A dull ache between my eyes woke me from my peaceful dreams. I let out a groan as I rubbed my face and pulled on my mana to counteract the effects of my hangover, waiting until my head was clear to open my eyes and survey the room. Lia sat in Val’s chair by the still crackling fire, watching me with a smug grin. “Good morning,” she said as I sat up. “How did you sleep?”
“Long, apparently,” I replied, brushing my overgrown hair out of my eyes. “Did I really sleep all night?” Turning to the window, I found the world outside dim and grey with heavy snowflakes floating lazily past the glass.
“You did,” Val answered from the doorway to the kitchen. “You fell asleep soon after our conversation ended, and I did not think it necessary to wake you. I woke Lia at midnight, and she held watch until I awoke this morning.”
“Sorry about that,” I said as I stood and began to stretch. “I guess that rum was stronger than I thought.”
“I was about to wake you up myself,” Lia chided, joining Val in the doorway. “We still have a long way to go before we’re home.” She disappeared into the kitchen, returning a few moments later with her twin swords belted at her hips.
My back finally yielded the satisfying pop I was hunting for, and I let out a relieved sigh. “Right. Back through the Mountain Gate, again.” I moved to the kitchen to retrieve my own weapon, then stood with my two traveling companions. Despite the potential danger waiting ahead of us, I felt a surprising lack of anxiety; there was a lightness in my chest that seemed to permeate throughout my entire body, leaving me in an inordinately good mood. “Shall we?” I asked, motioning to the front door.
We filed out of the house into the cold and made our way back to the main road at the center of town. The overcast sky and falling snow severely limited our visibility, and the constant accumulation of snowflakes lowered the resolution of our Detection, but our path forward remained clear; though the tracks from our previous journey had long since vanished, the outline of the once-plowed road continued to lead us forward, and the narrow forest that bisected the southern road quickly appeared to guide us on our way. I was glad to find the world around us still and silent, without a single trace of the Serathid’s monstrous influence on the miles-wide map within my head.
After a few hours of quiet, efficient travel, the forest to our right began to thin, and the vague outline of a mountain range appeared behind it. I knew that a similarly obscured Atsal was somewhere to the south based on my Detection, which placed us only a few hours from the Mountain Gate. Val slowed her pace when the road encircling the forest rejoined ours and motioned for us to stop. “Before we arrive at the Mountain Gate, I would like to discuss our plan.”
Confused, I looked out of the corner of my eye at Lia and found a similarly puzzled look on her face. “What plan is that?”
“Our plan to pass the Mountain Gate,” she repeated slowly. “I will disguise my appearance as to not be recognized, but I cannot do the same for the two of you. This storm will play to our benefit—there are multiple angles from which we can approach the wall unseen and slip through the wreckage of the gate. If we wait until nightfall, it may increase our chance of success, though it is a gamble as to whether the snowfall will lighten before then. If we are to—”
“Val, hold on,” I cut her off, holding up my hands against her enthusiasm. “To be honest with you, my plan was to just...walk through the gate.”
“That’s what we did on our way in,” Lia laughed.
I nodded. “You’re right about one thing, Val—they’ll know who Lia and I are, regardless of whether you’re disguised or not. The guards we met on our way into Kaldan knew who we were, but they were smart enough to know they didn’t have a chance of stopping us and just let us through.” I stared off into the snowstorm towards the hidden ruins of the Mountain Gate. “Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? Lia and I broke through when Virram had a whole army waiting for us, and we’re stronger now than we were then.”
Her brow furrowed as she considered the information. “I do not wish harm upon the soldiers stationed here. If you believe they will let us through, I will yield to your judgement.” She pulled her cracked shield from its mount on her back and planted it in the ground in front of her. “However, I would prefer to remain anonymous. It would be best if Kaldan believed I perished within Shadowmine.”
“If that’s what you want to do, go for it,” I answered. She knelt in the snow and cradled her shield across her lap as she prepared for her ritualistic magic. “Do you have some sort of alias for your disguise? They’re definitely going to ask who you are if you’re traveling with us.”
“You may call me Anise,” she answered without hesitation.
“Anise,” Lia repeated. “That’s a pretty name.” Val nodded in response as she closed her eyes and began to take deep, steady breaths.
Lia, are you watching? I asked through our mental link.
Of course I’m watching! Her mana met with mine as we both turned our attention towards Val’s incantation. I want to know how to do this just as badly as you do!
