The Beginning After The End - Chapter 301
I strengthened my vision and peered down into the dell .
The huts looked simple, made of grass and packed mud . They were all built off the ground in the thick branches of the trees, with no obvious stairs, ropes, or bridges to allow the aether beasts to get around .
Watching the Four Fists, though, it was easy to see why they had no need for them .
Several of the ape-like creatures were moving around under the trees . Each one had a broad, muscular body, short, thick legs with feet that they used to grab and climb with, and four massive arms . They climbed and ran quickly, using all six limbs to hurl themselves forward . Even from our perch high above I could see that their bodies were entirely littered with scars .
The Four Fists were covered with fur, mostly brown or black, but had pale flesh . Their faces were less ape-like, reminding me instead of something between a human and a pig . They had wide jaws, large, flat noses, and heavy brows . Boar-like tusks protruded from their lower jaws, and their small eyes shone like purple fire under the shadows of the trees .
An enraged roar shattered the mountain silence, and an instant later the source became visible . A truly massive Four Fists, draped in an ornate cowl decorated with what I could only assume were Spear Beak feathers and talons, hurled a smaller representative of its tribe from the open doorway of one of the raised huts .
The victim tumbled ten feet toward the frozen earth before reaching out and grabbing something I couldn’t quite see, then swung to the closest tree branch . The aggressor jumped from the hut, plummeting toward its prey like a comet .
The smaller Four Fists hurled itself away from the tree, again seeming to grab a hold of the very air like some sort of handrail . It swung itself across a large gap between two trees as it sought to put some distance between itself and its attacker .
Around them, several other Four Fists looked on, some growling or roaring in agitation, but they didn’t make any effort to intervene as the larger of the two Four Fists chased the smaller one from the cover of the trees .
Suddenly the large Four Fists wearing the feathered cowl cocked back one arm and hurled something at its prey . A small orb of purple energy—aether—shot through the air in a blur, bursting through the fleeing Four Fists’ calf and causing it to stumble and roll through the snow .
Then the huge gray aether beast was on top of the smaller one, all four heavy fists hammering down on the injured aether beast . It wasn’t much of a contest, and in less than a minute, the battle was over .
The victor dragged its opponent’s corpse back toward the treetop village while about three dozen Four Fists came out of the trees, moving cautiously, eyeing their kin nervously . With a stone-rattling bellow, the large Four Fists lifted the corpse from the ground and hurled it at the feet of the others .
As it beat its chest like a drum, however, another noise just beside me drew my attention . Swiftsure was clacking his beak nervously, a noise that carried into the mountains and echoed down into the dell .
Every bestial face turned simultaneously toward us, glaring up toward the ridge . I ducked down to hide my head, pulling Swiftsure by his beak with me, but a cry had gone through the Four Fists tribe and I could hear the hammering of their knuckles on the permafrost as they began their charge .
Wriggling his sharp beak from my grip, Swiftsure let out a panicked squawk . “Fight!”
“Damn it,” I cursed, getting up and looking behind me as I contemplated retreat .
No, it made no sense to turn and run . The apeish beasts had the portal piece we needed and they appeared just as wild and monstrous as old Broke Beak had promised .
“Prepare for battle,” I said to Caera, who was already at my side, her blade out .
Cladding myself in aether, I took in the sight below: over thirty of the four-armed aether beasts, their beady little eyes burning with fury, were stampeding up the side of the mountain toward us .
Regis, come out when we make impact, I ordered, then leapt from the ridge, aiming to land right in the middle of the aether beasts and hold their attention .
Immediately, the Four Fists responded by hurling projectiles of aether at me .
With my asuran instincts at full force and my eyes focused on the barrage of aether orbs, I calculated their projection as they approached me .
Whirling my body as I sailed through the air, I oriented myself to dodge as many of the aether projectiles as possible as they hummed through the air .
Two struck me, one just scraping my right thigh, the other glancing past my ribs . The pain radiating from the two points of injury told me that my aetheric shroud wasn’t enough to completely protect me from their aether bullets .
Feeling my wounds already healing, I focused on the approaching battle .
Regis . Gauntlet Form! I ordered . His presence immediately travelled to my right hand to draw aether there and allow it to build up . As I neared the ground, a hurricane of aether raged around my hand, fighting to be released . Maniacal howls of fear and panic echoed below as some of the ape-like beasts scrambled to get away .
Just as I was about to land, however, the large Four Fists wearing the decorative cowl hurled itself between me and the ground .
