Teal Ridge was a village situated in the south of the region, at the base of the sector’s largest mountain. Beautiful vistas rose all around the remote village, where there lived a population of simple and honest folk. They tilled their land, tended their groves, and hunted the fields – perfectly self-sufficient. For the last decade, they’d had little contact with the outside world. The stringent doctrines of faith and decorum were lax here, a place of rarely found serenity.
The village’s buildings and layout were exactly like any other elysian settlement, featuring beautiful craftsmanship and a tendency toward aesthetics. Of course, it wasn’t nearly as grand and complicated as the domain’s capital city. The spire-like dwellings were five or six meters tall only, spread out among six districts. They were fan shaped, interspersed with pockets of green and separated by roads. The districts curved around so that the whole village was arranged in a circle, like a plate. In the very center of the village was its only church.
The Church of Divine Brilliance was where Teal Ridge’s faith was centered. It was a place of prayer, healing, and sermonizing. This was a notable church throughout Skycloud domain, which enjoyed considerable influence. Devotees prayed to the gods of Light and War, and in fact the Knights of Splendor were an offshoot of their order.
A ten year old boy squealed with delight as he played with a pigeon outside the church doors. A man in whit clerical garb approached the child and smiled. “Caelum, you naughty thing. Obviously your sister still has a lot to teach you.”
“Hey, I was looking for you! You said you wanted me to join the church, why didn’t you keep your word?”
“Don’t rush, now. You’re still too young. We can talk about it once you’re older.”
The boy pulled a long face, displeased with the man’s answer.
The man in white gently shook his head. Caelum and his sister were the most talented children in Teal Ridge. His sister had shown an interest in the organization since she was fourteen and joined. Caelum was shaping up to be a fine boy himself, but having both brother and sister join at the same time was inappropriate.
When the clergyman thought back to their circumstance he felt a pang of worry. It’d been a month since they had any word from the Dark Atom. Word had come from the capital that their forces had been dealt a serious blow, but any specifics were hard to come by.
The man in white was a member of the Dark Atom, overseeing the organizations actions within the domain. The village’s Church of Divine Brilliance was their stronghold. Teal Ridge was an unassuming place few people paid any mind to, and the church especially made for fine cover. Working as a priest afforded him the prestige and cover he needed to perform his duties without fear, and had allowed him to operate in the village for a long time. Hundreds of new soldiers had been enlisted over the years and sent out to other towns. One day they would prove invaluable.
“Oh wow, look! It’s an airship!”
He heard someone exclaim in surprise. Teal Ridge didn’t have docks, much less ships to moor there. If someone wanted to travel by ship they would need to first make their way to the nearest city, making even the most humble airships a rare sight here.
Warships were completely different from their merchant or civilian counterparts. For starters they were quite a bit larger, and equipped with energy pylons they used for attack and defense. Once combat broke out, those pylons were used to create defensive shields or fire bolts of energy. Obviously, neither merchant vessels nor traveling ships had such things. As small as their village was, even merchant ships hardly every crossed their airspace. So what was a warship doing here?
“Caelum, go home.” He took the child by the arm and looked him in the eyes. “Go home and do not go back out, do you understand? Don’t ask questions, just go. Now!”
He let go and the boy took off. Once the clergyman was sure the child would listen, he disappeared back into the church. Quickly he climbed the belfry, and began to chime the enormous bell within.
The warship slowly descended through the chill mountain air toward Teal Ridge. When it got close enough, a burst of light shot out from it. Something struck the ground, a sort of cord. Soldiers bearing military-grade crossbows slid down the cord to the ground below and quickly took control of the area.
When had this sleepy hamlet ever seen something like this? The peaceful town’s serenity was instantly shattered.
“What’s going on?”
“What’s all this noise outside?”
“No time to explain. Gather your weapons and get ready to run!”
The priests were all gathered together. The eldest among then was in his seventies, the youngest only fourteen. A young girl. The man in white rushed passed them to open up a secret chamber they had been using to conceal their weapons. The young girl watched the chaos with wide, worried eyes. “What happened?”
The clergyman pressed a gun into her hands. “You have to come with us. Keep yourself safe!”
“U-uncle, what about you?”
He shut the heavy door without giving her an answer. The others grabbed her and quickly set off down the secret passage. From the other side of the door, the clergymen heard their footsteps retreated and he sighed in relief, but also pain. Thoughts of his own wife and child flashed through his head. For eight years he’d hidden here among the elysian people, built a family. Ties like those weren’t cut at a moment’s notice.
This church held too many secrets, including files on their many members. If they were found, then all was lost.
