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Chapter 92 - The Skull

 Cloudhawk had only started to recover, but already another life-threatening danger was coming his way. That couldn't be permitted. His eyes turned red and bloodshot, nearly bulging from his head. A power from deep inside him burst out and he shot to his feet. The several ton slab of rock that pinned him was flung at his attacker.

At the same moment, Cloudhawk threw his crossbow aside and lunged at the large man with his bare fist.

The hulking man roared like a beast, delivering a thunderous punch at the stone tumbling his way. It shattered it into pieces then met Cloudhawk's fist on the other side. When the two men collided, the shards of rock suspended in air were blasted away.

The mutant's strength was nothing short of amazing. Punching through the stone slab hadn't slowed him down or weakened his punch in the least. Cloudhawk felt engulfed in a tide of concussive force that shook every bone in his body and made him numb. His body slammed against the door once again as he was thrown back.

An ugly, twisted sneer tugged at the mutant's lips. It was a mocking sneer for the little man who thought he could stand toe to toe with him. His skinny arms and twig-like legs weren't worthy of his overconfidence.

Cloudhawk clutched his shoulder, face pale.

This guy was just a Dark Atom soldier, albeit one of their crack troops. Still, the difference in strength between them was too big. If he had his relics maybe Cloudhawk would have stood a chance. But wishing wouldn't make it so. His enemy's attacks were crushing - clumsy and slow, but strong enough to punch a hole right through him.

Typically Cloudhawk would use superior speed to take pot shots, but his legs were hurt when the hall collapsed. Anyway, a protracted battle wasn't going to work in his favor in this circumstance. Who knew how many more Dark Atom fighters were on their way? He and the elysians were on the back foot. They weren't going to hold out long.

He had to think of a way to escape. If he didn't, he'd been left to rot here.

All escapes routes were blocked off by Wolfblade and his people, he had to think of something else. He wracked his mind for an answer but that disquieting call was whispering at him, making it hard to think. I was coming from behind him, on the other side of the thick bronze doors. It was in there somewhere, it had to be, and it could help him. Escape would mean getting his hands on... whatever it was.

There was no other choice. He had to just go for it.

The burly mutant wasn't interested in giving Cloudhawk time to ponder the end of his days. He stooped over and wrapped his arms around a section of fallen column. He heaved, swinging it around in a semicircle and then releasing it right at him. He charged after the rubble with a roar, the ground cracking beneath the force of his stamping feet.

Cloudhawk threw his hands in front of him for protection. Not that it would do anything - the impact would liquefy the bones in his arms.

The mutant's sheer force was beyond what any typical man could fathom. He wanted to smash Cloudhawk against the door with that column, an act which would certainly smash the scrawny man flat. Cloudhawk knew he couldn't protect himself, so he used the last of his mental energies and called on the phase stone. Its mystical field immediately covered him, and he was safe from the outside world.

Time was crucial. The instant the stone's power awakened, Cloudhawk struggled against the door to try and push his way through. He was met with stiff resistance. It was a thick and intractable barrier, but Cloudhawk knew deep within that this was his last chance. Either he got through, or it was the end.

So he grit his teeth, focused his psychic power and funneled it through the stone. Its field instantly strengthened and he managed to squeeze through. He popped out on the other side.


The door and its whole frame shook as something enormous slammed into it. Cloudhawk could hear the column exploding into pieces just where he'd been lying. The freak's sheer power was never in doubt.

He's squeaked through, surviving by the skin of his teeth.

I'll remember you, ugly. One day you'll get what you deserve.

Cloudhawk struggled back onto his feet. A little blob of yellow popped out of his clothes.

"Hey, lil guy. You doin' alright?"

Oddball offered a chirp of reassurance and perched on his shoulder. It looked fine, just a little shaken. Cloudhawk couldn't blame it, they were both almost killed after all. He didn't know how it was the pudgy little thing was so tough, though he was thankful for it. Those feathers looked frail, but they weren't even scorched from the explosions. His friend was a real survivor.

No time to waste. I've gotta keep going.

Cloudhawk hobbled around to begin searching for the source of the call. Then, suddenly, everything disappeared. No more door, no building, nothing. He was in a pitch-dark place without substance, except that the ground was oddly uneven. There were enormous craters all around, some as wide as a hundred meters, like the whole place had been leveled by meteors.

Great mountains had been blown apart and were strewn across the horizon. Among the ruin were the mangled remains of countless warships.

The corpses carpeted everything, a sea of bodies. The ground was red, the mountains were red, the rivers were red. The sky was red. Everything was painted the color of blood, and the stench of death stuck in Cloudhawk's nostrils. It was almost more than he could stand.

