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Published at 17th of April 2021 12:52:42 PM


Chapter 299

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The world warped, stretching and folding in a sea of violet, and the omnipresent sound of the harsh winds was cut down to a distant rumble in the span of my single aetheric step.




To everyone else, God Step was instant. But I struggled to fully process the rapidly-shifting landscape as I approached my destination. I needed to understand and predict exactly what would be around me when I arrived, or that split second of disorientation would give my enemy more than enough time to retaliate.

But neither the towering frame of the bearlike beast nor my companions could be seen as I appeared at my destination. Instead, I was met with complete darkness. Then came the claustrophobic feeling of being entirely encased, like a rodent trapped in a fist. Something was covering my mouth, gripping at my arms and legs, pressing against my eyes, filling my mouth.

A blind sense of fear coursed through me, causing my heart rate to spike and my breath to come in quick, labored gasps around the mouthful of quickly melting snow that threatened to choke me.

‘—ck happened?’ Regis thought, his own mind nearly blank with worry. ‘Arthur? Arthur!’

Tried to God Step—everything is muddled from the wind—must have missed—under the snow somewhere…

My thoughts were scattered and difficult to collect, even more than my sudden emergence under the snow could account for.

This was the sole instance where I had failed God Step, and it was the first time feeling not only the disorientation, but the repercussion of the spatium art. Had I wound up underground or deep in the ocean, the consequences might’ve been life threatening.

I shook away the unnecessary thoughts, which caused me to sink further down into the snow, opening up a bare inch of space around my face and torso.

Twisting and turning, I used my whole body to break apart the heavy, packed snow and give myself some room to breathe. By the time I had a rough little cave to huddle in, my mind had cleared a bit as well.

Regis, find me. Look for the blast of aether.

 

I could sense a tinge of hesitation from my companion. ‘You want me to give up on the—’

If I can’t use God Step, then there’s no way we can keep up out here. Just look for the—

‘Aether cannon. Yeah, yeah, I’m on my way, Princess.’

Using the technique I’d made to drill through the deep snow around the dome, I released a small amount of aether from my core and gathered it in my hand, molding and shaping it into a sphere. The violet sphere shot upward, easily passing through the layer of snow above me, then rising another fifteen feet up through the storm.

As soon as the hole was exposed to the surface, the biting wind and the blizzard’s roar rushed back in. I counted to thirty, then released another blast of aether up into the sky, which glittered like a flare amidst the wall of rushing ice and snow.

I kept track of time by the number of aether spheres I sent soaring into the sky. Around the fifth shot, I started to wonder how far off course I’d gone. By the tenth, I was growing nervous. Then, shortly after I’d sent the thirteenth ball of purple, glowing aether into the sky, a dark shape outlined in flickering black flames plunged unexpectedly into the hole from above, landing on top of me with a grunt. The figure yelped in surprise and something hard hit me in the nose, then the fire winked out.

“Grey!” Caera shouted, struggling to disentangle herself from me. “What happened?”

“Later!” I shouted back. “Just waiting for Regis, then we’ll—”

The shadow wolf’s thoughts cut through my own. ‘Uh, Arthur?’

Where are you, Regis? I thought, unable to suppress the frustration I felt leaking into our connection. I could feel my companion’s presence closer to me than before but I was unable to pinpoint him in the aetheric storm.

‘Almost there, I think. Send up another flare.’


 

I followed my companion’s instructions and in moments he was sliding down into our now cramped hole next to Caera and me, unmarked by the raging storm.

“Nice to see you both again, lovely weather we’re having,” Regis quipped. “I think it’s actually about to get—”

Catching a flash in the corner of my eyes, I intercepted an object just before it struck the side of my head. In my hand was a hailstone the size of my fist.

“—a lot worse,” Regis finished as a second frozen projectile shot down next to me, leaving a crater only inches from my companion.

Beside me, black flames burst from Caera’s form just as a hunk of ice the size of her head struck her on the shoulder. Though the aura devoured most of the hail before it hit her, she sucked in a pained breath and flinched away from the impact.

