The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 350: Colleagues
Chapter 350: Colleagues
I kept my face impassive, my tone leveled, and my posture straight as I strode into his class. After all, I was to be seen by others as merely a colleague, nothing more.
So why in the Vritra’s grace did I blurt out his name, announcing the fact that we know each other already?
Around me, the students broke out into shocked whispers as they tried to determine the relationship between us. My mind was already whirling with what my next words should be to hopefully quench any potential rumors that might spread from this room. Grey wasn’t a fan of attention, and I preferred not to start off on the wrong foot once again.
I attempted to make my way through the wave of pampered teens when a fierce young woman with short-cropped golden hair stepped into my path.
She gave me a practiced curtsy before speaking just loudly enough for her classmates to hear. “Lady Caera of Highblood Denoir, my mother and father asked that I pass along their well wishes to you and your blood should we meet in school.”
“You must be the youngest of Highblood Frost,” I affirmed.
“Enola,” the blond said proudly. “I’ve been a fan of yours since your earlier ascensions were made public. I strive to one day become an ascender as distinguished as yourself, Lady Caera.”
I gave her a nod. “Then you would do well taking notes in this class.”
The Frost girl, along with the students around her, frowned in confusion and offense as I walked past. The girl to Enola’s right, who stuck to her in a servile way that marked her as being of the Redcliff blood, gave me a quick bow before escorting her master out of the room.
The whispers grew louder as the students now tried to deduce what my last words meant, but my attention was on the golden-eyed professor standing with his arms crossed in the training ring.
Grey was silent, his face unreadable even as we locked eyes.
I feared that he already knew what had brought me to this school. But worse than that, I feared he didn’t know but naturally assumed.
“I apologize for my classmates’ rudeness,” a voice rang, pulling me from my thoughts.
The speaker, a lean young man with ebony skin and piercing eyes, shouldered past a couple of the others and held out his hand. “I am Valen of Highblood Ramseyer. We’ve never had the pleasure, but—”
“I have business with your professor,” I interrupted, ignoring his outstretched hand while sweeping a cold gaze through the crowd of students. “And as he mentioned…class is over.”
The Ramseyer heir’s jaw clenched as he recoiled his hand before strutting out. The whispers and murmurs only grew as the rest of the class followed suit. Only the last student to leave was wordless, his thin frame hunched forward as he struggled to climb the stairs, his gaze glued to his shoes.
I straightened my blouse as I began descending toward him. Now that it was only the two of us, my mind began racing, trying to come up with the next words to break this tension.
Letting out a sigh, I stopped halfway down the stairs and settled for the words, “It’s nice to see you again.” ƒ𝓇e𝙚𝔀𝐞𝚋𝓃𝐨𝘷e𝙡.𝒄𝗼m
Again, I was met with silence, the only change in his expression being a raised brow of suspicion.
I held up my hands in a placating gesture while also showing him my ring. “I merely came to say ‘hi’ and to catch up with a friend.”
“And here I was worried you were stalking me,” he answered, unwavering in his impacivity.
I nodded seriously. “Oh yes. Because I’ve yearned for your grumpy, vaguely-threatening presence.”
The smallest twitch disturbed the corner of his lips. “I’m not grumpy.”
I let out a scoff as I sat down in the nearest seat. “Right…”
Turning his back on me, Grey began to fiddle with the controls of the training platform. Kayden’s classroom had something similar, so I should have guessed what was about to happen, but—
A sharp jolt of pain shot up through my rear end and into my back, causing me to yelp and jump out of the seat.
Grey stifled a laugh, finally dropping his cool demeanor as I glared down at him. “Too bad Regis is sleeping,” he said. “He’d have loved that.”
I rubbed at the spot where the pain-inducing rune had shocked me. “So childish…”
He had the good grace to look sheepish, rubbing the back of his neck—but still smiling like an idiot. “I was just wrapping up here. Want to go for a walk? We should talk about what happened.”
“No,” I snapped.
