Cloudhawk was preparing to scout the tower when he heard the tell-tale fwip of crossfow fire. His head swiveled toward the sound, where he discovered a wall of arrows headed his way. Their tips glowed with an ominous green light.
Green. This hue of green represented death.
It wasn’t poison – Cloudhawk feared no poison. But he did fear this.
The arrows screaming his way were imbued with Castigation fire. The terrible energy needed only touch its target to infect them with the unholy flames. The victims would quickly find themselves engulfed in it, burned down to their very bones until there was nothing left but ash.
Cloudhawk narrowed his eyes, timed seem to slow. He saw the trajectory of each arrow and began to move. He dodged between them as agile as a cat, as quick as a falcon. Not a single bolt came close enough to deliver its deadly green payload. Instead they clattered against the ground or the wall behind him, kicking up angry sparks.
His attackers wouldn’t have time to fire a second salvo. Before they could reload their crossbows, Cloudhawk was on them. A pair of dancing silver lights sprang into action in the middle of the ill-equipped crowd.
These men were strong, but even if they were made of stone they wouldn’t be able to withstand the cutting power of Cloudhawk’s Silver Serpents. He dashed among them for but a split second before coming to rest in the exact position where he started.
Only now, in his hands were the lethal twin short swords. Thin as a cicada’s wing, the blades weren’t stained by even a single drop of blood. His ambushers all stood still as statues for a moment them collapsed to the ground, dead. With a flick of his wrist, the Silver Serpents retracted back into Cloudhawk’s sleeves.
His enemies fall apart into several pieces like leaves being blown away by an autumn breeze.
For days he had been practicing the nameless postures taught to him by the old drunk. He could feel how the training had improved his body in every way. It was a testament to the old warrior’s skill as a fighter and teacher that Cloudhawk should improve so much in so short a period.
“You’ve grown stronger. I can see how you defeated Adder.”
A voice, calm as a forest lake, reached out to him through the silence.
When Cloudhawk looked to its source it felt like someone had wrapped their fingers around his heart and started to squeeze. For a moment it felt difficult to breathe. The staff bearing man, without Cloudhawk’s knowledge, had sneaked up and stood practically right in front of him.
He was a man of medium build, average looks and soft expression. Frown lines had etched themselves into the space between his brows, but his eyes were calm and almost compassionate. Judging by appearances he looked to be in his fifties, though his hair was the silvery gray of a much older man.
The red cloak he wore was embroidered with dark clouds. A long crosier was cradled in the gentle grip of his right hand, and green fire danced in and out of existence around the staff’s apex. He was none other than Skycloud’s former Knight-Commander, leader of the Conclave of Judgment – The Crimson One.
Just the man Cloudhawk was looking for, but without his allies Cloudhawk was in no rush to start a fight.
After all, in his fight against Adder Cloudhawk barely managed to survive by the skin of his teeth. In the end luck played an important role in the fact that he was the one still breathing. Only ten days after that deadly encounter and here he was, face to face with possibly the deadliest man in the wastelands. Fighting him one-on-one was no different than committing suicide.
Cloudhawk hadn’t planned on being discovered by the Crimson One. What was he supposed to do now?
It wasn’t like he could stride across dimensions at whim. With how difficult it was to enact, it would be some time before he could do it again. As for invisibility or teleportation, he was confident neither would protect him from a Master Demonhunter.
However, the Crimson One didn’t seem eager to start their fight either. It highlighted how confident the man was in being able to handle these invaders. After all, he was one of the world’s greatest demonhunters. It didn’t matter how much talent and potential the younger generation possessed, they were not his betters.
Back in Fishmonger’s Borough he had spent a great deal of energy. In addition to his old battle wounds, and a fear of revealing his identity too soon, the Crimson One had not fought them out in the wastes with his full strength. Circumstances conspired against him then, but things were different this time.
No matter what the cost or consequences, that poor showing would not be repeated.
Cloudhawk looked back at the deadly man in a half crouch, eyes wary. “You look like you’ve recovered well.”
The Crimson One never took his eyes off the irritating youth. “Adder gave his life to make sure a particular medicine made its way back to me. His death was not in vain.”
His words were cold and dispassionate, however Cloudhawk felt the danger around him surge with every syllable. It was like watching a deadly viper slowly slither closer and begin to wrap around his leg. He could feel the cold fingers of death brush the back of his neck, and the slightest misstep would force those fingers to clamp down.
“I do not hate you for killing Adder,” the Crimson One assured. “It was his destiny. He had the misfortune of being the Crimson One’s son. If it wasn’t you who took his life in Woodland Vale, it would have been one like Janus. You gave him a proper death, in pursuit of what he believed in, like a true soldier. As his father, I can appreciate the glory in his demise.”
To Cloudhawk the demonhunter’s words were odd. However, he soon discovered the surprises did not stop there. The Crimson One’s next sentence astonished him even further.
“In killing Adder you proved to be stronger than him. I have never seen someone improve so quickly. Should you choose to pledge yourself to the Conclave, I will not seek vengeance for his death.” His words were direct, and nothing in his bearing contradicted the promise of mercy. “I should hope you consider the offer carefully. You are, after all, a wastelander.”
Cloudhawk could hardly believe what he was hearing. Did the Crimson One care so little for his son?
While his hair had gone white and the man seemed to have aged several years since the last time they met, Cloudhawk could see no visible sign of grief – or any emotion for that matter. Of course, the reality was entirely different. His love for Adder, for his son, was as deep and encompassing as any father for his son.
