Cloudhawk had lost all ability to move. Frost de Winter didn't need to guess to know his master had helped.
"That fuckin' dog Arcturus Cloude finally got his hands dirty." Cloudhawk's anger had reached the boiling point. His eyes began to simmer with red light as, unexpectedly, he fought off the numbing power of Starlight's attack. Rising to his feet, every hair of his body stood on end, though it wasn't clear whether it was from sheer anger or the electricity coursing through him. A ferocious and murderous aura poured from him, like a devil's soldier clawing his way from the pits of hell. "You scum, in league with demons - you think you're worthy to govern Skycloud City? Are the people so blind? Are the gods so blind!?"
Suddenly everything went quiet.
Everyone seemed to forget their fear and stared with wide-eyed shock. Was he accusing Lord Arcturus of working with demons? It was an astounding accusation, one that shook the mind of anyone who heard him say it.
Frost de Winter's cool and unshakable exclamations woke the crowd from their stupor. "This man is a demon's spy, brought into our city by Squall. Do not let his poisonous words confuse you - get him!"
The young man's allegations were so outrageous that the crowds were stunned stiff. They didn't even think about it, but indeed the very thought was ridiculous!
What sort of man was Lord Arcturus? The very backbone of Skycloud Domain. If he were cavorting with demons how could Skycloud enjoy the safety and prosperity it had today? What traitor could be considered a good and truthful person? How could anything they say be believed? He was a sinner, one who disrespected their illustrious leader to his face. The citizens repented for even entertaining the idea.
Cloudhawk said nothing further, for three more imperceptible needles came flying his direction. Soundless and faster than bullets they penetrated the sandstorm. One buried itself in his left kneecap, and the other two in each scapula. Even though his nerves were like steel Cloudhawk couldn't withstand the onslaught.
Lord Arcturus was indeed a master demonhunter, and he proved it by single-handedly incapacitating Cloudhawk from hundreds of meters away. What's more no one knew who or how. It was as though Cloudhawk simply collapsed under his own weight.
Frost de Winter waved his hand toward the wastelander. "Take them!"
Squall was immediately surrounded by a group of soldiers. His heart beat furiously in his chest, angry and incredulous but entirely helpless. "Why did you come here? Did you think you could save me?! You jackass!"
"It's not over yet. Get over here!"
Cloudhawk's will wasn't spent. He spat the words at Squall through gritted teeth but the young man didn't know what he meant. However as the guards closed in around him, Cloudhawk held tight to his strange rock and it surged with power. As the light from it washed over him Cloudhawk felt the force of the electricity weaken considerably. He groped for Squall like a lion lunging for its prey.
Through the stone a strange and enigmatic energy spread outward. This time it enveloped not only Cloudhawk, but Squall as well - at the cost of several times the effort for Cloudhawk!
Summoning the stone's power was demanding for Cloudhawk under normal conditions, much less extending it to another. As such he didn't have the psychic will to spare to use his cloak. The soldiers rushed in to grab them, but their hands passed right through.
These weren't men anymore, they were illusions, and they weren't going to get their hands on specters. It was the strangest thing the soldiers had ever experienced, and they watched speechless as the pair soundlessly started to sink into the ground.
The soldiers piled on but hit nothing but solid ground. Bizarre! How could this happen?
"Get out of my way!"
Frost grabbed the soldiers and flung them to the side, only to find that they were piled on empty space. He roared at them. "What is going on here?! Where did they run!"
"Lord Frost de Winter, sir. They, well they sunk into the ground. He was able to pass right through it!"
Frost's face turned dark as a blizzard. What sort of power allowed a person to simply slip through the earth? He stomped on the spot where Cloudhawk disappeared as hard as he could but it did not give. Once he was sure it was solid his furrowed brows shot up, and he pointed to a couple demonhunters nearby. "You there, dig this area up!"
"But sir, this-"
"If I tell you to dig, you dig!"
"We obey!" A group of demonhunters brandished their exorcist staffs. They were capable members of the order so when they struck the ground with their weapons it began to give way. When the earth buckled they found a hole below.
At last Frost understood why Cloudhawk had chosen this spot to make his move. Just below their feet was one of the tunnels that honeycombed below the city. Cloudhawk had to know that trying to escape with Squall was impossible - unless he had a special escape plan.
