The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 340: Burden and Stakes
To either side of the well-dressed bearded man, the Ascenders Association guards were giving me curious stares, and the two Casters in line behind me muttered something about “the high mage.”
Amusement—and something else, something hungry—glittered in the man’s eyes as he bobbed his head respectfully and gestured into the building. Turning on his heel, he moved away with the light but confident strides of a warrior, leaving me in a small entry chamber flanked by guards.
Though the entrance was uninspiring, stepping out into the wide hall beyond was anything but. I had thought the Aramoor Ascenders Association building had been impressive, but this place had more in common with a temple or palace than a simple guild hall.
The walls, ceiling, and floor were white stone—brighter and cleaner than marble—and carved columns broke up the room every twenty feet or so. Golden runes were inset into the floor in the shape of pathways leading from one section of the hall to another, and I could see the shapes of beasts laid out in jade in several places as well.
The walls were hung with dozens of tapestries depicting ascenders within the Relictombs battling against aetheric beasts. One large tapestry caught my eye; it showed three men in golden armor surrounded by a swarm of carralions—the clawed, babyish creatures I’d fought in the convergence zone.
I followed the man through the hall in silence as we moved swiftly past the grand tapestries and decor. My gaze lingered on the extravagant artworks, wondering if these depictions were common tales that any passing Alacryan would recognize.
After passing a series of desks and comfortable seating areas, we made our way up a narrow staircase tucked away in one corner of the main hall. This brought us to a balcony surrounded by black iron railings, and led into a large office that overlooked the hall below. New episodes will be published on lightnovelpub.com.
Despite the lack of conversation during our journey, it was clear he was comfortable with the silence, or perhaps his position. The way he slid into his seat behind a massive desk carved of ebony and inlaid with gold filigree, then kicked his heels up on the lavish piece of furniture, suggested the latter. He waved at a plush chair in front of the desk, and I took a seat, never taking my eyes off him.
“So, here you are.” The man grinned, but I could see the snarling grizzly wolf behind his amiable mask.
“I’ve just completed my preliminary ascent,” I said, businesslike. “I need my new badge.”
“Oh, I’ve already seen to it. My assistant will be up with it any minute.” His smile cut into something more sly. “And I bet you have a whole dimensional storage artifact full of accolades to turn in too, right?” His eyes went pointedly to the ring on my finger. “Clever of you, to keep it from the Granbehls.”
I sat up straighter, my lip curling into a sneer. “That matter is resolved,” I said coldly.
He raised his hands innocently. “Don’t misread me, Ascender Grey. That whole affair was bad for business—our business.” His grin took on that sly quality again. “That little named blood doesn’t have any power here in Central Dominion anyway. No, I was being quite serious: you’ve shown yourself to be quite clever. Follow the lightnovelpub.com platform for the latest episodes.
“So, how did you manage it?”
I let the question hang in the air while I considered my answer. It didn’t help that I couldn’t be sure which “it” he was referring to.
Not wanting to give anything away about myself, I finally said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
He slid his feet from the desk and leaned over it, eyeing me hungrily. “How did you secure the posting at Central Academy? An unnamed ascender, fresh from his prelim…it’s unheard of.”
I let out a sigh. “Complications often arise from knowing too much.”
It was the man’s turn to let my words hang for a moment before he leaned back and laughed, an uncontained, mirthful guffaw.
“That may just be the most pleasant way someone has threatened me,” he beamed, pointing his fingers at me. “I like you, Grey! Damned but I like you.”
‘You’ve managed to attract yet another weird one,’ Regis chortled.
Ignoring my companion, I scanned his desk to see if the man in front of me had a nameplate somewhere. “I’m afraid I don’t—”
“Vritra’s name, where are my manners? My name is Sulla of Named Blood Drusus, but everyone around here calls me Sul. I’m the high mage of this little establishment.” The mage gestured out over the hall below.
“Do you welcome all new ascenders like this, Sulla?” I asked doubtfully.
“No,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I certainly do not. But then, not many new ascenders are given a principal’s badge after a single ascent, or made a professor at the most prestigious academy in Alacrya”—I didn’t think it was possible, but his grin grew sharper—“I wanted to see you for myself.”
I ground my teeth. This was exactly the kind of attention I wanted to avoid.
‘Maybe you shouldn’t always make such a spectacle of yourself then,’ Regis commented mockingly.
