Autumn’s legs had been trembling ever since they entered Boondock. Cloudhawk called her a coward her for a reason, but who could blame her? Everywhere she looked her hulking, evil men. If their true identities were revealed she shuddered to think of the consequences. Autumn wasn’t like Cloudhawk, fearless and resourceful. Neither did she have the years of experience in dangerous situation that Barb had. She couldn’t protect herself.
If she was caught, what could she do?
She didn’t even want to think about it. At the same time she fumed with indignant fury at Cloudhawk. She hired him to bring her safely to Fishmonger’s Borough, but instead they were in this den of thieves. Then, once they got here, he manhandled her! She didn’t hold back once they were safely hidden inside a tent.
“You dare slap my behind?!”
“Hey, I’m supposed to be playing a part. You’re the one breaking character and almost exposed us. I had to show some level of discipline.” Cloudhawk then added in muttered tones, “Nice feel, too. Not quite enough for a handful, though.”
Autumn was so angry her breath caught in her throat. He did it on purpose! If they were anywhere else she would have stormed out of the tent.
“I was looking around as we walked in. This place is bigger than we thought, and while it looks pretty lax it’s just the opposite. There’s a whole bunch of undercover sentries, so we need to be very careful every minute we’re here.” Cloudhawk spared a glance at the women’s chests again. “Right, it’d be a good idea if you got some cloth and bound those puppies up. As it is you’re gathering an unhealthy amount of attention.”
A slight blush invaded Barb’s cheeks, but she was a straightforward sort and she wasn’t going to balk at a small matter like this.
“Now that we’ve successfully infiltrated the city,” Barb said, “What’s the next step?”
“The highwaymen are looking for us out in the wastelands. They would never think to look for us in the heart of their city. In a few days the recruits will start looking for people to take in, so I’ll need to find a way to make sure I’m one of them. Maybe I’ll even get selected for their inner circle, who knows. But we can’t waste time while we wait for that to happen.”
Cloudhawk pressed a hand to his chest, over the phase stone. A sizeable parcel appeared in his hand like magic. “These are sensor mines. I bought ‘em off a wastelander – rare and expensive. Barb, your job is to find places around the city to hide these. We’ll use them to help us escape when the time comes.”
The young huntress rubbed her eyes. “Where did you pull that from?”
Autumn had seen Cloudhawk pull this trick before. Although she didn’t know much about demonhunters, she’d heard a little bit from her late mother. This guy was deliberately making a show of it. More than likely, he had some secret pocket or something where he hid these things.
“No time for questions. Now this place was easy to sneak into, but it’s gonna be a bitch getting out. Slaves especially aren’t permitted to leave the city. One step out of Boondock and you’ll be killed on the spot. New people don’t have much freedom either, at least in the beginning. I figure they only get out if they’re on pillaging crews.” Cloudhawk pondered aloud. “This means getting out of here will be much more dangerous than getting in. We better watch our step and be ready for anything.”
Barb’s veneration for his Excellency was growing by the day. His abilities were beyond incredible.
Cloudhawk went on. “I’m gonna poke around Blackfiend’s nest, see what I can find out.”
“Wait a minute, didn’t you say we were trying to avoid a fight?” Autumn practically leapt up, like a cat whose tail had been stomped on. “What is that devil finds you? Can you survive a fight?”
“Pretty lady, I appreciate your concern but don’t underestimate me. I don’t know if I could take him, but you can bet your ass I can come and go where I like without a problem. Relax, alright? Normal folk can’t stop me.”
Concern! Not likely! Autumn nearly choked.
She was the weak one. Barb could handle herself from anyone other than Blackfiend himself, even his closest henchmen. But Autumn hardly had the stretch to strangle a chicken. What was she supposed to do if she got into trouble? Even the weakest bandit could easily overpower her!
Cloudhawk’s plan was simple. Find where Blackfiend laid his head, and figure out what the deal was. If he spotted a weakness, maybe he could slip in and put an end to the ‘Undying’ without a fuss. Although he was eager to get to Fishmonger’s Borough, it was a long journey. It’d only be more difficult if he had these fuckers hounding him the whole way. He wouldn’t get a moment to breathe unless they were dealt with.
Besides, Cloudhawk was thinking of settling down in the Borderlands. The Sandbar was considered part of the wastelands, and if this group of zealots got too strong it would mean trouble for the settlement. Eventually it would be overcome, so it seemed worth a little risk if he could avoid problems in the future. Whatever, it wasn’t like every step he’d taken his whole life wasn’t through one danger after another. He even faced a fuckin’ demon, and slipped away from an angry governor-demonhunter. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle.
That didn’t mean he could act stupid, though. He didn’t know anything about Blackfiend, or whatever weird abilities he had.
