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Dragons were intelligent creatures, and cunning. They excelled at laying in wait for their prey.

By the time their victims realized they were in danger, the dragons were already on the move. Quick as lightning, they charged from their burrows with wings sharper than Elysian swords, shredding undergrowth in their wake.

Cloudhawk was actually relieved. His fear was that a whole group of the things would get the drop on them. This dragon seemed to be hunting alone, not under whatever control bound the others in service.

Cloudhawk and the drunk exchanged glances. The old man was more suited to deal with these creatures than he was, since its scales were resistant to the power of relics. In fact, most of what made a demonhunter dangerous couldn’t be applied to dragon fights. Martial artists were the ones with an advantage here.

The old man moved sluggishly as though reticent to do the deed.

Just then, two lithe figures charged out from the trees.

Barb exploded into motion, racing forward seven measured steps. Each one kicked up clouds of dust behind her while at the same time power surged from within to incredible levels. She swung her exorcist rod at the dragon as it launched it’s attack, each swipe knocking it to the ground.

Butcher’s ugly face dropped in amazement. Judging by how her exorcist rod reacted, the girl’s mental energies were middling at best – perhaps slightly better than a novice demonhunter. However her martial skills were impressive, much better than most.

Demonhunters had their own training to strengthen their bodies, but it was different from a martial artist. Where a fighting hones their body into the perfect weapon, demonhunters focused more on the psychic and spiritual aspect.

Barb was the exception. She had more talent as a martial artist than a demonhunter.

Claudia was also a capable close-combat fighter, so between these two women the dragon was prevented from threatening the rest of the party.

Cloudhawk was surprised by Barb’s display. “She’s a lot stronger than she was a month ago! How did she manage that?”

“The move is called Demonbreaker March [1]. Seven steps are taken in the process of attack, with the user’s power growing after each one. The boost is layered one upon the other to greatly increased their capabilities in a fight. Demonbreaker’s March is a high tier martial ability.” The old drunk smacked his lips as though mulling over an aftertaste. “Back in the day Baldur tempted me with a bottle of his family’s finest wine. I was compelled to teach him this forbidden knowledge with the understanding that he wouldn’t let it slip. The old bastard seemed to have lied to me though. He taught the Temple’s lost knowledge to a little girl.”

The tale he let slip caused Butcher to freeze in place. Baldur? That Baldur, the Master Demonhunter? Did this old man expect them to believe such a legend would come to him for knowledge. What a farce!

Belinda, Rei, Tigron and Crain all watched the fight with rapt attention. They didn’t catch the exchange.

But Cloudhawk knew this wasn’t the old man bragging. “Strange. If it’s such a good move why haven’t I seen her use it before now?”

“You don’t know shit, do you think someone can just ‘pick up’ an ancient Temple skill?” The lush watched Barb as he explained. “Such a shame that she became a demonhunter. If I’d have been the one to find her, she would have made a fine disciple.”

Cloudhawk refused to believe Barb’s talent would be more promising than Selene’s.

Selene was a uniquely gifted woman, with the skills to surpass any teacher. In many ways she was superior to her father, the Master Demonhunter. Likely this was the reason she was beginning to close the gap between herself and Arcturus on the path of the demonhunter, while also spending a great deal of effort learning martial skills. 

The Skycloud War Saint sure had an epic ring to it – but in the end, wasn’t he crippled by Arcturus?

After being knocked out of the air by Barb, the dragon knew it’d bit off more than it could chew. It began to look around for a means of escape. Barb was also frustrated by how sturdy the dragon’s defenses were. She had really laid into it, and it still was able to run?

The dragon’s serpentine neck swung to and fro, looking for the best way out. Barb prepared for a follow-up attack.

“Hold. Let me.”

Claudia raced passed her, and as she did threw something out in front. It looked like a bracelet, which gradually rose through the air after leading her wrist. As the others watched it’s width extended, slipping around the beast’s neck and then lodging there.

It was too late for the dragon to flee now.

Claudia raised her hands and let her mental energies flow. Her bracelet-turned-necklace began to shimmer and shrink. It tightened around the dragon’s neck until it was almost choking off the air. As Claudia continued to channel through it, the ring pulsed with an energy that wracked the dragon’s body with pain. It screeched and rolled on the ground in agony.

This continued for roughly ten seconds. Eventually the beast’s flailing grew still.

Belinda and the others were beside themselves with excitement at the sergeant’s display. They clapped and praised her for her mastery. Even the old drunkard gave her a surprised look. “What is this?”

Belinda eagerly answered. “It’s our sergeant’s newest relic, Thrall-collar! It has the power to control any animal, even weaker-willed humans.”

Barb looked toward Claudia with envy in her face. It was clearly a mental-based relic, a talent both women shared. But because relics of this sort were rare, they were expensive and hard to come upon.

Barb was lucky when she was given the Heart-Scry Thorn. Sadly it had no use in a fight. She was born to a poor family without means or prestige, so it was difficult for her to acquire any relics that suited her.

