The Beginning After The End - Chapter 298
Regis and I stood at the archway opening into the snowy tunnel . The entrance had partially collapsed and was quickly being filled with snow . In front of us was a blurred expanse of gray and white, howling gales tearing and tossing snow with enough speed to tear flesh from bone .
I scratched my cheek . “Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks . ”
Regis chortled . “Imagine those being your last words . ”
Ignoring my companion’s snide remark, I approached the end of the tunnel, where snow had piled up and largely filled in the chasm cut by Caera’s power, leaving behind only a shallow divot . Flecks of purple aether swirled within the storm, giving the snow a pinkish hue and making it even more difficult to see .
“Wait, you were being serious?” Regis asked, walking around me to stand between me and the storm . “We were barely able to see two feet in front of us yesterday and the storm is even worse than before . ”
“Well we can’t keep twiddling our thumbs hoping for the storm to pass,” I said, stepping over my companion .
I clad myself in aether, fortifying my body against the cold and cutting shards of snow and Ice . Climbing up the divot, I began to make my way up out of the tunnel . My feet sank with each step on the soft white powder as I had to continually use my hands to shovel aside the fresh snow .
Even with the endless amount of ambient aether replenishing my reserves, I could feel my core draining fast from the winds constantly slashing at my aetheric defenses . I had to walk slowly and in a wide stance to keep from being tossed off my feet by the storm . The aetheric winds constantly changed directions, shifting the landscape with every blow and shaking my confidence in my own sense of direction .
“Damn it,” I cursed, my voice drowned out by the howling gale .
Admitting defeat, I turned back . The blizzard had already started filling in the trench I’d forged to reach this point, but using my link with Regis as an anchor, I quickly found the vanishing entrance to the aether-carved tunnel leading back to the dome .
By the time I returned, Caera was awake and standing next to Regis, wrapped tightly in several layers of bedrolls .
Caera stared at me before letting out a shiver . “Just looking at you makes me feel colder . ”
I looked down to see that I was caked from head to toe with a thick layer of compacted snow .
“Did you find anything out there? A bit of snow, perhaps?” Regis asked with a wolfish grin .
Sweeping a thick clump of snow out of my wheat hair and off my shoulders, I promptly dropped it on top of my companion .
“Hey!” Regis yelled, his small voice muffled by the snow . He struggled to free his diminutive form from the snow before Caera dipped down and pulled him out by his tail .
“It looks like we’re going to be stuck here for a bit,” I said to Caera as I shook the rest of the snow off of me .
The Alacryan noble let out a sigh . “I figured as much . ”
Walking back along the tunnel and into the dome, I took a seat at our makeshift camp and began to think . The thought of just idly waiting felt nearly as dreadful as the trek through the snowstorm . I debated whether to use this time refining my aether core but the process left me too vulnerable for my comfort and Regis still needed to get back to normal .
As I continued to deliberate our next course of action, my gaze was drawn to Caera, who was digging through the pile of random items by the foot of the stairs . Her eyes lit up as she picked up a small item before stuffing it in her pocket, then she went back to looking again . After a while, she made her way back to the pile of bedrolls we had laid out, carrying a handful of small bones and smooth stones .
“What are you doing?” I asked .
“Come here and you’ll see,” she said, patting the ground by her side .
My curiosity getting the better of me, I walked over to where she was using a knife to draw thin lines on the smooth stone ground until a rough hexagonal grid had been carved out .
At first, I thought she was trying to map out our coordinates within the zone, but then she started placing the random assortment of stones and bones into two opposing sides of the grid .
“Is this, by chance, a game?” I asked, brows furrowed .
“It’s a strategy game popular amongst highbloods,” she explained, adjusting some of the pieces so they were in the center of their respective hexagons . “I carry a portable board during my ascents, but since my dimension ring is broken, this will have to do . ”
Caera hadn’t eaten in days . In these frigid conditions, where her body was burning off more energy to regulate her internal temperature, she would last a week, maybe two, without some proper food . Yet she seemed to be unconcerned as she sat in front of the crudely made board .
