Thousands of wasteland soldiers gathered in the ruins. Squall, Ravenous Tiger, Three-Eyed Spider Raven, and Blackfiend stood at the fore. There were others like Gremlin and Green Snake, along with a dozen others who constituted the second tier. What remained were the best soldiers of their organization.
This was the leadership, a small but deadly group of killers.
A man in his fifties, dressed entirely in black, stepped forward then. His expression was one of insidious malice, his eyes dark and unreadable. He was flanked by ten warriors dressed in similarly dark attire, with expressionless faces. They all followed behind the first man, who radiated an aura of enigmatic power.
He was none other than Skye Polaris’ former confidante, Inkshade. The dark warriors who flanked him were the fiends created through his devilish power – the power of a godslayer.
What was a godslayer? They were the ones whose power and inheritance came from demons, who used the tools of those dark beings in their efforts to contend against the gods.
A thousand years ago the gods shared their power with human, creating demonhunters. Godslayers were a more recent evolution, so they were few in number and largely unknown. It was easy for them to hide, for side by side one could not tell the difference between a demonhunter and a godslayer. The primary difference was where they gained their power from. They were two sides of the same coin.
Inkshade had at one time been a normal wastelander. Then one day he was selected by one of the demons. He was trained, empowered, and then took the identity of a child of Skycloud. For decades he remained living among the Elysians, his identity secret, never revealing himself to be different in any way. Eventually, he earned a spot among the staff of the Polaris family.
Inkshade had spent most of his life in Skycloud. He hardly remembered anything of the wastelands, but now after many years he found himself walking among the blasted landscapes once more. It was familiar and comforting feeling. After all these years, the core of who he was had never changed. He’d finally returned home. This was where he belonged.
But killing Skye… he would be lying if he said he didn’t feel some small measure of disappointment.
“My lord!” Squall approached and bowed his head, full of respect. All of the power and influence he wielded today was thanks to this man. He knew very little about his benefactor except that he was an emissary from an organization called Gehenna. The power he represented could destroy the world if released. “We’ve come with all of our best warriors, and are awaiting your orders. What would you have us do?”
Inkshade casually waved his hand. The fiends he’d brought with him joined Squall’s forces. He went on to speak in an almost languid voice. “My identity has been revealed. I can no longer remain in Skycloud. However, there remain those who I have cultivated over the years, faithful to our cause. From now on our organization will be an official one, and as for the next step we must observe the recent circumstance before planning what to do.”
From the beginning, Squall had only ever been second in command. The two other major wasteland organizations were the Dark Atom and the Conclave of Judgment. The Dark Atom was an old power, and the newly formed Wastelands Alliance was making great waves in its short time in existence. The Highwaymen had exploded under the radar for a long time, but wisely avoided conflict with the other wasteland powers – even seeming to agree with them.
In the meantime, they cultivated mighty allies like Three-Eyed Spider and Raven. Over the years they had quietly gathered organizations big and small. When Squall came, that process quickened and the Highwaymen saw a rapid surge. Now that Inkshade was back as well, he returned with the backing of a sizeable force that would at least allow them to hold their own.
“We are darkness, destruction, and death. We are the will of Gehenna!” Inkshade talked loudly to the others as though delivering a sermon. “Our illustrious Master shall bestow upon us ever greater heights of power, and in return we shall become his sword and shield. Henceforth, we shall be known as the Hand of Gehenna!”
The Hand of Gehenna… was this to be their new name?
It didn’t have the same ring as Highwaymen, but it was more appropriate than they knew. Now they wore their allegiance on their sleeve, almost like they were eager to let the world know they were in league with demons.
Ravenous Tiger, Three-Eyed Spider and the others all bore different expressions. Ravenous Tiger, for one, didn’t know that it’d been demons pulling Squall’s strings.
He had once been a demonhunter. Since then he’d betrayed Skycloud, and now found himself unwittingly thrown in with the agents of demons. He was probably the only demonhunter in the history of the realm to defect entirely and be a traitor to his people. In the eyes of every demonhunter, he would be a despicable sinner of the highest order. A perpetual smear on their formerly pristine reputation.
But if what this man promised was true – if the demons could grand him power, riches and strength – what was a little betrayal? The only thing Ravenous Tiger cared for was personal benefit.
Three-Eyed Spider was a scientist before anything. He was more curious about the demons themselves rather than the power they promised. He knew, for instance, that both gods and demons were immortal. They had limitless wisdom, power, and vitality. If joining the Hand of Gehenna meant it would bring him closer to these enigmatic and elusive beings, then he was only too eager to do so. Perhaps at last he could uncover the secrets of life and death.
As for loyalty? No one cared. It didn’t even cross their mind.
“The Wastelands Alliance grows more massive by the day. Woodland Vale and Dark Atom have become allies. The Hand of Gehenna, as young as we are, lacks a true advantage. Meanwhile, Skycloud has begun to awaken. We will soon witness an Elysian purge of the wastelands, and cities like Fishmonger’s Borough and Fallowmoor will be hard-pressed to evade destruction.” Squall detailed what everyone knew. “When will the master show himself?”
