The Beginning After The End - Chapter 309
I could feel Old Broke Beak’s blood pumping frantically through the fragile neck I held in my grasp as he jerked in shock .
Two of the three scarred warriors that surrounded their chieftain immediately reacted, whirling so that their sharp beaks were aimed at my throat, while the largest of the three remained still .
A deathly silence descended on the cliff at the sudden turn of events, no one willing to make a move as I held their leader’s life in my hands .
I leaned forward to the quivering chieftain, my gaze locked on his guards . “Are you willing to gamble your life on the chance that your soldiers might be able to kill me before I snap your neck…or will you call them off?”
The old bird stiffened at my threat but remained silent .
“I thought you were smarter than that,” I muttered as I stamped my foot . An audible crack resounded as Old Broke Beak’s left leg snapped near his ankle . The chieftain let out a hoarse honk as he writhed in pain .
Panicked cries echoed through the peaks as the three soldiers brought their menacing beaks closer to me .
“Shall we try again?” I asked, voice frigid .
Old Broke Beak let out a pained caw while motioning the two guards away with his gray wings .
“Th-there! Old Broke Beak has told everyone to stay back, yes!” he squawked, hobbling on his good leg .
“Good . ” Keeping my grip around my hostage’s neck firm, we slowly made our way to where Caera lay unconscious . “Now, you’re going to guide us to where you hid your tribe’s portal piece . ”
The chieftain nodded his gangly neck fiercely . “Yes, yes! Then ascenders will let Old Broke Beak go?”
“I’ll let you go after we have the portal piece,” I confirmed as I picked up Caera’s limp body from the snowy ground . She was breathing much more comfortably now, but with Regis deep in recovery mode, I stayed on edge . “Where to?”
“B-back to this one’s home!” he stammered, his single violet eye shifting from me to his broken leg .
With a crackle of violet lightning, the three of us arrived in front of the chieftain’s humble straw hut . Above, I could see the tribe had exploded into a frenzy as they descended from the cliff we had teleported from in an attempt to follow after their leader .
I looked around at the empty village . “Where is it?”
“Down below, in a hollow beyond the village, yes!” Old Broke Beak squawked, his cracked beak chittering anxiously .
I God Stepped once more to put some distance between us and the crazed Spear Beaks, but with two passengers and an aether-hungry beast feeding off my core, I could feel my reserves plummeting with each use .
“I don’t see anything,” I said, my patience growing thin .
“Difficult to get into, yes! Need to go around that bend,” the chieftain said, pointing with a wing .
My vision swept across the narrow canyon, which was tucked into the steep cliffs at the edge of the Spear Beaks’ village, and after sifting through the information each of the aether paths had relayed back to me, I God Stepped once more .
I could see Old Broke Beak sneaking glances behind us to where the Spear Beaks circled in the sky, waiting for their chance to dive in .
Letting out a sigh, I gently placed Caera on the ground and wrapped my free hand around the base of Old Broke Beak’s right wing .
A clean snap echoed off the canyon walls along with the rasping squawk of the old bird as his wing jutted down at an impossible angle .
Bringing Old Broke Beak’s face next to mine, I spoke calmly . “If the piece of the portal isn’t within arm’s length of me after your next set of directions, the next thing I break will be your neck . ”
“Y-yes…” he wheezed before giving me a set of lengthy instructions . As I expected, the chieftain had been trying to buy time and waste my energy in hopes that I’d run out of God Steps like the Shadow Claws .
The old bird’s instructions led us farther down into the canyon to a hidden cavern, which was covered by a woven net laced with feathers and layered with snow so that it blended seamlessly with its surroundings . If the chieftain hadn’t guided us to this exact location, I knew that it would’ve been near impossible to find the portal piece .
“Into the tunnel, straight ahead,” he said weakly, his broken left leg dragging in the snow .
Adjusting Caera, who was again slung over my shoulder, I walked farther into the dark, unlit tunnel until it opened up into a dead end .
Despite how dark the cavity was, I was barely able to make out the sight ahead, and what I saw left me speechless .
Piled up like a greedy king’s hoard was a collection of gold coins, precious jewels, and artifacts . And while it surprised me at first, the sight of this trove of priceless treasures made me even more angry .
How many ascenders had the Spear Beaks tricked and killed in order to get all of this? While the question hung on the tip of my tongue, another part of me didn’t want to hear the chieftain’s answer .
My eyes widened . “Caera!” Abandoning Old Broke Beak, I lowered the Alacryan noble to the ground and leaned her back against the cavern wall . “How do you feel?”
