Book 3, Chapter 87 - The Big Game

Skycloud city. A pair of guards were patrolling the gardens around the governor’s mansion.

An old man in plain grey robes sat under a pavilion. Arrayed before him was a chess board. This time he had no opponent, yet the board was still peppered with two different colors.

The younger guardsman gave the older man a sideways glance, and couldn’t help but mutter to his companion. “What’s the governor doing?”

“Hush! Keep your voice down!” The older guard chastised him in a harsh whisper. “Don’t disturb the governor. Can’t you see he’s playing his game?”

“Playing? What game?”

“Skycloud chess, obviously.”

“So what, is it special or something?”

“Foolish question. Skycloud chess has quite the story behind it. Legends say a thousand years ago, during the great war, the children of the gods started to gather in the holy lands. Life became better, but there wasn’t much to pass the time. It all became monotonous.”

The older soldier had been patrolling this route for a decade. He was pleased to have a chance to show off his knowledge to the younger recruit.

“Did you know that Skycloud’s first governor was a demonhunter, who took part in the war against the demons? He was an ancestor of the Cloude family. The story goes that he was lying in a field, watching the stars cross the sky. As the moonlight spread over the fields and valleys he was struck with an epiphany about the nature of heaven and earth. He observed the phenomenon that all living things surrounded one another. From that the idea for Skycloud chess was born and has continued to this day. So, it isn’t just a game for entertainment. Its history also includes old wisdom and ancient philosophy.”

The younger guard was enlightened. He never thought a game could hold such meaning.

“There are three levels which Skycloud chess can be played at. The lowest level has ten vertical and horizontal rows on the board. The middle level has fifteen. The top level has thirty. The rules can be complex: black pieces and can seize white and vice versa, and the players use tactics to surround and devour their opponent’s pieces. Players come up with all sorts of clever strategies and patterns to outwit each other. If you take the long view, you can see parallels between the game and all sorts of real-world situations, in politics and in war. Master Arcturus is a genius, and even when he was a young there was no one in Skycloud who could beat him.”

Both guards glanced toward Arcturus with respect in their eyes. A chess master when he was just a child. They were already much older than he had been when he was beating everyone in Skycloud, and they were just guards. Of course, not everyone could be a guard in the governor’s mansion. Their positions here brought honor to their ancestors.

The younger man still had questions. “But if he’s playing chess, doesn’t he need someone to play against?”

“Ah, that’s something you wouldn’t know. Aside from Frost de Winter, Master Arcturus doesn’t play with anyone.” Here the older man paused in confusion. “Most of the time he sits out here alone playing by himself, using a different hand for each color. He places the pieces in cross patterns back and forth. Almost like… like…”

“Like he’s playing against himself.” The younger one finished the thought.

It’s like the older guard said. Who else would he play with, if no one was his equal?

“No, that’s not it. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” But after a moment, looking left and right for prying ears, the guard lowered his voice conspiratorially and went on anyway. “I’ve been posted here for over ten years. I keep on having this weird feeling that the governor is playing with someone who is invisible, and that he’s just moving the pieces on his opponent’s behalf.

The recruit felt a chill run up his spine. “Are you messing with me?”

“Most important, whoever this invisible opponent is, he’s good.” There was a strange sort of curiosity in the older man’s face as well as he spoke. “As far as I’ve been able to tell, Master Arcturus has never won.”

The younger man’s eyes widened. Too weird! But really it had to be nothing more than a bunch of hot air from his companion. There wasn’t anyone better than Arcturus Cloude, except maybe the gods and demons.

Today, Arcturus wasn’t playing with any mysterious invisible opponent. He stared at the board of white and black pieces, going over strategies. The white represented Skycloud, and the black were the wastelands. 

Nearly a hundred white tokens were on the board at present, all gathered together to exert influence over its territory. Black tokens were scattered around the periphery, maybe only twenty, loosely spattered like a starry sky. Chaotic at first glance, but upon closer inspection one would be foolish to ignore the threat they posed.

The distribution of power between Skycloud and the wastelands, conveniently arrayed before Arcturus Cloude on the board. It was abstract, but were one to look closely they would be surprised to see how closely the circumstances on the board matched what was actually happening.  This was a manifestation of Arcturus’ wisdom.

Arcturus placed a series of white token down in quick succession to invade new territory. The circumstances on the board were difficult and queer – a lot like the Blisterpeak mountains.

