The night was clear, cloudless. Stars speckled the velvet black sky. Cloudhawk had just finished lighting a fire nestled in a pile of ruins.
Azura was exhausted. She nibbled through half a loaf of bed before curling up against Cloudhawk’s side and falling asleep. The poor girl had learned a lot of bitter lessons about the world from this journey, and there had to be at least twenty scrapes and bruises all over her. But in a display of her Tenacity she never once complained.
Cloudhawk flung a few pieces of scrap wood into the fire. It crackled at him appreciatively.
Selene sat across from him, half wrapped in shadow. Her eyes glimmered as they caught the light of the fire like twinkling stars. They never moved from Cloudhawk’s face. That cold, aloof air she typically shielded herself with had thawed somewhat.
“I know I’m more handsome than I used to be, but has no one ever taught you to only sneak brief peeks? Stop staring at me like that, you’re creeping me out.”
His flirtatious banter was especially amusing, knowing that Selene would have cut anyone other than Cloudhawk in half for trying it. She wasn’t offended, though. She just kept staring at him.
“I was just thinking about how much time has passed. The obstinate scavenger I met all those years ago has matured.”
“Is that supposed to be an insult or compliment? Same could be said for you, right? You were gone for a long time, then turn up and join the Temple. Why?” He paused for a second with a lopsided smile. “I don’t get it. It has to be offensive to Governor Arcturus, since by working with the High Priest you weaken his influence.”
It was a long story, and Selene wasn’t sure where to start. She thought for a few seconds before answering. “Do you know why Sterling killed my father?”
Cloudhawk wasn’t prepared for her to bring the topic up. After so long, her anger around the issue hadn’t seemed to ease at all. She didn’t wait for him to answer, it was a rhetorical question anyway.
“He was following orders. Arcturus’ orders.”
His hand twitched as he threw another stick onto the fire. He had already suspected something like that, but hearing it out loud still shook him. Skycloud’s governor truly was a fierce and ruthless man.
“So you’re not just after Sterling. You’re after Arcturus as well.”
“The Crimson One was part of the plot against my father. However much he might regret it, the deed is done. I will never forgive him. As for Arcturus, it is clear he was the mastermind, and for better or worse there is no better schemer in all of Skycloud. I can guarantee it wasn’t his first black act, and I’m sure it won’t be his last. A person like him can’t be allowed to lead our realm.”
Selene had never spoken about this with anyone before. She knew that an accusation like this would cause a sensation. But she didn’t keep her guard up around Cloudhawk, so it was natural – almost subconscious – when she shared her thoughts with him.
“Gods aren’t the perfect mysterious beings humans think they are, but they did create a fertile place where hundreds of thousands of people could live in peace. No one can refute that. I joined the Temple for no other reason than to work against the Crimson One and Arcturus. It is the only organization with the power to help me do it.”
The more she spoke, the more relief she felt. It’d been a long time since she let it all out. From her words one could determine that there was a conflict between Arcturus and High Priest Ramiel. Ramiel wooing Selene to his side was of course an effort to aid him in his own ends. Selene knew she was being used, but she was willing. She had goals of her own.
Cloudhawk looked back at her. The two just stared at each other for a second as the shadows of the firelight danced across their faces.
Selene felt her heart beat quicken as she stared into those dark eyes. A strange feeling tickled at the back of her mind, like trying to put up any sort of defense was pointless. Cloudhawk’s gaze seemed capable of peering right into her.
“Do you think you could give it up?”
“Why should I?”
“Hate is a nasty thing. I don’t want to lose another friend.”
His words filled her with a sense of warmth and a smile teased at the corner of her lips. “You’re afraid I’ll end up like Squall. Don’t worry, you aren’t the only person who’s grown over the last four years. I’m not the same foolish girl with a head full of vengeance. What I do now is not as simple as settling a debt.”
“There’s a lot in this world we’ll never be able to change. Part of life is learning to accept one’s fate, isn’t it? I’m not going to spend all my days trying to put the universe in order. Once this war is done, how about we find a quiet place and let the days pass in tranquility.”
“You’re shameless.” Selene’s cheeks were red as she chastised him. “Have you looked in a mirror lately? Who’d want to spend the rest of their life with you?”
Cloudhawk had never seen her so flustered. It was infinitely amusing that this steadfast, powerful woman would act like a jittery little girl. It was so unexpected that for a moment he just gaped at her, but then recognized how she might have misunderstood.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Never mind, I’m going to bed.”
Selene didn’t give him a chance to explain. She turned her back, and laid down facing away from the fire.
A woman’s heart is inscrutable, he thought. Especially a woman like her.
Several minutes passed in silence. Cloudhawk thought she’d gone to sleep, but then her voice met his ears, faint as the crackling embers.
“I’ll think about it.”
“Only after everything’s finished.”
Cloudhawk understood. He settled down as the fire started to wane. Though the two of them lay back to back across the fire pit, heart to heart there was an understanding.
