The Beginning After The End - Chapter 353 - Paradigm Shift
I kicked one leg over the rooftop’s sheer ledge, leaning back against the crenelated wall and letting my attention wander across the Central Academy campus. Regis, back to his full strength in the form of a large shadow wolf, put his front paws atop the red stone merlon and let the cool breeze fan the flames of his mane.
It was still early morning and the campus was mostly dark, with a spray of pink and orange highlighting the distant horizon. Despite the hour, students were already active around the campus, exercising or working through drills. Flashes of occasional magic lit the campus like fireworks, but it was whisper quiet atop the tower. Perfect for thinking.
“So, you really think we should stay, huh?” Regis said, sniffing at the wind. “With the relic…”
I leaned my head back and stared into the blue-black sky. “The ascension half of the Compass stays in place when we enter the Relictombs. Even though we can come and go at will, we still need a safe place to activate it.”
Regis looked back at me curiously, his glowing eyes intelligent. “And is this place really that safe? We could go back to Darrin Ordin, or hell, just find a cave in the mountains somewhere or something.”
“That’s another set of variables that I can’t account for. Here, I know what to expect. We’re at risk no matter where we go in Alacrya, but at least we have a story here, an identity.”
As a professor, not only did I have a cover story and political protection, but I’d come to realize that the respect inherently offered to my position was its own kind of shield. Whatever curiosity or doubt my students and co-faculty might have about me, it was unlikely that they would ever suspect I was a Dicathian spy. There were a host of simpler explanations for any missteps I might make, and the wealthy and powerful would always assume any mystery somehow fit into their own pet intrigues.
“Besides, we don’t fully understand the Compass yet.”
Regis stretched before lying down lazily. “Don’t we? It seems simple enough to me.”
I took out the descension half of the Compass from my storage rune and stared idly at its curved and unblemished surface as if waiting for it to refute Regis.
He was right though. While one half of the relic created a portal into the Relictombs, the other allowed me to return, although not by creating a second portal. It had taken me some time to piece the functionality together, as the second half of the relic had not reacted in any way when I entered the Relictombs, forcing me to clear the zone. However, when I imbued aether into it near the zone’s exit portal, the second half of the relic had blazed to life, outlining the portal with a brilliant light. When the glow faded, I could see my rooms on the other side, Caera waiting impatiently for me to return.
Being able to enter and leave the Relictombs at will changed everything. After the original test, Caera, Regis, and I had gone back in together to further explore the relic’s capabilities, absorbing a significant amount of aether in the process.
“So, exactly how much grape juice can your core hold now?” Regis asked, obviously reading my thoughts.
Despite exploring the zone for an hour or more, and absorbing aether from both the beasts I killed and the atmosphere, I still hadn’t reached the two-layer core’s limit. “We’re not calling it that,” I said with an amused huff, “and I don’t really know. At least ten times more than before.”
Eager for any excuse to tap into that power, I withdrew the seed-pod toy from my dimension rune. My companion shifted to lie on his side, watching me work with a slightly bored air.
The size of my aether reservoir had never been the primary roadblock keeping me from completing Three Steps’ challenge, but the increased purity of my stored aether and efficiency of my aether channels only made focusing on it easier.
When I channeled aether to my hand to form the claw, I could feel the difference right away. First, the drain on my core wasn’t even noticeable. The form of the claw was steadier and more solid, and it felt inherently easier to focus. And while this claw was simply a step toward my real goal, it felt good to finally be making tangible progress.
Regis let out an exaggerated yawn, drawing my attention. Leaning lazily on his side, he made a show of extending and retracting his own, sharper and longer, claws.
I scoffed. “Show off.”
Taking the hard shell in one hand, I slid a claw into the slot and fished around for the seed within. As it settled into the hole left behind by the stem, I pulled downward, trying to force it out, just as I had done dozens of times before. The claw held its form, automatically drawing on aether from my core to keep itself stable.
Releasing a slow, steadying breath, I imagined the shape of the claw extending and curving inward more deeply, almost wrapping around the small seed so that it fit perfectly within the curve. The aether responded quickly to my intention.
Then I pulled. Not too hard, but with a steady pressure that I slowly increased until the edges of the hole cracked and bulged outward, and I could feel the seed sliding through.
Then the pressure released.
The dull brown seed popped free and landed in my palm.
