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The Beginning After The End - Chapter 419: One of Mine
Our base of operations in Sandaerene lacked all the charm and beauty of Seris’s villa in Aedelgard. Seris had commandeered one of the Sovereign’s research facilities for us to use as a command center, and there was something about the sterile, functional building that left me feeling chilled all the time. Nothing but cold metal and even colder white light everywhere one looked.
The grated floor rang with a somber, impersonal tone as I marched down the hall toward the central meeting chamber where we held our daily conferences. The door—cold metal like almost everything else—sensed my mana signature as I approached and slid open with a dull grinding noise.
The inside of the meeting room was no better. The central table looked more like a laboratory counter than anything else, and the chairs surrounding it were purposefully uncomfortable. Crystal viewing panels lined one wall. The primary broadcast from Central Dominion played in the middle screen, while smaller displays to the left and right showed a number of locations. I recognized the battery chamber and Sovereign Orlaeth’s holding cell on one screen, and a moving panoramic of the city of Rosaere on another.
“You’re out of bed,” I answered, turning to find Cylrit sitting on a bench against the wall to my left, his head resting back against the wall. “You shouldn’t be.”
He rubbed one hand down the side of his pale gray cheek, scratching at the stubble growing there. “If I lie in bed any longer, I may actually die.”
I rolled my eyes. “All men truly are babies, aren’t they? Even retainers.”
His brows rose very slightly. “Oh, I don’t know about that. I think I’ve recovered fairly well considering my core was nearly shattered by the Legacy.”
Cylrit and I both turned toward a door on the opposite wall of the room, sensing a powerful mana signature approaching. The door slid aside with the same quiet grating noise, and Seris stepped into the room. Cylrit eased up from his bench to bow, and I followed suit.
Seris waved our greeting away. “Cylrit. I have no use for a retainer who can’t follow orders. You are to remain at rest until our healers are satisfied that your core has suffered no lasting damage.”
I looked very closely at the Scythe, trying to read her expression, tone, and body language. Our conflict with the High Sovereign and his forces had not been going as well as we might have hoped, and I felt certain the stress of our recent losses must have weighed on Seris, but she gave no outward sign at all.
“Forgive my impudence, Scythe Seris,” Cylrit said, sinking back down on the bench, “but Doctor Xanys did release me, not thirty minutes ago.”
Seris walked around the table to stand in front of the screens, staying just outside the range of the telepathic field. The broadcast was showing a long line of men and women being paraded past the recording artifact in chains and with metal gags clamped around their mouths. “Named Blood Akula of Truacia.”
The Akula blood had been part of the smuggling operation out of Truacia, moving both silver from their mines and armaments brought up from Vechor.
“No one from their blood was assigned to the shipment we lost,” Cylrit said, watching the screen with a sour expression. “It’s possible they slipped up, but it’s equally possible someone gave them up.”
I remained quiet, acknowledging the guilt I felt without wallowing in it.
I’d been the one who brought the Akula blood into this. In a way, I was responsible for what was happening to them now. But I couldn’t shoulder that blame personally; this was a war. There would be suffering and loss on both sides. Still, when the youngest member of the Akula blood, a girl no older than eleven, was marched past the recording artifact with tears streaming down her bright red cheeks, I had to look away.
But Seris watched, holding a silent vigil for them all, knowing they would be executed. Even when the others started to arrive in twos and threes, then larger groups, until the room was full to bursting with analysts, operators, Imbuers, and commanders, she kept her eyes on the broadcast. The chatter that would pick up with each new arrival, as people acknowledged each other with quick greets, died quickly.
Only when everyone had arrived did Seris turn her back on the broadcast. Behind her, the rest of us watched as carts carrying the prisoners rolled away from the recording artifact.
In the instant of hesitation that followed, I stepped in. “Maylis—Matron Tremblay—has reached out and confirmed that our high-value assets in Aramoor have been successfully relocated.” All eyes turned to me, some wary, others hopeful. “It was very close, and we lost multiple mages in the conflict with retainer Mawar, but so far it appears the identities of those present have not been compromised.”
