I knocked lightly at the door before pushing it open and peering inside. A round-cheeked woman glanced up at me, nodded, then returned to caring for her patient.
Seth lay in a bed, wrapped in bandages, every inch of exposed skin shiny with healing ointments. The woman was passing some kind of rod-shaped device over his torso, treating his multiple broken ribs, fractured pelvis, and dislocated hip.
‘Tough kid,’ Regis said. ‘I thought he was done for.’
Yeah, well, that kind of grit probably runs in his blood, I sent back. His sister probably showed the same.
‘Sure, sure, let’s blame these kids for what Agrona made their friends and family do. Totally fair, because they definitely could have resisted his will, right? What a bunch of pussies.’
I sighed. We’ve had this conversation already, Regis. I was just being petty, and I recognize that.
‘Don’t sweet talk me like one of your princesses, Princess,’ Regis said with a snort.
There wasn’t anything I could do for Seth, and so I returned to the staging area, where I’d left Briar and Aphene in charge. As I opened the door, I was met with Briar’s bellowing over the cacophony of my overexcited class.
“Would you all be quiet! We have a guest—oh, Professor Grey…”
Briar looked from me to Director Ramseyer, who had just entered from the combat field, looking unusually relaxed, even bemused. “Don’t be too hard on our championship team,” he said. “It’s only natural they’re excited, considering. Which is why I’m here, of course, to say a few words. If you don’t mind, Professor Grey?”
I motioned for him to continue.
The director waited for the last few chatting students to quiet. “What a treat that was to watch,” he said, beaming around at the students. “Congratulations to each and every one of you for such an impressive performance during the tournament, and of course an exceptional job done by our tournament champion, Lady Enola of Highblood Frost.”
Cheers and applause burst out of the students, but it tapered off quickly as the director looked on expectantly.
“Additionally, I’d like to recognize Marcus of Highblood Arkwright and Valen of Highblood Ramseyer, who both performed up to the high standards of their bloods, going farthest in this tournament aside from our champion!”
Another round of applause, though I also caught a few exasperated looks at the director’s unsubtle calling out of his own grandson. Valen seemed oblivious, practically radiating pleasure at his grandfather’s compliment.
“And of course,” Director Ramseyer went on, “we can’t forget your injured classmates, Seth of Highblood Milview and Yanick of Blood Farshore. I hope you will pass along both my sympathy and my pride when you see them later.”
Shortly after Seth’s barely-won victory against the club-fisted kid from Bloodrock Academy, Yanick’s leg was broken by a careless opponent, but they were the only major injuries. Central Academy became a standout in the tournament after that, putting up a better win percentage than any other academy present.Read more chapters at Lightnovelreader.org!
The students had grown more wild and boisterous with each passing round, and had rushed out onto the combat field in a frenzy when Enola ultimately won the championship. I found myself in a strange position, unable to ignore my part in their success. It was my training that brought them to this point, after all. And knowing that instilled me with pride, but also guilt.
And so, instead of giving these kids the positive reinforcement they needed, I had stepped back, steering my thoughts toward my plan for the Victoriad, eventually excusing myself entirely, using Seth’s injury as an excuse to get a few minutes alone in the relative quiet of the underworks while my mixed emotions cooled.
“Now,” Director Ramseyer said, clapping his hands together, “with today’s events wrapping up, I’m sure you are all eager for a moment to rest your bodies and relax your minds, and so I’ll leave you in the capable hands of Professor Grey and his assistants. Again, well done everyone, well done!”
The director made a point to shake my hand as he left, the students buzzing with tired conversation in the background. “To you, Professor Grey, I must also extend my congratulations. Melee Enhancement Tactics has never exactly been our school’s priority, I’m afraid, but look at what you’ve accomplished with them.” His normally severe expression gave way to a wide grin. “And to think I nearly had you replaced. Hah!”
Shaking his head, he made his way out of the staging area, and I clearly heard him mutter, “Oh, I can’t wait to rub this in the other directors’ noses at supper this evening.”
Briar and Aphene were watching me, waiting. I gave them a nod.
“Listen up!” Briar shouted. “We’re headed to our rooms. No dallying, no straying. You all look like you’ve had sixteen shades of shit kicked out of you already, but don’t think for a second that I won’t kick sixteen more out of anyone who feels like screwing around.”
Biting back a smirk, I followed behind, only half keeping an eye on the group.
“Everyone should have your room numbers already,” Aphene said when we reached the hall where we’d been provided rooms. “If you forgot your number, then I guess you’ll have to sleep in the hallway.”
