Autumn was still Autumn, beautiful and delicate as a forest nymph.
Her clothes were unchanged, the same as any other Valite.
But the old drunk had spent more time with Autumn than Cloudhawk had. He was more experienced and had a keener eye as well. So if the young Warden could recognize the difference in her, how could the old man miss it?
Although she was the same in appearance, this Autumn was not the same one that followed Cloudhawk into the central chamber. She… felt different.
There was no emotion in her pretty eyes anymore. Instead her eyes were filled with an arrogant stateliness. She looked upon them like a mighty beast might look upon insects, like worms slithering through the dirt.
What happened to the sweet and sentimental girl he knew?
The dragon king heaved itself back unto its feet. Though the attacks it sustained from the old man were devastating, this was no ordinary creature. Its injuries were not life threatening.
The old drunk squinted at the figures across from him, alert and uncertain.
However, there was no need to fear. The crystal dragon did not resume its attacks. In fact it ignored the old man completely and hung its head like a docile mutt.
The ancient creature, with strength and intelligence to match the Temple’s great protector, was as meek as a kitten before the seventeen year old child and her flute. To display such a servile and respectful posture to the frail girl was strange to say the least.
Autumn reached out and stroked the beast with her hand. A faint glow spread from her fingers and into the divine beast’s body. Its cracked scales knit themselves back together before their eyes.
When Autumn dropped her arm, a scowl of deep displeasure was aimed toward the old man. “Is this your doing?”
When the girls eyes turned upon him, the War Saint felt a pressure rarely experienced before. It was as though the air around him grew thicker. But he was a man of the world, and he’d faced many with impressive bearings. Though it was clear much had changed in the young girl he once knew, it didn’t stop his insolent nature. “What are you doing, you little scamp? You wanted to hire me to come and protect the Vale, and you know… thinking on it for a bit, it’s starting to seem like such a bad idea.”
Her pretty eyes narrowed and grew dark with indignation. “Begone.”
The words were almost gentle, but they caused the entire cavern to tremble.
All of the walls and ceiling surrounding them split apart at once, and from the fissures slithered a host of deep green vines. Whipping creepers filled the cavern so fast it was like being caught in a box underwater, when suddenly the box cracked and the sea began to invade.
“Wait! He’s one of us!” Cloudhawk shouted to try and dissuade her.
Autumn’s face was cold as ice, possessed of a sort of grim majesty. She was a god, and the presence of this rabble in her mausoleum was more of a sin than she could stomach. The gods were fickle beings, and so it was she decided they all shall die. One of us? There was no ‘us’! None of these mortals were worthy!
Most importantly, they knew of her true identity, that she had been reborn as Shepherd. They could not be allowed to leave and spread what they knew.
She readied herself to rend these worms limb from limb when suddenly she was stopped by the faintest voice in the back of her mind. A frail thought, from the depths of her soul. It was enough to distract her from releasing a sea of mental energy that would obliterate these piddling mortals. Enough to give her pause.
The will of the girl who once inhabited this body was not destroyed?
When Shepherd had chosen this form for herself, Autumn’s spirit had not been entirely dominated. A fragment of her still existed within the god’s mind, like a speck in a vast ocean. It was effortless to keep the mortal child contained, and yet still she managed to exert influence.
As Shepherd’s will to slay her friends grew, that small piece of Autumn rebelled in protest. It was laughable to think she could stand in the way of a god’s resolve, but the spirit of the fallen girl had won them a brief reprieve.
The old man wouldn’t let up. “What the hell is wrong with this kid?!”
“Cut it out with the bullshit!” Cloudhawk shot him a warning glare. “Let’s get out of here!”
Autumn’s body was home to a god now, she had become a god – and more than that, a Supreme. Her power was leaps and bounds beyond that of mere mortals. In fact, all humans were below notice but for the legendary demonhunters of old, and perhaps the Master Demonhunters of today.
Help? She required no help. The crippled old man was a worm and nothing more!
The old man realized this was graver than he thought, and so raced towards the prostrate Barb as fast as he could. He swept her up, then raced from the cavern toward the mausoleum’s exit.
Claudia and her team had since finished their part of the battle. Laying upon the ground bruised and bloody, they watched him race by. Gabriel could hardly raise a finger, and Naberius had slipped back into the darkness of his subconscious.
