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The Beginning After The End Chapter 469

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Chapter 469


Chapter 467: Divergence


ARTHUR LEYWIN


…Wait.


I struggled to open my eyes, but even when I accomplished the task, I could barely see. Only one thing was clear. Mom. She was younger, much younger, the stress of hard years lived not yet showing on her face. Her auburn hair was thicker and richer in color, her skin smoother, her eyes brighter.


I felt myself fill with warmth as I stared up at her.


“Hi, little Art, I’m your daddy. Can you say dada?”


“Honey, he was just born.”


My tiny, strained eyes widened as I looked at my father. I’d almost forgotten how charismatic he’d been, especially back then. His square jaw was still cleanly-shaven, highlighting his youthful features, and his hair, ashy brown in color, was kept trim. A shadow of a memory, like another layer of my mind working separately beneath my consciousness, referred to his eyebrows as extending sharply like two swords, strong and fierce, but simultaneously drooping and gentle.


As I gazed up into his deep blue, almost sapphire, irises, wet with tears, I felt my own eyes begin to water. Waves of complex and competing emotions rolled through me, and I broke down. A wild, infantile keening issued from my tiny mouth and lungs.


“Doctor, is something wrong?” my father asked. “Why is he crying?”


The doctor dismissed my father’s worry, saying, “Newborns are supposed to cry, Mr. Leywin. Please continue resting for a couple of days. I’ll be available in case you need me for anything.”


I don’t understand. This moment marked—marks?—the first day of my new life…doesn’t it? But surely I haven’t been reborn…again? I felt myself growing hungry and tired. It was difficult to keep my thoughts straight. I just…need to rest…to eat…then I’ll think more clearly.


Somewhere deep in the back of my head, I felt a pressure that was both cool and dark and comforting, yet intense and vibrant and on guard, but I couldn’t bring anything more to the forefront of my conscious mind than just that as I drifted into a cloud woven of fatigue, uncertainty, and the yearnings of an infant’s body.


***


I squealed with a baby’s delight as my father swung me around his simple bedroom. Everything he did, I adored, rewarding him with wild giggles and starry-eyed stares. It seemed nearly impossible to maintain the dissonance and rational logic of an adult who had lived half a century across two different lives already, even before being reborn again into my own infant body.


The memories of my previous time as a baby rested half-formed on top of my conscious mind, like oil on water. But my life was different, this time. I was different. I couldn’t be certain why, but the pull of being a newborn was much stronger, like yet a third layer over my personality.


In fact, whenever I stopped focusing on who I was—the Arthur Leywin who had already lived twenty years of life, who had fought Scythes and asura, who had mastered all four elements only to lose them before finding aether instead—I seemed to sink beneath the surface, living my life exactly as before without conscious thought or effort. Much the same way one might walk commonly tread paths to arrive at their destination only to find that they have no recollection of the journey.


There was a knocking sound and unexpected pain in my leg. An infant’s instincts overrode my logical senses, and I began to cry, loud and desperate.


Father looked around in a panic, pulling me tight against his chest and patting me on the back roughly. “Hush, Art, hush. It’s just a scratch, you don’t need to—”


“Reynolds, what did you do?” Mother’s voice entered the room just ahead of the woman herself. She swept me out of my father’s arms, glowering at him, then began to fuss over my scratch. “Oh, my baby! Your father has mutilated you. It’s okay, little Art, it’s okay. You’re mummy is a healer, didn’t you know?”


Still crying, I was set down on their bed. Then, with a hiccup that shook my tiny, soft body, I stopped as light began to issue from Mother’s hands. The light bathed my wound, and the scratch began to fade away as if it hadn’t ever been.


This moment was my first realization of how different magic was in Dicathen than ki on Earth. Watching Mother heal my wound had been a springboard into my interest in mana. Only, now…


Purple motes drifted through the air, almost as if coming to investigate the light. They danced within it, swirling around my mother’s hands and rolling along my skin.


“Aether,” I said, realizing several things at once but forgetting to maintain my posture as an infant.


