The wastelands were full of groups vying for power, quietly laying in wait and gathering strength. All of them feared Skycloud and the destruction they represented, and so did whatever they could to avoid detection. The Dark Atom was the only organization to ever dare openly defy elysian supremacy, and have done so for ten years without being destroyed.
When not enacting grander plots, the Dark Atom harassed their foe with terrorist acts. Assassination attempts, bombings, sneak attacks on patrols, poisonings, sabotage… all the way down to petty theft. But their dirty tactics were always small-scale, never enough to cripple the behemoth that was Skycloud domain. On the contrary, it really only served to stoke the flames of hatred elysians had for wastelanders and made them a more unified enemy.
More than once Cloudhawk suspected Arcturus was holding back, allowing the Dark Atom to keep up their antics. The occasional threat from an outside force kept his people vigilant, united, and strong. Peace made a population soft, but conflict ensured they were supplied with a steady stream of talented people willing to do their part for the good of the realm. These terrorists also served an important role as scapegoats.
Cloudhawk learned the hard way back in Hell’s Valley, that there was a lot of bad hung around the Dark Atom’s necks that they didn’t do.
Of course Cloudhawk didn’t have any insight into what that lofty bastard really thought. He was a worm by comparison. Nor did he have the die-hard drive of Baldur. He was content with a superficial understanding, living every day in ignorance. That was his goal.
The Warden thought on how to get inside the terrorist stronghold. The Dark Atom was famously strict in their operating style, and from what he could tell from the map their base was hidden away in dangerous territory. His sneaky tricks might not even be enough to get him in.
What worried him most was his less than sterling reputation with the group
Walking up and asking for help was the same and throwing his head in a noose. Suffering in their care only to not be cured and eat a bullet didn’t sound like a good time.
On the other hand, the Dark Atom wasn’t your typical wasteland outfit. Not just the peripheries, but at its core.
Most wasteland crews, at the end of the day, were just a bunch of tough guys.
The Dark Atom took pains to gather scientists and engineers, hundreds of them. These informed and clear-thinking people were sure to see things differently. They were of a differently quality, at their core, an authentic Seeker powerhouse. And from what he knew of Seekers, they tended to be calmer than sweepers and other sorts. He just needed to find the right way, and maybe he could sit for a relatively friendly conversation.
Well, there was no sense in sitting around. Time was wasting. Adder led Cloudhawk to the door once all relevant matters had been discussed.
As he was leaving, Cloudhawk felt a familiar sensation. An alluring figure walked toward him from a dark alley, dressed in a ragged traveler’s cloak. Even in the dim light he could see the gleam from her eyes.
Adder stared at Selene as she approached. She answered him with a sizing glance of her own.
When their eyes met, the force of it seemed like clashing blades. He narrowed his eyes, and gave a chuckle. “Another friend of yours? You sure like to surround yourself with interesting characters. I’ll be here, waiting for news of your success.”
With that, Adder stepped back into the bar and shut the door behind him.
Selene watched him go, unblinking.
It was the first time the two met, but each could sense the power in the other immediately. Adder hadn’t expected someone of her caliber to travel in Cloudhawk’s circles, and Selene hadn’t expected a man like him to call this small border town home.
She didn’t waste time with pleasantries or small talk. But what if the Crimson One came back? Abandoning them now seemed selfish. That meant they only had the old drunk to rely on, and his former power was a memory. He couldn’t compare to the Bloodsoaked Queen.
“Don’t worry.” Selene’s posture said that his business was none of hers, and also that she saw the anxiousness in his face. There wasn’t anything this guy wouldn’t do to save his own skin. She explained herself. “The Crimson One already had old wounds to contend with which hadn’t healed, and now he gained new ones from our fight. He’s likely glad I didn’t go racing off after him right away. I think the chances are we won’t be seeing him any time soon.”
“Really?” Cloudhawk was skeptical, but Selene was ever the sort to speak her mind. She never gave him cause to think otherwise. “Then I’m not worried.”
