OF DARKNESS & DAWN
Alagaeus, Regent of the East, hadn't sat and received petitioners in almost five hundred years. He was rather looking forward to it.
The castle around him was hardly appropriate to his grandeur, mere blocks of stone raised from the quarries of Erin. Erin was what they called this tiny continent, which had once been the border of Tharlos and Othaghor, the site of constant war between life and chaos. There were worlds of unimaginable wonders beneath their feet, palaces built from the bones of giants and crystals that outshone the moon, but they had tried to give him a home of matchsticks. Nothing lasting was ever made of wood.
So he had raised the earth, crafting a castle to his own specifications. It would require another few decades of sculptors and artisans to make it worth inhabiting, but at least it wasn't shameful. Their wooden mansion had crumbled away before it, as the ground quaked and stones rose from the depths.
He sat in a throne of polished granite, with marble beneath his feet and a staff of gold in his hand, awaiting the arrival of a supplicant pleading his mercy. For the first time in the two years since he'd been roused from his deep slumber, he felt something approaching contentment.
“Let the peasant approach,” he called, and two of his servants bowed to acknowledge his order. Alagaeus couldn't help but admire the way his voice echoed in this chamber. No one in the current age could match his knowledge of architecture, it seemed.
They didn't use the word “peasant” in the Empire anymore, but there was nothing more fitting to describe this woman. She looked to be in her second decade, but life had aged her prematurely, etching early lines on her skin and fraying her hair. She wore what might as well have been a brown sack, wringing a tired kerchief in her hands.
She would look up at him and see the exact opposite of herself, the grand sun to her worthless dirt. He wore layered robes heavy with silver and precious gems, the window over his throne tilted so that sunlight always highlighted his magnificence. His skin was dark, like that of the Emperor, displaying his proud Heartlander heritage, and his eyes—he was sure—held all the wisdom of a thousand years. He had only experienced about a hundred of those years firsthand, but surely his decades warring with the Elders counted as centuries. His golden staff, its head twining around an emerald the size of his fist, contained enough power to level cities. Indeed, it was the Intent in this Awakened artifact that had raised the castle around him.
The crystallized heart of an ancient Kameira was held in this staff, crystallized by his own Intent and a secret process of alchemy. He was one of the first Soulbound in the world, and certainly the strongest.
Thoughts of Estyr Six and the Emperor flitted through his mind, but he pushed them aside. The Emperor had let himself be murdered at last, and Estyr had always lacked the will to truly rule. She would eventually allow time to bring her low, while he never intended to age another day. Surely, by any objective measure, he was the most powerful among them.
And now this peasant woman, this simple mother, knelt in the presence of a deity made flesh. A Soulbound whose powers shook the very earth. So what if he wasn't...quite as tall as average, particularly in this age? On his throne, he towered above any man.
She saw his majesty; he could see the respect in her trembling limbs. It inclined him to be gracious.
He nodded to her as she bowed. “Woman, speak your request before me, and I shall see it weighed with due gravity.”
She looked anywhere but at his eyes, which was as it should be, but her hands continued working on that kerchief. The fabric was as old and ragged as any dishcloth, and he shuddered to imagine that she might use something so filthy to cover her hair.
“Lord Regent,” she began, just as he instructed all his petitioners, “I don't...well, it's the soldiers. They've been a little restless and all, this past while, and...I mean, things are getting real bad.”
“I abolished the army,” he said, confused. There was no need of an Imperial army under his Regency, at least not in his quadrant. There could be no Aurelian Empire without an Emperor, so it was pure foolishness to keep a standing Aurelian army. He and his privately trained Readers and Soulbound would be enough force to combat any assault.
“That's the thing, Lord Regent. They don't have anything to keep them busy, so they're making trouble for honest folk. They took my son to join them, though he didn't want to, they took all the food in my house, and they took every coin I had. I tried to go to the Guilds, but they sent me to you.”
The Guilds. The ten pillars of the Empire! They were gas in the wind compared to the Guilds of yesteryear. The ancient Blackwatch would have never allowed such a disgraceful eruption in Elder activity such as followed the Emperor's death; they would have captured any Elders, killed the Elder-touched, and burned whole villages to the ground until the threat was contained. The Luminian Order had begun preaching peace, they who had once led humanity to war, and the Magisters! They were the worst of all. Rather than plumbing the depths of Reading and the infinite power of human Intent, they spent their time trying to dredge up artifacts of a past they knew nothing about.
