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A note from Adam Ladner

Hello everyone! I'm sure most of you understand how this works at this point, but here's a note for any new readers. This is the first chapter of Volume 4 of the Restart Again series! If you haven't read Volumes 1 through 3, stop here! All three of those books are available on Amazon as ebooks, paperbacks, hardcovers, and audiobooks! Once you've consumed those, come right back here and dive into the rough draft of Volume 4! These chapters will come out twice a week until the entire book is posted, and will remain here until I finish editing and publish the book. Until then, I hope you all enjoy!

Val pulled open the metal door to the elevator when the rattling cage had finally reached its destination ten full minutes after the start of our ascension through the darkness. The three of us filed out into the chamber and took stock of our surroundings. It was a small room lined with pallets and unmarked supply crates, no doubt the leftovers from the last shipment of food and study materials for the Shadebinder that lived in the chambers below. The floor and back wall were made from smooth, polished stone, but the wall with the exit door was still jagged and rough, maintaining the appearance of the mountain it was carved from. The door itself was a marvel of craftsmanship; it appeared to be a continuation of the mountain face, but had a series of levers and hidden hinges that allowed it to slide inward and swing open, then return to its original position without any indication it existed from the outside.

I shuffled through the room under the light of a single lantern, valiantly burning after its comrades had long since sputtered out. Even with Lia’s shoulder supporting most of my weight, I found it increasingly difficult to walk without tripping over my own feet. My ordeal in the void between worlds coupled with the massive expenditure of mana in Virram’s throne room had left me exhausted, and I had already dozed off multiple times on our elevator ride to the surface. I slumped onto the nearest storage crate and accidentally let out a loud groan of exertion. “I need to sleep,” I said, rubbing my face. “As much as I hate the idea of staying here a second longer than we need to, I won’t make it ten feet through that snow outside.”

“That’s okay,” Lia assured me, rubbing my shoulder. “I think this room is pretty safe, all things considered. Besides, if anything does manage to find us, I’ll see it coming from a mile away. Nothing is going to get the jump on us in here.”

“Thanks,” I nodded to her with a weak smile. “Val, you should probably get some sleep as well. You’ll need your energy to keep up with us when we leave.”

“I appreciate your concern, Lux, but there is no need,” she answered. “Furthermore, I will not leave Lia to keep watch alone with the potential of danger nearby.”

I sent a quick pulse of mana up through Lia’s arm to observe her remaining energy reserves, an effort which I found surprisingly taxing. An amber ocean of mana shone brilliantly in her core and set my mind at ease. “She’s more than capable of keeping watch, but...suit yourself.” Too tired to push the issue, I slid down from my perch on the storage crate and balled my cloak up beneath my head as an improvised pillow. I only need a few hours, for now, I thought to Lia. Wake me up when you’re ready to leave. Or if anything happens.

Okay, she replied, giving me a warm smile. She moved to the opposite side of the chamber and sat down on a stack of pallets, motioning for Val to join her. As the pair found a comfortable position for their watch, I allowed my heavy eyelids to fall closed, and my exhaustion quickly overwhelmed me.

---

Pain blossomed in my cheek and rippled across my face neck, drawing an agonized shriek from my lips. I had never felt even a fraction of the agony that consumed me in my entire life; it was a level of suffering I didn’t believe possible within a human body, yet it continued to work its way down my chest and into my arms and legs. It seemed as though every inch of my body was burning away in a great fire, but somehow, I continued to remain intact.

The source of my torment stood before me wreathed in a brilliant column of flames. I could make out a vague humanoid outline within the fire, but the aura of pure rage that the beast exuded was too powerful to come from any human I had ever met. A sourceless voice filled my ears and shook me down to my soul.

BEG ME FOR MERCY.

Somehow, the impossible torture increased in intensity, and my mind went blank apart from the most primal of instincts: escape the pain by any means necessary. “MAKE IT STOP!” I screamed, hoping to appease the dark spirit. “I BEG YOU, MERCY!” My cries only seemed to anger the monster further, and the dark flames surrounding it grew brighter.

BEG ME FOR FORGIVENESS.

