The Beginning After The End - Chapter 323
My eyes snapped open and I twisted to look at the “guard.” Sitting next to me was a red-faced old man, his graying hair matted and sticking out at odd angles. He let out a belch, filling the small carriage with the stench of his alcoholic breath.
“Alaric, how…” I trailed off, waving the fumes away from my face.
‘The gentleman sure knows how to make an entrance,’ Regis joked, chuckling inside my head.
Alaric gave me a half-cocked smirk. “You didn’t think I was just going to let you get arrested without paying what you owe me now, did you?”
I shook my head in wonder. “You can’t fool me, old man. You wouldn’t risk squeezing into that armor just for a few pieces of treasure—”
“But you did get some accolades in there, right?” he asked, his bloodshot eyes widening. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re in deep shit, pretty boy—and a little gold would go a long way to turning the right ears. Or a lot of gold, if you’ve got it.”
I rolled my eyes, but felt in my dimensional storage rune for one of the items Caera and I had taken from the Spear Beaks’ hoard of treasures. It was a sheath for a shortsword, made of deep red leather and inset with gemstones, a couple of which were missing.
Barely looking at the “accolade,” as the Alacryans called the treasures unearthed from the Relictombs, I tossed it into Alaric’s lap. “Consider it a down payment, but you don’t get the rest until I get out of this mess.”
The old man ran his fingers appraisingly along the leather, pausing greedily at the gemstones. “Well then, this will do nicely.” Alaric shot me a covert look from the corner of his eye. “And you’ve got more like this?”
I held back an amused laugh, not wanting the driver to overhear. “Enough to keep you drunk until your dying day.”
Alaric’s eyes closed and he leaned back, a serene peacefulness falling across his face. “Just what I’ve always wanted to hear…”
At least he’s easy to please.
‘But what can this drunk really do to help us out here?’ Regis wondered.
“Now,” I said soberly, “what do you know about this trial? There has to be more to this than what they’re saying.”
Alaric’s face fell and he shot me a dirty look, like I’d just woken him from a pleasant dream. “The Granbehls are about tops for a named blood. They don’t swing as big a stick as the highbloods, but they’ve been pushing for highblood status for years—sponsoring ascenders, buying up property in the first two levels, currying favor with the Sovereigns, that kind of thing.
“This Kalon boy was the rising star of Blood Granbehl, from what I’ve heard. Good-looking, talented, good instincts both in and out of the Relictombs…you get the picture.”
I was nodding along with what Alaric was saying. “Likely to be the future head of the house?”
Alaric nodded in return as he stored the sheath in his dimension ring and rested his shortsword against the side of the carriage so he could get more comfortable. “A shoo in, yes. His death is a hard blow for Blood Granbehl.”
“But ascenders die in the Relictombs all the time,” I said, half to myself. “I’ve seen it first hand in the convergence zone. Most of the mages who entered that place didn’t leave.”
“Aye, but an experienced ascender who doesn’t want to take on too much risk can make some good will and a name for himself by leading preliminary ascents for noble brats,” Alaric said sagely.
For a moment I was reminded why I had agreed to work with the old drunk in the first place. Despite his lack of grace, Alaric was very perceptive. Then he belched loudly, and I wondered, not for the first time, if it wasn’t all just blind luck and alcohol-inspired overconfidence.
“Damned armor’s too bloody tight,” he grumbled, tugging at the edges of the blackened steel chestplate.
“So they’re angry about losing their heir apparent, but how does pinning his murder on me help?” I asked, frowning across the carriage at Alaric.
“Not sure yet, to be honest, but this”—he tapped his dimension ring, indicating the jeweled sheath—“will help make tongues wag. You’re right, though. It doesn’t make sense on the face of it. Proving murder in the Relictombs…well, it’s damned tricky, especially with only one eyewitness.”
“Two,” I said, my frustration bleeding into my tone, “but they’re refusing to let Caera act as a witness on my behalf.”
“Caera, is it?” Alaric waggled his thick eyebrows up and down, an expression that reminded me of Regis for some reason. “Spent some quality time with the highblood beauty in the Relictombs, aye? Shared a few romantic evenings slaughtering beasts, then cuddled by the fire, still crusty with blood from the day’s fighting…” He trailed off under the weight of my withering glare. “All right, don’t pop your cork, boy. All I’m saying is I know how it gets when you’re facing death every day. No one would blame you—”
“Alaric,” I said, my voice low and calm but humming with an obvious threat even he couldn’t miss. “Get to the point.”
