Cloudhawk didn’t leave his room.
Meanwhile the military started their investigation.
The guard captain’s men were explicitly warned not to put Cloudhawk in their report. He was erased. Squall was given the honor of being the one to discover the spies and Barb was said to be the one who led their team. The captain and his people were the ones who executed the operation.
Cloudhawk was also cautious. Since he’d never been to Skycloud or met Governor Arcturus he couldn’t reveal his identity, otherwise he was just creating more problems for himself. Certainly breaking up a spy ring was a meritorious act, but compared to what he’d already accomplished it wasn’t worthy of mentioning.
He decided to wait for a little while before setting out again.
A clamor from outside woke him up. Someone was screaming up and down the streets of the Sandbar:
“Burn him! Burn the blasphemer!”
Cloudhawk went in search of the source of the ruckus along with several others. A group of soldiers were escorting an elderly man with a goatee, whose ragged clothes barely left him his dignity. They paraded him around the outpost before stopping in the center of town where a stake rose from the ground.
Was this to be his execution? There wasn’t any fuel around the stake for a pyre.
A crowd of all sorts began to gather. They pointed at the condemned, excited because a spectacle like this was rare in the Sandbar. There was a peculiar figure among the others who was clad in a long black cloak. He was tall and imposing, making him easy to pick out from the masses. Physically he didn’t look much different from anyone else, but there was something about his bearing that made the people around him unconsciously keep their distance.
Adder. He’d come to join in the merriment?
“Hey guy, you finally show your face.” Squall spotted Cloudhawk and trotted over. “This isn’t something you wanted to miss, eh?”
“What’s going on?”
Squall sighed. “He’s one tough old man. They questioned him for thirty hours and he never said a word. They’re afraid his body isn’t going to last much longer so they decided to execute him publicly.”
Cloudhawk looked back toward the old man and saw the marks of torture all over his withered body. All of his fingernails had been pulled off and his hands had been badly mutilated. Wounds covered him from head to toe and blood had turned his grey robes brown.
They got nothing, so they were just going to kill him? This was a dangerous criminal, shouldn’t they bring him before a judge? Did they really just execute people here? It seemed extraordinary but he didn’t ask about it.
A man in a red cloak stepped forward carrying a book in his hands. With solemn countenance he looked down upon the old man who could barely stand. Before the eager crowds he announced the man’s crimes, revealing him as a member of the Dark Atom terror organization. He was accused of spying for them here in the Sandbar for years and supplying them with weapons, while also planning terrorist attacks against the people.
As the man in red pronounced his judgement the old man’s face never changed. From beginning to end he smirked, blood dripping from the corners of his mouth. Even facing imminent death he had no fear.
The holy man stood before the rebel and shouted over the din with a thunderous voice. “Do you repent your sins!?”
“What sins have I committed?” He remained calm as the specter of death descended upon him. Closing his eyes, the old man responded in an ice-cold voice. “I’ve committed no sin!”
The man in red’s voice was equally callous. “You gathered prohibited goods, cavorted with the Dark Atom, performed evil research and yet you claim not to have blasphemed against the will of the gods?!”
The rebel coughed though the effort clearly pained him. His bloodstained goatee quivered. “I studied science. I search for the truth! Is science heresy? Is truth a sin against your gods?”
“The accused is unrepentant!” The man in red’s voice was thick with condescension. “The gods have taught us that it is our desire that is the source of ruin! Desire and greed are the shackles that chain us to a past of calamity. There is no path forward, and to either side lies an eternity of damnation. A faithless heretic like you has no thought but to your own interests and care not for the peace of the world. You tread a path of self-destruction, and as a representative of the gods it is my duty to purge this dangerous element from our midst!”
The crowd raised its bloodthirsty voice, calling for a spectacle.
“Magnificent gods above, hear our prayers…” The evangelist opened the large volume in his hands, and in a low and solemn voice began to read. The prose were lengthy and verbose, and then he reached the end: “May the holy fires, birthed from the vaulted halls of heaven, descend to cleanse the soul of the unbelievers!”
The man with the goatee suddenly began to struggle. His face twisted in agony and desperation while the onlookers stared in speechless awe.
The old man erupted into a column of white fire. The flames were not inflicted upon him from without but burned from inside. Soon the sickening smell of burning flesh permeated the square.
“Why do you fear science? Why do you fear truth?!”
“What makes you think you’re so righteous and noble?!”
“There are no gods here! It’s a lie, it’s all a hoax! We have no gods, but that does not mean we have no faith!”
“I will wait in the fires of hell for you and your gods. I will watch from the blaze as your magnificent churches and opulent palaces collapse. My curses will be in every lick of flame, haunting you until the end of days!”
The old man’s hysterical denunciations rang in everyone’s ears and it made their hair stand on end. But no matter the strength of his will, his body could not resist the hungering flames. When the holy retribution ceased there was nothing left that resembled a man. All that remained was a pile of ash, like there was never anyone there at all.
