After a tortuous hour-long ride they broke into the parkland surrounding the arena where he forced Scar to full gallop, hearing a rising cacophony as they neared the great red-gold edifice. Something flickered in the corner of his eye and he turned to see a line of people running towards the arena’s south-facing wall, perhaps five hundred, all armed. His gaze went to the figure in the lead, picking out the dark blue cloak and the familiar, precise gait of his run. He angled Scar to the left, leaping corpses and thundering over marble and grass to charge into the path of the onrushing fighters, dragging him to a halt and raising his hand.

The charging line came to a slow stop as Frentis waved his sword. They were an odd bunch, men and women in motley armour bearing the marks of recent battle, some with Volarian colouring, others plainly Alpiran or of Realm origin. He breathed a sigh of relief at finding Weaver among them, standing amidst the only group in this company to present a truly soldierly appearance.

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“Brother!” Frentis greeted him, running to his side. Vaelin was struck by his appearance, besmirched with blood and soot from head to toe, his sword blade stained red from end to end. However, he took comfort from his gaze, aged since he had last seen him, but steady and free of the madness that seemed to have gripped this city.

Vaelin nodded at Weaver and the well-ordered Volarians surrounding him. “Are those Varitai?”

“They call themselves Politai now,” Frentis said. “It means ‘unchained’ in old Volarian.”

Vaelin glanced over his shoulder as Orven’s guards and the Sentar rode into view, the Ally among them, his posture now considerably more alert as he scanned the arena. Vaelin saw the smile playing on his lips. No need to conceal his anticipation now.

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“Unchained,” he repeated, turning back to Frentis. “As were you, brother.”

Frentis nodded, frowning a little in puzzlement. “Lady Reva,” he said, pointing his sword at the arena. “I have sound intelligence . . .”

“I know.” Vaelin climbed down from Scar’s back and drew his sword, striding towards the arena and beckoning Frentis to follow, speaking softly. “We do not have much time, so listen well . . .”

• • •

All sound of battle had faded by the time he entered the arena. They had been delayed by a few Kuritai found in the maze of corridors that led them here, but the Sentar and the guardsmen were numerous and skilled enough to cut them down without difficulty. Vaelin’s gaze tracked over the surrounding terraces as he stepped out onto the sand, finding them only a third full, nervous huddles of Volarian citizenry keeping their distance from companies of Realm Guard and Cumbraelin archers. The queen stood in the centre of the arena, smiling as she exchanged words with Reva, alongside what appeared to be a monstrous ape of some kind, lying dead with a spear jutting from its back.

Reva ran to him as he approached, her embrace fierce and warm. “Too late this time,” she chided, moving back to deliver a playful slap to his cheek.

He nodded and forced a smile, bowing to the queen as she came to greet him. “Highness. I am glad to see you well.”

“And you, my lord.” He found her gaze oddly cool, the unaffected smile she had shown him in the past now more considered. The greatest conquerer in Realm history, he reminded himself. More than a queen now.

“Lady Dahrena?” she asked, her gaze tracking over the company behind him.

He met her gaze and shook his head, seeing the brief spasm of lost composure she betrayed, her face clouding in genuine grief. “A . . . great loss, my lord.”

His gaze was drawn by a choking sound behind her, seeing another body slumped next to the monstrous ape, her eyes fixed not on him but on Frentis. Her lips moved in some form of greeting, spitting blood across the sand as her hands twitched.

“May I present Empress Elverah of the Volarian Empire,” the queen said.

Vaelin saw how Frentis paled and shifted at his side, seemingly unable to look away from the dying woman as she continued to voice her greeting. He stared at his brother until he turned, meeting his gaze and holding it, hoping he remembered his task. Frentis gave a barely perceptible nod and turned away from the Empress, drawing a plaintive groan from her as she clawed at the sand, desperately trying to pull herself closer to him.

“I have an introduction of my own,” Vaelin told the queen, beckoning to Orven’s guardsmen to bring the Ally.

“Your ageless Gifted?” the queen asked, casting a critical eye over the Ally’s bound form. He returned her gaze with a distracted nod and looked up at the surrounding tiers, eyes narrowed in careful calculation.

