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Book 4, Chapter 9 - Canyon Access

 The remaining Hell's Army warships sank to low-altitude flight. Meanwhile, Natessa was busily issuing commands. "Everyone disembark."

Soldiers leaped off the sides of the ships to the ground below. A skeleton crew remained to lift the ships back into the air, and then fly them away.

She was quite the cunning vixen! Natessa knew there was no escaping Condor, but she wasn't afraid to abandon her own ships. The six-pylon behemoth was faster and more destructive than anything she had. The only way to fight it was an ambush - a straight fight was suicide.

She ordered her doomed ships to lead the enemy away on a wild goose chase, giving her and the others time to escape. By the time Condor discovered the truth, it would be too late for them to know the Giants had taken their leader.

Being in charge was not an easy job. Failures had to be swallowed and accepted. Who would choose to square off against people like the Giants of Hell's Army?

Under these circumstances there was only one thought that kept tumbling through Cloudhawk's head: Who was the absolute dipshit who rammed the transport ship into the enemy? Where they trying to kill him?!

Two Sanctum missionaries led Cloudhawk along, holding firm to his chains. Soldiers fell in line with Natessa, Dumont and Eckard taking the lead. He was surrounding by quiet and gruesome killers.

The wound in Cloudhawk's scalp had healed and the blood had stopped flowing. His hair was matted and tousled, dirt and grime was smeared on him from head to toe. Cloudhawk had to admit he was in a tight corner - a slab of meat on their chopping block. There wasn't any way for him to squeeze out of this problem for the time being.

"Man, you know... you guys really are something. This former student of yours has to admit to your superiority."

Maybe he could play to their pride.

Cloudhawk went on. "Maybe, Instructor Cutter, you could tell me how you healed up so fast."

Natessa spared him a brief glance.

Eckard snapped a finger and approached with a smile plastered on his ugly face. The wounds to his wrists and shoulders still weren't nearly healed, and you could still see deep into the flesh. Yet, incredibly, he was still moving. "You learned nothing from your time in Hell's Valley. Tendons pulling muscles is how lesser creatures move around. A martial artist is able to call the potential of every muscle cell, so it doesn't matter if you cut every tendon and smash every bone. As long as I used my power wisely, I could still twist your fat fuckin' head off that scrawny neck. You get me?"

So that was his trick. It was some sort of martial technique. This time, it was Cloudhawk who underestimated his enemy. He promised himself that if there was a next time, he'd just go ahead and chop this hideous fucker's arms and legs right off. See if he could still saunter around then!

Eckard suddenly punched Cloudhawk, forcing him to swallow the taunting words he'd prepared. He'd used his martial skills for this punch, too. Even though it hit his abdomen, he felt it tear through his whole body. He wasn't even knocked back, for every ounce of strength was contained in his wracked body.

Cloudhawk had only seen technique like this from the old drunk. This scarred shit had been holding back for three years! He hadn't taught them any of his real skills at all.

Eckard grabbed Cloudhawk by the front of his cloak and pulled his up. The scars of his face twisted into a hodgepodge of shapes as he grinned. "Where's all that bravado, punk? What happened?"

Natessa, standing a short distance away, called out to him. "Stop wasting time. Tell him to give it to us."

Cloudhawk was at a loss. "Huh?"

"Stop acting like a fuckin' idiot!" Eckard's anger flared. "Where's the map to Woodland Vale? Give it to me!"

His confusion didn't ease. Wasn't Hell's Army part of the Conclave of Judgment now? Hadn't the Crimson One sent them to stop him from getting there? He figured that meant the Conclave already had people after Woodland Vale, but these three didn't know where it was.

Ah... unless the Crimson One didn't fully trust them.

Woodland Vale was home to almost limitless energy, and whoever controlled it potentially controlled the wastelands. It was a crucial resource, for both the Elysians and the wastelanders.

Because it was so important, the Crimson One would only send his most trusted people to secure it. It was telling that Hell's Army would be dispatched to stop anyone from getting close instead of taking part in the assault.

Cloudhawk looked between his former instructors. "Why do you want to go to Woodland Vale?"

