I bolted up from my seat at the soldier’s news. “Where exactly did you see them?”
“J-Just a few miles south of Etistin… Sir,” he replied, hesitant on what to call me because of my age.
I rushed past the guard and headed out the door. “Come on, Sylv.”
“Wait! Arthur, what are you thinking?” Virion called from behind, his voice laced with concern.
“I want to see exactly what sort of mess I made,” I responded without turning back.
Sylvie and I sped toward the teleportation gate room, dodging past several surprised workers and guards.
Upon reaching the familiar double iron doors we had come through, we saw two guards that weren’t there before guarding either side of the doors.
“Please open the doors,” I requested, impatience evident in my voice.
The male guard, clad in heavy armor with a longsword strapped to his back and two smaller blades bound to both sides of his waist stepped forward with a stern expression. “All entries and exits are to be approved of by either Commander Virion or Lord Aldir. We haven’t heard of your departure from either of them so no can do, kid.”
“Look, I just came back to this castle with Virion and Aldir. They know I’m heading out, so I insist that you let me through,” I argued.
“Commander Virion and Lord Aldir,” the guard reiterated. “No matter how lofty you think you royal kids are, learn some respect for your elders.”
The female conjurer that looked to be middle-aged, dressed in a lavish robe and a hood that covered her hair, quickly intervened, hoping to quell the situation. She spoke in a gentle voice as if she was talking to a child. “It’s dangerous for you to go out alone in these times. Maybe if you have a guardian you—”
She stopped in her tracks as she choked on her last words. Both the guards crumbled to their knees as they clawed at their throats desperately. They gasped for air like fish out of water as I took another step forward, looking down at them with an innocent smile. “It’d be wise of you not to patronize me.”
I withdrew the pressure I had released to make my point and helped them to their feet. “Let’s try this again.”
The two of them scrambled toward the door and released the lock. The heavy doors groaned against the gravel floor as I rushed through and made my way toward the center of the room.
“Sir. Set the gate to Etistin, please,” I requested, letting out a sigh. I felt a bit guilty for being so harsh toward people just doing their jobs, but my mood wasn’t exactly stellar either.
The elderly gateman exchanged hesitant glances with the disheveled guards but otherwise relented. As the glowing portal buzzed and hissed, the view of Etistin came into focus.
Without a word, Sylvie and I stepped through the gate once more, my heart thumping heavily the closer I got to my destination.
Arriving at an unfamiliar room filled with guards on the other side, I stepped down from the elevated stage that held the gate, Sylvie just a few steps behind.
“Who let a child through the secured gates?” the barrel-chested leader barked at the hunched gateman.
“He’s from the Castle, Sir,” he responded meekly, staring at me curiously.
It was troublesome that everyone thought of me as just a child even though I was well into my teens. I was taller than many of the guards present, but my unruly long hair and adolescent appearance seemed to keep any of the soldiers from taking me seriously.
Without the patience to explain my situation, I made my way toward the exit, walking past the large leader.
“Kid! What’s your business here? Don’t you know the state this city is in?” The armor-clad soldier that stood at least a head above me gripped my arm tightly, jerking me back.
“Commander Virion sends me here. Now, please open the doors before I make my own,” I warned.
The leader scoffed, rolling his eyes. “Yeah, sure. Commander Virion sent the likes of some thin pretty-boy here. I bet you’re just a runaway noble brat that had a tantrum. Lest, Scraum, take the boy back through the gates! I don’t need more civilians to be taken care of here!”
Letting out a sigh, I willed mana, allowing it to surge out of my body as I had done back at the castle.
Many of the soldiers present were augmenters, so they knew exactly what was happening as everyone helplessly fell to the ground. The very air in the room froze as the soldiers stared wide-eyed in shock at one another. The gateman, being an ordinary civilian, couldn’t handle the pressure and had been knocked unconscious.
“Sylv. Let’s get out of here.”
‘But the door—’
I glanced around the room to see some of the more capable mages already calling for backup.
