Asha told him Squall was still alive. He’d come to visit her several times.
Cloudhawk and the young Bloomnettle survivor hadn’t known each other long, but both had played an important role in each other’s lives. Cloudhawk considered him a friend. He’d thought more than once about what it would be like if they met again, but never in a thousand years had he imagined it would been like this.
More proof that fate loved to play with its human victims.
Squall wasn’t an outright elysian. Especially now, as he was considered a fugitive in the eyes of his former people. But typically people in his position sought out membership in the Dark Atom. Down in the bowels of Skycloud, he and the others had been taken care of by Majjhima – an agent of the Dark Atom. It would make sense, with no one else to turn to, that Squall would throw in his lot with Wolfblade.
It was almost unthinkable that the carefree, kind-hearted young man from years ago would choose to join these thugs. More than that, he had been promoted to crew underboss already. Such a dramatic change was staggering to say the least.
The Squall standing before Cloudhawk now was more mature than he remembered. He’d ditched the braid of his youth and let long hair flow down to his shoulders. A simple headband kept it in place, lending him a more heroic appearance. Time and the elements marked his skin, tan and rough. A pair of hard eyes smoldered like candles, both familiar and strange. It was impossible to know what the young man had experienced down in the darkness, but whatever it was had changed him.
“Like you brave, strong men, my time with the family has been short. By luck, our master has chosen to gift me with my position. As he said, we will not accept weakness. If you want to be one of the Highwaymen then you’ll need to prove you have something to contribute.”
Squall stood before the potential recruits, his voice carrying across the crowd.
“I’m not going to waste everyone’s time with bullshit. This is your shot; challenge myself or another crew boss. Survive ten blows, you’re in. Beat me or another crew boss, you take our place. On the other hand, don’t blame us if you choke biting off more than you can chew.”
The Highwaymen weren’t the sort to be bogged down by rules. The challenges started right away.
Whispers spread through the crowd as people tried to work out their plans. While people were still muttering, a thin middle-aged man stepped forward. “I challenge you!”
The first public challenge came faster than expected. Obviously, whoever this man was he had a high opinion of himself.
Squall looked over the contender. The middle-aged man was rail-thin, pale, with sunken eyes. Everything about him was dull and downtrodden, like he was carved from heartless stone. His clothes were worn, and a scabbard wrapped in bits of cloth hung from his waist. On his back was strung a chipped wine gourd. Beside a young boy shifted uncomfortable. He didn’t seem like an offering, perhaps he was the man’s son.
“Good.” Squall said nothing further, just walked forward and gripped his exorcist staff. “What’s your name?”
“Green Snake.” The man’s eyes were sharp, fixed. He put his hand at the hilt of his sword and stood at the ready. “Careful, ‘underboss.’ Once my sonic sword is drawn, I don’t put it away until it’s had some fun.”
Squall replied with a self-confident grin. “Sonic sword. That’s a famous martial move, isn’t it? Are you a martial artist?”
Green Snake didn’t answer. He reached back and pulled the wine gourd from his back and handed it to the young boy, who took it dutifully. Sunken, drawn eyes then turned to Squall and then he attacked.
The crowd could hardly see him, he was so fast. He flung his sword, still wrapped in cloth. In the same instant he jumped up and grabbed the hilt of the sword from the air with a deep growl. An explosive sound ensued, like a cannon. As the blade’s scabbard fired off toward Squall like a ballista bolt, the cold light of the sword inside was revealed.
Squall’s eyes gleamed.
His exorcist staff whistled through the air and knocked aside the scabbard, which embedded itself in a nearby wall. Cracks spread through the stone until, all at once, the wall exploded outward. If just the scabbard could cause this sort of damage, would could Green Snake’s sword do? They were about to see, for his follow-up attack came on the heels of the first.
The exorcist staff continued to whip around in a full circle then returned to Squall’s hand. A deafening screech of metal on metal rang out as staff and blade met.
Bandits cheered and recruits watched his fervent attention. The first challenger had skill, that was clear, and this newly elevated underboss was something too. Everyone knew that demonhunters weren’t usually close-combat fighters, but so far the young Highwaymen was yet to use his demonhunter powers. This meant he could hold his own even without them.
Jumping through the air and flinging his scabbard, Green Snake had shown his martial talent. He was by no means a master, but still a student of martial arts. Men like him often held high station in the elysian army. And this was just his first attack, meant to gauge what Squall was capable of.
Squall obliged with a counterattack.
Green Snake watched, calm, ready to react. His sword was made from special materials, making it sharp enough to cut through iron. He felt it could easily kept the simple-looking staff off of him. With a flash in his green eyes, their two weapons met again. Green Snake flicked his wrist, and though no one saw him gather any sort of energy a burst of power pulsed from his sword.
