The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 371
Standing at the bottom of a long stretch of stairs leading up into the stadium seats, I nearly turned around and gave up. I was so tired…but then, having your bones and musculature stitched back together by magic wasn’t exactly what I’d call restful.
I’d stayed in bed for the entire second day of the Victoriad, which sucked. While everyone else was cheering on the wargames or spending their allowance at the market, I was curled up under about four blankets, shaking and sweating as my body worked overtime to heal.
Still, the doctor had been optimistic as she explained that a fractured pelvis was relatively easy to fuse, and how I’d have been looking at a much longer, more painful recovery if my hip had been broken and not just dislocated. And most of the class stopped by in groups to see me, with Mayla coming back several times throughout the day to check in and drop off cakes and candies to make me feel better.
I thought of that fluttery moment where she’d asked me to stay with her every time she walked in the door, and through the pain-induced haze, I realized something.
I liked her. Like, like liked her. I’d never had a crush before. I’d never been close enough to a girl to have a crush before…
I flinched, feeling my face grow hot as I peeked at her out of the corner of my eye. Mayla was holding my arm while helping me walk, and I’d just frozen for about thirty seconds. “Sorry, I, uh…”
“We could sit lower if—”
“No, it’s okay,” I assured her, starting up the stairs. “I’ll be fine.”
A hot poker jammed into my side with each step as we ascended about halfway up the stadium to where Brion, Pascal, Yanick, Linden, and Deacon were seated. Most of our other classmates were in private viewing boxes with their bloods as everyone prepared for the main event, the real reason for the Victoriad: the challenges.
“Hail, Seth the Undefeated, Slayer of Giants!” Linden cheered as we shuffled in to sit next to the others.
“We are both honored and humbled by your presence,” Pascal added, a genuine smile creasing the burned side of his face.
I laughed, then winced.
Yanick leaned back and stuck his heavily wrapped leg in the air. “I feel your pain, man. At least you still won your fight.”
With an appreciative smile at my friends, I scooted past a few other people—the stands were almost entirely full now—and slid onto the bench next to Linden. “So, have they announced the challenges yet?”
“No,” Yanick said, pouting down at the empty combat field, which had been cleared of all the smaller fighting platforms. Then he brightened. “But, the rumor back home is that Ssanyu the Stone Eater is challenging to replace Bilal as Scythe Viessa Vritra’s retainer.”
Pascal grunted. “Ssanyu may be a legendary ascender, but everyone knows Scythe Viessa Vritra prefers a certain type of retainer.”
“That’s true,” I said, nodding along with what they were saying. “Have you read The Forging of Scythes by Tenebrous?”
“Oh, I have!” Deacon said brightly, getting a laugh out of everyone else. He looked affronted, pressing his hand to his chest as he said, “Well excuse me for being well read, you barbarians.”
“In the newest version, Tenebrous mentions that Scythe Viessa Vritra prefers to train up her retainers personally,” I continued, adjusting myself on the hard bench to try and get comfortable. “Her last retainer, Bilal, was a wartime appointment, but he’d been her ward since he was a kid.”
“Right!” Deacon said. “Him and his siblings. Bilal, Bivran, and…Bivrae, right? The Dead Three?”
“Dead Three?” Mayla echoed, looking confused.
I winced as I turned toward her. The sun gleamed off her auburn hair, which framed her face and accentuated the slight roundness of her cheeks. She was…
Clearing my throat, I said, “Three little kids, eight or nine years old, who were found alone in their home. The building had been completely destroyed by some kind of explosion, and everyone else inside was killed. But somehow the triplets survived.”
“Whoa,” Brion said. “I’ve never heard that story.”
Linden leaned forward, chiming in for the first time. “I wonder if—”
But he was immediately interrupted by a series of magical gong noises echoing throughout the stadium. It was like someone had created a sound barrier as the audience suddenly went completely silent.
Into that silence marched a Vritra-born man in dark plated armor, a purple cape trailing behind him, striding purposefully toward the center of the combat field. Horns jutted out of his short-cropped black hair. He had a serious face, and wherever his red eyes focused, the crowd seemed to tremble
There was no announcement to tell us his name or list his accomplishments. Everyone already knew who he was: Cylrit, retainer of Sehz-Clar.
