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Book 7, Chapter 11 - Suspicions

 After the wedding, on the third day of Cloudhawk's arrival to the city, Byzantium's Governor arrived at the capitol by boat.

He'd come on short notice for two reasons: To discuss negotiations with Noah Argyris, and to see his newlywed son.

All of a sudden his worthless son had become useful! His turnaround had been as quick as it had been dramatic. He offered no resistance to the marriage and had caused no trouble so far. What's more, he even earned himself a spot among the Mighty Ten, news that Lance's father hardly believed when he heard it.

Was this really his son? When had he become so strong? Jupiter - the young man he'd taken the title from - was said to be as strong as a veteran demonhunter.

A father surely knew the worth of his sons. It seemed impossible that Lance would rise to the occasion. Many in Byzantium still doubted the stories of Lance beating his older brother. All of this was so out of character that the Governor had to come and check on things himself.

His loyal steward was waiting on the docks and greeted the Nilam family patriarch when he arrived. "Welcome to the capital, Governor!"

"Where is Lance?"

"Don't worry, sire. He is waiting for you."

"How has he been these few days?"

"Completely different. There's no other way to describe it." The steward shook his head. He had no explanation. Somehow the Young Master had kept his more worthy nature hidden from them all this time. "He's already earned a name for himself in the city. I know you were worried he'd stir up trouble, but it looks like we fretted for nothing. He's done the family proud."

As the steward continued to gush with praise the lines between Governor Nilam's brows furrowed deeper. "Do you not find it at all strange? The moment he came to the capital it was like he became a completely different person!"

"Well..." This gave the man pause. "He has changed quite a lot, but he is sire's son. It's not like he can be switched somehow. It is my opinion that he has simply matured and now understands what's at stake."

No response was forthcoming from the Governor. Something just didn't feel right. "Keep this between us."

Confusion was in the steward's expression. Wasn't it a good thing that his son was behaving? Why did the Governor seem so nervous?

Governor Nilam, the steward and his entourage made their way to the Argyris family home.

Meanwhile Cloudhawk was slowly opening his eyes. He felt content, like everything was under control. He'd been made aware that Governor Nilam was on his way, so he'd slipped a spying relic on the steward's person. After their conversation he knew there was some suspicion cast his way.

It was fine, there was only a day to go.

Cloudhawk's acting abilities left much to be desired - after all, he'd never interacted with Lance before recently. He knew he couldn't deceive the man's family for long. What's more, his actions lately had been way out of character for the spoiled noble.

Why hadn't Cloudhawk been given the identity of somehow from the capital? Because a local would have more friends, family and acquaintances he'd have to try and fool. Coming from outside, the chances of him being caught either in the city or among the crusades was smaller.

Why, then, did he choose to assume Lance's identity and marry this girl? That was so he could seamlessly integrate himself into Fulmulta. As a respected son-in-law with a powerful family behind him, he could more easily join the crusades.

Because information didn't travel well in the new world, no one in the capital was very familiar with Lance Nilam. Any news they did get was hard to confirm. For that reason, even if he was completely different from what rumors said, it didn't make locals particularly suspicious. Between cultivating a bit of a reputation and help from his new family, it wouldn't be hard to join the army ranks.

However, no one knew the son better than his own father. Even the best actor would be hard pressed to fool close family.

Cloudhawk knew this was a crucial period in maintaining his identity. If he could get through this without a hitch, there would be no further obstacles. If, on the other hand, something went wrong... then the whole mission was in danger.

He reflected on this for a moment. Then, making up his mind, space around him rippled and Cloudhawk disappeared.

The real Lance was still trapped in the strange otherworld. He'd spent days there with no concept of what was happening.

Every day Cloudhawk would visit to bring him food and water. Although the noble was in low spirits he was nonetheless in fine health. Fear and uncertainty were immediately apparent when Lance saw his doppelganger appear.

"Master! I'm begging you, please let me go! I can't stay here forever, let me leave. I beg you! I'll do whatever you ask, anything at all!"

Lance threw himself on the ground before Cloudhawk. This place was not nearly as threatening as the wastelands, but it was lonely. A person like Lance, with his weak will and constitution, couldn't stand even the constant illusion of danger. He'd already been broken.

