Even as Val took a reluctant step towards us, followed closely by the remaining men of her Trinity Guard, I wanted to believe I had misheard the perfectly clear order. After everything we went through together, everything we did for you...even knowing that we’re innocent. I felt a great sadness building in my gut, and I focused my energies down to replace it with another emotion: rage. You said you cared about us, and you followed his orders anyways.
“I will take care of the girl,” Val ordered quietly over her shoulder. “Be cautious engaging that man; he is much more dangerous than he appears.”
What she thought was a silent order rang clearly in my ears. You’re right, Val. I am dangerous. But so is she. I leaned down to whisper in Lia’s ear. “Don’t hold anything back, Lia. She may have been our friend before, but—”
“I know,” she growled under her breath. I could feel her energy burning like a bonfire as her enhancements activated and grew in strength, and her feelings of betrayal and anger crashed over me in increasingly powerful waves. “She’s going to regret this.” I reached out to put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but she sprinted forward before I made contact. She cut a wide path around the two Trinity Guardsmen who had advanced towards our position, focusing her assault directly against Val, who had fallen behind to ensure she was still interposed between us and Virram.
Her lightning dash to the front of the room didn’t seem to register with my two advancing targets, who increased their pace to take advantage of their new two against one advantage. “If you throw down your sword now, I’ll make sure both you and the girl are given a painless death,” the man in plate armor shouted through the small slit in his greathelm. “No need to drag out what is an inevitable conclusion, don’t you think?” His voice was remarkably higher and gentler than I had expected given his imposing stature, and it sounded as though he was almost empathetic to my situation.
“Throw down your weapons, and I’ll consider letting you live,” I answered coolly as my mind shifted into an adrenaline-fueled focus. “My fight isn’t with you.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” the knight replied. “The King’s Sword is sworn to fight the King’s enemies, and the King’s Strength enforces his justice. If you’ve threatened him, you’ve threatened us as well.”
The runes along my sword flashed in unison, and the pent up mana in my core crashed throughout my body as the enhancements took effect. “Oh, that’s my mistake, then,” I said, shrugging. “I guess my fight is with you after all.” Without warning, I launched forward and leveled a cut at the Sword’s helmeted head.
Lifetimes of fighting against every weapon type imaginable gave me a distinct advantage in most fights, and I leveraged that knowledge with my opening gambit. My experience with greatsword fighters told me two things about my current situation: he would have a hard time blocking attacks that required a large range of movement from his weapon, and he would burn through energy exponentially faster than I would swinging the massive blade around. In contrast to that knowledge, my recent sparring match with Val had taught me that the weaponry the men before me wielded was extremely powerful, and would most likely hold a few surprises I couldn’t anticipate. I knew that my success would come from how well I adapted to the unique styles I was about to encounter, so I increased the energy flow to my Combat Acceleration and focused my Detection on the knight’s sword.
As expected, something unexpected happened. Instead of wrenching the sword upwards to deflect the blow, the knight ran his hand along the length of the blade up to the hilt and incanted softly under his breath. The mana reserves within the sword flashed, and his hand pulled away with a dagger that hadn’t existed before. It was made of the same black metal of the greatsword, complete with a matching guard and grip, but it left no trace of where it had been pulled from the main weapon; the greatsword shimmered like stone under the summer sun, then reshaped itself into a seamless blade that was slightly smaller than it had been before.
He can change the form of his weapon almost instantly. I’m not fighting a greatsword user, I’m fighting an armory. It was a fascinating discovery, full of potential and unanswered questions, but my immediate curiosity had been sated. His newly created dagger flicked up and redirected my opening strike harmlessly over the top of his greathelm, and I followed the momentum of the attack into a tight spin towards the King’s Strength. Now, what do you have to offer me?
My maneuvering brought me into striking range of the pugilist, and I lashed out with a quick stab aimed at his unarmored chest. He dodged the attack effortlessly, ducking to let the blade fly over his shoulder while he slipped towards me with a right hook. I hopped sideways to let the blow go wide, then brought my sword up to deflect his follow-up punch. When the heavy gauntlet connected with the flat of my sword, the force of the attack threw me backwards as if I had been struck by a warhammer. My boots skidded across the polished stone floor until I crashed into one of the pillars lining the hall, and the breath was nearly knocked from my lungs.
I realized that I had been watching the gauntlets for some sort of magical change so closely that I missed the fact that their ability had already been activated. As opposed to the greatsword’s stagnant pool of energy that activated when needed, the mana within the gauntlets was burning almost imperceptibly along the surface of the metal at all times. Simple enough, I suppose. Just don’t get hit.