As the agony increased yet again, I came to terms with the fact that I would never escape the pain until the sweet release of death saved me. “LET ME DIE!” I wailed. “LET ME DIE!” I knew the pleas were useless, but it was my only hope for reprieve from the torment. The intent of the shimmering beast before me was clear: my suffering was the only thing it wanted, and I would continue to suffer until it was satisfied.

BEG ME FOR ABSOLUTION.

All of my senses blinked away as the pain overtook every aspect of my being. There was no longer a distinction where my body ended and the world began; my entire existence was condensed to a single speck composed solely of agony. Whatever I had been before was long gone. If the pain somehow ended, I knew there would be nothing left of me to return to, and I would simply dissolve into the ether like the last wisps of an extinguished candle.

YOU SHALL NOT—

A golden light cut through the void and instantly banished the pain. I floated outside of space and time within its amber glow, basking in the relief it afforded me. Whatever dark spirit had damned me was replaced by a gentle, angelic voice. “You’re okay,” it whispered through the void. “You’re okay.”

---

My eyes fluttered open to find Lia’s face smiling down at me. One of her hands scratched gently at the back of my head, while the other was firmly planted in the center of my chest, holding me in place. I could feel a cold line of sweat along my forehead as I blinked up at her and waited for my mind to catch up with what had happened. My heartbeat pounded in my chest, but I had no memory of what had caused the panicked state “Hi,” I said eventually, having come up empty.

“Hi,” she answered. “Are you okay?”

“I think so,” I smiled, closing my eyes. “The head scratch feels particularly nice.”

She giggled and continued the soothing gesture for a few moments in silence. “You were having a nightmare.”

“I was?” I tried to think back and remember the dream, but whatever had tormented me remained a mystery. As my dreams generally took the form of lucid memories of my past lives which stuck with me after waking, it was especially disorienting to forget one so soon after the fact. “That’s...weird. I don’t remember what it was.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” she asked, helping me up into a sitting position.

“I guess so,” I shrugged. As I took my feet, I noticed Val staring at me with a clear look of concern. “Good...morning?” I asked, looking around for a window that didn’t exist.

“Are you well, Lux?” she asked me, tilting her head slightly to one side as she continued to stare me down.

“I’m fine,” I answered reflexively before I had taken a full accounting of myself. My mana reserves had partially recovered during my rest; while they were nowhere near full, I felt confident I could face a day of travel without issue, even if we were to encounter a solitary Serathid or two on the road. Likewise, my head felt clear and collected apart from the fading aftereffects of my apparent nightmare, and my bodily aches had disappeared. “Actually, I feel pretty good, given the night we had. How long was I out?”

“It is hard to say,” Val replied. “I would guess two hours, at most. It has not been long.”

I rolled the tightness out of my shoulders and did a quick check to ensure all of my gear was still in its proper place. “Okay. I’d like to get out of here as soon as we can, but…” I trailed off, looking back at her unreadable expression, “are you sure you don’t need to rest, Val? I’m sure it’s another hour or two until dawn; we’ve got time.”

She shook her head. “No, I am prepared to leave as well.”

Looking back on my memories from our mission to Attetsia, I remembered that the oddity of her sleep schedule had puzzled me then as well; she had always seemed to be awake when I went to rouse her for a night watch, and she had never let out so much as a single yawn in our presence. “Well…alright then,” I said with a shrug. I crossed the chamber to the well-disguised stone door and released the latches holding it closed, then yanked on the large crossbar across its center. The door slid back on silent, oiled tracks until it had fully dislodged itself from the wall, then swung open to reveal a dense thicket of snowy trees. Patches of deep purple clouds glowed in the treetops as the sun threatened to appear over the horizon and signaled the end to the twilight hour.

Lia pushed through a knee high snowdrift that had accumulated against the fake mountain face and led the way into the clearing. I exited the chamber last, allowing the door to swing shut behind me with a loud thud. Its weighted construction forced it back along the hidden tracks in the wall until it was flush with the mountainside, and I instantly lost track of where the door ended and the true stone began. I sent out a quick pulse of mana to make mental notes of the door’s intricate mechanisms, logging them away for further peacetime studies.

