The first problem Cloudhawk was struck with: This battle was impossible to fight!
On the Elysian side there was Cloudhawk, Selene, Frost, Dawn, and Atlas – the core of their fighting force. In addition there was Claudia, Rio, and Butcher as capable demonhunters. Together they were equivalent to several hundred Elysian soldiers.
However, the wastelanders had not held back on sending their own heavy hitters. Wyrmsole, Ravenous Tiger, Three-Eyed Spider, Blackfiend the Undying, the Giants of Hell’s Army, Raven, Toad, Canker, Squall, Gremlin, Green Snake – an impressive roster to say the least. To back them up were Ravenous Tiger’s soldiers from Fishmonger’s Borough, Wyrmsole’s Conclave priests, and Raven’s heavily armored techno-soldiers. 
Both groups were rife with capable fighters and solid backup. Neither the Highwaymen nor the Conclave had an advantage in strength or numbers. The wastelanders had also come a mutual understanding and joined forces against the Elysians.
If Woodland Vale came under the control of Squall or the Conclave, at least it would still belong to the wastelands. While the two groups had deep-seated differences, both would keep it from Skycloud. This was imperative. If Woodland Vale was taken by Cloudhawk and his crew, it would be a disaster for everyone else.
So long as Skycloud was involved, even enemies would join forces to make sure their worst case scenario wasn’t realized. Despite their many disagreements and conflicts, none were stronger than the hatred they shared for Elysians. At least for now, the wasteland stood united in an effort to fight off their shared foe.
“They’re coming!” Dawn had Terrangelica resting on one shoulder and her shield gripped tight in her other hand. Her face was full of excitement. “I’m taking the vanguard. I’ve never fought in such a glorious battle! Let me see how many I can cut down before you all catch up.”
Selene answered with a halfhearted sniff. “If you’re so eager to die, no one will stand in your way.”
Dawn immediately bristled. “What are you saying?! Talk like a normal person for once!”
Selene’s keen eyes, like shimmering pools, peered across the way toward the man carrying a furled banner. “Wyrmsole was once the Companion of the Order of Demonhunters, its second-in-command. If he fights at full strength, he is more terrible on the battlefield than even General Skye. If you think you can match that, then I invite you to try.”
Selene was a Cloude. She knew exactly how strong each member of her family was. Before his fall from grace, Wyrmsole was a shining star among the Cloudes. Dawn knew this as well.
Wyrmsole himself was already a very tough foe. Although Dawn hadn’t fought any of the others, she could sense the danger hanging over them. At least ten of them were killers at their peak, and they outnumbered the elysians three-to-one. Victory seemed a remote possibility.
Dawn visibly withered when the truth was pointed out, but she wasn’t willing to allow herself to lose face. “It doesn’t matter how strong they are, we can’t retreat. If you’re scared then run away. I know Cloudhawk will at least stand by my side.”
Selene’s delicate brows gathered in irritation. As for Cloudhawk, he could only force out a pained chuckle. This damned women. Why are they always dragging me into this stuff?
Rio’s eyes were sharp as daggers. “The Talons of God are not a force to be disregarded! Men, form up!”
Ten men with banners marched to the fore. All at once they released their mental energies, and together they formed a formidable barrier.
Divine Grace, special Elysian war banners. Bestowed by the Temple to soldiers in faraway lands, they protected the faithful from harm. In situations like this they were bound to play an important role.
Talon soldiers drew their bows, aimed for the sky, and let loose. A series of feathered volleys rose, leaving trails of light where they passed. Somehow they sped up as the projectiles fell. With an ominous whoosh the arrows picked their own target so that no arrow was shot in vain.
As the wasteland soldiers came rushing across the canyon they were met with the hail of arrows. Their mad dash was slowed to a crawl. Of course, though wide in area and deadly to many, archers alone wouldn't be enough to stop the wastelanders.
Frost stood heroically to one side, with the crystalline spear held loosely in one hand. He reached for the sword on his belt with the other and drew forth Rimeshard. His cold eyes glared death at his foes, with the coldest stare aimed at Wyrmsole. From the frigid aura surrounding him rose a burning battle lust.
Wyrmsole had been holding back in the Blisterpeaks, and still he had gone blow for blow with Frost. Arcturus’ disciple was no typical demonhunter. Three veteran demonhunters together couldn’t match his talent. Even so, it was clear to everyone that Frost still was not as strong as the former Companion, a fact which highlighted how dangerous their enemy was.
“It’s already too late to run.” Impatience was clear in Dawn’s voice. She shoved the tip of Terrangelica into the ground and released her mental energies into it. The canyon walls cracked and fractured, dislodging massive boulders. “If any of you have a plan, now’s the time!”
The world shook as deadly arrows and crushing boulders rained upon the wastelanders.
From the enemy lines, Natessa’s whip cracked and birthed another tempest. The fierce winds cast the boulders back toward the Elysians, only for them to shatter against the protection of Divine Grace.
“If we don’t get reinforcements here soon, we won’t be able to last long.” Cloudhawk finally spoke his mind. “Fighting recklessly isn’t the best plan, but it is our only option. Fight or die, it’s the way its gotta be.”
“That’s right, we need to get into the valley and stop them. Watch how I do it.”
Dawn put both hands on the hilt of her sword and pushed, shoving it into the ground until none of the steel was visible. Sparing no effort she assailed the canyon walls with her power, practically causing them to explode. Countless rocks of all sizes tumbled down, and everyone could feel the invisible surge of energy she released. It burst forward from under their feet.
