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Book 5, Chapter 108 – Crossing Swords

 Bridge of the Conclave's southern command vessel.

With grim expressions the officers gave their orders.

Populations between the northern and southern parts of the wasteland were greatly disproportionate. Southern powers were fractured delicate. Against the strong and unified forces of the north, southern organizations had been unable to defend themselves. After all, not only had the Conclave taken all of the north, but they also had the backing of Skycloud and the Cloude family. The Sanctum as it had existed under the Crimson One was a shadow of what the Conclave had become.

Half a year, that was all it took for huge swaths of the wastelands to come under their control. Up to this point their war with the southern wilds had gone decidedly in their favor.

All that remained was Greenland, which stubbornly hung on in the face of hopelessness. Who could have known that from the shadows of Nox aid would appear at the crucial moment. This unexpected interference cost them Eckhard Cutter, one of their commanders and leader of their armies. He died in enemy hands.

It was a crushing blow to the Conclave!

Greenland's Governor, Dawn Polaris, followed on the heels of this tragedy with a series of lightning maneuvers. In only twenty days she snatched back most of the cities under Conclave control. By the time leadership heard the news it was already too late. They were forced to dispatch another one of their commanders, Dumont Cenhelm, to quell this resistance. Taking over the post vacated by Eckhard, he was tasked with standing against the southern forces propped up by Nox.

War had once more come to the wastelands, only this time it was between its own people.

Dumont towered over his officers in the mighty Dawnbreaker armor that encased his body. Only his head was left uncovered, revealing a grizzled and aging face with a solemn expression. He was not the talkative and flirtatious elder from Hell's Valley any longer, for he knew the enemy he faced.

How was it Dawn had reacted so quickly, recovering all that lost territory in under a month? Simple, it was just as their reports warned: Cloudhawk had returned.

The same terrifying man that had nearly obliterated Sanctuary, who had lived in years prior caught between Skycloud and the wastes. Cloudhawk was a complicated sort, whose exploits before Sanctuary had earned him both praise and blame.

He was responsible for killing mighty threats from the wasteland in the form of Adder and the Crimson One. He was also guilty of unforgivable sins in the eyes of the Elysians. He carried the banner of House Polaris into victory after victory, yet also bore the mantle of blasphemer as decreed by Skycloud's highest authority. At one brief point in time he was Commander General of their expeditionary force and saved the lives of thousands. He ended up causing many deaths when he led enemy forces into conflict with Sanctuary.

Yes, a complicated man, full of contradictions. His hands were stained with blood and his name was whispered from Skycloud to the most distant reaches of the wastelands. Yet no one knew for sure which side he stood upon. Judging by his acts alone, he always seemed to straddle that line instead of jumping into any commitment with both feet.

After the frightening assault on Sanctuary, Cloudhawk's reputation in Skycloud sank to the foulest of depths. Meanwhile he was cheered as a hero in the wastes, especially the south. To those simple folk he was like a god walking among them. His reappearance was a call to arms to all those who looked up to him.

Dawn Polaris fought in his name, so when she returned to the cities taken by the Conclave they submitted to her without a struggle. In the south there was only one person they would all agree to follow, and that was Cloudhawk.

He had become legend out here. Stories of his great deeds continued to grow and spread. Their adoration was at a fever pitch.

Now the legend had returned, stronger than ever. With a man like him at the fore what did they have to fear from these northern invaders? As such, southern leaders already dissatisfied with the Conclave's oppression all flocked to Greenland's side.

Dumont had not known until now what sort of prestige Cloudhawk wielded out here. He'd always known the young man to be special, but not much different from any other student he taught at Hell's Valley. Back then a particularly doughty assistant instructor could have put Cloudhawk in his place to say nothing of the three Giants themselves.

A few years later and all that appeared to have changed.

Dumont looked through the porthole at the battle raging outside. Explosions and ammunition continued to be traded between the armies at a feverish pace. It was a storm of metal and fire where tens, maybe hundreds of lives could meet their end. It did nothing to stir this sixty-year old man's dead heart.

He was numb to it all by now. Back in Skycloud no one knew his name, just a faceless commander of Hell's Army. Few common folk, if any, had heard the name Dumont Cenhelm, and fewer still knew his real name even in Hell's Valley. For two, nearly three decades he had given his service to Hell's Army and in that time he had been forgotten by the world. As a perennial commander he had lead hundreds of missions, offered countless indelible contributions to his home, but they would never be appreciated by those he served. The old soldier known as Dumont Cenhelm would die unknown, unsung, and unvalued. There would be no flowers or applause at his funeral.

But he had no regrets. From the outset he understood that the missions he performed would never be public knowledge. He also knew how fragile this seemingly prosperous world the Elysians had built really was.