Then, I let out a sigh. “Yes, I suppose.”
After he locked up his office and haphazardly put away a few training implements, we left the building, walking slowly in the general direction of Windcrest Hall, where we were both staying.
“So…” I started after a minute of awkward silence. “Professor Grey, hm?”
“Yeah. It seemed…”
“Prudent?” I finished for him.
He gave me a stiff nod.
“It was a smart move,” I affirmed with a slight smile. “What you did to those mercenaries in the Relictombs…well, it’s an open secret that was you, but after your trial, the High Hall had no interest in pursuing you, and the Granbehls left their Relictombs estate and returned to Vechor, where they’ve been pretty quiet.”
Grey’s pace stuttered and his brows furrowed. “You’re awfully well informed.”
“Yes, well, I have my resources,” I said, watching a group of students jog past.
The constant activity and bustle of the campus had always been both exciting and, in a way, exhausting for me. I’d had private tutors growing up, and when Sevren, Lauden, and I were socialized, it was for the sake of formal dinner parties at our—or some other highblood’s—estate. It was only much later, when I was a teenager, that I was allowed to attend the academy, and even then only for two seasons. Although many of the students here were from highbloods, my Vritra blood had assured me I would always be treated as a crystalline statue rather than an actual person.
Even in the Relictombs, I had always been protected by the Haedrig disguise and the presence of my guards, Taegan and Arian. The academy was different, especially because my adoptive blood along with my own accomplishments brought a fair amount of undesired attention.
“Lady Caera,” a crisp voice announced from behind us. Grey and I both stopped and turned, and I saw Grey’s face flatten into an impassive mask from the corner of my eye.
The speaker was a mage with overly-styled hair and a showy robe. I didn’t recognize him.
“Lady Caera,” he repeated with a bow. His eyes stayed on mine, never so much as acknowledging Grey’s presence. “An honor to finally meet you. I am Janusz of Blood Graeme, professor of—”
“Excuse me,” I said in a polite tone that still managed to convey my dismissal. “I’m afraid you’ve interrupted my conversation with Professor Grey. Perhaps we can speak later, at a more appropriate time.”
With a curt nod, I turned away from the man, who looked as if I had slapped him.
I turned toward Grey, curious to see his reaction, but the heartless ascender had already left me.
Jerk, I thought with a frown before catching up to him.
I found myself sneaking glances at Grey, taking in his sharp profile as we walked together in silence. “I apologize if any rumors spread because you were seen with me.”
“I didn’t realize being in your mere presence would evoke so much attention,” Grey said, his tone carrying just a hint of teasing humor. “Forgive me for being unaware of how much of an honor it is.”
“You are forgiven,” I replied sagely before letting out a soft chuckle.
“Maybe having some drama between us will keep these highbloods distracted from me.” The corner of Grey’s lips curved up ever-so-slightly as he gazed idly ahead.
I scoffed. “You act as if the only thing we value is interesting gossip.”
“Isn’t it?” Grey returned.
I shook my head. “I’ll have to introduce you to Professor Aphelion. You two should be fast friends given your mutual loathing of the noble class.”
“We’ve already met,” Grey stated, before he turned his gaze to me. “But I’d like to know more about him.”
“Kayden of Highblood Aphelion was a distinguished mage,” I answered as we passed between the Chapel and the Relictomb portal. The portal frame was humming with energy, indicating someone had just used it. “A regalia on his third rune, foremost son of his house, and in line to be the next highlord before he was wounded in the war.”
“He was in the war?”
Grey had fallen back to concealing his emotions behind an expressionless face. He might as well have been wearing a mask.
“He was,” I said, uncertain why this would surprise him, or even if he was surprised. “The rumor is…” I caught myself and let the words trail off. “Actually, it’s not really my place to say. But it is common knowledge that he was captured and tortured by the Dicathians.”
Grey frowned and seemed to focus far into the distance. I couldn’t help but wonder what memory had surfaced. Had he lost people in the war?
