Eerie green flames danced around a crude ring, while sparks of some enigmatic power floated through the air before settling into it.
As they touched the ring’s surface these motes of light bloomed into threads of luminescence, then quickly disappeared. As each spark flared and died one could see their threads weaving within the ring.
Cloudhawk carefully, painstakingly built the new relic. He manipulated the precious anima into a coherent tapestry and implanted it inside the ring. It was like composing an opus, or a poem.
When the flames eventually subsided, the ring was complete. It was not an attractive piece of jewelry by any means, but the inside bore a very detailed pattern none could see. The threads of anima within it spread through the piece like capillaries, as complex and ubiquitous as circuits in a computer chip.
Where it different from those other feats of engineering was that there was no way others could see them. His pattern had become an intrinsic piece of the relic, the perfect blend of art, magic and science.
“Experiment number one hundred seventy one.” Cloudhawk lifted the ring and peered at it closer as he spoke to himself. “A complete success.”
Cloudhawk had done very little sleeping lately. He’d been working for days – and the end result had been a hundred and seventy failures. But they weren’t fruitless efforts – each time, he learned something new about relics and how to build them. For instance, he realized that the process wasn’t as mystical as it appeared at the beginning. In fact, once he lifted the veil of mystery and looked closer at the process, he discovered that there were specific and uniform rules that governed how it worked.
It was a science. Each discovery brought more mystery, more perfection, and guided him closer to the source. It was a science that perhaps was far beyond the abilities of humans to grasp, and likewise about as near to science as art was. Only a very different civilization could have been responsible for its creation.
Once he learned the essence of it, then he would know the secrets underpinning it. A relic, a sword, a knife, a gun, a cannon… they were all the same.
For instance, the oldest humans used stones and sticks to make their weapons. To them, using metal to smelt their tools was far beyond their limited intelligence. A gun or cannon would have been even more unthinkable.
Humans today weren’t far removed from their ancestors of the Stone Age. Relics to them were like a nuclear bomb to early ape-like men.
Magic wasn’t a real thing, not in this world. Science was the process of turning magic into reproducible fact. In that way they were inexorably tied; the limits of science seemed like magic, and the essence of magic lay in science.
Lower life forms looked at advanced science like magic, just like humans looked up to gods and demons.
It was an important revelation for Cloudhawk. It led him to a deeper and more profound understanding of the world they lived in. Before today, relics were inscrutable, just as gods and demons were above understanding. But now… maybe there weren’t any real ‘gods’ or ‘demons’ after all.
To apes, maybe humans were gods. Maybe the gods and demons of today looked at humans like humans looked at animals. Being a god or a demon was just a title, a layer of mystery laid on these creatures by humans who didn’t understand what they were seeing. Could that be the case?
The more he pondered the more he thought he understood. He felt like he had begun to fumble toward the essential secrets of reality – and its charm.
It inspired him to research the mysteries of these relics day and night, forsaking rest and food. He was still only at the cusp, now he had to mastery these skills. The more he learned about this power – this strange and special ability that did not originate from his people – the more he would learn about the higher wisdom that governed reality.
But that was too big to grasp right now. First, time to rest the ring!
He turned it around in his fingers over and over again, making sure that there were no flaws in his design. Finally he nodded in satisfaction, slipped the ring onto his finger, and walked toward the experiment room.
He picked one of the dummies and summoned his mental powers. Immediately the air started to ripple. A host of minute threads gathered around him, tendrils of energy that gathered like rivers toward the ocean. Cloudhawk stared excitedly at the stable orb they created. Was he right? After a hundred tries did he finally get this design perfect?
He drew his arm back, preparing to cast the orb at his target. Only suddenly the once-stable orb bulged grotesquely without warning.
Shit! Cloudhawk threw himself behind cover just as the orb detonated. Even with something between him and the blast, the concussive force still knocked Cloudhawk off his feet. He crashed into a wall then crumpled onto the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. Blood leaked from between his bandages, some from new wounds and some from old.
What happened? Why did it fail? Where was the problem?
He wracked his brains. The inspiration for this relic came from exorcist bows. After disassembling several dozen he learned their secrets, but felt that they were cumbersome to carry. He thought it would be far more convenient if you could take the principle of the bow – gathering energy into a shot and then firing – and put it in something easy to carry like a ring. It’d be an excellent upgrade to standard demonhunter equipment.
One hundred and seventy-one failures. He’d run out of materials to keep trying. Even for Cloudhawk it was a blow to his confidence.
Worse was not knowing why. Where was the flaw?
His musings were interrupted when the ground shook violently beneath his feet. The origin was from somewhere outside. Fearing the worst, he rushed from the lab to see what the problem was.