As the Sword and Strength regrouped and closed in on me again, I took the brief moment of respite to check on Lia. She had pushed Val back towards the throne platform, raining down hellish attacks against the tower shield so ferociously that each blow traced a trail of sparks along the metal. As the assault continued, she shouted increasingly pained admonishments at Val. “We trusted you! You promised you would help us! I thought you were a good person!”
While I watched their battle unfold, another part of my mind whirred into overdrive to formulate a plan of attack for my own combat. Between these two, the Strength is clearly the bigger threat: a single punch from those gauntlets could easily kill me if I’m not careful. I just need them separated for—
My thoughts were interrupted by a wild haymaker aimed directly at my head. I dashed sideways just in time to see the pillar I had been resting against explode into stone shrapnel as the pugilist’s fist crushed through it like glass. He laughed as he chased after me, knocking his fists together in an echoing drum beat. “I can’t remember the last time someone was able to block one of my punches!” he cried out excitedly. “You’ve really got my blood pumping now!”
Bingo. Another memory surfaced from my practice session with Val: a lesson I had learned from a moment of introspection. Just like I had grown complacent with my swordsmanship by relying on my combat enhancements, he’s grown dependent on his crutch as well. What’s going to happen when I don’t go down in one punch? Will you remember what a real fight feels like? The corner of my lips curled into a vicious smile. Let’s find out.
I turned hard on my heel and dove forward, sliding on my knees underneath a right hook from the King’s Strength to launch a rising attack at his armored comrade. He caught the strike with the flat of his greatsword, and I saw a brief moment of panic through the slit in his helm as he struggled against the force of the blow. One of his hands darted up the length of his blade and created a shortsword, which he swung over the top of our clashing weapons towards my face. I heaved upwards and slipped beneath our swords, dodging just in time to avoid another strike from the pugilist.
It became abundantly clear as our battle progressed that the two Trinity Guards had been fighting side by side for years. Every time I created enough space to engage the Sword on his own, his parries and counter attacks always slowed my movements enough for the Strength to circle and attack me from behind. Likewise, the Strength’s quick movements and devastating punches consistently drove me backwards towards a primed and waiting slice from the enormous pitch black blade of the Sword. If it hadn’t been for the Detection magic providing a second set of eyes in the back of my head, I would have succumbed to an unseen blow almost immediately.
The two fighters pressed their numbers advantage well by never allowing me a chance to retreat and regroup, and although I could see the strain taking its toll in their movements, my muscles had started to ache as well. Enough of this. Time to show them something they haven’t seen before. I pivoted to engage the Sword alone, drawing out the expected flanking maneuver from the Strength. When he closed in to throw a punch at the back of my head, I braced my sword with both hands and caught the blow on the flat of my blade. The attack sent a painful, jarring shock up through my arms as I was lifted from the ground and thrown backwards across the hall.
I landed in a low crouch, already prepared for the next coming attack. The pugilist charged towards me in an attempt to capitalize on what he thought was my mistake, leaving the Sword behind in his haste. Mana rushed down my arm as I raised my sword and pointed it at the Strength’s chest, suffusing the blade with energy. I continued the channeling until he was only a few steps away, raising his fist for another devastating punch.
The fire rune on my sword flared to life, and a gout of crimson flames exploded from the length of the blade. I could see the vicious red light reflected in the Strength’s eyes as he desperately tried to escape the inferno, holding up both of the massive gauntlets to cover his face and throwing himself to one side. It was to no avail; the point of my sword followed him as he fell, and the hall filled with the sound of screams and the scent of burning flesh.
There was a wordless bellow of anger as the Sword rushed me to avenge his fallen comrade, the black greatsword now in the form of a massive spear. I spun sideways, narrowly avoiding the attack, then ducked as he whirled around with a horizontal slash from two longswords. The surface of my sword still rippled with fire as I swung it around to parry his next attack, and I unleashed another torrent of flame as our weapons met. It licked harmlessly around his greatsword and heavy vambraces, but I felt a momentary waver in his resistance as the fire grew.
Another shift in his weapon caught me off guard as the blade morphed into a khopesh, and he suddenly wrenched the hooked blade backwards. The opposite edge of my sword caught in the hook and was yanked from my hands, clattering to the floor behind the massive wall of raging armor. With another shimmer the khopesh changed back into a greatsword, and he raised the weapon above his head with a fearsome warcry. I knew that the length of the weapon would reach me no matter where I tried to dodge, so I took a deep breath and flooded my body with mana.
My stomach lurched as the world around me slowed to a crawl. The knight that loomed over me seemed to be frozen in place, apart from the massive sword that was steadily descending toward the top of my head. Although I could perceive my surroundings perfectly, taking action to influence them was a challenge; it felt as if both the air around me and my muscles themselves were holding me back, in an attempt to keep me from surpassing their preconceived notions of how fast I was allowed to move.
