The darkness whipped past me as I spun headlong through the void, every inch of my body ablaze with a familiar, disassembling pain. I paid it no mind. My consciousness held a single, immutable focus that guided me through the unending blackness.
VIRRAM YORRELL WILL SUFFER.
I felt a sudden softness beneath my outstretched hand, and I grasped it tightly to anchor myself against the storm. There was a final roar of the gale around me as I slipped out of the void, and then the assault on my senses was gone, replaced with the gentle sensations of the physical world: warm lamplight glowing in dark, plush carpet against my hand, and the sounds of gentle music, clattering silverware, and casual conversation somewhere nearby. I rose from my kneeling position and found myself standing in the center aisle of Virram’s throne room in the Yorian keep.
The room was lit only by the lanterns hanging on the stone columns that flanked the central aisle and a series of candelabras on a long dining table, which had been dragged before the dais that held the massive golden throne. Behind it, a dark canvas curtain flapped angrily as it blocked what was once a glorious stained glass window, now a gaping hole exposed to the bitter winter night outside. The table seated a dozen noble guests, all dressed in fine silk dresses and doublets, and held an overflowing banquet of roasted meats, greens, and pastries. While I didn’t recognize most of the guests, my eyes were locked on the men at the head of the table; Virram Yorrell sat in a high backed chair just beneath his throne, with his trusted advisor Gullen seated at his right.
“VIRRAM!” I boomed, my voice filling the hall with an echoing chorus.
My yell drew a series of startled yelps from the dinner guests as they turned to watch me approach through the shadowy hall. Virram’s face showed momentary concern, but a wide grin spread across his face when he recognized me. “Lux, my friend! I was wondering when you’d be back.” He looked to his dinner guests and waved them down. “Please, friends, continue with your dinner! Lux is an associate of mine; no need to worry.”
“What have you done,” I hissed, ignoring his pleasantries.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to be more specific,” he chuckled. He rang a small bell set on the corner of the table, and a moment later the door to the barracks room behind the dais burst open. A line of guardsmen filed into the room and formed up behind him as he continued. “If I had to guess, you’ve recently been to Shadowmine. Am I right?”
I remained silent as I stalked forward. Small wisps of black smoke wafted out from the cracks in my armor and swirled around my head. Gullen jumped as I entered the lamplight of a nearby pillar, his face alight with excitement. “I was so sad to hear you had left Kaldan,” Virram continued, motioning for his councilor to be still. “You did quite a number to us on your way out, did you know that? Finding craftsmen that understand the inner mechanisms you destroyed in the Mountain Gate has been a difficult task.”
He popped a strawberry into his mouth and chewed it greedily. “Also, the Third Company hasn’t been the same without their fearless leader, Commander Savitz. It was such a tragedy to hear of his loss, especially so soon after you killed his son.” The remark drew a round of horrified gasps from the dinner guests. “Yes, that’s right; Lux here is the very man who slew my Strength. The Umbral Flame himself! The young Savitz so valiantly defended me during your attempt on my life, and his father rallied the entire Third to bring you to justice.”
The words passed over me without impact, and Virram’s brow furrowed. “Come now, Lux, it’s no fun if you don’t play along.” He put a hand to his chin in exaggerated thought until his face once again lit with delight. “Oh, tell me! How is the Corell family adjusting to life in Lybesa? Marten, Hana, and Lia, correct? My sources tell me that Mayaan has had their own encounter with Umbral Flame recently; I hope they’re alright.”
He stood from his chair and leaned both hands against the table, cocking his head to one side. “And your friend, Marin? Did she survive her...incident?” he asked, venom dripping from every word. “It was truly a shame she had to become involved in all of this, but you forced my hand. From the moment you returned from your little trip to Attetsia, I knew you had turned my Shield against me. Commander Savitz was more than happy to help put that traitorous bitch Valandra in line if it meant getting to you, and with her sister being so close to you, well...it was really your own fault, wouldn’t you say?”
