The three giants of Hell’s Valley: Natessa Windham, Dumont Cenhelm, Eckard Cutter.
Each of them came from politically connected families! Skycloud nobility!
Their backgrounds, education and records of service were spotless – their loyalty had never once been in doubt. This went without saying. Otherwise, how could they be given command of the secret bastion in Hell’s Valley? More importantly, there was a lot of bad blood between the valley and the Dark Atom, not least of which stemming from the rebel attack on the bastion three years ago and the events that followed.
Three years ago, after the attack, Hell’s Army was responsible for wiping out an entire elysian village. Razed to the ground, in order to root out any influence from the Dark Atom in Skycloud territory. Yes, it was precisely these two groups, who none would believe would ever collude toward any end, who were working in concert now.
Wolfblade was saved. More than that, the giants of Hell’s Valley had actually betrayed their elysian brothers and murdered fellow officers in cold blood. Two were dead, one was gravely injured. It didn’t matter what reasons they had, or toward what end they did it – attacking your own people was the direst of sins, from which there was no going back.
Brontes and the soldiers of his vanguard stared in utter disbelief. Yet another was even more shaken by the act. Drake had cut through the enemy toward them in order to protect the general, just in time to see him die.
Three years. It’d only been a few months since he’d graduated from that grueling experience. Never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined… they were supposed to be the necessary evil! The darkness that defends the faith!
How had they succumbed to evil?
Natessa brought the whip back to her side. Her eyes were cold, heartless. It was the same indifferent gaze she used while giving the order to cut down innocent civilians. She looked out among the dumbstruck faces until she caught one among them, the lieutenant general newly arrived at the scene. For a moment, she and Drake just looked at one another.
No explanation was given. None was needed – wasn’t this the way of Hell’s Army? They never gave explanations for the things they did, and their victims were always left confused and left without answers. All that was ever said was ‘it is necessary.’
General Aegir’s head struck the ground.
His body, encased in golden armor and clutching the remains of his holy blade, stood in place for a long time. Blood continued to dribble from the jagged edges of his neck, signaling the departure of his life and heroic soul.
Eckard, failing to kill Roc in the opening attack, brandished his sword and prepared for a second pass.
Rage filled Drake’s eyes. Charging at them with wild abandoned, he howled a challenge.
“Heh. Don’t forget I taught you most of what you know, kid.” Eckard easily deflected Drake’s attack. With an almost halfhearted kick he knocked the lieutenant general back. “You think you can challenge your drillmaster with the little you know?”
“Traitor!” Drake scrambled back onto his feet. The skin between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand was split, wounded when he was disarmed. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. “How could you defect to the Dark Atom?!”
“Wrong. We have not defected. We are merely using this opportunity to declare our independence from Skycloud.” Natessa had always been a woman of few words, speaking only when necessarily. This appeared to be one of those times. “From now on, we three and our Hell’s Army are people of the wastelands. We will no longer be subject to the orders of a distant tyrant.”
“Why do you think!” Eckard’s scarred face twisted into a hideous sneer, making him look even more sinister. “Dumont has been in the valley for twenty years. Ten years of my life have been spent in service, and eight for Natessa. The things we’ve done, others might not understand… but you should.”
The giants of Hell’s Valley were capable people – not just on the field of battle, but in many ways. If they were given leadership positions, they would excel. If they were given a standard commission in the army, training soldiers and leading them on missions, they would undoubtedly be successful. But they weren’t. Instead they were cast out into the valley, where they did the dark deeds Skycloud couldn’t do. No matter what they did or how long they served, they were cut off from the light. Mission after mission, bloody deeds that piled up without any sign of appreciation or acknowledgment of their contributions. Anyone would question their faith under these conditions.
But no one had really considered this. No one knew how a life like that could change a person.
“I’ve wasted ten years in Hell’s Valley. I’m done! I will not tolerate any more, will not pretend anymore!” Eckard was like a different man. He’d always been wild, but now he shown naked lust and ambition. “What did he expect? Throw me to the wastes, and that’s where I’ll grow roots. I won’t listen to another word that motherfucker says.”
Perhaps the only person who would understand the sentiment was Cloudhawk. How could someone like Drake, from a lauded family and born with all the blessings of Skycloud, grasp what they were saying?
“First, let me express my appreciation for letting the past remain in the past,” Wolfblade said to the three former instructors. “Second, let me say I understand, and sympathize.” He grinned, and then slowly pushed the button in his hands. “Now it’s time to end this!”
No sooner had his finger moved than the volcanic mountains around them echoed with the sounds of an alarm. The ear-ringing sound rose above the din of battle.
It was a signal, the final warning that Nucleus’ Nirvana defense was about to activate. Agents of the Dark Atom all over the battlefield blanched and scrambled to retreat toward whatever opening was closest.
