Chapter 431 Time
A wry, trembling smile curved one corner of Arthurs lips. “Welcome back, Sylv.”
I blinked again, and Arthur was an old man with streaks of gray in his wheat-blond hair and deep furrows wrinkling his skin. Without meaning to, I withdrew, pressing my fingers against my lips.
This too-old image of my bond hesitated, his hand, which had been reaching out toward me, pulling back slightly, just an inch, his brows creasing into a frown. I blinked, and the vision faded. Arthur, the real Arthur, was standing—no, floating—in front of me, his liquid-gold gaze like the hot summer sun on my skin.
His hesitation abated and he leaned forward, wrapping strong arms around me and pulling me to him.
I closed my eyes and let out a shaking breath. Arthur’s relief washed over me, pure and warm and hard-won. So many moments where my return was within arm’s reach and then snatched away by circumstance, so much time and energy focused on the stone containing my essence. Beneath the relief, there was a hint of regret—slight but bitter—that it had taken so long or been necessary at all. And the anxiety…the fear, the weight of it enough to crush anyone weaker, enough to choke the life from anyone else.
My mind was still knitting itself back together, and as we held each other, I lost track of where my bond began and where I ended. “Papa…it’s really you. I was afraid you were a dream.”
The concept of time was all but shattered. Floating in that strange, aetherial place, just the two of us, our embrace may have been only the briefest contact or lasted yet another lifetime. I held desperately onto that connection, needing Arthur’s presence to anchor me into that moment in time and space.
“So…hey there,” a voice—not Arthur’s—said from the void.
My eyes snapped open, and I stared incredulously at a strange being floating next to Arthur.
He was shaped like a wolf, except his fur seemed to be grown out of purest shadow and a burning ring of aetheric flame wreathed his neck. He was considering me with bright eyes, which glowed in the gloom beneath a pair of straight, onyx horns.
I reached up and brushed the horns sticking out from my own head, feeling inexplicably nervous. But no, that wasn’t quite right. I wasn’t nervous, I was confused. The creature was nervous, but his emotions were bleeding into me, like Arthur’s. I prodded, but there was a wall between our minds.
“Sylvie, hi—y’know, actually, I’m not quite sure what to call you. Like, are we siblings? Step-siblings? Are you my mom? My aunt? Y’know, Aunt Sylvie has kind of a—”
“Hello, Regis,” I said with a growing smile, his name appearing to me from Arthur’s mind.
Suddenly, flashing memories and disjointed thoughts were jumping like electrical sparks behind my eyes. It was too much, and each flash was accompanied with a dull-needle jab of pain.
Closing my eyes, I pressed my fingers into my temples. “Arthur—your thoughts—I can’t…”
An undercurrent of alarm ran beneath all my other conflicting emotions, then the deluge ceased. I drew a steadying breath, relief washing away the lingering pain.
“Sylvie, I’m sorry, I should have realized,” Arthur said, and I felt him drifting back slightly.
I shook my head. “Not your fault…” Slowly, my eyes opened again. They met Regis’s, who appeared stricken, as if he himself had done something to harm me. “My mind is…full of a raging storm right now. My own thoughts are disparate and disjointed and…it’s a lot. But it’s a pleasure to meet you, Regis.”
The wolf bent his front legs and dipped his head in a sort of awkward, floating, lupine bow. I couldn’t help but giggle at the sight, which made Regis chuckle too.
“You look different,” Arthur said into the silence that followed.
The words made me uncomfortable, but it took me a moment to realize why. We’d been apart for such a long time, but for me, the battle against Nico and Cadell in Dicathen was both moments and a lifetime ago, and I was unaccustomed to Arthur shrouding his thoughts and feelings so completely from me.
Closing my eyes, I reached for his mind. I felt the barrier, then a question. I nudged into it, and it gave way, molding itself around me. Not breaking completely, but making room for me. I saw myself through Arthur’s eyes.
My blonde hair spilled down over my shoulders. Black horns protruded from the hair, stabbing downward and out. My eyes were bright yellow, gemlike, set in a face that had grown slightly sharper, slightly older. I wore a black dress of fine, glossy scales that caught the purple light of this realm and reflected it back, making it look like my body blurred away into the void.
“I look older,” I said, opening my eyes. “Just like you. But then, I’ve waited a lifetime to return.”
“What do you mean?” Arthur asked. The worry in his face was also mingling into my own emotions, though distantly. “Sylvie, what did you do, back then? Where have you been?”
