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Book 3, Chapter 107 - Race Against Time

 The rocky walls exploded, sending fragments all throughout the cavern. A dozen or more chrysalis incubators were revealed.

Cloudhawk stared in disbelief. There were more of them! It was a breeding ground!

The incubators broke apart like eggs, and newborn fiends with deadpan expressions stumbled forth. Their uncoordinated movements were made more disquieting by the wisps of black smoke that hugged to their naked bodies. The inky black mist covered them and gathered around their hands forming orbs.

So far, all Cloudhawk knew was that the same group responsible for these things was also backing Squall. But that was it - he couldn't guess where they came from, or what secrets they kept.

The protofriends were strong. Too strong. Each one fought as well as an Elysian soldier. If the ones behind the scenes were just making these things at a whim, how terrifying a force had they built already?

Majjhima wasn't controlling them, but he and his group of lackeys were down here for a reason. Probably to watch over the macabre farm. The fiends also had an innate instinct to protect this place as well. Once danger neared, they awakened and took to its defense.

Atlas raised his hand, an order to attack.

Scores of men wrapped in black armor charged into the cavern. The shadow warriors were agile, and maneuvered through the rock-strewn area with ease. One of them ran up a wall and raced along it while firing from a bow. However, he only got two shots off because an orb of black energy caught him in midair.

A moment later - boom!

The unfortunate warrior was turned to paste and splattered throughout the area. No piece of mangled flesh or bone was larger than a thumb, and it coated everyone like a foul rain.

A second followed. Then a third.

These men were elite soldiers, with bodies far tougher than your average man. In addition, they were outfitted with the Court's finely crafted armor that were tenacious enough to stop any bullet from causing harm. However, under the mighty blows of the protofiends they were blasted apart like they were made of paper.

The fiends fought on, expressionless. They felt no anger, no fear - they were never built with nerves or emotions. So they fought on in an increasingly pitched battle against these invaders. Bows were drawn and arrows fired, shot with superhuman precision. Not a single one missed its intended target.

But it was no use. Their arrows couldn't piece the shields of black mist, shattering mere inches from the fiends' flesh.

With each successive attack against them, the mists that protected the protofiends dimmed ever so slightly. But the weakness was brief, for a moment later the inky black returned dark as ever. Their innate strength was nothing special, not even to the level of the shadow warriors. They moved slowly and clumsily through the cavern. It was that black power inside them that was difficult to deal with.

One of the shadow warriors, flying in the face of death, charged forward for a close-ranged attack. He wrenched a sword from a sheath on his back and closed the gasp between them with a spearhead attack. The result of him coming into contact with the black mist was large chunks of his body rotting away.

The protofiend slammed a fist into the attacker's head, blowing half of it off and spraying brain matter in a cone behind him.

A cold and angry light seethed in Atlas' dark eyes. It was just as surprising to him that the dark underbelly of Skycloud would be home to these evil creatures.

"Hey, Mr. Wood Face. Are you seeing this shit?" Cloudhawk called out to him from across the cavern. "If we don't work together you can bet your brooding ass no one gets out alive."

His meaning was obvious: Don't stab me in the back you prick, or we all go down together!

Felina threw a glance toward her commander. "He's right."

Atlas straightened and put his dagger away. He reached back and drew the blade on his back instead. Felina knew what this meant, and turned to the other Court members to issue a command. "Everyone, with me! We're on support!"

She flicked her wrists, sending her twin scimitars whistling through the air. They almost seemed to have a life of their own as they danced around obstacles.

Felina darted around the battlefield with the speed and agility of a cat, switching seamlessly between her blades. In a blink she peppered a protofiend with a dozen strikes. Her onslaught dissipated its protection, allowing the other demonhunters to mop up. Finally, one was down.

The combined attack garnered the attention of two more creatures. They came at the group from two directions while throwing concussive blasts of black energy at them.

Atlas made his move.

He had two weapons; one long, one short. The long sword was his newest relic, a gift from the family called Malady. It did a fine job of offsetting the assassin's lack of direct combat ability. The sword looked black as pitch from pommel to point, and no wider than two fingers at its broadest. IT was a dramatic and charming weapon at a glance, full of dark majesty and deftness.

Cloudhawk felt an abnormal hum from it. Atlas, already blindingly fast, was suddenly moving at twice the speed. At his peak you couldn't even see him, only the gleam of death released by his relic.

The swings from his weapon did not hold any earth shattering vigor, but that wasn't the aim. Instead, it seemed as though reality held no sway over the blade.

