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Book 5, Chapter 88 - Poking Around

 Cloudhawk sat in the simple wooden room while outside young men and women dressed in local garb continued their party. Technically the festivities were over once the Silverwing Monarch's representative gathered the tributes, but that didn't stop the music or dancing. Rewards for these tributes would be handed out in a few days.

This was a tradition passed down for hundreds of years. Outsiders paid tribute, but never looked upon their king directly.

"If you don't take the initiative, you will never be brought before him."

The cold voice was heard from behind as Cloudhawk sat in quiet contemplation. The Khan of Evernight seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.

Cloudhawk didn't raise his head. "This place is a lot stronger than I thought it would be. I'm not sure you and I are enough to deal with this king, much less all of Imperia."

The Khan responded. "This city has existed to this day only because of its powerful enchantments. You and I may not be able to defeat its ruler in a frontal assault, but if we can surprise him the Silverwing Monarch would be at a significant disadvantage. Once the king is dead the city's enchantments will fall. The rest we leave to Judas."

Cloudhawk's eyebrows were knit tight. He looked out the window at the jovial citizens of Imperia enjoying their night.

He didn't know if they would succeed using the Khan's plan. Worse, though, performing this deed would plunge Imperia into the fires of war.

"You know that the ones these people see as noble are hiding something insidious. Their monarch is not a savior. To him these people are little more than beasts of burden. They have the right to know the truth."

"The truth is bloody. It is a bad thing to hide the truth if it means a life of peace and beauty?"

"Heh... you think this way because you haven't experienced enough."

The Khan's form melted away into the shadows and once again Cloudhawk lapsed into a contemplative silence. He knew the Demon King's blood crystal was in the Temple, but the only way in was to gain the attention of the king. If somehow he could sneak the Khan into the Temple with him and they got the drop on the king, maybe they had a chance.

If it was true that this king had been alive for a thousand years, then he had to be essentially immortal.

Cloudhawk was fairly confident that between him and the Khan, they could manage to take down a god or demon. A Legendary Demonhunter couldn't be any more hardy than one of those. What was really holding Cloudhawk back for the moment was whether it was a path he wanted to take.

There was definitely something sinister going on in Imperia that the people didn't know about. But at least on the surface it seemed their lives were bright and harmonious.

Years of unfortunate experiences have told Cloudhawk to never expect perfection. Everywhere you looked there was darkness and there was light. Shadow existed wherever the light couldn't touch and sometimes there were people who benefited from it and sometimes there were victims. A small number were sacrificed for the betterment of many others. Human history had always been that way.

Cloudhawk sat, wrestling with these ideas late into the night. His entourage from Redleaf ate their fill and drank till their heads spun. They fell asleep fitfully, happily, without Cloudhawk's burdens.

Eventually all the revelers dispersed and calm took hold. Cloudhawk could even hear insects buzzing through the cracks.

His eyes slowly opened. Putting on his mask, the space around him undulated like water. Then he disappeared, popping back into existence standing on the roof of the wooden domicile. He stood outside in the darkness like some strange gargoyle.

He looked out, the city revealed to him. Carefully he let his eyes wander. Neither the Khan or anyone else should be able to see him. Once again he vanished, swallowed by the darkness like a ghost. He teleported several dozen times through Imperia and though the city was massive distance meant nothing to Cloudhawk. He could appear anywhere he liked.

Every Elysian land had a Temple. It was where their patron god slept. Imperia was no different, nor was it hard to find. It pulsed with an energy unique from and more intense than anywhere else in the city. To Cloudhawk it was like a beacon fire in the darkness.

Cloudhawk teleported close to the magical forest that grew within the God Tree's trunk. All of these trees were suspended in midair by some invisible force. Their roots dangled down below them, somehow taking energy from the void. These trees came in many hues and emitted a strange, magical light.

A single towering structure stood in the center of the floating forest.

It looked to be constructed from tens of millions of wrapping vines like a nest. It actually writhed as though it was alive and with each jerk the movements rippled into forests surrounding it. This structure was the heart of this mystical place and all the trees nearby where under its control.

