Hermit’s Clinic was a cacophony of medicinal scents. Seated cross-legged before a small furnace, the light of its fire illuminated Brier’s uncomfortable features. He busily works a mortar and pestle, grinding the contents then from time to time conveying the mushy result into the furnace. He steadfastly ignored Autumn, and maintained an indifferent detachment even in the face of her questions. Outwardly he didn’t seem to take her presence or her accusations to heart.
She would not be dissuaded, as she kept snapping at him in anger. “Why aren’t you saying anything?! Pretending to be mute isn’t going to help you!”
“You won’t believe anything I say anyway. If that’s the case, why waste my breath?” Truthfully Brier wasn’t even sure how to explain everything that’d happened. It was more complicated than a simple answer could do justice. Autumn was an adult now, but there were still some things she was not ready to know.
For her part, Autumn wasn’t sure how to approach the former elder. She was never good at this sort of thing – diplomacy and argument. Faced with his apathetic affectation, she was… disappointed. So very, very disappointed. He wasn’t even going to argue? Was he just going to accept his reckless and deplorable actions? Was this how he was going to treat her?
She could hardly stand to spend another second here. When was Cloudhawk going to get back?
She needed to get her tribe’s artifact back to her people, and drag Brier back with her to face judgement. The elders would deal with him. Although he’d committed an unforgivable offense, Autumn couldn’t execute him herself. Bringing him to the tribe was her only option.
Hadn’t Cloudhawk said getting the artifact would be easy? A piece of cake, he’d said.
For all his self-confidence, here she was half a day later and the rogue still wasn’t back. Had something happened? What would she do if that arrogant megalomaniac got into trouble? These concerns whispered in the back of her mind as suddenly alarms began to sound from the governor’ mansion. The upper level was far from where they were, but she could pick out explosions from a battle. The ground trembled slightly even all the way down here.
Autumn felt her heart seize. She’d guessed right!
Brier stood up with a concerned scowl, casting his eyes toward the din. He ordered a pair of interns to go see what happened, and they returned a few moments later with their report: “There was an assassination attempt on Ravenous Tiger. The city is in chaos. Soldiers have been dispatched to hunt down the culprits.”
An assassination attempt? What was that idiot doing trying to kill the governor?! Both Brier and Autumn were stunned by the unexpected turn.
However, at the moment whether or not Cloudhawk was involved wasn’t important. Hermit’s clinic was no longer safe. Brier turned to her and said, “Ravenous Tiger is strong, and he has thousands of men at his command. There isn’t much chance your protector will make it out alive, but my clinic has an escape tunnel. It will take us out of here.”
Fear gripped her. All this time Autumn had had to rely exclusively on Cloudhawk. Although she found this impudent and barbarous scoundrel repulsive, she had to admit she’d have long perished without his help. Without him by her side, she felt far less secure.
“I’m waiting for him!” She then added, “I will not abandon my friends to save my own skin. You go – it’s what you’re good at.”
She couldn’t stop him from going, she was too weak to do anything. Even protect herself. But after refusing to leave, Brier also remained behind. Despite herself, the fact made her feel a little better.
Not a few seconds passed before an old man with a lame leg came bursting in. He had a young man draped over his shoulders, with a look of unbearable pain on his face. He threw Cloudhawk onto the ground without a word. For his part, the Warden was shriveled and pink like a boiled shrimp. He was soaked in sweat, and something was odd about his body. The skin of his arms and chest bubbled sickeningly like malignant growths.
Brier’s first priority was revealed in his opening question. “Did you get the flute?”
Autumn glared at him. This was who he was? That was his first question? Did he not feel an ounce of guilt over what he’d done?! He was the bastard who gave the Shephard’s flute to Ravenous Tiger in the first place!
“It’s a long story,” Cloudhawk managed to wheeze. He produced the artifact from some secret pocket and handed it to her. “But… at least the mission… for your flute… is complete.”
He did it? He actually got it for her? Brier’s face was nothing short of dumbfounded.
The moment the flute was placed in Autumn’s hands it was as though a tremendous weight was lifted. For the first time in ages she felt like she could breathe again.
Man’s luck had its limits. Cloudhawk had managed to survive a direct assault from a terrible attack thanks to Trespasser. Its forced awakening kept him from being reduced to ash. But he wasn’t out of the woods – not by a long shot. Now that Trespasser was awake he could feel the mutations occurring. If he didn’t find the Dark Atom soon and beg for their technology to help him, it wouldn’t be more than half a month before he became some twisted monstrosity.
Things were bad. They had to get out of Fishmonger’s Borough immediately! Any hesitation, and it would be too late!
The old drunkard who brought him in interrupted. “Hey, this is a clinic isn’t it? You’re a doctor, and this kid is in a bad way. See what you can do.”
