Restart Again

by

Adam Ladner

Volume 3, Chapter 21: The Dark Below

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“You came.” Val’s voice wavered as she stared up at us from the floor, her face a bloody, broken mess.

 

“Of course we came,” I muttered. “These damn beasts are invading Lybesa; we can’t just sit around while Kaldan ruins our home. Again.”

 

Lux, Lia scolded me silently, you know she’s not our enemy here.

 

I gave an annoyed grunt in response. “Get up, Val.” Her body shook with exertion as she struggled to meet my demand, leaning heavily against her cracked shield to regain her footing. My Detection was still blocked by the swarm of monsters that filled the mine ahead of us, and my link to Val during her fight hadn’t given me an accurate idea of the extent of her injuries. Despite the resentment I held for her, I couldn’t help but be impressed that she was still conscious, let alone moving, based on my initial estimation of the wounds covering her body. “Come here.”

 

She shuffled towards us until she was only an arms length away, then attempted to straighten her posture, rewarded immediately with a wince that knocked her forward another step. I steadied her by her shield and ran my thumb along the fissure in its face. Mana rushed down my arm and suffused the artifact, then continued on around her body to give me a full assessment of her injuries. You really used it all, huh? Where her shield was usually filled with a swirling reserve of rainbow mana, I found it entirely empty: a simple shield of metal and tempered glass, which, without its magical energy, had easily broken under the force of one of the monster’s scythes.

 

Her body was somehow in worse condition than the shield. Three parallel gashes ran across her back where a set of talons had raked her dangerously close to her spine. A deep cut had completely severed the muscles in her left shoulder and knocked the bone from its socket, which bore a deep, ponderous crack where the blade had caught. A majority of her ribs were broken, and those that weren’t were clearly dislocated. Her nose was broken in two places and slanted heavily to one side, while the rest of her face was covered in various shallow cuts and bruises. Most of her armor was slick with blood, and the spots that weren’t were rapidly disappearing. She would have died of blood loss before she made it out of the cave.

 

I sighed as I invoked the Healing rune within my ring and set the energy to work repairing her various hurts. She gasped as the mana took effect and carefully rolled her once ruined shoulder, then gently ran a finger along her nose. “By the Prime of Life itself,” she whispered. “No healer has ever been this skilled. How is it you can—”

 

“Val, it is really not the time for that,” I said, closing my eyes to watch my mana finish its job. With a final surge of effort, I left a small store of energy within her shield. The glass absorbed the mana hungrily, and I immediately felt the unknown enchantments stored within it activate automatically. “Lia and I have work to do. You should leave.”

 

“No,” she stated emphatically, stepping forward. “We all need to leave; my army will collapse the tunnel soon. We will be trapped within Shadowmine if we do not hurry.”

 

I rolled my eyes. “First of all, no we won’t,” I countered. “These monsters can burrow. If they don’t already have a half dozen exit tunnels dug out of this place, they definitely will when the entrance is sealed.” I stared at her with an eyebrow raised. “Did you honestly think collapsing a single tunnel would permanently fix your problem?”

 

She stared at me with her usual, emotionless expression. “Yes, I did,” she answered honestly. “I was not informed that Serathids can create tunnels through stone.”

 

“Well, that seems about the right level of informed for someone in Virram’s army,” I quipped. “Beyond that, we aren’t here to slightly inconvenience your monsters; we’re here to kill them, and to stop more from coming.” I pointed my sword back down the tunnel towards the entrance. “So, again: you should leave.”

 

“Val, you really should go,” Lia chimed in. “It’s too dangerous down here for you. Let us take care of it.”

 

“No,” Val repeated stubbornly. “I will help you.”

 

“What part of this don’t you understand? I don’t want you here,” I snapped. “You betrayed us, and I don’t trust you. It’s that simple. Now, leave, before you make me regret letting you live.”

 

“Lux, I am not—” A long, low rumble echoed through the tunnel and shook the ground beneath us. I stared past her, clenching my fist against the side of my leg as I silently fumed. “I believe they have sealed the tunnel.”

 

“Yes, I know that!” I shouted, resisting the urge to punch a hole through the stone beside us. “Fine! Come with us. Don’t get in the way, and don’t die. You already tried the guilt-ridden sacrifice once tonight, and it's less effective the second time around.” I felt a small moment of satisfaction as she quickly looked away, her eyes wide. I turned to press on, holding my sword out in front of me to illuminate the path in the absence of my Detection.

 

Are you okay? Lia joined me as we retread our steps.

 

Knowing it was impossible to hide my emotions while Lia and I were so deeply linked, I sighed and answered honestly. I don’t have the time or the capacity to deal with Val right now. She’s so ashamed of what she did to us that she tried to give up her life here to atone for it. I rolled my head to loosen my overly tense shoulders. I don’t want her here because I don’t trust her, but also because I don’t want her to get hurt.

 

You don’t have to figure that out now. Lia walked more closely beside me, rubbing her shoulder against mine. There will be plenty of time after all of this is done.

 

What about you? Are you okay? I looked over my shoulder and found Val hurrying after us, still seemingly cautious of her recently healed wounds.

 

Yeah, I’m okay, Lia answered. Val just makes me...sad. I know that she’s a good person, clearly, but she still gave the order to have us killed. I just want to know why.

 

The bloodied corpse of our most recent encounter appeared as we rounded a bend, and we hopped over the spreading purple ichor. I guess you’ll have to ask once we’re finished here. Lia gave me a small nod, and I regripped my sword as we entered unexplored territory. It wasn’t long until I heard the telltale clatter of claws against stone ahead of us, and two curved blades flashed in the darkness. Lia dashed ahead and dispatched the beast with ease; she slipped between the parallel slashes of its opening attack and flicked her swords upwards, severing its arms at the shoulder, then fused her weapons and impaled the beast through its spine as it fell. She cleared a majority of the blood from the glowing greatsword with a quick flourish before falling back to rejoin the group.

 

“The King’s Sword,” Val mused quietly, motioning to the large onyx blade.

 

“No,” I corrected sharply, “not the King’s Sword. Lia’s sword.”

