The Beginning After The End - Chapter 429
A Dream Yet to Happen
“Arthur, you’re not going to make it.”
My voice sounded distant to my own ears as I reached into Arthur’s thoughts. He tried to push me out, tried to keep me from the worst of it, but he was too weak.
I didn’t shy away from the desperation and despair I found there. I wanted to, but I couldn’t, because he couldn’t. He thought he knew how this had to end, believed with his entire silly, brave heart there was only one way forward.
“The portal isn’t—it isn’t going to stay stable for much longer, Sylv. P-please, I can’t have you die too.” Instead of continuing to shield his feelings, Arthur suddenly reversed course, flooding me with his desperation, sadness, and despair. And hope. So much like my bond, to give me hope, even when he held none for himself.
The pocket dimension Arthur had conjured shivered and twisted, but I held back, not allowing myself to be moved through it as Arthur tried to force me into the same portal Tessia and the others had gone through.
Don’t worry, papa. I’ll always take care of you. Reaching for my true draconic form, I embraced it, simultaneously unleashing and containing myself. My thin human frame radiated violet light as I expanded outward, fair skin becoming dark scales until I was towering over my bond.
“Sylv? What are you—”
“Try to keep yourself alive while I’m gone, okay?” I said, giving him a wide grin to try and ease his hurt. Why did I phrase it like that? I wondered, distant and disconnected, in the back of my mind. There was no coming back from this. Still, though, it felt…right. Better than goodbye. Suddenly I felt stronger, more decisive. No, this isn’t goodbye. Just…see you later.
“Sylv, no! Don’t do this!” Arthur reached out, pressed his hands into me, shoving, but the process had already begun. His hands passed straight through me.
This…wasn’t magic I’d been taught. As if anyone in Epheotus would care enough about a “lesser” to do what I was about to. No, this was something inherent in our bond. It unlocked within me the moment I understood that Arthur was about to die, like that knowledge had been the turning of a key.
Everything that made me was intrinsically, inseparably linked to him. We were one and the same. My body, my magic, my vivum arts…they could save him, but only if I gave it up for myself.
I didn’t receive this insight in a flash, like thunder from the mountaintops or the quaking foundations of my beliefs. No, it was just there, as if it always had been. He was my bond, and I could always help him, even now.
My physical body had become ethereal as I gave up my dominion over it. Gold and lavender motes of pure lifeforce floated away from me to stick to Arthur, until his whole being was glowing inside and out.
I could still sense his pain. His body had been shattered by overuse of my mother’s will, and now it was being reforged, and every mote of me felt like hot coals and hammer blows to him. I’m sorry, Arthur. If I could take away the pain too, I would.
As he sagged, I scooped him up and pushed him toward the portal he’d created.
“Until we meet again…” I said, my voice distorted and somehow incorporeal, and I could only hope he heard me.
The portal drew him in, then began to collapse, taking the pocket dimension with it. I knew that when it was gone, I would be too, and the last of my essence would be picked up by the warm wind blowing through the ruined city to be carried off and spread throughout Dicathen. Knowing I would be in the grass, trees, leaves, and water of Arthur’s home made me feel at peace, and I let go of the last vestige of resistance that was keeping me together.
Only…I was caught.
The collapsing portal was pulling itself apart, and my claw, which I’d used to push Arthur through the portal, was being reeled in. I lacked the strength to resist or the awareness to understand what might happen next. I could only give in.
Irresistible force pulled at my essence, dragging me in two different directions…
Everything became stardust and the ever-expanding universe. Suns caught fire, stuttered, then blazed. Constellations formed, faltered, and then fell from the sky. Everywhere I looked, people flickered in and out too fast for me to see. And all the while, I was being drawn through it, plunging like a shooting star in the night sky, insensate with wonder, too awestruck and alienated from my own perspective to even be confused.
The expanding universe became nothing but a tunnel of light, every color of it feltso bright it burned my spirit. I felt myself simultaneously racing—pulled inexorably toward some distant source of gravity—while also going quiet and calm, like I was sleeping.
The light faded.
I was in a small, sterile-white room. There were people there. A woman in a white uniform with a white mask over her face was standing over the room’s single bed, staring at a clipboard. A pale woman with mousy brown hair was lying in the bed, breathing heavily as she stared up at the woman in white. Tears were streaming down her face. An overweight man with sad, tired eyes sat on a stool on the opposite side of the bed.
The door behind me opened, and a masked man in a light blue paper gown strode in. I stepped back to avoid him, but he was moving too quickly, and he bumped into me.
Or rather, he passed right through me as he marched to the bedside. He said something, then began checking strange artifacts, but I was staring down at my own hands.
They were small and pale, like I remembered them. I ran them over my face, hair, and horns, but nothing seemed different. Except…
Reaching out, I touched a tray that was sitting on a small, rolling table. My hands passed through it.
What am I?
Suddenly the woman burst out with a piteous, raw growl, and the man—a doctor, I realized—hurried to the foot of the bed. I only then became aware of a soft gold and lavender light radiating from the woman’s belly, which was swollen.
