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Book 4, Chapter 83 - Hemmed In


Several wastelanders reached for her in a panic, to try and douse the flames. Instead the flame spread to them like some kind of evil curse. At the fainted touch they were consumed, and threw themselves upon the ground in desperation.

Nothing seemed able to stop the green fires. Everything it touched - flesh, clothing - became infected. Thrashing around on the ground or pouring out their canteens, the result was the same. All to no avail. This foul power only looked like fire, it was nothing else like it.

Fire was a natural reaction, the release of energy in the form of heat. These green tongues of flame didn't release energy at all. In the contrary it was more like a bacteria that devoured everything it touched. It gobbled up energy and split, constantly spreading in the mindless need to consume. Until the will that commanded it ceased, the fires would never dampen.

Indeed, this was an artifact whose power was almost all-conquering. The effusion of fire was a shock to everyone, even Cloudhawk. The Crimson One had given him the source flame before his death, and it was that Cloudhawk had reached for. When his will joined with the flame, it poured forth a steady stream of Castigation Fire.

An attack like this was a death sentence for nearly any living thing. Even a mutant as highly developed as Naga couldn't escape it's hunger. The Crimson One had been a major threat largely because of the legendary power of Castigation Fire. If it'd been Cloudhawk wielding the fire in their earlier fights, even a Master Demonhunter like the Crimson One would have feared him.

Yet its destructive capabilities weren't its best part. Aside from his phase stone, it was the greatest relic Cloudhawk owned. In his first encounter with the green fires in Fishmonger's Borough, he had nearly died. It'd destroyed his Quiet Carnage, but in the process spread its power throughout his body.

That meant Castigation fire could smelt relics! Cloudhawk didn't understand how it worked, but imagine what he could do if he condensed his weapons into power and absorbed them all. He wouldn't need relics at all. He'd be an unstoppable force. Like a god!

The Demon King had once told Cloudhawk that the truly powerful cast off the yolk of relics. Either rise above the need for them, or absorb them into one's self and consume their energies. In that way, you could make yourself into the greatest relic of all.

Cloudhawk resisted the Demon King's wishes for him, but he had to acknowledge one fact. The creature was once the single mightiest living thing on this earth. During the wars he waged battle against countless gods, the Shepherd Goddess among them. He had the power to contend with the King of Gods himself. Though he ultimately lost, that defeat did not detract from how overwhelming powerful the Demon King had been - far greater than any human. There was no question he understood the nature of strength.

Besides, he was already dead. He had nothing to lose in speaking truth. A creature dead one thousand years would not have a reason to lie to his inheritor. Cloudhawk had no interest in taking up the mantle of Demon King, but why not learn what he could? Make himself stronger.

Naga was still aflame. Her doom was all but assured.

Cloudhawk gently snapped his finger and summon another ball of fire. He threw it toward another group of wastelands where it detonated, spewing motes of green fire in all directions. They infected all the nearby soldiers. Moments later the howls increased.

Cloudhawk walked among them as they turned to pillars of ash. Not even a stitch of clothing was left unburnt. Wasteland mutants? Beneath his concern!

It didn't feel like very long ago that Cloudhawk would have been killed ten times over by one of these soldiers. Today they were an annoyance he could resolve with a flick of a finger. He didn't let the realization stoke his ego. There were potentially hundreds of enemies nearby. Some of them carried high-tech gear, and others had strange mutant powers. Since he didn't yet have the mental power of the Crimson One, he wasn't about to take on an army by himself.

He quickly rendezvoused with Drake and the others. They'd climbed onto a mountain ledge and were waiting for an Elysian warship to descend. Soldiers began to board as Cloudhawk trotted their way.

Roc called out to him. "Warden, time to retreat!" Cloudhawk stopped when suddenly that familiar ache struck him. Danger.

"Careful!" A streak of electric blue light streaked passed form some unseen angle. It tore right through the warship's shields and carved a tear in its hull.

Son of a bitch! Wolfblade!

Cloudhawk recognized the weapon. This was Wolfblade's relic. It meant Dark Atom agents had to be nearby. As if to prove his fears, particles of golden sand gathered in midair into the form of a spear several dozen meters long. Its rough surface sparkled with power.

A burst of energy flung it forward. It slipped through the tear in the shield, punched right through its armor and impaled the ship from end to end.

