Chapter 419: Black Doors

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As I watched the others vanish one by one through another portal—the fourth now since leaving the third djinn ruin—I considered the mental map left for me by Sylvia. Despite my confidence in isolating the proper zone, it was still strange. Unlike all the other pictures in my mind, which included a sense of what to expect in the zone, this one was empty, nothing but an intangible blank slate.

I cast a glance back at the zone we’d just cleared: a suffocatingly cramped castle full of traps and monsters. It had been dangerous, but straightforward. The unknown beyond this next portal unsettled me.

It was the gentle swirling of the portal’s internal light that dragged me back into the moment. Whatever else might wait on the other side of the portal, my sister was already there without me. With this in mind, I stepped in after her.

I appeared surrounded by…nothing. Absolutely nothing. Void emptiness in every direction. And I was alone. When I tried to call out for my sister, no sound came. I tried to look down, but there was no down, or up, or me.

It felt like when I’d first appeared in the Relcitombs. I didn’t relish the sensation.

‘At least you’ve still got me,’ Regis’s voice sounded in my head. ‘Wherever I am. Can I still be inside you if neither of us exist?”

Then, like a scene fading in at the beginning of an old Earth movie, the zone materialized in front of me.

I was looking across smooth, glassy black ground at Mica, Boo, and Ellie. Except something was wrong with them. They were flat, like reflections of themselves on dark glass, and their movements were stiff and unnatural.

“El,” I said, my voice sounding muffled and incomplete.

Her mouth moved in response, and I read my name on her lips, but I couldn’t hear her.

I need to get out of here, I thought. I felt myself drifting forward, and then my feet touched down on solid ground.

Turning around—I had a body again, I realized—I examined where I’d come from. Behind me, a smooth rectangle of mana, about seven feet tall and three feet wide, hovered just beyond the edge of the ground I now stood on. An identical shape stood a few feet to its left. Lyra was peering curiously out from its surface.

I heard my name spoken by Ellie’s voice, like a pleading whisper coming from a great distance.

Turning away from Lyra, I crossed to the other panels—doors, I decided mentally, although in truth they resembled a physical door only in their outline. “It’s okay,” I assured my sister, reaching up and pressing my hand against the surface of the door. She raised hers as well, placing it where mine was. “Just think about leaving, and you will.”

She nodded, her features hardening, the panic easing away. When nothing happened, her brows furrowed in concentration, but she was still inside the door.

Regis manifested next to me, shaking his burning mane. “Something seems off.” He sniffed at the door, his breath fogging the smooth surface. “Maybe there’s some trick to all this.”

“Aether,” I said, realizing Regis was right. The doors were wreathed in aetheric particles. With my hand still pressed against the door, I sent aether out through my fingertips.

Ellie immediately appeared at my side, sagging in relief. “Ugh. That was really uncomfortable.”

The doors reminded me of the mirror zone. Remembering what happened to the Granbehls, I hurried to release Boo, Mica, and finally Lyra in the same fashion.

I watched each of them for a moment, but there didn’t seem to be any aftereffects or strangeness in their behavior, as there had been with Ada when she was possessed. And, when they stepped out of their respective doors, no reflection or image was left behind.

Once they were all free—and I was convinced they were themselves—I turned my attention back to our surroundings.

We were standing on smooth black ground, almost indistinguishable from the darkness beyond. Boo kept his side pressed against Ellie protectively, his small eyes staring out into the nothing.

Mica rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck, an uneasy frown creasing her features. “I feel…weird. Not sure how to describe it.”

“Yes, there is a strange sensation in the atmosphere here, like gravity or the air is wrong…or like we are wrong,” Lyra said as she bent down to run her fingers across the smooth ground. “This is mana. Pure, focused mana. No physical landscape at all.” Her eyes traced a line into the distance. “It’s a platform. See there, a subtle shift in the blackness?”

I moved to where she had indicated. She was right. We were standing on a floating platform in the void, a twenty-foot square. “There could be others that we can’t see,” I proposed, squinting and pushing aether into my eyes, searching for any sign of more platforms. “Maybe we have to navigate blind. I should be able to…”

I activated God Step, but nothing happened. No aetheric paths lit up in my vision or called out their presence to me, and I didn’t experience the expanded, innate sixth sense of my physical surroundings, either. The godrune didn’t even glow. It was like it was dormant, unreachable. I couldn’t feel it at all.

Regis clicked his tongue in frustration. “It’s the same with Destruction. It’s there, but…not.”

With no clue what that might mean, I sent aether into Realmheart. The godrune lit up, the mana particles forming the ground glowing like multi-colored fireflies. Aside from the mana of our platform and some lingering atmospheric mana drifting in the void, Realmheart showed me nothing.

But at least it worked.

Turning my attention back to the doors, I ran my hand along the closest one, from which I’d released Lyra. It felt smooth and silky, like polished obsidian, but there was a static tingle to its surface. “If aether pulled you all out of these things…”

I sent a small amount of aether into the door.

With a sickening lurch, my perspective shifted. Suddenly I was looking back at my companions and their surprised expressions.

“It’s okay,” I said, my voice again sounding strange, as if I were underwater. I was certain that these doors had something to do with clearing the zone, but their purpose wasn’t immediately obvious. “I just need a minute to think.”

My perspective was fixed, so I couldn’t look to the side, or up and down. I couldn’t move at all. Like when I’d first appeared in the zone, it was as if my body didn’t even exist. From this door, I could see nothing but my companions, the platform, and the other doors.

The thought of other doors gave me pause. What if they really are doors? I wondered. I had stepped out of a door by thinking about it. Perhaps…

I focused on the door Ellie had appeared within and thought, I want to go through that door.

Like before, I began drifting forward. For an instant, I thought I would appear standing in front of Lyra’s door, as I had my own, but instead I kept floating, picking up speed slightly as I moved in the direction of my thoughts.

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A couple of seconds later, I stepped back out onto the platform, but it was through Ellie’s door and I was now standing behind my companions.

Boo groaned in surprise, stomping back and forth as Ellie gasped out, “Arthur!” She took a couple halting steps before Boo moved to intervene, pushing her back with his broad head. She twisted around, searching frantically; her eyes skated right past me, stopped, then jumped back. She pressed a hand over her heart and her expression softened. “You scared the crap out of me,” she complained, causing the others to turn around as well. A low, nervous whine from Boo served to add emphasis to her distress.

“How did you do that?” Lyra asked, her lips pursed as she considered the black rectangles lined up along the platform’s edge.

I quickly explained what I’d done, and my theory.

“So you think these—doors?—can move us around the zone?” Mica asked. Brows raised, she turned to her left and right, gesturing at the vast emptiness. “And go where?”

“There must be other platforms and doors out there,” Lyra insisted, moving to the edge of our platform and staring into nothing. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“If this is one of the djinn’s puzzles,” I said, thoughtful, “then there is always an intended solution.”

With my hand against the cold surface of the door, I released another pulse of aether and felt myself be drawn back into it.

This time, instead of letting myself be distracted by what was right in front of me, I focused on the emptiness around our platform. And, as I stared out unblinking into space, something caught my eye. Far off to my right and a few dozen feet below us, there was a second platform with two doors visible from my angle.

“I found it,” I said, carefully stopping myself from thinking about going through that distant door. It felt reckless to go and leave the others, especially if they couldn’t navigate the doors on their own. “Regis, you can sense the direction in my thoughts. Can you see the platform?”

Regis loped to the edge, staring out in the direction I indicated. “There’s nothing out there.”

“Maybe you can only see it from inside the door?” Ellie asked, tapping a finger on her lips thoughtfully.

“Only one way to find out, Regent Leywin,” Lyra said, turning away from me to watch in the distance, following Regis’s line of focus.

I hesitated, but only for a moment. While I didn’t like leaving the others behind, this seemed like the clear way forward. With a thought, I was drifting through the empty space toward the leftmost of the two doors I could see. Like before, I slowly picked up speed as I moved, but it wasn’t fast. A strange foreboding built within me as I grew closer and closer to the second platform, but I was unsure if it was some trick of the Relictombs or my intuition trying to warn me about some unseen danger.

Twenty seconds or more passed before I stepped out onto solid ground again. The diffused, sourceless light of the zone lit up this much smaller platform, and I couldn’t help but wonder why I hadn’t seen it immediately.

‘Oh, hey, we see you,’ Regis thought. ‘The platform just kind of appeared a second before you did.’

Looking back, I could just make out the others—Boo by far the most obvious—standing along the edge of their platform perhaps three hundred feet away.

Between me and my companions, the void oozed, like shadows moving within shadows.

I thought I was imagining it, until a four-fingered, clawed hand reached out from the void and grabbed the platform, digging into the flat, black panel of mana. A second claw followed, and, very slowly, spindly arms formed, dragging a horribly skinny creature out of the black background and into reality right in front of me.

Its bones protruded in sharp ridges against shiny black skin that blended into the darkness behind it. The flat face had no mouth or nose but four out-of-place eyes. As it uncoiled from its crouched position, I found myself looking up at it; the creature was at least seven feet tall.

It blinked, each eye closing and opening slightly out of time with the others. Then it lunged forward, clawing at my stomach.

I stepped into the blow, conjuring an aether blade in my left hand. The monster’s claws dug into my side beneath my ribs, slicing right through the aetheric barrier that clad my skin.

My sword punched into its bony chest, then ripped up and out the side of the neck. Its eyes rolled in four different directions as it toppled over, and when it struck the ground it dissolved into the platform under my feet.

Pressing a hand to my side, I checked the wound; it was healing rapidly, as expected. At least that power is working.

‘You know, we’ve seen a lot of shit in here, but that thing was nightmare-inducing,’ Regis said via our telepathic link.

“This is going to be a problem,” I said to myself, considering the obstacles this zone presented. Is everything still clear over there?

‘Yeah,’ he confirmed, absent his normal flippant attitude.

Returning to the others worked the same way: the jarring feeling of floating disembodied through space, the shadows rippling as if the void itself was alive, before I finally stepped out of Ellie’s door on the starting platform. I searched for the distant platform, but it was gone.

“This is going to take some trial and error,” I said, explaining what I’d learned to the others.

Mica jumped forward, looking up at me with grim determination. “I’ll go first.”

I had released her from the doorway by imbuing it with aether, and I attempted to put her back into it the same way. With Mica’s hand pressed against the same door I’d used, I sent a small pulse of aether into the surface.

Sure enough, Mica vanished from the platform, reappearing inside of the door like a moving portrait of herself.

“Now, can you see the other platform? Think about leaving through one of those doors,” I instructed.

She nodded, but nothing happened. Considering what we already knew, I assumed that aether was the problem. She couldn’t move in the same way she couldn’t release herself. But I thought I already knew the solution to that.

I confirmed that she was focused on the distant door, then imbued aether into the doorway again.

Mica appeared right in front of me. Her face rose, then fell again as she realized where she was. “It didn’t work.”

“Perhaps you were not focused enough,” Lyra said, crossing her arms.

“Or maybe the portal is racist against dwarves,” Regis muttered, getting a sputtering laugh out of my sister.

Mica’s eye narrowed, but I stepped in between them. I had no patience for an argument.

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She focused on me instead, clearing her throat. “I was one hundred percent focused. It has  to be something else. Although, if Professor Relictombs Know-it-All wants to try, be my guest.”

“It’s worth being exhaustive,” I said, waving Lyra forward.

She passed into the door easily, but, when I imbued it the second time, she too stepped back out onto our platform. The only silver lining was that no more monsters showed up to attack us while we were on the starting platform. However, we were getting no closer to progressing through the zone.

“Now that we know there are other platforms out there, why don’t we just fly through?” Mica asked, stepping up to the edge of our platform. “I can’t see it anymore, but you were just over there somewhere.”