Pushing on my Strength and Agility enhancements, I began to force my left hand up and over my head. My brain was moving leagues faster than my arm, calculating how much additional force to add and which microscopic corrections to make in order to perfectly connect the flat of my palm with the falling blade. As the blade fell ever closer, I dragged my right foot backwards and turned my body sideways, leaning back as far as I could while still keeping my balance. When I finally felt the cold steel of the greatsword against my skin, I channeled all of my focus into the open handed strike.
Time righted itself in an instant, and I felt a gentle breeze as the sword swished by my face mere inches away. Missing its target, the weapon continued on its trajectory downward to impact against the stone floor with a reverberating crash. While the knight was still stunned from a combination of missing his impossible to miss strike and jarring his overextended arms, I slipped inside his guard and wrapped my hands around his now lowered helmet. Energy snaked around the surface and suffused the metal just in time to be activated by a rune engraved on my ring.
The greathelm shattered with a deafening ring, sending metal shrapnel inward against the Sword’s headface. As the armor fell away, I saw the whole of his face for the first time; he was an older man, with pale grey hair pulled into a tight topknot, dark brown skin, and pale green eyes. His otherwise beautiful complexion was marred with a hail of metal splinters, and blood trickled out of both of his ears. The greatsword fell from his hand as he reached up to his ruined face, and he screamed as he collapsed backwards in disoriented agony.
To my great surprise, my Detection alerted me that the King’s Strength had risen to his feet behind me. I turned to find him panting as he stared me down, the excitement that had painted his face earlier replaced by a mask of suffering and rage. Whereas his head and shoulders had been well shielded by his gauntlets, the rest of his body hadn’t been so lucky; the lower half of his torso and his exposed legs were burned into a horrible, charred mess that bled and sloughed off as he began a valiant charge in my direction. The fact that he was still conscious, let alone trying to fight, was amazing to me.
He began to smash his fists together again as he approached. “What are you going to do without your magic sword, bastard? Do you really think you can survive a hand to hand fight with the greatest pugilist the world has ever seen?” He lunged forward with a flurry of blows that came much slower than beforehis previous attacks, but I could sense that the force of the attacks was greatly increased over the ones I had previously blocked before. I dodged and redirected the punches in step with him as his assault continued to drive me towards the closest wall, waiting for my opening. “When I’m through with you, you’ll be—”
My opening came in the form of a left hook that flew well wide of my head; I recalled my sword to my hand and sliced upwards through his armpit, completely detaching his arm at the shoulder. The limb fell to the ground with a heavy metallic thunk, and the Strength staggered backwards and looked at the wound with wide, confused eyes. Before the pain could register in his brain I whipped the sword in a horizontal slash that separated his head from his shoulders, and his body collapsed into a bloody heap.
I kneeled down and retrieved the detached gauntlet, carefully extricating the severed limb from inside. The cold steel felt far too light in my hands, and I could sense the mana stored inside still pulsing away, ready to be used. After sheathing my sword, I gingerly slid my arm through the metal sleeve and wiggled my fingers into the articulating joints. While the gauntlet felt a bit loose around my arm, even with my armor providing extra padding, I found the grip comfortable and oddly empowering; my mana probed at the energy stored inside the metal and found it hungry, almost as if it wanted to be activated.
As I retrieved and donned the second gauntlet, the King’s Sword screamed from his place on the floor. “Primes curse you! You would dare defile the body of a Trinity Guardsman?! Those are not yours!” He climbed to his feet shakily, using his sword as a cane. “You’ll find no aid in those gauntlets now; only through years of prayer and discipline can their power be unlocked!”
I sighed and shook my head. “If you believe that, come and take them.” Turning to face him, I rang my fists together and retook my fighting stance. The mocking gesture enraged the knight, and he charged forward in a foolish headlong rush. I closed my eyes and observed the scene through Detection, focusing in on my newly acquired weapons. Broaching the energy in the left gauntlet once again, I followed the natural flow of the stored mana and activated the enhancement that lay dormant within the metal. A satisfying flare of power told me that the magic worked as I had hoped, and the stored mana began to burn off as it had before.
When the Sword reached me, he lashed out with a desperate lunge aimed at my neck. I raised my left hand casually and caught the blade midair, bringing it to a complete standstill. With a hard yank on the sword I pulled the knight forward, bringing him to a forced crouch in front of me. Disbelief played clearly across his face, but it quickly faded away to fear as he fully realized his mistake. I pulled back my right arm and activated the gauntlet’s enhancement, this time adding my own surge of mana to the effect, and leveled a punch directly into the Sword’s chest.
