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Book 3, Chapter 62 - Incident in the Wilds

 When he launched his attack, the wild haired swordsman was confident in his abilities. Unless he had some mysterious defensive relic, even a demonhunter couldn't stand a direct blow from his buster sword. And yet, not only was the guy still standing but he didn't even look injured. That should have been impossible!

Cloudhawk's body continued to change, in ways he never experienced or thought possible. His skin became red and leathery as though it'd been baked. Steam hissed visibly from his pours like he was some kind of steam locomotive. What's more, several tumorous black scales appeared and his normally black eyes became a vibrant green. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot, giving him an even more violent appearance.

An instant transformation... some sort of shape-shifting mutation?

The swordsman did not believe in supernatural phenomena. After years in the wastelands he'd seen all sorts of mutants, and no small number of incredible creatures with strange abilities. Cloudhawk's dramatic appearance didn't intimidate him, and he refused to back down. The warrior shot at him like an arrow. Whatever demon this kid was, he would die today.

Sword held high, the swordsman jumped up only to come crashing toward his target with a vicious hack. His giant sword was aimed right at Cloudhawk's skull. He was eager to see if the kid was as invincible as he seemed, see if he died like everyone else.

Cloudhawk's mutated eyes glowed with a faint bronze light. Pulsing veins engorged until all the white was gone, leaving a pair of viridian orbs in a sea of blood. His white-haired attack came crashing down, but Cloudhawk's hand shot up to meet him and caught the blade in his grip.

A loud, ear-shattering clang rang out.

The dirt kicked up around them made the force of the impact obvious. However, Cloudhawk never budged an inch, solid as a statue. His whole arm had turned black and was enveloped in dull golden light.

A few drops of blood rolling down the blade's edge was all that came from the blow, much to its bearer's shock.

Squall, the swordsman - hell, even Cloudhawk was stunned. His body's reaction was entirely instinctual, with no help from any relic. He stopped his attacker's massive sword with his hand like it was nothing, and the wound it left was equivalent to a paper cut. He didn't even lose a finger.

How was this possible?

Cloudhawk looked at the pitch-black thing his arm had become and found it unsettlingly familiar. His mind grasped at a far away memory of when he encountered the Caliph of the Sands. The look of the demon had left a deep impression. Even heavy gunfire hadn't left a mark on that coal-black skin. The similarities he saw in his arm were undeniable.

The white-haired swordsman stood there, dumbfounded. Mere flesh... hard as steel.

He might have expected something like that from a master martial artist. They were able to draw true power from every part of their bodies, making themselves invulnerable almost instantly with enough skill. Otherwise it might be seen in rare and incredible mutations. But those sorts of creatures couldn't be called human. Their constitution far exceeded anything natural.

So which was he?

His thoughts were interrupted by a loud snap! His sword broke in two. The swordsman staggered backwards.

Cloudhawk flung the jagged upper half of the sword at its owner. The white-haired man protected himself just barely by pulling his broken weapon in front of his chest. But the force of their collision actually shattered the parts of the buster sword, tearing him up with shards of metal. It was like he was caught in the center of an explosion. Hurt, he was flung backward while jagged bits of metal spread all around.

As the hail of metal came his way, Squall was forced to act.

He raised his left arm and the tattoos scrawled on it started to glow. A strange sort of power swelled in his fist and captured the shrapnel in midair. They were stopped dead in a white circle, like they were caught in a magnetic field. Then, gathering around Squall, they compressed into a jagged metal ball.

The sound of grating metal set everyone's teeth on edge. It fell to the ground with a thud.

The white haired swordsman half knelt on the ground, clutching his chest, he scrambled away from the freak in fear and amazement. He wasn't human. He was some sort of monster!

Cloudhawk's bloody eyes dragged across the battlefield. Soldier and bandit alike exchanged terrified and uncertain looks. Even wounded, they were sure the freak would kill most of them before being taken down.

How much potential was there in life? That was a question no one could answer.

From simple to complex, weak to strong, all through the ages the miracle of life was revealed through unending evolution. Every moment life existed was an opportunity for outstanding things.

Cloudhawk understood. He could feel it. He had always been unique, but his circumstances weren't. When trespasser infiltrated his body it wasn't mutation so much as evolution. It was drawing out all the latent potential that had been lurking inside him since birth. Awakening the deepest truths of who he was.

He'd always had these abilities. Like Autumn, who was born with her power but needed the right opportunity for them to awaken.

He remembered that he never got sick in all those years scrounging the wastes with the old man. He rarely got infections, or anything for that matter. If those early signs were explained away as having a hardy constitution, then nothing that was happening now made sense.

Ever since he found the phasing stone...

Cloudhawk always had naturally increased healing and balance, and underneath that en explosive berserker rage. With age and experience he came to understand that wild power as galvanizing his inner potential. It was the rough beginning of calling on true power. Therefore the more he used it the more it empowered his person.

Now, by chance, Cloudhawk's potential was awakened further.

In this moment every cell inside him was alive, working like components in a raging machine. With all of them working in unison it gave every punch, every kick unimaginable force. He felt it in the burning heat within him that jettisoned steam through his skin. He felt it in his boiling blood. It was a forced upgrade from trespasser, a blood frenzy.

