Cadell stiffened at the sight of the relic armor, taken aback by my transformation. I could see his jaw working as his teeth ground together, the frustration he felt emanating from him like heat from a flame.
“Your tricks are a mockery to the asura, boy,” he said scornfully as his form crackled with energy.
But his voice was muffled, smothered by the sound of blood rushing to my head. The world blurred and my eyes locked onto Cadell—the first true monster that I had laid eyes upon in this world.
I hurled myself into the air to meet him as Cadell fell from the sky like a bolt of dark lightning.
A wave of black fire roiled out from his hand. I countered it with an aetheric blast before slashing at his throat with my aether blade. However, Cadell’s body dissipated like smoke, vanishing into the flames still filling the sky.
My arms blurred as I slashed around me, shredding the flames like silk curtains.
But when Cadell reappeared, it was from behind me. His hand, wreathed in fiery claws, plunged into my side, through the armor and aether, and curled up into my ribs. Ignoring the pain, I reversed the aether blade and stabbed back and down, barely missing his chest as he flew away from me.
I willed myself to follow, to fly, to simply ignore the restraints of this world as the djinn manifestation had instructed, but gravity pulled me back down.
With a roar of frustration, I flung the aether blade after him, which immediately began to dissolve after leaving my grip.
I hit the ground with another weapon already conjured, and threw myself after the Scythe, swinging with abandon, carving through the cloud of soulfire. But my weapon never found purchase, and again Cadell coalesced from the blaze to strike, this time raking fiery claws across my arm, nearly severing it at the elbow.
Dismissing the aether blade from my injured arm and conjuring it again in the other, I thrust at Cadell’s chest with the full force of my momentum as I careened like a catapult stone through the air, but he burst into black flames and vanished back into the burning cloud.
I landed in the midst of the ruined arena floor fifty feet away, cursing loudly.
Cadell’s form warped in my vision—the afterimages of how he had looked before he massacred the people in the castle, before he killed Buhnd, before he killed Sylvia all overlapping. He was responsible for so many deaths, including what was supposed to be mine had Sylvie not sacrificed herself for me.
Death wouldn’t be enough for him. I needed to crush him, to make him feel weak and helpless, just as I had felt. Here, In front of all of Alacrya, Cadell would suffer.
Blood and aether rushed through my limbs as the emotions I had been suppressing all this time threatened to overwhelm me. It wasn’t Destruction this time trying to overtake my sense of self. It was me.
The cloud of fire dissipated, revealing Cadell hovering over the battlefield, a blade in each hand. One was the same black iron that Uto and Nico favored, but the other was void-black, like a piece of night sky carved into the shape of a longsword.
“You are a lesser to the end,” Cadell spat.
Letting loose an aetheric blast for cover, I burst across the ground before leaping at him, my blade poised.
We crashed together.
Black and purple sparks flew as aether impacted against his soulfire-sheathed weapons. I slashed and stabbed, but each furious blow was deflected. A dozen new wounds opened up across my body, but they hardly mattered.
Then I was hurtling away in the air.
The tip of the void-black weapon was embedded in my chest, and it was growing, carrying me along with it. Ten feet, twenty, fifty, a hundred, until I slammed high against one of the huge shield walls that protected the crowd of onlookers.
But the lance continued to expand, growing through me, pressing into the shield so hard that it began to quiver. My armor was peeled away as the lance grew wider, ripping a hole in my chest.
My aether blade lashed out, but the void-black material shifted, moving and reforming around my sword. I hacked at it wildly, like an untrained boy trying to split a log. My head began to pound, my pulse racing, each beat of my heart sending blood pumping out around the edges of the lance.
Then an icy coldness was pouring from my core, washing over the hot rage, dousing it in a focused kind of detachment.
A shadow loomed over me.
Regis, in his pure Destruction form. Huge wings of black shadow kept him effortlessly aloft. His massive, fang-filled maw opened and a gout of Destruction blazed across the lance. The violet flames raced in both directions, devouring the lance. I felt, for an instant, the hunger of those flames dancing in my open chest cavity, licking the inside of my wound, reaching downward toward my core.
