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“Please, make yourselves at home! I won’t be gone long, but feel free to indulge in any food or drink you can find,” Elise told us as she shut her carriage door. “All of the bedrooms are open to you as well; just choose whichever ones you find most comfortable.”

 

“Really, Ellie, this is too much,” Hana insisted, as she had over the course of our trip to Elise’s house. “You’re already doing so much for us, we don’t need to take over your home as well.”

 

“I don’t want to hear anymore about it,” she responded with a roll of her eyes. “It’s really the least I can do. Besides, I never have visitors, and the house gets so lonely all by myself!” She pounded on the carriage wall with her fist, and her driver immediately began to turn the wagon around. “Now, get in there and get comfortable! I’ll see you soon!”

 

Hana’s face clearly said that she wasn’t finished with her argument, but the carriage rolled away before she could respond, ending the conversation permanently. “It’s alright, darling,” Marten assured her, rubbing her hand lovingly. “We’ll be paying her handsomely for the services she’s promised us; you can consider our cost of staying here well and truly covered, if it makes you feel any better.”

 

As we approached the house, I was surprised at how modest the property appeared. Given the level of power and wealth she clearly controlled, I had expected to find a sprawling, private estate with manicured gardens and marble fountains, but the building that stood before us was a mostly unadorned two-story house located in the middle of a row of similar, though noticeably smaller, properties. Marten unlocked the front door with a large metal key, and we all pushed into the dark, empty house.

 

It became immediately apparent why the house was so lackluster as we passed through the entryway into the main living quarters: Elise clearly didn’t spend any time at the property. A thick layer of dust covered every surface in sight without any signs of disturbance from footprints or general use. Similarly, the kitchen was bare apart from a few nonperishable items: three jars of fruit preserves in a cupboard, a bag of dried meat, and an extensively stocked wine cabinet. I felt a creeping sense of discomfort as we continued to explore the house, as if we were disturbing a forgotten monument to a person long passed.

 

The second floor was much the same as the first; apart from a few linen closets, every door led to an identical bedroom, perfectly furnished and made up for guests, seemingly undisturbed for months. None of them seemed more personalized than the others and gave no indication of which was the master bedroom, if one even existed. When I had inspected the entire house, I had no doubt in my mind that Elise lived at her business headquarters full time.

 

We all reconvened around the large dining room table after our individual investigations. Marten uncorked a particularly dusty bottle of wine while Hana hunted for glasses, and the five of us were soon holding cups of the dark red liquid. “I can hardly remember the last time I could relax with a glass of wine before bed,” Marten remarked, tipping back comfortably in his chair as we drank together. “It feels like it’s been months since we left home.”

 

Marin swirled her glass slowly against the table. “I think it has been months since I could relax like this,” she said, her voice uncharacteristically subdued. “Things weren’t going well in Attetsia, even before the Company showed up. I was so homesick. Then the rebellion started, and I was running the shop alone.”

 

Lia put a hand on her arm. “You’re not alone anymore,” she said brightly. “Now you have us!”

 

Marin turned her eyes up from the table and smiled. “You’re right,” she said, taking a small sip of her wine. “I’ve got a new business partner, new friends...and a new family!”

 

“And Elise,” I added with a coy smile.

 

The statement caught her in the middle of another sip of wine, and she visibly struggled to keep herself from choking as she reacted. “What do you mean by that?!” She yelled, coughing.

 

“Nothing specifically,” I answered casually. “Between her being a family friend and running the largest trading business I’ve ever seen, I’m sure we’ll be seeing her basically every day, at least for the foreseeable future.” I sat back and drained the last of my wine. “After all the stories I’ve heard, I can’t wait to get to know her. She’s so interesting, don’t you think?”

 

“No!” she said defensively. “I mean, yes, she’s, uhm, very interesting. As a, erm, businesswoman. And as a person! I just...just don’t know her yet. As a person, that is.” She let out a loud, frustrated sigh and rested her head on the edge of the table with a loud thunk. “I think I need to go to bed.”

 

Hana and Marten laughed, but Lia gave me a dirty look. “I agree,” Lia said. “After sleeping in the wagon for two weeks, I’m sure we’ll all sleep well tonight.”

 

Marin stood up quickly and gave everybody a quick nod apart from me, who she glared at through squinted eyes. “Goodnight, everyone,” she said, taking her wine with her as she hurried out of the room towards the stairs.