“But it’s too early to take things lightly,” Selene said. “There are many organizations with their eyes on that girl, and the treasure she represents. Those out in the open are nothing to fear – its the dark forces in the shadows you need to look out for. If I were you, I wouldn’t keep Autumn around. The longer she’d by your side the more likely trouble will come to find you. The sooner she’d back in her valley, the better.”
Cloudhawk nodded, then asked, “You talk about dark forces. Are you saying that other than the Highwaymen and Fishmonger’s Borough, there are other groups that pose a threat?”
“Be it the wastelands or Skycloud, there are more dormant organizations looking for their opportunity than you can imagine. If you think the ones you met are the only people interested in woodland valley, think again. But I haven’t been active in these parts for years, I don’t know what might have cropped up in the interim. But there is one man I can tell you to be very wary of.”
The name tickled something in the back of Cloudhawk’s mind. It’d come up in Skycloud, then again in Hell’s Valley. It was often spoken in connection with Dawn, Selene, Frost – that group of talents. IT was safe to assume this Zephyr was like them.
Selene sigh, like she’d just remembered something upsetting, then continued in somber tones. “Zephyr is my cousin, Sterling’s only child. He’s meticulous, careful, the people of Skycloud have always had high expectations of him. Only, he disappeared from the public the same time his father did. His whereabouts are unknown, even to this day. Now that Sterling has been wounded, I wouldn’t be surprised if he sends his son after you.”
Here, Selene paused to heave a sigh.
Zephyr was her cousin, and at one time was the closest member of her family. She’d been so different when she was young, lively and mischievous, and it was Zephyr who was always there to stop her from getting into too much trouble. Her cousin always struck as a warm, careful person. Like a spring breeze. Handsome, tall, friendly, witty – but not scheming.
Where was he now?
Would he feel resentment for the actions of a past life?
Cloudhawk rolled his shoulder, suddenly uncomfortably aware of their exposure. “Is this Zephyr as strong as you are?”
“Last I knew he was significantly below my grade of training.” Hearing this, Cloudhawk’s expression still wasn’t pleased but he at least wasn’t terrified. Not being as talented as Selene didn’t mean he wasn’t a threat. She then added, “But he is several years older than I am. So he’s been training longer. In a full-on fight I’m sure I could take him one on one.”
“Fine, enough, I get it. Your family is a bunch of monsters and disaster follows wherever you people go. Geniuses apparently crop up in clusters like mushrooms now.”
Selene couldn’t help but smirk at Cloudhawk’s uncomfortable state. A flash of affection crossed her eyes, though no one saw it. “You are just as talented as I am, you just weren’t fortunate enough to have good guidance or resources. Under those circumstances, reaching the point where you are now after three years is no easy feat. But the stronger you become, the more burdens you’ll be expected to carry. This is fate. There is no running from it.”
“Forget about me, have you thought about yourself? You can’t spend the rest of your life looking for vengeance.”
For a brief moment she paused in contemplation, her beautiful face crinkling as she thought. Aside from the young man before her, she didn’t ever really show hesitation or confusion. To everyone else she was like an angel, above such paltry human troubles like ‘indecision.’
“I suppose I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. I can only focus on the road ahead. Failure or success, it doesn’t matter. I just have to keep going, no matter what enemy is before me. My blade won’t stop.”
“What if it was me? Would you cut me down?”
“Without a second thought.” 
Selene laughed when she saw Cloudhawk’s face twist uncomfortably, as though someone had just kicked him in the balls. She laughed more with him in the last few days than she had in the last several years. She continued in a heart-melting gentle tone.
“So, you must get stronger. If we do draw swords against one another someday, at least don’t let me kill you. My conscience might object.”
This lady was quick.
“Yeah… yeah. Since you put it that way I’ll make sure to spare your life when the time comes.”
Selene didn’t know whether to laugh or curse. You gave the kid an inch, and he always took a mile. All this nonsense they were spewing… had it been so long since she’d had a proper conversation with someone that she could no longer stop herself once she’d started
Selene shook her head and said nothing further. She bid her friend goodbye, then turned away. The silver moonlight hugged her body as she walked from him with light, but determined steps.