“I know most of you are eager to sneak out of your rooms and hang out with friends,” I added. “All I have to say is…just don’t get caught.”
There were a few appreciative chuckles at this, and even Aphene cracked a smile, but Briar only rolled her eyes and shot me an exasperated look. The line then broke apart as students began hunting for their rooms.
With my professorially duties absolved, I entered into the quiet confines of my little chamber and closed the door behind me.
Regis immediately hopped out of my body and sniffed around. “Not exactly a castle, is it?”Read more chapters at Lightnovelreader.org!
The accommodations provided for visiting students and professors were sufficient, if somewhat spartan. We were given rooms in the coliseum itself, and had been invited to stay for the rest of the event, which consisted of another day of wargames and duels between high-ranking ascenders.
It wasn’t until the third and final day of the Victoriad that the retainers and Scythes would accept challenges for their positions. If Nico was going to take my bait, it would be on the third day. Until then…
Reaching into my extradimensional storage rune, I conjured out the last keystone I had received. It had been a long and mentally taxing day, and what I really needed was to meditate and focus my mind.
Sitting cross-legged on the bed with the keystone between my knees, I closed my eyes, but didn’t imbue the relic with aether. Instead, I waited. My brief training session with Enola and the keystone had shown me that what I really needed to make progress with the relic’s insight was help.
A couple of minutes passed before the knock at my door came.
The door opened and Caera entered, looking frazzled around the edges. She’d spend the last couple rounds of the student tournament with her blood in their private box at Corbett’s request.
“Sorry,” she muttered. “Lenora trapped me in a very uncomfortable conversation with a young Vritra-blooded man who has been fostered out to some highblood in Sehz-Clar.”
“Ah,” I said, adjusting my position and gesturing to my room’s single chair sitting at the foot of the bed. “Is there a potential betrothal in your future, Lady Caera?”
“No, Professor Grey, but that won’t stop Lenora from trying.” Caera fell into the chair with a huff, then gave me a more serious look. “So what did you want to discuss? Finally planning on telling me what this mysterious plan is?”
“No,” I admitted, giving her an apologetic smile. “Actually, I need your help with something.”
She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms, giving me a suspicious look. “Oh really?” Her focus moved to the keystone. “Something to do with that thing, I assume?”
I spent a couple minutes explaining what I wanted her to do, after which she adjusted her chair and got a little more comfortable.
“Exactly,” I answered.
She closed her eyes. Warmth radiated from her body, and although I couldn’t sense her mana, I could still feel the physical effects it caused. A faint movement in the air dislodged a lock of her hair, which fell in front of her face. Her lips pressed into a thin line as she focused. Her eyes flicked around beneath her closed lids, which were lightly painted a smoky gray color for the Victoriad.
“Thank you, Caera,” I said, closing my own eyes and pushing aether into the keystone, letting my consciousness follow. As before, beyond the wall of purple energy I found only the empty black nothing of the keystone realm.
The darkness was alive in the presence of Caera’s mana, shifting and moving. Drifting through the dark, I watched the rhythmic dance happening inside the inky blackness carefully, taking note of every aspect I could think of.
For some time—fifteen minutes, assuming Caera followed my instructions, but the time seemed to last much longer inside the relic—the movement took on vertical striations that jumped and writhed like flames on a log.
Then the movements shifted, gaining a jagged, cutting edge, their movements erratic and difficult to quantify, like the many disparate shapes—each still a part of the whole—were waging a sudden and violent war on each other.
This didn’t last as long before the shape of the motion changed again, now subtle streams, both flowing and radiating outward, like a river of lava and the intense heat it gave off.
At each step, I practiced forming aether in a variety of ways, attempting to cause some kind of reaction in the colorless motion of the keystone realm. Lashing whips, cutting arcs, shaped bursts, and even a rough spade-shaped aetheric form that I dragged through the blackness, but nothing affected my surroundings.
Whatever this puzzle was, I lacked something essential—whether understanding or ability—to navigate it…
Cold sweat dampened my forehead at a sudden, chilling realization, and I backed out of the keystone, my eyes snapping open.
Caera was sitting in the chair, currently channeling mana throughout her body to enhance her physical abilities. Her eyes were open, and she’d been staring at me. She jumped slightly and cut off channeling her mana. “I wasn’t expecting—”
“Here,” I said, handing over the keystone.
She hesitated, looking at it as though it might explode.
I unfolded from my sitting position and moved to the end of the bed. Taking her hand in my own, I set the keystone in her palm, then wrapped both my hands around hers, cupping the keystone in the middle.
