The sun had just risen, covering the campus in a blanket of amber and violet. I settled in again atop the flat, crenelated roof of the Hollow Tower, relishing the view and the cool breeze that I couldn get in my room. While it had been built as a watchtower ages ago and had been kept as a place to meditate, newer and fancier buildings had left this structure all but abandoned.
Letting out a heavy breath, I withdrew the keystone and turned it over, examining the simple black cube. Its surface was plain and matte; its only remarkable physical trait was its weight.
”Who would guess that this homely thing contained insight capable of rewriting the world, ” I mused. Even knowing everything that I did, I still found it hard to believe that something this small and…tangible held the secrets that could ultimately allow someone to gain insight into Fate itself.
Regis jumped out of my body and sniffed the relic. ”It could at least have some ominously glowing runes or something to tell you how important it is. ” Turning his back to me, he crossed the roof and put his paws up on the parapet. ”Anyway, you have fun with that. ”
His body tensed to jump.
”Hold on, ” I said quickly. ”Where are you going? ”
He replied with his back still to me, ”I have some training of my own to do. ”
”Training separate from absorbing aether? Why all of a sudden? ” I asked, moving to stand next to him.
Regis stiffened but refused to look at me.
”Because. I was brought into this world to be your weapon—your protector—but lately it feels like Im doing neither. We
e supposed to be partners, but you keep getting stronger by learning new edicts of aether. I don want to just watch as the gap between us widens. ”
For the first time in a while, I was at a loss for what to say to my companion.
I stood silent, watching the dark wolf, when a four-winged bird settled onto the parapet nearby, clacking its beak and watching us expectantly. I withdrew my packed rations—a habit I kept up despite rarely needing to eat—and pulled out a slice of dried and peppered meat, tossing it to the creature. It hopped down to the stone roof and grabbed its prize before shooting off, its four wings carrying it swiftly out of sight.
”I…didn realize that it bothered you so much, ” I finally mustered.
”Well, you can thank Sylvie for this infuriating drive to keep your ass alive, ” Regis japed.
I let out a small laugh and nudged the shadow wolf. ”Fine, just be careful out there. The world is a scary place for a little puppy. ”
He turned his bright eyes on me derisively. ”Ha. Ha. Hilarious. ”
Then, in a maneuver I wasn even sure he could pull off, Regis leapt from the side of the tower. I watched as he plummeted toward the ground, purple flames trailing behind him like a flag before he became incorporeal and sank into the ground slightly.
Once he was solid again, Regis took off at a sprint to the north, headed out of the campus toward the mountains. He, of course, took the extra effort to pass by a small crowd of students, causing a chorus of screams, before he vanished from sight behind another building.
I followed his progress for a while, still able to sense him even as the distance between us grew. He seemed to be heading out into the mountains. I wondered briefly if the energy that tethered us together would allow him to go that far, but wed both feel it if he began to reach the maximum distance he could be away from me. Since we hadn tested this aspect of our relationship since the bridge zone I traversed with the Granbehls, I didn really know how far he could go.
Im sure hell be fine, I told myself, turning back to the reason Id come up to this tower in the first place.
The black cube sat heavily in my hands as I stared at it. A minute passed, and then another as I regarded the keystone.
With a sigh, I stored it back into my dimension rune. I should be diving straight into the keystone—training, absorbing aether, doing something to get stronger. But my mind wasn there. I couldn push myself every waking moment, more so after just getting back from one of the djinn ruins.
Instead, I pulled out the far-seeing relic, tracing the sharp-edged facets while thinking of the very people that would motivate me to keep moving forward.
I activated the relic and was transported across the world, zooming in until I found myself in the dim underground cavern of the djinn sanctuary. Ellie was waist-deep in the stream, splashing water at Jasmine, who was holding up an elven child I didn know as a shield, laughing.
A knot formed in my chest as I then noticed my mother, Helen, and the rest of the Twin Horns sitting around a low-burning campfire at the edge of the stream, watching with weary smiles. Behind them all, Boo was hunkered protectively over a pile of glitterfish.
I dug my nails into my hands, holding back the growing lump in my throat as I forced a smile myself. Afterall, they were all okay, and they were laughing and smiling.
That was enough.
With a shuddered breath and a hollow smile, I pried myself out of the relic and swapped it for the keystone again.
