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Chapter 18 - Clean Sweep

 Cloudhawk and his copies all raised their swords. A storm of energies, all different, sprang to life. Suddenly the area was thick with power and dark momentum that washed over the rebels. The oppressive presence of death descended on them all.

Now they understood just how foolish they had been. Kill the Demon King? How ridiculous to even consider it. He was the master of Gehenna, tyrant of the Tower of Babel. Even alone - like now - it was foolish to think they could kill him.

Cloudhawk was too strong. Even if they could get in close with a sneak attack, nothing indicated they had a chance to bring him down.

Most shocked of all was Azura. The human girl didn't even have the strength to fight on the front lines, yet here she was among alien beings and demons. In her experience Master Demonhunters were the pinnacle of achievement, but the creatures she saw now were at least as strong. However, before Cloudhawk they were like children. Efforts to use Azura for an advantage were thwarted.

Her body was wrapped in a steady shell of white light, strong and impervious. The deluge of attacks aimed at her were all deflected. Her attackers were castrated. Of course it was thanks to Cloudhawk. Few, even among these grand races, could overcome his protections.

The fledgling rebel organization was made up of strong members, but here in Gehenna they were far from the upper echelons. Even combined, they were a minimal threat to Cloudhawk. Even the Demon King himself was finding it hard to reign in his own growing power. Since joining with the Demon King's Cuirass Cloudhawk's potential was being fully realized. His level of mastery was more perfect than ever and improving at a frightening rate.

But strength wasn't always good. Especially at speed, the potential for harmful side-effects increased.

He could feel the rapid changes, the changes to his mental state. The more he learned about the nature of matter, the more he delved into its secrets, the more he came to know the rules of the universe. And as this omnipotence increased he felt less. His humanity began to diminish.

Cloudhawk was now the Demon King. Would the leader of Gehenna ever go back to being a human scav?

He didn't know. Cloudhawk figured there was no going back and he had to embrace his new identity. After defeating Sumeru's vanguard he compounded this by stealing the souls of all the defeated gods. Absorbing all of that so quickly had been dangerous, almost reckless.

Absorbing that power was actually the process of dominating what remained of a god's will. If one's own will was weak it opened the door for the god to take control or cause a mental breakdown. Really there were not many shortcuts to cultivating one's mental abilities.

This process they discovered was quick, but there lurked hidden dangers. Taking in more than one could handle invariable led to problems. That was why Cloudhawk never had Azura or the younger Awakened go through the process. The young or weak did not have the mental prowess or will to succeed. Power was like water, and one needed to have the proper vessel to hold it in.

Cloudhawk's force of will was undoubtedly strong, but even so absorbing the psyche of several hundred gods came with significant risks. He knew this but proceeded anyway. More than anything, what he needed now was strength. Strength to go head to head against a Marshal like the Abyssal God, or an Elder like Crokel, and win handily.

A stout member of the Protans drew himself up. In his hands was a crystalline screen of light that extended toward Cloudhawk. It became a shock wave that flattened everything it touched and coated it in crystal.

At the same time, the Protan turned his body into a flow of particles. He whipped around the many copies of the Demon King, preparing to turn them all into clouds of atomic dust. Meanwhile the Tylons and Zarayzi relied on their sturdy bodies to withstand Cloudhawk's ire. Many among them were sturdier than even the mightiest human warriors - even the likes of Skye or Vulkan.

Recognizing their plans was not difficult for the Demon King. However he made no effort to stop them. There was a burst of energy from dozens of Godslayer swords. Scores of varying energies gathered together in a display the denizens of Gehenna couldn't fathom. They formed into an enormous blade, composed entirely of energy, which cleaved into the heart of the rebels.

In the face of this power, the proud and tenacious Tylons were atomized. Zarayzi, whose mutated forms could survive in the harshest of environments, vanished in a dismal puff of smoke. There was no creature here with the constitution to withstand the blow.

The blazing sword plowed further into the crowd. It swept away Protans and engulfed Vulpites. Physical energies were woven together with rarer forces like space, psyche and consumption. Whatever the life force, there was at least a portion of Cloudhawk's attack that proved lethal.

