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Chapter 395: Preparations

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The scalding metal sizzled against bare bone, charring it black as the flesh around it melted. Water hissed as it hit the black iron, sending up a cloud of steam. I cursed and pulled back.

Ellie slapped my hand away from the pan heating on the stove. “Just let me do it already! Who mixes water and hot grease, anyway? Have you ever even cooked before?”

I dipped my fingers into the saucer of water I’d cooled the pan with and flicked several drops into her face as she struggled to flip the slab of meat I’d burned. “This coming from the girl who's been eating nothing but fish, rats, and mushrooms for the last how many months?”

Regis was sitting in the middle of the table, watching with interest, his nose twitching with every waft of meat-scented air. “You know, that looks pretty much irreparable. Just toss it over to me.”

Ellie dropped a handful of cut-up mushrooms in with the meat and grease, humming with irritation. “I can do more with rat and mushrooms than you can with the whole royal pantry, I bet.”

“I’m not sure that’s something to brag about,” I pointed out, laughing.

Ellie’s leg shot out and thumped against my thigh. I grabbed her ankle and yanked her leg out from under her, holding her upside down with her hair pooling on the tiles beneath her.

“Hey, not fair!” she shouted, swinging her arms as she tried futilely to land a punch.

The whisper of soft turnshoes on stone tile drew my attention to the kitchen doorway.

“Good morning,” I said, waving with the hand suspending Ellie upside down so that my sister bobbed around like a ragdoll. “It’s not much, but Ellie and I tried making some breakfast.”

“I tried making breakfast,” she grumped, her arms crossed. “Arthur was mostly just in the—ow!” she yelped as I let her tumble to the floor.

“Oh,” Ellie mumbled quickly and quietly, “Mom, what’s wrong?”  It was then I realized there were quiet tears running down Mom’s cheeks.

“Huh? What do you—oh.” She wiped at her cheeks with the back of her long sleeves. “Why am I crying?” she asked herself with a laugh.

“I guess it’s just…waking up to something like this…it’s been a long time.”

I pulled out a chair for her, and she eased into it with a grateful, tear-streaked smile. Her motions were still slightly sluggish, but her gaze was much more steady than it had been just the day before. Regis scooted back so that he was directly in front of her, and she began petting him behind the ears.

Ellie and I pushed and shoved at the stove, but in the end I let her claim victory, instead grabbing a handful of wooden plates and utensils to set the table. Ellie delivered stacks of slightly burned meat, eggs, mushrooms, steamed greens, red beans, and a coil of some kind of eel—caught from a nearby underground lake—that Ellie insisted was delicious, and together we filled up three plates.

Mom cut off a burned end from the slice of meat we’d given her and fed it to Regis, who took it right off her fork.

“He's going to keep asking for stuff like this if you spoil him, Mom,” I said around a mouthful.

She waved my words away. “Oh, it's fine. Don’t you think with everything he's done to help out around here, he's earned it?”

Regis’s oversized puppy eyes gleamed as he stared up at my mother like she’d just given him an award. “Would you believe this man never feeds me?”

“You get plenty of aether,” I mumbled as Mom held out half a mushroom.

Regis eyed it uncertainly, then said, “Maybe some more of that meat instead?”

Mom’s brows rose. “It’s important you eat a healthy, balanced diet, Regis,” she lightly scolded.

Regis blinked cartoonishly, then leaned forward and gingerly took the mushroom from her hand, chewing it with such clear dejection that Ellie took pity on him and tossed over a chunk of her eel, giggling when he pounced on it and swallowed it with a single bite.

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Truly a magnificent sight to see from the very manifestation of Destruction, I thought.

“Anyway, how are you feeling this morning?” I asked Mom as I speared a chunk of my own eel, keeping my tone light, but watching her carefully.

“So much better,” she said. Her bloodshot, tired eyes squinted in appreciation. “Thank you, Arthur, but you don’t have to worry about me. You have so much on your mind already.”

Ellie scoffed and opened her mouth, but paused when Mom shot her a look. My sister took a moment to finish chewing and swallowing, then said, “He let us think he was dead for months, didn’t he? Let him worry.”

My mother’s soft smile wavered, and I reached across the table to squeeze her hand. “I do have a lot on my mind. But you and Ellie are always at the top of that ever-growing pile.”

