The biggest difference between the elysian lands and the wastelands wasn’t the landscape. It was the people – the fact that anyone born in one place or the other was fundamentally raised differently, right down to their bones. Wastelanders were forced to consider survival above everything else, no matter the means, and they did that by succumbing to materialistic instinct. Conversely, elysians were born into a life of plenty where they could follow pursuits of faith and honor.
Honor wasn’t a concept Cloudhawk had fully come to understand yet.
Therefore he didn’t understand why he would choose to die out here, without compromise, and be returned to his family. He didn’t know how these men could indiscriminately slaughter thousands of innocent wastelanders, but selflessly sacrifice their own life for a companion. They lived under the grace of the gods, without want for food or clothing, their minds filled with firm conviction and faith. The elysians were always ready for any chance to show their honor and worth.
Family, love, friends – even life. When placed before the altar of glory and faith they were easily sacrificed. It was the root of the elysians’ strength, this conviction, and it protected them from the evils of the world.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers just like this protected the holy lands, impregnable and unshakable. How could an organization like the Dark Atom hope to win?
He just couldn’t understand and could only stand there, stunned.
The captain’s soldiers carried him away. The others spread out to search the area.
“Sir! There were eight Dark Atom agents. One escape, one survived, and six more were killed.”
They had lost five soldiers and three more were critically wounded. Six managed to escape the skirmish in decent shape. Three of that group began looking through the corpses for any important information, and the remaining three set about rummaging through the warehouse.
“We found a small hidden room while looking through the warehouse. There are fifteen canisters of what we think are poison gas.”
Cloudhawk led Barb and Squall into the warehouse. Inside they found a dozen or so glass containers in a secret room, just as the soldiers said. A nasty green liquid sloshed inside, bubbling constantly like it was just looking for an excuse to blow.
“I think I read about something like this in a book. They called it green nightmare, it’s a toxic chemical. Supposedly it’s made from refined parts of wasteland animals and evaporates at room temperature into a toxic cloud. It’s really nasty stuff, if these canisters broke it’d probably kill everyone in the Sandbar!” Barb was surprised to find such dangerous materials here. She patted her full chest to restrain her beating heart. “Damn, that’s no joke. If the rebels had used this we would all be dead!”
Soldiers within ear shot heard this and felt a chill run up their spines. The spies were more dangerous than they’d thought!
No one rushed to handle the canisters for fear a single slip up could kill them all. Only Squall kept groping around. He spotted an inconspicuous dark case nearby.
“Hey, look at this!” He’d opened the case and pulled out a sheet of parchment. “This looks like Skycloud City, doesn’t it?”
The others gathered round.
It was indeed a blueprint of Skycloud, and with an impressive amount of detail.
“All this poison and a picture of Skycloud… what were they planning?”
“Whatever it was, it was nothing good.”
“Give it to me, I need to look it over.” Cloudhawk took it from Squall. Was this the information Adder was looking for? No, not likely. He’d told Cloudhawk he was looking for a map. He ordered them to keep looking. “Spread out, we’re looking for a map. Give it to me if you find anything.”
The soldiers continued to sift through the warehouse’s contents.
Three minutes later one of them called out, “Sir, I think I found it!”
Cloudhawk went to the soldier who called out and took the map from him. This one had been found on the body of the man with the goatee. It was old, and judging by the texture it was made from high-grade mutant animal leather. Cloudhawk couldn’t make heads or tails of it. On one side was a mountain range, and on the other was a mess of letters and symbols that made little sense.
It was a map, but there wasn’t any sort of label or identifying marks.
Barb crept over and – curiosity getting the better of her – snuck a peak. She wrinkled her nose in thought then looked at Cloudhawk. “What’s this weird thing?”
“I’m taking this with me. It involves my mission, so make sure you keep the information under wraps. We need to make sure no one finds it, do you understand?”
Somehow the ragged map was involved with the demonhunter’s mission? They didn’t understand how exactly but they were too lazy to puzzle it out. Cloudhawk took it and the blueprints for himself. The mission was done, and although there was still cleanup to do everyone had been wounded to some degree during the skirmish. The rest could be handled by their superiors.
When Cloudhawk returned to the bar he found Old Thistle and Asha, anxiously waiting.
Old Thistle stopped fiddling with his bracelet when Cloudhawk approached and he heaved a sigh. “I heard…”
“It’s done.” Cloudhawk nodded. “Squall was a great help, his actions will go a long way. I’m sure Skycloud City will reward him for his efforts.”
Old Thistle let out a long breath. In the end it’d been more fear than danger, he’d made the right call.