With my mana momentarily extended, I noticed that the world around us sparkled with a subtle amber glow, and I realized that Lia had the entire area scanned with her Detection. My energy joined with hers a moment later, and a neon world sprang to life against the black backdrop of my mind. I pressed a tendril of mana at the back of her mind as the map continued to grow. Hey. Thanks for keeping watch for me. And for...bringing me back. And everything else, too. A pang of guilt flashed through me as I looked over the events of the previous night and found myself increasingly indebted to her.

Don’t mention it, she replied. You’ll make it up to me by keeping watch tonight. She turned her head back in my direction and gave me a grin. By keeping watch all night.

Can do. The connection to her consciousness was comforting, but it paled in comparison to the complete merging of our thoughts that had been ripped away when I fell into the void. After maintaining the perfect bond for the entirety of our trek across Kaldan, I found myself doubting my ability to accurately communicate my thoughts and feelings without it. My awkward, one-sided gratitude stewed in the back of my mind until a series of dim lights appeared on the advancing edge of my Detection.

Val’s army. Lia’s thought named the crowd as I continued to assess the full scope of the scene. Hundreds of soldiers marched in a disorganized mass along the snow-covered southern road that led back towards Yoria. Many walked with an obvious limp and sported multiple field dressings, while others were carried on makeshift stretchers. I spotted Challa at the front of the assembly, her eyes scanning diligently back and forth across the barren fields around them. My memories of her were based entirely on Val’s thoughts and perceptions that I had watched during our mad dash to Shadowmine; by my own accounting of her, the girl seemed markedly smaller and more timid than she had through Val’s eyes.

“Wait,” I called out from the back of our party. “Val, before we go any further, there’s something I need to know.”

She turned and planted her shield in the snow, resting her free arm atop its rim as she watched me intently. “Of course.”

I pointed out through the trees in the direction of her army. “Your forces from the operation last night are only an hour away in that direction. It looks like they’re marching back to Yoria.” I paused, watching her expression closely. “Are you still planning to take the information we found back to the capital? You know...considering what happened, and all.” I swallowed hard and reset my face as I avoided mentioning the fate of Virram directly.

Her brow tightened as she considered the question in silence, clearly still undecided on the answer. Eventually, her face relaxed, and she shook her head. “I am...not,” she answered slowly. “News of the Shadebinders would only cause undue panic during an already difficult time for Kaldan’s government. I believe it would be better if they continued to believe I perished within Shadowmine.”

While it was the answer I had hoped to hear, her last statement surprised me. “In that case, the rest of our conversation can wait for now. If you want to keep your survival under wraps, we should slow down a bit and stick to the trees until your army is out of sight.” Val nodded in agreement, and we began our march again, staying closer to the base of the mountain in the shade of the trees. By the time we found our way to the collapsed entrance to Shadowmine, the retreating group of ragtag soldiers was obscured by multiple hills and snowdrifts.

At Lia’s insistence, I reactivated the basic suite of combat enhancements through the mana reserves in Val’s shield, and the three of us began our day of cross-country travel in earnest. The trip was much easier on our return journey than it had been on our initial run; a deep channel remained in the unplowed roads where Lia and I had sprinted the night before, which allowed us to travel with little resistance. I kept my Detection up in a wide circle as we ran and was pleased to find the roads completely clear of Serathids. Apart from the few remaining bubbles of static in the marble chambers deep beneath the collapsed mine behind us, the countryside seemed to be rid of the threat for good.

Although we couldn’t run quite as fast due to Val’s static enhancements, the beneficial road conditions allowed us to reach our initial campsite from the previous night before the sun had set. I sprinted off the path towards a thicket of trees to gather firewood for the night while Lia cleared additional snow away from the road to accommodate Val. We had a roaring bonfire built by the time the sky grew dark, and we sat in a tight circle around its sheltering warmth. After a quick dinner of slightly stale trail rations, I shrugged out of my cloak and handed it to Lia as she prepared to sleep for the night.

You’re going to talk to her tonight while I’m asleep, right? Lia asked as she rested her head in my lap.

Yeah. I don’t think I can avoid it anymore.

Good. She rubbed my knee as she curled up beneath the warming cloth of my cloak. Please be nice to her. I know it might be hard after what we’ve been through, but...she’s been through a lot, too. Don’t forget that.

I’ll try, I sighed. Is there anything you want me to ask her?

No, I already asked her everything I wanted to know.

