The Beginning After The End - Chapter 280
Chapter 280: The Catch
I tore my gaze from the stone adorning the man’s black cane and studied the three guests that had just arrived.
The hook-nosed and pale-skinned Cromely exchanged polite but terse greetings with the flock of town officials and their family members. The two students that looked around my age barely spoke as they kept their chins raised and chests puffed.
The female student referred to as Aphene had an athlete’s body with long, slim legs that were accentuated by her uniform. Her fierce gaze bore into me behind her dark bangs, singling me out.
Dismissing her provocation as cute at most, I turned my gaze to the blonde man that looked like he’d spent a tad too much time in front of a mirror. Compared to his brusque female schoolmate, the student named Pallisun met everyone with a practiced smile that seemed to convey his hubris in a more implicit way.
Watching the teen strut in his white suit, which was embroidered with a single embellished shoulder guard, I was reminded of a rainbowgoose displaying its feathers during mating season.
Regis chortled at my comparison, agreeing wholeheartedly.
The trio eventually made their way to me. Following behind them were the entourage of townsmen doing whatever they could to curry their favor or even have them look in their general direction.
“An honor to have an ascender in our presence,” the older representative intoned, his expression not quite matching his words. “My name is Cromely of Blood Mandrick. This is my granddaughter, Aphene,” he introduced before gesturing to the student on his left. “And this student is Pallisun of Blood Blather. Both of you, introduce yourselves.”
Aphene dipped her head, a bit reluctant. “Aphene of Blood Mandrick.”
Pallisun, who was around my height but with a bit more bulk, scanned me from head to toe.
“Pallisun of Blood Blather,” he greeted, releasing a bit of mana that clung tightly against his frame in an attempt to show off his control.
‘What a rainbowgoose,’ Regis judged.
“A pleasure to meet you all. And thank you again, for taking me with you to Aramoor City,” I said to Comer with an amiable smile. He was my ticket out of here, after all.
“It is nothing,” he replied humbly.
“Hearing that our town had an ascender visiting, Elder Cromely brought along the top students of Stormcove Academy,” Chief Mason explained.
The Stormcove representative’s gaze flickered over the town chief dismissively before adding, “Yes, while they can’t yet compare to Ascender Grey, they’ll both be transferred to an ascender institute in the central domain rather soon.”
I regarded the two students with a casual smile. “Congratulations in advance.”
Pallisun craned his neck to get that extra inch over me as he replied. “You seem very young, esteemed ascender. I can’t imagine you having much experience yet, but I’d still love to hear of your tales down in the Relictombs.”
Regis bristled. ‘Please, let me humble this man.’
It’s beneath us to bully them. Plus, I’m baiting them on purpose, I quickly sent to Regis before replying to the vain blonde.
“It’s quite the pleasant place for a stroll. Do you care to join me the next time I go?” I asked with a wink.
A few chuckles rang from the crowd around us. Pallisun’s brow twitched in restrained annoyance as he stifled a laugh as well.
“Please excuse me while I get a drink,” Pallisun said with a forced smile. “Let’s go, Aphene.”
The two students turned around and headed off to one of the tables behind them. As they did so, I couldn’t help but think that it was a shame their backs were covered, hiding their runes.
Not dwelling on it, I made myself comfortable against the ledge overlooking the exhibition. Below, the host in charge of mediating the event was having the students walk in a circle to wave at the audience.
Cheers broke out as most of the students headed out of the center field, leaving behind only one group of students that looked to be about eight to ten in age.
The day progressed as we watched the various events showcasing both the magical and physical prowess of the students.
Caster students had been up first. Workers brought targets and laid them on the opposite side of the field for the students to try and hit with both accuracy and power. After that, they began running through an obstacle course while hitting targets without stopping.
While I didn’t condone child soldiers, it was impressive to see even the children in this small town effortlessly go through the complicated obstacle course while firing like trained combatants heading for war.
A war against Dicathen.
Damn it, I cursed myself for thinking unnecessary thoughts. Anything I did to try and go against Alacrya at this point wouldn’t even amount to the dirt underneath Agrona’s nails.
Swallowing the bitter taste in my mouth, I continued watching while the caster students finished and the host called for the shields to step up back onto the arena. Their exhibition consisted of each of the shields protecting two mannequins from blunted projectiles made of wood and stone.
