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Half an hour before.
As was his custom, Ramiel was praying in his cabin aboard the Temple flagship.
Among the people of Skycloud there was no more respected figure than the High Priest of the Temple. What they did not know was that he was often beset by troubles. The High Priest was a lofty title, but it did not come with any real military or political authority. He was merely a guide to the faithful and in a sense, he was like the shadow of the Temples’ true leader, the Cloud God.
Over the last year the upper echelons of the Temple’s leadership had come to learn that the Cloud God was sleeping, though it was a closely guarded secret. During that time Ramiel keenly felt the Temple’s influence slipping, especially once the Governor consolidated his power over the government and military. With power firmly in his grip, Arcturus was more brazen in his defiance of the Temple.
It all had to change! The Great War was so long ago! Without the gods visible to their believers, faith was beginning to erode.
Indeed faith remained a constraining force in the hearts of Elysians of all social strati. It was a defining characteristic of their society. However, Arcturus had proven that ‘god’ did not command the same infallible authority to the topmost parts of the government like it used to. Indeed the power Arcturus wielded now was a threat to many of the lesser and mid-tier gods.
Man reserved his awe only for the most powerful. If the Governor could defeat the gods, what did ‘god’ even mean? Perhaps in the minds of Arcturus and the citizens of Skycloud, the shroud of mystery had begun to unveil. They believed gods were nothing more than creatures of immense power. Just another, more advanced race that had unlocked the secrets of immortality.
Ramiel’s position was inexorably bound to religious authority. If people turned away from the Temple and the gods, his position would mean nothing. Things as they were, the conflict between the Governor and the High Priest was inevitable. But Ramiel wouldn’t sit back and await defeat – he had to take action. This was the time, even if he was stricken with fear.
His prayers were interrupted by the Grand Prior. Phain approached and addressed him in soft tones. “High Priest, Governor Arcturus calls for you. He says he wishes to discuss something important with you in private.”
“At this hour? What could be so important? He came by himself?”
“Yes, your Excellency. He brought no attendants and came alone.”
“Alright. Call the Oracles, then wait outside while we talk.”
When Arcturus was led to the ship’s conference room he saw Ramiel already seated within, a book in his hands. He was flanked on either side by two figures. First was the Oracle of Order, Aquaria, who carried a sizable tome. The other was the Oracles of Justice, Thora, a staff cradled in one arm.
In addition, ten high ranking Temple clerics were arrayed throughout the room. Waiting outside with Phain were twenty Templars. Arcturus noted that Ramiel had not changed one bit over the years. Whatever the circumstance he always exercised an abundance of caution. He did not seem perturbed by the strong showing.
Entering the room, Arcturus bowed respectfully to the elderly man. “High Priest. I am sorry to disturb you.”
Ramiel made a show of slowly closing his book and setting it aside. He gave the Governor a perplexed look. “I was told Master Arcturus had something important to discuss with me, though I can’t imagine what it could be that would have you come out here in the middle of the night.”
Arcturus nodded. “What I have to tell you began ten years ago.”
Confusion was visible on the High Priest’s face. This is what he came so urgently to talk about? Something that happened a decade ago? It seemed more like some clumsy diversion. Calm and unreadable as a stone, Ramiel motioned him closer. The Oracles were clearly watching Arcturus’ every move.
“Thank you, your Excellency.” Arcturus took the offered chair. One of the clerics presented him with a cup of tea. He shared his appreciation then began to speak with Ramiel in gentle, almost conversational tones. “What I have to say concerns my younger brother, Baldur.”
At the mention of the name, Ramiel’s brows furrowed tighter. The Master Demonhunter was the first great traitor of this era. If one looked closely at the last decade they could trace all the ensuing chaos back to him. He was also the current Apostle’s father, and Arcturus personally levied the order to have him executed. His name was laden with many complicated relationships involving both the Temple and Skycloud’s government. Even today mention of his name was taboo in most circles and few spoke it aloud.
Ramiel was one of only a handful who knew what had transpired.
“The secret Baldur found was strong enough to undermine the authority of the Temple and shake the foundations of our realm.” Arcturus avoided specifics. Ramiel already knew them. “For the good of Skycloud’s two million citizens I had to act, even if it meant I had to do so against my own family. However, as you know Baldur was always a cautious man. He would not give me a chance to get close, but he was not as suspicious of my other brother, Sterling.”
None of this was news. Why was the Governor bringing up old family history now?