“Heavy and—” Caera let out a sharp breath as her eyes fell on Old Broke Beak . “He…why is he…”
“Someone needed to help us find the portal piece,” I said with a soft smile . “Don’t worry, he won’t be able to do anything . ”
“The Creator’s piece is here, yes! But hard to see without light, hard to find,” the old bird said, gesturing to the pile of artifacts with his good wing .
Letting out a scoff, I headed toward the back of the pile, where a particularly strong aetheric presence glowed . Moments later, I had the smooth slab of white stone in my hand .
Caera let out a sigh as she sunk back into the wall . “Finally . ”
Old Broke Beak stared dumbly at the portal piece I held before nodding his head . “G-great ascender has found the piece . Old Broke Beak will be released, yes?”
“Not quite yet . ” I turned to the Alacryan noble, pointing back to the large pile of treasure . “We don’t have much time, but we shouldn’t let this all go to waste . ”
Caera glanced back at Old Broke Beak, whose eye quivered in dread, before giving me a smirk .
Holding onto the Spear Beak chieftain, I let Caera go through the pile in search of anything she wanted in particular .
Even with Caera’s dimension ring broken, I had expected her to try and take quite a bit of artifacts, but she came back carrying only one item .
“Is that all you’re getting?” I asked Caera, staring at the thin metal bracer she held in her hand . Lines flowed through the simple piece of armor, but aside from its elegant design, I couldn’t sense what it could do .
“Mhmm . When I touched it, I could feel it trying to absorb my soulfire,” she explained . “I don’t know what it does, but among the countless artifacts I’ve held, this is the first one that’s interacted with that part of my power . ”
I shrugged . “Are you sure you don’t want to claim anything else? Even if it’s worthless, you could probably make a lot of gold . ”
Caera slipped the bracer over her left hand, and I could have sworn the metal band shrunk to fit her forearm . She held up her new artifact and gave me a haughty look . “I already have more gold than I can care to spend . ”
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I rolled my eyes . “Show off . ”
Seeing Caera only take one item, Old Broke Beak let out an audible sigh of relief that was cut short right as I imbued aether into my dimension rune .
In a matter of moments, the treasure pile that was about as large as a Four Fist was completely gone .
Caera chortled . “That’s showing off . ”
“N-now Old Broke Beak can go?” the chieftain asked as he ground his beak together in seething anger .
Letting go of his neck, I pushed him forward . “Sure . ”
The old bird hobbled on one leg, barely keeping himself from tumbling over by using his good wing to keep himself steady .
“Is it wise to let him go this soon?” Caera asked, her voice icy .
“I have a plan,” I said softly, going down on one knee . “Here, get on my back . ”
“I-it’s fine . I should be able to run in a minute,” she stammered, taking a weak step back .
Raising a brow, I asked, “Would you rather I carry you like a sack of rice, or have you recently developed the ability to teleport as well…”
After a pause, Caera cleared her throat and slowly wrapped her arms around my neck .
“Thank you,” she said, pressing herself against my back as I stood up .
Regis . Stop consuming my aether until we’re out of here, I sent, snapping my companion from his hibernative state .
‘What’d I mi—ooh la la…that’s quite the skinship you two have going on,’ Regis sang .
Shut it, I growled .
Taking an even breath, I turned my focus completely to my surroundings . I could sense Old Broke Beak hobbling closer to the exit .
I didn’t have much time .
“Caera, as soon as I God Step, I’m going to need your help,” I said .
“Of course . ”
After explaining my plan to her, I began to take in the information provided by the countless branching routes of aether, seeking out one in particular .
At the same time, I worked to replenish my core to the point where I could make the long jump with Caera .
Filtering out the aether-laced surroundings, I focused on the unique signatures that each of the Spear Beaks had as more and more of them arrived at the mouth of the tunnel .
Minutes trickled by as my concentration continuously shifted between the aether routes and the Spear Beaks that were amassing right outside .
I could feel Caera’s heart beating faster against my back while even Regis remained silent and tense within me .
The world shifted in a blink as tendrils of violet lightning coiled around me . In front of me was the canyon cliff directly on top of Old Broke Beak’s secret cave that we had passed by . Above us were a flock of Spear Beaks, each of which broke into a frenzy of squawking and cawing, feathers flying as they bumped each other in their rush to come after us .
“Caera!” I roared as I spun on my heels .
