Before This World Ends – C
In the middle of the wide, undecorated room stood a faintly glowing crystal pillar. Within the pillar were countless faces, each with its own expression: lament, joy, sorrow, surprise, tranquility, bewilderment, rage, fear. But while they displayed different emotions, their mouths all sang in unison. Finally, about halfway up the pillar, there protruded a crystal statue in the shape of the upper half of a young girl’s body, almost like an intricate figurehead placed on the bow of a ship.
“… Shiantor, Lamenting First Beast…?” Nephren uttered its name.
Willem had heard of it before. Hardly anything was known about it, despite the passage of over five hundred years since its initial appearance. No one even knew exactly how much of a threat it posed. The mysterious First Beast. The first someone, a former human, who transformed into a Beast.
Willem took a step towards it. Intense pain, as if he were being split apart, shot throughout his entire body. In fact, in some places his skin had actually begun to split apart. He again remembered the miserable condition his body had been in right before getting trapped in the dream.
It was a happy dream, but this is the end.
In the real world as well, she most likely transformed into a Beast in this room, not back at the orphanage. That explained why she disappeared from her bed.
“… stay back, Ren. If you get close, your Venom will run berserk and you’ll die,” he said, then took another step closer.
Some organ or other part inside him collapsed. He forced the chunk of blood trying to launch out of his mouth back down to his stomach. A single drop of scarlet fell from the corner of his lips.
I’m fine. No, I’m not fine at all, but at the very least, I can still walk. I can still get closer.
Willem should have realized sooner. No doubt, he would have noticed if he had thought for just a little bit. The entire time, from his awakening in this world up until the present, she never mentioned one word about their promise. She never said ‘welcome home’ to him, not even once.
Willem’s call received no response. He took another step forward. Fissures broke out in every bone of his body. Still, using Lapidem Sybilus as a walking stick, he managed to prop up his collapsing skeleton.
“Neither of us ever mentioned the butter cake.”
Willem never brought it up because he knew this world was fake. He knew that he hadn’t returned home; he was merely trapped. That thought prevented him from ever talking about their promise.
But what about Almaria? Willem’s return should have seemed genuine to her, who didn’t know anything about their external circumstances. It should have looked like Willem kept his promise, yet she never said anything about it.
Only one explanation could solve this contradiction. Maybe she had never been fully aware of it, but, unconsciously, she had realized: Almaria Duffner still hadn’t truly welcomed her ‘father’ home.
The crystal girl called to him in a soundless voice. However, Willem could hear it loud and clear.
“Geez, how long do you plan on waiting?” A bitter smile spread across his face. “You became a Beast before anyone else, so you dragged thousands of others into this dream, preserving Gomag as it was right before the end inside you? For five hundred years, you carried this illusion, cherished it, and waited, never giving up?”
Another step forward. Some other part of him broke down. He couldn’t tell where anymore. Searing pain had already enveloped every inch of his body.
“You waited all that time… in the hopes that I would one day stumble into this world?”
Such an unrealistic wish should never have come true. Even after thousands of eons, that hope should have never taken one step towards realization. Yet, she held it the entire time and sang all by herself. In her miniature garden sowed from the seeds of three thousand dreams, she simply sang and sang, like a broken music box.
“I’m really… really sorry, Almaria.”
One more step. Willem now stood in arm’s reach of her.
He just had to say ‘I’m back’, and her wish would come true. His promise to return home would be fulfilled in this miniature garden. On his next birthday, she would bake him the best butter cake ever. She would make him eat until he cried from heartburn. With just two words, he could realize that happy illusion.
Willem raised his right hand, which gripped Lapidem Sybilus’ hilt.
The spell lines binding the Kaliyon together loosened, and the thirty five Talismans constituting Lapidem Sybilus burst apart, scattering about Willem’s surroundings. With his left hand, he grabbed the pendant hanging by his chest, the language Talisman, and ripped it off its chain. He had never been able to remove it in this dream world, but it now sat cleanly on his palm, shining brilliantly. Then, he pushed it into the blade, as Lapidem’s thirty sixth piece.
