Book 3, Chapter 76 - Internal Strife, External Aggression

A researcher entered Three-Eyed Spider’s lab, carrying with him several glass boxes. Within each was a small insect skittering nervously. The poisonous critters squealed threateningly and attacked the walls of their glass prison to no avail.

The insects were in their infant stages of development. Their value as test subjects was far inferior to the mother, however, and as such the research into their peculiar biological state ground to a halt. For the time being it seemed their research would be forced to conclude.

Three-Eyed Spider stood in his lab, face darker than a thundercloud. The loss of his test subject affected him most of all. Never… never would he have imagined that Wolfblade would allow that outsider to remain here in Nucleus.

The old researcher was nearly as respected as Wolfblade in this city. For years they worked together with the tacit understanding that Wolfblade would not impede on his worse, and Three-Eyed Spider would not question his leadership. This agreement ensured that everything ran smoothly, and Nucleus remained free of strife. However, lately it seemed the Dark Atom leader had less and less respect for the scientist’s autonomy.

Yet the real object of the old man’s animosity was the woman, Hellflower. No, animosity was not the right word – it was jealousy. Wolfblade couldn’t slap down Three-Eyed Spider himself, but Hellflower had no qualms about it. More than a physical threat, she was smart enough to eventually replace him.

At the end of the day, Nucleus was a Dark Atom base of operations – a Seeker’s base. At the heart of their organization was the belief that the gods were false idols, and that the knowledge of those ancient days was precious. Scientists had unprecedented status as a result, and until recently Three-Eyed Spider was unassailable in his dominant talent. He was a leader, a guiding font of knowledge. He was certain no one could usurp his illustrious position.

But all of that changed. This flower blew in from the wastelands, and suddenly his livelihood was under threat.

Although still young, Hellflower was a tremendously talented researcher. She was only in her early teens when she began to wander the wastelands. For years she learned anything, everything, growing into the epitome of wasteland grit and potential!

How short had her time been here, with the Dark Atom? Years only, and yet she had the Seekers wrapped around her delicate fingers. From the beginning she spared no respect for Three-Eyed Spider while simultaneously growing her own prestige.

This was his home! His position! His life!

For every member converted to Hellflower’s camp, that was one more blow to Three-Eyed Spider’s foundation. Now his most important subject of study was destroyed, his research all for naught. Meanwhile Hellflower had brought with her incredible insights into transforming the human body – a body of work that would keep her busy and valuable for years to come! With all of this, and Wolfblade’s recent erratic behavior, how could the old scientist not fear for the future?

“Three-Eyed Spider, sir! There’s a problem!”

A pair of the scientist’s confidants hurried over. When they say his face they both shrunk back and delicately gave their report.

“W-we captured the mutants as you ordered, but they were all released by Hellflower and Cloudhawk.”

The old man’s eyes suddenly widened to saucers, and in their veiny depths was a bone-deep hatred. When he spoke it was obvious he was trying very hard to control his voice. “What did you say? Say it again!”

His assistants felt the cold grip of fear wrap around their hearts. It wasn’t like the old man was a physical threat, but it was clear at a glance that he was just barely holding back his sadistic and murderous nature. The near-mad look in his eyes was enough to steal their breath.

“Hellflower was gone too far!”

“Obviously she does this solely to undermine us!”

“She didn’t even ask. You’ve been lead scientist here for over thirty years, and who does she think she is? Is she trying to take your job?”

Three-Eyed Spider did not respond, but a burning indignation rose up in his subordinates. They were his trusted followers, loyal and dedicated to the work. It was true that there would be competition, both for prestige and resources, between groups in the same department. So it was they immediately disliked Hellflower the moment she joined their organization. If not for Three-Eyed Spider’s direct prohibition, they would have tried to kill her themselves a long time ago.

Three-Eyed Spider slowly closed his eyes. He saw the dire state of their circumstances differently from the rest.

The mutant tribesmen weren’t important, it was the fact that Hellflower and Cloudhawk together were the ones to release them. He remembered what Vulture said, that the two were old acquaintances from Blackwater Base. It was an important fact that he could not ignore.

