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Book 6, Chapter 72 - A Way to Fight Back

 Cloudhawk didn't want to continue fighting, but it was not due to fear of the Avatar or her foreign allies.

If he put it all on the line, even with Selene here he could kill at least two of his foes. However, doing so would not only but him in danger but would risk the lives of Dawn and the others as well. Skycloud's high-grade warriors were many. The reward was not worth the risk.

Of course, most importantly Cloudhawk had something greater to consider.

This attack had always been designed as a cover. Destroying the foci would have been a glorious success, but his efforts were to give Phain the space he needed to siphon away Elysian might. If these terrifying warriors were at the focal fortresses, they weren't in the cities Phain was hitting.

As such, when their attack on the fortress failed Cloudhawk did not immediately return to Greenland. When his part of the plan was complete, he retreated to a predetermined location and waited until, about half a day later, a large group appeared on the horizon. A caravan of perhaps a hundred thousand migrants crawled into view.

He saw soldiers, demonhunters, but mostly Elysian citizens. Old, young, women. Yes, these were the people who Phain was sent to rescue from Skycloud. And save was not an exaggeration - even if they did not die from thirst or starvation, it was only a matter of time before the Avatar's bloody cleanse arrived.

"So many?"

Cloudhawk was honestly surprised by the scope of the caravan. It was several times larger than he'd have thought it would be. Especially shocking were the soldiers and demonhunters. He could hardly believe it.

Citizens of Skycloud were extremely devout. They bore a deep-seated loathing for the wastelands and all who lived within it, so it was all the more surprising that so many were willing to leave. Was this a result of humanity's overwhelming drive for survival, or had all faith in the realm's future collapsed?

Cloudhawk was no social scholar. To him the reason didn't matter, just the numbers. Population directly equaled vitality in his mind. Besides, he knew there were many Elysians with a mental talent. If they didn't, then their children would. Joining the wastelands was a benefit today and into the distant tomorrow.

On the only hand, these were numbers he was not expecting. The pressure to accommodate so many was immediate and staggering. Of course that had always been the story of the wastelands - struggle. The more pressure there was, the more wastelanders banded together and raised to the task. Difficulties would be overcome.

Phain addressed his leader. "There were many places I haven't visited yet. That's a lot more people willing to come with us. I could go give it a try."

Cloudhawk shook his head. "It's too dangerous for now. They've got some real scary characters, I'm not sure how many exactly. It makes no sense to risk it. Anyway, Wolfblade will have gathered another group in the north. I guess we'll see how lucky we were in a little while."

Cloudhawk then turned away and opened a portal. From it he produced a large amount of food and water. It was enough to help the Elysians along the way. Meanwhile Cloudhawk had already sent orders for support troops to come meet them. They would protect the migrants on their way to their new home.

At this time Janus appeared. "We are being pursued!"

Cloudhawk scowled. He looked out into the distance and saw the gleaming hulls of Elysian ships headed their way.

The ships were chasing after the migrants, fleeing from Southaven. Along the way sixty thousand more from other homesteads, villages and smaller cities joined them to form this massive exodus. Never in the history of the realm had anything like it occurred. The Elysian way was stop this with an iron hand and bloody consequences, lest it get out of control.

"Dawn, protect them on their way. I'll deal with this nuisance."

"You be careful."

"Don't worry about it."

Without another word Cloudhawk blinked from view. He reappeared among the Elysian ships and slipped onto its command vessel.

The armada was a large one, with around a hundred ships in total. It was hastily assembled, but their mission was a simple one. They didn't expect much resistance from a group of citizens and a handful of soldiers. Cloudhawk was more than capable of taking down an airship, but a hundred was a lot even for him.

The best course of action, then, was to cut off the head of the snake.

After infiltrating the ship, Cloudhawk made his way to the bridge. There he found a dozen officers and pilots busily working away. He was preparing to strike when a familiar face stayed his hand.

"Commander, we have a lock on our targets. Shall we begin the attack?"

A high ranking officer stood before his general. The commander was surprisingly fat for his position but the uniform left no doubt of his station. His pudgy face was tucked into an elaborate helm and was sporting a beard that wasn't well maintained. It made his cherubic look a far sight more rugged.

Hammont turned hard eyes on his subordinate. "Say that again."

Suddenly the officer shifted uncomfortably. "Sir, should we..."

He finally realized what he was saying and let his words trail off.

Hammont's eyes were like daggers as he looked over the others. "What is a soldier's responsibility?"

They dropped their eyes and avoided his gaze. It was the officer who spoke that answered, voice raised. "Our responsibility is to protect the realm, protect the people, defend Skycloud and all that we believe in!"

"Then I ask you to tell me, as soldiers of the realm what makes you think its proper to fire on our own people? On civilians?"

Silence answered. Civilians? But they were traitors! After a moment they understood their commander's meaning. None challenged him.

Hammont continued. "These are Elysians. As Elysians our directive is to protect them, not eliminate them. A soldier may lose faith, may lose face, but they can never cross that line. If we did, what would we be left with?"

