Space folded in on itself.
Cloudhawk staggered out of the rift in space-time, fell, then scrambled back onto his feet. He was gasping for air and looked like he was struggling.
Everything that had happened in the Temple was running through his mind, a complicated mess. But the general idea was easy to guess. Those memories the Cloud God read weren’t Cloudhawk’s at all – at least not originally. Most were absorbed from the Demon King’s skull he acquired in Hell’s Valley.
The memories of the beast were so many and so vast that even Cloudhawk could only grasp a small portion of them. Much of the inherited knowledge was still a mystery to him. In an act of kindness the god certainly hadn’t intended, his efforts to read the fragmented memories actually helped Cloudhawk recover them.
One thing he could be sure of was that the god had seen everything.
The Demon King – or something – had used him to attack the gods.
It seemed destined that this day would come, because something had been waiting for it, embedded in his memories. While he still couldn’t put his finger on the essence of it, he knew that the memories and this strange effect had something to do with the origins of gods and demons.
Their origins. Their connection.
Knowledge from the past.
In short the memories were… harmless. But the message had to mean something to the gods. Something unexpected and world-shaking. The reaction was like a man of faith discovering that everything he believed in was a lie; like someone learning that their idol was a rapist; like learning that one’s partner had been unfaithful.
Those memories… it had to be something like that, only a thousand times more intense. Sometimes, a single piece of information could mean the death of thousands. Sometimes a single sentence cut deeper than a sword. Be it man or god, there were some things that were forbidden.
Upon being connected to the god, Cloudhawk could feel every part of it. When the Cloud God learned the contents of those memories there was… suspicion? A strong uncertainty surrounding its own existence. Then chaos followed.
The god had called it ‘contamination.’ Cloudhawk was a contaminant.
It was a simple enough idea to understand. The will of the gods was a unified whole. Put another way, there was no separation between the gods. The Cloud God saw all secrets, and he could not keep any from the others. In the instant the Cloud God knew these mysteries, they must have instantly been transmitted to every other god.
They would all be affected! The consequences were beyond Cloudhawk’s comprehension.
If indeed this was a ploy by the demons to harm the gods, then Cloudhawk was a kind of biological weapon. A vicious, insidious delivery method that had the potential to fracture the unity of the gods. The Cloud God recognized this, but only after extracting them from Cloudhawk’s mind. To protect the others the god attempted to seal the knowledge away inside itself and fell into a deep slumber.
Once the Cloud God slept, its connection to the other gods was diminished. It was a means of protection, to keep the poisonous knowledge hidden. However, it meant that the Cloud God could not be awakened for fear of infecting others. Skycloud had lost the wisdom and protection of its patron.
Was this some kind of conspiracy? A sinister play by demons? Some ancient conspiracy? Cloudhawk wasn’t sure.
The Temple relied on the gods to be its shield and its support. Without a way to communicate with the Cloud God, the High Priest lost his connection to Mount Sumeru and all its denizens at the same time. Without the light of the gods to guide the Temple – even temporarily – the impact on Skycloud would be incalculable.
Could it have been Arcturus? But if it was, how? If he could learn such closely-held secrets about Cloudhawk, and was able to predict even the actions of the gods, then Arcturus was no man – he was an invincible monster.
But right now it didn’t matter. First, he had to run for his life! He looked for escape, but in the back of his mind he still wondered. Was this the god Elysians worshipped? Such frail things?
Even if he’d done it unwittingly, Cloudhawk had infected the Cloud God and forced it into slumber. Skycloud wasn’t going to give him any quarter this time. The Temple wasn’t going to back him up. He had no more friends or allies left. There was no place in Skycloud for him anymore.
He coughed up a mouthful of blood and fell to his knees once more.
Oddball wriggled out of his clothing and started to flutter around, anxiously circling Cloudhawk. It sensed their pursuers quickly gaining from behind. There was still farther to go before he reached the Elysian boundary, and if they were caught here they were as good as dead.
Cloudhawk’s injuries were mental ones. The bursts of psychic energy from the Cloud God were intended to rend Cloudhawk’s mind, but luckily for him the Cloud God was itself mired in confusion. It could not stop the offending mortal from escaping.
But while the god had not destroyed Cloudhawk’s mind outright, it had caused significant damage. The process of extracting his memories had been greatly harmful. Although physical Cloudhawk was untouched, his situation was far from optimistic.
“You can’t escape.” A streak of crystal blue descended from the sky, accompanied by a frigid voice. Whoosh! It missed Cloudhawk by inches. Ice crackled audibly as it appeared and spread out across the ground.
A handsome young man, wearing armor as brilliant and dazzling as the sun, slowly stepped into view. He approached Frozen Dirge and pulled it from the ground. Frost de Winter pointed his weapon at Cloudhawk, who was struggling to keep standing.
Cloudhawk wiped the blood that had started to leak from his nostrils. “You again… you haunt me like a fuckin’ ghost.”
Frost approached with a dozen men at his back. They were all clad in demonhunter garb, a sign that they had spared nothing in this hunting party.
