Oddball led the way as two figures – one big and one small – pressed through the forest.
Azura was like a little monkey that’d just climbed out of a mire. She was covered in dirt and scraps from head to toe, but was a scrappy kid so it didn’t bother her. Despite the hardships so far she hadn’t once complained and still insisted on walking on her own.
“Teacher, why didn’t you wear the armor?”
“Why should I?”
“Well, because Autumn said if you did it would make you stronger. You don’t want to be stronger?”
Azura was the only one who’d seen the entire exchange between him and Shepherd.
Hell’s Army, mutants, the old drunk, Claudia, and Butcher. Cloudhawk’s fight with Adder, Autumn’s death and rebirth, all of the love and hate and animosity – all the while she was there to bear witness, and each had a strong impact on her young psyche.
She didn’t understand what happened to ‘sister Autumn’ that changed her so dramatically. She also didn’t know why her teacher would refuse to wear armor that promised to make him a better warrior.
It was right there, right at his fingertips, the promise of incredible power. Why didn’t he just reach out and take it? Did power really mean so little to him?
He turned around and bent at the waist so he could address the small girl at her level. His dark eyes shimmered, clear and keen. “Blue, we live in a world that’s at the same time fair and unfair. Everything you get in life will come at a price, and the more power you get the more responsibility you’ll have. If you don’t have the wherewithal to shoulder all that burden then more power will only make you lose yourself. It’ll end up crushing you.”
“So, you’re scared you won’t be able to control the power?” She didn’t fully understand what he was saying. “But teacher, how do you know you can’t if you don’t try?”
For a moment he didn’t know how to answer. The little scamp sure had a lot of faith in him. He didn’t even have that kind of faith in himself. Just a few minutes ago he’d learned that the former master of the phase stone he carried was the fallen Demon King, an entity that shook the world with his passage. All this time Cloudhawk never felt his life had anything to do with demons, much less being the chosen successor of their leader. It was too sudden, he wasn’t prepared for all that meant.
Why should he put on this damn Demon King’s Cuirass? Between the power locked in the phase stone and Cloudhawk’s own talents, he was sure he’d be a celebrated elite demonhunter in a handful of years. That was enough power, as far as he was concerned. He really wasn’t ready for the kind of power to save the world, or destroy it.
“In the world we live in, when you think about a problem you’ve got to consider all angles. Things are rarely as simple as they seem.” He thought for a minute, then went on. “Let me give you an example: Say I put something precious right in front of you. All you have to do is reach out and grab it, but the second you do you lose all friends, all loved ones, everything you ever knew. What would you choose?”
For all the questions and potential problems becoming a Demon King might mean, this was the one that concerned Cloudhawk the most. It was the reason he refused the armor in the first place.
The moment a new Demon King arose, it was possible that a second Theomachy between the gods and demons would break out? If he accepted the Cuirass, Cloudhawk couldn’t avoid completely aligning himself with the demons, and would perhaps even be forced to play a significant role in whatever their plans were.
He didn’t know anything about their world. The Caliph of the Sands was the only demon he’d ever met, and not exactly on pleasant terms. 
Abaddon was already too enigmatic for him to understand. How could he presume to have the right to lead those creatures? What claim did he have to the Demon King’s Cuirass? At the end of the day he was human, and the demons wouldn’t listen to a mere human! With the problems it would cause he wasn’t even sure he’d survive making the claim.
But most importantly of all? The second he put that armor on, Cloudhawk would become enemy number one to all of Skycloud and the gods on Mount Sumeru. And it wasn’t just them; General Skye and even the Conclave of Judgment would send their warriors after him. He’d be hunted to the ends of the earth, and nowhere – not Skycloud nor the wastelands – would be safe for him.
Dawn, Selene, Barb, Drake… he would inevitably be at odds with all of them.
And then there were the gods themselves. A threat like a new Demon King would stir them from their mountain repose, and sooner or later Cloudhawk would find himself at the center of their attention.
Power was what was promised. But when he thought about it, the price and the pressure it came with was too much to accept.
Eternal solitude was what that armor really offered him. Constant war, being an enemy to the whole world, and darkness as far into the future as he dared to look. No, there would be no happy ending for him. All Cloudhawk had ever asked for was peace and quiet, it would be foolish to throw himself into a pit of fire.
He wouldn’t be their Demon King. Fuck, whoever wanted that title could have it! He wasn’t ready for it, and he wasn’t sure he would ever be. He wanted a destiny of his own choosing, not one another had locked him into.
Azura gave her answer with as much resolve as her little body could muster. “Everyone could leave you but I never will, Teacher.”
With a lopsided grin he teased her. “You little punk, you sure know how to talk. I knew I took you on as a disciple for a reason.”
Azura knew her teacher was a good man, he just didn’t like to have to deal with things. She didn’t understand the principles he was trying to teach her, but what she did know that what belonged to him belonged to him. If he was chosen by fate, there was no running from it.
The world was filled with all sorts of things to be desired, and those things one wished to avoid where often the ones we came upon.
Inwardly Azura made herself a pledge, that she would strive to be better. She would grow strong and capable, to be a worthy right hand to her teacher so that she could share the responsibility for these worries that weighed on him.
“Ah, here’s the exit.”
