Sand Tiger stood with his arms folded, looking proud.
Perhaps he had some right to be proud. His family was not the most powerful in Sandspire. His father – Sand Viper – was a talented scientist and an exceptional Seeker, but they had been perhaps fifth or sixth in the social hierarchy. How could they have leaped so quickly to the fore, then?
It was the result of a spate of circumstances that had occurred lately. It all started when the former Governor left with three thousand troops and never returned. That wasn’t strange by any means, fighting and killing was an everyday thing in the wastelands. There was always conflict around food, water or territory so the people of the city paid little mind.
What really took them by surprise was the shocking news that followed a few days later. Their leader was dead, and his soldiers captured.
It seemed so sudden to the citizens of Sandspire. They were caught unprepared. All at once the man who held Sandspire in his iron grip, with a force of several thousand men, was just… gone!
Once the shock wore off, the vacuum of power incited several to begin vying for the reigns.
At the time, Sand Tiger’s family didn’t even attempt to take power. They were a formidable clan, but scientists weren’t a respected class here. Theirs was not a warrior family and had only a few notable fighters to speak of. Not enough to hold power even if they got it.
As the struggle raged, two family leaders were found killed in their own homes, with their most loyal followers also mysteriously dispatched. What remained of their forces fell under Sand Viper’s control, which instantly catapulted him into the highest echelons of power. All of it just fell into his lap like a gift from heaven.
Sand Tiger later learned that the two patriarchs were killed by a stranger from Greenland City. He’d only been in Sandspire for three days, passing through like the specter of death. Those who refused to capitulate with Greenland City’s demands were removed. Sand Viper survived because he agreed to play by their rules. So it was he became the new ruler of the city.
But the ‘how’ was not important. The result was – and that result was that Sand Tiger’s family was now the preeminent authority in Sandspire City.
Sand Tiger had a fondness for the one called Bug. He recognized real talent in her. With the right guidance and proper training, she could be a great asset for his family. Cultivating people like her was how they consolidated their power.
Gray Rabbit and Sister Bug would be foolish to turn down the invitation. Every day in the ruins was a fight for survival. Wasn’t their dream was that the struggle would one day buy them entry into the city?
Sand Tiger waved his hand with an air of finality. “Come with me.”
The siblings did as they were told. As they were turning to leave screams stopped them short. A group of a dozen or so men came tearing through the market, howling at the top of their lungs. “Beasts are attacking!”
Moments later strange shadows darted out from the ruins in their direction. Not a thread of hair covered these creatures’ leathery skin. They were huge, lumbering things with the build of rhinoceros but more toned and sleek. Some sort of combination between a bull and a wolf? Their flesh shone with a metallic light that made the creatures look impervious to blades, and a single spiral horn jutted from their foreheads.
“Orebiters!” Terrified screams rippled through the camp.
Orebiters were the most dangerous mutant beasts in Sandspire’s territory. What made them especially unique was their digestive system. Orebiters could eat literally anything and their stomach acids could break it all down into usable nutrients.
The name was given for obvious reasons. These monsters could grind up and devour all sorts of metal, which then combined inside them to great an incredibly strong biological alloy. It strengthened everything from their bones to their skin, making them exceptionally hardy. If they were here in a herd, it meant they meant to make this place their next meal.
By now, it was too late to run. These beasts weren’t just powerful, they were also as fast as a wolf pack. The human encampment was already surrounded, cutting off any escape.
One of the orebiters charge into the crowds with its spiral horn lowered to skewer the first thing it encountered. It caught one of the fleeing scavengers in the back, running him through like a tack through paper.
The beast flung the poor man over its back, where he was promptly trampled into paste.
Orebiters were famously thorough. During a hunt, nothing in their path was left alive. It was the fate of this camp to become a field of blood and gore.
Another scream. The pack leader had caught another scavenger. It charged through the people like a truck.
Its two pack mates tore along behind it like a pair of devils. Gray Rabbit and Sister Bug were pale with terror as they watched. Destruction was certain, of both the camp and everyone in it.
“This is the superb metallic biomaterial they were talking about?” Sand Tiger muttered to himself. “Since I ran into’m, I think I’ll take a piece of’m with me.”