Within a single Kaliyon, the power of many Talismans mixed and interfered with each other in intricate ways to produce the resulting phenomena. If that delicate balanced shifted ever so slightly, the whole system collapsed. Accordingly, maintenance usually got left to the highly trained and skilled engineers in workshops with the proper equipment.
Lapidem Sybilus’ spinal circuit suddenly ruptured, severing almost half of the spell lines with it. Willem didn’t mind. If he could just force the remaining lines together and preserve a minimal amount of functioning, that would be enough. With a tap of the core crystal, he released the sword from maintenance mode. The thirty five original Talismans all attempted to fit back into their usual positions, resulting in an awkward stick shape.
Then, he held up the sword, that clumsy amalgam of a sword with the power to protect the mind and a Talisman with the power to connect minds, and thrust it straight into the heart of the crystal statue.
The song stopped.
Willem smiled softly.
“Sorry,” he whispered gently. “I couldn’t keep my promise.”
A large fissure appeared in the crystal and soon spread throughout the entire pillar. Then, with the sound of myriad ringing bells, the Shiantor collapsed. Just before it fully crumbled and disappeared for good, the mouth of the crystal statue girl curled into a faint smile, the smile of a saint forgiving a sinner, the smile of a daughter being spoiled by her father.
The earth shook.
The ceiling, the walls, the floor, it all began to collapse at once.
Willem, who no longer had enough strength left in him to even stand, fell helplessly along with the rubble into the depths below. A floating sensation enveloped his entire body. His sense of time blurred.
A loud singing voice seemed to reverberate directly in his head.
His field of vision became dyed ashen gray.
The sudden changes took him by surprise, but he soon understood their meaning. He now heard the same song which the residents of Gomag heard. He saw the same scenery that they saw in their dreams.
The impulse to transform into a Beast which lay at the root of the human race. A mass of regret wild as a raging storm. The power to cut off that beloved, lost past from reality and create a dream world. The firm delusion that holing up in that world would one day solve those regrets. That bundle of emotions was the true nature of the Shiantor. And now, having lost Almaria as its vessel, it had entered the closest person, the last human remaining on the vast earth.
“Ah… I see…” Of course. Humans can transform into Beasts. “I guess I’m no exception…”
It was nothing to be surprised about. In fact, it was the obvious conclusion.
I wonder what kind of Beast I’ll turn into.
Which of the seventeen symbols of destruction will I become?
Perhaps it didn’t matter what he turned into. Nephren was right there, Kaliyon in hand. Even if Willem transformed into a monster that could bare its fangs against the residents of Regul Aire, Nephren would kill him right away. He could accept his end with reassurance.
He felt something warm latch onto him. Opening his eyes and swatting away the ashen blanket, he saw Nephren embracing his blood drenched body.
Some sinister substance flowed out of the Shiantor’s corpse and into Willem’s body, slipping through his many open wounds. And now, it also began to flow into Nephren’s wounded body.
Willem could no longer form coherent words, but Nephren seemed to understand his question.
She slightly opened her tightly shut eyes and looked straight at his face. “Almaria asked me to!” she screamed back. “She said, knowing father, he’ll probably leave and go off somewhere again soon enough. When that time comes, I’ll have no choice but to entrust him to you!”
The song echoing in Willem’s head grew softer. But that only meant it was growing stronger within Nephren.
“She said, only you’ll be able to take care of our pitiful, broken down father!”
What are you talking about? Since when did you two become so close?
“That’s why… that’s why…”
The song reverberated loudly in both their minds.
Nephren shut her eyes tightly once again.
Ah, damn it. Why are my daughters all so kind and strong…
Aiseia. Tiat. Lantolq. Noft. All the fairies’ faces popped up in his mind one by one. Collon. Panival. Lakish… they’re gonna grow up soon…
His mouth slightly twisted upwards at the surging nostalgia.
It might be a bit of a hassle… but I’m counting on you guys to deal with us.
Clutching that warm feeling in his chest with the last of his remaining strength, Willem quietly closed his eyes.