The following days were by far the most productive of all of my lives. Every morning, Lia and I awoke at dawn and picked a topic to study from the board. We sat together and discussed the various facets of each particular strain of magic: what it was meant to do, how it could relate to our already established knowledge, and how best to approach testing it. When the topic was a more mundane magic like Detection advancements or studying various enchantments, we sat together in our living room and meditated, constantly sharing notes about our successes, failures, and new ideas. The study of more dynamic magics in the elemental school was done outside, well away from our newly constructed home.
On our first real day of testing, it quickly became apparent that a detailed discussion of our proposed topics was necessary before any hands-on study could be done. “Water magic,” I pondered out loud after Lia had made her first choice. “What does that actually mean?”
“You know,” she said, gesturing vaguely with her hands, “water magic. Controlling it to put out a fire, making a still pool of water flow, throwing it at an opponent. That sort of thing.”
“I don’t know if that’s really water magic,” I mused, suddenly confused about what had seemed like a simple topic when we first added it to the board. “It sounds like you just want the ability to move water around.”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “How is that not water magic?”
“It’s just...throwing magic,” I answered, chuckling at the words as I heard them out loud. “If you could find magic that would let you pick up and control water, why wouldn’t it work on other things? If magic can throw water, it could throw rocks and wood and metal too, right? Why would it be specific to just water?” My train of thought brought me to my feet and carried me to our noteboard. “No, I think what you want is just telekinesis,” I said, writing the word under our miscellaneous category.
“Telekinesis,” she said slowly, testing the word. “That just means throwing magic?”
“Basically, yes,” I laughed. “It just means controlling objects at a distance.”
Lia rubbed her eyes and let out a heavy sigh. “I guess that also applies to earth magic, too. All I really wanted was to throw rocks and move dirt around.”
“No, this is good! It isn’t what we originally thought, but now, if we figure out telekinesis, we figure out all of those old ideas at the same time,” I said excitedly. I added a small question mark next to our entries for water and earth, unwilling to cross out and discount the topics entirely. “Now, do you think this idea applies to anything else on our board?”
“Light and Dark seem to be in their own category, but...ice, maybe?”
I nodded and moved to write a question mark beside the entry, but my hand froze before the quill could make it’s mark. “No,” I murmured, suddenly consumed by a new idea, “ice is different.” I ran into the kitchen and grabbed Hana’s stewpot without an explanation to Lia, then burst out of the front door and made my way into the trees. The door opened a moment later as she followed me on my mad dash, laughing to herself as we went. When we reached the stream, I knelt down and filled the pot half full with water.
“Fire magic was the first type of magic I used that wasn’t combat enhancements. I chose it because it was a natural process that was easy to visualize and understand; fire is just heat energy and fuel, right?” I asked aloud, mostly speaking for my own benefit. “Ice should just be the opposite of that. Instead of using mana to add energy to something, I’ll just use it to take energy away.” Mana rushed down my arms to the metal pot and suffused into the water as if I meant to boil it. Concentrating on my intentions, I confidently gave the command. “Freeze.”
I felt a brief wave of heat pass by my hands as the energy rushed away from the pot, and a series of sharp cracks reverberated up at me as the water expanded and froze in an instant. The metal in my hands began to sting, and I hopped away from the frozen pot with a huge grin. “You did it!” Lia shouted. “I know I shouldn’t be surprised at this point, but it worked immediately!”
“Don’t expect all of our tests to go so smoothly,” I chuckled. “This one is exciting, though; it’s our first success!” I put an arm around her shoulder and turned us back towards the house, leaving the pot to thaw out in the sun. “Now that we know it’s possible, we can start discussing all of the potential uses for ice magic.”
“Ice skating!” she answered immediately. “Ice skating whenever we want!” We both laughed as we walked back through the trees, discussing where our new ice rink would fit in with the other planned expansions to our homestead. When we entered the house, Lia rushed to our noteboard and stole an empty sheet from the front, pinning it to the empty backside. She wrote “Ice Magic” in large letters, then set the quill down with a satisfied look. “So, what’s next?”
Our advancements came in rapid succession after our initial breakthrough. Lia was as successful with her attempt at using light magic as I had been with ice magic; after a long discussion of what light magic would actually do, she chose to experiment with Solette’s diamond orb as her implement. With only a brief moment to meditate over the crystal, she produced a white light so powerful that I could see it even as I shut my eyes against the glare. When our vision finally recovered from the unexpected nova, we spent the remainder of the morning fine tuning the new power to a more usable state.
