“How the fuck is she controlling these animals?!” Ravenous Tiger watched helplessly as the army he labored to raise was viciously destroyed. His eyes were bloodshot, and his whole body shook from the rage in his voice. “What kind of demon relic is this!”
The Crimson One eventually returned to the ground, after his orb of Castigation fire had razed most of the Borough’s lower level. His mood was no better than the governor’s.
He’d held nothing back in his latest attempt, but the flock of birds that threw themselves at him ate away at the fires until there was nothing left. He was not spared from injury himself. The Crimson One was a man of supreme arrogance. None – outside of the highest levels of elysian hierarchy – gave him pause.
So what had happened? He’d been foiled by a little girl and her flute!
The Shepherd’s Call. A power the ancient gods had used in their infernal war of old. Not long before becoming a rebel deity and falling from grace, the Shepherd Goddess gifted this artifact to her people. Here it reemerged, more incredible than even the legends told, with a power that rivaled Castigation fire. Few relics of this quality existed in the elysian hands – it was rare even among the gods and demons themselves. The Shepherd’s flute counted itself among a class of artifacts that wielded unfathomable potency.
Of course, the more incredible the tool the more strict its limitations. Not just anyone could resonate with the flute. Autumn bore the blessing of her fallen goddess, manifesting as the talent needed for the flute to answer her will. If the sheer number of beasts she commanded was any indication, she had been born with a psychic capacity to rival veteran demonhunters!
But Autumn’s situation was unique. She couldn’t use even the most ordinary of relics, like an exorcist rod. Physically she was no different from any other woman. Yet with this artifact in hand she wielded staggering power.
Luck was also an undeniable factor.
In many places, even with the flute’s power she wouldn’t be able to call on the aid of so many animals. Due to the unique placement of Fishmonger’s Borough, along with its lake, the city was a gathering place for all beasts of the desert in search of comfort.
The power of Shepherd’s Call allowed Autumn to control creatures of low intelligence. Through a variety of circumstances and coincidences, she was able to manifest terrifying authority on this battlefield.
Because of her, Fishmonger’s Borough was gripped in fear and chaos!
Castigation indiscriminately devoured man and beast as it swept across the city. Even the buildings melted in the face of the green terror. Spreading like a prairie fire, the bustling city of Fishmonger’s Borough was reduced to ash.
Ravenous Tiger looked over the ruins of his kingdom with dull, disbelieving eyes. Buildings collapsed, people ran for their lives, screams filled the air. He was forced to watch as these streets and buildings, the fruits of his sweat and blood, were consigned to oblivion.
“M-master! Please stop these fires! They’re going to destroy the whole city!”
Castigation fire was a relic whose power corresponded with the psychic power of its invoker. The Crimson had to be able to dispel it at will.
Every second his city was in flames was a stab to the chest. He couldn’t return to the elysian lands, this place was everything to him. If Fishmonger’s Borough burned to the ground, he would be nothing but a ghost wandering the barrens.
Yet the Crimson One did not intend to give in. His hands shot up, and the fires responded by swirling together into dual pillars. Dragons of green flame writhed through the battlefield, turning every living thing it passed into blackened husks.
The Crimson One rose again into the air, crosier held aloft. His attention fixed on three figures amid the sea of flame.
He did not hesitate. As the fiery dragons coiled around him, the cardinal reeled back and let his staff fly. Screaming through the air, his ornate staff multiplied into hundreds of copies, ripping through all three figures before embedding itself in the ground behind. Nothing could survive such a barrage.
But something was wrong! The silhouettes didn’t react at all, even when the staff ran them through.
The Crimson One soared over the fires, robes flapping, like a being of the immortal realms. All hundred duplicates of his crosier were gone, leaving the one true staff jutting up from the ground. Holes and cavities peppered the ground, even beneath the feet of the three – entirely unharmed – fugitives.
He’d been tricked. By the time he realized it and lifted his head, a group of sandsharks were already making their escape. The Crimson One narrowed his eyes as they slipped into the darkness of the tunnel leading out of Fishmonger’s Borough. Escaped – they’d slipped out of his reach. Chasing after them was not an option, for trying to ride a sandshark now would be asking for death.
Finally, the raging Castigation fires began to abate. Shepherd’s Call diminished then grew silent, and the lakes monsters returned to their watery home. The war that had embroiled Fishmonger’s Borough ended as quickly as it had begun.
Ravenous Tiger staggered through the aftermath. Over a thousand men, dead. His army in shambles. Where the Crimson One’s fires had burned, there was nothing but devastation. He had become the governor of ashes.
This was the power of the Crimson One. The fires at his command could level entire cities.
As bitterness gripped his heart, Ravenous Tiger asked himself if aligning himself with such a beast was the right decision. But could he run now? He was a goat, looking for a way to escape a hungry tiger. He didn’t have even of a fraction of the power his master commanded. He was uncomfortably aware that this goat could be sacrificed at a whim.
The red-robed cleric slowly walked back to Ravenous Tiger’s side. He was a clever man, and could see the bitterness and uncertainty in the beleaguered governor’s eyes. “Do not be disheartened by what has become of Fishmonger’s Borough. A great cache of resources has been revealed. We need only take it for ourselves. You will be given lordship over the Woodland Vale, a place even more defendable than your mountain and wealth a hundred- - no, a thousand-fold greater. You should understand the value.”
