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Chapter 15 - Departure

 Chapter 15 - Departure

Bloomnettle Company was gathered and ready to be on their way. Old Thistle had finished everything he'd set out to do in Sandbar Outpost. Now it was time to set off for Skycloud City. Members of the merchant company busily transferred goods to the cart while Cloudhawk watched from one side, face hidden behind his mask.

He'd been stuck here for some time. Finally, it was time to go.

"Hey man, were you really planning to leave without saying a word?" Squall hurried over to Cloudhawk. "Come with me, someone wants to see you. I think you'll appreciate it."


"Stop wasting time with questions. You'll see when we get there!"

Squall was a playful sort, not too serious, but there was something strange about his expression. Cloudhawk noted it before following him toward a small barracks. Squall entered first and shouted a greeting.

A moment later several soldiers appeared carrying a sedan chair. It was a simple and crude thing with no covering, just a seat that could be lifted up. Seated on it was a familiar chubby figure. He wasn't a noble looking sort despite his royal treatment, and his wounds were so serious he could hardly move.

Cloudhawk's eyes went wide. "You're not dead?"

"That's right!" The guard captain was covered in medicated bandages and stared at Cloudhawk with his beady eyes. He looked just as puzzled and shook his head saying, "I don't get it either."

When he jumped in front of Cloudhawk the rebel's bullet first shot through his weapon, then his breastplate. Presumably that bled off a lot of the impact, and in addition Skycloud armor was designed to diffuse impact force. In the end, although the wound was ugly, it wasn't as bad as they thought.

After he'd lost consciousness they brought him to a military doctor who went to work. Thankfully he was saved. It was not easy, surviving after such a nasty blow. But the results could hardly have been better. They killed six rebels and captured one, found the materials for a chemical attack, foiled a catastrophic assault on Skycloud and eradicated a dangerous terrorist cell. When the guard captain went back to the holy lands he was facing a promotion to some mid-range officer position, and his men were going with him.

And all of it was thanks to the mysterious demonhunter. The fat man was determined to find him and offer thanks one more time before he disappeared into the sunset.

The fat man's death had weighed heavily on Cloudhawk, but seeing him alive let him let go of that burden. He'd used them for his own ends but they were rewarded for it. That made them even.

The guard captain continued. "Your humble servant's name is Hammont Seacrest, but the honorable demonhunter can just call me 'Hammy'. It's my dream to be a general one day, and you had the grace to push me in that direction. If any time in the future you should need this simple man's services just say the word. Doesn't matter if it's to walk across a mountain of fire or a field of blades, I'll do my duty."

Hammy said it with a strength of conviction that was unmistakable. He wasn't being polite, this was a sacred soldier's pledge.

Cloudhawk responded with a silent nod. He wished him a speedy recovery then bid Chunk and his men farewell. The soldiers grinned wryly at the demonhunter's aloof nature.

Squall strode beside Cloudhawk with his hands tucked in his pockets. He muttered enigmatically at the ground as they headed back. "He isn't the sharpest blade in the armory, but the captain's a good guy. Why didn't you accept his pledge?"

Cloudhawk didn't answer.

The captain was a simple sort, but his trust and worship of Cloudhawk was built on his respect for demonhunters. If he discovered what he thought he knew was a lie - that the demonhunter was actually a wastelander with the blood of several soldiers and a real demonhunter on his hands - what would he think then?

Hammy's appreciation was for a demonhunter. That wasn't Cloudhawk. How could he accept it when it was all a lie from the beginning?

Cloudhawk didn't want to live the rest of his life behind a mask, eventually he wanted to take the thing off and let his real face free. If the day came when they met again eye to eye who could say if they would be friends? Cloudhawk didn't want these men to know the real him, they didn't need to dust the way, they didn't need to make him any promises. Let them keep their illusion of the benevolent demonhunter.

"Sir! Wait for me!"

They hadn't gotten far from the barracks before Cloudhawk heard the voice from far away. By the time the last word got out, though, its owner was only a few meters away. The short-haired woman was moving fast. She'd changed her clothes and now wore fresh demonhunter armor with an elysian bow strung across her back and a short sword strapped to her waist. Her coin purse clinked loudly with every stride. By the time she reached him her pale face was excited and flushed.

