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Book 3, Chapter 55 - A Mighty Ally

 Autumn clutched the flute. Fear stole all the color from her face but she stared daggers at the woman standing before them. Then she saw what was hiding beneath the hood, and for a moment she forgot herself. Unless she'd seen it for herself, she wouldn't have believed there was a woman so pretty in all the world.

The young girl from the Vale felt like a peasant.

Truthfully, Autumn was a beautiful young woman. But where her beauty bore a sense of innocence and purity, this newcomer was as beautiful as a snow-capped mountain - cold, majestic, and indomitable. Both women were stunning, and while neither could be said to be more beautiful than the other, there was a clear discrepancy in bearing. Autumn was like a forest fairy, a natural phenomenon. She was elegant, frail, like a single lotus floating on a clear forest pond.

The woman standing before her now was ethereal, like she was hardly from this world at all. Faultless, noble, her presence stole your breath. Hers was the sort of beauty men fought wars over. The ladies made for quite a juxtaposition: Autumn, the rare bird of paradise deep in a mystical forest; And this stranger, an edelweiss standing proudly alone on a mountain peak - peering down upon the common flowers of the world but refusing to vie with them.

Beautiful, commanding, powerful. She was young as well, in her early twenties, but nothing about her spoke to immaturity. Her perfect arrogance made her unassailable, a flower that can be appreciated but never plucked.

Who was she?! Her manner alone showed that she was no ordinary wastelander.

Autumn had begun to tremble and sweat. The mere presence of this rare class of woman was overwhelming.

Yet this supernatural beauty, when she stood before them, bore no violent intent. Her bright eyes were fixed upon the young man seated on the floor, and for a moment something flashed through their depths. Her lips slowly curled into a smile.

It was stunning, like watching a glacier melt. Even as a woman Autumn was immediately enamored.

Untouchable as a goddess, but the smile she had for this young man was genuine and affectionate. At last, she raised her hands and pulled the hood down from her face. The sun's light finally revealed her in full.

Gasps arose from the crowd of settlers who stood watching nearby. It was like witnessing the appearance of an immortal.

Selene Cloude stood over Cloudhawk, looking down at him. Cloudhawk looked back up at her, and the two stayed that way for a time just smiling. Selene spoke first, her voice calm and warm like she was addressing an old friend. Autumn could hear the fondness in her words. "How are you? Are you hurt?"

"It's a long story." Cloudhawk did now show any reservation toward the radiant beauty. He openly gave her the once-over. "Hey, after four years you've only gotten stronger and prettier. Leaving no opportunity for us common folk to catch up, eh? Should I call you the Bloodsoaked Queen or Selene Cloude?"

Selene Cloude? This was Selene Cloude?! The exceptional talent who had forsaken Skycloud domain five years ago!

The old drunk was visibly struck by the revelation. He'd suspected it was her when he saw the sword of light, but hearing it from Cloudhawk's mouth he still found it hard to believe.

Five years. She'd stunned all of Skycloud back when she was sixteen years old.

Dawn Polaris, Frost de Winter, Atlas, Blaze... none of them were her equal. She was praised as a once in a generation talent, the only person in all of Skycloud's history with the potential to become a master demonhunter before thirty. In terms of talent, Arcturus himself would not have been her equal back in his day. However, it was at the height of her fame and potential that she vanished into the wastelands. For five years, no one in the eylsian lands had heard any news of what became of her.

The old man looked her over and fought the surge of emotion that washed over him. He saw in her that same elegant, arrogant bearing he remembered from someone else years ago. He laughed to himself; So young and already she has your strength of character. There's no question she's your daughter.

Cloudhawk was also emotional. Four long years had passed since he'd seen her. He remembered the first time they met, back in Blackflag Outpost. She was so full of faith and hatred. He remembered her arrogance, her drive - she was every bit the Bloodsoaked Queen. She was different now, though. She'd changed.

He wondered where her travels had brought her over all this time.

Her beauty, strength and demeanor had only grown more brilliant since the last time they were together. She seemed less impetuous. That rage which had always bubbled just below the surface was more restrained. There was no question that ten thousand miles through the wasteland, and five years of conflict had tempered her. She'd grown a lot, more than she ever would sheltered back in the elysian lands. Selene Cloude was definitely a pillar of a woman, more than capable of handling herself in any conflict.

But there was something missing...

Cloudhawk realized it quickly. Praise for her gods was once every other word out of her mouth. She was a paragon of faith, willing to die in service to her deity. Her disdain for the filth of the wastelands was almost legendary. But now... that stubborn zeal in her eyes was absent. Whatever she'd experienced out here had made her doubt that faith. Or maybe she was strong enough now that she didn't need it anymore.