“Excuse you,” Mother said with a silly smile, pinching my nose very lightly. “See, all better.” She rubbed at the patch of skin that no longer bore a scratch, but I was no longer fully paying attention.


I can see the aetheric particles…but I couldn’t have seen or sensed aether at this point in my life. I was only a few months old, and I didn’t even have a mana core. It would be many months before I would even start the process of gathering all the mana in my body into a core…unless—


Little things, moments, had been different, changed by my actions, but for the most part I had walked through this chance at my life in the exact steps as before.


I felt a strange and discomforting déjà vu as I remembered that I had activated the fourth keystone. Fate, I thought, scrunching up my face in concentration. I am searching for insight into Fate.


This sudden revelation of aether drew my focus inward, to the yin and yang of darkness and light that pressed against the inner layer of my subconscious like a sound not quite heard.


Sylvie! Regis! I felt my soft baby limbs squirm as anxiety flooded through the tiny frame. How had I forgotten them? They should with me, they—


‘They are,’ a slightly distorted, feminine voice said. I turned my head clumsily, trying to look around the room. Mother was frowning down at me, asking a question, but I couldn’t absorb her words.


Instead, I met the golden eyes of my bond, Sylvie, except they weren’t quite gold but see-through like the rest of her. She looked the way she had before, young and new, only barely having acquired her human form. Except she was also gaunt and…haunted. Even discounting her incorporeal nature, she seemed weak, like she was fading.


Oh, Sylvie, you are here. Have you been the entire time? I’m sorry, it’s much more difficult to maintain a sense of my self in this form—


‘No, Arthur. I’m not the Sylvie who entered the keystone with you.’


I hesitated to respond, deeply confused. I was growing tired again, and my eyes were drifting closed as Mother rocked me in her arms and cooed me to sleep.


‘I’m the Sylvie who brought you to the Leywins, who watched over you on Earth, who has yet to be reconnected with the piece of me now held in stasis within my egg,’ Sylvie thought, her words forming not in the air but directly in my head. She gave me an understanding smile. ‘It’s confusing, I know. Because, really, I’m not that Sylvie either. I’m your projection of that Sylvie. Because that’s all this is, all any of it is. You’re projecting your life into the keystone realm, and the magic contained here is allowing it to play out again while you sleep—dream.’


My eyelids fluttered, and I felt my infant body relax. ‘But…it feels so real. And if it’s true’—I yawned and stretched my chubby arms—‘how would you know? You can’t…know anything I don’t…’


And then, although I tried to prevent it, I drifted to sleep again.


***


With a rush of mana, the core formed in my sternum. It felt great, beyond words even. I simultaneously felt the rush of success at having formed the core for the first time as well as the sentimental joy of feeling a mana core drawing in mana within my sternum once again, something I never thought would happen.


I started to close my eyes to sense my newly formed mana core, but the memory of what happened next slipped through the time-fog that had been constantly swallowing me, and I instead stared around at the half-demolished home, the rubble of which was still raining down from the sky.


Distantly, I heard my mother shout, “Art! Oh, my baby! Are you okay?”


But my focus was on something else. Not the newly available sense of mana that tingled at the edge of my consciousness, but the amethyst motes of aether that had been displaced by the outward pus.h.i.+ng force of my awakening. Not only had those closest been displaced, but aether beyond the sphere of wreckage seemed to be drifting closer, almost as if curious, like the aether itself was coming to investigate.


But why would aether act like that? I had forgotten to consider how I could even sense it, much less what its presence and actions suggested, my last couple of years swallowed up within the rhythm of reliving my life as a toddler.


In the background, Mother, who had taken me in her arms, weakly said, “Congratulations, Art, honey,” while my father exclaimed, “You awakened, Champ.”


Struck by a sudden consideration, I tried to activate G.o.d Step. There was no glow of a burning G.o.drune, no sense of aether flooding through my nearly three-year-old body, which made sense: I had no aether core and no G.o.drunes. And yet, the aetheric pathways lit up dimly before my eyes, flickering and fading rapidly in and out, as if I were seeing two competing images of the world set one atop the other.