 

“How is it you have become so skilled in manipulating it? It has been less than three months since you acquired the weapon, yet you appear to have full mastery of its abilities.” Val’s eyes fell to the dead monster as we continued past it. “You fight the Serathids as if they were no more dangerous than a common sellsword. How?”

 

Lia cocked her head to one side as she looked back at Val. “There isn’t much to the sword thing, really.” To prove her point, she split the greatsword back to her usual matched blades. “I guess it’s just...practice?”

 

“When you stop looking at the world through all of your religious mysticism, things are a lot easier to understand,” I said. For a moment, I contemplated explaining the concept of mana and how magic truly worked, but I quickly thought better of it and simply shook my head and moved on. “These things might be monstrous, but they’re also dumb. They’re suited for pack tactics and surprise attacks, so if you’re fighting them one on one, they only have a handful of tricks that they use over and over again.”

 

“You said the Serathids are invading Lybesa,” Val continued in her questioning. “Have they broken through the Mountain Gate?”

 

“Not yet, though with the sad force assigned there, it won’t be long,” I answered. “Regardless, these things clearly don’t need a bridge to cross the Maw. They’re still getting in.”

 

“I was unaware that they had spread beyond Kaldan,” she said quietly, her gaze falling to the ground.

 

“Another reason to thank your King,” I spat.

 

“He is not my King,” Val responded immediately, her voice low. “I no longer serve Virram Yorrell: Both by his order, and of my own volition.” We had known as much from our conversation at the Mountain Gate, but the statement was still strange to hear from Val herself. She bit her lip and shook her head before she continued. “Even so, I do not see how this invasion could be his doing, or to what benefit.”

 

“He already planned an invasion of his own country once,” I countered. “I don’t see why he wouldn’t do it again.”

 

Val gave a small nod and fell silent, and we continued to work our way through the mines. The restrictive size of the tunnels prevented our enemies from approaching stealthily or pressing a numbers advantage, and we effortlessly cleared any resistance we encountered. Without the ability to scout our path ahead with Detection, we were forced to choose a tunnel at random when the mineshafts split, and we doubled back on our own tracks three times over the course of our journey.

 

After what felt like hours of walking, we finally encountered a break in the monotony of the endless tunnels. A narrow passage broke through the tunnel wall ahead of us and wound its way down into the darkness. The rough-cut walls and steep, uneven floor were clear markers that the passage had been created by the monsters below us, and the loose debris piled by the entrance told us it was a recent construction. It was only wide enough for us to squeeze through single file, and after a moment’s pause to prepare ourselves, I led the way into the crevice. I felt an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia as we descended, pressed against the wall for support and guidance as the path awkwardly rose and fell beneath our feet.

 

As we sank further and further into the earth, the air in the passage shifted from cool and dry to a suffocating, humid vapor, heavy with the stench of death. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as our path began to flatten out, and a flickering orange light appeared on the cave wall ahead of us. Lia and I cut off the mana lighting our swords in unison, and the three of us slowed our pace and silently crept towards the light source. A sputtering torch was mounted on a clearly man-made wall around the final bend in the passage; as we drew closer, I could see a long brick hallway extending out in both directions lined with wall sconces, most of which had burned themselves out.

 

A wave of deathly void energy washed over me as I stepped out of our rough passageway onto the dusty brick floor. I let out a loud hiss of pain and whirled around, holding out my hand to block Lia’s entrance into the hall. “Stop,” I whispered, clutching at the burning sensation in my right arm. “Don’t come in here.”

 

Val’s head poked out from above Lia’s, and she looked back and forth down the hallway. “What is it, Lux?”

 

Lia’s eyes locked with mine as she stood frozen in the entranceway. We’re getting close, her voice echoed in my head.

 

Yes. The familiar tingling of void energy shot up to my elbow, where I was able to hold it at bay. Lia, you can’t come in here. I don’t want the—

 

I leapt forward in vain as Lia stepped down into the hallway. She winced as her hand moved instinctively to her chest and hovered directly above where I had left the disfiguring black scars. You aren’t facing this alone.

 

I cupped her cheek with my hand and sent a surge of mana through her body in a preemptive defense against the darkness. While I could feel the burning in her chest through our mental link, my mana found no trace of the void energy within her. I let out a heavy sigh and rested my forehead against hers. That was stupid.

 

No. You thinking I would hide in that tunnel while you went on alone was stupid.

 

I didn’t

 

You did, she cut me off. She raised a hand to my face and brushed away a strand of hair, tapping on my temple. We’re in this together.

 

I can’t lose you again. I picked my head up and looked over her at Val, who stood a step above us in the rough passageway, watching the two of us intently. I motioned her into the hallway with a flick of my head and gave Lia’s shoulder a gentle squeeze before stepping away. If you feel the darkness surrounding you, promise me you’ll fight it. I’ll take it away, just...don’t let it in.

 

You don’t have to deal with it on your own, Lux, she insisted.

 

With this, I do. Promise me.

 

She hesitated momentarily, then gave me a small nod. I promise.

 

Resigned to the difficulty ahead, I turned and scanned the hallway in both directions. “I’m assuming you have no idea about where we are, or what this place is?” I asked Val.

 

“No,” she answered slowly, shaking her head. “I have never heard of a structure beneath Shadowmine. This is all so...” she trailed off, looking back and forth. “How could such a place exist?”

 

“More secrets,” I muttered. I attempted to send out a quick scan of Detection, but the mana pooled at the edges of my boots with the all too familiar sensation of the Serathid’s aura. “Well, no sense in waiting, I guess.” After squinting down both sides of the hall for a final moment and finding nothing out of the ordinary in either direction, I led our group to the right. The rancid smell in the air increased rapidly as we walked and became so pungent that I had to lessen my Enhanced Senses to keep from gagging. The hallway turned ninety degrees to the left, then ended a few dozen yards ahead with a heavy metal door that had been knocked from its hinges.

 

We found the source of the stench beyond the broken door: a long chamber constructed entirely of metal from floor to ceiling, completely filled with rotting Serathid corpses. Blood squelched beneath my boots as I stepped inside and peered around the piles of decaying beasts, looking for any signs of life. “What could have done this?” Val asked as she entered behind me, her voice buzzing as she pinched her nose closed.

