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Chapter 324: 324
“Blood Granbehl has gone too far . ” I seethed with malice, and mana leaked out of me, making my adoptive mother flinch . We were approaching the exterior gate of Highblood Denoir’s pristine white stone and marble compound within the second level of the Relictombs . “Surely you won’t let this insult stand,” I said, my voice growing lower and more threatening . “Right?”
“It would be wise to hold your tongue until we are inside and away from curious ears, Caera,” she replied before studying me with a curious gaze . “It is unlike you to become so emotional over someone else . ”
I let out a breath as I stared deadpan back at my adoptive mother . Lady Lenora of Highblood Denoir, always so concerned about appearances . Vritra forbid anyone ever see us at less than our best…
Our procession made its way through the gates of the outer wall, which were etched with runic wards that came with a variety of functions, powered by several tons of mana crystals . Several people were waiting in the meticulously manicured courtyard, including both Taegen and Arian . My personal guards’ eyes were downcast, their faces drawn and a little pale .
While I cared little for my adoptive parents’ emotional turmoil, I did feel guilty for these people . Though I was used to keeping secrets, even from Taegen and Arian, disappearing to the Relictombs without them could only be taken as an insult, and I knew my adoptive mother and father would have made things difficult for them over the last few weeks—though I suppose it had been less long for them .
The truth was that each man had fought fearlessly and loyally at my side several times, and even though I could not tell them the truth about my Vritra blood’s manifestation, I trusted them with everything else, and even thought of them as my friends—something I had few enough of . Aside from Nessa, they were the only members of Highblood Denoir that I could trust at all .
There will be time to mend that relations.h.i.+p after I figure out how to help Grey .
Lenora and Nessa escorted me into the mansion while the procession of guards dispersed in the courtyard . Highlord Corbett, my adoptive father and guardian, stood tall in a white and navy suit that highlighted his athletic build next to his eldest son, Lauden Denoir . Unfortunately, unlike Sevren—my late brother, fallen in the Relictombs—Lauden had taken after his father, making him an arrogant bigot who preferred to step on others to elevate himself and the precious Denoir bloodline .
“Nessa, you are dismissed,” Father said coolly before gesturing toward a chair . “Caera, take a seat . ”
“Father, Caera,” he said firmly, gesturing to the chair again .
I crossed the room in silence and sat down . Corbett glared down at me . He was an imposing man: a textbook image of the perfect n.o.bleman with olive hair trimmed fas.h.i.+onably to frame his severe and arguably handsome face .
Lauden, a younger, more muscular clone of the highlord, crossed the room to pour himself a drink from a crystal decanter . Behind Corbett’s back, he lifted the gla.s.s and gave me a sarcastic salute .
Finally, Corbett spoke . “Your mother and I are deeply disappointed in your callous disregard for your own well-being and the well-being of this blood . No,” he said as I opened my mouth to respond, “l’m still speaking .
“You know as well as I what would happen to Highblood Denoir if you were harmed in the Relictombs, especially traveling by yourself, without any kind of guard . We’ve humored your improper desires to test yourself on these ascents for the sake of perhaps manifesting your Vritra blood, but this was a direct betrayal of our trust . ”
Lenora slipped her arm through Corbett’s and let her look of matronly disappointment wash over me like cold moonlight . Perfected through many long hours of standing mutely at the highlord’s side…
I let my gaze flick back and forth between them . Corbett was building himself up to tell me something, but I could already guess what it was . “I understand that I betrayed your trust, and I’m willing to accept any punishment you see fit, even should you choose to ban me from the Relictombs,” I said in a businesslike tone . “However, it is essential that I continue to challenge myself if I am going to fully manifest my Vritra ancestry, something you want just as much as I do, if not more . ”
Several conflicting emotions warred across Corbett’s face: frustration, anger, wariness, and acknowledgement . I knew there was no straighter line to his greed than mention of my Vritra blood . The Denoirs still held out some hope that it could manifest fully within me, completely ignorant of the fact that it already had .
Lenora answered instead, her head tilted slightly and a sickly-sweet smile plastered onto her face . “Caera…Dearest Caera . We only have your own safety and well-being in mind . Although you don’t share our blood, you are still a member of our Blood, and we care for you and have always treated you as our very own daughter . If your…Vritra lineage does manifest, well then of course we’ll be excited—for you . But we simply cannot allow you to get yourself killed in your eagerness for adventure . ”
“The man I was travelling with, the man who you have just allowed to be arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, has some understanding of these things . ” Corbett’s heavy brows furrowed as he regarded me suspiciously .