The Crimson One knew how to entice men’s hearts. A promise such as this would be enough to buy the zeal of many greedy men.
Ravenous Tiger answered with a sad smile. Six years of his heart’s blood had been spent here. Now it was gone, and to the man in red it was written off like collateral damage. But how could he cast away something he’d strived so hard to build? What could buy back the loss of his home? Ravenous Tiger knew he was an insignificant cog in the Crimson One’s machine. Merely a pawn, and a pawn was destined to go where the hand willed. But when a pawn stopped being useful, or did not know its place, then it was sacrificed.
“You have half a day to gather a search party.”The Crimson One was no fool. He knew this was a serious blow to the governor’s loyalty, but it didn’t matter. His only concern was gaining access to the Woodland Vale. “I trust you have come to understand what it means to disobey me.”
With his fists clenched, Ravenous Tiger left to make preparations. The Crimson One did not see the harsh, cold light that flashed in his eyes once his back was turned.
Likewise, a callous grin stretched across the cardinal’s face. He added, “Also, spread word that there is a hundred thousand gold reward for their capture. A handsome reward for anyone who can bring them to me alive. Send out the word by bird – I want the whole wasteland to know the price on their head before they reach the other end of the quicksand sea.”
A hundred thousand?! Ravenous Tiger fought the urge to vomit. That was his entire fortune, years of effort!
It didn’t matter, not according to the clergyman’s logic. What did the riches of Fishmonger’s Borough matter? Only the Vale was important! Everything they spent would be returned in spades once the valley was theirs.
Ravenous Tiger was forced to comply. Throw a bone and he had to chase it, with a scrap of meat as his reward. Was he no better than a dog? He was acutely aware that he could not scheme like the old priest, but there were other ways to get the upper hand. When the gap between ability was this large, the advantage fell to the one who made the first move.
So long as Ravenous Tiger remained useful, the Crimson One would have no reason to discard of him. If, however, he chose this moment to rebel then he would be destroyed where he stood.
Wait. Wait for when the time was right, then things would change.
The scorching sun blasted endless kilometers of yellow desert. Three weary sandsharks carried three exhausted passengers to the far shores of the quicksand sea.
The old drunk leapt off his mount then craned his neck to look at the sky. Patting the sand from his clothes, his lips stretched back to reveal rows of rotten yellow teeth. “Heh, I didn’t think I’d live to find my way back out of that place. Must be fate.”
“If I could move, I’d shove my staff right up your-”
A pained yelp cut off the unfriendly sentiment. The pain medication had worn off and a blinding pain wracked Cloudhawk’s body. It wasn’t as bad as it was before, but it was still hard for him to bear. The Warden could hardly move.
The plan hadn’t been a complicated one. It should have been easy for Cloudhawk to help Autumn get her damn relic, learn a little about Ravenous Tiger and that red-robed fuck, then deliver the information to General Polaris.
Except this suicidal old fuckwit ruined the whole damn thing. It was all his fault Cloudhawk was mutating! An old man wishing to die was still alive, and the young man desperate to live was left hung out to dry.
The old drunk acted like he hadn’t heard Cloudhawk’s griping. He chuckled and commented on the weather. “Well, after a good scuffle and a lot of travel my mouth is pretty dry, I don’t know about you two. Let’s find a place to throw a few back, eh?”
“Is that all you think about? You can drink my piss, you asshole!” Cloudhawk was in rare form. “Can’t you see I’m dying over here?! You need to get me back to the Sandbar right away!”
A dirt-caked finger picked at earwax as the old man went on. “I know. You’ve been whining like a little bitch the moment we left, but the person who really saved our asses hasn’t said a word.”
Even Cloudhawk had to look at Autumn with new eyes. For the whole trip he’d treated her like a burden, weak and ineffectual. She proved she was a lot stronger than he gave her credit for. It was her that protected them from the Crimson One and his evil fire. But ever since leaving with the flute, she’d sat there like a rock. The relic hadn’t stole her wits, had it?
“I killed so many people...” she muttered.
Cloudhawk almost breathed a sigh of relief after hearing her speak. “Let it go, it was them or us. It’s not like they’re gonna haunt you. Anyway, most of them were killed by that asshole in the red dress. If their spirits are gonna go after anybody, it’ll be him first. Far as I believe they’ll want to make sure he gets a taste of his own medicine and burns to death.”
Autumn glared at him. Did this scoundrel not feel an ounce of guilt?
Autumn didn’t know how many people died, but it had to be in the thousands. A thousands lives cut short, many of them innocents. It was more than the gentle-natured Autumn knew how to bear.
She’d had no choice. The Crimson One was too strong.
“Now I gotta warn you, that monster isn’t going to let us go easy. I bet he was making plans to hunt us down the second we jumped on those sandsharks. If we run into him again, do you have a plan?”
Fear gripped the young girl’s heart. The wastelands were rife with creatures, but the most she could gather within a thousand-meter radius were a hundred at best. If they were forced to defend themselves out here, the flute wasn’t going to save them.
The old drunk was starting to itch from the withdrawals. “Let’s go! Come on!”
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