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Book 5, Chapter 46 - The Storm's Arrival

 The headquarters of Skycloud's expeditionary force.

Hammont Seacrest looked up at the gloomy sky with an expression of disquiet. He constantly wrung his pudgy hands and his palms felt clammy. It'd been a long time since he'd felt so nervous and uneasy.

A squad of airships appeared on the horizon.

From this distance they appeared to crawl across the sky but in fact they were moving quite quickly. It took only a little while before the ships were hovering over the base and depositing their crews.

The first to disembark was Knight-Commander of the Demonhunter Corps, Oren Cloude. His naturally frigid expression looked dourer than ever, making the hair on Hammont's neck stand on end. He was followed by a group of about two hundred more demonhunters in their standard white garb.

They were escorting a woman laden with chains. Her platinum hair was in a mess, and what had clearly been a face accustomed to noble disdain was now drawn and dirty. Skycloud's once formidable devil woman now looked the part of a ragged traitor, a prisoner facing the prospect of execution.

Hammont scanned the group but saw no one else.

Just one? His emotions were difficult to describe. He couldn't tell whether he was more relieved, concerned or regretful.

One of the soldiers of the newly formed Drake Corps saw the change in his commander's expression. He'd never seen such worry in his face before so he had to inquire. "Are you alright, commander? What's the matter?"

"Nothing. A moment of sentiment." The discomfort was passing. He shared a sentence with the recruit that the soldier didn't understand. "Men are blades of grass floating on a river. We have no control where the flow takes us. The shore we wash up on is always in the hands of fate."

But was fate a real thing? Maybe what they called 'fate' was really just a name for life's unpredictability. Even a man like Arcturus, whose wisdom extended out into the heavens, couldn't plan for everything. Mortals were forever at the whim of the unknown.

Cloudhawk. Such a controversial and legendary figure already. Not long ago he was one of the men Hammont respected most. But the decisions he'd made and the actions he'd taken led him down a path with no way to look back.

Though Skycloud did what it could to keep the information hidden, Hammont had learned some of the details.

Cloudhawk was being called a Defiler, a sinister agent of evil. Half a year ago, huge numbers of troops were deployed to try and hunt him down only to fail. Even Governor Arcturus himself took to the field. And yet, miraculously, Cloudhawk still managed to escape. The Dark Atom managed to spirit him away.

Cloudhawk could not, would not ever return to the Elysian lands after this.

He wasn't alone, either. Hundreds of members of the Polaris family followed his lead and defected to the wastelands. The news was a tremendous shock to citizens of the realm. As far as Hammont knew, there were several other members of Skycloud who chose to side with Cloudhawk as well. One of them was the formerly lauded War Saint.

Hammont was struggling to understand. These were some of the most illustrious names in Skycloud, men and women that Hammont had looked up to as idols. What could have happened to cause such a fracture?

His new recruits, of course, couldn't know the conflict in Hammont's heart. They looked at their general with envy and admiration, for his meteoric rise seemed to come without nepotism or manipulation. He was the perfect inspiration story.

From lowly villager to humble soldier; relying on nothing but his own power, he rose to prominence as a Magistrate. Now, by his grit and determination, he was a mighty figure of the expeditionary force.

"We have apprehended the fugitive traitor, Dawn Polaris. She is now remanded to your care. make sure you watch her carefully. Her presence here will certainly impact the expeditionary force's future campaigns." Oren motioned and Dawn was marched over to Hammont's men. "You should know how important this prisoner is. If she escapes under your watch, not even the Governor can protect you."

"Yes, sir." Hammont wasted no time in ordering his men to take her. Soldiers led Dawn toward the prison, never speaking a word, haggard and expressionless. Oren ordered several veteran demonhunters to remain behind as a precaution.

"What are you planning to do with me?" Dawn suddenly asked as she was being led away.

Hammont paused. He had no obligation to answer her question, but this was Dawn Polaris. A noble successor to a great house, now laid low. What fools destiny makes of us, he thought. Moreover she was thick as thieves with Cloudhawk, so he decided to respond. "Last night, Knight-Commander Oren set a trap at a nearby base, using your capture as bait to lure out Cloudhawk. If he's showed up empty-handed today, it means Cloudhawk escaped. Now you're here, surrounded by some of the most exceptional troops Skycloud has ever produced. It would be suicide for Cloudhawk to try and free you."

Dawn shut her eyes and her face twisted into a bitter grin. "But he will still try."

"That's right, we both know the sort of person he is. He will try." Hammont felt a slight pang in his chest. "Cloudhawk would never leave a friend to die. His only choice is to join forces with Nox. We've been posturing against one another for months now. Nox, Skycloud... this is the opportunity they needed to turn this into an outright war."

