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Book 3, Chapter 101 - Azura's Inspiration

 Cloudhawk had returned to Sandbar Station for two reasons. First; to see if Gabriel was back.

When he returned to his store he discovered it nearly closed by the new, stringent rulers of the city. Luckily he returned when he did, otherwise they would have seen nothing but a load of contraband. The poor shop assistants running it would have been wrongly executed.

Gabriel, Barb and Vulkan were still gone. Cloudhawk didn't know whether it was because the valley was farther than he anticipated, or they ran into some sort of trouble. He supposed it was also possible that they were living it up in comfort and weren't in any hurry to get back. Selene's whereabouts were also a mystery. His return to look for help turned up empty handed.

Second; find a clue as to Adder's whereabouts from his bar.

This guy's scheme's to steal the Dark Atom's atom bomb had really pissed him off. He still didn't know a hundred percent where that snake-fuck was going to use the thing. He had the power to level a whole city, erase hundreds of thousands of life in an instant. Terrible, evil power in the hands of an untrustworthy man. It had to be destroyed.

Cloudhawk could only imagine what sort of calamity would unfold if he let Adder keep the weapon.

He couldn't just stand by and let countless innocent souls get annihilated. Nor could he let Adder's insanity put the people he cared about, like Asha, in danger. It was a problem that suddenly very much became his business.

"You're looking for Dad? He left several days ago and hasn't come back yet. I don't know where he's gone either!"

Adder wasn't at the bar. Hardly a surprise. With the weapon in hand it wasn't like he would bring it here, where it could be easily discovered. But although the man himself wasn't here, it afforded Cloudhawk a chance to poke around. If he was lucky there might be a few valuable clues lying around that'd tell him where the asshole was hiding.

Luciasha, in her simple honesty, didn't think too much of it.

By now the young girl, Azura, had come to.

Squall's medicine had been very helpful, Azura was in much better shape now. She blinked her big crystal blue eyes. "I'm not dead?"

"Silly child. You're still young, with many long days ahead. Don't even think about dying." Luciasha gave her a gentle hug, then introduced her to Cloudhawk. "A girl like this is rare, I don't think I'm strong enough to protect her myself. Do you think you can help?"

The poor child was beautiful, but life had dealt her a cruel hand. Her hands were covered in small wounds, and thirst had caused her lips to crack painfully. Only her two big, beautiful eyes maintained their youthful vitality.

Cloudhawk spared a glance for the drawing she'd scratched into the floor.

He looked passed the simple lines, at the beautiful life it represented. At the life the little girl hoped to regain. She had clung to the best part of her short life in the moment when she thought she might lose it. In many ways she was like Cloudhawk when he was little. Who knows what she might accomplish if she were allowed to grow up.

Cloudhawk hunched down and fished some medicine from his clothing. It was one of the cultivating bundle of herbs from the sanctuary, intended to foster and increase one's inner potential. "Azura. That's a pretty name. Since Luciasha asked, I thought I'd give you something. It's simple, but with practice you're going to get stronger and stronger. You'll never get sick like this again."

Cloudhawk taught her the basic motions of the demonhunter training regimen. It was a quick thing, provided on a whim. How much Azura retained would be up to her.

Much to his surprise, the small girl picked it up in a hurry. She got the basics after one go, a fact which surprised Cloudhawk. Judging by this alone it was obvious to him she was no average little girl. She was brilliant, but she'd had the misfortune of being born a wastelander. Otherwise, with a good teacher, she would be a great success in less than a decade.

Luciasha clapped happily nearby. She spoke excitedly with the girl. "Cloudhawk is such a wonderful man, don't you think? This is the first time I've seen him teach anybody what he knows. You should call him teacher."

Even at just six years old, the little girl was clever. She solemnly bowed before Cloudhawk. "Thank you, teacher!"

"Alright, alright, none of that. Shit." Cloudhawk waved his hands before him defensively. "I don't have the right to call anyone my student, so don't you go calling me teacher. It sounds weird."

"I don't have a mommy or daddy anymore. I don't have anywhere to go." Yearning sprang up in Azura's crystaline eyes. Her little heart was sensitive enough to know that this was her chance to change her circumstance. Maybe her only chance. She bowed again, pressing her head to the floor. "I want to be as great as you, teacher."

Cloudhawk found the scene to be both funny and infuriating.

The kid showed real talent and intelligence, rare talent. But what right did Cloudhawk have to be a teacher? Azura had an instant trust and dependence on him, probably because there was so much about them that was similar. It was easy and immediate that they should take a shine to one another. Somewhere a thread of fate had drawn them together.

"Why do you want to get strong?" Cloudhawk asked.

Tears started to well up in the girl's eyes. Was she thinking about her dead parents?

"Because there are a lot of people in the world who need help!" Her tiny hands balled into fists as she made her shocking declaration. "I want to protect everyone who can't protect themselves! I want everyone who is hungry to be full, and everyone who is cold to have clothes! Everyone without a home should have a place to live. I want the world to be full of flowers."

