Read The Beginning After The End (Web Novel) - Chapter 475 - NovelBuddy (2024)

Chapter 475

Chapter 473: Beckoning Fates

My infant years passed by unattended, my life happening on a kind of autopilot as my mind focused on the problem of the keystone and my missing companions.

In this alternative reality presented by the keystone, even small changes seemed to snowball into an entirely new life that I had to live. But as the simulated life got further from reality—or perhaps, as the person I grew into inside the keystone became further from who I really was or had been—the part of my mind that was conscious of events outside of the keystone seemed to go to sleep, causing me to forget my purpose and even the fact that I was living out a fake, simulated existence.

The memories of my time growing up in Taegrin Caelum resurfaced. It was difficult to parse everything; I remembered it clearly, but the person I had become under those circ*mstances seemed so far from who I actually was that it was almost like I’d had someone else’s dream. But where, I wondered, had that scenario come from? Is the keystone realm just inventing responses to my actions, or is Fate somehow involved? Could the keystone know what really would have happened—or what will happen in the future? I considered aether and Fate, and knew I couldn’t completely discount this fact.

Elder Rinia could search through possible timelines and potential events using her magic. Certainly the djinn could do the same, with their heightened control of aether, including the branch of aevum. Still, in comparison to the mechanism behind each of the previous keystones, these unfolding worlds and timelines seemed impossibly complex. Does gaining insight into Fate require seeing how all these realities played out in response to each small change?

I felt my stomach sink as I wondered just how many times I’d have to relive my life in different permutations to gain this insight, and this nerve-wracking thought brought me to yet another unnerving consideration: How long have I already been here?

If the keystone world moved at the same scale of time as I lived it, then I’d already been inside for decades. I had to assume that time spent in the keystone wasn’t one-to-one with the outside world. Time didn’t seem to move at a constant pace in the keystone, it flies past at incredible speed when I didn’t focus on the world it was presenting. If nothing else, that suggested that time was highly subjective, perhaps even an illusion entirely.

What if that’s it? I jolted into a scene of my toddler self flipping through the Encyclopedia of Mana Manipulation. Staring around in confusion—it felt like I was born only minutes ago—I tried to draw myself back out of the life and allow it to simply play out before my eyes.

My excitement seemed to tether me to the moment. I squeezed my eyes shut, concentrating on disconnecting from myself. Something seemed to tug at me from my sternum, like I had a fishing hook embedded in my chest and someone was pulling on it. My eyes flashed open, and I stared around, wondering what the sensation could have been, but I saw and felt nothing obvious.

Realizing I was letting myself get too anxious and excitable, I forced my small body to take several deep breaths. My mother came into the room, chattering away about me always staring at those books and how cute it was, and time began to spill away from me.

In moments, I was awakening, then we were already heading up the mountain path that would lead us to the ambush. It played out as it had in life, and suddenly I was with Sylvia. Although I had ideas about how my time with her could have played out differently, I avoided changing anything, even the smallest detail, in order to test my current theory.

My time with her ran out, and then my life as a boy in Elenoir was speeding past. Before I knew it, I was seeing my family again, and then Jasmine and I were adventuring together in the Beast Glades. My time in Xyrus started, leading to the Widow’s Crypt, the attack on Xyrus Academy, and my training in Elenoir. The war itself was already over, culminating with my battle against Nico.

It was as my body began to fail from overuse of Sylvia’s beast will and Sylvie’s impending sacrifice loomed that I had another realization.

Focusing on the moment, I attempted to step back into my body and take control of the situation, knowing what I wanted to change.

Only, I couldn’t.

Time was passing by even more quickly now, with Sylvie’s death, my first unintended ascent into the Relictombs, and then my time in Alacrya all going by in the same breath. Suddenly I was bidding farewell to Ellie, having lied to her about where I would be while accessing the fourth keystone, and Sylvie, Regis, and I were activating and stepping into the keystone again.

I waited in darkness, breathless and confused about what had just happened. Again, the light in the distance. Again, the words, “Congratulations, sir and madam, he’s a healthy boy.”

