After three years with the veterans of Hell’s Valley, the Cloudhawk of today was completely different than the wasteland scrub from before. In every way, he had matured, most notably in the physical department. This manifested in increased speed, power, sensitivity, constitution and more.
Cloudhawk’s swipe from Quiet Carnage was proof of his progress. He could say, without boasting, that anything less than a senior demonhunter was no threat to him. Even against established hunters he could draw on explosive power and his rare collection of powers to win victory more often than not.
The attack against Blackfiend would cut down someone twice as strong as the bandit king. After all, a body was naught but flesh, no matter how strong the muscles. How could one survive against a blow that would split steel?
Blackfiend stared ahead at what appeared to be an empty tent, when suddenly the ground was split by some unseen force. The table placed before him was blasted apart, and yet there was no reaction from outside. The bodyguards he had set at the tent entrance were absent, ignorant of what was happening inside. Why would they? There was not a single sound that they could hear.
Cloudhawk didn’t reveal himself at all during the attack.
His invisibility cloak was a high-rated relic, but it wasn’t invincible. During use, a sudden blast of resonance from another relic could interrupt or outright cancel its abilities. Because of this, in previous fights Cloudhawk would sneak up on his victims and then be revealed in the moment of his attack. This, unfortunately, left him open for a counter.
However, this time he left no trace. The slash of light seemed to come from nowhere, belched from another dimension.
Cloudhawk’s command over his relics had only improved. Unless he pulled out all the stops for an attack, he could maintain invisibility. It was a small improvement, but one that made him infinitely more dangerous.
From across the tent Blackfiend was cut open from jaw to abdomen.
In that instant his expression went slack. There was no reaction at least, like this mortal blow had happened to someone else. Nor was there any blood from the new fissure that nearly split his torso. Instead, black fog oozed from the wound. Tendrils of it reached out and as Cloudhawk watched, Blackfiend’s black flesh was knit back together. When it was done, there wasn’t even a scar.
The Warden scowled. No wonder that asshole Cyclops worships this guy, his abilities far outstripped any normal person. His body really did seem immortal.
As the bandit king’s body was recovering, the tent’s interior was enveloped in black mist. His silhouette was barely visible, a nightmare in the fog. His eyes began to simmer with a dangerous red light when suddenly he darted forward. Blackfiend’s large claws swiped wildly through the air, and it all happened before Cloudhawk could blink.
This guy moved at the speed of sound! His flurry of blows created a web of energy.
Cloudhawk hacked with quiet carnage to cut the web apart. It was like striking an iron wall. His blade stopped dead. With no other recourse he let his invisibility fade but activated the phase stone’s energy field. As he appeared before Blackfiend, the bandit king’s slicing net slipped right through him. The goose-down carpet beneath Cloudhawk’s feet kicked up a cloud of severed feathers. Shards of fabric rose as well, igniting from some unseen energy and filling the air with flashes of heat and color. A flash in the pan, and then darkness. But the uncomfortable feeling that hung in the air remained.
Cloudhawk felt a crushing sense of danger come over him.
Blackfiend was too strong. As the web of energy rushed through him he felt the phase stone’s field ripple and nearly collapse. He was lucky – the Cloudhawk from three years ago would have been cut into neat little cubes.
Cloudhawk, of course, wasn’t just going to sit around and take a beating.
Blackfiend was fast, but to someone who could effortlessly follow a bullet’s track like Cloudhawk, he was nothing to gawk over. A hand whipped back and pulled a silver weapon from his waste. It was a strange tool, less a throwing dagger and more a pointed cone. It was a specially made throwing weapon that was very slender, and ended in a very sharp point.
Four of them burst out all at once, faster than if they’d been fired from a rifle. At this distance it would have been near impossible to dodge, yet Blackfiend – whatever the fuck he was – didn’t even bother to try. Two caught him in the chest, one in the throat, and the last one right between the eyes.
Cloudhawk’s capabilities were nothing to sniff at. They found purchase in the bandit king’s body, and to any normal person each one would have claimed their life. Of course, then, they would have an effect on Blackfiend. The black-skinned monstrosity stopped mid-fight.
He released another guttural roar.
The sound of it was contained and didn’t reach outside, however with a burst of strength the awl-spikes popped out of his body. Curling wisps of smoke seeped from the injuries.
Cloudhawk was ready for something like this. One of the spikes passed right through him before tearing through the tent walls. There were four punctures now, letting in light from the outside. One of the guards screamed in pain, and Cloudhawk heard something heavy hit the ground.
My turn! Cloudhawk brought his arm around as hard as he could, and another boomerang of energy leapt from quiet carnage.
It was aimed toward Blackfiend’s waist, and before the freak could reaction it swept right through him. As it whipped passed and through the tent a loud rrrip ensued, like someone tearing a sheet of paper. Guards coming from outside were not prepared and were split in half, dead before they knew what happened.
“What’s going on? Boss!”
Several of the bandit leaders had heard by now and raced toward the din. When they arrived, they found Blackfiend’s tent collapsed, and corpses strewn around it. The clash between Cloudhawk and the bandit leader had encompassed mere seconds, and until the end had been almost entirely silent. When they finally managed to pull the heavy tent fabric aside, what the leaders saw shocked them.
