Brontes had died, and come back to life. Cloudhawk found that to be more than just a little suspect.
He’d seen the man when they dragged him back to the ships. Dead as a door nail. Could a dead man suddenly came back like that?
He had to accept it when he saw Brontes for himself. They must have just been careless when checking his body, he thought. It wasn’t unheard of for badly wounded people to seem dead only to come back. In those cases it was hard to tell if someone was still alive, even with sophisticated equipment. People could be forgiven for the error since they only had their eyes to rely on.
Although Brontes lived, by the look of him he would be permanently disfigured from his fight with Coal. Strange that this lieutenant commander, with no real ability or accolades to speak of, should survive. Even Cloudhawk hardly knew anything about him.
But they had encountered one another before.
Four years ago, when Brontes was a squad captain, he’d been ordered to assist Claudia Lunae in her excursion through the wastelands. He’d been among those who razed Lighthouse Pointe in search of Cloudhawk. He didn’t succeed of course, so there was no friendship between them, but neither was there animosity. Cloudhawk had no real impression of Brontes because he hardly thought about him at all.
Surviving and facing a life of disability… Cloudhawk wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or a curse.
He gave the order to return to base, but Cloudhawk was stunned to learn that all the officers were in opposition. The reason they gave was simple; the wasteland opposition was routed. The soldiers were spread out through the mountains and as such couldn’t be wiped out, but their den was left unguarded. Now was the time to turn back around and sweep through the Barrens. Fallowmoor and every other cesspool they called home could be burned to the ground unopposed!
Total victory was in their grasp – a mighty victory that would be the crowning achievement of their service records. Was Cloudhawk really going to give that up?
Once their base was destroyed, the remaining wasteland forces would become vulnerable, roving bands of agitators. There would be nowhere for them to hide, and even if they tried to regroup they would have only a shadow of the strength they had before – nothing that could threaten the safety of Skycloud. The expeditionary force’s mission will have been achieved!
“No!” The gathered officers were shocked. Cloudhawk flatly denied their demands.
“Commander, this order will never be accepted. Sixty thousand Elysian soldiers won’t stand for it!” Roc couldn’t understand Cloudhawk’s reasoning, and didn’t agree with the order. “We have an opportunity to accomplish something incredible here. Even as commander, you do not have the right to rob our soldiers of this glory!”
Cloudhawk retained his steadfast denial. “Our army is exhausted, we need to recover. We are returning to Skycloud!”
“Nonsense! This is absolute nonsense!” One of the officers with less control over his temper stomped forward. He was a man of noble carriage with twenty years of leadership experience and one of General Skye’s trusted advisers. “You can’t cut the weeds and leave the roots – you’re just asking for disaster down the line! Yes, we have lost many soldiers, General Skye among them. If we don’t carve out the cancer that is these heathens right now, then all of our effort and sacrifice will be meaningless. All of those deaths, meaningless! How could General Skye’s spirit rest in peace?”
The officers weren’t alone. Dawn didn’t understand Cloudhawk’s hesitation, either.
Her grandfather gave his life for the cause. How could they show their face back home if they returned with the mission left undone? What sort of excuses would they give to the people? Millions of Elysian citizens were waiting for victory, and their soldiers had suffered so much in pursuit of it. They could not allow the Elysian people to remain hopeless! They could not disappoint the soldiers who were fighting for their realm!
Everyone clamored to be heard, vociferously arguing with their commander to change his mind. Of them all, only one understood what he was thinking.
Selene knew Cloudhawk’s heart. The officers were right. The wastelander cities were undefended and even an exhausted Elysian army could easily destroy them – and the countless innocent people who lived there.
Nothing but smoke and ashes would be left in the wake of their bloody charge.
Cloudhawk had never given an order that could wipe out hundreds of thousands of lives. It wasn’t in his character. Didn’t he used to be just like them? A scavenger, picking through the ruins, totally unaware of the rest of the world. All the people these Elysians were desperate to kill were too busy clawing out a living to be any kind of threat. They were normal folk, just trying to survive. Most of them didn’t even know Skycloud existed. If he gave the order to have these poor, innocent purple murdered, then how was he any different from the people he despised?
Indiscriminate slaughter, blood and misery, unmitigated cruelty… how would he be any different from Arcturus Cloude?
Cloudhawk would not be swayed by their cawing. “Trust me, the wasteland and Skycloud won’t be fighting after this. There is a reason why I choose to permit them to continue to exist.”
Skycloud’s leader was Arcturus, that was undisputed now. Through Hell’s Army, he was also the ruler of the wastelands. What sense did it make for him to destroy pieces of his own territory? There was no way another such war would break out between the two sides.
If they kept these settlements intact, each of the various wasteland organizations would still have their own bases, which would help promote disunity amongst them. Destroying them would only hasten everyone’s rush to unite. This was why Cloudhawk didn’t see a need to destroy the wastelander cities. However, he couldn’t explain it to the expeditionary forces. No one would ever believe him.
“Cloudhawk, that’s enough!” The grizzled general no longer even feigned respect. He practically howled at the fleet commander. “Do you have any idea what you’re doing? As commander of this fleet you are openly insulting our forces! I will not follow this order. I will go alone if I have to and happily face court marshal when I return – victorious! This officer will never suffer such disrespect to his men!”
“I refuse as well!”
“I’ll go with you!”
Their collective outrage reached a boiling point and they chose to refuse a direct order rather than sacrifice their sense of honor.
Cloudhawk might have been fleet commander, but in name only. He was, after all, only one man. His real position was Warden of a single corps, as far as these men were concerned. Equal to any of these officers, no better. But that was just status. He hadn’t earned anyone’s respect, only having been part of the military for a handful of months. What qualified him to tell these veteran soldiers what to do? Especially when he gave an order like this!
