The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 396
Chapter 394: What Makes Home
I was floating in a familiar hazy amethyst sea of emptiness.
The nothing-space stretched away into infinity in every direction. The absence of anything real and tangible was simultaneously a source of comfort and anxiety. Floating within it, I felt like a child huddled within my blankets, afraid of a monster under my bed I was almost certain wasn’t real—but not certain enough to let the fear fade.
Not that I’d ever had a childhood like that, but here, in the aether realm, it was easier to imagine all the different lives I might have had.
For the first time since I’d been just a small child on Earth, I imagined a life in which I’d known my real parents, ones who had raised me with love. What might I have been, then, if I hadn’t grown up as an orphan with that desperate need for attachment and love, that heart-wrenching desire to prove my worth so that someone would care for me?
I saw a life in which I’d never met Nico or Cecilia, or Headmaster Wilbek or Lady Vera. I would have learned a trade, ran a successful business, started a family of my own, and eventually died having been happy in my one peaceful, unimportant life.
“No,” a soft voice said, a physical thing that was more energy than noise.
I rotated around in the void. In the distance, a star burned bright white against the dark purple.
“Even if you lived a thousand lives, not one of them would be ‘unimportant.’”
My chest constricted, and I willed myself closer to the source of that shining light. It radiated a silvery warmth that made me feel confident and afraid and protective and loved all at once, and these feelings only grew more potent and complex as I zoomed closer.
The star grew and solidified, becoming a silhouette, which in turn manifested the refined details of a young girl with hair and eyes identical in color to mine.
I stopped just before her, greedily drinking in the sight of her, whole and unblemished. Reaching out tentatively, I poked the tip of one horn, and she stifled a delighted laugh.
My bond smiled, and the sight of it filled me with tingling warmth.
There was so much I wanted to tell her: how sorry and grateful I was, how much I regretted everything that had happened, how much I missed her…
But I could feel our minds connecting, and I could sense in her the understanding of everything I was thinking.
“It's still nice to hear those things said out loud sometimes, though,” she said, her head tilting slightly to the side as she examined me. “Don’t forget that.”
“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?”
“Still, it’s…good to see you, Sylv.” I rubbed the back of my neck, a movement my old companion watched with clear amusement. “I’m sorry it’s taking me so long to bring you back.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve got all the time in the world.” Her smile sharpened into a smirk, like she’d just said something she found very humorous.
“I will rescue you, Sylv.”
“I know. For now, though…” She reached out and poked me in the chest with one finger. As she did, a dull murmur of distant voices began to intrude on the dream. “It’s time to wake up, Arthur.”
My eyes blinked open. I was lying on a hard bed in a small chamber and staring up at the low, gray stone ceiling.
“Ouch! Damned, this thing is sharp,” the grumbling voice of Gideon exclaimed.
I turned my head slightly, revealing the old inventor with his back to me. Leaning against the far wall, Emily was watching him with the unique blend of amusement, fondness, and exasperation reserved for the old inventor. She noticed the small movement and met my eye, her expression dissolving into a look of pure relief.
“Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of genius?” I asked, getting a laugh out of Emily.
Gideon spun around and gave me an affronted look, the effect of which was somewhat dampened by the fact that he was sucking on his index finger like a wounded child. Removing the spit-shined digit, he glared at the dot of blood that immediately welled up, then at me instead.
“About time you’re awake. It’s been a day and a half, boy. Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of unkillable uber hero.” He scoffed. “Our last conversation was very rudely interrupted by a bunch of Alacryans dead set on murdering us all, if you remember.”
I pushed myself up onto my elbows and maneuvered so I could sit up with my back against the wall.
The first thing I noticed was Valeska’s horn resting on a stand next to the bed.
The second thing was that everything hurt.
