The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 366
"Oh, I nearly forgot to mention," my wife said from across the dinner table. Smiling happily, she set down the skewered chunk of pink meat she had been about to bite into. "The Vale blood has agreed to our terms. A messenger arrived only an hour ago with their letter."
I finished chewing and reached down with my fork and knife to cut another piece. "Yes, I thought seeing what happened to the Rothkeller blood might set a fire under the Vales…"
Karin's cool eyes darted to Ada, but the girl was paying us no mind as she stirred her food around her plate mindlessly.
"Anyway," Karin continued, her eyes widening slightly as if to remind me, like I would need a reminder of our agreement.
My grip tightened around my utensils as I sawed deeper into the scorched white-tailed sambar. Ada is too frail, too weak to suffer the knowledge of our actions.
I thought of Kalon and Ezra. My eldest was too proud and self-righteous to have understood what we did now, but had he survived, perhaps such extreme actions wouldn't have been necessary. Ezra though, he was the child who most took after me.
With my appetite leaving me, I pushed my unfinished plate away.
If only Ezra had survived instead, I thought bitterly, casting a dour glance at my scarecrow of a daughter.
"And I've sent out feelers to some likely highblood candidates regarding our proposal," she went on. As she spoke, she reached over and began to cut up Ada's food, even lifting bites to the girl's mouth.
"Karin, let the girl feed herself, she's—"
She shot me a fierce glare, and I relented, biting back my words.
Her and her obsessive doting.
I watched as Karin spoon-fed my daughter like she had no arms, yet I said no more. As difficult it was to admit, much of what we had accomplished in this short time would have been impossible without my wife.
She was cunning, charismatic, and ruthless. But she was also a mother that had lost two of her children. With Kalon and Ezra gone, Ada had become the woman's entire world. While that had pushed her to lengths I would not previously have imagined possible, in her mind, it was all done for Ada.
"Titus, are you listening?"
"Of course," I said, searching my memory for her half-heard words. "Highbloods Lowe and Arbital. Both fine candidates for Ada."
I pushed away from the table and a servant rushed in to collect my dishes and utensils. "I'm going to make my rounds, then perhaps we can retire together?"
A knowing smile played at the edge of my wife's lips. "Of course, Lord Granbehl."
"It'll be Highlord soon," I said before marching out of the dining room and making my way outside.
There was a salty sweetness to the warm breeze blowing from the west, from the sea. When the winds turned, they would bring bitter cold down from the distant mountains. And yet whichever way the wind blows, it is always at our backs. Even our defeats turn into victory.
My failure to secure Ascender Grey's holdings had been a dangerous time for Named Blood Granbehl. When the justices we'd bribed were executed in their cells, I had worried we might soon meet the same fate. With my heir deceased, our entire blood rested on a sword's edge, and any wrong move could spell our end. But fate, as it turned out, was kind.
At least to us.
The sun was just setting as I began my evening rounds to review the estate's enhanced security. We had turned many rivals into bitter enemies, and in a rather short amount of time. Although they had so far been too cowardly to attack us directly—thanks in large part to the rumor of our benefactor's involvement—I had thoroughly prepared for such an eventuality anyway.
Despite my good mood, I affixed a thunderous scowl to my face as I marched slowly past each group of mercenaries, guards, and ascenders I'd hired as security for our Vechor estate. They had to fear me if I expected them to stay in line, after all.
As I passed by the main gates, my head of guards came out of the gatehouse and snapped to attention. "Lord Granbehl."
"At ease, Henrik."
The man bowed, then pulled a rolled parchment from the satchel at his side. "This arrived for you only a few minutes ago."
I suppressed a victorious grin as I held up the rolled parchment, which was marked with the Central Academy seal. "Perfect. The grounds look in order, Henrik."
The man—loyal to a fault and dumb as two rocks, but good with the other guards—bowed again and returned to his post.
