The Beginning After The End - Chapter 266
Chapter 266: On Guard
Surveying the battlefield, I watched to see what the rest of the Alacryans would do
My gaze landed on a black-haired man in thin leather armor aside from the greaves and bracers that seemed to be made out of a copper-colored metal as he knelt beside the corpse of the warrior that I had let die.
I had expected some sort of mock burial or at least a blanket covered over his body, but instead, the black haired warrior began rummaging through his stuff, looting every remaining piece of equipment that hadn’t been devoured or ripped up by those demonic monsters.
Even though I had been the one to let him die, I was repulsed by his people’s behavior.
Shaking my head, I walked away, wanting some distance between me and the Alacryans.
There were no hills, rocks, or any sort of natural formations in these extensive plains so I just found a spot far enough for me to keep an eye on the Alacryans. I sat on the hard, uneven ground, anxiously twiddling a dried weed that tenaciously clung to the ground.
My eyes wandered around the six separate camps that had already been set up since my short walk.
Collapsible tents had been assembled and fires had already been lit. Raw meats that had been stored in thick containers drawn from whatever dimensional storages they had were being grilled over their individual fires, filling the air with the sweet and smoky aroma of meat mingled with heavy spices.
Since coming down here, I was able to survive by absorbing aether, focused solely on surviving and growing stronger, but it was at this moment that I was reminded of the wonders of food.
‘Never thought I’d see a picnic down he—wait, are you drooling?’ Regis scoffed.
“Wha—no!” I exclaimed, wiping my chin while ignoring Regis’ cackling.
It was only when a few of the Alacryans looked at me that I realized I had just spoken aloud.
Clearing my throat, I closed my eyes and began cycling aether throughout my body. I didn’t need to eat and barely needed any sleep so I might as well get some training done. Without the aid of aetheric materials like crystals or monster corpses made of aether, I couldn’t utilize the three-step stage for training my aether passages that I had devised so I opted for just subtle channeling of aether throughout specific parts of my body to slowly carve out more aether passages.
‘Someone’s coming,’ Regis alerted. With his form currently within me, he was able to see through my body and into the outside world like, ‘a slightly tinted glass container,’ as he put it. While it was a bit disturbing to think about at first, I had long since grown used to it and it was a bit comforting knowing that I had another pair of eyes capable of seeing behind me, even though most times—like now—I didn’t need it.
I turned toward the sound of the obviously unmasked footsteps that were drawing closer.
Just a few yards away was a girl with light brown hair that sat just above her shoulders. Her thin petite frame was covered by a black mage’s robe that was purposely untied, displaying clothes that were revealing enough that it beckoned more than one admiring gaze to roam over her body.
Aside from her provocative attire, in each of her hands was a plate of flame grilled meat and vegetables still steaming.
“I come in peace,” she said, holding up her plates.
‘I like her already, Arthur,’ Regis remarked with a sigh.
Holding in the urge to roll my eyes, I remained silent, keeping my guard up.
“I know there are all those horror stories of backstabbing in convergence zone but I just wanted to express my gratitude,” she continued, shooting me a shy smile. “If it wasn’t for you killing so many carallians, I’m not sure if my team and I would’ve made it through.”
I frowned, mentally linking the term carallians to those infant-headed demonic fiends. “I appreciate the gesture but it’s not necessary.”
“I insist.” The girl bent down to put the plates on the ground, before tucking her fallen bangs back behind her ear while she locked eyes with me. “And my name is Daria Lendhert, by the way. If you’re looking for a team, we have an extra simulet and strong strikers are always welcome…especially ones that are handsome.”
‘Oh man… the inner Uto in me is having some very naughty thoughts,’ Regis muttered.
Do you know what a simulet is? I asked.
‘The inner Uto is too busy thinking of other things to care what a simulet is.’
Get your mind out of the gutter, I snapped.
Regis let out a sigh, blaming me for taking his attention away from Daria. ‘I think it’s an artifact of some kind used by lessers. That’s all I can muster up from Uto’s knowledge bank. I don’t think he particularly cared for what small things like these were.’
How frustrating. It wasn’t like I could ask without arousing suspicion, and I wasn’t close enough to any of these Alacryans to have these things come up naturally in conversation.
My eyes lingered on her frame as she ambled back to her camp, trying to remember what sort of spells she had casted, what sort of abilities she had. Her robe covered whatever mark, crest or emblems she most likely had tracing her spine.
If only I was still able to see mana.
The aromatic wisps exuding from the freshly grilled food must’ve reached my nostrils because I found myself staring at the two plates of food, one filled with cuts of grilled meat and the other topped with vegetables and spuds.
My salivating mouth won the fight against my dignity as I walked over to where Daria had left the plates on the ground.
Screw it. It’s not like I can get poisoned or anything, I thought as I stabbed the fork she had so kindly left into a cut of blackened meat still dripping with juices before shoving it into my mouth.
Every bite contained pockets of flavor that burst in my mouth and slid down my throat. It took every ounce of self control to keep myself from picking the rest of the meat by hand and scarfing it down.
I took another bite alongside some greens, letting the mixture of flavors and textures mingle and harmonize before reluctantly swallowing it down.
My mind must’ve blanked out soon after because by the time I came to, nearly all of the meat and half of the greens were gone.
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‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so happy,’ Regis commented. ‘It’s kinda scary…”
Embarrassed, I let out a cough before slowly eating the rest.
The next person to come up to me was the warrior who had looted the dead shield-wielder. He shot me a somber smile as he walked up to me.
