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Published at 9th of December 2022 07:37:37 PM


Chapter 412

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Good Humor

 

 

ARTHUR LEYWIN

“Where’s your pet Alacryan?” Gideon asked, staring around warily as if Lyra Dreide might jump out of the shadows from any direction. His face was soot-stained, and I couldn’t help but notice that his eyebrows were gone again, and part of his hair had been singed. “Not that I want her to see this, but where can you lock up a retainer and expect her to stay?”

Next to Gideon, Emily gave me a small wave. She was pale-faced and had dark bags under her eyes, but the fact that she was on her feet at all spoke to the return of her strength. It had only been a couple days since the bestowment test, and without Ellie’s regalia, I felt sure it would have taken Emily several more days to recover.

“I had one of the vaults in the Earthborn Institute fitted out to be a cell,” I said, coming to a stop before the two inventors. “Regis and Mica are watching over her while she coaches my sister on the regalia.”

Gideon huffed as he turned around and started to walk quickly away.

We were standing on the lowest floor of Vildorial, surrounded by freshly constructed stone dwellings, the destruction of the Scythes’ attack on the city already a distant memory—at least physically. I could still see the threat of attack in the furtive glances of the dwarves and elves that bustled about, in the way they avoided small talk and never moved their hands too far from their weapons.

It was with mixed feelings I saw some of that tension melt away whenever they saw me, my presence bolstering their courage.

“You should have all three Lances on her, at least,” Gideon continued after a moment as he led us into a narrow tunnel that I knew connected to some old mining shafts.

“The Lances are not mine to order around,” I pointed out conversationally. A small dwarven boy waved, a huge, gap-toothed grin on his round face, and I raised a hand in return, then followed Gideon into the dark tunnel. “Bairon stays by Virion’s side at almost all times, and Virion has been busy tending to his flock. With Dicathen shifting back into our control, he’s been able to reach out to more of the elves scattered around the continent.”

“They’re trying to figure out how many are left…” Emily said softly, her voice hoarse with emotion.

The same despair that clung ragged to her words clawed at the back of my throat, and I had to cough to shake it loose. “Fighting broke out in Kalberk, and Varay went to assist. Apparently, some of the soldiers who fled from Blackbend made it to Kalberk and warned them what was happening. Instead of surrendering, the highbloods in charge of the city locked it down and dug in.”

“All the more reason to forge ahead with my other project,” Gideon insisted, moving quickly despite the dim lighting. “This war isn’t over yet.”

No, it isn’t, I thought, considering what would come next.

I had been trying to put myself in Agrona’s place, using everything I knew about him to gauge his next move. If Kezess fulfilled his end of our agreement, then it was my hope that we’d seen the last of any full-scale battle on Dicathian soil, and it was possible, if perhaps overly hopeful, that Agrona might simply write Dicathen off as more trouble that it was worth and turn his focus to Epheotus.

One particular element made that course unlikely, however: me.

I still didn’t understand how Agrona had come by his knowledge of reincarnation, or how he had been able to search across worlds to find the Legacy and the two anchor points he needed to fully manifest her potential in this world—me and Nico. But, regardless of how he had made these discoveries, their implementation hadn’t gone as he planned. I had been reincarnated on the wrong continent, in the wrong body, and he had been forced to look outside his own domain for a vessel. Instead of being an anchor-point entirely under his control, I became his enemy.

And through the actions of his own daughter, I was given the only power in this world potentially capable of standing up to both Agrona and Kezess.

I was under no illusion that either one of them would just let that go. Kezess was willing to exchange favors for knowledge in a tenuous alliance, but Agrona…

I knew the lord of the Vritra Clan couldn’t help but want what I had. The idea of striking a similar bargain with him—a trade of aetheric knowledge for his vow to leave Dicathen alone—had crossed my mind, but after much consideration, I also knew there was no vow he could make that I could rely on. And even if I decided to take such a risk, I couldn’t consign the entire population of Alacrya to their fate just because Dicathen had been made safe.