My mind was blank for quite a while. Time didn’t slip away from me and start the loop over again, but I could feel the shock seizing control of my faculties, and instead of fighting it, I simply let myself be.

I had thought, perhaps, that the lesson of this place was something trite, like that my life had played out just the way it was supposed to or that I couldn’t change the past. I certainly hadn’t expected to lose control and get dragged along as my life repeated exactly as it had, unable to enforce my will on it at all.

It was like being caught in a rushing river, I thought in wonder after the shock began to settle. But what is the point of that? How does it lead to insight into Fate?

I struggled to see how this new data point fit in with my previous theories. Obviously, it shattered the idea of simply not changing anything. In fact, this vortex effect suggested the opposite: that I had to explore the many opportunities of this life—or lives—in order to gain insight into the aspect of Fate.

I rolled this idea around for quite some time but achieved no new insight. Finally, I turned away from it, again considering a moment from the previously rushed-through life. As I had approached Sylvie’s sacrifice, a wild thought had occurred to me. How can I exist in this life if Sylvie doesn’t sacrifice herself for me, splitting her essence to be drawn across the cosmos where she then watches my life as Grey unfold? Because, if she doesn’t do that, how can she then pull me away from Agrona’s effort to reincarnate me and instead place me inside this body?

I looked around, searching for the ghostly apparition of Sylvie that I knew must be watching me. After Sylvie had experienced my life as Grey, she had followed my spirit through the cosmos as it was dragged to this world by Agrona. At the last moment, she had forced me aside and brought me to the Leywins. And that is where this simulation of my life began.

It was a paradox. Although the keystone lives always began at my birth, in reality, my own life began long before that, with my birth as Grey on Earth. I clung tightly to that fact. The presence of a potential paradox was a data point, a flaw in the system, one I could identify and potentially extrapolate information from.

‘I suppose, in this place, my presence at your birth—and also everything I did before your birth—is like a fixed point,’ a distorted voice said. I turned my overly large head on the neck that still didn’t support it, staring off the side of a straw-filled mattress to see the same slightly see-through, younger version of Sylvie that I’d encountered before. ‘You can’t change something that was already set in stone before your arrival.’

I was looking for you, I said, meeting her transparent golden eyes.

‘I know,’ she answered.

I have an idea, I thought, instinctively stuffing a chubby fist into my mouth. Will you help me with something?

‘In the context of this life as it is currently playing out, I have just watched Grey grow from desperate childhood to disconsolate kingship. I then crossed an unknowable expanse across time and between worlds to keep Agrona from claiming you,’ she thought back matter-of-factly. ‘I have already sacrificed everything for you, Arthur, and I will do so again. And again. As many times as is necessary. So yes. Of course I will help you. Just tell me what you need.’

I quietly gathered my thoughts before projecting them to her. You are a part of Sylvie. Before, you called yourself a projection of Sylvie as I understood her to exist in this moment, right?

‘That’s correct,’ she confirmed, watching me curiously.

But there is another part of Sylvie here as well, I continued. Her real conscious mind from the outside world. Except she’s…sleeping, her and Regis.

‘That’s true.’

My infant face scrunched up in concentration. Her mind hasn’t woken yet. I think, maybe, that’s because it hasn’t had a time and place to do so inside the keystone. Even in the lives where I’ve bonded with her, that version of Sylvie has her own personality intact, consistent with who Sylvie was in that timeframe, without the memories of our life outside this place. That leaves no room for my Sylvie, the real Sylvie, to wake up.

The ghostly face watched me expectantly.

But you’re already only a piece of her. And in a few years, you’re going to be drawn back into your own egg and reborn as that version of Sylvie.

‘That’s also true.’

If you…attached yourself, somehow, to Sylvie’s mind—the real Sylvie—then maybe she could wake up and act through you, and then be born back into herself.

There was a long pause, and I had to concentrate very hard to keep my mind and infant body awake and focused on the moment.

‘How?’ she asked eventually.

I didn’t really know how, but I was convinced that waking Sylvie and Regis was essential to making progress within the keystone. They represented different aspects of aether that, together with me, forged a more complete insight of spacium, vivum, and aevum as a whole. It was my hope that, as outside consciousnesses, they wouldn’t suffer the same effects of deviating from my regular life and could somehow tether me to myself.