The Guilds were useless. Of course they would be no help. It infuriated him that anyone would think otherwise.
“I should think they would send you to me! As surely as summer turns to winter, so the weak will defer to the strong. The meanest men and women know nothing of the burden shouldered by the great on their behalf, and still they beg for more!”
Thoughts of the Guilds always angered him. How had the Emperor allowed them such authority? He could have steered the Empire himself! Whoever heard of a ship with ten captains? Everyone in the modern world was complicit in madness, steering the planet toward sheer destruction!
Alagaeus calmed himself only when he realized the floor was shaking. His Vessel took his anger, magnifying it from the pathetic spark of mortal irritation into the wrath of the earth. The entire castle, and possibly the whole town, trembled with his rage.
He settled down, somewhat satisfied by the stark terror on the simple woman's face. She recognized true power when she saw it. The thought did much to quiet his just passions.
“The fury of a king is more frightening than a sea in storm,” he intoned, over the sound of grinding stone. “You would do well to remember that.”
She tried to disguise her shaking as a bow, and he sent out a rush of Intent through his staff.
The castle stopped instantly, the air inflating with silence.
“Continue your plea,” he ordered.
“Well, sir, they're...what I mean to say is, they're gathering today, sir. I think they've gathered enough men, and they intend to stage a demonstration against you and yours. I thought that maybe, since they're starting something so big, you might take the side of those of us caught in the middle. Please. Sir Regent.”
“Insurrection?” he mused aloud.
After a moment, his amusement escaped in a cackle. “Destiny has never before been so kind as to deliver exactly what I desire. Stay still, woman, and see how a true Emperor quiets rebellion.”
Alagaeus hopped down from the throne, staff tapping on the floor as he marched over to the blank wall behind him.
I need a window, he thought, and that was all his power needed to flow out from him in a focused wave. His Intent rushed through his staff, pushing out of the Kameira heart at the end, his Soulbound Vessel seizing the earth of the wall.
Half a second after he glanced at the wall, a massive square chunk of stone slid out. The ten-ton block skidded out with a deafening sound of grinding rock, crashing to the square below like thunder. Dust billowed, and a few people screamed, but that was all beyond him.
His senses had already moved on.
Other Readers focused on fine details, on the history of individual objects, but he had always found such petty concerns beneath him. He watched the bigger picture, the currents weaving throughout the ocean of Intent. The Emperor was always so proud of his ability to see into a man's heart, well, Alagaeus could Read the intentions of entire cities. Working broadly, on the scale of whole armies and vast mountains, no one in all of history could match Alagaeus.
Hunger, grief, frustration, short tempers: the bakery has collapsed in the eastern edge of town, a simple issue of poor maintenance from short-sighted owners. That quarter is experiencing a shortage, and all are irritated as a result. A delivery of food there will cement their loyalty to him, etching his name in their hearts.
Elsewhere, the unseasonable cold takes its toll. A handful of homeless die every night, leaving stains of their desperate intent lingering on the fabric of his city. He spares no thought for them; they cannot help him, and they do not merit his attention. In the western quarter, sullen anger mixes with fear.
There. He knows those feelings, roiling together like a stirred cauldron. This is the tide that brought the Elders low, lifting man to his rightful place on the throne of the world. Rebellion.
He focuses on the western edge, narrowing his sight from the whole tapestry to a single thread.
A group of men meet, discussing anger and desperation. They plot against their ruler for some imagined slight, a futile ploy from futile men. A lack of purpose is the fuel in this fire, and if Alagaeus were so inclined, he could crush their nascent rebellion by hiring them into his personal guard. But he has no need of a guard, and he must send a message.
These men are hoarding weapons, their Intent flowing into the tools in little eddies of violence and reluctance. “Just in case,” they tell themselves.”
Those weapons would never be used. Alagaeus swore such to himself, and smiled. This humble petitioner had told him the truth, and as such, she had earned herself a reward.
In truth, it was a reward for him too.
He reversed his staff in both hands, tapping the crystallized emerald heart against the floor of the castle. The Kameira's natural control over stone joined with his Intent, guided by his will, rippling out over the city. Power washed over the central streets, leaving a few Readers confused, but affecting no one. The hungry in the eastern quarters noticed nothing, unharmed.
Just before the wave of Intent hit the ex-soldiers massing at the western edge of town, he gestured at the peasant woman to come forward. “Attend and watch,” he said. “This is the help I send those loyal to me.”