Cloudhawk and Azura followed Oddball out of the mausoleum. As they did, their ears were met the sound of distant explosions.
Cloudhawk’s first action was to send Oddball out to investigate. It darted off as a streak of golden light, quickly breaking passed the canopy and peering in the direction of the sound with its keen eyes. What it saw was a tempest of epic proportions over the nearby forest.
A tempest? That couldn’t be right! Woodland Vale was sealed from the outside world and didn’t suffer from extreme changes in weather.
Cloudhawk focused through his connection with Oddball and found that it wasn’t a tempest at all. It was a battle, and an epic one. The combatants were Autumn, obviously, and a silver-haired figure that he didn’t expect to see.
The commander-in-chief of Skycloud’s expeditionary forces had arrived, General Skye Polaris!
Cloudhawk hadn’t expected him to arrive here so quickly.
It was clear by the residual energy hanging in the air that the two had already traded blows.
For the moment they were at a stalemate. Their exchange was a fierce one, with Skye Polaris attacking with nothing but his hands and feet. His attacks were so intense that they kicked up whirlwinds, and with each swing of his arm or leg the trees around him were felled.
There was already a wide clearing around where they fought. Trees, grass and shrubs were all torn apart.
A fight of this level far surpassed anything Cloudhawk could imagine. He could see it clear through Oddball’s eyes, Skye rushing through the trees like a raging bull and Autumn’s agile body darting out of the way. She was obviously trying to keep as much distance between her and General Polaris as she could.
A host of dragons was nearing their battlefield. Skye was quickly enveloped.
The War-God released a thunderous battle cry before throwing a punch that blasted all the surrounding dragons to pieces. His powerful legs kicked off empty air, launching him back in a headlong assault toward Autumn. He recognized the girl’s weakness.
While her mental abilities were comparable to a Master Demonhunter – maybe even stronger than Baldur’s when he was at his prime – but her body was tempered. He could rip that soft female form apart without much effort.
Autumn blew upon her flute, summoning the Dryad from nearby. Meanwhile the dragons gathered back around so that even though the human was unexpectedly strong, it was still an encirclement he couldn’t break free from.
It was then her turn to attack. As the forest came to her aid, Skye found himself in a position of disadvantage.
Suddenly a number of figures dashed onto the field to support him. The first was a living shadow, hidden behind a dark mask. Immediately his potent and sinister aura filled the clearing. He was Mr. Ink, the most trusted agent of the Polaris family.
It appeared that Mr. Ink was not just an adviser, but a powerful demonhunter in his own right.
The instant he appeared, Mr. Ink was on the offensive, throwing orbs of onyx fire at the Dryad. Autumn’s champion was forced to abandon its attack on Skye and switch focus to the new attacker. Judging by his sudden and puissant appearance, Mr. Ink could surely hold his own against the Dryad despite its strength.
The rest who had come to help turned on the dragons.
General Polaris, meanwhile, paid no mind to the chaos that had erupted around them. His burning gaze was fixed on Autumn, and he raced after her again. A brief, heated exchange followed that sent them both reeling into the clouds.
Cloudhawk couldn’t make out anything else. Occasionally a thunderous blast would echo from beyond the cloud cover, or a flash of light. Countless snapped and severed vines tumbled from the heavens like some sort of nightmare rain. From below onlookers could see clouds being pushed around or blasted apart from the force of Skye’s punches.
Above the swaying canopy of trees, their epic confrontation continued for another half an hour. Both Autumn’s mental fortitude and Skye’s unadulterated force were breathtaking to behold. The General was a man nearing eighty, and Autumn had literally just returned to life. Neither were at peak condition, and yet their clash could only be described as titanic.
As for who would emerge victorious, neither answer was a good one.
Cloudhawk felt deep gratitude for the old man, because it was he who took the wastelander in all those years ago in Skycloud. And though Autumn wasn’t the same Autumn he once knew, Cloudhawk knew that some small part of her was still in there. It was hopeless and impossible, but he thought that maybe one day that girl might came back somehow. If Skye killed the Shepherd, then everything would be lost.
At last, the sounds of fighting ceased. Both warriors fell back to toward the ground. Skye and Autumn stopped in midair, about a hundred meters from one another and got their bearings. The General remained unharmed, and in fact his body hummed with a steely aura. His hands were raised to prepare for the next punch. Likewise, Autumn showed no damage and floated in the sky with a lofty majesty.
The old warrior’s face was etched with frown lines. “What the hell are you?”
Autumn’s reply was calm but callous. “I am leader of the Woodland people, Autumn Draper!”
Leader of the Woodland people? It could hardly be that simple!
They looked at one another with the full knowledge that the only way to determine who would win this fight was if the other one died. Skye’s mission to eradicate the Conclave was not yet over, and he had a family to support. Although it was a struggle against every part of his being, with his prestige and position he couldn’t give in to the urge and put everything aside for a good fight.
Autumn, too, was not eager to meet her end. Not while she hadn’t even fully regained her power. Her newfound freedom had been hard to gain, and she was loathe to let go of it.
Neither side came at this conflict with the intention of dying. For the time being, their challenge was doomed to a draw.
Cloudhawk surprised himself with a relieved sigh he didn’t know he was holding. An anticlimactic end, to be sure, but the best case scenario.
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