The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 339: The Central Dominion

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“Alright, you remember everything I told you?” Alaric asked me for the third time, despite already covering it twice that morning.

The old Alacryan was standing with his hands in the pockets of a royal purple robe—an outfit closer to the bath robes of my previous world than the battle robes commonly worn by mages in this one—that was stretched just a little too tight across his midsection.

“Yes, Uncle Al,” I said sarcastically, tugging at the hem of my own simple traveling clothes.

Darrin had offered to let me borrow a few high-end outfits, which he said would fit in better in the central dominion, but he was significantly broader across the chest and shoulders, and there was no time to have anything altered.

“You know,” he replied thoughtfully, “I don’t know if I hate that or not.”

“By the High Sovereign, are we going or what?”

Alaric, Darrin, and I turned to look at Briar, who was leaning against the wall of Darrin’s warp chamber. She had clad herself in crisp white leather armor, and kept her hand on the pommel of her slender blade.

The intractable young woman met our gazes unflinchingly. “I’d like to get back to the academy before I’m as old as you three.”

‘Considering all the forces of evil arrayed against you,’ Regis said solemnly, ‘who’d have guessed you would be murdered by a sixteen year old school girl.’

Alaric barked out a laugh and clapped Darrin hard on the back. “However much Blood Nadir is paying you, make them double it,” he teased.

The girl only huffed, redirecting her line of sight to the tempus warp, which sat at the center of a raised stone platform. The roughly anvil-shaped artifact was crafted of a dull gray, pockmarked metal, and engraved with dozens of runes.

A quick glance at the lines of runes told me it was based on a similar premise to the teleportation gates in Dicathen, but these were much more compact and complex.

“How far can this reach?” I asked, feigning casual interest.

Darrin bent down over the artifact, brushing off nonexistent dust from its surface. “It’s powerful enough to get to the west coast of Sehz-Clar, or just past the southern border of Truacia.”

Seeing me frown, Darrin added, “More than strong enough to reach Cargidan City in the central dominion.”

So not nearly capable of sending me home to Dicathen, I thought, dousing my disappointment.

It was a foolish thought, anyway. As much as I wanted to tell my sister and mother that I was alive, returning to Dicathen now might actually put them in more danger than they already were.

‘Hey, you still have the Creeper’s Stone,’ Regis said in what he thought was a consoling tone. Sorry, the what? I asked, my train of thought completely derailed.

‘I decided “Orb of Long-term Stalking” was way too long. Creeper’s Stone rolls right off the tongue—figuratively speaking.’

Forcefully shunting Regis’s thoughts to the back of my mind, I returned my attention to Darrin, who was beginning to calibrate the tempus warp for travel.

“I’m going to send you to the Library of the Sovereigns,” Darrin was saying. “Briar, can you show Grey to the—”

“Student Administration Office, yeah.” When Darrin cocked a brow at the girl, she straightened and said, “I mean, yes, sir.”

Smiling to himself, Darrin finished the calibrations and stood back. “All ready to go.”

I offered my hand to the Alacryan, and he took it. “Thank you for your hospitality, and your help,” I said sincerely.

Although I could have forced my way out of the Granbehls’ jail cell or the High Hall at any point, it would likely have made everything else I needed to do much more difficult—even impossible, if it drew the attention of a Scythe or two. Thanks to Alaric and his friend—and Caera—I’d avoided that.

“What you faced was a terrible injustice,” he replied. “I’m glad we were able to help.”

“You owe me big, kid,” Alaric said wryly as I offered my hand to him as well. “Darrin here is never going to let me hear the end of it, and that’s not even including all the other favors I’ve had to call in.”

“My hero,” I replied, deadpan.

“So, before you go, we better settle up.”

Thinking he was joking, I gave him an exaggerated roll of my eyes, but then he slipped my old, empty dimension ring from a pocket and held it out. “Forty percent, I believe?”

Briar scowled. “Forty percent is highway robbery.”

Darrin gave the old man an embarrassed frown, but kept his opinion on our transaction to himself.

“Plus ten percent for my services as your legal counsel,” he added with a wink.

I made a show of sliding the ring on my hand and “activating” it as I rifled through the collection of accolades I’d brought back from the Relictombs. Few of the items were of interest to me, as the weapons would degrade too quickly when imbued with aether, and I couldn’t use anything designed to channel or utilize mana.

