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Chapter 92 - A Cunning Game

 Chapter 92 - A Cunning Game

The column of light split the night then disappeared, all in less than three seconds. The severed halves of the demon lay in a pool of blood. All of it happened so fast... it was inconceivable that this invulnerable enemy could be laid low by the weak and insignificant Cloudhawk.

Despite her terrible injuries and the blinding pain, the Bloodsoaked Queen was still conscious. She couldn't believe what had occurred before her very eyes. The beast was so powerful, and yet Cloudhawk had killed him. How had the young wastelander done it?

Yet that wasn't what confused her most. How was she even still alive, much less alert? It made no sense that she should survive after being impaled by the demon's spikes!

As she examined the damage the Queen discovered something odd. While the demon's attacks had run her through they had also completely avoided any major organs. Stranger still, it didn't sever any important arteries or even bone. They had slipped through her body with perfect precision.

What was going on? Did the demon spare her life? Had he done it just to infuriate Cloudhawk?

She found it difficult to accept, but what other alternative was there? It couldn't have been a coincidence, could it? Why would the demon do this, why wouldn't he kill her? She was a demonhunter - they were mortal enemies!

Was his aim to humiliate her? That didn't make any sense! Demons didn't trouble themselves with such nonsense.

What's more the demon had recognized her potential. Why would he risk letting a future master demonhunter live? If she survived to become a full-fledged hunter, even if she didn't come for him she would put down other fiends like him. His actions just didn't fit the essence of who he was!

The Bloodsoaked Queen painfully pulled herself back onto her feet. Though these wounds would have been fatal to a normal person, she would recover. Moreover the effect of the panacea was still working through her body, so she didn't need to take any special measures except to pull the spikes out.

Dozens of finger-sized wounds oozed blood, but after a minute they stopped. Her flesh was slowly knitting itself back together before her eyes thanks to the panacea. Despite the number and severity of the injuries, with the help of the injection they would be gone in ten days to half a month. She'd be back to fighting condition.

Panacea was a medicine that drew on a person's potential, essentially overdrafting the body's own function. The Queen had used three of them over a very short period which could make the rebound effects worse. There was a risk it could cause long term damage that would be difficult to recover from. Now that her mission was done she would need to rest for at least a couple months.

She stood on unsteady feet and looked at Cloudhawk. "How were you able to summon that kind of power?"

The Queen's cross sword was an heirloom relic. Not only did one need a particular level of talent, even her father would have found it difficult to command the holy sword like Cloudhawk just did. How many secrets did this kid have hiding up his sleeves?

When he saw the Queen standing, Cloudhawk's face lit up. "You're alive?"

She looked back at him, speechless.

"Artemis... where's Artemis?!"

He remembered how she threw herself in front of him, but when he found her Cloudhawk discovered that she hadn't been as lucky as the Queen. In deflecting the blow her hammer had detonated, spewing hot metal in all directions. Many of them tore through her own body.

He kneeled beside her and saw that her chest was a bloody ruin. Several of her organs had been critically damaged.

Artemis didn't have any healing capabilities, and she'd given the last panacea injection to the Queen. They didn't have anything to help her, no method to bring her back. She saw the concern and anxiety on his face and smiled through the mask of blood. "You idiot, you should see your face."

"Don't worry, this is nothin'." Cloudhawk wrapped Artemis in his arms and pulled her close. "We'll go back to the outpost and find Mantis. He'll fix you right up, you just hold on!"

Artemis' pretty face was decimated and covered in blood. She coughed and tried to speak with him through a rigid windpipe. "N-.... No. Don't waste your effort. I'm not gonna make it."

"We killed the demon!" Cloudhawk's eyes were red and puffy. "Didn't you say you were gonna lead the outpost with me? I agree, you live and we'll be here together to make it our own. We'll turn it into a real paradise, okay?"

"You know I thought about it, the outpost isn't what you're lookin' for. I can't be selfish and force you to stay here." Artemis scowled against the bitter words. "Motherfucker, I think... I think I really fell for you. Such a... such a shame..."

