Fallowmoor was a strange and enigmatic wastelander city. It was a gloomy shadow hovering over the dark landscape below, which was the source of its ominous name. From the outside, Fallowmoor looked like a titanic, floating black mountain. Upon closer inspection, however, this proved to be misleading.
First and foremost, its surface gleamed with a metallic luster even in the dim light of the constant sandstorm. Its outer shell was separate from the interior, and spun with the influence of the hurricane outside. The centrifugal force created as a result provided artificial gravity for the city’s interior and the constant motion powered electricity generators.
This place was obvious not natural, or even created by wastelander hands. It wasn’t even from this era.
Fallowmoor had to be some kind of ancient mother ship, created by ancient man. A space port perhaps, packed with technology far beyond the ken of modern humans. Inside, all of the buildings and farmlands were build on the walls where there was enough space to grow produce and live their lives. The center was crisscrossed with tunnels and lanes for travel. All told it was a complex structure completely closed to the outside. Invaders would find it impossible to find a way inside, and it was practically unheard of for those inside to venture out.
In addition, there were a number of floating fortresses build into rocks suspended all around the city.
The environment it occupied was danger and unpredictable. There were no instruments that could tell outsiders where the deadly dimensional tears were located, or where they moved to. As such they were a natural defense system for the city – insomuch as dimensional tears were ‘natural.’ It was no exaggeration to claim Fallowmoor was the most secure city in the whole of the wastelands.
Inside sat the Crimson One, eyes closed in meditation. Toad and Canker stood at his side.
Brief was the time since these two proud mutants chose to join with the Master Demonhunter of bygone days. They paid him all due respect, for he was after all one of the greatest demonhunters of his time. In the wastelands strength was respected, and he was incredibly strong. What’s more, he had the intelligence and experience that wasteland leaders lacked.
Simply put, they needed a man like him to give them structure and guidance.
Both mutants had ambitions of power, but they were not fools. They saw the situation between the wastelands and Skycloud, and recognized that they did not have the clout or resources to lead a war against the Elysians. Only a man like the Crimson One could do that.
The Crimson One had faced much in a short period of time. His son, Adder, had been slain in the bowels of Woodland Vale. No matter how many years passed, that pain would remain with him forever.
As a father, he and his son had little interaction. In fact they’d seen one another only a handful of times in the years since absconding to the wastes. They had been alike in many ways, as one might expect. Most notably, each were strong in ability and personality, but famously tight-lipped about their emotions. Whether to friends, enemies or loved ones, they always kept their thoughts hidden like a wide river running deep below the surface. On the surface one would never know, but deep inside the waters raged.
When word of his son’s death reached the Crimson One his expression had been indifferent. He revealed neither pain at the loss of his boy, nor hatred for the ones who killed him. He was as unreadable as a mountain face.
However, subtle clues betrayed his stoic facade. The priest’s salt and pepper hair was more gray now, but he let nothing else show. It was as though the man who had been blown apart in the Vale was not his son at all, just some stranger who’d died for the cause.
Toad and Canker shifted uncomfortably beside the man. They felt it. This silence was terrible.
There were some people who, when encountering the difficulties of life, did not kick and scream and pull their hair. Nor did they sink into depression and let the world overwhelm them. To these people pain was a source of power. The more hardships they faced, the stronger they became. These were the types of people others called ‘powerful.’
Natessa Windham walked into the chamber. Even a woman as wild and independent as her showed true respect when before the Crimson One. She offered a slight bow. “The situation outside has stabilized. For the time being, there is no way for the expeditionary force to break free from the fight.”
Lines at the edges of the Crimson One’s eyes deepened for a moment. “How do you expect this will play out?”
“Skycloud’s forces responded quickly, forcing us to arrange only half of our strength to mount a defense. We didn’t have the time we needed to properly prepare.” Natessa had obviously been caught off guard with the speed and efficiency of the expeditionary force. “Luckily, the Dark Atom fleet caught them by surprise with a rear sneak attack. Their timing was impeccable, otherwise we would have been hard pressed to fend off Skye’s attack. For now we must hold the lines and wait for reinforcements.”
It was clear how much pressure the Dark Atom’s surprise assault had laid on the shoulders of the Elysians.
If current circumstances continued then the devastation to all sides would be frightening to behold. However the Elysians had the numbers to lose many such battles, whereas the wasteland couldn’t afford one. Everyone was painfully aware of the fact. Skycloud still had a second and third division ready to take up arms. The Conclave didn’t have that luxury. If their alliance fell here, the wastelands faced an unprecedented area of ethnic cleansing that would leave millions dead.
But then again…
The Dark Atom had proven stronger than previous thought. There was still significant uncertainty as to who would win this war.
The Crimson One nodded. He offered no opinion, and only opened his eyes to fix a gaze upon Natessa. “Since defecting and leaving the valley, you and your people have become hated by the Elysians. You’re an especially rancorous pill to Skye Polaris. After sacrificing so much, and putting your life in such danger, do you have any regrets?”
Natessa didn’t know why the Crimson One was asking her this question now. However she answered directly, without much thought. “In the fight for freedom, there are no regrets.”
The betrayal of Hell’s Army came as a bitter surprise to many in Skycloud. But anyone who thought about it critically would see it should not have been.
Theirs was an organization with strength and ability, but no recognition. For decades they were stationed out beyond the wall, forced to live within sight of the holy land but subsisting on the scant bounties of the wastes. Skycloud only reached out to them when the foulest deeds needed doing. Hell’s Army was seen as a necessary evil, a tool so ensure the security and stability of their great domain. And they did it without honor, without recognition, and without reward.