His armor peeled away like paper beneath the enhanced force of my blowfist, crumpling inward to impale the flesh underneath. I felt the fleeting sensation of his chest collapsing under my fist, but it disappeared a moment later as he flew backwards like a ragdoll, bouncing violently across the hall until he smashed against the opposite wall with so much force that the stone shuddered and cracked. He fell to the floor where he remained an unmoving, broken mess.
I deactivated the gauntlets’ enhancements and examined the obsidian blade that I still held in my hand, having wrenched it from the Sword’s grip when he made his unceremonious exit. Unlike the other weapons of the Trinity Guard, it seemed to be much heavier than its form otherwise indicated, and I found it uncomfortable to hold in one hand without a small boost from my combat enhancements. I tested the balance with a proper two-handed grip, and was surprised to find that the heavy gauntlets had almost no effect on the dexterity of my fingers; the craftsmanship of the tiny articulated plates was beyond anything I was capable of, and the gloves were still comfortable to wear.
While I was tempted to test the capabilities of the greatsword, the sound of fighting from beneath the throne forced me into a sprint towards my last remaining foe. My Detection had kept an unconscious eye on Lia and Val’s fight while I was otherwise occupied, but it became clear that it had been an unnecessary use of energy as I approached the pair; apart from her nearly spent mana reserves, Lia was still in perfect health. The same couldn’t be said for Val, however, as a majority of her shining silver scale armor was painted bright red with fresh blood from half a dozen stab wounds.
They disengaged after a quick exchange of blows, and I arrived at Lia’s side with my new sword held out at the ready. “It’s over, Val,” I called out to her. “I don’t want to kill you. Throw down your shield and let us go, and you’ll never have to see us again.”
It took a moment for her to fully comprehend my appearance, and I saw the realization cross her face when she finally noticed my accoutrements. Our eyes met, and I felt an unbearable sadness flowing off of her. “I cannot do that.”
“Yes you can!” Lia shouted. “You don’t have to listen to his stupid orders!” She waved her sword in King Virram’s direction, which reminded me of his existence for the first time since the fight had started. His councilors had long since abandoned him where he sat on his massive golden throne, hands balled into fists of anger. His expression puzzled me; despite the fact that two of his strongest fighters were dead, he seemed more appalled at the fact that Lia had disrespected him.
Val’s posture straightened as she rolled her shoulders and prepared herself for another round of combat. “It was my greatest pleasure working with you, Lux, Lia.” Her voice cracked as she spoke, confirming the truth of her words.
“Don’t give me that shit, Val!” I growled as the levelheaded calm of battle faded back into a clouded head of rage. “I said I don’t want to kill you, but I will if you make me.”
“I have my orders,” she replied, her voice once again returned to its usual steely timbre.
“Yes, you do!” Virram shouted down to her. “Stop chatting and kill these two, by order of your King!”
“That’s ENOUGH!” I charged forward as my anger passed the tipping point, spinning past Val’s shield faster than she could react. I leapt up to the raised platform and grabbed Virram roughly by the shoulder, placing the tip of the greatsword at the base of his neck. “The only way he lives is if you throw down your shield and let us go.”
Val whirled around to face me. “Lux, please,” she begged, her voice trembling. “I...I can’t…please...”
“You can’t what?” I yelled, confused. Whatever answer she attempted to give me was interrupted by a commotion at the opposite end of the hall; the throne room doors burst open and let in a steady stream of guards who, upon spotting their King in danger, began a valorous charge across the room. I let out a wordless yell of frustration and scanned my surroundings, running through a multitude of potential scenarios in my head. “Lia, grab our payment and get up here. We’re leaving.”
Lia glowered at the back of Val’s head for a long moment, then sheathed her sword and retrieved the small chest of coins that lay overturned near the base of the throne. Val made no move to stop her as her tear-filled eyes stayed locked unfalteringly with mine. When Lia was safe at my side, I closed my eyes and reached inward to my mana reserves and channeled a powerful wave of energy along the back wall of the throne room. It raced along the face of the towering window, slowly suffusing through the stained glass until the entirety of the crest was energized.
I found the strain of holding such a large amount of mana in place was greater than originally anticipated, and I opened my eyes and let out a centering breath. “Shatter.” The hall was instantly filled with a deafening screech when the window exploded outwards, and a dazzling array of rainbows ran wild around the room as millions of tiny shards of glass refracted the late afternoon sun. The sea of reinforcements charging across the room faltered, with some men turning to run while others dove to find cover from whatever threat they imagined was coming.