The new control of light magic provided us the skills necessary to make inroads into dark magic. Initially, the concept of controlling darkness had stumped us when we talked through its implementation; darkness, being just the absence of light, didn’t seem to be an entity one could control at all, magic or not. Once I had the knowledge of how it felt to create light, though, it seemed an almost trivial matter to do the opposite. When the revelation came to me, I dashed to the window and placed a hand against the glass to suffuse it with mana. As soon as I incanted the word, the pane of glass darkened to an impossibly dark matte black that was disorienting to view; with no reflection along its surface, the perfect darkness seemed like a gap in space that had simply failed to exist.
Our forays into storing mana yielded similar levels of immediate success. Overwhelming evidence told us that it was not only possible to do so, but a common occurrence in the Unity Church, and it was simply a matter of attempting the skill to realize how easy it truly was. The sensation of instantaneously losing connection with our extended mana was unsettling and slightly nauseating at larger quantities, but the practice itself was trivial to master. After taking a moment to celebrate our success, we gathered a collection of items and began to work through my list of curiosities under the umbrella of mana manipulation.
Most of my questions were answered in a single, explosive test. While Lia focused on channeling as much mana as possible into the diamond orb, I cut a large branch from a nearby tree and attempted the same experiment. There was an immediate resistance to my influx of energy that felt as if I were trying to push the mana through a drinking straw instead of the usual open floodgates. The force of the resistance increased as I continued to struggle against it until the fight ended with an abrupt crack; the branch violently exploded in a flash of blue light, leaving behind a momentary arc of blue plasma as the mana burned away all at once. It took Lia and I the rest of the morning to remove the splinters from my hands and face, but the knowledge I had gained from the experience carried me through with a grin.
Though many of our mornings of research resulted in breakthroughs, even more yielded only roadblocks and frustration. Our study of enchanting was almost entirely fruitless despite the cumulative week of work we spent on it. We were able to activate the enchantment stored within the onyx greatsword after a few hours of trial and error experimentation, but the secret behind its creation and mechanics remained a mystery. The enchantment over the heavy gauntlets was baffling in its own right; while it was second nature to activate the enhanced force ability stored within the gloves, I could neither replicate the ability on my own nor find any hint of how the magic was built into the metal.
My equipment from Alderea added a further element of confusion into the mix. As opposed to the King’s weapons that radiated an obvious glow from their stored mana, my cloak, coin purse, and underclothes lacked any magical aura under our Detection, even as they continued to function with their clearly magical purposes. It was a concept I had failed to question until our investigation brought it into the spotlight, where it immediately became the greatest mystery on our noteboard and remained as such despite our many attempts to solve it.
Progress on expanding our Detection capabilities was similarly difficult. The concept of suffusing mana into the air around us was frustratingly simple, but in practice the task felt impossible to perform. After failing to achieve my goal on a large scale for the greater part of a morning, I focused on the smallest proof of concept I could think of; holding my pointer fingers together, I ran a continuous loop of mana from one hand to the other while slowly pulling them apart until the physical connection broke. The flow of mana immediately stopped, and no matter how hard I pushed, it refused to bridge the centimeter gap of space between my fingertips.
While I failed in my assigned tasks, Lia faced hardships of her own. In an effort to discover a way to pick up sounds through Detection, she chose to pursue sound magic under the assumption that if she could figure out how to create sound, it would be easy enough to reverse engineer a way to hear sound as well. Unfortunately for her, the first half of her plan never materialized; after hours of planning and writing notes, she worked through a long list of potential invocations to activate the spell, all of which failed. By the time she had finished for the day, she had resorted to speaking in prayer to the Air Primeval, but the pleas went unanswered.
At the end of my third consecutive day of ineffective meditation, I let out a frustrated yell and fell back onto the deck. “This shouldn’t be so damn hard! It’s just moving mana from one place to another.” Rubbing my eyes angrily, I rolled onto my side and looked up at Lia as she prepared to fetch Marin for her training. “I’ve been working with mana for a hundred years now. Why is this the thing that’s so difficult to figure out?”