When he reached the middle of the field, he turned toward the high box, his posture straight as a sword, and then bowed deeply. I could just make out Scythe Seris Vritra move to the front of the balcony, and I was glad I was already sitting down. The sight of her—her hair glowing like liquid pearl in the sunlight, her battlerobes shining like black diamonds—made my knees tremble.
She stepped back into the shadows of the high box just before a second figure appeared, marching toward Cylrit.
Although completely focused on the woman, I found it really hard, almost painful, to look at her. My gaze kept wanting to slip off, like turnshoes on an icy path. Her figure was indistinct, sort of ethereal…shadow made real. Plain black robes hung from her thin frame, but they seemed to drift and move, collapsing back into nothing around her ankles, like they stopped being robes and just became darkness.
She seemed to float over the ground, carried on a wind of black mist. No horns sprouted from her head, but her short white hair, which practically glowed in contrast with her midnight black skin and robes, was styled up into straight, sharp spikes.
Mawar, the Black Rose of Etril…
Stopping beside Cylrit, Mawar also bowed to the high box.
Another woman stepped out onto the balcony, raising her hand toward her retainer. She was a lot like Scythe Seris Vritra, and, at the same time, almost her opposite. The woman’s silvery-gray skin wasn’t painted, and she wore no ornamentation in her bright white hair. Unlike Seris’s delicate horns, this woman had two pairs of thick black horns that curved away from her scalp, dark and heavy.
She wasn’t wearing a dress or battlerobes, but was clad in armor made of white scales: larger, slightly darker plates at her shoulders, neck, and hips had an organic look to them, almost like bone, while smaller, arrow-shaped scales meshed together over the rest of her body.
Scythe Melzri Vritra…
She stepped back, and retainer Mawar straightened.
The ringing of gongs made the entire audience jump. Yanick cursed as Linden slipped out of his seat. I let out a groan of pain, having flinched so hard it felt like I’d cracked a rib again.
A deep voice spoke, coming from the air all around us. “No challengers have stepped forward to face Cylrit of Sehz-Clar. Would any prospects now offer challenge?”
As one, the entire audience, several tens of thousands of people, all focused on the combat field, waiting breathlessly. But no one stepped forward.
“Cylrit goes unchallenged,” the voice boomed.
Bowing again to the high box, retainer Cylrit marched stiffly from the field.
“No challengers have stepped forward to face Mawar of Etril. Would any prospects now offer challenge?”
Again, the call for challengers went unanswered.
“Mawar goes unchallenged,” the voice boomed.
Following Cylrit’s lead, Mawar bent into a fluid bow, then floated from the combat field.
When she was gone, the voice spoke again. “Scythe Cadell Vritra of Central Dominion has elected to refuse any and all challengers to retainer Lyra of Highblood Dreide, who remains in the land of Dicathen, helping to settle our new sister continent and bring peace to its citizens.”
There was some muttering from the crowd at this, but it quieted immediately when the voice continued to speak.
“In times of war, even the strongest soldier may fall pursuing the will of the High Sovereign. The world is vast, and its perils are many, which is why Alacrya needs the High Sovereign to watch over us, protect us, and make us strong. We honor the dead for their sacrifice. Retainers Uto of Vechor, Jaegrette of Truacia, and Bilal of Truacia. Their names, like their deeds, will be remembered so long as a single Alacryan heart still beats.
“But where one falls, another rises. Four of Alacrya’s champions have stepped forward to challenge for the position of retainer of Truacia under Scythe Viessa Vritra. Sovereign Kiros Vritra welcomes and invites to the field: Ssanyu the Stone Eater—”
“Hah, told you!” Yanick whispered, grinning ear to ear.
“—Aadaan of Named Blood Rusaek, Kagiso of Highblood Gwethe, and Bivrae of the Dead Three.”
As their names were spoken, the four challengers appeared from one of the many entrances and marched toward the center of the field to the spot that Cylrit and Mawar had only just vacated. They stood side by side in a line—Bivrae standing well away from the others, her face an ugly mask of disdain—and bowed as one to the high box.
“Would any other prospects offer challenge?” the voice said.
A moment passed. No one moved.
