A/N: It’s been four weeks Book 10 has finished and the first time I’ve taken a break for this long (not counting my health scare a few years back). While many of you expressed that I should keep my Patreon active despite my hiatus, and even told me to take a longer break, I chose not to for the sake of being able to feel less guilty during my break haha. Even so, I’m so thankful that my closest fans are so patient and considerate (even while I see you all having withdrawal symptoms in the discord chat) and I’m excited to be back.Enjoy the chapter and I hope to see you here throughout the rest of this journey that is TBATE.Love,
It happened slowly at first. Wide, bloodshot eyes turning toward me, probing the gloom for the source of the aura they felt dulling their senses and seizing their hearts. As they saw me, their stunned gazes, one by one, were inevitably drawn downward to the gory artifact clutched in my right hand. Mouths opened in horror, but whatever words they might have said lodged in constricted throats. Tools slipped from limp fingers to clatter on the ground, forgotten, and a tremor ran through the collective consciousness of a people unequip to understand what they were seeing.
At the eye of this storm of attention, I moved with unrushed purpose, the rough path crunching beneath my feet, my flowing white robes glowing like a beacon in the industrial gloom.
Every miner, laborer, and wogart farmer I passed froze, before quickly parting before me. Those closest stepped back, instinctively putting distance between themselves and the palpable force emanating from me, while others were drawn to it like moths to flame, forgetting their mundane tasks as curiosity and awe overwhelmed their sense of self-preservation.
A heavyset woman with thin hair and gray dust dirtying her face let out a ragged cheer. When my eyes settled on her, those closest hurried to step back. I didn’t smile but allowed a second of eye contact, gazing deep into her, assuring her that she’d been seen.
Others couldn’t keep the hostility from their faces—those who were loyal to Agrona or who believed the ill-conceived propaganda that was broadcast about me—but none of them had the courage to give voice to their feelings or impede my progress.
A few, the smartest of them, ran.
By the time I reached the portals to the second level, they were already in chaos. Guards were scrambling to find their battle groups and maintain anything resembling a formation. They were shouting at each other, no one apparently willing to accept the responsibility of command. Relictombs officials—the clerks and attendants who were in charge of monitoring the portals—were standing off to the side, wringing their hands and looking on nervously.
As my intent washed over them, they all slowed to a standstill. Someone uttered a prayer to the Vritra.
Wanting them to hear and understand me, I reined in my aura and stepped up to within easy hearing distance. The thing in my hand twisted slightly, as I came to a stop, leering at the soldiers and guards. Half of them stared at me, their weapons held nervously before them, but half couldn’t wrench their eyes away from the artifact.
One of the attendants, an older man with a bald head and long, gray mustache and wearing the official robes of a Relictombs clerk, found his courage. He took a few shaking steps toward me and raised his chin, his eyes carefully avoiding my hand. “S-Scythe Seris Vritra.” He paused, swallowing heavily. “You are under a-arrest for crimes against Alacrya, by order of the High Sovereign!” He finished stronger, building confidence as he spoke.
When I smiled at him, that confidence shattered like teeth beneath a maul. He stepped back, trying to lose himself in the other officials, but they stepped back as well, sacrificing him to the pyre of my attention.
But I wasn’t there to bully or murder lowborn mages, even those too blind to see that I was on their side. “I have not come here for bloodshed. None of you will die here, unless you insist on it. Leave. Flee the Relictombs and return home to your blood.”
Still, I couldn’t feel righteous about the choice I was giving them. I’d been a Scythe too long not to see the trap in it. Really, it was a choice in how to die. Either they stay and fight me in a hopelessly one-sided contest or they flee and wait to be hunted down and executed by loyalist forces.
The non-combatants all broke and ran, scurrying away like insects suddenly and unexpectedly exposed to the light. The guards exchanged grim-faced looks, but they stayed. They understood the choice.
A tall man shouted, and the soldiers reformed into their battle groups. Shields, both magical and mundane, were raised against me. I held my position.
