My mind raced to puzzle out the mystery of Elise’s situation as I sprinted through the forest on an intercept course with her carriage. It was clear that neither she nor Bella were injured, indicating the bloodstains had come from a third party, but exactly who the injured party was eluded me. Marten and his wagon were both absent from the Corell homestead, leaving him as a potential answer, but given his close relationship with Elise, he would no doubt have been in the carriage with her no matter how injured he was. Whose blood is that? Why is she coming here?
An answer scratched at the back of my mind like a coil of thorns. Monsters. Regardless of who had been injured, the fact that she was coming to find us told me everything I needed to know, regardless of whether I wanted it to be true or not. I scowled as the conversation within the carriage unfolded silently before me through my Detection, hiding the confirmations I needed. While I was only a few minutes of sprinting away from finding my answers, the increased processing speed in my head from the Combat Acceleration enhancement would make it feel like an eternity.
Without pausing to consider the improbability of my action, I suffused an extra wave of mana forward into the carriage and attempted to diffuse the energy into the air. The ability had languished in disuse since its discovery and had never been used for anything aside from controlling small currents of air, but I was desperate to focus my mind on anything apart from the churning in my stomach. I fought against the unconscious barriers I held in place as I struggled to remember the feeling I had found in my initial breakthrough, but after a few moments of concentration a tugging on my mana reserves told me I had succeeded.
The excess energy I had channeled into the carriage diffused through the air inside, slowly filling the gaps in my mental map with a bizarre, sourceless glow. Having never attempted the idea before, I simply shifted my focus to the inside of the carriage in the hopes that I could perceive sound through my Detection the same way I could see. To my surprise, I immediately heard Bella’s voice as if she were sitting directly beside me, although the effort it took to maintain the ability forced me to slow my frantic pace through the woods in order to not collide head first with an emberwood.
“Ma’am, I still...be headed south, not...for your friends.” Bella’s voice cut in and out as my focus constantly adjusted. “The Ellawynn Guard...effective than two random…”
“There’s no time,” Elise answered, her nostrils flaring. “Another caravan...in our backyard. The Ellawynn...make it in time to stop...to Mayaan.”
Bella leaned forward and put a hand on Elise’s knee. “I’m sorry. Losing people...had to deal with before. I...whatever you need.”
I nearly tripped over my own feet as I watched Elise lean in and kiss Bella deeply. When the passionate exchange was over, Elise pulled her face back a few inches and leaned her forehead against Bella’s. “I know. This isn’t...are supposed to be.”
The sound of horse hooves pounding against dirt grew louder in my ears as the first flashes of the carriage appeared through the trees ahead of me, and I withdrew my extended mana to allow the couple a final moment of privacy before I arrived. I burst from the treeline a few feet from the carriage door and matched its pace, sprinting alongside as it continued to bounce down the uneven road. “Elise!” I shouted, much to the surprise of the driver and horses. A second later, the curtain pulled back to reveal Bella’s face behind the window, and the door swung open.
Elise watched me with her head slightly askew as I hopped into the moving carriage and sat down across from her. “Lux, you’re...early,” she said, confused.
“Right,” I nodded, uninterested in coy formalities. “What’s happened? What do you need?” The muted red of the blood against her beautiful blue overcoat was more unsettling in person than it had been through my Detection.
Her throat tightened as she swallowed hard, and her eyes flitted to Bella momentarily, where she found a reassuring nod. “I’ve been sending supply caravans east to the Mountain Gate to aid in the reconstruction efforts.” She paused for effect, but my mind was too singularly focused on what awaited us to register any guilt or responsibility for the difficulties I had caused. “Things ran smoothly for the past week, until this morning. The caravan was ambushed on their way back to Mayaan, about ten miles east of here. Of my thirteen employees, only three survived.” Her eyes fell to the stains on her coat. “No, sorry. Two.”
“What ambushed your men, Elise?” I asked, though the answer already burned at the forefront of my mind.