“I’d just like to get my badge, exchange my accolades, and be on my way,” I said with finality, making it clear that I’d like to end this interaction. “I still need to check into the Student Administration Offices and get settled in. It’s been a long journey here.”
“Ah, of course,” Sulla responded professionally, but the slouch in his shoulders and the way he leaned back suggested that he was slightly put out. “Once again, I’ve let my enthusiasm override my good sense. But promise you'll come back soon, Professor Grey. I’ll make sure your trip won’t be wasted.”
After selling the majority of the treasure I’d taken from the Spear Beak tribe, I escaped the Ascenders Association building and the high mage’s probing questions, then proceeded straight for the Central Academy campus, eager to meet with my contact and find my rooms, which I hoped were quiet and free of any more probing eyes.
The black iron gates had opened of their own accord when I approached. On the other side, the close confines of the city streets were left behind in favor of wide walkways bordered by short hedges.
A fifteen foot wall of white stone wrapped around the campus, encircling it and setting it off from the city. The gates opened into a semicircular plaza, from which three paths branched away toward clusters of school buildings.
Dozens of young men and women in the black and azure uniforms of Central Academy were milling around the plaza, some chatting animatedly while others sat quietly on benches or in the grassy lawns between the hedges. A few cast me curious glances, and I realized that Briar had been right: I stuck out in my plain traveling clothes, even more than if I’d come to the academy in full battle attire.
Directly across the plaza from the gates stood the Student Administration Offices, a castlelike complex with a dozen peaks and spires that seemed to loom over the campus entrance. The central path from the plaza went straight through this building, under an arched tunnel lit with bright globes that hung from the roof.
A woman in tight-fitting white battle robes was standing just outside this tunnel, her eyes casting around as if looking for someone.
As I approached, making my way toward the open entryway into the offices, her amber eyes stopped on me, traveling up and down my body several times. Blonde hair tumbled in waves over her shoulders, bouncing in a way that seemed to defy gravity when she hopped in place before taking a few quick steps toward me.
‘Her hair isn’t the only thing that defies gravity…’ Regis said suggestively. ‘If you die, can she be my new master?’
Why wait? I answered, pushing with my aether as if I intended to expel the shadow wolf from my body.
‘Hey!’ Regis groused. ‘No need to get pouty.’
The woman dipped into a shallow bow as we approached. “Plain clothes, gorgeous eyes, too young by half…you could only be our new level one Melee Enhancement Tactics professor, right?” She beamed at me and bounced on the balls of her feet. “I’m Abby of Blood Redcliff. I teach a couple of higher level wind-specialization Caster courses.”
“Um, hello,” I said, caught off guard by her forwardness. “I wasn’t expecting—”
“A welcoming committee?” she said with a happy laugh. “Well, a shy guy like you might not want to hear this, but you’re pretty much a celebrity around here already.”
Damn you, Alaric, I thought grumpily.
“Anyway, I just really wanted to be the first one to meet you, after everything I’ve heard.” She gave me a winsome smile, twirling a lock of her golden hair around her finger. “Did you really break the containment chains at your trial?”
“I’m sorry, I’m late to meet my contact in administration,” I said stiffly, stepping around her and making my way toward the door.
A surprisingly strong hand caught my elbow. “It can be kind of overwhelming here at first. I’d be happy to show you the ropes, Grey. You just let me know, m’kay?”
With a wink, my fellow professor released me and turned away.
I was distracted as I made my way into the administration offices and announced myself to one of the young clerks at the front desk. He gave me directions to a fourth floor office where Alaric’s contact could be found, giving me a bemused smirk when I admitted I needed to hear the instructions again.
‘You okay, chief? What’s got you so rattled?’
First the head of the Ascenders Association, then this other professor…We’re getting way too much attention, Regis.
‘You’re thinking of cutting and running.’ It wasn’t really a question since he could read my mind.
No…yes…I don’t know, I admitted. I don’t like feeling trapped.
Regis barked out a laugh in my mind. ‘You just spent three weeks in jail.’
Stone and bars weren’t holding me. I chose to stay, let that play out. I was trying to avoid drawing too much attention.
‘How’d that work out?’
Almost as well as that piece of acclorite Wren Kain gave me, I answered with a smirk, taking the stairs three at a time to the fourth floor.
‘I feel personally attacked. You know what, I’m going to take a nap. Wake me up when you’re feeling less venomous, all right, princess?’