Another shout, and spells began to fly, lighting up the dim zone with bright blues, yellows, and reds. Bolts of fire and blades of wind impacted the barrier of mana cladding my skin and robes, deflecting harmlessly. My mana rippled with a dusky shadow, turning the outline of my body gray. The spellfire slowed, then stopped.
I let a heartbeat pass, then thrust my free hand forward. A black cloud poured from my palms, spilling over my attackers in an instant. It surged into and through them, my void magic burning away the mana inside them.
To a man, they collapsed, the backlash of suddenly expelling all their mana knocking most of them unconscious. A few stared up at me from the ground, whimpering or choking. Expecting to die.
I marched past them, leaving them where they lay. Giving them a choice only in how to die felt wrong. It was how Agrona operated. They had chosen to stand their ground. Perhaps they were blindly loyal to Agrona, but maybe they were just hopelessly trapped in a system that they had been born into and had lived every second of their lives inside of. Did they even know there was a world outside of the too-close walls pressing in on them? It occurred to me that they likely couldn’t see it.
But I could see. And I could choose, too.
Casting a quick look back at the field of fallen mages—fallen, but alive—I activated one of the portals to the second level and stepped through.
And I found the second level to be exactly as I expected it.
The courtyard containing the ascension and descension portals, which capped the end of the long boulevard that ran through the heart of the zone, was a rush of organized activity.
A hundred mages, perhaps more, encircled the courtyard, weapons drawn and spells active, cordoning off the portals. Another twenty were hurrying to set up a series of devices in an arc in front of the portals. Small pockets of people lingered around the edges of the courtyard, outside of the cordon, and in the shadows of the nearest buildings.
The devices were constructed of dull, blue-tinged metal housings containing large mana crystals that had been carefully carved into concave bowls. Heavy wiring ran from one to the next, chaining them all together, and finally to a glass tank full of bubbling blue liquid.
Several of the mages jumped at my appearance, turning weapons on me.
“Scythe Seris Vritra!” a mage with black hair and a well-trimmed beard barked, snapping a salute. The rest snapped to attention and followed suit.
I waved the formality away. “Sulla, things have gone to plan.”
The High Hage of the Cargidan Ascenders Hall nodded vigorously. “Yes, Scythe Seris. Resistance was limited.” He nodded to a few bodies laid out nearby. “Fighting has been worse elsewhere, I know, but our efforts to set up your…whatever this is…have been unimpeded, and it’s almost complete.”
Another man, who wore no armor or battlerobes and went bare chested, proudly displaying his bronze skin and chiseled form, jogged up and bowed quickly. “Perfect timing, as expected,” Djimon of Named Blood Gwede, High Mage in Itri, said with his customary sharpness. “All tempus warp platforms in the city have been destroyed, as you ordered, except for one currently being defended by Highblood Rynhorn. The fighting is fierce there, but they can’t hold out. Ten more minutes and their soldiers’ bodies will litter the Relictombs floor while my Casters see to the platform.”
“With the receiving platforms destroyed, that will be our only way in and out,” Sulla added, gesturing to the array of permanent portals that allowed transit between the first and second level. I could tell he was seeking assurance that the plan wouldn’t result in us being trapped or overrun.
“Not the only way,” I said instead of attempting to placate the man. My gaze followed the line of the central boulevard to where I could see the distant glow of the primary ascension portal even from here.
The sound of approaching armored footsteps brought my head around, mostly due to the slight hitch in every other step. Cylrit bowed slightly and the two ascenders took a step back, giving us space, their eyes on the ground. My retainer had blood spattered over his face and armor.
“Would you like me to take that, Scythe Seris?” he asked, his tone even. I was certain only I would notice the pinched stiffness in both his voice and posture.
I held out the item I’d carried through the first level of the Relictombs: a severed head, jaw frozen open by rigor mortis, tongue black and shriveled as a salted slug.
Cylrit showed no squeamishness as he accepted the proffered appendage. He lifted it up to look into the dead, staring eyes, then made his way to the mana battery that would power the artifacts I had designed.
The rest of the mages moved back, their work done. Everything was ready.
