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Chapter 446: A Cage Opened
Ascender-targeted shops and inns pa.s.sed by on either side as I moved without purpose along the main thoroughfare. I was pulled back to my first foray into this microcosm of Alacryan culture, each aspect of it so hyper-focused, remembering the thug’s ill-thought-out attempt to mug me, my run-in with “Haedrig,” and my eventual—unfortunate—pairing with the Granbehls.
It’s a shame this all was built under Agrona, for no reason other than his own search for power, I thought, mentally comparing ascender culture to the adventurers of Dicathen. This place could have been truly great. Even as I thought this, however, I realized that the idea behind the ascents was too far removed from the djinn’s original intention to bring any real insight into the Relictombs’ inner workings.
After all, one didn’t study a book by ripping the pages out of it.
Recognizing the melancholy of my unfocused thoughts, I intentionally s.h.i.+fted back to the next task on my list.
Seris was ready to speak to me. It had felt important to see my companions before, however, and although I hadn’t run across Caera, I knew it was past time to learn what Seris had planned for her people.
After checking back in at the Dread Craven, the fortified inn turned base of operations for Seris herself, I received directions from a guard to a particular tower Seris often retreated to when she needed to think but didn’t want to disconnect herself from the people under her care.
I was surprised when I found the tower in question, which I had expected to be some wealthy highblood’s status symbol or perhaps an intimidating guard tower. Instead, I found a plain silo tucked away in the farthest corner of the zone amidst buildings that would have looked more at home on the first level among the industrialized areas.
A bare metal staircase spiraled up the outside of the seventy-foot-tall structure, and I could sense Seris’s mana signature on the top, stationary.
The metal rang and creaked as I ascended, and when I crested the flat roof, Seris was watching me. She wore dark, flowing robes and a distant expression. At first, she didn’t say anything, only waved me over to where she stood looking out over the Relictombs.
Taking her cue, I didn’t speak, only took in the view as she did.
The Relictombs looked different from up here. The faux-sky couldn’t quite maintain its illusion when you could see the entire zone spread out around you, looking more like the inside of a painted dome than the sky itself, the edges not quite aligning properly with the ground and buildings.
Except for a couple of parks, nearly the entire zone was built in, giving it a condensed, claustrophobic air from above. Even the highblood compounds looked small and cramped from this angle, the size and grandeur a carefully constructed illusion.
My thoughts must have shown on my face, because Seris’s gaze slowly swept across the city as she said, “Like a mana beast enclosure, painstakingly designed to disguise the fact that its residents are, in fact, penned in a cage.”
I knew she was talking about more than just the Relictombs; it was the Alacryans’ entire way of life that penned them in. One illusion of choice layered atop the next, thoroughly caging them all while simultaneously making them feel free.
“What does it look like if you open the cage doors then?” I asked, leaning against a railing that wrapped around the silo roof.
“That’s what I intend to find out,” she answered. Swaying slightly, she shot me a chagrined half-smile and eased herself down onto the cool metal, holding onto the rail for support. “I had hoped to allow my strength to fully return, but…”
I sat down beside her. “Agrona’s message.”
“Yes.” She stared out into the zone for several seconds before continuing. “His offer—and ultimatum—will put pressure on those who support my cause—the ones who aren’t already in the fold here, especially. But the cracks are formed, the wound dealt. Alacrya has seen G.o.ds bleed and beg. This will fester in their minds and hearts, and later, when a choice must be made to die for their High Sovereign or live for themselves, more will choose themselves than would have otherwise.”
We watched as a man in the black and crimson uniform of a Relictombs clerk exited one of the nearby buildings through a back door. He eased the door closed behind him then leaned against the wall, sinking down it as his body, tiny in the distance, racked with sobs.
“The Legacy is, it turns out, exactly what Agrona said she would be,” Seris said softly as she watched the man in the distance, her expression curious but not uncaring. “I had thought, perhaps, that Agrona hadn’t sent her to the Relictombs yet because he didn’t want to have her fail so publicly yet again, but now I think I understand his true reason.”
When Seris didn’t immediately continue, I prodded her gently, saying, “What do you think his true intentions are, then?”
