The disaster that had just befallen Skycloud killed at least ten times as many as the collapse of the market district. Cloudhawk was not one to gloat, but he had to admit this misfortune had saved his life. The cataclysm had at least postponed his date with the flames.
After two days, the order came down that Cloudhawk was to be brought to the Temple once again.
Soon after he found himself in the grand hall, only this time the atmosphere was even more solemn and grave.
Aside from the High Priest were two others. The first, in his simple gray robes, was Governor Arcturus Cloude. On the High Priest’s right sat a man who had the build of a crouched tiger. His hair was white but it only added to his commanding presence. Sitting there, unmoving, he gave the impression of a mighty beast waiting for the moment to strike. This was none other than the Commander General of Skycloud’s army, Skye Polaris.
Three great leaders; Spiritual, Political, Military. The three most powerful men in the realm. Besides them, all other notable members of Skycloud’s elite were in attendance.
After Cloudhawk, Dawn Polaris and Atlas Umbra were also conveyed into the hall.
Dawn was elated upon seeing Cloudhawk alive and well. In recent days, her mood had been gone through many radical fluctuations. Through it all, she came to realize how much she cared for her only friend.
That stuck up little shit is definitely something. He said there was a weapon that could destroy cities, and that prophecy was proven true just before his execution.
Her grandfather had only just returned to Skycloud, and already things were changing swiftly. There was still hope. The atmosphere in the room was oppressive, almost dire. Dawn – for the time being – kept her mouth shut in order to avoid further problems. Cloudhawk wasn’t out of the proverbial woods yet, and today might be his only chance. She absolutely couldn’t mess this up for him.
The recent disaster hadn’t just affected Skycloud city. Every city in the realm had experienced catastrophe, and turmoil had spread across every corner of the domain. There was no way for anyone to obfuscate and hide these troubles from the populace.
A discussion had been raging long before Cloudhawk had arrived. Right now, an old man who was mostly just skin and bones had the floor.
“This is the situation currently.”
“In short, the traitor Sterling Cloude and his son Zephyr fled to the wastelands, where they have been living in secret. Over the last few years they have worked to establish a cult of missionaries which they call the Sanctum of Judgment – referred to as the Crimson Church by the people. Assuming the title ‘the Crimson One’, Sterling has attempted to gather support and power among the wastelanders. Meanwhile, his son Zephyr has posed as a bar owner in Sandbar Outpost for five years under the name Adder. Using this new persona as cover, he spent that time plotting an elaborate attack on our realm.”
“Based on the intelligence we’ve managed to gather, Zephyr has extensive experience in military matters. His time among soldiers allowed him to cultivate a large number of sympathizers. It was certainly he who leaked the location of the Dark Atom’s headquarters to our border forces. After misleading General Aegir into attacking, as you know, the general’s forces were massacred in the Blisterpeak mountains.”
“As we are all aware, the border forces are powerful but spread thinly. Galvanizing such a large force would of course expose weaknesses, and after losing so many the acting general on the border could not discover and correct all of them right away. Zephyr, employing the aid of his confidants, exploited the situation to steal into the heart of the border wall and therein hide a weapon of mass destruction. Its detonation has led us to the situation we are in today.”
“Skycloud’s wall was a miracle of engineer created by the gods themselves. Not only did it protect our millions of god-fearing citizens, it also kept out the filth of the wastelands and whatever residual demonic power remains. It was also an important foundational structure for the domain. Once the wall was destroyed, it caused the internal energies of Skycloud to become unstable. The resulting disasters claimed many lives and inflicted tremendous loses. While we have reestablished order for the most part, there are still many places that are still in the midst of chaos. The most important fact to consider is that we have lost the protection of the border wall. We are now completely exposed to everything that lives in the wastelands.”
The old man was the director of Skynet, the domain’s primary intelligence service. All while he spoke sweat was pouring down his brow, for the disaster at the border was clearly part of his responsibility. It was a failure of Skynet’s ability to foresee and act on potential threats.
“Bullshit!” A voice like dull thunder doomed through the hall as Skye Polaris glared at the man. He was flushed with rage, only barely containing his anger from boiling over. His gaze was sharp enough to cut the old man in half. “Why the hell do we pay you people? The resources spent on keeping your so-called ‘intelligence community’ running have been a complete and utter waste of time!”
“The General should be careful with his words. Indeed Skynet failed to act in haste, but we should not forget that it was General Aegir’s folly that led to the defeat in the Blisterpeaks. If he had not, our borders would have remained secure.”