The doctor started giving orders. The overweight man clumsily reached for the woman’s hand. The nurse seemed to be doing five things at once, but it was all so confusing…
And then, almost before I fully comprehended what I was witnessing, it was over.
The nurse held out the baby boy, swaddled and cleaned and crying, to the woman, who took him carefully and nestled him into her arm. He was glowing, radiating that same gold and lavender light.
I stepped closer, leaned down to him, and took his tiny little hand in my incorporeal fingers, shaking even as I smiled.
The woman stared at him for a long time, as did I. Then, like tearing her gaze away from him was also ripping something inside her soul, she looked at the man. “A-are you sure? We could—”
He shook his head, and she made a sound like a knife had just been shoved between her ribs. He looked down and away, clearly unable to bear it, and a single tear flowed down the crease between his nose and cheek. “You know I wish we could, but we’re already struggling as it is. Without a parental grant…what kind of life could we give a child. He’ll be cared for. Trained even, to fight for our country. And then, maybe…” He swallowed hard. “Maybe in a few years we can try again?”
I saw the light leave the woman’s eyes as something broke inside of her, and knew beyond all shadow of a doubt that they wouldn’t, but they didn’t hold my interest. They weren’t my reason for being here…he was.
My gaze drifted down to his round, red face, and I didn’t take it away again. Not as the baby was taken from the parents he would never know, or as he slept and was fed in a bright room with a dozen others, and certainly not when he dragged himself along the hospital floor for the first time—though no one else was watching except for the other infants—or when he took his first, shambling steps.
I followed him when he was relocated from the hospital to a small orphanage, watched him watch the world as he grew and learned.
Years passed, and I watched him. Incorporeal, sleepless, empty of all desire except to keep my vigil, I experienced the young boy’s life with him, step by step. I was by his side as he made and lost his friends, as he trained and was guided toward becoming king, as he was manipulated into striking down his best friend, as he waged war for the defacto mother figure he lost.
I did not look away. Even as he diminished, losing the spark that had driven him to become king, floundering in a world that was ill-suited to him and didn’t deserve who he would become, I knew it was a necessary travail. Without these experiences, both success and failures, this sad king would never become my bond. The detachment and weakening link to humanity he felt now would define his worldview in the next life as he set himself in opposition to it.
But he didn’t have to suffer long, because, even from the moment of his birth, the long arm of fate had been extending toward him. And I was there for that, too, the end of his journey as King Grey.
I stood beside him, my incorporeal fingers feathered through his hair—not yet the auburn he would inherit from Alice Leywin—as I sensed doom approaching.
The rapid passage of time—meaningless to one who does not sleep, eat, dream, or even live—came to a sudden and thundering halt, and I felt the presence as my own pulse in my throat. Like the black claw of death itself, my father’s magic manifested, clutching at the sleeping king.
I found myself helpless. I was present in awareness only, lacking both substance and power, and could do nothing more than clutch at the spirit being drawn from his body by the looming, dark claw of forced reincarnation. But…I knew, even if I’d been given the ability to do so, I wouldn’t have stopped what was happening. Because this moment was bringing Arthur a step closer to me, even as I was already walking beside him.
Agrona’s methods were cruel and awful, and yet he brought me Arthur. Or…was bringing me Arthur? After so long on Earth, drifting along in Grey’s wake like a haunting ghost, it was sometimes difficult to keep sense of time. My life felt like a dream yet to happen, my death like the beginning after the end…
Clinging to the sundered spirit, I was dragged upward, away from the body left behind, the palace it rested at the heart of, the country of which it had been king, and the world that had forged the spirit I wouldn’t let go.
Time and space opened before us, a reversal of the force that drew me to my bond’s first birth. The universe itself seemed to unfold, like curtains of stars being pulled to the side, revealing the stage behind: our world, simple and sleepy and quiet after the noise of Grey’s Earth.Still firmly in the claw’s grasp, we were pulled toward that world, toward the skull-shaped continent of Alacrya and a waiting infant, naked and crying on a rune-carved dragon’s skull.
But that was wrong.
Arthur wasn’t—couldn’t—be born in Alacrya.
Panic slashed through my incorporeal essence. I pulled at the spirit, trying to hold it back from its course as my weakened mind struggled to understand. But the force of Agrona’s dark claw was inexorable. I might as well have tried to stop the sun from setting.
But I would. For him, I will stop the world from spinning if I have to.
Wrapping myself around the spirit, I focused away from the dark aspect of Alacrya toward distant Dicathen. Whatever strength my current form maintained, I exhausted it all. Suddenly I was no longer the ghost of the small, horned girl. Wide, transparent wings spread and caught the cosmic wind. Powerful talons closed around the spirit. My long tail whipped the air in time to the beat of my wings.
“You’ll never have him,” I said, voiceless and eternal. “His fate is outside of your dominion.”
Our course shifted an inch. My spectral wings beat. Miles slipped away beneath us. My long neck strained. Dicathen came closer still.
The black claw trembled. The shape of Agrona’s spell hadn’t accounted for resistance. It struggled to retain course, but the farther away I dragged it, the more its strength flagged.
