Barb’s efforts bore fruit. However, the process of reading the dead man’s memories was not a smooth one.
At Barb’s current level of skill there was always a chance of failure. This was compounded by the fact the head she was working on no longer had a body. The memories she extracted came in bits and pieces, fragmented, and vague. It was like a mirror shattered into a hundred pieces. She was trying to piece it back together by sweeping everything into a pile. Recreating it seemed impossible.
However, there were some important tidbits they managed to uncover. For one, this relic-wielding stranger was not from Skycloud. It was as they expected, but confirmation helped them breathe a little easier.
The one thing that kept Cloudhawk up at night was having Skycloud set its sights on his young city. With his condition as it was, Cloudhawk couldn’t contend against Arcturus. So long as it wasn’t a direct attack from Skycloud, though, Greenland City could defend itself.
Both the Conclave of Judgment of the Hand of Gehenna boasted demonhunters of their own. Wasteland demonhunters had existed for some time now. What they needed to know, and had yet to discover, was where this one had come from.
If he’d been sent here by the Conclave, that meant trouble. After all, the real power behind that group was Arcturus. The good news was that unless they got help from Skycloud, the Conclave couldn’t defeat Greenland City on its own.
This did not mean Greenland City was strong enough to rival the Conclave. Aside from a solid core of good fighters, their young domain wasn’t any better than an average settlement from the Northern Barrens.
However, even a dragon couldn’t cross an ocean without growing tired.
Natessa was clever and resourceful. The Conclave of Judgment was dominant, with its talons dug deep into every Northern power. But these were the southern wastes. It was too far for the dragon’s reach. With the Dark Atom operating in the area, Natessa’s forces couldn’t run wild here.
“I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty confident he isn’t from anywhere we know about.” Barb continued her trying efforts. “From what I piece together he came from somewhere further south.”
The southern wastes were far less organized than the north. The environment was less forgiving. It meant the human population was scant. Up till now, there wasn’t much of a force to speak of in these parts.
Because it was so harsh here and rife with mutant beasts, even highly trained Elysian troops had a hard time getting around. The furthest reaches of the southern wastes remained a mystery. No one knew what was down there. Or what to expect.
Legends said the south was comprised of complex highlands, which the people had come to call the Savage Lands. But recent discoveries made it seemed the savage lands were misnamed. After all, this was a trained and deadly demonhunter that just wandered into their home. What’s more, coming all this way meant two troubling things:
One, a significant and unknown power was hiding somewhere down there. One that had its own demonhunters.
Two, whatever the reality of this new player, they knew all about Greenland City. Cloudhawk figured the sudden changes in the four nearby cities had caused the strangers to pay attention. Best way to learn more was to send scouts – hence this group.
It was trouble. Whether a lot or little, it was too early to tell.
If they were a small group then it would stand to reason that they act more defensively, be more cautious. Greenland City would be left alone and the calm days would continue, ample time for them to expand. But if this new threat was strong, and they took offense to Cloudhawk setting up shop nearby, then they could expect a fight.
Everyone gathered at a meeting to discuss the possibilities.
More trouble for the young domain. Before their problems were internal ones – food, equipment, resources. For the first time, the problem came from the outside.
“Afraid my ass,” Dawn said from the seat next to Cloudhawk. She slapped the table and shot to her feet. “If those wasteland rats want to cower then let them, but coming up to our house and causing trouble? If we just bury our head in the sand what’s to stop them from stomping on it next time?”
Several of the people in the meeting hall nodded in agreement. Most of them were members of the Polaris family, whose tradition was to solve weapons with fist and steel. “Cloudhawk, as far as I see it this problems doesn’t even bear discussion. Let me take a few hundred people down there and I swear to wipe them out. We are looking for a chance to establish ourselves in the wasteland and this is it! Cull our opposition to scare the others into place!”
Barb openly endorsed the plan. “No quarter for our enemies!”
“If only it were that easy.” Everyone was eager to draw blood, but a voice from the other side of Cloudhawk tried to temper their hawkish views. “You’ve only just started to learn about the wastelands. You don’t know just how dangerous this place can be.”
Dawn scowled threateningly at her. “What are you trying to say?”
“Never underestimate your enemy, and especially never underestimate the environment. With a few hundred soldiers do you think it’d be easy to cross a thousand kilometers of unknown terrain? You don’t even know what you’ll find when you cross it. Simply charging in blind is foolish and deadly.” Hellflower was blunt. “At best, if you follow that plan, victory is a long shot.”
Dawn opened her mouth to refute her but was cut off.
“Hellflower’s right,” Cloudhawk said. He didn’t agree with Dawn’s fervor. “She and I have grown up down here. Hellflower has spent her life traveling all over the wastes. No one knows more than she does about it.”