Arcturus continued with the tale, as though it had nothing to do with him. “And so, I ordered Sterling to dispose of Baldur. Sterling was so devastated by it that, under the pretext of retirement, he took his son Zephyr and fled the realm. He took the name Crimson One, his son he called Adder, and together they established the Crimson Church out in the wastelands. It would eventually become the Conclave of Judgment.”
Ramiel had lost patience. “You came in the middle of the night to discuss something we all already know?”
An enigmatic smile touched the Governor’s lips. “No no. What I will say next is important, but you needed context. I would hope the High Priest will listen, remain calm, and promise not to act rashly.”
The words filled Ramiel with a sense of unease. His fingers absent-mindedly fondled the ring on his left thumb. The act calmed his nerves somewhat. “Go on.”
Arcturus obliged. “What I have never told you is that what Baldur learned captured my interest as well. Over the past decade I have performed my own research, about the gods and demons and how they are connected. Do you want to hear the conclusion I’ve reached?”
Ramiel’s face darkened. “You…”
The Governor explained himself without waiting for the old man to finish. “The gods are demons, and the demons are gods. These beings – which on the surface appear so separate – in fact come from precisely the same origin. Much of what Judas revealed in his assault on Sanctuary was true. But it is only the surface. Without question, the Cloud God was forced to slumber because this truth was revealed to it. Or, rather, the truth within the truth.”
Ramiel shot to his feet, enraged. Immediately the room was filled with a potent and powerful aura. “Enough! Arcturus, do you have any idea what you’re saying? Your heretical words alone are a sin punishable by death!”
“High Priest, do not be blinded by the lies you peddle. Others may not accept what I’m saying but you know the truth as well as I. We have seen and experienced all the same things. You, who have served the Cloud God for fifty years, should know better than anyone. You should understand the source of these creatures.”
Arcturus’ voice was calm and unshakable.
“Of course I understand your anger. When divine authority collapses so too will your Temple. The position of High Priest will mean nothing. I have come here and laid it all bare not because I seek to undermine you, but because I hoped we could work together.”
Ramiel answered with a bitter chuckle. “Cooperate? You want me to cooperate with your heresy? What makes you think this is possible?”
“I did not, but I had to try.” Arcturus also rose to his feet, as calm and unreadable as ever. “In maintaining divine authority the High Priest also protects his own position. But if you could let that go and agree to work with me, we would not only guide Skycloud and all the known wastelands. We would be on the road to mastering this world and even beyond. As High Priest you can retain your reputation and gain real power.”
“Is our Governor so naive?! I will no longer stand to hear this nonsense!” Ramiel grinned a cold grin at the man. “Take this apostate into custody!”
Of course, Arcturus had anticipated this would be the outcome. He sighed in disappointment. “This is the road you chose. If you will not cooperate, then I am left with no choice.”
There was no doubt the Governor was going to make his move. “Laughable. Even as strong as you are, you think you can walk in here alone and silence me? Even if you do slaughter all of the Temple’s forces, do you think your troops will follow you then?”
His words hardly had time to leave his lips before the explosions started. Shouts and alarms filled the air. They were being attacked by the Conclave. Ramiel’s face grew cold, for he knew this had somehow been arranged by Arcturus. But if he thought that this method of capitalizing on chaos would be enough to best Ramiel, he was sorely mistaken.
Aquaria flipped open the book in her hands and prepared to unleash its power. But before she could a sleek black staff swung toward her. The power it unleashed sent Aquaria tumbling several meters across the cabin. She slammed into the wall, wrapped in pitch black lightning.
Thora turned the Arbiter’s Staff on Ramiel once Aquaria had been dealt with. However a shell of golden light protected the High Priest from her ire. The corona of force he unleashed ravaged the entire room.
“It was you!” Ramiel glared at Thora in betrayal and anger after fending off her assault. “You were the spy!”
He’d known there was someone feeding Arcturus information from the inside. What he never could have imagined was that the traitor had been standing by his side all along.
The fight to come was imminent and lethal. All at once seventy percent of the clerics in the chamber turned their weapons on the other thirty. From outside, Phain made to in when he heard the commotion but was stopped by a wall of half a dozen swords.
Ramiel was stricken by the scene. “Y-y-you… !”
Arcturus remained by his seat as chaos erupted all around them. The cup of tea was still in his hands. “I am very different from my ignorant brothers. I have been preparing for twenty years. Be at ease, High Priest Ramiel. Once you have died the much more discerning Thora will lead the Temple into the future.”
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