The voice boomed again, deeper and more grandiose. “Then bow before Sovereign Kiros of Vechor, and let the challenges commence.”
A suffocating presence washed over the coliseum. It felt as though someone had flipped the world upside down and I was standing under the weight of the entire continent, waiting for it to fall and crush me to nothing.
The shadow of a large being appeared at the edge of the high box balcony. All around me, people were already looking down, staring at their feet or their laps.
Clasping my hands together, I kept my eyes on my interlocked fingers, not daring to look anywhere else. From the top of my vision, I could just see the four challengers, each facedown in the dirt, prostrate before the Sovereign.
When he spoke, the Sovereign’s voice boomed with blood-stained thunder and white-hot power, scorching my ears and stealing my breath. “Prove yourselves, challengers. Show the depth of your mettle and the range of your desire. Bring pride to your bloods and your Sovereigns. Let no weakness creep in upon you, but claim every eager ounce of strength from your bodies.”
Then the force of his presence was gone. I waited, afraid to look up and accidentally meet the Sovereign’s eye. But the crowd began to shuffle, and I could hear a few whispered conversations, and finally Mayla’s hand was resting on my forearm.
“Seth, you can—”
I glanced up, meeting her eyes. “That was…” But I trailed off, unsure how to describe what I’d just felt.
The projected voice of the unseen announcer came again, this time grating on my frayed nerves, making it feel like someone was standing right behind me, shouting into my ear. “Challengers Kagiso and Aadaan, please remain on the field. All others, return to your staging area.”
Ssanyu and Bivrae left in opposite directions, the former striding proudly, the latter slinking along in a way that reminded me of the creatures in horror stories my mother read to me as a child.
The two men remaining on the field bowed again to the high box, then to each other.
Aadaan was tall and lean, with arms and legs that looked like they’d been stretched on a rack. He was clad in rune-inscribed leather armor, the dark brown nearly the same color as his skin. He wore a clever grin, and his eyes never left Kagiso.
Kagiso made a show of stretching, his mane of tawny hair bouncing around his shoulders with each movement. The tips of his black horns were just visible through his hair, and he had one blazing red eye and one jet black one. His armor was a mesh of leather and chain in a deep red that matched his eye, with silver runes glowing from the pauldrons, chest, and down either side of his exposed back.
“Dang, that’s a lot of runes,” Linden muttered, but I could tell he wasn’t talking about the armor. The man’s spine was marked with at least a dozen emblems, and even a couple of regalia. “Does anyone know anything about him?”
“Only that he was fostered by Highblood Gwethe and he’s a solo ascender,” Deacon answered. “He fell out of the public eye when he manifested his Vritra blood.”
Pascal grunted and scratched at his scarred cheek. “I heard they do all kinds of crazy experiments on any of the Vritra-blooded that manifest.. That’s why there are so few of them.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Brion said, earning a glare from Pascal. “There are so few of them because it’s super rare for even someone with even a lot of Vritra blood to be able to use their asuran mana arts. For the few that do, the High Sovereign takes them all to Taegrin Caelum and has them trained to fight the other asuras.”
Linden laughed. “Man, even total badasses can’t fight asuras. Scythes maybe, but only after they’ve been strengthened with elixirs and stuff. I bet the High Sovereign has some secret weapon against the other asura. That’s why he’s never been afraid of them. I mean, think about it. They decided to blow up half the other continent instead of attacking us here. Why would they do that if they weren’t afraid of Alacrya?”
Pascal rolled his eyes. “Linden, bud, you’ve been watching too many broadcasts…”
The conversation was interrupted by the ringing of gongs, announcing the start of the fight.
Except the combatants didn’t move. Kagiso and Aadaan were standing thirty feet apart, weapons summoned to their hands. Aadaan wielded a long, thin silver spear, while black iron gauntlets formed around Kagiso’s hands, sharp claws extending from the knuckles.
“What are they doing?” Mayla asked, her voice barely a whisper.
“Gauging each other,” Deacon muttered, his eyes wide behind his mask. “At this level, a careless move could mean instant loss.”
Aadaan moved first.
Cocking back his arm, he let his spear fly toward Kagiso. The air distorted around the spear, moving like melting ice as it coalesced into a huge wind-spear with the silver sliver at its center. At the same time, several dust devils sprang to life, circling Aadaan and spinning protectively around him.
