How strong was this arrow? Simply put, beyond anything a normal person could imagine. Wind roared around like a tiger, whipping up everything in a ten-meter diameter. Sand danced through the air in tendrils like earthen snakes. The well-made bow was struggling to contain all the energy contained within, a fact given voice by an unsettling crack as the string was drawn. It could explode at any moment.
The coalescing power of the arrow was brighter than the sun, and its blinding rays tore off in every direction. Looking at it, witnesses couldn’t see the man behind the bow. Cloudhawk shifted, struggling to hold the bow steady. Whoever it pointed, and overwhelming pressure followed. Tents in his line of sight whipped and shuttered, threatening to blow around in the invisible tempest.
All the Highwaymen’s rough and rugged bandits stared in shock and trepidation.
They’d heard that demonhunters could do incredible things, but this was beyond all expectations. To them, even a god would shirk from the threat of this arrow. Never had these simple criminals seen the full might of a demonhunter on display, and they failed to keep composure. What they felt was more than fear. It struck them in the deepest parts of their mind.
Blackfiend was worshipped by his people for the same reason anyone obeyed in the wastelands – he was strong. Nearly all the members of the Highwaymen were cowed by the mere suggestion of what their leader could do. Now they were faced with a nameless demonhunter, displaying capabilities they never thought possible. How would such a demonstration affect their faith?
The arrow was not released, yet the terror it evoked held them fast. What calamity would ensue once Cloudhawk relaxed his fingers?
The Warden was convinced that this arrow would blow Blackfiend into unrecognizable pieces. Blackfiend knew it, too. It didn’t matter how strong he was, Blackfiend was made of flesh and bone. No creature made of such fragile material would survive this arrow. However, much to everyone’s amazement, Blackfiend stood calmly in its path. Even as the world roared in protest around Cloudhawk, Blackfiend’s face never changed. His merely fixed the would-be assassin with a dark, venomous glare.
Their leader’s calm bolstered the Highwaymen, sticking their courage. If Blackfiend did not flinch, and he was the target, then they had nothing to fear from this demonhunter. Of course, they still hesitated to wonder how this conflict would end.
As Cloudhawk’s energy reached its peak, Blackfiend leaned forward ever so slightly. He was inviting the arrow. What followed was a scene that dumbfounded the onlookers.
Cloudhawk whipped around, pointing the bow toward the young man by his side.
Squall immediate felt the crushing weight of the energy wash over him, threatening to erase his presence. The pressure of it was so great he felt himself physically sink an inch into the muddy ground. He was held fast.
“Cloudhawk, you…” Squall managed to stagger backwards two steps then stopped. “What are you doing?”
Cloudhawk’s face was cold as ice. “Cut the shit. I knew you were up to something from the start.”
When Barb read Cyclops’ memory, there was never any indication of Squall’s presence. The red-masked bandit was one of Blackfiend’s right-hand men. Squall rose to the position of underboss in less than a year, was held in high regard by Blackfiend, but one of his oldest lieutenants had never heard of him?
Squall’s appearance here was too much a coincidence.
A day after Cloudhawk fought Blackfiend, Squall showed up. This could mean only one thing – Squall knew it was Cloudhawk from the beginning. He also knew the Warden was connected to Autumn somehow.
That would explain why security had seemed so relaxed. Squall knew at least a little of what Cloudhawk could do, so he must have known that trying to flush him out would have been useless. Once Cloudhawk had his mind set of escape, no one could stop him.
There was no way for Squall to confirm Autumn’s identity. He also couldn’t know whether or not Cloudhawk had brought her into the city. As such, it was obvious finding the girl would be hard. The clever choice was to dangle himself out as bait and grab his prey’s attention.
What’s more, after his first encounter with Blackfiend, Cloudhawk had to be frightened by the man’s power. He wouldn’t tip his hand again easily, so he had to be made to.
Squall was the perfect ploy.
It did not require expert reasoning to guess that Cloudhawk would seek him out once he knew Squall was in the city. After revealing himself to Blackfiend, the hunted man would come looking for help. However, doing so put him right where they wanted. In looking for help, he would deliver himself and the girl right into their hands.
Squall stared at the condensed point of energy leveled at him. At this distance, there was no way he would survive. “You’re going to kill me?”
“Only because you’re trying to kill me.” Cloudhawk’s face was hidden behind the mask, but something about his bearing must have made him look conflicted. It was unexpected and unfortunate that the two men would find themselves in this stand-off. “Blackfiend’s a puppet, I figured that out right away. Nothing but a special sort of relic. And the only person here that could control it is you, Squall. Blackfiend’s a tool – a story. The real leader of the Highwaymen is you. Am I right?”
Squall looked at him with shock and incredulity. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“If you’re gonna stand there and deny it, then I’ve got no more hope for you. Your arm gives it away. The tattoo is the same dark-type relic as Blackfiend. Ever since I fought it, I was wondering why it seemed so detached. Because it was only fighting on instinct. For Blackfiend to then show up in front of everyone and act like a normal human meant it had to be rigged. Controlled.”
