Book 2, Chapter 32 - Burning Down the House

The prison was dark, moist, still, and silent. From time to time the quiet would be broken by a pained scream that would trail off to be lost in the shadows. This prison of the forgotten suffocated under a blanket of hopelessness.

Lotus sat in a corner, nursing the unease that made her heart race.

Despite Cloudhawk’s threats and Majjhima’s protection, she could feel the hungry eyes of the inmates as they trailed over her body. She knew these men couldn’t control their urges forever, and when they broke Majjhima wouldn’t be able to stop them. Two days and one night had passed since Cloudhawk left. What was happening? What was he doing?

Tomorrow was the day master Squall was scheduled to be killed. Was there still enough time to change his fate?

This was no average danger, no typical threat. The slightest misstep could end in a young man’s death. The fact that Cloudhawk was so willing to risk his life for Squall’s surprised Lotus, for she knew that even the bravest men would think twice when faced with a situation like this.

The sounds of footsteps rang against the moist stones. It immediately put her on edge.

“Don’t be scared, it’s me!” Cloudhawk slipped a key into the door and pulled it open. He threw a ring of several more into the cage which rattled with a metallic clatter. “These are the keys for the whole dungeon.”

Majjhima snatched them up. “How did you get these?”

“Now’s not the time.” Cloudhawk kept his voice low. “There are patrols all over this place, we need to get out of here while we have the time.”

Cloudhawk followed the same protocol he’d used in Blackwater Base to sneak around the labs. Only, in the wastelands he’d been avoiding men in animal skin. These were beasts hiding in the flesh of men.

Majjhima didn’t press him further. He knew the danger they were in. He passed the keys out to a few people near him and sent them to open the other cages. Soon the halls were filled with convicts.

Next he went to the solitary confinement rooms, where particularly depraved people were locked away; like a man who killed twenty soldiers in one rampage; or a thief who’d tried to infiltrate the sanctuary. These are not simple men, but Majjhima was a crafty one. Freeing them himself meant they’d owe him.

When the crowd got to the nearby guard room they found a dozen or so unconscious. Some were slumped over a table and others were piled in a hallway. Cloudhawk’s handiwork, they speculated. He must have taken advantage of a shift change to spike their food and drink with narcotics. Only, how he managed to get passed the outside guards, all through the upper levels, then down her to do all this… the criminals couldn’t begin to understand.

He was like a ghost!

They ambushed and overcame a patrol, then proceeded to release more prisoners. Eventually there were several hundred of them, a considerable and frighteningly motivated force.

A thin man called out. “What are we gonna do with these guards?”

“I say we kill every one of these sons of bitches.” A fat and hideous looking man seethed with hatred. “Chop them into paste and smear them on the fuckin’ walls!”

“Everyone, hey. If we provoke Skycloud it isn’t going to end well for us. Listen to your boss’ instructions.”

Everyone’s eyes swung toward the frail man who stood in the middle of the group. They were hardened criminals but they knew they had Cloudhawk to thank for their escape. If they wanted to get out alive they had to listen to this resourceful demonhunter with whom they shared a common goal. If they didn’t, even if they got out of the dungeon they wouldn’t get far.

“We need their weapons and armor. Strip ‘em, then throw them in the cages.” Cloudhawk’s eyes swept across the faces of Skycloud’s fiercest criminals. There were a number with considerable strength, ten or so that even made Cloudhawk uncomfortable. They were stronger than him but kept their abilities hidden. He saved them from this hell and so they were willing to do as he said. “Fighting our way out is a sure-fire way to get us all killed, so no one act stupid.”

A one-armed man spoke up. “If sir is letting us out I assume it’s because you have a plan.”

“That’s right.” With his mask in place no one could tell Cloudhawk’s age. “The next guard shift isn’t until after morning, so you all are safe until then. Before they come and find out what’s happened I’m going to set the governor’s mansion on fire. Everyone will be distracted, and that’s when you make a break for it. At that point whether you make it out is up to you.”

Hiss! It was the sound of dozens sucking in surprised breaths.

Countless pairs of wide eyes stared at him like he was a freak. This guy was insane, he didn’t fear death. Set fire to the governor’s mansion? He dared spit in Lord Arcturus’s face! There were a few in the ground who could beat the shit out of Cloudhawk if they wanted, but the thought of pissing off the governor terrified them.

“No more talk!” Cloudhawk didn’t care what they thought. He slowly started to vanish. “If I’m lucky enough to survive we’ll meet again!”

Outside the sun was beginning to blanket the land in its warm glow.

Frost de Winter’s procession was gathered and ready.

