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Book 5, Chapter 99 – The Return

 In the midst of their biological attack on Sandspire, the Conclave of Judgment came under attack from a surprise force, sent by Nox. A shadow of missiles plowed into the Conclave armada, blasting several ships out of the air.

Suddenly the commander of the armada found himself in a hard spot. He began shouting orders to mount a counter-offensive and reorganize the ships. The cumbersome vessels were turning to face this new threat, when an even more unexpected circumstance arose.

The sky overhead split apart, and from the dark recesses of a portal there emerged a shower of meteors. They pelted the Conclave's ships with a seemingly unending supply, all of various sizes.

The small ones were the size of a small house. The larger ones could almost be classified as small mountains. Tumbling from the heavens, they struck the enemy airships with unimaginable force. Conclave shields were useless and in the blink of an eye twenty vessels were obliterated. Another hundred suffered various degrees of damage. The whole formation was cast into disarray.

Nox's ships stopped their assault in lieu of a direct charge. Their huge, black vessels steamed at the enemy at full speed.

The Conclave's warriors were numerous, but unrefined. Most came from wasteland settlements or smaller cities. Aside from the Dark Atom, there weren't many organizations in the northern barrens with respectable manufacturing or science. As a result, Conclavian ships were a mix of good and bad.

Noxian vessels were different. Hundreds of years of development and progress was not for nothing. Nox's technological superiority surpassed any other group, including Dark Atom.

The City of Evernight's forces had suffered terribly during the battle for Sanctuary, so the ships they could spare for this campaign were relatively few. However, compared to the patchwork monstrosities used by the Conclave, Noxian weapons and ships were vastly superior.

The Conclave armada was brutally pummeled!

When the two armies met above Sandspire, the air became a churning tempest of fire and metal. Ships could not fire at will without significant risk to their own forces. Once within range, Nox dispatched thousands of soldiers in boarding parties, which included their most capable warriors and cadres of Black Knights. They followed Abaddon and the Khan of Evernight into battle, and where they went destruction followed.

Too strong! Nox's army was far too strong!

The armada's leaders mulled over their options. Battle groups began making overtures of retreat, having no appetite for further conflict.

Members of the Southern Confederation watched from below, shocked and confused. Suddenly the mighty Conclave had its haunches raised and was shuffling back when just a moment ago it had seemed indomitable.

The guerrillas avoided toxic clouds while watching the skies. But their eyes snapped down when suddenly A heroic figure appeared before them. Once in full view of the soldiers his features were revealed; dark eyes, raven black hair, a handsome face. He looked young but at the same time carried himself with an enduring dignity and mysteriousness that made judging his true age impossible.

This was how Cloudhawk revealed himself to his hundreds of beleaguered followers. His eyes scanned the crowds until they alighted upon familiar figures: Gabriel, Barb, the old drunk. Dawn.

They, likewise, looked up and saw him. Disbelief was clear in their wide eyes.

A small, heartfelt smirk touched the ends of Cloudhawk's lips. He called out to them through the smile. "I return."

Those words were like the final drop that bursts a dam, for tears began to stream down her face. She had vowed to never shed another tear, but when she saw this man appeared before them she couldn't hold back. She had a thousand things to say, a thousand ideas to share, but they all came together to one simple sentence.

"Welcome home."

Yes. Welcome home. Home at last! Cloudhawk was elated to hear the words.

Barb was shaken from her surprise and nearly leaped in front of him. With eyes wide as saucers she looked him up and down. She even stretched out her hand to give him a tentative slap, just to make sure he was real. Satisfied it wasn't some illusion, she sputtered, "Excellency Cloudhawk? Is it really you? You look so different!"

The old drunk was secretly just as stunned. A man of his caliber had keen senses, allowing him to feel the strength of those around him. His well-developed sixth sense told him Cloudhawk was more than just different, he was practically a new man. No - not a man. A monster. Every cell in his body operated like a nuclear reactor, constantly generating energy. The old drunk couldn't understand how he'd changed so dramatically in only six months...

Cloudhawk had always been strong, but his greatest abilities had always been in mental power. Now, however, his physical capabilities were equal or better than the drunk's own. In the future he seemed more than likely to meet or surpass Skye Polaris' martial abilities. In the future he would be like a human nuclear weapon.

What's more, was Cloudhawk's ascension merely physical? The old drunk didn't think so!

It seemed obvious by the rain of meteors he'd summoned over the enemy troops. His mental abilities were far more powerful than they had been at Sanctuary. While the dramatic appearance of it was on a smaller scale, he was doing it without help from a focus or augmentation item.

Whatever happened to him after that battle, Cloudhawk's mental powers now rivaled a Master Demonhunter. In fact, he was probably more powerful mentally than the Crimson One had been. More than twice as strong as before his disappearance! Less than a year and he might as well have been an entirely different person. How was this possible? What incredible thing happened to him?