Outwardly, Blackfiend looked perfectly human. In reality, it was a device with no independent thought. Every word, every action, was controlled by someone else.
Without its controller nearby the relic resorted to instinct. That explained why it seemed so wooden when Cloudhawk fought Blackfiend in its tent. When he snuck into that tent, it happened to be a time when its master was not around.
The bow in his hands crackled with energy. Cloudhawk pulled the bowstring back farther. “I’m willing to bet my life that when I let this arrow go, everyone will see Blackfiend for the puppet it really is.”
The faux shock melted from Squall’s face as energy began to gather in his left arm. A cold, apathetic mask emerged. “Impressive. I didn’t think you’d notice.”
The two men stood mere inches away. The sound from Cloudhawk’s bow and the wind it kicked up made their exchange inaudible to the other bandits.
While the Highwaymen stood stunned, not everyone remained motionless. Green Snake and Imp took their shot, attacking Cloudhawk from opposing sides. Blackfiend also surged forward.
Cloudhawk had guessed right. It was Squall all along.
There was only a split second to react. If he killed Squall with the arrow, at least Blackfiend would the demonhunter would be taken care off. But if he hesitated, even just for a second, he would be overwhelmed. Squall, Green Snake, Imp, and Blackfiend – four on one. His chances of escaping then were slim to none.
For a fraction of a second the two men exchanged a look.
Then Cloudhawk released the string.
In the moment of released it seemed like reality upended itself. Rivers flows backward and mountains danced as a deluge of energy erupted from the bow. The beam it released was two meters thick and carved a ravine sixty meters long. Anything in its path was completely disintegrated.
Cries rang out among the bandits. They didn’t know what was going on, only that in the instant Blackfiend leapt at Cloudhawk the assassin spun toward him and fired the bow. When the dust cleared, Blackfiend was a pile of ash and smoldering meat. There wasn’t anything left of him larger than a fist.
It wasn’t just Blackfiend who was ended, either. A large swathe of bandits unfortunately caught in its path had been snuffed out.
The Highwaymen stared in horror, struck dumb by a power that seemed able to level the pillars of heaven. Cloudhawk abused their momentary surprise to drop the bow and pull quiet carnage from its sheath. He put it against Squall’s throat and began to drag him backward. “Anyone dares take another step and I’ll kill him!”
The Highwaymen’s boss was a heap of entrails. Their second in command was captured. After what they saw the demonhunter do, no one wanted to test him.
In the instant Cloudhawk released the bowstring, Squall was certain he was dead. But the arrow wasn’t aimed at him. The sudden change from what he was expecting was dramatic, and it took him time to recover his wits. By the time he had a handle on things, Squall was already being dragged backwards by Cloudhawk. A grin split his lips. “That was a smart move. Use me as a hostage to clear an escape route. But you’ll have to leave the girl behind.”
“Fuckin’ chatty aren’t ya. You’re in no position to tell me what I can and can’t do.” The deadly black blade was pressed against Squall’s throat. In a threatening growl Cloudhawk shouted at the bandits, nervously shuffling around him. “I’m counting to three. If you dimwitted cocksuckers don’t clear a path I’ll slice his fuckin’ head off.”
The bandits were at a loss, looking at each other for guidance.
Squall called out to them calmly. “What, are you deaf? Move!”
As the beleaguered thugs looked on, their fear was replaced with awe. For as Cloudhawk retreated with their underboss, the bits and pieces of their leader began to rise from the trench carved by the assassin’s arrow. Chunks of blackened flesh, the ash of what was left, all gathered together before their eyes and began to reform. First it was a skeleton, then viscera, then flesh.
“Blackfiend, the Undying!”
“Blackfiend has come back to life!”
Even reduced to chum, Blackfiend was still able to reform itself from the remains. It was unkillable. But Cloudhawk didn’t bother with that now. While the bandits were distracted he shoved Squall aside, channeled his invisibility cloak, then slipped away through the crowd.
“I’m fine.” Squall pushed off a group of bandits who’d come to look him over. He pointed to a nearby tent. “There are two women inside, take them both. Don’t let them escape.”
The thugs rushed forward to do his bidding.
Inside were two figures laying on the ground. Bandits ripped the sacks covering their faces to reveal that they weren’t the women they were after. They were dressed properly, and struggled like a woman might, but they were actually made of sand. Decoys, made by Cloudhawk.
The instant the bandits grabbed them the figures melted into piles of silt.
Squall’s face darkened when he saw what happened. Only, thinking about it, it made sense.
Cloudhawk was a clever one. It was no bluff, he must have known from the start. If he was suspicious of Squall, then the first thing he’d do was get the real women far away. It didn’t matter, though. Cloudhawk could come and go as he pleased, but trying to bring a pair of women along was going to make escape from Boondock far more difficult.
“Gather everyone!” By now Blackfiend had completely recovered, though his clothes remained ash. He stood naked before the bandits, every inch of his chiseled black body revealed. It glistened like oil in the firelight, invulnerable. Blackfiend’s commands were coldly violent. “Hunt him down. Bring him to me, alive or dead.”