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Chapter 4 - Family

 Chapter 4 - Family

In the holy city, the demonhunters were a group of honor and prestige. Their organization dated back at least a couple thousand years. Back during the fall of civilization all the world had fallen to catastrophe. Demons infiltrated the lands of men and massacred the humans with their mysterious powers. In a very short period of time the entire species was almost completely wiped out.

Then their arch-rivals arrived, just in time.

The gods appeared, saving humanity from the fires of extinction at the last minute. Yet the pitiful humans could not seek protection beneath the wings of their benefactors forever. In order for humans to survive the gods chose the most talented men and women, bestowing upon them great powers. From then on they were known collectively as demonhunters.

After more than a thousand years the gods returned to the ether, and the demons absconded into the deepest pits of the world. Humanity persisted, recuperated. Over time the demonhunters perfected their craft and became the greatest protectors of the holy lands.

For this reason demonhunters were revered, worshipped as the representatives of the gods themselves. After all, they were capable of performing miracles and other supernatural feats.

However, the people of Bloomnettle Company were deluding themselves. Cloudhawk could command powers like the demonhunters, yes, but he was not one of them. He was different from those noble persons. Cloudhawk did not hold them - nor even their illustrious gods - in such high esteem. Instead he found them all suspect.

Of course Old Thistle and the others didn't know his secret thoughts. If they did the shock might well kill them.

Letting them believe he was a demonhunter was convenient, Cloudhawk wasn't foolish enough to deprive himself of the advantage. The token in his possession would make any elysian commoner fall over themselves to do whatever he asked.

According to this token he wasn't just a demonhunter. His business had something to do with the most elite of the order, deserving of the utmost respect and critically important. If not then he would not bear the token.

Old Thistle was a merchant, and he knew business well enough to know this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He was old, but the young man in his care was in the prime of his life. If he could befriend a demonhunter - hell, maybe even gain notice from a master demonhunter - then Squall's future road would be much smoother.

"Please, how may we be of service?"

"None of this is necessary. Everyone stand up."

Cloudhawk didn't know what all this kneeling was about. More than once he'd contradicted and argued with the token's owner. How would they react if she showed up before them herself?

Suddenly he started to feel his injuries.

He held his chest and coughed. "I need to get to the holy territories. Skycloud. If you really want to help... then I need a map and some supplies."

Old Thistle looked him over. "It's a long journey all the way to Skycloud, and the noble demonhunter is weak. As far as I see it, you should remain with our company for a time. It just so happens that our cargo is bound for your destination, the way is much easier if you ride there on one of our carts.

He was right, it was the best scenario. Cloudhawk didn't know where Skycloud was. He wouldn't even know it if he found it. Their rules, customs, or even how to enter the holy domain... he didn't know any of it.

Cloudhawk didn't ask them any of this. It would be suspicious if an illustrious demonhunter didn't even know what Skycloud looked like. His new companions were eager to help and there was no reason to turn them down.

Meanwhile Old Thistle was running through the arithmetic in his head. This kid was probably a master demonhunter's apprentice who agreed to go with him on an important mission into the wastelands. Perhaps they discovered something about the demon kin, something so important the master demonhunter continued on and ordered the young man to bring his token back and give a report.

It would explain why this young man had such a precious item in his possession.

Of course it was only a guess, he had no way to verify whether or not it was correct. If it did involve the demons then whatever information the young man had was certainly confidential. Trying to satisfy his curiosity would only lead to problems, Old Thistle was old enough to know the limits.

As though thinking of something, the old merchant turned to Asha huddled nearby. "This is..."

"... A wastelander, but she's helped me in many ways," Cloudhawk hurriedly replied. "I'm bringing her with me to the holy territories."

"Ah? How is this proper?" It was the doctor who blurted out the question before Old Thistle could voice his opinion. "She's a wastelander, we have no authority to do this. Bringing an outsider into the holy territories goes against Skycloud's rules! We would be charged with tarnishing the holy domain. We'd be killed!"

Cloudhawk scowled. Was is that serious? It was worse than he thought!

If his ruse was discovered these merchants would be implicated. He began to go over his options, how could he enter Skycloud without potentially getting other people in trouble?

"How about this." Old Thistle saw the concern on Cloudhawk's face. He wasn't one to make trouble, but he offered an alternative anyway. "We have no right to bring her into the holy territories, but we can arrange for her to settle somewhere safe in the borderlands. For a wastelander this is the best that could be hoped for."

"Where?" Cloudhawk asked.

"The Sandbar is the most stable settlement in the area. It's got to be at least ten times better than wherever she came from. Most importantly there aren't any restrictions against wastelanders. She'll be safe there."

Cloudhawk did not like the idea. It had been a struggle to get Asha out of the deserts. He couldn't just leave her out here on the margin, with no way to defend herself.

