After three years apart, this was their reunion.
A lot had changed for Squall. He’d become taller, stronger, more rugged. His clothes and hair had changed with him. But more than those surface differences, Squall had transformed from the inside out.
A thin beard peppered his face, and his long black hair had grown down to his shoulders. He seemed to be blanketed in a chilly aura that persisted all the time – the presence of a man who was no stranger to killing. He had the impression of someone who had been scarred by the tempest that was life, baptized in the cruel reality of the wastelands. Time had stripped the youthful idealism from the Bloomnettle heir. In both mind and body, he was a man.
Physically, there was a notable difference between his left and right arm. It was almost like it had been cut off someone else and stitched on. It didn’t belong. It was obvious Squall had suffered, even more than when Cloudhawk knew him.
No wonder Barb hadn’t recognized him. You couldn’t blame her imperfect memory, or the distance between them when she’d tried to sneak a peek. He was a completely different person from the one she met in the borderlands. He hadn’t been a full-fledged demonhunter back then, just a boy full of hope and energy. He had worshipped Arcturus Cloude, and his greatest dream was to one day be a demonhunter like him.
Now, three years later, at least part of that dream was realized. He was a demonhunter, and even stronger than Barb.
But the jovial young man was gone, and the Squall he’d grown to become found himself the underboss of the Highwaymen. He commanded a group of men known for rape, murder and banditry. Those he called family were responsible for a great deal of blood and suffering throughout the wastelands.
What could have happened to change a man so thoroughly? Right now, however, that wasn’t a pressing question for Cloudhawk. His priority was trying to figure out how to escape in one piece.
Squall could see that Cloudhawk wasn’t interested in playing catch-up, so he didn’t press him. “Alright. Although I’m not sure why you tried to kill Blackfiend, he is far too strong for you to be a threat. You’re in deep shit if he finds you, so we won’t waste time with chit-chat. Go on, say what you need.”
Cloudhawk waved his sword and a formless but palpable energy filled the tent.
Both Green Snake and the mysterious child continued to eye Cloudhawk with suspicion. He was standing only a few feet away, but neither could hear the words exchanged between him and Squall. It had to be some sort of power from the weapon he held.
“What the hell is Blackfiend? Is there a way to defeat him?” Cloudhawk paused for a minute before adding, “Also, the Highwaymen are hunting a woman because she has access to a secret trove. Why?”
“Sorry, there’s nothing I can tell you about the first question. From what I can tell, I don’t think Blackfiend is human. What he is exactly, though, I have no idea. I will say that beating him is probably impossible, and my advice is to get as far away as possible.” Squall didn’t know much about his current boss, and made that clear. He hesitated before moving on to the second inquiry. “As for the one with the treasure… Blackfiend’s talked about it before. He’s mentioned a woman from the Woodland Vale wandering the wastelands.”
“The Woodland Vale?”
“Yes, the legend of a wooded valley goes back a thousand years, to the god wars.” Squall went on to share the legend. “It is said that one of the gods rebelled against their kind, fleeing the war and taking with them a sacred treasure.”
“So Blackfiend’s after this treasure.”
“No, everyone’s after this treasure,” Squall corrected. “Whatever it is, the god’s stolen trinket is capable of producing limitless energy. The Woodland Vale has never lacked power for whatever it needs. Think about it. After a thousand years, the Vale has to have more energy stores than we could imagine. That’s why everyone wants to get their hands on this woman.”
Well, that explained why Autumn had been walking around with so much eboncrys. Those crystals were essentially condensed energy, and even elysians held them in high value. All that much truer for the energy-starved wasteland.
Autumn’s dim-witted persona didn’t stem from a lack of intelligence, but rather her upbringing. Where she came from they never lacked energy, and clearly coming to the wastelands was her first time leaving whatever isolated village she came from. It definitely explained her ignorance.
Cloudhawk was still brimming with questions. “If Blackfiend knows its somewhere in the wastelands, why not just expand the search? Why does he need her?”
“You can’t imagine the power of the gods. The rebel deity protected the Vale with powers that hide it from normal people. Only those of a particular bloodline are permitted to enter, and unless I’m mistaken that woman is one of the tribal leaders.” Here Squall paused, his brows tightening. “Why do you ask? I’d heard she was being protected by a powerful demonhunter… wait. That must be you.”
Cloudhawk sighed, unwilling to hide the truth. “Unfortunately that’s right.”
Squall’s eyes went wide with surprise. “Fuck. You’ve been the one hiding her?”
Cloudhawk’s next sentence showed Squall his surprise was premature. “No, I wasn’t hiding her. She essentially just fell into my lap. She’s actually here now, in Boondock.”
The Highwaymen were scouring every inch of the blasted wastelands for a woman who was kicking her heels up here in their home. It was so dramatic he had to stop himself from laughing.
“Well, you’re carrying a damn target on your ass. The highwaymen, Dark Atom, big players in the northern barrens, elysians… they all want what that girl represents.” Squall was floored by the turn of events. “What you’re doing is incredibly dangerous. You can’t handle such a treasure on your own. Get close to her, make nice, at least so you have some backup. Otherwise, even if you get your hands on that trove you won’t be able to hold on to it.”
“Fuck, who the hell cares about this treasure? I sure as shit don’t. I had no idea who she was and now I’ve got this tiger by the tail. Let this prize go and I’m fucked. Hang on and I’m dead. Shit circumstances either way you cut it.” Cloudhawk was frustrated, and it showed. Nor were his words an exaggeration. He couldn’t just abandon Autumn, it wasn’t in his character. He got straight to the point. “That’s why I’m here. Is there any way you can think of to help us get out of Boondock?”