Skimming across the ground, it left a deep fissure in its wake. Boulders and rocky columns split apart like they were nothing. The black orbs split apart in midair.

Atlas appeared behind behind one of the protofiends, holding his sword in both hands. It still gleamed with incisive power. Behind him, the creature slowly parted down the middle before falling in a heap.

Blinding speed, incredible power.

Atlas was still only for a moment. Once again he became a living malady, and cut apart a second protofiend before it knew what was coming.

Once again Cloudhawk was confronted with the truth, that he underestimated Skycloud's talent. He thought Atlas could only claim a life if he did it from the shadows, but that wasn't the case, He was cutting down these things easily, proving his strength and skill.

"Hmph. What insignificant skill. We can't let him show us up."

Dawn fished out a rock from somewhere and threw it. It was about as big as a fist to start, but as it rolled along the ground it swelled to the size of a small shack. The whole cavern shook and rumbled as though a whole host of chariots had thundered through. The boulder ran over one of the protofiends and smashed it pieces. A trench stretched out behind it to mark the boulder's path, and whatever creature it encountered was easily knocked away.

Then the rock 'stood,' revealing itself to have taken the shape of a humanoid. At five meters tall it was categorically a giant, and its rock-hard body gleamed like it was made of volcanic glass. Heaving its arms, the rock giant smashed protofiends on either side of it. They flew through the air like rag dolls and left holes where they landed.

The rock giant was Dawn's relic, her Golem Sentinel.

Cloudhawk remembered it - one of the relics he found at the

It was a simple item, but in Dawn's hands the beast it summoned was as strong as Coal.

Dawn charged through the battlefield, multitasking. With one part of her mind she controlled the golem, ordering it to wreak havoc among their foes. With the other, she maintained their protection through the Aegis Mirror so that the hail of black orbs didn't reach them. One person drawing so much power gave the others the space they needed to mount an attack.

"What are you standing there for? Destroy them!"

Cloudhawk pulled an exorcist bow from the ether, and in the same fluid movement began to release arrows into the fray. The power he poured into each one could rival a high-ranked demonhunter's. The first arrow struck the protofiends' shields and diminished them, and the second finished them entirely. On average it took two arrows to deal with one target. Relatively quick work.

He wasn't sure how many more protofiends were hidden here, but so far they weren't showing up as fast as they were being put down. At this rate, they would be out of trouble soon.

Dawn shouted at him while they fought. "Have you found the thing you were looking for?"

"It has to be here somewhere!" He answered. Almost right away he caught sight of it.

When the fight broke out, Cloudhawk had sent Oddball to scout around. The little guy could deal some damage if he had to, but he was more use as Cloudhawl's eyes and ears. Eventually his small companion spotted it, an egg-shaped object nestled above the cavern.

At a glance it was obvious the thing was old, from the time before the war. Signs that the Dark Atom scientists had been at it were also clear. The protruding wires and makeshift repairs were crude, but effective. At the moment there was a series of numbers counting down on a display screen. Looking closer through Oddball's eyes, Cloudhawk felt his breath catch. Just a little over a minute remained.

"Shit! Fuck!" Cloudhawk scowled. "They've already activated the weapon!"

Majjhima had been hiding from the start. His face was expressionless, but when he heard Cloudhawk's shouts it grew sour. Obviously he hadn't expected him to find it in time.

"This is your last chance!" Cloudhawk said to the old man. "If you stop it all right now, I can get you out of here. If you don't then the only path left is death."

If he feared death, then why would he be here? This young man's words only highlighted his immaturity.

These creatures didn't listen to Majjhima, so whether he was inclined to stop or not didn't matter. They would not stop fighting. As for the bomb? Very soon it would all end, and no one would be leaving here.

He's still so young. Skilled, special... but he will pay the price for his ignorance.

"I have a plan." Cloudhawk was out of options. "Keep their attention."

Dawn yelled for him to go, then called on Terrangelica's power. Spikes of stone were spat from the ground, forcing even protofiends to dodge or be impaled. Her wide area of attack also served to gather more attention. More of the creatures turned to this increased threat and pelted her shield with their black orbs.

Cloudhawk wrapped his fingers around the phase stone. Reality shimmered, and all at once he was gone.

Watching him disappear into thin air, Majjhima frowned. His head snapped up, and there a hundred or so meters away he spotted Cloudhawk. He'd somehow teleported across the cavern, right in front of the bomb.


The old man's peaceful features were suddenly twisted with rage.

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