Autumn lay on the ground, weak from her terrible injury. The fist-sized hole had been completely cauterized by Adder’s searing beam. She would not be rising again, even if Rei were here to help her.
Pain was reflected in her big eyes. They were fixed on Cloudhawk as she feebly gripped his hand. “I… don’t want to die.”
Cloudhawk wanted to tell her to take it easy, that her wounds were not serious. Only the words caught in his throat. He couldn’t make the lie believable.
Of course she knew what was happening. This sort of wound, for someone as frail as her… were it Cloudhawk in her place even he would be in danger of dying.
He could sense the life draining from her at an alarming rate. He half-lifted her and supported her body against his, still holding tight to her hand and said, “Don’t be afraid. Just… endure. It’ll be over soon, then everything will be alright.”
He saw the sorrow and loneliness take over her pretty face. Two clear, crystal tears rolled down her cheeks.
Her voice was barely audible. “I’m… I’m useless, aren’t I?”
He held her hand tighter. “If not for you Adder would have killed me. You saved my life, how can you say you’re useless? I’m the one who’s useless.”
Cloudhawk’s words gave her a little relief and the anguish in her face abated. She’d always felt like a burden, but at least she did something helpful before she died.
Autumn’s time was fleeting. Cloudhawk was waiting for her to tell him what to do with her people, how to explain things. He would do anything she requested, but when her tiny voice called out to him with her final request, it took him by surprise.
“Let me see your face?”
After a moment of hesitation he raised his hand and took off the mask, revealing his youthful and handsome face to her. For a few moments she just took it in, noting the absence of his trademark coquettish smirk. He looked so solemn and… guilty.
This is the real Cloudhawk, then. With pain and sadness in her gaze, Autumn breathed a low sigh. It was like she was releasing some kind of burden. Her words were heavy with wry disbelief. “This last month has been hard, but it left me with many precious memories… Are we friends?”
“What’s this nonsense you are spewing? We always have been.” It was undeniable that Cloudhawk liked to terrorize the girl. At times it’d been so brutal it was surprising that they were anything but enemies. But it wasn’t because he hated her, in fact he liked her. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have bothered dealing with her at all.
Cloudhawk had met many extraordinary women in his life. Brilliant Hellflower, beautiful and stubborn Selene, pure and innocent Luciasha, powerful and righteous Dawn… they all had their own unique charm.
But Hellflower was too complicated. Selene was too high-brow. He looked at Luciasha like a sister, and Dawn treated him like a brother.
Autumn… she came from a fairy land that had never been corrupted by the outside world. She was anxious, sentimental, kind, honest, and dutiful. Autumn was different from all the others, never pursuing wealth or power. All she cared about was the peace and happiness of her tribe.
Her life was supposed to be free of cares and worries, a beautiful spirit flitting among the boughs of her holy tree. Why did fate rob her of that? Why did destiny choose to throw her into this mess and cut her life short in this dank cavern?
The pain and fear had drained from Autumn’s face, along with all her color. She was calm, serene. In her final moments the regret and self-pity were gone, because she realized that she’d helped. She didn’t hate this man, not anymore.
Even as her vision dimmed and figures grew blurry, a bright light appeared before her. Silhouette emerged among the glare, walking toward her; it was her mother, her father, and Brier. They had smiles on their faces and were beckoning toward her.
Cloudhawk wrapped the dying girl in a warm embrace and spoke softly into her ear. “I’m sorry, Autumn.”
“Cloudhawk, i-it’s time… Don’t… make sure you live… free…”
Autumn trembled ever so slightly and then her whole body relaxed. Her eyes slipped shut.
Seventeen. She’d just turned seventeen.
Cloudhawk was shaken from his reveries when the whole cavern quaked. Something was stirring on the altar. It was an old consciousness, from a time before history; majestic, grand, sacred and otherworldly.
Autumn is… dead? Then our biggest obstacle has been removed. The elder looked back at the rapidly melting seal.
Cracks were starting to appear over the crystal’s surface, and light poured from each one as though something was trying to burst free.
The seal. They were almost through! The elder felt his heart race.
But he also felt his soul tremble.
Whatever remained inside the seal was releasing an aura that was as crushing as a mountain.
Cloudhawk gently lay Autumn on the cold ground. She looked so peaceful that but for the terrible wound, like she might’ve been sleeping. He slowly rose as though he were afraid to wake her.
With slow, deliberate motions he straightened and slipped the mask back over his face.
There was no grief or regret on that ghostly visage. It was emotionless, but the eyes that burned behind it were bloodshot. It felt like a stampede of rabid animals were charging through Cloudhawk’s chest, and their bloodthirsty calls were getting louder.
A terrible, mindless desire to destroy filled his mind. A need to annihilate anything and everything around him.
By now Adder had also risen back to his feet. He glanced at the body of Autumn. “I didn’t want to, but she had to die.”
For a moment both men forget space, forgot time. They stood a hundred meters apart from one another, staring. Even from this distance they could see in each other’s eyes. It was the same; a wild, frantic look that promised murder.
Nothing was going to make either man back down. This was their fate, a conflict that was preordained. Only one of them would live to walk out of this cavern.
Cloudhawk’s red eyes never strayed from Adder’s face. The fire burning behind them was almost palpable. “Any other last words?”
