The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 402

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Chapter 402

Chapter 400: Choices Already Made


Spells burst in the air in showers of blue, green, and gold, trailing sparks and popping to an accompaniment of cheers from the ground below. The breeze carried the sound of hundreds of jubilant voices and the smells of roasting meat and sweet pies. A little girl, no more than five or six, sprinted past us, her face red and her grin growing wider with each step. Right behind her, a one-eyed man—a fresh scar, from the war no doubt—laughed as he gave chase.

A smile tugged at my lips as the Dicathian adventurer scooped the girl off her feet, eliciting a delighted squeal from the child. He plunked her on his shoulders, where she continued to giggle and laugh, tipping farther and farther back to watch the magical fireworks that were exploding in a near-constant display high above the city.

“I haven’t seen people this happy since before the first attack on Xyrus,” Helen Shard said from where she leaned against the side of the marble gazebo that housed Blackbend’s only teleportation gate.

Angela Rose was sitting in a patch of grass, Regis sprawled in her lap with his head resting on her chest. “It’s sort of like a veil has been lifted, isn’t it?” she said, absently scratching Regis beneath his chin.

“Beautiful and wise,” Regis said, giving Angela a quick lick on her cheek. “Why haven’t we been acquainted before? It seems like a crime.”

She rewarded him with a honeyed laugh. “I don’t know about this beast of yours, Arthur. Are you sure this isn’t you pantomiming through your summons?” She raised a brow coyly at me.

“If it was, I wouldn’t be nearly as crass,” I said, shooting my companion a glare.

Jasmine had spent the night listening from the street with her back turned to us—her perceptive gaze no doubt tracking the many people moving through the streets around us. Absentmindedly rolling a dagger between her fingers, she turned around. “This isn’t exactly a favor you’ve done for us, you know.”

I shrugged. “I know. But I trust the Twin Horns to maintain control over the city without also trying to forge some kind of city-state controlled by the Adventurers Guild. Besides, it won’t be for long, if things go well, and you won’t even be here.”

This caused a stir among the group, everyone’s attention quickly turning to me. Durden, who had barely said a word since arriving in Blackbend, suddenly spoke up. “What do you mean?”

“I was hoping,” I began, looking from Jasmine to Helen, “that Jasmine would come with me to Xyrus.”

Jasmine’s expression gave no indication of surprise but instead shifted into something thoughtful. Still, she said nothing.

Helen, on the other hand, frowned deeply as she pushed away from the pillar she was leaning against. “For what purpose? I can’t imagine having all the Twin Horns, or even all the forces in Vildorial, for that matter, would have made a difference to the outcome here in Blackbend. Forgive me for saying it, Arthur, but the sort of battles you’re likely to have…are you sure you want anyone that you care about by your side?”

Of course, Helen was right. I didn't, not really. If I could have had it my way, I’d have stuck everyone I cared about in a hole somewhere deep in the Relictombs to keep them safe. But I also needed someone by my side that could tell me when I was wrong—that could ground me as my own station continued to rise. Perhaps if I had known this before, in my past life, I wouldn’t have engaged in a war that cost millions of lives as retribution for Headmaster Wilbeck's murder.

But I didn’t say any of that. “I’ll keep her safe,” I told Helen. Then, to Jasmine, I added, “If you’re willing, that is.”

Jasmine lifted her chin, and her red eyes caught the reflection of a distant burst of ice shards. “Of course.”

Helen looked between us, her fingers fidgeting at her bowstring, then she let out a sigh and nodded. “Fine, but I swear”—she threw her arm up over my neck and tried to pull me into a headlock—“if I see one hair on her head missing—”

Effortlessly, I swept her off her feet, cradling her in my arms and making her squeal in surprise. “You know hair falls out naturally, right?”

Her hand hammered on my shoulder. “Put me down, you ridiculous boy!”

Laughing, I set her back on her feet, keeping my hands on her shoulders and holding eye contact. “I understand your worry. This is a war, and none of us are truly safe, not even me, but I promise I’ll keep her as safe as possible.”

Helen hmphed, trying and failing to hide a chagrined smile.

‘Well, you have fun, I think I’ll just stay here with Angela Rose and her—’

Not a chance, I shot back. Come on. It’s time to go.

While Regis finished being a complete idiot and embarrassing himself in front of Angela Rose, I entered the stonework gazebo and began calibrating the teleportation gate to the flying city of Xyrus. Jasmine followed wordlessly.