“Time for us to go!”
The giants of the valley wasted no time fighting Drake. Taking the warriors of Hell’s Army, they followed Wolfblade in falling back. The Knights of Splendor were abandoning their assault as well, seeing their enemies scatter.
That was when the explosions started. It was like the whole world was trying to tear itself apart.
When the first volcano erupted, it spewed angry red light and pitch black smoke into the air. An airship unfortunate enough to be directly overhead was blown to pieces, which caught flame and came tumbling down the mountain sides.
The pillar of liquid fire roared into the air.
But eventually gravity would have its say. Orbs of angry red flame descended far and wide, a rain of devastation that covered the battlefield. Globs of liquid rock as large as a man’s head fell in an unending torrent. Meanwhile the volcano kept belching more into the sky. As lava snaked down the mountain and peppered the battlefield, it was like a scene from the end of days.
And this was merely the beginning.
A second mountain, then a third, and a fourth all started to erupt in succession. All of the volcanoes around them began to release the angry red fury hidden in their depths.
As more pillars of lava rose, the rain of death increased in volume and scope. Rivers formed and snaked through the fleeing crowds. At least airships had a chance, but the forces caught in the valley suddenly found themselves immersed in hell. Toxic volcano ash covered everything. Flames devoured everything they touched.
Elysian soldiers and Dark Atom members too slow to react were caught in the deluge of fire. They found themselves faced with nowhere to go, no place to hide. All that was left to them was to scream in torment as they were burned to cinders.
A trap! It had all been a trap! As the terrible attack dressed as a natural disaster raged, no one caught in the valleys below survived.
Drake embraced the leadership role Aegir’s death had thrust upon him, and stopped the soldiers from giving chase. “Stop! I’m ordering a full retreat!”
“Listen to him!” Roc was drenched in sweat. “Gather up, look for a way out!”
Would it be that easy?
The lava spewed by these volcanoes was closing in from all directions. Hundreds of degrees of molten rock threatened to turn anything it touched to ash. Beyond these molten rivers were kilometers of valleys, bombarded by orbs of fire. The thin channeled between the maintains were all funnels leading right to their deaths.
The remnants of the elysian army looked around desperately for any hope of survival, but it increasingly seemed that escape was not possible.
Drake gathered a few men, but he only took a few steps before a scorching, stifling sensation brought him to a stop. Ash from the eruptions was filling his lungs and burning him from the inside out. He coughed fruitlessly and staggered as his head spun. Above them lava was cascading down the mountain side, headed their way.
“Gods, save your devout servant!”
What followed was a scene Drake would take to his grave. His soldiers froze under the weight of volcanic ash. They screamed as rivers of lava dissolved them from the bottom up. A hopelessness more intense than anything he’d ever felt griped him, stole his breath. Then there was regret, for not listening to Cloudhawk’s warning.
These brave, heroic men didn’t deserve to die like this! But there was nothing he could do. He, and all his men, were staring oblivion in the face.
Lava was closing in. Drake, Brontes and Roc inched closer as the island of safety they stood upon steadily vanished beneath the angry red torrents. Death was inevitable, the only question was whether they would be melted, burned, or suffocated.
And then, a flash. A figure appeared before him. “Drake! Hold on! I’ll get you out!”
But the lieutenant general’s face was downcast. “No. I won’t leave them behind. Help the others!”
Cloudhawk was nervous and uncertain. Drake was a friend, he had to save him. But he was asking him to save a whole host of people, too. Besides Brontes and Roc, there were all the soldiers desperately trying to avoid the lava as it slowly rose. How was he supposed to save all of them by himself?
Drake saw the uncertainly in Cloudhawk’s face. “I will not leave them!”
He had to fight the urge to knock Drake out and drag him away, but then Cloudhawk looked around at the sea of ash-covered faces. They were scared, some were crying. None of them wanted to be burned alive. As far as Cloudhawk was concerned, elysians and wastelanders – it didn’t matter. People were people. If he didn’t condone the slaughter of wastelanders, how could he leave elysians to such a cruel fate, especially when friends were among them?
“Fine! Why the fuck not.” Cloudhawk shouted above the noise. “Everyone gather up, hold tight!”
Cloudhawk was left with no choice but to try something crazy. Once everyone was huddled he called on the phase stone and tried to spread its field of influence as far as he could. The only way they had a chance was if he could cover everyone in it and get them to safety.
Otherwise, death would come for all of them! But it was easier said than done.
Before today the most Cloudhawk had been able to manage was one other person. He never tried two, but it might have been possible. This time he really might have bitten off more than he could chew. No choice – he had to try. Try something he never attempted before, pushing himself beyond all known limits.
Life or death. That’s what was on the line.