“The High Sovereign’s forces are getting more aggressive,” one of our field commanders said. “And not just against us. They’re using violence against the people to turn public opinion against our efforts.”
“We believe they’re tracking inter-dominion travel, at least among highbloods,” an engineer from Highblood Redwater put in.
“How?” asked someone else—I didn’t catch who in the packed conference room.
“Not sure yet,” the engineer admitted. “But we’ve seen enough reactive movement to high-value assets maneuvering that we’re confident they are.”
There was some mumbling at this proclamation, but it died out after only a few seconds.
“Are our plans for the next assault on the shield in place?” Seris asked, scanning the room for the several people involved in that project.
An Imbuer from Highblood Ainsworth cleared her throat. “Despite this recent setback, our highblood will do its part. I received a message from the highlord just this morning confirming our commitment to your…plan.”
The Imbuer’s halting cadence suggested she wasn’t exactly thrilled about what Seris had asked them to do, but then, I was rather surprised they’d agreed to go forward with it at all, especially after Hector nearly lost his life to Mawar. He was a prideful man, however, and such close calls tended to either break a person’s will or buttress it. Clearly, he was one of the latter.
“The necessary alterations to the estate have been made,” another engineer added. “Testing the wider connectivity is…difficult, of course, but if Highblood Ainsworth follows through, we’re confident in our work.”
The Imbuer lifted her chin and looked down her nose at the engineer. “We’ll do our part. Even if it leads us to the same fate as the Akula blood, apparently.”
Despite the growing tension, the conversation changed course, honing in on a number of technical details that were outside of the scope of my role, and, though I did my best to stay invested, many of the finer points escaped me.
One of the doors slid open. Many sets of eyes turned to the late arrival, but the flow of conversation didn’t stop. Wolfrum of Highblood Redwater froze under so many gazes, looking like a startled rocavid as he searched the room. When he saw me, some of the tension left him, and he followed the wall to where I was standing.
We exchanged silent nods, then both turned our attention back to the conversation, which was finally shifting away from the previous topic.
“There have been five recorded descensions within the shield over the last week,” the head of the Ascenders Association in Aedelgard said. Anvald of Named Blood Torpor was a bald man with broad shoulders and a severe look. “Sixteen ascenders in total. All were interviewed, logged, and released beyond the shield in Rosaere. None were operating with the express purpose of reaching Sehz-Clar.”
The few descension portals in the western half of Sehz-Clar were kept under heavy guard. Seris had been monitoring traffic out of them since even before the shield went up, and we continued to do so now to make sure Agrona wasn’t actively trying to get agents into the dominion. It was possible to destroy the portals, of course, but Seris said that, until they had proof that Agrona could weaponize them against us, she wasn’t willing to break anything she couldn’t rebuild.
After everything I had seen while adventuring with Grey, I felt confident a handful of descension portals weren’t going to matter to the Relictombs’ future, but I hadn’t argued the point. It was nearly impossible to target a specific descension portal outside of the second level anyway.
A few follow-up questions were asked about the ascenders, and then the meeting moved on.
“We need to reconsider our supply lines from eastern Sehz-Clar and Etril,” one of the analysts said before launching into a report on the amount of food our territory was consuming versus the amount produced and smuggled in. It was a concerning problem. “At this rate, the larger cities will be rationing the sale of food to civilians in three weeks. The smaller towns may not feel the hit for another six weeks, but within two months, you’ll have people starving in the streets.”
“There are too many eyes on the coast,” one of Seris’s strategic advisors said. “The last four ships that have tried to come down the coast—from Vechor or Etril—have been caught and sunk. We tried expanding some of the research tunnels under Rosaere, but the mana usage required drew attention, and we had to collapse everything we’d done and then some to prevent it being used to circumvent the shields.”