It’s all guesswork at this point, but I can feel Sylvie’s mind inside my own. Can you…enter my body? Maybe I can act as some kind of bridge between you.

The ghostly image nodded in understanding, then drifted forward, passing through the bed and into my flesh. A shiver ran through my tiny body, and I could feel a new, comforting presence floating just beneath the surface.

Wiggling my infantile body, I got more comfortable on the straw mattress and closed my eyes.

Her mind is inside me somewhere. We just have to find it.

I focused on the ghost’s warm presence, trying to follow her within myself as she searched for the real her. Such an internal, meditative practice would have been easy in my years as a quadraelemental mage or later, once I had an aether core. I’d practiced searching inside of myself with mana and aether for more hours than I could hope to count.

But now, in the body of a tiny baby with no mana core of my own, I realized that I lacked the facilities I would normally rely on.

Do you feel any sense of her? A resonance, or a pull, or anything?

‘No, but don’t despair,’ she assured me.

As my focus honed in on finding Sylvie and forging a connection between the two partial versions of her—one real, the other manifested by the keystone—I lost my sense of the outside world. Even when my infant body slept, my adult mind remained intent on the connection between Sylvie’s apparition and her sleeping mind. Time passed discordantly, with the outside world seeming to rush by while only minutes or hours passed according to my consciousness.

And yet I sensed nothing concrete within myself but the mana slowly concentrating inside my sternum, where my core would eventually form.

‘This isn’t working,’ ghost-Sylvie thought, her voice cutting through the fog of my hyper-concentration. ‘We need to do more, but what? I have no knowledge of this process.’

I took several deep breaths, struggling to think through the building tension. In a couple of years, your spirit naturally rejoins your unborn body, held in stasis by your mother’s magic. And then later, you are reborn through a natural process I don’t fully understand, a combination of a magical reaction to your sacrifice and a tremendous amount of aether channeled into that second egg.

‘Both rebirths then required an egg…’ she mused, her mentally projected voice quiet in my head, nearly buried beneath the thumping of my pulse. ‘But both were also influenced by outside magic tying back to the sacrifice of my body to rebuild yours. We need a catalyst to awaken the real me and bond me with this simulation of myself.’

But what kind of catalyst would suffice?

The ghostly simulation of my bond didn’t answer. She was gone.

I let time pass, thinking about my next steps, until I reached the cliffside and once again saw her. But the battle exploded, and I followed along with the necessary sequence of events that would lead me to Sylvia. I looked for a time or way to communicate with the watching ghost, but no such opportunity presented itself, and then, once again, I was tumbling from the cliffside.

By the time I came to at the bottom of the long fall, lying next to the broken corpse of the bandit I had dragged down with me, Sylvie was already gone.

I considered simply allowing the simulation to play forward to its beginning again in order to continue my attempt to wake Sylvie, but the idea of wasting an entire life simply watching it fly by chafed at me. It was obvious now that my goal of waking the real Sylvie into the ghostly manifestation of her spirit would be a work of more than one lifetime, but there was still a lot I didn’t understand about the keystone trial, and I didn’t want to waste an opportunity to learn more, either.

I continued on until Sylvie was reborn, but she was not born with any memories, either of her life outside the keystone or our discussions before her birth. She was an infant asura, growing quickly in both intellect and power, but she was Sylvie as she had been then, not my companion as she now slept.

My time in Elenoir and then as an adventurer and student unfolded without significant change, but I remained watchful of each passing decision to avoid the vortex effect pulling me straight through to the end again. It was difficult, as I lived through the same events yet again, to avoid second-guessing the many decisions of my life. Where could I have chosen differently? What other power could I have gained or what piece of knowledge might I have obtained if only I’d walked a slightly different path?

Years passed before the moment I’d been waiting for came, and I sank into myself, becoming fully present in the unfolding events.

Virion was nodding to me as he dug into the inside pocket of his robe. “There’s one last thing you need to think about.”

I already knew what he was going to pull out when he opened his hand in front of me to reveal a black coin the size of his palm. The coin glimmered at the slightest movement, drawing my attention to the complex engravings etched all over it.