 

“I suppose we should get some sleep as well,” Marten chuckled. “We’re not on the run anymore, but we’ll still be plenty busy.” He and Hana stood up from the table, each planting a kiss on the top of Lia’s head as they made their way upstairs after Marin.

I reached across the table and grabbed the open bottle of wine from Marten’s spot and poured myself another serving. The glass of wine I had finished coupled with the multiple mugs of ale from our extended lunch combined forces to give me a warm, comfortable buzz, and I rocked my chair gently back and forth on two legs. “What about you? Are you ready to get some sleep?”

 

“I’ve been ready from the first moment I saw one of those beds,” she laughed. “There’s nothing like a few weeks on the road to make you appreciate just how comfortable a bed can be.” She reached out and stole the wine bottle, pouring herself another full glass.

 

“Easy, now,” I warned her. “We have plenty of work to do in the morning.”

 

She huffed and waved me off. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said, spilling a few drops of red onto the floor as she sipped from the overfull glass.

 

I shook my head and grinned, but held any further comments to myself. Scooting my chair closer to hers, I took her free hand in mine and took another drink of wine. The sunlight had long since faded from the windows and left the room dark apart from a single flickering lamp on the opposite wall, which seemed to grow dimmer by the minute.

 

“Lux?” Lia asked, breaking our long, comfortable silence. “Do you think Elise is attractive?”

 

“Sure,” I answered honestly. “She’s not really my type, but I can’t deny that she’s a beautiful woman, either.”

 

“Not your type?” she asked, cocking her head to one side.

 

I shook my head and took another sip of wine. “Nah. She’s a bit too...obvious, for my taste.”

 

“I’m not sure what you mean,” she giggled. “So...what is your type?”

 

“You are.”

 

“Well, yeah but...what specifically?”

 

I arched an eyebrow at her. “Would you like a detailed list of features in order of their appeal? Maybe a poem illustrating your undying beauty and charm?”

 

She blushed and turned her face away. “Okay, alright, I get it.”

 

I stood and walked behind her chair, leaning heavily on its high back for support as my head spun. “I love everything about you, Lia. I never want you to worry that something, or someone, will change that.” I leaned down and hugged her, resting my forehead on the top of her head. “You’re the most important thing in the world to me, and you always will be. I promise.”

 

“Thank you,” she said softly, holding my arms tightly. “You know I feel the same way about you, right? I know it’s silly to be jealous, but I just...I haven’t felt this way about anyone before.”

 

“I know,” I murmured into her head. “You’re pretty cute when you’re jealous.” The familiar scent of her hair filled my nostrils and set my mind at peace, and I instantly began to doze off.

 

“Lux?” she asked after a long pause.

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Are you falling asleep?”

 

“Mhmm.”

 

“Maybe you should have gone easy on the wine,” she laughed. She got up out of her chair, forcing me to stand on my own instead of leaning on her shoulders. “Let’s go to bed.”

 

“I’m fine,” I said, drawing out the words as I followed along behind her towards the stairs.

 

“Sure you are.” We walked quietly up the stairs and made our way to the first bedroom with an open door. It was furnished like the others: a large bed with two bedside tables, a chest of drawers on either side of the room, and a single cushioned chair in the far corner. Despite my protests, Lia helped me unbuckle and remove my armor before attending to her own. I stripped down to my underwear, leaving my clothes in a messy heap on the floor, and slipped into bed.

 

While the room was plainly furnished, what little it did have was made of the highest quality materials. I sank down into the thick cushioned mattress and pulled sheets up over my shoulder, marveling at how soft the fabric surrounding me felt. My head was perfectly supported on a stack of down pillows, which were miles ahead of the straw or cotton stuffed pillows I had encountered during my time in Kaldan. “Oooh,” I groaned as my body relaxed, releasing tension I hadn’t realized I was holding in my joints and muscles.

 

Lia joined me in bed after she finished changing; as most of her belongings were still in Marten’s wagon at the warehouse, she was stuck wearing her underclothes without her usual nightgown, and she let out a soft yelp when the cold blankets touched her skin. “How d-do you sleep like this all the time?” she asked through chattering teeth.

“You get used to it,” I said, clamping my arm around her waist. She squealed as I pulled her across the silky sheets and held her close against my chest. “It helps if you have someone next to you, though.”

 

I felt a shiver run down her spine as she pressed her body against mine and pulled my arm tighter around her chest. “I could get used to this.”