“I’m going to channel aether into the keystone,” I explained. “I need you to tell me what you see…assuming this works.”
“Um, okay, are you—” Her words cut off in a surprised gasp as I started.
Caera’s eyes snapped shut and her body stiffened. “I see…a huge, ethereal wall…like I’m approaching the edge of the world.”
Maneuvering by practice and instinct, I guided her consciousness deeper into the keystone realm.
“I’m moving through, it’s all purple, a hundred different shades…and it’s warm. It feels like—” She gasped again, this time even louder. “Light guide me…it’s mana. I can see it! All the colors…the whole world in here is made up of mana, shaped by it. What is this, Grey? What am I seeing?”
I jumped out of the bed, swiftly pacing the short distance to the wall and back, my stomach clenching uncomfortably.
The keystone has something to do with mana, we’d already learned as much. Only, Caera can see mana particles within the keystone, but it looks like a black void to me, which means…what?
I don’t have a mana core, but the presence of a mana core doesn’t allow a mage to see mana particles. Sense them, yes, but I needed to activate Sylvia’s beast will and the power of Realmheart to see the mana directly, even before my core was destroyed.
‘So why is it all endless darkness and creepy ink-monster ripples when you go in there?’ Regis asked from where he had curled up in the corner.
My lack of a mana core must be preventing me from properly sensing whatever it is the keystone is trying to show me, I answered, looking down at the cuboid relic resting in Caera’s hand, still drawing on my aether to keep it open and her mind submerged within. The ripples in the dark, they’re obviously caused by the mana itself moving, but that doesn’t make sense…unless it's a manifestation of the mana’s effects, like the heat coming off Caera’s body as she channeled fire mana.
‘Maybe it’s sort of like when you see a heat haze rising off a sun-baked stone. The mana is moving, causing a change in the environment, and, you know, interrupting the sensory information you receive.’ Regis rolled over, burying his face in the pillow from my bed, which he must have stolen when I wasn’t looking. ‘But the fact that you can sense something in there, anything at all, is a good sign, right?’
I leaned against the wall as I considered this, wondering what mechanism of the keystone and whatever insight it contained allowed me to sense the movement of mana, even if I wasn’t seeing it. The realm within the relic was aetheric in nature, and there wasn’t any natural light, so Regis’s comparison to a hot stone didn’t quite fit the picture I had in my head. It was more like…
…the reflection of water seen from the outside of the glass. My mind reached far back to before the war, when Lady Myre had first explained aether to me. “Aether makes up the building blocks the world is made of, while mana is what fills it with life and sustenance.” She compared aether to a cup, and mana to the water that fills it. But if water changes shape, it doesn’t alter the cup in any way. Or…does it?
‘Okay, you’re losing me. Aren’t the dragons a little behind the times on aether art stuff?’ The wolf let out a rumbling chuckle. ‘Aether “Art” stuff. Haha, get it?’
The keystone realm itself is aetheric in nature, only housing mana within. I can’t see the mana, but somehow my connection with the aether is letting me sense its movement. At least when it is reacting to outside stimulus, which must cause stronger fluctuations.
“Grey?” Caera’s voice was a quiet, nervous whisper, making me realize I’d been quiet for some time.
“Sorry,” I said immediately, “I was just thinking. Do you mind staying in there for a bit? There are a few more things I’d like to try.”
“Are you kidding me?” Caera grinned. “This is amazing. It’s…beautiful. Imagine seeing the world like this all the time?”
I smiled sadly, but pushed thoughts of Realmheart and Sylvia’s beast will away.
There was work to do.
Cold wind caressed my cheek and brushed a stray strand of my gunmetal gray hair behind my ear. It danced around me, carrying a little flurry of snow that spun outward with every twist and dip to drift down toward the fortress of Taegrin Caelum below.
I rubbed hard at the point on my chest where Grey’s blade had pierced me…in a different life, a different body, and yet now that I had the memory of it, it was like I could feel the scar of the old wound.
“I had expected more from you.”
The wind swirled inward, tugging at my blouse like it wanted me to dance too. So high above Agrona’s fortress, the air was frigid and clear, and eager to feel the touch of mana.
Mountains stretched as far as I could see in every direction. Clouds gathered on the horizon—fluffy-gray and full of snow—but otherwise the huge sky was crystal blue. Cold but inviting.
“I’m the better contender.” Read more chapters at Lightnovelreader.org!