The Lunae’s on the other hand, didn’t have relics to pass down either since Claudia was the first of her family to show talent as a demonhunter. But that didn’t matter, not when you came from the richest family in all of Skycloud.

If there was anything Garuda Lunae did have, it was money to buy what he wanted.

First he’d bought his precious daughter her Seeker’s Torque to keep her safe. Thrall-collar was the next gift, which he spared no expense to obtain. Besides these two, she also had Tempest Flower to help her in combat. Were it not that trading in relics was strictly regulated, Garuda would have armed his dear child to the teeth.

Everyone gathered round the docile dragon. Autumn was especially stunned. Shepherd’s flute couldn’t stop the beasts from rampaging, so how was this ring of metal keeping its hostile urges at bay? It was a blow to her confidence.

In reality the two methods had their own advantages and disadvantages.

Shepherd’s flute was wide-ranging and indiscriminate, while Thrall-collar’s control was directly and powerfully imposed. The former could manage countless beasts so long as they were in range, although sufficiently powerful forces could override it. The latter could only exert its force upon one target, but it’s power was stable and difficult to break.

On the whole, Autumn’s artifact was a hundred time better than Claudia’s, the two weren’t even in the same realm. Woodland Vale’s young princess would be able to perform incredible feats once she improved her own mental capabilities.

Azura stared wide-eyed and curious at this monster with a taste for human brains. It rose to its feet, then with steady gait began to walk her way. The small girl yelped in fear and scurried behind Cloudhawk’s legs.

It’s emotions were stable, its thoughts clear. Claudia’s impressive relic had it fully under control. 

Cloudhawk gave it a closer look as a plan began to form in his mind. “Is there a sensory connection between the dragons?”

“From what we’ve been able to learn, the dragons are under the control of a single master consciousness. Habitually they are independent, but they have some special way to communicate with one another. That’s why when we kill one, others nearby can tell and come to investigate.”

Cloudhawk continued to stare at the dragon and speculate.

Barb grew ever more curious the longer he stared. “Excellency, what are you planning?”

He answered her question with one of his own. “Your Heart-Scry Thorn can transcribe information, right?”

Barb paused for a moment, then nodded. “There’s the main thorn and the secondary thorns. The main thorn reads thoughts, and the secondary ones can pass them on. So yes, it can share information.”

Cloudhawk’s eyes lit up. “Then we may be able to use this creature. Tell it to send a signal to other dragons that it needs help.”

The other immediately caught on to his plan. 

Autumn’s jaw dropped. This idiot was crazy! Was he going to manipulate the dragons into attacking the wastelanders?

That was exactly what he intended. “What? IS it possible or not.”

Barb felt everyone’s eyes fall on her. She felt all that pressure land squarely on her shoulders. Right now, one of the biggest obstacles they faced in Woodland Vale were these vicious creatures. If they could turn the beasts to their advantage before their master learned about it, it could be a great help to their cause!

“I…. don’t think it will be too much of a problem.”

“Good. Very good. Let’s take it slow, first find a place to rest for a while.”

More dragons would be coming soon, staying here any longer was asking for trouble. They had to find somewhere safe.

Cloudhawk found a low-lying spot that hid them from view. By now darkness had taken the sky. He had Oddball keep watch while the party huddled together for a night’s rest.

Barb and Claudia, both psychic-focused demonhunters, spent some time experimenting with the dragon and passing information. Barb placed the main thorn in the beast’s skull, and through it could feel the dragon’s emotions. Of course it was not human, so Barb found it difficult to decipher what was going through it’s mind.

It didn’t matter, Claudia’s Thrall-collar would manage it’s mood and actions. Heart-Scry Thorn’s job was to introduce what they wanted it to think. Both relics together worked well, and succesfully filtered fake messages through the beast’s brain.

Barb excitedly spoke to the others. “We’ve got it.”

Claudia wasn’t convinced their ploy would work, but she didn’t share her concerns. Instead, she spoke in calm and tepid tones. “We can’t be sure yet, first we have to test it.”

With that said, Claudia told the dragon to leave their small camp.

The dragon beat its large wings and rose into the air. A few minutes after relaying its call for help, more dragons were discovered in the forest nearby. Over a dozen powerful scaled bodies burst from the trees and fell in behind their thrall.

It worked, no doubt about it!

Cloudhawk’s wild theories had been proven practical, and the implications promised to drastically change their situation. Now they had to do something useful with their brood of dragons before whatever mind controlled them discovered something amiss.

1. ‘Seven Steps to Break Magic/Demons.’ I’m not sure why seven is such a trope in Chinese fantasy, but it could be because seven is sometimes used to represent yin, yang, and the five elements (wind, water, fire, wood, earth, metal). Thus seven could be used as a stand-in to describe all of the universe. I did not include the specific number here (even though it’s in the name) because it felt unnecessarily laden with cultural meaning that did not apply to Western readers, does not impact story elements, is clunky when translated, and felt out of place in a Western-centric post apocalyptic society.

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