Cloudhawk was unconvinced. Back when he was younger and knew less of how the world worked, he fell easily for this attractive woman’s wiles. Now, however, not only could he control his hormonal urges – he was also practically crippled, and couldn’t act on them even if he wanted to.
As for joining the Dark Atom? Cloudhawk didn’t even give it a second thought.
If the organization’s motives were pure he’d have at least considered it. After all, an organization like that, with a hundred years of history, certainly had a great deal of influence through the wastes. Besides that, it had the gall to praise the advance of science and stand against Elysian tyranny.
The Dark Atom was the definition of heretics, at least in the eyes of Skycloud’s citizens.
In essence they were a Seeker organization, just far better equipped and manned with hundreds of scientists at its disposal. Be it technological prowess or production capacity, it was top of its class. They’d even recovered and repaired a prehistoric atom bomb. Dark Atom was clearly capable of incredible feats.
But was the current Dark Atom the same organization from years ago?
Now that the demon Abaddon and the betrayer god Autumn joined, no one knew what Dark Atom’s real purpose was anymore. But Cloudhawk had no confusion about how he felt toward Wolfblade, Abaddon and the Shepherd God. They could all rot, as far as he was concerned.
Autumn and Hellflower were not enough of a reason for him to fall in with this shady group.
His relationship with Hellflower was ambiguous at best, but ‘love’ was not how he would describe it. She was a hungry and ambitious woman, the sort Cloudhawk tended to shy away from. As for Autumn? She was a decent girl before a god stole her body, now he saw her more like an enemy.
Cloudhawk didn’t give Hellflower the answer she was looking for, but that didn’t seem to dishearten her. She continued to push him along in his wheelchair. “The boss told me he wanted you to come see him when you awoke. To give you answers, he said.”
The ‘boss’ was of course Wolfblade. They wheeled along in silence toward the Vale’s forbidden mausoleum.
When they arrived, many of the Dark Atom’s important members were in attendance. Notably absent was Coal, but Cloudhawk figured the mutant wouldn’t be comfortable here anyway. Perhaps he’d been sent back to the Blisterpeaks, or performing some task elsewhere.
In the depths of the mausoleum was the familiar altar Cloudhawk remembered from his last visit. The pitch black armor was still resting on it. All around were the scars of that battle, writ in cracked stone and broken earth.
He remembered it like it was yesterday…
That mighty and inflexible man was no longer with them. Still, the glint in his dark eyes appeared in Cloudhawk’s memory from time to time. His presence had been a defining one in Cloudhawk’s life, and when he left he took Luciasha’s affection for Cloudhawk with him. His death was also the final crack that severed his connection with Squall.
Every action, every person was closely tied together.
If Cloudhawk could go back, he’d have chosen to run his small shop in Sandbar Outpost. Do a little shady business, make a little coin… go to Adder’s bar when he had nothing else to do and share a drink with Squall and Asha.
Adder’s true identity soured all that. If Adder would have just been Adder and not the Crimson One’s son, he’d still have two close friends to share time with.
Such helplessness was an unavoidable part of life. Just like sometimes you were forced to do things you rather wouldn’t.
Sometimes you had to kill people you otherwise wouldn’t want to kill.
Cloudhawk shook off the bitter memories and returned to the present. He focused on the three figures closest to the altar: Autumn, Wolfblade, and Abaddon.
A god, a man, and a demon. Standing shoulder to shoulder.
Even to this day Cloudhawk didn’t understand why Abaddon – who for years carved out his own place in the wastelands – would join Wolfblade… a simple, unassuming human. It was just as confusing that a newly awakened god capable of creating her own slice of paradise would do the same. Why would they allow themselves to be used by this strange man?
What’s more, why would a man like Arcturus show him such respect? There were too many uncomfortable mysteries surrounding the terrorist leader.
Wolfblade greeted Cloudhawk as though he were an old friend. “At last, you are awake.”
Autumn looked at Cloudhawk with loathing, only too eager to take his life if the opportunity presented itself. He was a significant factor in why she had yet to take full control of this girl’s body. The connection he shared with the fragment of Autumn’s spirit was strong, so the only way she knew to sever that connection was to carve out its source. Only then would the human girl’s will crumble entirely.
Abaddon’s eyes burned like dual stars, red and furious. Within them were conflicting emotions. After all, he had watched Cloudhawk every step of the way as he grew from humble beginnings to the man he was today. He knew as well that Cloudhawk was the Demon King’s chosen – but how could a human be expected to lead demons?
Cloudhawk answered with a question. “Why did you bring me here?”
Wolfblade didn’t answer his query directly. “You are obviously culpable in Skycloud’s current state of upheaval. Would you care to explain what happened?”
Cloudhawk’s tone grew frigid. “Why should I tell you?”
“Think of this as a transaction,” Wolfblade said with a smile. “Answer my questions and I’ll answer yours in turn – to what extent I can.”
Cloudhawk had no reason or ability to hide the truth. These three could see through him anyway, so he explained what happened from beginning to end.
