The Beginning After The End (Web Novel)-Chapter 361: The Second Ruin
Chapter 361: The Second Ruin
My eyes remained firmly on the twin aetheric sabers glowing in the djinn woman’s hands. Admiration, excitement, and envy swirled in me as I examined her near-perfect creations until I forcefully pried my gaze away. “What about the trial you’re supposed to give me?”
“It has already begun,” she answered confidently. “I will judge your worthiness as we battle.” She spun on her heel and the room vanished, melting away both my armor and everything around us into a blank white nothing-space. “Don’t dawdle now.”
The djinn flashed toward me, her form becoming a streak of amethyst as her twin sabers swung outward in a broad arc at my throat.
I swiveled on my heel, parrying her blows with a strike to her hands before I forced aether into the shape of a hazy blade. Using the brief window as she brought her swords back up, I lanced at her side with my dagger.
The djinn spun mid-swing, twisting her whole body fiercely to gain the momentum to intercept my strike with her left blade.
Sparks flared upon impact, but the only weapon remaining after the exchange was hers.
The djinn hardly waited for me as she began her assault, her twin blades becoming a barrage of intersecting crescents hell-bent on shredding me apart.
I summoned blade after blade of my own, each time pushing harder to force the shape together, to hold it when deflecting her attacks, but none lasted more than a single strike.
“You’re holding back,” the djinn said tersely, mid-swing of her saber. Just as the amethyst blade whistled past me, it warped into the shape of a long staff. Pivoting on her lead foot, she grabbed her new weapon with both hands and swept at my legs with the butt of the staff.
I fell to one knee from the force, and by the time I looked back up, her staff had become a warhammer.
Jagged bolts of violet lightning arced across my body as God Step took me several dozen feet away just as the giant bludgeon created a shockwave of force upon impact with the white ground.
The short-haired djinn’s expression turned to that of surprise for the first time, her eyes wide and brows furrowed as she took in what had just occurred.
“Again,” she growled, launching herself toward me in a blur.
I stepped forward, concentrating on the aetheric paths converging around her even as I conjured a blade of my own. Using my aether blade to merely redirect her strike was already enough to make it shatter, but it bought me enough time.
Tendrils of violet lightning arced across me once more as I flashed behind the djinn. However, in the time that it took me to form another dagger, the djinn’s own aether blade had already intercepted my attack.
“Had you chosen to attack with your fist, I most likely wouldn’t have been able to block it,” she admitted, her sharp eyes seeming to look through me rather than at me. “Your mind seems to have connected this godrune with the deviant mana element of lightning. It explains much about your tendencies when using aether.”
I furrowed my brows in confusion. “My tendencies?”
The djinn waved my question away, stabbing her aetheric sword into the ground and casually leaning against it. “Before that, I would like to ask first what it is you want from me, Arthur Leywin,” she asked, her tone harsh.
I froze before answering, realizing she had used my real name.
The djinn’s cropped hair bobbed as she cocked her head to the side. “Have you grown uncomfortable with that name already?”
“No,” I answered, caught off guard. I wasn’t sure how I felt. It had been months since anyone except Regis had called me by my real name, and I realized that I had become far too used to hearing myself referred to as Grey. “It’s fine. But I don’t understand your question.”
Her bright eyes roved over me like searchlights. “What do you want, Arthur?”
Is this a part of the test? I wondered, but out loud, I said, “I’m not sure that’s the right question. What I need is to learn how to control Fate.”
“If Fate were something that could simply be taught, passed on from person to person, then our universe might as well fit within a snowglobe.” She rested her chin on the back of her hand as she continued to devour me with her eyes. “No. What you want is power. The power to protect all of your loved ones and defeat your enemies.”
I crossed my arms. “But isn’t that the same thing? Even with all four elements at my disposal, I couldn’t defeat even a single Scythe. I want—need—something stronger. From what I’ve been told, that’s Fate.”
She stood tall once more, prying her aether blade out of the ground. “Then you’ll have to open your mind to new ideas. You are blinding yourself by attempting to see aether through the lens of mana, equating one to the other. Only after you understand aether as itself can you begin to understand Fate. Now form your blade. Show me that you understand.”
My dagger formed as I stood up, its edge jagged and lacking substance.
She eyed it with distaste. “Strike me.”
I didn’t hesitate, lunging forward and feinting to the right. When her blade moved to intercept, I conjured a second dagger and thrust up into her ribs from the left.
Her sword came around to deflect both blows, and my aether blades collapsed. I caught her counterattack with my hand, then God Stepped behind her, but she was already rolling forward, her blade sweeping behind her to catch me if I followed after. It was a clean move, and impossibly fast.
She held up a hand before I could attack again. “Focus. You are trying to win, and perhaps you even could, but you should be trying to learn. Why does your weapon collapse whenever you use it?”
