The Beginning After The End - Chapter 175
Chapter 175: Appeared
A glimpse of the dawning sun could be seen behind the Grand Mountains, casting a large shadow over the glades, a flat plain of grass with large boulders and splintered logs scattered throughout the area.
This place appeared to be a part of the surrounding forest long ago before an avalanche had struck. Snow still lingered, hiding in patches in the shadows of the debris of fallen trees.
Uto stood a dozen or so yards away, swinging his arms as if doing a morning stretch.
‘Arthur.’ Sylvie’s voice was filled with unease.
I know, I replied, taking off my woolen cloak. Even I can already sense the difference between him and the other retainer we fought.
“Do you know what motivates an enemy the most?” Uto asked, stretching his long, thin neck.
I didn’t answer. Instead, I took out Dawn’s Ballad from my dimension ring and withdrew it from its scabbard.
“You don’t know? I’ve found that it’s an enemy seeking revenge that retaliates with the most… gusto,” he answered nonchalantly.
An ethereal glow enveloped the teal blade of my sword despite the lack of light around us. Seeing the jagged remains of the broken tip still sent an ache to my heart, but I knew that even in this condition, Dawn’s Ballad was still the best weapon I could hope for right now.
I raised my gaze to match Uto’s before answering. “You think this is a battle for revenge?”
“Isn’t it?” he shrugged, taking a step closer as he tapped his chipped horn. “You were pretty riled up when you found out that I was the one responsible for killing that elf.”
“My first time meeting her was when she was dying,” I replied, taking a step forward as well. “So revenge wouldn’t be quite my motivator. I simply consider you someone that needs to be disposed of.”
Uto frowned. “Well that’s disappointing. Here I was, so excited that you’d be hell-bent on using every ounce of your being to seek vengeance for your comrade, companion, or even possibly lover—scratch that, you’re a little too young for her, unless she’s into that kind of…”
The lanky retainer continued to mumble on in his fantasy until he abruptly clapped his hands together. “Aha! Grandpa elf! His precious granddaughter is around your age, isn’t she? Considering how close you are to that family, it would make more sense for you to fancy her than that elven lan—”
The sickle-shaped blade of frost that I had launched at the lanky retainer dissipated after hitting a black spike that had manifested from the ground in front of him. The ink-stained metal spikes froze on impact but remained whole.
“See? It’s that kind of rage and impatience that I was looking forward to.” He snapped his fingers in regret. “I should’ve killed the little elf princess or maybe a family member of yours before waiting all the way out here for you to show up.”
“Are you done?” I asked through gritted teeth, holding my sword out in an offensive stance.
Uto merely shrugged. “You may as well have that little bond of yours come out. You’re going to need all the help you can get.”
“Come out, Sylvie,” I said aloud while my gaze remained locked on the retainer.
My bond hopped out of my cloak, her eyes sharp and fur-like scales bristled.
“It’s a shame that the circumstances surrounding us aren’t as well-knit as I thought they’d be, Pup. That elemental blast you shot at me before leaving when we first met left a deep impression, you see. It made me think that I hurt you deeply—personally.” Uto let out a deep, exaggerated breath. “No matter. Let’s see if you can humor me for at least a few minutes.”
Uto took a step forward, but unlike the casual saunter he had before, the space around him suddenly distorted. His presence became almost palpable in the air as each step sent ripples of vibrations into the ground.
I immediately unleashed Realmheart while Sylvie shifted into her draconic form.
“A wyvern?” Uto asked, tilting his head.
With Sylvie’s powers sealed since birth by Sylvia, she just resembled a very powerful mana beast, but no more than that. I had stayed cautious since the war, but it was a relief seeing how even a retainer couldn’t tell.
“Why? Does that scare you?” I pushed.
He responded with a wicked sneer before he nonchalantly flicked his right hand.
With Realmheart amplifying my affinity to the ambient mana surrounding us, my body sensed the disturbance in front of me before I could actually see. Sylvie and I both dashed in opposite directions just in time to dodge the barrage of black spikes that had instantly manifested below us.
The ground that we had just been standing on now looked like the back of a really large and angry porcupine with each of the seven-foot spikes gleaming menacingly.
“Brandish your weapon, Pup!” he spat, siphoning a large black harpoon from the center of his palm.
I brought Dawn’s Ballad close to my side as I pointed the weapon’s fractured tip at Uto. The runes glowing on my arm burned with a comforting warmth as I began coalescing the mana surrounding me.
