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Book 3, Chapter 67 - Overtures

 Woodland Vale was miraculous place, separate from the conflicts of the wastelands and Skycloud. Back in the day, a utopia like that was exactly the sort of place Cloudhawk was searching for. Now he looked back at that desire as naive. There was no place where humans lived that was peaceful.

That said, a place like Woodland Vale was a rare sight in the post-apocalyptic world. Cloudhawk would have liked to take a look, but the rapidly changing state of his body made that impossible. He had to give up the chance, for his own well-being, and put his fate in the hands of the Dark Atom. Only their scientists could help him at this point. Yet at the same time Autumn couldn't spend any more time out here either. They had to split up.

Before the others left, Cloudhawk made sure to reiterate the most important thing; Gabriel had to make sure to get payment in full. If he could find a way to squeeze more out of her, then do it. This was their ticket, they might never have to work again.

Rumor was Woodland Vale hid a treasure the likes of which the world had never seen. What a shame if they were to find the mother lode and come back empty handed.

Cloudhawk prepared plenty of alcohol for the old drunk. Barb was still untested, and although Gabriel was strong he was famously... unstable. The old man was more level headed even half-drowned in wine. He was the one responsible for whether they made it to the valley safely.

Autumn didn't say a word. She didn't even say goodbye.

Cloudhawk didn't get this girl, there was always something off between them. Wasn't her whole thing that she wanted to get back to her valley as fast as possible? So why the fuck was she all huffy after he arranged for a crew to help her do exactly that? The girl's brain was too scrambled for him to figure out. But whatever, he didn't care how willful or obnoxious she was as long as she paid.

The travelers left for Autumn's home under the cover of night.

A gourd filled to the brim with alcohol hung on the drunk's back. Half a dozen more sloshed around hanging from his lizard mount. He and the others used the fog of early morning, before the sun rose, to muffle their steps and conceal their departure. He lead the while, while Gabriel and Barb took up the rear. Autumn was nestled safely in between. That was the marching order for fifty kilometers or so.

By now the sky was painted with morning light. They paused for a moment to let the mounts rest.

By the time dawn rolled around the old man had gone through three bottles of alcohol. His ruddy cheeks and blurry eyes showed he was already mostly sloshed. A hand raised to throw an empty bottle out into the desert when suddenly he stopped. The glass container slipped from his fingers and out into the air, followed by a squeal.

The bottle stopped, then a moment later split right down the middle. Its two neatly severed halves hit the ground with a raspy thud.

A black fog rolled in, spreading toward them. A figure bundled in darkness could be seen in its midst. Only its glimmering eyes and the long straight blade in its hands were clearly seen. Those eyes were fixed on the drunk.

"Careful!" Barb just caught on to the change in circumstance. She slung the exorcist bow off her shoulder and gripped the string. "It's an ambush!"

Fifteen or so masked men appeared from the surrounding wastes. They'd been preparing their attack for some time, but no one could tell how long they'd been near before the drunk spotted them. IF they could get this close and avoid detection, they weren't normal bandits.

Their masked leader gestured with his hand. His men leaped at the travelers, like hungry shadows.

Barb released her first arrow. It sheared through the chest of her target. However, even before the first victim hit the ground his companions had closed the distance. Barb didn't have time to draw her bow a second time. They were like ghosts, soundless as they dashed through the pockets of darkness not yet burned away by the rising sun. It was a hair-raising scene of which they were on the receiving end.

But as the masked men jumped toward them they went limp in midair. Sturdy bodies became formless chunks, spurting blood as they fell.

Gabriel's fingers danced as he controlled the threads of his relic. Two more of their attackers had their throats opened. With a tug the blonde-haired demonhunter finished the deed, and a slight breeze pushed their severed heads from their shoulders. The brutal scene left Barb breathless. It was the first time she was confronted with what Gabriel was capable of.

His fingers continued to pluck and pull. A dozen threads slithered through the air at his command. They were practically invisible even in full daylight, and impossible to spot now.

Closing in from all sides like a dragnet, Gabriel left no space for the masked leader to escape. His threads spiraled tighter, but as he closed his fist to shred his target, the man in black dissolved into mist.

In the same instant, Autumn heard a muffled thud from nearby. She turned her head to see a creeping black mist, and within it a long sword stabbing her way. Gabriel scowled, surprised to find that their foe was a demonhunter. What's more, the man's skills were nothing he'd seen before. He was a step too slow to protect Autumn from the surprise attack.

The deadly gleam of the man's sword drew closer.