She lifted a shaking hand and placed it upon his cheek. As her strength failed her and her hand dropped she left five stark red streaks against his skin. It fell limp to the ground as Artemis serenely shut her eyes, a small smile on her face.

Cloudhawk stared dumbly at the body cooling in his embrace. His mind was blank, but it felt like something had been taken from deep inside his soul. It was a pain unlike anything he'd felt before.

Artemis was dead, another in a line of people who had given their lives for him.

From Slyfox to Mad Dog to Artemis, as he grew the weight of their sacrifice was crushing him. Every step was wrought with pain and helplessness, with nowhere for him to escape. All he could do was shoulder this suffocating burden and honor them by spending his days getting stronger.

Was this the price of growing up? The price of seeking something better?

With her hands pressed against the wounds in her stomach, the Queen walked on shaking legs to Cloudhawk and the corpse he held. The look in her eyes was equal part guilty and uncomfortable. "Are you... are you alright?"

Cloudhawk didn't respond. He lifted Artemis body and walked into the trees.

"Cloudhawk..." She called after him.

He acted like he didn't hear, focusing on putting one step in front of the other back toward Greenland Outpost. The Queen tried to follow but her wounds slowed her down. In the end she just watched him disappear into the darkness.

He hates me!

She felt a pressure on her chest that made it difficult to breathe. She was filled with a harsh and bitter sensation, for she knew that while the demon was the culprit, she had provoked him. Her ignorance and arrogance led to the destruction of Blackflag Outpost. Her folly and obsession was the doom of the Tartarus mercenaries. Her actions in the Greenland Outpost forced Cloudhawk to watch Artemis die before his eyes.

In the end the demon was slain.

Ironically it was the worthless wastelander, the boy she'd looked down on this whole time, who had killed her enemy. What did she do? She hadn't harmed a hair on him - she hadn't done a single thing right since coming to the wastelands!

The Bloodsoaked Queen sadly learned that every decision she'd made had been the wrong one.

Ever since fleeing the Blackflag Outpost, suffering the slings and arrows of fate, her pride and self-esteem had been eaten away. All that was left was introspection and regret.

She stumbled over to where the demon's body lay and her eyes swept over the blackened pieces. She found several things, namely a book with a pale yellow metal cover and a roll of parchment made from some animal skin.

The book had to be the demon's relic.

She picked up the book and unrolled the parchment to see its contents. Scrawling handwriting covered its surface, and when she read them the Queen's face changed. Her hands curled into fists as for ten minutes she stood in contemplative silence. Then, using the tree trunks for support, she limped off.

What she did not witness was that after she left, what remained of the demon began to change. The bloody sheen dried away until the pieces were like rock. They dissolved into fragments of sand and blew away on the breeze leaving nothing behind.

Just then, standing atop the partly ruined Greenland Fort...

Two figures stood side by side. One was a tall thin man with a pallid face, messy hair and glasses. Physically he seemed very ordinary, but his personality was that of a learned figure - cold and distant - very atypical for the wastelands. Beside him was a strange and savage figure, easily over six feet tall with burning red eyes. Their vision, far better than any normal human, watched Cloudhawk slowly approach from the Oasis.

Mantis spoke in his typical drab tones. "What do you think?"

"My sand doppelganger has less than half the strength I possess, yet I didn't expect him to defeat it. Extraordinary, really." The demon's deep, echoing voice was filled with curiosity. "The boy has potential. It is no wonder he is the chosen one."

"You did not kill the demonhunter," Mantis remarked. "Why?"

"I find her interesting, there is much about her that is special - different from the others of the elysian lands. She might serve as a malleable pawn, and if played properly she could be quite useful." He didn't appear to mind the question. "In saving her life we may be pleasantly surprised. It will certainly make things more amusing. Of course, in your eyes, ancient one, this flourish is hardly noteworthy. You know, you are easily both the maddest and wisest man I've met. We should play this game together."

"Please don't confuse me with your kind. We aren't the same, and neither is our purpose. If necessary we will be enemies."

Mantis' cold voice held nothing back. "He was able to sense your energy. If you don't leave you'll be discovered."

A glint flashed in the demon's eyes. "Just think about my offer."