Most of the rebels were destroyed in a single blow. Fear and disbelief raged in the hearts of those demons who had turned from their king. He was too strong! If the former King were alive today even he would fall before this human's might.

"We surrender!"

Several of the demons realized the futility of fighting. There was no hope of overcoming the Demon King, so they threw themselves to the ground and appealed to his mercy.

But the cold voice of the Demon King had no mercy to offer. "The time for a change of heart has passed."

Struck with terror and astonishment the demons tried to flee. The Demon King hacked at them with his weapon and pure destruction ripped through the air. One of them was caught and hit the ground as a pile of gore. The remaining two were frantic. The King showed no quarter.

"Tyrant! Mad King!"

"Our race will be destroyed by your hands!"

Cloudhawk paid the accusations no mind. One more cut and he silenced them forever. More looked for a way to escape, but Cloudhawk had turned this into his domain. There was no escaping from the Demon King's territory.

Desperate attempts to escape through relics failed. Even Vulpites with their quantum bodies could find no exit. The Demon King held sole dominion over space here. No one would be permitted to live, he would destroy them all in the most merciless fashion he could manage. Thus did scores of Gehenna's strongest fall beneath the blade of the King.

When it was finished, Cloudhawk stood among the corpses as though taking a stroll through a flower garden. He turned to Azura and put a hand against the barrier around her. "Are you paying attention?"

She was frightened, shaken by the brutality of the scene. She remembered her teacher as a gentle and accepting man. A generous leader. But the face he revealed today was that of an unfeeling overlord. He had shown no compassion in his slaughter of these people.

The power and savagery of the scene would remain with her forever. Who knew how these memories would shape her.

Blood dripped off Godslayer's plain blade. "Do you think they were wrong?"

Secretly these people had gathered in defiance of their king. It was hard to say they were wicked, in fact many were righteous and good. All they wanted was the best for their race, to protect the world they knew.

Azura thought for a moment, then shook her head. "No."

Cloudhawk nodded. "Was I wrong?"

The Demon King was trying to mobilize every ounce of power against Sumeru. Maybe he was leading them to destruction, maybe he was introducing everyone to life-threatening danger. But it was also the only way to save everyone. If they didn't eliminate the threat of the gods, sooner or later they would come for Gehenna. Could she say he was wrong to grasp at every chance to save them?

"No."

"This is war. Us against them. Me against Sumeru. There's never any right or wrong - only victory and defeat. When the loser stands to lose everything, the only option is to win."

Azura was quiet, absorbed in thought.

"Abaddon killed a good friend of mine many years ago. Frost killed Dawn's grandfather. But for all their crimes those two are still useful to me, that's why they're still alive." The Demon King's eyes were fixed on the young girl before him. "But to traitors who stand in the way, even if they are just and kind, there is more damage in keeping them around. Remember, as a leader the first thing you must learn is who to kill and who to spare."

"But teacher... what makes you any different from Arcturus Cloude?"

The Demon King was silent in the face of his young pupil's question. Yes... how was what he did different from the Governor? He was willing to sacrifice anything in pursuit of their final goal.

Azura sensed that perhaps she'd said something wrong. "I'm sorry teacher. I know everything you do is for the best. No one else can do better."

Cloudhawk remembered a story, about a warrior and a demon. After countless trials and tribulations the warrior finally put the beast down, only to discover he himself had become the next monster. Was it the influence of the demon that caused the warrior to fall, or was it the corruption of power that did it?

He patted her shoulder. "If we defeat the gods, mankind will rebuild from the ruins. I hope that when you wear my mantle, you will do a better job than I am."

There was no going back, not for the Demon King. A new world had to arise from the ashes, and it was Cloudhawk's job to burn it all down. Upending the existing order was the only way to make space for what was to come. Then maybe things would be different.

Azura was at a loss. So many powerful people were following her teacher, why did he think she would lead anyone? She couldn't understand. There was also something in his tone that worried her. Like he'd already seen where his road ends.