 

“They did,” I answered, pointing my sword towards the nearest corpse. “They killed each other.” Half of the beast’s body was stripped down to the bone, its chitinous armor shattered away to reveal the skin and muscle within. The mortal blows that had slain the monsters were all obvious slash wounds, made only more apparent by the dark ichor staining most of the beasts’ bladed appendages. “They killed and ate each other.” The burning in my arm grew more painful as I walked further into the room, consciously absorbing the ambient death energy to keep it away from Lia.

 

“Vile creatures,” Val swore.

 

As I scanned the rest of the room, the entirety of the situation became more apparent. “They were locked in here by someone. They were starving, so they ate each other. Eventually, they broke out of that door and made the passage we found to reach the surface.” The metal walls, originally looking to be some sort of patterned steel, were covered floor to ceiling in deep slash marks. “Something other than these beasts is down here, or at least, was down here. These things were intentionally imprisoned here.”

 

“Maybe this whole invasion was an accident,” Lia posited. “Whoever was down here clearly tried to stop these things from getting out. Not that it worked, but still...maybe it wasn’t one of Virram’s plans after all.”

 

“Or his plans just got out of hand. Or this is his plan.” Lia’s point was valid, but I refused to give Virram the benefit of the doubt. “Summoning these...creatures, isn’t something you do entirely by accident. You have to be—”

 

“Noises. At the far door,” Val hissed, waving off our conversation. As we fell into silence, I picked up the sounds she had somehow picked up over my bitter complaining: taps and scrapes against the metal door opposite where we had entered. “More Serathids.”

 

I formed up with Lia and dashed across the room. The door was secured by two parallel steel bars that were controlled by a single wheel at the center. “This must lead further in,” I said, placing a hand on the wheel. “Ready?” Lia and Val nodded in unison, and I spun the wheel and threw open the door. Two bladed arms flew past me and caught on Val’s shield as our foes spilled into the room. Lia and I stabbed through its hanging body as it stood preoccupied, and Val threw the corpse back into the doorway.

 

“Close the door!” she shouted, striking out at the next Serathid that attempted to enter the room. I put my shoulder into the heavy bulwark door and latched it shut immediately after Val had successfully repelled the intruder. I watched her expectantly, waiting for an explanation as the walled-off beasts banged against the metal. “Two more at the door, but beyond, at the end of the hallway...scores of them. They did not react to our skirmish.”

 

“Well, they might react now,” I said in annoyance, motioning to the door as it shook under the full weight of the ravenous beasts. My eyes turned to Lia, and we set an instant plan into motion through our accelerated link. I spun the door open once again and allowed her to slip into the hallway, deftly rolling beneath the first beast to skewer the second with both longswords. Her sudden movement distracted the final Serathid and allowed me to catch it unaware with a plunging stab into its skull.

 

With the entrance momentarily still, we took the opportunity to confirm Val’s assessment. A wide hallway ran over a hundred feet back, ending in a chamber far too large to accurately gauge from our distance. As I squinted at the movement and repowered my Enhanced Senses, I marveled at how Val could have taken such an accurate estimate in such a brief amount of time. Serathids appeared and disappeared at the entrance to the chamber as they scuttled about with some unseen purpose, easily fifty strong, if not more. Also accurate to Val’s report, they seemed to take no notice of us as we lingered in the doorway.

 

“That has to be what we’re looking for, right?” Lia whispered. “Or at least, closer to what we’re looking for.”

 

The sudden drop in my stomach echoed her sentiment. “We’re getting close. The source of the invasion is here; I can feel it.”

 

“We cannot hope to face that many Serathids at once,” Val protested.

 

“Yes, we can. If we hold this hallway three wide, they won’t be able to flank us, and the ceiling is too low for any of their acrobatic maneuvers,” I answered. “If things go south, we can retreat to this room; their numbers won’t mean anything when they’re forced to face us through this doorway.”

 

“You may be right,” she replied, biting her lip, “but...I am unsure if I can face that many at once. I do not possess the skills in combat that the two of you do.”

 

“Val, I watched your fight at the entrance. You do have the skills, you just need to use your—” I cut myself off with a cough before I could finish the thought. I won’t teach her our magic, I said to Lia, the betrayal I felt from Val raw and irrepressible through our mental link.

 

We need her, Lux.

 

I know we do; she’ll be fine without it.

 

But she would be better with it.

 

I wouldn’t even have time to explain it.

 

You don’t have to. Just give it to her yourself.

 

I paused as I considered the thought. I’ve never done that before.

 

Time to try. If it doesn’t work, we’ll just make sure to keep her safe during the fight.

 

I scowled at the idea, but knew she had the right of it. Fine. “Val, come here,” I said, waving her over. She followed the order obediently and stood at my side in the doorway. “We need you if we’re going to win this fight. I swear to you, Lia and I won’t let you die,” I promised her, placing a hand on the edge of her shield. “I still have more questions for you before I let that happen.” Mana surged into the shield and bolstered the reserve I had left previously, then continued on to suffuse her entire body. I walked through my list of combat enhancements, activating them in the fashion I had first learned in Alderea. Greater Strength. Greater Agility. Pain Reduction. Greater Windstep. Greater Combat Acceleration. Heighten Senses. Each rune along my sword flashed in turn as I activated the mana within her shield.

 

Val gasped as the energy took effect and tried to step away, but I held her firmly in place. Watching the scene carefully, I was relieved to find my deposited mana draining as it fueled her enhancements without further attention needed from me. “There,” I said with a labored breath, cutting my connection with the extended energy. “Now you can fight like us.”

 

“Lux, what have you done? I...I do not understand,” she stammered, clenching her fist into a tight ball to test the new power..

 

“You don’t need to,” I countered, already turning to prepare myself for the assault. “You’ve fought like this before, but you believed it was some sort of holy blessing. If it makes you feel better, you can just pretend it’s that again.” Lia gave me a knowing smile as we readied ourselves, and I gave her a quick eye roll in return. “Now, you’ll hold the center of the hallway, while Lia and I hold the left and right, respectively. It’ll be easier for both of us to cover you if you’re between us.”

 

There was a long moment of silence as Val processed the situation behind us. “I will do it,” she said eventually, all uncertainty gone from her voice. “We will not fail.”

