Chapter Thirty-Six – From These Tales, We Are Born
“What a freaking bomb!” Tani was the first to interrupt the shocked silence that followed Luna Celeste’s confession about who Sebastian’s parents were. “Does he know?”
Luna shook her head. “No. Reya,” she began and shook her head for a moment, “she’s quite the willful kind. For many, she might seem cold and unfeeling--”
“Yeah, like who lets her son without protection after fighting the bad guys, right?” Kai said and then quickly put his palms up in apology. “Sorry, my big mouth got ahead of me.”
“I believe I should tell you a bit about myself and how I got to serve the ice goddess,” Luna said and offered a small forgiving smile.
“You’re… her Lelian, right?” Kai asked, a bit cautiously.
“That explains a lot,” Galien commented. “And she had us all believe that she’s powerful enough to conjure life from thin air. Icy thin air, but still.”
“Don’t act so spoiled, Galien,” Luna shot him down with a well-aimed stare. “Whereas Sebastian received nothing but a rigid education, you were left to your own devices a bit too much. No wonder you have the reputation you enjoy today.”
Galien scoffed, but under Luna’s gaze, he eventually conceded. “My apologies, my lady.”
“Good. I know you to be a well-mannered young man.”
Tani pulled at Kai’s sleeve. “She can be a little scary,” she whispered.
“I heard that,” Luna said, but right away chuckled with mirth. “I should start by telling you that I was born in the far north, in a poor village of farmers and craftsmen.”
“And how come we know you to come from a well-established family of witches?” Galien asked. “Please, ignore me,” he added hastily, “we would very much like to hear the truth.”
“As I was saying, my origins are humble. I was born a Lelian and my talents for creating charms manifested at a young age. The people in the village were frightened by me. I shouldn’t have been born to a family of farmers with fear of magic or anything beyond their comprehension. My parents were good people, and once they realized that I was… different,” she added after a short moment of hesitation, “they decided to protect me in the only way they knew how.”
“Did they send you to Reya?” Tani asked, her eyes as big as saucers.
“No, unfortunately. They hid me, kept me away from the eyes of the other villagers, afraid that they might hurt me due to their ignorance and superstitions. But, I wasn’t the kind to spend all my waking hours hidden in a barn. I quickly devised ways to get out and enjoy the big world out there. And I always came back before my parents would notice I was gone. However, one day, shortly after turning eighteen, I went on a longer trip because I really wanted to see the fair organized by a village located at a good distance from ours.”
Luna Celeste stopped for a bit, and her eyes flooded with memories. Her smile was fond, though, and that gave Kai peace of mind. At least, Luna’s story wasn’t a sad one, not all the way, and it was all that mattered. She offered him a tiny smile. “Yes, you are right, young man,” she said.
“You are kind of reading minds, aren’t you?” he asked, throwing her a suspicious glance.
“You’re easy to read.”
“Ah,” Kai said as the sudden realization struck him, “so, as long as there’s a happy end…”
“Is there going to be a happy end? I want to see it, now!” Tani jumped on her seat, most probably high on sugar and meeting amazing people like a lady with charms.
Luna’s smile grew all-knowing and a tiny bit strange. “Do you care to hear mine?”
“Totally,” Kai said eagerly. “Everyone, let’s just keep silent so that Luna can tell us her story.”
“Who put you in charge?” Tani mumbled. “But, yes, we want to hear Luna’s story. Sorry for interrupting.”
“No need to apologize,” Luna replied. “That day, at the fair, it was the first time in my life I had mulled wine. And emboldened by the strength offered to me by the drink, I began making charms and offering them to anyone who happened to walk by. Soon enough, there was a long line, and people were even throwing coins at me.”
“I would have totally thrown all my coins, too, for cakes like these,” Tani said with conviction.
“However, people who had stalls at the fair and had paid hefty sums for them got mad, and soon, I was surrounded by guards. Needless to say, I found myself thrown in jail, on the account that I was trying to fool people out of their money.”
“Weren’t they aware that you had magic?”
