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The bottom dropped out of my stomach as Regis leapt off the side of the gargantuan branch on which we’d been running. Trees larger than even the most grandiose cathedrals and palaces rose all around us, their branches crossing over and beneath one another in an incomprehensible network both above and below. Under me, Regis’s flesh began to writhe.

His back broadened and fur hardened into spines. The purple flames of his mane grew jagged, more solid, nicking me and drawing a line of blood across my forearm. Wings sprouted from his back, catching our momentum.

Being so close, the Destruction emanating from him made my bones ache.

Two skyrays swerved to pursue us.

“On our left!” I barked as beams of soulfire leaped off my blade and scored the beasts’ flesh, leaving bubbly raised scars in the black hide.

Regis banked hard as a skyray slammed into us from the side, and I could focus on nothing but maintaining my seat on his back. Purple fire blazed between his teeth, and he ripped a chunk out of our attacker’s wing. The flames spread from the wound quickly, consuming the beast as it plummeted from the sky.

We spun in the air, headed back toward our branch where the others were fully engaged in combat. Grey shouted something, and Eleanor stood up on her bear’s back. Regis snatched her in his paws, then wheeled around again, descending toward the portal frame in the distance.

Glancing behind us, I watched as Grey pulled Sylvie from Boo. Even now, in the midst of such chaos, there was such tenderness to the way he held her.

With a sudden burst of pain, a three-pronged chitin spear struck me in the leg, punching through the mana cladding my body and into Regis’s side. I hissed with pain and nearly tumbled off when Regis banked hard to avoid a volley of spears thrown by the horde of crustaceans crawling up the tree.

“You good?” Regis asked, the concern clear even in his guttural growl.

“Yeah,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Don’t slow down!”

As I struggled with the spear, several of the crustaceans leapt from the sides of the tree. The frills along their shoulders expanded out like wings to catch the wind. First a few, then a dozen, then more glided after us.

At a thought, my orbitals drew in close. The mana resonated between them, conjuring a shield around us. Another spear glanced off the shield, then a small blade.

We arrived at the small island of knotted roots just ahead of them, but skyrays were already circling. Regis began transforming, and I slipped off his back, one hand holding the spear steady. Boo appeared next to Eleanor with a burst of mana, but I was focused on the approaching horde as I wrenched the spear free and tossed it aside.

Suddenly the gliding crustaceans were in disarray, falling like stones or banking hard away. A smokey-skinned figure plowed through their formation, and I held my breath as Chul ripped the frills off one of the monsters, drove his fire-imbued fist into another causing it to go up like kindling before slamming two more together so hard I heard the crunch from where I stood.

They gave up their pursuit of us and dove into the water to escape him, giving him time to land beside me.

Following the constrained pressure his bond exuded, I found Grey, Sylvie in his arms, leaping between two branches. A skyray dove for him mid-leap, but Sylvie’s spell pulsed, and the skyray froze in midair, sped up sickeningly, and vanished behind a tree.

Grey was rushing from branch to branch, moving downward and in our direction as best he could with Sylvie cradled in his arms, her body still wrapped in his conjured armor. When several crustaceans moved to cut him off, he flashed forward with such speed that they were blasted off the branch. A couple plummeted, unconscious and unable to save themselves, while the others threw out their frills and drifted to other branches or down into the water.

The zone rocked as Chul bashed his weapon into one of the roots leading to our island. Wood exploded, burning splinters flying like knives in every direction. Flames raced along the wood toward a group of crustaceans. A few were caught in the blaze, while others escaped to the water with enraged, gurgling chitters.

A transparent, smokey black bubble of mana appeared around us. Chitinous projectiles slammed into it an instant later, sending tremors through the mana.

“We just need to hold until Grey catches up,” I said, considering our options.

The strain on Chul’s mana reserves showed clearly in his glazed eyes and erratic breathing. Eleanor had mounted Boo, her broken arm cradled against her stomach as mana swirled around her. Eager tension was emanating palpably from Regis, the only one of our number who didn’t seem to have been taxed by this battle.

