The Beginning After The End - Chapter 387
Chapter 385: Purity
‘Ugh, spending five hours listening to these dwarves play the blame game is making me miss passing through a mana beast’s colon,’ Regis grumbled.
These meetings may not be exciting, but they are important. Just…try to enjoy the view or something, I thought tiredly.
The Hall of Lords within Vildorial’s Royal Palace was an astonishing sight. The hall itself was within an enormous geode that stretched at least seventy feet wide and was perhaps a hundred feet from floor to ceiling. It was difficult to tell how much exactly because the floor was hidden by a swirling pool of silvery mist.
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The long, hand-carved table where the dwarven nobility met rested atop a thin sliver of crystal that floated unsupported in the air in the geode’s center. To reach it, we had crossed a series of hovering stones that made a kind of walkway.
The geode itself shone with a kaleidoscope of colors: aquamarine bleeding into rusty orange cut through with purple striations, sparkling with yellow and white. When the light shifted, the colors seemed to jump and run together. Instead of lighting artifacts, ever-burning candles floated at intervals throughout the space, ensuring constantly flickering light that made it look like waves of color were washing across the geode’s million little surfaces.
I had examined it at length, mostly when the gathered dwarves began pointing fingers or arguing about who had failed in what duty, which clans deserved a seat at the table, and who had proven the worst failure to dwarvenkind.
“With all respect to Lance Mica,” Lord Silvershale said for probably the seventh time, “the Earthborns stayed nice and chummy with the Alacryans in Vildorial throughout the occupation. Never had to leave their homes, none of their kin died defending—”
“A blatant lie,” Carnelian Earthborn responded, rolling his beetle-black eyes. “And not even a clever one, considering that my own daughter led the damned war.”
I looked from Silvershale to Earthborn. The former was older, with shoulder-length hair that had largely gone gray and a beard braided into three prongs. Carnelian, on the other hand, looked relatively young. His mahogany red hair didn’t match Mica’s at all, but there was a roundness to his cheeks and a bright shining youth in his eyes that gave him that same childlike appearance as his daughter.
“Where has the Earthborn Clan been, then, these last many months?” Lord Silvershale looked around the table, not at Carnelian but the rest of the dwarven nobility. “Certainly not in the tunnels fighting against the Alacryans and turncoats,” he finished, crossing his arms and flashing the others a victorious grin.
Okay, you’re right, I admitted to Regis. The important part appears to be over.
Before the two could take the argument further—or worse, draw in any of the other lords—I stood. The crystal below my feet rang against the petrified wood of my chair, drawing all eyes to me. Everyone in attendance—as many dwarven nobles as we could round up on short notice, the surviving members of Virion’s council, and the other Lances—hurried to stand as well.
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“I’m afraid I need time to prepare before moving on to the other long-range teleportation gates,” I said.
Mica let out a relieved sigh, then seemed to catch herself, stood straight, and smoothed her expression into something slightly more noble. “All the Lances, in fact, have other duties to attend to. Father,” she finished with a slight inclination of her head.
“Indeed,” Carnelian said, beaming at his daughter. “We’ve kept our guests far too long. Let this meeting of the Lord’s Assemblage be adjourned, to reconvene tomorrow, midday.” He rapped his knuckles on the tabletop like a judge swinging his gavel.
From across the table, Helen caught my eye, widening hers just slightly, her lips pressed tightly together. I knew exactly how she felt.
It was hard to feel sorry for the dwarves, difficult to avoid comparing their pain and loss to that of the elves. But there was no denying they had suffered. Since the war began, they’d been quietly slaughtering each other in the tunnels beneath the desert. The two factions saw each other as fools and blood traitors, each side betraying what was in the dwarves’ best interest.
This animosity wouldn’t fade in a day, and I felt certain we hadn’t seen the last of the bloodshed between the dwarven factions. Still, we had done what we could in such a short amount of time.
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Most of the dwarves had been thrilled to see the Alacryans pushed out of Vildorial. Almost as many had been furious when the Alacryans had been allowed to teleport back to Alacrya, however. Even among the Lord’s Assemblage, many complained that we hadn’t executed all the Alacryan soldiers for their crimes. I couldn’t exactly blame them.
