Revenant stood in the center of the hallway. He arms were extended, hands crossed, and the blades held therein pointed toward the ground.
The wraithrobe draped over his body seemed weightless, tangible as a mist, floating though there was no breeze to lift it. The hood was raised and a black mask hid his features from view. From head to toe, Revenant dripped with sinister promise, like an emotionless totem.
Was it ten years, or eight?
Revenant couldn’t remember exactly how long he’d worked for Adder.
But he would never forget his mission and purpose. He was a ghost, ever at Adder’s side. He was a weapon, swung at his master’s command, desiring only to be of use. Adder’s work was important, so Revenant had to ensure it all went right. It didn’t matter who came walking down that hallway, he would stop them.
This was the scene that greeted Cloudhawk when he arrived.
The two men confronted one another roughly twenty paces apart.
Adder’s right-hand man was no weakling. His fighting style was cunning, treacherous, and hard read. The wraithrobes made him particularly elusive, meaning that taking care of him would be difficult for Cloudhawk. It would certainly take more than the few moments he had to spare. Besides Revenant there were also another twenty men behind him, bows drawn and ready to fire. In an area this small, a volley of arrows was lethal.
Cloudhawk knew that if he took another step they would fire on him. A concentrated volley would be as deadly as a point-blank minigun.
“I mean… I guess this welcoming committee is passable.” Cloudhawk pointedly looked to his left and right, and with a distinct note of dissatisfaction in his voice, he asked, “Adder’s too important to come and say hello personally?”
As Cloudhawk stopped the Dark Atom agents behind him were forced to pause as well. Although they didn’t like to admit it, they had to accept that they couldn’t fight through these invaders alone. They had to rely on Cloudhawk’s strength to punch through the men in black.
Revenant remained unmoving with his eyes closed, as though he hadn’t heard.
“So I’m starting to get confused. Are you lot elysians, or wastelanders?” With the mask concealing his features it was impossible to read Cloudhawk’s face. But his eyes were fixed on the invaders with a hard light. “Who the fuck is Adder? What the hell are you guys planning to do?”
Revenant’s robes continued to flutter of their own accord, like he was a spirit from the nether world bound to their reality. In much the way a spirit would, he had grown tired of Cloudhawk’s inane questions. His eyes slowly opened, fixed on his foe, and then in a voice that was both raspy and youthful he responded. “How does this concern you?”
How does it concern me?
Maybe on the surface it didn’t seem to be any of Cloudhawk’s business, but that wasn’t further from the truth!
Adder was Luciasha’s ward. Cloudhawk had to know whatever vile thing the man was planning, otherwise how could he trust in Asha’s safety? But he wasn’t stupid, and the Warden knew that pressing the bastard for answers wasn’t going to get him anywhere. Knock a few out, and bring ‘em back to Barb. Her and her needles would tell him everything he needed to know.
Alright, well such was the way of things. Adder had revealed himself to be an enemy. Even though Cloudhawk had no idea what this primeval weapon was, Adder wanted it and wanted it bad. He sure as shit wasn’t going to use it to plant pretty flowers. If he wanted to kill himself trying to turn this weapon on his enemies then fuck it, but he was dragging Luciasha into it. Cloudhawk couldn’t allow that.
Cloudhawk tightened his grip on the exorcist staves in each hand. “Well it seems you thick-headed fuckwits won’t change your minds. Bring it on. First I’ll smash you all into an unrecognizable mess, then I’m gonna break that bastard Adder’s legs and leave him here. What the hell is wrong with being an honest barman, that he has to come all the way out here and start shit?”
Some people were just ungrateful, Revenant thought to himself. If Adder really wanted him dead, Cloudhawk wouldn’t be standing here running his mouth.
Adder had clearly given him an option, even spared his life, but the hateful child was willing to take off the gloves and fight for real. He even had the audacity to stand here and taunt them. Revenant slowly raised his weapons. The ungrateful would never learn their place.
Both sides stared at each other, weapons bared. Suddenly everything changed.
The floor, walls and ceiling all began to crack as a torrential gust of sand swept through. All eyes were blinded by the yellow sand as it flooded the hallway. Everything was swallowed up.
Cloudhawk felt the familiar resonance and his face fell. “Who the fuck is sneaking around?! Show yourself!”
Sand roared around him like tempestuous waves. Limbs appeared and disappeared all around him like some hideous creature lurked just out of view. These were the others from the hall, and the thought of what happened to them froze his blood. Inwardly Cloudhawk cursed his foul circumstance, but things would get worse. He reached out with his mind to engage the phase stone, only to have it snatched from his neck by a host of sandy tentacles.
