My teeth were clenched the whole time as I willed a hole in the earth below us. Carefully placing Alea’s cold, lifeless body into the center, I slowly covered her, using her weapon as a makeshift gravestone.
I couldn’t even laugh at the sick irony that this dungeon happened to be named the Widow’s Crypt…
Wordlessly, I spent some time burying each of Alea’s fallen comrades. The once beautiful cave layered with a glossy bed of grass and a pond that glittered like shattered glass now looked like a national landmark of the fallen; the crude mounds of dirt and weapons for grave markers gave this place an eerie ambiance.
After finishing up the makeshift graves, I dragged my not-so-willing legs back to where I buried Alea. Kneeling, I placed my hand on the mound of dirt covering the once famous lance. She was considered the pinnacle of power here, no doubt respected and feared by many. However, to me, she was simply a girl—a lonely girl, regretful of the fact that she never had someone to love and someone to love her back.
As I looked at her in her final moments, a sense of dread dawned on me. She was almost exactly the same as I was from my past life, except she wouldn’t be reborn into a different world. With my immediate reincarnation after my previous life ended, I didn’t have the chance to even reflect on how I had lived. In Alea’s last breaths, she had broken down and sobbed, crying that she didn’t want to die like this.
I rubbed my eyes as tears unknowingly began streaming down my face, indignant in her stead at how her life came to an end.
Sending out another mental transmission to Sylvie, I sighed in defeat when I didn’t hear a reply. Slumping back down against the jagged walls Alea and I had leaned against, I recalled everything the fallen lance had informed me of. From the information she was able to gather, there were a couple of speculations I could make.
One, there was more than just one black-horned demon. How many, I wasn’t sure. My only hope was that there wouldn’t be many. If one of them could easily kill a lance or gravely injure a dragon like Sylvia, then I was out of my league.
Two, they were definitely after something. I wasn’t sure what, but my mind kept wandering back to the egg Sylvie had come from that the demon had called a “gem.” If they really were after Sylvie, then avoiding them indefinitely wasn’t going to be possible.
Three, there was going to be a war in Dicathen. This continent would be in danger and we definitely weren’t prepared. When the demon told Alea that there would be a war, though, I felt the underlying explanation that the black-horned demons weren’t from this continent. Was the new continent that we just uncovered filled with these demons? I shuddered at that thought. Hopefully that scenario wouldn’t come true.
However, the more I contemplated, the more certain I became that there probably weren’t that many black-horned demons. If there truly was a race filled with super-powered demons, then they would’ve already annihilated this continent with ease instead of sneaking around different dungeons and infecting the beasts. They were obviously uncertain of whether they could take on this whole continent so they were going about it discreetly, at least for now.
What bugged me was trying to figure out when the war would be. There was no marked calendar and no way to guess. Was waiting the only thing I could do… what we could do?
A sharp pain in my hands made me realize how hard I was clenching my fists, leaving me to watch the drops of blood running down my forearm.
What I was slowly learning, and what Alea’s death reinforced, was the realization of how valuable the relationships I had with my families, with Tess, and with my friends, were. What I didn’t have in my past life were loved ones I would give my life to protect. I had that now, but I don’t have the strength to protect them; not for what was about to come.
For the amount of potential I had, I was getting complacent. That needed to change.
I recalled Sylvia’s message for me after she teleported me into Elshire Forest. Her message still rang clearly in my head; her voice echoing that I would hear from her again once my core reached past the white stage.
That was the most certain method I currently knew of to be able to get some reliable answers on what was going on. I was still unable to break from the threshold of dark yellow stage though. After yellow was silver, and then white. I still have a bit to go.
A ferocious roar sounded, echoing off the cavern walls. ‘Papa!’
My head perked up as I heard a loud crash soon after from the direction of where I fell. Picking myself up, I dashed towards Sylvie’s voice.stopping in front of a cloud of dust and calling out to her.
I’m here, Sylv, are you okay? I covered my face with my arms as the cloud of dust instantly blew away, revealing my precious bond in her full glory.
My heart thumped in excitement as I saw my dragon come into view.
Sylvie had become even more fearsome than when I saw her at the Dire Tombs. Her scales weren’t glossy anymore like before—instead, they were now a dignified matte black. Her two horns had grown even longer, going past her snout, and another pair of horns protruded underneath them. If she looked crudely fierce back then, the feeling I got now was more akin to awe. She appeared as majestic as she did deadly. The spikes she had running down her back were no longer there and rather, because of that, she seemed more refined. Her gem-like iridescent yellow eyes pierced through me, making me doubt that she was the one who had just called me Papa.
‘Papa! You’re okay!’
Distilling all of the bewilderment that had kept me from approaching my bond, she, once again, lifted me up from the ground with the force of her lick.
“Haha! You got bigger again, Sylv!” I beamed a childish smile. Hugging the snout of my dragon, Sylvie let out a deep purr as she rubbed herself against me, and just for a moment, I was able to forget everything I’d just been through.
Lifting me off the ground with her snout, she placed me on her muscular broad back.
‘Hold on, Papa! Let’s get out of here.’ With a powerful snap of her wings, a raging gust formed underneath us and we were instantly propelled into the air. For some reason, the sudden force didn’t affect my body as I comfortably rode on the back of my ten-meter long dragon.
