Teleportation took only a moment. In a blink, Cloudhawk and his two companions appeared near a cave opening.
The room they found themselves in was peppered with stalactites and pillars of mica. Several men in black were interspersed through the area. In the center was an altar woven from roots upon which sat an uncut gemstone. Light from it shimmered through the cavern.
Cloudhawk gazed into the large crystal. He was transfixed, for the longer he looked the more it seemed like there was actually something inside of it. A dark, vaguely humanoid shape.
His eyes went wide. Was this Shepherd’s body? Was this one of the legendary and elusive gods?
A thick and powerful aura inundated the chamber, emanating from the body. The call Cloudhawk felt was definitely coming from this crystal coffin, though he couldn’t understand why or from what specifically. Since the crystal was opaque, he couldn’t see clearly was lay inside.
More concerning, however, was the coterie of red-clad men who were clustered around the crystal coffin. Priests from the Conclave were pooling their mental power, focusing it on the god’s body. The crystal around it seethed with a faint blue mist and shrunk by minute degrees.
They were trying to thaw it out, to get at the body. Cloudhawk could hardly believe it. Those were the remains of a god who created this place! Did this bastards have nothing better to do than desecrate tombs? Was the wealth of power and resources here not enough for them?
Cloudhawk looked around at the others in the chamber. What he saw made his breath quicken.
Several familiar faces he recognized right away.
The first was unmistakable; a large, black cloak, close-cropped black hair and scars along the corner of his eye. Adder – the man who’d cast the world into chaos.
He was flanked by two others.
One was a woman in a black robe, bearing a longsword. Her long, raven-black hair hung passed her shoulders. Revenant was absent the mask that usually hid her features, thus revealing her pretty face. Adder’s right-hand woman stood close to his side and watched the proceedings.
The other was a younger girl – maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. In contrast to the stern expressions of the others, her face was delicate and endearing. Her flaxen hair fell down her back in gentle waves, and she watched the ritual with wide innocent eyes. Her frail body shuffled from side to side, so frail and innocent that one couldn’t help but have the urge to protect her – like some rare and delicate flower. Luciasha.
Cloudhawk’s jaw was clenched so tight he feared his teeth might crack.
This bastard… trouble was all around them. Didn’t he know that Skycloud could flood this place with their deadliest warriors at any moment? Cloudhawk half suspected the leader of the Court of Shadows, Janus, to be skulking the shadows at any moment. So what the fuck was he doing bringing Asha here? She was helpless! Was he trying to get her killed?
He swallowed the rage that threatened to boil up from inside. Putting them out of mind for a moment, Cloudhawk turned his attention to an exceedingly old man who was with them. His green robes were similar in make and style to Autumn’s, and he carried with him a gnarled walking stick. His wrinkled features were kindly and sincere, his hair snowy white, but the lines between his brows were deep as though he were prone to frowning. It made him look more frail and human.
“That’s the elder.”
When she saw him Autumn’s fists curled tight. Cloudhawk could hear her teeth grinding, and she had good reason – the old man had brought outsiders to the heart of their patron god’s tomb, and was using the power here to wrest control of Woodland Vale. His actions were egregious, unforgivable sins.
But the most terrible affront of all was that he merely stood by and watched as these foreigners desecrated the Shepherd’s body! She could hardly suffer watching another moment. The fury she felt was intense, watching this old man she once respected throw away everything they stood for.
Cloudhawk saw her body quiver and raised a hand, warning her to keep silent. They had to get a read on the situation before making a move.
Adder stood among them with his arms crossed before his chest. His eyes were fixed on the altar. “At this rate the seal will be removed soon. But if you will allow me my curiosity… why are you interested in this?”
The elderly man began his response with a gentle cough. “I found a stone tablet here in the mausoleum – a remnant from when the Shepherd created the Vale a thousand years ago. Written upon it was a prophecy, speaking of untold secrets. The Shepherd must have had more than the flute and the dragon king to aid him. She must have had a greater treasure, but in all my years of searching this tomb I’ve never found it. The only possibility is that it is interred in there, with Shepherd’s body.”
“And you’re willing to take a risk like this, for a treasure no one’s ever seen and that may not even exist? If word got out to your people that you’re digging up their dog, they wouldn’t accept any reason you gave.”
“You don’t understand how important this item is,” the old man replied in a frail voice. “I don’t need to explain anything to my people, nor will I. Everything I do, I do for the benefit of Woodland Vale.”
He wasn’t foolish enough to reveal everything. The prophecy he’d discovered spoke of this strange item, stating clearly that it would resurface in a thousand years’ time. It was said that whoever held this treasure would possess the strength to contend against the gods themselves. They would become a champion, capable of breaking humanity free of the godly and demonic shackles that bound them.
Was that single sentence not enough to prove the treasure’s worth? The elder was convinced this was fate! And it destiny called for it, then his actions could not be blasphemous. Shepherd left this prediction a thousand years ago, surely He knew someone would come and do exactly what they were doing.
