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Book 3, Chapter 56 - Returning the Favor

 Selene was as strong of body as she was of resolve. She never backed down in the face of a threat!

Even with sour odds she was more than willing to give her all and fight for victory. Blindly rushing into the wastelands to kill a demon all on her own was proof of her determination. Even a fool knew that only a master demonhunter could face a demon alone, and she was still a novice at the time. Strong for a novice, yes, but not nearly capable of killing a demon, much less trying to defeat it on its own turf.

Selene had strode off full of grim determination like it was a decision based in logic. It wasn't, she was a font of emotion. Cloudhawk was surprised, then, that she'd changed so much. The old Selene would have balked after suggesting they flee, but this time she didn't protest. Unthinkable!

The two briefly shared what they'd been doing for the last stretch of time.

Cloudhawk learned why Selene was looking for the Crimson One. The Caliph of the Sands was not her father's killer, contrary to what she believed, but the master of the Crimson Church might have had something to do with his demise. All these years she'd been searching, hunting, tracking. What a hard life for a young woman to choose.

Things had gone better for Cloudhawk. He had earned a title as demonhunter, officially, and the backing of the Polaris family. If he kept with this trajectory he had a bright future to look forward to.

Wasn't that just what she'd hope would come to him?

She kept a straight face as he described what he'd been through. Why would Cloudhawk choose to align himself with the general's family, and not the governor? Her recommendation had been to present himself to Arcturus Cloude. Her uncle's keen eye for talent and depth of wisdom certainly would be able to recognize Cloudhawk's worth. Coming under his tutelage, there was no limit to what the wastelander could accomplish. So why Skye Polaris?

"You say the general has asked you to look into the Crimson One?"

This piece of information stuck out. She knew who Cloudhawk was and where he came from. A wastelander, who had from the start pursued a life of freedom and self-determination. He cared about his own life, and not much else. He certainly wasn't the sort to risk his life for others, or for power. So why would he agree on such a dangerous mission on behalf of Skye Polaris?

Cloudhawk went on to explain his situation. He went over his trek through the wastes, finally arriving at Skycloud city only to be met by Frost de Winter. He described the conflict that followed, his brief struggle against the governor, and ultimately how the Polaris family stepped in for his protection. Part of the deal, he explained, was that he had to undergo training in Hell's Valley and work for the general until his debt was paid.

Hearing this, the old drunk felt some relief. No wonder he'd never heard of the boy. Autumn, however, was not pleased by his tale.

Although the signs were there, she would not have guessed that this rapacious, despicable, flippant scoundrel had been born in the wastelands. The torturous journey he'd gone through to get where he was today was awful, but he was still such a hateful person!

He lied to me!

She thought Cloudhawk agreed to help because she appealed to his better nature. All of a sudden she was confronted with how stupid she'd been. The asshole never had a shred of conscience to appeal to! None of the fortune of eboncrys she'd offered had convinced him to go on the journey, it was all because it happened to coincide with his mission to learn about the Crimson One.

Bastard! Asshole! To think she'd felt guilty!

Autumn thought Cloudhawk had shouldered the dangers of Fishmonger's Borough and gotten injured to help with her quest. In reality, he did it to himself. The gods couldn't take him soon enough. Every minute he lived was a scourge on humanity!

The small group traveled as fast as they could, reaching the elysian border by the fourth night. The only place they'd be safe was here near that mountain range. It wasn't Skycloud, but it was close enough that it was under their protection. Wastelander cities and their hunger for that ten thousand gold reward wouldn't dare reach so close to the elysians. In addition, Skycloud had strengthened its hold over the borderlands lately, flooding it with more soldiers and clamping down on lawlessness.

Oddball flapped back over to Cloudhawk after scouting around. It made sure they were safe for the time being, and picked out a good place for them to rest.

"There's a settlement ahead. The lizards are tired, let's bunker down for a while and get ourselves together before we press o. Sandbar Outpost is still about a day away, by the time we get back it won't matter if they catch up."

Cloudhawk's condition was going from bad to worse as they traveled. He felt much stronger - in fact every facet of his physical body was improved. Some parts of him were even beginning to show mutation, proving that he didn't have time to lay around. He need to find a way to stop the process before it was too late.

"Boss, we found the targets!"

"It's definitely them. Go after them!"

A group of several hundred capable soldiers were lying in ambush. They saw the group of weary travelers approach on tired mounts and their eyes gleamed dangerously. Hands gripped tight to swords and bows, and they gathered themselves to attack at a moment's notice. All they needed was the order.

In the dark room in which they waited was a particularly dark silhouette. He was a handsome, dark-skinned man seated with his eyes closed. Beside the valiant figure was another, a young fellow with delicate features and wearing a headscarf. A stalk of withered grass jutted from one corner of his mouth, and his hand lay idly on the shaft of an exorcist staff looped through his belt. The hand was covered in bandages that reached all the way up his arm. He stood there in the darkness, calm as a lake surface.

Two others stood behind the young man. One, a swordsman with a pallid face. The other was a boy clutching tight to a gourd. They were an odd pair.

"They're close!"

"Boss, give the order!"

Squall clenched his jaw and crushed the stalk of grass between his teeth, but he did not act. The towering black-skinned man finally opened his eyes before finally offering an emotionless response. "There are more of them. Spread the order - no one moves. Wait and watch."

The boy-like fiend with the gourd spoke up. He looked like a boy, but he spoke with the authority of an elder. "Now is the best opportunity. Why are you hesitating? We have our best people here, it doesn't matter how strong they are. We need the treasure of the Millennium Vale and the key to it is right there. I'm sure our illustrious leader knows how important that is."

