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Book 4, Chapter 19 - A Complicated Pligh

 Cloudhawk was stunned at how effective Rei's healing abilities were. In a matter of minutes, he watched life-threatening wounds stitch themselves back together.

The healing power of relics were far superior to any medicine. If Cloudhawk could get his hands on something like that he would never have to fear another fight. It didn't matter how badly mangled he got, so long as he had any mental energy left he'd be back in fighting condition in short order.

"That's a rare ability you got there, lady. You're definitely going to get a lot of attention for it, especially with the world caked in shit like it is. You should stick with me."

Rei blushed, very flattered by his somewhat crude compliment.

She wasn't sure whether or not Cloudhawk was joking. She had just graduated, and he was the commander of a special unit. The Talons were a major part of the Court of Shadows. It was unthinkable that a girl like her with no practical fighting experience could join them so quickly.

Anyway, for the time being she was a member of Sergeant Claudia's squad.

"I'll put it to you this way." Cloudhawk brazenly pursued the issue. "Back during training, I was your squad leader's squad leader. Following her won't get you as far as the Talons could. You'll go on missions with me from now on."

Belinda was practically green with envy.

Being conscripted into the Talons, beyond just being a fine appointment, was a tremendous honor to Rei's family. She came from a middle-of-the-road clan, so Cloudhawk's offer was an incredible opportunity.

It would be a lie to say Rei wasn't greatly moved by his eagerness.

War had come. Skycloud's expeditionary force had been established, and would perform their duties for the foreseeable future. As Skycloud's army swept across the wastelands, the Talons would be the tip of its spear. She would have many chances to gather accolades and praise.

Rei did not covet wealth and fame, but her family had struggled mightily to get her to where she was. What better way to repay their efforts than to bring them honor through her deeds?

Belinda couldn't bite her tongue any longer. "Rei, what a great offer. Why are you hesitating?"

Claudia shot Belinda a silencing gaze then planted herself in front of Rei. She faced Cloudhawk, her stance saying she would not tolerate his actions. "You go too far!"

What was she all up in arms about? Cloudhawk didn't get it.

Claudia then turned back to Rei. "You aren't joining the Talons."

Belinda thought it was mad. Why would the sergeant stand in the way of such a great opportunity for her squad mate?

Rei was also confused. Claudia was usually level headed and fair, why was she so upset? What was the difference if she chose to serve in the Talons? She was still going to perform this mission with her demonhunter squad. Yet Rei was a clever girl by nature, so she obeyed.

Resentfully, Cloudhawk didn't press the matter any further. Fucking Claudia, a snake couldn't change its scales.

Her thorny personality was so quick to anger. Cloudhawk was half-convinced she would start throwing fists. Had she already forgotten how many times he'd saved her sorry ass in the valley? All he wanted was a healer and this was how she reacted. She was a damn pain in his ass.

Since there was nothing he could do, Cloudhawk changed the subject. "How's this one doing?"

Rei sighed, hesitating after the strange interaction between him and Claudia, but answered when he pressed her. "The wounds were bad, but not caused by a relic. These sorts of injuries are easy to heal. A full recovery is expected."

There was a familiar thrum coming from the wounded soldier, the resonance of a relic he was acquainted with. This person was an Elysian demonhunter, one he knew.

"Hey... isn't this one of Frost's demonhunters?"

Crain and Tigron, the ones who found him, only knew that the guy was savage and ugly. His face was more scar tissue than flesh, like a shattered doll that'd been haphazardly pasted back together. There wasn't a single inch of him that wasn't disfigured in some way. Just looking at him was discomforting.

And those were old wounds. The young men shuddered to think what kind of injuries would make him look like this.

Elysians had techniques to remove scar tissue, so this man chose to keep these marks. It was glimpse into the man's fierce and determined heart. He obviously didn't care what other people thought, and the dull pain of every scar was a reminder of a lesson he'd learned. He drew strength from the pain - a constant reminder as he sought his vengeance.

If he was willing to be so unforgiving with himself one could only imagine what he was like to his enemies.

When Butcher came to, all he saw was a group of shadows clustered around him. Like a wild animal he grabbed his hammer and scrambled to his feet, ready to attack.

Rei stumbled away, out of reach of his weapon.