The blade of my sword shimmered in a scintillating array of colors as I infused ice, fire, lightning and wind. It was only because the weapon was Dawn’s Ballad that it was able to hold strong despite the overbearing amount of mana being loaded into it.
Let’s go! I charged with Sylvie by my side.
I held my sword low as I dashed toward the retainer. The ground beneath my weapon splintered beneath its aura, but ruining nature was the least of my concern.
With a manic grin, Uto charged as well, his harpoon arm recoiled like a snake ready to lash out.
In an instant, my blade met his, creating a spherical wave from the sheer concussive force of our impact. The elements infused in my blade surged out but Uto held on effortlessly.
He waggled his eyebrows while our weapons were still intertwined. “Not bad.”
‘Duck,’ Sylvie ordered.
Immediately following up, my bond lashed out with her long tail, hitting him square in the sides as soon as I dropped to the ground.
Uto flew to the side, slamming into a nearby boulder which shattered upon impact.
The veil of debris had yet to clear when I flourished Dawn’s Ballad. A polychromed crescent of mana ripped out from my blade, slicing the very cloud of dust as it traveled.
The earth shook violently as my attack indented a large chunk of the ground. The shockwave dropped the row of trees closest to Uto.
‘He’s still alive,’ Sylvie, who was already prepared for her next attack, informed.
I lowered myself, weaving more mana around my body in case of a surprise strike, but rather than a retaliation at our barrage, a laugh rang from within the depressed cavity of the ground. Again, I saw the flickering fluctuations of mana around me. Thin spikes conjured out from thin air while large pillars of the black metal fired out from the shadows beneath boulders and the fallen logs.
I parried the thin spikes with Dawn’s Ballad, which sent a jarring amount of force up my arms. Meanwhile, Sylvie knocked aside the thick pillars that had sprouted from the darker shadows. Her thick scales managed to withstand most of the attack, but the sheer volume and intensity of Uto’s sudden barrage left both of us wounded and bleeding.
Don’t heal us, I ordered when Sylvie gathered mana into her breath. Not yet, at least.
Fortunately, the spikes weren’t laced with poison, but it was almost unfair how the retainer was able to conjure them out of thin air.
Even advanced earth mages had to shape the earth around them before firing them out. Uto seemed to be able to just manifest his attacks wherever he pleased.
“I expected more, Pup,” Uto sighed as he walked out of the depression of earth that I had created from my last attack.
Defend my back, I sent Sylvie, siphoning more mana out of my mana core and into my body. I could see my long hair turn white as I fell deeper into the Realmheart Physique. The runes became more complex and I could feel its mark branded on my back as well. The mana around me seemed eager to obey my thoughts. They twirled around me, forming seamlessly into spells that would normally take immense concentration.
Dawn’s Ballad was emblazoned in a silver aura of frost while my left fist crackled with tendrils of black lightning.
Uto’s brows were knitted, but he had no time for thoughts as I soon arrived, unleashing a torrent of attacks. My crystalline sword was no more than a blur, leaving only streaks of silver in its path. I weaved in punches, elbows, knees and kicks like how Kordri had taught me in our years of training. For every time I swung Dawn’s Ballad, he instantly countered with a black spike, which froze and shattered on impact. Meanwhile Sylvie stayed close behind, her limbs a flurry of scales and claws as she hacked and ripped away at the neverending barrage of black spikes Uto conjured. Soon, the area around us became a ruin of frozen rubble and severed spikes of black metal.
‘This isn’t good, Arthur. Uto’s attacks are firing in greater volume,’ Sylvie grunted.
My eyes remained locked on the retainer, who had yet to receive a single wound. Every time it seemed like I was about to land an attack, a black slate of metal would form around the area, protecting his body.
I’ll have to kick it up a notch.
The thick tendrils of black lightning coiled around my arm receded at my beckon. I internalized the lightning magic, heightening my reaction time by reinforcing my very neurons with lightning magic.
The very world seemed to slow. My senses were heightened—almost overwhelming. Colors seemed to pop while the tiny particles of mana visible through Realmheart came alive.
I swung Dawn’s Ballad once more as I easily dipped under Uto’s thrust. Just as my blade was about connect with Uto’s exposed side, I saw it.
I saw the retainer’s black spike magic that once seemed instant, rapidly coalesce just where my attack was about to hit. Immediately, I redirected my strike upward just below his arm.
I could see the ghastly mana moving—reacting—to my new attack. But it didn’t reach in time. I feigned my attack once more, instead driving my fist into his sternum.
The retainer buckled over from the attack. He took a step back to keep himself upright while a thin trail of fluid too dark to be blood trickled down the side of his mouth.
