Dormant beneath Skycloud was a group hardly anyone knew about, built on the premise of gathering intelligence. However, once the Dark Atom contacts in the Elysian village were destroyed, no more lines of communication were opened. This network of spies was left to fend for itself or collapse.
They did not lose heart. Carefully, treading on the cusp of disaster, they slowly regrew their foundation. Eventually the Dark Atom would reach out once again and they could continue their important work.
But if you spend your days by the river, eventually your shoes would get wet. They were discovered.
An astute guard noticed that several citizens were rationing and smuggling goods over a long period. Food and water, mostly. Even the poorest citizens of Skycloud had their basic needs satisfied, so who were they keeping these goods for, he wondered?
It was this faintest of suspicions that drew the city guards’ attention. Eventually the clues led them to this intrepid group, hiding like rats beneath the city. A thousand soldiers were mobilized, and the sewers were combed for criminals.
Hundreds were captured and summarily executed. A hundred and thirty of them were publicly burned at the stake. Ten thousand people gathered to watch, and the scene left a deep impression on the city.
The clever guard was promoted for his good work and more effort was paid to watching the sewers. Most entrance were barred off or sealed, and regular patrols were scheduled. Markets and materials were more strictly accounted for to make sure that a network like that would never resurface.
That was almost two years ago. Most people had already forgotten about it.
Over time patrols grew more lax, attention waned. The forgotten enemy reemerged from the cracks three hundred meters below the city like cockroaches, miraculously surviving the purge. Not just survived. They were thriving.
A bunker had been excavated in the crypts below the city. They dug trenches to collect water that seeped through the ground, and used crude hand-made generators for electricity. They eked out a simple living in the depths of the earth where they could not be found.
They were the Underground. Skycloud’s brilliant light didn’t reach the impenetrable darkness down here.
An old, bent man was watching his men struggle with an oval-shaped object. He was tall, but thin, with long spindly white hair that jutted out in all directions. The mess of hair and his thick beard hid most of his face, but from time to time a black gaze peeked from behind the withered strands.
He was dressed in threadbare rags that probably hadn’t been washed in years. He lived like a walking corpse and had the smell to match. Among those who lived in perpetual darkness were none who cherished the light. This is what they became.
“Skycloud city… will fall.”
The old man croaked these words to himself. His voice was as withered as his hair, and the raspy tones didn’t make it clear how he felt about that statement.
A man with a black mask and a large sword on his back stepped forward. His strange black cloak wasn’t particularly wide, but strangely moved on its own even without any breeze to speak of. It almost seemed like it was made of smoke. “Have you found a way out?”
This man was one of Adder’s trusted followers, the one known as Revenant. His eyes fluttered as he spoke. Adder’s man seemed to be sizing up the geezer, but in fact it was the dark figures nearby he was measuring. Something about them made him uncomfortable. They were more than they looked, for it was not by luck that this old man and his organization survived the purge three years ago. They had other means of protecting themselves.
Hidden forces still remained in Skycloud, weaving their webs.
Stirring up trouble was their modus operandi, in particular inspiring others to turn their backs on the gods. What better method to achieve both ends than to have them kill one another? They were a group that feared a lack of chaos, and the lives they saved came at a cost. That cost was service to their cause, over time becoming pawns in their dark game.
The old man knew his role as leader of their crew was unstable. With this reality ever looming, he had no choice but to become a pawn.
A way out? What nonsense. If there was a way out, would they have lived so long in this sunless pit?
When the old man spoke his voice was heavy with resolve. His tired eyes were firm, but spoke to a life of hardship. “You know, I’ve spent most of my life in Skycloud city. I have never walked her streets in the light of day, nor have I ever enjoyed its bounty. But I do love it like a home. There is no place better than where we are.”
Revenant listened and did not respond.
The old man’s name was Majjhima, the only Dark Atom agent to ever successfully infiltrate Skycloud city. For more than ten years he’d lived here, keeping a watch from the shadows while others basked in the light.
What this not the cruelest fate one could suffer? Was it not the same as placing a feast before a starving man, but never sharing a bite? Or being condemned to watch the one you love day in and day out, knowing you’ll never have them?
No one could understand the old man’s bitter existence.
Majjhima was among the best of the Dark Atom. A true revolutionary, firm in his believe and generous in his self-sacrifice. He believed deep in his heart that one day the tyranny gripping Skycloud would be overthrown, and when that happened people would live in peace and equality. The surplus these Elysians enjoyed would be shared with those who suffered in the barren wastelands.
And yet, wasn’t it that life of plenty he so dearly cherished? He was here! So close he could reach out and touch it… But what was the point of living this cursed existence if he was forgotten by the Dark Atom? Nothing more than lingering in squalor, wasting away.
“I want to see this glorious pinnacle fall. Watch its magnificence borne away as ash on the wind. Let it be taken by a sea of fire. To me, that would be the most fitting end. I may not have possessed its beauty in my lifetime, but to make this city in mausoleum… that would be enough.”
There was perhaps nowhere else on earth with the same safety and prosperity Skycloud enjoyed.
