“It’s been a long time since I’ve found someone who can go blow for blow!” Energy wafted around the general like steam. It caused the air around him to grow hot and shimmer. Despite their extended contest he didn’t appear at all weaker. “You’re strong. If you were to join with Skycloud, then I – Skye Polaris – would personally make sure you were safe. I would be protector and representative for the needs of you and your people.”
Autumn’s gaze turned even colder. Skycloud was a land created by the gods, a group Autumn was once an important member of. How foolish for this mortal to presume she needed or would accept capitulating with his demands.
Autumn blew into her flute, once again summoning a surge of psychic power. As it swelled to encase the area, her power coalesced, gathering strength. Very quickly it became obvious that when she let it go, it would be a danger to everyone nearby.
Skye scowled. While he didn’t have the sort of mental abilities Autumn had, it wasn’t difficult for his keen senses to deduce what she was planning. If she couldn’t deal with Skye, then she would hurt him by targeting those on his side. This forced him to hold back, for fear that she would retaliate against his granddaughter and the other Elysians.
Her aggressive posture obvious, Skye wasted no further time with talk. IT was obvious to him that Autumn would not bend the knee. “Mr. Ink, we withdraw!”
The leader of Woodland Vale was far stronger than he’d anticipated. Although she had a clear weakness, they were on her turf and she had an army of dragons. Skye put his odds of victory at sixty percent, but it would be a fight to the death. Yet beyond the danger to himself, the more pressing concern was his allies in the surrounding forests. It was more than likely that, in the course of their lethal battle, those under his command would suffer. Skye wasn’t going to let that happen.
General Polaris was the commander of Skycloud’ds expeditionary force. For now, their main enemy was the Crimson One. Ultimately, Woodland Vale was a third party, and not worth the consequences of an all-out war like this. He was sure the Crimson One would like nothing more than for the Vale and Skycloud to beat each other bloody.
Their involvement had prevented the Vale from coming under the Conclave’s control. It was impossible to tell where the chips would fall in the future, but the only option now would be to report what happened here to the rest of Skycloud’s leaders and formulate a plan. Something would be done when they had more information and input.
Dawn was irritated by this anti-climactic end, but it was clear her grandfather had made up his mind. “Dawn, go with Mr. Ink and leave this place.”
Without waiting for her protests he shot up into the air. In a handful of seconds he was going five times the speed of sound. His powerful feet kept kicking the air, pushing him further and faster and causing compressed air to boom dully in his passage. Onlookers couldn’t follow his incredible speed, only the bursts of energy left from his footfalls.
He was after the Conclave. Those worms had to be trampled before they could flee.
Dawn openly scoffed at the order to retreat. Selene also had no intention to leave before she found Cloudhawk. However before they could formulate their next move, a small group rushed into the clearing created by Sky’s battle. It was none other than Claudia and the others of Cloudhawk’s party. They were quickly pressed for news on Cloudhawk and was told he was safe – at least for the moment. Only then did they agree to fall back.
A hint of exhaustion was beginning to show at the corner of Autumn’s eyes. Human bodies were too weak. Had she possessed her former body the likes of Skye Polaris would never have been a threat. He was an impressive specimen, but even still could not compare with the legendary demonhunters of old.
Woodland Vale, Godtree, Midbough.
This was the center of Woodland Vale, a city among the Godtree’s branches. Homes were patched together among the boughs or fashioned out of holes in its trunk. Some were like birds nests, composed of mismatched materials and almost precariously thrown together among the leaves. The Valites were a people who lived their lives entirely by the bounty of the Godtree.
Midbough’s populace was all aflutter
Men, woman, children, old, young – they all came out of their homes and threw themselves prostrate on the bark before Autumn. She had changed into a different robe of green, and her hair had been freed from the two braids she usually kept them in to flow freely down her back. A crown of woven grass and flowers adorned her brow, and her hand lightly cradled a long wooden staff. She was being carried among the people on a litter born by eight strong tribesmen.