When I pulled out the first piece—a silver crown set with blood red jewels that swirled with so much fire mana it was visible to the naked eye—Alaric beamed with unsuppressed glee. One by one, I began handing over half the treasure I’d collected.

Briar’s bright eyes grew larger and larger with each piece that came out of my extradimensional storage rune, and even Darrin failed to hide his surprise at the size of the payment, made up of a wide variety of shiny, lightly magical artifacts.

“I thought you said you didn’t have any wealth?” Darrin asked, cocking an eyebrow in my direction.

“I don’t. I have a bunch of stuff. It’s not really ‘wealth’ until I get the chance to sell it, technically,” I said as I pulled another accolade from my dimension rune.

Alaric made a show of inspecting each piece before tucking them away in his own dimension ring, trying to keep up a cool facade, but by the end he was practically drooling, and his hands trembled with excitement.

“Do me a favor and don’t drink yourself to death with this,” I said, fixing him with a stern look.

The old ascender hefted the ring as if he could feel the physical weight of all the treasure it now contained. “When you get to Cargidan, the local Ascenders Association will buy whatever else you have and put it right on your runecard,” he said distractedly. “And they can print you an official badge, too, now that you’ve completed your prelim.”

“You got all that from your preliminary ascent?” Briar asked disbelievingly, her eyes jumping from me to the dimension ring and back.

Darrin was quick to reply. “Don’t get your hopes up, Briar. That definitely isn’t a normal haul for a single ascent—or even several ascents.”

I simply shrugged at the young woman. “My travelling companion and I got lucky.”

“I’ll say,” Darrin replied. “Anyway, you two better be on your way. Grey, Briar will help you find your way around.” He eyed his student and ran a hand through his blond hair. “And Briar, don’t forget that Grey is going to be a professor at the academy. You may not be in his class, but I can’t imagine he’ll take kindly to any more rudeness from you.”

Briar was slow to peel her eyes away from me before stepping onto the platform next to the tempus warp, standing with military precision as she waited for me to join her.

“See you around, Grey,” Darrin said as I joined the young woman on the platform.

“Hurry up and get settled so you can go back to making me money,” Alaric added gruffly, twirling the dimension ring around his calloused finger.

“Bye bye!” a tiny voice said from the doorway as Pen peaked around the corner, waving. I waved back, then the mansion faded around me, and I found myself standing on a different platform, far away from rural Sehz-Clar.

The transition was seamless, without any jarring sickness or twisting of my insides. The platform under my feet had changed from bare stone to dark wood, while the room around me was simultaneously cavernous and claustrophobic.

Glancing quickly around the rows of bookshelves, each one laden with leather-bound tomes, I considered the enormous amount of information contained within this library. Tens of thousands of books on every topic imaginable. Although, if it’s as carefully curated as the library in Aramoor, there probably isn’t anything very important or useful here, I thought, tempering my expectations.

Still, I was eager for a few quiet moments to spend studying Alacrya, the Sovereigns, and the Relictombs. There was still too much I didn’t know, too many ways I could mess up without even realizing it. I hoped the library would contain some answers.

Pulling my gaze away from the bookshelves, I caught sight of Briar standing on a separate small platform a few feet to my left. She was watching me carefully, but her attention was pulled away as a man in black and gray battle robes approached.

“Identification?” he asked in a bored drawl, holding out a hand.

Briar had hers ready, but I had to draw mine out of the dimension rune, making a show of activating my useless ring. The guard’s eyes darted across the face of her identification badge before handing it back wordlessly.

When he got to mine, though, he stared at it for several long moments, a deep frown forming on his face. His eyes darted to me, then back. Briar huffed again, but he ignored her.

Eventually, he turned his focus on me, inspecting me closely, his gaze lingering on my simple clothes. “I’m afraid I’ll need you to come with me, Mister Grey, so we can verify the validity of this identification.” Although the guard’s words were professional, his tone told me clearly enough what he thought about the “validity” of my presence in the central dominion.

Letting my gaze pass over him lazily, I said, “Very well, but I hope you’re prepared to handle the consequences of harassing a Central Academy professor.”

Somewhat amusingly, the guard turned his uncertain gaze on Briar, who jerked her thumb at me and said, “Don’t look at me, bud. He’s the big shot.”

“A, um, professor?” he asked, suddenly nervous as he glanced down at the identification badge again. “So sorry, Ascen—Professor Grey, I didn’t realize—”

Reaching out, I plucked my identification out of his hand. “Wise man,” I said coolly, marching past the man.

