Cloudhawk held the double-eged blade before him, ready for a fight.
The standard Skycloud weapon had four transformations; bow, broadsword, dual-headed glaive, and a pair of short swords. It could be used both up close and at a distance, could change seamlessly and easily from one form to another, and its construction was nothing short of incredible. It was evidence of how great the gifts of the gods were to their chosen.
Hatchet, his stare hard and solemn, looked Cloudhawk up and down. The black depths of his pupils were stark against the white of his eyes. It was the same for his white teeth which gleamed as his black lips pulled back in a sneer. To onlookers he was like a leopard, carefully judging from which direction to pounce on his prey.
“You ready to die?”
“You still spoutin’ that shit?” Cloudhawk flatly replied. “Come.”
Hatchet attacked first. Each bounding step sent him tearing forward like the bottoms of his feet were made from springs. After three or four steps he hit his top speed, sending clouds of dust up behind him. Like a raging bull he charged toward Cloudhawk without flourish, determined to tear him apart.
Cloudhawk instinctively jerked away to avoid him.
However, much to everyone’s surprise Hatchet didn’t attack at the end of his onslaught. When Cloudhawk moved the large bandit stopped, reacquired his target then launched into the air. The mere inertia from his charge threw him a full meter into the air where he began to spin. The axes in his hands glinted dangerously and carved a three hundred and sixty degree circle. His trajectory brought him down toward Cloudhawk at a forty-five degree angle. The young defender still hadn’t found his footing.
Cloudhawk’s pupils contracted, he gripped his weapon tight. When the raider’s axes landed, the ensuing blast of air blew his hair back. The impact struck so hard the skin between his thumbs and forefingers split open. His legs couldn’t support that much force, buckled, and forced him to one knee.
The Bloomnettle guards watched in suffocating horror.
The man with red goggles and his cronies shouted praise. “Good! Get ‘im!”
Hatchet’s grin spread wider as he jumped up, then planted his feet on Cloudhawk’s chest. Thankfully the armor protected him, but still Cloudhawk fired off like a bullet. Flailing through the air he managed to shove one end of his glaive into the ground. After carving a trench several meters long he was finally able to regain some control.
Then another gust of wind swept by.
Cloudhawk had only just pulled his weapon out of the ground when Hatchet was in his face again. He could feel the whistling air displaced by the pair of axes, he wasn’t ready. When the attack fell it snapped his glaive down the middle. Cloudhawk was left with two short swords.
Hatchet spun like a tornado, a dervish of steel. His axes collided with each of the young soldier’s swords. The large bandit was too strong – much stronger than Cloudhawk – and so his swords were knocked easily from his hands.
Hatchet planted another kick in the center of his tiny challenger’s chest. It was impossible for Cloudhawk to keep his balance as once again he was booted away. He landed with a sickening crunch four or five meters away.
The bandits cackled while the members of Bloomnettle Company glowered. At best the soldier was as good in a fight as Squall, what made him believe he could stand toe to toe against this titan?
“I thought you had some oomph in ya,” Hatchet said as the concern in his faces melted away. “Shit, you ended up just being another spineless fuck. Hahaha!”
Cloudhawk staggered back onto his feet while holding his chest. His mask had the strange effect, however, of making it seem like the two blows hadn’t affected him at all.
Hatchet leered at him. “This ax here… this is the one that’s gonna take your life.”
Cloudhawk stood in the crater where he’d fallen, unmoving. “Give it a shot.”
His flippant response infuriated Hatchet. Did the kid not understand that his weapons were gone? What made him so arrogant? He grinned then lunged at Cloudhawk like a hungry wolf.
His death was certain. The caravaners knew nothing about this stranger in their midst, yet still they were sad for his inevitable demise.
But who could have expected that in this moment Cloudhawk would spread open his hands as though to invite his end, only for the earth itself to respond. A burst of intangible power surged forth from the young man that made the ground buck. Gravel rose from beneath his feet like someone had turned off gravity where it just hung in the air.
Needless to say the scene stunned every witness.
The smiles on the bandits’ faces froze stiff like masks. Their gleeful facades shattered, replaced by shock and alarm as a single word took over all the space in their brains – demonhunter!
Hatchet was not immune to the surprise.
In that brief interval…
Three arrows emerged, constructed from the grit that choked the air. In a v-shaped formation they shot forth, striking their target moments later. All three passed through Hatchet’s body, carving out large and terrible wounds and sprinkling the earth with his blood.
The red-goggled bandit screamed in anger. “Hatchet!”
Hatchet impotently slammed his fist into the ground. He didn’t understand how it could end like this – his loss was too much to face!
Cloudhawk wasn’t finished. A plume of sand appeared above his head where it gathered into a compact tornado. With a wave of the hand the tornado hurdled at the raiders and exploded into a blinding sandstorm. Terror took hold and the bandits tried to flee. Their hulking mounts crashed into one another in their hurry to escape.