A deafening explosion resounded across the mountainside as the torrent of aether released from my fist clashed against all four of the large Four Fists’ aether-clad arms .
I felt the shockwave of our impact rip through its protective shroud and shatter its bones before it was sent tumbling away in a cloud of snow and debris . Still, because of its sacrifice, my attack had been mostly contained, leaving its brethren dazed but unharmed .
“Regis, now!” I huffed, steadying myself as I fought the draining effects of the aether technique .
‘Don’t die, princess,’ my companion growled as he leapt from my back and jumped on one of the approaching Four Fists, his teeth going for the throat .
Fueled by rage over their injured brethren, the Four Fists howled madly, hurling themselves at me with complete disregard for their own safety .
Letting out a sharp breath, I focused on the aether clinging tightly over my skin, protecting and strengthening me . My mind slipped into a trance as I recalled the years of hand-to-hand training I received from Kordri .
I could hear angered screams of the Four Fists growing louder, Caera calling my name from the distance as she fought her way toward me, and Swiftsure honking high over our heads, but I tuned them all out until all I could hear was the sound of my own, even breaths .
Sidestepping a pair of smaller Four Fists that pounced on me, I struck one with my fist, causing it to collide with its partner before spinning on my heels to intercept a darker Four Fists’ aether bullet .
Cladding another layer of aether over my palm, I redirected it to hit the pair that I had just knocked down before driving my elbow into my attacker’s sternum .
I ignored the choked gasps the aether beast let out as it collapsed . I ignored the look of pain and fear on the other Four Fists . I just focused on the sound of my own breath as beast after beast was felled by my hands . This wasn’t the time to show doubt or compassion .
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This wasn’t the time to show weakness .
A squashed, ugly face of yet another Four Fists pressed down from above, its jaws snapping and its tusks digging at the air as it tried to gore me . I grabbed the beast by those tusks and slammed its face into the ground . When it didn’t go immediately limp, I stomped my feet down into its skull before scanning the battlefield .
Nearly a third of the Four Fists clan had already fallen . Out of the corner of my eyes, I could see Caera outlined in a burning aura, making it nearly impossible for the big, apeish creatures to physically attack her . In the rough circle of enemies around her, I could see several with destroyed hands and arms, burned away by her dark fire as her long sword continued to carve red arcs around her .
Regis, on the other hand, darted between outstretched arms, ripping and tearing at whatever exposed flesh he could . I felt his exhilaration every time his fangs closed down on an enemy throat .
The frozen battlefield soon became colored in red as we continued to slay the aether beasts that seemed even more savage than elder Broke Beak had described . Even as their bones were broken and bodies bloody, the apes just became more wild . Abandoning their ability to hurl aether bullets at us, they continued to charge in, flailing their fists and gnashing their teeth like rabid animals until a baleful roar thundered across the snowy landscape .
The Four Fists all around us instantly stiffened, then another series of growls echoed in the distance .
‘What now?’ Regis groaned as we watched all of the Four Fists—those still alive—leap back and distance themselves from us . In a matter of seconds Regis, Caera, and I were standing in a large ring of snarling four-armed aether beasts .
I could hear Caera’s heavy breaths behind me as she waited for me to act .
A deep, rumbling grunt drew my attention to the opening in the ring where the massive gray Four Fists that had intercepted my initial strike tread confidently into the ring of its brethren .
I had watched this creature beat another of its kind to death, so I knew it was bigger and stronger than the rest, but it looked even more formidable up close . The beast stood tall—at least two feet over me—with its scarred chest puffed out and arms crossed . Its upper two arms were caked in dried blood and snow from taking the brunt of my Gauntlet Form strike, but its injuries didn’t seem to bother it .
Its two gleaming violet eyes bore into me, looking at me with a calm hatred that contrasted its frenzied brethren . It raised one of its lower arms, causing both Regis and Caera to tense . Grabbing its feathered cowl, the gray Four Fists ripped it off of its shoulders and dropped it on the ground before pointing one of its fingers directly at me .
“Damn, that was manly,” Regis muttered .
“I think it’s…challenging you,” Caera said, her eyes narrowed in confusion .
“Good,” I said, stepping forward and dropping my own teal cloak on the ground . “That’ll save us some time then . ”
“At least take this,” Caera replied, holding out her scarlet sword .
