Cloudhawk was kept in the Skyden, under Templar guard. Even the prison Overseer wasn’t given permission to see him.
The Temple’s sentence had been handed down. What was done could not be undone, and there was no authority that could overrule his judgment. General Polaris could come storming through the door and it would make no difference. Cloudhawk’s fate was sealed; execution, al because he had been to hasty.
Skycloud’s leadership council would dig into every question they had. Cloudhawk’s wasteland background would be revealed, as would his connections to the Dark Atom and his association with demons. They would grill him for answers, but why would he confirm any of it? He was already bound for the stake, and if he shared the whole truth all it would accomplish was to drag the General and others down with him.
It didn’t matter how the Templars would interrogate him. He would die before he answered their questions.
What torment had he not endured through the years? He was almost curious to see how Templar torture compared to life at Hell’s Valley. When they finally did, he was frankly a little surprised. They either didn’t know his about his stubborn personality or he was given special treatment, because the torture wasn’t anything special. They didn’t use any terrible methods or special techniques to try and get him to talk.
How could they expect this half-assed effort break Cloudhawk?
After all the beatings he took to get here his skin was tough as nails. Their beatings were gentle as a lover’s caress. The Templars were unable to learn anything of value.
Meanwhile, Cloudhawk focused on enjoying his final days.
He didn’t just hang around, so while his body couldn’t move his mind was still agile. Long hours were spent thinking, especially about all he had experienced since coming to Skycloud.
A lot had happened and his experiences were many, but he always felt as though something was missing. Although he’d gained a lot, he lost just as much. Thinking on it for a long time, he came to a realization. What he’d lost was his ideals and his faith.
He felt adrift on the wind, going where it led him. A mindless shambling corpse, a stilted marionette. Sure, he’d always talked about living a good life, but not even he knew what that meant. He couldn’t say what he stood for or how to live life. Lost, ignorant, like he was always stumbling through a fog.
Deep down inside something that had held him up was gone. He was filled with a sentiment of meaninglessness.
These were growing pains! But he wouldn’t have to suffer long.
The date of his execution quickly approached, but he wasn’t afraid. On the contrary, there was a grim sort of relief that it would all end. That wasn’t to say he didn’t fear death, only that the life he’d been living scared him more.
“Cloudhawk! Off you go.”
Templars escorted him from his prison.
Interrogations had been halted as they were no longer worth the bother. Better, they thought, to execute Cloudhawk quickly before the General returned and muddied the waters. There wasn’t much he could do if he came back to a pile of ash.
Phain Mist led the procession personally. Cloudhawk was then flanked by Templars, hands ever at the ready on the hilts of their swords. He remained bound hand and foot by heavy chains as they paraded him down the city’s main thoroughfare. His destination was the city center, where the stake waited.
Dusk had turned the sky a myriad of colors. Crowds had gathered along the road to watch – obviously word of his execution had spread. Citizens from this neighborhood and beyond all congregated to bear witness.
They were packed tight like a herd of animals, stretching as far as Cloudhawk could see. It was as if the whole city had turned out to watch this villain earn his just retribution.
“Sinner! Demon-lover! Burn in hell!” A middle-aged citizen with wild hair and puffy red eyes pushed to the front of the crowd. He flung a rock toward Cloudhawk’s head. “My wife was in that market with our daughter to buy clothes. Now they’re gone – because of you! My baby girl was only five years old. Give them back, you animal! Give them back!”
The Templars managed to hold the grieving man at bay, but his rock struck true.
Anger rose up among the others upon hearing the poor man’s words. They all stooped down to pick up rocks, eggs, or whatever else they carried and threw them with the nastiest curses they could conjure.
Phain made no effort to stop them. The Templars continued, stone faced.
This was part of his punishment.
Thousands had been hurt or killed by Cloudhawk’s actions. Resentment festered like an angry wound and someone needed to take the blame. Someone had to be brought forth to be the focus of the people’s pain. Unfortunately, Cloudhawk was chosen to be that someone. For decades to come people would curse his name and spit when it was mentioned.
Cloudhawk feared no bullet, no hail of blade or arrow. These rocks and eggs would do him no harm, but the humiliation cut him deeper than any sword. The insults were a blight worse than any poison. Words wounded him more deeply than any weapon could.
His looked out over the angry, twisted faces. The stark light of dusk cast them in shadows that made them all the more monstrous.
He faced their foul curses in silence. He took their hail of garbage and did not try to protect himself.
Cloudhawk had suffered much. He was accustomed to the vilest parts of human nature and was acquainted with hysteria. He wasn’t sure whether he was numbed to it, or if in facing his mortality he no longer cared. Whatever the reason, he didn’t answer to their fury.
A shout cut through the din of the crowd.
Dawn pushed through, her hair all a mess, and brandished her sword at the people like a wild animal. She swung her sword to keep them at bay. “Fools! Idiots! Do you know what you’re doing?! Do you have any idea?! I’ll kill anyone who takes another step!”
