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The Beginning After The End Chapter 461

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Chapter 461


Chapter 458: Lady Dawn's Child


CECILIA


As I watched the phoenix slump, his core overdrawn, backlash ripping him from consciousness, a memory that wasn’t my own blistered up in my mind: a boy running and laughing, his mismatched eyes—one burning orange, the other icy blue—sparkling with joy and wonder. Now those same mismatched eyes rolled back into his head as he tumbled into freefall.


I was looking at Lady Dawn’s child, there was no doubt. The taste of her mana lingered in my senses, creating a sort of resonance with his own. I could feel their connection, was now a part of it, like there were two magnets linking us.


Along with the connection came emotions that also weren’t mine: protectiveness, despair, and a bright, blistering fury.


Not my emotions. I thought bitterly of all the alien thoughts, memories, and ideas that had been stuffed into my head since being reincarnated. This isn’t someone I care about.


Taking a firm hold of the surging motherly instincts, I tamped them down, burying them.


Khoriax swung low and grabbed the unconscious phoenix by the back of his clothes. He shot a questioning look at me where I was hidden among the smoldering branches of a broad-leafed tree. I opened my mouth to speak, but before the words left me, the world erupted into fiery h.e.l.l.


The flames started by the battle roared into the sky, painting the world in a red that burned like a falling sun. The air scorched my lungs, combusting into smoke and fire. My clothes smoldered and little flames licked up from the protective barrier of mana shrouding my body. Even my senses seemed to burn beneath the swelling mana, as if I were staring at the sun.


Reaching out, I took hold of the mana and tried to smother it…but the will controlling it resisted, driving me back.


“But…how? Who?” I gasped out loud, astounded.


A man descended into the inferno. The sudden roaring wind seemed to barely ruffle his hair, just as the smoke failed to blind his yellow eyes.


The four surviving Wraiths all faced the man, but they were having an even more difficult time resisting the effects of the spell. They exchanged uncertain looks and threw searching glances down into the trees in my direction.


“Servants of Agrona.” The reverberation of the man’s voice suddenly told me who he was, his ident.i.ty contained within the memories shared by Lady Dawn. “Your hostility within my own domain will not be tolerated. This place, and everyone within it, are under my protection,”  Mordain of the Asclepius clan said firmly. “You test my sworn neutrality by attacking here. Give me this member of my clan and go.”


Khoriax’s scythe reformed in his hands, and he pressed the blade against Chul’s throat. “It seems to be showering phoenixes on us today. How convenient. Stop channeling this cursed spell and give yourself up, or I open this boy’s throat and—”


Huge talons of fire manifested from the heat searing the atmosphere, wrapping around Khoriax. The claws burned through his mana and flesh alike, rending him into charred meat before he could even shout out. The half-phoenix slumped into the claw, unharmed.


I was still hidden, my control of mana ensuring that I would be unsensible even to one so powerful as this man. I worried the Wraiths might give me away, but the remaining three kept their focus on Mordain, their defenses up but making no move to attack.


Suddenly the tree in which I hid was engulfed in a fire I could neither control nor sustain. Reacting instinctively, I leapt into the air and flew free of the flames, my skin red and sore even beneath my protective mana.


“The Legacy…” Mordain said. His bright yellow eyes were locked on me, his robes billowing around him and melding into the smoke. “Even you cannot hide from me within my own domain spell. Do not not test your limits against my patience here.”


My mind reeled. I didn’t know what to do. This phoenix was powerful, his grip over mana ironclad. Dragons still swarmed over the Beast Glades, so even if I did defeat him, could I do it fast enough to return to my task without drawing their attention?


It’s not worth the risk, I told myself, hoping I was acting logically, as Agrona would, and not out of fear.


“Wraiths, with me—”


Suddenly, my body went rigid as a force inside of me thrust itself against my control. My hand raised of its own accord, snapping forward and releasing a whiplike vine that had coiled around my wrist.


The whip carved across the s.p.a.ce between Mordain and me, a green crescent that seemed to be moving in slow motion. The tip of the vine burst into flames, which raced along its surface, blackening the emerald green of its flesh.


