The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)
Chapter 403: Highbloods in Low Places

CAERA DENOIR

Heavy black clouds had turned day to night, pouring down thick sheets of rain that pummeled the streets of Aensgar on the Redwater. The city was eerily quiet under the blanket of rainfall, broken only by the rattle of carriage wheels over wet cobbles or the rare shout from an unlucky soul caught out in the storm as they rushed furtively toward their destinations.

I'd had nearly a week to come to terms with the events in Sehz-Clar, but the rushed pace of Seris's maneuvering had left little time for contemplative thought. Still, I knew what was at stake. In truth, I almost found myself enjoying the subterfuge, despite the danger of being outside the shields.

Finding the street I was looking for, I pulled the hood of my cloak farther down over my face and shrouded my mana signature before cautiously edging around the exterior of a large three-story inn. Dim light filtered through yellowed panes of glass, the low rumble of drunken laughter and conversation spilling into the street from the open door.

I scanned the alleyway behind the inn, but it was empty aside from the usual collection of rubbish that had been tossed out by the too-busy staff.

Slipping along the rear wall of the building, I tucked myself into the narrow alcove the backdoor provided and waited, watching the street. No one breached the mouth of the alley, and the street beyond remained empty except for the splashing rain. Confident that no one was following me, I eased open the door and ducked into the dim interior.

I found myself in a narrow corridor. To one side, the cacophonous din of the bar vibrated through the thin boards, and a handful of doors opened into storage rooms and the proprietor's private quarters on the other.

Once I had passed these, the susurrus of quiet voices edged into my perception, subtle beneath the louder volume of the barroom. The voices were coming from a room at the end of the hall.

I cautiously approached the last door, and the voices grew slowly louder until I could make out the words over the rest of the general clamor. A thin blade of light was issuing from a space between two planks in the wall, and when I put my eye to the spot, I could see a slice of the room beyond, including several of the speakers.

I could have laughed.

Each of the men visible from my angle was dressed more ostentatiously than the last. It was a wonder they hadn’t arrived accompanied by a parade of blood members, servants, and captured mana beasts. One might have been forgiven for thinking that a clandestine meeting such as this would be a good time to dress down, but apparently these highbloods couldn’t resist the opportunity to flaunt their wealth, even if only to each other.

Although, to give them some credit, there was a row of plain, rain-soaked cloaks hanging from hooks on the back wall.

“Scythe Seris Vritra’s emissary is late,” an older man said. His bushy blond goatee had faded nearly to white, but there was steel in his eyes and he stared around the room. Lord Uriel of Highblood Frost, I thought, recognizing him immediately.

A much younger man, dark-haired and barrel-chested, laughed low and dangerous. “Highlord Frost, this is a Scythe we’re discussing.” He drummed his fingers across the scarred table that dominated the back room. “Although, I suppose such a title is no longer appropriate. At any rate, her representative will arrive, and when they do, they will consider themselves exactly on time. The real question is why they chose such an unruly, meager sort of place to meet.”

Highlord Frost’s thick brows rose as he considered the younger man. “I suppose you are correct, Lord Exeter. Although, if Scythe…ah, Lady Seris expects to win our goodwill, perhaps she should start by treating us better than her previous compatriots have.”

A cool female voice belonging to someone not visible from my current vantage cut in, saying, “Oh really, Uriel. When have you ever been treated poorly in your life? Born a highblood and heir to the title of highlord, your success and authority were very nearly predestined. You’ve heard the parable of the silver spoon, I assume?”

There were several scandalized scoffs from the men in front of me.

Highlord Frost scowled, a look that would have frozen the blood of most Alacryans. “Some of us have had the good fortune to be born into our position, while others have fought and bled to scrape their way up from the dregs of the unblooded.” His tone was mild, with the barest cutting edge just audible in the undertones. “But we are all highbloods now, Matron Tremblay. And all here for a shared purpose. I suspect if your blood’s interactions with the Scythes and Sovereigns had been positive, you would not have answered Seris’s invitation.”

“Well said, Uriel,” said one of the others, a younger man whose back was to me so all I could see was his tight ponytail.