The frequency of projectiles quickly increased until the whole shield was trembling and barely maintaining its form.

Suddenly there was a lull in the barrage.

From the smoking ruins of the root that Chul had destroyed, a blurred form burst into sight, sprinting toward us. The speed of Grey’s passage gusted away the smoke, revealing dozens of corpses beyond.

I dropped the shield as he raced onto the knot of roots and into the alcove where the portal frame was hidden. A subtle glow infused the alcove, bathing Grey in pale light as the portal activated.

The light dimmed, and the shield reformed above us just before a skyray slammed into it.

As I held it there, straining against the Relictombs beast’s strength, Grey cursed, and my heart sank. He had the Compass in hand, but the face of the portal was distorted with static.

As if feeling my eyes on him, he turned and shook his head. “It’s not working.”

The shield emanating from my orbitals gave out.

Phoenix fire, Destruction, and pure mana all struck the attacking skyray at once. Its subsonic death knell stole my breath away, and I barely brought my blade around in time to deflect a thrown spear.

Chul grunted in pain and went to one knee as the dying skyray crashed into the water.

“Eleanor, help Chul!” I ordered, knowing someone needed to take charge or we would collapse under the weight of these constant attacks.

“On it!”

Ellie’s gaze flickered toward her bond, and Boo rushed in front of Chul, taking a spear to the side. White light emanated from Boo into Eleanor, and then from her to Chul. His mana signature swelled, but the drain on Ellie was clear, even after borrowing mana from Boo.

The water erupted in front of me, and a crustacean landed heavily on the root’s edge. It was broadly muscled with scales the color of dried blood. Huge pincers clicked together in place of hands. It chittered dangerously, eyeing me for a long moment, then scrambled forward, its pincers outstretched.

A bolt of pain ran up my leg as I shifted my weight to bat aside one pincer before hacking across my attacker’s ribs, the crimson blade igniting with dark fire. I felt a jolt of fear as the sharp edge of my sword drew only a thin line of dark blue blood.

One pincer snapped out and closed around my blade. My arms jarred painfully as they were pulled to a halt midswing. The other claw opened wide as it carved toward my neck. I knew, in the second between one thought and the next, that the strike would take my head off.

Golden light suffused me as something hit me from behind, and the claw cracked against it. I stumbled backwards just as the light shattered. Instead of taking me solidly on the side of the neck, the pincer’s sharp tip slashed across my clavicle. My sword jumped forward, soulfire burning black over the red steel, and plunged into the monster’s open mouth and up through its brain. Its furious little eyes rolled, and it slumped off the root and back into the water.

Spinning, I saw Eleanor staring at me, breathing hard, and although I didn’t know how, I knew she had just saved my life. “Thank you,” I said, gingerly prodding my wound. It was deep, and the bone beneath had broken, but I didn’t think it would be life-threatening in the short term.

She nodded, then set about trying to remove the spear from Boo’s thick hide with her one good arm.

Inside the alcove, Grey had laid Sylvie down and was kneeling next to her. I could just hear the soft words he spoke only for her. “…you to listen to me, okay Sylv? It’s time to go. We can’t leave until you come back to us. I need you to wake up now, okay?”

As he spoke, the pressure of his intent built until it became difficult to breathe. Perhaps sensing the change, our attackers faltered, pulling back, the zone full of the noise of their alien chittering. I could see now that more crustacean creatures were swimming in from the waters all around us.

There was a roar of warning from above.

Regis, again in his Destruction form, was flying tight circles over the knot of roots. All around him, the skyrays swarmed.

Each was large enough to cover the entire island in its shadow, and yet they flowed past each other as they flew like a school of fish. Three closed in on Regis, the first melting away in a gout of Destruction. The second, though, ripped at Regis’s wing as it passed, and the third slammed into him head-on, sending him spinning in the air.

Another descended upon the rest of us, its twin tails curled beneath it like hooks. As it flew past, those tails lashed out. Eleanor threw herself onto her stomach, screaming when she landed badly on her broken arm.

Boo caught one tail in his jaws, heedless as the barb stabbed into his ribs. The other deflected against a soulfire shield.

