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Book 3, Chapter 57 - Solidarity

 Fishmonger's Borough sent out two hundred of their best soldiers to hunt the fugitives down. However, in the interest of speed they split up their force. Six members of the Crimson Church and about a dozen soldiers were hurrying with Ravenous Tiger toward the settlement.

Though few in number, the group's destructive capabilities were incredible!

Ravenous Tiger had participated in several secret missions for Skycloud authorities. It was during those times that he saw the true nature of elysian power, and lost faith in those he called master. He feared for his own life, for he knew what happened to those who knew too much. In order to save his own life he was willing to forsake his name, his family, and his honor to escape to the wastelands. Forced to assume a new name, he took on the mantle of governor.

However, his change in circumstance didn't change his nature. Ravenous Tiger was still ambitious and greedy. His hunger for wealth, women, power, and talented subordinates was all-consuming.

For years he played the warlord. On the one hand he provided elysians with information about the wild lands outside their borders, while simultaneously he helped the Sanctum of Judgment grow in strength and prominence. However, both were merely steps in his ultimate plan. For years he hoarded wealth and women, but also surreptitiously took in anyone worth their salt. Day after day he gathered strength as quietly as he could, in the hopes that eventually he could break off and finally be his own master. That was what he dreamed of, finally being able to determine his own life. He never wanted to have to look into anyone else's smug face and swallow their orders ever again.

The small group of soldiers able to keep up with the Crimson One were the best Fishmonger's Borough could provide. Pick any one at random and they were sure to be the equal of any elysian top officer. They were the greatest immaterial asset Fishmonger's Borough possessed, more precious than any treasure in the governor's vault.

Now, at the Crimson One's command, they were supposed to throw themselves into the fires? The thought gnawed at Ravenous Tiger, but he dared not disobey!

Elysian authorities knew for a long time that Ravenous Tiger was double-dealing. The Crimson One also guessed his henchman's self-serving logic. Yet neither cut him down, purely because the spot he occupied made him useful, valuable. But years of having his strings pulled had worn him thin - Ravenous Tiger needed to be the master of his own destiny.

"Go take a look."

Ravenous Tiger picked someone from the group with a gesture. The scout hurried up a nearby incline to look out over the horizon.

This one was covered in rough skin, with half his body covered in scars. He had a darker complexion, and was born with a head of spindly white hair. He looked normal enough but for a pair of enormously strong strong at least twice the size of any other strongman he knew. The skin there was much tough, like rhino hide. While off-putting at first glance, the advantage was clear.

A buster sword was his weapon of choice, two meters long and as wide as his waist. The weight of it alone was potentially fatal and its presence on his back made the man look terrifying.

He looked over the desert toward the settlement, where he saw the Crimson One soar into action. Hovering over the town he rained destruction with a hundred fiery green orbs. Like an angel of devastation he fell upon the settlement and proceeded to reduce it to ruin. Seconds later he was locked in combat with a pair of formidable opponents, though obviously still maintained the upper hand.

"That fucker is no joke!" The man pulled his sword free and hacked at a boulder nearby. With a screech the sword cleaved it in half, leaving behind a mirror-like fissure. It was a dramatic show of what the sword - and the man who wielded it - could do. He was anxious to turn it on their enemies. "The fight's started, boss. Are we going in?"

The swordsman was a big name back in Fishmonger's Borough. He'd made waves on his own out in the wastelands before joining Ravenous Tiger's crew. With his natural strength and ferocity, he once tore apart several bulls with his bare hands. Years of training in the Borough's had also taught him how to harness his true power, turning him into a competent martial artist. Over time he rose to prominence as Ravenous Tiger's right-hand man, one of his most trusted followers.

Ravenous Tiger stood amid the desert with his relic battleax resting in the sand. His eyes narrowed in thought and a strange light flickered in their depths. His thick fingers rubbed one of his rings, a sign he was lost in thought. After a few seconds he made his decision. "No rush. The bishop can handle himself. Let them wear each other out, then when their guard is down we'll move in for the kill. Catch them unprepared."

His henchman grinned sadistically. "Understood."

He looked like a brigand, but there was intelligence behind the bloodlust. After all, after so many years with the governor he'd come to know how the big man thought.

The six priests, however, looked at one another in speechless displeasure. However, their leader was a powerful man and these fugitives couldn't be much of a threat. As for Ravenous Tiger, the fat governor wouldn't dare disobey his master.

Ravenous Tiger walked forward, eyes narrowed. Whatever he was thinking was inscrutable behind his hard gaze. As they slowly approached the sounds of battle were deafening and shook the ground. There was no doubt the Crimson One was a powerhouse of the wasteland, one of the strongest. The power of his lone attack was something to behold.

Yet, much to his surprise, his colossal blows were being deflected by a single elysian. Ravenous Tiger witnessed the scene and right away his mind began to churn. An enigmatic smile spread across his face. Things just got far more interesting, and judging by the fiery manifestation of this elysian's power, she was no less a fighter than Ravenous Tiger himself. Maybe even better.

