The bone horn’s call reverberated through the forest. It was the sound of these warriors determined to give their lives.
A bald, hook-nosed man’s eyes popped open when he heard it. With a grin he turned toward the person behind him. “Well boss, it looks like everything’s going according to your plan. Gorefang is doing just what we wanted him to do. A stroke of genius, manipulating them into choosing now to try and break free, while also letting the valley know about it. In one stroke we’ve built the opportunity we need to bring this whole place down. It’s time to move on with the scheme.”
“As I’ve told you many times, Buzzard, all great achievements start with careful planning. More importantly, you must guard against your own arrogance. It’s just the beginning, they haven’t even launched the attack yet.” The man’s hoarse voice was shrewd and stately. In his heavy tone he added, “I haven’t yet spoken. What’s your hurry?”
The bald, beak-nosed man nodded respectfully. “Of course, boss.”
Had Cloudhawk been there, he would have been surprised to recognize the bald man. It was Buzzard, the high-ranking agent of the Dark Atom he had encountered twice already; once at Blackwater Base and once at the Sandbar. Their meetings had been brief encounters only, but the man left Cloudhawk with a deep impression.
He and the group he was with were hiding in the northern reaches of Hell’s Valley. Five wasteland airships were hovering overhead, awaiting orders. Each one was over a hundred meters long, equipped with over a dozen gatling guns and cannons. ‘Destructive’ did not begin to describe them.
They were outfitted with a long metal rod, from which was emitting a mirror-like screen. This ancient, high-tech technology was an effective camouflage which, when looking toward the ships from Hell’s Valley, made them completely invisible. Meanwhile, Buzzard and the others could see everything going on before them.
Besides the five ships, there were also several hundred Dark Atom agents ready for action.
The crowd was gathered around a small man, thin, only about a hundred and sixty-five centimeters tall. He was clad in a silver outfit of unknown material that looked alive, or like some kind of fluid. It moved constantly all over him. Layers of cloth hid everything, even his eyes, like mummies of old. On his back were three different styles of swords and each one resonated with unique energy.
Just mentioning this bandaged stranger’s name would cause a stir in the borderlands. He was the leader of the Dark Atom – Wolfblade!
The very same!
This man was well known in the elysian lands as the leader of a massive heretical organization. The Dark Atom held incredible sway over the area around Skycloud domain, and their power was only surpassed by their obscurity. Countless men were willing to die for their cause, and talented warriors were in no short supply. Much to the despair of their enemies, the Dark Atom had spies everywhere – a fact that made it nearly impossible to eradicate them.
Now Wolfblade had shown himself personally. His goal was the destruction of Hell’s Valley.
Buzzard was one of a dozen or so other high ranking members joining their leader on the mission. His presence, along with the others, demonstrated just how crucial this attack was.
However, he wasn’t the most eye-catching figure. Besides Wolfblade himself, the most striking person was the one who stood beside Dark Atom’s leader. He was a man two meters tall, hidden beneath a black robe. Everything about him whispered death, especially the seething red light burning in his dark hood.
Those sanguine points had to be the man’s eyes. Unsettling was the fact that there was no emotion in them – no joy, or hatred, or sadness. In a word, soulless.
He stood behind Wolfblade, still as a statue, silent as a shadow.
Though covered, Dark Atom’s leader lifted his eyes and looked around. His gaze seemed capable of penetrating everything, seeing all that happened within the valley below. Right now, he was waiting for the perfect opportunity.
The show was about to begin. For years the elysians had oppressed free citizens of the wastelands. But all that was about to change.
At the same time, elsewhere.
Cloudhawk and the others had escaped, and where taking cover in a cave.
The four others looked sickly, with their faces taking on a pale mauve hue. They’d been poisoned, not but by the poison-tipped arrows directly, but by the potent toxic fumes they’d released. The mist had been so prevalent that it was impossible to avoid inhaling them entirely. As a result, it had begun to eat away at the mucus lining of their nose and throats, even damaging their lungs.  What’s more, the fumes were like a mist and clung to their bodies and clothing. Sores and blisters had sprung up over their bodies, some of which were nearly deep enough to penetrate inside the body.
By the time Claudia found shelter in the cave, she was already finding it difficult to breathe. Her beautiful blonde tresses were stripped of color and left grey and withered. Her skin burned like a blazing oil slick. Of the whole group, only Cloudhawk and Drake seemed to be in decent shape.
Drake’s constitution is what kept his healthy, but even he was struggling a little for breath.
Cloudhawk, meanwhile, walked into the cave with no adverse signs. It was like neither the poison arrows nor the toxic fumes had any effect on him at all. While he got his bearing, a pudgy little bird fluttered into the cave and took up post on his shoulder. Cloudhawk gave the critter an affectionate scratch on its head, then turned toward the others. “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news. What do you want to hear first?”
The four others looked uncertainly at one another. All of this going on, and this asshole was cracking wise?
