Within three kilometers, the power of the Thrall-collar was stable. Powerful as it was against a single target, the collar still had its limitations. If the dragon flew beyond this distance, Claudia would lose control.
The campfire burned among them. Cloudhawk and his allies meditated to recover their mental strength and stamina.
“Hey, look at what I brought back.” Barb appeared in the depressed clearing, dragging two small deer behind her. “This forest is just chock full. Fruit, game meat, and fish are everywhere. Even the Elysian lands can’t match this bounty. With everything else going on, at least we won’t go hungry.”
Butcher’s face was a thundercloud. He was struggling to imagine how a god that betrayed the pantheon could lord over a land as grand as the one he came from. He could think of no reason why that should be.
The Elysian lands were created by the gods – as was Woodland Vale. Upon bequeathing humans with power and knowledge, their great benefactors made no demands on who they should worship. While Autumn was a denizen of the Vale, there wasn’t much to distinguish her from any other Elysian. Both people were bathed in the glow of a god’s holy radiance.
For the first time there was a strange sense of contradiction in Butcher’s beliefs. He worships the gods because he hated people – indeed, Butcher hated his own race with a bone-deep passion. Humans were filled with ugliness and betrayal, an inherent sin that they could not escape.
He worships the strength, authority and selflessness of the gods. He adored them for their majesty, wisdom, and righteousness. But all of this around him… was this proof that the gods were not perfect? Not infallible? He cast the thought away the moment it entered his mind. The gods wereperfect, and the mere thought it could be any other way was shameful.
The Sutherland brothers were nearly drooling at the sight. “Quick, let’s cook ‘em up! We’re starving. We can’t fight on an empty stomach now, can we?”
Belinda summoned some fire and set about cooking their meal without wasting a breath. The firelight danced off her eager face. As the sweet scent of cooking meat filled the air, she spoke to the others. “The wastelanders are always calling us their tormentors. What an honor to fight for the glory of our gods, making them tremble in fear from our might while proving our superiority! I’m confident that our families will be proud when they learn of our accomplishments.”
The young and inexperienced were always so ready to set their blood boiling. They couldn’t wait to get into a fight.
Chunks of venison were carved from the corpses and cooked to perfection. Even without spices or ingredients the meat was still delectable. The taste filled their mouths and eased their bellies in a way completely different than the mutated flesh of wasteland monsters. The small crew ate ravenously, for hunger had started to set their stomachs rumbling.
Claudia looked around at her squad, shaking her head. They reminded her so much of herself when she was younger. All they knew was to press forward, so ignorant of the world and what waited for them.
Over time she’d grown tired of striving for honor. If it were up to her, she hoped these novices wouldn’t be forced to fight so quickly on the front lines. It was the reason she’d stepped in when Cloudhawk tried to steal Rei away.
Once you were in the fight, it was hard to get out. If Rei accepted Cloudhawk’s offer, she would follow the Talons from mission to mission until she died.
They were still so young, so full of promise. Each one had more promise than Claudia had at their age. It was just that they knew so little about the world. Did they really even understand what it was they were willing to give their lives for? Was it as worth it as they thought?
What a shame if their lives were taken from them before they could find the answer to these questions.
As Claudia leaned against a nearby tree and pondered these sad circumstances, she felt a deep exhaustion waft over her. She just wanted it all to be over. She wanted to go back to Skycloud and work as an instructor in the demonhunter university. It was the sort of life she’d come to love. As for fighting? After three years, Claudia had had her fill.
Aura nibbled on meat and fruit for a time, then curled up at Cloudhawk’s side and fell asleep. As he looked down at her peacefully resting form, he couldn’t help but feel shame for the difficulties she’d been through.
He carefully scooped her up and wrapped her in his tattered cloak to dispel the night’s cold. He sighed while gently setting her down comfortably. “The Vale really is something. How many wastelanders would do anything to live out their lives here? Meanwhile the elder is scheming a way out. I really don’t get what’s wrong with that guy’s head.”
“What do you young folk know?” The old man took a bottle of alcohol Cloudhawk offered. He was already determined to drink himself into oblivion, since days had passed like years here in the forest without any booze. Each gulp was like liberation. He continued in a relaxed tone. “It doesn’t matter how nice a place is, you get tired of it after a while. You start to focus on what makes it bad. Like having a beautiful wife, you get bored of bedding her as the years crawl on.”
Autumn didn’t like his explanation. “Couldn’t you think of a better example?”
“It doesn’t matter what excuse you give, this place is definitely better than the wastelands.” Cloudhawk did not agree with the old man’s words. “Inexhaustible treasures, food, water. There isn’t anywhere out there that can compare.”
The old man laughed. “And what ‘inexhaustible treasure’ do you think they have?”
Cloudhawk rolled his eyes. “Those thousands of eboncrys fruits, obviously.”
“You still don’t get it. There isn’t a single thing in this world that doesn’t come without a price. Anything with value first has to have a value attached to it. Sure, those fruit are priceless in Skycloud. One of them is enough for a normal person to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Here, though? Worthless decoration. This world-changing treasure you’re talking about they don’t need here. You understand?”
