Published at 17th of November 2023 07:51:36 PM

Chapter 457

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Equivalent Exchange



Just now


I watched the Wraiths fall, detached, the spells that had been protecting them molting from their corpses as they plummeted toward the ground. A fine mist of blood hung in the air, marking where they each had died like incorporeal gravestones. As the red mist faded, I dug my fingers into my sternum, the discomforting itch in my core a reminder of my failures even as I should have felt the flush of victory.

Behind me, Windsom led the two wounded dragons to the ground, while Charon was still chasing the other three Wraiths north.

‘Should we go after him?’ Sylvie projected, her voice uncertain in my mind.

No, land by Windsom, I thought, careful to keep my anger from spilling over onto her. To Regis, I added, What’s the Sovereign’s status?

‘Pissy,’ Regis sent back, along with a mental picture of the bound and mana-suppressed Vritra glaring up from the ground.

Sylvie landed roughly, her claws sinking into the soft soil of the lowland valley. I leapt off her back, hitting the ground with a wet squelching, and started marching toward Windsom and the other dragons.

‘Arthur…’ Sylvie thought in warning.

“Which of you is the leader here?” I asked, though my eyes searched Windsom for answers instead of the two battle-worn dragons.

The large black dragon had transformed, resuming his humanoid form, which was tall and broad-chested with dark, battle-mussed hair and a short growth of beard. He had faint green traces of discoloration around his eyes and down his neck.

He straightened, bristling at the tone of my question, and took a sure step past Windsom to face me. “I am. And you must be the lesser who—oof!”

The back of my hand struck the side of his face with a crack like thunder. The asura reeled backward, stumbling.

The silence that followed was deafening. Windsom regarded me impassively, the only outward sign of his surprise the slight raising of his brows. The female asura’s mouth hung open, her red-rimmed eyes staring in disbelief at her captain. The black-bearded asura himself seemed dazed, one mud-stained hand pressed against the side of his face where I’d struck him, his eyes unfocused in my direction.

The woman, whose white armor was stained with blood, snapped out of her stupor and took an aggressive step toward me, a longspear manifesting in her grip. “How dare you, lesser! My sister has just laid down her life in pursuit of your goals, and you show such disrespect to one of the Matali clan?”

Windsom rested a hand on her arm, holding her back. “Do not forget yourself.” He regarded me in silence for a moment. “What is the meaning of this assault, Arthur?”

“I’m all too aware of the circumstances and the decision that needed to be made here,” I said, sharply enunciating each word. “I know what needed to be done, what the stakes were. But did the thought of saving any of those you were entrusted to protect not cross your mind? As dozens of lessers perished from the mere clash of your attacks, did their deaths mean anything more to you than a statistical sacrifice that you deemed profitable?”

“Save them?” the downed asura repeated. Instead of standing, he flew up into the air, hovering so he could look down at me. “The stakes were far too great to focus on anything but the battle. Capturing this Vritra, destroying these lessuran wretches, changes the face of the world. The deaths of these lessers, for better or worse, changes nothing.”

“And how many more of your lesser lives might be saved by what we’ve done here?” the woman spat, turning away. “I need to go find my sister’s remains. One of the Matali clan will not be left to rot here.”

Windsom moved between us. “These dragons just sacrificed one of their own to hold the Wraiths here long enough for us to arrive. It would do well for you to remember our greater purpose, Arthur.”

“I’m not blind to your sacrifice,” I said, addressing my answer to the asuran woman. “But your actions today were cold and counter to the mission that brought you here. After your callous disregard for human life here today, do you expect the families of the dead will mourn your own loss?”

Her head dipped slightly as her eyes skated off me, then she was flying away.

The black-bearded asura shook his head. “You may pretend to be an asura all you wish, Arthur Leywin, but it is clear that you still have the short-sighted view of a lesser.”

“Thankfully so,” I answered, feeling some of my anger cool, pushed aside by a bitter melancholy.

The truth was, these guards didn’t bear the full responsibility for what had happened here. Only one person could claim that dubious honor, and I would take it up with him soon enough. First, though, there were other important details requiring my attention.