 

The long buried feeling of desire fought for control of my mind when the heat from her bare skin warmed mine, but before I could form the feelings into words, my eyes began to close as the exhaustion of our long trip finally caught up with me all at once. I gave her a final squeeze and mumbled something resembling, “goodnight, Lia,” before falling asleep.

 

---

 

Morning came far too early, and brought a flurry of activity along with it. Hana knocked and stuck her head into the bedroom to wake us while the sun was still pink in the sky. Elise had failed to come back in the night, as I had expected, but she had kept her promise of setting our new lives into motion. Three officials arrived at the house exactly at sunrise. They each had a satchel full of tightly wound maps, and were intent on choosing the exact location of the new Corell homestead.

 

Once we were all assembled back in the dining room, we began the arduous process of honing in on a property. As the residential areas of Mayaan were already full to capacity, our choices were strictly outside of town in the surrounding forest. The maps showed four main roads leaving town, one in each cardinal direction: west to the coast, east to the Mountain Gate, south to the Lybesian capitol, and north towards Doram. While the south, east, and western roads were all wide and well-marked on the maps, the northern road looked to be little more than a dirt path that wove upwards in an increasingly circuitous route towards the mountains.

 

All of the decisions Marten made were made in the interest of a single goal: attract as little attention as possible. After deciding on the northern road, we were presented with a series of maps that increased in detail with every successive decision. Large blocks of the forest were marked out in color coded sections that indicated price and availability of all land within the town limits, and I took careful mental notes as to where those borders ended. Each choice led to another choice, and after what felt like hours, we had focused on three separate plots of land, all roughly four miles outside of Mayaan’s center.

 

When the plots were selected, we were immediately escorted outside to an awaiting carriage that would take us to view the land. It was an uncomfortable feeling to be served so completely by people I had neither met nor paid for the service, but the general excitement of our group quickly replaced the discomfort as we made our way to the first parcel. A warm breeze blew across the farmlands, carrying the scent of freshly cut trees and tilled soil, and as we approached the treeline I could make out the faint sounds of axes echoing out of the forest.

After an hour of travel we reached our first potential plot, and the next phase of our work began. The rest of the morning and most of our afternoon was spent inspecting each of the three properties, all three of which were entirely undeveloped and covered in emberwood trees. Our attendant officials showed us the various boundaries of the lots, marked by small colored flags hanging from trees next to the main road. According to our main guide, unclaimed land became a much more closely regulated affair after a large surge in emberwood exporting caused issues between logging companies and landowners who had conflicting ideas of property boundaries.

 

Of our three stops for the day, the last proved to be exactly what we were looking for. Situated on a particularly sharp bend in the road, the lot extended back into the forest for nearly half a mile before widening into a square perfectly sized for a house and an adjacent barn. The lots on either side of it were designated as logging sites, with the back property line bordering unincorporated forest land to the north.

 

When Marten informed the officials of which lot we had chosen, we were immediately ushered back into our carriage and carted back into Mayaan to finalize the deal. We arrived at Three Barrels, which I learned to be the name of Elise’s company, as the sun began to dip below the horizon. Elise greeted us at the door herself and led us to her office, where she apologized profusely for not returning the previous night and promised to make it up to us with a lavish dinner after our paperwork was concluded.

 

After a multitude of signatures and the exchange of nine hundred and fifty Imperials, our business was finally completed. Elise had already made contact with her contracting partner and set plans for them to arrive on the following morning, when the real work would begin. After a day of clearcutting, preparing the property for building, and hauling the wood away to be sold against the cost of the labor, construction would begin in earnest. While the process was underway, she assured us we would have a place to live at her home in town, and that her office was open to us at any time should we find ourselves in need.

 

As promised, she treated us to dinner when our planning was finished. We returned to her favorite restaurant, where Bella seemed to have anticipated our arrival and set out six table settings with ale and fresh bread. We were served with a dinner of braised beef, cheese croquettes, and fresh greens, and ate together well into the evening. When our meal was finished, we returned to Three Barrels and retrieved Marten’s wagon before returning to Elise’s house. She promised to meet us there within the hour, but the hour came and went without her appearance, and we all retired to bed soon afterwards.

 

Although there were no strangers on our doorstep the following morning, Marten roused us while the room was still dim. In spite of Elise’s assurance that her contractors could complete the job without any work on our part, he insisted that we should be present for the construction, and no amount of protesting grumbles from me, Marin, or Lia could change his mind. After a quick breakfast, our group of five piled into the wagon once again and made the trip to the future site of the Corell homestead as the sun rose into a cloudy sky.

