The warships stopped for a moment over the barren expanse of the wastelands. Squall and Frost disembarked.
They couldn’t be together long, otherwise it was bound to arise suspicion.
Frost’s face bore a warm smile – such a rare thing for a man known for his frigid nature, and a fine compliment to his handsome features. The speechless toddler from his past had grown into an impressive young man. The same could be said for himself. He’d come a long way from the shivering youth, furious and helpless against the tragedies he experienced. Now he was an acclaimed soldier, one of Skycloud’s rising stars.
Frost and Squall were all that remained of those who bore witness to Wyrmsole as he razed their village to the ground.
When the smoke cleared they were set adrift, wandering lost from place to place in search of a future. Years later, one of Skycloud’s preeminent demonhunters found him and took one in. The other was accepted into the family of a borderland merchant. From that point their paths diverged, and the brothers walked their own paths for a decade.
Frost knew Squall’s identity from the first moment he saw the markings on his chest, down in the underground tunnels. Luckily, Frost had been the one sent to hunt him down, otherwise he never would have made it out of Skycloud.
None of this is what Frost wanted for his younger brother. He never thought Squall would fall in with Inkspecter and be groomed as a godslayer.
“Wyrmsole has died at my hand. Augustus is gone now, too.” Frost searched the young man’s face. He spoke in soothing tones, which felt unnatural in his mouth. “It’s not too late to turn back. You can find someplace quiet to settle down. That’s the only advice your brother can give you.”
“What about you then?” Squall looked back at Frost. “You’re still preparing to kill Arcturus. Can you give that up?”
Frost’s brows furrowed slightly. It was exactly the problem that had been bothering him for years.
His parents were dead, murdered. Villagers who helped raised him were so many skeletons in the ground. Wyrmsole was the one who commanded the soldiers, but it was Arcturus who made the decision. The only way to earn vengeance for his family was to make sure Arcturus Cloude paid for his sins.
However…. Could he really kill the Master Demonhunter? Even if he could, would he?
It’d been more than ten years since Arcturus took him in. The Governor had no children of his own to pass on his legacy, so he taught everything he knew to Frost. For more than ten years Frost followed dutifully by his side, soaking up everything he could until he realized with some surprise that he had come to worship the man.
This teacher, this father figure. When the time came would he really be able to draw his sword?
Squall recognized the conflict in Frost’s eyes. He couldn’t imagine the struggles he’d suffered standing by their parents’ killer for so long. But beneath the icy lake surface that was his eyes there was a turbulent current that hinted at it. Contradictions abound in the heart of this man, who on the surface seemed as emotional as an ice sculpture.
“Whatever you decide, I’ll stand with you.” Squall gave his promise and turned away. “As for me? Yes, it is too late to turn back. I’m committed to following this path I’ve chosen.”
Frost watched Squall walk away in silence. With him gone there was a strangely vacant feeling in him.
Familial blood pumped through their veins, yet Frost couldn’t shake that sense of estrangement. He’d risked exposing himself to help Squall kill Augustus, in the hopes that his brother could win vengeance quickly and return to a normal life.
Why? Why, after taking Augustus’ life, had nothing changed in Squall? What destiny were these two brother fated to obey? Frost had no answers.
He turned away from the shrinking form of his brother and returned to the warship’s bridge.
News of the assault on their forward base hadn’t yet spread. Frost had work to do in cleaning up the scene. Although Augustus wasn’t a vitally important man in the grand scheme, he had also been a close confidante of the Governor for many years. His loyalty had never been in question.
Augustus’ death had to look like an attack. Their ruse had to be flawless, otherwise Arcturus would know.
He was still pondering the logistics when Hammont Seacrest approached.
The fat man interrupted him with an apologetic and humble look on his face. He came with a group of men he clearly looked up to, important men like Clay Cloude and others.
Leading them was a pair lauded even among these notable figures.
Frost regarded each in turn. Both were men he recognized – more than recognized, their reputations spread like thunder. Most everyone in Skycloud knew who they were.
The first was a sprightly old man with white hair who served as Archbishop of the Church of Divine Brilliance. His organization was the largest and oldest religious order in the Elysian realms. For most citizens it was the site of weddings and funerals – the most important events in their lives. As Archbishop, Zoran Leclair enjoyed a high position among Skycloud elite.
His companion was of similar age yet did not share the Archbishop’s grandfatherly countenance. In sharp contrast his face was locked in an aggressive scowl and his eyes stared at everything like piercing daggers. He was the current commander of the Demonhunter Knights, Oren Cloude. He took the position after Sterling defected. While low profile, Oren’s seniority in the Cloude family was even higher than Arcturus’.