“I’m afraid that the division of Alacrya has played into his hands,” she said severely. “I suspect that he wished for this portal between our world and Epheotus to be opened. We have helped to make him look vulnerable, ensuring that the dragons finally came into play.”
“But that’s what you wanted, right?” I said, recalling her speech to the highbloods about their grand purpose. “Agrona and Kezess are each working to outmaneuver the other. Meanwhile, we have to figure out how to make sure our people—both the Dicathians and the Alacryans—survive the coming war.”
She picked at her fingernails as I spoke, but froze when she seemed to realize what she was doing, then slowly lowered her hands. “It will be important that they both continue to think they have the upper hand, yes. I know Agrona as well as any, but you understand Kezess Indrath far better than I do. Do you think he can be convinced to limit the scope of his war against Agrona?”
“He wants something that, for now, only I can give him: deeper understanding of aether.” I paused, watching as the crying man in the distance stood, wiped himself off, and went back through the door he’d appeared from. “As long as he can keep me friendly with minimal effort or sacrifice on his part, he’ll do it. But I have no doubt that, as soon as the equation s.h.i.+fts, he’ll just as quickly betray any promise he has made. No, he can only be relied on to do what will get him closer to what he wants.”
“Agrona and Kezess are much alike in that way, then. Despite any shreds of wisdom these asura may have gained over their long lives, their inherent selfishness and self-a.s.suredness is a weakness we will have to exploit. For example, I am now firmly convinced that Agrona is intentionally pitting you and Cecilia against each other. It would seem foolish to us that he risks his greatest a.s.set in skirmishes with you, his strongest adversary outside of the asuras themselves, but Agrona is a scientist at his core, and he operates on a timetable of centuries, not days. What is a few months of civil war or tens of thousands of lives lost to such a being? If he can learn something new about mana—or aether.”
“She said something about him wanting my core,” I remembered. “I guess I finally got his attention after all.”
Seris drummed her fingers across the metal railing. “Kezess wants to drain the knowledge from your mind, while Agrona wants to dissect you and see how you work. Not an enviable position. But I’m trusting that you are strong enough, or will become strong enough, to handle that pressure. And it does give us an opportunity. If Agrona is going to keep sending the Legacy after you, it means will have another chance to defeat her.”
My mind was forced back yet again to my battle with Cecilia. Despite the small insights I had gained, I knew bigger steps were required. No, not steps, leaps. It was now necessary that I find the third keystone as soon as possible and gain insight into the G.o.drunes contained in both the third and fourth keystones. It could no longer wait, and nothing else took precedence.
There was so much else to do, so many people who were relying on me to protect them. Like all the people currently trapped in this zone.
Even though the Alacryan loyalist forces under Dragoth had so far failed to penetrate the s.h.i.+elded portals cutting this level off from the first, I couldn’t be sure that Cecilia wasn’t capable of doing so. All I knew was that if anyone could, it was her. Which meant, as Seris said, that Agrona had chosen not to send her here, allowing the situation to continue despite potentially having means to stop it.
Just like in Dicathen.
We lost the war to an army composed mainly of slaves and unadorned soldiers. It had only taken the involvement of a couple of Scythes to ensure our defeat. Agrona’s Wraiths—even a single squadron—could have demolished our continent in a week, and not even the Lances would have been able to put up a fight against them. He had the means, but instead he’d created a sense of conflict, allowing us to imagine ourselves in a battle that we could win, when the reality was anything but.
We hadn’t been lambs to the slaughter. We had been fish in a net.
“Optics,” I muttered.
Seris nodded as she closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose, supporting herself with one arm. “Yes, I think so too. A carefully ch.o.r.eographed stage play, although not for our benefit. I won’t give him more credit than he deserves, however. I don’t imagine your appearance and actions at the Victoriad were part of his grand design. I’ve never seen him so angry as when you vanished out from under his very nose.”
I smiled, and Seris gave a small laugh. She wobbled slightly as she did, and the laugh died away as quickly as it had come. She s.h.i.+fted to the side, trying to get more comfortable, and so I turned as well, putting my back against hers.
