As I stepped into the teleportation gate, the familiar nauseating sensation hit me. I could never get used to the teleportation gate, despite the number of times I went through it; the feeling of being stuck in a space where I had no control just didn’t sit right with me.
Anxiously twiddling the dimension ring loosely dangling on my thumb as the blurred scenery zipped by, I couldn’t help but get a headache just thinking about how how careful I would have to be once school started; I bought the ring so my sword wouldn’t be in plain view. While I never used my teal-bladed sword as an adventurer, I did have it strapped to me in its dormant form at all times. I also caught Lucas eying it a few times with curiosity while we were in the dungeon together. If he saw it again on my person, it would be a dead giveaway.
Arriving at the other side of the gate in Xyrus, I heaved a big breath.
I was home.
Catching a carriage home, I passed by the Academy I would be attending. The premise was enormous and just looking at it from the outside, anyone could tell how much time and resources the Kingdom had put into this place. It seemed like its own separate world inside of the city, with various structures and landscapes changing throughout as I rode along the smooth roads.
“Sir, we have arrived at Helstea Manor.” The driver got off and opened the door for me, tipping his hat as I stepped down gently, careful not to arouse my slumbering bond as I handed by driver a few copper coins. Taking one last look, I walked up the stairs I had become so familiar with.
I cradled Sylvie with one arm, feeling for the gentle expansion and retraction of her stomach to make sure she was just sleeping. Ever since her transformation, she had been fast asleep, filling me with unease. After prodding at my bond’s mind once more, I knew she was okay—just sleeping heavily.
I hadn’t even made it up the stairs when the large double doors flung open with a loud thud. In the center of the entranceway, a little girl stood with her hands resting on her hips like a scolding mother. On her face was an expression I couldn’t quite describe; she appeared to be scowling, but flashes of excitement and joy leaked through her obvious facade.
With the same half-scowl-half-delighted expression, she gracefully leaped down the flight of stairs and bludgeoned me in the gut with the crown of her head.
I quickly raised my arms to get Sylvie out of harm’s way, but I couldn’t save myself as the wind quickly escaped from my mouth.
For a moment, we were both silent as I gently stroked Ellie’s hair as her face remained buried in my chest.
“Welfom vack,” she mumbled.
“Sorry?” I tried to pry my sister off me, but her arms squeezed harder around my waist in refusal to let go.
Ellie looked up with red, tear-filled eyes as she clung onto me like a baby koala. “I said welcome back, Big Brother.”
“Thanks, Ellie. Good to be back,” I replied with a smile. “Now how about you let me go?”
“That depends”—her almond-shaped eyes narrowed—”are you going to leave again?”
Letting out a chuckle, I shook my head. “No, I’m not.”
“Then I’ll let go.” Releasing me from her grasp, she quickly wiped away her tears with her sleeve. She looked at me once more, this time, with a more lively expression. “Come on, let’s go inside!”
She scurried back up the stairs, motioning for me to follow. As I trailed behind her, I couldn’t help but remember how much she’d grown from when I had first met her after coming back from the elven kingdom. Ellie should be about eight right now. Her birthday was a few months before mine so there was always a period where she’d only be three years younger than me. For most people, that wouldn’t matter, but for some odd reason, Ellie never failed to mention after her birthday that we were only three years apart.
As my train of thought shifted to her age and maturity, a sudden realization struck me like lightning. My sister, with her puppy-like eyes that shined brightly in a light sand color, and perky little nose that had become more defined as she lost more of her baby fat, was blossoming into a cute young lady.
This meant that, in a few years—if not sooner, boys would start gaining interest in her.
And when they started gaining interest in her, they’d begin making moves.
It’d start with little things like sharing lunches during snack-time at school. Then it’d escalate into holding hands.
Then, after getting comfortable, the cheeky bastard might try to sneak a quick peck on my sister’s cheek!
After the cheek, it’d…
My eyes widened in horror as my mind zipped through the future years of Ellie’s adolescence into full womanhood. I couldn’t help but imagine my poor baby sister getting flocked by testosterone-filled boys that only knew how to think with their endocrine system.
I shook my head, trying to dislodge the cancerous thoughts, vowing to myself that I would gladly carry out whatever torturous deed is necessary to any boy—with even a speck of filth in their degenerate minds—who dared to make a move on my sister.
The sound of my mother’s voice snapped me back to reality. She and my father came running forward, both with relieved and joyful expressions lined in their faces.
