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Book 3, Epilogue - Going Home

 The next day, an airship was on its way from Skycloud city. It was the latest restructuring of the army, by order of General Skye.

After the wall had fallen, Skycloud's border army was rolled into its expeditionary force. The realm's defensive forces thus became an arm of its offense.

Upon integrating with the personal resources of the Polaris family, General Skye took personal command of the expeditionary army. It was a gamble. The commander was in essence putting all his eggs in one basket and going to war with the whole wasteland.

The new army was massive. Drake Thane, former lieutenant commander of the border army, and the former leader of its vanguard were each given a corps of their own. On paper it looked like a demotion, but in reality they were given independent command which came with more responsibility and power.

And who made out best? Hammont, of course.

The former Sandbar Magistrate, a grassroots officer hardly given any respect, had caught General Skye's attention after a series of impressive acts. He was risen up by the general and given a post as logistics commander of Drake's corps. His new duties were to offer rear support for their expeditionary force.

This was a promotion of four or five ranks! From a junior officer to a commander!

Although his purview was behind the front lines, it was nonetheless a position of authority. He saw it was a blessing from on high, and suddenly it was all almost too much to take in.

He'd done it. He'd accomplished the dream that had been driving him since he was a child. The joy and enthusiasm poured from him, and the first thing he wanted to do was go back to his small home town and let everyone know the happy news.

He thought about his mother, an honest village woman. After his father died at a young age, she supported their family through her skill as a tailor and raised Hammont on her own. She'd labored night and day to make sure he could enter training as a soldier. To make sure he grew strong, she took only the scraps and made sure all of the best they could afford went to her son. He remembered her fainting more than once because she hadn't eaten enough.

Now he wanted to make sure she could hold her head up high. Her son had brought their family honor. He was an army commander! The first from his village in hundreds of years!

Hammont couldn't hold back a few hot, excited tears from rolling down his fat cheeks. He made sure to drag Cloudhawk along since he was the root of all his recent good fortune. It was no exaggeration to say that Cloudhawk was his great benefactor, the one man who'd changed a small soldier's life.

He wanted his mother and fellow villagers to recognize the greatness of this man.

Cloudhawk hesitated, naturally - it wasn't his sort of thing. But when the orders came down from General Skye himself to escort Hammont back home he had no choice but to comply.

Dawn was at a loss of what to do once she lost her title as Templar, so she chose to kick around with Cloudhawk. Anyway, it wasn't too far. It would make for a good distraction.

Hammont chattered without end about his life growing up. He especially liked to describe how difficult things had been for his poor mother. It was a novel tale for Dawn, who had grown up with all her needs met. Cloudhawk, on the other hand, wasn't affected by the fat man's piteous words, so he instead walked the deck of the airship and appreciated the view.

It was the first time he'd seen the Elysian lands from above after the wall fell. For the first time he really grasped the scale of catastrophe that Skycloud had suffered.

From above he could see that many of the beautiful and delicate buildings of the city had been damaged. Many sectors of the city were scarred from the tragedies that had struck one after the other. If he didn't know any better, he would say it looked like the aftermath of a war.

Where once the docks had been a flurry of activity, now there was almost nothing. Only military vessels floated through the air these days. Most civilian vessels were destroyed. Since the loss of much of the realm's limitless energy, both the business and transportation sectors had ground to a stop.

The miraculous waterfall that used to pour from the heavens over the city was gone. Nothing remained to show it had ever existed. The plethora of miracles that had once drawn the eye were gone. Spectacular mountain ranges had started to yellow. Emerald lakes were drying out. Everything was affected, as far as the eye could see. And the ones who suffered most were the common Elysian people.

Along their path the airship flew over several townships, many of them destroyed. Their citizens had become destitute, homeless. Without the wall's protection, these more distant settlements had started to suffer attacks by roving bands of wastelanders. Beautiful, quiet towns were ransacked and their populaces murdered.

Places that had known safety and quiet for generations had succumbed to chaos overnight. Cloudhawk was struck with just how fragile a life of peace and prosperity really was. He thought about it while mulling over the General's words.

As war broke out, the heaps of corpses and rivers of blood would only grow. Sooner or later the whole world would be a mausoleum.

He couldn't change the world, he didn't have that sort of power or authority. But what if he was like General Skye? What if he was a man like Arcturus Cloude? What could he do then?

But in gaining something, you lose something else. How do you decide the right path?

The warship eventually reached its destination, a nondescript little village in the middle of nowhere.

Hammont, his face ruddy and glowing with pride, shouted commands at his men. "Quickly, now! Unload the goods. Everything goes to my mother and the other villagers. I'm a man of means now, I can't have my people think I've become stingy."

Dawn couldn't help but scowl inwardly. The fatty sure cared a lot about face. He had given away years of whatever he could scratch together, even requesting a year's advance of his military salary so he could play the bigshot in his home town.

Cloudhawk cast her a sidelong glance, as if to say, It wasn't easy for this fatty. Don't give him a hard time.

The place looked like a sandstorm had recently passed through. Grit and gravel coated everything from the crops to the rooftops. Several of the humble lodgings looked like they were ready to collapse. Villagers were busily cleaning and repairing what they could when they saw the warship approach. Hammont and his soldiers were met with wide grins as they approached.

