Chapter 411: A Family Affair
Our steps, both light, whispered off the carved stone of the tunnel walls. The low rumble of an earthen grinding was vibrating down through the Earthborn Institute from somewhere in the distance, and everything smelled of dust and stone and damp. I ran my fingers along the sandpaper texture of the stone as we walked, thinking.
“I kind of miss the open sky, don’t you?” I asked Ellie.
“Do I ever,” she replied wistfully. “It feels like I’ve completely lost track of time and normalcy while hidden underground. Still, it’s better here than the sanctuary. At least we’ve got more than mushrooms and cave rats to eat.”
I didn’t apologize out loud—I’d already said those words to her and didn’t want to cheapen them further—but I did in my heart. The guilt of knowing I could have returned sooner and didn’t still lingered.
Boo was shuffling along in our wake, his thick fur occasionally scratching against the walls, and his claws scraping the floor, making a lot more noise than either Ellie or me. He huffed at the mention of cave rats, nudging Ellie from behind. She laughed, pulled what remained of a piece of salted meat from her bag, and tossed it over her shoulder to him. The bear snapped it out of the air in a single bite.
‘Bring me back some snacks, too,’ Regis thought to me, obviously keeping tabs on my thoughts despite the distance between us. Much to his annoyance, I had left him to maintain his vigil, standing guard over our retainer prisoner.
“How were things here while I was gone?”
Her narrow shoulders bobbed up and down. “Weird. Most people don’t know how to feel yet. Excited, hopeful, uncertain, terrified…they’re—I don’t know—tougher? Now, I mean. In the early days of the sanctuary, it was just fear. Everyone was waiting to die, every single day. Y’know? And I see a lot more smiles, especially from Mom when you’re around. Although, for the elves, it’s worse. Their hope is…complicated.”
“It’s starting to sink in for them,” I said, mulling over her words. “That, even when Dicathen is retaken, they’ll never be able to go home again.”
“Yeah,” Ellie muttered, her eyes on the floor. “Especially the kids. My friend, Camellia, it’s like she’s not even a kid at all. I don’t know if that makes sense.”
I stared at my little sister, not yet even sixteen, and completely oblivious to the irony of her statement. “You’re one to talk.”
“That’s different,” she said, blushing slightly. “Besides, the way you treat me, it sure makes me feel like I’m still a child…”
I wrapped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her against my side in a walking hug. “Isn’t that what overprotective big brothers are for?”
She huffed, but didn’t pull away. “I don’t know if I’ve said this, but it’s really kind of you to spend so much time helping the elves.”
She bit her lip, hesitant, then words spilled out of her in a rush. “But I’m not—not really. What good is that when I can’t do anything to make it better?”
I waited to reply as a pair of robed dwarves went by. “It may be your compassion that helps the few elves remaining stay hopeful enough to rebuild. You never know how even a small kindness will stick with a person, what it might mean to them. Besides,” I added as an afterthought, “you have your new regalia. Maybe it’ll let you help further, when you’ve learned how to use it.”
“But how am I going to master it if you won’t even let me use it,” she pouted, sounding like the fifteen-year-old girl she was.
“I never said that—”
“What if I only do it under careful supervision?” she rushed on, speaking over me. “Lyra promised to teach me as much as you’ll allow, and Emily and Gideon want to study me thoroughly, and I bet Mom would even watch over the sessions, and if she can heal me from an asuran spear, she can—”
“Ellie,” I said, trying to derail the out-of-control train of her thoughts. “Eleanor!”
She stuttered to a stop, looking slightly chagrined.
“I don’t want to keep you from using your regalia,” I said. The tunnel walls fell away as we exited the Earthborn Institute, coming out into the open courtyard. “But I think it’s best if you only use it when I’m there.”
She opened her mouth, rolled her tongue against her teeth, then took a deep breath. Finally, after she’d collected her thoughts, she said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, big brother, but you’re not exactly around a lot. How am I supposed to progress when you run off to save the world again?”
I slipped my arm off her shoulder and pulled her half into a headlock. “That’s why you are coming with me.”
