Governor Arcturus’ cool gaze never left Hammont. “Do you have proof of the things you say?”
Hammont was speaking off the cuff, so when the governor’s gaze fell upon him he felt like a mountain had landed on his shoulders.
As a run-of-the-mill soldier, he was deferential to even novice demonhunters. He was ready to pledge his life to a general if he came across one. How, then, should he react when coming face to face with the greatest demonhunter to grace the earth?
Arcturus Cloude was universally accepted as the ultimate demonhunter, as well as the political head of the entire domain. He was a man of civil and military achievements that were utterly unparalleled. Compared to Arcturus, Hammont was like the dirt beneath his feet.
The governor’s shrewd eyes pinned him in place. Hammont had begun to sweat, and his mind could focus on nothing but that crushing presence.
Although his presentation had been exaggerated, nothing Hammont had said was untruthful. Arcturus’ piercing eyes felt like it held him fast for an age, but really it only lasted half a moment. Once again he knelt, donning his dramatic facade.
Without Cloudhawk he would still just be a lowly squad leader. Without Cloudhawk he would have died on the Blisterpeaks. Without Cloudhawk he wouldn’t be standing here, speaking with these great men.
He was a simple man from a simple family, who rose from the humblest of beginning to where he stood today. His mother had always said their sort were to first be worthy of the grace of gods, second to be worthy of others, and last to be worthy of themselves.
His fat face grew stern, his movements solemn. “Before the eyes of the gods I, Hammont Secrest, pledge on my honor – now and forever – that if Cloudhawk is a traitor then I will accept any punishment. I am so certain than I willingly barter my life on it.”
Cloudhawk was floored. “Hammy, you...”
Drake followed suite, dropping to one knee. “I also swear it, on my life and honor.”
In reality Drake had questions, a suspicion that Cloudhawk was holding back secrets, but he believed to his core that Cloudhawk was no demon sympathizer. He had saved him from the demon during the battle for the Blisterpeaks.
If he had truly been blinded by Cloudhawk’s lies, he’d just pay for his mistake with his life. He was a true man, through and through, and there was no way a man could shrink back at times like this.
“And me! I swear as well!” Dawn refused to be silenced and ignored Phain’s attempt to hold her down. She shot up, strode to the center of the platform then went down on one knee. “I, Dawn Polaris, before the eyes of the gods and the High Priest, swear upon Cloudhawk’s loyalty with my life and honor! Whether now or in the future, if he is found to be a traitor then I will take my own life. I will forfeit my name and reputation, and may the gods condemn my immortal soul.”
The corners of Skye’s eyes tightened. Gods, she cares a lot for the boy. He has her roped in.
Cloudhawk… oh, Cloudhawk. If you ever do anything to harm this realm or my granddaughter, I will hunt you to the ends of the earth and tear you limb from limb! A smoldering, ominous light burned in Skye’s eyes.
As Dawn’s words still hung in the air, someone from the Court of Shadows delegation stepped forward. She was a young woman with a pretty, cherubic face and she took a knee beside the others. “Like them, I attest to brother Cloudhawk’s honor.”
Her pledge shocked the council even further. Cloudhawk was a mere waif! How could he command such respect from so many? Not only did they trust the young man, they swore on their very lives! Theirs was no ordinary friendship.
But of them all, Cloudhawk was the most surprised. He gawked at the small crowd kneeling in the center of the platform. Each of them came from different backgrounds, with different social statuses, but they all were willing to give up everything to prove his innocence.
Cloudhawk felt something he’d never felt before, like a warmth that spread from his chest and penetrated into his soul. All this time he thought he was alone, for he had been born a lowly wastelander. Although he had made friends, he had always believed that fact would forever be a barrier between them.
He never knew what it was like to be recognized as a person. It felt… good.
He’d wandered alone for so long, only to look back now and see that he had these friends with him all along. Real friends, willing to fight and die side by side with him.
How could he live up to their faith and confidence!
In his heart sparked a flame that had been cold for a long time. He was like a lost man once again seeing the beacon that marked the way forward. At the very least, the next time he fought he would know what he was fighting for. Three years he’d lived in the Elysian lands, and for the first time he felt a sense of camaraderie and belonging.
This voice was one no one expected, but was heard all the same.
Cloudhawk had Hammont’s appreciation for the help he’d given. Drake stood for Cloudhawk because he’d saved his life. Dawn was an old friend, and he’d served with Felina for three years in the valley. These people had clear reasons and a history with him. But Atlas? What was his angle?
The two men were far from friendly with one another. On the contrary, you could say there was an old score they had yet to address. But instead of kicking him while he was down, Atlas was offering a hand to help him up. It was an act no one could explain.
But whatever the case, Atlas words bore weight. Lending it to Cloudhawk’s defense would help him greatly.
The briefest glint of an intrigued smile appeared on the governor’s face, but passed an instant later.
It was a potent display of Cloudhawk’s charm. Were it Frost de Winter in his place now… Arcturus wondered if anyone would kneel in Frost’s defense. Cloudhawk was born with the soul of a leader, which made him the heart of that group whether he intended it or not. He just never realized it.
“Members of the council, what are your thoughts?”
