“And here we are, once again,” I said, glancing to my left.
Nico was flying next to me as we hovered just outside the protective barrier surrounding the western half of Sehz-Clar. Behind us, twenty thousand loyal Alacryan soldiers filled the streets of Rosaere, the city spanning the two distinct halves of the dominion. The translucent shield neatly bisected it.
It was nearly dawn. A cool breeze blew in from the Vritra’s Maw Sea, tugging at the silvery-gray hair I’d never gotten around to dyeing.
The shield itself seemed different to my eyes now. Whereas before it was an inexplicable monolith, now I could see it clearly. The signs of basilisk mana were obvious as a blood stain, and its underlying was structure easily observed.
On the other side of the shield, I could sense only a meager resistance. Pockets of traitorous rebels were dug into defensible positions throughout the city, but we outnumbered them five to one.
“Seris knew I was coming,” I told Nico. “She’s pulled her forces back.”
Nico was quiet. We’d barely spoken since he ran out of my bedroom after our conversation. I purposefully avoided thinking about the lie we now shared, and the truth that I was keeping from him. But I wasn’t ready to take the risk of divulging what I’d learned. Not yet…
Turning suddenly, I flew up higher so all my forces would be able to see me. When I spoke, my voice came from everywhere at once, each molecule of atmospheric mana my bullhorn. “Warriors! Today, you fight for the spirit of your continent. This isn’t a war, but a reclamation. These traitors have attempted to fracture Alacrya itself by sowing lies and discord. But, look!”
I waved at the opposing half of the city. Mana flared as it peeled away from the giant shield and drifted toward the pockets of resistance, making those few thousand men and women glow and highlighting the small size of the force. “Even they know the fight is already lost; the bulk of their force has already fled!”
A distant but thunderous roar came back to me, twenty thousand voices raised in a deafening battle cry.
With a flourish, I twirled and pressed one hand against the barrier.
The power of a Sovereign was laced through hundreds of miles of protective force, pushing out against the rest of the world. My consciousness traced the lines of it, all the way back to Aedelgard, down the network of mana-conductive material to the heart of Seris’s machine, to Orlaeth Vritra himself. I could sense him—the battery on which all this operated—but that was all; I had no sense of what they had done to him.
This time, when I turned my senses toward the mana, it reacted. Like leaves growing toward the sunlight, the individual mana particles that made up the barrier drew toward me, and the entire structure shivered.
Curling my fingers, I gouged them into the shield. When I withdrew my hand, a fistful of immaterial energy came away with it, sparkling like fireflies in the predawn gloom. I opened my hand and let the mana pour through my fingers, where it dissolved into its base form.
The hole in the shield expanded, the edges flaring with flickering white light. The light crawled over the lustrous surface, and the hole expanded, picking up speed with each passing second.
Even though my soldiers couldn’t see my face, I arranged my features into an expression of calm determination. I was a leader at the head of an army, not a child like Seris thought. Wherever she was hiding, I hoped she could see this. What she had labored for years to create, I had just unmade in an instant.
The gap in the shield grew until it was a few hundred feet wide, opening the way for my soldiers, but I didn’t immediately call for the charge. My gaze followed the receding edge until, with a suddenness that surprised even me, the shield burst like a bubble. One moment it was there, and the next…
“The High Sovereign has proclaimed that any mage, unadorned, or slave who has turned their back on this continent is unfit to live on it. Give no quarter.” I took a slow, deep breath. “Attack!”
The spring-snap noise of catapults firing followed my order like an exclamation as Imbued ammunition arced through the air, past where the shield had been, and crashed among the buildings in the western half of the city. Condensed stones burst apart, sending out deadly shrapnel for dozens of feet. Barrels of flammable liquid shattered and sprayed their surroundings, which ignited instantly, setting the city on fire. Clusters of mana crystals spread out in wide arcs, exploding from the force of their landing and collapsing entire structures.
A shockwave of noise and mana rippled past me.
Enemy shields sprang up all over, and there was a flurry of return fire and counterspells. A blue bolt of lightning shot up from the ground, aimed at me. When I reached out to the mana, it froze, a jagged, dancing line of electricity hanging in the air. A wave ran along the length of the lightning bolt, starting at the end hovering fifty feet below me and racing down toward the ground.
Dozens of smaller bolts exploded outward from the point of impact, and I sensed several mana signatures go dark.
