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Book 3, Chapter 100 - An Abyss Behind, Darkness Ahead

 The war for the Blisterpeaks sent a shock wave through the wastelands.

Word spread that the Dark Atom's secret base had been discovered in the inhospitable mountain range. It was confirmed that there was such a person as Wolfblade, the long-rumored leader of the organization. People also learned that the elysian army suffered terribly in the battle.

Two generals, a dozen or so lesser commanders, several dozen airships and tens of thousands of regular troops destroyed.

The numbers spoke to the viciousness and brutality of the war. For some perhaps the numbers didn't mean much, but just walking through the borderlands one could feel the suffocating atmosphere. Like the calm before a storm. Everyone could sense it.

Elysian warships could be seen hovering over the border outposts. Like stars in the sky, they dotted the horizon, and more arrived every day. It was among the largest gathering of forces in Skycloud's history, an unprecedented accumulation of soldiers preparing to exact vengeance.

They would make sure that this time, no one would escape by sheer luck.

War had yet to break out in full, but already the borderlands were caught up in it.

Before this conflict, Sandbar Station had been a focus for Skycloud. Under the Magistrate's guidance, chaos had been slowly becoming order. But overnight that guard force, which had been stationed in the outpost for years, was withdrawn. In their place was a larger and more sophisticated regular fighting force.

Sandbar Station was under complete control now, and searches had become commonplace. Any suspicious person above six years old - be they escaped elysians or wasteland refugees - was detained and questioned.

It was obvious; they would rather kill three thousand innocents than let a single guilty soul go free.

One after the other, bloody heads sprouted up at the outpost gates until they made a small mountain. Only two days since the arrests started, and already it was difficult to count how many had been beheaded.

Luciasha had no connection to Skycloud or proof of identity, so she should have been one of those heads staring sightlessly into the distance. However, when the brutal men came to take her away Adder's men intervened. They blocked the soldiers from taking her, then showed them a token. These hardened killers became reverent and meek as sheep when they saw what it was. They never troubled Adder's establishment or employees after that.

It was the token of a veteran demonhunter that won him peace.

They were symbols of prestige and privilege, impossible to duplicate. When the intended bearer died, the symbols etched on its surface disappeared. Luciasha had seen something like it in Cloudhawk's possession once, so she knew how special and precious they were.

Why did Adder have one? Did he have friends in Skycloud? Luciasha thought about her foster father and couldn't help but worry.

He'd left in a hurry some time back and still hadn't returned. With so much turmoil in the wastelands she couldn't know if he was safe. She worried about the men she considered brothers, Cloudhawk and Squall. She wished desperately that they could all be together, safe, but they all had their own business to deal with.

Why was life so hard for everyone? Couldn't this world be kinder? Sometimes Luciasha was angry and ashamed at her own uselessness. She didn't have any abilities to speak of, no skills to help her family.

Today the bar was quiet. There were no patrons, and in the dim lamplight it made the place seem even lonelier. Luciasha padded toward the door and gingerly pushed it open. She peeked out to try and see what was happening outside.

Sandar Station was deathly silent. All she saw was a group of rail-thin children foraging through the rubbish for something to eat. Their parents had been gathered up in the purge, and most of them were never coming back.

These poor children...

She looked at the malnourished kids, one after the other.

The softest part of her heart ached for them. She saw herself in their plight, the way she used to be. Starving, their parents stolen from them, without shelter... how were they expected to survive? Luciasha was lucky, she knew that without a doubt. Her good fortune inspired her to do whatever she could do help.

She gathered the children into the bar. She gave them bread and water to ease their aching bellies.

Luciasha wasn't going to steal from the bar, of course. She purchased the food with what little money she'd accumulated working here for the last three years. Before now she didn't know what to spend it on, and now there was a proper use for it.

"You're a good lady, big sister."

Luciasha brought her attention to a little girl who was different from the others. She was six years old, give or take. Her eyes were big and clear, and a beautiful shade of azure blue. But she was so skinny that her bones were clear through her skin. One hand was draped over her slightly protruding stomach and her face was pale from the pain. Her lips were cracked and dry. It was obvious she was suffering, and she hardly even had enough strength to walk.

It was her eyes that made the girl stand out. There was something in them that was different from the others. She saw a rare intelligence for a wastelander, the sort you only saw once in a long while. The only other person Luciasha knew with eyes like this girl's was Cloudhawk.

"What's your name?"

"I'm called Azura." The little girl saw Luciasha stretch out her hand to offer a loaf of bread, but she nibbled her lip and shook her head. "I don't want bread. I don't want water, either. Can I have some chalk?"