There was no anger in Adder’s voice, and he spoke like he was speaking with an old friend. “If I die here, please make sure my remains are given to Revenant and Luciasha. They’ve both lived a hard life.”
Cloudhawk slowly nodded. “Alright.”
“You?” Adder asked.
After a moment of consideration he answered. “If I die I don’t want to be buried. I want no tomb or headstone. Burn me, and scatter my ashes across the wastes from a mountain peak.”
Adder’s eyes gleamed for a moment. Though a seed may be cast far from its source, in the end it still grows into the same tree. Everything returns to its origins, as it should. And even in death this young man wanted the wind to carry him to freedom. Admirable.
No more talk. Everything had been said.
Adder was in a bad way. His hand was missing, several bones were broken and a number of internal organs had been effected. More importantly, his mental energies were spent. The odds of survival were stacked against him.
But it didn’t matter.
His face might as well have been carved out of marble, but a grin touched the edges of his stoic façade. In his one remaining hand he held a translucent crystal. “Let’s end this now.”
Behind Cloudhawk’s eyes was a look that only be described as that of a barely restrained animal, but his mind was sharp as ever. With his keen vision he didn’t see an ounce of hesitation in his foe’s bearing.
Adder was an animal, too. And a beast was most dangerous when injured and cornered.
“So be it!”
Cloudhawk wrenched the phase stone from around his neck and gripped it tight.
Blood trickled continuously from Adder’s mouth and half his body was dyed red from his injuries. Ignoring the agonizing pain from his ruined organs, he clenched his fist around the Mirror Crystal and raised his hand.
Faint cracks had appeared upon the surface of this rare and powerful relic.
At first glance it seemed like some overwhelming force would cause it to shatter, but all of the tremendous power was quickly absorbed by Adder’s body. In an incredible display, nearly all of his spent energy was restored.
Incredible… Adder still had tricks up his sleeves!
The power he absorbed with the inner essence of the mirror relic. While it could quickly replenish Adder’s psychic energies, it was also intensely damaging to the relic itself. The cracks that appeared on it were because of this.
But with Adder’s mental prowess restored, did Cloudhawk stand a chance?
It was beyond the point of second guesses. Cloudhawk tightly held on to his phase stone, every muscle in his body taught as a bowstring. He threw himself at Adder with abandon.
The mirror crystal was filled with cracks. Adder screamed with fury as once again a crossblade flared to life in his hand.
Its dazzling glare filled the cavern like a cosmic deluge. The ceiling cracked, the stony floor buckled. Everything was devoured by this outpouring of force.
Cloudhawk didn’t let the frightful display dissuade him. He knew in his bones that any hesitation would spell his demise. He put all of his heart and mind into destroying the man in front of him.
Fury, sorrow, pain. A tempest of emotions seethed in his heart and he used them to make himself stronger.
He didn’t want to die here. Like Adder said, he wanted to die on his own terms, not in the darkness beneath some fucking tree.
Cloudhawk shouted the order, and a streak of silver lightning burst from his sleeve. It collided with the Adder’s sword, cutting it down the middle for several meters. But Adder had put all of his strength behind this blow. It wasn’t enough to get through.
Cloudhawk forged ahead regardless.
Somewhere in the back of his mind he remembered the face of the old man who found him. In a flash, everything that’d happened in the past four years flitted across his mind’s eye. Despite all that time, he still hadn’t found his place in the world. He couldn’t die until he did.
The phase stone pulsed with blinding light.
For a moment it felt like his battle with the Caliph of the Sands. Indescribable power flooded every cell, threatening to burst.
Just as that streak of silver he summoned was about to collapse, it burned with a renewed and empowered fervor.
With that Adder’s sword of light was obliterated. Its residual energy hung in the air like a hundred million fireflies. But the streak of silver prevailed, screaming toward its prey with indomitable momentum.
For the second time Cloudhawk watched his attack run Adder through. Only this time, the once-lauded darling of the Cloude family was blown into countless pieces. His remains coated everything, turning the chamber into a grotesque and horrifying scene.
In the instant before his destruction, Adder felt like he was floating in nothing. His mind was blank; he didn’t think about losing, nor did he death’s embrace. The only thing going through his mind in that last instant was a moment frozen in time, like an old picture. The whole family was together – Sterling, Baldur, Arcturus. His young cousin Selene was there too, vivacious and care free. The two of them were laughing like there was nothing in the world to worry about. It was an old memory he hadn’t enjoyed for a long, long time.
The picture came alive and Selene blinked her pretty eyes up at him. “Zephyr? I’m so tired of training all day. Will you play on the swing with me?”
“Sure. Let’s go.”
Handsome and gentle, Zephyr reached out his hand toward her with a smile. Selene took it, and the two happily walked off into the distance to play.
Zephyr, among the most outstanding people Skycloud had ever produced. Sterling Cloude’s only son. An incredible man who gave his life for the Sanctum of Judgment, who on his own started a war.
Dead, at the hands of Skycloud’s new Warden.
The world would no longer feel Adder’s influence.
He was only twenty-six. 
1. I had thought he’d been described before as middle-aged, but when I look to find it I couldn’t see a reference. I’m sure you readers will comb through the chapters and find out. At any rate, twenty-six probably is middle-aged in the wastelands. Anyhow, in honor of Zephyr’s demise here is where we first met the man who would single-handedly change the course of human history. An odd feeling to look back, knowing now would was to come.
RIP the anarchist...