“Central Dominion isn’t being watched so closely,” I said aloud, having a thought. The entire room turned as one to focus on me. “We could route supplies to our allies there under the pretense of highbloods stocking up on provisions, hedging against potential economic collapse due to the ongoing rebellion. There is a river that springs up near the border between Central Dominion and Sehz-Clar, primarily used for shipping goods from Sehz-Clar up to Cargidan for distribution through the rest of the dominion. But it is also a common destination for recreation among the highbloods.”
“It’ll be just as thoroughly watched as the coast, surely?” the analyst countered. “Moving resources into Central Dominion would be easy enough, but getting them down here has the same problems.”
Seris was thoughtful for several seconds as she considered our arguments. “The network of tunnels and underground labs around Sandaerene is extensive. Begin opening a supply line straight through to the base of the cliffs around the Vritra’s Maw. Hire unadorned laborers for the last ten miles or so. That will limit outside detection of the digging. The tunnel system should come out just across the sea from the river Lady Caera mentioned.”
Several people hurried to take note of this command.
“Meanwhile, arrange for distribution of incoming food throughout our highblood allies in Central Dominion, Vechor, and Etril. Devise several routes for supply lines. Make it appear as if the goods are being shifted from one highblood to the next. We’ll need several unaffiliated highbloods involved as well. Make sure it isn’t only our allies who are suddenly stockpiling provisions.” Seris’s mouth twitched in a barely-visible smile. “Make it clear that people are beginning to question Agrona’s ability to end this rebellion.”
Once again, the conversation broke down into a discussion of specifics, with representatives of each group asking questions and others offering suggestions to solve new problems. This went on for nearly half an hour before Seris dismissed everyone. People began to filter out quickly, many of them rushing off to immediately start work on the details discussed.
I started toward the door as well, but Seris caught my eye, communicating clearly that we, at least, were not yet done. Settling in beside Cylrit, I waited for the rest to leave. The only other person not queuing up to get out one of the doors was Wolfrum, a fact I was curious about, but expected to learn the reason for momentarily.
Once the last person had left and the doors had closed behind them, Seris relaxed ever-so-slightly. She eyed Cylrit for a moment, considering the retainer before focusing on me and Wolfrum. “Things are coming to a head,” she said, leaning one hip against the table and crossing her arms over her stomach. “Word from within Taegrin Caelum is that Agrona has taken steps to prepare the Legacy to attack our shield again.”
Cylrit stood slowly. “We’ll be ready if she breaches it.”
Seris raised an eyebrow a fraction of an inch. “Of course we will. But there must be a counter strike as well. It is time to change the narrative.”
We all waited as she let tension build. Wolfrum bit his lip as his fingers twitched nervously, but Cylrit was still as a statue.
“We’ve given Grey time to put his house in order,” she said, meeting my eyes. “Now, we need him. A decisive victory, in plain sight where Agrona can’t sweep it under the rug. And I’m sending you to retrieve him.”
“To—” I cut myself off, looking pointedly at Wolfrum.
Seris nodded. “It’s all right, Caera. Wolfrum can be trusted. He’s one of mine.”
I experienced a moment of confusion, then felt my brows shoot up. “Another Vritra-born protégé?”
He smiled awkwardly. “Lady Seris helped me when everyone else gave up on me. When my V-Vritra blood didn’t manifest…well, I owe her a lot.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked my mentor, unsure how I felt about this revelation.
“It was essential that my connection with the Redwater blood be kept entirely secret,” she said, no hint of apology or even acknowledgement in her tone. “Only Cylrit was aware. I hope you’ll need no further assurances?”
I straightened, suddenly conscious of how I was still looking at Wolfrum. It was difficult to imagine the painfully antisocial boy I’d known, who had turned into the jittery man before me, being mentored by Seris. If he had gone through the same sort of training and preparation I had, however, then there had to be a lot more to him than I’d ever suspected. At the very least, he possessed a hidden strength that I appreciated.