“Go,” I whispered to Lia, tilting my head to the gaping hole behind us. “I’m right behind you.” She met my eyes and gave me a firm nod, then ran to the back of the platform and leapt up and out of the gaping portal. Momentarily relieved, I turned my attention back towards Val and rushed towards her, whipping the greatsword up to rest under her chin. She made no move to block what should have been a deadly blow, but instead closed her eyes, sending another wave of tears down her face.
“I trusted you, and you betrayed me,” I intoned sharply, every word a curse. “If I ever see you again, I will kill you. Make sure that doesn’t happen.” Without waiting for a response, I returned to the throne where Virram sat staring at the shattered window in bewilderment. He spun quickly at my approach, just in time to catch an armored fist on the bridge of his nose. The blow knocked his head against the high backed golden chair with a dull thump, and he slumped over unconscious. I slid the woven gold crown from his head and secured it to my belt with an overabundant feeling of satisfaction, then followed Lia and vaulted out the window.
I landed on the gentle slope of the grassy hill behind the keep, which was now littered with glimmering crystal shards. Lia was waiting a few yards away down the hill, and I dashed over to meet her. “We have to get to your parents’ house,” I explained, already moving further down the hill. “Virram knows where they live, and knowing him, soldiers may already be on their way there.”
Lia didn’t follow along behind me, and I doubled back to check on her. “Lux...I wanted to kill her.” Her vacant eyes punctuated the haunted expression on her face. “She was our friend, wasn’t she? Why did I do that?”
The same feeling was churning heavily in my own stomach, but my decades of practice in ignoring my emotions kept my head clear. I cupped her face gently and tilted her eyes up to meet mine. “I know how you’re feeling. I’m sorry that you had to deal with that alone, and I promise that we can talk about it as much as you need to once we’re out of here.” I gave her a reassuring smile. “But right now, we have to make sure your parents are safe. Do you have enough energy to make it back to Tolamar?”
She blinked at me quietly for a moment and shook her head vigorously, clapping herself lightly on the cheek. “I can do it.” As sad as I was to force her into repressing her emotions for the time being, it was reassuring to know that she would be focused if we encountered more guards on our trip. Her enhancements flared in sync with mine, and we took off down the hill towards the large lake that sat below the keep. Lia led the way through the manicured park grounds, leaping over hedges and taking hairpin turns through paths I had never walked before.
I reached out in a wide circle with Detection to ensure we weren’t headed into an ambush, scanning down every nearby road and pathway with careful diligence. The main city streets were more crowded than usual as civilians stood shoulder to shoulder in awe of the destruction of their city’s radiant sigil. Their distraction played to our advantage; with our greatly enhanced strength and speed, we wove through the packed streets before most people had a chance to realize we had appeared. When the outer wall of the city came into view, I felt a small burst of amused pride; what would normally have been over a half hour cart ride had taken us less than ten minutes on foot.
A wave of relief washed over me as the city gates came into view. Some small part of me had feared that word of our misdeeds in the throne room would have somehow already reached the city guards, resulting in a citywide lockdown as their manhunt began. In reality, the gate was wide open, and the single guard on the city side of the wall was fast asleep at his post. We rocketed through the gate, passing by the pair of guards outside as they inspected a small trader’s wagon drawn by a single, one-horned ox. By the time their attention had turned to us, we were already well out of range of being identified.
The run to the Corell residence was a grueling test of both our physical endurance and our prolonged enhancement use. Tolamar sat well away from the Yorian walls, with an average wagon trip between the two taking just under three hours. Despite the fact that there were no traces of increased guard activity along the main road I continued to increase my pace, pushing myself well beyond what I had originally thought to be my limits. Lia continued to match my speed even as her breath came harder and her mana threatened to run dry; I offered to slow down on two separate occasions, but she rebuffed both of my offers, choosing to instead strain herself harder than before to keep pace.
I felt a weight lift from my shoulders as our destination came into sight undisturbed and idyllic as ever. My boots scuffed angrily along the stone walkway as I slowed to an appropriately paced jog and threw the front door open. A cry of alarm came from the living room, and I hurried around the corner to find Hana, Marten, and Marin all jumping to their feet to investigate the racket.
“Primes, Lux, you scared us!” Marten laughed, shaking off his alarm. “Marin told us to expect you this evening, but I didn’t imagine you would…” he trailed off as he noticed my grave expression. “What’s the matter, Lux?” My concern spread to his face as well. “Where’s Lia?” As if on cue, Lia rushed into the room behind me and collapsed into a chair against the far wall, her chest heaving uncontrollably. Hana immediately rushed to her side, whispering softly as she held her daughter’s face in her hands.
“Marten, we have to go.” I spoke quietly and with regret, knowing the severity of what I asked all too well.
“Go?” he asked, shaking his head. “It’ll be dark in a few hours, where do we need to go?”
