The sky darkened as dusk approached. In the center of the small outpost was a lighthouse, whose inviting light guided travelers to safe harbor. A sole traveler appeared on the horizon, neither tall nor strong but alone against the wastelands. That fact alone made him a man not to be underestimated.
The rifle slung over his shoulder was a symbol of status. The lizard he rode upon signified means.
Equipped in this way one would be the focus of attention anywhere. Women felt safe around such a man and were willing to give up much for his company. The guards of Lighthouse Point where delighted when they saw him and scurried to open the gates.
"He's back! He really came back!"
"Quick, quick! Open the gate!"
The masked man claimed to be a bounty hunter, who had come earlier in the day to replenish his food and water. Unfortunately the situation at Lighthouse Point was poor and they had little they could trade. Instead the leader struck a deal. He told the hunter of a creature nearby threatening the outpost. If he were to kill it the leader would be happy to generously compensate him.
Reappearing from the wastes the first thing they noted was the head hanging from his saddle. It was enormous, with two jutting tusks and looked like something between a lion and a leopard. The one head had to weigh at least several dozen pounds.
Judging by the skull alone one shuddered to think what it used to be attached to. Beyond being incredibly ferocious, the beast had also been cunning. It was a surprise to find that this hunter could so easily do away with it, he had to be a real talent of the wastelands!
"Hahaha! Good lad, a real benefactor of Lighthouse Point! Come in, come in."
A burly man in his forties or fifties came close, hobbling on an injured right leg. A pair of copper teeth twinkled in his wide grin. This was the outpost's leader, and he went by the name Coppertooth.
Cloudhawk greeted him with a small nod.
The wastelands were a forgetful place. After a while in Blackwater Base it seemed like everything had blown over. Mercenaries and bounty hunters had moved on to other prey, his wanted status old news. The rhythm of the wasteland was quick, twenty days was like an eternity.
Even the most affluent mercenary groups couldn't afford to go most of a month without income. They took a great risk sweeping the deserts for Cloudhawk. Especially once he'd disappeared, rumors began to circulate that the young demonhunter had been eaten by some wild critter. With not even so much as a corpse to recover, his pursuers lost interest.
The changes his body had undergone were another thing. He was still thin, but taller than before - a little over five and a half feet. The former scavenger was more muscular, too, and the weapon that had previously marked him as a demonhunter were replaced by weapons from Hellflower and Blackwater Base.
The Bloodsoaked Queen's mask was able to change at will. Everywhere he went he wore a different face. The invisibility cloak to any untrained eye looked like any other ratty piece of clothing. After such a profound transformation he could strut across the outpost and no one would know who he was.
Four days and five nights had passed since Cloudhawk left Blackwater Base and things had gone smoothly. The only danger he'd encountered was a sandstorm a few days ago that cost him some food and water. That was what brought him to Lighthouse Point.
Coppertooth prepared a feast for Cloudhawk in thanks, consisting mostly of mutant animal meat. The meat was tough and stale, but it was not hard to see that it was a rare treat here in Lighthouse Point.
"Thank you, brother. Our resources are limited, so we can only show you our thanks in this way."
Cloudhawk didn't mind. He removed his mask which earned shocked looks from the people around. They'd thought he was just thin, but in fact he was quite young.
Cloudhawk addressed Coppertooth. "What about the things I asked for?"
The hunting job he'd done for them was not out of the goodness of his heart, His price had been simple, enough jerky and water to last ten days.
It didn't sound like a lot, and in fact, since his ordeal in Blackwater, Cloudhawk's appetite had only grown. He could eat as much as five large men and he didn't know why. He figured it had something to do with the Trespasser virus inside him, maybe in multiplying it was consuming a lot of his energy. It caused him no small amount of concern.
He didn't know what changes his body was going through. He had to find the Dark Atom quickly and the cure he hoped they had.
Coppertooth's smile fled from his face, replaced with an awkward unease.
Cloudhawk was clearly irritated by what he knew was coming. "Is there a problem?"
"Uh, brother. You asked for more than I thought." His sheepish grin was sincere. "We don't have ten days of jerky meat."
Cloudhawk's frown deepened. Not even ten days of jerky?
Lighthouse Point was unique in that it was a very small outpost. There were fewer than two thousand people living here, which was much smaller than most other settlements. The elderly, women, and children made up about half of that number.
Old, women, children. They were synonyms for weakness out here, and the weak depended on the strong to survive. If there were too many they became a burden and for this reason most other settlements tried to keep those numbers low. Women and children had some value, but the old and infirm were often cast out before the needs of survival.
The consequence of Lighthouse Point's unique population was that they were small, weak, and always lacking for resources. Their main diet consisted of whatever roots they could dig up and insects they could catch. Meat was a rare delicacy, especially the sort they could store for a long time to turn into jerky. It was one of their most important stockpiles.