“Good,” Seris said after a moment. “Because he’s coming with you to Dicathen.”
Wolfrum paled. “To the other continent?”
“I’ve sent a team ahead to ready my personal long-range tempus warp. Grey—Arthur—is based out of the underground city of Vildorial. The dwarves were heavily divided by the war in Dicathen, and tension will still likely be high there. Do not expect a warm welcome. If Arthur isn’t there, you may also speak to Virion Eralith, the Lances Bairon Wykes, Varay Aurae, or Mica Earthborn, or whichever dwarven clan is in charge of the city itself.”
Wolfrum’s wide eyes turned to me, his mouth open slightly. It seemed Seris’s alternate protégé was feeling somewhat overwhelmed.
“I need Arthur—Grey—to return to Alacrya soon,” Seris continued. “He is…singularly focused on the protection of his family, and I worry that, now that he has finally returned home, he may not be eager to leave it again. Convince him.”
I set my jaw. “Of course, Scythe Seris. I trust him…” I couldn’t help but ask myself if that was true, causing me to trail off. Immediately, I added, “I trust that he’ll do what is right.”
Seris pushed away from the table and headed for the same door she had entered through. “Come on, then. You’ll take a tempus warp to the oceanside, where a member of the forward party will meet you.” She hesitated, then added, “For what it’s worth, Caera, I trust him too.”
Wolfrum and I followed on Seris’s heels, leaving the silent and brooding Cylrit behind. The research center’s primary tempus warp chamber was tucked away between several offices and protected by a guard station. At a word from Seris, the operator programmed the device and stepped back.
“Remember what we’ve put the Dicathians through when you arrive in Vildorial,” Seris said as we stepped up in front of the matte metal of the tempus warp. “Be patient with their hostility. You will find, given a chance, that they aren’t the barbaric failed continent Agrona has painted them as. And I believe it is important that they learn to see Alacrya not as their aggressor, but as an equal victim to the asuras’ plotting.”
“I understand,” I answered, and Wolfrum repeated it.
The operator activated the tempus warp, and I felt the magic grab hold of me, pulling me through space. In only seconds, we were deposited in a small bunker. A young woman in olive leather armor jumped up off the stool she’d been lounging on and snapped a salute. Her gaze flicked to Wolfrum before settling back on me.
“Lady Caera, ma’am. The long-range warp is set up just on the other side of the shield. Follow me, please.” And then she was moving.
Wolfrum and I followed her out of the steel door and down a steep rocky path that led toward the coast, perhaps half a mile away and a couple hundred feet below. The base of the shield was just visible where it curved down out of the sky to sink into the sand and stone of a rocky beach. I recognized it as the north-western coastline of Sehz-Clar.
“So, you’ve been quite central to Seris’s operation here, haven’t you?”
When I looked at Wolfrum, he responded with a stiff smile, and I realized he was trying to make small talk. Aside from the short meeting with Highlord Frost and the others, I hadn’t seen Wolfrum in a few years, not since my adopted mother and father stopped forcing me to go to parties with the other Vritra-blooded fosters. As children, our relationship had been amiable, but I had never formed close bonds with any of the other Vritra-bloods.
“I agree with what she’s doing,” I answered after a moment.
“Yes but…she trusts you, clearly. You seem to be involved in all her decision making.”
I laughed despite myself, but there was no humor in it. “Not all, apparently.”
I bit my tongue, immediately feeling guilty. I knew all too well how difficult Wolfrum’s life had been, and how he had been treated by the others like us. “I apologize. I’m not, really. Just…your relationship with Seris…took me by surprise, is all.”
His brows pinched together in a serious expression. “She is good at compartmentalizing. It’s interesting, you know.”
“What’s that?” I asked, hopping down a steep step as I carefully followed after the soldier.
“The way she thinks, plans, and executes…lessons taken directly from the High Sovereign. But she is using his own tools against him. It’s…almost poetic.”