Was this the Shepherd God's Temple? What a strange, incredible place!

Cloudhawk couldn't see an entrance from his vantage. He first teleported close to the structure then, while still in midair, slipped into the half-space between dimensions. Calculating the approximate distance, Cloudhawk teleported once again.

He blinked back into existence within the Temple.

With curious eyes he scanned the Shepherd God's sanctum. It looked less like a building and more like a huge hole in a tree. Perhaps more accurately it was like teleporting into the middle of a living creature. The distinct sensation made him uncomfortable. Still invisible, he carefully floated forward.

If this was alive, did it have thoughts and feelings? If he wasn't careful it might sense an intruder, or know something was wrong.

So, caught between worlds, he floated through the maze-like interior of the Temple. At one point he stopped, for blocking his path was a group of several dozen naked figures. They were soaking in pools of some unknown fluid while vines jutted out of them like infusion tubes. Pairs of white wings were wrapped around their bodies.

What was going on? It looked like they were being transformed!

Cloudhawk carefully examined the Highblood and decided they weren't creatures with free will. They were more like robots. But that wasn't quite right, either. After becoming Highblood Desmond was still able to speak. He was not at all the same person he was, but there was still logic there.

Fuck it. No time to deal with them.

A large, heavy screen barred the way forward. In the safest way he knew he slipped through it and emerged on the other side into an incredible scene. The instant he passed that barrier the entire Temple came alive and vines reached out from every surface. They whipped and groped, searching for Cloudhawk so as to wrap him up.

What the fuck? There was no one in here. Who saw him? He hadn't even touched anything.

It didn't matter, he couldn't just stand around. He teleported out of the room as quickly as possible.

But the entire Temple was in flux like someone had kicked a hornet's nest. Cracks were appearing in every surface as vines reached and swayed. The winged Highblood also clambered out of their pools in search of what had disturbed their home. Confused at how he'd gone wrong, Cloudhawk realized it was impossible now to steal the Demon King's blood crystal. There was too much heat. For his own safety, now was the time to back out.

Thirty seconds later the vines composing one wall split apart. From within the chamber emerged a large figure. Like the Highblood by his side he sported enormous wings, though in marked contrast his were a dazzling silver as though they were made of platinum.

What's more, in the center of his forehead was a third eye with a slit pupil.

Striding through the new opening that third eye glanced around the area. Wherever it pointed there was a gust of gentle power which gathered around an invisible figure. He saw where it came from, how it floated along, and eventually watched it disappear only to appear somewhere else.

"Spatial powers?"

A voice laden with surprise and uncertainty echoed through the Temple.

Cloudhawk blinked back into existence in an unfamiliar district back in the city.

He heaved a sigh, only a moment later a voice from behind caught him by surprise. "Who are you? How did you appear out of thin air?!"

It was a familiar voice.

Cloudhawk turned around and there before him was a woman in a suit of armor and a silver mask. He recognized her immediately, the Enforcer he first met in Redleaf who tested Oddball.

"You?" Glawyn recognized him as well. His face was concealed behind the mask but his clothes and the little bird on his shoulder gave him away immediately. "What are you doing here?"

Cloudhawk had to think quickly. "It's my first time in Imperia. I wanted to take a look around."

There was no reason for her to doubt his story. Country folk like him were all curious about Imperia. "If you're that interested, why not try your hand at the Labyrinth?"

The Emerald Labyrinth. It was his second time hearing about it.

"Yes, if you make it through the Labyrinth you could stay here. Maybe you could even be selected for the Enforcement Team and be one of us." Glawyn took another glance at his bird companion. "With your strength I don't think it'd be very difficult. I really think you should give it a shot. Who knows when the next Chosen Council will be?"

Cloudhawk was noncommittal and hesitated. "I saw Desmond. He was -"

"I know." There was a note of jealousy in her voice. "Once you are selected to be Highblood, all your sins are forgiven. Now he is perfect and there will be no more betrayals."

Perfect, eh? Cloudhawk shook his head and prepared to leave.

"Hey, make sure you visit the Labyrinth."

Cloudhawk paused for a second. "I'm going to give it a shot."

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