The Crimson One’s vast mental powers were reaching their limit, but even near exhaustion the threat he posed could not be understated. These defeated opponents were no longer worthy of any concern.
As the confrontation reached its final moments, a woman’s harsh voice called out. “I didn’t expect such a showing.”
A beautiful woman appeared in the air. She gently descended among them with lithe steps, cradling in one hand a cyan-hued staff. She was none other than the leader of the Conclave’s army, Natessa Windham.
When he saw her the Crimson One demanded a report. “What is the situation outside?”
She had recently been promoted to commander of the wasteland alliance’s forces. She was supposed to be directing their actions on the battlefield, so her presence here had to mean the fight was over.
“Skycloud’s expeditionary forces have been contained and can no longer continued their assault on the city. They gather their forces to counter the Dark Atom and General Skye is locked in combat with the Caliph of the Sands. Fallowmoor is under no threat for the time being.”
Morale was critical in battles like these. In failing to quickly conquer Fallowmoor and the troops lost in the attempt, it was fully expected that the Elysians should be in low spirits. The losses they suffered had to be serious, otherwise Skye’s temper would not allow him to break off the assault.
Fallowmoor was safe. Skycloud would not break itself against the city and risk the losses it would entail.
General Skye had summoned most of his family’s strength to participate in this fight. If the Elysians chose to kill themselves and bring Fallowmoor down with them there was a real chance it could happen, however it would be a foolish decision from the perspective of Skycloud and the Polaris family.
“I am here seeking permission to lead out troops out of the city.”
“Lead them away from Fallowmoor?”
Their current success in stalling the Elysians was due to the defensive environment surrounding Fallowmoor. Leading their forces out to face the expeditionary force on more even footing gave them no advantage to speak of.
“I’m told reinforcements from the Barrens will arrive soon. There is no better opportunity for us to deliver a crushing blow than right now. While we may have repelled their assault on our city, the bulk of their forces remain intact. If we allow them to return to Skycloud with information about our city, we’ll have an army twice the size in our doorstep in two months.”
She paused for a moment to let her warning sink in.
“The wastelands are weak compared to our enemies. This war has cost us dearly in manpower and equipment, and I am not confident we will be able to survive a second attack of this magnitude. General Skye would not expect a counterattack from Fallowmoor after repelling his forces, and we can use this to add to the pressure from the Dark Atom and reinforcements from the Northern Barrens. An attack from three angles will completely route the Elysian forces and rid us of their greatest general.”
She was suggesting abandoning defense for attack.
Their city had just been rocked by a vicious offensive, taking the fight to their enemies was easier said than done.
It put them at great risk. The expeditionary forces’ withdrawal could be a feint, meant to lull Fallowmoor into a false sense of security. If they lowered their defenses they would be naked, left open to any sneak attack.
But Natessa had studied her enemy and she knew Skye Polaris was an arrogant man. She had also studied the Crimson One, and saw that he was overly cautious. Skye was familiar with the Crimson One, too, and would be betting on his typical timidity. Since he did not know the North was sending reinforcements, playing against his assumptions would give them a powerful advantage.
The Crimson One was leader of the wasteland alliance, so he could not take the field himself. General Skye would not be expecting Natessa leading them to the field, however.
The priest considered her tactic and determined it would be a lethal blow from Skye’s blindspot. It was a clever strategy. If they were able to attack the Elysians on three fronts the odds of victory would rise to seventy percent or better. A risk worth taking.
“Very well. Go at once.”
Selene and the drunk heard her the order and felt an icy grip in their hearts. Even if the expeditionary force survived they would suffer tremendous casualties. They would be able to continue this war for at least half a year.
The Crimson One’s attention returned to his three would-be assassins. He slowly walked toward them as green fire danced in the palm of his right hand.
“We end this here.”
The drunk could feel it, the deadly intent of their enemy. He wanted to protect them but he had no strength left. The Crimson One raised his hand, preparing to incinerate the three invaders so that nothing remained.
Standing behind him, Natessa suddenly raised her head. Her eyes, usually as unreadable as the depths of the ocean, suddenly saw something ripple across. It was a deep, dark, profound intent to kill.
Her cyan staff flared brightly as she thrust it right into the Crimson One’s back.
Were he not injured, the Master Demonhunter could have avoided her dastardly attack. If his Immortal Defender had survived the drunk’s assault, her ploy would have been meaningless. If the Crimson One had even an ounce of suspicion for Natessa, he wouldn’t have turned his back on her.
But none of that applied. He was exhausted, defenseless, and focused on eliminating the threats he expected. Natessa had been ready the moment he made the error of putting her out of mind.
She, like the others from Hell’s Army, was a veteran soldier with years of experience. Her timing and speed was perfect.
Cyan blue flashed as keen as a blade.
It tore through thick red robes, through coarse skin, and out again from the Crimson One’s chest. Blood gushed from the new wound.
Natessa slapped her palm against the end of her weapon, still lodged in her victim. It fired through the Master Demonhunter as streak of light, lodging itself in the ground below. A gaping hole was left behind.