Regardless of his intentions toward Dicathen, Agrona would come after me again eventually. I couldn’t just sit around Vildorial waiting for that to happen.

These and many other thoughts occupied my mind as we delved into the old mining tunnels.

The tunnels grew hot and stuffy, the rock all around us radiating heat, and the air was thick with a sulfuric burning smell. We passed through several exhausted fire salt veins, the shafts themselves abandoned for more fertile ground, until eventually our tunnel opened up into a much larger cavern. Scaffolding had been constructed up the sheer walls and railings hung from the ceiling high above. Thin veins of fire salts were still visible in some places, but their low glow was overshadowed by a series of bright lighting artifacts that had been set up in a grid across the floor.

I was surprised to see six men and women—four dwarves, an elven man, and a human woman—already waiting for us. They had been sitting around a worn worktable and chatting idly, but jumped to their feet as a group when they saw us approaching.

“Master Gideon, sir,” one of the dwarves said. He had a frizzy mop of dark hair and a beard down to his waist.

“Crohlb, I assume you got the package down here without trouble?” Gideon asked, moving directly to a stack of metal crates resting on the other side of the table.

“‘Course,” the dwarf said, grinning. “Glad to finally see these artifacts put to use.”

Gideon grabbed the first crate, heaved, immediately failed to move it more than an inch or two, and then turned to two of the other dwarves. “You two, drag this over here and open it up for me.”

I watched curiously as the two dwarves together lifted the top crate, moved it to a separate workbench, and then opened the lid. A shimmer of heat haze appeared momentarily above the open crate, accompanied by the same sort of dim orange glow that lit up the darker recesses of the cavern ceiling above.

Gideon pulled on a pair of heavy leather gloves, like those used at a forge, and then reached into the box. Metal scraped against metal, and then Gideon lifted out one of his artifacts. It was a sword with a straight, double-edged blade. Curling veins of dim orange swirled and spiraled through the dull gray steel. As I leaned in closer to get a better look, I could feel heat coming off the weapon. The crossguard was slightly too large, almost clunky, with a bastard-style hilt that could be wielded comfortably with one or two hands.

I activated Realmheart, and the cave shifted into a riot of color as the mana particles became visible. Fire-attribute particles clung to the blade, dancing up and down its length along the glowing orange lines. A strong source of mana radiated from the hilt as well.

Gideon held the sword out to me, handle first. The dark leather was warm to the touch, but not hot. Gingerly, I ran a finger along the flat of the sword, but pulled back as the scorching heat of the fire salt-infused steel seared my flesh.

Gideon snorted. “I guess I’ll have to add a warning label to the hilt that reads: hey idiot, don’t touch the glowing hot steel.”

I chuckled as I took a step back and swung the blade experimentally. It wasn’t the finest craftsmanship I’d ever felt, especially in the balance department, but as these were only Gideon’s prototypes, I expected the designs to be refined as more weapons were crafted.

“Infusing the steel worked as we discussed?” I asked, spinning the blade around and down in a cut that left a heat-haze arc in its wake.

Emily responded through a half-stifled yawn. “The crucible method was genius. Suffusing the fire salts into the melted iron allowed us to get the mineral itself hot enough to liquify, and increasing the carbon content of the steel by infusing it with high-carbon iron allowed the fire salts to bind to the steel, solving two problems at once.”

“Yes, yes, the wunderkind did it again,” Gideon grumbled, though I could tell he wasn’t actually unhappy.

At the center of the workbench rested a much smaller shield generator, like the one we’d used during the bestowment testing. Gideon activated it with a pulse of mana, then stepped back and looked at me expectantly. “Go on, touch the blade to the shielding. Gently though,” he added quickly. “We don’t need freakish Lance strength right now, I just want you to see.”