Adder approached the bar with a drink in his hand. “I was right about you. I’m surprised you got it done so quickly.”
“You said simple and you were right.” Cloudhawk turned to him and placed the map on the bar top. Sarcasm dripped from his answer, as well as no small amount of irritation. “Here’s what you wanted, I hope you weren’t bullshitting me.”
“You worked hard, have a drink.” Adder didn’t display an ounce of guilt. He pushed the glass in front of Cloudhawk in return for the map. As he looked it over, his pupils contracted and his brows pressed together while he muttered almost to himself. “Hm… encrypted. The guy was careful, it’ll take time to break his code.”
His reaction proved to Cloudhawk this was the map he was looking for. Where did this guy come from? What did he want the map for?
Adder lightly clapped his hands and a pair of servants brought Asha over to him. He ruffled her hair affectionately. “Alright little one, starting today you can consider me your adopted father. As long as you’re here in the Sandbar I won’t let anyone bother you. What do you say?”
Asha’s eyes flashed toward Cloudhawk for a moment before she answered. “Alright, yes!”
Adder was a mysterious man. His name smacked of wastelander style, but he wasn’t from there. Did he come from Skycloud? That didn’t seem likely, if he was, everything he was doing didn’t make much sense.
So maybe he was a true citizen of the borderlands. But really where he came from didn’t matter, Cloudhawk didn’t care. Just so long as he kept his promise to look after Asha.
She was just a simple girl, Adder had no reason to cause trouble by going back on his word.
At last Cloudhawk could put down one of the worries he carried in his heart. He took Asha outside so they could speak alone and asked her straight. “Are you sure you want to stay here? You still have time to change your mind.”
“No, I’ve already decided that I want to stay here. Boss Adder looks like a reliable man.” Asha looked back at him, her eyes filled with appreciation. “Thank you. Without your help I wouldn’t have made it here.”
“I have to take some responsibility for Coppertooth’s death. In a way it was my fault. I owed you.”
But she shook her head. “You can’t be blamed for what happened to Coppertooth. That was our life.”
“It’s all in the past now.” Cloudhawk looked up at the dark sky, stars reflected in his eyes. “I’ll be leaving soon. I wish a long and peaceful life for you.”
Asha nodded. Suddenly she felt a great sadness… but she knew her place. Her fate was here in Sandbar Outpost.
Cloudhawk left her and made his way toward a hotel. Along the way he heard the sound of rhythmic footsteps on pavement – a contingent of soldiers were approaching, clad in Skycloud armor, about fifty of them. He paused when he saw them but kept his composure. They had to have heard the news.
Their destination was the temporary military station.
Cloudhawk watched from outside as the captain’s right-hand man, Knives, and several of the guards led a withered old man to meet them. He knew what fate was in store for the rebel. Skycloud’s soldiers would use every method they knew to torture him until he drew his final breath.
An unavoidable pang crept into Cloudhawk’s chest.
Dark Atom or Skycloud City, who was to say which was good or bad? Could either be called innocent? Cloudhawk knew so little of the world, but he’d already come to some understanding about its nature.
The cruel reality was that to get to the top you built a path with the bodies of the dead, using their blood as mortar. It was true for a single man or a whole organization. None of that interested Cloudhawk. He didn’t want to reach the top, he only wanted somewhere safe and quiet to live the rest of his life.
The cries that came out of the guard station were like poison spikes to Cloudhawk’s ears.
He pressed his hands to the side of his head to try and block it out and fled to his lodgings like a defeated soldier. With heaving breaths he stood before a mirror and slowly pulled off his mask. An immature and handsome face looked back at him.
Cloudhawk hadn’t yet reached sixteen but he looked older than his years. He’d lived in an unforgiving environment that forced him to grow up, but more than that the last half a year had changed him.
He’d accepted Adder’s mission because he felt indebted to Coppertooth and wanted to find somewhere safe for Asha. Finally that due was paid, but it was paid in blood. To Cloudhawk it felt like a hand from the darkness was pushing him forward and no matter how he struggled he couldn’t escape its grip. All he could do was keep his eyes open.
Was this fate?
Cloudhawk was disgusted by the face in the mirror. He put his fist through it and the handsome features shattered into a million glittering pieces. Blood was left behind, smeared across the center, but Cloudhawk didn’t feel a thing. He took one look at the hotel bed and instead chose to curl up in a corner.
A comfortable bed didn’t make him feel safe.
The corner, with walls at his back, was a much sweeter place to lay his head.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Yet another bittersweet victory...