The Beginning After The End


Chapter 369

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Chapter 369


"They've been gone for so long," Pascal muttered to Deacon, who was standing next to him. We were all lined up in rows as a.s.sistant Aphene led us through a series of movements and forms to warm up our muscles. "What in the name of the High Sovereign could the Scythe of Sehz-Clar want with our professor, anyway?"

"Maybe he offended or angered her in some way?" Deacon suggested, fidgeting nervously with his mask.

Like me, Deacon usually wore, but they didn't fit with the masks. Luckily my sight had been slowly improving since my debilitating sickness went away, but Deacon kept having to pause and squint up at a.s.sistant Aphene to see what stance she had twisted her athletic frame into.

"Don't be stupid," Valen scoffed. "A Scythe wouldn't come personally for that. She'd send her retainer, or maybe just a bunch of soldiers. With almost all the Scythes present at the Victoriad, it's to be expected that they would appear in person at some point."

"Maybe the professor is Scythe Seris Vritra's secret lover!" Laurel giggled, hiding her mouth behind one of her long braids.

Mayla leaned toward me and whispered, "Someone needs to lay off the cheesy romance stories."

"Or he's been training to replace her retainer," Marcus suggested. "We've all seen how scary he can be when he wants to. Have you known anyone else, even professors, who can train so easily at max gravity in the fighting platform at school? He doesn't even break a sweat."

Valen shrugged, breaking form for an instant.

a.s.sistant Briar was walking around offering small corrections on the form of our movements. Her orange and yellow hair was pulled back, which for some reason made her look kind of scary. Like she was getting ready to kick someone's b.u.t.t. "Less chatter, more following along," she scolded.

"Interesting theories," Valen went on, his voice lower, "but it could be more mundane than that. I've personally met Scythes Cadell Vritra, Dragoth Vritra, and Viessa Vritra already myself. It's—"

"And I've kissed Scythe Melzri Vritra," Yanick said, cutting into the conversation and getting a surprised laugh out of everyone, even Valen. a.s.sistant Aphene cleared her throat and brushed the dark bangs from her eyes as she moved into a new stance.

"What I was trying to say," Valen said as the noise petered off, "is that it isn't unheard of for the Scythes to make social calls to high-ranking bloods."

"Except that Professor Grey isn't a high-ranking highblood, as far as we know," Deacon pointed out, huffing slightly from talking and stretching at the same time. "And besides, Scythe Seris Vritra is known to be a recluse. She doesn't make social visits."

I stayed out of the conversation, too embarra.s.sed by freezing up in front of the Scythe to say anything or draw attention to myself.

And so of course Mayla chose that moment to lean toward me again and ask, "Hey, you all right? You seem a little shaken up."

"More like frozen stiff," Pascal said, starting another round of poorly suppressed laughter. Mayla pinned him with a warning glare, and he held his hands up, wobbling slightly. "Just kidding, sheesh."

a.s.sistant Aphene cleared her throat again, but before she could scold anyone for talking, all eyes turned toward the front of the staging area, where an event official wearing a red demon mask had just appeared, marching into our s.p.a.ce and staring around.

At nearly the same moment, the door in the back wall of the staging area opened and the professor stepped through, Lady Caera just behind him. The professor raised a hand and seemed about to say something to the cla.s.s when he noticed the official.

"Professor Grey of Central Academy?" the official asked in a clipped tone.

"Are you here about the tournament?" the professor asked. "I hope I haven't kept you waiting long."

The official's eyes narrowed behind his mask as he marched across the room and held out his hand, which the professor shook perfunctorily. "You haven't, which is good as I have four more team leads to meet with."

He sniffed indignantly and began what sounded like a very rehea.r.s.ed speech. "The unarmed nonmagical duels begin in twenty minutes, Professor. Multiple matches run concurrently, but your students will be placed at these platforms closest when possible. Students should be at the ready at their a.s.signed ring no later than five minutes before their bout begins. This is a single-elimination tournament. Loss occurs by knockout, forfeit, or by being forced from the ring. "I'm sure I don't need to remind you, but magic is not allowed under any circ.u.mstances. Any use of mana beyond latent body-strengthening caused by the presence of runes will result in immediate forfeiture of the match and expulsion from the Victoriad. In addition, attacking with intent to maim or kill is also forbidden."

