The Beginning After The End - Chapter 424
Light and color bled across the blank white canvas in greens, blues, and purples. My surroundings ran like watercolors, coalescing into a stained-glass diorama before finally realizing recognizable shapes. I found myself sitting on a soft cushion made of a deep navy material. In front of me was a small wooden desk, expertly crafted to highlight the whirling grain of whatever alien tree it was crafted from.
A couple of dozen similar seats and desks were arranged in tidy rows under an open-air pagoda, carved of soft white stone and tiled with an iridescent cyan material I didn’t recognize. A clear stream ran through a shallow trough in the middle of the floor, separating the seating area into two halves.
At the edge of the pagoda, the stream joined a larger body of water as it tumbled off a cliff’s edge. Standing, I moved to the edge to look down. The spray from the waterfall lightly obscured a sprawling city spreading out from the base of the cliffs. When I tried to focus on the city, though, the mist seemed to shift and swirl, preventing me from focusing on it.
“An illusion,” I whispered. The voice that came out wasn’t my own.
Looking down, I realized the skin of my arms was a light pink. Spellforms covered much of my exposed skin. But more than that, I was small—a child, perhaps the equivalent of eight or nine years old in a human context.
“Very good,” someone said from behind me.
Spinning, I realized it was only the djinn remnant. His hair was a couple inches shorter, and he’d lost less of it, but he was otherwise the same. He was standing on a dais raised four inches or so above the floor, from under which the stream was bubbling.
“Please, sit.” He gestured to the cushion I’d occupied when the trial started. Wordlessly, I did as he requested. Something shifted in his posture and expression, but it was difficult to read. “You are here today to test your aptitude and knowledge, pupil, so we may best judge the future of your individual learning. First, explain what you know of the relationship between mana and aether, if you would.”
I glanced around, uncertain, before focusing on the djinn. “Really? This is the trial?”
The shadow of a frown crossed his face, but it passed in an instant, and he gave me a reassuring smile. “It may seem elementary, but it is my Lifework to gain a full understanding of my pupils’ knowledge and talents so that they may fulfill their potential in their own Lifework.”
“I preferred the fighting trials,” I mumbled under my breath. Louder, I said, “Mana and aether are simultaneously opposing and collaborative forces. Although they have unique defining properties, they constantly press against one another, shaping each other. The metaphor I was taught used water and a cup. In reality, if mana is like water, then aether would be a waterskin, because they are both changeable with the appropriate force exerted by the opposite, but I don’t think that metaphor holds up either.”
I paused, thinking. “No, a more appropriate comparison would describe aether as an arrow and mana as the wind.”
“Your understanding is rudimentary. Blunt,” the djinn replied immediately, but there was no disapproval in his flat tone. “You view aether as both a tool and material—a thing to be wielded and utilized. Your thoughts are muddied by the violence of your past experiences. This mechanical explanation of how the twin forces of mana and aether interact is accurate at a surface level, but you do not understand what separates them.”
My fingers drummed across the surface of my desk as I attempted to suppress a twinge of irritation. “Can you correct my mistakes, then?”
The djinn’s head turned very slightly to the side. “But you haven’t made any mistakes.”
My knee began bouncing of its own accord. “But you just said—”
“I have voiced observations. Truths, not judgements,” the djinn said with an air of scholarly diplomacy. “My purpose is to help you direct your efforts in the future. Your path is fluid, not deterministic. Next question: given only the strength and magic currently at your disposal, how can you participate in the progress of our nation?”
I stared at the djinn. “Your nation? But…”
Something clicked into place. The shift in his demeanor, the absence of current context in his questions and responses…this conversation was taking place as if I really were a djinn child living before the genocide of his people. He wasn’t really addressing me as Arthur Leywin, but replaying what must have been an oft-repeated exchange with real children from a very long time ago. Whatever else this test was, it was also a look directly into the heart of the djinn people before their extermination.
I decided to be forthright. “Instead of building an encyclopedia, I’d build walls. Based on what I’ve seen in the Relictombs, I don’t understand why you didn’t transplant your entire cities into the aetheric realm. You could have protected yourselves.”
The djinn nodded. “Violence, again. You—” The djinn faltered, stumbling a step. One hand pressed to the side of his head as he eased himself down onto the dais.
