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Cloudhawk felt everything in excruciating detail, leading up to when darkness came.

He tried to use his sword to protect him from the flames, but it only created the means for it to reach him. He remembered watching the green light hungrily consume the sword, slithering toward his hand, then slipping into his body. Unnaturally crafty, as though the fires possessed a mind of its own. It didn’t matter that his sword was a relic, nothing stopped Castigation. Before he even knew what had happened, he was consumed by it.

Quiet Carnage survived, but only barely. Its surface was a spider web of cracks. The sheer abuse the Crimson One’s power could unleash in just an instant… it was nothing short of hellish.

The miserable flames ate away at whatever it touched, like a plague of termites. It consumed the inner construction of his relic, just as it wreaked havoc within Cloudhawk’s own body. Though brief, the fires plundered the power of Quiet Carnage as it moved on to its bearer, a terrible force that could not be stopped.

Cloudhawk sensed the danger but reacted too slowly. He learned firsthand what made Castigation so terrifying. Castigation didn’t so much burn as it gnawed everything it encountered.

No! This was no fire.

It looked like it, but that is where the semblance ended. Just like diamonds looked like ice cubes. The qualities of each were different as night and day.

What they called the flames of judgment, Castigation fire, were more biological. Small, horrific living creatures – like a cluster of almost imperceptible ants that ate everything in its path. They slipped in through the victim’s pours and devoured their cells. Like a virus, they infiltrated the cells and consumed them for energy, multiplying, and ultimately bursting free. In so doing the ‘fires’ grew a hundred fold in a matter of seconds. Afterwards, once they burst out of the body of their victim, they continued to search for more fuel. They lived to spread, to devour, to erupt. That which they penetrated was sapped off their life force from the inside. The end result for the victim wasn’t much different from being burned alive.

Cloudhawk had encountered a number of strange relics over the years. But never anything like this.

‘Biological’ maybe wasn’t the right word for them. Maybe more mechanical, tirelessly executing a command to infiltrate and destroy. It was perhaps informed by the chemical and biological weapons of the ancients, but Cloudhawk could sense the resonance of godly power in it. If that was the case it had to have been created in the same way other godly relics were, and similarly controlled through psychic energy. Their destructive capabilities and division also had to be influenced by the relic’s bearer.

It was the first time in his life he’d ever encountered an attack this… outlandish. He’d never suffered in this way, despite all he’d been through.

Any normal man would have been destroyed in under five seconds. All that would be left was ash.

It was the same as the execution he’d witnessed at Sandbar Outpost. This ‘judgment’ from the gods was merely a show while the relic was activated. The miniscule creatures were injected into the victims in advance and then released at the prescribed time so that it seemed like the gods were passing a verdict. At the relic bearer’s behest, Castigation would begin to spread – and to the casual observer, the victim was burned by holy decree.

But the action caused resonance, which Cloudhawk was attuned to sense. He remembered feeling it when he witnessed that execution, and it aroused his suspicions.

A normal man was dead the instant Castigation touched him, without question. However, Cloudhawk managed to survive though it left it drained and immobile. Lucky for him he was not a normal man. When Castigation invaded, it immediately had to contend with another power that had taken hold long ago. Trespasser did not take kindly to an attack on its host.

In the years since his infection, trespasser had helped Cloudhawk in many ways. Academician Roste’s parting gift was not the curse he feared it would be, but he also never expected it to save his life in such a critical time. Aside from giving him immunity to poison and allowing him to drink obscene amounts of alcohol, it hadn’t much crossed his mind. Nor had it caused any ill effects.

Since it didn’t appear to be doing harm, he eventually lost interest in having the infection cleansed.

Cloudhawk finally understand that Trespasser never stopped, despite his apathy. It continued to multiply at an incredible rate until it permeated every drop of blood, every inch of bone, and every fiber of muscle. Under a microscope he would discover that every inch of him was Trespasser’s territory now – no less prevalent than it had been in Roste.

Like low-key and disciplined defenders, the Academician’s virus had bided its time. Just as a city facing a siege might gather resources and bolster strength, Trespasser had been busy growing power within him.

There it stayed, silent until the time was ripe. From dormant and ignored to alive and universal throughout its host – with the mutual power of destruction and creation!

In fact, Trespasser would have become active in only a few months. The attack of Castigation just woke it up early. Perhaps to his benefit

There wasn’t anything he could have done to stop it. In an instant, Cloudhawk would have become the most perfect specimen for adaptation in the world. Who knew what he would have become – whether he would remain the same Cloudhawk, or become something else entirely. Trespasser had long invaded every cell of his brain, so it was impossible to say how it would have affected his thinking.

This would have been an even more terrifying transformation than even Roste envisioned!

Indeed, Trespasser had the home field advantage. Years were spent slowly expanding, but Castigation descended like an invading army. It raced through Cloudhawk, razing everything in its path, leaving devastation in its wake.

Withered, stem and root. Trespasser was forced to counter-attack.

All living things prescribed to a unifying truth – survival of the fittest. For years Roste had used his own body as an incubator and host, gathering genetic material from throughout the wastelands to create his perfect entity. Constantly barraged by change the genes warred for dominance. They changed, adapted, died off, reformed, until in the end Trespasser emerged. Through its tenacity the host feared nothing – no fire, water, electricity, or acid was to be feared for it would adapt. And in this world, only the most adaptable were qualified to survive.

