Chapter 408: The Best Choice
As I heard the dwarves’ excited murmuring grow louder, I slipped deeper into the shadows of the room where I’d hidden. The guards further down the hall hadn’t moved from their positions in front of Gideon’s laboratory, but they had cracked open the lab door to try and eavesdrop on the excitement below, which worked in my favor.
With my beast will active, I had been able to listen in as Daymor Silvershale received his bestowal. The increased sensitivity not only picked up sound from farther away but translatedthe subtle vibration of their movements and mana usage up through the stone into sensation as well.
Daymor and three other dwarves burst out into the hall a moment later, chattering like a bunch of teenage girls in the shopping district.
“Ah, I can’t wait to see old man Earthborn’s face when he gets a load of my new power,” Daymor was saying. “And my older brothers’ as well. How they’ve lorded their attendance of the council meetings over my head. Well, let’s see who has something to crow about now!”
Another voice was quick to add, “A dual-elemental augmenter, the first in three generations of Silvershales. Your father will be ecstatic, sir.”
Their conversation meant little to me, and so, despite the fact that I could have continued to listen to them for at least a couple of minutes, even as they moved farther and farther away, I instead tried to block out the noise and focus on my brother and those with him—Gideon, Emily Watsken, and a woman I thought must be the retainer he had captured, Lyra—who were once again shut up in a chamber below me. I had to focus through two doors and ten feet of solid stone, but if I held my breath, I could just make out the weak vibrations of their conversation.
“How are you feeling?” my brother was asking Emily.
“Fine, just need a moment’s rest,” came her faint reply.
“Give her an hour or two, at least, before attempting the ritual again,” said the retainer.
Gideon’s reply was louder than the others. “But I need a third data point or what we’ve seen so far is worthless! Someone who Arthur has spent a lot of time around, the most time around, hours and hours. No middle-ground or close enough, it needs to be—”
“Gideon, quit activating your spellform,” my brother said, his tone both exasperated and resigned.
The funny old artificer cleared his throat and mumbled something I didn’t catch, because at the same time something heavy fell to the ground a few floors above, and a deep dwarven voice cursed.
I shifted position, keeping one eye on the open doorway into this room as I leaned closer to the ground, attempting to hear better.
“I need to think, and Emily needs to rest,” my brother said, speaking firmly.
“Fine, fine, but don’t take all day. Make your choice and bring them here this afternoon,” Gideon demanded.
They said their farewells, and I heard Regis’s claws scraping on stone as they began moving in my direction.
I cast a quick glance around the room where I was hidden, which was just down the hall from Gideon’s laboratory. It looked like a disused classroom of sorts, full of dwarf-sized desks, empty shelves, and a few soot-stained tables. Where the door used to be was now just an open doorway.
As near as I could tell, I was pretty close to being right over the chamber where Gideon had been running his experiments.
Arthur and his companion moved in silence, but I knew they could communicate without speaking. I wondered what they were talking about…or perhaps who they were talking about.
They needed someone my brother had spent a lot of time around—been close to—for the next stage of their experiment…
I immediately and absolutely wanted it to be me. Not because I wanted an Alacryan rune—or a spellform, as Gideon and Arthur referred to them as—although a sudden boost to my power and clarification of my core did sound good. But what I really wanted was to be involved, to be helpful. Between the long journey through the desert together, our training and meditation, meals and even sleeping in the same space, I couldn’t think of anyone who would have spent more time with him, not even Mom.
But I also knew right away that he wouldn’t want to put me at risk.
So, I just need to convince him I’m the only choice, I thought, steeling myself for the task.
I watched Arthur and the big shadow wolf pass by from where I wascarefully hidden behind a larger table, but didn’t come out right away. Instead, I focused on their footsteps, waiting until they were far ahead to follow. The hall was clear except for the two guards, and if I stayed against the far wall, I could use the support columns that ribbed the otherwise smooth walls of the corridor to stay out of their line of sight, just like I had when I sneaked down here to begin with. The guards were focused on themselves anyway, chatting animatedly about Daymor Silvershale and what Gideon’s experiments would mean for Vildorial.
