Dawn Polaris sat before Cloudhawk. The tattered shield she’d recently won at auction was on her back and her treasured sword was slung over a shoulder. She’d changed into her warrior attire and rested easily with her heels planted on a table between them. Her shapely legs were partially contained in high leather combat boots that revealed a hint of porcelain flesh.
She stretched those long legs and took a sip of tea without a hint of awkwardness, having selectively forgotten the embarrassing events of last night and this morning. She gave Cloudhawk the rundown of Skye’s latest mission.
“Wipe ‘em out?”
The news surprised him, but he had to admit it wasn’t unexpected. It would have been unusual for Skycloud to complete ignore hundreds of convicts hiding below the city.
“Yup, but I heard you had something to do with it so I wanted to come and ask you what you thought.” Dawn retracted her long legs and folded hem beneath her for a more comfortable posture. “But don’t misinterpret this as giving them a back door. These wicked men have to be dealt with or the city’s safety can’t be guaranteed. What’s more, it isn’t just me participating, I’m just one part. That’s going to make things more complicated.”
Actually Cloudhawk was quite pleased. Dawn put her cards on the table but she’d been straightforward with him. As far as he was concerned this showed that she was starting to look at him more as a friend than a servant. She wouldn’t have had the same consideration for anyone else.
Cloudhawk frowned, his brows wrinkled as he mulled the problem over. “I don’t care about the others, but there’s a group of a hundred or so from a merchant family that don’t deserve it. They were called Bloomnettle Company. Innocent bystanders, pious, who were caught up in the crossfire. If anyone else got hurt because of me… they have to be spared. The others are on their own, but those people – I have to find a way to get them out of here.”
“Showing humanity is the mark of a real man.”
This was something Dawn admired about him. Cloudhawk clearly had the ability to flee before, but had risked his life in order to make sure others got away safely. Even knowing it was a trap Cloudhawk did all he could to free Squall. Besides, all the noise he made was definitely Lady Polaris’ style.
“Miss, everyone’s been gathered!”
After the servant gave the report Dawn drained her tea cup and bound to her feet. She moved gracefully like none of last night’s antics were weighing her down. She jabbed a finger at Cloudhawk and spoke in a tone that left no room for argument.
But it wasn’t a command, she was helping. In essence, this mission was a test.
Dawn would never allow herself to fail, whatever the challenge. However, she also owed Cloudhawk and she hated the idea of owing anyone anything. Two birds with one stone, she thought. As to whether it would make things more difficult, she wasn’t worried. ‘Too much to handle’ was a foreign concept to her.
Two hundred soldiers had been assembled. She was given an intelligence briefing and a map, then Dawn led them toward the tunnels in high spirits.
Skycloud’s tunnel system predated the city itself. At the time the area here was still in flux. Demons still roamed the land so these tunnels had been designed for the citizens to take refuge in. Once the warred had passed the tunnels remained as a way for the people of Skycloud to escape if some tragedy came their way.
Because it had to be big enough for everyone to hide in the tunnel system was absolutely enormous. It twisted and curved underground like a labyrinth. Maps of the system were also secret and tightly controlled, only a few people had been allowed to see one. It was good Dawn had one, otherwise the chances of them getting lost and dying down there were very high.
In times of peace the tunnels were sealed. No one was allowed in.
Dealing with the convicts wasn’t all that hard, in reality. Seal of the exits and without any food or water they were sure to perish in six months or less. Without maps – all of which were controlled by the highest levels of Skycloud government – they weren’t going to escape. Going in to wipe them out was more an exercise than having any sort of real significance.
It’d been years since the tunnels had seen occupants. It was dark and fetid, a foul scene that made Dawn scowl in distaste. But she wasn’t so spoiled as to detest getting her hands dirty, nor was she a clean-freak like Frost de Winter. She was used to it after a minute.
“Everyone, stay on your toes. If you find the convicts, make sure you spare anyone who surrenders. Kill those who resist!”
Skycloud’s soldiers were equipped in standard gear with the addition of crossbows and poison-tipped bolts. A sort of spotlight was affixed to their weapons and they used them to search through the darkness of the tunnels.
They hadn’t gone more than a few steps when suddenly a small group of convicts scuttled past.
Soldiers pounced on them, a few were grabbed before they knew what was happening.
More people escaped from Skycloud’s prisons than Cloudhawk had thought because it had two levels. The upper level were typical jails where normal offenders were kept, while the level below were proper dungeons that housed more dangerous felons. When the dungeons emptied naturally the prisoners upstairs were freed as well, so with so many people in the tunnels they had spread out to all corners.
Of course the men Dawn picked for her team were elite soldiers of Skycloud’s army.
They followed even the faintest traces to another twenty or thirty convicts. Most were captured alive, a few desperate and reckless men tried to struggle but ultimately were killed. Some were put down by Dawn Polaris herself.
She was no doubt a product of her illustrious family. Dawn cut down the convicts as though culling weeds. She was ruthless, efficient, and her strikes were all decisive. None of her work was sloppy. As Cloudhawk watched her slay these men he knew her attack against him in the morning was half-hearted.
