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Book 7, Chapter 3 - Third Master Counters

 "Son, are you trying to get on my nerves? How could such a piece of garbage have come from my loins!" A handsome man with a well-kept beard in his middle years smashed a teacup he had been holding in his hands. "You keep a close eye on this waste of air! In two days he's going to the capital, and if anything happens before then I will see you all strung up and quartered!"

"Yes, Governor!"

The stewards bowed and scraped, hunched in fear of the Governor's wrath. They pushed the sloppy drunk Third Master into his room and onto his bed.

Once the stewards all left, Third Master changed entirely. His lolling eyes sharpened and the drunken stupor fled from his face. He got up from the bed as though nothing had happened. The plan so far had been troublesome, but so long as it worked all was well. And indeed it seemed to be - he'd already completely the first phase and had integrated himself into the city.

Master of the wastelands, Cloudhawk... dressed up as a dandy noble.

He shut his eyes and reached out to connect his will with Oddball's. The little bird's eyes were keen and quick, better than even some of the best spy-focused demonhunters. Through his small companion, Cloudhawk learned that Belial had already left the city just as he expected.

It didn't appear that he noticed Oddball watching him. As for where he was going, that wasn't hard to guess.

The Elder had been living among the Eysians for hundreds of years by this point. There were likely several little nests he'd arranged over the centuries so he probably had a wealth of places to pick from.

For the time being, Cloudhawk decided to pay him no more mind. The big question now was how to play off his new role.

As promised, Belial had provided him with some intel on Lance and his family. It wasn't overly detailed, but certainly useful.

The Third Young Master had never been to the capital. In a world where communication was limited, it was very easy to deceive strangers. Of course, tricking those who'd known Lance for a long time would be a different story. Luckily he was only here for a few days. He wasn't likely to arouse much suspicion.

Cloudhawk opened a portal to another world and stepped through, vanishing from the bedroom.

He appeared before the real Lance who lay with his hands and feet bound. He was dressed in nothing but a pair of underwear and when Cloudhawk appeared, he stared at the man with a mixture of horror and despair.

This whole ordeal had been terrifying. Suddenly, someone who had looked exactly like him appeared and stole his entire life. If that alone wasn't frightening enough, this stranger was stronger than any person he'd ever met.

He could just make people blink out of thin air!

Lance was both uneducated and incompetent, but for better or worse he had trained in the demonhunter academy. He had some small ability to read the situation and could tough it out for at least a short time. One glance overhead told him that this wasn't the same world he'd come from, much less Stormford. His environment confirmed it. The realizations only made him more frightened.

Had this guy actually... brought me to another world?

"Do you want to live?"

Lance fervently nodded his head.

"Then listen good. Your life means exactly shit to me. I only need your identity for a few days then I'm on to other things. Play nice and I'll consider letting you go." Cloudhawk waited for Lance to acknowledge him, then went on. "I want you to tell me everything about your family. I'm hoping you don't decide to play games with me."

Lance couldn't even dream of trying to lie to this monster. All he could think of was dying out here and no one ever finding his body. So Lance was quick to answer. "I'll tell you. Anything, everything! I promise you nothing but the truth."

The two spoke for several hours. Mostly it was Lance spilling every little detail he could while Cloudhawk would occasionally interject with a question. It wasn't the information he was after, though. Mostly he spoke with the kid so he could copy his manner of speech and body language.

Through the course of their discussion Cloudhawk discovered both good news and bad news.

The good news was that Lance was indeed a demonhunter, and one with decent talent at that. If he wasn't such a layabout he would have made good progress. He was erratic, moody and twitchy - all qualities that would make a sudden change in behavior less obvious.

The bad news was that Lance's identity was not the best suited for what he wanted to accomplish. The Elysian army was an elite group, especially those tapped to go to the Sky Fortress. Lance's public position and reputation were going to make his job harder.

It was time to go back. He rose to his feet and turned away, but at the last minute looked over his shoulder. He left some food and water for the beleaguered noble. "This isn't necessarily a bad thing for you, you know. At the very least I'll leave you in a better position than I found you in."

With that, he warped through dimensions and reappeared in Lance's chambers. He dispelled the illusory copy he left to cover his tracks, then laid down to rest.

When dawn broke the next day, the Governor summoned his son before him. The whole of their family leaders were all present - the Governor and his wife, and their two older children. Without a word of greeting the Governor launched into another scalding tirade, belittling his son in so uncertain terms. Yet even though his words were harsh, it was not hard to see that he was taking it easy on his son.

How else would a foul young man like that survive up to this point?

The Governor's wife stood, interrupting his rant. "Lance, the woman you are to marry is a noble of Fulmulta. You must learn to restrain yourself when you go to the capital. If you make trouble like you do here, no one will be able to protect you."