Looking down at my body, I realized I was covered with bandages from head to toe. The stump of my arm had regrown to the wrist, but my hand hadn’t fully formed yet. Worried, I checked my core, but it didn’t seem damaged, just low on aether. Being unconscious for such an extended period had no doubt hampered my ability to collect and purify aether effectively. Considering that, I had actually healed a lot quicker than I should have.
Something else was strange, too—an empty feeling, like something was missing.
“Regis?” I asked, worry quickening my heart rate.
He had barely been holding on when I’d woken up on the ground in the tunnel to the portal chamber, and I’d had no time to check on him beyond acknowledging that he wasn’t dead yet. I’d barely had the wherewithal to conjure my armor and build up enough aetheric reserve for a single God Step, but that alone had pushed me past the breaking point. If the Scythes hadn’t fallen for my bluff…
A small ball of purple flames and angst leaped up onto the bed, glaring at me tiredly. “What? I was napping. And having this really nice dream about—”
I reached down and tousled Regis’s puppy-form head with my good hand. “I thought you were done for.”
Regis huffed as he plopped down and rested his chin on his overly large paws. “I could say the same for you. Really went full nova back there. You were so dry on aether I haven’t been able to incorporealize myself into your core because I was soaking up too much, and I was worried you’d shrivel up like some mana-starved muck larva.”
“Well, thanks for not letting me die,” I said, bemused.
“Same though,” Regis replied before closing his eyes and immediately falling asleep again.
“You two are so cute,” Emily said, melting into a doe-eyed puddle as she stared at Regis. “I have to say, I like him a lot better this way.” She eyed Gideon carefully. “Arthur, do you think there is some way we can—”
“I am not your pet, girl!” Gideon snapped, crossing his arms and generally looking very huffy. “And anyway, all these tedious feelings are starting to give me a rash. Arthur, we need to finish our conversation so I can get back to work.”
I looked at him for a long moment as I searched my memory for some hint of our last discussion, but nothing immediately came to mind. “I’m sorry, it’s been a busy couple of days…”
“The fire salts!” he exclaimed, waving his hands. “The cannons, the…the…all of it!”
The moments before the Wraiths’ attack solidified in my mind, and the idea I’d had rushed back in, almost fully formed. “Right. Your weapons. Actually, I did have a thought.”
Gideon’s eyes lit up, and he flapped a hand at Emily. “Girl, write this down.”
Her eyebrows rose indignantly, but she pulled a scroll, pen, and ink out of a shoulder bag and made busy getting ready, shooting annoyed glares at Gideon’s back every few seconds.
“So, here’s the thing,” I began, knowing I was about to crush the old inventor. “No cannons.”
His face fell, vacillating between confusion and disappointment. “No…cannons?”
I shook my head and gave him an apologetic smile. “But, we do need to fortify our non-mage soldier’s fighting capabilities, and the technology that you’ve been working on is the foundation for how we’re going to do that.”
Although hesitant at first, as I explained my proposal in full, Gideon’s frustration transformed into studious curiosity, and then blossomed into outright excitement. Meanwhile, Emily scribbled frantically to capture everything we were discussing, only occasionally throwing in a suggestion of her own.
“This…well, it can definitely work!” Gideon said as he stared down at the long scroll full of our notes. “Not as flashy or impressive as the cannon idea, but”—he gave an exaggerated shrug—“it is a little more practical, I suppose.”
“But the priority remains on discovering how to operate the bestowal artifacts—”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Gideon said, not looking at me as he turned away and started moving languidly toward the door, his nose still in the scroll. Consequently, he was also not looking at the open door and ran face first into the still form of Bairon, who had stopped in the doorframe.
“Oof! Bah, you make a better lightning rod than a door, Lance,” Gideon grumbled, conjuring a sour look from Bairon. The broad-shouldered Lance didn’t move, and Gideon was forced to shimmy through the narrow opening to leave. Emily curtseyed awkwardly in front of Bairon, who shifted, allowing her to hurry after Gideon.
Bairon watched the pair go, then looked at me with one brow raised. “It is good to see you’re awake, Arthur. We were…worried.”
