So Three-Eyed Spider was colluding with Squall. And it wasn’t just the scientist, either. He recognized a number of familiar faces.
One of them was a fierce-looking fat man with an enormous ax. Wasn’t that the governor of Fishmonger’s Borough, Ravenous Tiger? Since when did he become a mercenary?
Incredible. All of a sudden Squall had a crew of these assholes, and not your typical run-of-the-mill assholes either. Didn’t he know that if he raised a bunch of snakes, he was liable to get bit?
But it wasn’t like Cloudhawk was going to give him advice right now. Three-Eyed Spider was smart, and vicious. He couldn’t be ignored.
“My orders were to scheme a way into the heart of the Dark Atom, and to do that I needed to get your dumb ass out of the way. I didn’t think a mangy bitch like you would find another master so quick after getting thrown out of the kennel.”
Cloudhawk’s tongue was as sharp as anyone’s. Three-Eyed Spider, in all his arrogance, was furious at the vile things the bastard was calling him.
Cloudhawk turned to the others. “Don’t be fooled by this clumsy bullshit. It looks suspicious, no doubt, but these fucks are capitalizing on your doubts to make us fight each other. Meanwhile they’ll sit there and watch us kill each other, then mop up what’s left. Don’t fall for it!”
“That’s right!” Hammont stepped up. “Back in Sandbar Outpost, Sir Cloudhawk led me and my men to a terrorist cell and eliminated them! How could he be working for the Dark Atom?”
In this moment it didn’t matter what was going on in his own heart - Drake was determined to stand by Cloudhawk’s side. “He suffered with me side by side in Hell’s Valley for three years. I know the kind of person he is, and he’s no traitor. Don’t let these blasphemers cloud your mind with their lies!”
“So eager to absolve him of his sins… rather illustrative that Cloudhawk has something to hide.” Augustus offered a cold chuckle. “As far as I can tell, this whole disaster is his fault. In the midst of an emergency, it is better to kill a threat immediately, rather than to wait for his knife to appear in your back later.”
The other demonhunters looked gravely upon Cloudhawk with hard, agreeing expressions.
Anger bubbled up inside the wastelander. It was pretty clear that nothing was going to convince this obnoxious shithead to give him a break.
More escaped the destruction of Nirvana than Squall anticipated. Among the survivors were a number of demonhunters and military officers – a force to reckoned with. In a straight fight, the cost would be high.
Now, with distrust sown among them, the demonhunters and elysians soldiers would at least not be working together against the Highwaymen. It was as good a time as enemy for them to put these mongrels down.
Ravenous Tiger began to pour energy into his battleax. Others soon took his lead and prepared to attack.
“Careful!” Drake looked between the demonhunters and the bloodthirsty wastelanders. His voice came in a dangerous growl. “Augustus is acting against the law. When we fight, make sure you keep an eye out for surprise attacks.”
Roc understood what he was getting at.
Augustus was the governor’s trusted man. The men with him were demonhunters employed by the family. Everything they did, they did for the benefit of the governor’s mansion. Weighing the conditions right now, Cloudhawk was a more valuable target to them than a group of wasteland thugs.
As for them? Augustus would be more than happy to cut Drake and Roc’s heads from their shoulders. With them out of the picture it would be easier for Arcturus to consolidate power over Skycloud city.
Augustus muttered to the demonhunters with him. “They will be distracted between defending Cloudhawk and fighting the wastelanders. The officers themselves will stay by the spy’s side. We just need to wait for the right time. Remember, he doesn’t leave this gorge alive. He is Polaris’ man, and stands against our governor. Spare no effort to protect our governor and our city!”
“You don’t need to worry.” One of the veteran demonhunters with him spoke up. “He’s already exhausted. Any one of us can kill him with a hand tied behind our back. All of us together, he’s as good as dead.
The demonhunters crouched, ready to spring into action.