But the wonders did not abate.

Abaddon and the Khan of Evernight made their way back to Cloudhawk with several prisoners in tow.

The Caliph of the Sands, whose ferocity and nightmarish power once thundered across the wastes, was dragging a scarred human in his wake. He delivered him respectfully to Cloudhawk and then addressed him as a superior. "My King, I've captured their military commander."

Abaddon, Caliph of the Sands, called Cloudhawk his... King?

Cloudhawk wasn't surprised by the moniker, either. He cast a sideways glance at the man laying in the dirt. There was a cold flash in their depths. "Ah, an old acquaintance. I hope you're well, Instructor Cutter."

The Conclave's commander of military forces was none other than Eckhard Cutter, one of a few instructors who trained Cloudhawk years ago in Hell's Valley.

Eckhard didn't seem to recognize the man before him. He was a capable fighter but the sense he got from this man made his skin crawl. He felt like a rabbit under a lion's paw.

"Shall I kill him?" Abaddon asked.

Cloudhawk refused with a shake of his head. "He can still be useful. Take him away."

The others remained confused. Why was the demon treating him with such deference? Dawn felt it was strange that suddenly Cloudhawk and Abaddon had such a close relationship. After all, Abaddon murdered all of Cloudhawk's old friends. Why was he tolerating the demon's presence?

The battle was done. Cloudhawk and the forces of Greenland returned home. When Cloudhawk stepped back into his city, his still heart stirred. He had built this place, he and his friends. It'd been almost a year since he last saw it.

Though war raged outside for half a year, it didn't appear to have affected Greenland directly. Its central God Tree still maintained the enchantments protecting the city, so that it was the only refuge left in the south. The population had surged since Cloudhawk's disappearance to twice what it used to be.

There were now ten agricultural homesteads around the city. They produced enough food to sustain the population and then some. And that wasn't all, the city itself had seen tremendous changes. Several railways surrounded the city now and into its interior, where trains continuously transported goods. They rattled through the city like veins pumping life blood through a body. Dozens of cable cars trundled by and overhead the sky was pocked with small ships. All in all Greenland was a busy, lively hub of activity.

Neighborhoods and districts were arranged in neat plots, just as he left them. The residences he'd begun to erect were now all complete.

Greenland Institute wasn't some makeshift camp anymore. After six months it had become nearly its own city. Thousands of students studied and lived in its campus, truly one of a kind throughout all the wastes.

The city itself had burgeoned to several times its original size. There were over a thousand researchers alone now, included well-trained Dark Atom scientists and Sandspire engineers. Furthermore, scientifically minded people displaced from elsewhere had also gathered in the city, among them some of the wasteland's most renowned.

Manufacturing plants and industry were also all over the city. The goods made on site were abundant and varied. There were weapons, food, even robotics plants. Interspersed were labs for biological experiments. Altogether it amounted to a tidal wave of change in a short period of time.

Cloudhawk was back!

Cloudhawk was back!

The news spread like wildfire. The city was abuzz with excitement.

After what happened at Sanctuary, Cloudhawk and his exploits had become legend. He was a hero to everyone, especially Institute students. Much to everyone's delight, the legend had survived and walked among them again.

"Teacher!"

Azura pushed her way through the crowds, threw herself into Cloudhawk's arms and cried. Her hot tears seeped into his armor.

Cloudhawk held to her and felt the guilt well up inside of him. He told the girl he would teach her, but until now he'd hardly taught her anything. What more irresponsible instructor existed beyond him? He lifted her up with one arm and together, under the adoring gaze of the city's citizens, they walked into the central fortress.

This was a day that would be forever remembered in Greenland. Cries of celebration rang through the streets. On the roof of the fortress, above this festive atmosphere, two figures watched the revelry. One was a shabby-looking old man, and the other clad head to toe in dark armor.

The drunk uncorked a bottle of wine and offered it to his companion. "Drink?"

The Khan of Evernight responded in that flat, robotic tone. "I don't drink."

With a shrug the drunk took a few swigs for himself while looking out over the crowds. He shook his head with a grim chuckle. "Fate really likes to screw with people."

True. Here stood an erstwhile martial artist of unsurpassed skill. The other was in bygone days a cherished Master Demonhunter.

Of course that didn't amount to anything. They both served a humble scavenger boy who had risen to become a king.

"Baldur, you really aren't going to tell them?"

"Baldur Cloude is dead." The Khan of Evernight's digitized affect hummed a response. "It's best for everyone."

"What about Selene? You know that your choices have completely changed her life. Even today she plots your revenge. Are you really willing to stay silent and watch her change?"

The Khan of Evernight did not answer.

The drunk didn't press him.

This pair of old friends simply stood in silence and watched the world pass by. In their hearts each was struggling with something, for sometimes there was no right or wrong answer. Some things were impossible to explain. Only time would tell.

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