Then I was falling.
I hit the ground on my back, collapsing in a heap.
Regis floated above me protectively, and I could see his clash with Cadell, holding off another attack with a blast of Destruction.
‘After patronizing Nico… look at you.’ His voice was an inferno in my head. ‘Get a hold of yourself.’
I spit up a mouthful of blood as the hole in my chest slowly grew back together, bones fusing, organs reseating themselves. Finally, I was able to take a deep, heady breath. And through each breath after, I realized, through these last reckless exchanges, I had channeled too much of my aether into my attacks, ignoring my wounds and neglecting my armor.
Despite where I was and how the situation was unfolding, I laid in the ash and rubble for a moment more and let the rage that had overtaken me fizzle into frustration and embarrassment.
What had been the point of growing stronger, learning aether arts, obtaining relics, if all I was going to do was hack blindly in rage?
Yeah. I’m good now, I sent Regis with a sobering sigh.
Clearheaded but still incapacitated, I continued to draw in aether from the atmosphere while studying the battle above.
Purple flames erupted from Regis’s jaws as a barrage of void-black missiles swarmed like a flock of corrupted ravens, spinning and darting around the purple flames, but not fast enough.
Destruction leapt from one to the next, burning Cadell’s Decay-attribute magic to nothing, then chasing Cadell up into the sky, forcing him to retreat. Patches of purple flame burned in the arena and over the shields, but they were quickly doused by my companion.
I’d faced both soulfire and the black metal before, but the changeable, gusting black magic was a different attribute, likely wind, which meant Cadell could control at least three different elements. And he could combine them, like his ability to fuse soulfire and wind to meld into the atmosphere.
His power was more versatile than mine, but mana didn’t offer strong protection against aether. All it would take was a single decisive blow to defeat Cadell, just as I had Nico.
The sky above grew dark. Cadell flew at the center of a hurricane of blustering Decay-infused wind, which coalesced like an impenetrable cloud.
He jerked his hand downward, and a rain of black spikes and soulfire was launched from the cloud like a downpour of ballista bolts. Coal-black lines of infernal wind chased the burning spikes, pushing them faster and faster as they fell.
The coliseum trembled as the black spikes slammed into the ground around the edges of the ruined stadium floor, some glancing off the walls or punching through the shield protecting the closest seats. A black sphere momentarily wrapped around the high box, and any spikes that struck it dissolved, the soulfire flickering out like expired candles.
But over Regis and me, a shield of Destruction devoured everything that came in contact with it, keeping us both safe.
‘I know you've got your deep physical and psychological injuries to sort out, but I have a limit you know,’ Regis thought with a mental grunt of exhaustion.
I noticed the shimmering, smokey apparition before Regis did.
Cadell solidified from the gloom still cast by the clouds overhead, swinging down with a burning black blade. Activating God Step, I appeared just before him, catching the attack with an aetheric sword.
I was just waiting for you to tap out, I answered, straining under the force of Cadell’s blow.
The shadow wolf dissolved, becoming immaterial and drifting into my body. ‘Since you’re back to making crappy jokes, I assume you’ve got it from here?’ Despite his banter, I could sense the fatigue setting into my companion. He was near the end of his strength.
Black metal spikes burst out of the ground between us. My sword swept cleanly through them, but it gave Cadell time to step back and bring up his own sword. “Your new bond is a rather crude excuse of a beast.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘majestic’,” I quipped, hurtling forward and unleashing a flurry of cuts and jabs, pressing him further back. He tried to fly up into the air, but God Step allowed me to cut him off, pushing him back toward the ground where we were on more even footing.
Cadell may have been more versatile, but I was the better swordsman.
Driving the aether blade into his ribs, I tried to slash sideways and cut him in half, but his hands closed around my arm, holding me there.
Our eyes locked, and I took in the snide, cruel expression that seemed permanently affixed to his pale gray face. His chin jutted out proudly between the serrated horns that curled around below his ears. But the air of absolute confidence he usually exuded was long gone. He was worried.