Eckard was growing impatient. "What the fuck does that have to do with you? You're trying my goddamn patience, and you know as well as anyone what happens when I lose my patience."

Having not hidden the map in his secret stash, Cloudhawk had no choice but to give it to them.

Natessa took it, and glanced at the information therein. "Is this the real one?"

"Look, sister, I'd give you guys a fake one but - well, now that I'm helpless in your clutches, I don't have any recourse." Cloudhawk put on a show of being helpless and compliant. "Anyway, I'm not all-knowing. How am I supposed to know if the information is real or not?"

She folded the sheepskin parchment and tucked it away. "Bring him."

Eckard pulled Cloudhawk back into his feet and punching him to his knees. "Lemme be honest with you, kid. One false move and I'll start by chopping off your little pecker."

Hell's Army had murdered two Elysian generals and gravely wounded the former Warden of the Talons of God. There was no way General Skye was going to let them live for any longer than he had to. With such a dramatic betrayal, there was no going back for the Giants of Hell's Army. It was the reason they were so eager to be part of a wasteland alliance.

Sooner or later, Hell's Army would come face to face with Skye Polaris' ire, and they clearly weren't interested in being someone else's pawn. It would be a tragedy if they were no longer deemed useful and important to their new masters.

They could depend on others for a time, but not forever. If they could take Woodland Vale for themselves, then they wouldn't have to.

Hell's Army's greatest weakness was that they didn't have a base of their own. At present, all they could do was affix themselves to someone's side like a parasite. Taking Woodland Vale would give them exactly what they needed, a foothold. It didn't matter if the Crimson One was angry with them then. He would have to accept it.

Ambitious. 'A man whose heart is not content is like a snake trying to swallow an elephant.'

Hell's Army was strong, but they had to resort to bullying Cloudhawk like everyone else. Stealing Woodland Vale from the Crimson One and Skye Polaris... it was a bold move, akin to stealing food from the tiger's mouth. Still, the spoils were vast if they succeeded. They would have positioned themselves as a key member in the future of whatever new world was emerging.

Cloudhawk was dragged by the arms behind the Giants as they marched on.

About a day passed before the army reached the entrance to a canyon. Cloudhawk looked about at the tall cliffs that rose on either side. They were steep and rocky, and scraped the clouds above. The sky was just a faint sliver of azure, meaning the canyon probably only got a few hours of sunlight a day. It was cold and uninviting here, without any signs of life.

Eckard glowered dubiously at the narrow expanse. "I heard Woodland Vale was supposed to be some kind of miracle settlement. Greener than anywhere else in the wastelands, the stories go. This sure as shit doesn't look like a desert oasis to me."

Cloudhawk spat back. "This is where the map told me to go."

The scarred man snorted. "You better pray it is, because if you're lying to us you won't like what happens."

Cloudhawk cursed quietly to himself. Getting dragged around wasn't a plan - he needed to find a way to get free. But how was he supposed to do that under the eyes of the three Giants? They weren't the sort to make stupid mistakes Cloudhawk could exploit. Not to mention, his powers were locked away.

The canyon stretched into the distance, deep and cold. Darkness suddenly pressed in from all around. The soldiers scowled as the distinct aura of danger hung over them like a wet blanket as they approached the sight of a battle.

Natessa wordlessly lifted a hand to the others. Eckard put a blade to Cloudhawk's neck. "What's going on? Why are there people fighting here?"

Cloudhawk's expression was a gloomy one. "Why are you asking me?"

The scarred man glared at him with hard, bloodshot eyes while soldiers carefully searched their surroundings.

The deepest part of the canyon was also where it ended. It was blocked off by a massive, ancient stone doorway. It was impossible to tell how old it was except that it was prehistoric. Long years had eroded its surface, but if one looked closely they could still see an ancient script scrawled on it.

Hell's Army carefully groped further, coming to the edges of the conflict. Through the darkness they could see combatants, none of whom wore Elysian equipment.

"Squall and his posse!"