 

“Alright then, let’s go.” I stepped through the doorway and immediately fell to one knee as a powerful wave of death energy punched me in the chest. Dark smoke began to seep out from my gloved hand as the force threatened to overwhelm me, and the color in my vision began to drain. Lia stumbled as a shock of sympathetic pain rushed through her arm, and she immediately dropped to the floor to aid me. “No,” I hissed through clenched teeth, “stay back.”

 

You can’t keep going on like this. You’ll burn yourself up.

 

Lia, I won’t let you get corrupted like me. It’ll kill you. It already has, once. As I struggled to maintain control of my body, I absorbed the remaining darkness that lingered around us into myself, groaning from the effort. I can do this.

 

“Lux, your hand,” Val whispered fearfully. “You are unwell.”

 

“I’m fine!” I snapped, clearly lying. I knew that she had seen the smoke once before in Attetsia, moments before my rampage in the courtyard, but I couldn’t find the focus to convincingly assuage her worries.

 

Lux, please. You won’t survive.

 

It’s the only way.

 

No, it isn’t. She reached out and held me by the chin, forcing me to look into her eyes. You can use it.

 

The icy grip of fear squeezed at the back of my neck as I desperately tried to hide the memories of my rampage from Lia. I can’t do that. I can’t let you see me like that. If I embrace the darkness, I could...I could hurt you.

 

You won’t.

 

You don’t know

 

Lia leaned in and kissed me, and a burst of strength surged through our bond. You won’t. You never would.

 

It felt as though my chest were about to explode as Lia’s light pushed against the encroaching darkness. I knew that if we pushed further into the mine, the void energy would continue to increase and, eventually, find its way out of me one way or another: the annihilated Lybesian forest polished in smooth, black glass was all the proof I needed of that. Even still, I shuddered as my ecstatic dance of death through the Strategist’s soldiers played out behind my eyes. The rush of memories left me trembling as I accepted an unavoidable truth: if any of us were to survive the night, I would have to once again embrace the darkness.

 

Don’t let it take me, I begged Lia, gripping her arm. I can’t do this without you.

 

You will never be without me ever again. I’m with you forever. The powerful resolve I saw in her face was my sole strength as I rose to my feet.

 

Forever. I gave her a gentle nod, and she stood and moved behind me in line with Val. “Okay, new plan,” I panted as I took another step forward into a fresh wave of death. “Stay behind me and clean up anything that makes it past.”

 

“Lux, no,” Val insisted. “You cannot sacrifice yourself for us. Not again.” There was genuine pain in her voice as she lunged forward and put a hand on my shoulder. “We can find another—”

 

I threw her arm back at her and glared over my shoulder. “I said, stay behind me.

 

Val’s eyes widened as she recoiled, and Lia pulled her back a step. “Val, I know we haven’t explained anything, but please, just listen. This is the only way that we’ll…”

 

Lia’s explanation cut out abruptly as I took another step forward. KILL THEM ALL, rumbled the presence in my head, blocking out the distraction of my allies behind me. My vision refocused on the movement at the end of the long hallway, where the scuttling Serathids were now outlined in vibrant red light. THEY WILL SUFFER IN RETRIBUTION.

 

The booming voice crashed over me like thunder, and I felt my body preparing for battle, already accepting its offer. I slowly lessened my resistance to the darkness throbbing in my arm and chest, and the burning energy immediately engulfed the rest of my body. Black flames burst from the surface of the manasteel blade in my hand and rippled up my arm to my shoulder. I felt myself take another step forward, unbidden, then another, and another, each coming faster than the last. My consciousness retreated to the safe haven hidden deep within my mind, and I let go of the last of my resistance. Yes. We’ll kill them all.

 

My surroundings blurred as I rocketed forward, running in a low hunch with the tip of my sword dragging along the stone floor beside me. The screeching steel echoed along the corridor ahead of me, and the teeming horde of beasts halted in their movement and looked in my direction. “COME AND MEET YOUR END,” I roared in a distorted, booming chorus.

 

The Serathids accepted my challenge without delay. Dozens of the beasts spilled into the hallway, with countless more taking their places at the chamber entrance behind them. My low run shifted into a beastial sprint as I flung myself forward with both my hands and feet, desperate to meet them in battle. Just as we were about to collide, I brought my sword up in a spinning horizontal slash that sent a vicious wave of dark fire through the air. The energy snapped like a whip as it connected with the leading two beasts and exploded into a shower of black and white sparks that immediately engulfed the pair in flames.

 

A horrible screech filled the hallway as the burning Serathids fell back in pain. A wicked smile crossed my face when I realized the piercing shriek was the first noise I had ever heard the monsters make. They can feel pain.

 

THEY WILL FEEL MORE. I leapt through the smokescreen I had created and attacked the next closest foe with a whirling skyward slash that sliced through its carapace without resistance. The wound instantly caught fire, and another scream echoed against the stone. My arm surged with an influx of new power as the beast was consumed by dark flames. MORE. Serathids approached on either side as the tide of beasts surged around me, and I brought my sword up to parry an incoming volley of blades. Spinning in a tight circle, I caught each scythe with the tip of my bastard blade, shattering the bony weapons like glass.

 

A sharp pain raked across my chest as a taloned foot cut through my cuirass and into my flesh. Hungry black flames raced across my body and engulfed the limb before the beast could retreat; as it writhed in agony, the fresh wound in my chest wove closed, and my awareness of the injury instantly faded behind the consistent dissociating pain of the void. More, I thought in harmony with the dark presence driving my body.

 

Every step that brought me closer to the open chamber fueled me with a fresh wave of energy, and every kill further clouded my head with an overpowering, intoxicating pleasure. The dark flames fully enveloped me as I continued my rampage through the sea of monsters, bringing sickly-sweet death with every stroke of my sword. THE SOURCE IS AHEAD. THEIR ULTIMATE END. WE WILL CLAIM IT. The thought of an even greater ambrosia than what surrounded me set a deep hunger in my stomach, and I rushed to claim my prize. Raising my sword above my head, I smashed the blade down onto the floor with both hands and sent a billowing wave of fire ahead of me that stretched from floor to ceiling across the entire hall. The air filled with fine black ash as the Serathids burned, corpses and living beasts alike, and my path forward was suddenly cleared.

