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Book 3, Chapter 70 - Insects Obstruct, Armies Approach

 The old chief had spent ten years of his life wandering the wastelands and making his way. He experienced much, but seeing Cloudhawk pull sustenance from thin air shocked him. Even during his time among the outsiders he'd never witnessed a power like that.

Thinking on it, memories of a mysterious group both noble and powerful crossed his mind. They possesed powers far beyond the abilities of normal folk. Demonhunters!

This revelation made the chief nervous. He knew what it meant when a demonhunter arrived. He knew it well. He knew what they represented!

He'd met demonhunters on the road, back when he was a young wanderer. Hailing from the mysterious land of the gods, they had powers that filled his heart with fear. The chief also saw first hand how ruthless they could be. Mutants were not friends, they were pests to be exterminated.

The chief urged Coal to tell him how they met. Coal obliged, telling him what happened. The chief sighed.

Demonhunters weren't coming for them, judging by the young man's story. Pondering it, the mutants of the wastelands were many and his tribe had only three or four hundred members. Nestled deep in the Blisterpeaks, it made no sense for demonhunters to ignore all the things they hated on their doorstep, and come all the way out here to trouble a distant tribe who had never had contact with the outside.

Cloudhawk's abilities were unquestioned. Beating Coal into submission was no easy feat.

Coal was their tribe's one and only man of talent. The next strongest didn't have a tenth of Coal's power. The progress of his mutation was unheard of among his people. However, the giant had never had a proper fight. He didn't really know how to defend himself.

If Cloudhawk could beat Coal, then he could destroy every one of them. Obviously, he hadn't used his full strength against Coal. How much he was still hiding was a mystery.

The old chief's mind worked. They couldn't afford to anger the demonhunter, but neither could they upset their god.

The chief was certain in his own mind that the god his people have appeased for generations was no deity. Likely, it was a powerful mutant who had taken up territory here among the volcanoes. He had planned for Coal to gain more strength, then lead him and the others toward Magmesa and kill it. But the sudden arrival of a demonhunter seemed to be a boon. Why not rely on his magical powers to help in killing the beast? The young man seemed brave, and this appeared to be a way to both appease the demonhunter and remove a danger to his people.

But... if they went to battle against the god of volcanoes, could they win? It had been tried before, the stories of their people tell tale of it. Each time it ended in disaster. More than once their people were almost completely wiped out.

Cloudhawk watched as the chief hesitated, lost in thought. He was growing impatient and asked Coal what was going on. In his halting and broken accent he tried to relay the legend of Magmesa.

A god of volcanoes? Bullshit - it was just a particular strong beast that has taken to living among the Blisterpeaks. According to Coal he was fierce and shrewd. Every now and again the Volcano Tribe was forced to bring up offerings of food or their god would find and devour one of their own. Running served no purpose, their god would find them. It was their tormentor, a lord they both feared and despised.

It had been a long time since Magmesa had shown its face, since before Coal was born.

It seemed immortal. Tales of its existence went back generations and it was still demanding tribute. Time had only made it larger, stronger, hungrier. Coal had always hated this invisible overlord, even going so far as to harbor a secret hope to one day kill it. If the day ever came that he was strong enough to defeat their god of volcano, then he would be strong enough to make his way to the outside world.

The village patriarch came to a decision.

"Sir. You look for city in volcano. My people will do our part, if you kill evil false god."

Cloudhawk silently cursed his circumstances. He'd hoped these tribesmen would be a bunch of dull-witted, simply folk. Turns out they were impulsive, and cunning as anyone else. Fuck, half a minute ago the thing was their god of volcano and now it was a pretender.

Didn't matter. God or not, Cloudhawk needed to get where he was going. "Then I appreciate it, chief. I'll remember your help, and I'll make sure to pay it back one day."

The outsider's words eased the chief's concerns greatly. There would be no point in a demonhunter to lie and play tricks with his lowly people. If he was willing to make such a promise, it was unlikely Cloudhawk would turn around and bring the elysians back down on their heads.