The whip blew away to ash just short of Mordain’s throat.


His expression twitched slightly, but he did not move to counter, hesitation leaking onto his face for a split second.


Clenching my teeth until they creaked, I forced my body back into submission, breaking the momentary loss of control, then spun away and flew at all speed, bursting out of the domain spell’s sh.e.l.l and back into blue sky and cool wind.


What in the Vritra’s name were you trying to do? I snarled inside my own head.


Tessia didn’t immediately answer, and I hurried to put distance between Mordain and myself. The three Wraiths fell in behind me, pus.h.i.+ng to their limit to keep up.


Looking over my shoulder, I realized Mordain’s domain spell was a sphere wrapping everything within it in pure fire-attribute mana. Within that sphere, his own mana pushed out all the atmospheric mana, amplifying his spells and control while diminis.h.i.+ng that of his enemies.


You thought he could beat us—kill us, didn’t you? Inside that h.e.l.lish terrain he created. Make up your mind, would you? Really, do you want to live or die? Do you even know?


‘No, I don’t want to die,’ Tessia said softly, her first words to me since entering Dicathen. ‘But I can’t help but wonder if I’m a coward not to try harder to make that happen. To hurt Agrona and keep everyone safe—Arthur safe—you need to die.’


I stopped suddenly, a s.h.i.+ver running down my spine.


Mordain’s domain spell collapsed. For a moment, the presence of both asuras was crystal clear, then the atmospheric mana seemed to swallow their signatures as Mordain shrouded himself and Chul from me.


And yet…something was still there. No sense of their mana signatures, but…the resonance I now felt with Chul couldn’t be so easily disguised.


Gathering my own mana, I pushed out a condensed sphere and sent it hurtling forward at about the same speed I’d been flying. “Follow as long as the spell lasts, then return to the others and resume your hunt.”


The three Wraiths gave me similar looks of confusion. When I waved them on, their hesitation broke and they sped away, following the miniature sun now rus.h.i.+ng over the forest’s canopy.


Drifting down under the cover of the trees, I began slowly moving back in the direction where the Wraiths had fought against Chul. The wind carried the smell of smoke and burning, and there was a consistent flow of atmospheric mana back into the void left behind by the domain spell.


Anger welled inside me: anger at myself for having to run away from Mordain, for allowing Tessia to take control.


If it was your goal to kill us both, you should have let me die during my Integration, I seethed to the elf as I searched for the resonance.


‘Was it easy for you? When you killed yourself on Grey’s sword?’ she responded, her voice laced with bitterness and regret.


I chewed the inside of my cheek, careful to keep my mana in check in fear of Mordain sensing me. I still did it, didn’t I?


‘Yes, you did. But you did it to escape, to run away from what you couldn’t handle.’ A beat of silence lingered before she spoke again, her thoughts growing more confident. ‘I didn’t want to die then, and I don’t want to die now. But I’m trying to do what I can to help—to fight back—unlike you.’


Just because you know my memories does not mean you know what I went through, I snapped, pausing my pursuit. You have no idea what I’ve had to endure…or what I’m willing to do to make sure Nico and I get the life that we deserve.


With newfound resolve, I took a moment to align my mana signature with the ambient mana around me and resumed tailing Chul, letting the slight pull from his core guide me. I moved forward carefully, quietly flitting through the lower network of branches, my entire conscious focus on that small tug in the distance.


Suddenly, the connection with Chul’s mana was completely severed. I felt a spike of fear as adrenaline surged through me, and I increased my speed, aiming for the last place I had felt him. My thoughts started to knot themselves into a jumble, but I tried to let my mind go blank again, remembering only the sense of where that tug had been before it was blocked.


I slowed again as I got close to where I thought I’d lost the sense of it and settled down into the roots of a giant, silver-barked charwood tree.


It has to be nearby, I thought, almost hoping for a reluctant confirmation from Tessia.