 

A long chain of empty carts on the roadside informed us that we were late to the gathering before our destination came into view. A crowd of over fifty men swarmed around the trees where our property adjoined the main road, encircling the trunks in small teams. Whirring saws and staccato cracks filled the air with a lively rhythm and the peppery scent of emberwood sawdust as we parked at the head of the column and disembarked from the wagon. A tall man with a long black beard came to greet us, clearly briefed by Elise on who we were. He greeted Marten warmly, and they immediately wandered off together as they discussed the future of the project.

 

“Well,” Hana remarked as we watched her husband disappear into the crowd of workers, “I imagine we won’t see him until nightfall.”

 

“So...now what?” Marin asked. “Should we just stay here and wait?”

 

“Oh, no,” Hana laughed, “we can head back into town if you’d like, dear.”

 

“If we have the day free, I was thinking that I’d like to spend some time with Elise,” Marin answered. Her eyes grew wide when she realized what she had said, and she rushed to clarify. “To watch her work! I-I thought that, seeing as she’s so successful, I might be able to, uhm, learn something from watching her do day-to-day business.”

 

“That sounds like a lovely idea. I’m sure Elise will be glad to see us,” Hana answered, patting her reassuringly on the shoulder. “Lux? Lia? Would you like to come as well?”

 

“Actually, I was planning on taking a walk. Exploring the forest, getting the lay of the land, that sort of thing,” I answered.

 

“I like the sound of that,” Lia grinned. “No offence, but I don’t think I want to watch how Elise does her...business.” She hopped to my side and slid her arm around my waist. “We’ll see you later tonight, okay?”

 

Hana nodded. “Alright. Enjoy your day, you two.” She followed Marin to the wagon and joined her on the driver’s bench, and the two rode their way back down the road towards Mayaan.

 

“So,” Lia started, bumping me with her hip as we made our way into the trees, “what are we looking for exactly on this nature walk?”

 

“If the maps we saw yesterday were scaled properly, there’s about thirty miles of uninhabited forest between Mayaan’s town line and the Doram border. That sounds to me like the perfect place for a couple of people looking to disappear to build a home together,” I answered with a smirk. “How about it? You up for a bit of shopping?”

 

“I’m in!” she exclaimed, bouncing along beside me excitedly. We wound our way around the laborers as they worked on clearing a path into the forest and walked until we reached the clearing where the Corell’s house would eventually be built. “What exactly are we looking for out here?” she asked as we picked our way through the dense trees.

 

“I’m not entirely sure. I figured that we’ll know it when we see it,” I shrugged. “It would be nice if we could find a flat, empty spot without a lot of rocks or trees. Hopefully next to some surface water like a stream or a spring.”

 

“Maybe we’ll just find a house already built for us!” Lia teased.

 

“It’s not like we can’t clear out trees and dig up rocks, but it would be convenient if we didn’t have to,” I shot back, nudging my shoulder against hers. “We’ll obviously have to do some amount of work. You know, seeing as we’re building the entire house ourselves.”

 

“Why is that, by the way?” she asked. “I know we need to be secretive about it, but we can trust Elise, right?”

 

“Of course. If she says her men are trustworthy, I believe her. They wouldn’t have any reason to believe we’re anybody out of the ordinary, either.” I sighed as I thought through the potential chain of events for the thousandth time. “But if Virram gets even the slightest idea that her men helped us out, it just takes one worker being captured and tortured to ruin our peace. Even after everything that’s happened, even living in another country...I can’t rule that possibility out entirely. So I won’t risk it.”

 

“I understand,” she said sadly.

 

“In the end, I think it’ll work out for the best. There’s nothing more satisfying than building something with your own hands,” I encouraged her. “After we’re done, we’ll have a home together. Just you and me. We’ll be able to do whatever we want, go wherever we want. And it’ll always be there when we come back from our adventures.”

 

Her cheeks blushed as she grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly. “I think I can live with that,” she said in a small, cheery voice. We walked together quietly for another half hour, until we came upon a fallen tree and sat down for a break. “Do you really think we’ll find a place like the one you’re hoping for?” she asked, swinging her legs over the edge of the fallen log.

 

“The way I see it, there’s no chance we can search this entire forest. At least, not on foot.” I pulled up my legs and crossed them beneath me. “However, what we can do is find some promising spots from here to narrow things down, then check them out on foot after.” A quick pulse of mana washed over me as Lia beat me to the punch, and I joined her energy with my own a moment later as our exploration began.

