“Everyone come quickly. The masters have returned!”
Skycloud dwellings were typically prismatic, tower-like structures, and the Bloomnettle Company’s home was no exception. It had a silver columnar body that arose to a golden peak, ten floors in total, and surrounded with a small courtyard. It was rather remote but that just made it more comfortable and quiet.
Squall strode into the courtyard with a smile on his face. It didn’t matter how exhausted he felt, coming home always filled him with a sense of pride and contentment. This simple and unassuming abode was the product of many years of hard labor. Aside from the company members there were also the administrative staff; over a hundred men, women and children. Women and the elderly where the majority. Most of them were relatives and family members who had lived her for many years, living with each other in peace and harmony.
Old Thistle, Squall , the doctor and twenty-some caravan guards filed into the courtyard, laden with fatigue from their long journey. They were greeted with excited shouts. People jumped for joy when they saw their friends and family return.
A pair of young girls with tufts of hair poking from the top of their heads  tottered over to the doctor’s open arms. Their ruddy cheeks  were so full of vitality and excitement, nothing short of adorable. Doctor Lotus lifted them up, one in each arm. Her voice was tender and affectionate as she greeted them.
“Ah, you work so hard, Squall has gotten dark from the sun.” An elderly woman amiably fawned over the young man before turning her attention to Old Thistle. “Did everything go well?”
“We were caught out in the borderlands by a band of brigands, and there was some conflict with Dark Atom conspirators in the Sandbar. All these years with the old man I never thought we’d see so much action.” Before Old Thistle could even open his mouth Squall was animatedly describing the whole thing. Then his face grew solemn. “But… Uncle will not be coming home.”
‘Uncle’ was Bloomnettle’s guard captain.
The other people of Bloomnettle Company began to notice that the man who was never more than a few inches from Old Thistle’s side was nowhere to be found. Everyone knew what this meant. Misfortune had found the loyal old man, and he would not return to them.
For merchants who traversed the lawless borderlands this was not uncommon. For a time they stood in silence, grieving for their loss. For everyone here was family, even if they were not related by blood.
“Do not be saddened.” Old Thistle thumbed the beads of his bracelet. “He’d been doing this job for many years and understood that these risks were a fact of life.” He had lost an old friend, and though his heart ached there were others to consider. He tried to comfort them. “This time we’ve managed to bring back much more than usual. Uncle’s sacrifice is tragic, but he did it so that our lives might be better. May the gods above welcome his soul and bring him solace. Lotus, make sure his wife and children receive compensation. Keep an eye on his family from now on and make sure they grow up to honor his name.”
The doctor solemnly nodded her head. Those who returned were the fortunate ones.
The Highwaymen had a reputation for their bloodlust and barbarity. Merchant caravans unfortunate enough to cross their path were destroyed, their women and valuables taken without exception. Were it not for the appearance of the mysterious demonhunter, Old Thistle’s Bloomnettle Merchant Company would have been erased.
Without his intervention, the guard captain’s corpse would have been joined by Old Thistle, Squall, and all the rest of the caravan. They would all be rotting under the borderland’s sun. All except the doctor, who would have been captured and used by the bandits as they pleased, a terrible life where she’d wish for death.
Old Thitle waved his hand, motioning for everyone to disperse. “We cannot forsake our laws. Everyone go get ready.”
After each successful return the members of the caravan were expected to bathe, make obeisance to the gods, then hold a banquet in celebration to thank the gods for their protection.
Night fell over the magnificent city.
The canopies of the city’s curious trees glowed to lend warmth and light. They towered aloft, bathing large swaths of the city in luminescence like magnificent umbrellas. Skycloud was a portrait of peace and serenity, a paradise on earth. Even the greatest evil of the world would feel their cold hearts thaw at the sight.
People lit their lanterns.
Sand-like particles of light floated from the tea-pot shaped curios, and the sands floated around the air making beautiful patterns. Some were majestic horses, sprawling trees, some of which moved and others that remained static. Each one was a masterful work of art that lit up the area around it.
At the apex of every civilian dwelling was an altar dedicated to the gods, and within it were lanterns and other tools of worship bestowed upon them by the sanctuary. After bathing and changing his clothes Old Thistle lit every lantern himself, and from them arose the magnificent and sacred images of the gods.
As merchants, Bloomnettle Company’s altar was a simple thing, but much care went into its use and maintenance. Every plant was meticulously cared for.
By now it was six o’clock in the evening and the sun’s rays had disappeared from the sky.  The solemn toll of the bells from the sanctuary filled the air with its melodious sound. It had a transcendent quality that carried across the city without losing intensity or volume. It rolled across Skycloud, cleansing every heart of impurity, dispelling every evil thought.
It was Skycloud’s evening bell. The day was done, the time for evening prayer had arrived.
Old Thistle and Squall had changed into traditional clothing for sacrifices. The doctor had changed into a spotless white robe that made her look all the more pure and beautiful. The three of them stood in front while the rest of the company stood dutifully behind.
The twenty or so other travelers had also bathed and changed. Their faces serene and pious they stood before the altar and prayed.
As a merchant, Old Thistle was perhaps shrewd and covetous, but he was like all the rest of Skycloud’s citizens, he was a devout believer. He believed that everything he owned was thanks to the grace of the gods.
They escaped from certain death, met demonhunters, worked in service for the army and made many connections that would help Squall become successful in the future. How could these not be gifts from on high?
“Thank you, great gods, for our shelter.”
“May your light shine upon us for all time.”
“May we bask in your grace and glory.”
Old Thistle, Lotus and Squall bowed low before the altar. The others prostrated themselves respectfully.
Squall was a little different from his devoted foster father. He found this whole process rather boring. He didn’t believe the righteous and mighty gods listened to the prayers of ordinary men. Squall wanted to be a demonhunter, not in order to serve the gods, but because he respected the job.