I started to stand, but froze. Was this a part of the trial? Or had I broken some parameter or disrupted the remnant’s thoughts by not playing along? “Are you all right?” I asked after a moment, easing back into my seat.
The beautiful clifftop scene melted away, the colors running and darkening like wax. I had to close my eyes against the vertigo of the sudden shift. When I opened them again a few seconds later, I was still seated, but everything else had changed.
Rows of dark wooden benches faced a raised podium, behind which sat three hooded djinn. The building’s interior was brightly lit by high, arched windows lining the walls to my left and right. Through them, I could see the cliffs in the distance, and, at the top of a thin waterfall, the cyan-roofed pagoda.
Birdlike creatures flitted among the rafters high above, chittering happily, but the light and cheer of the surroundings did not extend to the many djinn present.
I blinked several times as I tried to look at the djinn crowd, but beyond a vague impression of unease, or perhaps disappointment, I couldn’t focus on their features. Except for the three behind the podium, only the djinn remnant, who was standing at the back of the room, was clear.
One of the presiding djinn cleared their throat, and a spellform began to glow on their neck. When they spoke, their voice was magically amplified, filling the room without volume, like they were standing right next to me. “It is a rare and sad occasion when there is need to convene this council, the Legal Body of Faircity Zhoroa. Today, we address the crimes of the defendant: abandonment of his Lifework and the corruption of aether to devise implements of hostility. As is tradition, first, we will allow the defendant to explain his actions.”
Judges, I realized, recalling my experience in the High Hall. This is a courtroom.
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All eyes turned toward me. Thrown off by the sudden transition into this new scene, I struggled to form a response.
An indigo-robed djinn standing next to me rested his hand on my shoulder and gave me an encouraging smile. “Just speak the truth. Remember, everyone here is eager to understand.”
“But maybe I don’t,” I said slowly, trying to wrap my head around the judge’s accusations of crimes I hadn’t even existed to commit. This trial-within-a-trial was clearly purposeful, however, and my response was not only expected, but would be gauged by some metric I wasn’t aware of. “Are these accusations even crimes? What keeps me chained to the same job…Lifework…forever? Can’t I change my mind?”
The three judges nodded under their hoods, and then the central figure spoke again. “Is this the defendant’s only response?”
“A life’s work can’t be abandoned, only change its course,” I said, getting my footing as I tried to fathom the trial’s purpose. “And as for my use of aether as an ‘implement of hostility,’ I make no defense or apologies. The aether itself is eager enough to adopt a destructive form. Why would there be something like an edict of Destruction if aether wasn’t intended to be used as such?”
The central judge leaned forward, deepening the shadows under their cowl. “Is it not the role of civilization to use those natural elements at our disposal to suppress their destructiveness as well as our own? Fire may burn, and water drown, as is their nature, and yet we call it wrong to harness them for this express purpose, do we not?”
“Maybe not if the person you are burning is an enemy intent on doing the same to you,” I answered, immediately regretting my flippantness. I didn’t want to risk somehow failing the trial. “What I mean to say is, surely there is some allowance for defending myself.” I struck on an idea and decided to run with it. “After all, I’ve seen some horrible and violent aetheric creations guarding the Relictombs. Grotesque monsters, deadly traps, terrible implements of war. And all created to safeguard the djinn’s knowledge. Why is it acceptable to guard knowledge but not lives?”
“You answer questions with questions, and in doing so ask that we provide your defense for you,” the judge said. “So be it. We will deliberate.”
Suddenly, the courtroom spun. The dizzying sensation lasted only a fraction of a second, and when it stopped, my perspective had changed.
I found myself sitting behind the podium, facing the other two judges. “And you?” one asked, as if we’d just been having a conversation. “What is your judgment of this case?”
Needing a moment to think, I made a point of looking over the podium at the defendant. The indigo-robed djinn was still there, but a stranger with purple skin and a body covered in jagged spellforms sat beside him staring up at us, the flame of defiance burning within his eyes. The illusion was so real that it was difficult to remember that this wasn’t actually happening. This man’s life didn’t hinge on what I was about to say because he’d been dead for a very long time, if he’d ever lived at all.
“Law isn’t always justice,” I answered. “It seems like this djinn has only done what he thought was right. And, someday, your descendants may look back on this moment and agree with him.”
