On the sea of life and death, who floats? In the long eternal night, who bears the lantern?
By the time the expeditionary force reached Fallowmoor it was already occupied by the Green Alliance. Master Arcturus Cloude stood on the flagship’s observation deck, gray robes flapping in the breeze as he surveyed the scene. Amidst the chaos he spied the mysterious city, floating in midair.
Like a giant animal, lurking in the darkness, waiting to turn the hunter into the hunted.
Rare notes of fatigue marred the Governor’s face. For the first time in a long time he wasn’t sure what the future would hold. What he did know was that as strong as Cloudhawk was, he couldn’t have taken the city quickly on his own.
There was a traitor in their midst.
Someone on the inside was feeding them information. Cloudhawk could only have taken the city with help from the inside. As for the culprit? Now that he knew there was a threat, Arcturus was confident he would be found swiftly.
More pressing was the wasteland city now under enemy control. The wastelands were now essentially under the banner of the Green Alliance.
It was precisely what Arcturus was trying to avoid. He’d taken great pains to install Natessa as leader of the Conclave so that it and the wastelands would answer to him. It was the only way to ensure long-lasting balance between the wastes and Skycloud.
Wastelanders would always be wastelanders, but only he could bring unprecedented stability to their land. Elysians would also always be Elysians and he would stem the tide of defectors.
Arcturus was confident under those circumstances he could maintain stability for fifty or a hundred years. The question was whether humanity would be strong enough in a century to rise up against the gods. But he had a responsibility – as Skycloud’s Governor and steward of humanity – to ensure civilization continued for centuries to come.
His conscience was clear! Everything his power and position afforded him, he’d done. All that had to be accomplished he’d strived to bring forth. And yet, all was not well.
Everything was spinning out of control.
Killing Ramiel was the right choice. An act of necessity. The world was in chaos and people were angry, so the masses likely wouldn’t have listened to the High Priest’s divisive rhetoric. Still, if he waited to strike until the dust settled, he would be weak and exposed.
There was no shortage of intelligent people in this world. It was the Temple’s true leader that was Arcturus’ real enemy.
But at the end of the day, with the final tally, Arcturus’ greatest mistake was failing to understand Cloudhawk.
The Governor appreciated the wastelander’s potential, to the point that if things were different he would be a fine successor. Unfortunately his rapid development robbed Arcturus of the chance to mold him as he pleased. He was a variable outside of the Governor’s sway, and a single variable had the pesky habit or throwing everything off-kilter.
“Governor, Fallowmoor lies before us. Shall we initiate the attack?”
Thora stepped before Arcturus. The Oracle-turned-High Priest was a respected member of the Temple, but had turned to the Governor’s side thirteen years prior. Though quiet, Thora’s power was not to be underestimated. Beside the late Ramiel, Thora was the strongest member of the holy order.
Arcturus nodded. All commanders of the expeditionary force filed in; among them were Hammont Seacrest, Frost de Winter, a dozen elders of the Cloude family, officers of the Demonhunter Corps, Templar leaders and Oracle commanders. They represented the frightening power of Skycloud.
The Cloude family had suppressed all details from the recent conflict. To most, the wastelanders were to blame for all the tragedies that had befallen Skycloud and its people.
Arcturus began to convey his orders. However, he was forced to stop partway through when he was wracked with violent coughing. Blood trickled from his mouth and nose. His face paled.
The officers all looked at one another in surprise, unsure of what to do.
The night Ramiel died, Arcturus had also been wounded. It appeared as though the consequences of that wound were yet to heal and were worse than anticipated. It was a bad omen. Arcturus was their mightiest, the only one capable of defeating the demon Cloudhawk!
No one could muster words, until Hammont stepped forward. “Governor, I have something I’d like to say.”
Arcturus regained his composure. When he looked at this ordinary-looking fat man there was a glimmer of a smile in his eyes. The soldier was a man who’d clawed his way up from the bottom. Though among the weaker of his officers, he possessed gifts and talents the others did not. Gifts the army needed.
“I do not think we need to do this.” Hammont was not shy to express his opinion. He indicated a map on the table before them as he explained. “Three days ago Cloudhawk’s forces took Fallowmoor. They may have control, but three days is not enough time to erase the differences between their groups.”
The other officers nodded, following along. Not long ago Cloudhawk defeated Eckhard Cutter’s army in Sandspire, then Dumont Cenhelm’s troops when consolidating his hold over the south. When they turned north, Cloudhawk single-handedly obliterated an army encampment in the Blisterpeaks. Alone he murdered thousands of their comrades.
