Everyone was screaming as the stadium shook.
A translucent bubble of mana covered our group. Mayla was clinging to my arm. I was dimly aware of blood dripping around her fingernails where they’d dug into my skin, but I couldn’t feel it.
Deacon was on the ground, holding his head. Yannick had slumped back in his seat, unconscious. At least, I hoped he was just unconscious.
Brion and Linden were screaming at them both, half their attention still on the fight that was tearing the coliseum apart.
Only Pascal didn’t seem to be completely losing it, but then I followed his line of sight…
The first several rows of our section were full of corpses. Spikes that were the size of crossbow bolts stuck out of stonework and flesh alike, having broken the shield that was supposed to protect us from combat even between retainers and Scythes. Some of them must have used their own magic to conjure shields, but, against the full might of a Scythe…
There was a crashing boom and an entire section of the coliseum crumbled, directly across from us. I watched as thousands of people were swallowed up by a cloud of brown dust. Gone, just like that…
The arena was a blackened and broken field of rubble. Blood iron spikes stuck up like gravestones everywhere. The cloud of void wind was breaking up and fading away. Soulfire burned in dark patches, just like the wisp-flames they always mentioned in stories. The ones that would lead the hero astray, into the swamp or the beast’s lair…
At the very heart of the battlefield, Professor Grey stood over Scythe Cadell Vritra of Central Dominion. They could not have looked more different. Professor Grey…Can I even call him that still? I wondered. It seems like such an insufficient title now.
Professor Grey stood straight and tall, his strength an undeniable, inescapable…physical presence. Clad in black-scale armor, with onyx horns like a Vritra’s curving out from his head, he might have been a deity himself.
I struggled to understand what I was even seeing. I’d studied magic and runes since I was just a little kid. My illness meant I couldn’t begin training like Circe, and so I’d stayed inside and read. All the time. But I’d never heard of mana arts like these.
He had flitted around the arena with impossible speed. His weapon came and went instantly and with no apparent effort. His summons changed from an already intimidating wolf-creature to a huge, flying monster that could destroy every kind of Decay-attribute mana attack just by breathing!
It didn’t even make sense. I’d never felt any mana come from him, none at all. Scythe Cadell Vritra’s was overwhelming, stifling, but the professor’s power was…something else entirely.
And so it was with a certain amount of detachment that I watched Professor Grey’s weapon plunge through the Scythe and devour him. It felt…inevitable. The way the weird purple fire curled across the Scythe’s skin, unmaking him, made me feel deeply uncomfortable. As if I were watching the rules that bound my world together unravel before my eyes.
"H-he—but…what?" Mayla stammered.
"No freaking way," Linden said, forgetting the unresponsive Yannick as our collective attention was pulled to the sight of Scythe Cadell Vritra burning to ash.
"What even was that?" Pascal muttered, his head shaking like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. "I’ve never seen magic like that."
"The way he just stabbed his summons…" Mayla’s voice was full of horror.
"I think he absorbed it into his weapon," I pointed out, remembering how the wolf had dissolved and the blade had come alive with violet flames. "Some kind of crazy combo attack."
It was all pretty hard to make sense of, honestly.
Professor Grey had defeated a Scythe. But no, that wasn’t quite right. I had nearly forgotten about Scythe Nico already, my mind and memory both sluggish from trying to process everything that had just happened.
The professor had just defeated two Scythes. And he killed one!
"He must be freaking covered in regalias," Linden said. "That’s why he doesn’t show them off like most mages."
Pascal’s eyes went wide. "Dude, maybe that’s why everyone in the class ended up with such strong runes at the last bestowal…"
Doubt suddenly smothered my wonder. And with it came…dread.
This wasn’t right. It was way, way outside the bounds of what usually happened at the Victoriad. A challenge alone was rare, but to have killed a Scythe, maybe even two…this could be a declaration of war.
I swiftly became uncomfortably aware of just how little we knew about Professor Grey. If Pascal’s guess was accurate, what would this mean for all of his students? Was the professor some kind of enemy of the Vritra? We’d all benefited from his training, maybe even somehow from his mere presence. Did that make us…accomplices, somehow?
I leaned my head against Mayla’s.
Her eyes rolled up to look at me askance. "I’m scared, Seth. What’s going on?"
"I don’t know," I answered, my chest tightening. "But I am too."
The wave of relief I had felt at Sovereign Kiros’s joyful acceptance of Cadell’s death collapsed into disappointment as the portal appeared below us, cutting off the Sovereign’s words.
Immediately, I set to work planning how I might get Arthur out of this situation alive.
I was now more certain than ever that this human boy was the key to everything, and I absolutely could not allow him to fall into Agrona’s hands.
