The sun’s gleaming light faded as the day waned, becoming a golden disc peaking over the horizon. Its luminescence dimmed as it fought through the haze of sand and grit in the air. As sunset kissed the outpost its dying rays played over the remains of Greenland Fort. In the golden red hue it looked especially noble.
On one side of the ruins…
The late hour stretched the shadows of tombstones long against the ground. A young man in tattered clothing bent over an unmarked grave and placed a flower at its base.
Cloudhawk’s face and body were scabbed over, and his ribs that were broken in the fight against the demon were set. Although his condition was not a pleasant one he would be fully recovered in three to five days. Or, at least recovered enough that it wouldn’t affect moving around.
But Artemis was dead. There was no changing that fact.
Cloudhawk stood before the grave for a long time in silence, unsure of what to do next. Greenland Fort was finally free – there was no one to enslave them, no puppet at its helm. At last Greenland Outpost belonged to its people. Only, Cloudhawk didn’t intend to stay.
With Artemis’ death Cloudhawk had no friends here. More importantly, though, he found that Greenland Outpost wasn’t where he wanted to be. It was a flower blooming in a desert of evil, but the hearts of its people were twisted. Killing was the way of life, and even though Hydra was dead another Hydra would surely take his place. The sweeper leader was dead, but inevitably they would install someone else to guide their massacres. The wastelands weren’t going to change in a day, it probably wasn’t going to change at all. Peace and safety wasn’t part of the fate of this cursed land.
Cloudhawk had made up his mind. He had to leave the wastelands, to follow the dream that had been carved on his spirit since he was a child.
The sound of footsteps approached from behind. Cloudhawk didn’t need to turn his head to know who it was.
She walked with both hands on a walking stick to support her weight. Her mask was missing leaving her beautiful features exposed to the world; clear eyes, high nose bridge, small mouth, and elegant black hair that fell to her shoulders in a silken waterfall. Her shimmering tresses flitted with the breeze lending her a luxurious air.
Who could imagine that this seventeen-year-old girl, who looked barely able to withstand a stiff breeze, turned into the infamous Bloodsoaked Queen when she put that demon mask on.
Her skin was smooth and pristine as jade . Maybe it was because she was weak, or from a lack of blood , but she was certainly more pale than normal. The wrinkle in her brow spoke of nagging pain and melancholy.
The effects of the panacea injection were still working through her body, but her wounds were serious and thus recovery was even more difficult to endure. Even so she hardly showed it on her face. Step by unstable step, she slowly approached where Cloudhawk was standing.
When she came nearer Cloudhawk finally turned his head. She looked back at him, tranquil and bathed in dying light like she’d just stepped out of a painting. She seemed completely out of place among the gritty, crumbling ruins.
She’d replaced her clothing with the crude and simple garb of the wasteland. Bandages covered her in a dozen places and outlined her curves. He wasn’t sure whether or not it was because the mask was missing, but that arrogant and domineering air didn’t seem to follow her around anymore.
Cloudhawk turned back toward the unmarked grave. “What are you doing here?”
Without the mask her voice was clear and melodious. “Can’t I come pay my respects?”
“You should be recovering.” Cloudhawk didn’t know what to say to her. She seemed different now, like the battle with the demon had affected her deeply. Or maybe something else changed, she seemed more restrained and introverted now after surviving that catastrophic battle. The young demonhunter had experienced much, perhaps she’d grown up.
The young woman looked at the mound, at Cloudhawk quietly standing over it. They stood close, but it felt like they were a thousand miles away from each other. “I’m sorry,” she said in a quiet voice.
Cloudhawk didn’t think those words would ever come out of the Queen’s mouth. She really had changed – but was her apology a good thing or a bad thing?
“Ah, there’s nothing to apologize for.” He sighed and looked off into the dimming horizon. “A lot of what happened comes down to fate. The demon’s dead. You’ve avenged your father, and I’ve avenged Artemis, Slyfox and the others. Yes, everything that’s happened was because of you… but it’s done.”
The Bloodsoaked Queen was quiet for a few moments before she spoke again. “Are you preparing to leave the outpost?”
“Yeah. Once I’m healed.” Cloudhawk nodded. “It’s not bad here, but in the end it’s not where I should be. I’ve put it off too long with all this, it’s time to hit the road.”
“I have some things I want to give you.” It was then he noticed the mask and several other items resting in her hands. She gave them all to him. “Please take them. They’ll help you.”
She’s giving me gifts? Isn’t this her mask?
He didn’t know what use the mask served, but he knew it was something the Queen kept on her at all times so it had to be important. It seemed to be made out of some special material as well, for despite all the many battles she faced in the wastelands there wasn’t a scratch on it.