“Because I’m not strong enough to maintain such a complicated form,” I answered honestly.
She frowned at me as though I were a foolish child. “Wrong. You are stronger than you should be. Stronger than me—at least, this remnant of me, contained with the memory crystal. And yet…”
A perfectly formed sword appeared in her right hand. Then a second in her left. Then a third, hovering just over her shoulder. And a fourth floating near her hip.
She glowered at me, and all four blades pointed at my face. “It is not power you lack. It is perspective. As a human, you have always been expected to build on what you already know. Crawl, walk, run, yes? To wield aether, you must forget that there are rules to things. Constraining yourself to a system that already exists around you only holds you back. Do not seek to walk or run. Ignore gravity and simply fly.”
I couldn’t help but shoot her an amused smirk. “I already learned how to fly—”
One of the flying blades hacked at my neck. I deflected with an aether blade of my own, but it shattered. The second flying sword swept across the side of my knee, while the two she held thrust at my chest and hip. Remembering Kordri’s lessons, I fell into a defensive position and used short, rapid movements of both my hands and feet to intercept or avoid each attack, conjuring several aetheric daggers one after the next, each one evaporating under the strain of her attacks.
Her bombardment was relentless, with attacks coming from several directions at once. Although I was fast enough to dodge or block most, I still felt the repeated cuts and piercing thrusts where her blows did land.
Eventually, she simply stopped, dismissed her weapons, and sat once again. I cautiously mirrored her, waiting silently for the lesson to continue. I wanted to think I had learned something, but so far her guidance had been too esoteric, too vague, to really help me understand how she conjured such powerful aether blades. While she made a fantastic sparring partner, my ability to maintain the form of a pure aether weapon hadn’t much improved.
“That is because you’re waiting for me to tell you what to do, like we were learning mana manipulation back at that academy of yours,” she said shortly. “But I cannot.” 𝘧𝗿ee𝚠𝙚𝙗𝑛o𝚟𝐞l.𝐜૦𝗺
I frowned at her. “You claim to want to teach me, but also that I should simply pull this knowledge from the air, manifesting it as if by magic.”
“Exactly,” she said, giving me a single, sharp nod. “But I can sense your frustration, and I recognize that you are not a djinn, even if you share a drop of our essence. And so I will attempt to explain this in a different way.”
She paused, her searching eyes peering deep into my own. “I mentioned your tendencies earlier. You fail to form a true aether weapon because you treat the aether just as you would mana. You feel a constant, ever-burning need to be in control, Arthur Leywin. Of your body, your magic, your life. With mana, this desire coupled with the depth of your confidence allowed you to progress at a remarkable speed. But with aether, you succeed only at building a barrier between yourself and your desire.”
Resisting the urge to argue about my apparent need for control, I said only, “Can you elaborate further? If I’m not supposed to control the aether, then what?”
“Do you understand how your heart works, or your lungs?” she asked immediately, pressing a hand to her chest.
“Yes,” I said slowly, unsure where she was going with this.
“Do you control your lungs?” she asked. “Do you force each breath, absorbing just the right amount of oxygen in your body? Without your focus, do you stop breathing?”
“No, of course not. But I can control my breath—”
She snapped her fingers and pointed at me. “Yes, you can. But if you focus on every single breath you take over a day, a week, a year, would it somehow make you better at breathing?”
I frowned at this and began tapping my fingers against my ankle. “No, although practicing the control over one’s breathing does help to—”
She reached out and slapped the side of my head. “Don’t be smart. Be focused.”
“Fine,” I said, rubbing my temple. “So if I can’t control it, what do I do?”
She smiled as she stood, motioning for me to do the same. “Aether is not mana in the same way water is not a stallion. One may be controlled, the other must be guided. Trusted. A bond formed. But aether is not a stallion, either. It should not be broken. Further, your aether is not my aether. While, through the very careful application of spellforms and decades of practice, I learned to slowly guide aether to assist me, absorbing and directing it, because of your core and your ability to easily absorb and refine aether within your own body, your relationship to aether is more akin to a parent and child.”
I felt inward toward my core, brimming with bright, pure aether. Lady Myre’s first lesson for me regarding aether was to reinforce the idea that it had a kind of “consciousness,” and that it could only be coaxed, never controlled. When I forged my core and proved her wrong, I assumed my core allowed me to manipulate and control aether in a way the dragon race of the asuras simply couldn’t comprehend, and hadn’t thought much further than that.
“So you’re saying that the aether I absorb and purify within my core…I can exert such a strong influence over it because it’s…what? Bonded to me?”
