What was Bloomnettle's doctor doing in a place like this? What happened to Squall and Old Thistle?
"What is going on?"
Cloudhawk helped her up from the ground, and that's when he saw the burning hatred in her eyes. She shoved him away and spat her words at him in fury. "It's you! You're the reason for what happened! Old Thistle was killed by Augustus and the young master was taken away by Frost de Winter with all the others. Over a hundred people in Bloomnettle Company and now they're gone. All gone!"
The doctor broke down into tears.
Cloudhawk sat on the floor like he'd been struck by lightning.
How was this possible? He'd been careful not to do anything to implicate Bloomnettle Company, he never mentioned a thing about them. No one else in Skycloud saw him and he hadn't let anything about his identity slip. How could they have found out about Old Thistle and his people?
But even so, how did they factor into any of this? He'd tricked them with his demonhunter powers and used Selene's token to buy passage. The merchants were just normal, innocent people!
The surrounding convicts started to gather round, itching to try their luck against this irritating young man who'd stolen their prize.
"What the fuck are you assholes looking at?" Cloudhawk was already on the cusp of flying into a rage, and when he saw a few of the convicts slithering up close he immediately kicked a few back. "Put your hands on your heads and squat, all of you. If anyone moves, I'll rip out every bone through his ass!"
Cloudhawk was a product of the wastelands and had lived with mercenaries. As such, sometimes his words were a little crass. The others looked at Majjhima, who answered their unspoken question with a nod. They were forced to swallow the bitter pill of capitulation and did as Cloudhawk instructed.
Lotus continued, "Are you a spy for the demons!?"
"Horseshit!" Cloudhawk was furious at the accusation. "Frost de Winter is spreading lies! How could I possibly be working for demons? What makes you think I could be a spy?!"
The sincerity in his voice eased her shock and anger. Cloudhawk was somewhat responsible for what happened, but he didn't deserve her hatred. If they hadn't run into him on the road the Highwayman would have destroyed the Bloomnettle Company before they even got back to Skycloud.
She could see from his expression that he had no idea what had happened.
She looked into his eyes. "But why are you in prison?"
Frost de Winter's inability to capture Cloudhawk enraged him, and he vented that frustrated on innocent people. If he was already captured why did the governor's disciple bother to harm them?
"I'll explain it to you." Cloudhawk brought her to a distant corner so as not to attract the attention of any guards. "But first tell me what happened? Tell me everything!"
Lotus heaved a sigh then shared her story, describing everything in detail.
He listened as she told him about Frost de Winter and his guards, how they showed up during dinner to round them up. She told him about how they killed arbitrarily, including the cruel death of Old Thistle. He heard all of it, up to where Squall and the others were taken away. Anger welled up inside him like a lake of fire.
For reasons he didn't understand, Cloudhawk was being framed by Frost de Winter. They were even trying to kill him! His escape from prison had somehow prompted them to go after the Bloomnettle Company and led to their destruction. Conspiracy, tyranny, murder… how was this place any different from the wastelands?
Old Thistle, Squall and the family they guided were good people who didn't deserve this. Right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood… where was the border between these two supposedly different worlds?
A crushing weight of sadness and rage hung over Cloudhawk. He thought this place would be paradise, but it was nothing more than a rotten corpse in a fancy coat. In the course of this single day, Cloudhawk had gone from shock, to anticipation, to anger, and ultimately despair. This was the world he'd struggled so desperately to get to?
Laughable! It was all a sick joke!
Frost de Winter, Augustus and the other demonhunters had been dispatched to hunt down one small insignificant man. Cloudhawk knew at least one thing - Governor Arcturus had to know all about it. Deploying so much manpower would require his approval.
Either Selene lied to him about everything… or maybe even the Bloodsoaked Queen didn't know what was going on here.
The truth of things wasn't important just this minute. Cloudhawk's rose-tinted glasses had come off and he learned that this seemingly faithful land of the gods was actually a den of snakes. It was nothing was like he thought it would be.
"The elysian lands have always been this way, it's nothing to be surprised about. The faithful use piety as a means for the ones in power to control their subjects and nothing more." Majjhima saw the look on Cloudhawk's face, and although he didn't know what the young man was thinking he understood his heart. He'd experienced all of this himself. "Look around you. There are thieves, murderers, ruffians… but most of them are ideological criminals. What does that mean? Anyone who questions the gods, breaks one of their precious lamps, or shows irreverence in the temple square is labeled a blasphemer and thrown in here. It would be ridiculous if it wasn't so sad. If the gods were so great, why resort to these methods to control thought? Why is there no room to question the way things are?"
