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Book 4, Chapter 72 - Surprise Schemes

 Cloudhawk's consciousness was in a state of flux. It felt like he was falling through purgatory, a nightmare landscape of fire that burned him but wouldn't let him die. The hungry fires weren't hot - on the contrary, they felt cold as ice, like millions of tiny icicles digging into every inch of his body. All the while pieces of him were disintegrating and reforming.

This agony seemed to stretch on forever.

Until, at last, relief. It spread out through him as a wave of some unfamiliar power filled his body. All at once the unending torment subsided and he felt his life force returning.

Cloudhawk slowly opened his eyes. Everything hurt, and although the Castigation Fire was gone the wounds from it kept him lying on his back for a long time.

"What am I doing here?!"

When his eyes focused, he saw the white-haired badly wounded figure of the Crimson One looming over him.

Wasn't this the same man who nearly killed him? What was going on!

The Crimson One was badly wounded. Fatal was a better way to describe it. A hole in the left side of his chest had blown right through his heart, and blood was pouring from it. His crimson robes were stained an even darker hue. In addition his right arm was missing from the shoulder, and his entire chest appeared to have caved in. Broken bits of bone jutted from his flesh, and stab wounds from his contest with the old drunk were also visible.

None of his internal organs were whole anymore. All the blood within him was leaking from his punctured heart. It didn't matter who or what you were - the strongest mutant in the wastes or evn a MASter Demonhunter - wounds like this meant certain death.

The Crimson One's voice was hoarse and low. "I don't have much time, so we won't waste time with nonsense."

Cloudhawk's mind raced to comprehend the situation. The Crimson One had apparently rescued him, only just a moment ago he'd been trying to kill them all. It made no sense, there had to be a reason why the priest would suddenly change his mind and spare his life.

The Crimson One briefly gave him context, explaining Natessa's treachery. It was Hell's Army that delivered the fatal blow?

Strong as the Giant was, she didn't have the ability to take on a Master Demonhunter. He didn't ask for the details, for the Crimson One was in his final moments and clearly had more to say.

"I was wrong from the beginning." The Crimson One slowly shut his eyes. "Hell's Army never betrayed Skycloud, it was a play by Arcturus all along to undermine the wastelands."

"Impossible!" Cloudhawk blurted out. "Their crimes are unforgivable, there's no way they'll be allowed back into the Elysian lands after what they've done. They killed a general, officers, and thousands of soldiers!"

"And if they hadn't, would I have trusted them?" His ashen face betrayed anger and frustration. He hadn't thought he would be so thoroughly fooled and defeated. "You trained with them for three years, you know how Hell's Army operates. You say them eradicate a village without batting an eye. Do you believe there is anything they wouldn't do? Their treachery at the Blisterpeaks was all part of their mission - serving the same function they always have."

The same function? Cloudhawk couldn't accept the explanation. Thirty thousand soldiers lost their lives on the Blisterpeaks, many of them Skycloud's elite! Two of them were leaders!

"You still don't see? What happened in those mountains was killing two birds with one stone!" The Crimson One's dimming eyes opened again. "Aegir, Roc, the border forces, the guard corps... all of them loyal to the Polaris family. Skycloud's two major families have been at one another's throats for years. A masterstroke... in one move he dealt a serious blow to the wastelands and cut the Polaris' family's influence by a tremendous margin. He forced Skye out onto the front lines and ensnared me as well. You must see the truth of who is behind all this."

"You... you're saying it was Arcturus?"

It all made sense.

Indeed Skycloud had many advantages, but the wastelands weren't helpless. Its people were forged in a deadly and inhospitable environment. Their cities and outposts were like weeds, clinging to the slightest resources in every nook and cranny. Skycloud was too far away, its reach couldn't extend into those dark corners.

If Arcturus really wanted to harm the wastelands, what was the best way to do it? Obviously plant your own people among them, and Hell's Army was the perfect poison seed.

But merely stating they were defecting wouldn't be enough to earn the wasteland's trust.

When Arcturus ordered Hell's Valley to save the Dark Atom, he did it knowing many Elysians would die. The wastelanders would see Hell's Army as heroes, he would consolidate power back in Skycloud, and eliminate those opposed to his rule - like the Polaris family.

Skye Polaris was completely ignorant of the fact that he was being played like a fiddle. In order to wash the stain of defeat from his family's name and regain its glory, he had no choice but to lead the expeditionary force out here personally. All of it, part of Arcturus' plan. Every move everyone had made was orchestrated, puppets dancing on the Governor's strings.

Cloudhawk quickly recovered from the shock of the revelation. "Why did you spare me? Why are you telling me all of this?"

Sterling's voice was growing weaker. "Arcturus is the sort of man who keeps his hand hidden, only moving when all the pieces have fallen into place. Once you can see what he was planning you've already fallen into his trap. Then - boom, like a thunderclap. It's already done. Hell's Army has completed its mission. The Wastelands Alliance belongs to him."

Cloudhawk's eyes widened. "What are you saying?"

He already knew the answer. After all Hell's Army had done, their reputation and status in this budding alliance was immense. Their veterans were now wasteland officers, spread out through the whole of the organization. Like an insidious virus, they'd crept into every aspect and were accepted with open arms. Hell's Army was the backbone of their rebellion.

