The Beginning After The End - Chapter 417

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I reread Lady Caera of Highblood-bloody-Denoir’s letter for the third time, unsure if it was the alcohol that made the words so insensible or if it was just what she was asking me to do. The bar below was quiet—a sign of the times—which actually made it harder to focus, if anything. I needed noise, movement, action—distraction. I missed the boy, although I would have never admitted it to anyone out loud. He was good for a distraction.

Heaving a great sigh that ended with a foul-tasting belch, I turned the parchment over and leaned back in the rickety wooden chair, glaring around the small room as if it had been insulting toward my mother.

I was back in Aramoor City in Etril, only having narrowly escaped from Itri in Truacia, where I’d been helping to organize the smuggling of weapons and artifacts along the coast and up the Redwater.

A task much more aligned to my skills and interests, I thought darkly, glancing at the back of Lady Denoir’s parchment.

But our smuggling efforts had been successful enough to draw the attention of Bivran of the Dead Three, new retainer to the Dominion of Truacia, resulting in a sunk ship, dozens dead, and me running like my life depended on it.

“Just like the old days, huh?” a shadow said from my periphery.

I didn’t look straight at her, so she moved around the edge of the room and leaned against the wall right in front of me. “You used to live for this kind of thing.”

I scoffed, looking everywhere except at the vision of the woman, whose golden hair framed her sharp face and the hardened brown eyes that seemed to look into me.

Still, I saw as her lips turned up wryly. “You should acknowledge your commanding officer when she’s speaking to you, soldier.”

“Not my commander anymore,” I mumbled, closing my eyes and leaning forward to rest my head on the small desk. “I’m no soldier, and you’re dead.”

She laughed lightly. “All those years trying to get yourself killed in the Relictombs don’t change who you are, Al. You’re still an operator. That’s why you can’t stay out of the fight, no matter how hard you try. Sides may have shifted, but your purpose remains the same.”

I rocked my forehead back and forth, enjoying the feel of the cool wood on my hot skin. “You’re wrong. I have changed. I’m not the man I was when you knew me.”

She snorted. “And who could know you better than me? I’m in your head, Al. All that remorse and regret, that hatred and rage that burns like the core of Mount Nishan and makes you feel like if you don’t do something your bones might just vibrate to dust—I can feel all of it.”

I opened my eyes as I straightened up and glared at the vision. “You know what they did. You know why I walked away. I’d string Vritra guts from Onaeka to Rosaere if I could, but neither of us could ever be more than a part of their machine in the end. Even as an ascender, it was all for their benefit at the end of the day. The murderous lizards even got you, didn’t they?”

She strode across the room, moving like a shadow, and put her hands on the desk, leaning down to pin me with her steely gaze. “I made my choices. What happened changed my life just as much as it did yours, and you know that. But…” She hesitated, then stood, turned around, and leaned against the edge of the desk, her back to me. “We both could have done better.”

Another figure appeared in the shadows at the corner of the room, beyond my old commander. No, not a single figure. The silhouette of a woman holding a child in her arms…

My hand trembled as I scrambled for a half-full bottle of amber spirits from one of the desk shelves. After clawing at the cork for a few seconds with weak fingers, I gripped it in my teeth instead, pulling it out and spitting it onto the floor. My eyes closed as the cold glass touched my lips. “Get out of my head, ghosts,” I muttered into the open bottle, then tipped it back.

The satisfying burn of the alcohol trailed down my throat and into my belly, where it radiated out to warm the rest of my body.

I focused on that comforting feeling for a long moment, then half-opened one eye, peeking out at the small room. The visions were gone.

“Must be getting old,” I mumbled, giving the bottle a shake. “Sobering up too quickly these days…” Tipping the bottle back again, I drained the remainder of its contents, then set it down heavily on the floor behind the desk.

But I barely had time to do more than sigh with relief before someone was knocking lightly on the door.

“Damn,” I grumbled, grabbing Caera’s letter and stuffing it into an inside pocket of my coat, carelessly crumpling it.

“Sir, your…guests have arrived,” a growling voice said from the other side of the door.

“Yeah, yeah, send them in,” I grumbled.

