The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 394

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Chapter 394

Chapter 392: Sovereign’s Quarrel


Scythe Seris’s soft steps were entirely silent against the stone stairs in front of me while retainer Cylrit’s were barely a whisper behind, making my own echoing footfalls sound like so many war drums in the long, winding stairwell beneath her Sehz-Clar estate.

Dark gray stone pressed in around us, making the narrow stairs feel even more cramped and claustrophobic. It was as though I could feel the weight of the cliffside compound looming above us, tons upon tons of rock, soil, and sandstone all supported at the top of these impossibly long and narrow stairs…

“Your silence surprises me,” Scythe Seris said over her shoulder. “I’m sure you have questions.” Her composed presence seemed at odds with the rushed, furtive nature of my visit to Sehz-Clar, which only enhanced the sense of anticipation and worry building in me.

“Too many,” I replied quietly.

Despite having had nothing but questions wheeling like a deranged flock of halcyons through my head since the Victoriad, all of them were knotted together, and I found it difficult to untangle one from the next to ask them.

What do I need to know? I asked myself. Which of my questions are more than mere curiosity?

“Is Grey really from the other continent?” I asked finally.

“He is,” Scythe Seris answered nonchalantly.

I bit my lip as I considered this fact. It was the answer I had expected after everything my blood had discovered, but it only served to further confuse my many other questions.

“Did you know the entire time?”

“I did,” she said simply.

“Doesn’t that put you—all of us—in danger?” This wasn’t really the question I meant to ask, but it slipped out nonetheless, my tone one of disbelief with no small amount of trepidation.

“It does,” came the deadpan reply.

I barely managed to bite back a scoff. “Are you going to answer any of my questions with more than two words?”

“We’ll see,” she said, an edge of humor creeping into her voice.

Behind me, Cylrit stifled a laugh, and I shot him a thinly-veiled look of annoyance over my shoulder. Despite this exchange providing absolutely no new insight, it was clear that, despite her goading, Seris had no intention of divulging any real information yet.

I could only assume I was present in Sehz-Clar for a reason, and so I chose to be quiet and patient until she revealed her purpose.

There were no more interruptions as we wound down into the depths. Eventually, the stairway ended in a large square of iron inset in the wall at its base. It looked like a door, but there were no handles or hinges, only a dully glowing mana crystal on the wall. Scythe Seris wasted no time, raising one hand to the teal crystal and pushing mana into it before Cylrit and I had even stepped off the bottommost stair.

The wall hummed, then gave a clunk that was more physical impact than noise, and finally the door began to lift up from the ground and recede into a gap above it with a mechanical whir.

I stepped up beside my mentor and stared into the room beyond.

A series of floor-to-ceiling glass tubes filled a massive industrial space. The tubes each glowed electric blue, their light reflecting off the white walls, floor, and ceiling of the room to give the entire chamber a surreal air.

Scythe Seris walked into the room and approached the closest tube. As I followed, I saw that, in a grated trough around the tube’s base, it was heated by piles of glowing orange rocks that gave off a sulfurous stink and enough heat to keep me well back. Translucent bubbles rose up through whatever liquid was inside.

Glass tubes as thin as my pinky finger left the artifact in a dozen different places, some connecting to identical adjacent artifacts, others running up into the ceiling or the walls, a few tracing along one wall toward a panel of devices midway into the room: gauges, projection panels, and mana crystals, the purpose of which was a mystery to me.

One thing was quite clear, however.

“So much mana…” The bright blue liquid radiated mana more intensely than the orange rocks radiated heat. “Is it some kind of…storage device? Like…liquid mana crystals?”

“Yes, that is exactly right,” she said with no little pride. “Only, these batteries are infinitely more expandable, and can be manufactured en masse with the appropriate resources.”

I closed my eyes and let my senses wander, basking in the glow of the compacted mana swimming within the devices. “It’s amazing.”

“It’s…important,” Scythe Seris started, a note of hesitancy in her voice.

