Eckard’s sword was inches from Claudia’s skull.
Suddenly, an arrow ripped through the air, grabbing his attention. Feeling the danger approach, the instructor was jerked away from its target to block the arrow instead.
Odd. The energy arrow wasn’t threatening, and it appeared to have been shot from an ordinary exorcist bow. A shot like this might kill an ordinary person, but to one like Eckard it wasn’t something to fear. Even if it managed to strike him it wouldn’t do much damage.
Why did it feel so dangerous, though?
He glanced at his sword and saw a speck of black on its surface. That speck quickly grew to the size of a palm. It was lusterless, dull, and course. The actual structure of the sword was changing as he watched.
Another grayish arrow appeared from an unseen location.
By then half of Eckard’s alloy sword had petrified. He used the sword to protect himself again, but this time the weapon broke apart with a sound like shattering stone.
A third arrow. From a different direction.
He wasn’t going to stand around, it was too dangerous. Eckard broke off his attack, dodged the arrow, and retreated. The area of the deck struck by the arrow petrified and crumbled away.
While the Army’s ultimate combatant didn’t have any means of detection, Eckard still had years of experience in war. What sort of commander would he be if he couldn’t determine an attacker’s location after three shots. But while he couldn’t see anything, he felt the murderous intent and used it to guess where his attacker hid. However, it was the dreaded weapon that gave him pause.
Cloudhawk was concealed nearby. A simple yet delicate bow was in his hands, string drawn.
His weapon was a simple, delicate bow composed of some bronze-like material. In its center was affixed a gray stone, and the string was of a similar color. As he drew it back, a strange energy gathered in its central point. Once the mental energies coalesced into an arrow, he let fly.
Natessa Windham recognized the weapon in short order. “Basilisk.”
Dumont blazed with gathered power, and raced off as soon as Eckard fell back. With incredible speed he determined Cloudhawk’s whereabouts, aiming to smash him apart.
Cloudhawk answered with an arrow to his armored chest.
But it didn’t petrify it, like it had the sword. The blazing energies did weaken, however.
Cloudhawk hastily dodged out of the way and Dumont raced past. In his wake the ground had broken apart, and he could only come to a stop after he’d traveled another dozen meters.
From a distance, Natessa brought up her arm and swung with all her might. Light slithered from a bracelet around her wrist and formed into the shape of a lengthy bullwhip. It roared to life like a hurricane and reached twice the speed of sound in an instant. Her weapon audibly tore the air and caused it to ripple, as in the space of a second it fanned out ten meters. Anyone within the area of effect was severed at the waist.
Too fast. Too strong!
Cloudhawk had yet to get his bearing after dodging Dumont, but had just enough time to summon the phase stone’s power. As Natessa’s whip tore passed he could feel the phase field ripple and nearly collapse.
He couldn’t maintain both. The phase field held, but he lost his invisibility. The Warden of the Talon’s of God appeared on the battlefield.
The Giants of Hell’s Army stood at different positions around him, forming an equilateral triangle. Cloudhawk was caught in the middle, with nowhere to run or hide. Their cooperation and positioning wasn’t planned, just a product of years fighting alongside one another.
Power, cooperation, and experience. The Giants of Hell’s Army had not been given their titles lightly.
Eckard snatched up a discarded sword. Another smile pulled at his hideously scarred lips. “Cute toy.”
‘Basilisk’ was one of the relics Cloudhawk had stolen from Ravenous Tiger’s vault in Fishmonger’s Borough. It’d been broken when he pilfered it, but when he returned to Skycloud he had found someone to help get it repaired. It was of average strength in terms of raw offensive power, but was also capable of petrifying its victims. Even the strongest foes were flesh and blood in the end, so if his sneak attack had been successful Eckard would’ve been doomed.
Calm and composed, Cloudhawk put Basilisk away. He stood in the midst of his former teachers’ keen eyes with an air of disregard. “You think three on one is enough to beat me? I’m not the Cloudhawk you remember.”
Dumont immediately began gathering up energy once again. Natessa, stone-faced as always, simply stared at him.
Eckard answered with a coarse laugh. “You definitely know how to talk shit, kid. But how much have you really improved? I’m eager to find out.”
“As you wish.”
Right away Cloudhawk’s flesh turned nearly crimson. He bound into the air, straight as an arrow. Much to the surprise of his attackers, between a burst of increased speed and the cloak’s powers he was almost too fast for them to follow.
He was dashing toward Dumont. Dumont’s power hadn’t been fully gathered yet, but it was enough to launch an attack. His Dawnbreaker battle armor had all the energy gathered in the legs, which he used to instantly pick up speed. Dumont shot forward like a cannon to intercept Cloudhawk.
Reeling back, he drove his fist into the ground. It blew a hole in the deck several meters deep. Stone and splinters were thrown in all directions like a bomb had gone off.
Cloudhawk was forced to stop. From behind, Natessa’s deadly whip was already in motion.
Instead of being angry at his failure to escape, Cloudhawk’s face lit up in an expression of triumph. He reached out and grabbed Dumont by the breastplate, activated his phase stone, and then blinked from existence.
The two men reappeared a hundred meters away, in midair. A thousand meters of nothing stretched out below.
Dumont looked down, then back up at Cloudhawk, incapable of understanding what had just happened.
“Enjoy your flight.”
Cloudhawk booted Dumont away from him and watched as the heavily armored men plunged toward the earth. He used the remaining energy of the stone to teleport himself back onto Condor’s deck. For a brief moment he stood there, crouched with one hand steadying himself on the ground, and then he was off again.
