Hellflower watched as Cloudhawk disappeared out into the wastelands. She stared absently at the horizon for a time with a sense of loss nagging at her. Teaching Cloudhawk as she had wasn't about emotion or desire, but now that they were apart she couldn't help but feel something was absent.
"You went beyond what was needed." The Caliph of the Sands' raspy, unsettling voice whispered in her ear. He'd appeared behind her unnoticed, his own bloody red eyes following her gaze to where Cloudhawk had been. In fact, a demon's eyes were far superior to that of a human, and they penetrated the dense fog and thick trees that hid the young wastelander from her. "I didn't ask you to take him to bed."
Her face scrunched in annoyance and she gently shook her head. "Yeah. What the hell was I thinking? I feel like I'm starting to miss the kid. Maybe we should go bring'm back."
"Skycloud's forces will be here in two days," the Caliph abruptly changed the subject. "You have a day to prepare."
Hellflower furrowed her brows.
Skycloud's soldiers were fast, too fast for her to transfer everything from the base. She'd only have time to escape with the most critical notes and data. Other than that she had to concentrate on fleeing with the base's most talented scientists.
Blackwater Base's leader paid close attention to the evacuation plans. When she released the information there were actually three separate routes, and each one was a decoy. Hellflower herself didn't intend to follow any of the plans she publicly announced, instead she would use the base's secret passage only a very few people knew about. Together with twenty or thirty scientists and about a hundred elite soldiers, they would escape in secret.
The moment Hellflower announced the escape, Blackwater Base exploded into shocked action. She had been leader only a few days, and already they had to abandon their homes? Unthinkable!
When they burst into the labs after news broke they were dismayed to find it practically cleaned out. All of the most valuable data and medicines were gone, even the scientists themselves. It was like everything vanished into nothing, leaving no trace.
Chaos enveloped Blackwater Base and people quickly broke into two main camps. One group was already in a rush to go. After all, the danger had to be great enough to scare off their leader. They had to get out of danger!
But the others had called the base home for close to forty years. It was home, a place they had affection for. Most importantly, their defenses were among the best in the wastelands. How could anyone break through? No, now was the time to fill the power vacuum.
It was pandemonium.
A day later.
Out of the swamp and back into the deserts. The sound of marching descended as though from the clouds.
The sound rumbled down from heaven, rattling from the shackles of space and time. With it came rays of holy light that spread across the desolate land, cleansing vast tracts. When the hunters of the wastes lifted their eyes to the horizon against the glare, they were met with a scene they never would have expected in their lifetime.
A small host of ships appeared in the sky. Each one was a vision of holy purity encased in hundreds of intricate engravings. Every detail etched into it was rich in meaning, scenes and phrases that created a mural stretching from mast to hull. Spotless, all of them. One could pick an inch at random and find the masterpiece of what had to be the effort of a whole school of artisans.
Among a blinding holy light four enormous ships were suspended in the air. Their lofty crowns were ringed in clouds and they looked like carved jade. A melodious accompaniment of bells sprinkled over the land, mingling among reverent prayer. Like a contingent of angels they appeared from the heavens - god's army, here to cleanse the wicked from the earth.
This refined, this beautiful, this precise, this outlandish, this magical, this noble… it was so out of place among the blasted landscaped of the barren desert as to be almost comical. All of a sudden it was as though heaven and hell had collided. Shock was the only acceptable response.
A miracle! They were witnessing a miracle!
Who else in the wasteland had ever seen something so spectacular?
Especially surprised were the scavengers, who had no idea a place like the elysian lands existed. How could they not immediately fall in worship to jade ships wafting through the heavens as languid as clouds? How could they not be in awe of the chorus of heavenly sounds that heralded their arrival? The sheer spectacle made them want to fall to their knees.
Hanging in the air, no part of the ships actually moved. They appeared to simply float in and an air of nobility and authority that seemed to say the laws of man meant nothing. Science and its rules ceased to apply before the face of god. All of mankind's achievements were laughable by comparison.
From a distance their pace seemed slow but in truth the ships raced across the sky. Marching determinedly overhead their target was clear, a murky swamp surrounded by desert. They began their descent.
"Warriors of the Gods, take up your weapons! For honor we fight, and blasphemers must be eradicated!"
The holy light projected from the ships flooded the landscape and from each a single brilliant beam shot down. Like four jade suns exploding on the earth's surface a light so brilliant one could not look directly at it choked the sky. Moments later a ferocious wind roared out in all directions, bringing with it dust and debris, and the stench of the marsh.