Rolling my eyes, I lowered the blade toward the small bubble shield. When the edge contacted the transparent barrier, it hissed and popped, sending off sparks. I raised the edge slightly, breaking the contact, and the noise subsided, though a thin trail of smoke rose up from the sword.

Without waiting for further instructions, I pushed the blade down again, harder this time. Sword and shield surged against each other, the mana inherent to the blade’s structure clashing with the mana forming the shield. It lasted a second, two, then…

With a sputtering hum, the shield artifact lost power, and the shield itself popped.

“This is only a very low-power generator, but you see?” Gideon said, his eyes bright. “The fire salts, even in this form, continue to attract fire-attribute mana, creating a strong enough force to counter—and with enough strength, even break through—an opposing mage’s shields.”

I held the weapon up to examine it more closely. There was a sort of trigger embedded into the clunky crossguard. “What’s this do?”

 

Gideon grinned manically. “A weapon hot enough to sear flesh and capable of countering enemy shields without being imbued with mana was a good starting point, but a non-mage, even a talented warrior, would still be at a disadvantage against an augmenter. The mage can empower his body, strengthening his muscles and enhancing his speed and reaction times. This feature may not entirely counter such overt imbalances between an augmenter and non-magical soldier, but it definitely adds to the experience.”

“I’m pretty sure Master Gideon just wanted to fit his original cannon idea into the weapon somehow,” Emily said under her breath.

Gideon scowled and shooed Emily and the six non-mages back. “Go on, trigger it, but only for a moment. It has the strongest effect if done while swinging the weapon.”

Moving back to put even more room between myself and the others, I took a couple more practice swings with the sword, getting used to its heft and balance. Then, as I made a sharp sideways cut from left to right, I pressed the stiff trigger.

Mana rushed from the grip into the blade, and the sword burst into flames. At the same time, it lurched forward as if propelled from behind. I absorbed the unexpected momentum by twirling the blade, releasing the trigger in the act, then bringing it back up in front of me so I could examine the effects.

The orange veins were glowing more brightly, although the excess mana was being burnt through very quickly. Perhaps twenty percent of the mana stored in the handle had been expended in that single explosion.

“Eh?” Gideon said, practically vibrating as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “When triggered during a forceful movement, the sudden influx of mana into the fire salts causes a violent combustion effect, which can add to the speed and strength of a strike, as well as creating a fiery explosion.”

“It’s a little unwieldy at the moment,” Emily added, “but with the right training, a non-mage soldier should be able to properly time and target pretty devastating strikes with it.”

Her words drew my attention to the six non-mages watching quietly from a safe distance. I glanced around the large, empty, shuttered mine. “What are we doing here?”

Gideon clapped his hands together. “I’m sick and tired of lab tests, that’s why. It’s time to see these babies in action.” He waved towards the rest of the boxes while shouting at non-mages. “All right, test dummies, grab your equipment and get ready.” After a moment, he added, “And make sure to stretch! The last thing I need is my test scuttled because someone pulled a muscle.”

I was staring at Gideon, but he seemed to be purposefully ignoring me. Emily moved to my side, reaching for the sword with a gloved hand. “Sorry, he insisted. You don’t have to, but you really are the best choice. If something goes wrong, you can just heal, after all…not that I expect any of these people to even land a hit on you.” She smiled, half-turned, then said, “Although, if you let them get a couple hits in, it would help with the testing.”

“I think you need to spend some time away from Gideon, Em,” I grumbled, cracking my neck and rolling my shoulders. “You’re starting to sound just like him.”

As it turned out, these six non-mages had already been training with the weapons, both to test them for Gideon and to prepare for a live combat exercise. Crohlb and the other dwarves had been involved first, but Gideon had gone out of his way to find both a human and elf volunteer with previous combat experience, to ensure the heat and force of the blade wouldn’t be too much for someone with a slighter skeletal structure and less genetically tough skin.

