Chapter 348: Melee Enhancement Tactics
When I stepped back into the second level of the Relictombs, my limbs practically dragging behind me, a bespectacled clerk rushed up as his eyes darted across my bedraggled form.
“Sir?” he asked tentatively.
“Are you all right? Where is your party?”
I shook my head and took a step past him.
The man kept pace, his hands fidgeting with a scroll he was carrying carefully in front of him.
Yes, solo ascending is notoriously difficult, sir.
Name, so I can record your return? Any accolades to report?”
Still walking, I said, “Grey.
The clerk winced, making his glasses slip to the end of his nose.
“Sorry to hear that, Ascender Grey.
Might I scan—”
I stopped suddenly, forcing the man to jerk to a halt and turn back around to face me.
Leveling an irritated glare in his direction, I said, “I am exhausted and would like to be on my way.
Whatever you need, just do it.”
The clerk cleared his throat and fixed his glasses before pulling out some kind of wand.
“If you’re carrying a dimensional storage artifact, please present it,” he said, somewhat stiffly.
I held out my hand, showing him the dimension ring.
He waved the wand past it, then along the length of my body.
He clicked his tongue.
“No accolades, as you say.” Next, he turned his attention to a scroll he was carrying.
“Ascender Grey…Ascender…Oh, a professor!.” He scribbled something, muttering under his breath.
You’re so young, I didn’t realize…”
“Are we done?” I asked impatiently.
“Yes, sir, of course.
Thank you for your patience.” He gave me a nod and started to turn away, then stopped.
Closing my eyes, I rubbed two fingers against my temple and down to my eye socket.
“Well,” he started tentatively, “I just thought you might want to know that classes at Central Academy began three days ago.” With an awkward smile, he returned to his post.
“Shit,” I grumbled, and began dragging my tired body across the second level toward the teleportation platforms.
From the hall outside my classroom, I could already hear the laughter and shouts of the unsupervised teenagers inside.
I caught snippets of conversation as I stepped through the door.
“—told me that the new professor isn’t even a named blood.
Should be easy to—”
“—hear about the hot new assistant for Professor Aphelion?”
“—class is such a joke.
I can’t believe Strikers have to waste our time with—”
“—kidding me? The rest of my classes are so freaking hard, I’m looking forward to doing nothing in here.”
I glanced quickly around as I descended the stairs.
Two young women were sparring roughly in the dueling ring while another student goofed around with the controls.
A couple others had pulled out sparring dummies and were punching them awkwardly.
The rest of the students were lounging around doing nothing.
“The professor isn’t here again,” a bespectacled boy said without looking up from his book.
“He is the professor, Deacon,” another student said.
It was the black-haired boy who had ordered the two bullies around in the library.
“You’re late,” his broad companion grumbled, crossing his thick arms over his chest.
“And you missed the first day,” their tall friend added, kicking his long legs up on the back of the chair in front of him.
“Very perceptive,” I said as I opened my office door and half stepped through it.
“You all seem to have things under control for today.
I’ll be in my office.” I closed the door before anyone could respond, cutting myself off from the prying eyes.
The classroom burst into chatter again the moment my door closed.
“Nice! Free day.”
“—be exactly like last season—”
“—stupid idea to train without mana anyway.”
Sighing, I tuned them out and sank into my office chair, leaning forward to rest my head against my forearms.
Despite my exhaustion, though, I felt my face crack into a wide grin.
I had actually done it.
My mind buzzed as I considered the results of my experiment in the Relictombs.
I wanted to talk through it, but Regis seemed to be hibernating like he had while I trained with Three Steps in the peaks above her secluded village.
I hoped that meant he would restore himself more quickly.
Withdrawing the puzzle toy Three Steps had given me, I tapped it against the table, listening to the seed within rattle.
I hadn’t been able to replenish much aether on my journey through the second level of the Relictombs, and my core seemed to be strained to the edge of my endurance, but having something to occupy my hands would make it easier to think.
Turning my awareness inward, the first thing I noticed was my aether channels.
The flood of pure aether from the obelisk had widened them and scoured the insides clean of imperfections.
There was a deep ache from my core as I manifested a claw and began to dig around inside the seedpod, but I focused on holding the shape.