“Let’s think this through then, shall we?” he said quickly. “Highblood Denoir is more powerful than Blood Granbehl, but the latter’s hungry and punching above their weight. What would the Denoirs gain by allowing their precious princess to be entangled in this whole trial fiasco?”
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He paused, looking at me with unfocused eyes. “What was the question?” He scratched at his messy hair. “Oh, right. Nothing, that’s what. They don’t want it getting around that the adoptive daughter of the noble Highblood Denoir snuck off into the Relictombs with some bloodless rookie. It looks bad. All they have to do is let the Granbehls eat you alive and, for them at least, the whole situation goes away.”
“But what do the—”
The carriage swerved and our driver exchanged shouted insults with someone. Alaric grinned.
“—Granbehls have to gain by putting me on trial?” I finished.
“We’re going around in circles now,” he said. “Perhaps they’ve hedged that there’s more to you than you told the three Granbehl siblings. You’re freaky powerful, enough to alter the difficulty of any level you walk into. Depending on what young Ada’s said, they may be hoping you’re secretly some disguised highblood that they can recoup losses from by forcing the issue in front of a panel of judges.”
That made sense. It would be a chance to get something back from Kalon’s death, I mused.
‘But they still have to prove it was murder, right?’ Regis pointed out. ‘Which they can’t do, because, y’know, it wasn’t.’
I echoed this thought to Alaric.
“That’s what’s got me worried,” he grumbled. “And why I’ll be doing some digging. Blood Granbehl must have something up their silk sleeves if they’re going to all this trouble.”
We sat in silence for a minute, listening to the wooden wheels of the carriage crunch over the stone streets. “So,” Alaric said, “how many zones did you make it through?”
“Three,” I said, a little bitterly. I should have just kept going.
‘And get yourself killed because you were distracted by the genocide of your girlfriend’s entire race?’ Regis asked. ‘Cooling your heels in a jail cell is probably not a bad thing for you right now.’
You were telling me to fight our way out not ten minutes ago, I thought incredulously.
‘Hey, I’m nothing if not inconsistent,’ he replied, letting out a barking laugh.
Alaric whistled in response to my answer. “You were in there for a few days longer than I’d expected, even after word got around about the Granbehls. Must have been weeks for you.”
I only nodded. The Granbehls would be forcing me to recount every painful detail of the ascent soon enough, and I wasn’t eager to go through it with Alaric too.
The carriage slowed to a halt, and I heard heavy iron gates rattle open outside. “Must be there,” Alaric said as he lifted his helmet off his lap and set it carefully over his head.
“You never told me how you arranged this,” I said, waving my hand at his black armor and the carriage around us.”
I couldn’t see his face, but I could tell he was grinning beneath the helmet. “Friends in low places, pup. Don’t worry, old Alaric is going to get you out of this. I’m not letting you avoid paying me the rest of my forty percent…”
The carriage surged forward, but stopped again only a few seconds later. I steeled myself for whatever was to come, but a thought occurred to me as someone began unlocking the carriage door from the outside.
“Alaric, take the dimension ring,” I said, holding my shackled hands up with my fingers splayed out. “It’ll raise suspicion if they check it and see nothing stored in there.”
He plucked it off my finger and slipped it into the bracer of his armor. “Good thinking.”
A second later, the door on my side of the carriage opened and one of the black-armored knights grabbed my arm and pulled me roughly out into a broad courtyard fronting a large manor house. It was an imposing residence made mostly of dark stone with steeply pitched roofs, with sharply pointed arches over the windows and doors.
At least twenty of the Granbehl knights stood in the courtyard, flanking the carriage. A man and woman waited beneath the mansion’s veranda, which had some kind of blue-leafed ivy growing in thick vines across it.
I could tell immediately that they were Lord and Lady Granbehl. Both were fair-haired and wearing fine dark clothes with silver trim. Lord Granbehl had the same broad-shouldered build as his sons, while Lady Granbehl was like an older, more beautiful version of Ada.
The knight grabbed me by the shackles and dragged me toward the lord and lady. Three other knights fell into position beside and behind me, their weapons held at the ready.
‘This might be your last chance,’ Regis suggested. ‘Think of how badass it would look if you just snapped those shackles in half and drove all these mages to their knees with your “angry eyes” before just vanishing with God Step.’
You mean my aetheric intent? I struggled to keep my eyes from rolling as I stood face to face with Lord and Lady Granbehl. Her eyes were red, and I could see dark rings under them through the makeup she’d used to paint her face.
Lord Granbehl’s jaw tightened as he looked down at me from the edge of the veranda. I saw the blow coming long before he threw it, but didn’t flinch when his heavy fist swung down, landing a solid punch against my temple.