I looked down at her in surprise. Wait, what? When?

Did you think we just sat in silence while you slept last night? She wiggled her eyebrows at me as she smirked at the idea.

Well, no, I guess not. I stared back at her expectantly. What did you talk about?

Oh, no, she laughed, rolling into a more comfortable position. You’re not getting out of this one. “Goodnight, Val!” she called out cheerily. “Make sure you get some sleep tonight too, okay?”

“Thank you, Lia. I will,” she answered with a small smile. “Sleep well.”

Lia rolled her head back to look up at me one final time. “Goodnight, Lux,” she said with a knowing grin. Just talk to her. Honestly. Tell her how you feel. I know that it’s hard, but you’ll feel a lot better when it’s over. Trust me.

I let out a dissatisfied grunt in response while she found a comfortable sleeping position. My fingers absentmindedly stroked through her hair as her head rested in my lap, and she hummed with pleasure at the soothing motion. Val and I sat in total silence as I stared into the fire and considered how to approach the impending conversation. No matter how I framed it, I felt my anger flare every time I remembered the moment she gave the order to have us killed. I wanted nothing more than to forget the experience entirely and return to the friendship we had built over the course of our mission to Attetsia, but even after feeling her contrition for myself as a passenger inside her head, I was unable to find forgiveness.

Snow began to fall from the overcast night sky, and I shifted a few inches closer to the blazing fire for warmth. Without the moon and stars above us, the only marker of time passing was the gentle metronome of Lia’s breath as she slept against my legs. You know, you could have made this a lot easier on me if you’d just told me what you two talked about, I thought, pulling the edge of my cloak up to cover her exposed cheek. If you had just—

“Lux?” Val’s voice pulled me from my brooding. “I have something I would like to discuss with you. If you do not mind.”

“Uhm, sure, Val,” I started, still entirely unsure of how to proceed. “What’s on your mind?”

Her olive eyes shone darkly in the flickering light of the campfire, and I began to squirm beneath her unflinching gaze as she watched me like a stone gargoyle. “When we last spoke, I told you I was not seeking forgiveness. This is still true.” She spoke slowly and with emphasis, as if each word was physically difficult to form. “I do not deserve forgiveness for what I have done. From Lia, or from you. I do not expect what I say tonight will change that, but...I would like to offer you an explanation.”

My throat tightened as I listened quietly, nodding for her to continue. “I have been called many things throughout my life: Commander, King’s Shield, Hero, Leader. These titles never sat well with me. Above all things, I considered myself a servant.” She stroked a finger along the crack in her shield, twisting her head to look at it thoughtfully. “My singular goal in life was to safeguard the people of Kaldan, and I did everything in my power to make that a reality. It was a life I had never questioned, until I met you.”

Her hand paused as she looked back up to me, and she began to tap her finger listlessly against the center of the shield’s wound. “Nobody had spoken to me with as much disrespect as you did upon our first meeting in...a decade, at least. Even those who met me as enemies on the battlefield spoke to me with reverence.” I shrank back as I remembered the unwarranted anger I had unleashed on her during our first day together. Clearing my throat with a cough, I moved to apologize, but she raised a hand before I could speak.

“I do not mean this as an accusation; it is simply an observation. Likewise, I had never been given such an informal nickname before I met you.” She paused as the faint traces of a smile appeared at the edge of her lips. “Val,” she murmured. “It is a nice name.” The moment of happiness faded away as she continued. “Between the debriefing before our mission and the nature of our first meeting, I had expected our journey to Attetsia to be a tense, unfortunate affair, but I was wrong. I greatly enjoyed the time I spent with you and Lia.”

She remained quiet for a long time, clenching and relaxing her jaw as she tried to continue speaking. “Our encounter with the Strategist changed things. If it had not been for the two of you, I would have perished at the hands of the General and Solette. It was a pitiful display; I had known the Strategist was a dangerous foe, and I let his words distract me all the same. There was too much truth in his assertions to deny them, and yet...I denied them.” She shook her head and stared into the fire, her eyes staring through the dancing lights at some unseen point in the distance behind me.