“Exactly!” she exclaimed, focusing on my sternum as if she could see through my flesh and into my core. Then her face fell into a little frown, almost a pout. “While your spatium technique earlier was impressive, I still find myself underwhelmed—disappointed even—that this is all you have managed to accomplish considering the immense potential of your body and core combined. You should be able to form an aether weapon with a thought—no, the aether should react to your intention before you even fully articulate it into a conscious thought.”
I scratched the back of my neck, both frustrated and a little stung by her rebuke. “I think I’m beginning to understand.”
The djinn woman laughed and shook her head as a single blade appeared in her hands. “No. But with more practice and less conversation, you will.” Her face as emotionless as stone, she lunged, her blade aimed at my core.
After what felt like days, our sparring continued unabated. I was forcefully reminded of my time in the aether orb training opposite Kordri as the djinn and I fought each other to a standstill, our battles raging on for hours at a time. Neither of us held back, nor did we give an inch to the other. The djinn could summon several weapons at once and change their forms with an instant and unpredictable precision, but I was the better swordsman.
And for the first time since Dawn’s Ballad had shattered, I had a real sword again.
It had taken time for the djinn’s forceful message to sink in, but it wasn’t the first time I’d had to relearn something I thought I knew well. Slowly, over the course of hours or days, I had practiced letting my intention shape the aether blade.
In practice, the concept was similar to how Three Steps had trained me to perceive the aetheric pathways of God Step without first having to “see” them. Whereas before it had felt like trying to mold water with my bare hands, it had become as comfortable and natural as closing my hand into a fist, although maintaining the blade still required nearly all my concentration.
I grinned as we fought, reveling in the feel of the aetheric weapon in my hand. The blade itself was both longer and wider than Dawn’s Ballad had been, slightly wider at the base and tapering into a razor-sharp point, and glowed a bright amethyst color. A crossguard protected my hand—an addition I’d made after the djinn struck a painful blow against my knuckles and disrupted my focus on the weapon.
Holding the sword revitalized me, giving me back something I hadn’t even realized I was missing. Both as King Grey and as Arthur Leywin, mastering the art of swordsmanship had been pivotal to my sense of self, and when Dawn’s Ballad was shattered, it was like losing a limb.
Whenever my aether blade crossed with one of the djinn’s many weapons, a deep, resonant hum filled the air, and the space around them seemed to warp, flexing outward slightly and causing a visible distortion. It gave the impression that our combat was altering the very fabric of the world around us, and I had to wonder if it was merely due to our being in an entirely mental realm—some representation of my mind growing with the use of the blade—or if this mental simulation was accurately portraying the aether weapons’ genuine physical impact.
The djinn threw herself at me with a piercing battle cry. The weapon in her hand shifted to a glaive, while twin blades spun at my head and hip. I leapt into the air, spinning horizontally with the ground so that the flying swords cut only air above and below me. With the glaive, the djinn cut upward in a short, sharp motion meant to catch me midair, but I didn’t need to have my feet on the ground to react.
I God Stepped behind her, but couldn’t maintain concentration on the summoned aetheric blade in that between-space. The time it took to reform the blade cost me any advantage, giving the djinn time to spin around to find me and then leap over my slash aimed at her waist. I redirected the momentum of my swing into an overhead chop, forcing her to bring up her own weapon—a sword again—to defend.
I leaned into the contact and shoved hard, sending my opponent sliding backwards as I held my sword out to ward off a surprise attack from the weapons that flew unsupported around her.
Triggering God Step, I flashed to her side, then immediately God Stepped again to her opposite side and formed my blade, thrusting it at her chest, but she was already moving, her many blades swinging around to defend from multiple possible angles.
I repeated this several times, each time trying to catch her off guard, attacking from a different direction, but she matched me step for step, neither of us able to land a solid blow against the other.
Then suddenly her weapons vanished and she blinked—not her eyes, but her entire body, like she’d turned momentarily invisible. I let my own sword fade away.
“Are you okay?”
She nodded, but I couldn’t help but think that her form wasn’t as bright as it had been. “I’m afraid our time is running short. We should”—the white blankness vanished, and we were once again standing in the dilapidated stone ruins—“return to your companions.”
The djinn projection was gone, and the voice was now emanating from the crystal at the center of the room. “You have performed well, descendant.”
Caera and Regis stood from where they had both been sitting against one of the crumbling walls. Caera looked relieved, but Regis was giving me an annoyed scowl. I noticed I was back in my armor, or more likely that I had never actually dismissed it, since the fighting had all taken place in my mind.
“You took your sweet time,” he said sulkily. “That lasted a lot longer than last time.”
“Oh,” I said, not having given the passage of time even a second’s thought while I was training with the djinn. “How long has it been?”
“Ten minutes, at most,” Caera answered, nudging Regis’s side with her knee. “You were just kind of standing there, staring blankly…It was a bit creepy, really.”