The black, palm-sized cube was much less aether dense than the last one, but otherwise nearly identical. ”All right, lets see what youve got for me. ”
Releasing aether from my core, I channeled it up my arm and into the keystone. My consciousness seemed to follow it as I was drawn out of my own body and inside the djinn relic. First, I was met with a wall of purple clouds, as expected. The wall shivered at my approach, and I passed through easily.
I expected to find another puzzle, something to manipulate or work at like in the last keystone, but instead…
Complete, utter darkness.
Panic overcame me as I was suddenly jolted back to the tower roof, clutching the black cube, sweat pouring down my face and making my palms slick. My breath came quickly, and then I realized why: the inside of the keystone felt exactly like that in-between place after my body had been destroyed and before I woke in the Relictombs. Like my mind was the only thing that existed in the entire universe.
Hovering in a field of reflectionless black, I remembered. But its not the same. Im still here, this time. Nothing has changed.
Taking several deep breaths to calm myself, I tried again.
This time the sudden absence of anything except for myself was less startling, but the inside of the keystone was no less eerie. I drifted around for a while, unsure if I was actually moving or only trying to, never striking a wall or any sort of mental object, like the sea of geometric shapes Id had to manipulate inside the Aroas Requiem keystone.
It was oblivion.
Even time held no meaning within the keystone, and I had no way of knowing how long I drifted for. At some point, I began to worry I might miss my class, but when I stopped channeling aether and left the black space, only a few minutes had passed. And so I pushed myself back in, and continued to wander the empty depths.
It was like swimming deep down in the ocean, where the light doesn reach. Up, down, left, right…direction lost meaning, even though I continued to experience the sensation of movement. I tried to push out with aether in random directions, or all around me, but nothing happened. I tried to imbue myself—or whatever of me existed in that space—with aether, but again, this accomplished nothing.
Then I just allowed myself to drift. My thoughts wandered for a while, then stopped, and it was kind of like sleeping.
The darkness rippled suddenly, a visual distortion within the black-on-black void, like something had moved within it. I reached out with aether, trying to interact with the phenomenon, but nothing happened.
The door onto the rooftop creaked open, a vague noise heard just as the edge of my consciousness, and I withdrew from the keystone in irritation. This flash of frustration quickly melted into curiosity as a familiar face peered at me from the doorway.
”Valen? ” I said stiffly, looking up at the highblood youth, who was standing framed in the dark doorway, one hand still on the door. His eyes lingered on the keystone as I returned it to the extradimensional storage rune. ”Are you lost? ”
Valens eyes swept nervously across the tower roof, but he didn move away from the door or even let it close. ”I…um… ” He cleared his throat. ”I was looking for you, Professor. ”
I cocked an eyebrow at the boy, frowning. ”How did you even know I was up here? ”
Valen shot a quick look back into the door stairwell behind him, took a deep breath, and stepped away from the door, letting it close.
He cleared his throat again before speaking. ”I happened to run into Seth on my way to your classroom…I think he was looking for you too, and he mentioned hed seen you come here a few times, so I thought… ” He winced, letting the thought trail off.
”What do you need? ” I asked tartly, then remembered that the bestowment ceremony had taken place earlier today. ”Is this about the bestowals? ”
The tall young man leaned back against the heavy door, letting his head rest against it with a solid thud. His dark eyes gazed up into the brightening sky. Just as I was about to repeat my question, he said, ”I received an emblem. ”
An emblem was the second highest tier of rune for an Alacryan mage. From what I understood, receiving such a powerful rune at a young age was life-changing, even for highbloods.
I cocked a brow. ”Are you sure? Id congratulate you, but you don look very pleased about that. ”
Valen let out a humorless chortle. ”Father is ecstatic, of course. My blood seems to think Im some kind of prodigy now… ”
I let out an impatient sigh while leaning back against the parapet opposite of him. ”Well, Im sure you didn come all this way just to brag, so out with it. ”
He scratched the back of his head. ”I just didn have anyone else to talk to. My blood…they don understand. And my associates— ”
”Associates? ” I scoffed. ”Thats an odd way to address your friends. ”
Valen gave me a hard look, breaking through his awkward hesitancy somewhat. ”A Ramseyer does not have friends according to my father. Just servants, acquaintances, associates, and allies. ” After a brief pause, he added, ”And enemies, of course. ”
I nodded in understanding, thinking back to Trodius Flamesworth and what he was willing to do for the sake of his family name.
