Book 6, Chapter 58 - Most Urgent

A fierce sun burned in the sky, an ever-burning furnace. The air warped beneath its intense heat.

Hot winds kicked up clouds of sand and sent them careening across the dunes. Between the chaos of heaven and earth, here there was… nothing. Endless nothing.

But this was not entirely true, for a singular black dot broke the monotony. It hobbled along, footsteps stretching off into the rolling desert from which it came, toward a distant destination that never seemed to grow closer. The figure was wounded, its dark clothes torn and wet with blood. Some were bad enough to kill a normal man eight times over.

But Janus Umbra pressed on. 

As he fought across the hot sands he wryly acknowledged how impossible it all seemed that he would find himself here.

While fleeing from Skycloud the assassin had encountered three attempts on his life. Luckily he was a master of escape, otherwise his journey would have ended long ago. He left behind a city fully under Selene’s control. The Boundary Portal was still in the process of opening.

They were too late! They were too late…

Janus struggled over the peak of a dune. As he did his dry eyes were met with a stunning sight.

Suddenly the sands dwindled away and were replaced with a vast expanse of fertile land. Looking off into the distance, Janus could find no end to it. Hundreds of kilometers of well-organized, cultivated land stretched before him separated into three sectors.

Delineating this vital pocket from the wastes was a ring of ancient ruins and sand. They stretched from one end of his vision to the other like a barrier of prehistoric remains. What lay on the other side was entirely different.

Neighborhoods of neat buildings, erected one after the other in well-planned rows. Patches of agricultural land organized in clearly marked squares. Streets that crisscrossed everything, like arteries bringing lifeblood to every part of a massive creature. From this distance the countless people shuffling back and forth looked like ants.

For innumerable kilometers Janus had trudged across yellow wasteland only to see it change suddenly. In the city below, the soil was rich and dark. Patches of vibrant green had begun to appear. Clearly there had to be plenty of water to make the soil so moist. Somehow life had come back to this desolate place, where nothing had existed for many centuries.

Citizens of the wasteland’s newest city had continued to swell. The growing workforce increased the already rapid pace at which the city expanded. In the center of the vast expanse was an oasis, ringed with dense forest and blanketed in faint light.

That was the middle of Greenland. The heart of the Green Alliance.

It was amazing to Janus that in just over two months, the wastelanders could build a city of this scale. Most stunning of all was how the environment had changed. Did that guy really have the power to transform the world?

If Cloudhawk could change the wastelands, then he could definitely save Selene.

Janus stumbled toward the city’s border. A few moments after crossing the threshold he was stopped by a number of figures who hadn’t been there a moment before.

“Who are you?”

A dozen soldiers with dark black rifles gathered round, dark muzzles pointed toward the assassin. It was obvious by his garb that Janus was no wastelander, now here he was sneaking around the city. Chances were he was some sort of saboteur.

These sorts of soldiers were no threat to Janus typically, except his wounds had made him weak. He muttered at them in a low voice. “I am the leader of Skycloud’s Court of Shadows, Janus Umbra. I need to see Cloudhawk!”

Leader of the Court of Shadows? The wastelanders looked at one another. Most outside of Skycloud had never heard of the organization.

But Cloudhawk was a busy man. How could they allow some stranger with unknown intentions to simply waltz up to their leader? The more they heard, the more uncomfortable they found this situation to be. Soldiers gathered closer, apparently determined to take him into custody and ask questions later.

“What? The Court of Shadows?”

One of the soldiers spoke up. The squad’s captain scowled. “White Face, you know him?”

The one called White Face was a scrawny young man. He was different from most of the citizens as he hailed from Skycloud. He’d defected for a number of reasons and now lived in the city.

Janus’ organization was committed to remaining low key. Even among Elysians the group was not widely known. However the name alone was enough to hint at its purpose, so when White Face heard it there was surprise in his expression.

The security team’s captain eyed the stranger with suspicion. He was badly wounded, that much was clear. If it’d been him with those injuries he’d have died already. If Janus was still standing it showed what sort of man he was.

“Report this to the boss!”

Half an hour later, Janus’ arrival reached Cloudhawk’s ears. Greenland’s leader hurried to where the assassin was being held to check up on the details himself, but by the time he arrived Janus’ wounds had put him in a coma. Cloudhawk was taken aback by the sudden change in circumstance. Janus was one of Selene’s trusted subordinates, wasn’t he? He was among the best of Skycloud’s forces, in some ways comparable to a Master Demonhunter. What had wounded him so badly?