“I’ll make one,” I replied curtly, not wanting to create an even bigger scene.
The white fox-like body of my bond began glowing until she was fully enveloped in a shroud of golden light. With a thunderous burst of mana radiating out of her body, Sylvie’s form changed into that of a pitch-black dragon. Over the past few years, her form had become much more distinguished and mature. Small details like the shape of her horns and her scales, which now looked like thousands of small polished gemstones, all made Sylvie appear fearsome yet ethereal.
The soldiers that were still conscious let out stifled cries at the turn of events, but I didn’t waste any time enjoying their distress.
Lifting my hand, I coalesced the rampant mana gathered at my palm.
A barrage of blue lightning bombarded the ceiling above us, shaking the entire room. I jumped on top of Sylvie as she beat her wings to lift us up.
As we shot through the hole I had created, the gasps and screams from the civilians and soldiers below us soon softened the higher we reached into the sky.
The crisp winter air whisked past my cheeks as we ascended above the clouds until we could see the setting sun turn orange against the horizon. The beauty of Dicathen was in full view, laid out like a canvas below. I took a brief moment to relish the peaceful sight, from the snowcapped mountains and grassy plains to the sparkling ocean and lush forest, before directing Sylvie toward the south.
‘Let’s make it there before nightfall,’ I advised, leaning forward on Sylvie’s large back.
‘Roger,’ she chimed back, her voice still chirpy despite her intimidating appearance.
The land sped past us in a colorful blur as if the very background was being pulled out from underneath. I thickened the layer of mana around me to protect my clothes against the sharp winds.
As we headed south, the sight of cities soon became visible the closer we headed toward the coastline.
‘Let’s get lower, Sylv,’ I transmitted, hunching my shoulders.
My bond tucked in her massive wings as she fell into a steep dive toward the cliffs just above Trelmore City. We barreled through the clouds that obscured our vision, shooting down like a black meteor. As we descended, the glittering sea soon came into view, and along with it, the direct effect of my thoughtless blunder.
I cursed aloud at the nightmarish sight ahead, my words getting lost in the wind. As we landed on a vast, snow-covered precipice at the edge of the forest overlooking Trelmore City and the ocean, I jumped off my bond, cursing once more, this time, my voice echoing around us as if mocking me.
I could only stare in silence at scene.
Hundreds of ships approaching from the glowing horizon, not more than a few dozen miles away from shore, making their forces stationed in the Beast Glades seem like nothing more than a speck.
Virion’s last piece of advice popped into my head at that moment. He told me not to blame myself, but it was all that I could do at this moment.
This being my second life, I had insight and knowledge that people of this world didn’t have. Despite this knowledge and my wisdom, I didn’t think about the consequences that would arise from a seemingly harmless act that would benefit those around me.
Memories of the day I had given Gideon the blueprints for the steam engine became all too clear and agonizing. Because of my advice, a ship that could be built to traverse the ocean had ended up in the wrong hands. I couldn’t help but ask myself if the Vritra Clan getting their hands on this technology was what expedited the war that they had been evidently preparing.
“This doesn’t look too good,” Sylvie muttered as she gazed at the ominous view ahead.
“No, it doesn’t. And it’s my fault,” I sighed, a mix of dread and guilt churning inside the pit of my stomach.
I stared ahead, lost in a daze as millions of thoughts ran through my head. I had shed tears, sweat, and blood these past two years so that I could protect this land and the people in it and to stop the Vritra from taking over this entire world. But it wasn’t that simple anymore.
Hopping back onto my bond, I gently patted her neck.
“Let’s go back, Sylv. We’ve got a war to win,” I said through clenched teeth.
I wasn’t some righteous hero out to save the world. Hell, I couldn’t even call myself a good samaritan hoping to do his best to fight for his people.
No. It was my fault that this war had progressed to this state. It was my fault that this fleet of ships was almost upon us, and it would be my fault when those ships arrive and cause havoc on this land.
If I had a reason to fight, it would not be just to protect the few I held dear.
It would be to right my wrong.