I stared down at it, imagining that the Shadow Claws had some ceremony to celebrate when one of their children completed this right of passage. If I’d had more time in the Relictombs with Three Steps, perhaps she would have had some encouraging memory to share with me to congratulate me, but…
A gust of wind whipped across the tower roof and tugged at the seed, forcing me to close my hand tightly around it. It was a strange and sobering thought to realize that the result of my long efforts with the seed-pod could be blown away in an instant, leaving nothing behind.
I glanced around the barren rooftop and the idle streets below. Snow-capped mountains rose purple in the distance. The unfamiliar stars above were fading away, absorbed by the sunrise.
For a Shadow Claw cub, retrieving the seed would have meant securing a place in their tribe. For me, though, it was simply a reminder that I was without one.
“I mean if you really don’t want it, I can take it off your hands,” Regis said, sniffing eagerly at the small brown sphere.
Following his gaze, I looked more closely at the seed and noticed a nick in the plain brown surface. A subtle purple glimmer was shining through where my claw had dug into the seed. Using an aether claw, I scratched away more of the brown, revealing a solid orb of condensed aether within, it’s signature entirely hidden away by the organic exterior.
As I stared at my prize, wondering just how much aether the seed contained, Regis’s chin came to rest on my knee. His bright eyes were locked on the seed, and his head inched closer.
Thinking back to the aether-rich fruit that grew in the jungle zone where I’d fought the millipede, I popped the seed into my mouth and swallowed.
It burned going down and settled in my guts like a molten stone as the seed’s aetheric core was broken apart and absorbed. My core thrummed as it accepted the rush of energy, and it was full in an instant.
It burned like a star in my solar plexus. I began to glow as a solid barrier of amethyst light shimmered across my skin, the aether threatening to escape. Flexing my intent, I felt the tower groan as its fortified stones and mortar strained against the pressure. The ambient aether buzzed to life, swirling like snowflakes around the rooftop.
“There’s a bit left over if you want it,” I said, snapping Regis out of his baffled daze.
My companion snapped his head away, scrunching his muzzle in a pout. “A god-made weapon of destruction like myself shouldn’t have to settle for second-hand scraps.”
Shaking my head, I closed my eyes and turned my attention inward, exploring my blazing core. “Suit yourself. I’ll take it all then.”
Regis placed a placating paw on my knee as he looked at me deadpan. “Many apologies, sir.”
“Smooth as gravel,” I smirked as the shadow wolf’s immaterial form merged with my body and began absorbing from the ocean of aether.
I stayed on the tower’s roof until mid-morning, watching the campus rouse while Regis was busy siphoning the remaining aether from the seed in me.
Bathing in the warm glow of the sun and my success, I descended the tower and headed toward my classroom. My steps felt light, as if I had been moving underwater all my life until now; the seed had contained significantly more aether than seemed possible, considering its size.
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I took my time to cross the campus, reluctant to face a room full of coddled Alacryan teens. Instead, I focused on controlling the power that was straining to burst out of me. The second layer of my core wasn’t an additive growth to my aether reserves, it was exponential. I could tell it would take time to adjust to the weight of it in my chest.
I had just passed the library when I caught sight of a familiar head of orange hair that faded out to bright yellow.
Briar was standing around with some other girls her age. One of them saw me and must have said something, because Briar turned and gave a small wave, causing her friends to giggle and tease her. Rolling her eyes at them, she broke away and walked quickly toward me.
“Hey, Professor,” she said, bouncing on the balls of her feet with her hands clasped behind her back. “I just heard. Congratulations. I am actually a little bummed that I’ve already taken that stupid class, otherwise I’d sign up. Vritra knows you’ll need good fighters.”
I frowned, caught off guard. “Sorry, what are you…?”
Her face reflected my own confusion. “Wait, have you not…Oh. Sorry, I assumed…” One of her friends called to her, and her frown deepened. “Nevermind. I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough. Take care. And…good luck.”
Just like that, Briar retreated and was folded back into the group of girls. Their heads bent together as they began to whisper, and Briar sent me one last uncertain look before they turned as a group and vanished into one of the many academy buildings I hadn’t explored yet.
‘What was that about?’ Regis asked.
Not sure. I’d seen the serious young Alacryan a few times around campus since she’d first guided me across Cargidan, but she never made a point to have friendly conversation.
