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Chapter 93 - A Second Encounter

 Cloudhawk immediately wanted to throw the skull away. The fires were like viscous oil, climbing up his arms, filling him with trepidation. There were many times over the last few months that he'd seen otherworldly things, but this was like really being face to face with a ghost!

The fires continued to envelop him. But there was no heat.

In fact it was the opposite. It wasn't like fire at all, but like shackles of ice slithering over his body. They were ghastly vipers, born from the depths of the earth and slowly sapping the life from him. He couldn't move, and the hair all over his body stood on end.

When the scarlet flames had encased half his body, they might as well have been hard as cement. Just as Cloudhawk was beginning to fear he'd been locked in forever, the slithering flames seemed to sense something. They all coalesced around his chest and upon touching the phase stone, were sucked inside.

The plain-looking stone drew them in like a sponge, or more precisely, like an insatiable black hole. Not a single bit of the fire from the black skull remained, devoured by the phase stone until even the eternal fires of its eyes went dark.

Cloudhawk's own eyes turned to the skull, where he watched a change overcome it. The glossy shine was gone from its jade-like surface. All of a sudden it was as though a thousand years passed in an instant. The skull became coarse, parts of it cracked. Fissures continued along the ancient bone until, with a clatter, it broke into several pieces and fell to the ground.

Slowly, Cloudhawk regained his ability to move. He staggered back a few steps the instant his feet would let him. The sound of his heart pounding was deafening.

Something felt different to him now, a sensation centered on his chest. He looked down to see what had been a plain stone, now gradually turning into a brilliant scarlet red. It was as smooth as luminescent as a gemstone now, and an enigmatic power radiated from inside it.

Did something happen? Had the skull somehow broken his precious relic?

He touched it and was rewarded with an intense shock. A sharp pain raced through his brain that caught him off guard, and then his vision went dark. Memories, shards of thoughts, all jumbled and chaotic flooded him in a wild procession. Scenes of war marched across his mind's eye; flashes of blood and death, all manner of conflicting sounds, thousands of colors all mashed together and impossible to differentiate.

What human brain could cope with so much information? It threatening to rip him apart! If it didn't kill him, it would certainly drive him mad.

Get out! Get the fuck out of my head!

His response to the overwhelming sights and sounds was angry resistance. In his mind's eye a shower of meteors came crashing down into his sea of consciousness, stirring up tidal waves. When they sunk into the depths of that dark sea Cloudhawk thought there might be peace, but it was not the end. The falling stones glowed with an intense light. A field of energy hung over everything.

The images conjured by his mind churned like an angry river.

This... it feels like the stone's powers are activating.

The phasing power came from the stone and not from Cloudhawk, so he had no ability to stop it. His body twisted erratically like it was made of clay, then blinked out of existence.

A familiar feeling washed over him. It was the feeling of passing into another dimension.

Cloudhawk had begun to master the stone's abilities that allowed him to pass through matter. In essence, the principle was he was half in one dimension and half in another. He was still present, but dislodged. The stone's field of energy was the culprit.

If an elastic cloth was used to represent the concept of time, then Cloudhawk's phasing ability was like placing a rock on that cloth. He was still obviously on one side of that cloth as it stretched, but at the same time was not in his own space.

Or like two bridges, one above the other. No matter the flow of traffic above, those drivers were never going to appear on the road below. Although they could see each other, they were only ever projections of each other. Through the stone's ability to make full use of space, Cloudhawk was able to elude danger.

But that was far from the stone's only power. In the hands of a real master, the phase stone could penetrate dimensions completely. Returning to the cloth metaphor, at Cloudhawk's current capabilities he could stretch the cloth but not pass it. If one with enough strength tried, though, they'd slip right through.

Right now, the ability to tread dimensions was beyond him. The few times it'd succeeded was because he'd resonated properly with the power stored in the stone. It was very difficult for him to do that at a whim.

Now, after absorbing whatever was in that skull, the stone was coming alive again.

How could it not take Cloudhawk by surprise?

The power that overcame him sliced Cloudhawk into infinitesimally minute pieces, more than a man could fathom. He was then put together somewhere else, in another reality.

This was not a pleasant experience.

