Leaving Sylvie with my sister, I made my way to my parents’ room. I strode down the corridor, my gait growing faster with each step as I arrived in front of the door labeled “Leywin Family.”
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. The thought of what Ellie said, that my parents really planned to take part in the war, filled me with unease. A dull thud resounded as I knocked on the wooden door.
“It’s open,” the warm voice of my mother chimed from the other side.
The hinges creaked as I turned the knob and slid the door open. Bags lay open on the floor with clothes folded neatly beside them. I stepped inside and looked around to find my father polishing his gauntlets, a set of chainmail armor spread out beside him. My mother, who had been walking toward the door to greet their visitor, stopped when she saw me. She masked her surprise with a sullen smile while my father dropped his gaze as soon as he saw my expression.
“So it’s true,” I muttered, picking up a polished shin brace beside my father.
“Son.” My father put down the gauntlet and rag but remained seated.
“We weren’t expecting you back so soon,” my mother added, taking another step toward me.
“Were you planning on leaving without saying anything to me?” I asked, my gaze still focused on the shin brace in my hand.
“Of course not. But we wanted to finish preparing before you got back.” My mother lifted her hand, hesitating just a bit before she placed it on my shoulder.
A mixture of feelings welled up in me as I squeezed tightly at the metal armor—confusion as to why they had suddenly decided to fight, irritation that they hadn’t even bothered to discuss this decision with me, and anger that they’d be willing to risk their lives when Ellie was barely twelve.
I finally pried my gaze off of my hands and looked at my father. “I thought you guys were going to wait until after Ellie got older before joining the war.”
“Commander Virion advised us to stay until Ellie was older or until you came,” my father said, his gaze firm.
“I don’t believe that you guys suddenly decided to fight in the war just because I came back,” I replied doubtfully.
“We didn’t,” my mother answered, her hand squeezing my shoulder more tightly.
“I just got a transmission from Helen.” My father stood up, his gaze unusually vicious as he tested out his gauntlets. “They were attacked in a dungeon as everyone was getting ready to leave. They stayed back to buy some time for the younger soldiers to escape, but…”
“But?” I echoed. My father, Reynolds Leywin, the man who had always endured any hardships with an optimistic smile, looked up with an icy venom in his eyes. “Adam didn’t make it.”
“No,” I shook my head. “That’s impossible. I was there just yesterday. I was the one that cleared the dungeon and killed the mutant holed up inside.”
My father nodded solemnly. “Apparently after you left, as everyone prepared to depart, another horde of mana beasts led by a mutant attacked them. Helen thinks that the bottom floor of the first dungeon was connected to another dungeon.”
“The fight was a mess because no one had been expecting a battle. The Twin Horns and some other veteran soldiers stayed and bought some time for everyone else,” my mother continued. “Luckily, the mutant was only B class, but because its army was larger and caught them off guard, there were more deaths than necessary… including Adam’s.”
A barren silence lingered in the room after my mother finished speaking. I couldn’t believe that someone I had just seen yesterday was dead. Suddenly, a sinking realization made me bolt upright; Tess had been in that dungeon!
“Who else died?” I asked. Despite my concern, I didn’t want to seem insensitive of Adam’s death by asking if Tess was okay.
“That was all I was able to hear from Helen. It was an emergency transmission so the message was rather short, but seeing as she didn’t include anyone else, I figured the others that died were soldiers we didn’t know,” my father added with a sigh. “Although Commander Virion probably knows more now since some time has passed.”
Helen would’ve surely mentioned if something had happened to Tess, but it still made me uneasy, to say the least.
“I’m sorry about what happened to Adam,” I consoled my father. Adam wasn’t my favorite of the Twin Horns as I had found his quick temper and cynical sarcasm to be distasteful, but he had been loyal. Underneath his impatient and cranky exterior had been a trustworthy comrade that stood by my parents’ sides while they were in the Twin Horns.
I could now see why the atmosphere surrounding my father was so heavy.
“Don’t misunderstand, Arthur. We’re not doing this out of guilt—a soldier’s life is always in danger,” my father said.
“Even still,” I said, shaking my head.
I knew I was being unreasonable. My father had every right to fight the battles he chose. But it was my own selfishness of wanting to keep the ones I loved safe that made me want to try.
It didn’t matter what level your core was or how knowledgeable you were about mana manipulation. No matter how much you strengthened your body or heavily you equipped yourself, death could come at any moment in a battle; no matter how strong I became, I firmly believed that. Yet, my father was willing to risk his and my mother’s lives when it wasn’t only unnecessary, but reckless.
“Arthur, it’s not his fault,” my mother consoled. “I’m the one that wants to go back to the Twin Horns and help out in the war.”
“What?” I blurted, completely taken by surprise. “You want to go to war?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“B-But you can’t,” I turned to my father, bewilderment practically written on my face. “I mean, Dad said you avoid using magic because something happened in the past. Why now…?”
My mother cast a glance at my father, who dipped his head in a solemn nod. “Arthur, sit down.”
I obeyed, taking a seat at the foot of the bed as my mother gathered her thoughts.