Most importantly, it was only a short time ago that the Crimson One himself gave Natessa full control of their army. It more or less made her next in line to lead.

When he died, Natessa would take the reigns.

This budding alliance, which had demanded so much to pull together... at the end it was just another tool of Hell's Army. Just another pawn for Arcturus.

How much had Sterling sacrificed to build this Conclave? What had it cost him?

For years he concealed his identity and worked in the shadows. He built a religious order to hide his intent, even sending missionaries out to keep up appearances. All the while he'd been working in the shadows, courting wasteland leaders, wooing potential allies. All of that groundwork came to fruition when Adder destroyed Skycloud's border wall. It was the coup de grace that convinced them to follow the Sanctum of Judgment.

With bitter realization the Crimson One saw that he hadn't been as crafty as he thought he was. Arcturus, he suspected, had known about his plans all along.

Pointless! Useless! He'd spent all these years trying to defeat Arcturus, not work for him!

Arcturus was truly a master at these games. Without ever stepping foot from his mansion, thousands of kilometers away, he had destroyed Sterling's efforts with one well-placed token. He poisoned the fruits of his labor and revealed Sterling's folly in the most painful and humiliating way possible.

He'd sacrificed his honor, his dignity, his son. Everything. All of it just so Arcturus could benefit. All of his efforts used to bolster the enemy!

Cloudhawk didn't know what to say. The Crimson One's whole life was a tragedy and he was witnessing its end.

Sterling knew he was out of time. His heart was broken, both figuratively and literaly, and it stained his bitter words. "His plans won't stop here. This is just the beginning. Whatever you do, you must stop him."

A scowl touched Cloudhawk's scorched face. "If you've failed to stop him, what makes you think I can!"

"First, Wyrmsole cannot be allowed to perish. He is the only person in the alliance who can stand against the Giants' influence. If you tell him what you've learned, it may buy you some room to maneuver. Then... the expeditionary forces' destruction is undoubtedly part of Arcturus' plan. You must find a way to stop him."

Cloudhawk was shocked. "What are you saying? Destroy Skycloud's own army?"

"Skye's forces have already failed in their mission. Soon he will face the combined might of the Northern Barrens, the Conclave and the Dark Atom. We can't let Skye and his soldiers fall, otherwise.... Otherwise..."

The more he spoke the more agitated the Crimson One became. He felt himself growing weak. Such a strange thing to be saying, he thought... as the Elysian soldiers warred with his own people, he was telling Cloudhawk to find a way to save Skycloud's army from destruction.

"Otherwise what?! What are you trying to say!"

"Now that Arcturus has control of the Wastelands Alliance, it's only a matter of time before he controls the entirety of the wastelands itself. If he is able to eliminate the Polaris family then he will have total control of Skycloud and the wastes. If that is allowed to happen, no one will be able to stand against him."

What the hell was Arcturus' final aim? Even the Crimson One didn't know. If he'd known, he wouldn't have been outplayed so thoroughly. He wasn't sure anyone had the capability to defeat Arcturus, but at the very least someone had to try and stop him from taking control of the known world!

The sound of airbursts sounded nearby. Natessa was catching up.

The Crimson One wrenched Cloudhawk onto his feet and shoved him down the lane. "Remember what I told you!"

Cloudhawk was too wounded to fight, and too confused to do anything but fight through the pain and run. He believed in what the Crimson One had told him, death had a way of getting the truth out of people.

He stumbled through the city until he found his way back to the old drunk and Selene.

After what he'd learn, the first order of business had to be locating Wyrmsole. Once he exposed the truth behind who commanded Hell's Army, perhaps he could wrest the remnants of the Sanctum from this alliance. Fleeing into the wilderness he could try and stop Hell's Army from destroying the expeditionary force.

It was the only way Cloudhawk saw a way out of this.

Natessa floated through the air and descended toward the Crimson One. She said nothing as the Giant of Hell's Valley launched into another set of vicious attacks with her corkscrew blade. In her other hand was the cyan staff, striking so swiftly it was almost a shadow.

The Crimson One didn't have Castigation to protect him any longer. He had no means to fight back.

"Tell me..." He'd managed to somehow dodge her flurry of blows and was breathing heavily. "What is your relationship to Arcturus?"

Natessa's hand tightened around her sword. She pushed off the air with her powerful legs and charged at the Crimson One. She streaked by like a gust of wind, with her sword tracing a deadly path across the priest's throat.

The Crimson One's eyes went wide as the world turned end over end.


He stared at the gray dome that served as Fallowmoor's sky. It just hung there, as dark as his fate. An endless sadness filled him. He'd tried so hard to fight back, but in the end darkness and defeat still claimed him.

One of Skycloud's mightiest Master Demonhunters, founder of the Wastelands Alliance whose name thundered across the Elysian lands, died in silence.

Natessa walked to the Crimson One's headless corpse and began to feel through his clothing. She gathered a few items then straightened up, looking up and down the lane. Her eyes quickly found Cloudhawk's trail.

The Crimson One had definitely said something to him.

A whelp like Cloudhawk was no threat to Master Arcturus' plans, but as they said, better to nip a problem in the bud. She would deal with him now, while he was weak and injured.

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