The body of bandit king lay on the ground in two halves. He’d been cut in half at the waist, severed completely. The vicious scene left them dumbfounded. Blackfiend’s top half lay unmoving, eyes closed, while chaos erupted all around.
Strangely, not a drop of blood came from the injuries. No pool of gore had gathered, as would be expected. There was only plumes of that black mist like ethereal tentacles, reaching out for his bottom half. One by one they gripped onto onyx black flesh, pulling, tugging. Horrified and awe-struck eyes watched as their master’s body stitched itself back together.
Shocked cries rippled through the crowd.
Blackfiend pulled himself to his feet and opened his eyes. With calm expression he looked over the others, then stretched his neck to the sound of popping joints.
“Blackfiend, the Undying!”
“Blackfiend, the Undying!”
“Blackfiend, the Undying!”
All who witnessed it fell to their knees in worship. His closest subordinates tripped over themselves to speak. “Someone dared to attack the master, herein our home! Gather some men and find who it was!”
If Cloudhawk had stuck around he would have been as astounded as everyone else. Blackfiend looked exactly the same as he did before their fight, although Cloudhawk had indeed cut him right in half. Blackfiend spoke to his men without a hint of concern. “If the assassin can enter with a trace, he can leave just as easily. You will not catch him – don’t burden your men with a task they can’t complete.”
Dread gripped the hearts of all the bandits. What sort of person was this assassin, that he could slip into the heart of their stronghold and strike at their leader? How strong was he, that he could cut Blackfiend apart with one blow then disappear like smoke? Everyone knew how strong the master was, but still he’d lost. Was this assassin a demonhunter sent from the elysian lands?
“He is nothing but a rat, skulking the shadows. Pay him no mind.” With a voice deep and coarse, Blackfiend calmly gave his orders. “Keep this business from spreading, and continue to focus on growing our ranks. We need more. More soldiers, more men of quality.”
Blackfiend the Undying did not seem at all perturbed by the assassination attempt, even going so far as to orders his men to ignore it. If their living god was not worried, then why should it trouble them? These men were long-time followers of Blackfiend and followed his wishes to the letter. Whatever happened to Blackfiend when he vanished into the wastelands, he came back greatly changed. He returned to them reborn, more god than man.
Cloudhawk burst back into their makeshift tent, breathing heavily. Reappearing from thin air, he flopped onto the ground while fighting for breath.
“Fuck! What a pain in the ass, that guy!”
Barb had recently returned, and was visibly surprised when Cloudhawk popped in from nowhere. “You didn’t actually fight him, did you?”
Autumn nearly leapt to her feet. “We’ve been found out! We have to get out of here!”
“Shit, I walked in here in one piece, didn’t I? What the fuck are you freaked out about? Sit down, you wuss.” Cloudhawk picked up a chipped bowl and drank down the turbid drinking water within. He didn’t care that it wasn’t the cleanest. “It didn’t go… exactly as planned, but I got to test our enemy. He’s stronger than I thought, maybe a demonhunter. But different somehow. If he isn’t dealt with he’s gonna cause a whole mountain of shit.”
Barb was most surprised by his words. Was this Blackfiend actually strong enough to threaten Skycloud?
Blackfiend’s history was definitely strange, and they had no way of knowing what happened. What was obvious was that no normal methods were going to put him down. All of a sudden Cloudhawk realized he’d stepped right into a steaming pile of shit, and it was going to be hard to get the stink off.
For the next few days, the small group kept their heads down.
Boondock didn’t react at all to the assassination attempt. Either they didn’t know, or didn’t care. Eventually a gong sounded, and all the new folks hoping to win Blackfiend’s favor were gathered together. It wasn’t a huge crowd, but there were at least a hundred or so potential recruits. Not all of them would be accepted, of course. There was a screening process to see who was worthy of representing the Highwaymen.
Cloudhawk lurked among the crowd, trying to stay inconspicuous. He peeked between the press of hopeful recruits at someone greeted them.
Blackfiend was clad in simple grey robes. He approached the crowd, flanked by his closest henchmen. Cloudhawk was instantly suspicious, however, because this man was different from the one he saw before. The stiff, puppet-like quality was gone. This man seemed as alive as anyone else.
“I am Blackfiend. You are here to join my people, the Highwaymen. I will tell you, only the useful will be admitted.” He paused, looking over the prospects, then started again. “I will begin by introducing someone to you. A newcomer to our family, yet to celebrate the anniversary of their first year with the Highwaymen. However, in that time he has already been promoted to underboss of our family. Today is as good an opportunity as any for you all to grow acquainted.”
As Blackfiend’s words hung in the air, a young man with long hair stepped forward.
He was about twenty, his body wrapped in a wide cloak. In his left hand he held a white strip of cloth, while his right was perched on the handle of a staff. He looked young, but after Blackfiend’s introduction no one let slip a hint of defiance. What’s more, anyone with a keen eye could see that his weapon, while plain, was more than it seemed. That was an exorcist staff – a demonhunter’s weapon.
Knowing he was a demonhunter was enough to earn everyone’s compliance!
Surprise was clear among the crowd. Could it be that Skycloud’s greatest warriors, the fabled demonhunters, were also in service to Blackfiend? It was almost unthinkable out here in the wastelands!
None were as surprised as Cloudhawk, though. But it wasn’t just that this young man was a demonhunter. He knew him. All those years ago... the borderlands… the sewers.
It was Squall!