“No, I mean…” I exhaled sharply, frustrated with myself. “What we talked about before. We need to leave the country.”
Marten’s face went pale as his eyes scanned back and forth between me and his family. “It’s come to that, then.”
I nodded solemnly. “I swear, if there was any other way, I would—”
He held up a hand. “Not now. We have a lot of work to do.” He looked around the room one final time, then crossed to meet me face to face. “When my family is safe.” I had become so used to the lighthearted quality of Marten’s mannerisms that the sudden, fiery resolve in his eyes caught me off guard. “I’ll be expecting answers; better answers than the ones we’ve heard before.”
“I’ll tell you everything,” I promised. He gave me a firm nod, then passed by me to check on Hana and Lia.
A small, shaking voice called out to me from the opposite end of the room, reminding me that Marin was still there. “Lux?” She flinched as I met her gaze. “What happened?”
Anger flared in my chest as I stared her down, unable to see anyone but Val in her sister’s shared features. “Come with me,” I ordered, turning back towards the front door.
She followed along behind me obediently, waiting until we were outside and the door was closed before speaking up again. “Lux, I’m not—”
“Your sister ordered her men to kill us,” I cut her off harshly, “and the King made it abundantly clear that Lia’s family is in danger of the same fate. Their men are most likely on their way here right now to try to finish what the Trinity Guard started.” I increased the radius of my Detection to watch every possible approach, and was relieved to find the area clear of any guards. “We’re not going to be here when that happens.”
“No!” The whisper was nearly inaudible as Marin’s face contorted with horror. “She wouldn’t! None of them would! The Trinity Guard has always been...they’ve…” she trailed off suddenly and reached out a shaking hand to my gauntlets, tracing her finger in a slow line along the surface. As the realization set in, her eyes filled with tears. “I-is my sister...did you…”
“Val is alive, against my better judgement,” I answered bitterly. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that Marin didn’t deserve my ire, but the day’s events had worn away my patience. “I’m sorry Marin, but whatever plans you made with Marten are over now. You should leave before the guards arrive.”
“No!” she said again, much more forcefully. “This has to be some kind of mistake! Let me stay and talk to the guards; I’m sure I can help.”
I paused to consider her proposition. It was a naive hope to believe that she could convince the guards that we were innocent, but it would stall them in their pursuit, if only for a moment. As much as it soured my stomach to consider the notion, I also knew that keeping Valandra’s sister close by to use as a potential hostage was much more advantageous than forcing her to leave. “Fine,” I said eventually, “you can stay. Don’t leave the property, and don’t get in the way.”
Marin nodded and sat down against the wall, burying her face in her arms. It might hurt now, but this is the best thing for you in the long run. Anyone who stays close to me for too long gets pulled down into my shit. I let out a long sigh and returned to the living room to check on the Corells. Lia was back on her feet, helping her mother sort their living room into two piles. Marten was nowhere to be seen, but the consistent banging sounds that echoed up from the basement stairwell indicated that he was similarly packing the belongings of his workshop.
I crossed the room and hugged Lia from behind, planting a kiss on the top of her head as I took a moment to appreciate the fact that we were both still alive. She gave my arms a light squeeze and let out a soft hum of satisfaction. “How are you feeling?” I asked, slipping around her to help Hana reach a set of pictures on a high shelf.
“I feel better now,” she answered, the strain in her voice giving away the lie. I spun to look her over with an arched eyebrow, and she threw her hands up in defence. “I do! I felt like I was going to be sick after our run, but it passed. I’m just...really tired, is all.”
Smiling, I stepped forward and gave her a proper hug. “You did a great job today, Lia,” I murmured into her ear. “Whatever happens next, I’ll take care of it; you’re almost out of mana, and I don’t want you passing out on me, right?”
She laughed. “I don’t plan on sleeping for three days straight like you did.”
“You’d better take it easy if that’s the case; it’s not as far off as you might think.” I left an arm draped around her shoulder as I turned to her mother. “Hana, I’m sorry that it’s come to this. I know that leaving your home behind is never easy.”
“It’s just a house, Lux,” she said casually as she dumped a basket of knitting supplies into a small crate.
I cocked my head to the side. “Right. Uhm, of course. Even so, I’ll help in any way I can; we won’t be able to pack everything, but we can—”
“They’re just things, Lux,” she insisted, turning to face us. “Nothing here is so valuable that we can’t live without it. I can replace my knitting needles. We can find a new house. But those things are what make this a home.” She crossed the room and placed a hand on my shoulder. “My family is what I care about. As long as we’re together, we can make a new home.” Her smile seemed to brighten the room as it spread across her face, creasing her well-worn laugh lines. “Thank you for protecting my family.”