The Dryad lay in a mindless heap nearby. After chasing them through a maze of cutting wires it had spent all its energy, and could no longer cobble itself back together. Pieces of it still quivered on the ground in an impotent heap, still trying and failing to kill its prey.
Butcher was dead. The rest had one foot in the grave.
The drunk didn’t explain as he ran by, only urged them to follow. Although they weren’t sure what was happening, one look at his face convinced them that it was best to move and ask questions later.
Only Cloudhawk and Azura were left to stand before Autumn. He didn’t know why, but something inside him told Cloudhawk that the Shepherd wasn’t going to kill them. The Shepherd’s presence here had something to do with an old accord he was a part of.
As for Azura? She’d watched the whole scene from beginning to end, but the Shepherd’s pride would now allow her to stoop so low as to murder children.
Autumn’s brief revolt faded and Shepherd regained control. She looked at Cloudhawk with burning anger in her eyes and lifted a hand. Suddenly Cloudhawk felt a power envelope him like a vice and lift him off his feet.
A dangerous light shone in her eyes, pregnant with exuberant power and malice. It was as though she could peer right through him with a glance. “You are so confident that I will not kill you?”
He felt so confined that he might suffocate. “Do it then,” he managed to croak.
Several tense moments passed. Autumn’s eyes grew harder by the second, thick with murderous intent that flowed through her entire body. It surged up inside her like a tidal wave before she forced it back down. “I will spare your insignificant life. Out of respect.”
Respect? Respect for who? The former Demon King!
Autumn walked through the cavern and blew once again into the flute. Naberius’ shadethread traps were suddenly fragile as silk, breaking merely by the sound waves released by her artifact. The chunks of rotten meat and vines that was the Dryad shuddered and reorganized themselves like dutiful soldiers. After a few moments a humanoid figure rose up from the ground.
It was still an ugly thing, but much more… complete than it had been before. It was no longer so much a haphazard doll of mismatched pieces, and more like a three-meter tall super mutant.
The Dryad retook its shape, unscathed from its war with Naberius.
It lumbered their way like an iron giant, a loyal guardian dead set on protecting its mistress. It was no different than Blackfiend the Undying and its blind loyalty to Squall.
The situation was becoming more troublesome by the moment.
Autumn herself was frighteningly volatile and monstrous. With the addition of two indomitable protectors Woodland Vale promised to be a formidable force. Whichever side they chose to fight for would receive a great boon in their support. Easily enough to turn the tide.
“Go. Kill all who offend the sanctity of Woodland Vale!”
Autumn’s low command was no as frightening as the sharp and unforgiving look in her eye.
Awash in the homicidal urges of its master, the crystal dragon spread it wings and dashed out of the mausoleum with her on its back. They moved so fast that wherever they passed the grass and shrubs were torn up, leaving a trail in its wake.
The dragon king’s cries caused the Vale’s canopy to shudder. It was on the hunt.
They left the dank bowels of the Godtree, and as Autumn looked out over the setting horizon there was a deep sense of satisfaction at her freedom. It was a well-deserved freedom, bought by a thousand years of captivity. But deserved or not, she couldn’t let her contemporaries on Sumeru know that she had awakened. To that end, anyone who had come into the Vale had to be silence, lest word got out.
Hundreds of dragons circled above the forest now. They would wildly dart into the trees below and attack invaders as they were found. It didn’t matter who; Elysian demonhunters, wasteland warriors, or a few with particularly wretched airs – all were subject to the tearing claws of the dragons.
A thousand years. How had the world changed?
In the distance, the dragon king roared.
As if on command the many dragons broke away to make room for their master. Autumn stood upon the crystal dragon’s back, bathed in the light of a dying sun. Such a majestic scene was hard to ignore. The Elysians, Highwaymen and Sanctum warriors all stopped to bear witness to the arrival of the awe-inspiring figure.
“What the hell?!”
Selene, Squall and the other commands stared at the spectacle in disbelief.
Meanwhile she stared down at them from her vantage high above. “The dignity of your Shepherd shall not be maligned! In daring to enter my abode, you forfeit your lives.”
In the space of an instant the world below was awash in thrashing vines and stabbing roots. The forest came alive, and Autumn assailed the invaders without mercy.
Screams from her victims rose up into the dimming sky, giving voice to her cruel and unending slaughter.
The dragons renewed their attacks, only now they were far more organized. Attacks were more targeted and structured, like they were more soldier and less beast. Cutting talons fell in phalanx formations and routed their human foes quickly.