I stopped and looked over my shoulder at Wolfrum, who had fallen behind me as the trail down the steep slope narrowed. There was a strange, almost wistful look on his face.
“Come on, it’s a bit of a hike still, and our window through the shield is scheduled for…” Our guide shaded her eyes with her hand and looked toward the sun. “Shit, only about seven or eight minutes. It only lasts thirty seconds, so we need to hoof it.”
She began hurrying down the slope, occasionally sliding on loose stones or leaping over the edge of several-foot drops. I hurried after her, listening to Wolfrum’s steps behind me to make sure he was keeping up. He’d never been very graceful.
The rocky hill plummeted straight down into a cliff before joining the beach, and our guide led us into a series of steep stone steps cut into the cliffside.
“So, what should I expect on meeting this Ascender Grey…or Lance Arthur Leywin of Dicathen. It sounds like you know him well.”
As I took a sharp switchback, I glanced up at Wolfrum again. He was staring down at me, and there was an intensity in his mismatched eyes that didn’t match his tone.
“He’s difficult to describe,” I said, growing uncomfortable. “You’ll understand once you’ve met him.”
I realized that this discomfort had been building in me as we’d descended the hillside, but, not understanding what I was feeling, I had pushed it to the back of my mind. I considered everything, as I’d been trained to do, moving backwards from this last question up the hill, searching for subconscious details that had triggered my unease.
My heel turned on a loose stone, and I slid down two steps. I planted my hand to catch myself at the same time Wolfrum’s fist closed around my arm to stabilize me. Something silver tumbled out of my sleeve, bounced off the hard stone, and went spiraling down the cliffside, vanishing in the rugged bushes that lined the beach’s edge at the bottom.
“That looked valuable,” Wolfrum noted, helping me back to my feet.
“It was,” I muttered unhappily.
“No time to search for it,” the soldier said from below, shaking her head. “Unless you want to explain to Scythe Seris Vritra why we missed our window.”
I only shook my head, and we went on in silence for a minute or so. “I was thinking, you’ve been training to fight with Seris, right?” I asked, breaking the silence as I realized what had been bothering me. “Your footing is much more stable than I remember. Those dances we were all forced to attend…” I met his eye over my shoulder, forcing a clumsy, half-suppressed smile to my lips. “You’ve changed. The nervous act…it’s just that, isn’t it? A masquerade?”
He shrugged as he straightened his shoulders, but he didn’t miss a step. “It’s not so different from your role with the Denoirs, is it? People expect you to be something, and Seris has taught you to show them what they want to see. If anyone ever thinks of me at all, they remember the clumsy, terrified young Vritra-blooded boy who managed to embarrass himself at every turn. They expect me to be just that, so convincing them I am has been all too easy. Seris taught me that there is power in underestimation.”
I let out a breath, relaxing as I reminded myself that we had both undergone the same training from a Scythe. I was suddenly glad that Seris had sent Wolfrum along, and curious about what he was capable of. When I opened my mouth to ask about his training, though, I was cut off by another curse from our guide.
The soldier jumped off the last set of steps, plummeting fifteen feet down to the sand below, where she landed with a grunt. Then she was up and moving, jogging across the beach and waving us after her. “See those striations? It’s time. We’re already late!”
There were lines like stretch marks running vertically down the shield. Outside of it, on an outcropping of rock that broke the otherwise smooth stretch of sand and water, several people were waiting for us. Our guide was kicking up sprays of wet sand as she ran across the beach toward the spot where the lines converged on the ground.
Empowering my legs with mana, I leapt off the cliffside, clearing twenty feet of air before landing softly, my boots sinking into the sand. Wolfrum landed beside me a moment later, and we both hurried to follow the soldier.
The shield split apart with a low, electrical hum, creating an opening ten feet wide and fifteen feet high.
There was a flash of green light.
