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After a quiet few minutes of crossing the Maw, I was relieved to find a different set of soldiers keeping watch at the Lybesian gate from when we had passed through only a few days earlier. Having been unable to come up with any convincing cover story for how we had disappeared so fast at our previous crossing, I had worried we might find ourselves immediately in another physical confrontation, but the anxiety appeared to have been for naught. Lia and I waved to the lone man watching the bridge as we came within earshot of one another. “Good afternoon!” I shouted across the empty space between us.

The guard stood up from the chair he had precariously leaned against the gatehouse and rolled his neck and shoulders. “Not many people coming across the border today,” he answered with a high, youthful voice.

“Probably the weather, if I had to guess,” I said, turning to look back at the heavy clouds that lingered above the mountains on the Kaldanic side of the Maw. “To be honest, we were planning to visit with our friend in Atsal for another few days before coming home, but it’s just so cold! We couldn’t take it anymore.”

“It’s easy to forget about winter, living in Lybesa,” he agreed. He tipped his head towards Val, momentarily flashing his kind brown eyes beneath his enameled white and red helmet. “I take it you’re the friend in question?”

“That’s me!” Val answered in her airy impression of Marin. “I offered to come back with them and visit Lybesa. Anything to get away from the snow for a few days!” She tugged on the collar of her cloak and giggled; the sound was so carefree and playful that I could hardly believe Val had made it, despite standing directly in front of her.

“Well, enjoy your stay in Lybesa,” the young man said with a smile, “and welcome home.”

“Thank you!” Lia replied with a wide smile. She waved as we stepped off of the stone bridge onto Lybesian soil. “Enjoy the rest of your day!”

We traveled a few hundred yards in silence before I let out the laugh I had been holding in. “Well, that was easy.”

“Yeah, that’s how it’s supposed to work,” Lia laughed along with me. “Getting ambushed at the border shouldn’t be your default.”

“Really?” I asked, rubbing my chin with a grin on my face. “That’s news to me.” I turned to Val and found her as dour and unreadable as always. “So, tell me about Anise,” I said, slowing my pace to walk alongside her. “I get the feeling you’ve done this a lot.”

“That is correct. My duties under Virram were not limited to military matters, as I have told you before. Along with my duties as ambassador to Attetsia, I was also sent on numerous espionage and information-gathering missions during my time as commander of the Trinity Guard.” While I normally would have found the idea of Val as a covert agent laughable due to her distinct mannerisms, her recent showings at the border checkpoints gave me pause. “As to the name, it is my mother’s. I found it beneficial to maintain a consistent identity for my covert identity, and used details from my upbringing to create it.”

“That makes sense,” I said, grinning at the thought of her upbeat impression of Marin. “You used your mother’s name and your sister’s mannerisms. I’m sure it was easy to get into character that way.”

“I am unsure of what you are referring to,” she replied. “My sister’s mannerisms? I do not understand.”

I furrowed my brow and stared intently at her deadpan face. “The way you talked to the guards back there? It was an obvious impression of Marin. Which makes sense, seeing as the way you talk is so recognizable.”

Her eyebrows pulled back with the faintest look of offense. “Is there...something wrong with the way that I speak?”

“What? No! Of course not!” I stammered, waving my hands back and forth. “I, uhm, what I meant was...what I meant was that, you just have a very, uhm, unique way of speaking, and...and you…”

I trailed off as a devious smirk appeared at the corner of her mouth. “It was a joke, Lux. I understand that I have a very formal way of speaking. It is simply how I feel most comfortable expressing my thoughts. You are correct that I imitate my sister’s voice when disguised.”

My cheeks grew hot as I screwed up my face and looked away. Lia let out a loud burst of laughter on the opposite side of Val, giving her an exaggerated round of applause. “Well done, Val!” she exclaimed, clapping her on the shoulder. Although I continued to stare directly into the dirt below us, I saw a vision of myself through Lia’s eyes as she wiggled her eyebrows at me behind Val’s back. “He needs someone to keep him humble every once in a while.”