“I prayed that he was lying. I prayed every night on our return journey to Yoria, and yet, every night only brought further uncertainty. I was unwilling to accept Virram’s role in the Strategist’s plot, but I was not so blind as to miss the danger you and Lia were heading towards. I asked you to join me in Virram’s army not out of love for the King, but out of concern for your wellbeing.” The sudden passion that Val had spoken with the night before our return to the capital played through my head, now through a different lens of understanding.

While her eyes had wandered across the campsite over the course of her speech, they suddenly locked with mine with an intent so fierce that I couldn’t look away. “I swear to you that I did not reveal the nature of your magic to Virram. I lied to him, and to his councilors, in an effort to convince them that you were nothing more than a talented swordsman. I wanted them to allow you and Lia to leave, unharmed. I did not mean to betray you.”

“Then why did you betray me?” The pain of the memories she had forced upon me overwhelmed my better judgement, and my voice broke as I finally spoke. “If you really wanted us to leave unharmed, why didn’t you help us? Why did you give the order to have us killed?”

Her face twitched as she fought away the emotion behind her words. “I believed it was the only option to bring about justice.”

“Bullshit,” I hissed. “You can’t say you wanted us to escape and pretend that order was justice.” The weight of Lia’s head in my lap was the only thing that kept me from screaming the words. “You said this was an explanation, but it just sounds like an excuse for what—”

“No,” she interrupted, “you misunderstand me.” Tears splashed across her cheeks as she shook her head and held up a hand to cover her face. “I gave the order in hopes that you would kill me: That would have been justice.”

It felt as though the air had been sucked out of the camp as her words punched through my chest. I sat in stunned silence as I struggled to find my voice, but she continued far before I could find the right words. “Every ideal I had held true was betrayed at once. I had not fought for justice, but for Virram and his schemes. I had not served the people of Kaldan, but put them in danger with my actions. It would be a fitting irony to be killed by my singular, truly just order.”

A chill ran down my spine as I saw the moment clearly in my mind. Val had made no move to stop me when I brought the onyx greatsword to her neck, but instead had simply closed her eyes and waited. What was once a mystery to me was revealed in the perfect clarity of hindsight: acceptance was written plainly across her face, with the deeply tensioned lines of her furrowed brow finally relaxed. She had begged me for death, but I was too blinded by betrayal to see it.

“I wanted to kill you,” I choked, unable to say anything but the truth. “You and Virram, both. It’s all I wanted.” She folded her hands in her lap and met my gaze with bloodshot eyes, clearly ready to accept whatever condemnation I had prepared. “Sometimes, I look back to that day and regret not killing that fucking wretch.” My free hand clenched into a fist at the thought of the dead king. “And when I think of you, I think of the betrayal, and the pain, and all of the rage...but there’s never regret.”

“We are speaking honestly tonight, Lux,” she said quietly. “There is no need to lie.”

“It’s the truth,” I countered. “I just...fuck, Val, I don’t know.” I sighed heavily and rubbed my eyes until I saw spots. “There’s no right answer here. I want to forgive you; I think part of me already has, honestly. I told you I’d kill you next time I saw you, but here we are sharing a campfire.” I stared at her through the flames and felt the burning weight in my chest I had come to associate with her face. “I can’t forget what you did, though. No matter your reasons, or how terrible Virram was, it still happened. I still feel that pain, no matter how hard I try to stop it, and I don’t know if it’ll ever go away.”

We sat together in silence for a long time beneath the weight of our shared history. “A long time ago, a friend of mine told me that death was a kindness,” I said eventually, speaking down into the dirt. “I always thought it meant that life was a punishment, but now...I’m not so sure. Death is a kindness because it’s easy; living might be harder, but it’s the only way you can make amends for what you’ve done.”

Val nodded. “Your friend was wise.”

“Yeah, I do my best to surround myself with people who are better than me,” I chuckled, absentmindedly stroking Lia’s cheek. “Turns out, it hasn’t been that hard.” Another unbidden sigh rattled out of my chest. “I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive you, but I don’t think that matters. It would be stupid for me to send you away because I can’t get over a grudge. With this Shadebinder stuff going on, I think Lia and I will need all the help we can get.”

“That is more than I deserve,” she replied, bowing her head.

“No, it isn’t. It doesn’t matter what I think of you, or what you think of you: you’re a good person. Not even I can deny that.” I did my best to give her a small smile. “I’m glad you’re still alive, Val.”

