Cloudhawk had a long time to think during the several days he was kept in custody. From the beginning there was something about this whole ordeal that didn’t seem right. It was like he was on rails, lead by the nose from the moment he arrived at Skycloud. Clues were easily gathered, his objective quickly located, and the ‘crisis’ averted just in time. It was all just too… structured.
Cloudhawk had the uncomfortable sensation that he was being used.
First instinct was that the Dark Atom may have deceived the Sanctum of Judgment, and left out a false bomb for them to pilfer. However, it was just as likely that the Sanctum was the one doing the fooling. After all, getting a bomb passed the numerous checkpoints and other hurdles was incredibly difficult. There were a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong, and only one way it could all go in their favor. Was it really worth the risk when they had just one of these weapons?
What’s more, there was no sign of the Church’s higher-ups being present. The Crimson One, Wyrmsole, Adder – a task as important as this wasn’t going to be left in the hands of an underling like Revenant, right? There was no logical explanation.
He was wrong. From the beginning, he’d had it all wrong. That’s why he felt like he was being played.
Is this what they wanted from the beginning? But towards what purpose?
Meanwhile Cloudhawk was stuck here, helpless, left to lick his wounds and wait for the next act in this sordid play. His body’s improved regeneration had him healed in two days, leaving him plenty of time to brood over circumstances.
Today, Caspian had managed to slip away and visited in secret. He was drenched in sweat, and anxiety was clear on his face. He called out in his sharp, high-pitched voice. “Ah my dearest Cloudhawk, your head’s really aimed for the chopping block this time.”
Cloudhawk was tied up like a sacrificial lamb, excessive measures to make sure he didn’t escape again. He was wrapped in ancient chains from the era of the great war, used by demonhunters for their most dangerous criminals. He didn’t know what sort of powers these chains had, only that once they locked him down he felt much weaker. Somehow they were suppressing his mental energies.
He opened his eyes and stared at the Overseer. Words dripped from his lips, thick with irritation. “I appreciate that, sissy boy. Maybe next time you can come with some good fucking news for a change.”
“What good news are you expecting?!” Caspian knelt down before him. “Do you know how many people are out looking for that bomb you claim was brought into the city? They’re everywhere, inside the city and out. Peace officers, guards, military, and no one has found a trace. How do you explain that?”
“I’m confident in my intelligence, but may have been wrong in my assumption. But just because Skycloud city wasn’t attacked doesn’t mean that other important areas of the domain aren’t in danger. Besides, the protofiends we found below the city were real. We stumbled on it by mistake and stopped a credible threat before it had time to mature. Is that not good enough?”
“Cloudhawk, Boss, let me put it this way. What you did will never be made public. They’ll act like everything you did under the city never happened. But they can’t hide the death of thousands of civilians, and someone has to be held accountable for that. The city leadership will choose someone to take the fall.”
Caspian swallowed hard and continued.
“It doesn’t matter what you found, or how many threats you dealt with. Compared to the disaster that happened before the eyes of everyone in the city, it doesn’t matter. You did this as an escaped criminal. No one can help you.”
Cloudhawk inwardly railed against the bleak words. Were they going to put all the blame for this on his head?
They didn’t see how strong those protofiends were. If they’d been allowed to mature the scope of destruction would far outstrip what happened a few days ago. Cloudhawk had saved the city from a danger they didn’t even know existed! Was that a mistake?
“Don’t think General Polaris will be able to protect you, either. He’s in enough trouble as it is, and protecting just his daughter will require a lot of clout.” Caspian’s face was sad. “Honestly… I can’t help you. You need to fend for yourself.”
Cloudhawk’s temper flared. “Then what the fuck did you come down here for?! To tell me to make peace with my death?”
Caspian shrugged. “Since you’re here, I can record anything you want the world to know once you’re dead. We were brothers in arms once, this is what I can do. Oh, and I was hoping by the way to hear any news about Gabriel.”
Who the hell would call a sissy prick like you a brother?! Cloudhawk was preparing a particularly choice string of curses when he was interrupted by the sound of footsteps.
The footfalls were gentle, but there was something about them that made the whole Skyden seem to shake. When he heard them Caspian’s face turned paler than normal, like a mouse suddenly finding itself surrounded by a clowder of cats. Cloudhawk could almost hear his teeth chatter as he said, “Te…Templars!”
A group of soldiers in glistening armor appeared in the hall. They were led by a graceful looking man in his middle years, pale of face, with a thin strap of a beard along his chin. His armor marked him as the second in command of the Templars, titled Seneschal. His left hand rested on the Templar sword resting on his hip, which only added to his heroic and cultured bearing.
Caspian made a show of bowing when the man approached. “I am your humble servant, Overseer Caspian Black. It is an honor to receive you, acting Grand Prior Mist.”
The Templar Order was the mightiest fighting force in all of Skycloud. They were few in numbers, but every one of them was a squad unto themselves. They operated differently from other military units, and often only dispatched one or two of their number for a given mission. Only the most serious tasks were given the dubious honor of a whole unit.
Most Templars were required to stay within the Temple. They were the last, greatest line of defense for the realm and the Temple itself.
Several years ago the Templar Grand Prior – Vulkan the War Saint – led an entire regiment of Templars out on an unauthorized mission, resulting in their numbers being completely wiped out. It was the worst defeat the Temple suffered in a hundred years.
After being removed from his post, the Order’s second in command, Phain, became acting Grand Prior. Although Phain wasn’t the true leader of the Order yet, he was its most outstanding member. His skills were more than adequate to bring honor to the position.
Phain presented Caspian with his token. “Have this prisoner remanded into the Temple’s custody at once.”