Cloudhawk's verbal abuse of the governor was a ploy for gaining precious moments, winning enough time for him to use his stone. Despite Lord Arcturus's quick response in subduing him, Cloudhawk was still able to flee with his friend.
Burning the mansion, confounding his ambushers, slipping in among the guards, and then eventually escaping. The whole thing was well thought out, logical, purposeful. The wastelander was young and green, but they had to acknowledge that he had guts. The resourceful young man was much more capable than he looked.
"Get after him!"
Once the tunnels were revealed Frost hefted his spear and jumped in. The demonhunters followed close at his heels.
After phasing into the tunnels, Cloudhawk and Squall hung on to each other and stumbled a little way through the dark. Eventually they fell, exhausted.
Squall was caught in his chains and couldn't move very well, while Cloudhawk was mentally drained. His arms and legs might just as well have been made out of scrap. As wondrous as the stone's powers were - in fact, precisely because of that - it demanded a high price in psychic energy. The excess when carrying another person wasn't as simple as simply doubling the effect, it was orders of magnitude more difficult.
Squall helped lift Cloudhawk back onto his feet. "How are you holding up?"
Cloudhawk shook his head, stumbled forward, then collapsed again. Lord Arcturus's needles were buried deep in his knees and not even the ends jutted out. With these needles in him he wasn't going anywhere, so he shoved Squall away: "I can't. Get out of here as fast as you can!"
Squall shook his head fervently. "I'll carry you."
He frowned the moment he said it. His hands and feet were bound in thick iron, how would he even be able to get him up on his shoulders?
"I'm Frost de Winter's target, if you try to help me you'll get caught up in his bloodlust. Then we'll just end up dying together." Cloudhawk was covered in sweat, clearly in pain. The wounds Arcturus caused were serious and excruciating. "Listen, I don't have any friends… except maybe for you. That's why I had to save you."
"Why did you do this? Why risk your life!" Squall's hands were clenched into fists, his eyes were red. "None of this is your fault, so why? Just so I owe you again?"
Cloudhawk could barely hold himself together. He was dripping sweat and wincing against the pain. He fought through it to try and speak. "I guess the fact is my life doesn't hold much promise. But it's different for you. You need to keep living because you have a reason. Revenge - for me, for Old Thistle. Remember how your father died. Is that how you want to go out?"
Images of his poor father floated up through Squall's mind. His hands tightened further.
"As for the other members of Bloomnettle Company, don't worry. They've already escaped by now." Cloudhawk was trying to talk through gasping breaths. He lifted his head, peering through tousled hair with calm expression. He shared a mournful smile with his friend. "The elysian lands were the dream I chased for longer than I can remember. Now there's nothing for me… I don't know where to go, back to the wastelands? Somewhere else? I'm tired… I just need a fucking break. Get the hell out of here!"
Squall looked into Cloudhawk's eyes and saw his hopelessness turn into conviction.
He didn't say a word. Squall turned around and hobbled into the darkness.
Cloudhawk watched him go and felt relief. Two minutes later Frost strode up to the immobile Cloudhawk. He knocked the young man unconscious with a single blow, then waved to the demonhunters on either side of him. "Get him and let's get out of here."
One of them, a tracker, ventured to ask. "The other one's run off. Should we go after him?"
Frost de Winter peered into the inky blackness before them. "That one's just a small fish. He isn't worth our effort. Come!"
The demonhunters hesitated, but they had no reason to question their master. This talented young master had other ideas, and although Squall was in the wind the others paid him no more mind.
Cloudhawk, on the other hand, had been difficult to handle. He'd run away repeatedly, but finally he was back in their grasp.
"Stop where you are!"
Frost had just stepped out from the tunnels when a melodious, regal voice called out to him. The woman's voice was pleasing to the ear, if imperious and self-assured - sharp was a masterwork blade.
One didn't even need to look at her to know who the voice belonged to.
Frost's path was blocked. The young woman's skin was an alabaster white, almost unnatural, with hair the color of spun gold. Sunlight played around her like a halo, seeming to embrace her almost like a goddess.
"Dawn. What's all this commotion!"
"Shut your mouth!" Dawn didn't even feign respect for Frost de Winter. Both of them were the pinnacle of their generation's talent, and as such were often at odds. Their conflict was more than just a passing matter, and her barbed words weren't a rare thing. "Leave that one to me. Be on your way!"
"Under whose orders? Yours?"
"That's right, mine!"
Every syllable dripped with aggression!