“Time,” I said, then shook my head, uncertain how much of what I remembered was reality. “There will be time to tell you everything I know.” I looked around again, growing more curious as the haze of my return faded. “Where are we?”
“If it has a name, I don’t know it,” Arthur said seriously. “I’ve been thinking of it as the aether realm. The djinn built their Relictombs within it.”
Knowledge of what those terms meant manifested from Arthur’s thoughts as he spoke, but that only served to confuse me further.
“You have a lot to tell me too, it seems,” I said with a shake of my head. As I spoke, I became aware of a discomfort in my lungs, like I was breathing under a heavy blanket.
There is no mana here, I realized with a sort of detached curiosity. I experienced this lack of mana as a burning that was slowly growing outward from my chest. It was not dangerous—not yet—but it was uncomfortable and further disoriented me.
“We should go,” Arthur said, his worry growing sharper. “This place isn’t safe for asuras. We can catch up in—”
“No, I’m okay,” I assured him, honing in on something that had jumped across the partially shielded connection between our minds. “There is something else you want here, isn’t there?”
“I…” Arthur rubbed the back of his neck, the sight of which conjured a warm glow in my chest. “No, really, I don’t want to keep you here any longer than necessary.”
I couldn’t help but smile at his feeble attempt to lie. “Your mental barrier has grown…crass, Arthur.”
“Blame him,” he said, chagrined, gesturing to Regis.
“Whoa, hey, I’m just floating here. What’d I do?”
Reaching out, I touched the tips of my fingers to Arthur’s chest. “Your core,” I said, piecing together tendrils of half-formed thought that drifted along our mental connection. “You really have changed, haven’t you?”
Little by little, Arthur opened his thoughts to me, showing me the truth of what had happened to him. The connection didn’t overwhelm me like before since Arthur was still keeping a barrier between us, but it was enough that I could make sense of the memories that drifted through: his core, broken; rebuilding it with aether; the trap, pushing energy into him until his core cracked…
“Sylvie, I’m just glad to finally have you back. Nothing else matters. I don’t even know if I can form another layer around my core, but that’s a problem for another day. Right now—”
“Arthur, everything is important when you balance the weight of worlds on your shoulders.” I pushed down the ache in my chest, steeling myself to do whatever was necessary. “You’ve worked so hard to bring me back, but now I am, and I’m not going anywhere. If staying in this place just a bit longer will help you stand up against my father and grandfather, then you have to do it.”
When Arthur’s discomfort wasn’t immediately soothed, I added, “Please, it will help me understand. A lot of what you’ve shown me feels so unreal.”
“Whoa, that’s a lot of conflicting emotions from both sides,” Regis said, shaking like a wet dog. “This is going to take some getting used to.”
Arthur regarded Regis for a moment, then closed his eyes and settled his mind. “You were my priority in coming here, Sylv, but if I can take this opportunity to increase my power as well…”
No need to explain, I said mentally.
He gave me an abashed smile and pulled me in for another quick hug. “Thank you, Sylv. Sorry I haven’t already said it, but I’m glad you’re back.”
“I shudder to think what you’ve been up to without me,” I teased, reinforcing my own mental barrier so my thoughts didn’t leak into Arthur’s. I needed to be strong, for him, like I always had. I was his protector. Despite what this place made me feel—like I was warm water in a leaking bath, slowly cooling and draining away—this next step for Arthur felt essential.
I had waited for him for a lifetime. I could wait a short while longer.
Arthur closed his eyes and the aether began moving. I drifted back several feet, giving him space to focus.
Regis left his side, swimming through the void until he was next to me. I could tell he was eager to say something, but he seemed to be building his courage. The shadow wolf both looked and felt unlike any creature I had ever seen, simultaneously alien and familiar, comfortable and antagonistic.
As I looked at him, I noticed something else for the first time. Far below us, something like a dungeon was floating freely in the void. Thick, semi-transparent walls of earth and stone encased it, but I could see dark hallways inside.
“The Relictombs,” Regis said, glancing downward. “Sort of like home. I guess you could say I was born there. Not there, in particular, just, y’know.” He was quiet for a moment, almost sheepish, then, “Hey, I just wanted to say, no hard feelings, right? Like, I’m not the ‘Sylvie replacement’ or anything like that. He didn’t, you know…”
“Fill the void I left in his life by bonding with another talking, shapeshifting, aether-wielding being?”
“Uh, exactly,” Regis answered uncertainly. “I was born from the acclorite in his hand right after you disintegrated and stuff.”
