The instant Janus’ dagger pierced his skin, Cloudhawk felt the toxins begin to spread through his body. It felt like fire was being injected into him.
Luckily it was just a matter of the flesh. Cloudhawk had nothing to fear from poison.
Janus must have known this one strike would not have been enough for he prepared to tear open a deadly gash through in his target’s frame. But as the assassin heaved, he suddenly felt his grip grow lax. Cloudhawk had engaged his phase ability and spun around with Arden Wrath cutting a deadly arc.
A ferocious cut followed, cleaving Janus apart at the waist!
For the third time, Skycloud’s master assassin was slain.
Both halves of the man wafted away from each other like leaves on the wind, and settled upon the ground five meters apart. Only a handful of creatures could survive a wound like that, none of them typical humans.
But the mysterious patriarch of the Umbra family would not stay down.
Cloudhawk made sure to watch carefully. As he stared he saw the borders of that figure begin to dissolve into smoke before the two halves of the figure vanished entirely.
Of course, that wasn’t real. No wonder he’d been able to land blows so easily.
Cloudhawk looked around, this time finding more than one of the man. Shadows descended on him from several directions, each one masked in the same way and watching with soulless eyes. The daggers in their grip seemed real enough, were they all copies?
So that was his secret. No wonder he seemed invincible. It was certainly a unique skill, but something about it made him think of Adder.
Adder had been able to summon mirror images through high-grade relic. The doppelgangers it created were near-perfect replicas that copied the form and even the relics of its target. Such a relic had made Adder one of the most terrible enemies Cloudhawk had ever faced. Luck had played a big role in his victory that day under the God Tree.
However, Janus’ ability had a distinct difference from Adder’s.
Adder’s crystal mirror summoned copies of whatever he liked, but Janus’ mirror images were limited to himself. The former could replicate anything, however they were weaker than the original and capped at four or five copies. Janus’ relic was specialized, thus creating more powerful mirror images and in greater numbers.
Three… five… ten… twenty…
Shadow after shadow swept toward him like a flood of nightmares, appearing from the ether and gaining substance as they neared. There seemed to be no end of them.
Cloudhawk suddenly found himself alone in a sea of deadpan eyes. Each shadow was perfectly identical and it was impossible for him to pick out the true assassin.
It was no wonder this man was the head of the Umbra family, the leader of the Court of Shadows and Skycloud’s ultimate assassin.
The physicality of these copies was very weak. All of their power was concentrated in their attacks, whose strikes were as deadly as the original. But with each subsequent attack the copies became weaker.
That was how Cloudhawk had been able to cut down several already. Assassins were not warriors, they didn’t fare well in protracted battles. They were trained to eliminate their target in one blow, so a single opportunity was all they needed.
Ten of the shadows closed in one Cloudhawk and struck in unison. It was a frightening scene, for this singular attack was delivered by Skycloud’s foremost killer, ten times in the same moment.
Cloudhawk’s eyes slid toward Daen, motionless on the ground. He took a deep breath, sheathed Ardent Wrath on his back and retrieved the Rekindling Lens from a pocket. First he would have to heal the wound in her chest.
But Janus would not stand idly by and allow him the chance. Cloudhawk was immune to his poison? They he would just have to kill him the old fashioned way, cutting him to pieces!
Those ten copies dissolved into smoke and were carried away by the wind. A moment later four more appeared right beside Cloudhawk. They attacked him with incredible speed.
More followed, wave after wave converging on a single point.
Meanwhile Cloudhawk remained with his feet planted and did not move. All around him grim specters groped with lethal intent. Janus could be just as deadly as a Master Demonhunter, but his attacks were fundamentally different.
The likes of Arcturus and the Crimson One relied on psychic power, and had it in spades. When they summoned that strength the results of their power shook the earth.
Janus’ strikes, on the other hand, were not showy or sensational. They were a single adjective, taken to the extreme – fast!
Unbelievably fast, supplemented by an assassin’s deadly precision and stealth.
Cloudhawk found himself the dead center of a killing field.
For this reason Cloudhawk made no effort to protect himself. He knew he couldn’t match Janus’ speed, especially not ten of him. Instead he gathered his mental energies, took a breath, and let it go.
A torrent of green fire erupted from him. Before anyone knew what was happening it had consumed an area ten meters in every direction. Janus’ copies were instantly destroyed. Yet despite the orb of deadly fire it was no use. The assassin’s shadows were all-pervasive and slipped through even the smallest gaps between the flames. They racked their sickly daggers against Cloudhawk’s flesh and left a number of gashes.
“Get the fuck away from me!”
Cloudhawk roared and urged the fires forth like a tidal wave. More of the mirror images were obliterated.
As his fury raged a huge swath of ground around him was blasted by divine fire. It swelled out in every direction, an orb of all-consuming power with him at the epicenter. With no were to hide, the twenty or thirty specters around Cloudhawk were erased.
Yet in a display that robbed him of hope, the number of Janus’ copies was not affected. In fact, they increased.
The real assassin was hiding somewhere Cloudhawk could not pin down. He was controlling this perpetual onslaught from some inky shadow. These copies did not require much from him, but maintaining the field of Castigation fire was a demanding task for Cloudhawk. Under these circumstances, Cloudhawk was no match for Janus.
Nothing he was doing threatened Janus at all, but the killer was cutting him apart slowly, one strike after the other.
Cloudhawk sensed that each attack came at different speeds. Every time the dark blade raked across his skin he could feel the poison eating away at him. Even with Cloudhawk’s incredible constitution, it would soon be too much for him. If this continued, he would die.
