Grayson’s rage did not reach its peak. Of that Libby was certain, because she was still alive to react to what happened next - though it came in a bit of a blur.
With no warning that Libby could discern, paradise began to melt. The glorious white buildings of Grayson’s dream world puddled into ivory mounds of nothing, mixing with the grass into a semi-gelatinous mass that made Libby cringe. The strangeness of the sight offended her eyes and their sense of reality.
Grayson, standing before his mother, began to shake. Before he could say anything - and Libby had no doubt that he had plenty to say - his voice was cut off by some unseen force, and he clutched at his throat, fingers tearing at the insubstantial skin. He staggered to the left and the right, eyes bulging, and his fingers grasped at air. Bits of his arms began to flake away and disappear like sparks from a camp fire.
Libby wanted to reach out to her son. She could tell he was in severe pain. What she would have done she didn’t know, however, as she felt rooted to the spot.
“Augh,” Grayson moaned, his mouth an awkward O. “Augh, ack, oogh.”
“What’s happening… to…” Libby turned to July, seeking answers. “What in the fuck - “
July, however, wasn’t looking much better. A scarred mirror of the son before her, the witch was almost doubled over, her arms crossed over her stomach. Foam ran from her mouth, and tears from her eyes - but those eyes, raised to Grayson, were also narrowed in sadistic triumph. The wicked curve of her splintered smile forced Libby to take a step back.
“Tell me what the fuck is going on,” Libby insisted.
July didn’t reply. She was fixated on Grayson, cheeks blazing so fiercely red that Libby wondered if she was running a fever.
The land trembled. The ground beneath Libby’s feet quivered, almost jelly-like, and Libby staggered to one side, just barely keeping her footing. The sky above her began to fade, giving way to the blackness of codespace, and as Libby watched an airship that was passing by in the distance crumbled and fell apart. The world itself groaned, a sound so terrifyingly human that Libby covered her ears.
“Swap,” July muttered, her voice a throaty rasp, yet loud enough to hear over the din. “Swap swap swap SWAP!”
And so they did.
And, mere seconds later, with a stunning abruptness that kicked the breath out of her chest, Libby was collapsed on the dirt outside the tower.
Libby did not, for whatever reason, experience the weird rewinding sensation that struck everyone else in the tower. Some merciful force spared her reliving the moments of sheer terror that punctuated the apparent end of the world. She was not thankful for this, because she did not know what she missed.
Libby’s eyes snapped open, and she gasped for air. Clutching her chest, she quickly checked to make sure that all of her bits were still in place. Arms, legs, stomach, head… fuck, yes, got a head still. That’s an important one. Libby wasn’t sure why it was so important that she still had all of her bits, though on a fundamental, survivalist level, she supposed it was rather vital she not be missing any major limbs or organs. As if any of them were ‘minor’.
Sitting up, Libby looked around. The tower - she’d only caught a fleeting glimpse of the thing when the dragon had brought her here, though it was difficult to forget - was gone, replaced by a cluster of fast-moving dots in the distance. Cannons roared, steel clashed on steel, and creatures snarled. But Libby quickly shunted all of that to the rear of her attention, because two other things required her immediate attention.
The first was Grayson. Her son was standing a few feet away, hunched over like a ghoul and staring at his hands. They were trembling. As Libby watched he explored his face, touching the web of stitched scars that ran along his lips and down his neck. His lips opened, but he seemed to be lost for words.
The second was Dragomir. He was laying in a heap at Grayson’s feet, plainly unconscious. Libby recognized her husband’s messy hair at once.
Libby cautiously got to her feet, her whole body tensed. Despite signs of a titanic struggle in the distance - an enormous black figure was raising its fists above a wooden vehicle in the far background - Libby kept her eyes on her son, unsure what she should do next. She knew it was Grayson, as surely as she’d known that July had not been Grayson.
Eventually, Grayson found his voice. It was hoarse, and fearful, and tinged with wonder. “I… I can’t… I can’t feel… anything…”
He turned, staring at Libby. His eyes, so wonderfully similar to hers in moments of joy, widened. A tear leaked out and rolled down his cheek. “M… mom… I can’t… feel… anything… anymore…”
Libby’s throat dried, and her muscles tensed. She didn’t say anything.
Grayson staggered, legs giving out, and as he fell to his knees he began to laugh. He ran his hands, trembling, through his long hair, and when a big hunk of dirty blonde detached from his head and entwined itself in his fingers he laughed at that, too. More tears squirted liberally out of his eyes.
“I CAN’T FEEL ANYTHING!” Grayson yelled, spreading his arms above his head. “I’M ALIVE AND THEY’RE GONE! THEY’RE GONE, MOM, THEY’RE GONE!”
Watching her son with the intensity of a hawk, Libby took two tentative steps forward. She spared her husband a quick glance - he was breathing, she could tell - then flicked back to Grayson.
Grayson whooped, wiping the tears from his cheeks. “I… I… they’re gone, I can’t feel them… I don’t… I don’t give a damn about… for the first time, I don’t… I don’t care… oh, hell, mom, I’m free…”
“That so,” Libby muttered. She continued towards Grayson, crouched, fingers flexing.
“Yeah!” Grayson beamed, admiring the sun. “I… I feel like crap, but… it’s… oh, mom, you wouldn’t…. you couldn’t believe… what… what it was like… and now, oh, god, I’m free, I’m freeeeeee…”
Grayson continued to rant. Libby advanced. Dragomir snored, though fitfully. His face was pinched, his nose twitching as though he’d caught wind of a terrible odour.
“Don’t you get it, mom?” Grayson looked down at Dragomir, smirking. “I can be me! We can be together! Properly! I’m not, I’m… like… I’m free, you know? I don’t have to do what they want me to do anymore! All my… magic… power… whatever it was… is gone! I can just be normal! And, hell, maybe I can actually like this guy, now - “
Grayson stopped. He looked up at Libby. She was standing over him now, stock-still, arms dangling at her sides. His smile warmed, and broke, her heart.
“Are you happy for me, mom?” Grayson asked. He reached out to touch her leg. “Are you happy?”
“No,” Libby admitted.
Her arms shot out, fingers wrapping around Grayson’s neck and pinching down hard. Grayson’s eyes widened, and his joyous smile swiftly transformed into a shocked grimace. He batted at her arms, trying to push her off, but his muscles were so weak… and hers were so strong. Libby forced all of her strength into the grip, pressing her thumbs into her son’s windpipe.
“Agh,” Grayson insisted, body spasming. “Augh… m… mo… gggkkkk…”
“I loved you,” Libby snarled. “I loved the shit out of you, ’n you… you… you do all this… WHY DID YOU MAKE ME DO THIS…”
Grayson might have tried to answer, but Libby wouldn’t let him. The relentless crush of her fingers forced all of the breath out of Grayson’s lungs. He struggled… and spasmed… and, after a painful minute of squeezing that lasted far longer than the eternity in paradise, Grayson drooped.
Libby didn’t cry. She’d run out of tears. Outwardly, anyway.