“Hey!” I yelled, turning to glare at the pair. “I knew she was joking!” My face burned hotter as the lie failed to convince any of us, and I looked back down at my feet with renewed purpose. The embarrassment quickly ran its course, ushered out by the comfort and enjoyment I felt from Lia, and I found myself chuckling along with her a few moments later.

“So, if you’ve been doing secret spy missions for that long, you must have visited some interesting places!” Lia said, continuing the conversation. “Do you have any good stories from your missions?”

Val tilted her head from side to side as she considered the question. “Most of my assignments were in various noble courts in Attetsia. Virram was extremely concerned that Kaldan’s alliance with the city-state was tenuous at best, and used my ability to remain unrecognized to great effect. However, I was twice assigned to a diplomatic retainer sent to Ellawynn, and once spent a month in the mountain cities of Doram. The missions were of little success in the end, but I found the locales beautiful, each in their own ways.”

Lia let out a longing sigh. “I’d love to see more of the world. Lux and I were going to take a vacation in Ellawynn a few weeks ago, but...something came up. We only made it to Lienna before we had to go home again.”

“Well, it won’t be a vacation, but we’ll be heading to Doram soon enough,” I chimed in. “Maybe we’ll get a chance to see those mountain cities.”

“I hope so,” Lia smiled. I felt my heart skip a beat as I stared at her radiant face, and my cheeks burned from a more pleasant emotion.

As our conversation found its natural end, I reshaped my Detection from a protective circle to a directed beam heading towards Mayaan, and was pleased to find our path empty of any foot traffic. Based on the position of the sun ahead of us, I knew it would be dark before we made it home unless we significantly increased our pace, but I continued to walk casually alongside Val and Lia; as much as I truly enjoyed the quiet company of my traveling companions, I knew I was simply postponing the inevitable. The sun had disappeared behind the horizon ahead of us when my mana finally reached our destination and illuminated what awaited us at the Corells’ house.

Marin sat cross-legged on the front lawn wearing an enchanted gauntlet on each hand. It seemed as if she had only recently taken the meditative stance based on the gentle ebb and flow of energy within her core. I breathed a sigh of relief as I recalled my mana from her spot in the grass, confident that she had yet to extend her own Detection field and notice my presence. Marten and Hana chatted happily over dinner in the dining room, with an extra helping of dinner awaiting Marin’s return. Apart from the rare presence of a vulroc sleeping only a dozen yards away from the clearing, it looked to be a perfectly average and peaceful night.

Well, at least we know she’s been meditating like I told her to, Lia remarked through our bond. I appreciated the attempted levity, but it did little to assuage my growing anxiety. Lux, you know they have to see each other again eventually.

I know, I replied. I’m just worried about her...and about Val. I don’t want either of them to get hurt.

They’re sisters. Marin might be emotional sometimes, but she wouldn’t hurt Val. Not badly, anyways.

You don’t know that. I rewatched all of the physical and emotional pain Marin had endured since our flight from Kaldan and saw it crystalized in her eyes as she thanked me for offering to train her. You saw how she felt; she wanted the power to defend us, and we gave it to her.

A separate set of memories played back at me from Lia’s perspective, each of them a moment where Marin had remembered her sister fondly during our training sessions. She still loves her. Marin will definitely be upset when she sees Val for the first time, but things will work out for the best. I promise.

The vow failed to calm my churning stomach, but it gave me the strength to steady my faltering footsteps and continue moving forward. The comfortable silence I had enjoyed over the course of our journey was suddenly a suffocating quiet that felt as if it would never end, despite the fact that I could see our first destination with my naked eye. Mayaan looked peaceful in the fading twilight as it appeared over the farmland to our left; street lamps flickered with soft lights as the citizens finished their final errands for the day and returned to their homes before dark. On our right, the northern road that led into the forest was shadowed by the dense emberwoods that gave the usually pleasant path an ominous, foreboding look.

The twisting path inevitably led us to the Corells’ private driveway, where I brought our party to a halt. “This is it,” I said with a sigh, pointing a hand down the narrow road. “Home is this way.”

Val patiently watched my face as I remained unmoving at the intersection. “You do not sound pleased,” she said eventually.