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“Take this murderous dog to the cells,” he ordered, his voice booming across the courtyard. The knights behind me all stamped their spears against the ground twice as my guard hauled me by the shackles into the house, along a finely appointed hallway, and down a set of stone steps that led first into a cellar and then into a sort of dungeon.
There were four cells, all of them empty. Runes were etched along the floor and bars of the cell doors. I couldn’t read them, but I was sure they were meant to keep people from using mana within, perhaps a backup to the mana-suppression cuffs.
The guard shoved me through the barred door into one of the cells and forced me up against the wall. He began to pat me down, feeling my pockets, along my sides, and up and down my legs.
Next, he pulled up my cloak and shirt to examine the false-spellform runes on my back.
When he was finished, he turned me roughly around and stared at my hands before giving me a furrowed look, which—along with his massive build—reminded me of Caera’s bodyguard, Taegan.
“Where’s all your stuff?” he asked.
“It was all in my dimension ring,” I lied, “which I lost in the last zone we went through.”
The big guard gave a shrug before stepping out of the cell and slamming the door. “Lord Granbehl will be down in a minute. I trust you won’t get lost in here.” The guard laughed stupidly at his own joke as he stomped away.
I was too tired and mentally drained to bother offering the man any sort of reaction, instead turning my attention to the accommodations.
The cell was solid stone with no windows. A cot—little more than a thin piece of fabric stretched across a wood frame—was pushed up against one wall. There was a drain in the corner instead of a chamberpot. That was it.
Well, we’ve slept in worse places, I told Regis as I sat down on the cot.
‘What now, effeminate one?’ Regis asked, deepening his voice to mimic Taegan.
I let out a scoff while rummaging through my dimension rune. First I need to make sure Ellie is okay.
I pulled out the cracked relic, but it was still dull, and it didn’t react when I probed it lightly with aether.
‘Is it broken?’ Regis asked, and I could sense him attempting to be consoling. Although I wasn’t in the mood for pity, I couldn’t prevent his emotions from seeping into me, and it helped to ease my mind.
I reached for the godrune that channeled Aroa’s Requiem. Swirling violet motes of aether danced along my skin and over the relic, concentrating into the small crack before fading away. The crack was still there, and the stone still dull and lifeless.
My hopes fell for a moment, but I steeled myself against the disappointment. Focusing on the aether in the air—which was much less than in the deeper zones—I examined the relic carefully. The aether was drifting slowly closer to the relic, where it congregated around the crack and, I saw with surprise, was eventually drawn inside it.
It’s recharging, I realized. Though I had hoped to look for Ellie immediately and prove to myself that she was alive, knowing that the relic was still functional was a relief.
I stored the device away and pulled a different stone from the extradimensional storage rune: the rainbow-colored egg where Sylvie still slumbered.
It was heavy and warm, and there was a hunger emanating from it. How long had it been since I had tried to fill the reservoir within with aether? Too long…but doing so was draining, and would leave me defenseless—and if I didn’t have enough aether, it wouldn’t release Sylvie anyway.
I turned the iridescent stone over in my hands as I considered what would come next. It would be three weeks until the trial, and I was sure to be questioned, possibly even tortured. That didn’t really matter though.
The sight of Elenoir being destroyed flashed in my mind.
The reality of it was beginning to settle onto my shoulders like a heavy weight. I’d always known I was going to have to fight Agrona and the Vritra Clan…but would I also have to defend Dicathen from the rest of the asuras, too?
All the more reason for me to return to the Relictombs as soon as possible. With three weeks to rest and plan, I should be more than prepared for my next ascent…though there was a small doubt nagging at the back of my mind.
‘It’s not exactly productive for us to just throw ourselves headlong into the Relictombs over and over again looking for these other “ruins,”’ Regis said, giving voice to my own doubts.
We just have to let the Relictombs guide us, like it did when we reached the first one. Sylvia’s message said she imprinted the locations into my mind. Maybe that acts as a kind of…key when we’re moving from zone to zone.
Regis was silent. The dangerous truth was that we didn’t know. There were too many questions and no answers at all. Despite two increasingly difficult ascents, I was no closer to learning how to wield Fate…or even really what this “higher edict” truly was.
My shoulders sank from the weight of my thoughts and role in all of this. And with the scale of things so much grander than even when I was a king, I couldn’t help but feel alone…now more than ever.
I held Sylvie’s egg close to my chest, trying to feel some semblance of life within. Eventually, my thoughts drifted and my world darkened.
I curled up around Sylvie’s egg and held it close to my chest.