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Chapter 2 - The Secret Mission

 Time flowed. Places transformed. Scenery altered. People changed.

Cloudhawk had forgotten exactly how old he was. It wasn't strange, the wasteland didn't care how old you were. When he first clawed his way out of the ruins and into the world of mercenaries, he was about fifteen - give or take. Of course it was hard to tell, malnutrition had made him emaciated and pale. Everyone looked older with one foot in the grave. From the ruins to Blackflag Outpost. Escaping to Greenland, then all that came after. It was hard to believe it'd been only four years.

So Cloudhawk figured he had to be somewhere around twenty by now. A lot had changed in four years, and more was on the horizon. Twenty was often a year of transition.

The path fate led him down was littered with stories, and all sorts of experiences. They washed the sheen of youthful ignorance from him, leaving a man in its place. The scrounger he had been was not the man he'd become. But his eyes - those never changed. Those sharp black eyes filled with wisdom and confidence shined brighter as ever.

Hammont stared back at the young man, struggling with an odd feeling.

This stranger was calm, almost flippant, and yet the Magistrate couldn't shake the sensation that he was surrounded by peril. Beneath that, there was also a sense of something familiar, but where would he have met this young man before? Hammont definitely would have remembered someone with his kind of presence. Yet no matter how he wracked his brain, the answer eluded him.

"Who are you?!"

Sandbar Station's Magistrate decided it was time to be prudent. There was too much that made him uncomfortable about this man. It wasn't until he looked him over and saw the tattered grey cloak hanging on his shoulders that it clicked. The revelation struck him like a truck. His mind went blank.

Hammont would remember that cloak all the rest of his life. He remembered the first time he saw it. Three years ago, but it might as well have been yesterday.

Was this the man... No, impossible. His body type was totally different. That masked stranger had been practically skin and bone, maybe a hundred and seventy centimeters tall. Nothing like the man before him now, who was muscled and closer to a hundred and eighty centimeters.

But he kept ruminating. If his guess that the stranger was twenty was right, three years ago would have made him about sixteen. It was totally plausible for someone to change in that time, even drastically.

"It's been a while, Hammy. Having trouble remembering me?" Cloudhawk produced a mask from nowhere as if by magic, and slipped it over his face. Instantly the gravely, unsettling voice he remembered from so long ago returned. "You've done well for yourself."

"It is you!"

The moment he saw the mask there was no doubt. He threw his sword to the ground and fell to his knees, both making an audible thud. As he prostrated himself before the young man, everyone else gaped at the scene.

"Your humble servant is here to serve your whim, Master Demonhunter!"

Confused stares were passed all around.

Skycloud society followed strict rules of etiquette, and it was expected for lower ranking men and women to salute their superiors. Kneeling was another thing altogether, reserved for those times when someone leagues above made an appearance. At those times it was customary to bow on one knee, even for someone like the Governor. Both knees was only typical when worshiping the gods.

The Magistrate was a man of determination, resolute in word and action. He might not have been very high ranking in the army, but he wielded his influence here like an emperor. Even the powerful had to pay their respects. Seeing him now, bowing before in a criminal in open reverence, was completely out of character.

Hammont veritably gushed with flattery. "I-it's nothing. All thanks to milord's efforts. None of it would be possible without what you did. What brings milord back to us after three long years?"

Cloudhawk fished out two tokens from his pockets. The first was a demonhunter's token, marking Cloudhawk as a member of the order. The second was the insignia of Grand General Skye Polaris' 'Talons of God'. "The general has entrusted me and my men to execute a special mission. I report directly to him, and have been given authority to appropriate your soldiers as needed."

Hammont's face changed as the reality dawn on him. Three years ago he already knew this man was no normal demonhunter, but this!?

The Talons were a secret force under the direct supervision of Grand General Skye that was second only to the Court of Shadows in might. Cloudhawk was their Warden, a title that bore no less weight than a low-ranking general, and came with more prestige.

Hammont looked around, confusion clear on his face. "But, if milord is here for a mission. Why...?"

"It's above your pay grade. There's a reason for what I do. Are you saying you expect me to run everything I do by you?" This caused the Magistrate to vomit apologies and trip over his own tongue to say it was unnecessary. Cloudhawk ignored him and went on. "In brief, our mission is an important one and we expect you to offer any assistance you can to see it through. Failure is not a result you can afford."

Hammont didn't hesitate to nod his head, so fast the rolls of fat threatening to completely swallow his neck. He rolled his eyes up toward Cloudhawk sheepishly. "Milord, y-your humble servant would never presume to ask anything but what was necessary. I only want to contribute the best I can."

Dreams of that general's star on his lapel danced through Hammont's mind.

He had proved himself time and time again, he just needed one more crowning achievement. One success that would turn heads and catch his superiors' attention. It seems the gods had listened to his prayers. What was Cloudhawk other than just such an opportunity?

