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Chapter 26 - The Main Force

 The northern sky over the southern wastes was still gray.

It was part of the aftermath that still lingered from the gods' failed invasion. Most estimates believed the dust would choke out the sky for at least a month before settling. Until it did, the northern section of the wastes would be caught in a lightless limbo. The darkness and cold was certain to impact climate.

Perched upon a precipice one thousand meters high, Cloudhawk the Demon King surveyed his realm. Like a statue that had been there since the dawn of time, the only thing that moved was his salt and pepper hair in the thin breeze. He cut a majestic yet lonely figure.

His scarlet eyes were cast over the barren landscape, burning from behind the hideous mask. Recent events had permanently altered the land he knew. Cloven mountains rose like broken, jagged teeth among numerous craters. It was so different from what he remembered...

"I am surprised to find you here, my King. Unless I am mistaken, I believe this was where you were born." Legion's voice engaged him from behind. The demon, still wearing the likeness of a god, approached Cloudhawk but maintained some distance. He looked out across the vista. "Thirty years only, and all has changed beyond recognition."

Cloudhawk didn't turn to look at the Elder. His response was tepid. "I remember those days; A scav, hardly able to defend myself against mutant rats. Hiding in my little hole, unable to tell day from night. They were hard times."

Hints of emotion infected Legion's voice. "Be that as it may, your humble servant recognized that you were special. Cages can't hold the hawk forever. Sooner or later it takes to the sky and its shadow is cast all across the land."

Cloudhawk suddenly changed the topic. "Have you heard the story of the glass house?"

"Glass house?" Legion searched his memory but could not recall the tale.

"I heard it in Sandbar Outpost and it struck me. The story is about a man who was locked in a glass house for as long as he could remember. All the food and water he could ever wish for was at his fingertips, and a television. As the man grew he learned how to read, write and communicate through what he saw on the television. It's how he came to understand the outside world."

Legion nodded thoughtfully. "Fascinating."

"Everything he knew he learned from that television. He discovered the vastness of the world, it's vast seas and high mountains. Cold tundras, deep valleys, baked deserts and all the people who lived in these places. Visions in the television showed him others like him exploring the cosmos, enjoying fine foods and falling in love. He learned of the many different countries and their politics. Until one day, he picked up that television and through it through the walls of his glass house."

"What happened then?"

"For the first time he was free. The man was ready to take the reigns of this new life in the greater world around him. But after only a few steps he tumbled into a dark abyss, endlessly falling until he perished." Cloudhawk paused in his retelling, pondering the words. "Only then did the man realize everything he saw on the television was fake. In all the world there was only one person and that was it. No mountains, no seas, no valleys or deserts. No countries or people or continents."

It was Legion's turn to lapse into contemplative silence. It was a moral tale, he knew.

"Life was hard when I was a scav, but I felt... rich. Like the many in the story, who never saw the world but imagined all the beautiful things it had to offer." Cloudhawk continued to look out over the wasteland's blasted panorama.

Legion offered his own thoughts in a calm tone. "Your servant imagines that it was all written once the man saw these beautiful scenes inside his television. One day he was bound to pick it up and smash his home. If he did not have a television he would have lived out his days in the house, believing it to be his whole world."

"Yes. To live in blissful ignorance or to struggle with hope in one's heart. Whatever choice you make, it's a difficult road." Cloudhawk paused suddenly and turned to look at the demon. "After all this time you still won't tell me what you're really planning."

Legion shook his head. "Your humble attendant wouldn't dare to hide anything from his King."

Cloudhawk narrowed his eyes but didn't push him any further. "Are our soldiers ready?"

"Gehenna, Ark Base and the Southern Wastes have all answered the call. When the path to Sumeru is opened we will be ready."

"Then we make it happen as soon as possible." He thought for a moment. "I'm confident the portal can get everything through, but an operation like this has never been tried before. We have no idea what will happen, or what waits for us on the other side. We can't just rush headlong into the unknown. What are your suggestions?"

"Indeed there are many uncertainties with this place. Many questions persist about what to do when the unexpected inevitably comes to pass. It seems foolish, them, to open the channel here in the heart of our rebellion," Legion mused. "This one believes you can use sub-space as a springboard. Should Sumeru be waiting, we can close off the sub-space and avoid total catastrophe."

Cloudhawk nodded.

The pocket dimension, a gift from his predecessor, had been painstakingly rewned. A large number of separated realities were linked to form a larger whole. So large was the space inside it rivaled a mid-sized wasteland settlement.

Large enough to accommodate their army, certainly. Thanks to the slow flow of time inside, it would make preparing for the invasion much more efficient. It was the cube's greatest asset. In all it was much safer to forge a link between the cube and Sumeru, than it was Sumeru and Southern Capital.

As Cloudhawk and Legion were discussing their plans, Selene quickly approached. "Cloudhawk, bad news. We're recording several strong spatial anomalies. We think Sumeru's main force has arrived."

Cloudhawk and Legion shared a quiet look, foreboding reflected in each others' eyes.

"How many?"

"Too many to count. A lot..."

The Abyssal God's vanguard had been nearly enough to destroy everything. Even with the demons' help they'd only barely survived. Gods didn't care about their lives but humans and demons couldn't afford deaths. They couldn't find this battle. A head-on engagement with Sumeru's army had to be avoided at all costs.