Brier gave his new patient a cursory examination. Cloudhawk was half dead from whatever ordeal brought him here. He didn’t have enough strength to stand, let alone escape the city. Brier’s mace grew more concerned the more he saw. “I knew your physicality was unique the moment you walked in. Yet the rate of mutation I’m seeing is incredible.”
“You have to save him!” Autumn interjected.
“I’m sorry, my expertise is in common diseases. What I’m seeing here isn’t from typical cancers or injuries. Whatever this is, it’s coming from inside your own body. In other words your body is fine, just… changing. You are becoming a mutant at a rate that is frankly unfathomable. The good news is this isn’t malignant.”
I fucking know this already! Tell me something I don’t know!
Cloudhawk fought to speak through the pain. “Don’t just fuckin’ flap your gums at me! This is a freaking clinic, don’t you have any pain meds?”
“Actually, I do.” Brier reached over to a nearby rack of vials and picked one. Inside were a number of small, crudely made pills. “These will help ameliorate the pain significantly, but they’re short-acting.”
This medicine was exactly why Cloudhawk had the drunk carry him all the way here. Brier was an accomplished doctor, and with the technology in this city he had to have something to help with this blinding pain.
A few moments after taking the medicine, Cloudhawk could feel the pain begin to subside. The speed and efficacy of it proved why Hermit had become so popular here. Still, he wasn’t optimistic. Just outside those doors, all of the Borough’s soldiers were looking for them.
Since Cloudhawk and Autumn had been in contact with Brier, sooner or later someone would come knocking. Fishmonger’s Borough was a unique place that made escape difficult, and they could be sure there was going to be tight defenses in the lower level ensuring no one got out. Getting a ride on sandsharks didn’t seem like a possibility.
Brier turned his attention to Autumn. “Blow the flute. Use it and we’ll be able to escape.”
How was a flute supposed to do that? Cloudhawk doubted this artifact had that sort of power.
Nervously Autumn complied. With no other option available to them, she raised the flute to her lips and began to blow a small stream of air. Nothing. She blew harder, but still there was no response. Her face was red from the effort, but that was all.
It was too much to ask for a young woman who had never handled a relic to summon the power of something like this on her first try.
Autumn was just the same as Cloudhawk used to be. She’d never received any training, she didn’t know a single thing about relics. Those like Cloudhawk – who could pick up and use nearly any artifact handed to them – were rare beyond measure. How could Brier expect her to simply evoke the flute with no foundation? Learning the skills was a long and difficult process, and even those with natural talent like Selene and Dawn couldn’t accomplish it in a single attempt.
Autumn’s face fell, discouraged. “I can’t do it!”
“You are the last scion of divine blood.” Brier pressed her, but was not reproachful. “You are the only one who can use the artifact. I know you can. Have faith!”
Cloudhawk watched the doctor with a measure of surprise. Who was this man? Why the sudden change in attitude?
He knew Brier had a sordid history with his people, so it was strange for him to seem so concerned with Autumn’s safety. It was a fact that did not escape her notice, for she looked at him in a trance. Which was the true Brier? Did he care, or didn’t he? But his words were enough to inspire her to try again.
But then, the sounds of a piercing voice arose from outside.
“Here, this is the place!” A fat, shrew-like woman was pointing accusingly at the front door. Two red-robed members of the Crimson Church were with her, along with over a hundred city soldiers. As they closed in the fat, ugly woman made sure to disassociate herself. “I don’t know him, but I’m sure there’s something going on with him and Hermit!”
That was enough proof for them. The unit commander motioned, and half a dozen soldiers moved toward the clinic.
But as they kicked open the door the men were blinding by a flash of golden light. A pudgy little bird appeared before them, beating its tiny wings. Feathers shot out toward the soldiers like throwing daggers, each one skillfully aimed at their throats. They hit the ground clutching at their opened necks.
“What was that?!”
“Doesn’t matter. Fire!”
All at once the remaining soldiers leveled their weapons. Bows twanged and guns roared as they pummeled the clinic storefront. The eclectic mix of weapons were fierce in their barrage, shredding the building.
The missionaries reacted as well. They drew back bows nocked with feathered arrows, but did not fire. They shut their eyes, and with a quiet prayer the arrows came alive with green fire. Whoosh! They released the strings, and the arrows raced toward the clinic with malignant green tails like evil comets. One of the interns wasn’t fast enough and took an arrow to the chest. It hardly found purchase before the unfortunate young man was completely devoured in flame.
Brier pushed open a secret passage and everyone pushed through without a second thought. It was flee, or face a hundred angry soldiers and a pair of infernal priests.
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Nice that she's finally considering Cloudhawk a 'friend', even if it was only meant mainly as a spiteful jab against Brier.