“We can’t move in this,” she said, speaking over the noise. “We’ll—I’ll be pummeled to death.”

Knowing she was right, I did the only thing I could think of. Twisting around in the little hole so my back was to the others, I sent a blast of aether outwards and down, opening up the hole down to the perma-frozen ground and even removing a couple feet of the dark soil.

I slid down the slick tunnel, which was about five feet deep and seven feet across, and the others quickly followed. Spreading out my cloak, I gestured for Caera to lay down next to me.

“Regis, inside me. Caera, here.”

“What are you—”

“There’s not enough snow above us to block the hail,” I said impatiently. “I can protect my body with aether, and you with my body. Just lay down.”

 

Regis immediately leapt into my body, but Caera continued to look at me uncertainly. This moment of hesitation was interrupted when a massive bullet of ice blew through the snow above our heads and bounced off the hard ground at my feet, showering us with snow, dirt, and ice.

“I feel like we’ve gotten much closer in these last few days, Grey, don’t you?” she said, letting out a stiff laugh before lowering herself down next to me.

“A bit too close for my comfort,” I grumbled, pulling the cloak around us and shifting so that I was hovering awkwardly above Caera, shielding her from the hail and sharing my warmth. My entire body began to hum with a palpable layer of aether.

‘Well this is cozy,’ Regis thought happily.

I rolled my eyes and settled in for a long wait.

***

By the time the hail stopped falling and the wind subsided, we were mostly buried again, as the continual bombardment had caused the snowy roof to collapse down on us, and the blizzard had deposited several feet of new snow down into our hole.

The enclosure had protected us from the wind, though, and left a smaller area for our bodies to heat, which likely saved Caera’s life. Still, she was blue around her lips and shivering violently as we dug our way back up to the surface.

After breaking through into the cool, still air, I froze, my breath taken away by the sight around me. The sunless sky was clear and cloudless, a brilliantly glacial blue canvas painted with sweeping streaks of greens, yellows, and purples.


The painfully bright landscape glittered under the sourceless light, and, squinting, I could see the full shape of the land for the first time. God Step had taken me past the caldera where the dome containing the broken portal was hidden, into a valley of snow that stretched out into the horizon. Still, the fact that we could see the large crater in the distance was something I was happy about.

Leading up to the ridge of the caldera were uneven, broken borders of jagged stone and deep ravines, while behind us, the zone kept climbing until fading away in distant, misty mountains.

“It’s beautiful,” Caera said, having pulled herself halfway out of the snow beside me.

“Brr’ahk!”

The screeching squawk was so sudden and so close that I acted on instinct, bringing one arm over my head and the other over Caera to defend against an attack from the sky. Caera stumbled from my sudden action, using my body for support as she sank down into the snow with a puff of powder.

Behind me, there was a flutter of wings and another harsh crow.

Whirling my body in the deep snow, I spotted a tall, thin birdlike creature just several feet behind us. It had long black legs, thin as sticks, a teardrop shaped body covered in gleaming white feathers, broad wings that it tucked tightly to its sides, and a gracefully curving neck.

Its neck was currently twisted to the side, tilting its head comically. Two vibrantly violet eyes shone from behind its jet black beak, which was shaped like the head of a javelin. The beak opened and snapped shut two, then three times, the sharp crack echoing across the caldera.

I waited with caution, uncertain if the creature was hostile or simply curious. Instead, Caera was the one to act first.

“Uh, hello,” she said softly.

“Uh, hello,” it mimicked back in its high-pitched, rasping voice. The egret-like aether beast stepped to the side, then took a series of shuffling, back and forth steps that almost looked like some kind of dance, after which it flapped wide wings to flutter several feet to the left.

‘I think big bird here likes Caera,’ Regis teased. ‘That looked like some kind of mating ritual to me.’

“More like it was writing something,” I mused out loud. As if to reinforce this idea, the creature gestured sharply toward the series of claw prints in the snow with its spear-like beak.

