Cloudhawk turned away from the brute and walked toward the clinic entrance.
The intern, without missing a beat, blocked his path. “You can’t go in, either.”
The Warden dropped his head, looking down at the healer a full head shorter than he was. The guy had guts, but his self-importance and sense of immortality were flawed. Cloudhawk considered using his fists to teach the guy that there was nothing more precious than life.
A voice called out from inside the clinic. “Don’t be so rude, Cavil[B1]. Let him in.”
Brier sized up the young man as he entered the clinic. He caught glimpses of his demonhunter armor through the tattered grey cloak he wore. It made his gaze a little harder, but didn’t seem to affect him much otherwise. He was steadily mashing herbs by hand, and addressed the newcomer with even tones while keeping up with his work. “Thank you for dealing with that issue outside, sir. Excuse me for presuming, but you don’t look like you’re here for healing.”
“No shit, do I look sick to you?”
Brier lifted his head again and gave Cloudhawk another look. He frowned, as though ready to say something else, but thought better of it. The doctor just shook his head. He didn’t remember ever seeing this demonhunter before, but if he wasn’t here for treatment then what brought him to the clinic?
“I’m not sure what I should call you, sir.”
“What a coincidence,” Cloudhawk replied. “I’m not sure what to call you, either. Should I say Hermit, like they call you here? Or would Brier be better?” Cloudhawk wasn’t one to keep people in suspense. “There’s a young lady here who really wants to have a talk with you. You’re old acquaintances, as I understand it. Say hello.”
A lithe figure slipped into view from behind the demonhunter, and when Brier saw who it was the calm expression fled from his face. She was a young girl of roughly seventeen years, beautiful, poised despite her travel-worn clothing. Her long hair was kept in a pair of braids.
Brier felt like he’d been struck by lightning. His face stiffened unconsciously.
His interns were equally uncomfortable. They knew their master’s real name, of course, however this young man’s bearing was unheard of. Even Ravenous Tiger didn’t forget himself before the renowned doctor.
The young woman pushed everything from Brier’s mind. He stared at her blankly as memories came flooding into his mind. Looming largest among them was the deepest buried memories of the green-robed woman.
Long-buried feelings bubbled to the surface. Everything he’d hidden inside came back the instant she slipped into view. In all the world, for all his life, there was only one woman he loved – the mother of the girl standing before him.
But their love was star-crossed.
Autumn’s mother was betrothed to the greatest man of the tribe. Brier was delegated to nothing more than a friend, standing at her side and in her shadow. He discovered that setting aside his feelings was easier said than done, though. It didn’t matter how far he ran or how much time passed, he couldn’t forget the girl in green.
To this day he remained alone, with no children or spouse. He’d decided a long time ago, that part of his life was reserved for her.
Loving a person, however, meant loving the people close to them. A daughter was born, one Brier treated as tenderly as though she were his own. After he left the tribe, he was sure he’d never see her again – but here she was. Who’d have thought that she would appear in a place like this, so far from home? She was even more beautiful than her mother had been.
When he spoke again his voice quavered a little. “What are you doing here?”
“I swore to hunt you down, no matter what corner of the earth you tried to hide in!” Autumn’s face was a mess of emotions. Anger turned her cheeks scarlet, and tears welled in her eyes. All of cruelty, injustice and difficulties she’d suffered to get here struck her all at once. Underneath it all was the knowledge that her people were being slaughtered, and all of it perpetrated by the man before her now. She focused everything she was feeling into two loud accusations.
Brier paused, and then a bitter smile spread across his face.
Cloudhawk looked from one to the other in confusion. He wasn’t sure what relationship these two shared and getting caught in the middle made it uncomfortable. He pushed through. “Brier, right? Looks like we got the right guy. Give us the flute you stole. I can tell by the look of you that a tussle wouldn’t work in your favor, so cooperate. I don’t want to have to ask you twice.”
Brier suddenly deflated. “Is that why you came?”
Autumn revealed everything she’d suffered to get here. “It’s all your fault,” she concluded. “Our people are being slaughtered, and you have the gall to ask that question? I was wrong about you all these years. My mother was wrong about you!”
All the color drained from Brier’s face and her words seemed to take all the strength out of him. He swayed unsteadily and couldn’t find the words to defend himself. Several times the words rose in his throat but couldn’t get passed his lips. In the end he released a bitter sigh. “The flute isn’t here. I was near dead when I got here, so I traded it for healing and the right to stay. Ravenous Tiger keeps it as collateral.”
Autumn looked at him with the crushing weight of disappointment.
He’d abandoned their people and stolen their holiest artifact, but most egregious was throwing it away like a bargaining chip. Just so he could stay in this place? She had been wrong about him, she never would have expected him to be so selfish. He was a friend, a respected elder, but she saw now all of that was undeserved.
Cloudhawk answered with a sigh of his own. “Well, now that we know the rest should be easy.”
“Not quite.” Brier didn’t know anything about the young man, but he did know that Autumn couldn’t have gotten all the way here on her own. He had to be some kind of guardian. “Ravenous Tiger is famously covetous. Getting him to give up one of his treasures – especially something like the flute – you might as well ask the sun to shine at night.”
Indeed. A relic like that would fetch thousands of gold on the black market, easy.
