
While Adem and the other kids were obviously looking forward to the show, Briar looked at me even more critically than the judges in the Great Hall.
"Do you need some time to warm up?" Darrin asked, standing up.
I shook my head and tossed the outer robe Sorrel had provided me to the ground.
"A couple of rules then," he continued, stretching an arm across his chest. "Not killing or maiming, obviously." Darrin followed this statement with a smile to make it clear that he was joking. "Since we don't have Shields—"
"I can create a barrier around myself," I said, knowing I was about to find out anyway.
Most of the Alacrians he had fought in the war had been unable to protect themselves with mana, instead relying on their battle groups, specifically the mages known as Shields, to protect them. My experience with other ascenders in the Relictombs suggested that not all Alacrian mages were so strictly limited, but I didn't want my ability to stand out too much.
"Good," he said. If he thought it was weird, he didn't reveal it. "The specialty has become popular since simulators allowed ascenders to climb the Relictombs together, but I firmly believe that versatility pays off when things go wrong."
"Stop preaching," Alaric booed. "None of these brats want your outdated opinions."
"You probably experienced it yourself, Grey," Darrin continued, ignoring the old drunk's comment and the children's laughter. "Relictombs require flexibility and creativity if you want to survive."
I just nodded when Regis's voice sounded in my head.
'Yes, it shows a little more creativity than' imbuing the body with aether, hitting things, 'princess. Didn't you used to be a block elemental wizard? '
True, but I couldn't grow an arm back then, I thought lightly.
"Any other rules before we start?" I asked.
"Normally I wouldn't mention this, but I would tell you, to avoid big attacks directed at children," Darrin added with a wry smile. "That barrier is solid, but after what I saw against those mercenaries, I don't have that much confidence in it."
I allowed a little laugh. "I will keep it in mind.
From beyond the barrier, a chorus of shouts of support sounded from Pen and Adem, cheering for Darrin. He gave them a polite goodbye before slipping back into a fighting stance, fists raised like a boxer.
No shouts of support from my habitually talkative partner? I asked Regis, mentally prodding him.
'Woo, fighting Arthur,' he replied wryly.
Oh thank you ...
Darrin nodded, indicating that he was ready, and I returned the gesture.
Instantly, Darrin's form blurred as he lunged forward, his fist slamming toward my chin. Catching the attack mid-strike, I redirected the blow while turning my front foot behind me, reversing my stance.
I have carefully avoided unbalancing or opening myself up for a counter, instead of throwing another jab, feinting, and throwing a hook to my ribs. I took a step forward, into the punch, and dug my elbow into his chest, sending him back a couple of steps.
The children's cheers fell silent as Darrin rubbed the spot where he had hit him. "That was… quick," he said appreciatively.
"You can Uncle Darrin!" Pen screamed.
Cracking his neck, Darrin returned to his fighting stance before launching a flurry of punches and kicks. He struck with brutal efficiency, moving between attacks with fluid grace born of long practice. The athletic ex-ascend would have easily outmatched most people in hand-to-hand fighting, even without his magic.
But most of the people had not been trained by an asura.
I avoided my opponent's punches without counterattacking for a handful of exchanges, letting him maneuver around the training floor as he tried to pin my back against the wall, then, when he was fully in his rhythm, I changed course, responding to each punch with one of mine.
Within moments I had him backtracking and flailing to defend himself against attacks that were both stronger and faster than his. When he extended his back leg too far for balance, I swept his front leg, sending him tumbling to the ground.
Moans and cries of disbelief came from our little audience. Ketil was on her feet, her face practically pressed against the inside of the mana shield, and even Briar's once critical gaze was nowhere to be seen.
Darrin's experience as an ascendant flashed as he immediately rolled back onto his shoulder to stand up in one motion, his face now a mask of determination. He nodded again, waiting for me to do the same.
This time when he jabbed his fist fell very close to my body, but a slight change in air pressure prompted me to dodge him anyway. Something hard and heavy brushed past my left cheek, cutting off my ear.
The layer of aether clinging to my skin absorbed the attack, but I was sure that the blow would have knocked out an unshielded opponent if it had fallen squarely.
"You even managed to dodge that, huh?" Darrin noticed behind his tight guard. "That is a bit disheartening."
"You caught me off guard," I admitted, watching his eyes intently for his next move.
"Maybe, but it seems your monstrous speed and reflexes managed to make up for that," he replied before taking a few steps back, putting more distance between us.
Realizing what he was up to, I ran towards him, but was met with a barrage of attacks from all different directions. The direction of the attacks didn't seem to correlate with his physical movements at all, and he was good at masking his intentions by concentrating on anywhere except where the blows would come from.Although he couldn't sense the wind attribute mana formation, there was a slight gust of air before each attack. I ducked and moved, using my enhanced senses to track each blow extended with that subtle woosh , but the bombardment was enough to keep me from getting close to Darrin to counterattack.