“Oh, indeed,” Matron Tremblay answered teasingly. “An absolute paragon of facundity.”

I pulled back from the crack in the wall and headed toward the door, deciding to make myself known before things escalated further.

“If you have some grievance against me or my blood, Maylis, air it,” Highlord Frost’s voice rumbled through the shabby wall.

“Pay her no mind, Highlord Frost. These newbloods have no appreciation for those who came before,” Lord Exeter said.

I opened the door to the sight of a tall, athletic woman rising to her feet. She had one finger extended toward the men at the other end of the table and her mouth open to hurl what was no doubt to be a well-practiced insult. But her burgundy eyes shifted to me, bright and over-large in her sun-kissed face, and she stopped.

“Caera?” she asked uncertainly.

I focused on the short horns that grew from her forehead to curve back close atop her lustrous blue-black hair, which she had pulled back into a tail. She was Vritra-blooded. But her blood name, Tremblay, wasn’t familiar. Then, belatedly, I realized I’d heard her first name as well.

“Maylis…” I had a flash of a much younger version of the fierce young woman now standing in front of me, a skin-and-bones teenager with blue-black hair down to the back of her knees. “I see your blood has manifested.”

She nodded vigorously, clearly excited and eager to speak, but the men were all on their feet now, and we both seemed to realize this wasn’t the time for a reunion at the same moment. Biting back her smile, she sat back down.

On the other side of the room, a couple of the men offered me perfunctory bows, but most were staring warily.

Only Lord Exeter approached, moving quickly and offering his hand. I went to shake it, but he turned my hand and pulled it toward him. I could only watch, surprised, bemused, and mildly annoyed, as he pressed his lips to the back of my glove.

Maylis snorted.

“By the Sovereigns’ grace, Lady Caera of Highblood Denoir, what are you doing here?” he asked, moon-eyed and ogling.

“Isn’t it obvious?” a wheezing voice said, drawing my eye to a puffy, balding highblood in purple and silver battlerobes. “This is some kind of setup! The Denoirs have already spoken out vocally against the situation in Sehz-Clar—”

A bark of laughter from Highlord Frost cut off the wheezing man. “Which, I imagine, Highlord Seabrook, is why this girl is here, instead of the heir, Lauden, or Highlord Denoir himself. Playing both sides I would imagine.”

I leveled a cold, unblinking gaze at the room. “This ‘girl’ is here because Seris herself has chosen me to share her message. I’m the emissary you’ve been waiting on.” I focused on the plum of a man I now knew was Highlord Sebastien Seabrook. “And, Highlord, if this were some kind of trap, you lot would have already thoroughly incriminated yourselves with your startling absence of prudence.”

Next to me, Lord Exeter had gone pale as a ghost. He took a halting step back, bumped up against the table, sputtered something incoherent, then finally managed, “Wait, what?”

Maylis was grinning fiendishly. “What’s the matter, Zachian? You were so eager to present yourself as a vacuous, self-indulgent blowhard only a moment ago.”

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This seemed to snap him out of his surprise. He straightened his jacket and turned his nose up. “Forgive me, Lady Denoir. I’ve disrupted the meeting. Please,” he said, waving me into the room. He then shot a withering glare at Maylis before returning to his seat.

“Indeed, we seem to have gotten somewhat off from our purpose,” Highlord Frost said into the silence that followed. “If you have truly come on behalf of Lady Seris, pray tell, what exactly does she hope to accomplish with this act of rebellion?”

This question, I knew, was intended more to usher us into a conversation than seek an actual answer. Each of these highbloods had received a number of missives already, which offered explanation for Seris’s purpose. They knew what she was trying to do, but what they really wanted to gauge was if there would even be a chance that she could be successful. And, perhaps more importantly to them, what would it cost the highbloods to align with her against Agrona.

“Seat yourselves and I’ll answer any sensible questions you might have,” I said firmly. I kept my physical presence poised and confident but not rigid.