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to push away those last moments of my life, which had now replayed over and over in my mind for days…weeks? Time moved strangely in Taegrin Caelum, like the turning of the world meant little to the fortress or its ruler.
“If I have to leave you and Nico behind to achieve my goal, I will.”
Those had been his last real words to me, this person who was supposed to be my friend. Before he had plunged his sword through my chest. And Nico had watched it happen.
That was my last memory. Turning my head to see Nico, ringed in a halo of light, half-obscured by clouds of dust, his face frozen in a tortured mask as he arrived too late to help…
I let out a shuddering sigh.
No wonder he is the way he is.
I shook away the thought. It wasn’t Nico’s fault. All I had to do was die and wake up, but Nico…his path had been much longer, much more painful.
Being forced to remember my own death had put me into a fugue for days, and even after that it took days more to return to myself. After taking so long to adjust to my new body—my body—being trapped in my rooms again had felt like prison, like torture. I’d already lived one life of imprisonment, in which I’d never been allowed to be myself, to live for myself, make choices for myself.
But how is serving Agrona any different?
“I will make it different,” I told the dancing wind. “I will control my own fate.”
I released my hold on the magic that made me fly.
My body twisted in the air until I was staring down at the fortress. The air thinned ahead of me while blowing hard from behind, sending me hurtling at a break-neck pace downward. Taegrin Caelum, small as a child’s toy only an instant ago, rushed toward me, expanding to engulf my vision.
I turned suddenly, my body aching from the force, and flew through my open balcony doors with enough speed that they slammed shut behind me. The door into the maze of hallways jumped open just before I would have smashed through it, responding to my will, and I hurtled along the castle corridors with dangerous speed.Read more chapters at Lightnovelreader.org!
When I stopped, the sudden burst of wind my passage created sent a stuffed mana beast tumbling off it’s wide plinth to crash down the hallway. I winced, not having meant to cause any damage, but there was also a small part of me that felt vindictive pleasure in the act.
I knocked on Nico’s door, but there was no answer. Earth mana lingered in the heavy metal lock, and it jumped to the side at my command, allowing the door to swing open.
My feet drifted up off the floor and I flew into the room. It was dark, empty, and absent of warmth…
Nico wasn’t there.
There was only one other person in Taegrin Caelum I could talk to, really, and so I left Nico’s room, flying off his balcony and around the edge of the fortress. I stopped, hovering in the air as a set of balcony doors high in the wall of Agrona’s private wing pushed outward as if to welcome me.
Each time we met, it was like I was seeing Agrona for the first time.
His horns were empty of ornamentation, his usual fine clothes replaced by dark leather pants and a simple white tunic that hung casually off his lithe form, the top buttons undone to expose his chest and allow the runic tattoos that covered it to peek through. His marble skin shimmered in the cold mid-morning light, or perhaps that was the strength of his mana shining through his body from his core, which burned like a miniature sun within his sternum.
“Feeling better?” he asked, feigning a casual air. “I was just thinking of you. Draneeve said you missed your last assessment. I…” His head cocked slightly to the side, his tongue darting out to wet his lips. “What is weighing so heavily on your mind, Cecil?”
I met his brilliantly scarlet eyes—this being who was closer to god than man—and lifted my chin. “I’ve had a lot of time to consider everything you’ve shown me, Agrona, and I need to tell you something.”
His smile was kindly, but carried the confidence of a conqueror. Whatever I had to say, I knew he would listen, but he wouldn’t be bent or broken by it.
“I won’t be your weapon,” I continued, my voice carrying on the wind. “Or your tool. I want to be able to make my own choices, to have a life, not just to be alive.”
Agrona’s shrug was perfectly casual. “Of course, Cecil. Your life is your own.” He gave me a charming, warm-hearted, understanding smile that made it difficult to remember what I wanted to say. “I would ask you inside to discuss this further, but honestly I love the drama of you flying there, face like carved ice, ready to make demands.”
He’s lying, of course.
I drew in a deep breath and the mana all around us swelled outward like it was a part of me. The air warmed, water vapor solidified and began to fall as wet flakes of snow, even the stones of Taegrin Caelum groaned.
“Tell me the truth.”
Agrona stepped farther out onto the balcony. His eyes closed and he sniffed at the wind, filling his lungs with it. “Power,” he said, his voice a booming whisper. “Raw and impossible.”
Opening his eyes, he held out a hand to catch some of the snowflakes. “Would I repeat the mistakes of those fools who caged you in your last life? Suppressing your potential by constraining you, trying to control you? I hope I do not strike you as foolish.”
