Though the trees preferred calm, that did not stop the wind from blowing.
However much Cloudhawk wanted to be left alone, fate wouldn’t give him a break. Once again he was placed on trial. Only this time, General Skye wasn’t around to bail him out. The Polaris family as a whole had lost their influence, leaving both him and Dawn without a safety net.
Cloudhawk thought back to the first time he was brought before the temple. All those people who’d been there to speak on his behalf weren’t there now. This time, Arcturus made sure he couldn’t clear his name – but he had to think of something.
Selene stood at the High Priest’s side. There was the faintest hint of apprehension in her eyes. She hadn’t expected the Governor would move on Cloudhawk so quickly. It’d been only a matter of days since they’d returned to the city. There was no time to prepare, to protect themselves. Arcturus had turned his malicious gaze on Cloudhawk the moment he took control of Skycloud’s army.
The Temple magistrate’s voice rang out over the crowd. “Do you have an explanation for these crimes?”
Cloudhawk snorted disdainfully. “Yeah, I didn’t do anything. I have a clear conscience.”
“A clear conscience!” A boisterous and resonant voice shouted a response. “Do you really?”
The speaker was a middle-aged man, large in stature and covered in muscle. A thick beard sprouted from his swarthy face. Cloudhawk paused when he saw who it was – the Thane family patriarch, Cosmo.
He was present the first time Cloudhawk was charged before the Temple. He stood in defense of Cloudhawk because General Skye had, which was an integral piece of why he was let free that day. 
The Thanes were a family of military officers. As its patriarch, Cosmo was not a typical citizen but rather the commander of the Retribution Battalion. While his status as commander was no greater than the likes of Aegir Polaris, his reputation and influence held more weight.
Cosmo was part of the army’s highest echelons of leaderships and the head of his family. He had no need to attach himself to someone else or another family for prestige. Instead, he chose to follow Skye Polaris because he respected the man and his methods. His support for the General was for no other reason than he liked the way he did things.
Now that Skye was dead, would Cosmo still stand by the Polaris family? It was hard to say. There was no one among that family capable of filling the old man’s shoes.
But there were no illusions as to whether he would support Cloudhawk. He was the patriarch of the Thane family, and a father. A father to a man who had died at the hands of a foul mutant. His stately posture was rigid and intractable as he spoke. “Call forth the witness!”
Two men entered the temple. The first was Hammont Seacrest, slowly waddling from side to side as he navigated his girth. The second was Brontes Storm, who entered with the help of a wheelchair. Hammont didn’t know what was happening, but the grave and heavy atmosphere was unmistakable. He could hardly breathe.
“Hammont Seacrest. You will be questioned by your superior officer and will answer honestly. Understood?”
“Your servant would never tell a lie. Never!”
Cosmo Thane’s eyes burned like torches. “During the excursion to the Blisterpeaks, did you or did you not encounter a mutant native known by the name Coal? And was General Aegir Polaris, commander of the Border Forces, responsible for their elimination?”
“This-” Hammont stuttered, like some simple man overwhelmed with the situation he found himself in. Meanwhile his mind was racing, recalling details of the battle. The question, taken in context with the location and others present, told him most of what he needed to know about what was happening. “Yes, yes. We found a tribe of mutants among the Blisterpeaks, but they were not a threat. Their mutation just made their skin difficult to cut. General Aegir dealt with them without much effort.”
Hammont paused for a moment before adding more.
“The mutants weren’t any trouble for our soldiers. I escaped from them unscathed thanks to Commander Drake Thane’s assistance. Thanks to Drake’s relationship with sir Cloudhawk, and me being in the right place at the right time, we managed to save us all from the tragedy that occurred there. I have always been thankful to Commander Drake for that, and pledged my life to his service.”
Hammont’s words appeared simple on the surface, but in fact were carefully chosen. On the one hand he understated Coal’s fighting abilities, while talking up Cloudhawk at the same time. Thick as he seemed, Hammont was actual quite clever. At a glance he could tell that this was a trial, and that Cosmo was more than eager to lay the death of his child at Cloudhawk’s feet.
Arcturus Cloude sat in silence, quietly sizing up the fat soldier. There was a glint of mirth in his unsettling gaze.
“Hmph! Do not waste our time with trivial nonsense here!” Cosmo’s voice was gruff and angry. “If Aegir Polaris himself drew his weapon, then the mutant would surely be dead. My question is how this mutant appeared among the expeditionary forces all the way in the Northern Barrens!”
