Cloudhawk called on the power of his invisibility cloak. In no time he was a hundred meters away from the press of the crowd when suddenly an armored vehicle pulled up ahead. A bandit clambered onto the top, behind a mounted machine gun, and started to fire. The thug hoped a lucky bullet might catch the assassin.
But it was no use.
Cloudhawk could see the path of every bullet as though they were drawn out for him. For the ones he couldn’t dodge, his phase stone protected him from harm. Even in a hail of bullets, so long as a concentrated stream wasn’t directed right at him he was fine.
No quarter was given. Cloudhawk pulled back on the exorcist bow’s string and let loose, firing an ethereal arrow into the barrel of the bandit’s gun. It exploded, firing molten shrapnel largely into its bearer’s chest. Sparks and blood rained from the sky.
Green Snake and Imp gave chase.
These two were different from the other henchmen, and had enough skill to know where Cloudhawk was even when invisible. The Warden leapt onto the armored vehicle, and then again forward into the air. Midflight, he twisted around and fire another shot from his bow.
Quick as a whip, Green Snake kicked an iron spear off the ground in front of him and forward toward his enemy. When the spear and the energy arrow collided, a thunderous blast followed.
Imp was watching the situation unfold. He had to be cautious, for although he was more capable than Green snake, his talents didn’t extend to melee combat. Both his reaction times and physical constitution were nothing like the martial artist’s, so he wasn’t going to put himself in the bow’s path. For the time being, he maintained distance and waited for an opening.
Only, just then a great roar erupted from the crowd. Blackfiend charged ahead, leading the others in pursuit.
Blackfiend could handle itself one on one with a high-ranking demonhunter. Cloudhawk’s success had been due to luck and trickery. Back in Blackfiend’s tent, no one had been controlling the puppet and it’d be left to react purely on instinct. When under the command of the Highwaymen’s true leader – Squall – Blackfiend fought at an entirely different level. Cloudhawk’s chances were slim. The slightest misstep and he would be surrounded.
Cloudhawk fished the detonator out of his pocket and jammed his thumb down on the button.
As Blackfiend closed in the whole tent city was rocked by simultaneous explosions. The furthest was a thousand meters away. The closest was right under their feet. Barb had hidden the bombs around the animal pens. Boondock’s sudden turmoil frightened the creatures and caused them to frenzy. With their cages now blown open, terrified beasts began to flood the streets.
A stampede of bulls started charging through tents, leaving chaos in their wake. Mutated rhinos gored whatever came too close and trampled everything in their way. As the raucous explosions and fire balls rose into the sky, Boondock’s bandits were also cast into turmoil. In more than one area tents had caught fire, and the blaze was spreading.
However, Blackfiend paid no mind to any of it. Its glistening black body charged through a wall of fire in pursuit of Cloudhawk, heedless of anything but its prey.
This was the best he was going to get! Cloudhawk gathered what remained of his psychic energy and funneled it into the phase stone. Maybe ten seconds afterward a corona of light erupted, causing reality to shift and ripple unsettlingly. Blackfiend reached out, clawed hand groping for purchase, when Cloudhawk disappeared completely.
Blackfiend left a gash in the ground where its claws passed.
He was gone. Not invisible, not phased, but truly vanished. The Warden was no longer a presence in their reality. Squall wasn’t sure whether to be irritated or overjoyed. How could Cloudhawk have so many incredible and secret abilities!
Green Snake’s gentle voice intruded on his thoughts. “It looks like he’s gone.”
“We did what we could. He has too many tricks, it’s impossible for us to overcome them all.”
Imp’s features were especially dark as he struggled with his fury. Their impotence clearly cut him deeply.
On the surface, Green Snake and Imp were there to assist Squall. In reality they served as monitors. However, only Squall could control Blackfiend, so he was integral to their ploy. Cloudhawk’s guess had been very near spot on, but Blackfiend wasn’t exactly the humanoid relic he thought. It was a monster, made in man’s image.
Blackfiend was originally one of the Seraphs used in Skycloud to repair the city.
The Seraphs were thoughtless, mechanical in action, and under the guidance of the sanctuary’s highest order. So long as they remained near the temple, they were immortal. It was said that the blood of the gods pumped through their veins. Blackfiend was the same… only, the blood in its veins came from a demon.
Destroying it was impossible. So long as it and its controller had any strength, Blackfiend would reconstitute itself and fight on.
Creatures like this, corrupted Seraphs, had their own name: Blackfiend golem[B1]s.
Seraph were made to repair and protect, guardians of the great city. Blackfiend golems were beings made for the purpose of murder and destruction.
Just as Seraphs could only be controlled by the sanctuary, Blackfiend golem were also attuned to only certain people. They were rather like relics, and only those with a particular talent could resonate with them.
So far, Squall was the only person in the known world with that ability. That was why he was here.
This literal figurehead helped Squall control the rapidly swelling wasteland organization. However, over time and after many battles, Blackfiend had begun to show signs of fatigue. Without some source of energy the Blackfiend golem would fade. That was why getting Autumn’s trove of eboncrys was important. It was the only way Squall could ensure his evil toy kept ticking.
Blackfiend was a tool, which by itself could surpass the lethality of most accomplished demonhunters. With it at Squall's beck and call, he could indeed dominate the wastelands. Then he could exact vengeance.
When Cloudhawk opened his eyes once again, he felt like they would shoot right out of his skull.
Not in the way of seeing something one shouldn’t see, or from shock. No, it felt like his eyes were being pulled right out of their sockets.