“The northern lands are not that rich in magic. So no, they just thought I was playing tricks and trying to sell confectionery at higher prices than allowed. It was not my fault people thought it a good idea to pay me so much. Although I appreciated their appreciation of my charms,” Luna added with a small laugh.
“So you were in prison,” Kai reminded her where her story stopped.
“Badass,” Tani murmured.
“Yes, and it wasn’t an easy time for me. But I suppose that it was just my luck that one day, Reya stopped by in search of hard workers. She needed laborers for making Ifigia into the magnificent place you see today.”
“And she just picked criminals for that kind of job?” Milo asked, visibly distraught by that revelation.
“The northern territories are harsh, and people are harsh, too. Many farmers who end up stealing because they cannot feed their families are thrown in jail. I didn’t tell you something you cannot know since you’re from a different world. Those lands are not part of Ifigia, but free of any ruler. They govern themselves, and I cannot tell, hand on heart, that they are doing that great by this choice. Reya was allowed to pick her laborers against a generous amount of grains and other types of food she brought with carriages by the dozens. You see, she can tell when someone has evil in their heart, just by touching them. So she knew who to pick.”
“What happened when she saw you?” Tani asked excitedly.
“I was overlooked at first, being a woman, and therefore useless for hard labor, but the guards were mean enough to want to play a trick on Reya. They had me dressed in men’s clothes, cut my hair, and sent me in front of her. They didn’t care if I ended up dying of exhaustion in a work camp somewhere, just to get more from Reya for the workforce they exchanged.”
“But you’re really pretty,” Tani intervened again. “Couldn’t everyone tell you weren’t some farmer or laborer or something? Reya, all the more, since she’s a goddess and all that.”
Luna smiled, clearly flattered by the compliment. “Let me just tell you the story of how it happened. I was sent to her, and she placed her hand on my forehead. Then, she stared into my eyes, and I froze on the spot. Her eyes can be so intense, you wish you’re anywhere else but in front of her. She opened her mouth, and at first, I couldn’t make out what she was saying. I was afraid, I have to admit.”
“And what did she say?” Tani asked. “Did she know you were a lady with charms?”
“She knew all right. But what she said was that she had been looking everywhere for a handsome young man to serve her tea in the morning.”
“So you began making tea?” Kai asked, just as curious as his sister.
“Yes, all the while not believing that the ice goddess could have been fooled by the rough fabric of my clothes. I lived in fear that night, fear that she might just decide to abandon me by the side of the road, somewhere in those cold lands, or worse. Therefore, imagine my surprise when, the next morning, while we were camped at a fair distance from the prison where I had spent long months, filled with suffering and deprivations, she asked me a question.”
“What question? Just tell us already,” Galien demanded, in an exasperated tone, as Luna stopped and looked at all of them like she was gauging whether she had all their attention or not.
She appeared satisfied by his impatience. “She asked, and these were her words to the letter, ‘And where would my charm be?’ as I served her tea.”
“She knew! She totally knew!” Tani cried out.
Luna Celeste grinned and wiggled her eyebrows. “Yes, she knew. And so I was promptly raised from being a tea boy to a lady with charms.”
“Wait, this cannot be all,” Milo said this time when she fell silent. “How did she find out you were a Lelian and could carry an heir to Ifigia?”
“That happened later. I wasn’t aware myself why it meant that I was one. When I was a child, a passing witch had said that about me, but my parents and the other villagers didn’t know what that meant. They were more scared of my magic, as benign as it was.
“I believe I’ve always been in love with Reya,” Luna continued. “But in secret. One day, she told me that she had to search for a Lelian and secure an heir for Ifigia, since, as a goddess, she was bound to create a world for humans, but she couldn’t be the one to rule it, at the same time. When I understood what that meant, my heart was broken. But the word Lelian stuck with me, and I knew I had heard it before. At the time, I didn’t remember that it had been a word thrown at me as an insult as a small child. My parents made sure to shield me quickly of the villagers’ bad words.”