The entire Beast Glades were ringing with the echo of all that mana pouring between Epheotus and Dicathen, but there were multiple sources of shrouding magic at work in the glades as well. Now, so close, I could feel the edges of such a spell, or rather, many layers of the spell. It was subtle, nearly undetectable by design. But I could see the mana, feel the way the shrouding spell pressed against the atmospheric motes, taste the complex compression, smell the hint of that unique attribute that made phoenix mana different.


Mordain’s spell was powerful; it had to be. He’d been hiding his people from Agrona Vritra and Kezess Indrath for centuries. But what mattered more than power was control, and mine was greater than either of theirs.


I closed my eyes and steadied my breathing. My own mana was perfectly in equilibrium with the atmosphere, hiding me from anyone who might, in turn, be searching for me. The charwood was rough and cool against my back. The rich, smokey scent of its leaves reminded me of brewing tea. Mana-laden wind sent ripples through its leaves, which rubbed against each other with overlapping echoes of soft scratching.


The tree was breathing. I could feel its life, its energy. Limbs lifted high, high into the air, spreading and seeking the sun and mana, while the roots dug deep down into the soil. It was almost beautiful how the tree took in sun, water, and atmospheric mana and, even without a core, purified that mana into something else, something new, a plant-attribute deviant form uniquely its own.


That mana spread throughout it, leaching into the soil, mingling with the earth-attribute mana and giving it life and energy. I could sense it in every twig, leaf, and root. And the roots of this charwood, along with all the others in this part of the Beast Glades, seemed to grow at an angle as if they were drawn toward something. They didn’t spread out evenly but were pulled in one direction, diving down deeper than any other trees nearby.


I let my senses trickle down, following the deviant mana into the roots. They spread and entwined, and I felt the shrouding spells move past me like a parting veil as I followed, blind to everything except the plant-attribute mana. As my consciousness moved beyond the layers of s.h.i.+elding, I suddenly felt again the specific mana signatures of Mordain and Chul—and many others besides.


A smirk tugged at my lips as I wiped the bead of sweat threatening to roll into my eye.


Do you see now? It was inevitable from the start. Your purpose, your fate was to be the vessel for my reincarnation, I thought smugly.


‘If that’s the case, I look forward to seeing what fate awaits you, a coward too afraid to even see the truth: that you’re nothing more than a weapon, a tool for destruction,’ Tessia replied, her voice unbearably pitying. ‘If what you hope for ever does come true, I a.s.sure you it won’t be earned through victory. It will be out of mercy.’


My fists clenched as every fiber of my being wanted nothing more than to snuff her presence out of my mind like a candle, but the hold I had on the mana past Mordain’s s.h.i.+elding threatened to come loose.


I turned my focus back to the task at hand, letting my mana permeate through the roots within the carved walls of the phoenixes’ sanctuary, edging carefully forward like walking on a tightrope until—


“—need to agitate his core, encourage it to draw in the mana. Stoke the fires, and bring me mana crystals and elixirs. Everything we have!”


It was Mordain’s voice. Tight with an edge of panic, no longer the controlled storm of power that he had shown me before. A dozen other conversations vibrated into the soil and the roots of the charwood trees, but I blocked them all out, focusing solely on Mordain.


“He’s too far gone,” another voice said, slightly reedy and hesitant. “His core is barely drawing mana, and his missing limbs—”


“Thank you, Avier,” Mordain said firmly, cutting off the second voice.


MORDAIN ASCLEPIUS


Avier settled back onto his roost to watch in silence, his feathers ruffling slightly, but I could not afford to give him any more attention. There would be time for kindness and apologies later. After…


Mana poured from my hands, heat rippling through the air between Chul and myself. Soleil and Aurora, two of my clan members, copied me, their mana joining mine as we sought to agitate Chul’s core, but although his skin reddened under the heat, his core itself remained dull and dormant.


He was no longer processing mana. Even sleeping or unconscious, his core should have continued to draw in and purify mana to support his physical body. But he had put himself deeply into backlash while his body was in a state of near death. Too much of his mana had gone into supporting and healing himself, and there was none left to heal the resulting strain on his core. Like a heart that has stopped beating, we had to find a way to get his mana flowing again, otherwise…


Glancing around the room, I tried to remember the lessons of my youth. It had been too long since I had been needed to heal the wounds of battle.


