Read The Beginning After The End Chapter 482 (2024)

Chapter 480: Providence

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Through the cacophony of indistinguishable sounds, I heard a muffled voice.

“Kill her.”


A bright blur in the heart of darkness. The bitter backdrop for the echoes of ten thousand splintered aspects of a mind pushed beyond the edge of capability, of sanity.

Against the back of my closed eyelids, aether seeped like blood from the pores between worlds. Interposed over this image was another: golden threads stretching beyond the bounds of one world and into the next, through a rift, reaching far and wide as they spread from the nexus point that was a single man, a man whose hands were red with the blood of civilization after civilization. In the image, I cut the cords of Fate and watched an empire fall. In the image, I looked down at my own hands, and they were red like his.

Not like that. I cast the vision aside. A small dot of light was growing behind it.

I tried to speak. The words came out as a cry.

Another image. One I considered harder, longer: me, a crown of light above my brow, the threads of Fate wrapped around me like armor, Agrona powerless against me. In the vision, I struck him down ten different ways, and yet each Fateful blow reverberated across time and space to ensure failure and destruction, and ten different visions within the vision collapsed around me. Me, standing at the epicenter of failure.

I cast the image aside with some difficulty.

The light grew closer, brighter.

I pondered the last vision, the only way. It was a door I could open but not see beyond. But it was the only way.

The visions melted into a bright blur. I tried to close my eyes, but they were already shut.

Indiscernible sounds battered my ears.

“Kill her.”



Lightning behind my eyes. Breath trapped in my lungs. A world written in fire, seen through closed lids.

My eyes snapped open, and a weak cry escaped my lips.

I saw myself from above, a mind out of body. I was sitting cross-legged in the pool of aether-rich liquid, which rippled slightly and cast an uneven blue-purple light across the interior of the large underground cavern where Sylvia had hidden so long ago. Beside me, Sylvie sat in an identical position. Her face was scrunched into a tight frown, her eyes still closed, the lids moving as the eyeballs below raced back and forth, as if she were having a tortured dream.

There was no emotion in what I saw before me. The scene was still too detached from me, too distant and unreal.

Tessia—no, Cecilia—was on her hands and knees next to the pool. Her gunmetal hair hung down in front of her face. Almond-shaped teal eyes narrowed, glowering through the silvery strands at the man standing above her. Blood pooled around her fingers and spilled into the pool, staining the dimming blue light.

I didn’t have to search for the source to know it wasn’t her blood, but my eyes still flicked to Nico. Each faint beat of his dying heart sent more of what little blood he had left pouring from the unearthly, branching black spike that protruded from his back.

Neither did I need to guess at how this had come about. The mana that had conjured the fatal spell still floated around Agrona, barely controlled. He had already forgotten Nico, I knew. His entire will was bent on Cecilia as he matched her glowering stare with a look of cruel, expectant command.

Many golden threads ran between the three. Those around Nico were beginning to snap one by one. Most led from him to Cecilia, wrapping around her, and fewer to Agrona. A couple of threads bound Nico to me, but these were trembling with tension, ready to snap.

While few threads connected Nico and Agrona, Agrona himself radiated more than I could count.

And yet I was covered in even more golden threads than the others. Wrapped around every inch of my body so that I was nearly hidden beneath them, the golden threads connected me to all the others, and then spread out into the wider world, just like Agrona. So thickly were the threads wound, that I almost looked like—


Through the woven threads, dimly glowing around me like the wrappings of an ancient mummified king, I saw it. The aspect of Fate, in and around me, bound to me, sitting just behind and above me—not in three-dimensional space, but in time and the pressed layers of the fabric of the universe that separated the physical world and the aetheric realm in which it was trapped.

“I accept the vision of the future you have offered as also being within the natural order, the necessary advance of the arrow of time,” the aspect continued, its voice only for my ears. “But I offer also a warning.”

My vision retracted even further, pulling back through the roof of the cavern and the soil above it into open air. Instead of looking down on the Beast Glades, I was above Etistin, just like in the visions Fate had shown me of the past events there.

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Now, it showed me the future.

