Book 4, Chapter 49 - Martyr's Twilight

General Skye impressed upon Dawn the need for her to remain and keep an eye on Cloudhawk several times before he left. He told her to stop him running off again like any ordinary soldier. The armies weren’t in open confrontation for the moment, so there was no need for him to take the field.

Cloudhawk was essentially a hate magnet. Far too many people were far too eager to make him pay for his actions.

“All companies are gathered and equipped, sir.” The expeditionary force’s special envoy, Roc, delivered the report to General Skye. “Governor Arcturus and the High Priest have also sent reinforcements. Frost de Winter will join us with ten of the Cloude family’s best soldiers and three thousand Knights of Splendor. Apostle Selene Cloude and Grand Prior Phain Mist have also come with a contingent of Templars. What are your orders?”

It was a considerable show of force. Obviously Skycloud didn’t have the stomach for a drawn-out war with the wastelands. With an array like this the intent was clearly to smash the opposition to pieces as quickly and as decisively as possible.

“Pointless peacockery! My expeditionary force is more than sufficient to deal with this rabble!” Skye was clearly displeased with this infringement on his authority. Though displeased, he gave Roc the orders he sought. “If they want to get in on the scrap then let them come along so long as they don’t interfere with our fight. If they get in my way the neither the High Priest for the Governor can blame me for smacking their representatives around a little!”

Roc respectfully bowed his head and left. 

The armada was on the move.

Skye stood at the bow of their flagship, his burly form solid as a mountain. Even a massive galleon with ten energy towers would shudder beneath the oppressive air only a War-God could produce. 

The barren yellow landscape stretched out to the horizon. Scores of ships lifted into the sky and rode the wind toward a distant enemy. Where they passed the sky was filled with divine light and pious chanting.

Skye quietly took it all in from the fore of his ship. Then, unexpectedly, his face stiffened. A tearing pain wracked his chest, and from the corner of his mouth trickled a small line of blood. It glimmered with an unnatural metallic hue as though it were filled with some inexplicable power.

He really had become more than human.

Skye wiped his mouth and looked down at the bloodstain on his hand. His thick white eyebrows slowly knit together.

“General.” Skye was always followed by a masked man, always low key but always vigilant. After twenty years Mr. Ink was like his shadow, and had seen everything. “Your body can’t keep this up.”

Skye knew what sort of condition his body was in, of course. Birth, old age, sickness, and death – there was no escaping it. Not even him. After all, he was eighty years old! It didn’t matter how powerful one was as a youth, old age robbed everyone of their strength and vitality.

Through tempering his body the General had managed to slow the effects of aging on a cellular level. It allowed him to retain a powerful physique even so late in life. However, it came at a price. The cost of keeping himself at peak condition was a shortened lifespan.

Skye Polaris was a living legend. He’d started participating in fights at sixteen years old. The first time he’d fought a demon he was around thirty. 

A lifetime of battle inevitably left a veteran with wounds that wouldn’t heal. For someone like him these chronic issues alone were nothing to fret over. However, they did add to the burden of keeping himself hale and vital.

“It’s fine. I know. There’s easily another decade left in me.” Skye watched the clouds drift passed, all painted red by the harsh sunlight. “Ten years is enough.”

Ten years… that would put him at ninety.

For a normal man to live so long and retain the physical features of his prime was wishful thinking. Keeping so strong so late in life was nothing short of a miracle, but nothing came free.

There was no other choice! He had to, there was only so much time and too much still to do.

A decade was more than enough time to deal with one turncoat. To find someone to continue things when he was gone, however, Skye would pay twice the price he’d already spent. Once he had that matter settled he could pass into frail old age in contentment.

Mr. Ink asked, “Do you really look so highly on Cloudhawk, General?”

“That boy is a prodigy,” he replied. “I was convinced once word got out that he’d killed Adder. Other than him, who else is there?”

“I beg forgiveness for the unpleasant remark I must make, but… creation and destruction, wax and wane. This is the way of the universe, and it applies to men as much as families and societies. Where there is light there is also darkness. To change the will of fate, one must sacrifice a great deal.” Mr. Ink was respectful and apologetic in offering his wisdom. He had never been a notable figure in Skycloud. During his twenty years of service to the Polaris family he had always shunned wealth and notoriety. The advice he was giving to the old veteran came from his heart. “You’ve done enough. Why not take the rest you’ve earned?”

Skye Polaris wasn’t angry. In fact he gave a halfhearted chuckle.

“The situation has grown complicated. I’ve known for a long time that Arcturus is planning something, but in all my years I haven’t been able to see through that man. All I know is that he is dangerous. Ramiel is also preparing to make a move. Beneath Skycloud’s calm surface, a storm is brewing, and it would be improper to forsake her now. So long as I hold this post, I will not abandon it.” His words rang with determination and confidence.

“When this war is over I plan to carry out my promise to Dawn. I’ve got a decade or so of mentorship left in me, enough time to make those two great. They will be a counterbalance to the chaos in our realm, and that’s good enough. I might not have lived up to the name of my ancestors, but if I can do that then I can die with honor.”

