Scalding sunlight poured down upon the barren earth.
Ruins stretched out toward the horizon, stacked upon one another like layers of discarded history, steel dinosaurs half-buried beneath the unforgiving wasteland sands.
Scavengers dragged their feeble feet through the rubble, stooping over from time to time to snatch up a lizard or other small critter. The wriggling scaly thing was a great find. To scavengers, something like a mouse was like striking it rich. The smallest rodent was enough to keep them going for a couple days.
The sound of an engine echoed off the crumbling walls and the scavengers scrambled into hiding when they heard it.
Plumes of sand rose behind the caravan of vehicles, mingling with black exhaust. Troughs spread out behind their overly large tires. The scavengers were both envious and frightened, especially since the backs of these vehicles were adorned with the broken corpses of others like them.
These men, who scoured the ruins for power and profit, were called excavators.
They lived a pretty decent life in this section of the wastes, and were given leeway to do as they pleased. Unlike scavengers, they weren’t forced to live among the ruins. Safer and more accommodating outposts were where they called home. They all carried weapons, tore across the deserts in vehicles, and many had special skills. They had everything they needed to roam freely and do as they pleased.
Excavators were idols to scavengers. It was the dream of every wretch digging through the ruins to one day join a digger crew.
However, if they ever wanted a chance to rise above their lot they had to be vigilant. Most of the time excavators treated ‘scavs’ like prey, to be hunted down and murdered. After all, meat was meat. Wastelanders weren’t picky about where it came from.
The smoke and sand spread, marking the excavators as they raced into the distance.
Scavengers slowly crept out of their hiding places, but didn’t have long to breathe a sigh of relief. A strange figure had appeared in the center of the ruins and no one had noticed.
From the looks of him, the figure wasn’t a scavenger. Even though his gray cloak was tattered and he was covered from head to toe in bandages, the aura of danger that covered him marked him as a man of means. His eyes – the only thing the bandages didn’t cover – looked out over the frightened crowd.
It was the curse of wastelanders to forever be at war with their environment. This was especially true for these withering ghosts of the ruins. They were all frail, malnourished, but were keener to potential dangers than most.
While it was obvious this strange outsider could be deadly if he wanted to, there was no malice in his presence so far. Regardless, he was a man more powerful than they could even comprehend. Like ants beneath the foot of elephants, they could be crushed even if the frightening man didn’t intend it. So they remained on guard.
He stood there in the middle of the ruins, without moving a muscle. He merely stood there, his dark eyes fixed on the familiar expanse with a conflicted light in their depths. Four years… who would have thought so much would happen in so short a time?
Cloudhawk was back.
He turned his attention back to the scavengers. They were adept at hiding, but Cloudhawk’s sharp vision had problem picking them out of the rubble. After all, this was where he grew up. He even recognized a few of the faces that peeked around rusted steel beams toward him.
What a bizarre sensation, like he’d come from a completely different planet.
He lifted his hand and gave it a wave, which spawned a rift in the air above him. Food poured out like a heavenly bounty. Starving and desperate, what scavenger could hold back when such a boon presented itself? Despite the potential dangers the starving wretches clambered from the ruins all at once. Where half a moment before the place was deserted, suddenly frail body were scrambling everywhere.
“It’s a God!”
“He blesses us with his presence!”
They bowed and scraped before Cloudhawk while trying to fit as much food as possible in their scrawny arms. Adoration was writ on their dirty faces. If Cloudhawk affirmed their claims, he was convinced they would believe he really was a god.
Excavators were strong, but they couldn’t summon food from thin air.
Whatever this stranger was, he brought nourishment down on them like a cool rain. Really, how could he be anything but a god? It was the only way these simple folk could make sense of the miracle they’d witnessed. Cloudhawk had to wonder if that was how humans felt when the actual gods came down to deliver them from the wastelands and build their Elysian lands.
Gods… maybe there weren’t as mysterious and noble as everyone thought. Cloudhawk pondered the idea, but didn’t linger.
On the border of the ruins, two beautiful women were waiting for him.
One was devilishly beautiful, intelligent and enchanting. She could wring the most primal urges from any man. The other was also beautiful, but in a gentle and alluring way – like an angel. However the cold look on her face was by no means inviting. She was aloof, unapproachable, and cold. Any who looked upon her knew to admire from a distance.
“This is where you came from?” Hellflower pushed her goggled up onto her head and looked over the ruins. “One of a hell journey, going from this place to where you are today.”
Autumn muttered impatient. “An ant is forever an ant.”
“Let’s keep going. There’s somewhere up ahead I want to check out,” Cloudhawk said with a grin.