“This…” Squall’s sour expression was a clue. He clenched his fists, and eventually answered. “If it were just you I could do something. But…”
Cloudhawk didn’t waste time with words. He only wanted an answer.
“Fine. Blackfiend trusts me, I can find a way to get you out of the city. Where is she right now? Bring me to her.”
Squall’s help was a big win for Cloudhawk. Boondock’s security seemed loose, but was actually pretty stringent. Walking out with a pair of women, without explanation, was a tall order. But what about Squall’s aim? What was he doing here? Squall didn’t seem interested in sharing, so Cloudhawk didn’t ask. He was sure he’d find out eventually.
He waved a hand, and the mute field dissipated.
Squall turned to his two companions. “Green Snake, Imp[B1]. Why don’t you head out.”
The two shared a quiet glance, but did as instructed.
Barb and Autumn were in their tent in the outskirts of Boondock when they saw the two figures coming. Squall, in turn, saw them in the distance. “Strange, two?”
“You know the other one. That’s Barb – you fought together in the Sandbar.”
Squall wracked his mind. It was only three years ago, but to him a century might as well have passed. Eventually it came to him. Barb was that crude and straightforward demonhunter. “Ah, her. I almost forget. Wasn’t she all about traveling the world and proving herself? What’s she doing mixed up with you?”
“Since we’re bringing up old times, have you seen Asha?”
“Of course.” Cloudhawk hadn’t anticipated the question from Squall. “She also talked about you. Seems you’ve left an impression.”
Squall sheepishly scratched his head. Thinking of something, he heaved a gentle sigh then looked toward the tent. A glint entered his eyes. “I should stop and say hello, don’t you think? Though I doubt Barb remembers me.”
They approached the tent. But as Squall was preparing to enter, Cloudhawk narrowed his eyes and looked around. Something didn’t feel right. “Hold up. It’s too quiet.”
Before he could ask what was wrong, Cloudhawk had already called on the phase stone. He reached into the pocket dimension and pulled free a bow. Quick as lightning, he whipped around, half-drew the bowstring and let fly. A ghostly arrow was expelled, ripping through the canvas of a tent and running through a pair of bandits hiding inside. Their cries gave voice to the spray of blood that spurted through the tent flap.
All of a sudden the area was a chaos of motion. Bandits poured in from all sides, hundreds of them.
Squall’s face darkened. “What the hell is going on? We were tailed?”
From among the crowd a figure emerged. He was wrapped in grey robes, with skin black as pitch that glimmered in the moonlight. His head of grey hair was cut short, adding to the lordly air of his tall figure. Blackfiend had come calling.
“Blackfiend,” Squall hissed. “You have to run.”
But how could he? Cloudhawk stood bolted in place.
Blackfiend was still approaching when his deep, scratchy voice arose. “As always Squall, you are my worthy Underboss. You’ve delivered the would-be assassin right to me. I’m sure it took considerable effort. Everyone, grab him. Remember to keep him alive.”
The hundreds of bandits raised their weapons all at once screaming their war cries and grinning with bloodlust. Like a tidal wave they came crashing down, from all directions. They didn’t know who Cloudhawk was, but they knew he was a demonhunter. However, with Blackfiend the Undying at their backs the bandits were not afraid.
What did it matter if he was a demonhunter? Even a master demonhunter died like anyone else.
Squall was terrified. He called out in a low voice. “You’re strong enough to get yourself out of this, but only yourself. Don’t waste time and get out of here! I’ll find a way to deal with this mess.”
Cloudhawk’s eyes hardened as he stared down the sight of his bow. The string was pulled back and poised for his next shot. This time it wasn’t the bandits, but their leader he had in the crosshairs. Dust was kicked up all around, swallowing them up like a sandstorm.
He poured all the energy within him into one single arrow. The crackling power of it was incredible!
“You know it in your heart. You cannot beat me.” Blackfiend faced the single pinpoint of light that was Cloudhawk’s arrow, but there was no fear in his face. “If you think this arrow will kill me then I invite you to try. Fire, I will not move.”
“Undead, eh?” Cloudhawk’s eyes blazed. “Let’s see you put yourself back together after I blow you to fuckin’ pieces.”
“Just you?” The ends of Blackfiend’s mouth curled up ever so slightly. “Not likely.”
“We’ll just have to see!” Cloudhawk reached out with his psychic power and called on the phase stone’s hidden essence. It rose to his summons, melding with his own powers. Yes – it was the same attack he’d used to defeat Frost, but this time it was not a sword he used. All of that energy congealed within the exorcist bow.
Although the weapon was among the most basic of relics, it was still of quality make. The amount of energy it could sustain was staggering, proven by the sheer amount of power coursing through it that Cloudhawk called from the stone. The force of this blow was greater than even a high-rank demonhunter could produce. As it formed into an arrow, the light cast from it blinded the eye.
“I can level a fuckin’ mountain with this one arrow! See what happens when you take it up the ass!”
Cloudhawk’s voice rang over the din like thunder. The terrifying essence he released was thrown out in waves, strong enough to stop the bandits in their tracks. No one dared take another step closer.
Squall also stared at him, eyes wide and mouth agape. How could he have become so strong?
All the while, Blackfiend’s expression never changed. Like the others, he felt the suffocating power pointed at him, but when he spoke his voice was even as a lake surface.
“Let’s find out.”
[B1]I picked Imp for now because it evokes a sense of ‘small, tricky’, but I’m not terribly happy with it. The character’s name is 鬼童, ghost child. I searched for something in mythologies and d&d but couldn’t find something equivalent and pithy