“For five thousand years, the djinn have constructed a nation built on the peaceful acquisition of knowledge,” the central judge explained. “Disease, hunger, violence—these are all symptoms of an ailing civilization. It is not our advancement in mana or aether arts that is our greatest accomplishment, it is our civility. Should we allow outside forces to take that away from us? If we lower ourselves to the station of our enemies, then we have already lost. This is why our law is written as it is, and as today’s presiding judges over the Legal Body, we are responsible both for upholding the law and the good of both our great city and the wider union. What then, is your judgment?”
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I couldn’t help but shake my head. “I judge his actions justified.”
The other two judges nodded, then the light vanished as deep shadows enveloped the courthouse. Everyone turned toward the windows, craning their necks to see. Everyone except the djinn remnant guiding my trial, who was staring at his feet. Then the scene melted away again, the shadows deepening until I couldn’t see anything at all.
When the light returned, my surroundings had changed yet again.
I was in a spherical chamber, surrounded by djinn. A stained-glass domed roof let in the sunlight from above in a thousand shades of purple and blue. Flowering vines grew up the walls, and little streams trickled along the edge of the stairs that broke up concentric rows of amphitheater-style seating. Every seat, it seemed, was filled.
Next to me, the djinn remnant had a faraway, unfocused look in his eye as he stared down at two people seated opposite each other from across a round table. Something was carved into the table, but I couldn’t make out the details. And I didn’t have the attention to spare on wondering what it was, because the mere sight of the man sitting on the far side of that table was like a lightning bolt of shock through my nervous system.
There was no way to know how long ago this vision had happened in the real world, but he appeared no different then than he had when I’d just met with him in Epheotus. Everything was identical, from the style of his cream-colored hair to the cool, distant quality of his hue-changing gaze, which was aimed like a weapon at the djinn opposite him. Despite his relaxed posture, though, he possessed some intangible quality that made him feel like a fox in a chicken coop.
The djinn, a woman with blue-tinted skin and hair so fine it seemed to drift around her scalp, appeared to have just finished speaking.
“My position hasn’t changed, Lady Sae-Areum,” Kezess said, oozing ostentation. “Your knowledge of the magic arts called aether are a danger to your civilization—this entire world—and must be folded into the dragons’ understanding of it, no matter the effort or cost. There is simply no alternative but for your people to teach mine.”
The audience was entirely silent. The remnant next to me shifted in his seat, though, revealing the tension gripping his body like an electrical current.
“You seem to think that you only need to visualize that the world operates in a manner of your choosing to make it so,” Sae-Areum replied, a bone-deep sadness in every word. “But it is exactly this inflexibility that has stopped you from gaining further insight into aether arts. We can not teach you, not in the way you wish to be taught.”
The slight wrinkle of Kezess’s nose communicated more than the most hostile of sneers. “We know what you’re working on. Honestly, I approve. Our world of Epheotus is something similar: a piece of this world drawn into another dimension, planted there and grown by my ancestors’ ancestors. So the question is, if you are so convinced the asura can’t learn djinn arts, why are you trying so hard to keep them from us.”
A piece of this world drawn into another dimension…
Kezess’s words lodged in my brain like a broken bone in a wolf’s throat. Although I knew Epheotus was a realm of its own, not a physical place on this world, I was shocked to realize that the asura had created it themselves, and immediately spiraled into wondering how such a thing was even possible, or where exactly it was. Were there more dimensions, places separate from the physical space where this world and, presumably, my old home of Earth resided?
The aether realm, I thought immediately. It must be something like that, perhaps even the same place. Before I could think farther on it, though, my attention was forced back to the moment.
“We are not,” Sae-Areum said placidly. “But your warning of what awaits any civilization that becomes too magically powerful encouraged us to look beyond the bounds of our own world and the narrow scope of our own timeline, and in doing so we realized the true importance of ensuring our knowledge is written down in a way that will never fade. It is no easy thing to pass on insight, Lord Indrath, even to the receptive.”
A tinkling, dangerous laugh escaped Kezess. “But we dragons aren’t…receptive, is that what you’re saying?”
“I have explained our position, and you yours.” Sae-Areum’s gaze swept the quiet audience. “Does any djinn here wish to make their heart known?”
The audience was silent. I couldn’t even tell if the djinn remnant next to me was breathing, he was so still.