 

The effort of my attack had drained a majority of the dark energy from my body, reducing the lapping flames around me to little more than wisps of black smoke, but the ambient power lingering in the air quickly surged in to renew me as I sprinted into the chamber. The construction of the room changed abruptly at the entrance: the floor, walls and ceiling of the massive chamber were constructed of a seamless, white marble, not unlike the roads and buildings Lia and I had seen in Atsal. Old oil lamps hung from the walls at regular intervals, lighting the room with a flickering orange glow. There appeared to be three exits from the marble room: the large, open space through which I had entered, a roughly tunneled hole ten feet in diameter on the wall to my right, and an ornate door made of black metal on the opposite wall.

 

While the chamber was an impressive sight to behold in its own right, I only had eyes for the singular object stored within it. At the far wall, only a few feet from the black door, a waist high marble podium holding a large glass box stood on a raised platform. Though I couldn’t make out the details of the object held within it, the blinding crimson light it radiated told me it was the origin point of the dark energy feeding me, and the final goal of our expedition.

 

CLAIM IT. I took a single step forward, and the room shook violently beneath my feet, knocking me to one knee. A deafening hum filled the chamber as the space above the display case began to vibrate, distorting like air over hot stone. There was an ear-splitting sound of glass shattering as the air itself ruptured, and a gout of dark flames burst from the crack in reality. I watched as the crack split open and revealed the black void between worlds, just as it had once before in the Lybesian forest. The gaping wound grew wider and wider as the chamber trembled, expanding until it was nearly twenty feet across. Shadows danced back and forth beyond the veil as a new wave of Serathids began to pour through the gap, falling haphazardly through the air to the marble floor below.

 

“Lux!” A familiar voice from behind me cut through the reverberating hum that rattled my bones. I spun, sword blazing, to find Lia and Val standing half a dozen yards away. Their faces and armor were painted with a fresh coat of Serathid ichor, and Lia was panting heavily from exertion with a hand over her chest. A strange sense of vertigo spun my head as I saw brief flashes of myself through her eyes: a dark, distorted figure, hidden beneath black smoke and shimmering air, too bright to stare at but too dark to see.

 

I’m...here, I thought through the furious haze in my mind. While I had immediately lost my sense of self when I relinquished control to the dark presence, Lia had apparently refused to let our connection fade, despite the obvious toll it cost her. Lia, I’m...still here.

“Lux, I can see it,” she called out to me. “The darkness; I can see it. Where the Serathids are coming from.”

 

Through all the warring forces that clouded my psyche, the statement still managed to plant a seed of fear in my chest. You shouldn’t...see that...

 

“You have to stop them!” she cried, pointing her sword across the room. “Whatever is in that box, you have to destroy it!”

 

I turned my attention back towards the source of the rift, and the massing force of beasts that crowded around it. The hunger flared in my stomach as I drank in the red light pouring from the display case. “I’ll kill...every last one of these—”

 

“No!” I whirled on her in a sudden fury at the idea of being denied my quarries. Lia held my gaze without flinching. “Leave the monsters, Lux. Get the box! You have to stop them!” While her lips stopped moving, I heard her voice continue in the safe bastion within my mind. I’m with you. You’re strong enough to do this. I love you.

 

I stared into her eyes, my body continuing to seethe with rage as her message registered in my mind. A flicker of movement caught the corner of my eye, and my attention snapped suddenly to Val. I caught a rare, unguarded expression as our eyes met: terror. Those are Marin’s eyes. Is that how you see me too, now?

 

CLAIM IT. The dark presence thundered back in full force as my mind began to wander. THE SOURCE. CLAIM IT. My body turned and lunged ahead before I could react, and I found myself sprinting headlong across the chamber towards the growing wave of Serathids and the pedestal behind them. While my sword raised above my head and burned with renewed energy, I reached out into the empty air with my other hand and closed my fingers around an unseen object.

 

No. My stomach lurched as the world blinked away into darkness, only to reappear a moment later in a different location. I won’t claim it. My empty hand rested on the edge of the glass display case, and I stared down into the box at the ultimate source of the Serathid invasion. An oblong skull made entirely of black glass stared back at me, radiating a wave of void energy more powerful than my memories of being in the void itself. You don’t control me. I felt my connection with Lia growing stronger even as the conflagration around my body intensified.

 

CLAIM IT. BECOME WHAT YOU ARE MEANT TO BE.

 

I am what I’m meant to be. I brought the point of my sword down onto the skull with both hands and shattered the artifact into dust. An ominous stillness fell over the room as the incessant hum instantly ceased. The dozen Serathids that had fallen through the rift paused in their charge and turned as a high-pitched hiss rushed out from above my head. Black smoke poured from the wound in reality as it stitched itself shut and vanished without a trace within a few seconds. With the link to the void removed, the dark energy that had suffused the space dissipated, and I immediately took back full control of my body and mind as the black flames covering my body sputtered out.

 

A pair of warcries echoed through the chamber as Val and Lia charged the remaining beasts that lingered between us. The battle was short lived; by the time I was able to gather my senses and round the marble podium, the last Serathid had already fallen. After scanning the chamber to ensure we were finally alone, I dropped my sword and let out a ragged sigh of relief. The feeling was echoed through my bond with Lia, and I braced myself as I heard her light footsteps racing towards me from across the room. I caught her as she threw herself against my chest, squeezing her tightly as I fell back against the display case for support. “Are you alright?” I asked her. “I’m sorry if the pain bled through to you, and that you...had to see that.”

 

“No, I’m fine,” she answered, shaking her head. “I had no idea how much agony it caused you; I hope I was able to take some of it away.” I felt a quick pulse of golden mana circle my body. “How are you feeling? You look...okay.”

 

“I feel okay,” I admitted, rolling my shoulders. “I hate to say it, but I think I’m getting used to that, somewhat.” The thought put a frown on my face, but I buried it in her hair as I kissed the top of her head. “It’s over. That’s all that matters now.”

 

“Yes,” Val agreed. I looked up to find her standing a cautious six feet away, watching our quick reunion. “I am unsure what transpired, but I believe this may have permanently stopped the Serathid invasion. I am in your debt, yet again.”