“The Cloud God?” A grim smirk crossed Autumn’s face. “That one is clever. If the truth were transmitted to the others because of its folly, the God King surely would have seen it destroyed.”
Cloudhawk paused, taking in her words. Truth? What truth?
What astounding secret threatened the whole race of gods, so much as their mightiest would be willing to kill one of its own? Perhaps she was exaggerating.
Could this be why the Shepherd God betrayed her people? It was still a mystery why this creature would choose to break away from the rest of her race.
It was a decision that came at great cost. She lost access to the collected power and wisdom of the gods when she severed that connection. It seemed counter intuitive, to give up one’s godly identity and choose the life of an ordinary creature. A very powerful ordinary creature, but still – why?
From what he understood of godly society, Cloudhawk envied their system. No lies, no betrayals, no deceptions, no conspiracies.
He had gained important and unprecedented insight into their world when the Cloud God took him into its consciousness. All of those separate minds connected together, no matter how far apart they were, and their lifespan limitless. From an evolutionary standpoint they seemed perfect. ‘God’ was definitely the proper name for them.
Yet there was only one being that was a god in the truest sense.
The focal point of all their strength and wisdom, from which it all sprouted, was the God King. It was master and commander of all the great knowledge, all the unimaginable power of the gods.
For a thousand years the gods had existed in a state of order and stability. Though the Shepherd God chose to separate from them, she could do nothing against her race as a whole. After all, the very act of betrayal meant she could no longer access this unified consciousness. Her freedom was only possible once she broke the spiritual lock that tied her to the others.
She seemed to sense Cloudhawk’s thoughts, and spoke in an infinitely cold voice. “Foolish whelp.”
“You envy the gods?” Wolfblade also seemed to know what he was thinking, and showed what he thought with a chuckle. “There are always two sides to every coin. This aspect of their reality is not something to admire. Obliterating the one for the good of the whole is monstrous. While it is true there is no deceit, there is also no sense of individuality. There is a price to pay for anything good in this world. With your temperament, I doubt their life is one you would accept. This was illustrated well when I suggested you remain in the wastelands. Yet you persisted in the pursuit of your idealistic vision of the Elysian lands-”
“My turn for a question.” Cloudhawk cut him off, and fixed him with a hard stare. “How do you know so much about me? Who the fuck are you.”
Wolfblade stared back with his one good eye. “You’ve already guessed the answer.”
“Mantis? You are Mantis?” Wolfblade’s words confirmed his suspicions. It was indeed Mantis who suggested he stay in the wastelands, way back in Greenland Outpost. “Are you?”
“Indeed, I am Mantis. Or rather, Mantis is part of who I am – one identity of many.” A change started to come over Wolfblade’s stare. “In fact, I saw your destiny when you were still wrapped in swaddling clothes. You ask how I know so much about you? It is because I have watched you grow, your whole life.”
It felt like Cloudhawk had been struck by lightning. His mind catapulted backward through time.
He remembered something, a figure. When he was still crawling through the dirt and shit, his lonely pit was shared with a white-haired old man rife with wrinkles.
Time sped forward. Now he was in Blackflag Outpost, carving open bodies with the cold and emotionless killer, Mantis.
Back to the present. His peered into the eyes of this eccentric terrorist leader. Three entirely different men, but in those eyes he saw that they were all the same. Who could have known? Who was he, really?
Cloudhawk may have guessed the answer correctly, but he still didn’t understand. He couldn’t accept it. How could one man appear in his life as radically different people? From an infant, to a young man, and now an adult.
“Are you beginning to see?” Wolfblade’s eye searched the young man’s face. “Have you ever questioned why all the world’s adventures seemed to seek you out?”
Cloudhawk muttered, mostly to himself. “I did wonder how I just stumbled on the Demon King’s stone in some random mutant burrow. It was you… it’s always been you...”
It didn’t stop at the phase stone. The ruins, the phase stone, the Tartarus Mercenaries, the Bloodsoaked Queen, Skycloud, the skull in Hell’s Valley… these defining moments in his life that seemed to happen organically, were all orchestrated by this man?
He’d been manipulating Cloudhawk’s life from the very beginning.
“Who. The fuck. Are you.” Cloudhawk rose from the chair on shaky legs. Excitement was causing the pain in his mind to turn his vision white. “Why would you do this?”
“Be calm, be calm… I mean you no harm. You should know this, shouldn’t you?”
What was Cloudhawk supposed to think or feel toward this man? Resentment? Appreciation?
He’d lied to Cloudhawk all this time, leading him by the nose. Years of manipulation.
But without him, the scavenger probably would have died a long time ago, face down in a pile of shit under some ruin.
He definitely wouldn’t have lived very long by himself in the ruins. He never would have made it to Blackflag Outpost, and all the things that led to his current strength and capability would never have happened. Everything he had now was given to him by the secret actions of this man. But no one did these sorts of things for no reason. After going through so much effort, what did he want?
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