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The Beginning After The End Chapter 480

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Chapter 480


Chapter 478: Horizon’s Edge


ARTHUR LEYWIN


Despite having no visible eyes, the knotwork face of the golden, glowing being stared into me, right down to my bones. My own mind seemed blank, dest.i.tute of intention or conscious thought. I could feel the golden threads knitting their way through my mind and memories, my past, present, and future. The sensation terrified me on an existential level.


“Who are you?” My voice was hollow and soft, the baritone resonance swallowed by the void and my own doubt.


“You have already said it.” The threads pulsed and vibrated as the ent.i.ty spoke. “I am Fate. Or…an aspect of Fate. The mouth.”


As I struggled to come up with something else to say, I desperately searched the wide expanse of aetheric void that surrounded us. The only concrete feature of the vast black-purple emptiness was the portal. I wondered what would happen if I tried to flee back through it.


No, this is why we’re here, I reminded myself, trying to mentally force my way through the uncharacteristic fear that was robbing me of my senses. “What was that, back there? Haneul? The Shadow Claws and other tribes? Why the charade?”


The golden threads unraveled, s.h.i.+vered through the air, and wound themselves back into the humanoid form to our left, putting us between Fate and the portal. Sylvie and Regis rotated around me to keep the three of us facing Fate.


“I chose a figure from your memories that I thought would put you at ease in order to make this conversation more comfortable.” Again, the threads vibrated, a hint of which came through in the resonant, inhuman voice of Fate’s aspect. “You carry with you many hundreds of hours of remembrances from the one called Haneul, giving the appearance of great importance.” Something like a laugh s.h.i.+vered through the form, sending ripples along the many hundreds of golden threads extending outward from it. “Perhaps it was not comfort you needed to introduce you into this conversation, but confusion.”


I glanced at Sylvie, who met my eye with a raised brow. ‘This…isn’t exactly what I expected.’


Regis tilted his head, perplexed.‘Me neither.’


“Your expectations could only prove to be malformed,” the figure responded, as if it could hear our thoughts. “You know so little, but your insight has brought you to the cusp of greater understanding. To the horizon’s edge. Your growth, your power—your many successes and failures—has prepared you for one thing, and one thing alone.”


“To wield the aspect of aether known as Fate?” I asked aloud, a s.h.i.+ver running up my spine.


“No.” The word hung in the air, seeming to resound from each and every string that made up the ent.i.ty’s physical form. “But your misunderstanding is very…human.”


Before I could reply, colors spilled across the void, swirling and melting together to form a cloudy blue sky, a verdant green field, and an expanse of rolling ocean, each white-capped wave gleaming like so many diamonds in a yellow sun. By the time my focus returned to the aspect of Fate, it had again wrapped itself in the blue-skinned, pink-eyed djinn, Haneul.


I took an experimental step; the ground beneath my feet seemed solid. Bending down, I ran my palm over the blades of gra.s.s, feeling each one bend and then spring back into place. Something about the scene was familiar. “Where are we?”


“It depends on when you are,” Haneul replied. He approached the edge of a tall cliff that rose vertically up from a wide beach below. Shadows rushed suddenly across the landscape, and buildings began to rise out of the sand. Dark figures moved across the beach like many thousands of ants. “The wraiths were the first to build here. A very, very long time ago.”


A great city grew up before us, alive with the little dark figures that appeared and disappeared too quickly to make out. The city swallowed the coastline and the cliff, extending as far as the eye could see in every direction. Then other figures appeared. White shadows, then blue, then red and brown, all descended on the city. Although the distant scene lacked detail, it was obvious that a terrible battle was unfolding. Both sides suffered greatly, and, by the time it was over, the landscape had been returned to its previous state. Nothing was left of the city.


I recalled what Kezess had told me about the ancient branch of asuras called the wraiths. “We just saw all the other asuras banding together against the warlike wraiths, didn’t we?” I said, mostly speaking to myself.


Soon, white figures were swarming the beach and, just as the dark figures representing the wraiths had done before them, began building up a great city. Only, before the city was complete, all the white blurs vanished. I frowned down at the half-built ghost city for several long moments. Just as I was about to turn to Haneul and ask what had happened, the land opened up and swallowed the city whole.