With his eyes slightly narrowed, Arcturus paused to survey the board as a whole. Wrinkles gathered at the corner of his eyes, and somehow he knew the mighty battle out in the wilderness was underway. Then came a shocking moment.

He plucked a white piece from the board, one that had been surrounded and eliminated. Just like Aegir Polaris and his border army.

He snatched up a second piece. Reinforcements.

A third. The contingent from Hell’s Valley sent by Skye Polaris as insurance.

Thinking for a moment, Arcturus then gathered a handful of black pieces and began to place them.

When the moves were done he looked down again, staring at the white piece that in his mind represented Frost de Winter. For the briefest instant the corner of his eye twitched, then with a sigh the strength seemed to drain from him. Arcuturs rose, pacing back and forth, and looked off into the vast horizon.

The elysian sky. Always so blue. 

But even the clearest day would pass, sooner or later. A tempest gathered in times of peace where the eye could not see. The longer the sunshine held, the more time that tempest had to brew.

***

Blisterpeak mountains.

Outside the city under the mountain.

Coal fell like he was falling into an abyss. The white-haired outsider was too strong. He could do nothing, had nothing – nothing but fear and hatred. 

But not death. I will not die. Not like this.

Our great chief… hundreds of my people. Slaughtered. Killed before me. But dozens more are still in danger because of my decision. No matter what, I cannot die. Besides, what about the plan? To go out to the world beyond. I can’t fall her, not when there’s still so much to see.

Terrible hatred, bitter refusal. In the end they coalesced into the will to keep living.

Coal was falling through an abyss, but he wouldn’t let the darkness take him. He reached out, grabbed onto an invisible precipice and held tight. But the abyss was strong. He could feel it dragging at him from below like the grasping hands of the dead. They pulled, trying to drag him into oblivion with them.

His strength was waning. The pull was too great, and sooner or later he would have to let go. But no… no, because one he fell he knew that would be the end. 

Helplessness. Hopelessness. Fear.

Coal felt his fingers begin to slip, but in the instant before the darkness claimed him a hand stretched out from the edge. It held him tight. Strong. Reliable. The hand pulled him from the brink.

Consciousness slowly came back to him, and the mutant opened his eyes. The first thing he noticed were the explosions and the cries that assailed his ears. The battle was still going on around him. When he opened his eyes, he was greeted by a familiar face.

A young man with black hair and black eyes stood over him with his hands folded in front of his chest. There was surprise in his expression. “Shit, it’s like you’re made of rocks. Harder to kill than a cockroach. Your internal organs are fucked, but you’re still kickin’. Still, you outta thank me. If I hadn’t have showed up when I did with some medicine, you’d be deader than the dirt I found you in.”

Coal’s survival wasn’t all luck and willpower.

The luck part was his heavily mutated body, which protected him from being injured beyond repair. On the other hand his survival instinct kept him breathing long past where most would give pu. Of course, most importantly Cloudhawk had showed up before time ran out. He dragged him away from the fighting to a safe spot and fed him whatever medicines he had in a desperate attempt to keep him alive. It was Cloudhawk’s hand that dragged him from the precipice.

Cloudhawk was ready with another string of teasing remarks, but he stopped when he saw no look of joy on Coal’s face for surviving his brush with death. On the contrary, all he saw was sorrow and self-loathing. Cloudhawk remembered where he found the mutant, among the bodies of his tribesmen. He hadn’t been there, but it wasn’t hard to guess what happened.

“Hey brother, pull it together. I busted my ass to save you, so you need to make it count. Don’t let me catch you giving up. Your people got caught in the shit, but you’re not alone. There are still a few left back in the city, and I got your back.”

Coal’s eyes regained their focus. He was lucky to have met Cloudhawk. Without him, his whole tribe would have been wiped out.

“Great volcano is witness… You are forever… friend of Volcano Tribe.” Coal fought through the pain to speak in broken wastelander. “I will repay. My life to repay!”

Cloudhawk watched the stone giant begin to cry. There were few in this world as pure and simple as this mutant. Even Autumn wasn’t burdened by the sort of tragedy this poor survivor would have to bear. Coal may not have looked like any human he knew, but what Cloudhawk saw in him was more purely human than anyone.

A simple life, a simple mind, simple ideals. Easy to be satisfied and easy to be happy. But fate intervened, and this was his reward. It didn’t seem destiny cared much for people like him.

