Book 4, Chapter 86 - King of the Wasteland

They wanted to flee? Phain answered with by throwing his sword, becoming a spear of light that ripped through everything it touched. It did not have an exaggerated blast or a magnificent showing, but all defenses were useless in the face of this strike.

The Templars were the most elite warriors in the realm. Any one of them could hold their own against grim odds. Their leader was certainly not a man who could be easily dealt with.

Phain was an outstanding member of the order. In addition to his mastery of Templar abilities, he was also adept at his own set of skills. Most of those involved swordsmanship. He was not known as the fastest sword in Skycloud for no reason.

He was very unlike his predecessor. The War Saint had created over a hundred martial styles. It was his attempt to find every tool possible to release human latent potential. Thanks to his efforts, even a common man with no demonhunter talents could contribute with great effect to the battlefield.

Phain Mist chose to abstain from the complex and focus on the simple. His sword style wasn’t overly showy, and focused on three core moves; draw, swing, and throw. He’d spent his life perfecting these simple fundamentals, so that although his swordsmanship looked simple there were few who could compete.

Dawn, when she was still a Templar, was a sort of quasi-disciple of the new Grand Prior. However, she hadn’t learned all he had to offer. True to her former nature, Dawn had learned only the fundamentals. It was in part for this reason that the old drunk had put his nose up at her. If instead had been Phain displaying his skill, it was unlikely the old drunk would have been so dismissive.

Throw-fencing was the quintessence of Phain’s ability.

It was a gamble, meant to be used only in life or death situations, or to turn the tide of battle. Half of his strength was promised to the strike, in the hopes it would route their enemies.

Wolfblade wasn’t considered an overwhelmingly powerful figure. His strength was supposedly comparable to that of the late Aegir Polaris. By contrast, Phain was considered several times more capable than the late general. If Aegir’s full strength had forced Wolfblade into a disadvantageous position, then Phain’s should outright slaughter him.

That was exactly the Grand Prior’s intent. He would cut the terrorist leader to pieces! And were it not for Wolfblade’s allies, he would have succeeded.

Abaddon would not stand idly by and watch his compatriot be slain. He threw a tome bound in gold, right into the path of Phain’s sword. The blade was obliterated into a fine cloud of steel particles upon impact, and the Grand Prior staggered backward several steps from the rebound energy.

In his exchange with Wolfblade, their weapons had clashed dozens of times. Even Dawn’s mighty Terrangelica was damaged after conflict with the flying blade, so it was no surprise that it would weaken Phain’s inferior equipment. Outwardly, there were few signs that his sword was weakening. However, its integrity had long ago been compromised from the inside. Colliding with the Gospel of Sands was enough to destroy it entirely.

“Everyone, attack!” Phain ordered. “Don’t let them escape!”

The gathered Templars and demonhunters rushed to comply. It was an imposing array of Skycloud might. Autumn, however, was still committed to punishing these pretentious humans.

Cloudhawk knew the real Autumn was still locked in there, somewhere. Her powerful will remained, strong enough to rebel against a god. He only had a second, so he took the chance. “Autumn. Don’t give in, you need to wake up!”

The pretty young woman’s face twisted. Her eyes alternated between dull and piercing as within her two wills battle for supremacy. While the battle raged, palpable shifts were obvious until at last a light of clarity bloomed in Autumn’s eyes. For just a moment, Cloudhawk recognized the girl he’d met back in Sandbar Station.

“Cloudhawk.” She waved her hand, and the vines holding him fast parted. “Run!”

He reached for her as excitement surged within him. She was still there. The girl in the green dress had not been defeated.

When she saw the fervent light in his eyes, Autumn was satisfied. But she could feel Silvanas’s will rising. Her domination was imminent. The young girl didn’t know if she would ever have the strength to do this again, but at least she saw that look in his eyes. That was enough.

Cloudhawk hesitated, holding out his hand to grab her. “Come with me!”

But even as he said it, he could see her sweet expression devolve into fury. Tremendous and frightening power poured out of her, reaching for the mutant creatures that hovered all around. They were infected with the god’s rage, flinging them into a bloodthirsty frenzy. Beaks and talons ripped at anything that moved as they went absolutely berserk. The expeditionary forces weren’t prepared for such intensity, and for the moment were thrown into chaos.

“Die!”

Autumn thrust at him again with her flute. Cloudhawk saw it coming and called on the power of the phase stone to protect him. There was too great a difference between him and the god for Cloudhawk to fight back.

More reinforcements came pouring in, so many that even these mighty wastelanders would soon find it hard to contend with them. It was time to fall back.

“That’s enough, child. Your vengeance is achieved.” Wolfblade’s voice cut across the tumult toward Coal. He called for him while making his retreat. “Your offenders will not survive.”

Autumn glared at Cloudhawk, unwilling to give up her assault. The human she’d dominated was still inside her, but when Silvanas was vigilant the girl could not take control. Most of the time the tiny will was insignificant – until Cloudhawk appeared. Somehow the man gave the human soul incredible strength, enough to contest Silvanas’s domination. It was clear, then, that to destroy the fragment of her body’s former owner she had first to destroy this young man.

But Autumn also saw the look in Wolfblade’s eyes.

They seemed calm, but there was a majesty in their depths that was hard to define. There was no question that within the body of this human there was a unique and powerful soul. Even once she regained her full powers, what she saw from those eyes was that he would remain one of only a scant few creatures she genuinely feared.

Whatever Wolfblade’s plans, Cloudhawk was a vital piece. He would not suffer Autumn ruining his plots.

