It was a reconnaissance team, scouts – maybe twenty or thirty of them. A pair of three-meter tall maneaters trundled among them, and a third were rangers. Several were mounted on enormous lizards that slithered over the sands of the wastes.
These beasts were a class above the mutated ostriches Tartarus mercenaries had used. They made effective war mounts that could fight back. They were fierce, had skin thick as armor and had incredible endurance. Their riders had longbows slung across their backs.
They were mobile, and good at close range or at a distance. Hunters.
Cloudhawk hadn’t felt them coming. With Mantis gone, chances that the two of them could fight their way out were slim. Their enemies were about a hundred meters away and closing.
“Goddamnit! They have rotwolves!” He spotted the closest of them, a wolf rider. Bristling with coarse, black hair the wolf had its muzzle pressed to the ground as it searched for them. Hiding wasn’t going to do them any good. “Go… we gotta go!”
The two of them scrambled out of their hiding place as quietly as they could then tumbled over the far side of a sand dune. They slid down to its base.
Rotwolves were sensitive to all kinds of movement. It raced to the spot Cloudhawk and the Queen had just fled, picking up their scent.
“We got ‘em!” The wolf rider beamed a hideous grin, he saw the bloodstains on the ground. It had to have come from a wound. He swung his arms to get the others’ attention. “A few of you get ahead and cut them off. Give the signal for the others to come.”
Lizard riders bounded off to either flank and made their way around the sand dune. Thanks to their webbed feet they dashed across the sand like the wind. There was no question they could overtake their prey.
One of the sweepers pulled an arrow from its quiver and doused it in fuel. Lighting it ablaze he fired it into the night sky. Instantly the burning red light split the darkness, visible for kilometers in every direction. When it reached the apex of its trajectory, it exploded.
Cloudhawk cursed inwardly. When the others sweepers saw the signal they’d come running.
“That damn wolf will be able to follow us anywhere. We can’t shake it.” Cloudhawk said to the Queen. “You gotta use your cross to kill it!”
She was speechless at how stupid his suggestion was. Yes, the holy light could be used at a distance, but using it once drained her of almost all her energy. It was supposed to be used as a last resort. Turning it on a single sweeper and his dog was like smashing a fly with a war hammer.
By now the lizards had overtaken them. They were scrambling up a sand dune up ahead. The wolf rider was guiding the others by scent. They were just too damn fast!
When he saw that the Queen was unwilling to use her powers he skidded to a halt. Under the Queen’s curious and incredulous gaze he picked up a sharp rock and began to weigh it in his hands.
What the hell was this moron doing? The Queen thought.
They looked back and saw the wolf slinking over the dune, like a shadow flitting through the moonlight. It was coming closer, merely a few dozen meters. The beast’s keen green eyes peered through the night for its victims.
Cloudhawk kept his eyes trained on the rotwolf. He suddenly launched himself forward running one step, then another, and another, and another. The wolf spotted him but was stunned that its prey would choose to charge. The other sweepers spilling over the dune also saw the young man coming. They pulled their longbows free and began knocking poison arrows.
Danger! All of Cloudhawk’s hair stood on end.
A handful of archers took aim, perhaps only ten meters from their target. These were practiced killers, hitting their prey from this close was not difficult. Yet Cloudhawk made no effort to dodge. With precise control over every muscle in his body, his legs dug into the sand and sent him skidding. Everything worked in concert to send power up through his calves, thighs, waist, shoulder, arm, and finally his wrist.
What speed! The stone he threw streaked through the air and crashed right into the rotwolf’s snout. It yelped in pain and surprise from a crushed nose and bucked the rider off its back.
Mantis once told him not to rely on complicated weapons. Any killer worth his salt could end a target with whatever was at hand. Only someone with those skills could call themselves a real master of the wastes. Cloudhawk learned to throw after seeing what Mantis could do with a scalpel.
Cloudhawk had incredible control, speed, strength and perception. He drew on those to pelt the rotwolf’s nose through the darkness… but there was no time to celebrate.
The twang of bowstrings warbled and a hail of arrows followed, many of them aimed right at Cloudhawk. He hunkered down and held up his alphwolf pelt. Thud, thud, thud! The arrows pummeled him, but couldn’t fully pierce his coat. All they managed were several nicks and scratches.
Some, though, were aimed at his head where he had no protection.
He was having trouble tracking the black arrows through the darkness but he felt the danger they presented. There were too many for him to dodge or deflect. Then, in this critical moment the Bloodsoaked Queen appeared, dagger in hand.
Ting, ting, clang! She knocked the remaining arrows away before pulling Cloudhawk after her in retreat.
Cloudhawk managed to shout his thanks as they ran. He’d succeeded in taking the rotwolf’s nose out of the equation, but it didn’t improve their situation much. Sweepers continued to close in on all sides. They were in danger of being surrounded.
