The Beginning After The End | Chapter 303

The Beginning After The End - Read Light Novel

Beginning After The End Manhwa Novel

Chapter 303



 Chapter 303


“Grey . I won’t pretend to know what sort of customs and rituals these tribes may have”—Caera touched Swiftsure’s blood, which was splattered over her clothes and part of her face—“but this seems like the kind of thing that would be universally disrespectful . ”


“Stop fidgeting,” I replied, smearing some of the blood so it looked more natural .


“Ah, what a cute sight,” Regis chimed in, lying on the snowy ground nearby with an amused grin . “Nothing says love like painting each other in the blood of your enemies . ”


“Nothing about this is ‘cute’, and it’s not for certain that Swiftsure was an enemy,” Caera huffed .


I rubbed snow between my blood-stained hands to clean some of it away . “Just ignore him when he says stupid crap like that . It’ll only encourage him . ”


“Hey! I’m not some puppy that needs to be trained!” Regis yapped, his burning mane flickering .


“You’re right . ” I turned to Regis and smiled patiently . “A puppy would at least have the decency to sulk when it gets scolded . ”


Caera let out a chuckle as Regis sputtered in frustration .


Noticing his mane quivering even more crazily in the growing winds, I looked up to see that the sky had turned almost entirely gray now .


“Hey! I’m still talking to you, princess! I’m the amalgamation of several asuran beings powerful enough to—”


“Let’s get moving,” I said, cutting him off . “I don’t think we have long until this turns into a real storm . ” Regis glared at me before leaping back into my body .


I held my hand out for Caera . “We’ll teleport just past the mountain ridge where we spotted the Shadow Claw village . I don’t want to risk using aether anywhere closer . ”


She took my hand, but was shaking her head disbelievingly . “The fact that I can so casually accept the fact that we’ll be teleporting makes me feel like I’ve lost something…”


Pulling her close, I ignited God Step, following the aetheric path that I had mentally charted on our first run . In the span of several seconds, we were standing on the edge of the sharp lip of stone that surrounded the Shadow Claw’s hidden sanctuary .


From there, we travelled on foot . It wasn’t a difficult climb, but it did take time, and we were buffeted by icy winds and blinded by driving snow before we arrived in a shallow alcove looking down on the woven huts now clearly visible even through the growing storm . The last part of the plan required that not only the two of us, but Regis be visible as well .


“Like we planned,” I whispered .


“Not that I mind posing powerfully and intimidatingly, but I don’t see how my presence will help us,” Regis said softly .


Caera nodded . “I’m curious as well . ”


“I just figured wolves and leopards are…close enough . ” I shrugged, keeping an eye on the village . “Who knows . Maybe you’ll make some friends . ”


“Hard to argue with that logic,” Regis said sarcastically .


Imbuing aether into my eyes to supplement my naturally enhanced vision, I studied the details and activity happening within the village . The woven huts the Shadow Claws lived in were shaped vaguely like beehives and made of overlapping layers of a straw-colored woven grass . Each structure was fitted with a simple door woven into a frame made of treated sticks .


Though the wind still howled, the village was protected from the worst of it . In fact, the entire hollow in which it was built was clear of snow . A handful of small, twisted trees with broad, dark leaves decorated the packed earth paths between the houses, and dense, deep green grass grew everywhere else .


In a circular patch of sandy earth, four Shadow Claws appeared to be…training . When we had first arrived, the two pairs had been attacking one another, though without their claws . As we watched, they halted their sparring, bowed to one another, and began a series of identical movements that were clearly rehearsed .


Their combat style was fascinating to watch . They emphasized quick strikes to vital areas, and were always moving . Every slash or swipe of a paw took them at least three steps from their starting position, and each attack was intertwined with a defensive maneuver .


Though they didn’t actively use their aether abilities while training, I could see how sudden leaps or strafing hops were meant to simulate their ability to teleport . As I watched them, I wished that I could speak to them and learn about their manipulation of aether .


If this goes well, maybe I’ll get the chance, I thought, running through what I’d planned to say and do one last time .


“Ready?” I asked the others, keeping my voice low . They both nodded .


Taking Swiftsure’s corpse out of my dimension rune, I gripped it by its ruined neck and leapt from the alcove down into the village, landing between the circular training area and the outer wall . Caera and Regis jumped down just behind me .


The four closest Shadow Claws howled in alarm, scrambling away from us and falling into low crouches . Aether flared around them as they conjured their claws .