“They said it was a group of...monstrous, spider-like creatures,” she murmured, closing her eyes against the thought.
The pit in my stomach split further apart as my blood ran cold. “A group of them?”
“Yes, at least five. Maybe more,” she answered solemnly.
Fuck. I swept a wave of mana around the surrounding forest, and was relieved to find Lia in full battle gear, on pace to meet our carriage at her parents’ house with Marin close behind. “Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Lia and I will handle it. You two should stay with Hana and Marin while we’re gone.” My brain ticked through a quick checklist of priorities as I spoke. “Do you know where Marten is today?”
“South, thank the Primes,” Elise answered. “He stopped by my office this morning, said he’d be back at dusk.”
“Good.” I unlatched the door behind me and leapt out of the carriage as it began to slow down. Lia sprinted out from the forest a moment later and appeared at my side alone, having pulled a few seconds ahead of Marin on their dash. “Another of Elise’s caravans was attacked,” I told her, speaking quickly in a low, even voice. “Only a dozen miles east of here. The survivors described our monster from the Midlands; apparently, there are at least five of them.”
A brief flash of fear tingled across the back of my neck from Lia’s aura, but it was quickly dismissed and replaced with resolve. “When are we leaving?”
“Now; we can’t let those things reach Mayaan,” I answered. “Elise and Bella are going to stay here with your mother while we go—”
“Where are we going?” Marin cut in, having finally reached our huddle.
“We aren’t going anywhere,” I said sternly. “You’re staying here while Lia and I go deal with this.”
“Wait, what? Why?” she asked, frowning. “I don’t even know what’s going on yet!”
“More of the monsters Lia and I fought showed up and attacked another caravan,” I said, tipping my head towards the carriage as Elise and Bella climbed out. “You’re going to stay here with them while Lia and I go hunt the monsters down.”
“No, I’m not!” she insisted, stomping her foot. “I’ve been training for over a month! You can’t just keep me here and—”
“This isn’t another training match, Marin!” I interrupted, my voice quickly approaching a shout. “You don’t get to fall down into the dirt and complain when one of those things beats you; you just die. You might be ready to deal with bandits and thugs, but you aren’t ready for this.”
She screwed up her face into a sneer as I accosted her. “How am I ever supposed to be ready if you never let me fight one, then? That doesn’t make any sense!”
“This isn’t a discussion, Marin.”
I turned to walk away and end the conversation, but Lia caught my arm. “I think she should come, Lux.”
My jaw nearly fell open as I turned back to her. “Why?”
“Well, she’s right; sort of right, anyways. If these...things are going to continue to be an issue, she’ll have to face them eventually. And if things keep getting worse, this might be the safest time to do it.” I could see the struggle plainly on Lia’s face as she spoke. “I’m not saying she should come and fight on the front lines with us, but she needs to see what we’re facing.”
“Oh, not you too!” Marin groaned. “I’m ready to fight! I have the gauntlets, and we’ve been—”
“MARIN!” I yelled, far too loudly; Marin physically recoiled from the shout, while Elise and Bella turned their heads in our direction and stared in interested silence. I put a hand to my head and rubbed my temples as my thoughts screamed at each other, attempting desperately to find the proper answer to my dilemma. “Listen. You can come with us, but you won’t be fighting. You’ll stay back at a safe distance and watch the battle. You’ll prioritize staying safe at all costs, you’ll only fight if your life is immediately threatened, and you’ll follow every order that either Lia or I give you. That, or you’ll stay here: your choice.”
After her previous outbursts, I was surprised to see her accept the information with relative calm. “I’ll come with you. I promise I won’t get in the way,” she answered.
The immediate reversal of her attitude puzzled me, but I quickly let the thought go and refocused on the task at hand. “Good. Let’s go.” I strode across the clearing to where Bella and Elise were waiting. “Thank you for coming to me with this, Elise. We’ll take care of it,” I said, motioning to Lia and Marin behind me. “Please wait here until we come back. I promise you’ll be safe.”