This woman… always off on her own, so full of conviction once she thought she knew the answer. When she made up her mind to do something, she did it – no matter if there were miles of mountains and rivers in her way. Cloudhawk didn’t have that sort of perseverance. Quite the opposite, he avoided trouble like the plague.
Speaking of trouble, he had to figure out what to do with the biggest pain in his ass.
Autumn and Barb were back in the shop having dinner. The old drunk was also there, lost in the bottom of a bottle. You couldn’t get that guy away from his drink for more than a minute. With the amount he was drinking it wasn’t a question of whether it was affecting his life expectancy. He drank enough on the regular to drown a bull.
“Hey, old timer, cheer up will ya?” Barb picked at her food while trying to offer the drunk some guidance. “Put your faith in miracles. Doesn’t matter how bad the wound, there’s always a way around it. Always a way to heal. So why haven’t you searched for treatment all these years? You’ve got to know alcohol isn’t going to cure your troubles.”
The old man answered with an inebriated chuckle, then slurred, “Yer right, my condishun isn’t irrecovrabul… jus’, about as easy as kissin’ my own ass is all. The gods themselves could come n’ wash their hands o’ me.”
“How do you know if you never try?” Barb retorted.
To this she earned a dramatic roll of the eyes. “What does an ignernt pup like you know anyway.”
“Well, why don’t you come along with me to woodland valley, grandpa?” Autumn was struck with an idea. The old man might have been crippled and half dead, but he was twice the man of that bastard Cloudhawk on his worst day. He’d already given up on Skycloud, so why not go back with her to her tribe? Protected by someone strong like him, they wouldn’t have to fear for their safety. “We’re the Shepherd’s chosen, good people. We’d take good care of you, and who knows, maybe we can find a way to heal your injury.”
Barb was displeased with her methods. She was a firm disciple of the Warden. “He’s a guest brought here by his Excellence. You can’t just poach his people like that.”
Autumn paid no mind to her protests. The more she thought about it, the more she liked the idea. She continued. “I just need you to bring me back to my people. I can promise you all the top quality alcohol you could want. Our floral wines are unmatched.”
Irritation bloomed on Barb’s face. This woman was going too far. His Excellency had gone far out of his way to help her, and here she was trying to steal away a powerful ally. She was so ungrateful!
“She’s so sincere, I’d take her up on the offer.” Cloudhawk walked in, stepping over a floor filled with empty bottles. “Shit, I can’t have you taking advantage of my hospitality anyway. Do some work if you’re gonna drink me dry like this.”
The old man paused. “You’re sending her back?”
What bullshit was this? This girl was an enormous pain in the ass. If she stuck around any longer… Cloudhawk shuddered to think about what other sorts of trouble would come knocking.
“Barb, Gabby, you two should go as well.”
Autumn set her bowl down and stool. “You’re really sending me home?”
“What the hell would I keep you here for? What are you gonna do, warm my bed? Give birth to my children?” Cloudhawk impatiently waved her away like shooing a fly. “It’s done. The drunk, Barb, Gabby, you three are responsible for getting her back to the Vale in one piece. Gabby, make sure she pays what she owes. Not one eboncrys short, you hear me?”
Autumn was thrilled at the prospect of getting back as soon as possible.
It was obvious Cloudhawk was sick of the trouble she brought with her, and didn’t have even the slightest intention of keeping her around. He was damn near elated she would be out of his hair. But for better or worse they’d had an adventure, faced danger together. His flippant disposal of her was something she found infuriating.
Cloudhawk make it clear he wasn’t up for discussion. She wasn’t staying her a second longer than she had to.
Her heart was full of contradictions, but they faded when she thought about her people and the suffering they were going through. The quest she’d set out to complete was done, the relic of their patron god recovered. What’s more, she was being escorted by the far more reliable drunk, and the demonhunter Barb. Gabriel was demonstrably insane, but perhaps not evil.
With these three and the Shepherd’s flute, she was confident the monsters would be taken care of. As for Cloudhawk? If he was so eager to stay behind, then fine!
The only thing that was ever on that bastard’s mind was eboncrys anyway.
I’ll make sure you regret the way you treated me!
Are the two... flirting?! I kinda like it.