Of course, boring as it was, he still had to pretend.
The prayers continued for two whole hours.
Old Thistle was getting on in years and after such a long time stretched on the ground he needed Squall and the doctor’s help to rise back up. However, he was doing well. The old merchant felt like they had been blessed. He never felt more assured in his faith.
“I’m sure we’re all tired of waiting. Now it’s time for our dinner!”
The young children leapt about and cheered for joy.
Their banquet was a plentiful one, another tradition the company enjoyed. Every safe return was celebrated with hearty dishes and flowing wine. It was the most joyous day of every month, like a holiday. This was especially true for the most gluttonous of children who could savor more food than they could fit in their bellies.
In these holy lands fruits and grains grew swiftly, and livestock reproduced with alarming speed. So long as they remained devoted to the gods no one went to sleep with an empty stomach. After all, Skycloud was the capital of this land of plenty, nowhere else could match its affluence.
After the ceremony, Squall went right back to his uninhibited and unabashed persona. He jumped up onto a stool and held a cup of pale gold ale over his head. “Tonight we drink!”
“Young master Squall, there won’t be many more days you’ll be able to drink like this with us!”
“Yeah, master Squall will be a demonhunter soon. How will His Excellency have time to drink with lowly people like us after that, eh?”
“Bah! What kind of nonsense is this?” He pounded his mug against the table top . “No matter what I become in the future, you all are family. How could I avoid the people I love? You people, cursing my names. You should be punished!”
Raucous laughter filled the dining hall.
Old Thistle smiled but he spoke seriously to his young charge. “Remember your behavior and your faith, Squall. You are to be a demonhunter, you cannot be so frivolous. Come down!”
Squall impishly shrugged at the old man.
This exchange was not just flippant talk. It wasn’t easy for Bloomnettle Company to get where it was today. In the ten years since Squall had been with Old Thistle, the’d gone from a small outfit with no home to living in Skycloud City. It was all thanks to the old man’s ceaseless efforts that at last they had a life to take pride in.
Squall was also filled with a sense of pride. He was liked here. They weren’t notable people in the elysian lands, but these were his people. This was his family.
Squall idolized Lord Arcturus, and deeply desired to be a demonhunter so that he could protect those around him. He worked hard so that one day he could achieve that dream.
Over a hundred people were busily eating food and loudly celebrating when –
The front door was shoved open. The sound of clanking armor filled the air.
A hundred soldiers surged in with their weapons held ready and before anyone knew what was going on, they were surrounded. Their armor glinted in the dim light, cold and uninviting. The area was suddenly enveloped with a menacing air. Like ice water poured on burning charcoal, suddenly the whole courtyard felt cold.
A group of people dressed as demonhunters entered.
A young man and one in his middle years led them. The younger one was especially gallant looking with his white armor and silver spear. The other man was clad in a white demonhunter cloak and held himself with a lofty and learned bearing. Both were illustrious figures in Skycloud City and instantly recognizable. The younger one was Lord Arcturus’s disciple, Frost de Winter, while the older gentleman was Lord Arcturus’s younger brother and his right-hand assistant, Augustus.
Obviously, the two were the governor’s close subordinates, with a contingent of demonhunters in tow. If any one of them were to show up alone it would be a stunning happenstance for these simple merchants. How could they ever even imagine entertaining so many illustrious people all at the same time? They stared dumbly at the scene, unsure of what to make of it.
“Most honorable gentlemen.” Old Thistle got the sense that their visit did not bode well. Trembling, he rose to his feet and made his way over to them all bows and respectful addresses. “What brings you venerable sirs to this humble man’s home?”
With a cold smirk on his face Frost de Winter swung his spear to point at the old man. Its silvery light streaked prettily through the air. “You traitors have been found colluding with the agents of a demon. You dare stand before me and feign ignorance? We have already learned everything. I recommend that you cooperate. Speak! Where is the demon’s spy hiding?!”
“Impossible!” Old Thistle was a man of great poise, but the accusation shook him to the core. “We’re a simple merchant company, how could we ever cavort with demons? We are devout followers of the gods. What you say is impossible! Honorable sirs, you must have made a mistake.”
“You still dare to conceal him? Open your eyes and look, is this item not yours?” Frost de Winter threw a robe onto the ground before them. It was the clothing they had lent to Cloudhawk. Frost de Winter’s voice was cold as the grave. “You are responsible for bringing a demon spy into the city. Do you still deny it?”
Fear stole the color from their faces. They looked at one another, sharing the same silent question. Him?
It didn’t make any sense. How could he be a spy?
But the truth of it didn’t matter in the moment. Whether he was or not, they could not admit culpability. If they did, it would spell their end.
Squall, inexperienced and unable to restrain himself, shot to his feet. “It’s a mistake! You’re wrong, how could he be a spy? He saved our lives and even exposed Dark Atom agents in Sandbar Outpost. He’s a demonhunter, there’s no way he would work for demons! He came to Skycloud in order to meet Lord Arcturus. I’m sure the governor couldn’t accept seeing a good man slandered!”
Augustus’s eyebrows slowly knit together.
Frost de Winter’s pupils shrunk to tiny black points and his eyes filled with the promise of murder. His voice sounded like it bubbled up from the depths of hell itself. “It appears you know quite a lot.”
They were done for!
Old Thistle was a man of rich experience. He didn’t know what was going on, but he knew one thing instantly from the look on Frost de Winter’s face. It made his heart go cold.
2. Also a staple of small children, especially those who live in rural environments. It’s taken as a sign of vivacity and youthfulness. Actually it’s a physical reaction to something in their lifestyle but I can’t for the life of me remember what my instructors told me.
Squall, you damned fool...