I warned you.
I stared into her unfocused eyes, unwilling to accept the reality before me.
You brought her here. You filled her with death.
Deep within my core, I felt my last bastion of resistance break, and the darkness filled me to the brim.
It’s time for you to fulfill your purpose in this world.
Somewhere ahead of me, a repeated sound echoed out at me, but I didn’t care to figure out what it said. I looked up momentarily from Lia’s eyes to find Marin standing a few feet away, screaming at me red-faced and crying. My brow furrowed as I tried to remember why she was here, but my mind repeated a single word among the darkness: DEATH.
“LUX!” Marin screamed again. “What do I do?! Lux? LUX!”
A sudden, massive rush of energy consumed my body, and my form disappeared behind a curtain of wicked black flames. “Run,” I answered her with a growl.
“Lux, we have to help Lia! We have to—”
“RUN!” I roared in a bestial voice that was not my own, flaring the intensity of the flames that surrounded me. Her face turned to one of pure terror, and she retreated into the red forest ahead of me without argument.
Drink deeply from the cup you filled. It overflows for you.
I don’t understand. Another potent surge of energy spread the flames along the mossy ground around us, consuming everything in its path and obscuring the entire clearing from view with smoke and black fire. What...what’s happening?
Look, Elden. Look inside. It’s Lia’s final gift to you. A primal force entered my head and directed my attention to the energy in Lia’s core. I looked on in awe as I found her vast ocean of amber energy still intact, though its lustrous glow was gone, and the edges were tinged with the familiar black energy of the void.
No, that’s not right, I thought weakly, too broken and consumed by grief and pain to understand. She wasn’t like me. There wasn’t any darkness in her.
Elden, you’re not looking close enough, Amaya explained patiently. Look. Watch. Understand. My focus was pulled closer to the boundary where the light and darkness met. The border between the energies roiled and shifted as the void consumed her golden light and advanced inwards towards her core.
Stop, I pleaded. Stop, please. Don’t do that. Don’t taint her like that. I watched helplessly as the darkness advanced, uncaring. “Stop,” I cried out, “please. No more. I can’t...just leave her to me…I can’t.”
I’m not doing anything, Elden. This is what death truly means. As she spoke, the word “death” thundered through my mind, echoing in the empty expanse Lia’s consciousness had left behind. Death holds power, just like life; they’re two sides of the same coin. What you call “mana” is the power inherent to life. You should know that by now. Every living thing has it, and has the aptitude to control it. But death…
The void energy continued to ravage the amber ocean of Lia’s mana, increasing in speed as it devoured the deep reserves. What did you think happened to the mana of the men you killed? A new kind of pain split my head as my memories were scoured, and I was forced to remember every man I had killed since arriving in Kaldan in vivid detail. You’ve known it all along, regardless of whether you’ve accepted it. Just as life turns to death, life energy turns to death energy. And you, Elden, have the power to control it. In a hundred trillion lifetimes, there’s never been anybody else like you.
A faint tendril of void energy ran from the edge of Lia’s mana reserves to my fingertips and fueled the dark flames that continued to spread outward from my body into the forest. Do you understand now? Do you see what you have to do?
I stared into Lia’s lifeless eyes, unable to turn away from the scene as it etched itself into my mind forever. No.
Look at the source of energy you’ve created. All of your training, all of your meditation, all of the time you spent to ensure she would be ready for anything: it all led to this. Her mana is changing into the most potent source of power the world has ever seen, and when her death is complete, you’ll be here to take it from her. It’s Lia’s last gift to you.
When her death is...complete?
Yes, Amaya encouraged me, when her death is complete, you’ll have more energy than you could ever use. You just have to take it. Virram’s face suddenly appeared unbidden behind my eyes. Take it, and use it to punish the people who have wronged you. Take it and fulfill your purpose in this world.
I consciously tugged at the deathly energy swirling ever thicker around the edges of Lia’s mana, and the flames that engulfed my body exploded upward into a pillar of scorching light. When her death is complete. I focused on the advancing edge of darkness that continued to push its way down into the deepest reaches of her lusterless amber energy. The black power twined up my arms and fueled my burning emptiness with an intoxicating sweetness that drew me further into its depths.
Yes, just like that, Elden. Drink deep. Take as much as you can bear to hold, and make the people who did this to you suffer.
In a forgotten corner of my mind, I felt my body screaming in pain as my skin blistered and cracked, barely held together by a steady stream of unconscious healing magic. Despite the raging flames that crackled around my body and blotted out the sky above, Lia’s body remained unaffected by the conflagration, perfectly parting the fire that should have leapt from my arms and engulfed her. My eyes remained unflinchingly locked with hers as I took a final, deep breath to steel my resolve. I’ll fix this, Lia. I promise.
An overwhelming rush of power crashed over me as I fully embraced the death energy corrupting Lia’s core. A thunderous roar reverberated in my chest as the dark presence within me reveled in the influx of power, but a tinge of concern colored Amaya’s voice as she spoke inside my mind again. Not so quickly, Elden. Your body can’t handle so much energy at once; it isn’t accustomed to the—
I retreated away from the voices to the last safe haven I held hidden deep inside my mind. It was the space I had created during my multiple trips through the void to hide in when the pain had threatened to erase my mind entirely, left forgotten and empty without a need to use it. A sense of comforting warmth and silence washed over me as I escaped; the hungering darkness inside my chest, Amaya’s harsh voice, and the searing pain as my flesh burned and my blood boiled all faded into static. The only thing that remained were Lia’s eyes, and the battle of energies within her.
I’m sorry I dragged you into all of this, I thought to her, stroking her cheek with a burning finger, but I think there’s a way I can fix it. The voice said your death wasn’t “complete” yet. Maybe that means you’re still in there somewhere, until all of your mana...changes. I fought against the rapidly encroaching tide of darkness within her as I spoke, absorbing the energy into myself where it continued to fuel my self-destructive fire. I can at least do that much, right?
