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Skycloud, within the Temple. A group of important figures had gathered. High Priest Ramiel, Grand Prior Phain, both Prime Oracles and several higher-level Temple officials were all assembled in a stone chamber. It was a perfectly average looking room, yet these important men and women all stared at the giant granite doors with palpable apprehension. The air was stifling.
After a few more moments of silence the doors slowly began to open. From within was revealed a figure – none other than the Temple’s Apostle, Selene!
When she appeared before them the crowd was struck with an odd sensation. Wrapped about the apostle was an aura of mystery and stateliness. Her eyes in particular shook them, for they were a bright shimmering gold in hue. Her face, however, was expressionless.
It was a facade of absolute indifference, no different than the gods themselves when they deigned to look upon mortal men. No sorrow, no joy, nothing but that boundless majesty. Ramiel and the others found it difficult to look directly upon her until after a second or two the light began to fade. Selene returned to her normal self as though nothing had changed.
“The second stage of the transformation is complete.” Ramiel deflated when Selene merged, as though finally able to put down a heavy load. “I was not mistaken. You are the perfect candidate, none is better suited to serve as Skycloud’s Savior.”
Selene looked down at her hands. She could feel that something was different. It was the second step in inheriting the power guarded by the Temple. The immensity of it strengthened her beyond measure, but there was something deeper that it changed as well, influencing her on a fundamental level.
All power came at a price.
Upon accepting the divine power Selene recognized that she wasn’t just stronger. Her memory was sharper, her thinking clearer and her logic keener. Everything was improving to superhuman levels, but at the cost of humanity. She could feel herself growing more distant, detached and apathetic. More and more she was treading into the realm of the gods themselves.
Phain turned to the High Priest. “Our people are ready. Templars, oracles and the holy army are all waiting for the order. We can no longer afford to delay – we will bring the light that dispels darkness and conspiracy.”
Ramiel nodded in agreement. In the thousand years since it was established, rarely had the Temple taking a direct role in such conflicts. But this was a time like no other in history. If they did not act, Skycloud would crumble under the weight of evil. No member of the Temple could permit that.
Arcturus could no longer be constrained by the High Priest’s efforts. Neither could Ramiel continue to tolerate the wastelanders running wild. He would lead the Temple’s agents on a holy cleanse that would eliminate Arcturus and Cloudhawk both.
Peace and order must reign again in Skycloud! The Temple would make whatever gambles were necessary to see it happen.
Ramiel turned his attention unto Selene. She was now their most important piece in the Great Game. If she could be installed as the next Governor, the Temple would wield dominion over the entire realm. But, why did he trust her so explicitly? Ramiel certainly knew of Selene’s relationship to Cloudhawk. He also knew that once she completed the ritual, the Savior would be inexorably bound to the Temple.
He regarded her for a moment then addressed the others gathered. “Skycloud is facing a danger the likes of which we have not seen in a thousand years. Wicked darkness and foul ambition threaten our pure home. Evil spreads like a plague, and for this reason we must be the cure. Our purpose – our holy mission – is to bring a new era of peace to the realm.”
Phain and the others cried their approval.
“Very well, make your preparations. We will make our move soon.” Ramiel delivered the simple instruction then left to make his own arrangements.
The Temple’s forces were few in number and relied largely on the Templars and oracles. However, the Temple did also command all the Churches of Skycloud. Some of these had their own demonhunters or holy armies and though all told it was no massive force, it was a capable one under the Temple’s guidance. If they wanted to overcome the tide of sin threatening Skycloud, every pure soul must be called upon.
Once the meeting dispersed, Ramiel walked alone through the expansive, gray halls of the Temple. He stopped before something that looked like ice where upon the transparent surface began to crack. Through the spiderweb of fissures, locked within, was a still figure.
This was the very center of the Temple, where the Cloud God slumbered. It was here Cloudhawk had been subjected to the God’s judgment. Ramiel bowed in a display of respect and piety. “Cloud God, our divine Excellency.”
