The droning of the mana-powered skyship shooting through the air provided a calming ambient static as I sat down at the foot of the ship cabin’s bed where Sylvie was lying down. Outside, the pressure emanating from the two remaining dragons was a constant reminder of their presence. The third had left after a brief conversation with the others, and I could only assume she was reporting either to Windsom or directly to Kezess himself.
“You don’t need to worry about me,” Sylvie said, shifting as she tried and failed to get comfortable on the stone bed. “I just need more time to recover from being brought back. These waves of fatigue and discomfort…I’m sure they’ll pass. My body and mind need to recover and process, that’s all.”
“Sylvie…” I started, then trailed off, not sure how to ask what I needed to. “I keep seeing things, flashes of memory from our linked minds, of my life—Grey’s life. But what I see doesn’t make sense, because they’re not my memories, even though they’re things that happened to me. How…”
I thought I’d come to terms with the whole reincarnation thing years ago. But every time I learned some new piece of information about how I came to this world, it further complicated my understanding.
“I don’t think I can explain with words,” Sylvie said, propping herself up on her elbows. “But I can let you in. I’m already struggling to hold onto those memories. Only a part of me was there, pulled through time and space by the collapsing portal you’d ripped in our universe, while the rest of me followed you to the Relictombs and became that…stone egg.”
I didn’t want to cause her unnecessary strain, but the desire to understand what was happening overpowered my fear, and even my empathy. “If you think you’re strong enough.”
My bond smiled, closed her eyes, and laid back. ‘Open your mind to me fully.’
I did as she requested.
I was reliving those last moments all over again, watching as she sacrificed herself for me through her own eyes, and then the diffused energy of her being was pulled apart. The memories were cloudy and distorted, but I recognized my own previous life playing out in front of me, seeing it from Sylvie’s perspective, who stayed by my side through it all, right up until…
It was difficult to understand.
“Nico thought the spell went wrong. That Agrona had miscalculated, bringing me to the wrong place at the wrong time, but…it was you. You interrupted his spell…you made me a Leywin.”
I stood, rubbing my hands over my face as I struggled to make sense of what I’d seen. But of the dozens of questions I had, one in particular thrust itself forward, and I asked it almost without intending to. “The infant…did I kill him when I took the body? Alice’s…son?”
Sylvie’s arms were wrapped around her torso, and she was shivering slightly. The mental link between us closed off and she curled in on herself, wrapping her arms around her knees. “No, Arthur. There was no other soul there. The body…I think you were fated to have it.”
I moved to sit next to her and rubbed her arm to warm her. From the memory, it hadn’t been clear, and I wasn’t sure if Sylvie could really know that, but I didn’t press her further. “Thank you for showing me the memories.”
She nodded, her thin frame trembling even harder.
Withdrawing a blanket from the gear stashed in my dimension rune, I laid it over her, and she was asleep in moments. Uncertain what else to do, I returned to the foot of the bed.
‘That’s a whole lot to process,’ Regis sent from the deck of the ship, where he was keeping an eye on our dragon escorts with Chul.
My mother had once, not so long ago, struggled with the question of whether or not I was truly her son. It had never been a question to me before, but now, knowing that it had been Sylvie who placed me inside that particular baby, I couldn’t help but wonder what it meant for my relationship with my family.
The question I had asked Sylvie was only one of many stuck in my brain like a pebble lodged in a horseshoe. More answers seemed necessary to understand why my life had become what it was. How could Sylvie have known what baby to bring my soul to?
Knowing that no amount of self-reflection would bring answers to the questions I had, I did my best not to think about them. Instead, I withdrew the keystone I’d received from the last ruin. So much had happened in such a short amount of time—discounting the fact that nearly two months had passed in the blink of an eye, of course—that I hadn’t been able to give the keystone more than a passing thought since returning from the Relictombs with it.
