The Beginning After The End - Chapter 286
Chapter 286: How to Survive
“I can tell by your wandering gaze that you’re new here. Well, you’re in luck! We have—”
“Not interested,” I interrupted, waving away a thin man with shiny, slick-backed hair.
It only took four steps to be stopped by another resident of the first floor. A petite girl wearing a short battle-skirt—way too short to provide any sort of coverage in a fight—brushed her arm against mine and glanced up at me.
“Would you like to join my team? There are only us girls, and we’d really like a strong, cool man like you around,” she said, batting her eyes.
I had arrived on the first floor less than ten minutes ago and this was already the seventh time I’d been stopped. Even after all of Alaric’s warnings, I hadn’t expected things to be this bad.
Losing my patience, I exerted a light pulse of aetheric pressure.
A ripple ran through the surrounding crowd as they stiffened and shied away from the source of the pressure. The girl’s eyes went wide and she stepped back, staring at me as though I were a demon.
‘Begone, foul wench!’ Regis declared theatrically in my head as the girl scurried away.
Aside from the constant movement of workers and the ever-present hucksters, there wasn’t much to look at on the first floor. The air was stuffy and it smelled of sweat, dirt, and excrement.
The first floor stretched out for miles on either side of me, and I couldn’t even see the ceiling above us…if there even was one. From what I could tell, there was no ambient light. The wide pathways were lit by a combination of torches and cranes holding up a web of light orbs high above our heads.
Most of the space I could see from the main path was dominated by huge quarries and even larger fenced fields of tall orange grass, where cattle-like beasts roamed mindlessly.
The entire area was a cacophony of grinding metal, breaking rock, distant bestial crooning, and a lot of loud conversations fighting each other for supremacy. Meanwhile, ascenders filed toward the teleportation gate leading to the second floor in droves.
As I got closer to the gate, the crowd of ascenders funnelled into yet another single-file line. A pair of imposing guards—their rune-scored backs proudly displayed by their armored uniforms—were checking each person for their ascender’s badge before letting them through.
When it was my turn, the guard stuck out an armored hand, looking me up and down. “Badge?”
I gave him my badge. After a quick scan, he let out a scoff and handed it back to me. “Good luck on your prelim, wogart.”
Though irritated by the obvious pejorative, I ignored the comment and stepped cautiously through the glass-like portal leading to the second floor.
I was tired, annoyed, and hot from the half hour I had been on the first floor, but all of those negative feelings were completely washed away as I took in the sight in front of me.
‘Damn…’ Regis let out a whistle.
The second floor was nothing like the industrial wasteland I had just come from and completely different from what I myself had imagined.
It was an entire city, miles wide, built under a radiant, sunless sky. The streets were paved with decorative tiles that sparkled under the glowing blue expanse overhead.
Along the avenue, hovering orbs of soft light filled neatly placed, elegant street lamps, giving the streets an almost ethereal quality.
“Get out of the way!” a husky voice barked behind me.
I snapped out of my daze, apologizing to the burly man, then walking forward. It was a lot to take in, even for someone who had lived in a flying city.
The streets were busy but never congested, with ascenders everywhere. It was like being back in the Adventurers Guild Hall in Xyrus, if it had expanded to take over the entire city.
As Alaric had suggested, businesses catering to ascenders were ubiquitous. The embellished signs hung above the multi-level storefronts advertised everything from blacksmiths to butchers. I saw several shops specializing in the creation and repair of certain weapons, markets where one might find simpler needs, such as dried rations or a new pair of boots, and I even found an impressive building advertising imbuing services for artifacts and accolades.
However, what I saw the most were inns. In fact, most of the multi-storied brick buildings of varying colors and decorations were inns, all of which were advertising long-term rental of rooms, most often paid by the month rather than the day.
“Alaric was right. You could spend your entire life here,” I muttered under my breath.