It was quite frustrating, really. If he would have simply done as I requested, dueling and defeating Cylrit then declining the position of retainer…it would have made things much simpler. I still could have used his victory to put him on a pedestal, holding him up as a leader among the "lessers," but without drawing Agrona’s attention. At least not yet.
This victory though…it was much too large, and too soon. Agrona had banished all thought of the boy, focusing entirely on the Legacy instead, no longer concerned with the anchors that brought her here. That was useful. It couldn’t last forever, of course, but if I’d only had a few more months to work with…
If I didn’t get him away, somehow, then Agrona would strip him down to his base components to figure out how Arthur’s aetheric powers functioned. I’d seen enough of the dungeons and laboratories beneath Taegrin Caelum to know exactly what fate awaited him. More frightening perhaps than losing Arthur was the prospect of Agrona somehow divining a way to control aether from Arthur’s dissected corpse.
Given the situation at hand, even giving myself away would be worth it. I’d prepared thoroughly enough that my plans could be put into motion from hiding if necessary, despite not being ideal. Arthur, or rather Grey, would be a household name in Alacrya within days. No one of any stature wouldn’t know of his victory. In the event we actually could manage some miraculous escape from the Victoriad, utilizing him as a figurehead would be a simple task.
I resigned myself to simply watching and listening as I waited for the right moment. But when the Legacy cast her spell an instant later, the bottom fell out of my stomach.
Despite charting her progress, I hadn’t seen this ability before. Such a spell could, theoretically, defeat even a Scythe, if her control over it were strong enough. No, not just a Scythe. Considering that asura relied on mana simply to exist, with it infusing their very bodies, such a spell might be able to neuter even the strongest beings in this world, dividing them from their own power.
Dragoth and Viessa drifted into the sky, moving to circle Arthur’s trap. I had no choice but to follow, letting the situation play out.
Watching Arthur’s face, though…somehow, he did not seem afraid. If anything, he was calculating.
Even a little…sad?
I listened to Agrona speak, heedless of the words until the others moved in to capture Arthur. Perhaps I could make my move while transporting him back to Taegrin Caelum, offer to escort him into the dungeons myself…
Suddenly, Arthur shifted, smashing out of the trap and streaking toward Agrona and the Legacy, a blade of vibrant purple aether humming to life in his grip.
I stopped breathing, so intently did I have to focus to see what was happening.
Fool, I thought only an instant later, mouthing the word but knowing better than to speak out loud.
He had stopped. He could have struck a killing blow, his blade was so close he’d seared a hole in the Legacy’s battledress, but he’d stopped himself. Because of his relationship with Tessia Eralith, he didn’t have the stomach to do what needed to be done.
The idea of killing her myself flashed through my mind for the dozenth time, but I couldn’t risk alienating both Agrona and Arthur in a single move. If Arthur struck the blow himself however…
But I knew there was no hope for that as Agrona began to jeer, insulting Arthur. Then, his eyes never leaving the boy, Agrona gave the order. "Take him."
I knew that it was now or never, but I hesitated. Although stricken, his face pale, fingers trembling at his sides, Arthur did not yet look defeated. I flew toward him, keeping pace with the others, at a loss for how to proceed.
And then he was gone. Just like that, so fast that even Agrona, face twisted in rage, could only grasp at the afterimage of purple lightning left hanging in the air, all that remained of Arthur.
I began to laugh.
"What the actual fuck."
The words left my mouth as if they’d been spoken by a stranger, but I couldn’t have more eloquently described my feelings if I’d been given a month to think the words through.
Grey was…gone. Just gone.
As the High Sovereign began to shout out instructions to all the Scythes, I slipped back into the shadows of an empty staging area, stumbling over rubble before leaning back against the wall and closing my eyes.
The first thing I saw was the memory of Grey, caged and wrapped in some kind of anti-mana bubble, looking directly into my eyes. A plethora of emotions and thoughts had flashed across his face in that single instant, but one was clear above the rest.
Which could only mean one thing. He was leaving.
He hadn’t just used his aether arts to escape the stadium, I was sure of that. He intended to disappear.
I felt like I should’ve been mad—should’ve felt betrayed. But I wasn’t. Grey had always warned me of getting too close…of knowing too much. This had confirmed it. What he had sought to do was beyond the scale of my imagination.
I remember first seeing him in the Relictombs, manaless and seemingly at death’s door, taking pity on what I thought was a young woman whose core had been destroyed. Against all odds, we then crossed paths again in the convergence zone, where he carried my own brother’s weapon into battle. This alone was too much to write off as mere coincidence, and yet I then later learned of a mysterious connection between him and my own lifelong mentor, Scythe Seris…
So, while whatever force had brought us together—aether, or fate, or the will of some divinity beyond the asuras—I knew the next steps were up to me. Whether or not Grey intended to involve me further in his adventures, I had to choose what to do from here.