My sword appeared in my hand and immediately burst into a glorious pyre of black flames, bathing the throne room in a sinister glow. The dinner guests let out a round of terrified screams as they stood and fled towards the back of the room. Virram hooted and banged his hands against the table, apparently unafraid of the display. “Yes, Lux! Finally! Do you have any idea how much I’ve gone through just for the chance to see the Umbral Flame with my own eyes?” The assembled guards behind him stepped forward and surrounded him in a protective phalanx, holding shield and spear out at the ready.
“Ever since you so thoroughly dispatched my man Jack in the dungeons, Gullen here has begged me to allow him the chance to see you in your full glory,” the young king explained. “Likewise, my associate in Shadowmine has been very interested in meeting you. It’s a shame he’s away on...business.” At the mention of his name, Gullen pushed away from the table and began to make his way towards me. “I thought it a strange request, but they both insisted your power would be unlike anything the world had ever seen. Who am I to argue with the wisdom of my councilors?”
As he shuffled forward, Gullen rolled up the sleeves of his heavy robe, revealing a series of jagged black scars along his pallid, wrinkled arms. “I told my King it would be safer for us to talk only after you revealed your true form,” he said in a small, squeaking voice. He stopped at the edge of the table, still about twenty yards from my current place in the massive throne room, and extended his arms in my direction, palms forward. “You may have been blessed with power, but only wisdom will allow you to control it. Allow me to show you true mastery.”
He closed his eyes and strengthened his stance as he began to chant under his breath. “Primeval of Death, forgotten keeper of all, allow me the strength to bend this heretic to Your will, and teach him the true meaning of power!” The lamplight around us flickered, and I felt a gentle tug at the base of my spine, as if a small child had tapped me in an effort to gain my attention. I stopped my approach and watched with incredulous amusement while the old man trembled with exertion. A deep, hideous laugh escaped my mouth and filled the hall with thunder. INSIGNIFICANT. A NEOPHYTE AT MY ALTAR.
Gullen’s eyes snapped open, and a flash of panic lit across his face. “Primeval of Death, forgotten keeper of all, allow me—'' His repeated chant was interrupted by my hand closing around his throat as I lifted him off the ground, having crossed the space between us with a single, instantaneous dash.
“Your God is weak, Gullen. Your prayers have gone unanswered, but they do not fall on deaf ears; I will be your God now. I will give you a taste of the power you crave.” I sent a single spark of black fire down my arm and into his chest. A roaring fire erupted from his mouth as the speck of void energy instantly overwhelmed him, and his body began to turn to ash. THIS IS TRUE MASTERY, WORM.
The swirling ash and smoke cleared to reveal Virram’s horrified face at the opposite end of the table. “Kill him!” he screamed at his surrounding guards, scrambling backwards in his chair. “Kill him, now!” The score of guardsmen around him burst into a flurry of panicked action, swarming ahead in an unorganized mess. I sneered at them through the curtain of flame that had enveloped my body and raised my sword in their direction. Twisting bolts of dark energy raced out from my feet along the ground, each suffusing into one of the soldiers mid-charge. In an instant, their shared warcry turned into shared shrieks of pain as their muscles constricted and locked them in place, creating a beautiful display of tortured, twitching statues.
“Kill him!” Virram commanded again. “Don’t just stand there you cowards, kill—” His command was cut short when he stifled a horrified scream. In unison, each of the guards’ heads spun backwards to face their King as I controlled their muscles like a dark puppeteer, and the chamber momentarily echoed with a sickening series of snaps. I released my control over their bodies a moment later, and the assembly tumbled to the ground in a jumbled heap. Virram scanned the scene with uncomprehending terror, then looked up at me. “W-wait, I—”
I leapt over the length of the banquet table and kicked him square in the chest, shattering the back of his regal wood chair as I sent him flying through the air. He crashed against the imposing golden throne and fell into the seat with a pitiful whine. I blinked forward through space, appearing at the foot of the royal seat with a reverberating boom before he could react to my assault. My sword disappeared in a flash, and I grabbed him around his slender neck with both hands, pinning him to the cushioned back of the throne.