For a moment Hammont wasn’t sure how to answer. “T-this humble man isn’t sure. The mutant must have been more tenacious than we thought, so-”
“The audacity! Here we stand, in this grand Temple, and you dare be vague under the eyes of the gods? Do you take us for fools?!” Cosmo’s incredulous voice rang through the hall. Hammont felt himself start to tremble.
“If you continue to play the fool before the eyes of our Governor and High Priest, I will have no option but to levy punishment fitting the severity of such a crime. You have one more chance – explain exactly what happened!”
Brontes was the one to answer. “When we first encountered him in the Blisterpeaks, I heard with my own ears the Dark Atom’s offer to recruit him. Cloudhawk saved the mutant’s life, thus Coal was able to join the ranks of our enemies.”
Hammont’s brows furrowed ever so slightly. Brontes was too blunt! This was a betrayal!
Cloudhawk knew he was in trouble the moment Brontes’ words left his lips.
He was a demonhunter – at least as far as Skycloud was concerned. To men of his station saving a mutant went beyond the core of what they believed. What’s more, the beast he saved joined their enemies, and was responsible for the death of an Elysian commander.
The end result? Cloudhawk was responsible for the death of Cosmo’s son. And after what Cosmo did for him in the first trial, was this how Cloudhawk showed his gratitude?
Of course, Cloudhawk had no intention of harming Drake. In fact he’d gone far out of his way to save not only Drake, but many of his soldiers. He had no way to predict Coal would come back to kill him . However, Cosmo Thane steadfastly ignored the several times Cloudhawk saved Drake’s life. He was determined to blame him for his son’s death.
Cloudhawk made no effort to defend himself from the accusations. He had no excuse. It was what it was. If he tried to squabble about how many times he saved Drake from death it wouldn’t help his case and would only make his father angrier. He also understood the pain of losing someone important to you, and what it did to your thinking.
Whatever the accusations he faced, the key was to remain calm.
“Let us not speak on this for the moment.” The Temple magistrate continued his questioning. “The primary charge is that you collude with the demon Abaddon, the leader of the Dark Atom Wolfblade, the leader of another wasteland power Squall, whoever guides Woodland Vale, and even the Wastelands Alliance!”
Abaddon was an old foe. He was responsible for the deaths of the Tartarus Mercenaries, and murdered Artemis in Greenland Outpost. If Cloudhawk had the strength and opportunity he would have slain the fiend long ago.
Wolfblade was also no friend. Cloudhawk had no idea what he’d said to entice Woodland Vale to their side. The way he urged Coal down a dark path, though, was sinister and unmistakable. Wolfblade was responsible for destroying what relationship the two had. His poison words were ultimately led to Drake’s death. Cloudhawk wasn’t going to let him get away with it, either.
Squall was slightly different. Long ago they were considered friends. Now, anything that had existed before was shattered. He couldn’t say who would walk away breathing the next time they met. That brought him to Autumn, leader of Woodland Vale. But she wasn’t really Autumn. No collusion there.
As for the Conclave of Judgment? What a fucking joke! How could he have any connection to those psychopaths?
“Those who want to find fault will dig up whatever they think is proof. I’ve done nothing wrong, and don’t think you can pin this bullshit on me.” Cloudhawk made his opinion know immediately. But rather than refute their claims, instead he asked a question. “Whether you like it or not, I was named fleet commander and Warden of the Talons of God. Where’s your proof? Present it, or all you have are words. If that’s all you can muster you can’t convict me of anything, much less convince the people of my wrongdoing.”
He wanted evidence? Very well, they would give him evidence.
The Temple magistrate proceeded to provide an in-depths report of the clues and supporting evidence they had. They were presented in five questions.
“First: Abaddon’s relic, the Gospel of Sand. When first you appeared in Skycloud you used it to buy yourself the right to live among us. It is now known to be back in the demon’s possession. Is this not suspicious? One might imagine Abaddon gave you the relic in order to establish you as an agent undercover within the Elysian lands.”
“Second: The circumstances surrounding your appearance in the Blisterpeak mountains is very curious. We know also that you have had contact with the leader of the Dark Atom. It was confirmed when Wolfblade addressed you publicly before witnesses several days ago. He claimed to have known you for a long time. How can you explain being linked to an infamous terrorist leader?
“Third: Your relationship with the terrorist known as Squall Rover has always been a mystery. Several years ago he was in custody and marked for death. You are the one who orchestrated his escape. How can you expect anyone to believe the two of you have no connection?”
“Fourth: We know that for an extended period of time you traveled with the leader of Woodland Vale, Autumn Draper. You knew the secret of the Vale long before anyone else, but deliberately kept that information from Skycloud. Because of your failure to do so, we lost the opportunity to deal with Woodland Vale before it became a threat.”
