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Chapter 18 - Hostilities

 Chapter 18 - Hostilities

The tea was good.

Purple-gold leaves floated in the hot water. Cultivated here in Skycloud, each harvest was quite limited. This was from the governor's own supply, among the top ten percent in quality. Normal citizens didn't usually have the opportunity to taste it. Whatever strange properties the tea had it was incredibly refreshing. However tired one was feeling, a few sips would be completely rejuvenating.

The snacks were also quite fine.

They were some sort of pastry that were a pleasant honey gold in color, made from wine-pickled fruits and locally cultivated vanilla bean and wrapped in the highest quality grains. Each one looked like gem-encrusted gold nuggets placed on a jade platter, so beautiful it was almost a shame to eat them.

Frost de Winter sat beside the tea and refreshments table while a team of servants stood nearby. They were so still they could be mistaken for statues. Aside from the servants there was only Frost de Winter in the waiting room.

Before he could be allowed to enter the governor's mansion, Cloudhawk was forced to scrub himself clean. From head to toe and behind the ears, designated serving women helped him wash. His hair was trimmed and the ragged traveling clothes were replaced with fine silken garb. Only once he was presentable was he brought to the hall.

Never in his whole life had Cloudhawk been this clean. It actually made him uncomfortable and his skin crawled like he was covered in lice. Especially unnerving was this silk robe they made him wear. It was like he wasn't wearing anything at all.

As he entered, he walked across a delicate rug. It was probably made from the neck feathers of some rare bird and every step he took from the door to where Frost de Winter waited was like trampling on what a normal citizen's monthly salary.

Cloudhawk couldn't really grasp the worth of all of this. Coming from the wastelands he was like a gutter rat who suddenly found himself in a golden palace. Everything was so different, he felt completely out of place.


Frost de Winter's face might as well have been carved from a block of ice. He was infinitely cold and implacable and didn't raise his head even as Cloudhawk approached. The soldier just busied himself with looking over the mask, token and book Cloudhawk had brought with him.

The seat was soft and comfortable. When he sunk into the cushion Cloudhawk felt like he never wanted to stand up again. The level of comfort and relaxation was foreign to him so he perched on the seat with rigid posture. He looked ridiculous.

Of course the seat was bound in the neck leather of some rare creature. Its worth wasn't even worth trying to measure, suffice it to say no normal person could afford it. With no thought to propriety, Cloudhawk picked up one of the delicate cups and brought it to his lips. The purple-gold liquid steamed with an attractive scent and he drank it down in one gulp. Instantly, his pores opened. It was only his first time trying tea, but he liked it.

Frost de Winter carefully put the demonhunter token on the table between them. "You know the real identity of the one this token belongs to."

Cloudhawk poured himself another glass of tea without reservation. "Master Baldur's daughter."

"Her Excellency Selene Cloude is indeed Master Baldur's daughter. She also is the most outstanding demonhunter Skycloud City has seen in a hundred years."He picked up the mask. "Unless I'm mistaken this is Master Baldur's 'Mask of a Thousand Faces'. She would only give this to someone she trusted completely. But if I know anything about Lady Selene, it was that she had nothing but contempt for even the most talented people of Skycloud City. How could a beautiful, proud, talented woman like her have any interest in someone like you?"

So that was her real name, Selene Cloude? It certainly sounded highborn!

The mask's name was also fitting, seeing as it could be changed at a whim. It was excellent for keeping one's identity hidden. As for Frost de Winter's question, so full of contempt, Cloudhawk didn't pay it much attention. He'd never been much for caring about what people said. Anyway, he was right.

She was remarkable, becoming a high-ranking demonhunter at only fourteen. The mere thought of someone like her being friends with a wastelander like him was surprising enough to make peoples' eyes roll out of their skulls.

"I can explain this to the governor." He took another sip of tea. "When will he be coming back?"

Frost de Winter returned the mask to the table. "Probably not anytime soon. He is in conference with the High Priest. Selene was like a sister to me, and I am the governor's only disciple. Telling me is the same as telling him."


"Whenever the governor is not here I have the agency to act in some limited authority." He spoke earnestly. "Please tell me what's happened. It's been a year and a half since Selene snuck out of the holy city, an act which violated the laws of Skycloud and the demonhunter order. She's caused quite a controversy, and though her family will try to redeem her honor, she faces the threat of having her status as a demonhunter stripped. We need to know her whereabouts so that we can help her."

"The Queen-... Lady Selene had gone off into the wastelands. Her goal was to kill a demon known as the Caliph of the Sands, who she said was responsible for the death of Master Baldur."

Frost de Winter listened in silence as Cloudhawk shared his tale. He listened carefully to every detail, hardly breathing, deconstructing each word and mulling over it. Cloudhawk spoke for nearly half an hour, omitting the more inconvenient details and focusing on the more important facts - especially the fight with the demon.

Cloudhawk's story eventually came to an end. Frost de Winter stared at him with his brows furrowed.

From beginning to end he'd had no questions or reactions, just sitting there like an ice sculpture. He was probably organizing it all in his mind. Cloudhawk wasn't concerned, he'd been preparing what he would say ever since he left Greenland Outpost. He'd had months to deliberate and fine-tune his answers so there were no gaps in logic or careless omissions.

