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A note from Adam Ladner

Hey everyone! Quick note for this chapter. My editor has recently started going through my WIP document and leaving notes, which means that my strategy of directly copying and pasting the chapters onto Royal Road might bring over some weird formatting issues. If you see a spike of typos, double words, or just other oddities, that's the reason! I've gone through and tried to find those instances, but I can't guarantee I've found them all. This issue will probably bleed over into chapter 6 as well, but should be gone after that!

 

Happy reading!

Lia and I led the way through the blackness of the forest back to the Corells’ house. After taking a few minutes to recover, Marin had managed to shakily stand up from the forest floor and retrieve her discarded gauntlets. Lia immediately embraced her and, after another minute of stubborn arguments between the two, convinced her that she should rest and meditate on the day’s events before making any further decisions. The exhausted Marin followed closely behind us on our walk down the driveway, with Val trailing a respectful distance behind her.

We found Hana standing on the front steps when our procession emerged into the lamplight of the clearing. “Marlia, Lux, you’re back!” she called out happily. “Marten and I thought we heard something, and I was a bit worried to find Marin gone, but now I see it was just—” Her voice gave out when her eyes scanned past us and found Val at the edge of the lamplight. There was a clear look of fear on Hana’s face as she looked back to us; Lia and I had been less than gentle in our retelling of the events in Virram’s throne room after our return from Attetsia, with Val’s betrayal as the centermost focus of the story.

“We’re glad to be home,” I answered calmly. “It’s only been a few days, but a lot happened while we were gone. Lia and I will tell you about it tomorrow, after we’ve had some rest.” With a small tilt of my head, I motioned back towards Val. “I’m sure you have some questions, but I promise, everything is fine.”

She pursed her lips and gave us a small nod. “Marin, dear, your dinner is getting cold. Come in and eat.” The warmth was entirely absent from her voice when she spoke again, replaced with carefully guarded concern. I turned and signaled for Val to stay at the edge of the clearing with a subtle wave of my hand, and she immediately stepped back into the darkness of the treeline. Lia and I led Marin up the front steps to the house where Hana was waiting to close the door behind us. She rushed to Marin’s side as soon as the door was shut and cupped her face in her hands. “Marin, are you alright?”

“I’m okay,” Marin replied in an uncharacteristically meek voice. “Just tired.”

“Of course you are," Hana said, pulling her into a quick hug. “Come with me to the dining room—I have your dinner all set out for you.” Her puffy tail twitched from side to side as she slid her arm around Marin’s shoulders and gingerly pushed her towards the kitchen.

“I’m not really hungry. Just tired,” she repeated. “Thanks, though. I, uhm...I appreciate it. Really.” She stopped in the kitchen doorway and hugged Hana again, more tightly than before. “I think I’m just going to go to bed for the night.”

Hana bit her lip and looked like she wanted to protest, but the moment passed in silence. “Let me know if you need anything, dear.”

Marin gave her a small smile before disappearing into the living room, slipping past Marten as he made his way into the entryway. “You’re back!” he smiled. “I wasn’t expecting to see you two for another week, at least.” He gave Lia a hug, then clapped me on the shoulder and grinned. “So, how was the trip? Did you take care of that ‘business’ you had to deal with? Maybe you’ll tell us about it when…” He trailed off when he noticed the subdued expressions on our faces. “What? What did I miss?”

Hana ignored her husband’s question and took a step closer to me, leaning her face uncomfortably close to mine. “Is Marin safe?” she asked in a low whisper. “Are we safe?”

Marten’s head spun as he turned to look for Marin behind him. “Why wouldn’t Marin be safe? What’s going on?”

“Valandra is here,” I answered, tilting my head towards the door. “And yes, she’s safe. We all are.”

At the mention of the King’s Shield, a wave of boyish excitement flashed over Marten’s face, but the expression was quickly replaced by one of concern. “She’s here? At the house?” He hurried to the nearest window in the living room and stuck his head through the cloth curtains without a thought to subtlety. “Why would you bring her here?”

Hana nodded in support of Marten’s question. “She could still be working with King Yorrell. How do you know we’re truly safe with her here?”

“Virram dismissed her from the Trinity Guard and branded her a traitor to Kaldan,” Lia answered, masking most of her resentment at the accusatory questions. “She’s been trying to save the country from those monsters ever since, just like we were. Val is on our side.”

“That could just be a cover story,” Marten said from the window. He closed the curtains and hurried back to our place in the entryway. “She could’ve just said that so you’d lead her back here. You don’t know that she isn’t still planning to turn us in to the King!”

“We do know that,” Lia argued. “You don’t know her like we do; she wouldn’t—”

“But how do you know that?” Marten interrupted her. “Unless the two of you are mind readers, you don’t know—”

“Virram Yorrell is dead,” I cut in. “That’s how we know. Nobody is looking for you anymore—you’re safer now than you have been in a long time.” I waited for further arguments, but the statement had knocked Marten and Hana into a stunned silence, so I continued. “Val is not a threat to anybody here, I swear it on my life. She’ll be staying at our house for the foreseeable future.”