The sandstorm came quickly then was gone just as fast. It left chaos in its wake, and though no one died they had been routed.
A hoarse voice rasped above the din. “Fuck off!”
The bandit leader was conflicted. His henchmen looked to him for guidance, for they did not wish to act rashly either and were waiting for him to make the right decision. In the end his face sank. A decision had been reached, one he could hardly stomach but was still unavoidable.
“We didn’t expect a bunch of mongrels to be traveling with a demonhunter. The Highwaymen did not mean to offend, we apologize.” The bandits turned away from the caravan back toward the expansive landscape. Their ringleader waved them off with a flourish. “Let’s go!”
The raiders left them without any further molestation.
Bandits weren’t known for their smarts, but they were familiar with demonhunters. No one knew how strong the masked man actually was, but they suspected several hundred bandits would be enough to do him in. The question was, how would they deal with the aftermath of their decision to rob and murder a member of that holy order?
Borderlands or not, the influence of the holy city was far-reaching. If word spread that bandits had killed a demonhunter, the whole area would be flooded with his companions out looking for blood. The Highwaymen might as well say their farewells.
For the promise of some piddling cargo, the reward wasn’t worth their lives.
The Highwayman’s vice chief had simply weighed the pros and cons, it wasn’t a difficult decision. Retreating was the right call.
Once the raiders were far enough away Cloudhawk started to sway. He fell to the ground once again.
“Doctor. Doctor! Come quick!”
Bloomnettle’s people didn’t dare give Cloudhawk the cold shoulder now, practically falling over themselves to help get him back on a cart. The doctor arrived quickly and when she looked him over discovered that his chest piece had been cracked. Luckily, Skycloud armor was extraordinary at both absorbing and diffusing impact force, otherwise Cloudhawk’s ribs would have been broken into pieces.
When they removed his armor they discovered the yellow brass-bound book hidden in the folds of his clothes. Surprise followed as they witnessed its beautifully carved surface undulating as though it were a real vision of the desert. None of them knew what it was, or in fact had seen anything like it, but it didn’t take experience to realize it had to be one of the mighty demonhunter’s relics.
And what a strange relic it was. They were from the holy city, why hadn’t they had ever heard of something like this?
Cloudhawk’s condition was not serious. He had been weak from the start, but his impressive armor was enough to stop Hatchet’s attacks from causing much damage. His loss of consciousness this time was in part because of his weakened constitution, and the effort of galvanizing the Gospel of the Sand’s power. The combined strain was too much and he passed out. But he recovered his faculties quickly.
“I had no idea… an honorable demonhunter.” Old Thistle’s opinion of Cloudhawk had suddenly changed dramatically. He was now far more respectful and humble. “Why are you clothed like a soldier?”
A demonhunter’s prestige was lofty. A typical soldier didn’t command half the respect of their kind.
Of course Cloudhawk couldn’t tell him the truth. His mind churned, looking for an answer as he considered the situation. They were dressed as elysians, he noted. Meanwhile Cloudhawk – certainly no demonhunter – was clad in armor taken from the bodies of soldiers he’d slain. He couldn’t let them know, and he had to be careful what he said lest they grow suspicious.
After all, it’d been ten days since the battle out in the wastelands.
Those soldiers and demonhunters must have gotten back to the holy city by now. If he was careless in his words with them they might discover his secret. For now he maintained a grim and stoic posture, unwilling to speak a single word. His response was to pull forth a small token and hold it up for all to see.
Several of those gathered recognized it.
“A mark of the High Order!”
Cloudhawk’s token was held by the highest ranks of the demonhunters. There were only a very few number in all of Skycloud who held one of those. They were closely held badges of rank, a sign of their privilege and rank. He would only be holding it if he was a trusted officer of the holy order. As for whether one could kill a demonhunter and steal it? Laughable. Besides the fact that killing a master demonhunter was a herculean task, the patterns etched on its surface would disappear the moment its owner died. Killing a demonhunter for their token would achieve nothing.
When he saw their reaction Cloudhawk knew they were convinced. “This has been entrusted to me by an honorable demonhunter. My mission is to make my way to Skycloud, where I am to meet with the castellan. I am hoping you might be able to help me achieve that goal.”
Old Thistle, Squall and the doctor all immediately knelt before him.
Seeing a mark of the high order was an extraordinary thing. If this had something to do with the demon kin it was more grave than they could even begin to imagine.
And what were demons? Children of the holy city as young as three knew the answer – they were the mortal enemies of all who lived in the territory of the gods. They were the only creatures in all the world capable of standing up against the mighty deities. The Order of the Demonhunters was first established to battle against these fiends, and had existed for over a thousand years to serve that purpose.
The people of Bloomnettle Company were commoners. What experience did they have in such matters?Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Amazing, all of you were right. Go you ;)