To keep it all from crumbling, there were some who had to harden themselves and make a sacrifice. Some would need to immerse themselves in darkness to stand as shield and sword, fighting to keep the common man safe and ignorant. The cost of this was one's soul. He and his soldiers were the men who did not exist. A necessary evil. A firm believe in this mission is why Dumont did not lament over his fate. It was stronger now than ever, for he knew he faced possibly the most important mission of his life.

Decades of experience had taught Dumont that the turmoil and chaos of the world all stemmed from the wastelands. It was a breeding ground for the evil, the cruel and the perverse. The potential for this corruption to grow was immense and spread like weeds. No matter what methods were employed that inherent sin would never be wholly eradicated. But if they could only unify the wasteland, perhaps that might change.

The wastelands weren't going away, but with effort they could bring that chaos to heel.

Master Arcturus was a man of unequaled talent and brilliance. He had long ago laid out his plans for the wastes and it was now at the cusp of being realized. The day approached when everything would fall under the capable hands of Master Arcturus. With his genius, the whole world would know peace and order in ten years or less.

All of their sacrifice was the cornerstone for a lasting future peace!

As Dumont mulled on these thoughts the ship suddenly pitched to one side. "What happened?"

Beside Dumont were two notable figures. One was hidden beneath a black cloak and the other in green. They were the Kings of the Barrens, Canker and Toad. Both were well known for their strength and leadership in the north. Their freakish powers were comparable to a veteran demonhunter.

Each King was flanked with a coterie of a dozen or so soldiers.

"Someone's boarded the ship!"

Canker's insects were all through the ship and the surrounding area. They were like extensions of the creature himself, eyes and ears spread every which way. Any change in the circumstance in and around the ship he knew of the instant they happened.

"They appeared suddenly in the air outside and have breached our defenses."

"Hmph! There's only one person with that sort of power, no need to wonder he's paid us a visit." Dumont turned to an elder figure seated nearby. He was cradling a staff and his features were hidden beneath a cape and hood. A heavy, stifling aura surrounded him. Oren Cloude, commander of the Demonhunter Corps. Arcturus had ordered him to join the Conclave together with twenty of his demonhunter soldiers. "Cloudhawk is not dead, and it looks like he's here to handle matters personally. It's a smart move to try and destroy the command ships directly, but it is also our best opportunity."

Oren nursed a special hatred for Cloudhawk. At the battle for Sanctuary, he had caused tremendous damage and was responsible for many deaths. His brazen attack and Oren's subsequent defeat was humiliating to the Demonhunter Corps. Upon receiving Arcturus' orders, Oren was more than happy to bring his soldiers and aid the Conclave if it meant a chance at vengeance.

He was expecting to wait longer than six months, though. Reports were that Cloudhawk's wounds were nearly fatal.

Good, very good. He thought. He lives and hurls himself right into my net. I will catch this fiend by surprise and cut him down. With any luck, today we rid ourselves of a terrible evil!

"Cloudhawk is very different than he was six months ago. Do not underestimate him," Dumont warned.

Oren's response came with a dark smirk. "It's been less than a year since we crossed swords. I know just how strong he is. He can only bring a limited number of people with him here and we are many. You fear it's not enough to handle one man?"

Dumont was flanked by Canker, Toad and several dozen strong soldiers. Oren was here with twenty of his best. Such an array was strong enough to fell a Master-level enemy, even two.

The wounds Cloudhawk had accrued a year ago were dire. It was unlikely he recovered in so short a period. It was foolish to fear that he could overcome so many! It was an affront to his intelligence!

Oren went on. "Cloudhawk is the leader of this southern rabble. Cut off the head of the snake and the body withers. With him gone the south is ours, so he has presented us the perfect opportunity on a silver platter. Tell me where to find him!"

Without a word, several scout demonhunters engaged their relics to locate the man. A calm voice interrupted them a heartbeat later.

"No need to trouble yourselves. I'm already here."

The words still hung in the air as reality rippled. Several figures appeared in the heart of the bridge.

Among them were several of Greenland's best, yet all eyes fell upon the front two. One was imposing and dignified, with a large sword in one hand and a gauntlet encasing the other. The other was a young man in simple garb who bore no visible weapons, yet the danger he presented was palpable.

Dumont and his officers were speechless with shock. They'd all seen Cloudhawk more than once, Dumont especially. He had been responsible for training him in Hell's Valley for three years.

The Cloudhawk before them now was different on a fundamental level.

A demonhunter with spatial talent came along once in a blue moon, one in tens of thousands. None other than Cloudhawk possessed this power.

Cloudhawk searched the crowd, peering from one sturdy enemy to the next. There were more than he expected, but it didn't matter - they were all beneath consideration. Eventually his attention fell upon Dumont. "Instructor Cenhelm."

"You've walked right into our trap! Kill him!"

Oren was already on his feet. His face was dark and twisted, filled with bone-deep hate. With a roar he charged forward with twenty demonhunters on tow.

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