Struggling, she slipped free of my grasp, mussing up her hair in the effort, and stared at me. “Don’t be mean, Arthur. You’re joking…right?”
I shook my head, but felt my smile slacken and grow somber. “When I was your age, I was training in Epheotus with literal deities. Even in my last life, I was training to be king by now. You’ve been given a tremendous power, but you’ll never be able to wield it properly if you don’t test yourself.”
Laughing, she twirled around, then jumped into Boo, burying her face in his thick fur.
“Besides, I can’t trust you enough to let you out of my sight,” I muttered as I turned to keep walking.
She bounced up beside me and punched me in the arm, then quickly slid her arm around mine and held on. “So, since we’re on the subject of how mature and ready I am for danger and stuff, don’t you also think I’m old enough to start dating?”
Stopping mid-step, I raised a brow in suspicion. “Huh? Where is this coming from?”
“Just wondering,” just said with an innocent smile.
I peered down into her brown eyes as if I were considering her proposal. “Sure. But my rule hasn’t changed. You can start dating…when your ‘date’ can beat me in a fight.”
Boo snorted and nodded his agreement, while Ellie pouted, leaning her head against my arm. “Not fair…”
Once we were outside of the Earthborn Institute gates, I stopped and looked around. Aether rushed to imbue the Realmheart godrune, and the world lit up with the visible manifestation of mana. As my body flushed with the warmth of that power, I focused on the sixth sense for mana the ability provided, searching throughout the massive cavern of Vildorial for a specific mana signature.
Two stood out amongst the entire population of the city. One was still behind me, lingering somewhere in the Earthborn Institute, but the other was above, in the dwarven capital’s palace. Without explaining further, I led Ellie and Boo up the winding highway, letting Realmheart fade.
The palace guards bowed and opened the doors as I approached. Inside the entry hall, a few members of the dwarven lords’ houses lingered in conversation or leisure. They watched curiously, more than a few gazes focused on my sister as we passed through the massive hall, heading for one of the mana passages that would lead deeper into the palace.
Unlike a more terrestrial castle or fortress, such as the Royal Palace of Etistin, much of the dwarven palace was buried within the cavern walls, with tunnels and hallways interconnecting hundreds of individual chambers designed for a wide array of purposes, some of which seemed very alien to me as a human.
Each set of kings and queens had expanded the palace even farther, constantly seeking to outdo their predecessors with the splendor of their additions, leading to places like the meeting room for the Council of Lords, carved from the heart of an enormous geode. One of the older such additions had been constructed during a time of extraordinary closeness between the elves and dwarves, before the most recent war between Sapin and Elenoir, which saw Darv retreat back into its desert in order to avoid being pulled into the conflict.
The chamber in question was higher than most of the others, and so Ellie and I, with Boo trailing along behind, found ourselves climbing up a long, switchback stairs. By the time we reached the top Ellie was glistening with a thin sheen of perspiration, her breathing labored despite her efforts to hide it. Boo was grunting mutinously with each step.
“Have you been up here yet?” I asked with a smirk.
She shook her head, apparently having no breath for words.
The stairs opened into a sort of alcove, a small cave that itself was hidden behind a fold of rock. It wasn’t until we exited the cave and moved around the jutting stone that we could see the full chamber.
I had to shield my eyes against the bright light, a sharp change from the dimly lit stairs. Slowly, as my eyes adjusted, I was able to take it in properly.
Ellie and I stood at the edge of a large grotto, and for a moment it was easy to forget we were underground. The entire chamber was lit bright as day by floating lights, white as sunlight or the stars at night. On the ground, thick moss grew like grass, softening and hiding the stone, and a combination of moss and creeping vines turned the walls emerald as well. If you didn’t look right at them, it almost felt like you were surrounded by a dense forest.
About thirty feet up the walls, the green gave way to black, as the entire domed roof was carved of obsidian, which caught the light and reflected it in every direction, twinkling and shining like the night sky.
A single large tree dominated the center of the chamber. Its boughs spread out for dozens of feet in every direction, covered with broad, bright green leaves and little pink fruits. Supported within its massive boughs was a small structure, which looked as if it had grown into the tree itself, or perhaps out of it.
