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Book 4, Chapter 27 - Another Narrow Escape

 Cloudhawk was furious! These piece-of-shit cocksucking mother fuckers! Sneaking up on them like a bunch of pussies!

Adder must have known that Cloudhawk could sense relics, so the assassins he sent were not demonhunters. Without any resonance to give them away, they were able to sneak up and catch them unawares.

It was standard practice for Cloudhawk to use Oddball as his eyes and ears in a fight, sending the bird out to survey the situation while he fought to keep an eye on the flow of the battlefield. Due to their connection as divine beast and master, the moment Oddball recognized a threat it was conveyed to Cloudhawk.

And yet, that was the problem. Cloudhawk was nearly impossible to sneak up on, so he was caught completely off-guard when it actually happened. In the fury and chaos of their fight with the Dryads he'd completely missed the black-clad dragon riders lurking in the shadows. Their sudden arrival took everyone by surprise.

Their timing was impeccable. Two minutes earlier and they would also have been wrapped into the fight with the Dryads. Two minutes later and their targets wouldn't have been distracted enough to get the drop on them.

None of them anticipated the sudden, suicidal attack that came just as they were finishing off the Dryads. It was too perfect, so even though Cloudhawk and his crew were greater in skill and numbers, they were still left with a disadvantage from the surprise attack.

A salvo of arrows flooded the room. The attackers set about reloading.

As one of the men in black was raising his crossbow to fire again, a beam of golden light flashed right for him. It struck his weapon first, tearing it apart as though it were made of paper. The light continued through his chest and burst out the other side, leaving a fist-sized hole in its wake.

Indomitable, the light continued. It pierced through a second assassin nearby.

Cloudhawk urged Oddball to attack his foes through their mental connection, flooding the bird with his psychic energies. With its master's aid, Oddball reached speeds three or four times faster than normal. With its sturdy body, the pudgy critter had more stopping arrow than a crossbow bolt. Adder's piddling soldiers couldn't defend themselves. Several flashes later, the corpses of the assassins slumped against the backs of the dragons they rode.

Meanwhile, Cloudhawk teleported into the center of the Dryads, with the Silver Serpents clenched in each hand. He hacked and cut, blocked and dodged, doing everything he could to handle the freaks while the others managed for themselves.

The old drunk saw what he was doing, and knew how to react. Cloudhawk was giving him the space he needed.

So the crippled old man turned his sights on another target. He disengaged from the Dryads and leaped into the air, coming down on a nearby dragon like a comet. The beast opened its maw wide to greet him, but was met first by the drunk's iron cane. The impact shattered the dragon's skull.

It whined piteously and slumped to the ground. Without missing a beat, the old man kicked off its back toward the next dragon. While these beasts were well protected against demonhunters, martial artists like this old man were their bane.

One pass, three moves. The dragon was incapable of protecting itself from the withered alcoholic.

Five more were quickly dispatched. If their brains weren't scrambled then than their spines were shattered. Not all died, but whether or not they still drew breath they were no longer a threat.

While the old man was dealing with the dragons, Cloudhawk had managed to cut down four of the Dryads. The rest of their small party - still stunned by the sudden, vicious sneak attack - had yet to come to their senses.

And yet, even though Cloudhawk heedlessly threw himself at these creatures, there were simply too many for him to handle on his own. His body was covered in toxic spores, which caused cancerous growths to spring up all over exposed skin. Roots from the malicious tumors dug into nerves, causing excruciating pain - worse than Cloudhawk could put into words. Of course he had learned how to tolerate pain, and he didn't let it throw him off. Trespasser, he knew, was working hard inside of him. The growth and poison wouldn't get any further than flesh deep.

No, it was the large number of Dryads that remained giving him the most anxiety presently. Their continuous attacks had broken through Cloudhawk's defenses, and in rapid response they lashed out with dozens of stabbing vines. Not just at him, at everyone.

Cloudhawk's face darkened. Riddled with tumorous growths, he still flung himself bodily in front of the vines to protect the others. Only, it was too late. Claudia, her squad, Gabriel, Butcher and the others were in sudden and lethal danger.

