A cascade of cracked stones and rubble tumbled from the cave roof just over Ellie and me. With her in my arms, I turned and took a small step, letting the stones rain harmlessly on the dais behind me.
Ellie winced. “Oh, ouch.”
Her eyes were red-rimmed from crying, her jaw tight with pain. I prodded at the hole in her clothes just below her ribs. The skin beneath was clean, only the barest hint of a scar. My mother had done a good job healing her.
I sensed inward for Regis, who was hovering near my core, drawing hungrily from my aether. I couldn’t sense anything different between us, even after our separation by the portal. Although the range we could travel apart had increased greatly, that was the first time we had been cut off from each other like that since he first appeared out of the acclorite in my hand.
Glad to have you back, Regis.
My companion hummed his muted acknowledgement. Holding open the broken portal from this side had been a drain on him, and so I left him to rest and to continue drawing aether from my core.
“We’ve been saved!” a young elven woman shouted suddenly, pulling me sharply out of my reunion with my family.
Another voice called out, “Our savior!”
Ellie flinched away from the shout as she slipped past me and hurried to our mother’s side, easing down beside her. Mom looked different. Not as different as me, maybe, but thinner, older…and something more difficult to pin down. There was a hardness to her, even as she shook and trembled on the floor.
There was so much to say between us. Even if we had hours or days, I wasn’t sure if that would be enough time. But we didn’t.
“Is it really you, Lance Godspell?”
“Please,” the first woman said, now reaching out both her arms to me, “speak to us!”
I had seen faces like this, wide-eyed with awe and supplication, directed at me as King Grey but never as Arthur. It was a conflicting sight. I didn’t want to be worshiped like some deity, an instant replacement for the asuras who kept trying to kill these people despite having for so long been looked up to as gods.
“I’m not your savior,” I said, gently removing my arm from the woman’s grasp. My gaze shifted to where Rinia’s body lay in Virion’s arms, and when I spoke again, I could hear the sadness in my own words. “The leaders who brought you here…they are.”
A tense, still silence followed my statement, at least among those who were more focused on me than the work still needing done around them.
“I’m not here to become the focus of your false hope, a replacement for that source of wonder the asuras gave you. Take strength from yourselves, don’t force others to hold you up.” I paused, looking away from the crowd. “The path is only going to grow more difficult from here.”
I turned back to my mother and Ellie, hoping for even just a moment to be together, but it wasn’t to be.
Madam Astera limped up to the edge of the dais, leaning against it just beside my mother. Despite having dueled her and fought beside her when she lost her leg, I still saw her first as the hard-drinking cook I had met back when the war just started.
But the look on her face now wasn’t that of a cook. “Alice, I’m sorry to break this up, but there are too many wounded. We need you.”
My mother wiped at her tears, smearing blood across her face, which made her look like some wild, fierce warrior. She glanced up at me, and I knew that whatever we both needed to say could wait. I was here to keep her safe, and now she knew that I was alive.
For the moment, that was enough.
Mother turned and slid off the dais, moving first to Angela Rose and Durden, who I realized had been hunkered on one of the broad stone benches that encircled the Relictombs portal. Angela Rose seemed to be favoring her leg, but Durden was lying still, his eyes open but unfocused, a steady trail of blood flowing down over one ear.
Regis, could you help my mom again, even if it’s just the most dire ones. She won’t have the strength to heal all these people alone.
‘All I did was draw aether into the spell, which was reacting with the natural vivum in the…’ Regis trailed off. ‘Yeah, all right. But I better be getting some kind of raise, here.’
I watched as Regis drifted out of me, leapt across to where my mother had climbed up next to Durden—earning a surprised yell from both Angela and Madem Astera—and dematerialized, drifting into Durden’s body.
A blend of wariness and curiosity flitted in Ellie’s eyes as she watched him go. When she looked away, her focus settled on the portal frame, which once again stood empty. “Wait, where’s Sylvie?” she asked in the tone of voice that suggested she already suspected the answer.
I activated my dimension rune and called up the egg. The gloom leached the iridescent shine from it, and it looked like little more than a smooth rock. “She’s in here.”
“Wait, what does that mean?” Ellie asked, leaning down to peer at the stone in my hand. “Is she okay? Why is she—”
I stopped her with a smile, though I knew it didn’t reach my eyes. “Later, okay?”
