An elderly, red-robed man sat cross-legged in the darkness, deep within a distant mountain cave within the wastelands. His features were lean and gentle. A staff was resting nearby, and all around him flickered orbs of green light that danced like fireflies. The elder’s eyes were tightly shut, but his chest rose and fell with a steady rhythm. For a moment he scowled, and then with a racking cough he spat forth a mouthful of blood.
The man in red wiped his mouth, paying little mind to the streak of crimson across the back of his hand. His eyes opened. “Approach.”
A man in a heavy black cloak entered the cave. He had three scars across one eye and a severe countenance, yet despite this his face softened like that of a child looking at a beloved parent when he gazed upon the man in red. His voice was gentle when he spoke. “Your injuries…”
“Those children are no threat to me. These are mostly the old wounds stirring anew.” A contemplative light flashed through the Crimson One’s eyes. “Killing Baldur Cloude was no easy feat. It came at a price.”
This illness was an old devil his father struggled with, and it was not something Adder could fix. Sterling would need to struggle with that battle on his own.
The Crimson One greeted him with a question. “Why have you come?”
The corner of Adder’s eyes twitched. It’d been several years since the two men last met, but his father didn’t offer the sweet warmth of rekindled family. Instead, the Crimson One gave him the impression of an old friend who had fallen out of touch after a lengthy separation.
He didn’t used to be this way.
“Skycloud has established their expeditionary force.” Adder’s face hardened. “General Skye Polaris commands it himself. There’s no skirting it now, they’re coming for us.”
The Crimson One offered a disdainful sneer when he heard that old man’s illustrious name. “That decrepit old fool is nothing to trouble yourself over. The only one we have to protect ourselves against is Arcturus.”
Adder responded with a question. “Is Arcturus really so terrible?”
The Crimson One slowly closed his eyes. “Of course. You have no idea. Be thankful for that fact.”
A deathly stillness fell over the cave. Adder looked at his father, hesitated, then prepared to leave with a hint of disappointment.
His father’s eyes opened again and the sharpness that had been in them was softer. “Since you’re here, why don’t you stay for a while? Share a drink with me. Who knows when we’ll meet again.”
When Adder heard this, there was a flash of genuinely happiness in the eyes of this famously stoic man. It was genuine, from deep in his heart.
A small jug was produced, along with two glasses. Father and son sat across from one another.
“Why do I get the sense you’re at a loss,” the older man queried.
Indeed, the singular quest Adder had pursued for years was finally complete. For the first time in his life he wasn’t sure what to do next. All this time he’d been waiting for the right moment, and then it came. All of his effort and attention had been focused on a single goal and he never gave a thought to what might happen after.
Adder took a sip from his glass. “I’ve seen a change come over the Elysian lands. Many people have died because of what I’ve done, and many more will die in the days to come. I can’t help but wonder how we will be judged by history.”
“Do you know what color I created when you gather all the colors together?”
“What is made when all the wavelengths of color are equal?”
“Correct. White and black, good and evil, light and dark. The relationship between these things are as complex as they are mutually inclusive.” The Crimson One’s voice dropped, and adopted a strange timbre. “In all of time, there has never been an all-conquering evil, nor has there existed universal righteousness. Do not trouble yourself with how you will be judged in the future, for all men live in sin. Follow the faith that exists within you. Be good and be loving. That way is the path of righteousness.”
Adder hesitated for a moment, but eventually replied. “What happens if we fail?”
“We’ve already accomplished the impossible, and the course we’ve set for the world cannot be undone. Even the likes of Arcturus will have to bend to reality. When we are gone, there will a successor to carry our torch; stronger in ability, talent and spirit. It is history that makes heroes, and we have made history.”
Was there really such a person? Where was he now?
Adder thought for a time and then nodded. “I understand.”
The Crimson One looked at his son with a note of melancholy on his face. That boy was simultaneously his greatest achievement and deepest regret. Zephyr had the potential to be a Master Demonhunter. If things had been different, he would have been a man admired and adored by millions.
He was just born in the wrong generation. Born in the wrong place. In the end, he was sent down a dark road there was no coming back from.
What did Adder think about his fate? Did he consider himself blessed by destiny or cursed by it?
They shared some small talk for a few minutes before Adder felt it was time for him to go. He still had a very important mission to undertake, one that would influence not just the Sanctum of Judgment but the fate of his father as well.
“Father.” Adder walked to the mouth of the cave before stopping. When he said the word he felt his heart flutter, and for a reason he didn’t understand there was a sudden pang of sadness that washed over him. “No matter what comes, I believe in you. This world needs your strength and wisdom. Please take care of yourself.”
This was the ingrained sentiment between a father and son.
Revenant was waiting outside. She fell in step behind Adder as he left the den, and together they left. Revenant was as quiet as always, a shadow that was never far away. The look in her eyes spoke of a spirit that saw the world as grey and uninteresting, or like the world didn’t exist at all. The man who walked a few paces before her was her world, the only thing in the entire universe that mattered.
