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After a full day of riding a nightmare fish, Autumn barely had the energy to drag herself into the hotel room. She flopped onto the bed with a sigh of contentment, and in that moment suddenly her bones turned to jelly. She couldn’t get herself up off the comfortable mattress, no matter the circumstance. In an avalanche of exhaustion her eyelids felt heavy as lead. But Autumn’s heart was a sea of emotion. She’d never had to face so much hardship in all her life. Would it be worth it? Would she be able to complete her mission?

A sacred item which had been lost for so many years wasn't going to be easily recovered!

Autumn was mentally prepared for this. She knew the journey would be trying, maybe even fatal. There was always the reality that she might day – and worse, her quest would fail. Beyond that, there was also the question of whether she would be able to use the relic if they eventually found it. And then, if all of that turned out true, there was a monster back home she had to defeat. Otherwise, her tribe would be destroyed. The situation was a complicated and difficult one. Her chances of success seemed almost non-existent.

But did she have a choice? The fate of her people weighed heavy on her shoulders. Eighty thousand lives! And the place they called home was threatened with destruction.

Eventually drowsiness overtook her, and Autumn slipped into a dream-filled sleep. She dreamed about a time years ago, when she had been light-hearted and care free, frolicking among the trees.

Although her parents had passed long ago, she still lived in their shadow. Everyone saw her like a princess, worshiped through inheritance. But the truth was she and she alone was master by divine right.

The grand elder was wise, and learned. He never tired of teaching Autumn what she needed to know. He told her she would need to grow to be a great leader. It was more than a love of their place, or a spirit of sacrifice. She would need courage.

The grand elder was one of profound knowledge, but never rejected the benefits of force. In fact, the elder always though their tribe was too weak. Too soft. Sooner or later, this would become a problem.  That was why, when her parents were still alive, they had strongly advocated for the establishment of an army and to even occasionally open up the realm and accept powerful warrior bloodlines from outside.

The 'shepherds' were a kindly people who were aloof from worldly affairs. They despised violence, and it was the Shepherd Goddess who had sealed their realm off.   A thousand years of oracular predictions had told their ancestors long ago that the enchantments that protected them should never be opened. For if they did, chaos would follow.

Wise and noble though the elder was, no one shared his hawkish views. No one could’ve imagined that his worst fears would come to pass.

Autumn then dreamed of a man. There he was, a memory locked in the recesses of her mind. If she were to ever see him face to face, she wasn’t sure how she would react. He was the tribe’s youngest elder. Brier.

It could be said that the junior elder had watched Autumn grow up, and as they grew up he often stood up for her after she’d been caught doing something naughty. Autumn always knew that Brier looked at her different than the other elders, more like family than the strict demands of the others.

Ever since her parents passed away, Brier was the only one that made her feel like she still had a family.

Why did he do such a thing? What made him steal their holiest artifact and disable the enchantments of the Shepherd Goddess – the only thing that protected them? It was his fault that chaos and disaster had come to their people. Because of his decision, the number of dead was in the thousands.

She missed him. And she hated him. 

She dreamed about her dear friends and playmates, and her long-dead parents.

When she awakened, her face was streaked with tears. She wasn’t sure if it was because she missed home, or missed her parents, or for some other reason altogether. Drying her eyes, she chastised herself. She was an adult, and she had responsibilities. A leader had to be strong, so she had to put away her tears.

Luckily no one was there to see. Especially not him. He would only taunt her if he saw her cry.

As though summoned, Cloudhawk suddenly appeared in her doorway. When he saw her at the foot of her bed, wiping her face, he greeted her with some surprise. “Awake already? You were crying like someone smashed your puppy. I bet you were dreaming about me breaking up with you.”

“Hmph, gibberish! You have no shame.” Autumn’s anger flared. “Who said you could enter my room? Get out!”

The girl was far too sensitive, Cloudhawk once again thought to himself. A few sentences of banter and she was all up in arms. It was harmless, right? What was her problem?

“Alright. If you’re not interested in what Fat Mama learned then I’ll just leave you alone.”

“What? Already?”

Fishmonger’s Borough was a big place. Searching for specific information from place to place was like looking for a needle in a haystack. The chance of finding anything had to be incredibly low. Yet while Autumn had the patience to wait, Cloudhawk wasn’t of such forgiving temperament. To him it was as simple as; find the traitor, problem solved.

Autumn understood the logic and agreed that finding Brier was an important step. But what did the ‘Crimson One’ he was looking for have to do with anything? She had no idea what his intentions were, but none of it was important to her. What was important, was that the portly human trafficker had a lead for then in under half a day. Somehow Mama Jade, who was fat enough for two people and ugly enough to attract a gorilla, had done the impossible.

“I got what you asked for, sweetheart. There were indeed some of those red-robed priests you talked about kicking around Fishmonger’s Borough. From what I could find, seems like they’re close to the governor, too. Ravenous Tiger brought your Crimson One somewhere.”