Cloudhawk recognized them right away, one of the groups fighting for Woodland Vale were the Highwaymen. Squall and the Dark Atom knew about Autumn's people before anyone, and he was a man of determination and nothing else. Cloudhawk wasn't surprised he'd found a way to track Woodland Vale's location, but he couldn't fathom how. Squall continued to be full of surprises.

From the looks of things Squall had brought every man he had.

Ravenous Tiger, Three-Eyed Spider, Blackfiend, Raven... everyone. He pulled out all the stops.

Other than the Dark Atom, locked in their fortress beneath the Blisterpeaks, only the Conclave of Judgment was strong enough to face the Highwaymen. It was likely the Crimson One was the second group, which was confirmed when Cloudhawk spied the Conclave's second in command - Wyrmsole.

He'd seen what the bare-foot priest could do back in the Blisterpeaks. He'd gone blow for blow with Frost de Winter and never used his full strength. Clearly the former right hand of the Knight-Commander was more than just a figurehead.

He was trouble enough to deal with, and he wasn't alone. Two others joined him among the Conclave forces, one with a green rove and another in black. Cloudhawk had seen both before in the negotiations with the Dark Brotherhood. Kings of the Barrens they called themselves - wastelanders, but strong ones.

Eckard looked over the scene and muttered. "Wyrmsole, Toad, and Canker. Tough bastards, the lot of 'em. They got Squall on the other side, and he'd a pain in the ass as well."

Natessa's delicate brows furrowed. She thought for a moment, and eventually gave her opinion. "They haven't discovered us yet. We should wait and watch, don't rush in until it's time."

The Highwaymen and the Conclave. Both had their own heroes, but were locked in fierce combat. Hell's Army was adept at incursions and represented an experienced unit. It wasn't hard to stay out of sight.

Cloudhawk, meanwhile, scowled at the scene. Shit was just getting worse and worse.

He was so sure that after taking command of the Talons of God, he could sweep through to Woodland Vale and save the day. No one could get in the way of him, his people, and Drake's corps. Looking at it now, the situation was a lot more complicated than he'd thought.

Woodland Vale was ground zero for a deadly conflict.

For the time being, it looked like the Dark Atom hadn't staked a claim, but they sure as hell had their eyes on it. The people Cloudhawk had mustered wouldn't be enough to win the day, not to mention the fact that he'd been fuckin' captured. How was he supposed to steal and save his friends, much less fight off three attackers?

Cloudhawk was getting antsy and fretful when suddenly he felt his body shake. He narrowed his eyes, sensing something, and peered toward its source. A smile curled the edges of his lips. He'd waited so long... was it finally time?


The shackles holding him fast broke apart!

Three of the nearest Hell's Army soldiers gaped in shock. Cloudhawk had been held fast between them. There was no way he would have had some way of getting free from the chains on his own! They turned around and saw the two Sanctum missions lying dead on the ground.

A black figure stood beside Cloudhawk.

He was a shadow; from his black hair and eyes, to his black clothes, mask and gloves. He was a shadow given form, with only the dull glint of light coming from the short blade in his hands. An ominous purple haze hung over the dagger like a ghastly flame. Somehow he had crept silently into the heart of their army, killed two demonhunters, and freed the Warden of the Talons.

"Deathstalker!" Natessa knew that weapon the instant she saw it. "It's Atlas Umbra!"

A dark chuckle rumbled through Cloudhawk's throat. "'Bout time, bro!"

Atlas' answer was curt and cold. "Go!"

Both men vanished from view in an instant. Eckard screamed and glared into the darkness. "Where'd they go?"

Before they could give chase, the entire canyon shook violently. The ground pitched and threw up deadly spikes of stone like a petrified forest. The Hell's Army veterans were too busy trying not to get impaled to chase after their prey.


This time even Natessa's stoic exterior cracked. She knew what it meant if that relic were here.

A holy white light arose, splitting darkness, rending shadows, cleaving stone, eventually becoming a stunning rainbow that rained down upon them. It was quickly followed by a cold gash of silver power which froze everything in its wake as it raced their way.

Who was this? How many deadly fighters were suddenly arrayed against them? How did they get here?!

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