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Book 3, Chapter 61 - Becoming A Monster

 In the end, helping Cloudhawk defeat the Crimson One had been a favor for a friend from bygone days. Squall felt a pang of guilt for taking advantage of their situation, but there was much in life that couldn't be helped.

Millennium Vale was the wastelands greatest hidden treasure. If they wanted to have any hope of contending against the elysian lands, Millennium Vale was the key.

Whether the power that pulled Squalls strings or his own self-interest, he had to take control of the valley before it fell into other hands. He especially couldn't allow the elysians to have it, a power which Cloudhawk represented. He was an elysian demonhunter, and traveled with others of his kind, so he couldn't under any circumstances leave the girl with him.

Of course, none of the reasoning behind any of this was important to Cloudhawk.

Squall knew the young man didn't have any ambitions to exploit the valley for himself. He just got tangled up in something much bigger than he thought. If you fell in a latrine, it was impossible not to get covered in shit.

Squall's expression, however, remained detached. "You shouldn't meddle in things that don't concern you."

Cloudhawk felt like his lungs would burst with all the nasty words he wanted to spew.

"You're all arrogant now that you put on your big boy britches, huh?" Cloudhawk couldn't for the life of him understand why he haddn't shoot Squall through the head when he saw him back in Boondock. Now the dickhead was here causing problems at the worst time. Softhearted and nostalgic people really left themselves open to get screwed over. He kept screaming. "Face me one on one, punk. I'll rip your ass apart with one hand behind my back."

His taunts fell on deaf ears.

Blackfiend crouched, then leaped into the air. He tore high over them like a dark arrow, surrounded in wisps of black energy. He hung at the apex of his trajectory for just a second then started to descend like a comet. Cloudhawk and Autumn felt the threat he posed as stifling power washed over them. Any other time Cloudhawk would have been able to protect them from Blackfiend, but the wounds and changes he was going through made his body stiff and hard to move. How was he supposed to protect her?

Autumn was utterly distressed and at a loss for what to do. Suddenly she was a sweet pastry everyone was scrambling for.

She had a powerful relic now, but its strength was only apparent in specific environments.

Her inherent psychic abilities were tremendously strong - strong enough to even contend against the Crimson One under the right circumstances. She'd proved that in Fishmonger's Borough where she not only countered his green fires, but the nearly every guard in the city as well. The abilities of the flute helped her turn the desert beasts against her foes.

But not this time. It all happened too fast. She had no time to prepare. And where would she find enough creatures to create a tide of claws and teeth to protect them?

A loud call arose as another phoenix roared to life. It spread its fiery wings before them as Blackfiend approach, and took the creature's first punch right on the head. A blast of dark energy erupted from its fist, punching a hole through the bird's incorporeal form.

Selene's phoenix detonated against the puppet, wrapping it in flames. However, though it managed to avoid most of the damage the same could not be said for a handful of bandits who'd gotten too close. They screamed and flailed their arms, madly running through the battlefield as human fireballs.

Blackfiend wasn't dissuaded, yet a flash of light from a sword kept it at bay. A celestial maiden dropped in from above to protect Cloudhawk and the girl.

Blackfiend was too slow to protect himself. Selene's sword pierced it directly in the chest, pinning it to the ground.

Selene had abandoned the idea of chasing after her uncle. He had been gravely wounded, but she was sure the old snake still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Intercepting him all by herself wasn't going to happen, nor could she turn a blind eye to Blackfiend flagrant attack on her allies. She had to make sure this immortal creature was kept busy.

Ravenous Tiger's rotund girth came bounding forward next. He whipped the battleax right for the old man's face but it was deflected by the walking stick. The impact forced the cripple backward a few steps but then his whole body quivered like an iron rod. After shaking for a moment all the force of Ravenous Tiger's blow was dissipated. Another high-level martial technique.

"You're lucky I didn't kill you back in Fishmonger's Borough. I don't understand why you would be so willing to throw your life away - oh, yes. It's because dying by my hand is a far more noble death than being devoured by Castigation fire." The old man sneered mockingly at Ravenous Tiger. He turned his head then and called to Cloudhawk and Autumn. "What are you two staring at? Run!"

Ravenous Tiger didn't have time to bother with the crippled old fool. He brandished his battleax and flung himself at Cloudhawk.