She went stiff, clearly caught off guard, then slowly relaxed and eased into me so that the weight of our bodies was supporting one another.
“I won’t blame you for our current situation, but I could, you know,” she said, wry humor lacing her words.
I looked up at the blue sky, watching the atmospheric aether move to its own strange whims all around us. “That’s what retainer Lyra thought. That you’d started the rebellion to force Agrona’s eye homeward and give me time to retake Dicathen. Do you regret it, knowing that that’s probably exactly what he wanted?”
“No,” she said without hesitation. “As I said, we’ve wounded his image. Optics, as you said. Even a small wound can change the course of entire future battles. And I can’t let you take such credit either, Arthur Leywin. I only adjusted things forward, I didn’t invent this entire movement for your benefit alone.”
I chuckled, my shoulders moving against Seris’s. I could feel each of her breaths move through me, but we were both comfortable, relaxed. That was strange. There were very few people I could have had this conversation with and felt so at ease. It was hard to imagine that I had once watched her rip the horns from a retainer’s head—a retainer who had defeated Sylvie and me together—as easily as pulling the wings from a fly.
The landscape of the world’s power dynamic had changed significantly since then, or at least my place in it had.
Hasn’t it? I thought, suddenly unsure. Was my growth and success just more dancing to Kezess and Agrona’s tune, or was there something else to it?
‘It’s Faaaaate…’ Regis intruded suddenly, the word drawn out like it was spoken by a ghostly apparition.
No, I thought back firmly. It is me, my own doing, my own strength. My control over aether—and my status as a quadra-elemental mage before that—wasn’t some machination of G.o.ds or fate or anything else. I worked to achieve it, built my strength in a way perhaps no one else in this world could have, I…
Trailing off, I considered my own thoughts. I had only been able to utilize all four elements because I had been reincarnated with my previous life memories intact. And although it had been my own force of will that had forged the aether core, I still didn’t really know how I’d ended up in the Relictombs in the first place. Looking at it like that, it was hard to disavow any influence of some power beyond my control, even fate…
Regis gave me the mental equivalent of an appreciative nod. ‘d.a.m.ned right. Although, you have had a pretty good support structure, which has allowed you to get the most of both your natural abilities and the opportunities presented to you. For example—’
I know, I thought, biting back a small smile. I’ve never lacked purpose, and much of that has come from those around me—my family.
‘Ah, shucks,’ Regis thought back, reading the intention behind my words just as easily as hearing the words themselves.
Seris s.h.i.+fted against my back, tensing slightly. “But now, Arthur, it is I who need your help. Because I have decided what my people will do next.”
I waited, giving her the time she needed to formulate the words.
“All my designs for the Relictombs have failed. And even if they hadn’t, I can no longer be certain in keeping the Legacy out when Agrona finally decides to unleash her on us.” She took her time, breathing deeply, considering her words before she spoke. “I’m not ready to destroy the portals. It strikes a blow against the very people I work to help as well as Agrona. Future generations may rely on this place in ways we can’t yet comprehend. And so I’m retreating from the Relictombs.”
I had expected this. Regis’s a.s.sistance in holding the s.h.i.+elds was a temporary solution at best. Besides, without constant supplies from the first level and the outside world, no sizable population could live in the second level for an extended period of time. “And that’s where I come in?”
“Although I will force no one to follow me out of here, I will take anyone who wishes it to Elenoir, to the wastes where you have banished the Alacryan soldiers in Dicathen.”
I took a moment to digest this, careful to hold back my immediate judgment. Inside, I was loath to invite yet more Alacryans to Dicathen’s sh.o.r.es, even these ones. But my willingness wasn’t even the biggest problem. “And you want me to help settle this with the dragons.”
“Exactly,” she said with a sigh. “I need you to speak on my behalf. Convince the dragons—Kezess himself if you must—to allow it, but not only that. It may be that Agrona decides this is definitive and moves against our people in the Elenoir Wastes. The dragons’ protection is also needed.”
I half turned around, looking at the back of Seris’s head, which was leaning forward. I got the impression that her eyes were closed. “This move also puts you in position to build an alliance, maybe even some good faith. It would even bring you a step closer to Kezess’s ear, which is necessary if you intend to continue feeding the conflict between the two.”