Sitting with my legs crossed, I rested the small cube in my lap, considering its dark, matte surface. Both the previous keystones, which had helped me gain insight into Aroa’s Requiem and Realmheart respectively, had provided difficult, prolonged puzzles for me to solve. Although my mind was unsettled, I felt a thrill as I prepared to imbue the cuboid relic with aether.
My excitement soured only moments later as I mentally withdrew from the keystone. I stared down at it, stricken, then attempted to imbue it with aether a second time. My consciousness was pulled into it, the same as the other keystones, then…nothing. I simply came back to myself. I couldn’t reach the keystone’s inner realm at all.
Activating Realmheart, I stared at the stone cube. Both mana and aether clung to it, but that fact alone didn’t reveal anything about the keystone’s inner workings or suggest what I needed to do to operate it.
Not willing to give up immediately, but incredibly frustrated that I’d met with failure so quickly, I continued attempting to interact with the keystone, pushing more—and then less—aether into it, shaping the aether in specific ways, and using aether to manipulate the mana as well, but nothing I tried allowed me to progress into the inner realm where I would hopefully gain insight into a new godrune.
Feeling defeated, I finally put the relic away when Regis informed me that we’d crossed the mountains and were now flying over the desert. Joining the others on the deck, I watched the sand dunes and rocky crags speed by below us.
Chul had his weapon out and was slowly moving through a series of choreographed combat techniques. His eyes were closed, but he must have felt me watching him because he said, “I would have preferred to spar with you, but Wren rightly worried that the force of our clash might shatter his conjured construct.”
“There will be real enemies to fight soon enough,” I said absently.
Chul guffawed. “I do not plan to fight Agrona’s forces, my brother in vengeance. I will break them.”
I shook my head, a tentative smile creeping across my face. Some of my tension eased, and I fell into idle conversation with Regis and Chul. All too soon, though, our destination approached, and what waited for us clawed its way back into my thoughts.
I pointed out a crack in the ground to Wren—one of the many surface entrances to the dwarven tunnels surrounding Vildorial—and we began descending toward the sand. Sylvie was already up when I went to retrieve her, and within a couple minutes we were standing on the baking stone at the edge of the small ravine.
Both dragons landed as well, transforming into their humanoid forms. The green dragon became a tall, blond man in dark armor that shimmered emerald when the light caught it at a certain angle. The red’s humanoid form was shorter and more wiry. His jet-black hair and robes contrasted sharply against his pale skin, but his ochre eyes and scowl were the same.
“Come, Guardian Vajrakor will be waiting for you,” the blond asura said stiffly. He took the lead down into the ravine while his counterpart moved to the rear of our group.
Wren Kain dismissed the ship, allowing it to dissolve and flow as sand, then followed close on the first dragon’s heels.
“Ah, if only we could stand beneath the sun’s warming gaze for a while longer before delving back under the ground,” Chul said, his eyes closed and face turned to the sun. He was smiling broadly.
I said nothing, too tense to make conversation.
Inside the tunnel entrance, which was hidden within the shadows of the ravine, we were greeted by a cadre of guards. The dwarves bowed to the dragons, hardly even taking stock of who accompanied them, and let us through without issue.
We passed through several more barricades on the route to Vildorial. After the third such obstruction, where the dragon offered a quick call and response to the guards before they allowed us through, I brought it up to our guide.
“The guardian has done much to increase the security of this city,” he explained as we continued to march quickly. “Several of the old tunnels were collapsed and many additional guard posts erected, along with a password system to ensure Alalcryan sympathizers and spies aren’t able to move freely within Darv.”
I didn’t miss the tone of accusation, as if the fact that these things hadn’t been done before explained why the dragons were needed so badly.
The final gate into Vildorial was already open when we arrived, and a small crowd was waiting for us on the other side.
I saw Ellie and Mom before anyone else.
Rushing past the troop of soldiers, counselors, and lords, I let my mother pull me into a tender hug. “I’m sorry,” I said quietly. “I’ll explain everything, but I didn’t intend to be gone so long and without sending a message. For me it’s only been a few days.”