Besides the mask she’d also given him a book with a pale yellow metal cover and a strange token.
Cloudhawk looked at the book first. Its style seemed ancient, and its cover was engraved with the scene of a vast desert. The closer he looked the more it seemed like the scene was actually moving, like it was alive.
It pulsed with powerful resonance. A relic, and judging by the energy it released it was no less powerful than the Queen’s cross – maybe even stronger.
The token had indecipherable script and symbols etched on the sides. He figured it was one of her personal items.
“I’m sure you feel it. That book is called the Gospel of Sand. I took it from the demon’s corpse.”
“Demons use relics?”
“Demons were once the greatest enemies of the gods. Their powers used to be very similar. The relics that demonhunters employ were gifts from the gods, and in the same vein demons created relics of their own. However the way they use them is unique, employing different methods to seal them in their bodies. When we slayed the demon one of its relics was all that remained.”
Cloudhawk furrowed his brow. “Only one? Where are the rest?”
“I don’t know,” she answered. “Although it’s just a piece it is a very famous and important relic. Taking it proves you’ve bested a demon.” She then pointed to the token. “As for that, it’s the token that identifies me as a demonhunter. It will allow you to travel through the territory of Skycloud without trouble, and it’s also my recommendation for you to meet the Governor.”
Cloudhawk was at a loss. “Why would I want to meet him?”
“The Governor of Skycloud is my uncle,” she said. “If you bring my token and that relic to him, it’ll prove you’ve killed a demon. I’m sure that with my uncle’s prestige and influence, and the fact you’ve killed a demon, you could live the rest of your life in the elysian lands and want for nothing. You said you were looking for a pure land without pain or conflict, right? That’s where you’ll find it.”
Cloudhawk looked at the three items he held in his hands. He felt moved and grateful for her treasures.
The Bloodsoaked Queen had made many errors, but to swallow her pride and say these things to Cloudhawk couldn’t have been easy.
“What about this?”
“That mask was made for me by my father. Don’t mistake it for a normal item, it’s also a relic.” She gently ran her hand along the hideous scowling demon mask, and in an instant it became a white smiling face. In the space of a blink it was like an entirely different item. “This is my personal gift to you. For a friend. Sometimes you rush things, and whether in battle or with people this mask will help you avoid trouble. Take it.”
It certainly was a special relic.
Cloudhawk had sensed that the Queen carried another relic, but it was unique somehow. The resonance from it was weak, too faint for Cloudhawk to pick it out before. This must have been what he was feeling!
Most surprising of all was how different the Queen was now. The prideful woman he’d known was gone, and overnight she was someone else. He was speechless.
He just stared at her. She looked away.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
He reached his hand out, as though to touch her and make sure she was real. “Are you really the Bloodsoaked Queen? Are you a copy or something?”
Cloudhawk felt the sting in his hand and he yanked it back. She hadn’t struck him lightly and the back of his hand was already getting red and swollen. The embarrassment gave rise to irritation. “Why the hell did you hit me?!”
She brandished her walking stick, suddenly very much like the old Queen. “We may be friends but don’t think for a minute about getting physical with me! This time it was a warning, next time I’ll snap your arm.”
“Friend?!” Cloudhawk snapped back. “Is this how you treat your friends?!”
She sniffed at him, spun on her heels and left. However she wasn’t nearly as rigid or stuffy, and the faintest trace of a smile tugged at the corner of her lips. Cloudhawk didn’t bear her any grudges. In the year that she’d spent in the wastelands, meeting this kid was the one good thing that had happened to her.
Fraternizing with wastelanders was a serious violation of the demonhunter code, but she’d broken so many of their rules already. What was one more? Before, having such thoughts would have terrified her, but after a year in the wastes had her time here corrupted her will and soul?
The Bloodsoaked Queen remained true to her faith, that went without question. Only, she wasn’t sure how to deal with her own heart.
Cloudhawk sighed and rubbed his hand. At least he was sure of one thing – she was still the Bloodsoaked Queen. He turned back and looked down at the unmarked grave. “Artemis, rest easy. I’ll see you again someday.”
1. Jade can come in a milky white color, another Chinese standard of beauty every woman desperately seeks to attain. My persona theory is that cases of anemia are high in China in part because anemic women are very pale and thus more highly sought after. For comparison the rate of anemia in the US is ~10%, and ~20% in China.
This is a better place to pause briefly. Will try to finish editing and reviewing the next batch tomorrow, now that I'm back in the States and Comic-Con is over!