Although I didn’t have much aether to pull from, I found that the aether itself was moving along my channels more quickly, meaning I could manifest it to a specific point of my body almost instantly.
It still took time to condense the aether into a thin claw off my index finger, though, and my tired mind struggled to focus on the shape.
Instead, I focused on my core.
The core itself was larger and more transparent.
The reddish tint was entirely gone, and the aether within had resolved into a deep, rich violet hue.
Focusing closely, I could see the clear delineation between two separate layers of my core: the original shell supporting and holding the pieces of my mana core, and a second, thicker layer.
I had first forged my aether core by pure intent and sheer will.
At my weakest and most desperate point, I had turned total loss into an impossible victory, doing something perhaps no one in the history of this world had accomplished.
When my aether core began to crack, I realized that I had to move beyond my current limited perspective.
I had followed the same path as a mana-wielding mage, expecting growth through use, meditation, and combat.
Mana cores lightened in color as they became purer.
This was a purely biological mechanism, natural to its function.
Although it required intentional meditation to make the most of it, even someone who never focused on refining their mana core would see it slowly progress through use, like the strengthening of a muscle.
But my aether core wasn’t natural.There was no set biological progression.
Through significant effort, and the knowledge born of my time both as a white core mage and a ki user, I had been able to remove many of the impurities and imperfections within it.
Although this had allowed me to more easily absorb aether, and in greater quantities, it had not brought about significant stages of progression like advancing through the orange, yellow, and silver stages.
I realized that I needed to be more intentional.
If my aether core wouldn’t evolve on its own, I had to find some way to force it.
Utilizing the vast reservoir of aether from the obelisk trap, I had formed a second layer around my core—very slowly, and very painfully.
Unfortunately, the process had required nearly all of the aether channeled into the obelisk, so that by the time I was done there was none left to absorb for myself, leaving my body weak and aching.
Now that I had done it, I couldn’t help but wonder: Could I do it again? With enough aether, could I continue to add layers to my core, growing exponentially more powerful with each one?
It was possible.
The biggest hurdle was finding a source of aether strong enough to forge the layer in a single sitting, almost the reverse of holding enough aether in my core to imbue into Sylvie’s stone and break through a layer.
In my moment of necessity, when I had no choice but to do something drastic or risk crippling my aether core, it was exactly that thought that had given me inspiration.
The way Sylvie’s stone, or egg, utilized multiple layers to capture and hold aether had served as the foundation of my own attempt.
Thanks, Sylv, I thought.
Even asleep in your egg, you keep finding ways to keep me going.
There was a knock at the door.
I ignored it.
I sighed and released the aether claw.
The door opened, and a familiar face peered around the frame.
Seth, the boy from the library, was pale and sweaty, and his uniform was sticking to his chest and arms.
“Sir, are you going to be teaching the class today?”
My surprise at seeing the boy lasted for about a second before I waved him away.
“Haven’t you heard? This isn’t a real class.”
“But you told me to learn to defend myself,” Seth said quietly.
“I thought you meant—that you wanted me to…”
“You thought I was going to teach you?” I raised a brow.
“You’re a highblood, right? You’d be better off hiring a private tutor.”
A chorus of laughter came from the classroom, and Seth, looking crestfallen, stared down at his feet as he slowly closed the office door, but I only activated the aether claw and tried again.
“Don’t worry, we can help teach you a thing or two,” someone jeered.
There was a thump and a pained grunt from just outside the door.
The aetheric claw on my finger faded in and out as I struggled to ignore the distraction.
Without realizing it, I had pulled the seed into the round opening and held it there, balanced perfectly within the stem hole, for thirty seconds or more.
I closed my eyes and refocused on the claw, pulling steadily while holding the aether’s form.
“No, not like that, orphan.
When you curl up, you lose sight of your opponent and”—there was another, sharper thump—“leave yourself open to blows to your head.”
The edges of the hole buckled slightly and the claw slipped, but I was able to adjust my grip and maintain my hold on the seed.
So close, I thought.
Just a bit more…
A series of sharp, heavy knocks at the door broke my concentration, and I heard the seed clatter back to the bottom of the pod.
Standing, I quickly crossed the office and jerked the door open.
The uniformed man on the other side of the door wrinkled his nose and pinned me with a disapproving frown.