Even more controversial was the decision to allow those dwarves who were most dedicated to the Alacryans to leave with them. Despite the dwarven nobility’s concerns that we’d just given Agrona more soldiers, I hardly thought they’d be treated as equals in Alacrya. But by the time they realized their own folly, it would be far too late.
For those men and women, however, I felt no sympathy at all.
An attendant opened the doors that led back into the palace proper, which, after the grandeur of the Hall of Lords, felt almost plain by comparison. Gideon was leaning against the wall just outside, while four heavily armed and armored dwarves glowered at him unwelcomingly.Read first at ” “
The inventor pushed himself away from the wall at the sound of the doors opening and gave me a wide, boyish grin. “Finally! These dwarves think as slow as the stone they live in…” Gideon trailed off, then cleared his throat as the guards’ faces darkened. I kept walking, and he fell into step beside me. “Anyway, I’ve been waiting for you, boy. I’ve got a few things to show you, inventions I worked on while in the Alacryans’ care. There are a few things that I really think—”
I held up a hand, forestalling the deluge of information about to spill from Gideon. “I want to see it, I do, but not right now, Gideon.” The old inventor’s face fell. Twisting the ring of polished black stone off my middle finger, I held it out to him. The moment of disappointment melted away as he plucked it out of my hands. “I need you to focus on this.”
He held it up to his eye and turned it over several times. “But this is just a dimension ring. What…” He trailed off, his wide bloodshot eyes jumping from the ring to me as an excited grin spread across his face. “Oh, please tell me you’ve brought presents from the other continent.” He bobbed on the balls of his feet, nearly skipping. “Some of their technology, perhaps?”
“Very specific technology,” I confirmed. “Figure out how it works, if we can replicate it. Whatever else you’ve been working on, this takes priority.”
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We made our way out of the palace together, Gideon peppering me with questions that I answered to the best of my ability. He hurried off from the front gates, rushing toward the Earthborn Institute to unpack the dimension ring and begin his studies, assuring me he wouldn’t eat or sleep until he had answers.
From the front gates of the Royal Palace, which was on the highest level of Vildorial, I could see the entire cavern laid out below me.
The city was bustling with activity: soldiers preparing defenses against Agrona’s inevitable counterattack, food and materials being carted in from the expansive tunnel system that surrounded the city, and temporary homes being found for the hundreds of refugees we’d brought with us, all of which mingled with the day-to-day activities of the city’s residents.
The city center, a huge plaza that dominated the bottom level, had become ground zero for receiving the hundreds of mostly elven refugees we’d brought with us. Even from the palace, I could see that the plaza was filled with large tables, crates, and tents for handing out fresh food and giving the most tired and feeble refugees a place to rest while they waited for more comfortable lodgings.
Plenty of dwarves were lined up to receive food as well, although I couldn’t help but notice how little they mingled with the elves. Pushing aether into my eyes, I looked more closely at the individuals. No one bothered to hide the bitter sideways glances between the two races, and there was a palpable tension hanging over the plaza.Read first at ” “
Unfortunate, but not unexpected, I thought. The elves see the dwarves as turncoats, while these struggling, starving dwarves see the elves as competition for too few resources.
‘They better figure it out,’ Regis chimed in. ‘They’ll all be in Agrona’s crosshairs together. Or Kezess. Pick your megalomaniac.’
I took a deep breath, held it for several seconds, then slowly let it back out. I know.
‘I still think the Relictombs would have been better,’ Regis thought with the mental equivalent of shrugging his shoulders. ‘Less complicated.’
It was true that the Relictombs would have been an impenetrable shelter from the asuras, considering they couldn’t even enter it.
But then I would be no better than the asuras, I thought with an edge of rebuke. The Relictombs would be as much a cage as an asylum, and I’d become their master.
‘Better a master who protects them than one ready to sacrifice them for his own ends,’ Regis thought mullishly.
‘I imagine that’s what Kezess and Agrona both thought before they became the tyrants they are today, I refuted.
