As I stepped into the large white tent, I was immediately pulled into a bearhug by Grampa Virion.
“Damn you, boy! Why didn’t you tell me you came back?” He loosened his grip on me, grasping me at arm’s length to get a better look.
“Nice to see you again, Gramps.” I turned to acknowledge the hooded asura. “Aldir.”
“Arthur. Lady Sylvie,” he greeted back. “Much has changed in both of you.”
“I certainly hope so,” I chuckled, Sylvie nodding slightly in response. “How did you know I had arrived here so quickly?” I turned back to Virion.
“Lord Aldir received a message from Lord Windsom,” Virion answered. “He said you were sent down here somewhere so I came right away.”
“To think you were sent where Tessia was stationed. Tell me, was this Wren’s doing?” Aldir chimed in, an amused tone in his voice.
I nodded, turning my gaze to my silent childhood friend. “Has his sense of humor always been so… droll?”
“Wren has always seen himself as whimsical despite his often indifferent attitude,” the asura acknowledged.
“I was so surprised to see him when we were expecting to battle a mutant,” Tessia voiced, shaking her head.
“Yeah. As soon as I had arrived, a horde of mana beasts attacked me and Sylv. We didn’t even have time to catch our breaths until after we had killed all of them,” I sighed, petting my bond.
“But what about the door? When we arrived at the scene, the mana beasts outside the room you were in had all died,” Tessia pressed. I knew she had been curious about a thousand things since my arrival, but I could tell by Aldir and Virion’s arrival that we were short on time.
“Not now, chil—Tessia,” Virion amended, placing a hand on his granddaughter’s shoulder. “There are things I must discuss with Arthur, and this isn’t the right place to do so.”
“We’re leaving?” Tessia responded, shifting glances between her grandfather and Aldir.
The asura shook his head. “Not you, Tessia. You are to stay here.”
“What? Arthur got here a few hours ago and you’re already taking him away?” Tessia replied, fear evident in her eyes.
“Tess,” I cut in. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right back after debriefing.”
“Besides, you have your team to look after. With this dungeon cleared, I’m sure everyone will soon depart from here. You have your own battles you are responsible for, right?” Virion added. “That is what we agreed upon when I allowed you to take part in this war.”
“Yes. ‘Work your way up from battles using your own strength,’,” Tessia quoted, letting out a defeated sigh.
I could practically see my childhood friend’s nonexistent tail droop in sorrow at this news, but I knew whatever Virion had to tell me was important.
“Then let’s head out immediately. Tessia, you’ve gotten stronger these past few months. The battles you’ve been through are certainly molding you well enough,” Aldir noted, giving her an approving nod.
“Thank you, Master.” Tessia dipped her head, but her bitter expression didn’t change.
I was taken by surprise at the relationship between the two. I never expected the one-eyed asura to take Tessia under his wing, but I kept those thoughts to myself.
Tessia gave a quick bow to her grandfather and her master before heading out of the tent. As she lifted the tarp flap, she looked back at me with a gaze that held a myriad of emotions.
“I’ll see you soon,” I smiled as she left.
“Shall we depart?” Aldir confirmed.
With a nod from the two of us, we headed out of the tent as well.
Outside, before stepping into the teleportation gate that Aldir had conjured, I locked eyes with Tessia’s teammate, Stannard, and muttered for him to take care of Tessia for me.
I hadn’t meant for him to hear it, but Stannard seemed to understand as he nodded meaningfully.
It took us a few minutes after stepping through the gate to arrive at the floating castle that the Council had made their base, the reason being that the flying fortress constantly moved miles above the ground without a set pattern or destination.
After our distorted surroundings focused, I noticed we had arrived inside a small, cylindrical room with no windows and only one set of double iron doors.
‘How come you didn’t talk to Tess back there?’ I asked my bond as she scampered along next to me.
‘A lady needs to have a secret or two,’ Sylvie voiced coyly.
‘Oh, you’re a lady now?’ I shook my head. Somewhere along the last two years, my bond had gained the ability to talk freely, but for some reason, she chose not to speak unless it was with me.
‘I’ll surprise Tessia with it next time,’ she replied, giggling to herself.
Virion and Aldir both looked back, obviously curious as to what my bond and I were discussing mentally.
Talking wasn’t the only ability that Sylvie had gained throughout her training, but because of her young age, most of the time was spent fortifying her body so that her mana and aether abilities wouldn’t run amok.
Lord Indrath had personally taught her how to strengthen her body, which was unique to the dragon race of asuras. Apparently, almost all young asuras faced the danger of their body being unable to withstand their innate abilities.
“Well, since we’re all here, let’s go out,” Virion announced with a smile.
At the signal from the gateman, the large iron doors clicked and squealed with the lock mechanism going off. The groan of metal on gravel filled my ears as the thick metal exit opened from the center.