 

“Writing what?” Caera asked, her tone clipped as she grumpily extricated herself from the snow once again. “Oh.”

Moving slowly so as not to spook the creature, I pulled myself free of the snow and moved to stand over the series of interwoven claw marks. It did look remarkably like writing, though it wasn’t in a language I could read.

Caera appeared beside me, her hands tucked under her armpits as she hugged herself for warmth. It wasn’t as cold as it had been before, I realized. The temperature was still below freezing, but well within a talented mage’s ability to survive with the effective use of mana.

“Do you have any idea what it’s trying to tell us?” she asked, gazing down at the prints in the crystalline snow.

“Not a clue,” I replied, racking my brain for a way to communicate with the being. It was clearly intelligent, possessing written communication and perhaps even its own spoken language. It had the ability to mimic the noises we made, so, theoretically and with enough time, I might be able to teach it the common tongue, but that could take months, or even longer.

“Not a clue,” it mimicked again, hopping side to side nervously. Then it turned and flew fifteen or so feet away, set back down, and turned to us, one wing flapping toward a mountainous ridge in the distance.

“Maybe it wants us to follow it,” Caera said as I met her red eyes.

“What other choice do we have?” I asked in a resigned sort of way. “I’d say we either eat it or follow it.”


Nodding, she took several steps through the deep snow, each footfall breaking through the hard crust with a cracking, crunching sound. The wind had left the deep, powdery snow with a half-frozen shell on top, making each step difficult, but at the same time preventing us from sinking in over our heads again.

Once we’d come within a few feet of the bird, it flapped its broad wings and flew another twenty or thirty feet, then waited for us to catch up.

We repeated this again and again, marching along after our guide in silence as it led us up the side of the caldera and into a narrow ravine, then up a naturally occurring switchback trail that climbed high into a mountain of sharp, dark rock. Despite the sub-freezing temperature, the laborious climb warmed us, and I didn’t even need to circulate aether within me to ward off the cold.

‘Are you sure it isn’t going to lead us up to a cliff and just push us off?’ Regis asked after an hour of scrambling along the treacherous mountain path.

No, I answered honestly. But that seems like a lot of trouble for a meal. Besides, it doesn’t seem very strong. There’s definitely aether circulating within it, but I don’t think it’s a fighter.

‘My point exactly,’ Regis groused.

Eventually, we reached a place where the trail became a steep vertical climb. Our guide flew up to the top of the sheer cliff, perched on a little outcropping of the dark rock, and waited.

The cliff face was only forty feet or so, and the weathered stone had plenty of hand and footholds, but I was admittedly strained after having used so much of my aether to shield us against the hail.

“Ladies first,” I said, gesturing for Caera to start the climb.

Her brows turned down as she glared at me, and her eyes flicked from me to the steep descent behind us and back. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was considering pushing me down the mountainside, but in the end she just sighed and started searching for a path up the cliff.

I stayed right below her, hoping to catch her if she fell, but it wasn’t Caera who slipped.

About halfway up the cliff, I missed a handhold and my toe slipped from the crack in which I’d wedged it. My stomach lurched as I grabbed for a protruding piece of rock, but in my haste I crushed the rock in my fist, fell back out of reach of the wall, and tumbled the twenty feet back to the ground, landing with a thud at the base of the cliff.

From above, I heard, “Cra’kah!” followed by, “You alive?” Caera was grinning at me from above.

Grunting, I stood and dusted myself off. “Keep going. I’ll—I’ll be right up…” I said hoarsely.

I watched from below as the highblooded Alacryan woman moved up the wall like a trained mountain climber. Only after she’d heaved herself over the ledge above did I attempt the climb again, this time pushing aether through my legs and leaping as high as I could, then slamming my aether coated hands like wedges into the narrow cracks.

Looking down, I had covered over a quarter of the climb with a single leap.