“This is one of the artifacts that were handed down to me. I had given them both to my son when I resigned from the throne, but after Alea’s death, he gave this one back to me, saying I should choose the next Lance.”

I stood there silently for a moment, carefully considering the oval coin that seemed to pulse in Virion’s hand. “This is the artifact Alea had.”

“Yes. Bonding it with your blood and mine will trigger it, giving you the boost that allowed all the other Lances to break into the white stage. I know you’re not an elf, but I’d be honored if you’d serve as a Lance under me.”

“I’ll fight for you even without this bond, but I can’t accept it. I may regret this, but it doesn’t feel right for me to cheat my way into the white stage. I’ll get there on my own.”

These words echoed back to me from what felt like a lifetime ago. It was true, I had reached the white core stage on my own, but it took so long…and when I finally came face to face with Cadell at the flying castle, it still wasn’t enough.

And soon after, I lost everything I’d worked so hard for when my core was broken.

“It would be my honor to serve as your Lance,” I said at length, bending into a bow before Virion.

The Lance ceremonies—the actual bonding of blood and service—had always taken place secretly, and so it was for me. Only Virion, his son Alduin, Lance Aya Grephin, Lord Aldir, and Sylvie were present, all gathered within an unadorned chamber deep within the flying castle.

I knelt in the center of the chamber, Sylvie sitting beside me in her small, catlike form, her side pressed against my leg. Virion stood before me, while the others were half in shadow encircling us. He held out the black oval coin. Its etched surface reflected the dim light like stars on the ocean at night. After a few seconds, he released the coin. Instead of falling to the ground, it stayed where it was, hovering in the air between us at my eye level.

“Arthur Leywin, son of Reynolds and Alice Leywin, silver core quadraelemental mage. Unexpected protector and unlooked for grandchild, raised among both humans and elves in Sapin and Elenoir, a child of two worlds. The title of Lance must not be limited by birth or status, or even race, and can only be earned through hard work, talent, and strength. In that, you may prove to be unparalleled.”

Virion gave a brief pause, letting his words sink in. “Arthur, do you swear to serve and protect me as commander of the Tri-Union’s military forces, the Eralith family, and by extension all of the people of Elenoir, elven or otherwise, and never to turn this power back against me, my family, or my nation?”

“I swear,” I answered firmly and honestly.

‘So do I,’ Sylvie said fiercely into my mind.

“As a Lance of Elenoir, do you swear to stand between me, and by extension all of Elenoir, and our enemies, no matter their strength or origin?”

“I swear,” I answered again.

Virion’s rasping voice was husky with suppressed emotion. “Will you submit yourself in blood and body to my cause?”

“I submit.”

“So these words are spoken”—Virion drew a knife and dragged it along the edge of his palm—“and so they are bound in blood.” As he said the word, his blood began to drip from his hand, hitting the black metal with small splashes.

He held out the knife, which I took. I tried to imagine how I would have felt in this moment, had it really happened. Isn’t it really happening? The thought came back to me so immediately, so unexpectedly, that I had to stop and think about it, reminding myself that I was in the keystone and working toward a solution for the trial and insight into Fate itself.

“Go on, Art,” Virion said, his tone kindly. “I have faith in you.”

Standing, I set my jaw and cut myself as Virion had. “So these words are spoken, and so they are bound in blood.” Sylvie echoed the words in my thoughts, except hers were directed to me instead of Virion.

As my blood joined Virion’s, the surface of the oval coin rippled, and the blood was drawn into it. The coin pulsed with a tremendous fluctuation of mana, then began to fall. I grabbed it before it had tumbled more than a few inches and inspected it intensely.

The artifact was heavy, smooth, and warm to the touch. Beneath the black sheen, there was now a hint of deep red. There was a strange kind of resonance between the mana within the coin and my own purified mana, like they were calling to each other. I yearned to let the mana free.

Virion beamed at me, his eyes sparkling with pride. “I name you Godspell, Lance of Elenoir. Welcome, Lance Godspell, to your service.”

Lance Aya stepped forward, her expression unreadable. “You will want somewhere quiet and…away from others for this next step.”