Kagiso raised a hand. The gauntlet melted away into dozens of small, black dots, which moved to intercept the attack. Like a swarm of attacking hornets, they completely covered the spear, and when they broke apart an instant later, it was gone, and the wind around them had dissipated.
“What just happened?” Brion asked breathlessly. “I’ve never seen magic like that.”
“Because it’s Vritra magic,” I answered, keeping my eyes on the battle. “Decay type. Erosion, probably wind-attribute.” The others all looked at me with a mixture of surprise and curiosity. “I—”
“Read about it in a book,” Linden, Brion, and Pascal all said in unison.
We all laughed for a moment, but the stadium was so quiet, it sounded unnatural, and we quickly turned our attention back to the combat field.
With a flick of his wrist, Kagiso had already sent the swarm of black dots flitting through the air toward Aadaan. They didn’t even slow as they cut through his defensive cyclones like hot iron through parchment, but Aadaan just stood there grinning. There was a silver flash, and he was standing twenty feet away, his grin sharpening into a dangerous smirk.
The crowd, silent since the first introduction of the retainers, finally woke up, and the arena exploded with the noise of cheering and shouting.
“Wind Runner,” Yanick breathed. “His signature regalia…”
The swarm of black dots changed direction to follow Aadaan, but, in another flash of silver, he stood fifty feet away, behind Kagiso.
But Kagiso hadn’t been just standing around sucking his thumb while Aadaan ran. Instead, the Vritra-blooded ascender had been channeling mana into another rune, sending out tendrils of earth mana all over the combat field. I couldn’t tell what he was doing, but—
Aadaan vanished in a flash as the swarm beared down on him, but a huge column of stone laced with veins of black metal burst from the combat field. There was a crack, and the column broke and fell to the ground with a crash that I felt shake the bench beneath me.
Aadaan, moving at the speed of wind, had slammed into the stone with enough force to break bones, but he didn’t even look stunned. Instead, a condensed field of shimmering energy had surrounded him. Kicking off the broken stump of the column, he hurtled toward Kagiso, exploding in a nova of pure force.
The battlefield was momentarily hidden in a cloud of dust.
“What the heck was that?” Linden asked, squinting as he tried to see through the brown cloud below.
“Some kind of force redistribution spell,” Deacon answered, following the fight by holding his glasses up over his mask so he could see. “But strong. Emblem, maybe even regalia level.”
A torrent of wind pushed the dust cloud out of the stadium. In the few seconds we hadn’t been able to see what was happening, the arena floor had become a minefield of Kagiso’s little black motes. Aadaan was stuck. There was no way he could use Wind Runner to get around in such tight quarters.
Kagiso was standing on top of the shattered stump of the column he’d conjured, basically switching places with Aadaan. His red eye gleamed.
It seemed like he had the Truacian pinned.
Then something pulled at the air mana all around us, everywhere. I could sense the rush of it pouring down into the arena, bombarding Kagiso’s spell, the sheer amount of mana overpowering the motes’ ability to erode it.
Mayla gasped and grabbed my hand, squeezing it hard, and my stomach fluttered. I peeked at her from the corner of my eye, but her gaze was on the arena, and her expression gave no sign that she was even thinking about holding my hands. Linden elbowed me from the other side, his brows bouncing up and down as he gave me a thumbs up.
Embarrassed, I thought about pulling my hand away, but…I realized that I didn’t want to. It felt…nice. Really weird, but comforting, too.
When I managed to focus back on the fight, the battlefield was clear of the black motes—the overwhelming rush of mana had exhausted them, burning them out—and a slowly-revolving cyclone was beginning to spin around Aadaan. Kagiso held out his bare hand, and the clawed gauntlet reformed around it. The two eyed each other for a long moment, both warriors wary and confident in a way I found difficult to understand.
Then Aadaan grinned and pushed outward with the gathering storm.
And that was just the beginning.
The noise of the crowd ebbed and flowed as the fight stretched on, five minutes, ten, twenty. My friends and I laughed, gasped, and shouted at one another as the pace of the fight continued to build, awed by every new spell cast or rune activated, jeering when one of the fighters got the upper hand only to have the tables turned a moment later by some unexpected reversal by their opponent.