“When the dragons took Epheotus from this world, they scrubbed all signs of their civilization from the land so that future people would know nothing of them.” Haneul looked sadly down on the empty beach. The construction and fall of the two cities had left the landscape roughened and the cliff face carved away in part. “It is always here. This place calls to every civilization that grows from the soil of this land.”


“What do you—”


I went silent as a new people spread across the beach. Their progress was slower than the wraiths or the dragons. Starting with small huts, they grew their village into a town, and then into a small city pressed up against the cliff face. The land around us was tilled and churned to brown soil where crops were grown. Thick plumes of smoke began to pour from the chimneys of some buildings, which were now made of brick instead of clay or wood. Docks extended out into the ocean, and small sailing vessels appeared. Their progress seemed to halt for some time, and then…


White blurs rained down white fire, and the city was erased in the blink of an eye.


My first thought was of the djinn, but I had seen a djinn city. This hadn’t looked the same. But, as before, the white shapes were the dragons…


A chilling notion darkened my mind, and I turned to Haneul for confirmation. His pink eyes stayed on the beach.


Not long after, another group of people appeared. Like before, they slowly built up the land, surpa.s.sing the previous civilization as towering structures became the backbone of a walled city that spread down the coastline in each direction. Then, the blurred white shapes came again, and the buildings crumbled. By the time the dragons left, all signs of the city were undone.


Sylvie gave a low, pained moan, her gaze unblinking as she watched the shadowy destruction play out before us.


“This is one small corner of one little continent of this world, during one narrow window of time,” Haneul said, his voice strangely empty of emotion. “You need to see this to understand. Only when you understand will you be able to see.”


Time continued to pa.s.s by in a flood, and several more cities grew up and were destroyed, each one representing a civilization, an entirely new people. Then a city grew up that I recognized.


“The djinn city. The one I saw in the trial. Zhoroa.”


We were standing near the gazebo that overlooked the city, just to the side of the small waterfall. The peaceful era of the djinn seemed to last longer than the other civilizations, but I knew what was coming. When it did, I looked away. I’d already seen the end of Zhoroa; I didn’t need to experience it again.


When I looked back up, the djinn city was gone. No sc.r.a.p or speck remained, not a ruined wall or a foundation. Nothing. “I’ve seen, but I don’t understand,” I said at length.


“I know,” Haneul said.


Soon, people were back. This time, though, I could make some of them out. They were building atop the cliff, which had been worn down over time to create more of a slope. Instead of a plain stretch of ocean coastline, large parts of the wide beach had been destroyed by the preceding destruction, creating a familiar bay.


“Oh...that's f.u.c.ked up,” Regis exclaimed as realization dawned on him. “That's where Etistin is now.”


The scene melted away, the ground dissolving under my feet, the sky coming apart in thin rags of color. We were once again floating inside the aetheric realm beside the portal. Haneul was gone, and in his place the aspect of Fate returned, its glowing silk body shedding light across me and my companions.


“Was that real?” Sylvie asked breathlessly, unable to keep her growing panic and disgust concealed from our connection.


The light around the aspect of Fate dimmed. “Yes.”


“All those civilizations…” I had to swallow, moistening my dry, swollen throat. “The dragons destroyed each one?”


“Yes.”


“That can’t be,” Sylvie said, shaking her head and turning away.


I didn’t need to see her face to feel the tears leaking from her eyes. I rested my hand on her back in an attempt to comfort her. “What insight am I supposed to take from this? That the dragons didn’t only wipe out the djinn, but also many other civilizations before them? How does that help me to understand Fate?”


The aspect unraveled again, only to reform right in front of me. “It is the foundation on which you must build your new understanding of aether.”


“How can we believe you? How can we believe anything in this place?” Sylvie’s words came out sharp, accusatory. “We’re in the keystone. You could be just a fabrication. Everything we’ve seen—even this conversation, even you—it could all be a fantasy.”


“Sylv…” I said, my tone consoling. Through our mental link, I drew her toward me. Although she didn’t move physically, her will rested against mine. A s.h.i.+ver ran through her, and her breath eased.