“O Prime of Light, divine above all,” Val began in a rhythmic chant, “bestow upon me the power to create an illusory disguise so I may move on undetected.” The bright blue energy within her shield pulsed at her incantation and rushed up her arms, quickly suffusing her entire body. It outlined her armor and shield in perfect, razor-sharp detail, then pulsed again, leaving the aura dimmer than before. Similar to the first time I had watched her perform the ritual in Attetsia, the magic seemed to activate before I had a chance to fully observe the process, and my view of her through Detection was suddenly different from what I saw with my eyes.
Having always seen Val dressed in her full battle gear apart from a single night in the Council Chambers, I had to do a double take to recognize her through the illusion, even though none of her physical features had changed. She appeared to be wearing an ill-fitting chainmail hauberk with timeworn links, partially hidden beneath a faded blue and gold tabard. Her shield was similarly changed into an unadorned slab of rusted iron, but the fissures maring the true shield’s face remained in the illusion as well. With her incanting complete, she stood and brushed the snow from her knees, then examined her disguise. Seemingly satisfied with the illusion, she gave Lia and I a determined look, and we began our forward march once again.
With our destination only a few hours away, I sent out a narrow band of Detection to find what awaited us at the Mountain Gate, leaving Lia to watch our immediate surroundings. A fuzzy band of light appeared in my head as the mana stretched out into the snowstorm, covering multiple miles in an instant. The rushing front of energy found the familiar ramparts of the wall a few seconds later, and I expanded my view in a wide circle centered on the collapsed gate. The scattered defenses beneath the wall were completely abandoned to the elements apart from the barricades closest to the freshly plowed main road; had it not been for the soldiers standing watch at the gatehouse, I would have easily believed the entire fortification had been abandoned.
Four men stood huddled behind the main gatehouse wall to shelter themselves from the elements on their watch. A half dozen more men with bows slung over their backs watched the road from various outcroppings and hastily-constructed scaffolds, all sitting with miserable expressions on their hooded faces. Poor bastards, I thought with grim amusement. Stuck out in the snow, waiting for...what, exactly? Either a horde of Serathids, or us. If Virram had really wanted to hold this place, he would have at least sent—
The train of thought derailed as a familiar anomaly appeared at the expanding edge of my Detection. A shining pool of rainbow light shone down from atop a stone balcony five stories above the ground, easily overshadowing the dozen mana signatures from the patrolling guards. The brilliant glow emanated from a bejeweled greatbow; it stood at least seven feet tall from end to end, and was decorated with wickedly sharp crests of twisted metal on each side of the large center grip. A man in a voluminous cloak held the weapon casually as he leaned against one of the balcony’s merlons. He wore a set of beautiful hide armor lined with thick fur beneath his winter cloak, and a quiver packed with arrows of varying sizes on his back. One of the King’s Primes.
“Hey, Val,” I called out to her as we continued our run through the snow. “Do you know if Virram ever appointed any new members to the Trinity Guard?”
“Not to my knowledge,” she replied. “There are always prospective soldiers training with the King’s Primes not currently entrusted to a member of the Trinity Guard, but I had not approved any assignments before my dismissal.”
“Wait, you picked all the members of the Trinity Guard?” Lia asked.
“That is correct. Since being chosen as the commander of the Trinity Guard, I took it upon myself to test each of the potential recruits in order to determine whether they could properly wield the King’s Primes. None of the recent candidates passed their tests.”
Lia smirked. “I’m guessing that the test was a fight with you?”
“That is correct,” Val answered. Traces of a satisfied grin appeared at the corners of her mouth as Lia laughed. “Where did this curiosity come from, Lux?”
“Well, there’s a guy with a giant bow waiting for us at the wall, and it looks to me like it’s got the same magic as your shield,” I said casually.
The news stopped Val in her tracks. “Brekkan,” she cursed.
The anger that colored her normally even voice caught me by surprise. “Is he going to be a problem?”
“He will recognize me regardless of my attire,” she answered. “We have met face to face on more than one occasion. He was convinced that I held a personal grudge against him, and that his failure to gain a position on the Guard was unfair.”
“Well...was it?” I asked cautiously.
She shook her head. “Brekkan’s skill with the King’s Reach is undeniable—he is a talented fighter, made only more fearsome by his bond with the blessed weapon. However, it was his temperament that made him unfit to ascend to the Trinity Guard. He is a vicious, wrathful man with little concern for anything apart from his own rise to power.”