She pursed her lips in a failed effort to hide the spark of joy that lit up her face. “For the first time in recent memory, I am as well.” She took a moment to wipe her face and regain her usually steely demeanor, then addressed me again with an unfaltering voice. “The words may not carry much weight coming from me, but I swear to you, I will do everything in my power to aid you and Lia in your endeavors. No matter the personal cost, I will support you, even if it means laying down my own life in the process.”

“Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but...thanks, Val.” I stared off into the darkness and took a deep breath of frigid air to center myself. “So, was there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

“No, I believe that was more than sufficient,” she answered with a soft laugh.

“Okay,” I nodded. “You should probably get some sleep. Lia’s orders, you know.”

“Of course.” She inched closer to the fire and stretched out across the snow-covered ground with her back to me. Her greatshield rested in front of her, leaning up against her shoulder as it protected her from any dangers hidden in the snowy darkness around us. “Goodnight, Lux,” she called out over her shoulder.

“Goodnight, Val,” I answered. I was entirely ready to fall asleep myself after the intensity of our conversation, but I pushed away the fatigue with a burst of mana as I settled in to keep watch for the night. Looking up into the sky, I watched my steaming breath dissipate into the dark as I took slow, measured breaths. It took an unusually long time to settle my mind enough to begin my meditations; each time my head began to empty, one of the raw emotions of our discussion would surface and set my mind back to buzzing. The usual culprits of betrayal and anger were chief among the distracting feelings, but they were joined with pity, sadness, and even forgiveness.

When I was finally able to calm my mind, I sent out a pulse of energy to map the surrounding countryside. My focus was immediately distracted as the Detection passed over Val. The crackling blue reserve of my own mana stored within her shield made for a disorienting experience; while the aura was distinctly my own, I had no connection to the energy or the information it would normally have provided to me. Lia and I had briefly studied the process of storing mana in other objects during our month of magic exploration, but we hadn’t pursued the idea further than its initial proof of concept. I left the reserve of mana undisturbed as I continued to expand my Detection, making a mental note to explore the concept more deeply in the future.

I finally relaxed when I held watch over a circle five miles in diameter, all of which was still and lifeless. As I allowed my mind to drift, it quickly wound its way back to Val, who slept soundly across from me. I felt an immediate pang of guilt as I pieced through our earlier conversation; even without extending my mana, I had felt the overwhelming sense of helplessness that had plagued her. It was an emotion I was well familiar with after my decades of solitude in Hedaat, which had spread throughout every inch of my body until I had been completely consumed by it.

I’m sorry I couldn’t forgive you. I want to, but I just...need more time. The words instantly struck a chord with another memory from before our return to Kaldan. Marin. My train of thought screeched to a halt as I considered the younger of the Sesaude sisters for the first time since reuniting with Val. I can’t do this to her. After what happened in the forest, if I tell her what I did to Virram...no amount of time will fix that. And if I come back with Val behind me…

I considered the situation for hours, failing time and time again to devise a way to return home without somehow hurting Marin more than I already had. News of Virram’s death, and specifically, the manner of his death, would reach Mayaan quickly: Elise’s well-informed distribution network would bring the news to town, and the details would leave no doubt as to who the culprit of the gruesome murder was. Although it turned my stomach to imagine the conversation, I knew she had to hear the story from me, free from any exaggerated or omitted details that the townsfolk would include.

Beyond my worry for our personal relationship, I was even more concerned with the inevitable reunion that would occur if Val returned home with us. Marin’s entire motivation for training was based on the growing distrust of her older sister, and the combination of her newfound combat abilities and her enchanted gauntlets made her a legitimate threat to Val’s wellbeing should their meeting turn south. My fault. Again. I ground my teeth as I stewed over my failures. What did I think was going to happen? I essentially turned her into a weapon and pointed her at Val, but now I’m worried she might actually do what I trained her for. I guess I’m just lucky she wasn’t there when

I let out an audible groan as the feeling of failure burned hotter between my shoulder blades. I never even told her that Val came looking for us. Of course I didn’t; why would I do a single thing right by her? I got her shot, split her family apart, dragged her into a monster’s den, nearly burned her alive, and now I’m forcing her to confront her sister. A feeling of sad acceptance washed over me. She’ll never speak to me again, and I deserve it.