At last Cloudhawk couldn't help himself. His hand stretched out and grabbed one of the delectable-looking pastries and popped it into his mouth.

His senses exploded with flavor, fragrance and tender texture. He'd never had anything like this before, but it was so delicious he would swallow his tongue for the residual taste if he could.

Frost de Winter rhythmically tapped his finger on the table. After careful thought, he asked a single question. "You killed the demon?"

"No, not me. Us. Selene and I. We almost died and only managed thanks to luck. The thing was too strong even for Lady Selene. Really, it's a fluke we're still breathing."

Cloudhawk wasn't foolish enough to claim he'd killed the demon on his own. He had been the one to cleave the beast in half with one blow, but he wasn't stupid enough to tell anyone he had that kind of power. Even just claiming that an amateur like him had a hand in killing a demon seemed absurd when the monster's six lieutenants had been ten times his match.

"What is your purpose for coming here?"

"Lady Selene thought I had served the demonhunters well, that I had the potential to become one myself. So she sent me here. She gave me proof to show the governor so he could help me build a life here."

His requests weren't outlandish. He'd killed a demon, it was a great accomplishment. Nothing else mattered, he just wanted to live here. Have a small house, drink tea like this, eat pastries like these. Be safe, that was all he really wanted.

Frost de Winter proceeded to pick up the Gospel of the Sands and look it over.

He was still young and his insights were limited, but the governor's disciple knew of the more famous demon artifacts. The Gospel of the Sands was an important one, only a powerful demon would be able to command its power.

If it had come into this young man's possession it meant what he said was likely true. The demon was dead.

Furthermore, the Mask of a Thousand Faces was one of Selene's most cherished possessions. After all, it was the last thing her late father had given her. The token was also one of a high-ranking demonhunter's most important means of identification - and the marks were still there. Selene was still alive and well so Cloudhawk couldn't have taken the token by illicit means.

His evidence was all there, the story was ironclad. What he was saying had to be true.

"I have one more question." Frost de Winter put the book down and proceeded tactfully. "If Selene got her revenge, where is she now? Is there anyone besides you who can corroborate your story?"

In that time Cloudhawk had already stuffed three of the pastries in his face. He wasn't one to take advantage of others, but this stuff was incredible. He didn't hear anything unusual in Frost de Winter's question. "She said she found a new lead and wanted to stay in the wastelands for a while longer to check it out. This whole thing was so big I didn't think it was smart to tell anyone, otherwise it would get attention. How else was I gonna get into Skycloud Domain without causing a stir?"

Frost de Winter's face darkened. "What did she learn?"

Cloudhawk answered with a shake of his head. "I don't know. She didn't tell me."

"Well, it seems like your luck really is something extraordinary." The soldier's brows scrunched then relaxed then contracted again as he muttered. He said it not to agree with Cloudhawk, but rather like he was trying to convince himself. When he lifted his head his eyes bore a strange look. Then he said it again as though for emphasis. "Yes, very lucky."

It was then Cloudhawk sensed something wasn't right. He pulled back his hand which had reached out for the forth treat. "Do you have any more doubts? If not I'd like for you to arrange a meeting between me and the governor."

"I'm afraid that isn't going to happen."

Cloudhawk's face froze. "What?"

"Men! Grab this spy!"

Elite guards surrounded him faster than Cloudhawk could think, each one brandishing their weapons. Their weapons were different from typical soldiers as well. Sheathed they looked similar, but the blade structure was strange. They were clearly unique.

Cloudhawk hadn't seen this coming. "What are you doing?! You're making a mistake, I killed a demon! How could I be a spy?!"

"You think your clumsy tricks can fool me?" Frost de Winter glared at him down his nose as he arose from his chair. "A miscreant like you doesn't even have the qualification to carry Lady Selene's luggage. You dare claim to have stood against a demon and won? Preposterous!"

Cloudhawk's anger got the better of him. "The evidence is right there, and I have her token! What reason do you have to doubt me?!"

"Evidence? Token?" Frost de Winter looked down at the table. "I believe Lady Selene must have been captured by the demon. She has not been killed and instead the monster sent you with her token as 'proof.' This evidence you claim is a ruse, all to install you here within Skycloud City as a spy."

Cloudhawk's face was twisted in shock and fury. "Every single word I've said is true. Slander, you lie!"

Frost de Winter chuckled coldly. "Then let me ask you, how could a weakling like you help Lady Selene? How were you able to traverse thousands of kilometers across the wastelands? Very well - if you claim to have this ability, then I will give you a chance to prove yourself. Defend yourself against just three of my attacks and I'll believe you. I'll bring you to the governor myself. If you can't, then it's confirmation that everything you said is fiction and you are a spy. You will not be allowed to waste the governor's time with your poisonous lies!"

Cloudhawk didn't understand. What happened? Why had it come to this? This was not how any of this was supposed to go!

Frost de Winter was Lord Arcturus's hand chosen disciple and a man of reputation in the holy city. Why was he so determined to frame Cloudhawk? He could sense their hostility, the situation was very bad.

"Are you afraid you'll be found out? You dare not even accept my challenge and you somehow have the gall to claim you can slay demons?!"

Cloudhawk grit his teeth. "Fine! Bring it on!!"