 

The untamed northern forest held a multitude of distractions from our main goal, and we indulged in them willingly. Freedom to do what we wanted without the threat of danger following close behind was a new experience for us; I felt like we could fully enjoy each other’s company for the first time since we had met, and I planned to do so for as long as possible. We watched a skulk of baby foxes playing in a hollow stump and laughed as they climbed, jumped, and tumbled over the rotten wood. A quick blur underground drew our attention down into a burrow where two rabbits hid from the predators above, their hearts pounding in their chests.

 

Our focuses eventually diverged, and after an hour we had each found three potential locations for our home. I made a quick mental map of the spots I had chosen, and then followed the gentle flow of Lia’s mana to her selections in turn. When our meditation was finished, we had five stops to make on our trip; unbeknownst to one another, we had each chosen the same spot as our foremost pick, and I marked it as our first stop. It sat nearly five miles away from the future Corell homestead, and at our leisurely pace, it took us over an hour to arrive.

 

The first stop became the only stop for the day as we entered the clearing and instantly knew it was exactly what we were looking for. The clearing itself was far too small for a house, but the area surrounding it was perfectly flat with sparse tree cover. As soon as we arrived, we bypassed the spot and immediately ran to what had drawn our attention to the land in the first place: a spring fed stream, which babbled noisily as it ran across the forest floor about thirty yards away from the clearing. The source spring sat a quarter mile away on an elevated stone shelf, dumping a steady supply of clean, shimmering water down a rock face into the natural stream bed below.

 

“It’s so pretty!” Lia shouted as she splashed into the crystal clear water. It lapped gently at her knees when she reached the center of the stream, which was about eight feet across at our current location. “And it’s not freezing, either! Come in here, it’s really nice!”

 

“I think I’m good, thanks,” I said, taking a step back. “I don’t want to be—” My mouth was suddenly filled with water as Lia splashed a wave into my face. She took a step back and lowered into a ready crouch with a devious grin on her face while I blew the surprise water out of my nose. With a quick flick of my wrist I unhooked my cloak and threw it to the ground behind me, then dashed into the river to take my vengeance.

 

Our impromptu battle was brief; she had expected my attack and easily deflected my opening attempts to grapple her. However, she failed to account for the knee-high water she was standing in, and her first attempt to reposition was slow and clumsy. My foot caught the back of her heel, and a simple shove to her shoulder knocked her off balance. I held her arm tightly as she fell, pulling her up as soon as her head dunked completely below the surface of the brook. “You were right! This river is surprisingly warm,” I laughed as she wiped the water from her face.

“That was a bit much, don’t you think?” she pouted, cradling her long braid in both hands. “My hair is going to be wet all day now!”

 

“It’ll be a good reminder to not pick fights you can’t win,” I scolded her sarcastically. She threw her head back and groaned loudly, then held out a begrudging hand. I wove my fingers between hers and turned back towards the clearing. As we left the stream, I scooped up my cloak and dropped it around her shoulders as an apology, and her mood brightened significantly.

 

“I know that we haven’t seen the other spots yet,” she said once she had comfortably nestled into the cloak, “but this one just feels...right.”

 

I took a deep breath as I surveyed the clearing again, then nodded. “You’re right. This is the one.”

 

“What do we do now?”

 

“Now we wait,” I answered, taking a seat on the ground. “Until we have our building supplies, the best thing we can do is watch the contractors work. I got a lot of experience repairing houses when I worked at Ashedown’s forge, but I’ve never had to build a house from scratch before.” I laughed as she sat down next to me. “It can’t be that hard, can it?”

 

She leaned back and stared at me from beneath a furrowed brow. “That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.”

 

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” I said, putting an arm around her shoulder and pulling her close. “We’ve got all the time in the world to figure it out.” She nodded as she snuggled against my shoulder, and I closed my eyes and rested my head on hers. Dancing light from the noontime sun shone down through the trees and warmed my face, tempered to perfection by a gentle breeze blowing through the forest. This is where our life starts. With our task for the day completed early, I was entirely content to do nothing but enjoy the moment of peace. The comforting metronome of Lia’s gentle breathing beside me combined with the beautiful weather was too much for me to bear, and I quickly dozed off.

 

A soft tapping on my knee woke me some time later. “Lux? Are you awake?”

 

“Mhmm.”

