The Beginning After The End - Chapter 367
It was freezing! The winds had turned, bringing icy mountain air down to Cargidan and giving us a chilly sendoff as we prepared to leave.
My breath frosted in front of me, rising and intermingling with the icy fog around us. I pursed my lips and blew out, watching it rise up and vanish.
It was such a small and stupid thing to do, but even being capable of this meant so much to me. Just a few years ago, a few cold breaths while playing with Circe—the two of us pretending to be dragons billowing fire instead of steam—was enough to get me bedridden.
I forced my lips to smile, tricking myself into thinking of these memories as happy ones, before turning my attention back to the scene around me.
It was early in the morning on the first day of the Victoriad, and we were all lined up outside of the tempus warp chamber, a small octagonal building at the heart of campus. A lot of other students, both those who would be competing in other events and those who had come to wish us good luck, hung around the courtyard, huddled into groups and wrapped in heavy cloaks. I even noticed a few who had dragged their bed blankets out here to stay warm.
There were a lot of students going to Vechor, too many to use the tempus warp at once, and our class was last in line to be teleported. Inside, Professor Abby of the Redcliff blood was in charge of teleporting each class in turn.
I looked around and noticed a figure hurrying through the crowd. The person was bound up in a furry parka with a hood so deep and padded that it completely hid their face. They got in line behind us and adjusted the hood slightly.
“Oh, hey Laurel,” Mayla said, giving the other girl a cheery wave. “Chilly, isn’t it?”
Laurel peeked out through the fur lining of the hood and her eyes squinted around in an apologetic smile until she found Professor Grey, who was standing off to the side with the two assistants. Her voice was slightly muffled as she said, “S-sorry, Professor. I had to find my coat. I h-hate the cold…”
“Now that we’re all here”—the professor dismissed Laurel with a wave—”I have a couple of things you each need to have.”
“Oh, presents!” Laurel said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
“Not exactly,” Professor Grey answered as he withdrew a bundle of items from his dimension ring and split them with Assistant Aphene and Assistant Briar.
Each student received two items. The first was a cloak made of velvet in the azure and black of Central Academy. The second was a white half-mask that covered my face from my hairline down to below my nose. A pattern of dark blue lines was painted over it, sharp and angular like runes, although more artsy. Small horns protruded from the top of each mask.
Mayla held hers up to her face. It was identical to mine except for the patterns, which were more natural and smooth, like gusts of wind or flowing waves. She stuck out her tongue and made a silly growling noise.
“I shouldn’t have to remind you,” Briar said disapprovingly, her focus on Mayla, “that Sovereign Kiros Vritra will be in attendance at the Victoriad. Since this is likely a first for all of us—being in the presence of a Sovereign—you need to understand a few things.
“While these items identify us as representatives of Central Academy, the mask in particular should be worn whenever you are within sight of Sovereign Kiros Vritra—which, for us, means at all times. Our behavior at the Victoriad represents not only the Academy, but, since we are from Central Dominion, the High Sovereign himself.
“Your victories are not yours, but his. You do not do this for your own glory, but for the High Sovereign’s. Any insult you may make, purposeful or inadvertent—such as going without your mask or looking Sovereign Kiros in the eye, will also reflect on the High Sovereign, and will be punished severely.”
The class was quiet as the rest of the attire was handed out. Laurel took hers and left us to join Enola at the front of the line.
Marcus, who was standing just in front of us, was staring down at his own mask with a strange, kind of distant expression. His fingers traced along the heavy, angular blue lines painted on it.
Mayla must have noticed his expression too. “What do you think your markings represent?”
He glanced up at her, his face tightening nervously for just a second before smoothing out into his usual at-the-ready sort of expression. “I can’t imagine the patterns are matched to us personally in any way, can you? After all, they’re to limit our personal identity before the Sovereign, not make us stand out as individuals.”
“Oh,” Mayla said, frowning. “I hadn’t really thought about it.”
Yannick, usually quiet, scooted a little closer to Marcus and leaned toward us. “The Vritra care about your utility, that is all. It is foolish to think otherwise.” He slipped on his mask—a pattern of jagged, wild cuts that looked kind of like claws—and tied it around the back of his head before moving away again.
The line began to move again as the class in front of us was brought into the tempus warp chamber, and the crowd broke up as people headed back to their rooms. A few people waved in the direction of our class, but I knew no one was waving at me.