Normally, in a room with so many other highbloods, the practiced courtly demeanor my foster parents had drilled into me would have taken over, but I wasn’t here to move through the typical machinations of noble politics. If they saw me as their lesser—or even their equal—then it would be all but impossible to accomplish my goal.

I was here as Seris’s emissary, and she had high expectations.

Moving in a delicate dance of who would sit first and in which seats, the highbloods filled the long chipped, stained table. There were eight people representing various highbloods that had shown cautious interest in Seris’s message. I stayed on my feet with my hands clasped behind my back and let the faint impression of impatience bleed into my expression.

Lord Exeter was quick to take a seat halfway down the table. His gaze kept twitching toward Maylis, and although he presented himself as outwardly calm, I could sense his temper simmering below the surface. I hadn’t heard of Highblood Exeter, but by the way he had sneered at Maylis about being a “newblood,” I doubted he himself was newly raised up. More likely, his was some middling blood from Sehz-Clar or Etril, raised up due to the amount of land they’d managed to acquire rather than strength in war or success as ascenders.

Highlord Frost took the seat at the head of the table opposite me. I’d met several of his blood at Central Academy, and the Frosts did occasional business with the Denoirs. I’d been quite impressed with his great-granddaughter, Enola, who had won her event at the Victoriad.

Highlord Seabrook, the puffy, purple man with the wheezing voice, sat to Frost’s left. He was staring at me and chewing on his cheek in a distracted sort of way.

To his left was the second son of Highblood Umburter, whose given name I couldn’t recall. His brother, I knew, was off in Dicathen managing the blood’s affairs. The fact that he was here instead of his father, Highlord Gracian Umburter, suggested that they were simply testing the waters. At least the Exeters had sent their heir.

Still, the Umburter boy was a step above the aging man next to him. Chamberlain to Matron Clarvelle, I thought his name was Geoffrey. The Clarvelle Highblood had been close to the Denoirs when I was a child, but some falling out between my adoptive mother and Matron Clarvelle resulted in the two bloods drifting apart. As chamberlain, Geoffrey was a trusted member of the household, but to send him to such a meeting as this was almost deliberately insulting.

We’d have to be careful with the Clarvelles.

On the other side of the table, Highlord Ector Ainsworth sat to Highlord Frost’s right. In his sixties, Ector still had dark black hair, except for a slight lightening at his temples and down either side of his carefully groomed goatee. He had been quiet so far, both before the meeting and since my arrival, but his clever gray eyes seemed to be trying to look through me from across the room.

Beside him, a twitching, nervous-looking man was fiddling with the cuffs of his robes. He kept glancing at Highlord Frost like he was trying to catch his eye. His back had been to me as I watched from the hallway, but now I recognized the hawkish downturn of his nose and his unusual eyes; one was bright scarlet, the other a muddy brown.

“Lady Caera…” he said softly when he realized I was looking at him, although his eyes focused on the table and not me.

“Lord Redwater,” I said in return, nodding politely.

Wolfrum of Highblood Redwater was a Virtra-blooded foster like myself. His own adopted siblings—four brothers and a sister—had all perished tragically in the Relictombs. As his Vritra blood never manifested, the Redwaters were allowed to name him heir so the highblood—a very old blood that took its name from the river running not half a mile from the inn—would live on.

I’d met him, like Maylis, at the “gatherings” of young Vritra-blooded foster children I’d been forced to attend when I was young. I remembered him as an awkward, anti-social boy that stood out among the self-important Vritra-bloods.

“Before we begin,” I said when I’d finished scanning the room, “there are two points I must make clear immediately. First, this is not a battle to replace one overlord with another. Seris does not seek to make herself High Sovereign over Alacrya, or even to rule at all.”

Highlord Seabrook made a show of rolling his eyes and looking across the table at Highlord Ainsworth with a foolish grin on his face.

Frost steepled his fingers and leaned toward me. “So her missives have explained. Thus far, she has painted herself as a…freedom fighter, leading this uprising for the good of the people of Alacrya.” Wolfrum chuckled awkwardly but went quiet after realizing he was the only one. “I would ask you to speak plainly, on your honor as a Denoir. What is Seris’s true purpose, and why now, in this moment of turmoil?”