“Ugh, so boring! This doesn’t even feel like a fight!”
Dawn rested Terrangelica’s blade against her shoulder and looked down the route ahead. Deviously hidden traps, painstakingly placed along their path, peppered the way. Dawn saw them but paid no mind, deliberately stepping into danger.
A rope trap tangled around Dawn’s foot, but all of a sudden it was like she weighed a thousand pounds. It failed it lift her even an inch off the ground and just snapped, but a hail of spikes shot out from the walls as the second part of the trap fired. Dawn – calmly as though she were taking a stroll through a park – slipped through unscathed and unconcerned.
Hardly worth a second thought. That level of ability was demoralizing, no wonder she was bored.
Cloudhawk thought so, too. However, he just so happened to spy something on the wall as he turned his head. It was a symbol, one he recognized. Majjhima left it here and it was more than likely Bloomnettle’s people were with him.
A clue. Cloudhawk stepped forward to take a closer look.
Only, as he approached, Oddball, perched dutifully on his shoulder, must have seen something. Through their connection Cloudhawk felt a clear warning.
He didn’t know what Oddball had seen but he was immediately on alert. In the next instant it felt like he’d slipped into an icy chasm and he was covered in a biting cold from head to foot.
Years of near-death experiences in the wasteland honed Cloudhawk’s instincts. He reacted almost without thinking.
Quiet Carnage hummed as Cloudhawk ripped it from its sheath. The black gold sword was only half raised when a dagger reached out for him from the shadows. It came at him faster than anything he’d ever seen, even the Bloodsoaked Queen didn’t have speed like this. If not for Oddball’s keen eyes Cloudhawk would have been done for.
Blade and dagger met. Not a sound was heard.
Cloudhawk felt the force of the impact sweep through him and it almost made him drop the sword. Meanwhile his opponent was unfazed. The black-bladed dagger wasn’t still for a fraction of a second, lashing out at him again like a deadly viper. Straight for him, irresistible – Cloudhawk didn’t even have time to recover from the first strike before the dagger came right for his throat.
Fast. Too fast!
His instincts took over again and he threw himself backwards with everything he had. He managed to avoid a fatal blow but the knife still caught him in the shoulder. This hidden attacker had appeared too suddenly for him to react – even the likes of Dawn hadn’t known he was there. By the time he made himself known it was too late.
Cloudhawk winced in pain but panicked when he felt the wound go numb. He quickly began to lose sensation in his arm.
Poison, and potent!
A roar went up as Dawn charged forward, Terrangelica reaching into the darkness. Before the mysterious assailant could finish Cloudhawk off a swipe from her sword forced the two men apart.
“Atlas! You’re really asking for it!”
Dawn squinted her eyes and peered into the dark. There was nothing, and then slowly a figure appeared like a shadow. A man only a few centimeters taller than Cloudhawk was revealed. He was somewhere in his twenties, and black as the tunnels that surrounded them; black hair, black eyes, black mask, black clothes, black dagger, black boots. He was like the night had come alive.
Somehow he seemed familiar to Cloudhawk.
There was a thinly contained wildness in his eyes, like a feral wolf. The way he moved was like a viper waiting in the tall grass, or a scorpion biding time in the crevice of a rock. He oozed the grim, deadly ferocity of the wastelands. The sensation was wholly familiar to Cloudhawk.
But he’d never met this man before. In fact, there were only a few people living who knew who he was.
He was strong, but exceedingly low-key and absolutely terrifying. Only a handful of the common people knew him for his existence was a close-kept secret of the city’s elite. The Court of Shadows’ second in command – Atlas.
I don’t have any problem with this guy. Why’d he try to kill me?
Cloudhawk had no idea!
Dawn’s white face grew even paler. “Give me the antidote!”
“It’s no use. My target always dies – there is no antidote for a sting from Deathstalker .” Atlas looked at her with a blank and indifferent gaze. The relic weapon in his hand, the dagger he called Deathstalker – glowed with a faint wine hue. It certainly looked like the lethal stinger of its namesake. “His fate is sealed. He will die down here.”
“Atlas, I thought you were worth a damn. Shameless!” Dawn was mad with fury. “Come at me if you have the sack, why attack a novice?!”
“He killed my younger brother. He had to die.”
Atlas’ eyes slithered back over to Cloudhawk and there was nothing in them but an infinite cold. Not a hint of emotion lived in those soulless orbs. He returned his dagger to its sheath and turned away, ready to slip back into the shadows.
(Make sure to follow Xiao Lai on instagram @xiaolaiwxw for ramblings, nonsense and maybe something interesting from time to time.)
1. The name of this creepy emo punk’s weapon is ‘hell scorpion.’ The Deathstalker scorpion is a real thing and abso-fucking-lutely terrifying. A sting can cause convulsions, coma, and death. Here’s a picture so you can suffer as I did. Sweet dreams, there definitely isn’t one in your bed sheets right now.
Yet another grudge feud. You know the old tv series Everyone Loves Raymond? This one is Everyone Hates Cloudhawk.