My mother gave me a smile that I thought was somewhat stiff. “It’s okay, Arthur, you don’t have to—”
“Jerk!” Ellie snapped, punching me hard in the arm. “I can’t believe you—Sylvie!”
Ellie’s anger melted away as she made the realization. She slipped around me and jumped on my bond, wrapping her arms around Sylvie and squeezing fiercely, tears already spilling down her cheeks. “You—you’re alive!” she squealed, her throat constricted by the sobs racking her.
Sylvie patted Ellie’s back. “I am, though perhaps not for long if you continue to crush the breath from my body.” Sylvie beamed at me over Ellie’s shoulder, leaning her head against my sister’s.
A strong sensation of being home washed over me, doubled in potency as I experienced my own emotions and Sylvie’s simultaneously. The moment was then immediately interrupted when Daglun Silvershale, the lord of one of the most powerful dwarven clans, interposed himself between me and my family.
“Ahem. Excuse me General Arthur, but I, along with these other fine lords, have been sent to greet you on behalf of Guardian Vajrakor.” Somewhat belatedly, he bowed to the two dragons escorting us, looking nervous, then continued. “He awaits you in—”
I missed whatever else Daglun was saying as my attention settled on Varay, who had also been waiting with the group of dwarves and my family. It had been awhile since I’d seen the other human Lance, who’d spent time helping to clear the cities of Sapin of several Alacryan holdouts. Although her white hair was now short, she hardly seemed to have changed at all since I first met her at Xyrus Academy years ago.
She was watching me intently, her gaze an icy ray that conjured goosebumps on my arms.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, stepping around the still-speaking Daglun, who sputtered with indignation.
Varay gave me a shallow nod of greeting. “Welcome back. It was an…unfortunate time for you to disappear.” There was a note of reproach in her voice, but it was shrouded beneath the frost of her icy stoicism.
“Tell me about it.” I glanced meaningfully back at the dwarven lords, all of whom were giving me disapproving glares. I noticed that Carnelian Earthborn, Mica’s father, wasn’t among them.
“There is a situation I thought you would want to be apprised of immediately,” she continued.
Daglun cleared his throat. “Perhaps we should allow Guardian Vajr—”
“Lord Silvershale,” Varay cut in. “Neither the dragons nor your Council of Lords have the authority to command the Lances.”
Daglun’s fists clenched and face flushed. He turned his back on us and began an urgently-whispered conversation with the other dwarven lords present.
The dark-haired asura stepped forward, giving Varay a withering glare. “Arthur Leywin is being escorted directly to Vajrakor. You have no business interrupting us, Lance.” He grabbed me by the upper arm and attempted to drag me along after him.
I planted my feet, causing the dragon to be pulled back mid-step. He tugged once more, but I stood unmoving, aether and anger simmering under my skin, controlled but ever present.
My head turned as I regarded the dragon with a gaze that made him freeze. “Did we not make it clear earlier?”
The dark-haired asura’s eyes narrowed. “What do you—”
“We are not escorting prisoners,” the blond asura interjected, prying his comrade’s hand off of my shoulder. “But it is important that you—”
“It appears that there are more pressing issues that require my attention,” I said formally, giving them a cold, courtly smile. “Inform him of my arrival if you wish.”
The two dragons exchanged an uncertain look, then Wren stepped in. “I’ll accompany you in Arthur’s stead.” Out of the side of his mouth, he added, “And try to keep this all from blowing up in our faces.”
After a moment’s hesitation, the blond asura turned and began to march quickly away. His dark-haired companion lingered a moment, his suspicious gaze shifting between Wren and me, then spun and followed. Wren let out a deep sigh and trailed behind them.
Varay’s dark brown eyes lingered on the asuras before returning to me. “Before you left, an Alacryan woman arrived in the city via some kind of teleportation artifact. She claimed to know you. I’m told that you—”
The memory of my rushed departure from Vildorial crashed into me like a thunderbolt. Daglun had said something about “the Alacryan,” and I had assumed he was talking about Lyra Dreide.
