Oddball had been keeping an eye overhead while Cloudhawk dealt with the sweepers. It turns out it was a good decision.
With Oddball’s help he was able to pick out the people hiding among the trees, waiting for their chance. He never would have spotted them otherwise, and after the fight he would have been left open to a sneak attack he might not have walked away from.
Clap… clap… clap. That was the first thing he heard.
“You’re better than I thought.”
Two figures stepped out from hiding, one burly and the other thin. As they appeared from the mists Cloudhawk saw them clearly; the stronger one was a hideously ugly man covered in scars, while the thinner one was his complete opposite with blonde hair and handsome features. It was the handsome one who spoke.
They wore the same coarse robes he wore, marking them as trainees. They didn’t have any injuries either, meaning they had also chosen to remove all their clothes back at camp. These were the sort Cloudhawk had to respect.
The pair looked at the corpses scattered beneath their feet and realized their assumptions were quite mistaken. Even without relics this guy fought harder than your average punk. He had to be about middle of the pack, compared to the other trainees.
Cloudhawk looked at them through narrowed eyes though he was careful to keep his features even. “Let me guess. You two stink like someone’s mongrels. I’m gonna guess Frost de Winter hired you to take care of me.”
The ugly one snarled like a beast as anger welled up in his eyes. Cloudhawk’s words were like gas on a bonfire. He could feel the bloodlust pouring off of him. “You’re mouthy, even when facing death. I’ll make sure to snap every bone in your scrawny body before I put you in the dirt.”
His blonde companion took a different tack. He bore an apologetic smile, like he’d been caught doing something improper. Although his voice was a little hoarse, it wasn’t unpleasant to listen to. In fact it was almost magnetic. “How did you know? We’ve never met before, is it written on our foreheads or something?”
His words were easy and earnest, without a hint of malice. But Cloudhawk sensed that he was far more dangerous than the scarred thug.
“You think it was hard to guess? Nah. I felt it back at the camp, that someone was out to get me. But we’ve never met, you had no reason to want me dead, you had to be working for someone I’ve pissed off. If it were Atlas he’d do it himself, probably. Master Arcturus wouldn’t have gone through all this trouble. That leaves Frost de Winter, the only one left with the means and motive.” The bullet wound on Cloudhawk’s chest had stopped bleeding and there was already new skin stitching the hole closed. He gently stretched through the healing process to get himself back in top shape as fast as possible. The sound of popping joints followed. “Only Frost underestimates me. Mongrels like you can’t finish the job.”
“Self-confidence is a good thing.” The blonde haired man sagely nodded his head, completely unconcerned. He seemed more like a curious bystander. “You’re right – he does look down on you. But you shouldn’t make the same mistake with us. This fellow here is called the Butcher. He has an eight year service record as a demonhunter. Fifty-nine missions under his belt, none failed. As for me –“
“Why are we wasting our fucking breath?!” The scarred man had grown impatient. Butcher didn’t care about any of this shit. Yeah maybe the kid was stronger than they expected, but he still wasn’t worth his salt. His voice came in a barely contained growl. “I kill every one of these lowlife wasteland fucks I come across. I would wring the life from your body even if I never met Frost de Winter! You keep your hands to yourself. I’m gonna kill this piece of shit all by myself.”
Perhaps afraid the blonde man would steal his fun, the Butcher raced into action. Cloudhawk felt the big man’s imposing vigor lock onto him.
‘The Butcher’ wasn’t a pleasant nickname. Out in the wastelands it might have given him pause, but for the highbrow elysians the name meant only very bad things. A name like that was a stain he earned for misdeeds. He was a capable demonhunter, sure – but it looks like that’s what got him into trouble.
The Butcher’s zeal manifested in him becoming a wanton slayer of the wild and blasphemous. He brutalized anyone he got his hands on, to the point where even elysians were terrified of him. He took pains to murder those who considered unworthy in the most cruel means possible, whether they were old, young, women or children. There wasn’t a single example of someone who got away from his bloodlust.
But what really pinned this moniker to him was the Butcher’s last mission. He was tasked with chasing down a blasphemer hiding in an elysian village, and ended up slaughtering everyone there. The blood of the villagers flowed in rivers – a hundred souls snuffed out. His… fervor earned the wrath of Skycloud’s elite.
That’s why Augustus Cloude recommended him.
The Butcher’s loathing for wastelanders and blasphemers had transcended all reason. He wasn’t lying, even without Frost’s orders he would have happily killed Cloudhawk simply for daring to draw breath. And he would have relished in making it as painful as possible.