I didn’t let this fact bother me, though. The truth was, even though I’d lost a lot, this season at the academy had been better than I ever could have imagined, and mostly due to Melee Enhancement Tactics. I was stronger physically than I’d ever been, even before I got an emblem. The sickness I’d lived with my entire life, which I had always expected to kill me, was almost entirely gone.
Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined I would be an emblem-bearer. Even Circe had hoped only that I wouldn’t end up an unad with a sickness likely to kill me before my twentieth birthday.
And I was good at something. Maybe I wasn’t as strong as Marcus, as fast as Yannick, or as powerful as Enola, but after training under Professor Grey, I knew I could get in the ring with any of them and give them a fair fight. But more than that, my classmates all showed me respect, even Valen…maybe not Remy or Portrel as much, but at least Valen kept them from beating me up anymore.
If they even could, I reminded myself, unable to suppress a silly grin.
I glanced at the professor, who had turned away from us to watch a blue-haired woman approach.
I really didn’t understand him. Even though he always seemed reluctant, he taught all of us how to be passable fighters. I knew he didn’t really like us, especially me. Actually, that’s a pretty huge understatement. Sometimes, the way he looked at me, I thought he must hate me. But I had no idea why.
Mayla elbowed me sharply in the ribs. “Ooh, do you have a crush?”
I flinched and stared at her in confusion. “What?”
“You’re totally staring at Lady Caera,” she teased, and I realized I must have been looking at Professor Grey for a while, lost in thought. “She is awfully pretty, but she’s a little old for you, isn’t she?”
I opened my mouth, no idea how to respond to Mayla’s teasing, but Professor Grey started speaking and I kept quiet to hear.
Assistant Professor Caera looked behind her, then back at him, one hand on her chest. “Excuse me? Have you already arrived in Vechor, Professor Grey? Because if not, it seems I am perfectly on time.”
“Besides,” Mayla murmured, leaning in toward me, “I think she’s already taken.”
I blushed and turned away, super uncomfortable even thinking about the stern professor’s love life. I was saved from any more teasing as the line started moving again, and we were all invited into the warmth of the tempus warp chamber.
Once we were all inside, Professor Abby arranged us in a circle around the device, which was humming gently and putting off a warm radiance. A few of the students shuffled closer, putting their hands out to warm them.
A breeze kicked up out of nowhere, and I realized that someone was casting wind magic. Mayla giggled and pointed: Professor Abby’s hair was dancing lightly around her as she led Professor Grey by the arm to an open place in the circle. “I’m really looking forward to this, aren’t you, Grey?” she asked, her bright voice carrying in the small chamber. “The Victoriad is so exciting, and there is so much to do! We should get a drink while we’re there.”
Some of the other students burst out into muffled snickers so that I couldn’t hear the professor’s answer.
Whatever it was, Professor Abby pouted as she moved to the anvil-like tempus warp artifact and began to activate it.
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I took a deep breath to steady myself, feeling my nerves start to flare. Not so long ago, I would have come up with any reason to keep from doing this, but now…I was ready. I was excited even. I was going to have fun and do my best, and even if I got knocked out in the first round, it didn’t matter, because I got to go to the Victoriad.
There was a feeling of warmth and the sudden smell of the sea.
Thousands of voices came together in a chaotic roar, and I realized we were standing on a massive stone walkway in the middle of a ring of black iron posts topped with lighting artifacts. A dozen identical platforms lined the walkway.
Before I could take even a second to look around, a man in a blood-red mask that was made to look like some kind of monstrous demon swept into the center of our group. “Welcome to Vechor and the city of Victorious. Professor Grey of Central Academy and the Melee Enhancement Tactics class, correct?”
“Right,” Professor Grey answered, not looking at the man but staring around at the streams of students in different styles and colors of masks that were moving steadily by.
“Please make your way to the staging area,” the man said, pointing after the trail of students from all over Alacrya. “Staging area forty-one, on the south side of the coliseum. From there you’ll be able to watch the other competitions as well as prepare for your own.”
The professor thanked the man and gestured to Assistants Briar and Aphene. “Don’t let anyone wander off.”
Reminding me of the veteran drill sergeants I’d read about in stories, the two assistants herded us into two lines and guided us into the river of students and teachers coming from the other platforms. I was separated from Mayla and found myself walking between Valen and Enola instead.
