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Book 4, Chapter 62 - The Mission Begins

 Every wasteland city was unique in some way.

Fishmonger's Borough floated freely in a sea of moving sand. It was never in the same place and was hidden in a choking sandstorm. It was remote, veiled in deadly weather, and rife with ferocious creatures. It took a special sort to make the journey, and even then the only way was with special sand sharks.

Nucleus was buried deep beneath an active volcanic mountain range. Above it lava flows dominated the landscape. The Blisterpeaks were deadly enough as they were, so even just finding the city's hidden entrance was practically impossible.

Woodland Vale was nestled in a lush valley hand crafted by a god. It existed in its own plane, wholly separated from the rest of the world. So perfect was its defenses that the Vale remained a closely guarded secret for over a thousand years.

Like the others, Fallowmoor was a wasteland city. Like the others, it was completely unique.

The city's power source was the perpetual tempest swirling outside its wall, providing enough energy to sustain a population of over two hundred thousand people. Gravity inside Fallowmoor was only one sixth of what it was outside, making everything strangely buoyant.

It was a holdover from the ancient times, created by people from a bygone era. Therefore the interior was extremely complex. While the metal had rusted over the years, it didn't have the desolate look of most ruins. Moss and vines had crept across the once sterile hallways as nature asserted its dominance. If someone from the ancient times were to see it now, their glorious structure would be all but unrecognizable. Now it was a strange amalgamation of steel and metal, given new purpose.

Fallowmoor was like stepping into an entirely different world. All the fire and fury just outside the walls disappeared once inside. You couldn't even hear the explosions, though they were only a few dozen meters away.

Dawn tore off the mask she'd been wearing to protect her from the dust and took a deep breath. The air that filled her lungs was clean, moist and invigorating. Everywhere she looked were strange and wonderful plants, and the path beneath her boots was coated in soft moss.

In contrast metal columns lined the path forward. It was impossible to see what they looked like before, since now they were mostly coated with creeping vines and other strange foliage. Snakes, ants, lizards and other small critters skittered by as they suddenly appeared. Towering trees reached overhead, thick brush dotted the landscape, and butterflies danced on a nigh imperceptible breeze. It was a mystical, ancient, vibrant place.

Selene leaped into the air and alighted on a pillar ten meters above them. With her higher vantage she spotted a place of abnormally high density. There were countless buildings with expansive farmland interspersed among them at random intervals. Messy, at least at first glance, but it seemed to work. Spread out across her field of view were many multicolored balloons suspended in air.

The balloons, far from being decoration, were actually used for transportation. Some dripped with tiny cabin-like structures and twinkled from electric lights as though people were living on them. Considering how low gravity was here, living in a balloon wasn't at all strange.

Selene cast her eyes into the distance, over tens of thousands of lights busily dancing across the horizon. It was exotic and exciting, but at the same time there was something depressing underneath the apparently flourishing settlement.

If there was no war, this would just be another bustling city.

It was a city with hundreds of years of history, and the largest settlement for a thousand kilometers. No one knew much about the reclusive city, or how rich its denizens were, or how many powerful people walked its floral lanes.

Cloudhawk jumped up after her to have a look for himself.

"I didn't know this place would be so beautiful. None of these people have ever been outside, this is their world. Now the expeditionary force is closing in. If I were these folk, this wouldn't be any different than the end of the world."

His words wormed into Selene's stoic heart and caused it to ache. Cloudhawk just felt guilty.

This war, all the fighting and death - it was for the benefit of those in power. A means to an end for the most ambitious. None of these sacrifices meant anything to them, because they didn't have to sacrifice. Most often it was these ordinary folk who suffered when those in power played their games.

He stood there, peering over the beautiful landscape with a conflicted heart. Once, years ago, he was just like them. A weakling, a nobody. He felt like they were kin.

Now, of course, it didn't matter how strong Cloudhawk was. He couldn't change anything. Like everyone else he was caught in Fate's current. No one knew when the rip tide would drag them under. No one could stop it, much less save someone else from destiny's cruel indifference.

Cloudhawk didn't see the purpose behind these countless human sacrifices. It wasn't worth it. Whoever won, whoever lost, all of it was built on a pile of corpses.

The others couldn't understand what Cloudhawk was feeling. No one except maybe Selene.

She'd figured him out some time ago. On the surface he liked to wear the mask of a bastard ruffian, but in his heart he was good and kind. It was one of the reasons she liked him so much. It didn't matter how the world tried to snuff out his ideals, that fire remained lit within him.

"You can sit here and complain about the state of things, or you can turn that energy against the Crimson One." Selene's voice was as aloof as ever. "If we're successful, I know the General will reward you well. It's the only way." She looked at him and saw the odd way he was regarding her. "Am I wrong?" She asked.

"No..." Cloudhawk shrugged. "Back in the day, the Bloodsoaked Queen only cared about the mission. She never cared whether wastelanders lived or died. I like Selene better."

Her face darkened. "Watch your words, or you'll have my sword to answer to."

Selene was sour over Cloudhawk's observation, but there was someone with an even darker expression. Dawn looked up at the two sharing their moment, and like a woman catching an adulterer the rage was slowly building up inside. The sound of her teeth grinding was audible to everyone.

