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Book 6, Chapter 82 - The Battle of Skycloud

 Spindly wastelands weeds reached toward the sky. They peeked from a barren landscape. The corpses of wasteland critters were everywhere. Maggots were everywhere. Insects where everywhere.

The city's elements of artistic beauty were marred by the encroaching sands. Citizens tried to keep up appearances, but they were quickly running out of food and water. They were growing frail and emaciated. Fear mingled with despair in their sunken eyes.

Some gave all their will to provide for the young and elderly, who were hit hardest by these tragedies. Others let their twisted, foul natures show by cheating, stealing or looting what they could. Survival instinct undermined any sense of morality.

Groups had gathered in the main square and prostrated themselves before the Temple. Day and night they prayed, placing all hope in beseeching forgiveness from the gods. They begged for guidance, anything to show them how to escape this misfortune.

Humans were complicated creatures. Sometimes a small spark, a fleeting thought, could lead to staggering transformations. It was when everything one knew was challenged - when they were brought to the brink - that a person truly came to understand themselves.

Wastelanders and Elysians weren't any different. It all came down to survival. The strong made it, the unequipped did not.

Cloudhawk was stunned at how quickly things had changed. In only a few short months, fertile soil had turned to lifeless sand. Incredible, that such a magnificent environment in the end was so fragile.

It'd started when Adder used his primeval weapon to destroy one of the focal fortresses. Without the energy field, Skycloud's condition began to deteriorate. The process could be reversed with the right distribution of energy. Protections could be reengaged, sparing Elysians from the harsh sun and arid climate.

But Selene - the real Selene - had eroded in the face of a god's power. The human who feared for her people was locked behind an Avatar. Robbing the last vestiges of the realm's protective energy, she doomed it to a wasting death. In truth, Elysians still had it ten times better than wastelanders. However, those used to a pampered life found it enormously difficult to live in a world of scarcity. In less than a year, many of them would fall victim to the changing times.

Cloudhawk wasn't the chief culprit here. Still, as an important figure in this historic period he had to bear some responsibility.

The old Selene had seen the kindness and worth in Skycloud's people. Cloudhawk saw it too. Since the Selene he knew was locked away, it fell on him to help defend the people she cared for.

Here they were. No more running. No matter what happened, Cloudhawk had to stop the Avatar from destroying anymore innocent lives. He had to wrench Selene from the God King's grasp.

Between the Cloud God and other senior Elysians under his banner, Cloudhawk's people encountered no resistance while making their way across the realm. All cities and fortresses they passed quickly surrendered. The Green Alliance won victory in their march without spilling a drop of blood, capturing city after city.

While taking Skycloud wasn't Cloudhawk's intention - nor any part of his original plan - nonetheless his Green Alliance was swallowing up vast swaths as they made their way toward its capitol. Before long half the realm's population was under his control.

The Green Alliance may very well have moved beyond the definition of a wilderness power. Cloudhawk was on the cusp of unwittingly achieving what Arcturus could not. Real unification.

The Khan of Evernight was traveling a short distance before Cloudhawk. His cold, digitized voice made a report. "Most of the cities we've encountered have had no troops stationed. Neither city guards nor troops garrisoned in fortresses. They've almost all been evacuated."

He was right. More than likely, all of the troops had been recalled to Skycloud city.

"It looks like the Temple is preparing for a final battle." Cloudhawk rubbed his forehead in exasperation. "Unless I'm wrong we're looking to face a million troops or more in the capitol. Those numbers are unprecedented, and the bloodshed will be too."

The scale of defenders protecting Skycloud would be a far sight greater than what they faced at Sanctuary. It made sense, since the result of this fight would determine the fate of both Skycloud and the wastelands.

From the Avatar's perspective, this was undeniably the right move. She shrank the realm's enchantments to the heart of the city and protected it with every last loyal soldier she could muster, in effect reducing the front lines to a very small area. The less spread out they had to be, the stronger the defenders were.

These soldiers were also wholly under the sway of the Temple. Even the Cloud God's grand influence likely wouldn't erode their resolve. In all likelihood, Cloudhawk was facing a brutal contest.

Leader of the mutants, Carnage, answered in his own cruel tone. "What are you afraid of? We kill our way in, and cut our way out. Our strength is not inferior."

Cloudhawk shook his head. "I'm not afraid of the size of their armies. I'm considering the cost. Like a group of cannibals being circled by a pack of wolves. All the blood and sacrifice... how is it worth anything? What's the point? These soldiers don't even know what they're fighting for."

The others lapsed into silence, considering his words. He wasn't wrong. They all shared a common enemy, and infighting only succeeded in weakening them against the real threat.

