At the gate of Sandbar Outpost. A small temporary military outpost.
The fat guard captain was busily applying a poultice to one of his soldiers. The poor man’s nose had been broken from a punch so vicious it almost caved his face in. What made it bitterer was that they simply had to accept it. Luckily the punishment wasn’t serious, and with the help of Skycloud medicine his subordinate’s nose would be healed in a couple of days.
“Captain, when are we going to be finished out here,” the soldier grumbled. “It was so hard for us to get a chance to dispatch, but we haven’t gotten anything done except to piss off someone important. It’s only gonna get worse.”
Their captain was just as gloomy.
Every Skycloud regiment was eager to prove themselves, but they were still in peace time. How were they supposed to earn achievements where there were no enemies? The captain was a naturally slow-witted fellow who was also a step behind others, and compounded with his humble background there wasn’t much of a chance for him to get anywhere in life. It was an injustice to these poor guys that they were assigned to his leadership.
“It’s been a year since I’ve been back and I have no idea what Jade is up to. Back in the village, I was third place in the military draft competition, now here I am. I can’t even show my face back home if I could go back.”
“Will you shut your damn mouth? I was first in my whole town!”
“Ah! Easy Captain, not so hard!”
The captain huffed in irritation, glowering in displeasure. And could he be blamed? Most of his soldiers were villagers before they were soldiers, the pride of their small homesteads. None of them figured they would end up as scrubs after joining the illustrious Skycloud military. For him it’d been a full three years since he’d been home, and every time he wrote to his mother it was hard to find things to brag about. If his mom knew what her fine boy had really become he didn’t want to think of how disappointed she’d be.
He wasn’t going home, not without some honor to show for it. That was the truth of life as a soldier.
But when? When would he be able to lift his head in pride?
“C-c-c-captain!” A lanky soldier practically fell over himself as he raced toward him. He was simultaneously trying to stop his helmet from falling off his head and keep his panic under control. “The demonhunter from this morning is back!”
The captain went white as a sheet.
What was he doing back here? Was he not satisfied with the beating he’d already given them? Had he come back to teach them another lesson?!
His dull wits were still mulling over the dark possibilities when he saw the short masked tyrant saunter into view. His hoarse and unsettling voice went right to the point. “Fatty, I figured you’d be looking for a way to make up for your mistake, am I right? Here’s your chance. I’ve come across a group of rebels here in the Sandbar, and the stakes are high. It’ll be dangerous, are you up for the mission?”
“Wh-… what?” The fat man’s jowls jiggled. His soldiers were stunned – the blessing was as sudden as it was unexpected!
They’d been soldiers for years and they’d barely been able to go out on patrol much less act in an important mission with a demonhunter! Now suddenly they were being asked to clear out a nest of agitators. A pleasant surprise indeed!
This was more than an honor. This was a chance to make their mark! Years of meritless labor had led them to this opportunity.
Cloudhawk hadn’t expected such a positive response and was still uncertain about their attitude. So he added offhand, “This matter isn’t very important to me, but I need to keep my identity a secret. For my secret mission. What that means is if we succeed you’ll get all of the praise and reward. So, have you made up your mind?”
“Your devoted servant would walk through hell for you!”
The fat captain was full of admiration for the great demonhunter. Over the last ten years there hadn’t been any major conflicts for Skycloud City to get involved in, leaving nothing for him to do.
Just getting a posting here at the Sandbar had been a lot to ask. They’d been desperate to arrest people from the moment they got here – not just for the sake of it, but because a single spy would be a great accomplishment. But in the days since they’d arrived, no matter how hard they looked, they weren’t able to find a single one.
Then out of the blue this demonhunter appears. Not only does he forgive them their transgressions, but offers to lead them through a mission and let them have all the praise!
What was the definition of ‘open-minded’? This was ‘open-minded’! What did it mean to turn the other cheek and repay wickedness with kindness? This was the perfect example!
The guard captain couldn’t express the breadth of his excitement. “Your servants will listen to whatever instructions you give, we eagerly await your orders!”
The light in the fat man’s eyes stirred a cold disgust within Cloudhawk. Out in the wastelands he’d met men with zealotry like this. Clearly this fat soldier was just the same. But regardless, they were useful.
“We move out tonight. You lot start preparing.”
Cloudhawk delivered his assignment then left. The fatty had to have some skill if they let him be a captain, even if Cloudhawk could whoop his ass without the help of his relics. The dozen or so others weren’t necessarily pushovers either, and with them Cloudhawk had things more under control.
The guard captain showed Cloudhawk out, and when he was gone, spun around to address his men. “Brothers! Did you see that?! Our chance to do something noteworthy is finally here! The honorable demonhunter has given us this opportunity, and we’re going to get it done right! Let’s get ready!”
When Cloudhawk returned to the bar he breathed a long sigh of relief. He now had Barb the demonhunter, a fat guard captain and ten soldiers. Things were looking better.
