Book 4, Chapter 37 - Shepherd's Descent

There wasn’t an inch of ground beneath Cloudhawk’s feet that wasn’t drenched in blood. He bent over and picked up a cracked, blood-soaked crystal. The only thing left of Adder.

What in incredible relic! But Cloudhawk had no intention of taking it as a trophy. Whatever else could be said of Adder, he was an honorable opponent and a man worthy of respect. There was no love lost between the two men, but he had made a promise. Promises had to be kept.

The red-robed clerics who had accompanied Adder here stared in shock and fury. They couldn’t believe that some no-name grunt had defeated Adder.

“This… abomination! He killed Adder!”

Incensed, the priests forgot completely about the seal. To them Adder had been an incomparable hero, their patron. More than just the Crimson One’s son, he had been the architect of the Conclave’s greatest success. 

Slain, before their eyes. An unmitigated disaster! How could they suffer this in silence? How could they allow his killer to continue breathing?

The elder’s face fell. He stared wildly at the crystal atop the altar, full of cracks and beams of light. But they weren’t through!

So many days of struggle. They’d been so close to success! But because of him they were stopped here, on the cusp of victory. Unlike the others he didn’t care that Adder was dead, only that his mission was still unfinished.

Cloudhawk frowned. Although the ten or so priests weren’t strong, Cloudhawk was weak after a long series of conflicts. He was outnumbered, and dealing with them would not be easy. They were gathering themselves to attack when suddenly everyone was thrown off their feet.

The cavern shook and a sound like a bomb blast made everyone cover their ears.

An eruption of force burst from the crystal seal, causing it to explode open. Shards of it rained down all through the chamber.

Finally Cloudhawk could see what was inside the crystal. It was a set of pitch-black armor. [1] 

It wasn’t any sort of armor made by humans, either. It was dermifuse armor.

What was dermifuse? Very old tomes spoke about armor that melded with the wearer’s flesh. Once worn, it essentially became a part of the bearer.

Light.

Intense, blinding light. Every corner of the chamber was illuminated.

A column of incomprehensibly powerful energy fired toward the ceiling!

Anyone – even a normal person – could feel the psionic pulse as it ripped through the area. Like an expansive consciousness it spread around them before coalescing into a radiant humanoid figure.

“At last… I have awakened.”

The voice was low and possessed of a strange gravity. The humans watched in quiet anxiety as the figure of light arose. 

It raised a hand toward the body laying nearby as though drawn to it. The corpse slowly rose.

It stepped forward. The radiant figure approached the body until they were side by side, and then the corpse vanished into the column of light. 

The process instigated another rush of energy, and those that were caught off guard were once more knocked off their feet. Cloudhawk watched it all happen with wide eyes. He had no idea what was happening, but he knew that this figure of light was one of the most powerful entities he’d ever encountered.

Was this… the Shepherd? The goddess from a thousand years ago? But that wasn’t what struck Cloudhawk most.

What took his breath away was the body this beam of light had chosen was Autumn’s. The young woman’s corpse was bathed in that resplendent light like a shining cocoon. Something mystical and mysterious was happening, but he couldn’t say what.

Ten seconds passed. Afterwards a pair of slender, pale feet descended to rest upon the ground.

Autumn, dead not but a few minutes, stood before them encased in a divine glow. When she opened her eyes again, they weren’t the gentle green he remembered, but had become dual points of light.

An undeniable stateliness poured off of her, a sort of supreme presence like true royalty. The unmistakable urge to obey hung heavy in the hearts in all who stood near.

The face belonged to a young beautiful woman. But that innocence and purity that had defined Autumn was gone. The figure that she had become was a being with lifetimes of experiences. An unfamiliar voice murmured through Autumn’s lips. “That old devil Legion didn’t lie to me after all...”

The wound that had taken Autumn’s life was gone, completely healed. Cloudhawk looked at where the hole had been, but not even a scar remained. In fact her porcelain skin looked like it was carved from milky jade and glowed with an internal light. It was all so surreal.

Only a highly mutated creature with regenerative capabilities could have survived that wound, and Autumn was no such thing! No, Autumn was dead – killed by Adder. But how could a dead woman come back to life?

The light from her eyes was gradually restrained, as well as the radiant glow that encased her. Eventually it was gone entirely, and there was no visible difference between the Autumn that was and the one who stood before them now. She looked toward Cloudhawk, or more specifically the stone he still clutched tightly in his hand.

Such unfamiliar eyes… 

Whatever was in Autumn’s body wasn’t her. This was an entity he’d never met before, and stronger than anyone he’d ever encountered.

The priests looked back and forth among one another, stunned by the scene. None of them had ever seen nor heard anything like this. For the moment they weren’t sure what to do.

“Let’s go!”

One of them, perhaps the leader, called for their retreat. They turned to flee when suddenly the ground all around them began to crack.

A host of vines, as fast and as agile as serpents shot forth leaving the men in red no chance to escape. They were immediately swallowed up, and stabbing vines wound their bodies over and over until little was left. Anguished cries rang off the stone walls but were quickly silenced.

Autumn put those men down as easily as swatting a fly. Her attention then shifted to the altar, and she floated toward it. The elder still stood nearby with his eyes so wide they threatened to roll out of his head. Without a second thought he threw himself to the ground, prostrating himself before Autumn and cried out in a trembling voice. “M-my Lord Shepherd!”