“Is now really the time?” I asked, still standing .
Caera raised an eyebrow as she looked up . “I’m sorry, did you have some other pressing business to attend to, Grey?”
I rolled my eyes, but sat down on the opposite end of the makeshift board . “Fine, but you’ll have to teach me the basics . ”
“So, the casters can move up to five spaces in a given direction—”
“No, it can move anywhere as long as it’s within five spaces . Here, let me show you again,” Caera said, speaking up to be heard over the noise of the blizzard outside .
We each sat on top of a folded bedroll within the dome, the carved game board positioned between us while Regis remained in my body to replenish his aether . In front of me were the bone shards, each piece carved with a small image of either a square, a line, a triangle, or a circle . Caera’s pieces were smooth rocks each carved with one of the same four symbols .
“And the pieces with lines are the strikers?” I asked hesitantly .
“Yes,” Caera said with a pout . “And it’s not a line, it’s a sword . ”
I lowered my head to the board to take a closer look . “I’m pretty sure that’s a line . ”
“I had to improvise, so just use your imagination,” Caera retorted . “Anyway, the caster pieces, the ones with the symbol for fire—”
“The triangle,” I corrected .
“The fire,” she stressed, “are the most flexible . The shields are best used defensively while the strikers are good at taking pieces . Remember that you can only capture a piece by jumping over it . ”
“And you win if you take my sentry?”
“Mhmm,” Caera nodded . “Or if my sentry reaches your hold, which is called a true win . ”
I raised a brow . “What’s the difference between a normal win and a true win?”
“True wins are much more difficult to obtain so it’s considered a great achievement . ”
“Seems like another way for nobles to flaunt their skills . ”
“I suppose it is . ” Caera let out a chuckle as she set the pieces back to their original position . “Are you ready?”
I nodded . Though I hadn’t played this specific game before, it was similar enough to the strategy board games of my past that the rules fell into place easily in my mind .
“Traditionally, white goes second,” she said, pointing to my pieces of bone .
Dipping in a miniature bow, I gestured for Caera to take her first move . She slid a stone shield forward one space . I moved my outer striker to the leftmost corner of my side of the board .
Caera responded by moving one of her casters up the edge of the board, opposite of the striker that I had just repositioned . I moved my caster as well this time, bringing it around my outer shield piece and up to the front so it would be in position to capture the shield in my next turn .
However, Caera seemed to have anticipated this because she moved one of her strikers behind the shield so my caster wouldn’t be able to capture the piece in its allotted five moves .
“Ah, I didn’t think to move the pieces that way,” I mused, more to myself than to Caera .
It didn’t take long for the game to unfold in my opponent’s favor . By about seven moves in, I knew I couldn’t win, so I opted for moving pieces around in order to see how Caera would react .
At the very least, Caera wasn’t able to obtain the true win like she had wanted, making her bite her lip in irritation .
“Another,” she declared, already moving the pieces back to their original spots after capturing my sentry .
“Sure,” I said, amused by her competitiveness .
Caera was good . It was obvious that she wanted to use this game to learn more about me, but through the next few rounds, I was able to learn a lot about her as well .
She moved cautiously but never passively . There was a strategy with every move, evident in her desire to keep as many pieces in play as she could while slowly whittling down my pieces . And for the first few games, I fell for her tactics, but her personality leaked into the game and she showed a crucial weakness that I was able to expose .
“That’s a win for me,” I said with a grin, deliberately lifting her sentry slowly off the board for her to see .
“H-hold on,” she said, her scarlet eyes scanning every inch of the board for some kind of mistake .
I stifled a laugh . My victory was a shallow one, caused by Caera’s own greed to get a true win off of me . If it hadn’t been for that fact, I wouldn’t have been able to win .