Mom’s eyes fell to her plate, but I still saw the moisture shining in them. Ellie watched her, a small frown on her mature features. I slid most of my burned meat over to Regis, who chewed loudly, oblivious to everything except the warm food in front of him, although I could feel the thrill he felt at sharing a family meal with us through our mental connection.

We ate in silence for a while after that, but it wasn’t the kind of quiet that was awkward or tense. Instead, it was comfortable. Easy. Easier than it had been in a very long time, since the attack on Xyrus.

The thought that it felt like another life flashed through my mind, but I knew that wasn’t really true. I had lived another life on Earth, and then, in Alacrya, I had pretended to be someone I wasn’t, reviving a part of me that had died when I’d been reincarnated in Dicathen. I had needed Grey to survive there, and as much as I wanted to just be Arthur, living as Grey again had reminded me why I’d become him in the first place.

Until this war was over, truly over, I couldn’t let Grey go. Not yet.

“—thur?”

“Sorry?” I asked, realizing my mother had said something.

“I was just saying that I really should go check in at the medical center now that I’m feeling a bit better.” She looked slightly embarrassed as she nudged her half-full plate toward Regis. “There are only a couple of emitters in the whole city, and they were relying on me to be there. Besides, I’m sure you have your own business to attend to.”

Before I could respond, there was a gasp from Ellie. “Oh! That reminds me! I told Saria Triscan that I’d help relocate the elven refugees today. Most of them were temporarily housed on the lower levels, which were pretty badly damaged in the attack. We’re going to start moving them to more permanent places to stay,” she added by way of explanation as she pushed herself away from the table.

At the same time, there was a faint pop and the sudden presence of a large furry body shoved the table aside, nearing knocking Regis to the floor.

“Boo!” Ellie said, exasperated. “I’m not freaking in danger! And I’ve said not to poof into the rooms!”

The guardian bear grumbled, and Ellie’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t blame me. You interrupted your own nap by being so overprotective.” The bear let out a humming grunt that shook the plates on the table, which were pressed against his side.

Mom had squeezed around Boo, who was taking up a large percentage of the kitchen, but stopped to lean against the doorway arch and look at us all, smiling brightly. “I’ll see you both back home for dinner tonight, okay? I’ll cook.” Her smile faltered slightly, her brows knitting as her expression became apologetic. “Something warm this time.”

“Sounds amazing,” I said, giving her the warmest smile I could muster.

She returned it, waved, then vanished behind Boo’s bulk. I heard the suite door open and shut, then turned to Ellie. “Do you think she’s okay?”

Ellie was scratching Boo between the big mana beast’s eyes. “I haven’t seen her smile like that since Dad died.”

Without looking at me, she put her shoulder into Boo’s side and shoved. “Come on you big goof, we need to figure out how to squeeze you through the front door.” She stopped and threw a tentative look over her shoulder at me. “Do you…want to come with us? The refugees…they’ve had a hard time. Seeing you might make them feel better.”

I gave her an apologetic smile before shaking my head. “I would, El, but I have duties of my own to see to.” Things that need to be taken care of before I can leave, I almost added.

She rolled her eyes, but her smile was both good-natured and understanding. “Yeah, yeah, I know, there is so much saving the world to do right now, and only one big brother. Well…see you, then.”

Ellie slipped around Boo, who turned to inspect me thoughtfully, his face scrunched between his shoulder and the wall before grunting and turning to follow her. He nearly overturned the table, and then had to squeeze to fit through first the kitchen doorway, then the front door into the Earthborn Institute’s sprawling series of interconnected tunnels.

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My smile slipped away. I looked longingly around the suite, wishing I could stay longer. The time with my family had been a much-needed reprieve from my duties, but time was against me, and there was still too much to do.

I’d spent most of the evening studying the empowering artifacts while my family had slept. The interplay between aether and mana around them was unlike anything I’d seen before, but it reminded me of the soul realm within the aether orb, where I’d trained with Kordri for so long. The artifacts didn’t contain an extra-dimensional space, but they weren’t simply containers for massive quantities of mana, either. It was almost like Kezess had drawn in and contained potential, and by using the artifacts, that potential was expended into a living being.

It was a difficult concept to wrap my head around, but I was only at the beginning stages of understanding. I needed to see the artifacts in use, but without activating whatever power Rinia had seen destroying the continent.

“So,” Regis said, interrupting my thoughts. I could sense his contentment with his belly full of home-cooked food. “Relictombs for a top-off, then back to being the Triple Ds?”