More came running from around the village, bursting out of doors or simply appearing in front of us using their aetheric teleportation, each one snarling, claws out and ready to fight .


I raised the stiff corpse above my head, then went down on one knee and bowed forward, letting Swiftsure’s body roll out of my hands into the dense grass .


Next to me, I knew Caera and Regis were copying my bow, each of us exposing the backs of our necks to the crowd of Shadow Claws . I listened carefully to the whisper-quiet sound of a single Shadow Claw cautiously approaching .


I peeked through my curtain of pale wheat hair and watched as the cat-like creature nudged the corpse, causing the neck to roll and revealing the torn throat, which Regis had chewed open to hide the razor-thin slashes .


It said something in a mewling, pitchy voice and I risked lifting my head a fraction of an inch to better see it . The Shadow Claw was clearly old, its thick white fur having lost its lustre, the black spots fading to gray . Its head snapped around when I moved and it stepped back into a defensive posture .


Very slowly and calmly, my eyes on the ground, I said, “Please, we mean you no harm . We come seeking your aid . Do any of your people speak our language?”


Another Shadow Claw, this one taller than the rest, stepped out of the crowd, which had formed a half-circle around us, and gestured toward me . It began to speak in their hissing, mewling language, its voice the low growl of an angry leopard .


‘This doesn’t seem to be going well,’ Regis said, projecting his thoughts into my mind .


Be patient . They didn’t immediately attack, which is exactly what we hoped for .


~


A third Shadow Claw, so old and stooped that it walked with the aid of a stick, stepped forward and responded to the tall one, who shot me a glare, bowed, and fell back .


The village went silent except for the noise of the wind battering at the stone walls . I resisted the urge to clad myself in aether as I waited for something to happen . Even if they didn’t attack us, I didn’t know what their capability for communication was, or if they would give us their piece of the portal frame once we had made them understand our purpose .


If they did attack us, I was confident I could fight them off, even given our poor strategic position, but I really hoped it didn’t come to that . The longer they waited, though, the less likely a fight seemed .


Finally the Shadow Claw who had come forward to inspect Swiftsure’s remains said something, and two others ran up to collect the body, carrying it out of sight . Then the cat-like creature sat in front of me, its legs crossed . With one paw, it gestured for me to sit up .


Shifting around, I sat in the grass, crossing my own legs and resting my hands on my knees, palms up . Behind me, I heard Caera and Regis shuffling around as well .


The Shadow Claw’s eyes shone like amethysts, although they didn’t seem to be looking at me directly . Rather, it looked around me, its gaze travelling the edges of my physical form as if it could see the heat radiating from my body .


Or my aether, I realized .


Slowly, very slowly, one broad paw reached out toward my upturned palm . There was no malevolence in the motion, so I stayed still, watching, deeply curious about what this creature might do .


The soft pad of the Shadow Claw’s paw touched my hand, and for a moment nothing happened . Then everything changed .


The quiet mountain village of woven huts was gone, as were the stunted little fruit trees and the crowd of worried-looking cat people . Even the constant rushing of the wind had vanished .


I felt as though I were drifting in space, though I wasn’t floating, exactly . I wasn’t really anything at all . Before fear could set in, however, color and light seeped out of the empty nothing, resolving into moving images, like I had closed my eyes and was picturing a favorite memory .


Except it wasn’t my memory . I watched as two Shadow Claw kittens chased each other through the village . One, the chaser, was howling angrily . The other had taken something . As they sprinted toward the pool, I was suddenly in front of them, forcing both kittens to slide to a halt .


Calmly, I took the object—a little branch with a handful of purple berries on it—plucked the berries one by one from the branch, and then gave each child an equal number . “Be kind to one another and share,” I said simply, though my words came out in the language of the Shadow Claws .


Then the vision melted away and was replaced with another . This time, I was looking down at myself, bowing, Swiftsure’s body lying awkwardly before me . I relived the moments after our arrival in the village again, though this time it was from the perspective of this Shadow Claw .


Though I still didn’t hear the words as words, I understood their meaning when the tall Shadow Claw—Left Tooth—spoke, addressing me .


“Three Steps, it is clear this must be some trap of the fiendish Spear Beaks . We should kill these creatures quickly before we fall under their power . ”


The other Shadow Claw—Sleeps-in-Snow—stepped from the crowd and said, “Take care, Left Tooth, lest your fear cause you to grow feathers and a beak . Let us see their minds and know their purpose . ”


Then the vision faded and everything went dark and blank again . I felt a sense of…expectation .