“Does it have something to do with the sudden turnabout happening on the other continent?” Seabrook burst in. “I lost ten battlegroups in the city of…well…whatever it's called,” he finished lamely.

“The second point I am instructed to make clear,” I continued, ignoring their questions for the moment, “is that this is not a symbolic resistance. You ask why now, Highlord Frost? Because this is our last opportunity.” I put my hands on the table and met each of their eyes in turn. “The brewing war with the other asura clans will wipe out our world if we don’t prevent it.”

A chorus of voices broke out as Umburter, Seabrook, Exeter, and Frost all attempted to speak at once.

“—absurd—”

“—can’t be sure that—”

“—stop it even if—”

“—believe a word of that nonsense!”

My hand came down hard on the table. The resulting crack cut through the noise like spellfire, and the men settled down, although I drew hostile looks from Umburter and Seabrook.

“Apply the same lessons of etiquette you would enforce on your own blood,” I said coldly, my gaze sweeping over the highbloods. “Don’t interrupt me again.”

The room went still in tacit admission of their rudeness. I waited the length of three breaths, then continued. “There are few enough who can claim to know the mind of Agrona Vritra, but Seris is one of them. He will burn this world as fodder to return to the land of the asura, and all of us with it. The rest of the Scythes and Sovereigns are prepared to follow him even to that end, but Seris is not.”

“And—if you fine lords will excuse my speaking,” Chamberlain Geoffrey said in his deep voice, “what part does the disappearance of Sovereigns Orlaeth and Kiros Vritra play into this rebellion? One hears all kinds of strange rumors.” His sharp eyes narrowed as he watched me closely for a response. “I’ve even heard it suggested that Seris has somehow been assassinating them…with the help of the golden-eyed man from the Victoriad.”

I was ready for the question—and the mention of Grey. Tongues hadn’t yet stopped wagging about his appearance, seemingly from nowhere, at the Victoriad. There were also those who suspected he had something to do with the destruction here in Vechor, although official sources had claimed it to be a tragic accident with an artifact from the Relictombs.

“Sovereign Kiros is currently in chains beneath Taegrin Caelum,” I said pointedly, standing straight and crossing my arms under my chest. “As for Sovereign Orlaeth, well…” Here, Seris wasn’t quite ready to let the full truth out, fearing that, should word get back to Agrona, it would somehow help him disable her defenses. “Just know that he has been incapacitated, but not killed.”

The gathered highbloods stared around at each other, their expressions mostly falling within the spectrum of incredulity. Ainsworth shifted in his seat. Frost leaned back in his chair, causing it to creak. Umburter picked a sliver from the side of the table and frowned down at it, disgusted.

“What does Seris want with us?” Maylis asked. She was reclined back in the wooden tavern chair, one leg crossed over the other, her fingertips fiddling at the golden hilt of a dagger.

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Seabrook barked out, “Soldiers, obviously,” before I could respond.

“No, she needs legitimacy,” Ainsworth said in answer, the first words he’d spoken since my arrival. “Support to establish that this is more than an upstart rebellion meant for a sudden and violent end.”

“But is it?” Wolfrum asked, looking to Frost for support.

The athletic older man nodded to Wolfrum. “Young Redwater asks a good question. While I am not so cowardly that I would refuse to say aloud that this continent has extensive problems, the reality is that we are ruled over by literal deities. We’ve all seen endless broadcasts of the wreckage the asura attacks left in Dicathen. And the High Sovereign has many such Vritra at his command, each one capable of crushing entire armies. There is no standing up against that.”

Grabbing the nearest chair, I turned it around and sat down, my arms on the backrest. “I’m glad you’re aware the castles we all live in are made of sand.” This proclamation was met with another round of exchanged glances and murmuring. “Lovingly crafted and beautiful, perhaps, but standing only because a Sovereign hasn’t yet decided to knock it down. What good is your blood if, for even the most meager slight, an irritated, irrational god can wipe it away with one breath, then have forgotten you entirely by the next?”