Seris’s weight vanished from my back as she stood. The wariness melted away as she looked down on me imperiously, and I saw again the woman who had saved me from Uto so long ago. “I intend to help you do so, Arthur.”
After getting to my feet as well, I was the one looking down at her. “What do we need to do then?”
“Here,” I said, handing Cylrit my tempus warp.
He looked over the repaired exterior housing before setting it on the ground next to the one Seris had brought herself—the only two allowed in the Relcitombs zone, as they posed the largest threat of intrusion from the outside. “You were able to fix it?”
The crack was sealed, and physically it was in fine shape; I had used Aroa’s Requiem on it in preparation for the journey. What I couldn’t manage, though, was replacing the magic that had been expended from within it. After this, the anvil-shaped artifact would be little more than a chunk of metal.
I explained, and he nodded as if he’d expected this. “No wonder. The devices themselves are not made so much as reclaimed from pieces of old djinn relics like the teleportation portals. They are finite, like the dimension artifacts.”
I blinked in surprise, not having known this. Mentally, I made a note to get Gideon and Wren a tempus warp so they could confirm what Cylrit had said.
Having done as Seris asked, I bid Cylrit a temporary farewell and retreated to a less crowded section of the courtyard.
People teemed around the arrival portals, which were still being disrupted by Seris’s artifacts, powered by Regis. Although Seris had briefed me on exactly how many people were present in the second level, it was still startling to see them all in one place. They spilled out of the courtyard into the alleys and side streets, and well down Sovereign Boulevard.
Most appeared varying degrees of afraid. The less well-off folk, universally employees or business owners who had been trapped here when Seris blocked the zone off from the Relictombs’ first level, were largely cl.u.s.tered around the disruption array. They were kept back by the many battle groups of mages that were guarding several highbloods who were also queuing around the portals.
Rumors had started to fly almost immediately when Seris announced that people were to gather their belongings, packing up whatever they could take with no plans to return. Combined with the rumors floating around about Agrona’s broadcast, many people instinctively believed Seris was standing down.
Seris herself had visited the highlords and matrons of the present highbloods to explain her plan and make sure they understood what was being offered.
“A new life, one outside the Vritra clan’s strict hierarchy of blood purity, a culture we can build for ourselves that doesn’t run on the blood of our strongest and weakest,” she had explained to Corbett Denoir only the day before. “Let me be clear what I mean by this. When we reach Dicathen, the notion of highbloods, named bloods, and unblooded all ceases to hold any meaning. We will all have to work together to build toward a society worth living in. The luck of your birth and the standing of your blood in Alacrya will carry no weight, no power, where we’re going.”
Lenora’s face had gone pale, but she had stepped forward first, holding her hand out to her husband. He took it as he joined her, chewing his lip before saying, “We’ve come this far, Scythe Seris.” He shot a glance to Caera and then to me. “I’ve no interest in crawling on my belly in front of the Vritra clan, hoping for the High Sovereign’s leniency. Highblood Denoir is with you.”
Caera had shaken her head, her jaw slack as she looked at her adoptive parents as if she didn’t know them. Now, she stood by them proudly on the opposite side of the courtyard among the rest of their blood who were in the Relictombs.
I hadn’t listened in on all of Seris’s conversations, but I knew not all of them had gone as well. Highlord Frost was furious at the retreat to Dicathen, seeing it as admitting failure and abandoning what they’d set out to do. Matron Tremblay, on the other hand, showed little emotion as she expressed her intent to accept Agrona’s forgiveness and return to her newly formed highblood instead of leaving behind her home.
“Can’t blame her exactly,” Kayden said, pulling my gaze away from where Matron Tremblay and all her people were gathered close to the portals. “For most of these highbloods, this ‘rebellion’ was a way to elevate themselves by removing the Vritra. For others, they hoped to claim the continent for us, the lessers. The idea of leaving Alacrya for them is like leaving an essential part of their ident.i.ty behind.”
“But not you?” I asked, watching the crowd carefully. Part of my role in all this was to ensure things didn’t boil over between the two opposing groups—those following Seris and those staying behind.