Virion made a low humming noise from his nose. “It takes time, but you should dedicate the next few days to the process. After that, you can approach it at your leisure, although, from what I’ve seen in the past, most Lances find it difficult to stop once the process has started.”

Lord Aldir spoke for the first time. “I hope you both know what you are doing. I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been better for Arthur to reach white core on his own.”

“We don’t have time for that,” Alduin cut in.

I could tell from Virion’s expression that he was torn. “We shall see.”

Mouth dry, I gave Virion a deep bow, then shallower bows to Lords Alduin and Aldir, then Sylvie and I followed Aya to a chamber that looked more like a forest glade than a room buried deep in the bowels of a flying castle. “Good luck,” she said with a coy wink before retreating back down the hallway with a sashaying walk.

‘Oh, this is exciting,’ Sylvie said, slinking around the chamber and sniffing the plants. ‘You’re going to be a white core mage. How long do you think it will take?’

“We’re going to find out,” I said out loud, sitting down, crossing my legs, and holding the oval coin up in front of me.

***

Everyone in the hall held their breath as I came into view, silently waiting for me to speak.

I stood wordlessly and surveyed the outdoor gallery from atop the stage. Every person present seemed entranced, but I could hardly blame them. Bathed in light and posing dramatically next to the two blocks of ice, I knew I cut quite the heroic figure.

My long auburn hair was tied loosely in a knot, and I was garbed in a loose-fitting silk robe in the elven style. Completing my refined ensemble was a rich fur pelt, as white as snow, slung over one shoulder.

It seemed like only yesterday that I’d stood before all of Dicathen clad in extravagant armor that had dazzled the people. Now, standing in the column of light in my elegant attire, I knew I was more than just dazzling; I radiated an otherworldliness that matched even an asura like Lord Aldir.

Gauging my timing well, I turned my head first to my left, peering deeply at the Vritra retainer encased in ice, and then to my right, repeating the action toward the second retainer.

The gallery, already quiet, took on a deep, breath-held silence as I turned back to face those present. Keeping my voice low and steady, I began my prepared speech. “Displaying the corpses of our enemies as if they are simple trophies or keepsakes for the masses to gawk at is something I deeply disapprove of, but those of you attending this event tonight aren’t simple commoners. Each noble here knows that the workers, civilians, and inhabitants of your lands are waiting impatiently for news regarding this war. Until now, vague assumptions and baseless theories were the only things you could give them.”

I paused, letting the quiet crowd simmer as they waited for me to speak again. “Born to a humble background, I have been able to climb to where I am now thanks to my family—as well as the friends I met along the way. I am now a Lance, and the youngest one at that, but I’m not the strongest.” I smiled warmly to hide the lie I told. In truth, I was the strongest by a significant margin, but the narrative required an alternative view of events. “The Lances out there, some of whom are fighting battles as we speak, are far above me in power, and yet even I was able to defeat not one but two retainers, the so-called ‘highest powers’ of the Alacryan army.”

I paused once more, letting the excited murmurs ripple through the crowd. “As you can see, I’ve sustained no injuries from my battle with these supposedly powerful forces, and am healthy enough to chatter on like this amongst a crowd of nobles.” I widened my smile as my comments elicited laughter from the audience.

Placing one hand on the tomb of ice holding the corpse of the retainer, Uto, I carefully shifted my gaze to where the Council was seated. “This is not only my offering to the Council, who has granted me this role, but is also a gift that I hope you can all take home and share with your people—figuratively, of course.”

Cheers and laughs erupted as I bowed, signaling the end of the speech. The illuminating artifacts turned back on as I jauntily descended from the stage, and Virion took my place. People clapped my shoulder or my back as I passed them, shouting out for me or trying to get me to stop and speak with them.

When Virion spoke, however, the crowd’s eyes were drawn to him, and the hubbub died down somewhat. “The Council thanks Lance Godspell for this gift. He has single-handedly changed the course of this war, proving without doubt that Alacrya’s forces are not indestructible, as our enemy has attempted to convince you.” Virion paused as the crowd cheered in response. “Already, our dwarven allies are assisting our greatest minds in reverse engineering the teleportation technology used by the Alacryans to reach our shores, and soon we will take the assault to them!”