Autumn swept her hand out, fingers pressed together like a blade. The elder’s head was unceremoniously removed from his body and rolled off into a corner.

It came to rest, staring at his corpse as it slumped onto the ground with wide, unbelieving eyes.

Autumn had slain everyone, and with as much effort as it took to lift a hand. Once again her attentions returned to Cloudhawk. “You are the chosen successor?”

His eyes were fixed on the girl he’d watched die a moment ago, but who now commanded a level of power that frightened him. “Who are you?”

“I was once one of the six Supremes, attendants to the God King. My true name was Silvana – mistress of the steppes and forests – but the people of the Vale took to calling me the Shepherd Goddess. Now I suppose my name is... Autumn. And I am the leader of this tribe.” Autumn’s impassive face took on an expression of impatience. Her fingers twitched ever so slightly, like she was holding something back. “Take what belongs to you and go, now. Before I kill you where you stand.”

Cloudhawk was at a loss. “I don’t understand.”

Her pretty brows furrowed. “I have stood watch over the Demon King’s Cuirass [2] for a thousand years. I have fulfilled my promise, and now that responsibility falls to the successor.”

Demon King’s Cuirass? Successor!? Cloudhawk’s eyes turned to the armor suspended above the altar. Now able to see it more clearly his first impression was that it reminded him of the Caliph’s armor-like skin. Was this some kind of demonic gear?

Demon King… judging by the name he would have to be the antithesis of the God King which Autumn mentioned. Finally, Cloudhawk understood who the phase stone’s former master really was. 

He had come to possess the will of the Demon King, killed a thousand years ago during the Great War! That was his benefactor!

Cloudhawk’s uncertainty must have shown on his face, for Autumn then said, “You know nothing about this?”

He nodded. “I came across this stone by accident. I had no idea who it belonged to.”

“Impossible… there must be some mistake.” Autumn frowned in thought for a time, but after a thousand years of sleep she found many holes in her memories. She couldn’t call to mind what she was looking for. In the end, she waved a hand dismissively. “What happens to demons like you is no concern of mine. Take it and go, the cuirass no longer has a place here.”

Cloudhawk had never questioned the inheritance he’d stumbled on. But now that he knew he had come to possess what remained of a demon king he had grown wary. The only demon he knew was Abaddon, and that monster was strong enough to fight ten veteran demonhunters by himself. As far as Cloudhawk knew, he wasn’t any sort of Demon Elder, either. Given how powerful Abaddon was, what did that imply about the Demon King? Cloudhawk simply didn’t dare to imagine such power. “What happens when I put it on?”

Her response maintained that dispassionate tone. “You will continue to receive his inheritance. From the moment you put it on, you will become the next Demon King. The title affords you the right and responsibility to command your kin. Of course, the gods upon Sumeru will not sit idly by once the birth of the new Demon King is felt.”

The implications of what she said were dizzying. Once he accepted the final item of inheritance, Cloudhawk would be… the Demon King? Never in his wildest dreams would he have thought something like this would fall on his shoulders. Demons were such mysterious beings, and now he was inexorably tied to them.

It was especially strange to hear these words from Autumn’s lips. But this Autumn wasn’t the one he teased so incessantly. This one was a god. And that being the case, what was she doing watching over a demonic artifact? Why would she do nothing when a new Demon King was on the cusp of ascending? There were too many questions Cloudhawk didn’t have the answers to!

He slowly shook his head. “I can’t take this armor!”

Autumn’s eyes glimmered with internal power. “The power of the Demon King does not entice you?”

Entice my ass! He fought the temptation to string together a few choice curses. It was a terrifying prospect! He was just a guy, trying to find some peace. Becoming a Master Demonhunter was already a ludicrous dream, and now he was being told to put on some rusty armor and become a king.

How was anyone supposed to react? It was like a beggar on the street wandering into a palace, only for someone to rush up and stuff a crown on his head and proclaim him master of the realm.

“I don’t know anything about being successor to a Demon King,” Cloudhawk said. “I don’t have anything to do with demons. I won’t accept this armor.”

Autumn fixed her eyes on Cloudhawk for a long time with a look of suspicion. The demons had chosen a human to be their king? That didn’t make any sense…

Autumn, or at least the god she had become, didn’t know what had gone wrong. But she didn’t care whether this human would be the new Demon King or not. It was a problem for the demons to trouble themselves with. It made no difference to her if those fiends had no king.

Cloudhawk hesitated for a moment. “Autumn – I mean, the Autumn I knew… Is she still… there?”

There was another jarring explosion in the distance. 

He suddenly remembered that the old drunk and Gabriel were still at war with the Dryad and the dragon king. Their respective battles had to be nearing their end, too.

 


1. Hmm… godly relic, armor. My first thought goes the Demon King’s Cuirass, but it was reported to have been destroyed…

2. Ding-ding-ding-ding!

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Xiao Lai's Thoughts

So two names here that need explaining.  Silvana was 牧灵, literally the 'shepherding spirit'.  We chose Silvana, which is the female equivalent of Silvanus, the Roman god of the woods and fields.  As for 'Legion', the name in Chinese was 无寂 - literally, 'not alone' or 'not silent'.  For specific reasons, we chose 'Legion' to invoke the imagery of the Judeo-Christian demon (or host of demons) of the same name.