Did no one answer her? Did no one argue, or please…or get angry?
I stood, and a tremor ran through the room. “You can’t give the dragons what they want. Not only because they still would have wiped you out, even if you’d done so. No, the real reason is that their understanding of aether is, at its core, flawed. They lack the ability to gain further insight because they won’t reconsider the foundations of their knowledge.”
I paused, thinking about what I wanted to say. This was a test, after all. I needed to express myself clearly, because I thought I was starting to see the purpose of all this.
“Their sense of superiority and infallibility prevents their civilization from advancing,” I continued, my baritone resounding through the chamber. “The dragons—all the asura—are entirely beholden to Kezess’s strict worldview. Chained to it. Regardless of the strength of their physiques or power of their magic, they do not grow. Not anymore.”
Kezess’s eyes darkened to a thunderous violet as he stared right through me. “The djinn custom of letting all voices be heard, even in a matter of state such as this, is a tiresome one, Lady Sae-Areum. If you are not wise enough to treat with me individually, perhaps I am speaking to the wrong djinn.”
“And yet, isn’t that the descendant’s point?” Sae-Areum ask, but the words sounded like a whisper in my ear, like they were meant only for me.
“But the truth is,” I continued, stepping down onto the bench in front of me and passing right through the two djinn, “this decision is already made. You don’t want my input, because I can’t change what already happened. I doubt even Fate can rewrite the past like that, can it? But you’re judging my intentions, my ethics, and my understanding of your people. And, in a strange way, I think you’re trying to confirm whether you did the right thing or not.”
I stepped from bench to bench until I reached the floor, not twenty feet from where Sae-Areum and Kezess sat. “So have my answer. You did the only thing you could do—what you thought was right.”
Sae-Areum didn’t look at me, but she smiled and absently traced her finger along the grooves carved into the round table. Kezess stood, giving me a piercing look. I expected him to have some rebuke, but instead the scene dissolved, turning to ash and blowing away.
I thought perhaps it was over when everything became white, but, like when I was first drawn into the trial, light and color bled across the blank white canvas. This time, though, it was soot-gray and bright orange and ruddy crimson. My surroundings ran not like watercolors but like the flickering of a flame.
The same pagoda from before took shape. The cyan roof was blackened and half-collapsed. The stream was gone, drained away through the floor where a crack the width of my fist had opened up in the stone slab.
A distant roar trembled in the air, followed by the forge-fire rush of flame and wind, drawing my attention to the city. Zhoroa, they had called it. Clouds of smoke billowed up from flames a hundred feet tall, thick enough that they blocked out the sun and darkened the sky for miles around. And the dragons were still attacking, breathing fire so hot the stones glowed orange and ran like blown glass.
I wasn’t alone. A woman was sitting at the pagoda’s edge, her feet where the stream once joined the narrow river before it plunged down the cliffs. Even the river was gone.
“Lady Sae-Areum…” I said, reaching out a hand before realizing it was my own hand, not that of a djinn.
She turned to look at me, and I realized I was wrong. She had the same blue tone in her skin, but her hair was darker and thicker, flowing like water instead of floating on the air.
“What should we do?” she asked, the despair so thick and sharp in her words that they clawed at my heart. “Tell us what to do…”
I started to reach for her to make some comforting, futile gesture, then remembered where I was and let my hand fall. This scene seemed different than the others, somehow. After the meeting with Kezess, the trial had seemed to be over. I’d realized its purpose and answered as best I could.
So why, then, is it continuing? I wondered. Out loud, I said, “Your choice is already made.”
She swallowed heavily and wiped away her tears. “And was it the right thing to do? If it happened all over again, would you follow our path, descendant?”
I watched the wheeling dragons breathe death on the city for a long time, half expecting the trial to end and return me to the ruin, but it kept going. It expected something else from me, clearly.
I’ve spent the entirety of both my lives struggling to become more powerful, I thought, sure the djinn mind that was conjuring all this could read my thoughts as plainly as if I’d spoken them. If Kezess led his dragons to burn Dicathen tomorrow, I would fight them no matter how hopeless the battle.
Did that mean it had been wrong for the djinn to refuse to fight, though? If their final days had been spent at war, perhaps the Relictombs would never have been completed. And then all their knowledge, the memory of their entire civilization, truly would be gone.
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