Cloudhawk's face was plastered with a beguiling grin. The fat man's ambition was as naked as his eating problem, but he didn't mind. In fact, he'd been looking for him. He asked directly. "What do you know about the Crimson Church?"

Sandbar's Magistrate replied promptly and respectfully. "The Crimson Church isn't its real name. They call themselves the Sanctum of Judgement. Its founder is called the Crimson One, so the people call it the Crimson Church. They're very active here in the borderlands, the wastelands too. They send missionaries everywhere to evangelize for their god and punish non-believers. Over the last few years we've seen their influence grow. Its presence has helped us here in the Sandbar."

"You wanted to know why we're here, right? Then I'll tell you." Suddenly, Cloudhawk paused. The bird on his shoulder took flight and perched on a nearby window sill, taking up position to ward against prying eyes and ears. "The Grand General's instructors were very clear. We've come to learn everything we can about the Sanctum of Judgement."

Hammont's eyes went wide. "Investigate the Church? Why!?"

"The red priest claims to be an attendant in service of the God of Judgement. In the name of spreading his word, he's come here to convert and gather followers. Lately he's been very successful, and this has attracted Skycloud's attention. There's evidence to suggest the red priest is more than just a missionary. So they sent me to learn the truth."

Hammont was stunned. He'd come to investigate a holy organization?

It was no secret that the red priest wielded tremendous influence out here in the borderlands. He was practically synonymous with Divine Will. Investigating such a man and doing it quietly would be very difficult, if not impossible. Needless to say, word of this would cause a sensation in Skycloud domain. If he could help this master demonhunter discover the truth behind the organization, it would surely be enough to get the promotion he was so desperate for.

Cloudhawk narrowed his eyes at the large man. "Are you afraid? I can find someone else."

"N-no, no!" Hammont was again nearly choked on his efforts to ingratiate himself with the Warden. "Anything you need, sir's ever whim is your humble servant's desire. I'll climb a mountain of swords or swim through a lake of fire. I can organize men right away to learn whatever you need about the Crimson Church!"

Cloudhawk answered with a grunt. "Get to work then. But remember, no one can know what we're doing. Even if your efforts are exposed you cannot - under any circumstances - reveal who I am or that we're even here. If you do, you'll face court martial."

"Understood, sir!"

The rotund Magistrate nearly bounced for joy as he left the shop. His captains were completely baffled by the exchange. Were they letting this guy go? How were they supposed to explain that? What about all the contraband they were selling?

When faced with the inevitable questions, Hammont barked at them. "Is there half a brain among you lot?! Do you think any normal citizen can get their hands on all that military surplus? They could only do that with the backing of Skycloud's government. It's been set up to resupply soldiers as they go through Sandbar for missions. From now on no one is to bother them, do you understand?"

"But the illegal goods-"

"There's always a reason for it. They're using it as bait, and those who buy and sell those goods are recorded. Or are you morons too pig-headed to understand? Now let's go, we have work to do!"

Contrary to the Magistrate's curses, his officers were not stupid. They understood what was going on from the look on the Magistrate's face. Few things proved to be intractable for Hammont in his domain, so for him to turn a blind-eye meant it was something big.

The only other person who got that sort of treatment was a bar owner named Adder.

Adder's history and motives were a mystery to everyone. Hammont never made much of an effort to cause him trouble, though, and that spoke volumes. Now this young guy shows up, but he's different. The Magistrate didn't just fear him, he worshipped him.

Sandbar Station's chief officer was a... broad fellow, with his hand in many proverbial pies. But he was also a soldier, and had all the dignity that came with the territory. If the shop owner had been some random traitor, Hammont definitely would not have reacted like he did. The only explanation was that the young man had to be someone important from Skycloud domain.

If that was the case, what else could they say? Nothing. The portly Magistrate led his people away.

Gabriel absent wiped down one of the tables as he spoke. "Do you think the big man's reliable?"

Cloudhawk was fiddling with the gramophone. The way he handled it showed his reverence. For a moment he just shut his eyes, and lost himself in the sounds that washed over him. Nodding his head in satisfaction, he finally replied. "You shouldn't look down on Hammy. He's a capable guy. Besides, it's much more convenient to conspire with the snake when your business involves digging through dirt. Sometimes, they surprise you. Let him lay the groundwork, it's better than us going in blind. Right, that's enough chatter. How much money do we have left?"

"Not a lot. A few dozen gold pieces."

"Alright, let's go have a few drinks. Maybe we'll find a few nice lookin' ladies and have ourselves a good time."

Cloudhawk turned to the shop girls and told them to look after the place. Together he and Gabriel wandered through the streets until they came upon a place with a familiar sign. When he looked at the bar's façade Cloudhawk went silent for a moment. It hadn't changed at all. He wondered if the people inside it had.