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Book 6, Chapter 13 – Meeting Under the Moonligh

 Evening had taken hold. In a valley outside the city, near the mystical waterfall, was a simple wooden house bathed in moonlight. The scene was magical and gave the sense of being separate from the conflicts of the world.

"She is inside," Janus revealed.

Cloudhawk nodded. "Thank you."

The assassin's figure shimmered and then vanished. Cloudhawk couldn't help but wonder what the story was behind this mysterious assassin? But it was a passing curiosity, for there were more pressing things to consider at the moment.

Waiting for him was a figure draped in white with a sword upon her back. Nothing about her essence had diminished with time. Beautiful, remarkable, transcendent, determined... all the perfect qualities of a warrior and more.

The moonlight hung over the space like a frozen mist, like a half-remembered dream. There she waited, a lonely figure. People were born alone but filled their lives with friendships, lovers, family and causes to combat that loneliness. Was it the same for her?

Selene Cloude felt him arrive, but she made no move to acknowledge him. She knew the moment she turned around, the man before her wouldn't be the same freedom-seeking companion she remembered. The friend she fought across the wastelands with was gone. Now he was a great ruler of the wastes, a powerful revolutionary. A warrior even stronger than she.

An unfortunate, star-crossed existence, both for him and for her. But reality didn't change because you refused to face it. Eventually, Selene shored up her courage and turned around.

As expected Cloudhawk's bearing had changed, like he was a completely different person. Physically he was perfect, as though an artisan had sculpted him from a block of marble, expending a lifetime to build a masterpiece. Selene didn't feel happy for his new look. Often when one saw the final product of a masterpiece they did not pause to think of the untold suffering that led to its completion.

Art, no matter how precious, achieved its value through how others viewed it. By its nature, art lost its own autonomy.

"It's been a while." Cloudhawk greeted Selene with a smile. "You look like you knew I was coming."

"I know Arcturus' plans. Once Skycloud's army and the Conclave join forces, your Green Alliance has no hope of winning. It would make sense for you to come and seek my help, to ask the Temple for aid. Am I mistaken?"

Arcturus Cloude was a cunning old fox. If the Green Alliance wanted to escape this predicament, dragging them Temple into the churning waters was their only hope. He hoped to stoke Skycloud's internal conflicts.

How could Arcturus not recognize this, and take measures to protect himself? Without a doubt, Arcturus' spies had infiltrated the Temple and were watching the High Priest's every move. Anything they tried, Arcturus would know immediately.

If Cloudhawk was caught in the Temple, whether they captured him or not the Governor would make sure the news spread. Immediately propaganda would circulate, that the Temple was in league with Cloudhawk. Such foul rumors would undermine the people's faith in the High Priest and their Temple. Thus neutered, Ramiel would have no way to fight back against Arcturus' tyranny.

Selene foresaw this and approached Janus to ask for his help. She arranged this secret meeting so that Cloudhawk wouldn't walk blindly into Arcturus' trap.

Once she explained this to him, Cloudhawk replied. "I remember Janus as Arcturus' man. Why is he helping you? Can we trust him?"

"Janus Umbra is very reliable, you don't need to worry about that." As ever, Selene was steadfast in her faith. "The Court of Shadows in its entirety will stand by our side. Several families unhappy with Arcturus' actions also make preparations to aid us. When the time is right, we'll make our move and overturn the Cloude family. All that's left is to find a way to bring down Arcturus - the most difficult task of all."

Cloudhawk was shocked to hear it. The Green Alliance wasn't the only opposition that had been fomenting. She'd been doing all this right under his nose, though even if Arcturus knew he hadn't made any efforts to stop it. Either way it proved Selene occupied a very unique position.

The two stared at one another; one black and one white, one like the day and one like the night.

Ignoring each other's titles and identities and station, they recognized a shared enemy. If the threat of Arcturus remained then Cloudhawk's plans for the wastes and Selene's plans for Skycloud didn't matter.

"Arcturus will certainly act during this latest wasteland conflict," Selene confirmed. "This may be our only chance."

"Arcturus will go out himself? That isn't like him."

The Master Demonhunter was better suited to leading from the back, taking the long view and overseeing with a bird's eye view. He only became personally involved if there were no better options. The Conclave of Judgment and Skycloud's expeditionary force were his to command, not to mention other cards he could surely play. The board was stacked in his favor, so why risk appearing on the field himself?

Arcturus' strategies had always been watertight. He already had absolute political and military control of the realm. Next, if he managed to strip the Temple of its power he would be uncontested. By that point, defeating the Green Alliance would be a relatively easy task.