But the desire to punish the one who took his son’s life had to be put aside. He even tried to recruit the culprit to fight by his side. Cloudhawk didn’t understand, was he so open-hearted or was this a decision of pure survival?
“We don’t fight for ourselves; for rights, titles, honors or treasures. We fight as one people, for the dignity of our race. That is why we stand in resistance.” The Crimson One’s intense gaze seemed to pierce deep into Cloudhawk’s soul. “For many years you lived in the wastelands. I’m sure you’ve questioned it on many occasions. Perhaps it’s even made you doubt, made you angry. Why has humanity been discarded? Forgotten? By what cruel destiny are we forced to live at the whim of gods and demons? Why are we denied the right to determine our own future?”
“I agree with everything you’re saying,” Cloudhawk answered. “But peace and human equality can only be a reality under conditions of equal or similar strength. Otherwise, we’re weak and frail things, screaming angrily at the wind but having no power to change things. It isn't that I think you are wrong. I just don't believe you have the power to do anything about it. The only thing you are doing is making things worse.”
“Is that what you really think?” For the first time anger flashed in the Crimson One’s eyes. “Are you not afraid I will strike you down right here? Do you not fear death?”
“Oh, death scares the fuck outta me. Really. It’s because of that fear that all I want is to find somewhere quiet to live out my life. It’s because I fear death that I’m working hard to become stronger. Exactly because I fear death, both for myself and those I care about, I've chosen to stand with the Elysians.” Cloudhawk reached up and grabbed the hilt of Ardent Wrath. He slowly pulled it from its sheath and fire consumed its surface. The whole time he kept his eyes fixed on the Crimson One. “All that being said, some things are worse than death.”
The Crimson One was surprised by Cloudhawk’s forthcoming response. He had no qualms admitting to his fear of death, and yet was still willing to meet it.
“I don’t know how great you are, or how noble your goals might be. I don’t care. All I see are people who betray their loved ones, discard their friends, and abandon the honor they claim to treasure. You’re a man who sees the death of his own son as necessary, even willing to recruit his killer.”
The light in Cloudhawk’s eyes grew more determined as he spoke. As his will to fight increased, so too did the fires surrounding Ardent Wrath.
“Don’t you think this life is a bitter one? I don’t go in for all your bullshit idealism. I do things my own way. I will do anything necessary to protect myself and the people I care about. Live like a king, die a happy death – I’m just a nobody. Freedom is my way of life!”
The older man’s eyes dimmed, but whether from the pain of loss or disappointment it was hard to say. He knew what Adder’s final words to Cloudhawk were, he’d heard them second-hand. Was his son wrong in his estimation of the man?
“Heaven and earth are inexorably tied. There has never been such a thing as absolute freedom. Nor are you nobody, for destiny seeks out those with strength to do its bidding.”
Cloudhawk could feel the vigor rising within the Master Demonhunter. Nothing more need be said. It was time to fight.
He vanished from the Crimson One’s view. Using the power of his invisibility cloak he crept closer as Ardent Wrath burned furiously, invisible to the outside world just as he was. Cloudhawk filled it with the full breadth of his strength so that its flames poured like a river. Countless shards of flame burst out toward the Crimson One.
The Conclave’s leader didn’t move an inch. He didn’t even raise his head to look.
He was enveloped by a golden light that sprang up suddenly around him, in the image of some mighty god of war. The impervious shell of protection wholly deflected Cloudhawk’s attack.
The fiery blade of Ardent Wrath exploded completely! Cloudhawk felt like he’d come upon a completely impervious wall.
In a blink, all of the power he’d accumulated was dispersed, and the Crimson One hadn’t even suffered a scratch. Quite the opposite, for the shell of power had reflected much of the power back at Cloudhawk. The fires of his own sword were blasted back at him, and all of a sudden he was engulfed in an angry sea of burning red.
The blow-back knocked him several dozen meters through the air before he hit the ground. He was half buried in a crater.
Blackened marks where the fire had scalded him and his clothes were peppered all over Cloudhawk’s body. Not far away, his broken sword smoldered. It sizzled with heat, radiating an angry red and trembled unceasingly.
Cloudhawk stared wide eyed up from the hole he was in. He’d thrown everything he had at the Crimson One, and the old priest hadn’t even blinked. Hell, instead Cloudhawk had nearly blown himself to pieces.
The Crimson One had won victory with his defense alone. The discrepancy between them was incalculable, vast as a mountain range.
“Though your potential is great, too much uncertainty surrounds you. I don’t have time to wait and see how things develop. Since you refuse to see reason, I must kill you myself.”
The Crimson One raised his hands.
Green fires danced in his palms, gathering together into arrows. He flung them at Cloudhawk at incredible speed. Such a direct and overwhelming assault from castigation fire would surely mean death if they struck.
An iron cane whistled through the air and struck the ground right in front of Cloudhawk. The area all around him cracked and sunk half an inch.
When the fires came they did not strike their target, and instead hit the body of that iron cane. The shimmering gold aura of the relic and the sickly green of castigation fire warred for supremacy. In the same instant, a streak of blazing white light descended from overhead toward the Crimson One. Like Ardent Wrath, it too shattered when the light collided with the Crimson One’s golden shield.
The Master Demonhunter scowled. Two figures emerged to stand at Cloudhawk’s side. One was an old man, filthy and lame. The other was a beautiful woman clad in spotless white.Previous Chapter Next Chapter