Cloudhawk crouched down and looked him over. "I will give you one chance. If you do absolutely everything I tell you to do exactly as I tell you to do it, then I promise to let you go."

"Tell me!" Lance said, perking up. "Whatever you ask!"

Cloudhawk's plan for dealing with Byzantium's Governor was simple. He would let the real Lance take the reigns. No lying, no conterfeiting, just the real deal. Of course this came with its own dangers. There was no telling whether or not this waste of air would play along.

"What? I've already married the miss from the Argyris family? I beat Jupiter Merlo and became one of the Mighty Ten?" After the situation was explained to him Lance was dumbfounded. He knew that none of that was him, of course, but instead this copy that had showed up. He was coming back to the real world because his father was suspicious.

Why would he do all of this? Why would he need Lance's identity to do it? Lance wracked his brain but came no closer to an answer.

Cloudhawk's frigid voice pressed him. "Can I trust you to do this?"

"Of course! Yes, absolutely!"

"You know what you have to say?"

"I... I know."

Lance was like a drowning man grasping for straws. He would agree to anything to get away from this place. But then when he saw his father... neither Lance nor Cloudhawk was sure he'd stick to the plan.

"I'm afraid you won't be reliable, so I'm going to have to make sure you will be." He looked around for a moment then pointed to a mountain range a few thousand meters away. "See that mountain?"

Lance followed his finger. It was a strange question, why was he asking about it? "I do," he said agreeably.

Cloudhawk took two steps forward. Slow and steady from an outside perspective, they shot him several dozen meters away. Reappearing, suddenly his bearing had changed entirely. His presence cut like a deadly sword wrenched from its sheath.

Lance watched in shock as he drew a weapon. Electric power crackled through the air, surging with an intensity he'd never felt before. It coalesced around the sword so that everything around it for a huge swath was nearly crushed under its force.

Deep gray clouds roiled overhead like an angry sea. Cloudhawk slowly raised his weapon and those clouds split apart as though carved in twain. Without a sound, Cloudhawk brought the sword crashing down, striking the earth before his feet.

A tremendous roar like a thousand thunderclaps boomed across the landscape. All of the power he had summoned was gathered at the sword's tip. It was released in a breathtaking bloom that was felt more than seen. The earth split in a straight line for a thousand meters to create a gaping chasm. The sound of cracking earth was like a thousand galloping horses as it reached the mountain range.

Even from this distance Lance could see the fissures creeping up the sides. Dazzling light shimmered from where the cliffs parted.

At last there was a terrible sound as though the sky were falling. Countless chunks of rocks blasted in all directions as most of the mountain collapsed in on itself.

He'd split an entire mountain with one blow! It was terrifying to know such a creature walked the earth!

Lance gulped and nearly choked on his spit. He'd never seen such power before. There was no living thing in all of Stormford that could wield such a level of destruction. He... he wasn't a man. He was a monster.

"Remember, I will be right beside you the whole time. If you do anything I don't like... " Cloudhawk trailed off as he sheathed Immortal Godslayer, letting the scene speak for itself. "Don't fuck with me. You see what happens to people who do. I will kill anyone who stands in my way, whether they're a Governor or a High Priest. I won't hesitate to put you or your father in the dirt."

Any passing thought Lance had of betraying this man had withered and died. For a brief instant he'd thought of tipping off his father and getting his help to escape. But after seeing the horror this creature wielded, the seed of rebellion died in his heart. It would only get a lot of people killed.

Whoever this person was, he wielded the power of a god or demon. Any misstep and he wasn't just putting his life in danger, but the lives of his father and his whole family as well. There was no question that his doppelganger would have no qualms erasing an entire family from existence.

"I-I understand."

"Don't worry. I really do not want to hurt anyone. I'm only doing what I have to do."

Lance was relieved to hear it. For a time he was certain this man wanted him dead. He was afraid it had something to do with his family and the influence their wielded. Instead he didn't seem interested in any of that. He trusted him when he said he didn't want to kill anyone.

What a fortunate turn of misfortune...

"Let's go."

Cloudhawk gave Lance a change of clothing, tidied up his appearance, and then the two blinked out of reality.

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