When the light and winds eventually died the ships were safely stationed on the ground. About five hundred soldiers milled around each one. Their weapons and armor glimmered like polished jade, more priceless treasures than implements of war. Each piece of equipment was constructed to be both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
Soldiers from Skycloud, an army of the best holy warriors in service of the gods.
Equipment was precisely the same among all the soldiers. It included an exquisite, handcrafted longbow that was tailor-made to match the size of its bearer. Both ends culminated in razor-sharp edges like scimitars which glimmered like they were made from glass or jade. It was absolutely unique.
It was easy to see the intention was to seamlessly join close combat with ranged attacks, to which they succeeded. The bows could just as easily pierce a man from yards away as skewer him face to face.
In the midst of each of the five hundred-man battalion was a towering standard-bearer, who in contrast to the others was encased in resplendent and ornate armor. They carried no sword and were more spartanly equipped than the typical soldier. All they wore was the masterwork leather protection and a pure white cloak.
The soldiers knelt upon the ground, and from them fifteen hooded men arose. Capes dancing in the wind they approached the head of the troops. More than their capes, an air of sublimity hung over them that was in stark contrast to their bleak surroundings.
It was a unit of demonhunters. Few in numbers, but tremendously effective, each one a warrior in possession of mysterious powers.
The man at the forefront was a middle-aged man, perhaps in his forties. Despite no longer being a young man his skin was still fair and smooth and nobility poured from him.
In a variation from the younger demnohunters accompanying him, he did not have an exorcist staff or bow. It meant he was above those low-tier tools, a leader.
A subordinate softly intruded. "Lord Augustus Cloude, the blasphemers have revealed themselves."
A line of figures emerged from Blackwater Base having spotted the attackers approaching. They were armed with cannons and other artillery, creating a fortified defensive line.
The demonhunter commander, Augustus Cloude, nodded. "Cleanse them."
The other soldiers arose from their prayers as the order was given. With firm resolve and indomitable demeanor they marched forth toward Blackwater Base.
A formation like this was foreign to wastelanders. One after the other battalions fell into line, and the sight quickly sapped the fighting spirit of Blackwater's warriors. However what wastelanders lacked they made up for in the will to fight back, even though their enemies were a force two thousand strong. To have a chance they had to find some way to route the army.
Blackwater Base's defenders let loose with a loud volley, include two heavy machineguns. Only, as the hail of gunfire struck the rapidly approaching soldiers they did nothing. The holy light that hung over them protected the soldiers as well. Even sprayed with hundreds of rounds none of them suffered so much as a scratch. Bullets were ricocheted away from the holy aura as though it were made from steel.
Altogether the Skycloud soldiers lifted their bows. Line upon line knocked pure white arrows and pointed them forty-five degrees skyward. Tang! The arrows were let loose and filled the air as dense as a jungle canopy.
"Are they crazy?"
"Can they even shoot this far?"
The soldiers of Blackwater Base were completely confounded by this. They were hundreds of feet away and an average bow could only shoot a couple hundred. Even the best wasteland bow lost its lethality when the target was further than four hundred feet away and the Blackwater defensive line was at least twice that distance. How could their arrows even reach them?
Skycloud bows were complicated and exquisite weapons that looked as though they were made from precious stone. It was power in pursuit of art, both beautiful and deadly. Their arrows were peculiar as well. They were plated in a holy brilliance like the blessed arrows of legend.
The arrows shot by at incredible speed, descending on the defenders like a biblical plague!
A strange scene then emerged as arrows fell like as hail and fast as bullets. Strangely they did not slow from the moment they were shot from the bow, and instead flew faster. Under the holy light neither gravity nor environment impeded them, making the arrows deadly over a much larger range.
At their highest point the arrows were like a sky full of twinkling stars. The tell-tale whistle of them carving through air emerged as they hung, still for but a moment. Then the arrows came crashing down like a meteor shower, streaks of white light cast from heaven. A chorus of wails arose from Blackwater's fighters for these brilliant arrows each hit their mark. Most terrifying was that they were semi-autonomous - even in midair they could slightly change trajectory toward their target. Although the bow-bearers had appeared to fire at random, in fact their accuracy was very high.
One of the defenders' leaders fled for a few paces, but to no avail. Half a dozen arrows pierced him from several directions.
The arrows did more damage than they might expect, piercing through iron shields and armor like they weren't there. In a single volley the Blackwater soldiers were routed and fled every which way, more a mob than an army.
Skycloud's forces had summoned a rain of death! The result was overwhelming, the disparity between the adversaries was too great.