Fallowmoor’s streets were choked with guards. War was just outside, so security was high.
Cloudhawk had to acknowledge his frazzled nerves. Skulking through the enemy’s den was like treading on thin ice, each step had to be carefully measured. The slightest mistake and they could get swallowed up.
Thankfully, Mr. Ink’s disguises were not so easily seen through. The relic he used was a sort of mental illusion, which changed appearances and not the physical characteristics of the targets themselves. In many respects the camouflage was like a blanket. It hung over the person, changing colors and shapes. It was a stable guise, and would maintain so long as they didn’t become the focus of someone’s aggression.
The eight infiltrators were indistinguishable from the normal citizenry. A glance would reveal nothing but just another group, going about their business.
Clay led the team with Frost by his side. The normally valiant and arrogant young commander was far less resplendent in his commoner’s disguise. Part of that was the melancholic and brooding expression on his face. He was mulling over something.
“Is something wrong?”
“No,” he said in flat denial. He face immediately returned to its normal cold disinterest. “I just find it curious. The governor’s mansion has many capable soldiers. You’ve served at the Governor’s side for years, never leaving the grounds. What is it about this mission that made him decide to send you?”
Clay’s somewhat pudgy face adopted a sly grin. “What do you think?”
Frost thought for a moment then replied. “The Master’s decisions are always carefully considered. You are his most trusted and capable attendant. It would make sense that he dispatches you in only the most critical missions that involve the Governorship. Having you come in itself shows there is more to this than is on the surface. It is possible...”
He lowers his voice.
“It is possible that you are here on a mission of your own.”
Clay regarded the young man with an appreciative gaze. “Clearly the Governor’s faith in you is well placed. You know the man well, know how he thinks. But you’re wrong – the one he trusts most is you. It isn’t that he doesn’t trust you with the real reason I’m here, you’ll learn the truth of it soon enough.”
Frost turned the idea around in his brain. For Master Arcturus to be so cautious, it must be serious.
Mr. Ink noticed the two men huddled in conspiratorial conversation. Though nothing registered on his expression, the man’s eyes flitted their way time and again.
Frost didn’t dare ask Clay for more information. The Master was an enigma – the more you knew about him, the less you understood.
That sounded like a contradiction, but such was always the case with knowledge and learning. Those who knew little felt confident in their intelligence. It was those who were learned that realized how little they understood of the truth.
To Frost, Master Arcturus was an idol worthy of eternal worship. He was a font of knowledge that could provide everything he ever wanted to know. His faith in the Governor was stronger than that of any god, for in Frost’s eyes Master Arcturus could best any god or demon.
Arcturus never took a wife, nor had children. Was Frost not closing thing he had to an heir? Because of this, the Cloude family never saw Frost as an outsider.
The further into the city they crept, the more anxious and doubtful Cloudhawk became. From the moment they walked in, an ominous feeling had been following him. It felt like he was being watched.
“Are we there yet?” He couldn’t help but ask.
“Hey!” When Dawn noticed his question wasn’t being answered fast enough she took matters into her own hands. “Is that trinket of yours worth anything? We’ve been waling half the day already. Our mission is important, there’s a war going on outside if you’ve forgotten. If you don’t know what you’re doing, then tell us and stop wasting everybody’s time. I know how you Cloude folk like to put on airs, you fancy-nancy embroidered pillows.”
Frost’s expression became even colder. “Watch your tone.”
Selene also sniffed in irritation. Dawn’s slight included her as well, without question.
“Cloudhawk, why don’t we just leave them to their own thing.” Dawn grabbed Cloudhawk’s arm and started dragging him along. “Why would be better off just grabbing someone off the street and asking. Someone has to know where the Crimson One is, we just keep snatching up people and beating them till they tell us. Eventually we’ll get the information we need. I bet we’ll still be faster than these fools.”
This woman sure did love to stir things up. Even now she couldn’t put the big picture first? Her temper was a damn health hazard!
Already their team was lacking in harmony and trust. Dawn’s contentious posture was only making things worse. If they couldn’t work together just walking down the damn street, how were they supposed to defeat the Crimson One?
Barb, seeing that things had become precarious, offered her voice. “Excellencies, don’t be angry. We need to work together, don’t let something so small get in the way of our mission. We’re here to do something very important.”
Clay shook his head and responded. “The Polaris family, as uncouth as ever.”
“The girl’s breasts have always been bigger than her brain,” Selene muttered.
How could Dawn suffer such open disrespect? Shit, they were down-talking her like she was some kind of spineless twerp! She had to prove them wrong!
Cloudhawk interrupted her slow boil with a low warning. “Dawn!”
When she saw his angry expression her heart skipped a beat. The anger inside her deflated like a popped balloon and she hung her head. “Don’t be angry. Things are dull, I’m just trying to liven us up.”
Cloudhawk rubbed his temples like his head was about to burst. Clay stopped then and pulled the compass from his pocket, which Cloudhawk noticed right away. “What’s up?”
