Woodland Vale was surrounded all sides by mountains. There were four entrances, with one currently having been opened. The remaining three were currently unusable.
The Vale was merely a valley forest, spreading over a massive area with the Godtree in its center. In its branches and hollows was enough space to house the valley’s population – a tribe of one hundred thousand souls. Over the last thousand years the tribe had kept stringent restrictions on reproduction, so that the bounty of their land would never be spent.
“Hold on a minute, it’s not like I’m from here. I don’t need to know about all your customs.” Cloudhawk cut Autumn off in the middle of her presentation. He was only interested in things that concerned him. “All I need to know is how to kill your elder.”
“I’m telling you now, if you would stop interrupting me!” She glared at him. This irritating ruffian hadn’t changed at all since she’d last seen him. “There is a forbidden area here – the heart of the Vale, where only our tribal leaders may open and enter.”
“So the elder isn’t in the Godtree. What’s he doing in this forbidden area?”
“Of course it has something to do with us,” Barb interjected. “We have been under attack ever since we entered the Vale. The elder misjudged the strength of our drunken Excellency, so he’s sought a way to have us killed. We’ve been hiding in the forest ever since, and he’s been unable to find us. Obviously worried, he fled to the heart of the Vale because we can’t get in.”
So that was what was going on. The elder was planning to open the Vale and lead his small tribe out into the big bad world beyond.
But if the village leaders had the power to open the passages, then they certainly had the ability to close them too. Should the passages be shut then all of this wicked elder’s efforts would be wasted.
In order to prevent Autumn from doing this, he’d shut himself away in the heart of the Vale where everything was under his control. If he held that position Autumn would have no opportunity to foil his plans. What’s more, this forbidden place was the safest and most secret part of the Vale. Without question, that was where the elder was holding negotiations with Adder.
“Is there anything special about the forbidden area that I should know about?”
Autumn nodded her head. “Yes, it is the sacred resting place of our patron god, the Shepherdess. A legend among our people states that the mausoleum holds our land’s greatest secret. However, no one has ever been able to solve this riddle. For many long years the elder has tried, and I suspect he will use the presence of his powerful foreign friends to his advantage.”
This took Cloudhawk by surprise. “Your god is buried here?”
He’d never met a god. He’d met a demon, and through it learned how cunning and powerful they could be. However, gods and demons were still mostly an enigma to him.
Especially gods. He didn’t even know what they looked like, much less how they lived and died. About all he knew about them was that they were a race of tremendous creative power.
From Skycloud’s miraculous vistas to Woodland Vale’s vibrant tracts of green, it was clear to him that the gods possessed amazing originative abilities. Now to learn that the lauded Shepherdess of Autumn’s people was actually buried here – how could Cloudhawk not be surprised and a little curious?
He had to ask, “Can you actually see the god’s corpse in the forbidden place?”
“What are you talking about?!” Autumn adopted a piously incredulous expression, thoroughly displeased with Cloudhawk’s question. There was also a hint of anger. “Our illustrious Shepherdess used up all her energy, and it is in the mausoleum that she took their final rest. The Shepherdess is our master, and we her progeny. I will not tolerate such disrespect.”
Neither the old drunk nor Gabby chose to get involved in the confrontation. Barb was listening intently, however, and was just as stunned that a god could die. And supposedly one was interred right here.
“Whatever,” Cloudhawk merely shrugged. “We need to get down to business anyway.”
There were many questions that remained, though. What was a god’s existence like? Why would one betray their own kind? What was Shepherd Goddess’ purpose in building this place? What was this ‘thousand-year secret’ that supposedly was hidden in the heart of the Vale? What was so important to protect that a god would spend all their life energy? Or was it to hide something?
Cloudhawk’s curiosity was burning, especially when it came to the particulars of this fallen god. If he got the opportunity, he’d very much like to open Shepherdess’ tomb and at least see what a god looked like.
Of course he wouldn’t dare say such things out loud. With a zealot like Autumn within earshot he feared for his safety.
Anyway, more pressing were the hundreds of dragons hiding among the trees and mausoleum. Getting close to either was going to subject them to attack. Autumn had a way to get them into the mausoleum, but not into the Godtree.
Cloudhawk was secretly glad he hadn’t rushed over here at the beginning, otherwise he’d already be overrun by these damn dragon things. Already the situation was pretty intractable; the elder and Adder were locked away in the forbidden area of the Vale. With Cloudhawk’s current strength, he would only be able to get himself and Autumn passed the dragons to enter the mausoleum.
But he couldn’t handle Adder, not by himself.