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With a moan, I stood and stretched out my back, which ached from spending too much time in rickety old chairs like this one. I rubbed my hands vigorously over my face and through my beard, then placed them on the desktop, copying the vision’s pose from only a few moments earlier.

The door opened, and a handful of cloaked figures slipped in before closing it once again.

The first stepped forward and pulled back his hood immediately, revealing a carefully groomed noble with dark hair and a goatee. My brows rose of their own accord.

“Highlord Ainsworth. I hadn’t expected you to come personally—”

“What in the abyss is happening out there?” he snapped, puffing up like an angry bog hopper. “We’ve received nothing but assurances from Scythe Seris, who is still holed up behind her shield in the south, while the rest of Alacrya remains vulnerable to the High Sovereign’s reprisals. I have yet to see any tangible benefit of the risks my highblood have undertaken.”

Behind him, the other figures, four in all, also lowered their hoods. To Ector’s right, a nervous looking Kellen of Highblood Umburter was making a show of examining his fingernails, while to the left, Sulla of Named Blood Drusus, head of the Ascenders Association in Cargidan and an old friend of mine, was looking on with a raised brow. Then there was a surprise, a girl with golden hair trimmed short, the brightness of it highlighting the dark freckles across her face: Lady Enola of Highblood Frost, unless I was very much mistaken.

The final member of this strange group was one of my people, who had shifted to the side slightly, putting room between her and the others.

“And now,” Ector continued, his face growing slightly red, “Seris has asked us to directly expose ourselves in a way that will almost certainly destroy us. Does she even have a plan, or is it simply one desperate action after the next?”

I waited a moment, letting the highblood vent his frustration. Internally, I agreed with him. As eager as I was to strike at the Vritra in any way I could, it seemed to me that our efforts were far too small to do any lasting damage or pose a threat to the High Sovereign’s absolute control over our continent.

Still, I had nothing to lose. But for men like Ector, this rebellion was a constant balancing act between fighting for a life without Vritra control and consigning his entire blood to a painful and long-lasting execution.

Not that I have any sympathy for these preening highbloods, I reminded myself.

“I’ve only just been informed of this new course of action myself,” I admitted, unsure what this highblood expected me to do or say about it. “It’s a risk, I’ll admit, but not outside of your highblood’s abilities.”

As Ector ground his teeth, my young spy, an unblooded mage named Sabria, cleared her throat. “Highlord Ainsworth, excuse me sir. Alaric, the two water-attribute emblem-bearers we hired were able to retrieve several of the crates lost from the last shipment from Itri, including the interference artifacts.”

I slapped the desk and grinned at Ector. “See? That’ll help. And so will these,” I added, pulling a wad of fabric out of a basket behind the desk.

After catching it as I tossed it over to him, Ector let the fabric unroll, revealing a set of robes in the purple and black coloring of Stormcove Academy with their cloud and lightning emblem emblazoned across the chest. “What in Vritra’s name am I supposed to do with this?”

“Put it on,” I said, tossing a set to Kellen, Enola, and Sulla as well. “In about thirty minutes, a large group of Stormcove Academy supporters will be marching past this bar on their way to an exhibition tournament between Stormcove and Rivenlight Academies. A handful of our people will be in the crowd. You’ll leave with them, blending in until you can each safely make your way to a tempus warp.”

“Enough with both the complaints and the unnecessary espionage stuff,” Lady Frost said, stepping forward to be on a level with Ector, who she was almost as tall as.

Ector’s jaw clenched as he bit back whatever response had jumped to mind. Personally, between the two of them, I found Enola more intimidating, despite how young she was. And even though, as highlord, Ector outranked her, Highblood Frost was more powerful than Highblood Ainsworth.

“Promises were made. Half of the reason my father agreed to join this insane venture is because I convinced him that Professor Grey—sorry, Ascender Grey was worth it. Lady Caera of the Denoir Highblood assured us he was involved in this, but we haven’t seen or heard from him since the Victoriad.”

“Well, there was that attack in Vechor,” Kellen said with an irritating shrug.