Her mouth opened, more questions ready to tumble out, but she caught herself. Nodding firmly, she hopped to her feet with a poorly concealed wince. Her eyes jumped around from person to person, group to group, and mine followed.
I didn’t recognize everyone. It seemed like most were elves—survivors who had fled Elenoir during the Alacryan invasion, I assumed. Those who weren’t there when Aldir arrived.
Helen Shard, leader of the Twin Horns, was unconscious but alive.
Boo dragged himself up to his paws as I watched, shaking his head. The large bearlike mana beast stiffened, staring around, but when he caught sight of Ellie, he relaxed. His dark, beady eyes moved to me, and I could have sworn he squinted. I nodded, glad to see my sister’s bond was alive. The bear hesitated for a moment, then nodded in return.
Virion was closest, his cheek resting on the top of Rinia’s head, his arms wrapped around her to hold her prone form upright against his chest. He stared at the ground at my feet, almost as if he was avoiding looking at me. As much as I wanted to offer him comfort, though, there were too many people who needed my help.
Scrambling to dig away a pile of small stones near the back of the room, an uncharacteristic look of desperation on his face, was Gideon. His entire body was covered in a thick layer of gray dust, but he himself didn’t seem injured. Which meant…
Ducking through the empty stone rectangle that was the portal frame, I leapt off the dais and climbed up a rockslide until I was next to him. Gideon looked at me with wide, bloodshot eyes beneath half-grown brows. Despite his obvious terror, he still paused long enough to give me a thorough inspection.
He wheezed, coughing up a lungful of dusty air. “Em…ily,” he choked out between more coughs.
I scanned the hill of stones and dirt, cursing my lack of ability to sense mana. “Stand back,” I said, pushing aether out of my core and beginning to shape it.
Though the aether within the in-between realm where I’d fought Taci had reacted to my will instantly and in ways I didn’t fully understand, such as the formation of the platforms that had consistently appeared just where and when I’d needed them, now that I was back in the real world, I felt the same struggle I always had.
But I had experienced what was possible.
Picturing the shape in my mind, I shuffled to the side and released an aetheric blast over the surface of the rockslide, carefully molding the blast to only scrape away the top couple inches of stone. When it worked, I did it again, then a third time, revealing the scratched surface of a stone bench.
A gust of wind blasted upward, coiling and spinning so that the remaining dirt and gravel was suspended in a funnel of air over three huddled figures.
Jasmine lay atop Emily Watkins, my old friend from Xyrus Academy and Gideon’s apprentice, and a girl I only knew from my visions within the seeing relic. All three looked choked with dust and half suffocated, their faces blotchy red and caked in sweat-moistened dust. Jasmine must have shielded the two young women when the ceiling collapsed on them.
With a jerk of her arm, Jasmine sent the revolving debris clattered to the ground in a rough circle around us. She leaned back against one bench and rested her head against the cool stone. I was surprised when her red eyes opened a slit and stared at me. I’d nearly forgotten.
Gideon pulled Emily to her feet and began brushing her off with rough pats. Her green hair was a tangled mess, and her glasses had been knocked askew. One lens was cracked, and she had a bloody gash across the bridge of her nose, which was probably broken. Other than that, she didn’t seem dangerously injured.
I grabbed the third figure, an elf girl perhaps slightly younger than my sister, and helped her to sit up. She scooted away from me to lean against Jasmine, who winced. Only then did I see the deep gash in Jasmine’s side, a clean cut that sheared through the black leather of her armor and the flesh beneath.
She followed my gaze, staring at the wound as if only just noticing it was there. The elf girl did the same, whimpering quietly. “J-Jasmine…?”
My old mentor and friend ruffled the girl’s hair in a very un-Jasmine-like way. “I’ll be fine.” Her scarlet gaze moved back to me. “So, while we were all here fighting for our lives, you were busy getting your hair dyed, huh?”
I let out a startled laugh.
Jasmine shrugged. “You could have come back with green skin and three heads, and I’d still know you. I’m…glad you’re not dead, Arthur.”
“And I’m glad you figured out how to use your tongue while I was away,” I said, nudging her foot with mine.
