Cloudhawk always had a talent for stealth. Here, in this white-hot conflict, surrounded by the killing intent of so many, he was impossible to detect.
He crept closer to the lieutenant general. Closer. He only had a single shot!
Anyone with a title like his was no push-over. Even with all his advantages he dare not underestimate this foe. And so he waited, taught as a bowstring, crouched like a leopard, waiting for the perfect chance to strike.
From a flanking position several Dark Atom soldiers came charging in, laden with packed vests.
Elysian soldiers weren’t well-versed in the weapons of old, but years of battling these terrorists made them familiar with their tactics. These were suicide soldiers, and their aim was to blow themselves up in the middle of a crowd to take out as many enemies as possible – and themselves in the process.
They were willing to destroy their own bodies for the promise of mutually assured destruction.
Cloudhawk watched from his hidden vantage, speechless.
But the lieutenant and his men were not without teeth. As the suicide soldiers closed in soldiers met them with weapons raised. Several of the rebels had their heads severed before they got too close, but even still their bodies erupted into cacophonous explosions once their dead bodies struck the ground.
A second later, fire and concussive force buffeted the soldiers. Many of the elysians who had moved in to stop them were blasted away or blown apart.
There were no buttons or switches to control the suicide vests as they were connected to the wearer’s heartbeat. When they died, the vests activated. Other rebels continued to charge forward, set ablaze by the detonation of their comrades yet they seemed to feel nothing. Showers of arrows pelted them in their assault, and several more fell in their attempts. The ground shook at they, too, exploded into a mess of limbs and organs.
One of them crossed the field with no less than a dozen arrows jutting from his body. He screamed at the sky, a terrible cry like a dying animal. It was the sound of unyielding faith and indomitable will. His heart was pierced and his legs shot through, yet he refused to fall. Using what remained of his quickly fading life, he jumped toward Drake with wide bloodshot eyes.
The upper half of his body split apart in midair and was consumed by fire. He fell upon Drake like a hellbeast.
The lieutenant watched the human fireball descend with a grin and raised his shield. The debris of what had been the soldier and the detonation were both deflected by his shield. For Drake, an attack like this was no threat. However, it did give the one hiding nearby the opportunity he was looking for.
Cloudhawk rose up, ready to attack. There was no question, the officer’s life.
However, as he was raising his weapon to strike there was something about the man’s stalwart body that gave him pause. As he got closer he saw more clearly who he was about to attack. Though it was not accurate to say he ‘saw’ – the cumbersome armor hid anything that might be recognizable – but he did know that pitch black sword he carried.
Three years in Hell’s Valley weren’t wasted on Drake, and three years later he had only gotten stronger.
His senses were sharp, so when the cloud of danger fell over him it was like an electric shock through his body. Reflexively he swung around, bringing his several hundred kilogram sword over his head.
Cloudhawk pulled back his dual exorcist staves in a defensive posture just in time. Drake’s sword came crashing down with an intensity that threatened to crush him flat. Joints popped beneath the strain. The chance had been there, and Cloudhawk could have slain Drake if he’d wanted but held back. Now the opportunity had passed.
Drake was not weak, but one-on-one the Warden had a clear advantage. Of course now that his quarry knew where he was Cloudhawk couldn’t assassinate him, but he wouldn’t anyway now that he knew who the border forces’ lieutenant general was. For better or worse, the two shared the bitter experience of Hell’s Valley for three years. It came as complete surprise to find him all the way out here.
Cloudhawk let his invisibility fade.
Drake’s mouth fell open in astonishment, while in the same moment there was a kernel of suspicion in the back of his mind. There was no question that there was a threat to his life just a moment ago. Now, here was Cloudhawk. What was going on?
“What are you doing here?!”
Cloudhawk saw his old comrade’s guarded expression. The soldiers he had with him had gathered round now with their weapons raised, and the Warden had to laugh inwardly. Who knew this would happen? He was in the shit now, and what was he supposed to say? I was actually just about to murder you? The weather was nice so I decided to go out for a stroll?
Coal might have fallen for a line like that, but there weren’t many as trusting as that one. An elysian lieutenant was a skilled leader with plentiful experience.
Drake might have looked like a brute, but in reality he was anything but. He was smart and sophisticated, and cunning in his ways. Back in Hell’s Valley his improvement had always been quick and consistent, one of the best of his class.
Even if they had been close in those days, right now Drake clearly had his doubts about his former colleague.
