The Beginning After The End - Chapter 300
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the change in light . The inside of the Spear Beak elder’s hut was dim, unlit except for the thin columns of light that flowed in through gaps in the woven sticks and from around the edge of the door hanging .
The hut’s interior was simple: a large bed of feathers, brown grass, and tufts of fluffy white fur dominated the space, and a single copper wash basin full of water rested next to the door . A thin layer of ice had formed on the surface .
Hanging around the hut from the small loose ends of the branches were what looked like trophies . There were several necklaces made of large fangs and small bones, the pelt of a four-armed creature I didn’t recognize, and even a row of feline skulls lined up neatly .
‘Quite the morbid sense of decor from our feathered friends,’ Regis thought .
We can’t be sure they’re friendly yet, I warned, my gaze flicking from item to item until my attention landed back on the necklace made of talons . Don’t those look pretty similar to the ones left at the altar?
As the elder shuffled into his bed and squatted down, his spindly legs folded beneath him and I got a better look at his clawed toes .
‘I think you’re right,’ Regis affirmed . ‘Now the bigger question is, did they put them there or one of the bear beasts? I think—’
Regis’s voice was drowned out as my eyes focused on something far more interesting . As the elder shuffled in his nest, for just a moment I caught the purple glimmer of aether beneath the bedding . There was some kind of relic hidden within, I was sure of it . Maybe even a piece to the portal .
“Sit, sit,” the old bird croaked, waving his wing around the hut .
Giving no indication that I’d noticed anything, I sat on the hard-packed earth floor around the bed, thinking it might be rude of us to intrude on the elder’s resting place, and Caera took a seat next to me . Unsure where to start, I stayed silent and waited for the Spear Beak to continue .
“Silence is wisdom,” the old bird said sagely, nodding his black beak up and down . “Long, very long since an ascender has visited us . ”
“We have many questions, elder, but first, what should we call you?” I asked politely .
The gray old bird clacked his beak and honked in a way that I couldn’t hope to replicate, then it laughed, a sound like grain being milled . “In your words, Old Broke Beak . ”
Smiling at the accuracy of Old Broke Beak’s name, I held my hand to my chest and said, “And I’m—Ar…” I stopped, stumbling over the words as I nearly revealed my name .
“This one is Grey,” Caera cut in, glancing at me strangely from the corner of her eye, “and I’m Caera . It’s an honor to meet you, Old Broke Beak . ”
“How is it you’ve come to know our tongue?” I asked, hoping to move the conversation past my near mistake .
Despite our urgency to leave this zone, I was incredibly curious about these Spear Beaks . Since being reborn into this world, I hadn’t met a mana or aether beast as intelligent as these creatures .
Had the djinn been so powerful that they created sentient, intelligent life simply to populate their trials? It seemed implausible .
“Another ascender, wise enough to listen, taught me when I had only just learned to fly . ” The elder clacked his beak several times, ruffled his feathers, and pecked at the bedding underneath him before continuing . “I have kept this knowledge, and shared your words with every ascender to find us since—or tried . Many are not wise enough to hear the words . ”
I nodded along as our host spoke, imagining the types of powerful ascenders who might have reached this zone only to attack every aether beast they saw without realizing they weren’t monsters .
But if they’re able to fight off ascenders powerful enough to arrive in this zone…
‘Then these guys must be stronger than they look,’ Regis finished .
“I am glad you have come, and you bring wisdom with you,” the old bird went on . “We need you, and you need us . ”
Caera leaned forward, her scarlet eyes boring into the Spear Beak’s purple ones . “You know where the broken pieces of the portal are?”
“The clans keep them, yes, but they won’t give them to you, no . ” Old Broke Beak shook his wizened head, his long beak cutting back and forth in the air like a sharp blade .
“The clans?” Caera asked .
“Four clans, yes, and the wild things, the mindless things, they carry one too, but they always hunt for the others . The wild things are sleepless and fearless and forever greedy . ” The elder leaned forward, looking from Caera to me then back again . “But the clans are worse . Cruel . Stupid . Four Fists, Ghost Bears, Shadow Claws…only the Spear Beaks know wisdom . ”
“Ghost Bears?” I asked, thinking of the invisible bearish creature we fought under the dome, squatting far below us now at the bottom of the caldera .