I eased my legs off the bed and sat up straight. “Worried? About me?” I held out my stump of an arm, which was already healing more quickly now that I’d regained consciousness. “Just a couple minor flesh wounds.”
Bairon’s mouth twitched, but his brows turned down, as if he couldn’t decide whether to smile or frown. “I won’t pretend to understand what has happened to you, Arthur, and I doubt even you yet know the full capability of your powers. What I do know is that Dicathen is fortunate that you returned when you did, and that, after everything, you’re still willing to fight for this continent.”
I looked down at my feet, unsure what to say. My relationship with Bairon had always been hostile, and I wasn’t yet sure how to process this sudden change in the dynamic between us.
“I…want you to know something, Arthur.” I looked up to see Bairon ringing his hands, his gaze ascanse. “Maybe this won’t carry much meaning for you, but I forgive you…for my brother. For Lucas.” Finally, he met my eye. “And I’m sorry for attacking you, for”—he looked away again, some of the color draining from his face—“threatening your family.”
He raised a hand to forestall my response. “My pride blinded me to the evils of my family. My rage wasn’t even about Lucas, but your insult to our house. I was a fool, Arthur. And I’m sorry.”
I waited a moment to make sure he was finished speaking, then said, “I accept both. And I stopped blaming you for that a long time ago. The way you reacted, it wasn’t any different than what I did to Lucas. I thought it was justified in the moment—that I’d been right—but really, how I dealt with things, it made enemies, and that wasn’t smart, strategically.”
Bairon watched me with a distant, detached wariness, and there was a cold formality in his expression that reminded me of the old Bairon. Then, with a shake of his head, it was gone. “Even Lances, it appears, make mistakes. But…that is not why I’m here.”
He stood aside from the doorway, revealing a figure that had been hidden in the hallway behind him. All thought of fire salts and weapons and even the bestowment artifacts fled my mind.
Virion entered the room hesitantly, resting one old, tired hand on Bairon’s arm for just a moment. Then Bairon backed out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Virion pulled a wooden chair away from the wall and sat stiffly. His gaze roamed around the room for several very long seconds before settling on me. He cleared his throat.
“Virion, how are you feel—”
“Listen, Arthur, I needed to—”
We had both started speaking at the same time, then both immediately stopped. Virion leaned forward, his fists clenched together, and stared at the floor in silence, his body tense, a simmering animosity evident in each still movement.
I realized just how on edge I was, too. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to relax. Beside me, Regis rolled over and continued sleeping. At least, I thought he was sleeping until one eye peeked open a slit, caught me watching, and quickly shut again.
“It’s good to see you, Gramps. How…are you?” My tone was hesitant, almost awkward. There had been no time to address it since my return to Dicathen, but it was clear that Virion was keeping his distance from me, and I wasn’t sure why.
Virion stared down at his hands for a long moment, then said, “I’m sorry, Arthur.”
I opened my mouth to immediately interrupt, caught myself, and closed it slowly, waiting for Virion to continue.
“I’ve been avoiding you. Because…” He cleared his throat, and his gaze began to wonder again, almost as if he didn’t want to look at me. “When I saw you come back through that portal, alone, all I felt was the bitterness of knowing that Tessia wasn’t with you. You were returned from the dead, while her body is left to be tugged and pulled across Alacrya like a marionette. And…I didn’t want to hate you for that.”
I swallowed hard.
I expected him to be disappointed in me for arriving so late, perhaps even blame me for being unable to save Rinia or Aya…or even Feyrith.
I didn’t even realize he knew what had happened to Tess. I suddenly wished he didn’t know what was happening to her. Virion had lost his son, his Lances, his country…it was enough to break anyone. Knowing that Tessia’s body was out there being controlled by the enemy, unsure if she still existed within it…he shouldn’t have had to shoulder that burden too.