“I trust you,” Hana said hesitantly, “but I hope you understand my trepidation. Marin is such a sensitive girl, and after what she went through, I’m still not sure this is the best thing for her.”

“Of course. She and Val already...talked things out, at least for the time being, and Marin agreed to let her stay.” I looked down at Lia out of the corner of my eye and took her hand in mine. “It’s been difficult for all of us. Myself, especially. But I really believe this is the best way for us to move forward.”

“When Marin wakes up tomorrow morning, send her over to our house,” Lia added. “We’ll give her a safe place to talk to Val, and when they’re done, we’ll all come back here and explain what happened while we were gone.”

Hana and Marten shared a quick conversation solely through facial expressions. “Alright,” Marten said reluctantly. “Not that you need our blessing, but you have it regardless. We’ll trust your judgment until we can make our own.”

I bowed my head. “Thank you, both of you. I know we put you through a lot more stress than we should, but I—”

The sound of a door opening from the living room gave me pause, and we turned to find Marin shuffling in our direction dressed in her nightgown. She quietly pushed through our group and made her way into the kitchen, returning a moment later with the dinner plate Hana had set out for her. “I guess I’m a little hungry,” she murmured sheepishly. Without waiting for a response, she hurried back to the living room and down the hall to her bedroom.

Her appearance finally seemed to put Hana at ease, and she gave us a small smile. “We’ll send her your way when she wakes up tomorrow,” she confirmed. She stepped forward and gave Lia and me a quick group hug. “I’m glad you two are back, safe and sound.”

“Honestly, we should really start expecting things like this whenever the two of you leave,” Marten chuckled while he gave Lia a hug. “You always manage to find some new sort of trouble.”

“A habit I’d like to break as soon as possible,” I laughed in turn. “For now, though, we should get going. We had a pretty eventful day ourselves.” We said our brief goodbyes, then stepped out into the crisp evening air. I waved Val over from her dark corner of the forest and motioned to the path into the woods. “Ready to go?”

Her attention was focused on something behind us, and I turned to catch a glimpse of both Hana and Marten’s faces disappearing from the living room window. “Yes, I am ready,” she answered when the disturbance was gone. We turned to go, but Val’s hand caught my shoulder before we could leave. “Wait,” she said suddenly, looking back towards the front door. “Is Marin...alright?”

“Yeah, she’s fine,” Lia answered with a smile. “She’s currently eating dinner in bed. My parents are going to send her our way tomorrow morning when she wakes up. We figured you two might want to talk some more before we do anything else.”

The hard lines on Val’s face dissolved into a gentle look of satisfaction. “I have prayed for the chance to speak with her again every night since our return from Attetsia. Thank you for allowing me that chance.”

“Don’t mention it,” I said, avoiding the uncomfortable feeling of her continued gratitude. “Let’s get going. It’s been a long day, and I’ve been missing our bed every day since we left.” Lia and I led the way into the forest with Val following close behind us. The trip usually took less than a minute at a casually enhanced jog, but there was a comforting nostalgia to the familiar trees around us that kept us to a leisurely pace. My contentment bled through my mental link with Lia, and a matching feeling echoed back at me. I took her hand in mine and instantly forgot about the emotional weight of our day.

Our house appeared through the trees sooner than I expected. I paused at the edge of the clearing and waved my hand forward when Val came up beside us. “Here we are. Home sweet home.”

“This is...beautiful,” Val said, awestruck. I could see the wonder in her eyes as she scanned the property, clearly wanting to explore, but she continued to stand with her usual military stiffness. “Did you build this yourselves?”

“Yep!” Lia answered proudly. “We watched the people that built my parents’ house, and then just copied that. With a few adjustments, of course.”

I started off towards the house and gave Val a wave. “You’ll get a better view of it from inside.” We made our way across the yard to the main door, and I was happy to find the house exactly how we had left it when we made our way inside. I sent a quick pulse of mana out across the floorboards and lit the various oil lanterns that hung on the walls with a single activation of the Fire rune within my ring. “This way,” I said with a smug grin, leading Val down the hall to the living room.

“I am...impressed,” Val said softly, shaking her head. “I should have expected as much from the two of you, and yet, I am still surprised.” She took a moment to stare up at the high ceiling of the living room, then followed me up the stairs to the bedrooms.

“This’ll be yours, for as long as you’re here,” I said, opening the door directly across the hall from our bedroom. “It’s a bit sparse on the furnishing apart from the bed. I really only focused on filling the rooms we were using at the time.” As promised, the revealed bedroom was empty apart from a large bed against the far wall with a small nightstand on one side. “I’ll make a chest of drawers for your things tomorrow, but for now...make yourself at home.”

She raised an eyebrow at the last statement, but she quickly shook the curious expression away. “I am indebted to you once again. This is far more kindness than I deserve.”

“It’s a bed, Val,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Stop worrying so much about debts and just use it.”

“Very well,” she accepted, taking a step into the room. “Thank you, both of you. I imagine I will sleep well tonight.”

“Goodnight, Val!” Lia chimed in from behind me. “See you in the morning.”

