Cloudhawk led the airship they’d stolen toward the expeditionary force.
The old drunk rubbed his dirt-smudged nose as he looked out across the sky. “Fallowmoor’s troops are gathering. They look like they’re preparing a sneak attack against the Elysian army soon. We don’t have much time. If we don’t speed things up, even if we reach the expeditionary forces it’ll just be like adding more meat to their dumplings.”
“You don’t think I want to go faster? First of all, his is fast as this piece of shit can go. Second, we don’t even know where the fleet is. You think it’s easy finding them in this ass-backwards place?”
Cloudhawk didn’t believe Natessa was the sort to act recklessly, but here they were. Fallowmoor managed to repel its attackers, but they suffered more than the Elysians did. Their defenses were practically routed. It was impressive enough that Natessa managed to keep her troops together, much less mount a quick counter-attack.
A distance in front of them the world lit up like someone had detonated a nuclear bomb. For an instant the blast was brighter than the sun, and even at this distance their ship shook from the shock wave. Shocked faces gaped at the scene.
Selene was stunned by the sheer power of the wave as it passed through them. “What was that? Some sort of weapon?”
“Not a weapon.” Dawn’s eyes were fixed in the direction of the blast. She felt a fear creeping into her heart, an intense sense of foreboding she refused to acknowledge. Gritting her teeth, she growled at the others. “Quick. Something’s happened, we need to get there as soon as possible. Towards the explosion.”
Cloudhawk glanced toward the old drunk, who stood at his shoulder. The warrior’s face was also grave.
He knew right away that it was no weapon. Skye… but how? He was strong, strong enough that he should be able to escape even if the enemy caught up to him. Was it to protect the fleet, or was there something else they had to worry about?
They continued forward at full speed for over an hour. At last they reached the site of the blast, along with the rest of the Elysian fleet. They appeared to be in the midst of a search.
The second the wasteland ship arrived through the dust storm they were surrounded. He and the others quickly revealed themselves and were escorted the rest of the way to the other ships by Skycloud soldiers. The group disembarked and gathered with the other officers at the bridge of the fleet’s flagship. There, the Grand Prior Phain Mist, and the former Warden Roc Polaris were waiting.
Phain’s hand was wrapped tight around the pommel of his sword with a white-knuckle grip. The look on his face was one of barely contained fury. It was a strange change to his typically polite facade. Roc was crestfallen, and so frightened he hardly seemed to know what was going on. He stared into the distance with a far-away look. Even as people walked back and forth in front of him he didn’t seem to notice a thing.
Everyone stood around in dumb silence.
Cloudhawk didn’t know what happened, but everyone’s reactions and the conspicuous lack of the General led him to a dreadful conclusion.
Dawn stormed toward the two men who’d been with her grandfather. “Am I insane or are we still in the middle of a battlefield? Why are you standing around with that dumb look on your faces?! Where’s my grandfather! Get him out here immediately!”
No one dared answer.
This only made her angrier. “We’ve just come back from killing the Crimson One. We’ve completed our mission, with flying colors I might add. I bet never in his wildest dreams did he think we’d actually be able to do it, and to tell the truth it wasn’t easy. Why isn’t he out here kissing our feet?!”
It was Phain who eventually broke the stillness with a quavering sigh. “From what we have been able to gather, the General… may have been killed.”
The sheer rage that exploded from Dawn threatened to burn their whole fleet down. “I will not suffer such outrageous bullshit! Who the hell in this ragtag bunch of wasteland trash could harm my grandfather? Don’t you dare stand here and lie to me!”
Vulkan, Selene, Barb and the others felt the breath stolen from their lungs when they heard it. How could it have happened so fast? Even at his age General Skye was as strong as a Master Demonhunter. He was dead? Just like that?
Cloudhawk was having a hard time accepting it. But he had to, no one would joke about something this terrible.
As the news sank in Dawn was on the cusp of totally losing control.
Cloudhawk walked over to her and placed a hand on her arm. She spun around, and the moment she saw Cloudhawk’s downcast face she could no longer control her tears. They tumbled from her eyes like a dam had burst. Skycloud’s intractable, unassailable she-devil broke down into inconsolable tears in front of everyone.
Seeing her like this, hearing this news – it was almost more than Cloudhawk could take as well.
Young, new to the world, ignorant… he’d flown around Skycloud like a headless fly. If not for Skye Polaris, he would have drowned in the intrigue of the Elysian lands.
All of his interactions with the stubborn old man flashed through his mind at once.
The time in front of the lake when they talked about Aegir’s life.
Skye Polaris had been one of only a few men in Cloudhawk’s life that looked on him kindly. He’d jumped at the chance to take him under his wind, train him, protect him… Cloudhawk could still see him clearly in his mind’s eye. How… how could he be gone?
The old drunk’s hoarse voice gave voice to his internal questions. “The General was strong, at least among the top four strongest in Skycloud. There is no one among the wastelanders who should be a threat to him. How could this have happened?”
“Simple: False friends are much deadlier than open enemies.”
The voice came from the door of the bridge. Two figures entered, the first being a slightly plump man with an amicable face. Behind him was a heroic looking young man in splendid white armor. Both looked a little battered, nicks in their armor and stains on their clothing. Both had visible bruises.