 

“I need to ask you something.”

 

The worry in her voice dispelled my midday drowsiness, and I sat up under my own power with one final yawn. “What’s on your mind?”

 

“It’s my parents,” she answered. “After you fell asleep, I started to think about all of the places I want to go on our adventures. I want to explore Lybesa, and visit Doram, and see the Eastern Forests, but every time I thought about leaving, I felt this knot in my stomach whenever I imagined saying goodbye. After everything that’s happened, I just…” she trailed off, shaking her head, “I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel right to leave them unprotected anymore.”

 

The thought had crossed my mind as well, but the out of the way location of their new house had mostly assuaged my worries. There was clearly more on her mind, so I nodded for her to continue. “I know we can’t just stay here and watch over them forever; I think I’d go crazy if they were the only people I could talk to.” She looked away towards her hands and fidgeted nervously. “So, I was thinking that, maybe...we could train Marin to fight. Like we do.”

 

I felt an immediate, visceral rejection of the idea in my stomach, but I clamped my jaw shut before I could protest out loud. Marin is not Val. They may be sisters, but that shouldn’t be a reason for condemnation. She has just as much reason to hate Kaldan as we do after what happened with Savitz. “I’ll be honest with you, Lia: I hate the idea. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.”

 

She looked up at me with wide eyes. “Wait, really?”

 

“Really,” I nodded, letting out a deep sigh. “Marin has been nothing but kind to us since we met her. She risked her life multiple times to make sure we all got to Lybesa safely, and she hadn’t even known us for a week. Obviously, she’s a good person.” I took a moment to fight against the reflexive clenching of my jaw before I continued. “How I feel about Val shouldn’t influence the decision.”

 

Lia hugged me tightly. “Thank you, Lux.”

 

“Don’t thank me yet; there’s a chance that Marin won’t want to learn how to fight,” I said, patting her on the shoulder. “And if she does, we can discuss teaching her about magic later. I’m still not sure we should teach magic to anybody, let alone Val’s sister.” I flinched as the words left my mouth. “Not that that matters.”

 

She put a hand to her mouth to hide her grin. "I know she'll say yes. She keeps telling me how much she wants to help, and how she, uhm, how much she admires me for being strong."

 

"That settles it, then," I said, grinning at her blushing cheeks. "You'll be the one to train her."

 

"M-me?!" she asked, recoiling in shock. "I don't know how to train anybody! I'm still learning things from you!"

 

"Oh, nonsense. You're the second best fighter in the entire world, Lia." I paused for a moment and raised my eyebrows up and down until she laughed. "As long as I'm around, I'll make sure you never stop learning new things, but that doesn't mean you aren't ready to be a teacher. I'm learning new things from you every day too, you know." I stood up and stretched my folded legs. "Besides, it's not like I won't be around. I'll be sparring with both of you all the time."

 

“Okay,” she answered, clearly still uncertain. After a moment she shook her head and jumped to her feet with a sudden burst of energy. “No. I’m going to do it, and it’s going to go great!” she exclaimed, pumping her fist.

 

“That’s the spirit!” Her enthusiasm quickly spread to me, and the prospect of training Marin took on a new, more entertaining light in my mind. As I smiled down at her, I realized for the first time how low the sun had dipped during my nap, and I looked back in the direction we had come from. “If we want to make it back before dark, we should probably go now.”

 

As we started our trip back through the woods, I scanned out ahead of us to find our exact destination, and was amazed to find that the path to the Corell’s clearing was already nearing completion. The large work crew swarmed like a colony of ants along the road, clearing lumber, packing down the freshly bared earth, and felling trees. They moved with an impressive level of efficiency that explained Elise’s confidence in her promise of the project being finished by the end of the week. By the time we reached the clearing, the contractors were removing the last of the felled trees via the newly created driveway.

 

Marten was busy discussing various aspects of the impending build with the foreman, so Lia and I waited quietly at the edge of the clearing until Marin and Hana arrived. It took a considerable amount of effort from all of us to draw Marten away from the project, but we managed to load up the wagon and exit the forest before the sun had fully set for the day. Before we left, the foreman had guaranteed that the building materials would arrive before first light on the following day, and that we were all welcome to watch the construction process and give our input on what features the house should have.

 

After we returned to Elise’s house for the night, we ate a quick dinner together before retiring to our separate rooms. Lia and I waited a few minutes to give Marin enough time to change into her sleeping clothes, then knocked softly on her door. “Come in!” she called out from inside. We entered the room to find her sitting on the edge of the bed, wearing one of Lia’s nightgowns and writing in a small notebook on the bedside table. “What’s up?”