“I know how you feel,” she said, stretching the stiffness from her legs, “but you shouldn’t let it bother you so much. Just think off all the things we’ve learned over the past few weeks!” To illustrate her point, she held up her hand and murmured a word under her breath, which caused her palm to glow with a radiant white light. She waved it back and forth, laughing giddily as the light shone up between her fingers. “Isn’t this cool?”
A grin curled the corner of my lips as I rested my head back against the floor. “You’re right. I just feel like I’m...missing something, you know?” I bounced my head lightly off the wooden boards in a dull rhythm. “Like, if I found the one piece of information eluding us, it would open all of these doors blocking our way.”
Lia shrugged. “Maybe. Or, maybe it just doesn’t work; it could be one of the rules of magic that mana has to suffuse through something, and you’re trying to force it to go through nothing.”
“It’s not like there’s actually nothing, though,” I complained. “I’m trying to force it to go through the air.”
“Well, sure, but air isn’t a thing,” she laughed. “You can’t hold it in your hands like a rock. Mana probably has to exist within something, otherwise it just...I don’t know, fades away?” She knelt down beside me and tousled my hair. “Don’t think about it too much while I’m gone, okay? I expect you to be working on something by the time I get back!” A self-satisfied cackle escaped her lips as she left me lying on the deck and made her way into the forest to fetch her pupil.
“Right,” I muttered, far too late for her to hear me. Contrary to her order, my mind had instantly fixated on the problem with a renewed vigor. She’s wrong. Regardless of whether you can hold it or not, air has physical properties like any other matter. It’s just in a different state. I bolted upright and took a centering breath.
Channeling mana through solid objects is easy because the structure is uniform and unchanging. Based on our tests, you can even divide it into categories: gemstones can transfer and hold mana far more efficiently than wood and stone. That’s not a fluke. I found the answer I had been searching for in the earliest memories of my first life. It’s the molecular structure. That diamond orb is made of a pure, uninterrupted lattice of carbon. Of course the energy could transfer through that more efficiently than a rock full of impurities or a messy, complicated tree branch.
My brow furrowed as I continued to look over my available information. I didn’t have a problem suffusing that bucket of water with mana, so it’s clearly not a property of solids. If I could do that so easily with a liquid, why not a gas? It’s still made up of atoms and molecules like everything else, just...more spread out. I closed my eyes and sat with my hands palm up against my knees. I can’t feel it, but it’s there. I don’t know how to force my mana out into nothing, but if I could just feel the air…
There was a ripple of light across my body as the Heighten Senses enhancement flared to life, and I focused on the sensations across my empty palms. After every few seconds of uneventful meditation I increased the flow of mana to my enhancements, hunting for the feeling I knew would eventually appear. My overstimulated skin tingled as I became intensely aware of every thread out of place in my shirt and each strand that ran wild in my overgrown mop of hair. I know you’re there. Let me find you.
At some point, my heightened senses passed some unknown threshold, and I suddenly felt a gentle weight over my entire body as the air itself came into focus. Faint wisps of motion played over my upturned hands in lazy swirls, constantly shifting in and out of sight. Found you. I sent a rush of mana excitedly down my arms towards the new sensation, but as soon as the energy reached my fingertips, the swirling air disappeared, and the mana pooled against my skin as it had before. Opening my eyes, I stared down at my hands suspiciously. Huh.
I repeated the process twice more, increasing my Heighten Senses enhancement after each failure. Just as I felt like my body couldn’t handle any further sensory input without shutting down, I found the answer to my problem: the act of pushing my mana towards the surface of my skin was physically repelling the air around me. Of course I was failing before. The harder I tried to channel my mana outwards, the harder I pushed away the medium I was trying to suffuse. While the explanation was immensely satisfying, it still left me with the unsolved problem of how to appropriately suffuse mana into air.
If I can’t actively force the mana out, I guess I need to let it...diffuse out passively? I let my enhancements fade away with a metered breath. I told Lia I’ve been doing this for a century. Time to prove I’ve actually learned something from it. As the mana began to flow around my body, I ignored my usual routine of looking inward and instead focused on the boundary at my skin. Though the concept had rarely come up in our studies, I knew the issue was hidden within the unconscious barrier that separated my mana from the outside world. Through my experience activating both Lia and Marin’s mana reserves, I had learned that the body held an outward defense against foriegn energy as well as an inner wall to keep untapped mana contained, but my current focus proved that the outer barrier held a second purpose.