"Whatever that is," I muttered aloud, pressing myself into the wall, which was trembling subtly.
Separately and simultaneously to these considerations, Grey’s fight with Cadell was rapidly replaying in my mind. Despite having fought side by side with him, Grey’s powers seemed as much an enigma to me now as they ever had.
It was well known in Alacrya that Scythe Cadell was not just a Scythe—he was Agrona’s private enforcer, dealing with issues that required the High Sovereign’s personal attention. According to Scythe Seris, he had only been named a Scythe when Agrona began ramping up for the war with Dicathen nearly fifteen years ago, but even before that had been more powerful and dangerous than the other Scythes.
And yet, Grey had defeated him in single combat, killing him where every important person on the continent would get to see.
My throat grew constricted as questions tumbled haphazardly through my mind. There was so much more to this than a single, stunning defeat. Because the Victoriad had revealed that Grey not only knew Scythe Seris, but Cadell and Nico as well. And even Agrona, judging by the way he had spoken.
But what was their relationship? Why did Grey make these challenges? Who was Grey, really? And what was he trying to accomplish?
Could I have been right when I suggested to Scythe Seris that he was asura born? Perhaps some descendant of the dragons sworn to take vengeance against Agrona? If I hadn’t adventured at his side within the Relictombs, I would almost believe him to be a full-blooded asura. It would at least explain his control over aether.
Or—I felt a thrill as I considered this—could he be one of the ancient mages? A djinn, surviving within the Relictombs and hidden among us since the dragons exterminated them. It was true that he had a way with the Relictombs, far beyond any ascender I had ever seen. To my knowledge, no ascender in history had ever discovered one of these ancient ruins before, much less spoken to a djinn remnant.
And he did have these spontaneously manifested runes—godrunes—one of which even allowed him to revive relics from that ancient culture…
My cheeks grew warm. Even thinking these things made me feel like a silly little girl. But the truth was, I couldn’t think of a simpler, more reasonable explanation for how Grey would be at the heart of all this power. To have drawn the attention of the High Sovereign himself, who rarely if ever left the confines of Taegrin Caelum, high in the Basilisk Fang Mountains…
I realized with sudden and absolute certainty that Grey could be one of the most powerful beings in the world. If not yet, eventually. I knew with equal certainty that I would not be content to return to my old life, knowing he was out there, somewhere.
My coddled noble life, my efforts to live up to my brother’s legacy as an ascender, even the reality of my being a hidden Virtra-born whose blood has manifested, it all seemed entirely unimportant in the face of whatever breakthroughs Grey had made and would continue to make.
That was real power, the kind that could reshape the face of our world.
A small smile came to my lips as I remembered a conversation with Sevren, a very long time ago. We were play-fighting in the gardens with wooden swords—each one carved with the symbol for aether, of course—and the duel grew heated, until I accidentally rapped his knuckles with my "weapon" hard enough to make him yelp in pain.
In my embarrassment, I’d teased him about yielding to the power of my aether magic, but instead of being mad, he’d simply sat down in the grass and thoughtfully flexed his bruised hand.
"One day, I’m going to be an ascender, sis. I’m going to go into the Relictombs and learn all about this stuff for real." I still remembered so clearly how his eyes shined as he looked up at me from the ground, his face much too serious for a boy not yet twelve years old. "Then nobody will have to fight at all, not anymore. We could make the world whatever we want it to be."
I had laughed at him. "Can you make it rain toffee for us, then? Lenora told the cooks not to make anymore after I snuck some last time."
But Sevren hadn’t even cracked a smile. "The first thing I would do is make it so no one ever takes you away from our family. I’d create a world where you were safe from the Vritra Clan."
The torrent of conflicting thoughts and emotions overwhelmed me, and I realized that there were tears streaming down my cheeks. Outside the safety of the empty staging area, I could hear the noise of thousands of footsteps hurrying from the arena, of people shouting, the bones of the coliseum shifting, magic humming…so much life being lived, pain and fear and awe all wrapped up into one, no one fully understanding what they’d just seen.
I considered Grey’s students, likely awestruck and terrified, lacking any context to help them make sense of what they’d just witnessed.
My adoptive parents were out there somewhere as well, likely scrambling to arrange a tempus warp back to the central dominion in order to avoid being caught up in any fallout, already establishing their story for when Grey’s connections to Highblood Denoir came clear.
Perhaps the right thing to do would have been to go help. Dozens of mages still swarmed over the collapsed section of the coliseum, searching for survivors in the rubble. The officials would need all the help they could get to manage the churning herds rushing toward the tempus warp platforms.
But when I finally pushed myself away from the wall and wiped my tears, there was only one thing I could think to do. I needed to know what came next. And to do so, I needed my mentor.
I couldn’t help but feel it was quite past time for me to get some real answers.