Something squirmed uncomfortably in my guts. Better a quick death in battle than weeks of torture and starvation in the depths of Taegrin Caelum, I thought.
“There’s no reason for us to linger here,” Nico said, drawing me back into the battle. “Our side will have this cleaned up quick enough without our assistance.”
Melzri was leading a force from the west to capture Seris’s base of operations in Sandaerene while Dragoth and the soldiers from Vechor patrolled the Vritra’s Maw to prevent a mass retreat.
Looking down toward the center of my soldiers’ formation on the ground, I said, “Echeron, you’re in command. You have your orders.”
My voice traveled on the wind directly to Dragoth’s retainer’s ears.
“Yes, Legacy,” sounded his response, wispy and distant.
I looked at Nico and nodded. “Let’s not waste any more time then.”
Flying higher up, we spend northward. As we crested the cliffs above Rosaere, several dozen spells—bolts and jets of green, blue, red, and black magic—flew from a series of covered bunkers.
Grunting in annoyance, I grasped the threads of each spell and pulled, dragging the spells off course and forcing them to cluster in the air in front of us.
Nico’s staff flashed with red light, and he slashed it through the air in front of him. Retina-searing balls of blue fire bombarded the bunkers, shattering their shields and collapsing the reinforced structures on the mages within.
Condensing all the gathered spells into a storm of multi-elemental bullets, I sent them hurling back down at the smoldering remains of the bunkers, snuffing out the few remaining mana signatures I could detect.
Nico held his position for a moment, watching for any more activity, but I could tell the substructure beneath was clear. “Come on. These soldiers are unimportant. Our real target is waiting for us in Aedelgard, unless she’s already fled.”
“This is a token defense,” Nico said thoughtfully, as if he hadn’t heard what I’d said. “Even discounting the presence of any Scythes or retainers—or you—such a meager fortification wouldn’t have held for even a day against our superior numbers. So where are her armies?”
“We’ll find out soon enough, I imagine,” I answered, speeding forward. I sensed him follow after me, the wind spell he used to replicate flight pushing him along in my wake.
The countryside north of Rosaere was dotted with small settlements and private estates, but no additional fortified locations. We flew at top speed, north and west, and as we approached Sandaerene, I felt the battle long before I could see it. Nico and I kept slightly east of the city, not intending to involve ourselves in the battle, where Melzri and Mawar would have things tidily in hand.
Although Nico and I could have breached the shield near Aedelgard as I had before, avoiding the hundreds of miles flight, the bulk of our army had to attack over ground from Rosaere, and I had wanted them to see me break the shield. In addition, it had been an opportunity to sweep the length of the dominion, making my presence known to the people there, citizenry and rebel mages alike.
Still, I was anxious to put an end to things by the time we reached Aedelgard, where Seris’s compound and the shield’s source of energy were.
Seris was wily, a survivor, and I doubted I would find her standing on the balcony of her estate waiting for me. After all, she had managed to outwit and capture a Sovereign.
When the city came into sight, I was surprised to see smoke and fire rising up from several different locations throughout. A potent mana signature radiated from the city’s eastern edge.
“Dragoth already moved in,” Nico noted sourly, glancing at me.
I kept my expression impassive. “Unimportant, as long as he hasn’t let Seris slip away by disregarding his duties.”
All Scythes—except Nico, of course—were bitter and frustrated with my position. They scrambled for whatever small acclaim they could find, each of them hoping to replace Cadell as Agrona’s right hand and prove themselves worthy of their station. It was no surprise that Dragoth had taken this opportunity to win a victory for himself. But it hardly mattered. Given the scale of the coming war, the Scythes were no longer relevant in my eyes.
As we approached Seris’s estate looking over the Vritra’s Maw Sea, I finally caught sight of Dragoth. He was flying over the estate, his arms crossed, watching us approach. With his sprawling horns and incredible bulk, he looked like a side of beef hanging on the rack.
“You’re out of position, Dragoth,” Nico snapped once we were close enough to speak.
Dragoth floated up a foot or so in order to look down his nose at Nico. “I had a resource in the city before the shields fell, who informed me of a rush of activity. Since your tour of the dominion delayed you, I thought it best to lock down the city.” He gave me a sneering nod. “To prepare for your arrival of course, Legacy. Vechor’s ships and soldiers are still patrolling the sea, but if the rats are fleeing their sinking vessel, we haven’t seen them.”