Cloudhawk had Janus brought to the fortress, where he carefully examined the assassin himself. The wounds were bad, but not enough to put him in a coma. It was mental exhaustion and psychic overdraft that caused it.

It wasn’t too serious. He’d just have to wait until Janus’ mind recovered. Meanwhile he could tend to the physical injuries. 

There had to be a reason Janus was here! The most likely explanation was that something had happened in Skycloud. Selene was in some sort of danger.

As Cloudhawk mulled over the issue he pondered a way to wake him up. If he didn’t know what was going on he couldn’t find a way to help.

Suddenly he felt a reverberation in the back of his mind. It was a relic, somewhere on Janus’ person. The resonance was slight, almost imperceptible and easy to overlook. 

He looked over the assassin’s neutral face – somehow both exceedingly ordinary and featureless. Even gender was difficult to determine. But with his mind weak Janus control had begun to slip.

Cloudhawk peered closer. The power masking the assassin’s face was still strong but the rest of the body began to reveal details. A rounded buttocks, a swollen chest. 

Janus was a woman.

Really? The Court’s legendary killer had been a woman all this time? 

The faint fluctuations continued to nag at Cloudhawk. It had to come from whatever relic was concealing her true face. He patted her down and found the source. Placing his finger against Janus’ forehead, a surge of power was released.

What followed took him by surprise.

Janus’ genderless, featureless face rippled like water. He watched as her features remolded themselves; her flesh was brighter, her nose higher, her face more slender, her features all different.

The real face of Janus had always been a mystery, as well as much of her actions. Why was the assassin so eager to help Selene? Skycloud’s Governor was also quick to trust her. Now that Cloudhawk saw her true face all of those questions were answered.

Free from the relic’s power, Janus was revealed to be not only female but also relatively young – in her thirties, perhaps. She was beautiful, noble, somewhat cold. He couldn’t deny the similarities. Was Janus Selene’s…

Her body quivered, her eyes popped open. Instinctively her finger shot out toward Cloudhawk’s chest – an ancient and deadly assassin technique. A killer of her proficiently could pierce through armor with a single finger, with the force of a bullet. However, Cloudhawk had transcended the limits of ordinary men. Her attack was almost clumsy to his eyes.

He knocked her hand away without effort. In the moment that followed Janus realized she was safe within the confines of Greenland’s fortress.

“What the fuck is going on?”

It was a loaded question about much more than the situation in Skycloud. It was a fair guess that Janus was Selene’s mother. Or if not her mother then related by blood. But whatever their relation that wasn’t the most important. He needed to know what she was doing here!

“Selene is under someone’s control. She’s begun opening the Boundary Portal...”

After a brief explanation of what was happening, Cloudhawk stared at her in shock and alarm. He’d been fighting the ominous feeling that Selene’s powers were more of a danger to her than a boon. Power like that came with a price, he knew well. But he didn’t realize it would be so serious.

A dark cloud of unease hung over him. “How is she right now?”

Janus weakly shook her head. “I don’t know. You must stop her – you are the only one who can.”

Stop her? How was he supposed to stop her, attack Skycloud? The peace between Skycloud and the wastes had been hard won. Even if he was inclined to, by the time he summoned an army it would be too late.

There was no question the gravity of this situation. If he didn’t stop Selene from opening the Boundary Portal Skycloud would come under siege from other Elysian lands. Skycloud was not in a position to defend itself. 

And fuck all that, Selene’s safety was in question!

Her greatest ideal was to protect her home and build a true democratic haven. A self-sufficient, stable, capable environment and system of governance. It was only getting started, but was now in danger of being destroyed by Selene’s own hands. If she succeeded it would wound her deeper than anything ever had.

Janus didn’t have a chance to say anything else before Cloudhawk turned away and left. He vanished from within the fort and shot into the horizon like an arrow. He left Greenland immediately, not because he shunned allies but because there was no time. He would have to risk going to Skycloud on his own.

Cloudhawk’s teleportation skills and speed were far greater than any normal person could fathom. Before long, Skycloud city’s borders appeared before him. 

He looked out over the metropolis, at the golden pyramid hovering over the central square. The Temple was radiating an intense light like the miracles of old. Tens of thousands of Skycloud citizens gathered beneath it. They choked the square and the roads, their eyes turned skyward.

“What are you all doing?!” Cloudhawk shouted at them. “You have to run! Run for your lives!”

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