‘The real problem is that you won’t make up your damned mind,’ he shot back, agitated. ‘Arguing with yourself—and by extension, me—every moment of every day about what’s the “best” way to do something. It’s war. There are going to be consequences and you have to be ready to accept that no matter what you do.’
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‘Do you?’ Regis pressed. ‘Like this whole portal-to-Alacrya thing. You want to destroy it, but don’t want to give it up as a tool, but just turning it off is still dangerous, and you’re afraid of what will happen if you’re wrong. It’s exhausting being in here.’ His huge shadow wolf form leaped out onto the road beside me. He shook out his mane, causing the flames to flare.
“I’m going to go exploring,” he grumbled, loping away down the road and ignoring the chorus of surprised and frightened shouts from the dwarves he passed.
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I sighed as I watched him go, but my mind was settling into a discordant blankness, my thoughts fluttering like tattered cobwebs in the dark, disrupted by Regis’s frustration that was still leaking into me.
I closed my eyes hard, then opened them and focused on the crowd again, looking for Mom and Ellie. After a minute, I found them at one of the long tables. Mom was ladling soup into bowls while Ellie handed out chunks of bread and full waterskins.
I wanted to go to them. Almost as much as I wanted to be alone. I couldn’t bear the thought of all those people, their eyes turned expectantly in my direction, pleading and begging…
I didn’t blame them. Not at all. I understood. I’d lived it all before, after all, as King Grey. But now wasn’t the time.
Instead of descending the looping path down to the lowest level, I turned and moved around the edge of the Royal Palace and through a garden filled with glowing mushrooms. Around the far edge of the palace, where the cut stone merged back into the rough, natural cavern cliff, there was an arched tunnel carved into the wall. Steam and the heavy, sulfuric smell of a natural hot spring wafted out.
The short tunnel opened up onto a ledge above a series of round pools. The water had a subtle blue luminescence, almost like it was absorbing and reflecting the light of the many glowing fungi and hanging vines that grew over the walls and ceiling. No one else was present; during our short tour of the Royal Palace, Carnelian Earthborn had explained that the Alacryans had forbidden dwarves to use these pools.
I suspected the nobles would move back in soon enough, but for the moment, it was the perfect place to rest and think.
Letting myself move slowly, almost meandering, I walked along the edge of the pools until I found a spot I liked, next to a small, private pool where a patch of long-stemmed mushrooms grew. They waved on their stalks like the antenna of some subterranean mana beast.
Slipping off my boots, I eased my feet into the water and took a seat on the soft, mossy ground.
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The keystone had become my primary tool for meditation, and so I withdrew it from the dimension rune. I turned the heavy, matte-black cube over in my hands a few times, considering it.
So far, I had discovered that the blackness within the keystone realm reacted to mana use, but not in a way I could see or manipulate. It was nothing more than inky-black ripples in the dark. Thanks to Caera, I had learned that the black ripples were mana itself, and theorized that having a mana core allowed one to see the mana particles around them when they entered the keystone. My lack of a mana core seemed to be the primary obstacle preventing me from moving forward.
As I’d done dozens of times now, I imbued aether into the keystone. My consciousness rushed into it, passing through the purple walls into darkness. And I stayed there, surrounded by blankness, the lightly sulfuric smell of the hot water only barely pressing through to my conscious mind.
I didn’t bother activating any of my aetheric abilities, didn’t hunt through the nothing for signs of magic or mana. I didn’t even think, at least for a little while. It was like being asleep, except I didn’t have to struggle as I would to sleep naturally.
Then, after some indeterminate amount of time, something changed. I wasn’t quite sure what at first. It was a subtle sensation, like a prickling at the back of my neck when someone was watching me.
But this feeling was coming from within the keystone realm.Read first at ” “
Near the edges of what I would consider my “vision,” something shifted in the darkness. It wasn’t the black-on-black slithering I had felt before. More like…stars, barely seen through light, night-time clouds. They were barely perceptible gray motes that pulsed, turning this way and that, almost like they were hunting for something.
I opened my eyes.
Across the room, Ellie crept out of the entryway, her hand on the wall, her nose wrinkled up against the thick air, tension tightening every muscle. She squinted into the strange, fungi-born light, saw me, and relaxed.
