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Skycloud's prison was home to eight hundred criminals; murders, blasphemers and other perpetrators of violent crimes were the majority. This malignant place, where the sun never shined and all the evil of Skycloud lived, was the shadow to the glimmering light of the elysian lands.

Normal citizens of Skycloud could not even imagine that beneath their precious, prosperous city was a place of blood and torture. 

"You're new."

There were twenty criminals locked up in this particular cage, some only for six months and others for over forty years. Their sins were numerous, but what they all shared was no hope for a future. At best they could hope for exile to the wilds, but for most death was the only escape for a life of imprisonment. Harsh conditions and cruel torture had twisted their minds.

Bullying newcomers was tradition down here.

The moment someone was locked in this pit all concept of human rights, basic respect, and freedom was stripped from them. Ninety percent were men and the few unfortunate women who were brought down here couldn't count on their own cell. Single cells were reserved for particularly dangerous criminals, so most women were thrown into cages with all the rest where their fates could be guessed at. Most didn't live longer than a month.

Rape wasn't just a danger for women, either. Some men were subjected to the same torture.

For instance, this young newcomer was only fifteen or sixteen years old. He was a little thin but delicate of feature and smooth of skin. He was shackled like everyone else but his eyes had a strange light to them, not the look of a prisoner.

"Why'd they throw you in here, eh?"

"What was it? Murder? Rape? Theft? Heresy?"

When they went to sleep last night none of the prisoners had seen the kid, then when they opened their eyes this morning he was there. What did someone so young do to get themselves thrown in a place like this? A tender morsel like this was a rare treat down here!

A pair of fat and muscled men trundled over to the quiet young man squatting by the wall, chains in tow. The newcomer stared calmly at the hay covering the floor as though he were waiting for a flower to sprout. The two men's faces were twisted in vulgar sneers that revealed their dark intentions.

"What are you, deaf? Didn't you hear me ask you a fuckin' question?!" One of the large men barked.

Resigned, the young man rose to his feet. "What is it?"

"Newcomers gotta learn the rules down here so you do what I tell you. Don't waste my time with bullshit, you hear me?" One of the men jabbed his meaty finger at the kid's chest. "You fight back, you'll regret it all the way to your next life, got it?"

The other one eyed the kid up and down. "Take off your pants. Let me see what kind of ass you're workin' with."

The kid's response was matter-of-fact and polite. "I really wouldn't piss me off."

"You lookin' to die, you fuckwad?!"

"We'll kick the shit outta you, kid!"

The two men lifted their shackled wrists and swung them down to hit the kid with the sturdy iron bracelets. Suddenly, the meek kid became a different person. His shackles popped open of their own accord and he buried his fists in each man's gut. Both of them sputtered as they lost their breath and fell to their knees. They doubled over and squirmed like fat worms, faces red as pork liver.

The young guy was too fast to follow. He struck each of his would-be attackers with the edge of his hand and knocked them out cold.

The rest of the men in the cell, who'd been ready to follow the big men in their pleasure, looked at the scene in total shock. How did he open his shackles?! It was unthinkable, too fast for anyone to see how he did it.

Cloudhawk rolled his wrists for a few moments then snapped the restraints back into place. He swept his gaze over to the others and greeted their surprise with a cold laugh. "Anyone else wanna check out my ass? Stand up and make yourself known."

A palpable air of violence filled the cage to dissuade any takers.

The men here were hardened convicts. Many had taken lives. But not a single one of them dared even look at the young man. Just his presence made their hair stand on end, the promise of blood that surrounded him was different from other violent men. It was the temperament of someone who'd stared death in the face countless times. Any normal thug went weak at the knees just looking at him.

The men sat quiet on their best behavior, so Cloudhawk returned to his spot by the wall.

This was his plan: the most dangerous spot he could think of was actually the safest. That asshole Frost de Winter could think until his skull cracked and blood leaked from his ears, but he'd never think to come back to the place Cloudhawk had run from.

His men could scour the whole city, but they'd never come looking here!

Hiding in the prisons was just a temporary plan. Personally, he didn't want conflict with the people of Skycloud. On the one hand, it's a fight he would lose, and on the other he still hoped this was a matter that could be reversed.

He'd sacrificed so much to get here, fought so damned hard. If the elysian lands were closed to him he didn't know where else he could go. Go back to the wastelands? He'd dreamed for years of any chance to get away from that damn place!

Cloudhawk mulled over the conundrum, his back pressed against the cold stone of the prison wall. At least in the wastelands, I wouldn't have faced a problem like this. Out there he killed who he needed, fought who he liked, and went where he pleased. Tough as the environment was, sinister as the people were, at least he wasn't afraid like he was now.

