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Clamping down on my emotions with a cold iron grip, I refused to let myself be overtaken by rage at the sight of mana beasts ripping apart unarmed and magicless people...my people.
My stomach turned at the sight while the rest of me wanted nothing more than to G.o.d Step onto the field and kill the beasts.
The power to defy reality in my grasp, yet I couldn't even save those people.
I reasoned that restraining myself now was for the greater good, that it was the price we all had to pay for losing the war.
But that didn't make it any easier to sit and watch my fellow Dicathians be slaughtered. And then there were the cheers that rolled like hateful thunder down from the tens of thousands of onlookers as they gorged on the sight just like the wolves gorged on the innocents...
For a single, dark moment, I hated them all.
I imagined Destruction leaping from my hands to burn the entire stadium and everyone inside it to less than ash...but there were no cheers or laughter coming from our staging area. Though I couldn't bring myself to look away from these Dicathians' last moments, I could hear the shallow, labored breathing of my students, the crack of their knuckles as they gripped the rails, the quiet whimpers of disgust as the wolves feasted...
Then the hair on the back of my neck stood up as a familiar force filled the room, breaking the spell of the slaughter.
The students began dropping to their knees as they followed the source of the pressure to the back wall of the staging area, where a horned figure dressed all in black stood watching us. Regis bristled, the mental equivalent of putting his hackles up.
Seris Vritra looked much different than she had that day on the battlefield, when Uto nearly killed Sylvie and me. Instead of a wartime general, she looked regal as an empress draped in a black scale battledress, though she wore the same midnight-black cloak she had when I first saw her arrive in Darv.
Next to me, Seth remained on his feet, slack-jawed and staring. While the rest of the cla.s.s had the good sense to go down on their knees, Seth seemed frozen in place. The Scythe's sudden appearance cemented one piece of information I had only guessed at so far: Nico wasn't the only one who knew my real ident.i.ty.
Seris was watching Seth like he was some amusing little critter. Whatever her reason for coming here, I didn't need the students involved in it, and so I placed a hand on Seth's shoulder and pushed him to his knees.
"Scythe Seris," I said. "How nice to see you again."
"Professor Grey of Central Academy. Lady Caera of Highblood Denoir." A tremor ran through
the kneeling students at the sound of Seris's silvery voice. "With me."
She spun, her cloak flowing like liquid around her, and vanished through the single door set into the stone wall at the back of the staging area. Caera jumped to follow her, but I stayed where I was.
'Yes, because what this whole ordeal really needed was another layer of complication,' Regis thought, our link clearly transmitting his hesitant resignation.
The fact that Seris had also discovered my ident.i.ty wasn't exactly a surprise since Nico obviously knew, but I had to wonder why she would contact me now, and so openly.
Even with Seris gone, the students were still petrified. Their shock and awe were tangible, floating in the viscous silence that the Scythe's sudden appearance and departure had created. Even the noise of the crowd had been m.u.f.fled, as if unwelcome in this place.
Both young women flinched as my voice broke the silence, their heads snapping up to stare wide-eyed and searching around the room. Briar's eyes blinked several times behind her mask as if she were waking from a long, uncertain dream.
"You're in charge until I get back," I said quickly, then marched out after Caera and Seris.
The Scythe was silent as she led us through the bowels of the coliseum. She walked with purpose, and yet her movements maintained a fluid grace and elegance that hinted at a flawless control over her physical form. Her confident rhythm never broke, not even to look back and make sure we were following. As we strode after her, we saw no one else despite the constant bustle of officials, workers, and slaves that must have filled the underworks.
After a minute or two, I noticed Caera watching me from the corner of her eye. She opened her mouth, but closed it again without speaking.
"What is it?" I asked, my voice sounding hollow in the underground tunnels, but she only shook her head in response.
Seris's head turned a fraction of an inch as I spoke. I wondered what unspoken tension was weighing down Caera's shoulders, but kept my silence.
I was wary, but not afraid. Although Seris was too distant and mysterious to consider an ally, I didn't count her among my enemies, either. If she wanted to harm me, there had been plenty of opportunities to do so before the Victoriad.