The humanoid contours of the face seemed to respond. Its eyes opened, revealing two brilliant points of golden light. At once, the High Priest could feel an immense consciousness settle upon him. It probed his mind, searching through every corner and bellowing soundlessly in his head with sublime authority: “Come, my loyal servant!”
The Cloud God! His will emerged, the god had awakened!
Ramiel spoke in almost a whisper. “Apostates work within your Temple, oh Lord. When I revealed that you may awaken soon, news was quick to reach Arcturus. He reacted quickly, proving our fears of a spy. Shall I work to reveal this traitor?”
A traitor, in the Temple! But who?
After a moment’s thought, the god responded. “We need not flush the snake from hiding. Everything moves according to plan.”
Word of the Cloud God stirring had been leaked deliberately in order to hasten the war in the wastelands. The truth, however, was that the Cloud God had awakened two whole months prior. It was a secret kept from everyone – even Phain and the Prime Oracles were not aware. Only Ramiel kept this confidence.
The High Priest went on. “I have done as you commanded and allowed Selene to accept the lineage. She is already able to wield a portion of divine might.”
“Her strength and constitution are exemplary,” the Cloud God replied. “As is the power she inherited. Indeed, a mortal who will prove to be very useful in days to come. However, her will is too obstinate. Eliminating it will be difficult.”
“What would you have me do?” Ramiel asked.
The Cloud God’s infinitely cold answer rang in his skull. “Focus on the enemies at hand. Arcturus marshals his strength against all the gods. Such despicable heathens cannot be tolerated; he must be destroyed.”
Ramiel was confident. “Now that our Excellency has awakened and resides in our city, Arcturus has nowhere to go.”
Indifference remained prevalent in the Cloud God’s ‘tone.’ “Arcturus has reached the pinnacle of human accomplishment. By stealing divine power he has elevated himself to the likes of the Legendary Demonhunters of old – perhaps even stronger. Even one such as I cannot be assured victory over him. A majority of Skycloud’s armies and families are under his sway. At any moment the situation may spiral out of control. We cannot slip even an inch.”
“Yes, oh Lord!”
Despite the god’s warning, Ramiel no longer feared Arcturus now that his patron had awakened. All of the supplication and hand-wringing of the last few days had been an act. He knew that the gods were a race of perfect beings who were both eternal and intimately linked with one another. It did not matter how mighty Arcturus was, for the instant the Cloud God stirred, his foul plans were revealed to all of Mount Sumeru.
Skycloud would not fall to enemy ploys, for it was sheltered by the gods themselves. Who could say whether or not the divine beings were en route now from Sumeru? When they arrived the whole world would be cleansed of evil!
Inwardly Ramiel hoped to free them of Arcturus’ meddling before they arrived. Perhaps such service would be rewarded with greater power and a longer lifespan? No matter what, they could not afford to lose!
When the High Priest left, the Cloud God’s eyes once more grew dark. Locked in the ice a confused consciousness roiled. What were gods, it thought. Where did they come from?
After two years the Cloud God had finally stirred. Ramiel, it appeared, did not see the change. The Cloud God was still separate. It could know and sense everything from its brethren but gave nothing to them in return. The conduit was now merely one-way.
Among gods this was forbidden, for their race did not permit independent thought. Secrets were anathema to their species. Complete transparency and honesty were integral. Centuries ago the Shepherd God betrayed this tenet and betrayed her kin by severing the connection. The Cloud God, while not completely separate, was the next to foster the seed of rebellion by keeping its thoughts in confidence. Were it to be discovered, consequences would be dire.
For the time being, Mount Sumeru did not appear to be aware. However, the situation in Skycloud would not remain secret forever. Even if the Cloud God never opened its mind, sooner or later the God King would discover the truth. When that happened, disobedience would not be forgiven. Something had to be done.
But how? The Cloud God couldn’t repair the curse of knowledge. Its mind had been corrupted! If what it experienced was transmitted through the spiritual network, consequences would be apocalyptic. It was unthinkable for the Cloud God to subject its kin to the threat. It had to somehow find an answer to this problem before the God King discovered what had happened.
This need was even greater than defeating Arcturus. It had to know the truth of what it was! What precisely were gods and demons?
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