The aspect of Fate hung motionless in the void. “It is incorrect to state that we are in the artifact you call a keystone.”


Even as the ent.i.ty spoke, I dug my fingers into my sternum, suddenly aware of the horrible itching sensation coming from my core. I wasn’t back in my physical body, I could still sense the distance between it and me, but at the same time, I could almost feel my breath moving evenly in and out of my lungs, my chest expanding and contracting. When I focused, I could even hear Sylvie next to me, her breath quicker, sharper, like someone about to be woken by a nightmare.


We were closer to ourselves, and yet not fully in one place or the other.


“That is true, Arthur-Grey. You are not fully in the keystone or the real world. Your mind is here, with me, in this prison.” The golden light fluttered with what my hindbrain translated as anger. “You three may believe this by simply choosing to do so. Fate is both within and without the keystone, just as you are.”


“A prison?” I asked, not fully comprehending what the aspect of Fate meant.


The golden-thread arms raised to the figure’s sides, a gesture that seemed to encompa.s.s the entire aetheric realm. “The world beyond, the plane of fire and earth, water and air, has not been allowed to grow in its natural course. This place—this aether realm as you think of it—is a symptom of the world being repressed, constricted. It is unnatural, its formation like a cyst on the waking world.”


Sylvie had drifted back a few paces. Her skin was pale, and she fidgeted with the sleeves of her black-scaled dress. “The destruction of all those civilizations…”


Her grandfather’s words came suddenly back to my mind: Everything I’ve done has been to keep this world alive, and it would be wise for you to place that firmly at the forefront of any further a.s.sumptions you make about me. But there was more to it than that. Kezess had spoken of balance and of asuras battling and destroying the world. I couldn’t help but think that, perhaps, he had meant something other than by physical destruction.


I considered everything I knew about aether: it harbored a sort of consciousness, requiring the dragons to work alongside it, coaxing it into the shape they desired; by absorbing and purifying aether through my own aether core, I changed my relations.h.i.+p with it, allowing me to directly manipulate it instead of fighting only to influence the way the dragons did; aether could change time, s.p.a.ce, and the vital energy of life itself, being powerful enough even to connect, or separate, one’s spiritual essence from their flesh and blood body.


Although the first question in my mind was why, why the dragons and Kezess would want to suppress the world’s advancement, it wasn’t the question I asked. “What is aether, really? What is Fate?”


“Aether is everything before life and after death,” the aspect said. As it spoke, the golden threads wound around themselves and the doll-like figure grew. “Aether is both s.p.a.ce and emptiness. It is endless and boundless time. It is the very essence of magic in this world.” The threads were wrapping around us now, like we were at the center of a ball of cotton yarn. Images played across the knotted string.


I saw…myself, falling. Only, the image that played in light across the inside of the sphere of golden thread wasn’t focused on me, but rather the man next to me. We fell and fell, and then…we stopped. My fall was arrested just before the collision with the hard ground, but the bandit wasn’t so lucky. The scene seemed to freeze. While I lay unconscious, the last few weak beats of the bandit’s heart pumped blood out into the soil from a hundred wounds, and the small amount of mana that clung to his body released into the atmosphere.


Then, something else released too; a few tiny motes of aether, like amethyst sparks, drifted up from his body and were absorbed into the thin fog of atmospheric aether that sparkled to life in the image.


Beside and slightly within the image of the bandit’s death, another image was playing as well. This one showed me dropping from a tree, my hand wreathed in a blade of wind. A quick strike across the carotid artery of a slaver, followed by a quick death. Again, the release of blood, mana, and finally, a few small motes of aether.


Other images played alongside these. Each one showed a different scene, but they were all the same: scenes of death. And accompanying each death, a release of aetheric particles.


Among the scenes, I locked onto one in particular. “No,” I said, or at least I thought I did. I couldn’t hear my own voice over the drumming of my pulse in my ears. I didn’t want to see, but I couldn’t look away.