”I don want to be a prodigy ” Valen blurted, his head down. ”Ever since I was an infant, Ive been raised as a warrior, scholar, and leader, with the expectation placed on me at birth that I would become Highlord of the Ramseyer Highblood. Never—not once in my life—has anyone asked me what I want to do or become. ”
”And receiving such a potent rune will only have exaggerated that expectation, ” I confirmed.
He nodded wordlessly as he turned back around.
”Well then, let me ask, ” I retorted. ”What do you want to do? ”
Valen deflated, and for the first time, he looked like the kid he was, not someone trying to put on the airs of a highlord. ”I don know, but…I wish I had the chance to find out. Thats all I mean. Maybe…maybe what my blood wishes of me is exactly what I want to do, in the long run. But it will never feel that way unless I am allowed some kind of choice in the matter.
”I want to explore the world outside of the narrow boundaries my tutors and blood have set for me. But receiving this emblem only seems to have cemented my fate, instead of giving me power over it. ”
He watched me carefully for a response, good or bad. Perhaps he expected me to rebuke him, to tell him how fortunate he was, to encourage him to do as his family wished, but I kept my silence.
Suddenly he gave me an unexpected smile, and his eyes focused somewhere far into the distance. ”You know, my uncle was in the war in Dicathen, and he told me something strange. Over there, teenagers—sometimes as young as thirteen or fourteen—often go off on their own to be adventurers, fighting against monsters and delving into dungeons. ”
I was taken by surprise by the sudden mention of Dicathen, memories of my time as the masked adventurer, Note, surfacing . It seemed like another lifetime ago, now. ”Mages are less common in Dicathen, and becoming an adventurer is a right of passage for many of them. But its not so different from how Alacrya treats ascenders. Or so Ive heard, ” I added quickly.
Valens smile lingered for a moment as he thought about this, but it slowly slid from his face. Eventually he nodded and said, ”Thank you, Professor. For listening. I won take up any more of your time. ”
With a stiff bow, he turned to leave.
”You know, Valen, ” I said to his back, my voice soft, ”its only going to get harder to go against their wishes as you get older. If you really want to live your life without regret, it might be better to disappoint your parents now than later. ”
He froze, half turning to look back at me, his face inscrutable. Finally, with a curious smile, he left, and the door closed between us again.
Unwilling and unable to face the many conflicting lines of thought tangling up in my brain, I withdrew the keystone again and activated it, momentarily embracing the void-space it contained. But instead of insulating me against my thoughts, it bared them, leaving me with nothing at all but my own conflicted mind.
I knew that it was unfair in the extreme to blame Valen or his classmates for anything that had happened in Dicathen. They were as much a victim of the war as my friends and family back home, and yet it had been their friends and family killing mine. They were Agronas subjects, his servants and tools, each one of them a potential weapon against me. Or worse, against my mother or my sister.
But, more and more, I had detected a hesitancy in the Alacryans to follow their overlord, especially among the students. At first, I had assumed Caeras lack of respect for the Vritra was something unique to her—a manifestation of her existence as a Vritra-blooded Alacryan in hiding—but my time at the academy had shown me this wasn true. Aside from Professor Aphelions poorly hidden disdain for the war, the students feelings were plain enough on their faces every time Elenoir was mentioned.
A lot of powerful young Alacryans had lost everything that day. And I don think all of them blamed the asuras for it.
With a frustrated sigh, I stepped out of the keystone and put it away. It was clear I wasn going to get anywhere with it while I was so distracted, or while my mind was full of uncertainty.
From the Hollow Tower, I meandered around campus for a short while before making my way to my classroom. I was relatively early, but my thoughts refused to settle and I couldn focus on anything, so I turned the gravity up by several times in the training ring and started to work out my body. Although I would have enjoyed a chance to summon the aether blade, I didn want to explain it to anyone who happened into the classroom.
I didn train for long.
The sound of the door slamming open and hurried footsteps moving down the stairs pulled me out of repeating one of the many forms Kordri had taught me.
e here! ” Mayla shouted, rushing toward the ring.
Quickly hopping out of the training platform, I pressed a finger against her forehead to keep her outstretched arms from wrapping around me.