Her whisper carried in the silence of the hot springs.
El. Had my sister been the source of the gray motes inside the keystone realm? But if so, how? Why? What had she been doing? Instead of firing off these questions like arrows, however, I gave her a warm, if tired, smile. “How did you find me?”
She wrinkled her nose again. “Okay, it’s going to sound weird, but I smelled you.”
“Smelled me?” I chuckled, one eyebrow raising. “I’m pretty sure I don’t stink that bad, do I?” I sniffed at my tunic just to make sure.
“It’s part of my beast will,” she said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. She hesitated at the stairs that led from the ledge down to the moss-covered stone that ringed the pools. “Is it okay if…”Read first at ” “
“Of course,” I said immediately. As much as I wanted to be alone to explore the keystone—to discover more about the gray particles I’d seen—after all this time, I also just wanted to spend time with my sister. “Come sit with me. The water feels amazing.”
Ellie beamed at me as she practically skipped in between the pools to join me, kicked off her turnshoes, and plopped down with her feet in the water.
She laughed, kicking her feet in the water and splashing us both. “He was terrifying the dwarf children in the food lines, so I sent him to hunt in the tunnels.” She frowned suddenly. “I hope he’ll be okay. What if someone thinks he’s a wild mana beast or something? I should have thought of that sooner.”
“I can send Regis to keep him company,” I told her, pinging my companion mentally to do just that. I had felt the boredom trickling back from him, so I knew he would he eagerly agree. Both of them were technically born of Epheotus, and I had sensed Regis’s curiosity about Boo several times since returning.
Ellie smiled in thanks, but the smile flickered at the edges. “Hey…why didn’t you come down to see us? You’re…it’s not because of Mom, is it?”
“No, it’s not…” I stopped, forced to gather my thoughts. “It was mostly the crowd, but, maybe a little because of Mom. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but love for her. It’s just…”
I kicked my foot and watched the ripples move outward, slowly fading as they went. “I don’t know what’s best for her, El. Time with me, time apart to digest everything that’s happened, starting the conversation, waiting for her to take the lead…”
Ellie shrugged. “It’ll take time. But you need to know that Mom really, really wants to fix things between you two.” She grinned. “And not just because you’re some crazy, super-powered hero now.”
I laughed, pushing her sideways. She slid down the mossy slope and got soaked up to her knees, then splashed water at me.
When the laughter subsided, she noticed the keystone in my hand for the first time. “What’s that?”
“A djinn—ancient mage keystone. It’s like…an instruction manual for aether arts. But I’ve been working on this one for a while, and I can’t seem to make sense of it. Every time I think I’m making progress, I just end up at another dead end. Except…” I hesitated, weighing my curiosity about the gray motes versus my concern in involving my sister.
She ran a finger along one edge, peering closely at its surface. “How does it work?”
There was no way to separate these parts of my life, I decided with a sigh. Not anymore. “Do you want to help?” She nodded excitedly, so I quickly explained the training process I’d used with Enola and Caera. “It’d be just like when we used to practice forming different shapes with your mana back at the castle.”
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Ellie’s face scrunched with concentration as she held up a hand. An identical cube formed on her palm, but this one was made of her own bright, pure mana. “Like this?”
I nodded. “Now, my mind is going to go into the keystone. It’s hard to concentrate on my other senses, so I may not be able to hear you, but just keep going until I come back, okay?”
“Got it,” she said seriously, letting the cube dissipate as she prepared to conjure a different shape.
I nervously slid back into the keystone realm, quelling any hopes or expectations. For a moment, all was still, quiet, and empty. Then the mana began to move, and my heart stopped.
Burning amidst the otherwise formless black was an uneven orb of blurry gray motes. After a few seconds, the orb began to change, adding in more mana particles as it became more complex. Like watching a ball of clay be molded into shape, the shadowy mana particles became a rough but recognizable bear. I could see Ellie continuing to work at it, thinning the body, widening the legs, adjusting the bear’s heavy brows. When the bear began to walk, I lost focus.
My eyes snapped open and I stared at the water in front of Ellie, where an identical little bear of pure mana was slowly maneuvering across the surface of the water. She was so intently focused on her creation that she hadn’t noticed me return.