In the image, my father’s body lay broken among the carnage of battle. I thought he was already…gone, but the mana was still clinging to him. His lips were moving, just a bit. I couldn’t take my gaze away from the horrible image. “Alice. Ellie. Art.” The slow, silent movement of his lips spelled out our names. “I love you. I…love you. I…” His lips went still, and the constricting force of his core released. Purified mana rose off him like steam on a cold winter morning. And then, the aether.


I closed my eyes. “That’s enough. I…understand.”


When I opened my eyes again, the aspect of Fate had returned to the humanoid collection of tightly wound golden thread.


Sylvie wove her fingers through mine and gripped my hand tightly. I could feel her taking on a share of the emotional weight the scene had deposited on my shoulders.


To my other side, Regis shook his head, causing the flames of his mane to ripple like a flag. “So aether is…what, exactly? Dead people?”


The golden threads pulsed with an angry light. “Aether is the concentrated magical energy left behind by a living being when they pa.s.s on.”


“And it…carries some sense of their intention,” I added, the pieces falling into place in my mind. “Aether is aware and can be influenced…because it was once alive.”


Tears shone in my bond’s eyes. “That is why it remembers the shapes it has taken before. Entire civilizations of the dead. Others besides the djinn must have reached a stage where they could utilize aether. The spellforms…are the echo of their collective consciousness bonded into living magic.”


The aspect of Fate trembled, and the entire aetheric realm seemed to close in around us. “The cyst that is this realm must burst if the world is to be set back onto its proper course,” the aspect said. “The world suffers without aether, and the aether suffers without the world.”


I pictured the souls of all those who had pa.s.sed in this world condensed into the aetheric realm and couldn’t help but wonder if some piece of my father was there as well. Not only my father, but Adam, Sylvia, Rinia, the Eraliths and the Glayders, Feyrith, Cynthia…there were too many dead to name. Were they suffering, trapped inside this unnatural prison?


“She said that the aetheric realm was how things ended…” Sylvie said, giving herself a little shake and pulling her hand free of mine. “From my vision, in the Relictombs.” Her eyes narrowed as she regarded the aspect of Fate. “How, exactly, is the world being repressed?”


The faceless head turned to regard Sylvie. Instead of words, images flashed through our collective minds: fields of the dead, their aether rising up like violet ghosts above them; the silhouette of a dragon breathing a hole into the fabric of the world; a place in between places sucking in amethyst motes of energy like a sponge; waves of focus spilling out of a rift in the sky and reverberating across the surface of the world…


The images faded, and the aspect of Fate continued. “A scaled fist is closed around the world. Only when its grip is broken will the false walls corrupting the natural order be torn down.”


My stomach sank. I couldn’t place the sensation exactly, but something in the being’s tone made me uncomfortable. “What happens when these ‘false walls’ come down?”


“Existence continues. The worlds spin on. Time moves forward as it should.” With each word spoken, the golden threads flickered with wan light.


‘Entropy,’ Sylvie thought, the word resonating ominously inside me. ‘The natural order is to follow the arrow of time. Just like she said.’


The aetheric s.p.a.ce around us hardened, taking on defined edges, then color, and finally texture, a scene of the real world again bleeding into being around us. The bright and unmoving blue and gold scene was like standing inside a stained-gla.s.s window. But when I turned to look around, the hard edges blew away, just sand on the wind.


We were standing in the desert. A heavy wind blew from the east, whipping sand into our faces. The figure of woven threads was once again Haneul. He waved a hand, and the wind subsided. Sand drifted like fine snow back down to the desert floor. In the distance, I could see the tall standing stone that had marked the direction of the hidden djinn refuge.


Haneul crossed his arms, slipping his hands into the opposite sleeve like some old monk. His eyes closed, and he turned his face toward the sun. “Channel the rune you call ‘G.o.d Step.’”


I hesitated. Instead of following Haneul’s instructions, I bent down and ran my fingers through the sand. “Is this the real world?”


“No.” Haneul did not look at me but maintained his meditative posture. “We are still in between. What you do now will have no effect outside of the keystone, but it will allow me to show you the answer to your question.”


‘Be careful, Arthur,’ Sylvie thought.


