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Book 3, Chapter 89 - In Deep

 A master demonhunter, former Knight-Commander, and bearer of Castigation fire. The Crimson One was capable of reducing whole armies to ash by himself.

But as Cloudhawk fervently searched the distant forces of the Crimson Church, he saw no sign of their leader. He sighed in relief - it appeared the old man was still recovering.

No answers were forthcoming as to why they were here at all, though. However, in attacking the elysians they proved that they were - at least in part - on the side of the Dark Atom.

Good. Cloudhawk was pleased by this sudden change in circumstance, for at least the Sanctum of Judgement could hold the elysians at bay for a while. The Dark Atom wouldn't be so easily wiped out. The day sure was turning into an interesting drama, that was for damn sure. What happened next was anyone's guess.

Frost de Winter's razor-edge eyebrows furrowed as the hail of green fire descended. In a dangerous growl he ordered the retreat. The demonhunters under his command fell back quick as the wind.

They were all dressed in the same superior equipment, and easily recognized by the pure white cloaks draped across their shoulders. Across from them were the warriors of the Crimson Church, a tide of blood red. Both sides eyed one another, the air thick murderous with enmity.

Frost's demonhunter squad was a collection of top talents. For over a decade they were commended for their great abilities and accomplishments. Their members were among the best demonhunters in active service. The fact that Abaddon's appearance hadn't routed the elysian forces already was a testament to their abilities.

Once again, the situation on the ground was changing,

The red-robed missionaries of the Sanctum made no effort to hide their identities. The field came alive with flashes of power from the relics they wielded. It was hard to understand - how could these supposedly pious men, bearing the gifts of the gods, turn these artifacts on the children of the holy lands?

The church's demonhunters were no match for Frost and his squad, but their timing was impeccable. Appearing suddenly in the perfect moment disrupted the elysians' brief advantage.

Their leader was a man in his fifties, unattractive and rugged as though he were plucked from the ruins. But he was tall, and strong, and stood before the missionaries in bare feet. His relic was a standard with the flag rolled up. The flagstaff itself ended in a sharp point, so that with the flag wrapped tight it was no different than a spear.

He motioned with his hand. Half of the priests separated from the group and joined the Dark Atom forces in battle.

The Knights of Splendor were recovering, and thanks to their equipment the hail of Castigation had not done as much damage as it could. However, now they were faced with a dozen missionaries of the Crimson Church. Though not of the same caliber as Frost's squad, they nonetheless were demonhunters, and a demonhunter's presence on the field was not to be discounted.

"You!" When Frost saw the standard bearer a deadly cold crossed his eyes. In their depths was a terrible fire born from loathing. He growled his words, stressing every syllable. "I should have known."

Obviously, Frost and this barefoot priest knew one another. It was clearly not a friendly relationship.

Cloudhawk gave the priest a curious look. "Who's that peasant preacher?" He asked.

"He's no peasant." Drake's face was solemn, but also surprised. "He's a member of the Cloude family. Twenty years ago he was a famous man in Skycloud. Ten years ago he was the lieutenant commander of the demonhunter division of the Skycloud army. Around then, with Sterling's influence, he resigned from his post and disappeared. Now all of a sudden he show's up here... your information was right!"

Cloudhawk was all full of concerns and suspicions, but for the time being it was what it was.

He might as well take the gift he was given. "Well, no shit I'm right! When has my information ever been wrong? That guy looks like one of the Crimson One's captains, but the real danger in the Crimson One himself. Who knows if he's lurking in some dark corner, somewhere waiting for his chance. Like I said, you walked right into a trap!"

Just a captain? What a joke!

It was nonsense from the Warden, just a wild guess. Really, the peasant priest was one of the Crimson One's right-hand men. When Sterling defected from Skycloud he took a hundred or so demonhunters with him. It would be no surprise if he enticed several from his own house to follow him as well. A master demonhunter and Knight-Commander would definitely not be lacking in loyal underlings.