In reality, Cloudhawk wasn’t keen on this sort of thing, but he had no choice if he wanted to win a good life for Asha. It was the only way to get what he wanted from Adder. Cloudhawk didn’t see himself as a particularly responsible guy, and he couldn’t really say why he was so dead-set on doing it. For some reason he saw Asha like a little sister, maybe it was guilt because of what happened to Coppertooth. He couldn’t say for sure.
He never really thought about these things. He just did what he thought he had to.
Old Thistle came looking for him with Squall in tow. The old man wasted no time with pleasantries and asked if Cloudhawk would take his young charge along. After all, he assured him, Squall had some ability and he was sure to be of some help. He saw it as training and an opportunity for him to associate with soldiers and demonhunters. If he could do some work then all the better.
Cloudhawk didn’t turn him down.
It was pretty clear Squall had a soft spot for Asha, too. Cloudhawk saw it clear as day. More than that, the guy seemed to know how to take care of himself, at least as much as Cloudhawk and probably stronger than most of the soldiers. The more the merrier, it just made his job easier.
Using his fabricated identity and the impressive clout of a demonhunter token, Cloudhawk had managed to cobble together a pretty good group of fighters. He had a novice demonhunter in Barb, Squall who was on the path to being one himself, a portly guard captain and the thirteen men under his command. Sixteen all together.
Twilight was fast approaching. Cloudhawk was attired in simple camouflage.
He gave a gentle tap to his mask and it changed to a brownish grinning façade. Even then he went farther, completely change his appearance. Using a small knife he cut his unkempt hair short and had Squall get him a leather outfit. In the end he looked completely different than he had when he’d arrived at the Sandbar just this morning.
These days it wasn’t uncommon to see masked men traveling the roads. Cloudhawk’s skinny figure also made him easy to disregard, especially below his tattered cloak haphazardly flung over his shoulders. With a new mask, new hair, and new clothes no one was going to recognize him.
Gradually the members of his team gathered at the designated spot. The fat captain and his men were the first ones there.
To these men the mission was of critical importance, so they didn’t dare show up late. Their preparations had been meticulous, and in addition to their standard equipment they each had crossbows slung over their shoulders.
They hadn’t been waiting more than fifteen minutes before a pretty woman joined them.
She was dressed simply, but the weapon she carried made her status unmistakable – another demonhunter!
When Barb saw the fat captain and the others she was visibly surprised. “You lot are his Eminence’s men?”
His Eminence? Oh! She must mean the masked demonhunter. If she was referring to him with such respect he had to be someone special. On top of his team, they had a second demonhunter to join them. This really was a once in a lifetime event!
“Yes yes yes! We’re his Eminence’s loyal soldiers!”
Cloudhawk arrived a few moments later with Squall at his side. When she saw him Barb greeted Cloudhawk with an excited smile. “Hello, your Eminence!”
The guard captain awkwardly bowed. “Everything is prepared! We await your orders!”
Squall wasn’t dressed much different than usual. His hair was tied up in a ponytail behind his head and he wore his armor with the Bloomnettle coat of arms emblazoned on it. He carried a pair of two-foot short swords as his weapons. When he saw how Cloudhawk had managed to gather together another demonhunter and the soldiers from earlier his admiration for the young master soared. He desperately hoped one day he could be like him.
“Alright, everyone’s here.” Cloudhawk cleared his throat, trying to assume the air of a leader. “Tonight there is a pair of rebels meeting in Adder’s bar. These are their portraits. Take a minute to familiarize yourselves.”
“We can’t approach them while in the bar. If we rush to action we’ll alert the others of our plan, so first we have to follow the snakes to their nest. Then we clear ‘em out, does everyone understand?”
Cloudhawk didn’t have any predilection for leadership, nor could he think up any clever strategy. Luckily that didn’t seem to be required, after all if the scrolls were anything to go by there were only seven targets – eight including the one they were meeting tonight.
He had twice the number of people. Even if they were capable fighters there wasn’t anything for him to be concerned about.
“Squall, you’re responsible for putting eyes on our target. We’ll hang back about half a block. If anything unexpected happens we’ll move in for backup.”
Everyone’s fighting spirit was up, confident in their impending success.
Barb had only just become a demonhunter, and her low upbringing meant she wasn’t going to easily achieve rank. Even after joining she had yet to complete a single mission. At last she’d been tapped to participate in a real task, and she was determined to show her thanks to her senior member by performing outstandingly.
Squall hadn’t even been accepted into the order yet, and although he wasn’t a very serious sort he had high aspirations. After all, he had a tremendous respect for Master Arcturus. If he wanted to follow in the great man’s footsteps this was a good way to sharpen his skills.
As for the guard captain? This was an even rarer opportunity to find! He joined the Skycloud army six years ago and the highest he’d climbed was squad captain. Like most holy warriors he held his faith close, but he had always been troubled that he was never given a shot. Finally, he was on a mission with two demonhunters – one of them with a token of the high order – and a young prospective demonhunter with a bright future. Him and his brothers together. Both emotionally and for his own pride, he was happy.
At last, a mission that didn’t make him feel like he’d joined the army for no reason.
Something for my mother to be proud of!
Of everyone there, the captain’s fighting spirit was the strongest.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Putting up advance chapters shortly. Hoping to see you on the other side!