“Yeah, you could say that,” I answered. “Listen, Val, I...don’t really know how to say this…” I trailed off, playing out my most dreaded scenarios in quick succession in my head. “I think...you should wait here for a while. We need to go ahead and, uhm...warn Marin that you’re here.”

Her eyes widened at the suggestion. “Warn her?”

“It’s not that I think she’s in danger or anything. Honestly, it’s the opposite,” I explained, pursing my lips. “She has the King’s Strength, Val, and she knows how they work. She knows how to fight like us now. If she’s still as angry at you as she was before...you might be the one in danger here.”

“No,” she protested immediately, “that is not true. I will not fight my sister—I would rather die than see her come to harm.”

“Stop saying that!” I snapped. “Stop trying to throw your life away like it’s worthless! You know how powerful those gauntlets are, so if Marin attacks you, you’ll fight back. If you really want to keep her safe from harm, stop her from making a mistake she’ll regret for the rest of her life.” I held her intense gaze until she finally looked away and gave me a small nod.

“We’re going to tell her about everything that’s happened—how Virram was behind everything, and how you helped us stop the Serathid invasion,” Lia said in a much kinder voice than mine. “I think she’ll be happy to see you, but...it’s better to be careful, right?”

“Very well,” Val replied. It was clear she was upset by our plan, but she simply planted her shield in the ground in front of her and remained silent. After a final glance backwards, Lia and I left her to her vigil and made our way down the driveway. The walk through the dark forest was oddly discomforting without the sprawling neon map of extended mana in our heads, but in an effort to leave Marin undisturbed for as long as possible, we continued on without it.

Light from the dining room window appeared through the trees as we rounded the final bend in the road. Marin sat in the grass fifty yards ahead of us with her eyes closed, clearly deep in her nightly meditation. We entered the influence of her extended mana only a few feet further down the road, which caught me off guard; the last time I had tested her on the ability, her Detection had only reached ten feet in any given direction, nowhere near the range it covered now. She fell backwards with a loud squeak of alarm and covered her eyes when our blinding auras appeared at the edge of her vision without warning.

“You’re back!” she shouted excitedly as she clambered to her feet, still reeling from the disorienting light. She dashed down the driveway towards us and lunged full force towards Lia’s chest, wrapping her in a tight embrace that nearly sent the pair tumbling into the dirt. “I missed you so much!” She picked Lia up and spun her in a wild circle. “It’s been so boring since you left!”

“We’ve only been gone for five days,” Lia laughed, struggling to keep her composure through Marin’s continued loving assault.

“Well, yeah, but it felt like weeks!” She dropped Lia suddenly and took a step back, flexing her arms. “I’ve been training every day, just like you said. I feel so strong now!” Her attention finally turned to me, and without warning, she lunged forward and hugged me as well. “I missed you too, Lux.”

I slowly put an arm around her shoulders and stared down at the top of her head in awe. “You...did?”

I felt my spine pop in multiple places as she squeezed me tighter. “Of course I did,” she said, her voice suddenly gentle and low. “So, I’m, uhm...I’m sorry. For how I was acting before. I know that you were just doing whatever you could to keep Lia safe, and to keep me safe, too.” She spoke quietly with her cheek pressed against my chest, staring off into the forest. “I have some stuff I want to ask about, but that’s not important right now. I’m just really glad everyone is okay.”

My eyes began to water as I was absolved of the guilt that had weighed on my conscience for weeks. “Of course. I’ll answer any questions you have for me,” I managed to say before my throat began to tighten. I rubbed her back and rested my chin on her head, and she let out a relieved sigh. Lia, I said through our link, staring at her desperately, I can’t...I can’t tell her about Val. I can’t—

It’s okay, she answered, taking a step towards us. “Marin?” she asked gently, placing a hand on her shoulder. “There’s actually something we need to talk about. Something important.”

Marin released her suffocating grip around my chest and stepped back, tilting her head to the side as she watched Lia interestedly. “What’s up?”

“It’s about your sister.”

Her entire body tensed at once, and I saw her hand clench into a fist against her leg. “What about her?”

“We found her in Shadowmine. She was trying to stop the monsters, just like we were.” Lia paused while we both watched Marin’s face, which had become a frighteningly unreadable mask, much like her sister’s. “She helped us.”