I shrugged out of my cloak and tossed it to her. “If you really want to stay hidden, put your shield on your back and wear this. I’m sure everybody is going to recognize Lia and me no matter what, but that doesn’t mean they have to recognize you.” As soon as the fabric left my skin, the winter air snaked its way through the cracks in my armor and made my teeth chatter.
“I do not wish to put the two of you in further danger,” she replied, hesitantly holding the cloak out in front of her.
“Do you think Brekkan will be dangerous for us?” Lia asked. “Is he a better fighter than you?”
Val pursed her lips and quietly stared down at the black fabric draped over her arms. “No,” she answered eventually with a heavy sigh. Reluctantly, she affixed her shield to the mount on her back and threw the cloak over her shoulders. I heard a soft gasp as the warming fabric surrounded her, and she turned towards me with a puzzled look. “This is…”
“Warm,” I answered for her, avoiding further inquiry. “Let’s get moving before I freeze to death. We don’t want to keep Brekkan waiting, right?” She gave me an uncertain nod, and the three of us resumed our run with Val at the back of our formation now hidden under my hooded cloak. As we drew closer to the wall, I kept a close watch on the bowman who continued to stare unflinchingly into the snowstorm.
Lux, how’re you feeling?
Is it bad that I’m actually a little excited? After our night in Shadowmine, the prospect of facing a single man in combat failed to inspire any fear in me, but the presence of another magical artifact from the late king’s collection left me thoroughly intrigued.
I heard a soft giggle in the back of my head. I’m glad you said that—I thought I would be anxious when you told us he was here, but I was really just curious. I’ve been wondering what his bow will do.
Me too! I felt a giddy rush of child-like excitement as I examined the bow through my Detection. Based on the other weapons we’ve seen so far, I’m guessing it can shoot arrows farther and faster than regular bows. That wouldn’t be very exciting, though.
Well, Val’s shield doesn’t really do anything exciting, either. It just doesn’t break. The warmth I felt from Lia’s presence in my head told me she was equally thrilled with the mystery. I’m hoping for something different, though. Maybe the arrows never miss, or they change direction in midair.
I’m not sure how that would work. If it did, though...that would open a lot of new doors for us in our magic studies. It would essentially be telekinesis, which would let you throw rocks and water at people like you wanted to. I smiled as I remembered our first days of studying in our living room, and the list of still unexplained magics waiting for us. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. Maybe they’ll just let us walk through the gate without any hassle.
I caught Lia out of the corner of my vision as she gave me an exaggerated eye roll. Yeah, right. That’s exactly how it always goes. She turned her head to steal a quick glance at Val. I just hope she’s alright. I’m sure this is hard for her.
She’ll be fine. We’ll make sure of it. We shared a determined look before our conversation faded back into comfortable silence. The shadowed outline of the Mountain Gate began to appear through calm patches in the snowstorm after a few minutes of running, and we drastically slowed our sprint down to a more natural walking speed. Despite having a dozen guards on patrol, we made it to within twenty yards of the ruined gate before one of the sentries on the ground noticed us.
“Hey, you there! Stop and state your business,” the man yelled. He held a hand up to shield his eyes from the snow as he squinted across the empty space between us.
Maybe we’ll make it through without getting discovered after all. I waved to the man and took a step forward, then gave an exaggerated shiver. “Hello there, good sir!” I yelled back in a jovial tone. “We’re looking to pass through on our way back home. We were just here to visit Atsal, but the weather took a bit of a turn on us. We’re not dressed for this!” While I spoke, I kept a close eye on the King’s Reach through my Detection; at the sound of voices, he leaned his head out over the balcony’s edge and watched our conversation.
The gate guard harrumphed loudly as he shrugged his fur-lined cloak tighter against his shoulders. “State your names and have your papers ready. If you’ve got weapons, toss ‘em on the ground. You’ll get ‘em back when you’re on the other side.”
“Papers?” I muttered softly under my breath. “What papers?”
“All crossings must have notarized missives of intent,” Val whispered from her place behind us. “It is a newly enforced rule since your initial exit from the country.”
“Why didn’t you say anything about this before?!” I shot back, annoyed.
“Your plan did not involve deception of the guards. I did not think it a necessary detail.”
The gate guard put a hand on the grip of his sword and pulled it part-way from its sheath. “Hey! You hear me? Throw down your weapons and state your names!”