Shrugging off Briar’s cryptic commentary, I turned toward the Striker complex, where my classroom was. I didn’t make it far before I was brought up short by another familiar face, one I would never have expected to see at Central Academy.
Am I seeing things? I asked Regis.
Someone bumped into me from behind. When I turned a sharp eye on the person—a young man wearing darkened steel armor over his uniform—he winced. “Sorry, Professor.”
I had to search for her in the crowd, as she was moving quickly, but she seemed to keep herself slightly apart from the stream of students, which made her stand out.
Walking even more quickly to catch up with her, I reached out and set a hand on her shoulder.
The young woman let out a surprised squeal and she spun around, her eyes wide and one hand going to cover her mouth.
I almost didn’t recognize the young mage from Maerin Town. She had just been a girl, equal parts nervous and excitable, but here, she seemed transformed.
Her surprise bloomed into delight as she recognized me. “Ascender Grey! It’s you! When I saw you listed as professor for the Melee Enhancement Tactics class, I had hoped, but then you didn’t show up the first couple days, so I thought—I don’t know—it was just a mistake or coincidence or something…” She trailed off as her cheeks turned red, reminding of her sister, Loreni, the first time we had met. Tucking a stray lock of auburn hair behind her ear, she said, “Sorry. I’m rambling.”
“Mayla, what are you doing here?” I asked. “After the bestowment ceremony—”
“I went through a bunch of testing with the Ascenders Association,” she answered, “and they sent me here to be trained, because of my emblem. At first I was really scared and bummed, because it’s so far from Maerin Town, but it’s actually been okay.” She glanced at a few of the passing students out of the corner of her eye. “Except some of the highblood students aren’t very nice.”
“Wait,” I said as her rushed words wormed their way through my surprise. “Is your blood name Fairweather?”
“Yup, that’s me.” She gave me a small curtsey.
“I didn’t realize when I saw you listed on my class roster…but where were you last session?”
She kicked at the ground and gave me a sheepish smile. “Sorry, some of the other students were picking on the no names, y’know, and a nice boy tried to stick up for us, but then they only made fun of him, too, so I ended up leaving when I saw the professor—you weren’t there. Hoped that it would help the boy, too.” She shrugged. “It’s okay, though, honestly. I’ve learned so much already, it’s hard to believe it’s only been a few months.”
I began moving again, gesturing for her to walk with me as we headed for the class. “You’re a Sentry, right? So why take a non-magic fighting class?”
Her expression brightened again. “I’m taking everything I can. I may be a Sentry, but if I’m going to the Relictombs then I want to be able to defend myself. Besides, it’s been totally fascinating so far.”
Mayla kept up a steady dialogue, telling me about her other classes and professors, as well as her sister and the other people of Maerin. Apparently, the town had received an influx in resources as well as interest from academies all over Alacrya after Belmun and she had received such advanced runes.
“The Ascenders Association even voted to expand services at the descension portal in Maerin which will lead to a huge boom in trade and merchants, so my family is—”
I held up a hand, quieting her as we approached the end of the hall in front of my classroom.
A small crowd had gathered there, all trying to peek through the small window in search of something inside.
Caera was the first to notice me, her lips pressed into a stern expression.
My eyes narrowed when I realized that Kayden Aphelion was also there. I had not spoken to him since the night when he nearly caught me teleporting out of the Reliquary. My first thought was that he had told someone after all, and a group of armed guards—or perhaps even a Scythe, like Dragoth or Cadell—was waiting for me, but then I remembered Briar’s congratulations.
When I saw the self-satisfied smirk on Professor Graeme’s face, however, I was again unsure. “It’s been a pleasure, Grey. Bad luck, really. Although, in my humble opinion, I would say that increasing the quality of this institution’s faculty is never bad,” he prattled before exchanging laughs with his associates nearby.
The rest of the professors broke up and moved away from my door, their expressions varying from pity to curiosity, with one old man even giving me a hard nod before stepping back. Caera squeezed my shoulder, eyes hard but comforting.
Kayden leaned in close and whispered, “Don’t let them take you down without a fight, aye?”
I paused, again picturing Cadell, Dragoth, or even Agrona himself standing in my classroom, waiting for me to arrive. Had the Scythes finally tracked me down?