I’d never seen anything like it. And I’d never had more fun.
Mayla didn’t let go of my hand until the final moments. Kagiso’s defensive capabilities—his power to erode his opponent’s mana and turn away even the most deadly attacks—outmatched Aadaan’s mana pool. Once Aadaan could no longer use Wind Runner to flit around the arena, it was over.
Kagiso closed the distance, smashing through Aadaan’s defensive wind barriers with those heavy gauntlets and crushing him to the ground. With his claws to Aadaan’s throat, Kagiso looked to the high box for direction.
The crowd, which had grown quiet again, sucked in a collective, hissing breath, and Mayla turned away, pressing her face to my shoulder.
A gong sounded. Kagiso dismissed his gauntlets, and Aadaan rolled over and pushed himself up onto his knees. Sand clung to his sweat-soaked skin, and even from the stands I could see that he was shaking.
The crowd burst like a dam, flooding the arena with ecstatic cheers. Even Yanick jumped up, hopping on one leg while supporting himself on Brion’s shoulder, shouting along with everyone else. “Kagiso! Kagiso! Kagiso!”
I felt a moment’s disappointment when Mayla let go of my hand as she jumped up and down, her face flushed, her hair bouncing in a way I found kind of hypnotic. “That was crazy!” she yelled over the cacophonous cheers.
I leaned closer to speak without shouting. “I know, they’re really on another level. I—”
“Well fought,” the unseen announcer’s voice said, cutting through the audience’s excitement and silencing everyone in the arena. “Well fought to the prospects, Kagiso of Highblood Gwethe and Aadaan of Named Blood Rusaek. Victory goes to Kagiso!”
The two combatants bowed again to the high box where the Sovereign and Scythes were, veiled beneath thick shadows, then left the combat field, Kagiso striding confidently away, Aadaan slinking after him, his eyes downcast.
“Ssanyu the Stone Eater and Bivrae of the Dead Three, return to the field and prepare yourselves.”
Ssanyu entered the arena first. He was tall with bulging muscles. He wore a chest plate that left his abs and the ridge of his runed spine exposed, along with steel plates covering most of his lower body. A kind of iron crown ringed his shaved head.
After Ssanyu reached the center, a green mist began to boil out of the ground, forming into a woman with thin, sharp limbs and a grotesque, twisted stance, like her bones were put together in the wrong shape. As if to accentuate the grossness of her figure, the black robes she wore were sheer and cut in places to reveal her ribs and spine, which stuck out of gray, sickly skin.
She snarled at Ssanyu, revealing teeth filed down to points.
Both combatants bowed to the high box, then faced each other. Vomit-colored green mist was floating around Bivrae’s inhuman body,
The sound of gongs announced the beginning of the fight.
“Wait, what’s he doing?” Mayla asked, standing and shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand.
“He’s…surrendering…” I muttered, taken aback.
Ssanyu had gone down on one knee, his head lowered to stare at the ground under Bivrae’s clawed feet. Her lips pulled back like an animal’s, bearing her sharp teeth. The mists fluttered in an agitated sort of way before being drawn back into her body.
She turned to the high box, straightening as best as her twisted frame allowed.
“Ssanyu the Stone Eater yields,” the voice said, it’s tone perfectly flat. If the announcer was surprised, they hid it pretty well. “Victory goes to Bivrae!”
There was some grumbling from the audience, and no cheering for Bivrae as there had been for Kagiso, but the adults around us kept their complaints and conversation quiet, and I knew why. Below, Bivrae cast a challenging stare around at the audience, almost like she was daring anyone to voice their displeasure at the result loud enough for her to hear.
After a few seconds, she stalked out of the arena to a smattering of half-hearted applause.
“Un-freaking-believable,” Yanick said grumpily. “And I was so excited to see Ssanyu fight. That was stupid. Is Kagiso just going to roll over and show Bivrae his belly, too?”
Deacon snorted. “We’ll have to wait a bit to find out. He’ll get a break to rest and recuperate, so we’ll see the battles to replace Dragoth’s retainer next.”