As I watched him struggle feebly against my iron grip, my stomach filled with an overpowering feeling of disgust. The young, handsome Virram Yorrell that had caused me so much pain was reduced to a snivelling, squirming mess of a man. His face, once so arrogant and self-assured, was streaked with tears and snot, and his skin had begun to shift from its usually healthy glow to a dark, bloated purple. The eyes that had held so much contempt for me were now wild and full of fear as the life drained from his body. WORTHLESS TRASH.
I relaxed my grip just enough to allow him a single, rasping breath. “P-please!” he choked. “I’ll give you whatever you want, just don’t kill me! I don’t want to die!” Another pathetic wail escaped his lips as he kicked his legs aimlessly.
Carefully, I set him back against his golden throne, releasing my grip around his neck to cradle his face with both of my hands. “Death is a kindness you don’t deserve.”
A manic laugh momentarily overtook him. “Yes, you’re right! A-absolutely! I am the lowest of the low, but as long as you let me live, I’ll give you anything you want! Anything! I’ll be your faithful servant. You’ll never want for anything!” I saw the gears spinning behind his eyes as he bargained for his life.
His hope turned to despair as I laughed in his face. I leaned in close to his ear, singeing the messy brown hair that brushed along his cheek. “You misunderstand me, Virram Yorrell.” A wave of healing magic spread across his body as I channeled the mana from my left hand, and I saw his body slump as it autonomously relaxed. “Death is a kindness you don’t deserve, but tonight, you shall earn the privilege.” As the healing continued from my left, I sent a rush of void energy down my right arm and suffused it through his skin. An immediate web of black scars wrapped around his face and darkened his eyes, and gouts of smoke poured from the lines. “TONIGHT, YOU SHALL SUFFER.”
The hall echoed with Virram’s agonized shrieks as the death energy continued to wrap its way around his body, covering every inch of his skin with jagged, smoking marks. My healing magic was the only thing that held his body together as it burst into a beautiful fountain of black flames. Convulsions shook his flickering form as the pain overwhelmed him, but I held him in my steady hands as the healing magic and void energy wove through him in a perfectly measured harmony. “BEG ME FOR MERCY.”
“MAKE IT STOP!” he screamed. “I BEG YOU, MERCY!”
“BEG ME FOR FORGIVENESS.” I increased the energy through both hands, and the flames grew brighter, bathing me in unholy light.
“LET ME DIE!” he wailed. “LET ME DIE!”
“BEG ME FOR ABSOLUTION.” The most intense catharsis of any of my lives rushed through me, and I sent the full might of my dueling energies into his body. Virram spasmed violently as his pleading cries devolved to a mixed series of shrieks and gurgles. I heard doors bang open at various points along the throne room, and a swarm of iron boots clanged across the stone floor towards me.
“YOU SHALL NOT HAVE IT!” Everything disappeared behind a bright flash of light as the void energy reached a crackling crescendo that sent flames spilling out in all directions. When the energy subsided, I saw the room in a new light; the cloth that had covered the broken stained glass window was reduced to smouldering cinders, allowing moonlight to spill into the throne room. Below it, the Golden Throne was a melted, misshapen pile of metal, still glowing cherry red from the momentary blast furnace that had engulfed it. Seated at the center of the monument was a twisted figure made entirely of black glass; its face was upturned and contorted in agony, but the rest of its features had melted away and fused with the throne itself, leaving it to only vaguely resemble the human it had once been.
As I stared into the eyeless glass sockets, I felt a deep thrum of satisfaction reverberate in my chest. YOU HAVE ASCENDED TO WHAT YOU WERE MEANT TO BE. WE WILL BRING JUSTICE TO THIS WORLD AND EVERY WORLD BEYOND IT. I turned to face the approaching army, but their charge had quickly changed into a headlong retreat at the sight awaiting them at their destination. My brow furrowed as I watched them run; their mere presence in the throne room soiled what was an otherwise perfect victory. YOU WILL FACE JUSTICE.