Everyone sat in the gloomy darkness, crestfallen. Anyone who dared act against what the gods supposedly wanted was courting death.
But Majjhima seemed unwilling to give in. "Help me get out of here and I will do whatever you need me to do."
Cloudhawk paid the old man's pleas no mind. He kept his attention on Lotus. "What about Squall? What's happened to him?"
"The rest of the Bloomnettle Company is locked up on the floor above. Me and any of the guards who went on the expedition to the borderlands were thrown in this dungeon. Since Squall had the most contact with you they took him for more intensive questioning. He was taken away by Frost de Winter. I heard they're going to parade him through the streets and burn him in the public square as a blasphemer in two days."
Burning heretics wasn't Frost de Winter's goal. It didn't make any sense to put on such a show for a single merchant's son. No, this spectacle was intended to bring Cloudhawk out of hiding.
All the people of Bloomnettle had been captured, over a hundred of them. A hundred people, old and young among them, whose future was uncertain.
Lotus gripped Cloudhawk's arm. "You need to find a way to save them."
Cloudhawk frowned. It wasn't that he didn't want to, but how could he? How was he supposed to save anyone? His eyes turned toward the withered old man beside him. "You said you'd help, right? Here's your chance."
Majjhima had been locked in this hell for thirty years. Death was going to come for him sooner rather than later, so he couldn't refuse no matter what danger Cloudhawk thrust him into.
Cloudhawk shared all he'd experienced with his co-conspirators, in even more detail than he'd given Frost de Winter. He needed their counsel and he couldn't afford to leave anything out during this crucial time.
Lotus was flabbergasted by his tale. Suddenly everything made sense; why he had a wastelander's name, why he appeared in the borderlands, the relics and demonhunter token. Who could imagine Cloudhawk wasn't a demonhunter, and yet killed a demon with his own hands!
With her hands balled in fists, Lotus spoke up. "There hasn't been any news of a slaying. Your story would be huge news for the people, so why would Frost de Winter want to cover it up - much less kill you!"
That was exactly the question they needed to answer. It'd been over ten years since a demon had been put down.
Wasn't this a time when humanity needed heroes and role-models? Killing a demon was an astronomical deed for someone like Cloudhawk, enough to lift him to the ranks of nobility. Wasn't Governor Arcturus lauded as a fair leader, justly meting out punishments and rewards? Why then would he want to silence Cloudhawk rather than honor his service?
"The answer to that question lies with the demon. They must fear that something on the creature's body would fall into your hands - something that would threaten their positions, or even their lives." Majjhima mulled over the question quietly. "Hmph. Arcturus Cloude's hands are as dirty as the rest of them, he's in collusion with those devils. Trying to shut you up is proof."
Skycloud's preeminent demonhunter, in bed with demons? If news like that got out it would shake the world to its very core! How could a glorified and legendary slayer of demons be in league with their sworn enemy?
Lotus, thrust suddenly into this situation, could hardly believe what she was hearing. And yet, if this were not true what would Governor Arcturus have to fear? What else could inspire him to bring the whole might of Skycloud against a single outsider?
"While making my way here I came across this map." Cloudhawk carefully pulled the city map from his pocket and handed it to Majjhima. "Can you read it?"
Lotus looked at the paper in surprise. Didn't they search everyone before throwing them in prison? How could they have missed a map? He wasn't captured and brought here, he had to be hiding in this place…
"This looks like…" When his eyes fell on Cloudhawk's map Majjhima's face lit up. It outlined the whole infrastructure below Skycloud City. "Unbelievable. Where did you get this? The whole pipeline route in perfect detail. The gods themselves built Skycloud and everything in it is perfectly precise. Even the city leaders don't understand it completely. Whoever put this together was no ordinary person."
Was it really that miraculous? It was, after all, in the possession of that ordinary-seeming goateed man.
Cloudhawk remembered him clearly. How could a simple agent of the Dark Atom make this map, or who gave it to him? Someone important, who knew the city even better than its leaders. Then for someone like this to meet the goateed man, a representative of Dark Atom, in the Sandbar… it was all so strange.
Cloudhawk pointed to the markings, indicating a path. "A place this complicated to get around would make a good hideout. Most importantly, it's a way to get out of the city while avoiding guards. Even if things go wrong and we have to run, this is how we do it."
Majjhima was almost shaking with excitement. "What's your plan?"
Cloudhawk fixed him with a sharp, resolute stare. "I think it's time I met with Frost de Winter and Arcturus Cloude. I'm going to free Squall and the others from Bloomnettle, and along the way cause a little pain for those two assholes!"
Majjhima and Lotus looked at him like he'd lost his mind.
Was he a moron? Did he understand what he just said?!