A ringing bell signaled night, and fires sprang up all around Boondock. As the sun fell, spirits rose. Suddenly the grimy shanty town was alive with activity. Crowds gathered around bonfires eating, drinking, and keeping entertained. It was chaos, perfect for Barb to start making her way through town. Cloudhawk also prepared for his task.
Oddball, meanwhile, stayed perched on his head the whole time. Cloudhawk was thankful for the little guy, ready to alert him at the first sign of trouble.
Autumn fidgeted nervously. “What am I supposed to do while the two of you are out?”
Cloudhawk cast a glance her way. What can you do? He thought. Babysitting was chapping his ass, but it wasn’t like he could just leave her alone out in the wastelands. “Stay in the tent and keep quiet. If someone comes poking around, stall for us.”
His cloak fluttered, and suddenly there were two of him. It was an illusion, and it remained behind as the real Cloudhawk faded from view.
Although it was just a mirage, the phantom was so complete it would fool most. Unfortunately his cloak couldn’t make copies of others, but Barb’s mission wasn’t a tricky one. With Oddball’s help, she would be done quickly.
“Alright, I’m off.”
Cloudhawk activated his phase stone and slipped out of the tent. Between his invisibility cloak and the stone, he made his way to the center of camp without any trouble.
Boondock was divided into three sections. The first was the one they were staying in, where newcomers stayed while they waited for their chance to join the bandits. The second layer was for established crews, and the center was where the leaders resided.
So where was Blackfiend? Cloudhawk looked around at the myriad of large tents. Any one of them could belong to the bandit boss, but checking them out one by one was too inefficient. Oddball was helping Barb, but even if it were here going into these tents was too dangerous.
Suddenly, a pulse of energy shuddered through him.
A relic?! Did that mean there was a demonhunter here?
Cloudhawk narrowed his eyes. It seemed he was right and the Highwaymen’s recent changes had something to do with the elysian lands. But he couldn’t be sure yet. Just because he sensed a relic, it didn’t necessarily mean there were demonhunters here. These bandits could have picked something up out in the ruins – though Cloudhawk found it unlikely. Anyway he looked at it, Blackfiend’s abilities had to be the result of some special relic. So he headed toward the resonance.
He had his target. Passing by several of the large tents, he came upon the source of the pulse.
The inside of the shabby-looking tent was nothing short of extravagant, like a palace chamber. The floor was carpeted with first-rate goose down. The tent’s walls were covered in fine elysian art and weaponry, all of the highest quality. Cloudhawk had the urge to start stuffing things in his pockets.
But he resisted, because in the center of the room, sat high on a stool, was a single figure. His skin was black as onyx, but white had begun to gather by his temples. His features were aquiline, sharp, like they’d been chiseled from stone. In both posture and attitude, he might as well have been a statue. Arrayed before him were several bowls, filled with fresh blood.
This was him. Blackfiend!
Cloudhawk had found what he was here for, but something wasn’t right. There was something weird about this place, about the atmosphere. Staring at Blackfiend, Cloudhawk didn’t get the impression he was even alive. He just sat there, still as stone, with eyes dull and staring. Like some sort of puppet.
That sort of look wasn’t something you saw in a living face.
Were it not for Cyclops’ memories, Cloudhawk would have doubted this was Blackfiend. He seemed more like a wax dummy than a bandit king. A very realistic fake. Shutting his eyes, Cloudhawk reached out with his feelings. No denying it, the resonance was coming from Blackfiend.
Strange. Cloudhawk drew his sword and began to slowly approach.
He was still under the effects of the invisibility cloak, which by right made him all but nonexistent. However, as he neared the center of the tent, the unthinkable happened. Blackfiend’s wax-like body seemed to be filled with vitality.
A palpable, murderous aura flooded the area.
Cloudhawk’s face immediately darkened. He pulled his sword in front of him and flicked the blade’s edge with his fingernail. He felt the vibrations tremor through it, but no sound emerged. Was did follow was a formless energy that spread out through the tent.
This was one of the abilities locked inside Quiet Carnage, something Cloudhawk called a ‘mute field.’ All noise in its area of effect was silenced. You could scream at the top of your lungs and no one would hear a peep.
Blackfiend let loose with an inhuman roar, channeling energy began to channel in his fingers. Large, claw-like nails spat from his skin. Even from this distance Cloudhawk could feel they were brimming with power.
Cloudhawk didn’t hesitate, lunging at his target! His black sword whipped through the air.
As the power of the blade left his sword, it carved a deep trench across the several meters that separated them. Both the table and the stool Blackfiend sat on exploded into splinters, and the slash of power bit into the bandit king’s flesh. The sheer force carved right through him.