I felt a brief moment of peace as I watched the battle rage, completely detached from my own body and mind. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to win this one, though. Maybe I’ll just burn up before it’s finished. I’ll disappear into a cloud of ash and blow away, just like all of those people I killed. The thought entertained me for a moment, and a small smile crossed my face. That would be nice. I’m so tired. I don’t want to keep going anymore. Not without you, and Amaya, and Alda. I can’t keep losing like that.
Amaya’s voice had changed to a choir composed of every voice I had ever heard, shrieking with a fury that matched the raging darkness that hungered for death in every cell of my body. Their screams were whispers against my singular focus on Lia’s mana. I raced ahead of the wave of death to the center of her reserves and held my final bastion, prepared for the end. The world began to disappear into blinding light, and I held Lia’s body tighter against my chest.
I love you, Lia. I should have said it more while I had the chance. I should have said it every second of every day. I should have kept you safe. But here we are...at the end of things, I guess. It felt as though the air around me had begun to vibrate, and I could feel my bones shaking inside my body. Death crashed against me from all sides, and I accepted it without reservations, doing everything in my power to keep it away from the final uncorrupted pool of amber mana I defended. My body seemed to dissolve around me, and Lia’s eyes disappeared from view. I’m sorry, Lia. I tried.
A gentle pattering in my ears woke me to a world of darkness. My eyes were open but unseeing, and I couldn’t feel my body, which induced a terrible sense of vertigo. As my head tumbled end over end through the void, a smell joined the noise around me and filled me with a sudden burst of nostalgia. Petrichor.
My remaining senses returned one by one as I waited in the rain: first was the sensation of water trickling down my face and neck, followed soon after by the familiar weight of Lia’s body in my arms. The acrid taste of smoke layered over iron-rich blood coated my tongue, and I coughed up a lungful of ash. My sight returned last, though what I found before my eyes was an empty landscape entirely unfamiliar to me. The world was barren as far as I could see in every direction, barely lit through the dark storm clouds overhead.
A bolt of lightning cracked across the sky and lit the world in a dazzling flash of light. The strange earth that spread out around me was perfectly flat and appeared to be made of reflective black glass, with flecks of grey and white peppered throughout. I ran a hand along its surface in wonder, marveling at the smoothness of its alien construction. What is this place?
My wits suddenly returned to me, and I looked down frantically at Lia’s face. Her eyes were closed against the falling rain, and her face looked as if she were simply resting peacefully, held tight against my chest. Did I...? With an abundance of caution, I looked into her core, terrified of the ocean of darkness I expected to find. Instead, I found almost nothing at all; the vast stores of mana she had once held were all gone, apart from a single droplet of pure, glittering amber energy. The death...it’s gone. I stopped it.
I raised a trembling hand to her face and rested my finger beneath her nose. An eternity passed in the second that I waited, but when the second passed, I felt a gentle puff of warm air across my skin. “You’re alive,” I whispered breathlessly, unable to believe the words. “You’re alive. You’re actually—”
You never fail to entertain, Elden. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight as Amaya’s voice echoed in my head, casual and condescending. Though I have to say, you’ve really outdone yourself this time. Bravo.
I clenched my jaw and held Lia closer to my chest, shielding her from the invisible threat. I don’t want your congratulations. This all just some game to you, and I’m not playing anymore. Whatever help you think you’re giving me, I don’t want it, so just fuck off.
Oh, Elden, she sighed, if only you knew what—
Maybe you didn’t hear me. FUCK. OFF.
There was a long pause as I sneered at the empty air. If that’s what you really want, she answered sarcastically. Until next time, love.
A growl rumbled out from my chest as the voice imitated Amaya’s words, but true to its word, I felt the presence withdraw from my mind. Another bolt of lightning brought me back to my senses, and I scanned the strange landscape around us for a second time. “Where are we, Lia?” I wondered out loud. Taking careful steps to find my footing on the wet obsidian ground, I stood and looked out to the horizon. Though it had grown continually darker since I had awoken, I could make out dark trees at the edge of the glass expanse, miles away in every direction.
I sent an instinctual pulse of mana down my legs to fully survey the area, but the energy stopped suddenly at my feet and refused to spread. It was a different feeling than the choking aura of the beasts that painfully blocked any attempts at Detection; the mana simply recirculated back up to my core as if there were no ground for it to suffuse into. My brow furrowed as I attempted the simple technique again to the same results. “I guess we’ll just...start walking.”
I picked a direction at random and set off across the glass plains. The rain increased from a gentle pattering to a heavy downpour that soaked through my cloak and into my underclothes, but I welcomed the storm; the cool water washed my hair and face, purging me of the ash and dried purple blood that coated my skin and armor. As the storm grew stronger, it continued to darken the reflective field around us to the point where even my enhanced vision struggled to catch sight of the forest ahead of us without aid from the increasingly common flashes of lightning.
The towering trees at the edge of the clearing were unmistakable as I arrived beneath their dense, red leaves. Emberwoods. I turned to look back over the path I had walked and pursed my lips. While I had already known the answer to my questions somewhere in my subconscious, it had been easy to suppress the ideas and focus on Lia’s revival instead. Standing at the border between the glass field and the emberwood forest forced me to face the ideas head on. We’re exactly where we were before. Whatever this black glass is, I made it. I burned the forest down...and made this. As I stared over the empty expanse, I noticed the rainwater consistently ran back towards the center of the space, where I had awoken.