By now the warship was hovering just over the church. A great light filled the nave, enveloping everything. Then, thirty figures appeared before the door of the church. They were all in different garb, not like normal soldiers. Most of them wore very recognizable armor.
The clergyman heaved the door shut and locked them.
His hands fumbled for the self-destruct controller, attacked to explosives set around the church. He pressed the button.
The clergyman knew he would not escape, but at least he could cover the others while they made a run for it. At least he could destroy all the secrets hidden here. His wife and child were innocent and knew nothing of his actions. He felt sorry for them, for what he would have to put them through. All he could hope was that the elysians would let them live.
Cloudhawk lead Tartarus Squad to the place indicated by the intelligence report. When they got there, him and his crew were met with the unexpected view of a church façade. This was where the Dark Atom had been hiding. They’d turned it into a secret hideout, a testament to what they were capable of.
“Move it! Move it!”
“Quick, let’s go!”
His squad burst into action the moment they arrived. The church had become a den of spies, and once destroyed it was sure to cripple Dark Atom efforts throughout the domain. Tartarus Squad’s trainees were all eager to prove themselves and charged impatiently forward.
But Cloudhawk felt something wasn’t right. He stared at the church as the premonition grew, then waved a hand at the others. “Wait!”
He slowly raised his hand.
Oddball fluttered its wings and rose into the air. Its round little body slipped through one of the windows, and found that the inside of the church was empty except for a single man in white. The bird’s keen eyes saw strange marks all over the inside; on the walls, the pillars, and the floor. Its sharp hearing picked out the sound of dripping water. A bomb, a Dark Atom explosive. The terrorist knew they’d been found out and were going try and take his people out with him.
“This place is covered in explosives. The second we walk in they’ll go off.”
“Captain, we haven’t gone in yet. How do you know?”
“Cut the shit! No one move!”
Cloudhawk pulled the Gospel of the Sands from his clothes, then gently threw forward. It dissolved in midair, becoming countless grains of yellow sand. The grit gathered together into a humanoid shape moments later. At first it was obviously not real, but little by little the details emerged, and the sand golem bore the spitting image of Cloudhawk.
A sand clone? His squad mates looked on in wonder.
He’d used this power before in his fight against Drake, but it was the first time they were seeing it clear. What an amazing trick! His clone strode cautiously into the church and delivered a single sentence. “You don’t need to fight.”
The clergymen looked calmly at the masked man as he stepped inside. He didn’t say anything, there was nothing that needed saying.
The two had different beliefs, even different values. What could be said to change that? Now that he was here, the clergyman didn’t regret his path. Revolution required sacrifice, and it was the efforts of thousands before him that the fires of insurrection still burned to this day. The fires weren’t strong enough yet, but one day it would grow to be an inferno, and a new world would rise from the ashes.
“Long live the Dark Atom!”
The godly statues, painted ceiling, carved pillars, and polished floors all erupted at once. The hellish flames swallowed the man in white first, then surged like a stampede across where Cloudhawk stood. The explosion blasted the windows and sprayed shattered glass all around. Flames reached from the cavities like hands groping from the abyss of hell. The trainees outside were struck by a wall of heat.
Everyone hit the floor, but the explosion still knocked the breath out of them and made their heads spin. A few of the weaker wounds sustained minor injuries.
They stared at the smoldering wreckage, disbelief on their faces. How could they have packed so many explosives in that church?
With ashen faces the trainees picked themselves up off the ground. The church and everything around it had become a lake of fire. The only thing that survived was a wisp of sand, which floated by on the wind and gathered in Cloudhawk’s palm. It reformed into a metal-bound book with scenes of the desert on its cover.
“It’s a good thing the captain stopped us.” Felina’s heart was still racing. “Otherwise there wouldn’t have been anything left of us.”
At roughly the same time, Frost de Winter was waiting with a fleet of airships nearby.
He slowly opened his eyes. “It’s time. They’ve likely begun. Let’s see for ourselves.”
An aid from the Cloude family stood by his side. “Sir, I don’t think we should. We were instructed to wait here for Hell’s Army to clear the area, then go in. If we go in now we might reveal the army’s existence.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not bringing all of our troops. Just a few men.”
“I suspect Hell’s Army isn’t performing the mission as instructed. I must see matters for myself, isn’t that what’s expected of a commander?” As Frost slowly rose to his feet, a carpet of frost spread out beneath him. He looked out in the direction of Teal Ridge, and a smile crept into his lips. “Call that new fellow.”
The Cloude family servant had to obey.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Not the best start, and the next chapter's title fills me with ominous feelings.