“Huge, hungry monsters,” the elder said ominously, ruffling his feathers as if shivering . “Ghost Bears kill as if it’s a game, moving unseen through the storms, raiding in the night . If you find one”—he leaned forward again, his cracked beak coming within inches of my face—“kill it, or it will hunt you forever . Ghost Bears never give up a kill . ”
I only nodded, carefully keeping my thoughts from my face . The Ghost Bear we’d seen hadn’t seemed like a murderous killing machine . In fact, it had seemed cautious and curious, then fled before harming any of us .
‘We could’ve just scared it,’ Regis pointed out . ‘The…Ghost Bears or whatever can’t have seen many people, much less someone that could actually see them like we were able to . ’
You might be right, I admitted, but I was still unsure . I didn’t want to give away our knowledge of the Ghost Bears, though, so I instead pressed the Spear Beak elder for more details about the other clans .
“The others…just as bad, yes . Four Fists clan are like you, yet not like you . Short legs, long arms thick as a grown Spear Beak’s breast . Squashed, ugly faces, with teeth like this . ” Using its feathered wings, Old Broke Beak mimed large, misshapen tusks or fangs .
“Shadow Claws live to fight, to kill . ” Old Broke Beak indicated the row of feline skulls . “They stalk us, climb the peaks and hurl our eggs from their nests . ”
Caera was listening somberly to the old bird speak . She shook her head when he mentioned eggs . “That’s horrible . I’m so sorry, Broke Beak . ”
“You said we needed each other,” I reminded him, eager to bring the conversation back around to the portal pieces . “So each of these clans holds a piece of the portal out of this zone? Why?”
Old Broke Beak closed his eyes, his long neck swaying gently as if he were singing a song in his head . When his purple eyes finally opened again, there was a sense of the ancient about him, a weariness that rolled off him like an aura .
“Long, very long have I thought on this . Always the Spear Beaks have tried to spread wisdom to the other clans, but now I know they cannot learn it . The others will not give you the pieces . You must destroy them . All of them . Take their pieces . When you have the others, I will give you the piece long guarded by the Spear Beaks . ”
“My apologies for being blunt, but why can’t you give us your piece now?” Caera asked, studying the elder closely .
His neck twisted to the side to such a degree that his head was nearly upside down . “If the ascenders fail, if they die in the snow, under the claws and teeth and rage of the other clans, then we would have lost our own piece of the Creators’ temple . No, this is not wisdom . ”
Though I recognized the sense in his words, I was distracted by something else he’d said . “The Creators?”
The long, dark beak moved up and down slowly . “The other clans sense only the Creators’ energy within the relics, and so hoard them and worship them . They are too dumb and too vicious to think about the pieces’ purpose, yes . ”
These clans, it seemed, had developed some kind of mythology around the djinn, the dome, and the arch within . If the portal pieces exuded aether, and these creatures could sense it, then it would make sense that they coveted them .
“You will need the Creators’ gifts to heal the portal . You can do this?”
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I nodded . Just like the mirror room, we only came to the snowy zone because I already had the tools required to move past it . Test upon test, I mused silently .
At that moment, Caera’s stomach rumbled noisily . Old Broke Beak snapped around, staring down at her midsection with wide eyes, his cracked beak open slightly . “Food, yes . I have been a bad host . So eager to share words, while you go hungry . Come . We have sat . We have talked . Now, eat, yes . ”
The elder’s legs creaked audibly as he stood up and led the way out of his hut . Outside, we discovered several Spear Beaks lingering nearby, staring intently at us as we followed him back out into the cold mountain air .
Old Broke Beak snapped, clacked, and cawed, and the others nodded respectfully and began to follow us, forming into two long lines .
Caera’s brows furrowed in concern as she looked at me, but I just nodded and walked up behind Old Broke Beak .
The Spear Beaks murmured and cackled in low whispers, the rustling of their features growing louder as we followed Old Broke Beak through the village . Others peaked their beaks out of the many huts and shuffled into line in the impromptu march . Several of the Spear Beaks wheeled in the skies above us, their strange song falling down over the mountain hollow .
