Cloudhawk had silently vanished like a drop of dew before the morning sun. Something so supernatural as disappearing into thin air wasn't something typical humans were capable of - did this mean this kid was also a demonhunter?
Hydra, Snaketooth and Artemis were absolutely shocked. Were their eyes deceiving them?
Leonine had witnessed Cloudhawk kill a man with a single blow when they first met. The scoundrel had been no weakling, but was nonetheless broken in half. He'd known there was something special, but he figured it was the staff he used and thought nothing more about it. Now he thought this had to be the legendary power of the demonhunters he was seeing. This unremarkable kid was wielding the power of that holy order. It was almost unbelievable.
The scene had also startled Mantis and the Bloodsoaked Queen, though they were surprised for different reasons.
Both of them had spent more time with Cloudhawk and knew what he was capable of. He was average, another face in the crowd, nowhere near the skills of an outpost's elite fighters. And yet, though there was a clear difference in abilities between him and Panther, the kid was holding his own. At least he had a chance to hit back.
His speed and strength, all of his abilities had substantially increased seemingly without foundation. How could he have changed so much literally overnight?
Before they could puzzle out an answer a scream pierced the air. Cloudhawk's exorcist staff appeared from the ether, aimed at Panther's abdomen. The fighter caught it by clamping his sais crossways over the shaft. Amidst the screech of steel the staff's keen tip pierced his leather armor. A moment later and it would have pierced flesh.
Cloudhawk wrenched his staff back and juked left. He brought the staff crashing down from overhead.
Panther deflected them again. Their weapons met amidst a loud clang, and the power that vibrated through the blow made Hydra's hand-picked operative ill at ease. Like a ghost Cloudhawk disappeared only to emerge somewhere else with a deadly attack. His cloak made him invisible but also imbued the boy with a burst of speed that put him and Panther on even footing. His attacks kept coming, as indomitable as the tide.
Their weapons might five or six more times punctuated with grating squeals.
Little by little Panther fought off the disadvantage. He couldn't see his target so his response was to shut his eyes. Without the distraction of vision he used the eddies of wind and the whistling sound of movement to determine where the attacks where coming from and defend against them. Cloudhawk's invisibility was troublesome, but it would take much more than that to beat someone as experienced as Panther.
Cloudhawk's onslaught achieved nothing and his opponent's defense was only getting more impenetrable. He couldn't hold on much longer. Once the relic's power gave in he'd lose the one advantage he had.
Time to go all out!
Cloudhawk sprang up and planted his feet on a nearby wall. He coiled in like a spring, then shot forward off the wall as quick as an arrow. With all the momentum behind him he swept his exorcist staff down toward the nape of Panther's neck.
Panther sensed the incoming attack. A sneer touched the corner of his lips. His right arm swung around bringing his whole body with him, sai quick as lightning as it moved to knock the sneak attack aside. His left hand responded half a second later by bringing his weapon up toward where he determined Cloudhawk's chest would be, like a viper moving in for the kill.
The kid was finished! He had strange tricks to help him, but in the end he lacked experience.
Who could expect that in this instant, as Cloudhawk let loose a bestial roar, a surge of unnatural power would explode from the exorcist staff. The three-edged head of the weapon began to rotate at an incredible speed, meeting Panther's block with such intensity it nearly ripped the weapon from his grip.
What the hell?!
That wasn't a staff, Panther thought. It was more like an electric saw. He was forced to bring his other sai up early and used both to catch the staff in between.
The friction as they collided lit up the hall with sparks. Spectators almost had to cover their ears from the sound.
Lucky for Panther, his sais were of good quality. Despite the severity of the blow they didn't break, but as more power flowed through Cloudhawk's staff Panther had to struggle harder to keep from being skewered.
Threads of bloody veins increased through Cloudhawk's eyes. His muscles bulged as power flooded his body, catapulting his fortitude to a whole new level. All the latent force of the staff reached its peak, and suddenly a concussive shock burst forth from it.
"Go to hell!"
Both sais shattered!
Panther let go of the cutting shards, and when the shock wave hit it threw him high into the air. However the man was an expert killer, and as he was flung aloft he executed a series of masterful backflips. Mid rotation he pulled a dagger from his waist and by the time he landed back on the ground, he curled ready to launch into another attack.
Hydra's shout brought their battle to an end. Cloudhawk reappeared, drenched in sweat and chest heaving. His psychic energy was depleted. The webbing between Panther's thumb and forefinger  was split and leaking fresh blood. His clothes were ripped and cut, and the force of the impact had caused some mild internal injuries. Yet he was still ready to keep fighting.
Cloudhawk had appeared to have the upper hand, but if they'd continued the fight it was uncertain the kid would have come out on top. But the fight had been finished before his exhaustion could play a role, and now Snaketooth had nothing to say.
Artemis looked at Cloudhawk with bright and curious eyes, like a rotwolf with a scourge hare in its sights. "This little brother looks like he's got no teeth, but for a young'un you've got some spunk. I like talented men like you, it makes me wonder what other…. talents… you might have."
Nothing was said, but Artemis felt a distinctly murderous intent settle on her.
It was the Bloodsoaked Queen's frigid gaze. As strong as Artemis was she could feel their pressure weighing on her. Even without lifting a finger she knew she was no match for the young woman.
Was this delicious boy toy her lover, she wondered? Such a pity!
Hydra dismissed the exchange with a wave of his hand. "Everyone take a seat."