“What else did my hus—your father tell you?” She eyed me guiltily as she amended her words but I didn’t take it to heart. She had told me to give her time to accept who I was and I could tell that with her being overly mindful, she was trying.
“That’s about all he told me,” I said. “He said the rest was to be told by you when you were ready.”
“What we never told you, Arthur, about the Twin Horns, was that there was actually one more member.”
My brows furrowed as I glanced over to my father, who remained silent.
“Her name was Lensa, a talented and young augmenter at the time,” my mother continued.
She went on telling me a story of a very bright and hopeful mage that had joined the Twin Horns shortly after my father had brought in a young Alice from Valden City. My mother’s eyes glazed over as she described how she and Lensa had hit it off immediately, Lensa’s brash and straightforwardness meshing well with my mother’s timidity. Lensa had done well for herself as an adventurer even without the help of a party, to the point where she was already fairly well-known. So when she had asked the Twin Horns if she could join their party, it came as a surprise to everyone.
My mother closed her eyes and paused for a breath. “It had only been about two years since she joined when the accident occurred.”
My brows furrowed in apprehension as I imagined what sort of accident had transpired, when my mother faintly smiled. “It isn’t some dramatic calamity that befell us; not everyone’s life is as exciting as yours is.”
Embarrassed, I let out an uncomfortable laugh as I scratched my cheek.
“We had gotten careless and ran into an ambush by a pack of stingers. None of us had sustained any major injuries and I thought very little of it as I healed everyone’s surface wounds.” My mother pursed her lips to keep from crying. “The thing about being an emitter is that everyone expects you to know how to heal every injury—that your magic is a one-spell-cures-all when that really isn’t the case.”
My father placed a consoling hand on my mother’s back as her body shuddered.
“I didn’t know at that time either since it hadn’t been that long since I had awakened and I never fully trained in the different aspects of healing; I didn’t think I needed to.” Wiping away her tears, she looked up at me with red eyes. “I closed everyone’s wounds, except the venom from the stingers’ tails had infected the flesh below. Your father and everyone else was able to get treated in time before it could do any harm, but for Lensa, the wound was close to her mana core, and after I had closed her wounds, the venom spread.”
I drew in a breath sharply. “Then…”
“Yeah. Her mana core had gotten infected to the point where she could no longer practice mana manipulation. I had robbed my friend and teammate of the one true joy in her life.”
“At least she’s still alive,” I said, trying to comfort her until she shook her head.
“She went off by herself into a dungeon and never came back out,” my mother said. “She had always said that she wanted to die gloriously in battle, but she went into a high-risk dungeon without being able to use magic to get herself killed. And you know what the funny part is?”
My mother looked up, trying to keep any more tears from falling as she scoffed. “If I hadn’t closed the wound, the doctor would’ve been able to easily extract the poison. She probably would’ve been fine if I hadn’t healed her.”
I opened my mouth, hoping words would form, but none did. My father remained silent as well, his hand still gently stroking my mother’s back.
After a few minutes, my mother composed herself. “I’ve been scared to properly use magic for anything more than minor injuries since then. Back when we were first on our way to Xyrus and we had gotten attacked, I was barely able to bring myself to heal your dying father. But after you told us about your…secret, and went off to train, Elder Rinia helped me as well while we were holed up in that cave. I doubt Adam’s death was a sign, but after everything the Twin Horns has done for your father and I, I think it’s time for us to be there for them.”
The resolution in my mother’s eyes made it clear that she didn’t say all this hoping to gain my approval.
“That’s not the only reason though,” my father said in a hushed tone. “Now that you’re back, it’s been killing me thinking about you, fighting out in the war while we’re here, safely twiddling our thumbs and waiting for good news.”
“But what if something happens to either of you? What will happen to Ellie then?” I argued, still uneasy about letting them out to battle.
“The same goes for you, Arthur. No matter how strong you are, death rarely comes from just weakness; it sneaks up when your guard is down. I’ll protect your mother and you can bet that our goal in this war will be to make it out in one piece and come back to you and your sister, but you have to do the same.” My father paused for a second as his gaze hardened. “We may not have raised you as we thought we had with your past life’s memories and all, but you can be damn sure that Ellie sees you as her loving brother, so don’t be so eager to sacrifice yourself for some vague ‘greater good,’ and come out of this war safely. Even if we lose this war, there will always be a chance to fight back. The only situation where you truly lose is when you die, because there are no second chances after that.”
I couldn’t help but let out a soft chuckle. “Well…”
“You know what I mean!” my father snapped, eliciting a faint smile from my mother.
Suddenly, a hurried knock drew our attention to the door. After trading glances with my parents, I said, “It’s open.”
The wooden door swung open to reveal Virion in the same black robe he had worn earlier today in our meeting with the Vritra. “Boy, have you heard?”
“Commander Virion!” My parents bolted up from their seats.
“Please. Just Virion is fine for Arthur’s parents,” he replied with a quick wave of his hand.
“Is it the attack?” I guessed, judging by his perturbed expression.
“Good, you have then,” Virion nodded. “And have you told your parents?”
“My parents were the one that told me.”
Virion’s brows raised in mild surprise but he merely let out a sigh as he regarded my parents. “Then you must’ve heard what happened to your ex-party member.”