“May every soul who walks the wrong path be delivered unto salvation.” The evangelist looked into the sky with an expression of despair for the sins of mankind. He spoke solemnly to the others. “Humanity faced destruction thousands of years ago. Without the gods there would be no inch of sanctified land for us to enjoy. Without the gods our pitiful species would have collapsed under the weight of evil. Without the gods, we would be the slaves of demons. All of our power, our cities, our land, our faith, our glory, our food, and our water – all of it has been bestowed upon us by the grace of gods! But more than that, they have shown us the proper way.”
The man in red continued to expound upon the glory of the gods.
“The gods are great because they demand nothing of you. They do not interfere with your lives. They are great, they are light, they are righteousness and they are purity!” His voice was loud and crystal clear, ringing through the air with dauntless conviction. “Please, steel your faith! When a believer draws their final breath their souls are conveyed to the holy mountain where they will forever bask in the holy splendor of our benefactors. But blasphemers can expect nothing except purification by holy fire!”
A great and inscrutable power swept through the crowd, making them shiver. Many fell to their knees in devotion.
Their faces were awash with piety and hysteria. The agnostics even gave obeisance to the faith for fear of consequence. Once the evangelist finished the execution, a flock of guards surrounded him and he left. The crowds, however, remained to pray and offer thanks unto the gods.
Cloudhawk watched the man leave. “That’s…”
Squall was surprised. “You don’t know? They are from the Crimson Church.”
The Crimson Church was a church in the borderlands who believed in the gods of the elysian lands. In their zealous devotion they erected temples to the glory of the holy pantheon. In order to support religious doctrine in these heathen lands, the elysians supported their existence. So long as one didn’t offend certain basic principles, any organization could claim to be affiliated.
There were churches that worshipped many gods, and those that worshipped only a few. There were many different sorts of faithful so most of the holy organizations had different doctrines. Many of the faithful worshipped in accordance with their professions and station in life.
For instance, the Church of the Artisan worshiped the Smith, god of craftsmen. Members of that church were architects, carpenters or jewelry makers. The Smith was the most creative of the gods, and it was said that the equipment of the holy warriors – from their resplendent armor to their godly weapons – were manufactured through methods taught to them by the Smith. Thus it was typical that their churches were filled with people of a similar trade.
One church worshipped many gods, and a god could be worshipped by many churches. That was standard practice.
The Crimson Church was a new organization here in the borderlands. Their bishop was called the Crimson One, thus the name of their organization. The gods they served were gods of punishment and absolution, so they often advocated for the purification of blasphemers as they were found. They were active in the borderlands spreading the gospel of their faith and delivering punishment unto heretics.
Cloudhawk couldn’t understand the methods these elysians chose. What were the gods, really?
Cloudhawk had never met one. Hell, he figured ninety-nine percent of elysians hadn’t, either. Most of what people knew about the gods was essentially guesses. The mysterious race of supreme beings were more legend than anything, none had been seen in years. However, Cloudhawk had met the creatures they’d fought against, the demons. He’d even killed one. So as far as Cloudhawk was concerned, these gods and demons were just a stronger species.
What right did they have to demand such faith from humans?
“The Crimson One established the Crimson Church about ten years ago and they’re already become one of the most influential churches in the holy lands.” Squall pressed his hands together before him in reverence. “They summon ‘Castigation’ from heaven that causes unbelievers spontaneously burn. Thinking about it makes my skin crawl.”
Cloudhawk sneered behind his mask. These guys were making a fool of the public by making a simple thing sound much more mysterious than it was.
Just before the old man burned, Cloudhawk felt a flutter. It was a vibration typical people couldn’t feel or hear, because Cloudhawk was possibly the only person with the skill – it was a relic!
The thing they called Castigation, that holy fire? It didn’t come from any god. It was someone secretly attacking the old man. It was nothing more than a lie to the people to make them seem like they had a god’s ear!
As he pondered this Cloudhawk lifted his head and looked across the crowd. Adder was looking back at him and their eyes met from several meters away – colliding like two swords and spewing sparks. The mysterious man nodded and shot him an intriguing smile, then disappeared into the flowing press of people.
Cloudhawk didn’t want to meddle in things that weren’t his business. The Dark Atom probably knew who he was by now so it wasn’t wise to linger much longer in the Sandbar. The longer he stuck around the more likely Dark Atom assassins would come looking for revenge. He didn’t want to imagine how an encounter like that would go. Adder was cunning and wise in not getting involved directly. More than bringing the ire of the holy city down on his head, he had to know the Dark Atom would make anyone who was part of this business pay.
Things had become dangerous. He couldn’t stay here.
It was time to go. He had to move on!Previous Chapter Next Chapter
This took us some time to discuss. 'Castigation' in Chinese was 天灭, which literally translates as 'divine destruction' but really has overtones of divine punishment, much like how in the Bible fire and brimstone was rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrah. We went through a number of considerations, like Armageddon, Apocalypse, Doomsday, etc., but settled on 'Castigation', which literally means a very severe punishment (often in a religious context). What do you think?