The general’s compound had been swallowed by an invisible haze.
What happened at the Blisterpeaks had struck a serious blow to the strength of the Polaris family. Already in a phase of diminished strength, one could imagine the burden such a loss placed on the embattled military lineage. Many of the small and medium sized families that had followed the general were now silent, leaving the compound a grim and desolate place.
It was around midnight, and in a training hall a woman with long blonde hair was seated cross-legged in meditation. In her stillness she was the dignity of a godly effigy, beautiful and alluring. However, to anyone who knew here it was obvious this angelic facade was a perplexing mask. Beneath it was a devil woman with a hair-trigger temper.
“Who goes there?!”
Her eyes popped open and she spat the word out. It boomed through the room like thunder.
The wall before her spat out plaster as a hole appeared. Her gaze alone was enough to cause damage to her unseen assailant. It was a technique only high level martial artists were capable of, lending a valiant air worthy of a templar.
Hmph. The gall, barging in here! The woman scowled and reached for her sword.
A familiar voice wormed into her ears as suddenly a figure emerged from the ether. It was none other than Cloudhawk. But why? Hadn’t grandfather send him away on some mission in the wastelands? What was he doing here?
“I know this is suspicious, but I don’t have time to explain.” He knew Dawn was going to whine that he didn’t come to see her sooner, but he couldn’t spare the breath. “I have urgent information that the general needs to hear right away.”
“If you’re here to see grandfather, then now is exactly the wrong time. With everything going on he’s taken a trip to his home town. He won’t be back for a while.”
The home town she mentioned was located in the ancestral lands of the Polaris family. There were at least a dozen cities of considerable size in Skycloud, each with a history spanning thousands of years. Not all of Skycloud’s elite had been born there.
Back when their gods established this domain, they granted meritorious soldiers of the war various levels of authority. Skycloud came to adopt a city-state system of governance, where each area was mutually independent. They had their own laws and organizations, and the nobles who lived there enjoyed a high degree of personal autonomy. The city itself was a self-sufficient core of leadership.
After such a terrible loss, Skye Polaris had no choice but to return to his home city and assure the populace that everything was alright, and also transfer some of his own troops to bolster the ones he’d lost. How could Cloudhawk have known this would happen? Were his enemies really that clever? They all knew who Cloudhawk was and who he worked for, but still had the gall to arrest him. If they’d tried it while the general was here, it would have definitely sparked his famous temper. They would have at least thought twice.
Dawn asked what had happened, and as Cloudhawk explained the situation her eyebrows climbed up her forehead. Eventually she shot to her feet. “Without grandfather here, the fiends are growing bolder and bolder! I’ve been too nice for too long. It seems people have forgotten to be afraid of me!”
This was the she-devil Cloudhawk remembered. She’d been almost demure ever since completing her training in the Temple. It was likely the only bright spot in a sea of shit for Skye. But assuming that Dawn’s character had changed was a fatal mistake. She had just been too busy to let her crazy colors fly.
For the last three years, her focus had been on training. Gone were the days when she could idly wander through the city causing trouble.
Dawn was considered a star pupil of the Temple. She was a master of art, music, chess, and sculpting. Whether it was physical training or studying the arts, she never really had to work hard. With the slightest effort she mastered what would take many a lifetime to achieve.
Her art was oft on display, and the music she composed was cherished by the Temple. Few could match her in a game of chess, and with training she had come to develop a rare level of physical and mental potency. Her sheer magnitude of accomplishments hardly seemed human.
All she needed was a fragment of her attention and Dawn Polaris could do anything. After several years of training, it would be fair to assume her skills were approaching that of the older generation of elites.
Dawn no longer gained pleasure from tormenting the children of the family. Her aim now was to be the scourge of the city’s elite, and perhaps to show them that their assumptions of the Polaris family were dead wrong. This was a primary reason for her latest good behavior, the quiet before the storm, before she made her grand move. Yet she had not anticipated that at this crucial moment, her grand scheme would have to be put on hold.
She needed more information. “What’s so terrible that you needed to rush back and see my grandfather?”
Cloudhawk pondered whether or not to tell the truth. In all the city, who else but Dawn would believe him and have the balls to do something about it? Besides, now wasn’t the time to be picky about his allies. He briefly explained his suspicions that Adder had a plan to attack Skycloud city.
“What? You’re telling me that Sterling Cloude has become a wasteland cult leader, and that he and Zephyr have been lurking out there in the desert for years?”
Dawn’s eyes were wide after hearing these claims. News was still circulating through Skycloud and apparently hadn’t reached the Polaris family yet. Even for a girl like her who thrived on chaos, the explosive news hit her like an airship.
“That’s not everything. Let me finish.”
Cloudhawk went on to tell Dawn about the primeval weapon that had been hidden in the belly of Nucleus. This ‘atomic bomb’ was now under Adder’s control, and worse he had vanished off the face of the planet. There was no trace of him to be found in the wastelands. That could only mean one thing – he was trying to find a way into Skycloud.
Cloudhawk didn’t know where the snake was hiding, but he had reason to believe he was close. If there was anywhere in the Elysian lands where a weapon like that would make the biggest impact, it was here. Adder had the skills and connections to get here, so that meant Skycloud city was living on borrowed time.
Dawn was floored. She didn’t know how to process the information. It was all so sudden, and so dire, and caught her completely unprepared. But she knew that Cloudhawk was not the sort to involve others unless he had to. There had to be a real threat of destruction or he wouldn’t be here.