Frost shifted in his seat. Maylis went still, her body carrying the tension of a coiled spring despite her relaxed posture. Umburter looked down at his hands, his face pale.

“And yet,” I said more softly, “the High Sovereign hasn’t smashed the shield around western Sehz-Clar or slaughtered Seris, and every day another city in Dicathen falls, taken back by the people of that continent. His control is already slipping.”

I focused on Seabrook, and the others did as well. The plum-faced man raised his chins proudly. “You asked about the golden-eyed man,” I said. “No, he hasn’t been sneaking around Alacrya slitting Sovereign throats. Because it is he who has been single-handedly retaking the continent of Dicathen, just as it was he who burned the military encampment to the north of Victorious.”

Exeter let out a low whistle. “So it’s true then? Ascender Grey is Dicathian?”

I nodded. “He arrived on our continent to master the Relictombs. And he has succeeded.”

Maylis let out a shocked scoff. “But what does that even mean, Caera? To master the Relictombs?”

“Simple.” My lips curved in a nonchalant smile. “To master the Relictombs means to master aether.”

This was one of the hardest parts. Seris wanted these people to see Grey as some kind of folk hero, more myth than man. Even given everything I’d seen him do, though, it was difficult for me to think of him that way.

“In all your ascents have you ever met someone who can navigate anywhere they want in the Relictombs?” I asked, still focused on Maylis.

“That’s impossible,” she said immediately.

“Or, Highlord Frost, have you ever seen an ascender spontaneously receive a new rune without a bestowment?”

“No,” he said slowly, rolling the word around in his mouth as if considering its implications.

“I have,” I said simply, the statement devoid of gravitas. “Because I ascended alongside Grey through many zones and watched him do these things, and many more besides.”

Chamberlain Geoffrey’s gaze was very far away, but across the table from him, Wolfrum was staring intently at me. “Then what my friend in Taegrin Caelum told me—”

“You mean the Wraiths?” I asked, and all eyes turned to him. He shrank in on himself nervously. “Tell them what happened,” I prodded.

His gaze darted all over the table as he took in a deep breath, obviously steeling himself for whatever else he had to say. “He said, well there were rumors that…a battle group of Wraiths”—he whispered the word “Wraiths”—“was destroyed on the other continent.”

“But the Wraiths are a fairy story, a—” Umburter started to say, but Wolfrum cut him off with a violent shake of his head.

“They’re not! The Redwaters, they”—he swallowed with some difficulty—“wanted me to be one, when my blood manifested. Only…” He trailed off.

Seabrook cleared his throat, somewhat nervously I thought. “Are you suggesting that this Ascender Grey killed them?”

“It’s true,” Ainsworth answered in Wolfrum’s stead. “I had men in that battle, one of them my own nephew. He described how the Scythes were crushing the enemy’s generals as terrible magic was unleashed in the distance, but then a golden-eyed man appeared and threw down a Vritra horn for all to see, and Scythes Melzri and Viessa retreated with a bow.”

“They bowed to the man?” Chamberlain Geoffrey burst out, scandalized.

Again, the table broke down into muttering and cross-chatter, but this time I let the moment linger.

“You all saw for yourself what he did at the Victoriad,” I said when the noise had quieted down. “Alone, armies can’t fight asura. But with a man such as Grey leading them…”

I let the words linger. I expected someone to argue, claim a foreigner couldn’t possibly lead Alacryans, or that we’d just be replacing one authoritarian deity for another, but, to my surprise, that wasn’t the response I got.

“Eight battle groups made it back to my blood before the long-range teleporters were deactivated,” Lord Exeter said, his low voice now soft. “They all shared the same story: this ascender Grey gave them a choice, multiple times, to come home rather than die.”

“Sounds like eight groups of cowards to me,” Seabrook huffed.

Exeter’s scowl was a violent, nearly physical thing.

“I’ve heard the same from several others,” Ainsworth pointed out, his focus also on Seabrook. “Apparently our enemy is more gentle with the lives of our men than our own leaders are.”