We followed the elder to another, nearly identical hut with a faded gray door covering . He snapped his beak three times and the crowd behind us fell silent as the dark-feathered Spear Beak we’d seen upon entering the village appeared in the doorway .
There was a short exchange in their own language, then the black Spear Beak pushed aside the hanging with its beak and the elder entered, waving us in with a wing .
I glanced back at the flock; they were all entirely silent and still, their violet eyes following us closely . Those that flew circles above us did so in an unnatural, interweaving pattern like an aerial dance .
Caera vanished through the shadowy doorway ahead and I followed, a surreal, dreamlike feeling of otherworldliness settling over me like a heavy blanket .
Inside, the hut was nearly identical to Old Broke Beak’s, though there was no copper wash bin, and the only trophy on the wall was a small bear’s skull with a narrow hole just above the right eye socket . It looked much too small to be a fully grown bear .
A second Spear Beak, nearly identical to our guide but with a fringe of feathers that stood up from her head, was nestled into the bed, but stood and shuffled to the side at a few clacks and squawks from the dark-feathered bird .
Sitting in the middle of the nest was a large, pinkish egg . Caera eyed me uncertainly once again, but I stayed silent, waiting for Old Broke Beak .
The elder walked slowly across the hut, his claws crunching through the dry grass and feathers of the nest-bed, then gently tapped at the egg in several different spots . Without turning to us, he said, “This egg will not grow a hatchling . ”
Then, without warning, he drove his keen beak through the shell of the egg, puncturing it with a sharp crack . I looked on, horrified and fascinated, as he began to pick away pieces of the shell, crunching them with his beak and swallowing them down until there was a large hole at the top, revealing the golden, gooey yolk .
‘I did not expect that,’ Regis murmured in a daze .
The elder took a single beakful of the egg, then crossed beaks with the fringed Spear Beak before she too ate from the egg . They both repeated the ritual with the dark-feathered Spear Beak, who took his portion .
“Eat,” the elder said simply, then all three Spear Beaks stood aside, watching us expectantly .
I could see Caera’s thoughts written plainly on her face as her hunger and disgust waged a war within her .
It was obvious that there was some kind of cultural significance, perhaps even religious ritualism, to this couple offering up their egg for consumption, and while the idea of these creatures cannibalizing their own eggs was distasteful, I expected they would not understand our hesitation, and might even find it rude if we declined their offer .
Besides, Caera couldn’t live forever on snow alone .
Bowing respectfully to each of the three Spear Beaks, I stepped carefully into the nest and leaned over the egg . The insides were thick, warm, and slimy . Using both hands like a bowl, I scooped out a small portion and slurped at it indelicately .
It had a musky, rich flavor that wasn’t distasteful, exactly, but was foreign and strange . Despite this, I quickly finished the handful of slimy egg as I realized something else about it .
The raw Spear Beak egg yolk was swimming with aether, and eating it allowed my body to quickly absorb the aether, helping to refill my core after the long night out in the storm .
Regis, are you—
‘Feeling it? Oh yeah…’ Regis answered, enjoying the hum of energy that we absorbed from just that small scoop of the egg .
Caera watched me with pursed lips and a pinched sort of look on her face . I nodded toward the Spear Beak egg, widening my eyes pointedly .
She clenched her jaw and looked at me darkly before kneeling down in the nest-bed next to the large, pink egg and sticking her own hand into the golden goop . The Alacryan noble held her breath as she quickly slurped down the mouthful of warm egg .
“Yes, eat . Eat,” Old Broke Beak said encouragingly .
Caera and I took turns scoping out handfuls of the musky yolk and kept eating until only a shallow puddle of slime filled the bottom of the egg shell .
For Regis and me, the aether-rich yolk was like drinking pure, distilled energy, but I could see the change coming over Caera almost immediately . Though she’d stoically done her best to stay in good humor even after days without food, having a full stomach made her smiley and sleepy, and despite her initial hesitation, she eagerly consumed the last bits of egg within the shell .
Turning to me with drooping eyes, she opened her mouth to say something but a small burp escaped her lips instead . Caera’s eyes widened in shock and she raised a hand to her mouth .