“I…” I sputtered, rubbing a hand down my face, then turned to scowl at my companion. “What?”

“Dicathen’s Dynamic Duo. You know, me and you, the Triple Ds.”

Deciding it was best not to engage Regis on this front, I instead said, “No time for the Relictombs yet. First, we need to make sure we can leave Vildorial without it immediately falling to Agrona’s forces.”

I gave Ellie a minute or two head start, then followed her out the door. Instead of heading toward the exit, I went deeper down into the Earthborn Institute.

As I’d expected, I found Gideon, Emily, and their team of dwarven mages already at work.

The old inventor barely spared me a glance as I walked into the lab, clearly unsurprised to see me. “I only saw you sixteen hours ago, at least four of which I spent sleeping. Nothing has changed in the meantime, Arthur.”

Emily, who was bent over the crystal-topped staff with a pair of wands, waved one at me. It gave a shrill, humming whistle. She jumped, grinned sheepishly, and moved it back into place.

“Gideon, I need you to gather whatever mana-output monitoring equipment you can scrounge up,” I said. “Meet me by the Three Lakes fishing outpost in an hour.”

Gideon slowly set down the notes he was perusing, stuck a finger in his ear and dug around for a bit, then shook his head and gave me a sickly-sweet smile. “Forgive me, Arthur, but I’d swear it seems like you just marched into my laboratory and started giving me orders without context or consideration for projects already underway—projects I have been repeatedly informed are of the highest priority by you yourself.”

Looking him dead in the eye, I continued. “Emily, I need you to track down Lances Mica, Varay, and Bairon, and bring them to meet us.”

She tapped the wands together twice, then laid them carefully next to the staff. “Sure, no problem.” As she moved quickly past Gideon, she reached out and closed his mouth for him, which had been hanging open as he continued to stare at me.

He glared at her back as she headed out the door, but his attention quickly returned to me.

“This is more time sensitive than our other projects,” I said consolingly. “One hour, Gideon.”

“Bah,” he said, grumbling, but he started bustling around the lab grabbing things and throwing them onto an empty table. “An hour it is then. But why are you making me drag these old bones all the way down to Three Lakes?”

“See you there,” was all I said in response before turning and leaving the lab myself.

My feet carried me quickly out of the Earthborn Institute, down the winding highway, past the crews rebuilding the many structures destroyed in the Alacryan assault, and out one of the tunnels that connected to the city’s bottommost level.

‘Are you sure this is all going to work?’ Regis asked. He’d been silently stewing on my refusal to even acknowledge his suggested “team name” for us, but his irritation has finally settled into a kind of resigned agreement to simply disagree.

It has to, I thought, although we both felt my lack of surety in the process itself. We can’t fight a war from under the desert. We need to get out there and push back against the Alacryan forces inhabiting Dicathen.

These thoughts brushed up against a wall of hesitancy in my mind. Because, as much as I needed to leave, I also needed to stay. Vildorial was now the epicenter of the fight to reclaim Dicathen, and all the people of Sapin and Darv needed us. But everything I had done to keep the people of this city safe would be for naught if Agrona sent another attack while I was gone.

I needed the lances here to protect the city in my absence, and in order for them to do that, they needed to break through their current restraints.

The tunnels between Vildorial and the Three Lakes area were cool and lightly traveled, meaning I was left in peace to mull through what I hoped to accomplish.

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Mostly, I organized my thoughts, trying to remember everything I had heard about both sets of asuran artifacts: those given to Dicathen’s kings to make Lances, and these new ones that, apparently, could make a mage strong enough to fight back against even the Scythes.

Ellie had told me everything she could about the conversations between Virion and Windsom, and then later Rinia and Virion. And of course, the old elf himself had explained the Lance artifacts to me when he made me a Lance, but there was still much I didn’t understand about how the asura had created them.

These and many other thoughts occupied my mind until the air grew heavy with moisture and the smell of the underground lakes filled the tunnels. Brine, algae, and the heady odor of giant mushrooms combined to create an otherworldly scent, like I was stepping out of Dicathen into a place older and more wild. The distant rumble of tumbling water could be felt through the floor soon after.

The tunnel was capped by a rough granite wall, but the gate through was open. Just inside it, several buildings huddled together around the edge of the first of the three lakes that gave this place its name. A stone pier ran along the edge, and a couple of square, flat-bottomed boats floated against it. But the outpost was empty today, as I had expected; most of Vildorial’s population was being kept in the city in case of another attack.