Who was Wolfblade? At one time Three-Eyed Spider knew the answer clearer than anyone. He had the same aggressive drive as the Dark Atom leader, the same keen decisiveness.

Now, however? Three-Eyed Spider didn’t care for him personally, but what happened?

He gifted his personal bodyguard to Hellflower, the iron goliath that had always remained at his side. What’s more, he gave her free-reign to aggressively grow her own team openly in the city. There was no other explanation other than she was preparing to overtake Three-Eyed Spider and capture his position for herself. Now there was an outsider who was brazen enough to sneak into their home. Far from punishing this obvious threat, Wolfblade allows him and Hellflower to run wild!

A single aggressive enemy was nothing to fear, even if they were smart and difficult to contend against. But when you were no longer able to read their intentions, that’s when an enemy became fearsome.

Three-Eyed Spider was quiet for a long time. When he opened his eyes again, he answered his associates’ string of angry curses with an even timbre. “Summon Raven. Vulture as well.”

Several minutes later, two men entered Three-Eyed Spider’s lab.

The first one was Vulture, with his familiar beak-shaped nose and sharp features. The other one was dressed strangely, and so tall that he was almost twice the height of his companion. He was draped in black from head to toe; a black scarf around his face, black glasses, black boots and black gloves. The cloak he wore was a collection of glistening black plumage like raven feathers. They almost gleamed in the light with a metallic sheen.

Even Vulture seemed to keep his distance. Ravens weren’t birds with a good reputation. Apparently, neither was this man who shared their name.

Everyone in the Dark Atom knew this man. Tales of his cruel deeds were widespread. However he was not one of Wolfblade’s people, he belonged to Three-Eyed Spider. While other members of the Dark Atom would leave on tasks aimed at disrupting Skycloud, Raven remained behind with the scientists. And like his master, Raven was considered in high standing here among the organization but completely unknown to the denizens of the elysian lands.

Three-Eyed Spider did not summon Raven on a whim. Summoning this terrifying presence meant something important was on the horizon, and dire times drew near. Vulture, however, was puzzled as to why he would be called as well.

Raven stepped into the lab, his heavy footfalls punctuated with muffled thuds. Standing next to him Vulture hardly seemed worth a glance much less a figure of any interest. Vulture approached Three-Eyed Spider and, with a nod, spoke. “You called for me, mentor?”

Three-Eyed-Spider nodded. Raven took up position at his side and said nothing.

The old scientist pinned Vulture with his stare. “I’m sure you’ve noticed there have been some subtle differences occurring within the Dark Atom. We are surrounded by darkness, and crisis may break out at any moment. If we don’t act now, I fear it will be too late.”

Vulture’s brows slowly gathered together. “What do you mean?”

“There’s no room for your doubts. You know as well as I do that Wolfblade is not the same man he used to be. Suddenly he has a host of strange powers at his command, a fact you know well enough to understand that I do not exaggerate. If we do not take the necessary steps now, then everything we’ve accomplished all these years could be undone in an instant.” At this point the third eye set in his forehead popped open. The unsettling gaze fixed upon Vulture. “Now is the moment of decision, the precipice of life and death. We need your help.”

Vulture’s face slackened. The others in the room were similarly stunned by the implications. Only Raven remained stoically silent.

Three-Eyed Spider was talking about open rebellion against Wolfblade. The two men were equally respected in the eyes of most Dark Atom operatives. If they came into conflict, the consequences would shake the organization to its core. It was impossible to know what the results would be.

Three-Eyed Spider had been watching, though. Wolfblade had made no efforts to hide his sudden change in behavior, and it was making many people uncomfortable. One of those people was Vulture, one of his most loyal agents. If he could be convinced to change sides, surely many of those who look to him for guidance would join him at Three-Eyed Spider’s side. Success would make what had to happen next much easier.

If they failed, than the outlook was bleak.