But if they didn't, how would they explain this to the Commander-General! Everyone silently struggled with this dilemma.

Hammont turned back to look out over the observation deck. He pointed toward a nearby mountain range. "I suspect traitors and defectors are hiding in those mountains. Fire on them at once!"

A few moments later the armada repositioned to face the mountains. A salvo of devastating light rained upon it. After a time the range was leveled and only then did the barrage cease.

Hammont shouted his orders again. "The enemy has been destroyed! Even their corpses are dust. Tell the armada to return to base."

His officers never made a sound. None of the other ships questioned the order. In a wordless, mutual understanding the armada turned away from the caravan. Everyone knew that they were disobeying orders, but they also knew it was the right decision. What they could only dare to think in the back of their minds, this newly appointed general was turning into action without thought to his future.

Hammont Seacrest had acted in direct opposition to his Commander-General, but in doing so he'd won the respect of all his men.

A commander was meant to shoulder burdens and make difficult decisions. Hammont might not have been one of the realm's mightiest warriors, but he had the strength of character to bear all responsibility. It showed how remarkable he was as a leader.

Really the soldiers should be throwing themselves to their knees, thanking Hammont. They had no idea how close they'd come to destruction.

Cloudhawk might not have been strong enough to destroy a whole armada, but wiping out this flagship and its crew would take little more than a thought. If they had chosen to attack the citizens, their deaths would have been cruel and fierce.

**

For several days the caravan marched. Exhaustion had begun to set in and some grew too ill to see their journey's end.

Without a doubt it was a grueling challenge. Over these few days there were thousands who were left behind, buried in the wastes. Those who survived were forced to continue through the harsh conditions, along a path they knew nothing about, toward a future they never thought they'd see.

Dawn could only keep encouraging them to struggle on. She was forced to watch helplessly as children and the elderly succumbed to the road. Her heart was filled with pain and anger. It was an affliction Phain and the others shared. Was this meant to be their fate? Why?

A little while later another group met them. "Don't worry," the refugees were assured. "This is an Alliance party sent to help us."

Dawn recognized them quickly and approached.

The Green Alliance was widespread and there were marked differences between locations. This group was not from the southern wastes, but from the ancient battlefield further still. Their leader was a severe figure clad in black from head to toe. A breathing mask concealed their features.

The Khan of Evernight.

He had been another involved in the assault on Skycloud's focal fortresses. Their plans were foiled when they were intercepted by Commander-General Ash. Judging by the state of his forces, they'd suffered terribly in the attempt. Still, as it had been with Cloudhawk, loss did not mean total defeat.

As the Khan approached, Janus passed by like a shadow. She didn't even look at him. "You do not plan to see Selene?"

The Khan turned his head slightly toward the assassin. For a few moments he was quiet, but then answered in that emotionless digitized voice. "It was her fate."

"So she is just a sacrifice!"

"Perhaps. You, me, Cloudhawk... who of us are not sacrifices?"

He spoke like a machine, with no hint of emotion. Each syllable was steady and even. There was no way to see if there was any hint of humanity in the face behind the mask.

After the brief exchange silence ensued, and they went their separate ways.

Eventually the migrants were brought to the Southern Capitol. As anticipated their presence caused a great deal of stress, causing every department to work their hardest. Water towers were being drained and refilled constantly. Food pickers worked the fields in double shifts. Meanwhile the newcomers were assigned tasks and joined the labor force as quickly as possible, especially demonhunters.

For these Elysians, walking into the Southern Capitol was like being born into a new life. Changes were coming. Without a doubt, life in the wastes would be harder than what they were used to. They would have to learn to go without, but at the same time they would gain things they never knew they were missing. Freedom, for instance. Knowledge, history...

Cloudhawk did not have the energy to manage these refugees. There was a plethora of more important things vying for his attention. Chief among them, a way to defeat the Avatar.

More than just stopping the Boundary Portal, finding a way to combat the Avatar directly impacted his chance of saving Selene. The longer he let this drag out the stronger the Avatar became. Every day, Selene's chances of wrestling back control grew slimmer.

"In reality, it's simple." Later, at a conference of the Alliance's leaders, Cloudhawk shared his thoughts. "With the Cloud God's support we can neutralize the Avatar."

Wolfblade chuckled. "You are correct, the Cloud God's mental prowess is more than enough to suppress the Avatar."

"But how are we supposed to find the Cloud God, much less get it to help us? It sure as hell won't be easy," Dawn said with a frown. "The Cloud God isn't after the same thing we are. If it wanted to stop all this from happening it could have done it before Selene became the Avatar. The Cloud God could have done something when the Boundary Portal was opening the first time as well, but it chose not to."

"There's always a way." Cloudhawk then turned his eyes to Wolfblade. "Am I right?"

The Elder demons' eyes burned with cunning. "Indeed. All living things have their weaknesses and desires. Gods are no exception."

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