A chill ran down my neck as I pictured what the inferno I had created looked like from the outside. They would have seen it from Mayaan, maybe even Lienna. I hope nobody was on the road to the Mountain Gate; that would have...A memory pulled itself from the fog that sat thick over my time within the fire. Marin. My stomach dropped as I watched her run off into the forest in my mind. She was close by. If she wasn’t fast enough, she could’ve...I could’ve…
I doubled my pace towards the treeline and forced the emotions down. Get Lia out first. Everything can wait until then. The glassy fields came to an abrupt halt at the edge of the forest, and I realized that the expanse was actually an enormous crater; a three foot high wall made entirely of glass stood before me, where my flames had somehow compacted the earth and everything on it down into the bowl-like depression I had just crossed. I blinked at the wall in awe for a moment, then shook my head. Everything can wait.
I leapt out of the crater and landed in the soft grass of the forest. As soon as my feet impacted the dirt, pent up mana rushed out in all directions, and a neon map blazed to life behind my eyes. The world spread out before me in vivid detail, but the crater behind me remained entirely blank; unlike the aura of the monsters we had faced before, the hole in my Detection was perfectly defined, mapped up to the point where the forest floor met the black glass in perfect, jagged definition. I allowed myself a single second of curiosity while my mana continued to reach out in all directions. Whatever that material is, it completely blocks mana from passing over or through it. That could be useful. Or dangerous.
The moment of reflection passed when my Detection found a point of reference to orient myself in the world. The main road from Mayaan to the Mountain Gate ran parallel to my current position, two miles to the south. I turned my head back to the crater one final time, observing it from my place of elevation on the forest floor. Based on the rough dimensions I held in my head, the space was nearly four miles in diameter, and sat only a few hundred yards from the road at its closest point. I looked back down to Lia, lying unconscious in my arms, and gave her a soft kiss on the forehead. It was worth it. Anything would be worth it.
I dove into the forest at full speed and began my trip back to safety. While the journey would have been much easier on the main road, I chose to run through the gnarled roots of the emberwoods. A procession of carts and foot traffic lined the southern road, all heading towards an expanding crowd that gathered at the forest’s edge nearest the crater I had left behind. Even as night fell over the pitch-black forest, my Detection revealed the path forward, and I was more than happy to sacrifice speed in order to avoid the curious eyes of the townspeople.
The sound of rain on the trees overhead quickly faded away as I left the lingering storm behind, and the forest fell into silence, leaving me without distraction from my thoughts. What have I become? I scanned the woods around me with Detection for signs of Marin’s retreat, watched the crowd begin to pick through the forest towards the crater, and listened intently to Lia’s heartbeat, all in an effort to ignore the question in my head to no avail. We would have made it out of that encounter unscathed if it weren’t for me. My darkness infected her. It was my fault she…
I fought back a sudden wave of shame and sadness as the image of Lia’s unblinking eyes haunted me. I’m a ticking time bomb. I can’t just keep pretending life is normal if it means the people I love get hurt. The idea forced me to stop running and rest against a twisted emberwood. I can’t stay here anymore. I looked down at Lia’s peaceful face and smiled reflexively. I can’t live without her, either. After brooding over the conflicting thoughts with no resolution, I pushed off from the tree and continued my journey, feeling significantly more tired than I had moments before.
The leading edge of my Detection found the path to the Corells’ home sooner than I expected. I let out an audible sigh of relief as my mana revealed Elise and Bella sitting on the front steps of the house, both of whom had an arm around Marin’s back. The trio gazed out into the darkness of the forest with tired, drawn faces. Hana and Marten waited inside, sitting hand in hand on the couch in their living room as they stared blankly at the opposite wall. I rushed ahead, finally breaking out onto the Corells’ driveway from what felt like a never ending forest.
Marin spotted us first as we entered the flickering lamplight of the clearing. She leapt to her feet, startling both Elise and Bella, then dashed a few yards towards us before skidding to a sudden halt. While her face was hidden in shadow beneath her thick mane of hair, I could feel her emotion clearly through her aura: she was afraid of me. “Lux?” she asked, her voice uncharacteristically meek. “Is Lia...Is she…” she mumbled, swallowing hard as the final word failed to come.
“She’s alive, Marin,” I answered softly. “Alive, but unconscious. She just needs rest now.” I believed the words as I spoke them, but a small voice in the back of my head whispered in doubt. Or, she’s in a coma, or paralyzed, or her mind’s been burned out by that dark presence.
“Thank the Primes,” she whispered as her whole body slumped, shedding its tension. I took a step towards the house, and Marin reflexively took a step backwards, her body instantly drawn taut again. I froze in place as we stared each other down warily until Elise and Bella arrived. Elise rushed past Marin and hugged me tightly with one arm, cradling the other beneath Lia’s head. Bella waited a few steps back with her hands clasped tightly in front of her.
“Primes bless you, Lux,” she said fervently, her hand grasping at the cloak behind my head. “We’ve been so worried. When Marin came back alone, we didn’t know what to think.” She pulled her head up from my chest and looked back to where Marin stood, watching us intently. “She wouldn’t say what happened when she returned, just that we needed to wait for you to come back.” Marin took another step back and turned her eyes to the ground. “It looked as if she’d seen death itself.”
She did. With both of my arms already occupied, I gave her a gracious nod. “I told her to run, and she ran. She did the right thing.” My stomach roiled as I watched Marin recoil at the sound of my voice. “Things were...too dangerous for her to stay.”
Elise took a step back and brushed a stray strand of hair from Lia’s face. “And Marly? She’s okay?”
“She just needs rest,” I repeated. “She’ll be okay.”
“Good.” Elise cleared her throat and stepped back to stand beside Bella. They remained a few feet apart, each clearly attempting to resist the urge to stay closer together. “Thank you again, Lux. And you too, Marin. You’ve saved a lot of lives today.” Marin jumped at the mention of her name, and mumbled a small acceptance of her praise. “You should get back inside. Hana and Marten will want to see you, too.”
