The Beginning After The End - Chapter 302
The world shifted as I rode the currents of aether to arrive just within the open doorway of the ancient hut, and I immediately stepped into a defensive stance .
But it wasn’t necessary .
Lying on the floor of the hut was a very, very old Four Fists, undoubtedly the source of the powerful aetheric presence .
Its massive muscles had atrophied, shrinking in on themselves like an empty waterskin, its wiry pelt had faded to a snowy white, and its pale skin had wrinkled and shriveled . Two tiny purple eyes turned toward me and the aged aether beast crooned, low and gentle .
It attempted to lift its head, but after straining unsuccessfully for a few seconds, it settled back down into the deep indentation its body had made in the bed of dried twigs and plants .
One shaking arm lifted up and pointed toward the far wall . My gaze followed to the spot it indicated: on a shelf in the wall sat a long, thin slab of white stone .
Three quick steps later and the portal piece was in my hand, cold and silky to the touch . I ran my fingers along the intricate carvings, a sense of accomplishment building within me .
I turned back to the elderly Four Fists, lying defenselessly on the ground . The thought of killing him grew in my mind; this ape beast was such a large well of aether that I knew I’d be able to grow stronger if I absorbed its power, just as I had done to the chimera when first grappling with my aetheric abilities .
Cladding my fist in aether, I raised it over the old Four Fists’ head, but I couldn’t bring myself to strike . Powerful and aether-abundant as this creature was, it wasn’t a mere construct of the Relictombs like the chimera had been . Killing it purely to consume its aether felt deeply wrong…like I was eating another person .
Unclenching my fist, I walked out of the hut and God-Stepped back to the ground where Regis and Caera were waiting for me .
“I got it,” I said, holding up the portal piece in my hand for the two to see .
“Good job, Grey,” Caera said with a soft smile as she looked down at the smooth slab of stone .
‘Birdy incoming,’ Regis pointed out just as Swiftsure landed softly next to me .
His javelin-shaped beak dipped down so he could inspect the portal piece, and it was then that I noticed the last few inches of his beak were red with blood .
He hadn’t fought with us on the battlefield, and I couldn’t see any sign of a fight on the rest of his clean-feathered body .
I grabbed his black beak, startling him . He flapped his wings and tried to dance away from me, but I held tight, twisting his head so I was looking him in the eye . “Whose blood is this?” I asked, my voice calm but frigid .
I released him so he could answer . The skittish bird took several hopping steps away and examined me with wide, confused eyes . “Four Fists . Enemy . ”
My gaze locked with his as I tried to study our guide’s intent .
Caera’s warm hand touched my arm . “Now’s not the time for this . We got what we came here for, and we’re not exactly honored guests in this tribe,” she said softly .
From the Four Fists’ hidden vale, Swiftsure led us back up the mountainside and farther away from the Spear Beak village .
Regis was back inside my body, replenishing his aether supplies, while Caera and I followed closely behind our guide . Despite being able to finally make some progress in leaving this zone, neither of us were in the mood to converse as the weight of our actions back at the Four Fists tribe’s village settled over us like a dark shroud .
Even after finding out that the Four Fists were not only intelligent but actually sapient, I realized that had it not been for the giant gray Four Fists challenging me to a duel, we would’ve committed genocide .
Despite the brewing emotions that I kept suppressed, I made sure to keep constant tabs on Swiftsure . While I was still wary of our guide, Caera and I were reluctantly dependent on him to show us the location of the other tribes .
In the end, whatever Swiftsure had done, it was only what he’d been taught to do by the harsh world in which he lived . It was barbaric, but these warring tribes of aether beasts hadn’t evolved their cultures beyond the level of barbarism yet .
The Four Fists, I was sure, would have done just as bad to the Spear Beaks given the chance .
Pushing aside my needless thoughts, I focused on our next leg of the journey . The path we were on took us higher up the edge of the seemingly endless mountain ranges that surrounded the caldera where we’d first appeared . The skies stayed bright and cloudless, the temperature hovering just below freezing .
“How are you holding up?” I asked Caera, who was walking beside me with a blanket wrapped over her shoulders and arms .
“I was able to replenish my mana earlier during your duel with the large Four Fists, so I’m okay,” she answered with a faint smile .
Swiftsure, who spent most of his time flying above us, landed ahead of us, his feet never breaking the crusty surface of the snow .