“Professor Grey, yes?”
Can I help you?” I asked with a slight tilt of my head.
“We haven’t had an opportunity to meet yet.
My name is Rafferty.” The man was middle-aged, with gray hair at his temples and wrinkles starting to appear around his eyes.
He was wearing a black and azure suit and a look that told me he wasn’t exactly glad to meet me.
“I, in case you did not know, am the head of your department.”
He held out a scroll.
“This is an updated class list, which you need because several students have already dropped this course.”
I took the scroll and tossed it on my desk.
Well, is there anything else I can do for you?”
The department head glowered.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, you can.
Looking at your qualifications and recommendations, I am not entirely certain how you came to be employed here at Central Academy, young man, but I will not accept anything less than maximum effort from the professors in this department.
Please ensure that you attend classes on time in the future, and that you adhere to the academy-provided training regimen.”
His tone should have bothered me, considering my situation, but I was too caught between exhaustion and excitement to worry about this thin Alacryan’s threats.
Forcing a contrite frown, I bowed shallowly.
“I apologize, there was a mix-up in the Relictombs.
I don’t plan on missing class again.”
His frown smoothed somewhat.
“See that you don’t.
We don’t need any more trouble like that in the High Hall, Professor Grey.”
Spinning on his heel, Rafferty swept out the open door.
On the other side, my dozen students were all motionless, obviously having heard every word of my chastisement.
Wordlessly, I shut the door and returned to my mess of a desk.
I hadn’t bothered to look over the class roster I’d received in my original paperwork, so I pulled the new scroll open and scanned the—much shorter—list.
I didn’t recognize most of the names: Brion of Named Blood Bloodworth, Deacon of Blood Favager, Enola of Highblood Frost…blah blah blah…Mayla of Blood Fairweather, Pascal of Blood Bancroft, Portrel of Highblood Gladwyn, Remy of Highblood Seabrook…blah blah…Seth of Highblood Milview…
Milview, I thought, the name sounding familiar for some reason.
I’d heard it before, but where? Some soldier in the war? Not the man I’d tortured…Vale…so where—
My eyes widened in realization.
There weren’t many Alacryan soldiers important enough to have their names recorded in our reports, but that was exactly where I’d read the name before.
The sentry who charted a path through Elshire Forest—the person responsible for the fall of Elenoir—had been named Milview.
A scoff escaped my lips as I set down the scroll.
Was this coincidence or some sick twist of fate?
Standing up, I crossed my office, opened the door, and leaned against the frame to watch.
Seth was cowering between the same two students who’d cornered him in the library, trying awkwardly to protect his stomach and head.
The wide, squat bully had his fists up lazily.
He met his companion’s eye, winked, then threw a knee up into Seth’s unprotected face.
As Seth hit the ground, the rest of the class seemed to focus on me.
The short-haired girl sparring on the training platform grimaced, obviously uncomfortable, and another young man was leaning forward in his chair, frowning at the spectacle.
Others were chuckling softly or simply waiting curiously to see what I’d do.
I strode forward toward the Milview boy, shouldering the other young men out of my way.
I met the heavily-set student’s eyes, looking down my nose at him.
“Portrel,” he said, his chin up and chest puffed.
“Of Highblood Gladwyn.”
“If you plan on fighting, do it in there,” I said, nodding toward the training ring.
Portrel’s squashed face twisted in confusion as I jerked Seth up from the ground by the back of his uniform and pushed him toward the ring.
“Did I stutter?”
Letting out a chortle, Portrel strode purposefully to the dueling ring while Seth followed hesitantly, dabbing at a bloody nose with his sleeve.
The girl with the short golden hair, one of the two already training in the ring, scowled at them, actually baring her teeth.
“We’re using this.”
“Not anymore,” I said evenly.
She scoffed but leapt off the training platform.
Her companion, a thin girl with brown eyes and dark hair that ran in twin braids down her back, winced as she stepped off the platform, her hand pressing against her ribs.
The two boys climbed up onto the platform and positioned themselves a few feet apart before stepping onto the platform myself.
I sensed the fear that struck Seth as he realized I had no intention of helping.
However, he still got in a defensive stance as he faced the Gladwyn boy.
