The Beginning After The End - Chapter 267
Chapter 267: Justification
I wouldn’t have thought much of the difference in size if it wasn’t for the way the ascenders reacted to it. It wasn’t just their expressions of shock, it was the way they stared at me immediately after, as if I was somehow the cause.
Whether they truly thought that this was my fault or not, I wouldn’t find out until after the battle. The steroid-infused carallians were popping out of the ground by the dozens and it didn’t seem like they’d stop and wait for us to finish a conversation first.
“Tri-layer Circle Formation!” A clear voice rang from within the chaos.
The ascenders looked at one another—myself included, mostly because I didn’t know what the hell a Tri-layered Circle Formation was. The rest, however, had hesitation and reluctance written all over their faces.
“Now!” the same voice roared. It was an ascender from Daria’s team.
His resolute voice cut through the ascenders, spurring them on to follow his command. Aside from myself and Caera’s team, the rest formed a loose three-ringed circle centered around Daria and another ascender holding a golden wand.
Any idea what a Tri-layered Circle Formation is? I asked Regis.
Going rogue like Caera, Taegen and the brown-haired swordsman spelled defiance or ignorance, neither of which were good at this point. I got into position between Trider and another melee ascender in the outermost ring, deducing that this formation was centered around keeping Caria, who I knew was a conjur—well, whatever the term was called by the Alacryans, and the lanky guy with a crooked nose, protected.
There was no signal that indicated, no words that marked the beginning of our battle. We simply fought while I controlled my strength in order to not stick out.
The carallians’ strength mirrored their enlarged stature yet their speed was unimpeded. Still, I had gone through worse and came out only stronger.
Crescents of white arched around me as my dagger flashed with deadly speed and accuracy. With aether augmenting my body, my kicks and strikes made me an impassable storm.
The Tri-layered Circle Formation constantly shifted to avoid the accumulation of carallian corpses, and it all seemed like it was going well until the first ascender was killed, opening up a hole in the outer ring.
“Garth!” shouted a lean ascender positioned in the middle ring. He wielded a quarterstaff with a dozen or so orbs of lightning floating around him.
Immediately, the two on either side of the dead ascender seamlessly filled in the gap and we continued unabated. If I hadn’t seen the different camps set up for each pair or trio of ascenders, I would’ve assumed that they were all a part of the same highly-trained unit.
My attention then shifted to the inner circle of our formation. Despite my initial bias against Daria because of her rather suggestive attire and coy attitude, it seemed her skills were top-notch. Her main arsenal seemed to consist of conjuring spears of ice from the moisture in the air as well as creating explosions of wind around her enemies.
The long-range mage beside her only used fire magic, but had a wider variety of spells under his belt, from hurling spheres of fire to waves of scorching heat capable of melting the carallians’ tough hide. Both were precise with the strength and accuracy of their skills despite being encircled by a ring of defensive ascenders focused on protecting the two of them as well as the outer ring that fought to kill as many carallians as we could.
Spotting a carallian approaching, I kicked a corpse on the ground, hitting my target with it while shoulder tossing another carallian that tried to sneak up to my right. I gripped the dagger hooked to my finger and drove its blade through the struggling carallian’s eye before absorbing the remaining aether from its corpse.
Despite the added strength, speed, limbs, and spikes that protruded out of the carallians’ bodies, they carried more aether, which made fighting them actually easier for me.
Suddenly, a pained cry drew my attention. I turned to see Trider pressing down on his side with blood seeping through between his fingers. Simultaneously, his free arm was blocking the jaws of a carallian from biting down on him.
Turning back, I dashed to Trider, slashing the back of the carallian’s knees and stabbing the side of its throat in whirling succession.
The gauntlet-wielder looked at me with a dazed and puzzled expression. “Why…”
“We can’t get another gap in the outer circle,” I justified. “Stay alive.”
He was an Alacryan. Why did I care whether he lived or died?
I tried reasoning with myself that it would be hard for me to get through this convergence zone without their help, but I knew that wasn’t the case.
Perhaps I thought that the more I interacted with these ascenders, the more I could learn about these dungeons, or Relictombs—as they called it—and even more about Alacrya itself. And if I really did wind up in Alacrya after getting out of here, it made sense not to draw attention in the heart of a continent I was at war with.
But the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that I was regarding Trider and the rest of them less as my enemies and more as just people that wanted to get through this ordeal; the same as me.
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I berated myself. Not willing to admit that I had feelings of anything but animosity towards these Alacryans. I wanted to hate these people, no—I needed to hate them. How else was I supposed to go back to Dicathen and fight a war against them?
‘Oy, Princess. Even if you don’t necessarily need them, getting their help and working together wouldn’t hurt.
You’re wrong, I sent back as I plunged my knife just below the jaw of a carallian. You have my memories of the war, Regis. These people are the ones that killed my father and Adam. And you want me to work together with them? Help them?
