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Chapter 79 - Emergent Misfortune

 Chapter 79 - Emergent Misfortune

"Drake! Drake! What's the matter?!"

His three followers hurried over, and when they stooped over they saw something wriggling under his flesh. It was like there were countless worms wriggling inside him. He vomited out a mouthful of blood mingled with wood splinters, which seemed to make him feel better. Drake no longer seemed in danger of dying from the bizarre attack.

"That bastard! We can't let him get away with this!"

Anger flared among Drake's underlings. Tragically, Cloudhawk found himself the focus of their rage. He cursed his luck. It was a bet, wasn't it? Was he going to lose even though he won the wager?

Although Drake was the strongest of the group, Cloudhawk was still afraid. If he got up and tried to fight there was no guarantee they might escape. As for the other three, Cloudhawk had some tricks up his sleeves but it likely wasn't enough to give him a serious edge. Claudia, Gabriel and him could take one each. At least one-on-one they might be able to hold out for a while.

But would the other two play along?

Cloudhawk wracked his brain, looking for some silver-tongued strategy to convince them to help. He turned to give it a shot - but they weren't there. He spied two figures racing off into the trees like a pair of frightened rabbits.

All of the wrath of these men was centered on Cloudhawk. What more perfect opportunity would there be to run? Gabriel he might have figured, but Claudia, too? She wised up quick!

Of course the situation was hardly something he could balk at. Neither Gabriel nor Claudia would look back at this moment and feel guilty. There was nothing to feel bad about - it wasn't like any of them were friends. As far as they were concerned the others couldn't die quick enough.

If the roles were reversed, Cloudhawk would have torn off into the forest faster than either of them.

It was too late to say anything.

Once the three men surrounded him the first punch came quickly. Cloudhawk threw his arms up crosswise before him, flexing as hard as he could to protect himself. The blow knocked him back several meters and his legs carved a pair of deep trenches in the ground. Before Cloudhawk could even pull his legs out the second soldier whipped a kick at his face.

The ground exploded into a cloud of grit and soil.

Cloudhawk was hurled into the air. As he floated helplessly, the third soldier appeared overhead with the heel of his foot aimed at his skull. At the same time the other two were catching up and launching follow-up attacks. It was a perfectly executed pincer attack, orchestrated from the start.

"You fucks aren't going to get me that easy!"

Power flowed through the phase stone, instantly ripping Cloudhawk from the material plane. All three men converged on him at the same instant, but slipped right through his incorporeal body. Instantly they were a tangle of limbs as the first guy crashed into the third one's shoulder, the second one punched the third guy in the chest, and the third one rammed into his companion with a shoulder smash.

They hit each other so hard they were all flung away, like a human grenade.

Meanwhile Cloudhawk calmly floated back down to earth, hovering a few centimeters above the ground like some sort of specter. He didn't look any different from before, but his hair and clothes floating around him like he was under water.

"What now, huh?" Cloudhawk was becoming more proficient with the stone each passing day. It was good for more than just burglary, as he was discovering. It gave him an incredible edge in a fight. "You assholes can't even touch me, you think you stand a chance? I suggest you get the fuck outta here before you make me mad."

"He has a relic!"

Three angry faces glared at him. No wonder Cloudhawk was able to harm their leader.

Drake was conflicted. He'd underestimated this no-name prick, underestimated demonhunter tactics in general. With his mysterious relic Cloudhawk had punched through his iron-like body as though it was nothing. Drake was struck by the grating realization that he could be ten times stronger than he was today, and the guy would still have won that bet.

That was no normal attack. It was like no style he'd ever seen before, but it was definitely more than Drake could handle.

How could he be this strong? Does no amount of hard work and training overcome a demonhunter's natural abilities? Gods, we are all your devout soldiers. Why do they deserve all your blessings? What makes them so special?!

He felt wronged, angry, envious. He was both defeated and unwilling to admit defeat. It surged through him like a torrent of fire, stoking his fury ever higher.

Once Cloudhawk saw that his three attackers were not rushing back in, he knew his display had worked. He allowed himself to take a breath.

"Wolfe, Jaga, Tigris - stand down. Leave him to me."

Cloudhawk's face froze. No!

Drake stood up and jumped in one fluid movement. A crater was left behind. When he came crashing back down the earth rattled and a shockwave burst out. His glare was so sharp Cloudhawk could almost feel its bite. "You didn't really succeed. That means I win this bet."

Fuck you, that's some bullshit right there. It's at least a tie...

Cloudhawk didn't even have a chance to open his mouth. Drake's meaty fists came at him like a stampede, one after the other in a series of blows he could hardly see. At least punches a second, and each one caused the air to hiss in protest.

Fast! Strong!

In a blink there were several dozen fists pummeling him, and each one had the force of twenty tons behind it. To Cloudhawk it would feel like being smacked with an elephant, if it weren't for the stone. It was not a problem to him, except that Drake wasn't slowing down. Quite the opposite, in fact, as he quickly ramped up to twenty punches a second. They came so fast they actually started to compress the air, and as it thickened friction began to heat it all up. Temperature rose sharply, like a bomb moments from detonation.