Perhaps that’s because you can’t see beyond the confines of your own ass, I thought.
Out loud, I asked, “Has there been any sign of Seris?”
Dragoth shook his head. “The lower depths of the estate are shielded, however. She may be hiding down there. If I know her, she’ll have some trick up her sleeve.”
“I don’t care what she tries,” I said, not trying to hide my irritation with the Vechorian Scythe. “This is over.”
“Indeed. The fact that I was able to turn one of her own suggests she’s lost her touch.” Dragoth chuckled. “Made weak-kneed by some unblooded nobody from the other continent…it’s no wonder she’s fallen so far.”
Tipping toward the ground, I flew to one of the open balconies of the estate. Dragoth’s soldiers were ransacking the place, dragging out anything of value and tossing it into piles. One particular mage caught my eye; he was standing at attention as if waiting for our arrival.
His appearance was generally unremarkable, but there was a strange duality to him. On one side, he had a red eye and a short horn that stuck up from his black hair, but on the other side, his eye was brown and the horn had been shattered, leaving only a jagged stump half-hidden. Still, he didn’t flinch back at our approach, like most of the soldiers. Instead, he fell into step beside and just behind Dragoth like he belonged there. Several mages broke away from whatever else they’d been doing and took up formation around the two.
“What have you discovered here, Wolfrum?” Dragoth asked.
“We’ve followed most of the mana cabling down several levels, but haven’t managed to bypass the door at the bottom. We presume it leads into whatever is—was—powering the shield,” the Vritra-born man said in a confident, slightly nasally voice.
“Take us to the door,” Dragoth said, then amended, “If that is what the Legacy wishes.”
I stopped, having walked through a large solar and into a connecting corridor covered in fanciful paintings. Instead of replying, I only waved a hand. The young man, Wolfrum of Highblood Redwater, I now realized, hung his head and hurried past me, not meeting my eyes. He led us through several more rooms until we reached a steeply descending staircase. By the length of time we followed the cramped stairwell down, I knew we must be deep into the cliffside under Seris’s home.
The “door” in question was a thick iron square inset into the wall. The only sign of how to open it was a dim mana crystal affixed to the wall nearby.
“Whatever magic is Imbued into this door, we haven’t been able to crack it,” Wolfrum said. “I’ve sent for multiple Imbuers to help us gauge—”
I could sense the mana inhabiting the crystal, as well as the stored mana in a device above the door that would drag it up into the wall, and a series of clamps that held it firm on the bottom, preventing it from being forced. The door itself was heavily warded against magical force, but the attached mechanisms were reliant on the mana input system and so more easily manipulated. By me, at least.
Disbursing the mana forcing the clamps shut, I activated the chain mechanism. The door shifted slightly, making the floor vibrate, then lifted up into the recess above it with a gentle hum.
The space beyond, a laboratory of some kind, was lit with cool blue light from huge glass cylinders full of a glowing liquid. Incredible amounts of mana were suspended within the liquid, and it quivered at my presence.
“Wait out here,” Nico ordered the soldiers before stepping warily through the door.
Dragoth snorted. “Don’t presume to give my soldiers orders, where I—”
He caught my scowl, and I saw recognition dawn slowly on the Scythe’s broad face. “Stay here, men,” he said, leaving unspoken the part Nico and I had already figured out: whatever state Sovereign Orlaeth was in, we wanted as few people to see him as necessary.
Glass tubes connected many of these cylinders to each other and a variety of devices and artifacts attached to the walls, none of which made any sense to me. Blank projection crystals dotted the walls like sightless eyes among the other equipment. I glanced at Nico; his eyes were rapidly tracking across the lab, and his mouth hung open slightly. I wished, for a second, that I could have given him more time to enjoy that moment, but there was something much more pressing to take care of.
Beyond the first rows of cylinders, the center of the lab was isolated by a dome-shaped shield. There was a smokey tinge to its coloration, and it was incredibly dense, but I recognized the source of the mana.
Walking forward, I moved between the bright blue, silently bubbling cylinders, and a larger tank came into view, right at the center of the shielded area.
Orlaeth Vritra was floating within it. The Sovereign had a wasted look to him, and his face was vapid and empty of thought or expression. At least, he did on one of his heads. The other was missing entirely, nothing remaining but a bare stump of a neck that had healed over in a gory scar.