“This Alacryan, what color is her hair?”
Brows rising ever so slightly, Varay answered, “Blue.”
I bit back a curse. “Take me to her.”
Daglun, having watched this exchange from the side, looked stricken. “But Generals Arthur, Varay, you really must—”
“Feel free to return to the palace, Lord Silvershale, your job here is complete,” Varay said frigidly.
The dwarves responded with a collective “harumph” before marching away, allowing me to finally turn my attention back to my family.
Ellie was standing at Sylvie’s side, both arms around her waist and head on her shoulder. “So we’re all going to rescue Caera? Awesome! Let’s go.” She started to pull away from Sylvie.
Confusion at how Ellie knew who Caera was quickly turned to worry at the thought of my family present if there was a confrontation with an irritated dragon.
My mouth opened to hurriedly form an excuse when my bond cut in.
“Eleanor, it sounds like things might get busy. I’d like to spend some time with you and Alice before we have to rush off again. Can you show me where you live?”
Ellie glanced between Sylvie and the upper levels of the city, looking torn.
“I’ve no interest in helping you serve Alacryans, only to face them in combat.” Chul glared at me as if I’d offended him simply by knowing an Alacryan. “I will explore this dwarven city for a time.”
“No, you need to stay with—”
“And he’s gone,” Regis said, watching Chul march quickly away, heading down toward the lower levels and drawing stares from everyone he passed.
“I’m sure he’ll be fine?” Sylvie said, unable to keep her voice from rising into a question at the end of her statement.
Careless as always, Regis immediately forgot about Chul as he nudged my mom. “So, I just spent two months floating in empty nothing-space, and I’m famished. Would you be so kind as to fix me a home-cooked meal, Mama Leywin?”
Mom scratched Regis’s head. “I guess. Do you even need to eat, though?”
Regis bent low to scoop my mom onto his back. She squealed in surprise and struggled for a place to hold on, not trusting to plunge her hands into his fiery mane.
“There aren’t many things I need, but there are a whole lot that I want!” Regis trotted down the curved highway, taking my mother with him.
“At least if I have your bond, I know you can’t vanish again,” Ellie said with a hint of a pout, letting Sylvie lead her away.
‘Do not lose sight of why the dragons are in Dicathen in the first place,’ Sylvie reminded me as she descended along the highway. ‘This Vajrakor will test you. It is our way, apparently. But he won’t go outside of whatever orders my grandfather has given him.’
I’ll mind my manners, I thought back, turning to Varay, who had looked on with her customary lack of outward emotion throughout this exchange. “Now, perhaps, you can take me to her.”
We did not go to the prison but continued on directly to the dwarves’ royal palace, Lodenhold Hall, a huge fortress carved into the walls at the highest level of the cavern.
We were nearly to the palace before Varay spoke. “The Alacryan woman was treated well on Lance Mica’s order, though she was kept imprisoned for the sake of security. The other one, Lyra, was able to confirm the prisoner’s identity but had no knowledge of your relationship. Things changed when the dragons arrived, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, heat rising to my face.
“When Vajrakor discovered her presence in the prisons, he had her transferred to a holding cell in the palace. He thought to extract information from her on Agrona’s plans. Mica, Bairon, and I attempted to dissuade him, encouraging him to wait until you returned to verify her identity, but…”
“Obstinate fool,” I sighed. “She’s an ally.”
“Of yours, perhaps, but not the dragons’.” Varay stopped before leading us into Lodenhold. “You should know, Arthur…the dragons seem to be working to undermine you. Your presence may not be well received.”
“The only dragon I need to worry about is Kezess Indrath,” I assured her. “He’ll keep the rest of his soldiers on a leash as long as our deal stands. For now, if the dragons’ presence keeps Agrona from attacking again, let them drag me through the mud.”
Varay regarded me intently for a second, then nodded and continued on.
