Chapter 242: Two Loves
Tess’s eyes lit up. “Really? You’re coming with me?”
“But… you have to reconcile with Virion first,” I said sternly. “Whatever you argued about with him, remember that he didn’t just lose you back at the Castle, he lost his son.”
“I-I know. What they did was wrong, but they only did it—”
“To save you. Yeah, I know,” I finished. “Which is why if we’re going to save them and bring them back here, you’re going to want to be the bridge that’ll mend things between your grandfather and parents. You won’t be able to do that if you just leave like this.”
Tess opened her mouth, as if to argue, but simply let out a sigh. “You know, most girls don’t like guys who are always right like this.”
A smile tugged at the corner of my lips. “Do you want most girls to like me?”
Narrowing her eyes, Tess punched me in the arm before turning back towards our camp. “Come on. Let’s go back.”
“I’m sorry—I really am—but we can’t risk it,” Elder Rinia said resolutely. “Your mana core has been corrupted by the beast will inside you. If you leave—”
“But the potion cured me! That’s why my parents did all of that—so they could give it to me!” Tess argued.
“The potion that Agrona gave you, Tessia. You may be fine now, but we don’t know if that was a permanent solution or if it’ll only give you a period of respite. It’s too soon to tell and if something does happen to you on that journey and you’re taken by the Alacryans…”
“Why does it matter whether I’m taken by the Alacryans? How does my death affect the future of an entire continent?” Tess demanded.
“Tessia!” Virion snapped. “Don’t talk like that!”
“It’s true though,” she continued. “I’m not anywhere near as strong as the lances, nor am I influential enough to rally people together like either of you. Why does my death matter?”
I took a step forward when Sylvie put her hand in front of me.
‘Don’t, Arthur. It’s not our place to interfere. Not now,’ she sent, a wave of solemnness leaking from her.
As Tessia, Virion, and Elder Rinia continued to argue, I shifted my gaze to the others around us. Bairon was leaning against the far wall of the room by the door with his arms crossed. My sister had left the room some time ago with Boo while Mother quietly listened.
“So are you saying that I can’t even go find my own mother and father?” Tess asked quietly, her eyes brimming with tears.
Virion’s gaze softened as he grabbed his granddaughter’s hand. “We’ll bring them back. Just give me and Bairon some time to recover.”
After a long silence, Tess finally nodded in acceptance. “…I’m sorry, Grandpa.”
Virion pulled his granddaughter into his arms. “It’s okay, Little One. It’s okay.”
My mother walked over to us, gently patting Sylvie on her shoulder. My bond and my mother exchanged a warm smile before my mother’s gaze shifted to me. “Your sister is outside. You should go talk to her.”
After taking a quick glance at Tess to see how she was, I turned back to my mother. “Okay.”
As I turned to leave, I was grabbed by the wrist. I saw my mother’s eyes red and glistening.
“Mom? Is something wrong?”
She smiled at me and shook her head. “It’s nothing. I’m just glad you’re staying,” she said quietly, just barely enough for me to hear.
My mother let go of my wrist and waved me away with a smile, but my chest still tightened from guilt.
‘Go. I’ll watch over your mother,’ Sylvie comforted.
I passed by Bairon, who shot me a quick glance and nodded, before heading down the stairs to the ground floor.
I berated myself as I walked out of the building. It made sense in my head to go with Tess since my mother and sister were safe here, but I didn’t think about how they’d feel about me leaving.
Spotting my sister and her giant bond by the stream, I walked over. Boo was curled up into a furry ball, sleeping, while Ellie was throwing rocks into the stream.
“Mind if I join you?” I asked.
“Why? Aren’t you going to leave soon, anyway?” she asked bitterly.
I picked up a flat rock. “We decided not to go until Bairon and Virion are both fully healed.”
Ellie chucked another rock, making it splash into the calm water. “That’s too bad. You were probably looking forward to going off on your little romantic adventure with Tessia.”
“You know it’s not like that,” I said calmly, snapping my wrist as I tossed the flat rock. The two of us watched as the smooth stone skipped four, seven, ten times before it finally sank. “Bringing back Tess’s parents is something that has to be done.”
“Why?” my sister retorted. “Because your girlfriend wants you to?”
“Ellie,” I replied.
“Don’t ‘Ellie’ me!” my sister snapped, throwing the rock in her hand before turning to me. “I overheard Commander Virion talking to Tessia earlier. I know that the four of you almost died fighting that one scythe! And now you’re telling me that you’re going to go back there to bring back the elves who basically sold us all out?”
“It’s not that simple, you know that.”
“It sounds pretty simple to me,” she said sharply, looking down to search for another rock. “Our family—what’s left of it—barely got back together but you’re already eager to leave us.”
My insides knotted as I saw the drops of tears stain the rocks on the ground below her lowered head.