'Can't you just… I don't know, charge head-on?' Regis asked, bored. 'Or are you showing off your graceful dance moves?'
A smile formed on the edge of my lips. I can, but what's fun about that?
Ah, let's have fun. I got it. ' Regis cleared his throat before yelling like a professional fight announcer. I the retired promotion keeps Arthur Leywin on the ropes! Can Ashber's Striker flip this match? '
Fighting the urge to roll my eyes, I ran forward, my feet carrying me forward in a zigzag path towards my opponent as I moved between his bombardment.
Just as I reached it, the air in front of me lit up with crackling arcs of lightning, leaping around the edges of another - much larger - gust of wind.
Covering my arms with aether, I spun on my lead foot. Spinning past Darrin's blast while using my aether-covered arms as a conduit to redirect mana, I struck back with a lightning strike of my own.
Darrin raised his forearms in a tight crusade to block my punch. As the retreating ascendant slid back from the impact, the electricity surrounding my arms simply spread like a web of flickering yellow light through its mana-covered body before dissipating.
One of the children screamed in sheer excitement, but Darrin's attention was on my hands, which had streaks of burnt skin branching down my arms.
'That sure looks fun,' Regis said deadpan.
Darrin let his guard down, concern in his eyes as he looked at my hands. “That looks pretty bad. Maybe we should get you - "
I raised a hand that was already healing and her eyes widened as the flesh returned to her naturally pale complexion. "There is no need.”
Although he was still frowning, Darrin took a few steps back and indicated that he was ready once more.
This time, I eagerly plunged into the maelstrom of lightning-infused wind blows, sharpening my focus until I saw nothing but arcing lightning and heard only the gust of wind. Darrin could land two or three punches per second, assuming he was doing his best, which I wasn't sure if he was yet, and I felt a real thrill of defiance as I spun, dived, and dodged, avoiding hit after hit.
"Your speed is amazing," yelled Darrin - who looked like a shadow boxer, kicking and punching into nothingness - from out of the storm. “But if you're trying to pull me out, you'll have to do better. I've fought for days without resting in the Relictombs before, I'm going to… ”
Channeling aether into my muscles, nerves, and tendons, I timed Burst Step to a splinter of an opening within the blow cloud and appeared within arm's reach of Darrin.
He could do nothing but stare, jaw dropped, as I ran the blade of my hand across his chest. With the aether condensed and molded into a single point on my outstretched hand, my attack pierced through the mana clinging to his skin and ripped a single clean line through his shirt without even touching his skin.
Too late, Darrin raised his arms to defend himself and then staggered back away from me. This time, he didn't get up right away. Darrin recovered himself and examined the remains of his shirt. "Well, I think I've seen enough."
“What!” Adem yelled, running from behind the barrier. “That attack didn't even hit! You can't give up now. "
"Yes," Pen said, stomping behind the older boy, her arms crossed. "Uncle Darrin always wins." Sorrel lifted the girl from behind, making her squeak in surprise.
"Adem is upset that he lost his bet to Mr. Alaric," Briar said, standing behind everyone else with his arms crossed.
"Briar!" Adem complained, turning red.
Alaric crossed the training court toward us, a wide grin under his beard. “You really should teach your mentee not to gamble, Darrin. Especially not against men four times her age and infinitely wiser. "
"Infinitely wiser," Adem replied irritably.
"Are you okay, Uncle Darrin?" Pen asked in her small voice, looking at the ex-ascent with big, teary eyes.
I let out a good-humored laugh. "Of course, it was just a friendly meeting." He dipped his fingers into the hole he'd ripped in his shirt and moved them toward the girl. "You see? Not a scratch. Never forget Pen, your uncle was the leader of the Bloodless."
Adem and Briar groaned at the same time.
"That was the craziest thing I've ever seen!" the blond boy, Ketil, exclaimed. "How did you move so fast?"
"Is this how all ascenders fight?" her sister asked, her eyes glued to the ground.
"No," Alaric said, walking along from where he had been in Burst Step to where we were now, his old face creased thoughtfully.
Darrin frowned at my hands until he noticed my attention, and raised his head. "Grey is fast and strong, but don't let that intimidate you," he told Katla and Ketil. "You don't have to be able to do what Grey or I can do to be successful ascenders, but you can be as good as us if you work hard."
Katla and Ketil shared a skeptical look on this. Briar lifted her chin and looked around fiercely, as if to tell us that one day she would be just as good.
"Well, I'm starving," Darrin announced. "Why don't we all go get that food?"
The housekeeper bowed politely and wrapped an arm around Katla's shoulders, holding Pen in the other. "Come on kids, can you help me set the table?"
Unlike before, on the balcony, the blond twins seemed discouraged at being alienated from the adults, their gazes of astonished excitement faded, as they murmured, "Yes, ma'am."