“The Elshire Grove,” I announced quietly.
Beside me, Ellie’s mouth fell open in wonder. “It’s beautiful…”
It was another voice who spoke next, coming from inside the structure. “A gift from the ancient elven king, Dallion Peacemaker.” Virion stepped out into the false sunlight, then leaned on the rail of a balcony that ran around the outside of the dwelling and smiled down at us both. “To the dwarven king, Olfred Ironhands, as a symbol of their friendship. The Council of Lords has been kind enough to gift it back to the elves for the duration of our stay here.”
Bairon came out behind Virion and leaned against the door jam. “This tree very likely represents the last remnant of the Elshire forest. It is only right that it belongs to the elves, and it should go with you when you eventually leave Vildorial.”
“Perhaps,” Virion said, with the air of someone avoiding a repeated argument. “While it may only take one acorn to plant a forest, Elenoir is a graveyard, and the soil there may never bear life again.” He pulled his attention back to me and Ellie. “Anyway, it’s not large enough for all of the elves to stay here, of course, but I have made sure to invite every elf here at least once, so they may experience this small memory of home. Anyway, we’ll come down to you. I’m sure you have something important to discuss, Arthur, if you went to all the trouble to come up here.”
As Virion and Bairon climbed down a steep series of steps that wound around the trunk of the tree, I led Ellie to a flat patch of moss near a small brook bubbling away near the edge of the cavern. We each lounged back in the thick, soft moss, which released an earthy, slightly sweet smell as we disturbed it. Boo went to investigate the creek, no doubt hoping to catch a fish or two.
Virion and Bairon joined us only a moment later, the former sitting cross-legged next to us. Bairon stayed standing.
“Any word from Varay on the situation in Kalberk?” Bairon asked.
“Not yet, but if the Alacryans there are as dug in as our early reports suggested, it could take some time.”
“You could have gone yourself,” he suggested, his tone and intentions unclear. “It was good you didn’t,” he added after a moment, giving me a firm nod. “We’ve been underground for too long—literally in my case—and the Lances need to be seen, their presence felt.”
Virion snorted with amusement, turning to look up Bairon. “An ironic sentiment, since I tried to send you and you refused to go.”
“I’m…needed here, at your side,” Bairon replied hesitantly, looking down and away. “Varay is the better choice to revive the name of Lance in the hearts of the people.”
I felt hope dwindle as I listened to the exchange, feeling I already knew the answer to the question I’d come here to ask, but I forged on. “Well, I’m glad to hear you say that, Virion, because it relates to why I’m here.”
Virion returned his gaze to me, the wry smile smoothing out into an impassive, curious expression, while behind him Bairon’s features hardened.
“The continent is largely back in our hands,” I started, considering my words carefully, “and I’ve extracted a vow from Kezess Indrath himself to help protect Dicathen from further reprisal from Agrona, who is busy minding his own continent at the moment anyway. But that won’t be enough, not in the long run. It’s time I return to the task that kept me away for so long…”
Virion leaned forward, resting his chin in his hands. “Yes, I’ve been expecting this. I…am glad. If it means a chance to bring Tessia back…” Virion cleared his throat then went quiet.
“If I’m able to gain insight into the aspect of Fate…well, I’ve already told you everything, but I have hope.”
Virion smiled softly, highlighting the wrinkles etched deep into the skin of his face. “Hope is enough, for now. It has to be, because it is all we have.” He refocused on me. “Is this a courtesy to inform me you’re leaving, or was there something else?”
I sat up, mirroring Virion’s cross-legged position. “I don’t plan on returning to the Relictombs alone.” I glanced meaningfully at Ellie, who had remained quiet throughout the conversation, then looked over Virion’s shoulder at Bairon. “I’d like a Lance to come with me as well.”
“Absolutely not,” Bairon said instantly, his head shaking. “Sorry, Arthur, but Virion needs me here.”
Virion patted the ground next to him without looking back at Bairon, who hesitated but eventually gave in and sank down into the soft moss with us.