The biting words came from a man standing near Governor Arcturus, one of the representatives of the Cloude family.
Skye visibly bristled at the accusation, and he spat an angry response while glaring at the one who dared to speak it. “Have we forgotten who the traitor is who caused this? Hm? Who set this trap? Have we forgotten who is responsible for destroying the wall that has stood in our defense for a thousand years?! A man from your family, a Cloude! Our sorry state is directly tied to the traitor and blasphemer your family produced! Cloudhawk isn’t the one who should burn, it should be your whole contemptible, hypocritical bloodline!” 
Everyone sat in dumbfounded silence. All the blood drained from the Cloude family representative’s face.
There was perhaps only one person in all of Skycloud who had the gall to speak like that to the greatest demonhunter family in the realm, and it was him. The general’s rage would not be contained. Nor was he wrong – who could have imagined that one day the illustrious Knight-Commander of the demonhunter forces would betray his country and orchestrate such a disaster?
Arcturus Cloude betrayed no hint of anger. “We all bear responsibility for the plight of our home, but that is not what we are here to discuss today. We have gathered to seek confirmation, and to formulate a plan.”
“I don’t care about any of that,” Skye replied without hesitation. “I only demand my people be released!”
Arcturus paid him no mind. From his high vantage overlooking the hall, the governor turned his gaze down unto one man. “Cloudhawk. Can you explain what happened?”
Cloudhawk recognized his opportunity, here at last.
When he was asked this question several days ago, with General Polaris out of the picture, it would have been a waste of breath to profess his innocence. His humble background afforded him no power to change his circumstance. All that mattered to them was finding a scapegoat to pin Skycloud’s troubles on, so he was marked for death from the start.
Cloudhawk hadn’t taken it too hard at the time. Hell, it wasn’t like he was leaving behind a happy life. But this experience in particular had been an enlightening one. He chose to accept this chance to keep breathing.
“Our noble general tasked me with finding information about the Sanctum of Judgment. I first met the Crimson One in the place known as Fishmonger’s Borough, and during a confrontation learned of his real identity. I was also able to uncover the Sanctum’s real aim. I returned to Sandbar Station immediately, and tasked its magistrate Hammont Seacrest with delivering the news to the border General. You can call on the Magistrate to confirm what I’m saying is true.”
Someone from the crowd interrupted. “With information this sensitive, why didn’t you deliver it yourself!”
“I wanted to, but couldn’t.” Cloudhawk’s mind raced as he constructed a story. “During my investigations I came to suspect Adder. He had known for a long time ago about the ancient weapon held by the Dark Atom. I believed he was working with the Sanctum, and after hearing about what this weapon was capable of I thought it was a matter of pressing importance. I had to find out more or we would be caught completely off guard by a serious threat. Is that so hard to imagine?”
“Why did Adder appear in the Blisterpeaks while you were investigating him? Once you learned this information, why didn’t you return to Skycloud immediately?”
His mind continued to churn out excuses. “Once Adder knew that his plans were in danger, he was forced to act quickly. He leaked the Dark Atom’s location to the border forces to buy time and block information of his father from spreading. Then, while the Dark Atom was preoccupied defending against Skycloud’s attack, he slipped in and stole their weapon. He used the war to manufacture an opportunity to place the weapon. Three birds with one stone. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the Blisterpeaks the fight had already begun, and Adder had already succeeded. I was just one step behind.”
His words were a mix of lies and half-truths, making it impossible to tell which was which. It wasn’t a flawless tale, but passable for the circumstances.
Skye Polaris sending him off to investigate the Sanctum of Judgment was true. Discovering the Crimson One’s identity and sending Hammont to deliver the news was also true. This core of reality was enough for him to stand on, no one could refute it.
“It seemed more than likely that Adder would use the weapon to attack the Elysian lands. I raced back as fast as I could to try and stop a tragedy, and from there you all know what happened. Even after the second time you threw me in jail, I still tried my best to inform you as to what was happening, but what did you do?” Cloudhawk adopted an indignant and accusatory stance. “You refused to believe there was such a weapon. Your pride let our last chance to save lives slip away.”
All the grand nobles of the city looked at one another in shame-faced silence.
“Did you hear?!” Skye punctuated the words with a cruel laugh. “If you’d paid attention, there would have been time to strengthen the border. We could have avoided this terrible attack entirely! This brave and loyal man was instead branded a demon spy by you good-for-nothing straw men. But my granddaughter had faith in him the whole while! Cloudhawk is at fault, and his failures helped bring us to this day, but his sins are not deserving of execution. It was you lot who wasted our only chance to protect our citizens. You should tie yourselves to the stake and light the bonfires! Maybe that will bring some comfort to the thousands of victims!”