Crossing my arms, I stood between the two combatants, arms crossed, ignoring the rest of the class.
They were as mismatched a pair as I could imagine.
Portrel was twice Seth’s weight, even if he wasn’t any taller, and was probably a Striker.
From how he settled comfortably into a fighting stance, both hands up and his right foot back slightly, I was sure he had trained in hand-to-hand combat.
Seth, on the other hand, was of average height but looked shorter because of the way he slouched.
He was skinny to the point of looking sickly, an impression heightened by his pale skin, and had clearly never been taught to throw a punch.
Maybe if he didn’t spend all of his time in the library, I thought, ignoring the memory of him helping me that was scratching at the back of my brain.
“Well? What are you waiting for?” I asked the bulky Striker.
“Aren’t you going to hit him?”
An even deeper confusion riddled their faces as they looked at me.
Portrel recovered first, smirking as he lifted his fists.
“Whatever you say, Professor.”
His first punch was lazy, striking Seth on the inside of his shoulder, but the following uppercut landed squarely on Seth’s chin, rocking the unprepared boy’s head back and sending him sprawling to the ground.
“I know we’re not using mana, but I expect you to at least try to throw a decent strike,” I said, my voice level, almost bored.
“You punch as if Milview here is going to lean into your fist.”
His cheeks reddened.
“I’m one of the best fist fighters my age in Vechor!” he argued.
“I have trained with—”
“Someone who was afraid to tell you how shit you really are,” I finished for him.
“That’s the weakness born of too much power.
Now, go again.”
There were some surprised snickers from the audience, including his colorful-haired buddy, which made Portrel blush even deeper.
He scowled and squared up across from Seth, who was watching me instead of his opponent.
Portrel didn’t hold back, unleashing a series of powerful punches that Seth couldn’t hope to defend against.
The skinny boy was on his back within seconds.
Portrel kicked his defenseless opponent sharply in the ribs once, then pulled back for a second, but seemed to remember himself.
He gave me a defiant glare, as if daring me to criticize him.
“Your feet were crossed, and at one point you had both fists extended,” I said flatly.
Seth’s lip had broken open, and he was slow to regain his feet.
The next time Portrel struck him, he collapsed immediately.
“You pulled your punch and let your wrist go limp,” I pointed out.
The stocky highblood ground his teeth and glanced out of the ring at the darkhaired boy who seemed to be his ringleader.
From the corner of my eye, I saw him shake his head.
Realizing I should have read through the entire list of students’ names, I thought about the different bloods Abby had mentioned during our conversation, and which students she told me to be wary of.
Although she had spoken about him very diplomatically, she had mentioned that the grandson of Director Ramseyer attended the academy.
Looking at the dark-haired boy, I could see the resemblance.
It made sense, then, why he was ringleader even among the highbloods.
Turning back to the class, I pointed to the short-haired girl.
Are there training swords somewhere?”
She nodded slowly and pointed to an open door in the corner of the room.
“Well?” I asked, giving her an expectant look.
“Can you go get them?”
Her expression fell into a disbelieving grimace, but she didn’t move.
Her training partner gave me an uncomfortable look and said, “I-I’ll get it…” before hurrying across the classroom to retrieve the practice swords.
When she returned with them, she gave me a squinty, apologetic smile.
The sparring swords were simple lengths of light, springy wood.
I handed them to the combatants.
Seth, who had finally dragged himself back to his feet, looked at the weapon as if it were a snake that was about to bite him, while Portrel twirled his with practiced comfort.
“Fighting stance,” I ordered.
Portrel adopted a middle stance, his left foot back with the sword held in front of him in both hands, pointed at Seth’s face.
I glanced at the Milview boy, who copied him awkwardly, looking like he’d never held a sword in his life, and felt a pang of annoyance.
It grew from the fact that I felt more pity toward Seth than anger.
He was the brother of the soldier responsible for not only the conquest of Elenoir but its destruction as well.
If the Alacryans hadn’t taken over the country, the asuras would’ve never…
A shift in the room snapped me out of my thoughts.
The students around us, most of whom were only half paying attention a second ago, were now gazing at the ring with tense excitement.
Seth’s eyes widened as he focused on the dull blade of his opponent’s practice sword.