“I’m not worried about us,” she said, stepping forward to wrap me in her arms. “Primes watch over you,” she intoned. After a final squeeze, she moved on to my companions. “You too, Marly. And you, dear,” she said, giving each a hug in turn. Bella gave us a deep bow, remaining quiet as she stood behind Elise.
With our goodbyes out of the way, I turned and led our party down the dirt road, slowly increasing my pace until Marin began to struggle to keep up. I pushed my Detection out to its maximum limit in all directions, stretching over the forests and fields for miles in every direction. Although we had a specified direction to head in, I was unsure how much time had passed since the ambush took place, and I was determined to find the beasts no matter how far they had moved in the intervening hours.
We sprinted out of the forest and onto the main road in total silence, gradually slowing down as Marin’s breath grew strained from the intense cardio. I kept a close eye on her mana reserves as we traveled to ensure she wasn’t entirely spent by the time our combat started. While it was clear that she was tired, she showed no signs of stopping and made no complaints. The hardened resolve on her face was familiar; I could see Val in her eyes, inscrutable and unfaltering as steel.
I planted my heels in the dirt and skidded to a sudden halt when the first sign of the monsters’ auras appeared at the edge of my Detection. “They’re close,” I murmured, tilting my head towards the forest in the direction of the presence. “We’ll go slowly from here.” Turning to Marin, I put a hand on her shoulder and gripped it tightly. “I promise that we’ll do everything we can to keep you safe, but I need you to be on your guard. If things go wrong, and you’re forced to fight, don’t hold anything back.” My eyes fell to the massive gauntlets on her arms. “Do whatever you can to survive.”
“I will,” she said firmly, clenching her hands into fists.
“Stay behind us,” I commanded as I turned back to the woods. As we made our way off the road, I sent a pulse of mana forward to completely encompass the static void in my head. Where the first monster we had faced had held a perfectly circular field around it, the field before us was slightly oblong in shape and seemed to undulate back and forth at various points around its edge. There’s definitely more than one in there. The thought sent a fresh wave of anxiety tingling through my already overtensed body, and I leaned against a nearby tree to compose myself.
A sudden wave of blissfully cool energy washed over me, scratching an itch at the back of my mind I hadn’t been able to pinpoint since we had returned from our canceled adventure. My head rushed as I incorporated an entirely separate set of sensory inputs; cool air against bare skin, hands gripped tightly around matched longswords, and a view of myself, standing frozen in the forest, through different eyes than my own. My shoulders relaxed and fell as we shared a mutual sigh of relief. Hi, we thought in unison, both smiling, I missed you.
With my head feeling whole once again, I pushed forward with renewed confidence. The trees became more densely packed as we continued deeper into the forest; our initial entrance at the treeline had been through tall grass and wildflowers that filled the ground between the sparse emberwoods, but the journey quickly shifted to a winding path over mossy, root-covered dirt, with hardly an arms breadth of space between the ancient tree trunks. Any light that managed to filter down through the thick cover above us was tinged red from the emberwood leaves, giving the forest a seemingly sourceless crimson glow.
I stopped our advance a dozen yards from the edge of the monsters’ auras. The forest was far too thick to catch sight of them, but my Enhanced Senses picked up on the sharp tap of their talons and scythes against stone, as well as the unmistakable ripping, dripping, squelching noises of a beast consuming its prey. They’re eating. We’ll catch them unaware. Our thought was triumphant, entirely blocking out any idea of what their meal could be.
“Marin,” I whispered, turning to face her, “we’re here. Once we enter their aura, they’ll know, so we have to move quickly. You won’t be able to extend your mana, either; focus on your enhancements, and listen for our orders. When you catch up to us, stay at least twenty feet back.”
“When I catch up?” she asked, wrinkling her brow. “You want me to wait here first?”