“Goodnight, Lia,” she replied. She met my gaze and gave me a small nod, then closed the bedroom door. I heard the floorboards creak as she crossed the room, followed soon after by the groan of the bed frame when she finally sat down.

I let out a soft sigh and turned away from the door. Ready for bed? Lia asked me silently.

I just have to put some stuff away first—go on ahead, I’ll be right in. I squeezed her shoulder before jogging back down the stairs and heading to the basement door. Stale air greeted me when I opened the door and descended into the dark space; apart from using it to store an extra set of tables and stools, the basement had been entirely ignored and undisturbed since the house was finished. I moved to the table set against the far wall and sorted through my personal effects. An ominous sense of dread crept up my spine as I lay the trio of objects out in front of me: the notebook I had taken from the Shadebinder’s quarters, the rusted Alderean blade from Ashedown’s forge, and the chunk of black glass from the site of the fire. While I knew the objects were free from any latent death energy, I couldn’t help but view the collection as inherently evil.

I left the artifacts behind with a final shiver and ascended the basement stairs. After snuffing the various lanterns I had lit to impress Val, I made my way upstairs and entered the bedroom. Lia had already changed out of her armor and sat in bed cross-legged with her chin resting on her fists, staring intently at the door. I froze in place when I met her gaze and felt the full force of her emotional state: unease, doubt, and fear. “Lia, what’s wrong?” I asked, my gut churning as I experienced her feelings for myself.

She bit her lip and watched me silently for a long moment, tilting her head back and forth. “What are you going to do with those things?”

I looked side to side for the source of her discomfort. “What things?” The basement table holding my trio of dark objects flashed behind my eyes, and I felt a quick burst of relief as the source of her concern became apparent. “Right, those things. Sorry,” I apologized while I began the process of shedding my armor. “I’m not sure I’ll have time before we leave for Doram, but I’d like to study those notes and see what I can find out about the sword. I doubt whoever wrote that journal really knows anything about it, but there’s a chance, and I’m gonna take it.”

When my disrobing was complete, I moved towards the bed to slip beneath the covers and warm my bare skin, but Lia let out a gasp that stopped me in my tracks. “Lux…” she whispered, her eyes wide, “...your scars.”

The words sent a chill down my spine, and I had to force my head to tip down and examine the black marks. Where the jagged lines had once been contained to my right arm, they now spread out across my chest, snaking their way across my ribs to my sternum. The sight turned my stomach and raised the hairs on the back of my neck, but I quickly fought against the wave of panic. No. Whatever the cost, it was worth it. Lia’s safe. The Serathids are gone. It was worth it. I let out a shaking breath and looked back up at Lia. “I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?” She bit her lip and watched me climb into bed beside her. “Maybe...maybe studying that stuff in the basement isn’t the best idea.”

I took a moment to close my eyes and savor the soft sheets of our bed that I had missed over the course of our journey through Kaldan. “You don’t have to worry about me, Lia. There’s no chance of me losing control again. I’ll just be examining the notes and using mana to look at—”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” she said in a low whisper. I opened my eyes to find her watching me with a guarded expression. “What are you going to do if you find what you’re looking for?”

My brow furrowed as I considered the question. “I’m...not sure what you mean. In a perfect world, the notes would detail exactly how they got the sword, which I could use to figure out a way to send something back. Preferably an entire person, but I’d settle for a piece of paper.”

She sucked in a sharp breath and pursed her lips when I finished speaking, and the lines of her face hardened. “Lia, what’s wrong?” I asked again, but she simply shook her head and looked away. “I can’t help you if I don’t know what you’re feeling—” The statement finally caused me to realize that her consciousness had pulled back from our deepened bond; while I could feel that the connection was still active, there was a concerted effort on her part to withhold her thoughts from me. I sat up and reached out for her hand. “Lia, I...I’m not sure if I—”

Her resistance broke all at once when my hand touched hers, and I was overcome by a staggering flood of emotions. Her fear and doubt still remained, but a burning layer of jealousy had grown and consumed her focus. Snippets of memories from our time together in Kaldan played on repeat in her head all at once: the casual way I told her I had been married in a previous life, my lovingly detailed stories of my time in Alderea, and the night I had lost myself in my memories and mistaken her for Amaya. She stared at me intensely, taking short, hard breaths to fight back the tears that threatened to pool in her eyes. “Are you going to leave me if you find a way back?”

“No!” I gasped. “Lia, you know I would never leave you! You know how much I love you; I know you do.” I took her hand in mine and held it to my forehead as I leaned forward. “I will never, ever leave you, and I’ll fight as hard as I can to stay here with you. I love you more than anything in this world.”

She stifled a soft sob. “Anything in this world,” she said, her voice cracking.

I cursed myself silently for the choice of words. “That’s not what I meant,” I pleaded. “Lia, I told you I would never lie to you, so please believe me—you are the most important person in my life. I would never leave you, no matter what happens. I want to be with you forever.” Her lips twitched into a brief smile, and she gave me a weak nod. “When I lived in Alderea, I loved Amaya, and we were married. But that life is over. You’re my life now. If I could find a way back to that world, I wouldn’t leave you to go live there. I just want to see her again, to make sure she’s alright, and...to tell her about you. I want to tell her how amazing you are, and how happy you make me every day we’re together.”

