Sandbar Station had become a lifeless settlement. Open a window, and all you saw were patrolling Elysian soldiers. Its entrance had become an impromptu execution site and heads were stacked high in three separate piles. Ash from the incinerated corpses were carried on the wind and kept the city in perpetual haze.
Adder’s bar still had no patrons.
But that didn’t mean it was empty. Twenty or thirty children were busily cleaning the place with duster cloths, happily working. Even at their young age they knew the bar was their only refuge. On the other side of that door was certain death.
There was no such thing as a free meal, so everyone contributed how they were able. Otherwise, their option was starvation and pain.
Luciasha watched over the children, who averaged about ten years old, each striving to prove their worth. She couldn’t help but feel sad for these homeless children who’d had their roots cut out from under them. They were hopeless, without a place to feel safe or loved. Only someone who had experienced it for themselves could ever really understand what they were going through.
“Rest, all of you. We aren’t expecting any patrons.”
But just as Luciasha said this, there was a loud bang behind her.
An Elysian officer kicked the door open and a squad of men with swords and bows poured in. Without a moment’s pause they started flipping over tables and smashing furniture. The sudden ferocity made everyone in the bar freeze.
Children scattered, hiding wherever they could under tables and behind the bar.
Adder’s henchmen were afraid for their necks, but remembered what the boss had told them. They stood, attempting to stop the soldiers from causing further damage. “Stop! You can’t-”
Shtick – thunk!
Crossbow bolts fell upon the man before he had a chance to finish his thought. In an instant the unfortunate man was a pincushion, with bolts sprouting all over his body. The others who thought of getting in the soldiers’ way shouted in fear and surprise and thought better of it.
Luciasha was also terrified. Did these soldiers not realize this was Adder’s bar? He had a token of a high-ranking demonhunter, when did soldiers start to disregard the authority of demonhunters?!
“Adder has been declared a traitor and an enemy of Skycloud. Everyone here is considered an accomplice and will be given no quarter. Gather them up!” The officer stood in the center of the bar, shoulders back and his hand on his sword. He gave the order in a cold, callous voice. “Kill anyone who resists.”
Luciasha’s face went white as a sheet.
Obviously something had happened to her adopted father, and his name wasn’t going to protect them. Without it, the bar was no longer safe.
The children knew this was bad. They cried and ran in a panic, trying to escape. Soldiers raised their crossbows, aiming for the tiny bodies.
Filled with a courage she didn’t know she had, Luciasha threw herself in front of them. “Don’t kill the children! They’re innocent. I’ll go with you.”
“It’s not up to you to decide who is innocent!”The officer’s face was cruel and disdain dripped from his voice. “Leaving these rats alive is only inviting trouble down the road. The evil of the wastelands must be erased, kill all of them!”
“No!” Luciasha screamed in despair.
But the order was given. Soldiers leveled their weapons, placed their fingers on their triggers. But just as they were ready to fire, a streak of light burst through the bar from outside. It tore directly through the officers head, to the other side of the room and left a fist-sized hole in the wall.
The other soldiers froze for a moment before shock and anger overtook them. They stared unsure of how to react as their officer, now missing two thirds of his head, tumbled backward. All that was left of his skull was bits of brain matter and his lower jaw.
The soldiers turned around and were stunned at what they saw. Those soldiers left outside to catch stragglers were dead to a man, brutally hacked to death. Whoever or whatever had ended them was definitely a highly trained killer.
“Careful! It’s an ambush!”
For the first time since taking control of Sandbar Station, they were under serious attack. Elysian soldiers were trained not to fear anything, so with stoic expressions they whipped around and aimed their weapons toward where the attack had come from. Without even knowing their target, they fired a volley.
The hail of arrows fired toward the partially opened door. In an instant it was blasted to splinters.
One of the higher ranked among them quickly dropped his crossbow and pulled the changeable weapon that was standard Elysian equipment from his back. He kicked open the ruined door and charged outside, but before he died without even spotting his foe. The soldier’s head was easily severed from his neck and went flying through the air, while his body stumbled five or six steps forward before realizing what had happened.
“Heathens! Everyone, charge!”
Fury spurred the soldiers on and they filed outside to hunt their attackers. They were met with blades faster than the eye could follow, as a dozen figures clad in black cut them down. Only two of the men in black were slain by the time the Elysians were dead. Clearly there was a great discrepancy between the capabilities of these two forces.
A man appeared among them. Large, wrapped in a black cloak with his hair cut short and scars across the corner of his eyes. Average in appearance, but something about his presence left a deep impression. A warm, lopsided grin was stuck to his face. “I’m sorry. I was gone for a while.”
Luciasha threw herself into Adder’s arms.
After three years together Adder considered Luciasha no different than a daughter. Nor did it matter who Adder was, to Luciasha she was father. For him, he’d never met a purer and more unsullied spirit thans hers. To her, he was the unshakable mountain that shaded her and lifted her up.