A single bed was set in the middle of a small chamber in the Hearth’s central nest. Due to our exertions and a rousing fire in the fireplace, it had become blisteringly hot. I stood to one side of Chul’s bed while my two clan members stood at Chul’s feet and head respectively. Avier roosted atop a shelf affixed to the wall in his green owl form, his large eyes following our every movement.


Chul lay unconscious on the bed between us. The last of his mana had gone toward burning his own wounds closed, so there was little blood, but the sight of him so ripped and torn, with his leg and arm missing, was enough to make my old heart squeeze painfully. When I let him go into this battle with Arthur, I had never envisioned him returning to us like this.


I should have been more cautious, I thought tiredly. There was more at stake than the life of one clan member. I needed Chul, needed to understand what he’d seen and experienced since leaving the Hearth. He was my eyes in the world to see its current shape, the dowsing rod with which I would find the truth of the events unfolding across both continents.


I closed my eyes and let out an old man’s heartfelt sigh.


“h.e.l.lo again, Arthur,” Avier said, and my eyes snapped open.


Arthur Leywin was standing in the entrance, staring aghast at Chul’s p.r.o.ne form. I hadn’t felt him enter the Hearth. Hiding my surprise, I welcomed him. “What trick of fate brings you here at this moment?” I asked, watching him closely for any sign of his intentions.


“What happened?” he asked, outwardly bewildered.


“I…” Words failed me, and my composure cracked, my intention to hide the deep pain I felt at my own failure slipping as my facial features trembled. “I had to recall Chul to the Hearth, but I was unaware of the Legacy’s presence within the Beast Glades. She attacked him with a group of basilisk lessurans—Wraiths, I believe they call themselves. You…are here just in time to wish Chul farewell. I cannot save him.” Even as I said the words, I understood them to be true. There was nothing else I could do for Dawn’s child.


“Why did you—wait…” Arthur seemed to struggle for a moment to make sense of what I’d said. “What do you mean, you can’t save him? These wounds look bad, sure, but he’s an asura…or at least half. He’s—” He suddenly went quiet, his gaze looking right through Chul.


I knew what he was seeing. “His body is too weak and injured to sustain itself. With so little mana, not only is he horribly wounded, but his body is starving as it tries to heal. We have been unable to alter the state of his core, and no elixir we have used has been properly absorbed.”


“The imbalance between the strength of his physique and his core,” Arthur said softly. His brows pinched together and he gave me a fierce glare. “You said the Legacy…she did this?”


I rested my hand on Chul’s burning forehead, remembering the feeling of her will battering against my own. Knowing now was not the time for the full story, I only nodded.


Arthur moved closer to the table. His hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists at his sides. “He shouldn’t have been alone. He was supposed to be in Vildorial with my sister…” His eyes lit up as he had a sudden, desperate thought.  “Ellie! She can manipulate mana, push it directly into a core. Maybe she can—”


I nodded along, already knowing what he intended to suggest. “Although it is unlikely to stimulate a core so weakened and unresponsive, I would try it gladly—I would try anything, but…there is simply no time, Arthur. By the time we can bring her from Vildorial, Chul will be…”


“You have to have some way to—you’re phoenixes, d.a.m.n it,” Arthur snapped, his glare sharpening into genuine anger. “Why the h.e.l.l did you send him out there alone, Mordain? What were you thinking?”


I knew he was speaking from fear and frustration for his friend, and I did not take his words to heart, accepting their weight and feeling no bitterness toward him. When I spoke, I took care with each word, not wis.h.i.+ng to cause him further pain in that moment. “I thought the need was great, Arthur, but you are right to be upset with me. It was my own impatience that brought Chul into the open.” And I feel your frustration will only grow as you learn everything.


“The other asura,” Arthur said suddenly, jumping to a different trail of thought. “Surely the dragons—Kezess—would have magic capable of healing even these wounds, right?”


I couldn’t help the sorrowful expression that settled on my features. “Perhaps. The dragons’ vivum arts can be quite potent, but when an asura can no longer absorb mana, there is little even the most powerful healing spells or elixirs can accomplish. Backlash in an asura is rare, Arthur. We have sufficient mana in our cores to prevent it in all but the most dire situations.”