Whipping lashes of darkness flew off of me and pursued the fleeing guards. A series of explosions rocked the hall as each one impacted its target and instantly incinerated them, blasting chunks of stone up from the floor where they had stood. I let out a roaring laugh and watched the chaos unfold before me. WE WILL BRING RUINATION TO KALDAN. WE WILL BRING JUSTICE. WE—
In a forgotten corner of my mind, I felt my consciousness surface from the void that had engulfed me. No. That’s not justice. I floated in an endless ocean of darkness, suddenly thrust into a battle to keep the single shred of my regained humanity intact against the rage of the dark presence driving my body. Slaughtering innocents isn’t justice. I didn’t know whether it was Virram’s death, my receding adrenaline, or some outside force that had allowed my consciousness to coalesce out of the void, but the answer didn’t matter; my sole focus was preventing the dark presence from swallowing me up again, regardless of how I had escaped its embrace.
THIS WORLD IS INSIGNIFICANT. OUR PURPOSE IS HIGHER. IF WE MUST REDUCE EVERY SOUL TO CINDERS, IT WILL BE DONE.
No. I felt my fingers twitch as my fortitude grew in strength. There are people I care about in this world. I won't kill them. My body rumbled with an angry growl as I fought against the control of the dark presence. Lia. Marten and Hana. Marin. Val. I’ll protect them.
YOU CANNOT PROTECT THEM FROM THIS. AS LONG AS WE ARE HERE, THIS WORLD WILL BURN.
With a desperate burst of resistance, I took control of my arm and raised my hand, grasping at the air before me. Then I’ll leave. The throne room blurred as the dark energy stored in my core activated, and the world disappeared.
Every cell in my body burned as I listlessly floated through the void between worlds. Strangely, my head felt entirely empty of the dark presence that had possessed me, though I could still hear it thundering its displeasure at me from all sides.
YOU WILL REMAIN HERE UNTIL YOU ACCEPT YOUR FATE.
I guess I’ll be here forever, then. I’ll never hurt Lia again, even if it means I have to die to keep her safe.
YOU BELIEVE DEATH WILL SAVE YOU? I heard the vicious laughter that had once come from my own mouth echo in my ears. YOU TRULY UNDERSTAND NOTHING. A crackling pain raced through my brain like lightning as a memory was forcefully pulled from its resting place and put on display behind my eyes. Amaya dozed in the shade of our favorite tree on the hill behind Ashedown’s forge with her golden, rabbit-like ears flopped down over her face.
Just when a smile began to form on my lips, the memory was ripped away in a searing burst of pain. I began to panic as I tried to retrace the neural pathways to the memory and came up with only hazy, dreamlike rememberings of the once perfect scene. No. No, you can’t take those. Leave my—Another bolt of pain, and I found myself in Jaren’s study in Hedaat. My hand stroked gently through Alda’s hair as she slept with her head in my lap, both of us sitting on the floor in front of a crackling hearth. Jaren and I spoke quietly about the day’s successes and failures, making plans for our next round of testing.
My brain screamed in pain, and the memory vanished in a haze. Stop! You can’t—
BECOME WHAT YOU ARE MEANT TO BE.
The next forced memory flickered to life: I sat between Lia and Val at the Council Chambers, enjoying our freshly prepared dinner together in contented silence on the night before we reached Attetsia. The vision was ripped away in another burst of disorienting torture before I could beg for it to stay. Please. They’re all I have.
ACCEPT YOUR FATE.
I thrashed against the surrounding void and reached out with what little mana I had left, but I was entirely consumed by the suffocating space. Without my willing connection to the dark presence, I had no way of navigating through the void to find my way back to the life I had made with Lia; I could find no indication of which was up, or if up even existed in the space between worlds. The only thing I knew for sure was the burning pain that filled my body would never end, and my memories would disappear one by one until I was an empty shell with no reason to resist the presence that tortured me.
The onslaught of memories continued, increasing in speed with each stolen moment. The first cup of tea Alda made for me the night Jaren rescued me from the snow. The first sparring match that I was able to knock the old knight Brusch into the dirt after so many years of practice behind Ashedown’s forge. My first kiss with Lia, laying in the southern fields of Kaldan the night before we reached Attetsia’s walls. Jarut’s stifled laugh as Kel teased me about my relentless stories of my life with Amaya. Stop it. As each memory burned away to mist, an indignant flame grew stronger in my stomach. Those aren’t yours to take.