Just like before, white blurs representing the dragons arrived, and Etistin as I knew it was wiped from the face of Sapin. The bay looked lonely and forlorn without the city looking down on it, but time sped by, and soon a new civilization was building there. The simple structures they constructed did not last long before they too were wiped out. The speed of the vision seemed to be increasing, so that I only saw flashes of each new city being built before it was destroyed.

I withdrew further, until the entire world was only a distant bit of color against an expansive dark sky, empty except for the distant stars. All the wide universe was laid out before me in exaggerated colors, the stars bright pin-pricks of light against a swirling, oil-on-water backdrop of purples, blues, and grays.

And humming just beneath the surface, pressing against the walls of reality, was the building pressure of the aetheric realm. A consistent rhythm began to pulse outward from the aetheric realm like a heartbeat, and with each pulse, the stars brightened and bulged. The beats grew stronger, faster, and I suddenly understood what was about to happen.

As if my understanding had conjured it into existence, the world ruptured. It was like the vision I had seen before—the future Fate was attempting to conjure into being through me—but the resulting cataclysm didn’t occur on a global scale.

It was with a deep, vague horror that I watched as the aetheric explosion spilled across the sky, wiping away the stars and leaving behind only an endless void.

The scene faded away, and I was once again looking down on myself and the aspect of Fate sitting within and around me.

With the fading of the vision, my horror faded as well. What it left behind was like a distant dream only half-remembered in the deep dark of the night. One that none-the-less stops the dreamer from returning to sleep for fear that the nightmare will resurface.

“Kill her.” The cold words issued from Agrona, and he pressed down on Cecilia with his killing intent, pinning her to the ground on all fours.

She closed her eyes, her pain written in the golden threads that connected them. Two by two, the threads connecting her to Agrona were snapping and fizzling away to nothing.

Through gritted teeth, she uttered a single word. “No.”

My eyes snapped open, and a weak cry escaped my lips.

Agrona’s head began to turn toward me, his intent sharpening into a killing blade. Crouching at his feet, Cecilia’s eyes shifted to me, and through them I saw down deep into the heart of her, where a trembling Tessia uncurled and reached outward. Knots of golden thread strung back and forth between the two, a muddy, chaotic mess of past and future tying them together.

Another thread connecting Nico to Cecilia snapped, and I sensed that the breath leaving his lungs was the last he would breathe in this world.


The pool erupted into commotion as, beside me, Sylvie burst upright. Her hands flung out, and a silvery, half-formed shield began to wrap around me.

The scythe of Agrona’s intent struck it, and it burst with a sound like a bell. Sylvie was lifted up, her body spinning through the air like a ragdoll.

Warmth spilled into my empty core as Regis desperately expelled all his own aether, forcing it through the gates around my core. Strength ran through my channels like lava, burning and inexorable.

Agrona rebounded back from Sylvie’s shield, stumbling a step.

Beside him, Cecilia rose.

Just as Fate hovered above and behind me like a golden shadow, a silver shadow rose with Cecilia. Emerald vines writhed through the silver light as Cecilia and Tessia stood together. The knotted golden threads binding them were unwinding. Not breaking, but unspooling, each frayed knot coming undone and straightening rapidly.

The silver shadow that was Tessia raised her arm. Half a heartbeat later, Cecilia did the same.

Emerald vines erupted from Tessia, snapping like green lightning through the air between her and Agrona. They slammed into him, knocking him back another half a step and clutching at his wrists and horns.

Cecilia’s hand tightened into a fist, and the threads around her flexed and vibrated, pulsing with golden light. Her jaw worked, her eyes closed, and tears leaked from them. Her hand fell an inch.

Agrona scoffed, and Cecilia was lifted off the ground. She hurtled into the air until her back slammed against the cavern roof, losing a hail of small stones, and then she fell back to the ground, landing heavily in front of me. A dozen threads or more snapped and burned away between Cecilia and Agrona.

The silver shadow that was Tessia was gone, dragged back into the prison of her body.

Agrona’s scarlet eyes lingered on Cecilia, his lips curling into a disappointed grimace.

I raised my hand. Agrona’s eyes shifted to me, widening.