With my beast will still active, I was sensitive to even the slightest noise, especially my own, which helped me to creep along in utter silence. I didn’t think I’d get in trouble just for being down in these tunnels, but I didn’t want Arthur to know I had been spying on him after he ran out in such a rush. He’d be upset with me, say that I constantly disregarded my own safety and took unnecessary risks, completely oblivious to how hypocritical he sounded giving lectures.
I forced myself to stop from going down this mental path. I needed to be thinking about how I was going to convince him to let me participate in Gideon’s “experiment.”
Arthur had been moving slowly, no doubt deep in thought and in no rush, but I had to assume he was heading home. Taking a slightly longer route back, I hurried quickly and quietly, using my heightened senses to avoid crossing paths with any of the guards, mages, or other residents who frequented these tunnels.
Instead of going inside, however, I leaned against the wall next to the door and waited. When, a couple minutes later, I heard the telltale scraping of claws, I released my beast will and carefully arranged my features into an innocent smile.
When Arthur stepped around the corner, I gave him a little wave and said, “Everything okay down there?”
Arthur stopped, his surprise reading clearly on his face. “Yeah, it wasn’t an emergency. What are you doing out here?”
“Waiting for you,” I said honestly, digging the toe of my turnshoe into the floor. “You were gone for a while.”
“Gideon,” he said simply by way of explanation, and I smiled.
Arthur leaned against the wall opposite me in the squat hallway and watched me silently. I felt guilt prickle into goosebumps on the backs of my arms as I thought about how best to convince him to choose me without giving away my spying expedition.
“What’s wrong?” he asked after a moment.
“What? Nothing,” I said in a rush, tucking a lock of hair back behind my ear.
His eyes narrowed, and then his expression softened. “How much did you hear?”
I opened my mouth, and he cocked a brow. Instead of trying to lie, I let out a gusting breath. “How did you know?”
“Your guilt might as well be written across your forehead in ink,” he said, chuckling.
I groaned, pulling the hair I’d just fixed down in front of my face to hide my eyes. “Sorry, I just…”
He waved my apology away. “I get it. It’s okay.”
Despite his forgiveness, the silence that fell between us felt sour and awkward. “I want to help with the bestowment trial,” I forced out.
He nodded seriously. There was no surprised smirk or disbelieving laugh, which made me feel better. He really seemed to be considering it. Then he said, “I’ve already decided on Jasmine. She’s older and more battle-tested, and has spent nearly as much time with me as you have.”
I had anticipated this answer but I remained silent.
Regis, who had been pacing up and down the hall as we talked, stopped. “Plus, I lived in her core for a few days. That might make a difference, too.”
“When I was in camp with all those Alacryans, some of them were really young,” I pointed out, bringing up the counterargument I had prepared. “They get their first bestowals really early, right? I’m a lot younger than Jasmine, closer to the age a bestowment should happen.”
“Point, Ellie,” Regis said as his head turned from me to Arthur then back.
“It’s not just about you being my sister,” Arthur said, pushing away from the wall and taking a step closer. “The truth is, you have a lot of variables Jasmine doesn’t. You’re a pure mana mage with no elemental affinity, you’re a beast tamer, and you have djinn ancestry. Variables mean danger in this case, El.”
“Still, I…” I trailed off, unsure how to respond. I didn’t have an argument against the points he made, only felt sure that, despite the risks, I was the best choice.
“Why are you so insistent on this?” Arthur asked, inspecting me carefully with those bright gold eyes. “This isn’t the only chance you’ll get. Once the process has been tested thoroughly, you’ll get your turn, I promise.”
“You can’t understand,” I said in the direction of my feet. Tension crept into my shoulders and neck, and the instinct to bury what I was feeling made speaking difficult. “You don’t have to cower with your mother every time retainers or Scythes come knocking, telling yourself you’re protecting her when both of you know full well that you can’t, that you’re useless against that kind of enemy…” I turned away from Arthur, staring blindly down the empty corridor leading away from our rooms. “It’s just…so frustrating, to feel so helpless…”
I rested my head against the wall and let out a long breath like a sigh. I could feel Arthur’s gaze burning into the side of my face, but I didn’t want to look at him, didn’t want to see pity or disapproval or disappointment.
