Chapter 42: Betrayal

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Deafening shrieks and the stench of charred flesh numbed my senses. I fell back into Cain's chest as all my strength left my muscles and my body collapsed, refusing to cooperate any longer. The dry, roasted air and flakes of ashes stung my eyes and formed a barrier against the tears that had piled up behind my eyelids. My gaze darted from one shrieking citizen to the next, hoping to catch a glimpse of a tall soldier in Academy armor or two small figures armed with an axe and daggers. However, the dense, black smoke blinded my vision, pushing me further and further into the anxiety that threatened to claim my sanity.

In the middle of the chaos stood the Onyx Tower, tall and proud and unaffected by the tongues of white and orange flames licking at its walls and consuming the remains of the festival like a starving monster. Jaeger yelped and scratched my shoulder in his frenzy. In a reflex, I grabbed his legs before he could fly away to find our friends, pressing him against me in a comforting embrace. He rubbed his face against my jaw, howling softly.

It could have been seconds or years; I had no idea how long I stood there, supported by Cain's strong arms while I watched the world burn. Powerless. Soulless. Cain's Dark magic kept my own powers in a box of steel, where I couldn't reach them. The hole that was left in its absence felt like a phantom limb.

At some point, Cain started to push me in the direction of the Tower. The sea of flames was split in two to create a straight path toward the black colossus, the blue flame at the top ever so bright. I was hauled up endless stairs, a staircase to the heavens themselves, so it seemed. Far away from the scorching fields of misery down below.

The Tower's throne room was illuminated only by the bleak, colorless moonlight and the faint, flickering glow of the lake of fire that was Sapphire Square. The black throne on the dais looked like a large hand with sharp claws. Whereas I had stumbled away from it the first time I had laid eyes on it, it now seemed to beckon me closer, inviting me to sink down into it and claim what was left of this hell-forsaken world.

Maybe I should.

Darkness started to spread across my mind like a spider's web, seductive and poisonous. The sudden desire to give in to it hardly came as a surprise; what did it matter now anyway? After tonight, I would lose everything. Especially if the letter that Cain kept in his pocket contained the information which I thought it would. Standing on the edge of the crater that had grown larger and larger since I had traded the tranquility of the Monastery for the cruelties of the wide world, I looked down and saw nothing but merciful oblivion. My heart longed for it.

Cain strode to his throne and sat down, crossing his legs. Without uttering a word, he reached into his pocket for the Sisters' letter and held it out to me. His eyes gleamed with an unspoken challenge. Can you handle the truth, little Sorceress?

My fingers trembled when I stepped forward and took the envelope, which vaguely smelled of roses. Head Sister Ursula's calm, friendly face floated before my eyes while I fumbled with the seal. The soft click with which it broke resonated in my ears as loudly as the hollow boom of a door slamming shut; the door of my childhood, forever stained by the message in my hands. At last, I would get some answers.

The sight of the Head Sister's elegant handwriting almost brought me to tears, finally breaking through the numbness that had engulfed me the moment the bombs had exploded. On some lines, the ink formed dark smears on the parchment, as though the Sister had been crying while she wrote the letter. Taking a deep breath to man up, I started reading:

Dear Kenna,

I hope you are well. From your letter, I understand that you have spoken to Xia Jutín and that she has directed you to Vallinstra, like I feared she would. I sincerely regret that you had to discover so much about our world and your destiny on your own, and I think it is time for us to be completely honest with you.

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