Many threads still bound Cecilia and Agrona. Aether hardened between my thumb and forefinger, and I pinched down on the golden bundle, shearing through the threads of Fate as if they were no more than spun wool.

A shockwave rolled back in both directions from the cut, slamming into Agrona and spilling over Cecilia’s prone form, tossing her into the pool at my feet.

Agrona stumbled and fell, going to one knee. His eyes lost focus, and in the rippling of space and time I saw the burning away of all potential futures in which Agrona was able to use the Legacy, as a weapon in the form of Cecilia or as his own power. The shockwave continued to jolt through him, striking him again and again as each potential future collapsed in his mind.

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Leaning forward, I pulled Cecilia toward me, holding her face-up on the surface of the dense liquid, now depleted of aether and casting a weak purple light. Many threads still connected her to the wider world. I reached for them next, but even the faint cutting edge of aether around my hand was difficult to maintain.

Reaching into the emptiness around me, I grabbed hold of the relic armor.

Black scales began to fold into existence over my skin as the armor formed, spreading out from my chest to cover my entire body.

But as the armor spread, brilliant white plates and ridges started forming over it, growing into pauldrons and greaves over top the black scales. Heavy plated boots melded seamlessly into the greaves, and delicate gauntlets grew around my hands between my skin and Cecilia’s in my arms.

I had no time to consider the implication of this change, and, as the armor began drawing in aether from the surrounding atmosphere, I turned my attention to absorbing what I could. The aetheric edges around my gauntleted fingers grew firm again, and I again reached for the golden threads extending from Cecilia.

Time seemed to stutter. Beneath me, the blood-stained pool exploded upward, forming into swords, axes, and spears. Black-lined wind struck me like a battering ram, and I pulled Cecilia closer to me, shielding her as best I could. The wind began to pick up the weapons and spin them, leaving me at the center of a deadly vortex.

As the liquid swords and axes struck me, the armor pulled at my meager aetheric reservoir, fighting to reform as each blow ripped it apart piece by piece.

Through the storm of swords, I met Agrona’s eyes, now the color of clotted blood.

With a shaking hand, I reached for the golden threads. My fingers closed around a handful of the threads of Fate, and the aether bit into them.

Again, shockwaves rolled along the strings, spreading out across the entirety of the world. I felt every one, saw behind my eyes a hundred different cascading effects as the lives of Alacryans and Dicathians everywhere were changed forever. My legs trembled and my arms shook under the weight of it.

The vortex subsided, the conjured weapons splashing back down into the pool, now stained with my own blood as well. Agrona was on his hands and knees, his body heaving with every breath, his face a grimace of pain and desperate perseverance.

Only a few threads remained around Cecilia, while the golden lines radiating from Agrona were uncountable. I had seen so many possibilities in the keystone when searching for the way forward so that Fate would free me of its bonds. I didn’t know what I’d have done if I’d faced this moment before. Even now, it was a difficult decision to make, to accept. It felt wrong. It felt unfair.

There was no thread spreading out from Agrona that I could cut that would result in a victory here. No blow I could strike against him directly would bring about a world in which the future I had shown to Fate could come to pass.

I looked back at Cecilia. Her eyes fluttered open. There was no hint of Tessia in them; she had exhausted her strength and was buried deep underneath the stronger spirit of the Legacy, bound by Agrona’s magic and the spellforms drawn into her flesh.

Another thread between Tessia and Nico fizzled out. Only a single thin golden line remained.

Mana was starting to leak from Nico’s core and rising from his skin like steam.

Some wills were stronger than others. Certain visions of the future were so potent that they rewrote probability and potential, forcing reality to shift in order to manifest that future into being. That, I now knew, was the truth about how one altered Fate: through action and will and unassailable belief. It was not another power to be manipulated or controlled. The keystones had never been about controlling Fate, only about understanding it. But through understanding, it could still be influenced.

But it hadn’t only been my will that had influenced Fate.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and all my many regrets about how I’d handled everything between us came spilling out with those two words.

