Ten minutes earlier Squall had indeed lost his target, but in defiance of his name did not pick a path at random. He found an out of the way corner and whistled a call, gathering the others. Cloudhawk, Barb, the fat captain and his men converged on his position.
They pressed him for information and their faces grew serious when he told them the situation. Had they already been spotted?
“I don’t think we’ve been made or you’d be dead already. It’s not uncommon for men like this to take extra precautions to stay hidden. He probably had this set up ahead of time, a safe route just in case.”
The captain wasn’t a smart man, but he did have the benefit of six years serving as a soldier. He’d heard a lot and experienced much. Here his perspective got right to the truth of the matter.
“It’s a habit of experienced insurgents, one they use whether they’re being followed or not just in case. He’s alert and that’s going to make things more difficult. We can definitely be sure we’re on the trail of a true spy.”
The captain’s soldiers were only made more excited by the revelation.
“We wanted a chance to prove ourselves, right?”
“Great. This is so great!”
“Is there something wrong with your heads? We’ve lost them!” Barb was losing her patience. “What are we going to do now? Go from house to house? That’ll take forever, and they’re sure to know we’re coming. Our targets will be gone before we even get a whiff.”
“Don’t worry, we’ve still got things under control. I sprinkled the carpet in the bar with a fluorescent powder.” Squall regarded the despairing group with a grin. He pulled a small rod from his back and gave it a quick shake. Inside the rod was an unknown liquid which, when disturbed, began to emit a faint light. “The powder is odorless and difficult to detect. But under the right light it becomes clear as day… there! Can you see it?”
Squall swung the rod a few inches over the ground, making a few passes until two pairs of footsteps appeared. They glowed with a faint green color.
Cloudhawk was ecstatic. Squall was more useful than he’d given him credit for.
Barb was also impressed. “You’ve got some tricks up your sleeves, guy!”
The demonhunter’s praise filled him with pride, but he didn’t let it show. Instead, Squall went on trying to keep his words modest. “Just a little mischief is all.”
The soldier with the broken nose blurted out. “So what are we waiting for?! Let’s get after them!”
“Shut your face! Our leader hasn’t given the order, what are you in such a fuckin’ rush about?!” The fat captain brought his fist down on the soldier’s helmet. He couldn’t say he wasn’t anxious, too, but he wasn’t going to presume anything with three other people above his station calling the shots. He turned respectfully to the masked demonhunter. “Sir, as you can tell we –“
Cloudhawk ignored him, and instead turned to his young assistant. “Squall, can you describe the man our target met in the bar?”
Squall’s face scrunched tight as he searched his brain for details. “I remember the old man called him ‘Buzzard.’”
“Buzzard?” Cloudhawk narrowed his eyes. “Middle-aged man, kind of tall, sharp nose and a bald head?”
“You’ve met him?” Squall exclaimed.
Cloudhawk hadn’t expected it to be him. His eyebrows drew tight together and after a moment of thought he answered. “I saw him once on one of my missions through the wastelands. He’s a trusted member of the Dark Atom, led by a man named Wolfblade. He’s dangerous.” 
The captain and his men visibly gaped at the master demonhunter.
One of Wolfblade’s trusted men? This was staggering news! The Dark Atom was a group of heretics who’d been operating in the elysian lands for years – a constant thorn in Skycloud City’s side. They were a group of crazed heathens who left destruction and a trail of corpses wherever they went. Everyone in the holy lands saw them as the enemy to their way of life.
Dark Atom was a well-organized group, they performed their jobs carefully and kept everything under wraps. No one had yet found their main hideout. Their leader, Wolfblade, was a madman wild with ambition whose main goal was the destruction of Skycloud City. The guard captain originally thought these men they were tracking were your garden variety schemers, but in reality they’d stumbled on a Dark Atom’s plot!
Barb looked at Cloudhawk with wide eyes full of admiration. “You’re amazing! I can’t believe you’ve gone fist-to-fist with members of the Dark Atom!”
This one had quite the imagination. When had Cloudhawk said anything about fighting them?
But it was true he’d had some experience with them. And the man who’d represented the Dark Atom, who’d come to buy the twisted fruits of the Academician’s labors, was none other than this hook-nosed bald man.
The world was a small place, Cloudhawk was discovering. The chances of running into the guy again here…
The realization meant this was more difficult than he’d expected.
Cloudhawk had seen what Buzzard could do, he wasn’t any less capable in a fight than Hyena. Meaning, the man was downright lethal. Could they capture him with only the few people he’d brought? But whether or not they could wasn’t the most pressing question. Cloudhawk didn’t have any reason to make an enemy out of the Dark Atom. Trespasser, the disease gifted to him by the Academician’s final treachery, still swam through his blood. Who knew what sort of mutation it was causing. Only the Dark Atom had the power to help him, picking a fight with them was like digging his own grave.
Barb was itching for a fight. “Predecessor, give the order. I’m ready to lead the charge!”
Inwardly Cloudhawk sighed. He’d found this information out too late. Once the arrow left the bow you couldn’t take it back. “We can’t run in half-cocked, safety is important. Let’s find where they’re holed up at first.”
Sixteen people followed the faint green trail to a distant corner of the outpost. It ended at a derelict warehouse that was otherwise uninteresting.
