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Book 4, Chapter 17 - The Elder's Conspiracy

 Everything could be explained in a single word: Conspiracy!

Woodland Vale was separated from the world, and adhered to the laws of their faith, loyal to Shepherd. For a thousand years they controlled their birth rates and protected the ecology of their paradise, and as such the gifts of their god were everlasting. They never wanted for food or comforts, and suffered no disasters. As a result, their people never had need to learn the art of combat for they'd never had to defend themselves. It made them weak, and vulnerable. Since everything they could want was readily available, the ugly side of humanity was locked away. The Valites were a kind and good people.

And then, several years ago, everything changed.

It began when the patriarch and matriarch of their tribe died. Soon after, Brier ran away taking his people's treasured artifact with him.

The death of their tribal leaders was unusual, but such was the nature of the tribe's people that they didn't see it as anything other than an unfortunate circumstance. Brier's treachery, while itself was deplorable, was also not the first time. There had been other instances in the tribe's history where someone had grown bored of living under the Shepherd's yolk and committed heinous sins. Several of them find their own ways to escape to the outside world.

Brier was an elder, so it was not unusual that he would have the power to do what he did. It wasn't like defectors were unheard of, either. What made his sin especially egregious was the item he took with him when he did go.

Since its disappearance, Woodland Vale had begun to experience odd phenomena. The most frightening were the appearances of creatures like this, deadly predators in a hitherto peaceful land. People of the Vale had come to call them dragons.

They believed these monsters were a punishment, send by their patron god for the loss of this artifact. Dragons feasted on the eboncrys fruit, and had a taste for human brain and marrow. Their overwhelming strength and impenetrable scales were too much for the primitive weapons of the Valites. Since their arrival, the dragons had come to their homes every couple of days to feed.

Valites were not fighters. They couldn't protect their village.

They paid their price in death. Dragons continued their lethal hunt unimpeded, supping on brains to their heart's content. Faced with the eminent destruction of her tribe, the hopes of the Valites were laid upon Autumn's frail shoulders. She was sent out into the unforgiving world with a handful of brave but ineffective protectors.

However, that was only part of the story. Reality was a fair bit more complicated.

It was all laden with intrigue. Only now had it begun to rise to the surface, and the origin of this wickedness was the tribal elder himself.

It had come as a terrible shock to Autumn when she learned that the noble elder she'd known all her life was hiding such a covetous heart. She never would have believed the man she'd respected so deeply would commit such awful deeds.

He'd murdered her parents.

Autumn would have been next.

When she was born the tribe learned of her ability to command the flute and placed great importance upon the girl. But the elder envisioned a different future for his people. He knew the value eboncrys held in the outside world, and wanted to use it to make his people rich and strong. He wouldn't allow the old guard to hold the progress of their tribe hostage any longer.

And then Brier stole the artifact, fleeing from the Vale. He did it solely to protect Autumn, for without the flute she was no longer a danger to the elder. He would no longer feel the need to deal with her, at least not right away. She would even come to be of use in the future.

It was around that time that the dragons appeared. The elder did not know why, only that their arrival had thrown his tribe into chaos and wracked them with fear.

His goal was simple; open Woodland Vale to the world!

The Vale's hiding place was not perfect. From time to time loopholes appeared, small pockets which allowed those who sought to flee the Vale a chance to do so. Yet exploiting them required one to be at the right place at the right time. Brier and those before him knew how to do it.

But these gaps in protection could not be controlled. The only way for the elder to completely open Woodland Vale to the outside was by opening the stone passage. However, such an act was contrary to the wills of the Shepherd god. Prophecies foretold that once the door was opened, an age of chaos would be invited into their realm.

No one but the elders had the right to open the doors. Even if they wanted to, they could only do it with the approval of the whole tribe. For all the head elder's noble bearing and persuasive words, he couldn't convince the tribe to go along with his plan.

The threat of extinction from the dragons was just what he needed to galvanize the people behind him. With no way to protect themselves, they would have to turn to the outside world.

It was here that Autumn's good luck came to her aid.

Under the guise of sending her out to recover the flute, the elder actually planned to have her assassinated. Once the gate was opened Autumn was of no more use, and since killing her in the Vale would be too suspicious he arranged for it to happen in the wastes.

But fate conspired to save her life, and before the elder's men could do the deed a sandstorm scattered them through the wastes. When had they ever experienced natural phenomena like this? Many died, choking to death on the sands. The remainder were never seen again.

Autumn wandered aimlessly until she came upon Sandbar Station, and stumbled into Cloudhawk's shop. He knew the story from that point.

"Is this the dragon you were talking about?"

Cloudhawk kicked the empty skull of the beast.

"What do you think? If not this, then what?" Autumn chastised. "Yes, of course!"

Cloudhawk grinned, yet at the same time felt there was something strange. "Nasty thing, but not unstoppable. This old wino handled it pretty easily, so why hasn't the problem been solved yet?"