“Is she alive?”

The question caught Lia off guard. “What? Yes, she’s alive. We wouldn’t know wh—”

“If she’s alive, where is she?” Marin interrupted sharply.

“Please, Marin, let me explain—”

Her eyes broke away from Lia’s and stared down the dark forest road behind us. “She’s here, isn’t she?”

I could feel the panic blossom in Lia’s chest as the outcome she had dreaded most began to take shape. “I need you to listen to me. I know it might be hard to see right now, but I promise, there were good reasons for—”

Marin lunged between the two of us and sprinted into the darkness, dodging both of our attempts to hold her back; her singular focus pushed her enhancements far beyond the normal levels I had come to expect from her during our training sessions. “Shit!” Lia cursed as we activated our mana and chased after her. I mapped the forest ahead of us with an instant pulse of Detection, and found that despite our speed advantage, Marin’s head start was enough for her to reach Val before we could catch her.

I sent a separate tendril of mana racing down the road to Val, where I immediately suffused her body with energy and activated my usual suite of enhancements. Val, she’s coming, I said in her head. Get ready.

To her credit, she was entirely unphased by the sudden surge of energy of booming mental voice; Val simply turned and leveled her shield at the empty road before her and waited for her sister to arrive. There was a moment of tense silence as we watched Marin streak across the neon map within our heads, burning brightly in a nova of fierce pink energy. A sudden, sickening screech echoed through the trees as the two met, and Val disappeared from the image a moment later as she was disconnected from the ground. Quick flashes of her mana appeared as she crashed through the brush on the opposite side of the road. She managed to land on her feet after impacting a sturdy emberwood, which gave her time to reorient herself and raise her shield again.

“LEAVE!” Marin screamed through a cascade of tears as she chased after her sister. Lia and I made it to the road just in time to watch her lunge into the trees opposite us and lash out with a series of wild haymakers. Val dodged each blow with unnatural ease, much to the detriment of the forest around them; each missed strike that connected with one of the surrounding trees instantly aerosolized the wood and shook the ground beneath our feet. With every attack that failed to land, Marin grew more frustrated and emotional, and the mana burning off from her continued to increase in intensity. “LEAVE US ALONE!”

“Marin, I do not want to fight you,” Val pleaded, backstepping out of range of another punch. “I just want to talk.”

“I don’t want to talk to you, traitor!” Marin yelled back, jumping backwards to prepare herself for another assault. “You already made your choice, so leave us alone!”

The momentary pause in their battle was all it took for us to finally catch up. Lia clamped her hand over Marin’s shoulder and held her firmly in place. “Marin, enough! You need to—” I felt the utter shock from Lia’s perspective as Marin spun around and aimed a punch directly at her chest. My body reacted before my mind comprehended the plan; I shouldered Lia out of the way as my sword appeared from the ether, and I braced it against my arm and readied myself for the explosive impact of the King’s Strength.

The overwhelming force failed to materialize, and the gauntlet stopped harmlessly against the flat of my blade. Our eyes met for a fraction of a second, and I felt a blast of conflicting emotions as her aura flared back to life: love and hatred, relief and revulsion, joy and sadness, and, above everything else, fear of so many things. She was gone before I had a chance to speak, already raining down a flurry of blows on her older sister.

She’s in control. I watched with amazement as subtle flickers of her mana became obvious with my new knowledge; the punches that went wide burned with extra power that shattered nearby trees in a frightening display of fury, while those that flew close to Val’s head or glanced off of her shield dimmed in the instant before impact. Subconsciously, maybe, but...she’s in control.

Lia watched their fight with wide eyes, still stunned from Marin’s attack. I knew she wouldn’t hurt me. I knew that. She would never hurt me. But even still, there was a second...where I thought...Her words trailed off, but her unspoken thoughts finished the statement for her; for a single instant, she believed she made a fatal mistake by putting her trust in Marin.

I comforted her as best I could, sharing my own perspective of the attack in an effort to ease her guilt. I thought the same thing. While I disliked the idea, I had been prepared to stop Marin by force if it meant keeping Lia and Val safe, but I found myself content to watch the situation play out to its natural conclusion given my new realization. I shared the discovery with Lia and remained a few dozen yards away from the battle, ready to step in and end the fighting at a moment’s notice.