“Directly or indirectly, Cloudhawk is responsible for spilling the blood of thousands of northerners. But even if we ignore recent events, Cloudhawk once led this expeditionary force against Fallowmoor, where under the command of General Skye he killed the Crimson One.”
Hammont paused. When Arcturus did not interrupt him, he continued to outline his plan.
“Cloudhawk’s reputation is only useful down south. In the north his name is not respected. A two-faced, cold-blooded butcher. In my view that can be used in our favor.”
“It isn’t appropriate to throw our forces against an enemy who recently set up their bastion. All it will do is unify them against an external enemy. Instead, we retreat in order to advance. Encircle without attacking, and lock down the area. A siege. Meanwhile we push the narrative that Cloudhawk is a bloodthirsty outsider and stir up division. Then we sit back and wait for the Conclave and the Green Alliance to tear one another apart.”
“By then your forces will have assembled. Tens of thousands of troops will be fresh and ready for battle. Against a fractured enemy, we cannot fail.”
The others all nodded in agreement. It seemed as plain as the nose on their faces! It didn’t matter how strong Cloudhawk was when faced with contention from within. Suspicions wouldn’t be erased overnight.
In the course of their union there were bound to be hangups between the two wasteland forces. Friction and impediments were hard to avoid. Let them battle it out while Elysian forces set up a blockade around the city. When reinforcements arrived their power would be overwhelming and possess the advantage. Victory was inevitable.
“A fine plan.” Arcturus nodded in satisfaction. “Minimum risk and maximum results. Indeed a wise plan, however...”
Hammont felt his heart sink. Immediately he chastised himself. As wise as Arcturus was, how did he imagine he could come up with something the Governor hadn’t already thought of? Clearly he was not ready to adopt this strategy, because he had to make every effort possible to salvage what remained of the Conclave.
He wanted to carve out a chance, both for himself and for Cloudhawk.
Arcturus countered the idea. “Ramiel’s death was a disgrace for the expeditionary force. We must redeem ourselves. The end of the war is nigh, and in a decade when Skycloud’s school children learn of this conflict, I want them to look upon this army with respect.”
“The expeditionary force has suffered too much shame! We must cleanse our honor!”
“Wastelanders can’t escape. What do our holy warriors have to fear?”
“I don’t want my son thinking the expeditionary force needed the might of the whole realm to wipe our a small band of thugs!”
Arcturus expertly fanned the pride of the officers. Their zeal blinded them to reason.
To Elysians, it was honor above all. What’s more, this was likely to be the final battle. When it was done the wastes wouldn’t have the strength to fight back for hundreds of years. Who would agree to pass up an opportunity to do something so heroic?
“Go,” Arcturus managed before another set of coughs wracked him. “Hammont, stay with me. I have something to tell you.”
Frost de Winter stood among the other generals. He felt somehow sad and unsettled. With a grim shake of the head, he dispelled the distractions. The officers filed out leaving the hall empty but for two figures.
Arcturus looked over the fat man and waved his hand toward an empty chair. “Take a seat.”
Hammont was clearly unused to the situation, it made him uncomfortable. “Your humble servant prefers to stand and listen, sir. How can I be of service?”
“It’s nothing, merely a question.” Arcturus did not force him to sit if he was uncomfortable. “When this battle is over, what are your plans?”
“I haven’t given it much thought.”
“You are not like the others, that’s why I asked you to stay behind. I have a suggestion I’d like you to carefully consider.” The Governor paused for a moment before continuing, his voice as calm as ever. “If I should lose this battle I want you – without compunction and heedless of what people say – to join Cloudhawk’s cause.”
Arcturus’ words were like being struck by lightning. Lose? How could the Master Demonhunter lose? Fight for Cloudhawk? It was unthinkable! The fight hadn’t even started yet and already Arcturus was speaking as though he’d been defeated. Strange did not begin to describe how Hammont felt.
The Governor waved his hand, deigning to leave the order unexplained. Leave the questions for him to ruminate over, he thought. Arcturus turned away and walked to the edge of the observation deck, peering into the darkness surrounding Fallowmoor. After a time, his drawn voice returned.
“On the sea of life and death one boat sinks. In the long night, a lantern goes dark. What I cannot do, no one on this earth can accomplish. But he… he has a chance.”
Arcturus spoke mostly to himself. His words still hung in the air as horns blared and thousands of Elysian ships launched their attack. Nerves were heightened, weapons held tight. Survival, honor, vengeance, fate – all were at risk.
The final battle between Skycloud and the wastes was set to begin. There would be no draw, no mutual destruction. One would live, and one would die.
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I really liked the opening line of this chapter. Arcturus as a character gets to be written poetically, which is rare for many of these characters who are crass, or uneducated.