Brier was the first one down the tunnel. Cloudhawk limped behind, clutching his chest. Autumn, with flute in hand, and the lame drunkard took up the rear.
The medicine was helping ease his pain, but it only gave Cloudhawk enough respite to move around. His ability to defend himself was greatly hindered, and besides the medicine’s actions would only last a little while. They had to get far away, and fast, otherwise they were as good as dead. Even if they weren’t captured by Ravenous Tiger and the Crimson One, Trespasser’s mutations could steel his mind from him. That was a fate worse than death.
All throughout their journey, Autumn had never seen Cloudhawk as anything other than a pillar of iron. He’d even out-maneuvered a nightmarish thing like Reaper the Undying. So what happened today that nearly killed him?
Autumn thought to ask, but the question died in her throat. She didn’t want to appear too concerned. Cloudhawk was already in danger of snapping his own neck, peering so far down his nose at her. So she kept her mouth shut.
“Things aren’t lookin’ so good for me.” Cloudhawk stumbled forward with great effort, but even still couldn’t pass up an opportunity to screw with her. “Be honest. Will you be happy or sad when I die?”
Autumn kept her lips tightly closed and pretended like she hadn’t heard.
“Right, well if I do die the mission’s still complete. Make sure you send the reward you promised to Gabby. Don’t give this old drunk shit. He’ll just spend it all on wine.”
The old man merely rolled his eyes at the accusation.
Autumn glared at him. “Are you finished with your last words?”
Cloudhawk pondered his poor luck then added more. “Make sure you find a good man to marry. Don’t waste your life pining over my corpse.”
Autumn gripped the flute tight in her hands and fought back the urge to fling it at him. Her teeth ground audible as she answered. “Hmph, I have the artifact. If you die it’ll save me a lot of eboncrys.”
“Damn. Kicking friends to the curb the moment you don’t need ‘em anymore.”
“So what?” Autumn shot back, obstinate and angry. “If it’s that important to you, then live! If you can, that is. Then you can get the money yourself. What does a dead man need all that money for anyway? Am I supposed to send it to that psychopath so he can give you a proper burial? In your dreams! I’d rather scatter the eboncrys into a river!”
Brier gave a quick glance over his shoulder. This wasn’t the Autumn he remembered. She was a good-hearted girl by nature, playful, gentle. Her cruel treatment of the young man was not typical. However, it was clear from their banter that she cared for him. Even if she refused to accept the fact herself.
Youth, he mused. Brier’s thoughts turned to far away memories as they made their way down the tunnel.
Images of the woman in green returned. Had she lived a good life? She wasn’t his, but he had always been concerned for her.
News of her disappearance took away the anxiousness, along with all the light in his life. This girl was the last bit of color in an otherwise barren world. He’d thought about seeking her out once she was older. He hadn’t thought she might come looking for him.
Was it the will of the Shepherd Goddess? It didn’t matter. But he had to make sure she got to safety.
Meanwhile, the drunkard contemplated his appreciation for the young demonhunter. The kid was smart enough to be afraid of death, but stupid enough not to avoid it!
He was a man of character and purpose, how was it he’d never heard of him? Was he someone knew? A new generation replaces the old, stronger than the last. With so many talented youth in Skycloud, it was a surprise to see another rising star. Their struggle for supremacy would be a fight to watch.
The old man fretted inwardly over the things he could not change. His plan had been to fall in this one-man war against Fishmonger’s Borough and the despicable man who ran it. Instead he’d accidentally drawn out the one pulling the strings. He lived despite his plan, and found a young man who could succeed where he had failed.
If Cloudhawk could resist the Castigation fire, then there was a chance he might defeat that fiend. What was a few more years of living if it meant he’d have fine seats for a good show?
The four fugitives absconded through the tunnel, lost in their own thoughts.
Cloudhawk had to stop when a stabbing pain swept through him. It was so quick, so intense that for a moment he lost his breath. He took a few deep gulps of air to steady himself, but his helpless state was clearer than ever. He was both scared and amazed at how vulnerable he’d become.
“There’s an ambush ahead. We can’t go on.”
There was no such thing as safe harbor in Fishmonger’s Borough, not for them. Their only hope was escape. But of course Ravenous Tiger would have defenses set all through the lower level. There were over five hundred soldiers lying in wait for any sign, ready to pounce. Among them were at least four of the red-robed devils – with that sanctimonious, middle-aged terror at the fore.
Strong as the drunkard was, he couldn’t break through such a blockade, especially if he was trying to usher a group of people much weaker. After Oddball returned, Cloudhawk reported what the bird had found about the forces arrayed against them. Suddenly they were stuck between the frying pan and the fire. The old man suggested trying to fight their way out – at least they might take a couple of the assholes with them before they died.
Cloudhawk’s first reaction was to inwardly chastise the old man. He might be bored with life, the Warden thought, but I still got shit to do. The drunkard’s suicide mission was stupid. But really he didn’t have a better suggestion.
“If we could summon the flute’s power, then we would have a chance to escape.”
It was Brier who said it. Cloudhawk found the suggestion useless, for how could the flute – relic or not – help them against a small army? Autumn was less disparaging and put the artifact to her lips to try again. The result was the same; no matter what she did or how hard she blew, the flute never made a sound.