"Can't I ask Grey some questions?" Adem asked, pausing as Sorrel maneuvered the smaller children away. "That was great. I wanna-"
"Adem," Darrin said quietly, and the boy's mouth snapped shut.
"Of course I am sorry. I'll go help with dinner."
Behind him, Briar hesitated for a long sigh, but when Darrin cleared his throat, she turned and followed the others. I couldn't help but notice when Briar paused at the door, giving me one last questioning look before disappearing.
When the group was carried off the training floor, Alaric tugged at the tattered part of Darrin's shirt. The blond man pulled his hand away playfully, but Alaric frowned seriously.
"That attack could have killed you," he said quietly.
"I know." Darrin clutched his neck and led the way out of the room. Over his shoulder, he said, "It was as if my mana had melted where the attack touched ..."
Darrin led us up the stairs to a surprisingly small dining room with a table for four.
He pulled an ornate bottle of amber liquid from a shelf and set it down heavily, patting Alaric on the back. "I've been saving this just for you."
Old man Alaric's eyes lit up like a child opening presents on his birthday, and he flung himself into a chair before tearing off the wax seal around the cork.
I slid into the chair across from Alaric and looked around. Aside from a couple of cabinets and shelves, there was also a tall, narrow bookcase in one corner, laden with leather-bound books. Next to the shelf, a window took up most of the back wall, overlooking the hills.
"What was that move you used back there, Grey?" Darrin asked conversationally, turning his chair so he could rest his forearms on the back. “You used something similar against those mercenaries, right? It was quite impressive back then, but seeing it up close and personally like that was… well, it was something completely different.”
I forced an awkward laugh and rubbed the back of my neck. "It wouldn't make much sense to keep my runes hidden if I brag about them to everyone I know, right?"
"It's true," Darrin nodded. "I am against showing my runes as well - a few gapes and envious glances don't mean as much to me as they would to most mages.
"It's because your runes aren't much to look at in the first place," Alaric said as he took a generous sip from his glass.
“Anyway,” said Darrin, giving up prying any more about my runes, “I had the children eat with Sorrel in the main dining room. We have some more serious matters to discuss. "
The retired Ascendant exchanged a meaningful look with his drunken mentor before turning to me. "Grey, what is your plan now?"
"Now that I have more or less finished my preliminary promotion, I plan to return to the Relictombs on my own," I replied. "In there at least, I only have to worry about the mana beasts trying to kill me."
Darrin rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Do you plan to stay within the deepest levels of the Relictombs indefinitely? Because the first and second floors of the Relictombs are under constant surveillance, which makes your whereabouts very obvious to people of high power. " "Like the Granbehl?" I asked in a challenging tone. "If they try ..."
Alaric held up a reassuring hand. “Look, I'm sure the Granbehls got your last message very loud and clear. I doubt they are stupid enough to attempt another attack on you directly. "
"But that doesn't mean they don't tell their friends by blood names and their mothers about you," Darrin continued. "And that's without even taking into account the much richer and more powerful Denoirs, who are also waiting to be compensated."
"And they have a pretty curvy carrot to hang in front of you once they find you," Alaric added with a wave of his eyebrows.
"Curvy indeed," Regis agreed.
"If you mean Caera Denoir, I hope you don't think the two of us made a romantic getaway to the Relictombs," I said, a tinge of genuine annoyance entwining my words. "She was the one who disguised herself and tracked me down to observe me."
"Regardless," Darrin interrupted. "From what I've gathered between you and Alaric, it seems you want the freedom to be able to move however you want."
I thought of all the resources available that could help Alacrya, as well as the possibility of returning to Dicathen to see my family. "Yes. That would be ideal."
"Well. So we are on the same page,” Darrin said. There was a moment of silence as the two former Alacrian ascenders shared that gaze again before he continued. "Okay, the next part may sound outlandish at first, but the best thing for you right now would be to have some kind of sponsor or promoter. "
I bowed my head. "I do not understand."
"It's okay." Alaric stepped forward. “What you need is protection. Political protection, not fighting. We know that you can take care of your little self. The problem is, there are only a few institutions - a few people outside of Scythes and the Vritra themselves - that would offer you the kind of immunity that would keep even the High Blood Denoir from meddling. And I happen to know a guy in the admissions office of the Central Academy ... "
"Academy?" I let go. “Where does Briar go to school? You don't expect me to ... "
Alaric scowled at me and took another drink straight from the bottle. "This will take a long time if you keep interrupting every seven words." He paused, pinning me with a sharp gaze, but I fell silent. "Yes, the same Central Academy."
"So what, do you expect me to… attend school?" I asked, disbelief dripping from every word.
"No boy, I hope you teach ," Alaric announced, a gleam of amusement in his eyes.