She always knew the relationship between those two was more than a casual friendship. This was just further proof.

She gave vent to her frustration by kicking a nearby pillar, leaving it with a nasty dent. She called out, her face full of displeasure. "What the hell are you two yapping about?!"

Cloudhawk was startled by the sudden, angry voice. He didn't know what he'd done this time to piss off the angry tiger stalking the ground beneath them.

Of course the old man did. He shook his head and uncorked a bottle. The kid was still young, and sometimes he could be as dumb as a bag of rocks. Didn't he have any common sense? Did he not understand how he was committing an age-old taboo?

Of course emotions were tricky things. Always were. It was one of those things where the closer you were too it, the harder it was to see clearly. Wasn't the old drunk just the same, in his youth?

Naturally, Cloudhawk's situation was a little more complicated. Both Selene and Dawn were incredible women. Proud, strong. They had tremendous levels of talent and both came from good families. There were no two more perfect ladies in all of Skycloud.

Then again, their personalities couldn't be farther from one another. One was lofty as a frigid mountain peak, and the other was explosive as a volcano. One was reserved and calm, while the other was hotheaded and direct. However it was clear to anyone with eyes that both women had feelings for Cloudhawk. And neither knew what the guy thought, or what he would ultimately choose.

It could also be described as unlikely. As an old saying went, 'a mountain cannot have two tigers.' Women were a hell of a lot more dangerous than wild tigers. As proud as they were, they were equally less capable of dealing with disappointment. For all intents and purposes, it was impossible to tell where their emotions would lead - love or enmity stemmed from the same root. Just thinking about it was giving the old drunk a headache. He didn't envy Cloudhawk's situation.

Mr. Ink paid them no mind, nor offered input. He simply kept an eye on their surroundings.

Frost de Winter and Clay were absorbed with something else. Barb wandered over to where they were staring out of curiosity, and noticed some sort of disk in Clay's hand. It looked like some sort of compass to her, only more complicated. The needle in the center kept spinning.

"Lord Frost, what is that?" She asked with interest.

Frost ignored her completely, a fact which made Barb feel awkward and confused. As far as she knew, she didn't have any problems with the commander of the Resplendent Knights. On the contrary, his name was highly respected in the world of demonhunters.

The young, handsome, talented commander could be said to be unapproachable. That was part of his charm, and why so many women fell over one another for his attention. Word was that every time Frost was dispatched from the governor's mansion, a line of a thousand women gathered to see him off.

Of course he was famously self-disciplined. He never drank, never cavorted with women, and in fact no one had ever seen him have any fun. The man was single minded, and aside from his germaphobia, was the perfect man. His master was also a man every demonhunter looked up to as an idol.

For these reasons Barb was curious about Frost, so figured she would take the initiative o start a conversation. She'd heard that Frost and Cloudhawk had less than a friendly relationship, though she didn't know why. Both men were excellent, as far as she was concerned. Shouldn't such talented representatives of their generation work together? Dawn and Selene were all wrong too, now that she thought about it!

She was confused, to say the least. All of these great compatriots that she adored were the pride and joy of Skycloud. But they couldn't seem to work in harmony!

Clay raised his head. The somewhat pudgy middle-aged man with a likeable face smiled at her. "This is a relic compass. It's a relic itself, so it's capable of detected any relics in its area of effect. We can use it to tell how many demonhunters there might be. The Crimson One will definitely have many by his side, so presumably we can use the compass and follow the signal right to him."

Barb vocally expressed her wonder. Frost scowled at the noise.

"We have the general direction." Clay put the relic away. "There's a group of demonhunters to the north. We should go take a look."

Cloudhawk was skeptical of the compass' precision. After all, he himself was a living compass, but his powers were limited by distance. For the time being he had to bow to the consensus of the crowd.

"If we start walking through the city like this, we'd just be just asking for trouble." Mr. Ink finally broke his silence. As he spoke, he produced a small orb from his clothing and held it up toward the others. Flash! Their clothes began to change, to be more in line with typical wastelander attire. "This Eye of Disguise isn't a fancy relic, but it's useful in situations such as these."

Each passing second saw Cloudhawk growing more curious about these two men he'd met but never really interacted with.

Mr. Ink and Clay were representatives of the Polaris and Cloude families respectively. They were also powerful and trusted subordinates.

While Clay looked like the fat owner of the tea house next door, it would be a mistake to underestimate him. He was a Cloude, and that family produced demonhunters like a bar produced hangovers. He was definitely more formidable than his genial appearance would lead one to believe.

Mr. Ink had shown his hand in a few occasions, and each time the relics he employed were mysterious and inscrutable. His fighting style was the sort who won by attacking suddenly and unexpectedly, but that by no means meant he was weak in a straight fight.

Their addition to the strike team increased their aggregate power significantly. However, they still couldn't treat their prey lightly. Cloudhawk knew just what sort of threat the Crimson One was.

Strong as their little assassination squad was, they deep in enemy territory. The Crimson One was deadly all on his own, and he was surrounded by other characters who were also not to be underestimated. Best would be to avoid letting their presence slip until they met with the red priest face to face. If they got caught out in the open, there would be nowhere to run.

1. Oh sweet summer child.

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