The sense of urgency grew in Cloudhawk as he left the prison and made his way toward Starlight’s manor. When he got near he gave a soft whistle and a group of the wastelander club members gathered round, slipping out of nearby hiding places. They’d been arranged here by Cloudhawk, who instructed that they hunker down through the night and wait for his arrival.

“Boss, a carriage left the mansion about ten minutes ago. The governor isn’t home.”

“You all did good work.” Cloudhawk produced one of the gems and threw it their way. Immediately their faces lit up. “Make sure the others follow my instructions and they’ll be rewarded the same.”

“Thanks boss, thank you!”

The men were ecstatic that making money was this easy. This mysterious stranger was pleasantly liberal with his funds. After Cloudhawk dispatched his spies he activated his phase stone and snuck into the mansion.

The manor complex was surrounded by a particularly thick and sturdy wall which cost Cloudhawk a considerable amount of energy. Ultimately he got through, where he was greeted with a host of guards wandering the halls – demonhunters among them. If Cloudhawk tipped them off he was as good as dead.

Luckily his invisibility cloak was an excellent relic, one that the demonhunters couldn’t easily pick out. Cloudhawk made his way through without a fuss, working toward the manor’s center spire where he found himself in a study. Bookcases twice as tall as he was stretched overhead stuffed with scrolls, inscribed wooden manuscripts and thick tomes. 

This had to be the old scholar’s personal reading room.

Cloudhawk picked a book at random from one of the shelves. This one appeared to be a tax record of the city. Cloudhawk’s mouth curled into a sinister grin. Cause me trouble, will you, began the nasty thought. Make me leave… well if I can’t whoop your ass I’ll drive you fuckin’ crazy!

Cloudhawk poured the fuel he prepared over the bookcases and set them alight. Without wasting a second he rushed into the next room and repeated the process.

By the time guards smelled the smoke the study was already engulfed in flames. They stared in horror for they knew the fires were consuming critical paperwork and documents. The consequences of this fire were unbearable to contemplate.

The blaze was growing.

Everything here was combustible, perfect fuel for the flames. It was already too late for the guards to try and keep it contained. At the same time several more fires were raging through other rooms and before long the manor was engulfed in turmoil. Even an idiot could tell this was arson!

But arson? Was this a revolt?!

Men were quickly gathered to hunt down the culprit. Any one of them was strong enough to cut Cloudhawk down if he was captured, but that was the rub. Between his invisibility and phasing abilities he was gone before anyone could catch a whiff of him.

By the time the guards caught up with Lord Arcturus he had settled in and was preparing to watch Squall’s final march. Augustus stood respectfully by his side with a small smile on his lips. In order to make this farce legal they’d drawn up several charges, each one seemingly legitimate and backed up with evidence, and each one resulting in a judgement of death by execution. On the outside the whole thing seemed just.

“Sir, bad news!”

“The manor’s on fire!”

Augustus’ lordly smirk vanished in an instant, replaced with thinly contained rage. “How could the manor have caught fire? Who would be so bold?! We should return at once, governor. There are many importants things in the manor that should be saved.”

“Do you not find it convenient that there should be a fire just this moment?” Lord Arcturus’s eyes peered thoughtfully into the distance and then lit up. “So this is how you intend to draw me back? Such a childish ploy.”

Augustus began to understand what was happening. “Cloudhawk is the arsonist?”

“If not him, then who? We don’t know his true abilities but it is clear he is no weakling. He is at least skilled at lurking about. If he can enter the mansion unseen then there is nowhere in Skycloud aside from the sanctuary that he cannot slip into. It is likely he used this ability to hide somewhere we wouldn’t think to search.”

“So what should we do? I’ll return to the mansion and grab him.”

“No, no need to bother. He’ll come to us.” Lord Arcturus looked ahead like his eyes could pierce any obstacle, like he could see all. “Take the griffin carriage back to the mansion. I’ll remain here and see what he has in store.”

Augustus finally understood.

Wasn’t this a trick to lure the tiger from the mountain? Lord Arcturus was answering the young man’s tricks with a plot of his own. Augustus would make a show of returning to the mansion in the carriage, and when Cloudhawk thought his gambit had succeeded he’ll make his next move. Then his fate would be decided.

He was clever, but Cloudhawk was no more than a petulant brat before the wisdom of Lord Arcturus. His efforts were almost laughable. So long as the governor was here, Cloudhawk didn’t stand a chance.

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RWX's Thoughts

As the Chinese saying goes, 'the older ginger is, the spicier it becomes'.  Arcturus is one spicy old ginger...