They traveled away from the ruins for several hundred meters, eventually coming upon a simple wasteland outpost. It was nothing special, a ramshackle collective protected by a ring of crumbling walls. But although it was nothing special it boasted something like thirty-thousand residents. One edge of it was dedicated to housing domesticated beasts, and the other was an area where their vehicles were parked.
It was still here.
Four years ago it was the scene of a fierce battle that all but destroyed this place. It seemed whatever small group of survivors made it out returned to build a new outpost from the ruins. Outsiders came, a few power struggled ensued, but now it seemed things had settled.
From the ashes came new life. It was almost like a miracle.
Wastelanders were tenacious as weeds. No matter how often they were smacked down they kept creeping back in the most unexpected places.
But this Blackflag wasn’t the same one he left. Only the name was similar. For starters, the Bloodsoaked Queen was gone. The Tartarus Mercenaries were skeletons under some sand dune somewhere. Aside from them, he had no fond memories of this place.
When the three outsiders arrived, their presence immediately caused a sensation.
Cloudhawk was a typical wastelander, so he didn’t garner much attention. But Hellflower and Autumn – people like them were as rare as an eclipse. Women that beautiful couldn’t have been more shocking if they were dropped off by a fleet of tanks. Surreal was the only way to describe it.
Footsteps. Before they knew it, the three outsiders were surrounded. Dozens of men were leveling guns their way.
Cloudhawk knew this was what they could expect from a place like this. He knew better than to bring these women, they only attracted trouble. It was too late to say anything now at any rate. He looked at a scarred man who stepped out in front of the others.
Hungry eyes slithered over the pretty women.
Just the sight of them got his blood rushing. He’d never seen women so beautiful in all his life, and his body was responding to that. He couldn’t wait to take them for himself and ravage them.
“These pretties belong to me now.” The scarred man’s savage voice was directed toward Cloudhawk. “Now fuck off!”
“I’d be happy to give them to you.” Cloudhawk shook his head. “But I’m afraid they’re too much for you to swallow.”
“I told you to get lost before you got yourself killed. Don’t blame me for not taking the opportunity.” The scarred man was getting angry. He wasn’t going to stand there and take any lip from a scrawny young upstart. He ordered his men forward. “Tear his fuckin’ limbs off.”
Ten wicked looking men approached to do his bidding.
Cloudhawk never budged a step. “I’m telling you for the last time, you’re making a mistake.”
“Hmph. Ask around, kid. There aint no one fer hundreds of kilometers around who don’t know Scarred Leopard. You’re the dumb shit who don’t know how to act. I changed my mind – we gunna cut you up and feed you to the dogs. Get him!”
A dozen shots rang out in quick succession. A dozen corpses hit the dirt face first. Blood leaked from holes between their eyebrows and brains leaked out into the sand. Not a one of them even had a chance to fire their weapons.
All of a sudden, the one called Scarred Leopard had a very different look on his face. He stared wide-eyed at the sexy demon woman with smoking pistols in her grip. She brought her guns up and puckered her plump lips, blowing the smoke from the muzzles. A shudder ran through all the men who saw.
Fast! Way too fast! Her weapons weren’t anything special, but they had been modified to allow for rapid fire. She’d landed shots into the heads of each man with frightening precision, so quick that they all died before they knew what happened.
She was an unparalleled marksman, the likes of which they’d never seen! Scarred Leopard couldn’t have expected such a beautiful thing to be an elite wasteland killer. But growing up in the wastes had made him a tough character, so he reached out to grab Cloudhawk’s throat without a second thought.
He knew he was no match for the woman and her guns. There wasn’t any way he’d outrun her bullets, either. Best he could do was grab this scrawny man and menace her ally, use him as a shield. He struck with speed and ferocity, which resulted in an ear-piercing crack!
It was the sound of bones shattering.
Scarred Leopard had no idea how, but he gaped at his arm as it pointed backward at him at an odd angle. Before he could even scream in pain, Cloudhawk shoved his foot into the man’s chest. He went flailing through the air and smashed into a wall, which caused it to collapse on top of him.
Cloudhawk coughed a couple times as he brought his leg back.
Hellflower offered a gentle rebuke. “You haven’t recovered yet, what are you doing getting involved?”
Blackflag’s leader went pale when he saw what these three strangers could do. He was master of an outpost with tens of thousands of men, but he knew damn well none of them could stand up against these outsiders.
If these three wanted him dead, it would be as easy as lifting a finger.
“I’ll cut to the chase. Starting from today, the wastelands are my territory. That means this outpost belongs to me.” Cloudhawk wasn’t here to kill people. Put a little fear into ‘em, that’ll be all it takes. He looked over the new, yet familiar landscape. “Now that I’m back, it’s time I took my place as King.”
1. Is it just me, or is he starting to look a lot like Wolfblade…