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Over ninety angry and well-armed soldiers converged on the ruins. They were quite a sight, with their jade-like armor glimmering in the harsh wasteland sun. Standing dutifully in their rows, they looked like statues someone had inexplicably placed in the middle of nowhere. Two figures lay before them; one dead, Raith, the other severely wounded and unconscious, Luna.
Minutes. It had only been a few minutes, but this was the result.
Powerful emotions surged within the Skycloud soldiers. Not fear, but rage and disbelief. Demonhunters were the elite, blessed by the G.o.ds, the pride and glory of the holy city!
Two young demonhunters with limitless potential had been laid low by a single turncoat of mediocre strength. The shame was not the demonhunters' alone. This failure besmirched the ill.u.s.trious name of these soldiers as well.
"Senior Captain Bolte. What are our orders?"
"Team One, you'll be responsible for getting Masters Raith and Luna back to Skycloud. The rest of you will continue on with me to complete the mission." The highest ranking officer currently was a man in his thirties. He was outfitted much the same as the others, with the exception of a delicate silver mask that covered his face. His steady gaze swept over the others. "We're going to find him, and we're going to kill him. No matter the cost."
Captain Bolte's orders were resolute, crisp, and straightforward. Determination burned in the eyes of his subordinates. This was no longer about accomplishing some task, this was about honor, and to a soldier honor was more important than life itself.
The soldiers' weapons changed. Their bow shape disappeared as crests straightened and the ends extended into sharp points to create a double-headed staff. Soldiers held them in the middle or slung obliquely across their backs.
Captain Bolte gave the order. "March!"
All at once they moved into the ruins at a quick pace.
Cloudhawk knew Skycloud's soldiers weren't going to let him escape so easily. They had one-track minds, and his blood was the only thing they'd accept as payment for their shame. Hoping they would let things be was like hoping the sun would suddenly rise in the west. So Cloudhawk covered his wounded chest and staggered forward, all the while nursing his grievances.
Why the f.u.c.k are they doing this?! I've never gone looking for trouble, why does it always seem to find me?
Cloudhawk couldn't remember offending anyone he shouldn't have, nor could he think of any reason why he'd be the target of a pair of demonhunters and a hundred soldiers!
That skilled girl was taken back alive, where they would return her to Skycloud. Who knew what back alley they'd one day cross paths in? There was no way he was going to catch her and finish the job before they took her away. Any soldier he came across would be itching to chop him into minced meat. No, if he managed to escape this s.h.i.tty situation alive then he would consider himself fortunate.
He knew they were closing in on him like a pack of wolves, he could feel the sense of danger rising. He'd never fought them, but he could tell by their discipline and execution that Skycloud's soldiers were a considerable force. Each one of them could be compared to a highly skilled wastelander.
Not to mention their excellent equipment!
Their armor looked like it was made from sheets of snow-white jade, so incredibly fine it made him furious. Every plate was etched with beautiful and intricate designs, like works of art. They were so beautiful and delicate, in fact, that at a glance one wondered how effective they were at protection. The answer was very much effective. Harder than steel and lighter by half, cushioned against impact, resistant to high temperatures and acid, non-conductive against electricity and more.
Their weapons were exquisite. In addition to firing shots with more punch than a crossbow bolt, these things could transform into bladed weapons that cut iron like paper. Whatever situation the soldiers were in, they would have the tools to do battle. Cloudhawk had heard once that elysian soldiers shunned the use of guns and bullets, and now it seemed clear why. With weapons like theirs, wastelander equipment seemed unworthy of notice.
Physically, their combat prowess was no less impressive than the demonhunters, and in fact for conventional search and destroy missions like this they were more experienced. Raith and Luna were young, after all. They hadn't yet been hardened by trials of real-world combat. By contrast, these soldiers were true veterans, many even having spent time cleansing the wastelands before.
Using blood from the traitor's wounds, the soldiers were able to get a general sense of where he was headed, whereupon they began to carefully comb through the area. Normally, Cloudhawk wouldn't find it too difficult to evade notice, but he was wounded and exhausted from the earlier battle. Any speed advantage he had was gone.
