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Book 3, Chapter 94 - Another Unavoidable Confrontation

 Augustus Cloude recognized Cloudhawk. Cloudhawk remembered his face as well. However, he didn't remember what what happened between them - though if the hatred in Augustus' eyes was any indication, it was nothing good.

In this world one didn't love without reason, nor did one hate without cause. Augustus' initial sour impression of Cloudhawk stemmed from Frost's enmity, as Frost was convinced that the wastelander would soon grow to be a threat to their beloved governor.

If Augustus Cloude was anything, it was steadfastly loyal.

There was no doubt in his mind that Governor Arcturus was the greatest man in all of Skycloud. Anyone who posed a threat to him was immediately Augustus' mortal enemy.

Time after time Frost tried to eradicate the boy, but always he escaped. Over time he even thrived, growing strong as quickly as the other great Skycloud talents. It would not be a surprise if he were a man of significant influence in just a few years, if left alone.

Augustus feared Skye Polaris, though. He dared not upset the great bear of a man and cut down one of his favorite pets. He was helpless to deal with the threat standing before him.

These survivors had lived thanks to the good fortune of Cloudhawk's arrival. On his own he'd managed to save perhaps two thousand lives. It was the only thing to cheer for in the whole, wretched debacle that was their assault on Nucleus.

Among his supporters were also formidable elysian officers. They recognized that the contribution Cloudhawk made to saving their lives was a meritorious act, and he could hold his head high.

Of course, Cloudhawk's methods were far from altruistic. In saving their lives he made powerful friends. With time, those relationships would serve him well.

When the officers did the math, it actually didn't seem so bad. The Dark Atom wasn't destroyed, but they sure as hell caused some damage. They lost, handily, but every storm cloud has a silver lining. They may have been defeated, but the consequences and implications of their attack were far-reaching.

The border forces, the Guard Corps, the Talons of God... these were all armies directly under Polaris-family control. Sadly they had been broken against the Dark Atom, nearly eradicated. For the waning martial family, the results of today could be said to be a nearly insurmountable tragedy.

Skye Polaris had always been a check against the governor. He was maybe the only man in Skycloud that could stand in Arcturus' way. But what was left with which to exert pressure? Cloudhawk - the young man he saved from death, who he'd entrusted with an important mission out in the wastes. He was more important to the family than ever, and especially given Frost's dark prophecy they had to be careful of him.

Whether on his own, or his role in a hostile family, Cloudhawk was a threat that couldn't be permitted to exist. Augustus' mind raced to find a way to deal with him.

His thought process seemed complex, but flashed by in an instant. Then, in the most direct way possible, he reacted. Pulling out a crescent blade, thin as a cicada's wing, the weapon rose of its own accord from his hand. Pregnant with homicidal intent it burst into motion.

No warning, no omen - the weapon raced toward Cloudhawk at twice the speed of sound!

When this thorn in their side was dead, the Polaris family would be weaker than ever. At last Arcturus would have full control of Skycloud city!

After the series of brutal attacks Drake felt numb. However, the sudden attack on Cloudhawk's life from a supposed ally once again took him by surprise. His first instinct was to shout a command. "Hold!"

A streak of silver light flashed from Roc's right sleeve, quickly revealing itself to be a snake-like wave-bladed sword. He moved it so quick that a web of steel separated Cloudhawk from Augustus' relic, knocking it away.

Cloudhawk balked, full of confusion. Was this motherfucker crazy? He didn't remember killing the guy's dad or screwing his wife, so what the fuck?!

"That battle stole the lives of some of our best. It had to be the work of a spy!" Augustus stared accusingly at Cloudhawk. "We have long suspected this fiend to be working with the demon. He saved you as a clumsy means of hiding his intentions. We can not allow him to make it back to Skycloud!"

"What absolute bullshit!" Drake responded, losing his temper. "Where's your proof?!"

"You want proof? Three years ago he infiltrated Skycloud from the wastelands, with a demon relic in hand, claiming to have killed such a monster on his own!" Augustus was a clever man. In a blink he knew what to say to expose this traitor. "Today we saw that demon on the field, with his gospel of sand in hand and used to cut down our brothers! If it weren't for that monster I would have eliminated the Dark Atom years ago. You still have the gall to stand there and deny that he works with the demon? Look at him - look at what he is capable of now. You mean to tell me that three years ago he fought a demon on his own and won? How do you explain the gospel that he once held suddenly again in the hands of a beast that should be dead?"

The words were cutting, and persuasive. It seemed as though Cloudhawk had nothing to say. How could he explain any of this truthfully?

Although he had been painted into a corner, Cloudhawk remained calm. "I can explain everything about the gospel, but it is up to a court to decide whether or not to act on the information. Trying to kill me without a verdict is shady as hell. It's almost like you're trying to kill me to keep me quiet."

Drake was convinced of Cloudhawk's innocence. How could he be a demon spy? Without him they would all have died in the valley, and someone working for the enemy wouldn't have any reason to spare their lives. Augustus' words were nothing more than mean-spirited slander!

Hammont and the other soldiers were just as indignant. Augustus brought up important questions, but it was hardly enough to warrant cold-blooded murder. Sentencing a man to death on suspicion alone was rushed and excessive!

However, he was a demonhunter - a veteran, and from a noble family to boot. No lowly soldier was going to stand in his way. They could only silently protest his actions.

Roc's blade had illustrated his position on the matter. His full name was Roc Polaris, and completely loyal to his family. How could he not be aware of Augustus' true aim?