Selene Cloude had changed. Cloudhawk also wasn't the same boy who left.

When Selene knew him, he was only fourteen or fifteen years old. Short, thin, weak, but bursting with a fierce instinct for staying alive. The Cloudhawk before her now was around twenty. He'd grown tall, and a proper diet had filled him out. He had to be much stronger than he had been. Somewhere along the way he cast aside his youthful brashness, and she could sense that his bone-deep defiance had diminished. It'd been replaced with a kind of brow-beaten indolence.

One without faith, and one without spirit. [1]

A lot had happened to both of them over the years. A steady march of experiences that left their mark. In the end, had they gained more than they lost? Neither had an answer. The paths they'd taken and the scars they left were known only to them.

"Time sure is a fuckin' butcher's knife!" Cloudhawk commented wryly.

Selene's attention turned briefly to the old man. There was more to the vagrant than his looks, she knew, but she didn't stop to ponder what. He was dressed like any other wastelander, after all. However, there was a sparkle of something in her eyes when she looked at Autumn. "Who are your friends?"

Selene had never met the girl, of course. But didn't she recognize the old man? Maybe Cloudhawk's guess about his identity was wrong.

"Hello sister, I'm Autumn." She was calmer now that she knew the woman wasn't here to harm them. When she saw what Selene had done with one stroke to the settlement's buildings, her mind had been filled with awful guesses as to what it would do to her own body. But she swallowed them down, and offered envious praise. "You're incredible! Compared to others I know who just brag all the time, you saved us just when it was needed. A hundred times more reliable!"

Cloudhawk scowled petulantly. What the hell was she doing rubbing his face in the mud?!

The old man eschewed a self-introduction for a yawn, and posed a question of his own. "What's the Cloude family darling doing all the way out here on her lonesome?"

In fact, Cloudhawk was also curious. Was Selene a soothsayer now? How did she knew where to be just when the three of them were in trouble?

Her answer was offered placidly. "I am looking for a relic that releases green fire, and I heard there is a church active in the wastelands that claims to have this power. After a few weeks I learned it was the church's leader who commanded the fires, but no one knew where he was. News came to me that three people had come into conflict with this man, the Crimson One, out in Fishmonger's Borough. I came to see what I could discover."

So that was it. Clever plan.

Cloudhawk repleid with a chuckle. "Heh. Well you got the right people. That wrinkled ballsack is probably right on our trail. We should join up, deal with him together."

The old man's lips curled in a mocking grin. "You think the Crimson One is that easy to defeat? Even with the baby Cloude here I put our chances at no better than thirty percent."

Autumn was visibly skeptical of the old man's dire warning. Were their chances really so low? Had he seen what she did with the light?

Protecting them against the Crimson One had been a fluke, and no one expected Autumn to be able to do it a second time. There was simply too wide a gap between their power. Strong as Selene was, she was still young and largely inexperienced. Only the likes of Arcturus would be able to stand toe to toe against the Crimson One and stand a chance.

The drunk was a mysterious one, and Cloudhawk trusted he knew what he was talking about. As much as he wanted to rip that cross-dressing fuck a new asshole, it wasn't worth dying over. Wiser to put up with his grievances for now. There was no expiration date on vengeance.

"Forget it. Let's get out of here!"

Autumn balked at her protector's lack of spine. Her contempt for him grew.

News of their arrival in the outpost spread fast. It wouldn't be long before the Crimson One knew precisely where they were. If they didn't get a move on soon, their situation would only get worse - and quick. The closer they got to the elysian lands, the better their chances. Strong as the Crimson One and his cronies were, they wouldn't dare piss off Skycloud. If they stuck close to the border the Crimson Church would have to keep themselves in check, a fact that worked to their benefit.

Avoiding conflict entirely was a tall order. With just the three of them there was a one in ten chance of escaping the Crimson One.

Now that they'd met up with Selene their chances increased to one in three, a significant improvement. After a brief search of the settlement they found no cars, but there were beasts they could use as mounts. Wasting no time, the four travelers struck out once again toward the border of the elysian lands. Their goal was to get as close as possible before the enemy caught up.

1. Really, what a fantastic exchange. Even as translator Cloudhawk's gruff persona had me fooled. Through the lens of an old friend it becomes obvious that years of disappointment, being told what to do and what to believe, Cloudhawk had become jaded. This also puts his relationship with Autumn into new light. Perhaps he treats her so poorly because he sees that naïveté that life wrung out of him.