Despite my conversation with Regis—or perhaps because of it—I felt better by the time I was knocking on the office door of a man named Edmon of Blood Scriven, a mid-tier clerk within the administration office.
A reedy, nervous voice invited me into an office that wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of the old detective movies from my previous world. The lighting artifact suspended from the ceiling was flickering and gloomy, casting a gray haze over the small office, including a simple desk piled with parchment and scrolls with the man hunched behind it.
“Close the door,” he said impatiently, his watery eyes following me as I did so before sitting down in the worn chair across from him.
“I know bloody well who you are,” the thin, pale man snapped as he wiped at his nose with the sleeve of his brown robe. “What that son-of-a-lurk-worm thought he was doing, forcing you in here, I swear to the Vritra I have no idea…” the man grumbled under his breath, as if unaware that I could still hear him.
We glared at each other over the top of his desk for a moment before I let out a long sigh. “What do I need to know, Edmon?”
He sniffed and wiped his nose again as he shuffled through some of the scrolls on his desk. “Once you’ve signed your contract, you can have your schedule and curriculum, and be on your way. Once you’ve left this office, I sincerely hope not to see you again for the remainder of your tenure here.”
Based on the man’s open hostility, I could only assume that his agreement with Alaric hadn’t been entirely equitable.
Edmon shoved a stack of parchment out of the way and unrolled a document explaining the details of my employment with Central Academy in legal jargon. I was surprised to note the pay, which hadn’t even crossed my mind.
“In the event that you don’t understand some piece of your contract…” Edmon shrugged his hunched shoulders. “It’s not my job to explain it all to you.”
Taking the offered quill, I wrote my false name, my hand automatically tracing the same swooping letters I had used to sign official documents as a king. Edmon’s spiderish hand snapped the contract away the instant I’d finished, and he replaced it with a single flat piece of parchment and two long scrolls bound with iron rings.
“This”—he indicated the parchment—“has your schedule on it, while these”—he waved at the scrolls—“are your curriculum for Melee Enhancement Tactics and a list of the academy’s rules. Read them very, very thoroughly, because I swear by the Vritra, I will not go down for your criminal uncle…”
“Listen,” I said, starting to lose my patience with the man’s snide remarks, “I don’t know what sort of deal you and—”
“Deal?” he hissed, his eyes wide. “That no good drunk bullies and coerces me into hiring his wogart of a nephew, and you call it a deal? Just because he thinks you’re worth this risk, doesn’t mean I do. Now get the hell out of my office, and don’t come back, or I’ll—”
The man’s mouth snapped shut as my aetheric intent washed over him, crushing him back into his chair. His eyes bulged, insectlike, and his fingers clawed at the surface of his desk, disrupting several of the scrolls.
“I’m just as happy to pretend this conversation didn’t happen as you are,” I said, my voice quiet and emotionless. “But I won’t be threatened.” To emphasize my point, I strengthened the aura, watching as the pale man’s breath was choked off by the pressure. “I don’t know why you’re afraid of Alaric, but it would be wise to extend those feelings toward me as well…at the very least.”
Grabbing the papers from his desk, I released my aetheric intent and swept out of his office.
‘What did I miss?’ Regis asked, the mental projection of his voice drawn out as if he were yawning.
Just making more friends, I joked. You know me.
My companion snorted, and I felt his consciousness drift away again as he went to “sleep,” which for him was more of a meditative mindset while he absorbed aether from my core.
Back down on the ground level, the front-desk clerk looked up when I stepped out into the entry hall. “All done here at administration? Can I arrange for someone to give you a tour of campus or introduce you to the other faculty?”
“No, I’ve had a long journey here and would just like to see my room,” I answered, recycling the excuse I’d given to the high mage at the Ascenders Association. “Can someone show me the way?”
The young man smiled with understanding. “Sure thing, Professor Grey. Let’s get you settled in. Adelaide?”
“Hm?” A distracted young woman looked up from where she had her nose in a scroll at another desk.
“Can you watch the front desk while I show Professor Grey to his rooms?”
“Hm,” she said in affirmation as her eyes jumped back to her reading.
Shaking his head and giving me a chagrined look, the young man led the way out of the building and turned right. We passed between two hip-height hedge rows that separated large, grassy areas where students were lounging and talking, reading scrolls, and wrestling around.
“Classes haven’t started yet, obviously, but students are expected to arrive early, and the administration keeps things more or less open so everyone coming back from the recess can enjoy themselves for a moment before the work starts.”