Emily reached out and touched my arm as if trying to make sure I was real. “Art? Is it really…” She paused, and I realized there was a greenish tint to her face that matched her hair. “Um, just a…” Turning, she rushed away, bent over, and was sick.
“Stay here, I’ll go get my mother,” I said, watching Emily with a look of concern etched on my face.
“I’m fine,” Jasmine repeated insistently. Then she glanced at Emily’s back. “She may have hit her head though.”
“All right, just wait here,” I said, scanning the room for my mother.
She had moved from Durden to a small, huddled group of elves. An elderly woman was lying on the ground between them. I could see Regis within her, moving throughout her body and drawing aether to himself. The aether seemed to ignore her wounds, and my mother was shaking her head.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to steady myself. Even with magic, it was impossible to save everyone.
When I opened my eyes, Mom was looking in my direction. I waved my hand and pointed at Emily and Jasmine. She nodded and held up one finger, then turned back to the elves.
With Jasmine and Emily out of immediate danger, I began to hurry along the upper ring of benches, searching the room below for anyone who looked as if they needed help. As I did, many pairs of eyes followed me, filled with hope and fear, the awe I inspired in them written clearly on their filthy faces.
I passed a young elf about my age. He was sitting on the ground between two corpses, his head in his hands. Both bodies were carved nearly in two—one of Taci’s ranged attacks that I hadn’t been able to stop.
But when he looked up at me, I didn’t see my failure reflected back in his eyes. He scrambled forward onto his knees, bowing.
“T-thank you,” he stammered. “Justice for the f-fallen.” When he looked up again, his eyes were hard and full of fire. “May all the asura burn, like the trees of Elenoir.” I couldn’t help the thought that both his words and his voice seemed too old for him, like the war had aged him beyond his years.
Nodding, I moved on, keeping up a quick circuit of the cavern, my mind and spirit both heavy.
Near the arched door, which led out into a hallway covered in carvings, several corpses lay butchered. Guards, by the look of them. I found no familiar faces among them until—
“Albold,” I muttered, going to one knee beside the young elven guard who I had first met in the flying castle. His skin was pale and cold to the touch, his eyes staring sightlessly up at the unstable ceiling.
Where his chest used to be, there was now only a bloody hole.
I closed his eyes, bowing my head over him, but only for a moment. There were more living than dead, and I needed to make sure they stayed that way.
There will be time for mourning later, I told myself.
Not far from the entrance, an older woman with a bloodstained face reached out and grabbed my hand, tugging insistently. When she tried to speak, I realized her jaw had been broken, but she was sitting off to the side by herself and no one seemed to have noticed. As I bent down to lift her in my arms, there was a sharp grinding noise and a puff of dust as the ceiling shifted above us.
I grabbed her and used God Step, letting the paths guide me across the room, where I appeared next to my mother. Wordlessly, I set the woman down, then God Stepped back across the cave just as the ceiling collapsed.
Aether rushed to my hand, then outward in a blast of energy that destroyed the collapsing stone.
My gaze tracked over the benches and rubble even as vibrant purple arcs of lightning still ran over my limbs, but everyone else had been quick enough to pull away from the rockslide.
“A true deity,” one of those still watching me with awe said a quiet, almost reverent voice.
“Lance Godspell!” someone cheered, and several others followed suit.
But a different voice cut across these, raised in frustration and anger, drawing my attention to the dais in the middle of the cave.
Framed in front of the empty portal, Madam Astera stood awkwardly, the foot of her prosthetic leg shattered, leaving it a few inches shorter than the other. Her finger was pointed down at Virion, her voice raised like she was scolding a child.
Feeling as though I was being pulled in twenty different directions at once, I hopped down the steps and over onto the dais. Astera turned at the sound of my approach, her brows raised. “Is it true then? Is it you, Lance Arthur Leywin?”
I gave her a hard look. “It is. Now what’s going on?”
The older woman’s brows turned down in anger, and her jaw tightened. After a moment, however, she took a long breath and let the tension fall away. “You talk some sense into him, then. We need a plan, Arthur, and we need to get moving.”
Astera limped down the steps that led off the dais, shaking her head, but I was focused on Virion.
He didn’t look at me until I settled down next to him. The woman in his arms was Rinia, I knew that, but she looked so old, like she’d been living ten days for every one that passed.