Brion clapped Yanick on the back. “Everyone knows Scythe Dragoth Vritra is the most popular Scythe. I’m sure there will be a—ooph!” Brion grabbed his stomach as Yanick elbowed him, and everyone else laughed.
But before anything else could be said, the announcer began speaking again. “Twelve more of Alacrya’s champions have challenged for the position of retainer of Vechor under Scythe Dragoth Vritra. Sovereign Kiros Vritra welcomes and invites to the field…”
The announcer began listing off the challengers, all powerful ascenders or war heroes. As each name was spoken, the prospect stepped onto the combat field and joined the growing line facing the high box. As the last of the challengers stopped, the line bowed in unison.
“Challengers Echeron and Lancel, please remain on…”
The voice paused. I glanced at Linden, then at Mayla. She looked as confused as I felt. Something was…wrong.
“Hey, what’s that?” Pascal asked, pointing into the air. “Do you feel it?”
A black speck in the sky was quickly growing in size. Other members of the audience were starting to notice it now, and thousands of voices echoed Pascal’s question. A few even conjured shields, others shouting, leaving their seats, or channeling magic into runes in preparation to face what they obviously thought was a threat.
For the umpteenth time since the Victoriad started, my breath was crushed from my chest by the sudden presence of a powerful aura.
The prospects on the field scattered, activating their powers and preparing to defend themselves. A jet black comet landed in the center of the arena an instant later with an explosion of dark energy then sent them all flying like bugs. Tens of thousands of people screamed, but no one was running now. The entire audience seemed frozen, unable to do anything except watch.
The arena below was completely obscured in a cloud of dust yet again. In the high box, all four Scythes moved forward onto the balcony. Although they made no move to cast defensive magic, the sight of them—all together at once like that—made my head swim, and I worried for a second I might pass out.
Mayla’s hand on my arm brought me back to myself. I put my own hand over hers and squeezed.
A nova of black flames cleared the dust, revealing a slender man—a boy, really, not so much older than most of us—with short black hair and sharp features, almost unassuming except for the untamed, hate-filled rage in his eyes…
He stepped up out of the crater he had made in the arena floor, his dark eyes sweeping the coliseum around him. Spikes of black iron thrust up from the ground with every step, and dark flames wreathed his body. The sight of that black Decay magic—so much stronger than Kagiso’s—filled me with dread.
Scythe Viessa Vritra spoke first, her voice carrying effortlessly through the dead-silent stands. “Nico. Explain yourself! What in the High Sovereign’s name do you think—”
“Grey!” the newcomer—Scythe Nico Vritra of the central dominion, I realized with a tremor—screamed, his voice cracking. “I know you’re here! I accept your challenge, you bastard! So face me!”
Mayla’s eyes went wide as dinner plates, her lips trembling. “Did h-he—”
“Grey?” Linden choked out. “Like…Professor Grey?”
My mind raced as every wild theory about the professor’s weird meeting with Scythe Seris Vritra tumbled through it, scattered like leaves on the wind. I’d thought my classmates were completely nuts, the way they’d come up with more and more unlikely explanations for what we’d seen. But this…
Who was Professor Grey, really?
Scythe Dragoth Vritra smirked down at the other Scythe. “You’re out of line, little Nico. This isn’t how we—” His head suddenly snapped to one of the many entrances into the combat field, his smirk turning down into an angry frown.
Someone was walking toward Scythe Nico. A man in a fur-lined white cloak and Central Academy uniform. Wheat blond hair tousled by the Scythe’s raging aura, golden eyes shining from behind his mask. He walked with such confidence and purpose, his mere presence a shield against the hateful aura radiating like a sickness from Scythe Nico.
I knew him, but something in my brain wouldn’t quite accept that this could be the same person I knew, who I had first met in the library before the season started, who had spent so much of his time turning a thin, weak, sickly kid into a half-decent fighter, despite looking at me like he wanted to wring my neck…
Because how could my grumpy, mysterious, emotionally distant Melee Enhancement Tactics professor be the same person now approaching Scythe Nico on the field of battle as if he weren’t stepping toward death itself? I couldn’t make sense of it.
But it was him.
Even the other Scythes didn’t intervene further as Professor Grey and Scythe Nico came to stand nearly toe to toe.
“Nico,” Professor Grey said with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You look like garbage, old friend.”