And he was afraid.
I noticed the shadow almost too late.
God Stepping away just as a spike several times the size of my body would have struck me, I watched from above as, instead, it crashed into the arena floor, dragging Cadell down into a huge crater.
Cracks snaked out from the crater, running beneath the stands and making the entire coliseum shift and tremble. Somewhere, metal sheared and wood snapped, and two sections of the stadium seating began to separate.
The forgotten audience screamed as the shield protecting them flickered and vanished, only to be replaced by dozens of smaller shields as the mages leaped into action.
The underworks collapsed, opening fissures in the coliseum walls and causing large portions of the seating to sag. A few people had the wits to run for the exits, but most were still frozen where they sat or stood. I noticed Seth, Mayla, and some of my other students hunkering together beneath a clear panel of mana being cast by an older mage, their mouths agape, awe etched on their distant faces.
Something shifted in the shadows as I caught myself along the edge of one of the hundreds of black spikes sticking up from the floor. A creature, more shadow than man, crawled out into the light and stretched long, thin limbs tipped with jagged claws.
The shadows around Cadell twisted and bit at the air like flames. “Enough.” His voice grated like teeth shearing through bone. “There are no dragons around to save you this time, boy.”
Cadell’s shadow-clad arms spread wide, and black fire began to boil out of him. His corrupted magic spilled like burning tar into what was left of the arena and splashed against the shields protecting the staging areas, the light of which crackled inconsistently as the shields reached the end of their capabilities.
I felt an icy claw clutch at my insides as I remembered the last desperate moments of my battle against Nico and Cadell, racing away from this same hellfire conflagration with Tessia, desperately exhausting the last of my strength. Only this time, Cadell wasn’t holding back.
Regis emerged beside me, fiery hackles raised but only barely able to hold his normal form.
My brows furrowed as I glanced down at my companion. Regis. You shouldn’t—
‘Relax, Princess. I’m no martyr; I’m your weapon, remember?’
Flashes of instructions blazed in my mind like a branding iron, showing me glimpses of Regis in a dark forest clearing.
This is…How did—
My vision darkened as Cadell’s shadowy form barrelled toward us.
‘It’s not perfected, but it’ll probably still work. Just do it!’
As the flood of hellfire was almost on us, Regis closed his eyes, his lupine body growing shadowy and see-through as it became incorporeal. I raised the aetheric blade in my hand, but rather than attacking, I reeled back and…
I plunged the aetheric blade into my companion.
His body flared before enveloping my sword until the aetheric blade grew larger and was sheathed in dark violet flames.
“It doesn’t matter how many more tricks you pull out, lesser!” Cadell roared as his shadowy, demonic form neared.
My grip tightened around the Destruction-clad sword and a shared sense of a cold, emotionless void wiped my senses clear of anything other than Cadell. His long, taut limbs of flickering obsidian, his jagged horns that had grown twice in size, and the aura of soulfire wrapped around him like wings—I took it all in.
Cadell unleashed his arsenal of spells with abandon—a volley of blood iron, a maelstrom of void wind, a barrage of soulfire—but it was useless.
The dark violet sword in my hand arced in jagged flames as my body blurred. Concise, wasteless movements carried behind the small openings carved out by my new sword.
Arcs of violet tore through every spell spat out by the Scythe, and his gleaming red eyes widened in fear more each time.
Ignoring the icy grip around my core, I let God Step carry me right in front of Cadell’s distorted visage. I raised my sword over my head, Destruction blooming in a blaze of violet. His ghoulish black arms crossed in front of him, wreathed in soulfire, black metal spikes materializing like shields.
The blade came down, passing through the black spikes as if they were nothing but mist. I struck him with the full force of my strengthened body, flooding every muscle with aether. He was crushed to the ground, and a shockwave rippled outward from us, toppling the thirty-foot-tall spike that jutted up just behind Cadell.
Screams filled the stadium as part of the coliseum collapsed, dragging down the thousands of people seated there, swallowing several private boxes, and filling the coliseum with a thick cloud of dust.
