At the peak of his tower, Skye Polaris drew his hulking frame up and stood regally by a window. His beard and hair shivered like a lion’s mane in the light cross breeze and the whole of Skycloud City was reflected in his eyes. The scenery lent this enormous, violent man an air of solemn intensity. Like a lion surveying his territory.
The reputation of the Polaris family was illustrious, but beneath the glow was a pressure no typical person could understand. He was growing older and the years passed quickly. He felt himself getting weaker and tried to cover it with his outrageous ferocity. It was just a ruse, meant only to conceal the fact that he was losing his strength.
Skye’s talented son had died some time before, leaving the family without a clear successor. From the outside the holy territories looked like a paradise, but beneath that things were far more complicated. Strife among families was not uncommon. The worry weighed on his mind that one day, when he died, whether his family would be able to remain here in this beautiful city of miracles.
Dawn was a fine representative; inheritor of their family’s lauded bloodline as well as from the sanctuary. She was even more talented than her father had been. All she needed was time, but could he remain long enough to give it to her?
There was a dull ache in his chest. It was from an old wound earned on a demon hunting expedition thirty years ago.
Dawn was somewhat of an enigma. After earning her rites with the sanctuary and returning home, no more than a few days would go by before she got herself into trouble. With Selene gone Dawn had no nemesis to pursue. She’d grown bold, arrogant, domineering and unscrupulous. Yet, shockingly, he hadn’t seen her for some time. Nor had there been any news of her causing trouble out in the city. For a girl like Dawn, this was abnormal.
“What did you call me for, old man? Don’t you know I’m busy?”
Her biting voice reached him even before she stepped into the room. This was her style.
The general turned around and regarded her for a moment in silence. He smelled the booze on her – most likely she’d gone out drinking the night before. He frowned and asked, “You’ve been awfully quiet for the last few days. What are you scheming?”
“Oh stop with all this nonsense, grandpa!” Inwardly her heart started to beat faster. Had he found out what she and Cloudhawk were up to? She kept her emotions from her face and rolled her eyes at Skye, feigning irritation. “I’ve been dealing with Cloudhawk lately. Ask him if you don’t believe me.”
The crags in the old man’s face deepened as he scowled. “What have the two of you been doing?”
“Training, obviously!” She answered.
He wasn’t convinced. “What sort of training?”
Dawn Polaris proudly patted her full chest. “Grandfather, think about who your granddaughter is. I’m as intelligent as I am beautiful. There’s no man in the world I cannot tame! Cloudhawk is a wastelander, a scoundrel, and in the end he’ll serve under my boot like a docile mongrel.”
She was somehow inexplicably nervous as she said the words.
Cloudhawk had suffered her slings and arrows ever since he came into the house, especially this morning. She wasn’t sure how to deal with him anymore.
How could her grandfather not know Dawn’s character? He knew it was only a matter of time before she overreached and upset their new soldier.
“Grandfather, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how high the fatality rate is at the Hell’s Valley training camp. It’s been so difficult for our family to find someone we could polish. I thought that perhaps Cloudhawk could do with some training before we send him? If he dies out there it’d just be a waste.”
She had a point. Skye couldn’t see a reason to deny the request.
“Alright, alright. It’s rare you do anything for the family, this is a good impulse for you.” If this girl was finally beginning to understand her duties to the family than good! If she kept fooling around and making trouble with the local nobles eventually the sanctuary would get tired of her antics. “Now that you’ve had some time to learn more about him, what are your feelings?”
Dawn thought about being honest but changed her mind. If she shared the wastelander’s true potential it would raise her grandfather’s estimation of him. That would mean more work for him to do, and less time to spend with her.
“I wanted to talk to you about just that.” She offered her false assessment mercilessly. “Really, grandpa, you’re losing it. This kid is weak and a total blockhead. As far as I can tell, if we sent him to Hell’s Valley now he’d be as good as dead.”
Skye’s anger bubbled to the surface. “Do you have a better idea then?!”
Dawn reached out and grabbed her grandfather’s arm. “I’m short a bodyguard. He can fill the position.”
Her sudden tenderness took him by surprise and almost made Skye break out in a cold sweat. The old general shook his head. “No, absolutely not. Out of the question. Snatching him from Arcturus’ clutches cost us, and we now owe him the equivalent of a whole troop of soldiers. Doing all that just for a simple bodyguard is a total waste. If you need a bodyguard, our home is full of them. All you need to do is tell me your preferred height and weight.”
“”I couldn’t stand having morons like them around me!” Dawn rejected the idea outright. “What is the guy dies out there during training? Isn’t that an even bigger waste? Leave him to me, I have my own training methods that I think are just as good as the training facility’s.”
Skye Polaris tugged at his white beard. He wasn’t fooled by this girl, not when he knew what the kid had done. He’d had his demonhunter powers awaken while alone in a desolate place, crossed the wastelands to get here, and saved someone from under Frost de Winter’s nose. All of that proved that Cloudhawk was anything but ordinary. Considering how deadly the wastelands were Skye had no doubt he’d survive Hell’s Valley. If he hadn’t been so confident, he wouldn’t have made the investment.