If Cloudhawk's appetite matched that of a normal man, ten days of jerky would have been a stretch but not an impossible order. However eating as much as he did his needs were several times that of anyone else. What he asked for was too much for them to absorb.
They could curtail their soldiers' rations, but they already only had a few scraps of meat each. If the leader ordered them to give it up, they'd surely be angry and too weak to defend the outpost if something were to go wrong.
Cloudhawk was honestly surprised. He knew the settlement was small - two thousand was a pittance - but they couldn't even manage such a small amount of food? However he saw the earnest apology in Coppertooth's face, and it wasn't hard to believe a place like this would struggle.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to deceive you. We really are pretty hard up here, but if you'd like we can try to get some more food from elsewhere." The uncomfortable sound of grinding copper arose as Coppertooth grit his teeth. He slapped the table. "Asha! Why haven't you brought him his liquor yet?!"
A young girl of around thirteen or fourteen hurried over with a large bottle in her arms. She shot Cloudhawk a timid glance. Asha was rail thin and was covered in a worn but surprisingly clean gown. She had a head of wavy flaxen hair, and though her skin was dark and rough her body was soft, healthy. Elegant and pretty, for a wastelander.
Coppertooth introduced her. "Asha is the most beautiful girl in Lighthouse Point. About a year ago she fled from a slaver, moving from place to place until she found her way here."
She poured his glass and curtsied, enough to show the lines of her immature figure beneath her collar.
She furtively lifted her head and stole a glance at Cloudhawk. Beneath his scruffy black hair was an angular and handsome face, and his lithe body was laden with equipment that was never far from his person. There was a light of awe in her eyes.
Coppertooth also cast a telling gaze toward Cloudhawk. "She lives a hard life here selling wine, hardly makes enough to eat. Perhaps she should go with you."
Cloudhawk lifted his glass and sniffed its contents in silence. It was a habit he'd developed - nowhere in the wastelands was it safe to let your guard down. If there was something in the wine his keen scent would pick it out.
He knew what Coppertooth was getting at.
There was hope in the young girl's eyes. Her life had been a series of hard breaks without a day of respite. If she could attach herself to a strong man, so long as her body retained its allure she could have a better life.
Cloudhawk was no longer ignorant to the appeals of women. Asha was attractive for a wastelander, and Cloudhawk was a young man. He wasn't opposed to the idea of being accompanied by a pretty girl, but he also knew that out in the wastes he couldn't even guarantee his own safety. Bringing along someone who was hardly strong enough to carry a wine bottle seemed like asking for trouble.
"Three days jerky, and plenty of sleep." Cloudhawk took a sip of liquor and changed the topic. "How far from here is the holy city?"
"Holy city? Ten days, unless you run into trouble. You aren't planning to go there, are you?" Coppertooth's expression changed visibly when they started talking about the elysian lands. His surprise only became more apparent when Cloudhawk nodded his head. "There are a lot of wastelanders who want to enter the holy city, but it never works out. I think it'd be best if you gave up on the idea."
"You seem to know a lot about the place."
"I'll be honest, I lived there twenty years ago."
This took Cloudhawk by surprise. He looked Coppertooth up and down, a man with rough skin and crude clothing. Not to mention those false teeth. There wasn't an inch of him that looked like an elysian. "Then why did you come back here?"
Coppertooth proceeded to share his life's story with Cloudhawk.
Twenty years ago, as a soldier in Skycloud's army, he participated in a raid against a group of blasphemers. He took pity on several infants they encountered during the attack and secretly took them away. In the end he was found out, and in the elysian lands his actions were a grave affront to god.
Coppertooth lifted the right leg of his trousers. Beneath, instead of flesh there was metal. His leg was replaced with an artificial limb. "I betrayed their warrior's code, so they took my right leg. I was exiled into the wastelands and told never to return."
Cloudhawk frowned as he examined the result of Coppertooth's charity. "Because you saved a couple kids?"
Taking someone's leg for sparing the life of children seemed way out of line. What sin had they committed, why did they have to die?
"I bet you regret it." Cloudhawk picked up a chunk of meat and took a bite. "To go from the paradise of the holy city to this fuckin' shit show… I bet most people wouldn't be able to accept it."
"Hey brother, that's not true at all. At first I had trouble, but now I'm living fine." Coppertooth lifted his glass and drained it. "As far as I'm concerned the holy city is no paradise, and not everywhere in the wastelands is hell."
Cloudhawk almost gasped. "What are you saying?"
Coppertooth heaved a sigh, like it was a topic he wasn't thrilled to rehash.
"Brother, you've worked hard. You have to be tired. Let Asha take you up to your room where you can get some rest." Coppertooth shot Asha a glance. Her face turned red and she shifted uncomfortably. "Make sure our brother's satisfied, yeah?"