We moved quickly once inside the palace grounds. I could feel the burdensome aura of Vajrakor’s mana signature, which made the air inside the fortress heavy. Unlike my many previous visits to Lodenhold, the entrance hall was empty. Those who had previously been given shelter within its carved walls likely relocated when it was taken over by the dragons.
Varay led me through several tunnels, each one narrower, shorter, and dimmer than the last, until we reached a heavy iron door blocking the way. Varay knocked. A plate slid to the side at the eye level of a dwarf, which was somewhere around Varay’s sternum.
“Ah, General Varay, we weren’t expecting anyone to—oh! And General Arthur, returned from the dead yet again, I see. Does the, uh, guardian know you’re here?”
“Open the door, Torviir,” Varay commanded.
The dwarf’s eyes, previously squinted in suspicion, now went wide. The window slid closed with a rasping clank. A murmured exchange between the guards was muffled by the thick door. After several frustrating seconds, I heard a heavy bar drawn aside, and then another, and finally the clatter of a chain, and the door swung inward.
Torviir stood in the open door. He was stocky, even for a dwarf, and his weathered skin bore the scars of many battles. His bright red hair had faded to an ashen red-gray with age, but his eyes were still sharp as flint, though the corners were creased with obvious discomfort. “General, as you well know we have strict orders to—General!”
I moved around the guard, knowing full well he wasn’t about to try and stop me. The second dwarf took a step back, looking increasingly nervous.
The chamber was no more than eight by ten feet, barren except for a small table and two chairs. Two more heavy iron doors were set in the wall opposite the room’s entrance. Both the doors and the walls around them were rune-etched to prevent them from being assaulted with magic.
“General, I must insist…” Torviir said halfheartedly.
Ignoring him, I approached the right-hand door and slid the viewing window aside, peering into the gloom beyond. The narrow, dark cell was empty. As I moved to the left, I prepared myself for the worst. When the window slid aside, a beam of dim light landed on the prone form of a woman in rags. Her eyes opened and turned toward the light, gleaming scarlet.
Grabbing the door’s handle, I heaved. The series of bolts that secured the door groaned and bent, but it was the stonework that gave way first, bursting apart with a shower of rock dust. The door flew open, ripped free as the hinges sheered, and embedded itself into the wall.
“Torviir, Bolgar, you are dismissed,” Varay said behind me. “I’ll cover for you when he arrives.”
I didn’t need to turn around to know they’d obeyed as their heavy bootsteps and the clanging of their armor receded down the hall away from the prison cell.
Caera scrambled back against the wall but came up against the end of the length of chain that bound her mana suppression shackles to the floor. “G-Grey?” she asked, her voice cracking with dehydration and disuse.
Hurrying to her side, I took hold of the chains and ripped them off the shackles. Then, being careful not to hurt her in the process, I pried the manacles apart, freeing her wrists.
Wordlessly, I helped her up off the floor and led her slowly out of the cell.
“Grey…” Caera was looking up into my face, searching my eyes so intensely it felt like she was trying to make sure I was real. She wrapped her arms around me and pulled me into a shaky hug.
Then she pushed me away, glaring at me with an authority that channeled her mentor, the Scythe Seris Vritra, and slapped me across the cheek. “How dare you leave me imprisoned for—for—” She threw her hands up in frustration. “However long it’s been! Where were you? Seris…is she?”
“I don’t know anything yet,” I said, frustration, guilt, and disappointment seething within me. “I just found out you were here ten minutes ago, and I came straight here. What are you doing in Vildorial? In Dicathen? Seris should have known better, she—”
“She sent me to you for help,” Caera said, her gaze skating off my face as she struggled to focus. “Things were not going as well as they could have been, she wanted…” Caera’s face fell. “Vritra’s horns, what will have happened to her? It’s been so long.”