I shook my head in frustration. “What? No, I want you to do your absolute best to keep up.” It took me a moment to remember that Marin wasn’t tapped into the mental bond I held with Lia, and she couldn’t see the plan we were constructing while I spoke. “We’re going to outrun you, but you’ll know where we’re going.”
She immediately bristled at the apparent challenge, but her face returned to a mask-like calm just as quickly. “Okay.”
Satisfied, I turned back towards our target, but my gaze caught on Lia’s eyes. I watched the golden, sparkling pools with fascination as they stared back at me, revealing my own hard, icy-gray eyes in turn. My hand raised to her chin and brushed along her cheek, and I nearly recoiled at the feeling of the leather across our shared skin. Whatever I wanted to say to her faded away into the swirling sea of our shared experiences and left me with a single thought.
Without a word, we turned and charged ahead into the forest. The glowing map in our head fizzled away as we entered the suffocating aura. Each footfall rocketed us forward at impossible speeds, and we wove between the trees in an intricate dance of spins and leaps that carried us closer to our final destination. Marin followed along behind us, her footfalls heavy, awkward, and fading in volume as she immediately fell behind. Lia and I covered the hundred yard dash in just under two seconds, and the scene we had been trying to predict finally revealed itself.
Four of the beasts were packed around a pile of mangled, bloody corpses within a tight circle of trees. They stood with their legs and arms twisted at sickening angles, suspending their bulbous bodies just inches above the ground where they feasted on their kills with gaping, lipless mouths. Three more monsters were suspended ten feet above the corpse pile, their limbs stretched across the tiny clearing to anchor themselves with claw and scythe in opposite emberwoods. The hanging beasts bobbed wildly as they fought to lower themselves down far enough to bite into the closest body. Each of the monsters were entirely identical to their neighbors in shape and size, differing only in the pattern of violet veins that ran along their faded orange chitin.
We processed the entirety of the situation in a split second. Seven of them. No space to fight them all at once; trees will give them vertical movement and block our line of sight. Plans flashed behind our eyes as we split apart and circled their formation. Press the surprise. Drop the suspended ones and retreat. Find out how they move in close quarters.
Our initial attack caught the beasts before they had a chance to react to our intrusion. I kicked hard against an upturned stump and launched into the air, sailing up to the level of the highest hanging monster. Taking my sword in both hands, I plunged the blade straight through the center of the beast’s suspended torso, severing the spinal cord I knew was buried deep beneath the chitinous armor. It gave a single, violent shudder before it fell limp, still hanging between the trees with its scythes and talons embedded deep in the wood. I perched on the swinging body for a brief moment before I withdrew my sword and jumped backwards, dislodging the dead beast from the trees down onto its scrambling companions.
While I struck from the air, Lia attacked from the ground. Her swords whipped up in symmetrical arcs that severed the back legs of the lowest hanging beast at the hip, causing it to swing forward and collapse onto the corpse pile as rotten purple blood gushed from its wounds. The onyx blades clashed above her head in a shower of golden sparks, instantly combining into a brutal greataxe. She hammered the weapon down with a fearsome roar and split the wounded beast through its midsection, spilling its putrid entrails over its stunned allies. The mountain of monsters writhed with flailing limbs and spraying blood as Lia reformed her longswords and dashed away, regrouping with me a dozen yards back from the scene.
Marin crashed to a halt at her designated distance behind us and looked upon the scene with an expression of pure horror. Her wide eyes were locked on the foremost beast, which glistened beneath the sanguine light of the canopy as it finally began to right itself and move towards us. Its bladed arms scraped against mossy roots as it crawled out of the tangle and skittered forward. The speed with which it moved was unnerving and entirely unexpected; where the trees grew too close together for it to run normally, it reached its scythes up and clambered sideways along the emberwoods, vaulting from tree to tree in a terrifying display of acrobatics.