Majjhima himself didn’t expect to feel so deeply for a city that wasn’t his. He had only ever been worthy to peer on it from the shadows. Where it at all possible he would not resort to Skycloud’s destruction, but there was no choice. This road was preordained, and their job was to see it through to its end.
He wasn’t going back to the wastelands. No matter what.
Revenant’s tepid voice returned. “Are you willing?”
“This life has been worth it,” Majjhima replied.
Revenant had no interest in asking the old man about his spiritual journey. He was about to say more about their plans when he sensed something, and stopped. His eyes darted to one side, in the direction of a sound.
The sounds of struggle.
Someone had found them.
A strange light flickered through Revenant’s eyes. He knew who it was. “Someone’s come to make trouble. I’ll deal with it.”
His words hung in the air as he dissolved into a mist and was whisked away.
Majjhima didn’t see their visitor, but he had his doubts they were trouble. After all, for two years they had been safely hidden here. His agents were careful when they came and went. Why now, all of a sudden?
No matter. Whoever it was, that which had been put into motion could not be stopped now.
Majjhima turned to his men. “Pay it no mind. Activate it immediately!”
Once the ovoid structure was engaged ancient text began to scroll across its display, followed by a group of numbers. Five minutes. After that, even the greatest of warriors would be doomed.
The old man watched, indifferent.
He knew immediately that this man who claimed to be from the Dark Atom was lying. Majjhima was no fool. The Dark Atom couldn’t get into the city, much less bring a weapon like this with them. He didn’t know how they managed it, but he would not waste the chance.
No one leave! We will bury this magnificent city together.
A zealous gleam burned behind the old man’s eyes.
In a nearby hallway Cloudhawk had just finished dealing with a few small-fry guards when a familiar group of masked faces appeared to block his path. One among them had a wraithrobe, which he knew to be Adder’s personal lackey.
“Well, shit. I struck gold huh. Look who it is.”
“How the hell am I supposed to know who he is?”
“This is Adder’s man. If he’s here, it means we hit pay dirt. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Lady Luck has taken a liking to me.”
Cloudhawk spoke with Dawn like the group of desperate killers wasn’t even there.
Revenant narrowed his eyes, and in them the thirst for blood was obvious. He wasted no time speaking and drew his weapons. In the next instant he vanished, reappearing behind Cloudhawk with his sword poised to open his foe’s throat.
Revenant’s attack was quick and impatient.
Cloudhawk never moved an inch. The woman with him was the one who reacted. With a sniff of cold mirth she lifted her slender leg, then whipped it at Revenant like a coiled spring. There was only half a meter between them, but in that short space her leg moved faster than sound. When it connected it caught Adder’s henchman like a blast of thunder.
Revenant crashed through a nearby wall, leaving a hole several meters deep. The impact reverberated down the path.
Dawn slowly lowered her leg and sniffed. “Too slow.”
Cloudhawk was left speechless. The only way he could match this woman’s ability was with his berserker strength. She deserved her dubious title of the city’s madwoman. If that kick didn’t kill Revenant outright, then it sure as shit left a mark.
The others who had come to stop him spread out and prepared to attack. Dawn responded by slowly drawing her radiant blade. “I’ll deal with this rabble. Go deal with their leader.”
Did he have a choice? He obedient trotted over to the hole that Revenant had made and could immediately tell that Dawn had used some sort of martial technique. No one could do this sort of damage with just a kick. Revenant had been blasted through several meters of solid rock.
“Eh? Where’d he go?”
When Cloudhawk looked around all he saw were a few drops of blood and strips of cloth. No sign of the man himself. Had he escaped? But while Cloudhawk sat there brooding, a black mist had begun to gather at his back. Revenant reformed and brought his sword down.
Cloudhawk gently flicked his wrist. The exorcist rod hidden up his sleeve slipped into his palm.
Immediately the weapon hummed with power, and he swung around to knock the blade away. Revenant’s tungsten sword exploded into shards of metal as the rod unleashed its payload. It rammed into the man like a torrent.
If Atlas couldn’t sneak up on him, how was this scrub going to manage?
Cloudhawk had pretended to be oblivious in order to lure Revenant back into the open. Adder’s henchman was also unaware that Cloudhawk had recently broken through his bottleneck and grown in strength, and so underestimated his enemy’s ability. Too late to dodge, the mistake might just cost him his life.
The rod’s power threatened to blast him apart, first ripping his head wrap and face mask to shreds. Only the wraithrobe was untouched, and far from being damaged it managed to win Revenant enough protection to live.
He burst into mist and retreated back several meters.
A frown soured Cloudhawk’s expression. He hadn’t anticipated Revenant would survive, though at least he was out of the picture for now. But there was something in that instant between when Revenant was in front of him and when he escaped. Without the head wrap and mask, he caught a glimpse of the face beneath the robe’s cowl. Long, raven black hair. A blood-streaked oval face. Revenant was a woman.
Didn’t matter, he was still gonna kill her ass! Cloudhawk got ready to finish her off.
Only, Revenant had no intention of continuing their fight. The wraithrobe was a relic designed to get its wearer out of difficult situations. So long as she had mental energy left, she could escape at will. Anyway, Cloudhawk wasn’t here to kill people, just the opposite. He had no choice but to let her flee.
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