The cavern was enormous, even larger than the sanctuary. Although not as tall as the spiraling city of Vildorial, it stretched on and on, the first huge lake spilling into a second in a series of wide waterfalls, which in turn drained into the third almost a mile along the cavern.

As I walked between the empty buildings, I took it all in. Although the smell was something that would take some getting used to, there was an awe-inspiring sort of beauty to the place.

Regis jumped free of my body and strolled next to me. “Y’know, this almost reminds me of the Relictombs.”

“Maybe the djinn took inspiration from places like this,” I mused absently. “Or even created them.”

Along one edge of the lake, a forest of giant mushrooms sprouted up from mossy ground, and across from that, the cavern wall was patterned with striations of orange and white. Water drained across these salt deposits constantly, spilling into the lake and giving off the smell of brine I’d noticed before.

Deep in the dark water, bioluminescent creatures could be seen slowly trolling, like dim stars crossing the night sky.

It was, at least for a short time, a pleasant distraction.

But it wasn’t long before footsteps announced the arrival of the others, and the spell was broken.

The Lances arrived first, moving with purpose. Mica led them. Her one remaining eye locked onto me the moment she crossed the threshold into the cave, just as hard as the black stone that inhabited the scarred socket of the eye Taci had ruined. Although at ease in the tunnels of her home, there was something missing from Mica; she had lost more than an eye when Aya died.

Varay was just behind her, towering over the dwarf, as stoic and unreadable as always. Her short white hair seemed to glow in the diffused light of the underground world, giving her a mystical air. Her conjured arm of magical ice was fixed and unmoving, but her flesh-and-blood hand fidgeted with a constant nervous energy, subtly undermining her otherwise indomitable presence.

Finally, Bairon entered a few yards behind them. His gaze trailed behind his companions’ heels, unseeing, or rather, seeing something other than uneven ground. I wondered where his thoughts were, what invisible scene was playing out before his unfocused eyes that made him frown so deeply.

I stood on the pier, Regis sitting on his haunches beside me, and waited for them to come to us.

Varay spoke first. “I hope you haven’t brought us all the way down here just to take us fishing,” she said, focusing on one of the boats floating behind me.

I gave a quiet laugh, drawing uncertain looks from the other Lances. “I actually learned to hone my reflexes and adjust my perception by catching fish with my bare hands when I was just a boy in…” I caught myself and let the thought trail off. “Anyway, no, I think you’re all well past that point in your training.”

“We are here for you to train us then?” Mica asked, raising a brow and crossing her arms. “The Watsken girl was a little light on the details when she delivered your summons.”

“Not a summons,” I corrected gently, “an invitation. I think you all understand what is happening, what is at stake. When Agrona sent his Wraiths after me, he must have thought they were more than enough to capture or kill me, and likewise that two Scythes and a retainer would be able to regain control of Vildorial and mop up the rest of the resistance against him.”

“And it would have been,” Mica added, scowling. “Despite giving everything we had, all we could do was hold them off for a time. Without Bairon’s new weapon, we wouldn’t have lasted even as long as we did.”

“You think he’ll escalate again?” Varay asked, her fingers tapping constantly against her thigh.

“He will.” I began to pace back and forth in front of the three Lances, their eyes following me warily. “My defeat of the Wraiths and subsequent attack on Alacryan soil might give him pause, but not for long.” I stopped pacing suddenly, forcefully containing my nervous energy. “Although I stopped any of the Wraiths from returning to him with information, the fact that I was even able to kill them has given him a better understanding of my power.”

I took a moment to collect my thoughts, then said, “The truth is, you three just aren’t strong enough to protect this city without me.”

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Varay went stiff as an ice statue. Her face didn’t betray her emotions, but the others were less capable of masking their surprise and frustration.

Mica ground her teeth and inadvertently made herself so heavy that the smooth, slightly slick stones of the pier cracked beneath her.

Bairon slammed the butt of his spear against the ground and stood tall, looking at me defiantly and reminding me firmly of his old self. “We can be, Arthur. And I assume you know that, otherwise you wouldn’t have brought us here.”

“I hope you’re right, Bairon,” I said, softening my tone. “Because, if you aren’t, then I don’t know how we can reclaim our homeland, defeat Agrona, and prevent any further assaults by Kezess Indrath.”