I thought I understood what the creature wanted . She couldn’t speak my language, but by sharing our memories we could communicate . I could explain what we’d come for .


It was delicate . I had to bring forward the right memory without thinking about anything that could upset our hosts, but I had no way of knowing if the topic itself—our pursuit of the portal pieces—would anger them .


First, I shared the memory of Caera and I standing before the broken archway and my attempt to repair it with aether . Next, I replayed the battle with the Ghost Bear, including my conversation with Caera about not wanting to fight it . Deciding to take a risk, I finally focused on the memory of the ancient Four Fists gesturing for me to take the clan’s portal piece .


This communication-by-memory was a slow process, aided only by the fact that I had so much experience with mental communication through Sylvie . Unbidden, the memory of our last moments together played in the darkness . I watched in suden horror as her body became ethereal and broke apart into motes of gold and lavender .


I forced the memory away before she was completely gone, as if by doing so I could keep it from already having happened, and hoped that the Shadow Claw didn’t take offense from my unintended memory . All was blank and silent once again .


While I waited for a reply, I grew anxious wondering how Regis and Caera were doing . While my wolven companion might be able to manage, Caera definitely didn’t have any training in mental communication . If one of the Shadow Claws decided to communicate with her, our plans could be run to the ground .


Fortunately, the connection broke without issue and the world came whirling back into existence around me . Three Steps unfolded from her seated position, using her thick tail to push her to her feet . She then gestured for us to stand as well .


I glanced behind me . Caera and Regis hadn’t moved, though they were both watching me nervously .


‘Where the hell have you been?’ Regis asked, touching my mind . ‘You just sort of…went away for awhile when that thing touched you . I couldn’t sense your mind at all . ’


I stood and offered my hand to Caera, but she hopped to her feet without my aid . Turning to Regis instead, I said only, “We made some progress . ”


~


Three Steps announced something to the rest of the Shadow Claw clan, sending a ripple through the twenty some creatures . Some bowed respectfully . Several quickly suppressed looks of surprise, but Left Tooth and two others shook their heads in disbelief and looked as though they might argue .


Before they could, however, Sleeps-in-Snow knocked the end of his stick on the frozen ground and spoke briefly . Whatever was said, it seemed to quell any rising tension, at least for the moment .


The half-circle of Shadow Claws opened, allowing Three Steps to walk through . She gestured for me to follow, which I did . I watched Left Tooth from the corner of my eye as we passed through the line of cat people, most of whom stood no taller than my shoulder, but he remained motionless .


Three Steps led us through the town to a humble home next to the pool of water, then held the door open and waved for us to enter, which we did .


The interior was simple, just like at the Spear Beaks’ and Four Fists’ villages . A woven grass rug covered much of the floor, while a round bed of mounded yellow grass was pressed against the far wall . A white-feathered headdress hung just inside the door, and a short stack of slate plates sat next to the bed . Like the picture we’d found on the slain Shadow Claw, the top plate was etched, though I couldn’t quite make out the image .


Space is a little tight in here, I thought to my companion . Why don’t you remain on standby while you recharge?


“Meal time,” the shadow wolf said, licking his muzzle before jumping into me and disappearing into my body .


Three Steps watched this carefully, her bright eyes widening when Regis vanished . Then the old Shadow Claw leaned forward, peering closely at my chest, and her eyes went even wider . She said something in her own language, stopped, and shook her head . She pointed where Regis had been, then pointed at my chest .


I nodded .


Three Steps let out a sharp, yeowling laugh, surprising both me and Caera . She was grinning wildly, though I couldn’t be sure what she found so entertaining . Seeing my look of confusion, she gestured to my hands, which I held out, then pressed her soft paws into them again .


I wasn’t taken away from the world this time, though I still received a vision of Three Steps’ memory . Six Shadow Claws were standing in the circular training area on the other side of the village . I was explaining something .


We were discussing the nature of the Creators’ power, how each tribe had been gifted with unique abilities that suited their needs . I was explaining how they should never stop climbing the mountain of knowledge because it had no peak . Just because they had never seen a thing done, did not mean it couldn’t be done .


After the lecture, they began to practice with their claws and their teleportation ability . I corrected and encouraged them, provided guidance and feedback, and through the memory I began to understand something of how they used aether .


To the Shadow Claws, calling on aether was as natural as using their lungs to breathe or their hearts to pump blood . It was likely the djinn—their Creators, I assumed—had given them these abilities, much like the chimera had unknowingly manipulated aether to move, fight, and even rebuild themselves .