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Most mages adapted an affinity toward a specific element quite early on, but Ellie’s mana had never manifested in that way. Like an augmenter, Ellie used the pure mana from her core to cast, but used a bow to focus that mana and project it away from herself, giving her a longer range than most augmenters could manage.
Most augmenters eventually revealed an affinity for a specific element, with their augmentations taking on aspects of that element due to the abundance of elemental mana in their core. But Ellie’s had stayed pure. She was the only non-elemental caster I knew. The mana used for her spells was entirely pure.
Closing my eyes again, I returned to the keystone realm. There was the bear, out of focus but clearly visible, pacing around in the darkness. Then the bear melted away, and a simple silhouette took its place. At first the silhouette was featureless, but Ellie slowly added more detail, giving it long hair, a little face, and distinct horns.
I felt my throat constrict as her face came clear. Molded from the blurry mana, she looked uncomfortably similar to my last moments with her, like I was watching her dissolve all over again…
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Sensing my focus slipping away again, I pushed those old, painful memories to the back of my mind, focusing entirely on the shape.
What am I supposed to be seeing, sensing?
The purpose of the keystone was to guide me toward insight over some principle of aether. The first keystone had led me to Aroa’s Requiem, but the path to that understanding had been bizarre, almost nonsensical.
But that was the point, I thought. It was the journey that provided wisdom, not the keystone itself. Less of an instruction manual, more a map.
Sylvie’s figure began to change again. It bloated out, mana particles rushing to it as the figure expanded, forming wings, a tail, and a long neck. Sylvie’s draconic form.
While the end goal was a mystery, it seemed clear that the path involved watching the mana particles as they moved or reacted to the casting of a spell.
Although I couldn’t be sure, I doubted that the djinn could see individual mana particles the way Realmheart had allowed me to. This keystone gave them that ability, which must have allowed them to then gain some additional insight.
But what could that be? And why can I sense Ellie’s pure mana, but not elementally aligned mana?
The djinn’s focus had been on learning about aether, not mana, so whatever the keystone’s purpose, the insight it provided had to be related to aether. Caera had been able to see the mana with it, but simply seeing had not granted her any greater understanding, and I doubted it even could, since she had no affinity for aether.
Growing frustrated, I released my hold on the keystone realm and let my consciousness drift back into my body.
Ellie was trying to make the dragon’s wings move, but was having trouble with the complex motion. Her face was pinched in a frown of concentration.
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I stayed still and silent, embracing the quiet peacefulness of my surroundings.
As a quadra-elemental mage with the ability to use Realmheart, at one time I had a better understanding of mana than just about any other mage in Dicathen. I didn’t need to see it now to understand it. Although it wasn’t physically in front of me, I could still picture the jagged energy of red fire mana, the liquid grace of blue water mana, the sharp, cutting gusts of green air mana, and the heavy rolling of yellow earth mana.
The djinn may have needed the keystone to see and understand how mana particles moved and reacted to spells being cast, but I didn’t.
Earth, air, water, fire…
My gaze jumped from the cavern walls to the steamy air to the warm pools. Mana was drawn to the physical elements it represented. This room was full of all four elements. Without a spell being cast, however, the atmospheric mana was dormant. I needed to agitate it.
“Ellie,” I said, louder and more forcefully than I’d intended.
My sister jerked out of her highly concentrated state, and the dragon vanished. “Oh, darn.”
“Nevermind, I need you to try something else,” I said in a rush. “Create shapes that interact with the elements in the room. Disrupt the water, stone, air…shoot it, whatever. Get creative.”
Without waiting for a response, I dove back into the keystone.
After a moment, there was a flash, a beam like an arrow flying in the dark. Distantly, I heard the cracking of stone. In the keystone, I watched a ripple spread out from where the arrow had vanished, inky black but not formless.
Earth, I thought, watching the way the mana bumped up against itself like stones rolling down a hill.
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“Again,” I said.
This time, I watched the spot even more closely. The arrow appeared, flashed, then vanished.