I eyed the girl curiously. Since saying goodbye and sending him through that Relictombs portal, I’d learned much about what Grey—Arthur Leywin, Lance of the Tri-Union forces of Dicathen, I reminded myself—had done at Central Academy and the Victoriad, as well as what he’d accomplished in the war before ending up on our shores. Would she be as eager to follow his leadership if she knew who he really was? I wondered.

But that wasn’t for me to decide. Scythe Seris Vritra would determine when the people got to know that little detail, or perhaps she would wait for Arthur himself to make it known.

Regardless, much of our support hinged on the high and named bloods’ interest in him.

“He’s the most wanted damned person in Alacrya, isn’t he? You’re not likely to find him strolling about in broad daylight where any old Scythe or Sovereign can catch sight of him,” I grumbled.

“But he is out there?” she asked, a note of desperation creeping into her otherwise steady timbre. “Rumors are beginning to spread. Rumors that he has been captured. Some people—even those who were there—insist that he never escaped the Victoriad at all.”

Kellen let out a little laugh. “Of course they’d say that. It’s rather difficult to maintain the illusion of absolute control if someone is actively evading said control, isn’t it?”

Enola turned to glare at him, wiping the smug smile off his face.

I rubbed the bridge of my nose between my callused fingers, already feeling the need for another drink. Vritra help me that I got saddled with these highbloods. “He’s out there.”

Sulla, in the dangerous position of being a named blood among highbloods, had carefully avoided interrupting the conversation so far, but he seemed to see his opportunity. “The Ascenders Association has been carefully maneuvering resources in preparation for a call to action. Grey is well-liked and respected among us, although, of course, bringing in new ascenders is still slow and dangerous work—the wrong word in the wrong ear could lead to the entire association being disbanded—but we have a sizable force prepared, along with a significant investment of resources—weapons, artifacts, and the like. All of whom have rallied to his banner.”

I couldn’t help but shake my head, curious what Arthur would think about becoming the rallying cry of this Alacryan rebellion against the Vritra.

Uncomfortable, I’d wager, I thought, amused. But not as uncomfortable as I am.

“Just like in Vechor, Grey will make his presence known when it suits him,” I said, fully aware that I was talking out my ass. “For now, we all take our marching orders from Scythe Seris Vritra. Highlord Ainsworth, I can’t speak to the purpose behind her request of your highblood, but I have been instructed to put my entire network of informants and operators at your service. Orchestrating the necessary acquisitions, manipulating the systems in place, and even absorbing the fallout, should there be any.”

Ector looked at me as if I’d just suggested I’d be his concubine for the evening. “While I’m sure your resources are sufficient for what they are, I don’t see how you can assist me, given that this is my highblood’s direct responsibility.”

I shrugged off the insult. A thousand worries hung like knives over my head, and this highlord’s respect—or lack there of—hardly even rated.

Sabria, though, was having none of it. “Oh, I’m sorry Highlord Ainsworth, is there something about this whole rebelling-against-the-gods-themselves thing that isn’t living up to your expectations? What exactly has your blood sacrificed to be here right now? Because I’ve lost three fucking friends this week alone to loyalist soldiers.”

Ector looked disdainfully down his nose at the girl. “Perhaps you and your friends should be better at your jobs, then.”

“How dare you—”

“Enough!” I snapped, staring Sabria down. “You forget yourself. This bickering serves no purpose except to waste time and reduce our readiness. If we’re done seeing who can piss the farthest and least accurately, let’s continue on with the true purpose of this meeting.”

The others—three highblood nobles, a named blood ascender, and an unblooded orphan—went silent, and all attention turned to me. Life is a bitterly unfunny joke, I thought to myself. One that drags on and on, so that by the end of it, you’ve forgotten where it started and what the punchline was supposed to be. I took a drag from my hip flask, heedless of the looks this received—especially from the highbloods—and launched into the details of the instructions I had received.

It took the better part of twenty minutes for Ector and I to get on the same page. Highblood Umburter’s assistance wasn’t strictly necessary, but would make several aspects of the plan a hell of a lot easier. I wasn’t entirely sure why Seris had invited the Frosts, except perhaps to keep Ainsworth in line, and maybe force Highlord Frost’s hand. He’d been reluctant to take any real risk so far, but I would say putting his great-granddaughter—the shining star of his highblood—right in the thick of things showed he was ready to be involved.