Anger overtook my guilt as I considered Windsom and Kezess manipulating and taking advantage of Virion, making him lie to his own people, stringing him along with bits of information about Tessia, just enough to keep him desperate and unsure.
One more thing they should have to answer for, I thought, balling the blanket up in my clenched fist.
After a long silence where we didn’t meet each other’s eyes, Virion continued. “I needed to mourn, but didn’t know where to begin. Losing Rinia and so many other elves when there are so few of us left…I spent so long holding it all back, after Elenoir—after Tessia—and then to suddenly feel like I’d lost my granddaughter all over again…” Virion’s head slumped, and a tear dropped onto his clasped hands.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t save her, Virion. I tried, I—”
My words cut off as the image of Tessia’s resigned smile intruded on my thoughts. The aether blade pressed against her sternum, mossy green veins spreading over her face, her words… “Art, please…”
“She’s alive,” I said instead. Virion looked up quickly and blinked his shining eyes. “Her body may be under Agrona’s control, but Tessia is alive, buried beneath the personality of a being known as the Legacy.”
Virion shifted, hesitating, then finally asked, “You’re sure? Windsom, he thought perhaps…but…”
“I’m certain,” I confirmed with a nod that sent a pulse of discomfort through my entire body. “I looked into her eyes, Virion. Tess was still in there.”
Virion searched my gaze for a long time, then his face wrinkled up and he broke, sobs shaking his shoulders as more tears flooded unchecked.
I slid off the bed and went to one knee in front of him, reaching for his hands. There are no words for moments such as this, and so I kept my silence. Virion leaned down and pressed his forehead to my hand, and we stayed like that for a while. His mourning soothed me, and my presence buttressed him as he vented his long-held grief.
After a few minutes, Virion’s sobs ceased, and most of the tension left his body. We lingered as we were for another minute or two. It was Virion who spoke first.
“I can’t sense the dragon’s will within you.”
I pressed my fingers into my sternum, over my aether core, which I’d formed from the broken remnants of the mana core that had once contained Sylvia’s will. Settling back onto the hard bed, I began to tell Virion about everything that had happened to me: my defeat and near death battling Cadell and Nico, Sylvie’s sacrifice, waking up in the Relictombs, Regis, the aether core, and everything after that.
Virion proved an intent listener, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, hardly even blinking. As I neared the end of my tale, however, he leaned back, crossed his arms, and gave me a sour frown. “So you’re telling me I wasted four years of my life training you to be a beast tamer, just for you to go and lose your bond?”
My mouth hung open as I struggled for a reply, but Virion’s frown broke and he gave me a wry smile.
“That’s a heck of a story, brat. But…I’m glad you made it back. And…” He paused and cleared his throat. “Thank you, Arthur.”
“And thank you, Virion, for making sure my mom and sister were safe,” I said in return.
He let out an amused scoff. “That sister of yours, she’s just as much a magnet for trouble as you ever were. Chafes at even the idea of ‘safety.’” My expression must have given away exactly how I felt about Ellie’s recklessness because Virion chuckled. “Speaking of, I’m sure you’re eager to see your family. They were both here for the first day, but Lance Varay finally made them leave to go get some rest.”
I gave him a tight-lipped smile. “Yeah.”
He stood and stretched, letting out an old man’s groan. “Before I go, though, there is one more thing. Bairon!” he said loudly, turning toward the closed door.
The door opened and Bairon entered again, this time carrying three identical boxes of polished black wood, each one bound in softly glowing silver.
“The artifacts Windsom gave you,” I said thoughtfully, eyeing the boxes as though they might explode at any moment. “You kept them. I wondered…” Thinking back to the moments after I’d driven the Alacryans from the Sanctuary, I recalled Virion rushing off and disappearing for some time. “That’s what you were doing while the rest of us were meeting.”
Virion took the top box off the stack from Bairon and opened the lid, holding it out toward me. Resting inside was an ornate rod. The red wood of the handle had golden rings wrapped around it at intervals, and it was capped with a glowing lavender crystal. Aether seemed drawn to the crystal, bobbing around it like so many curious bees.
