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Chapter 18 - Heart-scry Thorn

 Three years.

Not a long time, but not short either.

After bidding farewell to the Sandbar, Barb made her living wandering from place to place. Time and again death nearly had her, but from those experiences emerged a new life. Although she never received formal training, she grew up in the school of hard knocks. The wasteland made her strong, hard, and did it quickly. She was head and shoulders above a typical demonhunter, though still had a ways to go when compared to Cloudhawk. Most surprising to Barb was the fact that her 'senior' was, in fact, younger than she was!

Selene, Zephyr, Dawn, Frost, Atlas, Blaze... each brilliant stars in Skycloud's night sky. Seemed to her they could tack another name to the end of that list. The respect Barb had for the mysterious demonhunter from years ago only grew.

Those geniuses were unreachable, rising high above the masses. They were also the children of great families and spoiled with wealth and opportunity. None of them held a candle to her 'senior', for which of them would have even given a low-born demonhunter like her the time of day? Three years ago she didn't know how to grab onto opportunities when they arrived, but she wasn't going to let it go this time.

"Stop struggling." Cloudhawk didn't have time to reminisce about the old days. He pinned Cyclops to the floor with an unsympathetic boot. "You and those fuckin' Highwaymen are really starting to annoy me. I really hope you decide to cut it out and tell me where their headquarters is. Do that and I'll make it worth your while."

Autumn and Barb looked at the beaten man struggling in the dirt. Neither felt burdened by the need for mercy. Countless innocents were destroyed at this bandit's hands. How many women and children had be killed, or ordered slain? He was unworthy of anyone's sympathy, even from soft-hearted Autumn. Letting him live would be a sin.

No fire remained in Cyclop's heart. He was beaten, convinced that these were his final moments. Still he grit his teeth in obstinance. "Elysian dogs. I'm not going to tell you a damn thing. I'd rather die than betray Blackfiend!"

He was one stubborn asshole.

Cloudhawk looked down at him, his eyes narrowing to slits. They'd taught him how to deal with stubborn people back at Hell's Valley, but it took time. Out here they were exposed, and the Highwaymen's territory wasn't safe enough for them to hang around for the time he needed. This one-eyed shit's friends could show up at any moment, and the trouble would outweigh anything they might gain.

The Warden wasn't interested in the Highwaymen or their hideout. He just wanted to know about this 'Blackfiend the Undying' everyone was so doe-eyed over. There was no such thing as an immortal, so either this guy was building a bullshit identity or had some unique abilities that made him seem hard to kill. Whatever the case, he piqued Cloudhawk's curiosity.

But, if Cyclops wasn't going to cooperate than Cloudhawk wasn't going to waste his time.

Barb saw her senior lift his sword to cut the bandit's head off. Suddenly her eyes glimmered and she stepped forward. "Let me have a go at it, your Excellency."

"Eh? You've been trained in interrogation?"

"Nope. But we don't need to go through the trouble!" Barb extricated a bag from her clothing, and fished out a dozen needles from inside. They were long, silver spurs with the exception of one, which was gold. In fact, this is what helped Cloudhawk recognize Barb within the crowd - they resonated with power. Barb's delicate fingers picked out the golden needle. "I have a gift for the spiritual and psychic. This here is called the heart-scry thorn. With it I can read his thoughts and memories. Only, it has a pretty low success rate - twenty-five percent, maybe. It does terrible things to the victim, so you have to be prepared for them to die. I might as well give it a try if we're going to kill him anyway."

A psychic-type seeking relic? A rare treasure indeed! The only other demonhunter Cloudhawk had known with psychic talent was Claudia Lunae. Her seeker's torque was of the same type as this needle.

The seeker's torque was used for local surveillance. It scanned surroundings for any homicidal or evil intent. Barb's needles were even more detailed, boring right into the mind of the victim and taking information from the source. The drawback, of course, was that resistance from the subject could result in their permanent disability, or even death. At Barb's current psychic capabilities, there was only a one in four chance of success.

Psyche, spirit, soul, and reality: These were the rarer talents, and often specified. Claudia likely couldn't use the heart-scry needles despite having the same class of ability.

Barb was lucky to find such a powerful relic, especially one that suited her so well. Taking Cloudhawk's silence as consent, Barb decided now was the time to show her worth. Without a word, she shoved the golden needle into Cyclops' forehead. [1]

"What are you doing -" Cyclops felt an electric shock race through every nerve in his body. The agonizing, burning sensation was instantly followed by a total lack of feeling. He couldn't move, only stare wide-eyed at the woman in front of him.

Autumn winced. A needle to the brain certainly couldn't feel good.

"Give me five minutes, your Excellency. If the scrying is successful I'll even be able to tell you the first time he shot a pistol, [2], what color he likes, and his favorite sexual position."