“No hard feelings,” I answered with a small smile. “I’m glad he had you. He can be…well, it’s hard to say what would have happened if he’d been alone, but it probably wouldn’t have been good.”
“I can hear you, you know,” Arthur said, opening one eye to peek at us. “Sorry to interrupt, but I need Regis. There is boundless aether here, but harnessing enough of it without the djinn’s artifact forcing it into me is going to be difficult.”
Regis rolled his eyes at me. “Master calls…”
I giggled behind my hand as the shadow wolf form vanished, momentarily becoming a small horned wisp of energy before plunging into Arthur’s chest. Arthur gave me a tired, yet gentle, smile before closing his eye again.
I watched closely, trying to follow what was happening with limited success. The aether core itself was impossible not to be aware of, burning like a star beneath Arthur’s sternum, but my senses weren’t fully aligned yet. The strange void, the absence of mana within it, the overwhelming presence of the aether, all served to confuse sight, hearing, touch, and the finer senses of my mana core.
It would require patience, I knew. My body and mind were still regenerating.
Even in the brief glimpse of memory I’d received from Arthur, there was so much to come to terms with. Just as I had given of myself to save Arthur, he had turned around and poured himself into me to bring me back. It had been his care, protection, and love that had helped me hatch the first time, as well. But even before that, I had guided his spirit…
I winced and rubbed my temples again. It was painful to think too hard about the paradox of his reincarnation and my own return to my egg, my spirit divided and scattered through time like fall leaves that in turn shelter and fertilize the new growth beneath them…
A moan escaped me, and I had to bite my lip to keep from shouting in agony. Arthur, his eyes closed and his mind deep within his meditation, was oblivious, but his mere presence continued to be the mooring with which I tethered myself to reality. The dissonance between my soul and my body was growing, and without him I worried I would dissolve back into nothing.
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I squeezed my own eyes shut tight, so tight that strange colors and shapes bloomed behind my eyelids. My knees curled up into my chest and I wrapped my arms around them, contorting myself into a ball as I hoped for the pain to pass.
‘Even time bends before Fate,’ a voice like my own said in my head. ‘You’ll find that out soon enough.’
Sucking in a rattling breath, I felt consciousness receding from me. But what if one or both of us drifted apart? Or some hidden threat sensed our weakness and attacked. I had to remain conscious.
Growling, I clawed my way back to wakefulness, refusing to succumb. I couldn’t, not here, with Arthur so deeply within himself that he was nearly insensate. Not now, after just returning.
I tried to calm my mind, but the storm raging inside my skull was only growing in strength, and it seemed to heighten the intensity of the pain spreading from my core. Images flashed before my eyes faster than I could comprehend, my whole life playing out in rapid succession, but the timeline was jumbled, the images being plucked from all over.
I was training with my grandfather, Kezess Indrath, in Epheotus.
I was hunting in the Beast Glades while Arthur delved into dungeons as the masked adventurer, Note.
I was losing the battle to the retainer, Uto, a dozen of his black spikes already piercing my scales.
Disembodied, I was watching Grey train to be king.
Arthur and I were flying, high, so high it was as if I could flick my tail and touch the stars, the world below us hidden by the clouds. We were both grinning, happy.
I was pitting my dragonfire against Cadell’s soulfire as my mother’s will devoured Arthur from the inside out.
I looked on, helpless, as Arthur mourned his father…
The rawness of that memory shunted me back into the present.
I was breathing heavily, but the pain in my skull was receding, and I began to uncurl, stiff and aching. The burning in my core had expanded through most of my body, like I was starving for oxygen, except it was mana that I needed.
My eyes flickered open, blurry and unfocused, revealing Arthur’s face only inches from my own. His hands were on my arms, gently trying to shake me into wakefulness. He was pale with fear.
“Fine,” I said, my voice a barely-audible croak. I cleared it before continuing. “I’m fine, Arthur. Your core, are you…”
Arthur’s golden eyes searched mine. “My core has cracked. I’m still attempting to contain it in a third layer with the aether Regis and I have gathered. It was…a lot harder this time. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize how long it’d been.”
I shook my head and pulled away from him, trying and failing to maintain a stoic expression. I was shivering, and fine bumps had appeared all over my exposed skin. “I’m not sure how long it’s been, either. A few days, maybe.”
He grimaced, but I felt a jolt of shared realization and he gave me a reassuring smile. “Time moves faster here. Even if it’s been a few days, it’ll only have been a day or so in the real world. I’m sorry though. We shouldn’t have stayed. I didn’t think it would take so long. I’m almost finished.”