After relinquishing all the praise for the mission he lead, Barb and the others were richly rewarded in his stead. Her fancy new equipment was newly purchased, now she looked like an honest to goodness demonhunter.

"Why didn't you say you were leaving?" She asked between puffing breaths. "You weren't even going to tell me! That's going too far, sir."

The new demonhunter had benefited quite a lot from Cloudhawk and his mission. Her appreciation was evident. Barb was different from Hammy because she was more than thankful, she worshipped what she thought was a superior of her order.

Cloudhawk looked at the bold young woman, and for reasons unknown she reminded him of someone. Someone he remembered fondly, but who sadly he'd had to bury in the center of Greenland Outpost with his own hands. One more grave amidst countless thousands in the wastelands.

Yeah... she was a lot like Artemis.

But she was still constrained by the laws of her order. She didn't have the wildness or surliness of his dead friend, but she had a quicker wit. Unfortunately they came from different worlds so a friendship was out of the question.

A woman's eyes were often described as twinkling like the stars. Barb's burned like a supernova. "Sir, I want to come with you!"

Cloudhawk shot her a sideways glance, his eyes as calm and unscrutable as an ancient well. His response was cold and distant. "And do what?"

"I want to follow in your footsteps, be your disciple!"

"Absolutely not!"

Dismissing her out of hand she grew desperate and irritated. She pressed her hands together pleadingly. "I have some money now. I can pay my own way, even pay for you to teach me! Please take me on missions with you, I'm not strong but I promise I won't hold you back! Please!"

Cloudhawk was already getting impatient. "I said no, that means no!"

Barb's eyes dimmed, like frosted glass at the break of dawn. It made sense, it certainly wasn't hard for a man like him to find willing disciples. She was just a greenhorn of low birth, not especially skilled, with no background to draw on. What right did she have to ask him to take her on as a student?

"Everyone has their own road to follow, you shouldn't try to imitate someone else. You've got talent, you just need to reach your potential. I'm confident one day you'll make a fierce demonhunter."

His words shook her to her core. Barb lifted her head to look at the taciturn senior demonhunter.

Cloudhawk didn't know why he said it, he didn't even really understand what he was spouting. He shook his head, waved farewell and began to leave.

"Thank you, sir. I will become a demonhunter, as fierce as you say!" She held out a clenched fist toward Cloudhawk's retreating form. "Could you tell me your real name? Maybe we'll meet again."

"If fate decides we should meet again, that'll be the time for you to learn my name."

Barb was unsatisfied with the answer, but didn't press it further.

She saw Cloudhawk as a dignified and shrewd superior. If he didn't want to share his name there had to be a reason. She knew that demonhunters were often sent on secret missions and knew how they were expected to perform, so she thought she understood Cloudhawk's choices.

Squall walked along beside Cloudhawk, and he found the whole thing funny. No one else had seen his real face. He thought he knew the situation clear as day.

This guy wasn't a senior demonhunter, he was at least three years younger than Squall. Just an immature kid, yet he was able to put on a show that convinced the merchant's son.

What was his life like before now? What was it about him that gave people this feeling?

Squall broke the silence. "Are you going to say goodbye to Asha?"

"No, it'll just make her more upset. She's got a job and Adder's protection, no one would dare bother her. My wish for her is a long and quiet life here."

He met her out in the wastelands and they traveled together for almost a month. He saw her like a little sister, the only person he was surrounded with who knew his face. Who knew who he was.

He really did wish her a good life. Cloudhawk didn't know if he'd ever see her again.

Fate was like a surging river and all living things were just things caught in its current. Sometimes fate's waters smashed two unrelated things together and then tore them apart, thrusting each into a new and unknown world. The depths of the river was vast and inscrutable, no one knew what was around the next bend. Sometimes when two people floating on the waters split, they separated forever.

Bloomnettle Company was almost ready to depart. Single-horned horses strained against carts laden with goods. Cloudhawk saw in the gently rocking cart with his eyes closed, pondering matters. Perhaps he didn't consider that fate was sometimes like a petulant child, pulling him along an unpredictable path.

At the gates of Sandbar Outpost.

A frail and pretty girl stood by the exit, watching the carts rumble into the distance through teary eyes. Her tiny hands were folded in front of her in perhaps the last time she would ever pray.

"Gods. If you're really out there, if you really are kind, if you can really hear me... please take care of Cloudhawk. Keep him safe."