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The streets around the center of Skycloud City were choked with people. Whenever news spread that a blasphemer or turncoat had been captured it inevitably drew a large crowd. They all wanted to watch the punishment unfold. Only, this time there seemed to be more young women among the spectators than usual.

The fresh-faced girls whispered to each other. Their sometimes blushing faces, sometimes wide adoring eyes, made the men around them envious.

He was coming! He was here!

Giddy cries rang out from the girls.

A majestic Pegasus floated overhead, pure white from head to hoof but for the slender golden horn in the center of its head. The brilliance of it eclipsed all the rest of the light around the square.

Only the most magnificent of people would appear on the back of such a spectacular animal. [1]

A young knight sat upon its back, clad in armor white as snow and bearing a silver spear. His face was a chiseled representation of fortitude, glimmering eyes framed by razor sharp eyebrows. He was righteousness given flesh and his every glance set the girls' hearts aflutter.

It was Lord Arcturus's chief disciple, Frost de Winter, Inquisitor General of the Order of Demonhunters. His reputation, strength, and position were unmatched. This spectacle of a man was the dream of every girl and woman in Skycloud City.

Unfortunately for them, no matter how hot their desires burned, none could thaw Frost de Winter's cold persona. In the eyes of the great demonhunter women were synonymous with trouble - and he hated trouble.

This time the procession consisted of only ten soldiers. In the center of them was a disheveled and wild looking young man who was shackled at the wrists. Heavy chains rattled against the ground, dripping from cuffs around his ankles. The accused was eighteen or so and of moderate build, neither tall nor short, and handsome with an easy-going face. His hair had grown down to his shoulders and jutted out at odd directions. The jaunty and unfettered air he used to have was gone now. It was replaced with a loathing that ate at his bones.

Frost de Winter approached the dais that had been erected before the crowd and began to read out Squall's sins.

Smuggling contraband, human trafficking, blasphemy, and conspiring with enemy agents.

Frost de Winter and Augustus had fabricated these claims and every accusation bore a heavy penalty. The least was banishment from the holy lands. Taken together Squall was instantly seen as a monster whose name dripped with the stains of sin. Even before they began presenting evidence the crowd were outraged.

"Burn the heretic!"

"Burn the non-believer!"

Loud cries were shouted at him from all around.

Everywhere he looked, Squall was met with twisted angry faces. It filled him with pain and sadness. His father had been a pious and prudent man all his life whose greatest desire had been to see his son succeed. Reality was cruel, and instead now he would die with his name in tatters - loathed by everyone. Overnight his life was thoroughly destroyed and now they paraded him toward the pyre while his countryman spat vitriolic hatred.

If the gods were real, how could they stand by and watch this happen? If the gods were real, how could they permit these dark acts to go on?

The guards started to move and the crowds on either side pressed in closer. In a city of several million people it was inevitable that there were sinners, but the majority were devout followers of the gods. Even if they weren't truly passionate, their fear kept them faithful. They kept their sentiments a secret, for otherwise it was the same as inviting death. Smart heretics stayed silent, so only a few were caught every year.

They were the public enemy. Hidden dangers to their perfect society! Such wickedness could be chopped into a thousand pieces and their deaths would still not be cruel enough!

Eventually their curses were not enough and some in the crowd decided to take action. First it was a few copper coins viciously flung at Squall's head, then nuts and other detritus. Projectiles came at him from all sides and even the guards who led him got some of the punishment inadvertently.

Squall wanted to scream, he wanted to fight back. But he was powerless.

He saw it in the monstrous faces of the crowd. Anything he did was hopeless, no amount of struggle would save him. Whatever he said would be ignored, no one would believe a word. All of these people were living in a beautiful dream, and if it continued maybe they could live out their days in blissful ignorance. But if they woke up they would be faced with the cruelty of the world, and they would end up no better than Old Thistle. The blind were better off.

Hard glares from the guards escorting Squall had no effect, the mob only grew more agitated. Meanwhile Frost de Winter watched as the young man waded through the sea of curses. His eyes swept the crowd and he spoke to one of his subordinates. "Does anyone seem suspicious?"

"No one stands out," one of the soldiers accompanying him replied. "Should we go out and search the crowd?"

"No need." Frost de Winter shook his head. "Keep our men hidden, but remain vigilant. If they see someone thin and wearing a mask they should grab them immediately. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir! I'll relay your orders."

The rest of the soldiers hidden among the rabble continued to wait. Meanwhile curses and rubbish continued to be flung at Squall.

About a hundred meters away Lord Arcturus watched it all unfold with calm demeanor. Frost de Winter's plan wasn't perfect but it should be more than Cloudhawk could overcome. Freeing Squall from under their noses was practically impossible.

Faced with a suicide mission, would the young wastelander still try to save his friend?

Anyone with a modicum of intelligence would abandon the thought. To try was like a moth trying to capture the flames. However just as the thought crossed Lord Arcturus's mind, his keen eyes spotted a figure trying to sneak among the spectators.

Thin, masked, covered in a black cloak, the mysterious person was craning their neck to look for something. If Lord Arcturus could spot him from so far how could Frost de Winter miss him? He shouted:

"Grab him!"

In a flash demonhunters hidden among the crowd surrounded the masked man. Frost de Winter leapt off his horse, striding on the shoulders of several citizens to quickly approach. He dropped down and pressed through agile as a sparrow.

