“Is this a palace…?” Idonea stared at the scene before her with wide eyes.
It was an impossible sight. A vast network, floating thousands of meters in the air. Just as amazing were the thousands of ships that were clustered around it with more arriving every day.
They stepped out into a smooth white corridor that stretched endlessly into the distance. Common sense said that it couldn’t continue off into space and if there was any air, it was extremely thin. However, when Cloudhawk and Idonea walked out they found that gravity was the same as it ever was. There was plenty of air. It was exactly the same as though they were on the ground.
Cloudhawk didn’t find it strange. Through their Temples the gods could easily create enchantments like this. What he wanted to know was the Temple’s location. So he closed his eyes and searched with his special sense. The first thing he discovered was the immensity of the place. An outer force, garrisoned troops, and a group deep in the center. Consistent with what Noah had told them. In addition, there were enchantments separating them all. It stopped soldiers from different groups shuttling back and forth.
Sky Fortress was connected all over by these long hallways. They honeycombed through the area and were the only way into the floating citadel. Security stops and defensive barriers were a common sight.
Cloudhawk couldn’t sense the Temple’s location. It was likely the gods were hiding it somehow. But tellingly, there was another enchantment that wrapped the center of Sky Fortress. Space was warped and unstable, making dimensional powers weaker. Defenses like that were a huge target.
He also figured there was more to it than that. Gods and Master Demonhunters were waiting on one side. Although there were few who were dangerous to Cloudhawk one on one, a group like that would tear him apart.
“Well don’t just stand there like an idiot. Let’s go.”
Idonea watched Cloudhawk star off into space and figured he must have been struck dumb by the sight. It could certainly be understood. When she noticed people starting to move through the hall she tried to get Cloudhawk’s attention. They followed the other demonhunters.
This hallway was specifically for new arrivals. Before they could get deeper into Sky Fortress, they were subjected to another identity check. No issues were raised and their group was let through the checkpoint.
On the other side they were met by a man dressed in the garb of a senior officer. “Demonhunters from all the realms; welcome. I suspect you are all aware of how we do things up here. We will begin testing your abilities to determine where you’ll be sent.”
Noah had explained the structure of the holy army already. As standard there were the soldiers, the elite and the strong center. The Argyris Elder arranged for them to be placed in the elite squads. On the one hand it was appropriate for their skill level, and for the other there was family garrisoned there.
Most demonhunters in their group aimed for elite status. Idonea also. She was very clear about her abilities and knew where she fit. Anyone applying for the inner circle had to be of veteran demonhunter status or better. She was close, but not quite there.
Yet when the intake officer asked her and Cloudhawk where they wanted to apply, he surprised everyone.
“The inner circle.”
What? He thinks he can get in?
Everyone around gave him a strange look. Only a few were confident enough to apply for such an honor. This kid thought he was worthy? Lance was a name no one had heard of in Stormford, what gave him the impression he was good enough?
The officer looked him over, the corners of his eyes tightening. “Are you sure? If you don’t pass you’ll miss a chance at elite – we sent you right back with the grunts.”
Everyone knew getting accepted into the inner circle was not easy. Tests were designed to make sure only the best got in.
Cloudhawk answered without a shred of doubt. “If we’re willing to take the test then we’re capable and willing to take the consequences.
“Alright then, young man. You’re brave at least. Come with me.”
Idonea gaped at him. What the hell made him so confident?! Hadn’t the plan been just to get into the elite division? Why was he changing things?
He saw the question in her eyes and answered. “We’re here, we won’t settle for anything but the inner circle.”
“Don’t worry, I know we’re strong enough to make it happen!”
She almost glared at him. What was he thinking? But although she disagreed with his false sense of ability, there was no going back now. Idonea could only shuffle after them. As they entered an open space.
“The conscription exam is really quite simple,” the officer explained. “It’s a sparring contest. You win, you’re in. Please wait here, your opponents will arrive shortly.”
So they had to beat a challenger? Easy enough to understand. But Idonea was unconsciously fiddling with her necklace, a sign of her nerves getting the better of her.
A large pair of doors opened on the other side of the room. Two figures entered and when Idonea saw them her face fell. She knew these two.
“Mercury Merlo and Apollo Haven...” 
Idonea recognized them immediately. At least in Stormford they were household names. The Merlo name immediately marked Mercury as a member of the mighty family. He was Jupiter’s elder cousin and at thirty years old, his strength was widely known.
As for Apollo Haven? He wasn’t one to discount! The Haven family didn’t ring very loudly in Fulmulta, but the young man was one of the capitol’s Mighty Ten. More accurately, their leader. In Stormford he was the greatest of his generation.
Jupiter had shown real promise but was on the lower end of the Mighty Ten. He was, after all, only eighteen years old. Who could have said in time if he might have risen to the top. As of now, though, he was far below Apollo in skill.
“Oh no!” Idonea felt her heart sink. She would rather have fought anyone else, any stranger. Their connections made this more difficult than it had to be. Indeed it was Cloudhawk who so thoroughly embarrassed Mercury’s cousin. He also openly mocked the Mighty Ten on more than one occasion. Now Mercury and Apollo had their chance to seek reparations.
Not the best time for personal feuds.
“You’re the one who beat Jupiter for his position among the Ten. Lance Nilam.” Mercury had been at Sky Base for only two days. He’d heard everything that happened during the wedding. “Word is you’re arrogant. Today we’ll see if your skills can pay for what your mouth buys you.”
There was a cold light in his eyes, one that promised he wouldn’t hesitate to win vengeance for his family.
Apollo didn’t say anything. They were here for a solemn task. He was here, so he had to be at least as strong as Mercury. A pair of piercing, hawk-like eyes were fixed on Lance.
“Alright. No more wasting time.” Mercury drew his weapon from its sheath. There was a flash of light and they watched as the man swelled to ten times his size. In his right hand was clutched a dangerous looking saber which spawned eddies of wind as he swung it around. “If you want to join the inner circle then you have to go through me!”
Apollo, true to his stoic way, remained silent. He, too, pulled out a sword which glinted with a cold light. Unlike his companion, Apollo did not waste energy on showy displays. Even still, the aura of the weapon was enough to prove it was more than it appeared.
By the way they looked at Cloudhawk and Idonea, it was clear how little they thought of their opponents.
Idonea was daughter to a famous father but herself didn’t even qualify as a veteran demonhunter. Her abilities had to be average at best. As for Lance, he was completely unknown before a few days ago. Even if he did manage to beat Jupiter, he was probably only barely considered a ‘veteran.’
What in the world made these two think they could join the inner circle?
“Be careful!” Idonea was already on guard. “Mercury’s weapon is called Tyranny and it’s strong. Don’t let it get close. Apollo is carrying the Nebula Blade which allows him to attack an area. He’s also a skilled martial artist who prefers speed and bursts of strength.”
“Well if you aren’t going to get this started, than I am!” With a roar of challenge, Mercury Merlo came charging at Cloudhawk with both hands on Tyranny.
1. Apollo Haven’s Chinese name is 霄辰 which can mean all sorts of things, but is basically two names meaning the bright shining heavens/universe. Apollo is the grecian/roman god of the sun and the day. Mercury’s name is 玄天通, “passage through the sky”. I went with Mercury because it fits with the Merlo family’s roman motif, and because Mercury is the heavenly messenger, always cutting paths through the sky.