“Then let’s not waste any more time,” Bairon said, his chin turning up as his pride struggled against my words. “I will fight until my core cracks and my muscles give out if it will offer a chance at breaking past the barriers placed on us as Lances. Just tell us what you want us to do, Arthur.”

Not long ago, I would have marveled at the idea that the noble Bairon Wykes was so willing and open to following my lead, but even in my short time back, I could see just how much he had matured. The war had forged him into a true leader in a way neither of us could have expected, especially after his near-death at Cadell’s hands.

“Thank you, Bairon, but this won’t be that kind of training,” I said.

Before they could ask questions, we all heard the grumbling approach of Gideon as he came through the open gate with Emily tottering along beside him underneath a pile of equipment. He wrinkled up his nose, presumably at the smell, and radiated pure irritation. “What in all the worlds you think we need to be down in this abyss for, I’ll never know.”

“Now that we’re all here, let’s get started,” I said, gesturing for everyone to follow me.

We circled around the edge of the lake until we were under the broad purple, green, and blue caps of the giant mushrooms. Varay and I—and, to a lesser extent, Regis, who insisted on dragging a single leather satchel—helped Emily carry the equipment, then set it out on a series of flat boulders after Emily made a fuss of clearing the dirt and moss off. I directed the three Lances to take seats in the thick moss next to the still water of the lake.

While Gideon and Emily set about the task of readying their equipment, I addressed the Lances. “If we hope to break through the artificial barriers placed on you, we need to better understand them. The blood oaths you made don’t inherently limit your ability to grow stronger, that is something Kezess Indrath did when he originally gave Dicathen the Lance artifacts, and I can tell you exactly why, because I’ve seen Agrona do the same thing to his people.

“They’ve seen what lessers are capable of. They know we can reach far beyond them, given the chance.” I told them about the djinn, how they had gained insight into aether and mana beyond even what the dragons could do, and how, when Kezess couldn’t force them to share that insight, he had destroyed them.

Mica cursed. Bairon frowned thoughtfully down at his knees. Varay’s eyes were glued to me as she hung on every word I said.

“The asura expect—demand—control above all else. The Vritra Clan breeds people like mana beasts, while Indrath just plays god from afar, poking and prodding our societies into the shape he desires, then, like a rageful toddler, knocking all his toys down if he gets upset.

“In giving Dicathen the Lance artifacts, Kezess assured that certain family lineages were kept safe and politically powerful while actively declining in magical strength—the true power of this world. He did this by giving them you. Powerful protectors that were bound by blood oath from betraying them. And yet still, to keep any one person or nation from growing too strong magically, he prevented you from getting powerful enough to be a threat to the asura clans.

“Agrona had a finer line to walk. He needed soldiers who could fight asura, whether that be the other clans still in Epheotus or his own people if they thought to turn against him. But he had to be certain they couldn’t ever grow strong enough to challenge him, and so he became the ultimate arbiter of who gets magic in Alacrya.

“The truth is, the asura don’t want us to make progress because they see it as an existential threat to their own dominion.”

Something made a splash in the middle of the lake, the ripples slowly moving outward and disrupting the mirror-like surface.

Varay adjusted herself on the mossy ground. “You’ve spent more time with the asura than any of us, Arthur. We trust your judgment on this issue, but it does beg the question: what do we do about it?”

I held my hand out to her. She took it, and I pulled her to her feet. “I didn’t see it before, but the first dragon I ever met hinted at what was coming, and what the answer would be. She left a message embedded in the mana of my core, but told me I would only hear it when I had reached beyond white core. It was a temptation she knew I couldn’t resist, a way to push me to a level far beyond what most mages would ever achieve.”

“And did you?” Varay asked, her hand a frigid claw around mine. “Is that how you gained your aetheric powers?”

I shook my head. “My core shattered, releasing the message before its time, and my chance of passing beyond white core is gone. But”—I activated Realmheart, seeing the reflection of the glowing lavender runes on the surface of Varay’s eyes—“yours isn’t, and I believe Kezess himself has given us the key to unshackle your true potential.”

A/N: ICYMI: I wanted to leave a friendly reminder that there will be no chapter update next week!I will be spending the next week preparing—both emotionally and physically—for Emerald City Comic Con, where I hope to meet some of my readers there. ^^This is a big step for me, so I am equal parts excited and nervous. There will be a lot of behind-the-scenes and Q&A content coming from Comic Con(mostly in regards to the comic), but I hope you will all enjoy it!
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