That, or he was a sadistically cold-hearted bastard.

As for Sulla, my network and the Ascenders Association tied Seris’s whole operation together, and we nearly always had a higher-ranking official involved in these clandestine meetings. I suspected Sulla had come himself for the same reason Ector and young Lady Frost had: they were getting nervous.

“Better get those uniforms on,” I said, nodding to the bundles of cloth each of them still held. “Only a few minutes now until the procession arrives, and then you’ll need to be quick.”

There was a moment of silence as they each pulled on their disguising robes.

“Alacric?” Sabria asked, cocking her head and looking askance at the door.


“Does it seem quiet to you?”

I focused through the low-grade hum in my ears, listening for the normal clinking of glasses on the bartop or scraping of stools over the much-abused floorboards. But Sabria was right, the bar below was utterly silent.

“Shit, time to—”

The door ripped inward, exploding in a storm of shrapnel that dissipated against a shield, rapidly conjured by Kellen.

The doorframe opened onto a pitch-black void.

Leaping over the desk, I shoved Highlord Ainsworth to the side and activated the second phase of my crest, Myopic Decay. Mana vibrated through the air in the room, targeting its inhabitants eyes and buzzing violently to disrupt the focus of their cornea, resulting in heavily blurred vision.

At the same time, I sent a pulse of mana into the floor, activating the mana-cutters I’d installed as a precaution the moment I got back to Aramoor.

But, fast as I had moved, our enemy was faster.

An indistinct female form—as much smoke as flesh, except for the bright white of her short hair—drifted out of the void, seeming to float over the ground on a cloud of black mist. Tendrils of steel-hard shadow rose up about her like dark flames, and as my power ignited the first of the mana-cutters, one of those tendrils thrust out like a spear, shattering Kellen’s shield and shearing through his collarbone.

The floor ripped itself to shreds, sending us plummeting down into the barroom below. My desk—and all three bottles of booze hidden inside it—crashed straight through the shelves of liquor behind the dirty bar. I hit the bar itself and leaned forward to tuck into a roll, jarring my hip against the floor but ending up on my feet.

Enola landed on a stool, which shattered beneath her weight and downward force, but her mana flared and she caught herself without a stumble. Ector was less lucky. Off balance from my shove, he landed hard, his head barely missing the bar as he crashed into the floor with enough force to break the planks. Sulla had vanished behind the bar, out of sight.

My focus caught on Kellen, dangling fifteen feet above us. Untethered from gravity, our attacker hadn’t fallen with us. As I watched, the shadowy tendril split in two, one ripping up through Kellen’s shoulder, the other cutting down and out his hip. The two halves of him spiraled off in opposite directions, painting the floor and walls crimson.

Then I noticed Sabria. The very edge of the floor above hadn’t collapsed, and the foolish girl had put her back against the wall and was standing with just her heel on all that remained of the floor. The shadow woman—the retainer, Mawar, called the Black Rose of Etril—had her back to Sabria. The girl’s only hope was to stay still and let the retainer come after me.

Sabria leapt up, put both her feet against the wall, and shoved outward, a curved blade appearing in her hand. Her body glowed with a dim orange radiance as she activated a fiery aura, and the blade sliced through the air toward the back of the retainer’s neck.

With the nonchalance of one swatting away an insect, Mawar flicked out with her tendrils and caught Sabria in the side. The girl’s momentum redirected and she flew away from the retainer and through the wall with a sickening crash.

Then the woman’s feline-yellow eyes settled on me, and I felt my insides shrivel up.

Don’t piss yourself, I thought, clenching my nethers.

The Frost girl was already moving, darting toward the back door, away from me and Hector. I was still channeling mana into Myopic Decay, so to everyone but me she would just be a hazy blur. Hopefully it was enough to keep the retainer from identifying the others. It wouldn’t matter in the slightest, though, if they were all caught here.

