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Chapter 113 - Walking This Path Until Darkness Falls

 It was like a dream.

Up to today, Caelum had lived a peaceful childhood here in this small village, and then everything changed. He was too young to understand what was happening, his mind hadn't yet natured to that point. All he knew was that the streets he played through were sudden on fire. Terrifying and evil men were roaming the alleys with weapons, killing all the people he knew. His sister was one of their victims, he watched her die with his own eyes.

To young Caelum, it was like watching his whole world collapse. When those soldiers pointed their crossbows at him, for the first time in his short life he felt fear.

And hatred.

Just when he was sure he would join his sister in death, a shadow fell over the evil soldiers. This new person wore a scary mask that hid his face. He wasn't as big or strong as the other men, but he moved like a ghost. Before he knew what happened, the three soldiers were unconscious on the ground and the stranger was helping him to his feet.

The man had the strongest grip he'd ever felt. It gave him a sense of security and dried his tears. Caelum looks through the mask at the black, glimmering eyes beneath. He would never forget those eyes. The next part came in flashes - streets choked with corpses, ruined homes, smoke and fire. He was again surprised as he watched the masked man run along walls to protect them from another group of soldiers. Wind and sand danced at his will as he beat back the four bad men, keeping himself between them and the dozen or so survivors.

Caelum stood locked in pace, his tiny hands curled into fists.

Was this one of the demonhunters he heard about? If he had been as strong as them he could have protected his sister! If he lived, he swore never to forget what these bad men did.

The fight against those four soldiers had been difficult. Besides the fact they were no pushovers, he also had to protect the people with him. It was a lot of things to juggle.

One of the soldiers called out kindly. "Hey newbie, you're just confused! You aren't supposed to be helping them. Stop right now and we'll forget it ever happened. You're just a trainee at the valley, not even twenty years old yet. You got a bright future, kid. The world's a big place. Don't throw it away."

"The world is a big place, and I just take up a few inches of it. If I live a hundred years, that's thirty-six thousand five hundred days of what you call confusion. What's bad about that? Fuck your 'grand elysian cause.' It's bullshit!" Cloudhawk stood tall before them, sword in hand. "If I see something disgusting that I can prevent, then I'm stepping in. Piss me off, and I fight back. No use splitting hairs, living right is hard enough as it is."

"You're beyond saving. Cut him down!"

The soldiers had looked favorably on Cloudhawk before, but found him intractable now. Just as they were ready to charge at him, two of their number were summarily knocked unconscious. The remaining two paused as they tried to get their bearings. They reached for flares, but before they could signal more soldiers they, too, were quickly beaten senseless.

All four were dealt with, and Cloudhawk hadn't lifted a finger. He blinked at the sudden shift in fortunes.

Those veterans were tough, and he was sure he wouldn't have been able to take them out so quickly unless he took them by surprise. Two figures stepped out to reveal themselves as the culprits. The first was a large bronze-skinned man in black armor, with a huge sword in one hand. The second was a handsome blonde-haired, blue eyed man with a sheepish expression. They were joined moments later by a sly-looking demonhunter.

The third man was clearly being held hostage by the other two. A pair of transparent, metallic orbs floated through the air to hover over his palms. Once the surprise wore off, Cloudhawk recognized him as a member of his squad, Rohan Stalwart. He was born in an average elysian town, with the innate ability to control both wind- and thunder-type relics. The four soldiers suddenly falling unconscious were surely his handiwork.

Rohan whined bitterly. "Oh man, this is a disaster! If my family finds out they'll peel the skin from my bones!"

"Oh shut the hell up. We'll bear the blame for this nonsense, what are you scared of? Now go!" Drake clearly had no kind feelings towards this troublesome young man and had a distasteful expression just having to associate with him. He gave him a swift kick. "Get out of my sight!"

Rohan heard Drake's rude tone, but he knew the larger trainee was trying to protect him from what they were about to do. He hesitated for a moment, but in the end chose to withdraw. He didn't have the courage to commit treason. After all, Drake came from a lauded family with countless talented offspring. Rohan had the reputation of his family squarely on his shoulders, so even if he didn't care he still had to think of his family's name.

Cloudhawk looked at the two who remained with surprise clear on his face. "You two..."

Gabriel chuckled but said nothing. Drake hefted his blade heroically. "We can't let you steal all the glory. I've also been itching for a little fun, what about it?"

Cloudhawk had to admire the burly guy. For him and Gabriel it didn't matter; one had murdered an oracle, while the other ignored rules as a force of habit since he could leave whenever he pleased. Not the case for Drake, since he was the descendent of an influential family. His responsibilities far outweighed anything the other two men had to contend with. For him to join them now was nothing short of harebrained, but it sure highlighted the man's character.