The black-bearded asura flew after his companion, and I turned my back on Windsom and began marching away through the swampy morasse. Sylvie had transformed and joined me. Windsom said nothing, but he fell into step at Sylvie’s flank.


Not far away, on the edge of a small river that had been all but strangled by the rockfall from the collapsing mountain, Lilia Helstea had gathered a number of people, survivors of the group caught in the crossfire of this conflict. They were struggling to collect their wounded and get moving again, but all of that ground to a halt as I approached.

Lilia looked like she was at the very threshold of death’s door. Her long brown hair was matted with mud and blood, most of her visible skin was covered with lacerations and the start of dark bruises, and—to my horror—she was missing much of the skin on her right hand. I found myself suddenly transported back to my boyhood in Xyrus, living in her family’s manor, teaching her and Ellie magic side by side, ensuring that they both awakened and formed a core. Lilia had been like a sister to me then, and I owed her more than the feeble protection she had received from the dragons.

And yet, I didn’t go to her.

As the eyes of all those present settled on me, I knew my role here wasn’t to offer comfort to her alone, but to address everyone as a Lance of Dicathen.

“For those who do not know me, my name is Arthur Leywin,” I started. “I’m truly sorry for what you’ve experienced here today, but I also find myself glad to see so many survivors of this terrible battle.”


Looking to my left, I saw a man horribly disfigured by the effects of some spell. He didn’t look as if he’d survive another ten minutes, but somehow he was still standing. “It is! You’re the Lance!” He looked around at the others, tired but revitalized. “It’s Lance Godspell!”

The spell that my arrival had cast over the other survivors broke, and a few surged toward me and Sylvie, some thanking me, others pleading for me to get them out of there, to save them or heal them. Worst of all were those who begged me to seek out their loved ones in the wreckage of the mountain passage.

Sylv, I need you to stay with these people. Help them however you can.

My bond stepped forward immediately, seeming to shine with an inner light that drew all attention to her and silenced the survivors. “Peace, friends, please. We want to get you all away from here and to emitters. Now let’s take stock of everyone’s health. Windsom, stay and help me. Be efficient but thorough, we must…”

My attention strayed back to Lilia. She gave me a small, almost imperceptible nod, and I tried to express with my eyes alone my sorrow for what she’d experienced. Then, stepping back a few paces as Sylvie and Windsom became the center of attention, I activated God Step, following the aetheric pathways back into the cave beneath the rubble.

Regis was sitting on his haunches and staring down at the Sovereign. “You should have hit that prick with a fistful of aether,” he said, turning to look over his shoulder at me.

I needed to send a message, not start a fight, I thought back. Out loud, I said, “You’ve arrived in Dicathen on a tide of blood, Oludari. Dicathian and Alacryan alike. I am not here to negotiate or barter with you, Vritra, and I’m not yet convinced that the best course of action wouldn’t be to simply kill you. Convince me I’m wrong.”

“Perhaps, if you were to release me, we could converse in a more comfortable manner—”

My aetheric intent pressed down on the bound asura like a vice, stealing the breath from his lungs. “We’re off to a bad start.”

“All right, all right. You are just as bloodthirsty and cold as your display at the Victoriad suggested.” He breathed a little easier as I eased back on the pressure I was exuding. “You’re intelligent enough for a lesser, shouldn’t you have figured all this out by now? Didn’t you yourself see Sovereign Exeges’s remains? I had no intention of falling victim to the same fate.”

“You think Agrona killed Exeges,” I said, pulling from what little detail Lyra Dreide had been able to provide. “Why would he do that?”

Oludari’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps less intelligent than I’ve been led to believe.” He cleared his throat, shooting me a nervous look. “For the same reason you slurped up all the mana from retainer Uto’s horn!”

I kneeled next to him, not bothering to hide my irritation. “Speak plainly, Vritra. You don’t seem to understand. You are an enemy and a threat until you prove otherwise. Keeping you out of Agrona’s hands is in itself a victory, and I will kill you to do that if you don’t prove your intent.”

Scowling up at me, he took a moment to collect himself, then said, “Above all else, Agrona seeks the concentration of power. He thought to find it in the Relictombs, among the bones of the djinn, but all they had left behind was old baubles and their damnable labyrinth of tedious puzzles. He wasn’t left empty handed, however, as he discovered the use of the runes, with which he could build his own nation of mages, powered by basilisk blood.”

