The old drunk’s wounds had festered within him for years. Although he’d come upon a way to return some of his strength, he was weakening on a cellular level. All of the strength he’d trained so hard to cultivate was running out. Years in the wastes chasing the bottom of a bottle didn’t help, and things only turned around when he found Woodland Vale.
The Shepherd God’s medicines were miraculous.
Autumn had given him the priceless herbs, which helped breathe a second life into the drunk’s body. But the damage was already done, too extensive to repair. Even with the medicine, it was like a few sprouts on a dead trunk. There was no bringing the tree back, no matter how mighty it was had been. If he relinquished himself to the indignity of a drunkard’s life, he had maybe ten more years left.
He’d much rather draw on what remained, so that he could go out in a blaze of glory.
Strength, or years of drunken regret. He chose the former.
He reached into the depths of his vitality, siphoning it into power. His weakened body swelled as limits were torn down. The price of over-drafting his potential was dire, likely resulting in just a brief flare before his fire extinguished.
Moments was all it took for the War Saint to return to his former glory. He knew his body, knew that now he had only a year of life left in him at most.
Over the course of that year his body would gradually start to fail him. His legs would refuse to carry his weight. His hands would lose all strength. In the end he would die, paralyzed in a bed somewhere. But he wasn’t going to wait for that. There was nothing to regret leaving behind, no worries to keep him hanging on. All that was left was a single old scar to itch. Might as well deal with it while he could. It was time to finish the battle long left undone.
He felt his palms sweating. His sword hand trembled.
But it wasn’t because he was weak. Even after all he’d experienced, after years of bitter enlightenment, Vulkan found that he could not face this man with calm detachment. His failure years ago still haunted him, its roots reaching deep into his soul. After so long the pain of it never eased, only grew more entrenched.
It was time, though. Even if Arcturus hadn’t shown himself, Vulkan would have gone searching. What pride remained in his withered body would have demanded it, for a true warrior never loses the courage to draw his sword when needed.
This final fight with Arcturus Cloude was predestined. It wasn’t to win vengeance for his disciple, or to rinse the taste of shame from his mouth. This fight wasn’t even against Arcturus, but against himself.
Cloudhawk could understand the old man’s heart.
But he could not leave, even knowing what was happening. On the one hand, Cloudhawk wasn’t even sure he could. Arcturus had shown that his reach stretched far beyond a normal man. Wounded and spent, he couldn’t escape the Governor’s sphere of influence before he had time to react. On the other hand, Cloudhawk couldn’t stomach letting someone else die so he could run with his tail between his legs, especially this old man.
The drunk frowned at him. “You’re still here?”
“I’m not leaving. I’m not sure I can help...” Cloudhawk tightened his grip around Ardent Wrath. “But I will at least bear witness.”
There was a measure of appreciation in Arcturus’ stare as he watched the old man. It caused wrinkled to gather at the corner of his eyes. “You were always a remarkable warrior, even more so than Skye. Unfortunately, you were born at the wrong time, in the wrong place. A pity.”
Arcturus’ sympathy earned loud laughter from the drunk. Joints popped and muscles creaked as his withered form transformed. Before their eyes the drunk melted away, replaced with a towering and imposing warrior. Even his rheumy eyes gleamed, sharp and clear. As calloused hands wrapped around Dawnguard, for a moment the ghost of the former War Saint was visible in the weather-beaten body of this old drunk.
“Enough talk. Fight!”
“You have my respect. For that, you will have three attempts.”
Arcturus motioned for Vulkan to make his move.
That was an insult, no sign of respect! In a test of combat like this, an inch was a mile – the slightest error could mean crushing defeat. Giving the old man three free shots was a flagrant display of Arcturus’ confidence in himself, and how little he thought of the former War Saint.
“Hahaha! There aren’t many in the world Master Arcturus gives such an honor to!” Vulkan wasn’t offended. In fact, he took it well. “I won’t turn it down.”
He threw the dirt-smeared wine bottle aside. Dawnguard gleamed in his hand as he pulled it free.
Blinding light poured off the blade. As it was drawn from within the cane inch by inch, the rays from it gave the impression of the rising sun. It was a vision of power and vitality.
A sunrise was always inevitably followed by a sunset. A cold night followed, but eventually the warm light of the sun returned.
A man’s life was like the cycles of the sun. He rose and fell, suffering cold and lonely nights and brilliant shining zeniths. Each time darkness fell it brought promise of new splendor. The brightest days would then lead into the darkest nights. Back, and forth. Soaring highs, and profound lows. Was this not the life of the old drunk?
The first strike.
A half-arc, lengthwise toward Arcturus’ chest.
Even the air warped in protest as the sword superseded its dominion.
Arcturus brushed it away with his hand, without a second thought. Vulkan’s mighty blow was knocked aside. Stones nearby broke apart like a hot knife through butter, merely for being close.
Cloudhawk gaped at the scene. “Shit!”
A blow like that against the Crimson One would absolutely have caused serious damage. Yet to Arcturus, it was as threatening as a speck of dust landing on his robes.
Cloudhawk didn’t even know if he was using a relic. The Governor’s mental prowess was so grand normal people couldn’t even comprehend it.
“Your first strike lacks the strength of your former years.”
The drunk wasn’t perturbed by Arcturus’ flippant stance. He didn’t even pause before lashing out again with his second attempt.