The next day, the chief gathered his people's strongest and youngest fighters. He called on Coal to lead them. Their goal was the lair of the god of volcanoes.

Cloudhawk's entourage was no pushover and it took little effort to gather them together. Still, this god of theirs was supposed to be quite the beast, and he wondered if he'd stumbled into being their meat shield.

They... they weren't all going to just sit back and let him deal with their problem, were they? But it didn't matter. If it meant he could find where the Dark Atom was hiding then a little trouble was worth it.

He and his dozen or so guides came upon a dramatic scene as they traversed the ranges. It was a sheer cliff on the borders of a lame of lava, and from their vantage below they watched as the molten stone plummeted over the sheer edge, spouting fire and smoke. It was a magnificent waterfall of liquid fire, and they could feel the heat blasting off of it even from a distance. Cloudhawk was finding it harder to breathe

Only people like the Volcano Tribe were unaffected, who had had generations of time to prepare themselves physically for something like this.

Hot as the Blisterpeaks were, the temperature wasn't enough to melt the thin crust of molten lava along their path. Peering at the curtain of lava, they briefly caught glimpses of a deep cave behind. Cloudhawk checked the location against his map and was thrilled to find it very similar. This was one of the entrances into the Dark Atom's headquarters.

"So where's this god of yours?"

Coal pointed forward. The tribesmen with him dropped into a defensive crouch and brandished their spears of volcanic ore. His rocky throat bellowed a war cry, and they raced barefoot over the parched and lava-strewn field. With spears held high, they throw them through the lavafalls with incredible strength, into the darkness of the cavern. A low, earth-rumbling growl answered.

It sounded like the bowels of the mountain itself, more threatening than the rumble of an eruption.

A very old and cruel presence abruptly filled the area, as they watched an enormous twenty-five foot long insect skittered from the cavern.

Its grotesque body was a sickening shade of orange. A heat even the tribesmen couldn't stand blasted their way, and they were forced to move back. It split the lava falls, causing lava to splash on and around it like burning raindrops. The stone sizzled against its hide but did not burn, for this monster did not fear any heat. It lashed toward the members of the tribesmen that had dared to disturb it.

Cloudhawk gaped.

What the actual fuck?!

The tribesmen continued to rain their spears on it. Even with considerable strength behind them, the spear shattered against the beast and left only minor wounds.

God of the volcano indeed! The damn thing was huge, and its presence was downright terrifying. A rarely seen true horror of the wastelands. Rushing at it like a cloud of angry bees was a stupid decision on the part of the tribesmen.

"Coal! Lure him over here!"

It didn't matter how strong Cloudhawk was, he couldn't get close enough to the lava to fight. If he wasn't careful and slipped into a pit and be burned to ash in an instant. He didn't have the constitution of these mutants, so he wasn't going to risk it.

The insect scrambled the rest of the way from its cave.

It looked like a centipede, but on a titanic scale. Its chitinous body as separated into hundreds of segments, and though incredibly large it still moved with lightning fast dexterity. It rose the first third of its body high, revealing the churning mouth below. That's when Cloudhawk felt the atmosphere change.

When the monster breathed in, the current of air drew everything toward it.

But there was more than that. Cloudhawk unhappily discovered that as the monster breathed in the surrounding flames, they were captured in a strange sack inside. Magmesa was able to store fire in an organ that swelled as it sucked more air in. Red-hot light glowed through the skin and armor.

Coal shouted something at his tribesmen. They scrambled desperately for some sort of cover.

Magmesa's fire sack collapsed, spewing a stream of intense heat like a deluge. It spilled out over a large area and swallowed up a number of the tribesmen too slow to hide succor. Coal had situated himself in front, and so had taken the brunt of it.

A blast of scalding heat rose sharply, so that even Cloudhawk from his distance could feel the tempestuous winds. Throughout his life he'd seen all sorts of nightmare monsters crawl out from the wastelands. But nothing like this.


At roughly the same time, at the border camp between the wastelands and Skycloud.