Another flash of pain struck me more powerfully than before, and two memories played side by side before me. To my left, Amaya stood at the base of our shady tree, dressed in a simple white wedding dress. To my right, Lia was bound hand in hand with me in the Mayaan chapel, her brilliant rainbow dress glowing beneath the stained glass window above us. “NO!” I roared, pulling back on the memories with all my might. “NOT THOSE!”
A chill ran down my spine and spread out through my limbs, instantly ceasing my pain and halting the playback of the memories. Hello, Elden. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I felt a mix of relief and fear as Amaya’s voice whispered in my ear. Looks like you’re in a bit of a...delicate situation.
I’m dying; is that delicate enough for you? The mimicking of Amaya’s voice still turned my stomach in disgust, and the casual nature of the greeting set me off balance.
Oh, you’re always so dramatic, her voice said with an audible eye roll. You’re just a bit lost, is all. Stayed a bit too long in the dark, and now you can’t get out. What did you expect? You went a bit overboard with your little rampage, don’t you think?
That wasn’t me. That was—
We both know that isn’t true, Elden. As much as I wanted to believe I had been an unwilling passenger in the brutal slaughter in the throne room, the memory was clear without the obscuring filter of the dark presence in my head: I had asked for its power, and I had enjoyed every second of killing Virram and his men.
It doesn’t matter. I gave up control to...whatever it is that lives in my head, and this time, nobody is here to bring me back. I conjured up an image of Lia’s face and cherished the memory while it still belonged to me.
That’s not true either, love, Amaya’s voice cooed. You have me.
Don’t pretend that you aren’t the reason I’m here. I might not understand any of this death energy shit, but I’m smart enough to know that it all leads back to whatever you are.
Her voice turned to a malicious, icy laugh in my ears: a noise the true Amaya would never have made. Elden, my absence is the reason you’re here. I warned you the last time we spoke that you’d regret refusing my help, and here we are. Without me to guide you along and temper your worst instincts, well...why don’t we ask Virram Yorrell how that turned out?
A momentary flash of Virram’s glassy, eyeless face appeared before me, and I recoiled from the image. No. You killed Lia; there’s no way I’ll ever trust anything you say.
The voice huffed indignantly. Oh, are you still hung up on that? She’s fine now. I knew you’d figure something out.
Amaya’s voice giggled. Did you forget where you are? The cooling force within my body vanished, and I was immediately consumed by the full wrath of the void once again. I convulsed as the agony took hold, and the twin visions of my weddings immediately reappeared before me. Amaya’s face faded into the darkness, and the rest of the memory followed after it, dissipating in a fine mist. The edges of my memory of Lia began to waver as I looked on in horror.
BECOME WHAT YOU WERE MEANT—
“WAIT!” I screamed, grasping uselessly at the fading memory.
The foggy edges of the vision of Lia solidified as soon as the word escaped my lips. Interested in talking again, are we?
Give it back.
It’s awfully rude to make demands of someone trying to help you.
Give. It. Back. Although the burning pain of the void had once again been soothed, my chest still ached where the missing memory of my wedding to Amaya had lived. The sucking feeling left in its wake made me feel like a hollowed out shell, lacking all motivation apart from becoming whole again.
I heard a long sigh as the voice moved from one ear to the other; it seemed so close that I could feel a breath on the back of my neck, but there was nothing around me apart from neverending darkness. What makes you think I can bring it back? I’m not the one who took it from you.
If you can’t bring it back, leave me alone. Just let me die.
Oh, Elden. I’ve told you before; self-pity doesn’t look good on you. There was a long pause as the voice hummed, apparently deep in thought. You’re no fun like this, though, so...I suppose I can help you out.
While I knew it was just as dangerous to put my faith in the false Amaya’s words as it was to embrace the dark presence inside of me, it was the only chance I had at regaining what had been stolen from me. I clenched my jaw and closed my eyes as I made the decision I knew I would one day regret. Thank you.
Don’t mention it, love, the voice giggled. Though, before we get started, I have one condition you have to agree to.
The immediate fulfillment of my worries made me wince. Name it.