She stepped forward, still shivering, not daring to stand side-by-side with him. That was as it should be. His vision was too broad to Read her Intent clearly, but her feelings merged with the rest of the castle's, and he caught broad notes of fear and intimidation. Everything in its place.
When the ripple of Intent hit the western edge of town, the earth exploded.
Beneath the feet of men who had plotted to rebel against him, paving-stones launched themselves upwards with the force of cannons. The insurrectionists were torn to bloody rags, their weapons falling discarded on the street. Earth swallowed some, belching up dust and smoke as it split apart. Flying rocks decimated others, tearing through their bodies like cannonballs. Still others died as plates of rock flipped up from under the soil, landing to crush whole groups.
It occurred to him that she may have said something about her son being forced to join these soldiers, and that she would probably have wanted some guarantee of the boy's safety. Well, there was no pulling the arrow back to the bow. Besides, a brutal lesson was often the best kind: through her entire life, she would never forget to respect him.
Still, he should make some comment to let her know that he had done this with intentional disregard to her son's life. Mortals made mistakes, but immortal cruelty was measured and precise.
Something pricked his neck, like a stinging insect, and he raised a hand to swat it away...only to realize, with a flare of irritation, that his hand wouldn't obey his command. For a brief moment, it seemed absurd: the earth could erupt beneath his enemies a mile away, but his own hand staged a coup?
Then came a second sting on the other side of his neck, and a length of impossibly cold pain in his back.
The woman's face leaned over his shoulder, as though she were peering past him to get a better look. “You won't destroy the Empire,” she whispered in his ear. “We will stand united. Without you.”
He struggled to muster his Intent, to crush her with a block of stone, but his thoughts were growing sleepier. He threw another pulse of will at his Vessel, but the Soulbound link between them was too tight. The crystallized emerald heart pulsed one last, slow message to him. It didn't come in so many words, but the general impression was clear.
As the earth rests, so do we.
The light faded from his eyes, but he couldn't escape his confusion. How dare she kill him without giving him any answers! Who was she? A Consultant? No, the Am'haranai were allies; they stood with the Regents for independence. They would never have sent an agent to do this, though their assassins had been legendary even when he was a child.
Who, then? Who had the ability to slay Alagaeus, the shaper of deserts and builder of cities? He who had laid the bedrock of the Empire and buried the Great Elders? He was meant to die under the claws of Kthanikahr or the blades of legendary assassins, not stabbed in the back by a simple peasant.
Not alone, in a castle he had built with his will.
Not like this.
Estyr Six was born Estyr Fourteen.
In her homeland, almost two thousand years ago, the grip of the Elders was weak. They lived in tribes high in the Dylian mountain range, hunting droves of Kameira for their powers in order to survive the harsh weather. Back then, they had a saying: “On the peaks, the Elders bow to the blizzards.”
Every year, when the passes thawed, the tribes would go to war with one another. They were more like festivals compared to the Elder War, but they had seemed serious enough at the time. Few people outright died, but many were shamed or exiled, some mutilated or injured beyond repair. The families fought for rank, and the highest-ranking families earned the right to live lower down the mountains. The storms were weaker, the food more plentiful, but the enemies closer. The strongest deserved to live at the base, because they had to stay strong enough to repel outsiders.
When she was a girl, Estyr's family was Fourteenth, which meant that they struggled in the high passes. Anything more than thin soup was a treat, and they knew that every winter meant a brother or sister lost to the cold.
Eventually, she had decided to do something about it. If strength could move her family down the mountain, she only had to get stronger.
That spring, she entered the high passes alone. She fashioned a spear herself, with a head of bone. And unaided, she slew a Cloudseeker Hydra: the Kameira who flew above the clouds, who summoned blizzards, who could overturn mountain peaks with the force of its Intent.
The body alone would have sold for a fortune; enough to keep her family safe for many winters to come. But she didn't come home. She cut off the head of the Hydra and carried it with her, strapped to her back.
Until she found a second Cloudseeker Hydra. This one was bigger, and legend said it had wiped out the entire Fifteen family only a season past. She rigged traps, prepared her bait, and soon she had two rotting heads on her back.
When she earned her third, she made her way back to the family.
By the time she managed to bond the skulls as her Soulbound Vessels, earning the power of the Hydras as her own, the Elder War had broken out in earnest. The man they called the Liberator had started a war against Nakothi, and all the Great Elders were stirred up. Some moved against others, some began a campaign of eradication against the humans, and still others took actions that made no rational sense at all.