He took a breath as he unrolled the next length of his scroll. "The first compet.i.tors from Central Academy are: Enola, blood Frost, at ring six. Deacon, blood Favager, ring seven. Portrel, blood Gladwyn, ring nine. Sloane, blood Lowe, ring eleven."

I let out a sigh of relief. At least I wasn't one of the first to fight, so I wouldn't be the first one knocked out of the tournament. Probably.

Professor Grey checked with the four named students to ensure they had their ring numbers, then thanked the official.

He nodded curtly back. "We also ask that the team lead—in this case, you, Professor—remain present in case any issues arise." Spinning on his heel, the man then rushed out of our staging area and on to the next.

"Well, you all heard him. Let's—"

The professor paused, his gaze sweeping over the students.

"You look like a flock of little chicks waiting to be fed," he said with a sigh. "I suppose none of you are going to focus until I've explained, correct?"

"What did the Scythe want with you?" a.s.sistant Briar asked in a hushed tone.

The professor shrugged. "We drank tea and had a casual chat. Nothing special."

a.s.sistant Briar snorted and rolled her eyes as a.s.sistant Aphene wrapped an arm around her shoulder, grinning. "My grandfather won't believe I was standing so close to a Scythe, not even at the Victoriad!"

Laurel leaned in close to Mayla. In a singsong voice, she whispered, "Secret lover."

Everyone burst out with questions and excited comments, but the professor waved away the commotion. "Enola, Deacon, Portrel, Sloane...get to your rings. Everyone else, pay attention."

Enola and the others hurried out to the rows of combat rings and waited. Just like the official had said, they were fairly close by, near enough to see all four fights at once. I jogged to the front to get a good view, the rest of the cla.s.s right behind me, and ended up sandwiched between Mayla and Brion.

Enola was the first into her ring, striding confidently up the stairs right on the heels of the official who was leading her, her golden hair gleaming in the sunlight.

Deacon, on the other hand, walked like he was being sent to the director's office, his feet dragging on the ground, his head constantly swiveling to look back at us.

When Portrel did the same, I snorted in amus.e.m.e.nt. After all his trash-talking about me being nervous, there he was, constantly checking back over his shoulder to look at Valen, even when he was in the ring across from his opponent.

The combatants were introduced one by one, drawing a few excited cheers from the audience, but mostly from their own cla.s.smates at each staging area. Next, an organizer and referee shouted out the instructions, their voices all mixing up and growing muddy competing with each other and the crowd.

According to what I'd read about the Victoriad, the student tournaments were mostly just a warm-up event—incredibly important to the students and our bloods, but not really attended otherwise.

The fact that the stands were only half-full yet proved this, but didn't bother me. A smaller crowd means fewer people to see me get my b.u.t.t kicked...

The officials each raised their right hand, and all at once, they shouted out to begin.

It was chaotic trying to keep track of all four fights at once, not to mention all the other battles going on in front of us that weren't from Central Academy. I saw Deacon barely dodge as a dark-skinned girl with a mossy green mohawk jumped up and tried to knee him in the chest, but then Sloane landed a punch that dropped his opponent to the floor, and my attention turned to his fight instead.

Sloane jumped on his opponent, a broad-shouldered boy in a green and gold uniform, throwing knees and elbows, but Deacon let out a yelped and so I turned back to his fight just in time to see him stumble backwards through the s.h.i.+elding barrier to fall hard to the dirt.

Next to me, Brion hid his face in his hand, and there was a chorus of groans from the rest of the cla.s.s.

Mayla grabbed my elbow and pointed to Portrel, and I felt a distinct pang of jealousy watching the larger boy grab his opponent's fist out of the air. "He's so strong," I muttered.

"Yeah, it's crazy. Oh, ouch!" Mayla winced as Portrel slammed the boy he was fighting to the floor before knocking him out cold with three quick punches to the face.

"That's right! Knock his a.s.s out!" Remy shouted, his fists raised in the air over his head. Another cheer went up, and I realized with a jolt of excitement that Sloane won his match as well. "Way to go, Sloane!" I shouted, laughing when Brion threw his arm around my neck and jumped with excitement, cheering along with me.