As for fighting? Any one of his hunters could instantly become a sniper and pick him off from several hundred feet away.
Cloudhawk had no guns, and his psychic energy was almost entirely drained. What was he supposed to do? Fling his weakened body around with a few knives and hope for the best? He might as well smash his own skull in. It would be a less painful death.
They were closing in… but he wasn't overly concerned. With the help of his cloak he became invisible, he just had to be careful not to touch anything or leave any trace of his pa.s.sage. For the moment, he evaded capture.
Cloudhawk found a hole in the ground to hide away in. It was a situation he found disturbingly familiar.
He thought back to when he was fifteen and collecting sc.r.a.ps, not so long ago. It felt like he was that helpless kid again, cowering in a hole, hiding from the dangerous creatures of the wastelands. The danger that hunted him now was far more threatening, but he wasn't the scavenger boy from before either.
He covered himself in dirt, regulated his breathing and tried to slow his heart rate. He relaxed every muscle in his body like a creature preparing to hibernate, perfectly silent, perfectly dormant. This level of control over body systems, muscles, even pores, was something only an accomplished control metahuman could pull off. Cloudhawk had improved so much since his escape from Blackflag Outpost, it was like night and day.
Twenty hours pa.s.sed.
The soldiers hunting Cloudhawk were tired. All of that anger and nothing to vent it on made them more and more agitated. They spread out their search to cover a larger area, growing bolder, but no trace of the traitor could be found.
It was dark, still several hours before dawn.
Cloudhawk felt now was his best opportunity to flee. A patch of dirt stirred and a figure wriggled free into the darkness. He felt like the dead clambering from the grave, heavy and uncoordinated. His joints creaked and popped, and over the next few minutes his nerves, muscles, breathing and heart rate slowly returned to normal.
He breathed a mouthful of fetid air.
His wounds had already begun to heal and his mental energy was recovered. His nerves and muscles returned to working order. The first sensation to wash over him was a burning thirst, for it'd been two whole days without a sip of water.
The thirst didn't bother him, but the soldiers had been busily searching for more than a day without rest. They were certainly worse off.
Cloudhawk shook himself, causing his cloak to flutter and dust to fall in clouds. He slipped from his hiding place to the rocks below and without stopping disappeared into the night like a bat.
A few moments later, two Skycloud soldiers drew near. Both looked dejected and short of temper.
The shorter one muttered from behind his companion. "We've searched this area a dozen times, the traitor has to be miles away by now. There's no way he's going to show up here, and you know I'm right."
The taller one grunted. "Twenty hours and we've seen neither hide nor hair of'm. He probably has escaped. We've been with the army for a year and then THIS is our first mission? Ugh."
"This d.a.m.n traitor is an embarra.s.sment to all of us!" The smaller one was visibly angry by this point. "I fought for a posting to this wasteland mission. This was my chance to really prove myself. My girl's mother was going to have no choice but to let me marry her daughter."
The taller one cast a glance toward his short and scrawny compatriot. "She's the prettiest girl in our whole town. What made you think she had any interest in you, anyway? I'm taller and better-looking than you are. She'd be much more interested in me!"
Cloudhawk hung overhead with a large rock clutched in his hands. He blended in perfectly, almost impossible to notice even as the two soldiers walked and chatted directly below. His body went taught, and he slowly pulled the dagger from his belt, with the soldiers were none the wiser.
The shorter one held his glaive in front of him, hands tight on the shaft. The other one held his bow ready, alert. They'd pa.s.sed this area several times but they were still cautious. They might have been muttering to one another, but their attention was still on the mission.
The small one pa.s.sed by below. Cloudhawk could have reached out and slit his throat, but he didn't. While the shorter one would be dealt with, Cloudhawk would be exposed to the bigger one behind. His enemies were strong, and he couldn't risk it.
The short one chuckled tauntingly as they meandered by. "You keep your distance from my girl, you pervert! I swear on my honor as a soldier that I'm going to marry that woman and make her happy!"