Meanwhile, Cloudhawk watched it all begin to unfold. He couldn’t help but suppress a bitter laugh. It’d cost him so much effort to get out of that deathtrap in one piece, and he did it with a bunch of others. In the background the volcanoes were still raging. Lava and ash could envelop them at any moment – yet here they were, stumbling into a new danger when the old one was still nipping at their heels.
Who knew what the end of this day would have in store!
Ravenous Tiger was on the cusp of giving the order to attack. The wastelanders and the elysians were posturing themselves for a final charge. Augustus and his group of murderers were circling their prey.
Suddenly, in this instant they were all distracted by an imperial voice echoing through the gorge.
“Who told you attack? Who’s the goddamn boss here? Everyone, back off!”
Squall’s frigid eyes swept over his people. Those they fell upon felt a chill run through them. An intense air of cruel brutality billowed from him in a way they never felt before, forcing his people to stand down.
Squall dragged his eyes away from his men, and pinned them on Augustus.
They were colder and more lethal than any blade. When he spoke, his words were slow, each syllable carefully enunciated. “Anyone who wants to go can go. Anyone – except you. You will die today.”
His bloodthirsty intent seemed the fill the whole area. But Augustus was at a loss. Why? What was going on?
Hatred like this didn’t come out of the blue. It grew from the darkest parts of a man’s heart over years. He traced it to this young man, but Augustus was sure he had never seen him before. But of course he had, only... the years had changed Squall dramatically. Besides, he was a nobody when Augustus killed his father – a lowly merchant unworthy of the demonhunter’s memories. But then he remembered. Looking into the deep wells of hatred that were Squall’s eyes, it all became clear.
Him! But how? He had been a nobody, quiet and insignificant. How, after only a few years, had he become something like… this?
It was hard to believe. He couldn’t have achieved all this on his own. Who was he getting help from? What organization did he work for? What had happened over the last several years to have him end up here?
All the while, Squall stared unblinking at his quarry. He was afraid that if he took his eyes off the demonhunter for a single moment, that he would disappear.
Visibility was low in the canyon, and Augustus was covered in ash. He’d only just recognized that face – a face he would never forget. Squall’s bloodshot eyes were wide, and a frenzied rage boiled up inside him.
It emerged on his face as an expression of such intense hatred that all who saw would remember it forever.
He never forgot. Would never forget. How could he?
Old Thistle had raised him, a good and faithful father. Just a merchant trying to do good by his people. He worked hard, kept the faith, spending the better part of his life toiling to make life better for other people. He had never been one for an ostentatious lifestyle, never sought to live beyond his means. All he ever wanted was to earn a respectable life for the people of his small merchant company. He worked so hard he had no time for a woman, no opportunity for a child. If it could be said that he had one wild desire, it was that the young man he raised could grow to become a respectable demhonunter, and bring honor to the family.
Did the gods really think that was so unreasonable?
Squall had been raised by the old merchant from when he was small. His generous and lighthearted personality had probably come from that upbringing. Like his foster father, Squall never had any great ambitions. He worshiped Arcturus Cloude like so many others and hoped that one day he could be a noble demonhunter, bringing glory to the realm. It was also a way to pay Old Thistle back for everything he’d done, that one day he could look at Squall with pride and know that all his hard work had paid off.
Was that too much to ask?
Fate had been cruel to his father, a good man! It wasn’t the robbers of the wasteland that took his life, it was a demonhunter. This demonhunter. How desperate he must have felt at the end?
Fate had been cruel to Squall, too. He had been forced to watch as his father was beheaded. He still remembered how old Thistle’s blood felt as it sprayed across his face. He’d been so helpless…
In the years that followed he was lost to darkness. He had done all manner of evil things, so that now his hands were as stained with blood as the beast who made him this way. He’d gone down a road there was no coming back from, but it was the price he willingly paid for power. The power to do what he had to do, to protect the people who were important to him. The gods had stopped listening, so he turned his prayers to the devil.