The skyray jerked midflight, and its tail ripped free. Its massive bulk was pulled violently off course so that it collided with a neighboring root before splashing down onto its back, the many legs churning feebly as it sank.

Waves of fire were rolling off of Chul, holding back a small army of crustaceans. Whenever one reached the island, a burst of force, from the many discs of condensed mana Eleanor had set as traps around the edge of roots, sent it splashing back into the lake.

And yet there seemed no end to the zone’s occupants.

Regis hit the ground hard, crushing a couple of crustaceans beneath him. Purple flames licked between his teeth and raced to his paws and tail as he spun, snapped, and clawed at any monster that came too close. Even as he fought, he shrank, reverting to his normal shadow wolf form.

A spear glanced off the smokey mana sheathing Chul’s body, but an instant later a chintin dagger punched through it and plunged between his ribs. In front of me, two of the crustacean creatures jumped onto the roots, one with a forked spear, the other swinging a net woven from fibrous plants.

The net flew, opening as it did so. A beam of black fire sliced through the fibers, and I unleashed a wave of soulfire with my sword. Both enemies leaned into it, turning their flat faces away. Their scales blackened and cracked in places, but neither were destroyed.

As their gazes returned to me, a shining bolt of mana lodged into the top right eye of one. It screeched and fell back into the water, which sprayed up like a geyser a second later as the bolt exploded. The other ducked under another mana bolt before skittering over the bark toward me. It caught my blade in the forked spear and turned it aside, nearly wrenching the weapon from my grip.

I limped back, dislodging my blade and avoiding a swiping claw, but the foot of my wounded leg turned in a gap between roots, and I fell. Mana exploded against the crustacean’s side, but it only rocked back for an instant before its spear came up again. Eleanor screamed and Boo roared. The spear came down, and I caught it with my sword, partially deflecting it.

The prongs punched through my armor and arm alike, pinning me to the wood below. Pulling back both legs, I conjured wind into them. When the monster fell on me, I kicked with all my might, unleashing a blast of wind-attribute mana along the length of my legs. My attacker was lifted off its feet and sent tumbling off the roots and back into the water.

The kick sent a lightning bolt of pain up my leg, and stars burst beyond my eyes.

Several more magical blasts went off. I could hear Chul bellowing his war cry and Regis snarling.

Turning over, I experienced a flash of déjà vu as I pulled the crustacean spear from my flesh before letting it fall to the ground. Nearby within the root cave, Grey was kneeling next to the portal frame and Sylvie. His eyes were closed, his brows furrowed in concentration, sweat beaded on his forehead. Gentle purple light was radiating from him and his bond. His lips were moving, but I couldn’t read them.

“Grey…Grey!” My voice cracked as I shouted, my head swimming as I unintentionally put pressure on my cracked clavicle.

From the corner of my eye, I watched as Chul was swallowed in a wave of crustaceans as they poured over the edge of the island. To my other side, Regis and Boo were standing over Eleanor. She was curled into a ball and cradling her broken arm. The mana bracing it was gone, and blood was flowing freely. Even as I watched, two more spears hit the guardian bear, lodging in his tough hide.

A sharp pressure broke the surface of the flesh around my calf, and I was suddenly dragged backwards. Another huge blood-red crustacean had me in its pincer and was pulling me toward the water. My blade came down on its arm just below the claw, shearing it off, but already two more were reaching for me, grabbing me.

My fingers skated across the slimy, blood-slick surface of the roots, unable to get purchase. My wounds screamed with each desperate movement, but this was buried beneath the churning waters of my panic.

Something struck my elbow, and my hand went numb. The handle of my sword slipped from my grasp.

Rolling over, I kicked furiously, sending out bursts of wind with each blow. It wasn’t enough.

A massive pincer raised above me like a guillotine.

Then…everything stopped. The noise, the pressure, the grasping claws, even the shadow of a skyray enveloping the root island.

Slowly, I looked down at my legs. The crustacean whose claw I’d severed was reeling away, its face a hideous mask of pain and fury, strings of blue blood frozen in the air around its wound. Another held me, its claws pinched around my leg. The third reared over me with its pincer outstretched.