I pulled my sword from my hip and dropped it in the snow beside me. “Sorry! I didn’t hear you over the storm. My name is Miles, and this is Lyn,” I lied, motioning to Lia. At my queue, she removed her sword belt and tossed her weapons to the ground, and we both took a step forward.
“Hold it!” he shouted, pointing past us to Val. “Who’s your friend?”
“Right, of course! This is our fr—”
“I’m Anise! It’s nice to meet you!” A shockingly light and friendly voice called out from beneath Val’s hood. “I don’t have any weapons!” My eyes widened as I bit my lip and resisted the urge to laugh with every fiber of my being. Though her voice was pitched slightly lower, Val spoke with an unquestionably accurate imitation of Marin’s regular cadence and mannerisms.
I would have lost the battle against my own outburst if not for the ping of alarm in the back of my head. Brekkan is moving, Lia whispered. We watched together as he pulled a coil of rope from the wall behind him and deftly looped it around the foremost merlon, then jumped up into the crenel and raised his bow.
Looks like he wants to make an entrance, I remarked with amusement. He pulled a pair of arrows from the packed quiver on his back and nocked them on either side of the arrow rest before slowly aiming the greatbow in our direction. I felt the world grind to a halt around me as he pulled the string back to his cheek; a massive influx of amber energy rushed through my body in sync with my combat enhancements, strengthening their effects far beyond their normal limits.
A second view of the world suddenly sprung to life in my head as my mana found its proper place in Lia’s core, just as hers did in mine. We reveled in the merging of our consciousnesses while the unscratchable itch at the back of our minds finally faded away. Full conversations’ worth of information passed between us in an instant as our most primal thoughts commingled: longing for closeness finally fulfilled, excitement for the possible magical revelations to come, and preparedness for the imminent fight. I missed you, we thought in unison.
The inaudible snap of the drawn bowstring brought time back to its proper pace all at once. The twin arrows disappeared from our Detection as soon as they lost contact with the string, but the paths they would follow were already perfectly mapped out in our heads. I took a casual step forward out of the line of fire and gave the gate watchman another smile while Lia slid back and put a gentle hand on Val’s shoulder. As the arrows plummeted towards us, Brekkan strung his bow over his back and leapt from the ledge, his arms wrapped around the rope that hung securely from the balcony’s stone merlon.
Two arrows struck the ground where Lia and I had stood with a pair of dull thumps a moment later, nearly inaudible through the storm. Val’s eyes immediately scanned the sky for signs of the archer, just in time to watch him slide down the remaining length of rope and land in a low crouch that kicked up a cloud of snow. The sudden appearance of a man from the sky was enough to thoroughly startle all four of the gatekeepers, who each shouted in alarm and drew their weapons.
Brekkan whirled on the guards as he drew his bow and readied another arrow. “Cas, you fucking moron, don’t you know who that is?!” he shouted at the lead man. “Those are the fucking Umbral Flames!” He spun back towards us with the greatbow aimed directly towards Val’s face. “And of course, it makes sense they’d be traveling with—”
“Hey, Cas?” I shouted over the King’s Reach. My sword blinked into existence in my hand and immediately burst into a radiant crimson pyre, scorching red circles in the air as I flourished it from side to side. “Take your friends and go inside before I kill you.”
The four guards shrieked and dropped their weapons, sprinting back towards the entrance of the fortified gatehouse behind them to Brekkan’s clear dismay. “Get back here, you fucking cowards!” he shouted after them. “When I’m done killing these treasonous fucks, I’m mounting your heads on this Primes-damned wall!” His words did little to dissuade the fleeing men as they disappeared to safety, followed soon after by the various bowmen that dotted the wall’s elevated fortifications. I watched them retreat one by one through my Detection until the only remaining obstacle between us and Lybesa was the King’s Reach.
“Worthless fucks!” he cursed, turning the bow back on us. Brekkan was a young man no older than myself, with flawless gold-tinted skin and long black hair pulled back into a ponytail that hung down to his shoulder blades. The look of contempt on his face was accentuated by his aggressively angled eyebrows and jutting, clenched jaw, and his narrow dark brown eyes burned with contempt.
“You know, if you were smart, you’d turn and run too,” I laughed.
“Shut your mouth, demon,” he spat. “You might scare those fucking roaches, but you don’t scare me. I don’t need help to put an arrow straight through that shit-eating grin of yours.”