Adder patted her head. “Come with me.”
She raised her head and looked at him with surprise and concern. “Where are we going?”
“The Sandbar is no longer safe. We need to find somewhere else.”
“But the children...” She looked back at the kids who were just starting to peek their heads out from hiding. “I can’t just leave them here.”
“Asha, you’re a good girl. I know this is hard, but in order to protect people you need to have the strength and the means to do it. We can’t take this many with us.”
Luciasha bit her lip. She knew there was truth to what her father was saying, but how could she face these dozens of tiny faces and tell them they were being abandoned?
“ “We have no more use for the bar. Tell them they can take whatever food they can carry. At least it will give them a chance. Whether or not they make it will be up to them from now on.” Adder gently took his daughter by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “You need to understand, saving someone isn’t as simple as providing food and a warm place to sleep. Eventually they will need to learn how to strive for themselves.”
Her work with these children was done, she knew that. While Luciasha might not like it, she didn’t have any right to talk back to the man who had given her so much. She begrudgingly nodded her head. “Alright, I’ll do as you say.”
He smiled. “Actually I’ve prepared a gift. A gift for all the wastelands. Will you join me in witnessing this moment?”
A man in red robes strode up to their side. “This place leaves a thread, enough for demonhunters skilled in tracking to follow. Should we raze it?”
“No. We called this place home for five years. I want to leave it here, a monument to what was. As for the Elysians, you don’t need to worry. I wouldn’t make such a careless mistake.”
Adder picked his way across the corpse-strewn street while the others followed. A team of ox-driven carts were waiting to bring them away from the outpost. As they made for the exit, the caravan passed by Cloudhawk’s shop. Waiting outside was a small girl with tattered clothes and brilliant blue eyes.
“Azura, when Cloudhawk comes back tell him I had to go. Tell him not to worry.”
She didn’t answer. The small girl watched in silence as the caravan trundled away into the distance.
Blood red hues painted the evening sky as the day drew to a close. The undulating desert stopped where razor-sharp mountains groped for the clouds.
Luciasha followed Adder to the rocky desert mountains, where from its peaks one could see far into the distance. Up here the dunes looked flat, and spread to the limits of ones vision where it met the burning sky.
If she had Cloudhawk’s eyes, then at the very farthest reaches of her sight she would be able to see a golden line, a shining border in the distance. It wasn’t the fading sun reflected on the clouds, or a mirage from the intense heat. It was the border wall that separated Skycloud from the wastelands.
Luciasha didn’t know why her father had brought her all the way out here, but she was a clever girl. There were no probing questions, or complaints. She knew Adder had a reason for everything he did.
A few moments passed and a fog rolled it. Small, localized, and in fact as Luciasha watched it gathered together into the form of a woman. She stumbled as she appeared and fell to her knees, panting. Dried blood caked her face. She was wounded badly, but paid the injuries no mind. A raspy voice slipped from her throat.
“It is done.”
Luciasha recognized her. Revenant, wasn’t it? The mysterious shadow that was always at her father’s side. Her mask and turban were gone, leaving her raven black hair free to fall around her face.
She could count on one hand how many times they’d encountered one another, but this was the first time Luciasha saw her real face. Like so many, she was surprised to learn Revenant was a woman.
Adder helped steady her and checked her pulse with a free hand. His dark brows knit tight before Adder produced a pill from his clothes. “You’ve taken some significant damage. Eat this.”
There was a wave of vitality in her solemn, inscrutable eyes. She looked up at him briefly, then lowered her gaze and took the medicine in silence.
“This time you have suffered on our behalf.” Adder’s frame was outlined by the light of the setting sun. The stark lighting made him look indomitable, but in his voice there was a note of reproach and apology. “All you’ve done over the years… it is enough. More than sufficient for the live that was saved. More and more I have the ominous feeling that life will not end well for those like me. If you like, you can choose to leave. Make your own way. It would be better for you.”
Revenant closed her eyes for a moment, then when she opened them again they were filled with determination. “You know I do not follow just to pay a debt.”
All things considered, Luciasha hadn’t many life experiences. But she knew right away that look in Revenant’s eyes, the look of a girl in love. Although she didn’t have the words, it was clear to anyone paying attention.
Did her father not see? He had to, but he didn’t show it.
Adder knew what sort of man he was, and the sort of life he led. Commitments and a future were not things he could give.
As she pondered this an uncomfortable sensation rose in Luciasha’s chest. Her mind went to Squall. These two men were similar in so many ways. What were they carrying that bowed their shoulders so much?
Her foster father shut his eyes, feeling for something. Wind from the direction of the Elysian lands gently caressed his lined features. He let the breeze take him back to when he was a child. It was an evening long ago, just him and his dear cousin Selene. They were toughening themselves by climbing a mountain peak, and reached it just as dusk was claiming the day. He remembered how happy he’d felt.
