Book 6, Chapter 33 – Countdown

The expeditionary force had transformed itself over the years. Whether it was equipment, forces or total power it all had improved tremendously. Its fierce assault ripped through two of Fallowmoor’s defensive lines. Like a plague, Elysian soldiers infected one fortress after another.

Firelight painted the sky red. Explosions shook the battlefield. Debris and bodies marred everywhere one looked. With every breath countless lives were snuffed out.

Skycloud’s army held nothing back and gave their enemies no room to maneuver. From the moment war began, they sent everything they had against the wastelanders. In the face of death they never hesitated. Heedless of whatever cost, their zeal made them overwhelming!

Clack.

A white token was placed on the board. It was arrayed in overpowering formation with its fellows.

Clack!

A black piece followed. Its side of the board was teetering on the cusp of defeat.

An onlooker might be surprised to find Arcturus seated quietly, playing against no opponent. Or, more specifically, playing against himself. The story went that for the last twenty years no one in Skycloud was his rival in chess. Since then he had no recourse but to challenge himself. He always played black, and after twenty years he never once won.

Looking over the board, there didn’t appear to be any way black would win this game, either. In Arcturus’ eyes black always represented humanity. White, of course, were the armies of the gods.

While war raged outside, Arcturus was huddled in the hull of his flagship, playing chess. To his officers, it seemed like the most inappropriate time for a game. Indeed he was entirely unperturbed by the screams and explosions outside. He stared intently at the board with the sounds of battle little more to him than background noise. It was as though the death just outside was happening on a different world and had no influence on him.

Another white piece graced the board. Black’s fate was nearly sealed.

Arcturus’ brows slowly knit tight, deep in thought. Once again he found himself in a dangerous predicament. He felt helpless. Any way he moved ended in defeat.

He sighed and looked at the black piece between his fingers. It never made it to the board. The Governor knew that even if he had another twenty years he wouldn’t win this game. Perhaps it was time to hand over the pieces, let another play. Would things be different then?

Looking older than he ever had, the Governor rose from his table and walked out of the room. He left behind an empty room, an unfinished chess game and a cooling cup of tea. In that room time seemed to stand still.

Once Arcturus rejoined the fight he ordered his officers to assemble. Soon he stood before Cloude family elder, Templar captains, Empyrean officers, what remained of the Court of Shadows and some of the expeditionary force’s finest soldiers. Among them were six hundred of the best demonhunters and martial artists in all of Skycloud.

Their numbers meant nothing. With the might at their command this small group of less than two thousand could obliterate a force a hundred thousand strong. These were Arcturus’ hand-picked shock troops.

Ultimately, this battle was a contest between Arcturus and Cloudhawk. Both represented the soul of their respective struggle; Arcturus would eliminate Cloudhawk at any cost, and Cloudhawk would use any means necessary to kill Arcturus. So long as one died, even if the outcome of the ultimate fight was not determined, much of the battle would already be won.

Arcturus’ advantages were obvious. His sheer strength made him the deadliest man alive.

Skycloud’s expeditionary force, in addition to warriors from many great families, was also bolstered by the Cloude family’s best. Further, Templars and Court assassins were as numerous as the stars. However, the Green Alliance also had an edge. Numerous as Skycloud’s impressive players were, the Green Alliance had more peak-level warriors.

Under Arcturus’ command were only Oracle Thora, his apprentice Frost de Winter, and several family elders. Compare this to the wastelanders. Cloudhawk had the demon Abaddon, Oracle Aquaria, the master assassin Janus Umbra, Grand Prior Phain Mist, Vulkan the War Saint, Apostle Selene Cloude, Dawn Polaris, Wolfblade, Atlas… the list went on. Such was not a force to be discounted.

The Governor knew Wolfblade was clever enough to stagger those mighty warriors, throwing them at his forces in turns and at the most opportune moments. Arcturus would be forced to waste his energies against them until, faced finally with Cloudhawk, he would be spent.