 

I held her gaze for a long moment, and was happy to find that she didn’t look away. All traces of the fear I had seen before were gone, replaced once again by the inscrutable steel mask. “I’m sure you have questions.”

 

“For another time,” she said, raising a hand. “We are still in unknown territory. We should continue to explore this facility, and stay on guard for more Serathids. While we may have halted their ingress, those that have already come through still remain.”

 

A tight knot in my stomach released all at once as I realized my inevitable conversation with Val had been pushed further down the road. “Right. Thanks.” I gave Lia a final hug before breaking away from the embrace and turning towards the door behind the podium. “I’m guessing we’ll find more answers that way.”

 

An automatic pulse of mana ran down my legs, and I was surprised to find the energy unhindered as it spread onto the floor and raced away beneath the black door. Lia noticed the freedom from the beast’s aura and joined in with her own scan, checking back in the direction we had come from and out through the tunneled hole in the chamber wall. While our immediate surroundings were clear, various pockets of static indicated that multiple Serathids still lurked somewhere within the mines, though the general direction of their movement showed they had no awareness of our presence.

 

My forward sweep of Detection revealed a series of smaller chambers furnished similarly to a small home: a bathroom, kitchen, living space, bedroom, and office. Beyond those, a final, larger room held multiple rows of pedestal display cases similar to the one beside us, though the objects held within showed no signs of any latent energy, malicious or otherwise. A small counterweight elevator stood open and empty on the far wall, the shaft for which traveled straight up to ground level. It opened into a small chamber built into the side of one of the twin mountains that covered Shadowmine, with a well concealed stone door leading out onto the opposite side of the mountain from which we had entered.

 

“We should be safe, for the time being,” I said, pointing towards the door. “Someone has been living here, though. Complete with their own museum room and personal entrance to the mine.” I looked at Val and raised an eyebrow.

 

Her jaw clenched slightly as she shook her head. “I am unaware of any operations taking place beneath Shadowmine, apart from mining.” Her answer came the same as before, but it seemed to bother her more severely as we stood within the proof that such a place existed. “This construction is old military, from when Kaldan was first formed as a nation, but I have never heard or read of its existence.”

 

“That’s likely by design,” I muttered. Motioning to the door, I waited for Val to make the first move. “Well? Shall we find out what Virram wanted to keep hidden?” After a brief pause, she nodded and made for the door. Lia and I fell in behind her and followed into the living space, closing the door behind us. The construction of the room was the same seamless marble as the large chamber behind us, but where the latter had been entirely empty, our current surroundings were lavishly decorated with massive paintings, tapestries, and overstuffed bookshelves. Most of the iconography in the artwork was foriegn to me, but the repeated symbol and color palette of the Unity Church was apparent in most of the pieces.

 

“This is so...weird,” Lia said under her breath as she ran a finger along a low table. “How is all of this space so perfect after everything that’s happened? You’d think the monsters would have come through here first.”

 

“If I had to guess, I’d say that whoever was living here knows a lot more about those things than we do,” I said, browsing the titles of a row of books on a nearby shelf. “They were clearly brought here with some sort of purpose. Anybody who could do that probably knew a way to survive down here with them, and that would definitely involve keeping them out of the living quarters.”

 

“We need to make a coordinated sweep of this entire structure,” Val said, interrupting our theorycrafting. “There must be an explanation down here somewhere.”

 

“Let’s start with the study,” I suggested, having already found a pile of handwritten notes and open journals through my Detection. “Through that door, over there.” Val accepted the information without question and proceeded through the indicated door with Lia and I close behind. The study was a mostly barren room in comparison to the entry; the marble walls were empty of decoration, and the bookshelves were filled only with simple leatherbound notebooks titled with seemingly random strings of letters and numbers. Two and a half cases were filled with the identical tomes, while another three stood empty beside them, awaiting entries. A single desk sat against the left wall covered with maps, stray papers, a box of unmarked journals, and a large book bound in white leather.

 

“Look at these journals; they’re ancient!” Lia mused, gingerly pulling the first book from the top shelf. The leather binding audibly creaked as she opened the front cover. “The first journal of Ergram Lax, Yorian Circle Shadebinder,” she dictated. She cocked an eyebrow and looked up from the book. “Never heard of him.”

 

Val stiffened and turned to address Lia. “Did you say...Shadebinder?” she asked in an ominous whisper.

 

“Umm...yeah. Shadebinder,” Lia answered. She spun the book in her hands and offered it out to Val. “That’s what it says.”

 

Val recoiled from the book as if it were aflame. “Lia, put that down immediately.” She took another step back and looked around the room again, suddenly seeing the space in a new light. “We should not be here.”

 

“Val, what’s going on?” I asked. Alarm bells blared in my head as I watched her fearful reaction, and my stomach twisted as my imagination began to fill in the gaps. “Who was Ergram Lax?”

 

She shook her head. “I do not know of Ergram Lax, but I know of Shadebinders. They were a group of occult sorcerers who performed perverted experiments on the dead; dangerous heretics who were purged from the Unity Cathedral long ago, in the time of legends. There have been no Shadebinders in Kaldan for generations.”

 

“According to…?” I trailed off, already fearing the answer.

 

“The King, and his Council, and the Yorian Cathedral,” she answered. “According to everything I have ever known.” Her eyes bounced wildly around the room. “Lux, if there has been a new order of Shadebinders established with Kaldan, we are in far more danger than I could have feared. They hold powers greater than anything a normal human can ever hope to achieve.”

 

“Hold on, Val,” I said, placing a firm hand on her shoulder. “This all sounds like superstition to me. Whatever happened down here, we stopped it. Whether it was a Shadebinder, or something else, it doesn’t matter. We stopped it, and after we find who caused this mess, we’ll stop them, too. Permanently.”

 

A tear streamed down her face as she turned to look at me. “Virram,” she whispered. “It is Virram. There is no other way.”

 

My jaw fell open as I stood at a loss of words. “I, uhm...Val, I believe you, but...are you sure?”

