Cloudhawk covertly stuck his head into the Dark Atom’s conference hall. The first thing he noticed was that these ‘honored guests’ from the wasteland numbered only a handful. Most of them were totally unfamiliar to him.
The most recognizable group were the ones in crimson red robes. They were lead by the barefoot man, ascetic in bearing. The weapon he held was the standard that he carried during the recent battle. The flag was furled, its image hidden. However, the resonance from it was thick with baleful power. Just the sight of it filled Cloudhawk with an oppressive sensation.
That was the former second in command of the demonhunter military squad, the one they called Wyrmsole. He was a big name from the former generation of Skycloud leadership, stronger than a normal man could imagine. Even Frost had failed to gain the upper hand in a fight against him.
For the last several years, the Sanctum of Judgment had been active throughout the wasteland, under the guise of spreading the will of their god. In reality, they had been busily establishing their own wasteland power. From the beginning they had had no contact with the Dark Atom. Likely due to conflicting ideals, they had been loathe to align themselves with the rebels. However, a series of unfortunate events had befallen them. Their leader, the Crimson One, was badly injured. Fishmonger’s Borough – which had been the source of their wealth – had fallen into the hands of Squall and the Highwaymen. They were also revealed to their enemies, and their difficulties obvious to the rest of the wasteland. They had no choice but to court allies.
Besides them, there was another group that caught Cloudhawk’s attention.
They were uniquely equipped, different from wastelanders and elysians alike. Of the three who led them, their highest authority was a young woman, cold and beautiful like an autumn breeze. Beside her was a man covered from head to toe in an imposing set of armor, and a hideously scarred mountain of a man. All three sat in solemn silence, faces grim. A dozen or so burly men stood at their backs surrounded by an air of ruthlessness. These men were officers, discharged from the elysian army after years of service. None were to be taken lightly.
Familiar faces. Looking at them, Cloudhawk couldn’t help but feel conflicted. Cloudhawk’s mind went back three years prior, to something the scarred Instructor once said;
To some Hell’s Army is a group of evil men and women. But we don’t think of ourselves as evil, because the truly evil will do anything to get whatever they want. Hell’s Army is willing to sacrifice anything. We are a necessary darkness.
What happened in the years since Cloudhawk left? What were they forced to do that was so bad they turned their backs entirely on Skycloud?
Perhaps it was the allure of the wasteland’s brutal inclusiveness. After being stationed in the filth for so long, it was only a matter of time before you put down roots. After spending so much time in blood and darkness, eventually it changes you. Changes you enough to take a road there was no coming back from.
Both of these groups had played a crucial role in the war for the Blisterpeaks. If the Sanctum of Judgment hadn’t shown up when they did, the Dark Atom would have been wiped out. If Hell’s Army hadn’t acted, Wolfblade would be dead and he wouldn’t have had a chance to activate Nirvana.
As for the rest, there were all manner of eclectic groups as part of the meeting. At a glance Cloudhawk counted another six or seven groups he didn’t recognize, each one different from the one before. Most seemed to be mutants with the one unifying factor being they all looked ready to tear someone’s head off. Among them were two figures that captured Cloudhawk’s interest. From what he could gather they represented the two strongest mutant factions, because the others gave them a wide berth. Obviously the others were afraid of their bosses.
One was covered in a black robe with the hood drawn, an impenetrable darkness hiding his face. It almost looked like there was nothing inside the cloak but shadow. He stood among the others, oozing with a dangerous presence that was clear from across the room, almost like something could burst out of that cloak any minute and devour everyone.
The other one was clad in robes as well, but were green and didn’t have the same all-consuming quality as his companion. Half of his face was revealed but it would have been better if that were not the case. This mutant was the most hideous, most savage looking thing Cloudhawk had ever seen. His features were all twisted and misshapen, and a cloud of fetid stink hung over him at all times like a decaying corpse.
He’d never heard of anyone like these two. It seemed there was still a lot about the wastelands Cloudhawk didn’t know.
It was clear by looking at them that these men and women had grown impatient. Eventually, the long awaited people they’d come to see emerged.
The first was dressed simply, like a scholar, with an eye patch slung across half his face. This was clearly Wolfblade, leader of the Dark Atom. Beside him was his silver-haired protector, the lead researcher second only to Wolfblade. Hellflower.
“Our humble Nucleus is happy to receive such illustrious visitors from far across the wastes. An honor, friends. An honor.” With an easy and welcoming facade, Wolfblade approached the gathered leaders. Smiling amicably, his eye searched the ground and eventually alighted on the robes mutants. “The renowned northern barrens… a place rife with battling clans, ancient ruins and magnificent cities. There four kings hold sway, recognized by the robes they wear; green, black, purple and blood. Unless I am mistaken, we are graced with the presence of two of them. The green-robed King Toad, and the black-robed King Canker.