The representatives from Skycloud’s noble families and government officials immediately began arguing. While the Polaris family had been in decline for a while, it was not dead. Even a camel that was wasting away was still bigger than a horse. Since Governor Arcturus had not stated a clear position, the other nobles weren’t prepared to provoke Skye’s famous anger.
A dark-skinned officer stood and called out over the tumult. “I feel Cloudhawk’s guilt has been absolved. Skycloud is in need of strong hands to help rebuilt. Have him atone for his failures through public service.”
This man was the patriarch of the Thane family. Theirs was a name synonymous with lauded generals and military elite, boasting many notable persons. Drake, for instance, was already Lieutenant-General of the Border Army and was still in his twenties. Just by himself, he was an example of the weight his family held.
A voice that was almost overlooked joined the first. It was neutral, hard to determine whether male or female, and almost monotonous. Almost mechanical. Yet although the voice was easy to miss, when it arose everyone sat up and listened intently.
The head of the Court of Shadows, Janus Umbra.
The Court of Shadows, despite being the largest of Skycloud’s special forces, was very secretive in its missions and methods. Its leader Janus never took sides in decisions such as this. Today was the exception. Cloudhawk had managed to impel the Umbra family to take an unprecedented stance.
Was it because of Atlas? It would hardly be that simple!
Although the reasons weren’t clear, both the Thane and Umbra households had spoken out in defense of Cloudhawk. With the support of the Polaris family, it was increasingly unlikely that Cloudhawk would be consigned to the stake, as his sentence demanded.
“You all have shown great faith in him. This is good.” Arcturus gave a slight nod before turning his eyes back onto Cloudhawk. “But do you have such faith in yourself? After what you have experienced, are you still willing to serve Skycloud?”
Cloudhawk looked to the small group at his side and took a deep breath. However he had been treated in the past, it was time for him to put down his roots, here among his friends. For no other reason, just for them. “I am!”
“Very well.” The governor continued. “Then it is my suggestion that Cloudhawk’s sentence be amended. Instead, he shall help Skycloud to recover from this tragic circumstance.”
Arcturus had spoken, no one disagreed.
He then turned to regard the old man, who had remained completely silent through this proceeding. “What are our venerable High Priest’s thoughts?”
“Let it be as you recommended. The future of Skycloud belongs to our youth, and it is encouraging to see so many excellent representatives of the next generation. This is the only encouraging light in a sea of darkness. May it bring peace of mind to old men like us.”
At last the old man, who had until then merely sat there upon the central throne like a statue, shared his words with the council. His voice thrummed through the hall, deep and with a supernatural sort of gravitas. It filled the listeners with a sense of tranquility, though it was not without a note of command.
Dawn shot to her feet. Atlas nodded in approval. Drake, Felina and Hammont felt like they could breathe once again.
Seeing his goals achieved, Skye was also filled with pride and inspiration. It was his first victory in a long time. “There is one thing I still don’t understand. If it was not the intention of the Sanctum to attack Skycloud city, why did they mislead Cloudhawk to believe this was their target? All they accomplished was to reveal their foul breeding lair.”
Skye wasn’t the only one pondering this question. Everyone was curious to know the logic behind it. It seemed superfluous, even haughty for the Church to add this extra flair.
Governor Arcturus answered. “You do not understand Sterling. His aim was not to destroy us. He seeks to integrate our realm and the wastelands. He has rejected not only the will of the gods, but also the sway of demons. This fact explains why he would obliterate our defenses and expose a demonic plot in the same act.”
It was just as Arcturus said. Sterling’s aim was to guide humanity to take hold of its own destiny. Liberation from outside control! This meant casting off the yolk of faithful servitude to the gods, but still railing against demonic influence.
Sterling was at war with the Elysian realm, not the Elysian people. His conflict was with the faith that he felt kept them tethered. In this way, the Sanctum of Judgment was different from other wasteland groups. Somehow, through whatever channels they’d managed to cultivate, they must have discovered demonic sympathizers long dormant in the midst of Skycloud.
Adder’s actions were designed to throw Cloudhawk off the scent, but more importantly to use him for the Sanctum’s own ends. It was a plan expertly crafted to force him to drag these demons’ plans from the darkness into the light. Skycloud would be distracted while investigating a potential threat – one that would have certainly come back to haunt them in the future. On the one hand this protected the Elysian lands from a common enemy, while on the other it took some of the stress off the Sanctum’s shoulders while they prepared for their grand opus.
It sounded almost too perfectly orchestrated to believe, but Sterling was just intelligent and ideological enough to do such a thing.
Cloudhawk understood now that Arcturus had it all figured out from the start. What other secrets was this man hiding?
The High Priest, Ramiel Caelestis, finished off the council meeting.
“For the first time, our great society has come to know a succession of tragedies. Discord touches our land of miracles, and I can feel dark powers growing in strength. A danger the likes of which we have never experienced looms on the horizon, but I have faith. My faith in our people remains unshakable.”
“Soon the Lord of Lords will return to us. You, who are the mightiest guardians of this city, are also staunchest in faith and service. This is a test. The sullied and the sinful have provoked a war with our fair people and released our birthright into the tainted lands without. They must pay the price for their sins.”
Cloudhawk knew that war was inevitable the moment that wall fell.
And here he was, wrapped up in it all. The tide of events that was sweeping across the world had caught him in its current. There was no running from it now.