I stood suddenly, stepping around my chair and closer to Exeter, the fingertips of my right hand trailing along the table’s edge. “Do you know what the asuran word for our kind is?” No one answered. “Lessers.”

Frost watched me thoughtfully. To his side, Ainsworth investigated the scarred tabletop as if it were a battle map. Wolfrum’s mismatched eyes followed me now, no longer bouncing around the other highlords. Seabrook was silent and brooding, Umburter unfocused, appearing lost, Exeter somewhere in between. Geoffrey was leaning forward on the table, tapping his lips with one finger as he contemplated everything that had been said. Maylis wore the stoic expression of one who had looked into the face of death often and fought for everything she’d ever had.

“To the Vritra, there is no difference between the most powerful highblood mage and the lowliest unblooded unadorned. To them, you are all lesser, and that is all any of us will ever be. And as lessers, our lives are only as valuable as what they can be traded for, sacrificed for. A commodity.”

Umburter was nodding along now. Seabrook’s cheeks had flushed red as wine.

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“Seris is not content to let the lessers of this world be burned as fuel for a war of asuras. I am not content, Grey is not, and so together we will fight to ensure you are not so misused.” Frost’s hands clenched into fists. A silly, drunken smirk stretched across Wolfrum’s face. “Even if you will not,” I finished somberly.

The words settled over the table like a heavy snowfall, blanketing everyone and dulling all other noise. Even the inn’s barroom seemed to go quiet for just a moment.

And through the silence, I felt them. Several powerful mana signatures approaching from down the street.

No one else had sensed them, but Maylis must have caught the sudden tension in my stance, because she stood and rested a hand on her dagger. “What is it?”

“Mages—powerful ones.” I scanned the faces, all tensed like silk hoppers about to spring as they waited for me to give an order. I didn’t need them to give me any further indication of their support; that moment of servility from these otherwise decisive and commanding men revealed how the perception of power had shifted within the room.

“Go,” I said, and they all began to move.

Young Lord Umburter threw a cloak around his shoulders, and suddenly I found myself blinking rapidly, no longer able to focus on him. Although plain, the cloak was enchanted so that my attention would slide right off of him.

The others all had similar magical accouterments to keep them safe and unnoticed, but I didn’t wait to investigate each one by one.

Pulling the door open slowly, I peeked into the hall before leaving the room. There was no one to be seen, so I hurried toward the back door. Halfway there, an arm slid through mine. Surprised, I started to pull away, then belatedly realized it was Maylis.

Grinning, she grabbed a bottle of some deep red liquor from a shelf against the wall, pulled the cork with her teeth, and took a long quaff. When my further surprise showed on my face, she gave a throaty chuckle and said, “What? We’re just a couple of old friends meeting for a drink in these uncertain times. Come on.”

Then she was trying to pour the liquor into my mouth, laughing all the while.

After recovering from my near drowning, we went out the door, not quietly, but with Maylis kicking it open and cheering into the cool night. It still smelled of rain, although the storm had let up while I’d been in the inn.

Arm in arm, we left the alleyway and Maylis guided me to the right.

“You know, Caera, I’m pretty surprised your blood never manifested,” she said conversationally, her breath fogging slightly. “Of the Vritra-blooded kids I was paraded around in front of, you seemed the most focused.”

I felt a wriggle of guilt through my insides, but this was a truth Seris and I weren’t ready to tell anyone yet. “I’m certain my adoptive parents would agree with you. Although, surprised and disappointed would probably describe their disposition more completely.”

Behind us, I sensed the mana signatures stopping somewhere around the inn. My mana was still suppressed, and I could sense that Maylis had taken the same precaution.

Maylis chuckled and handed me the bottle. I took a sip, then asked, “How long ago did yours manifest? And I don’t recall hearing of Highblood Tremblay before.”

“Four years,” she said, pulling me to the side so we didn’t tromp through a large puddle. “And I’m not surprised. After I manifested, I spent some time—about three years and six months, to be exact—training in Taegrin Caelum. And being poked and prodded by about forty different researchers. Whatever they were looking for, though, I must not have had it. About six months ago, they sent me on my way with a new name and title—Matron Tremblay—and now I’ve got properties and estates and servants and…well, it’s quite the change.”