Murder! Such a strong thirst for death!
Cloudhawk had faced many strong opponents, but none that made him tremble like the Butcher. When the demonhunter came at him Cloudhawk felt like he was facing a tidal wave of carnage, a torrential flood of rage that threatened to sweep everything away. It seemed overpowering.
An aura like this was an aberration from birth, tempered by killing thousands with one’s own hands.
Just as when two armies met, morale played an important role. When morale was broken the army was crushed as though under a landslide. If morale was high it was not uncommon for a handful of soldiers to send a force of hundred fleeing for their lives. It was just as important for two soldiers facing off in combat. Someone like the Butcher could defeat his opponent before ever throwing a punch, easily besting someone stronger than him.
As the Butcher charged at Cloudhawk like a mad rhino not only did the wastelander fail to flinch, but the tyrannical cruelty that lay long dormant within him stirred. Veins in his eyes engorged tracing angry red lines through his vision, bringing with it a surge of power. Although the savagery he oozed could not compare to the Butchers, he was no less inspired to cause pain.
Two fists met, one large and one small.
Two blasts of momentum met, and two pairs of feet dug deep into the ground. The resulting impact blasted back the mist in a ten meter diameter.
Wind whipped past the blonde haired man, fierce as a tempest. It surprised him, shook him even. Was this what the guy was capable of? The Butcher’s strength did not come as a shock, he’d heard the name and knew the demonhunter’s combat style relied on pure force. But Cloudhawk was a waif, how was he able to summon that sort of might? He thought they might have underestimated the wastelander, but after that display it was clear the kid was a worthy opponent.
Cloudhawk could feel all the blood within him shiver through his organs.  His whole arm was paralyzed from pain. Although the berserker strength had nearly doubled his power he couldn’t take advantage of it.
The men Frost had sent obviously had their own fortes.
The big guy was difficult enough for Cloudhawk to deal with, but the one Cloudhawk worried most about was the blonde haired man who was yet to join the fight. He caught the man out of the corner of his eye and saw that he hadn’t moved yet. Like he wasn’t intending to fight at all.
The Butcher was an eight year veteran demonhunter who was hardened through his time on the field. His combat experience ran much deeper than any of the kids back at the training camp. Half a second of distraction was all the time he needed to capitalize on Cloudhawk’s flaw.
The Butcher whipped a leg through the air so fast it made the wind whistle.
Cloudhawk brought his arms up to protect himself and the impact sent him flying. He crashed through a tree thick as a mixing bowl. Cloudhawk didn’t hesitate once he regained his footing. He kicked the shattered top half of the tree he’d flown throw, sending its thousand-pound bulk at the Butcher pointy-end first.
A hideous grin spread across the large man’s face. His dark calloused fist reached out and met the trunk in midair. Inch by inch the petrified tree trunk exploded into splinters as the wave of energy surged through it. Stabbing bits of wood were thrown in all directions.
Inwardly the blonde haired man had no choice but to admit his admiration.
Both these men were demonhunters, but even without relics they were putting on one hell of a show. It was a rare site to see such impressive physical displays. The Butcher began to laugh hysterically. He was as strong as Mad Dog had been, and when he released all inhibitions he fought like an insane beast. Reason was pushed to the rear and replaced with pure power and instinct. As bloodlust consumed him he was less man and more weapon.
As the Butcher prepared for another attack he found that Cloudhawk was nowhere to be seen among the shower of splinters. He squinted into the mist just in time to see a faint figure disappearing past the horizon.
“You can’t run!”
The Butcher gave chase. Cloudhawk’s plan was simple; one-on-one he didn’t fear anybody, but two on one weren’t odds he liked. The blonde one was definitely waiting for his chance while Cloudhawk was busy with the Butcher, but he wasn’t stupid enough to let that happen. So he ran.
The blonde man hesitated, and before he could follow the forest was suddenly filled with the screams of pygmy sweepers. A host of guns, spears and bone blades were leveled his way.
The sound of their fight had been loud – too loud for the natives to miss.
The blonde man rubbed his head like the irritating circumstances were giving him a headache. Although the sweepers surrounding him were closing in, he wasn’t nervous. He just seemed annoyed.
1. ‘Qi and blood racing through him’ is the exact line, but I chose to remove the mention of qi since it isn’t a western concept. Suffice it to say that qi here is meant as a surge of energy, like an electric shock.
Anyone else getting Diablo 1 vibes? Freshhhh meaaaaat!