"Why do you want chalk?"

Azura didn't answer. She just looked pleadingly at Luciasha with her big pretty eyes. It was a tiny but desperate wish. Luciasha couldn't turn the poor thing down. Of course she also insisted on giving the child the bread and water as well.

Luciasha watched Azura totter away, swaying like a withered stalk of grass in the wind. She stumbled on, her face thin and drained of vitality, her small dirty hands... Luciasha felt a bitter flavor fill her mouth, and her eyes quickly misted up.

Why did these pure young souls have to suffer so terribly? She could help this small group, but how many homeless children were dying out in the wastelands?

The children didn't squabble or make any ruckus. With what they'd gone through, they were forced to grow up much faster than the spoiled ones who still had a roof and parents of their own. They understood that making being loud and rowdy would bring them more trouble. If they didn't behave they might be beaten, even killed. They knew playing cost energy, and without food they needed all their energy not to starve.

With bellies full of bread and water, they settled on the icy cold floor to sleep.

Luciasha was afraid they would get ill, so she summoned one of the men Adder left behind and had him bring some clothes and linens. She went to the orphans one by one and made sure they were warm. Anyway no one was coming to stay at their inn, so she prepared the rooms so that the children could have somewhere soft to sleep, at least for a little while.

As she was preparing she caught a glimpse of Azura once again.

She was lying in a corner, white as a sheet, with vomit caked at the corner of her mouth. Whatever illness gripped her was making her delirious. It was much worse than Luciasha thought. Right now the only thing keeping that little girl alive was persistence. But not for long - she was at the cusp of death.

It was the picture on the ground that kept Luciasha spellbound.

Azura had used her chalk to draw two figures, simple but vivid. One of them was a man with a beard, and the other a woman with long hair. Their arms were open and outstretched, ready for a hug. All around them were grass and flowers.

Just a few strokes, but the image was warm and sweet, and full of beauty. Luciasha shuddered at the bittersweet emotions that ran through her.

The little girl still clung tight to the half-worn piece of chalk. Where she was curled up, it looked like the man and woman had their arms around her.

"Mommy... Daddy..."

Azura's pained face turned serene, and a flush came to her cheeks. It was the last, fading radiance of a setting sun. [1]

Peace overcame the child as in her feverish dreams she was one again with her family. As the life faded from her, in her own mind she was in the warm and loving embrace of her mother and father, happy with the ones that she loved.

Hot tears began to tumble down Luciasha' cheeks. She hurried to the girl's side in a thoughtless dash and gathered her up in her arms.

She had to save her. Somehow, at any cost, Luciasha had to stop this beautiful little girl from dying!

The Sandbar's modest hospital had been empty for a while now. Azura's illness was critical, where was she supposed to go to get help?

Luciasha didn't know where to turn or who to call. All she could do was clutch the small child to herself and rock back and forth as tears dripped down her face. Was this all she could do? Watch helplessly as this poor baby faded away?

Too cruel! Unbearably cruel!

Luciasha desperately wished she could give her life instead.

She hardly noticed when the door opened and a figure entered from outside. When she at last lifted her tear-streaked face, surprise overtook her. "What... what are you doing here?"

The young man's hair hung loose at his shoulders and he was partially concealed beneath a worn brown cloak. His left arm was wrapped in bandages. When he saw the girl, he stooped low to get a better read of her condition. Reaching into his clothes, the bar's latest visitor produced a syringe - some sort of wastelander medicine. He put the needle to the girl's arm and pushed the fluid into her bloodstream.

Whatever was in it had a quick and beneficial effect. Azura's ragged breaths settled after only a few moments.

Luciasha was elated. A miracle... this was a miracle.

Through the process Squall's face was solemn. He looked exhausted. "I'd like a glass of alcohol," he said in a raspy voice.

He made his way to the long, empty bar. He made a lonely picture as he poured himself one drink after another. Annoyance, hatred, exhaustion, pain - he tried to swallow them all down with each gulp of the wine. He hoped that eventually the alcohol would quiet them down.

"The little girl seems stable. Thank you so much."

Squall simply nodded his head and said nothing.

Luciasha was truly thankful from the bottom of her heart. If Squall hadn't have shown up when he did Azura wouldn't have lasted the day. But when she saw Squall's face she knew he wasn't fairing well either. Her soft voice intruded once again. "Squall... what's troubling you?"

"It's not a big deal." He raised his bandaged arm. "I found the animal that killed Old Thistle, but I couldn't kill him. But it doesn't matter. I'll get him eventually."