I was glad his eyes closed a second later, because the shaking became more violent. I hugged my arms around myself, but it was no help. Instead, I tried to follow the final process of Arthur’s creation of this third layer around his aether core, feeling the aether move within him, hardening as he shaped it. I was disoriented, my senses dull, but at some point the barrier between my mind and Arthur’s had fallen, and I was able to trail along in the wake of his thoughts.
The process had been taxing for him. It involved drawing in incredible amounts of aether, far more than his core could handle, and incrementally overfilling the organ until it began to rupture. Then, in a rush, the collected aether was used to seal and hold the core together, forming a hardened layer around it. This new layer could only be made by sealing it into the cracks created by the fracturing process, otherwise the aether would simply dissipate.
I saw in Arthur’s mind the moment the process was complete. We both opened our eyes at the same time.
He immediately flew to me and took me by the hand. “Come on. Let’s get you out of here.”
We rapidly descended through the void until we reached the floating dungeon, Regis trailing along behind us. From the outside, I could partially see through the rock and earth as if it were incorporeal or translucent, but when Arthur released a condensed blast of aether, it proved very real. Stone shattered, flying in every direction as Arthur ripped a hole into the outer wall, opening the way into the dungeon.
We flew into the gap against a rush of air, mana, and aether. My starving body instinctively reacted, absorbing whatever mana it could, but there wasn’t enough to sustain me.
Within the dungeon, we landed on a platform that occupied one end of a cavernous room. A single arched tunnel opened into it from the other side, across a pit at least a hundred feet wide. Something massive and squirming moved within the pit. I could feel it reaching for us.
But Arthur paid the dungeon, the pit, and the monster no mind. He was facing the portal, and a metallic sphere had appeared in his hand. It came apart at a touch. ‘Hang in there, Sylv. We’ll be out of here in just a minute.’
He used the device to change where the portal would take us.
‘It occurs to me that we’re going to have quite a bit of explaining to do when we get back to Mordain,’ Regis said, his voice strange in my thoughts. ‘Minus an Aldir but plus a Sylvie. Hopefully the phoenixes don’t start to molt at the sight of a dragon.’
“Mordain? The Lost Prince?” I asked, confused. “I learned a little about him in Epheotus. He’s alive?”
“Well, he was when we left him,” Regis answered with a shrug before melting back into Arthur’s body. ‘Been caged up in the Beast Glades hiding from Grandpa Kezess for who knows how long, apparently.’
The portal shifted, showing the ghostly image of an overgrown cave on the other side. A large man occupied the room. He appeared to be going through the motions of some training form, but I saw him for only a moment before Arthur took my hand and pulled me through the portal with him.
My body reacted viscerally to the sudden presence of so much mana, and I instinctively began gorging on it, my core hungrily demanding it faster than my veins could even draw it in.
A booming voice let out an ear splitting “Hah!” and I struggled to look more closely at the man.
No, not a man, an asura, or at least part asura. He had a powerful frame with broad shoulders and a deep chest. Like his body, his face was broad, but there was a hint of youthful softness to it as well. His hair marked him as a phoenix, but I’d never seen a being with stranger eyes: one the orange of hot iron, the other a cool sky blue.
“I knew you’d return,” he said, his voice still far too loud. He slapped Arthur on the shoulder, and somehow my bond wasn’t sent careening into the wall. “Despite your fragile appearance and frigid demeanor, there is an inferno in your heart that burns hot as any phoenix fire, and I knew you would not turn away from the battle ahead.”
“It took longer than expected,” Arthur admitted. He was uncharacteristically uncomfortable. “And…Aldir will not be returning.”
The half-phoenix—Chul, I heard in Arthur’s thoughts—looked somber. “Ah. So you engaged him in glorious combat for what he did to your elven lands? It must have been quite the battle to have lasted two months.”
Arthur froze. “What do you mean, two months?”
Chul gestured to the wall, where dozens of marks had been scored into the stone. “I have trained here every day since you left, awaiting your return so that we can take the fight to Agrona. One slash for each day.” He beamed proudly at Arthur. “I’m ready to journey with you, Arthur Leywin.”
But Arthur wasn’t listening. The color had drained from his face, and his thoughts were racing faster than I could keep up as he considered his family, Dicathen, the army of disarmed Alacryans in the Beast Glades, the war…
Regis congealed into being, rising up from Arthur’s shadow. His brows rose as the flames of his mane dimmed. “Well, that’s a little longer than we expected…”