I activated Realmheart. There was a sharp tug that sent a jolt of pain up my spine as the godrune lit up, then a rush of warmth from my lower back up into my limbs and eyes.
The mana came into focus. My breath came out in a rush.
The rod-shaped artifact had become a glistening rainbow of radiant mana, the rings, shaft, and crystal alike not only infused with mana, but constantly drawing more from our surroundings, so that the entire surface, as well as the box in which it was stored, positively swam with blues, greens, yellows, and reds.
“I’m not quite sure what to do with them,” Virion admitted, holding the box out. “We can’t use them. Not now, after everything that’s happened. Not after Rinia…”
I carefully took it from him, holding the box in the crook of my injured arm while I lifted out the artifact in the other, turning it so the facets of the crystal caught the light and sparkled through the glow of mana.
“Ellie told me about Rinia’s visions,” I said, using Realmheart and my own innate ability to see aetheric particles to track the magic’s flow through the artifact. “Has Gideon looked them over?”
Virion burst out with an indelicate snort. “Took one look at them and said he agreed with ‘the old bat’ and promised to vote against using them.”
Regis shifted, no longer pretending to be asleep as he ogled the artifact hungrily. ‘If we’re not going to do anything else with it, I could always absorb that aether. You know, deactivate it, for safety or whatever.’
Curious what would happen, I attempted to draw on the aether swarming the artifact. The artifact seemed to be exerting its own force on the aether particles, which flowed down the handle toward my hand only to waver and draw closer to the crystal again. Focusing, I pulled harder. The aether trembled, and the mana seemed to quake and ripple, small plumes of mana escaping the artifact and spraying out into the atmosphere.
If we take the aether, the artifact would break. With this much mana, the explosion might be pretty violent. Besides, I added thoughtfully, I’m not convinced yet that we can’t make use of these.
“They resist being placed into a dimension device of any kind,” Virion said, watching me with his brows creased, clearly confused about what I was doing. I realized that to him it must have looked like I was having a staring competition with the rod. “I don’t want to just cart them around, but I’m not sure what else to do with them.”
Twirling the artifact like a baton, I returned it to its case, closed and latched the lid, then imbued aether into my dimension rune.
The box vanished, drawn into the extradimensional storage space controlled by the rune on my forearm.
“But, how…?” Virion glanced at Bairon questioningly, but Bairon only shrugged.
“Here,” I said, reaching for the other two boxes. Bairon gave them up gladly. In a moment, they too were gone, and I could sense them within the extradimensional space, along with the items I’d collected in Alacrya.
I held up my forearm to show Virion the rune. “I have an original, not an old relic that’s been hacked apart ten times over. Must make a difference.”
Virion chuckled again, his brows rising all the way up into his hairline. “One of these days, I suppose I’ll stop being surprised by you, brat.”
“Let’s hope not, Gramps,” I said earnestly, then looked at Regis. “I think I’ve laid around long enough. Ready to get out of here?”
He yawned and stretched, sticking his rump up in the air like an actual puppy. “I’m ready to find a real source of aether, because I don’t relish the idea of being stuck like this for a week while we drip-feed off the atmosphere down here.”
With the Compass, I could return to the Relictombs at will, and mentally agreed that we should go replenish our aether reserves as soon as possible, but first I needed to check on Mom and Ellie.
After adding Valeska’s horn to my growing pile of artifacts within the dimension rune, I wished Virion and Bairon farewell, then made my way through the labyrinthine halls of the Earthborn Institute.
Regis stayed inside my body while we walked, hovering near the stump of my hand instead of my core. It eased the pain of the regrowing limb, but the healing was slow—at least, slow for me. I’d become so accustomed to losing entire limbs, it made me genuinely worry for my sanity. There was something distinctly inhuman about watching my hand regrowing in real-time.