Estyr hadn't cared. Instead, she defeated the eight families that showed up for the spring wars.
All at once.
Thus, in one leap, did Estyr Fourteen become Estyr Six. Even when the ambassadors of Kelarac came to her passes and the worms of Kthanikahr passed beneath her feet, she still ignored all news of the war. Her family was warm, and safe, and they had access to more food than she had ever imagined. Better yet, they wrapped her in praise as their protector. Their savior. Their hero.
That autumn, before the heavy snows fell, she traveled to seek out the other families and demonstrate her strength. By the time the next of the springtime wars began, she intended to be Estyr One.
It was Kthanikahr, the Worm Lord, who descended upon the Dylian Mountains. Before she could begin to grasp reality, before she understood her enemy, all her people were dead. And she would be Estyr Six forever.
She had battled the Great Elder himself on the slopes of the mountain where she'd been born. There were no mountains there anymore.
Today, people called it the Dylian Basin.
Until her death, she would protect it as its Regent. This time, no one and nothing would take away the people under her watch. Not a Great Elder itself, and not...whatever this was.
She rubbed the head of grain between her fingers. She was no farmer, but she was fairly sure wheat was supposed to be rich and golden. Not slimy, discolored, and stinking like a thousand burning corpses. She looked up and scanned fields that should have been amber for harvest, but were instead purple and crumbling.
“We thought it might have been Elders, my lady,” the farmer said, resting a pitchfork against his shoulder. The locals had been very concerned about what to call her; apparently “Estyr” wasn't good enough. They had settled on “my lady,” though she couldn't have possibly cared any less.
“Maybe...” she said, still rolling the rotted wheat in between thumb and forefinger. This wouldn't be a standard move for any of the Great Elders, unless Othaghor or Ach'magut had decided to pull some subtle trick that was beyond her. Or if Tharlos had gained a particularly mild sense of humor.
Still, there were a million kinds of Elder out there without enough power to be called Great. Maybe one of them blighted grain.
But she doubted it. “This feels like alchemy, to me. Bring a sample of the soil and a box of the wheat to the nearest Kanatalia chapter house. If they can't find anything, I'll take another look. If it is an Elderspawn at work, it's a weird one.”
He chuckled, but there was little humor in it. “It's weird, all right, but it's also going to keep meals from our tables this winter.”
Two hundred years ago, the last time Estyr woke, she'd been appalled to find everyone stiff and formal. There were intricate manners for glancing across a room, it seemed, and she was worried that the whole Empire would be filled with walking copies of Loreli. The founder of the Luminian Order could get away with being stiff as a spear all the time, but it made everyone else come across like a living statue.
But she loved the current age. All the ordinary people were so earthy and straightforward, down to every word they spoke. It was as though the Emperor had taken steps to ensure that the next time Estyr woke, she would be more at home.
Knowing him, he might have done just that.
The thought sent a pang of sadness and regret flitting through her chest...and it woke the notice of her Vessels.
Around her head, three lizard skulls about the size of an alligator's floated in an eternal orbit. Now they were dried, bleached with time, but once they had each graced the neck of a Cloudseeker Hydra.
“Do not mourn him!” they shouted. “Become him! Rule, as he should have! Rule as only you can rule! You deserve to be Estyr One—Estyr, the One Above All!”
They weren't exactly words, but so specific as to be close enough. They filled her with ambition, with a regal sense of self, with the desire to fly above the world and see it all trampled beneath her. The arrogance of the Cloudseeker Hydras, combined with her own immature Intent as she defeated them and brandished their skulls as trophies.
They were her own pride, writ large. And they were her power.
But they did not own her.
She grinned, focusing on her fondness for the modern people rather than her Vessels' disdain. Estyr clapped the man on the shoulder, a gesture that would have had Loreli protesting its impropriety and Alagaeus furious at the casual contact. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it. Nobody goes hungry.”
He looked dazed, as though she'd struck him with a club. “But...the blight...”
Estyr motioned, sending a flood of her Intent out and seizing the entire crop in an invisible hand. She scooped up the soil and wheat alike, gouging a crater out of the field. The ball of dirt hovered in the air, big enough to bury a big chunk of the houses behind her, and she piled it to the side. “Now it won't spread. Take a sample to Kanatalia, get it checked out, and I'll re-plant your crop myself. If you lose a single stalk, your family's eating at my table this winter.”