People called out to her as she passed, for it was clear that the Autumn they knew had become something greater.
She had received the Shepherd’s inheritance, and had become strong. The ancient protectors of their people – the Dryad and the dragon king – obeyed her commands. With the help of over six hundred mature dragons, their land was an impregnable fortress, safe from outside aggression.
Work had begun on an altar. It had been at Autumn’s command, though no one knew the reason.
The Vale’s new matriarch send out parties to find Cloudhawk, but despite combing the forests there was no sign of him. It appeared he was gone.
Had he truly abandoned his rightful inheritance? Without even a second thought?
The young human’s mind was an enigma to the Shepherd, but it was no longer a concern of hers. She had other troubles, for it was becoming more evident that the spirit of the girl she’d possessed wasn’t destroyed. On the contrary, her frail presence in the back of the god’s mind was becoming more active.
The Shepherd found this… troublesome.
After all, a mountain could not have more than one tiger. The same applied to one body.
A thousand years ago the Shepherd had planted the seed of this tribe among the boughs of the Godtree. It was deliberate, for eventually she knew one would become her new vessel. In all the time she was locked away her consciousness had watched, guiding and manipulating the humans through the Godtree.
It was Autumn that turned out most perfect, a magnificent work of art guided by Shepherd’s hands. Because of this she was born capable of resonating with Shepherd’s flute. Without any means of training she possessed impressive mental fortitude. Yet once Shepherd took her body for herself, this proved to be a problem. It was unexpected that the girls’ will would remain even after her physical body was dominated.
No matter. She was a mere mortal, in the end. What threat did she pose to a god? Shepherd was confident the rebellious little soul would be suppressed in short order.
One of her scouts scurried along the wide branches toward her, breathlessly giving his report. “Matriarch, bad news. Another group of invaders has arrived!”
What? The border to their Vale had been closed, how could someone have gotten in?
Autumn realized there was only one possibility. Someone had found a breach. A thousand years ago it had taken the Shepherd an enormous amount of energy, life essence and a legendary relic to create Woodland Vale. As part of that process she separated it from the rest of the war-torn world.
But there were limits to even what a god could do. Her beautiful creation and its protections were not perfect.
There were… loopholes in the Vale’s defenses, though they were secret and hard to stumble upon. Most would never discover them, for it required a working knowledge of the powers that kept them hidden.
Autumn was still trying to puzzle out who it could be when a dervish of sand and grit blew into view. Countless grains of sand rasped as they blew in front between the leaves and branches. A detestable look gathered in Autumn’s eyes when she realized.
It was a sort of innate loathing that was bred into her very soul.
Gods and demons, eternal enemies. Polar opposites that would never live in harmony. Shepherd was different once becoming Autumn, but this bone-deep hatred which had existed for centuries would not be so easily dispelled.
A demon! What was a demon doing in her domain? Was it because of the Cuirass?
It was supposed to be a secret, one that even the inner circles of the demonkin themselves did not know about. If they had, Woodland Vale would have been overrun by the fiends long ago, so why would they choose today?
The sands slowly gathered together in front of her.
Autumn blew a quick note on her flute which gathered energy together around her. A shell of force appeared that kept the sand from getting too close. She needn’t fear, for the sands coalesced into a twisted black form three meters adjacent to her.
Two burning red orbs served as eyes, and in their depths was a look of curiosity with a note of surprise. Gnarled hands gripped tight to an ancient tome.
God and demon stared at one another for a moment.
“The Shepherd, one of the Six Supremes whose name was sung even amongst the peaks of Sumeru. That is… until you were defeated by my king a thousand years ago, and for reasons unknown rebelled against your fellow gods. Forsaking your place among the divines, you chose the life of a pariah and built this place, ultimately to die in the wastelands.” Abaddon’s unsettling, raspy voice slithered through the air between them. “No one expected that the dignified Shepherd should escape oblivion through cunning schemes. I wonder, how do you think the God King would react if he learned the truth?”