I need you to apologize.
I furrowed my brow as I processed the unexpected request. Excuse me?
Perhaps you don’t remember, but you were quite rude during our last conversation. Such foul language. I heard her tongue click in disapproval. You owe me an apology, and a promise that when we talk again in the future, you’ll maintain an appropriate level of civility.
I’m...sorry, I managed, swallowing my pride along with the bile I tasted at the back of my throat. I’ll be...nicer in the future.
A light, melodic laugh filled my head. That was a terrible apology, but I guess it’ll have to do for now. A sudden rush of energy crackled down my spine like ice, and my stolen memories returned one by one. I saw Val’s smile as we watched Lia try her first beer, felt Alda’s silver hair between my fingers, and tasted the mint on Lia’s lips as her face hovered inches above mine, flushed and smiling. Each memory slotted into its appropriate place with a jolt of electricity when the neurons flared back to life.
As the final, precious memory of my wedding to Amaya returned to me, a second memory played out alongside it: blood dripped down onto the rusted shortsword from the Shadebinder’s collection, obscuring the familiar pair of blacksmith’s stamps engraved at the hilt. They found a way to bring this here, from Alderea. Our worlds are linked. I felt my heart flutter in my chest at the thought. I can find a way back to you.
Now then, I imagine you’ll also be wanting some assistance in getting out of here. Unless you’ve suddenly decided you’d rather spend eternity in darkness, Amaya’s voice laughed, amused by her own joke.
No, wait. My throat tightened as a wave of panic washed over me. I can’t go back. If I do, that...thing will take over again. I won’t put Lia and Val in danger like that. Even with the immediate threat of torture removed, hopelessness continued to fill me. I can’t go back anywhere, anymore.
Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, love, the voice said dismissively. That thing is back where it belongs, locked up nice in tight in the back of your head. It’ll stay there until you go searching for it again.
You will, she countered. You’ll always go back to it, eventually.
I processed the information quietly for a long time, until my curiosity got the better of me. What is it?
We don’t have the time for that kind of explanation, love. Let’s just say...you know more about the void than you think you do, but you only know it with certain parts of your mind. I waited expectantly for the explanation to continue, but the voice remained silent for a brief moment, then laughed. Satisfied?
Good. My stomach lurched as I was unexpectedly flung through the darkness, tumbling end over end in a directionless freefall. Now, it’s about time you went back, don’t you think? You shouldn’t keep your wife waiting. I heard a sudden, distressed inhale of breath as her voice paused. Oh, sorry. Your second wife. Your first wife...well, she’s used to waiting by now, isn’t she?
While I was able to hold back the torrent of obscenities on the tip of my tongue, I couldn’t stop the enraged growl that thrummed in my chest. Oh, this is going to be SO fun, Elden. A sudden whirlwind raged in my ears, and the darkness around me turned to a swirling mess of blinding, colorful lights. Amaya’s voice continued on in my head, perfectly audible above the din. Go back and have your promised adventures with Lia. You still have lots of work to do before you’re finished there.
A familiar shift in the storm told me the trip would be over soon, and I braced my body for the shift between realities. Don’t forget what you promised me: the next time I check in on you, I expect you to be on your best behavior. I covered my eyes and ears with my arms as the storm grew too powerful to withstand, and I felt my consciousness momentarily slip away. When you’re finally done, we can talk about what comes next. I have all the time in the world to wait for you. I’ll wait forever if I have to.
I appeared in what looked to be an inverted version of the Shadebinder’s study, with the bookshelves firmly planted to the white marble ceiling. My head connected with the floor before I had a chance to fully understand my situation, and I fell into a jumbled heap on top of myself.
Oops, Amaya’s voice whispered in my ear before finally disappearing with a soft giggle. For what felt like the first time in years, I found myself entirely alone within my own head: all traces of the dark presence had vanished, as promised, and the chilling grip that accompanied the shifting voice faded from the base of my skull. I let out a contented sigh of relief and gingerly rubbed the top of my head.