Gabriel ran his hands through his hair, pulling out thick tufts in the process. He responded with a bitter scowl. If he had his relics Gabriel was sure he’d be the strongest person here, but here he was. The injuries he’d sustained made him weak and the poison’s effects more potent.
“I fail to see how there can be any good news for us.”
“We’re pretty lucky, actually. Those sweepers had set up an ambush to cut us off, but they ran into a group of soldiers from the valley. Their fight opened up a route for us to escape, but several of the veterans were killed because of it.”
“This is your so-called good news? I don’t see how any of that is good.” Claudia was still fighting with her prejudice for Cloudhawk. They’d been forced to suffer this together, but she still loathed the man. After all, all that pent-up rancor wasn’t going to go away overnight. So she couldn’t help but share a few sharp words with him. “Oh, you’re saying that the death of a few elysian veterans is good news. Is that it?”
Cloudhawk wasn’t about to get in an argument with this idiot. Her reaction always seemed to be a little behind other people, so he paid her no mind and spoke to the others. “This means this mission they sent us on has gone outside of their control. It’s the only reason they would have sent soldiers from the valley.”
The others paused to take in the information.
He seemed to have it right, the entrance exam was supposed to be hard, not fatal. Against a few hundred natives, with poison and beasts to ride, it was a suicide mission. If you threw someone like Frost de Winter in here with no protection or relics he probably wouldn’t make it out. For the sixty-some trainees it was certain death.
The proper training hadn’t even started yet, how could they just throw everyone into a death trap? The only logical answer was things had changed, and the trainers had no idea. Evidence of that was the group of soldiers, and their deaths meant things were out of control.
The deadwood forest was supposed to be under the valley’s control, so they couldn’t just turn a blind eye to what was going on. The scarred instructor and his assistants had to be out there helping to get things in order, too. If that was the case, it shouldn’t take long for things to cool down. That was the good news.
Of course this was predicated on them being able to hold out long enough to get rescued.
Drake scowled. “So what’s the bad news?”
Before Cloudhawk could answer the question, a sound caught their attention from outside the cave. A pair of stalker beasts skittered into view, squat and agile, their eyes glinting red light. Fang-filled jaws snapped, ready to tear apart anything they clamped onto.
“Shit, they’re in!”
Claudia tried to stand but her strength was gone. She couldn’t fight back.
The stalker riders spotted the five human huddled in the darkness and raised their bone spears. They heaved their weapons, and it was in that moment two figures were on the move. Drake was faster, he appeared in front of one of the beasts and put his fist through its skull. He wrapped his right hand around the rider’s head and squeezed. The sweeper’s ugly face was crushed into pulp.
Cloudhawk leapt over Drake’s head and caught the second rider with a whirlwind kick. Mount and rider went flying while Cloudhawk snatched up his discarded bone spear. He stabbed it at the writhing creature.
A wave of poison arrows came pouring in from the mouth of the cave!
Drake’s face fell and he felt an icy grip wrap around his heart. He grabbed the corpse of the rider he’d killed and held all two hundred pounds of it in front of him as though it were light as a feather. “Out of the way!”
Drake put the corpse between him and the onslaught. Most of the arrows lodged in his meat shield, which caused it to start quickly melting away like a wax sculpture left in the sun. His hands had also been splashed by the poison and had started to burn, but he’d managed to defend them from the enemies outside.
Drake threw the melted carcass at the sweepers blocking the entrance. At the same time he launched upward and kicked at the spot of wall above his head. The impact resulted in a web of cracks appearing through the stone.
Two more thunderous sounds as Drake punched the walls on either side of him. Slabs of stone were falling all around, and two particularly large blocks sealed the entrance. Drake stumbled backward, clutching his chest and fighting for air. He’d reached his limit, after all the damage Cloudhawk had caused was still there, in addition to the poison.
They could hear the sweepers outside already beginning to clear away the rubble. They weren’t going to be able to survive in this tight corner for long.
Cloudhawk smirked sheepishly in the face of their dire predicament. “The bad news is there are a few hundred sweepers outside.”
Gabriel, Claudia and Wolfe gaped. A few hundred? Were they destined to die in this hole?
1. This reminds me of the time I nearly died from chloramine vapors. While studying in China, our university would on very rare occasions clean the toilets. Because of how infrequent these cleanings were, it allowed for quite a lot of buildup of urine deposits in the pipes. Their solution was to pour bleach to clear it out. Urine contains ammonia, of course, and if you weren’t aware the combination of ammonia and bleach create a phenomenally toxic gas called chloramine. I was intimately acquainted with the effects of it while leaning over a sink to wash my hands. I was blasted in the face by an invisible gas that has been forbidden for use by the Geneva convention, and for good reason. I only got a mouthful, but for nearly an hour I couldn’t breath and my eyes burned like they were on fire. So I feel you, trainees. That shit sucks.
Somehow, I think destiny has other plans in store for Cloudhawk.