What... what happened?

It had to be some kind of illusion! What was all this on the other side of that bronze door?

Cloudhawk stumbled through the vast, dead world. An angry sun burned in the sky, alongside a second and a third. All told there had to be thirteen burning orbs in total.

No... not suns, but figures that burned just as bright. Suddenly they were right before him, radiating with intense light that made it hard to look directly at them.

"You've lost."

It sounded like it was coming from right next to his ear, like a gentle thunder. The sound of it was full of majesty and coercion, impossible to deny, that shook him to the depths of his soul. Its tremendous will washed over him, so powerful that even the mightiest warrior would be overcome with despair.


The command fell with the force of a mountain.

Cloudhawk couldn't breathe. The will of this being completely overcame his defenses and spoke directly to the depths of his mind. He could feel it working to steal the strength of his legs and force him to the ground.


Another booming command ripped through his skull.

He was exhausted, drained, and covered in sweat. Cloudhawk's mind was empty and absent any resistance. But there was something deeper, a tenacity in the depths of his heart that arose in defiance and anger. He didn't know why, only that he would not kneel before this being. If he obeyed then he would truly be lost. He didn't want to lose!

Fuck! Who the fuck are you? You think I'm going to kneel because you tell me to?

The beings of light stretched forth their hands at Cloudhawk, who refused to show obeisance. Within their palms the light gathered, an amalgamation of intense power. They held the orbs in their hands and repeated the command in a unified, world-shuddering voice. "Kneel!"

"You can all fuck right off!"

Thirteen beams of light fired toward him. An entire ocean would evaporate if set against such stupefying power.

Cloudhawk covered his face reflexively.

Seconds passed.


He slowly let his hands drop to find the illusion had disappeared. Oddball was anxiously flying circles overhead, probably thinking its master had lost his mind. Cloudhawk wasn't entirely convinced he hadn't. What was that? Some sort of test? He put it aside for the time being and began to explore his surroundings.

It was a secret chamber set deep inside the compound. Small, by comparison.

Set in the center of the room was a pedestal made from some kind of glittering crystal. The thing set on it was black as coal, and only seemed blacker against the shimmering material. It looked like a skull, a human skull. Boney sockets were pointed his way, and inside danced a pair of scarlet flames. The illusion had to have come from this thing.

Was some dead asshole's bones that powerful? A treasure indeed!

Cloudhawk looked it over for a moment, reaching out with all his senses. Something still didn't feel quite right.

There wasn't a resonance. No resonance meant this wasn't a relic.

Cloudhawk was afraid it was some kind of trap. Whatever this was, people were dying outside to protect it, and the Dark Atom was killing to get their hands on it. After what he just experienced, Cloudhawk wasn't in a rush to assume anything either. He was weighing his options. After all, he still wasn't even sure he wanted to grab this thing. Once he did things would get... awkward.

Snatching a treasure from the Dark Atom was like ripping food from a tiger's mouth. Wolfblade would hunt him to all corners of the earth. To add to that, stealing from crack elysian veterans had to be a sin punishable by death. Even Skye Polaris wouldn't be able to protect him. He'd probably cut him down himself.

Even if this thing was some unrivaled treasure, was Cloudhawk prepared to take it for himself?

Throughout his musings the phase stone had been growing hotter. Something in the back of his mind was urging him over and over again to pick the skull up. He grit his teeth and made a decision: he didn't come down here for nothing. He wasn't scared... just touch it, see what happens.

All the while the skull stared at him from its pedestal.

Cloudhawk picked his way around the crystal plinth, looking it over. When he got a better look at the skull he saw it was not quite what he thought. It was about twice the size of a typical human skull, although it was about the right shape. A mutant's skull, maybe? That didn't seem likely.

It was ink black from top to bottom. Smooth, reflective, and he could even feel a little warmth coming from it. It almost looked like a piece of art.

Could nature make something like this? The aura coming off of it so was strong, it made Cloudhawk's hair stand on end. He felt like he was circling an ancient enemy, a discomfort that was written into his genetic code. The fires in its empty sockets had a sort of power, too. Somehow he knew that they'd been burning for hundreds of thousands of years. Inextinguishable.

If this was someone's bones he didn't want to know what they were like when they were alive.

On the other side of the door, Cloudhawk could hear that the fight was ending. No more hesitating. He picked up the skull.

The moment he touched it the inert remains started to quiver. Scarlet flames belched from its seven orifices like the clawing fingers of an evil spirit. They slithered up his arms, bloodthirsty and desperate to devour him whole.