Woodland Vale’s situation is grave.
Please send help,
The note was short, scrawled on a sheepskin map, and didn’t describe what problem she was facing. It was delivered by a man who wore strange garb, who rode in astride an enormous bird. He died moments after delivering the letter, before he could say a word.
Cloudhawk felt like a cold hand was gripping his heart. This was bad. Gabriel, Barb, that old drunk… He was the one who had ordered them to go.
The idea was to protect Autumn on her way back to Woodland Vale, then come back as soon as they’d collected their fee. Instead almost a month had gone past, and he hadn’t heard a thing. Now, all of a sudden, this. What sort of mess had they gotten involved in?
It wasn’t like Gabriel couldn’t handle himself.
In fact, after these years Cloudhawk still didn’t have a full handle on just how strong Gabriel really was. Each time they got in a fight, he kept his head and didn’t let Naberius off the leash. Cloudhawk knew that if he did, his psychic energy would become at least several times stronger.
Barb had learned some serious martial abilities in her time and had an uncommon explosive attack power she could draw on if needed. As for the old lush, what was there to say besides that he was one called the War Saint? In his prime, he could probably go several rounds with General Skye and come out on top. Even in his current sorry state, it wasn’t like some half-assed scrub could take him down.
Autumn was inheritor of her people’s historic powers, and now she had their artifact as well. All told that was some serious firepower, so what was giving them so much trouble? He ruled out a threat from the people of the Vale. From what he’d heard from Autumn, the drunk could probably handle all their soldiers by himself.
Reputedly, there was some sort of powerful beast harrowing the people who lived there.
Cloudhawk guessed it was possible that was the problem, although it should have been a problem easily handled. After all, how strong could a single monster really be? What really made him nervous was the possibility that something else was at play, some other dark actor he didn’t know about. Maybe someone had already managed to infiltrate Woodland Vale, and if that were true then it made things far more complicated.
But he wasn’t going to waste his time with wild guesses.
Woodland Vale wasn’t itself a secret. Squall knew about it, Wolfblade knew about it, the Crimson One, Skycloud… unless you were deaf dumb and blind, you knew the story. Everyone wanted what it promised, so even though no one knew where it was, it was still disputed territory.
“Report the situation to the General immediately. And tell Commander Drake’s men to get ready.”
Upon becoming Warden, Cloudhawk was part of the expeditionary force’s leadership. Both to protect his friends, and his promise to General Skye, he decided to leave matters on the front lines to the expeditionary force.
The Conclave of Judgment and Skycloud’s army were both strong. Their deathmatch was destined to be a catastrophe for both sides.
This put him in an awkward position. Most of his friends – Dawn, Drake, even Selene – had joined the expeditionary force. General Skye led them personally and would do where they went. He didn’t want anything to happen to them, but if they won it meant the wastelands were destined for a bloodbath. His old stomping grounds would be cleaned out and looted.
That meant Squall, Hellflower, Coal and others. What was he going to do when he inevitable had to face them?
It wasn’t like Cloudhawk could have stopped the Conclave or General Skye’s new army from being created. He sure as hell couldn’t stop them from going at each others’ throats, either. Far as he could tell, Cloudhawk’s only option was to keep climbing the ranks until he had the clout to have better choices available.
Now that the great wall was gone, Skycloud’s era of infinite energy was over. Suddenly, the Elysian realm was feeling the same hunger for energy that everyone else did. Since the wastelands shared the same problem, everyone’s eyes were searching for where Woodland Vale was hidden.
Woodland Vale wasn’t just a millennia-old vault, it was also perfect natural chasm.
If General Skye’s forces took control, they could be stationed there indefinitely. Not only would the Vale’s treasures strengthen their weapons, it would also serve as a perfect staging point to strike out at anyone in the wastelands. It had extremely high strategic value.
On the other hand, if a wasteland organization managed to seize the Vale, they could exploit its natural defenses and broad resources to be almost invincible. From there on, a nasty and prolonged battle with Skycloud was a certainty.
The moment Woodland Vale was exposed, it became the center of a world-wide dispute. Nothing could stop the storm that was coming.
From where he was standing it seemed like a better idea to be proactive. Strike now, before the Vale fell into someone else’s hands. At least he could force the Vale out of its passive stance into a more active role. As for what to do later down the road, that would be decided when the situation was clearer.
An aggressive officer approached Cloudhawk and snapped to attention. “Warden, the request for forces from Lieutenant-General Drake was been delivered.”
Drake and his company weren’t far off. One night was more than enough time for word to get to them.
Cloudhawk looked the officer over. He was a man in his thirties with a very peculiar suite of armor. It was beautifully made of superior materials that made it more defensive. The weapon he carried was the changeable sort that could be switched from sword to pike to bow to cross bow as needed. Yet the most eye catching detail was the helmet, which was fashioned to look like a great eagle spreading its wings. It added to his valorous and majestic demeanor.
“You’re one of the men Roc has brought, yes?” Cloudhawk asked. “What’s your name?”
“Colonel Rio Clifton. I was born into the Polaris family!” The man’s face was wooden and his voice boisterous. “Chief of operations for the Talons of God.”