The leaders of Skycloud must have known that when you’re mired in darkness for long enough, it is easy to let it consume you. When you tread along the edge of a precipice for long enough, one day you’ll fall. Hell’s Army took the plunge, and had no intention of looking back.
When Natessa defected she did so under no uncertain terms. She murdered the commander of Skycloud’s border forces, the general of its defense force, and maimed the Warden of the Talons of God. Each of them were Skye Polaris’ men or family. There was no question that the Giants of Hell’s Army were top on the General’s list of those to be executed.
Skye Polaris would give them no quarter. The Polaris family would see them punished, in the cruelest fashion they could muster. Skycloud’s people could never forgive their betrayal. Hell’s Army would never be brought back into the fold. So long as any member of the Polaris family still lived, Hell’s Army lived under threat of retribution.
He looked at this young, dominant woman. When surrounded by darkness, you might as well be free in the shadow. When you’ve fallen from grace, why not fall with dignity. Is that the creed Hell’s Army had adopted? But freedom was a tempting and dangerous luxury that not many earned. Were they really willing to sacrifice everything for this lofty ideal?
“The Conclave is lucky to have many talented soldiers, but there are few capable of real leadership. Adder is dead, Wyrmsole is growing old.” The Crimson One rose to his feet, never taking his eyes off Natessa. “From this moment forward you will be commander of all our forces. Our conflict with the Elysians will now be your responsibility to bear.”
The sudden promotion took Natessa by surprise. It was always Adder that the Crimson One had placed all his hopes on. He’d been strong, capable, and made of the stuff of leadership. If anyone was suitable for the post of Commander, it was him.
Unfortunately, Adder had fallen.
The Crimson One had always wanted someone young and talented to take under his wing. After years of searching, Natessa was the only one who seemed worthy. She was one of the Giants of Hell’s Army, a leader and a tactician, and the youngest member of the Conclave’s leadership structure. Not only was she a capable commander, she was also a fine soldier in her own right.
But most importantly, she knew their enemy.
Many of the veterans among Hell’s Army’s ranks were former officers. Pick any one at random at they would tell you of the dozens of battles they fought and survived. These days the Hell’s Army of before was no more. Many of its most effective fighters were cannibalized and made into the backbone of the Conclave’s army. Even its most average members were good enough to be mid-level officers of their fledgling alliance.
While from the outside Natessa’s influence in the Conclave seemed limited, in fact it was precisely the opposite. Her and her army had tremendous weight in the conclave. If he should fall, it was not his right hand man Wyrmsole who would take over command of the alliance. Nor was it Toad, or Canker.
It was Hell’s Army! To be more precise, it was Natessa Windham.
Natessa name did not ring through Skycloud. Hers was not a personality that inspired the wastelands. However, the Crimson One could tell that she had all the right tools to be a great leader. So long as she had his backing, Natessa would certainly be accepted as the next in line to lead their organization.
“No need for surprise. To be young just means to be in need of practice. Our struggle will not end here, the war with Skycloud will drag on. We will need young people like you to bring us to ultimate victory.” The Crimson One was full of encouragement and support in the face of her astonishment. “Unfortunately we find ourselves in an uncertain position, otherwise I would accept you as my apprentice in a more formal manner. Skycloud sorely underestimated your worth. If the fates decide you should live and progress, then the leaders of the Elysians lands will be forced to see you with new eyes.”
Natessa had always been capable, reasonable. The reason she had lead Hell’s Army into the arms of the Church was for its own benefit, was it not? She raised her hands in salute. “I will not betray our leader’s trust.”
The Crimson One then turned his attention toward the mutants, who had been standing silently by his side. “When can we expect reinforcement from the Northern Barrens to arrive?”
Toad stepped forward and answered. “We’ve already dispatched an emissary. I believe we can convince one or both of the other leaders to come to our aid. The outcome of this fight doesn’t just affect us, but the wastelands as a whole. I am confident they will recognize this.”
The Crimson One hoped this was true. The powers of the wasteland were legion, but scattered like dust in the wind.
Wyrmsole hurried pushed his way into the chamber. “Something unexpected is happening in the city!”
The Crimson One’s brows furrowed. “Speak.”
Wyrmsole obliged. “We’ve found evidence that someone might have snuck inside. I’ve dispatched a team of demonhunters adept at tracking to see what they can discover. At present we suspect there may be roughly eight intruders.”
Toad’s face twisted into a scowl. “Fallowmoor hasn’t even been struck once with an attack. How could someone have gotten inside?”
“We are not mistaken,” Wyrmsole replied with certainty.
Silence came over the room as the Crimson One mulled over the possibilities. “Unless I’m mistaken, Cloudhawk will be one of them. His teleportation capabilities are hard to prepare against. It is not strange for him to appear inside the city, even if the walls haven’t been breached.
Cloudhawk?! Everyone scowled when they heard the name. That damned troublemaker again! If not for his involvement, Woodland Vale would have been an ally of the conclave, or at least willing to cooperate. With Woodland Vale as their foundation and the Northern Barrens for support, the Conclave of Judgment would have been all but unstoppable.
After all, Woodland Vale was famous for its inexhaustible resources, resources which were desperately needed by the alliance. But he ruined everything! What wastelander didn’t despise the name Cloudhawk? Luckily for them, however, they didn’t need to hunt the despicable man down. He was walking right into their hands.
In contrast to the others, the Crimson One’s face was deathly calm. His voice was cold as a winter breeze. “Bring them to me.”