It was a strike that contained all the glory and decadence of the old drunk’s style. He was a man who had experienced all the vicissitudes of life, its fortunes and follies. Confusion, despair, and ultimately understanding and acceptance.
Years ago, his dream had been to become a man like Skye Polaris. He wanted to be better than the great General.
Looking back on it now the dream was a foolish one. Vulkan was his own man, in a class by himself. Why did he want to be Skye, much less a better Skye? The only real goal was to become the best version of yourself.
He realized that late in his life, but not too late.
The glory of the War Saint shined through in the drunk’s attack, but he was different now compared to when he was at his peak. It possessed the enlightenment of a man who had come out on the other side of great hardships. Vulkan was more mature and determined than he had been all those years ago.
Cloudhawk raised his head in shock. The dismal clouds above were being moved by some unseen force, cleaved apart to reveal a swath of clear blue sky.
Meanwhile, the ground in the path of Vulkan’s hacking strike collapsed under its weight.
The old drunk’s sword literally attempted to carve through heaven and earth. Power rippled from it like a roaring flood of dragons, ripping teeth and tearing claws aimed toward Arcturus. It was clear his second attempt was a far sight more powerful than the first.
Cloudhawk was forced to ask himself if he was in Arcturus’ position, could he survive? He didn’t think so. He didn’t even think he could dodge it. Hell, probably none of Skycloud’s new generation of rising stars could – not even Selene with her legendary relics. Vulkan’s strike rose beyond typical mortal constraints. This blow could carve apart both gods and demons!
It had to be enough to behead a Master Demonhunter!
Bolts of lightning sprang up around Arcturus. They weaved together forming into a net between him and Vulkan’s second attempt.
To Cloudhawk it felt someone had taken a hammer to his brain. His ears were ringing, and the whole world lost all vibrance and color. It lasted a good four or five seconds before he could recover. He shook his head and the world pieced itself back together like a broken mirror in reverse.
The ground was a ruin. It looked like an earthquake had rumbled through and toppled the nearby mountains.
What a terrifying attack!
When the dust settled Arcturus was standing in the same spot. His robes were blowing in the tumultuous wind, but that was all. Nothing had touched him but a strong breeze. When it passed, it was like nothing had happened. Even his hair was left unmolested.
“That is about equal to what I remember.”
For the second time Arcturus offered his tepid evaluation. Vulkan turned a deaf ear to it. He cared only for what he was feeling, to his own internal monologue. He saw this battle as his last. His next strike would be the final one of his life.
What would it be? Something incredible, to be sure!
Vulkan’s mind was completely blank. All his bustling thoughts and worries and concerns faded away to stillness. Time washed it all away, like passing clouds or smoke on the wind. The only thing that remained in that sea of perfect calm was a beautiful, smiling face.
That smile was his heaven. A heaven he would never see again.
Vulkan’s third strike returned to simplicity.
The old drunk rose off the ground. His sword began a thin line, forging ahead with indomitable will. While unadorned, the force behind it pierced through Arcturus’ electric net. Finally, its deadly light reflected in the Governor’s eyes.
For the first time, the Master Demonhunter looked serious. He reached out to defend.
Vulkan thrust with incredible speed, too fast to follow. The sound of something ripping could be heard among the rumbling thunder, and a piece of simple gray cloth floated up on the breeze. One piece became two, became four, became eight… and then dust.
The sleeve of Arcturus right arm was missing a piece. It was all Vulkan’s strike had accomplished.
Cloudhawk had always known Arcturus was strong. He’d even figured the other two Master Demonhunters together weren’t a shoe-in to beat him. But this… this was beyond anything he could imagine. It was unthinkable that Arcturus Cloude could be this strong…
Vulkan had poured all of his strength into that blow, knowing full well he stood at death’s door. All that he had learned and experienced in life had been behind it. His considerable mental powers tempered it. At was a nearly perfect display, a masterful thrust, resulting in a single tear on his foe’s sleeve.
“With that, you have surpassed your former glory!”
Arcturus calmly looked at the ripped cloth. He looked back, esteem in his level gaze.
It is not easy for a man to rise back up after reaching rock bottom. One who could return from ruin and walk the paths of his former glory was outstanding. But one who could scale and surpass those peaks – that was heroic.
This old drunk was a greater man now than he was in his peak. He was a true and mighty challenger, worthy of respect.
“You’ve had your three strikes.” Lightning crackled in Arcturus’ palm. There it gathered, forming into a weapon four feet long. “My turn.”
“Ruin, the Thunderblade.” Vulkan stared at the living lightning held in Arcturus’ hand. A smile curled the corner of his lips. “Now that the Master Demonhunter has shown me his true power, I can die with no regrets. The ups and downs of a man’s life are one hell of a story, ahahahaha!”
Arcturus slowly raised the thunderblade. It burned, like a god bearing a bolt of divine judgment.
It was clear. No man alive could survive a blow from this weapon.
Vulkan lifted his sword to protect himself, but it was destroyed in an instant. Ruin’s harsh blue light was headed right for him.
Six years ago he suffered a spectacular defeat. Six years later, nothing had changed.
Ruin was Skycloud’s single most devastating weapon, even more terrible than Selene’s crossblade of holy light. Once, it had belonged to the God King, and no relic in existence could withstand its fury. Vulkan was doomed the instant its light shown upon him.Previous Chapter Next Chapter