In a matter of minutes their escape would be completely cut off. Once the three mutants got here they would be in even deeper shit.
They didn’t get far. A pair of lizards reared up on their hind legs right in front of them, their riders brandishing weapons. They swung thick, barbaric falchions over their heads, and they sliced deadly arcs through the air as their lizard mounts propelled them forward.
The blades were right in their faces.
The Bloodsoaked Queen’s body wrenched to the side. As though flung from a catapult her slender and dexterous body flit through the air, slipping passed the sweepers’ blades so she could open their throats with her dagger.
She landed a foot on the head of the lizard mount, then pushed herself off again. She spun like a lethal top, a dervish of steel that severed the arteries in another rider’s throat.
By now, Cloudhawk had seen a few experts at work, such as Mad Dog, Slyfox, Grizzly and others. But he never saw anything close to the Queen’s graceful, flexible, and lethal abilities.
The riders were dead – but their lizards were still breathing. Without their riders they were furious and even more brutal. Weighty bodies crashed back to ground and they hissed at her, revealing a maw filled with razor-like teeth.
The Bloodsoaked Queen, still in mid-air, shrunk into a defensive posture. She waited for her prey to attack, ready to bury her dagger in its eye.
Then, something happened that no one expected.
Neither lizard tried to bite her. Instead, barbed tongues shot out at her fast as a whip, with enough force to shatter stone. More importantly their tongues were peppered with poison-secreting glands. One scrape from those spikes and the consequences were too gruesome to contemplate.
The Queen had no leverage to move herself out of harm’s way, she could only avoid one of them.
Cloudhawk rushed at her brandishing a metal pipe. He brought it crashing down on the head of one of the mutant creatures, cracking its skull and drawing blood. The blow rattled it and altered the trajectory of the beast’s tongue.
The Queen fell back to the ground safely, only to spring up in a cloud of sand. She charged at the other lizard like a gust of wind. Scores of brutal gashes appeared on the lizard’s vulnerable underbelly from throat to abdomen.
“Leave the other one alive!”
Sweepers kept pouring in from all sides. Capable as the Bloodsoaked Queen was, she was just one person and was quickly nearing her limit. Beyond that, her wounds were serious. All this movement was going to be the end of her!
The hunters’ numbers swelled. How could they hope to outrun them on just two legs? This wasn’t a siege, they were running them down until they were too weak.
Cloudhawk swung himself on top of the other lizard and wrapped its reins around his fist. It immediately started to swing and buck in protest. His eyes filled with that blood-red hue as he expertly smacked the creature on the head with his pipe again. “Chill! The fuck! Out!”
The threat of death from this crazy human caused the lizard to tremble in fear. It was suddenly much more compliant.
He reached out a hand toward the Queen. “What the hell are you staring at? Let’s go!”
She couldn’t believe he’d tamed this creature with nothing but his voice. This guy was chock full of surprises and powers she didn’t know he had. The Queen didn’t hesitate to leap up onto the lizard’s back. She steadied herself by wrapping her arms around Cloudhawk’s waist.
“Get me out of here!”
With the reigns in one hand Cloudhawk whipped the lizard’s hide with his pipe. Thick as its hide was Cloudhawk was no weakling. The triangular pipe hit hard enough to break skin and the lizard let out a piteous hiss of pain. It bolted, running wildly through the darkness.
Cloudhawk saw his pursuers gaining. He beat his pipe against the lizard again and again, urging it on. Desperate to escape the pain the lizard kicked its webbed feet faster. It raced over slopes and dunes, slowly increasing the distance between them and the sweepers.
They were coming up on a conical pit. The lizard was preparing to scale it when Cloudhawk noticed its sandy depths. Something was moving and sand had begun to tumble down the sides.
This was not reassuring. Cloudhawk shook as he broke out in a cold sweat. This wasn’t a normal valley – it was a gateway to hell!
Cloudhawk pulled hard on the reins and beat his mount with the pipe at the same time. The lizard, confused, took it as a sign to speed up.
“It’s dangerous, we gotta bail!”
He released his hold on the reigns and almost immediately the two of them were pitched off. The lizard continued its headlong rush until it hit the bottom and the whole thing seemed to come alive. An enormous creature burst forth, frightening the lizard. It tried to scramble in another direction, but it was already too late.
The monstrous thing was long, and weighed hundreds of pounds. It lurched through the air, bloody maw agape. In a single snap, half the mutant lizard’s body was ripped away.
The Bloodsoaked Queen stared dumbstruck at the creature. “What the hell is that thing?!”
Dozens of hideous legs wriggled on either side like a giant, fat centipede. A marked difference was this thing was covered in leathery flesh, though it kept the same segmented shape. It was at least twenty meters long and was as big around as five burly men tied together. A carapace covered it from the top of its head all the way down its back. Its sides were covered in tumor-like poison glands, and although it had no eyes, ears or nose it had a savage bite that put a shark to shame.