But the more powerful the engine, the more fuel it needed to sustain it.

Cloudhawk's body couldn't maintain this level of total stimulation forever. He was overdrawing his life energy, and shortening his lifespan as a result. If he kept it up for too long it would cause irreparable damage.

What's more, trespasser had made his body unstable. He felt like he would collapse at any moment. The longer this fight went on the more likely that became. He needed to get back in control, otherwise the consequences were too dire to consider.

Autumn had no idea what was happening, only that Cloudhawk's body felt burning hot against her. She was sure it wasn't a good sign.

The young girl from the valley was almost hysterical and didn't know what to do, so it fell to Cloudhawk. He thought for a moment then put her down on the ground. He picked up a dagger one of the bandits left behind, pressed it against her neck, then growled at Squall. "Everyone back the fuck off or I open her pretty throat!"

Squall and Autumn both froze.

Cloudhawk went on. "She's the only person who knows where Millennium Vale is, and how to get in. You think all this effort would be worthwhile if she's dead?"

Everyone around him shifted uncomfortably. This asshole was ready to bring everyone down with him!

Squall's response was cool as a spring breeze. "I know you. You won't do it."

"Well then you don't really know me." Cloudhawk gradually got his ragged breathing back under control. His body temperature started to come down, and his body's systems were slowly getting back to normal. It came with a crushing sense of exhaustion, but he fought it off. "It wouldn't be the first time I hurt someone to fuck someone else over, and it won't be the last."

Squall's face was locked in a scowl. It didn't matter how Cloudhawk changed, his toughness was bone deep. If he upset him enough, Squall wasn't convinced Cloudhawk wouldn't do something rash. The wastelander might not look brave or willing to fight, but he was peerlessly stubborn. Pushing him into a corner was a good way to see the depths of his cruelty.

Squall's mind raced as he searched for solutions.

Before his could he felt something was over him, a sensation that made his whole body shake. Turning, he saw a beautiful figure approach from the camp with a dazzling sword of light in her hand.

"What now?"

Squall shut his eyes and reached out for Blackfiend. He felt the puppet laying in the dirt, convulsing and unable to move. He was a mess of fatal wounds, each of which burning with pure white light. It made the injuries difficult to heal. Selene's holy sword was especially dangerous to beasts of darkness like that fiend. A thing like that golem was almost impossible to kill, only wounded. Yet Blackfiend the Undying was too broken to be of any help right now.

Selene jumped, landing next to Cloudhawk. She reached out a hand and grabbed him, flinging both Cloudhawk and Autumn out of the crowd. She then threw her sword after them and cut open a path for her own escape.

They broke from the encirclement. Gremlin's tony voice could be heard over the din. "After them!"

But Squall denied the order with a shake of his head. "No, hold."

Gremlin was clearly unhappy. Why were they letting them go? The woman was obviously exhausted, and while the young man was monstrous his condition was unstable. They had him surrounded and probably under control.

Squall watched the three figures run toward the horizon. His brows were drawn tight, and after a few moments he sighed. "Blackfiend is nearly spent after fighting the Crimson One. That woman and her sword of light are too much for him now. And I know Cloudhawk. He won't deliver the girl to the elysians. Let's gather our strength, then we can deal with the matter... and we still have important business yet to see to."

The old drunk had also managed to escape. Ravenous Tiger looked over the aftermath of their battle, at the devastation that had wiped this settlement from the map. His dejected expression was almost caustic.

A figure approached. It was the young underboss of the Highwaymen. He was wrapping his left arm in bandages, and looked at the grim governor with indifference. "This was a lost opportunity," Squall said, cutting to the chase, "but we did defeat the Crimson One. Is there somewhere for you to go?"

"Are you mocking me?"

"No. Quite the contrary. I want to help."

Ravenous Tiger glared at the young man. He had to be in his early twenties. He could already tell that Blackfiend might have been the Highwaymen's leader in name, but when this lad spoke people listened. He wasn't sure why, or how, but this youth had managed to make himself leader of a bandit army. He was anything but ordinary.

Squall's voice remained flat and unemotional. "You only have one road before you now, anyway. Join us."

Ravenous Tiger's face twisted into a sneer of anger.

"Now don't rush to decline. You're smart enough to know the situation." Squall's words were calm, not pushy. He was just stating the facts. "Join the Highwaymen, combine our forces, and even the Crimson One would think twice before coming after you again. It's your only shot. Either way, my invitation is open. Whether you accept or not is up to you."

Ravenous was a smart and cunning man. After weighing the pros and cons he had to accept that the kid was right. With nowhere left to turn, his decision was obvious.


The Crimson One's true identity was revealed.


Ravenous Tiger swore allegiance to Squall and the Highwaymen.

When word of who the Crimson One was spread the news would tear through the elysian lands like an earthquake. The union of Fishmonger's Borough and the highwaymen was also sure to change the dynamic of power in the wastelands.

As dusk fell Squall stood outside looking over the dunes. The wind ruffled his hair as he stared into the distance, eyes thick with fatigue and conflict. He wasn't sure when this life he fell into would end, but some paths were set in stone. He would have to walk it to the end.

"I just want to help you."

His gaze was cast far in the direction of Skycloud city.