“Of course,” I answered. As I moved to follow the pair, Marin gave us a wide berth, keeping her eyes lowered. I paused, waiting for her to look up at me. “Marin,” I called out when her face remained turned away. Her eyes snapped up as she took another step back, and she watched me with wide eyes. “I think Lia and I are going to stay here for a few days, until she’s recovered. If you’re feeling up to it, could you grab a few of her things from our house?” She blinked at me silently as if she hadn’t heard the question. “I can do it if you’re not—”
“No!” she interrupted suddenly. “I’ll do it.” Without waiting for any further argument or instruction, she turned and ran off into the dark forest. “Thank you,” I murmured after her, biting my lip. She’s terrified of me. The last image of her face before she ran away from my burning visage in the woods filled my view. She’s one of the only people alive who’ve seen who I really am and lived. Of course she’s afraid; anybody would be if they knew that. I frowned as I repositioned Lia to a more comfortable position in my arms. Even you.
Marten and Hana met us at the door. “She’s fine!” I called out to them before they had a chance to ask. “Unconscious, but fine!”
The reassurance did little to assuage their fears as their daughter’s unconscious form appeared before them. “Oh, dear,” Hana said softly, brushing Lia’s cheek, “what happened?”
Calling on my memories to assist me, I put on my best apologetic smile and let out a nonchalant chuckle. “I’m afraid she’s learned a little too much from me; she overexerted herself out there and passed out. Lucky for her, she doesn’t have to sleep in a tree like I did, back when we first met. If you don’t mind, I’d like to let her rest here.”
Marten took a step forward and blocked the entrance to the house with his stocky shoulders. “You’re sure that’s all it is, Lux?” he asked suspiciously, looking over his daughter's limp body in my arms. “She just needs rest?”
“I’m sure,” I lied. “It might take a few days, but Lia will be up and just as energetic as ever. I promise.”
He stared me down for a long moment, then sighed and stepped aside as his concern trumped his frustration. “Alright. You know where the bedroom is.” I walked past him into the house, and the rest of the group followed close behind.
“Lux, please let me know if there’s anything we can do to help,” Elise said, putting a hand on my shoulder before I left the group behind in the living room. “I can get anything you might need. If there’s something you need to help Marly recover faster, or a specific—”
“Elise, I appreciate the offer, and will certainly let you know if anything comes up,” I said, shrugging out from beneath her grip, “but I promise you, Lia just needs sleep.” She gave me a small nod, and I took my leave of the roomful of inquisitive, doubting eyes. I made it to the end of the hallway before I stopped suddenly, turned on my heels, and returned to the living room. “Actually, Elise, I could use a quick word, if you don’t mind,” I said, tipping my head towards the bedroom.
She followed me to the room and closed the door behind us, waiting patiently as I wrapped Lia in the lush homemade quilt on our bed and fluffed her pillows. “I’m sure this goes without saying,” I started, my back to her as I continued to watch Lia sleep, “but I hope that our involvement in today’s events will remain a secret.”
“It will,” she said, her head bowing deeply. “Apart from the families of the men I lost today, nobody will know there was even an incident.”
I flinched. “About that,” I said, turning to her. “There is some...aftermath from the battle. A rather large amount of it, in fact. I’m sure the entire town of Mayaan is already aware that something happened today.”
Elise hid her shock well, but not well enough to escape my notice. “I see,” she murmured after a moment’s pause. “I won’t mention your involvement, of course, but...what else can I do?”
“Gossip,” I replied. “People are going to be talking about what happened today, and I’d like to know what they’re saying: What they know about the monsters, what they’re saying about the incident, and what they think really happened.”
“And what did really happen?” she asked warily.
“We killed the monsters for you,” I answered flatly. The idea that we owed an explanation to anybody while Lia was still unconscious irked me, and I began to regret asking Elise in to talk.
My harsh reply hung over the silence for a few tense seconds before she bowed her head again. “Of course.” She turned to leave, but paused with her hand on the doorknob. “Bella and I will be leaving at first light tomorrow. I’ll send you a message as soon as I can.”
“Good.” Elise turned to scan the room with a final, sad look, then left and closed the door behind her. “Thank you,” I added as the door latched, leaving me to wonder if she had heard me. I fell into the chair at our bedside with an annoyed sigh and rubbed my face. My hand darted out to find Lia’s, and I wove my fingers tightly between hers as my anxiety flared. What am I doing, Lia?
I sent out a pulse of mana to distract myself from my thoughts. The forest around the Corell residence was quiet and dark apart from a single beacon of Marin’s pink energy bobbing its way towards us. She froze as she reached the edge of the clearing, shuddered, then shook her head and continued to the house. After exchanging a few words with Hana and Marten that were too muffled for me to hear, she crept down the hallway and waited at the bedroom door. Her hand raised as if to knock, but it trembled a few inches away from the wood, hanging there until she took a sudden step back from the door. She removed the pack from her back, set it against the door, and retreated to her own bedroom.
And now there’s this, too, I thought bitterly. My fingers squeezed around Lia’s as I ground my teeth. I could really use your help right now, Lia. I watched her face with a vain hope that she would suddenly awaken to answer my call, but she remained peacefully asleep. I don’t know what to do about Marin. I’m not sure there’s anything I can do. She knows what I am. I shook my head and trudged to the door, cracking it open just wide enough to grab the backpack before shutting it again. It doesn’t matter. We can figure it out after you wake up.
I unpacked the clothes Marin had picked out, folding them neatly on the dresser in the corner of the room. Apart from the array of nightgowns and sundresses, the bag had held only three additional items: two extra hair clips for the end of Lia’s braid, and the small leatherbound diary she had brought with her on all of our adventures. I eyed the book reverently, turning it over slowly in my hands. My thumb slipped in between two of the pages at random, and I nudged the book open to reveal neat rows of Kaldanic runes written in black ink. I couldn’t stop my eyes from reading the first line at the top of the page.