Seconds later the mountain rang with the sound of angry screeches. Hundreds of mutant birds swooped in from all directions. All three of Dark Atom's leaders were here. Cloudhawk hadn't foreseen it, but they seemed to know exactly where he'd go.

There was no time to escape. Before Cloudhawk could react a figure wrapped in sand descended his way. Abaddon hung in the air wreathed in sandy tentacles. His ferocious, hulking figure occasionally peaked through.

Another figure joined him, very different from the demon. She was draped in green silk instead of sand, noble instead of vicious. Autumn soared through the air on the back on her crystal dragon. Lither fingers held a flute to her lips, the song commanding the Dryad that joined her. It was easy to be fooled by her sweet exterior, but the danger that exuded from Autumn was palpable.

Wolfblade made his approach with a group of his own men. He walked with slow, purposeful strides while the blue sword danced above him. The Dark Atom leader was the picture of calm, and with him were many of his lieutenants. Among them were the likes of Buzzard, as well as their latest member Coal.

Clouhdawk glared at Wolfblade with a face full of fury. Eventually he managed a sentence. "What is the Dark Atom doing with Woodland Vale?"

Wolfblade's humble, warm appearance never skipped a beat. He smiled softly. "The dignified and powerful mistress of the Vale is an old friend of mine. She agreed to help us eradicate a shared threat, an alliance I'm sure you can see makes sense."

Autumn's face was unreadable.

Wolfblade went on to say, "As a matter of fact, we all have a rather storied history together, don't we? You and I first met a long time ago, which is why I know you better than anyone. Skycloud won't tolerate you. If keeping your friends safe is a priority, then take this opportunity and join our side. The consequences if you do not are more terrible than you can imagine."

His soft words hung in the air. Everyone's eyes turned to Cloudhawk.

The Warden spat out each word through gritted teeth. "Fuck. You."

Woldblade shook his head. He made a show of looking around. "How do you intend to get out of this predicament? Formidable though your powers are, you know they aren't enough."

"Won't know 'till I try!"

Cloudhawk lifts his hands and a spark of green flame appeared in each palm. They joined to create an arrow of fire, which shot directly toward the Dark Atom leader. Wolfblade shook his head in disappointment. He extended his hand, and with that motion his shimmering weapon struck. It pierced the arrow of Castigation - entirely unscathed. Not a spark of the deadly flames scarred its surface. It continued toward Cloudhawk without slowing down.

His eyes went wide. Was this some sort of joke?

Wasn't Castigation Fire supposed to break any relics it touched? How could Wolfblade's relic cut the fires apart like they were nothing?

Wolfblade was kind enough to explain. "Once, this sword of mine was at a level of power which was superior to that of Castigation. Such a shame it broke - but it is still far beyond your attempts to destroy it."

Cloudhawk simultaneously darted backward while drawing Ardent Wrath. He hacked the deadly blade away from him.

The impact hit him like a battering ram. Blood spewed from his mouth and he was smashed to the ground. A wave of exhaustion washed over him and loudhawk was again reminded that he hadn't had time to rest since Fallowmoor. It'd been only a day or since he'd almost died, and even Cloudhawk's superhuman regeneration could only do so much. If he lived, he would need half a month in a hospital to fully recover. It was no question that the only strategy was to try and escape.

"You are certainly a man of real potential. I see your strength and cunning. I also see your biggest weakness. Emotion rules you. It was foolish to come down to the field yourself when you could have wiped out all of the wastelanders here from your ships. Only, that would have required sacrifice. You chose precisely the move that could turn the battle against you."

"You're still too young. Too soft." Wolfblade lifted his finger and pointed it at Cloudhawk. "In trying to save everyone, you ended up sacrificing even more. I'll teach you that bitter lesson today."

His indigo sword darted toward Cloudhawk again.

As the lethal danger reached out towards him, a figure descended from overhead and hacked at Wolfblade's relic with a large sword of her own. The impact caused the blue blade to spin off target. His savior - a golden haired warrior woman with a sword held tight in one hand - stood between Cloudhawk and his attacker.

Dawn had come.

Of Cloudhawk's trusted compatriots, Selene and the old drunk didn't have his kind of regenerative capabilities. The only one who still had the strength to fight was Dawn. But the former Templar's defiance was negligible in the face of the powers that had come for them.

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