About then Butcher realized his wounds were healed and his bones knit back together. Wild eyes focused on Rei and the glimmering bracelet on her wrist, and then he understood what had happened.

"Thank you!"

His voice was hoarse and forceful, like a beast trying to choke out the words.

Rei had never encountered this savage demonhunter before, but Cloudhawk called at him with a wry voice. "My old friend!"

Cloudhawk, Claudia and Gabriel all knew Butcher quite well. As for Butcher, he would never forget Gabriel's pale face - and the scars he left him with. Every time he felt the old ache he was reminded of his betrayal in the forest. When he saw the handsome, coquettish face before him once again Butcher's eyes darkened with murderous intent.

"Do it, if you want a reminder of what it's like to be one of Naberius' masterpieces." Gabriel could feel the large man's anger as it poured off of him. "I know I wouldn't be so eager if I were you."

Butcher answered with a malicious chuckle. Everyone had grown strong, but only Butcher had learned how to turn pain into power. He didn't think he was any less deadly in a fight than the rest of his former valley compatriots. He never liked these bastards, so he was always itching for a chance to make them suffer.

"Don't worry, eventually I'll smash your skull and show you the price of betrayal. But not today." Butcher growled through cracked lips, glaring at Gabriel through bloodshot eyes on the brink of madness. He gave them all the impression of a fierce and loyal mongrel. "I'm a demonhunter. I won't endanger a mission for personal revenge."

Barb, Belinda and Autumn were at a loss. What reason did this hideous man have wish harm on Gabriel?

This level of self-control was impressive, since it was obvious how much he wanted to smash Gabriel to pieces. Whatever they may think of him, Butcher was a competent demonhunter. He wasn't going to allow anything to get in the way of his duties.

Even if he dreamed about ripping Cloudhawk's corpse to pieces. Even if he desperately wished to hack Gabriel into an unrecognizable mess.

All his many hostilities and resentments were pushed aside if they would impede in the least on what he was ordered to accomplish. A demonhunter's mission and duty were always more important than a single man's personal grievances. Butcher was the perfect dog to his masters.

Cloudhawk didn't give a shit. He wasn't itching for a fight with the big guy.

He was probably about as tough an opponent as Drake, definitely no threat to Gabby much less Cloudhawk.

"You haven't said how you ended up like that."

"I got separated from my brothers after crossing the door. I was wandering through the forest when I started seeing signals left by Conclave forces. They all pointed in one direction, a gathering place."

Autumn interrupted. "Who? A conclave?"

Barb and Gabriel had been stuck in the forest this whole time, so they were just as confused as she was.

Cloudhawk took a moment to explain the basics. "After you left, a whole lot has changed. The Conclave of Judgment is a wasteland alliance created by the Crimson One. Things between the wastelands and Skycloud are very tense right now, with daggers at one another's throats. We're on the brink of all-out war. Adder - whose real identity is Zephyr, the Crimson One's son - is part of the Conclave as well. He's here on the Crimson One's behalf, and Wyrmsole had to be here to protect him."

Barb looked at him in disbelief. Adder was Zephyr Cloude?! Insanity!

"The elder must have only invited Adder into the Vale. The others were left outside to guard the entrance. After everyone showed up and the fight started, Wyrmsole failed to keep the gate shut. He had no option but to follow everyone else in. They're a nasty group, with many strong demonhunters among them. A bunch of strong wastelanders have also joined the Conclave to bolster its numbers. And they have an army that broke off from Skycloud and joined the enemy."

Autumn was struck dumb by the gravity of change. "So if they're in the Vale join and have joined Adder... what are we supposed to do!"

This was inviting the devil over for dinner. When the elder invited Adder into the Vale, he definitely didn't expect half the wasteland's strongest would come knocking as well. Then, Squall and the Elysians came right on their heels. How was he supposed to handle all of this at once? Definitely more than he could chew, Cloudhawk suspected.

However despicable the elder was, Autumn was convinced he was doing what he thought was best for the Vale. But his poor choices had thrown them into chaos, caught in the center of a deadly struggle. Now it was too late for regrets.

Cloudhawk underlined their dire situation even further. "This is only the beginning. I'm sure Skycloud's main forces will show up eventually, and if General Skye finds out what's going on you can bet he'll show up personally."