“I already know this,” I said acidly, sensing that the Vritra was dancing around whatever point he was trying to make.

“Of course, of course,” he wheedled, his conversational tactics changing by the second as he sought to placate me. “Controlling so many lessers and mages in this way concentrated their power, made it his, see? Beholden to him for everything, they can’t even betray him if they wish. I have long suspected that the slow whittling down of our number in Alacrya had something to do with Agrona’s lust for individual strength, but now I know for certain: he drained Exeges, took his mana for his own, to strengthen himself. He knows, you see…” He trailed off, his eyes widening ever so slightly.

I raised a brow and leaned a little closer. “Knows what?”

The Vritra rolled onto his back, attempting to look nonchalant but only managing to make himself even more uncomfortable in his bindings. “You know, I’m having a difficult time maintaining this conversation. If I were more comfortable, it would be—”

My hand was around his throat before he could finish the sentence, and I slammed him against one of the blood iron spikes that had reinforced this cave. Conjuring a sword in my left hand, I pressed the tip against his cheek until a drop of blood ran down his pale skin. “Last chance, Vritra.”

Oludari’s facade of dispassion melted away, revealing the terror beneath. When I released him, he collapsed to the floor facedown, his limbs pulled into an unnatural position by the chains.


“Hm. You would have made a decent Vritra yourself…” he mumbled into the silt-covered stone floor. His head turned slightly, and he rocked until he tumbled onto his side. “When we left Epheotus, there were hundreds of asura among the Vritra clan and our allies. Kezess had long played with the creatures of your continent as his little experiments, but he had ceded Alacrya to Agrona’s research even before we broke with the Eight.

“Some grew to regret their rushed flight from our home and attempted to return. Perhaps some were successful. Others were hunted down as traitors. Many more died fighting Kezess’s forces when they attacked, and some few were sacrificed within the abattoir you know as the Relictombs as Agrona tried everything to breach it with a full-blooded asura.  

“But even those deaths never really explained our dwindling numbers. But as the Vritra grew fewer, the population of Alacrya expanded exponentially. Oh, the early days of that experiment. Imagine, molding an entire species in your image…” He stopped, a wistful smile softening his harsh face.

“Agrona was an accepting leader, and we were free to experiment as we wished. Who had time to wonder why half our population had vanished in the space of a century or two when there were such grand mysteries to unravel?” The smile soured, and he shook his head bitterly. “The curse of the basilisk mind. It is difficult to see what is right in front of you when your gaze is always two hundred years into the future.”

“And you think he’s been—what?—killing and absorbing his own people since the beginning?” I asked.

“Oh, no, not exactly,” Oludari continued, shuffling like a worm in the dirt. “No, he needed something special for that.”

“The Legacy,” I said without hesitation.

“Yes, her.” Oludari said it like a curse. “The Legacy—a spirit that carries its potential from one life to the next. Lifetime after lifetime of growth bound into one being. Agrona theorized that such a being could harness mana freely, pushing the bounds of both lesser or asuran magic. But they are exceedingly rare. Only one has ever been recorded in the lifetime of asuran civilization. And so to study one, Agrona needed to bring her here and ensure she would cooperate.”

I nodded, knowing the rest. “So from studying the Legacy, he learned how to absorb mana directly from his own people. But that still doesn’t tell me why?”

“I already said it,” Oludari answered simply. “The concentration of power. There are layers to this universe, folded over one another like the place where the Relictombs rests.”

“And Epheotus,” I probed.

“Hm,” Oludari hummed, frowning. “Not exactly. Epheotus is…something different. It is no longer here, but it is not entirely there, either. A projection of the physical world housed within another dimension. Perhaps the same one as the Relictombs, but I can’t be certain. It is interesting, but you have, without knowing it, spotted the connection.”

“What do you mean?”

Oludari sighed and closed his eyes, looking resigned. “I don’t know everything—Agrona has proven quite adept at distracting and compartmentalizing—but I will tell you what I can. After you release me and help me escape this place. Take me to Kezess. I will tell you both everything, and you can push him to allow me back into my home. I can be useful to the other basilisk clans, I can—”

“No,” I interrupted, taking a step back and turning around to stare into the smoothly flowing black water of the underground river.