Cecilia said nothing, only stared back at me. There was no desperation in her gaze, no hope, no fear. It wasn’t trust, either. As I looked into those teal eyes, I saw only acceptance. She knew this was her end, and she no longer had the strength to fight it.

I didn’t acknowledge my own feelings. I felt guilt for my own actions, but I did not feel as though Cecilia or Nico had earned my mercy. Neither of my once-friends had been granted a fair life, neither on Earth or on this world, and I didn’t blame them for that. But both had chosen to treat this place—this life, this entire world—as if it didn’t matter. While Earth was little more than a bad dream to me, it had become their fixation, both past and future, and they had treated my world—my family—as a meaningless stepping stone to move from one life on Earth to the next.

I didn’t acknowledge my own feelings. But if I did, I knew I would find bitterness, and anger. And hatred. I didn’t acknowledge my own feelings because I didn’t want to react emotionally. I didn’t want to repeat their mistakes by letting the past destroy an opportunity for a better future. They didn’t deserve my mercy, and they certainly hadn’t earned redemption.

But punishing them wasn’t important either. Not in the grand scheme of things. Fate had shown me that.

A roar shook the cavern, and more stones and dust fell from above. Out of the shadows, purple light dancing across black scales, Sylvie swooped over us. The earth shook as her claw came down around Agrona, pinning him.

A scythe of transparent black mana carved through the pool beside me, nearly taking off my arm and Cecilia’s head.

I reached for a golden thread that led from Cecilia up through the ceiling of the cave. I took hold of it, but I didn’t cut it. Instead, I channeled Aroa’s Requiem into it, empowering the potential and conjuring a resonant hum through the thread that spread out in both directions. All of the other threads around Cecilia began to release, snapping like spider silk and turning to golden light and then to nothing but distant, inaccessible possibility.

The last of the knots binding Cecilia to Tessia unwound. When the knots were gone, these threads too faded.

Only two remained: the empowered thread, vibrating out into the universe, and the fraying thread connecting her to Nico, who had already breathed his last breath on this world. The last of his mana drifted free of his core and then out through his mana veins. A knot of bright amethyst motes of energy floated out of him.

A small knot of golden thread, tentative and flickering, extended back to Cecilia.

“Go,” I said, my voice hoarse and weak.

Tears leaked from Cecilia’s eyes, and her lip began to tremble. For a moment, I saw neither Cecilia in Tessia’s body or Tessia herself. Instead, I saw the orphan girl who struggled to make friends for fear of hurting them. With only a slight nod, she turned her gaze along the path of the thread. Although I knew she couldn’t see it, she could feel it pulling her on.

Her eyes rolled back, and the essence of her being burned bright within the golden light of the thread of Fate—this one tying her back to Earth. The aetheric motes that had risen from Nico dissolved into the thread as well, and together, two small purple lights ascended up through the gold. Behind them, the string melted away.

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The final shockwave erupted from Agrona, tossing Sylvie away as if she was a dry fall leaf. The force of the wave crashed out along the threads of Fate connecting Agrona to the world, and my mind was ripped out of the cave along with it.

I saw the Beast Glades beneath a rippling portal in the sky. Devices of obvious Alacryan design surrounded the rift, cutting it off from the world and hammering it with waves of disruptive force. Dozens of Wraiths floated in the air within the shield that protected them from the small army of dragons outside.

The shockwave rolled along the golden threads until it struck the Wraiths and Instillers like a physical blow. Like insects in a hurricane, they were swatted from the air.

When the first Wraith crashed into one of the shield generating artifacts, sparks flew from the device and the shield began to flicker. Then a second, third, and fourth Wraith landed among the fragile equipment, and an explosion rocked the Alacryan fortification. Starting first at a single point, the shield surrounding them began to collapse inward. The hole grew wider and wider until it was larger than the shield itself, and then the shield was gone.

The dragons hovered on the edges, staring in shock. Charon, floating at the front in his scarred dragon form, gave a bellowing shout, and the dragons descended on the prone Alacryans.