“Very unladylike,” I commented .
Caera merely rolled her eyes, wiping her lips before responding, “That’s sexist . ”
Around us, almost unnoticed, Old Broke Beak and the others were engaged in a quiet conversation . “Red Wings and True Feather have offered their nest to you to rest and recuperate . Then, if you are willing, Swiftsure, who brought you to us, will guide you to the Shadow Claw village . Yes?”
“Yes . Thank you . ” Caera nodded, heavy-lidded but trying her best to stay awake .
“Sure thing, Broke Beak,” I said, feeling more drunk off the aether-rich yolk than full .
True Feather and Red Wings stepped lightly around me and began to break down the remainder of their egg shell, snapping off pieces and crunching them in their strong beaks, and within moments the egg was entirely gone .
Each of the Spear Beaks gave a splayed-winged bow, then shuffled out of the hut, which was feeling more warm and cozy by the moment .
As soon as the last Spear Beak left the hut, Caera slumped backwards until she was lying prone in the feathers and grass, her eyes already closed and breath steady .
‘She sure has gotten…comfortable around us,’ Regis commented, letting out a hiccup .
Stop talking and stay focused . I expect you to at least be at your full strength by tomorrow, I replied, taking a seat in between Caera and the entrance of the hut .
Letting out a controlled breath, I focused on the aether coursing throughout my body . I hadn’t felt so saturated with aether since I’d taken over the giant millipede’s hoard of aether stones, and I wasn’t about to let it go to waste .
However, rather than refining my aether core, I ignited the God Step rune . Staying seated on the ground, I watched as my perception of the world around me expanded until I could see all the particles of ambient aether flowing in all directions .
I could feel my heart beating against my ribcage and my mind clear as I focused on the intertwining streams of aetheric pathways .
Failing God Step while chasing after the Ghost Bear in the storm had taught me two things: one was that, as powerful as this ability was, its misuse could be fatal; and two, it took me way too long to find the correct path .
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What was the point of having an ability that could instantly transport me across space when it took me so long to even find the path that could transport me where I wanted to go?
So, while Caera slept, I sat and watched, the God Step rune casting a soft golden glow throughout the Spear Beaks’ hut . I watched how the aetheric particles moved, how they behaved, and studied any patterns that could help me use God Step more instinctually .
Things moved quickly when Caera finally woke, bleary-eyed and dull from oversleeping . Though I was mentally drained from concentrating the entire night, my body was flush with newfound energy . We found Swiftsure waiting patiently outside the hut, eager to set off .
Before we left the Spear Beak village, however, Old Broke Beak had some parting wisdom for us .
“Swiftsure is fast and wise . He will guide you to the other clans’ villages, but a Spear Beak cannot fight against Shadow Claws or Four Fists,” he warned darkly . “Do not expect to share words with them . Do not hesitate . Their language is violence, and you must speak it if you wish to leave this place . Return with the other pieces, and we will give you the last . ”
With that, Swiftsure led us back out of the hollow mountain top, several of the other Spear Beaks trailing along behind us as far as the cliff to send us off with happy clacks of their beaks and raucous squawks that sounded like cheers .
I peered down at the steep edge of the cliff while Caera was already preparing herself to make the climb down .
Walking up to Caera, I pulled her back to her feet and wrapped my arm around her waist .
“Um, e-excuse me?” Caera stammered, while Regis wolf-whistling in my head .
Walking closer to the edge of the cliff with Caera in tow, I turned to our guide . “Swiftsure . We’ll meet you down there . ”
I watched the white aetheric bird tilt its long neck in confusion just before I stepped off the edge of the cliff, taking Caera with me .
The Alacryan Noble let out a squeal of surprise that soon turned into a terrified scream as we plummeted toward the stone shelf eighty feet below .
‘Uhh, Arthur? Being the cockroach that you are, I’m sure you’ll survive, but I don’t think Lady Horns can…’
I ignited God Step just as we were about to crash and slipped into the aetheric path that would lead us straight down into the ground just several feet below us .
My feet hit the ground with almost no noise, the momentum that we had built during the fall completely gone .