Seeing that Portrel had adjusted his posture suddenly and seemed much more focused, I knew, even without being able to sense magic, what he was up to.
“No mana,” I said firmly.
“Such a stupid rule.
What is the point of—”
“Are you afraid to spar without it?” I asked with a tilt of my head.
“I’m not afraid of anything! My blood has—”
“Begin,” I barked, catching both boys off guard.
Seth jerked his sparring blade down, catching Portrel on the bridge of the nose with a crack.
Blood splattered the front of his uniform.
Snarling, Portrel lunged forward, swinging the sword like a club.
Seth’s eyes snapped shut, and he stumbled under the wild swing purely by accident.
He let his sword sag so that it ended up between Portrel’s off-balance legs, and the enraged highblood tripped and crashed to the ground at Seth’s feet.
The tall boy with multi-colored hair let out a hoot of laughter.
“Nice one, Port!”
I blinked dumbly.
“Well that was fun.
Did the two of you practice that little comedy skit or was it improvised?”
Seth looked away, embarrassed, as he scratched the back of his head.
Portrel, on the other hand, was practically vibrating in anger.
“How dare you, you unnamed trash!” The bulky Striker got back on his feet and pointed his sparring sword at me.
“I don’t know what you did, but my father will—”
“Portrel, you forget yourself,” a firm, authoritative voice said.
I was surprised to see the Ramseyer boy on his feet.
“Your actions bring disrespect to your blood.”
Portrel flinched, looking from his ringleader to me and back.
The director’s grandson, Valen, flashed a diplomatic smile.
“I apologize on the behalf of both Highblood Ramseyer and Highblood Gladwyn, Professor.
Portrel is an excellent fighter, but he has a temper.” There was a glimmer in Valen’s eyes and a wry twist to his smile that was unsettling, but I couldn’t tell what he was up to.
“It’s a shame you chose to match him up against such an underwhelming opponent.
Perhaps your lessons will be better imparted through a personal demonstration.” That glimmer brightened.
“I’m sure Portrel would be honored to spar with you, Professor.”
“So very honored,” he echoed, trying and failing to keep a vindictive smirk off his face.
“Very well,” I said as I slowly twisted the spiral ring off of the middle finger of my right hand.
The ground beneath Portrel’s feet trembled as the Striker darted forward with a speed that wasn’t possible without magic.
I made the slightest step to the side to avoid the wooden sword aimed at my shoulder.
And with a gentle snap of my wrist, I slapped the kid across the face with the back of my hand.
Portrel’s head jerked from the impact before he lost his footing and rolled right out of the unshielded dueling ring.
Silence clung to the room as the students watched Portrel dig himself out of the seats he had crashed into.
“You wouldn’t have rolled so hard if you hadn’t used mana,” I said matter-of-factly, securing the ebony ring back on my finger.
“Class is over,” I announced, focusing on Valen.
“Get out of here.”
Laughter and excited chatter broke out from the rest of the class as they began collecting their bags and ascending the stairs out of the classroom.
“Help Portrel up, Remy,” Valen said dryly.
While the tall boy helped his struggling companion disentangle himself from the seats, Valen’s gaze lingered on me, that wry smile never slipping from his face.
Portrel, on the other hand, glowered at his feet, careful to avoid looking in my direction, but his fists were clenched white as his friend teased him all the way up the stairs.
From behind me, barely a whisper, I heard, “Professor?”
Seth had stood frozen in the corner of the platform during my exchange with Portrel, and he was now staring at me with a hopeful expression that made my stomach squirm with discomfort.
His lip was badly swollen, and I could see the beginning of a dark bruise appearing around his left eye.
“Don’t expect class to get any easier than this, Milview,” I said dispassionately, the intent of my words more threat than warning.
Being in Alacrya, pretending to be a teacher…that was one thing.
But teaching the family member of the woman who let the Alacryan army overtake Elenoir?
I wasn’t sure I could do that.
“Thank you for the advice, sir,” he answered resolutely, even as his gaze was lowered.
“I…I’ll keep that in mind for your next class.”
As Seth slumped past me, my attention was drawn to the exit, where students were starting to bottleneck.
“I said class is over! What’s the hold up?”
Reluctantly, the gawking boys stepped aside, revealing a blue-haired, scarlet-eyed woman.
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