‘Focus! You look like a country bumpkin. Remember that we’re here for your ascent,’ Regis chided, even though he was just as absorbed in sightseeing as I was.
I realized I had become so sidetracked that I wasn’t sure which direction to go to find a team. Alaric had provided several tips for what to look for in potential teammates and what kind of negotiations to expect, but his guidance on navigating the second level had, I realized, been pretty shallow.
Making my way back toward the portal I had arrived from, I searched for any sort of laborer or guard who could help guide me in the right direction. On this side of the portal, however, there was only a constant stream of ascenders.
“Excuse me?” I said, tapping a passing man on his shoulder. “Do you know where I can find a team for a preliminary ascent?”
The bearded man, whose golden chainmail vest made him practically glow, cocked his head toward me and shot me a glare. “Shove off.”
After receiving several such colorful rejections by other ascenders, a younger gentleman that looked only a few years older than me actually looked willing to help.
“Are you serious?” he asked with an amused chuckle.
“It’s my first time here,” I admitted, scratching my cheek.
“Come on,” the man motioned with his chin. “I’m actually heading over there anyway.”
Walking out of the main avenue, the two of us walked across a less crowded street. I sized the man up as we walked; he wore a fitted set of dark leather armor, well crafted but much less opulent than what I’d seen some of the other ascenders wearing, like the man with the golden chainmail. He moved confidently, clearly knowing exactly where he was headed.
“So what academy are you from?” he asked languidly. “Probably a slim chance, but maybe I’m an alum.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t go to an academy. My uncle trained me.”
“And you managed to pass the assessment? Congrats,” he said with a smile before sticking out his hand. “I’m Quinten, by the way.”
“Grey,” I responded, receiving his gesture.
“So have you had a chance to tour the city, Grey?” Quinten asked, looking up at the buildings towering over us.
“A little. The city is even more amazing than the stories I’ve heard.”
“Well what do you expect when you have a city made exclusively for powerful mages,” he said with a chuckle. “You should see the Summit Estates.”
My brows furrowed. “Estates? As in homes?”
Quinten nodded. “I’ve only ever peered past the gates, but it’s a gated area of villas for highblood ascenders.”
“And considering how many long-term inns I’ve seen just walking down the street, I’m assuming these houses are astronomical in price?”
“Astronomical would be an understatement,” the ascender snorted as we turned right into a narrow alley between two buildings. “No, even if you had the money, the real problem is exclusivity. The number of properties there is pretty limited, and it’s rare that the highbloods would give up the prestige of owning a house on the second level. They generally only go up for sale if a highblood is struggling.”
The ascender shouldered me with a smile. “Just giving you some dreams to try and reach.”
I chuckled. “Thank you.”
Quinten then leaned closer to me. “You should also check out the girls on Blossom Street.”
“Huh?” It took me a second to realize what he was referring to. “Oh…wait, they’re ascenders as well, why would they—”
“Ascents are dangerous.” He shrugged. “A lot of us—not just our lovely escorts—have been through enough that we’re fed up with them. The smarter ones have realized that there are easier ways to make money.”
“Like leading poor mages just trying to become ascenders into dark, out of the way alleys and mugging them?” I asked innocently.
Quinten blinked before stifling a laugh. “When’d you notice?”
I looked around, ignoring the ascender calmly leaning against a brick pillar supporting a bridge several stories above us. There wasn’t a single ascender in sight aside from my amicable mugger.
“Early enough,” I said, lowering my gaze to meet Quinten’s. “I assumed you would have a group of other thugs waiting to help you, though.”
He let out a chortle. “Why would I need a group to handle one little wogart?”
Quinten’s form blurred as he rushed toward me, a blade of condensed stone coalescing around his arm.
‘Need help?’ Regis asked lazily.
I got it.
I reached for the stone blade that had manifested over Quinten’s entire hand. Gripping his wrist with my left hand, I guided the blade safely past, stepped back with my left foot, and brought my right elbow up into his chin.