He shrugged, a perfectly executed and performed motion that expressed both his lack of pa.s.sion for his homeland and disdain for a political structure that he had actively retreated away from when he became a professor at Central Academy. “In the context of our world, Alacryan is little more than a term for a human with the taint of Vritra blood. Not sure what they think there is to be so proud about, to be frank.”
Regardless of whether they were staying or leaving, both sides were desperate, their decision made more with hope or fear than logic. Only, those leaving Alacrya with Seris were afraid to return to their previous lives and hopeful for better ones in the future, while those who were prepared to take Agrona at his word and give up on the rebellion feared Agrona’s wrath and hoped that his offer was true.
Ideally, we would have had weeks to prepare. Messages should have been sent to Lyra Dreide and Vajrakor, or even Kezess, and shelter and provisions prepared for the new influx of refugees to the Elenoir Wastes. But we hadn’t had weeks. No, Seris had allowed her people only a day and a half to prepare.
Carts and crates, mana beasts and self-pulling sledges, anything that could be used to haul goods and provisions had been dragged or driven to the courtyard’s outskirts as servants, soldiers, and ascenders worked around the clock. But they weren’t the only ones. Already I was seeing Seris’s vision put into practice as highlords and ladies alike rubbed elbows with the lowest members of their houses in order to be ready in time.
Seris floated up into the air near where she had arranged to set up the tempus warps.
A man in fine clothes near the exit portals—a named blood shop owner, by the looks of it—shouted something unkind, and a scuffle broke out as an older mage with dark bags under his eyes took exception. Several bystanders were quick to step in and prevent the fight from escalating, but as my attention slid off the scuffle, it landed on another scene, practically hidden by the thronging ma.s.s of people.
Mayla and Seth hunkered together beneath the balcony of one of the large buildings bordering the courtyard. Mayla had her arms wrapped around Seth, the top of her head pus.h.i.+ng his gla.s.ses up and to the side. She trembled with suppressed sobs even as she reached up to give Seth a peck on the corner of his lips.
I looked away, not wanting to intrude on their private moment. Although I hadn’t spoken to them since the conversation with Ellie, I could guess what was happening. Mayla had a family back in Etril, a sister—a reason not to leave the continent, in other words. Seth’s family, though, was all gone, victims of the war and the destruction of Elenoir.
“Listen, Alacryans and friends,” Seris said, her voice projected magically so that all could hear her words, even the farthest away easily making out her crisp enunciation. “I will not burden you with a long-winded speech. I will not insult you with pleas or threats. Your will is your own, each and every one of you. If ever there was a purpose to our act of rebellion, it is that.”
The Relictombs were quiet in response, the crowd hanging on Seris’s words like a lifeline, even those who weren’t following her.
“For those of you returning home, accepting and hoping for the grace of the High Sovereign, I wish you only health and hope. See to your families. Defend yourselves in whatever way you think best.” Her dark eyes swept the crowd, power oozing from her and making those closest step back. “I will not judge you for it. Many of you did not join this long siege of your own free will, and to those of you, I offer both my apologies and my thanks for suffering these last two months with grace.
“I offer my thanks as well to all those who follow me forward, stepping out from the High Sovereign’s yoke and daring to imagine what a world beyond the conflicts of the asura might look like for us.” She let a small smile soften her severe expression. “It will not be a safe road, or an easy one, but the path will be of our own choosing.”
No cheer went up when Seris stopped talking, no eager shouts or chanting. The att.i.tude of the crowd was split between a melancholy-tinged eagerness and wary readiness.
At some unseen signal from Seris, two tempus warps were activated, creating twin portals that opened beside each other into Dicathen. Seris drifted down in front of the portals, and she was the first one to step through. Several clerks and officials in her employ began guiding the crowd in a kind of controlled chaos. Cylrit monitored the portals while a dozen battle groups lingered in the courtyard to keep the peace.
Moving blood by blood, Alacryans marched through.