He’d approached Cloudhawk in a tavern. Leaning back against the bar, he continued. “If I were you I’d probably be pretty sour that General Skye passed me over for an outsider. Am I right?”
Nothing in Rio’s expression changed. “My duty is to obey the orders of my superior!”
This earned a chuckle from Cloudhawk. “If I ordered you to leap into a firepit what would you do?”
“The substance of the order does not matter.” But the flash of displeasure in Rio’s eyes said something different. Not because of the ludicrous question, but because Cloudhawk was questioning his loyalty. He chose to speak further. “Not just me, whatever order is given to a Talon – whether it’s to jump in a fire or slit our own throats – we execute without hesitation.”
Cloudhawk had never sparred with the guy, of course, but he could tell that he probably fought as well as Drake. Without relics, Cloudhawk wasn’t sure he could take the man in a straight fight.
Where did they find such a strong and loyal soldier?
Cloudhawk continued his line of questioning. “How many men are under my command?”
“Since many Talons were ordered to be General Aegir’s personal protection detail, many of our number were lost at the Blisterpeaks.” Rio paused for a moment. “At this point, myself included, four hundred and twenty three Talons remain. And the Condor, our warship.”
Cloudhawk wasn’t expecting that. “More than four hundred men are waiting for me to give them orders?”
“You are our Warden.”
He felt like his head was swimming.
The General’s one hell of a guy! He’d been gifted one hell of a post. Talons were carefully chosen from among the best soldiers of the Polaris family. They were strong, resolute, and almost mechanical in their efficiency. Without a doubt the Talons were a mighty force, about as deadly as Hell’s Army – only better equipped. With four hundred of these guys by his side what battle did he have to fear?
Cloudhawk told Rio to spread the word. They would be leaving soon.
Nearby a young girl poked her head out from around a corner. She furtively watched Cloudhawk, trying to escape attention. While she never learned who he was exactly, the large numbers of soldiers who kept coming by were all very respectful of him.
Was he an Elysian military officer? He wasn’t like any soldier she’d ever seen.
Azura was distracted for a moment in thought, and when she looked back toward Cloudhawk he was gone. Suddenly she felt a shove from behind and spun around. There in front of her was a terrifying ghost face. She fell onto her rump with an oof and scrambled backward, throwing the basket in her arms into the air. The snacks she’d been carrying tumbled all over the place.
Azura hurriedly snatched up her goodies with a sour face.
“You little waif.” Cloudhawk pulled off his mask, revealing a mischievous grin. “You’re slacking off and eating food!”
Her face immediately turned red, and her big beautiful eyes glimmered with tears. Her piteous voice whined at him. “Have not!”
Cloudhawk grunted. “I don’t like kids who lie.”
“I practiced the moves twice, meditate for three cycles, practiced weapons for two hours, and studied fifty new words...” Azura, with flustered countenance, counted on her fingers as she outlined her accomplishments. She then nodded her head. “I finished everything!”
In order to harden the little one’s will, Cloudhawk had deliberately given her what he thought was more than she could handle. Instead the kid, no taller than his waist, had done it all.
She was just full of surprises.
“I did it all myself. Then I heard you hadn’t eaten yet, Teacher, so I was preparing you some food.” She glowered at the dirty cakes clutched in her hands. “Now they’re dirty. I’ll go ahead and take them...”
“You know, you’re right. I am hungry.” Cloudhawk plucked one from her grasp and took a hearty bite. He gave the mouthful a good chew and swallowed before giving her a thumbs-up. “Good work! You can make cakes already at your age. There is no limit to how bright your future is.”
Azura watched as he stuffed the dirty cake into his mouth and was filled with delight. She’d made them with the help of sister Jasmine. She was just a child after all, and even a talented child couldn’t bake at her age. Even though it had gotten dirty, Cloudhawk still went ahead and ate it. He had eaten far worse..
“Why are there so many soldiers outside?”
“Because there’s going to be a fight. They’re getting ready.”
Her big eyes twinkled with confusion. “Why? Isn’t it better not to fight?”
His tiny disciple’s question gave him pause. Yeah… why did they have to fight? He wasn’t sure he had an answer.
However, even though he hardly considered himself the teacher sort, he couldn’t look like a fool in front of the kid. So he tried. “On the surface, it’s because of survival and religion. Really, though, it’s all about desire.”
“Well… everyone has desires, all sorts of desires. It doesn’t matter where they come from, what sort of person they are, in the end it all comes down to what they want. It’s the source of why we do things, create things, but also the source of suffering and weakness.”
He could tell by the look in her eyes that she didn’t really understand.
“You’ll get it once you’re older.” He ruffled her hair. “All in all desire is a good thing. But the strong and the smart know how to control their desires. The weak and the stupid are controlled by them. That’s one reason why you have to get strong.”
“Ngh! I wont let you down, Teacher!” Blue looked at back him firmly. “But, can you bring me with you when you go?”
“It’s safer here.”
“I can learn more if I’m with you. When Teacher’s gone so much there isn’t anyone here who can help me get strong.”
Cloudhawk thought for a moment. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll bring you along.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter