The haunting images of Alea’s bloody corpse, limbs brutally severed and core destroyed, flooded my mind as I stared at the chip in Uto’s left horn.
Any form of inhibition that had kept me from killing the Vritra had disappeared as I advanced towards Uto.
“Was it you?” I asked, my voice dripping with malice as I approached Uto.
Sylvie’s concern seeped into my head from behind, but it was no use.
Each step forward I took, the self-control that had kept me from remaining neutral during this meeting faded. Mana surged out of my body like a storm, shocking the Vritras and snapping Virion from his outrage.
“Were you the one that killed Alea?” I went on, taking another step.
“What was that, pup?” Uto snapped, his eyes furrowed in impatience.
“The lance in the dungeon that had all of her limbs cut off before dying,” I clarified, my voice icy. “Was it you?”
“Ahh,” the Vritra voiced, his lips curling upward.
Just by the tone of his voice, I already knew the answer. Taunting Virion and using his granddaughter as fuel was one thing but the fact that he was the one responsible for Alea’s horrible torture and death now gave gravity to his threats.
He had to die.
“That pretty little elf? What if it was me, brat?” Uto smirked.
I opened my mouth to respond, but Aldir gave me no chance to act on my impulses, appearing in front of me with a stern gaze. “This is what he wants you to do. Don’t let him provoke you.”
I let out a deep breath. Of course I knew Uto was provoking us on purpose—anyone with half a brain could see that. As for whether it was with forethought or because he was just that impulsive, I had a feeling it was both.
Swallowing the bitter taste in my mouth, I ignored Uto. Facing Cylrit, I asked, “Was there anything else that needed to be discussed? Or was that predictable threat all that you came here to say?”
“You will be given two days to decide,” Cylrit answered callously. “If the three royal families of Dicathen have not been offered by then, we will take that as your answer.”
I looked back at Virion who had finally gathered himself.
“We’ll show ourselves out,” Virion shot with a glare as he casually smoothed over the creases on his robe.
As I turned around to leave with Virion and Aldir, Uto’s voice rang from behind.
“You should’ve heard her scream,” he laughed chillingly. “Almost made me want to not kill her; keep her alive so I could continue making her scream, you know?”
I could feel my blood flowing faster as I stepped toward the edge of the platform, head pounding.
Aldir caught my gaze as he prepared to lift me up with his aura but I stopped him. Imbuing both ice, lightning, and wind attribute mana into my palm, I raised my arm and whipped around to face Uto.
The thin translucent beam of fused elements pierced through the narrow gap between the two Vritras, creating a crackling gale in its path. As the ray shot past them and into the water, the ocean split from the force of my spell. The waves instantly froze over before a current of electricity shattered the ice into shards of sparkling glass.
I could see Uto’s expression slowly crumple into that of doubt and shock while even Cylrit’s cold face showed surprise as the shower of ice shards rained down on us.
“Whether or not we decide to go forth with the war, I really hope to meet you again, Uto.” I turned back around as the shadowy platform we had been standing on convulsed.
As Aldir lifted Virion, Sylvie and me into the air, I held back the urge to turn back around. Staring at Virion’s face, lined with worry and frustration, I could tell he was thinking about the Vritra’s words.
“You’re not really considering their offer, right?” I asked as we ascended above the clouds.
“No, but if they were to keep true to their word, imagine how many innocent lives will be saved,” Virion said, the creases between his brows thickening.
I couldn’t help but scoff. “That’s a big if to be sacrificing you and your family’s lives for.”
“Arthur’s right,” Aldir chimed in. “You know what becomes of the world under the Vritra’s rule. Even Epheotus won’t be safe from harm if Agrona is able to populate two continents with races mixed with his blood. It’ll be a matter of a few generations before they strike against the rest of the asuras as well.”
“I know,” Virion sighed. “I’m not looking forward to the protests that’ll undoubtedly form from my choice, though.”
“You’re going to tell everyone?” I asked, surprised.
Tess’s grandfather nodded solemnly. “Trust is a fickle serpent; laboriously gained yet so easily lost. It’s necessary for the leader to be trusted by his people but how much do you think they’ll trust me after realizing that I’m basically using their lives as a gambling token?”
“Not much,” I admitted, still reluctant toward the idea. I wouldn’t question Virion’s decisions, though. As far as leading went, he had much more experience than I had, even with both lives under my belt.
I could offer a different perspective, but ultimately, I trusted his choices, as did Aldir. When the asura had first come to Dicathen, killing off the Greysunders’ in one sweep as soon as he had arrived, I figured he would try and control Virion like some sort of puppeteer in the background. However, Aldir simply protected and advised Virion, never forcing him to take action. This said a lot about the respect the asura had for him.
As we flew back to the western shore, Virion coordinated plans with a mental transmission artifact for the public speaking that would supposedly take place tomorrow.