Cloudhawk continued to eavesdrop with rapt attention. Wasteland mutants, calling themselves Kings?
The one in black remained silence, so it fell to King Toad to speak. His ugly face twitched as sound rumbled forth from its fetid vocal chords. Several in the crowd visibly gagged. “An undeserved reputation. I would not presume to call myself king before the likes of Wolfblade. Simply call me Toad.”
Kingly though his words were, there was nothing inviting about the green-robed monstrosity. This corpse-like beast looked at Wolfblade like he might a distasteful insect.
“You are all very busy people. You’ve come a long way to attend this meeting, so I will not waste any more of your time.” Wolfblade made his way toward a large chair and took his seat. He sat back and rested his hands on the arms of the chair as though it were a throne. “I know why you’re here. We share a common enemy in Skycloud, and the Dark Atom will always be at the fore of future clashes. In our last exchange tens of thousands of soldiers were slain, resulting in the worst elysian loss of life in a century. No one expects them to let this stand. Sooner or later they will respond, and when they do it is not only the Dark Atom who will be in danger. The whole of the wastelands will feel elysian ire.”
A spattering of concurring voices arose from the crowd. Chaos was on the horizon, and these groups had come to the Dark Atom to seek an accord.
Toad, Canker, Wyrmsole and the giants of the valley did not react. They knew the words that were to come held the most importance.
“Generations of grievances have been tallied between the wastelands and Skycloud. Every other decade, the elysians send their soldiers to eradicate as many of our people as they can catch. During these purges, numerous burgeoning groups are destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of lives are lost. Yet our people are resilient, tenacious, and like weeds we sprout up stronger – burned but not razed, culled but not exterminated. The reaping came again, but this time the Dark Atom stood strong before our enemies – and survived. I am sure you all understand the significance of this.”
“No single entity in the wastelands is strong enough to withstand the crushing tide that is Skycloud’s army. But on the precipice we stand upon, and the chaos it entails, is an opportunity for our beleaguered people. We must seize this opportunity to join together, and form an alliance of wasteland powers. Gather the disparate sands of the desert and form a mighty fortress. Only together are we strong enough to finally rid ourselves of our oppressors.”
Wolfblade's speech caused the blood of his agents to boil in anticipation. Finally they were going to stand proud and fight the elysians responsible for so much suffering!
The purpose of this meeting was to reach a consensus, that one day the Wastelands Alliance would rise together. Starting now, what was a land of strife and division would join together under a single banner. But the question remained, who would lead this fledgling resistance? How would domain be assigned?
Wolfblade brazenly offered solutions. “Everyone here is aware of the Dark Atom’s long history. We are the front line in the fight against Skycloud. We are an organization of revolutionaries whose ideological tenacity is unmatched. In the war for the Blisterpeaks we achieved a great victory, but it came at an equally great cost. Due to our record of service, our experience, our accomplishments and our sacrifices, it is clear that there is no better organization to lead the Wastelands Alliance than the Dark Atom.”
Whispers circulated among the other representatives. The moderate and smaller sized groups came here for this reason and did not balk at the offer. However, Canker and Wyrmsole did not rush to acquiesce.
“Were the Dark Atom purely a rebel organization, then the Sanctum of Judgment would have no qualms as to its leadership. Yet as far as we have seen, your organization works in concert with demons. During the battle we saw you gain support from the Caliph of the Sands, the fiend long active in the southern wastes. Who can know what the Dark Atom’s aims truly are, when they are in league with demons? We do not accept your claim for leadership.”
Wyrmsole had risen from his chair, facing Wolfblade with stoic expression. He did not shy away from confrontation.
Wolfblade’s one good eye narrowed to a sliver, but just for an instant. He shifted to a more comfortable position, and answered with a string of apathetic retorts. “Are you putting forth the Sanctum as an alternative? The Crimson One certain has the strength to lead, but does he have the influence? What’s more, let’s not pretend the question of who backs him is a simple one. Can you claim to know his true motives? I might also point out that the Crimson Church has thus far failed to produce meaningful results. It leads one to question whether the Sanctum of Judgment wasn’t planted in the wasteland by Skycloud to act as false friends.”
It was a potent argument. After its victory against Skycloud, the Dark Atom was a shining beacon of the wastelands. What other group could claim to be half as effective as they have been?
The Crimson One’s identity was no longer a secret. By now, everyone in power knew that he was once commander of the demonhunter regimen. Yet no matter how illustrious his own reputation, the cult’s reputation was hinged on a single man. With the loss of Fishmonger’s Borough, they were on especially precarious ground. Thus, any way you looked at it, the Dark Atom was a superior choice.
“The Crimson One is the only man with the qualifications to lead. He is welcoming of all people, and does not cavort with demons – unlike your kind.”
Both Canker and Toad were hesitating to voice their support or opposition. Eventually the green-robed mutant looked toward Wolfblade. “What do you say to this, Master Wolfblade?”