Cloudhawk’s mind raced for an answer. He had to get himself out of this situation, and he needed to find some way to help the Dark Atom. Drake wasn’t an idiot and hedging would only make him more suspicious, but how was he supposed to explain what he was doing with a group of terrorists? What excuse could he offer to explain why he was sneaking up on him?
One of Drake’s retinue stepped forward, an enormously fat man whose armor was badly damaged in several places. He was wounded, but they didn’t seem to bother him much. Hammont Seacrest, Magistrate of the Sandbar made his presence known. “Sir, what are you doing here?”
“I am out here on a secret mission in the wastelands, the Dark Atom is one of my targets!” He couldn’t let the Dark Atom be destroyed, so Cloudhawk grasped at any excuse. With a grim expression he stepped forward. “And you all are morons. You fell for the Dark Atom’s trap. If you keep this up everyone – I mean everyone - is dead.”
Drake and Hammont both looked at him in shock.
It was exactly what he wanted. Scare them for a minute, just enough to give him time to think up a way out of this mess. But he was careful not to show them any sign he was working off the cuff. “In my investigations I’ve discovered that the Dark Atom is working with demons. They’re scheming something, and this so-called war is a part of it. You’re being played – think about it! All of a sudden you get handed the location of the Dark Atom’s secret headquarters! Totally out of the blue, am I right?”
Drake didn’t know where leadership got the information, just that they were on the move right away. It was strange… where in the world did their intelligence come from?
Cloudhawk answered before the question was posed. “Your information came from a wasteland group that’s been trying to weaken border security and attack Skycloud. This whole thing was a distraction. I was trying to stop you, but when I arrived the fight had already started. I was too late.”
Drake narrowed his eyes at him. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
They were in the midst of it now, and pulling back on the cusp of victory would be catastrophic.
Besides, the general had given explicit instructions that they were to destroy the Dark Atom, even if it meant their deaths.
A vague threat wasn’t going to be enough to convince him. Yes, it was true there was a demon, but that didn’t prove that Skycloud was in any direct danger.
Demonhunters were here now to deal with the fiend, and the border forces already had the situation under control. With the addition of Frost’s three thousand Knights of Splendor there was no question the rebels would be eliminated, unless something drastic occurred. As far as Drake could tell, the whole matter would be cleaned up in under an hour.
To pull back now would be ludicrous. No one in their right mind would believe the order even if he gave it. Drake and Cloudhawk had a deep connection, and he believed Cloudhawk wouldn’t want to kill him, but he wasn’t going to let friendship make him blind to the big picture.
Cloudhawk replaced his lack of hard evidence with urgency. “Drake, if you ignore what I’m telling you shit’s gonna to get bad.”
Hammont interjected. “Sir Cloudhawk has been sent to the wastelands on a secret mission from General Skye. He was ordered to uncover information about the Crimson Church. I don’t believe he would deceive us.”
In Hammont’s eyes, Cloudhawk was larger than life. It was unthinkable that he would collude with the Dark Atom terrorists.
Drake looked at both men with a calm expression. He was a resolute and inflexible man, and even if he was inclined to believe Cloudhawk he wouldn’t act on just his word. He only believed what was in front of him, and right now there was nothing to convince him to pull the border forces back.
While Cloudhawk was struggling to find some solution, the unexpected happened. An ominous whistling sound arose from above.
In a quiet plain or lazy city the sound would have captured everyone’s attention. But here, amidst the screams and explosions, it was easily overlooked.
An odd streak of flood of light approached from a valley, thousands of thickly dotted sparks like glowworms or fireflies. They blanketed the sky before falling down among the recently gathered Knights of Splendor.
These weren’t fireflies at all, but a hail of arrows. Strangely, the arrows were all burning with a sickly green fire. While the projectiles themselves were not strong enough to pierce elysian armor, they were far from harmless. Once they struck the flames they bore splashed in all directions, and the briefest contact caused it to spread. The result was a sea of green fire and writhing bodies.
This was punishment from the depths of purgatory! The ire of the gods visited upon them! Cloudhawk cried in disbelief: “Castigation!”
As if on cue, another force appeared on the peripheries of the battlefield. Leading them were a group of men in red missionary robes. The force with them was not large, numbering perhaps only a thousand.
However, their equipment was excellent – bows and compressed weapons of elysian make, which shot arrows with range to match a sniper rifle.
It was the arrows that were most deadly. They were all cursed with Castigation fire, the most deadly substance in the world.
Cloudhawk felt his heart racing. Had the Crimson One recovered already? If that old shit was here he could change the tide of battle all by himself. He could destroy a small army without any help!
But what were the priests of the Crimson Church doing here, anyway? They weren’t the Dark Atom’s allies!