Mayla let out a surprised squeak as she hugged the empty air between us.
”Good news? ” I asked, crossing my arms nonchalantly while leaning back against the base of the raised training platform.
The girl from Maerin Town was bouncing on her toes as she said,
”Yes! Its so crazy. Unbelievable! Ive just been added to all these high-level Sentry classes, and apparently the odds are so low that Central Academy has no record of it happening before, and they
e offering to waive my attendance fees and send this huge stipend to my family back in Etril if I agree to do some one-on-one study with the head of the Sentry department here, and… ”
She trailed off, noticing the look of confusion growing on my face. ”I got another emblem! ” she cheered, her voice raising an octave in her excitement, coming out as a squeek. ”Two in a row, and at my first two bestowment ceremonies. The chances are, like, next to zero. They thought about pulling me out of this class to focus on Sentry stuff, but the director apparently really wants me at the Victoriad now. ”
Her grin faded, and she looked at me with obvious concern. ”Whats wrong? I…thought youd be proud of me. Did I say something I shouldn have, Professor? ” Suddenly she stepped back and bowed so low her hair brushed the floor. ”I apologize! ”
As she was speaking, my mind had jumped from her to Valen, and then back to Maerin Town, where both Mayla and the boy Belmun—the only two children Id interacted closely with—received unusually powerful rules. Id suspected before that my presence had something to do with it, but there had been no reason to think deeply about the bestowal process. I didn know enough about how the Alacryans allocated magic to make guesses, other than an assumption that aether was involved somehow.
My attention snapped back to her, and I realized I had been wearing a deep, thoughtful frown. I let my features relax. ”Im sorry, Mayla, I was just thinking…but this is all a big change for you. How are you holding up? ”
When Mayla had received her original rune, it had been met with conflicted emotions. Her sister was unadorned, and would likely spend the rest of her life in Maerin Town. Two emblems all but guaranteed Mayla would be drawn into a life of adventure and danger. If she didn become an ancender, she would certainly end up being drafted into the war.
And the next one won be fought against Dicathian soldiers, I thought, realizing what the advanced runes might mean for them.
”I was scared, at first, ” she admitted. ”I didn want to leave home, but now that Ive been here for a while… ” She turned toward the door, where the sound of several sets of quick footsteps and multiple voices were approaching. ”Ive never felt special before. I always assumed Id spend the rest of my life in Maerin Town, like Loreni. ” Her face fell. ”Is it wrong that I don feel guilty? ”
” I answered, although I wasn entirely sure if I believed myself.
”As long as you haven left your family behind in your heart, then you
e not abandoning them. Everything you do now is for them, as long as that is your intention. ”
Unspilled tears shone in Maylas eyes, and she nodded vigorously. ”Im…really glad the Relictombs brought you to Maerin Town, Professor Grey. ”
I waved her to her seat wordlessly. She shuffled, then drew in close. I thought about stopping her again before she could wrap her arms around me, but only sighed instead, returning the hug with one arm while I patted the top of her head awkwardly.
Regis would have made so much fun of me if he were here…
After a couple seconds, I stepped back and turned away to clear my throat as the rest of the class began pouring in, their energy and excitement evident from the overflowing noise they produced.
The students burst into eager explanations of the runes theyd received during the bestowment ceremony. Every single member of the class had received at least a crest, as it turned out, with a handful of emblems as well. Even Deacon turned away from his books for long enough to brag about his new crest.
Sharp footfalls ringing in the outer hallway drew my attention away from the excited chatter just as Professor Irongrove, Head of the Melee Combat Department, pushed in the door. It took a moment for the students to notice, but one by one they hushed suddenly, their attention drawn to the older man. He paused at the door, then stepped aside to allow two familiar figures to enter before him.
Briars signature hair—orange fading out to bright yellow-blonde at the ends—made her obvious from across campus, much less standing right in front of me, and I immediately wondered what the hard-shelled young woman was up to. Her hazel eyes met mine defiantly as she descended the shallow steps.
Behind Briar was another familiar face, though it took me longer to place her. A dark-haired girl, similar height and build to Briar. Her eyes tracked over the classroom before settling on me, and then I remembered: Aphene of Blood Mandrick. She was the granddaughter of Elder Cromley, from Stormcove Academy. We had ”fought ” during the bestowment ceremony in Maerin.