“Fifth: Officers report that several days ago, you refused to give the order to eliminate wasteland cities despite the fact that they were unprotected. This led to your commanders choosing to mutiny over complying with your wishes. Can you explain the reasoning behind leaving our enemy’s bases unmolested? What’s more, several witness accounts claim that you have come to possess the relic known as Castigation. This symbiotic relic fuses with its bearer and so cannot be forcibly removed in such a short period – short of its owner bequeathing it to someone else. This begs the question, why would the Crimson One give such an astounding relic to you?”
Five poignant questions. The situation was critical, for if he were found guilty of any of these crimes he would be cast from Skycloud forever.
“None of these charges are damning. I can speak directly to the accusation that he colludes with the demon Abaddon and tell you it is categorically false. I swear it on my faith. “Selene stepped forward and spoke loudly. “When we encountered him in the wastelands, the demon feigned death and left behind his relic in an attempt to confound Skycloud. It was a strategic and ultimately successful ploy. At my personal recommendation, Cloudhawk took the relic and left for Skycloud. I was and am still certain that there is no possibility he is a spy for demons.”
A direct testimonial from the Temple’s Apostle. Could anyone speak against her assurances?
“The remaining accusations are entirely groundless. Wolfblade’s cunning is well-known. Are we to take the word of a known terrorist? When Cloudhawk knew Squall, the merchant son had done no wrong. In fact he was a victim. Afterwards Cloudhawk was undergoing training in Hell’s Valley and could not have been involved in the creation of Squall’s gang.”
Selene’s logic was irrefutable.
“Cloudhawk also had no idea of Autumn’s identity when he met her. I was also present at the time, and saw nothing of Autumn but a simple young girl. Evidence now suggests that Autumn’s body has come to be possessed by the betrayer god known as Silvana. Even though Cloudhawk had interactions with Autumn in the past, it holds no bearing to the situation as it is today.”
“As for the accusation that Cloudhawk is sympathetic to the Wastelands Alliance? The mere idea is absurd. He was singlehandedly responsible for killing Adder and preventing the Conclave for taking Woodland Vale for themselves. If they’d been allowed to seize that closed-off domain, they would have been all but invincible.”
“This ‘evidence’ you present is based on nothing more than speculation. You have no concrete proof of anything you claim. Cloudhawk killed Adder, fought in the Northern Barrens, and led our forces to victory over the enemy. You cannot declare someone guilty based on the flimsy hearsay you’ve provided today.”
Selene was a girl of few words, typically. Today, she said more than Cloudhawk remembered her ever saying in a single conversation.
Most of the crowd was rendered speechless. Hearing these words from her was far more convincing than is Cloudhawk had delivered them. After all, her faith and devotion was not in question. While her loyalty to the Cloude family was unclear, her loyalty to Skycloud was not.
Cloudhawk wisely kept silent. He wanted to share the whole story, tell everyone Arcturus’ many crimes, but he had nothing to prove anything he said was the truth. At least on the surface, the Governor had stayed out of this whole mess. Dispatching Hell’s Army to the Blisterpeaks, for instance, was Skye’s order.
The missions of the expeditionary force were all at his command, too.
If he accused Arcturus of facilitating the rise of the Wastelands Alliance, and claimed he was the black hand guiding it, no one would believe him. If he said it was Arcturus would orchestrated the assassination of Sye Polaris, he would be dismissed out of hand. It would only make his situation worse.
The council of nobles and officers conferred with one another. Ramiel called for a brief recess. Meanwhile Cloudhawk was kept within the Temple, under close guard by its warriors.
As he was being escorted away, Cloudhawk lifted his eyes toward the exalted man in his simple gray robes. Nothing about his face said anything but perfect calm. Never once during the trial so far had he opened his mouth or made a declaration. He just sat there like a bystander, like he had no part in any of this.
Cloudhawk would be more at ease if the snake would make his thoughts known. At least he’d know what the bastard was thinking. But for the time being Arcturus was dead silent, which only made him more frightening. Silence meant he was hiding something, something he had no way to uncover. The most dangerous enemy was the one who never said a word. You never knew where their next attack would come from, or where it might land.
Arcturus was ten times more dangerous than an enemy who yelled and screamed.
Cloudhawk couldn’t tell what he was thinking or what he would do. He didn’t even know what his aim was. You couldn’t defend yourself if you didn’t know anything about what sort of danger you were in. That was the genius of this old fox.
Victory through inaction. It was best to keep yourself out of affairs, and your machinations hidden. Then, when the time was right and your plans in place, move with the speed of lightning. By the time anyone knew what was happening, it was too late.
Cloudhawk knew going against Arcturus Cloude was not going to be easy.
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