In the center of Greenland City was the God Tree, standing proud several hundred meters overhead. The protective energies it bestowed were still raining upon the city, but now there was a crowd of milling citizens gathered near its base.
“Gabby, what’s going on?”
Cloudhawk had spotted his long-time friend among the onlookers.
Gabriel shrugged. “Everyone’s rushing to see Mistress Autumn use her godly powers, of course.”
The earthquake was a result of Autumn completing her enchantment. The curtain of energy that flowed from the God tree’s branches was constant and unbroken. Now, no wasteland power could penetrate their home, and even the Elysian army would struggle to get through.
Cloudhawk looked around. “Autumn?”
Gabriel’s handsome face was curious as he also glanced about. “I saw her mount her dragon and fly toward the canopy when her enchantment was done. Don’t know what she’s up to.”
It was a tiring effort to establish this protection, Cloudhawk knew, especially now that she was human. Autumn had nothing but contempt for Cloudhawk, and it was a mystery why she agreed to help in the first place. He wanted to check up on her. After all, she’d helped his fledgling domain a lot with her power. It was only proper to say thank you.
Noble gods were loathe to spend their time with lowly mortals. To give herself some distance, Autumn had constructed a hollow in the tree where she could abscond. It was only several dozen meters in size, but enough for a single person to hide away comfortably.
Autumn’s divine beast was curled on a nearby branch. Its sibilant eyes watched the hollow entrance vigilantly.
Cloudhawk called to it. “Hey, don’t be nervous. I’m just here to see your mistress.”
The dragon king kept its burning eyes on the little man. Cloudhawk took its silence for consent and strode inside. Inside he saw Autumn lying on the floor. He called to her several times, but got no response.
Was she unconscious? He paused for a moment then approached to see if he could help.
Her face was pale and drawn. Sweat covered her form and her breath came in short ragged drags. It looked like she’d just finished running a marathon. An enchantment that covered their entire oasis was definitely not an easy feat to achieve.
Cloudhawk looked at her chapped lips, a reminder that she was now human despite her haughty airs. Thinking back, he realized it’d been ten days and nights she’d been working all without food or water. No one could fast for that long without serious consequences.
Cloudhawk pulled out a canteen of water and pressed it to her mouth. She took to it like an infant to a teat. After several deep gulps she was already starting to look better. Her eyelashes fluttered, then rose as she awakened.
Her gaze was unfocused and she looked confused. The typical noble disdain she wore was nowhere to be seen.
“Autumn?” Cloudhawk looked closer, surprised to see a familiar glint. “It’s you!”
Tears carved a trail down her pale cheeks as she looked up at him. “I-I… what happened?”
“You really aren’t dead.” Cloudhawk was thrilled. The god who took her body must have weakened after the enchantment, allowing Autumn to come back. “You don’t remember? You’ve been possessed by the Shepherd God!”
It started coming back to her. She was amazed that the god of her people would rob her of her body.
Cloudhawk kept chattering at her. “What have you been going through? Do you know what’s been going on?”
Her mind was muddled. Everything jumbled together like pieces of a torn diary. She could recall scenes, but nothing was whole. “Cloudhawk, what should I do? I’m scared!”
“Don’t be scared, it’s alright. The god’s got a nasty temper, but we can fight back. Never give up, you hear me? Hold on to your will.”
Autumn weakly nodded her head.
“A lot has happened, to you and me both.” Cloudhawk helped her sit up. “But you’re alive and that’s wonderful news.”
Autumn felt like her head was ready to split open. A flood of memories raced through her mind all at once, causing her to cry as though something had frightened her.
“I can see the Shepherd God’s memories!”
Cloudhawk paused. “What do you see?”
“Gods… gods and… demons.” Autumn’s tiny hands clawed at Cloudhawk’s clothing. Sweat dropped off her chin from fear and exertion. Her eyes were wide and bloodshot. “Fake! I-it’s all fake!”
He looked back at her, puzzled and nervous. “What are you saying?”
“You’re in danger. You shouldn’t be with them.” She stopped suddenly, her face contorting in pain. There was a struggling going on in her mind. “Be wary of Wolfblade. He’s-”
She couldn’t say any more as her body went rigid and her jaw locked up.
“What?” Cloudhawk’s face was grim. He held onto her quivering frame. “What’s happening?!”
All of a sudden the expression on her face turned ice-cold. Autumn looked at Cloudhawk’s hands on her shoulder and a deathly malice crept into her eyes.
“Wait a second now. This is just a mis-”
The citizens outside heard a terrible scream. They looked up to see a figure being flung from the top of the two-hundred meter tree.