CYNTHIA GOODSKY’S POV:
I was in a room or area—some space covered in complete darkness with only a single beam of light shining down at me.
“It is imperative that you give us as much information as possible,” a deep voice spoke from the shadows.
I felt my lips moving and my tongue forming words, but my voice would not come out. Instead, a sharp ring pierced into my brain.
“Your knowledge can win us this war, Director,” another voice, this one thin and hoarse, muttered from out of view. “Think of the millions of lives you can help save by cooperating.”
I agreed. I wanted to speak, but no audible sound could be produced. I fell to my knees as the ringing soon became unbearable, but the voices hidden in the shadows continued to pester me.
They wanted answers regardless of cost. They were desperate, but so was I.
“It’s okay for you to die from the after-effects of the curse. As long as we get the answers we need, your job is done,” a particularly melodic voice cooed.
‘I thought that the curse had been lifted by Lord Aldir,’ I wanted to protest, even though I knew that, deep down, my life had always been in danger. However, my voice betrayed me, and the torturous sound overtook my senses. My vision turned white as the pain began lessening.
I thought to myself that if this was what death felt like, I would welcome it wholeheartedly. I closed my eyes, yet my vision was still completely covered in a slate of white.
I began to wonder what would happen next when a darkened figure soon approached me. Even as the figure got closer and closer, its features could not be distinguished. My only comfort lied in the fact that its outline seemed human.
As the featureless figure arrived in front of me, it bent down and extended a hand to help me up.
Truthfully, I was reluctant—even in whatever stage of death I was currently in.
However, curiosity bested my mistrust as I held out my hand, waiting for him to take it.
As our hands touched, the veil of shadow that had shrouded my mysterious helper disappeared.
I squeezed harder, realizing that the one I had locked hands with was Virion.
His hand was so warm. I wanted to reach out and embrace him, but my body wouldn’t listen. Instead, I remained on the ground with his hand on top of mine. He held my hand so gently, like a newborn chick, as if my fingers would crumble at the slightest pressure.
I wanted to grab ahold of him with my other hand, but again, I could not move.
“I never apologized to you…” he began, muttering softly about how he hadn’t stopped me, even when he realized what could happen to me. Virion’s voice, normally so bright and confident, cracked and wavered as he spoke.
I pried my gaze off of Virion’s hand and looked up at my old friend. His face was blurry, and I couldn’t make out where his eyes were focusing on, but for some reason, I could see the tears in his eyes so clearly.
Suddenly, Virion released his grip, and he was again shrouded in darkness. As he walked away, I shouted at him to come back, but my voice didn’t come out.
The featureless shadow that Virion had reverted into stopped momentarily and spoke again. It was hard to hear, and I couldn’t make out some of the words, but I was comforted by them nonetheless. I no longer tried to shout at him to come back and accepted his departure.
As his figure disappeared into the white abyss, the scene shifted to a memory that I had always taken comfort in came to life.
It was just after the end of the war between humans and elves. Both sides had tremendous losses and had agreed upon a treaty.
Virion, much younger at the time, was walking alongside me. The scene was exactly how I had remembered it, down to the field of wilted tulips that spread to our left.
As we walked down the paved path, my body moved on its own, but I didn’t mind.
“What do you plan on doing now that the war is over?” Virion asked, his gaze fixated ahead.
After the war was over, I had planned on quietly observing the state of the continent—that had been my duty after all. But since I couldn’t exactly tell the king of the elves that, I just shrugged mysteriously and hoped my charms would change the subject.
“I’ve known you for a few years now. Some of those years, we were enemies and some we weren’t, but out of these years, I kept thinking to myself one thing.” He held out a finger to emphasize his point.
“Oh?” My voice came out on its own. “And what was that? Your undying love for me?”
“Sorry, but no,” he chuckled. “Did you forget I’m married?”
“That hasn’t stopped any of the human nobles yet,” my shoulders shrugged to feign innocence.