A rugged man covered in a suit of fullplate tungsten steel sat at a table in camp playing chess. His opponent was a slender, haughty-looking decorated officer. Neither man looked old, perhaps in their thirties. For Skycloud to promote men of their age to such lofty stations, they must have performed incredible deeds and won support from many of the noble houses.

"Heh. You lose again, Officer Storm.

"Our illustrious deputy commander is too skilled for a mere man like Brontes Storm."

"Yet I can't shake the feeling you're letting me win."

The large man in the massive suit of armor was none other than Drake Thane. As the pride of his military family, it wasn't long before he picked up a position at the wall as a lieutenant commander. The border forces were the largest standing collection of troops in all of Skycloud, and composed its outer line of defense. Earning a commission under this command at such high rank was no easy feat.

It also didn't take him long to show off his skill when he got here. Whether it was tactics, training or individual combat effectiveness, everyone had to acknowledge his quality. He won a lot of fans pretty quick.

As for his companion, Brontes Storm, he had joined the army at the bottom and worked his way up. He was now lead of the border's vanguard forces - in the top ten of the army's upper echelons.

Brontes smiled and was about to say something when guard burst into the room.

"Lieutenant Commander, sir. There's someone outside who'd like to speak with you. I believe he's the Magistrate of a station called Sandbar."

"The monitoring station? What does he want."

"We don't know. He was insistent that he deliver his report to you only."

The monitoring stations came under the auspices of border security. They were minor forward bases scattered throughout the borderlands. For one of their magistrates to come for a direct meeting with the lieutenant commander was leaping several rungs above your pay grade. Why not then go right for the commander himself?

Brontes stood up. "What's his name? Does he not know how to follow protocol?"

"It's fine, Brontes." Drake rose from the table and nodded at the sentry. "Let him in."

The subordinate snapped to attention and left to collect the visitor. A few minutes later he returned with a man who could only be described as rotund.

He was easily three hundred pounds, or close to it. Drake had never seen a man so large in his entire life. The Magistrate was visibly nervous but managed a proper salute. "Your servant Hammont Seacrest, Magistrate of Sandbar Station..."

Both Drake and Brontes frowned at the man. How could someone like him have been given any command? He was a disgrace to the uniform! Drake apathetically cut him off. "What are you doing here?"

Just then, an alarm bell rang out along the border wall. Nine chimes.

Drake and Brontes immediately looked at each other, faces dark. That alarm meant emergency, and nine chimes meant it was bad. Everyone was called to drop whatever they were doing and fall into rank.

What happened? Was the border under attack?

The commanders immediately put this fatty out of mind and prepared to see what was the matter. But Hammont, seeing them move away, brazenly called after Drake. "W-wait! Master Cloudhawk is the one who sent me to deliver a report!"

Drake froze. Cloudhawk? Him! What the hell was that guy up to now?

Something had put the border on critical alert, he didn't have time to be taking reports. Drake instructed Hammont to stay close as he hurried to where forces were instructed to gather. When he got there over thirty thousand soldiers were formed up, and several warships were hovering in position overhead.

Drake look them over and realized what this was. A dispatch posture.

Why were they arrayed for battle? Who were they fighting? How did he have no idea - he was the lieutenant commander!

Brontes approached after stopping by the commander's side, weapons bared and a silvery-white mask slipped over his face. "Well this is sudden. The Dark Atom's headquarters have been discovered. We're forming up to strike right at the heart. We're the tip of the spear, so I'm sure I don't have to say you should get prepared in a hurry. We've got to be fast, you know how tricky those bastards are. If they catch wind we're coming, they'll vanish. It's an opportunity the commander can't let slip."

Drake was floored. What the fuck... the Dark Atom base!

Drake snapped back into the present. Shit, the Dark Atom! Always skulking around and retreating like frightened turtles back into their shell when the fight got started. Tracked down at last! He hadn't been involved in a single note-worthy skirmish since he joined up. Was this the gods giving him his shot?

"Move out!"


Drake felt his blood surge with excitement. As for the fat messenger from Cloudhawk? He was forgotten already.