“I’m not sure what I did to you to deserve such foul language, but—”
“I said, shut your mouth,” he hissed. “I’m done talking to you, scum. Fuck off and wait your turn—I’ll kill you when I’m ready.” He looked past me without another word, focusing on the hooded figure behind me. “Quit hiding behind your dungeon thugs and face me, bitch!”
Val was seemingly too slow to reply for his liking, and he loosed another arrow downrange. Lia smacked it out of the air with the flat of her sword and stepped out between them. “Our friend has nothing to do with you, so leave—”
“You’ll get your turn, whore!” he shouted over her, unphased by her inhuman reflexes.
I tasted bile in the back of my throat and tightened my grip on my sword, but the sound of Lia’s laughter stopped me from lunging forward and ending our confrontation permanently. “I’ve been called worse by better men than you,” she quipped, drawing her second longsword. “You’re certainly confident in your skills for a man who failed to join the Trinity Guard.”
He snarled as the lines of his face hardened into an even deeper scowl. “You best watch your fucking tongue before I cut it out.” His hand reached back and drew a trio of arrows from his quiver, which he pointed menacingly towards Lia and Val. “I’m not going to repeat myself again: step forward and FACE ME!” Spittle flew from his mouth and froze in the winter air as he trembled with rage.
“Enough, Brekkan,” Val answered. She threw the hood back from her head and let the cloak fall to the ground, revealing the full, undisguised glory of her bloodied scale armor and broken stained-glass shield. “I am here.”
“Of course you’re here,” he spat. “Escorting your prison scum out of the country after they’ve done your dirty work. Tell me, Commander, what did they bribe you with that made you betray your whole Primes-damned country? Did they pay you off? Blackmail you? Or, did you just finally find a man you wanted to fuck after all these years?”
The provocations passed over her without effect. “I did not betray Kaldan. You have been told lies, Brekkan. Layers upon layers of lies, all leading back to the seat of Virram Yorrell.”
“Oh, so that’s it,” he said, motioning with his arrows for emphasis. “Were you the one who let them into the keep the night King Yorrell was murdered? Or did you just tell them what to do and turn your back?” He spat into the snow at his feet. “You were nothing before Virram gave you that fucking shield. I’m going to remind you of that.”
“You are outnumbered, Brekkan. Do not be a fool—leave us to our business and return to the capital.” Val drew her shield from the harness on her back and planted it in the snow in front of her. “You could not best me in combat before, and you cannot hope to do so now.”
He let out a bitter, barking laugh. “Did you honestly think those were fair fights, with all your fucking rules? No lethal force? No blessing deemed by your infinite wisdom to be too dangerous?” He spat in the snow again and took a battle-ready stance. “There are no rules here, Commander. The three of you won’t last a minute.”
“No,” Val called out before I could respond. “You will face me, and me alone.”
“I’m bringing all three of your bloody fucking heads back to Yoria with me, but if you want to fight me one at a time, be my guest. You’re just delaying the inevitable.”
I took a step towards Val and blocked her view of Brekkan. “Don’t be stupid, Val,” I whispered. “I wanted to see what that bow could do, but it’s not worth putting yourself in danger. Just let me kill him and be done with it. We can figure out what his bow does on our own.”
“I will not be in danger,” she said slowly, her voice low and measured. “This is something I wish to do on my own. It is a personal matter.”
My jaw clenched in annoyance, and I looked at Lia for support. Let her do it, she suggested, much to my dismay. If it looks like things are getting dangerous, we’ll end it, but...I want to see her put this guy in his place.
“Fine,” I sighed. “But I’m not letting you die for a personal grudge. We’re stepping in if things go wrong.” Val nodded in agreement, and Lia and I retreated a dozen yards back along the main road, still holding our weapons at the ready. I don’t like this. I’d rather see what he can do in a fight against us, not her. My skin crawled as I stared at Brekkan, watching as he sank into a slight crouch. And I really hate this guy.
A saw a rush of images as Lia showed me all of the times I had provoked our enemies into an error, then mirrored my own feelings back at me. Don’t let him get under your skin—it’s what he wants. I replayed his insults towards her and Val through our shared connection, silently glowering in the face of Lia’s cool composure. It was clear he had succeeded in clouding my judgement, but tactic or not, I was determined to make him pay for his words.