“I’m never eager to leave you guys.” I let out a sigh. “I’m one of the few mages powerful enough to turn the tide in this war, and one way to do that is by bringing back Tess’ parents. Only then will we be able to muster up the forces necessary to eventually take back Dicathen.”
My sister paused as she held onto a fist-sized rock on the ground, her face still covered by her hair.
I continued. “I love Tess. But you, Mom and Sylvie are my family.”
Boo let out a deep groan from the side.
“And you too, Boo. You’re family too,” I added, smiling as Ellie stifled a laugh. “I’d do anything to keep you all safe, and if that means I have to be away from you all to do it, that’s the price I have to pay.”
Ellie quickly wiped her tears before getting back up. She turned around and threw the stone in her hand. “I know. It’s just… I wish you were around more.”
I picked up another flat rock and threw it. “I wish I was too. More than anything. But I don’t want you and Mom living in an underground town below a desert for the rest of your lives, and to do that, I need to get off my butt.”
“I don’t mind it. I know Mom won’t wouldn’t mind it too,” she said, watching my rock skip on the water. “I know you’re doing this to keep us all safe, but it works both ways, you know.”
Ellie turned around, pouting with red eyes and flushed cheeks. “We just want you safe.”
I smiled. “Do you know what my dream is after this is all over?”
“For us to live together in a huge house by the ocean. Me, you, Mom, Sylvie, Boo, and Tess.”
“Wait, why do you get to live with your girlfriend? What about my future boyfriend?” she protested.
I looked at her blankly. “You won’t have a boyfriend.”
“What? Why not?”
“Because if you do, I’ll get rid of him,” I said matter-of-factly.
“That’s not fair!” she huffed.
I shrugged. “Big brothers are never fair.”
Ellie puffed her cheeks for a moment before she broke out into laughter, causing me to laugh as well.
“Fine,” she relented. “But in exchange, you have to teach me how you do that.”
I raised a brow. “Do what?”
“That thing where the rock bounces on top of the water! Are you using magic?”
“I’m not using magic at all,” I said, skipping another rock.
Ellie tried as well, mimicking my motions and failing. “Lies. You’re totally using magic.”
“No, I’m not, just watch…”
Three days passed by in the blink of an eye. During this time, Tess came to terms with Virion and the two had made up. It was good to see everyone—except for Bairon—smiling and laughing in this dreary underground town.
When Virion and Bairon weren’t resting, they were meditating and trying to cycle mana throughout their body to hasten their recovery. It was a slow and arduous process for all of us to meditate in this place due to the absence of ambient mana.
Despite the disadvantages of having little to no ambient mana, this underground village built by the ancient mages had a large benefit for me and Sylvie.
“Happy training,” I teased, sitting cross-legged on the hard ground.
“It’s amazing how you haven’t gotten sick of this,” Sylvie said, sitting down across from me in the same hallway we had arrived from. “I’m making progress, but you’ve yet to even take a step forward. How are you not discouraged at all?”
I shrugged. “I’ve had things too easy up until now. Besides, if these damn ancient mages were able to learn it to this extent, I’m sure I’ll eventually get the hang of it.”
“Your optimism is leaking over to me,” Sylvie said, shuddering as she closed her eyes to concentrate.
Still seated, I ignited Realmheart. Color flushed away from the world, leaving only motes of purple either swaying rhythmically in the air or cluttered together on the walls to produce the soft light around us.
At the same time, my bond opened up her consciousness completely to me so I could sense every little thing she was doing. This was the training system that I had devised.
Both Elder Rinia and Sylvie had agreed that it was impossible for them to teach me how to use aether. While Elder Rinia was limited in what she could tell me, for my bond, it was more so that the act of using aether was too natural for her.
Just like how a bird didn’t need to be taught how to fly, Sylvie teaching me how to use aether was akin to a bird teaching a fish how to fly—me being that fish.
So, for these past few days, I had endured hours of watching and listening to my bond’s thoughts as she meditated and slowly grew her control over the aether arts as well.
But from what little I’d learned through this process, it felt like the aether was more or less teaching Sylvie; it was nothing like mana at all.
Shaping and controlling the power within my body had been ingrained in me since my previous life, while learning to utilize aether seemed as if it would be going against everything I had worked for.
What didn’t add up, however, was the fact that the ancient mages had managed to trap aether into these artifacts in order to light them up. The very nature of this was paradoxical to what my bond was doing.
Hours passed with no sign of progress to show for it. Frustrated and impatient, I once again walked back to our camp alone while my bond continued to strengthen herself.
On my way back, I stopped by one of the adjacent hallways where Elder Rinia was working.
“How’s the teleportation gate coming along?” I asked as I walked in on the old elf with glowing purple hands drawing what looked like runes on the inner mechanisms of the old portal she had used to bring Tess and my family here. “Maybe you should take a break.”