Those were the days he looked upon most fondly. He believed Selene probably thought back on them with joy, too. But happy days are fleeting…
When had it all started to change?
The gods wanted to imprison everyone in their neatly painted circles, but there were always things you could not control. Like the wind. Like a man’s heart. Like dreams, and a sense of duty.
The gods were not omnipotent. They couldn’t control everything, no matter their ambitions. And if they weren’t omnipotent, then they weren’t really gods.
Adder would never forget the day his father lost faith. The pain, the guilt, the drinking. He’d watched his father descend step by step, from a champion of the gods to a bitter adversary. He also watched the confident and happy Selene allow vengeance to fester in her soul. She’d become a ghost of a person with no aim but to exact punishment.
Yes… he’d seen so much absurd reality. All the way back then, that was when he knew his purpose.
He’d chosen a path of sin, where curses would be spat eternally upon his name. Even if it was a path that lead to disaster, to pain, maybe even to death. But there were some things a man could not ignore, or escape.
Some missions had to be undertaken.
Humans weren’t cattle, they weren’t meant for captivity. Mankind had to rise up, they had to be free.
But like beasts domesticated for too long, some would not be accustomed. There was destined to be many who could not adjust after being made fat at the hands of their masters. Yet if this was the only performance that would change the world, then he was willing to be the one who played the overture.
He slowly opened his eyes. “It’s getting dark.”
Luciasha followed his eyes toward the distance. The setting sun had vanished, and darkness had come to claim the sky.
Suddenly, without warning…
A blinding light shattered the encroaching night, far in the distance. The starry sky was bright as day again for an instant, as though the sun had clawed its way back from sleep. It was several minutes later that the sound of a blast reached them.
Even at such a great distance Luciasha still felt the earth tremble beneath her feet.
As the light faded from blinding white to angry red, it illuminated the mushroom-shaped cloud rising from the earth. When the sound finally reached them it was like a hundred thousand stampeding horses. The intensity of it was almost deafening. She couldn’t imagine what it was like closer to… whatever that was.
Adder watched as that thin golden light vanished within the red glare. The explosion’s epicenter was the heart of Skycloud’s border wall. Taking advantage of the border forces’ weakened state after the Blisterpeaks, he’d slipped the ancient weapon into the heavily fortified area. None of them knew a thing, even as their bodies were incinerated by atomic fire.
Outside forces had tried and failed for years to overcome the Skycloud border wall. Only one thing was capable of bringing it down, and Adder had made sure it got there. With the heart of their defenses in ruin, it would not be long before their precious walls collapsed entirely.
For a thousand years it had stood as the border between Skycloud and the wastelands. Now it was gone. There was no longer a distinction between the Elysian lands and the wastes. From now on wastelanders could enter Skycloud as they pleased. That painted circle, that gilded cage could no longer hold nor protect those blinded zealots. This moment… this glorious moment heralded the birth of a new era.
Luciasha stared wide-eyed at the historic scene. She was of course blind to the importance of it, merely in awe of its fury and drama. She hardly noticed when the first few drops of coolness struck her cheek. She gently reached out her palm, watched the moisture gather. Water…. Rain.
Rain out of nowhere, with no warning and for no reason!
Luciasha had lived all her life in the wastelands, and to those like her rain was a thousand times more precious than gold. She’d never seen a storm like this.
With such an incredible bounty of rain came the promise of life!
As the walls fell, a deluge of energy poured from the Elysian lands. It swept across the wastes like a swarm of animals long held at bay. Where it touched grass sprang from arid ground. Snow-white wildflowers grew and bloomed in the blink of an eye. Up and down the rolling hills surrounding them, a blanket of charming green appeared.
Skycloud’s grand wall wasn’t just a symbol. Its vast expanse was more than merely protection.
Why was it that their great machines could fly in the air for ever, but fell the moment they left that border? Why was the land stark and dead on one side of their wall, and a green paradise on the other?
It was because the wall was not just a wall. It was a coil placed there by the gods, trapping their energy inside. It was a sort of barrier, a containment field that kept the grace of the gods firmly locked away.
The instant of its destruction, thousands of kilometers of desert were brought back to life.
And the Elysian lands were robbed of much of its excess vitality.
All at once the wastelands were not so desolate. Skycloud was no more a place of miracles.
“We have changed the world.”
Adder looked out over the scene he had orchestrated. His eyes burned with something that approached mania. From now on there were no Elysian lands. He raised his arms up high, and screamed at the looming heavens in a resounding voice.
“From now on, the people no longer need to fear hunger! Not a single soul more will die from thirst! At last, all men and women who walk this earth will be seen as equals!”
He dropped his eyes back to the world below, beaming with pride and elation. He knew what consequences this act would bring, but he did it anyway. Whatever was to be his end, history would remember him, because he was the architect of a new age.
“This is the gift I give to the wastelands.” He paused, then smiled.
“Do you like it?”