Book 4, Chapter 46 - A Clean Break

Cloudhawk trekked the broken streets back toward Sandbar Station.

He hadn’t won Woodland Vale to their side, but in killing Adder he at least prevented the Conclave from winning a powerful ally. He considered it a reasonable success. His success would be rewarded, and his reputation in the expeditionary force and Skycloud as a whole would grow. Titles were good – he didn’t have to like it, but he had to respect what they brought. Appropriate for when you needed to get things done. Maybe if he earned enough prestige in Skycloud, he could use his influence to protect the parts of the wasteland worth protecting.

As he walked across the broken landscape, he thought back on the little sister he’d just lost. The memories slipped by without a sense of loss or regret. He could understand. they were people from two different worlds. Their separation wasn’t a bad thing.

It was good that she’d found a nice place like her little oasis. He was happy for her, truly. His only hope was that she could stay happy and safe far into old age. In helping her along that final journey, Cloudhawk had done everything he could, and now there was nothing left for him to do. No worries, no remorse, a clear conscience, and a clear mind.

Azura admired her teacher for his carefree and direct attitude. A person like him had a particular aura that followed them around.

Something caught Cloudhawk’s attention and he came to a stop. Eyes narrowed, he looked around in all directions.

“Hey, come out. No point in hiding.”

Oh no! An ambush! Azura could feel the hairs rise on the back of her neck.

A young man with his left arm wrapped in bandages came into view. His gaze was cold and strict, his face indifferent, his presence solemn. Something about him made people shift uncomfortably. Cloudhawk was once again struck by how different this man was from the care-free youth he’d met years ago.

Squall was wrapped in tattered armor. Streaks of blood covered his face and hair. An unsettling sense of carnage hung over him, like he’d just stumbled out of a killing field. His black eyes didn’t have the same shine that they used to. They were dark now, like pools of shadow. No more warmth lived in his hard face. His youthful elegance and charm had vanished with the march of time, giving way to a sharper and more angular cut.

The wastes were silent, but for a gentle breeze kicking up dust and blurring their vision. Both men stood facing one another without saying a word. Strange, it felt to both of them like they had somehow traded places.

A constant smoldering rage burned inside Squall, down into his bones like he was some kind of wild animal. How was that any different from Cloudhawk, during those hard months when he was fighting his way toward Skycloud?

As for Cloudhawk, it was impossible to see his face beneath the mask but he stood casually with his arms crossed. He was at ease, muscles relaxed. He had begun to learn to face things calmly and not rely on hysterical anger to solve his problems. He’d found that same carefree quality Squall had lost along the way.

But Cloudhawk wasn’t Squall, and his easy bearing wasn’t naivete. He’d lived the bitter, harsh, painful reality of the world they walked and learned to face it with tranquility. It was a sign of maturity.

Nor was Squall the Cloudhawk of old. Even when he was drinking animal blood and hunting for grubs, Cloudhawk was a child of darkness yearning for light. He never let that darkness in. But Squall… he’d accepted it, let it become part of him until it devoured his soul. What lay beneath that increasingly powerful shell was a man wrapped in hatred, who wanted the world to know his vengeance. Pure loathing and burning rage was what fueled him. 

Cloudhawk’s voice was calm as the breeze. “What are you doing here?”

Squall looked back at him, face dark. His left hand was curled into a fist and a tick caused his cheek to jerk. Veins in his neck pulsed like he was just barely containing his anger. “Why did you kill Adder? Why would you do that to Asha? If you don’t want to help the wastelands in this war, that’s fine, but why throw your lot in with the Elysians?”

“This war is meaningless. The Conclave of Judgment will be destroyed eventually, and the whole wasteland will suffer because of their idiotic alliance. If I become important enough to the Elysians, then when it comes time to clean up I can protect those that deserve it. That’s how I aim to stop a whole lot of people from dying.”

It was a reason, but to Squall his logic was absurd. His already swollen left arm bulged further. Tendrils of black smoke seeped from between the bandages, and a grim aura hung over the area. It was unclear whether that sensation came from the power of his arm, or the depths of this man’s blighted spirit.

“I don’t know whether or not the Wastelands Alliance will succeed, but it’s no question you’ve just become another mongrel for those self-righteous killers.” Squall’s eyes darkened further as the black mists spread. He was like a demon of rage wrapped in living shadow. “So it has come time to cut you down!”

Images from Oddball’s point of view flashed through Cloudhawk’s mind. Figures were closing in from all sides. Ravenous Tiger, Blackfiend, Three-Eyed Spider, Raven and others.

They’d been waiting here for him. This attempt on his life was premeditated.

Cloudhawk knew that this confrontation would happen eventually, but he hadn’t thought it would come so soon. He looked around. “Kill me? You didn’t bring enough men to get the job done.”

If he couldn’t fight them all, that didn’t mean he couldn’t run. There weren’t many in the wastelands or Skycloud anymore who were a real danger to him.

Three-Eyed Spider hobbled forward with a malicious grin. His third eye was open and its bloodshot orb was fixed on Cloudhawk. “Don’t be so self-confident. Your teleportation abilities are difficult to manage, but limited. You’re also carrying a burden. Hundreds of kilometers of wasteland stretch in all directions. I wonder how long before you run out of energy?”