Val matched her opponent's ready stance and held her shield out before her. “Brekkan, I am not—”
Whatever she had planned to say was lost behind a sudden, crackling hiss; Brekkan launched himself backwards and struck the tips of his arrows against the ruby inset in the grip of his bow, immediately setting the arrowheads aflame. The trio scorched the air as they screamed downfield towards Val, leaving a bright line of orange sparks behind them. Each of the arrows exploded into a giant ball of flames when they impacted her shield; the fire rippled angrily and spilled out in all directions in a brilliant nova, perfectly parted by the glittering bulwark.
Even as Val began to advance through the flames, Brekkan remained rooted in place, firing a non-stop barrage of arrows. It was an impressive display of dexterity; he drew two arrows at a time, tapped each one against a large sapphire below his grip, then fired them in Val’s direction, all in under a second. Lia and I watched with fascination as the bow flared to life with each arrow and suffused the ammunition with rainbow energy, but as opposed to his opening attack, the onslaught of arrows didn’t seem enhanced in any way. Each of the shots flew wide of their target as Val charged ahead, embedding themselves in the snow with a soft, rhythmic thump.
I honestly thought he’d be better than this, I thought with dismay. The fire was a bit unexpected, but his accuracy is terrible.
I know. I can’t even tell what all of those arrows are supposed to do when he keeps missing his shots, Lia replied. What’s he going to do when Val reaches him? He doesn’t seem particularly strong.
Her question was answered a moment later when Val drove her shield towards the bowman’s head. At the last possible moment, Brekkan dropped the arrows he had readied and spun the bow by its center grip with both hands, catching the edge of the incoming shield with the ornate blades along the bow’s arm. The momentum of the parry set Val’s shield whirling around its center axis that she leveraged into a tight spin ending in a horizontal strike aimed at Brekkan’s side. He deflected the attack with the opposite blade of his greatbow and grimaced as the counter slid him backwards through the snow.
As the pair continued to trade blows, Val’s advantage in close combat became abundantly clear. Brekkan was continuously on the back foot throughout the skirmish; Val’s unstoppable drive only increased in ferocity as she pushed forward, which gave him less and less time to react between each incoming attack. The ruins of the Mountain Gate behind him grew closer with each countered strike and quickly limited his movement options. With a defiant roar, he brought the bottom blade of his bow up in a desperate uppercut that Val caught without issue, holding him in place with one arm. She braced her shoulder against the inside of the shield and prepared to throw him against the broken gate, but before she could make her charge, Brekkan pulled an arrow from his quiver, tapped it against a glittering topaz in the bow’s grip, and fired a point blank shot directly into the shield.
I recognized the enchantment on the arrow immediately, both from its similarity to the mana in the gauntlets of the King’s Strength and from its results. A terrible grating sound screeched across the snowy expanse as Val was violently repelled backwards. She managed to keep herself upright in a low crouch as she skidded across the ice and snow, digging her shield into the ground to halt her momentum. Brekkan immediately capitalized on the open space between them with a volley of arrows; the snowstorm around us flashed with streaks of orange and gold as flaming spears exploded against Val’s shield.
That’s enough, Val, I thundered in her mind. I’m ending this.
“No!” she shouted, rolling forward onto her feet as she dodged another flaming arrow. “I can handle this!” Another hail of sapphire-infused arrows peppered the ground around her, all of which missed their mark as they had before. “He is growing tired. It will not be long now.” Running in a low crouch, Val dashed along the road towards Brekkan’s holdout in the broken gate. A wicked grin crossed his face as he drew another pair of arrows and tapped them against both the ruby and the topaz. The greatbow shone like a star through my Detection as he aimed the dual bolts at the ground beneath Val’s feet.
I heard a soft snap as the bow threw its payload, followed soon after by a deafening explosion. The spot where the arrows had impacted cracked and tore through the ground to leave a smoking crater in the middle of the road where Val had been standing. I took a panicked second to search for her as she disappeared from my Detection, spotting her a moment later where she tumbled haphazardly through the storm. Without time to completely avoid the explosion, she had leapt into the air and curled up behind her shield to hide from the blast. The act had undoubtedly saved her life, but not without cost: her face was badly burned and bloody, and she screamed in pain as she crashed into the ground and tumbled end over end through the snow.