On the opposite side of the courtyard, all those who wouldn’t be traveling to Dicathen lingered. We couldn’t deactivate the s.h.i.+eld disruption array until everyone else had gone, and then those people would be on their own. I could only hope that Agrona would be true to his word, and they would be allowed to return to their lives. There would be nothing stopping Dragoth and his forces from cutting them down otherwise.
I noticed Highblood Denoir lingering, not among the rush to be the first through the tempus warp portals, then caught sight of Caera snaking her way against the current of the flowing crowd. Matron Tremblay met her in the middle, and they exchanged a few words. Although I couldn’t hear, I knew that Caera was making one more plea for Maylis to come with them, but the matron only shook her head.
Leaning forward, the imposing matron knocked her horns against Caera’s, smiled, and turned away.
Chul and Sylvie lingered around me, watchful and silent. Ellie, eager to be involved and still embarra.s.sed about her outburst, was rus.h.i.+ng about making herself helpful wherever she could, whether that was calming a frightened child or leading a mana beast toward the portal to help one of the less populous bloods.
My own mind was strangely quiet as the exodus proceeded. It took hours, during which many of those staying left the courtyard, doing their waiting in a more comfortable environment. Since nothing was needed of me, I only watched, keeping myself separate. This was their journey, after all. I was an outsider.
Once most of the people were through, Seris’s soldiers and a group of ascenders hauled stored provisions through, and those staying began filtering back. Ellie went through with a contingent of mages hauling magical items, throwing me a look that very clearly said, “I’m sorry” and “I’m okay” as she vanished.
Once the very last of Seris’s people had pa.s.sed through to Dicathen, Cylrit deactivated my tempus warp, snapping his hand back as he touched it. It was glowing brightly, and there was a distinct heat haze above it.
He searched me out and nodded from across the courtyard; the next step was up to me. Or rather, to Regis.
Okay, it’s time, I thought to him in his little gla.s.s jar as I started toward the tempus warp. Be quick, we can’t be sure how fast they’ll respond.
The tiny horned ball of light drifted out of the gla.s.s jar and then solidified into the form of a shadow wolf. Regis shook his mane, making it flare with violet light, and the nearest Alacryans yelped and stumbled away from him, pus.h.i.+ng into the people behind them and creating a sort of miniature stampede.
The effect on the artifacts projecting the disruption field was immediate.
The aether, without Regis’s intent keeping it flowing, simply ceased doing so. It began to leak from the wiring and the crystals, and without enough aether the field began to flicker in and out.
Regis hurried across the courtyard. A couple of Alacryans must have had second thoughts, because they broke from the ranks of their peers and followed after him.
Wordlessly, Cyrlit ushered them through the portal.
“Go,” I said, to Cylrit as well as Chul and Sylvie. “I’m right behind you.”
Once they were gone, I picked up the tempus warp and held it under one arm. The disruption field failed, and people rushed to the bank of exit portals as Alacryan soldiers began pouring from the entrance portals; Dragoth must have been ready and waiting.
Shouting rose up from both sides. A woman threw herself at one of the soldiers, grasping at the front of his battle robes as she begged for his help. The b.u.t.t of his spear came up and cracked her across the ribs. The shouting intensified as the remaining highbloods demanded order and attempted to take control of the situation while those with lower blood status fought to get out the exit portals and the soldiers struggled to pa.r.s.e the situation. A few noticed me standing in front of the fading tempus warp portal, but they had their hands full with the crowd.
Then Dragoth himself appeared, his bulk and bullish horns making him look like a giant against the swarm of Alacryans. His eyes found mine immediately, and he took a few aggressive steps forward, then drew up short. Even from across the zone, I could sense his fear.
Good, I thought, hoping that fear was enough to ensure these people would be okay.
Feeling the portal breaking up now that its connection with the tempus warp had been severed, I stepped backwards through it.
Everything changed. The transition was smooth, not instant, but very nearly seamless. The false light of the blue Relictombs’ sky was replaced with true sunlight. Instead of the stifling atmosphere of the courtyard, I drew in a lungful of fresh air, and a cool breeze kissed my skin.
Turning, I tried to get my bearings. We had appeared in the broad gra.s.sy patch of land between the Beast Glades and one of the Alacryan settlements on the outskirts of the Elenoir Wastes. I searched the hundreds of milling people for my sister, Caera, or Seris, but didn’t immediately see any of them.