Getting a good foothold, I repeated the maneuver, throwing myself upward another twenty feet or so, then wedging my hands into a series of cracks, widening them and causing a shower of stone chips and dust.

Caera peeked down from the top of the cliff just as I threw myself upward for the third time. She shook her head. “Why not just grow wings and fly, Grey?”

“Maybe someday,” I grunted as I climbed the final few feet and scrambled up onto the ledge. Ahead of us, the cliff’s edge sloped downward into a hollowed out basin surrounded by jagged peaks of black stone. Squat little huts huddled throughout the basin, each one built of woven sticks, branches, and thick brown grass.

Most had tattered bits of cloth hung across their doorways, which were decorated with more of the bird-foot-shaped letters.

Several of the bird folk were milling about the little village; all had stopped to stare at us, their bright eyes shining within the gloomy hollow. Most were stark white, with black legs and beaks, but a few had mottled gray feathers and one stood out due to its jet black coloring.


Our guide snapped its beak several times and let out a series of sharp cawing noises that sounded to me like words, then waved one wing toward us as if to say, “Follow me.”

Having already come that far, we did as it asked, and it led us hopping down through the center of the small village and toward the largest of the nest-like huts. The other bird folk watched us pass, their feathers ruffled and eyes darting around with curiosity and fear. A couple even took flight, soaring up into the peaks above us, where I noticed smaller nests hidden amongst the craigs.

As we approached the largest hut, which sat at the rear of the hollow, built right up against the black stone wall, a truly ancient looking creature pressed aside the gray-blue cloth and hobbled out to meet us.

Our guide began to click and caw rapidly, occasionally turning to us to gesture sharply with its beak or wave its wings.

I watched the old bird creature carefully as it listened. Its white feathers had turned gray and fallen out in many places, and its thin legs were bent and nobbly and had developed pink splotches. Several of its claws were broken, and a lightning-bolt crack ran from the tip of its beak all the way to where it disappeared into its bumpy flesh. Three deep, pink scars ran across its face, leaving one eye glassy white instead of rich purple like the other.

After our guide finished chattering, the elder turned to me and bowed slightly, its wings unfurling as it did so. In a voice as old and cracked as its beak, it said, “Welcome, ascenders, to the village of the Spear Beak tribe. The ancient ones have told me to expect your arrival.”

I gaped at the old bird, stunned by his clear use of our language.

Caera, however, returned the shallow bow without missing a beat and replied politely, “Thank you, elder, for the warm welcome.”

A slight nudge at my own foot turned my attention to the Alacryan noble, who was looking at me and gesturing with her eyes to follow her lead.

“Thank you,” I said evenly, dipping my head as well.

We have no choice, but we’re in a pretty vulnerable position right now so be on the lookout, I warned Regis.

‘Fair enough. Want me to just come out? Scare them a bit?’

No, just pay attention. You’ll know if I need you.

“Come, come,” the elder of the Spear Beak tribe squawked, gesturing with one wing toward its hut. “Enter. Sit. Talk. Then you may join with the Spear Beaks in a feast, should you wish.”

I could hear Caera’s stomach grumble from the very mention of the word ‘feast’, which made her blush in embarrassment.

“My apologies, elder, but we’re in a hurry and we’d just like some information.” My eyes flickered to Caera, who was pressing her hands against her stomach. “And perhaps a light meal we can take with us.”

“You wish to activate the portal out, no?” the elder asked, tilting his head.

Hiding my surprise by his knowledge of our motives, I answered evenly. “Yes. We would like to activate the portal in order to leave.”

“If that is the case, you must first listen and learn,” the elder said as he scratched the lightning-bolt scar on its beak with its wing.

Caera’s scarlet eyes turned to me for answers, but I could only shrug in response before turning back to the tribe elder. “We humbly accept your offer then.”

“Good, good!” The old bird’s mismatched eyes narrowed in what I felt was a smile as he gestured us toward his hut with his wings.

After taking one last look behind me, my eyes quickly tracking across the bird villagers all staring back at us, we entered the hut.



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