Two pairs of footsteps rapidly approached from the adjacent room in response to my ungraceful return. Before I had a chance to right myself, Val and Lia appeared in the doorway. Lia let out a wordless cry of relief and dove forward, pinning me to the ground. Her fingers dug through my hair as she pulled me into a passionate kiss. Golden mana washed over me as I returned the kiss and embraced her, and I felt her powerful emotions pressing at the edge of my mind: fading despair and overwhelming joy.
“Lux,” Val said breathlessly. “You are back.”
I smiled against Lia’s lips, breaking the kiss. “I’m back,” I answered, nuzzling my nose against hers. She helped pull me up to a sitting position, and I was dismayed at the effort it took me to maintain the position; my body ached from head to toe, and my remaining mana was in dangerously short supply.
“What happened?” Lia asked, caressing my cheek. “Where did you go? I thought that, maybe, you were...gone. For good.”
My smile faded as I shook my head. “No.” I knew there was no point in lying, but the thought of telling the truth made me feel sick to my stomach. “I went to the throne room in Yoria,” I said, looking away. “I went to find Virram. He was there, holding some sort of banquet with a bunch of nobles.”
Lia waited patiently as I fell silent in my retelling, rubbing my knee with small, reassuring circles. Val knelt down beside her and dipped her head to meet my eyes. “What happened, Lux?”
I closed my eyes and shuddered while the king’s fate replayed over and over in my mind. “I tortured him. I burned him alive, right on his throne.” My voice fell to a quavering whisper. “He’s dead. Him, and his councilor, Gullen.”
The room fell silent under the weight of my confession. I fought with the full force of my remaining strength to stop myself from being sick as the memory continued to torment me. A heavy, gauntleted hand grasped my shoulder, and I looked up to find Val staring at me intently. “Good,” she said firmly, forcing me to hold her gaze. “As long as Virram Yorrell lived, the country of Kaldan was in danger.”
“No,” I muttered, shaking my head. “If you had seen what I did, you wouldn’t say—”
“I would,” she interrupted. “I will not speak to your methods, for I do not understand them, nor do I know the full extent of your intentions. I do not know the exact fate that befell Virram tonight, but it does not matter; what you have done has benefitted every citizen that suffered beneath him. Without your intervention, Serathids would have overrun Kaldan, and Virram would have ruled over the remains. No matter what you believe, that is the truth.”
“Val’s right, Lux: it’s done.” Lia added. She pulled me into another tight hug. “All I care about is you. You’re back, and you’re safe. That’s all that matters right now.” I felt a gentle probe of golden mana at the back of my mind. If you want to talk about what happened, I’ll be here for you whenever you’re ready. You’re not alone. Please, don’t forget that.
I nodded into her shoulder, too overwhelmed by the night’s events to process their assurances. My sole focus fell onto the amber aura that enveloped me and the comfort it provided. I felt my body begin to slowly relax as I accepted her comfort, and the visions that tormented me faded away until my mind was completely blank. “Thank you,” I said quietly. I looked past her to Val and gave her a small nod. “Both of you.”
With my self-torment ceased, the only feeling left within me was exhaustion, and I slumped back with a long yawn. “So,” I started, looking around the room, “how long was I gone?”
“Less than an hour, I believe,” Val answered. “Lia was insistent that, if we waited here, you would return to us. We have thoroughly investigated the Shadebinder’s chambers in your absence.”
“Oh. Good,” I said, awkwardly pushing myself to my feet with Lia’s assistance. “Did you find anything else that might be helpful?” Val and Lia shared a furtive glance, each waiting for the other to answer first. “What is it?”
“I continued to read the journal once we had finished our sweep of the surrounding rooms,” Val explained hesitantly. “It is...not good news. We can wait until you are—”
“Val, I’m fine,” I cut her off, only partially lying. “Tell me what you found out.”
She nodded. “The artifact you destroyed here in Shadowmine was only one in a set of four. If the journal entries are to be believed, the current Shadebinder, Horace Odwell, has already delivered a second artifact to an undisclosed location in Doram as of six weeks ago.”
I rubbed my eyes and let out a tired sigh. “So the Serathid invasion isn’t over after all.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” she replied. “According to his notes, the artifact was activated with ‘minimal complications’. The only mention of unintended consequences of the activation was the appearance of a small bit of blood; no Serathids or other unknown creatures.”