Perhaps that does seem a little too convenient, I realized, but too late .
“If you truly care for my safety and well-being”—I paused, the next words catching in my throat—“please help him . ”
Lenora’s eyes widened in surprise and she exchanged a look with Corbett . Behind them, Lauden looked at his gla.s.s as if shocked and mouthed the word, ‘please?’ as if he couldn’t believe what he’d heard .
“We won’t have you drawn into this business with Blood Granbehl,” Corbett answered after a moment . “The best thing for Highblood Denoir—and that includes you, too, Caera—is to let this play out . You have to see that it would look quite bad if—”
“Vritra’s sake, is that all you think about?” I snapped, mana leaking out despite my firm grip on it . This earned me a scowl from Corbett, but there was also a hint of wariness, even fear . Lenora let out a disapproving tut . “How does it look if the Highblood Denoir rolls over and lets a mere named blood falsely accuse and imprison the man who saved my life?”
“Not as bad as it would look to have our foster child dragged before a panel of judges in a petty squabble between lesser houses,” Corbett countered, his deep voice a growl . “In addition to—”
Someone cleared their throat delicately from the door to the drawing room, and all four of us spun to see who could be impertinent enough to interrupt a family conversation .
A strong sense of relief washed over me .
Standing in the doorway was my mentor . Her pearl-colored hair was pulled elegantly up between her sweeping obsidian horns, and she was wearing flowing black battle robes and an imperious expression .
Corbett, Lenora, and Lauden all bowed deeply and held, waiting for her to speak . She met my eyes with one brow raised slightly . I stood and bowed as well, though perhaps not quite as deeply as the others .
“Rise,” she said simply . “Lauden, pour me a drink before you go . ”
Lauden rushed to do as she commanded . Lenora took a few tentative steps forward to welcome her into the drawing room, but stopped when Corbett began to speak .
“Scythe Seris Vritra, we weren’t expecting you,” he said, his voice a couple steps higher-pitched than normal .
I always enjoyed watching Corbett struggle to maintain his regal bearing while addressing the Scythe, especially when others were watching . Even the Highlord and Lady Denoir couldn’t help but bend under the weight of her presence .
“I am aware I’m interrupting,” the Scythe said smoothly . “However, I wish to speak to Caera . Alone . ”
Corbett’s glance flicked to me before resting back on Scythe Seris . “Perhaps it could wait until after—”
“Highlord Denoir,” she said coolly, cutting him off so that his mouth closed with an audible snap . “I will send Caera to your study once she and I are finished . ”
“As you wish…Scythe Seris Vritra . ” Corbett gave her a deep bow and fled the room, dragging Lenora behind him .
Scythe Seris turned her heavy gaze on Lauden who was still standing by the liquor cabinet with a full gla.s.s in his hand . He flinched back as he realized he should already be gone, then hurriedly delivered her gla.s.s before practically teleporting out of the room in his eagerness to get away .
My mentor must have been waiting for me to return and would have been informed at once when I stepped out of the portal from the Relictombs . I gave her a warm smile, something I reserved for very few .
“Don’t look so happy to see me, girl,” she said, but her relaxed demeanor was enough to tell me she wasn’t here to scold her pupil . “Sit down . I expect we have a lot to talk about . ”
I sat, resting lightly on the chair with my back straight and my eyes on the Scythe . She sipped at her drink, gave the gla.s.s an approving look, then took the seat nearest me .
“So,” she began, “you found the unusual ascender again—and spent weeks inside the Relictombs adventuring at his side?”
I nodded, eager to tell her all about it, but understanding that there was a rhythm to our conversations . It would be highly inappropriate to begin my tale before allowing her to guide the conversation there, which I knew she would do in her own time .
“Grey, was it?” she asked, swirling her drink around thoughtfully . “Did you discover his blood?”
I shook my head .
“Tell me about him . ”
I opened my mouth to blurt out the first thing in my head, but stopped myself and took a moment to collect my thoughts into some kind of sensible order .
“He’s intense, almost like a force of nature…and even more strange and powerful than I told you . It was obvious that, despite his displays of strength in the convergence zone where we first met, he was holding back . Except, he was holding back much more than I could have guessed . ”
I paused, considering his unusual abilities—and his lack of mana . Would it somehow be a betrayal to tell my mentor this? To which of them did I owe my loyalty, really?