“What?” he asked incredulously. “But why—”

‘Charon is on his way,’ Sylvie sent at the same time that I felt the dragon’s mana signature approaching.

Once again in his humanoid form, the dragon swept down the tunnel left by the escaping Wraith and landed lightly in front of me. He seemed to shed his own cold white light into the dim cave. “I would have preferred you wait to speak with the prisoner until I arrived,” he said without preamble.

I waited a moment, sensing Windsom coming after him. Windsom’s feet touched the ground with a whisper, and he moved past Charon to inspect the Sovereign.

“He desperately wants to be taken to Kezess,” I said. Windsom started to agree, but I interrupted him, saying, “Which is exactly why we won’t be doing that.”

Windsom scowled and looked at Charon for support. The scarred asura was frowning, but he didn’t immediately counter me.

“Does this lesser speak for the great dragons of the Indrath clan?” Oludari snapped, spitting on the ground in his anger. “Truly you are a pathetic lot—”

Windsom’s foot pressed down on the Vritra’s neck, choking the words from his throat.

“Until we know more, Oludari doesn’t get what he wants,” I continued. That was only half the truth, of course. Really, I didn’t want to give Kezess any additional insight into Agrona’s plans until I was certain that knowledge would be shared, or at least until I had managed to acquire it myself first.

“That isn’t up to you, boy,” Windsom fumed. “Oludari Vritra is too valuable a prisoner to be left here where he might be sought again, resulting in more attacks and more casualties.”

“Which is why I’m asking for Charon to take personal authority over safeguarding Oludari. Make him too difficult a target to be worth the trouble, or even better, parade his body around and claim he was killed along with three battle groups of Wraiths, Agrona’s elite forces, while they attempted an incursion into our continent.”

Charon took a moment to roll around his response before he spoke. “So that Agrona’s spies will report the Sovereign’s death…and we dragons are able to present this as a victory to the people. Clever. And where will you be?”


“Windsom is going to take me to see Kezess,” I said firmly. “Now.”

Windsom glared, first at Charon, then at me. “I knew when I first met you that you’d be an obstinate creature. But a life in the spotlight of this lesser continent has given you the false belief that the entire world—the universe, even—revolves around you. The truth is that you are a very small piece on a very large board and the game does not hinge entirely on your every move, Arthur.”

Unfazed, I leveled a steady gaze at the asura.

“Fine,” he said at length, standing up straight and brushing dust off his uniform. “I eagerly await hearing you explain these decisions to Lord Indrath.”

After sending some mental instructions to Sylvie and Regis, both of whom would be staying behind, I repeated my expectations for Charon—including that no more Dicathians be endangered—then bent down in front of Oludari. “I would suggest trying real hard to remember everything by the time I return if you want to see Epheotus again, Vritra.” Finally, I stood and regarded Windsom expectantly.

Windsom looked back and forth between me and Charon, irritation carved into every line of his face. He let out a huffy scoff. “Come then, Arthur. It would seem I have been reduced to a mere taxi service between realms.”

Wasting no more time, he withdrew a round, flat object and set it carefully on the floor. Drawing a drop of blood from the tip of his finger, he let the blood fall onto the disk. The disk expanded, projecting a column of light, just as it had all those years ago when he first took me to Epheotus for training.

Be careful, I thought to Sylvie. Charon’s still acting the role of reasonable leader, but I don’t know if we can trust his intentions yet. 

‘You too,’ she thought back. ‘Things are progressing rapidly now, and there is still so much we don’t know.’

Taking a deep breath, I stepped into the portal.

The air grew cool as I appeared atop the mountain, just as I had the first time. Indrath’s castle loomed over me, magnificent and ominous, a structure carved from the land itself and gleaming with a thousand sparkling gemstones. The many-colored, incandescent bridge spanned the two peaks as before, and a light breeze blew through the swaying pink petals of the trees covering the mountaintop.

When I’d been brought here the first time, I had been filled with a sense of otherworldly awe. Now, though, the cold fire of my suppressed anger burned away anything except the desire to get this over with.