Ten punches. Fifty punches. A hundred - two hundred! Eventually licks of fire were actually dancing through the air, whipping among the turbulence like red-hot knives!

Drake was no demonhunter. What he was doing was purely a result of his speed, strength and ferocity. He had to be using martial skills Cloudhawk had no concept of to allow himself to move so fast and punch so hard. By the time the flurry of punches had reached a hundred, each one had more pure force behind it than Cloudhawk cold fathom. This spectacular scene was a result.

A master demonhunter not specialized in close-quarters combat would fear for his life before this onslaught!

Cloudhawk's face fell as Drake's attack reached its climax. At last it accumulated enough energy to affect him, and it felt like a bubble burst. The kickback knocked him a few meters away.

More bad news. His body was rematerializing.

Drake kept it up. Every second he was pummeling Cloudhawk's intangible body with a dozen strikes at different places. The force of each fist reached up to three hundred meters away. Cloudhawk could see their trajectory but couldn't get out of the way. He curled his fist and put all the strength he had behind it, sending right into Drake's face.

Just in that moment...

Cloudhawk's chest and abdomen were pulverized by half a dozen punches. Both men rocketed away from one another.

Drake's skills were beyond comprehension. His three soldier companions - Wolfe, Jaga and Tigris - stared with mouths agape.

Cloudhawk hit the ground hard, but controlled his roll and regained his footing. He paused, teetering in one knee, face pale. Drake was much stronger than he thought. He'd managed to power through Cloudhawk's defense, something he'd never seen happen before.

His punch wasn't something to sniff at, though.

Drake's lower jaw was crooked from the hit. Unlike Cloudhawk he didn't hit the ground after being knocked back. He deftly spun through the air and landed with his feet firmly beneath him like he was nailed in place.

Calloused hands gripped his face, and with an audible pop Drake reset his dislocated jaw.

Cloudhawk's punch would have knocked a black bear's head clean off, but all he managed to do to Drake was swell up his cheek. Even that quickly vanished as capillaries drained the flood away. He looked totally unfazed, never taking those dark eyes off Cloudhawk. No relic was perfect, and no defense insurmountable. The success of his attacks had proved that.

"I don't know how you got your hands on that relic, but it isn't anywhere good enough to save you!" Drake had recovered his confidence. But when he spoke blood still leaked from his mouth. His internal injuries hadn't fully healed yet. "Now that you know I am better than your toy, what else you got to protect you?"

"Heh, don't think you're such top shit. That was an impressive display, but I know what it cost you. As far as I can tell you still got a bunch of splinters stuck in you. Sure as shit can't be feeling good. Someone like you that relies on explosive force, how much longer do you think you can keep it up?"

"Oh, don't you worry about that. I have enough in me to break you apart a hundred times before I go down."

"Then fuckin' put up and prove it!"

Drake's determination was exceptional. He was willing to keep throwing punches at a shadow, whereas any normal person would give up after four or five. He just kept at it like a rabid dog.

Fine. We'll see who's crazier.

Cloudhawk had never been afraid of going all out!

He picked up a dagger from the ground. There was enough psychic energy left in him to use the stone a few more times, enough for one more fight with this stubborn asshole. Cloudhawk knew the dagger wasn't going to do much, but he also knew that everyone had a weakness. His eyes glanced pointedly at the spot between Drake's legs. He was sure the guy noticed.

Drake was just as determined. He dropped into a combat posture.

He didn't know this demonhunter, but if he had a relic like that he had to be special. If he could beat a demonhunter like this, it would be a monument to his efforts along the warrior's path. It would prove that even a demonhunter with fortune on his side could be beaten.

"Bring it!"

Cloudhawk brought his dagger up, crouched and ready. From across the clearing Drake screamed at the top of his lungs. It'd been so long since he'd had a battle like this! Thanks to his family connection he was already a lieutenant in the army, but they still considered him too young to command troops. On the few occasions they did take him out on missions, it was to fight heathens and mutated beasts. Under these conditions, when would he have an opportunity for an epic fight?

Drake braced himself to charge, when suddenly the sounds of running footsteps rustled through the deadwood forest. Both of them looked toward the sound, and neither could believe what they saw.

Claudia and Gabriel had returned.

For Cloudhawk it was a stunning turn of events. Why would they ran back this way for no reason? Did they suddenly have a change of heart? Did their sense of morality suddenly berate them for dumping him unceremoniously to the wolves? Unlikely. Both of them were only took anxious to see Cloudhawk dead.

"This kid is mine," Drake growled. "The rest of you, go after them. Quickly!"

Tigris, Jaga and Wolfe charged off into the trees without a second thought. In the same instant, Drake rushed at Cloudhawk like a raging bull. And just as it seemed like all-out war was about to break out-

"Stop fighting!" Claudia shouted desperately at them. "We're surrounded by mutants! Stay here if you want to die, otherwise run!"

Cloudhawk froze.

Surrounded? By the mutants? How?!

But she was proved right. The sound of shrieks and hollers rang through the forest, and as the mist dissipated countless black figures appeared before them. The black sentinels stood just outside of view, unmoving.

Then, arrows. Everything was arrows. Poison-tipped arrows!

Drake was aghast at the scene. There was no more room for disbelief. "The arrows are poisonous! Find cover!"