When we arrived in a private viewing box overlooking the combat field, I immediately scanned the room for any threats—as if there could be anything more dangerous than the Scythe within—but found only a plush lounge from which to watch the games below. The decor didn't interest me, and my attention turned immediately back to Seris.
"Make yourselves comfortable," Seris said, her light tone at odds with her dominating presence. When I made no move to do so, she waved a hand as if to brush away my wariness. "I didn't bring you here to harm you, Grey, but you already know that. You look well, by the way. Golden eyes...very subtle. Why don't you remove that mask so I can see your face properly?"
"Thank you for the hospitality," I replied, doing as she asked. "Nice place, if a bit lonely. Where's Cylrit? Lurking in the closet, waiting to jump out and give me some dire warning?"
Seris laughed happily. "My retainer is seeing to something else for me at the moment. No dire warnings today, but that doesn't mean we don't have business to discuss. I'm sure it won't surprise you to learn that I've been keeping close tabs on you ever since you so conveniently appeared in the Relictombs."
Caera flinched, looking slightly past me, not quite meeting my eye. "I'm sorry, Grey. Scythe Seris, she is my guide—my mentor, as I've mentioned before—and at first of course I had no idea you might know each other, but only told her about you because you were so..." She paused, biting the side of her cheek. "So curious and interesting, and then she wanted to know more about you, and she asked me to keep an eye on you—but I told you, so I hope you know I—"
As she spoke, I had noticed Seris searching my eyes from behind her and giving me a coy, knowing smile. When I returned the expression, Caera faltered, her worry giving way to a confused frown.
"It's fine, Caera. I mean, you have a powerful female Scythe mentor with an unusual interest in me?" I gestured to Seris, unable to suppress a guilty smirk. "I never pressed you for more details because I didn't need to. It wasn't all that hard to figure out."
Caera let out a deep breath and ran a lock of blue hair between her fingers. "Thank you for understanding. You two can stop making silly eyes at each other now."
"Caera of Highblood Denoir, is that any way to speak to your mentor?" Seris asked with only a slight mocking air. "Your adoptive mother would be appalled."
'Pretty cla.s.sy, the way you handled that. But then, I guess it'd be pretty childish of you to get all p.i.s.sy at her for not telling you, considering the uncountable number of lies you've told about your own ident.i.ty,' Regis scoffed.
Fair point, I thought back. And also, shut up.
Seris reclined against the warded gla.s.s that fronted the chamber. "You've grown predictable, Grey."
"Oh," I asked, quirking an eyebrow at the Scythe. "How much of what I've accomplished have you predicted, exactly?"
Her lips parted to respond, but I saw her eyes flick to Caera, and she seemed to rethink whatever she had been about to say. Finally, she said only, "Enough."
I met the Scythe's piercing eyes, no longer smiling. "What do you want with me now, Seris?" "The same thing I have always wanted." She turned to face the window. Below, a dozen slaves were cleaning up the last of the mess left by the black-fanged wolves. "To see your potential grow."
The Scythe drifted to a chaise lounge and eased into it while indicating we should take the couch across from her. Caera didn't hesitate to comply with her mentor's unspoken request. I moved to stand behind the couch, but did not sit, instead resting my hands on the cus.h.i.+oned back.
"Speaking of potential," Seris said, her focus on my sternum, "Caera tells me you have exchanged your ability to manipulate mana for mysterious aether arts that even she does not understand." Caera s.h.i.+fted uncomfortably at Seris's words. "How did this come to be? I hope my last gift to you wasn't entirely wasted, was it?"
'Uto's mana wasn't wasted at all, if you ask me,' Regis thought with the mental equivalent of letting his tongue loll contentedly from his mouth.
"My injuries in the war were catastrophic," I answered, my body tingling as I remembered the feel of it breaking down due to prolonged use of the third stage of Sylvia's beast will. "I had to adjust."
"Yes, well, that is certainly something I couldn't have predicted," she said in a low voice, more to herself than Caera or me.
"What do you want with me?" I asked again, more firmly this time. A sudden suspicion dawned on me, and I added, "Did you bring me here? To the Victoriad?"
Seris's painted lips quirked up. "I'll admit, it has pained me to see you sit on your hands at that university for so long. A professor, really?" She gave me a disapproving look, as if I cared what
she thought about my actions in Alacrya. "As I said, predictable. But you are also right, I did arrange for your cla.s.s to be here."