When the portal hummed to life inside the frame, I stepped up before it, but turned around to face Helen, Durden, and Angela Rose before passing through.

Regis drifted into my body. Angela Rose gave a cheery wave. Durden scratched at the stump of his arm, his gaze settling somewhere to my right.

“Good luck, General Arthur,” Helen said, her knuckles knocking against the carved stone pillar. “We’ll be waiting for word of your success.”

I nodded to Helen and gave a look to Jasmine to say her goodbyes before going through.

The world blurred around me, and I had a brief moment as I was disassociated from time and physical reality to consider the next step.

I had only spent hours in Blackbend, total. Success required a feverish pace on my part, and Xyrus was even more important than Blackbend.

As the most prosperous and defensible city in Sapin, it had become home for many of the highbloods who had been drawn to Dicathen—or at least those who hadn’t dedicated their resources to building holds in Elenoir only to see them decimated by Aldir.

It was also home to many of the wealthiest Dicathians, especially turncoat houses like the Wykes.

My fear was that I faced less a battle and more an extended period of digging out the Alacryans from the city like ticks from a wolf’s pelt. And the more time I spent in any one place, the more time the next city in line had to prepare. I’d already given Agrona far too much time to react and counter my victory in Vildorial.

The world lurched to a halt as I arrived at one of a row of identical teleportation gates.

A squad of Alacryan soldiers stood at attention nearby. The rest of the street was entirely empty.

Jasmine appeared behind me, her hand already on her blades.

A middle-aged guard with a heavy Truacian accent stepped forward. “Welcome to Xyrus City, General Arthur and”—he looked pointedly at Jasmine. When neither of us answered him, he pursed his lips and finished—“honored guest.”

I considered for a moment before responding. The fact that he knew who I was and had clearly been prepared for my arrival, yet wasn’t attacking me, meant that someone in the city wanted to have a conversation.

“I am Idir of Blood Plainsrunner,” he continued, and this time I caught the slight tremble in his voice. “My men and I are to escort you to the Courthouse to meet with the heads of Xyrus. If you please.”

And if I don’t please? I almost asked, but refrained. “And who would that be?” I asked instead.

“The ranking members of the five highbloods given stake in this city are Augustine of Highblood Ramseyer, Leith of Highblood Rynhorn, Rhys of Highblood Arkwright, Walter of Highblood Kaenig, and Adaenn of Highblood Umburter.” I must have given away some sign of recognition at the names Ramseyer and Arkwright, because the soldier added, “Powerful bloods on both continents, as you know.”

“And what will this meeting entail?” I asked.

The soldier, Idir, gave a humble bow. “I am just a messenger. I know you’ve come from a battle and are weary, but I can assure you, no Alacryan in this city wishes to cross blades with the man who slew Scythe Cadell Vritra.”

I didn’t doubt his words, but they didn’t exactly put me at ease. Just because a soldier didn’t want to fight didn’t mean he’d refuse when the order was given.

“Fine,” I said at length. “Lead the way, Idir.”

Although the streets were mostly empty, faces pressed against the windows of the many buildings we passed. Of the very few people that remained in the streets, all appeared to be Dicathian working class folks. A few even called out questioningly, but were warned away by our escort. It wasn’t until a man in a sweat-stained, colorless tunic shouted out “Lance Arthur!” that I intervened.

A heavy-set woman in armored robes brandished her staff at the man, but I grabbed it. Everyone froze.

Jasmine, already tense, had her daggers half drawn in a blink, but I gestured for her to stand down. “I won’t have you bullying Dicathians in my presence,” I said, directed at the Alacryan soldiers, then released the woman’s staff.

The man was just past middle-aged with shoulder-length hair that was receding at the temples. It took a moment before I recognized him. “Jameson?” I asked, certain he was one of the men who worked at the Helstea Auction House for Vincent.

He nodded excitedly, wringing the front of his tunic. He kept opening his mouth to speak, but stopped every time under the hostile stares of the Alacryans.

“I suggest you return to the manor, Jameson,” I said firmly, but kindly. I also widened my eyes just slightly, a nonverbal communication that I meant more than I said.

He gave me a blank, startled look, but didn’t move.

“Jasmine, maybe you should go with him?” I paused for emphasis, then added, “To make sure he gets home safe?”

“But Arthur—”

“Please. Ensure that all is well, then come find me,” I said, interrupting her.