Cloudhawk quietly rejoiced over meeting Sterling at Fishmonger's Borough. While he almost died, dealing with the man then was far better than having him show up now. If the Crimson One was at full strength and here in this battle, the outcome here would already have been written.

"All these years you claim to be in seclusion, but here you are! In the wastelands, colluding with sinners!" Augustus Cloude stepped out from among the demonhunters, furious in his accusations. "You betray your family! You betray your faith! These misdeeds you commit against our gods are unforgivable!"

The rustic-looking barefoot man let the words wash over him. He showed no grief, no guilt. Who was betrayer, and who was betrayed... was the word of one angry man enough to condemn him? He felt no compunction to explain, nor did he respond. Instead, his eyes turned toward the Caliph of the Sands.

"We have arrived as promised. I expect you to hold true to your commitments."

"Fear not. He has already left with his prize." Abaddon remained suspended above the battlefield, with dervishes of sand dancing around him. In one hand he held a yellow-gold sword of sand, and grit whipped all around him in a cocoon several meters in diameter. It marked the borders of his own domain. "What is your name, priest?"

"I have abandoned the name of my birth. I am now known as Wyrmsole." Though he did not speak loudly, there was a definite force to his voice. In it one could find what remained of his former days as a noble. When next he turned his eyes back to Frost and the other demonhunters, he said something that made them scratch their heads in confusion. "These lost and pathetic men do not know why they fight. They give of their blood freely, ignorantly, and those that fall do not know to what end they consign their souls."

Augustus bristled. "Our heroic soldiers who fall in battle live for eternity on the peaks of the heavenly mountain! It is blasphemers like you who are condemned to the endless abyss!"

The corners of Wyrmsole's mouth twitched upward in a taunting sneer. "You who live in a world of lies. Your faith does naught but blind you."

"You dare!"

"Punish the heretic!"

All the demonhunters within earshot were incensed by his words. In contrast, the priests in red were dispassionate and unmoved. They had already abandoned their faith in the elysian gods. They were true blasphemers.

Augustus' face was crestfallen. This man was a senior member of his family, a man he should call cousin. He never would have believed that such an illustrious member of their family would fall so low. Did the honor of their family name mean nothing to him?

All of the demonhunters looked spurned and glared at Wyrmsole with loathing. A traitor like him turned to the darkness was worse than any heathen! Burning him at the stake wouldn't be half what this bastard deserved! And worst of all, they operated in the wasteland under the guise of faith.

Wyrmsole understood their ire, of course. He had once been just like them, but all that remained now was numbness, indifference, and sadness.

He had experienced much in his life. There were times when he made the right decisions, and times when he was wrong. Sometimes he was firm, and many times lost. In the end he found himself, and discovered that there was no such thing as right and wrong. There was only that which must be done. As for the fate of his eternal soul, whether he would spend forever in darkness? None of that mattered.

Frost suddenly burst into action.

He brought his arm back and heaved Frozen Dirge through the air. Its silvery length seemed to drink in power from the world around it, and leaving a trail of ice crystals in its wake. With frightening speed it raced toward Wyrmsole, and the aura around it almost looked like a dragon formed of ice.

The attack was heavy with a bone-chilling cold and suffocating fury. Frost held nothing back.

Wyrmsole did not move, however the flag wrapped around his standard was somehow released. It fluttered open, a red banner that reached out like a tongue of fire. The pattern on its surface gleamed as the sun caught it, though the light seemed to come from the image itself. Then, as Wyrmsole gently waved his hand, the pattern came to life. A winged dragon, which mystically leaped out from the banner and into reality.

Two dragons of fire and ice met in fierce confrontation, intertwining as they battled.

The opposing powers warred, consuming one another. Wyrmsole's reputation was clearly deserved, for his strength was nearly on par with Frost. However that was merely an opening move, and Frost had crossed the distance between them while their powers contested. He pulled the frost-covered sword from the sheath at his waist and thrust it forward, releasing an energy that froze Wyrmsole's fiery dragon in place. It shattered into crystals of ice and fell away.

