Within the mansion of Skycloud's commander, a terrible scream rang out through the halls. It was like the rage-filled scream of a lion that made far away windows rattle in protest.
In the four-hundred-square-meter hall, a contingent of a hundred guards were arrayed in columns. They knelt with their heads bowed while a dazzling woman with golden hair stood among them. She did not wear armor, only the simple underclothes of a warrior, and a gem-encrusted sword was strapped to her waist. She was surrounded by the conflicting essence of grace and barbarity.
Before them was an elderly man, his face twisted in anger. A rosewood table lay in pieces, smashed to bits beneath his feet. He hovered over the others like a feral beast. "They'll even steal from a commander's home? Who would dare be so bold?!"
This stately, lion-like man was Skye Polaris. He had seventy years under his belt, but was still built like a bear and shivered with rage. His eyes were especially daunting, dual copper furnaces that burned as they swept over the house guards. They were so intense it was like a single glance could burn them all down to ash. With long silver-white hair and a curly beard, the elderly man gave precisely no impression of weakness. Every wrinkle oozed intimidation.
This was the man responsible for all of Skycloud's armed forces, leader of its military. And the most explosive temper in all of Skycloud Domain.
The Skycloud military system was organized as follows; ten men made up a squad, fifty men were a platoon, two hundred made a company, and a thousand or more was a corps. Generals commanded corps, senior generals directed ten thousand men or more, and above them all was the Commander-In-Chief.
Even Governor Arcturus had to show respect to Skye Polaris, for who did not know that just the slightest implied disrespect could throw the veteran into a frenzy. Now he learned that a thief had snuck into his home - while he was inside - and managed to escape with stolen goods. Swaggered in and out, like he owned the place. How could anyone suffer such disgrace?!
"Dawn, how could this happen?" After the commander gave vent to his anger, it immediately started to melt away. He returned to his seat, mulling over the strange circumstances. "There are few in the city who could beat you, not to mention escaping right from under your nose."
The commander had a high opinion of his daughter.
She was a particularly privileged girl, kissed by splendor from the moment she was born - a phoenix touched by the sun. Skilled with both pen and blade, brave and intelligent, she was considered the future of military command. There were only a few who could stand shoulder to shoulder with her throughout Skycloud. Besides that devil woman Baldur Cloude spawned, Selene, who else would have the gall to claim they were Dawn's equal? Even Starlight's disciple who he was oh-so proud of was inferior, or so the commander firmly believed.
With so few lacking the qualification to even stand before her, how could someone face his daughter and escape unscathed?
"The thief had strange powers." Dawn stood before her grandfather with one hand on the pommel of her sword. Her temper was an inheritance from him, a staple of their family. She was a well-known mad woman among the citizens of the city, one who never accepted being taken advantage of. How, then, could she stand back and accept this tone? "I was about to behead him when the guy up and vanished."
"How could he just disappear?! He had to have a concealment relic!"
"Grandfather, you insult me!" She stared back at him with wide anger in her eyes, puffed up with incredulity. "If it was just a concealment relic, do you think I wouldn't be able to see through it? Dis-ppeared! Completely gone, like a snowflake under the sun."
"Is that so?" The commander-in-chief ran his fingers through his beard, staring down his nose at her with a regal expression. "I have memorized every high grade demonhunter in the order and I've never heard of anyone with this power. Strange indeed. This matter won't stop here, it involves the prestige of our army. Dispatch people to search for the culprit even if it means we tear this city apart. Get this thief, no matter what!"
Dawn immediately volunteered herself. "Don't bother. I'll handle this myself."
Her grandfather nodded consent. "Very well, you handle it. The Polaris family has never been insulted without consequence. We won't allow a thief to get the better of us. Take five hundred men with you, and don't worry about anything else. You have my support."
Five hundred men just to catch one thief!
If word of this got out it would do more than raise eyebrows, but this was the way the Polaris family did things. Not even the Cirrus family would dare provoke them.
Lord Arcturus returned from the sanctuary.
Frost de Winter explained everything that happened once they were face to face. He spoke with downcast eyes and a guilty countenance. "Your disciple is useless. I've been unable to capture Cloudhawk."
"You must learn something from this experience, an important lesson - never underestimate your opponent." Governor Arcturus spoke with his student calmly and without reproach. He sipped at his tea like there was nothing to be concerned over. "When someone is thrust into a hopeless situation they will grasp at any straws that promise to save them. It is a natural reaction. He is unfamiliar with the city and can't tell one street from the other, and what's more he has hunters around every corner. It would make sense for him to seek out help from the Bloomnettle merchants that brought him here, but he did not. He must have known contact would implicate them, and what would happen if they were discovered. Using Bloomnettle to try and flush him out of hiding was the proper decision, however…"
Frost de Winter was confident it would work.