Jasmine nodded, clearly understanding. “I’ll be there soon.”

Then, she grabbed Jameson by the arm, subtly dragging him away. The man finally seemed to come to some understanding, and he bowed clumsily as he half back-pedaled, half was dragged, before turning and following swiftly behind Jasmine in the direction of the Helsteas’ mansion.

Uneasy at the thought of being separated from Jasmine after I said I’d protect her, I reached for my connection with Regis, but he had already started moving.

As if my shadow itself had come to life, he leapt out from my back, landing heavily, his claws scraping the ground and startling the soldiers. We shared no manifest thoughts as he trotted quickly after them, since we both understood what needed to be done.

Jameson gave a yelp of surprise as Regis fell in beside him, but Jasmine was quick to comfort the man.

After watching them walk away, I leveled a cold look in Idir’s direction. He cleared his throat, spun on his heel, and began the march again.

Although I would have preferred to have Jasmine and Regis at my side, I needed the message to get to the Helsteas that I was in the city. According to Jasmine, they had been helping targeted citizens get out of the city ever since the Alacryan occupation began. That meant they had contacts, a network, people who should know that things were about to change.

It wasn’t a long walk from the teleportation gates to the Courthouse. I was somewhat surprised to find the cobbled square in front of the building—an ornate courtyard complete with well-tended gardens, fruit trees, and several statues of famous mages throughout Xyrus’s history—entirely empty. I had expected a show of force, at least. A hundred battle groups would have filled the space nicely, and given it an appropriately militaristic air.

“Our soldiers within the city have mostly fallen back,” Idir said stiffly, answering my unasked question. “Lady Augustine didn’t want to give you the wrong impression.”

We moved quickly across the courtyard, but the soldiers stopped at the base of the marble steps. Ahead and above us, the white and gray lines of the huge edifice that was the Courthouse seemed to dominate the city skyline.

Five impeccably-dressed Alacryans walked in a stately line out from under the towering archway that opened into the Courthouse beyond, each one oozing highblood authority and grooming with each step.

A surprisingly young woman with russet brown skin and tight black curls stood a half step in front of the others. “Ascender Grey. Or…Arthur Leywin, is it?” She batted her thick eyelashes at me innocently. “A pleasure to meet you. My grandfather found you to be such an interesting and complex problem as a professor. I’m interested to better understand why.”

As she spoke, her words crisp and sharply enunciated, the family resemblance became clear. “You are Augustine of Highblood Ramseyer, then? Valen’s sister?”

“Cousin,” she said with the slightest shrug of her thin shoulders. “Though we were raised more as siblings. I am a graduate of Central Academy—a fact that I now consider to be a great shame, since my time there was over before your short tenure as a professor began. Seeing your performance at the Victoriad, I’m sure your class was most interesting.”

“You seem to know a little about me, Lady Ramseyer, so I’m sure you also know why I’m here,” I said, pointedly scanning the five highbloods.

She raised a delicate hand. “Please, do you plan to discuss business here on the stoop, as if we were shady accolades dealers?” Her thin eyebrows rose, and there was a sparkle in her dark eyes. “Let us retreat to more comfortable accommodations, so we might discuss your purpose in Xyrus like civilized people.”

The other four highbloods led the way, while Augustine stood aside and gestured for me to follow. I took a moment to scan the courtyard and what I could see of the Courthouse building. The squadron of guards led by Idir was waiting at the base of the wide steps, but there was nothing else—no one else—to be seen.

As I moved past her, Augustine reached out and slipped her arm through mine. She was a head shorter than me, and her slender arms looked like frail sticks next to mine, but there was a liquid grace and abiding confidence to her movements that revealed no fear of me.

As we walked arm in arm through the grand halls, I found my thoughts drifting back to Central Academy. I hadn’t had much time to consider the chaos I had left in my wake. Those kids, the ones I’d had the most impact on—Valen, Enola, Seth, Mayla…

Did I do more damage than good, by making them trust me only to break that trust and disappear? I wondered.

Who knows what kind of propaganda Agrona and his minions had spread after the Victoriad.

“The kids from my class,” I began, then hesitated, unsure exactly what I wanted to ask—or if I even had the right to ask given our situation.

“No blame was placed on them, and they were given ample opportunity and resources to recover from the shock,” Augustine confirmed. “My grandfather may be a hard man, but he is dedicated to his academy and its students.”