High steps led down from the stone path and into a sea of brightly colored tents and canopies. Aside from the noise of the students and their teachers, there were also the shouts of dozens of merchants all fighting each other for attention through the chaos, the braying of mana beasts, ringing of forge hammers, and the random pop of distant magical explosions.
Looming over all of this was a massive coliseum. The curving walls rose high above us, casting a long shadow over the merchant stalls. From where we were, I could see a dozen different entrances, each with a long line of well-dressed Alacryans slowly filtering through. At the closest, a large, armored mage was waving some kind of wand over each attendee before allowing them in.
“Wow, it’s so…big,” I said, stumbling over my tongue.
Behind me, Valen snorted. “All that reading and ‘wow, it’s big’ is the best you can come up with?”
Enola chuckled at this, her neck craning to see the top of the coliseum walls. “Something like this…it can steal the words from any of us.”
I tried to think of something witty to shoot back at Valen, but it took far too long and the moment passed.
Our line split into two, one group heading left while our class followed the right-most stream, which took us down a wide boulevard between two rows of merchant stalls. Everyone was immediately distracted by the huge variety of goods and souvenirs on display.
The entire thing seemed like a carnival, with well-dressed and masked attendees wandering everywhere while a hundred merchants and gamesmen tried to get their attention.
We all gasped when we passed by a lumbering, six-legged beast with a flat head like a boulder and pockets of glowing crystals growing all over its body. It reared its awkward head at us and let out a grinding bellow, nearly sending Linden toppling over backwards.
A mage who swallowed fire from a stick and then made it come out his ears danced alongside our group for the length of several stalls before Assistant Briar shooed him off, getting a good laugh out of the class.
Shortly after that, we were all forced to stop short as a procession of highbloods from Sehz-Clar passed ahead of us wearing dazzling battlerobes and jeweled masks. One in particular caught my eye, or rather the silver medallion that hung from his belt did.
“What does ‘In blood, remembrance,’ mean?” I asked to no one in particular. Something about the phrase was familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
“It’s worn by fools that are too stubborn to forget the last war between Vechor and Sehz-Clar,” someone said under their breath.
Looking around, I saw Pascal staring at me, scowling. The right side of his face was wrinkled from a bad burn when he was younger, giving him a mean look even though he was generally a pretty nice guy.
“Oh,” I said, realizing I must have read it in one of the many books on inter-dominion conflicts I’d read. “You’re from Sehz-Clar, right?”
Pascal grunted and slowed down, looking at a bunch of jeweled daggers spread out on a booth next to the path. Assistant Briar was quick to snap at him to get back in line, but he was now several people back, too far away to talk to.
The winding route to the coliseum took us past clothiers and woodcarvers, blacksmiths and glassblowers, bakers and beast breeders. I couldn’t help but lick my lips at the smell of roasting meat drifting away from a butcher who specialized in the flesh of exotic mana beasts.
Each new sight was something I had never seen before, and the more I saw, the more excited I was. My eyes grew wider and wider as we marched along, and I saw a hundred things I wished I could stop and buy: quills that that used sound magic to translate your voice and write down whatever you said; elixirs that sharpened your mind and made it so you could memorize large amounts of information in just a short time; a dagger that contained its own wind spell and would return to your hand when thrown…
Actually, I decided that last one probably wasn’t such a great idea…
Eventually, we were directed to a separate entrance just for participants. As the many students from other schools made their way down a long slope that led into a tunnel below the coliseum itself, our group was forced to pause. A few dozen onlookers were gathered here, cheering and waving at the Victoraid competitors as we marched by.
“It’s a little overwhelming, isn’t it?” Enola said as she looked around and gave a little wave to several small children pressed against the short wall near the start of the descending tunnel.
“Yeah, a little,” I admitted.
She turned around, her surprise obvious even behind her mask. “A little? Seth, I’ve trained my whole life for this moment, and I’m still terrified.”
Portrel laughed, having snuck up through the line to stand next to Valen. “At least if you sh*t yourself, your cloak will hide the worst of it, Enola.”
Everyone within earshot groaned, and a hand came out of nowhere and scuffed the back of Portrel’s head, making him yelp with pain.
“Mind your manners,” Professor Grey said firmly. “And keep the inane chatter to a minimum.”
Portrel rubbed his head and gave a smirking Enola a sour look, but then the line began to move again and our class started descending the ramp.
More than a couple of the others cast longing glances back toward the merchants as we dipped down into the entrance tunnel, where solid stone cut out much of the noise from above. The huge structure above seemed to press down on us, making everyone go quiet.