As he spoke Sand Tiger pulled out his gun. His revolver was a special one, over a foot long with a much thicker barrel than was standard. Revolver was perhaps not the right name for it – it probably couldn’t even be called a hand gun. The thing was a cannon, and Sand Tiger seemed confident nothing could withstand its stopping power.
An orebiter came charging his way like a missile. A few steps later it hit the ground, kicking up a plume of sand as it skid to a halt.
Next the robot guardian burst into action. With its hammer-like fists it tried to pummel the metallic creature. However, none expected the beast to shoot back onto its feet after a shot from Sand Tiger. Where the massive caliber bullet had struck was a terrible dent. Sand Tiger’s shot had wounded it, but the orebiter was still standing.
It swung to the side, ramming into the robot and knocking it away. The creature then opened its mouth and belched out a stream of green acidic fluid.
“Shit!” Sand Tiger scowled. The green fluid was stomach acid, the orebiter’s digestive fluids. That was how it was able to eat anything it got down its gullet. As a weapon, it was probably more effective than any other acid.
As feared, the robot warrior immediately started to dissolve. Its metallic casing melted to reveal complicated circuitry. Before it could back off, the orebiter came in for a second body slam. Like a puppet with its strings cut, the robot was knocked to the ground and stomped to pieces. The valuable computer innards were broken beyond repair.
Sand Tiger was furious. Having his robot guardian broken apart wasn’t terrible – they could find more metal to patch it back together based on designs they already had. But having its circuits turned to dust was a massive and irrevocable loss.
But now wasn’t the time to curse his misfortune. Three orebiters were coming his way. He fired several more times at them, but the beasts were quick and cunning. They dropped their heads to protect their throats, the only part of their bodies his bullets could penetrate. They shrugged off blows to anywhere else and just kept coming.
Dammit, not good! One of the beast jumped into the air in attempts to crush the three puny humans. As its shadow fell over Sand Tiger his face fell. Was this the day he died?
Gray Rabbit and Sister Bug were shaking in terror. They were powerless to protect themselves.
Sand Tiger shut his eyes and prepared for death, but his ears picked up a sharp gust of wind. He opened his eyes to see a figure standing between him and the encroaching monster.
Shocked stares were fixed on this stranger. Was he crazy? Did he think he could stop an orebiter all by himself? Did he know what he was up against?
Under a host of horrified stares the figure stood fast and extended his left hand.
For an instant everything slowed down. Sand Spider could see that the man was covered in bandages except for his left arm, which was encased in a gauntlet. It reminded him of his robot’s arm. With a slight and understated movement of his wrist, the man patted the orebiter’s forehead.
The beast’s powerful charge came to an abrupt end as the impact of an immovable object and an unstoppable force caused the air to ripple. Soundlessly, the creature rolled onto its side while the residual concussive force spread out, causing nearby ruins to collapse.
Sent into a rage, the remaining two orebiters charged at this new threat.
Their mysterious savior pulled a broken sword from his back and swung it at the nearest creature. A spear of fire burst to life, completing the weapon and piercing clean through the orebiter’s metal hide. From the outside there was no visible damage, but the monster’s skin had turned red-hot. One could imagine what that meant for the organs within.
A second swipe from his sword, this one aimed at the third orebiter. It screamed piteously and then died.
Whoever this stranger was just killed three orebiters as easily as squashing ants. The scavengers all stared in wide-eyed disbelief.
Sand Tiger had never before seen such a display of strength. It made no sense that this man could slap down an orebiter the way he did, much less summon fire from a sword to sear a monster from the inside.
“What are you?” Sand Tiger was vigilant and suspicious, but it was meaningless. If this man wanted him dead there wasn’t anything he could do to stop him.
The stranger took his time in answering, returning the sword to its place upon his back. When he spoke his voice was a little hoarse, and when he turned his face was hidden beneath a deep cowl. What little could be seen was also covered in bandages. Nothing was revealed which would show his age – he was a total mystery.
“I’m called Cloudhawk.” He looked out over the crowd and then the dead orebiters. The other orebiters that had surrounded the camp had fled – likely after watching three of their pack mates ruthlessly slaughtered. “Can you point me toward Sandspire?”
“Sandspire? That’s where you’re headed?”
Sand Tiger gave the stranger a suspicious look. He was strong. Too strong. If he made it into town nobody could stand in his way. What was his purpose in the city?