“I have control of my mana,” I stated out loud to myself. “I don’t need to lock it inside anymore. It won’t run out if I let the barrier down.” Though the proclamation made me feel foolish, the potential of it affecting my subconscious mind in a positive way was too important to pass up. “I’m going to lower it now, for a moment.” It took a moment to visualize the barrier I so often ignored, but I soon held a picture of it clearly in my mind. I prepared a spike of energy as I had done when activating Marin’s mana for the first time, then pressed up against the wall around a single fingertip.
A flash of panic tingled down my spine as the mana in my hand began to dissipate, rushing out from the newly opened hole like a burst dam. The sensation only lasted for a heartbeat as my subconscious sealed the leak, but it was all I needed to prove my hypothesis correct. “I saw it!” I shouted, jumping to my feet in a joyful rush. The image was burned into my mind as my celebration continued; in the brief moment before the connection was severed, a shimmering, translucent cloud had formed around my hand as the mana suffused outwards in all directions. “It works! I knew it would work!”
When my fist pumping subsided, I immediately set out to replicate the sensation. Knowing that my body would naturally attempt to close any leaks allowed me to prepare a method to combat the stoppage, and each attempt at the new ability stretched out longer than the last until I was able to stave off the closure indefinitely. It still set off a primal alarm within my head each time the barrier was broken, but the fear lessened with every subsequent breach until the mental warning was reduced to a gentle reminder.
The resulting cloud of mana that formed around me with each activation was a vastly different challenge to control than my usual Detection, and came with its own unique oddities. It required a constant stream of new energy to maintain a continuous cloud; if I reduced the amount of mana flowing from my fingertips, the edge of the cloud became fuzzy and indistinct as natural currents carried the suffused air away from my influence. Likewise, if I stopped the flow entirely, I had only a few moments until my connection to the cloud was entirely lost and the energy burned away into the atmosphere.
It was clear from my initial experiments that the technique would require days of practice to gain any real competency, but it only took minutes to realize what I had truly discovered in attempting to improve our Detection spell: air magic. The issue that had halted my progress in the area for days was now my greatest asset; with the slightest suggestion from my channeling, the suffused air immediately flowed in that direction, granting me the ability to create small gusts of wind by directing the mana in a steady stream. I blew a quick gust around my head in a circle to prove the concept was true, and although I lost fine control of the air by the end of the demonstration, I was ecstatic.
“I thought I told you not to think about it too much while I was gone!” Lia’s voice caught me by surprise as she entered the clearing with Marin in tow. “You’re still right where I left you!”
“Lia, I did it!” I exclaimed as I sprinted out to meet her. “I figured it out!”
“I was only gone for half an hour. You really figured out how to use Detection through the air that quickly?” she asked with an eyebrow askew.
“Yeah! Well, sort of. I’m sure it’ll work eventually,” I conceded. “That doesn’t matter, though. I figured out something even better!”
“What’s better than—” she began, but was cut off by a burst of air from my upturned palms. She jumped back and brushed a displaced strand of hair from her face. “How did you figure that out?!”
“I was thinking about what you said before you left, about how there was nothing to suffuse mana into and air not being a thing,” I said, mimicking her earlier inflection. “It’s certainly different from how our Detection works over solid objects, but air is still made of the same, uhm...the same sort of…” I trailed off as I searched for an explanation that avoided the topic of molecular structures and other more advanced sciences. “It’s hard to explain with words. I can just show you later, once you’re done for the day.”
“Show her what?” Marin asked, popping up beside her. “I want to learn whatever it is too!” At her request I sent a swirl of air around her head as well, which elicited an amazed gasp. “That’s amazing! You’ve got to teach me how to do that!”
“I think you’re still working on your basic combat enhancements, aren’t you?” I asked. “This is one of the more difficult bits of magic I’ve figured out, but you’ll get to it eventually. I promise.”
She screwed up her face and brushed by me. “Fine, fine. But Lia says I’m learning quickly, so it won’t be long!”
Lia rolled her eyes and grinned as she followed her enthusiastic student to their usual training spot. “You’d be learning a lot faster if you could settle down and meditate without talking so much!”