She noticed my hesitation . “Go on . ”
“His bladesmans.h.i.+p is impeccable, flawless, just…brilliant . And paired with his unique magic, I’m half certain he would be able to stand his ground against even you, Scythe Seris . ”
My mentor wasn’t angry or even surprised at my bold statement . If anything, she was even more intrigued .
“What is so unique about his magic?” she asked .
“He…doesn’t use mana to control it,” I said haltingly . “And he can do things that hardly make sense . I’ve seen him teleport and regenerate limbs—even turn back time, in a way . ”
Scythe Seris leaned forward, her finger steepled in front of her lips . “Fascinating . So how does he do it if not with mana?”
“Aether,” I said, feeling a jolt of guilt now . He had told me these things in confidence, but…I couldn’t lie to Scythe Seris . Not about anything .
My mentor’s eyes flashed and she leaned back in her chair and took a sip from her gla.s.s . “Only the asuras of the Indrath Clan can wield aether like a weapon . But a dragon could not enter the Relictombs . ”
“Perhaps he could be…something like me?” It was a strange, thrilling thought . Although there were other Vritra-blooded Alacryans, I’d met them rarely and certainly never felt any kind of kins.h.i.+p with them . “An Indrath-blooded human?”
“No,” she said, waving the idea away without a second’s thought . “The dragons would never let that happen . They’re much too pure to cross their bloodline with mere lessers . ” She leaned forward again, her dark eyes burrowing into me . “Tell me about your ascent . Leave nothing out . ”
Scythe Seris listened for half an hour, occasionally asking for confirmation of some detail, or for me to be more specific, but otherwise just listening as I told her of my time with Grey, from disguising myself as Haedrig to our deadly encounter with the trapped Vritra-blood in the hall of mirrors, all the way until we were stepping out of the sanctuary room and back to the second level .
She was particularly interested in our conversations, and probed to make sure I had remembered every word . “And he seemed ignorant of Alacryan culture?” she asked .
“Yes, even about the most simple things . As I’ve already mentioned, when we first met he asked all sorts of strange questions, but made it sound almost as if he were testing us . We talked a lot on our journey, and I was continually surprised by what he didn’t know . ”
“And when he found out about your ident.i.ty? When he learned how you had tracked him?”
“I thought he was going to kill me at first, but…well, he didn’t obviously . He seemed terrified that someone could track him…but then the fear faded just as quickly once he understood that only I could use it . ”
Seris looked thoughtful, swirling her drink around in her gla.s.s absently . “So, our mystery ascender is incredibly powerful, ignorant of our customs, and fearful of being found out . He wields aether like an ancient mage, but is incapable of channeling mana . ” She drained her gla.s.s and set it down with a delicate clink . “Describe the man . In as much detail as you are able . ”
I felt myself go red in the cheeks as I pictured Grey’s handsome, severe face, and hoped Scythe Seris hadn’t noticed . “He is tall and lean, with an…athletic physique . He has sharp features and skin as white as milk . His pale wheat-blond hair tumbles ramshackle around his face, and he has these piercing golden eyes that seem to see right through me . He came off as really cold and distant, but after spending time with him, it’s easy to tell that he’s quite caring…” I trailed off after seeing Scythe Seris’s lips twitch into a smile .
“I was merely curious about his physical appearance, but if you wish to divulge your feelings for him, I will listen . ”
I let out a startled laugh . “M-my feelings? I just thought you’d be interested to know what kind of person he is . ”
My mentor remained silent, a smile still tugging at the corner of her lips .
I furrowed my brows, pouting . “I don’t know what I did to deserve such teasing, Scythe Seris . ”
The pearl-haired Vritra let out a melodic laugh, a sound very few had the honor of hearing, before she raised a hand in a placating manner . “Regardless of your feelings for this ascender, he seems likely to be walking a path of hards.h.i.+p and tragedy . ”
I wanted to argue, but her words rang true . Grey was clearly adept at getting himself, and those around him, into trouble, at the very least . “Yet, at the same time, you will find few who can match either your mind or your magical abilities, Caera . Perhaps we may be able to help your mysterious love . ”
“He is not my love,” I stammered, but my heart thrummed in my chest . If anyone could help Grey escape Blood Granbehl, it was Scythe Seris . She could end this farce of a trial with a snap of her fingers .
“But this mysterious ascender…why does this ‘Grey’ sound more and more like—” My mentor’s piercing eyes suddenly went wide, and a knowing smile bloomed on her flawless face . “So you really have not fallen…”