I, on the other hand, hurried inside, eager to read Professor Graeme's report. I came up short when I noticed Petras lingering in the entryway. He flinched back at the sight of me.
My lips curled into a sneer. "What are you doing up here? Stop lurking and return to your dungeon."
Petral bowed deeply, his dark hair tumbling over his face like a greasy waterfall. "My apologies, Lord. I wished to tell you that the last of the prisoners has…expired, and the body has been taken away. The dungeons are empty, and—"
"Report received," I said, making a shooing motion with my hand. "Now leave me. You're spoiling a rather long-awaited victory."
The torturer slunk back into the shadows and vanished down the servants' stairs, leaving behind a strong scent of oil. Shaking my head, I returned my attention to the scroll, ripping open the seal and unfurling it, a boyish grin spreading over my face.
My grin darkened and I gnashed my teeth in frustration at the hastily-scribbled words in the letter. The fine parchment crumpled in my fist as I slammed it into the wall.
"Incompetant fool. Perhaps I placed too much trust in Janusz for being a highblood."
With our mutual distaste for Ascender Grey, it seemed obvious at the time to use Janusz, but that sorry excuse for a highblood couldn't even keep Grey detained by the Ascenders Association for a day.
My thoughts carefully skirted around my benefactor, who had left the details of this part of the plan entirely up to me. If I failed to deliver…
"Father?" I spun at the sound of Ada's voice. "Is everything all right? You were muttering to yourself."
Giving her a false smile, I quickly replied, "Nothing to worry about. Why aren't you in your rooms? Study, and then go to bed. You know you need your rest."
The girl's simple, defeated shrug was so pathetic—I didn't know whether to hug her or slap her across the face. With a heavy sigh, I placed a hand on her small shoulder. "Ada, it's time to move past this. You've moped long enough. Now stand up straight and—"
I cocked my head, listening carefully. It had almost sounded like a—
Shouts from outside. A burst of spellfire.
A red glow radiated through the front windows, staining the foyer walls and floor a bloody scarlet. A heartbeat later, the warning bells began to ring.
"Ada, go down to the basement," I said, not looking at my daughter. She whimpered, hesitating, so I snapped, "Vritra's Horns, girl, now!"
I heard her quick steps recede, vanishing down the servants' stairs the same way Petras had gone, but I wasn't thinking about her any longer. Faltering steps took me to one of the front windows, where I confirmed that the estate's shield had been activated, creating a red dome that covered my entire property.
The courtyard flashed with spells as bullets of fire, arcing bolts of lightning, and spears of ice cut through the early evening gloom. All I could see of their target was a shadow that seemed to flicker within a shroud of purple electricity, appearing and disappearing more quickly than I could follow.
"A rival house?" I muttered, my knuckles grinding down into the windowsill. "But who would dare…?"
My thoughts leapt unbidden to our benefactor, the source of our recent successes…but surely it could not be him. He could not know about our misstep with Grey yet, and even if he did, we had time to correct the mistake, there was no need to—
I froze as a cold sweat began to pour down my face.
I crushed the letter in my hand before tossing it to the floor. My face was nearly pressed against the glass as I looked for any sign that I was right.
A bestial form shrouded in purple flames rushed past the window, causing me to gasp and step quickly back.
Men were screaming all around the estate. Screaming and dying.
The front doors—warded to magically lock when the estate's shielding barrier activated—shook under the weight of a heavy blow.
A muffled voice was shouting and cursing incoherently—Henrik, I realized, though I'd never heard such panic in his gravelly voice before—then cut off abruptly as a purple blade of pure light thrust through the door with the cracking shriek of splintering hardwood.
I stared at the blade protruding into my home, not ten feet from me. It was like nothing I had seen before, like liquid crystal amethyst folded over on itself. The color shifted subtly but continuously, growing darker and more deeply purple, then brighter and more violent. For a heartbeat, I became lost in the otherworldly depths of that blade.
