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Book 5, Chapter 29 - Deep Waters

 From the moment Cloudhawk came face to face with the Khan of Evernight, he was swept up in a strange feeling.

This mysterious stranger knew him somehow. And not just knew him, but understood him on a deeper level. How else would he have been able to so expertly manipulate the situation, or deliver such poignant advice? More than ever, Cloudhawk felt a burning need to know what was behind that digitized voice and pitch-black armor.

Cloudhawk's hunches were almost always right, and one thing he didn't sense from the Khan was an intent to do harm. Usually, that was how Cloudhawk could tell friend from foe.

The Wendigo King, after being freed by the Black Knights, presented himself before his Khan. The wounds they'd put in his leg and chest were already beginning to heal and were not serious. "I was foolish."

"You are not to blame." The Khan looked pointedly at the old drunk. "Even I had not anticipated a man like this wandered so far south. Yet the power of one individual is limited. The south will change, regardless."

So it was as expected, Hyena worked for this Khan. That meant Red Scorpion was as well. Was the Khan this Master Red Scorpion had referred to? If that were so Cloudhawk could see why the wastelander was so arrogant. Being propped up by someone like the Khan would make even a worthless shit like Red Scorpion stand tall.

"I can't be certain if they're Elysians or not." Hyena snarled at Cloudhawk and the others. "We should eliminate them now, before they cause any more trouble."

The Wendigo King's relationship with Cloudhawk and Hellflower was tenuous to start. After how they treated him, the limits of his tolerance had long been reached. No remaining fondness from the old days would overcome their provocations. It was despicable for them to use him as bait for the Master.

All he needed was a nod. Just the slightest indication from the Khan. He would then instantly call back his horde and turn this magnificent city into wreckage.

Cloudhawk's face sank. It wasn't that he was afraid - however strong the Khan of Evernight was he couldn't kill Cloudhawk, especially not with the drunk here. If Cloudhawk wanted to run then he got away, no question about it. There were a very rare few who could stand in his way. But if he did flee it meant abandoning Sandspire to destruction.

However, much to his relief, the Khan retracted his vorpal weapons. "It's a misunderstanding."

Sandspire's denizens blinked. Words like this from the Khan made them wonder if there was something wrong with their ears.

Even Hyena was surprised and confused by the determination. He knew the Khan of Evernight was no pushover. He came at the recommendation of Abaddon, and since arriving in the Khan's territory had been a dogged follower. Down here, no one disobeyed their Khan.

Although relatively new, the Master's presence and prestige had taken root in the hearts of his subjects. While there were others hiding in the darkness, powerful though they were, they did not hold the same sway.

Why, then, did he choose to allow Cloudhawk and his rabble to openly defy him? It wasn't in his character. Soon they would be in open conflict with Skycloud, and though Cloudhawk may not be an Elysian himself he definitely had ties to the zealots. What's more he had the support of a dangerous woman like Hellflower and the deadly old man. With allies like that he would be a difficult foe to crush the longer he was allowed to live.

Exterminating the weeds before they took over the garden was only right!

Cloudhawk spoke up. "Are you responsible for sending spies to Greenland City?"

"Those were my subjects, but I was not responsible for dispatching them." The Khan's voice was the same emotionless hum. "There are many powerful forces who are interested in you."

"Like who?" Cloudhawk pressed.

"This is not an answer I can give you. What I can say is that no blood feud exists between us, so this conflict need not persist past this moment." The Khan faced Cloudhawk, unmoving. "On the contrary - as a representative of the city of Nox I hope for your future cooperation."

Cloudhawk was skeptical. "Cooperation? Did I hear that right?"

"We stand upon the precipice of real conflict with Skycloud. In this short time you have established yourself as a rare power in the southern wilds. For better or for worse you have put down roots in the middle of a tempest. You will be forced to consider which side to support, and if I may be so bold ours is the right choice."

"If I don't take sides?"

The Wendigo King's eyes flashed an angry green once again. This whelp had no respect for his own life! He had no idea who he was speaking to, no understanding that the power the Khan commanded went far beyond what he could imagine. Cloudhawk and his handful of cities were powerless to stand against him.

What right did he have to spit upon the Khan's offer?

"When the storm comes you will be unable to find safe harbor. Think carefully on what you decide." The Khan made no further attempt to sway Cloudhawk's opinion. He turned and prepared to leave, adding as an afterthought, "Your wounds heal too slowly. By my view, you will not recover anytime soon. Come to Nox, perhaps we have a way to help."

