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Book 5, Chapter 66 - No Winners

 A once towering fortress had become a half-ruined battlefield. It was the site of incredible devastation, but undoubtedly the most striking aspect was the enormous mountain that had appeared from nowhere. It's suddenly descent from on high obliterated the fortress, to the point where repair was impossible.

A meteor like this was beyond their ability to move. It would remain there forever, a testament. In a thousand years when Sanctuary was no longer there, the meteor would remain. For future generations it will have marked the beginning of a legend. But to those who lived through the historical event it was unimaginable.

By the time darkness fell the battle was over. Darkness descended like the curtain at the end of an act.

Hammont was busy counting what remained of his Drake Corps. The war had lasted half a day perhaps, but the losses were staggering. So many bright young people - new recruits who could count their days as soldier on one hand - conveyed to the arms of the god of death.

It was terrible, repulsive! Why did this have to happen?

His headcount was interrupted by foul news.

The expeditionary force, led by Commander General Frost, had failed to wipe out the wasteland remnants. It meant this conflict wasn't over. These barbarians - savage by nature and willing to perform any manner of despicable deed - would eventually return. To Hammont it was a crushing realization.

One of his soldiers stepped forward. "Commander!"

Hammont frowned at him. "What is it?"

"I'm sorry to disturb you so late, sir. The captain of the fifth brigade wishes to speak with you. He... he's been wounded badly."

Hammont paused. He remembered this captain, a man he'd promoted personally to his post. He was a fellow of good potential and all reports claimed he led his troops capably during the fight. Word was his force of a hundred or so single-handedly warded off a sneak attack from the rear.

It'd cost them terribly. Five remained of the hundred-man unit, and those five were fading away in the field hospital.

"I can go back and tell them you're busy, commander..."

Hammont cut him off with a wave then motioned for him to lead the way. The young soldier gave him a look of appreciation then did as instructed.

They picked their way across Sanctuary, passing exhausted soldiers retrieving the dead and dying. Eventually they arrived at a huge makeshift site that served as a field hospital. It was also one place where they housed the fallen for the time being.

When he stepped inside, Hammont was greeted by the sight of countless dead. These soldiers had died in the line of duty and laid here, awaiting a final resting place. They were covered by white sheets that together stretched on like a grim sea. Nearby was where the living were being treated, marked by a chorus of sobs, groans and screams. A steady stream of the newly deceased went to join the ranks of their fallen brethren.

The cloying scent of blood and illness filled the air. Hundreds of doctors hurriedly rushed back and forth, their white coats soaked crimson. It was a small army of physicians, but by the way they ran about and through the number of bodies being brought away, it wasn't nearly enough. As they walked the lane Hammont watched soldiers slip into darkness because they were left untreated.

This area were all wounded soldiers from the expeditionary force. Hammont pushed passed them to where men from his own corps were being treated. When they saw their commander appear the groaning stopped, and their eyes lit up.

Hammont approached a man wrapped from head to toe in bandages. This was the captain, or what was left of him.

When he saw Hammont approach the captain's eyes looked grateful and relieved. "Com... commander. Commander!"

"Relax now, soldier. You need to recover."

"No, I... I won't be getting better. You don't need to comfort me." The captain looked at Hammont with moist, eager eyes. "Did we win?"

"Yes, we won. The enemy is in full retreat and the one who planned this war - the demon elder - has been badly wounded by your Governor. It will be decades before he dares show his face again. Commander General Frost pursues the fleeing wastelanders and will make sure they're eliminated, once and for all."

Hammont couldn't bring himself to tell this dying man the truth. He couldn't bear to let him die in regret.

"Good... that's good. May our people no longer live under the threat of evil. Speaking of which... I miss my wife and kids. No regrets, though. They will be proud that I didn't dishonor our family. I fought for them, I f-...." The captain's faded vision suddenly hardened. "Commander. You told me your dream is to be a General. You're going to be a General, right?"

It took Hammont by surprise. He hesitated for a moment before nodding his head.

"You're different from the other commanders. You will be a great leader, we all look up to you. You have to become a great general..."

The captain extended his hand but could only reach half the distance between them before his strength gave out.

