Skycloud was in a state of upheaval. The wastelands had also begun to change. Its barren expanse was showing signs of life, and from time to time rainstorms would sprinkle the long-parched soil. Sprouts of green began to peak from dirt for the first time in centuries.
Two hundred kilometers to the west of Woodland Vale was a small settlement nestled among the valleys at the foot of a mountain range. It would have gone unnoticed if not for Oddball’s high vantage and sharp eyes.
Cloudhawk and Azura trudged through the simple pathways to a humble inn.
Oddball alighted on his shoulder and twittered excitedly, to which Cloudhawk responded by fishing out a small fruit as a reward.
Eboncrys fruit varied in size, from roughly the diameter of a man’s fist to as large as a barrel. Cloudhawk had pinched some from the Vale on their way out. After all, it was what Autumn had promised him. He just took a little more than was agreed upon. As interest.
Considering how much of it grew all over the Godtree what he took wouldn’t be missed. But out in the rest of the wastelands he was sitting on a small fortune.
Oddball hopped around the piece of eboncrys fruit elatedly then threw its pudgy yellow body forward.  Peck peck, peck peck! Tiny, bird-sized bites worked away at the husk of the fruit and a thick ooze began to leak forth. Energy flowed through the viscous stuff in high density. IT was in fact this fluid, when collected and refined, that create ultra pure eboncrys crystals.
Oddball lapped noisily at it as the liquid emerged.
Cloudhawk was saddled with the unavoidable and expensive cost of raising this little thing. He hoped Oddball would grow soon into the sort of divine beast he’d seen in Woodland Vale and the Temple. Would be as strong as Anima or the crystal dragon? Right now the little thing could hardly take care of itself.
Oddball seemed to pick up on Cloudhawk’s displeasure. Lifting it’s pudgy head it let out a series of squawks, turned its back on him, and tucked into the fruit.
Whatever. Cloudhawk thought about the old drunk and where the others could have gone. He guessed it didn’t matter right now, not as much as a nice drink of water.
Their journey across the stirring desert hadn’t been easy. He and Azura had gone through all the water he’d had stored, and in fact he hadn’t had a drop for nearly a week. His little disciple wasn’t going to last much longer at this rate, so water had to be their first priority. Thankfully the climate had started to change, and water was easier to come by. This region had seen some rainfall recently, and a clear river had carved a path down the nearby mountains to run through the settlement. Its bounty was currently controlled and dolled out by the settlement’s leader.
Cloudhawk traded several Elysian weapons for two large canteens.
He was about to bring the water back to Azura when his whole body went stiff. An urgent warning came through the connection between him and Oddball.
Cloudhawk rushed back to the inn they were staying at, inwardly cursing this ill sensation. He pushed open the door to find eboncrys fruit scattered on the ground, but nothing else.
So quick… someone had grabbed Azura?
Oddball was following the offenders, so Cloudhawk let the little bird’s vision guide him. They’d just left and where still nearby.
Who would have the gall, the titanic fucking stones to kidnap one of mine?
Cloudhawk used his phase stone to teleport toward the Azura’s captors.
He flashed into existence before a group clad in black. None of them moved or reacted to his sudden appearance. Their leader was unmasked, revealing a pretty and imposing face. Long black hair hung passed her shoulders. She was beautiful, but there were signs of exhaustion in the lines on her face. In her hand was a long blade pressed against Azura’s face.
All it would take was a jerk of her arm to separate the small girl’s head from her body.
Cloudhawk was floored when he realized who it was. “Asha… is that you?”
When he spoke the words Luciasha pushed out from the crowd. She was thinner than before, and her eyes were strangely void of emotion like she’d lost something. When Cloudhawk looked into those eyes he saw something puzzling and unfamiliar.
He frowned. “The Asha I knew wouldn’t be threatening a young child.”
“And the Cloudhawk I knew wouldn’t murder a good man.” Her attention was fixed on him, with a look that cut Cloudhawk deep. Her voice cracked with emotion. “Where is my foster father?”