She leaned forward to rest her forehead against mine and sent an immediate rush of amber energy through my body. No words were shared through our deepened bond, but I felt the pure, radiating light of her love in every cell of my body. I closed my eyes and returned the feeling from my own perspective; the emotion was always buzzing just below the surface of my skin and easy to access at a moment’s notice. The passage of time around us faded from notice while we remained locked together in our shared mental world.

Lia was the first to break the deep silence. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I shouldn’t be upset, but it’s been eating at me ever since we left the mine. I couldn’t get the thought out of my head.”

“You don’t need to apologize for how you feel, Lia,” I reassured her. “I know it must have been hard to hold those feelings back for the past few days. Thanks for sharing them it with me.” Although my eyes remained closed, I could see every perfect inch of her in my mind in vibrant amber detail, and I wiped a tear from her cheek. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” she replied. “Forever.”

“Forever,” I echoed, pulling her into a comforting embrace.

Her arms locked behind my back, and she buried her face in my chest while she squeezed me tightly. When she eventually pulled away, she fell back onto her pillow and let out a ragged sigh. “I’m tired.”

“Me too,” I smiled, taking my place beside her. We settled in beneath the heavy quilt and found our usual comfortably entangled positions. I took a deep breath, savoring the faint smell of mint in her hair as I nestled in closer to her. “Goodnight, Lia.”

“Goodnight,” she murmured, gently patting my hand that was draped over her waist. The room grew quiet and still, but it took nearly an hour for Lia to fall asleep. I let out a soft sigh of relief when I felt the telltale slump of her shoulders and the change in rhythm of her breath. It was only after I had confirmed she was sleeping that I allowed myself to try and join her, and the exhaustion I held at bay quickly overtook me.

---

“Are you sure you don’t want Dad to help you with this?” Amaya asked, standing nervously at the doorway to the forge.

“For the millionth time, yes, I’m sure,” I laughed at her while I worked. “I want you.” I pumped the bellows in a steady rhythm until the light of the forge reached the perfect strength, then turned back towards my wife. “Come here, love.”

She took a cautious step into the shop and scanned the room. “I don’t want to ruin your gift, Elden. I know how much Dad went through to get it for you, and I’d never forgive myself if I—”

“Amaya, please,” I chuckled, shaking my head. “There’s no way you can ruin this. To be honest, I could really just do it by myself, but...I want you here.”

A wide smile spread across her face, and she approached the opposite side of my workbench, looking over the shop with new eyes. “Okay. I’m ready to help. What do you need?”

I pulled the cloth cover off of the workbench between us, revealing the gift Rastor had given me: a small pile of sky blue metal ingots. “Do you know what this is?”

“Manasteel,” she answered immediately. “The rarest metal in the world. Only the King’s smiths know how to make it.” She carefully reached down and picked up a bar from the top of the pile, giggling as she struggled with its weight. “People say that weapons made of manasteel are sharper and stronger than any other metal.”

I grinned at her assessment. “Do you know why people say that?”

“I get the feeling that you know what I’m going to say, even though it’s the wrong answer,” she said, raising an eyebrow.

“You’re too smart for me,” I sighed, picking up an ingot of the beautiful metal and turning it over in my hands. The blue bar was strikingly cold for the warm air around us and tingled against my fingertips, though whether it was from my anticipation or a unique quality of the metal itself, I couldn’t tell. “Humor me.”

She rounded the table and wrapped her arms around my waist. “If I had to guess, I would say it’s because manasteel is also the strongest metal in the world. That’s why it’s so rare—, and so expensive.”

One of her golden, fuzzy ears flopped forward over my shoulder and tickled the side of my face. I set the manasteel ingot back on the table and hummed in satisfaction. “That would make the most sense, but it isn’t true. Manasteel isn’t any stronger than regular steel—if you don’t know how to use it properly, you’d never know the difference. An average smith would still make an average sword out of it.”

“I take it you aren’t the average smith in this scenario,” she giggled.

I spun around and planted a quick kiss on the top of her head. “Correct.”

“Where did you learn how to use it? I know Dad’s never done it before.”

“Brusch told me,” I grinned.

Amaya rolled her eyes and moved back to her side of the workbench, laughing as she went. “That man knows too many secrets for a vagabond.”

“You’re not wrong,” I shrugged, “but even so. He told me that the night before one of the King’s smiths makes a manasteel weapon, the knight meant to wield it prays over the metal. Manasteel is apparently the only metal that can hold the blessings of the Gods.”

She puffed derisively. “You didn’t believe that, did you?”

“Oh, Gods, no,” I laughed, “but I think I understand what he really meant.'' I held out my hands and motioned for hers. “Give me your hands.” She tipped her head to one side and watched me curiously with wide, violet eyes, but she eventually obliged my request. I lowered her hands onto the pile of manasteel bars, then placed mine atop hers and closed my eyes. “Pray with me.”

“Is this why you wanted my help?”