It didn’t take long for them to get ready, armored in heavy leathers designed to protect them—not from me, but from the weapon each of them wielded. There were two swords, each with a slightly different design, three battle axes, and one long glaive. As Gideon explained, they wanted to see how the fire salt-infused steel reacted when forged into different shapes, as well as vary the size of the mana-crystal rods that had been inset into the handle of each weapon.

Standing in the center of the large cave, surrounded by the leather-wrapped warriors, I brandished a plain metal rod pulled from some of the abandoned materials—a much safer “weapon” for the experiment than my conjured aetheric blade.

“Don’t go easy on him, you lot. Remember, he’s practically immortal, he can take it! Now, get to it!” Gideon’s eyes gleamed hungrily from where he and Emily had barricaded themselves behind a much stronger shield generator. Next to him, Emily was hunkered silently over a notebook and quill, ready to take note of everything that happened.

I exchanged a respectful bow with my opponents, then settled back into a loose defensive posture.

The elven man moved first, his glaive slashing downward and exploding into flame the moment Gideon gave the command. But the force of the burst was too powerful for the lithe elf, especially since he couldn’t strengthen his body with mana, and the glaive yanked to the side, slamming into the ground in front of Crohlb, who had jumped forward to slash with his ax at my legs. The dwarf tripped over the glaive’s handle and went sprawling.

I spun away from the muddle, bringing my piece of iron up to deflect a swing from a sword-wielding dwarf. I made sure to control my movements, working to match the speed and strength of my opponents, otherwise I risked shattering bones or dislocating limbs with my blocks and counterstrikes.

The fire salt sword bit into the iron rod, then exploded in a combustion that singed my face. The sword surged downward, shearing my weapon into two pieces and glancing harmlessly off the aether cladding my skin.

With a short iron bar in each hand, I smacked the sword aside and stepped into a chopping ax, letting it rebound off my unarmored shoulder without trying to block it and instead throwing my forearm into the wielder’s chest, not hard enough to injure, but more than enough to send him sprawling onto his back.

The human woman jumped over the fallen dwarf and brought her sword down with both hands toward me. I crossed the short bars over my head to catch the blade between them, but the woman triggered the fire salt burst, creating an explosion of fire and a burst of momentum that forced the searing-hot steel straight through the remainder of my iron rod.

Taking a single short step back, I purposefully let the blade’s glowing point claw across my front. To my surprise, it seared through the thin skin of aether that always clad my body, and scored a line across the front of my shirt and into my flesh before slamming into the ground at my feet, driving into the solid rock.

The woman’s eyes went wide, and she started to mumble out what I’m certain was meant to be an apology, but the words never manifested. Gripped tightly in both her hands, the trigger was still compressed, and mana built rapidly in the blade until it vibrated. Before I could warn her to release it, the sword exploded.

A storm of flames and steel shrapnel engulfed us.

Lunging forward, I wrapped my arms around the woman as she rocked back, lifting her off her feet and pulling her leather-covered body close against mine. The aether pathways revealed by God Step were humming to me before I even thought to look, and I stepped into them..

We appeared in a flash of purple lightning while the white-orange flames of the sword’s explosion were still erupting behind us. Hot steel shards pinged into stone all over the chamber, so hot and fast they buried themselves into the hard stone walls, floor, and ceiling.

The others dove away from the blast, covering up as best they could, their heavy leather armor providing good protection against the heat, but very little against razor-sharp shrapnel.

The woman’s panicked panting as she struggled to rip off her protective helmet forced my attention back on her. She was clawing at the helmet with one hand while her other trembled violently in her lap. I helped to unbuckle the helmet, and she tossed it aside. Her face was red with exertion and the heat of her armor, but she began rapidly paling as she stared at me in horror.

Looking down, I realized my torso was peppered with small wounds. As I watched, the line she’d drawn down my chest with the tip of her blade and the many smaller punctures healed over, in some cases pushing out small fragments of the sword, which clinked on the ground at my feet.