The elderly could still hold high aspirations. A martyr undaunted in his twilight years. Skye Polaris was never a man to resign himself to the whims of fate, and so long as he had a say the Polaris family’s glory would not dim. He swore to stir things up for as long as he drew breath. It was part of the pledge he made to fight for his great realm when he first took up the sword.

Mr. Ink said nothing more. Twenty years at this temperamental man’s side weren’t spent idly. He knew how to tread the razor’s edge. He’d made his point, there was nothing to be gained for pressing further. Skye Polaris hated ‘bullshit’, so he avoided it whenever possible.

The fight before them was critically important to the expeditionary force. It was critically important to the Polaris family.

General Skye would spare no effort or expense to win victory for both.

Nor was there any suspense surrounding the outcome of this war. The Crimson One’s injuries were grave, and his loss at Woodland Vale costly. It’s effect on the fledgling wasteland alliance was toxic to say the least. Whether it was equipment, strength, logistics or discipline, the two sides were on completely differing levels.

How could the Crimson One hope to win? What’s more, Governor Arcturus and High Priest Ramiel weren’t sitting on their hands.

Half of Skycloud’s total power had been mobilized to ensure this war was won before it started!

If the wastelands had the sort of power to contend against them, they wouldn’t have stayed silent and repressed all these years.

***

Cloudhawk had no idea what was happening. He was too busy fondling his new toy like he’d just won the lottery. 

Ardent Wrath was a spectacular weapon. At a glance it looked like just another broken sword, but once activated the weapon brimmed with energy. Molten fires completed the missing half of the blade to create a stunning and dramatic tool of destruction.

As he continued to test it, Cloudhawk came upon an interesting feature.

When the sword was activated one fourth of it was physical, and three fourths formed from pure energy. But the part that was energy didn’t create an actual, substantive blade. Unlike like Selene’s crossblade which physically cut into its foes, it sort of radiated through its target. The light it created was super-heated, and at Cloudhawk’s current level of mental strength he was convinced he could evaporate metal with this thing.

It sure as shit wasn’t a throw-away trinket.

Because it was more light than physical, it could ‘cut’ through anything it came up against. Presumably it could slip passed armor and incinerate the flesh beneath so that any physical protection was meaningless. It was definitely a deadly ally while on the battlefield.

Cloudhawk was pretty damn happy with it.

“Cloudhawk.”

Dawn approached from behind him. There was something different about the look on her face. He of course was completely unaware of the sinister conversation she’d just had with her grandfather. However she was finding it hard to conceal the sense of guilt she felt for her dark bargain.

Cloudhawk slipped Ardent Wrath into a sheath at his waist and met her with a greeting. 

She stared at him for a minute, and was puzzled with how she felt. It wasn’t like Cloudhawk was particularly handsome or heroic looking, so why was it she couldn’t stop picturing his face? When her mind turned to the inevitable future marriage, her heart rate immediately quickened. An indescribable nervousness mixed with a secret joy toiled inside her.

“You need something?”

“Some of your people are back.”

She was avoiding looking him in the eye.

Cloudhawk knew who she was talking about – the demonhunters who’d helped him in Woodland Vale. He immediately got up and headed for the door to find them.

“Wait.”

“What is it?”

Cloudhawk stopped for a minute to look her over. “You’re acting weird all of a sudden.”

Something flashed across her face, but she quickly shook her head and looked away. “Moron, I’m fine!”

He had no idea what was going on. Dawn Polaris was famously irreverent of the rules, a woman who marched to the beat of her own drum. Yet for some reason she was almost… reserved. She was even speaking softer. Altogether unusual.

Whatever. Cloudhawk didn’t pay it any more attention, and Dawn brought him into another room.

Claudia was tending to her bandages. Gabriel sat by the light of a nearby window and was knitting something, as was his custom. The old drunk was drinking – as was hiscustom – and rubbing his calloused feet. Barb stood behind him, holding his iron cane wrapped in cloth.

The vagrant was the first one to notice Cloudhawk enter. He shot the Warden a smirk but never stopped rubbing his grimy feet. “Damn kid, nice work. Every new lady I see you with gets prettier. This noble morsel must be the famous Dawn Polaris.”

Dawn’s pretty face darkened into a scowl.

She immediately didn’t like this hoggish and indecent old man. However she had a sharp eye, and still wanted to play the tender sweetheart while in front of Cloudhawk. She managed to hold back the burning urge to leap forward and wring the old man’s neck.

“The rest of you I couldn’t care less, but what are you doing here, gutter trash?”

Even though Vulkan had once been lauded far and wide, hailed as the War Saint and elevated to Grand Prior of Temple. But that position was a secretive one, and the former Templar grandmaster’s work was clandestine in nature. Moreover he looked entirely different than the majestic holy warrior of old. With Dawnguard wrapped up tight and in Barb’s hands, there was nothing to indicate he was anything other than a dirty old man.

Dawn surely didn’t recognize him.

It was a good thing, too. The former Grand Prior’s sudden appearance among the expeditionary forces would have caused a tremendous stir, and would have far-reaching influence. 

“Drinking, obviously. And I’m almost out.” He irreverently waggled his empty bottle at her. “Since I’ve got nowhere else to be, I thought I’d hang around with you lot.”

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