Just from the bits and pieces of the conversation I managed to pick up from Virion murmuring into the artifact, it seemed like all the major figures in the war would be present at the speech. The lances, the royal members of the three races, and other influential noble families were to be gathered and stand beside Virion as he made his speech as a sign of respect.
We arrived back at the circular room in the castle through the teleportation gate in just a couple hours. Before exiting the bland brick chamber, Virion patted my back.
“Get some rest, Arthur. Lord Aldir and I will handle the rest from here,” the white-haired elf said with a tired smile.
“I can help,” I protested. “There’s a lot you guys need to plan if the announcement is to be made tomorrow, right?”
“Let me worry about that,” he rejected. “Your family is here, right now, waiting for you. I’m afraid that after the true war begins, the amount of time you will be able to spend with your loved ones will be limited.”
“Listen to Virion,” Aldir agreed. “Judging by your little parting gift to those lessurans earlier, you’ve prepared your body. Now, use this time to prepare your mind and heart.”
Tired and dirty from the journey, I didn’t protest any further, and we went our separate ways. The living quarters in the castle were on the upper floors, where I was headed now. No matter how many times I came to this castle, it was impossible for me to imagine how large this floating structure must be to accommodate almost a hundred people while still having space for luxurious amenities.
Walking up the flights of stairs with Sylvie silently scampering behind me, I thought about how everyone’s life would change during this war. Until now, the battles have been isolated past the Grand Mountains, never reaching civilization. There hadn’t been any civilian casualties, only military ones. But once the ships landed on the western border, that would all change, and for the ignorant civilians, it would come as a surprise to them.
I feared how the normal inhabitants—the non-nobles—would take Virion’s announcement. At best, they would reluctantly accept, but at worst, protests would arise, and the citizens that the soldiers of Dicathen were trying to protect would betray us for the blind hope that the Alacryan forces would let them live if they cooperated.
I exited the stairway on the fourth flight and made my way down the wide corridor lit warmly by orbs mounted on both walls. The corridor branched off into narrower hallways with doors every few feet or so.
“How do you suppose we find our parents, Sylv?” I asked, veering right into a random hallway in hopes of running into someone that would know.
“Searching for mana signatures seems over the top here and would probably alarm some of the mages,” Sylvie chimed. “How about knocking on every door until we find someone that can tell us?”
I took another right at a path and ventured further down until a familiar sight caught my eye. A wide archway led to a patio garden outside of the castle. I never thought I’d see such an open deck on a flying castle but the vast orange sky of a beautiful sunset, dimmed by the transparent barrier surrounding it, illuminated the area. Playing on the neatly-kept grass lawn were groups of children, some sparring with friends, others simply chasing each other.
What made me stop was the sight of the towering dark-brown bear playing amidst the scampering children. I spotted an uncomfortable Ellie just beside her bond, talking to some blond-haired boy her age.
Puffed out chest, chin held high, a fake smile that didn’t reach his eyes… If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he was trying to flirt with my precious sister.
“Stick him, Sylv. Make him scream like a castrato,” I grinned evilly.
My vicious bond scampered to my sister, asking me in my head what a castrato was, when Ellie’s mana beast picked up the blond boy by the back of his collar and flung him away.
The bear—I think Boo was his name—and I locked eyes for a brief second. I gave him a stern, approving nod as I raised my right thumb.
Boo responded with a furry thumb’s up as well, still seated next to my sister, and it was at that moment that I felt that Boo wouldn’t be such a bad companion for my sister after all.
“Sylvie?” Ellie exclaimed when she noticed the little white fox scampering towards her. Looking up, her face lit up when she saw me. “Brother?”
The children—all nobles that had come here for safety—whipped their heads, dropping whatever they had been doing. Some of the parents nearby, seated on the patio chairs talking to one another, turned around to look at me.
As I walked toward my sister, I could feel everyone’s eyes following me. Ellie scooped up Sylvie and embraced her tightly before looking back up at me. “Brother, you’re back already?”
“Yup,” I smiled, glancing around at the onlookers. Dipping my head, I whispered into my sister’s ear. “Why are they all staring at me?”
“There’s not a noble in Dicathen that doesn’t know who Arthur Leywin is,” she giggled. “You should see how those nobles treat me.”
“So that’s what it was. I thought I had done something wrong to your friends here.” I let out a relieved chuckle. Turning to Boo, who remained seated on his hind legs, I raised my hand. “Good to see you, Boo!”
The giant mana beast responded with a low grunt and received my hand with a large paw.
“When did you two get so close?” Ellie marveled.
“Men with common objectives tend to bond fast,” I answered, the two of us nodding at each other once more.
“What? No—never mind—that’s not important. It’s good that you’re here right now. You’ve got to stop them,” Ellie amended, shaking her head.
“What? Stop who from what?” I could hear the worry in her voice. Ellie pulled me back out of the patio, away from the other children and parents as her eyes nervously darted left and right.
“It’s Mom and Dad,” she said solemnly. “They’ve decided to join the war.”