“After all our training, ugh,” Gideon grumbled, coming out from behind the shield. “Rule number two, don’t hold down the trigger!”

“I-is anyone hurt?” Emily asked weakly, staring at a crater in the stone where the woman’s sword had been.

I glanced around the space, but it didn’t seem as if anyone had been badly wounded. I appeared to have absorbed a significant amount of the shrapnel, so that even the human woman only had superficial cuts and scrapes from the shards themselves, although I could tell from the holes burned in her armor that there had been a few near misses as well.

It went wrong so fast, I thought sourly, listening to the other combatants calling out to one another to make sure everyone was okay. If I’d have thought more quickly, I could have forced the mana to implode instead of explode, or even stabilized the sword itself to prevent the accident entirely.

This was a problem I had been dimly aware of in the back of my mind, but was highlighted by this incident. As I gained more abilities such as Realmheart, it became more difficult to fully utilize each in combat. Although I could teleport instantly with the God Step godrune, my reaction times and even my perception were still limited by my own training and physical attributes.

A hiss of pain drew me back to the human woman, who was shaking as she tried to pull off her heavy gloves. Gently, I took hold of the fingers and eased the gloves off her. Underneath, her hand was already turning purple.

“Broken,” I said softly. “But not irreparably so. We have emitters in Vildorial who can heal this painlessly.”

“Emily!” Gideon shouted as he walked up. He chewed on his bottom lip as he stared down at the wound and waited as Emily hurried over, one hand holding her notebook and pen, the other adjusting her glasses as they bounced up and down. “Get Shandrae here to a healer, would you? I suppose I should’ve had an emitter on standby, just in case, but then, I didn’t expect one of you to immediately forget the rules and…” Gideon trailed off as Emily, Shandrae, and I all gave him meaningful looks. “Bah, give me that,” he said, plucking the notebook out of her grasp. “The rest of you, back to your places. We go again.”

Emily wrapped her arm around Shandrae and helped her up. The woman’s face had finally settled on green, and she couldn’t take her eyes off her shattered hand and wrist.

“And for the love of life itself, don’t hold down the damned trigger,” Gideon snapped, watching Emily and Shandrae stumble from the cavern.

***

The experimentation with the fire salt weapons lasted only an hour longer, during which time there were no more accidents. After wrapping up, providing my feedback to Gideon, and wishing the rest well, I hurried back into the city to check on my sister.

Leaving her with an enemy retainer, even on the other side of a mana-repressing cell door watched over by a Lance and my own companion, had been uncomfortable. When I returned, however, it was to the sound of Ellie howling with laughter, the noise of it carrying far down the halls of the Earthborn Institute.

 

When I rounded the corner that brought Lyra’s cell into sight, I found Ellie sitting cross-legged on a mat in front of the cell, curled over in breathless glee, while Regis pranced around on his hind two legs, flailing as if he were in terrible pain. Mica was gasping for breath, one balled fist pounding on the wall and she, too, seemed entirely overtaken by hilarity.

“No Regis, it’s the only way,” he was rumbling in a cartoonishly affected baritone. “I just have to boil myself in lava, I can’t possibly do this without—” He caught sight of me and stopped suddenly, then slowly sank down on all fours. “Oh, hey there, boss…”

Ellie’s eyes opened, and she pointed at me and laughed so hard that snot spurted from her nose. Mica gave a wild snort, and then the two only laughed harder.

Once I was close enough to meet Lyra’s eye through the bars, I sent her a serious frown. “Are you messing with their brains or something with your sound-attribute spells?”

Lyra, who was leaning against the inside wall with her arms crossed, shrugged. “No, your summons has proved ample distraction without me doing anything. I was happy exploring the depths of your sister’s new regalia, but I won’t pretend not to have enjoyed his stories about your time in the Relictombs. You really have seen and done some strange things, Regent Leywin.”