The wastelands plans were simple. Greenland was becoming famous for its wealth of capable members. With its connection to the Dark Atom and figures like Wolfblade, Autumn and Abaddon, this made for a frightening union. The Khan of Evernight saw the potential as well and knew that if they worked together, they stood a much greater chance of defeating the expeditionary force.

Starting the fight now was also in Skycloud's best interests. It was better to suffer short-term pain from surgery than live in chronic agony. Already, Nox and the Dark Atom were thorns in their side. Greenland was just getting started, but had the potential to be a real threat to the Elysian realm. Better, then, to deal with it now.

The last few months of brewing conflict had a visible effect on all aspects of Elysian life. If this were allowed to drag on for years order would begin to crumble. If a place like Skycloud was being affected, with its long and stable history, then Nox would surely feel the consequences as well.

It seemed all of this was designed to spur these wasteland forces to unite, but in truth Skycloud still held the initiative. Not only did Skycloud control how and when the battle was being fought, they also had the advantage of a defensible position. They were confident they had the strategy and resources necessary to win this decisive conflict.

Dawn was awash in depression and bitterness. Once Cloudhawk agreed to side with the Khan of Evernight, there was no going back. The moment he took to the field his hands would be stained with Elysian blood. This was a sin he couldn't wash clean.

Hammont, Selene and the other Elysians he considered friends still stood in defense of their realm. It seemed inevitable that they would be forced to stand against Cloudhawk and his chosen allies. What's more, the pure land Cloudhawk had wanted so desperately to build would be forever soiled. His dream was dead just as it was barely getting started.

All because of me. The anger within Dawn felt like a corrosive poison. Her chains rattled as she was tugged along.

"How don't you see how contemptible and stupid you're being? Cloudhawk had never done anything against Skycloud in all the years he lived there. All he ever wanted was a quiet, peaceful life. Instead, bit by bit and for no good reason, he's been forced to turn against Skycloud. One day, you all will come to regret these choices you're making."

She was right, after a fashion. Hammont didn't understand it, either. Cloudhawk was young and had just as much potential as Frost de Winter or Selene Cloude, maybe even more. He was a little rough around the edges but never unkind. It made no sense.

With time Cloudhawk would certainly have grown to be a mighty champion for the Elysian lands. But that chance now was gone. Now, he was forced to be an enemy of the state. Rather than fight for Skycloud, he was cast out and given an opportunity to create a force to challenge Governor Arcturus. It was a disaster, pure and simple.

This circumstance was the result of several powers, pulling and tugging. Poor Cloudhawk... in so many ways he was merely a victim of powers greater than himself.

***

Governor Arcturus made a personal visit to the expeditionary force's headquarters. Frost and Hammont were there to greet him upon arrival.

Arcturus addressed them with a nod. "I've been informed of recent circumstances. Dawn's capture is certainly Inkspecter using us to do his foul work, but it serves our purposes as well. It provides us with a fair opportunity."

"This leader of the so-called Hand of Gehenna is a contemptible heathen!" Hammont couldn't tamp the anger that fiend's name evoked. "First they attack General Frost's men, then try to use us for their own ends. Poor Augustus, murdered by that criminal Squall. We can't let them get away with such an affront."

Frost's face never flinched. As always, he had as much expression as an ice sculpture.

Arcturus, draped in long-sleeved robes, dismissively waved his hand. "Gehenna's agents are clowns, nothing more. Nothing short of the Demon King's return would convince those fiends to leave their hollow. As such, while they pose no serious threat, we can focus our strength against Nox."

Hammont asked something that had been bothering him. "What is this 'Nox' city? Aren't they affiliated with Gehenna?"

"Yes, and no," came the Governor's paradoxical response. "Demons are not a unified front. Gehenna waits conservatively in the darkness for their king's return. The more radical of their foul ilk choose to take action. Nox is a place where demonic followers have attempted to emulate Skycloud's brilliance. At one point, the demon Abaddon was Nox's greatest figure. The city is a dangerous foe which has festered in the southern wilds for some time, always beyond our reach. Inkspecter has delivered up a chance to deal with the problem once and for all."

In other words, the mystery power from the south was hardly a mystery. It was merely a city built by the black demonic hands hiding in the shadows. And what of the Khan? Was he one of those evil creatures? It didn't matter. By any measure, be it in population or infrastructure, Nox was no match for the glory of Skycloud. If they were, they wouldn't have remained hidden in darkness for so many years.

"Dawn's execution will be the catalyst which will force our enemies to show themselves." Arcturus cast his gaze southward. "The battle to come will have truly far-reaching consequences."

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