“Have I misspoken?” I asked.
“No. I’m just…thinking about the war,” he said.
I stopped short, biting my lip as I thought about what Grey had said.
Suddenly, everything made sense. His insistence on doing things alone and avoiding others, the way he seemed to step back from himself whenever Dicathen or the war was mentioned, how he never spoke about his life prior to the Relictombs…
“You were in the war, weren’t you?”
Grey froze before turning in my direction, his usually-apathetic eyes now frigid and sharp. “What makes you think that?”
I hesitated. It seemed plain as day, now that I’d made the connection, but it was also my mentor’s interest in him. But I wasn’t sure if I could—or should—confirm that Scythe Seris was my mentor just yet.
“Nevermind,” he said with a single sharp shake of his head. “It doesn’t matter. Yes, I was, but I’d prefer not to talk about it.”
“I’m sorry. Of course,” I said.
Grey wouldn’t be the only soldier that had been scarred from this war. When he refused the Denoirs’ invitation, I had attributed it to his frustrating individuality, but now I could see how he intensely avoided any of the political nets woven into Alacryan society. I didn’t push the topic further, despite the fierce curiosity I had for this mysterious ascender and his past.
Still, I couldn’t help but linger on thoughts of the war as we walked on in silence. The war itself was a regular topic of conversation among the named and highbloods, but I’d never imagined myself fighting against Dicathen much less thought about how that might have changed me.
I had never yearned for the kind of glory war brings. I had no interest in killing those who had never harmed me, regardless of where they were born or to who they swore allegiance.
And because of Scythe Seris’s teachings, I knew that the High Sovereign's expansion to Dicathen was self-serving at best, and that it didn’t benefit the people of Alacrya, nobility or otherwise. I couldn’t imagine being forced to fight for a cause I didn’t support.
If my life had been different, though, if Scythe Seris hadn’t hidden the knowledge of my blood’s manifestation, I very well could have been trained for slaughter and unleashed upon the Dicathians.
What then? Would I have returned like Grey, quiet, cold, and often unreadable? Or would I have become more like Kayden, withdrawing into a malaise and acting as if nothing in the world mattered at all anymore?
I forced myself to focus on the canopy of trees and the singing birds around me, pushing any further thoughts of the war away. There was no benefit in thinking about all of this now.
When we finally reached Windcrest Hall, I followed Grey into his room. As he held the door open for me and I saw the inside, I couldn’t help but laugh.
He scanned the room, frowning. “What?”
“Sorry, it’s just exactly how I imagined it. Entirely barren of personal belongings or homely comforts. It looks like you’re ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”
Grey regarded me with a raised brow. “That’s kind of rude. What does your room look like then? Did you bring your entire collection of stuffed dolls with you?”
I gaped at him, then narrowed my eyes and crossed my arms defensively. “I’ll have you know I only brought one, and it would be an insult to call him a mere ‘stuffed doll’ considering how ferocious he looks.”
His icy facade cracked momentarily, letting through a brief but bright smile that reminded me of our time in the Relictombs. Things were always easier minus the distractions of “normal” life.
Helping myself to a seat at the Sovereigns Quarrel board, I read the inscription and ran my fingers along one of the red stone pieces. “I like the Hercross red and gray,” I said absentmindedly. “It’s more striking than the plain black and white pieces I have.”
Without preamble, Grey withdrew a couple of items from his dimensional storage. “It’s about time I returned these.”
He held out my brother’s white-bladed dagger, handle first. The Denoir medallion dangled from it, catching the light as it spun slowly.
I had resisted the urge to follow Grey’s location using the medallion after he was released from the High Hall. Even when my parents and mentor insisted I spy for them, I hadn’t activated the tracking function. I wanted to earn the man’s trust, and stalking him with magic seemed like a poor way to do it.
Still, there was a certain comfort in knowing that I could find him if I really needed to. The thought of giving up that capability made me uneasy.