He arranged for two hundred men to escort Squall for his execution, but only ten visible to manufacture a false sense of security. Fifteen demonhunters and others remained close, dressed in civilian clothes and hiding among the crowds.
Cloudhawk just needed to show himself, then where could he run?
This was Skycloud City! Sodliers were deployed, defenses were strong. If he rushed in, the power of the heavens would smack him down! Frost de Winter was sure this method was the best way to draw Cloudhawk out. Even if this didn't force him to attempt a rescue it would anger him enough to make a mistake. So why was his master still unsatisfied?
"Despite it being a decent plan it is entirely predicated on Cloudhawk revealing himself." Lord Arcturus raised his head from his tea and fixed his student with an erudite gaze. "You don't understand your target. You can't be sure Cloudhawk will reveal himself, there are too many variables. If he doesn't then your well-laid plans are useless."
This is precisely what Frost de Winter worried about.
Would Cloudhawk risk himself for Squall's safety?
Lord Arcturus slowly replaced his tea cup onto the table and released a long sigh. "I've told you that you could do everything perfectly and still not have a situation one hundred percent under your control. There are many methods to get Cloudhawk out of hiding, but it must be one he can't afford to ignore. For instance, we can leak the news that Selene has returned and Cloudhawk has been absolved of all wrongdoing. He would certainly reveal himself then, if just to see if it were true."
Frost de Winter was visibly struck by the thought. Selene would have been much better bait than Squall! He knew the kid for only a few days, not long enough that he'd risk revealing himself. But it was different with Selene. She was the one person Cloudhawk was desperate to see, so he would take all manner of risks if he thought she were here. He'd have to react!
But the news was out. It was too late to take it all back.
"A clever trap isn't always subtle. Sometimes your target will be willing to jump in with both feet if they can't avoid it. Based on the nature of a man's heart you can discover where they are weak, what they desire, then you will be victorious in all of your endeavors." Lord Arcturus's lips turned in a gentle smile. "Things are what they are. Proceed as you've planned, and if he shows himself I will help you from the sidelines."
"As you command, master!"
Lord Arcturus's help guaranteed there would be no risk. If Cloudhawk showed himself he would fall into their clutches.
The governor's mansion had a secret prison, and inside Squall knelt in chains. Six guards surrounded him, unmoving. When Frost de Winter walked in he gave them a salute and bade them clear the room.
"We'll be leaving for your execution soon." Frost de Winter stood before the young man, and spoke in a cold and detached voice. But his eyes were full of meaning. "Before we put you to death we're going to march you down every street. We'll test your friend's loyalty."
Squall struggled futilely against his restraints and stared daggers at his captor. "If you were a real man you'd just kill me and be done with it. What self-respecting demonhunter would stoop to nasty tricks like this? What right do you have to be the governor's disciple - you're nothing but a disgrace!"
"Heh heh… so sure and adorable." Frost de Winter grabbed Squall by his collar and lifted him up. The light in his eyes was like an icy blaze, both turbulent and heartless. "Do you really believe demonhunters are this just order committed to the glory of the gods? Let me tell you, the demonhunters do far more than your little mind could handle. And as for my master? I might as well tell you the truth. To maintain the security and prosperity of our holy domain he would do anything. In the eyes of the elite there is only the pursuit of power. Emotion, morality, honor - even faith. Bullshit, all of it. Do you understand? You couldn't even begin to grasp it."
Squall's hands curled into fists.
"You know, I hate wasting time." He released Squall and patted his clothing as though trying to free himself from the young man's filth. "Every second of every minute is precious, and they should be spent only in that which is worth investment. That which will net a return. A man's goal in life is to rise ever higher; more authority, more strength, more prestige. You peasants who muddle about and waste you lives, to me you're nothing but contemptible worms."
"You have two more days to live, but don't worry. I'll make sure you witness Cloudhawk die before then. After all he's the one who brought tragedy down on your family, isn't he? Don't look at me like that, I know you hate me. But hate has no use, it isn't going to change anything. You're weak beyond contemplation, and the weak must learn to accept their fate."
Squall grit his teeth and watched Frost de Winter saunter from the room.
That contemptible bastard. If his goal had been to get him mad then he succeeded. Squall was so enraged he wanted to peel that snake's skin from his bones and drink his blood!
Squall screamed and struggled as hard as he could against his chains. If he lived through this he swore he would pay any price to become stronger. He would sacrifice whatever it took for vengeance. From the moment he watched his father die the carefree and kind-hearted Squall was gone. What was left was a man full of hatred and rage.