My father, whose body seemed to even be muscular despite his age, scooped me up with a bright grin.
“My boy!” he beamed. “You haven’t grown at all!”
“Your beard’s longer, old man. Trying to match the wrinkles on your face?” I smirked, wrapping my arm around my dad’s neck.
“Hey! That’s my husband you’re talking about!” my mother chided as my father put me back down. “Now come here.”
My mother wrapped her arms around me in warm embrace. As she let me go, I could tell by her red eyes that she was trying her best to keep her tears back.
“Sorry for worrying you,” I said, seeing the pain in her eyes.
Sniffing a sob back, she looked up and quickly wiped away a stray tear before smiling at me. “You take just after your father, you know that? Always getting into trouble, always worrying me. W-When the ring activated…”
She stopped talking as tears rolled down her cheeks. Still, her smile never went away as she chided me, her eyes peering at me with love and worry.
My father wrapped his arm around Mother’s shoulder, pulling her close. “Your mother couldn’t sleep for days after the ring activated. We both knew you wouldn’t have died that easily, but it couldn’t stop us from worrying.”
“I’m sorry for worrying you,” I repeated as my heart dropped to my stomach.
“Thankfully, the status on the masked swordsman, or Note, was updated at Guild Hall, saying that you and your party arrived at the branch near the Beast Glades,” my father continued, tousling my hair with his free hand.
Ellie, who was hiding behind Father for some reason, took a peek out from behind him.
“I seem to cause nothing but concerns for you guys,” I said with a wry smile before looking at my sister. “I’m sorry, Ellie, for being away so much and making Mom and Dad cry.”
“I forgive you,” Ellie sniffled, hiding behind our father again.
“It’s a parent’s job to worry for her children,” my mother soothed. “Although, you seem to be fulfilling your end of the bargain a little too well.”
My mother, taking a glance at my little sister, turned to me and whispered just loudly enough for everyone to hear, “And don’t worry about your sister. She was waiting by the window the whole day since your friend, Elijah, came in with Jasmine.”
“Mom!” Ellie gasped. “That was supposed to be a secret!”
My little sister clung hard onto my mother, making her submit as we all laughed.
“I guess that’s my cue?” Elijah chimed in from the top of the stairs leading to the second floor. My newfound friend had been waiting for our little family reunion to end with Vincent and Tabitha.
“Took you long enough to get here. Did you decide to take a small tour before coming here?” Elijah joked as he hopped down the stairs.
“I wanted a break from your unsightly mug,” I retorted, giving him a snide grin. “Where’s Jasmine, anyway?”
“She already went back with the Twin Horns,” he answered, removing his glasses and wiping them with the end of his shirt.
Looking at the bespectacled young man, it was hard for me to recall how inexpressive and cold he appeared to be when I had first seen him in the testing grounds.
“Arthur Leywin! The prodigious son returns!” Vincent clasped my back, locking his arms around me with a tight bearhug.
“We’re glad you’re back safe, Arthur.” Tabitha followed behind him, pulling me into a lavender-scented hug as well.
“Thank you,” I smiled, dipping my head. “For everything, I mean. Taking care of my family and allowing us to stay—”
“Ah,” Vincent interrupted with a finger held up. “You’re going to make this old man sad if you act so formal. Come now, I thought you had finally warmed up to us!”
“He’s right, you know,” Tabitha joined in. “Please, Arthur, your family is a part of our family. No need to distance yourself with formalities. Just think of us as your aunt and uncle.”
“You’re right,” I smiled, stopping myself from apologizing once more.
At her words, I realized that there was one person absent from the Helstea Family. But before I could ask, Vincent caught my gaze and let out a chuckle.
“If you’re looking for Lily, she’s not here.” Vincent had a wicked smile on his face while Tabitha rolled her eyes at him.
“Lily got accepted into Xyrus Academy. She started attending last fall after she turned twelve,” Tabitha filled me in.
“Wow,” I beamed. “So she’s really learning to be a mage! I’m glad!”
Tabitha nodded at this. “Yes. She really wanted to be here when you came back to tell you herself but unfortunately, spring semester started, so she’s stuck in the dorms until break.”
“But it’s all thanks to you, Arthur! Never would’ve figured, after generations of nothing, that a mage would be born into the Helstea House! Now come—all of you—no need to stand around here when we have a perfectly good set of couches in the living room!”