A burning, murderous hatred darkened Autumn’s eyes. “Have you come seeking death, worthless beast?”
Nearly all of the mightiest demons were slain during the Great War, and Shepherd knew those that remained. She was unfamiliar with this one, which meant it was not a part of the battle – in other words, no demon of consequence.
A grating laugh rumbled from the Caliph’s throat. “I came to be after your war was finished, so it is no surprise you are unfamiliar with me. Unless I am badly mistaken, Shepherd, your condition upon rebirth is not suitable for open conflict. This is where I enter in to the story, for we are in – as they say – in a position to provide mutual aid… or mutual destruction.”
Shepherd was uncomfortably aware that any misstep would be quickly exploited by this crafty demon. Her greatest fear was that the other gods would know she returned before her power was wholly recovered. After all, she was the only god in history to turn away from her own people.
“Why are you here?”
“You think I would debase myself by helping a demon?
“It wouldn’t be the first time. But if you insist on refusing to show me respect, perhaps at least you might show the ancient one some civility.”
Autumn watched as two more figures emerged from the lazily dancing sands around Abaddon. The first was a man whose one eye was covered by a strip of cloth. The other was a fiery and enchanting woman.
They were the leaders of the Dark Atom, Wolfblade and Hellflower.
Not long ago Cloudhawk puzzled over why the Dark Atom had not been involved in the efforts to take Woodland Vale. He suspected they’d been waiting in the rafters, and would attack when the other parties were at their weakest. A delayed entrance until all unworthy players had left the stage.
Autumn’s eyes fell immediately upon Wolfblade, and for a long time the two stared at one another. Eventually, she let her vigilance and protection wane. The look of revulsion in her face turned to fear. “You still live!”
“I thought we were old friends. Your words wound me, Shepherd.” Indeed, Wolfblade’s tranquil bearing was like that of an old friend who hadn’t come to visit in a long while. His movements and carriage were relaxed, almost flippant. “Where is it?”
“Still sealed.” Autumn’s responses were unconcerned. “He refused to accept the bequest.”
“What an interesting young man. But this was expected.” Wolfblade smiled, as though he knew all that had transpired. “He is not yet mature enough. It’s no matter, he will accept eventually.”
Abaddon interjected. “Are we ready to discuss our cooperation?”
“What are you talking about?” Autumn replied.
“We require eboncrys. A lot of eboncrys.” This came from the woman, whose voice had an alluring sort of magnetism. Autumn looked at the woman’s hands, for something green sparkled in her lithe fingers. It was a dragon’s scales. “These scales are also very valuable. Made into armor, it would defend well against a demonhunter’s attacks. I should like to negotiate for a sizable order.”
It was as Hellflower said, these dragon scales were special. Normal demonhunter attacks were ineffective against them, and if the Dark Atom’s soldiers were equipped with them they would be well-protected. No one needed to explain how beneficial this would be in an all-out war.
Her request made a lot of sense. The dragon scales were harder and more tenacious than steel alloy. If Woodland Vale provided the Dark Atom with eboncrys and scales, it would be an injection of incredible proportions to the organization and the wastelands as a whole.
Autumn looked among them. “Is that all?”
From Hellflower’s eyes flashed a brief look of mania. “I would also like to get my hands on some divine technology.”
“You have a healthy appetite,” Autumn mused with some disdain. “What do I get in exchange?”
“You should be familiar with what I’m capable of.” Wolfblade fixed Autumn with his one good eye. “I can provide you with whatever you wish. For example… help with that trifling voice in the back of your mind.”
A secret agreement between the Dark Atom and Woodland Vale.
The Conclave of Judgment had spent much in their attempts to win the Vale for themselves, only to leave empty handed. Adder had lost his life in the mausoleum beneath this enormous tree. Cloudhawk and the Elysian forces fought tooth and nail, but for naught. In the end, it was the Dark Atom which skulked in and got what they wanted without ever having to lift a finger.
Perhaps that was part of the plan all along.