“Back!” I shouted, waving Marin away. “Back, now!” The three of us sprinted along the path we had followed into the forest as the monsters formed up and gave chase behind us. It was difficult to map the positions of the five remaining beasts without Detection, but our Enhanced Senses gave us accurate enough directions via the harsh clacking of talons and the fetid stench of blood. A second layer of dread set in as the sounds and smells spread apart into a wide semicircle, the edges of which raced ahead of us on either side. Pack tactics. Flanking.
Our deepened mental bond flared to life, and our voices spoke in matched echoes as we created our new plan of attack through a single, unified mind.
They’ll catch us if we match Marin’s speed, but-
-we can’t fight them all at once in here-
-especially not with her with us.
She can make us space to fight-
-if we give her time.
We’ll split their pack apart-
-and choose our battles until then.
We can do this.
“Marin, we need your help. Can you help us?” Lia asked as we ran. Marin’s eyes scanned the surrounding trees for signs of the pursuing creatures with a singular focus, leaving the question unanswered. “Marin,” Lia persisted, more sharply, “listen to me. We need you if we’re going to get out of this alive.” The command snapped the girl out of her fearful silence, and she gave Lia a small nod. “When I give the signal, we’re going to stop running, and you’re going to knock down as many trees as you can, as fast as you can.”
Marin’s mouth moved to respond, but no noise came out apart from a hoarse wheeze as she struggled to keep up her frantic retreat. “I-I can do it,” she repeated in a raspy voice, flexing her gauntleted fingers in anticipation.
As soon as I heard the confirmation, I cut hard to one side and sprinted away from Lia and Marin, doubling my speed on an intercept course with the beast that led the right flank. The tight arc it followed through the trees in an effort to get ahead of us left it separated from the rest of the pack, and I rushed ahead to press my one on one advantage. Just as we had hoped, the closest two beasts broke off from their advance and swarmed towards me; now separated from my group, I appeared just as isolated as my prey. You’re clear.
“Now, Marin!” A melodic knell sounded through the forest as Marin skidded to a stop and rang her fists together. Without hesitation, she leaned back and held up an armored fist, then rocketed at the nearest tree with reckless abandon. I watched through Lia’s eyes as the tree trunk vaporized into a glorious hail of splinters and sawdust. Leaves fluttered madly through the air as the top half of the emberwood rained down around the pair in massive, spiked chunks. Marin stood in awe of her destruction with her fist still outstretched, hovering where the tree had stood moments before.
“More!” Lia shouted, planting both her swords in the dirt beside her. “More, Marin!” Marin shook off her stupor and leapt sideways towards the next tree, striking it with a similarly devastating blow. Lia knelt and hefted up a ten foot long chunk of jagged wood from the ground. She tested its weight in her arms as she stood and turned to the approaching pair of monsters, then sent it screaming downfield in their direction. The missile grazed the closest beast as it dropped haphazardly from the trees to the ground to avoid the attack, taking a moment to right itself before it continued the charge.
The rhythmic tremors of Marin’s rampage echoed in my chest like a wardrum and pushed me harder towards my foe. It hung upside down in a towering emberwood, its taloned feet securely lodged in the tree face as it waited motionless for my arrival. While the beast’s ovaline body was suspended ten feet above the ground, safely out of my normal reach, its bladed arms hung down nearly to the forest floor, gently swaying back and forth in anticipation. Hollow sockets watched me eyelessly below circular rows of dripping teeth as I burst into view and made a snap assessment of my position.
Six seconds until reinforcements arrive. I rushed ahead, ready to spring into the air and spear the beast through its chest, but the waiting scythes flashed up towards my gut before I left the ground. I caught the blows on the flat of my sword and was immediately thrown backwards from the immense force of the attack. A spike of pain shot through my back as I smashed into a nearby tree, and my Pain Reduction activated autonomously. Four seconds. My legs coiled up beneath me against the emberwood and launched me in for another clash, this time at a lower angle. I slid beneath the beast’s rising blades and impaled my sword into the tree trunk, activating the Shatter rune in my ring with a burst of mana.