I immediately stopped attempting to channel aether as my sternum clenched painfully.


“Art honey, are you sure you’re all right?” Mother asked, tears in her eyes and lines of concern wrinkling her smooth skin.


Beside her, completely oblivious, Father was practically jumping up and down within the wreckage. “My boy is a genius! Awakened before the age of three! This is unprecedented. I thought I was fast, but this is on another level!”


“I’m sorry, Mom, I’m okay,” I said, resisting the urge to dig my fingers into my aching sternum.


As a neighbor ran up to see what had happened, I reached for Father, who picked me up proudly and let me rest in his arms. Within the comfort of his protective sh.e.l.l, I stared at the atmosphere around the house, watching as more and more aether seemed to gather, like so many violet fireflies.


***


“Stop,” I said, a rush of previous-life memory suddenly bringing my whole mind into the present. I looked around, truly realizing where I was.


Perhaps it was something in my voice, but the caravan came to a halt as Durden pulled the skitters to a stop.


“What’s the matter, Art?” Father asked, looking puzzled.


I swallowed heavily, growing frustrated with all of this for the first time. It was maddening to realize I had slipped away in the fugue of simply reliving my past life.


A chill wind was blowing through the Grand Mountains as our skitter-pulled cart wound its way toward the gate that would take us to Xyrus. I was almost four, I’d already been introduced to the Twin Horns, and we were approaching the most fateful moment of my life.


Fateful…


The world buzzed inside my head like a trapped b.u.mble bee. Why am I only remembering this now?


We were nearly upon the bandit ambush, the moment that would take me away from my mother and father for years, that would make me miss the birth of my sister.


I looked hard at my father and felt a knot growing in my throat. I wasn’t ready to leave him again, to lose him. Not when I could stop it.


“Art, honey?” Mother said, putting her hand against my cheek and then the side of my neck. Looking at my father, she said, “Reynolds, he’s warm.”


“Are you coming down with something?” Father asked, hopping over the row of seats to get closer. “Can you heal him, Alice?”


“I’m not sick,” I said finally, though there was certainly a sick twist in my guts.


I genuinely didn’t know what my life might look like if I didn’t fall off that cliff defending my mother. But I couldn’t just let us stumble into an ambush that might have gotten any one of us killed. It didn’t, of course—except for me, in a way—but how much had I already changed as I’d lived through this life? Events had unfolded almost exactly the same, but what if it was just enough to cause some subtle change?


What if, this time, the wounds that Helen and Father take turn out to be fatal? I asked myself.


“There is an ambush up ahead,” I explained in my small voice. “We need to be careful.”


“What?” Father asked, caught off guard.


Durden and Adam exchanged a look, while Angela Rose peered around us as if she might catch some sight of this hidden ambush. Jasmine rested one hand on my shoulder protectively.


Helen’s eyes burrowed into my own, searching for truth, before she said, “Safeguard formation. We proceed slowly, spells at the ready.”


Instead of relaxing, my heart only beat faster as I immediately began to wonder if I’d done the right thing. I pressed into the light-and-dark spot behind my eyes, but felt only a dim, amorphous stirring. Overcome by the emotions of a not-yet four-year-old’s physical form, I wanted nothing more than the comfort of someone to a.s.sure me that I was making the correct decision.


‘You won’t find that here.’


My head whipped around, and I found myself looking up at the young, ghostly image of Sylvie, who was drifting a couple dozen feet up in the air, watching everything happen with a melancholy expression. What do you mean?


She gave a small shake of her head, sending a wave through her transparent wheat-blonde hair. ‘You’re alone, Arthur. Maybe more so than you’ve ever been before. And that’s going to be the hardest part. Because no one else can understand, no one can guide you. You’ll have to bear the weight of the consequences alone, too.’