Then it vanished. Blood began to run in a thin stream from the hole in the door.
I backed away slowly, already picturing what was about to happen. The wards shouldn't allow it, but I knew they wouldn't hold.
The warded doors exploded inward, sending a shrapnel of sharp shards of wood and twisted black iron spraying across the entry hall. A shield of bright blue fire roared to life in front of me, evaporating both wood and metal, and I heard the hurried footsteps of more guards running from the interior of the house.
Through the distortion of the blue fire, I could see only a rough silhouette standing where my door had been, Henrik's corpse at his feet.
"Get me out of here," I snarled to the guards approaching from behind me. "And kill that unblooded cur!"
A firm hand grabbed my shoulder and began pulling me away, the fire-shield moving with us. Two heavily-armored Strikers thudded past me, weapons blazing and magical energy suffusing their armor. A spinning wheel of wind and flame cut the air between them, aimed at the intruder, but he was no longer there.
A choking gasp made me spin around. The Caster, one of my elite guards, was already tumbling to the ground, his body bisected at the waist. His legs crumpled to the floor while his torso fell backwards, a look of a surprise etched on his already-dead face.
A dark silhouette flickered next to us, lashing out at my protector. The Shield hurtled backwards with a screech, too quickly to adjust his spellcasting. His scream cut off as his own blue fire burned away the air in his lungs, and what hit the wall was no longer recognizable as a man.
Both Strikers were staring around in confusion, trying to find their attacker, their weapons ready but useless when he appeared between them, the bright purple blade blurring in the air as it passed through their weapons, armor, flesh, and bones like they were made of silk.
Both men collapsed, dead.
The lingering aspect of the fire shield faded away as the Shield choked out one last, rasping breath.
Grey simply stood there, staring at me, the red barrier defending my estate flickering pointlessly in the background.
My fists clenched, my body shaking—not with fear, I told myself, but fury.
"Y-you overstep," I said, my voice cracking. "The Granbehls are protected. We are being"—I swallowed heavily, my mouth suddenly very dry—"elevated. You have no station, no authority, while we are protected by a Scythe. Do you understand? You'll die for this. You'll—"
"You were told what would happen if you came after me again," he said, his voice devoid of emotion.
I flinched back as a creature—a huge wolf wreathed in black and purple flames—appeared in the doorway, stepping up beside him. "The backside is all clear."
Trying to bolster my courage, I stood straighter and cleared my throat. "I am under the protection of Scythe Nico of Central Dominion. You dare attack me? He'll—"
Grey took a step forward, and I backed away so quickly I nearly tripped over the dead Caster's outstretched arm.
"He'll come after me," he finished. "I know."
The blade blazed in his hand, and his summoned wolf growled low in its throat.
The yell had come from the top of the stairs.
"Karin!" I shouted, time seeming to stop as I stared wide-eyed up at my wife. Her hair was wet and she was wrapped only in a sheer gown that clung to her body. She must have been in the bath, I realized distantly, my mind rushing to process information while my body remained frozen in place.
She should have run, escaped out one of the back entrances or down into the dungeon to hide, but instead she had come running to defend our blood's home. And unlike me, she hadn't frozen. Her hands came up and I sensed the swell of mana from her as wind began to dance between them.
Damn it, woman, you need to—
The wind spell blew through the room like a hurricane, tearing portraits and tapestries from the walls and upending furniture. White cords of wind condensed around the ascender to form an ensnaring web, trapping him. I wished again that she would flee, but Karin tightened the web, clamping down on Grey and pummeling him from several dozen different directions with her powerful emblem.
I'd seen mages pulled apart by this spell as the gusts ripped and tore at them from every direction. My wife preferred to suppress her power in public, but she had never been shy about getting her hands dirty if it meant assuring the future of our blood. I would have felt a swell of pride in her spellwork, had Grey not simply stood there, the emblem-level Wind Web spell doing nothing more than mussing his hair…
"No, Karin you—"
My words caught in my throat as I turned and met my wife's eyes, already glossy with death. Behind her was Grey, his violet blade sheathed in Karin's blood.