“Maybe each of the artifacts does a different thing,” Lia suggested. “Or, maybe it being in a different place makes it do something different?” She shrugged her shoulders and motioned to the large tome on the desk behind us. “I don’t think they know any more about it than we do, based on the notes.”
“So it either does the same thing as the one here, or something different. At this point, I’m not sure which is worse.” I chuckled and shook my head. “Does the journal say anything about where Horace is now?”
“Only where he will be,” Val answered. “He has left in search of additional information about a different sect of Shadebinders that existed at the founding of Kaldan. When he has found what he is looking for, he intends to enter the eastern forest to activate a third artifact there. The last is intended for Lybesa, though Odwell has delayed its activation until the Mountain Gate is more easily traversable.”
I walked to the rack of journals beside me as Val explained her findings. Scanning the ordered spines, I found the matching designation from the nameplate of the shattered display case in the adjacent room and plucked it from the shelf. I slipped the small journal into a pouch on my belt as I turned back to my companions. “Sounds like we have some traveling to do.” I rejoined the group and put my arm around Lia’s shoulders, resting my weight heavily on her back. “For now, I’d settle for getting out of this place and seeing the sky again.”
“Where will you go now?” Val asked. The question was innocuous enough, but I could feel a second, more pivotal question in the trepidation of her voice and the slight raise of her eyebrows: What about me?
“To bed,” I answered with a laugh. “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but a lot happened tonight. I’m not making any more decisions until after I’ve had some sleep.”
“Of course,” she answered quickly. She collected the white leather journal and followed after Lia and I as we entered the trophy room, making our way towards the elevator on the far wall. I steered us through the rows of pedestals towards the shattered case where I had left the rusted shortsword. It remained exactly where I had dropped it, nestled in a bed of bloodstained glass shards.
“What is that, Lux?” Lia asked as I plucked the weapon from the broken display. “Is it another artifact?”
“No,” I murmured, turning the blade over in my hands. I rubbed the dried blood away from the metal near the crossguard and held it out to her, tapping my finger over the pair of engraved symbols.
Her eyes widened as she recognized the mark I had drawn for her in the dirt back in Lybesa. “Is that…?”
I nodded. “It’s from Alderea. A piece of my past.”
“How is it here?” She looked up into my eyes, her face shifting as she put together the final bits of information explaining my sudden rage and disappearance from before. “Lux, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I smiled back at her, nudging her back into motion towards the elevator. “I don’t know how it got here, but I’m going to find out.” She gave me a wary smile in return as we continued on our way, her shoulder still supporting the majority of my weight.
We reached the opposite wall and stepped cautiously into the hanging metal cage. The seamless marble floor stopped abruptly at the entrance to the elevator shaft, replaced with raw cut stone that continued up and away into darkness. Val stepped into the elevator after us, causing the cage to sag beneath her imposing weight. She placed her hand on the lever that controlled the counterweight and looked between Lia and me. “Are you ready to leave?”
“Yeah,” Lia answered. “This place gives me the creeps.”
“Agreed,” I added. Val pulled the grated metal door shut and flipped the lever on the wall, and our cage immediately rattled to life as it began to ascend into the dark.
Lux? Lia’s voice echoed in my head.
I know you told Val you needed to sleep on it, but...where are we going to go next? I could feel her unspoken worry at the edge of my mind as she continued. And...what about Val?
We’re going home, I answered. We need to take some time to rest, regroup, and come up with a real plan from all of this new information. My eyes turned to the back of Val’s head, watching her until the elevator shaft was pitch black. She can travel with us, for now. We still have some things to discuss with her before I figure out...anything else.
Okay. Her worry turned to relief at the answer, and she leaned her head against my shoulder. I’m glad you’re still here, Lux.
Me too, Lia, I smiled as warmth spread through my chest. I wouldn’t have made it here without you by my side.
I’ll always be there when you need me. Forever.
My fingers tightened around the old leather grip of the rusted shortsword as I gently kissed the top of her head. Forever.
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!