“I’m sure there’ll be time to spend your parents’ money later,” Professor Grey said into the heavy silence, adjusting his mask and glancing around the dim tunnel. Thick wooden doors and intersecting tunnels opened to the left and right at irregular intervals, hinting at a large underground network beneath the coliseum floor. “For now, remember what you’re here for.”
I stared at the professor’s back as he moved to the front of our class. Here, in the middle of so many students my own level, his ability to entirely suppress his mana made him stand out even more. It was so perfect, I would’ve guessed he was an unad if I hadn’t known better.
We all slowly wound through the coliseum underworks until another sloping path led up onto the edge of the combat field, and we all got our first look at just how massive the structure really was.
According to The Wonders of Vechor, Volume Two by the historian and ascender Tovorin of Highblood Karsten, the oval combat field was six hundred feet long and five hundred feet across, capable of seating fifty thousand people in the open-air seats and with fifty private viewing boxes.
Still, the book didn’t even come close to doing the place justice. There was no way the numbers could express how truly enormous the Victorious coliseum was.
Tens of thousands of spectators had already taken their seats, blurring into a sea of color as each blood displayed their own emblems as well as masks that represented their dominions and Sovereigns. A few cheered at our appearance, but most of the crowd seemed oblivious to our presence.
Many of the younger named and highblood men and women in the audience were sending up bursts of magic to create sparks of lightning or bolts of colorful flame that exploded in midair. Under this display, several dozen warriors and mages were already on the combat field, training and preparing for the upcoming tournaments, and their shouting and spellwork added to the cacophony and gave the impression of a huge battle.
The tunnel entrance had come up in front of staging area thirty-nine, and once again the groups of students broke left or right. We found the section labeled forty-one easily, and Assistant Briar led the way into what was part private viewing chamber, part training room.
“This is so cool,” Remy gushed, receiving a round of agreement from several others as everyone stared around.
Dark-stained walls separated each staging area from the next one, while the rear wall was made of stone with a single door that opened into a bunch of tunnels that led up into the stands. The front, facing the combat field, was open, although a series of portal emitters generated a shield that would keep anyone inside safe from the magical battles happening just outside.
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The room itself was spacious enough for five times as many students as there were in our class, but none of us complained as we spread out and eagerly began to explore.
“Normally we’d have to share a staging area with the entire delegation from Central Academy,” Valen was explaining to Sloane, “but I saw the rest of the students from our school being led in the opposite direction. My grandfather’s doing, I’m sure, giving us a private space.”
The rest of the class settled in, but I was drawn to the front of the staging area so I could look out onto the combat field. It was nearly all set up, and the first events would begin in only a couple of hours, including ours.
I rested my hands on the balcony, suddenly finding myself wishing Circe was here to see this with me.
Everything my sister had done, she had done for me. She went to war for me. She died for me. But she’d never be able to see the results of her efforts. The war, won. Her brother, completely healed.
If Circe hadn’t done these things, she would have been alive. Mother and Father might have been alive. But I wouldn’t, at least, not in any way that mattered.
I wouldn’t be here.
Letting out a sigh, I looked dumbly into the distance, staring at the combat field without truly seeing it.
I liked to think that Mother and Father were with Circe now somewhere in the beyond, waiting for me to join them someday.
My thoughts wandered to maybe one day traveling to Dicathen myself. Afterall, if I could do this, then I could do just about anything.
I could make her a tombstone…no, a statue! There would be—
I grimaced, my mood souring. Assuming we don’t all get ground to dust between the Vritra and the asuras.
“Don’t tell me you’re already feeling sick,” Professor Grey said, appearing beside me.
I flinched, stumbled over my reply, then finally said, “N-no sir, not sick. Just…” I trailed off, swallowing down the urge to tell him everything I was feeling, knowing without a doubt that he didn’t want to hear any of it. “I’m fine, sir.” Then, as if some outside force had suddenly taken control of my mouth, I blurted out, “What if I’m not good enough?”
Professor Grey watched me for a few seconds, his face impassive. “Good enough for who? The crowd of pompous highbloods? Your classmates?” He lifted one eyebrow. “Yourself?”
“I…” Whatever I’d been about to say, the thought died on my lips. I didn’t know how to answer him. To make her sacrifice worthwhile, I thought, but couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud, because I wasn’t sure it was even true.