Windsom didn’t wait for me, but marched away and across the bridge, not even looking back. I followed but remained all too aware of the probing tendrils of magic that writhed over and through me as I crossed the bridge of precious minerals.

We reached the front door, which Windsom himself opened. When I stepped through, the expansive hall beyond twitched uncomfortably, then seemed to collapse in on itself, taking me with it.

I came out stumbling in a much smaller round room. I spun around, trying to get my bearings, an aetheric sword already clutched in my white-knuckled fist.

Windsom was no longer with me, but after a second I recognized my surroundings.

The well-worn Path of Insight dominated the center of the tower chamber.

A powerful presence clamped down on the aether in my fist and expelled it by sheer force. “There won’t be a need for that here,” Kezess’s voice rang through the room.

I stared around, not seeing him at first. Then, with a disorienting suddenness, he was standing on the opposite side of the circle worn in the floor.

He was playing a game of power, I knew, trying to unbalance me and make me uncomfortable. I took a firm grip over myself, my breaths coming out calm, my heartbeat slowing. Regarding him casually, I let out a soft sigh. “Do you already know what happened?”

Kezess cocked his head slightly, sending a wave of motion through his light-colored hair. “Windsom has explained some of it. The rest, he said you would tell me.”

“Hardly welcoming of you. How long have I already been here? Surely you understand the importance of my expedient return to Dicathen.”

He examined his fingernails, pointedly not looking at me. “Perhaps you would be in less of a hurry had you brought my granddaughter and Oludari of Clan Vritra with you.”

I let only a small frown show through on my face. “You promised protection for Dicathen, guaranteed that the conflict between the asuras wouldn’t spill out into the continent, but I have just come from a battleground that left over two hundred Dicathians dead, and I have no idea how many Alacryan refugees before that. How can I trust you with Sylvie or Oludari if you aren’t going to hold up to your end of our bargain?”

“Yes, the Wraiths and their attack… an attack you warned Charon of days ahead of time,” Kezess mused, motionless, his bright amethyst eyes sharp and serious as the edge of a sword. “That was one point Windsom wasn’t able to clarify for me. How exactly did you know that the Wraiths were going to attack Etistin?” 

“Don’t change the subject,” I countered. “I need your assurance that the dragons supposedly guarding Dicathen will have their priorities set straight. We have no use for soulless figureheads.”



Kezess’s nostrils flared, the only sign of his irritation. “Soulless figureheads? What’s next, will you snipe at me about my actions against the djinn again? I told you before, Arthur, I won’t hesitate to sacrifice one lesser life for the greater good, or even two hundred, and neither will my soldiers. But then, you understand this well. Was it not you who said you wouldn’t kill millions of Alacryans to save thousands of Dicathians? You’ve done the moral arithmetic, just as I have.”

“I’m not here to exchange barbed words, despite having plenty of choice ones stored up,” I said after a few seconds of silence. “What matters is our agreement. Your soldiers aren’t doing what you promised, and you yourself aren’t telling me everything you know. I saw how Charon and Windsom reacted to news of Oludari’s ramblings. They knew more than they wanted to let on.”

Kezess’s posture softened as he relaxed. “You are right. Your insight into aether will be of little use to me if Agrona wins the war in your world. I cannot afford Agrona to learn everything I know, or even what I guess at, and so I have insulated you from certain information. I will continue to do so, but I can see now that there is a need for certain things to come to light.”

I crossed my arms and leaned back against the wall, relaxing slightly. “Maybe you can start by telling me why you’ve allowed things to come this far? You could have washed Alacrya away in a tide of blood centuries ago. An army of asura against one clan?”

“Agrona left Epheotus with his entire clan in tow, yes, and that was part of the problem. And not just the Vritra, either, but some allies as well.” Kezess began to walk slowly around the worn circle that was the Path of Insight. “This action was an existential threat to all lessers and asura alike. A conflict of that scale on your world would have been devastating.”

“The lessers, yes, but for the asura as well?” I frowned and shook my head. “What’s the part you’re not telling me?”