Standing straight again and brus.h.i.+ng sand from my skin, I took a deep breath. With one foot in the real world and one in the keystone, it was easy to channel aether into the G.o.drune. The aetheric pathways, bright lines of violet light, connected each point in s.p.a.ce to every other point. Except the paths weren’t straight as they always had been before. The individual points that marked possible destinations for G.o.d Step bulged, as if something were pus.h.i.+ng them from the other side, and the connective paths bent and warped.


Haneul opened his eyes again. The light pink irises were tinged with motes of amethyst in the sunlight. “I have brought you to a future where you have already defeated your enemies, Arthur-Grey. The intent constricting this world has been released, but you are still needed. I will teach you how to lance the wound.”


Sylvie nervously s.h.i.+fted her footing in the sand beside me. Regis eyed Haneul warily. 


Instead of stepping into the aetheric paths, I took hold of one, much the same way I did with the golden threads representing Fate.


“Good,” Haneul said. “Now, envision in your mind how every pathway is interconnected in a continuous loop, like the string of a cat’s cradle, running in and out of each point in s.p.a.ce. Empower the rune you call Aroa’s Requiem and rip the string free.”


While maintaining focus on G.o.d Step, I split the output of my aether and channeled a stream to Aroa’s Requiem. Distantly, I could feel the ghost of the runes warming my back. Bright purple particles of aether ran down my arms and swarmed over my hands. Fixing my grip on the path, I heaved.


My arms bulged. Aether instinctively flooded them, and I pulled even harder. I began to tremble, but the path remained secure, not even bending beneath my strength.


“This isn’t a test of brute physical force but of insight,” Haneul patiently explained. “Your insight into this rune is incomplete, and your understanding of the path of aevum is limited. But you are entwined with one who is better aligned. Share this burden.”


Relaxing without releasing the path, I looked to Sylvie. She met my gaze with a serious nod, then dissolved into the silver sprite, which drifted into my core.


“Open your minds to one another,” Haneul continued once we were joined. “The dragon’s insight is imprinted on her spirit, not learned. She must open herself to you completely for you to succeed.”


I felt Sylvie trying to lay her mind bare, letting go of the barriers that we had both erected over the years to protect each other and ourselves, but it was not easy. ‘Insight requires risk. Growth requires pain,’ she thought, then repeated it again. ‘I am made from you, and you’re made from me. I can bend the arrow of time’s path, so you can too.’


Slowly, I felt Sylvie’s understanding bleed into me, one bright spark at a time.


The sudden image of her body dissolving into gold and lavender motes cut across my focus. Sylv, are you okay?


‘I am,’ she thought back, her voice rising up from a fugue of fierce meditation. ‘I can feel it, can’t you? The pull of the insight. I pa.s.sed through time itself, and time marked me. I’m not sure I understood what that meant, before. But now…’


Slowly, our minds melded, becoming as one. In that moment, the warped aetheric pathway in my grip moved, and when one moved, they all did. A thousand drooping strings tightened, and the entire network of connective points and paths flexed. I wasn’t fully cognisant of whatever understanding Sylvie was sharing with me that was allowing this to happen, but Haneul had been right.


One by one, the points began to rip open.


Aether spilled through.


I kept pulling, ripping the gap wider and wider until—


The fabric of reality gave way.


I grabbed Regis, who dissolved and took shelter in my core with Sylvie as an eruption of aetheric force like nothing I had ever seen or could have imagined rolled across the desert. Sand lifted up into the air as the atmosphere boiled away, the foundations of the continent shattering far beneath me, unable to resist the force.


Somehow, I wasn’t obliterated but instead floated up off the ground and into the air as the surge rolled endlessly past me. All I could do was watch from my ever-higher vantage as the explosion scoured the desert clean and cracked the world down to its core. The violet wave wiped Sapin clean next, then flattened the Grand Mountains. Soon, all of Dicathen was gone, lost beneath the violet ocean.


I floated free of the eruption, up and up, watching the aether swallow the oceans and then Alacrya before spilling freely into the emptiness of s.p.a.ce beyond. 


‘Movement from order to disorder, form to formlessness. The dissolution of structure. Entropy.’ Sylvie’s mentally projected voice was hollow. ‘The natural progression of all things.’


