Cloudhawk’s arm was nearly blown off. Hellflower was forced to perform emergency triage to save it.
Luckily for him, his innate danger sense warned him moments before the blast. It gave him just enough time to throw the rod away. It was about three meters away when it detonated. Any closer, and Cloudhawk would definitely have lost the arm.
Hellflower quickly did what she could for the damaged limb. “What happened? It looked perfectly fine, why did it explode?”
Cloudhawk paid no mind to his wounded arm. He scowled, brows knit, as he considered that very question.
Hellflower’s dragon iron and the Elysian material were similar enough that it shouldn’t be the cause. He figured it had to have something to do with the strange substance at the relic’s heart. Apparently they couldn’t just stuff it into anything and expect it to work. There had to be some rule to how it was disseminated… if it wasn’t, the substance became unstable when a catalyst was introduced. Cloudhawk had rushed to test it before giving the idea any serious thought, and was nearly crippled because of it.
Hellflower went on. “You can’t continue now. Heal a little before we try again.”
“No, I want to try once more.” Cloudhawk needed to test his new theory. “If I can’t even make an exorcist rod, how can I call myself a refiner?”
Refiner? Was Cloudhawk giving himself a new profession? That was a little out of order, but Cloudhawk was obsessed with the idea of making his own relics.
Hellflower couldn’t convince the obstinate man otherwise, so instead she chose to help. She gathered personal protection equipment from around the lab, which included a reinforced glove that would at least mitigate any more potential damage. It seemed necessary, seeing as their simple initial experiments had already nearly destroyed the lab.
Their second effort failed similarly to the first. Cloudhawk glowered in irritation. He clutched the fragments of the rod for a long time while he pondered the problem. Eventually they fixed it and tried again.
A third attempt ended with nothing but ringing ears and shards of dragon iron.
They tried again. A forth experiment, a fifth, a sixth…
By the end Cloudhawk was at his wit’s end.
The angrier he got the more his head hurt, as his mental injuries still hadn’t healed. But he was learning from his mistakes. He discovered that part of the mystery of the exorcist rod lay in the specific arrangement of the strange matter.
Once extracted from a working exorcist rod, that specific arrangement was lost. It was obvious that if he wanted this to work, he would need to further refine the strange matter before putting it into a vessel. Only once he had the pattern right could the two blend seamlessly.
So the problem was using his talent to reverse engineer a relic’s pattern. It was about as easy as a man with no music training writing down a complicated orchestral score by ear. It would definitely require some effort.
Six or seven hours passed. Night had fallen across the Vale. Hellflower left to make Cloudhawk a bowl of soup to nourish him while he worked.
When she returned, she saw the half-wrapped mummy seated with a rod in his hands, and a small smile tugging the edges of his lips.
The young man wasn’t particularly tall, strong or handsome, but he had an alluring persistence to him, ever since he appeared before her. That sort of dogged determination was rare to come across. It’s part of what made him special and attractive.
It was no wonder he was often surrounded with exceptional women.
She watched him as he sat, lost in concentration. He looked quite charming.
Cloudhawk didn’t know it when she came back. His mind was too busy focused on the task at hand. Behind his eyes he saw countless threads vibrating, creating a melody, threaded together into a perfect tapestry.
He was beginning to understand. Little by little, patterns were beginning to emerge in the chaos. Castigation Fire snaked from his palm and once again quenched the dragon iron rod in his hands. Once more he inserted the structured portion of that mysterious substance.
“This time it should work.”
Cloudhawk held the rod tight and walked over to a practice target. Hellflower watched, a little nervous. He was obsessed, she saw the signs. Good things rarely came from that.
She was a practiced researcher, and empirical evidence proved that experiments rarely succeeded so easily. Often those experiments which seemed simple on the surface, really required hundreds of attempts to perfect.
She heard the buzz worm into her ear. That wasn’t the explosion she was expecting. She looked at Cloudhawk and her eyes went wide, for the rod in his hands had activated. Wind was picking up as its head spun. Sparks danced in the vicinity.
Cloudhawk swung at the target, causing it to blast into pieces.
“You did it… you did it!” Hellflower couldn’t contain her excitement, rushing over to Cloudhawk and wrapping him up in a hug. “Incredible! You really are a prodigy, and just so damn attractive!”
Cloudhawk was keenly aware of the large, firm, but pliable masses pressed against him. The devil woman was doing it on purpose.
But whatever her ploys, she was right. This was something to be excited about.
Even in the Elysian lands, their most basic exorcist rods required help from the gods to create. Cloudhawk had just managed to make one all by himself. It required more testing, of course – it probably wasn’t very stable, and in terms of quality it didn’t match item it was based on – but at least it was a successful start.
By making a relic on his own, even a basic one like this, it meant that humans were no longer reliant on the gods for these tools. It was the beginning of a new era, an epochal discovery.