The speed with which they teleported was impressive . They didn’t need to stop and look for the correct path like I did, something that hindered my ability to use God Step in combat .


The vision ended and Three Steps pulled her hands back, but I had an idea . I moved my upturned palms toward her, trying to communicate that I wanted to connect again . She seemed to take my meaning, and touched my hands .


I sent her snippets of memory throughout my journey through the Relictombs . In each one, I was practicing some form of aether art, trying to learn to control my new abilities, to hone them and get better at using them .


It took several minutes, but when I broke the connection I could feel the hunger for knowledge emanating from Three Steps . Our hands had barely parted before she pressed them back together and another memory filled my mind .


I was sitting next to Sleeps-in-Snow, somewhere in the craggy peaks above the village . We had been speaking, dancing around a subject I wanted to broach, but was nervous to do so .


Sleeps-in-Snow wasn’t quite as old as he had been when I’d seen him only minutes ago . He hadn’t yet taken to using the walking stick . “What is this thought I see hiding behind your eyes, Three Steps?” he asked me, his own stormy purple eyes burrowing into mine .


“What is our purpose, Sleeps-in-Snow?”


The old Shadow Claw watched me closely for a few long moments before answering . “What is the purpose of the mountain? Or the snow? Or the fish in the stream?”


I had expected a response like this . “The mountain is our home, the snow our protection—and the fish fills our bellies when we grow hungry . ”


“This is how these things touch our lives, yes, Three Steps, but is it their purpose?” Sleeps-in-Snow kept his face carefully blank, but there was something teasing in his tone .


I pressed my paw into a blank snowdrift, then pulled it carefully out, leaving behind a perfect imprint . “They do not themselves have an inherent purpose . It is up to us to decide their purpose . ”


Sleeps-in-Snow raised a brow as he replied in a challenging tone . “And who are you to decide such a thing? Are you the master of the mountain and the snow to tell them what their purpose should be?”


I shook my head, realizing I had fallen into his trap . “No, I am not the master of the mountain or the snow . ”


Relaxing into an understanding smile, Sleeps-in-Snow wrapped his tail around my shoulder . “Minds both clearer and deeper than ours have pondered the question of our purpose . Only by climbing the mountain of wisdom may we see more of what lies around us . ”


“And if we never climb high enough to find the answers we seek?”


Sleeps-in-Snow stretched and yawned, and the cracking of his old joints echoed down the cliffside . “Then hope that those you teach climb higher than you, when it is their turn . ”


My eyelids fluttered open as the vision ended . I didn’t even realize I had closed my eyes, but this memory had felt much more intense than the others . I couldn’t help the sense that I’d been shown something very private .


Three Steps was watching my face closely, though how well she could read my features, I had no idea . What I did know was that she was hungry for knowledge, and it was possible she had as much to teach me about aether as I could teach her .


“Grey?” Caera said softly from beside me, making me jump . I’d nearly forgotten she was there . “Not to interrupt, but what’s the plan? Are we guests here? Are we prisoners?”


I locked eyes with Three Steps before turning back to her . “We’re guests . ”


The Alacryan noble let out a sigh, her horns practically sagging in relief . “What about the portal piece…do you think they’re willing to give it to us?”


“I haven’t asked yet,” I replied . “For now, I think we should stay here and wait out the storm . ”


“Is that really necessary?” Caera asked with a frown . “We’ve already spent so much time in this zone…”


Her voice trailed off as I looked at her—truly looked at her . She had been holding strong without complaint, but Caera had definitely lost weight and her complexion wasn’t healthy . Her cheeks, splotched with dirt and blood, were sunken, and dark bags clung underneath her eyes from lack of proper sleep .


She had been following me, someone who barely needed any food, water, or sleep to survive, and had done so without protest .


She couldn’t complain, since she had been the one to lie and hide herself in order to follow after me . Despite who she was and what her blood implied, a small part of me felt bad .


“Let’s get you some rest,” I said gently . “I’ll ask if we can wash up, and I’ll take watch while you sleep . ”


Caera nodded wordlessly, but a faint smile played across her lips .


“Hang in there,” I added .


We still needed to find the Ghost Bears and the ‘wild things’, then figure out how to get back to the Spear Beaks .


But before all of that, I needed to stay here . I couldn’t just ignore the chance to learn from the Shadow Claws . Not just their ability to teleport short distances, but their ability to conjure their most deadly weapons completely out of aether .


Perhaps I didn’t need to find a replacement for Dawn’s Ballad . I could just make one .


*

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