My father responded with a solemn nod.
“You have my deepest condolences,” Tess’s grandfather lamented. “Some of the soldiers that were there arrived at the castle just now. I came to get Arthur, but I’m positive that at least the leader of the Twin Horns is here. Would you like to come with us?”
After sending a quick transmission to Sylvie—that we were going to be on the lower floor and to stay with Ellie—the four of us hurried to the teleportation room.
The towering iron doors that protected the teleportation room had been left open as soldiers, still worn from battle, stumbled out of the glowing gate in the center of the room, some still with their weapons drawn and bloody.
Guards lined the walls in case anyone other than Dicathen soldiers made their way through the portal as handmaids and nurses waited with fresh gauze and vials of antiseptics and ointment to provide treatment to the badly injured soldiers.
Spotting Helen first, I nudged my parents’ attention to her direction.
Needless to say, she was in a miserable state. Her metal chest guard was cracked with only a fragment of her shoulder brace still attached to her. The leather armor that protected the rest of Helen’s body had gashes in it, lined with dried blood, but her expression wasn’t that of weariness or pain. There was a raging tempest in her eyes as she walked down the platform with her broken bow still in hand.
“Helen!” my father called out. My parents immediately rushed toward Helen. The leader of the Twin Horns’ expression softened at the sight of my parents as she received their hug.
Leaving Virion, who was still anxiously waiting for Tess to walk through the portal, I made my way toward Helen.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” I said, giving her a gentle hug. “I’m sorry for what happened to Adam… If only I had stayed down there with you guys—”
“Don’t,” Helen stopped me. “No good ever comes out of thinking like that. What happened, happened. The best thing to do is focus on how we’ll make those damn Alacryans and their mutant pets pay.”
“What you have to focus on now is resting,” my mother said. “Come, we’ll have a nurse look at you.”
My mother guided Helen, who had insisted that she was okay, with my father trailing closely behind them. I figured they’d tell Helen about their plans on re-joining the Twin Horns, but I remained in the room to wait for Tess to come back.
The soldiers that escaped had managed to reach one of the hidden teleportation gates within the Beast Glades, but without the time for a headcount and the fact that the horde of mana beasts might still ambush them outside of the dungeon made me worry the longer Tess didn’t show up.
Not more than a few minutes could’ve passed but it felt like an eternity as unfamiliar faces staggered out of the teleportation gate. Finally, a familiar face popped out of the portal; it was the boy named Stannard.
He had a few scuffs on his tunic and pants and his face was smudged with dirt but I took the fact that there was no blood on him as a positive sign.
I didn’t hesitate to dash to him, pulling him aside almost instantly as he stepped out of the gate.
“Woah! What giv—”
“Where’s Tessia? Was she with you?” I bombarded, gripping his arm tightly.
“Arthur Leywin?” His face twinged. “Ouch. Your grip is a bit tight.”
I immediately let go, my gaze still shifting between Stannard and the teleportation gate just in case Tess came out.
“Sorry, Stannard. I heard about the ambush in the dungeon. Where’s the rest of your team?” I asked impatiently. The noise level in the room had grown as more soldiers filled the area. Some were groaning in pain while others were talking to guards and filling them in on what had happened.
“Th-They should’ve been behind me,” he replied, looking back. “It was too crazy. We had to keep running just in case they chased after us.”
Stannard was shivering as his knees buckled. I put his arms over my shoulders and helped him to the side where he could sit and lean against the wall.
Looking at everyone’s state, Helen had clearly understated the severity of the ambush to my parents. As I veered over the crowd of soldiers, I spotted the rest of Tess’s teammates.
The girl named Caria was carrying the boy I had dueled against—Darvus, I think—on her back, his feet dragging on the ground because of their difference in height.
The short augmenter was easily carrying her teammate despite the multiple wounds on her body. Her curly brown hair was amok, caked with blood at the ends, and her leather armor was tattered beyond repair.
Rushing to them, I lifted the unconscious Darvus and began carrying him, surprising Caria.
“Thank you,” she replied meekly as I guided her to Stannard.
As I put Darvus down, the wild-haired augmenter stirred awake. Letting out a pained groan, his glazed eyes focused on me. As soon as he realized who he was staring at, his eyes narrowed. “You… because of that bloody technique of yours, I couldn’t muster up any mana to fight!”
Despite his anger, his voice came out hoarse and weak.
“I’m sorry. I really am.”
Darvus sunk back against the wall before falling back into unconsciousness, joining the sleeping Stannard.
I snagged a pitcher of water from a handmaid passing by and gave it to Caria. She immediately buried her head inside the glass pitcher, gulping down the water before passing it back to me, completely empty.
“Caria.” I gently shook her shoulder to keep her from falling asleep. “I need to know what happened to Tessia.”
Caria’s eyes were half-closed as she opened her mouth to explain. She was about to speak when, instead, her lips curled into a grin. She pointed behind me, wordlessly.
Confused, I looked over my shoulder. Hobbling out of the portal, dirty, with clothes tattered, hair amok, armor dented and cracked, but alive and in one piece, was Tessia.