Book 4, Chapter 22 - Dead Heat

A sharp blast rattled in their eardrums.

Cloudhawk felt that familiar sense of danger fill him, as suddenly something too hard for the naked eye to follow swept by. He called the power of the phase stone just as a light blue orb of compressed pressure passed through him and detonated against the ground. The earth and rocks undulated like the surface of a pond. Dirt was kicked high into the air.

As the first concussive wave settled, a second followed. The dark forest came alive as harsh light flooded through.

Hurricane-force pressure was cast from somewhere amid the trees with the burst of light, bringing with it a roar that promised to rip everything in its path asunder. Cloudhawk dared not try to deflect it, so he fled the area.

With Cloudhawk out of the way, the sweeping light struck a tree that would five men wouldn’t be able to embrace. It was blasted apart at the base, sending shards of bark in all directions. 

The hurricane lash disappeared, but that did not mean the attack was finished.

A swarm of pale blue swords came swinging from the trees. The air whistled in protest from their savage passage. In the center was a woman dressed in cyan, lithely moving toward Cloudhawk through an array of postures. She deftly moved among the trees as she and her swords closed in on the fleeing shadow.

Cloudhawk’s world became filled with cutting blue energy.

He was caught, with nowhere to flee. Meanwhile, the cyan woman came closer. In her grip was a whip of power that flowed through the air, heedless of gravity’s laws. She walked on air, her black hair dancing in the wind as she sped along. Yet her eyes were calm, indifferent – like a vision of a tempest fairy. The power in her weapon had coalesced in preparation for another strike.

It didn’t matter how Cloudhawk tried to avoid her, she was ready with a counter strike.

Natessa was a wind-focused demonhunter, and possessed a number of relics of this type. Just like the wind, she was fast – much faster than Wyrmsole. Cloudhawk could not outpace her, but at least he could create some space. If others interrupted their inevitable conflict, things could turn out very poorly.

“I was wondering who was so eager for my head. Turns out it’s Instructor Windham!”

Her cyan blades did the talking for her. They closed in on Cloudhawk’s location, flawlessly whipping around one another and leaving no space between.

He watched them come. Just as the impossibly sharp swords were about to shop him into pieces, he vanished. Half a second later he reappeared right behind Natessa. [1]

The swords collided in empty space. Each one went spinning off into the forest before dissipating.

Teleported?

She looked behind her without a word. Her arm was already in motion, swinging her whip with the force of a tempest. Grass and underbrush in its wake exploded into clouds of debris. Not even trees thousands of years old could survive Natessa’s wrath.

But attacks like this had a clear flaw. While the trees and shrubs couldn’t stop Natessa’s blows completely, they were obstacles that reduced the lethality of said blows. She was strong, but cutting through terrain to get to her target required twice as much strength. It was wasteful.

Cloudhawk closed the distance between them. The Silver Serpents sprang from his sleeves, quick as lightning and rippling like snakes. But as the silver light came her way she leaped up on a bed of compressed air, lithely retreating several meters.

Cloudhawk looked at her. She looked back. They stared at one another for a moment with a strange sense of unfamiliarity, like they hadn’t spent three years meeting one another every day.

Natessa didn’t know where Cloudhawk’s odd powers came from, or how he’d gotten so strong over such a short period. 

Cloudhawk was just as confounded by this woman.

The Giants of Hell’s Army. One was a roguish soldier of fortune, another a chatty old lecher. She was different – attractive, unassuming, taciturn. Cloudhawk always had the best impression of her, but so much had changed. He never thought she’d sink to such lows.

Why would she choose to betray Skycloud? Was this woman’s low-profile persona hiding an ambitious heart, and he’d never noticed?

If not, then what was the point of all of this? What was she chasing?

Natessa pulled back her arm to bring the whip back. It stiffened into the shape of a rod. Crouching down, she pushed off empty space and launched herself at Cloudhawl like a missile. Her eyes retained that emotionless glaze, the same as ever. She was never one to bother explaining her actions.

No one knew what was going on in that woman’s mind. Her thoughts and secrets were her own.

Cloudhawk was left with no choice. She was not holding back, so neither could he.

More than a hundred rapid-fire exchanges happened between them in an instant. The dazzling performance was too fast for an outsider to follow, dazzling to the eye.

True to her nature, each of Natessa’s attacks invoked buffeting gusts of wind. Not just swift and keen, her attacks were laden with staggering power.

Thankfully, Cloudhawk was blessed with the old drunk’s empowering light. It was enough so that even though he was still at a disadvantage, Cloudhawk could at least contend against her. His Silver Serpents danced among the impenetrable waves of cyan like venomous snakes, eager to land a bite on his former instructor.

“I have to admit, big sister – you pack a punch!”

Cloudhawk spoke as they continued their pitched battle.

“You can fight, you’re pretty, you’re a leader – there’s nothing you can’t do, nowhere you can’t go. So why fight Skycloud? You really need to come back home.”

His own incessant prattling stole his attention just enough to reveal a flaw in his defense. She quickly exploited it, slamming her rod into his chest twice in quick succession. Cloudhawk was knocked back several steps.

She followed up with a forward charge. Channeling through the boots she compressed the air nearby into a cutting blade of wind and sent it flailing toward him.