The old man shook his head as he watched. “That’s not how you use relics. Don’t think of it as a normal flute. You must join your heart and your mind, your mind and your will, your will and your spirit. That is how you create resonance.”
Can this old fucker stop being so mysterious?
Cloudhawk added his voice. “It’s just a damn relic, right? Let me try.”
But Autumn was incredulous. “There’s no way an outsider can be allowed to tarnish my tribe’s holy artifact!”
“Ravenous Tiger has had his slimy claws on it all this time, and I’m the one who stole it back. This is how you show appreciation?” He was about to snatch the artifact from Autumn’s hands when Oddball began to twitter madly on his shoulder. Cloudhawk’s face fell. “They’re coming.”
A grenade came barreling towards them, trailing a wake of fire.
The drunk stepped forward, unarmed but fists raised. He held his arms at subtle angle, and when the bomb struck it was curved one hundred and eighty degrees back the way it came. It drilled right through one of the soldiers, into the fat figure standing behind him.
The lumbering figure blocked the explosion with his axe. However, the soldiers around him were quickly ripped apart.
Ravenous Tiger slammed the head of his battleaxe into the ground in a rage. He glared at the old man and his companions with a frigid gaze. “Bringing others to die with you on your stupid crusade, eh? Any last words?”
The old man’s words were practically a growl. “You despicable traitor!”
Upon discovering that the cripple didn’t have anything new to say, Ravenous Tiger grew tired of hearing him speak. He wasn’t one for nonsense, and this old boozer was a menace that was better dealt with sooner rather than later. If he escaped, the chances were good he’d be back one day for another attempt on his life.
Hundreds of weapons were raised and ready to be fired.
The area came alive with the sounds of gunpowder and screams, from every direction. The Borough’s soldiers, caught unprepared, were mowed down by a sneak attack as a host of men descended upon them.
“Master Hermit! We’re here to protect you!”
Cloudhawk and Autumn were stunned. They looked searchingly at Brier.
Brier, on the other hand, was not taken aback. “These are the men I’ve recruited the last few years,” he said in reply to their wordless question. “My suicide soldiers. My plan was to recover the flute from Ravenous Tiger in a couple years, with their help. I was going to bring it back to the tribe so they could use it. Now it seems they serve a different purpose.”
Autumn was only more confused. “Why would you do this?”
Brier looked at her, his eyes soft and warm. “You still don’t understand? I’m protecting you!”
The old man and Ravenous Tiger were once more engaged in battle. Behind them, the middle-aged priest lifted a weapon encased in green fire. Its hungry fires began to reach for the other three. This was it, they would find a way to flee or they would die. Cloudhawk wrenched the flute from Autumn’s grip. He knew immediately that this relic was different, but he could still see its pattern.
“It’s no use!” Brier shook his head. “This artifact is different from those in your homeland. The Shephard’s flute can only be used by someone with divine blood. For three hundred years it’s lain silent – Autumn is the only one. Your efforts are a waste.”
But even as his words were spoken, the stone around Cloudhawk’s neck began to glow. The Shephard’s flute answered with a shine of its own.
Cloudhawk had only started to recover, and his mental fortitude was limited at best. He wasn’t strong enough to call on the flute, but he could summon the stone’s power. The surge of psychic power it gave him could only be used once a day at most, but it gave the Warden access to strength equivalent to a veteran demonhunter. As the mighty flood rose, it instantly resonated with the artifact.
A clear and melodious note came from the flute.
But to call it ‘sound’ was not right. It was not a sound. It was a peculiar noise that spoke directly to some special sense. All of a sudden the whole area began to quake.
This was the Shepherd’s Call, silent for three hundred years. Three generations of stillness and anticipation. Here in this strange and dangerous place, it sang again.
In the underground lake below a vortex formed. Some inexplicable power filled it, and all the beasts therein began to thrash and turn. At last he knew what the flute was for. It controlled animals.
But there was something he lacked. He could awaken the relic, but he couldn’t use it to bend the creatures to his will. They whipped around in a mad chaos, throwing the whole city into turmoil. Every animal in Fishmonger’s Borough suddenly defied orders, bucking off riders or tearing off in random directions. The flesh-eating birds which circled outside even started heedlessly diving through the city.
The most striking, however, was what was happening in the lake below.
In the depths of Fishmonger’s Borough were thousands upon thousands of beasts. More than just sandsharks, there were powerful monsters of the wastes who heard the Shephard’s Call and became enraged. They came tearing to the surface, breaking through all throughout the lower levels and sending foes careening in all directions.
“The beasts are losing their minds!”
“Get them under control!”
It was madness.
Weakened by the ordeal, Cloudhawk blindly shoved the flute back into Autumn’s hands. She was staring at him in utter disbelief, an expression mirrored by Brier. Neither could fathom how this outsider had done it. Shepherd’s Call had been dormant for years, but somehow this outsider had given it a voice.
“What the fuck are you idiots gaping at? Run!”
Cloudhawk shouted at them angrily, unaware of the earth-shattering feat he’d just performed.
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lol Cloudhawk really CAN use any and all relics...