"Hahaha!" The old drunk suddenly broke into hysterical laughter. "Skye's a damned man-shaped animal. It would be a hell of a thing to see him rampage through this place."

Things had changed dramatically for Woodland Vale. All of a sudden the situation had gotten very complicated.

General Skye was still far away, and it wasn't even certain he would come himself. What Cloudhawk was worried about was that the Crimson One would get here first. He also had no idea what the Dark Atom was up to lately, either. If the Caliph of the Sands also showed up here the clash would be... cataclysmic.

Cloudhawk turned to Butcher. "Continue what you were saying."

He obliged. "The wastelanders were also split up when they crossed the door, so they've been slowly gathering back together. Seeing it as it was as good a chance as any, I went looking for them and kept an eye out for the expeditionary forces. Best case scenario was I brought our people to them before they had a chance to regroup."

So that was the deal. What happened next he didn't need to explain.

When Butcher got close to the wasteland camp he encountered a group of them and got into a scrap. Wounded, he managed to escape. He was lucky enough to pass out nearby, and a passing dragon didn't eat his brains.

Shit, the dragons were bad enough. Now with everyone converging on Woodland Vale it was like throwing gas on a fire.

Their situation was a clusterfuck, and Cloudhawk didn't have enough help to deal with it. Adder wasn't a run-of-the-mill wastelander, and the elder was dangerous. What was he supposed to do?

Barb offered her thoughts. "We can kill them if we catch them unprepared!"

"Kill them my ass," the drunk said, rolling his eyes. "Do you have any idea how dangerous Wyrmsole is? The Giants of Hell's Army aren't pushovers, either. Especially with their numbers. If we try to take them on with this small group we're as good as dead."

Autumn made a proposition. "Cloudhawk, you brought people didn't you? Fire a signal arrow and have your people meet us here."

"That won't work." Claudia was the one who answered. "We got thrown around when we passed through the doorway. Our people are probably scattered all over, we can't regroup with such short notice. Besides, without the advantage we're just advertising our location to the enemy. It'd be like painting a target on our backs."

She had a point. What if their signal just invited more danger?

Autumn couldn't think of a way out of this mess. She felt like a cat on hot bricks, nowhere to stand but she had to keep moving. Sweat trickled down her brow. Her tribe was under the elder's thumb, and they were already under threat from the dragons. Now there were outsiders threatening their lives - what was she supposed to do?

"Teacher? Look in the sky."

While the adults had been arguing, Azura's piercing blue eyes had risen to peer through the canopy, and stark against the fading light of dusk she could see a dozen or more dark figures crossing the sky.

The old man's brows furrowed. "Dragons. They must have felt it when we killed one. They'll be heading this way to hunt us down."

"Well then we need to get the fuck outta here," Cloudhawk wisely posited. "But it's dumb to run around like headless chickens. For the sake of safety we shouldn't act now, so let's find somewhere where we won't have our brains eaten and hunker down for the night. Let's fill our bellies, get some sleep, then come up with a plan tomorrow."

Now was the time for them to accumulate strength and wait for the right moment.

Cloudhawk had been getting his ass whooped the whole way here then opened the passage to Woodland Vale on his own. He was tired, drained, and so were the others. As the curtain of night descended on Woodland Vale, sleep was the best option. It was too difficult to carry out any other plan for the time being.

So it was what it was. The group began to wander through the forest looking for a place to hide out.

However, it wasn't long after they began their search that Oddball came across another dragon. It was slinking through the forest, faint light glinting off its scaled body.

Cloudhawk let the others know. "There's one over there, waiting to ambush!"

Claudia felt it at the same time through her Seeker's Torque. When they got close to the beast's voracious hunger it was easy for Claudia's relic to pick it out of hiding.


2. This is wrong, but I struggle to find an alternative. The phrase is a religious one, directly translated to something like 'inviting in God can easily invite trouble.' Buddhists (and others) will often have shrines dedicated to their gods in the home. These shrines are very meticulously placed somewhere in the house and paid obeisance constantly. This includes prayers, offerings, incense, the whole nine. If, after inviting a god into the home, you do not perform these deeds then the god becomes angry and curses you and your family with ill fortune. Having been on the rotten side of this myself, it's my opinion one should just tell gods to buy their own fucking house and stay out of my business.

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