She tried to keep a hard facade, but the tone in her voice and the look on her face was pleading. She was clinging to the desperate and unreasonable hope that Adder still lived.
Cloudhawk was quiet for a time. Eventually he sighed. “He’s dead.”
Everyone guessed that had to be the case, but hearing it from his lips struck them like a tidal wave. A man like Adder, killed by someone like Cloudhawk?
Revenant’s eyes were like stagnant pools, but when Adder’s death was confirmed they dimmed even further. Like the last light of hope in her world had gone out. Looking at her, one could almost see that she’d lost her spirit, leaving only a husk behind.
Impossible…. Impossible. He promised, and he never goes back on his word. How could this child have killed him?!
If what he said was true, then she swore to make Cloudhawk suffer whatever the cost. Her hand tightened around the blade, ready to move. Azura’s face was pale as she felt the lethal determination wash over her. She fought back the tears that were gathering at the corner of her eyes, biting her lip so that her whimpers couldn’t escape.
She was just a child, but she knew that right now her teacher was more helpeless than she was.
“Asha, what are you doing!” Cloudhawk’s fists were balled tight but he didn’t move. “This is the child you saved! Are you really going to stand there and watch her be murdered? She’s innocent!”
“What terrible things did my father do?! What right did you have to kill him!” For the first time Cloudhawk heard anger in Luciasha’s voice. It was a depth of fury he never thought he’d hear from such a frail and gentle thing. “You could have just left! Why did you have to kill him?!”
Cloudhawk didn’t know how to explain it to her.
Their fight was ostensibly over the future of Woodland Vale, but really it was about Asha’s safety. Adder had made himself enemy number one to Skycloud. With so many powerful people in Skycloud looking for his head, he was doomed to die sooner rather than later. His fate was sealed the second that bomb went off.
Cloudhawk’s worst fear was that the consequences of his actions would fall on Asha’s shoulders. But would she understand? No, she couldn’t understand.
If Adder’s death ruined the beautiful girl Cloudhawk had saved from Lighthouse Point, then he was the architect of his worst fears. He wouldn’t forgive himself.
“Don’t! I have something Adder wanted me to give to you.”
He fished a small cracked gemstone from his pockets. It was all that was left of Adder, and Cloudhawk had promised to deliver it to Revenant and Asha.
When Revenant saw what it was she froze.
Luciasha stumbled forward in a daze, stretched out her hand, and took it. The moment her fingers touched the cracked surface the relic began to glow.
The gem turned into a mirror. Reflected therein was a figure everyone was familiar with.
He was tall, and stalwart. A heavy cloak was wrapped around his frame, covering everything but his chiseled features. Scars traced a path across one eye. The figure stepped out from the mirror world and into theirs.
Everyone stared in awe.
What was going on? Adder was alive?
Luciasha wanted to throw herself into Adder’s arms and sob, to vent the joy of realizing her loss was imagined. But when she tried to wrap her arms around his body they passed right through. She stumbled through his strong chest and fell to her knees.
Cloudhawk looked at the man and soon realized it wasn’t Adder. The real Adder was dead and gone, smashed to pieces by Cloudhawk’s own hand. This was just his reflection.
This shadow of the man had no physical form. It was merely a fragment of his psyche, left behind.
“If you are seeing this, it means I am dead. I am confident that Cloudhawk will uphold his promise and deliver my final words to you.”
Adder’s reflection smiled warmly to Luciasha, like he was really there.
“Asha, why are you crying? Don’t fret over my loss. Death comes for us all, and sometimes it may crush us like a mountain or pass as a light breeze. Now that I have passed, my vain pride comes is using this diseased and disabled body to begin a new chapter in the story of this chaotic world we live in. But my greatest honor was being your father, and in having that opportunity I die without regret. I hope you remember all that I have told you, and remember that while you can leave a life of frailty you must never be weak!”
Luciasha couldn’t speak, her words would only come out as sobs.
Adder’s face took on a conflicted expression. “Revenant, are you here? I came back, just as I promised.”