"Impressive!" Cloudhawk was quick with his praise. "If you become proficient in this skill, the big-wigs in Skycloud would be scrambling to snap you up. Don't forget the little people like me when you're calling the shots, right?"

His words were exaggerated, certainly, but were not out of the realm of possibility. The power players like Arcturus and Skye were rife with capable fighters, but they lacked people with special talents like Barb. Reading a person's heart was a unique and useful skill. The Dark Atom had caused so much havoc over the years because their members were notoriously tight-lipped. Someone like Barb, with the proper training and proficiency, would crack that mystery wide open. At this point it was only a matter of time.

"You flatter me, Excellency. It's my honor to be of service." Pleasantly surprised, she accepted his compliment. She went on to describe the history of the heart-scry thorn. "This treasure is a family heirloom from the mayor of that town I stayed in. Unfortunately for them, their family is in decline. There hasn't been any offspring with a demonhunter's talent for close to a century. Anyway, there are only a few people in all of Skycloud who could use these needles. They were destined for me, so the mayor handed them over. A gift for taking on this mission. If your Excellency needs my help for anything in the future, all you need to do is ask. I would consider it my duty."

As she spoke, Barb pressed her hands together, clasping them tight. She began focusing her mental powers.

Cyclops was frozen. Unable to move, he could not express the terror that crept up from inside as he realized his mind was no longer his own. Memories rose unbidden, even things he thought he'd forgotten years ago. It was surreal, like nothing he'd experienced before. His mind was an open book, laid bare before this hateful woman.

A scream of rage bubbled up from his paralyzed throat. He summoned all the power left in him, desperately trying to repel this invasion. But it was all in vain, for no amount of struggle could stop the incisive power that was drilling through his memories. His will crumbled before it, his mind was forfeit. Once Cyclops was totally under her control, he slumped into a semi-coma.

"We can begin!"

Barb pressed her hands against Cyclops, who remained motionless on the ground. She was resolved to put on a good show so Cloudhawk could see just what she was capable of. Maybe he would even ask her to join him on their mission.

Barb's greatest wish was to be a champion for good. She would wander where needed, battling the forces of darkness and defending the righteous. Her humble beginning made every step on her journey more difficult, but perhaps that would change if she could become Cloudhawk's partner.

The golden needle began to glow. A sign that her psychic energy was galvanizing its power.

She was lucky, overcoming Cyclops' resistance had gone smoother than she could have hoped. There didn't appear to be any major damage to the bandit's mind, which meant there was a fair chance they'd get what they were after.

Time to get started! Barb picked up one of the silver needles and inserted it into her own body. A surge of memories burst forth within the bandit and danced through Barb's mind like a slideshow. They were clear as photographs, no holes or obscurities. In fact, Barb was surprised at how well it all was going. She sifted through the images as they came, looking for anything of value. And then...


She yelped in surprise, rising to her feet. Her eyes were wide and a look of disbelief painted her face. It was like she'd seen a ghost.

"Senior, perhaps you better see for yourself." Barb pulled out another silver needle and handed it to him. "This is a transference needle. Place it anywhere on your body and you'll be able to see what comes through the heart-scry thorn." The needles were part of a set; gold focused the information, silver delivered it.

Not only was the relic able to read an enemy's thoughts, the silver ones could pass them on. The uses were many. For instance, if used in a battle with every soldier bearing a silver needle, thoughts could be passed instantaneously. In that way the user could create a sort of neural net to communicate that ignored distance. So long as the user's psychic energy remained all manner of information and orders could be shared with a mere thought.

How interesting. Cloudhawk push the needle into his skin.

He felt a brief electric shock jolt from the needle and pass into his nerves. It crackled up and permeated into his brain, and right away a huge burst of information assailed him. It felt similar to the connection he and Oddball shared, where they used a psychic connection to share their minds.

"Give me a needle, let me try."

Autmn was fascinated and wanted to see for herself. She grit her teeth against the anticipation of pain and stuck herself. Suddenly pictures flashed behind her eyes in a long procession. It was completely foreign to her, like walking through another person's head. Everything this bandit had ever done and ever experienced was open to her.

Was this the power of Skycloud's demonhunters?

Autumn couldn't help but think about her own mother. On her deathbed, she claimed that Autumn had the talents of a demonhunter. She didn't know if what her mother said was true, but she hoped it was. Over the last few days she'd been made painfully aware of her weakness. Autumn didn't want to live her life feeling fragile and useless.

1. Ok. Acupuncture can't be used to read people's minds, otherwise I would totally be doing that shit. There is an acupuncture point around the forehead though. In fact, it's right where the 'third eye' is located between the eyebrows. It's called yintang, and aside from local issues like sinus problems and frontal headache, it is also used to calm the spirit.

2. Hilariously, and probably unintentionally in this context, 'shot a pistol' is also a euphemism in Chinese for jerking off. Or it isn't and Tipsy is a comic genius.