The sudden decision made it appear as though Three-Eyed Spider was instigating rebellion, but really it was all started by Wolfblade. He was the one who snatched Hellflower out of the desert and brought her here. He was the one who cannibalized Three-Eyed Spider’s team so that she could have her group of henchmen and undermine his authority. The longer they let this inevitable schism drag on, the weaker position Three-Eyed Spider would be in. Every moment he hesitated brought him closer to ruin.

As such, this seemingly crude and impulsive decision was in truth the best course of action. Acting while Wolfblade’s leadership was in doubt and before Hellflower’s position was stable was his best opportunity. Allowing Cloudhawk to wander around was the perfect foil for him to illustrate the Dark Atom’s failure of leadership.

Yes, this was good. He didn’t have time enough to prepare as he would have liked, but neither did Wolfblade.

Vulture felt an imposing air wash over him. Raven, largely hidden beneath his mask and glasses, was a mystery. What was he feeling? Was his face betraying anything at all? But Vulture could feel the large man’s focus weighing on him like a mountain. There was no question that if he refused, it would be the last moment of his life.

“You must understand that I only have the best interest of the Dark Atom at heart. It is our responsibility to guide our people through this difficult time.” He spoke to Vulture like he was explaining a simple and unequivocal truth. “So long as Wolfblade lives, all of our lives are in danger.”

Vulture was silent for a full five seconds. Eventually he lifted his head and stared right into the scientist’s fiendish third eye.

“Alright.”

***

Beyond the Blisterpeak mountains, the sound of hymns rang out, like a heavenly chorus.

An armada of beautiful airships were arrayed in formation, cutting through the toxic fog that hugged the range. From a distance they almost seemed to inch across the sky, but in reality the ships covered ground very quickly. These were the righteous forces of god, come to spread the light of salvation to this stricken world of fire and ash.

“I swear on my life, my soul, my honor and my faith to defend the Supreme Luminary!”

“Great and Merciful God! Please accept my resolute soul, and give me the strength to fight in your name until death takes me.”

“….”

Aboard the flagship of the border forces, all the commanders knelt in prayer before the altar to their deities. An elderly general in his sixties dressed in resplendent golden armor was at the fore. His hands were wrapped around the handle of an enormous broadsword, and at present his eyes were shut while he prayed. This was Aegir Polaris, commander of the border forces for Skycloud. He hailed from the same family as Skye, general of the army in its entirety, and the two were of the same generation. He was Skye’s younger brother.

Drake Thane was his second in command, and as such took up position just behind him as they prayed. Next was commander of the vanguard, Brontes, followed by the rest of the officers. Skycloud’s border forces were the largest standing army in the domain, with several hundred thousand troops ready for deployment. This expedition was comprised of thirty thousand of them, drawn up and thrown on ships with hardly any notice. The fleet set sail shortly after word of their mission was delivered, and it included all of the border’s leadership. Never before had a group of wasteland blasphemers galvanized a force of this size.

The war was about to begin.

“We have arrived at the Blisterpeak mountain range!” When Aegir finished his prayers, he rose and faced the officers with stern countenance. “You all know how important this mission is to Skycloud. It is imperative that we trap the rats in their hole, and we can’t let a single rodent escape. By the end of our business today, the Dark Atom will cease to exist. Our efforts today will be sung from the highest peaks of Skycloud, emblazoned on the pillars of our illustrious future. Every pure soul that dies will be welcome onto the holy mountain with open arms.”

The soldiers roared at the promise of everlasting glory. They couldn’t wait to prove themselves and return as heroes, or dies as martyrs.

The greatest tool of the elysians weren’t their miraculous equipment or expansive army. It was their zealous faith.

“Drake, Brontes. You will lead our troops into the fray. Find the rock our enemies have hidden under and launch the initial offensive.”

Both men rose to their feet and offered a salute as affirmation. This was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. No one was going to let it pass without giving it their all.

It had been a long time since Skycloud dispatched such a host – not since three years prior when Frost de Winter brought his troops sweeping through the wastelands. He’d wiped out half of the Dark Atom’s forces in that quest. This time, they aimed to finish the job.

 

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Xiao Lai's Thoughts

Cloudhawk's the real crow, seemingly bringing trouble wherever he goes...