“I’m here. I’m right here.” Revenant’s hard eyes were moist. “Why don’t you look at me? You never could just look at me.”
He turned, and somehow from beyond the grave honored her request. His dark eyes looked deeply into her own. “I have never done anything contrary to my beliefs. But with you… I’m sorry. I was especially cruel. I’m sorry I forced you to suffer a pain so difficult to bear. Of all people in the world you were the one who understood me best, and I understood you just the same. There is no way I can repay everything you’ve done for me.”
Revenant’s dagger slipped from her grasp and hit the ground.
“I never wanted anything in return!” She answered.
“I understand everything. You only ever wanted an answer to a question you asked many times, in many ways. I must beg forgiveness for every time I failed to respond. The road I was fated to walk was a dark one, one without redemption. It wasn’t something I wanted for you. Now, at last, I can answer. These words have been a weight on my heart for many, many years.
Adder’s voice bore a sense of warmth and affection it never had before.
“At last I can put down my burden, and say that I have always loved you just as you have loved me.”
His iron features melted in an expression of unrequited longing.
“I often cursed the fact that you and I were not born as normal folk. I would have chased after you like a madman, and all of my effort would have been put toward giving you an ordinary but happy life. You are the one person I must apologize to. I deeply hope that you and Luciasha do not let hatred consume you. Remember that this end was precisely the death I was meant for.”
As quickly as that affection had come across his features it was gone, replaced with the calm expression that was his norm.
“Revenant, promise me you’ll stop. Give it all up. Do not seek vengeance for there is no purpose in it. I need you to take care of Luciasha for me.”
Revenant closed her eyes. Two lonely tears rolled down her cheeks. She said nothing.
“Cloudhawk.” Adder’s voice changed, and he knew that the man who’d killed him was also watching. “I want you to know that our fight was the most enjoyable contest I’ve had in my life. You are a mighty and noble opponent, and I thank you for giving me a worthy end.”
Cloudhawk didn’t know how to respond.
“You still don’t understand? You and I are much the same, actually.” There was no enmity in Adder’s gaze as he looked at his killer, only relief and a note of uncertainty. “I sensed it in the final moments of our battle.”
“I felt a passion for struggle that pumped through your veins! A yearning for conflict in your bones! And the light of heroism in your soul.”
“Your heart, your dreams, your wisdom, your nature – everything that you are is perfectly suited for our times. Cloudhawk, you truly are one of a kind. You’re too young to see it, but I know that in time you will understand and join our cause. It is your fate to take the torch, and carry our glory farther than any of our predecessors.”
“You and I are both willing to give our lives for what we believe in rather than give it up. You would wade through a sea of fire without hesitation, and brave the scalding heat without regret. It is a sign of the sort of person you are, and the purpose for which you were born.”
“People like you and never fade away into old age and obscurity. We could never suffer the humiliation of being trapped, day after day. You and I, we never accept, and never yield, for if we did we would be giving up the essence of who we are! Without all of this, our lives would be like quicksand, our bodies like withered grass. The world would lose all color, and our years would be spent like walking corpses. It is my great hope that you will realize this soon. You can’t remain lost, you must dare to soar!”
“You’re a hawk. You must battle the storm, challenge the thunder, and churn the clouds. Use your wings to carve your mark on heaven and earth. Shatter the darkness, bring light to a new age. Bring honor to those of us who have spilled blood to blaze a trail!”
Cloudhawk was stunned that Adder held him in such high regard. He watched as the reflection began to grow dim. Time was running out.
Adder offered one last smile, calm and easy. There were no regrets as the final vestige of Zephyr Cloude vanished from the world. The mirror gem grew dark, and cracked into pieces with a sense of finality.
“Here my life ends, without lament. Though my body fails my light shines on.”
Luciasha hardly had the strength to sit up. Revenant stood in silence, her eyes glistening with tears. Gradually the light came back to her eyes and she stooped down to help Luciasha to her feet. The two left, never turning back, leaving Cloudhawk to stare at the fragments of crystal littering the ground.
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