Both men were illustrious representatives of their generation. Perhaps they were not as puissant as Master Demonhunters or Skye Polaris, but they were at least comparable to Grand Prior Phain Mist or greater.
The future of the southern wilds was destined to be a complicated one. Skycloud’s expeditionary force wasn’t enough to sway it to their favor, and Arcturus had to remain home to govern the realm. So it was that in his stead he sent these two to serve as needed.
In addition there were several of the Cloude family’s best fighters. The power at Frost’s command was staggering. He had more real power at his disposal than any other commander in recent years, and was the youngest in history to achieve such a thing.
Hammont Seacrest could not envy Frost de Winter any more than he ever did. Indeed every man has his own destiny. Compared to the new commander general, Hammont was worth about as much as a fart.
Frost was a man born with an abundance of talent. In addition he had the trust and support of the Governor. As far as anyone could tell, in a decade or two Frost seemed like the best choice to lead Skycloud into the future.
To achieve one’s ambitions young in life… what else could you ask from living? Hammont never quite understood why it was Frost was never happy with his lot.
Squall returned to where Inkspecter was waiting.
“Well?” The strange man asked.
Squall’s face was devoid of emotion. “Augustus Cloude is dead. I’ve established a connection with Frost de Winter, so we can approach him with our needs in the future.”
“Very good. Frost is Arcturus’ golden child  and wields considerable influence, especially now that he is Commander General of their armed forces. We can use that through the relationship you’ve cultivated. He could be of great help to our cause.”
Squall did not express an opinion. “What’s our next step?”
“I have someone to introduce to you.” Inkspecter waved his hand and an older gentleman stepped forward. He was frail and did not look like much, altogether very mediocre. “This is Red Scorpion, brother to Three-Eyed Spider and former Governor of a wasteland city. He has defected to our service. He’d spent decades living in the harsh southern wilds and has gathered his own crew and a place of shelter.”
Squall looked the newcomer over. Three-Eyed Spider was a man of great talent, but this Red Scorpion seemed far inferior to his brother.
However, now that Red Scorpion was a part of the Hand of Gehenna, they could use him to establish a foundation for their work in the south. He wasn’t a man who could offer much in terms of strength, but he was a recognized name in the south, especially his crew. Red Scorpion comfortably led a group of over a thousand sweepers – an important resources for the sorely undermanned Hand of Gehenna.
The southerner respectfully presented himself before Squall. “I hope I can be of service to you, deputy leader.”
“What brought you to us?” Squall inquired.
“Ordinary people in the southern wastes might not know of you, but how could I not? The south is changing. Nox and the Khan of Evernight have begun to spread their influence and the Elysians are sending the expeditionary force. I am the Khan’s man, but I need powerful allies to keep up appearances.”
“Hmph, all these years and you’re still mucking about!” Three-Eyed Spider glowered dubiously at his brother, and had seemed displeased the moment he learned he’d joined with them. “Unless I’m mistaken, Sandspire used to be under your control. A fine place, good infrastructure. If I were in charge it would serve our purposes very well indeed, so what are you doing here?”
Before being forced out by Hellflower, Three-Eyed Spider was the Dark Atom’s foremost scientific genius. Even now, after being replaced, he refused to believe that he was in any way inferior to that awful woman.
Even though she was considered a scientific savant there was only so much a single person could know. Hellflower couldn’t absorb the intricacies of every subject, no matter how hard she tried. Her primary focus of course had always been bioresearch and genetic engineering. Three-Eyed Spider, on the other hand, was unparalleled in his knowledge of cybernetics and mechanical technology.
His masterpiece, Raven, spoke to the breadth of his abilities. The cyborg’s prowess on the battlefield was no less impactful than that of a veteran demonhunter. He was a representation of the power of science. Yet these magnificent achievements didn’t appear from thin air. Great science required tremendous foundations and support.
Red Scorpion sighed at his brother’s accusations. “Don’t even bring it up. Sandspire would be firmly under my control if it wasn’t for this ‘Cloudhawk’ fellow meddling in everyone’s business.
“What did you say? Cloudhawk!?”
A knowing glance was passed around. It really was a small world.
Cloudhawk had become an active presence lately, both in the Elysian lands and in the wastelands. However he had been conspicuously absent from any intelligence over the last few months. They were surprised to learn that he had resurfaced in the southern wilds. That asshole danced around with the wind and showed up everywhere there was trouble waiting to be stirred up. Or perhaps he brought the trouble with him.
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