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Book 4, Chapter 60 - Cutting Off the Head

 The Dark Atom's fleet switched focus. Skye Polaris used this breathing room to repel Abaddon's attacks and retreat to his men. Grand Prior Phain returned to the ships as well, breaking off the fight with Wolfblade. Both armies withdrew and eyed each other warily.

Dark Atom agents suspected the Elysians would have some kind of backup plan, but doubted they would be so thorough as to expect their sneak attack. From what they could gather the whole Elysian armada was here, caught between them and the Conclave forces.

How could Skye have known what would come?

Whatever the case, their carefully planned rear assault on the Elysians had been cut short by unexpected treachery. It gave Skycloud;s soldiers the time they needed to restructure formation and adopt a more defensible position.

Skye could breathe a little easier. It was then a familiar voice caught his ear.

Cloudhawk, Dawn and several others were racing his way.

"What the hell are you doing here?!"

"Grandfather, you should be thanking us. If Cloudhawk didn't sneak us into the enemy side, our forces would be a much tougher position." Dawn called to him, still exhilarated from their success. "Remember to write us a commendation when this is over!"

Skye was pretty damn sure he ordered his granddaughter to keep Cloudhawk back at base - the exact opposite of what she was doing now. Hell, she let him drag her out to the middle of a war zone!

Selene was just as surprise to see Cloudhawk suddenly appear among them. It seemed as though any time something big was happening, this guy was part of it. And a good thing, too. Showing up gave the expeditionary forces a moment of respite to re-calibrate the situation.

Cloudhawk briefly explained what happened that brought them here.

After days of searching on their way here, neither hair nor hide of Drake and his people had been found. Instead, the clues they followed led them to Skye and the main Elysian force. While he knew it was in violation of direct orders, he pointed out the obvious - that he'd saved their asses. So in the end it was the right decision.

But this guy was just so damn impertinent! Didn't he understand how dangerous this place was?

Were he a normal demonhunter, Cloudhawk would have died half a dozen times before they reached the front. Skye Polaris had decided that he was to be his son-in-law, and now here he was caught between a flying fortress, a demon, a god, and a two gods-damned armies. All of his plans for the future would go up in smoke if things went poorly.

If he paid so little heed to Skye's orders now, how could he be expected to lead the whole family? And Dawn, always following his lead. What happened to the stubborn girl from the old days? What happened to the traditional fury he'd bred into the Polaris family?

Skye sputtered through his beard, ready to share a few barbed sentences with his future son-in-law. But then his eyes swept over the others he'd brought with him.

A girl with a short hair, she looked like a demonhunter. Skye could tell at a glance that she had the physicality of a martial artist, though. A shame that she'd chosen the road she did.

His eyes lingered on her for only a moment. When they fell on the old drunk, however, they narrowed and he took a closer look. A man like him had surpassed the limits of normal human capabilities, and part of that was the ability to tell someone's strength at a glance.

There was definitely more to this lame vagrant than what was on the surface.

His eyes traveled down to the cane clutched in his dirty hands. "Dawnguard? You're..."

The drunk made no effort to conceal his identity. "It's been a long time, elder."

Skye had guessed his identity, and it struck with with a deep sense of astonishment. No one in Skycloud had heard from him in over six years. He'd been almost forgotten, only to show up in the thick of battle. "It is you!"

It was disappointing to the drunk to meet Skye in this way. One of his sorest regrets in life was that he'd never been good enough to spar with the War God. Skye was a respected hero of the former generation, a mountain of a man. Vulkan's greatest ambition had always been to conquer that mountain, but fate had deigned he would never succeed.

Phain was stunned. The expression on the middle-aged man's face was conflicted. However, the other Templars with him were elated when they discovered who the old drunk was.

The War Sage held tremendous sway in the Temple, commanding even more respect than the two Oracles. He was only second to the High Priest himself, and to the Templars he was a living legend.

Most of the training regimens used in the Temple were either designed or improved by him. If you said the War God's achievements opened a door to new heights for humanity, then the War Sage cut down the brambles that barred the way.

Both men had left bold marks on the annals of human history. But one was old, and the other a recluse. Time was cruel, and heroes were fleeting - a true shame.

The old drunk was Phain's senior, and former commander. Logic would lead one to believe he would share the other Templar's excitement at seeing him again. But that was not the case, or at least not entirely. A keen eye might see the veiled resentment in his eyes.

Perhaps the drunk did, because he spoke next to the new Grand Prior. "You display good progress. In another three to five years the position of Grand Prior will have an honorable bearer. I can stop worrying then."

Phain said nothing. He didn't need to, Vulkan saw it for himself.

In truth Phain had not led a charmed life either. The person Vulkan had failed the most was the same person Phain cherished most deeply. Inevitably there was some estrangement between the two men, a chasm that was likely insurmountable.

"I can't explain what happened with Jade, but I can see you still hold on to it - even to your detriment." The drunk spread his arms, exposing his chest. "I know you hate me. If you wish to solve it with a sword to my chest, then get it over with. I won't raise a hand to stop you."

Everyone else watched the exchange in surprised silence. The former Grand Prior and his successor stood eye to eye in a tense stand-off. What could have happened between them?

Phain's hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. "Who is her murderer?" He managed to ask through clenched teeth.

The vagrant did not reply. His answer would only hurt more people. Better to have it end with one death.