Sonic sword! Green Snake’s greatest stroke!
The speed of sound was considered a barrier for most warriors. However much you trained or how strong you became, using nothing but your body to surpass the speed of sound was incredibly difficult to do. Unless one overcame the constraints of the outside world, drawing on the potential of every cell, every fiber. This is what martial artists called true power.
Be it in the air or under water, a warrior could summon tremendous amounts of power. Those who mastered the potential in their bodies didn’t need to be on solid ground to summon it. Their bodies were like a bowstring; only needing to be pulled taught then fired. Almost all at once Green Snake delivered a dozen rapid-fire strikes with his sword, like a torrent. This was a technique no normal fighter could muster. Only those with special training could do it safely.
Squall brandished his staff at the flurry, and the two weapons clashed twenty, thirty times in quick succession. The air was alive with sparks, and the deafening sound of their contest pierced the ear. But Green Snake’s onslaught was proving too much. Squall was slowly being pushed back.
For the moment the middle-aged warrior had the advantage. However he juked backward, causing Squall to overextend and swipe at empty space.
Green Snake flung his sword.
The weapon spun through the air like a boomerang, aimed at Squall’s waist. It was perfectly executed, a technique that required tremendous skill. If properly used in a fight it could turn the tide. But Squall was quick, and leapt up and over the sword before it could reach its mark.
It carved a path through the air and started to head back toward the sword’s owner.
Green Snake saw it, now was his chance. Squall wasn’t a martial artist, but even a demonhunter couldn’t dodge when they were in midair. This was his opportunity to put the underboss down with one well-placed strike.
He snatched the sword out of the air and jumped, aiming a definitive strike toward Squall.
The demonhunter’s exorcist staff released an ear-piercing squeal, then he hurled it like a javelin. But Green Snake was ready. He knew the young man was a demonhunter and had been holding back. But wasn’t it too late now? The middle-aged challenger deftly twisted out of the staff’s path.
When the staff hit the ground it left a crater several meters in diameter. The black-metal weapon was fixed right in the very center.
The crowd stared, wide eyed, as though they’d been struck by lightning. If Squall had started the fight with a blow like that, Green Snake’s flimsy sword would have been powerless. Now it was too late. It seemed like Blackfiend’s newest underboss was soon to be replaced.
Green Snake did not hold back. He drew every ounce of vigor from within him and focused it into his right fist, up through the sword, to concentrate at its tip.
Squall reacted in a way no one expected. He reached out and grabbed the blade with bandaged left hand. As he did, the strips of cloth began to disintegrate. Inch by inch they dissolves to ash, revealing his arm and the criss-crossing beneath. But these were no ordinary tattoos. The lines blazed with red light.
To Green Snake, the sensation was like shoving his sword into a sponge.
When Squall had gathered enough energy it was like his whole arm had swelled to twice its original size. The light pouring from them gradually darkened to a purple before Squall shoved his hand forward, releasing all of the pent-up energy.
Green Snake’s sword detonated. From tip to hilt, it fractures into a hundred thousand metal shards and exploded toward its bearer.
Green Snake hit the ground, but couldn’t avoid all the shrapnel. Curiously, he was only slightly wounded.
“Not bad! You have some talent.” Squall walked over to him unscathed, rewrapping his arm with a bandage. “Enough to be a crew boss. Take crew sixteen. And from now on you can consider yourself my aid. Of course, as long as master Blackfiend approves.”
Blackfiend acquiesced with a nod.
He’d lost, but the martial artist had done enough to impress his betters. He was awarded command over a crew. Green Snake didn’t say anything as he rose and returned to the crowd. The young boy handed back the gourd he’d been protecting.
Squall sent his eyes searching once more through the crowd. “Who’s next?”
Another smallish man stepped forward with another challenge for Squall.
He figured now was the right time. Squall had to be a little tired from the last exchange, and now he knew a little of what the demonhunter could do. The short fellow knew he didn’t have the same skill as Green Snake, but he was still confident he was good enough. Ten moves, that’s all he had to handle. Maybe they’d make him a crew boss, too.
The results were not what the small man hoped. Squall burst open his skull with one blow from the exorcist staff.
“This opportunistic shit thought he had what it took. Clearly he didn’t.” Squall was covered with blood and bits of brain matter. His gruesome appearance, together with the mysteriously bandaged arm, made him an intimidating presence. Two men had challenged him, with two vastly differing consequences.
The rest of the crowd shared nervous glances.
The young underboss might have looked harmless with his lopsided grin, but he didn’t hold back when it came to killing. No wonder he was such an important member of the Highwaymen.