The crowd roared even louder, the nobles momentarily forgetting themselves as they got caught up in Virion’s speech. Soon, a chant of “Lance Godspell, Lance Godspell” was resounding through the gallery.

Through the crowd, I caught sight of a particular pair of beautiful teal eyes, shining with delight, and I couldn’t help but smile in return.

***

Silver bells filled Zestier with the sweet sound of their ringing, mingling with the chirping of birdsong and the whisper of a light breeze through the boughs. Bright roses, peonies, lilies, and hyacinths splashed reds, oranges, pinks, and blues across the crowd gathered to either side of the street and perfumed the air with a bouquet of sweet scents. Elven children threw confetti of petals into the street ahead of us, transforming the paving tiles into a mystical highway of color.

Beside me, Tessia giggled as she watched a young girl, no more than three or four, overturn a basket full of rose petals, spilling them into a heap, then hurriedly wiggle chubby hands through the petals to spread them out as she looked around to see if anyone saw. Tessia reached down and brushed the girl's head lightly with her hand as we passed.

She turned to look at me, and I felt myself slipping away into those teal eyes, which shone turquoise in the sun. “I love you, King Arthur,” she said softly, my name barely a whisper on her lips.

“And I love you, Queen Tessia,” I answered. More than anything, I yearned to lean forward and kiss her painted lips, but I held myself back, submitting to the decorum of the day. In truth, I would have rather foregone the ceremony and pomp entirely and instead spent the day just the two of us, insulated from the needs of the wider world.

I admired my queen, who was draped in a fitted wedding gown of white lace, the long train that dragged through the flowers woven with emerald and gold vines that collected the petals as we moved. Her gunmetal silver hair fell in waves down her back, pinned with golden flowers inset with sapphire and emerald gems, and her face had been lightly painted, adding shadow to her eyes and a bright flush to her cheeks.

But as I looked at her and fantasized about a life outside of the public eye, I also considered my new role as king. Just coronated, my first act as the new ruler of all Dicathen was this very wedding, as agreed by her mother, father, and grandfather. Ours was a union that more completely aligned the human and elven races, but to me, it was the culmination of two lives lived. Being reincarnated in Dicathen had been a chance for me to discover who I really was, to have a family that loved me, but also to search out the kind of supportive and romantic love I had never experienced as Grey on Earth.

I will be the king here that I could never be as Grey, I thought, brushing my fingers along Tessia’s arm, which was woven through my own. And it will be because of you.

I locked those words into my mind, promising myself to tell her later, in the safety and confines of our own chambers within the Eraliths’ palace in Zestier. The flying castle would become our permanent home, but I had agreed to spend two full days in Tessia’s birthplace as a sign of support and goodwill to her family and her people; even though I had been a Lance of Elenoir and was marrying their princess, it was still a shock for the elven people to bow before a human king.

I forced my gaze away from my wife. As I smiled and waved at the rows upon rows of onlookers, I saw none of the tension that I knew was simmering beneath the surface. Instead, these people welcomed me with joyous cheers and thrown flowers. Day by day, my hesitance toward accepting the kingship faded away. I have trained for this over two lifetimes, I reminded myself.

‘There is no one better suited for the role in any of the three countries you now rule,’ Sylvie thought from where she walked behind me, and I realized I must have let my thoughts slip out into our connection.

Thank you, Sylv. If what you say is true, it is only because I have you in my life. I wouldn’t be the man I am today without you. I was careful to keep concealed my concern for her. My bond, who was like a daughter to me and Tessia, was infected with her father’s poisonous magic. I hadn’t even told her that he could take over her body and speak through her yet.

Our procession continued through the city of Zestier and ended on a raised balcony high in the branches of one of the great trees. Thousands of onlookers gathered on platforms spread around us. Tessia and I stood side by side, surrounded by her parents and mine, Virion, Lance Aya, and an entire retinue besides.

Feyrith Ivsaar III stepped forward from the retinue, taking the teal half-cloak that hung over my shoulder. I nodded to him and smiled, thinking about how funny and strange life could be that my once-rival had become such a close friend and advisor.