I had expected a guard or two to be on the other side of the doors, but instead, a rather large dark bear towered over me. It gazed down viciously, the two white markings above its eyes shaping its expression into something of a scowl. It stood about three meters high, its hind legs rooted to the ground and its chest exposed to reveal a tuft of white fur just below its neck. Despite its angry-looking eyes, its exposed teeth gave the impression of a smile, two rows of white daggers protruding jaggedly out of its mouth.
“Brother!” a melodious voice chirped.
For a split second, I thought it was the bear that had spoken, but Ellie, my little sister, appeared from behind the beast with goofy grin on her immature face.
While subtle, my sister had definitely changed over these past few years. Her ash-brown hair ran freely down her shoulders instead of in pigtails which she had sported when she was younger. While her dark round eyes still shined with innocence, her thoughtful gaze toward me contained a profound maturity.
“Ellie!” I picked my sister up into a hug as she wrapped her arms around my neck and swung around me.
“Arthur!” another pair of voices called out. It was my parents.
After putting her down, I turned to my parents. I stood still, tense. Feelings of doubt and remorse kept me from giving my parents a hug. I didn’t know how to greet them after how we last separated.
“Come here, Son!” My father ran up and encircled me, wrapping me tightly in his arms.
“I-I don’t understand,” I stammered, taken aback by their actions. “I thought—”
“Thought what?” my father interrupted. “That just because you have memories of whatever previous existence you had, you could stop being my son?”
I chuckled as my father let me go. My mother, who had remained a few feet away, anxiously approached. My mind flashed back to how she had so desperately tried to deny everything, and I lost what little confidence I had to greet my mother.
Each slow step she took toward me made the lump in my throat grow larger. I looked down as her foot was just inches away from mine. I couldn’t look her in the eye.
Suddenly, my mother clasped my hands tightly, bringing them close to her.
“Give me some time,” she whispered as drops of tears landed on our hands. “I’m trying. I really am. Just give me some time.”
As though a stone encasing shattered around my body, a wave of happiness and relief washed over me as I accepted her sincerity.
“Of course,” I nodded, unable to look at my mother for fear that I’d cry as well.
“Brother! Brother!” my sister chirped as she held Sylvie in her arms. “Say hi to my Boo!”
As my mother released me from her grasp, I cleared my throat and took another hard stare at the giant mana beast.
“Your B-Boo?” I repeated incredulously, looking at my sister and back at Virion and Aldir. I knew that the mana beast wasn’t an enemy, but I hadn’t realized he belonged to my family.
“Yup!” she nodded. “Boo, say hi to Brother!”
Boo and I locked gazes for a second until the mana beast smirked at me. Raising a giant paw, Boo swung down at me.
Raising an arm, I immediately willed mana into my body. At the force of Boo’s attack, the ground below my feet cracked.
I stared at my sister in shock with the bear’s paw still weighing down on my arm.
“I see that Boo has quite the temper.” I grabbed the beast’s wrist and pulled down, bringing him down to my eye level.
“Boo just wanted to see if you were as strong as I told him you were. He’s a bit competitive like that,” she shrugged as her bond struggled to free himself from my grasp. “Bad Boo!”
“Wait. Ellie, you can talk to this beast? Are you bonded to it?” I sputtered. The strength of this mana beast had surprised me, but the fact that it was able to converse mentally with my sister meant that Boo was quite a high-level beast.
“Lord Windsom didn’t mention this?” Virion asked from behind. “He gave this mana beast to your family as a gift before you guys departed to Epheotus.”
“No, he did not mention anything of the sort,” I shook my head, still in a daze at the turn of events. “So Windsom just handed this giant stuffed animal to my sister so what, she can ride it out to battle?”
Boo let out a disgruntled sniff at my words.
“Yes, I called you a teddy bear,” I retorted, still holding onto his paw.
“No, he was just a baby when Windsom gave him to us,” my mother smiled. “Though I have to say, Boo grew quite fast over these past two years.”
“I’ll say,” my father agreed, chuckling to himself.
“Well, I’m sure you would like to catch up with your family, Arthur, but let’s make it after our discussion,” Aldir voiced in a serious tone. “Your family is living here for the time being, as I thought it would be in your best interest.”
“Right. Thank you,” I nodded, turning back to my family. “I’ll talk to you guys soon, okay?”
I gave everyone, except for Boo, a hug, and followed Virion and Aldir down the narrow corridor to the meeting room.
Sylvie trotted close behind, taking another look back at Boo. ‘Do you want me to beat him up for you?’
‘I can take care of him myself,’ I smirked, reaching down to pet my bond.
As we arrived inside the guarded room, we sat around a large circular table. It was only the three of us inside the rather blandly decorated meeting area so there were quite a bit of empty chairs spaced throughout.
“Just us?” I looked around. “What about the kings and queens, and the lances? I thought I’d at least be seeing Directory Goodsky here.”
The asura, Aldir, pulled back the hood that had covered most of his face to reveal his purple eye that glowed in the center of his forehead. He first looked to Virion and nodded at him.