A swift, fierce aura of frigid cold sprang up around them. Rimeshard was a weapon of unknowable cold, but the fury with which it was wielded as burning hot.

The Church's standard bearer didn't know why this boy hated him so intently, nor did he care. In his years of service, Wyrmsole had committed all manner of crimes. The number those who wished him harm - alive and in the underworld - were beyond measure. What did another one matter?

"You are strong, young man."

With this said the banner rolled up of its own accord, and a slight nick appeared on the pole's surface. Immediately following a surge of fiery power arose, strong enough to counteract the chill of Rimeshard.

He was in it now, no option but to fight.

"You lot, help the commander." Augustus waved his hand at a group of demonhunters, then set his eyes on the Caliph. "The rest of you, we are going to slay this demon."

Abaddon looked upon the mighty demonhunter from the Cloude family with some interest. "I spared your life years ago, child. You should have learned to cherish it."

His words were like a barbed thorn, digging deep into Augustus' heart.

The refined, intelligent middle-aged hunter was consumed with anger. He would never forget the battle from years before, where the demon destroyed nearly all of the forces he brought with him to the wastelands. It was the greatest shame of his life.

This battle was more than just an opportunity to free the wasteland of this monster's tyranny. It was a chance for Augustus to wash away the stain of disgrace!

Battle raged all around; in the skies above, and in the mountain below. War consumed the Blisterpeak mountains. For honor, for justice, for power, for faith, and for survival, thousands of men put their lives in mortal danger.

Cloudhawk kept watching. Once again it was unclear who had the upper hand. More and more support troops from the border army were flooding the field, and the Knights of Splendor were in full conflict with the priests of the Crimson Church. This battle could continue for several more hours and still a winner might be hard to determine.

No matter who won, in the end there would be tens of thousands of dead to bury. It had been a hundred years since the world saw a clash of this magnitude.

The Warden looked over the battle with an unprecedented sense of awe and uncertainty. He was vaguely aware of the fact that the elysians had more support, but also that the Dark Atom would fight tooth and nail for their survival. News of what was happening here would quickly spread, and when it did the other secretive factions of the wasteland would likely come to their aid. After all, it was the Dark Atom that kept Skycloud's focus off of them. Were the rebel organization to be destroyed, how long would they last out in the open?

"This thing has gotten a whole lot bigger than just this fight," Cloudhawk shouted suddenly. "It's not hard to see, this is going to change the whole dynamic between Skycloud and the wastelands."

Drake was still vigilant for the possible arrival of the Crimson One. Cloudhawk's warning gave him pause, and he looked at his old companion in surprise. "Why do you say that?"

"Because the continuation of the Dark Atom is important for the wastelands. The dispute between the people on either side of that border has been brewing for a long, long time. The elysians have always tried to keep the wastelands in check, and the wastelanders have always fought back. Eventually the stalemate was going to break and force all that hatred to the surface."

Cloudhawk turned his eyes toward Drake.

"This is that day. This fight is what destroys the balance, no matter who wins. The more elysians die, the more soldiers will be sent here from the border. All the wasteland groups wanting to get back at Skycloud will flood this place to win revenge. A long, drawn-out war will start right here if we let it, and the whole world will suffer for it. I'm just grateful I'm not a soldier."

The thought horrified Drake.

The wastelands was a vast and impenetrable place, and no one knew just how wide it really spread. How many monsters were lying dormant, quietly waiting for their chance to rise from the shadows?

When the specter of the wasteland fell over Skycloud, would their soldiers really be ready? As a soldier, all Drake knew was that the destruction of the Dark Atom had always been a priority for his people. He never spared a thought for what would happen afterward. Not until Cloudhawk opened his eyes to the dire possibilities.