Those men came back to the house today. We tried to ignore them, but they started to break Mother’s flower pots! Father went outside to talk with them and made us stay at the table. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could hear him shouting. He never shouts. Not like that. I don’t know what they could have said to make him—
I snapped the book closed and set it on the dresser. “Sorry,” I murmured to Lia’s reflection in the bureau’s mirror. Grabbing one of the loose nightgowns I had set out, I returned to the bedside and began to unbuckle the straps of her armor. Gingerly lifting each of her limbs, I removed her boots, greaves, gloves, and spaulders, stacking them in a pile on the floor beside us. My hand brushed along the surface of her cuirass as I moved to unfasten the final buckle, and I traced a finger along the brutal crack through its surface where the monstrous scythe had pierced her heart. It had been easy enough to obscure from her parents within the folds of my cloak, but the unobscured sight turned my stomach and brought the memory of her death to the front of my mind.
Removing the chest piece only served to worsen my mental state. While the downpour had washed the blood from her face and armor, it had done nothing against the dark red stains that bloomed outward from the torn fabric of her undershirt. I averted my eyes from the stain as I sat her up in my arms and pulled the shirt up over her head, carefully threading her braid through the bloodied fabric. The bare skin of her back was warm even through my glove as I laid her down and leaned over to stash her ruined undershirt out of sight with her broken armor beneath the bed.
I grabbed her nightgown and prepared to wrestle her unconscious form through the sleeves, but the cloth fell from my hand as my eyes caught sight of her bare chest. No. No, that’s not right. A ridge of thick scar tissue curled across her chest in a crescent shape, wrapping up from her armpit to her collarbone. Familiar black scars forked off from the main wound at jagged angles, reaching out in a fractal web to her sternum, shoulder, and the top of her left breast. I took the darkness out of her. This should have healed. I placed my palm over the main bundle of scar tissue and activated the Healing rune in my ring, but the energy rushed over her chest and dissipated to no effect.
Why? I fell back in my chair and closed my eyes, fervently scanning her body with Detection to find the hidden corruption. Why? The single drop of amber mana had expanded to a small pool that shimmered brightly against the empty backdrop of my mind. I scanned over the scar repeatedly, looking for any seedling of darkness I had missed that could be removed. There’s nothing here. Nothing to take, nothing I can fix. It’s just scars.
My scars. I stared down at my gloved hand and felt a sympathetic twitch in my fingers. Those are my scars, not yours. You shouldn’t have to carry them. My hands balled into fists against my legs as I stared blankly at the floor. After everything we went through, it was me. I killed you; not Virram, not the General, not even those monsters. It was me. I killed you, and I cursed you.
It felt as though a heavy fog rolled over my mind, and I struggled to hold onto a single train of thought. Do you hear her voice now, too? Do you feel the hunger for death? Will you fall into the void now, like I do? Tears rolled down my face and pattered against the wooden floorboards at my feet. Are you in there now? Are you ever coming back? What do I do without you?
I scrunched up my face and wiped my cheeks. “Sorry,” I repeated miserably. “You need me right now, and I'm just sitting here being useless." I gathered the dropped nightgown from the floor and retook my place at the bedside. “I’ll be here to watch over you until you wake up. I promise.” After a few minutes of effort, I had Lia comfortably changed into a fresh set of clothes. A small line of the black scars on her chest peaked out from the corner of her nightgown, and I tugged the collar back into place to obscure the mark. With the scars hidden, it was almost possible to imagine she was simply sleeping, but my memories refused to let me fully believe the idea.
A soft knock on the door jumped me and pulled the attention of my Detection away from Lia’s core to the bedroom door, where Hana waited patiently for a response. “Come in.”
The door creaked open just enough for Hana’s face to peek in and scan the room. A relieved smile spread across her face, and she stepped into the room and leaned against the doorframe. “Thank you for making sure she’s comfortable, Lux. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.”
“It’s the least I could do,” I said, weakly returning her smile. “She did the same for me when we first met, right?”
“That’s right,” she answered. A loud round of Marten’s distinct laughter echoed through the house, and Hana nodded her head towards the hallway. “We’re sitting down for dinner now: bihorn stew. You should join us.”
I shook my head. “Thank you, but I think I’ll stay here with Lia. I wouldn’t want her to wake up alone.”
She pursed her lips. “Lux, you said she’ll be asleep for a few days, at least. Surely you have time to eat with us.”
“Even still,” I said, looking back to Lia. My mana rushed back to watch the golden energy that slowly expanded within her core, and I let out a small sigh of relief when I found it uncorrupted. “I appreciate the offer, Hana. If you could leave a bowl out for me, I’ll eat later.”
“I’ll leave it on the table for you,” she nodded graciously. “Please feel free to join us if you change your mind.” Her eyes lingered on her daughter behind me for a moment before she disappeared back into the hallway, closing the door behind her.
As soon as she was gone, I pulled my chair closer to the bed and took Lia’s hand in mine. “Don’t worry; I’m not going to leave you,” I whispered, leaning my head forward against our clasped hands. “Not until you’re back.” While I couldn’t find any signs of the darkness returning to finish what it had started, my mind refused to let me believe she was safe. Memories of her death, the raging black fire, and Amaya’s cruel voice played on repeat while I watched the black scars across her chest. You won’t take her away from me.
Time became difficult to track as I held my vigil. Occasional creaks in the hallway drew a fraction of my attention away, but only long enough to ensure the source of the noise wasn’t approaching our bedroom. Otherwise, I lived entirely within the neon world of my Detection, blocking out everything that wasn’t Lia. My body seemed to fade away as I ignored its calls for sleep and sustenance, choosing instead to let my mana sustain me subconsciously. At some point, I heard another knock at the bedroom door, but I ignored the noise.