Several of the Highwaymen around them nodded fervently. They were chomping at the bit to act.

Seeing that he was losing them, Squall sighed. He began to reach out with his mind toward Blackfiend, when one of the bandits called out in alarm. "Look the sky! Fire!"

"Shit for brains, how can there be fire in the sky?"

Several of the bandits peeked out, but their skepticism soon changed to surprise. What was this, a fuckin' ghost invasion? Balls of fire floated through the clouds, and not just normal fire either. It was green. The sky was full of it, maybe a hundred orbs like a meteor shower in slow motion.

Squall's face suddenly hardened. "Shit! Tell all the men to find cover!"

The Highwaymen had been so focused on the impending attack that the new circumstance took them completely by surprise. Before they could get their bearings, the orbs of fire came crashing down among the settlement. Most of them were focused on the outpost's center, where the four travelers had entered. As the whole settlement was engulfed in fire there wasn't a lick of heat. Instead the sickly green flames filled everyone with a frigid sense of dread.

Just it seemed the small group would be incinerated, one of the women lurched forward. She flung an unassuming gourd into the air, and from it exploded a dozen three-meter long birds of orange flame. They beat their blazing wings, bringing them into the path of the green orbs and ramming into them with a frightening explosion. A dazzling scene of sparks and tongues of flame danced overhead.

The act was repeated over and over again. Red and green warred for dominance and sparks wafted down among the people like burning snowflakes. Both powers were fierce and unwilling to abate, but the green fires were more potent. It swallowed up everything with a voracious hunger, and those that were not quick enough to avoid the cataclysmic scene were turned to blackened residue.

The most humble looking of the group, an old man, stamped his foot on the ground. It immediately cracked from the force and spat shards of stone into the air. When the next volley of green fire descended, it was prevented from reaching them by this cloud of debris.

At the same time, the woman raised her gloved hands.

Turbulent flames arose from around her hands, then quickly spread to create a shell around her and her allies. In an instant all the world around them burst into flame, a pyroblast that immediately swelled to incredible dimensions. The sheer ferocity of it beat back the orbs of green fire that tried to fight through. It was so intense, in fact, that several nearby buildings were blown apart as though from a bomb blast. The unlucky bandits hiding inside looked at each other in speechless despair. Suddenly they were alone in a hell of green and red fire with no recourse but to scream and die.


Squall and the others remained hidden in their dark room, watching what transpired. Twice the woman acted, and both times the power she displayed was breathtaking. Inwardly he praised his instincts in not rushing into battle. If he hadn't, there was no question most of their hunting party would have been wiped out.

The old man wasn't to be discounted, either. Shit - just one of these characters was a big deal. How many impressive people did Cloudhawk surround himself with?

Squall fought the unhappy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

A man descended from the heavens, clad in red robes and wreathed in green flame. With an ornate staff in hand he dropped to the ground before the four fugitives. As the woman protected them with her shield of flame he pummeled her defenses. Dozens of thrusts from his crosier buffeted them, whipping around to assail them from several different directions. Most were angled to put maximum pressure on the woman.

The old man moved in to assist. He used his exorcist staff to ward off what he could.

Selene was nearing the limit of what she could handle. Her chest heaved with deep gulping breaths, and the continuous blasts forced her to stagger backwards. She was struggling, but so far could handle it. A few stray blows got close to Autumn and Cloudhawk as well. Fear gripped the young girl from the Vale - she was too feeble to protect herself from the Crimson One's terrible attack.

Selene and the old man were too busy defending their own lives.

Cloudhawk squared his shoulders and threw himself between her and the attack. They struck his body with a series of dull thuds, the force of them causing Cloudhawk to cough up a mouthful of blood. They hit so hard that by all rights Cloudhawk should have been blasted to pieces, but he was not the same man. Ever cell in his body was active, filling him with potency. Rattled, he was otherwise alright.

The old man lashed out with the exorcist staff like a rabid dragon. A gust of turbulent power rose.

Red robes flapped dramatically as the Crimson One withdrew. In a blink he was fifteen meters away. Green fires burned behind his eyes, looking for all the world like a denizen of hell. He paused to look over the beleaguered fugitives, sparing a few extra seconds to regard Selene. Something he saw gave him pause, but he quickly recovered as though nothing had happened.

Cloudhawk mocked him with cold laughter. "Hey Pinky! You finally made it!"

"You have arrived. This can only mean you draw close to the truth." The Crimson One ignored Cloudhawk and fixed his eyes on Selene. For the moment none of the others existed. "But you are too young still to face me alone."

Selene stepped forward, her cloak billowing in the winds. Her sword of light burst into being and brought with it a stifling sense of majesty. Her eyes bore through the man in red like she could kill him with a glare.

"Hey now, don't count your chickens before they're hatched," Cloudhawk said through a lopsided grin. He raised his voice and shouted toward the surrounding buildings. "Squall! I know you're there, you can stop hiding!"

He was exposed. Squall was left with no choice but to tell his men to stay at the ready, then stepped out with Greensnake, Gremlin, and Blackfiend by his side. The building they stepped out of was positioned behind the man in red. "It seems despite our efforts we still couldn't hide from you."

Cloudhawk didn't waste any time with pleasantries. "I know why you're here, but we can put our own shit aside for the moment. This geriatric is super cranky, and it just so happens his goal is the same as yours. I wondered what you thought about that."

Squall was quiet for a moment. He knew what Cloudhawk was getting at. So it seemed like today they were unavoidably pulled into a fight that wasn't theirs. His answer came in a resigned drawl. "Alright. I suppose I still owe you one."