I made my way around to the back of the house with a laugh as the girls began their usual back and forth. Lia’s training style had an entirely different approach than mine, but it seemed no less effective based on their results. Although they had only been training for a few weeks, Marin had progressed rapidly through both the combat and magic lessons. Her combat style was much more aggressive than anything Lia or I taught her, most likely influenced by both her energetic personality and her burning desire to learn everything she could as quickly as possible.
While Lia did her best to temper Marin into a more thoughtful, deliberate fighter, the fiery passion she brought to her lessons always kept their sparring matches interesting. They trained with an impressive assortment of weapons, all created from the onyx blade of the King’s Sword; Lia had developed a fondness for the artifact once we had mastered its enchantment, and used the power to create matching sets of weapons for her teaching plans. Through every implement they used, Marin excelled in one particular style: unarmed combat. Something about the form had clicked with her natural aggressiveness, and she advanced so quickly that she began to put Lia through her paces when they sparred without enhancements.
Although the main focus was on teaching Marin the basics of combat and magic, Lia always insisted that we should spar while Marin observed us, to show what all of the training was working towards. I wholeheartedly agreed, though mostly for my own personal benefit; while our magic study was intensely rewarding, my calisthenics and solo workouts were boring and ineffective compared to true combat drills. Unfortunately, the clearing around our house proved too constricting for any battles that involved enhancements, and I had quickly added a training ring to my continually shifting list of projects. The list had grown significantly shorter as I worked through furnishing our home every afternoon, but the remaining items were large multi-day endeavors which would require Lia’s help to finish.
Even without our training ring, I was surprised at how far my own skills progressed during our short practice bouts on the lawn. Our forced adherence to fighting without enhancements narrowed our focus to technique, strength, and endurance, all of which grew rapidly day over day. I often found myself on the losing end of the battles, with Lia standing over me triumphantly as I rolled in the dirt. It was clear that she had become comfortable in her own unique fighting style that combined my teachings with things she had learned from our short time with Val, as well as her extended combat with the General. The enchanted onyx greatsword only further exemplified her skills; usually in the form of paired longswords, she swung the blades with a speed I had difficulty matching without a boost from Combat Acceleration.
Our daily routine became comfortable enough that I eventually lost track of how many days had passed. Apart from the shifting nature of Marin’s work, we had no use for marking which day of the week it was, and our contact with the outside world consisted entirely of dinners with the Corells and any random traffic we happened to see passing on the main road through Detection. The isolation suited us perfectly; I found myself smiling freely around the house without the cloud of Virram’s influence hanging over my head, and Lia’s infectiously upbeat attitude told me she felt the same.
“How do you think Marin’s training is going?” Lia asked me during our morning meditations. “It must have been at least a month by now, right? Do you think she’s, erm, on track?”
“On track compared to what, exactly?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “She’s been slower than you were on picking up mana manipulation and using magic, but she’s certainly progressing. In terms of combat ability, she’s already way beyond anything a regular soldier could do, even without enhancements.”
She nodded. “I’d say that magic comes differently to different people, but I think she’d be a lot further along if she could just sit still and concentrate for longer than a minute at a time.” Despite the fact that Marin was away with Marten on a day long business trip, Lia still scanned around the room with an amused look to see if she had overheard the assessment. “Apart from that, I think she’s doing really well.”
“I agree. She must have a good teacher.”
Lia giggled quietly and swayed side to side in her meditative stance. “So...do you think it’s time?”
“Time for what?”
“Our adventure!” she exclaimed loudly. “That’s the reason we asked Marin to train with us in the first place, remember?”
“Of course I remember,” I said with an amused chuckle. In truth, the initial reasoning had slipped my mind, replaced instead with the passion Marin had shown when confronted with the idea of seeing her sister again. “Have you decided where you’d like to go?”
“I’d like to see the capitol,” she answered. “If we’re going to be living here, we should get to know the country a little better, and there’s no better way to do that than visiting its biggest city! Plus, if we’re going that direction anyway, we could visit all of the southern port cities that make Lybesa so famous.”
“A sightseeing tour, then,” I mused. “That sounds nice. Exploring a new city without the entire guard force after you isn’t an experience I’ve had in a long time.” I looked around the room and let out a small sigh. “Though I have to admit, I think I’ll miss this place. I’ve grown pretty comfortable here, and the thought of leaving feels...weird.”