I nodded. “I wouldn’t know what to pray for—I already have everything I want.” I cracked open one of my eyes just in time to catch a smile crossing her face. “You could ask for it to keep us safe, or...I don’t know, for it to—”

“I pray that this metal will always bring you back to me,” she interrupted me, closing her eyes as well. “No matter where you go, or what you face, I pray that this metal keeps you safe until you can return.”

The hair on the back of my neck stood up as she spoke her prayers aloud, and my heart thrummed in my chest. I pulled my focus inward and took a series of deep breaths in the meditative style Brusch had taught me. The river of energy flowing through my core appeared in neon detail, and I redirected it up through my chest and down into my hands. To my surprise, the energy passed into the metal without resistance; it had taken me months to become comfortable transferring energy into my practice sword, yet the manasteel accepted it as if I had practiced with it for my entire life.

“This metal will make a sword that will always bring me back to you. As long as this blade is in my hands, nothing will stop me from coming home.” My head spun when I said the words, confirming what Brusch had told me was true. “It’ll be a symbol of our unbreakable bond. I’ll know that no matter where I go, you’ll always be waiting for me to come home. And when I’m gone, I’ll always have a piece of you with me.”

A heavy wave of exhaustion passed over me when I finished the prayer. I opened my eyes to find Amaya’s face flushed and her chest heaving, clearly feeling the same strain that I had. “Are you alright?” I asked, instantly concerned.

“I’m fine,” she answered breathlessly. “Better than fine, actually.” She pulled me closer over the table and kissed me, leaving the taste of raspberries on my lips when she leaned back again. “You’d better get to work on that sword. There are some good prayers in there.”

Butterflies took flight in my stomach at the sight of her beautiful, smiling face. “I will,” I answered. “Thank you, Amaya. I know it was all superstition, but...it meant a lot.”

“Of course,” she nodded, turning to go. She made it to the door before looking back over her shoulder. “I love you, Elden.”

“I love you too,” I replied.

“Forever.”

I nodded as a brilliant warmth spread through my chest. “Forev—”

---

A burning emptiness in my chest woke me from my peaceful dreams. I threw myself forward with a gasp, already having realized the source of my pain. Lia sat at the edge of the bed cradled in her own arms, clearly suffering from the same affliction. “Lia,” I panted, reaching out for her with both my body and my mind, “I’m...here.” While my hand found purchase on her shoulder, my extended mana bounced off of a hard wall at the back of her mind where our consciousnesses usually commingled.

She sat statue- still beneath my hand, staring straight into the wall ahead of her. “You’re still in love with her,” she said in a smooth, emotionless voice.

“I’m...what?” My brain stumbled in my attempt to sort through the multiple facets of the situation: the disorienting absence of Lia’s presence, her walled- off emotions, the foggy recollection of my dreams, and my growing panic from her clear distress.

“Amaya.” She spoke the name with such articulated clarity that it cut into my core and cleared the fog from my mind. “You’re still in love with her.”

“Lia, that’s…” I trailed off, completely at a loss for words. I pulled my hand back from her shoulder and sat at the edge of the bed beside her. After weighing my limited options carefully, I settled on the most difficult route: the truth. “Of course I still love her. I didn’t have—”

“You love her differently,” she cut me off. “I saw your dream, and I know how you felt. It’s not the same as now. It’s not how you feel about me.”

A bolt of heat seared down the back of my spine as her words cut me. “That’s not fair, Lia. I don’t have control of my dreams.”

“But they’re not just dreams,” she countered, her voice rising in intensity. “Those are your memories. They’re not fantasies, they’re how you actually felt. How you feel.”

“How I felt about Amaya doesn’t change the fact that I love you.”

“Yes it does!” She pushed herself up from the bed and whirled around to face me, giving me a good look at her face for the first time; her eyebrows were raised into harsh lines over tightened eyes, and her nostrils flared as she spoke. “I heard what you said to her. You might love me now, but you’ll always love her. Your whole life here is just an inconvenience on your way back to her.”

“That’s a lie, and you know it!” I shouted, matching her intensity. I jumped to my feet and stared down at her, my whole body trembling from the sudden rush of adrenaline. “How could you even say that? You’ve felt what I feel—there’s not a single drop of indecision in my whole Primes-damned body! After everything we’ve been through together, you’re still trying to make it sound like I don’t want to be here?” I clenched my jaw and shook my head back and forth. “You’re either lying to try and hurt me, or you haven’t been paying attention.”

“What am I supposed to think?! We’re married, but you’re still standing here telling me you love another woman!”

“From my old life! It’s not like she lives down the road from us—, I’m never going to see her again!” Saying the thought out loud nearly overwhelmed me with grief, but I pushed the feeling down and replaced it with the anger I felt burning in my face. “Is that what you want me to say? It doesn’t matter if I wanted to or not, I’ll never see Amaya again. And, again, I’m not trying to leave you here and go back to her, but you clearly don’t believe or care how I feel about that.”

Lia’s hands clenched into fists repeatedly against her legs. “I’ve given you every bit of love I have. My whole life is yours. If you still can’t understand how much this hurts, I don’t know what else to say.”