When the gods came, all of this would just make it easier for them to scour this world clean.

Cloudhawk didn't have the time to mull over the problem. The Avatar made sure he only had days to find an answer.

"Onward. To Skycloud. No matter what, we have to stop the Boundary Portal from opening."

Cloudhawk calmly gave the order. Experience had taught him that life's journey was full of things one didn't want to encounter but was forced to confront anyway. Running only made things worse. Better to face conflict head on and find a solution.

A day later...

Cloudhawk's forces had rejoined around Skycloud city. Three separate armies gathered for the definitive assault.

Cloudhawk led the soldiers from the southern wilds. Among them were the Khan of Evernight, Janus Umbra, Phain Mist and others. All told he commanded one hundred and fifty thousand men, the very best of the south, every one of them loyal to their leader.

Wolfblade commanded the northern forces. His lieutenants included Abaddon, Frost and the rest of the Hand of Gehenna. They boasted an army two-hundred thousand strong, largely remnants of the Conclave. The quality of these men were variable, but they came in huge numbers and were all well equipped.

The final army was the newest, several tens of thousands led by the Cloud God. Elysian defectors all, they came from fortresses along the Great Wall and cities they'd passed through. The Cloud God's call to action inspired them to rise against the Temple's tyranny.

Standing against them was Skycloud's combined forces, vast and intimidating. Ten thousand ships, big and small, were spread out in a defensive circle around the Temple. They were easily visible even from a hundred kilometers away. Shimmering multi-colored lights rippled among the host.

Selene's defensive enchantments were in full force. A thick shield of light hung over the Temple, the city and much of Skycloud's army.

Elysian ground forces were a staggering sight. Soldiers as far as the eye could see stood with weapons ready. At least five thousand griffin riders stood by, among a ground force two to three-hundred strong.

Amazing... terrifying and amazing! The only way to understand the sheer scope was to see it with one's own eyes.

Cloudhawk's armies ceased their advanced with about fifty kilometers between them. The air was heavy, for everyone knew that the earth would shake from the ferocity of their conflict. The first shot was yet to be fired but even so the pressure was almost unbearable. This fight was a disaster before it even began.

Seven years ago...

That was when Cloudhawk first entered the city.

He remembered how once the city stunned him with its beauty and perfection. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine, less than a decade hence, that fate would lead him down such a darkly comical path. Here he was again. As a conqueror.

"Begin the attack!"

"Wait!"

Brows knit tight, Cloudhawk looked toward the city. His keen eyes saw the front lines clearer now. Old men. Women. Children. They crowded the streets and rooftops with weapons in hand, as though ready to fight off the Green Alliance.

But he could tell by their faces that it wasn't their choice to be there. They were shoved to the front. A bunch of inexperienced citizens, used as human shields and cannon fodder.

"Avatar! Despicable Elysian soldiers! You force your people to the front and hide behind them to protect yourselves? Have you no honor?"

As his voice boomed over the city his words were met with cool indifference. Only a very few betrayed signs of guilt. Cloudhawk scowled. These innocent folk were in the way, even mingled with the soldiers. It made what he had to do much more difficult.

Concentrating fire on soldiers would be impossible without causing civilian casualties to skyrocket. If he did that the city would never forgive him or Selene. The Green Alliance would forever be the enemy.

The Cloud God intervened. A wave of mental energy washed over the city, revealing his identity. The deity called upon the faithful to turn on the city and attack their false masters.

However, in stark contrast to the Cloud God's expectations, the people of the city were not awed by his presence. They already saw him as a traitor to the divine - no different from a demon. Skycloud was the last line of defense against his betrayal. If their glorious city fell, all would be lost.

"Don't listen to him! The Cloud God has turned his back on Mount Sumeru! Our glorious saviors are on their way. They will destroy the betrayer god! To follow him is to turn your back on Mount Sumeru! A blasphemer's fate is to burn for eternity!"

Shouting the rallying cries was their new Commander-General, Ash Farran. He led the city's forces against the invaders. The Avatar was likely holed up inside the Temple, for it was the safest place.

"Avatar Selene leads us, an emissary of the God King. Her orders are the will of Mount Sumeru. What are you waiting for?" Ash raised his black spear high. His voice boomed, powerful and commanding. "Soldiers, prepare to advance! Kill all the heathens, Elysian and wastelander alike! It is your one chance at salvation!"

The city's soldiers had lost all independent choice. They followed orders almost mechanically. Skycloud's forces began to change. Countless points of light were released toward the wasteland forces. When Cloudhawk saw them launch the attack he knew there was no going back.

His eyes fixed on the Temple.

The Avatar was the heart of this conflict. He had to get to her as quickly as possible, then he could stop the killing.

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