“We elves are loyal,” he replied, shaking his head. “But I digress. What I thought was that you’d make a great mentor and inspiration. Hell, I could see you as some head of a prestigious academy, leading the upcoming youth to a greater future.”
“Well that came out of nowhere,” I responded, genuinely surprised. “What made you come to that conclusion?”
“A lot of things,” he winked. “But seriously, you should think about starting off as a teacher. I know you’ll grow to love it.”
“Maybe I’ll just open up an academy of my own.” My lips curled upward into a smirk. “I’ve taken a liking to Xyrus City.”
“An academy for mages atop a floating city,” he pondered. “I like it!”
My body stopped and I watched Virion as he continued walking. “Then what say we open the school together?”
Looking back over his shoulder, he stifled a laugh. “Yeah, and we can call it the Goodsky and Eralith School of Mages.”
I could feel my face flush from embarrassment.
“No, but maybe I’ll send my kids or perhaps my grandkids when they turn of age. That is, if your school is good enough for them,” he winked before turning back.
“I’m really going to make one, you know,” I huffed. “Just wait and see. Xyrus Academy will become the greatest institution for mages.”
“Xyrus Academy? In Xyrus City?” Virion tilted his head. “Not very original…”
“Well I can’t call it the Goodsky and Eralith School of Mages, now can I?” I retorted, puffing out my cheeks. “And you’ll be darn lucky if I let any of your descendants attend.”
“Ouch,” he chuckled. “Well, here’s hoping for the success of Xyrus Academy.” Virion raised an imaginary glass in his hand to a toast.
Seeing his joking expression, I kicked him in the shin, making him laugh aloud even more.
I remembered clearly wishing right then and there that this moment would never end. I also remembered the clear feelings of regret that I had not met this man sooner. Maybe if we had met earlier, my loyalty to my continent and to the Vritra could’ve wavered.
No. By this time, my heart had already wavered.
“I’m the one with the injured leg here,” Virion called out from ahead. “Hurry up.”
I stepped forward, hoping to catch up when a piercing pain bore a hole in my chest. The flower-filled scenery turned a shade of red. I looked down, finally having control over my body, only to see a black spike sticking out of me with my heart at the tip.
“Hurry up,” Virion called out again, this time from afar.
I reached out to him and called for him but I remained anchored by the pitch black spear jutting out of my chest.
As if the spear was reeling me back, the once pleasant scene I was reliving got sucked away from me. As my world faded into darkness, the sight of Virion walking away was the last thing I saw before a bone-chilling grip enveloped me. As I sunk deeper into the depths of the abyss pulling me in, I could’ve sworn I heard a childish voice apologize to me.
VIRION ERALITH’S POV:
A bloodcurdling scream jolted me awake. I didn’t know when I had fallen asleep, but my body immediately got up from my desk chair. Heading out of my study, I narrowly avoided a guard rushing in the direction of the shriek.
“C-Commander Virion,” he saluted, skidding to a stop.
“What is going on?” I looked around, watching the other guards all heading in one direction.
“I’m not sure, Commander. The scream seemed to have come from just a floor beneath.”
“There shouldn’t be anyone—Anna!” I gasped. The only occupied room just immediately below this level was Cynthia’s room, with Anna taking care of her.
The guard’s eyes widened as he turned and headed down. Immediately following behind, I pushed aside the horde of armored guards. Arthur’s family was just outside the door, but they were all staring inside. Everyone was staring inside.
Lifting my gaze, my eyes stopped at the scene just a few feet ahead.
“N-No,” I let out as I hobbled closer, unable to believe my eyes.
“H-How? Who?” I stammered, but Anna was just as shocked as she shook her head.
My head spun as the clutter of noise and murmurs around me became muffled. I took another step but my legs gave out underneath me and I stumbled against the bed
Cynthia Goodsky lay peacefully in bed, her arms by her side and a thin white sheet over her body. And out of her chest was a pitch-black spike jutting out, covered in blood. Covered in her blood.
An indiscernible howl ripped out of my throat as I sunk to my knees, clutching tightly at my old friend’s cold, lifeless hand.