Not waiting for a reply, she lifted up off the ground and flew out into the void. The moment she crossed over the outer edge of our platform, a spindly, black-clawed arm congealed from nothing and wrapped around her throat. A second raked down her face, shearing through her protective mana with ease, while two more grasped at her ankles.

I grabbed the back of her armor and yanked her onto the platform.

Three of the creatures came with her.

Imbuing my hand with aether, I struck the one choking her in the side of the head. Unlike the other, this one had no eyes, only an open mouth full of serrated, gnashing teeth. The skull collapsed, splattering dark ichor over Mica and me both.

Mica kicked down hard, shattering the collarbone of another. Twin arrows sprouted from the third, one in the throat and one in its single, off-center eye.

Ripping herself free of my grasp, Mica conjured her hammer and started swinging.

I took a step back. The overlarge hammer made short work of the monsters’ remains, crushing them into a heap of soggy black bone. As soon as she stepped away, breathing hard, the three corpses dissolved.

She brushed her hair from her face as she turned around. “Perhaps flying is…not a great idea.”

“It does seem that the djinn intend a certain path be followed to navigate the zone,” Lyra commented, raising her brows and looking at me. “Your path. Which I must say, for the rest of us, is rather unfortunate.”

“There has to be a way through,” I said, stepping up to one of the doors and staring at it. “We just have to find it.”


An hour and several experiments later, and we still hadn’t moved beyond the first platform. But we had learned a few things about the zone.

I couldn’t travel beyond the second platform. I could see a third, but couldn’t move to it. It felt like strong hands were holding me back, and my working theory was that the zone would only allow me to move one platform beyond my companions. Although I had hoped to go to the end and see if activating the exit portal would free the others from the purgatory of the first platform, this wasn’t an option.

Any attempt to cross through the void resulted in an immediate attack. The longer Lyra or Mica stayed out there—the farther they tried to push—the more creatures clung to them, rending and mauling with claws capable of ripping through mana and aether alike.

I had even attempted to send a bolt of aether from one platform to another, but the aether fizzled away before reaching its target, absorbed back into the zone.

And as long as anyone was standing on the second platform, the horrifying monsters kept appearing, slithering free of the void one after another.

“It’s quite strange,” Lyra mused, pacing back and forth across the platform as we rehashed our ideas for the third time. “I feel strange. Has anyone else noticed?”

“Yeah,” Mica answered, drumming her fingers against the platform as she leaned back on her elbows. “I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but all this”—she gestured to her torso—“isn’t the way it should be. It reminds me of how I felt the first morning I woke up without my eye.”

Lyra nodded. “Exactly.”

Ellie pulled her knees to her chest and hugged them, looking nervous. “Do people ever get…stuck in the Relictombs?”

Boo rumbled, nudging her shoulder with his nose to comfort her.

“We’re not stuck,” I said firmly. “We just haven’t made the right connection yet. I’ve been in several zones where the solution wasn’t immediately obvious—”

“Arthur!” Ellie said, bolting to her feet. “A connection!”

I stared at her for a moment, unsure what she meant.

“My spellform—the tether!” When I still didn’t understand, she spun in a circle and tugged on her hair in exasperation as she reached for whatever words she was looking for. “My arrows, maybe we can make a connection somehow, y’know, between doors…”

My brows furrowed into an uncertain frown, and she trailed off, losing her confidence.

“The doors require aether, El,” I said, thinking out loud, “and the void would probably break down your arrows before they could reach another platform.” She looked down at her feet, but I was starting to see through her words to the intention behind them, and I kept brainstorming. “But your spellform might be enough to keep the mana’s shape intact and within your control as it passes through the void…”

Mica sat up and crossed her legs, resting her elbows on her knees and leaning forward. “But how does that help us?”

“It doesn’t, unless I can imbue aether into Ellie’s arrow.”

“But…the platform isn’t there,” Lyra pointed out.

Cursing, I realized she was right. I would have to go first, opening the doorway so to speak.

“But you have to be here to send everyone through,” Regis said, stepping up to the door. “It’ll have to be me. I’ll go ahead to activate the next portal.”