“I know what you mean,” she said. “Having this little piece of the world all to ourselves seems too good to be true.” She rocked up onto her knees and sat down beside me. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t leave every once in a while, though. Our house will still be here when we get back.”
“You’re right,” I admitted. “If we’re going to see the world, I guess we have to leave the house at some point.”
“Exactly!” she laughed as she leaned back to rest her head in my lap. “Just think of all the things we’ll see in the capitol. I’ve heard stories that Ellawynn has the largest garden in the world, and that the main spire of their Unity Cathedral is made of solid crystal! Doesn’t that sound amazing?”
“It does,” I agreed, reaching out to play with a loose strand of her hair. “So, if we already know our destination, when are we leaving?”
“I’m not sure. We’ll have to talk to Marin and my parents about it.” She laid quietly in my lap for a few moments, serenely rocking her head side to side until she suddenly perked up. “We should all have dinner tonight! We can talk about it then, and have a nice meal together before we leave.” She hopped to her feet with instant enthusiasm. “I was going to head over to get us some lunch anyway, so I’ll get everything planned then.”
“That’ll be nice,” I said, climbing to my feet as well. “Ask your mother if she’d like a few rabbits for dinner. I’ve been craving some fresh game lately.”
“Can do!” she called out as she jogged through the door.
My stomach growled in anticipation of our upcoming meal, and I set out to make it a reality. A small pulse of Detection revealed multiple candidates for our feast and, after a quick assessment of each rabbit, locked in on a plump specimen a few hundred yards into the eastern forest. I threw my cloak around my shoulders and made my way outside, keeping my footfalls quiet as I stalked towards my prey. The stealth was an unnecessary gesture as I instantly snapped the rabbit’s neck from afar, but it felt unsporting to do so without going through the motions of hunting in some small way.
She says two rabbits would be nice, but I think she really wants three, Lia said at the back of my mind. My father should be home with Marin by sundown, so we should head over to help make dinner before then.
Can do, I echoed back to her as I retrieved my quarry from its resting place in a nearby bush. One down, two to go. My eyes scanned the surrounding landscape for any clues of additional movement, but I unsurprisingly came up empty. I sent another wave of mana forward into the forest, reaching fartherfurther than I had before in search of meatier targets. Alright, rabbits, where are you—
A bright spot of mana appeared at the edge of my Detection, floating through the forest about a mile away. My subconscious recognized the source before I did, and it threw my heart into my throat as a chill ran down my spine. No. The mental image resolved into a humanoid shape, glowing with a dim purple light behind a radiant, shimmering disk of rainbow energy. She can’t be here.
My dread rushed out along my extended mana, and I heard Lia’s voice a moment later, full of concern. Lux, what’s wrong?
Val. The name rang out like a curse as I watched her slowly pick her way through the forest, her eyes squinted with steeled focus. She’s here.
I’ll be right there, give me—
No, I cut her off. Stay with your mother. She needs you now more than I do; we don’t know if Val’s alone yet.
I heard the equivalent of a frustrated sigh in my mind. Okay. There was a moment of silence as I began to make my way towards Val, then Lia’s voice returned. We’re stronger than the last time we faced her. Don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Everyone is still safe. You’re in control.
Her carefully chosen words skirted around the point, but I heard the message loud and clear: don’t let the anger take control. The darkness lurking inside me was a topic I had been able to blissfully ignore during our time of isolation, and I detested the idea of Lia being forced to worry about it. I’m in control, I answered before turning my attention back to Val. Her careful trek put her on a path that would end well north of our hidden homestead, but her presence alone told me it was only a matter of time until she found what she was looking for.
I slipped ahead through the trees until she entered the range of my Enhanced Senses, and the crunching of the underbrush beneath her heavy boots sounded clearly in my ears. Energy raced out along the ground between us and suffused into every rock, shrub and tree, producing a perfect map of the area that I could manipulate as I saw fit. Her measured pace continued to bring her closer, until her hand absentmindedly reached out and brushed along the trunk of a large emberwood in her path. As soon as I felt her fingers make contact with the bark, I activated the energy stored within the tree and shattered the entire structure from top to bottom.
An angry hail of splinters peppered Val as she spun away and raised her shield against the unknown threat. Her retreat sent her spinning towards another tree, which exploded into a second round of shrapnel as she approached. She slid back and crouched behind her glittering bulwark in an attempt to collect herself as she grimaced over the multitude of cuts across her face. Her head whipped side to side as she rose cautiously, clearly staying away from the remaining trees around her. When she took her first step forward, I sent a rush of mana up over her body and pressed against her mind with an overpowering phrase.