He wasn't just a meat-head. Attacking the demonhunters in Deadwood Forest proved he had smarts and could think tactically. He was also bold, and ambitious, and willing to help his brothers when it mattered most. With the right foundation, and knowledge of martial arts at such a young age, he was destined to be a celebrated military leader in the future.

Cloudhawk was a lost cause. It didn't matter what happened to his reputation. But if Drake's destiny was compromised, that was a shame.

Drake frowned at him. "Why are you looking at me like that? You didn't catch something from that sissy Caspian, did you? I'm telling you, I don't have any interest in guys."

"Oh fuck you."

"Uh, can you two flirt later?" Gabriel interrupted their exchange in his meek voice. "We're going to get surrounded if we stick around."

Cloudhawk, Gabriel, and Drake were on the move. Soon they'd rescued another ten survivors, prioritizing children and the elderly. Dark Atom spies were hardly found, but it was the people of the village that had to be eliminated, from an elysian standpoint. If these poor folk got free, than word of what happened here would get out. If others knew that soldiers were killing their own people, the consequences would be unthinkable.

They'd seen it all with their own eyes.

Hell's Army was a secret, but if word of their existence got out it would certainly harm the domain's reputation. Without question, these villagers would hate them forever for what they did here. It was inevitable that many would join the Dark Atom, and become seeds of a future rebellion.

What Cloudhawk and his friends was doing was the worst thing imaginable, from the point of view of elysian leadership.

But Cloudhawk never liked to get hung up over the idea of right or wrong. The ambitions of Dark Atom were no concern to him, and neither was the self-righteous standpoint of the elysians. Overarching principles were beyond him, he just bothered doing what he had to do. And as for consequences, he'd deal with them when he got to it. Cloudhawk didn't know if he'd come to regret his decision in the long run, but he knew that he would regret it by tomorrow morning if he ignored this, and buried his head in the sand.

Doing it by himself would have been hard. A handful of soldiers could have cut his rebellion short. But now that there were three of them no one stood in their way. However much of a ruckus they made, anyone who dared stand in their way was dealt with. In the heat of it all Cloudhawk would have fought off the assistants, even the giants of Hell's Valley themselves.

A soldier was hiding unseen in the ruins nearby, scowling at what he saw. These new bloods were trouble, but he wasn't strong enough to handle the three of them by himself. As he was reaching for a flare to alert his brothers, a loud clap arose from behind. It sounded like a blast from a thunderstorm.

The veteran was caught off guard, and swung around to meet whatever it was with his weapon. He managed to block a handful of blows, but more than a dozen others found their mark. Without armor, he was defenseless. The soldier hit the ground, leaking blood.

Claudia walked over and, using the butt of her spear, knocked him out.

The others couldn't have missed the ruckus, but they were surprised to find Claudia as the source. What was this self-described noble doing here, helping them? Cloudhawk looked at the soldier on the ground, covered in lacerations. "Man, they aren't kidding when they talk about the wrath of a woman scorned. We've just been knocking them out, you almost killed the guy."

"These are strong fighters, hesitate and it could be too late. Anyway, it's not so bad. None of his wounds are lethal." When she saw Drake's stunned expression, she explained. "I'm not helping you, I'm protecting the innocent. What Hell's Army is doing here is intolerable. It may be the logical choice, but I won't accept it, and my honor won't permit it. I know I'm doing the right thing."

"A real avatar of justice. Let me revere you, oh mighty mistress." Cloudhawk smirked at her. This lady was stubborn as a mule, so caught up with virtue even after all she'd seen. He wasn't sure she was naïve or just screwed up in the head. "But you be careful, whatever your reasons. Oh, right. Let me remind you that if you kill one of a pair of friends or lovers you should kill the other one, too. It's just polite. Let them live and - I'm speaking from experience - they will never fucking go away."

Cloudhawk expertly threw his barbs, but now wasn't the time for snide arguments. Claudia looked at him with a cold expression, while her tempest flower bloomed threateningly. "Are we going or not?"

Her captain threw up his hands in mock surrender. "We're going, why wouldn't we?"

Cloudhawk, Drake, and Gabriel were a formidable group. But, they weren't strong enough to escape this place on their own. The instructors would surely find out and move to stop them before they could get the villagers to safety. Claudia made things far easier, especially since her seeker torque was able to pinpoint patrols for them to avoid. She gave the old men and the children a chance at escaping death.

It didn't matter what their reasoning was. Once they decided to disobey orders, they were like grasshoppers, evading the elysian boot lest they got squished.