“You’ll be attacked the entire time,” I pointed out.

He puffed up his chest, and his flaming mane flared brightly. “Maybe you’ve forgotten because you’ve been looking upon my beautiful face for so long, but I’m a god-weapon, remember?”

I eyed him for a long moment, then nodded. “If this works, Mica will be right behind you as backup. Assuming you’re up to test this?” I asked, meeting her eye.

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She floated up to her feet with a shrug. “Better than sitting on my thumb any longer, isn’t it?”

“Adios, muchachos,” Regis said before pressing his nose to the door and vanishing within it. I felt my connection to him vanish, and knew he was within the network of doors, drifting toward the next platform.

We waited a few seconds before Mica pressed her hand against the door.  I imbued it with aether, but nothing happened. She wasn’t pulled in.

“Perhaps because it is already in use?” Lyra asked.

“That’s going to slow things down,” Mica said, watching the dark patch of nothing in the distance where Regis would soon appear.

“Be ready. We need to move fast.”

Several very long seconds later, the platform lit up as Regis appeared in front of one of the doors. Mica was still touching the doorway, so I wasted no time in sending her through.

Ellie conjured an arrow. “Now what?”

Activating Realmheart, I wrapped my hand around the arrow and sent out a small amount of aether, the aether and mana shifting slightly to mingle together. I looked at the arrow and felt a frown creeping onto my face.

“It’s just going to bleed out. It needs to be—”

The mana particles moved, leaving a sort of reservoir in the arrow’s head that would be completely surrounded by Ellie’s mana.

“—like that,” I said, moving the aether. I focused on pushing it through the outer layer of mana until it was fully shielded within.

She took her time setting up the shot. It was a long way to the door she was aiming at.

From this distance, I wasn’t able to see the monster forming to attack Regis, but it was obvious when it did. Regis, glinting like a purple jewel, leapt on a shadowy silhouette and tore it to pieces.

Ellie’s arrow trailed through the dark like a shooting star, striking the distant door with a quiet but satisfying thwack. She turned to me and grinned.

“Now, the other one,” I said, and we repeated the process, Ellie’s second aether-infused arrow sticking into the bottom corner of Mica’s door.

“Don’t overdo it,” I cautioned.

Ellie waved me away, closing her eyes. “I won’t.”

Her eyes moved back and forth beneath the lids for a few seconds, then, with a soft burst of mana, both arrows detonated simultaneously.

I held my breath.

Mica vanished from the door. When she didn’t immediately appear in front of us, I hurried to the edge, peering into the darkness. Regis had a second monster by one arm, shaking it violently. His pain radiated through our link as its other claw tore at the flesh of his back, but so did his intensity. He ripped the arm off and spit it on the ground, then pounced, slamming the skeletal horror in the chest with both paws and driving it to the ground. Finally, his jaws closed around its throat, and it dissolved beneath him.

When Mica stepped out of the door a few seconds later, her hammer already in hand, she jumped into action, fighting side-by-side with Regis as another monster climbed out of the void.

“Woohoo!” Ellie exclaimed, jumping up and raising a hand to Boo, who gently met it with his paw in a sort of high-five.

I let out a relieved breath, but, with the mystery of how to move my companions across the zone solved, I felt an anxiousness to get through it as quickly as possible building within me. “Let’s send Boo next, just to make sure it’ll work for him too.”

Ellie sobered slightly as she exchanged a look with the guardian bear. But when Boo pressed a paw to the door, I was able to send him in, and Ellie’s trick with the aether-infused arrow worked just as we expected. With Regis, Mica, and Boo on the distant platform, the continually manifesting horrors were taken down one by one.

Lyra went next. It wasn’t until only Ellie and I remained that we realized the flaw in our technique.

“So…how do you think I get over there?”

“Shoot your arrows, but don’t make them explode. Then I’ll send you into the door,” I suggested.

Shrugging, Ellie worked with me to infuse two arrows, shooting one into the door on our platform and the other into the distant platform where the others were fighting for their lives. With that done, she pressed a hand against the dark rectangle of mana, which I imbued with aether.