“Keep them,” I said, my voice shaking slightly. “Sevren would be glad to know his dagger continues to find use in the Relictombs.”
“And you don’t want to sacrifice your power to track me down if necessary,” he added. The words weren’t cruel or angry, just matter-of-fact.
“That’s not what I—”
“I already lost your brother’s cloak,” he interrupted. “If this dagger is all you have to remember him by, then you should keep it. As for the medallion, I won’t be needing Highblood Denoir’s protection.”
My throat constricted as I thought of Sevren. Lenora and Corbett had decided he must be dead and chose to move on even before I received confirmation from Grey, but I had always held out hope. Seeing Grey with that dagger and the teal cloak Sevren favored had dashed that hope, but failed to provide any real closure.
“You’re right,” I said after taking a steadying breath. “Thank you.”
The brushed silver handle was cool to the touch. I pressed my fingers into the grooves, but they were too large for me. Tugging the sheath up to examine the blade, my breath caught in my throat. Inscribed at the base of the blade was a symbol: a hexagon with three parallel lines carved inside it.
“What is it?” Grey asked, studying my expression carefully as he took the seat across from me.
“Nothing, it’s just that…” Sliding the sheath back into place, I stored the dagger and medallion both in my new dimension ring. “Before, in the room of mirrors, while I was still…”
“Haedrig?” Grey asked when I hesitated.
“Yes. I told you I’d studied aether, a little.” Grey nodded as he leaned forward in his chair. “It was mostly Sevren who studied aether. That’s what the insignia is: an ancient rune meaning aether. Three marks for time, space, and life, and the hexagon as a symbol of connection, binding, and building. He used it like a sort of…signature, I suppose. Something he started as a child, marking things with the symbol for aether to give them ‘power.’ It just kind of stuck with him.”
“I see.” Grey’s attention lingered on the ring where the dagger was now stored. “I didn’t realize. I hadn’t seen that particular rune before.”
I twisted the ring around my finger as the animated conversations with Sevren regarding magic and the Relictombs came back to me. “He thought there was more to the Relictombs than what the Sovereigns told us. That by ascending, we could learn how to do what they did…manipulate the fabric of reality through aether.”
Grey began to fiddle with the game board, moving a center shield forward. “Is that what you think?”
I wasn’t sure if he wanted to play or was just fidgeting, but I countered by taking a caster along the right edge to threaten any piece that broke away from the line. “Well, I met you in the Relictombs, and you can wield aether, so…”
Grey was impassive as he moved a second shield to support the first.
I tucked a lock of blue hair behind my ear as I sent another caster along the left of the board to force his sentry down the middle.
The key to true victory in Sovereigns Quarrel was to secure a path through the board. This required forethought, but also creativity. It was a slow and cautious game. Alternatively, by focusing on the destruction of the enemy Sentry alone, it was possible to end the game quickly, but often left both players dissatisfied.
“We both know your being here is no coincidence,” Grey said as he made his next move.
“No,” I admitted, weighing my move—and my words—carefully. “It is not.”
Deciding bold action was required, I moved a striker into the center of the field. “When you didn’t throw yourself at my adoptive parents’ feet after the trial, they arranged for me to assist Professor Aphelion in order to spy on you and…win you over, if I can. My mentor”—I held Scythe Seris’s name back, hesitant to reveal that connection yet—“asked me to keep an eye on you as well, separately.”
Grey’s focus never left the game board. He didn’t flinch, frown, or blink. We exchanged a handful of moves before he spoke again.
“I guess I’m pretty popular.”
I pouted my lips and stared at him angrily. “You are an aberration that no one seems to know what to do with, and through my own recklessness, I have been shackled with the responsibility of keeping track of you.”
Grey blinked in surprise, to which I responded with a genuine laugh. “I only jest…at least partially. I think forcing me to become an assistant to Professor Aphelion was also my parents' way of punishing me for sneaking out.”
The mysterious ascender scratched uncomfortably at his wheat-blond hair, and his eyes lost focus for an instant.