The tall one pa.s.sed below.
Cloudhawk burst into action, dropping down on him while clamping his mouth shut with his left hand. The dagger in his right slipped through the soldier's plate armor and dug into his heart, forcing his body to instantly go rigid. Instantly all of his vitality ceased, leaving him no energy to struggle. He couldn't even warn his friend.
The shorter one was expecting a retort from his friend, and when one never came he grew suspicious. When he turned he was met with a face full of coa.r.s.e yellow sand that tightened around his throat like a ribbon. He was pulled to the ground completely caught off guard.
But he was quick to react.
The short soldier used his wide blade to cut himself free when from outside the screen of sand two flashes of cold light appeared. A pair of thrown daggers were headed his way. Skycloud armor was more than capable of protecting him, but he instinctively waved his weapon to knock them away regardless.
While he was busy protecting himself from the sneak attack a dark figure descended on him like an eagle. Cloudhawk descended through the pervasive sands like a specter. His knee connected with the only part not protected by a helmet, the soldier's jaw. For the short man the world suddenly started to spin as he spun through the air. Ruins overturned in his vision until he hit the ground with a bone-crunching thud.
Cloudhawk was right behind him and stepped on the soldier's right hand with his left foot before he could lift it in defense. With his right foot Cloudhawk stomped on his elbow. Skycloud armor protected them from blunt force impact, but only up to a point. Crack! The soldier's right arm folded at an unnatural angle.
Before he could even think to scream the traitor's knife was at his throat.
He was too fast! So quick and brutal!
His right arm was useless, all he could do was stare at the masked stranger crouched over him. Now he could see how this turncoat could have defeated the two demonhunters. He was a terrifying opponent!
In this moment the soldier didn't feel fear. His mind immediately conjured the memory of a bashful face, a beautiful figure… the girl he would never have.
"If you want to survive this experience you're going to behave. I ask the questions, you answer." To emphasize the gravity of the situation, Cloudhawk pressed the dagger harder against the soldier's neck. The knife had already begun to slice through the top layers of his rough skin. "Where are you from, and what is your purpose in the wastelands? Why are you trying to kill me?"
The soldier was young, maybe eighteen. A new recruit, no doubt. His face was drenched in sweat, most likely from the pain of having his arm broken. Even so, he glared at his a.s.sailant without fear. There was only loathing, scorn, and provocation.
Cloudhawk responded to the soldier's hostility with a scowl of his own, and his words came out as a growl: "I was listening to what you said. I can spare your life, let you go back to the woman you love. All you have to do is answer my questions. I am not one to lie, I swear to you."
"You think you can threaten me?! Not a chance! You insult me." The young soldier looked over at his friend, whose blank eyes stared unblinking at the dirt. The sight seemed to enrage him further. "My blood, my flesh, my life itself, has always been devoted to the G.o.ds. I would rather die in defense of their holy name than live with the shame of being a traitor. You, who cavorts with blasphemers… I don't expect a defector like you to understand."
Like a mad mongrel the young soldier jerked upward into Cloudhawk's dagger. With his left hand, he dragged the weapon across his own throat. Cloudhawk was taken by surprise and could do nothing but watch.
The short man clambered to his feet with blood pouring from his throat. He fumbled through his pocket for a bead, and with the strength left to him threw it high overhead. A second later the sky was split by a dazzling beam of light.
Please bless her…
Bring her a life of happiness!
The young soldier's eyes blazed with the light of zealous faith. He turned his gaze to the heavens, toward the dazzling light that was brief but brilliant, just like his short life. He did not surrender. He maintained his faith. He would die with a clear conscience, just the sort of man she would have wanted.
Cloudhawk watched him collapse to the ground, then stared at the bloodstained dagger in his hand. It surprised him that a common soldier would so desperately deny surrender. The man hadn't hesitated to give up his own life for what he saw as honor.
Was this what the holy city was? Was this the grace that blanketed the elysians?
Cloudhawk was once again shocked at what he learned about these believers. Every time he thought he understood them, they showed him something new.