Another small pause followed. “I knew Reya would soon become sworn to this Lelian she was searching for, and I wanted her to know how I felt, even though I was nothing but a servant to her. So I gathered all my courage and wits and asked her, ‘What if I am a Lelian and you don’t know?’ What possessed me to say that to her, I cannot tell, but I knew I had to do something to stop her from belonging to someone else. She knew I loved her, so she said that she would grant me my wish and see if I were one. To this day, I believe she indulged me only because she was fond of me and loved my charms. Otherwise, I could have been banished for daring to impose upon the ice goddess in such a shameless manner.”
“I bet she got the surprise of her life!” Tani exclaimed.
“She had to take me to the Shimmering Cavern and perform the ritual to see whether I was a Lelian or not. It wasn’t an easy endeavor, and yet, she remained patient through it all.” Luna smiled at the memory playing in front of her eyes for no one else to see. “And when she discovered I was, indeed, a Lelian, I could tell she was even happier than I was. Well,” she clapped her hands suddenly, “that is how I become Sebastian’s mother.”
“But why does Reya keep it a secret?” Milo asked. “That you are her Lelian, and Sebastian’s mother, too?”
Kai had to admit that he admired his best friend for asking the most important questions.
“I told you, she can be quite willful. And possessive, but also very clever,” Luna replied. “Lelians are very rare. They are the only ones that can offer heirs to kingdoms in this world. Goddesses can create kingdoms, but the heirs are not something in their power to create. And goddesses aren’t supposed to pair with them, only mortals.”
“She totally broke the law for love,” Tani decided. “So cool.”
“Yes, she did. A Lelian considered unpaired can be claimed, hence her decision to keep my secret.”
“But wait… wasn’t everyone like really surprised to learn that Reya suddenly made herself an heir to Ifigia, when other goddesses cannot?” Kai asked.
“As I said, she’s clever. The Shimmering Cavern is her creation. It is capable of creating life, and that is why Pepin brought you here, Kai. He knew you would be healed. Other Lelians create heirs, let’s say, the old-fashioned way. So no one could really contradict her when she appeared with Sebastian in her arms and placed him on the throne of Ifigia. They just thought she was that special.”
“Gawd, this is better than any reality TV,” Tani decided. “But why couldn’t she say she got herself a Lelian? Is that against the law?”
“You could say that. An unwritten law, a law of witches,” Luna explained. “But the witches didn’t think of ever condemning a goddess creating an heir by herself since they thought that wasn’t possible to begin with.”
“Reya really likes to live dangerously,” Tani concluded.
That earned him a chuckle from Luna. “I suppose you could say that. She didn’t want to abandon the kingdom she created to some stranger, hence her decision to have Sebastian. And now, I believe you should go home and have some rest. Let my charms guide you in your dreams.”
“Are we going to leave Sebastian all alone here?” Tani asked.
“He’s not alone,” Luna replied. “I will watch over him as I’ve always done, while we untangle this incredible tale of you, Kai, and he being made to travel to the other’s world.”
“Well, you’re his mom, you know better,” Kai said and stood. He helped Tani off her seat by offering his hand. Not that they would just sit idle, now that they knew so much. “By the way, do you have any idea why we are here, I mean, the three of us?” He pointed at Milo and his sister, then at himself.
“Milo is easy,” Luna said as she tapped her lips with her index finger. “Sebastian loves him. You are explainable, because Pepin loves you. As for your adorable little sister,” she added and threw Tani a thoughtful look, “it must have happened because she swore to protect you all her life.”
Kai felt his jaw-dropping. He looked at Tani, who also had her mouth hanging open, and stared at Luna Celeste in disbelief.
“How do you know that?” Tani whispered.
“What? Is it for real?” Kai asked. “I’m the older brother, I’m supposed to protect my sister!”
Luna shrugged. “We never choose the way people love us. That’s entirely up to them.”
“Tani, do you really think I’m incapable of fending for myself?” Kai asked his sister.
Tani shifted in her place. “It’s not like that. Just that, after dad… passed away,” she said with difficulty, “you were just so sad all the time and not eating. So I began sneaking food onto your plate when you weren’t watching. And mom always insisted that you eat everything, and at least, when she was there, you were forced to clean the plate,” she said quickly. “And I might have promised to Lulu-chan that I’d protect my skinny brother all my life. There, now you know.”