Sitting stiffly and looking incredibly uncomfortable, he continued. “There are thousands of elven families to reach out to. We’ve started a census, with the goal to reunite as many families as possible. We still don’t even really know how many refugees were able to escape Elenoir after the Alacryan invasion.”
“A noble undertaking,” I acknowledged, “but hardly a job necessary for a Lance.”
Bairon breathed out hard, started to stand, glanced at Virion, and forced himself to be still. “I…wasn’t always kind to others, before. You…” He paused, his eyes darting everywhere but me or Ellie. “You know what I was like. You were on the receiving end of it yourself, more than once. And yet, after you vanished, when I thought I would never recover from the…from my wounds, Virion and his people cared for me in a way I don’t think anyone had before. They helped me rebuild my strength, and convinced me I had a purpose. This is my purpose, Arthur.”
Bairon’s jaw worked silently, and finally, his gaze met mine. “Don’t think I do not yearn to test myself. I can feel the potential within me, stretching out into the distance like an open road. The mana from that horn has brought me far, but there is so much more for me to learn and accomplish.” He set his hand on Virion’s forearm. “After.”
There was nothing I could say to counter Bairon’s argument. My original interpretation of the situation—that there was little need for a Lance to be involved in such a mundane procedure as a census—was short-sighted and even, perhaps, a little selfish. If Ellie was going to come with me, I needed assistance to make sure she was safe. But I couldn’t ask Bairon to leave behind this work, especially if it meant so much to him.
“I understand,” I said after taking a moment to process these thoughts. “And I appreciate what you’re doing. Elenoir was my home too, after all, even if only for a few years.”
Bairon’s brows rose at that, and he chuckled. “I’d nearly forgotten. It’s difficult to think of you as a child.”
I rose to my feet, giving Virion and Bairon a tight smile. “To be fair, I never really was.”
We said our farewells, Ellie and I wished the pair luck, and we began the long descent back down the stairs, hurrying out of the dwarven palace before the Earthborns or Silvershales could try to drag me into some courtly drama, then made our slow way down the spiraling highway.
Ellie was the first to break the silence. “So, you’re really taking me to the place you talked about, the magical dungeon with a whole different world in each room?”
“That’s the one,” I answered, bemused.
“Wait, then why didn’t you ask Mica earlier, since she was right there?”
I grimaced and shot my sister a warning look. “Honestly, I thought Bairon would be the more…stable companion for this ascent. The Relictombs can be strange, as can Mica, and the two together…but I expect that to stay between us, got it?”
‘Ooh, I’m telling,’ Regis piped in from afar, his boredom palpable.
Ellie hid her smile behind her hand, stifling a laugh. “She is really eager to get out of the city, though. She mentioned it, like, twenty times while I was training with Lyra earlier.” The smile faded, and my sister sobered considerably. “I think the death of the other Lance—Aya?—hit her pretty hard…”
Flashing in and out of Realmheart again, I located Mica’s mana signature, still within the depths of the Earthborn Institute. “Let’s go see if she’ll join us then, shall we?”
“So…we’re just going to do this right here, in…” Lyra paused and looked around the small room with a single bed pressed against the wall. “Is this your bedroom?”
The space was relatively cramped with Lyra, Ellie, Mica, and me all standing awkwardly around the smooth, silver half-sphere of the portal-generating portion of the Compass, which was already projecting an opaque, oil-slick oval into the air above it. Boo had shoved his head and shoulders into the room, and my mother was craning her neck to watch from outside.
“The Compass needs to remain somewhere safe while we ascend through the Relictombs,” I answered. “Here, we’ll have an emitter close at hand if anyone gets injured and we need to return.”
“I won’t go anywhere,” Mom said gravely, standing on her tippy toes to better be seen. Worry lines wrinkled her face, and she pinned me with a sharp look that was both promise and threat: if anything happened to Ellie, there would be hell to pay, but she would be ready. Despite her obligatory parental apprehension, we had approved of the mission, acknowledging her role in arguing for Ellie to become our test subject for the spellforms.
Mica was bouncing excitedly on the balls of her feet. “Come on already, are we going to do this or what?”