“Lux?” Hana’s voice called out from behind me, suddenly inside the room. I scowled at the intrusion as I dropped Lia’s hand, then turned around with the best smile I could offer. “Would you like some lunch, Lux?”
“Lunch?” I asked, confused.
“Yes, lunch,” she answered softly. “Here.” I blinked at her, fighting to resolve the image before me as my eyes blurred from disuse. A plate appeared before me with a chunk of braised meat over a bed of greens. “You need to eat, Lux,” she said, pushing the plate towards me.
“I’m not hungry,” I muttered, staring at the plate disinterestedly. While the statement was true, and I felt no hunger pangs despite my lack of food, I knew she was right. “Thanks anyway.”
Hana set the plate down on the bedside table, then knelt down on the floor to meet my eye level. “Lia wouldn’t want you to waste away on her account. You know that, don’t you?”
“I think Lia would want to be awake right now,” I countered. “That’s what I know.”
“But she isn’t awake right now, and unless your fasting is going to wake her up sooner, there’s no reason for it.” Her voice took on a harsh quality I hadn’t heard from her before. “Lia made the decision to go with you; she’s always known the risks, and she’s always gone with you anyway. Starving yourself because you think this is your fault is unnecessary.”
You don’t know. The taste of bile crept up from the back of my throat. “After everything I’ve lived through, hunger isn’t going to be the thing that kills me, Hana, but your concern is noted.” I looked between her, the plate, and the door. “Is there anything else?”
Her nostrils flared. “No.” She stood and returned to the door, but paused before she left. “You aren’t the only person here who cares about Marlia, Lux. You’d do well to remember that.” The door clicked shut behind her as she left me to brood over the indictment.
My head fell as I turned back to the bed, and I rapped my knuckles against my head in a painful staccato rhythm. Why did I do that? I looked over to the lunch Hana had brought me and immediately felt sick at the thought of eating. I’m falling apart. It’s been less than a day, and I’m falling apart. I instinctively reached out to find comfort in her aura, but her consciousness was still hidden from me somewhere deep within her core as she recovered. The absence I found in place of her presence was a dagger in my chest. I need you. Please.
A sudden burst of desperation seized me, and I crossed the room to our bureau where I had left her diary. You’re in here. I brought the book back with me to my chair and lovingly ran my thumb across the blank leather cover. My eyes flicked up to Lia’s, and watched her chest gently rise and fall as she slept. “Sorry,” I said under my breath as I flipped open the journal.
“Father tried to set me up with another man today. Again! Even after I told him after the last three that I’m NOT. INTERESTED. I don’t even remember his name this time. He kissed my hand and recited some awful poem for me when he came to the house. “You’re as lovely as the Prime of Light, radiant and pure like…” I already forgot the rest. Just...yuck. But then, as soon as we were alone, he wouldn’t stop talking about my father! Questions about his business, and about where he travels to, and who he works with. I thought I was as lovely as the Prime of Light! Shouldn’t we be talking about that? I guess none of that really matters, though, because I told him he was stupid and kicked him out of the house. Father was mad, but I think Mother thought it was funny. Hopefully Father will get the message now and stop trying to find me a match. I don’t need to get married anyways; I’ll take over Father’s business and run it all by myself, just like Aunt Ellie.”
A genuine smile crossed my face as I set the journal on my knee. “Is that why you liked me, Lia? Because I wasn’t interested in Marten’s business?” I laughed as I took her hand and squeezed it lightly. “I didn’t know you wanted to take over his business. I think you’d be great at it, apart from getting bored. There’s not a lot of sword fighting as a merchant.” I reveled in the distraction that the idea provided, imagining the two of us as merchant traders on a cross country adventure. “Maybe that’ll be us someday.”
The solace I found in the journal’s pages wore off as my intrusive thoughts returned. My meditations were continually interrupted by flashes of our fight in the forest, and the words Amaya’s voice had spoken to me. I brought her here. I filled her with death. This was my fault. The thoughts quickly overwhelmed me, and I opened my eyes with a gasp to find that the sun had long since set. I opened up the diary to a new page with shaking hands and read on through the darkness.
“I don’t even know how to start this...so many things happened before we left for Attetsia. We were trading questions before bed, like we used to, and I asked about that thing he said to Valandra; “getting sent away again,”. He told me that if he finished what he was sent here to do, he’ll get sent to another world again. And then he said that he died. Whatever happened in that last world he was in, it must have been really terrible. I wanted to ask about it, but he started to have these...visions, I think. He was looking at things I couldn’t see, and talking to them. He touched my face and called me beautiful...I think he thought I was Amaya. I know it sounds terrible, but I wanted to just let him believe it. It felt nice.
“But that would’ve been awful. I was able to wake him up, and he cried and told me he was sorry. I don’t know how he made it so long like that, holding all of those memories inside. He told me the story about what happened in his last life, and how he died, and then he fell asleep. Things were better the next morning, and he even apologized to Valandra about being mean to her! I think talking about his past helped. But then...before we went inside for lunch, he hugged me and told me how important I am to him. I think I would’ve stood there forever, if he’d let me. I know that he’s still in love with Amaya, but no matter how many times I tell myself that, it won’t change how I feel. It’s hard, sometimes. Most of the time, actually. But he saved me, and now he needs help. I owe him that much, no matter how hard it is.”