“That’s enough. You can do what you like in the interim but there is no negotiating this matter.” The old man had made up his mind. “The training facility has opened and I’ve already submitted his name. It’s settled, we’re not changing it now. He’s going.”
Dawn pressed her lips tight together. Irritation was clear on her face. Stupid old man, she thought, this old bastard!
Skye continued with sincerity in his voice. “Our family is in a unique period right now. I’m doing what I can to cultivate more warriors in part to make your life easier in the future. There’s another reason I called you here, though. Since you don’t seem to be busy I have a mission for you, a relaxing way to pass the time.
“Do you remember the several hundred convicts that escaped through the tunnels under Skycloud City? I’ve sent people out to hunt those piles of garbage down, but they’ve come back empty handed. They were even attacked a few times and a few of our men were killed. The news is starting to make a lot of noise throughout the city, and they’re a serious danger waiting to happen. This needs to be solved as quickly as possible.”
“Something this simple and they still don’t have it under control? What were those louts you sent even doing?”
“Take some people and head in there yourself. Gather these convicts and bring them back to prison. Those that resist, get rid of them.”
“You smelly old fart! I ask you for someone and you deny me, but you sure are quick to ask for my help.” Her words were sharp but Dawn wasn’t one to pass up a good time. With her sword leaned against her shoulder she casually continued. “Alright, nothing but a school of mud fish that need to be rounded up. Leave it to me.”
Skye added more in a commanding voice. “A few of them are dangerous, don’t treat this lightly. Also, Frost de Winter from the governor’s mansion and the Court’s representative, Atlas, are preparing men for the same task. Aren’t you always eager to compete against them? Now is your opportunity to show them that our family is the real power in this city!”
Frost de Winter was well known. Atlas was also no ordinary man.
Atlas belonged to what they called the Court – their full name was the Court of Shadows. They were Skycloud City’s largest official special forces unit. Very secretive and mysterious. There weren’t many of them but every member was formidable. All of them were demonhunters as well. Atlas had become leader of the unit at a young age and there was a lot more to him than that. He kept a very low profile, to the point where he was more urban legend than reality. Dawn Polaris hadn’t seen him for years.
A Skycloud City demonhunter commander, Frost de Winter.
An operative from the Court of Shadows, Atlas.
A Templar from the sanctuary, Dawn Polaris.
What was it about a bunch of escaped convicts that justified a response like this? Dawn was clever, she recognized that this was exactly what her grandfather said it was – a contest between three young stars.
“Excellent! You can wait for new of my success.”
This time her adversaries were worthy, a fact that spurred her fighting will.
However, just as she was getting ready to leave and select men for the job, an important question occurred to her. Whatever happened in the prisons, Cloudhawk definitely had had a hand in it. If she went down there and exterminated them would it make him unhappy?
She wasn’t accustomed to taking other people’s peoples into consideration. As far as she was concerned there were only two types of people in the city, especially when it came to her contemporaries;
The first type was known as ‘garbage’. They comprised the largest group. Dawn had a long-standing reputation as an insufferable she-devil, and she used to beat anyone with an ounce of talent in the name of seeking out a challenge. As a result the sons and daughters of the noble families came to fear her ferociousness. They actively tried to avoid her at all costs, and Dawn looked down on anyone who ran away from a challenge.
The second were competitors, people like Selene and Zephyr from the Cloude family, or Frost de Winter. Various churches, the sanctuary and other families had rising stars as well. Dawn challenged them to feats of might whenever she could, and with the exception of Selene she beat every one. They all competed against each other, and every one of the group was as proud as the other. No one was willing to accept defeat, and so there was no way for any of them to be friends. As for Selene and Zephyr, neither were in the city to compete with her.
Now there was Cloudhawk, and she found him to be unique.
At first Dawn didn’t see him as any better than a common thief, but after spending time with him for a while she found there was more than meets the eye. He wasn’t just a thief, he was a master burglar with skills she had to appreciate.
More importantly, he was different from everyone else, like a solitary hawk. Lonely yet proud, neither conceited or servile, and never once cared about Dawn’s status. The feeling she had for him was different from anyone else she’d met.
She should ask his opinion.
Dawn planned to seek him out but thought twice about it. Waltzing back into his room would be awkward and embarrassing. Instead she hailed a servant. “Tell Cloudhawk to come see me right away!”Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Atlas is a brilliant choice by Xiao Lai, one which I had never thought of. The name in Chinese was 擎苍, which literally means 'holds up the heavens'. I was having serious problems coming up with a name for him, but Xiao Lai hit on 'Atlas', a reference to the mythological Greek Titan who was condemned to hold up the heavens for all of eternity and bear it on his back. Absolutely brilliant!