Dawn the next day.
Cloudhawk brought their successful experiment before Autumn.
She took the crude item in her hands and examined it closely. The surprise on her face spoke volumes. While exorcist rods were the very simplest of items for a god to create, for a mortal to uncover its secrets in under a day was nothing short of extraordinary. It completely upended her expectations.
Cloudhawk addressed her. “I’ve proven I can do it. Tell me the next step. Exorcist rods are not enough, this basic-level shit is useless to me. I need something that’ll give me a real sense of accomplishment.”
“Now that you’ve managed to create one, you’ve shown you understand the fundamental nature of a relic.” Autumn’s haughty, superior air had softened ever so slightly. After all, Cloudhawk had managed to achieve something she would struggle to complete. Despite her discourteous bearing, he had proven himself more than a typical mortal worm. “In creating a relic, there are two challenges for you to overcome: materials, and anima.”
By now they understood the problem of materials. Wastelanders couldn’t make the stuff they used to create real exorcist rods. It was surely only going to be more difficult as they tried more complicated relics. All the knowledge and techniques of the gods remained a mystery, but from what they knew it was a thousand years beyond even what prehistoric man had achieved.
Anima – as she called it – was even more difficult to fathom. Of course, she meant the mysterious substance they found in the rods. It was completely outside the scope of human knowledge and defied any technology they had to try and learn more about its makeup. In fact the only person who could work with it was Cloudhawk, thanks to his unique talent. In being able to ‘hear’ relics, he was in fact capable of connecting on a deeper level with a relic’s anima.
Cloudhawk had no way to solve their materials problem. That fell on Hellflower’s more erudite shoulders. She had access to a team of scientists and equipment, but even then it had been so long since the ancient knowledge was lost. Even with all of Hellflower’s genius, she would be hard pressed to overcome the gap between what the wasteland could provide and Elysian ingenuity. Instead her task was to invent viable substitutes.
What Cloudhawk did have was the talent necessary to learn the secrets of anima. However, the substance defied easy explanation. He was starting from zero, making a difficult task that much harder. He was pioneering an entirely new subject of study, like a babbling infant trying to unravel the secrets of language.
It would require Hellflower and Cloudhawk both to succeed in their ambitious aim. They had many daunting challenges to overcome.
Autumn went on. “Your next step will be to dismantle a large number of relics and extract the anima within. Use it to study its rules, properties and structure. The process will require a great deal of time, and a veritable treasure trove of relics.”
His bitter expression made his thoughts obvious. How was he supposed to do that? If he had a hoard of relics he wouldn’t need to go through this bullshit in the first place. He’d just pick up a relic and use it. The whole purpose of learning to make relics was so that he had them at his disposal.
His dispirited expression brought Autumn’s typical haughty smile back to the surface. “You ignorant child. You have a treasure before you but don’t even see it.”
“You have the Demon King’s phase stone. With it you can stride dimensions and seek out lost relics. Most that you will discover will be broken, but that doesn’t matter for your purposes.”
Now he was beginning to understand.
She was suggesting using the phase stone to find relics discarded by the Demon King. It wasn’t unthinkable, since Cloudhawk had done just that before – albeit by accident. His invisibility cloak, the Phoenix Furnace he gave Selene, and Oddball were all relics he snagged from other dimensions.
“Why did gods and demons appear in this dimension anyway? Why do they stick around?”
“I don’t know. The gods’ collected knowledge pays no heed to questions such as this. It is the same for demons. All I know is that the God King has commanded us from this plane ever since I came into being.”
What a strange fact… But Cloudhawk put it out of his mind for now. He went on. “Using the Demon King’s stone isn’t easy. So far I’ve only be able to teleport to one specific stable nearby dimension. I have no idea how to go about moving to other places.”
“Fool! That is because your inheritance is not complete!” Autumn explained. “The Demon King once commanded perfect control over dimensional power. Were it not for the God King’s temporal abilities, no one would have had the ability to stand against him.”
“So you’re saying there is no better method?”
“Of course there is!”
The voice came from behind them. Wolfblade regarded the group with his arms crossed in front of his chest. Both he and Abaddon approached. Immediately, an uncomfortable and disgruntled sensation filled Cloudhawk’s chest. He much rather would have suffered the pride of a fallen god than these two.
Wolfblade didn’t notice Cloudhawk’s discomfort, or perhaps he simply chose to pay it no mind. “Follow me. You will know what to do once we arrive.”
Wolfblade had been conspicuously absent for the last few days, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t paying close attention to his young charge. In fact Hellflower delivered reports on his actions and behavior every day. Every single thing Cloudhawk said or did, Wolfblade knew about. Or perhaps, as always, everything he did was unwittingly at the enigmatic man’s behest.