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Book 6, Prologue - Heart to Hear

 Thousands of airships raced across the dusk-lit sky.

Elysian warships, elegant and dignified, shuttled toward the horizon.

An older man with sideburns white as snow, dressed in plain gray sat within one of them. He closed the book he was reading with a slight cough then squinted at the fiery clouds in the distance. As the deep light of the setting sun shone upon his face it outlined his many wrinkles, making him appear both wise and harried.

"We've almost arrived, my teacher."

Two people entered the cabin. One was a young man in silvery-white armor, handsome and heroic with an imposing air. He'd grown strong in the last few years.

The other was his opposite. Short and fat, the man did not appear to be anything special. Yet despite that he had a keen talent and was infinitely clever. There was something in him that more resembled the old scholar than the knightly youth.

Frost de Winter addressed his Governor. "We can attack at any time, simply give the order."

Hammont Seacrest followed him. "The Green Alliance is still young and not yet stable. If we act quickly, we could sweep through half of its cities before they mount a defense."

The enemy was on unsure footing. Was this not the perfect time to launch an attack?

Master Arcturus Cloude shook his head. "What would it serve to destroy their cities? Can we pierce Greenland's defenses? Can we destroy Nox? The moment this war starts both sides will be caught in the mire. We will be tied up in it for half a decade."

Hammont was at a loss. "Our realm is ten times the power the wastelands are. Our forces are several times the size of theirs. Even if the conflict lasts for five years or more, in the end we would surely be victorious. So long as the Green Alliance is crushed it would be worth it even if it is costly. Once their resistance is no more the wastelands would need a hundred years before they could rise against us again!"

"Have you both already forgotten what I told you when we set out?" Arcturus' voice was calm, but the backs of his students stiffened at the stately tone. "We did not come here today to start a war."

Both men were silent, speechless. Before they could find words to respond the ship trembled beneath their feet. They were slowing down.

A high ranking officer stepped into the cabin to give a report. "A large wasteland force has appeared in our path!"

Arcturus looked out the window. There he could see Elysian ships stretched out for tens of kilometers in all directions. They hung in the air in perfect formation, awaiting orders. Beyond them was an array of cruder wasteland ships of many different sizes deployed along the border of the Green Alliance's territory. None moved from their post, in defensive formation and awaiting the enemy's move. The two armies were already dangerously close. If they closed the gap any further they would be within firing range.

"Hammont, approach them as our emissary. Tell them I would like a word with Cloudhawk."

Hammont bowed and took his leave. He boarded an Elysian griffin and it bore him on its massive white wings toward the wasteland armada. He was not concerned with the formidable power he was flying toward, alone. When he was within earshot, he shouted Arcturus' request.

It took only a moment for the air before him to warp. Reality twisted uncomfortably, and from it emerged a figure.

His age was impossible to determine though he still looked young. Black hair the color of coal hung to his shoulders and every inch of skin that was visible was as clear as jade. His eyes were darker than midnight and fathomless as the night sky. A suffocating aura wafted from him and filled the area, leaving no question as to the power at his command.

"Y-... you're Cloudhawk!"

Hammont faced his old comrade, but he could hardly believe his eyes.

It had been almost exactly a year since the battle for Sanctuary. Had Cloudhawk really changed so much? The man before him was like a completely different person, from the inside out.

One marked difference was his bearing. Cloudhawk was now a true and capable leader. The likes of which the wastelands had never known.

Cloudhawk offered him a smile. "Hello, Hammy. You're a proper commander now, very close to achieving your old dream. Congratulations, truly."

Conflict tore at Hammont's heart. He fought back a thousand words and thoughts to finally respond. "Master Arcturus Cloude requests a parlay so that the two of you may speak."

Cloudhawk glanced at the vast matrix of Elysian warships. "Very well."

Several minutes later, with the two armies maintaining a safe distance, two figures hovered alone between them.

At last Arcturus Cloude met again with the young man from so long ago. There was emotion in this reunion, but no surprise. Long ago he'd suspected this day would come, but he had to admit it had arrived faster than he had imagined. Cloudhawk had grown so quickly, so much that it had disturbed his plans.

The two men faced one another, floating in the air. "It appears you have come to accept your destiny," Arcturus began.

Cloudhawk hovered, still as a picture with thousands of feet of nothing beneath him. For these two, floating like this didn't require even a second thought. Upon hearing Arcturus' estimation Cloudhawk gave a dismissive laugh. "I'm sorry for getting in the way of your plans for world domination."

Arcturus was not angry at his flippant words. "My intention had only ever been to unify the wastelands as well as Skycloud. To unify the entire world. Do you really believe I do it all for my own ambition?"

With genuine curiosity, Cloudhawk asked, "Then why?"