Cylrit lowered the head into the liquid, which immediately began to glow, then quickly removed himself from the array.
The carved crystals of each device began to emit a resonant hum, then to glow a matching hue to the blue liquid, and finally to project visible waves of mana through the air, bombarding the portals with raw energy.
The effect was immediate. The shimmering portals jumped and jerked, their subtly shifting surfaces suddenly alive with shockwaves and multi-colored striations. Ripples and waves rolled away from the portal frame, collided, and rebounded in every direction at once across all of the portals.
“And you’re sure that—” Djimon cut himself off mid-question.
I knew we wouldn’t have to wait long to see proof that the artifacts were working. The encircling ascenders turned their gazes inward, watching. I was joined by a few other high-ranking individuals—Anvald of Named Blood Torpor, Harlow of Highblood Edevane, who were both High Mages of their respective Ascenders Association factions in Aedegard and Nirmala, as well as Highlord Frost and his granddaughter Enola—but they stayed silent, simply watching, waiting.
Within a few minutes, one of the portals changed. It stretched, smoothing momentarily, the ripples melting away, and a figure appeared within it.
Dragoth, his broad form filling the entire portal, glowered, his face strained, out from the bombardment of mana, but he was gone again almost as soon as he had appeared. A minute passed, and he appeared again, flickering into and out of another portal so fast that to blink would have meant missing it.
He repeated his futile attempts with each portal in turn, but the portals were destabilized by the bombardment of mana and were not maintaining a strong enough connection to complete the transition. As soon as he arrived on the second level, he was already being drawn back to the first.
There was no way through the portals as long as my artifacts remained in place, empowered by Orlaeth’s remaining mana.
Others began to appear as well, several at a time in every portal frame. After only a minute, a rippling running across the surface of one of the portals crossed over a man just as he appeared, flaying the skin from the right side of his face. He was gone again in an instant, and the attempts to breach the portals ceased abruptly.
A cheer went up, led by Enola of Highblood Frost.
I stayed by the portals for some time after, congratulating all who came to report in and giving orders where necessary. A slow procession of Highlords from my Highblood allies arrived when they were certain the fighting was done and the portals were deactivated, seeking to express their gratitude with the same handful of platitudes while wheedling for assurances that I did in fact know what I was doing.
Eventually, news came that the last of the receiving platforms had been destroyed, which made it impossible for anyone to use a tempus warp or dedicated portal to reach us. My plan had been a success.
I turned my face to the sunless sky, enjoying the warmth it projected onto my skin. So much of these last months had been spent underground in laboratories or bunkers, it felt good to stand beneath open sky, even if it was a construct of magic.
A handful of Imbuers remained with the equipment, as well as ten battle groups to ensure no one attempted any manner of sabotage. Eventually, it was only these guards, myself, and a patient Cylrit left in the courtyard, the ascenders and highbloods having gone about other duties or retired to their estates and inns to celebrate and rest.
Cylrit shuffled on his aching leg, clearly uncomfortable. I waited for him to break the silence between us. “Are you certain about this?” he finally asked, his voice low.
I began walking and motioned for him to follow. We moved down the wide central avenue that continued uninterrupted all the way to the primary ascension portal into the rest of the Relictombs. People watched us go by from shop windows and inn balconies, unsure what was happening.
We hadn’t been able to ensure that only my supporters were within the zone, of course. My people had done the best they could, with the Ascenders Association purposefully slowing the flow of traffic while the highbloods spread rumors encouraging those not affiliated with us to leave, even if temporarily, but many of the people who lived within the zone, those who served in the economy that had grown up around the ascents, were neutral to or even ignorant of our efforts against Agrona.
Some would eventually prove outright hostile to us., I knew.
“There is too much here outside of our control,” Cylrit continued, his attention constantly shifting as he, out of habit, watched for any potential threats. “Ways this can go wrong that we haven’t even considered yet.”