Dawn tried again. “But-”
“Enough. I know your objections but force is not the only way to solve a problem. It might be worth trying to talk.” Cloudhawk shook his head. “We can’t risk that many soldiers anyway. Greenland City is still young and weak. If you take those soldiers and something happens, that’s a month of hard work thrown away for nothing. If we let internal strife start to tear us up that will only gather attention. We don’t want Arcturus hearing even a whisper of our name, not yet.”
Dawn gave a deflated snort. She didn’t like it, but she saw the reasoning. The root of her discomfort came mostly from Cloudhawk siding with that floozy Hellflower. But she had to accept it.
“We aren’t in a position to commit to a big fight. But we’re in an unenviable position – our enemy is unknown, but they know about us. We need to think of a way to send out feelers and figure out what we’re dealing with.” The suggestion came from Roc. “Perhaps instead we should send Rio and a handful of his best soldiers into the territory, see what they can find?”
“Rio’s capable, but this mission isn’t suitable for Talons. The soldiers are good at what they do, which is a straight fight. They aren’t trained for wilderness survival and covert operations. Besides it’s far, so sending orders is difficult.”
What Cloudhawk wanted was something like the Court of Shadows. If he had someone with Atlas’ talents, they’d be able to trust that person to sneak into enemy territory and learn what they needed without a problem. Unfortunately a man like that wasn’t near at hand. Sending amateurs to do that sort of a job wasn’t going to help them.
A counterattack was out of the question. Investigation was off the table. So what were they expected to do? They couldn’t just sit on their hands!
“Sandspire is a city at the southernmost reaches of our territory, there in the ruins.” Cloudhawk pulled out a crude hand-drawn map. He poured over it while he made his decision. “It’s about four hundred kilometers south from us. We can use that as a screen between us and whatever is down there. If they promise to help us deal with whatever problems come bubbling out of that place, we can help with expansion and safety.”
What was waiting for them in the highlands was a complete mystery. Cloudhawk didn’t want to tip his hand before they knew more. As far as he saw it, the best thing for Greenland City right now was to remain low-key. If they could avoid getting wrapped up in wasteland conflicts, then they should do so.
Sandspire’s population was similar to Greenalnd’s. If Cloudhawk could bring it under his control, they would have a fine launch point for any future missions into the deep south. That would save Greenland City a lot of headaches.
With the enchantment present, Greenland City could focus more on development.
Sandspire was unique and important. In contrast to the other three cities in their orbit – which provided much needed resources – Sandspire gave them something they lacked even more. Technology. It was a city among ancient ruins, filled with strange and interesting things.
Hellflower wasn’t the only one excited about learning more about them. Cloudhawk was as well. He made his decision. “I’ll go visit Sandspire myself.”
Dawn immediately piped up. “You are the Governor. How does it make sense for you to go yourself? You still aren’t fully healed yet. What happens if you run into trouble?”
“I’m already feeling better. I can get around just fine and I still have the ability to teleport. Even weakened, I can get there in half a day.”
Cloudhawk made up his mind, but he wasn’t careless.
Cloudhawk was fairly confident there were few threats to him in these parts, but the world was big and there was a lot he didn’t know. Who’s to say something altogether unexpected wouldn’t catch him out on the road? He’d learned not to underestimate people. He had to be careful.
“Hey drunk, you and Hellflower come with me. We need to make sure the city is ours when we leave.”
“Why me?” The old man rubbed his dirty nose. “You’re falling into a bad habit of bothering me with all this nonsense.”
Cloudhawk grumbled. “Keep complaining and I’ll stop giving you booze.”
The hobo raised his hands in surrender.
Dawn, Roc, Gabby and the others were strong enough to hold things down. Anyway, they had important responsibilities to see to. They were better utilized here in the city. Right now, Greenland’s construction and development was still the number one priority. Autumn was an option to bring along, but it wasn’t like she would come because Cloudhawk asked nicely. The more he troubled her the more she detested him.
Better to employ the god’s powers as sparingly as possible. She was to be used at key moments, when the time was right.
In the end, the best pair to bring with him on this journey was Hellflower and the drunk.
Hellflower had her powerful silver golem as a bodyguard. Unfortunately for them, her golem had been left behind with the Dark Atom. If not, Cloudhawk likely wouldn’t have needed the drunk’s help. Hellflower was strong on her own, but extra protection was good in case they ran into a particularly hairy scenario. After all, Hellflower’s safety was important too. Cloudhawk needed her if he was to continue building his own power.
“Sandspire’s a good place. I visited once a decade ago. Since then I heard there’s been several political upheavals. I’m not sure what it’s like there now.” Hellflower gave her approval of Cloudhawk’s decision. She had fond memories of the place. “Their scientists are mostly known for engineering. Perhaps we can recruit a few of their more clever members for ourselves.”