"Why?" I asked, trying to piece this new information into everything else I already knew. "Because I wanted to remind you who you are, and what is at stake," she said, her voice heavy with authority, a sharp change in tone from the rest of our conversation. "To that end, I have arranged for your presence here to ask something of you. Think of it as calling in the debt you owe me."
"Debt?" I asked, not sure I liked where this was going. "So you didn't simply help me out of the goodness of your heart? Shocking..."
Caera turned slowly, staring at me with eyes the size of full moons. Her jaw was clenched so tightly I thought she might crack a tooth.
Seris, though, only adjusted herself to be more comfortable. "I want you to challenge Cylrit to be my retainer."
This seemed to be too much for Caera, whose mouth fell open in surprise. She ripped off her mask, snapping the cord, and let it fall to the couch beside her. "What is happening right now?" I disguised my own surprise beneath a wry smirk. "And what do I have to gain by doing that?"
"I will a.s.sume that is a rhetorical question, because we both know why you're really here," she said, her tone that of a judge delivering her verdict.
'Tell her Scythe or nothing,' Regis j.a.ped. 'We aren't playing second fiddle to anybody.'
"You don't want me to be your retainer," I guessed, rapidly considering the various goals she could be pursuing with this course of action. "You want me to draw attention to myself."
She nodded, just a minute dipping of her horned head. "By defeating Cylrit and then refusing the role of retainer, you will be sending a very clear message."
Agrona knows I'm here, I realized with absolutely certainty, wondering if Seris might even have told him herself. After all, who else would she need to send a message to. But he already has what he wants, and he doesn't care about me anymore.
This realization struck me like a thunderclap. All this time in Alacrya, I had always a.s.sumed he would make me a priority if he discovered that I had survived my battle with Nico and Cadell. I had worried that the Scythes would kick in my cla.s.sroom door or rain fire and black iron down on Windcrest Hall while I slept.
But to find out Agrona had discovered that I had not only survived but was living in his own lands, and he didn't care...
I was conflicted, to say the least.
'If Agrona doesn't think we're a threat, that's his own dumba.s.s miscalculation,' Regis thought with a snarl. 'But if the horned G.o.ddess over there wants us to expose ourselves...'
This knowledge threw my entire plan into question. While Agrona knowing I was alive—and where I was—wasn't exactly great, Regis had a point. Dismissing me was a mistake on his part, one I was happy to capitalize on. But if I drew his attention now, showed him my power before I was ready...
"That plan seems bad for me, and I'm not sure how it benefits you either," I hedged, curious how much of her plan Seris would give up before she made me confirm my intentions.
"Oh, come now, put that clever mind of yours to work," she insisted, the crus.h.i.+ng authority gone from her voice, which was once again light and teasing. "How long do you plan to run and hide?"
Sitting in front of me, Ceara remained quiet, although she still wore a confused frown, and I could see the gears in her head turning as she struggled to make sense of the conversation. Standing straight, I looked down at the Scythe. "I'm not going to challenge Cylrit."
Seris's mouth thinned into a hard line.
"But I'll still send your message," I went on, making my decisions only as I said the words out loud. "It'll be loud, and abundantly clear."
Seris straightened, then stood. Even though she was quite a bit shorter than me, when she looked into my eyes it felt like she was looking down on me. "I would prefer it if you'd tell me exactly what you're up to. I might be able to help."
"Come on, Seris," I said, mimicking the same teasing expression she'd worn only a moment ago, "put that clever mind of yours to work."
Hearing Caera's footsteps halt, I stopped and turned to face her. We were deep in the underworks, and the stone around us vibrated with the noise of cheering and battle from above. Caera's gaze was on the ground at my feet, what little of her features I could see behind her mask subdued.
"Trilby tie your tongue?" I asked, not trying to guess which part of my conversation with Seris had her head spinning. I couldn't begin to imagine what kind of wild story she was creating in her mind.
Caera hummed nervously as she looked up to meet my eye. "I want you to know that you can trust me. Obviously there are a great many things I don't know about you, and based on what I just witnessed between you and a Scythe, whatever fanciful notions I'd had up until now are woefully inaccurate."