Come out as soon as we’re on the other side, I thought to Regis. I want you focused entirely on—
‘Protecting little sis, yeah, I know. I’ve got this.’
I took a deep breath and met the other’s eyes in turn.
Mica had eschewed the Lance’s military uniform for a set of heavy dwarven-style armor. Each piece of matte, blocky steel was engraved with runes, and there was a shimmer of visible mana projected just a fraction of an inch across her entire body. A circlet of smooth stone covered her forehead, extending down the bridge of her nose like a helm. Subtle runes were etched into the surface. Below it, her eyes, one bright and alive, one a dark gemstone, narrowed in determination.
Ellie stood beside her, a new bow in her left hand, the knuckles white around the grip. It was a simple, graceful recurve bow made from flat black metal, a dwarven design altered to mesh comfortably with Ellie’s pure-mana style of fighting. A gift from Emily, to replace the bow she’d designed for Ellie so long ago.
She wore leather and chain to keep herself mobile while still offering some protection. Like Mica’s, her armor was heavily enchanted with protective runes, but I would be relying on Boo, Regis, and myself to keep her safe.
She steeled herself, giving me an almost imperceptible nod.
On Ellie’s other side, Lyra Dreide was draped in bright white armored battlerobes. She’d requested something other than the ash gray and crimson uniform of her previous station, and she looked somehow less threatening in this new attire.
“Mica, you go first. Lyra will follow right behind you, then me. Ellie, you’re bringing up the rear with Boo.” When everyone had acknowledged their understanding, I focused on Mica. “Watch out for the geysers, the water is acidic and full of…well, you’ll see.”
Mica cracked her neck and conjured a huge earthen warhammer, then plunged into the portal. Lyra cocked an eyebrow at Mica’s back, but followed immediately after, no obvious weapon drawn.
Reaching out, I mimed a soft punch on Ellie’s bicep, like she’d done to me earlier. “Deep breaths.” Before she could reply, I stepped into the oily surface of the portal.
And manifested at the edge of a slimy green pool, one of hundreds—perhaps thousands—that made up the floor of the zone. Ten feet to my right, a geyser was mid-explosion, sending acidic sludge spraying for dozens of feet in every direction. But Mica and Lyra had already jumped into action, one conjuring a heavy shield of dirt and stone to catch the spray, the other hitting the jet of water with vibrations that interrupted the liquid’s momentum, causing most of the acid to splash harmlessly back into the pools it had originated from.
Regis materialized next to me just as Ellie stumbled from the ascension portal, and he interposed himself between her and a second geyser that burst up behind us an instant later. Then Boo was there, pressed against her other side, his bulk barely fitting on the narrow shelf of solid land the portal appeared above.
“We’ll need to move as a group, with one acting as pathfinder through the muck while at least two watch the pools,” Lyra commanded, her sharp eyes darting across the alien landscape. “Regent Leywin, is there any safe place within—”
“Oh, can it,” Mica snapped, already lowering her guard as she followed Lyra’s gaze around the zone, her lip curling up in disdain. “Even the bear outranks your prodigious station of prisoner.”
“Wow, it really stinks here,” Ellie muttered from between the living walls on either side of her. “It’s definitely not what I was expect—”
The pool right in front of us began to bubble, and a monstrous beast the size of a horse lunged into the air, the diffused light reflecting off its slimy skin. A giant slug, blacker than tar and covered in dozens of toothy, snapping maws, arced into the air toward us.
While Mica was still adjusting her grip on the oversized hammer and Lyra’s lips were forming a whispered curse, I stepped forward. An aether blade shimmered to life in my fist, moving in a smooth arc that bisected the beast, cleaving it in two and sending the disparate parts flying to either side of the others.
Mica’s hammer fell on one writhing half, smashing it to a pulp, while a silent but visible vibration emanated from Lyra, distorting the air around the other half until it suddenly burst apart into green and black slime. Behind them, Ellie held an arrow against the string of her bow, her mouth open in surprise, eyes wide.
“Welcome to the Relictombs,” I said somberly.
A/N: Just trying something out. Not sure I’ll be doing this for every chapter but I wanted some visualizations for you in at least the Patreon version