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Chapter 31 - Battlefield of the Mind

 The God King could feel Cloudhawk's resolve. Coercion was useless, as was talk. His attempts had fallen on deaf ears and would not dissuade the human so there was no further purpose in the ruse.

Cloudhawk knew what he had to do. He'd made his peace with it the moment he chose to stand against Sumeru. The differences between demon, god and man could not be reconciled. This was not a war between individuals, so individuals would not decide its outcome. It had started a thousand years ago with the Great War. That act set in motion everything that led to this. Here on Sumeru, the conflict would end one way or another.

This was Cloudhawk's destiny, and his burden.

Although the God King's illusion had collapsed, Cloudhawk was not returned to the real world. He hovered alone in a vast and impenetrable darkness, having slipped from one illusion into another. Infinite darkness replaced pleasant visions of a forgotten past.

Cloudhawk felt no air or gravity. He was weightless as a fog floating through the ether. Hazy, chaotic flows surrounded him on all sides like an endless sea. But soon it began to change. Cloudhawk spied a figure slowly emerging from the chaos, hiding in the void like a specter.

He was not shaken by the vision. In a calm but challenging voice, he greeted the other. "You should know that this won't work on me, God King. Conflict is our destiny. With all your power why waste time with trickery? Come out and fight."

"Why do you persist so? What are you hanging on to? You do not understand yourself. You understand nothing." The God King's voice continued to reverberate in his brain. "In so many ways you can't even match up to the men you managed to defeat."

Several familiar faces swam up at him through the fog. One moved strangely toward him, flashing forward in an erratic display like a feral spirit. When it got closer he could see more clearly; a tall, young man with buzz-cut hair. Unremarkable in appearance, yet possessed of a strange charm. Adder, or rather the image of a man Cloudhawk once bested.

Then his image changed.

A man in red robes. Solemn, with deep eyes. The Crimson One, another Cloudhawk had killed. But the grim face of Sterling persisted for only a second. Gray robes, hair fringed in white, elegant and wise. His gaze was fathomless and unreadable. Another victim of Cloudhawk's destiny, Arcturus.

Changes kept coming, revealing all the faces of those who taught Cloudhawk throughout his journey. Not just Sterling and Arcturus, but also those he knew in Blackflag Outpost. Mutants, metahumans, even Abaddon.

It was strange and unsettling. This being was a million familiar faces and none. It was fixed in appearance and then not. A constant state of flux made it impossible to fixate on one image.

"Cloudhawk. We meet again!"

This creature's voices were as unpredictable as its faces, various sounds piling one on top of the other in an infinite chorus. These weren't illusions. They were souls brought into this illusory space by the power of the God King.

"You think you can stop me?" Cloudhawk waved a hand, summoning a plain blade from the ether. "I beat you all once, I can beat you a thousand times!"

Cloudhawk punctuated his threat with a swing of his arm. His ordinary-looking weapon released a power that overwhelmed the void and caused it to ripple. Cloudhawk's mental powers were extreme, enough that this odd world couldn't wholly contain him.

The chaos phantom didn't move in the face of his aggression. It summoned a sword of its own and deflected Cloudhawk's strike. For all the strength behind it, the blow failed to break through. A fierce green flame shot out from its other hand.

An insignificant attempt!

Cloudhawk was not threatened by the fires. He steeled himself and attacked again, fiercer this time. He cleaved through the fires and into the phantom. It was cut in two but Cloudhawk didn't feel like he'd struck anything. It dissolved before him only to reappear moments later behind.

Cloudhawk drew himself up with imperious resolve. Slowly he turned to regard the ever-changing face of his enemy. Cloudhawk had no way of knowing what sort of space it was they inhabited, some sort of dream he figured. What he saw wasn't real or even logical.

The phantom rose its hands and mirrors appeared all around them.

As the phantom stood before Cloudhawk, its image was reflected in all the mirrors, but all were different. They stared at Cloudhawk with countless faces in a nightmarish scene before leaping from the mirrors to attack.

They were all incredibly strong.

Even the metahumans he knew back in Blackflag Outpost were far more powerful than before. All of a sudden Cloudhawk was surrounded and under pressure.

What was going on? He was certain that the God King hadn't attacked personally yet. Those he fought weren't from his foe. It felt more like he was trapped in his own mind, fighting memories.

"I get it!"

It came to him after a few minutes. In an incomprehensible act he threw his weapon away and welcomed the phantoms' attacks. One after the other they ripped into him. But there was no pain - no wounds, no blood.

His body collapsed inward into a black hole. Everything that came close was devoured by the darkness. This was a battlefield of the mind and the more Cloudhawk feared his opponents, the more power he gave them.

Cloudhawk wasn't meant to beat them, but absorb them. From Arcuturs to Sterling and all the others, strong or weak they all had their own will. That's why Cloudhawk had been drawn to them.

It was willpower that he could claim as his own!

Their minds and spirits were drawn into his body. As he absorbed the essence of what they were, he made himself more unassailable. After a little while he opened his eyes and a wave of immense energy burst from him. In an instant the illusory world was overwhelmed and reality reasserted itself.

"God King! Come out and face me!"

Cloudhawk let his mind flood the entire area, only once again it all changed. Now he was standing on a different planet, one with familiar sights and sounds. Earth? Somewhere close to Southern Capital.

Cloudhawk felt a source of power somewhere in front of him. He narrowed his eyes and tried to pinpoint it, and it was then he recognized the feeling. A god clad all in resplendent armor appeared, white as snow.

Set within his chest was a gemstone. A stone he knew well. The Phase Stone.

It was the same one that was at the center of the Demon King's Cuirass. By the waves of energy he felt from it, this being was a master of spatial abilities. Every step caused the world around him to spin like whirlpools in water.

"Demon King?" Cloudhawk knew who it was, and it troubled him.

Because it wasn't the Demon King. This was a god. The Demon King before his rebellion.