Arcturus Cloude was writing something in his study. Frost stood beside him.
“You want to ask why I don’t get rid of Cloudhawk directly.”
“Killing him wouldn’t be difficult. All of this trouble seems unnecessary.”
“Removing Cloudhawk from the equation isn’t the goal. Most urgent is the need to incorporate the expeditionary force into our own camp. He must be allowed to tell everyone his sins, otherwise we would have put a commander to death for no reason. His death would feel less righteous and may upset the Polaris holdouts.”
“Cloudhawk didn’t earn his position in the standard way, though. The officers already refuse to accept him.” Frost offered his own thoughts. “How can you be sure they don’t want him dead as soon as possible?”
“Many of the officers are directly descended from Cosmo Thane’s line. They are an emotional and fiery sort, who take stock in a man’s actions and not just the man. With men like them there is bound to be friction. Now, Cloudhawk’s actions after taking command of the fleet were impressive. Defense was well-mounted, his break from encirclement clever, and his counter-attack finely crafted. Even at his young age he displayed considerable tactical promise, equivalent to general of average experience. Even despite Drake’s death, there is still the possibility the Thane’s may choose to stand with him.
Frost observed that his master didn’t have the faintest ill will toward Cloudhawk. The reasons he gave also made sense. The expeditionary force had many powerful men – men he had to cajole if he wanted the expeditionary force to follow him. Arcturus couldn’t afford to insult or appear to impede these men in their search for justice.
But Cloudhawk continued to be a thorn in the Governor’s side, and would continue to be if he was left alive. This couldn’t be permitted!
Arcturus surely had a hundred ways to erase Cloudhawk from the face of the planet that couldn’t be traced back to him. He couldn’t have ruled this realm for so long if he didn’t know precisely how and when to get what he wanted.
Yet Arcturus did not move against Cloudhawk, and all for a single reason.
He didn’t want to.
What value did the upstart have to Skycloud’s Governor? He was clearly still a piece in Arcturus’ far-reaching chess game. Frost was still struggling with the question was a guard’s voice called from the doorway. “Governor, Hammont Seacrest has arrived as you requested.”
“Bring him in.”
Hammont was brought into the study, flanked by guards.
The large man shifted from foot to foot in a visible display of nerves. Arcturus Cloude was no ordinary man, after all, but the political and military ruler of the entire realm. All of Skycloud’s real power rested in his hands, nothing was impossible for him anymore.
Only one other person had his sort of vaulted status, and that was High Priest Ramiel Caelestis.
Arcturus slowly set his documents to one side. “Your name is Hammont Seacrest, is this correct?”
“Yes, honorable Master. That is correct.” Hammont fell to his knees in a dramatic sign of respect. “Your humble servant is here to do whatever bidding the Master Governor requires.”
“Don’t bother with any of that.” Arcturus sat back in his chair. “I’ve looked into your history. You’re a talented soldier, with at least as much potential as the likes of Aegir or Cosmo. However, from a professional perspective the Polaris family may not be the best fit for you.”
The fat man’s expression blanched a little. “Your humble servant was just lucky, that’s all. A few lucky breaks over the years have helped me get where I am, it surely wasn’t thanks to my piddling abilities. I’m really not even middle of the road when you consider our illustrious soldiers. I can’t possibly compare to the honorable Generals you mentioned.”
“Don’t belittle yourself so. You cannot evaluate the worth of a man by what they display. To properly judge someone, you must consider their potential and their position.” Arcturus’ mannerisms were friendly, calm, and instructional. He spoke with the gentleness of a spring breeze, like a scholar mid-lecture. “The age of men like Skye Polaris has unfortunately passed. Times are changing. We must change with them.”
Hammont wasn’t sure what he meant.
“Skye Polaris promoted his men based on the valor they displayed, but ignored the equally important characteristics of wisdom and strategy. For the first time in a thousand years we have encountered an enemy as cunning and as brave as we are. That is what led us to the catastrophic defeat at the Blisterpeaks. That is how we lost our great generals. Soldiers who are too self-assured leave themselves open to destruction. We cannot have courage without discipline, otherwise we will merely repeat the same mistakes. With a new era, and a new enemy, we must change our very foundations to rise to the occasion.”
Here, Arcturus paused and just watched Hammont for a moment.
“It is not enough for a general to know how to defeat the enemy. He must cherish every soldier in his command. Winning a single battle is not the most important thing. In the old days the phrase went, ‘he who laughed last laughed loudest.’ A masterful commander needs to know more than how to lead his troops on the field. He must cultivate a keen sense to know the hidden battles all around us. That is the key to ultimate victory.”
Hammont maintained his silence.
“Skycloud’s old guard cannot bear the burden of what we need done. Since the weight of Commander-in-Chief rests in my hands for the time being, it falls to me to cultivate the next generation of leaders.” Arcturus paused to pick up the document he’d been writing, and handed it to Hammont. “I am appointing Frost de Winter as the new commander of Skycloud’s armed forces. Your mission – if you accept – is to aid him in this charge. Will you embrace this duty?”
The fat man’s breath was a little shallow. He felt it – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Arcturus’ offered position was a gateway to tremendous levels of success. Such an important mission from the Cloude family was every man’s dream.