Stepping forward, I projected my voice with mana so it would carry easily to the spread out platforms grown into the boughs of the massive trees. With an easy smile and a baritone rich with warm confidence, I addressed my subjects as a married man for the first time.

***

I awoke to a sharp tug of pain in my sternum. The moon spilled silver light through the window and across the floor but left most of our bedchamber pitch black. My fingertips pressed into my sternum, and I jolted awake as I felt wetness. Waving my hand, I attempted to conjure a flame to see by. The chamber remained in darkness.

Gasping at pain and sudden, horrible realization, I reached desperately for my magic.

There was no response.

My body spasmed at the same time as the lantern beside our bed bloomed with orange light. Tessia was asleep beside me, her hair a tangled mess around her face, her limbs askew, half in and half out of the blanket. Her lips curved up in a secret, sleeping smile as she dreamed of something pleasant.

Beyond her, beside the bed, a man tinkered with the lighting artifact, turning down the brightness slightly. There was no mistaking his marble-gray skin, red eyes, and the onyx horns that curved down the sides of his head, following his jawline.

Sylvie, to me!

I felt no response to my frightened call, which only heightened my fear and disorientation.

The Vritra—the same one who had killed Sylvia all those years ago—raised a finger to his lips. The gesture seemed strange and out of character, like something from a dream. “Do not shout for your guards, my king,” he said, his voice cold and hard. “My soulfire burns within you, and I have destroyed your core. Although you still draw breath, you are, in reality, already dead.”

I opened my mouth to shout, but pain wracked my body, clenching my throat shut and making my limbs spasm. Beside me, a concerned frown formed on my wife’s face, and she rolled over fitfully.

“You are a victim of your own success, King Arthur,” the Vritra continued. “Had you proven less successful—less powerful, less of a threat—perhaps the High Sovereign would have attempted to bargain with you.” He gave a small shake of his head, and an expression that was almost, but not quite, a smile crossed his face. “I’ll be honest, I would have liked to see what you were capable of, but the High Sovereign thought a simple assassination best.”

Through the pain, I reached for Sylvie again, but I couldn’t sense her mind. I didn’t know if she could even hear my thoughts.

“Still, you have served your purpose,” the Vritra mused. “The way is paved for the Legacy.” His hand reached out toward Tessia, and I found myself powerless to stop him as he rested his outstretched fingers on her neck. Black, ghostly flames wreathed his hand for a moment that felt like an eternity, then flowed down into her like smoke through her pores.

My wife’s beautiful eyes snapped open, her mouth stretching wide in agony, but only a brief choked gasp escaped her. Tears spilled from her eyes before they rolled back into her head, and she slumped.

“N-no…” I moaned, extending a trembling arm toward her. The world went white, then black, then gray slowly faded back in. The bed beside me was empty, and I could no longer see the Vritra, but I couldn’t turn my head to search the room. Vaguely, I was aware that I was now lying in a wet pool, the fine sheets of my royal down mattress sticking to my skin.

“Don’t worry, boy.” The Vritra’s voice came from somewhere beyond the edges of sight. “Your queen lives, and will continue to do so, after a fashion. I am told she will become one of the most important people in the world.”

I closed my eyes, pushed out a shaking breath, and failed to draw in another one. Alone in a bed full of blood, I felt the soulfire burn through the last of my lifeforce, and everything went dark.

And then, within the black, a faint bit of distant light.

The light grew closer, brighter, and then turned into a bright blur, forcing me to shut my eyes. Indiscernible sounds assaulted my ears. When I tried to speak, the words came out as a cry.

“Congratulations, sir and madam, he’s a healthy boy.”

My eyes struggled open, and I cried. I howled with the despair of waking and realizing that the life I’d lived was a dream. A beautiful, wonderful, horrible dream.

Mourning that version of myself, of the love I had been allowed to share that I had withheld from myself in my real life, I could only plead with the keystone. Enough, I begged. I don’t want to keep doing this. Please. That is enough. Let me go.


Read The Beginning After The End (Web Novel) - Chapter 475 - NovelBuddy (2024)

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