Repeated wet crunching interrupted the silence. Chul had dragged himself out of the pile. His massive weapon was falling down on unmoving enemy after enemy, but each swing came slower than the last, and he was wobbling drunkenly.

Eleanor used her good arm to drag herself up Boo’s side. She looked to be on the verge of passing out.

Finally, I looked back within the cave.

Sylvie was on her feet. Grey was at her side, supporting her. The asura’s eyes were glowing, the gold flecked with amethyst motes.

“I can’t…hold this long…” she said warily, sagging against Grey.

“Everyone, hurry!” I shouted, jerking free of the immobile crustaceans and dragging myself to my feet. “To the portal!”

Groaning with pain, Eleanor clutched Boo’s fur as he half guided, half pulled her toward the portal frame. Chul had stopped swinging, and his weapon had vanished. He seemed on the verge of collapse when Regis appeared next to him, taking some of the half-phoenix’s weight. Inside, Grey had already turned around and was channeling aether into the Compass.

When the relic activated, the portal shifted to reveal a ghostly outline of what lay beyond.

Time slipped back into sequence with a feeling like my ears popping. Grey vanished in a violet flash, reappearing outside the mouth of the cave of tangled roots, his blade carving through the crustaceans that had attempted to drag me into the water.

I stumbled forward and into the portal.

My feet moved from slick bark to solid stone bathed in golden white light from the huge portal now at my back. I swayed dizzily. My heart was pounding, each beat throbbing in my blurred vision. I focused on controlling my breath, reigning in the heady, post-battle rush. Long moments passed before I finally found the strength to lift my head up.

The terrace, usually full of excited bustle, was empty and dour by comparison. A couple dozen ascenders stood at stiff attention, their focus primarily on the various entries into the terrace. A handful, along with a couple of clerks, were looking at me expectantly, although their brows rose higher the longer they stared.

Before I could speak, Eleanor and Boo appeared beside me, then Chul opposite them.


“Lauden?” I breathed, disbelieving.

My adoptive brother broke away from a group of guards and came running. The attendants who had been staring at me slack-jawed took a step back, exchanging strained glances.

My surprise turned to shock when Lauden wrapped his arms around me and pulled me to him in a familial embrace. I waited wordlessly for something to happen, my breath catching in my chest.

After a few seconds, he pulled back and cleared his throat. “We were afraid you had…” He trailed off as his focus shifted to the others. “How did you get here? Who are your…friends?” Before I could answer, he seemed to notice my wounds for the first time, and his face fell. “You’re wounded! Come with me, I’ll—no, wait, I’ll have people brought here. Bring them seats!” he snapped at the nearby soldiers, who were watching with growing interest.

Eleanor was leaning against Boo, blood weeping from several wounds, her eyes barely open.

In worse shape was Chul, who sagged even as I looked at him, as if the weight of my attention was more than he could shoulder. The ground trembled as he collapsed to one knee, his eyes tightly shut and breath coming in labored gasps. “I am…fine,” he said, his words slurred.

“Nonsense, we can—”

Grey, Regis, and Sylvie appeared beside Boo.

“—bring healers…” Lauden finished before noticing the new arrivals. He took an involuntary step back, his eyes going wide as full moons. “Ascender Grey…”

Grey hardly acknowledged Lauden, going straight to his sister’s side. He tipped her chin up so he could look into her eyes. Over his shoulder, he said, “Yes, healers. Whoever you have. Quickly.”

Eleanor brushed Grey’s hand away and stood up straight, taking her weight off the guardian bear. When she started walking toward Chul, Boo followed.

Grey reached for her, but Sylvie rested her fingers lightly on his forearm, and so he turned to her instead. Something passed between them unspoken, and some of the tension in Grey’s shoulders relaxed.

I felt Lauden approach to stand at my side, and together we watched as Eleanor once again drew mana from her bond and instilled it directly into Chul’s core. “Vritra’s horns,” he whispered. “What is happening right now?”