… it didn’t feel right.
Hammont was here today because of Cloudhawk’s efforts. Anyone with half a brain could see the Cloude familt was at odds with Cloudhawk. If he accepted the Governor’s offer, would that pit him against his former benefactor?
“It is critical that the young reach for the opportunities set before them.” Arcturus’ words cut through his concerns. “I can promise you that if you aid Frost in consolidating his position, you will be promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General. You will have the authority to rebuild your corps in no time, and bring the glory of our fallen General Drake into the future as one of Skycloud’s greatest military units. In the future, it may even grow into an army of its own, under independent leadership. Your leadership. I myself will teach you the obscurities of strategy and leadership, for I am sure men like you are the future of our realm.”
Hammont’s teeth clenched tight as he thought it over. Then, slowly, he nodded his head. “This humble man is happy to offer his services to our illustrious Governor.”
Arcturus revealed no surprise at his decision. He knew the fat man was clever. “You will be happy for the decision you’ve made today. The path you’ve chosen is one of glory and success. Henceforth, your life will change completely.”
Honeyed words, but Hammont felt something inside of him sink. What this meant was that from this day forward, he belonged to the Cloudes.
Arcturus’ declaration of a new Commander-in-Chief spread quickly. Lieutenant Commander of the Knights of Splendor, Frost de Winter, was officially elevated to commander of the entire Skycloud army. Because he was under investigation, acting commander Cloudhawk was removed from his posts. Frost’s leadership was effective immediately.
Five hundred demonhunters were donated by the Cloude family to fill out the expeditionary force’s ranks. In a single stroke, their demonhunter deficiency was resolved. A full third of those numbers were delegated to the Drake Corps, under command of the relatively unknown young Colonel Hammont Seacrest.
The swift series of changes caught people unprepared.
Of course, Frost de Winter was one of the most illustrious youths of his generation. He was Arcturus’ personal disciple, and had risen among the ranks step by step thanks to his merit. For years he served as commander of the respected Knights of Splendor, then lieutenant general, and now General of the whole army – the youngest proper commander in Skycloud’s history. Even if someone were to disagree with the appointment, they would be hard pressed to find a good reason to protest.
Beyond his powerful backing, Frost also had considerable skill in his own right. His record was proof of this. His brilliant talent was impeccable, as he showed when he killed Wyrmsole. Few could defeat him, even among the established powerhouses of the older generation.
It was Hammont’s appointment that many found curious. A man with few notable exploits to speak of, no noble birth, and only average strength – where did he get the qualifications to rise so high among the ranks? Where Drake’s Corps had original had only a few hundred men, now it was among the best-fitted units in the entire army. It was a bitter pill for the other officers to swallow.
Arcturus’ appointment of Hammont was sure to attract attention. It was a tactical call, to draw attention from the more contentious rise of Frost de Winter. Most of the disapproval would be wasted on Hammont.
As for whether the fat man could hold his position… this was Arcturus’ test. If he couldn’t handle this small setback, then Hammont didn’t deserve the position.
Skycloud’s Governor was now alone in the study. He sat with his eyes closed, deep in thought. Now there was no power in Skycloud capable of standing in his way. And he was only getting started.
“High Priest! Why are you hesitating?” Selene had just finished telling the kindly old man the news about the expeditionary force’s new appointments. “We know the Wastelands Alliance is under Arcturus’ control. We know he was responsible for killing Skye Polaris. The Temple is aware of all of this but doesn’t act, and it only makes the Governor bolder by the day.”
High Priest Ramiel Caelestis was an aloof, almost mystical figure in Skycloud. Even Arcturus acted humbly and respectfully before him.
This was because Ramiel was the only human thought to be able to commune with the gods. It was this fact that made him the only person in the realm capable of standing up to the Governor and his grab for power. It was for this reason Selene pledged herself to the Temple.
“The situation is not as simple as you think.” Ramiel had known something was off about Arcturus for years, but while Ramiel was greatly respected he had no real power. He only had command over the Templars and the Empyrean Guard. He couldn’t openly defy the Governor, only investigate the situation in secret. He’d been at it for a long time, and so far had not revealed his suspicions.
Selene pressed the matter. “This should be reported directly to the gods themselves!”
“The gods hold no interest in petty human politicking, especially when we have no proof to speak of. Arcturus is a man of caution, and nothing he’s done detracts from his facade of faith and service. The gods will not simply erase a man like him because I say so.”
She was at a loss. Even the gods were powerless against a criminal like him? What sort of gods were they, then?!
“A man as intelligent as Arcturus will not open himself up to challenge. This cannot be rushed.”
Selene’s thin brows curled in frustration. “Is Cloudhawk in danger?”
“You need not worry for now. If Arcturus had intended on eliminating all his foes for good, you would’ve been one of the first to be targeted. He would have made sure none of you returned alive. While his reasons are still a mystery, he has chosen to keep his murderous intentions at bay. For now the best thing for you is to wait, and watch. I will keep Dawn and Cloudhawk here within the Temple. They might be ostensibly under arrest, but right now, it is the safest place in the city for them.Previous Chapter Next Chapter