With one hand, I grabbed the back of Ector’s silky tunic and heaved him to his feet and toward the front door, forcing the retainer to split her attention.

More smokey tendrils curled up in front of the door, so I changed direction and headed for the closest window. “Shield yourself if you can,” I grunted, pushing mana into my arms as I lifted Ector off his feet and hurled him toward the window.

I could already feel the retainer’s mana shifting with her focus as she attempted to catch Ector in her shadowy clutches. A pulse of mana into one of my marks, Aural Disruption, sent out a shock of sound-attribute mana that disrupted channeled abilities by interrupting the casting mage’s focus and drawing their attention to me. It wasn’t nearly powerful enough to stun someone as strong as a retainer, but I felt a spark of satisfaction as the grasping tentacles writhed in place for the blink of an eye, just long enough for Ector to fly past them and smash through the window.

Behind me, I heard Enola scream.

Mawar’s disconcerting gaze was still entirely focused on me as she drifted down from the room above, moving slowly on her black mist, but her tendrils had wrapped themselves around the Frost girl and had her pinned.

I ground my teeth. Of all of us, she was the last person I would want to be caught.

Sensing the attack, I lunged to my right as tendrils tried to snake around my legs and torso, feeling them brush against my back. I went into a roll and came up under one of the tables, lifting it and hurling it toward the retainer. With line of sight broken, I pushed more mana into the Myopic Decay, activating the third level of the crest.

The table shattered, and several tendrils lashed at me like whips from every side. My body was a hazy blur now, one of several that surrounded me. I ducked a tendril, but most sliced through the false images. Breaking out into a sweat from the effort it took, I sent the blurry forms racing away in every direction, while I bee-lined toward Enola.

The tendrils churned like thresher blades, sending splinters of wood flying like confetti through the air as the retainer ripped the bar apart.

A board broke beneath my feet, and I stumbled. She was on me instantly.

Only a second burst of my Aural Disruption rune saved me as I fell flat on my ass to avoid the grasping tendrils, which shivered and froze for that all-too-necessary instant. But they were everywhere, all around me. The retainer showed no signs of hurry as she drifted toward me, probably suspecting that I was penned in and couldn’t run.

I could see her inhuman eyes squinting as she tried to peer through the blur of Myopic Decay. I didn’t expect that it would take her too long to imbue enough mana into her eyes to overpower my spell, and if she did, both my identity and Enola’s would be revealed.

The light had taken on an uneven, jumping quality, and I realized that coals had been knocked out of the fireplace, lighting little fires in a dozen places.

My hold on the crest weakened as I pushed all the mana I could spare into my emblem. The little fires explode outward into roaring blazes, engulfing the bar between one second and the next. The light these bonfires gave off, though, was a brilliant silver color, so bright it was impossible to look at, and suddenly the destroyed barroom was bright as the surface of the sun.

The retainer hissed and raised a hand to cover her face, as I’d hoped.

Darting between the squirming tendrils, I sprinted for all I was worth toward Enola. From the inside pocket of my jacket, I pulled another mana-cutter, fired a half-second burst of mana into it, and tossed it into the air toward the retainer. It went off with a sub-audible wump that made my ears ring, sending out a pulse of destabilizing force that could break down walls, shatter floors, or, in a pinch, act as a kind of concussive weapon.

The retainer reeled back from the explosion, undamaged but knocked further off kilter. She was already struggling to get her bearings in the blinding brightness and seemed to have lost track of me entirely.

As I struggled to come up with a plan to release Enola, a golden aura surrounded her, pushing away the retainer’s hostile magic. An emblem, I realized, shocked that a mage so young could have such a strong rune.

The tendrils couldn’t find purchase against the golden aura, and the retainer must have sensed it, because the tendrils melted together into three spear-sharp shadow-tentacles instead. One crashed into Enola’s shoulder, lifting her off her feet and driving her into a wall. A second stabbed toward her chest but skated off to punch through the drywall instead. The third cut like a sword across her throat, and the golden aura cracked and broke, and the girl collapsed to the floor.

For a moment, I feared the worst, but there was no blood. The spell from her emblem had absorbed the worst of the attack, but her movements were sluggish and her eyes were unfocused. She was hurt, maybe concussed, or at least nearing backlash from trying to resist such powerful attacks.