The trespasser virus within Cloudhawk was the newest strain. It was more versatile than ever. So inexorably fused with its host, even an aggressive power like Castigation couldn’t completely eradicate it. 

Castigation was tremendously powerful. In an instant its corrosive taint spread throughout Cloudhawk’s body, nearly destroying him. His organs were desiccated, and it was only through the quick reaction of Trespasser that he survived. Castigations own short-lived nature helped to overturn and extinguish it before it could finish the job.

Although undeniably strange, at the end of the day Castigation was still created from a relic. The psychic energy commanding it was limited. If its victim wasn’t slain quickly then the power faded. In the midst of this invisible battle, Trespasser had suffered as well. Though a fair amount of the virus had been consumed, what remained was not ready to give up its host. It fought back, ensuring Cloudhawk would survive.

The process was an arduous and difficult one. Trespasser had suffered, but in the end it was victorious.

It wasn’t a lengthy conflict. Cloudhawk was only unconscious for ten minutes. When he came to, he found himself lying in a strange room without any signs of injury, though his skin was a brighter shade of pink than he was used to. 

But pain. Fuck, the pain!

While outwardly he looked whole, several areas inside felt like he was being stabbed. There was no way for him to express it, like every cell was being torn apart. Strong as he was the waves of it almost made him pass out again.

The Castigation fires were extinguished, but in its fury it had awakened Trespasser. A virus like that wouldn’t return to a dormant state so quickly, and so it set to work remolding Cloudhawk’s body. The changes came quicker than he could get used to, causing pain and discomfort.

Without a doubt it was a… novel experience.

In this day and age, harsh environments and mutated organisms weren’t rare. However this process was typically very slow. He’d never heard of someone actually feeling the process of evolution as it happened. He felt horrible, but the pain in his heart came from the fear that he would become some form of monster.

 “You’re up already?” The old drunk sat nearby, surprise on his face. He’d lost hope that Cloudhawk would recover. It was incredible that he not only resisted the vicious attack, but seemed to have completely bounced back. “It’s incredible. You survived Castigation and it didn’t even leave a mark.”

“Didn’t leave a mark my chapped ass. Not only am I suffering, now I’m in seriously deep shit!” He was in so much pain it hurt just to talk. He raised his hands to search out the damage and his hands came away with large tufts of hair. It’d all started to fall out. His face was immediately crestfallen, like the world had ended all over again. “It’s done. The mutation’s already started!”

The old man plucked up a few strands of hair and looked them over. “What’s going on here?”

Cloudhawk was in too much pain, and was far too exhausted to explain.

Cloudhawk reached for his sword to support him off the bed, but he heard it start to crack the instant he put weight on it. It sounded like rotted wood. He felt another pang of despair.

Quiet Carnage had been his preferred weapon for three years. Was this how he lost one of his favorite tools?

It was another display of Castigation’s dreadful consequences. The fires of judgment had ruined his precious relic beyond repair.

Wait! Something felt strange…

Although Quiet Carnage was all but destroyed, he could still sense its familiar power. However, it wasn’t coming from the brittle metal in his hands. It was coming from him. In its destructive path through both the sword and his body, Castigation had transferred some of the relic’s power into him. Through some strange combination of circumstances, when Castigation was eliminated the relic’s abilities were left behind. He could feel it, a part of his own psychic energy.

Cloudhawk slowly lifted his hand, and whispered a command. “Silence!”

A formless essence poured from him, blanketing the room. Everything caught in its embrace was immediately and entirely muted.

Cloudhawk allowed his arm to drop in astonishment. As he did, the field of silence dissipated and sounds reemerged.

Amazing… I have the power of a relic. He was ecstatic to the point where even the blinding pain seemed to ease.

He remembered what the stone’s former master had once told him; at the highest echelons of power relics were discarded, for one’s own body became a relic.

For years he worked toward that end but could never learn the secret. Instead his efforts were pointless, because it came as a blessing in disguise after an attempt on his life. He only almost had to die to succeed. The loss of Quiet Carnage also marked the first time he could call on a power without a relic’s help.

So that was it! That’s how it worked!

Cloudhawk had always lacked the means to absorb a relic’s power, so he couldn’t independently use a relic’s power even though he had the talent. It turned out Castigation fire had precisely what he was missing. It conveyed the sword’s essence into him permanently.

Cloudhawk didn’t know how, but once it was inside of him he absorbed it. He made it into a part of himself. It couldn’t have been more than a one-in-ten chance of success, but somehow it happened. He had to thank his lucky stars.

Even for Cloudhawk, all of this was way out of the norm. The unfortunate part of all this was he’d learned the truth after being attacked by Castigation. The power of the flames wasn’t his to command. If he were able to get the essence of Castigation for himself, it didn’t even matter the incredible destruction he could wield. He’d have a way to refine the power of relics and absorb them into himself.

He needed to think of some way to deal with the Crimson One. 

But no. He cast the thought away the second it entered his head. Was that a fucking joke? There was no way he could beat a guy like that!

What dumbass reason would I have for pissing him off? That asshole nearly killed me. Fuck, it still hurts. Before anything we need to find a way to get out of here. However much we learned, first priority has to be to keep breathing. The Borough’s people, the Church, fuck maybe even the whole world is after me. If I don’t get out of here in a hurry it’ll be too late.


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