Judging from the flow of his Intent, the man was struggling to decide whether to be horrified at her treatment of his crops, awed at her power, or moved by her generosity. Tears appeared in his eyes, and he started stammering, but she laughed and walked on. She didn't need to hear thanks, or blame, or compliments, or complaints.
She could Read exactly how he felt. More importantly, she knew his family would be fine. That was enough.
Estyr lifted herself into the air, her long black coat flapping behind her, Hydra skulls spinning in a macabre halo over her head. She rarely thought about their power merging with her Intent anymore, she just used them. It took even less thought than using her hands.
Only when they blazed with ambition did she have to put them down. It was a struggle every time, but the habit was most important: when she told them no, she strengthened her barrier against them.
Long ago, there had once been a debate about whether Soulbound really fought against the desires of their Vessels, or if the Vessels merely reflected hidden pieces of the Soulbound's personality. Estyr suspected that, like many debates, the truth remained hidden in the middle. If the power of her Soulbound Vessels came both from her invested Intent and the abilities of the original Kameira, then it made sense to her that the Vessels would take on aspects of both. The Hydras were arrogant, and she had been arrogant to challenge them.
Now, she fought daily to suppress that arrogance, but she didn't resent the fight. If that was the only price of her power, she'd gladly pay it.
So long as it helped her build something that would last.
A column of smoke rose from the north end of the town, rising black against the white of the distant peaks. She flew toward it with a thought, and soon she saw flames beneath her.
The Hydras crowed at the sight, delighting in the destruction. It raised memories of Nakothi's death, and the devastation that had swallowed an entire continent.
Strangely, Estyr felt a bit nostalgic for those times herself. It was rare that she got to lose herself in a contest.
But she commanded her power, her Vessels didn't get a say. And someone down there was in trouble. That took precedence over everything else.
She alighted in the crowd standing around the burning building, skulls spinning around her head. “What's the situation?”
“Everyone's out,” a woman said, shading her eyes to stare into the flames. “That was Yolvic's house, poor man. Can’t do anything about it now. We've got it so it won't spread, and he's on a trip abroad, praise be to the Emperor.”
The Emperor had nothing to do with it, Estyr thought, but another wave of mild grief came with the thought. She'd spent her share of years furious at the Emperor, but she'd still assumed he would last forever. It had never occurred to her that she might wake up one day and he wouldn't be the one pulling her out of the coffin, telling her exactly what had changed and what crisis she needed to solve.
Together, they'd built the world. Now he was gone, and she didn't know what to do with it.
“I think I can get the fire out a little sooner,” Estyr said, “maybe keep a few of the rooms intact. Might be something in there Yolvic wants to keep. You're sure everyone's out?”
She turned to a commotion in the crowd to her left, alerted more by the flow of Intent than by the sound. A group of men were alarmed, trying to restrain a young man with nothing but pure, focused determination in his soul. He was focused on something to the exclusion of all other thought.
“My baby!” he shouted. “My baby's in there!”
He broke loose, struggling free with brute force, and darted into the building. She thought about snatching him up with her Intent, but hesitated. If his child was really inside, she didn't have any right to stop him.
Alagaeus would have said that her power gave her the right, and her Vessels would agree, which was why she tried to do the opposite. People deserved to make their own choices, even when those choices were idiotic.
Not necessarily suicidal, though. It wasn't as though the entire building was completely ablaze; the fire seemed confined to the second story, licking through a few windows. Unless the man threw himself into the flames, he would be in more danger from the smoke, but she could always pull his unconscious body free. More pressing was this baby. If there was a child in the house, that needed to be her top priority.
She stepped closer, sending her senses into the home.
The chair is crafted with comfort in mind, as a gift to the woman he loves. The crib has been polished to a gleam in expectation of children, then neglected for years in a haze of sadness. The fireplace is made out of red stones, which he fishes up from the river and considers lucky. They will protect his house from disease, from Elders, from vague threats that live firmly in the future. The weathervane is crooked, but it was forged by his father's hand, and it predicts the wind more accurately than anyone else's.
Infants were too young to have developed proper Intent, so she might have trouble picking up on the presence of a very young child, but nothing else in the house gave her the impression that there had been a baby living there for decades, if ever.
Maybe he's a visitor. Maybe he's a fugitive hiding in the attic, I don't know. There could be a hundred explanations. A strong part of her urged to rush to the man's aid; after all, there was a child in danger.
What had started the fire?