My eyes snapped open and I stared at her in concern. She met my eye for a moment, then shot Cylrit a glance and made a small gesture with her hand. He bowed, turned on his heel, and marched out of the room.

A moment later, the door clunked again and slowly slid back into place.

Scythe Seris clasped her hands behind her back and began slowly maneuvering around the outer edge of the room. I followed, watching her carefully, the creeping nervousness I’d been feeling since arriving in Aedelgard City returning with a startling suddenness.

“Do you know what the Wraiths are, Caera?”

“Half-blood Vritra warriors secretly guarding Alacrya from the other asura clans,” I answered immediately. “I’ve always assumed they were just a scary story for children.”

Scythe Seris gave me a rare smile. “They are quite real, I’m afraid. Agrona’s secret army, the children of Vritra Clan basilisks and Vritra-blooded Alacryans. Their reputation as boogeymen is intentional on Agrona’s part. Not to scare Alacryans, no, he has no need of that to keep order on this continent, but to build a wall of uncertainty between him and the other asura.”

At first, I didn’t understand how these Wraiths could possibly strike fear into the hearts of full-blooded asura like the Sovereigns or Agrona himself. Even a Scythe like Seris was no match for a Sovereign—she’d told me so herself—so how strong could these Wraiths be?

And then I registered her words. “A wall of uncertainty? You’re suggesting that they really are scarecrows, then? Boogeymen, as you put it. A force meant to scare off the other asura, not necessarily fight them.”

“They even take their name from ancient asuran legend,” Scythe Seris mused, her eyes drifting to the bubbles rolling up through the electric-blue mana containment tubes. “A little on the nose of Agrona, if you ask me, but effective. Don’t mistake this for a lack of their strength, however. The Wraiths are trained asura-killers. A strong squad is capable of taking down even an accomplished asuran warrior.”

I felt goosebumps raise across the back of my neck.

Scythe Seris stopped in front of the panel of devices and glass tubes. “And Agrona has sent one such squad to Dicathen—to hunt down and capture Grey if possible, or kill him if not.” My heart sank, and I looked at my mentor in dread, but before I could respond she added, “But they failed. And then, because he’s nothing if not showy, he appeared via portal in the heart of Vechor and obliterated an entire military base, killing a few hundred battle groups and several battalions of unads.”

I leaned into the wall and rested my head against it, coming to the realization just how thoroughly I had overestimated my own understanding of the world I lived in. It had seemed a near-impossibility when Grey had defeated not one but two Scythes before immediately escaping the High Sovereign himself. But to slay five half-Vritra Wraiths…

“If Agrona is trying to capture Grey, then he must want answers of some kind. About aether.” This thought was instantly confirmed by the dire look on Scythe Seris’s face.

“But Agrona will not let his greed for knowledge interrupt his other plans,” she said, flicking one of the small tubes, setting the glass to ringing and the little bubbles wobbling. “He is growing tired of the conflict in Dicathen and is ready to abandon his initial plans to subdue and utilize the continent’s population.”

“So he’ll wipe them all out,” I said, staring down at my feet. “And Grey with them.”

There was one thing I couldn’t puzzle out for myself. It was a question I was afraid to ask, but so much else hinged on knowing my mentor’s purpose. “Why risk certain and horrible death by hiding Grey’s identity, working with him? You are directly opposing the High Sovereign himself. Isn’t this…treason? Betraying Alacrya?”

Scythe Seris let out a bitter laugh that startled me. “We are saving Alacrya, child. Which is why you’re really here.”

I gave her a questioning look, and she reached out and took my hand.

“It is my turn to pose a question to you, Caera. Knowing now who Grey is, can you still support him? If he stood here now and asked for it, would you offer him your allegiance?”

I hesitated. The truth was, I wasn’t yet sure. My feelings toward him were already complicated, and knowing he had lied about who he was for the entire time I knew him didn’t help that. But…I wasn’t exactly sure what it really changed, either.