The officers all stormed from the bridge. Each was off to order their regiments to press the attack.
Dawn was flustered, unsure of what had happened. She turned to Cloudhawk to offer support but he just waved it off. He walked off to his quarters without a word.
As he walked away a heavy sense of helplessness weighed on his heart. It felt like nothing had changed, even after all these years. He couldn’t stop his friends from dying, or stop the things he didn’t like.
“You did your best.” A clear and stoic voice reached his ears. Selene approached and took a seat beside him on a flight of steps. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help you.”
He couldn’t blame her.
Selene was an agent of the Temple, and had to make sure the Temple’s power was intact for its battle against Arcturus. If she inserted herself in this army matter it would have ended poorly, and reflected badly on her in the eyes of the Elysians. She had to be careful not to do something that – in the eyes of Skycloud – didn’t make sense.
Cloudhawk felt lost. He didn’t know what to do, or what would happen.
But at least he wasn’t completely in the dark. He knew his enemy. Life required direction, and sometimes that direction took the form of a powerful foe to overcome. Whatever was to come, Arcturus had to be dealt with.
Then Abaddon, then Wolfblade, and all the others. Cloudhawk quietly added all their names to the list of those he would see killed.
The sun rose over a broken landscape, causing the chilly darkness to scurry away until night fell once more.
A stooped figure clawed itself out of the dirt. The figure was covered in grime and ashes, an old hag with purple snakes for hair and skin like leathery scales. Her twisted, ugly face was illuminated by the rays of the morning light.
Castigation was deadly, but not enough to destroy her.
As the fires had tried to claim her, Naga continuously shed her skin. Castigation Fire couldn’t be extinguished, but would burn itself out over time. Because it was fueled by psychic energy, the hotter it burned and the farther it spread the more draining it was to maintain.
Another distinguishing fact was that normal matter – like flesh – wasn’t fuel for Castigation Fire. And so Naga continuously shed the incinerated flesh until at last the green flame was extinguished. Her quick thinking and unique mutation kept her alive.
Once she clambered out from the dirt, Naga started to gather what subordinates survived. All told, there were one thousand eight hundred people remaining after the wreck of the ancient vessel. After a little while the Green and Black Kings joined her with their own forces. The three separated themselves for a talk.
“Naga, you live. This is stupendous news.” Toad’s frog-like voice croaked at her, in sharp contrast to his gentlemanly style of speech. He kept his voice low. “Did it go as planned?”
Naga’s response was equally restrained. “No one knows a thing.”
“Good. It is best, for his safety. It must be kept strictly confidential – going no further than the three of us.” A strange, conspiratorial light glinted in Toad’s eyes.
Canker finally joined the conversation. “Others are coming.”
The three mutants peered into the distance, where scores of wastelanders were approaching. They were led by the recognizable figures of the Three Giants of Hell’s Army; Natessa, Dumont and Eckard. While the battle had been a long and grueling one, the Wastelands Alliance’s forces had not suffered insurmountable losses.
It was as Natessa expected.
Her loss to the expeditionary force was only in part thanks to Cloudhawk’s adept command. It had been her intention to fail. She had chosen this location, these rolling mountains, for her people to hide out. The cities and settlements they left behind were of no interest to her.
They had to be razed. How else would the wastelanders become more pliable? Once the Elysians took everything from them, they would be desperate to join the Conclave and come under her command.
What’s more, destroying these worthless villages would be a lauded accomplishment in Skycloud. Once the matter was settled, Arcturus would have no further need to fight against the Northern Barrens. It would avoid any more internal friction or mutual conflict.
The expeditionary force would do as expected, sealing defeat while imagining victory. And the wastelands, on the surface appearing crushed, would be the real winners of this conflict. Leaders from both sides lay dead, and it was perfect. It’d all gone more smoothly than Natessa had anticipated. All that remained was the Cloude family.
She approached Naga, who she was seeing for the first time. “The wastelands are in a critical fight for survival. We need to work together. The Crimson One has fallen, but we will not allow this defeat to crush the alliance he built.”
“Say no more, I know what must be done.” Naga coughed, her voice hoarse. “My men and I agree to join the Conclave of Judgment.”
Three out of four terrible mutant kings from the Northern Barrens had joined the call. It would surely inspire other organizations to follow their lead. The Wastelands Alliance would swell in numbers, powers and influence.
Naga had a reputation as a wastelands scientist. Her knowledge was deep and broad, with a dozen or more workshops peppered throughout the wastes where she practiced her craft. Any large organization which aspired to greatness needed scientists and laboratories to further their aims.
Squall had Three-Eyed Spider. Wolfblade had Hellflower. Now the Wastelands Alliance had their own lead scientist in Naga.
“Why hasn’t the fourth King shown himself?”
“His identity is… unique. Even we cannot contact him.”
“Is that so? What a pity...”
Natessa knew there was more to it than they were sharing with her, but the stage was set and no one was going to change it. Once these wastelanders returned to their ruined cities, they would be begging for a role in their young alliance.
The Wastelands Alliance no longer had a leader. Instead, it would be run by council. The Three Giants of Hell’s Army, and the three Kings of the Barrens. In addition there were four others, mighty leaders of the wastes. All told ten members constituted what would come to be called the Conclave Assembly. They would be the supreme authority over the alliance.
The Assembly chief also acted as the commander of their armed forces. Natessa, then, was the only option. The Northern Barrens took one step closer to unification, forged in the fires of war.Previous Chapter Next Chapter