 

I gave Lia a light push on the small of her back, and she stepped forward. “Hey, Marin. Remember that conversation we had while we were in Kaldan, about how you wished you could learn how to fight?”

With a level of restraint I had never seen from her, Marin closed the notebook, stoppered her ink bottle, and sat with her hands folded in her lap. “Yes, I do. Why do you ask?”

 

“Well, I talked about it with Lux, and, uh, if you’re still interested, we think it would be a good idea. To teach you how to fight, I mean.” She tapped her fingers together nervously as she looked side to side, avoiding Marin’s eyes. “Obviously, you don’t have to say yes, but—”

 

Marin stood up from the bed and jumped forward, hugging Lia with so much force that I had to catch the pair before they crashed to the floor. “Thank you!” she cried, grasping blindly out at me as she buried her face in Lia’s shoulder. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I stepped forward and offered out my hand, and she immediately pulled me into a group hug. “Thank you, both of you. Thank you.” Her voice broke as she continued her effusive thanks, and tears ran down her face.

 

“I didn’t know you were so enthusiastic about the idea,” I commented as I gently rubbed her back. “Have you always wanted to be a fighter?”

 

“Primes, no!” she said, shaking her head. “Valandra was always the warrior of the family, and I was happy to leave it that way.” She rested her chin on Lia’s shoulder and looked up at me, her eyes glistening with sadness. “I always thought she was perfect. She fought against evil and kept our country safe, and no matter how hard things were, she was never afraid. But now,” she sniffled, and her lips started to quiver, “now I know that’s not true. She doesn’t fight for justice, she fights for the King. Whether it’s right or wrong, she just does whatever he says, even if...even i-if it means trying to kill…”

 

She started to sob, but I knew what she intended to say. “It’s alright, Marin. You’re safe now,” I whispered, scratching the top of her head in slow circles. “You don’t have to worry about her anymore.”

 

“No!” she yelled suddenly, startling me. “For the first time in my life, I DO have to worry about her! I have to worry about what she might do!” She took a step away from our group embrace and looked between us, her brow drawn back with an almost desperate concern. “I need to learn how to fight so that if Valandra shows up again, I can stop her from hurting anybody. You’re all…” she trailed off and looked down at her feet. “You’re all I have now. I can’t let her take that away.”

 

I felt a profound sadness as she revealed her true intentions. She shouldn’t have to carry that burden. I still don't want to believe Val gave that order, but...my fists balled against my legs, and I stepped forward. "Marin.” Her face snapped up from the floor, and her bloodshot eyes met mine. “We’re going to teach you everything we know. I promise you, the next time you meet your sister, you’ll be more powerful than she’s ever been.”

 

Lia’s hand appeared on my shoulder as she took her place beside me. “You don’t have to worry about us, Marin. We’ll all keep each other safe from now on.”

 

Marin’s head bobbed up and down, sending a fresh wave of tears down her cheeks. She wordlessly approached and hugged us again, resting her head on our shoulders. Although I could already tell from her demeanor that she was sincere, I confirmed it with a quick pulse of mana; the dim, flickering pink energy in her core exuded waves of pure joy, sadness, and worry. Lia and I comforted her until her tears dried up, then tucked her into bed for the night.

 

We stayed silent until we were back in our own room, preparing for bed. “I thought you hadn’t decided if we should teach Marin magic yet.”

 

“I didn’t know if we could trust her with it, but I do now,” I answered. “She’s been betrayed by someone she had complete faith in. I’ve been where she is now, and there’s no stopping that feeling; Marin’s going to fight harder than anybody to try and fix the broken hole inside of her.” I flopped face first into my pillow, consumed with the opposing emotions of resolve and defeat. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have let any of this happen in the first place.”

 

“Stop that,” Lia chided as she slid into bed. “Val’s decisions aren’t your fault, and you know it.” Her hand scratched at the base of my neck, and I melted into the fluffy mattress below us. “I agree with you, though. I think teaching Marin magic is the right thing to do.”

 

“Thanks, Lia,” I said, rolling onto my side. Her smile caught me off guard and warmed my heart before I had a chance to brood any further. “I love you.”