“My allegiance is with you, Scythe Seris,” I said after a long pause.

Some difficult to parse emotion flashed across her face—gratitude, pride, surprise, I wasn’t entirely sure—and she squeezed my hand. “Then listen carefully. If we hope to help Grey and Dicathen, we must keep Agrona’s attention in Alacrya. Very shortly, Sovereign Orlaeth of Sehz-Clar will arrive to inspect this machine I have built. But it is not what I’ve promised him.”

I felt the color drain from my face as my heart fluttered against my ribs.

“The mana input system for the device is a trap,” Scythe Seris said, a dark light flashing in her eyes. “It will draw his mana out of him, weakening him enough that I can deal with him. Be wary of your thoughts, however. Orlaeth is powerfully empathic, and he will sense it if you do not control your emotions.”

My stomach sank. “You expect me to shroud my emotions from a Sovereign?” I asked, the high pitch of my voice giving away my fear.

Scythe Seris released me and took a step back. “I have not brought you here without reason, Caera. You and Cylrit, your emotions will provide much-needed noise to keep Orlaeth from focusing entirely on me.”

I glanced back at the door. “Your retainer doesn’t know this part of the plan, does he?”

“Clever,” she said with an approving nod. “He is purposefully being kept blind to my true intentions so that his emotions will contradict your own.”

“And…” I hesitated, not wanting to question her judgment, but unable to move past my fear.

“If you fail?” Scythe Seris asked, picking up my thread of thought. “There is a second layer to the plan. Orlaeth is a genius. My trap is well hidden, but if he senses your anxiety and fear, or sees through the ruse, he may not take my bait.” I thought I sensed a hint of trepidation in the way Scythe Seris’s voice constricted, which only heightened my own. “But all I need him to do is use his mana, even if not on the machine directly. That will be enough.”

“Scythe Seris, I—”

“Please, Caera. My name is Seris. After today, no one will call me Scythe.”

She held my gaze, the weight of her presence both a balm and a burden.

I jumped as heavy pounding came from the metal door, and she rose one brow questioningly.

“It is time. Come.”

Just like that, she whisked past me and led us from the chamber, only briefly stopping to open and then reseal the door. Cylrit was waiting at the base of the stairs, and together we began the long climb back up to her estate.

Under different circumstances, I would have been thrilled to explore Seris’s estate. I had only been once before and remembered it as a sprawling mansion that dwarfed even Highblood Denoir’s home. Now, I had no mind for the details, following her mechanically as I struggled to order both my thoughts and emotions, a task made only more difficult by a quickly approaching aura that seemed to shadow the entire city of Aedelgard.

Our quick march took us from the stairs through a series of hallways and arched openings, past a sprawling atrium, and into a large, almost empty space that opened onto twin balconies overlooking the cliffs that ringed the Vritra’s Maw Sea.

Dozens upon dozens of rugs in every shape, size, and color imaginable had been strategically laid out over top of the sandstone flooring, and a plush chair, almost a throne, sat central against the back wall, directly opposite the narrow gap between the two balconies.

Next to the throne was another series of devices and artifacts similar to those in the mana storage facility below, though instead of gauges there were a series of mana crystals of different shapes and sizes, and several tightly-wound coils of a silvery blue metal I didn’t recognize.

I turned my attention away from the panel, trying to neither think about nor feel anything regarding its existence. It had nothing to do with me, and I knew nothing about it.

And I certainly don’t know that my lifelong mentor is attempting to use this device to overpower a Sovereign, I thought, unable to entirely squash the racing of my pulse.

There was blessedly little time for my worries to build, however, as the growing pressure soon reached its crescendo.

Only once before had I felt such a complete and overpowering presence, and that was Agrona himself in the moments after Grey’s disappearance from the Victoriad.

Cylrit took me firmly by one arm, and I realized I had been standing frozen in the middle of the room. He maneuvered me to the side of the throne away from the strange artifacts, and I could think of nothing other than to let him.