Kai didn’t know what to say and just leaned in and kissed Tani on the top of her head. “Thank you, butthead, for making promises to some random magical girl for my sake,” he whispered, too overwhelmed to find better words to say. Then he knelt and gestured at his back. “I bet you don’t want to mess up those pretty slippers on your way back.”
Tani happily climbed on his back again. “Bye, Luna. You are the most awesome lady with charms I’ve ever met.”
Sebastian watched as Metust placed the black symbols carved in iron inside a glass bowl and handed it to him.
“Even a witch with lesser magic will be able to conjure this curse,” the head of Uxilan said. “I fail to understand what you need it for, but seeing how this trade is in my favor, I won’t dwell on it.”
Sebastian turned his back on the assassin to scribble something on a small piece of paper. Luna Celeste would understand once she learned of it. Now, there was only one thing left to do. He faced his archenemy and looked him in his dark malicious eyes. “I believe that it is up to me to keep my end of the bargain now.”
He grabbed the assassin by his right shoulder and squeezed hard, making him squirm. “Are you trying to kill me? If you have no honor --” Metust reached for his dagger.
Sebastian continued to stare into Metust’s eyes in search of the truth. As expected, something was amiss. “You’re keeping something from me.” Being able to stare into the minds of others was an ability he rarely used, but now, no matter how immoral he thought it was, it was much needed.
“Do you blame me? You’re powerful enough to destroy me, even with that wound opening inside your chest.”
Sebastian had felt it, growing like a chunk of nothingness, the more he spent time close to the Uxilan assassin. That was their power, and Metust didn’t hesitate to use it on him.
“The final symbol. Give it,” Sebastian ordered. “And I will not go back on my word. The Shimmering Cavern will be no more.”
Metust’s eyes were shifting, a sign of how the Uxilan was trying to find ways to fool Sebastian into not giving him the complete recipe of the curse.
“You’re right, I’m still strong enough to destroy you. Do you want your life to be in vain? After I destroyed your kind?”
His words were poisoned and aimed true. Metust set his jaw hard and then let out a long exhalation that materialized into the last symbol necessary for identifying the recipe for the curse. Sebastian picked it from mid-air and placed it into the bowl, next to the rest.
“Now we can go,” he said simply after covering the bowl with a lid.
Just one moment of lack of awareness was enough. Metust sank his hand quickly inside Sebastian’s chest, grabbing the tendrils of black now rising from the wound. “Now that you have everything you asked of me, I believe I also need to make sure that you’ll keep your end of the bargain,” he said with dark satisfaction.
Sebastian grunted, and it took him all his willpower not to cry out in pain. The assassin now had a hold on his heart. “I am a man of my word,” he said through his teeth.
He seized Metust’s arm and said the words. For a moment, just before they disappeared, he heard the doors to his quarters blasting open, allowing someone inside, but he couldn’t see anymore. It didn’t matter now. It was done.
They were about to get inside the tunnel that reached Galien’s estate at the other end when someone cried out for them from afar. They turned to witness Conrad rushing toward them, running as fast as his feet could take him.
“Sebastian!” he said in one ragged breath. “He’s gone! I don’t know where.” Conrad stopped so that he could breathe for a moment. “But I have it on good authority that an Uxilan assassin is with him.”
“Where could Seb have gone?” Tani asked, visibly worried.
“There’s just one place where he can go in such fashion,” Galien said through his teeth. “You say that there was an Uxilan assassin with him?”
Conrad nodded. “I eavesdropped but caught only a few words exchanged between them. That’s how I know. When I barged in, they were gone. I should have just walked in on them.”
“Don’t worry about that now,” Kai said. “Seb’s at the Shimmering Cavern, right?” he asked Galien. “Then that means that we need to call Adhe for another trip,” he added after receiving the confirmation.
“Another dragon ride?” Milo asked. “I supposed I’ll keep my eyes open this time.”
“Glad to see you on board, my dude,” Kai said and slapped Milo’s shoulder. “Oh, no, Pepin has the dragon scale. We need to…”
Pepin was already running toward them. He didn’t even stop and took the dragon scale from his pocket.
“How did he--” Kai started.