That, at least, was a relief. I knew Alaric would have no such protection, but I trusted the old drunk to be able to look after himself.

Realizing I was letting sentimentality drag my focus down, I began drawing from the same well of impassivity that had helped me survive in Alacrya.

Augustine guided me through several short corridors before we arrived at a large lounge. Like the rest of the Courthouse, the floor was of polished granite, while the carved walls were all brilliant white marble. Arched windows bathed the lounge in light, which only made it even brighter. Dozens of fine chairs and couches were carefully arrayed through the room, broken up with a hundred different kinds of potted greenery. One wall was dominated by a massive marble bar, behind which were shelves and shelves of bottles.

At the center of the lounge, I noticed that a table had been moved and several seats rearranged to make room for a small round table topped with a Sovereigns Quarrel board. Two high-backed, velvet-cushioned chairs had been set on opposite sides of the table.

The four silent highbloods stood aside, and Augustine led me to the table. I pulled one chair out and offered it to her. She veiled her surprise well, smiling and inclining her head in thanks as she took a seat. I pushed the chair in slightly, then sat down myself.

“You’re familiar?” she asked, her index finger tracing an ornately carved striker.

“I’ve played,” I answered, examining the board. The pieces were exquisitely carved, each caster, shield, and striker unique. Her pieces were crafted of blood-red stone, while mine were marbled gray and black. “I’m not here for games, though, Augustine. You know that.”

Her smile widened, but she was focused on the game board and didn’t meet my eye. “Blackbend City fell to you in—what?—twenty minutes?” While she stared at the pieces, her fingers caressed the outline of her lips. “Clearly strength of arms is a poor counter to your power, Arthur—can I call you Arthur?” she asked, interrupting herself as she looked at me for confirmation.

I nodded, and she continued. “But Xyrus is a different beast. Hundreds of Alacryans have made the city their home, and there are five soldiers posted here for each civilian. Many Dicathians have already sworn allegiance to the High Sovereign. Do you plan to go street by street, house by house, kicking in doors and dragging away families—children, servants—indiscriminately?”

Picking up a striker, she moved it in a line deep into my end of the field. An aggressive move.

“Usually soldiers surrender after I’ve destroyed their leadership,” I said evenly, maneuvering a caster to counter her striker.

She bit her lip, then moved one of her own casters to support the striker. “Such bravado, Arthur. I thought you wanted to have a discussion. Do you expect me to treat with you when you keep holding a blade to my neck?”

I shrugged, carelessly repositioning a shield. “I didn’t come to negotiate. I came to retake the city. Bloodless is better, but I’m prepared to do what needs to be done, just as in Blackbend.”

“So what then?” Her fingers tapped on the hardwood table. “You want us”—she gestured to the others—“to take our people and go home? Just that simple?”

“Pretty much. And you can take anyone who bent a knee to Agrona with you.”

She leaned away from the game as she carefully scrutinized me. “Before we go any further, I have a confession to make. Please, stay your hand and listen.” Augustine shared a look with one of the others, who gave her a sharp nod. “Every Alacryan soldier at our disposal has already been disbursed throughout the city. Their orders are simple: if any harm comes to me or my compatriots, they will start butchering the people of Xyrus.” She held up her hand again, her features softening. “Don’t mistake me, I am not a monster. I was placed in charge of our blood’s expansion into your continent specifically because I was eager to work alongside the people of Dicathen, to learn from them and guide them into Agrona’s service.

“But,” she continued, and for a single instant her composure broke, and I saw real fear flash across her fine features, “just as you said, I will do what needs to be done. Because, on my blood’s honor, I cannot simply give you this city.”

I looked down at the game board, offering her no outward reaction to her threats. Instead, I said only, “I believe it’s still your turn, Augustine.”

Biting her lip, she slid the striker through the newly formed gap in my line. “I know that you carry no fear for yourself,” Augustine continued, louder and more confident, “but you aren’t callous with the lives of others. Even in Alacrya, surrounded at all times by enemies, you took pains to ensure the students in your care were well tended to, students like Seth of Highblood Milview and Mayla of Blood Fairweather in particular.”

“Surrender yourself and the people of this city will be spared,” one of the other highbloods added, his honeyed baritone positively oozing with pompous arrogance.

Feigning a stifled yawn, I withdrew my forward caster in order to block her striker from my sentry. “I get the feeling you’re not giving the game your full attention.”