A hand shot forth from his side and grabbed his weapon

When he turned his face to see who interfered, the masked man was met with a wide, yellow-toothed grin. He didn't know when or how the old man had gotten so close, but he found he couldn't wrench the sword free of his grasp.

The old man pulled his arm back and whipped his open palm toward the masked man's head.

The instant before it struck, the drunk felt his other hand release. His target had reengaged whatever strange power and turned both himself and his weapon into mist. What a strange and incredible power - the ability to teleport over short distances and ignore obstacles. An assassin with these capabilities was a deadly threat.

Barb swapped her bow for an exorcist rod and made to give chase.

"Don't." The drunk shook his head discouragingly. "He's wearing the Wraithrobe. We can't catch him."

Barb was curious about this stranger's power. "Is it a relic? How does he shift around like that?"

The old man seemed to know quite a lot about it. "It's not really shifting, more like a short-range speed boost that also lets the user slip through the smallest cracks. But they can't get through something tightly sealed. Out here in the wastes, with that robe, if he wants to run there's nothing we can do to stop him. We'll just leave ourselves exposed."

The Wraithrobe was once the possession of a demon, hundreds of years ago. The fiend was an agent of much chaos and destruction, although it was considered of only average strength among its kin. Despite this, it took a dozen veteran demonhunters and two masters to eventually destroy it. That relic is one of the reasons why it was so hard to kill."

The old man stopped to rub his chin, lost in thought. "Far as I remember the Wraithrobe was kept hidden in the elysian lands. I hadn't heard anything about it being given out to a demonhunter. Who on earth could this person be..."

"It doesn't matter." Gabriel didn't care. He stopped channeling Shadethread, retracting its filaments. "We have to keep going."

He was right. Whoever those people were, they were definitely after Autumn. Thankfully, they'd underestimated her entourage. Now that it was obvious they were being hunted, who knew when there might be a second attempt, and a third. Staying here was foolish. The four travelers quickly went on their way.


Sandbar Station. Adder's bar.

Adder himself stood behind the bar today, using a rag to dry a set of glasses that'd been freshly washed. Luciasha sat beside him with her chin in her hands, smiling excitedly. "Cloudhawk and Squall have grown so much. Strong, too! I'm so happy for them, I just hope we can get together again soon."

Adder offered her a warm smile. "They both care about you a lot. I'm sure they'll be back when they can."

Luciasha nodded. She appreciated how lucky she was that in this cruel world she'd met so many good people. She didn't have any wild hopes or ambitions. She was happy to live just like this, surrounded by friends and living a mundane life.

Adder hung the crystal-clear glass on the rack hanging over the bar with the others. He shared a few more words with Luciasha then retired to his room. Moments after shutting the door a dark mist seeped into the room, and a masked man emerged.

He pulled the scarf down, revealing a face so ordinary it would be hopeless to try and pick him out from a crowd. There was dried blood at the corner of his mouth. He'd been injured. That old drunk was a shadow of his former self, but still more than most could handle.

Revenant's low voice whispered through the room [1]. "Cloudhawk is not with them, but the others are strong as well. The old one is a highly skilled demonhunter. I was forced to retreat."


Adder's face wrinkled in thought, but soon relaxed again.

"Should I get more people and try again?" Revenant asked.

"If even you cannot overcome them, then none of my people can." Adder shook his head and abandoned the thought. He pulled open a drawer and placed it on a nearby desk. "Anyway, a more pressing issue has arisen. We can put our plans for them on hold for the time being."

Revenant nodded. "What is the new mission?"

Adder picked up the latter once again and threw it with a flick of his wrist. The easy motion sent the thin paper hissing through the air so fast it seemed able to behead a man.

Revenant deftly snatched it from the air and looked over its contents. Surprise came over his typically flat affect as he came to understand Adder's meaning. It would be odd if he wasn't surprised, given the gravity of what he read.

"This is what you'll do. Go to the wall, and give the troops stationed there all the information we have on the Dark Atom."

"You want the elysians to go after them. Didn't you just send Cloudhawk? The item we sent him to retrieve..."

"Things are much worse than we thought. Now is the time, and we must act accordingly. Cloudhawk is not a reliable agent, and some risks are necessary. Now go."

"Yes, sir."

Revenant nodded, then melted away into fog.

Adder walked toward a window and pushed it open. The morning sun had already risen, and a warm breeze caressed his face as the darkness of his room was dispelled. Its light made his harsh, sharp features appear even more ruthless.

1. I had to search for ages to remember what I called this guy. Remember, no throwaway characters.