A sneer twisted Frost’s lips as he spoke. “This time I won’t waste time trading insults with you. The truth is, this time even I have pity for you. After an attack of this magnitude on Skycloud, I wouldn’t wish your death on the lowest mongrel.”
Cloudhawk snorted in contempt. “I’d rather be a mongrel than someone’s boot-licking mutt!”
“Still so recalcitrant...” Frost spoke to him as though trying to be helpful. “This time your foul deeds don’t just affect you. You’ve dragged down every friend you’ve had in Skycloud. They vouched for you, trusted you. How will they react now, knowing the truth? Their futures are shattered. No one will take them, even their own families. And you are the cause. None of your friends will suffer your treachery any longer.”
Cloudhawk’s face was dark. “Are you done?”
He was not. Frost continued. “You can’t escape. Even if you leave Skycloud, remember that you are a criminal in the eyes of the wasteland as well. A public enemy, everywhere you go. You will be shunned and cast away from every hole you try to crawl into. The world is vast, but there is no inch of it where Cloudhawk is welcome.”
“You’ve gotten better at your shit-talking,” Cloudhawk admitted. He narrowed his eyes at the man. “This time, you’re really starting to piss me off.”
“Then do something about it.” Frost tightened his grip on the spear. He stood ready to act. “I heard that the Crimson One presented you with Castigation before his death. Tales speak of its destructive power. Come, let me see for myself how mighty it really is.”
“Just you?” Throbbing veins had crept into Cloudhawk’s eyes. He reached back and pulled Ardent Wrath from its sheath, launching himself at Frost in the same motion. He and his broken sword came crashing down toward the newly ascended General like an avalanche. “You aren’t worthy!”
As Ardent Wrath streaked through the air, a burst of power emerged.
His experiments in the Temple had cultivated Cloudhawk’s mental energies considerably. His attack, empowered by what he’d gained from the sea of psychic power, was stronger than he dared to imagine.
In defeating Wyrmsole, Frost proved the depths of his abilities. Besides Selene, it was widely accepted that there was no one else of his generation who could stand against him. And yet, as Cloudhawk came tearing toward him, Frost had the sobering realization that he couldn’t merely shrug it off.
He quickly eyed the sword, looking passed the fires at where the broken blade ended. Wrapping both hands on the shaft of Frozen Dirge, he stabbed it out like a lashing dragon. It struck steel, and steam instantly billowed forth as ice and fire warred.
Everyone saw it clear. Frozen Dirge bent under the strain.
“Fuck off and die!” Cloudhawk roared in his face.
A scorching blast of fire blackened the ground around them. The earth was split, leaving a trench that stretched several meters in front of the sword. Frost reeled backward three hundred meters. His resplendent armor was cracked, Frozen Dirge spun off in the opposite direction, his helmet rolled back toward the other demonhunters. Frost’s flowing locks were burned black and curled inward.
“How?!” Absolute shock was obvious on everyone’s faces. This wasn’t some nameless grunt Cloudhawk had blown away, it was Frost de Winter, famous for his capabilities!
Frost had even killed Wyrmsole, yet unexpectedly lost to a single strike from Cloudhawk. It was unthinkable, but they’d all watched it happen right in front of them.
Was sort of hellish attack was that? They couldn’t let him survive and lose them in the wastelands! If they did, who could stop him? What prevented him from being the next Crimson One?
Cloudhawk eyes were bloodshot and his hair tousled. The wild and sour expression on his face harkened back to what felt like ages ago now, when he first clawed his way out of the ruins as a scavenger. Back in those days he fought and acted like a cornered beast, and that was when he was at his most dangerous.
“Everyone, together!” Of the demonhunters Frost had brought, three of them were considered veteran level. The remainder was talented and capable. Under Frost’s leadership this squad could overcome a demon, so they did not fear a mere heathen like Cloudhawk.
“Hold!” Frost called out to them. Cloudhawk acted on instinct, racing off into the distance as they were distracted.
Anger showed in the face of one of the veteran demonhunters. “Why did you stop us?”
Frost was back on his feet and watched Cloudhawk running toward the horizon. “He’s too strong, and his hysteria makes him stronger. Even if you fought and won, many of you would die. I was not lying when I said there was nowhere for him to run. Putting your lives in harm’s way is pointless.”
They understood when they had a moment to calm down. There was nowhere for Cloudhawk to go.
Several mighty organizations were after Cloudhawk now. The Court of Shadows, the League of Demonhunters, the Templars and others. A mission of this scale and importance was unprecedented. Since there was no immediately threat to the city, many of Skycloud’s strongest and finest would be dispatched. This included old heroes and dangerous veterans from the older generation.
Cloudhawk was fierce. It was admirable. But he was obviously wounded. Even with his teleportation abilities how far could he run? A demonhunter’s mental prowess was limited, he couldn’t run forever.
When word spread of Cloudhawk’s deeds it was met with shock and anger. This rising star, former Warden of the Talons of God, Adder’s killer, the one who brought the Crimson One to justice, and saved the expeditionary fleet from destruction – in a blink he was the most wanted man in the world.
Such a roller-coaster of ups and downs had everyone’s head spinning.
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