“I know,” I answered. If this argument came from anyone else, I would have assured them that every variable had been accounted for, every layer of the plan designed to be infallible, but Cylrit understood what we were facing just as well as I. “Perhaps, with ten more years to plan, we could have perfected this gambit. But this is war, Cylrit. And when you’re fighting gods, time is not on your side.”
“It all comes down to that, doesn’t it? Time…” Cylrit paused, and I stopped to look at him. “How long can we power the disruption artifact? When will Caera return with Arthur? Can we hold out longer than it will take Agrona to figure out a way in?”
I didn’t remind him of what we’d already accomplished—taken over half of Sehz-Clar, evading Agrona’s armies, embarrassed his pet Legacy, slain one of his Vritra Clan Sovereigns, and now blocked him from the Relictombs itself—and instead let him vent his fears.
“We’ve taken many risks these past decades, Seris, but this…it feels too much like we’ve backed ourselves into a corner with no way out.” Cylrit took a deep breath, then added, “My apologies. I do not doubt you, I—”
I raised my hand and he went silent. “Remember, we’re not trying to win this war. Only to stand in opposition to a tyrant. But I don’t think this will be our last stand. Have faith.”
“In Arthur?” he asked, his brows wrinkling in the rare show of genuine frustration.
“In humanity. In fate. In me. Take your pick.” I smiled and teasingly brushed at his face as if I could wipe away his frown. “Everyone needs faith. These ‘gods,’ the asura, rely on it to maintain their control over those they call lesser. And the people need it, too—they need to believe in something. If we truly want to break Agrona’s hold over them, we need to give them somewhere else to put their faith, even if only for a short time. Just to transition them into the new world we’re trying to build.”
“And if we die trying?” Cylrit asked, the emotion draining out of him.
“Then we die well.”
Where am I? I wondered, pulling back from something moving beneath me.
A bed of entangled vines and roots was writhing across a blank stone floor, jostling me and making my stomach lurch. My eyes grew wide as I traced the path of the vines: they grew over the floor, walls, and ceiling with no beginning or end, completely encircling me. And as they squirmed, they constricted around me.
Only the way forward was open, although the way was diminishing moment by moment. I began to scramble overtop the vines, but my hands and feet were constantly pulled into the living floor, and each time the vines would grasp at me, threatening to grab hold of me and not let go.
I lost all context of time as I first hurried on hands and feet, then on my knees, and finally crawling forward on my belly like a worm. The vines and roots were crushing me, suffocating me, and my heart battered against my chest as my lungs struggled to draw in breath, and suddenly I felt certain I was going to die there, throttled by the vines.
An emerald green beacon shone from somewhere ahead. Desperately, I pulled myself toward it, now pressed flat by a giant green fist. Every inch forward took so much effort and energy that I was sure I wouldn’t make it. And I didn’t, not far. A vine wrapped around my ankle, another my right arm, and then a black vine covered in thorns reached for my throat.
A hand extended out from the light. Its delicate strength seemed familiar—felt like looking in a mirror—and I grasped it with frantic strength.
In contrast, the hand had the kind of calm, inexorable force I associated with Agrona. That pure, unwavering surety of confidence. It should have crushed my own hand, but instead I was pulled through the vines until I slithered out onto a patch of sun-warmed grass.
The hand pulled me to my feet.
Slowly, for some reason afraid to look, my gaze followed the slender arm up to the graceful arch of a shoulder and smooth, unmarked skin of a neck, half hidden beneath silver-gray hair. Finally, I met the turquoise eyes.
Tessia Eralith. My vessel.
“W-what is happening?” I asked, frustrated by the weakness of my own voice. I felt like a whimpering child standing before her, but the elven woman was completely at ease in this clearing at the heart of a storm of strangling vines and roots. “Where are we?”
“In your mind,” she answered simply. “You are dreaming, and your subconscious is trying to convey what is happening inside of us.”
A dark green, snakelike coil bumped against me, and I took a nervous step toward the center of the clearing, having to stand less than an arm’s length away from Tessia to keep from touching the moving walls. I brushed a lock of dusty brown hair out of my face, unsure what to say.