A bolt of mana lifted our guide up off her feet and flung her back at me. Reacting on pure instinct, I caught her, but in the second it took me to do so, several more spells were fired off. Half of the group waiting beyond the shield collapsed as bullets of fire and raining acid took them unaware. It was over before it even began.
The young soldier was squirming in my arms, trying to twist around enough to look over her shoulder at me. Her eyes were wide, her breath coming in quick, shallow gasps.
The attackers were already hurrying to the gap in the shield.
Wolfrum was standing just at my side, almost touching me. But he wasn’t watching the mages, who had stopped at the gap and started throwing down what looked like components of an artifact of some kind. He was watching me.
“It’d be better if you don’t fight back. We’d prefer to bring you in unharmed,” he said, his voice completely changing as the intensity in his eyes turned into a dark confidence.
“I know you’re calculating your odds of victory right now, but…” Wolfrum expanded outward, growing taller and more muscled. Onyx horns sprouted from his head, short and sharp. “Let me assure you, a battle can only result in your injury or death.”
I stepped away from him, still cradling the soldier in my arms. A red stain was growing over her left side.
His Vritra blood manifested, but he’s been hiding it. Like me.
Underneath the shield opening, the mages, each of whom wore an emblem symbolizing a winding red river, had set up an arch of black metal rods. High above them, the streaks in the shield were wiped away as the thirty-second timeframe passed. When the streaks were gone, the shield flexed around the artifact. The two forces conflicted, issuing a ringing buzz, but the gap didn’t close.
I needed time to think. There was no way for me to know how strong Wolfrum was, and I was outnumbered seven to one, so I couldn’t be sure of the results of a fight. I needed to understand more about what they were trying to accomplish. “How long have you been a traitor?”
Wolfrum was stalking toward me slowly, but he paused to consider the question. “I was never Seris’s, regardless of what she says. Besides, if you betray a rebellion, doesn’t that make you loyal?”
One of the Redwater soldiers ran up with a pair of manacles clanking in his hands. Wolfrum took them by the chain, holding them up for me to see. Mana-suppression cuffs.
“It’s ironic, of course, that Seris gave me all the tools I needed to spy on her,” he went on, jangling the manacles. “Everyone thinks she’s the clever one, but even she never suspected that my blood manifested.”
“Ship coming ‘round the bend!” one of the Redwater mages shouted. He was standing atop the rocky outcrop with spyglass pressed against his eye. “Five minutes!”
Wolfrum took a step toward me. “Here, let’s get these on you. I’d hate for you to be tempted to do something stupid when Scythe Dragoth gets here.”
Silently apologizing to the soldier in my arms, I dropped her.
Wolfrum lunged at me, reaching for my wrist, but I threw myself into a backwards roll, drawing my blade from my dimension ring as I came back to my feet. But Wolfrum was fast, and he was still right on top of me. His fist drove down like a club, wrapped in sable flames to smash my blade out of the way. I pivoted around the blow, absorbing the shift in momentum from his strike to bring my sword around in a wide arc toward the back of his legs.
He launched himself into the air, his large frame rotating in a graceful backflip as he landed a few feet away.
I felt the mages at my back beginning to conjure their spells.
“As much as fighting back is not the right call, Caera, I’m curious to see what you’re capable of,” Wolfrum said with an air of confident curiosity. “Seris has so much faith in you.”
Spinning the manacles over his head, he hurled them at me. They flew like a bola, whirling around and around.
🅃🄷🄸🅂 🄲🄷🄰🄿🅃🄴🅁 🅄🄿🄻🄾🄰🄳 🄵🄸🅁🅂🅃 🄰🅃 🄽🄾??
I set my feet as best I could in the sand, ready to dodge or deflect the wild throw.
The air around me hardened, congealing into an obfuscating snarl of jet-black wind that blinded and restrained me. Void wind, I thought feebly as the manacles, guided by his magic, snapped closed around my wrists before pulling my hands together in front of me.
The queasy sensation of my mana being snuffed out filled every cell of my body as the cuffs locked it inside me.
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