Fucked! I’m totally fucked!
His phase abilities were robbed, and with no way to protect himself the tidal wave of sand carried him away. Helpless as a lamb caught in a flash flood, he was carried out of Nucleus. The others were summarily spat out of the wave as they continued while Cloudhawk struggled in vain. He was eventually flung far away from the volcano and its underground war.
Adder and the others exited the warehouse and went back the way they came. The weapon was being gingerly carried on the backs of two of his men. When he came to the sand-blasted hallway he knew instantly what had caused it. He looked around with a glance of doubt and suspicion, but there was no time for hesitation. He nodded toward Revenant, somehow spared from the deluge. “We’re leaving.”
Revenant was no normal man. He didn’t know what happened, but his place was not to ask questions. Wordlessly he followed his master away from the warehouse.
Cloudhawk found himself belched out of a nearby volcanic vent. He hit the obsidian mountainside with a grunt, and for a moment struggled to get his bearings. Scrambling to his feet, there was still a dervish of sand surrounding him, which slowly formed into a familiar outline as he watched. Finally, a towering black figure emerged from the sandstorm.
The battle continued to rage all around them. Cloudhawk had never seen a conflict of this scale or intensity. Yet more shocking was the sudden appearance of this creature, a creature that should have been dead.
“It’s not dead...”
“I thought that the years might have made you wiser. It seems just the opposite.” Cold laughter wormed its way into Cloudhawk’s mind as Abaddon continued. “Did you really think someone like you, with all the strength of a three-legged cat, could kill a demon? If the divine were so weak, then mankind would have reclaimed this world long ago.”
“So what, are you here for revenge?” Cloudhawk shot a sidelong glance at the phase stone, clutched in Abaddon’s taloned grip. “At least give me my necklace back.”
“You think too highly of yourself.” Nothing about the stone seemed to interest the Caliph. He handed it back to Cloudhawk as though it were nothing. “I brought you here for no other reason than to behold the performance with you. Open your eyes, see it clear. A war like this is rare to witness.”
Cloudhawk snatched the necklace and put it back around his neck. He immediately felt more at ease.
The demon was cryptic, it was impossible to know its thoughts. Cloudhawk was nothing, easily killed if the beast had the slightest intention. There was no trick or skill he knew to keep him alive, but even so he wouldn’t let the bastard smell his fear.
“Heh, well, I’m glad you said so. I wouldn’t want there to be any misunderstandings.” Cloudhawk’s words were flippant, but inwardly he was crouched and ready to react. “So you invited me up here to share a cup of tea then?”
Cloudhawk wasn’t afraid, but he sure as shit didn’t have any pleasant feelings toward this monster. This was the same monster that obliterated Blackflag Outpost and his friends. Artemis was dead by the demon’s own hand. He couldn’t say that he had an especially deep relationship with the members of Tartarus company, and his time with Artemis had been very brief. But the tragedy that ended them left a mark, a scar that he carried with him. He had no respect or favorable opinion of this bastard demon.
For the Caliph to appear here, now, blocking Cloudhawk’s path, could only mean he was helping Adder. Did that mean this beast was the bar owner’s real master?
I will kill him. If ever there was a chance, Cloudhawk promised himself he would make the demon suffer. He had to pause when he realized it was the first time he swore death on anything.
“If you believe you can kill me, then I invite you to try. However, I will advise you that you have just one chance. If you fail, then it will mean your end.” Abaddon could feel the violent urges rise within Cloudhawk but didn’t seem to take them to heart. His burning red eyes continued to survey the scene before them. “Who do you think will win?”
Cloudhawk tightly clenched his fist, but ultimately the strength drained from them.
“I think I might still want to live a few more years.” The demon hadn’t done him any harm, and if Cloudhawk decided to make a move it would probably be the last decision he ever made. He turned to follow Abaddon’s gaze. “Anything I say would just be a guess, I don’t know. I do know that you showing up here is probably the biggest variable.”
“There are many variables, and it isn’t certain I am the biggest.”
Cloudhawk didn’t understand what the demon was saying, but he didn’t care enough to ask for clarification.
Looking out over the battlefield, it still seemed like either side could win the day. The Dark Atom had the defensive advantage of home terrain, but the elysian army just kept coming. Wastelander airships continued to pummel the attackers, but though they were numerous they fell like flies. But it wasn’t all one-sided. The shield protecting elysian ships were taking serious blows and already two of their number were sinking toward the ground.