Standing right beside me, though, were Chul and Sylvie.
I met my bond’s eye. “Have you seen El—”
Sylvie’s face was pale, sweat s.h.i.+ning on her forehead. Her eyes were glazed over, staring sightlessly into the void.
Frowning, I reached for her, taking hold of her arm as my mind probed her.
The strength left me and I felt my legs give out. I didn’t even have time to wonder what had happened before my mind was being pulled away from my body, drawn along in the wake of whatever thought had stricken Sylvie.
Light and color flashed past on all sides, indistinct images appearing and vanis.h.i.+ng again too quickly to make sense of. Although I couldn’t see her, I could feel Sylvie just ahead of me. The world had melted away, and we were alone, just the two of us, speeding like an arrow through this tunnel of lights.
I tried to speak, but I had no voice. I tried to connect with her mind but couldn’t reach her.
What’s happening? I wanted to shout. Where are we going?
As soon as I asked the question, I knew. We sped into a pool of roiling color, skating along a thin stream of silver light and into a blur of color and motion.
The world coalesced back into a recognizable form around us.
I reeled, taking a moment to get my bearings, but the scene was familiar.
A conference room. The one where I had last seen and spoken with the Glayders. But it looked quite different now.
The long table had been removed to make room for an opulent throne, on which sat a dragon in the form of a man with long silver hair and deep plum-colored eyes. I didn’t recognize this dragon, but the name Charon came to me from a distant memory: the leader of Kezess’s forces in Dicathen.
Two other dragon’s, both also in a humanoid form, flanked Charon, who was gazing down at a dozen humans, all of whom sat on their knees on the ground like children. Kathyln and Curtis were there as well, and many of their advisors. Words were being exchanged, but the vision sounded as if it were under water and a very long way away, so I couldn’t make out anything.
Suddenly something s.h.i.+fted, like a dark cloud had floated over the scene. Five figures melted out of the shadows, blades and spells in their hands. There was no conversation, no hesitation. Even as they set on Charon, five more appeared around the two dragon guards, cutting them off.
The vision blurred, wobbling dangerously, the details difficult to follow.
When it steadied, the back wall of the chamber had been destroyed. Two Wraiths lay dead, as did a dragon, and the cacophonous rumble of battle bubbled out of the dust and rubble that blocked my view beyond the room.
Charon himself was still surrounded by the other five Wraiths, who were working together in a fluid symphony of violence. Charon raged in near-silence, and his body swelled into the form of a horrible, war-scarred silver dragon, his ma.s.sive claws and tail stamping and crus.h.i.+ng.
I could do nothing as I watched Kathyln vanish beneath a clawed hand. Beside her, Curtis was hurled aside. Golden light suffused his body, but it twinkled and faded when a black blade pa.s.sed effortlessly through him, blood spraying from a bisecting cut severing him hip to shoulder.
Horrified, I watched frozen outside of s.p.a.ce and time, unsure what I was seeing or how I was seeing it, unable to react, no body or magic of my own.
Charon’s transformation had toppled the ceiling, burying most of the humans beneath a mountain of rubble. Disregarding any potential survivors, the dragon leapt up, desperately ripping his way free of the palace and taking to the air. Wheeling, he breathed death back down on everyone below, killing more Dicathians than the Wraiths had in his attempt to defend his own life.
The scene shattered like a painted vase, the pieces spiraling away in every direction before melting away in the tunnel of color and light once again.
My eyes snapped open, and I stared up into the face of Chul, who was leaning over me and looking concerned. Regis was beside him, and Ellie beside Regis.
Movement under my hand made me look to my right. I was lying on the ground, Sylvie next to me, my hand still clasped around her arm.
“Arthur!” Ellie gasped, falling to her knees and leaning into me to wrap her arms around my neck. “Are you okay? What happened?”
Through her hair, I was still watching Sylvie, who slowly turned to meet my eye.
A vision? I asked, my thoughts sluggish.
Her eyes fluttered shut. ‘Of…the future,’ she sent back ominously.