Augustus continued to urge his moonblade forward, desperately trying to behead Cloudhawk. But although the Talon commander was crippled, he still had one good arm. The steel defense was impenetrable. At the same time the soldiers did not react to Augustus' commands to cut down the traitor, a fact that made him furious.

But it didn't matter. He had a dozen demonhunters who were sworn to obey!

"Everyone, after him! He must die today!" A veteran demonhunter and a dozen of his compatriots. It was a squad equipped to kill a demon!

Baffled though they were, the demonhunter were nonetheless trained and sworn to the Cloude family. Augustus' commands were law, so they brandished their relics and splayed out in preparation to attack.

"Men who were saved by Cloudhawk's hand! Are you willing to stand by and watch as these demonhunters cut him down without cause?" Drake called out to the soldiers. "We are a nation built on laws! Even if he is a Cloude, the name does not give him the right to kill a demonhunter at a whim! If you're brave enough to stand for justice, then fight with me!"

Hammont felt a surge of emotion rising to his head. He was a small, insignificant man, but he trusted Cloudhawk. He found Augustus behavior worthy of disdain, so it was the Magistrate who first lifted his blade to aid the lieutenant-general.

The gorge rang with the sword of swords being drawn, as the remaining elysian soldiers came to Cloudhawk's defense. No one said a word. Their silence was a deafening protest.

Only one man hesitated. The commander of the vanguard, Brontes.

Cloudhawk had recognized the man, and of course Brontes remembered Cloudhawk. He knew Cloudhawk came from the wastelands, and he remembered the chase from years ago. It was the only time in his military career that he had been defeated. Was Cloudhawk as clean as he wanted everyone to believe? But doubtful or not, he didn't believe the demonhunter deserved to be slaughtered out here like a dog!

Suddenly faced with the prospect of fighting their own countrymen, the demonhunters paused. Did Augustus really want them to fight their own side, here in enemy territory? Thousands were dead already, what would they think if word got back to Skycloud that they were killing their own after such a tragedy?

"Just try and screw with my brother!" Drake was emboldened upon seeing the soldiers stand behind him. Inwardly he couldn't help but feel relief. He hefted the broken sword left behind by their fallen general and spoke to his compatriots in a booming voice. "Augustus Cloude is trying to murder a good man! His intentions are clearly malicious - arrest him!"

The rallying shouts made Cloudhawk's heart soar.

Surviving had never been easy for him, so he cherished every friend he made. Never in his life had he ever had so many willing to stand by his side, and in that moment he really felt like he was part of a crew.

Hammont and the thousand-strong remaining soldiers brandished their weapons, ready to act. Demonhunters were lauded warriors of god, but Drake was their commander! A soldier's first duty was to obey orders - nothing else was as important. What's more, despite the great respect they held for demonhunters, to them their actions here were unfounded. In that moment Augustus knew his plan had failed. The men with him were also preparing to stand down. Yet as it seemed the situation was about to deescalate, a sound emerged from gorge nearby.

"It's taken you so long I thought everyone died on the mountain. Instead it turns out you're too busy trying to murder each other." Squall finally emerged from the gorge with a large group of men. He looked at the soldiers and demonhunters, noting their tense standoff with a grin. "Elysians dogs nipping at one another. Quite the sight."

His sudden appearance took everyone by surprise.

Drake called out. "Who goes there?"

Squall sniffed in laughter, revealing his white teeth. "The one who will be burying your corpses. Watching you all squabble for half the day, we were growing impatient. I figured we'd come along and help you along your journey to the afterlife. It's fine, you don't need to thank you."

Terror gripped Cloudhawk. "Squall!"

Why was it that this fucking guy haunted him always at the worst possible times?

Squall hadn't noticed Cloudhawk at first. After all, everyone looked the same caked in volcanic ash. Only now was it clear he was among them, and that he was the cause of their conflict.

"Son of a bitch." Squall's expression shifted to something strange. "We're always running into one another! Well, if one thing is clear it's that you sure love to cause a scene. Go on, fuck off. I'm tired of looking at you."

Hey! I should be saying that to you, asshole!

The two men were something between friends and enemies. Or, perhaps more accurately they were mirror images. The world was a fucking lousy place, and it seemed like it was always just the thing you wanted to avoid was what came to bite you in the ass. Like Cloudhawk and Squall, or Squall and Old Thistle.

Three-Eyed Spider also recognized the young man who had caused him so much pain.

Although the chief culprits of his sorry condition were Wolfblade and Hellflower, Cloudhawk had been the catalyst that got it all started. As a result he had just as much of a reason to want him dead as Augustus.

But the old scientist was a smart man. He was able to read the crowd at a glance. It appeared Cloudhawk had some sort of relationship with his new benefactor, and Squall seemed ready to let him go with his life.

How was that acceptable? As far as Three-Eyed Spider was concerned, letting that scoundrel life was just trading trouble now for disaster later.

A poisonous thought wormed its way into the old man's brain. He stepped out from the crowd and fixed Cloudhawk with his steely gaze. "Cloudhawk, you had contact with both Wolfblade and Hellflower. It was because of you that I have been kicked out of the Dark Atom. Now I see you are among the elysians. From this perspective, it seems you are working both sides against one another. In all my years, I've never seen such a brazen man!"

The moment he said it, all the faces in the crowd around Cloudhawk changed.

Drake and the others looked at him in betrayed shock.

Fuck, Cloudhawk thought. That old man really screwed me.