He took a quick step back, halfheartedly saying, “Welcome to the Library of Sovereigns, Cargidan City, Central Dominion,” as we passed.

Briar gave me an appraising look from the corner of her eye. “Maybe you’ll fit in at the academy after all.”

“Not bad for a country bumpkin, huh?” I said with a wink before letting my gaze wander around the building again. The floors and walls were bright white marble, which stood out in stark contrast to the dark wood of the platforms, railings, and shelves.

A dome of silvery-white glass above let cool morning light into the library to glint and shimmer off the marble, and every shadowy corner was lit by lighting artifacts, making the entire interior of the building seem to glow.

Compared to the dingy little library in Aramoor, this place was a palace. The people sitting in reading nooks or milling about between the shelves seemed to be of a different class as well.

They wore their wealth and stood casually, without the pompousness I’d seen from the Granbehls, and seemed all the more wealthy and powerful because of it.

In my previous life, I had met many other nobles from all over Earth who went by a hundred different titles. It was those who were the most comfortable in the trappings of their power that I knew to be wary of, and the people around me in the library seemed very comfortable.

A wide bay of white glass doors led out onto a green lawn, beyond which a busy street bustled with people. Although there was some foot traffic here, it seemed more common for these highbloods to travel by carriage, several of which were rolling by as I watched, pulled by a variety of mana beasts. The blood red oxen I’d seen used in the Relictombs were most common, but I also saw one pulled by a reptilian horse, and another by an enormous bird.

“Come on then, Professor,” Briar said, already marching quickly across the library lawn. I followed, staying close behind her, but most of my attention was on the city around me.

Dark gray stone tiles made up the roads, contrasting starkly against the white stone of most of the buildings, which arched, swept, and rose high into the air in spires, pillars, and towers, accented with reds, blues, and greens. All throughout, harsh, black metal was present, adding a cohesiveness throughout the myriad of shapes and colors.

Behind it all, visible occasionally through the gaps between buildings, rose a range of enormous mountains, stabbing into the sky like the fangs of some world-eating beast.

Briar moved purposefully, leading us away from the library at marching speed.

“The academy campus is about a mile from the library,” she said over her shoulder as we turned away from the main street and into a series of alleys. “Longer if you follow Sovereign Avenue all the way to Central, the main street that bisects the city.”

“You seem to know your way around pretty well,” I noted, my gaze tracking over the buildings around us. The alleys were clean, clear of both garbage and lingering people, the only other pedestrians moving purposefully, like we were.

Over her shoulder, she said, “It’s a requirement. Students who can’t navigate quickly through the city are likely to miss deadlines or fail assignments.”

“Is the curriculum that intense?” I asked with genuine interest.

Briar stopped and turned to meet my eye. “Central Academy is one of the most prestigious academies in Alacrya, but you should already know that, Professor. People don’t become successful ascenders by living soft, easy lives.”

‘Yeah, princess!’ Regis crowed. ‘Stop with your soft, easy life and step up.’

I apologize for living such an easy, trial free life, oh great and powerful weapon of the asuras, I thought, deadpan.

Out loud, I said, “Not everyone learns well under that kind of pressure.”

Briar wrinkled her nose. “The students of Central Academy aren’t everyone. We’re the elite, even among named bloods and highbloods.”

Without waiting for a response, she spun, sending her bright hair twirling, and began to march again.

We walked in silence for a few more minutes before stepping back out onto a major thoroughfare. The street was heavy with foot traffic and lined with businesses that likely catered to the academy students: restaurants and taverns, armories, high end clothing stores, and a couple of shops that claimed to buy and sell accolades.

“You don’t want those,” Briar said when I slowed down to read the sign outside Andvile’s Accolades. “These shops are all shady, and most of the people who trade with them are, too. Great if you have a stolen accolade to get rid of in a hurry, but not so much for keeping your reputation as a professor of Central Academy. If you’re going to sell off the stuff Alaric didn’t screw you out of, take it to the Ascenders Association. The building is right outside the entrance to campus anyway.”

Almost as if to emphasize her point, the door opened and a shifty-eyed man in dirty gray battle robes came out. His attention was on a glassy stone in his hand so that he nearly ran into me. He flinched as I loomed into his peripheral vision, shot me a suspicious look, then pulled his hood up and shuffled into the crowd of passers by.

Briar gave me a look that said, “See? Told you so.”