This… this animal. He was the one that killed his father. He was the one who destroyed Squall's happy life! In his dreams Squall had murdered Augustus a million different ways. Now he had to choose which one to bring into reality. What luck that he should appear right here before him, almost as though it was by divine will – or a demon’s.
Squall managed to restrain his rage with considerable effort. “Out of my way! No one is permitted to get involved. I am going to kill this man with my own hands.”
“You?” Augustus felt as though the whelp was insulting his abilities. “You absolute fool! Let him have his wish! No one intervene! I will get rid of this filth that slipped through my fingers years ago.”
Neither side understood what was happening, but they could guess.
Ravenous Tiger and Three-Eyed Spider were not pleased. The young man’s passions were delaying their work. He was letting his emotions get the better of him, and in doing so destroyed a perfect opportunity.
Augustus obviously held Squall in very little regard. Cloudhawk was surprised by his former friend’s decision. Three years ago he wasn’t even qualified to study as a demonhunter, what made him think that he had the strength to prevail?
His opponent was a veteran demonhunter, one of Arcturus’ most trusted men. He surely hadn’t been wasting the last three years either.
Squall clenched his fist and flexed his muscles. The bandages that hid his left arm ripped inch by inch. Gushing, inky-black gas poured from the tears and coiled around his arm like vipers. Squall’s typically average-sized arm actually swelled, while the tattoos scrawled along his flesh became scales. Blackish-purple nails several inches long stretched from his fingers.
“An implanted relic.” Augustus narrowed his eyes as he watched the display. “Before inserting it into the body, you have to remove the thing it is replacing. The process is more painful than most can handle. However you got it – by fair means or foul – it doesn’t matter. I’m not afraid of an arm.”
He spat the words condescendingly, and in the same moment his whisper-thin crescent blade began to rotate. Immediately the power it emanated overcame Squall’s presence. Dust and ash were thrust several meters away from the epicenter as it spun, so fast that the blade became a disk as brilliant as a full moon and as blinding as the sun.
Under Augustus’ command, even tungsten steel was no impediment.
Cloudhawk watched from the sideline with his eyes narrowed. It was no good, the discrepancy in power was too great.
In this circumstance, with everyone’s eyes on them, there was nothing Cloudhawk do to intervene. Besides, even if he wanted to help he didn’t have the strength. As for Squall’s henchmen? They didn’t care if he died, it would just be an opportunity for the Tiger or the Spider to seize the reigns. No help would be forthcoming from them.
However, Blackfiend did begin to move. Energy poured out of its inky-black body and into Squall’s arm until it throbbed with power.
All of that energy appeared to solidify inside him. The tattoos etched in his arm were clear and discernible, as monstrous as a demon’s own. All of a sudden his strength surged to several times what it had been.
Augustus’ face froze, but his hesitation was only temporary. He rushed to be the first one to attack.
Squall had spent countless nights fantasizing about just this moment. He clung to that as his power gathered to its highest point. He focused it all into his fist and released it, answering the demonhunter with a punch of such concussive force it rivaled a missile blast. The crushing momentum washed over Augustus.
The scene took everyone’s breath away. Squall’s sudden burst of strength was enough to overpower a veteran demonhunter!
Augustus quickly switched his focus to defense, but it was too late. A shell of protection sprang up around him but shattered in the instant of impact. He was launched backward at break-neck speed.
Meanwhile blood was seeping from every pore in Squall’s body. His hair was wild, and the madness in his eyes was more befitting a demon.
Suddenly he hurled himself into the air and started to gather his strength once more. His target was the prostrate demonhunter who was still recovering from the unexpected blow. But the other members of his squad could not suffer to watch him get beaten into oblivion. They began to summon the power of their relics to kill Squall before he could reach Augustus.
After a moment of surprise, Ravenous Tiger rejoiced. Good! Incredible ability, he’s managed to hide it well all this time. A good thing I didn’t have to learn it the hard way. With any luck, he dies here in this gorge!
1. XL: Did you forget he saw this shit kill his dad in front of his eyes? I did. RWX - Me too!