Over the years the elder had witnessed much, and as time went on he grew more convinced that this was his destiny. Only he was equipped to lead his people from Woodland Vale, to free them so that the tribe could determine its own future. It was his fate to allow the people of the Vale to realize their bright future. That would be the great gift he would provide for them.
A thousand years they’d been locked in this valley. Now it was time to reveal themselves to the world!
Adder knew the old man was holding back, but he knew now wasn’t the time to press him on it. “We’ve fulfilled our promise to help you break the seal on this tomb. Now it’s time to uphold your end of the bargain, yes?”
“Naturally. I would never go back on an agreement.” He pulled package of dried herbs from his robes. They looked like a collection of mushrooms, only they were strangely crystalline and translucent. A glance was all it took to recognize that these herbs were special. “This is the miracle herb gifted to us by the great Shepherd. Take it as an expression of my sincere thanks. When this item is in my possession, and my people are free, we will gladly join the Conclave in its endeavors.”
Adder’s expression showed that he was pleased. His mission was complete, these herbs could help cure his father and return him to his former glory.
During their discussion more of the crystalline block had melted away. If they kept up the pace, whatever was inside the crystal would soon be revealed.
Victory was within their grasp.
But Adder suddenly felt something, a premonition. When he looked around he discovered that a large number of the warriors he’d brought with him had conspicuously gone missing.
His eyes flashed with a brief, brutal light. Almost as though by habit he began to thumb his ring, which in turn started to glow. All at once the chamber was thick with murderous intent.
Revenant and the remaining soldiers reached for their weapons. The elder and the pair of men he’d brought him with looked around nervously.
How was that possible? The elder knew how dangerous the mausoleum was for invaders.
Whoever they were, they would need to get passed the Dryads, Adder’s own guards and the Shepherd’s divine beast. Only Skycloud’s strongest would be able to pull off such a feat, and they couldn’t have gotten here that fast. Besides, the only one who could open the mausoleum was Autumn, and from what the elder knew of her personality she wouldn’t trust opening this place to Elysians.
Adder called out, unperturbed by the change in circumstance. “We know you’re here. Come out.”
A figure emerged from the shadows. Average build, unassuming, and wrapped in a tattered gray cloak. Beneath its deep hood was an unsettling ghost face. Nothing of the form beneath the cloak and mask could be seen, making it impossible to determine age or gender.
Of course Adder didn’t need to see a face. His lips curled into a grin. “I knew it was you.” Cloudhawk was the only person Autumn would trust, and Cloudhawk was one of the few people he knew who could slip past their many defenses.
“Cloudhawk? What are you doing here?” Luciasha looked around at the others, with their swords and bows drawn. Worry and confusion soiled her pretty face, frightened that the two sides would come to blows. Behind the mask, Cloudhawk frowned when he saw her. He figured Adder brought her here as a human shield.
The elder looked at this man who had slipped unseen an unheard into their midst. He was calm as well, and did not react to the dangerous atmosphere. All he needed was time, victory was certain once they got into Shepherd’s tomb.
Adder fixed Cloudhawk with a cold stare. “You chose the wrong path. But there’s still time to change your mind – join us.”
“Please, I’m begging you not to fight my father.” Luciasha stared pleadingly at the emotionless ghost face. “I-I’ve been traveling with him. I know what he’s done has affected many people. It was a great gift to the people of the wastelands! Wastelanders like us. You should be with your people, and fight for your own side, shouldn’t you?”
Luciasha had seen the destruction of Skycloud’s walls with her own eyes. She’d watched as the power they’d hoarded for a thousand years was released, swallowed up by the wastes like a man who’d been dying of dehydration. She was a wastelander, through and through. Luciasha had never been to Skycloud, and knew so little of the world at large. All she knew was that her foster father’s actions had helped people like her.
He was saving the wastelands. He was changing the world. It was a great and noble pursuit.
Cloudhawk remained still, unmoved by her pleas. When he spoke his voice was flat. “If what he did really was for the wastelands, then he wouldn’t have started this war. Odds are the expeditionary force wins – and behind it is the rest of Skycloud’s power. He’s a rat, bearing its fang at an oncoming car. Wastelanders will die because of his ambition. I’m not going to stand by and watch that happen.”
Cloudhawk acknowledged that the wastelands had power, but for all its strength it couldn’t contend with Skycloud.
Run, hide. That was what they should do. Far beyond the reach of General Skye and his armies, where they could gather. The Crimson One and his lackeys were zealots. They were dreaming if they thought they could win.
Once the war started it would last for ages. Years of death and destruction would follow. Cloudhawk wasn’t like the Crimson One or Adder, wrapping themselves in this perverse delusion of grandeur to save humanity. His aims were shallow – save the millions of lives that would be lost if these psychopaths got their righteous war.
Adder responded. “Win or lose, someone has to do it. No?”
Cloudhawk narrowed his eyes. “There’s nothing else for us to say to each other.”
Adder agreed. He sighed. This is what it had come to. An inevitability. His arm snapped up, and a beam of searing light screamed from his ring toward Cloudhawk.
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