Clay spoke calmly as he walked toward the group. “The General walked into a sneak attack. Among the aids and staff of the Polaris family was a deeply entrenched spy – a plant, controlled by the demon organization known as Gehenna. His real identity is Inkshade, the man you know as Mr. Ink. He abused the trust Skye placed in him, luring him out away from the rest of us and then struck. That is how he got away with it.”
He threw a dull black dagger onto the ground among them. It hit the deck with a thud of finality.
“This is the murder weapon, Death and Decay.”
Everyone’s eyes turned to the dagger.
Anger and tears had turned Dawn’s eyes red. Without even a moment’s hesitation, she pulled Terrangelica from its sheath and hacked it toward the two men. Phain, with impressive speed, reacted by drawing his own sword and holding it in front of her to block her path.
“They’re lying! They are definitely lying!” She screamed and hacked at the air. Bursts of energy were flung from its tip and cleaved whatever they came into contact with. “They killed my grandfather! Dogs! Murderers! Sent by Arcturus! This whole thing was planned by the Governor to destroy my family!”
Phain grabbed Dawn with his free hand and shook her. “Stop this nonsense!”
Phain wasn’t going to let things devolve. Although he had his doubts about Skye’s death, there wasn’t any evidence to support Dawn’s claim. From what little remnants they could find at the site of Skye’s death, it pointed to Death and Decay as the culprit.
Mr. Ink had to be what they claimed: Inkshade, an agent of Gehenna. So far, he was the most logical suspect.
As for Clay and Frost, they explained their battered appearance and the events that followed their escape from Fallowmoor. During their return with Inkshade, they encountered the spy’s friends and discovered his plots. They were wounded in trying to flee, leaving Inkshade and his henchmen free to attack Skye. When the General detonated, he was trying to take his assassins with him. Sadly what energy remained wasn’t enough, and his killers were able to flee.
As for the truth? Well, at this point it didn’t matter. Skye Polaris was dead. Nothing could change that.
The Polaris family was no more.
Provoking the Cloude family now wouldn’t serve Dawn in any positive way. For her own sake, Phain blocked her from acting in her grief and anger.
In the instant Skye died, Dawn went from a child pampered by her grandfather to a fallen noble of a broken family. There was no one left to indulge her capricious nature. If she didn’t grow up – immediately – who was left to protect her?
A sea of murderous stares were fixed on Clay and Frost. Cloudhawk, Selene and the others didn’t even blink. They all knew the truth of what happened, at least most of it. But if what they said about Mr. Ink was true and they could verify it, the General’s assassination could easily be wholly pinned on that scapegoat.
The Wastelands Alliance was under the control of Hell’s Army, and Skycloud had come to be dominated by a single family.
Arcturus Cloude’s schemes had been executed flawlessly, with great success. From now on, any power in Skycloud or the wastes would find it nearly impossible to stand in his way. The Master Demonhunter, a man of incredible strength and deadly cunning, had taken his place as an uncrowned king.
Cloudhawk felt an anger inside him unlike any he’d felt before. His relationship with Dawn was complicated, but at least the very least he considered her a dear friend. There was a lot about Cloudhawk’s personality that was lacking, but he was someone who greatly valued loyalty. The Polaris family had been good to him, helped him when he needed it. Dawn was a friend. He couldn’t just watch her go through this, there had to be justice!
But it was already done.
There was nothing he could do.
He couldn’t change what happened.
Such a poisonous feeling of guilt and helplessness. He couldn’t stop his fingers from wrapping around Ardent Wrath. It was the last gift General Skye had given him. It would be the tool of win vengeance for his murder. Cloudhawk would use it to cut apart these foul bastards for what they’ve done.
Four years ago Cloudhawk would have thrown himself at these killers right then and there. It wouldn’t have mattered what the consequences would be, or how dangerous it was. But he’d grown since then, and knew that acting in the moment would solve nothing. It would only make matters worse.
The old drunk’s voice cut through the thick air. “Are we still happy stand here wasting time? Fallowmoor’s troops will be arriving soon, and while we’ve been talking the Dark Atom and Woodland Vale have being regrouping. We’ve learned there is also another wasteland power about to join the fight. We’ve lost our general, and we’re about to get attacked on three fronts from three armies. Are you all confident we can handle that?”
He was right. The situation was worse than terrible.
Cloudhawk had no swallow the bitter anger in his gullet and focus on the matter at hand
Selene answered. “The General is gone. Who is next in the chain of command?”
The officers all looked at one another. Roc chimed in. “The general didn’t have a second in command. Everyone below him was considered of equal rank.”
“The expeditionary forces are separated in ten or so corps. As I understand, the Talons of God – as a special military unit, had greater scope and function than typical corps.” Hearing no immediate objections, Selene continued. “In my authority as Apostle to the Temple, I support the appointment of Warden Cloudhawk as temporary commander of the fleet, to be assisted by myself and the Grand Prior Phain.”
Phain’s brows furrowed at being volunteered. What qualifications did this young, untested man have to command an entire fleet? But Selene’s status in the Temple was even higher than his own, so he had no right to challenge her order. Besides, his own appointment was temporary anyway.
Everyone understood Selene’s intention.
Now that General Skye was dead, the Cloude family would certainly be looking for some way to take control of the expeditionary force for themselves. If they thrust command on Cloudhawk now and he somehow managed to get them out of this in one piece, they would have more room to maneuver in the future.
Clay Cloude’s sharp eyes were fixed on Selene. For just an instant there was a cold, lethal light in their depths. Was this girl openly defying her family and patriarch? Was she declaring war on Master Arcturus?
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