With a bubble of force around her to ward away the smoke, Estyr Six walked inside.
She heard the crack of a gun, and then something impacted her bubble hard enough to send her spinning to one side. Her Intent vanished, forcibly dispersed with a pain like someone had torn her brain in half. She staggered against the wall, bracing herself against a support beam.
It was the man who had screamed in the crowd, standing aside, holding a smoking gun. He tossed it to the side, his Intent still radiating absolute focus.
An invested gun. How did he manage that? Invested bullets were notoriously unreliable, jamming or altering the mechanics of the gun nine times out of ten, and firearms were too complex to be reliably invested, much less Awakened. Any Intent tended to sink into one part or another, and the machine ended up turning against itself.
But he had fired a bullet that had ripped through her Intent. It had to be Awakened, at the very least. Perhaps he was the world's first Soulbound with a pistol as a Vessel, or maybe there was some strange alchemy in the bullets.
Either way, she was so dizzy that she couldn't seem to focus her power.
He raised a second pistol, finger tightening on the trigger.
The skulls roared, and Estyr found herself involuntarily sucked into a Reader's trance. The air is sharper than a knife, the wind cold enough to freeze blood, and everywhere the world is white. She pushes herself through the snow, to a blue-scaled corpse the size of a bear. Its wings flop limply against the packed ice, its eyelids flutter, and around it the snow turns red.
She sees the next part as it actually happened, from both her own perspective and from the Hydra's. Estyr stands over the bleeding Kameira, blond hair blowing in the wind, clutching a jagged stone knife. “Grant me your power,” she whispers, and her Intent flows into the corpse. She cuts, the Hydra's neck flares with a line of pain, and her own pride merges with that of the dying creature.
The ball of lead froze in midair.
The would-be assassin's hand flicked to his belt, where he kept a pair of knives, but she wrapped him in an invisible grip. Around her, the smoke fled.
“You missed your chance,” she whispered, but he heard her. At her words, his Intent sickened with pure fear.
She blasted him out the side wall, along with half the house.
If she hadn't surrounded him with a bubble of force, he would have been reduced to paste. Instead, he tumbled over the ground as she drifted after him. Behind her, the house collapsed and the crowd scattered.
“Are you a Soulbound?” she asked, releasing her grip on him. He vomited on the grass at his feet, staggering in circles, struggling even to find the weapon on his belt. “No, I suppose not. No Soulbound. Maybe a Great Elder in human form? No?”
He flipped a tiny knife at her, which she didn't even bother to deflect. It slapped into her black coat and flopped to the ground. Throwing knives were terrible weapons.
“No. You're not even a Reader, are you? Then what makes you think you had a chance at my life?”
Her Vessels screamed in rage, filling her veins with pure fury, so she kept her voice as calm as she could. She couldn’t give them an inch, or they would consume her.
“You won't...destroy the Empire...” he panted. “We stand...united!”
“Ah. You're one of those Imperialists I've heard so much about.” Half of the Guilds seemed to want her to stand against any possibility of another Emperor, and the other half wanted her to wear the crown herself.
In her mind, it was very simple: the Emperor was dead. There would never be a second one.
It was time for humanity to grow up.
“You and I are about to have a long talk,” she said.
Her Vessels howled agreement, and for once, she didn't silence them.
“I won't betray—” he began, but she'd heard it before. With a flick of her thoughts, she wrung his left leg like a towel. It crunched and snapped, and he howled in pain.
“Okay, it doesn't have to be a long talk. You only have so many limbs.” It would have been just as easy for her to pull his leg out of the socket, but she didn't want him bleeding out.
He clutched his wrist and smiled. “One Regent can't rule the world.”
His Intent went wild, and his body shook. She raised him in the air, splaying his body like a corpse on display in an alchemy workshop.
There, on his left wrist: a needle embedded in the vein. Poison.
“One Regent,” she repeated aloud, considering. Either there would soon be attempts against the lives of the other three, or he wanted her to think there would be. She would need to make sure.
Again, her Vessels howled at her. “Do not tolerate this disrespect! Hunt down those who sent him, his friends, his family. Show them that you alone rule!”
And again, she forced them back. She’d slept for a dozen centuries, but she’d lived almost three. Decades of experience kept her will clad in iron, but she knew she could never slip. It was the knife’s edge on which she balanced her entire life.
As she flew away, she spared one last thought for the man's corpse.
She threw it so far, so fast, that it burned to scraps before it landed.
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