Several other fights had also already ended, making it easier to see past the empty rings to where Enola was still going toe to toe with a girl who was at least four inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than her.

But that didn't even matter. Enola fought like a crazy demon. She was so talented, it was hard to believe I was competing in the same tournament she was. Even though the other girl was bigger than her, Enola was a way better fighter.

Hearing chanting coming from several staging areas down, I leaned over the rail and pointed the other school's students out to Mayla. "Do you know what academy they're from?"

"Not sure," she said with a shrug, not taking her wide eyes off Enola's fight.

"Bloodrock Academy," Marcus said, s.h.i.+fting over between me and Brion. "They tried pretty hard to recruit me, but my parents were set on sending me to the central dominion for training."

"They seem pretty intense," I said, watching the rows of students shouting and stomping in unison. There were a lot more of them than us, since we'd been given a private staging area away from the rest of the Central Academy students.

Laurel started chanting, "Enola! Enola!" and waving her arms around at everyone else, encouraging us to pick it up. The name rang through the stadium with the beat of a drum.

Our chant continued for as long as the fight went on, which was several minutes longer than any others. I got so into it that I found myself dipping and ducking, shadowing Enola's movements without really meaning to.

"Hey, watch it, Seth," Marcus grumbled when I accidentally stepped on his foot.

I stopped and gave him a tight-lipped smile. "Uh, sorry."

Mayla laughed, poking me in the ribs. "You're like, a fight nerd, Seth."

I stuck my tongue out at her, but then turned my attention back to the fight.

It was pretty clear when the larger girl started to get tired, and when she did, Enola moved in to finish it with one of the special combinations Professor Grey had taught us.

She threw several punches and kicks in quick succession, each one timed to take advantage of her opponent's most likely defensive action, pus.h.i.+ng to make the girl desperate, each dodge or block wilder and more out of place, and ending with a spinning elbow to the girl's undefended temple. Or at least, that's how the professor explained it.

Our staging area exploded. Mayla jumped on my back, surprising me and nearly knocking me over, but we only laughed and cheered even louder.

Enola, Sloane, Deacon, and Portrel entered the staging area shortly after to raucous applause.

I slapped Deacon on the arm. "Don't look so glum. You didn't do too bad, considering you couldn't even see."

"Whatever, at least now I can just sit back and relax," he mumbled, giving me an appreciative smile. "And watch the rest of you get your b.u.t.t's kicked, of course."

I wanted to congratulate Enola too but hung back with Deacon, Mayla, and Linden when I realized she was beelining for the professor. "'d I do?" she asked, almost too quiet for me to hear with Remy and Portrel wrestling around and shouting at each other.

"Your execution was a little sloppy. You'd have won in half the time if you'd..." He paused, then seemed to relax slightly. "You did well."

Enola beamed as she spun away, catching my eye for an instant. I gave her a thumbs up and mouthed, "Great job," then she was absorbed into the group as Brion, Linden, Marcus, and Pascal started peppering her with questions and reliving their favorite moments of her fight.

It seemed like only a few seconds pa.s.sed before the masked official was back, bringing the celebration in our staging area to a sudden halt. He repeated the part of his previous speech

about where to go and not using magic, blah blah blah, and I felt my body tightening up as he prepared to announce the next round of fights.

"Remy, blood Seabrook, ring seven; Laurel, blood Redcliff, ring eight; Mayla, blood Fairweather, ring nine; Seth, blood Milview, ring eleven."

A hand grabbed mine and squeezed. "Good luck, Seth!" Mayla said excitedly. "Let's show everyone just how much we've learned, okay?"

"Yeah," I said, my voice coming out hoa.r.s.e.

Then we were all marching out onto the combat field along with a dozen other students from other schools. I immediately blanked and forgot which ring I was supposed to go to, and ended up walking around in a circle before an official took me by the arm and dragged me to ring eleven. My face burned as I heard laughter from the closest staging area, but I didn't turn to look at which academy it was.

I blinked and suddenly the official was urging me up onto the combat platform opposite my opponent.