Haneul was gone, but the thread-woven form of Fate’s aspect floated with me. “This is freedom. This is the absence of constraint. This is where your path takes you, Arthur-Grey. You are the key.”


I turned toward the doll-like figure, my movements slow, my expression haunted. “All those moments where you poked and prodded me, making sure things turned out just so. This is what it was all for—what you’re trying to accomplish?”


‘Arthur, destroyer of his world, or keeper of the universe,’ Regis thought darkly. ‘Talk about perspective.’


The aspect of Fate’s blank face regarded me emotionlessly. “The wind does not seek to topple the tree. The ocean waves do not conspire to wear away the cliff face. The current state of reality is counter to the natural progression of this world. The moment your spirit entered your body, you became the instrument through which this would be corrected.”


I waved weakly down to the demolished planet, still surrounded by the ever-expanding wave of aether. “But this? How is this better than what Kezess or Agrona have done?” I threw up my hands, nearly overcome with despair. And beneath it, a building rage. “No. No, this isn’t the future. I deny it. I refuse.”


“Of course,” the aspect of Fate said, dim golden light flickering along the threads binding its form. “Now. But this is the only path forward. And you will come to realize this in time. There is no limit to the number of times we might have this conversation. Eventually, you will live the perfect sequence of events that allows you to see the truth.”


I gaped at the doll-like form. “If I never leave the keystone, I can’t destroy the world.” My expression hardened into a fierce glare. “If necessary, I’ll stay here forever. The pocket dimension holding me will eventually collapse, and my body will decay and die, or Agrona will find me and kill me.”


“The possibilities are endless.” The glow flickered across the figure’s blank face, and I couldn’t help but think it was smiling at me. “But all eventualities lead to the breaking down of the barrier and the release of the aether back into the physical realm. And in every version, you are the lance that bursts the cyst.”


‘It can’t know that,’ Sylvie thought.


“s.p.a.ce, time, life. Together, these aspects of aether produce Fate. And Fate is the act of knowing, of aligning just so,” the aspect replied. “If I know, it is only because there is no other way the world could be.”


Regis scoffed, the noise running through me like a s.h.i.+ver up my back. ‘What a crock. This is total bulls.h.i.+t. Maybe the bits and pieces that have coagulated into Fate used to be alive, but this mouth, this aspect of Fate, doesn’t understand the living,’ Regis added.


‘It sees across time and s.p.a.ce the way we look across a room,’ Sylvie said, continuing with Regis’s thought. ‘How many millions—billions, maybe—of lives lived and ended have come together to form Fate? It may be able to see forward and back in time to study cause and effect, but it doesn’t understand motivation, and it can’t value the individual. To something that has experienced so much death, such breadth of loss, us—our whole world—we’re just too small.’


The silver sprite drifted free of my chest before manifesting beside me. “Is destroying all the life of this world a necessary part of returning everything to normal?”


“No, it is not necessary. It is natural. It is unavoidable. It is…not important.”


‘You’ve seen every future, every possible outcome?’ Regis asked, his mental projection turned directly to the aspect of Fate.


“Fate is every future, every possible outcome,” it answered calmly.


Below us, the world was gone. Whatever connection linked Dicathen with Epheotus was gone. The aetheric soup hid the distant stars, the sun, and the moon, making the sky indistinguishable from the aetheric realm.


“But you’re not infallible,” I said, my voice soft, my attention turned inward as I struggled for some counterpoint. Regardless of what I’d said, I had no intention of staying locked forever inside the keystone. “You can’t see everything—okay, maybe you can, but you can’t understand everything you see. When I arrived, you mistook the memories stored inside that crystal for my own.” My words came faster as I continued speaking. “You thought this Haneul, some ancient djinn who died long before I was ever reincarnated in this world, was somehow my friend, even though I’d never even seen or heard of him.”


The glow flickered sporadically up and down the thread-wound body. “But infallibility is not a necessary component of success in reaching a state of natural equilibrium. Failure in action is how the world evolves, a natural component of entropic decay.”


I closed my eyes and pressed my palms against them in frustration. The conversation was infuriating. There had to be a way forward, but—


I gasped, realization hitting me like ice-cold water. We were half in the physical realm, and I had effortlessly been able to reach for my G.o.drunes.