Cadell struggled to regain his feet. His arms were flickering with soulfire and Destruction. He flailed desperately, like he could shake the purple flames away. His body flickered in and out of incorporeality, but the Destruction clung to him, his own outpouring of mana the only thing keeping him from being consumed.
The Scythe’s face was pale as he shivered, and the shadows clinging to him melted away as he returned to his normal form. His scarlet eyes were full of fear, his usual snide face a mask of desperation. Turning away, he stared up at the high box, perhaps hoping the other Scythes or even the Sovereign would appear to save him.
As I looked down on him, I felt only the cold acceptance of justice finally fulfilled. “This is for Sylvia.”
The violet flames flickering jerkily around the aether blade grew even more agitated as I thrust forward. It plunged through his chest and burst out of his back. Destruction leapt across him, devouring Cadell from the chest outward. There was no blood, no gore of internal organs spilling out, just the cleansing flames of Destruction wiping him away as if he had never existed.
No, I thought, not quite like that. The stain of Cadell’s existence would always be on this world, visible by the holes he had left in it.
“Sorry it took so long,” I said, watching in my mind's eye as Sylvia’s draconic eyes shined with tears as a portal drew me in, her last words echoing in my mind: “Thank you, my child.” My guilt for what I couldn’t do then lessened, but I knew it would never leave me entirely.
I pulled the sword from Cadell’s chest and swept it over his head, shearing off both horns. Regis, sensing my intention, withheld Destruction, leaving them whole.
Then he was gone, nothing but the severed horns remaining.
Regis drifted out of the sword as it disappeared, moving back into my body near my core, his aether exhausted, no words necessary to express how either of us felt in this moment.
I bent down to retrieve the horns and stowed them in my dimension rune. A deep, crushing fatigue settled over me as my gaze swept across the broken coliseum.
Dozens of mages swarmed over the collapsed section, working to pull survivors from the rubble. The shields, those still functional at all, were flickering in and out. The rest of the audience was in shock, their eyes either following me or boring into the place where Cadell had been.
There was movement in the high box—one of the only untouched spaces in the entire coliseum—and my attention settled there.
A huge man with ornamented horns thrusting forward from the sides of his head moved into the dust-filled light. He was wearing a loose-fitting robe and a hungry smile. Though suppressed, his aura was heavy enough to bend the heads and shoulders of every Alacryan in the stadium. This was a Sovereign, Kiros Vritra of Vechor.
He was underwhelming, compared to the likes of Aldir, Kordri, and Lord Indrath.
I kept my eyes just slightly averted, not downcast or in a bow like the tens of thousands of Alacryans around me, but I didn’t meet his eyes.
The slow, resounding clap that came from the high box caught me by surprise.
Kiros was applauding. His smile widened to a grin as his hands came together faster and faster. A confused and mistimed smattering of applause followed from the audience.
“Amazing!” Kiros said, his voice projecting effortlessly through the coliseum and silencing the weak applause. “A beautiful display of power. Such unexpected death! And delivered with—”
A pearlescent oval opened over the arena floor, twenty feet in front of the high box.
Two figures stepped through.
The first was someone I had never seen in person before, but I knew him instantly, and the mere sight of him was enough to sober me from my fatigue.
Agrona’s horns splayed out from his head like an elk’s, the dozens of sharp black points ornamented with chains and rings. He had strong, sharp features that reminded me uncomfortably of Sylvie.
The second, I was less prepared for.
Tessia looked exactly as she had when I’d last seen her, speaking to her people from a balcony in Elenoir. She wore form-fitting battlerobes, similar to the dress worn by Seris, except the individual “scales” were emerald green and shaped like little leaves. The battlerobes left her arms bare, showing off the faintly glowing runes I’d noticed in my vision.
Although she looked the same—gunmetal gray hair draped down her back and over her shoulders, braids tucked behind her pointed ears, shining teal eyes—she was immediately and unequivocally not Tessia.