I opened my mouth, trying to say something—say anything—but I could only stare like a fish gulping for air as the light left my wife's eyes.
Then the spell was broken as her lifeless body tumbled forward, rolling grotesquely down the stairs to land at my feet.
I fell to my knees next to her, dragging her limp form up into my lap. My body was trembling, even the breath in my lungs seemed to shake, and I could do nothing but stare down at Karin's corpse as the debris of her dying spell clattered to the ground around me.
Heavy, awkward bootsteps broke the silence, and I saw Petras appear from the servants' stairwell. Grey was standing at the top of the stairs, his distant gaze emotionless, unreadable.
"Petras, kill him," I choked out around an icy fist of raw emotion that seemed to be crushing my throat.
Grey started down the stairs, his brow raised in Petras's direction. "It's been a while, old friend."
Petras, the gangly weasel, dropped his curved blade to clatter on the ground. He turned his back on me—on me!—and stole out through one of the many doors off the entry hall without a word.
"Bastard," I muttered. To Grey, with as much venom as I could muster, I said, "Why couldn't you just die?" I shuddered as a cold emptiness suffused me. "I thought, when Scythe Nico contacted us…" My fist slammed into the floor, and I felt the knuckle bones break. "It should have been easy." I glared up at my killer. "So why couldn't you just fucking die?"
Grey approached wordlessly, a thunderous pressure exuding from him.
I spit on the floor. "Do you think you can get away with this? You are the reason my sons are dead. You—"
The man scoffed as he slowly descended the stairs. The wolf was stalking toward me from the door, its mouth hanging open, a dark hunger gleaming in its bright eyes.
"Even now, you try to use your family to justify your greed."
"Who are you to assume my reasons?" I hissed, clutching my wife's cold body tighter. "You are no god to know that, nor do you have any authority to judge me!"
The ascender walked toward me, unhurried as tendrils of violet condensed to form a shimmering blade. "You're right, Granbehl. I'm no god, and I'm not a judge, either. I'm just here to keep my promise."
Primal fear coursed through me like poison in my veins, but I refused to show this bastard any semblance of weakness. I jutted out my chin and chest so that the Granbehl insignia emblazoned on my collar would stare right back at the unblooded. "Go to hell—"
I heard rather than felt the violet blade slide into my chest. Raw coldness spread through me, seeping through every inch of my body as I slumped forward. The ground caught me as I stared up past my killer and at my home.
Everything that we had worked for to rise above everyone else—to become a highblood—had been for naught. Only Ada would remain as my legacy, the weakest of the Granbehls, a poor eulogy by which we would be remembered.
My thoughts blurred, losing all shape and form.
Then, the world went dark.
The aetheric sword melted away as I released my hold on its form. Lord and Lady Granbehl lay at my feet, their corpses intertwined.
"Well, that's done," Regis sniffed, looking down at Titus Granbehl's corpse before turning to me. "So…you want to grab some shawarma on the way back?"
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath; the smell of scorched flesh hung heavy in the air. "Neither of us need to eat, and I'm pretty sure that dish doesn't exist in this world."
Regis opened his mouth, paused, then slowly lowered his head. "I mean, yeah, sure, I guess you're technically right, but it seems appropriate." He wrinkled his nose. "Or maybe the smell is just making me hungry."
"Regis," I said slowly, "these are the kinds of thoughts you really should keep to yourself."
The sound of soft steps echoed nearby, drawing my eyes to a narrow alcove in one wall. The familiar young girl who crept out of the servants' stairwell was even thinner and paler than the last time we had met.
Ada wiped a hand down her face, smearing dirt through half-dried tears. "You killed them." The words weren't an accusation, merely a statement. "I knew you would."