"Hey, are you two assholes done? We're kind of in the middle of a fuckin' war, so maybe air your shit out later." Cloudhawk didn't understand what their problem was, but he didn't care. He left it at that and turned to General Skye. "Gramps, I think I've got a grip on what's happening here. The sneak attack was orchestrated by the Dark Atom, who are in league with Woodland Vale. They've coordinated with the wasteland alliance with the intent of smashing Skycloud's army here."

The only thing Skye was surprised to learn was that Woodland Vale had decided to join the fight. Hadn't Cloudhawk's efforts stopped the Vale from falling into wastelander hands? What reason did they have for getting involved in this fight?

"Right now we're caught on both flanks. It's just as deadly to push forward as it is to retreat. This fight is destined for a deadlock and everyone's going to suffer badly, no matter who wins." Cloudhawk was the sort who hated trouble, but his experience over the last few years had taught him that sometimes trouble was unavoidable. Sometimes the only thing you could do was try to avoid more problems. With that in mind he went on. "Far as I see it, caught in this trap we have one option; deal with the Crimson One, and destroy that floating city. Then the wasteland alliance will collapse under its own weight."

Skye understood the tactical thinking. "You plan to head in and kill the Crimson One."

Dawn was immediately keen on the idea and voiced her support without a second thought.

But Skye was less enthusiastic. "Just this group? Unacceptable!"

It was then that Selene's cold but determined voice interjected. "I will go with them."

Dawn's hostile gaze turned on her. "Hey, crazy, who's asking for your input? Cloudhawk, the drunk and I are more than enough to deal with that has-been. You'd just get in the way!"

Selene's brows slowly drew together in a scowl. She didn't say anything, but the loathing in her eyes was unmistakable. It was a look that said 'I could cut five of you to ribbons.' If it weren't for their time-sensitive circumstance, she would have happily taught this arrogant bitch a lesson.

Even with her offer, General Skye was still intractable. "I fought the Crimson One not very long ago. I know what he can do, and you lot will just be throwing your lives away."

The drunk was once a legendary warrior, but now he simply didn't have what was needed to best Sterling. After all, the Crimson One was no typical foe. He was a Master Demonhunter, and the organization he led commanded many formidable enemies. Wyrmsole and the Giants of Hell's Army were deadly on their own merit, and who could say what other dangerous wastelanders were lurking in their midst? Further, they were proposing to take the fight onto the enemy's home turf. Any way you looked at it the plan was a bad one.

"Fallowmoor is locked up tight and the Crimson One presides over many deadly allies. The General is right, even with Selene you cannot succeed." The dark assurances were delivered by a cold and dispassionate voice. They were joined by a heroic figure in resplendent white armor. "Clay and I shall accompany them."

Frost de Winter was a mighty ally in and of himself. As for 'Clay'? It was a name Cloudhawk recognized. He'd met him once, years ago.

It was shortly after entering Skycloud city for the first time. His... trouble with the Governor led to a banquet where the two tried to air out their grievances. Clay Cloude had been the man who greeted them, then known as the steward of the Governor's mansion.

Cloudhawk had picked up on the fact that the smiley butler was more than just a house man. Later, while gathering data as part of his training in Hell's Valley, he had learned more about the Cloude family. In that data he discovered that Clay was quite strong - actually much stronger than Arcturus' personal manservant Augustus.

His help would likely make their mission go much smoother. But the prospect made the situation even less palatable for Dawn. What a pain! Now there were two people she hated on their team.

Cloudhawk, Dawn, Selene, Frost, an old drunk, and the Cloude family butler. If it was just the Crimson One they faced this team would be passable, even if he was a Master Demonhunter.

But it wasn't that simple. The Crimson One wasn't stupid enough to fight them alone. The mission they proposed was still very dangerous.

Neither Skye nor Phain could afford to join them, and anyone else who could aid the effort was needed on the front lines. But despite his misgivings, Skye knew that the expeditionary force had no choice. IF they wanted to emerge victorious, they had to take the risk. The leader of the wasteland alliance had to die.

General Skye hesitated for a moment, and then agreed with a sigh of resignation. "Fallowmoor is a dangerous place. Be careful. Mr. Ink, go with them."

Little was known about Skye's right-hand man, except that he was stronger than most suspected.

Mr. Ink's job was clearly to watch over Cloudhawk and Dawn. At least those two had to make it out alive.

Skye's loyal servant nodded and went with them without a word.

So it was that Cloudhawk came to lead a strong selection of fighters, bound for the belly of the proverbial beast. Their assassination squad was comprised of him, Dawn, Selene, Frost, Vulkan, Barb, Clay, and Mr. Ink.

The strangely turbulent area around Fallowmoor did not trouble Cloudhawk, not with his abilities. He used his dimensional powers through the phase stone to pinpoint where the dangerous rifts resided. It allowed him to lead their team safely toward their objective and infiltrate it. Shortly after, the armies had regrouped and renewed their bloody war.

1. The oracles, I believe, being the two who had flanked High Priest Ramiel when we first met him.

2. I had no idea who this was. I recognized the name, but because I would have had to comb through several hundred chapters to figure it out. No throwaway characters! It's like Tipsy has a hard cap on the number of characters allowed in his novels so he has to recycle. In fairness, read the TL note - he did give us a hint.

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