“It’s the elderwood guardian,” she continued, casting a thoughtful, sad sort of look around. “Our body absorbed its mana core. Integration…I never knew.” She shook her head in wonder. “When the core dissolved, the elderwood guardian’s beast will was released. As, I suppose, was I.” She shrugged, as if this second point didn’t mean very much to her. “The unconstrained will is feeding off the mana now integrated within our body. It is tearing us apart.”
“My body,” I ground out, the word “our” stabbing like a dagger into my mind each time she said it.
A humorless smile played at the edges of her lips, but I couldn’t read the intent behind her expression. Even as we were talking, the clearing in which we stood was shrinking. A pulse like a slow heartbeat ran through them every few seconds, and with each beat they grew.
I tried to close my eyes, wanting to focus, but I couldn’t. A dream, I remembered. “How do I stop it?”
There was cold fire in the elf’s eyes as she answered. “You control it. Only…” She paused, watching a tendril of leafy vine uncurl beside my face. “You can’t. The elderwood guardian’s beast will isn’t just mana for you to dominate. It takes time, focus, and a little bit of luck. We don’t have time. This body will be dead within the hour.”
I gnashed my teeth and stepped toward her threateningly. When she looked at me with pitying amusement, I suddenly felt like a child balling my fist at an adult. And I hated it. “You’ll die too then,” I ground out, struggling to maintain my senses and not give way to despair. “I don’t think you—” The words caught in my throat as I remembered her wrestling for control of my body when Grey had attacked me at the Victoriad.
“I don’t want to die,” she admitted. As the vines pulsed and grew, she sank down to her knees and eased back, sitting comfortably among the writhing plants. Instead of looking down on her, I found that I too was sitting, even though I hadn’t made the conscious effort to do so. “But I am willing to. We are enemy combatants, Cecilia. If we met on opposite sides of the battlefield, I would be ready to lay down my life to defeat you. Here, if I could trade my life for yours, wouldn’t it be worth it?”
“That’s not…” I started, then stopped again, chewing my lip as I struggled for words.
Strategically, she was correct. She was no one, just the vessel for my reincarnation, whereas I was the Legacy. If she sacrificed herself here to destroy me…
“Please…” I begged in a raspy whisper, reaching for her hands. “My life was stolen from me, all because of an accident of my birth, something I couldn’t control. I never asked for any of this. I just want my life back. You can understand that, can’t you?” I caught on an idea and began speaking faster. “Eventually, Agrona will send me back to my own world—me and Nico. You…you can have this body back when I’m gone! I promise it. I’ll make Agrona…”
Tessia let out a little, musical laugh, then covered her mouth and looked at me with a sickening fusion of mirth and pity. “Stars above, you don’t even see the irony, do you?”
I sat up straight and glared at the elf. “You don’t understand anything. You have no idea what I’ve been through.”
Her brows crept up as the amusement in her smile bled away, leaving only sadness. “Nothing you’ve ever done—no thought you’ve ever had—is a secret from me.”
I swallowed heavily, unable to explain the sudden cold, hopeless dread that clutched at my chest.
“So much about Arthur makes sense, now, knowing…everything.” A vine as thick as my arm wrapped around Tessia’s waist like an embrace, and she plucked a golden flower from it, twirling it in her fingers as she spoke. “His maturity, his confidence, even as a child…and I thought you’d be the same, having lived two lives, but…”
She met my eyes and held them. “You’re a child. Stunted.” I started to snap a retort, but she kept talking. “You haven’t had two lives. Not even one. Which is why you can’t see what’s being done to you. You know, of course. But you don’t see.”
I reached for my mana, wanting nothing more than to burn the elf’s soul from my mind, but my magic was gone. I was defenseless, empty. It was my worst nightmare come true.
In my despair, I failed to notice the vine wrapping itself around my right arm. When I finally realized what was happening, I flinched away from it, but it held me fast. Then they were all over me, these bright green tendrils blooming with crimson flowers, pinning my arms and legs, wrapping around my throat…
And Tessia just watched with that distant sadness. I wanted to curse her, beg her, but I couldn’t do anything. I was paralyzed. The elderwood guardian was choking the life from me, both in the dream and out of it. I was dying.