“But you did something similar to Nico,” I pointed out, holding in the tremor that would have wracked my body at Agrona’s casual mention of the many years of imprisonment and torture—in the guise of training—I went through in my last life. “He—”
“Isn’t the Legacy,” Agrona said easily. “Although…what he endured for you, just for the chance to stand by you again…Nico was weak and powerless as he watched Grey take your life. Unable to do anything, anything at all. He was willing to endure any pain to bring you back and keep you safe, no matter the cost to himself.”
Agrona inspected me closely. “But Nico is not what you’re here to talk about, is he? I’m not lying when I say your choices are your own, but there is something you need to know.”
He paused when a bird flew right past me to settle on the balcony rail. It tapped its beak on the metal, issuing a hollow clang, and ruffled its shiny black and red feathers. Agrona held out his hand, which was suddenly full of seeds. The creature hopped from the rail into his palm and began to eat, fanning its four wings.
“It’s…beautiful,” I said, momentarily distracted.Read more chapters at Lightnovelreader.org!
“You won’t find them anywhere else in Alacrya,” Agrona mused, watching the bird peck at the seeds. “They come from Epheotus, native only to the precipitous cliff sides of Mount Geolus. I had some brought here, long ago, when…”
Agrona’s features grew intense as he trailed off. Suddenly his fingers closed like a cage around the bird. It gave a frightened squawk and began to flap around in his hand and peck futilely at his fingers.
“They are out of place here, just like you,” he said, his intense gaze on the bird. “You are in danger, Cecil, and you will be until the war is won and the Indrath Clan is thrown from their mountain.”
“Why?” I asked, unable to take my eyes from the bird, a strong sense of foreboding making my stomach lurch.
“Unlike the Vritra, who pride ourselves on exploring the unknown, the rest of the asura clans are terrified of it. If they were ever to get their hands on you…”
His eyes drifted away from the bird to meet my own, and I felt myself drawn into them, like staring down the caldera of an active volcano. I could feel him riffling around in my mind like he was flipping the pages of a book. But instead of feeling like a violation, there was a warmth and comfort to it, like having him in there with me meant I wasn’t alone.
But you aren’t alone, Cecilia.
His hand closed. The bird gave a muffled shriek, which was immediately replaced by the crunching of small, hollow bones. When Agrona’s hand opened again, the beautiful creature was little more than bent feathers and broken wings.
With a flick of his wrist, the little corpse tumbled over the edge of the balcony and down to the sharp stones far below.
“But I am not going to war with the other asura for your sake,” Agrona said, his voice heavy with intent. “They are not just a danger to you, but to all lessers. And the people of both Alacrya and Dicathen deserve an existence without fear of their tyranny. I may rule the lessers, guide their evolution, but I have no interest in building them up only to break them and start over again as Kezess has done.”
He held out his hand toward me, palm up, as if expecting me to take it. “If you fight with me in the war to come, you can protect yourself and the people of two continents from the danger that the asura pose. After all, they’ve already shown the depth of their disregard for lesser lives in Elenoir when they committed genocide just for the chance to stop you growing into your full power.”
At the mention of Elenoir, an emerald haze leaked from my core, filling my vision and making me wobble in the air. Agrona tensed, but I regained control immediately and pushed the sensation down deep, back into my core where the alien presence of the elderwood guardian remained, its power still shuttered from me.
Agrona was tracing my body with his eyes, inspecting every inch of me. “The beast will riles at the mention of the attack,” he noted. “Most interesting. Should you ever gain control over it, adding its formidable power to your own freeform control over mana will be a boon, but not strictly necessary for you to attain your full potential.”
I rubbed my sternum over my mana core, uncomfortable.Read more chapters at Lightnovelreader.org!
“But I understand that this world will never be your home,” Agrona continued, like he was pulling thoughts straight from my head. “And so I promise you this. When we defeat the asuras and topple the Indrath Clan, I will use the knowledge I have gained from the Relictombs to give you back your old life, your old world—but as they should have been.”
My breath caught in my chest.
“Imagine it, Cecil. Picture exactly what that life would be like, whatever you want. Now, what would you do to claim it?”
It’s a trick, or a trap, or—
But already his treatment of me was changing. His tone was respectful, even cautious. The way he looked up at me, I could see it in his eyes, like he saw me as a partner, not a tool, and that was exactly what I’d come here to demand. There was both a confidence and a question in that gaze, and I knew with utter certainty that he could do what he said.
But what would I do in this life for a chance to return to the life I should have had?