Enormous, stone-like hulls crashed against the craggy mountain sides from several hundred meters up. The earth shook as the wreckage left scars along the ground. Both sides were fully engaged in battle, and at present it seemed as though the elysian army was eking out an advantage. Dark Atom soldiers threw themselves into the fray, and under the border forces leadership they were cut down as though they were walking into a meat grinder. They were steadily gnawing away at the terrorist forces.
If it kept up, clearly the Dark Atom would find themselves on precarious footing.
But the rebel fighters were not toothless. Their counter offensive was ramping up, and they blasted the Skycloud soldiers with all manner of guns and rockets. There were even a few ancient weapons Cloudhawk had never seen before. They were still getting beaten back, but although they were losing ground the rebels knew it was win or die. Their morale held strong.
Surveying the landscape, Cloudhawk’s eyes fell on a sight that made him scowl. On the outskirts of the conflict he spied the remains of the Volcano Tribe warriors laid out on the ground. One in particular caught his attention.
Coal? What was he doing here?!
Cloudhawk glanced at the demon. “I need to go to my friend. Don’t try to stop me.”
Abaddon merely waved him off. His pale, mask-like face betrayed no expression. Seeing that the creature would not stand in his way, he took off toward the valley.
At the same time, in the midst of battle, Wolfblade peered out toward his foes with narrowed eyes. He watched the elysian ships rain fire upon his home. Blue light was gathering around the hilt-less sword hovering nearby.
He extended a finger and the sword darted forth. Protective shells of energy around the elysian warships were useless against it as the weapon pierced their hulls. Nearby Dark Atom warriors were ready, and the moment its shields failed they punished the warship with minigun and rocket fire. Explosions belched into the air as the spires which held the ship aloft were destroyed. Several thousand tons of jade-like stone plummeted toward the ground.
Cloudhawk had just reached Coal when the shadow of the falling airship came over them. It was like being caught beneath a falling mountain! He looked down at the body of Coal, at his terrible wounds, and couldn’t be sure whether the mutant still lived. Nearby, the ship made contact and erupted into a shower of debris. Pieces of the ship and the mountain were thrust high into the air before tumbling down over several kilometers.
Cloudhawk pulled the giant onto his back and began to run.
A second ship fell. Then a third.
War machines from both sides were falling out of the sky in every direction and filling the sky with burning wreckage. It was as though the very sky was falling in burning chunks.
Wolfblade continued to command his mystical sword, appearing for all the world like a man admiring a painting. Meanwhile his blazing sword sundered the defenses of the Skycloud army, leaving them exposed. Wolfblade’s presence had turned the tide back in the Dark Atom’s favor.
In the distance Aegir Polaris saw his peoples’ stalwart defenses failing, but did not know why. He called out the order. “It appears a demon’s apostle is among our foes. I will lead a company to confront him myself. Brontes, cover our advance with the vanguard. Drake, the rest of our forces are under your command.”
“Wait!” Drake had seen that the sword was coming from the farthest reaches of Dark Atom territory, deep behind enemy lines. It was clear that if he wanted to get to whoever was controlling that sword, they would need to fight through most of the terrorist army to get there. It would be dangerous, almost suicidal. At the very least the death toll would be staggering. “I feel it’s too dangerous. Reinforcements will be here soon, we should retreat and regroup for a second offensive. By then the demonhunters will be with us.”
“Faith is my sword, and my will is my shield. Warriors of god never retreat.” Aegir gave Drake a stern look. “Our soldiers may die, but we cannot be defeated. We may lose our lives but we can never lose our will to fight. That is the spirit and the pride of our great army!”
Drake had already seen countless soldiers die in the name of pride. He never understood it. The life of a soldier was precious. Was a single conquest worth so many dead compatriots? The affront of holding back, just for a while, was nothing if it meant ultimate victory.
“All of these lives, just for pride. What do we get in return in return?”
“Righteous glory!” Aegir’s eyes burned with pious resolve. “One day you will be the leader of this army. Then you will understand what I’m telling you. This is the source, what makes us invincible! Besides, it’s just a single despicable blasphemer. He will hardly be worth the stain on my blade. Now, attack!”
1. The phrase he uses here is ‘three legged cat’ which also means ‘jack-of-all-trades’ - an interesting choice considering Cloudhawk’s unique ability to use any sort of relic.