The vision of Ellie vanishing in a wave of destruction played over in my mind, again and again. My sister…dressed like an Alacryan soldier…caught up in an asuran attack on the elven homeland…where Nico and Tessia fought side by side, like old friends…
It didn’t seem real when I thought about it like that. Each piece was more absurd than the next. Maybe it was just a vision, I told myself, though I knew it wasn’t true. Whether it was some aspect of the relic’s magic or my own intuition, I knew that what I’d seen was real, that it had just happened.
She had to be. I couldn’t accept a world where she wasn’t.
“How are you feeling?” Caera asked, her brows knit with concern.
Letting out a deep breath—as if that would somehow ease the weight of what I had just witnessed in Dicathen—I nodded at the Alacryan noble. “I’ll be fine.”
“What happened? The stone in your hand was glowing, and then, suddenly, your eyes were glazed over and you froze like a statue.” Caera was holding onto my arm, her upturned gaze searching for answers on my face.
Regis waited expectantly, almost awkwardly, and I could sense his desire for answers as well.
Answers I wasn’t quite ready to give.
Although I had made up my mind that Ellie had to be okay—as if my own force of will could make it so, if I only believed in it hard enough—I hadn’t even begun to come to terms with what this meant for Dicathen, for the war…for the world.
It was all too much.
Prying Caera’s warm fingers from my arm, I took a step forward dazedly toward the portal back to the second level of the Relictombs. The toe of my boot struck the relic, which rolled across the white tiles to the edge of the pool of water at the center of the room.
I resisted the urge to kick it into the bath and leave it there, instead scooping up the multifaceted stone and examining it. The clean, shiny surface was again opaque and dull. Not quite the same plain-stone texture it had been when I first won it, but it felt dead and lifeless in my hand.
Looking more closely, I noticed a faint crack along one side, but my mind was too heavy to ponder the relic’s mysteries, and so I tucked it away in my dimensional storage rune.
Caera was standing anxiously between me and the shimmering gate, her body tense and gaze flickering back as she blocked my way. Her horns had disappeared again, hidden by the relic she was wearing, which was no longer being suppressed by the snowy wasteland of the last zone. “Grey, wait.”
I was angry, anxious, tired, and scared, and a part of me just wanted to crawl in a hole and deny everything the relic had shown me. But there was work to be done. I needed to go back and meet with Alaric. I needed resources, a plan, and I needed to get back to the Relictombs.
Because of what I’d seen in the relic, I was now sure of one thing. The Vritras weren’t the only clan of asuras that were a threat to Dicathen.
I could hear the dull echoes of my footfalls ring in my ears, drowning out Caera’s words as I staggered through the portal.
I was greeted by a mass of Alacryan soldiers positioned around me in a crescent formation.
To my left, knights in blackened steel armor held their weapons forward, ready for battle, each individual figure thrumming with magic. On my right, knights wearing armor of glimmering white silver formed the other edge of the crescent, but, unlike their darker counterparts, their stance wasn’t aggressive.
Directly ahead of me, filling in the center of the semi-circle, were several individuals garbed in robes of varying colors, tensed and quiet.
Caera stepped out from the portal beside me. “Damn it, Grey, why didn’t you wait—”
The sharp ring of steel on stone cut her off as the knights in white silver stamped their spears against the ground and took a knee in unison.
‘Quite the welcoming committee,’ Regis mused. ‘Think this is all for the demon lady here, or…’
“Lady Caera!” A woman with bright orange hair tied atop her head in a loose bun rushed through the line of soldiers in white, practically sliding to a halt before my companion. “Are you hurt? Distressed? In pain?” she rambled, her wide eyes scanning every inch of Caera’s body.
Despite her weariness, Caera mustered a smile. “I’m fine, Nessa, really.”
The orange-haired woman frowned as she slapped the Alacryan noble in the arm. “How could you sneak out on another ascent! And without your guardians! Do you know how much trouble I have been in with the highlord and lady? My goodness, and, as if that’s not enough, to think you got mixed up with—”
The woman named Nessa let out a frightened squeal, as if only now noticing my existence. She pulled Caera a few steps away and hid behind her.
“Y-you! You’re the murderer!” she stammered, pointing a shaky finger at me.
“Are you finished, aide?”
The resonant voice echoed through the terrace, and all eyes turned toward the source. I locked eyes with an elderly Alacryan who stepped forward from the rest of his robed peers.
That’s when I noticed the crown emblazoned on the chest of his dark robe. In fact, now that I was paying closer attention, I realized all the dark-armored soldiers had a golden crown etched into their breastplates, too.
Memories of the Granbehl siblings came flooding through my mind, their deaths replaying as clearly as the moment it had happened.
‘Looks like Caera was right,’ Regis mused. ‘Should have just killed the girl.’
That’s not what Haedrig—not what Caera said, and it’s also not helpful, Regis.