“I told him as I hurried here, and he just went to grab the dragon scale,” Conrad explained.
The sound of flapping wings above them announced to them that Adhe was already there.
“So much better than Uber,” Tani declared.
“Just hold on tight,” Kai told her while everyone began climbing on the dragon’s back.
Sebastian lay down on the altar, with Metust’s hand still hooked inside his chest. The assassin thought himself clever, but he was, actually, where Sebastian needed him to be. Indeed, the Shimmering Cavern was a magical place, and he had always known where its power came from. Death was not allowed there, only life. But now, for the sake of saving Milo and his friends, he would turn against it, against the very nature of the place, and taint it.
He calmly placed his hand over Metust’s wrist. “You will have to hold on tightly,” he said, “if you truly want to kill me. Your desire for me and this place to be destroyed, I must hear it.”
Metust’s eyes crinkled at the corners. Then, he began speaking in the ancient language of his people. Sebastian felt coldness rising beyond what he was usually accustomed to. His hold on the assassin’s wrist increased. What Metust didn’t know was that they would go together, caught in the entanglement of fate, for which both were responsible, each one in his own way.
So that was how it felt when life was truly leaving one’s body, Sebastian mused. He had been in mortal danger before. Reya had been clear about him not being immortal; powerful, yes, beyond any mortal’s wildest dreams, but nothing more than that. And yet, all those situations from before didn’t compare to what he was feeling right now.
A single tear formed inside his eye and rolled down on his temple as he looked at the icicles adorning the ceiling. Their tiny lights flickered, burning bright for one moment, then fading for a while.
Sebastian felt at peace. He hadn’t planned ever on sacrificing his life for nothing, and now it felt like he was doing it for the only thing worth sacrificing for. With the last of his strength, he held on to Metust’s wrist, sending tendrils of ice up the assassin’s arm, even as he was pinned there, to the altar, and his archenemy thought that he was winning.
“Have you ever imagined that, Your Majesty?” Metust’s eyes glinted with malice. “That I’d be the last thing you’ll ever see before closing your eyes forever?”
“What about you?” Sebastian asked, and his breath rose like icy fog from his lips. “You’ll die with me here.”
Metust laughed at first. “You’re wrong. I can see it. Your goddess’s beloved Shimmering Cavern, dying around us. What a magnificent sight! Here, I will establish my new house, and my brethren will rise once more!”
Sebastian felt his cheeks hurting as he smiled. “This is the end of the road for you, just as it is for me.”
“You jest, most surely,” Metust said and twisted his grip inside Sebastian’s chest, making him gasp in pain.
Sebastian responded by clamping down hard on Metust’s wrist and sending more of his ice power through the assassin’s veins.
Metust howled and knelt by the altar. He tried to break his hand free, but Sebastian was holding him there.
He turned his head with difficulty only to see an entire group marching into the cave. “No,” he whispered when his eyes fell on Milo. “You shouldn’t be here,” he added, his lips now shaking.
“Like hell,” Milo said through his teeth and walked toward him.
Galien and the others made a move to get close, but, with his last remnants of strength, Sebastian used his free hand to cast a wall of ice between them.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Tani moaned. “What is going on? Is Sebastian…” she choked, “is he dying?”
Galien ground his teeth so hard that Kai thought he heard it or was it just his imagination?
“Children, stand aside.”
They all took a step back, forced mainly by Conrad, who appeared to know what would happen next. Galien took one deep, loud breath. Kai jumped up and down to see above Conrad’s shoulder, but all he gleaned was how a sudden ball of fire smashed against the wall of ice raised by Sebastian.
“Cool!” Kai exclaimed. “Go, go, Galien! You’re one hell of a fire mage!”
“I’m not called that,” Galien protested and grunted as he launched another fireball. However, the flames seemed to be no match for Sebastian’s magic.
“I’m not going to just sit and watch,” Milo declared and surprised everyone by breaking away from them and rushing to the ice wall.
They all gasped as Milo jumped high and caught the edge of the wall. For a moment, he hung from it, but then he swung his body and managed to catch the edge with one foot, too. Before one could count to three, he hiked himself over the wall and disappeared from view.