During the flight back up, my bond and I caught up on everything that happened while we were separated. She didn’t really understand everything about the demons and the upcoming war but she did get the sense that whatever was about to happen wasn’t good.
‘Don’t worry. Whatever happens, I’ll be with you!’ Sylvie’s innocent response left me chuckling.
Like a narration from a children’s book, she announced a bit about what she’d been up to, which was, not surprisingly, fighting beasts and consuming beast cores. I really needed to be there with Sylvie the next time she trained; I was curious as to what she was capable of. Sylvie didn’t really know the distinction between the levels of mana beasts so I was left pondering over how powerful she really was.
‘Hmph! I’m really strong!’
“Haha, I know I know.” Patting the hard scales on Sylvie’s neck, we soon arrived at the entrance of the dungeon.
As we landed in front of the ruined staircase leading up to the surface, I took a glance back to see the hundreds of minion snarler corpses. Sylvie transformed back into her fox form and leapt on top of my head, taking a couple of spins before perching comfortably in my hair.
Augmenting mana into my body, I lightly jumped from broken stair to broken stair, careful not to collapse the fragile remains of the staircase that was once worn down to an ivory smoothness.
A full moon greeted us as we reached the surface and, as expected, there was no one here. I breathed an outward sigh of relief knowing that everyone else made it back safely to Xyrus.
It’ll be a several hour trek to the nearest teleportation gate so I decided to hurry. However, making sure there wasn’t anyone hiding nearby, I released a pulse of wind around me. Taking out the seal from my dimension ring, I carefully inspected it. As I was about to put it on, an image of Alea flashed into my mind. I took out the black fragment of the demon’s horn—the horn of the demon that killed her.
Instead of putting on the seal, I took a deep breath and put the seal back into my dimension ring.
My stomach tightened and my eyes narrowed as a churning sensation stirred inside me. No more hiding. I had bigger things to worry about now. I couldn’t be bothered with stressing over something like this. This demon horn shard would be my constant reminder of that.
‘What’s that, Papa?’ Sylvie’s head popped up as her paw tried reaching for the black shard.
“It’s my goal, Sylvie,” I grimaced as determination swelled up in the pit of my stomach. Patting my bond’s furry little head, I began my trip back.
Needless to say, the guard in charge of the teleportation gate looked fairly startled when he saw me. He must’ve received orders to be on the lookout for me because, as soon as he verified who I was, he hurriedly began making multiple calls using the artifact he had on hand.
Quickly ushering me through the gate, I arrived back at Xyrus feeling a little queasy as Sylvie slumbered on the crown of my head. There was a driver waiting for me on the other side. Giving me a sympathetic smile, he tipped his hat before opening the door for me.
My mind wasn’t completely there as I kept thinking of the future. For the first time in both of my lives, I felt a heavy burden weighing down on me. The pressure of keeping my loved ones safe; I’ve never had that even while I was a king. The weight of a country I had no affection for in my previous life couldn’t compare to the few lives I would give my everything for in this one.
When I reached Helstea Manor, I stopped in front of the giant double doors. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to knock on the doors to my own home.
What would my family’s expressions be? It seemed like every time I went out, all I did was worry them.
Taking a seat on the top of the stairs, I just let out a sharp, bitter sigh. Looking up at the night sky, I could see the faint colorations that supposedly signaled the coming of the festival. The sky turning blue, yellow, red and green indicated when the Aurora Constellate would begin. My eyes focused on a solitary cloud, slow-dancing above me without a care in the world. What an envious position to be in.
Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t even hear the door open behind me.
“Hi Dad, I’m back.” I gave him a weak smile.
“Why didn’t you come in? We heard from the teleportation gatekeeper that you arrived at Xyrus.” My father took a seat next to me when I didn’t respond. “Your mother will be fine, Art,” he said warmly, gently patting my back.
“I worried you guys again, didn’t I? It feels like that’s all I’m really good for nowadays,” I chortled, knots churning in my chest as I said this.
I turned my head to my father and saw him gazing up at the sky like I had been just moments ago.
“She really loves the Aurora Constellate. Your mother may not seem like it, but she’s strong, Arthur, even more so than me. If you think that all you’ve given us are worries, then you’re wrong. Both you and your sister have given your mother and I so much more than we could’ve hoped for.”
“I know that you’re not like the normal children your age; hell, I’ve known that since you were born. I don’t know what sort of destiny you’ll be caught up in, but I don’t think it’ll be anything you can’t handle.” The skin around his eyes wrinkled as he gave me a reassuring smile.
I stayed silent, unable to form the right words.
“What I don’t want you to do is feel like you’re being a burden on us. All of this guilt that you’re feeling right now, the weight that you’re probably feeling—I want you to come to us so that we can be there for you. I don’t ever want you to feel like you can’t come home, that you aren’t welcome. As long as you have the use of your two legs, I expect you to come home whenever you can and let us love you. That is our right as your parents. Okay?” My father ran his fingers through his trim, auburn hair in a gesture that revealed how he wasn’t used to saying things like this. And just like that, the weight I felt accumulating inside slowly dispersed.
“Got it, Dad.” I managed a more sincere smile this time and he responded with his signature foolish grin.
“Come on, let’s go home. Once inside, a more ferocious beast than anything you’ve ever faced awaits,” my father whispered darkly before both of us broke out into a fit of laughter.