The tree transformed into a rapidly expanding cloud of fine sawdust as it disintegrated entirely from root to leaf. With its perch suddenly destroyed, the beast clawed in vain at the air as it tumbled end over end. My sword flashed in a whipping arc over my head as I stood and split the monster in half, rewarding me with an immediate shower of steaming viscera. The acrid slime covered my face and chest, but my body was already moving before I had a chance to react with disgust. One second.
A new pair of bladed arms hissed over my head as I rolled to the side just in time to avoid being decapitated. Time to leave. I took my feet and sprinted back in the direction I had come from, but stopped a dozen yards later to dodge another attack as the second beast raked at me with its talons from above. Our intricate dance continued as I made my way back to my companions; whenever one of my pursuers stopped to make an attack, the other would scuttle ahead along the trees with unnatural ease to position itself directly in my path.
I’ve got you. I felt a light breeze on my face as a spiked projectile whistled by, only a few inches from my left ear. It caught the closest beast square in the midsection and sent it reeling backwards as the wood exploded against its chitin. The remaining monster behind me fell back to regroup with its fallen companion, clearly having learned a lesson from its slain ally. Now unharassed, I turned my attention toward the clearing Marin had created ahead. A beautiful pillar of golden light spilled through the gap in the trees, banishing the otherworldly red glow around the thirty yard wide arena.
Marin continued to expand our haven on the opposite side of the clearing from Lia, well away from the advancing monsters. The pace of her destruction had drastically slowed as her energy reserves flagged, but she continued to carry out her orders dutifully, having not received an order to stop. “Marin,” I called out as I sprinted into the clearing, “that’s enough.”
She jumped at the sound of my voice and whirled around to stare at me as if she were in a trance. “I...did it?” she asked, her arms falling to hang limply at her sides.
I put a hand on her shoulder and pulled her close, rotating my body to shield her from the advancing beasts. “You did it,” I answered, “but we aren’t done yet.” I pulled her along to the center of the clearing to stand beside Lia. My appearance had stopped the pair of creatures Lia had held at bay until my return; they skittered side to side in the shade of the trees, awaiting their own reinforcements as we watched them silently.
They have the numbers advantage, but they can’t press us out in the open. They have the advantage in the woods, so we can’t flush them out. It’s a stalemate. The remaining two beasts appeared from the shadows, and all four immediately scuttled into the trees, obscuring themselves in the thick red foliage. We could burn them out, but a forest fire here would be nearly impossible to stop before—
Our thoughts were cut short as the tree buckled violently, and four shadows blotted out the sunlight above us. “Move!” I shouted, tossing Marin by the shoulder to the edge of the clearing. Eight massive razors fell on us like artillery fire as the beasts dove blade first into the earth around us. I redirected the closest scythe and sidestepped the next as Lia dodged away with a tight back handspring. The monsters fell in a perfectly planned pattern, separating Lia from Marin and myself with a wall of teeth, blades, and armor.
Lia and I acted before our strategies were fully formed, playing them out in vivid detail through our mental link and making minute adjustments on the fly. Instep. Rising parry, slide up to cut joints—
Angle those up more; their scythes pull back harder than you’d expect.
Noted. Cut scythes, flip up, switch to greatsword, plunging stab, finish off the first one.
Javelin the first, bait the attack unarmed, resummon, clash, roll under, stab up through the mouth.
There’s no room for error in that.
We carried out the parallel attacks before the beasts could press their newly gained advantage. Lia dashed forward inside the closest monster’s guard and raised her twin swords above her head, parrying its scythes as they fell on her. The onyx metal skittered up at an angle along the inside of the bladed arms and caught at the weakly armored joints above her. As soon as they found purchase, she flicked the blades out in matching arcs and sent the scythes spinning to the ground. The beast reeled back in pain, but Lia followed, leaping up to plant both feet atop its armored carapace. She launched into the air before her platform stumbled to the ground, reformed her greatsword, and plunged the blade straight through the back of her second attacker. It punched through the beast’s back without resistance and burst out from its stomach, continuing down until it sunk into the ground.