My hand reached out toward the weapon, but as I peered into the massive Four Fists’ glowing eyes, I couldn’t help but grin . “No, it’s fine . ”
I thought the Alacryan noble might argue . I knew it was foolish of me to put myself at a disadvantage by fighting bare-handed against an opponent four times my weight and with twice as many arms, but Caera stepped away without another word, leaving me alone in the ring with the gray Four Fists .
My opponent let out a throaty bellow, and several of the others began pounding their chests in a steady rhythm, like the beat of war drums .
The start of our battle was marked by the explosive charge of the Gray Four Fists .
Pushing aether into my legs, I shot forward as well, dipping under its muscular arm as it tried to grab me .
Just as my aether-clad fist was about to reach under its ribs, my opponent’s body blurred and I was barely able to guard its strike to my knee .
I flew back in the air from the impact, the wind knocked out of my lungs, but I was able to see what had happened . It used the same spatium technique that one of its brethren had used to swing in the air, but instead, used the aether as a handle to pull itself forward, giving it incredible momentum .
I ignited God Step and, without the time to determine which path to take, I utilized one that would simply get me out of the way .
The world blurred and I found myself a few feet higher than I had been . Quickly reorienting myself in the air, I channeled aether into my arms just in time for the gray Four Fists to snap out of its initial surprise and create another aether handhold to fling himself back toward me .
Our fists met, but without the aid of Gauntlet Form to strengthen my attack, our clash was no longer as one-sided as it had been before .
I could feel the bones in my arm splintering even through the thick layer of aether protecting me as the impact caused both of us to crash back to the snowy ground .
Leaping up to my feet, I didn’t even wait for my arm to heal before I ignited God Step once more . This time, I was able to find the path I was looking for just as my opponent managed to haul himself out of the small crater of snow .
My world shifted perspectives as God Step placed me next to the gray Four Fists, just under its arms .
Every ounce of concentration was focused on maneuvering aether through my aether channels, letting it travel from my legs and hips and up my back and through my left fist in a perfectly timed fashion to match my final strike .
The result was devastating .
The gigantic ape-like beast crumpled as my fist sank into its side, and it was sent flying out of the ring of Four Fists, crashing into the side of the valley and causing a sheet of snow to break loose and cascade down over part of the battlefield .
Silence fell as I stood panting, looking down at my bloodied fist as aether still leaked out from the surface of my skin .
A sorrowful wail snapped me out of my daze and I immediately readied myself for battle . The Four Fists had fought madly with little regard for their own safety before their massive leader stepped in, but rather than rally for battle, the ape-like beasts fell on all six of their limbs and howled with grief as one of them pulled out the mangled corpse of the gray Four Fists that I had just defeated .
Suddenly, a warm hand grabbed me . “Let’s go, Grey . ”
Caera, hair disheveled and several cuts on her face, pulled me, leading me toward the village while Regis followed shortly behind . My gaze remained on the broken ring of Four Fists all mourning over the tribe’s leader .
I was worried the tribe would pick up the attack again at any moment, and kept glancing back over my shoulder, but they made no move to follow or to defend their village .
“Something’s bothering me,” the Alacryan noble said as we passed under the boughs of the trees . “Not only the leader that you fought, but a lot of the Four Fists had tattoos all over their bodies . ”
“Tattoos? Like spellforms?” Regis asked .
“No,” I replied, answering Regis . “I’m not sure about mana, but I never sensed any aether being manipulated through the tattoos . ”
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“They’re different from the types of crests that we have as well,” Caera said, shaking her head . “The tattoos actually looked really close to the carvings in the portal archway . ”
I stopped, taking it all in . “So they’re just…art . ”
The revelation made me uncomfortable . These Four Fists had charged us, fought furiously and to the death with no provocation at all, but these tattoos spoke of an intelligence far beyond wild mana beasts . I’d seen the signs, but had chosen to ignore them . The very act of having homes in the trees, wearing decorative pieces of clothing like the feathered cowl, the way their leader challenged me to a duel…
They were all signs of intelligence and culture, contrary to what Old Broke Beak had told us .
“Where’s Swiftsure?” I asked, looking up in the air .
Caera shook her head . “He went ahead of us as soon as the battle started . ”
I unfocused my gaze and concentrated on the ambient aether while my eyes scanned the huts . Without the aetheric snowstorm to muddle my senses, I was able to see several distinct aether signatures, most likely coming from Four Fists hidden in the huts .