Caera freed her hands while keeping her legs wrapped around my waist as I began running . Igniting her soulfire, she released a torrent of black flames right at the cliff edge, creating an avalanche of snow, ice, and rock down towards Old Broke Beak and the large chunk of his tribe that were waiting at the cave mouth to ambush us .
A deafening rumble resounded through the canyon, nearly drowning out the panicked honks and caws of the Spear Beaks . The bird people above, however, had begun to follow after us, diving down in streaks of black and gray, their wicked talons outstretched .
I sidestepped a pair of Spear Beaks as Caera fired off bolt after bolt of black fire, but as more and more of them began to surround us, we were forced to stop .
“I’m going to God Step back toward the dome, but I’m going to need a few minutes if I want to go far enough to lose them!” I said over the cacophony of Spear Beaks flying around us in circles .
Caera hopped off my back, stumbling as her feet hit the ground, but able to stand . “A few minutes might be all I can muster . ”
Regis! Can you manifest? I asked hopefully .
‘Nope . Still useless,’ he said, nonplussed .
A thick shroud of aether clung to my skin just as another pair of Spear Beaks began to dive toward us . The gangly birds that wheeled in the air above began discharging streaks of a black substance that had a vague purple sheen .
Pivoting to the right, I struck the side of one diving Spear Beak’s neck just as it tried to sweep back up in the air, immediately before sidestepping a stream of foul black sludge .
The vile slime ate through the snow and ice, and part of the stone below it, leaving a hole several feet deep .
‘Well that’s new,’ Regis commented .
Caera and I stuck tighter together, back to back . She focused on sniping the birds that were releasing the caustic discharge while I stayed on the defensive in order to continue replenishing my reserves .
“How much…longer?” she asked, her poison-weakened body starting to fatigue .
Catching a Spear Beak by its neck, I used its sharp beak to impale one of its own brethren .
“Almost,” I huffed, just as a familiar rasping squawk sounded behind us .
Glancing back toward the source of the sound, I could see Old Broke Beak being carried by two scarred Spear Beaks with a larger one trailing close behind them . They were maintaining their distance from the dome of Spear Beaks surrounding us .
“Of course he lives,” Caera scoffed .
I clicked my tongue . “I was hoping the avalanche would slow them more than this . ”
The crippled chieftain glared down at us in palpable fury as he began shouting angrily at his tribe members and pointing at us with his one good wing .
I tensed in preparation for another wave of attacks, but was surprised to see the Spear Beaks staying in the air, their heads shifting left and right as they looked at their tribe members with uncertainty .
A few dove down once more, but without the caustic black sludge to back them up, they didn’t stand a chance .
This seemed to make Old Broke Beak even angrier, because his hoarse cries became even louder and sharper .
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“Caera, take out your sword and toss it on the ground,” I said .
Her gaze shifted from the wary Spear Beaks back to me as she realized what I was trying to do . Unsheathing her red blade, she stabbed it into the ground .
The crippled chieftain became even more furious, his old body trembling in rage as he continued to squawk and honk while stabbing his wing in our direction .
Old Broke Beak’s incessant screaming was suddenly cut short as a bloodied beak jutted out of his feathered body .
Caera and I stared, wide-eyed, as the scarred Spear Beak that had flown closely behind the chieftain and his two helpers ripped his crimson beak from their leader’s chest .
Inside me, Regis let out a loud gasp . ‘Plot twist!’
Old Broke Beak’s cries turned into gurgles as blood seeped from his cracked bill and his long neck sank limply in the air, his violet eye still wide in shock .
The only sound that could be heard in the wall of silence surrounding us was the soft thud of Old Broke Beak’s corpse hitting the ground .
The chieftain’s killer let out a deep caw that dispersed the Spear Beaks surrounding us . Casting its violet eyes down at me, it opened its bloodied beak .
“Go!” it half-squawked .
Taking one last glance at the pitiful corpse of the greedy chieftain, abandoned by his very tribe, I looked up at the one responsible and gave him a nod before igniting God Step .
The journey back to the dome was much easier than our first trip across the stormy tundra . Though we slogged through the snow most of the way, I God Stepped at intervals to break up the distance .
When we reached the dome, I simply God Stepped into it instead of re-excavating the tunnel .
We didn’t waste any time . I withdrew the four pieces and Caera helped me to fit them into the portal frame . There was still a broken chunk about a foot long and four inches wide, but I was hopeful that Aroa’s Requiem was powerful enough to rebuild it with the other pieces in place .
I let out a deep breath, trying to calm my pounding heart .
“This is it,” Caera muttered, taking a step back .