Selene was watching from a distance in disbelief. She didn’t understand why Janus would do this.
With each moment that passed Frost’s brows tightened. It was the first time he’d seen the assassin at work. He was stunned by the strength and skill he witnessed. He found it amazing that such an accomplished person could remain such a well-kept secret in Skycloud.
At the same time the battle above them seemed to have cooled. The blazing weapons in the Khan’s hands were dimming. Armor once smooth and sleek was badly scarred from the conflict and the damaged parts revealed complex life-support equipment below . The drunk’s clothes had also been reduced to little more than rags. Smoke rose from marks where his flesh had been badly burned.
Standing opposite to them was Arcturus Cloude. He was as calm and collected as ever. His simplistic uniform was unscathed from the conflict, irrespective of his powerful foes. In fact he hardly appeared to have broken a sweat.
“Bringing Nox into open conflict was an error. You were doubly wrong to appear here in person.”
Arcturus drew his attention to the scene below. Cloudhawk was a ball of green fire flinging his rage in a constant stream. The ground around him for a hundred meters was obliterated. However Janus’ shadows were undeterred. They slithered through the cracks, ubiquitous creeping tendrils of death.
A strange looked passed through the Governor’s eyes.
The drunk stared at him with a hard, dignified stare.
Arcturus wielded supernatural mental powers, the likes of which Vulkan had never seen duplicated anywhere. The other two Master Demonhunters together couldn’t match what Arcturus was capable of. Based on his overwhelming capabilities Arcturus even ranked among the top of of those legendary demonhunters of old.
Ragged breaths came from behind the Khan’s mask. There was something unusual about this one’s body which forced him to rely on that armor to keep himself alive. As the battle raged and his armor suffered more damage, the effort needed to keep himself growing increased.
“The mayfly attempts to shake the oak – a tragic overestimation of its strength. Some powers, some truth cannot be known or profaned. To do so would be to invite death.”
Arcturus slowly drew forth a weapon – a mere exorcist rod.
It was the sort of lowly relic you could pick up at any equipment shop – a couple gold pieces at most. Even among other relics of its sort this rod was of subpar quality.
The drunk glowered dubiously at him. “Is this meant as an insult?”
“You both are spent. It would be an injustice to destroy you with Ruin.” Arcturus tightened his grip around the rod. “My intention is to instruct you on a fundamental truth: When facing absolute power we must be willing to accept our inferiority. Be quiet, be hidden, and comprehend your weaknesses so that one day you can grow strong.”
With the last syllable a flash of electric energy sprang up around the Governor. He dashed at the drunk quick as lightning, exorcist rod at the ready.
The drunk’s martial prowess was eternally adaptable. Sunstroke answered Arcturus’ attack with a dozen of its own. Exorcist rod and mighty relic sword clashed forty times so quick it seemed to last only an instant.
An opening was revealed, and Arcturus took it. His exorcist rod slipped passed the drunk’s defenses.
Power gathered in the heart of the rod and was suddenly released from the head. It struck the drunk’s sword. To him, it felt like all the worlds mountains and rivers were crashing through him at once. Vulkan lost control and was flung twenty meters through the air.
Arcturus spun around, turning his attention upon the Khan of Evernight. In his hands even an exorcist rod commanded horrific power – no less oppressive than Transcendence was when borne by Selene. Once again the Governor dissolved into a bolt of lightning and darted erratically around his new target. The Khan of Evernight managed to defend himself from several dozen blows but the rod eventually caught him in the left shoulder.
The sound of that impact was deafening. The Khan’s left arm was torn from its socket and flung into the distance.
None could see it, but if anyone had been near enough to spy the limb they would have been surprised at what they found. It was not human – at least not wholly. The limb was a combination of man and machine, flesh and steel.
“So this is how you’ve managed to keep yourself alive until now?”
Arcturus spared a moment to offer a sardonic grin before attacking again.
The Khan of Evernight was cast away, flailing uncontrollably.
Arcturus peered at the two who were struggling pitifully like drowning mice. Floating calmly in the air before them, electricity crackling all around, he regarded them with the calm and geniality of a practiced teacher. Stately, unflappable, unassailable – a man so far above the insects beneath him that he hardly paid them any mind.
“Even knowing defeat was inevitable, you still pursue death. Even though you understand that being vanquished would end everything you’ve built, you still foolishly jump into the abyss with both feet. Neither of you comprehend true power. You are ignorant to believe you have what it takes to overthrow Skycloud. The thought is laughable.”
The drunk didn’t know what the Khan was thinking, just as he wasn’t sure of the look on his own face. But he could feel the hopelessness sapping his strength, worming into his heart. He had begun to believe against all evidence that there was some small chance he could defeat this man – but the truth was proven otherwise.
An exorcist rod! The tool of students and novice demonhunters. That was all Arcturus needed to defeat both of them. Were Arcturus’ powers so immense that even such a lowly thing was a masterwork when he touched it?
The War Saint was no pushover. The Khan of Evernight, even less so. Both of them could rival a Master Demonhunter, and either could be considered among the greatest warriors alive. And yet, before the eyes of Arcturus they were no threat at all.
“Here is where your struggles end!”
Arcturus clenched his hand around the exorcist rod, ready to deliver the final blow. Yet as he drew his arm back a sibilant hiss reached his ears. From the corner of his eyes he saw sand and grit being to gather in the air nearby.
His eyes narrowed revealing once more the deep creases at their edges. He raised his head toward this new presence.
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Kage bunshins! Meanwhile, the cavalry has arrived!