“Should we split up?” Caera asked
“That’s never a good idea . It may take more time, but there aren’t that many huts we have to check . ” I pointed to one of the rough-barked trees nearby . “This one first . ”
I held my hand out to the Alacryan noble, thinking she would need help getting to the hut high above us . “Hold on—”
Caera’s thin body flowed with a visible shroud of mana before she leaped up onto the nearest branch, kicking up a cloud of snow over me and Regis .
My companion shook the white powder off him and leaned in toward me .
“Rejected,” he whispered before leaping up onto the lowest branch behind Caera .
Rolling my eyes, I jumped up as well, following after the two of them until we arrived just under a hut situated on a thick, gnarled branch .
“Careful,” I muttered . “There’s one inside . ”
I slowly stepped into the hut . The hut itself was simple grass and mud molded into a vaguely rounded shape . The floor was more of the same, though it was almost entirely covered in a layer of straw-like grass that had a sweet, mildewy sort of smell to it .
Huddled in the back corner of the small dwelling was a Four Fists . It was pressed into the corner, its eyes turned away from us .
Regis immediately tensed, the violet fire around his neck flickering wildly .
I turned to Caera, who had taken out her sword but held it loosely at her side . The Alacryan had a pained expression as her scarlet eyes focused on the Four Fists . “Let’s just look around and leave . ”
My eyes focused on the rough shelf that had been dug out of the side of the interior wall . A series of primal looking tools sat on the shelf along with some crude bowls .
Caera and I scanned through the hut to make sure the portal piece wasn’t hidden somewhere when a brief bawling cry came from the corner . The three of us turned to face the source of the sound .
The Four Fists huddled at the back wasn’t alone . It was holding an infant, which must have just woken . The little creature, which had only a thin dusting of fur over its pink skin, looked as much like a six-legged piglet as it did the massive gorillas . It was so small it fit within just one of the Four Fists’ hands .
The larger Four Fists quickly covered the infant, hiding it between two big hands and turning so the baby was shielded by its body . It peeked at us through the corner of its wide, trembling eyes .
A bitter taste filled my mouth as I clenched my teeth . Prying my eyes away from the sight, I quickly searched through the rest of the room before leaving their home .
The next hut was close enough that we could jump to it, and while it wasn’t occupied like the last one, it was a lot more cluttered . In a roughly hewn wooden bowl near the door, there were a handful of bright blue fruits that looked like giant blueberries . They smelled fresh, so I risked taking a nibble of one, finding it was rich and sweet with a texture like nectarines .
A warm glow slid down my throat and sat contentedly within my stomach like I’d taken a shot of alcohol .
I tossed some to Regis, who ate it whole, then handed all but one of the fruits to Caera . The fruit wasn’t as aether rich as the Spear Beak egg, or even the dangling fruit we’d found in the giant millipede zone, so it wasn’t as useful to me as it was to her .
She took the fruits wordlessly before turning around and searching the rest of the hut . Along a raised flat surface were a set of sharp tools and some rock bowls full of smelly ink . There were also some ancient looking steel chisels next to a collection of carved bones, claws, and tusks…but no portal piece .
“Maybe these Four Fists don’t have a piece of the portal,” Caera offered as she inspected some of the tools .
“But Broke Beak had one and he said…” The words got lost in my mouth as I realized what she had actually meant .
“Let’s try looking a bit more,” I said .
Caera just nodded and the three of us continued searching, for both Swiftsure and the piece of the portal .
As we made our way through the tree huts, we found one of the things we were looking for .
High up on a tree so ancient that it seemed nearly petrified by time was a mud hut, and circling around it was Swiftsure . The high tree had been hidden from view earlier, otherwise I would have seen it straight away due to the thin, translucent bubble of aether surrounding it .
“What’s he doing?” Caera asked, watching the Spear Beak flying around the small structure while stabbing his sharp beak in the air .
“He’s trying to get in,” I said .
My mind immediately thought of the near-invisible hand holds that the Four Fists were able to create out of aether and wondered if this was an advanced application of that .
“There’s definitely at least one Four Fists inside,” I said, turning to Caera and Regis . “Regis, with me . Caera, stay out here and make sure Swiftsure doesn’t try flying off . ”
She nodded, the scarlet sword humming with energy in her hand .
Igniting God Step, I let my perception of the world around me stretch, as streams of aether coursed through the air . My limits had vastly increased since first using God Step in the town of Maerin, but it still took me some time to find the right path that would lead me beyond the aetheric bubble and directly into the hut .
My heart pounded as I took the step, cladding myself in aether in preparation to face off against the powerful Four Fists capable of creating such a potent aetheric barrier .