There was a groan of hinges, and my mother’s voice said, “You should choose Ellie.”
I whipped around to look at Mom, slack-jawed with surprise at her intervention. Even if I convinced Arthur, I had expected to have the fight all over again with her.
Arthur seemed just as caught off guard, and he rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly but didn’t respond.
“You heard everything?” I asked her.
She gave me a wry smile. “You’re not exactly being quiet out here.”
She watched us for a moment, sad but determined, before continuing. “We are, all of us, in constant danger. Maybe taking risks is the only way forward. Maybe…we’ve been too cautious, too willing to let you protect us. But there is no way to know when one of our many enemies will appear and rain hellfire down on us. You might not be here when they do—if our enemy is wise, he’ll make sure of it. But it seems like this might be a way to help us prepare, and if your sister is the best choice of test subject, then so be it.” There was something haunted and forlorn in her eyes, a tired weariness that nearly broke my heart to see.
Biting my trembling bottom lip, I stared down at the ground, wordless..
“All I ever wanted—even before the war, before any of this started—was the power to protect you guys,” Arthur said, his voice low and sad. I glanced up at him, but his face was hidden behind a curtain of wheat-blond hair. “I guess even now, after everything that has happened, I couldn’t,” he finished, his chin tilting up to reveal a pained smile behind his hair.
Mom crossed the hallway, her hand feathering through Arthur’s hair. “We are never promised another day,” she said somberly. Then she half-turned to look at me. “But we have today, and there is so much we can do with it.”
Emily was waiting for us in Gideon’s lab, a large room chock-full of tables, shelves, buzzing equipment, and stacks of notes, all warmed by a large firesalt furnace on one side. She gave me a quizzical look, which then moved to Arthur questioningly. He only nodded, so she shrugged, turned around, and led Arthur, Mom, and me through an arched opening across from us, down a flight of stairs, and to a specific door.
I glanced around the featureless hall, trying to map it out compared to the classroom above, curious about the strength of my beast-bonded senses.
The door opened to Emily’s touch, and she led us into a plain, dimly-lit chamber. A circle of runes had been carved into the floor and filled with silvery metal that glowed faintly, and some kind of artifact had been constructed just outside the circle. A single table was pushed against one wall, and a seemingly random assortment of items sat atop it.
The master artificer, Gideon, was fiddling with the equipment, while the retainer, Lyra Dreide, sat with her back against the curved walls and perused some kind of old tome.
“About time,” Gideon mumbled, sparing me only a cursory glance. “The sister, huh? Well, I suppose there are worse people you could have been spending all your time with. She’s not quite an ideal candidate though, is she? Dark orange core, a beast tamer—no idea how that interacts with the bestowment, if at all—and barely a child. A more mature test subject would be—”
“I’m a Leywin,” I said firmly, cutting across his criticism. “My brother and I both had to mature fast.” Of course, there was the small detail of Arthur already being well into adulthood, mentally, when he was born into our family, but I didn’t know how many people were aware of that fact. “I’m ready for this.”
“O-ho, are you?” Gideon asked, leaving off his work and leaning toward me. “Ready to have a potentially potent spell writ into your flesh by unknown and hostile magics, a spell that will certainly be unlike any magic your small mind has conceived of previously and could very well kill you if you don’t do exactly as you are told?”
My lips parted to assure him that I was indeed ready for exactly that, but I choked on the words. It had all been well and good arguing for this from the safety of our rooms above, but now, down here in the dark, seeing Emily dressed in her strange ceremonial robes, her fingers unconsciously tracing the lines of a black staff, I was suddenly nervous.
“She is,” Arthur said, stepping up beside me and resting a hand on my shoulder.
A swelling of warm pride eased my nerves and unwound the knot forming at the back of my throat.