With this said the Khan and his soldiers absconded to their airship.

Hellflower turn to Cloudhawk and looked into his gloomy face. "What's wrong? Don't worry, if they could really destroy us so easily I think they would have done it already. If he didn't start a fight, to me it means he isn't sure he can take our territory. Anyway we have the drunk and the Shepherd God on our side. If they sent their rabid animals our way they'll just be lining up for the slaughter."

"You think so?"

"Of course. We have plenty of people who can handle themselves and do it well. If this Khan of Evernight really expects a war with Skycloud, then he can't afford to waste his strength nobbling away on our puny bones."

That wasn't what worried Cloudhawk. He had the very uncomfortable sensation that he was being used like a chess piece. Unseen hands were shoving him around a board he didn't understand looking for advantage and he didn't even know the game.

Peace and freedom. That was all Cloudhawk had ever wanted. Instead he was constantly being manipulated. At least he knew Wolfblade didn't have his best interest at heart.

Cloudhawk muttered. "Hey drunk, what do you think of that guy?"

"He was holding back, don't know why." He was just as curious about the mysterious Khan. "Even as the Grand Prior I'd never heard of anyone like him. Very strange."

Strange indeed! Skycloud's informants had all sorts of intelligence, with proverbial fingers in every pie.

It would stand to reason that someone as dangerous as the Khan of Evernight would show up at some point in their information. They knew about Abaddon when he was stalking the wastes, even though the demon had few direct conflicts with Skycloud. They even knew about what relics he used.

So it was not strange that such a powerful player had showed up in the wastelands. What was strange was that there was precisely zero record of him at all.

"Fuck it." Cloudhawk waved the issues away in irritation. "We just keep doing what we're doing, building up Greenland and growing Sandspire. The southern wilds are a big place, there's no reason to think they'll come knocking on our door. We stay out of it like we always have."

Whether it was all some elaborate plot or something else, Cloudhawk wasn't going to take sides publicly.

The old drunk looked up at the airship as it hummed toward the horizon. There was something contemplative and inscrutable in his eyes. But he shook his head and cleared whatever the thought was from his mind.

***

The Wendigo King was still struggling to understand his Khan's decision.

How many opponents had they chewed up and spit out without a word over the last few years? Only to be so tolerant to Cloudhawk. But the Khan had no intention of explaining himself.

When they entered the airship, the Khan of Evernight settled into an absolutely stillness like a robot with its batteries drained. The way he sat without moving, he might as well have been dead. So they flew in silence for a time until eventually returning to Wolf's Den.

Red Scorpion had been waiting for them for some time.

"Skycloud has begun to make their move." The Khan of Evernight came back to life and made his announcement. "We will no longer send out feelers to probe for Greenland's weaknesses. We only monitor their situation."

"But..." Red Scorpion scowled. "Master didn't account for this."

"My word is law," came the definitive answer.

Red Scorpion trembled. In truth, the Khan of Evernight was not his master. There was a more secret figure behind the scenes. However the Khan was important to his master, far more important than him. When he said his word was law, he was right.

Red Scorpion could do nothing but obey.

"We must focus all of our strength on battling Skycloud. Arcturus Cloude requires nothing but our absolute fiercest opposition. We can spare nothing."

"I don't see anything to be afraid of." Red Scorpion's words were full of pomp and disdain as he proceeded to talk up his superiors. "Between you and the Master, Arcturus Cloude might as well be an insect."

"Were that so, Skycloud would have fallen a long time ago." As always, the Khan of Evernight's voice was wholly emotionless. However, inexplicably, it bore a palpable gravitas. "Now remain silent unless spoken to. Do not forget that it is indeed you who are the insect. Were I to snuff the life from you, who would stand in your defense?"

Red Scorpion was so terrified he fell to his knees. He didn't know what he'd said to offend his superior.

"From now on you all have new orders."

The Khan of Evernight described what he required of Red Scorpion and the Wendigo King. They left immediately to enact his wishes.

The Khan of Evernight turned away and peered toward the northern horizon with his red eyes. A muffled voice spoke through the mask, this time unchanged and normal.

"It begins." It was a deep, hoarse voice that sounded now. "After years of preparation. Arcturus, are you ready?"

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