Everyone was stunned by the sudden and unexpected turn of events.
Before today, average wastelanders saw mutants like Rhino as the peak killers of the wastes! He’d been nearly superhuman, with skin like iron and fists of steel. Anywhere he went Rhino would be top of the food chain.
What did they learn? Red Scorpion’s godslayer could take out a man like Rhino in only a few moves. The sort of power the godslayer called went beyond was these simple folk could grasp. A powerhouse qualified to do as he pleased anywhere in the wastes. And yet… this stranger with Sand Viper, who looked hardly strong enough to lift a sword, killed the godslayer with hardly any effort at all.
Was he even human? With that sort of capability, what was he doing playing second fiddle to Sandspire’s Governor?
In truth, it was Sand Viper who was most shocked of all. He was very familiar with how strong the godslayer had been. While perhaps not as strong as a veteran demonhunter, he was certainly comparable to a typical Elysian demonhunter. When it was revealed that Red Scorpion had a man like that with him, the Governor was sure his people would be eliminated. The outlaw’s dreams were in his grasp, starting with the murder of Sand Viper. But it was snatched away.
Cloudhawk stepped forward with a placid expression on his face.
Red Scorpion and the others took a nervous step backward.
They were afraid. How could they not be? Even the savage sweepers weren’t mad enough to fight a man like him. This almost frail-looking stranger commanded a power wastelanders couldn’t even comprehend. His presence took control of this situation firmly out of their grip.
“That’s all you brought...”
Red Scorpion’s face was a mask of rage and fear. “You… you stare all you want! I’ll tell my master what I saw here. Next time you and everyone else will die! Sandspire will be razed to the ground!”
They were just words, the final taunts of a man who knew there was nothing left to do. Red Scorpion didn’t imagine he could get away, not from a man like this. But when Cloudhawk gave his response the words surprised him.
“Alright. I’ll let you go – I want to see what sort of power is hiding behind you.”
Everyone gaped at him. What?! Let him go? What a stupid thing to do! Everyone – even Red Scorpion himself – couldn’t believe their ears.
“Make you sure also tell whoever is pulling your strings, that the troublemakers they sent to Greenland have also been dealt with. Our accounts have yet to be settled. Tell whoever they are to remember. Remember that from now on Sandspire is part of Greenland territory. And if any of you are seen around here again, I will personally make sure you never have the chance to leave again.”
Sand Viper’s face was white as a sheet. Cloudhawk was dragging his city into the mire with him. It was a bold-face provocation of the southern powers!
“Change is coming. Let’s see how long you last.”
Red Scorpion spat the threat, glaring daggers at Cloudhawk. Its impact was lessened when he fled with his people in disgrace.
Sand Viper and his people watched them go. The Governor was displeased with the result. Why not just kill the man?
“He’s a small fish. We can’t learn anything even if we grabbed and tortured him. Killing him wouldn’t make any difference either. “Cloudhawk explained his reasoning, then continued after a brief pause. “So better to give him some use. Make him bait, maybe we can snag a bigger fish.”
Sand Viper looked into Cloudhawk’s bandaged face. While his own expression remained calm, inwardly he was stricken with fear. If Cloudhawk wanted to kill him, no one would be able to stand in his way.
“I – I wouldn’t dare. I don’t even know what your role in Greenland is.”
“That’s on me. I failed to mention. I am its Governor.”
Governor? This unassuming, humble-looking man was Greenland’s Governor? His doubts were allayed when they returned to Sandspire and found the old man from before. In addition, he’d brought with him a beautiful and erudite woman.
The old man he had personal experience with, but the woman was also well known. Hellflower was a famed wandering Seeker in the South.
She’d stayed in Sandspire for a while, about ten years ago. In that short time she established herself as one of their preeminent scientists. He was surprised to learn that now she spent her days in Greenland City. Judging by the way the old man and Hellflower treated Cloudhawk, his claim of being the city’s Governor were proven true.
This did not put Sand Viper’s mind at ease. Whether it was Cloudhawk, Hellflower, or the old man, none of them were to be discounted. Their presence in the south did not portend smooth days ahead. Highlighting that was the increase in representatives from mysterious powers to the south.
Why were the barren, isolated southern wilds suddenly the focus of these antics? Sand Viper couldn’t even begin to guess was tragedies loomed on the horizon, but one thing was for certain. Red Scorpion was right – things were changing.
The old drunk piped up with great interest after Cloudhawk explained the situation. “What sort of place are we dealing with down there? I don’t even know, Skycloud has no intelligence on the area.”
Cloudhawk turned his attention to Hellflower. “What do you think?”