"Maybe if your father had known…" I stepped away from her parents' corpses. "It wouldn't have come to this."
She was so silent and pale, she could have been a ghost.
I thought about just leaving, not wanting to burden the poor girl further, but I needed her. "Ada?"
"Hm?" she mumbled, looking past me at the bodies. Although she stared, she made no move to come closer.
I withdrew the Rothkeller emblem. Using a decorative spike protruding from the bottom, I drove the emblem into the banister of the main stairs leading up to the second floor, where it stuck up like a flag of victory.
Ada flinched from the noise, but made no other movement.
"People are going to see this and assume the Rothkeller blood took retribution on your family. Do you understand?"
She took a few tentative steps around so she could see the scorched symbol of her family's rivals. "I'll tell everyone I didn't see anything—"
I shook my head. "No, not everyone."
Ada tilted her head in confusion.
"You're going to tell the Scythe that will come find you the truth…" My eyes watched her for signs of understanding. "And that I'll be waiting for him at the Victoriad."
It was an abrupt transition between the second layer of the Relictombs and Darrin Ordin's country estate in Sehz-Clar. It was still warm in the south of Alacrya, far from the mountains, and a sweet-smelling breeze was tumbling lightly across the rolling hills and rustling the low shrubs in Darrin's front yard.
From Vechor, I had entered the Relictombs via the local Ascenders Association Hall, then used one of the second level tempus warp chambers to get to Darrin's, where Sulla had told me my "drunk uncle" would be waiting.
We found Alaric sitting on a bench near the front door, staring down the path. Due to the delay between my appearance and his reaction, which was to belch loudly and lean back on his elbows, sticking his ponchy belly out in front of him, I assumed he was somewhat intoxicated.
'You know, I've missed this old coot,' Regis said happily.
"So," Alaric said as I reached him, "I hear you're once again in need of legal counsel."
"Not exactly," I said, sitting on the bench beside him. "What do you already know?"
"I know you're in trouble," he said with a scoff. "And that, as usual, you've bitten off twice what you can chew." He peered at me with unsteady eyes. "The Granbehls tried to finish the job, but you finished them instead, aye?"
I filled him in on exactly what happened, but I left one important piece of information for last. "They were backed by a Scythe. Nico, of the central dominion."
Alaric's permanently bloodshot eyes went wide, and he heaved himself to his feet and stared disbelievingly down at me. "Sovereign's sack, boy, why in the hell are we just sitting around talking? The professor identity is right and truly buggered then, and your connection to Darrin and myself compromises most of my usual contacts…"
He began to pace rapidly back and forth, careless as he stepped on one of Darrin's carefully tended plants. He was speaking rapidly in a low mutter that I couldn't follow. Instead of stressing him further by interrupting him, I let the old man go on like this for a minute.
'I think you just knocked the buzz out of the poor drunk,' Regis noted, a hint of concern in his voice.
Alaric stopped suddenly and glared down at me. "How the hell did you get on the wrong side of a Scythe anyway?"
"We've got history," I said, deadpan. "As for why he's out to get me now…"
Alaric shook his head and sat back down, resting his head in his hands as though he were utterly exhausted. Voice muffled, he said, "It doesn't matter, boy. It doesn't matter how you've managed to get a Scythe on your ass, only that you have."
"Whatever got you into this," he said after a minute, "it won't be easy to go into hiding. Not with so much power sniffing around behind you."
"That's fine," I said, leaning back as well, "because I won't be hiding. I'm here to secure a couple contingencies in case I might need to escape Vechor."
"Vechor…? You don't mean to—"
"I'm still attending the Victoriad," I answered firmly.
He looked at me with a wry grin. "Now, I know you're joking, because only a moron would think of doing a thing like that." His eyes narrowed. "You're not kidding. You moron. What the hell are you thinking?"
I leaned back, putting my hands behind my head and crossing my legs as I stared up at the blue sky.
"I'm thinking of killing a Scythe."