“When Gehenna stirs, Mt. Sumeru will not stand idly by. The time is not yet right. We have yet to build the proper foundation and prepare for the inevitable conflict.” Inkshade stopped for a moment before going on. “However, while the master cannot involve himself openly, he gifts us with aid from the shadows. With his assistance we will enact his plans, despite pressure from our multitude of enemies.”
Three-Eyed Spider couldn’t hold back his questions. “As far as I’m aware, a demon has already shown himself in league with the Dark Atom… What is the difference?”
Inkshade patiently explained. “Our lords of Gehenna are creatures who participated in the Great War. They bear the mark and the seal. Should they stir, Sumeru will know immediately and will act to keep them down. It is for this reason our masters have lain in wait for a thousand years – but not dormant. For a millennia they have acted in darkness, waiting for an opportunity to rise again. Abaddon is a young demon by comparison. He is not burdened by the seals burned upon his predecessors. An outsider like him does not share our purpose.”
“Why does Abaddon work against his people?” Ravenous Tiger didn’t understand. “What’s the difference anyway?”
“Abaddon represents the radicals, those who aim to destroy the Elysian lands and advocate for open war with Sumeru. Their ultimate aim is to start another Great War and seek vengeance for the defeat they suffered a thousand years ago.”
What did this have to do with Gehenna’s plans? Quite a lot!
While the basic premise was the same, the process these two opposing demonic organizations chose were entirely different. The older demons were all of the same mind, that their race was broken and scattered – too weak for outright war. To them, there was but one option available… wait, and welcome the new Demon King when he arose.
The leader of the Hand of Gehenna’s purpose was to seek out this new Demon King.
Only the Demon King could rally the disparate factions of the demon race. He would be able to destroy the seals that bound them, and shine a light on a thousand years of darkness. To the agents of Gehenna, the Demon King was everything.
The Governor’s Mansion. Arcturus Cloude was busy seeing to affairs of state.
News of Skye Polaris’ death had already spread though the city. Citizens were still getting over the shock. Skycloud’s cantankerous, boisterous War-God had fallen in service to his nation. It was perhaps the saddest news the realm had received in decades.
However, the expedition had proven fruitful. Many infamous settlements throughout the Nothern Barrens had been destroyed. The Crimson One, leader of his Wastelands Alliance, had been slain, as was his close confidante Wyrmsole. Were it not for the tragic loss of the general, Skycloud’s victory would be flawless.
After Skye’s death, the position of Commander-in-Chief lay vacant. It only made sense that the Governor should rise to take on such a heavy responsibility. Arcturus Cloude was now both the political head of the realm and commander of its armed forces. A circumstance like this was exceedingly rare in the history of Skycloud. However, no one questioned or opposed his grab for power.
After all, there was no more powerful and respected family than the Cloudes in all the Elysian lands. Arcturus, its patriarch, was the most outstanding leader they’d ever seen.
Whether it was reputation, power, or ability, Skycloud could find no one capable of matching their illustrious Governor. He was clearly most suited to the task. Indeed, the only other person of suitable prestige was Ramiel the High Priest, but the leader of the Temple could not feasibly also command the realm’s armies.
“Skye’s funeral is beginning.” Frost de Winter approached his master, recently recovered from his wounds. He spoke in a low voice. “I fear the Polaris family will take this chance to challenge you in front of the people. Are you certain you wish to attend?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” Arcturus gave a gentle sigh and slowly put aside his pen. “Skye was an honorable man. His death marks the end of an era. Indeed, even I was considered his junior.”
“Master is far superior, both in power and accomplishment. Skye Polaris was nothing but an old soldier who never knew when it was time to step aside. A carcass clinging to old glory.”
Arcturus gazed upon Frost with eyes that seemed to pierce into the depths of his soul. Frost was forced to lower his head, and spoke no further.
“We rise because we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. From the foundation they built, we see further and higher. Everything I have achieved, I have done through the efforts of those who have come before. I will not suffer anyone besmirching Skye Polaris’ contributions to our realm, and all the many martial artists he inspired.”
A pure and honest grief shone through Arcturus eyes. “One day I will grow old, and shall become another rung on the ladder for future generations to climb. That is what civilization is: passing our accomplishments on to be improved by our successors so that we might rise as a people. Greatness and glory grow from the ordinary.”
Frost was still for a time, as though thinking.
“You must show respect to everyone. Friends, rivals, even enemies. They will make you stronger.” Arcturus walked out of the room, and only his voice lingered. “Come. Let us send the War-God off on his final journey.”
As ever, Frost’s master was an inscrutable and confusing man. He wasn’t alone – there was no one in all of Skycloud who could see through the Governor. In the eyes of the citizenry he was a living legend. To demonhunters everywhere he was an unassailable hero.
But underneath such high praise was hidden a complicated soul. His actions over the years were incomprehensible and concealed whatever his true motives were. Even after years by his side, Frost was unable to hazard a guess. Perhaps he would never know. Some mysteries would remain secrets forever, so long as Arcturus Cloude wished them to be so.Previous Chapter Next Chapter