The Beginning After the End (Vol. 8.5): Amongst the Fallen
More Dangerous Than It Used to Be (Part 1)
More Dangerous Than It Used to Be (Part 1)
Dec 16, 2021
I peered up at the sun, little more than a bright patch behind the clouds, to gauge the time of day. It was well after noon, which meant I'd been trudging through the Beast Glades for several hours without seeing a single edible creature.
Mana beasts were plentiful, but I couldn't just kill and butcher the first thing I saw, especially the more dangerous ones. Many were poisonous, like the giant, toad-like sludge hopper, while some weren't made of meat at all.
Others were simply unpalatable.
Twenty feet ahead, something darted toward me. With a quick flick of my wrist, one of my daggers whirled through the air and struck with a wet thud.
Stepping carefully up to it, I tugged my blade out of the tough hide of a fanged musk, a stinking mana beast that looked like a hairy brown ball, but was mostly teeth and jaws. No one would eat such a thing; they tasted as bad as they smelled.
"Starving," I muttered, nudging the small corpse with my boot. Fanged musks were incredibly aggressive, but wouldn't normally hunt creatures larger than themselves.
Just ahead, two more burst from under a bush and tore away into the forest.
As I prepared to launch my dagger after the fleeing beasts—their cores were still worth a little something—a branch creaked above me. Keeping still as a statue, I pushed mana to my ears and listened carefully. Chitinous scraping and sharp claws cutting into the bark suggested some kind of buglike mana beast.
Slowly, I slipped my second dagger from its sheath, holding a blade lightly in each hand.
A branch cracked as something heavy lunged toward me. I sidestepped the attack and spun to find a huge, hairy spider with razor-sharp blades where its legs should have been.
The spider ripped its sharp appendages from the ground and swiped at me, but I took two quick steps back, avoiding the cut, then darted forward myself, driving one dagger into the center of its eye cluster and the other up into the joint where its head connected to the rest of the bulbous body.
The sharp legs flailed as the creature lost control of its movements, but it was already dead. It just didn't realize it yet.
Ripping both daggers free, I leapt up onto the sword-legged spider's back, causing it to collapse. After a moment, the twitching stopped.
I slid down from the back and walked around to its bloody face, kneeling down to get a better look. Its mandibles were each about as long as my hand from wrist to fingertip.
"Ugly, aren't you?" I said before breaking off both large fangs and storing them away. I would have taken the legs and core, too, but movement through the trees nearby distracted me from my kill.
Something was sprinting away through the underbrush, making a whole lot of noise. It wasn't large, from the sound of it, but only prey animals made that much noise.
Three round, eight-legged shapes skittered away through the treetops, probably sensing an easier meal.
Not wanting to lose potential prey to the mana beasts, I sprinted after it, cutting through the trees much more quickly and quietly than it was.
The spiders had a head start. One of them dropped from the trees thirty feet ahead of me, but it was met with both daggers, spinning within a disc of wind-attribute mana that caused them to sheer through three of the sharp legs then return to my hands.
I ran past the screeching mana beast without a second glance, sure that it wouldn't survive long missing three legs.
The others must have realized that they had competition, because one of the remaining mana beasts slung a spray of sticky web into my path.
I wrapped my body in wind mana and plowed into the webbing, expecting to burst through. I did, but what I hadn't expected was for the fine fibers to cut through my protective barrier and leave a dozen shallow lacerations on my exposed skin.
The little cuts burned painfully, though this subsided to a raw itch as my mana began to heal the tiny wounds.
Grunting in annoyance, I took up the chase again. The undergrowth cleared somewhat, and suddenly I could see what I was chasing.
Instead of the prey beast I had assumed, it was a young girl. An elf. She was fifty feet ahead of me, and the quickest spider was nearly right above her.
Wind condensed around my legs and beneath my feet and I sprang off it, flying up into the air. Using the tree branches like springboards, I jumped up higher and higher, until I was on the same level as the mana beasts and had closed the distance to the closer of the two.
Letting out a piercing whistle to draw their attention, I launched myself off a tree trunk.
The sword-legged spider twisted nimbly around, its long legs supported on a handful of different branches. The bulbous body swelled and a stream of spider silk splashed through the canopy around us, creating a tangled web between me and it.
Just as quickly, my daggers cut a gap in the sharp filaments, and my momentum carried me through so that I was face to face with the mana beast.
Two of the razor-sharp legs slashed out, ringing off my daggers. The impact threw me off course, however, and I spun awkwardly over the spider's head and landed on its broad, hairy back.
Its legs were surprisingly limber, bending up and around its own body to continue thrusting and cutting at me. I parried with one dagger as the other plunged into the mana beast, punching several holes through the thick hide.
A piercing wail resounded through the forest before the creature went limp and tumbled from its perch.
My stomach did a little flip as I found myself plunging downward, but I was able to push off the spider's descending body and land on a nearby branch. Below me, the heavy mana beast hit the ground with a wet crunch.
A thin, high-pitched scream came from nearby, then cut off.
The third sword-legged spider was no longer in the trees, I realized, and my stomach did another flip. My gaze tracked swiftly across the forest floor, but I didn't see the mana beast or the elf girl.
Harnessing my wind mana, I leapt from branch to branch, moving in the direction she'd been running.
The high perspective increased my visibility through the undergrowth, but I still nearly missed it: in a hollow between three fallen trees, there was a dark, web-choked hole, largely covered with leaves and broken branches.
Something was moving within the shadows inside the mouth of the hole.
The war between Dicathen and Alacrya is over and Arthur Leywin has vanished. In the uncertain aftermath of this decisive loss, a few familiar faces navigate peril both political and moral as they are now forced to make a difficult choice: accept life under Vritra rule or keep fighting despite impossible odds? As Dicathen falls, Mica Earthborn, Lilia Helstea, Emily Watsken, and Jasmine Flamesworth must each answer this question for themselves.
NOTE ABOUT READING ORDER: to get the best reading experience, Amongst the Fallen should be read after volume 8 of The Beginning After the End (make sure you've read up to episode 868).