“There has to be something,” Arthur said, running his hand through his hair, his eyes wild. “Maybe…” He did something, some magic with his aether that I couldn’t sense, and then began spilling items out on the bed beside Chul. “I have elixirs, all kinds of things I’ve picked up in my travels, just in case. Here, go through it all. This?” He held up a small vial of rich, plum-colored liquid. “Or these?” Spread out on the mattress were three faded green scales, each the size of a clam sh.e.l.l.


Soleil leaned forward, staring wide-eyed from the pile of treasures to Arthur, then to me. Arthur gave her a hopeful look.


Moving around the table to stand at his side, I scooped up the artifacts and held them out. “It’s just not enough. Not nearly enough, but you know that already.”


He seemed to deflate, taking the objects and making them vanish again into some sort of dimensional storage. He searched my eyes, but for what I couldn’t be sure. Some meaning in Chul’s death, perhaps? Or the truth…and thinking that, I realized something.


“What are you doing here?” I asked, hoping my voice sounded kind. “You could not have known about Chul, so why did you come?”


He waved the question away. “Does that really matter right now? It’s…important, but first we need to…to—” His eyes widened yet again, and again he activated his dimensional storage. “Elixirs! I’d nearly forgotten that he called them powerful elixirs.”


I felt my brows inch up. “He? What Elixirs? Arthur, I—”


A gasp burst out of me before I could help it as I stared down at the three objects held loosely in his hand. Moving quickly but carefully, I wrapped both my own hands around his and gently pressed his fingers so they closed firmly around the three bright blue pearls.


“Careful, Arthur, careful!” His expression was thoughtful as he took in my reaction, like he was weighing it in his mind. “Do you know the value of what you carry?”


Arthur returned my uncertain gaze with a clarity and purpose that surprised me, even coming from one such as him. “When I attempted to give these away before, an asuran lord refused to take them because they were too valuable to accept. I’m not a fool, Mordain, I know how precious these mourning pearls must be, but all I care about right now is whether or not they will help him.”


“What are they?” Avier asked curiously, his head turning sideways.


Soleil and Aurora were also looking at me without understanding. Young, so young, all of them, I thought, saddened that those in my place no longer knew the Tears of the Mother…and yet hesitant to tell any of them the story.


Glancing at Chul, I could see what little mana was still lingering in his body burning away rapidly. It would only be right to tell Arthur everything before accepting one on Chul’s behalf. The weight of his sacrifice should not be done out of ignorance, but…I swallowed heavily, searching Arthur’s eyes for the truth of his intention.


Finally, I nodded and took a single pearl between two fingers, lightly easing it out of Arthur’s palm. “I believe it will, although I have not seen one used in many, many years.” My focus switched to Soleil. “Go, find me the sharpest silver knife. Quickly!”


Arthur stepped forward and leaned over Chul, and a blade of vibrant amethyst power condensed into his hand in the shape of a dagger. “I’ll do it. Just tell me what needs to be done.”


I dragged my finger along the burning skin of Chul’s chest, above his sternum. “We need to cut down into his core. Open the core itself wide enough to insert the pearl.”


There was no surprise or hesitation in his mannerisms. Instead, he rested one hand on Chul’s chest as the other guided his conjured blade gracefully along the crease above Chul’s sternum. The amethyst blade parted flesh, bone, and even the toughened exterior of the core as simply as if it were slicing bread. It took only a single pa.s.s.


Moving so slow it felt almost painful, I eased the bright blue sphere down beneath Chul’s skin and into the core itself. I stepped quickly away, and Soleil and Aurora did the same.


Arthur belatedly copied us, his gaze moving back and forth between me and the wound in Chul’s sternum. “Is it working?”


“We will know in a moment. Until then, all we can do is wait.”


Silence lingered as we all watched, equally uncertain what the result would be. Peace and calm settled into the deep-rooted tension, helping to break it apart. Everything that could be done had been, and now all we could do was wait.