“But you still go on ascents,” I stated, certain by her reaction earlier that she was no stranger to the Relictombs.

Her answering smirk was wry. “Much to everyone’s chagrin, abso-fucking-lutely. I’m not just going to sit on my ass for the rest of my life.” She suddenly peered at me, and one brow quirked up slightly. “So, this Grey guy. You two had a lot of alone time, huh?” Her eyebrows wiggled up and down, reminding me of Regis for some strange reason. “I only saw the broadcasts, but he seemed pretty hot…”

I felt myself go red in the face as I realized what she was insinuating. “Maylis! You really do have a lot to learn about being a highblood…”

But my embarrassment only made her laugh harder.

We continued on like this for a few blocks, then Maylis released me. “Whoever those mages were, they don’t seem to be following us. Pity, I wouldn’t have minded a fight.” She grinned, shoving me playfully as I began to protest. “Anyway, I’m off in this direction. I do hope we see each other again soon, Caera. It seems like things are about to get really interesting here in Alacrya.”

“I hope we can rely on Highblood Tremblay for support,” I said formally, then, more conversationally, added, “because ‘interesting’ isn’t the word I’d choose for the times ahead, and I’d feel better facing them with you on our side.”

She laughed, loud and carefree. “Always so focused, as I said. Farewell, Caera.” She spun away and began taking long, purposeful strides. “Oh, and of course, don’t die,” she shot over her shoulder before dipping into the shadows of an unlit street.

The mirth slipped away, her words conjuring a wary melancholy into its place. “I can only do my best,” I said to myself, then turned and hurried toward the back-alley tempus warp I would use to return back to the eastern edge of Sehz-Clar, outside the asura-powered shields.

I became aware of the figure shadowing me almost instantly, though I couldn’t be certain if they’d been there before and I’d missed them, or if they’d just appeared. I didn’t hurry my pace, but kept up a steady march as my mind raced. Their mana signature wasn’t overwhelming, but it could be a stronger mage partially shielding their presence, or just a scout or spy sent to track me to my destination or keep other, stronger mages apprised of my location.

After a couple of minutes, I made a sharp turn away from my eventual destination, drawing my pursuer into a tightly-packed residential area with limited line of sight.

After my third quick turn, I stopped and drew my blade. When the figure stepped around the corner, they found scarlet steel at their throat. I peered into the shadows under their hood, but it was too deep and too dark, hiding their features.

“Don’t move,” I ordered. “State your name and purpose immediately.”

They were motionless, their hands out to their sides. From beneath the hood, a husky, raw voice said, “Can I move my lips, or—well, supposing I can’t, I guess it’d be too late for me anyway, but since you aren’t running me through, I guess I can.”

I felt my features pinch into a confused frown as the man rambled. “Who are you, and why are you following me?”

Slowly, hands raised up to the sides of the hood, pulling it down to reveal an older man, heavyset, with middle-length gray hair and an unkempt beard.

“Lady Caera,” the familiar figure stated, his eyes nearly crossing as he tried to look at the point of my sword.

“Alaric,” I replied, plucking the name from the fog, only partially remembered. “To what pleasure do I owe such an unlooked-for visit from Grey’s counterfeit uncle this fine night?”

“I could hardly stand to see you playing patty cake with those prissy, over-pruned nobles.” He chuckled, and his glassy eyes went dark. “It won’t be enough, lass. No, if you want to foment a rebellion, you need to look a lot lower.”

I withdrew my weapon but didn’t stow it. My mind whirled with questions, but I held back, still reserved. I didn’t know this man well, and had only his tenuous connection to Grey for assurance.

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“Continue.”

Alaric grinned, showing off yellowing teeth. “You need friends in low places, and nobody’s got more friends, and none lower, than me.” He hesitated, and there was a twinkle in his eye. “And my service will only cost you a bottle of mead for the walk.”

The Beginning After The End (Web Novel) Chapter 403: Highbloods in Low Places
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