“Ravenous Tiger?” Cloudhawk asked. “What do you know about that guy?”

The trafficker paused. She seemed genuinely surprised he didn’t know who the town’s leader was. “He’s not your average wastelander, hun. About eight years back he took control of Fishmonger’s Borough. I have it on good authority that he’s tangled up with elysians, but how I haven’t a clue. I don’t dare poke my nose around too much, not if I want to keep it.”

Cloudhawk nodded. He thought about what the old drunkard had said; somehow this place was connected to Skycloud. Ravenous Tiger had to be a key player if he was holding the reigns here.

“What do Ravenous Tiger’s dealings have to do with us? We’re not after him!” Autumn was getting tired of Cloudhawk’s flippant attitude. She’d hired him to do a job, but he was spending his time on his own matters. She asked Mama Jade herself. “Have you found Brier or not?”

“Well, that…” She paused at Autumn’s irritated tone, and her deep-set eyes looked to the ground for a moment before lifting to Cloudhawk. The warden nodded, and only then did she continue. “I do have information about him. He’s here, only…”

Cloudhawk pressed her. “Only what?”

“There was a man who came here with that name, but he changed it to Hermit. His training in herbology and medicines have made him quite famous. A lot of the wastelanders who come here make the journey just to see him.”

Cloudhawk’s eyes slid to Autumn.

“That’s him!” Her voice was enveloped in anger, but it hid more than that in the undertones. Her tiny fists slammed the tabletop. “Brier’s skills as a healer were what earned him my mother’s trust. That’s how he became elder. No one thought he’d turn his back on us and escape with the artifact. We need to find him.”

So that’s what happened to Brier. He was here, and they knew it. So what were they waiting for? It was time to confront him! Cloudhawk wasn’t one to waste time. The two of them left for where Mama Jade said Hermit set up shop.

His home was an unassuming place, except for the fact that there was a long line of people waiting at the door. They all looked sick or in pain. Just as the slaver said, Brier had come to live in exile here, as a noted doctor. Here he was, living in comfort and admiration, while the tribe he left behind suffered. The thought made Autumn’s blood boil.

Yet a moment later she felt her angry heart sink, inwardly torn. Cloudhawk saw it on her face and made a gesture as though to say ‘take it easy, let’s see what’s going on.’

Hermit’s Clinic was manned primarily by a small cadre of trainees. Hermit himself was an intelligent looking man of middle years, tall and thin, who’d begun greying at his temples. He seemed for all intents and purposes a normal man, but the keen brightness in his large eyes.

Cloudhawk was a pretty good judge when it came to these sorts of things, and from the look of him Hermit didn’t look like an evil man.

One of the interns approached them. “I’m afraid we’re finish for today. I’m going to have to ask you to return tomorrow.”

“What the hell?!”

“We’ve been waiting in line for hours!”

“I’m sorry. We are bound by rules – we may only see fifty patients a day.” The intern’s face was dismissive and arrogant. “Try to come earlier tomorrow.”

“Son of a bitch!”

A muscle-bound man stomped forward and grabbed the intern by his shirt.

“I’ve gone through all sorts of shit to get here, and I’m not likin’ your fuckin’ attitude! You can bet your life I’m gonna make you eat that grin. I don’t care what you have to do, you’re gonna help my brother right now, otherwise I’ll burn this whole motherfucker to the ground!”

“There are limits to what the master can do in a day. Fifty, that’s all.” The intern was a brave one. Beneath the big man’s angry scowl he was neither frightened nor upset. “Rules are rules, after all. They cannot be broken.”

“Fuck your mother, and fuck your rules! Lemme show you what I think of both!”

The angry patron lifted his fist, ready to slam it into the intern. Judging by the sheer size of him, the big man’s punch would put the healer in line with the rest of them to have his wounds looked after. His fist alone was like a boulder, and you could practically walk a horse along his bicep. By the looks of things the diminutive intern was in trouble.

But then the brute froze. Arm raised, but unmoving.

A young man appeared beside him, holding back the muscles arm with a single hand. The difference between their visible strength was almost laughable, but he held him like a vice. “You’re here asking for help and this is how you behave? If it were my clinic, I’d tell you to find a comfortable corner to go die in. Now fuck off!”

Fury burned in the big man’s heart, but before he could act on it he saw the world stretch as he flew backwards. The stranger had kicked him square in the chest, sending him back half a dozen meters. The brute scrambled to his feet and quickly looked himself over for more serious wounds. His face was pale from fear.

Knocking someone on their ass was not hard, but kicking them several meters away without doing any real damage took skill and control. When he looked back at the man, a wave of malice washed over him, so intense he immediately broke out in a cold sweat. The brute knew deep in his bones he was outmatched.

“alright! Remember what you did here!”

He leaned down to scoop up his brother who’d been lying prostrate on the floor and left, defeated.

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