A horn blared, making me jump. The combat field was empty. Four huge fireballs flew into the air and exploded, sending multi-colored sparks showering down across the coliseum.
“It’s starting!” someone shouted, and the rest of the class crowded up to the front around me and the professor.
There was a low rumbling noise, so deep I felt it more than heard it, and a huge ramp in the center of the arena began to lower. Four guards appeared, marching up the ramps into the sunlight and dragging heavy chains behind them. Attached to the other end of the chains by manacles at their wrists and ankles were a crowd of people.
The prisoners were dressed in loincloths and chest wraps, their bodies painted with runes. Some marched up the ramp, but others were practically dragged. Many had roughly shorn hair that had been shaved at the sides to show off pointed ears, while others were shorter and stouter…
Just like the elves and dwarves of Dicathen.
The crowd began to boo the Dicathians, shouting out jeering insults and taunts as the guards gathered the prisoners into a group at the very center of the combat field. The prisoners huddled there, staring around in obvious dread as the ramp closed behind them.
The guards hurried off the combat field and the stadium grew quiet again as everyone waited to see what was going to happen. This quiet lasted the space of a few breaths, then the grinding noise came again as two smaller ramps lowered to either side of the prisoners.
Four dark-furred beasts stalked up ramps. Each one looked like a wolf, except long-legged and with burning orange eyes. Their teeth were shaped like arrowheads and shone black in the sunlight.
“Black-fanged wolves,” Deacon said. “Rated as B-class monsters on the Dicathian scale. They have fire-resistant fur and can eat rocks! Isn’t that insane?”
“I don’t think they’ll need rocks tonight,” someone else muttered.
The chains fell with a clang to the ground, magically separating from the prisoners’ manacles and causing the black-fanged wolves to scurry away momentarily.
The Dicthians began to move as the stronger, healthier-looking people pushed the weaker and frailer ones into the center of the group. I didn’t sense any mana or or see spells being cast.
The black-fanged wolves’ wariness didn’t last long. Once they realized their prey was entirely defenseless…
The first of the beasts launched itself into the ring of defenders, its dark fangs closing around a man’s head. The other three followed, and although the prisoners fought back, kicking and punching wildly, there was nothing they could do.
The stands exploded in noise at the bloodshed.
A sudden shiver ran down my spine and made my skin break out in goosebumps. I jerked, staring around for the source of the sharp, bitter cold aura raking at me like claws.
Standing right next to me, he seemed—just for an instant—like an entirely different person. He was as still as a statue, and his normally inexpressive face was sharp as a blade. His golden eyes, dark and ruthless, gazed down at the combat field with such ferocity that it burned even to me.
Only Lady Caera seemed to have noticed. When she reached out and curled her fingers around his wrist, I flinched away, instinctively afraid that the killing intent I felt would lash out at her.
Then the spell was broken, and I was left with an empty feeling, like someone had scooped out my insides with a frozen shovel.
Why did seeing the Dicathians make him so distraught?
Did his family die over there too? I wanted to ask.
Before I could work up the courage to say anything at all, an even more overwhelming presence settled over the staging area. I immediately felt like I was back in the training room, the increased gravity crushing me into the ground.
Brion and Linden both kneeled immediately and pressed their faces to the floor while the rest of the class looked around in bewilderment, the “battle” outside completely forgotten.
As one, we turned to face the figure that had just appeared in our staging area. Laurel let out a whimper and fell to her knees, and soon the rest of the students had followed suit. I realized with a stabbing panic that only Professor Grey, Lady Caera, and I were still on our feet, but my legs were locked straight, and I couldn’t move.
She met my eyes, held me there, and I felt like I was sitting in the palm of her hand as she inspected me. I tried again to kneel, but couldn’t look away from her face, the only one in the room not covered by a mask.
Purple paint flecked with gold stained her lips, and her cheeks glowed with silver stardust. Dusky pearl hair rose up in braids and curls atop her head, resting between two narrow, spiraling horns. She wore a battle dress crafted from scales that glittered like black diamonds and a fur-lined cloak that was so dark it seemed to absorb the light.
I wanted to look away, to close my eyes, to do anything. But I couldn’t.
Then a heavy hand was on my shoulder, forcing me out of my stupor. I let myself fall, dropping immediately to my knees with a grunt of pain.
“Scythe Seris,” Professor Grey said from above me… “How nice to see you again.”