The old man uncorked a jug of alcohol and took a swig, only to discover its contents were long dry. He longingly took in the scent before replacing the cork with a bitter scowl. "Counting this one I've put down eight of the beasts. Gabby there's killed two. Barb took care of one herself. So eleven total."

"Eleven?" Cloudhawk replied. "You're telling me there are more of these things? How many?"

The old fighter shook his head. "Don't know for sure. Conservative estimate... I'd say up to five hundred."

Saying the words summoned a dark expression on Autumn's face. The others sighed despondently.

Cloudhawk nearly vomited. "You're exaggerating, right? If there were five hundred of the things your whole tribe would be dead already. Shit, if there are five hundred of them why bother finding outside help? Just pick up and move, this place belongs to them now. Maybe you can keep some of your people alive."

Cloudhawk just learned how strong just one of these things were.

They were resistant to energy attacks from relics. Fire, ice, lightning, corrosion, even Basilisk's stone curse - it would be hard to deal lasting damage with any attack like this. Brute force was the best way to deal with them.

Cloudhawk figured, strong as he was now, he could probably deal with maybe three dragons at once. Any more than that and things would get very dangerous for him. The old man was saying there were maybe five hundred of them. How the hell were they supposed to deal with that?!

Autumn was immediately irritated by Cloudhawk's panicky response. "At first there was only one of these creatures that threatened the tribe. Once I returned with the flute, our elder showed his true colors. Thankfully he underestimated Uncle, Gabriel and Barb's strength. We were able to escape unharmed. Since that time the dragons have grown more bold and numerous. I believe five hundred is a low estimate."

Cloudhawk openly gaped at her, unsure of how to respond.

The drunkard clicked his tongue and continued. "Anything less than half of Skycloud's Templars would probably be wiped out if they tried to go after these things."

Aw, shit!

Cloudhawk knew Woodland Vale was going to be a hard nut to crack, but this was ludicrous. He had half a mind to get the fuck out of here right away.

"Wait, these things are animals, right? If they're animals, why don't you just use the flute?"

"If it were that easy, we wouldn't need to call you!" Autumn heaved a long sigh, frustration clear on her face. "I tried for a long time to control them with the flute, but discovered that some unifying will is protecting them from me. So long as I'm blocked, the flute is useless."

"You suspect it's the elder controlling them?" He asked.

"Possibly." Autumn wasn't sure, but the mere thought of the elder caused her to frown and grind her teeth. "If it is him then how is he doing it? And if it isn't, then there must be some other power we don't know about manipulating the dragons."

"Well, at the very least we can be sure this has something to do with the elder." Cloudhawk was groping for a place to start looking. "Where is the old fart? Since it seems dealing with the dragons is more than we can manage right now, our best bet is to see to him."

"A lot has changed recently," Barb explained. "It's all been too much for us to handle on our own. That's why we called for you."

Autumn nodded. She wouldn't have agreed to ask this scoundrel for help if there was any other option.

For Cloudhawk, if he'd known the wicked girl's intentions early on, he would have refused with every nasty curse he could muster. Why risk being overrun by giant brain-eating lizards when he could just walk the fuck away?

He got right to the point. "What changes?"

"Once the enchantment protect Woodland Vale was overcome, the elder has started to enact his plan." Autumn explained. "He has been quietly cultivating a relationship with outsiders. This foreign faction had recently been invited into the village, with many strong fighters among them. We've had no opportunity to get close."

Barb continued. "Your Excellency is very familiar with this faction. In fact, I'm sure you know their representative quite well."

"Who is he?"

"Adder." Gabriel was the one to answer his question.

The Conclave of Justice! Of course it would be them!

Adder was already in contact with the Vale's elder?

Woodland Vale was a game-changer, a wildcard with enough power to dramatically change the landscape of the wastelands. Everyone wanted to claim it, and as things stood it seemed impossible for any single power to succeed in doing so.

The elder was an ambitious man who was unwilling to spend the remainder of his years withering away in this small Vale. He was unlikely to submit to any outside rule, but circumstances being as they were he would have to choose between Skycloud and the Conclave.

Obviously the Conclave was his preferred option. Compared to the imperialist tendencies of Skycloud, the Conclave's forces were a better fit.

Adder was a shrewd and dangerous man. If he was here smooth-talking the elder then it meant bad times for Skycloud's expeditionary force. Cloudhawk called to mind the scenes of devastation and disaster that had killed so many innocents back in Skycloud; the image of Hammont's mother's tombstone. A feeling he'd never had before burned in the depths of his heart.

"We will not let Adder get away with it this time. No matter what, I won't allow it to happen."

Cloudhawk made his solemn pledge.

For the time being, the Conclave was only a loose alliance. Nothing more than a cooperative of Skycloud turncoats, rugged wastelanders and freaks from the Northern Barrens. They couldn't stand against General Skye's full might. But if they had the Vale... that would definitely change things.

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