Dicathen clarified beneath us. Sapin flew past. Ashber rushed toward us.
A woman came into view, auburn-haired and pale. Young, strong, and swelling with the silver light of an emitter’s magic. That felt right. I wasn’t sure why, but it felt right. And beside her, a wide grin plastered across his handsome, square-jawed face, was the man whose pride would build up my bond’s life, and whose death would very nearly tear it back down again. But that hadn’t happened yet, wouldn’t happen for a long time.
Except it already happened. Didn’t it?
It was growing more and more difficult to focus. There was a song like a sweet scent in the air, calling to me.
In my moment of distraction and weakness, suddenly I was slipping backwards, being pulled away from the family that my Arthur had to have. Waiting within that auburn-haired woman’s belly was Arthur’s vessel. No other would do.
My wings beat again, and I matched my diminishing strength against the will of my father.
My father, I thought bitterly. But not my papa…
Pulling so hard I worried my incorporeal essence would come apart, I dragged the black claw back toward the house and the baby. A silent roar tore out of me and rippled through the fabric of reality. Space again unfolded between me and my destination: the baby being born beneath me. The doctor had already gone to work, giving quiet, firm instructions…
The spirit in my talons touched the nimbus of white light infusing the baby.
Agrona’s dark claw melted away, the black mist of his lingering magic disbursed by the wind of my beating wings.
With mingled glee and sadness, I watched as Grey’s strong, mature spirit took over and absorbed the infant spirit within the unborn child. “I’m sorry,” I said, my own soul suddenly heavy with the weight of what I’d had to do. “This was the only way.”
I wanted to stay, to watch as Arthur grew and learned, to witness him form his core, to experience this part of his life that I had missed, but…
The sweet siren song was calling to me, and I found that I couldn’t ignore it. Uncertain when it had happened, I had eschewed both my draconic aspect and the girlish form I had lingered in so long on Earth, existing now only as my essence.
It was with a deep ache that I was pulled away from that baby, that family, that home. My spirit drifted eastward toward the mountains. As I crossed them, though, I was halted by the strangest of sights.
A caravan of familiar faces making their way up the mountain paths. Alice, Reynolds, the Twin Horns, young Arthur…
But how? I wondered. It had only been moments, and yet years had passed…
I could only watch helplessly as they were attacked. I knew what happened next, but to see it unfold in front of me was different. Darker. So much worse.
If my heart had been beating, it would have come to a stop as Arthur, only four years old, plummeted off the cliff’s edge to save his mother.
Plunging after him, my shapeless spirit dragged at his, as I’d done before, trying to hold him up, to arrest his fall. But my power was spent. A feeble scream shivered through space and time as I fell with him, infusing him with what little of me there was left, so that at least he was not alone.
And then, I felt her. So clearly here, so strangely the opposite of my father in every conceivable way.
Her power wrapped around Arthur’s small body, cushioning him, bringing him slowly to the ground, and I suddenly remembered him recounting to me that was what had happened. For an instant I had forgotten, lost myself in the desperation and fear. There was so little of my essence left…
I wanted to stay with Arthur, be with him when he woke, but the song’s source was so close now, and too strong. It filled all my senses, emptied me of all other thoughts as it subsumed them so that only the song remained. And so I followed, unable to do anything else.
Its indefinable notes were issuing from a cave hidden on the border of the Elshire Forest and the Beast Glades. I knew that place, and when I saw it, I understood the source of the siren’s song…
The trail of summoning notes led me down into the cave.
Despite seeing her, being aware of her presence, it was difficult to focus on my mother. Her gigantic, demonic form radiated a strong Vritra aura, but that wasn’t what forced my attention away. No, it was the song still. For, resting in her huge hand, was an egg. My egg. Even in the dim light, it gleamed with a rainbow-infused hue.
The song was coming from the egg. Drawing my spirit into it.
Correcting the paradox of my multiple existences, I thought sleepily. The next moment, I could not recall having the thought at all, or any other desire beyond wanted to be inside that egg, all curled up, safe, waiting for my bond to bring me back into the world.
And so flowed into it. There, I rested.
I woke suddenly, confused by my surroundings, uncertain what had been real and what had only been a dream.
The shell of the egg holding me transmitted sensation like a second skin, and I was aware of it cracking and opening up. Light spilled into the tranquil darkness of the egg’s interior. I blinked rapidly as a blurry face appeared above me as more of the shell broke away.
Slowly, the face came into focus.
A young boy with auburn hair and wide, hopeful azure eyes, was staring down at me. Arthur. My Arthur. Except…
I blinked again. I’d been wrong. Arthur was older, not the boy who first hatched me, but the general and Lance who rode on my back into war, strong and severe, but also kind and protective.
His face was still fuzzy, though, and I blinked. Arthur was still there, but his face was even older. Sharper, leaner. His azure eyes had turned to liquid gold, and his hair…it was the same color as mine.
A wry, trembling smile curved one corner of his lips.
“Welcome back, Sylv.”
Comments for chapter "Chapter 429"
- Gender Bender
- Martial Arts
- School Life
- Shoujo Ai
- Shounen Ai
- Slice of Life