Both beasts beside me reared up and raised their forearms in preparation for a set of powerful falling stabs. I waited patiently until my closest foe was committed to the attack, then pulled my blade back over my shoulder and hurled it forward. It caught the beast squarely between its sunken eye sockets and sent it spinning backwards across the clearing. I spun to my right and held up my empty hands in a blocking position, ready to catch the attack of the final beast when my sword reappeared at the last possible moment. The familiar leather grip returned to my hand with a flash, and I dipped down onto one knee and braced the blade with both hands, waiting for the beast’s final attack before I rolled in and finished the fight.
It was an attack that never came. I realized my error too late; from my stationary position on the ground, I watched as the monster leapt over my head, training its blades on a target somewhere behind me. “MARIN!” I screamed, sending a surge of mana through my body in a desperate attempt to correct my mistake. The terror echoed within me twice as Lia watched from her perch atop her dead foe, wrenching at the greatsword that still pinned its body to the earth. I turned just in time to catch a fine spray of purple blood on my face as the monster exploded behind me, its chitin shattered like porcelain.
When I wiped the blood from my eyes, I found Marin standing with her fist extended only a few feet away from my head, her face as hard and cold as steel. The massive dose of adrenaline pumping through my blood was at odds with the waves of shock and relief crashing over me and Lia, and it left me frozen in place, trembling uncontrollably. Forcing myself to move, I took a single step forward and pulled Marin tightly against my chest. “Thank you,” I choked out, on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry.”
She stood stiff against the embrace, her head slowly turning side to side to look out over my shoulder. “Is it...over?” she asked, confused.
Lia finally removed her greatsword from the carcass beneath her feet with a sucking squelch as she jumped down to the ground. I felt a powerful sense of finality as she brought the blade down through the final living beast as it writhed in pain in the bloody dirt. With a final sigh, she split her blade into the usual matched pair, sheathed them at her hip, and sprinted towards us. “It’s over,” she affirmed, tilting her head against both of ours as she joined the group hug.
I closed my eyes and focused on the emotions that threatened to overwhelm me in an attempt to crystallize a perfect memory of the moment; the relief, love, and utter triumph of holding Lia and Marin in my arms after our harrowing encounter was a moment I longed to never forget no matter how many lives I lived. The feeling extended through our bond and resonated deeply within Lia’s core, and we basked in the sensation together quietly. “That’s all of them, right?” Marin asked, sagging forward in our arms as her adrenaline began to fade. “We’re safe now?”
“I think so,” I answered, nodding. Our battle had demonstrated that our bestial foes were heavily pack focused, and while I was confident they would never split up beyond their obfuscating spheres of influence, I did my due diligence and sent out a pulse of Detection for the first time since the air cleared. In the instant the mana left my body, a spike of pain erupted in my chest, and I staggered back as I clawed against the all too familiar burning sensation.
Hello, Elden, Amaya’s voice cooed in my head. It’s been too long.
Lia crumpled to the ground and began to convulse with a shriek of pain as the deconstructing pain of the void ripped through her body for the first time. Marin gaped at us in shock, her head turning back and forth between the two of us wildly. “What’s wrong? Primes, Lia, what’s wrong?” she asked, falling to her knees and reaching out a trembling hand.
Please, stop, I begged as the void tore at my lungs and stole my breath. Leave her out of this.
I warned you this would happen, the echoing voice said, ignoring my pleas. I warned you, and you didn’t listen. You shouldn’t have lied to her. I pulled on my consciousness as hard as I could in an effort to disentangle myself with Lia and spare her from the pain, but our bond was too deep for me to break. My ears filled with a deafening explosion of shattering glass, drowning out Lia’s desperate screams. You knew this was your lot in life, and you dragged her into it anyway. It’s time for you to face the consequences.