“She was using her powers too much,” Virion confirmed, as if plucking the thought from my mind. “Saw Taci coming, but couldn’t figure out how to escape it.” He closed his eyes and shook his head bitterly. “I failed her, Arthur. I wasn’t there when she needed me.”
I felt a pang as Virion’s regret and self-doubt matched my own. Reaching out, I took a firm hold of his forearm. “She did what she had to do, Virion. Rinia knew better than any of us the price of using her power, and she did it anyway.” I gently pushed aside a lock of gray-white hair that had fallen over her face. “My mother and sister are alive because of Rinia. Again…”
Rinia Darcassan had always been an enigmatic character in my life, quick to dole out mysterious, vaguely-worded advice but withholding any real details on the future. And yet, when things were most dire, she seemed to appear out of nowhere, like a ghost from the shadows, to deliver salvation.
An echo of her words from so long ago came back to me then, almost like I was hearing them for the first time.
She’d told me to have an anchor, to set myself a goal, and I thought I had: power, enough to keep those I loved safe, but…
I looked down at her, then around at the destroyed cave.
It had never been enough.
Which, I suppose, was why she gave me another piece of advice later on: “Do not fall back to your old ways. As you well know, the deeper you go into that pit, the harder it will be to climb back out.”
And I did have a long way to climb to be the person I wanted to be. The callouses I’d built up around myself to survive in Alacrya wouldn’t fade in a day, but they would eventually, if I let them.
“As soon as my mother has healed who she can, we should get moving,” I said, watching Virion carefully. I had no way of knowing everything he had been through since my disappearance, but he seemed much too close to his breaking point. “Perhaps we can set up a kind of cairn or—”
“No,” Virion said, his eyes flashing. “I can’t—I won’t leave her down here.”
I nodded in understanding, but shot pointed looks at several other corpses, clearly visible among the wreckage. “I understand, Virion. I’ll return for the bodies later, then. So they can all receive proper burials.”
“I…” Virion’s voice gave out, and he shrugged. “Very well then. I…I do not understand this…how you are here…but I am glad you’re alive, Arthur. These people need a strong leader.”
I rested a hand on his shoulder, looking him gravely in the eyes. “They already have one.”
As if waiting for some cue, Astera reappeared with Helen, Gideon, and a middle-aged elven woman I didn’t know.
The inventor held out a hand to me. I took it firmly, glancing to where Emily sat huddled with Jasmine, Ellie, and the young elf girl. Boo was keeping so close to my sister he was practically sitting on her.
“Concussed, but your mother has already seen to it,” Gideon said, his voice raw. “Got here just in the nick of time, as usual. Like to make an entrance, don’t you, Arthur?”
Despite his scathing tone, I knew this was Gideon’s way of saying thank you while deflecting any real emotion.
“We’ll have plenty of time to play catch up and figure out where Lance Arthur has been hiding all these months after we get the hell out of here,” Astera cut in. “We’re all that remains of the council, at least here. The Glayders, Earthborns, and the Ivsaar boy should be scattered all over the tunnels, waiting for word that it’s safe to come out.”
“But where do we go from here?” the elven woman asked. She had a kind face beneath a tangled web of auburn hair that had just started to gray. “We can’t exactly return to the sanctuary, compromised as it is.” Bright, leaf green eyes focused on me. “What is your guidance, Lance?”
“Please, Arthur’s just arrived back,” Helen said quickly, a defensive edge to her tone. “He likely had no idea what he was walking into. You can’t expect him to simply take up leadership of all these people, Saria.”
The elf woman bowed her head deferentially. “Of course, Ms. Shard. I simply thought, due to his obvious strength, perhaps…”
“Virion, do you have anything to put in?” Gideon asked into the silence that followed the elf, Saria’s, words.
Everyone looked down at the commander, who was still sitting on the ground with Rinia pulled against him. His gaze trailed from one set of feet to the next, never going higher. Just when it seemed he wouldn’t respond at all, Virion said, “I need time. Do not look to me for leadership, not now. I can’t give it to you.”
Saria kneeled down to him, reaching out her hand, then hesitating and withdrawing it. “Virion. You have been a hero to all elves for my entire life. And I understand the pain you face now, I do. My own mother lies dead not fifty feet from here. But we must not give in to our sorrows, lest we risk losing all the rest, too.”