The crystal pulsed as it interjected, saying, “It is unfortunate that I did not have the energy to continue, but manifesting the thought realm is taxing. However, I believe you have made enough progress to continue training your aether blade technique on your own.”
“And the trial?” I asked. Aside from sparring and discussing how I could improve, she hadn’t given me any other test.
“A test of character and will,” the crystal answered, brightening. “You have passed, per my judgement, and will have your reward.”
My dimensional storage rune grew warm, and I hurried to withdraw a plain black cube that had just appeared within. Like the previous one, it felt much heavier than it should have. A part of me wanted to imbue aether into it immediately, entering into the keystone to see what it held, but I resisted the urge.
Caera leaned over, peering at the relic. I handed it to her to examine, trusting that she would care for it, and turned my attention back to the crystal.
“Can you tell me what sort of insight this relic contains?” I asked hopefully.
The crystal dimmed, pulsing unevenly. “I am afraid not. Discovery is essential to learning. By telling you anything at all, I could inadvertently limit or even corrupt your eventual understanding of the godrune.”
I considered for a moment, then asked, “And where do these godrunes come from? Who or what gives them to us? Your compatriot wasn’t able to answer.”
“That information isn’t stored within this remnant.”
I couldn’t exactly be disappointed, since I’d expected this. Besides, I had too many other things to worry about. The mystery of godrunes would have to be resolved some other day.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think to ask earlier…What is your name?” 𝐟𝙧ℯ𝑒𝒘𝐞𝒃𝗻𝒐ѵ𝘦𝑙.com
The crystal seemed to hum, its light flickering dimly. In a raw, emotional tone, it said, “That information isn’t stored within this remnant, either.”
“Is there anything else you’d like to tell me before we leave?” There were a hundred questions I would have liked for the djinn remnant to answer, but if we were short on time, I didn’t want to waste it by asking things she couldn’t tell me.
The lavender light of the crystal flickered silently for a minute. “Do not try to force the world into a shape to suit your needs, but you should also not accept the limitations of this world as it is. Your path is yours alone, and only you may walk it. I genuinely hope my creation aids you on this path. It will draw aether to you, making it easier for you to then absorb, and will protect you from nearly any attack, but it is not impenetrable. A strong enough opponent, with potent control over mana or aether, will still be able to harm you. Do not let them.”
I nodded to the crystal. “Thank you.”
The ruin shifted around us, only partially becoming the library I had seen out of the corner of my eye while navigating the collapsing passageway before. It was like looking at two transparent images set over the top of each other, becoming both the library and the ruined room at the same time.
One wall of the library was dominated by a shadowy portal, the frame of which was an arch of shelves full of the crystals. The library was busy with tiny movements as little pictures played across the many facets of the hundreds of crystals, but I found them impossible to focus on, and when I reached for one, my hand passed through as if it wasn’t really there.
Facing the portal, I asked, “Will we even be able to use this?” But there was no answer from the crystal.
“This is beyond strange,” Caera said, walking directly through a wide table. She moved her hand through the back of a chair. “An illusion?”
“I think we’re the illusion,” Regis said, sniffing around. “There’s no smell here. Just a faint hint of something like ozone…like there is nothing here at all. Or like we’re not really here.”
I withdrew the Compass. “The djinn bound and shaped reality with aether here, but it’s beginning to collapse. This place is like three different rooms stacked on top of and within each other…but the boundaries between them aren’t stable. We need to leave.”
Holding up the half-sphere relic, I imbued aether into it. Misty light settled over the portal, and the frame solidified, becoming more solidly real. Through the portal was my room at the academy, but my attention was drawn to the crystals, which were also solid. The images playing across their many surfaces showed djinn—their race obvious by the variation of pinks and purples in their skin tone, and the spellforms that often covered most of their bodies—performing any number of mundane activities.
Many of the facets showed only djinn faces, speaking. Most looked tired, and deeply sad.
Tentatively, I reached out to lift a crystal off the shelf. At my touch, a dozen overlapped voices—or rather, the same voice, but saying a dozen different things at the same time—emitted from the crystal, directly into my mind. Instinctively, I touched the crystal with aether, and the voices cut off and the images faded away.
Curiosity won out over caution—and a small twinge of guilt—and I stored the crystal away in my dimensional storage rune for later.
Caera and Regis had watched this silently. Despite her stoicism and unnatural endurance, Caera looked tired. Regis, on the other hand, was unreadable, his emotions hidden from our link even as he disappeared inside me without a word.
With much to think about and even more to be done, I left my partner alone as I recalled the relic armor. The black ethereal suit of scales evaporated, but I could feel it still, waiting for me to call on it again.
Sharing a nod and a weary smile, I gestured toward the portal. “Let’s go see what happened at the bestowment ceremony.”