Senior demonhunters weren't throwaway novices. Every one of them held status in Skycloud domain.

The old cripple was as fierce as ever, even as a disabled outcast. His specialty was martial arts, but he could command a relic as well as Ravenous Tiger. After his injury he couldn't call on his true power like he used to, so this fiery display had to be from this unnamed elysian newcomer. Had Skycloud gotten involved already?

If that were true then things just got a lot more complicated. It didn't matter how strong or cunning the Crimson One was, he couldn't take on the whole domain.

Even discounting the presence of Arcturus, the likes of Skye Polaris and the sanctuary being personally involved was a frightening prospect. Skycloud was also famously tight-lipped, keeping their own counsel. If this was an ambush, even the Crimson One would have a hard time escaping.

Ravenous Tiger was certain his decision to hang back was the right one. He would continue to watch the fight play out - waiting to pick off stragglers.

But would he be given the opportunity?

The Crimson One continued his pitched battle against Selene. As the clash became ever more fierce, both warriors felt a creeping dread about the other. Just as the old drunk presaged, even with Selene their chances were thirty percent, at best.

But the situation was about to change.

Squall appeared on the field with three others; Green Snake, a martial artist, the formidable demonhunter Gremlin, but most powerful of all - Blackfiend. Cloudhawk had experienced the puppet's strength face to face, and knew it had the power of a veteran demonhunter. Stronger, even - for a human could die no matter how strong. Blackfiend was undying.

"The Millennium Vale is open. Chaos and strife are unavoidable. Your homeland is the only place with the resources to contend against Skycloud. If your peple should fall into the hands of the elysians, then the world is without hope." The Crimson One stood regally before them, crosier in hand and demeanor calm. Tendrils of green fire continued to swirl around him like a host of vipers. They roiled with dangerous promise, as though they might strike at any moment. "What Ido is not for personal gain. In time, you will understand."

Selene held her sword at the ready, face coldly indifferent to his pleas. "Your goal is to destroy Skycloud domain?"

"The destruction of your home is the aim of the Dark Atom. I am not interested in destruction - but liberation. Mankind has been deceived for too long. Only when elysians and wastelanders learn to join forces will they be capable of recapturing their destiny. This is why I must reach the Millennium Vale."

"You're dreaming!" Autumn shouted back at him angrily. "The Valley is a paradise, left to us by the Shepherd Goddess. It is ours and no one else's, and we will never let the ambitious and greedy lay claim! Especially no one as mad and as evil as you!"

"What the fuck are we wasting time talking to this asshole for?" Cloudhawk figured that with Squall's help they sat at a fifty-fifty chance of getting out with their skins intact. With equal odds he felt emboldened, and used his phase stone to pull an exorcist bow from storage. "This senile fuck is obviously burning time for reinforcements to get here. I could see through the dumbshit plan if I was thinking with my asshole. Don't waste time talking. Attack!"

At his command Selene and the old man were a blur as they charged forward.

Autumn gave voice to the Call of the Shepherd Goddess, summoning aid from any beasts nearby.

Gremlin and Green Snake hesitated as they watched it all unfold. This wasn't their fight, better to disengage.

"Can't you see how strong he is?" Squall struggled to find a way to motivate them, but eventually found one. "Don't forget that our mission is to take control of the wastelands. The bishop is going to be an enemy sooner or later. Deal with him, then we can kill Cloudhawk and the others."

Green Snake turned his eyes searchingly toward Gremlin. The demonhunter thought for a moment, but ultimately reacted by slowly opening his gourd. He gave a single order. "We do what we can. If it becomes too much, retreat."

The order given, a flood of dark smoke belched from the gourd. A host of skeleton monsters appeared from the fog.

Meanwhile, Squall unfurled the bandages wound around his left arm. "Attack!"

Green Snake and his sonic sword took the lead. He lashed out half a dozen times with his weapon, sending a shower of cutting sonic booms before him. As this vicious opening assault ensued, six skeletal beings in full armor rushed forward to support from the left and right.

The Crimson One faced Selene and the old man's attacks with ease. There was no trepidation as the Highwaymen leadership joined, either. With one sweep of his crosier the six skeletons were blown to pieces. The onslaught of blows from Green Snake's sonic blade dispersed. The sword in his hand shattered into a million shards.

"You overconfident fool! Begone!"

With the briefest thought, the Crimson One cast forth two streams of fire. As Green Snake and Gremlin scrambled to escape, the streams collided and burst into countless balls of fire. They blanketed the battlefield, leaving nowhere for them to turn.

Squall's face darkened. He surged ahead, bandages snapping, leaving his arm exposed. Stretching out his hand the tattoo-like design etched in his flesh began to glow. With arm held high, the shimmering power seemed to draw the fires closer.

He was planning to crush them in his grip.

Cloudhawk yelled a warning. "Don't touch the fire!"

But Squall had already gathered the bullet-sized orbs in his hand. All of a sudden his face twisted into an expression of unspeakable pain. He underestimated the terrifying power of Castigation fire.