“Oh, so you choose right now to wake up,” he said tartly.
I quirked a brow at him, not following until a moment later when the small, fiery puppy form of Regis leapt out of his side and landed on the ground with a stumble.
“Again?” I asked as he spun around, his fiery little tail wagging. “Is your master abusing you?”
The puppy plopped onto its rear and stared up at Grey, his muzzle scrunched up condescendingly. “My current state was due to his gross negligence, yes.”
Smirking, I bent down to pat him on the head. “I’m sorry. You’re much more grand when you’re full size.”
Regis’s furry chest puffed out. “I know, right?”
I turned back to Grey, who was staring at the shadow wolf pup in that way he had when they were communicating mentally. “It’s rude to exclude guests from the conversation, you know?”
Grey grimaced and scratched the back of his neck. “I was just catching him up. He’s been out for a while.”
I waited for Grey to say something else, to pick back up our previous conversation—ask me questions, tell me to leave, anything—but he stayed silent. Tiring of the game, I decided a true victory wasn’t in the cards for the day. Using a caster I had allowed to become isolated near his hold, I killed a stranded shield and stopped a few spaces from his sentry.
“Do you plan on going through with what the Denoirs and this mysterious Scythe mentor have asked?” he said finally, shifting his sentry forward a space.
I felt the blood rush to my face. This is exactly what I had worried about most: that, even after everything we’d been through in the Relictombs together, he still wouldn’t trust me.
“If you think that I would spy on you even after informing you that I have been sent to spy on you, then one of us does not deserve to be molding young Alacryan minds, although I can’t be sure if that someone is you or me.”
“Then why are you really here?” he asked, his steady gaze pinning me to my chair.
The question shouldn’t have caught me off guard, but I still struggled to form an answer.
The truth was that I couldn’t shake the feeling that Grey was somehow the key to unlocking the secrets of the Relictombs. He was an enigma, a person unlike any I had ever met before, and I couldn’t help being drawn to him. Sitting across from him now, feeling the weight of his attention crushing me, I knew it was foolish to call my feelings for him romantic. It was a fascination, and one that I knew would be dangerous for both of us.
I wanted to see what he would accomplish. Not to bask in the reflected glory of his achievements, but to be a part of whatever change he wrought on the world, to have the power to make my voice heard.
Taking my caster piece, I made my final move.
“Because I trust you, Grey. There aren’t many people in this life I can say that about, but I trust you, and I’m still hoping to earn your trust for myself.”
He met my eye then. For a moment, his mask fell away. I saw surprise and doubt in the lines of his brow, appreciation in the curl of his lips, wonder and fear in his eyes…His face carried a world of conflicted emotions, just for that heartbeat, and when the mask went back up on the beat following, I understood.
No one could bear the weight of all those contradictory feelings all the time, and so he buried them.
“Good,” he said firmly, his eyes on the game board instead of me. “Because people worthy of trust are rare, and I would like to be able to trust you too.”
As if we’d been speaking of nothing more pressing than the weather, Grey grabbed a striker piece and slid it across the board, through a gap in my defenses I hadn’t noticed, and clicked it against my sentry. The piece toppled to the table with a clatter.
I gaped at the board. While Grey had beaten me on a fluke when we’d played in the Relictombs, it was only because I’d been greedy, too focused on the true win. This time he had set and baited the trap, then waited for me to fall into it.
Grey leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “We’ll keep letting the Denoirs think you’re doing what they want. Send a report, tell them whatever you like.”
I dragged my gaze away from the board, where I was caught up retracing the last several moves. “What? Are you sure?”
The golden-eyed ascender only nodded. “The surest way to lose a war is to a traitorous messenger.”
Regis shook his little head at his master. “He says such scary things with so little emotions…”
“Well, now that we’ve all caught up and have agreed to trust each other…” Grey leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table, a fiery gleam in his honey-gold eyes. “How would you like to help me steal a dead relic?”