Professor Irongrove stopped halfway down the stairs and opened his arms to encompass the class. ”Melee Enhancement Tactics! Our star class. Victoriad competitors as well as the champions of the bestowment ceremony, I must say. ”
There were a few hoots and a round of applause from the students, to which Irongrove responded with a good natured smile. When the class quieted, he met my eye. ”Professor Grey, Im sorry to intrude, but I was hoping for a quick conversation before your class begins for the day? ”
I nodded and gestured toward my office. Rafferty and the two young women let themselves into the small office, and I followed. The moment the door closed behind me, the classroom burst out into noise again.
”I won keep you, busy as you are preparing for the Victoriad, ” Rafferty began, his tone businesslike. ”In fact, thats why Im here. Since you do not have a classroom assistant, the director wanted to ensure you had help. A bit of an oversight that it wasn seen to earlier, honestly… ” He cleared his throat and his gaze dropped to the ground for an instant. ”These two very capable young women have offered to join you as assistant professors leading up to and during the Victoriad. A couple more sets of eyes—and fists—to keep the students on task, if you understand me. ”
I shot Briar a look, my lips quirking into a wry smy. ”Figured out a way to get to the Victoriad after all, huh? ”
Rafferty glanced between us. ”It was my understanding that youd trained alongside Briar of Blood Nadir before. She is an excellent student, I assure you— ”
I held up my hand. ”Only teasing, Professor. Shes welcome to be my assistant. ” My attention turned to Aphene. ”Im more curious about this one. ”
Aphene lifted her chin, and couldn help but notice the slight tremor that ran through her. When last we met, I had soundly defeated her and her friend—I couldn recall his name—in a two-on-one duel.
”Aphenes grandfather sought sponsorship from the Denoirs for her to attend Central Academy, ” Rafferty informed me. ”The Denoirs were quite vocal in their eagerness that she be given a place within our ranks, and Cromley himself reached out to me to provide a recommendation for his granddaughter. I heard the story of your duel in Etril. Based on that alone—two students fighting an accomplished ascender nearly to a standstill!—Im sure you agree that she would make an excellent assistant. ”
My eyebrows rose slowly higher as Rafferty talked, and I had to consciously repress a surprised scoff at the mention of our fight. The young woman had some talent, but if the Denoirs were involved, it seemed very likely she would be asked to spy on me, just as Caera had. Pushing back on the posting had its own set of disadvantages, however, and seemed more trouble than it was worth.
I nodded in affirmation. ”Both fine. Ill be glad to have a couple of babysitters around, while I focus on the important stuff. ” I bit back a smirk as Briar and Aphene shot me matching glares. ”Now, Professor Irongrove, Im sure you have things to attend to, because I know I do. ”
The void was empty and motionless around me. The darkness no longer rippled, and I sensed nothing else—no presence, no energy—inside the keystone with me.
Intermittent pulses of aether emitted from my body as I drifted through the dark. There was no response. Eventually, my mind strayed away from the emptiness and back to the real world.
The class had responded well to Briar and Aphenes presence. Although Briar was only in her second season at the academy, she was older than most of the others—and had benefited from Darrin Ordins private tutoring—while Aphene was nearing her final season. The two young women had stepped eagerly into their roles, helping me drill the class on a series of new forms, offshoots of Kordris training that I thought would challenge them leading up to the Victoriad.
It was then, when I let myself be distracted, that I saw it again: a curtain-in-the-wind movement through the inky black space.
A knock at the door once again interrupted me, but I ignored it, focusing on the ripples disrupting the aetheric realm within the keystone. The knock came again, louder and more insistent this time.
I withdrew from the keystone and stored it away. ”Come in, ” I said irritably.
The office door opened and Kayden Aphelion poked his head inside. ”Im not interrupting some secret cabal meeting or something, am I? ”
”What can I help you with? ” I asked, deadpan, not in the mood to exchange pointless witticisms.
Instead of being put off by my attitude, the other professor seemed to take it as a challenge. He limped through the door and eased down in the seat across from me. ”In the hopes of convincing you not to take my life for interrupting this secret, undoubtedly high-society meeting—were there masks? I feel like there would be masks. And scantily dressed servants. Anyway, where was I?
