\"Chapter 361: The Second Ruin\"
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 Im 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 Dawns Ballad had shattered, I had a real sword again.
It had taken time for the djinns forceful message to sink in, but it wasn the first time Id 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 Dawns 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 Id 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 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 Dawns Ballad was shattered, it was like losing a limb.
Whenever my aether blade crossed with one of the djinns 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 need to have my feet on the ground to react.
I God Stepped behind her, but couldn 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 shed turned momentarily invisible. I let my own sword fade away.
”Are you okay? ”
She nodded, but I couldn help but think that her form wasn as bright as it had been. ”Im 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 seconds thought while I was training with the djinn. ”How long has it been? ”
”Ten minutes, at most, ” Caera answered, nudging Regiss 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 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 able to answer. ”
”That information isn stored within this remnant. ”
I couldn exactly be disappointed, since Id expected this. Besides, I had too many other things to worry about. The mystery of godrunes would have to be resolved some other day.
”Im sorry, I didn think to ask earlier…What is your name? ”
The crystal seemed to hum, its light flickering dimly. In a raw, emotional tone, it said, ”That information isn stored within this remnant, either. ”
”Is there anything else youd 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 want to waste it by asking things she couldn 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 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
e the illusion, ” Regis said, sniffing around. ”Theres no smell here. Just a faint hint of something like ozone…like there is nothing here at all. Or like we
e not really here. ”
I withdrew the Compass. ”The djinn bound and shaped reality with aether here, but its beginning to collapse. This place is like three different rooms stacked on top of and within each other…but the boundaries between them aren 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. ”Lets go see what happened at the bestowment ceremony. ”
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