She vanished. And the instant she did, her connection with the arrows was severed, causing them to shatter with a slight pop.

My sister’s image vanished from the doorway in front of me. It was with a growing sense of unease that I waited for her to appear on the other side, watching as the others took down two more of the horrors. It wasn’t until she finally stepped out of the far door that I was able to relax and follow her through.

By the time I stepped out of the portal, my companions had formed a protective ring around Ellie. Her bow was drawn, a glowing arrow of mana against the string, and when a skeletal monster dragged itself free of the darkness, she let the arrow fly. There was a dry crack, and the monster’s head snapped back as the arrow pierced its skull. Slowly, it tumbled back into the void, vanishing.

“All right, Regis, head for the next platform,” I ordered, moving to Ellie’s side.

Regis wasted no time with banter, vanishing first into a door on the opposite side of the platform, then from the door as well.

A long, chitinous tail with a scorpion-like stinger at the end stabbed down from the void as another monster appeared. Lyra deflected the attack with a burst of wind, and Ellie sent an arrow into its chest. It fell on all fours, scrambling like an insect. Mica brought her hammer down at its head, but it jerked away erratically, and her hammer rang against the floor.

The tail swung wildly, whipping around like an untethered electrical wire. I pulled Ellie down with one hand as I conjured a blade in the other, slashing across the inky black, shiny skin in the same motion, slicing the deadly appendage off. Boo pounced on the monster, crushing it lifeless.

In the distance, I saw the next platform appear, followed a second later by Regis.

“Mica, go,” I ordered, rushing to the door. She met me there, and I sent her in with a pulse of mana. “Ellie!”

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As Boo and Lyra worked to corner a new horror—this one with four clawing arms and two mouths where its eyes should have been, each filled with needle-like teeth—Ellie disengaged, conjuring an arrow with a reservoir for my aether in its head. The next monster to appear crawled out of the void right beside us as I sent my aether into the arrow, and its claws sank into my shoulder.

Vibrations rippled visibly in the air, so strong I felt my skin tingle, and the monster crumpled, letting out a horrible squeal. I stomped down hard, and the noise ceased.

Ellie shot the arrow first at the far platform. When it hit its mark, we repeated the process with Mica’s door. Ellie wasted no time in bursting the arrows and releasing the contained aether. With the connection formed, Mica vanished.

“This is going to get difficult,” I said into the momentary quiet between attacks.

Boo was ready the moment Mica passed through the other doorway, and I sent him in. This time, I worked with Ellie with one hand as I held my blade in the other. With only Lyra on the platform with us, defending Ellie became my entire priority.

But we were getting faster. Only one monster appeared, and was subsequently cut down, before Boo was on his way.

“We can do this,” Lyra said firmly, standing by the doorway, some dark spell crackling on her fingertips as we waited. When the next horror oozed out of the darkness a moment later, her spell crashed into it, sending it flying off the platform and out of sight.

Then it was her turn. She watched us nervously from within as Ellie hurried to form her arrows, and I filled them with aether. When a two-headed horror dragged itself onto the platform, I reabsorbed the blade, focusing it into a single point in my hand before releasing it as an aetheric blast.

The two-headed horror dodged to the side and launched itself at Ellie.

With an aether-infused arrow already on her string, she adjusted her aim and released. Instead of arcing toward the next platform, the arrow struck the monstrosity in the stomach. Then, it exploded.

The monster was ripped apart from the inside, showering our platform with black gore, which rained down around us with a heavy, wet splattering.

Without missing a beat, Ellie conjured another arrow and held it out to me. Beside us, a chunk of oozing black mush ran down Lyra’s two-dimensional face.

Once Lyra was gone and Ellie was inside the door, I felt better. I’d entirely forgotten to track the other group’s progress on the third platform, but Regis’s thoughts were filled with the glow of battle and success. I dispatched two more monsters before I could make the jump myself.