I waited, expecting something…more. An affirmation or expression of positivity, or the a.s.sertion that, actually, I wouldn’t be completely alone, because she was with me, but no such kindness offset her harsh message.


You don’t sound like yourself.


‘Of course not,’ she said, the pitch of her voice rising. ‘I’m me, but as you interpret the “me” that was left behind after I gave up being me so you could continue to be you. I’ve told you what happened to me. Maybe…’ She paused, considering. ‘Maybe I’m a little more me than that, since a part of the real me is here with you.’


But you said I was all alone.


‘And you are. But maybe not forever. Remember that. It doesn’t have to be forever.’


My face scrunched up in uncertainty. I was struggling to make sense of her words, and my gaze kept jumping away from her to search for the impending ambush by bandits. One of these times, when I looked back, she was gone.


The fighting broke out suddenly. I was quick to point out the four conjurers and the leader: the Twin Horns took them down with expert precision, a much cleaner fight than had happened the first time. No one was even injured.


After the battle, I slipped away from Mother and walked to the edge of the road. Sylvia was out there, watching, or so I thought. In truth, I had no way to know. Would she still save me if I simply slipped and fell, or even jumped off the ledge myself? I inched closer, breathing shallowly. Closing my eyes, I leaned forward, and—


A strong hand grabbed my arm, and I snapped back to reality. Turning, I found myself face to face with my father, who scooped me up and set me on his shoulder. “Whoa, careful there, Art. That’s a long old fall,” he said with a laugh. “Hey, how’d you know those guys were there, anyway?”


I swallowed, looking back out over the forest far below. “I don’t know. Just felt them I guess.”


He laughed again. “Just felt them, he says! If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, my boy’s—”


“A genius,” Adam and Angela Rose said at the same time, their tones lightly teasing.


We all got back in the wagon, and Durden made the skitters go with a gentle wave of the reins. My mother pulled me close, and I rested my head on her shoulder. She’s pregnant right now, I realized, the knowledge fuzzy, like a fact only half remembered. Dad never got injured, so he didn’t tell me to run with her or that she is carrying another baby. My sister, though they don’t know that yet. Ellie.


I frowned. It was hard to keep these facts in order. But maybe it was just because I was so tired. One of the problems of having a three-year-old’s body, I mused, letting my eyes shut. For such a small body, it requires so much…rest.


The last thing I felt was Mother’s fingers feathering through my auburn hair.


***


Days flowed together into weeks, to months, to years.


Xyrus was amazing. I had the best tutors, and they prepared me thoroughly to join Xyrus Academy, which I did at the age of twelve when my core was already light red! My memories of my past life as King Grey had continued to fade, but that was okay. It became easier and easier to just be Arthur Leywin, bi-elemental augmenter and a lightning deviant, too!


Sometimes I regretted that I hadn’t become a tri-elemental or even quadra-elemental mage, but I knew that was silly. No one could become adept at utilizing all four elements. Still, there were times when flashes of my life on Earth would leak through, and I remembered ki, and I felt like there was more I could have done.


I even helped my little sister, Ellie, awaken early. Not as early as me, but Dad said not everyone could be a “once-in-a-generation prodigy.” Mom had smacked him, and Ellie had pouted for days. I tried to help the girl we lived with, too, but Lilia couldn’t quite get a grip on the mana. It wasn’t surprising, I guess, since her mom and dad weren’t mages either, but it did remind me that there were just some things I couldn’t do.


A good lesson for a twelve-year-old, I thought.


“You seem nervous,” Dad pointed out as we sparred in the days leading up to the start of my first term at the academy. We were out behind the Helstea’s residence, which they had been kind enough to invite us into. “It’s only natural, Art. But even though these other kids might be older, not many of them will be more talented.”


“I’m not nervous!” I insisted, lunging forward and sweeping my wooden practice sword at his s.h.i.+n. When he sidestepped, I brought it around and across my body, aiming at his ribs on the opposite side. He only barely got his own weapon into place. “I’ve still been a mage as long as they have. Maybe even longer!”