“Oh. You’re, erm, you’re welcome,” I stammered, my cheeks burning. Silence fell over the room as I stewed in the awkward silence, and I felt like squirming out from under her hand and running to the basement to hide. Lia wrapped an arm around my waist and spun me away from her mother’s grip.
“Alright, that’s enough of that,” she said loudly. “We still have a lot of packing to do, and not enough time to do it.” Hana turned away with a soft chuckle and went back to packing, her puffy black tail twitching mischievously. “I’m going to go pack my things. You should probably go help my father in the basement.”
“That’s a great idea,” Marten called out as he entered the room from the basement stairwell, carrying a large box. “I’m going to ready the wagon. Lux, bring up the empty crates from the storage room, then help Hana pack. Essentials first, then keepsakes.” I was impressed by his collected demeanor given the circumstances, and gave him a curt nod in response.
We all fell into our assigned roles quickly, scattering throughout the house to go over the space efficiently. Marten’s spare shipping crates from the basement were a huge boon for our efforts; the large boxes were made of sturdy wood and designed to fit large amounts of cargo, so it was a simple matter to consolidate an entire room’s worth of essential items in one place. Whether I was ferrying crates out to the wagon or helping Lia and her mother pack, I kept my Detection up at all times to ensure we weren’t taken by surprise.
The first guard entered the edge of my mana as the sun began to dip behind the horizon. I had just enough time to find hope that he was a lone guard on patrol before the hope was shattered; men poured in from the black veil at the border of my Detection in scores, both on foot and in large troop transports. I lost count somewhere above sixty men, but it was clear that an entire company of at least two hundred men were on approach. A familiar man in heavy armor rode near the front of the group atop a muscled destrier: Third Company Commander Savitz.
“They’re coming,” I stated suddenly, interrupting the comfortable silence of our work. “We need to leave.” Hana and Lia shared a concerned look, then nodded as they moved to finish packing the last of their belongings. I stacked two full crates on top of one another and rushed outside, following the dirt path to the barn where our wagon stood waiting with Marten on the driver’s bench. “They’re almost here,” I told him as I jogged to the opposite end and heaved my cargo into the wagon.
“It’s time, then,” he said solemnly. “What’s the plan?”
“Marin wants to try to convince them that this is all some big mistake. She can’t believe that her sister would give orders like these,” I said, shaking my head. “It won’t work, but it should provide us with a nice distraction. We’ll leave as soon as she reaches them.”
He scratched his chin in agitated thought. “That seems dangerous.”
“It was her idea,” I shrugged. “The sister of the King’s Shield should have some level of respect; not enough to make a difference for us, but at least enough to keep her safe.”
Marten sighed. “Fine, fine. As long as my girls are safe.”
“No matter what happens today, I can promise you that,” I said firmly. He held my gaze for a long time with his brow furrowed, but eventually nodded and went back to finishing preparations. I sped back across the yard to where Marin still sat against the house. “If you still want to help us, now’s your chance; the guards are only a few minutes away.”
She jumped to her feet, scanning the horizon. “Is my sister with them?”
“Fortunately, no. It looks like they sent the entire Third Company, under the leadership of Commander Savitz.”
Her face lit up at the name. “Commander Savitz knows me! He was always kind to me whenever we ran into each other in the city.” She clapped her hands together excitedly. “I know this is all a terrible misunderstanding, somehow. I promise I’ll get it sorted out!” Without waiting for a response, she turned and ran out to the road.
I watched her go with a mixture of annoyance and worry. “Marin!” I yelled after her before she disappeared from view. Her head snapped back around as she skidded to a stop. “Be careful.” She flashed a large smile, then turned and disappeared from sight. I kept track of her progress through my Detection, watching as she closed in on the encroaching wall of soldiers.
Lia and Hana appeared in the doorway carrying the final crate between them. Hana gave one final, longing look back into the house, then turned back to me with determination. “That’s everything. We’re ready.” I followed them to the barn and helped to load the crate into the wagon. As Marten’s cart was made specifically for hauling cargo, there were no passenger benches in the back; I shoved enough of the boxes to one side to make a small sitting space for the three of us, then hopped out to let Lia and her mother enter.
“Are we ready to go, Lux?” Marten called back to me.
“As ready as we’ll ever be. The crates are packed and loaded, and your girls are safe,” I answered. Staring off through the wall of the barn, I watched Marin as she reached the Third Company vanguard. “When I give you the signal, start driving, and don’t stop for any reason.” I started to move back to enter the wagon and begin the trip, but I froze in place as the scene in my mind unfolded.