At the same time, across the continent, another shockwave struck hundreds of imprisoned Alacryans. Screams erupted in their cells, echoing out through the underground city. Backs arched as people threw themselves on the ground, clawing at spellforms and cores. I saw among them Corbett Denoir and the warrior Arian, Caera’s protector, but also the young Highblood from Xyrus, Augustine Ramseyer, and many others I was familiar with.

I saw as Seth Milview and Mayla from Maerin town clung to each other, their faces twisted with pain and fear as they shook against the impact. Seris, Lyra Dreide, and Caera moved among them, seeming to be the only three of all the Alacryans not crippled with the colliding force of changing Fate.

Elsewhere, I rode the shockwave as it sped over Etistin. It found Scythe Melzri as she searched through the carnage of a horrible frozen battlefield. The Scythe bent down to check for signs of life from a pale-skinned woman with short white hair—the retainer, Mawar. Lance Varay lay nearby, stirring slightly. Melzri regarded her warily, then drew a blade just as the shockwave reached her, lifting her off the ground before dashing her through a field of ice spikes.

More threads connected across the wide ocean to Alacrya. There, my understanding of what was happening began to break down as the effects of the blast were too widespread for my tired mind to track it all at once.

Instead, whether by some thought of my own or some trick of the reverberating Fate, I focused on Taegrin Caelum, Agrona’s distant mountain fortress. Many Fate threads connected to points throughout the fortress, and such was the strength of the shockwave as it slammed against the stone walls that the mountain shook and the stone began to crack. A high tower burst apart at the base, sending down an avalanche of shattered stone to crash among the lower levels, the roof of the tower sinking into the imploding base in a cloud of dust.

In the distance, far behind Taegrin Caelum, a geyser of bright orange lava erupted from the caldera of Mount Nishan. Black smoke boiled out to cover the Basilisk Fang Mountains in an impenetrable black cloud, and the ground trembled.

As if in one voice, the entire magical population of the continent screamed out together, and then I was back in Sylvia’s cave, lying in the shallow, mostly empty pool beside Tessia.

The aspect of Fate no longer lingered just behind and above me. It was gone, and my vision of the threads of Fate connecting us all was gone with it.

I rolled onto my back and looked up at Agrona. He lay on his stomach, his back rising and falling steadily but his eyes staring emptily ahead, blank and lifeless.

A staccato beat against the wet ground drew my attention back to Tessia; she was seizing, her entire body shaking so violently that her heels clattered wildly against the stone. I dragged her into my lap, cushioning her head from the convulsions of her body.

Golden eyes shone in the dark, and Sylvie stumbled toward us, one arm cradling the other, which hung limply at her side. “What’s going on?”

The answer was self-evident.

The high density of mana that was compacted in Tessia’s body was beginning to spill out of her, creating a kind of rainbow aura that flickered and danced in the air like the Aurora Constellate. “She can’t control it.”

Regis, little more than a dark wisp with bright eyes now, flew out of my chest. He hovered in front of my face for a moment, then dipped down and vanished into Tessia’s body. ‘She’s trying, fighting. Cecilia taught her, or tried to, but…it wasn’t enough. She’s…dying.’

I ran my hands over her arms and up her neck where the spellform tattoos had helped to bind Cecilia to the body and maintain control over Tessia’s spirit, along with whatever other dark designs Agrona had woven into them for his own purposes. But they were gone. The spellforms had been destroyed by the process of removing Cecilia from her body.

“She has no core, and she isn’t the Legacy,” I said, holding her tightly to still the worst of the trembling. “It was Cecilia who went through the process of Integration.”

‘Art…’ Regis’s thought trailed off for a moment. ‘She says…that it’s okay. She wants you to know…that you did the right thing.’

I swallowed and ran a hand over Tessia’s hair. It was strange, thinking of it specifically as Tessia’s hair again. Her body. Her.

I winced as my core clenched. The wounds caused by Agrona’s attack were struggling to heal. Despite Regis’s sacrifice and the relic armor, my body was starved for aether. My lids were heavy, and every movement felt sluggish and painful. I felt weak, weaker than I had in a very long time.

My fractured focus returned to Tessia with a jolt. Mana was still pouring out of her, creating the dancing lights around her.