Seris moved with unconcerned elegance out onto the balcony and waited for the source of that killing intent to arrive.

When the man landed on the balcony opposite her, however, he did not crash down like a meteor, but barely touched the balcony before striding into the room, his irritation so palpable I felt it like a whip across my back.

I had never seen Sovereign Orlaeth in the flesh. I had only ever seen portraits of him during my studies of Sovereigns that every Alacryan child was tasked to do.

It didn’t prepare me for the sight of him.

The man—if such a simple term was appropriate for one of the asura—was tall, but not inhumanly so, and incredibly reedy. But it was hard to register anything at all past his heads, for he had two of them.

Despite my fear, which seemed to be bubbling up from somewhere deep inside me in a constantly upheaving well of uncertainty and self-doubt, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the sight of him.

The two heads were each covered in a mop of dark hair, and each had two horns on the outside of the head. The lower horns pointed outward to the sides, while the upper pair pointed straight up before curving slightly. On the inside of his left head, mostly hidden beneath his unkempt hair, were the stubs of two more horns, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d somehow used them to create his other head.

The two faces looked nearly identical, though the heads themselves were offset, further suggesting that the rightmost head had been attached after the fact. Their expressions, however, could not have been more different. The right head took in the three of us with cool, calculating efficiency. Its red eyes—which were slightly darker than the other’s—lingered on me, and all the feelings that had been roiling in me since the Victoriad surged to the surface with such force that I nearly vomited in my mouth.

And suddenly, something made sense. The power and sense of my doubt and anxiety…it wasn’t entirely me. The feeling I’d felt since heading down the stairs into Seris’s laboratory was an effect of the Sovereign. He was, quite literally, drawing my emotions out of me.

So he can more easily read them. I swallowed heavily and tried to set my head and heart straight. Seris was relying on me. I wouldn’t fail her.

The left head didn’t so much as glance at any of us, its furious scowl turned to the panel of artifacts on the other side of the throne.

“Sovereign Orlaeth,” Scythe Seris said respectfully, “thank you for—”

“You said the systems were ready for my examination, Seris,” the leftmost head snapped. Then, as if speaking to the right head, it added, “The situation in Vechor is tenuous. First the Victoriad, now this assault. Kiros looks weak. He will lash out, could attack Sehz-Clar again if the High Sovereign abandons the other continent. And with the treaty with Epheotus broken, it is only a matter of time before they strike. If this lesser reincarnate can strike in the middle of our Dominions, then Indrath certainly can. They may even decide to target us instead of the High Sovereign, to weaken him before all out war.”

“The High Sovereign has outmaneuvered Indrath at every turn,” the right head answered. “With our gift, we will prove our loyalty and usefulness. He will side with us against Vechor, if necessary, and ensure we are protected from the other clans.”

“Assuming the lessuran has succeeded in her task,” the left snapped again. Both heads turned toward Seris, one pinched and glaring, the other lifting its brows curiously.

Scythe Seris bowed deeply. “Forgive the delay, Sovereign. It turned out the component we needed was hidden beneath the desert in Dicathen—a peculiar mineral that gathers and condenses fire-attribute mana. With it—”

“Begin the demonstration,” Orlaeth’s left head barked, and I couldn’t help the low moan that escaped my lips at his spike of intent.

Seris’s jaw tightened for a heartbeat. She recovered almost instantly and took several steps toward me. “Caera, perhaps you would be more comfortable in the atrium…”

She doubts me, I realized, and it felt as though a fist were crushing my heart. We’ve barely begun, her plan isn’t even in motion yet, and already I am failing her.

“No,” Orlaeth’s right head said firmly. “She should stay.”

Although he spoke to Seris, his gaze had settled on me again, and I could feel his power forcing my emotions to the surface. I purposefully turned my thoughts away from the Sovereign, from Seris, from the machine, the trap, the plan, all of it.