Standing next to the tank, her pearl hair standing out against her black scaled battlerobes, was my prey.
“I promised that I would come for you, Seris. And here I am.”
The Scythe gave me the same frustrating, unflappable smile that I’d seen too many times before.
“Hey,” Dragoth said with a nod to Seris, crossing his arms and leaning carelessly against one of the tanks.
Seris spared Dragoth only a passing glance before focusing on the young Vritra-blooded mage. “All this time, Wolf? Did I really teach you so little?”
He raised his chin, glaring fiercely at the Scythe. “You taught me everything I needed to beat you, my mentor. That was all I ever needed from you.”
Dragoth boomed with laughter. “Big dumb Dragoth outplays the dangerous intellect of Seris. Who’d have thunk it, huh?”
Seris picked at her fingernails absently as she regarded the pair from behind her shield. “Hardly. I admit that my feelings are hurt, but it’s better to have trusted and lost than to never have had that potential at all. Besides, I believe that Caera was successful in her escape, was she not?”
“Enough,” I snapped, stepping toward the shield, further irritated that Seris had ignored me in favor of exchanging pointless jabs with an angry little boy. “I thought you were smart, Seris. But you’ve backed yourself into a corner and are now relying on an old trick that I’ve already bested. I’m actually kind of disappointed considering the fearful reverence all the other Scythes seem to hold you in.”
Before she could respond, I pushed my hand into the shield and ripped it apart.
Or rather, I tried to, but it resisted me.
“Orlaeth still actively controls this mana,” Seris said, stepping closer to her side of the shield just across from me. “With it spread so thin and processed through relay after relay to reach the far corners of Sehz-Clar, his control over it was weakened. But here, so close”—she gestured at the comatose basilisk floating behind her—“I think you'll find it much more difficult to rest control away from him.”
I lashed out with my mind and mana, bringing to bear the full might of my power. Mana crashed against mana, and the shield trembled. It did not, however, break. “Bring it down,” I ordered, focusing all my power into lashing out again.
Nico sent multi-elemental bullets and blood iron spikes into the shield on one side while Dragoth conjured a jagged black warhammer wreathed in void wind and smashed it again and again into the barrier.
Seris only gave us a solemn, demeaning smile for our efforts.
“For far too long, Alacrya has served as the playground of mad gods,” Seris said, loud enough to be heard over the concussive blast of so many spells, but not speaking to any one of us in particular. “They breed people like beasts, assign us purpose at birth based only on ‘purity of blood,’ and cast off any who do not meet their needs. But the truth of our daily lives is so much worse than anyone knows.”
Beside me, Nico faltered as he looked around the room in confusion.
“Because all of this—our entire existence back to our bloods’ earliest known ancestors—was only to create a people strong enough that Agrona could step upon our backs as he reached toward his ultimate goal,” Seris continued, turning to her left, no longer even looking at us.
“Enough!” I barked again. “Back away,” I ordered Nico, Dragoth, and the one-horned boy.
Thrusting both hands forward, I pressed against the shield again. The laboratory went quiet except for the incessant droning of the equipment.
Instead of pushing outward toward the mana in an attempt to control it, I drew it into me.
A victorious grin spread across my face as the surface of the smoke-tinged shield swirled. Seris was right, I couldn’t break Orleath’s ironclad hold over his mana, the Sovereign was far too powerful, but I could absorb it as I had done with the phoenix and Sovereign Kiros.
Seris had paused to watch me begin, and sadness overtook her features as she realized in truth that she’d lost. “Agrona has started a war with Epheotus, the land of the gods. He doesn’t expect you to win the fight with him, nor his Vritra-bloods, his Scythes, or even his Wraiths. He will burn us all for fuel in the furnace of his ambition, because he doesn’t want to be Lord of the Lessers; he intends to be King of the Asuras.”
Mana poured into me. I opened myself to it entirely, absorbing until I swelled to bursting. Ghostly flames wreathed me, flickering from my skin as I burned the mana I couldn’t contain. “You’re wrong,” I growled through clenched teeth. “I will win his war for him, and then I’ll return home.”
“Cecilia…” Nico said, sounding uncomfortable as he took a step back from me.