“Quick, surround the place! The fugitive has probably already entered the compound!”
Dawn wanted to ask him questions and learn more, but the sounds of movement outside drew their attention. Judging by the din there was a group of soldiers surrounding the place. It was obvious why they were here.
Her fury seethed up from inside. “Do these peasants think the general’s name means nothing?! I’ll tear them apart!”
“Don’t waste time! I absconded from the Skyden, so everything they’re doing here in legal. There’s no use tangling with them over this, it’s better to just deal with the matter at hand. Remember, we’re talking about a million lives here. Everyone in Skycloud city. Fuck, everyone in the whole domain.”
He was right! This was the capital city!
If their capital fell who knew what calamity would befall the rest of the domain? All of the knowledge and history of their holy land was housed in this city.
Dawn snatched up her equipment, and without waiting for another word from Cloudhawk commanded him with a righteous air. “It irks me to say it, but I’ll do what you recommend. You and I together will prevent this evil from claiming Skycloud.”
This high-and-mighty girl of noble blood would never change, but he’d convinced her. If Cloudhawk were lying, then he was doing a damn fine job of it.
Cloudhawk would say more but a shiver crept up his spine. A relic – faint, deadly, but easily recognizable. Deathstalker!
The purple-shrouded blade lashed out, its deadly and lusterless blade sweeping through the air. The ground split, a table shattered, columns crumbled, all in an instant. Everything seemed to become infected by some terrible rot that withered whatever it touched.
Atlas Umbra materialized from the gloom. He was like a shadow, soundless and formless, without even a hint of malice in his bearing – like the specter of death.
His first attack missed. He immediately followed with a second. A sinister gleam flashed as he stabbed toward Cloudhawk.
Both he and Dawn dodged, while she instinctively reached out with her mind toward her Aegis Mirror. Her quick reaction shielded them from assassin’s blade. “Atlas!” She roared. “You dare break in and attack me in my own home?! You better believe I’ll skin your hide!”
Cloudhawk heard the resonance of increasingly more relics. Demonhunters from the Court of Shadows had the compound surrounded, from many different families. Now wasn’t the time to take a fighting posture. Summoning the power of the phase stone, he grabbed Dawn and ran.
“Forget about them. We need to go!”
Atlas held tight to his relic and it trembled in his grip. A dim power oozed from Deathstalker to form a hungry maw, which threatened to swallow both Dawn and Cloudhawk. It bit at Dawn’s shield, sapping it through whatever caustic power it bore. However it was enough time for Cloudhawk to gather the energy he needed. The air around him shimmered and spread out all around.
No, not the air. It was reality that rippled. Just as Atlas’ dagger closed in the two figures blinked from existence.
A moment later Felina came charging in, swords raised and a host of assassins on her heels. She saw Atlas standing alone in the room and she had to stop herself from sighing in relief. “Where’d he go?”
It was Atlas’ first time confronting a problem like this. His prey was right within his grasp, only to suddenly disappear. One of the relics he held allowed him to sense if someone was hiding within a thousand meters, which meant they could run but not hide. However, for the moment it seemed they’d completely eluded him.
This had to be that power from the legends, the ability to manipulate space. Demonhunters were a rare commodity, and even fewer of them had the ability to use such relics.
Atlas was silent, thinking. After a series of failed attempts he was beginning to learn. Somehow, Cloudhawk was able to sense his presence.
Deathstalker was returned to its sheath and its owner breathed a frigid order. “Call everyone. I will lead the hunt, he cannot leave the city.”
“But where should we look?”
“I managed to mark him while we fought. Through it I will be able to track him, no matter where he tries to hide.”
In their last exchange Atlas suspected he might fail, so he prepared a special powder to use in that event. It indeed marked Cloudhawk with an invisible tag that he would find scentless, but that Atlas could readily identify.
Cloudhawk was able to hear relics, but this powder was not that.
It was the first time Felina knew Atlas had a method like this. There was a reason Atlas was the second in command of her order. Inwardly she was worried about her former boss, but she couldn’t understand what he was thinking. Caspian was Overseer of the Prison, so Cloudhawk had to know he was safe there. All he had to do was wait for General Skye to come back and he would have cleared everything up.
But he didn’t, he chose instead to break out of prison – a far graver offense.
The Court of Shadows was entirely mobilized against him now, and likely other groups as well. She didn’t like where this was going.
Meanwhile, Cloudhawk carried Dawn through space several thousand meters from the compound. The process was incredible draining. In effect, what he was doing was folding space between two points. The farther he tried to go, the more energy it required. Quite the demanding trick.
“How did we get all the way here?” Dawn was taken aback. It was the first time she’d ever seen anything like this. “Did we just...”
Cloudhawk pressed his finger to his lips to silence her, as his eyes were pinned to a lurking figure in front of them. The silhouette crawled out from a drainpipe then slipped into the crowd, indistinguishable from anyone else.
This gave Cloudhawk an idea. Wasn’t that one of the lurkers, from the sewer system below Skycloud?
Cloudhawk didn’t wait for Dawn to ask the many questions he knew she had. “If there’s nowhere in the city for us to hide, I think I know someplace that’ll suit us just fine. We haven’t found any clues yet, but just maybe we’ll get lucky where we’re going.”
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