No matter where or under what circumstances, she would follow without hesitation.
After Adder departed, another man in red bearing a furled standard entered. Second in command of the Sanctum, he was formerly the lieutenant commander of the Demonhunter army corps. He was a real man of talent, like so many of his family, the Cloudes. These days he went by the name Wyrmsole.
He had come to make his report to the Crimson One. According to their information, the wastelands had gathered into three main factions, each vying for power.
The first was the Dark Atom, representing the old conclave of rebels. Although their battle at the Blisterpeaks had been costly, they were tenacious and strong. The perennial agitators had enough of a foundation to survive. In addition, as the Blisterpeaks were still covered in volcanic dust it was difficult for outsiders to strike another blow. At least for the time being, they were safe.
The second group that had risen to prominence was Squall’s Highwaymen. While modest in strength up to this point, its core membership – Ravenous Tiger, Blackfiend, Three-Eyed Spider, Raven, and Squall himself – was not to be discounted. Together, they wielded considerable influence that spread across several cities including Fishmonger’s Borough. What’s more, they had the support of a hitherto unknown power. The Highwaymen were the most inscrutable organization in the wastelands to date.
Last was the Sanctum itself, a group that was just coming into its own. The Sanctum of Judgment was created by the hand of Sterling Cloude, a Master Demonhunter and a name that was synonymous with power. The Crimson Church was responsible for the destruction of Skycloud’s fortifications, a fact which catapulted its standing among the wastelanders into the stratosphere. Afterwards, almost all of the smaller wastelander organizations had turned to them with pledges of allegiance.
Without a doubt, the Sanctum of Judgment had risen to become an overlord within the wastes.
Wyrmsole and a handful of red priests were enough to carve out a spot for themselves in the wastelands. With the addition of a true Master Demonhunter at the helm, their order had the right to lay claim to all of these untamed lands!
A Master Demonhunter was said to be capable of facing demons on his own. These men, comparable in power to gods and demons, represented the peak of human aptitude. The Crimson One’s son, Adder, was no typical soldier himself. Beyond his personal strength he was also brave, resourceful and patient. Destroying the Skycloud border wall had been his crowning achievement, one which had burned him into the collective memory of mankind until the end of time.
News of Skycloud’s expeditionary force wasn’t exclusive to the Sanctum. Every major player in the wastelands had heard of it. Yet of them all, it appeared only the Crimson One had the strength needed to fight off Skye Polaris, so what happened next came naturally.
First came the three who were formerly known as the titans of Hell’s Valley. They had been wandering through the desert, nearly three thousand strong, but soon chose to pledge themselves to the Sanctum’s banner. They were fine additions, with strength comparable to high-grade demonhunters.
Those three titans alone constituted a significant growth in power, but there were also the many veteran soldiers they commanded.
After assimilating Hell’s Army, the Sanctum of Judgment rose to a whole new level of mastery. Before long, Toad and then Canker made it known they would be joining as well. While they represented groups far away in the Northern Barrens where Skycloud held little sway, they were nonetheless sizable groups that could not be discounted.
As these famous groups came out in support of the church, countless more small and medium-sized organizations and their mighty constituents also pledged loyalty.
The wastelands alliance had been born, under the auspices of the Crimson Church. Of course, with all the power now at its fingertips it was not just a church any longer. It dropped this façade and took on a more applicable title – the Conclave of Judgment.
So it was that the Conclave of Judgment was arrayed to face General Skye and his expeditionary force. An already massive and still growing game of war had begun.
“What are we going to do about the Dark Atom and the Highwaymen?”
“As long as they make no overtures against us, we will leave them be for now.” The Crimson One knew that both organizations were problems he would need to address eventually, but now was not the proper time. “Our focus must be on Skye Polaris.”
The Conclave, strong as it had become, was still no match for the combined might of Skycloud’s armies.
Freedom of movement and a loose political structure were the wastelands greatest assets. The vast, wild tracts were their domain. In a war against the Elysians, their most essential traits would be attrition and dexterity. But whatever the case, they would need a place to make their stand, a place like the Blisterpeaks that was defensible.
Fishmonger’s Borough was perfect, but had turned his back on them. It now belonged to Squall and his Highwaymen.
However, places like that weren’t overly difficult to find. The Barrens had many cities, several of which were fine choices. Finally, they found an amenable place.
The Crimson One nodded. This place was acceptable. “This is temporary. There is one place perfect for our needs, but we must be patient. Once it is ours, we will be unconquerable!”
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Book 4 has started! We're tentatively sticking with the original title, 'Darkness & Light', but may play with it a bit more.
Sorry for the delay, it was just a really bad jet lag few days and also digging myself out like crazy. Not a good excuse though, we'll have to do something about this. We're still behind by over half a week with this penta-release, with only 2 being from the 'last' week so we're still down around 7. I'm keeping track!