 

She slid towards me and kissed my forehead. “I love you, too.” She turned to the bedside and snuffed out our lamp, then burrowed under the covers, holding a hand out towards me. I took it tightly in mine, smiling at her through the darkness. “Now, take a break from worrying about everyone for a second and get some sleep,” she laughed, squeezing my fingers. “We’re going to be busy for the next few days.”

 

“I’ll try,” I chuckled in return. The task turned out to be easier than I had imagined, and I was asleep before my worries could come back to me.

 

---

 

“I can’t believe it. I don’t want to.”

 

“It’s the truth, Elden,” Jarut answered glumly. “He lied to us, and we believed him without question. Now we have to deal with the consequences.”

 

“No,” Kel corrected sharply, “THEY have to deal with the consequences. It’s not our job to put the country back together; our job ended when the ‘war’ did.”

“The three of us have more blood on our hands than anybody, and we’re the only ones who can do anything about it,” he shot back. “We have to do something.”

 

“I am going to do something,” she answered sharply, poking her finger against his plated chest. “I’m going home to defend my people.”

 

“We still don’t know if that’s even necessary,” I cut in. “This could all be—”

 

Kel whirled on me in a sudden fury. “It could be what? A mistake? A misunderstanding?” She let out a cruel laugh. “You need to grow the fuck up, Elden. Just because it’s too hard for your fragile little heart to handle doesn’t make it less true.”

 

“That’s not fair!” I argued. “Just because I want to have a little faith in people, you’re calling me weak?”

 

“There’s a difference between faith and stupidity, and you—”

 

“ENOUGH!” Jarut roared. He slammed his fist down on the wooden table that stood between us, punching a hole straight through the center. I recoiled from the outburst in shock; even in battle, his voice had never risen above a mild shout. Kel stepped back and crossed her arms, sulking quietly. Jarut’s composure softened immediately after the outburst, and he pinched the bridge of his nose as he sighed.

 

“Baasch has been leading the Disciples all along. He staged the conflict at the border, he petitioned King Janus to rally the banners of war, and he led us away from the capitol to fight. I can’t say for certain if the King was involved in the plot from the start, but...it seems likely, given the information. While we were losing troops to the Disciples in our staged war, Baasch was recruiting more of them behind our backs in the capitol.” He pointed to three curled scraps of parchment on the table. “Our intel arrived at the same time from three separate informants. There’s no misunderstanding here, Elden. We’ve been betrayed.”

 

I shook my head in disbelief. “So, all the fighting we’ve gone through, all the people we’ve killed...it was for nothing?”

 

“No,” he answered firmly, “not for nothing. Baasch is controlling the Disciples, which means he’s been playing both sides all along. This war was inevitable, and if we hadn’t fought, he would already control all of Alderea by now.”

 

“He already controls Alderea,” Kel muttered.

 

“He controls the capitol,” Jarut countered. “Given enough time, he’ll recruit enough Disciples to take over the country, too. Unless we stop him.”

 

I stood sullenly by the edge of the table, staring at the ground. “How could Baasch do this?” I looked between my two companions' faces for an answer, but found only sadness. “He was leading the war effort. I stood shoulder to shoulder with him against the Disciples. I trusted him with my life.”

 

“We’ll have to ask him when we reach the capitol,” Jarut replied.

 

I caught a flash of movement in the corner of my eye as Kel whipped her arm through the air, and three daggers impaled the scrolls before us. “That’s all I have to say to Baasch the Betrayer,” she spat. Without another word, she spun on her heel and walked out of the tent.

 

“I suppose that’s her answer, then,” Jarut said with a dark grin. “What about you, Elden?”

 

“I don’t know. Part of me wants to make up for what I’ve done; even though it was under false pretenses, we were the key players in Baasch’s plan.” I paused as I sorted through my emotions. “The other part of me wants to go home to Amaya and run away. Just...leave this all behind.”

 

“If we don’t stop him now, Baasch will take Alderea. At that point, he’ll control the two largest countries in the world.” He spoke slowly and gently, as if to a young child. “Where will you run to?”

 

“You’re right,” I admitted after exhausting all other possible options silently in my head. “It’s up to us.” I met his gaze, and his resolute eyes filled me with confidence. “You really think we can do this, don’t you?”

 

“Yes,” he answered immediately, “I do. With the three of us working together, nobody can stand in our way. Not even Baasch.”

 

“Baasch the Betrayer,” I murmured, shaking my head.

 

Jarut placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Gather your things, Elden. We have a long ride ahead of us.”

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About the author

Adam Ladner

Bio: 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!

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