The Highwaymen’s leadership had a simple attitude: their people either needed to have a useful skill, or knew how to handle themselves in a fight.
After what they saw, no one in the crowd made the mistake of underestimating the young demonhunter anymore. Challenges for his position were suddenly and conspicuously silenced. Recruits like Green Snake were rare, and most of the others hoping to become Highwaymen were just hoping someone support. To them the Highwaymen were a means to survive in the harsh wastelands, and that was good enough.
Squall’s sudden appearance was striking to Barb. ‘Shock’ didn’t even begin to describe her reaction. Even though Cloudhawk had warned her that the Highwaymen had a connection to Skycloud, she didn’t believe it until she saw the young demonhunter for herself. Barb secretly watched some behind the crowd. At this distance Squall wouldn’t be able to see her clearly. Besides, they’d known each other only a short time when they met in the Sandbar, and never kept in touch afterward.
She didn’t recognize Squall. All she could tell was that he was a demonhunter, and a young one at that. Someone with his talent at his age had a bright future, that was certain. But if that were so, why betray the faith and join this band of ruffians? Could it really be true that the Highwaymen had tied to the elysians?
When Autumn learned that a demonhunter was among these bandits, she was also taken by surprise. She couldn’t help but wonder. “What do you know about him? Can you handle the demonhunter if you have to?”
They already learned that the Highwaymen’s leader was beyond Cloudhawk’s ability to kill on his own. Now with a demonhunter in the mix things were getting ever more complicated. What were they going to do?
“One on one with exorcist staves? I’m not of afraid of anyone!” Barb threw her shoulders back pridefully. She’d watched Squall fight. He could fight, sure, but Barb was confident she could hold her own. However, she suddenly frowned as she remembered something. “But he’s got that strange relic tattooed on his body. I’m not sure I can take him. But his Excellency? He shouldn’t have a problem.”
Squall packed a punch, literally and figuratively. Three years ago he had about the same physical capabilities as Cloudhawk. The difference between them was measured in psychic energy and quality of relics. Now, three years later, Squall had come to learn a lot about the skills of a demonhunter. He also had that strange relic. And besides, who knew what he’d learned when he disappeared from the public eye.
“Things have gotten a little sideways.” Cloudhawk mentally weighed his options before coming to a decision. “I know this demonhunter. He’s a good guy. I don’t know what brought him here, but I’m sure he’s got his reason.”
Both the women wore their doubt openly in their expressions. Could he still be called a ‘good guy’ if he was part of an organization that raped, murdered and robbed indiscriminately?
Cloudhawk looked toward Barb. “Actually you know him, too.”
“I do? No way…”
Squall had changed a lot in three years, and he was disguised. Since Barb didn’t have Cloudhawk’s gift for espionage, she hadn’t been able to get in for a closer look. Cloudhawk wasn’t sure how to explain the truth.
“It’s complicated, but suffice it to say we can’t hang around any longer.” They’d come here to deal with Blackfiend and hopefully solve an issue before it became a problem. Evidently, the Highwaymen’s leader was more trouble than he’d anticipated, and now there was Squall to deal with. Circumstances were a lot less simple than he thought they would be, so plans would have to change. “We need to come up with a way to get out of here.”
For the last few days the Highwaymen had been searching the wastelands for them to no avail. Sooner rather than later, those teams were going to begin coming back to Boondock. If by then their identities were exposed then fleeing would be impossible. They needed to go now, and get back to the mission at hand in Fishmonger’ Borough.
Luckily Boondock didn’t take them too far out of the way. Once they got out of the highwaymen’s hideaway they could be on their way directly.
Cloudhawk set about formulating their plan of escape. Barb Produced her needles and began to distribute them between herself and her senior. While Cloudhawk slinked through the city’s dark alleys in search of an escape route, Barb would follow every step. Together they could work out a solution.
While he was out scouting, the mission of protecting Autumn fell to Barb. The young demonhunter wasn’t the strongest warrior, but she wasn’t a push-over either. So long as she was careful, neither were in danger.
Cloudhawk also had another motive for looking around. Now that he knew Squall was nearby, he had to see him face to face. He wanted to know what the Bloomnettle survivor had done for the last few years that brought him to this place.
In the early hours of the morning, all was quiet. Now, when the bandits slept off their alcohol and the sun was yet to rise, was the best time for Cloudhawk to move around.
Boondock wasn’t a big place. Following a relic’s song, he quickly found Squall’s tent. Upon making sure it was the same resonance he sensed before, Cloudhawk entered without so much as a word.
Squall’s tent was much smaller than Blackfiend’s, though still much larger than most. It was humbly decorated, with no fancy carpets or expensive furniture. At present, Squall was inside speaking with a middle-aged man. Green Snake, the one from earlier.
The young boy who was always at his side was present as well. He held the wine gourd tight to his tiny frame.
Cloudhawk took a moment to regard the boy. He was around ten, but very quiet and detached for his age. Completely different than he’d seemed during the daytime. His eyes were duel wells, deep and inscrutable, and so lacking in emotion it was almost unsettling.