“At that age, I would be fighting to the death against a mana beast my father had captured in order to build battle experience,” a clear voice declared a few feet to my right.
I shifted my gaze to see Pallisun standing with a frilly-dress girl under each arm. He continued to brag loudly about his training as a shield at their age. Meanwhile the girls cooed and giggled as if his very words contained gold.
He wasn’t the only one enjoying the spectacle below. During these two events, the other officials from the neighboring towns made wagers on their own local students, while the names of promising students were mentioned and praised loudly enough in the hopes that Cromely could hear.
As the shield students of Town Ludro, Cessir, Deura and Maerin stepped down, the atmosphere shifted. While both the casters and shields received enthusiastic cheers throughout their events, they paled in comparison to when the striker students stepped up on the platform that had been raised for their tournament.
This particular event would consist of six representative strikers from each town, all partaking in the tournament. They’d start by having the six duel each other for the spot of representing their towns and it would end with the remaining striker from each town facing off in the semi-finals and finals.
After the host reminded the strikers that intentionally losing to let a specific member of their town advance was strictly forbidden, the tournament commenced.
While I didn’t expect much, I had to admit that I enjoyed the exhibition. Judging by how Aphene had stopped bothering to watch after the first match, I’m sure she would disagree.
The children fought with practiced movements, displaying prowess in both physical and magical abilities. Because of how the marks or crests they had confined the scope of their spell to take form into a specific shape or action, they had to rely on understanding and outmaneuvering their opponents—utilizing their magic as a tool rather than relying on it.
“I can’t imagine this little pageant would entertain you in any way,” a thin voice intoned from behind.
“You’d be mistaken then,” I said lightly without turning around. “At this level, their ‘weapons’ are unsharpened and inflexible. This forces them to be more quick-witted and creative. Don’t you agree, Elder Cromely?”
The older man stepped up next to me, a brow raised in thought. “Are you saying that the sharper our weapons get, the slower and more unimaginative we become?”
I shifted my gaze to Cromely with a smirk pulling at the edge of my mouth. “That would depend on the person, but the temptation to lean heavily on the sharpest tool is always there. Isn’t that why we’ve evolved from fighting with our bare fists in the first place?”
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Cromely blinked for a second before letting out a laugh. “Wise words that I haven’t thought of myself. Perhaps the Relictombs bestow wisdom upon its ascenders.”
Turning my gaze back to the next pair of striker students stepping up onto the arena. “So have you found anyone worth admitting to Stormcove Academy?”
“I’ve already scanned the entire lot of students and not a single one carries the mana reserves worthy of bringing in,” he replied in a tone that said he had expected it. “Still. The Headmaster of our academy requested we bring more talents from outside Aramoor City so I’ll just take the winner of this little tournament.”
“Is that so. To me, it sounds like you never had any intention to take this seriously,” I mused.
“Truthfully, I was reluctant to visit this…outpost.” Cromely then turned to me, his hooked nose less than an arm’s length away from my face. “If that old bear of a man hadn’t told me an actual ascender was here and needed a favor, I wouldn’t have bothered coming, let alone with my top two students.”
“It seems like you’re implying something, Elder Cromely,” I responded, casting a sideways glance at the older man. “I wasn’t aware that there were strings attached for my short trip to Aramoor Academy.”
“No strings attached, of course,” he quickly responded with a dry laugh. “I merely hoped that you would grace my students and this town with a demonstration of the strength of an ascender.”
I had been waiting for this. From the moment the two students he had arrived with began sizing me up for a fight, I knew the chances were high. Still, I didn’t think they’d want to challenge me here.
‘Makes sense though,’ Regis sent. ‘If you guys spar here and they lose, they don’t run the risk of losing face for stupidly challenging an ascender.’
“Hmm…while educating the youth is important, I chose to become an ascender rather than an instructor because I valued material goods a bit more,” I hinted with a playful smile.
The old representative blinked and seemed to come back to himself after a moment. Letting out a hearty laugh, he patted me on the arm. “Looks like it won’t be very hard to get along with you, Ascender Grey! Name your price!”
“Gold is easy to come by,” I said, flashing him the runecard that Chief Mason handed me earlier filled with the earnings from selling the mana beasts I had used as practice dummies. “But I am curious about that odd rock you have on your cane.”
“As expected of an ascender, you have a good eye,” he mused while holding up his cane. “Even though this has been deemed a dead relic by our sovereign, it still cost me a small fortune during the auction.”