“Is he totally mad?” Galien exclaimed.
“Madly in love,” Tani concluded in a whisper.
Kai couldn’t agree more.
Sebastian could hear what they were talking about on the other side and saw the flames licking the ice wall, but to no avail. Galien had never been destined to wield magic, and that showed in his clumsy attempts to tear down the obstacle Sebastian had raised for their own good. He focused back on holding on to Metust so that he could get the world rid of that pest forever. He thought he heard something like a thump not far from him.
“How about you let go of him, asshole?”
Sebastian’s eyes shot up and took in with absolute horror how Milo stood there, hands curled into fists, ready for battle.
“Milo, stay out of this,” he ordered.
“You’re not my boss,” Milo shot back. “You, yeah you, ninja asshole, step the fuck aside.”
Metust grunted and tried to speak, but Sebastian’s ice must have already invaded his lungs by now, choking him.
“Oh, shit!” Milo exclaimed. “You’re actually the one holding him! Sebastian, just let go, for fuck’s sake!”
“I cannot,” Sebastian barely managed. “I must kill him, even if it kills me, too.”
“I’d rather you not die.” Milo hurried to them and began to try pulling Metust’s hand away from Sebastian’s chest.
“Milo!” Sebastian shouted. “Don’t touch him!”
“That’s not exactly a choice,” Milo replied and pulled at Metust from all possible angles just to separate him from Sebastian.
As the assassin’s hand began to disentangle itself from the marsh of tar that Sebastian’s chest was now, something changed. Sebastian felt a slight relief but immediately noticed how Metust tensed, a sign that he was gaining his power back. It felt as if time stopped as the assassin’s eyes glinted with malice once more, and his free hand flexed on the dagger he kept at his waist.
He shot a shard of ice that hit Milo in the shoulder, making him lose his balance and grip on the assassin. Then, Sebastian grabbed Metust’s hand again and forced it back where it had been before, forcing the assassin to drop his dagger.
“No!” Milo shouted. “What are you doing? He’s killing you!”
“Go away, Milo!” Sebastian ordered. “Don’t fight battles that are not yours to fight!”
“Tough luck, dude. It is my fight!”
Sebastian could feel his power waning, and by how Metust began to steel himself against the hold, he feared the consequences. “Why would you fight for someone who doesn’t give a damn about you?”
“That’s rich,” Milo said and rushed against Metust, managing to make him lose his balance and soften the grip he had on Sebastian’s chest. “I’m like your chosen or something.”
“Step away from my son!”
The resonant voice came from above, and Sebastian witnessed powerlessly as Reya’s face materialized inside the ceiling, larger than life.
She breathed ice, and Milo was pushed away like a doll. Metust cried out, a high-pitched inhuman sound, and turned into ice that kept his shape only for a moment before turning into a brittle heap that fell to the ground, followed by the sound of tiny pieces rolling down in all directions.
Reya descended and materialized by his side. “Sebastian,” she called desperately, “my son!” She touched his chest, but her white hands soon turned black like tar.
“It’s all right,” he whispered to her, wanting for the first time in his life to soothe her worries. Reya never worried. She was made of ice.
“Who did this to you?” She straightened up and looked around. “Who is this?” she bellowed as her eyes must have landed on Milo. “Who is this stranger?” she spat the word like it was poison.
“Mother, no!” Sebastian clutched at her dress just as she raised her hand. An ice goddess should have been forbidden to have such a quick temper. “He’s the one I chose!”
“He’s… what?” Reya stared at him in disbelief. “Sebastian, what are you saying?”
“Yes, you heard right,” Sebastian said and breathed deeply. From the wound in his chest, blood black like tar was gushing out.
“Did you taint the holiness of the Shimmering Cavern by bringing him here?” Reya shouted. She knelt by his side and pressed her hands again against his wound.
“I came by myself,” Milo intervened. “And can’t you see he’s dying? Are you really going to be mad at him for choosing someone you didn’t already choose for him?”
Without a care for his own safety, Milo jumped to his feet and walked closer. He choked when Reya suddenly grabbed his throat.
Sebastian tried to push himself up, but his vision was fading. “No, Milo,” he whispered.