My right arm tingled as the void energy continued to build in my chest, and black smoke trickled out of the rim of my leather glove. “Lia,” I croaked, deaf to my own words, “I’ll...fix this. I promise.”
No more lies, Elden, Amaya’s voice thundered, shifting from the usual cold detachment to focused anger. You’ve forced my hand here. Remember that. The shattering noise came again, so loud that it vibrated my eyes inside my skull. A bright flash forced me to close my eyes, and when they opened again, the world was broken in two. A thin line ran through the air around the clearing, refracting the forest around us as if I were looking through a pane of broken glass. Smoke poured out from the ethereal wound, obfuscating the sunlight and plunging our clearing back into the ominous crimson glow of the emberwoods.
Another ear splitting crash echoed out from the crack, and it spread further through the air, its sparkling tendrils reaching out towards Marin and Lia. “Marin, run!” I shouted, taking a staggering step towards her. “Watch out!”
She looked up from Lia’s writhing body and scanned the clearing with a panicked expression. “What? What’s happening, Lux?” she cried, her eyes blind to the cracks in the air only a few inches from her head as she scrambled backwards.
I’m going to kill you, I seethed at the presence in my head. I don’t care what you are, or where you are, I’m going to find you, and I swear on every—
NO. MORE. LIES. The crack in reality above Lia shattered open with a gout of smoke and black flame. Marin stumbled away, holding her hands up against the sudden heat. A hissing black void hung in the air where the world had broken away, revealing the horrific expanse I had existed in three times before. My body flooded with its deathly energy, and black flames sprouted uncontrollably from my fingertips and licked across the sky blue metal of my sword. I tried to take a step forward to help Lia, but the flames immediately advanced up to my chest as I moved; I instantly froze in place and redoubled my efforts on fighting off the dark presence that threatened to take control of my body.
A shadow flickered in the void, revealing itself a moment later as it clambered through the crack with impossibly sharp bladed arms. The beast paused as its central carapace appeared from the shadows, examining the new world around it, then immediately reared up and brought its scythes down towards its closest target. “NO!” I bellowed, fully embracing the darkness as I lunged forward to stop the monster’s attack. A swirl of black flame surrounded me as my blade shot out and impaled the beast through the side, immediately engulfing it in my conflagration. Its form shimmered beneath the black flame for a brief moment, then disappeared in a gently wafting cloud of black ash. The maw of the void beside me receded and snapped closed, and the refracting crack in the air vanished in a final plume of smoke.
I hardly noticed the stabbing pain in my chest through the rage that clouded my mind and the flames rippling across my skin. I looked down to find the source of the new pain too late: blood gushed from a gaping wound in Lia’s chest, drilled down through her armor to puncture her heart and lung. My knees buckled and brought me to the ground beside her. “No. No, no, no,” I murmured, running a hand over her bloody leather armor and sending a rush of healing magic through my flaming fingers. “No, I’ll fix this. I promise.”
Her eyes stared up into the smoke-blotted sky, dancing back and forth in search of something she couldn’t see. Our connection was too washed out with pain for me to find her consciousness: everything was static, and noise, and death. The sparkling green energy returned to me as it finished its job, but I could tell immediately that it wasn’t enough. The blankness in her eyes remained, and she struggled to breath as she coughed up the blood pooled in her once-punctured lung.
I pulled her up into my arms and cradled her body, turning her face up to look at mine. “No, Lia,” I shouted at her, confused and broken, “I fixed it. You can’t die now. You can’t! YOU CAN’T!” As the fury overwhelmed me, I felt my link to her mind fading, replaced with nothing but blinding pain and outrage. “NO! NO! I WON’T LET YOU DIE!” My voice echoed in a tortured chorus.
Lia didn’t seem to hear my protests, and her labored breathing slowly lessened in intensity until she fell still in my arms, and died.
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!