 

“Yes,” she answered firmly. “If a power as great as the Shadebinders had come into his noticing, Virram would have chased it without end.” Her head shook back and forth, knocking fresh tears loose from her olive eyes. “It would explain...many things. Meetings which even I was unallowed to attend. Resources allocated to unnecessary projects. Undisclosed travels with undisclosed diplomats, attended by only Councilor Gullen.” Her hand shot up and gripped my arm, squeezing it painfully tight with her heavy gauntlet. “Lux, I have allowed this to happen. I followed his orders without question. I very well could have—”

 

“No!” Lia yelled, hugging Val from the side. “Stop it, Val! This isn’t your fault. If Virram really caused all of this, it’s his fault, not yours! You didn’t do any of this. You’ve always done what you thought was just, because you’re a good person.” Val seemed stunned by the gesture, staring down at Lia in awe. With painstaking slowness, she reached her arms down and returned the embrace, resting her chin on Lia’s head as tears continued to flow.

 

“You’re here, Valandra,” I said quietly. “After everything Virram put you through, you’re still right here, saving the world from his plans. You’re not at fault for this; you’re the hero.”

 

She sniffed loudly and straightened her posture, lifting Lia a few inches off the ground in the process. “Thank you, Lia, Lux.” She dropped Lia and looked away, taking a moment to wipe her face. When she turned back, her expression had returned to its natural blank slate. “We need to search this room for every piece of evidence tying King Yorrell to the Shadebinders. I will not allow that man to sit on the Golden Throne a moment longer should this prove true.”

 

“Now, that’s the spirit!” I grinned, clapping her on the back. “That’s an effort I can get behind; I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but I fucking hate that guy.” Val let out a brief, delicate laugh, then gave me a wide smile. “Alright, evidence. We may want to split up for this: the room beyond here is some sort of trophy hall, which, depending on the contents, could be exactly what we’re looking for. If you start looking in there, I’ll help Lia with the books in here.” She nodded and crossed the study, carefully opening the door to the next room and scanning the empty space before entering.

 

Lia grabbed my hand and twined her fingers between mine. That went well.

 

Sure. We just told her some evil cult is coming back to ruin her country and shattered her entire worldview at the same time. I let out a heavy sigh and stared up at the ceiling. Though, I guess it really did go well, all things considered.

 

She laughed. You did a good thing, helping her like that.

 

I wish that wasn’t always so hard to do. Giving her hand a light squeeze, I walked to the filled bookshelves and pulled a volume out at random. “I’ll start over here.” I thumbed the journal open and flicked through the pages, looking for any particularly eye catching passages or illustrations. Most of the images spread throughout the book were simple sketches of the Unity crest, though each had a minor alteration from the one I had become familiar with over the course of my travels: some had an eighth colored wedge around the outside of the circle, while others had intricate patterns drawn on the center white circle or were missing the central disc entirely. “This one just looks like boring religious studies.”

 

“Oh, Lux, look at this!” Lia called out, hefting the ponderous white tome from the desk. “This is a personal journal of the person who was living here. The last entry was...only two weeks ago!” She paced slowly across the room as she read, revealing a multitude of colored ribbons that dangled from various points in the book. “Oh, let’s see. This one...wow.”

 

“What is it?” I asked, pulling another random journal from the shelf in front of me. Based on the name and entry number on the title page, I was able to puzzle out the labeling system that organized the series: A start date, the author’s initials, the number of journals that author had filled at the time of writing, a letter to indicate a multi-journal study, and a final number representing the journals place in the entire series. This collection has been consistently updated for centuries.

 

“More than one person has written in here,” she answered, tugging on one of the ribbons. “The first page is dated from over five hundred years ago!” She tabbed through the book, examining the entry dates of each section. “Okay, here’s the start of the most recent owner’s section.” She cleared her throat and began to narrate the passage, speaking loud enough for Val to hear in the next room.

 

“Today begins the most exciting adventure of my life. I, Horace Odwell, have been named the next Shadebinder of the Yorian Circle by none other than…” she trailed off, her eyes quickly flicking up to mine with a flash of worry. “...the new king Virram Yorrell himself. It is the greatest of honors to once again bring the wisdom of the Shadebinders into the service of the Golden Throne, aftering being rebuffed so long. The young King is truly wise beyond his years.” The sound of Val’s boots against the marble halted abruptly in the adjacent room, but started again after a moment’s pause. “It may be weeks before I begin my own official studies in these hallowed halls; the sum knowledge of every Kaldanic Shadebinder is stored within the journals only a few feet from where I sit, and I will not rest until I have consumed every bit of it. Someday, perhaps, my successor will read my own writings with the same fervor.”

 

I poked my head into the next room. “Val, what were you planning to do with the evidence of Virram’s involvement in all of this?”

 

“Bring it to the Unity Cathedral. Working with such heretics would be grounds enough for removal from the throne, but should we find direct evidence of his involvement with the Serathid plot, it would be enough to try him for grand treason.” Her hand ran across a small placard on the case next to her. “Lux, what do you make of this?”

 

Lia followed me into the trophy room as I moved to Val’s side. The case in question held a small bronze coin well-covered with a green patina, its etchings too worn to make out. A familiar series of numbers and letters marked the metal nameplate on the side of the glass case. “I think this label corresponds to a journal on that set of shelves,” I said, pointing over my shoulder. “This must be a collection of artifacts important to their experiments.”

 

“A single coin, though? What importance could this have?” she mused. Her eyes narrowed, and she looked out over the sea of display cases. “None of these hold power similar to what caused the Serathid invasion, correct?”

 

I rescanned the room with a quick pulse of mana, then nodded. “Right. None of these things look particularly special to me.”

 

“Good.” Val continued to pace through the rows of glass cases, peering into each one as she passed by, and I moved in the opposite direction doing the same. The array of objects I passed was baffling: a rusted half-helm, a collection of pages covered in a foriegn language, a broken segment of discolored bone, and a perfectly preserved apple. None of the artifacts looked out of the ordinary or seemed to relate in any way apart from their physical proximity within the trophy room.

 

“Guys, listen to this!” Lia called out from her spot halfway across the room, having meandered about the cases as she read. “King Yorrell has provided me with a most curious artifact: an ornate skull, expertly crafted from some sort of dyed glass. While it is beautiful to behold, I am more intrigued by what I sense within it. My fingers tingle as I handle it even now; could it truly be a conduit for Shade essence?”