Regis, I swear…
‘Fine, fine . ’
I set my hand on the white stone . The godrune ignited, casting a golden glow across the platform . Purple motes, like a festival of fireflies, flowed from my hand and across the arch, gathering in the cracks where the pieces had been set back in place . The cracks sealed, healing like a wound, until the four pieces looked as if they’d never been broken to begin with .
I ran a finger over where the cracks had been . It was flawless…except for the last piece that was still missing .
“Damn it!” I pounded my fist against the smooth white frame of our only exit, which continued its stubborn refusal to turn on .
Caera, who had been standing next to me watching me expectantly, sank . Spinning around, the Alacryan noble slid over the edge of the platform, sitting with her legs dangling over the edge .
I sat next to her . Between us, the white dagger rested on the white stone, just where we had left it before rushing unexpectedly out of the dome chasing the Ghost Bear . On the floor below us, the remains of our previous camp were still laid out . There was a thin dusting of snow over everything from where it had blown down the tunnel and into the dome .
“Does this mean we have to go back out in search of these invisible bears?” Caera asked, her gaze also on the pile of bedding beneath us .
I nodded, teeth gnashing at the thought of scouring through the endless plains of snow in search of the last piece . In an effort to distract myself, I picked up the white dagger and began to turn it in my hands . It looked exactly as it had the day I’d recovered it from the millipede’s lair .
Despite how often I had used it, the bone white blade showed no signs of wear and tear . Out of habit, I imbued aether into it once more when something clattered into the pile of bones at the base of the stairs .
Snapping up to my feet, I rushed to the edge of the platform, the dagger held before me and already humming with a thin reinforcing layer of aether .
My eyes darted from the pile of offerings to the door, then made a sweep of the cavernous, empty space .
When I found nothing, I looked back to the pile of bones . Sitting atop it, where it clearly hadn’t been a moment ago, was a dimly glowing piece of stone . I leapt down the stairs in a single hop and reached for it .
My hand shook as I held the final piece . “Th-this…”
‘And you say you’re not lucky,’ Regis scoffed .
Caera rushed to my side, her blade out and back facing me as her head turned, constantly in search of something .
That’s when the creature revealed itself .
Standing in front of the door, where only an instant before there had been nothing, I could now see a massive snow-white bear . Like the other we’d seen, it had a thick ridge of bone protruding from its forehead and shoulders, and when it moved there was a subtle pearlescent shine .
I lifted the portal piece and held it out in front of me, my eyes trained on the Ghost Bear, watchful for any movement or sign of attack . Instinct told me that this creature was giving us the piece, but I still wanted to be ready if it turned hostile .
“Thank you,” I said, keeping my voice even despite the quickening of my heartbeat .
The Ghost Bear snorted, a deep rumbling that vibrated up through the soles of my feet . Its dark purple eyes met mine, and then it was gone—or rather, it turned invisible, I was sure . Despite knowing it was there, I couldn’t see or hear it . I watched the floor of the dome, but somehow it managed to avoid even disturbing the dusting of snow around the doorway .
Most striking of all was the fact that I couldn’t read its aether signature .
I wonder what it’d take to learn that trick, I thought idly .
After waiting a few moments to make sure the Ghost Bear had gone, I held the portal piece up to inspect it more carefully . The silky white chunk of stone showed part of a tree . There was a little bear cub sniffing a flower at its base .
“Grey . Was that…the same Ghost Bear that we first chased?” Caera asked, her eyes still locked on the last place she saw the invisible bear .
“No . The one we first saw wasn’t able to hide its aether signature . This one is a lot more skilled,” I explained, shuddering at the thought of trying to fight a whole tribe of its kind .
Caera stared at the portal piece, frowning slightly . “Then it wouldn’t be surprising if these Ghost Bears had been watching us, and wanted to avoid a conflict . ”
“Whatever the case…” I locked eyes with Caera and smiled widely, something I hadn’t done in a long time . “We did it . ”
Caera’s scarlet eyes widened in surprise, but she smiled back . “We did . ”
‘I’d play some background music to fit the mood for you, but maybe we should save this heartfelt moment until after we try the portal again?’ Regis interrupted .
Clearing my throat, I made my way back onto the platform, walked to the portal frame, and set the final piece into place . My godrune glowed as, once again, the motes of aether flowed into the cracks and sealed them shut .
I stepped back from the portal frame and held my breath .
Crackling energy appeared within the arch, flickering into and out of focus for a few seconds before it materialized into a clear portal . On the other side I could see a small, clean, bright white room .