The earth rumbled like a dragon was slithering through the very stone. Clearly felt, but impossible to pinpoint.
All of a sudden the wastelanders’ rear echelon members were pitched off their feet as the ground opened up beneath them. A fissure split the rock, and many soldiers were too slow to react. They went screaming down into the darkness. The fissures split the canyon all the way to the stone door at its far end.
Boom! A rumbling sound like thunder followed.
Dawn’s fissure stopped abruptly thirty meters before the door. It simply ended, like it’d run into an invisible barrier.
The towering door was easily a dozen meters tall. Enormous statues of roughly the same height were situated on either side. In the right hand of each was a spear, and in the left a shield. Solemnly they watched the canyon from their vantage, unscathed by Terrangelica’s power.
“If the door was opened that easily, they would have gotten in a long time ago.”
Even from across the canyon, Cloudhawk could hear the resonance from the door. The giant stone obstruction was actually a sort of seal, set here by the god that made this place. No outside power was going to force it open short of another nuclear bomb. Even a master demonhunter couldn’t open it with brute force, because it was somehow drinking the force up.
A key… there had to be some sort of key… doors were made to open, otherwise why put one here at all? His guess was that the key to opening it was resonating with a specific frequency, making the giant door no different from any other relic.
Cloudhawk was suddenly reminded of Autumn’s 'flute', which was no typical flute at all. It didn’t resonate with typical demonhunters, only someone with a very specific type of mental energy. It had sat around for three hundred years waiting for someone who could resonate with it. Autumn had been that someone.
Well, and one other. Cloudhawk was the exception.
From what he felt, the stone door and Shepherd’s flute had a similar frequency. His first thought was that this proved both items were created thousands of years ago when the Vale was made, by the hand of its rebel god. His second notion was that if he could use the flute – albeit poorly – what was stopping him from opening this door?
The request for help had been sent by Barb from inside Woodland Vale, with a map provided by Autumn. It was obvious they were in a great deal of danger, so coming out to open up a way in wasn’t an option for them.
“Cover me, I’m going to try something!”
Cloudhawk hadn’t finished his thought when a plume of fire burst through the rubble. It struck the boulders like a deluge, blasted them aside. As it roared forward the fires coalesced into a fist, ultimately hammering into the entrenched Elysian forces. The shell of divine energy protecting them dimmed visibly.
Wyrmsole appeared, wreathed in flame. His banner had been freed and its flag waved triumphantly in the scalding winds. Each flutter pulsed with energy that knocked Elysian arrows away. At the same time blazing orbs of fire rose up and arced forward.
Selene summoned her holy crossblade and dashed from under the protection of Divine Grace.
She rose into the air, resplendent in her white armor. Although her motions seemed almost slow, in reality she dashed with incredible speed through the enemy. Their relics and arrows assailed her, but she didn’t dodge. They struck her armor but did not even leave a mark.
Radiant crossblade and triumphant battle standard met. An explosive release of energy knocked both away.
Selene’s cold, hard words rang above the din, stressing each syllable. “Where is the Crimson One!”
“The Holy Crossblade, his Sacred Vestments… you’ve grown, Selene.” Wyrmsole’s weather-beaten features softened with reminiscence. He remembered the last time he’d seen her, when she’d just begun her training as a demonhunter. Now she stood before him, wielding Baldur’s weapon and wearing his armor. She was still young, but strong enough to stand against him. “Why do you wish to know?”
“To kill him,” she replied.
A bitter smile wrinkled his already heavily lined face. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my time. The Crimson One as well. You would not even give us an opportunity to atone?”
“The only way you can atone for your many sins...” From ten meters away Selene swiped her weapon at Wyrmsole, knocking him further back, “...is to die!”
He wasn’t going to give her the answer she wanted. One day Selene would be stronger than the Crimson One, but not now. Even with Baldur’s inheritance, she would die if she faced her uncle. This was even truer now that the Crimson One had become leader of the fledgling Conclave of Judgment.
Frost pulled his arm back and threw Frozen Dirge into the fray. It shot out like a beam of icy light. Wyrmsole easily knocked it aside with his standard.
Frost appeared in front of Selene and snatched back his spear. In his left he still held Rimeshard, glinting dangerously. He used both relics to hack at Wyrmsole’s banner.
“Leave him to me,” Frost hissed. “Deal with the others!”
Ravenous Tiger, Blackfiend and the three Giants were leading their respective troops in a counter attack against the Eylsians. The battle had broken out, a conflict of attrition. Skycloud’s forces were under tremendous pressure.
Dawn was locked in place, controlling the power of Terrangelica and otherwise unable to fight. Selene and Frost were in the enemy’s midst and were paying Cloudhawk no mind. As for Atlas and the other members of the Court, who knew where they’d disappeared to? With so many demonhunters and their relics vying for his attention, Cloudhawk couldn’t pinpoint where they’d gone.
“Goddamnit, can’t you idiots keep an eye on the big picture? We’re not here so you can have a good time cutting people apart!”
His irritated words went unheeded. He would have to rely on himself. Cloudhawk wrapped his fingers around the phase stone and then blinked across the field, toward the stone wall on the other side of the canyon.
Woodland Vale was under attack, and had been for a while. Cloudhawk didn’t know how they got in, but as far as he was concerned this door was the only way. It was either resonate with it, or find a weapon big enough to smash it apart.
No weapon like that was at hand. He had to find another way, and fast.
1. Fear them.