“Look all you want but it’s not going to change anything,” I chuckled .
Caera whipped her head up, shooting me a glare . “You’ve played this game before, haven’t you . ”
I shook my head . “I haven’t . ”
“I’ve played this game for years and while I’m not the best, there is no way for me to lose so easily to a first timer . ”
Letting out a sigh, I put the sentry back on her board . “I only won because you got greedy . Did you think I wouldn’t notice you trying to go for a true win?”
Caera’s eyes widened and she let out an embarrassed cough .
“You isolated your caster three moves before hoping to draw my sentry out of its hold to clear a path for your sentry, right?”
“See! The fact that you’re able to think like this proves that you’ve played this game before,” she said .
“The only thing that this proves is that you’re competitive and also a sore loser,” I replied with a smirk .
“You just got lucky,” she muttered, setting the pieces back to their original places .
“I did, and I’m pretty sure I would’ve lost had you played seriously,” I said calmly . “You’re good, Caera . It doesn’t take a master to see that . ”
Caera narrowed her eyes . “You are continually surprising, Grey, do you know that?”
“I’ll take that as a complim—” I raised my head, just barely catching a noise different from the usual howl of the wind .
A frown fell over Caera’s face as she cocked her head side to side, but my gaze had already turned to the single doorway into the dome .
Caera’s eyes followed my own, and we both waited silently . I thought for a second that I must’ve just heard wrong . It still could’ve been the wind against the dome .
Then I heard it again: the heavy scraping of something large moving through the snowbound tunnel . It was coming our way .
“Behind the platform,” I said in a hushed tone, dashing away from our gear to put the raised dais between us and the door, Caera right behind me .
“Do you sense something? Is it stronger than us?” she whispered, a trace of fear in her voice .
“That’s not it . ” I knelt down, peeking around the corner of the platform so I could just see the door . “Something has been leaving things here . That suggests intelligence . I want to see what it is before we engage . ”
I focused my hearing on the tunnel, listening carefully for any noise over the howling of the snow-heavy winds, but I heard nothing . By this time, Regis had woken up from his meditative state .
‘Maybe it was just the win—’
My companion’s thought cut off as a large, purple mass of aether appeared in the doorway, so big that it had to squeeze to pass through . The aetheric shape paused, appearing to turn toward our equipment, and I heard an audible sniffing, snorting sort of noise .
It wasn’t until the shape turned and took a cautious step toward our bedrolls that I recognized it . It had a long, stocky body, a sloped back, and four powerful limbs . Its wedge-shaped head lowered to the ground as it continued to sniff, clearly attempting to catch our scent .
It was similar in size and shape to Boo, though longer and not so broad in the body . Each step the bear-like creature took was slow and deliberate, its movements wary, almost delicate .
But why can’t I see it? I wondered . I could see it’s aether, but not the beast . It was almost like it was an aetheric ghost, a being of pure energy .
‘I doubt ghosts make noise when their sides rub against a tunnel wall,’ Regis pointed out, cementing my own thoughts .
Turning carefully to catch Caera’s attention, I pointed to my eyes, then toward the intruder . She looked at me in confusion, then shook her head .
‘It’s invisible,’ Regis thought, but I shook my head .
More than that, it’s using aether to shield itself from being seen .
‘That’s a trick I wouldn’t mind learning,’ Regis said hungrily .
Suddenly the invisible bear pushed at the game board with its snout, scattering the pieces across the cold, white floor .
Caera’s eyes widened in surprise but she managed to keep silent . Still, the invisible mass of purple was drawing closer, it’s wedge-shaped head tracing the very steps that Caera and I had taken during our hasty retreat .
I ushered Caera around the corner of the dais, then pointed upward toward the top before clearing the height of the platform and lying flat so the aetheric being couldn’t see me .
Caera followed suit, jumping the ten-feet to the top of the platform and using her hand to soften her landing .