Though on the surface Autumn, Abaddon and Wolfblade seemed to cooperate, the truth was more complicated. Each represented different aims, different viewpoints. These were special times when interests aligned, so for the time being they chose to work together. Once the worth of their alliance was no longer obvious, it was just as likely they would become enemies.

When had Silvanas ever had to swallow her grievances in this way? She was no longer a god, no longer wielded the power of creation, and although her individual strength had been greatly diminished she bore no regrets.

If she could go back a millennia and choose again, she would still defy the God King, even knowing what it would cost.

Dark Atom agents mounted the mutant creatures and began to flee. Abaddon rose back into the air and with a flick of his wrist summoned the Gospel back to him. His red, bewitching eyes burned to reflect his foul soul. They swept across the anarchic scene and he grinned. “Things grow more interesting by the day.”

“Don’t chase after them!” Cloudhawk called out to stop Phain and the Templars. “We’ve lost too many already, let’s bring our men back home.”

When they heard him a silence spread across the field. Indeed, this expedition had cost them all dearly. 

Dawn approached Cloudhawk, who was swaying on unsteady legs. Concern was written on her face, to which Cloudhawk nodded to assure her he was fine. In fact it was Dawn he was worried for. The battle against Wolfblade might have caused her to break through to a new level of power, but it sure as hell hadn’t been easy.

Both sides gathered their wounded, and left.

Drake and Brontes had clearly been no match for Coal. While it was too soon to know their condition, it was obviously bad. Brontes was showing no signs of life at all, meaning it was unlikely even Skycloud’s most talented healers could help him.

Drake wasn’t much better off. His tenacious body had been thoroughly broken, and visible depressions showed where his bones had been obliterated. It looked like there wasn’t a single part of him from head to toe that was unscathed, and his internal organs had to be similarly mangled. A normal man would’ve died a hundred times by now.

But, at least for the moment, Drake was holding on in a state of agony.

His breathing was growing more shallow. A number of demonhunters with healing capabilities were crowding him, but all shook their head to indicate there was little they could do.

“Commander!” Hammont knelt next to Drake, his eyes red and swollen. “You need to hold on. Commander Brontes is already gone, we can’t lose you too!”

Drake’s resolute features had been burnt and deformed. Despite the horrific state of his body, he was still awake. Hammont’s pleas rang in his ears, and he answered with an ugly smirk. “If I can’t even beat a worthless mutant, then I’m a disgrace to the expeditionary force.”

Cloudhawk stood by in silence, but the other soldiers could barely hold back their indignant fury. They were desperate to get their hands on the murderous freak and tear him to pieces.

Drake’s torn lips continued to writhe painfully. “I’d hoped to become one of Skycloud’s greatest generals, like our great War-God. Unfortunately I just didn’t have the talent. My dreams will only ever be dreams, but my only regret is I won’t have the opportunity to kill more heathens.”

Cloudhawk looked down at the man, who hardly looked human anymore. His old friend wouldn’t last the day, but he held on to his self-righteous beliefs to the very end. How was any of that important now?

He hadn’t heard that General Skye was dead. The legend of the War-God was over, but no one had the heart to tell him. The general was an idol to a man like Drake, unassailable and invincible. It would have been cruel to steal that from him in his final moments.

“Cloudhawk, don’t let General Skye down. He has high hopes for you. You need to help him. Help our soldiers.”

“Fat man, we’ve known one another only a few days but I could tell right away you’re different. Tricky, clever. Most soldiers act rashly and don’t have your kind of smarts. You need to stay alive and serve as an example.”

Cloudhawk’s grim voice asked. “Do you have any last requests?”

“What would I wish? I’m a soldier, and I will die with my sword in hand.” A dark chuckle rattled from his chest. “Maybe bury me and my sword in Hell’s Valley. When I think back, those were the days I cherished most...”

Fifteen minutes later, Skycloud’s twenty-nine year old Commander Drake Thane died aboard his warship. Skycloud had lost another exceptional warrior. Cloudhawk lost a good friend.

Using his authority as fleet commander, Cloudhawk announced that Drake’s Corps would not be dissolved. Instead, it would continue under the leadership of its ranking officer Hammont Seacrest, though its name would not be changed to honor the young soldier who died before he could make his mark.

They did not know it now, but in the future this handful of soldiers would one day rise to become one of Skycloud’s greatest fighting forces. Step by step, it would carry the spirit of a young, undistinguished officer to greatness as a way to honor his sacrifice.

An honor guard brought Drake’s body to the hold where it waited with countless other corpses to await transport. They were preparing to return to Skycloud and bury his remains as Drake requested, when suddenly one of the corpses gasped and sat up.

The soldiers were at first frightened at the unexpected even, and cautiously approached. With faces white from shock and disbelief, one of them called out.

“C… Commander Brontes!”

Brontes slowly opened his eyes. They were unusually cold and sharp, and if one looked closely they could see a ring of red around the irises.

Had he really come back to life? It was both astounding and terrifying to the soldiers. They’d definitely checked his body and saw no signs of life. He was definitely dead.

“Today, I saw a truly extraordinary mutant. But I am one true King of the Wastelands.”

No one understood what he was talking about. Before they could ask, Brontes’s hand shot out and the human appendage immediately began to change. It stretched out to become several writhing fleshy tentacles. Like bolts of lightning they drilled through the foreheads of the soldiers.

The unlucky men were lifted off their feet, jerking erratically. By the way Bronte’s tendrils undulated it was obviously he was pumping something into their brains.

Eventually he retracted his fingers and they returned to normal. The hole between the soldiers’ eyebrows slowly healed until there was no proof that anything at all had happened.

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