He turned to look at me, his beak snapping twice . “Shadow Claws . ” He then held up his wings, holding them close together .
I nodded in understanding just as a flicker of purple flashed right below Swiftsure, and the snow in front of us burst upward, showering Caera and I with a cloud of powdery white .
Caera instantly clad herself in a shroud of black fire, blanket tossed aside and her sword already in her hand .
Swiftsure let out a surprised cry and tried to take to the sky, but his terrified shriek was cut short as a set of violently purple claws ripped through his graceful neck, spraying blood across the ground at my feet .
Swiftsure’s warning cry was cut off in a honking gurgle . The Spear Beak’s wings flapped wildly, sending up a flurry of white feathers . Our guide rose a few feet in the air, shockingly red blood raining down into the bright white snow, then his strength gave out and he crashed to the ground, twitched, and was still .
I was already moving well before Swiftsure took his last piteous breaths . My aether-clad fist hissed through the frigid air, but just before it should have connected with our attacker’s cat-like face, the creature vanished in another flash of aetheric energy .
God Step! I thought in shock, quickly looking around for the attacker . Behind me, Caera had her flame-bathed blade ready to block, but before she could do anything else the cat-like beast was behind her, its claws raking down between her shoulder blades .
Caera was protected by the shroud of soul fire, but the aether claws were able to tear through the mana barrier and slice cleanly through the chain links covering her back .
She rolled forward, most likely saving herself from any serious injuries, but a score of long cuts ran down her back .
I burst forward, my hand blurring in the air as I launched myself at the aether beast—a Shadow Claw, I assumed—but it vanished before I could reach it .
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Caera came up covered in snow and blood, her expression deadly calm, like when we had first met in the Relictombs .
“Do you know where it is?” she asked, positioning herself so we were back to back .
“There,” I said, pointing some sixty feet to our right where the Shadow Claw crouched atop a jutting shard of black rock twenty feet high .
The Shadow Claw had the head and spotted white fur of a snow leopard, but its torso and limbs were humanoid . Its hands and feet were feline, and a long, muscular tail swished behind it . Though it was some distance away, it looked small, perhaps five feet tall at most .
‘Arthur!’ Regis thought in warning as aether flared behind me and to my left . I spun, pushing Caera out of the way and throwing a kick directly at the blurry source of aether .
My counterattack failed to connect as my attacker had already managed to duck out of the way . It slashed at the leg planted still on the ground with its aetheric claws before vanishing again .
Even though I had concentrated more aether around my body in defense, the claws still managed to tear through the flesh above my knee, causing me to buckle .
Catching myself, I let the aether clinging tightly around my body burst out in a palpable force that stunned my attacker before it could follow up on the opening .
It was able to teleport away, but this gave me the time I needed to heal my wounds .
“G-Grey,” Caera stammered, wincing in pain as she slowly got up to her feet . “This…”
“Sorry,” I said, retracting my aetheric force .
The Alacryan noble sucked in a deep breath as her eyes continued to scan our surroundings .
My eyes, however, went straight for the two aetheric presences on the dark rocks . Now both Shadow Claws crouched above us, their gleaming eyes carefully tracking our movements .
I held back the urge to God Step onto the rocks to confront the two Shadow Claws, choosing to remain beside Caera instead .
When the aether warped on my right, my hand flashed out and grabbed a third cat-like aether beast around its throat, squeezing hard enough to choke it but not to kill it instantly . The creature’s eyes went wide in alarm, then its impossibly sharp aether claws ripped through the flesh of my forearm .
I squeezed, intending to break its thin neck, but it flashed away like the others . At the same moment, Caera’s blade hissed through the air just below my arm .
Turning to the point of rock, I found all three Shadow Claws glaring down at us, one rubbing gingerly at its throat where I had grabbed it, a trail of blood running down its furry leg .
Caera began to speak but I waved her words away . I watched the three attackers carefully: they were absorbing aether from the atmosphere .
“They have to charge up before they can use that teleportation ability again,” I said quietly .
“Perfect,” Caera said as she stepped in front of me, her expression calm and icy as the black flames dancing on the blade of her scarlet sword .
The three Shadow Claws tensed as the flames completely engulfed her sword . She widened her stance and thrust the sword forward, releasing a violent jet of flame toward the shard of black rock .
The Shadow Claws burst out with a series of terrified howls as two of them vanished in a flash of aetheric energy .