Mica was struggling to stand up straight and suppress her fit of giggles. Her jaw was clenched tight, but both her lips and a muscle in her cheek were twitching constantly. She threw me a lazy salute and said, “Welcome back, General Masochist. The Alacryan has been surprisingly well-behaved.”

“Thank you, Mica,” I said with a bone-deep sigh. To Ellie, I asked, “Did you accomplish anything?”

Wiping tears from her eyes, she grinned up at me. “I’m figuring things out, I think. It’s hard—not hard, weird. Like…relearning how to use magic from the beginning. But there is all this power there, ready to respond. Lyra thinks I’ll need to grow into the regalia.”

Lyra moved to the front of the cell, standing just inside the runed bars. “I’m not entirely certain ‘regalia’ is even the correct term. This ability of yours to impact the bestowment, it is…” She trailed off with a shake of her head, her lips curling up wryly. “The High Sovereign would pull off his own horns to be able to do what you can, I’m certain of it. The rune she received is powerful, beyond what I’ve seen received even by other retainers or the Scythes themselves. To be honest, it is too much for her.

“The purpose of mastering a lower rune before gaining a crest, emblem, or regalia is to build a mage’s strength and magical talent. Most mages never receive an emblem, much less a regalia. Your sister, well, I’m not sure she’ll ever be able to make use of this regalia properly. It will require a significant strengthening and clarification of her core to fully control.

“Beyond that, as I have attempted to make clear to her, it is also quite dangerous. If she pushes too hard, the rune could empty her core and leave her crippled.”

I didn’t respond immediately, instead taking the time to digest Lyra’s words as I looked down at my sister. Her ash-brown hair—the same color as our father’s, I remembered—was slightly disheveled. As the retainer had talked, the mirthful expression had slowly slid off Ellie’s face, replaced by a small but determined frown, making her look more like our mother.

I couldn’t help but be of two minds, both about Ellie and the bestowals in general. Being able to instantly clarify a mage’s—potentially any mage’s—core while simultaneously granting them access to a powerful spell could change how Dicathen viewed magic. We could potentially churn out elite mages at a pace previously unheard of. But, to get the best results from this process, I needed to spend a significant amount of time with each mage.

And I’m only one person, I rationalized, knowing this drastically limited the tool’s overall usefulness, at least right now. Also, I’d spent enough time in Alacrya to see how the presence of these spellforms could completely overtake our magical culture. There were benefits, certainly, but the potential dangers were so varied and widespread that it was difficult to see the whole picture.

A deep-set guilt was also already seeping into me for allowing Ellie to get involved. I’d given her this power, knowing it could be dangerous, but having such clear confirmation that she could easily harm herself with the spellform reminded me that I was responsible for anything that might happen to her.

I looked deep into Ellie’s almond-shaped brown eyes. Beyond the slight frown that turned down her lips, it was her eyes that revealed the depth of her maturity—a depth that felt too deep for her age.

I was aware that, during my absence, she had stepped up for our mother, for Dicathen, at a level I wish she didn’t have to. Yet, I still thought of her as a child. And because of that, I hadn’t allowed myself to trust her, especially not with this newfound power. She was reckless, true, and had proven herself irresponsible on more than one occasion, but she was also perceptive, courageous, and self-sacrificing.

She’d been through far too much to still be considered a child…but she was still much too young to carry the burden of being an adult.  But I knew at that moment that I…we had no choice. She no longer saw herself as a child, and I needed to stop treating her like one.

Rather than constantly opposing her desires as I tried to force her into a role I was comfortable with, I needed to step back and allow her to grow in the direction she found most rewarding and comfortable.

She needed guidance instead of opposition.

I held back a sigh and forced a smile on my face, then reached out a hand to pull my sister to her feet. She took it, hopping up energetically.

“Come on, El. Walk with me for a bit.”

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