Without the aspect of Fate tying me directly back to the keystone and everything I had seen inside of it, the many potential futures I had looked at, using a combination of King’s Gambit, Fate, and the keystone itself, seemed blurry and distant. It had all been so clear, before, right up until the moment I had severed Cecilia and the Legacy from our world…

Only the aetheric realm’s future retained clarity. That, I understood. That, I knew what to do with. Hopefully I cando what needs to be done…

“Arthur,” Sylvie said from right beside me, making me wince. I hadn’t noticed her kneeling down next to me. “We have to do something.”

“I know, I…” I closed my eyes, squeezing them tight and then relaxing again. “I’m sorry, I’m just having some trouble…focusing.” With a little shake, I forced myself upright and adjusted Tessia in my lap.

‘She’s saying…ah, sh*t, Art. I wish I didn’t have to be the go-between here.’ Regis winced, a mental expression that sent a twitch through my own slack face. ‘She’s saying that she understands. It’s okay. You’ve done everything you can. She wants you to know that, after everything…well, she’s glad you’re here in the end. You and Sylvie. And me, but she added that as a kind of afterthought, and I—okay, okay. She, uh…she loves you, Art. And she wants me to tell you…goodb—’

“Stop,” I said, suddenly fully awake again. “Don’t. This isn’t goodbye.” I looked around the cave as if I might find the solution lying out in the open somewhere.

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Agrona still lay comatose. The murky purplish light of the pool had faded, its aether spent. A single tear had traced down Sylvie’s cheek, and she leaned against my arm, her breath shallow.

The light of the mana interacting with the atmosphere around Tessia began to fade.

I tried to lift Tessia and stand, but I couldn’t. Sylvie did stand, but she wobbled on her feet, unsteady. “I lack the strength to transform right now. I…can’t get us out of here, Arthur.”

Without even the strength to lift Tessia, I struggled to make a mental inventory of all the tools at my disposal that might help her. I could communicate with her through Regis, I—

“I’m sorry,” I said suddenly, realizing that I hadn’t really responded to her properly. “This isn’t goodbye, Tessia. This is welcome back.”

Even as I said the words, I didn’t know if they were true. I only had one option, but I didn’t know enough about it to be certain it would work. Her body wasn’t badly wounded. Could an elixir give her the strength to control a coreless body?

With the little aether I had left, I imbued the spellform on my arm and plucked the two small, bright blue pearls out of my dimension rune. “Help me hold her.”

I eased out from beneath Tessia, who was no longer spasming but still twitched occasionally. Sylvie and I adjusted her so that she was flat on her back, and Sylvie did her best to stabilize Tessia through the twitching. With the pearls held in one hand, I conjured a small aether blade in the other. Pain shot through my temples and core as I forced the manifestation into place. The blade flickered slightly, then solidified.

Taking great care, I sliced through her top, then the smooth skin above her sternum. The blade parted cartilage and bone as easy as skin, opening into where her core should have been.

Although her eyes were closed, Tessia’s body trembled as I pushed one of the mourning pearls down into the cavity. It settled there, sitting like a tiny, bright blue core in her chest. The core of a leviathan infant who never had a chance to live their life…a life now given to Tessia. I felt my jaw working as I clenched my teeth, the tension palpable, and forced myself to relax.

Regis pulled back from her body at my command; there was no longer any reaching her mind within, anyway. She was fully unconscious, her pulse barely beating.

Both Regis and Sylvie had shared in my memories of using the other mourning pearl on Chul, but I could feel their anticipation and distress as the seconds continued to tick past and nothing happened. “It takes time,” I assured them.

I felt Sylvie’s attention shift, and I followed her gaze back to her father. “The Legacy was as intrinsic to his plans as the mana veins are to a conjurer. Removing it—even the possibility of it—sent a shockwave through Fate that rippled across the entirety of our world. It was like reaching into his chest and pulling out half the channels running through his body.”

Sylvie glared at her father’s comatose form. “I saw parts of it. I…couldn’t keep up with everything. What are we going to do with him?”

