The cave was filled with the stench of rot. Outside, Deadwood Forest’s sweepers were clawing their way inside. At the rate they were moving, it would only be a matter of minutes before they were through.
Drake sat cross-legged on the floor with a pained expression on his resolute face. Beads of oily sweat ran down his bronze skin like he’d just been plucked from a steam room. Each drop hissed when it touched the floor and filled the air with a raw odor. The sweat pouring off of him was a greyish-black, no normal sweat at all.
He was exhausted, but the soldier regulated his breathing and tried to obstruct some of his bloodflow. The intention was to direct the poison out to capillaries close to his skin, then excrete it through the pores. It was a complicated process that demanded a tremendous level of bodily control, as well as knowledge of proper technique.
Yet despite his impressive skill, the situation was not getting any better.
Drake’s internal and external injuries were serious. Both of his hands had suffered from the poison and were badly dissolved. The skin had turned from a rich bronze into something between black and purple and it was spreading. His muscles had gone stiff, making it hard to move. A lesser man would have been dead by now. If Drake didn’t find treatment soon, that was the fate that waited for him.
He was angry and impatient, and punch at the ground with his rotten fist. Drake growled through gritted teeth. “I haven’t even made general yet and left my mark. Now I’m going to die here at the hands of these ugly assholes!”
Seeing the anger from Drake made Claudia feel a little better, as though the freaks outside weren’t going to kill her just as quickly as they were going to kill him. She barked back at him in a sarcastic tone. “Well look at that – using the rules to attack demonhunters at their weakest, only to have the tables turned. Thank goodness you broke the others’ legs, it’s not like we’d be able to band together in a situation like this. Right? No, you deserve this.”
Drake’s face fell.
It was Wolfe who came to his friend’s aid. “What gives you the right to push him around?! This is Hell’s Valley, no one had any idea this was going to happen. What’s wrong with using our advantage, this is a competition isn’t it? We aren’t even in Skycloud, we don’t have to follow Skycloud’s rules out here!”
“The rules are stamped on every elysian, there are no borders where they suddenly stop applying! If you just do what you please when you leave the domain, what makes you any different from a wastelander?!”
Although he was an outstanding member of military family, Drake’s lack of talent made him jealous of demonhunters. He had indeed taken advantage of the demonhunters with one hand tied behind their backs. Was this a moral thing to do? Was this what a proper man would do? What a soldier would do? This sort of victory was no victory at all. Claudia felt nothing but contempt.
Drake was not one for debate, he wasn’t going to shout her down. Claudia was a temperamental one, and treated them all like they owed her a fortune.
But Cloudhawk wouldn’t hold his piece. “Can we cut this shit out? We might all die here, and if we’re reborn as siblings I don’t need this sort of baggage.”
“Hmph, scum like you is certainly going straight to hell. My soul has a place reserved in heaven. We aren’t traveling the same road.” Claudia’s pale face was red from anger. The fury in her eyes made them sparkle in the darkness. “You killed my friend, that’s an offence you’ll never be forgiven for. My only regret not killing you with my own hands.”
Claudia Lunae was caught between sinners and twisted wasteland abominations. She had to choose one, and no one could blame her for choosing the former. For now she would work with them, at least until they got free. Wasn’t that the only reason this scoundrel was playing nice? Drake and his cronies were worthy of her disdain, and Gabriel was a despicable fugitive and sinner. But Cloudhawk… Cloudhawk was her nemesis. She was never going to forgive the vile heathen!
Wasn’t it his fault that she was here, from the wounds he caused her? Would she be in this situation otherwise? Cloudhawk was the undeniable source of all her misfortune.
Disaster had been following her ever since she went to the wastelands. She was generous and forgiving by nature, but she would not relent in her hatred for Cloudhawk. It wasn’t even worth considering.
Gabriel was in the worst shape, and yet had the coolest head. He’d expected to die ever since his actions in Skycloud. Dying out here instead was an improvement, as far as he was concerned.
Gabriel looked around at the dark cave and inwardly sighed. It was just a pity, a death that could be avoided if he’d had his relics. He was stronger than Claudia, stronger than Cloudhawk. None of this would have happened if they’d just have let him keep his relics.
A loud blast came from the cave entrance. The violent blow caused the obstruction to be knocked away.
Had they finally breached?
Two members of the Blight-tooth Clan strode in and found the five humans waiting. They immediately began to bark in a language Cloudhawk could not recognize, but the hatred in their eyes was universal.
He’d seen that same look many times. To these natives, Cloudhawk and the others were nothing short of evil.
