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Book 3, Chapter 110 - Layers Within Layers

 No more than two minutes after some semblance of calm returned to Skycloud, another loud rumbling shook its foundations. This time the quakes were more intense than the first. The whole city seemed to undulate from it.

Chasms appeared down quaint neighborhood lanes. Their scope and range were orders of magnitude greater than the last disaster, splitting apart islands of land. They jostled and bucked, spreading toward the horizon like a sea of shattered ice. Buildings toppled, and dust hung over everything.

A group of figures appeared through the haze. One of them was dressed in a plain grey robe. It was the city's governor, together with the head of the Court of Shadows, Janus. Behind them were the heads of many prominent families and military leaders.

It was the greatest tragedy to have ever struck the city, in its thousand years of history. A response had to be immediate.

Governor Arcturus surveyed the destruction, brows knit close. He spoke to the people standing on either side. "This is undoubtedly the result of some foreign power. Mobilize all of our public safety officers and deal with the casualties. The rest of you, come with me. We must find out what happened."

Frost de Winter sat astride his horse, dazzling spear in one hand and the snow white cape that was his staple flowing behind. He was a gallant figure, stark against the destruction that surrounded him. In his left hand he lightly held the reigns of his unicorn mount, a mystical white beast which stood majestically above the rubble. Frost dismounted, rubbing the knuckles of his fist. "We seized a number of people found underground. Cloudhawk, Dawn Polaris, Atlas Umbra and others."

The other officers and heads of house were alarmed by the news.

Few if any of them knew Cloudhawk, or what he might be doing caught up in this mess. Dawn and Atlas, however, were pillars of Skycloud's next generation of rulers. How did they play into this tragedy?

Janus felt their eyes fall upon him, to which he offered a tepid explanation. "Atlas and the Court of Shadows were hunting the fugitive, Cloudhawk."

Had their underground struggle caused the calamity suffered on the surface? Were they really capable of such destruction?

A slight frown creased Arcturus' already glum features. "Where are they now?"

Frost replied. "It is confirmed that they were all directly involved in the incident. I've had them sent to the Skyden, and have them under watch by my own men."

The situation was bad. Whole blocks had been reduced to ruin.

It was no exaggeration to say that what happened to Skycloud caused more panic than the massacre at the Blisterpeaks. Arcturus guessed that the death toll here would be in the thousands - a far cry from the tens of thousands who lost their lives in the mountains, but this happened here, in their own city, before their very eyes. A strike at the heart of Skycloud domain.

How could such a dramatic catastrophe go unnoticed?

Arcturus ordered the entire area locked down while they dug for bodies and survivors. Meanwhile, he and the other important members of city leadership left for the Skyden. When they arrived they found Cloudhawk, Dawn, and Atlas still breathing, though badly wounded from the affair. Their equipment had been confiscated, and they were being kept in a cell while the situation was being looked into. All of the prison guards had been replaced with soldiers, obvious to ensure they could not escape.

The cell door open, and the room was suddenly crowded with people.

Cloudhawk was laden with countless chains and locks, keeping his hands firmly fixed behind his back. He couldn't even move his head. But he didn't need to, he felt the aura that filled the cell the moment they entered. These people were the true masters of Skycloud domain.

This time, Cloudhawk really didn't know where his antics were going to land him.

Arcturus Cloude stared at the young man, a face he hadn't seen for more than three years. There was a flash in his eyes, but his features remained calm and genial, without a hint of anger. "Is there something you wish to say?"

A smirk split Cloudhawk's face when he heard the governor's voice. "Would you believe me?"

Arcturus' response was even, unhurried. "If it is the truth, why should I not believe it?"

With no better option available, Cloudhawk shared his unlikely story in full.

"Who could believe such an absurd excuse?!" One among the crowd bit back with a hard, incredulous voice. "If the city was in danger, why didn't you go directly to the governor? The city was threatened with destruction, and you three children thought you were saviors? Absolutely ridiculous! Sheer nonsense!"

Cloudhawk tried to defend himself. "We were dealing on a lightning fast timetable, here. We didn't have the luxury to do it the right way. Besides, I was locked up as a felon right when I got back. The only person willing to believe me is General Polaris, and he isn't here. I was out of options."

"Pure sophistry!"

"Alright, enough. This is a grave matter that requires serious investigation."

With that said, Arcturus and the others left, locking the cell behind them.

That same day excavation crews picked through the ruins, down into the chasms where they found proof of Cloudhawk's claims. At least some of what he'd told them was the truth.

"There was a cavern this large, here underneath Skycloud and nobody knew.

"Governor. Judging by the debris we found there were a lot of protections in place to keep them hidden. It would have been difficult for anyone to know it was here."