 

The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Shade essence...the void between worlds. That means these Shadebinders are just...people like me? I swallowed hard against an uncomfortable lump in my throat. Lia paused in her dictation and looked at me in concern as she felt my discomfort, but I nodded for her to continue. Read it. We need to know.

 

“Further tests will be required to fully understand this gift. The King has been less than forthcoming in his explanation for where he acquired the piece, and simply says it was ‘found’. Truly a mystery, my young master.” She looked up from the page. “This was written four months ago.”

 

“It is true, then,” Val said through clenched teeth. “Virram was the catalyst for this invasion. He was the cause of the innocent lives we lost.”

 

“There’s more in the next entry, from a month later,” Lia added. “King Yorrell has bestowed upon me another gift, though this time, it is no mere bauble or curious artifact. This gift came in the form of a simple message: ‘You shall soon find proof that a fresh acolyte walks among us’. Such an intriguing riddle! I had hardly spent the time to consider what my King could mean when the promised proof arrived at my doorstep, right alongside my usual supply of rations and testing materials. It was the cadaver of a Yorian city guard, apparently killed—”

 

Lia cut herself off with a hand clamped over her mouth, but I had already read the words through her eyes. Read it.

 

Lux, Val doesn’t need to know

 

Read it, Lia. I felt a headache form between my eyes as my hands balled into tight fists against my legs. I’m done with hiding things.

 

Lia continued reading, her voice trembling. “It was the cadaver of a Yorian city guard, apparently killed by an escaping prisoner from the dungeons. The guard, once named Jack, had been killed by a single, self-inflicted cut across his throat. A rather boring affair under normal circumstances, but these are no normal circumstances. This man has Shadelines! Beautiful black marks, originating from the center of his chest. I have barely earned my own Shadelines after years of research and practice, yet some unknown prisoner was able to leave such marks from what appears to be a single point of contact! Incredible! King Yorrell has assured me that the man will be found and collected, so that I may soon speak with him. I just pray that Master Gullen’s abilities have not grown weak with disuse before their meeting.”

 

I stood stock still as I fought down my rage. I wasn’t just a prisoner to be dealt with, I was some sort of experiment to them. Everything that’s happened to me, and to Lia, and Val, and everybody else...it’s been in the name of some project. It’s been Virram at every turn. Sacrificing life after life, just so...what? They could watch me? So they could see my power?

 

“Lux,” Val asked softly, “what do you know of this?” She turned and leaned her elbows on the display case behind me, watching me carefully.

“Nothing!” I snapped, hurt by the accusation I felt in the question. “I don’t know what the fuck any of this is talking about, with Shadebinders and essences.” I spun towards her and jabbed a finger in her direction. “This is all on the shoulders of your King! Your King, and you.”

 

“Lux, you know that’s not true!” Lia cried from across the room, jogging towards us. “Val had nothing to do with this, and you know it!”

“Do I? Every time I think I finally have this figured out, there’s another layer of shit hidden underneath!” I poked Val roughly in the chest. “So, was it all a lie? Is this where I find out you were leading me here to Shadowmine this whole time? That you’re in on this whole plot after all?”

 

“I swear to you, I have no knowledge of this place, or Virram’s plans,” she answered calmly. “I am not accusing you of anything, Lux. We have all been pawns in Virram’s game. But there are many things you have not yet told me.”

 

“I’m not hiding anything!” I shouted in her face. “I only found out about this fucking cult when we found the journals, how could I know anything about it?!”

 

She took a step back and held up her hands in a slow, calming motion. “I just want to understand. You knew how to stop the Serathids, and controlled powers I have never seen. Is this somehow related to the Shade—”

 

“I DON’T KNOW!” I bellowed, slamming my fist on the display case between us. There was a sharp pain in my hand as the glass shattered, and I looked down to find rivulets of blood dripping from my fingers onto an old shortsword amidst the broken glass.

 

A wave of golden energy swarmed around me as Lia hugged me tightly from behind. “Lux, please! Don’t let your anger take control again. We’re safe here, there’s no danger!”

 

Her words fell on deaf ears. The entire world froze in place around me as I reached down to pluck the rusted blade from the cabinet. No. This is...no. No. I wiped a splatter of blood from the base of the sword and held it up to my eye. My blacksmith’s stamp. And Ashedown’s, too. The sigil I had practiced a thousand times adorned the metal just above the hilt, immediately adjacent to a similar symbol I had seen on the forge’s sign every day for five years. This is the first sword I ever forged. My body went completely numb as I stared at the impossible blade. This is from Alderea.

 

HE WILL PAY FOR WHAT HE’S DONE.

 

Lia yelped as the voice boomed through my head, instantly dissociating my mind from my body. No, I thought feebly. This can’t be right.

 

HE TOOK HER AWAY FROM YOU.

 

My vision faded to shades of grey as the thought consumed me. Alderea is still out there. Amaya is still waiting for me. Because of him. I felt my body being tugged in multiple directions, but the sensation was far away, as if it were happening to someone else.

 

WE WILL HAVE JUSTICE.

 

The dark presence consumed my mind, routing me from the hidden bastion in my head. My body screamed with emptiness as Lia’s presence was ripped away from me, but the sensation lasted only a single moment; the burning embrace of the void filled the empty part of me and made me whole again. I was flooded with an overwhelming wave of power, and I reached out willingly into the darkness. The room turned black as my stomach flipped, and I disappeared from the physical world.

 

TONIGHT, WE SHALL INFLICT OUR RETRIBUTION.

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About the author

Adam Ladner

Bio: Hi there. I'm Adam, the author of the "Restart Again" series. I started this writing project in the spring of 2019 as a fun creative outlet, and much to my surprise, I actually stuck with it! Fast forward to a year later, and here I am with the first book completely finished, and the second well under way. It's been a great experience, and I'm glad I have a chance to share it now!

I'd never heard of this site until recently, when one of the Amazon reviews for this book suggested I share it here as well. I'm not entirely familiar with how the site works, and whether or not it's frowned upon to just come here to share fully finished products that exist on other sites. With that in mind, I plan to drop a chapter on here every Sunday and Wednesday until the entire book is posted. If you enjoy it, hop over to my website to find the latest news on the project, and a link to the Amazon page where you can buy the eBook/paperback. I hope you enjoy it!

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