Aether released from my core and traveled along the channels I had forged in the lava pits of the Relictombs to my back, imbuing the rune there.


My mind sparked to life, my focus splitting into several splintered directions at once. King’s Gambit. The dull fatigue and brain fog I had experienced earlier were gone. I was close enough to my body to utilize the G.o.drune normally. Immediately, my mind began chasing along several different possible arguments simultaneously, shedding the anger, frustration, and dismay I had felt and coc.o.o.ning itself in the cold comfort of reason and factual evidence.


A single gold thread followed each thought. With every consideration, Fate was there, watching the line of thought play out. No matter how many thoughts I held at once, the threads of Fate were woven into every one.


There was a necessary sequence to events, and I laid them out in the necessary order as I began attempting to solve each step. Like the aetheric pathways connecting into and through both the physical realm and the aetheric void, however, each step connected to the next in a loop. I couldn’t accomplish any individual goal—such as escaping the keystone with insight into Fate—without knowing how to accomplish what came before and after.


The golden threads acted like a compa.s.s. Instead of Fate examining my thoughts, I used these threads of Fate to pull individual frames of my own split mind forward or back into time, not only considering the many different possibilities but actively searching through them using the keystone’s ability to forge entire worlds and timelines.


In the many different spotlights of my mind’s eye, I saw dozens, even hundreds of possible conversations with Fate unfold, playing through each simultaneously and in its entirety. I mentally manifested just as many battles against Agrona and Kazess, searching for an effective plan to scour them both from the world without inadvertently destroying it. Finding a solution to the problem they presented was in turn required to even consider the act of releasing the pressure of the aetheric realm and putting our world back on its proper trajectory of growth, because any attempt to do so relied entirely on the results of the first two events. Despite my best efforts to explore potential solutions to the release of the aether, the results of any specific sequence of cause and effect was dramatically altered by how I resolved the previous situations, creating a cyclical loop of endless destruction in which even King’s Gambit struggled to find meaning.


There was no sense of a pa.s.sage of time, only the unfolding of so many possibilities.


It was only at a brush of a finger across my face that I snapped back into some sense of myself, separate from the ever-expanding, ever-branching sequence of my many disparate trains of thought.


Sylvie was hovering in the void in front of me. She looked down at her hand, which was streaked with blood. I licked my lips and tasted salt and iron.


“Arthur, your nose…” Sylvie said a moment later.


I tried to focus aether toward the b.l.o.o.d.y nose. My core didn’t respond.


Dozens of separate branches of thought collided together by ones and twos, each collision sending a spike of pain through my skull. It was a struggle to collect enough focus to look inward. 


My core was empty, the last of my aether burning away as fuel for my G.o.drunes, all of which glowed warm and gold from my back.


My eyes fluttered, and I felt myself sagging. A strong arm wrapped around me, holding me in place despite our floating freely in emptiness. 


‘Hey, chief, you need to absorb some of this aether,’ Regis encouraged me, his bright and wakeful mind sending hot embers of pain down the base of my skull.


‘He can’t…’ Sylvie’s fear sent tremors up my spine. ‘It’s his real core that’s empty!’


Their thoughts faded in and out. I couldn’t process them, couldn’t keep track of which thoughts were mine or theirs. Was King’s Gambit still active? My brain felt as if it had been sliced into a hundred pieces, like those old scientific displays on Earth that were just thin slices of a person, each layer pressed into gla.s.s and set out for the world to see…


The world couldn’t see my brain. But the threads of Fate could. Fate had been with me, entangled with every single considered course, every theorized sequence of events. Those golden threads were wound through every branching thought I’d had.


The golden threads weren’t the compa.s.s, I thought with the last vestige of sense I had. I was the compa.s.s.


Darkness took me, swallowing my mind and my thoughts, and even the entangling golden threads.


Through the closed lids of my eyes, within the vast black emptiness, a small dot of light appeared in the distance. The light grew closer, brighter, and then turned into a bright blur, forcing me to shut my eyes. Indiscernible sounds a.s.saulted my ears. When I tried to speak, the words came out as a cry.

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The Beginning After The End Chapter 480 summary

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