Feigning indifference at his gaze, I looked inwards for something else to focus on. So, I let my mind settle where it had so often turned since the Victoriad.

I thought of Grey. I was almost surprised by the overwhelming strength of emotions that responded to this thought, foremost among them was the cutting edge of betrayal. He had lied, again and again. About everything.

In the background, I remained dimly aware of Seris and the Sovereign’s movement.

“Of course, Sovereign,” Seris had said before marching purposefully to the series of devices and artifacts I had noticed upon first entering the room. “This will mark the first full-scale test of the system, although all prior small-scale tests have been successful—”

“Seris,” Orlaeth’s left head snapped, “I understand the protocol, which I developed, and the shielding array in question, which I ordered you to create.”

“Her unnecessary verbosity is for the benefit of the lessers,” the right head noted. “Her retainer is confused and concerned with the lack of information she has given him, and the unmanifested Vritra-blood is struggling to constrain her emotions by focusing on”—his nose wrinkled in distaste—“a man.”

I turned away from his inhumanly piercing gaze. Next to me, Cylrit was stoic and unmoving as a statue. As if he were glared at by a Sovereign every day. Despite how my heart hammered at the inside of my chest, I attempted to emulate the retainer.

Grey, I thought, refocusing on my best attempt at a distraction. Logically, it wasn’t fair to be angry with him over his lies. Of course he’d lied, he couldn’t tell me the truth of his identity. He hadn’t even been the one to seek out a partnership with me; I’d pursued him, even magically tracked him down after our chance meeting in the Relictombs. And hadn’t I also lied about my identity? If anyone were to understand lying for the sake of protection, it would be me. How long might I have kept up my Haedrig persona if the Relictombs themselves hadn’t intervened?

I hadn’t fully understood what I was getting myself into by partnering with him, but I knew he tried to keep me at a distance, tried to keep me from getting too close. I’d accepted him despite not knowing the details of his life. The fact that he was born on another continent didn’t change anything.

Seris’s magic flared as she sent pulses of mana into several different crystals. Lights played through the crystals and glass tubes like the glimmer of many-colored stars, reflecting off the white walls and filling the room with color. A deep hum began to resonate upward as the mechanism driving the shield generator came to life far below us, and the edge of a transparent ripple began to rise up from the cliff’s edge.

I held my breath, momentarily forgetting everything else.

“Mana fluctuation seems in line with expectations,” Orlaeth’s left head muttered. “Output is flagging, though. Shield density is at less than half of what I’d calculated.”

It was beautiful in its raw power. Like a soap bubble, the expanding edge of the shield refracted the sun’s light and swirled with all the colors of the visible spectrum, giving the impression that it was harnessing the energy of the sun itself.

And then…the low hum became a harsh grinding, and the shield’s surface melted away in a sudden liquid vibration, large, unevening patches dissipating before the entire structure finally collapsed with a defeated pop.

My held breath hissed out.

Sovereign Orlaeth’s left head burst out with a judgemental huff, and he crossed his arms. “There is a problem with the output. The battery array is outputting significantly less than it should be. A failure of the activation matrix to properly align all mana batteries.”

The right head was quiet, its expression thoughtful. The dark red eyes were unfocused, and it didn’t respond to the other’s musings.

“Forgive me, Sovereign,” Seris was saying, her voice carrying a pleading edge I’d never heard from her before. “You must be right, of course. Perhaps some miscalculation in the alignment of the—”

“Quiet,” the right head ordered, not the waspish barbs of the left head, but a thrumming command that forced Seris’s jaws to snap audibly shut.

Stars burst behind my eyes as the Sovereign’s intent pressed at my temples.

Inundated in a wash of my own emotions, I decided in that moment to forgive Grey. My reasons for fighting at his side had never been patriotic, and I’d never seen sense in the Dicathian war. I was no fawning tool for the Vritra Clan. Grey was the source of the power I was looking for. He’d conquered aether in a way even the dragons couldn’t. Heightened or not, I couldn’t allow my emotions—that simplistic sense of “hurt feelings”—to distract me from what really mattered.