One of them, an old man, hobbled over with the support of two men holding him up on either side. He didn't recognize Hammont immediately, but he recognized the officer's insignia on his armor and the sword at his hip. He carefully fell to the ground, prostrating himself respectfully. "This humble man is overjoyed to greet our illustrious officer."

This earned a chuckle from Hammont. "What is all this, elder? You don't remember me? Hammy? You used to chase me around with a cane when I stole fruit from your fields."

The old man looked up, staring at the pudgy face half-hidden behind a helmet. An expression of disbelief slowly dawned on his wrinkled face. "Hammy? You are Hammont? Y-you... you're a commander now!"

Other villagers heard and gathered round. They gasped and muttered when they saw who it was. He used to be a famous troublemaker back in the day. Many doubted he would amount to anything.

Hammont stood tall with his head held high and his shoulders thrust back. Slapping his newly polished armor he spoke in a loud and dignified voice. "I said it when I left the village; I would not return until I was a commander of my own forces. I've kept my promise. Where's Mother? I've prepared many things for her, quality goods all the way from Skycloud city. She's going to be so surprised. Finally, some comfort after a long life of hard work."

Immediately, the atmosphere shift. Cloudhawk felt it. The elder and other villagers looked odd as he made his loud demand and none immediately answered.

Hammont sensed the change as well. He asked again. "Why aren't you saying anything? Where is my mother!"

The old man let out a long, drawn-out sigh. "You've come too late, I'm afraid."

The fat man's face fell. "What?"

"A few days ago when the wall fell, a storm came through. There was a boulder that struck her home. By the time we got to your mother, her condition was already very bad. She was calling out your name when she died... Oh, Hammont. If you'd come only a few days ago... She would have been so proud to see you now."

Dead? She couldn't be. There was no way he'd believe she was dead, just because this man said she was!

Cloudhawk and Dawn shared a quiet look. Hammont's glorious return hadn't turned out quite like he'd hoped.

"No! That's impossible! I won't believe it!" How could he? He threw his shiny officer's helmet into the dirt and glared with red, moist eyes. "Don't lie to me! Where is my mother! Take me to here right now!"

They did, and he learned that what they had said was true. She was dead, buried behind a nearby church.

Hammont stared at the cold tombstone like it was him buried there. Falling to his knees, he said nothing. There the fat man stayed for a full day.

Fate took such great joy in the cruel treatment of man.

Hammont's mother had worked hard all her life to provide for her son. All of her hopes and dreams for herself had been set aside so he could achieve his own. So that one day, he could stand out among the crowd.

And he did it. Hammont had become the pride of their village, their most accomplished representative. He'd come home to give his mother the noble life she'd always deserved.

But she wouldn't ever know about his great achievement, or live as he wanted her to. She would lay quietly in her tomb forevermore. Hammont hadn't even been given a chance to say goodbye.

Cloudhawk wasn't sure what to say. The sudden disaster and crushing regret... there were no words to change them.

"Mom... you always liked to pray here. Now you're a part of it. You can listen to the beautiful hymns all day long." Hammont rose to his feet, reaching out to gently stroke the headstone. "You always loved flowers, so I brought seeds from Skycloud. God's Glory. I'll have them planted all around the cemetery so they'll be with you when I'm away. So you don't feel lonely."

Cloudhawk stepped forward and patted Hammont's shoulder. He wanted to share some words of comfort but didn't know what to say. Cloudhawk had never had a mother or father, and he'd seen so much death over the years. So instead he stood by his side, offering comfort by proximity.

"Master Cloudhawk... I'm fine. Don't trouble yourself about me." Hammont squeezed out a smile. "My mother was a woman of faith. Her soul is definitely with the gods on Mount Sumeru. It's just... all her life, her hope for me was to succeed. Now that I have, I'm standing right in front of her and she can't see it. I don't understand why the gods chose to take her. Why couldn't they have waited two days? I'm sure she would have been happy to go after she saw what her hard work had done."

"Yeah... I know what you mean."

"A commander isn't good enough anymore. I have to be a general! I'll become the greatest soldier in Skycloud's history, and they'll cry my name so loud Mother will hear it from the peak of the heavenly mountain!"

Hammont snatched his helmet from the ground. His beady eyes burned with determination.

"Yes! That's what I'll do! Mother, just wait. I'll make you proud!"

Dawn watched him burn with renewed fervor, and after a moment of surprise couldn't help but share her thoughts with Cloudhawk who had left the fat man to himself. "General? Him? Come on, don't be ridiculous! Did he lose his mind when his mother died?"

"There's no such thing as impossible. Anything is possible in this world. How can he know if he never tries?" Cloudhawk looked back at the ordinary but resolute man still standing over the grave. "Help me send a message to the General."

"What, you aren't going back? What do you want to say?"

"Tell him I thought about what he said, and I accept."

Cloudhawk looked up toward the clouds wafting toward the horizon and his eyes turned resolute. Dawn watched his profile and couldn't help the smile from tugging at her lips. There was a rare tenderness in her face.

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