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Chapter 63 - Reconnaissance

 Chapter 63 - Reconnaissance

Enveloped in a shell of glimmering energy, the airship began to ascend. Cloudhawk sat in his cabin looking out of the window as the ground fell away. Once more the artful layout and ordered streets were revealed from a bird's eye view, only to slowly vanish into the horizon.

From here he could see the miraculous falls reappear from the clouds like a jade column. Hundreds of ships came and went, grandiose as they soared through the sky. Yet as the spectacular scenery was revealed Cloudhawk did not have the same sense of splendor he'd experienced when he first arrived.

He'd thought this would be the place where he might settle down. After defeating the demon and with the demonhunter token he could buy himself a life where he didn't need to worry about food or clothing. When he got here he thought that finally he might live a happy life. Who'd have thought that in less than a month he would leave Skycloud domain's most prosperous and bustling city for the unknown.

He couldn't say there was any regret or unwillingness. But there wasn't comfort or freedom, either.

Cloudhawk was strangely calm. When Skycloud city disappeared he drew his eyes away from the window and lain down in his cabin. With his arms as his pillow he shut his eyes and mulled over what he'd just learned.

By some strange act of circumstance Claudia Lunae was also on her way to Hell Valley, but he was not troubled. For better or worse he was tied to the Polaris family, and the Claudia's dare not provoke the commander. Besides, Cloudhawk was not the same man Claudia met in the wastelands.

Her skills had improved, but within limits. Meanwhile both physically and mentally Cloudhawk had seen tremendous gains. While Claudia had the blessing of a wealthy house to buy her relics, she had neither the strength nor experience to threaten Cloudhawk any longer.

It's best for you if you stop screwing with me. If not I'll make sure you meet Raith again, face to face! Cloudhawk's bitter thoughts were not idle promises. He knew soft hearts did not solve these kinds of problems. He spared her once, he wouldn't do it again.

As for her family, he wasn't sure.

He'd learned all he needed to know about the Lunaes. They were a merchant family with ties to all manner of industries from clothing to dining, luxury goods to public transport, even weapons and armor. They were the largest and most influential merchant family in the entire domain.

The Lunae family organization was massive. After three generations of stable development it was now being led by Garuda Lunae. He didn't seem to be an exceptional man, but his skills were at least sufficient to maintain what his predecessors had built. Over the last several years their organization had kept their status as the most affluent merchant family. Thus Garuda Lunae was crowned with the title of the richest man in Skycloud.

Cosnidering such information one would assume the Lunaes were an influential power in Skycloud. However, the truth was quite the opposite. The tradition of the elysian lands lay in respect for the gods. Those who were pious and brought glory unto the names of their benefactors were awarded the greatest power. Merchants, who worked for their own gain, were not given much respect or status.

Businessmen respected nothing but profit. They cultivated a prospector's instincts. To the zealous citizens of Skycloud working as a merchant was difficult to admit. Despite their vast wealth, the Lunae family did not have the rights to maintain a standing force or participate in powerful circles in any meaningful way.

All this considered, it was very difficult for the Lunaes to find demonhunters willing to swear fealty to their family. They were a proud breed and being the lapdogs of businessmen was not something their pride could suffer.

To combat this the family spared no expense in raising talent from within, hoping that they might generation demonhunters of their own. Unfortunately for them, their bloodline seemed lacking, and at least so far their endeavors had not been rewarded. That was not to say they hadn't succeeded in raising a few demonhunters, but all were roughly comparable in skill to Claudia Lunae - that is to say, not terribly skilled. Not good enough to raise their family's reputation.

So it was that the Lunae family was rich in property but not much else. Garuda was extremely deferential to the Cloude and Polaris clans because they saw his family much like they viewed him; a fat sow exposed to the wolves. So long as they avoided offending their betters they might avoid a grim fate.

Garuda bowed and scraped before Skye for this reason. Even if his family had more money than anyone else in the city all the General had to do was summon his forces. If the Lunae family survived such an encounter it would only be after serving up several pounds of flesh.

Every the pragmatist, the Lunae family patriarch served those in power and changed with the winds of fortune. How could he dare risk upsetting Skye and his brood? He rebuked his child to ingratiate them with the Polaris clan, but then again the friend Claudia had lost was Raith Umbra - a member of the family who had established the Court of Shadows. How would the Umbras react if Garuda forced his daughter to apologize to the one who killed one of their own?

The richest sow was in a bad way. Being so wealthy wasn't as good as it seemed on the surface.

To Cloudhawk things didn't seem so bad. That was why he didn't ask Skye Polaris to deal with Claudia. Nor did he attack Claudia in return or demand an apology. Since any sincere apology was impossible, why bother?

The two families now shared one airship, but had no interaction. They each acted like the other didn't exist.

Oddball merrily flew around the cabin after gobbling down another pellet. This fuzzy bird-beast was Cloudhawk closest companion. Best friends could split, deepest trust could be shattered - it was the nature of humanity and could never be predicted. But Cloudhawk was certain that no matter what, no matter what happened, Oddball would never betray him.

Oddball hatched from Cloudhawk's psychic energy. From the moment it popped out of that egg they were bound together.