He wouldn’t give them the chance. With his two thousand demonhunters and warriors he would carve a path straight to the heart of Fallowmoor. The enemy would not be given an opportunity to force him to break against their ranks.

So long as Cloudhawk held back, so too would Arcturus. He was eager to see who could hold out longer.

Frost was leading the expeditionary force’s elite troops on the front. Through the fires of war he’d just invaded another fortress. In his hand Frozen Dirge crackled with frigid energy. So far, it’d tasted the blood of several dozen wastelanders.

He released a powerful blast from the spear that swept away the fortress' weapon installations. All at once half of the enemy defenses were eliminated.

Wasteland soldiers spared no effort to try and repel the Elysians, but under Hammont’s expert command the fortress was quickly taken. One after the other, Fallowmoor’s second line of defense was swallowed up by Skycloud. The city was left exposed.

With two of the wasteland’s defensive perimeters breached, Frost returned to the command ship. He approached his master. “All obstacles have been cleared.”

With a small smile, Arcturus nodded in satisfaction. His hands were clasped behind his back as he looked toward the city. “You’ve done great work, but more remains. Prepare to invade Fallowmoor.”

“As you command!”

Frost turned on his heel and left. 

The Skycloud armada split and a portion advanced toward Fallowmoor. A Gods Spear ship released its payload at the metallic exterior of the city and opened a breach.

“Attack!”

Arcturus shouted the order. Two thousand crack soldiers charged into the city.

 

***

 

The war between Skycloud and the wastelanders was in full swing. Within Fallowmoor, in a portion of the city no one watched, a small group had gathered. The group that picked through the shadows was led by an elder woman in purple robes. In her hands was a wooden staff.

“Boss Naga, aren’t we there yet?” One of the mutants with her looked around with clear unease.

He knew that the situation outside was changing rapidly. If something didn’t happen soon, the city would be destroyed. Either they escaped in time or they would be destroyed with it.

“We’re here!”

Naga pushed open a door to reveal a secret laboratory. It was not overly large and was stuffed from floor to ceiling with all manner of things. In the back were an umber of small aircraft, built for speed. Several dozen researchers were hard at work – white-haired scientists who were masters of their craft.

Naga hissed at them. “Is it ready?”

A bespectacled researcher answered. “All is prepared.”

Naga was brought before a warhead, split open with its innards exposed. Some of the wires were connected to rudimentary computers. Naga nodded in satisfaction. This was a nuclear warhead. They took it in a state of disrepair, but thankfully they had managed to rustle up a number of ancient weapons specialists to work on it.

It was ready.

“Enter the activation code. Set it off at once!”

The King of the Purple Robe gave the order without an ounce of expression on her face. Behind her, the faces of the mutant leaders were shocked and dismayed. One of them plucked up the courage to speak. “Should we be doing this?”

Naga replied. “Cloudhawk and Arcturus are both in the city. This is the only way to ensure they are both destroyed. No more wasting time, prepare it for detonation!”

The scientists gave one another worried glances. Despite their misgivings they were forced to take their posts.

Though she was a high-ranking member of the Conclave, she had no power to determine its future. She was even more powerless against Cloudhawk and Arcturus. To her, the best option was to see it all burn. Resources that were pooled here would be released once the alliances were fractured. Then, she could begin the process of gathering them again.

The most powerful individuals in both Skycloud and the wastelands were gathered here. If they were snuffed out all at once, the results would be devastating. Neither Skycloud nor the wastes would ever recover. Not unless Naga and the kings led them from the aftermath.

“How long?”

“Around thirty minutes.”

Naga frowned. Thirty minutes was longer than she’d expected. No matter, Fallowmoor was strong enough to hold out for that long.

Die… DIE! Die all of you! Let the world be done with you!

A crazed expression twisted Naga’s hideous face. She knew she wasn’t strong enough, or important enough. But what she was doing could upend everything. Cloudhawk or Arcturus, the wastelanders and Elysians – here they would all be erased. And who would expect her?

None of these bloodthirsty fools would realize their fate was sealed until it was too late.

 

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