I started to turn away when I noticed a moving image playing across the surface of some kind of crystal bound to the side of the building with black brackets. When I stepped closer, I realized the image was panning across a blasted, wrecked landscape.

Briar smirked. “This really is your first time to one of the big cities, isn’t it?” “It’s some kind of projection artifact?” I asked, taking a step closer. “Showing recorded images?” Once I was standing within a few feet of the artifact, a strong male voice filled my head.

“—truly horrifying images captured from Dicathen’s easternmost country of Elenoir. The loss of life, both to the native Dicathians known as elves, and those brave Alacryans who had volunteered to relocate to the distant forests, is incalculable. High Sovereign Agrona insists on

calm, and requires all Alacryans to understand this assault by the vile asuras of Epheotus will not go unanswered.

“Furthermore, we will all join together to offer thanks to the High Sovereign, for continuing to protect us all in his—”

I took a step back, and the voice cut out. “Proximity telepathy?” I looked at Briar for confirmation.

She nodded, stepping back out of range herself. “My parents thought they were being really clever, guessing that the war was ending and betting on ascents instead. I guess the war isn’t quite as over as they thought.”

“Doesn’t the idea of going to war with beings capable of obliterating an entire country scare you?” I ask, slightly surprised by her lack of either empathy or fear at the images still playing silently across the projection artifact.

Briar shrugged and began walking again. Over her shoulder, she said only, “The Vritra protect Alacrya.”

I made note of the other merchants lining Sovereign Avenue, but didn’t stop to linger again. Within a few minutes, we were standing between two towering complexes, and before us a black iron gate blocked entrance into what could only have been Central Academy.

Several groups of students were making their way toward the gates. A handful of girls paused suddenly as they noticed Briar and me, and gave a happy shout. Briar grinned and waved back.

“Even though this has been so much fun, this is where I leave you, Professor.” She was already moving away when she said, “I assume you can find the way from here?”

“I think I’ll manage,” I called after her.

Trying to put the Alacryan girl out of my mind, I turned to examine the Ascenders Association building—or rather, buildings. The towering white buildings flanking the entrance to Central Academy were actually connected by several arched stone bridges at varying heights above me.

“Oh my Vritra, Briar. Who is that gorgeous man?”

Despite the distance to the group, the noise of the street, and my own distraction, my enhanced hearing was enough to pick up everything the group of girls was saying.

“Is that your boyfriend? You said you couldn’t hang out because you were in training, Bee! But instead you’ve been off galavanting with—”

“He’s not, and you can shut up right now, Valerie, before I show you exactly how hard I’ve been training,” Briar said in a low growl that only made the other girls grin even wider.

I cast a discreet glance their way to find the three girls staring—much less discreetly—in my direction, while Briar was already making her way toward the academy gates. Unlike Briar, who was in her white armor, the other three had donned matching black and azure uniforms.

They lingered only a moment before following Darrin’s student away, but not without sending a couple of curious glances back in my direction.

“You know, I’m kind of surprised they’re so…normal,” I said, watching the students queue up at the academy gates. A memory of Ellie playing with the other girls from the School for Ladies surfaced, bringing a smile to my lips.

‘Honestly, I’m more surprised Briar has friends,’ Regis commented.

Smirking, I returned my attention to the Ascenders Association buildings. Black metal signs indicated that the entrance to my right was for “Testing & Teleportation” while the entrance to the left led to “Administration & Facilities.”

Choosing the left entrance, I followed the short path up to the double doors—wide enough an entire carriage could have driven through them—and pulled the black iron handle. The door didn’t open, but a moment later a small panel around face height slid open, revealing a helmeted guard.

“Badge?” he said in a bored drawl.

I withdrew the badge I’d received in Aramoor and held it up to the narrow slit. The man plucked it out of my hand and the panel slid shut again, leaving Regis and I to wait. A minute or two passed, long enough for two other ascenders—both short, thin men in the style of battle robes favored by Casters—to line up behind me, muttering grumpily about the wait.

After another minute, the lock finally released with a heavy thunk and the door swung inward.

A man in silvery battle robes with ebony pauldrons, bracers, and boots that caught and bent the light in an unusual, liquid way stepped forward. He had short black hair and a well-trimmed beard, with a hint of gray at his temples and chin.

“Welcome to the Cargidan City Ascenders Association Hall, Ascender Grey. We’ve heard quite a lot about you already.”