The masked man had no time to escape. Starlight's disciple was almost too fast to follow as his silver spear was flung forward. Even before the spear struck its target a blast of white energy engulfed the masked stranger, covering him in frost. With a cry he hit the ground.

When they heard the sound nearby spectators yelped and backed away. The press of humanity was stifling here. As everyone struggled to get away they began to trample one another.

Frightened screams of the citizenry fell on deaf ears as Frost de Winter forced his way forward. He snatched up the frozen, half dead man and tore the mask from his face. But when he saw what lay beneath his expression twisted. It was shame, and anger!

This man wasn't Cloudhawk! He was a decoy!

It was obvious. Here, now, with these clothes and such a similar build. Frost de Winter could figure it out even if he was using his ass for a brain. This was part of Cloudhawk's scheme.

As the yells of the crowd increased and their shoves grew more intense, another cloaked and masked man appeared. A second, then a third, fourth, fifth… twenty of them!

Frost de Winter, the demonhunters and all the rest of the soldiers looked around in confusion. All of a sudden there were twenty targets, any one of them who could be the young man they were after. But there was no way to tell who the real Cloudhawk was.

"Grab them all!"

The demonhunters spread out through the crowd and fell upon the masked imposters. Those soldiers escorting Squall also had their attention split between suspicious persons who'd gotten too close.

Frost de Winter's order was to grab any suspects, but now suddenly everyone seemed suspicious. Soldiers knew the ones they grabbed probably weren't who they were after, but they couldn't take that chance. What if Cloudhawk was one of them?

A nefarious wind blew across the square, and with it came choking eddies of sand that covered several dozen meters around Squall. There was nothing harmful about the sandstorm, but it did restrict vision. The guards around Squall could hardly open their eyes.

"Pay it no mind, this is just a trick to give them cover!" Frost de Winter knew it as one of Cloudhawk's tricks the second he saw the golden sands. He called out to his people. "Form up around the criminal! This fiend can become invisible, don't give him any opportunity to exploit it!"

Ten or so soldiers fell back and surrounded Squall. They kept their backs to him while brandishing their weapons toward the crowd. Although Cloudhawk had planned several distractions and could cloak his presence, he still only had one target. So long as their prisoner was locked down he would not succeed.

But none of them anticipated the sudden and inexplicable sense that gripped their chest - or where it came from.

Frost de Winter looked over his shoulder toward Squall and discovered what the problem was. He'd arranged ten soldiers to stick to the prisoner. There were eleven. In all the confusion those soldiers hadn't notice the difference.

Bang, crack!

Cloudhawk burst into action and immediately several of the soldiers were flung away. He grabbed Squall and tried to pull him into the crowd where they hoped to disappear. When Frost de Winter saw his soldiers outplayed his indignation turned to a seething rage - this wastelander was treating him like a fool!

Cloudhawk had already puzzled out Frost de Winter's plans. The paltry group protecting Squall had to be backed up by more plainclothes soldiers and demonhunters. He had no way to tell who the soldiers were, but he picked out the demonhunters easily enough by the resonance of their relics. Knowing this, he picked a direction where the demonhunters were light and in a matter of seconds plunged into the mob. As it was, Frost de Winter couldn't stop him, for if he lashed out the danger to the citizens was high. He had no love for these commoners, but as Lord Arcturus's disciple he had to keep up appearances. It wouldn't do if he killed innocents in full view of everyone while pursuing Cloudhawk.

Cloudhawk lifted his hand. Clouds of sand answered, and suddenly Frost de Winter couldn't tell which direction was which.

Watching it all unfold from afar, Lord Arcturus simply sighed and shook his head. He stretched out a hand from his wide sleeve with a needle - thin as a strand of hair - captured between his first and middle finger.

Arcing bolts of electricity slithered through the air around him. About two seconds later all that electrical power gathered at the tip of the needle.

With all the concern of a man sipping his afternoon tea, Lord Arcturus flicked his fingers.


The needle rocketed forth faster than the speed of sound, with nothing but a subtle gust hardly within the ability of an ear to pick up. It crossed two or three hundred meters in the blink of an eye, more accurate than a sniper's bullet. It slipped through the cloud of sand and buried itself in Cloudhawk's kneecap. The needle was precisely forceful enough to slip entirely into his leg so that no part of it showed, but not so strong as to pierce through the other side. 

Cloudhawk lost his balance.

No, not just his balance. It wasn't that simple. It was like he lost all control of his body, and he hit the ground with a thud.

Son of a bitch! What the fuck is this?!

The needle was not only piercing, but uncannily accurate like its trajectory had been perfectly calculated. Most importantly the needle itself was brimming with energy, and once the needle hit him Cloudhawk was wracked with spasms. They were so intense he lost all muscle control.


Squall reached for him, but the moment they touched Squall was struck with an intense pain. The electric power that flowed through Cloudhawk jumped into his body as well. Frost de Winter used these few seconds to close the distance and surrounded the pair with a contingent of his soldiers.

1. The word he uses to describe the Pegasus here is 'bao ma' or treasure horse - which is also what they call BMWs. In China the car you drive is the indication of status, with large black BMWs being the standard of 'I'm important'. If this was intentional phrasing on the part of HDW then it's pretty damn clever.

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