They used to have a paradise, where all of their needs had been met. All of it had been taken away in a single night. The fighting robbed them of their parents, their loved ones and their children. Those that remained were driven into the forest, where they were hunted for over a decade. Like livestock they were penned in, with nothing to do but wait for death. Any struggle was stripped of value.
How could the people of the Blight-tooth clan not hate these interlopers?
Cloudhawk understood their animosity, but that was the world they lived in. Hate was like a forest fire – it did nothing but destroy everything it came in contact with. Just like his hatred for Raithe Umbra. Like Claudia’s hatred for Cloudhawk. Everyone had different values, different standpoints. Eventually rancor would consume the world. But understanding it was one thing, accepting it was another.
The two clansmen did not immediately attack. That left an opening.
Cloudhawk snatched up a pair of sharp stones and whipped them at the sweepers’ heads. Their shrill whines rang out as the rocks viciously collided with their skulls.
Drake picked up one of the larger slabs of stone and charged toward the entrance. “Attack!”
They’d managed to get the first two, but their wails alerted the rest of their clansmen. Furious, the skeletal natives charged forward in a mad bloodlust.
Bows were drawn. Arrows, fired!
Poison arrows filled the cave. They hit the ground and walls, filling it with toxic smoke.
The cave’s cramped interior only required a few arrows before it was completely enveloped in poison. With no escape, their only option was to try and keep the entrance closed.
Drake rushed forward, ignoring his injuries. Muscles bulged through torn skin as he heaved the one-ton boulder at the enemies outside. It made a sound like a roaring beast as it soared through the air.
Claudia jumped behind it, running along the wall to pick up speed. By the time she reached the rock it had begun to slow, but with a swift kick she sent it rocketing forward at twice its original speed.
The boulder exploded into several enormous pieces. Each one catapulted toward the Blight-tooth warriors with startling speed.
The diminutive sweepers were dexterous. They dodged and rolled out of the way of the stones so that only two of their number were crushed by the debris. The survivors rolled deftly back onto their feet, pulled arrows from their backs and flung it at them.
Claudia’s feet had just touched the ground and already the arrow was right in front of her. She tried to dodge, but just as she was trying to whip around she felt all the strength melt from her body. Whatever strength and flexibility she typically had was spent.
Her eyes went wide with fear.
Cloudhawk appeared from one side and shoved her out of the way, knocking the arrows away with a bone spear. Each one left a puff of black poison behind. That’s why he didn’t see the one that punched through the haze and buried itself in his chest. The poison fang was completely buried in muscle and immediately delivered its toxic payload. Right away the skin around the arrow turned black as coal.
Cloudhawk was shoved back and lost his footing.
A pair of stalker beasts leapt over the pile of stones and were on them before they knew it. The riders leveled their spears, ready to pin Cloudhawk to the ground, But Claudia saw and jumped forward with a yell. She smashed her shoulder into one of the riders and sent him crashing to the ground. But the first one kept coming. He was almost on Cloudhawk when a shadow flashed by, taking half the sweeper’s throat with it.
Cloudhawk wiped the blood that had leaked from the corner of his mouth, then pulled the arrow from his chest. He looked at Claudia and Naberius, and managed a wry smile. “See? Don’t we work well together? Let’s try not to murder one another if we get out of this. What do you say?”
Naberius tittered that unsettling, unhinged laugh. “Sounds good to me!”
But Claudia just gritted her teeth. She didn’t know why she did what she did. All of a sudden she was treating Cloudhawk like a comrade-in-arms, but she knew when they got back to the elysian lands she’d regret her actions. She looked at the festering wound in his chest and wasn’t sure how to feel about it.
“Are you three enjoying your chat? Help me block the entrance!”
Drake motioned Wolfe over and they took the lead. The five of them charged at the Blight-tooth Clan warriors. While they were all adept at close-quarters combat, the sweeper archers who’d managed to get inside were not. They were swiftly dealt with.
All eyes turned toward the entrance, and what they saw ripped their hearts in half. In the same instant they all lost hope because the forest outside was filled with foes. Countless warriors were closing in, more than they could fathom.
At peak physical condition, these five trainees would be hard pressed to fight their way free. And now?
“All of this effort for five people?” Cloudhawk looked out over the army of sweepers. The first line held bone shield, leaving them no avenue to escape. The second line was arranged in a line, bows drawn and poison arrows knocked. All that was left to Cloudhawk was a single, desperate gamble.
Oddball furiously beat its tiny wings and took off into the forest.