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Book 5, Chapter 89 - The Emerald Labyrinth

 If he can't steal it, then he'll loot it. Not the best plan but he had no other options. Summing up last night's failures, Cloudhawk realized it was because he underestimated the Temple itself.

Between his phase stone and invisibility cloak, Cloudhawk could become essentially formless. In terms of space and matter, he had the power to eliminate himself from reality - effectively existing between places. How could anyone notice something that didn't exist?

Yet somehow, the Temple had done just that.

It was not impossible. He knew that from the memories absorbed through the Demon King's inheritance. Though he 'owned' only a small amount, he knew a lot more than the average person, and one thing he learned was that two things could never be hidden.

The first was a relic's resonance. Every relic had its own song, working by some sort of vibration. Cloudhawk was born with the ability to sense these vibrations, which was a unique ability held by relic artisans. With this talent he could understand the nature of relics in order to craft them.

Second were will and intention. The emotions and thoughts of any creature were also a sort of pulse. Cloudhawk could hide himself perfectly, but the power of his intention couldn't be masked. If his opponent had a way to recognize either his use of psychic energy or his attention, then they could find him.

From what he knew, the Silverwing Monarch had the ability to create relics. Did that have something to do with it? If that was the case then the situation was more difficult than he wanted to believe.

Cloudhawk had managed to get out of there quickly, but he couldn't know if the king had felt the unique signature of his relics. Someone sneaking into the Temple was surely a big deal so there was no question he'd be looking into it.

Where would he look? That was obvious. It was the time of tribute, when outsiders were all coming into the city. Non-Imperians would be first under the microscope. If he or his people were found to be responsible, the consequences would be dire. Cloudhawk had to accept that he'd messed up. He had taken it seriously, but still not enough. Breaking into the Temple alone again would be stupid. It was time to make a plan and then act!

Cloudhawk's first order of business was to remove his equipment and store it all in his dimensional warehouse. He then meekly remained in District Thirty, participating in the various activities they offered. When there was nothing else to do he strolled through the district, taking in the sights and enjoying its unique culture. For all intents and purposes Cloudhawk looked like a normal tourist.

This was partially to keep up airs and reduce suspicion, but also so he could learn more specifics about the city itself.

As he walked around he came to suspect there were about two hundred or so high-grade demonhunters in Imperia. A hundred of them had already been transformed by the king into these Highblood. The remainder were part of his Enforcer teams or held leadership positions in various organizations.

Two hundred wasn't a lot... Skycloud had maybe four times that many.

Still, Imperia had enough power that he couldn't neglect the danger. No ordinary wasteland power could match them. In addition Cloudhawk constantly felt... constrained, like some sort of power was hanging over the city at all times. It was everywhere, all the time, yet too vague for him to put his finger on.

For the next several days everything had continued business as usual. Cloudhawk's trip to the Temple didn't seem to have caused any major impact.

Imperia's Emerald Labyrinth challenge was ready to begin. Winners had a chance to meet the city's king face to face. Cloudhawk figured the Silverwing Monarch's guard might be lower, so that would be his time to strike.

Woosh! Woosh! Woosh! The sound of beating wings filled the air.

A cyan-colored roc came to ground in the district. Ten figures rose on its back. One of them was a person Cloudhawk had come to easily recognize - Glawyn, the Enforcer. She leaped off the roc's back.

District Administrator Barclay was excited to receive her. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"

Glawyn returned his greeting with a small smile. "The Emerald Labyrinth challenge will begin soon. I'm here to pick up the participants. As far as I know a few from this district have signed up, so have them come over. We can't waste any time."

Barclay and Glawyn were actually distant relatives. In fact, many of Imperia's highest echelons were somehow related. Their parents were people who completed the labyrinth and remained in the city, people of talent with good genetics. Of course their descendants would also be capable people.

Barclay knew, of course, that Glawyn had come for a reason. He also knew that of his visitors, the one called Cloudhawk showed real promise. If he decided to participate in the challenge he was likely to succeed. Afterwards not only would he remain to contribute to Imperia, but perhaps even be selected as an Enforcer. That possibility was likely what inspired Glawyn to come herself.

"Just you two?"

Glawyn regarded the two before her. Every city was allowed to select two to attempt the labyrinth. Redleaf put forward Cloudhawk and a second man, hidden beneath dark armor and a full-faced helmet. He looked more like a robot than a man and the aura pouring off of him was hardly welcoming.

Barclay had been paying close attention to this dark stranger for a while now.

He looked like a close confidante of Cloudhawk's. He was rarely seen and never participated in any of the district's events. Barclay hadn't heard him say more than a handful of things. He found the man strange, but then again the world was filled with all sorts of people and those who didn't fit in were often the most capable. He didn't find it too suspicious.

Cloudhawk nodded. "Us two."

Glawyn sized up the Khan for a moment then motioned toward the roc. "All aboard!"

In truth Cloudhawk wasn't eager to work with the Khan. Their goals were drastically different, but the Silverwing Monarch was more than he could handle on his own. He needed help from Nox's governor.

On the part of the Khan, none of this seemed to take him by surprise. He never questioned Cloudhawk's plans or asked for details. So they climbed onto the giant bird in silence, and took off from District Thirty.

Imperia's residential districts were all suspended in air. The area below these pads was rich in fruit-bearing forests. This forest provided the citizens of Imperia with all the food they needed. It was into the center of this forest that the roc brought Cloudhawk and the Khan where there was a small fortress constructed on a hill. However, upon closer inspection it was revealed to be neither hill nor fortress. Instead, it was entirely made form twisted tree roots that stretched out in al directions to form this staging area.

A couple dozen people were already waiting. They were all here to participate in the challenge, just like Cloudhawk.

After delivering the two challengers, Glawyn immediately stepped away to stand guard and keep order. They stood around for an hour for all the rest of the participants to arrive. Once they had, a sudden and powerful strangling sense settled on them from overhead. Heads rose, and there in the sky was a palace slowly descending toward them like a floating bird's nest.

The Temple! Cloudhawk recognized it right away. He'd been there only a few days ago.

The enormous, nest-like mass of roots settled upon the central hill. It settled into the area like a key into a lock, with all the roots reaching out to greet it. Several openings were revealed, each in a different location.

A challenge proctor stepped forward and addressed the crowd. "The Emerald Labyrinth challenge is about to begin. Everyone, choose an entrance - one person per doorway. The rules are simple; whosoever can travel safely through the labyrinth in the allotted time will be allowed to enter the palace, receive our monarch's blessing, and be permitted to remain in Imperia forever."

Excitement rippled through the crowd as participants rubbed their hands in anticipation. One by one they chose their entrance and stepped inside.

The Khan of Evernight spared Cloudhawk a brief glance before making his own choice.

Cloudhawk watched him enter, and for some reason felt a pang of guilt. Who knew what the man would face once inside? But here they were. There was no going back.

The Demon King's blood crystal had to be retrieved.

As for the cost? Cloudhawk would deal with it when he had to.

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