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Book 3, Chapter 51 - Shepherd's Embrace

 The old man nimbly jumped out of the way, and a moment later the tongues of flame struck the ground with surprising force. Streaks of it branched out, and anyone contaminated by the fires was instantly burned up. The victims were doomed in an instant, and could only howl in unimaginable pain as they died.

"Get out of here!"

The old man was like a scalded dog, yelping as he clambered and scurried from the fires. It would be embarrassingly awkward if not for their predicament.

The Crimson One's powers were unfathomable. The Castigation fires at his command killed everything it touched.

Cloudhawk was the rare exception. Though not immune, he was somehow able to withstand what would outright slay any other man. However, he was quickly reaching his limit. No strength was left in him to withstand a second attack from the Crimson One.

Yet the fates were blind, piling tragedy upon tragedy as monsters continued to clamber out from the lake below. The flute's call had driven them mad, and those that weren't attacking humans on land were warring with one another in the water.

"Where the hell are we supposed to go?" Cloudhawk angrily shouted back at the old man. All the blame for this mess he could place firmly at this wrinkly asshole's feet.

At this point, if they tried to jump into the lake and grab sandsharks they might as well be called bait.

The Crimson One waved his right arm toward a suicide soldier who'd managed to get close. With seemingly little effort a bout of flame emerged, and immediately swallowed his attacker in a ball of flame. A cloud of ash swirled around him.

He wasn't done.

Pressing his hand forward, he dragged the wretched fires through the remains of the soldiers and along the ground, cutting off any escape for the outlaws. An arc-shaped wall arose, penning them in.

The churning waters of the lake lay behind them, and all around burned green fire. Death awaited in every direction. Another set of jagged claws appeared on the water's surface, clawing from the depths. The Crimson One watched, face stark against the sickly flames. He didn't need to do anything, the beasts would do the work for him eventually.

Now that their quarry were driven into a corner, Ravenous Tiger felt a sense of relief. The taste of vengeance was so sweat it was almost cloying. He knew who the old man was, but what of his compatriots? How did they get roped into this suicide mission? Their actions had turned his paradise into a war zone!

And... that girl. Was that his flute in her hand? Was that what had driven all the animals mad? It seemed the flute was a far more worthy treasure than he thought, but how did she get her hands on it!

Ravenous Tiger's eyes turned to Cloudhawk. He'd seen the young man appear from nowhere and slip through walls. He would be the one capable of stealing into his vault. "Killing them quickly would be too good for these bastards! I want them cut into a thousand pieces, then maybe I'll let them die."

The Crimson One paid his fat subordinate no mind, nor was he in a hurry to kill the culprits. His gaze stopped as they reached Autumn. "You must be from Woodland Vale. Killing you would be a great shame. Pledge loyalty to me and you will be spared. Of course, my offer does not extend to the old one."

The Woodland Vale!? Ravenous Tiger looked back at his master with astonishment. Of course he knew the stories of the Vale's vast riches.

So this ragtag crew had people from the Vale? If that were true their worth was incalculable. Their treasures were so legendary it made elysians salivate, much less the starved wastelanders. With the Vale's resources, they could finally fight back against Skycloud's tyranny.

Autumn was inexperienced in the ways of the wastes, but she was not stupid. There was no way she would believe a word that came from this self-righteous monster. His offer to free them from death was just a ploy to learn about her homeland. Should Autumn or Brier fall for his lies, they would be slain the instant they were no longer useful.

Even in death, she was determined to protect her people! She had long known this would be a possibility.

Although his prey didn't speak, the Crimson One could see the answer in their eyes. The refusal didn't upset him, for he still had still had methods yet to try. He motioned at Ravenous Tiger, a signal for him to surround the small party and take them alive for questioning.

Cloudhawk's face darkened at the prospect. He was getting really tired of this shit.

The Crimson One was not to be trifled with, and the Warden was exhausted. He couldn't use the phase stone to save them, no matter how desperate their situation had become. Even if he could, at this distance it didn't matter. Using the phase stone to traverse space took time - time enough for the Crimson One to destroy them a hundred times over.

What to do? For the moment, Cloudhawk was at a loss. Perhaps he could fake a surrender, then book it. Return when he had a plan for how to save Autumn?

Normally that would be a solid plan, but his condition was unstable, and rapidly deteriorating. He could hardly be sure he'd be able to walk out of here, and the Crimson One was a crafty old fuck. Would his ruse even convince the old man? What he really wanted was the Vale's treasure. There was no guarantee he wouldn't kill Cloudhawk the minute he learned he was a wastelander.

He was furious. "You asshole drunk! I couldn't give a shit if you want to die, but you just had to drag us into it!"

"A little late for gripes now, don't you think?" The old man cast him a dismissive glance. He dropped into a combat pose, ready to defend himself from the Borough's forces. "All we can do is fight to the death!"