Cloudhawk returned the exorcist staff to its makeshift sheath on his waist and, fixing Snaketooth with a hateful stare, sat beside the Bloodsoaked Queen.
Hydra went on like the entire surprising exchange had never happened. "Our ultimate aim is to draw out and kill the demon pulling the strings. But before we can, we have to go through his lieutenants."
"Ugh, you men are so boring. They've got a few hundred scrubs, are they really that much of a threat?" Her voice dripped with ridicule. "We organize the thousands of troops we have here in the Outpost, surround them, and that's the end of it!"
A chill flit across Hydra's eyes. "Artemis, you know I don't like questions or interruptions. I especially hate having subordinates second-guess my orders. The next person who does, I'll cut out their tongue, chop off their limbs, and throw them in the leech pit."
Artemis shrugged noncommittally but didn't say anything more.
"They didn't bring many with them but you can bet your ass they have informants all over the outpost. If we try a large-scale operation they'll see it coming a mile away and get out before we have a chance to move." He paused for a moment before going on. "The most we'll use are a few hundred trusted soldiers. That's how we avoid scaring our prey off."
Hydra's worries were well founded, for although he was ruler of the outpost there were definitely agents of the demon lurking everywhere. If they made this a big ordeal the spies would alert the demon's lieutenants and they'd miss their opportunity. If they slipped away and got back to their master, fighting them would be much harder.
Snaketooth spoke up. "What's your plan?"
"Their hearts are set on killing the demonhunter. That means we got bait." Hydra looked pointedly at the Queen and Cloudhawk. "We trick 'em into a place where they'll be surrounded and get rid of their people in a single stroke."
No one offered an opinion. Amidst the silent consent Hydra snapped his fingers.
Maidservants entered in an orderly line like a school of fish. The one in the lead held an enormous bottle of liquor and all the rest bore dishes of various size. Delicate wine glasses were presented. Hydra took up the large bottle himself, pulled the cork, and filled the glasses. Maidservants then took them and distributed the alcohol among the others.
"Drink with me! When our work is done you can rest assured I'll treat you well."
They all lifted their glasses and emptied their contents in one gulp.
Cloudhawk thought he could taste the fruit and vegetables they used to make the beverage, filling his mouth with savory sweetness. It was actually quite pleasant, much better than the stuff the mercenaries made in Blackflag Outpost.
They rested for what remained of the day, tomorrow the operation would begin. Everyone went their separate ways to prepare.
Leonine returned to his wife and children, where his son was cutting fruit and his wife was looking after their daughter. The little girl's eyes were open and bright. She was awake.
Leonine didn't even stop to put down what was in his hands and moved to her side. "How do you feel? Does it hurt?"
She sleepily blinked her eyes and stared up at her father. "No daddy, it doesn't hurt. I had some fruit, it was so good."
His son happily bound over beside them. "I like it here, it's clean and they have a lot of good food. When you left no one came to bully mommy."
"If ya like it here, then here's where we stay." Leonine's face split into a delighted smile. "I got one more thing I gotta do then we can stay long as we like."
His wife's gentle and concerned face turned his way. "Is the mission with Hydra dangerous?"
Leonine shook his head and squeezed her hand reassuringly. "Don't fret, now. I'm makin' it back no matter what. Our family's finally safe. I'm not lookin' to get myself killed."
She nodded. "I trust you!"
"I'mma go get some good food. Little one's just getting' better, we need to strengthen her up."
Leonine opened the door to step out, but the way was blocked by a dark figure. They were small, like a child before Leonine. It was the one who'd fought Cloudhawk, Panther.
Leonine scowled down at him. "What are you doin' here?"
"You really have a nice family, it's something to envy." Panther's eyes were dragged across the room as he made the enigmatic comment. "Hydra said we're starting the mission tomorrow, so no one's allowed to leave. It's to make sure we don't accidentally lose the element of surprise."
"I'm just getting' some food."
"Ah. I'll go with you."
The two men walked together toward the storeroom.
When he stepped inside Leonine saw someone else and stopped dead in his tracks. Panther paused too, right behind him.
At the same time, outside Cloudhawk's room nearby, a full-figured form crept along the corridor. She was a provocative and alluring wastelander woman, and the look on her face evoked the feeling of a hungry wolf.
She was one who had enjoyed the gratification of many men, but never such a fresh and tender prey.
Artemis' mouth watered.
Only, as Artemis prepared to pull open the door to Cloudhawk's room, every hair on her body stood on end like a frightened cat. She lunged to the side just in time to avoid a fiery bird screaming down the corridor. It crashed into the ground where she'd been standing half a moment before and burst into flame. The intense heat reddened the woman's face.
Fuck! Fuck! Artemis yelped and skittered away down the hall.
Cloudhawk poked his head out of the room. "What's going on…? Shit, fire!"
"It's fine." The Queen's artificially croaky voice wafted toward him from down the passageway. "An irritating fly was buzzing around. It's gone now."
Cloudhawk blinked at the bricks in front of his door, burned black and cracked from the heat. She sure had an interesting way to deal with flies!
The Bloodsoeaked Queen turned and walked back from where she came from. "I'm leaving."
"Wait a second."
"What is it?"
"I've got a bad feeling…" He fixed her with a serious look. "I don't think things are gonna go so well tomorrow. Somethin' really doesn't seem right. You be careful."
The Queen stopped, and then continued down the hall. "Drivel. Worry about yourself."
1. Referred to as 'the tiger's mouth,' something I've never heard of.