Seris turned her head in my direction, brows raised slightly. “Oh, Lady Cecilia, Legacy born of another world. Forgive me, did you think I was speaking to you?” Her eyes widened slightly, then she resumed facing away from me.
At the same time, several projection crystals lit up around the laboratory.
I faltered as I saw the image reflected in several screens: Seris, seen through a dim gray haze, looking solemnly into the recording artifact, while beside her I sweated under an aura of colorless flames, struggling against her shield like a baby trying to take its first step. Then the picture changed, showing the stairway outside the lab, focusing on the discomforted expressions of my soldiers as they exchanged glances or backed away. Then again, this time on Sovereign Orlaeth’s mindless, slack-jawed face.
“What is this?” I asked, feeling my face redden as I realized that Seris had sprung some kind of trap after all, but not yet understanding what it was.
“She’s projecting this,” Nico said, looking from panel to panel. “But to…oh, oh no.”
“Hear me, Alacrya,” Seris continued, projecting her voice as if giving a speech. “Do not believe the lies you’ve been told. Any time an Alacryan dares to voice opposition to this cruel regime, the narrative is always the same. But I do not fight to seize power, or to increase the standing of Sehz-Clar, or even because I believe I alone can defeat Agrona. I fight to show you that it is possible. Our civilization may have been grown in the Vritra’s fetid soil, pruned by their lack of empathy and humanity, and watered in our own blood, but it is our civilization, not the asuras. It is time to cast down our Sovereigns. You and only you can claim sovereignty over yourself.”
Orlaeth began to squirm inside his tank, and I sensed a weakening of the shield. I redoubled my efforts, and the flames around me grew.
“Cecil, we should…”
The blood pounding in my ears drowned out whatever else Nico had to say, but I was almost there. In a moment, the shield would fall, and when it did I would use Orlaeth’s captured mana to pull Seris apart cell by cell.
She must have sensed this as well, because she suddenly strode toward the tank in the center. A bolt of black energy shot from her hand, shattering the glass. Thick, bluish liquid poured out, spilling across the floor and filling the laboratory with a preservative stench.
Orlaeth’s body ripped free from the cables stabbed into his flesh, flopping onto the floor like a corpse.
“For those of you who do not believe me,” Seris continued. A blade of dark mana manifested in her hand. “We can change the narrative of our lives. We can make the Sovereigns bleed!”
The sword flashed, and Orlaeth’s remaining head tumbled across the floor, coming to rest face up in the slime, sightless eyes staring at me.
The shield vanished.
The ghost-fire rushed to my hands, and I met Seris’s eye. She was resigned, but still she gathered her mana.
I thrust out with all that power, exalting in it.
Seris’s mana flared. And then, she was gone.
“No!” I screamed, feeling like time had wrenched to a sudden halt as I felt the tempus warp on which she’d been standing pull her away.
The flames flared out. Something broke inside of me.
“What?” Dragoth roared, lunging forward to where the tempus warp, embedded in the floor, was now exposed. He said something else, but his words were lost beneath the ringing in my ears.
Gravity seemed to be changing, listing slowly sideways like a leaking ship about to sink. Mana was flowing toward me, smothering me, and I felt like I was sinking below waves that grasped me and tried to pull me under.
But my core was worse. So much worse.
I was on the ground, although I didn’t remember falling. Hands were grabbing at me, gripping my face, forcing my head to turn, but the sharp, panicked features staring back at me didn’t line up properly. It should be Nico, I knew distantly in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t my Nico…
A spike of pain pulled my senses away from his pale, sweating face to my core again. It was throbbing, aching…cracking.
The core—my core—was covered in a spiderweb of microscopic fissures, but even that was wrong because, instead of the mana inside the core pushing outward, all this mana—from the slime covering the floor, the huge lightning-blue cylinders, the equipment—was seeping into my core, and the pressure was building and building and building and…
My core imploded.
In an instant that felt like a lifetime, the white, hard shell of the magical organ dissolved as it was pulled inward, into the inferno of mana that now raged in my sternum.
I gasped, breathless, tears rushing down my cheeks. Something was happening outside of me, but I had only the vague sensation of movement, shouting, a bust of magic, then I was drawn inward again.
My core was gone.
And all that mana came rushing out in a white explosion. For a moment, I was floating at the center of a blank white universe, as if the blast had wiped the slate clean, leaving behind nothing but me.
Then the darkness rushed in, and everything went black.