“His Excellency Abaddon has worked with us for a long time. Through him, the Dark Atom has benefited greatly.” He made no effort to conceal their relationship with the demon. “But our accord is mutually beneficial, and I do not feel merely capitalizing on a demon’s offer of help makes us lackeys. On the contrary, the strength we’ve gained with the help of the Caliph has given us hope in our battle against Skycloud.”
Wyrmsole shook his head. “In the ancient days it was the demons who brought this world to ruin. Humanity’s cataclysm came at their hands. This is indisputable. There has never been anything good or righteous about them. We must ensure that the destiny of the human race belongs to humans, and not demonkind!” The brutality gathering in Wolfblade’s eyes was not lost on the spartan priest. “We cannot accept the will of demons as any part of the Wasteland Alliance. If the Dark Atom is serious about their desire to head this consortium, they must slay the Caliph of the Sands in full view of all or be known for the puppets that they are.”
“Abaddon has been kind to our city. Master Wyrmsole goes too far...”
“I will say it again: Humanity’s destiny can only be under human control. Be they gods or demons, neither can be trusted to work in the best interest of the people. If they are, we will simply be trading a realm of gods for an empire of demons. What cost will humanity be asked to pay?” Wyrmsole’s voice rang through the hall, weighty as iron and thick with gravitas. “The Sanctum of Judgment will declare right now that so long as the Dark Atom continues to refuse to shed the yolk of demonic influence, we will never support their bid for leadership. Anyone who chooses to follow them will be seen as enemies to our Church, and will invite Castigation fire down upon their heads!”
Cloudhawk was speechless. The only reason this man was here was to publicly voice the Sanctum’s defiance!
Who didn’t fear the vengeance of a master demonhunter? The Sanctum’s refusal weighed heavily on the minor powers who had come to seek shelter under the Dark Atom’s wings.
Of course, the Dark Atom’s leadership was visibly indignant.
Was this hypocrite blind? Or was he simply refusing to acknowledge everything the Dark Atom had accomplished through the years?
Wolfblade raised his hand, stopping his compatriot’s ire before it began. His own features remained impassive. “The old books say ‘do not make plans with those who walk a different path.’  If Master Wyrmsole is insistent in his principles, then I can only express regret in our inability to work together.”
“Our presence in the Blisterpeaks was a transaction. Now that our business is done we will be taking our leave.” He turned to the others. “The rest of you wait, soon the Sanctum of Judgment will offer proof of our capabilities. You have seen the limits of what the Dark Atom can achieve. Do not doubt that the Crimson One is the only person suited to leadership. No one has more determination and faith in our purpose. He and he alone is the true savior of our world!”
The remaining missionaries stood and exited the chamber. Their position was clear; they would not be supporting the Dark Atom.
The Sanctum of Judgment was an important player in the wastelands. Without their support, the Wasteland Alliance suffered a major setback even before it came to be. Wyrmsole’s threat still hung in the air, making the atmosphere uncomfortable.
“Some have hunted demons for too long. It is inevitable that there would be some resistance to change. What they do not understand is that there is no such thing in this world as eternal enemies.” Wolfblade’s eye turned to the giants of the valley. “Is this not so?”
Natessa did not appear the least bit interested in their conflicts. “Hell’s Army only seeks independence and freedom from elysian influence. We have no foundation in the wastelands, and thus have no interest in your political strife. Whoever among you is shown to be more capable to lead, and whoever we find to act more in our interest, is the one we will support.
Quite the display.
Natessa Windham truly knew how to walk the middle path. What’s more, she made it perfectly clear; her loyalty could be bought. Hell’s Army was a powerful group of soldiers. If you wanted their support, then you needed to pay the price.
Toad and Canker had now seen the situation clear. With such obvious divisions and no steady support, neither were eager to pledge themselves to the Dark Atom. As it all fell apart the various smaller groups muttered noncommittally. They each had their own plans.
Cloudhawk saw the whole thing, and he couldn’t help but smirk furtively to himself. These wastelanders all had their own axes to grind, and too many differences to overcome for the sake of cooperation. It seemed as though there was still a long way to go before they would have their alliance. But if things continued like this, the wastelands were going to suffer when Skycloud came for revenge.
1. This is referencing a line from the Analects of Confucius, specifically chapter 15 section 40 “The Master said, do not make plans with others whose dao is different from yours.” Dao is a term that translates directly to ‘way’, but is more metaphorical. It describes the way one lives their life, including morality and ideals.
2. I love writing chapters like this so much more than fight scenes. The intrigue was real. Arguments were cogent, unexpected, and involved. More importantly, it failed – or at least seemed to. Whatever Wolfblade has become, he miscalculated and got slapped down for it. Consequences are inevitable, and now we have a chance to mull over how the wasteland is going to get out the shit it’s neck deep in.