The Crimson One’s face underwent a rapid series of changes. First was surprise, then confusion, then anger, and finally disappointment. All of these emotions were too late to act on. In the left side of his chest where his heart should have been was only an empty cavity. No one – Master Demonhunter or not – could survive such trauma.
He couldn’t finish the thought. A hoarse rattle came up through his throat as he pulled his right hand away from the drunk and toward Natessa. But she was a step quicker.
A twisted wind blade sparked to life in her hand and she hacked it at him before the flames arrived.
His right arm was cleaved from his shoulder, sending Castigation Fire spiraling in all directions. Gouts of flame blasted open ravines in the surrounding cityscape.
Natessa danced weightlessly into the air on her Windstep boots. They shimmered with power as she delivered a kick right to the Crimson One’s chest. Compressed air was released in a concussive blast that tore the abused priest’s clothes apart.
The bones of his chest collapsed, leaving a sickening indentation. The Crimson One careened through the air several dozen meters.
Natessa raced after him.
He wanted to ask why, but the look in her eye as she caught up told him everything.
It had all been lies.
This wasn’t a betrayal, because Natessa had never been loyal to him!
From the beginning, Hell’s Army had moved at the expert machinations of some shadowy hand back in Skycloud. Everything that happened on the Blisterpeaks was a calculated, masterful performance!
Hell’s Army was responsible for the death of Aegir Polaris, several high ranked officers, and thirty thousand soldiers. Heinous, but no different than the missions they performed in the years prior. This was a task, one they were ordered to perform.
For years they slaughtered civilians on the whim of their superiors. Why would they balk at killing soldiers? But who? Who gave this order? Who condemned so many of their own countrymen to death?
The answer was clear in the Crimson One’s mind before it even formed the question. He was just unwilling to accept it.
There was only one person in Skycloud who would give that kind of order and not even blink. Now that all was revealed, it fit his style perfectly.
The Crimson One felt his whole body growing colder. It was so complete that it seeped down into his soul, making even his spirit tremble. It was fear – but not of death. It was ten times worse than a fear of death.
One thought echoed over and over again in his final moments. He can’t succeed. I have to find some way to stop him!
Natessa flashed across the ground, wrenching her staff free. Her face was a dispassionate mask as moved in to finish the job. She never said a word, never betrayed her feelings. Natessa was a ruthless and efficient tool, and she would not be stopped.
One target, one mission: Kill the Crimson One.
The last vestiges of his life force were fading from him. As his body gave up any attempts to recover, it released all remaining energy into a deluge of pure force. He slapped his left hand against the ground, causing the ground to fracture and geysers of flame to emerge.
Natessa was forced to dance nimbly away from the attack, escaping the prison of flames before it could close around her.
As her legs pumped furiously to get her to safety, the Windstep boots came back into play. Every step she took was propelled by bursts of compressed air. She used the momentum to dance between columns of flame.
She raced around to one side then came rushing in again to resume her attack. She threw spirals of cutting wind at him in quick succession!
The Crimson One knew he was dying. He summoned several walls of flame to protect himself, though the effort caused him to vomit mouthfuls of blood and shredded viscera.
All his life, where he tread the earth itself had trembled. Now, it was over.
He didn’t even have enough strength to fight back against someone as inconsequential as Natessa!
He came to a final decision. Bleeding profusely and quickly reaching his end, the Crimson One dashed across the ground and snatched Cloudhawk before fleeing further into Fallowmoor.
Selene tried to stop him, but was too slow. She watched with wide eyes as her friend was dragged away.
As the Crimson One ran his body poured forth Castigation. Countless sparks of green light hung in the air with his passage, which prevented Natessa from giving chase. Upon finding a hidden corner, he stopped.
Today, fate had come calling. It had come at a time and fashion he had not foreseen.
Cloudhawk remained unconscious. Castigation was still scorching him from the inside, causing his skin to crack open, only to regenerate and crack again moments later. Spurts of fire belched from inside him when his skin split like he was a piece of coal. It was astonishing to the Crimson One that this young man was somehow still alive.
Was this the will of the gods?
He came to the grim realization that the Wastelands Alliance, which he had painstakingly built, was doomed to tragedy. Knowing this, he took action. Stretching out his hands he placed them on Cloudhawk’s chest, drawing forth the flames. Tongues of green fire slithered out of Cloudhawk and back into the Crimson One. With the threat of Castigation removed, Cloudhawk’s body quickly began to recover.
The priest then reached into the wound in his own chest and extracted a small orb. Smoldering like a ball of fire composed of energy, runes glimmered upon the item’s surface. Whatever this was, it seemed composed of something neither material nor energetic.
It was a source flame! From it the Crimson One could summon the deadly Castigation Fire!
Bloodied fingers forced the source flame into Cloudhawk’s mouth. Once he retracted his trembling fingers, all the fires within him once again returned to the young man’s scalded form.
“The flames of Castigation belong to you now...”
“Wake up... you need to wake up, quickly!”
The Crimson One looked down at Cloudhawk with a drawn, bitter, desperate expression.