Surprised that my attack had actually connected, I paused for a beat before lunging forward with another strike.
It’s in the shadows, Sylv! I screamed internally. Those black spikes can only manifest in areas of darkness. That’s why his spells are always more powerful when they come out from darker places like from underneath a boulder or a log.
Uto’s hand blurred. It blurred. Despite being in Realmheart and having Thunderclap Impulse heightning my reactions, I couldn’t fully see his strike.
His fist hit me like a train. Even with the density of mana protecting my body, I felt myself flicker in and out of consciousness. By the time I had collected myself, I was twenty feet from my previous position with my back up against the shattered trunk of a tree.
Sylvie was holding Uto off, the blood from her fresh wounds coating her black scales. With her abilities sealed by Sylvia, she wasn’t able to keep up with Uto any more than I was able to, even with her superior defenses.
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Getting up, I pondered once more whether or not to rely on Burst Step to outmaneuver Uto, but Sylvie’s sharp tone cut me off.
‘You’ll be crippled for the rest of your life if you use Burst Step again!’
It’s better than dying here, isn’t it? I sent back, frustration dripping from my voice.
‘There are better options to explore before we use that!’ she hissed as she twisted her large body, avoiding Uto’s attack. She batted the retainer away with her wing before launching herself directly at me. ‘Get ready!’
Realizing that she wasn’t going to stop, I leaped and latched myself onto the base of her neck just before she kicked off the ground. We near-instantly cleared a hundred feet and continued to fly higher.
What’s your plan?
‘Like you said, it’s the shade! He’s able to manifest those metal spikes from wherever he wants from the shadows,’ she explained, just as we reached the height where the mountain wasn’t blocking the sun.
I winced at the bright rays but I immediately knew what Sylvie had intended.
We were fighting in a giant shadow!
‘Exactly. That’s how he was able to conjure his attacks from wherever he pleased. If we fight him here, he’ll be much more limited in where he can attack.’
I steadily stood up on Sylvie’s back. She and I had never fought together like this. In my previous world, I had to spend hours training to fight on horseback and I imagined that to be much easier than fighting hundreds of feet above the ground on a flying dragon.
I barely had enough time to find my balance on top of Sylvie when Uto appeared just a few feet above us with a black spear in hand.
The once black spear that glistened like metal looked dull now that he had to rely on the shadow his body cast as an anchor for his spells.
Careful not to hurt Sylvie, I pushed myself off her back as I enveloped my body in a spherical whirlwind.
Activating Thunderclap Impulse once more, I barrelled straight into the retainer’s spear. Sylvie had been right; with the lack of shade, his attacks didn’t come from all directions—only from the parts of his body facing away from the sun. Black spikes jutted out of his body, but the spikes weren’t nearly as dense or imposing.
“You’re pretty smart, Pup. I’m glad you know my weakness,” Uto said, his voice muffled by the wind.
It was awkward fighting in the air. Just like how Uto was restrained by the lack of shade, I was limited by the fact that I wasn’t able to fly. Sylvie would maneuver herself around me, acting as a platform to jump off.
Try not to stay too close in case Uto tries to use the shadow your body casts, I sent Sylvie as I rushed in for another attack.
With Thunderclap Impulse’s effects further enhanced by Realmheart, I thought we would be able to win. Trails of ichor leaked from the shallow wounds I managed to inflict on Uto but what unsettled me was his expression.
His face that had once been of manic glee had mellowed into that of… boredom.
“Even with this big handicap, you haven’t been able to land a single meaningful hit,” he said, his voice somber. “It’s… disappointing.”
“Sorry, but I’m not fighting you to impress you,” I spat, spinning around. The fractured tip of Dawn’s Ballad sunk into Uto’s chest. I surged out the mana coalesced into the blade and Uto’s entire body became engulfed in frost, fire, lightning and wind.
I kept my grip on my sword as I felt the two of us starting to drop. For a moment, I thought I had done it. I thought I had killed him.
That was the case… until I saw a black swirl manifest from where my sword embedded into him. My attack managed to destroy most of the bandages he had wrapped himself with only to reveal what looked like piercings.
Little studs of metal were all over his torso and limbs, and to my horror, each of those metal piercings cast their own little shadow around his entire body.
Uto’s horn glowed a purplish-black light while the shadow from his countless piercings spread entirely around his body.
I tried pulling Dawn’s Ballad out from Uto’s chest but no matter how much mana I imbued into my body, I wasn’t strong enough to pry it out.