It was all too sudden.
Where had this all-powerful girl come from? Her attacks were savage and indiscriminate, levied against whoever caught her eye regardless of faction. Anyone and everyone was her enemy… and the Shepherd had no tolerance for enemies.
Wyrmsole looked about at his men, who were dying by the dozens beneath the heinous attack. He would not suffer their destruction, and so in a mighty voice and with his standard flapping he cried out to the instrument of their destruction. “Try your tricks on me!”
A flaming dragon roared from him and lit up the darkening forest.
In response, a single note from her flute. Wyrmsole’s dragon was torn asunder without foundation.
He gaped at her in shock.
Wielding nothing but a flute and hundreds of meters away, she dispersed his mighty attack as though it were a mere afterthought. Shock was an understatement. It was fear that he felt, deep and unabating. He raised his standard to defend himself from the acoustic waves she flung at him, and was blown several hundred meters into the forest. When he came to a stop blood was pouring from every orifice. In a single attack she had wounded him gravely.
He was the strongest demonhunter here, and yet she flung him through the trees like a discarded puppet.
This strange girl had a power more immense and mysterious than he could fathom. No one could understand how this child was doing this! They could take all of Skycloud’s most talented youths and add them together, and they wouldn’t be able to match her fury.
Selene looked at the cherubic face, which was both familiar and unfamiliar. Was this the same girl that had traveled with Cloudhawk before? It couldn’t be.
Autumn had been born with great potential, but not to where she could swat Wyrmsole away like he was a babe. How had she so suddenly become this strong? But it didn’t matter – if this was Autumn now, then the situation in the Vale had changed dramatically.
Selene placed herself squarely before Autumn. “Where is Cloudhawk!?”
Shepherd had no idea who this ‘Cloudhawk’ was. The name was entirely unfamiliar. However, when this presumptuous woman appeared before her, swathed in holy vestments and dripping with divine energy, she became incensed.
Seeing the familiar relic called to mind sour memories from a thousand years ago. It was a mighty tool she had presented eons ago, and one that made her think of things that should have remained buried.
The single word was her response.
Selene’s face, cool as an iceberg, suddenly darkened. “What? Impossible!”
Dawn and the others heard her claim and stared in horror. A heartbeat later, the Polaris heir turned crimson from fury. Her voice rang out loud enough to drown out the din. “You killed him!?”
“Why do you trouble me with such asinine questions?” Her voice was frigid and impatient. “It matters not, for today every one of you dies!”
The dragon king reared back and belched a column of flame toward Selene.
But the Cloude prodigy was no coward, nor was she unfamiliar with battle. She did not stand idle once her foe took an offensive posture. Moreover, the anger rumbling inside her was eager to be felt, so she struck out with her blade.
Frost, Dawn and Atlas were quick to follow her lead.
Their enemy was too strong. Though it wasn’t clear how she’d become so strong, it was obvious they would need to fight as one. No hope of success could be found in fighting alone.
Autumn used her flute as her weapon, blowing into it to summon a beam of light. The single beam split into six. Six became thirty six. Each of her attackers suddenly found themselves the target of several spears of light which struck them from the sky with sprays of blood.
The brunt of the attack was aimed toward Selene.
Her Holy Vestments were largely a support relic. Though they had some defensive capabilities, it wasn’t enough to protect her from Autumn’s ire. She was simply too strong, and her attacks were blindingly quick. The only other time she’d encountered an enemy so fierce was her battle with Abaddon four years ago.
The girl in airy green robes handily blasted back four of Skycloud’s greatest warriors!
What were humans to a god? What had become of them over the years? They had become so weak!
She remembered how mighty the champions of old had been, the ten legendary demonhunters who made the battlefields tremble. How had their species fallen so far? These worms were hardly worth her attention!
She prepared herself for the killing blow.
Suddenly, the blast of an explosion sounded in the distance. It rolled across the forest like dull thunder. Even from what had to be a great distance it was as though a hundred thousand stampeding horses were charging across the Vale. The energy it produced could be clearly felt, as though the gods themselves had come knocking. It swept by quickly, this sound of thunder. In fact it was the blast of something breaking the sound barrier.
Who? Who could produce such a deluge of power?
Autumn’s eyes narrowed as she peered into the distance. “Finally. Someone who can actually fight.”
1. Hm. Foreshadowing?