Tessia was a princess. She’d grown up in the royal palace in Zestier, been tutored in the manners of customs of elven, dwarven, and human nobility. That grace extended to the way she held herself, the resting expression of her face, the cadence of her walk…
But all that was gone now.
Instead, this person masquerading as my oldest friend moved with aggressive confidence—not the Cecilia of my youth, but not far removed from the young woman I had battled in the King’s Tournament. Whatever harm that experience had done to her mentally, clearly it had carried through into this life, no doubt fostered by Agrona, just as Nico’s misplaced rage had been.
Logically, I understood what I was looking at.
But the cold, distrustful look Cecilia gave me from Tessia’s eyes still drove a knife through my chest.
Agrona’s appearance wasn’t unexpected, necessarily, but Tessia—Cecilia…
I had buried her too deep, labeled her a problem that could only be resolved in the future when I’d had more time to consider…
Could Tessia even be saved? Was she still in there, somewhere? And if she could…was protecting her more important than depriving Agrona of the Legacy?
I hadn’t been ready to face these questions.
I still wasn’t.
Regis tugged at my core. ‘This is dangerous, Art. If we push ourselves much farther…’
I should have been afraid. There was no way I could fight Agrona. I wasn’t even sure that I could fight Cecilia, knowing nothing about her powers in this world. But I wasn’t frightened. If anything, Agrona’s willingness to appear here in person simplified things greatly for me.
It meant there was only one path forward, that I was free of the burden of deciding what to do after the Victoriad.
Kiros’s voice boomed, shaking the already unstable stadium. “Vechor welcomes the High Sovereign. All hail Agrona Vritra!”
People fell on their faces to properly bow throughout the stands, their voices echoing back: “All hail Agrona Vritra!”
“I guess I finally got your attention,” I said into the silence that followed.
Agrona smirked. He rested one hand on the small of Cecilia’s back, and her arms came up in a complicated gesture.
Something happened in my core. It felt like a pinprick of light, burning right in the middle of me. Cecilia’s hands went wide, and that pinprick expanded into an orb of white light that completely surrounded and encapsulated me, pushing away the dust and dirt. Little eddies of wind and bursts of flame manifested around the outside of the sphere, with moisture condensing against it to drip down, like the outside of a window on a dewy morning.
Clear crystal bars thrust up out of the ground in a square with me at the center. The crystal had a liquid smoothness to it, turning just above my head so the bars all ran together, forming a cage.
Uncertain, I took hold of the bars. They were cold as ice and vibrating with energy. I pulled. They didn’t break.
‘It’s some kind of mana nullification,’ Regis thought with a sense of exhausted wonder.
Though I couldn’t sense the mana she’d just displaced, I was pretty sure Regis was right. Cecilia had pulled all the mana out of the atmosphere, even out of my body…If I still relied on a mana core, this single spell would have left me powerless. I couldn’t even begin to wrap my mind around how such a thing was even possible.
Agrona’s smirk sharpened. “Was this all done just for me? I’m flattered, Grey. For a lesser, your over-inflated sense of self-importance is astounding. But you seem to have tried very hard to get my attention. And, well, now you have it.” Agrona’s head cocked to the side a fraction of an inch, sending the tinkling of golden chains rustling through the deadly-silent coliseum. “I find myself quite eager to see how your new abilities function. I’ll take great pleasure in dismantling you piece by piece to find out.”
‘We should go,’ Regis thought.
I glanced around the stadium. First, my gaze landed on Mayla, Seth, Deacon, and the others. Though still bowing, Seth was staring at me, his eyes wide with confusion and fear. I wished suddenly that I had been kinder to him. He had a warrior’s heart, and didn’t deserve the hand life had dealt him.
I found Valen and Enola, their bloods’ private boxes close to one another. Though kneeling to their High Sovereign, both students were practically pressed against the transparent shields protecting them, staring down at me just like Seth.
I was surprised to see Caera with one foot on the scorched dirt of the combat field, fallen into a kneel at Agrona’s appearance, which must have interrupted her rushing out to check on me. She, too, risked lifting her head just enough to watch me. There was genuine terror in her scarlet gaze as her lips moved in some silent prayer.
