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Book 6, Chapter 66 - Temporary Reprieve

 The silvery-blue streak of power blasted across the space. Icicles like ten thousand icy knives closed in. Like a flood it submerged everything in its path.

Frost de Winter had grown strong. So fast it seemed impossible! To normal folk he was nigh invincible. To Cloudhawk, it was not nearly enough.

In a blink he went from substantial to insubstantial and back again. Frost's attack passed harmlessly through him and Cloudhawk stood in place as though nothing had happened.

As the burst of energy ripped through the forest not a single leaf was displaced. However, everything it touched was instantly encased in ice. A handful of seconds and a single swipe of his sword had turned the forest into a crystal winterscape!

No matter how sturdy the wood, it was locked in ice. Every piece of grass, every weed and leaf suffered the same. Sunlight sparkled off the scene like a field of diamonds.

It was not a simple freeze. Whatever was unfortunate enough to suffer Frost's power was changed entirely to ice. Rhimeshard transformed the fundamental nature of these trees so that if they melted naught would be left but pools of water.

Frost stared at the young wastelander, expressionless. His face was as unreadable as a statue. Slowly extracting his weapon from the earth, he pointed it at Cloudhawk.

His weapon was frighteningly cold and mist constantly poured from its surface. It filled the space with a palpable sense of danger. In the world of man only a handful could withstand the power of him and his sword.

Yet Frost did not seem delighted by his meteoric rise. Neither was he relieved that vengeance had been won. Instead all he felt was a deep, abiding emptiness. Like there was nothing left in life for him. The world had lost all color.

For twenty years Frost had dreamed of revenge. He had to punish his parents' killer. But never once did he give any thought to what came after.

For the first time this young man was lost, without direction. Only a single duty remained tying him to this world. "Squall is my younger brother. The matter with Skye has nothing to do with him. If you came seeking justice, then come at me."

His voice was as hollow as his expression.

Cloudhawk frowned as he stared at the haggard young man. He was like a completely different person from the heroic commander he knew back in Skycloud. If he hadn't known him back then, it would be hard to believe they were the same person.

As he responded, lightning bloomed in Cloudhawk's right hand. It formed into the shape of Ruin. "Do you recognize this?"

Ruin, the Blade of Thunder! How could Frost not know this weapon. It was the mighty relic his master had wielded. As he looked upon the flickering light of the sword, emotion fluttered beneath Frost's calm exterior.

Whether he wanted to admit it or not, Arcturus Cloude had fundamentally influenced his whole life. He hated that old fiend, but he also deeply respected him.

In fact Frost agreed with nearly everything Arcturus had done. Were he in Arcturus' position, he would have done the same. But when the Governor's callous extermination was turned on his people, he couldn't just let it happen. He needed justice for his parents.

He was caught between respect and loathing; acceptance and detestation. Frost had lived for years oscillating between these conflicting feelings to the point where today he did not know where he stood, whether it was all right or wrong. Seeing Ruin in the grasp of Cloudhawk, he stared as though caught in a trance.

It wasn't Cloudhawk before him. It was that old man with the white temples and gray robe.

A roar tumbled from his lips. Raising Rhimeshard high, Frost flung himself at Cloudhawk.

The wastelander responded, dragging Ruin through the air. Like a brushstroke, threads of lightning trailed behind - ink on a parchment. After leaving behind a lengthy arc it all shot forward with incredible speed.

He performed the move in a flash. Frost was forced to retract his sword and use its power to gather ice into a shield before him.

But it was no use. Frost had grown strong, but Cloudhawk had surpassed him.

As successor to the Demon King Cloudhawk was already powerful, and that strength had done naught but grow in the last few months. Alone against Arcturus he would stand his ground - assuming they bore similar equipment.

Arcturus had defeated Vulkan and others with nothing but an exorcist staff. There was no clearer proof that he was orders of magnitude more powerful than they were. Cloudhawk, comparable in strength now to the fallen Governor, was similarly dominant.

The instant that arc of lightning struck the ice shield, it shattered into flakes of ice and evaporated. It pressed on, slamming full-force into Frost's waiting weapon.

A peel of thunder ensued. Rhimeshard broke in half. When Frost hit the ground it was twenty meters from the point of impact and his skin smoldered from lightning burns. His wounds were not severe, but the result was clear.

Frost should have been strong enough to defend himself, but his weaker relic and conflicted heart worked against him. Had he a relic like Selene's Sublime Transcendence, he would have stood toe to toe against Cloudhawk for at least a dozen rounds.

With Ruin crackling in his hand, Cloudhawk approached. Frost watched him come with a bitter smile. Had he really fallen so far behind? If he had nine lives he still could not dream of defeating this monster.

"Brother!"

Squall had managed to scramble over to Frost, pulling himself across jagged ice and frost.

Cloudhawk scowled at the scene. He hated the Hand of Gehenna, and under Wolfblade's direction who knew what manner of evils they would perform? What's more, Inkspecter and Frost had to pay for what they did. If they faced justice Dawn could breathe easier. The Polaris family would forever be in his debt.

Yet at the same time he could not act rashly. He knew that the Hand served a purpose. Frost was an incredible asset. In the battles to come, he would be invaluable.

"Have you forgotten Asha?"

When Cloudhawk heard the accusation he paused. His eyes dropped to Squall. "What did you say?"

"I'm not as irresponsible as you!" Squall's hard eyes were pinned on Cloudhawk. "I promised to protect her, but if you try to kill my brother you'll have to go through me first. Who will protect her then?"

"The Squall I knew once would never use Asha to threaten me," Cloudhawk growled. He raised Ruin, ready to bury it in Squall's body.

The young man shouted back. "The Cloudhawk I knew once would never raise his weapon against me!"

Ruin stopped inches from Squall's face. Cloudhawk's hard expression softened as he looked down on the brothers, and he sighed. As the fury was robbed from him the electric light died away.

"...How is she?"

"She's doing well. You don't need to worry."

For years Cloudhawk had kept the promise he made and never bothered Luciasha. He made no effort to reach out, opened no lines of communication. He knew deep within himself that they walked different paths now. The further he stayed, the better.

So she was well... that's good. Cloudhawk turned, took a step, and vanished from view.

Once he disappeared Squall nearly collapsed. The awesome power of Cloudhawk scared him to his core.

Wolfblade and Abaddon arrived after it had all finished. The Elder demon picked across the field of groaning bodies and rather than comfort them, he gloated mercilessly. "He certainly did not show you much quarter."

Squall was furious. "All because of you!"

Ignoring the outburst, Wolfblade made his way toward Frost. "How do you feel? Have you made up your mind?"

There was a flash in Frost's eyes. "My hatred for Arcturus died with him. He spent twenty years training me, so I will do what he trained me to do."

"A fine decision. Real men know how to distinguish love and hate. Your potential is impressive, so from this day forth you will act on my behalf." Wolfblade then turned to his demon kin. "Abaddon, you shall join the Hand as well and do my bidding."

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