My mana rushed out to meet her as she fell, and I immediately suffused her body to begin the healing process. Apart from the obvious burns and cuts, her harsh landing had fractured three ribs and ruptured two discs in her back, and her head showed clear signs of a serious concussion. Though I was able to quickly lessen her pain and mend her minor wounds, I was consumed by an immense wave of regret. It shouldn’t have gone this far. It shouldn’t have happened at all. I turned my attention to Brekkan, and the regret vanished behind a curtain of anger. He let out a maniacal laugh as he drew a massive steel bolt from his quiver and methodically tapped it against each of the gems in his bow. We’ll end this for you. He won’t know what—
A strange scent entered my nose as the world around us began to change. The arrows that littered the ground around Val glowed with a sparkling blue light that matched the energy emanating from Brekkan’s greatbow as he took aim with wild eyes. My body began to move before my mind could piece together the information my subconscious screamed for me to understand. Ozone. Pooled memories of a hundred thunderstorms we had witnessed throughout our lives played all at once through my shared connection with Lia, imparting the knowledge on a primal level.
I sprinted into the road and vaulted the daisy-chained ring of arrows that sparkled and snapped with faint blue light. Val had managed to climb to her feet as the healing magic continued to mend her more serious injuries, and her head whipped back and forth as she tried to make sense of her surroundings. I dropped my shoulder and caught her in the stomach, flipping her onto my back as I continued to the opposite side of the road. My body began to crawl with a building static charge, and I leapt full force away from the impending attack. The force of my charge threw us a half dozen feet off the road into a plowed bank of waist-deep snow.
The world disappeared in a blinding flash of white light and an ear-splitting roar as a massive column of lightning struck the ground where Val had stood a moment before. My eyes failed as the light burned dark spots into my vision, but the world around us still existed as a crystal clear picture within my head. Brilliant bands of rainbow light surged out from Brekkan’s greatbow into the ballista-sized bolt that he held at full draw; the mana crackled along the surface of the weapon in bright bolts of electricity that, while similar to the lightning strike beside us, were much weaker than the previous attack. The swirling reserves within the artifact drained at an incredibly fast pace as he stared us down with dark, unfeeling eyes.
“This is what true power looks like, you arrogant bitch!” he roared in triumph. “Not your titles, not your shield, not your fucking rules—raw power beyond anything you’ve ever seen!” Stray arcs of electricity snapped off in wild directions as he continued to draw power into his held shot. “When I bring your heads back to Yoria, they’ll write songs in my fucking honor! Kaldan will never forget what a Primes-damned disgrace you were, Valandra. I’ll make sure of it.”
I felt Val shift beneath me as she desperately sucked in air, having been thoroughly winded by my tackle. “Lux,” she managed between gasps, pulling feebly on my shoulder, “I am sorry. I did not know—”
“It’s alright, Val,” I comforted her, never taking my eyes off of Brekkan. There was a momentary pang of pity at the back of my head as I watched his death approaching, entirely unbeknownst to him; the storm concealed what would have been an otherwise obvious cloud of disturbed snow that whipped through the air in the wake of Lia’s sprint along the path at the base of the wall. I could feel the energy surging through her body as she pushed her enhancements harder with every step, covering the distance of her wide flanking route faster than I could track with my eyes alone.
“Get up, you cowards!” Brekkan laughed, ruining any sympathy I had for him. “Get up and die! I want to see the look on your fucking faces when I—” His cruel tirade was interrupted by a sickening gurgle when Lia’s blade found its mark against his neck. The sword passed through his flesh with such incredible force and speed that it seemed as if she had missed her strike. His body remained upright and trembling as lightning continued to flash across his torso and kept his form rigid. He toppled backwards a moment later, sending a wave of crimson down over his chest when his severed head rolled from his neck and bounced away.
The energized steel bolt fired up into the sky as his body fell, illuminating the entirety of the wall in an eerie blue glow. A resounding clap of thunder rolled across the plains when the light faded, signaling a resounding end to the combat. I let out a sigh and slumped backwards in relief, bumping my head off of Val’s breastplate. Lia left Brekkan’s headless corpse at the gate and sprinted back to where Val and I lay tangled in the snow. “Do you...need some help?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Right. Sorry,” I said, rocking forward onto my knees. “Are you okay, Val?” I offered out my hand to help her up as I shook the snow out of my hair.
She remained on her back on the ground beside me, staring between Lia and I with hard eyes. “I believe I am, though once again, only by your actions,” she answered, taking my hand. “It seems as if I have become a burden.”
“Val, no! I’m sorry we—” Lia and I said in perfect unison. We shared an awkward glance, after which I took a step back and motioned for her to continue.