After being herded into the next room over, we began discussing my time as an adventurer.
There were some details that I left out for my family’s sake—I exchanged glances with Elijah when I skipped the part where Lucas betrayed us—but other than that, I made sure to fill them in to the best of my ability.
My sister, who was sitting cross-legged on the couch across from me with Sylvie sleeping in her lap, was wide-eyed the entire time as I recalled the dungeon experience with Elijah. Her eyes practically sparkled at the fantasy-like fable, but it wasn’t just her that became enraptured by the story.
The audience couldn’t believe it when Elijah continued the story on for me and told them about how I had defeated the elderwood guardian. They refused to believe us until I finally pulled out the beast core. It was then that they were forced to swallow their doubts as they stared in awe at the dull green orb that was smaller than my fist.
“Speaking of core. Dad, what stage are you at?” I asked.
Giving me an embarrassed chuckle, he answered, “I’ve been stuck at the bottleneck of the dark orange stage since you left. No matter how much I meditate and purify mana, I can’t seem to break through.”
“Perfect. Use this then.” I tossed the core to my father, catching him by surprise. “I had to use a bit while I was healing but there should be enough in this beast core to help you break through.”
Handling the small orb like it was made godsent, he shook his head with a frozen expression. “Son, I can’t. This is something you fought for with your life. I can’t just take this from you.”
I was prepared to shove the orb down my father’s throat when my mother chimed in. “Honey, I’m sure Arthur isn’t giving this to you on a whim. If he wants you to have it, it’s for a good reason.”
“Listen to your wife, Rey. The boy must have his reasons. You’re his father, for God’s sake. Get stronger, it’ll help me as well!” Vincent laughed.
Tabitha just chuckled at this. “Alice, your son brought quite the present.”
“For the amount of worrying he caused me, I’m still weighing whether it was worth it!” my mother joked, exchanging a laugh with her friend.
“You have to catch up to me, Dad. You can’t let your son leave you in the dust, right?” I smirked, attracting confused gazes.
My father looked up at me. “Don’t tell me…”
“Yup”—I leaned back on the couch—”Light orange stage.”
Vincent’s eyes practically bulged as his wife let out a sharp breath in awe.
“Sweet mother of—that’s just ridiculous,” Vincent breathed out, shaking his head.
My family took the news a lot better, indicating that they were used to their monster of a son.
My father held up the elderwood’s beast core with a renewed fervor in his eyes. “Don’t cry when your old man beats you down the next time we duel, then.”
“You’re on,” I grinned back.
We shifted topics after a few more awestruck comments by Vincent and Tabitha.
The next order of things had to do with Elijah. He had told everyone about his background before I had arrived but left it at that. I explained to my family and the Helstea wife and husband that he was both a close friend and a benefactor who saved both Jasmine’s life and mine.
“How would you feel about sponsoring Elijah so he could attend Xyrus Academy with me?” I finally said.
‘I’ll have to talk it over with Director Cynthia, if I can make that old woman squeeze in some time for me, but I don’t see why not!” Vincent answered with a grin. His eyes twinkled underneath his glasses as he studied the anxious Elijah. From the stories he’d heard today, there was no doubt that the inner businessman in him had flared in excitement.
Investing in future generations of mages was a large part of what rich folks did in order to maintain their power and status later on.
Vincent excused himself first, saying that he was going to write a letter to the Director of Xyrus Academy right now. My father went out into the backyard, saying he was going to start training immediately, so it was just my mother, Ellie, Elijah, Tabitha and myself left in the living room.
My mother and Tabitha took turns squeezing out more details from when I was adventuring before my mother insisted I have a checkup from her to make sure I didn’t have any lasting wounds.
I told her I was fine and that I’d put the glove she gave me to good use. She didn’t seem too happy about the fact that I had actually been in a situation where I had to use it on myself but she was just glad I was still in one piece.
I talked a bit more with my baby sister. She was curious as to why Sylvie changed appearance and why she was sleeping. After explaining that she was tired from the adventure, I realized how drained I was.
“Mom, Aunt Tabitha, I think I’m going to head up with Elijah as well. I’m a bit worn from the journey.”
“Of course. Don’t forget to wash up before sleeping.” My mother smiled at us as Elijah respectfully wished everyone a good night.
“Goodnight, Brother! Goodnight, Elijah!” my sister chimed, carefully handing me my bond.