“Hey, I’m just a scientist.” She rolled her eyes at him. “I ran with Wolfblade and Abaddon, but their secrets are their own.”
“Is that so?” Cloudhawk was ever more suspicions of Hellflower’s words.
“So you just let the little minnow swim away.” The old man wasn’t terribly pleased with the decision. “Are you sure he’ll be back? What’s to say they won’t be more cautious now that they know you’re here?”
“If they don’t come, what’s stopping us from finding them ourselves?”
Cloudhawk’s lips curled into a cunning grin. He wasn’t an idiot. With everything happening on the ground, no one had bothered to look up. If they had, Red Scorpion might have noticed the pudgy yellow bird trailing them.
Cloudhawk was sure the first thing Red Scorpion would do was to report to his handlers. So it was just a matter of following the vine to get to the melon. Once Red Scorpion led them to whoever pulled the strings, more would be revealed.
His two companions suddenly understood.
Skycloud City. Within the gardens of the Governor’s mansion.
A rotund military officer was perched in a pavilion, looking nervous. Beads of sweat dripped down his face as he stared with beady eyes at the chess board before him. His breath was ragged, like he was struggling to breathe.
Finally he released his breath in a heaving sigh and dropped his piece.
Lost again. There were no more moves to make. He looked apologetically at Skycloud’s strongest denizen, seated across from him.
“You’ve improved significantly, and in a short period of time. I made the right choice with you.”
Arcturus looked at Hammont, who looked back with him with reverence and awe. He was entirely taken in by the Governor’s strength and wisdom. At last he understood how even a man as arrogant as Frost de Winter would bow before the Master Demonhunter. By any measure, Arcturus Cloude was the peak of human capability.
They were joined by a heroic figure who strode their way. Frost appeared as though Hammont’s thoughts had summoned him. The fat officer clambered to his feet and gave a respectful bow. It was earned – Frost was one of the most important figures in all the realm!
He had been elevated to the post of Commander General of the entire army, and was the one Governor Arcturus thought most highly of. He was strong, capable, and intelligent. Even if he did not one day rise to the position of Governor, Frost was destined to be a pillar of their domain.
The general addressed his Governor. “Everything is prepared.”
“Good.” Arcturus rose from the table. “Things have calmed in the north, but I sense a dark influence gathering in the south. Make sure our forces are positioned down there and prepare them for the coming conflict.”
No large organization had ever appeared from the southern wilds. While there was the odd city, none had the manpower or influence of northern groups. So why focus the efforts of their armies down there?
“The Dark Atom only has the capacity to rise from time to time and cause problems. They are insignificant, not enough to threaten our home. The real danger has yet to reveal itself, but gathers strength in the shadows. Yet I can feel them stirring.”
Arcturus folded his hands behind his back and looked out over the man-made pond in the center of the garden.
“Do not underestimate the southern wilds. The calm on its surface conceals a deadly undertow. The ripples are only just starting to show.”
How was this possible? It was hard to imagine!
“A thousand years have passed since the Great War between the gods and the demons. You cannot discount the power time brings. Humanity has grown – both here and in the wastelands. If you compare the north to the south, we stand on a precipice we’ve never faced before. Our true test will come from the south. The foulest tempest brews in those mysterious highlands.”
Shock and anxiety met his heavy words. It is no wonder Arcturus took over the army himself, for an ordinary man like Skye Polaris could never understand the deep shadows lurking beneath Skycloud’s brilliance.
Hammont was confused. “If the south has gathered enough power to be a threat, why are we just dealing with them now? Their opportunity would have been to strike while we were preoccupied with the Crimson One.”
Indeed, why hadn’t they acted yet if they had the power to? Why was now the time? Would have not been to their advantage to attack at the same time as the north?
“I’ve told you more than once, if you want to be an effective leader you must take the long view. You must look beyond the comparisons between one group and another. War is not as simple as you imagine, just like the chess game we play. What determines the outcome of a battle is not the pieces we play. Often, it is the power of the one who places them.”
Frost understood. His master was talking about the Cloud God.
The south had lain dormant for so long because Skycloud enjoyed the Cloud God’s protection. Now that their patron was slumbering and could not wake, their realm had lost its connection to Sumeru. Were something to happen to their home, the gods would be none the wiser.
Now was the perfect time to release dark and sinister forces unto the world. But what was hiding down there in the southern wilds? Was it Gehenna, the legendary demonic force?
Arcturus continued. “You must begin deployment at once. The full power of the Cloude family will join you. Remember, every action you take is in defense of our home. You are the shield that guards two million citizens and the future of our species.”
Hammont’s face flushed with purpose. He snapped into a bow. “This humble soldier will stop at nothing!”