“I could ask you the same,” I said, not yet having shaken off the uncharacteristic joy he had displayed upon seeing me. “Why are you here?”

“I’m in charge of a rotation guarding the portal,” he said without taking his eyes off the others. “Our highblood split right down the middle. Half followed Father into the Relictombs while the rest sided with Justus.”

“Corbett and Lenora sided with Seris?” I asked, unable to believe it. “Publicly?”

Chul grew strong enough to stand, and Eleanor stumbled back. He scooped her up and set her on top of her bear. Both looked simultaneously grateful and exhausted beyond words.

Lauden let out a weak scoff. “Our dear Great-Uncle Justus did it for them.”

I knew highblood politics well enough to understand, but I had no head for it in the moment. I had been doing my best to ignore my wounds so far, and I hadn’t forgotten why we were there. “Where is Seris, is she…”

Lauden’s expression darkened. “Most of our healers will be with her.”

“She’s waited for me long enough.” I looked at my companions, weariness creeping in with each syllable I spoke. “Let’s get moving.”

Regis nudged me with his head. “Get on.”

Grateful to take the weight off my wounded leg, I eased onto his back. Together, we all left the terrace and went through the plaza where ascenders would have normally looked for groups for their ascents. Like the portal terrace, it was eerily empty. Lauden walked just ahead of us, and although he shot occasional glances back at me, he said nothing else.

He’s changed, I thought. Whether it was from fear of the circumstances or from growth in maturity, I didn’t know, but my adoptive brother no longer acted like the spoiled highblood Corbett and Lenora enabled him to be.

We proceeded directly along the main boulevard toward the portals between levels. People peered out at us, but no one approached. I saw familiar innkeepers and store proprietors and realized that they had been stuck in here as well. It’s amazing Seris has been able to maintain control for this long.

Despite having discussed some details of a potential plan to cut off access to the Relictombs, I still couldn’t believe what I was seeing when we reached the zone’s entrance.

Surrounding the bank of portals that normally made transit between the first two levels of the Relictombs a simple matter was an array of unusual devices. Constructed of a similar blue-tinged metal as those we’d used to capture Orlaeth, the metal housings contained unusually large mana crystals, connecting them with artifacts shaped like bowls turned on their side. The entire structure was a mess of thick wire.

Visible striations of contorted mana emanated from the bowls to the portals, distorting their normally smooth surfaces.

Surrounding these devices—several per mana crystal—were a couple dozen mages. As best I could tell at a glance, they were channeling immense quantities of mana into the crystals.

It was only after taking all this in that I realized there were many other people around. Most were armed and attentive ascenders. Guards, some of whom focused on Grey, clearly recognizing him, while others moved hands to weapons as they stared down Chul, Boo, or even Sylvie, their nervousness writ plain in the tense lines of their face.

But there were also a large number of mages bustling about. Some appeared to be waiting, others were helping fatigued men and women leave the plaza. A few people were lying on cots or being carried to a nearby building, which I guessed had been retrofitted to be a hospital.

I was momentarily confused by this, unsure what would be causing so many injuries, then one of the mages tending the mana crystals collapsed.

A handful of others hurried to his side, and I was surprised to see Eleanor there as well. Despite her own mana signature wobbling with the effort, she channelled what little mana she had into the mage, bringing him back from the edge of backlash. Those holding him watched this in wonder, slack-jawed and wide-eyed as the unconscious mage in their arms stirred.

Eleanor stepped back, allowing them to help the mage away. Meanwhile, another mage had stepped in to take the place of the first.

And at the center of all this was my mentor.

Seris was kneeling on a cushion next to a glass container filled with glowing blue liquid. Inside the container rested the severed head of Sovereign Orlaeth Vritra, or what was left of it. The flesh had decomposed in ragged patches, the hair melted away, empty sockets staring soullessly out through the glass.

Seris’s eyes were closed and ringed by dark shadows. She seemed pale, her mana signature weak. One hand was dipped into the open container, her fingers clenched around Orlaeth’s horn.

She’s powering the device herself. This slow-dawning realization left me cold with disbelief.