With the momentum of his own dash, I barely had to use any strength aside from shrouding myself in aether.
Quinten’s head snapped back and he crumpled to the ground, his stone blade dissolving.
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Fortunately, the mugger hadn’t died, and his body was sturdy enough that he regained consciousness within a few minutes, giving me enough time to use his own clothes to tie his hands and feet together.
“Had a nice nap?”
The ascender let out a groan before realizing that he was half naked and his limbs had been tied. “I don’t know what you did, but do you really think leather bands can hold me?”
“No, but they’ll give me just enough time to knock you out again if you try and do anything troublesome,” I said with an innocent smile.
Quinten nodded awkwardly from his position on the ground. “What do you want?”
“What I wanted from the beginning,” I answered. “Where do I go to find a team for my preliminary ascent?”
The half-naked ascender wiggled on his side until he was able to point in the direction with his chin. “Just follow that road until you hit Vritra Avenue. Make a right and follow the road until you see a tall building with a giant clock on the top.”
“Thank you,” I said, walking toward him.
“Hey—hold up—-you know it’d be really stupid to kill me here, right?” he asked, panic laced in his voice. “Y-you’ll be banned from—”
I bent down and snapped the leather bands around his wrists. “Relax. I know you weren’t trying to kill me either earlier. And I assume you know it would be really stupid to hold a grudge, right?”
Quinten simply snapped the thick leather bands around his ankles. “The most important thing we obtain through our ascents isn’t knowledge or strength—it’s how to survive.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I turned to leave when I remembered another question I wanted to ask. “One more thing.”
Quinten visibly flinched at my sudden movement. “What is it?”
“What does ‘wogart’ mean?”
Quinten looked at me, deadpan.
“Wogart,” I repeated. “What does it—”
“I heard you the first time,” he grunted. “I just never heard someone ask me what it was before.”
“I grew up fairly sheltered,” I lied. “Practically had to escape from my father to become an ascender.”
“Fair enough,” he said, pulling out a new set of clothes from his dimension ring. “You’ll probably run into them fairly often, but they’re these doe-eyed beasts that are at the bottom of the food chain. Basically, it’s slang for an inexperienced ascender.”
‘Yeah, you wogart,’ Regis chortled.
“Fair enough,” I said, chuckling in amusement as I walked away.
Taking the narrow marble road, which was surprisingly clean—there wasn’t a single piece of trash in sight—I made my way toward the clock tower when I saw the faintest of shadows blur by.
I was more disappointed in myself that I hadn’t noticed this person than I was annoyed at yet another interruption. Every person had an aether signature, and, while it wasn’t a physical manifestation of aether that I could absorb like the creatures in the Relictombs had, I could use the small amounts of aether within them to potentially sense them afar…if I was good enough.
“You can come out now,” I said without breaking stride.
A slim man garbed in dark leather and chainmail hopped down from one of the lower buildings to my left.
“Why are you following me?” I asked, studying the man who looked close to my age.
Curly locks of moss-green hair draped over much of his face, but I could make out high cheekbones underneath a pair of deep-set brown eyes.
“Peace,” he said, his voice low and croaky. The man raised his arms, showing his empty palms.
“Assuming Quinten was telling the truth, you’re not with him,” I mused. “A third party trying his luck?”
He shook his head. “I sensed mana usage, and in this part of the level that generally means a fight. I assumed someone was in trouble, so I checked it out.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” I responded calmly.
“Curiosity got the best of me,” he admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. “I was impressed with the way you took that thug down and, honestly, surprised you let him off so easy. Despite what he told you, you’d have been in your rights to end his life.”
“That’s not how I do things,” I said, not bothering to hide my distaste.
“That’s why I’d like to be on your team when you go back into the Relictombs.” The stranger held my gaze confidently, but the fingers of his left hand were twiddling with nervous energy.