“Lia, you should know that I’m telling the truth when I say that I love you. I don’t know what you think you felt in my memories, but there’s no “different” kinds of love in me. I just love you, plain and simple.” I shook my head and looked away. “I can’t change how I felt in the past, or how I feel now. But whether you believe me or not is up to you.”

Her lip quivered as we stood across from each other silently. Just when the quiet had become too much for me to bear, she turned away and walked to the dresser behind her. “I need some air.”

I sighed. “Air would be good.”

“No,” she said, holding out a hand to stop me as I knelt down to pick up my pants. “I want to be alone for a while.” I sat down on the bed and watched as she changed from her nightgown into her day clothes, then walked to the bedroom door. She paused with her hand on the knob and turned to look at me, but the words on the tip of her tongue never came out. When the moment had passed, she left the bedroom and closed the door behind her.

I fell back onto the bed and held my face in my hands. My thoughts were spinning too fast to put together a single, coherent analysis of the fight, so I simply stayed where I had landed and sulked in silence. Whenever a wave of anger at Lia’s accusations rose to the forefront of my mind, her obvious sorrow appeared beside it, and my frustrations quickly turned to regrets. A vicious dichotomy emerged from the chaos; I had no intentions of apologizing for how I felt about Amaya, but I wanted nothing more than to show Lia I loved her with my whole being.

A knock at the bedroom door startled me, and it took me an entire second to remember that Lia and I weren’t alone in the house. “Come in,” I called out from my place on the bed, flopping my head to one side to watch the door.

Val entered the room dressed in her full set of armor, minus her greatshield. “Lux, I—” A look of surprise crossed her face when she found me laying across the bed in my underwear, and she turned to stare back into the hallway. “I apologize. I will give you some privacy to—”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, Val. Just come in and say what you want to say,” I snapped. She quickly did as I asked and entered the room, closing the door behind her. I knew the command had been far too harsh, and I rubbed my eyes in annoyance as I stood up and crossed the room to my chest of drawers. “Sorry,” I said abashedly, “I didn’t mean to shout. What do you need?”

“I simply wished to ask if you were alright,” she answered. “It is not a pressing issue.”

“I guess you heard that, huh?” I muttered, slipping into a clean pair of pants. “Sorry if we woke you.”

“It is no trouble. I did not listen to the words, but...I did hear raised voices.” I found Val’s usual monotone delivery oddly comforting in the moment; there was no hint of judgment or curiosity in her voice, which made the statement easier to stomach.

“Yeah,” I said, leaning my elbows on the dresser. “We’ve never fought like that before. We’ve argued, sure, but it was never so...hard.”

“I am sorry,” Val replied, dipping her head slightly. “I did not mean to pry into personal matters.”

I slipped into a loose button- up shirt and waved off her concern. “It’s fine. We were…” I trailed off, considering my next words carefully. “Val, there’s something you should know about me. When I told you I was from Doram, I was lying. I’m actually from a different world entirely. A lot of them, actually—this is my fourth life.”

“I figured as much,” she said, nodding.

“You...did?” I asked, confused. Having expected a response similar to Marin’s, her easy acceptance of the fantastical concept caught me off guard. “How?”

“I have traveled to many places, Lux. Through all of my journeys, to Doram or otherwise, I have never met anyone like you. You are knowledgeable of many things, yet completely ignorant to even the most well-known local politics. Your fighting style, your mannerisms, your magical abilities...they are otherworldly. It was an easy assumption to make, despite having no idea how it was possible.” She paused and tilted her head to the side, looking past me at the far wall. “I...had not given it much thought beyond that.”

“I see.” Noting the obvious lie, I logged the information away and continued. “While I was lying when I said I was from Doram, I wasn’t lying about losing my family. I was married once before, back in another life, but...I got sent to another world. And Amaya didn’t.” No matter how many times I told the story, the pang of sadness I felt afterwards was always fresh and raw. “I never thought I’d love anybody again after her. Then I met Lia. I told her everything about my past—all of the good, and all of the bad. And she accepted me regardless.”

Val nodded for me to continue a moment before I lost myself in my memories. “When we were in the Shadebinder’s chambers below Shadowmine, I found something from my old life. That longsword from the display case was mine, once. I made it with my own hands, in Amaya’s father’s forge. I don’t know how, but someone found a way to connect our worlds.”

Her face softened when the ramifications of the new information became clear. “Lia believes that you will attempt to reclaim your old life.”

“I would never leave her, Val. I love her, more than anything,” I said desperately. “I just wish she would believe me.”

“She knows. I am sure of it,” Val reassured me. “Lux, I have no personal experience in matters such as these. In my own life, I have known no relationships apart from familial bonds and oaths of service. However, even I can see the way she looks at you. The love you share would not be so easily broken.”

“You didn’t see the way she looked at me today. It was heartbreak, not love.”

“Both can be true at once,” she countered. “Jealousy is not a rational emotion. She can love you with her entire being while fearing that you may someday leave her. They are not opposing thoughts, they are parallel—one strengthens alongside the other, in spite of our best logic. Our emotions are not so easily controlled.”