“You aren’t a burden, Val,” she continued alone. “This was our fault. We shouldn’t have let you put yourself in danger like that when we could have avoided the fight altogether, but...we were being selfish. We wanted to see what Brekkan could do, and after our past few fights with Virram’s men, we didn’t think he could pose a threat.” Her head fell as we both felt the shame of our choices. “Our choices caused you to get hurt. You could’ve died, and it would’ve been our fault. I’m sorry, Val.”
Val stepped forward and hesitantly reached a hand out to Lia’s shoulder, slowly pulling her into a light hug. Resting her chin gently on the top of Lia’s head, she remained quiet as Lia returned the embrace. I momentarily lost track of myself within Lia’s emotions, and for the first time in months, I felt nothing but warmth and compassion for Val. I knew the emotions weren’t entirely mine, but I chose to live within them regardless, briefly free of my bitter memories.
While the pair shared their tender moment, I took the opportunity to examine the information from my Detection. I was pleased to find that all of the soldiers who held the wall had retreated to a single barracks room and barricaded all of the entrances with overturned cots and tables. Happy to have a small bit of good news to give, I retrieved my cloak from where Val had shed her disguise, then returned to my companions. “None of the soldiers here have seen you yet, Val,” I said, offering my cloak out to her. “You can still disappear.”
She accepted the offering and bowed her head. “Thank you, Lux.” Donning the cloak with a quick flourish, she disappeared within the deep, shadowed hood, then knelt in the snow to prepare her illusionary ritual. Although I had seen the technique performed twice before, I was still amazed to see my cloak shift from its flawless black fabric to a baggy, patchwork robe made from roughspun green fibers. Her shield and armor retook their rusted disguises soon after, and she rose as Anise once again.
We made our way to the unguarded ruins of the Mountain Gate, pausing when we reached Brekkan’s headless body. I unhooked the quiver from his back and retrieved the enormous bow from where it had fallen to the ground beside him. The silvered metal was still warm in my hand despite the surrounding snow, and I felt my fingers twitch momentarily as a final burst of static discharged into my hand. “Another piece for the collection,” I muttered under my breath.
“I think that might raise some questions at the Lybesian border,” Lia said. “Even if they don’t recognize it as one of the King’s Primes, it’s way too fancy for us to claim we’re common folk.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” I held the bow out to Val. “Could you disguise this as a regular longbow? The quiver is probably fine, but the bow is a bit gaudy.”
Her brow furrowed as she examined the artifact. “I am unsure. The Primes have only seen fit to answer my prayers when they are said over the King’s Shield. I have attempted to bless my armor alone on multiple occasions, and failed in each attempt.”
“That’s...not really how it works,” I answered, repressing both my amusement and my annoyance. “Here. Just do what you normally do, but with the bow. Trust me.” I infused a quick reserve of mana into the greatbow, which Brekkan had completely drained with his final gambit, then pressed the weapon into Val’s hands.
She stared down at the weapon with uncertain eyes, but eventually nodded and took her usual reverent stance with the bow across her knees. When her chanting began, the mana stored within the metal immediately reacted to her touch and flowed up through her arms. The outline of the bow flickered as she spoke the words and changed with a flash of white light when her prayer was complete. The inlaid gems and twisted metal blades of the King’s Reach were replaced with a single, undecorated curve of polished wood which sported multiple scratches and stains, each telling a story of heavy use which had never occurred.
Val examined the results of her work with awe. “My bond is with the King’s Shield. I do not understand.”
“You will, soon,” I answered, taking the bow back and stringing it over my shoulders. “We should make it home in a few hours. Once we’re there, Lia and I will tell you whatever you want to know about magic, and whatever else you’re curious about.”
“You’ll finally have a chance to rest,” Lia added. “No more Virram, or Serathids, or anything. Just rest.”
The concern drained away from Val’s face. “Thank you, both of you. I am very much looking forward to it.” With our most recognizable weapons disguised, we followed the well-worn path through the twisted remains of the Mountain Gate, leaving Brekkan’s body behind. The entire world seemed to change as we emerged on the opposite side of the wall; the blustering snowstorm of Kaldan quickly faded away to blue skies over Lybesa, with only an occasional flurry of snow blowing over the top of the wall behind us. A seemingly endless forest of red rippled in the wind across from us at the end of the giant stone bridge that spanned the Maw. From our perspective, it looked as though Kaldan’s harsh winter had yet to arrive for Lybesa, with no signs that it ever would.
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!