Her jaw clenched tight as she shot the other highbloods an uncertain look. Walter of Highblood Kaenig nodded, and she slid back slightly from the table.

Several things all happened in the same instant: the air all throughout the room rippled violently, and suddenly the lounge was full of armed and armored knights; several overlapping shields of translucent mana appeared between me and Augustine; and, somewhere in the distance, horns began to blow.

I heard the whistle of a polearm swinging, reached up and caught the shaft, then twisted my wrist so the wood shattered. My attacker bore the symbol of house Wykes one his breastplate. I recognized the symbols of several noble houses among the crowd of soldiers: Wykes, Clarell, Ravenpoor, Dreyl, and, most surprisingly of all, Flamesworth.

By then, Augustine had kicked aside her chair and retreated into the press of Dicathian soldiers. The other highbloods were busily scuttling from the room like rodents fleeing a burning barn.

I stayed in my seat. No one else attacked immediately, so I went back to perusing the game board.

“These men, these Dicathian-born men, are willing to fight to keep you from returning things to the way they were!” Augustine shouted over the sudden noise of a hundred men in armor clanking against one another. “Doesn’t that give you any pause? Or are you so single-minded that you would murder even your own people to ensure the world is as you think it should be.”

There was a wildness in the young woman’s dark eyes that reminded me of a cornered shadow panther.

I took a second to look from face to face, seeing in them a stoic certainty that I found surprising. The mere sight of me conjured abject terror in the Alacryan men, but these knights of Xyrus’s noble houses seemed so self-certain. Like the little carved men on the board, they simply went where they were told, oblivious to the ramifications of their actions or their own lives.

“You think you’ve outmaneuvered me,” I said, pressing my index finger down on the head of the striker piece that was now sitting behind the line of my shields, dangerously close to my sentry. “You’ve isolated a weakness and exploited it. Left me with no further actions to take.” Picking up my sentry, I moved it next to the opposing striker. “But I don’t forfeit, Augustine.”

I let my gaze fall heavily on all those nearest to me. “So, strike me down.”

Not even a breath interrupted the silence that followed.

Then the command split the quiet, resounding off the marble walls. “Attack!”

A Dreyl knight lunged forward and thrust his sword at my side. A spike of ice flew at me from behind Augustine, cast by a man in Clarell colors. Then another attack came, and another, and soon I was at the center of a barrage of blows, some magical, others by sword or ax or spear.

But they crashed against the relic armor, which unfolded over my flesh in an instant. I stood, absorbing the brunt of the assault without fighting back. Five seconds passed, then ten. At twenty seconds, there was a lull in the assault as the reality of the situation started to dawn over the knights.

In that moment's hesitation, I fell on them like a silver panther among raptor squirrels.

Ripping the sword from the Dreyl knight’s hand, I thrust it into another man’s chest, took him by the throat, and hurled him into a Flamesworth knight’s oncoming spear. Activating Realmheart with a flicker of aether, I deflected a roiling ball of molten metal, sending it into the face of a Clarell soldier at the same time as I conjured an aether blade and twirled it around in a wide arc, cutting down several more men.

While the knights had been charging forward, Augustine had been retreating, sliding back through the wall of Dicathians until she was at the lounge door. She didn’t flee farther, didn’t run for her life or attempt to disappear into the streets outside. Instead, she stood and watched. Entranced or petrified, I couldn’t tell.

Directing aether into my fist to form a concentrated blast, I turned toward a group of conjurers bearing the Wykes House crest. “Please, General Arthur,” one of them begged, “I served with you at—”

The plea cut out, swallowed by the forge-fire roar of aether blasting the conjurers to pieces.

With the efficiency of a lumberjack splitting the day's wood, I cut through the remaining soldiers. Dozens upon dozens of them fell into bloody and broken heaps upon the granite floor, their blood pooling until the gray vanished beneath a wet red carpet.

The fight barely lasted a minute before the last of them fell.

I wiped blood from my face and turned toward Augustine. To her benefit, she didn’t run. As I started in her direction, she watched me approach like one who has accepted death.

The room was silent again. And now that it was, I could hear the sounds of shouting and spellfire in the distance.

“Order your soldiers to back down,” I said, my voice an apathetic void. “No more Dicathians are to be harmed. All Alacryans are to gather and prepare to relocate. If this isn’t done now, I’ll spare no one.”