It wasn’t like the people of the Volcano Tribe were unintelligent – just ignorant. Coal had no experience with the world outside of the Blisterpeak mountains, so to them he was almost child-like. [1] Now he knew what it was like out there, and the realization cast a dark shadow over his soul.

How much would the knowledge change him? Squall was an example of one way he could react.

Cloudhawk patted him on the shoulder. “We’ll talk about revenge later. Right now you need to heal up. Don’t worry about anything else.”

He made sure Coal was safely tucked away before returning to the edges of the battlefield. An hour had passed since the first shot was fired, but already the surrounding mountains were nearly leveled. The exchange was only getting more intense as time went on. He was still unhappy with having to be involved. On the one hand, what was one person supposed to do? It wasn’t like he was strong enough to turn the tide. On the other, his situation was shit no matter which side he chose to help.

He had to make a decision. 

From what he could see, things weren’t going well for the Dark Atom at this point.

Wolfblade had been seriously wounded, and though the Caliph was strong Frost’s sudden appearance threw everything into question. After years of being shut away, he was now stronger than ever. Nor was he alone, the fuck-face had brought a whole squad of demonhunters with him.

Common knowledge was that a demonhunter with the rank of ‘master’ was strong enough to kill a demon on their own. Frost was too inexperienced to be a master, and if it were just him he would find surviving against the demon nearly impossible. The problem for the Dark Atom now, however, was that Frost was a commander under orders to bring reinforcements. He had arrived with a contingent of his own.

The squad he brought was a group of well-trained demonhunters with no fewer than four highly experienced veterans among them. With Frost included, that was five formidable warriors with thirty subordinates as support. Every one of them had their own collection of relics for both offensive and defensive collaboration, making them a well-equipped and comprehensive fighting force.

Even against a power like the Caliph of the Sands, there was a chance of victory!

The Dark Atom was nearing the point of collapse.

Frost’s appearance also heralded the arrival of several more elysian warships. Thousands of troops dropped in to join their brothers, resplendent in silvery white armor. Their weapons weren’t the typical elysian blade, but two handed broadswords that seethed with a white-hot glow.

The Knights of Splendor?! Cloudhawk slapped his forehead.

Three years ago Frost was elevated to lieutenant commander of the Knights of Splendor, after eradicating half of the Dark Atom’s forces from the wastelands. Although they were far fewer in number than the border forces, they were much more potent on the battlefield. If Frost brought them along with him, it put the already brow-beaten Dark Atom in an even more precarious situation.

It very well could be the final straw that breaks the rebels’ backs. They wouldn’t last much longer!

Not good. Really, really not good!

The Dark Atom couldn’t be destroyed! In the eyes of many it may be a terrorist organization, but Cloudhawk was no hero himself. His first consideration was always himself and his friends, and at the moment he could think of only one thing to stop everything.

Cloudhawk’s eyes quickly scanned the battlefield.

The border forces were legion, easily twenty thousand strong, and somewhere among them were his targets. They were hard to spot, however. Since their equipment was simple, and any ships with their markings had long been shot down, Cloudhawk found it hard to pick out where they might be.

The general was wounded and could no longer take to the field. Cloudhawk’s plan; to take out the elysian leadership one by one. If the Skycloud army lost their commanders, they would quickly collapse.

His eyes kept searching. There – that one, with the silver mask.

It was clear from his armor that this one was an officer. Probably part of the vanguard.

Watching the masked man carefully, Cloudhawk was assailed by an odd sense of déjà vu. His mind went back to Hell’s Valley, three years ago, when he met a unit of elysian soldiers. This was him, the unit’s commander. He’d risen quickly through the ranks, so he obviously was no typical soldier.

Cloudhawk sure had a bone to pick with this one. It was about time he met the Warden’s blade.

But he wouldn’t be the first target. With the general wounded, command would have certainly fallen to the lieutenant commander. Dealing with the second in command would throw all the attackers into chaos. Then he’ll pick the rest off one by one.

Cloudhawk wasn’t sure he could take a veteran demonhunter in a straight fight, but if he got the drop on them there weren’t many who could stop him.

Most important was making sure his identity was kept hidden. A fish in muddy water, taking attacks of opportunity as they were revealed. His eyes kept scanning the field, until at last he found his target. With a sinister grin he began to creep toward the one with the lieutenant general star on his armor. 

You’re part of the reason those innocent Volcano tribesmen were slaughtered. Today you’ll pay for your crimes!

Dark promises flit through his mind as his body faded into nothing.

 


1. Where was this compassion when Autumn walked through your door, dude?

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