He wasn't much taller than me, but he was athletic, very much unlike me. Where I had pale, stick-thin arms, his were tan and muscular. My legs were trembling, but his were stout and tree trunks. His uniform was red and gray, and he wore a black mask with scarlet runes painted on it. "Not fair!" someone shouted from nearby. This time I did turn to look and realized I was right next to the Bloodrock Academy staging area. A huge boy—if he even was a boy, and not a mountain ogre in disguise—was leaning on the rail and shaking his head. "How'd you get so lucky, Adi? I didn't know little kids could compete in this event."

His cla.s.smates all hooted with appreciative laughter and cheered for my opponent, who was smirking now beneath his black mask.

The official said something that I didn't catch, then a heavy gong announced the beginning of the fight.

My opponent didn't even adopt a form, just sauntered across the ring toward me. With a casual air, he threw a forward kick at my stomach, looking at me with a frustrating mix of pity and disdain.

My training kicked in. I stepped to the side and forward while aiming a low kick at his ankle, knocking his foot out from under him. He crashed straight down with a pained grunt, his legs going in opposite directions, but I had already reversed my stance and kicked straight backwards with the other leg, my heel connecting solidly with my opponent's temple.

He collapsed sideways, mask askew and eyes rolling back in his skull.

*** You are reading on ***

And it was over. Pairs of students were still fighting all around me, but the official judging my match hopped up into the ring and shouted out my victory above the din, then instructed me to wait next to the ring until all matches had finished. The stunned boy s.h.i.+fted so I paused to offer him my hand to help him up, but he swatted it away and struggled to right himself.

And so I embraced it, picturing my friend, watching her fight against Gregor in my mind as I waited for the official to wave us up onto the fighting platform. I thought about how he had purposely prolonged the fight, how he had tried not just to win, but to hurt her. How he had succeeded.

I heard Professor Grey's voice in my head: Are you angry, Seth?

Yes, I was pretty freaking angry, but it was a more layered emotion than that. And it ran deep. Desperation, motivation, was all burning beneath the fog of fear in my mind and spirit.

And so I didn't run. I stepped into the ring and glared up at Gregor. He smirked back down. Everything else blurred into the background.

Then the gong was ringing.

My body started moving before I had any kind of plan or thought about what to do. I felt like just another onlooker as I quick-stepped forward and dipped right, just beneath the opening haymaker I knew Gregor would throw. I hit him with two quick punches in the kidney then retreated out of reach of the back kick that followed.

Gregor was stronger than me. He was faster than me, too, and had better form. I'd never had to fight anyone with the raw power behind their attacks he had. But Professor Grey hadn't tried to make me as strong as Enola or as clean as Valen. He knew I couldn't win on talent alone. Instead, he'd taught me to develop my own style, to lean into my natural talents.

a.n.a.lyze my opponent. Antic.i.p.ate their movements. Plan my counterattacks.

It was almost like a puzzle: see what the opponent does, consider the forms and combinations the professor had taught me, and then put the right one in the right place. It was a fighting style I could excel at.

Antic.i.p.ating Gregor's attacks, I ducked and dodged, throwing a few punches and kicks of my own when he left himself open, but retreating away from any concerted effort to corner me. The few times his blows landed, they slammed aside my inadequate defenses and nearly crushed me. Still, it was working.

"You hop around like a scared little toad," Gregor grunted after a couple of minutes. His wide, ugly face was red and his knuckles were white. "You're embarra.s.sing yourself. Fight back or get out of the ring, toad."

He launched a series of punches, elbows, and knee strikes that I only barely managed to slide away from, although I landed a strong kick to the inside of his thigh in return. Every time I

scored a blow, he swelled up and grew even more red, like an overwatered tomato about to burst.

But the real problem was that I wasn't hurting him. My kicks and punches just bounced off his heavily muscled body like he was wearing armor.

Eventually, my strategy failed.

Gregor engaged in a prolonged combination of quick kicks and sweeps, trying to put me on the ground. Several moves in, I lifted my foot to avoid a low kick at my ankle, responding with a kick of my own to the side of his knee. I overextended and couldn't get my feet back under me in time to avoid his big elbow cras.h.i.+ng into my shoulder and driving me painfully to the ground at his feet.