In this critical instant there was a streak of green light as a silhouette joined the fray. Autumn, ignoring the threat to her own life, put herself between the others and those vines. Her hands were out in front of her entreating them to stop.

What seemed like a hundred razor-sharp creepers thrashed through the air, right toward her. Millimeters before her face, they stopped.

But not all of them. Some were too close already. Perhaps a dozen lodged themselves into Autumn's frail body, wounding her gravely. With a pained grunt she fell to her knees.

What was the use of risking her life like that? How much space could her tiny frame protect?

The vine attacks from the Dryads were fully encompassing, reaching all around in all directions. Their sharp feelers quickly slithered around her and continued toward their targets.

Everyone felt the raw murderous intent wash over them as their situation shifted into peril once again.

Flashes of almost imperceptible cold light filled the air, as suddenly the vines were neatly chopped to pieces. It was like the sharpest beams of laser light descended on them all at once, every incision impossibly smooth and clean.

Before the Dryads could recover from the unexpected counter attack, flashes of silver assailed them. Dozens needle-thin streaks shot at and among them. Strange oblong daggers peppered their foes glowing brilliantly, indicating the power that rushed through them.

Gabriel manipulated the Shadethread, glaring malevolently at the Dryads. His face was a dark and twisted mask of rage, and a mad laughter rang from his throat. He sounded like a wild animal, elated and infuriated all at once.

"You jackass! You should have let me out long ago!" Naberius' voice was unnatural as it rolled from Gabriel's throat. "You almost let these pieces of shit kill me!"

Murderous intent flooded the chamber like an icy deluge.

With a low, hysterical roar Naberius clenched his fingers. The Shadethread stitched together and tightened. Streaks of faint silver light raced through the Dryads as easily as reaping wheat. In an instant, most of the tree relics collapsed into piles of cleanly severed chunks.

No wonder it was so strong... Naberius had come out to join them.

Cloudhawk was very familiar with the relationship between Gabriel and Naberius. Two minds sharing one body, each with very different outlooks and methods. Under most circumstances it was Gabriel who retained control. A handsome, almost shy gentleman. Sometimes, however, when the circumstances were most dire or when provoked, Naberius stirred.

Naberius didn't need to train. As the saying went, 'where the priest takes one step the devil takes ten.' Each time Gabriel saw his skills improve, nestled deep within Naberius was reaping the greatest benefit, growing stronger by leaps and bounds.

As such, even though 'Naberius' never trained his skills he would always be stronger than Gabriel. It was the most frightening aspects of this dark personality.

It was the first time Cloudhawk had seen Naberius use the full extent of his power. From what he was witnessing, he guessed Naberius could go toe to toe against a veteran demonhunter at this point and come out victorious.

Powerful as the Dryads were, they were puppets without someone pulling the strings. Without a unifying focus or minds of their own, they paid no heed to Naberius even after watching him carve the others into pieces. Dumbly they stared as Naberius weaved the Shadethread around them and pulled.

Whoosh! The strings constricted.

The long daggers streaked back to their owner. The weapons were only about as long as a man's pinky, and about a centimeter thick. They resembled a weaver's needle, and were perfectly suited for piercing flesh. Whatever they were it had to be a relic unique to Naberius.

"Kill me? You shambling, worthless pieces of refuse think you can kill me?!"

Naberius erupted into egomaniacal laughter while flinging his dagger once again. The silver weapon split into several dozen, each one leading a thread humming with power.

The Dryads became the focus of this madman, and he used them to vent his insanity. On average, each one was severed into a dozen pieces. They pitched and writhed upon the ground like dying serpents. No longer a threat.

Yet although the threat was handled, Naberius was not assuaged. After so long he needed more, he needed release. How could a few moments and a group of tree men be enough to satiate him? He needed to kill, he wanted fresh blood. He wanted to hear their pained wails and cries for mercy!

Bloodshot eyes dragged over to Butcher. The smile that stretched over his twisted face could only be described as obscene. "You wanted to seek vengeance for what I did, didn't you? Now's as good a time as any!"

Butcher froze. He thought he'd grown strong over the years, but seeing what Naberius did to the Dryads he realized how laughable his assumptions were.

This monster was as strong as a veteran demonhunter now, perhaps stronger. There was no circumstance under which Butcher could face someone this strong and hope to emerge with the upper hand.