He parried a thrust, and I overextended, moving forward too far and exposing my flank. With a chuckle, he attacked my open position.


I jumped into a forward roll to avoid his strike and came back to my feet facing him. “I did awaken younger than anyone else has, ever.”


“Don’t get c.o.c.ky,” he admonished, although he couldn’t hide the obvious pride in his quivering lips, flexed jaw, and gleaming eyes. “Just remember, don’t let those n.o.bles and royals push you around, but don’t go starting fights either.”


Taking my weapon in both hands, I thrust forward and released a geyser of steam, catching Dad off guard. He stumbled back, coughing and hacking, the skin of his face slightly red from the heat.


“But make sure and finish them if someone else is stupid enough to fight me!” I added, repeating advice he had given me many times before.


He waved me off, trying to catch his breath. “That’s…right…” he coughed out eventually. “Okay, okay, that’s enough for the day. Your tutor should be here soon.”


I couldn’t help the rolling of my eyes. “Come on, today? I’m ready.” I brightened. “Let me come with you to the auction house instead! I won’t be home as often once term starts, and I want to spend my time with you, not listening to another lecture about mana manipulation theory…” I trailed off as my father’s slightly damp brows rose in his red face.


“Okay, okay,” I said, giving up my half-hearted effort to escape lessons, my head hanging.


A calloused hand roughed it up. “Maybe your mother can bring you down after lessons. And dinner.” I looked up gratefully. Dad’s nose wrinkled. “And a bath.”


I thought of that moment a lot as term started and I was pulled into academy life. It was difficult there. I was a good fighter and strong for my age, but the prodigy-like talent I had displayed as an infant faded with the memories of my last life. Still, that wasn’t so bad. It was a lot easier to just be a kid and not have all this stuff about Earth and being a king stuck in my head.


But yeah, Xyrus Academy was still difficult. I thought about the lessons Dad taught me whenever people tried to pick on me because I was so young. This happened a lot, especially from the n.o.ble kids, who all sucked pretty bad. The princes and princesses of Sapin and Elenoir even went there, although I stayed well out of their way. Still, barely any of them could manipulate two different elements, much less a deviant, and the director was really nice, although kind of intimidating.


It was almost too bad that I was stuck with so many of them for my very first field trip when my Team Fighting Mechanics I cla.s.s was taken to a real dungeon in the Beast Glades, Widow’s Crypt.


“All right, is everyone ready?” our Professor, an intense woman named Vanessy Glory, asked. “Then let’s head in. Brace yourselves—once we get inside, it’s going to be chilly.” She stepped through the entrance, which appeared to be a narrow stairway leading into darkness.


In a single-file line, we all began making our way down the stairs. The temperature dropped noticeably with every step we took.


“W-w-what the h.e.l.l? I d-d-didn’t think it-it’d be this c-c-cold!” a boy named Roland said through chattering teeth.


“Augment yourself, you dolt,” I heard Clive, the student council vice president, say from behind. It was too dark to see anything more than the vague outline of each person.


I glanced at Clive, and my gaze s.h.i.+fted automatically to the elven girl beside him: the student council president, Tessia Eralith. She didn’t see me looking, but Clive did. He sneered, and I looked away, feeling my neck grow warm.


As if I’d ever be interested in a posh elven princess, anyway, I thought angrily.


We made our way down into an enormous, moss-lined cavern.


“That’s odd. Usually we’d see a fair amount of snarlers already. Why don’t I—”


All of a sudden, hideous noises began echoing all around us. Peeking out from behind the numerous boulders and from small caverns dotting the walls of the cave were innumerable beady red eyes.


I clenched my fist around the hilt of the plain but serviceable blade the school had provided for this expedition. All around me, students were casting wary looks at Professor Glory, but I forgot about everything else as I felt the thrill of really getting to test myself for the first time.


“This is so odd. Even on the lower floors, there are never this many snarlers bunched together,” Professor Glory said, bracing herself. “There are a lot of them but they aren’t impossible to handle. However, since this is just a cla.s.s excursion, I think it’s best to go back up, just in case. Safety is our priority.” But as Professor Glory started slowly ushering everyone back toward the stairs, a fireball flew past her.