The Sandbar was full of borderland merchants and out of convenience many of them would construct warehouses for their goods. Often they were only used a couple times then abandoned. Such was the case for this building, which was largely unassuming and out of the way. Of course that is what made it the perfect place for plotting. It looked like they’d found the right place.
“You, get ready to break in the door.” The guard captain began giving orders in a low voice, pointing first to one of his men. “The traitors are definitely in there so everyone be ready. Once the door’s open we start the attack. Kill every last one of them, no quarter!”
The soldiers spread out, using the cover of night and piles of detritus to hide their approach. Once the building was surrounded they hunkered down and waited for the signal. One of them then stood up and made his way toward the front door.
The guard captain gestured and the soldier charged, ready to burst through.
Then all of a sudden a loud bang could be heard from inside, loud enough to burst their eardrums. In the next instant the warehouse’s sturdy door exploded outward in a shower of splinters. The Skycloud soldier went from a full sprint to an unplanned flight as suddenly he was careening backward, blasted away from the warehouse like he’d been struck by a raging bull. Four or five meters distant he hit the ground with an unsettling thud.
“They’ve seen us!”
Several of the soldiers moved in to drag their comrade out of the crossfire. His armor had been blasted to bits and shards of it littered the ground. The unfortunate man rolled around in pain. If not for the superior quality of Skycloud armor he would have been blasted to pieces.
However just because it didn’t blow a watermelon-sized hole in him didn’t mean it wasn’t a life-threatening wound. He was out of the fight at the very least, which meant they were a man down already. Talk about getting off on the wrong foot.
Barb stared in shock. “What is going on!?”
“They’ve got some fuckin’ mean guns, that’s what!” Cloudhawk had grown up in the wastelands. He knew what sort of damage these weapons could do, so he called out to the others. “Don’t get close!”
“Son of a bitch! They’ve got illegal weapons! You lot are fuckin’ dead! You hear me! Hammy’s comin’ for ya!” The portly captain saw his men as brothers, and seeing one of them laid out and fighting for his life threw him into a rage. “Fire arrows!”
The guards didn’t have the long-ranged bows used by Skycloud soldiers, and had instead brought with them medium-ranged crossbows. They were not unlike the ones used by Bloomnettle’s caravan guards, with a crossbow body and a high-pressure quiver. Every drum held a dozen or so bolts and each one had the stopping power of a rifle bullet. Military issue crossbows were stronger than the civilian variety as well, and though not quite as powerful as longbows they were more suitable for urban combat like this.
A dozen crossbows rose up. Suddenly a hail of crossbow bolts started tearing through the air.
The combined attack descended on the warehouse like a hurricane. The six-inch bolts were practically unstoppable within a six-meter range and punched through the building’s wooden walls like butter.  The tips of the bolts were also coated with a paralytic toxin, so even if they just scratched their targets it was enough to take them out of the fight.
Drums were quickly emptied. It only took the guards three seconds to switch them out for a full one.
Removing the need to hand crank new bolts made these crossbows vastly superior to the normal kind.  In close quarters they were deadly, and any enemy turned pale when they knew what they were up against. The soldiers were busy reloading when four or five objects were thrown at them through holes in the walls.
All around the warehouse a series of explosions shook the earth. The detonations didn’t hurt Cloudhawk or his people but it did create a screen of smoke thick enough to impede their vision. The sounds of gunfire rang out from the haze and from time to time there was the light of a fire. They were fighting back.
“Stop them! Not a single one gets out of there alive!”
As the fat captain screamed the order a figure ran out through the smoke like a tiger leaping from its lair. He swiped with the massive black sword in his hands.
The weapon carved a bloody swath through the air. A guard’s head hit the ground nearby and rolled away.
“Tough one here!”
The captain raised his crossbow and fired off five bolts in an instant, but the killer disappeared into the fog. But the captain wasn’t a greenhorn either, two of his shots connected – one in the shoulder and the other in the rebel’s chest. The bolts were strong, but the man’s constitution was stronger. The bolts only managed to cause minor flesh wounds.
The smoke began to swirl again. This time an enormous man with skin black as coal lifted an equally enormous gun.
The captain flung himself to the side just before the deafening blast of the man’s gun rang out. Another soldier was thrown backward. Quickly following the man with the black sword reappeared. His wounds leaked blood and the paralytics had begun to work their way through his veins, but it hadn’t taken him down yet. He charged at the guard captain like a crazed rhinoceros.
2. It might be strange to see inch and meter used together here. The Chinese have something they call a cun, commonly called a ‘Chinese inch’, which is in common use. Cun measurements are used a lot in anatomy especially so it’s something I use constantly in acupuncture practice. A cun is measured in several ways: The width of your thumb; the space between the interphalangeal creases of your middle finger; fore and middle finger pressed together is 1.5 cun; your four fingers pressed together are 3 cun; the distance from the middle interphalangeal joint of your first finger to its tip is 2 cun. So these crossbow bolts are five or six cun – now you can do the measurements yourself!
3. Right, so these are automatic crossbows fired by compressed air. Literally the only difference between this and a gun is gunpowder. Is it gunpowder that the elysians find so taboo? What about fireworks? How do they demolish buildings, by blowing really hard?
Xiao Lai's comment about demolition absolutely cracked me up. Meanwhile... oh dear. Looks like a grudge has just been established between the Dark Atom and Cloudhawk. Second chapter of the week!