‘As if we’d be so lucky,’ Regis said, now wide awake and practically humming with anticipation. ‘Do you think we’d even need to break out Destruction to kick Dragoth’s ass at this point? I mean, with that new dual-layer core of yours—’
Like the other professors had done, I glanced through the small window in my door. And while it wasn’t a Scythe waiting for me, what I saw didn’t exactly settle my nerves.
Four figures were standing at the bottom of the stadium seats, near the training platform. Valen of Highblood Ramseyer was speaking to the director, his grandfather, who shared the same dusky complexion as Valen, but wore his nobility less pompously. The head of the Combat Department, Rafferty, was standing off slightly to the side. I assumed by his stance—still as a statue with his gaze downturned to his shoes—that he was uncomfortable about something.
The fourth man was lean and muscular. His dark hair was pulled into a topknot, and he had come dressed in leather armor dyed the black and azure of Central Academy. He wore a broad smile that showed too much teeth and nodded along with whatever Valen was saying.
“Professor? Should I—”
“Wait out here,” I instructed Mayla, only just remembering that she was still there.
When I entered the classroom, Valen ended his monologue in favor of narrowing his gaze and jutting his chin. The stranger immediately turned his attention to me, his slate-gray eyes crawling across me as they studied me hungrily.
Director Ramseyer broke the silence. “Professor Grey. Come in. We do not mean to ambush you in your classroom, but a runner sent to your private suite this morning was unable to reach you.” Although the words were polite, his tone was clipped and sharp with reproach. “Now that you are here, however, we have a most serious matter to discuss.”
“Which is?” I asked, allowing my concern to come through in my voice.
“It has come to my attention”—Director Ramseyer shot Valen a pointed glance—“that your behavior toward this class has been less than attentive, Professor Grey. This is unacceptable at the best of times, but now more than ever it is essential that a competent teacher is available to guide the Melee Enhancement Tactics students.”
I stood tall, my shoulders loose as my hands clasped together behind me. “And why is that, if you don’t mind my asking?”
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The director, who himself stood ramrod straight, inspected me closely before answering. “In different circumstances, I would be here to congratulate you.” He paused, letting the moment linger. “As you likely know, Vechor will host the Victoriad this year. Melee Enhancement Tactics has been selected as one of the classes to compete.”
I opened my mouth to ask why, but Regis growled a quick mental warning to stop me.
‘The Victoriad is this huge tournament that brings Alacryans from every dominion to compete, mostly in combat. The type or class of combat is chosen by raffle, so intermediate non-magical combat must have been one of the classes picked.’
“I see,” I said out loud. Piss poor luck for us, though.
‘It’s worse than that. The tournament mostly focuses on the Scythes and their retainers,’ Regis continued. ‘Challenges are sanctioned by the Sovereigns, allowing a sufficiently powerful or connected mage to challenge an old Scythe or retainer for their place. Uto survived a dozen challenges over the years. The Victoriad is the last place we want to be.’
I met and held Director Ramseyer’s eyes, crossing my arms and cocking my head to the side slightly. “I understand why you might want to make a change. Am I to assume that this man”—I bobbed my head in the direction of the stranger—“is to take my place?”
“Indeed,” the director confirmed matter-of-factly. “This is Drekker of Highblood Vassere. He has been Valen’s private tutor for several years now, and is an excellent fighter. He has offered to lead this class in their preparation for the Victoriad, and I have accepted. He will start immediately, and you will be given—”
“I would like a chance to defend my post,” I said evenly.
Regis sighed in resignation. ‘My words might as well be a fleeting fart to you.’
The director squinted at me, frowning slightly. He seemed more intrigued than angry. “Please explain.”
Before I could speak, the door into the classroom banged open and Enola strode in, looking extremely irritated. When she saw the director and department head, however, she froze. Director Augustine held up a hand and said, “Please wait outside a moment, Miss Frost.”
“Let her stay,” I said, gesturing to the door. “In fact, let them come in and watch.”
“Watch what?” Rafferty asked, though his attention was on the director, not me.
“Let’s fight for it,” I said, looking past Valen and the director toward the tutor. “You need someone who has been in actual combat and can show the students how important being able to defend themselves without magic really is.”
“Excuse me?” my would-be replacement snapped, his aloof pompousness falling away. “I’ll have you know that I—”
“Let them watch our duel. It’ll give them confidence in whoever wins.”
Director Ramseyer rubbed his chin, his gaze flicking to the door where the students were starting to gather.