The third—the creature I had caught in my grasp when it attacked us—wasn’t so lucky . It hadn’t had enough time to gather the aether required to use its teleportation ability again, and so it was engulfed by Caera’s spell .
For an instant the Shadow Claw was highlighted against the dark rock behind it, surrounded in blazing black light, then both the cat-like aether beast and the pointed peak of rock were gone, destroyed entirely .
An angry, sorrowful howl from behind us caused me to spin around . The remaining Shadow Claws were fifty feet away, crouched in the snow and squalling mournfully .
I took a step forward instinctively, but the memories of the Four Fists mother holding onto its baby for dear life made me falter .
My gaze flickered to Swiftsure, contorted unnaturally in the bed of red snow . He had risked his life despite barely knowing anything about us, and brought us into his home . Despite the wariness I had felt for our guide, his death wasn’t just .
The Shadow Claws had ceased their yowling and now seemed to be engaged in a heated conversation . They were distracted .
Just like the Four Fists, these creatures had ambushed us and attacked without cause . Now wasn’t the time to hesitate .
Making up my mind, I unfocused my eyes and the paths through the aether lit up like the nighttime highways of my old world before me . It was a simple thing to step through the vibrations, appearing between the two arguing aether beasts in the same moment .
Before they could so much as widen their eyes in surprise, I hacked outward with the blades of my aether-clad hands, which came down on my enemies’ shoulders like axes .
The Shadow Claws did not seem to guard themselves with aether, and both small forms crumpled under the weight of my unexpected blow, their shoulders and necks shattered .
I knelt down over the bodies as I waited for Caera to catch up . Up close, I could see that the wide, feline paws had no natural claws .
They create their only weapon with aether, I realized, curious and amazed that there were creatures in a place as dangerous as the Relictombs with no natural defences .
“Are you okay?” Caera asked as she walked up behind me . “I saw your leg earlier…oh . ”
I looked back at her over my shoulder . “I heal pretty fast . ”
“That’s a bit of an understatement,” she said before her gaze fell to the Shadow Claws . “Did you find anything?”
“I’m checking now . ” I turned back and studied the Shadow Claw corpses . They didn’t wear any clothes, but both had simple leather pouches that hung from corded belts around their waists . I untied the leather string that held one of the pouches shut and fished out a handful of small objects .
First was a slab of dried meat of some kind . I sniffed at the meat, then nibbled off a corner while Caera watched me expectantly, like a puppy staring at a treat .
I grabbed my neck, widening my eyes as I let out choking noises .
The Alacryan noble let out a startled gasp . “Grey!”
I shakily held up the rest of the dried meat before plopping it into my mouth . “Just kidding . ”
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Caera blinked in confusion, then narrowed her eyes . “That wasn’t funny . ”
‘I thought it was funny,’ Regis said with an approving tone .
Thanks, I responded as I dug through the rest of the pouch, a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth .
Aside from a few more slabs of dried meat, the Shadow Claw also carried a jet black knife carved from what looked like a beak .
‘These things sure do like their little keepsakes from murdering each other, don’t they?’ Regis pointed out .
I put the knife into the dimensional storage rune, thinking it could perhaps be used as a bargaining chip to receive some more Spear Beak eggs, and I handed the dried meat to Caera . “This, along with the fruits we recovered from the Four Fists’ village, should keep you from having to eat my arm to stay alive . ”
“Another joke, Grey?” Caera asked, horrified .
I shrugged . “It can be now . ”
The next items that came out from the satchel were three white rocks that had a smooth, almost silky texture to them .
“Look . ” I held them up for Caera to see . “It’s the same stone as the dome and the arch . ”
She held up four similarly sized and shaped stones . “This one had some too . ”
Caera had her own small pile of items: the four stones, another flat lump of dried meat, a handful of some kind of small, purplish berries, and a thin rope that appeared to be woven of a tough yellow grass .
The last item from the pouch was a square piece of flat slate about three inches wide . At first I thought it was nothing more than that, but then I flipped it over to reveal a realistically etched image of two young Shadow Claws leaning against one another .
‘Whoa,’ Regis muttered .
It was a very well drawn picture, and I couldn’t help but think it had been scratched into the hard surface with an aetheric claw .
Caera leaned close to me, studying the drawing on the slate with awe . “This is…basically their version of a locket . ”
“That’s what I was thinking,” I agreed .