Arcturus looked over the parts of the caverns they'd managed to clear, and said nothing.

Frost de Winter hurriedly approached. "Master, we've found something. You should come see for yourself."

Arcturus and the others were lead into a section that had just recently been reopened. The scene that greeted them caused everyone's face to stiffen.

Row after row.

Hundreds of cocoon-like incubators.

Every one of them contained a nuked humanoid body, steeped in thick black energy. This crop seemed less developed than the ones that had awakened during the fight, not yet functional protofiends.

"Governor... what is this?"

"These are the dark beasts Cloudhawk said were being grown here."

The other city leaders exchanged silent glances, but the look on their faces all said the same thing; they couldn't believe this was true. How could this exist underneath their fair city?

Arcturus approached one of the incubators. "This structure in and of itself does not contain any energy. Instead, it steals and refines the energy of our holy lands for its nefarious purpose. As the heart of our domain, Skycloud city is also the richest in holy energy. With such surplus, it would be virtually impossible to notice if something was draining a small portion.

Everyone knew that Skycloud domain owed its prosperity to the miraculous tools of the gods, limitless in energy and capability. Things like their airships, their street lamps, even things they used for their daily home life. None of it ever ran out of power, no matter how long or often they were used.

No one knew why. They didn't need to, for it was a gift from the gods to their faithful. It was the foundation of what made their land strong, all that was required of them was that they remained thankful and reverent.

Now, however, someone had unlocked the essence of this energy. What's more, they had changed it to serve their own ends, converting it into some evil power to fuel these dark soldiers. It was a fact that was both sensational and nauseating.

One of the group members burst out in anger, "We should grind those Dark Atom heathens to dust!"

"You are mistaken." The governor never took his eyes from the incubator. "No one from the Dark Atom, no Elysian, not even the men of the ancient civilization could do this. No man is capable of such power, for it goes far beyond the ken of us simple creatures. This is the domain of gods and demons."

"You mean to say..."

"These dark creatures are similar in form to our Seraphs, though different in important ways and far simpler. This vile hatchery is not the product of any wasteland organization. It comes from something much darker and more powerful."


The answer was clear. All of this was the work of those evil monstrosities.

The defeat of the demonkin had happened a thousand years ago now, but they were creatures bred in murder and destruction. Demons were always lurking in the shadows, ready to take advantage of the slightest weakness, plotting their return to the lands of man.

Janus's enigmatic voice whispered through the cavern. "Reports claim the Dark Atom works with a demon. It is not impossible they may be involved."

"I am certain this is not Abaddon's doing. There is no record of this in the ancient books, nor were they used in the great war, so I suspect these fiends must have been concocted within the last millennia. Obviously, these wicked souls have been very active since their defeat. Progress as we see here cannot be achieved overnight. It takes time, careful study - Abaddon does not meet these criteria."

He paused for a moment, then added more.

"More importantly, whoever is behind this managed to do it all under our very noses. This can mean only one thing: They are deeply embedded within our city. To penetrate to this level would take a decade, perhaps longer. I suspect that by now its influence has reached into the power structure of Skycloud. Perhaps even the highest levels. If the Dark Atom had achieved such success this would not be the result we would see."

The others with Arcturus were struck dumb. Sidelong glances were cast all around. Was someone here an agent of the demons? One of their own? If that were true, then the implications were too terrible to imagine.

"Be at ease. There are certainly spies, but not necessarily among you. It could be someone you have regular contact with. From this point forward we must all be more cautious in our dealings."

"Yes, indeed!"

Arcturus listlessly motioned with his finger, and a stream of light flashed out like lightning. The bolt struck one of the incubators and raced through it in an instant, then another and another. In the blink of an eye the entire room was flickering with lightning. The cocoons - and their foul contents - were destroyed.

"Make sure that news of what we've discovered here does not spread. We must continue our investigation into the work of these demons in secret. Anyone who breathes a word of this will be dealt with. Harshly."

A chill ran through the lords and officers. They weren't sure whether it was from his electrical display of might, or the brief murderous threat in his voice.

His demands were reasonable. If the public were to learn of what happened here, who knows what sort of chaos would ensue.

Arcturus ordered his men to continue the search. So far, the primeval weapon Cloudhawk mentioned had not been found. The Elysian nobles were loathe to believe such a terrible thing could exist in their back yard, but after seeing the breeding grounds they realized all manner of dark things were possible. They could only rest once a thorough search was completed.

After several more hours, another collection of incubators was uncovered but no sign of the weapon turned up. No evidence was found to suggest it ever existed at all. Without it, Cloudhawk would be hard pressed to explain why he'd been forced to create such a scene.

There were still so many dubious parts to his story. Things were only going to get more difficult.

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