Cloudhawk paused in thought, enlightened by the old man’s words. The bounty of Woodland Vale’s eboncrys fruit was priceless to outsiders. If the Vale was smart with it, they could purchase powerful weapons, establish a mighty army, even build a country.
Leaving them here to grow on the trees, they weren’t even worth normal fruit. At least wild fruit could be eaten and give the body some sustenance – eboncrys fruit just… hung there. That was probably what the elder was thinking – he could leverage these useless things to buy his tribe more power and profit.
People! Such was their nature. They could have enough to be comfortable and still desire to accumulate more. They could have all the wealth but thirst for power. They could be rife with power and pine for freedom, for health, for beauty…
People were creatures of boundless avarice.
The elder was obviously convinced that with wealth Woodland Vale would rise in prominence. He thought he could turn their humble tribe into a global powerhouse. A kingdom with countless soldiers, who fought for the glory of their people and brought ever more wealth into their coffers.
The people of Woodland Vale would be free; free to pursue their own dignity and power; free to leave the verdant cage they’d been locked in. If that was his aim, then was the elder really so evil as he was made out to be? Not necessarily!
Whatever Now he was a problem – a problem they had to find a way to solve.
Cloudhawk remembered that it was that same elder who murdered Autumn’s parents – a reprehensible act, for sure. But he couldn’t lie to himself and say that killing him would be some noble deed. Was he willing to kill a man for similar reasons? What was the difference?
Ever since coming back to the Vale, Autumn had sunken into a strange silence. She had always been the sort of quietly mull over her thoughts. Cloudhawk knew that all of this had to be weighing heavily on her, especially since the elder had once been someone she trusted deeply. How could she have thought one day her life would come to this? The human heart was too complicated to predict.
The night passed. As dawn neared, Oddball brought a message to its master.
Cloudhawk got to his feet and announced what he learned to the others. “Conclave members are headed our way. Get ready, we’re going to have to face them.”
Was it finally time? Faces among the others ranged from nervous to excited.
“Gabby, go set a trap. Drunky, after a bit you and I will go handle them face to face.”
“The rest of you, help Claudia and Barb with whatever they need to get those dragons on our side. Once you’re set, give Autumn cover so she can get to the Mausoleum. We’ve only got a small window, so we’ve got to be quick. It’s probably our only chance to safely get in close. Once we’re there, shoot a signal arrow to the other Elysians right away.”
Cloudhawk quickly went over the steps with them. By the time he was finished they could hear the trees rustling as a host drew near.
They waited. The rustling became louder, and then as their enemies neared the clearing shouts began to ring out. The front line was cut apart before they could get close enough to see anything.
“Careful! It’s an ambush!”
Gabriel’s deadly threads were doing their job.
His Shadethread relic would easily slice through solid iron, and were thinner than a strand of hair – almost impossible to see. Out here in this densely packed forest, they were invisible, so the first batch was caught off guard and suffered badly for it. The rest, unsure of what had happened, stopped before they became victims too.
Then, mixed with the sounds of pained screams, roars filled the air!
One... two… ten… twenty! The silhouettes of twenty angry dragons appeared against the dawn sky, charging forth from the Godtree.
Their ferocious nature was stoked. The dragons didn’t care who they encountered, they wished to feed. One after the other the beasts swooped, and the vicious nature of the fight was made evident by the sounds of screams and combat.
Dragons were not easily defended against. Fighters from the Conclave did not have an easy method of killing them.
Cloudhawk, however, was very pleased with the result. “Not bad, not bad! Keep hidden, get ready to fall back.”
Just then, several dark figures broke through the trees. When they saw Cloudhawk they didn’t have a chance to determine he was friend or foe. There was just a flash of silver, and suddenly hot blood was pouring from their throats. Bodies crumpled lifelessly to the leaf-strewn ground.
Cloudhawk and the old drunk covered their retreat while the others raced for the Godtree.
Cloudhawk’s ears tickled as from somewhere nearby in the forest came the powerful resonance of a relic. A plume of fire was belched their way. The dark forest instantly turned bright as day.
The fires seemed to have a life of their own, like a fiery dragon winding its way through the trees. It roared toward Cloudhawk’s location, but he managed to dodge. The tree it struck instant turned to blackened coal in the space of a breath.
A bare-footed man brandishing a flapping standard appeared.
The old soldier’s bitter face had grown more sour over the last few days. Although he wasn’t sure what had just transpired, he was sure it was this young man’s doing. So, without hesitation, he summoned a brilliant pillar of fire and flung it at Cloudhawk like a spear.
The waif was of only average strength. He was no threat to Wyrmsole.
Only, much to his surprise, an iron rod streaked through the sky and knocked his standard off target. His spear of fire streaks off to one side, impaling and consuming a pair of enormous trees but missing its intended mark.
Wyrmsole regarded the wild looking old man who had interfered. He gazed upon the cane until realization dawned. He looked back at its bearer, unbelieving. “Dawnguard. You are-”
The old drunk lifted Dawnguard and pointed it at Cloudhawk. He was instantly wrapped in a brilliant orb that empowered his strength, speed and reaction time. Vulkan spoke in even, authoritative tones. “There’s another one behind. Deal with her. Leave this one to me.”