He was in a void, out in a space with no air or atmosphere. The vacuum squeezed him from all sides, flattening his veins and forcing many to burst. Blood leaked from his eyes and nose. His lungs swelled like balloons, instantly expanding to their limit . His eardrums immediately ruptured. Everything – from his head to his abdomen – was in excruciating pain.
Cloudhawk felt like he might explode at any moment and become nothing more than a red mist. At the same time, however, he was encased in such absolute cold that it was a wonder his blood hadn’t frozen in their arteries.
He wasn’t in Boondock anymore, but this place wasn’t unfamiliar either.
Three years ago, the skull of his benefactor brought him here. Since being granted the being’s memories, Cloudhawk had seen his strength grow significantly. What’s more, his control over relics like the phase stone became more adept. Where before he could only stride between realities, now – with effort – he could pass through them entirely.
He first learned how to do it a month before leaving Hell’s Valley. It was an enormous discovery. However, perhaps because this was the ‘closest’ spatial dimension, out here in the void was the only place he’d visited thus far. At least for now, any of the other realms he’d visited were beyond his reach.
He couldn’t survive this way for long. Veins bulged in his eyes, turning his vision red, and his heart was on the cusp of failure. It would take only a minute for him to be crippled or even die out here in this inhospitable environment.
The bubble of protection gradually spread out over Cloudhawk, cleaving him from the harsh reality. After taking a moment to recover, he began to look around and found himself in a building constructed from wreckage. Something told him this place was left behind by the stone’s former master, preserved by the lack of environment. As Cloudhawk searched his new surroundings, he saw it stocked high with implements of war.
This was Cloudhawk’s secret vault.
Before leaving Skycloud, Cloudhawk had stolen into a military depot and helped himself to many of its goods. Over a thousand sets of equipment, to be precise. Back in the city, one set would fetch four or five thousand gold easy. Out in the wastelands, if he could find a way to distribute them, they represented a tremendous fortune. Cloudhawk had also helped himself to a number of items from other demonhunters. Exorcist staffs, bows, leather armor, and other quality equipment was strewn among the typical stuff. Aside from weapons and army, Cloudhawk also helped himself to a large store of medicines, supplements and more. This was all gathered together from the warehouses of the rich and powerful, a little bit from everywhere.
It’d caused quite a stir. After all, it wasn’t like mere thieves could have pulled off such a heist. It was completely unprecedented!
This was how Cloudhawk seemed to be able to pull things out of nowhere. He couldn’t simply magic things into existence, of course. Instead, he had his stash safely stowed away out here where no one could get it. When he needed something, it was as easy as activating the phase stone and reaching in.
Of course, it worked similarly to his phasing abilities. There were limitations. First and foremost, no living things could survive out here for any length of time. Even if that was something he wanted to do, forcing a living thing through space-time took ten times the mental energy. Definitely no easy feat.
Secondly, shuffling things from one reality to another was taxing. The more energy the item possessed, the more difficult it was. It was one reason why Cloudhawk didn’t keep his relics there. There weren’t even many low-grade items like exorcist equipment. Energies in even the most basic relics made pulling them through space-time very draining.
At Cloudhawk’s current level of strength, he was still unable to place or receive items freely.
Whatever the situation, Cloudhawk’s ability to manipulate dimensional space was an incredible boon. It was also his last bastion of safety. Even if the likes of Arcturus Cloude was hunting him down, he only needed a brief opportunity to flee here. Once out in space, how could even the master demonhunter survive?
Cloudhawk passed through one of the crumbling walls. Outside, he was greeted with the shattered horizon of a dead world.
He didn’t have much time.
Pushing off the ground, Cloudhawk rose up high into the void. He soared through the nothingness, passing fragments of worlds and large, blasted fragments where terrible battles were held. As he watched them slip passed he kept count.
One thousand meters. Two thousand meters. Three thousand… four thousand…
The phase stone shimmered.
As Cloudhawk slipped back through the space between, a host of light and shadow whipped by him. Air and gravity returned, depositing him back on solid ground.
He was back in the wastelands. Back in Boondock.
He was quite a ways from the spot where he’d disappeared. The two worlds were like two parallel threads he could jump between. Moving in one space also moved him through the other.
From outside he watched as great, lumbering beasts charged through the fires, wreaking havoc in the tent city. With so much going on, no one was going to pay much attention to where he was.
Cloudhawk leisurely made his way to a parking area, stepping over a few prone bodies.
“Excellency!” Barb poked her head out from one of the vehicles. “You were dead on, everyone is distracted. It doesn’t look like anyone’s coming this way. It looks like you were busy, so I took the liberty to disable the other cars. This is the last one that works.”
“Good thinking.” Cloudhawk pulled open the door and jumped into the driver’s seat. Barb and Autumn had been waiting for him to show. He turned over the ignition and hit the gas. “Let’s get going!”
The car roared off the parking lot and into the night.
[B1]I was trying to choose between Blackfiend golem and revenant. Blackfiend golem evokes the idea of being controlled and has the eastern feel to match the demons, i.e. the demon calling himself the Caliph of the sands. Revenant is a spirit that has come back from the dead, which is Blackfiend’s whole deal, and is more ‘epic’ sounding in conjunction with its goodie counterparts, Seraphs.
1. According to cnet.com, if you ever find yourself shot into the vacuum of space, the first thing you should do is exhale. I supposed dying from asphyxiation is better than having the gases instantaneously rupture both lungs. I imagine this will be very relevant to your every-day lives.