“If you were able to notice my weakness in the short time we had been playing, don’t you think I would’ve found out about it a long time ago?” His voice came out muffled from the black mask that covered his entire head and face aside from his horns.
“Sylvie!” I said aloud, letting go of Dawn’s Ballad.
My bond immediately repositioned herself to catch me, when a black spike suddenly shot out from Uto’s body.
I siphoned more mana out of my core, manifesting a gauntlet of ice around my right hand as I struck the black projectile. If I dodged it, the attack would’ve hit Sylvie, but I managed to redirect his surprise attack. Rather, I thought I did.
He pointed a finger down as if he was warning me of something. I couldn’t see Uto’s expression from behind his shadow mask, but I swore I could see him smirking.
Less than a second later, I felt the sharp prick of something against my skin coming up from below me.
With the internal lightning-attribute mana art enhancing my reactions, tapping into the mysterious aether around me, I activated the first phase of my dragon’s will.
Aevum, the control over time. With little mastery and insight over this powerful ability, I was able to briefly stop time around me. Lady Myre had said aether could not be manipulated but rather influenced, but in my case, it felt like I was merely tapping into the influence that Sylvia once had over aevum.
Colors flipped while the purple particles of aether around me violently trembled. Uto, Sylvie and even the black spike almost lodged into my back all stopped abruptly. With Uto’s last attack no longer in motion, I was able to whirl my body to avoid the full brunt of the impact.
Releasing Distortion—what I chose to call phase one—was much like letting out my breath after being underwater until the brink of drowning. I was barely able to gather my wits as the black spike flew up, leaving a large gash on my back rather than a gaping hole.
My body hurdled down, but just as I landed on Sylvie’s back, Uto reacted. He flickered just beside me and struck me and my bond with his black fist.
Spiraling down toward the ground like a comet, I flashed in and out of consciousness once more. My entire body was a bundle of agony so I had a hard time discerning which part of me was exactly broken.
Without even the luxury of screaming from the pain, I desperately tried to protect myself and my bond using magic.
Change into your fox form! I cried desperately, but rather than obey, she scrunched her body into a ball, covering me with her arms, neck, body and wings. I could feel the warmth of her underbelly as she gripped me harder.
She let out a growl. ‘You don’t have enough mana to take the impact. At least my body will be able to block some of the force.’
Fool, I replied. Even in my thoughts I sounded weak.
I braced myself for the impact but it never came. Rather, I never felt it. By the time I regained consciousness, I was in the center of a crater even more exhausted.
Sylv? I tried to get up, but my body refused to listen.
Sylvie? I sent out once more. No response.
A weak moan escaped my mouth as I turned my body to see that Sylvie’s body was still underneath me, but her limbs were splayed out and there were black spikes everywhere beneath us—ome broken, some jutting out of her.
“No.” I shook my bond.
“Sylvie. Wake up.” I shook harder.
“This isn’t funny anymore. Sylvie!” I rolled off her body, scratching myself on a nearby spike.
“Sylvie, please!” My vision swam and I could feel my heart trying to burst out of my chest.
A wave of panic rushed over me, numbing me from all of my pain. I crawled desperately, trying to lodge her arm out of a large black spike. I grit my teeth, holding back sobs while trying to think of a way to help my bond.
“Aether,” I muttered breathlessly as I held my hands against her body. It was a long shot, but I had to try.
I activated Realmheart once more. Every inch of my body screamed in pain from the backlash but I held on. With the particles of mana and aether visible, I desperately tried to somehow guide the purple particles into Sylvie’s body.
“Please,” I begged.
The purple particles of aether around Sylvie began quivering, as if answering my desperate cry for help. The bits of aether swirled and seeped slowly into Sylvie’s body.
I didn’t know what would happen. I thought that since Sylvie was able to heal me through aether, her body would be able to heal herself through aether as well.
Unable to keep Realmheart active any longer, I sank to my knees, my face against the base of Sylvie’s neck.
“You’re going to be okay,” I breathed. “You have to be okay.”
Several black spikes had pierced through Sylvie’s body and limbs, but I didn’t have the strength to pull them out. I tried striking the black spike that had impaled her, hoping it would come loose from the ground.
I striked. I striked again. I striked until I couldn’t condense mana anymore and my knuckles bled.
“Your beast will live,” a female voice sounded nearby. The voice was calm and mature.
Desperate and hopeful, I turned around and looked up, except it wasn’t her. Far from it.
It was a girl, but it wasn’t Aya.
It was the girl I had seen at the cavern in Darv.
The scythe. Except… in her hand was Uto. And he appeared dead.