My guide continued to chatter away, apparently feeling the need to give me the tour despite my insistence that it wasn’t necessary. He told me the names of the buildings, yards, and plazas, as well as the history of the families for which they’d been named.
Although I had questions, I wasn’t comfortable asking them, and instead maintained an air of tired, slightly bored aloofness. No need to give the talkative young man any reason to be suspicious about me.
It wasn’t until we were passing a dark building that seemed to loom ominously over the path, that I saw something that truly interested me.
“Is that a portal?” I asked, looking at the rune-carved stone arch. It looked exactly like the teleportation gates in Dicathen.
“Sure is!” my guide said enthusiastically. “As I was just about to say, the Chapel”—he pointed with his thumb at the brooding, black-stone building—“was a gift from the High Sovereign himself, and houses Central Academy’s collection of relics and artifacts. It was placed here exactly because the High Sovereign wanted it to look down over and guard the Relictombs portal.”
There was no shimmering portal of energy hanging in the air inside the frame at the moment, but I could see a familiar series of controls next to it. “Can this portal be programmed to go anywhere, or just to the Relictombs?” I asked, feigning mild curiosity as I thought of Dicathen and my family. These episodes are published on lightnovelpub.com.
“Oh, that’s the really cool thing, actually,” my guide gushed. “Apparently, a really, really long time ago, these kinds of portals were everywhere, connecting all of Alacrya. But during some ancient war, most of them were disabled or destroyed. The whole Central Academy was built on this spot—which used to be well outside of Cargidan City—exactly because that portal still existed.”
The young clerk grinned at me for a moment before jumping. “Oh, right. Whatever magic made the portal work in the past was broken, but the Sovereigns had it retrofitted into a tempus warp set to take you directly to the second level of the Relictombs. You have to have a token to activate it, but yours should be waiting in your rooms.”
Too bad, I thought. Even if the portal still operated normally, though, it might not have reached all the way to Dicathen, and connecting it back to my home would have been much too dangerous anyway.
‘Maybe you can use Aroa’s…thingy to fix it?’ Regis pointed out. ‘Like you did with the portal back in the Relictombs.’
If we ever need to leave Alacrya and don’t plan on coming back, I’ll try, I replied. But for now, I need access to the Relictombs to gain control over the aspect of Fate.
“So the academy was built around that thing?” I asked as we moved away.
“That’s right. Central Academy used to be like a city to itself. It still operates separately from Cargidan, with the director answering straight to Taegrin Caelum,” he answered importantly. “I’m sure you already know this, but the Sovereigns place a very high value on the education and betterment of young soldiers and ascenders, which is why schools like Central Academy have their own place in the politics outside of the standard governments and blood structure.”
I relaxed as I realized this young man would tell me anything I wanted to know as he happily continued explaining what must have been basic, well-understood facts about the academy and its role in Alacryan society. Suppressing a smirk, I imagined how his constant stream of information would have been pretty irritating for an actual Alacryan professor.
For me, though, his thoughtless banter made him the perfect guide, and allowed me to probe without worrying about giving myself away.
Finally, nearly an hour later, I sagged into the deep-cushioned couch in my own private quarters in a building called Windcrest Hall. Apparently it had been named after some highblood family in thanks for their contributions to the academy, but I’d tuned out most of the impromptu history lesson I’d received from my chatty young guide.
The three-room suite was significantly nicer than I had expected. Apparently Central Academy treated even their new professors to the finest accommodations. It wasn’t large, but the living area contained a private projection crystal, like the one I’d seen outside the accolades shop, as well as a small table designed specifically for the game Caera had taught me to play in the Relictombs.
There was an empty bookshelf and a small writing desk, as well as the couch I was sitting on, and a large bay window that looked out over campus. A comfortable bedroom and a luxury bath opened off the living area.
I had been surprised to see there was no kitchen or any other way to cook within the private room, but the guide had laughingly assured me that I could have food or any book from the academy library brought up to my room at any time by a runner.
“Not too shabby,” Regis said from where he lay curled up on the floor. “Would have been nice if they’d given us a second bed for you, but I guess you’ll be fine on the couch, right?”
I let out a tired snort. Despite the fact that it was only early afternoon, my journey from Sehz-Clar felt like it had taken days. I could fight for days, even weeks on end, but dealing with this subterfuge and drama exhausted me.
It was hard to believe I’d somehow found myself back at school, once again a teacher. But this time, the stakes were much higher.