Cloudhawk wouldn't have believed a six year old would say something like this. But here it was. A child... what, did she want to be the whole world's savior?

Something like a trance overcome Cloudhawk as he thought back a decade or so.

Back nearly farther than he could remember, an old scavenger plucked Cloudhawk out from the ruins. Back then Cloudhawk was humble as the dirt, but like the girl he had unrealistic ambitions. Back then there seemed to be so much to look forward to. Now he was an adult, and all that youthful optimism had dried up.

Now here was Azura. Was this fate, or just a coincidence?

Cloudhawk sighed. "You can live in my shop."

Luciasha, her face bright with joy, explained to the girl. "That means Cloudhawk has agreed to take you in."

Azura rubbed the tears from her face and quickly brought her head back down to the ground thankfully.

A moment's weakness, and now he had a disciple. It didn't matter how talented she was, the damn girl was six. He was staring down the barrel of at least ten years of responsibility. He hadn't shown her the demonhunter forging method in the hopes of making her some grand hero, he just wanted her to be ready if she ever got herself into trouble. No matter what the world took from her, she would have that inner strength.

But maybe she could achieve what Cloudhawk never could. That was his hope, anyway.

After enduring the harsh journey back home, here he was. It'd only been maybe half a day. Now that the business with Azura was done, he slipped into Adder's secret treasure room to see what he could glean. But like his first objective, his attempts were fruitless.

He was at his wits end. As Cloudhawk mulled over the helples situation, he suddenly felt something. Faint, but there - the resonance of a relic somewhere in the bar. It was so faint he wasn't even sure it was a relic... a token! A demonhunter token!

Cloudhawk quickly returned to Luciasha. "Is there a demonhunter token around here somewhere?"

She looked at him in surprise. "How did you know? Yes, there is."

He took the token and poured over it carefully, peering at every detail. And then, all of a sudden, his pupils contracted like he discovered something frightening.

"I should have thought of that... I should have thought of that!"

For most they wouldn't have noticed anything about the token besides the obvious. Cloudhawk, however, recognized the insignia. It was enough to confirm Adder's identity, because it was a token of the Cloude family. The markings were very similar to the ones on Selene's token.

Every one of the Cloude family's younger generation was talented enough to rise to the rank of veteran demonhunter, and carry their own token.

Selene Cloude!

Zephyr Cloude!

Adder was Zephyr!

Cloudhawk remembered very clearly when Selene confronted him outside of this bar and told him to be wary of Adder. The two had come face to face and yet she hadn't recognized the one she grew up with. It had never even occurred to him.

Zephyr... Zephyr... You sure know how to keep a secret Adder, you piece of shit. It all seemed so obvious!

Adder was the Crimson One's son. He lived out here in Sandbar Station, secluded, feeding information back to his father. This was how the Sanctum of Judgment was able to gain a foothold in the wastelands so quickly. Without someone gathering intel, it would have been almost impossible to keep their secrets hidden from the elysians. All of it was orchestrated by Adder.

He'd managed to muster together his own group, which meant Adder didn't have to rely on the Crimson Church for manpower. But that didn't mean he wasn't working for them. Going after the atomic weapon was an act in service to the Crimson Church, definitely. A slow, ponderous plan - but once the Crimson One's identity was revealed, they were forced to speed up their timetable. Adder had to make the dangerous trek to the heart of the Dark Atom himself in order to ensure the primeval weapon was captured.

Years ago, Zephyr was a veteran demonhunter. He knew how to get information to the right hands at the border forces, and fast. He also had to know how to make the intelligence look convincing enough to make the officers act without question. It was clever: Make the border forces attack the Dark Atom headquarters, and use it as a distraction to steal inside. It worked, and now that rat fuck was somewhere with a city-destroying bomb.

Somehow the Crimson Church had to have known the Caliph of the Sands was there. Adder would be in danger, so it would only make sense if the Crimson Church had come as part of some arrangement. A business transaction... that's what Wyrmsole had called it.

As for what the Dark Atom thought about the whole ordeal, Cloudhawk couldn't say.

Wolfblade would probably say that there was only one weapon, so you only had one chance to make proper use of it. Smuggling something like that into Skycloud and detonating it was a real tall order.

But Adder... he was different.

He lived in Skycloud, at least back when he was younger. He almost certainly still had contacts, and thus a way to get the weapon passed the border. Doing that would be exactly what the Dark Atom had wanted from the beginning. It was also a fine way for the Sanctum of Judgment to assert itself in the wastelands.

So was Adder's target Skycloud city?

There was no clear evidence to support the idea, though common sense would say it was the best way to break the elysians. What would be a more crushing blow than reducing their grand capital city to rubble? After growing up in the city Adder had to know it inside and out. He was the perfect agent to get the job done.

A cold sweat broke out over Cloudhawk's body. Madness... it was all madness.

What would happen to everyone else when Skycloud was blown to smithereens? He couldn't wait, not a second longer. The consequences if he let this happen were unthinkable!

But was he too late?

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