As Tess’s grandfather turned to me, I noticed just how tired and burdened he looked compared to how he was before the war. “Cynthia is currently in a state of self-induced slumber to cope with the effects of the curse she had activated by disclosing intel on the Alacryans.”
“It’s that bad?” I exclaimed. The report that Windsom had shown me did mention of the director’s condition, but never to the point of her being in a comatose state.
“Mhmm,” the elderly elf nodded solemnly. “I’ll show you where she’s resting later, but I’m sure there are quite a few other things you’re curious about.”
I nodded in reply as I went through all of the questions I had on my mind. For each question I bombarded the two leaders of this war with, they patiently answered back. I learned that, while my family was being held here for protection, the Helstea family had gone elsewhere. Vincent was using his resources in trade to assist the war efforts. It was a bit worrisome to think that they might become exposed to danger, but it seemed that the Helsteas mostly stayed in the background—never getting involved anywhere close to where the real battles were.
As for the former king and queen of Sapin, the two reported back to the castle every now and then, but they’d actually been spending most of their efforts in the Kingdom of Darv, hoping to gain the allegiance of the dwarves for this war, while Curtis and Kathlyn Glayder did what Tess had done—joined or made a team to get some experience in real battle for the actual war.
“Has my father or mother ever thought about fighting in the war as well?” I quizzed.
“Your father has,” Virion answered. “But, I told him to restrain himself until either you returned or until Eleanor is a bit older. He was insistent on helping out, but I made a strong case.”
“Thank you. I can’t imagine if my father had died in the war while I wasn’t even here,” I sighed.
As Virion continued explaining the status of the war and much about the strategies implemented to keep the citizens safe, I silently listened, staring idly at my bond who was listening to him as well.
“Is something the matter, my boy?” Virion queried. “You’ve been awfully quiet.”
“It’s nothing,” I smiled. “Although, I am a bit anxious to hear what you guys actually brought me all the way here for, seeing as you wanted to keep your own granddaughter in the dark about everything. And I know you didn’t just bring me here so that I could meet my family.”
“Yes. Well, Tessia is ambitious and has trained diligently in order to make a contribution in this war…” Virion’s voice trailed off.
“But, you still worry for her safety more than anything else,” I finished for him. “So that whole speech you apparently gave her on working her way up to the main battle was just a way to stall for time?”
Letting out a sigh, Virion nodded. “Can you blame me?”
I shook my head. “I would’ve done the same thing.” “How bad is this ‘main battle’ anyway?” I asked, shifting my gaze between the two figureheads of this war.
“As of now, the main fight is at the Wall, where a fortress had been built that spans across the Grand Mountains. Not a single mutant or Alacryan soldier has been able to leave the Beast Glades so far thanks to this defense line.” Despite the good news, Virion let out a deep breath.
“I’d like you to weigh in here just based on what we told you so far,” Aldir voiced in a tone that suggested he was testing me.
I thought for a moment. “Let me see if I have this right. From what you guys have dealt with so far, it seems like the Alacryan Army’s plan is to somehow infect certain mana beast leaders so that they can control the beasts to lead their own hordes to fight for them. That, along with the Alacryan mages that have been using hidden teleportation gates set up by spies to bolster the size of their soldiers here on Dicathen adds up to be a pretty dangerous fighting force.”
“Agreed,” Aldir acknowledged.
“But it’s suspicious.” I studied Aldir and Virion’s faces. “I mean, I understand that the Beast Glades is the perfect territory for them to establish, especially if they have a few S class or SS class mana beasts under their control, but it seems too straightforward. If none of them were able to get through this defense, it either means that our side is that much stronger, or that they’re stalling for time. And by the look on your face, Virion, I’d say it’s the latter.”
“Evidence that has come to light not too long ago has confirmed our suspicions,” Virion agreed, a sympathetic tone in his voice. “Now, Arthur. I can’t have you blaming yourself for what I’m about to tell you.”
“What is it?” I raised my brow.
Aldir pulled out something from underneath the table and slid it over to me.
They were pictures of an abandoned ship. By the structure and frame of it, I was certain I had seen something like this before.
“It’s not the Dicatheous, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Aldir explained. “After seeing this, the artificer, Gideon, finally admitted where he got the ingenious idea of the so-called ‘steam engine’ he was so proud of.”
I looked over the pictures one more time, trying to convince myself from accepting what my brain had already figured out.
“That was a ship built by the Alacryans using your designs,” Virion revealed, his voice grim.
Before I had the chance to respond, the dark wooden door to the meeting room suddenly flew open as an armored soldier desperately stumbled into the room.
“Commander, Lord,” the soldier greeted hurriedly, still trying to catch his breath.
“What is it?” Virion asked impatiently.
“Th-They’ve been sighted, Commander. Approaching the western coast.” The soldier’s voice quivered in restrained fear. “The sh-ships.”