Natessa was forced to react. She engaged her relic boots and leaped off the side of the ship after her companion. While the armor might protect Dumont from being killed outright from the fall, he would definitely be badly wounded. His absence would be a major blow to the fighting capability of Hell’s Army. She had to get him back.
Eckard stared at Cloudhawk with eyes wide. “You little mother fu-...”
Cloudhawk didn’t let him finish. His figure flickered in and out of existence as he raced across the deck, like an angry phantom. He blinked into focus right in front of the scarred instructor, who was alone now that Natessa and Dumont were indisposed. “No one to bother us now, beautiful. Let’s have some fun!”
Eckard Cutter felt his blood boil. This cocky little shit! So goddamn arrogant! Did he think his little games with Dumont and Natessa were going to save him?
Eckard lashed out with his sword. The strike seemed straightforward but in reality contained staggering strength. It filled the space between them that Cloudhawk was trying to traverse, forcing him back.
He was the Army’s only pure martial commander. Eckard’s speed, strength, and explosiveness were at peak levels. This idiot child’s ignorance would be his undoing.
Cloudhawk felt the world around him disappear as the brutal, cold light of Eckard’s sword filled his vision. It was like being struck by lightning, so fast he didn’t even have time to blink.
A pair of flashing silver lights emerged.
Onlookers watched a tempest of energy blast around the Warden. Fragments of steel were flung every which way, none bigger than a finger.
Eckard stood there with a sword’s handle in his grip. He stood there, wide eyed, as dancing wisps of silver steel bore down on him. Dozens of blows landed almost simultaneously and ripped through his sturdy armor, to the flesh beneath. Flesh blood poured freely from several gaping wounds.
Defeated! Eckard had been defeated! One of the mighty Giants had been bested in a single round!
It wasn’t because Cloudhawk had any overwhelming power. In fact, he hadn’t even activated any of his relics. He wasn’t any better in straight combat than someone like Rio, and even with relics he had perhaps a fifty-fifty shot against someone like Eckard.
But just like he had against Dumont, Cloudhawk employed unique tactics against his former instructor.
First, he’d destroyed Eckard’s mighty alloy sword with Basilisk. This forced the warrior to fight with common steel – and how could a typical soldier’s weapon compete against his Silver Serpents?
Eckard didn’t know how strong Cloudhawk had become since his time in the Valley, nor did he know of the gift the former Talon’s Warden had bequeathed him. So, using this to his advantage, Cloudhawk easily tore through Eckard’s weapon and won himself a decisive victory.
Eckard lost, but not for lack of strength. He lost from inferior equipment and tactics.
Cloudhawk lifted his right hand, an undulating silvery blade held tight in his grasp. It extended from his sleeve, thin as a cicada’s wing and rippling like a wave. Its cold light was reflected in Eckard’s red eyes. Cloudhawk pressed it against his neck. All it would take was a flick of the wrist…
“The Polaris family’s Silver Serpents.” Eckard scowled, his face sour. “How did you learn to use them so quickly?”
He wanted to fight back. He yearned to tear this little prick’s head off his shoulders. But wounds that cut down to the bone opened his wrists, ankles, and everywhere else. His tendons were severed, and though even now he was healing it wasn’t a fast process. If he’d had any fight left in him, Cloudhawk would have ended it immediately, without giving him this moment of reprieve.
A flash from the corner of his eye. He glanced sideways, only to see Dumont being flung back onto Condor by a bullwhip. Natessa gracefully alighted back on the deck.
The whole exchange had taken less than ten seconds.
Cloudhawk had used that brief window to enact a nearly miraculous change of circumstance. Hell’s Army forces continued to storm the ship, caught in pitched battle with the Talons of God. Cloudhawk, meanwhile, had managed to gravely wound one of their commanders. His valiant display had greatly boosted his soldiers’ morale.
Here he was, their Warden!
While Colonel Rio and the others had their doubts, this display had put them at ease. Their Warden’s mysterious and unpredictable powers, lightning-fast reflexes, and keen wit showed he had what it took to call himself their leader.
He was still so young! A fine replacement for Roc.
Grief enveloped Belinda, Rei, and the Sutherland brothers after witnessing Mason’s death. The appearance of the Giants of Hell’s Army had stolen their pride and bravado.
It turned out even once-loyal soldiers could change sides in a war. Demonhunters could betray their masters. The outside world was a cruel place.
They didn’t know what to do, so they stared blankly at their sergeant as she battled fearlessly against their enemies. Suddenly the scoundrel Cloudhawk had appeared, and through his courageous efforts the tide turned. On his own, he wrested the advantage from the Giants of Hell’s Army.
How was he so strong?
They had looked down at him at first, believing him to be a creature unworthy of their respect. Now they were fully aware of their arrogance and stupidity. All of them together weren’t a quarter of this man the Talons trusted to be their leader.
Claudia was equally stunned. She couldn’t fathom how Cloudhawk had changed so much! She couldn’t even hold a candle to him now.
The whole time there was another pair of big, blue eyes watching the fight.
Azura was half hidden in the bridge, peeking through a shattered port hole as the battle raged. It was a different side of the mischievous, immature man who ate dirty things off the floor to make her happy. He was strong – really strong.
“The Conclave of Judgment has no future, and your poor choices are sure to infuriate the General. Is it worth it?” Cloudhawk’s Silver Serpents gleamed with dangerous promise, like a serpent’s fangs pressed against Eckard’s exposed throat. “I’d recommend you made no sudden moves and quit this nonsense. Otherwise, the Three Giants of Hell’s Army will have to change their name to two.”
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Cloudhawk's shit-talking abilities really aren't bad at all!