The acting Grand Prior was forceful and articulate. He did not speak with the typical overbearing attitude of a man in power, but his tone indicated that he would not tolerate any question to his authority.
Caspian was merely a glorified jailer. What right did he have to disobey a direct order from the Grand Prior himself? What’s more, this order came directly from the Temple. He had no choice but to bow, and order Cloudhawk’s transfer to the ones who would determine his fate.
Cloudhawk was brought out from his cell, still chained hand and foot, and flanked by eight Templars. He caught a glimpse of Dawn and Atlas, enjoying similar treatment.
I sure as shit dug myself into a hole this time. He wasn’t sure how he felt about having Dawn fall in after him.
Dawn didn’t have Cloudhawk’s supernatural healing ability, and her wounds were serious. She was pale, almost bloodless, and with her equipment taken she was left with nothing but a soiled robe to cover herself. Two Templars kept her standing.
But it was her who sighed in relief when she saw that Cloudhawk was ok. She limply waggled her hands toward him and shouted down the hall. “Cloudhawk, don’t worry! So long as I’m here you have nothing to worry about. Doesn’t matter what happens, my grandfather will handle everything. He’ll make sure justice is upheld!”
Phain’s knife-like eyebrows wrinkled. “Silence!”
Dawn looked back at the Grand Prior, and the fight drained out of her.
Cloudhawk had heard of the Templars, of course, but beyond that he didn’t know very much about the Order at all. It was obvious by the looks of things now that they were a very important player in Skycloud.
Obviously there was a reason the Temple and its warriors were so highly respected. For one thing, nearly all of the relics used by Skycloud’s demonhunters came from the Temple. Not just that, but all of the magnificent tools and equipment that made this land so prosperous came from them as well.
In a way they could be described as a liaison – a bridge between the Eylsian lands and Sumeru, the mountain of the gods. They controlled the bounty the gods bestowed. As such, even though the Temple did not involve itself in the day-to-day administration of the domain, it was nonetheless arguable its most important party.
Had the tragedy that fell upon Skycloud stirred the Temple?
Cloudhawk was brought to the majestic Temple, floating overhead and beyond the reach of most normal citizens. The interior was heavily guarded by a contingent of Seraphs, silently standing at attention along the hallways. Standing there, unmoving, they were almost indistinguishable from statues. Each one was over three meters tall.
Seraphs weren’t merely guards, of course. They were the protectors and repairers of the city. Although the disaster had claimed several city blocks, the streets and buildings would be back good as new in seven days.
These puppets, brimming with the powers of creation, were immortal and commanded limitless power so long as they remained within the domain.
Cloudhawk had only just entered the Temple when he felt a palpable sense of danger wash over him. It was a suffocating aura, released by something of incredible strength. He lifted his head, and there before the doors – nearly three meters tall lying down – was a breathtaking animal. Cloudhawk had never seen anything like it, the creature was utterly fantastical.
Its body looked like it had been chiseled from a single block of spotless white jade. If not for the steady movement of its chest as it slumbered, and the steady blasts of frigid air from its nostrils, Cloudhawk wouldn’t have believed it wasn’t some kind of sculpture.
Its appearance was something between a lion and a tiger, inspiring awe just at a glance. Its streamline body was sleek and powerful, and blanketed by a pair of wings which also looked like they had been made from precious stone. Its long, thick tail was covered in scaled like a fish, and refracted the light. Even asleep, its mere presence was enough to have men shaking in their boots.
He also felt the resonance of a relic. This was no ordinary creature.
A divine beast. A very strong divine beast.
Cloudhawk’s Templar entourage had no intention of disturbing the jade creature, yet it sensed something as they passed. Its deep blue eyes rolled open and before anyone knew what was happening, it leaped down from its sleeping platform.
The area was immediately entrenched in biting cold. Several of the Templars were startled and staggered back.
A biting energy washed over Cloudhawk and he looked up at the beast whose head alone was nearly half his size. It peered down at him, and he looked back at it, man and beast separated by perhaps twenty centimeters. Ice started to accumulate on Cloudhawk’s eyebrows and hair.
What’s going on?
Phain walked over to the creature. “It’s alright, Anima. They have permission to enter from the High Priest.”
The creature stared at Cloudhawk for a long time. Though an animal, there was clearly a deep intelligence in those eyes. If it could speak it would express its bewilderment, but merely snorted and returned to lying beside the door.
Phain turned his eyes briefly toward Cloudhawk and spoke in a flat voice. “This is the jade guardian, protector of the Temple. It has protected our halls for a millennium with its strength, and a preternatural ability to sense trouble.”
Cloudhawk didn’t understand.
“Simply put, if there really was a weapon or Dark Atom plot that threatened the Temple, it would tell us. In all its years of service, that alarm has never been raised.”
It was a roundabout way of saying that Cloudhawk’s claims of danger were lies.
This power and the beast that bore it was unknown to Cloudhawk, of course. Even Dawn had never heard of it. Of course if it had never used this power in a thousand years, who really knew if it was true or not? But so far there was no proof of Cloudhawk’s fears for city-wide destruction. And whether or the not creature sensed it, it sure seemed like his judgment was flawed.
The large double doors granting entrance to the Temple slowly opened.
Cloudhawk figured he had gotten himself into serious trouble, but not to the point where the Temple would get involved. He didn’t know what waited for him on the other side of those doors.
Maybe some people were just not destined to play the hero.
Cloudhawk knew it well. He had a destiny, but it had nothing to do with being a hero. Whatever it was, he never would have guessed this is where fate would bring him.
1. Yes, that is what a group of cats is called. I had to look it up. Your subscription dollars at work.