I held her straight, leaning down slightly so I could look into her eyes. “I’m sorry, Caera,” I said again, anger beginning to bloom from the alchemy of my other emotions. “These dragons—”
A furious pressure built up so suddenly that my words caught in my throat. Caera, already weak from her long imprisonment, sagged back into my arms, and Varay had to steady herself on the wall, her legs trembling.
Aether flooded my muscles, reinforcing and steadying me so that when the dragon arrived at the end of the hall, I was standing as still as a statue, unbent.
Appearing in his humanoid form, Vajrakor was my height, but had a lithe build that belied his asuran strength. Flowing black hair tumbled around his shoulders and eyes the color of lilacs met mine across the length of the hallway. He stopped short, his expression shifting from fury to surprise. He smoothed this away almost instantly, but not fast enough that I hadn’t seen it.
Straightening his loose-fitting robes, which were cut from rose quartz silk and embroidered in a soft purple thread that matched his eyes, Vajrakor lifted his chin and stepped forward at a more controlled pace. “Arthur Leywin. For weeks you’ve been absent from the face of the very continent you begged us to protect, and yet the first thing you do upon return is help the enemy. Explain yourself.”
“The world is a messy shade of gray, where enemies can be allies and allies”—I let a minute pause break up my words, holding Vajrakor’s gaze—“can be enemies.”
Helping Caera to stand straight, I took a step away. She was strong, and she forced herself up to her full height even under the weight of the dragon’s presence. Stepping past Varay, I approached Vajrakor, arranging my features into a businesslike smile and extending my hand. “Before we get into what I can only assume will be a heated argument, how about we show some level of courtesy since it seems like we’ll be seeing each other quite frequently.”
Vajrakor made no move to take my hand. “There will be no argument, especially not with a lesser pretending to understand aether.”
“Yet Kezess seems to be very interested in what I pretend to know.”
“When you speak of him, you will do so appropriately. It is Lord Indrath.”
“Then as a courtesy to your Lord Indrath, I will let your unacceptable treatment of my friend pass this once, on the assumption that it was out of ignorance.” I stepped slightly closer, just too close to be polite. “Because if I were to believe that Lord Indrath’s guardians were taking my friends and allies as hostages and torturing them for information, then we’d have a problem.”
Vajrakor drew in a long breath, seeming to swell as he did so, blocking the hallway completely. “Windsom has told me much about you, Arthur Leywin, but try as he might he could not fully express the depths of your arrogance, apparently. You are not my equal in this, not in political stature and certainly not in raw strength. I’m not done with that one yet, and you lack the power to take her from me.”
I smiled, showing my teeth. “Neither of us knows if that’s true, but only one of us is willing to find out. We both know what would happen to you, even if you fought and defeated me. You’re here because Kezess wants knowledge that I have. Does your baseless confidence extend to standing up against your own overlord?”
His facade of confidence cracked, just slightly, as a shadow of doubt passed over his face. “Such disrespect for the dragons here to save you from an enemy that has already defeated you.”
“Respect?” Caera asked, the word grinding out from beneath her teeth. Slowly, she pushed herself up so she could stand straight as she addressed Vajrakor. “Is that what you’ve shown me here, monster?”
“Monster? You carry the filth of Agrona Vritra’s blood in your veins and call me monster?” He chuckled. “You can’t even see yourself for the perversion you are, lessuran.”
I cocked my head and narrowed my eyes at the dragon. “While I’ve enjoyed our little debate, I do have better things to do, so allow me to speak in the way you may best understand: If you wish to be my ally, you will step aside. Stand in my way and I will consider you an enemy.”
Vajrakor’s lavender eyes grew bright with anger, but he moved aside, seeming to shrink as he did so. “The world is made up of shades of gray, indeed,” he sneered.
Pulling one of Caera’s arms around my shoulder to support her, I led her down the tunnel. “You dragons catch on quickly.” Varay moved like a shadow behind us.
“Lord Indrath will be most curious as to the reason for your unnecessary hostility. I’ll inform him of your return—and attitude—immediately,” the dragon said to my back.
“Send him my regards.”