With a roar of victory, Gregor fell down on top of me, slamming his knee into my stomach.

The sound of my ribs breaking cut through my mind like a dagger, shredding my focus. My entire torso lit up with hot pain. The air in my lungs exploded out in a dull grunt, and I couldn't catch my breath again.

Gregor's fist fell, hammerlike, on the side of my head, making it bounce off the combat platform and filling my ears with ringing. Stunned, unable to defend myself at all, I just stared up at him and waited to get pummeled into unconsciousness. Only, the next punch didn't come.

Instead, Gregor stood and turned his back on me, arms out wide as he yelled something at his cla.s.smates. Their response was a meaningless roar in my malfunctioning ears.

I focused on trying to breathe until my lungs finally inflated again and my head cleared a little, just in time for Gregor to grasp the front of my uniform and pull me bodily to my feet.

"I hope you enjoyed that while it lasted," he said, his breath hot on my ear. "It's my turn to have some fun now."

My head snapped back as he drove his forehead into the bridge of my nose with enough force to crack my mask, which tumbled to my feet. The world jumped, s.h.i.+fting out of position as my eyes lost focus.

Three Gregor's all laughed in my face. "Going maskless in front of the Sovereign? You worm. You should be punished!"

Huge, hard hands wrapped around my throat and lifted me off the ground. Somewhere, so distant it could have come from another dominion, or even the other continent, someone shouted my name.

My fingers clawed at Gregor's wrists uselessly. I flailed, kicking his legs and kneeing his sides, but I might as well have been fighting back against a marble statue.

The wild, irrational thought that this ogre of a boy was going to kill me right then and there overtook me, and the desperation burned away some of the fog clouding my mind. I focused on my pulse, following the drumbeat in my skull back to awareness.

Releasing his wrists, I pushed my arms between his, forcing them as far up as I could. It wasn't enough to break his grip, but it gave me just enough room to tuck my legs up into my chest. The pain of my broken ribs tried to steal my breath again, but I focused on that pulse, timing my breath to the heavy thumps.

I wedged one foot up between his outstretched arms and kicked hard, my heel striking his nose with a wet crunch. I kicked again, then again, then braced myself.

With an animalistic battle cry, Gregor swung me down toward the ground.

I lurched forward, just getting my hands around the back of his neck and pulling him down with me. When we hit the ground, my knee was just under his solar plexus, and the full weight of his own attack combined with his body weight to drive my knee into his sternum and the mana core beneath it.

I felt something move and break in my leg or maybe my hip. Everything hurt as I was crushed beneath Gregor, so it was hard to tell. The arena flashed black, then slowly faded back in, blurry around the edges but still there. It was quiet. Almost peaceful, like a fine place to just lay back and die.

Gregor rolled off me, lying on his side just next to me. His mouth was opening and closing rapidly, his eyes bulging. Then he gagged and a stream of vomit splashed onto the platform between us.

A sufficiently hard strike to the mana core was a lot like getting kicked between the legs. And I'd just delivered enough force to his sternum to break my hip, I was pretty sure.

The official was on the platform with us now, shouting, but everything sounded like I had my head in a vat of tar. Still, I got the jist.

Rolling through Gregor's sick, I pushed him over on his back and forced myself up on one knee, sending lightning bolts of pain through my entire body. I raised my clenched fist and tried to meet Gregor's eyes, though neither one of us seemed to be able to focus. "Do you...forfeit?" He coughed, shaking his head. I gathered as much strength as I could manage and punched him in the solar plexus, sending his body into convulsions of sickness and pain.

"Forfeit?" I asked again, struggling to even get the word out.

Gregor coughed up vomity drool and spit on the floor. A single, shallow nod, and then his eyes closed.

A firm but careful hand pulled me away from Gregor. I screamed as something s.h.i.+fted in my hip, and the hand released me, letting me fall onto my back. The official was speaking quickly, but the words were meaningless.

The blurriness around the edges of my vision grew more intense, going black and slowly swallowing everything I could see. One last thought tumbled through my tired brain before I lost consciousness.

I won.

*** You are reading on ***

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