If it took a Dicathian to protect Alacrya from the Vritra, then so be it. There was even a kind of sense to it, really. Alacryans had been bred like pets for the Vritra Clan, simultaneously wogarts and weapons. Who among us would truly ever be capable of fighting back? Of breaking Agrona’s hold over the continent?

Seris, I realized. She was risking everything to do exactly that. And she supported Grey.

I stifled a gasp at the train of my thoughts and I risked a glance over at the two great powers of this Dominion. Orlaeth was running his index finger along various parts of the device, his leftmost face pinched into a thoughtful frown. His lips were moving rapidly as he muttered silently to himself. One hand tugged absently at the lowest of his mismatched antlers.

But his right was staring at me.

Suddenly all thought of Grey fell away, and all I could think of was the Sovereign’s fingertips tracing along the activation matrix. When would Seris spring the trap? Was it truly capable of disabling even an asura? What if it failed? I felt an intense insistence that, in that moment, I wasn’t ready to die…

“Stop,” the right head said, and for a moment, I thought Orlaeth was speaking to me.

The left stopped, his fingers pulling back from the activation matrix.

“This is a trap,” the right said.

No, I thought desperately, panic stealing the breath from my lungs. I’ve given it away, I’ve failed, I’ve—

My eyes widened in horror as tears blurred my vision before streaming down my cheeks. Frozen stiff, I could do nothing except mutter in dismay, “I’m…s-so sorry, S-Seris. So s-sorry…”

Frustration intermingled with the unbridled terror overtaking me, the understanding that the Sovereign was forcing this outpouring of emotion on me clear in the logical part of my mind, and yet I was entirely unable to protect myself against it.

Bitterness welled up as I considered how Seris had at least prepared for my failure by having a fallback plan in place.

Orlaeth stood and took a step back from the activation matrix. “Yes, of course. In my haste I nearly missed it. See this? The mana acquisition coils have been tampered with, and these crystals here. Once they begin drawing off my mana, it would create a high pressure loop in conjunction with empty mana batteries to forcefully draw out all my mana and store it.”

“Leaving us helpless to defend ourselves,” the right head confirmed, its tone growing dark.

Turning unhurriedly, Orlaeth raised one hand, and I felt myself relax at the fact that at least the second part of the plan would still happen, whatever it was.

“Relief? Wait…” the right head said, and the hand froze. Slowly, the left head turned around to look askance at the right. “There is something else.”

Both sets of eyes swept the space, tracing across every surface, every curve and line. Then Orlaeth kicked aside a rug, revealing a network of silvery-blue metal running between the tiles beneath. “As I thought. Look. The mana acquisition system has been spread throughout the entire room. If we use mana here, it will start the process.”

The left head’s expression softened, growing curious, but the right head was glowering fiercely, his face so dangerous and menacing that I couldn’t bear to look at it. “You always have aimed far too high for your station, Seris. It is a shame that your cleverness couldn’t keep up with your ambition.”

Suddenly the Sovereign turned, ripped the heavy chair from its place against the wall, and dashed it against the activation matrix. Glass shattered, metal bent and sheared, and mana crystals burst and sent sparks flashing through the room.

I flinched away belatedly, instinctively releasing mana to clad my skin as I prepared to defend myself, but Orlaeth took no notice at all, and I knew why.

I’m an insect to him, no more dangerous than a mana fly…

“It’s a facade,” the left head told the right as Orlaeth’s fingers wriggled through the air, like he was following the trails of mana moving through the room. “All the mechanisms required for the trap to spring are still in place below us.”

The right head sneered. “You’ve been practicing your ability to shroud your emotions, Seris. Clearly, you’ve put great effort into this trap. As much as I’d enjoy breaking your bones with my bare hands, it seems likely you’ve accounted for that, too.” The sneer became a cruel smile. “It would be more appropriate that your servants do it for me, considering.”