Emily approached, giving me a comforting smile, and slipped her arm through mine. “You’ll be fine, I’m sure. Arthur has already told you what is going to happen?”
I nodded as she led me to the center of the circle of runes. She gestured to the ground, and so I sat, my legs crossed and arms resting on my knees, and looked up at her. She only smiled again before moving to the table, where she slid some kind of bracelet over her wrist, then picked up the staff.
“Mrs. Leywin, if you’ll stand back,” she asked respectfully. Mom seemed hesitant, and I felt certain she was starting to regret supporting this, but she did as Emily asked.
My brother, on the other hand, kneeled down beside me, just outside of the runes. His golden eyes met mine and he winked. “Maximum aether exposure,” he explained quietly.
Gideon had pulled a notebook and pen from his robes and was writing furiously. The retainer was standing silently against the wall opposite my mother.
Emily’s shadow crossed over me as she moved around to stand behind my back. I could feel her looming there, and my instinct to move or turn flared, causing goosebumps to roughen the skin of my arms and neck.
“Ellie, we expect this might be painful,” Emily said, her tone sour, like she didn’t like what she had to say. “A mark was received easily by a veteran mage, but even a crest struck Master Gideon like a blow, knocking the breath from him. If you receive a stronger spellform…”
“Then the effect on my body will be stronger as well,” I finished for her, staring down at the shimmering runes in front of me.
“Yes.” There was a pause, then, “Are you ready?”
I clenched my teeth together and forced myself to sit up straight. I wasn’t afraid of pain. “Yes.”
Behind me, I heard Emily begin to move, the fabric of the heavy robes scuffing against itself, the butt of the staff clicking against rock, a long exhale…
The light in the room changed. There was a subtle glow, probably from crystal at the top of the staff.
Then every muscle in my body seized.
I jerked, my back locked into an uncomfortable arch, my mouth open, a moan halfway to my lips, my fingers clawing into my thighs, my eyes wide, so wide they burned and filled with tears.
It felt like a brand, like red-hot iron pressed against the base of my spine that set fire to every nerve in my whole body.
I snapped like an over-pulled bowstring, the paralysis breaking, the moan turning into a weak scream as I crumpled to the cold floor, sucking in a feeble breath, fighting my own lungs, which refused to move air.
Mom said something, a panicky warbling that came in and out of focus, followed by Arthur’s commanding baritone.
My lids dragged themselves shut, and in the dark, everything was worse. No, not worse, just more. I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn’t. I wanted to ask for help, but my tongue wasn’t following instructions. And the weight of the sensation grew, a building pressure centered on the small of my back.
A powerful hand had me by the shoulder, dragging me back up into a sitting position, but I was only dimly aware of it, like it was happening in the last remnants of a dream just as I woke.
Mana crashed over me, wave after wave of it, like nothing I’d ever felt before.
My eyes snapped open. Two golden orbs like little suns hovered just above me, moving rapidly in tiny bursts.
My core trembled, and I thought I might be sick.
Then it did something I have no words for, and I knew I was dying, because even when the asura’s blade ran me through, I had still felt like myself, still been present for the pain in my body, but now, with stunning suddenness, the pain was gone, and I felt nothing but its absence.
“She’s going into shock,” a lilting, honeyed voice said firmly, and the golden eyes vanished, replaced by flame-red tresses. “Eleanor, focus on my voice. Think and take the meaning of my words. Your core is being rapidly clarified, and your body is struggling to adjust. It will be over soon, but you must stay present. Your mind and your thoughts guide the process. Stay here, with my voice.”
I felt my face scrunching up in confusion as my brain struggled not with the meaning of the words, but to make sense of the strangeness of the situation: an Alacryan retainer, a woman responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Dicathians, was now sincerely guiding me through a process we had stolen from her people…
And I think it was exactly this that snapped me out of the cold spiral I had been following. My breath came easier and sensation returned. I became aware of the cold stone pressing against my legs and rear, and of the sweat clinging to my face, and the deep ache in my muscles due to the sudden clenching and releasing, and finally the hands holding either side of my face firmly, forcing me to look into the retainer’s eyes.