”Right, ” he said, leaning back in the chair and struggling to cross his legs, an act that required him to physically lift one over the other with his hands. ”Straight to business, then. I thought you might be interested to know that youve drawn just a tiny bit of attention to yourself, Professor Grey. ”
Still leaning back against my seat, I held Kaydens steady gaze. His eyes were sharp and watchful, not quite matching the wry smirk he wore. ”Speak plainly, Kayden. ”
He glanced around the office, checking the corners playfully, a mocking pantomime of searching for spies. ”Word of your classs success during the bestowment ceremony has traveled quickly, and far. You know Sulla of Blood Drusus, yes? The head of Cargidans Ascenders Association? Hes a friend of mine, and apparently has received letters from every corner of Alacrya wondering about you, where you came from, et cetera. ”
He waited, watching me curiously.
”Is there some reason you
e telling me this? ” I asked.
Kayden shrugged nonchalantly. ”Like I said when we first meant, you seem like a man who prefers to keep his business private. And yet, it seems like half the highbloods and ascenders from Rosaere to Onaeka now know your name. Its whispered often in Vechor, in particular, according to Sul. ”
”And why would that be? ”
Kaydens smirk sharpened. ”You should know as well as I that every instant of the Victoriad—every appointment, every match, hell, every handshake or lack thereof—is closely watched, because the event itself can change the political face of entire dominions. A change of retainer or Scythe can cause bloods to rise and fall…the perfect opportunity for an ascender of unknown blood to make a sudden and violent ascent through the ranks of power. ”
His smile fell away as he spoke. ”But Im not here for answers, or even to share my conjecture. I simply wish to let you know—as your self-proclaimed friend—that you are being watched closely, and from many angles. Whether you seek to challenge for the position of retainer of Vechor or not, you have certainly spawned a whirlwind of rumors. ”
I couldn help the surprised laugh that burst out of me, drawing an uncertain smile from Kayden. ”Is that the rumor? ” I said, practically gasping with amusement. ”Oh, perfect. Perfect. ”
Kayden must have found my laughter contagious, because he began to chuckle as well. ”So you don intend to challenge to be Dragoths retainer? ”
I shook my head and wiped a tear from the corner of my eye. ”No, not in the slightest. ”
”Ah well, there goes the bet I planned to make. Anyway, I won keep you longer, I just thought— ”
”Its fine, ” I said, my irritation soothing. ”I appreciate the information. ”
Kayden limped his way to the door, moving slowly. As he left the office, I said, ”Caera mentioned you were in the war. We should…trade stories, one of these days. ”
He pauses, his eyes widening slightly. ”Sure. Maybe invite me to your next cabal meeting, and Ill tell you all about it. ”
I still wasn entirely convinced that he hadn seen something the night Ceara and I stole the Compass, but if he had, he was keeping it close to his chest. It seemed more likely that he hadn seen anything at all, considering the dark and the rain, and he hadn brought that chance meeting up again, or even asked how ”Haedrig ” had fared.
I was still considering his words as I left the building for the day. Although any attention was unwanted at this point, at least the nobility had invented their own reasons for my fame, as Id expected. And if Agrona or his Scythes had caught wind of me yet, they hadn made the connection between my two identities. If they had, I was sure theyd have arrived in force already.
Thoughts of conflict with Agronas forces were interrupted as I caught sight of a familiar head of navy blue hair just a few dozen steps ahead of me. I moved more quickly in order to catch up to Caera, but slowed when I noticed she was reading a letter as she walked, disregarding the crowd around her. After a moment, she tossed her hair and began to rip the letter to pieces.
”More orders to spy on me? ” I asked, making her jump. She spun around, crumpling the ripped pieces of the letter into her fists. Her cheeks were quickly turning red. ”I was joking but…it was, wasn it? ”
She glanced around us at the passing students. ”Yes and no. It was…an invitation to dinner. Again. Ive already refused, but my adoptive parents are persistent… ”
The gears in my brain turned as I thought back to Kaydens advice about all the highbloods growing curious about me. With the Victoriad looming, I had to consider what might come after my time as a professor ended. It felt appropriate to start planting a few seeds for the future.
I held out an arm for Caera to take, which she did with a suspicious glance.. ”Ill need some help picking out my outfit if Im to be in the presence of such renowned and powerful highbloods as Highlord and Lady Denoir. ”