Autumn's heart sank. It had been an ordeal just to get the flute, and now they faced death because she could not use it. She couldn't accept it, her whole tribe was waiting for her to return with their salvation. The old, the infirm, the children - they faced death while desperately hoping for her to come back, bearing the artifact.

Was this to be their end? Dying here?

Ravenous Tiger shouted the order. "Grab them!"

A hundred soldiers gathered round, as the Crimson One's wall of flame slowly died away.

Autumn watched them come. She gripped the flute tight, her face crestfallen. They were all dead anyway, she couldn't let them take her alive. Who knew what sort of torture was in store if they got their hands on her.

She also couldn't let the gift of their goddess be lost to outsiders - a toy for them to defile. She'd done her best, but there was no other choice. If she couldn't bring the flute back to her people, at least she would choose how she would die.

"I will not let you succeed!"

Autumn ran headlong toward the wall of fire.

Cloudhawk was caught off guard by her sudden suicidal charge. Her actions were completely contrary to the meek, cowardly girl he'd traveled with up to now. He wouldn't have believed she had it in her.

She was meek, but a sense of duty and faith turned even the most cowardly person into a hero.

Autumn was willing to sacrifice everything for the safety of the Vale. If that meant dying, then she did so gladly. Yet before the fires could take her, a figure swept in to deny them. She tumbled backward into Cloudhawk's waiting arms.

"You're not dying first, even if you want to." Brier had been the one to drag her away from the fires, flinging her back toward her Warden. He looked pointedly at the demonhunter. "Young man, I leave the tribe leader's safety to you."

Cloudhawk was slow to react. What was he planning? Why was he putting her safety on him all of a sudden?

He was just a normal doctor, wasn't he? What crazy idea had gotten into his head!

Brier stepped forward to the border of the wall of fire. Their sickly hue painted his face as he looked down upon the corpses of his people. There was no fear, nor anger. In their depths there was only a steel resolve. With his jaw set, he stepped forward.

What the hell is he doing?

The same thought passed through everyone's mind at the same moment. As Brier embraced the flames, he fished out a small green pellet from his robes and stuffed it in his mouth.

Autumn seemed to snap back to reality. Her face was white as a sheet. "Shepherd's Embrace?!"

Brier body shimmered with green light, and what followed was nothing short of extraordinary. The doctor became a conduit of life, as verdant branches and slithering vines burst from his body. Like a host of pythons they whipped and wrapped, reaching through the fires to the corpses beyond. Upon touching them, that radiant green light was conveyed to the bodies, making them glow as well.

Vines grew forth from them as well, so fast that they filled the area before anyone knew what was happening. Vines thick as tree trunks knit together and rose high overhead to separate Cloudhawk and the others from their pursuers.

Ravenous Tiger had never seen anything like that before. "What is this? Some sort of relic?"

"It is of similar function, but no - not a relic." The Crimson One watched with brows furrowed. "It appears the people of the Vale are capable of many mysterious things."

His observations were punctuated by a wave, and a ball of green fire assailed the vines. However, this flora was not of the common sort. Even Castigation fire struggled to quickly burn through them. A defense like this was comparable to the mightiest defensive artifacts. Its price was flesh and blood.

Brier sacrificed his life so that the incredible power of Shepherd's Embrace could give Autumn a chance.

This phenomenon was unique to the people of the Vale, which came at a terrible price. The power was conveyed through the seed of a sacred tree, which empowered the defender with holy power. Years of introspection, training and faith were needed so that the sacrifice could be made when it was needed. The process caused more pain than any normal person could bear. One's body became the soil from which Shepherd's Embrace emerged.

Like the men he'd trained for years, who valiantly gave their lives to get him this far, Brier took the mantle of suicide soldier upon his own shoulders. Had this been his plan? Had he always been prepared to act as a sacrifice?

How was this selfless act the deed of a despicable traitor?

Autumn stared at the living wall with wide eyes. She saw the root of them, the broken body from which they extended. Only the chest and head of the man who had been Brier was left. The vines wrapped all around them. One final, protective embrace.

Tears gathered in Autumn's eyes. "Why did you do this? Why didn't you just explain?"

"There was no time. Don't mourn me, you must continue to live. The tribe needs you." Blood poured from Brier's mouth. He fought for every breath. "Know that your father's death was not as you have been told. I... took the flute... to protect you. Beware... the grand elder!"

The words choked through his throat with a final breath, before Brier became one with the vines.

Green... such a beautiful shade of green.

Just like the woman in his dreams.

Autumn stared at the remains of this tight-lipped man. Her face wet with tears, she slowly lifted the flute to her lips once again. This time she was of singular focus, all of her heart and soul centered on the object of her people's salvation. She felt it resonating, like it was speaking to her.

As the final moments of life fled from Brier's body, he heard it. A spectacular tone unlike any other. It transcended mere sound and was sung directly in the heart. His lips curled into a smile. It was time for his story to end. His only regret was that he wouldn't get to watch her grow into the magnificent women he knew she would become.

You have a long road yet, my girl. Tread well.

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