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Book 7, Chapter 1 - A New Identity

 Chapter 1: A New Identity

Building a character overnight was no easy task.

Cloudhawk had to start from zero all over again, a stranger in a strange land. He was expected to build enough of a reputation in a short period to enter the Temple without letting anyone know his true identity. It seemed like an impossible task, at least in the couple months he had to accomplish it.

It was important not to underestimate one's foes. Stormford had lost a great warrior when Bruno was captured, but in the grand scheme he was a small part of a much larger whole.

While Skycloud had suffered and declined, Stormford had spend decades in a state of prosperity. For a thousand years it cultivated warriors of strength and ability. Even Cloudhawk had to be wary when making his way through the realm.

Wolfblade knew how difficult the mission was. That's why he pointed Cloudhawk toward an old ally, hidden in the belly of the beast. The demon artisan, Elder Belial.

Belial had once occupied the Tenth Seal of demon society. An important figure among his kin, his prestige was ten times what the fallen Elder Judas had commanded. However, it was important to note that a demon's rank was not entirely based on strength. Belial didn't earn his position because of combat prowess. After all, even a god or demon was limited in what they could do. No single being could conquer the heavens, no matter how strong. The demon earned his place, instead, because of his talents as an artisan.

Belial was the most talented fabricator of his kin. While his strength was average or less among the other Elders, his relationships with them bolstered his influence. Quite a few of the relics used by the demons were forged by his hand, some of epic quality or greater.

One could imagine how important a creature like Belial was to his people.

After the great war, it was assumed that the Elder had been killed in battle. The denizens of Gehenna only knew he did not slink back into the darkness with them. In truth, though, he'd found some way to disguise himself as a human and had been hiding here among them all this time.

Cloudhawk knew how important Belial was. His artisanal prowess aside, the demon was likely stronger than Judas. If he had to guess, he imagined the demon to be equivalent to a Supreme. The frail look of his human form was deceiving and in a real fight Cloudhawk wasn't sure how well he'd fare.

The Demon King's successor was strong, with mental powers comparable to a Supreme. However he was young. Inexperienced. In comparison Belial had lived for a thousand years and no one knew what tricks he was hiding - or what relics he'd accrued.

"Stormford had been so tense lately. Now I see it's because the Demon King's successor has shown himself." Belial didn't seem impressed by the title despite being a demon himself. "Legion never gave up, even after all these years. That old fogey, never able to leave well enough alone. He would rather drag all his people into the path of destruction."

Anger played across Belial's face. He would happily tear Legion to pieces, given half a chance.

He was amazed that this unassuming, ordinary human would be chosen as the Demon King's successor. Whatever his talents, whatever his strengths, he could never shed the inferior bounds of his genetics.

What were humans but lesser lifeforms? Mental prowess didn't come from the body, so however strong his will it would never stop him from aging. Some humans evolved to live for several hundred years, but that was almost unheard of. Their subpar genetics limited them to a brief life, doomed to wasting and death unlike their demon betters.

What made him think he could lead Belial's people? He couldn't imagine what the Demon King had been thinking. Legion's thoughts were equally inscrutable. But that wasn't important for he had already made up his mind. He wasn't going to fight this stupid war any longer. Better to pretend he was mortal and hide behind an assumed name. He would spend his days here, in silence and obscurity, until the sun went out.

"Here's the situation." Cloudhawk explained the gist of his plan. "I am calling on your obligation as an Elder to help me. You can dismiss me, but I don't think Legion would look so kindly on it if you do."

Belial scowled openly. The Demon King was dead, if there was anyone left on this hunk of rock Belial feared it was Legion. He was very familiar with the schemer's methods. If Legion wanted him dead he already would be.

It was not healthy to make an enemy of the Second Seal, whatever the circumstances.

After a few moments Belial answered. "Fine, I'll help. But I'm telling you now that I remain neutral in this farce. I will not be dragged into it, on either side."

It was a poignant display of how demons differed. Judas - least of the Seals - and the likes of Abaddon spent their days trying to erase the shame of their defeat a thousand years ago. Meanwhile the mighty artisan hid away like a cockroach. It rankled Cloudhawk, but he did not speak with the gravity of the Demon King yet. There were other more important things to accomplish first, anyway. With no reason or means to tangle with this crotchety demon, he had to accept the terms. At least for now.

"Alright." He agreed.

Belial wasn't foolish enough to believe this would be the end of it, but he wasn't about to waste time. Once this human got what he wanted, Belial would change his face and start over again somewhere else. After so many years it was as easy as breathing for him. The tricky part would be keeping himself hidden from Legion.