"It's because of the Cloud God." Selene explained. "The Temple has once again sensed the Cloud God's mental presence. It's weak, but it is a sign that the Cloud God may be stirring. We anticipate within another year or two. For all of Arcturus' ambitions it doesn't matter what his final goal is, he cannot escape the wrath of Mount Sumeru."

"So that's the reason. Arcturus wants to eliminate all opposition before the Cloud God wakes up. That's why he's willing to take this risk?"

Signs of the Cloud God stirring was grim news for Arcturus, but it was equally dire for Cloudhawk. When the god awakened what would it matter if he beat Arcturus? The moment the Cloud God knew what happened he would take action, maybe even relay the news to Mount Sumeru. Once the gods got involved, his fate was sealed. Cloudhawk might be the new Demon King, but he didn't have Gehenna to call on yet.

Cloudhawk trusted what Arcturus had told him. With humanity as it stood, fighting the gods was akin to suicide. But Cloudhawk was different from previous rebels. There was a chance he could muster support from Gehenna, and once the demons left their valley they would be a force that could threaten even the gods!

He had to succeed before the Cloud God awakened, no matter the cost!

"I can help you think of a way to contain Skycloud's forces, but what do you plan to do once you unify the wastelands? When you're the true emperor of the wastes, fully one of them, will you lead them against Skycloud?" Emotion crept into Selene's voice, undermining her stoic facade. "That's a path toward your own destruction. It's a fight you can't win!"

Cloudhawk raised his head and looked up at the star-speckled sky. "To tell you the truth, I don't know. I can't turn back, I can't escape. There's too much on my shoulders and I can't just put down my burdens, too many people will get hurt. But I also can't live up to their expectations... The best thing for someone like me is to die in battle. Then everyone can have a clear conscience and I won't let myself down."

"Enough!" Selene's hands curled into fists, she'd suffered as much of this as she could. "You know how hard I've been fighting to bring you back, but you keep getting further away. I -"

Cloudhawk cut her off by wrapping his arms around her shoulders and pulling her close. Neither spoke. Nothing was more fitting than silence in this moment.

He made no effort to change her mind or make his case, for no one understood Selene better than him. She was a warrior, and to her perseverance and faith was more important than life itself. He has neither the means nor the right to take that away from her. It would be unfair.

Selene and Dawn were very different that way. Dawn was straightforward, simple in her world view. But Selene had grand hopes, to protect the two million citizens of Skycloud by virtue of her own strength. She wanted to use her own way to turn Skycloud into the paradise it was supposed to be.

The road Cloudhawk walked wasn't one he could turn back from, not anymore. He had polluted the Cloud God, and when the deity awakened it would seek him out. Most likely, it would make Cloudhawk's destruction a priority over Arcturus' betrayal. So it was that Cloudhawk's real enemy wasn't Arcturus at all, but the mighty god behind all of Skycloud's power.

Was this a fate who could run from? The obvious answer was no. Cloudhawk had decided to use his power to upend the servitude humans had been forced into. It was always his character to follow through once he'd made up his mind. Anyway, there were too many fetters tying him to this fate. How could he throw away all his companions and the wasteland kingdom he'd come to build?

But as he stood there with Selene in his embrace he had to ask himself if they could stand to lose one another. He didn't know, but the twinge of panic that swept through him was painful and intense. He'd lost so much already. He'd come to terms with all that, but he wasn't sure he could let her go.

"Don't be so pessimistic, alright? Things aren't as bad as you think," Cloudhawk whispered into her ear. "I can find a way. With you leading Skycloud and me leading the wastelands we can change things, hand in hand. I will find a way."

Selene couldn't help but smirk when he made his impassioned plea. "You're as naive as ever."

"Not naive," Cloudhawk replied. "Just like the saying goes, in the end everything comes down to man's efforts. First we deal with the obstacles at hand. So long as Arcturus lives we're being kept down."

He was right. Arcturus had to be eliminated! Now was the time to take advantage of the opportunity.

Cloudhawk was about to say something more when a feeling crept through him. He was immediately on alert. "We've been discovered!"

An invisible power spread through the valley, locking up the space around them. Such a force severely impacted Cloudhawk's spatial abilities and spread over a vast swathe. No corner was left open for him to exploit. This had been prepared. Cloudhawk had been led into a trap.

Janus appeared before the two of them. His voice was low and grave. "The situation is bad. A host of Cloude family elite are closing in, even I had not seen them coming. They obviously have been preparing for this."

How was this possible? Selene had thought if they avoided meeting in the Temple they could escape this threat. She hadn't thought that in this secret place they would be discovered!


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