“Grandfather, this is preposterous. You can’t expect Drekker to—” The director waved for silence, causing Valen’s mouth to practically snap shut.
“Yes, an excellent idea, Professor Grey.” To Drekker, he said, “I am confident in your abilities, but showing them to the students will build excitement for the transition.”
Drekker bowed. “I am at your service, Director Ramseyer.”
‘You know, being able to read your mind only makes you more confusing.’
I gestured for the students waiting outside in the hall to enter. Enola slowly descended the stairs while the rest of the class filtered in, including Mayla. There was some confused chatter as people saw the director and department head, but at my signal, they all found their seats and quieted down.
The director stepped forward and introduced himself for the benefit of any students who had never met him before, then explained what was about to happen. A nervous tension settled over them, but I didn’t think it was for my benefit.
Most of their attention was firmly on Valen’s tutor as Director Ramseyer motioned him to step forward. “I know it is untraditional for the academy to step in and change a professor mid-season, and for this reason, I would like to more fully introduce Drekker of Highblood Vassere. Hailing from Sehz-Clar, Drekker has spent his entire life perfecting the art of combat as a Striker.
“An ascender, a soldier, a trainer, a tutor…you will find yourselves in very good hands with Professor Vaserre.”
‘But has he had his limbs blown off and regrown, bathed in lava, or been shat out an insect’s rectum like we have?’ Regis asked in a snippety tone. ‘I think not.’
Well put, I thought, holding back a smile as I watched the students.
Most of them had taken Melee Enhancement Tactics to goof off, not to learn how to fight, and I could tell from the nervous looks that several of them were already thinking about dropping the class. Those who were most excited—Enola, in particular, seemed about to burst out of her skin—were giving appraising looks to their potential new professor.
‘You act like you care what they think of you,’ Regis pointed out fairly. ‘The real question is…what the hell are you doing?’
I’ve just found another reason I need to stay as a professor.
I could feel my companion roll his eyes, but no other words were said.
“Now, if our combatants would please enter the ring,” the director announced, standing off to the side to allow a clear view for the students. “Let’s see who is best fit to prepare this class for the Victoriad.”
Drekker and I mounted the raised platform from opposing sides. The man had stopped grinning the moment I walked in the door, but now he was giving me a confident smirk. Making sure I was watching, he quickly shifted between multiple stances, his feet practically dancing across the platform. “Are you a proponent of the Vechorian guard stance or forward basilisk stance?”
Ignoring his question, I take a slow, measured breath, making sure my strength is restrained and I’m in control.
Director Ramseyer’s voice rang through the classroom. “Begin.”
Drekker’s feet flickered as his body swayed. I could see him raise his brows in curiosity behind his raised fists. “I implore you to get into a proper stance. Better yet, I give you the first move.”
I nodded as I put strength into my legs. “My apologies, this isn’t personal.”
The length between us disappeared as my fist slammed into my wide-eyed opponent, who was barely able to guard in time. Pivoting forward, I brought my right foot between Drekker’s legs and drove my elbow into the side of his head. Two strikes to the jaw and one to his ear, and Valen’s tutor hits the ground. I pinned one knee down under his collarbone as my other foot locked an arm in place.
My eyes flashed up to the director, waiting for him to call the match. Drekker flailed about, but only succeeded in slamming his forehead into my shin.
“I think that is quite enough, Professor Grey. It would appear there is more to you than I was told.” Director Ramseyer gave his grandson another pointed look. The boy had enough sense to look chagrined.
Releasing Drekker, I got up to my feet and offered him a hand.
Hair disheveled and face already beginning to swell, Valen’s tutor gave me a hard stare before accepting my hand and pulling himself up.
“I might’ve refuted if I thought I had a chance,” he acknowledged meekly.
Allowing a faint smile, I let go of his rough, calloused hand. “You have a strong guard.”
Hopping down from the training platform, I turned my attention to the students. Most were watching with open-mouthed surprise. Mayla beamed at me, while Enola was looking at me with a newfound flicker of respect. Seth, I noticed, wasn’t watching me, but was looking down at his own clenched fists.
Still, it was Valen who surprised me. The highblood boy didn’t sneer or scowl like I might have expected. Instead, he calmly took a seat next to Portrel and Remy, shushing them when they began to whisper frantically, and waited.
I rubbed the back of my neck. “Let’s get started.”