"The capital has been combing through the realm, looking for talented demonhunters. If you want to be snatched up with the rest of them then the method is simple: Find a suitable target here in town and replace them."

"That simple, huh?"

It wasn't that Cloudhawk didn't trust Belial. Rather, he was fairly sure it was far more complicated than the demon made it sound.

Cloudhawk had a hundred or so relics squirreled away in his dimensional warehouse. There was probably a catalogue of things he could use to help disguise himself. But that meant expertly wearing a mask at all times. The slightest misstep and someone could see right through him.

"Do you think 'demon artisan' is just a gimmick title?" Belial guessed at Cloudhawk's concerns and frowned at the insult. "I have lived in this place for hundreds of years and have never once been discovered. The disguises I made are undetectable by any relic and impossible to see through."

"Great, let's give it a try then." Seeing the demon's confidence, Cloudhawk was resolved to give it a shot.

Belial and Legion were very different sorts, as far as he could tell. Wolfblade - as he was now known - changed his physical body thanks to the Sarcophagus of Rebirth. On the other hand, Belial retained his demon body but made himself appear completely different. It was a mystery how he managed to do it, but it had to work well if he'd managed to stay hidden out here for so long.

Belial pushed passed him and closed the door to the shop. Safe from prying eyes, he started the process.

His methods were unique and involved, and did not rely on relics. Through his expertise he of course knew that those tools could enact great change, but did so at the cost of mental energy. With extended use, sooner or later there was a chance the disguise would fail. Rather it was like the old adage - sometimes the most effective methods were the simplest.

Cloudhawk stood in the center of the room as Belial covered him in a strange ointment. Next he was injected by a series of inexplicable concoctions. The entire process took over three hours.

When he was finished, Belial produced a mirror and showed Cloudhawk the result. A gasp was his reward. Cloudhawk stared at the unfamiliar face looking back at him. His build was similar, but flowing golden hair sat on his head and his features were that of a rugged youth. Even the silvery Eye of Time was transformed to an electric blue.

He practiced making several faces in the mirror. Nothing was rigid or unnatural. Because it didn't rely on any relic his disguise could not be dispelled or seen through. It was a transformation that sunk deep into his skin.

It was like he'd become someone else entirely.

"You are now the third son of Byzantium's Governor, Lance. He is a demonhunter, and in a few days he is to go to Fulmulta for a political marriage. His bride is a daughter from one of the capital's distinguished families. You can use this opportunity to enter the city and insert yourself with the force going to the Temple." Belial washed his hands in a nearby basin as he explained. "I will give you more detailed information later. It's as much as I'm able to help. Once you're gone I expect you to hold to your word and forget we ever met."

Cloudhawk touched his face and body then looked at his hands. The layer of skin stuck tight to his real form underneath. It was resistant to water or fire - perfect, like a fleshy suit. Even though he'd watched the whole thing, Cloudhawk didn't know how the artisan had managed it. Obviously he still had a lot to learn.

"What about the real guy?"

Belial looked at him like he was an idiot. "If you're going to replace him why keep the original around? He's a spoiled fool anyway, fond of gambling and with a record stained from misdeeds. Without his father to wipe his ass someone would have put him in the ground already. I imagine you're plenty capable of making sure a child like him makes a clean disappearance."

Cloudhawk did not express his opinion except to smirk. "Truth be told I'm impressed with your skill. Are you sure you won't consider rejoining your kin?"

"Unless I'm mistaken, I sense the devil fire in you. That's a relic made by another artisan. And that sword you carry, you made that yes? With the likes of you there isn't much I can do to help. I'd appreciate it if you told Legion to stay the fuck out of my business."

Belial was talking about Castigation Fire. Cloudhawk knew it had belonged to a demon Elder once. Now it seemed the creature that left it behind had been an artisan too, before dying during the Great War.

But Cloudhawk still saw Belial as vitally important, despite his words. In the war to come, the demon craftsman would be a priceless ally. However, he couldn't be hasty. Nor was converting Belial to his cause the focus of his current mission. It was a matter for another time. Once the matter with the Elysian realms was dealt with he would come back to it.

"If the Elder wishes to stay out of it, then I won't force you. Thank you for your help, I'll take my leave."

Cloudhawk put away his weapon and with a slight shimmer, vanished from view. Reality trembled slightly in the space he vacated.

Impressive. I didn't think humans could command spatial ability that strong. It seems I can't stay here any longer.

Belial didn't believe a word Cloudhawk had said. He spent the rest of the day gathering up his things, then left the city he'd called home for a decade in the middle of the night. What he didn't notice was the pudgy yellow bird darting overhead, watching him with its keen round eyes.

Slipping away into obscurity again wasn't easy. Not anymore.

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