I mused over the idea for a moment. “You give pretty good advice for someone who says they have no experience with relationships.”

“It is simply a matter of observation, nothing more,” she answered flatly. “I apologize if I have overstepped my bounds. It is not my business.”

“No, of course not!” I said immediately, waving away the idea. “I appreciate it. A lot. I didn’t mean to, uhm...unload all of that on you. Sorry.” A burning sensation gradually built in my ears when I thought over our conversation and realized exactly how much more I had said than I intended to. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather you not tell Lia about this.”

“It shall stay between us,” she promised with a bow of her head.

“Thanks, Val.” I leaned heavily on my dresser and looked around the room. The light that filtered in through the windows was still a soft mixture of gold and red, indicating that dawn had only just passed. “You know, Marin probably won’t be here until after lunch. Are you sure you don’t want to wear something more comfortable?” I asked, motioning to her heavy armor. “I promise you don’t need that out here.”

“I am not uncomfortable,” she answered. “I also have no other clothing. It has been months since I was last in my personal quarters.”

“Right. Sorry,” I apologized again. “I’m sure Lia wouldn’t mind if you wore some of her…” I trailed off, catching her gaze at an almost equal eye level to mine. “You can borrow some of my clothes for now, if you’d like. Marin and Lia have both been shopping for new clothes in town—I imagine either of them would be more than happy to take you there once we’re done for the day.”

Her brow furrowed, and she considered the question for what felt like an eternity. “I would enjoy the chance to wear something lighter for a change. Thank you,” she decided eventually.

I hurried around her to the door. “No problem. Wear whatever looks comfortable,” I said, exiting the room and closing the door behind me. My momentary distraction faded from my mind over the course of my trip from the upstairs hallway to the living room, and I found myself feeling sullen and tired by the time I arrived downstairs. I flopped face- first into the couch cushions and let out a long groan. Though my chest still ached from Lia’s absence, the overwhelming hopelessness I had felt only minutes prior was well diminished, for which I knew I had Val to thank.

My face remained buried in the plush cushions until a series of opening and closing doors caused me to roll over. With her armor removed and stored safely in the guest room, Val descended the stairs dressed in a dark blue button-up shirt and a pair of loose-fitting khaki pants. I was momentarily dismayed when I noticed her shoulders filled the shirt better than my own, but I pushed away the idea as quickly as it arrived. While my pride had allowed me to easily forget it, seeing her without her armor was an unmistakable reminder that Val was physically stronger than me. The remainder of the outfit was less amenable to her physique, with the shirt fitting tightly around her chest and the pants bunching up slightly around her bare feet.

“I hope that’s comfortable enough for now, until you can get some clothes of your own,” I said, pushing myself up to a sitting position. “If you’re hungry, there’s some food in the pantry. It’s just dried stuff and more trail rations, but it’s better than nothing. There’s a stream in the forest to the left of the front door, if you’re thirsty. It’s spring water, so you don’t have to boil it or anything.”

“Have you eaten, Lux?” she asked.

I turned and looked out through the long row of windows on the opposite wall. “Nah, I’m not hungry.”

She took another step closer and placed a hand on the back of the couch. “Our meals have been few and far between since we left Shadowmine. You should eat.”

“I’d rather just...do something. Take my mind off of things for a bit.” After another moment of staring out into the woods, I stood and tapped my hands anxiously on my legs. “I think I’ll make you that dresser now—you’ll need somewhere to put your new clothes, right?”

I watched the indecision play across her face as she considered the statement. “Yes, you are right. I will assist you in a moment, after I have eaten.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said over my shoulder on my way to the back door. “It’ll only take me a minute. Enjoy your breakfast—I’m sure you’re hungry.” I escaped onto the porch before she had a chance to protest further and let out a long sigh when the door was closed behind me. My eyes scanned the treeline mournfully while I hoped for Lia to return, but I found the forest as still and peaceful as always. Disappointed, I made my way to the diminished pile of logs at the edge of the clearing and began my construction preparations.

Although my lingering concern for Lia never fully faded from my mind, the focus required to channel my mana into shape within the logs provided a comfortable distraction from my thoughts. The process of shaping and shattering wood had become an enjoyable task over my many days of practice, and I quickly fell into a productive rhythm as I moved along the length of the emberwood. I kept my extended mana limited to the clearing around our home while I worked; as much as I wanted to fill the entire forest and check in on Lia, I couldn’t bring myself to refuse her request for privacy.

Val appeared around the corner of the house after my work had begun. She stood and watched quietly as I ran my hand along the log, invoked a precise series of cuts with the Shatter rune within my ring, and split the wood in half to reveal a half-dozen perfectly shaped planks of wood. I turned to address her after the dresser pieces were cleaned and stacked, but I only caught a brief flash of her auburn hair before she disappeared into the woods on her way to the stream. The remainder of my work continued uninterrupted for another half hour until I had a full pile of interlocking emberwood pieces that would eventually become Val’s dresser.

A warm tendril of amber energy wound its way up my body and pooled at the base of my neck as I carried an armful of bark and scrap wood towards the forge. Lux? Lia asked quietly. Can we talk?