‘I know, but you don’t need to force yourself to think of these people as your enemies. They’re still just—’
“Shut up!” I roared aloud. They are my enemies. And no matter how sentient you are, you’re still just a weapon. Remember that.
Regis grew silent and the anger boiling in the pit of my stomach grew.
Cursing under my breath, I discarded the facade of a warrior struggling to stay alive and picked up my pace, fixating solely on the battle at hand. I used the carallians as dummies to test out different techniques to incorporate into my evolving aether-infused fighting style.
I concentrated on the feeling of cladding myself in aether. Feeling the fundamental differences from when I had once done the same with mana.
It was difficult to describe, but it was denser, yet more pliable and soft. So much so that the concentration needed to envelop my body in aether without it leaking or spreading. Concentrating on the proportions of aether to different body parts was also far greater than it had been when I had done the same with mana.
Yet, the differences in outcomes couldn’t be ignored. The power my body received as aether siphoned through my limbs felt as if the strengthened muscles were mine and the protective layer of aether was my thickened skin. It didn’t feel borrowed like when I strengthened myself using mana.
In retrospect, my inability to use elemental magic would’ve hit me much harder if it hadn’t been for my training with Kordri. Being taught to conserve mana and fighting with minimal movements and utmost efficiency while dealing the most possible damage served me better now than it had been all throughout the war after my training.
As I continued getting lost in the battle, I brought back the memories of my time with the bald asura—all the times he had killed me in the soul realm while teaching me how to fight. His movements were fluid yet sharp and the speed at which he was able to move was chilling. Add to that his King’s Intent that could literally squeeze the air out of a silver core mage’s lungs and I could see why he was respected even amongst the asuras.
Back then, he had taught me how to fight to the utmost limits of a human, but what about now? Could I reach the levels of Kordri with my new body and aether? Could I surpass him?
My mind stayed sharp as all of these thoughts raced through my mind, not caring how much time had passed. My mind was aware yet it blocked out everything but the enemies capable of hurting me. That was how I had been fighting since waking up in this hellhole. It had been eat or be eaten, and with my mana core shattered, I fought and trained on a daily basis not to be the latter.
The words I had spat at Regis threatened to resurface but I buried them by concentrating on the sounds of the battle—the crunch and grinding of rocks as they stomped the ground, the subtle whistle of the wind as the carallian’s swung their gangly limbs.
Ducking below the snapping jaws of a carallian, I knocked it off its feet with a low sweep kick. As it scrambled to get back up, I focused on another carallian barreling toward me.
Splitting aether between my back leg and the point of my elbow, I burst forth, pushing my supporting palm up against my fist to reinforce my strike. The sharp bones that protected the carallian’s torso shattered upon impact and my elbow dug into his midsection like a spearhead.
The carallian crumpled to the ground with its spine snapped. As it convulsed on the ground, I shifted my head to the left to avoid the carallian I had tripped. Two, well-placed stabs later and both carallians were added to my pile of corpses.
My eyes scanned for the next prey, and it was only when I couldn’t find anymore that I finally noticed that the sky had turned back to blue and that the corpses strewn around me were slowly fading.
Looking around, I saw several ascenders mixed in with the fading carallian corpses. Five ascenders had apparently died in this wave, a number that didn’t mean much to me, but I’m sure the teammates of the deceased didn’t feel the same way.
Daria and Trider were two of the seven left standing. Daria was in fairly good shape aside from a few cuts on her legs and tears in her robe. Trider was cradling the residual stub of his bleeding left arm, face placid while breathing heavily. Yet, both wore expressions that I couldn’t quite make out.
Was it fear? Anger? Both? It didn’t matter. These people were just as much my enemies as the carallians were. Whatever they decided to do, at the very least, I would be able to easily escape.
Regis remained quiet while I kept my body clad in aether and my grip tight around my dagger.
Despite my distracted state, decades of fighting and honing my instincts came into play in an instant as I felt, rather than saw, someone rapidly drawing near me.
Spinning on my heels, I grabbed my surprise attacker’s wrist, pressing the tip of my blade against…her throat?
I paused my attack for a split second out of surprise, and in that split second the hand holding my white dagger was grabbed by a large hand and I found myself face to face not only with Caera—whose wrist I had in my grasp—but also Taegen, who was grabbing my hand, and the swordsman, whose humming blade was aimed at my exposed side.
Rather than wavering at the sudden turn of events, I bristled in anger. “What is this?”
“Unhand her,” Taegen ordered as his thick fingers crushed down on my hand.
“She attacked me.” I responded calmly in a level tone but the aetheric pressure I emitted affected even Caera’s protectors as their expressions grew strained.
“I thought…I was imagining things,” Caera muttered, but she wasn’t talking to me. Her quivering red eyes were fixated on the white blade a few inches away from her throat.
“But I was right…” Caera’s eyes locked onto mine, her expression harsh. “Why do you have my brother’s blade?”