Only seconds passed before I caught the sound of snorting and sniffing from below .
It was moving very slowly around the edge of the platform, so I began to push aether through my body in case the creature found us .
‘Maybe we should attack first, get the jump on it . ’
No, I want to see what it’s doing, if we can, I replied . If the aetheric beast was intelligent, if it could be communicated with, then perhaps it could help us escape the zone .
‘When was the last time we ran into a smart monster in the Relictombs?’ Regis asked, but I ignored the comment, despite the fact that he wasn’t exactly wrong .
Sliding across the silky stone, I moved around so I could just see over the lip of the platform . After the bear made a complete circle around the dais, it approached the pile of items at the base of the stairs, and I felt the sting of disappointment .
Was it just drawn here by the smell of the bones?
But instead of ransacking the mound, the bear set something carefully on the pile, then plodded slowly toward the door .
Realizing the creature was about to leave, I slowly pushed myself up into a crouching position and held my hands up above my head in what I hoped was a universal sign of peace, even to aether-wielding invisible bears .
The shimmering purple mass froze, standing perfectly still and silent .
‘The big guy doesn’t realize we can see him,’ Regis thought . ‘What now?’
Slowly rising until I was standing straight, my hands still held above my head, I locked eyes with the creature—or least, I looked where I thought its eyes were . “We’re not going to hurt you,” I said, keeping my tone even and unthreatening .
The bear-like beast stayed motionless . I knew if I couldn’t see aether, it would be completely invisible and silent . I couldn’t help but wonder what other sorts of aether beasts inhabited the snowy zone if a creature so large and imposing had developed such an impressive defense mechanism .
“What do you think you’re doing?” Caera hissed .
“I’m not sure yet,” I said out of the corner of my mouth . I stepped sideways toward the stairs, never taking my eyes off the aether-shielded bear, then felt around with my foot at the edge of the platform until I touched the stair below . Cautiously, I went down one step at a time .
At the bottom of the stairs, I took a single step forward . Instantly, a roar that drowned out even the blizzard outside filled the vast dome . Out of the corner of my eyes, I could see Caera whirling into action, her red blade drawn .
Dropping to all fours, the aetheric beast charged at me .
I raised an arm, signalling for Caera to stay back while shrouding myself in a condensed layer of aether . I could feel the drain on my reserves, but it was better to take safety measures against enemies of unknown strength .
I lowered my stance to meet it head on, expecting it to rear up and attack or to veer away, but instead it lowered its broad head and the aether surrounding it flared as it ran straight into me .
Sidestepping at the last moment, I thrust my palm at its side, hoping to push it off balance . However, the beast shifted its weight at the moment of contact and used the force of my blow to whirl in place . The invisible beast lashed out mid-spin with a paw the size of a dinner plate .
I blocked the blow, catching its giant paw in my hands before pivoting my stance and throwing its arm over my shoulder . Aether flared from my core as I summoned the strength to shoulder toss the two-ton behemoth onto the stairs, shaking the entire dome .
The shell of aether shimmered and faded, and suddenly I could see the thing hidden underneath, strewn across the base of the stairs .
It had thick, brilliantly white fur, which shimmered with a pinkish pearlescence when the creature moved . A flat ridge of steel-gray bone protruded from its broad forehead, like horns that had been sawed off a few inches from its skull, and a plate of bone wrapped around each shoulder like armor .
“Did you just…throw this giant beast?” Caera asked, slowly making her way down the stairs .
“I don’t want to hurt you,” I said to the bear, which had been stunned by the impact . I had seen it leave something on the pile of objects at the foot of the dais stairs; there had to be some meaning behind that .
I walked closer to the white, bear-like beast when its eyes suddenly shot open and it burst at me with a blurring speed .
My eyes widened in surprise but my reaction speed wasn’t any slower than the bear’s . I spun on my heels just as the bear attempted to tackle me and tried to grab a hold of its thick fur . Unfortunately, the bear had surrounded itself in aetheric armor once more and my hands slipped off .