Their third son put on a petulate glower. "I don't want to go to Fulmulta and I don't want to marry some stuck-up noble. Let someone else go, why does it have to be me?"

"Say that again, you stupid shit!"

The Governor's anger flared, but his wife was quick to try and assuage his anger. "This marriage involves two families. They need our support and it's our family's ticket to the capital. The woman you are to marry is famously beautiful, what is there to be upset about?"

Lance whined piteously. "If it's so important, why not have one of my brothers marry her!"

Cloudhawk surprised himself with his talent for acting. He found it easy to slip into this obnoxious young man's persona.

His two 'brothers' shifted uncomfortably. The elder spoke up first. "Brother, don't be so stubborn. Didn't we decide this six months ago? I am already married with a son. Our brother is in charge of the city's martial forces. That leaves you..."

Lance cut in. "I am not leaving to get married. I want to join the army. I heard they're gathering troops for a war against the rebel realm. With my talents I'm sure they'll put me right on the front lines!"

That took everyone by surprise. The way Lance's mind worked was an absolute mystery. Was all of this just some dramatic way of trying to avoid marriage?

The Governor's anger flared again. "What did you say?! You think your piss-poor skill means anything?!"

His youngest son held his head high. "I am strong, but none of you pay any attention. If you don't believe me, have my brothers try. If I beat them in a sparring match you will let me join the army."

Had this boy gone insane? Everyone knew what sort of lout he was. It was a good day if he didn't collapse in a drunken stupor, and he thought he could take on his brothers? But before anyone could protest, the middle child stepped forward. "If that's how you want it, then I'll show you the truth."

"Bring it on!"

The second brother pulled forward an exorcist rod and launched himself forward through the hall. He stepped off the ground with a deft kick off his right foot and suddenly he was flying through the air, as though gravity had been turned off. The exorcist rod whistled as it came, deceptively quick.

No one stopped it. This young one didn't know his place and had to be shown. Maybe he would change his tone after he was beaten into the dirt.

Of the three brothers, it was the middle child who was the strongest. He commanded Byzantium's demonhunters and city guard. In many ways he was the Governor's right hand, so as a challenger he was certainly no pushover. His younger brother had made his choice, there was no one to blame but himself.

The only one who seemed anxious was his mother, who was afraid her child might be injured.

However, the Governor stretched out a hand and stopped her before she could act. "Don't worry, our son will not be too harsh. Lance spends all his days making trouble, If it wasn't for us I shudder to think what he'd be today. A little suffering is good, it'll help him see what it means to be weak."

The youngest son sidestepped the exorcist rod but did not fight back.

"Brother, with your skill you think you can beat me? You aren't even worth my time!"

Despite his words the middle son was surprised. When had Lance gotten so nimble, to avoid his attack like that? It didn't matter though, he was confident in his abilities and Lance's lack thereof.

He delved into the rod and activated its power, causing wind to rush through the hall as the top spun. Lance ducked back to avoid a second swipe, barely avoiding it. By then his older brother noticed something was off.

He must have been practicing in secret. An ordinary person couldn't have avoided two of his attacks. No more playing - he launched into a third, fiercer assault!

After several consecutive jukes Cloudhawk knew he couldn't play defense forever. He pulled out his own exorcist rod and knocked aside his opponent's. Violent mental powers burst forth.

The Governor's second son felt the power rip through him and staggered backward. Suddenly his expression was different as his younger brother rushed at him like a cornered animal. He caught the blow with his rod but the strength behind it sent his weapon flying. The winner was decided... but, how?

The Governor and his wife were stupefied. The eldest son stared in open amazement. What happened? Was he on some sort of drug? He was like someone else entirely, somehow able to beat his much stronger older brother. Even if he'd been holding back, it hadn't been by much. Had they really been underestimating him all this time?

Cloudhawk looked at their stunned faces. Shock... but not doubt. That's exactly what he was looking for. He'd held back so as not to make them suspicious, it wasn't like this guy was any kind of competition for him.

He threw the rod down with an emphatic clatter. "Now you have to agree."

"Agree? Agree to what? When was this ever a negotiation?!" The Governor even rolled his eyes. "You're the one who came here trying to pick a fight. If your brother had used even a fraction of his strength you'd be dead! Get this army nonsense out of your head and marry the Governor's daughter like I command you to!"

Lance blustered in a show of rage. "You-!"

"Shut your mouth!" By now the Governor's wife had lost her patience. "Your father is doing what's best for you. The realm looks calm but there may be a darkness creeping in. We are protecting you by arranging for you to marry into a large family. Besides, they are more influential than we are. If you behave and earn their help, perhaps they can get you into the army."

"Alright, that's enough of this nonsense. It's settled, tomorrow you're off to the capital. I'll hear no more of it."

The Governor rose and stomped out of the chamber in a huff. He was no longer interested in this argument.

1. Remember that his tattered cloak had this ability. He rarely uses it.

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