Hopefully, she wouldn’t hate me for what I had to do. I regretted not telling her who I was, but even now I couldn’t say what her reaction would have been. It could be that she would have turned against me, and I would have ended up regretting telling her instead.
She had been a good friend to me, if a true friend could be based on a foundation of lies. I could only hope my gaze properly expressed that sentiment.
While I’d been gazing around the coliseum, the Scythes had flown out of the high box and maneuvered around the arena floor to box me in.
Seris’s face was unreadable, her thoughts carefully hidden. Melzri had left Nico’s side, and was staring at me with open hatred. Dark energy writhed like wet tentacles around Viessa, though her gaze was on Agrona instead of me, waiting patiently for his command. Last was Dragoth, frowning down at the dark stain that had once been Cadell.
One thing was consistent through all of their expressions, even Seris’s—an edge of uncertainty undercutting their usually unshakable confidence.
Before following Regis’s advice, I again met Cecilia’s eyes, searching within them for something. Some sign. I had made a promise. But I didn’t even know if the woman to whom I’d promised myself was alive in her own body.
Agrona waved for the Scythes to take me. “I’ll admit, I’m ever so slightly disappointed. I expected you’d have yet another trick up your sleeve. Still, even if what I’ve witnessed from you so far is the extent of your abilities, I’m sure I’ll find dissecting you a useful distraction.”
I had to decide. It was time to leave. I could go without her, turning my back on the question entirely, trusting that there would still be a chance to answer it in the future.
Or I could try to take her with me, try and find some way to pull Cecilia out of Tess’s body, bring her back…
I grew slightly sick at the thought.
But it was the clearest path forward, the most decisive measure. I could assure that Agrona couldn’t use Tessia or Cecilia, that whatever power the Legacy had couldn’t be controlled.
I felt my eyes grow wet, but I hardened my heart.
Forgive me, Tessia.
Bracing myself, I channeled aether throughout my exhausted body. Every muscle and joint protested angrily, and I struggled to focus on the complex interweaving of aether and physical form required to use the Burst Step technique.
Remembering what it had been like struggling to teach myself in the forests of Epheotus, I knew what might happen if I wasn’t precise, or if my strength failed…
The cage bars were unnaturally strong. But my armor and asuran physique protected me as I crashed through them, sending crystalline shards spraying in every direction. Mid-step, I conjured the aether blade, drew it back, aimed for her core.
Her teal eyes followed me every inch of the way, as if she were able to trace my progress even when using Burst Step. When the tip of my sword was pressed against her sternum, her eyes widened and flashed green. Mossy green veins spread out across her face beneath her skin and, for an instant, she looked…resigned as a strained smile graced her painted lips.
Her body trembled, her hand rising not for the blade—not in defense—but toward my face. A caress. “Art, please…”
It was Tessia’s voice.
I released the aether blade. She held my eyes for a heartbeat, two, then…
The green veins receded, her eyes returned to their natural color, one hand went to the tear in her battlerobes where my sword had nearly pierced her. Tess—Cecilia took a step back, giving me a look of deepest loathing.
“Oh, that was close, wasn’t it?” Agrona said, amused. “You really thought for a second you could do it, didn’t you?” Agrona’s arm snaked around Cecilia’s shoulder and pulled her to his side. “You’re only cold-hearted and calculating when it’s easy, Grey. In reality, you’re weak, emotional, and rather prone to attachment.”
I looked down at my empty hand, my mind blank except for Agrona’s words.
What should have been a moment of victory instead rang hollow and empty, filling my mouth with the taste of cold ashes.
“Take him,” Agrona ordered. The Scythes closed in.
Agrona’s confident smirk finally slipped away as I activated God Step. He reached for me, his power suddenly unleashed, the weight of his intent making even Kordri’s King’s Force feel amateurish in comparison.
His look of astonishment was the last thing I saw as the aetheric pathways took me far away from the coliseum and the Victoriad.