I see you.
She raised a hand to her temple as she winced, revealing that the message had successfully gone through. “Lux,” she called out, “I need to speak with you. It is urgent.”
I told you what would happen if I saw you again.
“I remember,” she answered through clenched teeth, flinching away from my booming mental voice. “I am willing to die once we have had a chance to speak. Face to face.” The reply caught me off guard; if it had been anybody else, I would have assumed it was a ploy to get me to reveal myself, but the statement sounded genuine through Val’s voice.
How did Virram know where to find me?
“King Yorrell does not know that I am here,” she answered. “I have sought you out of my own volition. My presence in Lybesa is...not condoned.”
I see. You’ve suddenly decided to stop following orders now. Now, but not before.
“Lux, please,” she said, lowering her shield. “I cannot change what has happened. This meeting is larger than our personal grudges.”
Grudges?! You tried to have me killed! After everything we went through together, YOU gave that order. Not Virram, not the Trinity Guard, you. I trusted you! I felt my heartbeat grow more erratic as the old wound was cut open again, and I took a series of long breaths to regain my wits. I trusted you. You can’t expect me to forget what happened.
“I do not. I am not here to ask for your forgiveness; I do not deserve it,” she said plainly. “I am not here to make amends, as I have no way of doing so. I am here to ask for your help.”
Two more trees exploded behind her in unison, and she spun to shield herself from the debris. My enhancements flared to life in a sudden burst of energy, and I sprinted ahead through the trees, reaching the circle of fresh wood chips around her in seconds. I extended my arm towards her back, and the point of my sword appeared over her shoulder, resting against her neck. “Speak.”
Val turned slowly, unfazed by the cold manasteel scraping against her skin. With deliberate movements, she unstrapped the glittering relic from her arm and dropped it on the ground, then straightened and met my gaze. “There has been an incident at Shadowmine.”
“Virram mentioned as much at our last meeting,” I said dismissively. “Another issue of his own creation, no doubt.”
“No,” she responded quickly, “not this time. What once seemed like an isolated event has become a recurring problem: monsters have been emerging from beneath the mountains.”
“Monsters?” I scoffed. “You came all this way, and that was the best you could come up with?”
“It is the truth, Lux,” she said, without a trace of emotion to indicate otherwise. “There are no records of the beasts in the Royal Archives, nor are there legends or folktales matching their description. They are truly an unknown force.” My stomach began to churn as she continued. “The beasts are remarkably difficult to kill, and have been swarming throughout northern Kaldan for the past twenty nine days. Civilian casualties are rising quickly.”
“I fail to see how any of this is my problem,” I lied.
“It is not; this burden rests upon my shoulders.” As she spoke, I felt as though I could see her shrink beneath a physical weight as her imposing frame sagged the smallest bit. “I am under orders to keep the peace at the Mountain Gate remnants. While I have done so, and will continue to do so, I am also rallying a force to strike at the heart of the infestation. I believe it is in the best interest of Kaldan to stop the source of these beasts, the act of which could be considered the ultimate form of keeping the peace.”
“And you want my help to do it.”
“Yes,” she answered bluntly. “You and Lia are the fiercest warriors I have ever met. Innocent people are dying; I cannot let personal matters stand in the way of our best chance of salvation. It is not me that needs you, but the—”
“Don’t say it,” I cut her off abruptly. “Virram needs me. You need me. That’s what this is, nothing more.” Every word lashed through the air with disdain, though they were directed at myself as much as they were at Val. “If you think I’m taking Lia anywhere near Kaldan ever again, you’re out of your fucking mind. You’ve caused me nothing but pain my entire life.” I took another step forward and rotated my blade to sit across the front of her throat, leaving the width of the weapon as the only thing separating our faces. “You should thank your Primes that I’m even considering letting you leave here alive.”
“You are letting your personal feelings cloud your judgement,” she said quietly.
The statement sent me into a rage, and my arm shuddered as I resisted the urge to open her throat from ear to ear. “The only reason you’re alive right now is that I couldn’t bear the thought of telling your sister that I killed you.”