"It's not polite to ignore an old man like this!"

The drunk whipped his cane around as he spoke and smacked it against the governor's weapon. By the last syllable he'd whacked Ravenous Tiger with his stick a dozen times. Quick as the wind and fierce as thunder, he attacked even faster than Green Snake. With several times more force as well. His onslaught was like a hurricane with enough strength to tear down a castle wall. A pair of Ravenous Tiger's men bounded over to help only to meet the business end of the staff themselves. In a stunning display of just how much power was behind it, both men were basted into giblets at a single blow.

This also had to be another special tactic, using his true power.

Ravenous Tiger found the rain of blows hard to endure so he made the tactical decision to back off. He glowered at the drunk with a dark expression. The old man was definitely no pushover, but the governor didn't fear him. His stamina had to be spent after fighting the Crimson One. So he ordered his men to go after the girl while he kept the boozer busy.

Keeping the portly man off Cloudhawk and Autumn was about all the old man could manage now, anyway. Whether or not the kid and that sweet girl could get away was down to luck now.

But Autumn's physique was only slightly better than a normal woman. How was she supposed to outrun a bunch of wasteland killers?

Highwaymen bandits and Borough warriors swarmed Selene and the old man. When she saw they would soon be surrounded Autumn growled through gritted teeth. "Don't worry about me. Get away, don't die for us!"

"Are you fuckin' loony?" Cloudhawk cursed through ragged breaths. Every step felt like he was dragging a thousand pounds. Trespasser was holding him back, making his limbs feel like lead. But his tongue was just as sharp as ever. "Do you know what you're saying? They're gonna use every cruel method they can think of to get you to tell them where Millennium Vale is. Day in and day out, no breaks. I'm pretty sure a delicate flower like you can't handle that kind of punishment."

Autumn felt a cold shiver run up her spine. She didn't think she could, either, but her indignation at his low opinion still flared. "That's my business! Just get out of here!"

She flung the words at him when suddenly a group of people appeared to block their path.

Autumn's heart sank into the pit of her stomach. She wrenched a dagger from her waist with a shaking hand. If they really couldn't escape then she would take her own life. Staying alive would only mean suffering. She put the knife to her throat, but before it could be proven whether she had the courage a strong pair of arms grabbed her from behind.

She was so startled she dropped the dagger into the sand.

Cloudhawk flung his foot out and kicked the knife, catching it midair and sending it into the chest of one of the bandits closing in.

Autumn felt herself picked up and flung over Cloudhawk's shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She furiously beat her fists against his back. "What are you doing?! Let me go!"

As he carried her along Cloudhawk managed to squeeze out a sly smirk. "Our account isn't settled yet. Are you trying to die to get out of paying me? Not gonna be so easy, missy. No one owes me money. Besides you're a rare commodity, I'm not someone else get their hands on you.

He was trying to hide his good deed behind a shitty reason. Autumn saw through it, but his words made it hard for her to feel or express gratitude.

All of a sudden they were caught in a forest of swords, spears and spiked maces. They caught him all over, too fast for him to avoid completely. Autumn screamed helplessly.

Pain. Awful, stabbing pain stimulating his body.

Cloudhawk felt like every cell within him was set on fire, simultaneously filling him with strength. It was the innermost potential of his being, called to the surface without the help of any relic. The human body was a font of possibilities, and that was where the true strength of the martial warrior came from.

Three years in Hell's Valley had not been a waste. There, Cloudhawk had learned how to draw on this inner potential but never like this. In an instant, under duress, he felt everything inside him spring to life. He felt several times stronger than even his best day.

Cloudhawk charged ahead. Brute force flung his body forward and shattered the weapons that tried to pierce him.

He pulled an exorcist staff from his waist and whipped it at a pair of attackers. They were immediately reduced to paste. The power he used wasn't really psychic, he wasn't resonating with any relic... but it was just as destructive.

Cloudhawk hugged Autumn against his shoulder with his right arm with the exorcist staff whirred menacingly in his right. He tore through a line of foes in front of them with a quick spearhead, unmindful of his own body. The unfortunate souls he crashed into, however, where the ones to pity. They were blown apart as chunks of bone and organ.

What incredible strength! It felt limitless!