“Strong reaction,” Clay responded. “We’re close. Right in front of us.”
Clay’s compass pointed to relics, and where there were relics there were demonhunters. All demonhunters in the city had to be trusted followers of the Crimson One, so even if he wasn’t with them they would know where the priest was.
The group arrived at a plaza and was surprised to discover it was full of people. At least a thousand! Overhead, hot air balloons floated in tightly packed formation. Platforms were suspended from the balloons, and each platform had at least one red-cloaked soldier. The uniform of the Church’s demonhunter missionaries.
What was going on? Was this some sort of cult meeting?
Cloudhawk couldn’t feel the presence of Castigation fire, and that meant the Crimson One wasn’t nearby.
As they approached, they could hear one red priest giving an impassioned speech from a balloon in the middle of the cluster. It was the same tired propaganda about how Elysians were the real devils, how they had brought tragedy to the gates of Fallowmoor. It was meant to inspire them to arms, and motivate them to fight for their homes and families.
Fire and brimstone. Crisis loomed and there was no escaping it. Conflict was the perfect time to inspire unity.
As the priest’s fiery speech was reaching it crescendo, the crowds were shouting in a single cacophonous voice. They screamed at the fact that Elysians treated the people of the wilds like wild animals, like snakes and insects. And it was all true, so how could anything but bone-deep hatred be expected from this maligned populace?
Of course, it wasn’t so simple. There was no right or wrong. The Elysians didn’t choose to be born in the fertile lands of the gods. When their wall fell, was it not the wastelanders who slaughtered innocent people and robbed them of the resources they needed to survive?
And what of the wastelanders? They were born sinners by no fault of their own. Their lives were concerned with a singular focus on survival. Blaming them for their obsession to take whatever they could was out of touch. The Elysian lands were a place of abundant wealth, so to them taking from such weak, rich prey didn’t even require a second thought.
There was no way to solve the contradiction between these two classes of people.
If Skycloud elected to share their surplus with the wastes, it would immediately ingratiate them to a large swath of the populace. But hostility and the stigma against the filthy outsiders was deeply ingrained in Elysian culture. To think that any Elysian would agree to share their bounty with heathens was madness. The discrepancies between their faith and outlook of the world were too different.
So what option was left? War! My life would be better when your life ended!
“Kill the Elysian dogs! Cut down the zealots!”
The people gathered in the square thrust their weapons into the air. They fought with whatever they had; guns or bows or machetes. A chorus of voices rang with their shared hatred of a foreign enemy, uniting normal citizens, rugged wastelanders, women, and the children.
Was this where the compass had guided them?
What the hell were they supposed to do here? The murderous intent of these citizens was so thick you could cut it with a knife. If they revealed themselves here, there would be enough people to drown them in angry spittle.
Cloudhawk shook his head. “We can’t act here. Fall back, we’ll figure something else out.”
Dawn couldn’t help but mutter in irritation. “Cloudes, as unreliable as ever.”
Cloudhawk shot her a warning glance and she shut her mouth. The old drunk, however, clicked his tongue appreciatively. What goes around comes around.
Before they could fall back the orator raised his hands. All voices fell silent like the stillness after a cresting wave. He looked out over his flock, face twisted in anger.
“Today there is one I must call attention to. He is the impetus that brought conflict with Skycloud. He is the hand that brought the wasteland alliance to fruition. His brilliance contributes to the glory of the wastelands, even after his death!”
“This hero of our people was slain at the hands of traitor! Tell me, people, what should we do if that traitor should fall into our grasp?”
Everyone knew who he was talking about; Adder, and the despicable man who ended his life.
Cloudhawk’s eyes widened. “Fuck.”
In this instant the red priests jumped from their suspended platforms, surrounding the eight intruders.
Dawn gaped at the sudden change in circumstance. “Hey… ehm… can they recognize us?”
Selene’s words came out as a near-growl. “Polaris clan members, as unreliable as ever.”
“The culprit has presented himself to us. He is here, before your eyes!” The priest pointed accusingly at the small group. “Not only are they responsible for Adder’s death, they have also attempted to rain destruction upon our glorious city , destroy our homes, and kill our families! People, what shall we do with them?”
All eyes turned to Cloudhawk and his team. Their eyes burned with a depth of hatred that was inhuman. It was a bloodlust that would not be satisfied, even when their corpses were torn to pieces and their bones turned to paste. The depths of their hatred could not be expressed.
To say their change of fortune was unexpected was an understatement. Unless you were a Master Demonhunter or someone like Skye Polaris, who could claim they could escape an angry mob of this size? Among the crowds were violent mutants, crack marksmen, and deadly demonhunters. Who other than a living legend could survive these odds?
Cloudhawk wasn’t sure how it happened, nor did it matter. He said only one thing.
1. The quip is a little strange in English, but I liked it because you get the gist without it being an expert barb. Since Dawn is flustered it seemed appropriate.
2. Oh shit, them’s fightin’ words!