Her dark eyes were unfocused, looking through me into the middle distance where the Dicathian knights’ corpses littered the floor.

“Lady Ramseyer,” I snapped, and she jumped and stumbled backward, horror dawning across her face.

She began to retreat clumsily backwards, her disbelieving gaze locked on me. Behind her, I saw the swishing robes of the other highbloods vanish around a corner.

“Don’t test me further.”

Nodding frantically, she began running. Then I was alone.

My eyes shut, the lids suddenly ponderously heavy. I was tired. So tired. It wasn’t weakness of body or my core that weighed on me, but a fatigue of the spirit.

I released my connection with the relic armor, and the black scales enveloping me fell away into nothing. Forcing my eyes open, I took in the carnage I’d wrought.

Shining steel was muted with red-brown smears of rapidly oxidizing blood. Severed appendages sat like gruesome islands amid the sea of scarlet. The colorful emblems of Xyrus’s noble houses were indistinguishable beneath the stains.

So many of our own had been ready to welcome Agrona even before the war started to turn against us, it shouldn’t have surprised me that, with Alacrya firmly in control, some people had fully sworn themselves to his service. Fear alone would drive many to that end, and greed many more.

Still. As I stared at the corpses, I knew these deaths were a weight I would have to carry.

I wasn’t sure how long I’d stood there in silence, deaf to everything but my own inner turmoil, when the sound of hurried steps drew me back out of my own emotions.

Jasmine marched into the room, stepped in blood, and pulled up short. Her eyes went wide, then focused on me. She must have seen something in my appearance that gave away what I was feeling, because her normally hard exterior softened.

I realized Regis wasn’t with her and reached out to him. I could sense him outside, helping to break up the fighting.

“You okay?” Jasmine asked after a moment.

“I…” When my voice came out raw, I bit back my words, hesitant to look weak in front of her. Fool, I chided myself, remembering why I’d asked for her to come with me in the first place. “I’ve worked so hard to keep this war from becoming a slaughter,” I continued after a moment, “but these men…”

I trailed off again, sweeping my hand across the room in a futile gesture. “I didn’t give them a chance,” I finally finished.

Jasmine nudged a body over with her toe so the breastplate was facing up. There were very few identifying features left of the knight, whose face had been carved by an ax, but clear on his breastplate was the symbol of the Flamesworth House: a stylized rose, its petals formed from gently curling flames. Her face remained expressionless.

“They had their chances,” she said flatly. “Many of them. And they made their choice every time.”

She trailed between the bodies, each step leaving behind an empty patch of granite in the blood. “I didn’t realize my father had been released from his cell under the Wall.”

Trodius Flamesworth had sent his own daughter away for preferring air-attribute mana to fire. He had planned to sequester himself and his noble friends in the Wall to save themselves from the war. And he had betrayed the trust of his own soldiers when he refused to drop the wall on the army of mutated mana beasts the Alacryans had conjured from the Beast Glades, an act that had directly resulted in the death of my own father.

But he wasn’t some outlier of villainy inside an otherwise altruistic institution. No, every leader of every one of these noble houses had done things just as selfish, cruel, and treasonous, of that I was certain.

“Durden still blames himself for your father’s death, you know,” Jasmine said, seemingly out of the blue.

I felt myself sag, and leaned back against the bar, pushing a knight’s corpse off the polished surface in order to make room. “It wasn’t his fault. That battle…even the strongest mages could have fallen prey to those beasts.”

“You’re right, it wasn’t his fault,” Jasmine said firmly, still pacing through the slaughter. “It was Trodius’s. He was careless with the lives of men who trusted him.” She stopped and pointed down at a torso that had been cleaved free of its bottom half. “Lord Dreyl was careless with this man’s life.” She nudged a mage in blood-soaked battlerobes with a toe. “And Lord Ravenpoor with this man’s.” She stopped, her feet on either side of a severed head. “And Trodius sent this woman to her death as well.”

Our eyes met. There was fire behind the red of her irises. “Don’t punish yourself for the deeds of others, Arthur.”

I had to clear my throat before speaking. “This war won’t be over when the last Alacryan leaves these shores. We have too many enemies who were born here and call themselves Dicathians.”

Jasmine nodded, making her way to my side. She reached across the bar and pulled down a bottle, swirling the golden liquid inside. There was something distant and haunted in her face, then she tossed the bottle away. “Even continents have to exercise their demons, I suppose.”