I held out my hand to Virion. “She’s right, Gramps. We need you.”
Virion looked between us, heavy tears shining in his eyes, and took my hand. Saria eased Rinia’s corpse to the ground while I pulled Virion to his feet. We all watched in silence as Saria undid the sash around her waist and laid it respectfully across Rinia’s face.
Claws scratched against stone as Regis loped over to us, making the rest of the council members flinch back.
“We’ve done everything we can for the wounded,” he said tiredly, then drifted into my body.
The others stared at me in confusion, but were too tired and overwhelmed to press for details.
“Okay, let’s get moving then,” I said, already feeling the weight of their combined expectation.
Though exhausted and wary of more traveling, no one among the survivors was eager to linger in the cave, which continued to tremble and rain down dust and gravel at random intervals. I caught many nervous glances being thrown at the portal frame as well, as if they feared Taci might spring back out of it at any moment.
The deceased were laid out as respectfully as we could manage in the moment, but then we moved on.
The tunnel leading away from the descension chamber was entirely covered in carvings unlike anything I’d seen around the Relictombs in Alacrya. I could only hope there would be an opportunity to return in the future, as I had promised Virion, so that I could study them more closely.
We didn’t go far before Ellie grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. “There is a…thing up ahead. A trap.”
Moving forward alone, I found the passage inundated with aether. I could feel the edge of its effect, warning me away from this place, urging us forward at all speed. I reached for that aether, feeling its purpose and the shape of the spell cast by the djinn so long ago, and as if the hallway were filled with cobwebs, I waved it aside.
There was a violet shimmer in the air as the aether particles sank back into the walls, clearing the passage.
A gasp ran through the group. I ignored it, waving a hand forward. “Let’s keep moving.”
This tunnel was deep under the sanctuary, and we marched for more than an hour without seeing any signs of life.
Ellie, who had been walking with me at the front and giving me directions, suddenly held up a hand, forcing a stop. “There is a mana signature ahead, just there.”
As she said it, half a face peeked out of a narrow tunnel branching off the wider path we were taking. Raven-black hair framed a pale, porcelain face, out of which stared one large, chocolate-colored eye.
Kathyln’s thin lips parted as she stepped out into the open, seeming to forget her wariness. She scanned the group quickly, but her gaze settled on me, and she frowned deeply. She looked at Ellie, then me again, and finally rubbed her eyes. “Who…A-Art? Is that…?”
“No time,” Astera grumbled from atop Boo. “Where is the rest of your group?”
Kathyln had taken several quick steps toward me, but stopped at Astera’s words and straightened suddenly at the reminder of the reason she had been hiding. “We took shelter in a cave about twenty minutes farther down this tunnel. After feeling the asura’s intent vanish, I came out to wait. I haven’t seen anyone else.”
Our group rested while Kathyln hurried off to retrieve another group of survivors. When they returned, I was pleased to see how many there were. A moment was taken for reunions, then we began marching forward again.
It was Boo who warned us next, sniffing deeply and bullying past me to get in front of Ellie, earning a startled yelp from Astera.
“What is it, Boo?” Ellie asked, pressing her hand into his thick brown fur. “Oh, there’s someone coming. They smell like blood.”
I stepped out in front of the group and waited, aether swirling between my fingers in case I needed to form a weapon.
Slow, unsteady footsteps resounded down the tunnel just before a silhouette coalesced out of the darkness. For an instant I thought it must be some kind of monster, then I realized the truth.
A tall, broad-shouldered man was approaching, and in his arms he held another, thinner figure. Mahogany-colored hair rose up from the man’s head, spiky like a lion’s mane. Intense brown eyes searched desperately for something behind me.
“Curtis!” Kathyln yelled, breaking from the group and sprinting past me, only to pull up short.
“Oh, oh no…”
I moved forward cautiously, focusing on the unmoving form in Curtis Glayder’s arms. The blonde, braided hair was matted with blood, the face nearly unrecognizable. Still, I knew the curve of his brows and shape of his ears.
Curtis sagged, and I darted forward to scoop up Feyrith’s body before it tumbled to the ground.
The tunnels went cold and silent as I stared down at the body of my once friend and rival.
I didn’t expect so many goodbyes, so soon after my return, I thought, letting a cold sense of detachment keep the sorrow at bay.