However, after a few experiences Cloudhawk had learned to deal with it. Now he was somewhere draped in darkness and silence. It was a world of ruin.

It had been cleaved into loosely assembled blocks of earth floating around each other, some as large as Skycloud domain. They all floated in an unsettling and empty space but for the twin stars that it orbited. Beyond that, the vast expanse of nothingness and the stars that hid beyond.

It was a dead world of dust and not much else. This couldn't be where he'd come from.

He'd been to a few places now, and they'd all seemed like typical worlds. But this place? He'd never seen anything like it! But anyone with the barest minimum of an education knew this had to be space. He was on a chunk of rock, draped in stardust. The fractured remains of a planet floated all around him that had been torn apart by some nightmarish power. Now they slowly drifted apart through the eternal vacuum, as far into the horizon.

His stone was active, luckily for Cloudhawk. Its field of power was the only thing keeping him from dying on the spot in this inhospitable environment. There was no air and it was freezing cold. His lungs would have been instantly sucked empty, his eardrums ruptured. A normal human wouldn't last five seconds. Cloudhawk might be able to last a few more, at best.

So what was going on? Why would the stone bring him here?

The slab Cloudhawk floated on now was about the size of Skycloud domain. As he looked out, he saw a several tattered excuses for shelters. They had to have been cobbled together after the calamity. None of this would have survived whatever happened to this world.

As he turned his head up, Cloudhawk found fields of wreckage. One section of it looked suspiciously like the floating docks used by the elysians. The ruin of what looked a lot like a warship was nearby, and another easily a thousand meters long. According to Cloudhawk's experiences with them, they seemed exactly similar.

This had to be a battleground.

Cloudhawk's attention snapped back the stone, for in just that instant it released a column of fire. It roiled angrily for a moment before gathering together. Like a mold, it was forced into a human shape. However, no matter how much one squeezed fire was not solid. A true body could not be formed.

As he suspected, his phase stone had some connection to the skull.

The amalgamation of fire was human in shape, but even up close there were no discernable features. All he could make out where a pair of fiery orbs where its eyes should be, and the spectral representation of a gem embedded in its chest. To Cloudhawk he was somehow familiar. It was like looking at himself in some twisted mirror, but the reflection was anything but human.

"You? Didn't you say you were dead?"

Who else could this be but the previous owner of the stone? Having him appear like this all of a sudden was very suspicious.

"Did that skull I found belong to you?" Cloudhawk gaped comically and exaggeratedly. But there was something weird about how he spoke... "I'm so sorry, I think I might have carelessly broke it into pieces."

It wasn't the words that was weird. It was the environment.

There was no air here, and with no air there was no way to talk. The being couldn't hear him. And yet he seemed to. They floated across from one another, staring. Out here among the stars they hovered, one large and one small. Yet although they were close, the image was still hazy. They were talking at each other through across the veil of life and death.

"No need to find it strange. This is merely another fraction of my will I left behind."

"Well, how many of those pieces are out there?"

"When I fell, I split my mind into three pieces. They were the dimension stone, my skull, and my most important relic. The stone bore the inheritance of my power, and my skull contained all of my knowledge. As for my relic, it has been sealed away with all the rest of my riches - my gift of wealth."

Power, knowledge, and wealth. Weren't those the very things every man sought?

Their conversation was very strange, not least for the way the spirit's voice whispered directly into his mind. It was a little bit like how he communicated with Oddball, only... more detailed. Oddball couldn't communicate like this.

"The stone is the key, without it the skull would turn to dust. Luckily, it was you who found my memories."

Dark Atom risked a lot in their war against Hell's Army. For all this trouble, they would rob something they couldn't even use. The power that the skull contained could only be accepted by a specific person. That person was Cloudhawk.

It was an incredible coincidence. But, was it really?

Cloudhawk looked incredulous. "How did this happen?"

"There is much in this universe you cannot even begin to grasp, but this is enough: Everything that is possible exists, and all that exists is possible. Everything has an explanation. Knowledge dispels all mysteries."

The words whispered into the recesses of Cloudhawk's mind.

"If you merge with my wisdom and my memories, you will inherit a deep comprehension of the world you live in. You will see that you are one small, insignificant speck of dust, on an enormous planet that is one of countless others."