Another heroic spirit taken from the world of man and sent to Mount Sumeru. If Mount Sumeru was a real place...

Doctors clustered around. After a brief check it was confirmed the captain was no more. They covered him in a sheet and took him away.

Hammont left in silence, forcing himself to walk through the unbearable aftermath of this war once again.

They might have fought off the enemy but Hammont felt no joy over their victory. Instead his fat face was scrunched in confusion. It was the world he was struggling with. Victory? Was that what this was? They'd defended the fortress... beat back the enemy... killed a countless number of them...

But the one they meant to put to death, Dawn Polaris, escaped. Half the fortress was ravaged and what was left could hardly be considered standing. And what about the demon elder... what if what he said was true? Who were they actually fighting for? What were they sacrificing for?

There was no winner here. Maybe there never was, when it came to war. It wasn't over either. It'd only changed from out in the open to back in the shadows.

Uncertainty took root in Hammont's heart. He'd seen how strong Governor Arcturus really was, so why had he held back so long? There was seemed to be a deeper motive behind everything he did that Hammont was too dim or distant to understand. Cloudhawk was the only one who had the potential to one day defeat Arcturus, but he was routinely allowed to live. Did the Governor not see that?

Arcturus had fought off four enemies at once, including the demon Abaddon. Then he took on the demon elder and very nearly killed him.

He obviously had the power to dispose of Cloudhawk. If he wanted Cloudhawk dead it would require little more than a thought. But during the war no one rose up to stop him. Why did he just sit back and watch Cloudhawk be rescued by the demon elder? Why would he let that happen? Arcturus was a genius, he had to know that his lack of action would mean disaster. What was he thinking?

And then there was the fact that Arcturus could absorb the power of Seraphs? If he'd always been able to do that, why hadn't the Master Demonhunter used this ability before? They were similar questions being privately argued over by all elders of Skycloud. They were all in awe of Arcturus' power, but perhaps for the first time there were doubts and questions about their illustrious leader.


Skycloud Temple.

Selene and Phain had returned and delivered news of what happened in Sanctuary. High Priest Ramiel Caelest slowly opened his eyes and within their depths was an undercurrent of... something. He didn't speak, only waved his hand to indicate they were dismissed.

Selene left the Temple with a heavy heart.

She wasn't sure whether Cloudhawk would survive. He was wounded before he joined this fight then pushed himself way over the line. Then the demon elder, who even Arcturus could not slay, snatched him up and took him away.

All she could do was watch. She was useless.

It made her furious.

Her thoughts were interrupted when a shadow appeared before her.

It was like the darkness given flesh. The figure was wrapped in black cloth that revealed only a pair of dead eyes that hardly seemed human at all. Selene focused her anger on those soulless orbs. Her fists clenched and her breathing increased.

"What do you want?"

"To see you."

Janus stepped forward. For just an instant something flickered in those emotionless voids. "You care for him that much?"

"What if I do?" Selene spat back. "Better than someone like you, who cares for no one!"

"You know he had a lot to do with instigating this conflict."

"I know it wasn't Cloudhawk's intention, just like I know Cloudhawk isn't the sort who likes conflict. If it wasn't for the manipulation of Arcturus and those wastelanders he never would have done it. I know him better than anyone."

"In this world, no one is born into motivation and goals. Fate and destiny are subject to the things we experience. Whether external, internal, or from the influence of others, people change. Have you considered what you would do if one day Cloudhawk led his troops to lay siege on Skycloud City? As a true leader of the wasteland armies?"

Selene wanted to shout back at the killer but the words never left her lips. There was a lot that had happened these last few years that convinced her there were no absolutes in this world. Like how Cloudhawk might change, or how she would react if he did lead an army to their doorstep. But while it was uncertain none of that mattered right now. She would face it when the time came, that was the only time she could know for sure.

Selene turned to leave. Janus called after her.

"Where are you going?"

"None of your business," she curtly replied.

"Judas' appearance will affect more than what we see on the surface. It will gradually influence what comes - people will question Arcturus' motives and power." Janus' calm voice continued to seep through the darkness. "If you want to challenge Arcturus, you cannot do it alone."

"I can help you."

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