The fireball exploded and six of the mana beasts, known as snarlers, were flung in different directions. Their smoking bodies, each about four feet tall with thickly muscled chests and arms and short bowed legs, lay motionless.


“See?” a snide n.o.ble named Lucas Wykes scoffed, brandis.h.i.+ng his staff. “These nasty little beasts are weak. Professor, don’t tell me you brought us all here just to go back. Even a small fire spell was enough to kill six of them.”


Not to be outdone by the less talented mage, I burst forward and imbued fire-attribute mana into my blade, making it dance with bright flames. The burning sword carved a bright arc through the dimly lit cavern, striking through one of the ugly creatures’ thick gray coat of fur, which smoldered and gave off a horrid stench. Its beady red eyes stared up at me from a boarish, snouted face.


“Arthur!” the professor shouted, not able to hide her frustration and worry given the context. “d.a.m.n it, you two. Everyone, split into your teams and take different parts of the floor! We don’t want any friendly fire happening in here. And Lucas, Arthur, if either of you do something like that again, there will be consequences.” Professor Glory swept a menacing look across the two of us.


I nodded, feeling my cheeks burning.


“Prince Curtis, take your team and make your way toward the left side of the cave. Princess Tessia, take your team to the right of the cave and hold your ground. The last team, with me. I’ll be keeping an eye on you at all times, but stay vigilant and don’t underestimate the snarlers, especially in these numbers.” With that, Professor Glory motioned for the teams to move forward.


“Roland, I want you to be the vanguard, since you’re the best at close range,” Princess Eralith ordered, her voice carrying throughout the cavern. “Clive and Owen, you guys take positions behind him to his left and right and make sure he’s covered. Lucas, stay in the center, behind Roland and between Clive and Owen; I’ll cover your back. We’re going in the diamond position we learned in cla.s.s.”


But I was with the professor, of course, since neither of the royalty had use for someone not from a n.o.ble household, even a bi-elemental mage. The battle was intense, and Professor Glory kept us on a shorter leash than the other teams had to deal with, but as I spun and ducked, my blade flas.h.i.+ng, lightning imbuing my muscles to swing it even faster, I fell into a rhythm of dealing death.


And the thing was, I was good at it. And that felt good. I wanted more of it, that thrill of power. I’d wanted to become an adventurer ever since I was a little boy, but I really knew at that moment that I would follow in my father’s footsteps.


This is great!


Just then, there was a crack from above, and a huge spike of ice slammed into the ground just next to me. I was thrown off my feet and had to wrap myself in a s.h.i.+eld of water-attribute mana to keep off the swarm of snarlers that leapt at the chance to take me down.


Professor Glory waded in with her two giant swords, one held in each hand, carving through multiple mana beasts with each swing. She didn’t see the two winged monstrosities drift down from the ceiling until one had her by the shoulder. It lifted her up and tossed her away like a ragdoll.


I could do nothing as the second creature—something like the snarlers, but twice as large and with broad wings—leaned down toward me. Each of its front limbs had four long, sharp claws that glistened menacing as they approached.


My barrier came apart like tissue paper, and the claws plunged into me.


I closed my eyes, unable to understand what was happening. It couldn’t end like this, it just couldn’t. I was special, unique even. As the pain gave way to numbness, all I could think was, What a waste…


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


The light at the end of the tunnel, I thought, not yet cognisant of the fact that I should no longer be thinking at all.


The light grew closer, brighter, and then, as if I were looking through a foggy window, everything around me turned into a bright blur, forcing me to shut my eyes—despite being sure they were already shut. Indiscernible sounds a.s.saulted my ears, making me dizzy. When I tried to speak, the words came out as a cry. The cacophony of indistinguishable sounds slowly mellowed, and I heard a m.u.f.fled voice.


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

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The Beginning After The End Chapter 469 summary

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