It was probably fair to say a relic gifted to human from the hands of a god was of similar grade to the Gospel of the Sands. An artifact like that was impossible to measure in mere coins. Cloudhawk had been able to hold onto the book mostly because no one from the other big families could use it. As a retainer of the Polaris family, no one dared get on Skye’s bad side either. Especially just to grab a relic they couldn’t operate.
“You misunderstand. It’s not a matter of whether he’s willing to give it to me. All that matters is I want it.” Cloudhawk’s plan was simple; steal it. If that didn’t work, rob the governor. If he refused, fight. Fighting was last resort, since there were many people he couldn’t take in a straight brawl. But as a thief, few were his equal. Most of the time he was gone before anyone knew something was wrong. “You two catch up. I’ll be back in a little while.”
With that, Cloudhawk left Autumn alone in the Hermit’s Clinic.
What made him so confident she was safe? Cloudhawk wasn’t an idiot, he’d experienced a lot in his few short years on earth. He knew the difference between a good man and a bad one at a glance.
He didn’t know why Brier stole the artifact, but Cloudhawk suspected there was more to his story than greed. But in the end there were only four motivating factors for everything someone did; money, power, fame, or love.
Running all the way out here, changing your name, and starting a clinic… what’s the big picture? He was coming from a paradise, judging by everything he knew of the Woodland Vale. If Brier really wanted to wreak havoc on his people all he had to do was mention their location once in all the years he’d been in exile. He could have even lead someone there.
But the reality was that Brier kept his mouth shut. In all this time, he hadn’t told a soul. Cloudhawk didn’t know his real motivations, and truth was he didn’t care. He just wanted to complete this mission as quickly as possible.
As for Ravenous Tiger, Cloudhawk would have paid the governor a visit even if he didn’t have the flute. He had a connection to the Crimson One, after all – at least according to Mama Jade. That mission was handed to him by Skye Polaris personally, so he had to make sure it was done and done well.
Fishmonger’s Borough was organized into an upper, central, and lower level. The lower level, along with the subterranean pool therein, was where the mutant beasts were kept and raised. Many of the city’s resources came from here, as well as their means of travel. The central level housed the city’s normal denizens, and entertainment to keep them busy. The city’s expansive market was located in this section. Finally, the upper level was where the privileged and powerful presided over the others.
Here was the mansion of the governor, Ravenous Tiger.
Ravenous Tiger’s mansion was as ostentatious as his name would suggest. Its luxurious hallways were manned by a veritable army of personal guards, but to Cloudhawk these mundane defenses were not even worth mentioning. He waited until the coast was clear and slipped through the walls. A few moment later, he was standing in the governor’s private treasury. It was just like the rumors said, Ravenous Tiger was a man of singular greed.
His vault had piles of valuable items haphazardly stacked all around. Calling it dazzling didn’t do it justice. If Cloudhawk had the time, he’d have been happy to rob the governor blind. Sadly, right now the mission had to come first.
Three display cases in the center of the vault caught his eye. Rather, more specifically, it was the resonance coming from inside that drew him.
Cloudhawk wasted no time in opening them one after the other.
The first box contained a very delicate fan that seemed to be carved from a single piece of jade. Carefully lifted it free, he gave it a moment of closer scrutiny. At first glance, the fan looked like a luxury art piece, absolutely beautiful. The truth was, though, that it was also a relic of considerable power.
Inside the second box was a bow. It shone with a burnished bronze luster, like some old artifact from days long gone. It was sadly broken, as proven by the erratic pulses he felt it give off, but Cloudhawk could tell it was recoverable.
Autumn’s flute was in the third box. It wasn’t made out of wood, or stone or metal. It was something else, a strange and unfamiliar material with an equally strange texture. The resonance it emitted was like nothing Cloudhawk had ever felt before. It had to be the holy artifact Autumn needed.
Found at last!
Cloudhawk activated his phasing stone and shoved the relics into his warehouse. He placed them into the warehouse one by one, each requiring significant effort. It was difficult transferring something that wasn’t himself, and the process took two full minutes before all three relics safely stowed. By then most of his mental strength was exhausted, but otherwise he was fine.
Success. Time to get out of here. Cloudhawk was well pleased with himself. Not only had he completed his mission, he’d even come away with a little extra for his trouble.
He reengaged his invisibility cloak and slipped back out into the mansion proper. He was passing the mansion’s reception room when he heard voices that gave him pause. Cloudhawk’s curiosity got the better of him, and he peeked in to hear more clearly.
He spotted a figure in the chamber. Spotted was wrong, because the three-hundred pound bulk was hard to miss. He was standing before an opulent golden bench inlaid with gemstones. This gluttonous gasbag had to be the local despot, Ravenous Tiger.
But he only kept Cloudhawk’s attention for a moment. Soon his eyes slipped toward the one he was talking to.
The man in red robes looked to be about fifty years old, with salt and pepper hair. A small but well-kept beard hugged his chin, lending to his sage-like appearance. Long fingers gingerly rested on a staff, and even before the city’s governor he had an almost regal bearing. However, the handsome gentlemen’s face was marred by a scowl that seemed permanently etched. He looked miserable, like a great god tasked to save a people who did not want saving.
Ravenous Tiger treated the man with nauseating deference. There was nothing about his groveling that spoke to the status of governor. He even stood up when speaking to the man in red, here in his own house.
Was this him? Was this the Crimson One? What an incredible coincidence to find him here in the middle of Cloudhawk’s heist!