"Ugh, so boring." Cloudhawk scratched Oddball's fluffy, who'd settled on his finger. "Why don't' you go and take a look at the scenery for me, eh?"

Oddball flapped its wings and fluttered away without hesitation.

Cloudhawk made himself comfortable, folding his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. His connection with the little bird opened wide. It was a good way for him to practice and allow Oddball some exercise. Two birds with one stone.

The bird's disproportionate wings beat madly, keeping its pudgy body in the air. While it looked like trying to keep itself airborne was strenuous, in fact Oddball darted about as deftly as a dragonfly. It soared down the aisles of the ship, peeking curiously through fist-sized vents set in the walls, peeping into other cabins. It's plump round body was just large enough to slip in and out without trouble.

Cloudhawk peered through Oddball's eyes and saw what it saw.

A man, clad in ash-grey robes with half his faced covered in a mask. He was sitting cross-legged in the middle of his cabin. Wasn't that Mr. Ink? Cloudhawk had to admit he was curious about this cryptic man.

Without any visible support Mr. Ink floated three feet above the ground, surrounded by several black spheres that circled him in eclectic orbits. Whatever their speed or trajectory none of the spheres ever collided.

What mystical power was this? It looked so arcane!

In Skycloud city, those with powers such as this were rare. Atlas and his Deathstalker weapon were surely sinister, but this felt... evil. The power that surrounded Mr Ink. Stank of death, decay, and bloodlust. Just a hint of it made Cloudhawk deeply uncomfortable, like the man was himself a decomposing corpse.

The gods were represented by that which was good and light, their artifacts were not like this. Whatever Mr. Ink was using had to have come from someplace darker. It had to a demon artifact.

Mr. Ink frowned suddenly. He'd felt something. The orbs spinning around him stopped. Not wanting any danger to befall Oddball, Cloudhawk quickly ordered his little friend to escape and come back.

Who this guy was or what his powers were didn't matter to Cloudhawk.

He could tell at a glance Mr. Ink was someone to toy with and nothing good would come of being caught spying. Oddball slipped out from the vent, spiraling askew threw the air in its haste to leave. Eventually it regained equilibrium and fluttered elsewhere.

The deep pockets of the Lunae family were made clear when it was revealed that all cabins - but for those reserved by the Polaris family - were booked by the merchants. Of course they were the next target for Cloudhawk's snooping. He ordered Oddball to head to their section of the ship.

The Lunaes looked like they were sending in army rather than escort a single girl. There were dozens of defenders tasked with escorting Claudia, none of whom paid Oddball any mind. The bird took their disregard for granted and fluttered over to Garuda Lunae's room.

The three-hundred pound man sat alone in his room, but if anyone who knew him were to see the patriarch now they would be shocked. His ingratiating, frivolous demeanor was gone. Now he sat with the stately and solemn expression befitting a man of station.

Cloudhawk was shocked. Was this the same man he'd met outside? He seemed completely different.

Garuda Lunae lifted a cup of tea and took a couple sips. Seated below was his daughter. Claudia. He looked at her and sighed. "I know what's happened to you, Claudia. I know all about the circumstances between you and Cloudhawk. Do you know why I arranged for you to meet?"

"I don't."

"Cloudhawk comes from the lowest upbringing, but according to my information he's very talented - maybe as talented as Selene Cloude used to be. He set fire to the governor's home, stole from the general, freed a dungeon full of convicts and attacked a congregation preparing to execute a blasphemer. All of that, and he still walks around without a care. Do you still think he's just a typical wastelander?"

"Your daughter doesn't understand what her father is trying to say."

"Arcturus Cloude is the sort of man that only comes along once in several generations. General Polaris is a living legend. Both have forgiven Cloudhawk and extended an olive branch. He may have chosen the Polaris family but that did not stop Arcturus from trying to recruit him to their family. What's more, he has close ties to Selene Cloude and Dawn Polaris. He isn't someone we can afford to insult."

Cloudhawk, listening furtively from his cabin, was surprised by what he heard.

How did Garuda know so much? The banquet Arcturus had thrown to settle their dispute was no secret, but what they spoke about in the garden together was private. Getting this information needed more than just listening for idle gossip. Obviously his helpless and comical persona was a disguise. There was a lot more to this fatty than he let on.

"But -"

"No buts. You are no match for him, and even if you were I forbid any more trouble. Just the opposite, I need you to get close to Cloudhawk. Make contact. If possible, you can even try to forge a deeper connection."

"I could never!" Claudia Lunae shot to her feet, anger twisting her face.

Her father answered with stern insistence. "You must. You know what our family faces, are you willing to put your personal grudge before your kin? What happened in the wastelands was brought about by Raith's zeal. Death doesn't even erase what he's done!"

Claudia's face went from pale to pink. She threw open the door and stormed out.

Garuda remained seated and watched her go. He sighed. No one understood what she was going through more than him. Stubborn as Claudia was, however, she knew what was at stake. His warnings would stop her doing anything rash, but it was a lot to ask for her to forget her humiliation. She would just have to suffer.

What else could be done? This was her family!