“Strange,” she muttered, lightly tracing the carved drawing with a finger . “Why did they attack us?”
“They might just be as bloodthirsty as Old Broke Beak made them out to be,” I said .
“After what we saw at the Four Fists’ village, it doesn’t seem that simple . ” Caera’s gaze turned to the bloody corpse of our guide . “What if it was because of Swiftsure?”
I looked at her questioningly, but kept silent, letting the thought tumble around in my mind . From what we had seen, the animosity between the tribes was unmistakable . The Spear Beaks hung Four Fists pelts on their walls for decoration, but the Four Fists leader that I had fought against had a decorative cowl made from Spear Beak feathers and talons, and the Shadow Claws carried knives made of Spear Beak beaks . Members from both tribes had attacked us not because they were more violent or animalistic than the Spear Beaks; it was because we were with a Spear Beak .
I shook my head . These were all just speculations at this point, but one thing remained true: The tattoos, carvings, and now this etched drawing weren’t just signs of intelligence . They represented a flourishing culture .
“We should get going and scout ahead,” I said, getting up to my feet . My gaze fell to the corpses of the two Shadow Claws . “We’ll need to get rid of these bodies though . ”
Caera nodded solemnly . The flicker of black flames in her palm soon engulfed the two Shadow Claws .
I had utilized very little aether during the battle, so instead of climbing up the rocky cliff, I chose a point high up on the mountainside and God-Stepped directly to it, taking Caera with me so we could see far out over the high plateau on which we’d been traveling .
Caera let out a sharp breath at the sight around us . It was hard to believe the djinn had created this entire place . How absolute their mastery over aether must have been for them to leave behind something as strange and incredible as the Relictombs .
The sharply climbing mountains all around us seemed to go on into infinity . I suspected there was some trick to it and that Caera and I could walk forever toward those far off mountains and never reach them . They seemed little more than a surreal backdrop to the caldera and the ring of jagged peaks that surrounded it .
A gust of wind whipped at my straw-colored hair, and I realized that several gray clouds now interrupted the glacier-blue sky, and the paintbrush-markings—the yellow, green, and purple swirls—were fading as a subtle mist blew in .
“The weather is turning again,” I told Caera . With Regis’s aether levels still recovering, I was currently the only one that could survive the harsh storms in this zone .
Despite nearly succumbing to the storm first-hand, however, the noble Alacryan’s ruby eyes remained determined . “Then we just need to find that Shadow Claw village before the storm does . ”
With a nod, I focused aether into my eyes to enhance my sight and began scouting out the surrounding landscape .
It took several minutes to explore the many folds and disguised valleys hidden around the base of the greater mountain range . When I found nothing atop the plateau, we crossed one rocky outcropping to the next until we’d moved around the side of the jagged peak and began searching again .
It didn’t take long to spot what we were looking for . Below me on the next ridge over, there were twenty or so woven huts built within the cliffs . They were carefully hidden between two sharp ribs of stone, and I couldn’t see any easy way in or out .
A little waterfall tumbled down the mountainside, pooling at one edge of the village . I watched as a Shadow Claw, barely the size of an ant from my perspective, bent down over the water to fill something, then disappeared back into a nearby hut .
“There . ” I pointed my finger in the direction of the village so Caera could see as well .
She let out a sigh . “Well, in terms of strategic positioning, I’d say they definitely have the advantage . ”
“For now, let’s head back down,” I replied quietly . “There’s still a high possibility of there being other scouts or guards nearby . ”
On our way back to the base of the rocky outcropping, we stopped at Swiftsure’s body . It wasn’t a pretty sight . The Spear Beak’s once graceful neck was slashed open, his white feathers stained red with his own blood . His thin, barbed tongue hung grotesquely from his beak .
Caera, who stood beside me, gathered her hands and closed her eyes, bowing her head in respect before shifting her gaze back to me . “Should we bury or burn the corpse?”
I shook my head . “Neither . ”
Bending over Swiftsure’s corpse, I dipped my hand in the fatal injury on its neck and ran my bloodied fingers over my face and clothes before turning to Caera, who was gaping at me, confused and disturbed .
“I have an idea that may answer your question earlier as well as get us into the Shadow Claw village,” I said as I walked slowly over toward the Alacryan noble with my bloodied fingers .
Caera huffed out a resigned sigh . “Have I expressed exactly how much I dislike some of your ideas?”