Cloudhawk didn't know where it would stop. He charged through the horde like a raging bull, breaking through any attmept to pen them in and leaving carnage in his wake. The men who tried to stop him quailed in shock and pain.

Was he even human?! Insane! Where was this average-looking guy getting all this power?

But it didn't matter how intrepid he was. There were no shortage of skilled fighters closing in, and they weren't going to let him get away so easily.

Among them were a number of crack sharpshooters. When they had a target in their sights they rarely got away. As bullets and arrows were loosed Cloudhawk's face hardened. With nothing but his intuition he jerks around to avoid being hit in critical spots. Still, easily half his body was struck by the projectiles and quickly turned dark with blood.

"Are you crazy? Don't try to be a hero!" Autumn was nearly out of her mind with fear. "You could die! Let me go!"

Cloudhawk was drenched in sweat. His heart was filled with rage, which he gave voice to with a guttural roar. Bullets and arrows were spat out of his body and into several of the men around him. The wounds in his body began to heal fast enough to be seen by the naked eye, like a dozen invisible hands were stitching him up.

Autumn was stupefied. Was... was he really a monster?

Suddenly a sharp, burning pain spread across her bottom as Cloudhawk gave it a slap. She very nearly started crying.

"So fuckin' noisy!" Even Cloudhawk's voice sounded different. "You don't get to tell me what to do!"

Green Snake saw his moment and rushed in to attack.

Cloudhawk skidded to a halt and, while still holding Autumn with one arm, swung his exorcist staff haphazardly to deflect Green Snake's blow. He didn't feel like he put much force behind it, but the swordsmen went reeling. In the same instant skeletons summoned to the field by Gremlin closed in around him. A pair of swords hacked toward the Warden, leaving two deep wounds in their passage. Their swords shattered, however, and the gashes quickly healed.

It was useless! The attacks weren't enough to slow him down!

The white-haired swordsman from Fishmonger's Borough had arrived, though. He heaved his enormous buster sword towards Cloudhawk's chest, the same weapon that had neatly cleaved a boulder in two.

The buster sword caught him. By all rights, even if Cloudhawk were made of iron the blow should have torn him in half. Armor was useless, but even if it could there was nothing in a human abdomen to stop a blow like this. Skin and fleshy organs couldn't endure a direct hit. With this swordsman's dexterity and power, he could easily cut through layers of armor to get at the critical organs beneath.

As the sword struck, inwardly Cloudhawk wailed in despair. But while he was sure he would be cut down, he felt his body change. Every cell in that stretch of flesh immediately rearranged, turning the skin of his abdomen hard as tungsten steel.

All the impact force of the sword caught him, but didn't leave a wound. Its power was diffused through Cloudhawk's rapidly changing body, redistributed as though he were a series of interlocking springs. His flesh twisted and compressed grotesquely, but did not tear. While the sword struck him with the force of a point-blank cannon-ball, he didn't die.

Hack! Heugh!

Cloudhawk coughed up a mouthful of blood.

Autumn saw him spit up, but it wasn't normal blood that came out. It was not red, but an unsettling shade of purple - like no human blood she'd ever seen. She looked back up at him in surprise and found that the skin around his throat had begun to separate into something that looked like scales.

The inhospitable environment and circumstance had quickened Cloudhawk's transformation.

Cloudhawk's mind was a haze of anger and confusion. His eyes flushed red, and a chilling bloodthirsty air poured from him. Born with an innate berserker tendency, Cloudhawk's mutations empowered that rage to a much higher degree. The languid, indolent Cloudhawk was gone. He practically growled with every breath and his whole body trembled like a wild and wounded animal.

His felt the strength inside him surge. In terms of sheer physical force he felt like he could take on the old drunk blow for blow.

But extremes came at a cost, and sooner or later he would pay for this rush. Cloudhawk's evolution was powered by potential and life force, and he felt himself slowly being lost to the beast inside.

"You've got skills. I knew you did, but you've surpassed by expectations." Squall stepped out from the crowd. He looked over Cloudhawk's wounded and bloodied form with a look of disbelief and bewilderment. "But why put yourself through this? Leave the girl, and I'll let you go."

Cloudhawk clung to the last bit of clarity in the sea of rage that threatened to devour him. A hoarse sound from deep in his throat growled a reply.

"Fuck off!"