I couldn’t believe it. It felt so purposeless, so empty of meaning. At least my death on Earth had been my choice. The only way I could seize control. But this, this was…
I woke up.
The room was dim, and in the gently wavering light of a burning torch, the shadows looked like vines crawling up the walls. I shrank from them, and my body burned. I gasped from the pain, and a marble-skinned hand stroked my hair as a face loomed over me.
There was a frightening intensity in the way Agrona was inspecting me, but I couldn’t comprehend the emotion behind the look.
“What…?” I tried to ask, but my throat was dry, the muscles of my neck still sore from where the vines had strangled me…except that had been a dream. Only a dream.
“Hush, Cecil dear. Your body struggled to handle both the Integration and the release of the beast will, but you are through the worst of it.” Agrona petted my head, speaking in a low, soothing tone while prodding me with invisible fingers of mana, massaging my mind to help calm me down. “Do not doubt yourself. You’ve done wonderfully.”
I leaned into the mental probing of his power like a feline begging to be pet. Recognizing this fact made me ill, but I was too weak and tired to resist. Instead, my gaze drifted through the room, and I realized that we were not alone. Several other mages were standing around the table or lingering in the shadows. We were in a laboratory or Imbuers’ workshop of some kind, but I didn’t recognize it.
“Who…where…?” Again, my thoughts and voice gave out before I could create a complete thought.
Agrona waved his hand and the other mages quickly began filing out of the single door. “We were working to hold your body together while you fought for control of the mana inside you.”
I frowned, trying to remember the dream, the feel of my body being pulled apart by the elderwood guardian’s will, what Tessia had said, but it was all starting to blur together now. Still, I couldn’t shake the sensation that something was wrong.
“You’re not telling me something,” I said, watching the last of the mages vanish like the tattered edges of my dream.
Agrona’s expression softened, and he looked down on me like I thought a father was supposed to look at his daughter. “You’re confused, Cecil, and no wonder. You need time to rest and recuperate.”
I couldn’t argue with him, not now, not about that.
Something stirred inside of me. I felt her consciousness present just beneath the surface, watching, waiting, simultaneously curious and guarded. There was the elderwood guardian, too, now docile. Tessia’s mind pressed against mine like a building migraine, but the beast will sat heavy in my stomach and made me want to vomit.
Why did you stop it from killing me? I asked, unsure if Tessia’s disembodied spirit would even be able to respond.
There was a long pause, and I thought perhaps she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer me. Then her voice sounded in my head, clear and bright as a silver bell: ‘I have a promise to keep.’
I swallowed hard but couldn’t leave it at that alone. When you struggled for control, before, you were trying to get us killed. Where was this promise then?
She didn’t answer.
“Come now, let’s get you to your room,” Agrona said, making me flinch. I had nearly forgotten he was there. “What you’ve accomplished is incredible, a feat no other lesser has managed in a long, long time. And soon, you will be given the opportunity to test just how powerful you’ve become.”
Head aching and stomach roiling, I let myself be helped up from the table, which I only then realized was covered in indecipherable runes. I blinked several times and tried to read them again, but they were like nothing I’d ever seen before. My skin crawled to look at them. Something is wrong, I thought again. Agrona’s tone, the runes, the dreams…
Subtly, I drew away some of the mana lingering in the rune-etched table, charging it with holding the memory of those runes and their purpose. I had no core to channel the mana, but I didn’t seem to need one.
The mana flowed through me as effortlessly as the blood in my veins. Instinctively, it infused my muscles, offering my trembling body strength. I was aware of it in a way I never had been before, like my senses extended directly into the atmosphere, encompassing the air, walls, floor, even the table I’d woken up atop. I felt it all as if it were a part of me.
Agrona stretched out his arm, smiling warmly.
I stepped past him, avoiding his hand as I wrapped my mind and thoughts firmly in mana.
Just like my benefactor, the undeciphered runes weighed heavily on my mind, their true intention also hidden beneath a facade.