“I’m nearly finished! I think I should be done… in a few hours,” she said in between heavy breaths.
It was obvious that utilizing aether was taking a large toll on her body. “We need you to take care of your health, Elder Rinia. You look like you’ve aged another century since you got here.”
“If I wasn’t so tired, I’d take the effort to walk over to you and slap you, but… meh,” she said, not bothering to look at me. “Besides, Lady Sylvie has been helping me out a lot by providing me with the raw power to power this old thing up.”
It was still jarring to hear anyone, especially someone as old and distinguished as Elder Rinia, refer to my bond as ‘Lady Sylvie’.
“Should I call her over?” I asked.
“No, no. Just a last bit of tinkering with the runes to set the return point,” she replied, waving me away.
My curiosity getting the better of me, I stuck around for a bit, watching her draw runes in the empty center of the teleportation gate.
The rune was a complicated shape stemming from a center pentagon that branched out into sharp angles creating a rigid vortex-like pattern. I found myself following her hand movements as she carefully traced over the rune until the faint purple shape faded and spread out to the outer structure of the gate.
“You should get going. Tessia came by earlier. She was asking for you,” said Elder Rinia.
“Oh.” I scratched my head. “I wonder what she wants.”
After reminding the old elf not to overdo it one more time, I walked back, reaching the main base. Near the flowing stream that cut through the abandoned town with rows of empty buildings, I saw Ellie and Tess playing with each other. Tess was conjuring tiny orbs of water above the stream while Ellie shot them down by firing mana arrows from her bow.
I was about to call out to them when I had a better idea.
Just as Tess raised another sphere of water, I flicked my wrist, willing the orb to dash left. The glowing arrow of pure mana whizzed by, missing its mark entirely.
Hearing Tess exclaim in confusion made me snicker, but I continued to mess with my sister. I dodged Ellie’s arrows, maneuvering the orb of water with ease and even squirting a stream of water at her face, until finally my sister screamed out in frustration.
“We know it’s you, Brother! ” my sister yelled, stressing our relationship as if it were a curse.
“How were you not even able to land a single hit on it?” I laughed aloud, unable to hold it in.
Ellie fired a mana arrow directly at my face, but I continued laughing as I easily caught it in my hand.
“Ellie! Don’t fire arrows at your brother!” my mother’s voice echoed from the second floor of the building just behind Tess and my sister.
“Arthur started it!” Ellie retorted, pointing her finger at me.
Tess let out a chortle, covering her mouth while trying to stifle her laughter as my sister turned more red.
The three of us eventually headed inside. I continued to make fun of my sister as she, in turn, continued to throw fists and conjurations of pure mana at my face.
“Oh yeah, Elder Rinia mentioned that you were looking for me earlier?” I asked Tess while dodging and deflecting my baby sister’s attacks.
“O-Oh, uh, it was nothing. I just wanted to check in on how everyone was doing,” she said, quickening her pace to beat us up the stairs.
When we arrived upstairs, I could see a row of flame-grilled fish skewered on branches.
“Wow!” I said, my mouth already beginning to salivate.
“I managed to catch quite a few fish today,” my mother grinned proudly, tapping her flexed arm. “Eat up while I go bring Commander Virion and General Bairon back from their meditation.”
I immediately grabbed a skewer and took a bite, only to have a richly-seasoned flavor burst into my mouth. “How is this fish salted?” I asked amidst my chewing.
My mother turned back as she was leaving through the door. “Elder Rinia packed it in one of her dimension rings.”
“‘One of’?” Tess repeated, handing a skewer to Ellie before taking one for herself.
“Mhmm. Elder Rinia has at least eight dimension rings full of things necessary to live here. She’s even brought various seeds so that we can start growing our own fruits and vegetables down here,” my mother answered, smiling. “All of you will have to help out so we can start accommodating a lot more people here.”
Tess and I exchanged glances as both of us were no doubt wondering the same thing: how far back had Elder Rinia prepared for all of this?
It was almost impossible to tell how much time had passed without a sun above us, but eventually everyone had gathered back together. Bairon and Virion, while still incapacitated, were looking better everyday. Sylvie joined us for food as well while talking and smiling with Tess and Ellie. Elder Rinia had come back and, after a quick bite to eat, immediately fell asleep in her bed.
My mother had done a fantastic job of making the desolate building seem more homey. Most of us only got a blanket in order to save resources, but with the curtains set up in front of the doorways of each room and small decorative touches in each of them, this place didn’t seem as much of a refuge shelter anymore.
I found myself comfortable and happy as I drifted off to sleep. In a way, being here with the ones that I cared about the most—this was what I had hoped for. I wanted to quickly bring the Twin Horns down here as well; I knew my mother and sister would be happy at that.
I was eager to start the new day.
If only I knew what I would be waking up to.