‘Oh…’ Regis muttered, completely dumbfounded . ‘Or you could do that, I guess . ’
Caera still had her head buried in my chest, her nails digging into my skin even as I let her go .
“You can let go now,” I said as her horns dug deeper into me .
Caera flinched before she peeked down and realized we were no longer in the air . Just to make sure, she stomped her foot on the hard ground before pushing herself away from me .
“H-how did we—what just—you!” Caera glared at me, her breath coming in quick, angry huffs before she punched me in the gut with the strength that could’ve actually broken some bones had it not been me . “Next time you feel the urge to throw yourself off a mountain, feel free to take the bird!”
I rubbed my stomach, wincing in pain . “Got it…”
Swiftsure landed a few feet away from us, fluttering his large wings as he looked at me in a curious manner . “Shadow Claw?” he squawked, his tone almost like a question, but I wasn’t sure what he meant .
Our guide gave up on looking at me for an answer and let out a throaty warble before leading us back down the switchback trail .
Caera was still angry at me, but she kept glancing at me from the corner of her eye when she thought I wouldn’t notice, looking at me the same way Swiftsure was .
‘That’s a pretty cool trick you learned overnight,’ Regis chimed in, enjoying the show .
I’ll need more time to practice God Step if I want to actually use it in battle, but I’m slowly getting the hang of it .
Once we reached the bottom of the ravine, we turned right, moving away from the caldera . This rocky, uneven path took us around behind the Spear Beaks’ clifftop village, then we turned right again and marched on in silence for hours .
Without the wind and snow, simply walking kept us warm enough . Our bellies and cores were full, making the hike almost pleasant .
While we walked, I thought over everything I had seen and heard during our short stay with the Spear Beaks . I couldn’t help but linger on Old Broke Beak’s insistence that the other clans were simple, violent aether beasts . After all, it had been the caution displayed by the Ghost Bear that had made me so sure of its intelligence to begin with .
It was clear from the trophies proudly hung from the elder’s walls that there was conflict between the clans, but the little broken bear skull in Red Wings and True Feather’s hut had seemed no more than a cub .
‘Didn’t your palace back on Earth have a whole menagerie of stuffed critters, including two polar bear cubs?’ Regis pointed out .
My brows furrowed in annoyance . That’s not…
I hadn’t made the connection, but my companion was right . We saw those bears as only animals, and hadn’t seen anything strange about having their corpses stuffed for decoration .
Maybe the Spear Beaks do see the other clans as little more than beasts .
‘I’d say we just wipe ‘em all out and get the heck out of here . Y’know, if we negotiated for a few more of those eggs…’
I’d had the thought myself, and Regis very well knew it . If we consumed enough of the Spear Beaks’ eggs, we could reach the next plateau of our aetheric power—whatever that was .
Consuming the eggs of a sentient species felt wrong, however . It seemed somehow solemn and ritualistic that we had been invited to eat from that egg, and as I thought about it, I realized I had not seen any obviously young Spear Beaks . I wondered how rare hatchlings might be among the strange creatures .
Old Broke Beak had claimed that no hatchling would be born from the egg, but at the same time, what did those eggs represent if not the species’ future?
These and many other thoughts consumed me as we followed our guide, who would sometimes hop along with us on the ground, other times flying high above, scouting out our path . Though Swiftsure couldn’t speak our language, he had learned a few words and could communicate well enough by pointing and squawking .
The light didn’t seem to change as we walked, and although we traveled for several hours, night never fell .
I was lost in thought when Swiftsure snapped his beak to draw our attention . “Near,” he said in his scraping voice .
The Spear Beak stayed on the ground, hopping ahead of us toward a ridge of dark, exposed stone . When he was close, he folded his legs under him so his round body was nearly touching the ground and crept up to the edge, then waved us forward with a wing .
Caera and I got down on our hands and knees, then began crawling through the snow .
“That’s…” Caera whispered under her breath as soon as we arrived near the ledge where Swiftsure was positioned . My eyes narrowed as well .
The mountainside tumbled downward into a small dell full of squat, colorless trees . Within the thick branches, a few dozen huts hunkered like fat little birds . Something was moving around within the village .
“Four Fists,” Swiftsure croaked .