For the first time in our conversation, Val’s mask broke; for a fraction of a second, her face retracted with pain. “Marin is...here?”
“That’s right,” I hissed. “She’s here because I saved her life. Right after your man Savitz put a bolt in her chest.” I leaned forward, pressing my throat against my own blade. “You will never see her again. I’m not sure you’d like the result if you did; she’s stronger than you now.”
Another wave of emotion flashed across her face, this time a mix of concern and fear. “Marin is not a warrior.”
“Oh, but she is, Valandra. We’ve trained her how to fight more fiercely than any man in your pathetic army. Do you want to know why?” I fought back a lump in my throat as my eyes began to water. “It’s because she begged me to do it. She begged me to teach her to fight, so that if the day ever came, she could protect us. From you.”
The forest fell silent around us as the words echoed away. Tears fell onto both sides of my trembling sword and ran down along its length, merging together at the tip to drip into the dirt at our feet. Our eyes never broke their connection as we stood together, one savage motion away from death. It took every ounce of strength within me not to falter, to turn and run away from the words I had spoken. When the silence grew too powerful to bear for a second longer, I took a ragged breath and blinked away my tears.
“Leave. Don’t come back,” I whispered. “If I ever see you or your men in this forest again, I swear on every God you know that I will make Kaldan suffer every injustice inflicted upon me tenfold.” My blade vanished from between us, and I suddenly found the closeness of our faces suffocating. I took two steps backwards, then stood statue still as I stared her down.
Val wiped the tears from her face before kneeling down to retrieve her shield. After refastening it to her arm, she stood and unflinchingly met my gaze again. An eternity passed in every second of silence until she turned in place and began to walk back in the direction from which she had arrived, saying nothing. I watched her go until she left my vision, and continued the vigil until she disappeared from the edge of my Detection, at which point I promptly collapsed into the dirt and began to sob.
Lia found me a few minutes later, curled into a ball on the forest floor. When she arrived in the partial clearing of devastated trees, she sat down beside me and tugged on my shoulders until my head rested in her lap, facing into her stomach. I hardly noticed the movement as I continued to weep in an attempt to purge the venomous hate that had risen in my gut.
“I-I feel so empty,” I managed to choke out between sobs. “It’s just anger and darkness, all the way through. There’s nothing good inside me anymore.”
“That’s not true,” she said tenderly. “You’re a good man.”
“No, I’m not,” I cried, shaking my head. “The things I said to her...I just wanted to hurt her. To cause her as much pain as I could.” I buried my face deeper into her lap, holding my eyes shut to try and stop the flowing tears. “She wanted our help. She was willing to die for it.”
“How did she find us?”
“I don’t know. I...didn’t ask,” I admitted. “I couldn’t think straight. I came so close to...to killing her.”
“You were trying to protect your family,” Lia answered. “That doesn’t make you evil. I fought her in the throne room, and I would have done whatever it took to keep you safe.”
“That’s different. You’re good inside,” I said in a small, weak voice. “You’re not like me.”
“Stop it, Lux. I know you better than anybody; you can’t convince me that you’re some monster.”
I pawed at the leather glove on my right hand, eventually pulling it off to reveal the black scars that ran down past my wrist. “You didn’t see what I did to those men in Attetsia. You wouldn’t say that if you had. You couldn’t...love me, if you—”
Lia roughly spun my head around until I was looking straight up into her eyes. “I will never stop loving you, no matter what happens,” she declared. “If there truly is a darkness inside of you, then we’ll fight it together. Nothing is stronger than us.” She gave the words a moment to sink in, then climbed to her feet and pulled me up along with her. “Let’s go home.”
My mind was too overloaded to argue, so I obediently fell in line behind her and followed her back to the house. She led me up to the bedroom, helped me out of my armor and clothes, and tucked me into bed. “You don’t have to sleep if you aren’t tired, but you should at least close your eyes and rest for a bit,” she instructed me kindly, running her fingers through my hair. “Take as long as you need.” After planting a tender kiss on my forehead, she left the room, closing the door behind her. I hadn’t intended to fall asleep, but my mental exhaustion quickly got the better of me. My consciousness faded quickly after my eyes closed, and I fell into a restless sleep that lasted until the following morning.
My dreams were vivid and varied for the entirety of my fitful sleep, but they always ended the same way: with pain, death, and black flames.
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!