While everything had been happening, Seris had slowly backed away and was now standing near the middle of the rug-covered floor. Despite Orlaeth’s cold fury crushing the oxygen from the room, she was outwardly calm. “It appears you’ve seen through each of my machinations, Sovereign. I should have known I couldn’t surpass your intellect. I won’t apologize for trying, though. You asura are a pox upon this world, and you deserve everything that is coming for you.”

“Spoken with the true bravado of a lesser.” Orlaeth’s right head looked over his shoulder to Cylrit and me. When he spoke, it was again with a tone of such command that it felt like a physical force. “Lessers. Bring me her horns.”

I stood and reached for my blade. I couldn’t help it. Suddenly, all the conflicting emotions Orlaeth had forced to surface were submerged beneath a glass-smooth shell of subservience.

Cylrit was faster. He flashed past, his rune-etched blade hissing as it cut the air.

Orlaeth growled as he reached up and caught the blade. Confusion ground my movements to a halt, and I could only stare.

He had attacked the Sovereign. But that was wrong. The Sovereign had commanded…Seris’s horns…to do anything else was wrong.

Orlaeth’s wrist twisted, ripping the blade from Cylrit’s hand. In the same motion, he swung the blade like a club, striking Cylrit across the chest and sending him tumbling end over end across the room, then crashing through the wall and out of sight.

The right head stared into my eyes. “Bring. Me. Her. Horns.”

My entire body trembled as I tried to separate who I was and what I wanted from the puppet Orlaeth sought to make of me. One leg stepped forward of its own accord, while one hand released its grip on the blade.

“You won’t break her.” Seris’s voice sounded distant. “She’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. Even you Vritra can’t turn her into something she isn’t.”

These words echoed around in my mind as my body half-dragged itself toward her.

At any other moment in my life, I would have gushed over with mushy silliness to hear such glowing words from my mentor, but now, I felt only the bitter reality that either she would be forced to kill me in defense of her own life, or she would let me strike her down, because, despite her words, I did not feel strong enough to resist the Sovereign’s command.

Even you Vritra can’t turn her into something she isn’t.

My lurching forward progress slowed further. What did those words mean? Was she trying to tell me something? Some hint at how to break the spell, how to resist?

Seris had given me an option to live my own life. When the entire Alacryan apparatus was designed to create, foster, and make use of people exactly like me, Seris opened the door for me to choose my own path. Without her, my entire existence would have been spent doing exactly what Agrona or some other Vritra commanded.

I refused to be anyone’s tool.

My body ground to a halt, trapped between the conflicting signals it was receiving, unable to move forward, unable to resist.

“So it would seem, Seris. Interesting.”

Orleath’s right head watched me, his gaunt features softening as his curiosity won out. The left head seemed to take over. Its guise of irritated, put-upon genius scientist faded away as he held up Cylrit’s weapon, and I saw the truth of the asura’s power, for they were not one thing, not definable by a single trait, but were grace and strength and authority and divinity entwined, never sacrificing one aspect for another, embodying each simultaneously.

If I weren’t paralyzed by my own resistance to the Sovereign’s powers, I might have laughed. Death made us lessers philosophical, apparently.

“Then I suppose I’ll have to deal with you myself,” Orlaeth’s left head said tiredly as he closed in on Seris and thrust Cylrit’s sword.

Several things happened all at once, and it took far too long for my sluggish perception to catch up with the scene.

The blade ran effortlessly through Seris’s collarbone, sticking out of her back and staining the rugs beneath her with a splash of hot blood.

Using one foot, Seris kicked aside one corner of a plum-colored rug, revealing a dull silver-blue plate inset in the floor beneath it. A short spike sprang up from the plate, and Seris stomped down hard onto the spike so that it plunged into and through her foot, its bloody point sticking up into the air.