A slight smile broke across her face, and she let me go. I leaned forward, pressing my hands to the ground and drawing in slow, steady breaths. A hand rubbed gently at my back, between my shoulderblades.
“Eleanor, we need to look,” the retainer said. I could only nod in reply.
I felt the hem of my shirt being tugged up as Lyra shifted around me, then Mom was there, her hands resting on top of mine. Her eyes trailed after the retainer at first, but then snapped to my own. They were full of tears about to fall, but there was a quivering smile on her face.
“So, it is true,” the retainer said quietly, her voice full of awe and reverence. “A regalia. It…should not be possible.”
Sliding one hand free, I reached behind me and rubbed the skin of my lower back, where the spellform still tingled.
“And look at that. It’s pushed her clear to the light-yellow stage,” Gideon said.
My heart thumped inside my chest, and I turned my attention inward. He was right!
Despite the aching and the fatigue, I knew what came next, and I couldn’t wait to begin. “I…want to test it,” I said around a dry lump in my throat.
“We can wait—” Mom said, but Gideon was already moving.
He shooed everyone else back and activated the artifact. A transparent bubble of mana shimmered to life over the circle, cutting me off from the others.
“Gideon,” my brother said with a note of warning, but Gideon ignored him as well.
Standing in front of me, just on the other side of the shield, with a notebook in hand and eyes gleaming with curiosity, Gideon said, “Well, go on then!”
The retainer began to coach me through the process, explaining how to look for the rune, what it should feel like. Cautiously, I followed her instructions.
The rune bloomed into warmth and power as mana channeled into it from my core, and I waited for some revelation, some power to manifest itself.
And it wasn’t that nothing happened; there was a certain focusing in on the mana, like I was more aware of everyone’s cores and the barrier of mana manifested into the shield, but that was it.
“Perhaps you aren’t able to channel enough mana to properly activate the regalia,” Lyra mused as I explained what I was feeling.
“Here, try this,” Gideon said as he disabled the dome-shaped shield and handed me a large mana crystal, then reactivated the shield again. “Draw on it.”
I glanced at Arthur, who was watching everything carefully, then at Mom, who had both hands over her mouth and practically vibrated with nervous energy.
Closing my eyes, I pulled on the mana trapped inside the crystal and directed it down into the spellform. The sensation of awareness returned, and it felt easier than I remembered to draw on the mana crystal, but no additional effects revealed themselves. I released my control over both crystal and rune with a sigh.
“What am I doing wrong—”
Emily, who had been leaning against the table while everything else was happening, gave a soft moan and collapsed. Arthur moved so quickly I barely saw it, catching her before her head could hit the hard stone, then laying her down gently.
My mother was there only a second later, both hands pressing against Emily’s pale skin. Mom’s hands gave off a silver glow as she cast some healing spell, but it cut off quickly. She exchanged a look with Arthur as she explained, “She’s put herself into a state of backlash. I can’t heal her, but she should be all right given time.”
Gideon shifted his weight from one foot to the other and bit his lip to stay quiet. Seemingly without thinking, he flipped the switch, turning off the shield that contained me within the runes.
I went to Emily’s side, kneeling down next to my brother and taking her hand. Her eyes fluttered open, but she groaned in pain and closed them again.
There was something…uncomfortable about being near here. The enhanced awareness of mana I’d felt when activating the regalia remained, and the absence of mana in Emily’s core stood out as something wrong or unnatural, something that needed to be corrected—
Mana flowed out of me in white loops, glowing across my skin like an aura, and then maneuvered to Emily’s body, into and through her veins, all the way to her core.
Her ragged breathing softened, and her eyes fluttered open. “Oh!” she gasped, flustered. “G-good morning?”
The light of the mana exchange faded.
Gideon’s pen was scribbling furiously in his notebook but everyone was quiet as they all turned to stare at me, wide-eyed.
What I had just done, it shouldn't be possible.