They were pondering their next move when a sound wafted toward them from the forest. It sounded like someone trying to quietly approach.
Cloudhawk spun around, Basilisk raised, string drawn.
With the voice a figure emerged from the foliage. She was a blonde woman, on the tall side, with hundreds of metal shards wafting on the wind around her. Cloudhawk didn’t need to look close to recognize the relic and its bearer. Claudia.
She was leading two young woman. The first was petite and quite fetching with her curly hair. She followed in Claudia’s footsteps shyly. The other stood proudly as she stomped through the underbrush, with a personality as fiery as her short red hair.
Gabriel welcomed Claudia with a smile. “It’s been a while.”
“Not so long.” For better or worse Claudia and these two men had a history. With their shared experience in Hell’s Valley she was at least cordial. “I heard sounds of fighting. I guess it was you.”
Barb recognized Claudia as a fellow demonhunter and introduced herself. “I am Barb, a member of the League. His Excellency right here is-“
Cloudhawk loudly coughed, cutting her off. Barb got the hint. If the old drunk’s identity got out it was only going to cause more drama. Since there was no reason to burden these two young women with the old man’s troubling story, better just to keep it quiet. The drunkard just smiled at them, unperturbed by the sudden and obvious silence.
Rei, upon seeing so many people together, felt her anxiety wash away. This whole place was uncomfortable for a girl who’d never before set foot outside of Skycloud. While she was lauded during her time in university, those tests were about theory and mental acuity. In a real fight she was the weakest link so far.
Her sergeant, Claudia, was a tried and true demonhunter, but the enemies they’d faced so far were very strong. Hell’s Army and the other wastelanders that had attacked them put real fear in Rei, and only now that she was back with Cloudhawk did she start to feel safe again.
Cloudhawk was… a strange man. His name bore a dark smear back in Skycloud, and almost every mention of him was laden with curses and ill-wishes. ‘Cloudhawk’ had come to be synonymous with scum.
Claudia had also looked at him disdainfully at the beginning. But after the fight on the Condor, and in the canyon, everyone’s opinion of the Warden had changed. He took such care of the little girl, taking her everywhere with him. How could such a person be called ‘scum’?
Her senior demonhunter was surprisingly strong, quick, and experienced in a fight. Those were qualities you only learned after looking death in the face several times and coming out the other side. He had more ability in his little finger than people like her, fresh out of university.
“Greetings, seniors. My name is Belinda.”
Belinda took the initiative, stepping forward and introducing herself to the others. Cloudhawk, Gabriel, even Barb, they were all senior members compared to her. She ignored the ordinary-looking old drunk and the pretty girl in the green dress.
Cloudhawk fixed her with an expression of ridicule. “I seem to remember pretty recently you threatened to have me court-martialed. Now all of a sudden you come to your senses.”
Belinda’s cheeks reddened from the shame. Who was she to make such a threat? As the first in her class at university, Belinda was understandably cocky. But recent events had shown her pretty quick how insignificant she was in the grand scheme. In a real fight she wasn’t worth much.
Cloudhawk never made any attempt to explain his bad reputation or change their minds. To him, fame and respect didn’t matter. But how could someone who reputedly had no sense of honor become Warden of a military unit? How could such a person repeatedly sacrifice his own safety for his men and mission?
He was a contradiction. Belinda didn’t know how to deal with him.
“You showed up just in time. We need help.”
Cloudhawk quickly explained the situation to them, to which they were understandably shocked. None of them could have guessed there was an actual god buried somewhere in this place.
But it was more than just that alone.
Elysians were pious people, the same as Valites. The only difference was that the people here followed a rebel god.
It was a staggering blow to what the Elysians knew of the world. To them, the word ‘god’ was equivalent to ‘perfect’. Their bounty was given freely to the faithful, and they asked for nothing in return. Only, now they were confronted with the possibility that even the gods could be in conflict. If that were true, what did it mean for them? The possibilities confused and frightened them.
Claudia and her two squad mates weren’t strong enough support for what they needed to do. Cloudhawk needed to gather more people.
No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than Crain and Tigron Sutherland walked into their small clearing. They were dragging a body drenched in blood, and gravely wounded. “Rei, we need help!”
Rei fumbled with a delicate crystal bracelet as she slipped it onto her wrist. The jewelry was capped with a hexahedron-shaped gemstone which sparkled with internal power. When that light fell upon the open wounds, they began to heal before everyone’s eyes.
Cloudhawk was taken aback by the power. “This…”
Claudia explained. “The Benediction Cuff. Rei has a rare life-energy talent, giving her the ability to use curative relics like this. As you can tell, she’s very effective.”
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