I felt my heartbeat in my throat as I looked up from the diary. “I’m sorry, Lia,” I croaked for what must have been the hundredth time. “I didn’t know how much I was putting you through.” I wiped fresh mist away from my eyes. “You’ve been holding me together longer than I thought, haven’t you?” Without pausing to reflect on the thought, I turned the page and began reading the next entry.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of Lux getting knocked into the dirt by Valandra. That fight was something else; they were so fast! And Valandra’s shield...wow. I can see why she’s the best fighter in the country. I didn’t understand how she could fight with just a shield, but I do now. And Lux lost! I know it isn’t exactly fair, fighting against the King’s Shield, and he did win one of the rounds, but still! I think he might have been holding back, but he still lost. I think it’s probably a good thing, though; he didn’t seem mad about it, so I think he’s getting along better with Val now.
“After their fight, Lux went to go hunting and said that I could spar with Val too! It was so great. I’ve never practiced with anybody else aside from him, so it was fun to fight someone else, especially somebody as different as Val! She was definitely moving slower than her first fight, but she still beat me every time anyways. I hope I can train with her every day. Both of them. Even though we’re going to Attetsia under King Yorrell’s orders, this could still be fun. I just hope—”
The passage ended in a sharp spike of ink, and I felt heat rise in the back of my neck as I remembered the night it was written. Darkness, again. It’s always there. I watched the black flames ripple across my sword as I lived the memory a second time. She was scared of me. Even then, when I hadn’t been fully consumed by it, she was scared of me. A sad wave of acceptance washed over me. She’ll be like Marin soon: so terrified that she can’t stand to look at me. I can’t blame her. My eyes fell in shame, and I passively read the opposite page of the diary.
“It’s only been a few days, but so many things have changed. We got ambushed at camp while Lux was still gone, and one of the men managed to grab me before I could get my sword. I felt so stupid, getting caught off guard like that. No matter how hard I train, I always seem to end up in the way. And these men always seem to know it, because they come after me every time. Next time, things will be different. I know it.
“In the end, it didn’t really matter; I’m sure Val could have taken care of things by herself, but Lux showed up a few seconds later. He had that look again. The same one from the night we escaped the dungeon. When the fire started, I knew I had to do something. I managed to calm him down enough to snap him out of whatever was happening, but...I’m scared. Whatever is happening to him, it has something to do with his past lives, and all the terrible things that he went through. I’m scared he’s going to hurt himself if we keep going. I just want to fix it for him, but I don’t know how. If I could take the—”
“Why are you reading my diary?”
A sudden wave of comforting warmth washed over me, and I looked up from the book in my lap to find Lia’s amber eyes open, watching me with a mix of amusement and concern. “Lia?” I asked as I rose to my feet, knocking the journal to the ground. “You’re…” My throat immediately closed and cut off whatever I would have said next, though I couldn’t find any words regardless.
“What’s wrong, Lux?” she asked, tilting her head to one side. “That diary was supposed to be private, so if you read something that upset you, it’s really your own fault that—” Her thought was interrupted as I dove forward and embraced her. Every inch of my body shuddered with relief as I felt her aura surround me once again, and I held her against my chest with a fierce grip. “Lux, what’s wrong?” she repeated, significantly more alarmed than before.
“You’re okay,” I whispered into her neck.
“Of course I’m okay,” she answered, scratching the back of my head lovingly. “Why wouldn’t I be okay?”
I pulled my head back to look into her eyes, and my brow furrowed. “Don’t you remember what happened?”
She shrugged. “Mostly, I think. We found the monsters out in the woods and had a battle. It wasn’t an easy fight, but we won. Marin even killed one, in the end. That’s the last thing I remember.” She looked around the shadowy room, lit by faint pre dawn light. “Based on the fact that I’m back at my parents’ house in my nightgown, I assumed I passed out from overexertion.”
She doesn’t remember. I laid beside her in bed, completely stunned by the implication of the idea. No memories of the darkness, or the voice, or...death. My mouth moved without sound as I struggled to figure out what to say. We could move on like nothing ever happened. She wouldn’t have to carry that burden. I took a deep breath, then shook my head. “No. That’s not what happened.” No more lies.
“What do you mean?” She sat up and pulled her knees up to her chest, resting her chin between them. “What happened?”
I slid back and crossed my legs, sitting opposite her on the bed. “After the battle was over, the darkness came. The same darkness that took me through the void. Because our minds were so closely linked from the fight, you felt it too. The pain was...too much for you.” I fought back a shudder as I heard her agonized shrieks echo in my head. “That’s probably why you don’t remember.” Her eyes grew wide, and she gave me a small nod to continue.
“There was a voice in the darkness. I don’t know who or what it is, but I know it’s the reason I’m here, and why I’m...the way I am. It opened up this sort of portal, or crack, I guess. The world just sort of broke, like glass, and, uhm…” I trailed off, frustrated with my complete lack of understanding of the situation. “It broke open a crack to the void. Where I go, between worlds. And when the crack opened, another one of those monsters came out.”
Lia gasped. “So...they’re coming from that void, then?”
I shook my head. “Maybe. I can’t say for sure they’re all coming from there, but I know this one did.”
“Did you kill it? The monster?” She jolted upright as a wave of panic crossed her face. “Is Marin okay? Did it—”
“Marin is fine,” I assured her. “The monster climbed out from the void and...well, it, uhm, stabbed you. Through the heart.”
She raised an eyebrow. “If it stabbed me through the heart, wouldn’t I be dead?” The long moment of silence in response seemed to give her the information she needed, and the amusement drained from her face. She raised a hand to her chest and ran her fingers across the fabric. They froze in the spot where I knew the scar sat, currently obscured by her nightgown. “Lux?” she asked, her voice barely audible in the silent room. “Did I die?”
I reached out and took her hand in both of mine, pulling it away from the black scar. “Yes,” I nodded, “you did. Lia, I’m so sorry. It was entirely my fault. If I hadn’t—”
“If I died,” she blurted, interrupting my apology, “how am I alive now?”