“Agrona was practically daring us to go to war,” Kezess answered, staring down at the path as he walked its slow circle. “His clan and their allies had been placed very strategically to ensure that any battle would almost certainly result in the destruction of your world.”

I was careful to control my tone and facial features, suppressing a disbelieving scoff. “Assuming that is true, you had already committed genocide against the world’s dominant culture. Where is the line? What stopped you with Agrona but not when the djinn—”

“Everything!” he snapped, his mask of complete control slipping for an instant. “Everything I’ve done has been to keep this world alive, and it would be wise for you to place that firmly at the forefront of any further assumptions you make about me.”

In the silence that followed Kezess’s unexpected outburst, remembered words echoed back to me from the last keystone trial. He told the djinn that their use of aether was a danger to the world. And Lady Sae-Areum said he’d given them some kind of warning, something that prompted them to search beyond the borders of our world, but what had that been?

Despite the desire to press Kezess further, I kept my thoughts to myself. I needed to understand, but I had to be careful.

Kezess stood taller, his back straightening. The tension seemed to release from his posture all at once, and he began his pacing again. “Instead of fighting a cataclysmic war, regardless of our ability to win, I sent assassins, as many and as powerful as I could risk. Many Vritra died, but Agrona proved impossible to reach.”

This, at least, aligned with what I’d been told before, but the words of Sae-Areum and of Sovereign Oludari were still bothering me. “So what does Agrona really want, in the end? What has all this been for?”

Kezess ceased his pacing and faced me. “Let me share with you a bit of our history, Arthur, so that you might better understand.

“When Epheotus was still a third continent in the ocean between Dicathen and Alacrya, the asura were much like the elves of Elenoir. Our ancestors were a people beholden to the natural world around them, in balance with it. But balance means strife, and through constant struggle, growth.

“Such was our growth that our magic surpassed the limits of our physical forms. When this happened to the djinn, they adopted the use of spellforms, empowering their bodies and enhancing their connection to mana and aether through runic tattoos. But for the asura, it was quite different.

“We sought out new forms. Physical manifestations of the raw magical ability that we had honed over many ages. We became the dragon and the hamadryad and the pantheon. And over many more ages, those traits evolved to be an inherent aspect of our races, which drew apart from one another, each branch of the asuran family tree growing more unique with time.

“We became masters of the world, subjugating both magic and the natural beasts, creatures far more terrible than those now occupying your Beast Glades. And then, as our resources ran dry and our constant eagerness for growth expanded, we began to subjugate each other. The wraiths—not Agrona’s lessuran soldiers, but an ancient branch of the asuran family tree—were the worst offenders. They were a race of war, and they built themselves up on the bones of those they conquered. Eventually, every race, every clan, was drawn into a war that scoured the world clean, sinking continents and burning seas. We forgot that we had once been in balance with the land as conflict pushed our magic to greater and greater devastation.

“It was only when the very last of the wraiths fell that the rest of the asura saw what they’d become.”

Kezess paused, gauging my reaction.

I carefully considered the layers of his story. “Is this history or allegory?”

Kezess gave me an amused smile. “Both, I suppose. This is what happened as told by our records, but I am not merely giving you a history lesson. Agrona has forged for himself a nation entirely beholden to him. He has eliminated any rival in Alacrya. And with his armies—his rune-covered mages, Wraiths, and even the Legacy—he seeks to subjugate your world, and then he will come for mine. That, Arthur, is what Agrona wants: to take what your people and mine have built, to conquer our worlds and claim them for himself. He wants to rule all, to control all, at any cost.”

I nodded in understanding, musing over his statement while concealing my growing doubt. Oludari had been clear in one thing: Agrona was seeking individual strength, depriving himself of his most powerful allies in the process. Through my time as a king, it was imperative to understand the importance of those you surround yourself with. And if what Oludari suggested was true, then even the Legacy was meant not just as a weapon for Agrona, but a tool for him to absorb the mana of his kin.

Agrona had shown himself again and again to be three steps ahead of me, turning every situation to his advantage. And I realized then that I had always been missing something essential to any victory in war: understanding.

The very thing that Kezess himself was keeping me from. 

I carefully considered his lies as my expression eased into a grateful smile. "Thank you for being honest with me, Kezess."

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