Reaching out with my own emblem, I sent a shockwave of mana running through the flames devouring every surface around me, closing my eyes against the results. Even through my lids, I could see the flare as the silver flames grew bright enough to blind. But I didn’t have the strength to hold both crest and emblem any longer, and so I let go of my focus on the Sun Flare spell.

The light immediately dimmed, but it didn’t go out. The flames were in every board and beam, and I could already hear parts of the building coming down, although I couldn’t see beyond my immediate vicinity.

Enola was stumbling to her feet, and only by the grace of good luck did the scything tendrils around her miss as they swung about blindly.

Twisting to avoid one such slash, I grabbed the girl in both arms, wrapping her up and pulling her close without slowing down. I had only a bare instant to glance along the back of the bar for Sulla, afraid I’d see his burning body among the wreckage of the bar’s stock of alcohol, but he wasn’t there. I could only hope that, in all this madness, he had somehow escaped.

Leading with my back, I collided full force with the already weakened wall, bursting right through it and nearly tumbling over backwards. This saved us both, as one of the tendrils thrust at us through the hole, but only scraped my arm instead of pinning Enola and me both through the chest.

With no time to nurse my wound or admire my continued good fortune, I sprinted down the short corridor with Enola in my arms. It ended in a window, but a pulse from Aural Disruption, this time formed into a condensed blast, caused the glass and most of the frame to burst apart, and I leapt through without slowing down.

Although I didn’t dare look back, I could hear the ceiling of the bar collapsing into the inferno that was the building.

There were people all over in the street, people dressed in purple uniform robes, half which were wearing masks. I’d had masks in the desk, too, but hadn’t had the chance to hand them over. Oh well, I thought wryly. Hardly the worst of our problems now.

The crowd, which must have stopped to watch the fire, was now whipping itself into a panic. Finally, I glanced back and realized why. The retainer had floated up out of the blaze, her impassive face now marred with an irritated scowl as she searched the street. It only took a moment for the onlookers to surge away, pushing and shoving and screaming.

Feral yellow eyes met mine, and I cursed.

The retainer’s hand lifted, her fingers outstretched toward me like claws.

With Enola supported in one arm, I slipped a hand into my jacket and tossed several capsules up into the air, which shivered under the effects of Aural Disruption, ripping the the casings apart and activating the contents.

Thick smoke began boiling out into the street, instantly swallowing most of the crowd.

And then I was running again, dragging the highblood girl along beside me, waiting for the ax to fall. Unfortunately, I knew the fear of collateral damage wasn’t going to stop Mawar from unleashing her worst, and I was all out of tricks.

My hand went automatically to the flare hanging off my belt, but I had already made up my mind not to use it. There was nothing my people could do against the retainer except get themselves killed.

Instead of the crashing sound of magic ripping the world apart, though, Sabria’s unexpected voice screamed out into the night, piercing the rising noise of the frenzied crowd. “Hey, is that really the best you’ve got, bitch?”

On the roof of the building next to the smoldering bar, barely visible through the smoke, Sabria stood with a curved blade in each hand. She was limping to the side slightly, and I suspected she was badly injured—probably several broken ribs, at least—but I couldn’t help but feel a flush of pride as I saw her stare that retainer down.

Then, with both blades facing down like two long fangs, she jumped off the roof, arcing through the air toward the retainer. I expected the tendrils of shadow to come to Mawar’s defense, but instead the retainer brought her raised arm around and caught Sabria by the throat. The blades drove home, but only glanced off the powerful layer of mana cladding the retainer’s body.

With nothing but an irritated hiss, Mawar squeezed, ripping out Sabria’s throat. With a casual flick, she tossed the body down into the fire.

A bolt of fire shot from a nearby window, striking the retainer in the chest. Then a spear of ice launched up from the crowd. Spells flew from other buildings as well, from a half-dozen different directions.

I felt something inside me go numb. “I didn’t send up the signal, you idiots,” I grumbled.