"As I'm sure you know, young master, wastelanders are given no respect in Skycloud. The Sandbar isn't as safe as the holy territories but does benefit from its influence. It isn't anywhere as lawless as the other settlements out there. I have friends there who could look after her."

"I'm not going to the holy territories!"

Cloudhawk hadn't made a decision, but Asha took a stride forward and made one herself.

This frail and delicate young beauty looked at them with firm resolution. Many nights on their journey here she'd awakened from terrible nightmares and every time she thought about the elysian lands her whole body broke out in a cold sweat. She was haunted by the demons in her dreams, terrible images she would never be able to let go.

Cloudhawk looked at her and she looked back. Inwardly he sighed. The trauma she'd experienced ran deep, she would likely never see an elysian but through a lens of hatred and fear. No benefit would come from crossing over into the holy territories, not as far as she was concerned. He had no choice but to shut his eyes and respond in gentle agreement. "So be it."

At least everyone would get what they wanted.

Old Thistle cast a glance to the young man by his side. "Squall will be responsible for anything you need, honorable demonhunter. Please do not hesitate to trouble him for the slightest request. And you, child, take this opportunity to seek advice from our guest."

It was easy to guess the old man's relationship to his young charge.

Demonhunters were an arrogant group, while borderland merchants were low on the social scale. Even the richest businessmen couldn't buy their favor. However, since they were in a position to help each other, it was a rare opportunity for his charge to learn from a real warrior. He couldn't let it pass them by.

The merchant company continued on its way.

Cloudhawk, Asha and Squall traveled in an emptied horse-drawn cart. In looking his young host over, Cloudhawk spied a strange tattoo on his chest.

"Heh, weird right? Truth is it surprised me, too. Old Thistle says I had it when he adopted me, something having to do with my family. That's about all I know." Squall sat cross-legged in the middle of the cart. "We haven't been properly introduced. My name is Squall Rover! I'm older than you, but you can just call me Squall." [1]

Squall did not give them the same rigid, intractable impression most elysians let off. On the contrary he was lighthearted, playful, and easy going. Compared to his respectful but cunning caretaker, Cloudhawk liked Squall quite a bit more.

He pressed for more information. "You were adopted?"

"Yup, I'm an orphan. My home was destroyed by demon kin. I was still small, I can't really remember anything about the place or my family. Old Thistle found me before I starved and saved me. Over the last fifteen years he's taught me to read and write, even helped me get selected by the demonhunters. He's just the same as a real father."

There were demons even in the elysian lands?

Cloudhawk really wanted to ask that question but he felt it would risk his cover. You're a demonhunter but you don't even know where demons live? Cloudhawk decided to speak as little as possible to keep his identity from being revealed. After all, he who spoke often erred much.

Squall, conversely, was quite the chatterbox. His eyes gleamed as he went on. "Hey, brother, you know honestly I envy you. You get to meet the governor face to face. You know he's an idol of mine, I'd give five years of my life to say two sentences to him."

"Why's that?"

"Do I need a reason?" He didn't understand why Cloudhawk would ask such a question. "Master Arcturus Cloude's name rings across the heavens. There isn't a person all through Skycloud City who doesn't know his name!"

That's his name? Arcturus Cloude?

Squall had called him 'Master'. That could only mean one thing, the governor was also a demonhunter. About the only thing Cloudhawk knew about master demonhunters were that they could face a demon one on one.

He'd learned the strength of a demonhunter while out in the wilds. Like the strength of a thousand men!

"Besides that, the Cloude clan has always led the demonhunters of Skycloud! They have a thousand year history, and the legends say they stood with the gods against the demons in the great war!" Full of adoration, Squall went on. "From their inception to this day, they've never been beaten. Master Arcturus, Master Baldur, and Master Sterling are three brothers of the Cloude clan who represent their exceptional family - and all of Skycloud! One is the Governor, one was the former Knight-Commander of the Order of Demonhunters, and one was the Grand Marshal of the demonhunter army brigades. Such a pity..."

"What pity?"

"The only brother left is Master Arcturus. Master Sterling abdicated his position many years ago due to injury. He hasn't been seen or heard from in a long time. And Master Baldur... a year and a half ago he entered a nest of demon kin and was killed. They tried to keep it quiet but word got out. What, you didn't know this?"

"Of course I do." Cloudhawk closed his eyes and leaned back, the picture of casual indifference. "Master Baldur had a daughter, didn't he?"

"Yes, that's right!" Squall was so full of excitement he slapped the floor and rose to his feet. "Master Baldur was killed but his daughter is something else! The most incredible talent in a hundred years. No one's seen her face but they say she's a beauty that could topple cities and is absolutely brilliant. She's widely considered to be the next successor to lead the demonhunters."

1. In Chinese they call him 'Little Wind', which sounds like a euphemism for a fart. The 'little' is common in Chinese and is used in reference to people who are younger than you that you have a good relationship with.