I scanned the dim tunnel where we'd stopped. It ended at a junction just ahead, where turning left would take us back toward the combat field and staging area, while the rightmost path would lead us back outside.
Doing some quick calculations about how much time we had before the tournament started, I smiled and held out my arm. Caera looked at me uncertainly before letting her hand rest in the crook of my elbow.
"Let's take a walk and clear our heads for a bit before subjecting ourselves to the millions of questions likely brewing in my students' heads," I said with a soft chuckle.
"I'm not sure I, a humble Vritra-born highblood, deserve to be seen walking arm-in-arm with such a well-connected and mysterious figure as yourself," she teased.
"Perhaps not, but I'll extend you this honor just this once," I shot back, leading her toward the exit.
The noise outside was deafening after the m.u.f.fled quiet of the underworks. Merchant's hollered, mana beasts squalled, and thousands of excited Alacryans shouted over one another to be heard.
We turned out of the crowd, moving down less densely packed alleys, although this had the drawback of making us easier targets for the many venders and gamesmen.
"Ho, sir with the golden eyes, stop here to win your beautiful lady a fine prize," a man in a sparkly silver mask sang, waving us toward his cart.
A fat man bowed as he walked past, then practically shouted in our faces. "Gemstones! Gemstones here! Finest cut, finest color! Sapphires to match the lady's lovely hair, or perhaps rubies for her enchanting eyes."
For the first time in a while, I really missed being a quadra-elemental mage. A simple wind barrier spell would have made the walk a lot more peaceful.
"What are you smiling about?" Caera asked.
I fixed my face. "Nothing, just...wondering how you came to be under the tutelage of Seris."
"Oh really?" she asked, her gaze following the line of colorful carts, tarps, and tents. "You already know more about me than perhaps anyone else in the world, while you are a locked book with pages of which are out of order, encoded, and probably written in invisible ink..." She trailed off, shooting me a wry look, then sighed. "But by all means, let's talk about me. "Vritra-blooded children, those of us with pure enough blood to potentially manifest Vritra magic, are not common, but we're not so rare that each of us gets our own Scythe, either." A woman who recognized Caera, a vendor selling extremely expensive leather goods, shouted out, and Caera gave her a small wave as we continued on. "She claimed to have chosen me because of Highblood Denoir's standing, which of course only grew after being a.s.signed a Vritra-blooded foster daughter, but I've always wondered..."
"If she knew somehow? That you'd..." I gestured at her head, where her horns were kept invisible by the teardrop pendant she wore around her neck.
"Right," she answered. "I was...eight, maybe nine when she started training me, making me not only a Vritra-blood and adopted highblood, but also protege to a Scythe. It made for a...conflicted childhood."
"Why do you think she has helped to keep you hidden?" I asked, lowering my voice as a group of highbloods sauntered past, dressed so brightly they could have been mistaken for peac.o.c.ks. "What does she want with you?"
Caera eyed me curiously. "Are you asking for my benefit, or your own? Perhaps trying to figure out what she wants with you in the long run?" She shook her head. "I still can't believe she asked you to be her retainer."
"But she didn't, really. She only wants me to fight him, remember?" I pointed out.
"Which only makes it more confusing, at least for me," Caera said, sounding exasperated. "I won't pressure you to explain anything—though I'll happily listen when you decide to do so—and promise not to hold it against you if you chose to hold some things back"—Regis let out a mental snort—"but why would she want you to draw attention to yourself? From who? For what purpose?"
Caera chewed on her own tongue for a second before continuing, obviously giving voice to some thought that had been bothering here. "Are you...Scythe Seris's concubine?"
I nearly choked on my surprise, the question catching me entirely off guard.
'Talk about a whole new level of "keeping your enemies closer",' Regis thought with a barking laugh.
"No," I finally answered, rubbing the back of my neck. "Nothing remotely like that."
She gave me a frustrated shake of her head. "Then I just don't understand."
"I know," I said, sounding suddenly tired even to my own ears, "but you will someday."
"That'll have to be good enough then, I suppose," she said with a chagrined smirk. "Anyway, we best get back to your cla.s.s.. Their bouts should begin soon."