Ellie shot arrow after arrow, and each impact set the atmospheric mana into brief motion. Then she made spinning blades to push the air, and finally spheres like cannonballs to hurl into the peaceful water.
But, although the tremors and waves and ripples made logical sense, it changed nothing about how I saw them. I tried picturing the inky black disruptions within the keystone realm as the brightly-colored particles they really were, began anticipating how they would react to Ellie’s spells.
I understood the mana, could see it even without seeing it. But…maybe that was part of the problem. I wasn’t learning anything. There was no new insight here.
What am I missing?
I thought back to my childhood, how I had taught myself to be a quadra-elemental mage. And Xyrus Academy, learning to focus on my weakest attributes. Then Epheotus, and how I’d needed to entirely change how I looked at mana manipulation, inventing new techniques to adapt to the challenges I faced. And then I learned about aether.
Lady Myre had told me that aether was creation. It was like a cup, mana like water. Aether shaped mana. It controlled the forms it could take. But I had already learned that the dragons’ understanding of aether was limited. This simplistic comparison was flawed…but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be useful.
I attempted to channel aether through my body. It didn’t work; my mind and body were too separate, too metaphysically distant. I tried again, trying to reach back for my physical form without losing my connection with the keystone realm. It was like trying to make my arms longer or force a bone to bend.
I needed to sense two things at once, hold two separate ideas in my mind at the same time. And slowly, very slowly, I began to feel the hard edges of the keystone in my hands, hear the trickling of the spring water flowing from one pool to the next, and feel my breath moving in and out of my lungs.
“El?” I asked, testing.
“Yeah, should I—oh! Are you…?”
“Still in here,” I said, my mouth forming sluggishly around the words. “Going to try something…”
And then I pushed. I didn’t try to form the aether, just expelled it from my core and body, sending a pulse of formeless, harmless aetheric particles out into the atmosphere. I struggled to keep my senses open from both directions, feeling the aether moving through the room while also watching the invisible mana particles move inside the aether realm.
I lost track of both. Resisting the urge to leave the keystone realm in pure frustration, I tried again, then again. I wasn’t sure how long I kept trying, with Ellie continuing to disturb the atmospheric mana in whatever ways she could think up.
Slowly, two opposing pictures formed in my mind.
One was the shape of the aether. The way it moved based on a fusion of its will and my own, but regardless of the physical space around me. Then there was the mana tied to individual elements, dormant until agitated by Ellie’s magic.
I understood how the aether moved, and I understood how the mana moved. No new insight to cultivate there. But where they interacted with each other…
The aether simultaneously contained and gave shape to the mana, and yet the mana continued to move exactly as expected of its nature.
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Like a cognitive illusion, I realized. A picture that is two things at once, with the negative space of one image creating the other.
My perspective shifted. Suddenly I wasn’t just sensing the aether, but the shape of the mana in between it. The keystone realm realigned itself to my new perspective, and, between one breath and the next, everything changed.
Instead of an endless field of black nothing, I saw the rough shape of the grotto, painted in the colors of mana. Next to me, my sister glowed with it, all the elements being drawn in through her channels to be purified in her core.
The colors ran together, the scene disappearing into a spinning vortex of mana, with me at its center. Unlike the previous keystone, I didn’t feel the scouring sensation in my mind. Instead, I felt warmth spreading across my physical body, while at the same time a window opened in my head, letting golden light bathe my innermost thoughts.
My eyes fluttered open.
Ellie was staring at me, no longer casting her spells. I sensed for the godrunes. They were there, dormant, waiting for aether to touch them, give them life and purpose. And there was a new one, still warm against my skin.
I pushed aether into it.
“Whoa,” Ellie breathed. “You’ve got glowing purple tattoos under your eyes. That’s so cool.”
As before, my mind was filled with knowledge. This new godrune had a name, a purpose, a history, but it felt incomplete. Unlike before, it was not my understanding that was incomplete, but the djinn’s. I instinctively understood that they had not taken this aether art to its full potential. I could do more with it.
And so I abandoned the name it had come with. As my vision shifted and the atmospheric mana suffusing the cave appeared all around me, I decided what I would call this godrune.
Realmheart. Read first at ” ”