Phain’s reacted, faster than most could follow. In one smooth movement his golden Templar sword was drawn. Streaking through the air, it left a trail of gleaming light in its wake. A single blow disarmed the unstable woman. As if on cue, a pair of Templars appeared on either side of her and held her against the ground.
“You don’t think this matter is serious enough?” Phain returned his rapier to its sheath. “Leave! Reflect on your sins!”
“Reflect? You want me to reflect? What sins have I committed?! Trying to exact justice in a world where there is none? Is that what you want me to atone for?” She raised her tear-streaked face and stared defiantly at the acting Grand Prior. “Teacher, instruct me. Is this what we stand for?!”
“You are no longer a warrior of the Temple!” Phain looked down upon her with his brows furrowed. “Take her away!”
He glanced at the Templars holding her, and they dragged Dawn away. She’d only recently been released from her captivity and her wounds had not yet healed, not enough to fight back. All she could do was cry out Cloudhawk’s name in despair as they pulled her from view.
Her one and only friend! Was this all she could do? Watch helplessly as they marched him to his death?
Cloudhawk’s lips wilted into a frown, and he let out a small sigh. For some reason he thought about how much money he still owed Dawn. Luckily, Gabriel is still around, he thought. He hoped the guy would do what he promised with the earnings they got for helping Autumn.
Many saw the dramatic exchange, including a master and apprentice overlooking the crowds nearby.
Frost de Winter was clad in a plain, snow-white robe. He watched silently as Dawn was carried away, and as Cloudhawk suffered the rocks and curses of the people on his way to execution. Finally, he couldn’t hold it in. “Master, I still don’t understand this man, Cloudhawk.”
The gray-robed elder at his side offered a gentle smile. “He is an interesting child. He has more potential than anyone knows, but never found direction. However, it is difficult for the young to avoid a period of being lost. Through suffering, disgrace, joys and sorrows, separations and reunions… through all of this they are reborn and emerge changed. A sword only gleams after it has met the grindstone.”
Arcturus’ words took Frost by surprise. It was the first time he’d heard his master regard anyone so highly.
“But now, he’s going to die.”
The sage-like older man did not respond. Instead he eyes peered out toward the horizon as though admiring the cloud-strewn skies. Such a stubborn and foolish child. Nothing to be done about it, but at least you had value.
Indeed, Cloudhawk was consigned to the fire.
Phain spared a glance for the young man, who had suffered the walk toward death in silence. He also felt a pang of sadness.
Before Dawn’s excommunication, Phain had been her sword instructor. That obstinate, prideful girl… he knew she’d beat him one day. More than once she’d told him about this young man, the only person she ever had a kind word for. If Dawn was willing to spare a compliment for him, then Cloudhawk had to be no ordinary sort.
Of course Phain saw the injustice, but some things were hard to explain. If there was a reason for everything, why not say them? If there was anything to blame for all of this, then it was the boy’s obstinance. A shame… if he wasn’t bound for execution then he could have grown well. By now he had no opportunity to know what the future could have held.
“Carry out the sentence!” Phain gave the order in a cold, dispassionate voice.
But before the orders could be followed, a scene no one expected came to pass. An ear-piercing scream filled the air.
Overhead, an airship suddenly listed to the side and began to plummet. People watched in horror as it fell out of the sky like a missile right into the crowd of onlookers. Screams of fear and pain were followed by an explosion. The ship’s hull was ripped apart, sending burning debris in all directions.
Templars drew their sounds and looked around for an enemy.
“By the gods... the sky! Look at the sky!”
As eyes rose to the heavens they saw one ship after another tipping over and falling toward the earth. The floating docks at the city’s edge had also become unstable and came toppling down. It crashed into the beautiful city walls, reducing the beautiful stonework to rubble. Earsplitting blasts rocked all of Skycloud.
Chaos erupted, and all at once every light was extinguished. The evergreen plants went from full bloom to wilted in the blink of an eye.
Even its lakes were affected, as suddenly tidal forces cast the water from their banks and flooded several city districts. Many citizens who were too slow to react were carries away by the surging waters.
Too sudden… it all happened to fast. It was like a nightmare.
The madness was even worse than the market district’s collapse!
Skycloud was plunged into darkness, while a deluge of water drowned its streets. Amid the panic and falling debris, no one knew what was happening or how to react.
“Cancel your orders! You there, bring the prisoner back to his cell!” Phain fired off a round of orders. “The rest of you, help me get a handle on this situation! Quickly!”
Cloudhawk was just as much at a loss. Disaster didn’t begin to describe the scene unfolding. How could this happen, here in Skycloud city? Were even the gods offended by Cloudhawk’s unjust treatment? Had they sent these plagues to prevent his death?
Compared to the apocalypse that now held the city in its grips, what Cloudhawk helped to cause seemed like nothing. Whatever the cause, things were sure about to change.
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Saved by the nuke...