“You said…Cecilia did this?” Arthur asked after a minute or more.


“Her soldiers did,” I explained, feeling an edge of anger invade the peace of the moment. “She stayed hidden. I believe it was her goal that no one would discover her presence in Dicathen.” I hesitated. “There was something…strange about the encounter. She…attacked me, but it was a feeble effort, and she seemed caught off guard by her own attempt. Then she fled.”


Arthur was silent and contemplative, but he didn’t respond.


I considered everything that had happened, the unlikeliness of it all, from the Legacy’s presence to Arthur’s arrival with the mourning pearls. “Tell me, Arthur…I need to know how you came to have these mourning pearls. Did you steal them? Take them by force? Did someone offer them to you in trade? If—”


He looked surprised and affronted, glancing at the other phoenixes and Avier. “No! Veruhn—Lord Eccleiah gave them to me. I a.s.sumed they were a gift to be given to the Matali clan, but they refused them.”


“I see,” I said, not meaning to interrupt him. “Lord Eccleiah…I won’t pretend to have insight into his thoughts. To have gifted you not one but three such things, and without even explaining what they were…” I shook my head, hardly believing it. “Veruhn is playing a dangerous game. I am surprised Kezess even allowed you to leave Epheotus with these. Things are happening that I do not understand.”


“My lord Mordain,” Aurora said in her small voice. When I looked in her direction, she continued. “What makes these…mourning pearls? What makes them so valuable?”


“Tears of the Mother…a leviathan ritual.” I gestured to Arthur, and he held up the other two. “One created in a thousand years, perhaps less. It is exceedingly rare for an asura to die in infancy, before even being hatched. An unbelievable tragedy.”  My throat grew raw, my voice husky. “The leviathans…long ago they discovered a process by which…they break down the body of the infant but maintain its core.


“Held within an immature leviathan core, all the mana that should form and build a new life, sustaining an infant while they learn to manipulate mana for themselves. A life. That is what each pearl holds. A new life.”


“I don’t understand what that means,” Arthur said, his voice soft.


“Mourning pearls are the greatest gift the lord of the leviathan race can offer. He bestows them only rarely, and only to ease the great suffering of a life that must be lived, do you understand?” I felt my mouth curving down into a deeper and deeper frown with each word. “The history of Epheotus is rich with tales of princes, kings, prophets, and great heroes who were saved from certain death by a mourning pearl. But each one is bought with a life unlived, an infant who could not be saved. It is never a trade made lightly.”


“Three thousand years of mourning pearls…” Arthur muttered. He rolled them around gently, then made them vanish back into his dimensional storage, and I thought perhaps he was beginning to understand the weight of his decision. He gave himself a little shake. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t know—yet—what Lord Eccleiah wants that he would give me these, but regardless of their value, if it can save this battle-hungry simpleton from…”


He trailed off as blue light reflected in his golden eyes. Mana was beginning to flow from the mourning pearl. It was only a trickle at first, and then a stream. Within moments, a river of mana poured forth.


Blue-white light, so bright I had to look away, glowed from the cut in Chul’s chest. It spilled out of him, boiling over his flesh before being absorbed back in through his many wounds, enveloping him in a liquid light of pure mana. His wounds closed, wiped away as if they’d been nothing more than smears of blood on his skin, and then, slowly, his missing arm and leg began to regenerate.


I could hardly believe it. The mana of a birth, a life—a rebirth. I knew Chul would be changed, but I couldn’t be sure how. Rejuvenated not just from these wounds, but from a lifetime of growth and wear.


“I didn’t sense it…” Arthur whispered. “How could so much mana be hidden in that?”


On the bed between us, Chul’s chest expanded slowly as he took a deep breath. The tension eased from his face, and the shroud of mana began to dim as it subsided back into his flesh, filling him once again.


“His core is…fixed,” Arthur said, his voice strained.


My gaze flicked to his face, which was torn with conflicting emotions. His fingers dug into his own sternum, pressing hard enough to whiten his knuckles, and I understood.


He cleared his throat and patted Chul’s arm softly. “I’ve done what I can, my brother in vengeance. The rest is up to you now.”

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