Despite the cautious glare that I had given him as he approached, he sat down a few feet away and asked, “So how many teammates did you lose?”
“None,” I replied curtly. “I came here alone.”
The man’s jaw visibly slackened. “You’re a solo ascender?”
I remained silent.
“My name is Trider, by the way,” the man said, leaning toward me and extending a hand. “And I guess I’m a quasi-solo ascender now too, since my teammate died.”
I didn’t take it and Trider eventually took back his hand with an uncomfortable chuckle. “I guess ascending solo makes you a bit cautious but that’s okay. Anyway, I came here to see if you’d like a partner for the rest of this ascent. I’m not sure how far you’re trying to go but I plan on getting out in the next crossroad so if you want to—”
“I refuse,” I cut in.
“What? Oh, are you worried about splitting accolades? If that’s the case, I think it’d be fair to separate and individually keep accolades from beasts we kill ourselves and split an even fifty-fifty for beasts we have to kill together.”
“No thank you,” I answered without missing a beat.
“That’s an honorable arrangement,” Trider said with a tinge of frustration in his voice.
Annoyed by his insistence, I lashed back with a cold tone. “The word ‘honorable’ has no meaning to a man who plunders his own teammate’s body for equipment.”
Trider flinched back, eyes wide in surprise and confusion. “You’re…joking, right? Taking valuable equipment back home to the ascender’s blood is what Warren would’ve wanted.”
Suddenly, it felt like I had been the one to make the mistake. I tried to recover from my last words by shifting the conversation slightly. “That’s not what I meant. It just didn’t look right to leave his body out in the open to decay or be eaten by those carallians.”
“Oh, you must be from Sehz-Clar.” Trider chuckled. “No offense but notions like that are why people from your domains are called the soft souths. Everywhere else, leaving soldiers in the place of their death is an honor, especially within the Relictombs.”
‘My master is such a racist,’ Regis teased, feigning disgust.
However, his joke was a cold splash to my face. I wanted to argue back that I didn’t know, but it only seemed to prove the point that racism truly was fueled by ignorance as much as it was by rage or indignance.
“I moved to Vechor because of that as well,” I lied, trying to make sure my story stayed straight with what I told the swordsman. “But I guess my teachings from Sehz-Clar still linger.”
Trider rambled on. “Really? How were you able to—never mind, I guess an accomplished solo ascender would have no problems being accepted into Vechor. I’m from Etril so we’d be on the opposite side of the continent once we get out.”
“Seems like it,” I agreed, even though I had no clue where I would end up once I left this dung—Relictombs. After a brief pause, I spoke hesitantly. “If I can ask you a few questions as well…who are those three ascenders over there?”
Trider looked to where I was pointing. “I wanted to ask you the same thing after I saw you talking with the swordsman striker. I’m not sure who they are but if you look at the accolades they have, it’s obvious they’re not your normal ascenders. Especially that red sword the girl wields. Warren and I had joined this convergence zone only two days ago, but supposedly, those three have been here for over a week now. It’s no wonder that they’re in such bad shape.”
‘Man, this guy talks a lot,’ Regis groused.
It works in our favor though, I sent back.
“Anyway, I’ll let you get back to your training. The offer still stands, unless you’ve already accepted the offer from the Lehndert blood prodigy,” he said with a hint of disappointment. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did either, she’s a gifted caster and pretty to boot.”
After Trider walked back to his small camp I continued my training until a few hours had passed. The camps began packing up their belongings, each of them getting ready to go as if there was an agreement established beforehand. From what I could see, there was no leader in this group of thirteen excluding me.
I got up as well, wiping away the sweat on my brows with an extra shirt I carried in my bag along with Sylvie’s stone. Taegen, Caera, and the swordsman left first, with Daria’s group—the only other group of three—soon followed after. Daria gave me a knowing stare, expecting me to follow her, but when I didn’t, her thin brows furrowed and she whipped her head away.
The only other person to travel by himself was Trider. I gave him a nod of acknowledgement before trailing behind the rest who travelled in pairs behind the two groups of three that led this excursion.
Our pace was that of a constant sprint as we tried to cover as much ground without using too much mana—or in my case, aether—before the next wave came. It might’ve been possible for me to keep a nonstop pace toward the exit out of this zone but for everyone else, the few hours of rest was crucial if we were to fight another wave.
As we ran in a line formation toward where the power source had been, I could feel the stress build amongst the group.
When the sky actually turned red, the Alacryans’ tensions culminated into explosions of mana as each one of them immediately readied for a battle.
I decided to keep to myself, not joining either Trider or Daria, but Trider stuck by me when the sky shifted, maybe for protection or maybe to prove himself to me.
The red sun—supposedly the power source of this zone—stood high above us, but it was closer this time, no farther than a day or two of travel.
Strength flowed through my limbs as aether cycled within me. My eyes scanned my surroundings, expecting to see a horde of monsters coming from the distance.
That wasn’t the case.
The carallians rose from the ground like the undead rising from their graves, clawing themselves out of the cracked dense dirt with their red claws all around us. Immediately, spells went off as the ascenders began their preemptive attacks, but I couldn’t help but stare at the claws sprouting from the ground.
It wasn’t just me. The rest of the ascenders froze when the first carallian managed to fully surface. It, along with the rest of its brethren were twice the size of the previous wave of carallians—standing at about ten feet high—and had an extra pair of arms. And judging by the look on everyone’s faces, it was obvious that this wasn’t normal.
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