Marin stood in the center of the road with her hand outstretched towards the front line of guards. The men stopped and glanced back and forth in confusion, then looked back to their commander as he rode his way to the front of the formation. He stared Marin down with harsh eyes as she waved and began to speak. After she said her piece, he leaned down and whispered into the ear of the closest guard, then turned and rode away without further acknowledgement. Marin’s face flushed as she realized she had been snubbed, and she shouted enthusiastically at Savitz’s back as the two leading guards slowly shouldered their crossbows.
I was already sprinting down the road by the time her scream rang out across the countryside. Both of the fired bolts had found their target: the first had torn through the side of her bicep, while the second lodged itself deep into her chest, just below her left collarbone. She fell to the ground as she scrabbled desperately at the wounds and writhed in pain. Two guards pushed through the front lines and stalked forward, drawing their swords as they moved to put a permanent end to her suffering.
The clouds of dust that kicked up from beneath my pounding feet gave away my position, and I saw the advancing guards falter in their approach. The slight hesitation was all I needed to close the remaining distance between us before they could reach Marin, and I launched toward the closest guard with a fully powered uppercut. His torso gave way beneath my fist as his bones shattered, and his lifeless body sailed over the assembled column of guards ahead of me. I spun sideways and caught the second guard in the temple with such extreme force that his head separated from his shoulders and flew across the road, where it smashed against a tree like an overripe melon.
With the initial threats thoroughly eliminated, and any potential new combatants stunned by the bloody massacre that had taken place before them, I knelt to the ground and scooped Marin gently into my arms. She flailed wildly until her eyes found my face, after which she immediately buried her face in my chest and sobbed, clinging desperately to my neck with her good arm. Blood continued to spill from the bolt that impaled her chest, soaking her neck and dress with an expanding crimson stain.
I left as quickly as I had arrived, sprinting back down the road to the Corell’s barn with overly enhanced speed. My mind raced three steps ahead, already formulating a new plan for dealing with Savitz’s men; I had initially hoped we would be able to avoid an encounter altogether by leaving before they arrived, but Marin’s assault changed things. I just wanted to run. They’ve lost that mercy now.
Marten jumped to his feet when he saw Marin’s condition, but my focus was too deep to hear what he shouted as I passed him by. I raced to the back of the cart and carefully climbed inside, where I found Lia and Hana already kneeling beside a prepared bedroll. She nodded to me as I laid Marin out on the thin cushion. “You know how these work,” I stated confidently, pulling the needle and two silver orbs from my bandolier and setting them on the nearest crate. “She’s already lost a lot of blood. You’ll have to work quickly.”
I turned to leave, but Lia caught my arm and held me insistently in place. “Are you going to be okay?” Although they were well out of sight, her eyes stared directly at the jagged black scars that covered my right hand, and I understood the true cause of her worry.
“I’ll be fine,” I answered, managing to put on a small smile. “Compared to Attetsia, this will be a walk in the park. Nobody gets in the way of our adventures anymore.” I leaned in and kissed her forehead, then nodded to Marin. “Now, you have a job to do, too. Best get to it.” She released her grip on my arm to pick up the mana needle, and I left her to her work. Marten was still shouting at me as I returned to the front of the wagon.
“Damnit, Lux, I told you that was too dangerous!” he yelled angrily. “I told you she—”
“You were right, Marten,” I shouted over him, “but that’s not important right now. It’s time to go. Drive as fast as you can, and don’t stop for any reason. I’ll explain everything when I catch up to you.”
He sat dumbfounded for a moment, trying to puzzle out my instructions. “When you catch up?! By the Primes, Lux, what are you talking about?”
“Just GO!” I yelled, dashing out of the barn before he could protest any further. To my great relief I heard him spur his horse a moment later, and the wagon rumbled its way to the road and took off in the opposite direction of the Third Company. The head of the column of soldiers had just come into view around the bend as the wagon raced away, and I heard their cries of alarm as they tried to mobilize a response.
I stood in the center of the road and calmly waited for them to approach. Come and see the consequences of your King’s orders. Come and see what happens when I don’t hold back.
Hi there. I'm Adam, the author of the "Restart Again" series. I started this writing project in the spring of 2019 as a fun creative outlet, and much to my surprise, I actually stuck with it! Fast forward to a year later, and here I am with the first book completely finished, and the second well under way. It's been a great experience, and I'm glad I have a chance to share it now!
I'd never heard of this site until recently, when one of the Amazon reviews for this book suggested I share it here as well. I'm not entirely familiar with how the site works, and whether or not it's frowned upon to just come here to share fully finished products that exist on other sites. With that in mind, I plan to drop a chapter on here every Sunday and Wednesday until the entire book is posted. If you enjoy it, hop over to my website to find the latest news on the project, and a link to the Amazon page where you can buy the eBook/paperback. I hope you enjoy it!