The former lead scientist of the dark atom relied on technology for most of his abilities. Cloudhawk was unfamiliar with those old secrets, and who knew what tricks the old codger had hidden up his sleeves? His invisibility cloak had been damaged in the Vale, so if they gave chase it would be difficult for him to give them the slip even with his phase stone.

Cloudhawk looked back at them with an expression of pity. “Squall, you’ve spent too much in pursuit of power and violence. Here I am, a friend, and you’re ready to kill without question. You’re letting the darkness eat at your humanity, and if you let it it’ll drive you insane.”

I went insane a long time ago! The moment they killed Old Thistle, from the moment I knew.” Squall’s handsome face was twisted into a hellish expression of hatred. “Who forced this on me? Who made me live this mad, cruel existence?!”

Mist poured from Blackfiend’s onyx body and seeped into Squall’s left arm, while the bandages keeping it contained started to rip apart. The blood lust in the air was unmistakable. Conflict was certain.

Words were never Cloudhawk’s strong suit. Nothing he could say would turn Squall away from the dark path he’d chosen. An exorcist staff slipped into his grip, and right away the power flooding through it caused it’s head to spin.

All at once Squall was on the move. He darted toward Cloudhawk faster than an arrow. In his right hand was an exorcist staff of his own spinning furiously. His left arm pulsed with deadly black energy.

It was the same energy he’d used to defeat Augustus Cloude. As time passed, his control over this power, and the limits of it, had grown by leaps and bounds.

Cloudhawk immediately teleported himself and Azura thirty meters away. Squall smashed into the ground where they’d been causing the earth to visibly ripple like a lake surface. His attack was so violent that the entire area looked as though it’d been instantly terraformed. Squall was hunched in the center of a crater after his shocking display.

Before Squall recovered from his opening attack a stiff breeze caught him. He looked, pupils constricting, just in time to watch an exorcist rod catch him.

Crack!

He’d managed bring his arm up in time. The two rods crackled for a moment before Squall was thrown   a dozen meters across the field.

Ravenous Tiger’s hands were wrapped around his ax as he watched their exchange. Every passing second his scowl deepened. Squall’s progress was incredible, almost frightening. His control over that power had also improved. Ravenous Tiger wasn’t sure he would be able to take the young man on in a straight fight. It was a grim fact, for it meant his standing and influence in the Highwaymen would always be overshadowed.

But it was Cloudhawk that really caught Ravenous Tiger by surprise.

He remembered their first exchange. The guy had some ability then, but was passable at best. Somehow in the time that had passed he was like an entirely different person. When he’d heard that it was Cloudhawk that killed Adder he didn’t believe it, but now he could see it was true.

The gulf between them was too great.

Were it not for Squall’s unique implanted relic enhancing his abilities, he wouldn’t have survived a single blow from Cloudhawk. Even with the Hellion Arm, he was only just managing to fight back and was clearly at a disadvantage.

Cloudhawk pressed the attack. One, two, three blows from the exorcist rod in quick succession. Each one forced Squall back.

Cloudhawk continued to try and talk him down, even while they fought. “Why do you have to be a fucking idiot and follow Adder’s footsteps?! You think I won’t kill you?”

Squall deflected the onslaught with his left arm. It drank up the energy from Cloudhawk’s relic like rain over a parched landscape. With a bestial roar he released all the energy contained within it, a punch that birthed a thunderous gale. It shattered Cloudhawk’s exorcist rod like it was a rotten tree branch.

A flash of silver slithered from Cloudhawk’s sleeves as his twin swords emerged. Eight streaks of cold light followed almost right on top of one another as he counterattacked.

Squall protected himself with the Hellion Arm and fought back with his exorcist rod, but he was outmatched. Even a master of close-combat like Eckard wouldn’t have been able to deflect Cloudhawk’s tireless assault. One caught him, digging into his body and cutting an angry red swath.

“Raven, deal with him!” Three-Eyed Spider shouted the order.

Like a robot Raven responded to the command. His wrist folded back to reveal the barrel of a machine gun, and an instant later the battlefield was churning from a storm of lead.

Outnumbered. Cloudhawk wasn’t an idiot. There was no point in fighting this uphill battle. His mind was churning out a plan of escape for Azura and himself when suddenly, there was a streak of light from overhead. Raven’s mechanical hand was cut clean off.

Another, this one forcing Ravenous Tiger to leap back or suffer the same fate. Cloudhawk caught a glimpse of a figure in pure white descend from the sky.

Selene? What was she doing here? Everyone was familiar with the strength of Baldur’s daughter. She as deadly a fighter as Adder had been, and with her father’s relics even more terrifying.

Faced with this new, formidable enemy Squall was forced to retreat. He wasn’t willing to sacrifice half his people just to deal with Cloudhawk.

Faced once again with a show of Selene’s force, Cloudhawk couldn’t help the faint trepidation that filled him. After all, it wasn’t long ago that he killed her cousin. But it didn’t seem like the former Bloodsoaked Queen blamed him. Beneath that mask of cool indifference what emerged was a look of genuine concern and relief.

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