With the recent attempted-mugging fresh in my mind, I wasn’t feeling particularly trustful, and I was sure this man was hiding something. “Sorry to disappoint, friend, but I’m not going ‘back’ into the Relictombs. This is my preliminary ascent.”
He nodded, his curly green bangs bouncing gently around his face. “I heard. I can help with that, help you find a team that won’t get you killed.”
‘He’s a persistent one,’ Regis said.
Silently agreeing, I decided to be blunt. “Why? What’s in it for you? Give me an answer I can believe, and I’ll think about joining you.”
“I can’t sense your mana. I couldn’t even when you took out that mugger, which you managed with a single blow. You don’t make sense. You’re different. And in the Relictombs, different is good.”
Regis chuckled in my mind. ‘I like this guy.’
“That’s it?” I asked skeptically.
“We all go in for the same reasons: get strong, get rich,” he said, his hands balling into fists to still his fidgeting fingers. “But the Relictombs can’t be charted or mapped. The only way to change where you go is to change who you travel with. Like I said, different is good.”
“So you think the Relictombs is going to take you somewhere new if you go in with me?” This ascender seemed to know more about the Relictombs than anyone else I’d talked to, except maybe Alaric. Even the old drunk hadn’t made the connection about traveling with different people to chart different paths through the dungeon, though.
“That’s the idea. New paths, new chances to win accolades—maybe even a relic.”
That was something I could believe. Anybody with his level of knowledge and confidence was bound to be useful inside.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
He held out his hand. I took it and was immediately surprised by how small it was. I could feel the calluses from long hours holding a weapon on the fingers and palms, and his grip was strong, but delicate.
“You know, Grey,” Haedrig said as we turned to walk together toward the clock tower, “you’ll find fewer alley rats willing to try their luck with you if you properly displayed your runes. Generally, only those who lack confidence in their runes will cover them.”
“Is that another reason why mages show off their runes?” I asked. “Sorry, I’m from the countryside, so to me, it just seems like they’re showing off.”
“It may seem arrogant, and there are plenty of ascenders out there who fit that description, but it does make life easier in general,” he explained. “Not many people actually take the time to learn to read runes since, depending on the spell it provides, there can be a lot of variances in design. Ascenders, in general, aren’t a studious group.”
As I listened, I realized I hadn’t considered the societal impact of having your strength so clearly displayed to anyone who looked. On Dicathen, I might judge someone’s strength by the quality of their weapons and armor, or because they had a mana beast bond, or—back when such things were still possible—because I could sense their mana, but I could still be wrong. Here, a potential ally—or opponent—could tell exactly what you were capable of just by looking at your runes.
“Anyway, let’s find us a team,” he continued. “There are a few ways to go about it, but I’m assuming you want to take your prelim as soon as possible?”
“Then the association building that thug directed you to wouldn’t be a good idea,” he said, taking the lead. “It’s the safest way, but you have to fill out a pretty extensive request, and it’ll take them a few days to find you a team willing to take you.”
I rubbed my chin, wishing I’d have hit Quinten even harder. “What do you suggest then?”
Haedrig motioned toward the way. “Follow me.”
We made our way out of the narrow road and onto Vritra Avenue. The streets were pleasantly lively with ascenders—some garbed in casual clothes while others looked as if they had brutally murdered someone just moments ago. Dozens of white trees with soft purple leaves stood tall on the streets every few blocks, providing shade and scattering its gem-like leaves.
I couldn’t help but notice Haedrig’s eyes constantly surveying the area, as if always on the look-out or something.
“Are we lost?” I asked.
“No. It’s just…there are some people looking for me. It’s not important.”
It sounded important…but I dropped the subject for now.
After passing the clock tower that Quinten had directed me to, we took a winding road that led past several inns, two brothels, and a medical center. Finally, Haedrig stopped.
‘Woah…’ Regis said breathily.
My eyes widened at the sight in front of us, not quite sure what to make of it. I thought that maybe Haedrig had gotten lost… He looked back at me with an amused expression, as if relishing my reaction.