A soothing warmth suddenly blossomed out from the base of my skull. What’s on your mind? Lia’s voice asked at the back of my mind.

I cracked my eyes open to find her staring up at me with a sleepy smile. Faint pre-dawn light colored the sky behind the twin peaks over Shadowmine and informed me that my night watch was at its end. I’m worried about Marin, I admitted. I have to tell her about what I did to Virram, and I’ll have Val standing behind me when I do it, too.

So, Val’s coming back with us? The sleep faded from her face as her smile grew. I assume your conversation with her went well, then?

I haven’t officially asked her if she wants to come with us, but...yeah. I guess it did. I sighed. That’s not the point, though: what I’m doing to Marin isn’t fair. I feel like everything I do just makes her life harder.

I know the two of you are in a weird place right now, but I don’t think you need to worry about how Marin will react. They’re sisters: no matter what happened between them, they’ll figure things out. She sat up and rolled the stiffness from her joints, eliciting multiple cracks from her shoulders and neck. Besides, you heard the way Marin talked about her sister while we trained. There’s no hatred there.

The thought that Marin could forgive Val after the encounter with Savtiz wouldn’t register in my brain, but Lia’s point still stood: I could recall multiple instances of Marin speaking fondly of her older sister over our first month of training. I still feel bad.

Well, you can feel bad all you like, but it doesn’t mean we’re telling Val to leave. She rocked forward onto her knees to take her feet and stretched her arms above her head with a soft squeak. The subtle noise was enough to awaken Val, who quickly rolled to face us with her arm locked into position in her shield’s mechanical grip. She surveyed the situation with her brow furrowed until a look of recognition relaxed her face. “Good morning, Val!” Lia chirped.

“Good morning, Lia, Lux,” she replied. She stood and surveyed the surrounding countryside, staring hard through the twilight in every direction. “I greatly appreciate the opportunity to rest. It was a more comfortable night than I have experienced in months.”

“It was?” I asked, appalled. “Sleeping in full armor on the snowy ground was the best sleep you’ve had in months?”

“Yes,” she answered flatly. “Since I began my mission to gather the militia, chances to sleep soundly have been few and far between.”

I shook my head. “That’s...unfortunate,” I said eventually. “I bet sleeping in a real bed will be a somewhat religious experience for you, if that’s the case.”

“I expect it will, though I do not foresee the chance occurring anytime soon. I do not imagine we will find any operating inns between here and Doram.” She tilted her head to one side and let out a wistful sigh.

“Yeah, about that,” I said awkwardly. “We’re not actually going to Doram; at least, not right now. We’re going...home.” Val’s shoulders tensed as she watched me carefully from behind her impassive mask. “Before we go on any other potentially dangerous missions, we need to take some time to regroup. We need to make a plan, do some research, and continue training.”

“And rest,” Lia added, playfully poking my cheek as she robbed a strip of jerky from the pouch on my belt. “We need to rest, too.”

“I guess so,” I relented, giving her a small grin. “So, with that being said, I’m, uhm...well, I know this is an uncomfortable situation, given our...shared history, but despite that, I think...no, we think, both Lia and I, we think—”

“We want you to come with us,” Lia finished for me. “Regardless of what happened in the past, we need your help to finish whatever Virram and his Shadebinders started.”

A warm smile spread across Val’s face, and I saw no signs that she had tried to hide the expression. “If you are truly willing to allow me to accompany you, it would be my greatest honor.” She gave each of us a deep bow. “Thank you for the opportunity to make amends for what I have done.”

I shrugged, feeling increasingly uncomfortable in the face of her gratitude. “Don’t think of it like that, Val. This isn’t a test to prove your loyalty or earn our forgiveness; I just want to...move on from all of that.”

“I understand,” she nodded. “I would like that.”

Lia gave me a reassuring pat on the back as she returned my cloak to me, and I smiled automatically as the warming enchantment of the fabric chased out the biting cold. “It’s settled, then. Back to Lybesa it is.” I scanned our surroundings and shook my head as we began to break down our simple camp and prepare for another day of travel. “I’m not going to miss this place. Kaldan is terrible this time of year.”

 

***

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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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