I tumbled to the ground before catching myself . By then, Caera had already gone after the beast’s fading form, her blade in hand .
“Stop! Don’t kill it—”
I felt the tingle in my spine as she summoned her Vritra-born power and caused a curtain of black fire to burst to life within the doorway, just ahead of the escaping aether beast .
It wasn’t enough . The bear roared again and burst through the dark wall of fire, leaving behind the scent of singed hair .
Channeling aether into the rune, I ignited God Step but was met with a sharp pain . With my aether reserves already low because of Regis and the amount I had spent in the short span of our battle, I didn’t have enough aether to use God Step .
“Don’t lose it, Regis!” I ordered, cursing inwardly .
‘Aye aye . ’ Regis emerged, now the size of a large hound, and raced off after the bear in a blur of black and violet .
“Grey, it’s not worth it—”
“You saw it feign unconsciousness,” I snapped, cutting Caera off . “It’s intelligent, and if we can find out where it came from, we might be able to find the missing pieces of the arch . ”
Even without Caera’s uncertain gaze, I knew it was a long shot . Still, the creature could manipulate aether in ways even I couldn’t .
There had to be some greater meaning to its presence within the dome . It hadn’t wandered in by accident, and it had seemed surprised to find us there, which meant that it didn’t come because of us .
The djinn had designed every aspect of the Relictombs to challenge all those who entered it . The fact that relics didn’t work in this zone, the broken exit portal, the invisible bear: It all had to be connected .
Caera gave me a hard, piercing look . “I don’t know what keeps you from freezing solid out there, but I won’t last forever . I can give myself a little time, but…”
She didn’t need to finish the thought . I knew what she meant . If we followed after the aether beast but got lost in the storm, she could die .
“If we’re not willing to take risks, we’ll never get out of here,” I said earnestly, meeting the gaze of her scarlet eyes . She only nodded, then took a step back and gathered her power . Ghostly flames flickered to life all over her body .
‘Where the hell are you?’ Regis shouted in my head .
On our way . Just don’t lose it!
I flashed past the door and sprinted along the exterior of the dome, Caera just behind me . By the time we turned away from the wall, Regis was well ahead of us, nipping at the giant bear’s heels .
I could see where it had rubbed against the sides of the tunnel as it ran, its shoulders gouging thick trenches into the snowy walls, causing a partial collapse of the tunnel so that Caera and I had no choice but to dig our way through, losing valuable time .
We climbed up the hill of snow leading to the surface while I continued to replenish my aether reserves . The bear galloped nimbly through the powdery snow, it’s purple mass indistinguishable from the aether-laced snowstorm while even Regis’s black form was almost entirely shrouded .
Still, it left heavy tracks, and I followed it without hesitation .
Then Regis’s voice was ringing in my head . ‘I’m losing it, Arthur! It’s swimming through the snow like a big, angry fish . I can’t keep up!’
Just hang on for a few more minutes, I urged, my aether reserves almost replenished enough to use God Step .
Utilizing all the strength of my asuran body, I used the compacted snowprints of the beast as stepping stones to continue the chase . Caera struggled along behind me, the fiery aura keeping her warm and eating away at the flakes that whipped past us on the aether-laden winds .
Skidding to a halt, I turned to Caera, who was still catching up . “Keep following this trail!” I barked . “I’m going on ahead . ”
Caera’s eyes widened but I couldn’t wait for a response . Turning my back to her, I ignited my rune .
I let my eyes unfocus as I searched through the vibrations in the aether that I could slip into using God Step .
But the aetheric blizzard blazed with violet light, obscuring everything, even the vibrations and the destinations that they led to . My heart pounded as I felt for the path around me while seconds continued to tick away . Knowing that I couldn’t waste any more time, I locked on to a shimmering vibration .
Then I stepped forward .