With a driven commitment, Seris grabbed Orlaeth’s wrist in both hands and pulled the sword deeper into her. Blood spurted between her lips, staining them crimson as they curved upward into the barest hint of a smile.

A sphere of inky, gray-black mana wrapped around their joined hands. I could feel in my core how her nullification magic struggled against the overwhelming surge of mana boiling out from the Sovereign.

“Stop!” the right head shouted to the left, but too late.

The effect was instantaneous.

The force of command driving me forward released, and I fell sprawling onto the floor, my head suddenly spinning. Mana began to pour from the Sovereign in rivers and floods, passing through Seris land into a network of channels that ran down into the floor beneath us.

There was a surge as Orlaeth attempted to withdraw his mana, but the tugging force only strengthened.

“Get your lessuran hands off me,” the Sovereign hissed from both heads, struggling backwards, but the blade resisted him, some pulling force of its own keeping it firmly lodged in Seris’s body, and the black sphere seemed to be binding his hand to the blade.

Seris was grinning with blood beneath her teeth. “Spoken with the true bravado of an asura.”

The back of Orlaeth’s hand crashed across Seris’s cheek, and for an instant I thought her strength would fail as her magic flickered and her body trembled. The hand rose for a second blow, but before it could fall, Cylrit was there. The retainer struggled to pin down Orlaeth’s arm with the full weight of his body, his eyes flickering between Seris and me, determined but searching for answers.

I tried to push myself up, but my head swam dangerously. All I could do was watch as more and more mana was drawn from the Sovereign. And as it was, he seemed to weaken, unable to shake off Cylrit or break his connection with Seris. The struggle dragged on and on, and I thought for sure one side or the other would fail, but now I saw it.

Seris didn’t need to defeat the asura, simply outlast him until…

The machinery underneath the compound hummed back to life, and out beyond the balcony, the shields started rising over the cliffside once again.

“Look, Sovereign, your shields are working,” Seris said, causing blood to leak from the corner of her mouth.

“The High Sovereign…will have your…core…for this,” the left head groaned weakly. With his next breath, the last of his mana left his body.

Seris dragged herself off Cylrit’s blade and stumbled back, her foot leaving the spike with a wet pop, a hand pressed to her chest as blood poured between her fingers.

Cylrit twisted the Sovereign’s arms, forcing him to drop the sword and then slamming him face-first into the ground.

Seris sagged without Orlaeth and the blade holding her up, and I realized how insubstantial her mana signature was, wavering like a candle flame in a stiff breeze. But she didn’t fall.

Her eyes sought out mine. “Where does your allegiance lie, Caera? And…what are you willing to do to prove it?”

“It has to be now!” Cylrit growled, shaking with effort as the asura struggled in his grip.

I looked dumbly at the scarlet blade, dull against the bright blue rug beneath it.

Pushing mana into my extremities to give myself strength, I pointedly didn’t think about the way my hand felt gripping the handle of my sword, or how many steps it took to close the distance to the asura, or the weight of the blade as I lifted it over my head.

“Take…the left head,” Seris said as she let out a shuddering breath.

Instinct pushed soulfire into my blade to strengthen the blow, and then it was a black-wreathed red streak. I didn’t think about the way the blade jerked entering the asura’s flesh, or the dead sound of the head landing on a royal purple rug.

The second head let out a gargled screech, and its eyes rolled back into its head. The body spasmed, gushing blood from the gaping wound, and Cylrit released it.

Orlaeth slumped, unmoving but still alive, ambient mana already being drawn like breath into his body.

I stuck the point of my blade into the floor and leaned against it, breathing heavily. There was a faint buzzing in my ears as the sudden surge of adrenaline wore off and my emotions slowly settled. The effects of the Sovereign’s presence were fading, leaving me oddly calm, considering.

Cylrit, already on his knees, rolled over to lie on his back beside the asura and let his eyes drift closed.

“What now?” I asked hollowly.

Seris wiped the blood from her lips. “Now…we prepare for war.”