With my enhancements leveling the playing field for Val, her years of combat experience kept her easily out of harm’s way from her younger sister’s attacks. Marin’s all-out emotional assault consistently left her overextended and open to counterattacks, but Val never pressed the advantage, choosing instead to disengage and attempt diplomacy at every possible opportunity. “Marin, please,” she repeated, “give me a chance to explain myself.”

“No!” Marin sprinted forward and threw an uppercut into the center of Val’s shield. The blow threw her backwards into a nearby emberwood, and she bounced off of the tree with a heavy crack, loosing a flurry of red leaves into the air above her. She clenched her jaw and retook her feet, facing her sister once again with undeterred strength.

“Enough of this,” Val shouted. With deliberate movements, she unbuckled the glittering shield from her arm and threw it to the ground beside her. “I will not fight you any longer. If you wish to kill me, be done with it—I will not stop you.”

I scowled and took a step forward as Val offered up her life in direct opposition to my earlier request. I reached out for my sword, but stopped short when I noticed the feeling of her aura; instead of the despair and grief I had expected, she was filled with nothing but confidence and trust. It’s a gambit. She knows that Marin’s been holding back, too. Having just promised to keep her away from unnecessary harm, standing aside as she risked her life was the last thing I wanted to do, but the look in her eye was enough to tell me she knew she would survive.

Marin stood with trembling fists as the dueling emotions within her head waged war with one another. A fresh round of tears rolled down her face when she shook her head and let out a noise somewhere between a whimper and a growl. The noise continued to build in strength until she opened her mouth and unleashed a primal scream of anguish; she shook the gauntlets off of her arms and sprinted forward bare-handed, knocking Val backwards with a powerful blow from her shoulder. Marin leapt onto her sister as she fell and pinned her arms to the ground with her knees. Lines of blood appeared on the lighter skin of her palms between her clenched fingers, and she slammed the fists into Val’s chest.

“WHY?!” she screamed, her face hovering only a few inches above her sister’s. Val’s exquisite scale armor remained entirely unaffected by the punches, but Marin’s hands were not as lucky; fractures and sprains gave way to fully broken bones as she repeated the attack over and over, painting the silvered metal with streaks of red. “WHY?!” With each gut-wrenching cry, the implication of her question seemed to change; the initial roar of furious condemnation gradually shifted to the desperate sadness Marin must have felt in every moment since we fled from Yoria. “Why?” She collapsed onto her sister’s chest when the last of her energy left her, weeping so powerfully that her entire body shook from the force of the pained cries.

I felt a tear fall from my eye when Marin finally collapsed, but I found my cheek dry when I tried to wipe it away. Faint flashes of blurry vision intermingled with my own, and I turned to find Lia crying silently beside me. I put my arm gently around her shoulders and began to walk us forward to where Val had fallen. She’s going to be okay. They both are.

Lia nodded weakly and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. I know. I’m just...sad that it had to be like this.

As we approached the pair, I caught snippets of the words Val had been whispering in her sister’s ear. “I am sorry, Marin,” she said in a ragged, strained voice. “I let you down. I betrayed you. But I am here now to explain myself and make amends. No apology will ever be enough, but...I hope you will let me...remain in your life.” Tears pooled in her eyes as she rubbed her sister’s back in slow, soothing circles. “I love you, Marin. I have always loved you, and will always love you, no matter how you may feel about me.”

Marin slid her arms beneath Val’s chest and squeezed until the armor began to groan. “I...Valandra, I...I’m…” she attempted between sobs, unable to complete a thought.

Val shushed her softly and pushed herself up into a sitting position, cradling Marin in her arms. “I will do whatever it takes to heal the pain I have caused you,” she whispered, “even if it means leaving you here and never returning. If that is what you truly wish, I will do it if it makes you happy.”

After taking a few moments to compose herself, Marin leaned back just far enough to rest her forehead against Val’s. “No,” she choked out in a hoarse voice, “I...I want you to stay.” Another soft sob escaped her lips, and she collapsed forward in her sister’s arms again. “I want you to stay.”

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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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