At first, Cloudhawk thought the boy was Green Snake’s son. While rare, it wasn’t unheard of for a strong father to wander the wastes taking care of his child. However, looking at them now Cloudhawk got the suspicion that was not the case.
Firstly, Green Snake’s mannerisms revealed a deep respect for the youth. That in and of itself was incredibly odd. More surprising, the way they sat and talked it seemed as though Squall knew them both.
Green Snake stood to one side, a new sword in his arms. Cloudhawk’s first assumption had been wrong, for it was the child who did most of the talking.
He couldn’t hear what they were saying. Cloudhawk stepped forward to try to get within earshot, but unwittingly trampled something with his foot. A trap, cleverly hidden though uncomplicated. A line, when pulled taught, rang a small bell. Its gentle chime announced his presence.
Green Snake’s half-lidded eyes snapped open. Squall shot to his feet, exorcist staff already in hand. The boy looked, too, but all his keen eyes saw was air.
Instinctually, Cloudhawk pulled out his own weapon. In that same instant he a blanket of energy settle down upon him – and not just him, for it seemed to overflow from the tent and envelope the whole area. It was like he was suddenly caught in an enormous, invisible bubble where sound was snuffed out. Whatever happened in this tent, the outside world wouldn’t hear a thing. Nor could they hear what was happening outside.
Cloudhawk followed up by hacking his sword toward Squall.
Green Snake saw the streak of energy appear from nothing and ripped his sword from its sheath. In a blinding series of moves, he carved a protective defensive net cutting them off from this unseen attacker. Green Snake, as a martial artist, was capable of super-human speed. Each slash was the speed of sound, and it took only an instant for an overwhelming number of blows to come raining down.
Faced with the airtight defense, Cloudhawk’s reaction was to take a swipe. Quiet Carnage tore into the web of blows and dissipated it. Green Snake’s new sword shattered into pieces. He went sailing back and struck the floor hard enough to knock the breath out of him. Hands shaking uncontrollably, they dripped fresh blood.
Cloudhawk’s second strike followed. But it wasn’t at Squall, or Green Snake. His sword was aimed at the boy.
All of a sudden the child’s eyes went wide. Tiny arms flung the wine gourd in his hands high into the air, where the plain-looking receptacle belched a wave of power. A river of reddish-purple energy poured out of it and congealed into a skeletal warrior, clad in scarlet armor. Though only bones and steel, the skeleton held itself with regal bearing, like a mighty general. In addition to its protective gear, it also bore a large two-handed broadsword that gleamed like a snow-capped hill. It roared – a strange and terrifying sound – and rushed toward Cloudhawk’s unseen form.
Cloudhawk was right. The relic he felt earlier was the gourd. This one who looked like a child was actually a demonhunter.
However old he was, he definitely wasn’t ten. Maybe it was some natural ailment that made him look so young. Green Snake was his cover, so it wouldn’t be strange for a young child to meet with Squall.
The skeletal warrior was cleaved apart within moments of being summoned. Gloom took over the child’s face as both guardians fell. He gathered up the bones of the skeleton and held them aloft, his eyes hysterical. The gourd produced another pair, while the third and fourth began to coalesce from the violet mist.
A summon relic like this could probably continue to call skeletons until the whole tent was full of them. If he didn’t deal with the demonhunter first, things would quickly spiral out of control. It wouldn’t be long before someone outside the mute field discovered what was happening.
As Cloudhawk threw everything into his attack, his stealth melted away. In one mighty swing from Quiet Carnage, a blast of power raced toward three of the skeletons. They each brought their massive swords before them to defend, but were easily shattered. Cloudhawk’s sword swept across their waists, cutting them down like weed stalks. There was enough residual power in the strike to reach the mysterious boy.
That’s when Squall reacted.
He leapt from behind to put himself between the boy and his attacker. He deflected the wave of energy with the exorcist staff in his right hand, which was already whirring, while grasping at it with his left. The biting gash of energy shrank and then vanished, as though it had been swallowed up. The bandages covered his tattooed arm were cut to ribbons, revealing the gleaming eldritch lines beneath.
“So it was you.” Squall narrowed his eyes as he saw their attacker step out from the shadows. He couldn’t help but greet Cloudhawk with a queer look. “When did you get so strong?”
Cloudhawk lowered his weapon. The mask against his face kept his features hidden as the two stared at each other from across the tent. That tattered grey cloak fluttered, though there was no breeze, as he melted back into view. “Not bad yourself, Squall.”
“It was you who cut Blackfiend in half two days ago, wasn’t it.” A wry grin split Squall’s face. “Frankly speaking, I’d never seen anyone do what you did. Obviously I’m no match for you. Why are you here?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” Cloudhawk fixed his old friend with a stare. “What are you doing in a place like this?”
“It’s a long story,” Squall said, shaking his head with a sigh. He first turned to Green Snake and the boy, silently signaling that all was well. The child stopped channeling through his gourd and Green Snake climbed back onto his feet. Both kept their eyes fixed on Cloudhawk, alert. Squall pointed to a chair. “Sit and talk for a minute?”
“No time,” he replied. He was in a rush, so he cut to the chase. “I need your help.”