After we excused ourselves, Elijah and I headed up to my room. “Elijah, you wash up first; I’m going to organize my things.”
The maid brought the set of sleepwear I asked for and I absentmindedly walked into the bathroom to give it to Elijah.
“Hey! I’m naked!” Elijah yelped, snapping me out of my thoughts. My friend nearly slipped on the damp floor as he fumbled to cover himself.
“Relax, Princess. I can hardly make out your shape because of the steam,” I lied as I left the bathroom.
With his black hair dripping on the floor, Elijah walked out of the bathroom, the set of pajamas I had given him and a small absorbent cloth draped over his shoulders.
“Dang. I didn’t realize how great a warm shower is,” Elijah sighed, his eyes covered by his fogged-covered glasses. “Your turn.”
Elijah was right, the hot water was pure bliss on my bare body. After quickly washing myself, I carefully cleaned Sylvie with the damp washcloth. I wasn’t sure if it was because she could sense that I was near her, but she didn’t stir at all from her sleep.
Laying side-by-side in the one large bed that occupied one side of the room, Elijah and I began talking.
“Is this line of pillows between us really necessary?” I asked, placing Sylvie on the pillow above my head.
“Shut up. It’s weird already that two boys are sleeping on the same bed,” Elijah retorted, stacking more pillows between us.
I couldn’t help but realize that, in the mind of a twelve-year-old boy, being uncomfortable in this situation wasn’t odd.
“Would you have preferred that I was a girl?” I smirked, shifting in my side of the bed to get comfortable.
Elijah’s head popped up from the other side of the pillow wall. “Do you think we’ll learn a lot at Xyrus Academy?” Elijah asked, ignoring my snide remark.
“Who knows? I imagine it’ll be a little boring, no? Both of us are well above the skill level of the first years there.”
“But there will be people from all those powerful families. I imagine there will be a few who are on my level, right? I’m really excited to learn how to start controlling my powers. I’m glad that Xyrus has a lot of famous mages to learn from,” Elijah gushed, his face lit with excitement.
“Yeah. I think it’ll be useful learning more about lightning and ice attribute skills.” I look down at my hands. These hands had grown a lot faster than I imagined. Just a few years ago, my hands were that of an infant. Just like my abilities, my body would continue to grow and mature. The thought of that, along with experiencing everything I couldn’t in my past life, filled me with excitement.
“Hey,” Elijah called out, interrupting my train of thought. “Have you thought of what you’re going to do about Lucas?”
“Lucas has no idea who I am,” I replied. “And until I’m confident that I can confront his whole family, I’ll have it stay that way for the time being. Training comes first.”
“Well you know you can count me in. Lucas is probably going to have it out for me when he sees me but he doesn’t think too much of me,” Elijah replied. “I still can’t believe that ass tried to sacrifice all of us so that he could escape.”
“He is an ass,” I agreed. “But we’re probably going to meet more people like him along the way, maybe even worse.”
Elijah was silent for a moment, hidden behind the stack of pillows between us inside our dark room. Suddenly, his head popped up once more and he stared seriously at me.
“Hey, Arthur. Do you think I’ll find a girlfriend at Xyrus?”
Caught off guard, I let out a cough.
“Wow, your train of thought is really all over the place,” I let out before breaking into a fit of laughter.
Even with only the dim, pale light of the moon lighting up our bedroom, I could Elijah’s face turn red.
“I’m being serious, you ass!” he exclaimed, smacking me with one of the many pillows between us.
“For such a serious-looking guy, you sure worry about normal things,” I chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll meet some black-haired girl with glasses. Then you two will get married and make cute little babies with black hair and glasses and live happily ever after.”
“Do you think babies are born with glasses or something?” Elijah snorted. “Besides, I’m sure you won’t have any trouble getting the ladies with your disgustingly prince-like features.”
“Am I smelling a hint of envy?” I joked.
“You’re smelling just a hint?”
“Meh, don’t worry. The girls our age just look like babies to me,” I comforted. “I won’t take your thunder, my four-eyed friend. Until you find yourself a nice girl, focus on getting better control of your powers.”
“You’re right,” Elijah muttered from the other side of the bed. “Thanks.”
“What was that?” I asked, not making what he whispered.
“Nothing, you ass. I hope you fall on your face while you sleep!” he snapped.
“Good night to you too,” I grumbled, turning to my side.
My mind, which was once filled with various thoughts on the future, faded into a dull blur as sleep overtook me.