None of the spells managed more than a scratch, but it was everything I needed. Giving everything I had left to the Myopic Decay crest, I surged into the third phase again, extending the effect to Enola. I needed to find one of my people, someone disguised in the crowd who could help her disappear. Even through the smoke, it didn’t take long; they were already looking for me, too.

A man with long blond hair and angry dark eyes came up beside me, looking dour. “Sir, we got Highlord Ainsworth and Ascender Drusus out already, but—”

I shoved the semi-conscious girl into his arms. They both had the purple uniforms and could blend in with the escaping crowd. “Get her the hells out of here, now!”

“Sir, what about you—”


He didn’t waste anymore time, but scooped her up and fell in with the rest of those escaping. An ill-timed breeze was kicking up eddies in the smoke, pushing it away from the ruined bar and down the street after them.

I came to a slow stop, and the pain of the last couple minutes caught up with me. My skin, I realized, was blackened and blistered all over, and was weeping blood in places where it had burst open from the heat. My joints felt like the flames were in them, and every muscle was complaining with fatigue.

A dull ache was working its way into my skull. Unsheathing my flask, I turned around and looked up at the retainer again. She sent a missile of dark energy through the window of a nearby building, and the entire upper floor detonated. The explosion sent shrapnel raining down into the street, falling like deadly hail among the stampeding bystanders.

I tipped back the flask, draining it to the last, and then threw it on the ground.

“Enough!” I shouted. If I brought her attention back to me, the loyal, foolish mages who had been stupid enough to fire on her might get away. “I’m right here, you scarecrow. I’m the one you want!”

Her head slowly turned around as she searched the street for me. The crowd had moved past me, and only those moving slowly due to injury or dragging along the injured were still nearby. Whirls of smoke blew here and there, obscuring parts of the street, but not me.

Heavy, clanging footsteps moving in time suddenly became audible over the rest of the noise, and I turned. Through the gloom and the smoke, a force of loyalist soldiers was approaching. Quickly, I searched their number for any prisoners. They had a few, mostly people in purple uniforms, a couple of whom were indeed members of my network, but Ector and Enola were not among them. I let out a deep sigh and raised my hands.

“That one is for the High Sovereign,” Mawar said, her voice like ice water down my spine. “Bind him with mana suppression cuffs and hang him somewhere uncomfortable. I’m not done here.” Then, like I didn’t matter in the slightest, she turned away and drifted toward another building where spells had been fired from earlier.

A strong hand grabbed my shoulder as an armored boot took my feet out from under me. I went down hard on the cobblestones. My arms were yanked behind my back, and cold steel bit down around my wrists. I realized just how close to empty my core was when I couldn’t even feel the effects of the mana suppression.

“I’ve got this pile of woggart dung,” a woman said. Someone, I assumed the same woman, jerked me painfully up by the cuffs. “Keep looking for the others, the ones he was meeting with. They couldn’t have gone far.”

The other soldiers moved aside as she marched me through them. From the shadowed doorway of a nearby shop, the vision of my prior commander was shaking her head, her disappointment quite clear despite the dark, the smoke, and the distance.

“Not sure what you think you’ll get out of me,” I mumbled as we moved out in the open, away from the rest. My heavy eyelids kept trying to drag themselves shut, and I wished very much to polish off a bottle of something hard and bitter before crashing into a deep, drunken unconsciousness. “I’m just an old, washed up ascender.”

The back of a steel gauntlet caught me hard across the ear, making the world tilt on its side. “Shut up.”

The pain of the strike was little more than a tickle considering the chorus of agonies currently screaming for attention across my body, but the sound of the woman’s voice piqued my interest. It was strangely familiar, but I couldn’t place it, and that rarely happened to me.

Turning slightly, I caught her rather striking profile. Horns grew out from her forehead to sweep back over her blue-black hair, which was pulled into a tight, all-business sort of ponytail. Her burgundy eye turned toward me, and she bared her teeth. “Need another one?”

“Lady Maylis of Highblood Tremblay. What brings a lovely young woman like you to a dive like this?”

She leaned in, almost close enough I could feel her lips moving against my ear. “If you want either one of us to get out of this alive, I really need you to shut up.”


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