Reaching a pale, boney hand into his robes, the golden-haired elder pulled out and unrolled a scroll before proceeding to read it. “Grey, blood unnamed. You are hereby charged with the murder of Kalon and Ezra of Blood Granbehl, and Riah of Blood Faline.”
Caera stepped forward, her arm raised in front of me. “Grey wasn’t the one that killed them.”
The elder looked up, his clenched fists betraying the forced respect in his voice. “We have a statement from a key eyewitness that says otherwise, Lady Denoir.”
“I, myself, am an eyewitness, just as Lady Ada of Blood Granbehl is,” she countered.
The golden-haired elder’s eyes narrowed. “Your testimony and involvement in this matter has been revoked, Lady Denoir. Please step aside.”
Anger seeped from Caera as she took a threatening step forward. “By whose right?”
“By Highlord Denoir, my lady,” the elder replied immediately. “At his request, with acknowledgement from Blood Faline and Blood Granbehl, the Ascenders Association has sanctioned this so that you will not be questioned and sent to trial as well.”
Caera continued to argue, but it was clear she was losing the battle.
My tired mind tried to examine the options available to me. It was pretty obvious I wasn’t likely to get a fair trial considering they were willing to forgo Caera as a witness, and I had no desire to undergo any kind of questioning from Alacryan officials that might lead them to realize I wasn’t who I claimed to be.
Despite the number of battle-ready mages surrounding us, I knew it wouldn’t be too hard to escape now that we were back to the second floor of the Relictombs. But fighting my way out, becoming a wanted fugitive with my appearance revealed, would make any future ascents difficult, and would certainly draw attention. Maybe even enough attention to get a Scythe involved.
‘You’re not actually thinking of just going along with all of this bullshit, right?’ Regis asked, his irritation growing. ‘Just let me out, and I’ll clear a path.’
For now, playing along seems like the best option. A thought occurred to me. Who knows, maybe we can even turn it to our benefit somehow. At the very least, we know that none of their mana-suppression artifacts will work on me, and we can escape later if we have to.
A bright, silvery voice cut across my thoughts. “Caera, enough.” The voice silenced all others in the vicinity, drawing my attention toward a lavishly-gowned woman with gleaming white hair. “We are leaving, dear. Leave this to the administrators.”
“Now, Caera.” The authority in the woman’s voice was absolute, and Caera crumpled under the weight of it.
I couldn’t recall seeing the Vritra-blooded Alacryan mage look so miserable before, even when I was on the verge of killing her myself when she first revealed her true identity.
She turned, her scarlet eyes meeting mine.
“It’s all right,” I said. “Just go. I’ll be fine.”
“Caera!” the white-haired woman said again, her voicing ringing across the terrace like a bell.
Caera flinched and rushed to follow her adoptive mother, who led the white-armored knights away from the portal. She shot a furtive glance back at me, and I was struck by how much different she looked and acted in her blood’s presence.
‘Families are weird,’ Regis said. ‘I mean, look at all the crazy shit you’ve gotten me into.’
I realized the golden-haired elder was speaking again. “…and so it is that the suspect, Grey, is to be taken to the Granbehl manor for questioning before a trial is held. This trial is currently set for”—he checked the scroll again—“three weeks from day.”
I scoffed. “Is it standard procedure that the accused is imprisoned by the accusers? Hardly seems fair and unbiased, does it?”
The speaker cleared his throat and scowled. “Blood Granbehl has every right to ensure that you stand trial for your crimes. Were you a member of a named blood or highblood, you might be released to your blood’s custody to await trial, but—”
I waved away his explanations, knowing it was nothing but words. The truth was that the powerful always played by different rules than everyone else. “Let’s just get this over with, shall we?”
I held the man’s gaze until he flinched and looked away. “Put this man in shackles and get him in the cart,” he said, a hint of bitterness and wariness in his tone.
Three knights stepped forward. One pulled my arms in front of me while another fitted my wrists with a pair of mana-suppression cuffs. The third kept his spear pressed against my back.
When that was done, I was led to a small, beast-pulled cart that had been left at the edge of the terrace and wordlessly deposited inside. It was small, with only enough room for me and one other Granbehl soldier who was already sitting inside.
The guard’s features were hidden behind a full-face helmet. A shortsword rested across his lap, carefully set into the crook of his arm so that, if needed, a short thrust would pierce my core.
A moment later, the cart rocked as the goatlike beast pulling it surged forward at the command of our driver. I rested my head against the back of the cart and closed my eyes. My thoughts were jumbled, an indecipherable mush of memories, fears, and plans for what was to come.
I was deep enough in my own mind that I didn’t notice the guard take off his helmet, and was surprised when a familiar voice interrupted my tired contemplation.
“Well, this is a hell of a scrape you’ve gotten yourself into, eh pretty boy?”
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