How could the Elysians believe that the men of old had created a weapon of such terrible destruction? But they did, and it had been used on their soil. A resounding slap to the face, one they were still reeling from. Whether they wanted to believe or not, the proof was in the ashes of their wall.
Skye pressed on while sentiment was in his favor. “Bring in the others!”
Two more were brought into the hall. One was Drake Thane, lieutenant commander of the border forces. The other was a man dressed in a junior officer’s uniform. He could only be described as enormously fat, and the rolls of his face trembled as he staggered inside. He walked with infinitely careful steps as though wading through a small pool. Hammont Seacrest was obviously overwhelmed by the situation he found himself in.
He trembled from head to toe, either from fear or excitement. He couldn’t tell.
Hammont was a grunt, nothing more – one of many low-level soldiers in a vast army. His greatest dream was to become the commander of a small force, but never in those dreams was he ever invited into the Temple. Not even commanders had the right to meet the High Priest. Even the general of the border forces had only ever been inside a handful of times.
Now that he had, he could die without regrets!
Drake was uneasy. This wasn’t the sort of situation a typical man could shoulder without effort. But Drake was not a typical man, so as he walked in and turned his eyes onto the faces of Skycloud’s elite, his voice was strong and resounding. “Drake Thane, Lieutenant-General of the Border Army. I am here to testify on behalf of Cloudhawk, and affirm that he was not there in collusion with the blasphemers. On the contrary, it was his bravery and quick thinking that saved my life, and the life of many others.”
Hammont got down on one knee and thought for a moment. His testimony differed from Drake’s, bearing more vivid and descriptive. “Hammont Seacrest, your humble servant. Allow me to describe what happened. Our forces were enmeshed in fierce battle in the valleys of the Blisterpeaks. For days we fought and died, but as the stalemate reached a crucial juncture the honorable demonhunter Cloudhawk approached us with a warning. He said we were headed into a trap, so our great Lieutenant-General – even knowing he would face terrible criticism – displayed the true wisdom of a leader and ordered me to sound the retreat. His quick thinking saved the lives of two thousand soldiers. Without Cloudhawk’s help and the Lieutenant-General’s wisdom, our forces would have been utterly decimated in those mountains. Honorable and respected members of the council, if a man like Cloudhawk is a spy, then I refuse to believe there are any good men left in the world.”
Skye gazed upon the fat man with an approving air. “I hear you are the one Cloudhawk tasked with bringing news of the Crimson One’s true identity to the border forces. If this true?”
“Yes, this is true. I serve as commanded.”
Skye went on. “Describe what happened.”
“Honorable council members, I remember it this way: Master Cloudhawk had just come back to Sandbar Station and was clearly worse for wear. From the looks of him, he’d just come from a terrible battle and his wounds were serious. But although he was suffering, he did not forget his duties. He chose to remain in the wastelands and continue his mission. His spirit is worthy of admiration, and his persistence venerable. Although your humble servant’s time with Master Cloudhawk has been brief, I have been deeply affected by his person. His nobility and spirit of sacrifice has been a beacon in dark times.”
Hammont put the extra effort into squeezing out a few tears for added effect. Then, his voice quavering with emotion, he cried out to the rapt onlookers:
“But I am ashamed to have failed Master Cloudhawk in this mission. I was not worth of his trust, and have besmirched my honor before the eyes of the gods. I am a disgrace to this uniform, and a disgrace to the people of Skycloud. I had intended to take my own life as penance, but when I thought of all the evil and pain still threatening this great land I decided to live. At least until today, where I could share these words.”
Cloudhawk’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull. Drake had to physically restrain himself from smacking the fat off this guy’s face.
Was he a goddamn actor in a former life? He had better poise and cadence than an opera singer! His talent was wasted as a soldier!
“Hammont Seacrest, rise. The faults are not yours to bear. You have not maligned the uniform you hold in such esteem.” Skye Polaris was instantly enamored with the simple, honest junior officer.
When Hammont heard the kind words the edges of his mouth twitched ever so slightly. It was a risky move, for if the great man had agreed with his emotional mea culpa he’d be dead. However, Skye was obviously touched by the display. Hammont let his breath out in a furtive sigh of relief and had to stop himself from leaping off the floor.
General Skye had said his name. Even praised him in front of all these people!
Really and truly, he could die in that instant and be happy.
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I'm telling you, fat guys like us are cunning!