‘Are you really human anymore?’ Regis sent, knowing just what to say to further agitate me, as always.
I don’t know, I answered, then cast the thought aside as I approached the door to the rooms where my family was staying.
It opened before I reached it, and Ellie was half through it before she noticed me and jerked to a stop. Her face lit up, then her focus shifted to my hand. “Oh, Art, that looks…”
I took her by the chin and turned her face up toward mine. “I’m fine, El. I’ve healed from worse.”
She gave me a single decisive nod, then pulled back. “I was just coming to check on you, so you saved me a trip. Mom is asleep.” She continued talking as she turned and led me into the rooms. “She was awake for about thirty hours straight, and she put herself into backlash trying to heal you.” She flinched and looked into my eyes. “Sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay,” I said, ruffling her hair like I’d done when she was little. It drove home how tall she was, how much she’d grown. And how much I’d missed.
“Arthur?” a wispy voice said from somewhere deeper in the suite. I heard feet hit the ground, and quick but uneven footsteps. Mom appeared in the hall, her hair disheveled and dark bags under her eyes.
Still, when she saw me, she smiled. “Oh, Art, I was so—”
Mom wobbled, her eyes losing focus. I was at her side in an instant, supporting her and leading her to the closest couch.
“I’m…fine,” she mumbled as I eased her down onto the couch, but it was easy enough to tell she wasn’t.
Activating Realmheart, I looked more closely, seeing the mana particles moving in her body and sensing her core strength.
“Oh, you’re glowing,” she said, her eyes crossing as she tried and failed to focus on me.
She had clearly pushed herself way past the point of exhaustion. Her core was so strained that it was struggling to start processing mana again, leaving her in a fatigued delirium, not to mention the intense full-body ache she would have been feeling with such severe backlash.
I let Realmheart fade away again.
“You’ve got extreme backlash. You need to be more careful. You’re—”
“Lucky?” she said clumsily, cutting me off. “I do feel quite fortunate, you know. Not everyone gets—how many chances are we on now? Four? Five? Anyway, not everyone gets a second, second, second chance to make things right.”
I winced at the mention of the past.
The regrets that I had from telling my parents the truth about me, and the solace that I felt from finally coming clean…the emotions all came back, forming a knot in my throat that I forcefully swallowed down.
Giving Mom a somber smile, I pulled a loose blanket over her lap. “What do you mean? You made things right a long time ago, remember? After Dad died…”
She sobered, shaking her head and squeezing my hand weakly. “I may have said it, but I was never able to act on it. I never got to just…be your mom. But I want to be. I will be.” Her eyes fluttered closed, and she sank deeper into the couch. “I suppose that’s kind of what it must be like being you, huh? Like…being reborn. Trying again to make it right.”
I knew it was the delirium talking, but still, hearing her so casually and calmly mention my reincarnation made my insides squirm. “Yeah, maybe. We can only just…keep trying. To learn, and do better.”
Softly, the breathiness of her tone telling me she was drifting back to sleep, she said, “I made you some porridge, Arthur. I know it’ll take time, but…I hope you can slowly let me be your mom again.”
Turning toward the kitchen, I could just see the small, round table, and on it, a wooden bowl with a spoon laid neatly beside it.
And suddenly, the armor of callousness and apathy I had donned in order to survive my time in the Relictombs and Alacrya crumbled.
My throat tightened and my vision blurred.
A part of me resisted getting up and walking toward the table. With Agrona’s swift counterattack, I knew I couldn’t stay here much longer. I knew he would attack again, and I knew it would only be worse.
But I let my heavy legs drag me toward the bowl of porridge, barely noticing as Regis led my sister out of the room.
Slowly, I took up the spoon and took a mouthful of the cold, tasteless mash. As I did, I gave in to the weight of it all.
Tears spilled freely as I took bite after bite. Alone in this little kitchen, far away from anywhere I’d ever called home, I wept silently as I ate the first meal my mother had cooked for me in years.