Selene Cloude was an imposing, ice-clad mountain, one designed to intimidate people not to draw near. Cloudhawk was the only one who could find a spot of warmth within that mountain. After all they’d been through, all their shared experiences, and even the years they spent apart… it all worked to erode at Selene’s mighty protections.
“By the way, you and Adder… Zephyr. What happened?”
Selene had never spoken to him about Zephyr, except to impart warnings. But Cloudhawk wasn’t going to pretend as though he hadn’t killed his friend’s cousin, so he had to ask.
For a long time, silence was his answer. Eventually, her sad voice replied. “We used to be what I imagine you and Luciasha once were. Like brother and sister.”
Cloudhawk figured she hated Adder, and that’s why she said nothing after he was dead. In fact it was quite the opposite, and Cloudhawk was surprised by just how close she claimed they’d been.
It was hard to imagine. If someone – especially a friend – killed the person he considered to be his sister, how could he react? How would that feel? He definitely wouldn’t be as reserved as she was, no matter the reason.
The gentle sounds of the dying fire took over once again. Cloudhawk didn’t know what else to say.
“The moment he decided to become Adder was the moment he left everything that was Zephyr behind. You killed Adder, not my cousin. I’m not upset. Zephyr has been gone for a long time.”
He mulled over her words. What she said made sense. When a person changed like that, it was difficult, maybe impossible for them to go back to the way they were. It was just like what happened between him and Squall. After their last confrontation any relationship they once had was gone – a full break. The next time they met it would have to be a fight to the death. And who could blame them?
No one spoke further.
Cloudhawk stared off into the darkness, thinking. If he helped Selene deal with Arcturus, and her mission was done, would she do what she said? Would the two of them find someplace nice and quiet and let the world forget them?
He was suddenly filled with determination. Why not? It seemed like a good idea! But then on second thought, it was a really tall order.
After all, how strong was Master Demonhunter Arcturus Cloude? He was the most feared person in all of Skycloud and universally accepted as the greatest demonhunter alive. The greatest in a hundred years, in fact. He was comparable to the legendary demonhunters that fought during the Great War.
He was the sort of person who could easily defeat a War Saint in his prime, as well as an entire company of Templars.
But he wasn’t just an incredible warrior like General Skye. He was also methodical, brilliant, and capable as he showed in how he governed Skycloud. Great is the man whose vision extends far, that was a fair way to describe the Governor.
Arcturus was a man who played things close to the vest, stayed low-key, and preferred not to make waves. But his presence was constant, like the water behind a dam, always rising until the moment the burst through the barrier.
Cloudhawk wrestled with these thoughts for a time before sleep eventually took him.
As dawn broke, he was awakened from his light rest. Selene was already on her feet, and leapt up onto the top of an eight-meter tall stack of ruins.
What’s going on? Cloudhawk scrambled up the ruins to join here. Both sets of eyes were cast far toward the horizon, to where lights could be seen flashing among the clouds. The boom of something like distant thunder reached their ears. The light was moving toward them like an enormous firefly.
Cloudhawk stared in wonderment. “What is that?”
“The Skycloud armada. From the looks of it, it numbers several hundred ships.” Selene’s expression was grave. “The expeditionary force is on the move.”
“So the war’s finally begun.”
“With this sort of formation, that’s surely the case.” A fiery light shone in her gaze. “Once both sides’ main forces are engaged, that will be the best time to kill the Crimson One.”
Selene wouldn’t suffer a wasted moment. She decided it was time to depart.
They traveled together until they met with the edge of the expeditionary force. Selene bade him farewell, and then disappeared into the distance. Cloudhawk knew she was off to hunt down the Crimson One, she just hadn’t said anything so as not to put him in any danger or cause him to worry.
After reconnecting with the army, Cloudhawk learned of the situation. Apparently, Skye Polaris failed to wipe out the Conclave’s forces in Woodland Vale.
Just as their General was preparing to strike down Wyrmsole, the Crimson One himself appeared. Skye Polaris and Sterling Cloude had fought a war out in the wastelands. Wounded as he was, the Crimson One was no match for Skye, but the mighty soldier was too quick in leaving the Vale. He didn’t have enough men. Vastly outnumbered, he was forced to abandon his hunt.
Nonetheless, the Crimson One and Skye Polaris still exchanged blows. The Crimson One in his weakened state was forced to retreat back to the Northern Barrens while Skye Polaris returned to his fleet.
Upon returning, he called upon the full might of their armada. Now was the opportunity, and it was a chance he seized upon. War had come, and with luck they could wipe out the Crimson One and his followers in one fell swoop.
Not all of the Elysian combat and supply ships were prepared, but an old veteran like General Skye knew not to pass up a chance to end a war before it started.
It seemed Cloudhawk’s actions in Woodland Vale had kicked off a conflict the likes of which the world hadn’t seen for hundreds of years.
1. Did he just friend-zone her?
2. I-It’s not like I like you or anything, Cloudhawk-chan! !