“I’m not sure I understand it myself,” I answered, shaking my head. “When you died, all of your mana started to change into this...darkness. It was like the mana itself was dying, and turning into a new kind of energy. I saw it happening, and thought that maybe, if I stopped the darkness from spreading to your core, you might survive somehow.” I tipped my head towards her chest. “It worked, but I couldn’t heal the scar it left behind. I tried everything, but it wouldn’t go away. I’m sorry.”
She bit her lip. “I don’t understand. How did you stop...whatever it was that happened to me? To my mana?”
I clenched my jaw down on the side of my tongue as I fought against the overwhelming urge to lie. “There was this voice from the void. I’ve heard it in my head before: that night in the Attetsian plaza, when we broke through the Mountain gate, even in my dreams. It told me that I could control the energy that came from your death. That my entire purpose in this world was to take that energy and…” I trailed off. “I don’t know. It just wanted more death.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked quietly, squeezing my hand. “You’ve been hearing this voice for that long, and you didn’t tell me about it? Why?”
I shook my head and looked away, ashamed. I can’t say it.
“Lux, please,” Lia begged, tugging on my hand. “Please talk to me.”
When I raised my head again, I found a dozen copies of her floating before my eyes, blurry and refracted through fresh tears. “I knew that if you found out what I really was, you’d leave.”
She shook her head. “I would never leave—”
“You would, if you knew!” I interrupted. “Marin saw what I am, after you died. She saw the darkness, and now she can’t even stand to be in the same room as me.” Saying out loud one of the thoughts that had haunted me the most since meeting Lia was enough to break the last of my composure. “Just because you don’t remember doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I killed you!”
“You saved me,” she answered, pulling me towards her. I fell into her chest and soaked the collar of her nightgown with tears as she rubbed the back of my neck.
“Lia, no, it was my fault,” I cried. “I can’t control it. If you stay with me, it could happen again, and I don’t know...I don’t know if I could bring you back again.”
“It’s not your fault,” she breathed into my ear. “You didn’t choose this, Lux. Someone, or something, forced this on you, and you’ve been dealing with it on your own for so long. I’m not going to leave you. Not now, not ever. I promised you, we’re in this together. Forever.”
My gut flipped back and forth between sharp bouts of nausea and a spreading, joyous warmth. “I need you, but...you can’t. You’ll get hurt again. I can’t fix those scars, Lia. You’ll just get more, the longer you stay with me.”
“I don’t care about scars.” She pushed me upright and pulled my hand up to her chest, holding it against the scars. “Those scars on your hand came from the darkness too, right? Now we match.” She gave me a reassuring smile, but it quickly faded to worry. “What about you? Are you okay?”
I furrowed my brow, unable to follow her logic. “Me? I’m...fine. I didn’t get hurt.”
She sighed in relief. “Good. I was worried your scars might have gotten worse.”
“Oh.” I stared at my gloved hand for a moment. “I haven’t really checked that.”
“You...haven’t checked?” she asked, cocking her head to the side. “You’ve been wearing your armor this whole time?” I gave her a small nod in reply. “How long has it been since, uhm, since I died?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged weakly.
“You don’t know?” she echoed me again. She quickly scanned the room, then looked back at me with harsh eyes. “You haven’t been eating, have you? Or sleeping, if I had to guess.” I stared past her blankly, too emotionally drained to answer. “Lux, why would you do that?”
“I had to make sure you were okay,” I answered. “I wasn’t hungry, or tired.”
She rubbed her eyes and groaned. “Yes, you were.” Her hand moved to my knee, and she gave it a light pat. “You can’t keep punishing yourself like this. You’re not responsible for every bad thing that happens in the world. You know that, don’t you?”
I wanted to argue, but I knew she was right, and I lacked the energy to defend my choices. “I know, it’s just…” I started. “I lived for so long by myself that I thought it was the only way I could go on, but I can’t do it anymore. Not without you. When you died, I thought...I thought it would be easier if I just died, too.”
“No!” Lia shouted, grabbing me by the shoulders. “Don’t say that. Don’t think that.” She pulled herself up from beneath the sheets to sit on her knees directly in front of me. “I love you more than anything else in this world. But you told me that someday, you’re going to get sent away again. It makes me sad, and angry, and even keeps me up at night sometimes, but I know I’ll have to deal with it someday.” Tears began to pool in the corners of her eyes as she continued. “There’s no way I can do it if you keep saying things like that. I need to know you’ll be okay after you’re gone.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know if I will. I can’t keep losing over and over again, Lia. After Amaya and Alda, I can’t lose you too. I can’t.” I tipped my head forward to rest it against hers. “It isn’t fair.”
“I know,” she replied, holding the side of my face. “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen. Until then, we just have to make every second count, right?”
I stared into her amber eyes, eyes I thought I would never see open again. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she answered, pulling me in for a quick kiss.
Our closeness set off fireworks inside my head, and I momentarily forgot my inhibitions as my focus centered entirely on Lia. “Marry me.”
She pulled back a few inches and stared at me, mouth agape. “What did you say?”
“Marry me,” I repeated. Blood rushed to my face as I realized what I had said, but I was too far committed to double back on the idea, and I rushed ahead with my explanation. “I had plans to make you a Union offering with Layne, but the monster attack changed that. I was going to make it in our forge, but Elise showed up and pulled us away again.” I cupped her cheek and smiled. “I can’t wait anymore. If every second counts, I want to spend them married to you.”
Her cheek a dark red beneath my hand. “Lux, I…” she paused and let out a soft giggle. “I was going to make you a Union offering, too. Lyn and I talked about it on our trip.”
I laughed along with her. “So...is that a yes?”
She kissed me again, and I felt her lips smile against mine as she continued to laugh. “Yes,” she answered softly, “I’ll marry you.”
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!