Of course, I answered immediately. I unceremoniously abandoned the scrap wood in the middle of the yard and followed the glowing trail of her extended mana into the forest at a full sprint. The winding ribbon led me on a path I hadn’t physically traveled before, though I had seen it hundreds of times through my Detection. My run ended when I found Lia sitting on the moss-covered remains of an uprooted emberwood tree. Her legs swung lazily back and forth while she stared down at her folded hands in her lap. “Hi,” I called out tentatively.

“Hi,” she answered in a similar tone. Without looking up, she unfolded her hands and patted the spot on the log next to her. I dashed through the trees without hesitation and carefully took a seat in my appointed spot. The old wood squealed beneath our combined weight, but it held steady once it sunk further into the soft ground below us. A dozen things I needed to say all fought for prominence in my head, leaving me in anxious silence.

“I don’t like fighting with you,” she murmured. “It makes me feel...sick. And lonely.”

“It was hard to focus on anything else while you were gone,” I replied. “I missed you.” Although she had only been gone for just over an hour, I was surprised to find how powerfully the statement resonated with me.

“I’m sorry.” She lifted her hand from the log and placed it on top of mine, gently weaving our fingers together. “I just needed some time to think. My head was all messed up back there.”

“It’s alright.”

We sat quietly together on the log for a time, each of us staring straight out into the woods. “I know that you love me,” she said eventually. “It wasn’t fair of me to try and compare how you felt about her to how you feel about me.” The conspicuous absence of Amaya’s name spoke volumes about the true heart of our fight. “I know you love me, and that you aren’t going to leave me for her. I’ve felt it for myself.”

“I didn’t know how hard it’s been for you all this time,” I answered. Even after reading her journal, I hadn’t fully understood how powerfully my past was affecting her. “I should’ve taken a second to realize how unfair it was of me to talk about her for so long. That was careless of me.”

“I don’t want you to feel like you have to hide things to protect my feelings. I want to talk to you, and be there for you, no matter what. It’s just that…” she trailed off as her voice began to waver. After taking a deep breath, she gave herself a small nod and continued. “I loved to hear the stories about your past, and how you were happy with her. It hurt sometimes, but it was easy to push those feelings away. When you told me you loved me, and that you wanted to be happy with me, it meant a lot. It meant...everything.”

She put her free hand to her mouth and cleared her throat. “That changed after Shadowmine. I couldn’t just ignore the jealousy anymore. The possibility that you could go back to her...that you wouldn’t have to settle for me anymore…”

“Don’t say that,” I begged her as my vision blurred. “Please don’t say that, Lia. I am not settling for you. You are—”

“I know,” she cut me off, her voice breaking. “I know. Every time you look at me I know how much you love me, because I feel the same way about you. But even knowing that...it didn’t matter. It was this sneaky little feeling in the back of my head that told me I wasn’t her, and I could never be her for you. I could never be enough for you, and after what we found in Shadowmine, you finally had a chance to get her back. The thought that you loved someone out there that wasn’t me...it was too much.” She shook her head from side to side, and I felt tears splash over our entwined fingers. “I know that’s not fair, but it’s how I felt.”

“It doesn’t have to be fair. We don’t get to control our emotions, just what we do with them.” I slipped down from the log and stood in front of her, gently lifting her downturned face with a finger beneath her chin. “You’re my wife, Lia. I’ll never stop loving you for the rest of my life, and any lives to come. I did not settle for you—you are more than I could have ever hoped to find, and certainly more than I deserve. I am never, ever going to leave you. I promise.”

She threw herself forward into my arms and hugged me tightly, letting out a soft cry. “I love you too, Lux. With every little bit of me I have. Forever.” A shiver ran down my spine as my body was consumed by her pure, radiating love, and I returned the emotion in full force. “I can’t promise I won’t feel like this again. I know it’s wrong, but I can’t help it.”

“It’s not wrong, Lia,” I comforted her, leaning my forehead against hers. “I can’t promise that I won’t dream of Amaya again, either. Sometimes, things will just be...hard. I think that’s okay.”

“We’ll get through it together,” she said into my chest.

“We’ll always get through it together,” I agreed, “no matter what.”

We stayed locked in each other’s arms for a blissful eternity, neither of us feeling the need to think about anything outside of our shared existence. It was clear after my morning of uncertain loneliness that I had taken Lia’s constant companionship for granted, and I knew it was a mistake I wouldn’t make again. “We should head back home before Marin shows up,” I said after a time. “I want to make sure her and Val are alright. And that Marin doesn’t try to kill her again.”

Lia chuckled softly and pulled away from my chest. “I think we’re past that by now, but you’re right. We should go.” She took my hand and began to walk back towards the house, but she quickly stopped when I failed to follow along behind her. “What’s wrong, Lux?” she asked cautiously. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine,” I smiled. “Just looking at you.” She blushed as I made my way to her side, and we started our way back through the forest. I’m never leaving you, Lia. I promise. No matter what I have to do, I’m not letting the void take me away again. This is my last life...and I’m spending it with you.

***

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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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