“Does it contain any sort of special effects or secrets?” I asked nonchalantly, suppressing both my and Regis’ urge to consume the aether stored inside it.
“If a dead relic could perform even the smallest spec of ancient magic, then it would be impossible for a mere academy elder in some small city to afford it,” Cromely answered as he rubbed the palm-sized stone with his thumb. “No, it’s just a very expensive trinket to brag about.”
“A shame,” I said, feigning disappointment.
I was unaware that relics deemed ‘dead’ by Agrona were auctioned back to the public, but it made sense. Why not obtain riches for the scraps you have no use for after taking all of the relics that were still intact.
Thinking back, I couldn’t help but wonder how things would’ve played out differently if I didn’t have the dimensional storage rune and Chief Mason had said he would need to take the cuboid relic from me.
It was safe to assume that my relationship with the people of this town wouldn’t have been as carefree as it was now.
“Still. If Ascender Grey is a connoisseur of these sorts, I can’t imagine you not wanting to add this to your collection,” he replied. “How about this. If Esteemed Ascender can best Pallisun and my granddaughter in a friendly spar, I will not only escort you to Aramoor City and ensure you’re completely taken care of, I’ll also give you this relic. If they can best you, all Ascender Grey needs to do is put in a good word for them.”
I cocked a brow. “Put in a good word?”
A knowing smile replaced the look of confusion on the older man’s face. “It’s no use feigning ignorance, Ascender Grey. Mason told me your close relations with Highblood Denoir,” he whispered. “Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.”
I took a deep breath and willed down my irritation. Looks like the large chief caved in. I really didn’t want my association with such a powerful name being broadcasted so soon, but I guess it did work in my favor at the moment.
Letting out a sigh, I agreed. “That doesn’t sound like a bad proposition.”
“Great!” Cromely clapped his hands, showing a smile that actually reached his eyes for the first time. “I presume that you’d have no qualms with facing off against my two students at the same time?”
He really has no shame, I conveyed inwardly to Regis.
Shrugging, I said to the older man, “I assumed that would be the case.”
“As expected of an ascender!” Cromely beamed. “I’m sure whether my students win or lose, this will be an excellent learning experience for them!”
‘As expected of an ascender,’ Regis echoed mockingly. ‘What a fox.’
He speaks in politics. It’s nothing to be surprised about when there’s such a distinction within the hierarchy in Alacrya.
I watched as Cromely walked off after giving me a small bow. He couldn’t have taken more than five steps away when Chief Mason immediately scurried over to me, concern laced in his furrowed brows. “E-Esteemed Ascender.”
Chief Mason turned his head to make sure Cromely was out of earshot before continuing. “M-My sincerest apologies. Elder Cromely was on the verge of cancelling his visit, and I know that would implicate your trip back to Aramoor City as well. And he’s met many ascenders before so just saying you were an ascender didn’t seem to interest him.”
“What’s done is done,” I replied, my voice leaking a tinge of annoyance. “I’m assuming you’ve anticipated that Elder Cromely would ask me to put on a little show with his students?”
The burly man’s gaze lowered. “He has mentioned it, yes.”
“Good. Then progress as planned.” I stood up to get a drink when Chief Mason grabbed my sleeve.
“Please be careful of Elder Cromely. He is known to be quite devious in his plans, and he cherishes his granddaughter very much,” he leaned in and whispered.
My mouth twitched upward in a smirk. “So you’re worrying about me now?”
The town chief’s expression faltered and he looked like he was about to crawl into a hole.
“I’m joking,” I smiled, patting the large man’s shoulder. “I hope your son wins the exhibition. His first win was impressive.”
“Thank you!” Chief Mason’s expression brightened as he beamed in pride.
Meanwhile, I made my way toward the exit, passing by Cromely with his two students. Aphene’s fierce expression mirrored her determination while Pallisun looked like he had already won.
‘Not that I’m worried, but are you going to be okay? They seem to be hiding something and you’ve drained most of your aether reserves trying to wake up Sylvie,’ Regis voiced his concerns.
They’re under the assumption that I’m a newly fledged ascender that barely made it out of his first ascent.
A smile pulled at my lips as I left the viewing lounge. I had been getting bored of training against the mana beasts nearby, and whether this duel would prove challenging or not, I’d at least get to enjoy unwinding.