“I never was able to see past this,” I said, sagging. The effort of talking was draining the very last of my strength. “The shockwave—I’m not sure. It acted like a flash of lightning, blinding me of everything after. I saw a lot of other possibilities, but it wasn’t like seeing the future, really. More like…coming up with a plan and convincing yourself nothing would happen except what you planned for. But I never found a way to strike Agrona directly—or Kezess for that matter—that worked.” I shook my head. “I’m sorry. Without the aspect of Fate here to tie me back to it all, I can’t explain it.”

“He isgoing to wake eventually, though, right?” Regis asked, bobbing up and down and flaring his bright eyes angrily. “I know that using your ‘Fate Scissors’ technique to beat him won’t give us the future we want, but why not just…y’know—cut his head off now while he’s unconscious? Use the other pearl to get your strength back if you have to.”

I looked between the three of us, then down at the last pearl, still clutched in my hand. With a painful pulse of aether, I send it back into the dimension rune. “I don’t know if the pearl would even do anything to me. I admit, I lack the strength to even summon an aether blade now, but I won’t risk wasting the last mourning pearl.”

Sylvie struggled to stand again. She accomplished the task, but looked as if she might fall over at any moment. “I might have the strength…to strangle him while he’s unconscious. Maybe Fate appreciates…irony.”

Regis let out an appreciative laugh, and I smiled tiredly in spite of myself. Sylvie looked very serious—and as if she seriously might struggle to choke the life from a wounded raptor squirrel. Her expression cracked, and then she too was laughing at herself. I joined in, each shake of my shoulders sending pain quaking through every part of me, but mostly in my temples and the base of my neck.

There was one part of me that didn’t hurt, however.

Looking inward, I realized the scar Cecilia had left on my core had healed, and the itching sensation had subsided.

Suddenly, blue-white light, so bright I had to look away, glowed from the cut in Tessia’s sternum. At first there was only a trickle, but it quickly became a flood. Mana spilled out of the cut and scrubbed away her scrapes and bruises. Within her, that mana hardened into a dark black pit around the little blue pearl. As more and more mana poured out through the hard black shell, it lightened to red, then orange, yellow, and silver. Finally, the newly formed core turned a bright, snowy white.

Her breathing settled, and the tension in her brows and lips eased. She did not immediately wake, but a comfortable smile played across her sleeping face, as if she were having a pleasant dream.

I smoothed back her hair, wanting nothing more than to hold her in my arms and keep her there. But a part of me was hesitant as well, perhaps even afraid. She’d lived inside the head of someone who wanted nothing more than to kill me. She’d have learned all kinds of things about me…and maybe been subjected to any number of lies as well. Our story had been anything but simple up to now, and it would be callow and irrational to think we could pick right back up where we’d left off at the beginning of the war.

The sudden appearance of an oppressive mana signature ripped my thoughts away from anything so mundane as romance.

It approached with absurd speed, somewhere between flying and teleportation, and it was flanked by a cadre of lesser—but still inhumanly powerful—signatures.

The weight of it was too much to bear, and I couldn’t help but sink to the ground, lying flat on my back. Regis took shelter in my core, little tremors running through his wisp form. Sylvie sank to her knees and stared at the base of the long shaft that connected to the surface.

Dust billowed out as the approaching signature arrived, and I had to turn away and close my eyes against the stinging cloud. When I finally turned back, I was unsurprised to find Kezess standing there. Windsom and Charon, and…a person I had not seen in a very long time arrived a moment later.

Charon hurried past Kezess, ignoring us and going to Agrona, who had still not moved. “Alive,” he said, lifting Agrona’s head by one horn slightly, then letting it fall back to the floor with a thunk.

Lady Myre, wife of Kezess and, long ago, my mentor, stood beside her husband with all the grace I remembered. Her gaze seemed to pass through Agrona to something deeper. “He is…wrong inside. Broken.”

With a light touch on Myre’s arm, Kezess took a few steps forward, moving in a casual, unhurried manner that I was too weak to be irritated by. His lavender gaze swept over me and Tessia, then settled on Sylvie. “Bring him. Bring them all. Call for all asuras to return to Epheotus immediately. There, we will close the rift and be finished with this war for good.”

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