Cylrit was standing beside her, watching us approach. He stared at Grey for what felt like a very long time, then bent down and said something softly in Seris’s ear.

She startled, her fingers spasming around the horn, and a ripple ran through the mana distortions aimed at the portals.

Her eyes opened slowly, and she had to blink several times before she could focus on Cylrit’s face. She did not speak, but her gaze slipped off the retainer to Grey, and her spine straightened.

“It looks like our roles are reversed from our first meeting, Seris,” he said. Although he was outwardly rigid, his tone was soft, consoling. “You sent for me, and I’m here. But I’m not sure how I can help you.”

She shook her head, sending a cascade of pearl-colored hair spilling into her face. When she spoke, her voice was raw. “Orlaeth…the horn—lasted until…” She trailed off, her features going slack with confusion.

My hand reached instinctively toward her, my fingers twitching with the desire to help, to somehow make this better. I could not recall ever seeing Seris so weak, so broken. I wanted to apologize, to beg for her forgiveness, but I held myself back, forced my emotions into check. Grey was who she needed now, not me.

Seris’s strength and support were the bedrock upon which my life had been built. Seeing her like this didn’t fit cleanly into reality as I understood it. She was immovable, immutable…and apparently, at the limit of her prodigious abilities.

“They test the portals constantly…at irregular intervals.” Seris paused to take a breath. “Without the mana from Orlaeth, mages have had to channel around the clock, while I have operated as the focus. If we stop…” She trailed off tiredly.

“They’ll know in minutes,” Cylrit finished for her. “It’s been two weeks like this. Scythe Seris hasn’t moved, hasn’t slept. She—” Cylrit cut himself off as his voice broke, the strongest display of emotion I had ever seen from the stoic retainer. “We’ve failed to come up with a workable solution to redirect the mana without her acting as focus. Several theories had already been considered before we arrived here, but they have all failed.”

“If only Wren or Gideon were here,” Grey said under his breath, taking in the situation with a thoughtful frown.

“Why not just destroy the portals?” I blurted out, looking from face to face. “I’ve seen Grey bring old, broken portals back to life before.”

I knew Seris wouldn’t have forgotten about this, of course, but as loath as she had been to destroy anything created by the djinn, I knew she wouldn’t eagerly destroy these relics either unless she knew they could be recreated.

“Without a chance to experiment, we were unsure what exactly was possible,” Cylrit answered. His eyes jumped to Seris for a heartbeat, then back to me, continuing quietly. “Although, if this had gone much farther, I would have—”

“Never disobeyed a direct order,” Seris cut in, firm despite her condition.

“Even I can’t promise it would work,” Grey added, his golden eyes locked on the portals. “But is all this”—he waved his hand around at the equipment—“really worth the suffering and risk?”

Seris didn’t answer, and the conversation was interrupted as a couple of their healers finally turned their attention to us. They hurried to set Eleanor and I down on nearby cots and began tending to our wounds. They poked and prodded at me, slathered me in rejuvenating ointment, and cast spells to speed my healing and reduce the pain.

Throughout, though, my focus remained on Seris and Grey, and the problem they now faced.

I wanted to offer advice, solutions, ideas…to make use of the training Seris had provided over these last several years. But my mind was clouded with pain, fear, and most of all regret. I couldn’t avoid asking myself what I had to contribute when I was surrounded by Scythes, retainers, asuras, and…whatever the hells Grey was.

Arthur, I reminded myself. Arthur Leywin, Lance of Dicathen.

I wanted what I’d always wanted—to be at the center of everything. To be the instrument of change. That was Sevren’s dream, which he had left to me when he vanished into the Relictombs. And now I was closer than he ever could have imagined it to realizing true change in Alacrya, but I wasn’t the catalyst for that change.

No, that honor belongs to a man they literally call Godspell…

My thoughts trailed off, and then, without meaning to, I burst out with a manic laugh that startled the healer working on my shoulder so badly that she jammed the broken clavicle. My laugh turned into a pained groan.

Everyone looked at me, and I felt myself flush. “Apologies, I…I think I might have an idea.”


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