More footsteps announced the arrival of several people. Jasmine’s hand went to her daggers, but I could feel from my connection with Regis that the fighting was over. Augustine and her cohorts had pulled back their troops, as I’d ordered.

I pressed my palms hard into my eyes, until white static played across my vision. Then, with a steadying breath, I moved quickly to the doorway, not wanting to have any more conversations in the lounge-turned-abattoir.

Despite hoping for a few reunions, I was still surprised by the approaching figures, all of whom stopped when they saw me.

Vincent Helstea looked strange in his leather armor and helm. He had aged since I’d last seen him, and added some weight around the middle, and there was a haggard weariness behind his once playful eyes.

Beside him, his daughter, Lilia, was a grown woman, fierce and beautiful even covered in blood. She was pale, and there were tears clinging to the corners of her eyes as she stared at me in shock.

And behind both of them was Vanesy Glory, unmarred by the battles outside.

While Vincent was looking at me with a kind of delirious bemusement, like he wasn’t quite sure if this was all a dream or not, Lilia simmered with a furious intensity, her eyes moved quickly over the lines of my face, except when they would meet my own and catch there.

Behind them, Vanesy Glory had stopped and was standing at attention with one hand behind her back, the other on her blade, its point down, resting on the granite. Her bright eyes were shining, and her lips were pressed together so tightly that they’d turned white.

“Art, my boy, is that really you?” Vincent asked from the doorway.

I tried to flash him a warm smile, but it felt more melancholy resting on my face. “Surprise.”

Lilia let out a whimpering breath, her body tensed like a pulled bowstring, and she sprang forward and wrapped her arms around me. “Arthur…I—I can’t believe you’re alive!”

I accepted the embrace gratefully. She pressed her face into my chest, her body shaking with suppressed sobs. “What about Ellie? Alice? There’s been no word for so long…”

“Fine,” I said consolingly, my bloody hand softly caressing her hair. “They’re both fine, Lilia.”

She pulled free and wiped her eyes, grimacing with embarrassment. “So much for being a stoic leader of the rebellion,” she said wryly. “But I suppose that is more Commander Glory’s thing, anyway.”

“Never be ashamed of your emotions, dear,” Vincent said, automatically slipping into a fatherly tone. “You cannot control how you feel, and those who love and respect you will not judge you for expressing yourself.”

Smiling, I slipped past Vincent and extended a hand to Vanesy. She let go of the rigid stance she’d been holding and took my hand firmly. When I’d first met Vanesy Glory as a professor at Xyrus Academy, there had been a youthful exuberance to all her actions. Just after the war started, I found her to be steadfast and serious in her role, with much of that lighthearted air subdued, but on the whole unchanged.

Now, she’d been tempered by years of conflict. Unlike Vincent, the war hadn’t aged her physically; the same Vanesy still stood before me, with her brunette hair pulled back and tied, as usual. But the easy smile was gone, as was the amused squint that normally wrinkled the corners of her eyes.

“I’m sorry there won’t be more time for a proper reunion,” I said, “but the situation here rests upon the edge of a blade. I need to get these Alacryans out of Xyrus as soon as possible.”

She squeezed my hand, then let me go and took a step back. “Of course, Arthur.” She hesitated. “I…everyone thought you were dead.” She looked at the ground, her jaw tightening.

“Well, I’m not,” I said lightly. “I promise I’ll tell you everything, but for now, we need eyes across the city. Can you send out patrols? We need a presence in the street to make sure the Alacryan soldiers don’t have a lapse of judgment.”

Vanesy was frowning, and it only deepened as I spoke. “I don’t understand. Why are we allowing them to just—”

I couldn’t help the deep sigh that came unbidden from my lips. She stopped speaking, and her jaw began working back and forth in agitation.

This is something I need to remember, I thought. While I was on the other continent learning to see the Alacryans as people, those here in Dicathen witnessed only the most monstrous of their actions. I can’t fault my allies for not being eager to simply wave as their oppressors march to freedom.

“I know many of these Alacryans have committed crimes worth punishing. War is war, and that is hard enough to forgive. I won’t pretend to know everything they’ve done to you and yours since the war's end. But please, right now is not the time to exercise whatever rage is inside you.”

I held her gaze for a long moment. Her gloves creaked against the handle of her sword. Then she bent at the waist and gave me a shallow bow. “Of course. General.”