The thought swam up at him but was just as quickly snuffed out. The wastelands were the wastelands. How could they compare to this place?

No, he'd wait here and behave himself. Maybe all of this was that asshole Frost de Winter playing a trick. At worst, he'll wait until Selene Cloude returned. Cloudhawk was sure she wouldn't treat him wrong. She had no reason to. Once she got back, everything would be straightened out!

Cloudhawk was at a loss, but he also had no choices.

Silence returned to the stuffy prison. Guards constantly patrolled outside but not one of them realized there was an extra body locked inside. However, as Cloudhawk sat there with his eyes closed, meditating on his situation, a sense of danger washed over him.

An old man with a head of white hair tottered over to him. He was as frail as withered grass but Cloudhawk could feel a hidden threat lingering just below the surface.

Cloudhawk started by quietly observing the stranger. He had to be the boss because everywhere he went the others looked at him with fear. The sense of danger had to be more than just his imagination.

"You're a demonhunter." It was the first thing he said. The frail old man hunkered down beside Cloudhawk and spoke softly so that no one else could hear. "Last night I know how you got in. Only a demonhunter has power like that."

"What about it." Cloudhawk glared at the old man with a hint of violence. His head was a mess of grey and white hair and his face was lined with scars. The largest was an angry line that carved a path across his left eye and left his cornea a cloudy white. It made him look savage and hideous.

He introduced himself. "My name is Majjhima. You could say I'm a heretic. And what I want isn't important - what's important is that you look like someone who needs help. Help I can give." [1]

It was the first time Cloudhawk had ever heard someone introduce themselves as a heretic. He found the whole situation interesting. "You don't know anything about what I'm doing, but you want to help. Why?"

Majjhima chuckled dryly. "You might be a demonhunter, but you aren't a dutiful one. If you were you wouldn't be skulking around down here. I've been living in this city for thirty years, I know it well. I've been down here a long time, but I know people back up top, so I figured maybe I've got something you need."

Cloudhawk's curiosity was piqued. "I don't imagine you're willing to help out of the goodness of your heart."

Majjhima's voice got even softer. "I've got my own ends, like everyone else. I just want to get out of here."

There wasn't anything Cloudhawk could say in protest to that idea. He looked the man over, saw the signs of torture writ all over his body. Some of his wounds were old and others new, proving that he'd been down here for a very long time.

But whether or not he could really help wasn't clear.

Cloudhawk had never shared what he experienced in the wastelands with anyone except Frost de Winter. When he had, the asshole governor's disciple responded by trying to kill him. There was more to his ordeal than there seemed, and Cloudhawk wasn't going to forget about this hard-learned lesson after one day.

But the cat was out of the proverbial bag.

Cloudhawk thought for a minute. He didn't have much in the way of hope, but he did need help. Maybe telling him would give him a different perspective.

Cloudhawk was getting ready to share the tale from start to finish when the sound of footsteps reached his ears.

The door to his cage was opened and a woman, covered from head to toe in bruises, was thrown inside. Her hands and feet were bound. The guards never even looked toward Cloudhawk who stayed curled up in the corner. Once the new prisoner was delivered they shut the heavy iron door behind them and left.

This cage was full of men, and the guards knew what putting a woman in here would mean. They were complicit in whatever happened. It was a kind of torture. After a few days in here and the more tight-lipped might be convinced to talk.

The outlaws' eyes immediately snapped to the newcomer where they were pleasantly surprised to find that she was both voluptuous and attractive. What did these outlaws do to deserve such a treat? Their dark eyes glittered with malevolent intent.

After all, those who were interested in men were in the minority. Most preferred the embrace of a woman.

Terrified, the woman curled into a ball. She felt their eyes wander over her and horror gripped her. "What are you doing?! Get away from me!"

Cloudhawk froze. He knew this voice.

As the men were getting ready to pounce on their prey, Cloudhawk's shackles popped open. He unfurled and bound to his feet, jumping off the wall and into their midst like a cheetah. Whipping his legs around he viciously knocked two men into a distant corner.

"What are you doing?!"

"We didn't do anything to you!"

The convicts stared at Cloudhawk with wide eyes, full of fear and hate.

Cloudhawk paid them no mind and instead helped the woman up. "What are you doing here?!"

It was Bloomnettle's doctor, Lotus. Besides Old Thistle and Squallj, she was the only other person to have seen Cloudhawk's true face. When she saw him looking down on her she was just as bewildered.

1. This character is named深中道, 'deep middle path', then described himself as a heretic. The Buddhist term for middle seemed fitting. 

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