“Not exactly,” Vaelin said. “I don’t know his true name, but we have become accustomed to calling him the Ally.”

“I never liked that name,” the Ally commented in a faint tone. “Perhaps, in the years to come you can compose a better one. Something more poetic. You see, I have decided to become a god.”

Vaelin opened his mouth to command him to silence, and froze. He tried to raise his sword arm and found it immobile. He attempted to turn to Frentis but his neck refused to budge. All sensation had fled his limbs, the only movement in his chest which continued to draw breath, and his eyes which flicked about with panicked speed. He could see the queen, standing frozen with the same frown of critical scrutiny, Lord Iltis close behind her, still like a statue, as was every other living soul in sight, even those in the terraces above. The arena was silent now, save for the Empress’s dying gasps and the sound of the Ally’s soft steps on the sand as he moved closer to Vaelin, peering into his eyes.

“You asked about my gift,” he said. “Here it is, or one of them. So many years since I wielded it in this world without need of a proxy. Not so taxing now, thanks to you and your ageless friend. See?” He angled his head, moving it from side to side. “No blood. This body will sustain me for quite some time I suspect. Perhaps until the death of this world, though I’ve no desire to see that.”

He moved away, pausing to peer closely at Lyrna then Reva, just visible in the edges of Vaelin’s vision, as still as everyone else. “So well-made,” the Ally said, his gaze lingering on Reva. “Pity to spoil her, but this one will require a reward if she’s to continue as my dog.”

He moved away, going to the Empress, the only body in sight not frozen, though her movements were now confined to a faint twitching. The Ally went to his knees beside her, leaning back to press the ropes around his torso to the steel claws protruding from the hand of the dead ape. He grimaced with the effort, working himself up and down several times until the bonds gave away.

“Ahh,” the Ally breathed, standing upright and tossing Alturk’s ropes aside. “That’s better.” He flexed his arms for a brief moment then crouched to inspect the Empress, pursing his lips at the small glimmer still visible in her eye then grunting in satisfaction.

“I have often been called arrogant,” he said, looking up at Vaelin. “And I’ll admit to a certain reluctance in admitting failure. But, so many years of awareness have given me a new appreciation for humility. I did fail, of course, and Lionen tortured me to death for it. But it was the method rather than the intent that brought me down. The method was flawed. To attempt the slaughter of every Gifted in the world by myself, even with the ability to twist sufficiently malicious souls to my purpose, was all too great a task. But I had plenty of time to ponder a new approach.”

He bent to the sand and retrieved a fallen short sword before placing a foot under the Empress’s body and heaving her onto her back. “Why strive for the impossible?” he asked Vaelin. “When the endless greed of humanity can do it for me? It was to be the Volarians’ role, once moulded to suit my purpose. It never occurred to them why I always ensured there was never enough, no matter how many they bred in their pits, I simply gave my blessing to more of their nobility so they would always need more, compelled to expand, an empire crafted to conquer the world in search of gifted blood, driven by their hunger for eternal life. All come to nothing thanks to you and these others. The wolf’s doing, I suppose. Still, no matter.”

He raised the sword above his head and turned to the terraces, calling out in a strident voice, “Take heed of this! The old gods are risen in me! Great power runs in my veins! Behold my blessing!”

He moved closer to the Empress and pressed the blade of the sword to the flesh of his arm, the cut short but deep. He lowered the wound to the Empress’s face, letting the blood trickle onto her lips. At first she barely reacted, lips betraying only the slightest twitch, but soon her mouth opened wider, allowing the blood to flow into her throat as her back arched. The Ally moved away as she continued to convulse, tossing the sword aside and tearing a rag from his shirt to bind the wound.

“Since you took my empire away,” he said to Vaelin, teeth gritted around the rag as he pulled it tight, “we will make another.”

He moved closer, pausing at Lyrna’s side once more, her eyes darting about in her perfect face with frantic alarm. “She will be the Saviour Queen, come from across the ocean to deliver the Volarian people from the murderous reign of the Empress Elverah. And you”—he grinned at Vaelin—“her great and noble general. Think of the armies you will build together, the lands you will conquer. And in every land you seize you will seek out the Gifted.”

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