“Shit,” Regis said a minute later, stepping back out of a door on the third platform, which was large with several doors lining each edge. He had just tried multiple doors looking for the way forward. “There are three platforms.” Sidestepping a claw, Regis dragged down an attacking monster with its arms and head in the wrong positions on its torso. When it was finished, he asked, “Do I just pick one or what?”

“Yes, just go,” I said, shielding Ellie from the swiping claws of another creature. “But make note of your choice. If this place turns into a maze…” I left the rest of my meaning unsaid, certain we all understood the danger of getting lost or having to backtrack while under constant attack.

In the twenty seconds it took Regis to reach the next platform, we dispatched three more monsters, which were appearing much more quickly than on the second platform. Already, Mica had a deep wound in her side, and Boo was bleeding from a dozen cuts all over his massive body.

“Their damned claws go right through mana and steel,” Mica said with a grimace as she took another shallow cut across her forearm. “They may break like shale, but with so many of them…”

‘It’s a dead end,’ Regis thought back to me. ‘The doors only face back.’

Come back and try another, I thought, suppressing my frustration.

All we could do while waiting for Regis to return was keep fighting. One particularly horrible manifestation with a vertical mouth down the middle of its face and three eyes on each side, lunged at me. I brought the aether blade up, severing its outstretched arm, pivoted to the side, then carved through its torso as it flew past.

Boo reared up in front of Ellie, bringing both huge paws down on the shoulders of another creature, which collapsed under the guardian bear’s weight. Mica was doing her best to conserve her mana by launching stone blades out of her hammer from a distance. Lyra had pinned two of the creatures beneath a wave of sonic vibration that was pulling them apart.

As my target fell, I scanned the platform for any more.

Ellie was braced behind Boo, firing off arrow after arrow. My attention caught on her face, which was a mask of determination. No fear, no hesitation. Pride warmed me.

Lyra and Mica had gravitated to opposing corners of the platforms, fighting separately. Most of the creatures were focused on them. Even as I watched, a clawed hand crept over the edge of the platform and slashed at the back of Mica’s leg. She went down to one knee with a suppressed cry of pain, holding off another horror with her hammer.

I cleared the platform in an instant, slashing twice through the three-armed monster on the platform and allowing her to spin around and slam her weapon into the other one’s face, sending it tumbling off the edge.

“Thanks,” she muttered, pressing a hand over the fresh cuts.

“A-Arthur?” The sound of Ellie’s voice drew my gaze back across the platform.

Staring with wide, wet eyes, Ellie was pressing both hands against her sternum. Blood was gushing freely between her fingers and running down her front.

Her stomach was a red ruin, and I could see clear through her to the emptiness beyond.

Boo roared, his claws rending and tearing through the monster that had appeared behind Ellie while I was helping Mica, ripping it to tattered pieces.

With a sick lurch, time slowed, and the distance between me and Ellie seemed to grow wider and wider.

Ellie’s knees buckled and she started to fall. Moving in a daze, I swept her up in my arms, gently easing her to the ground, my hands flailing against hers as I futilely attempted to help.

“I d-didn’t think…” Ellie said, struggling to speak as her body and voice both shook uncontrollably. “I’m s-so sorry.”

“No no no.” Desperate, I empowered Aroa’s Requiem, remembering my visions in the keystone. I only need better insight, maybe I could…but no, there was nothing. Like God Step, it was dormant, a useless mark on my skin. I pushed aether into the wound, urging it to do something, to heal her the way it could heal me.

My vision was growing blurry. The blood-stained hands at the ends of my arms didn’t even feel like mine. They were trembling so hard flecks of blood were splashing off them. I didn’t know what to do.

‘Arthur, what’s wrong?’ Regis thought from the next platform, but my mind was buzzing with static, and I barely comprehended his words.

Boo was trying to get to Ellie, his roar blending into the hurricane rush of blood pounding in my head. When I pushed him back, his claws slashed across my shoulder in fury, but I barely noticed.

Because, even as I watched, Ellie’s tear-filled eyes lost their spark and rolled back, her body going stiff as a final labored breath came out of her lungs, and then she sagged in my arms.

All life was gone from her.

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