When he said it the words seemed to draw all the power from him. He slumped in his chair.

Most of Squall's story Luciasha was familiar with. She remembered that he wasn't an elysian - and in fact, as far as she remembered he was a wanted man in Skycloud. With the Sandbar under brutal military control, it was a dangerous time for him to be walking around.

"Old Thistle was a kind man. If he is somewhere in the afterlife looking down, he wouldn't want you to turn into something he didn't approve of on his behalf. You should turn back from this path, before it's too late."

Luciasha meant it, a truly held belief. She didn't want to see Squall lose himself to revenge.

He tightened his left fist, causing the glass he held to shatter into pieces. "Turn back? I will never turn back! You don't understand, there is no going back! Behind me there's nothing, a chasm so deep you'll never find the bottom. In front there's only a dark mist. Swallowed by the chasm or lost in the mist... these are my choices, one is my destiny. A person can't change their fate."

"I don't believe if. If you decide to turn away from this there isn't anything in this world that can stop you! I know it's hard, but maybe Cloudhawk or my foster father can help. Just... just don't talk like this, alright?" Luciasha didn't want to lose anyone. Emotion had crept into her voice and was causing it to quaver. "Please stop tormenting yourself."

Squall looked at this kind, simple girl. There was a warmth in his eyes when he gazed on her, and something more. When did it start? Probably the moment he saw her. She always felt deeply for this genuinely good soul. It was just a shame that his life was fated to be spent in darkness.

"Alright, stop crying now." Squall wiped the tears from her face. Shaking his head, he changed the subject as they both looked back at the sick child. "I have a dream, you know. When the dust is settled and everything's over, I'd like to open an orphanage. A place where children like them can come, victims of this awful world. I'll help them grow, become good people, just like Old Thistle tried to do."

Luciasha's eyes brightened. "Can I help?"

"Of course."

"Then it's settled! I'll wait for you."

Squall smiled, a real smile that was rare for him these days. He only ever let his guard down when he was around Luciasha, because she was the only one it wasn't necessary to protect himself against.

"I'm just passing through, things are complicated right now. I can't stay long." Squall polished off what was left of the wine bottle, then fished out a few coins from his pocket. He placed them on the bar. "Keep the change, call it a donation. I have no time for now, so I leave it to you to continue our cause."

Luciasha did not refuse. She thought it was a great idea.

The world was crazy and getting worse. The number of homeless children would only grow as the conflicts continued. This was an opportunity for her to use her own humble life to someone else's better.

Just like how Old Thistle took Squall in. Like how Coppertooth raised and protected her. Everything was a circle, and at last it seemed to her like she found what she was supposed to be doing.

Night fell outside of Adder's pub. Darkness. Silence.

A figure emerged from the shadows. He had a tangle of black hair, and wore a tattered grey cloak around his shoulders. His sharp eyes shone brighter than the stars in the sky. He'd been there for a while, and heard everything that Squall and Luciasha had said.

Squall looked at Cloudhawk.

Cloudhawk looked back at Squall.

They brushed past each other without a word of greeting.

"Asha's a good girl." Cloudhawk suddenly spoke up. "Cherish her."

Squall's gait never slowed. He threw his response over one shoulder. "I don't deserve her."

"The fuck are you muttering about? Stop whatever it is you're up to, it's that simple. I'll help you! You want to kill that piece of shit Augustus? Say the word, we'll slip into Skycloud tomorrow and cut his fuckin' throat."

"Don't be stupid. It isn't that simple, you can't help me by yourself."

"Enough is enough, Squall. You've screwed with me several times already. I can laugh that shit off, but you listen to me right now. If you do anything to hurt Asha, I swear to you I'll hunt you to the ends of the fuckin' earth, and I will kill you."

Squall's form had already disappeared into the darkness. He had no interest in trading words with Cloudhawk.

Anger roiled in Cloudhawk's heart. He wanted to beat that asshole into the dirt and force him to say what the fuck he was doing. But he hesitated. In the end he decided it wasn't worth it.

1. This is a real medical phenomena where people with serious illnesses have a fleeting period of normality just before they die. In Chinese medicine they say in this moment the depleted Yang energy finally separates from the Yin, and in the time when it rises to leave the body there is a moment when everything is clear. The body uses the very last vestiges of its energy and holds nothing back until it is exhausted, and death comes. It's both cruel and beautiful - awful for the false hope it gives loved ones, but a wonderful gift from the body to grant clarity and peace in one's final moments.