A flash ensued as Silver Serpents met cyan blade, causing the latter to break apart. But it was a distraction, allowing Natessa the time to move in before Cloudhawk could react. Her rod descended upon him in a flurry of blows. Cloudhawk was too slow, and the blows rained down on him from everywhere. Were it not for Dawnguard’s blessing he would have been gravely wounded.

“You think I can’t get the best of you?”

She never replied. Her cyan rod came swinging for his skull.

Rage filled him and fires sparked to life in the depths of Cloudhawk’s eyes. His gaze locked onto hers, and for a moment Natessa felt like a needle was driven into her brain. Her flawless onslaught was broken.

A Silver Serpent hissed through the air toward her. Natessa’s face drained of color, but she managed to barely fend off his deadly attack.

His second silvery blade cunningly swung around her staff to bite into her shoulder. Blood quickly began to seep through her cyan clothing, front and back. She stumbled back on unsteady feet and coughed up a mouthful of blood. He must have struck an artery, for half her body was quickly drenched with blood.

Cloudhawk didn’t let up. She had pushed him too far, and now he was determined to bury her before she could do the same to him.

He knew the instructors and how they operated. If he showed the slightest hesitation then he would be the one bleeding out on the ground. He no longer cared what Natessa thought, or why she made the decisions she had. If she was so willing to forget their old bonds then he would send her down the road she so stubbornly adhered to.

Natessa had underestimated Cloudhawk’s ability. She knew it had been some sort of psychic attack that had thrown her off.

She didn’t understand how, but he’d summoned that power from inside. It wasn’t some kind of relic. Whatever that was it came from Cloudhawk, a power he innately possessed.

She gritted her teeth. The jagged wound in her shoulder puckered tight and halted the bleeding. Her two long legs whipped out in a pair of kicks and each summoned a gash of cutting air. In a cross-shape – one horizontal and one vertical – that screamed across the distance between Natessa and her former student.

Cloudhawk didn’t dodge. Instead he deflected them with his dual swords, then followed up with a flurry of attacks. They came at odd angled and unpredictable spots, overwhelming her defenses in a handful of seconds. She jerked as one of the Serpents bite into her flesh for a second time.

A glint of silver light passed her throat. Natessa’s creamy skin separated and rich crimson blood began to flow. Cloudhawk had ruthlessly severed the arteries in her neck.

Her delicate hands went to the wound and pressed tight. Her face turned white as a sheet and the pupils of her wide eyes contracted to small black points. Death was near, she could feel it. Natessa always knew it would be her fate to die in battle, but had not anticipated this young man would be the instrument of her destruction.

Cloudhawk drove his sword into her chest.

She jerked backward, leaving a spurt of blade in her retreat. Hair wild, with one hand gripping her cyan rod and the other helplessly clutching at her neck, Natessa glared daggers at Cloudhawk. That cool indifference was gone, and instead her eyes were filled with blazing resolve.

She wasn’t afraid to die. But she would not allow herself to die here. If she did, her whole life would be meaningless. 

He keeps getting stronger…

Cloudhawk would give her no time to think. His silhouette dashed through the forest with the Silver Serpents gleaming hungrily. They were poised for a final blow, ready to cut her down.

Natessa’s mind went blank.

It’d been so long since the last time she met death face to face. Since joining Hell’s Army she had only been tasked with eliminating commoners, renegades or vagrants. Eventually her heart had grown numb to all the killing.

Then one night, he showed up in the valley. A man who changed her destiny, and that of Hell’s Army.

Was her presence here not a way to prove herself? If she died here, all she would prove was that she was unworthy. She couldn’t let that happen.

In that moment -

Natessa’s eyes flashed with cyan light.

Her power surged tremendously and channeled into her rod which began to spin wildly. It whipped around like a windmill, a backward tornado. The cone of wind it summoned was thick with cutting cyan light, turning it into a shredder that threatened to obliterate anything caught inside.

It was Cloudhawk’s turn to pause in shock. A breakthrough? In the middle of a fight?

Natessa was the youngest of the Giants, however she was also the strongest. Beyond a tactical proficiency, she was also a skilled demonhunter. For real warriors like her, it was well-known that the opportunity for a breakthrough was strongest when death was on the line.

The cut to her throat that Cloudhawk had given her wasn’t deep enough.

Severing an artery was lethal to a normal foe, but not Natessa. The threat to her life allowed Natessa to cut through years of stagnation and access all the strength that had been waiting on the other side. Her battle against Cloudhawk had become a blessing in disguise.

He saw that the circumstances had changed. He dared not attack recklessly any longer; it was time to change strategies. Cloudhawk abandoned his assault and fell back, just as Natessa released the storm of wind blades. Like a hurricane it wreaked devastation upon the forest as it passed through. Massive trees were cut to pieces in an instant, carved apart in a million ways.

She was only going to be more difficult to handle in the future.

Estimating that Dawnguard’s boon would soon be spent, Cloudhawk decided now was the time to take the old drunk and flee. 

He wasn’t afraid of Natessa, even if she was stronger now. She was still within his abilities to handle. If he used all of his strength, there was still a good chance he would be the one to walk away alive.

But his task wasn’t done, he still needed strength for what was to come. A harder battle was waiting for him in the depths of the mausoleum, so he couldn’t afford to finish what he started with Natessa.

“I think we’ve had enough fun for today, Instructor. I’m sure we’ll see each other again real soon.”

When Cloudhawk decided it was time to go, no one could stop him. Natessa watched him disappear into the forest with a strange expression on her face.

 


1.  Hmm.

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