Skycloud's Governor was happy to instruct. "In reality, our goals are the same. What I do is in the name of everyone. Not my home, not my realm. I strive for human dignity and survival. My faith in the gods is a front, if I am being entirely candid. Under their enslavement our species has dwindled to almost nothing. One day we will cease to be. All I have ever wanted was to make sure that doesn't happen."

Skycloud's Governor, Arcturus Cloude, the mighty Master Demonhunter - speaking out against the gods? Perhaps he already knew the truth?

"You killed Skye, Baldur, Sterling... when I was training in Hell's Valley I saw everything you were involved in. All sorts of crimes done in the name of the gods. What you've done and what you say run in opposite directions. Am I wrong?"

There was a bitterness and helplessness to Arcturus' grin. "That boor Skye was a bull, only good for breaking things. As for the Crimson One and the others? Do you still not see, even now that you have risen to my position? They were not wrong in their ideals, only rushed in their execution. What they aimed to do put the whole of our species at risk."

Cloudhawk did not interrupt. He waited quietly for the Governor to explain.

"Baldur learned a small part of the secret these gods have tried to keep. He wanted to spread it, to tell everyone. But do you not see? It would mean the immediate collapse of everything that Skycloud has been built upon. What do you expect would happen when their faith was shattered? With the delicate balance we've maintained shattered, the gods would be compelled to act. They would never tolerate mortals questioning their rule. The Crimson One was even more brazen, attempting to gather together a force to confront the gods directly. My foolish younger brother had no idea the forces he was antagonizing!"

"So you killed your brothers to delay mankind's conflict with the gods."

"You should understand my methods. Obliterating the wastelands would not be difficult. Were I inclined the wastelands would never have risen to the state it enjoys today." Arcturus fixed Cloudhawk with stern eyes. "At the root of things and to my eyes, the wastelands and Skycloud are the same. They belong to us, to humans. But I am afraid I know the gods better than you do. It is not the time to rise against them. If we try before we're ready, it would only seal our doom."

Cloudhawk was surprised that Arcturus would be sharing all of this with him. "What are you planning to do?"

"The Cloud God slumbers," Arcturus replied. "This is an unprecedented opportunity. We join forces and in the peace that follows build our strength. Ten, twenty, fifty years - so long as we maintain the illusion that we keep faith in the gods we can levy that temporary humiliation into ultimate autonomy. One day all of our efforts will mature, and we shall enjoy the fruits of this labor."

Cloudhawk frowned. "You are willing to wait that long?"

"This is the Big Game. We cannot get caught up in every gain or loss, victory or defeat. If we want humanity to cast off the yolk of oppression you must understand that it will not come overnight. Generations of effort and accumulation are needed. The strength to endure while we wait for the perfect moment. Do you know why I always held back, despite having several chances to end your life in the past? Because I knew immediately that you have the strength to continue this calling. You can help us carry the burden and convey this great accomplishment into the future!"

Cloudhawk's frown deepened.

Arcturus went on. "Your efforts have been to win liberation for the wastelands, but that is too small. I am striving to save our entire species from slavery. Skycloud and the wastelands must push forward with one heart. That is my ultimate goal, to end the fighting. For wastelanders and Elysians to stop murdering one another. For humans to stop killing other humans."

"Perhaps you are right, but a few decades or centuries? We don't have that much time to wait." Cloudhawk resolutely shook his head. "You've chosen the wrong person. There's no way I can continue your mission, because there's no way I could ever learn to do all the things you have done! If the gods truly do descend upon us, I wouldn't be opposed to giving them a bloody nose also!"

Arcturus was still just as firm in his denial. "You think you understand the gods? We have no hope for victory! By pushing for war now all you are doing is dragging your people toward destruction, and the whole of Skycloud along with them!"

There was nothing more to gain from this conversation. Their views were too different. Nothing Arcturus said would convince Cloudhawk.

Cloudhawk could sense that Arcturus' words were honest and he felt the truth of them deeply. But he was a defeatist who believed destruction was inevitable if they rose against their oppressors. So for years he pretended to be their loyal subject, while in secret balancing the power of Skycloud and the wastelands for some future conflict, urging them to grow by careful steps.

Once both sides had developed to the proper heights, that was conflict would come.

What Arcturus was attempting to do was to unify the wastes and Skycloud while free from the Cloud God's supervision. He was attempting to continue developing these powers on his own so that decades later when the time was right, all humans could rise and fight.

He didn't care what people thought of this, or who he hurt to realize this mission. He didn't care how much blood stained his hands or how dark a path he tread.

Like he said, all of this was the Big Game. The fate of individual pieces didn't matter when taking the long view. The consequences of a few lives didn't matter when you were playing with the destiny of an entire species. Unfortunately Cloudhawk did not agree. Had had neither the patience to wait nor the endurance to make these sacrifices. There were too many variables, too much time.

A hundred years was far too long. He only had today. The worst that could happen was death.

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