"Get your shit together!" Cloudhawk stormed over from behind, fixing Naberius with a hard glare. He'd spent several years with Gabriel by this point, and although he wasn't familiar with the full extent of Naberius' strength they were still acquaintances.

Naberius licked his lips. "What makes you think you have the right to give me orders? Gabriel, the spineless shit, might be willing to work for you - not me. I hate it. I hate it! I'll kill both of you! I'll carve you to shreds! I'll chop you into pieces!"

Fires blazed in the depths of Cloudhawk's eyes. "Just you fucking try."

But the hard gaze was met with disdain by Naberius. "This cheap trick of yours means nothing. Fight fair, if you're able."

Cloudhawk's psychic assault worked on demonhunters of similar strength, causing them to hesitate, grow dizzy or feel pain. Against those with weaker mental constitutions it could cause hallucinations, take control of them, or otherwise completely rob them of their consciousness.

Naberius was a creature of decidedly unstable mental bearing, which made him vulnerable to attacks on his psyche. He only came to the surface while suppressing Gabriel, and if that control faltered he would be swallowed up. At that point there would be no need to fight. Cloudhawk had no time to deal with the psycho. He had to see to the wounded. And so he turned away and looked first at Autumn. There was a lot of blood and several wounds, but he could tell her breathing was even. Nothing serious. A low cry reached him then. Claudia was on the ground with a small girl clutching to her back. Her shoulders were shaking, and in her lap was a red haired girl. Belinda had been shot by seven or eight bolts from the assassins. All of them were lodged superficially, all but one. It'd caught her in the temple and was lodged into her brain. The damage was clear. She lay twitching in Claudia's arms, pupils dilated and clutching at something unseen. Cloud's heart raced. "Rei? Rei, get your ass over here!" The healer was just coming around from a coma induced by the Dryad spores. Once she saw the scene she came scrambling over. She looked over Belinda and quickly the tears began to flow. "I can't heal her." "What the fuck do you mean you can't heal her!" Looking down at her crestfallen face it took everything he had not to smack her. How did the university allow someone this weak through their program? "I'm ordering you to heal her, now!"

Rei tenderly pulled the bolt from her friend's skull. It came back clinging to bits of brain matter. A faint, green light pulsed at the end of it. With her hands glowing, Rei set about reconstructing Belinda's brain and skull.

But she knew what happened. This wasn't something she could heal. All she could do was fix the surface damage and cry.

"Belinda's brain has been permanently damaged. The bolt was poisoned, and by now it's spread everywhere. I... I can't heal her."

Rei's abilities worked miracles on all areas of the body - except the brain. It was too complicated a structure, and when it broke it wasn't easily repaired.

But even then, what if she could heal it?

The assassins' bolts all were poisoned. The toxin was so deadly that a normal person would die almost instantly. Even a demonhunter would have to fight. Once it was in here brain, though, there was no healing that.

But in testament to her strength, Belinda still had some semblance of consciousness. "W-warden..."

Cloudhawk reached out and clutched her groping hand. Her breath was coming weaker, and blood had started to invade the whites of her eyes.

"I always... w-wanted to tell you s-s-sorry. I shouldn't have... been so r-rude to you... before..."

Claudia was holding tight to her other hand. "Don't talk."

"N-no.. I w-want to. It's m-m-my last ch... chance. I d-don't want to go. I don't want to." Her body was wracked with uncontrollable ticks. "I don't w-want to d-die here. I d-don't.. I Don't... Sarge. I don't want..."

She muttered the words over and over again, until her body went still. Her eyes were open and staring into the distance, but there was nothing in there anymore.

The look on Claudia's face was beyond pain. She could feel the despair and unwillingness in Belinda's heart as she went. Such a young, talented girl... top of her class. Her life had held so much promise.

A child! Sixteen years old! Only sixteen!

She had the potential to be a respected, powerful demonhunter. She had the sort of talent people envied. Ambitious... such lofty dreams. But she never boasted, never held it over the rest of her peers. All of it wasted. Cut short before she could do anything with her gifts.

There was no sadder tragedy than when a brilliant light was snuffed out.

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