The wastelands were a barren, scorching hellscape. Like a sea of fire this blighted plane devoured every ounce of water from the humans who traversed it. In order to avoid being burnt to a crisp or dying of dehydration, the two fugitives were forced to stop in a shaded crevice to wait out the hottest part of the day.
The skin of the scourge rabbits was left out to cure on a scorching rock. Its meat, chopped into small squares, were roasted as well.
Rabbit was a delectable wasteland treat, rich in fats and oils. It was also a rare find. Cloudhawk didn’t eat much for two reasons. First, there was no water to wash it down and overeating would make him all the more thirsty. Second, he wasn’t sure when their next opportunity to come across a meal would be. The beasts of the wasteland were many, but only a few of them were safe to eat. It was smarter to save some of the rabbit just in case.
“If we wander around blindly we’re gonna die.” Cloudhawk looked out over the rolling expanse of desert. His eyes betrayed his thoughts – he was at a loss, he didn’t know where to go. “Let’s go to the elysian lands.”
Vengeance for Slyfox and Mad Dog would have to wait. Now wasn’t the time.
The power of the black hand behind the curtain was too great. At least a thousand sweepers answered his beck and call, with three mighty lieutenants to guide them. Of course this was just what they knew about it, how many soldiers there really were in service of this demon was still unknown. They didn’t even know what the demon himself was capable of.
They were one badly wounded Bloodsoaked Queen, and a weak Cloudhawk. The fact they were still alive was in itself a miracle. If they didn’t find water soon that could change, and it was increasingly unlikely they’d last through the night. How could they even begin to talk about how to fight back?
Hunting down demons was now a hopeless task. But would making their way to elysian lands bring them hope? Leagues of wasteland stretched far and wide, covering every inch of this territory. Making their way across would take as much luck as nerve, and no one knew what they might encounter in the unknown kilometers between here and there.
If they were destined to die in the wastelands the Bloodsoaked Queen preferred to go down fighting. It was the nature and pride of the demonhunter.
“Ah, I just don’t get it.” Cloudhawk could see the resolute light in the Queen’s eye, her determination even in the face of death. “Why the hell are you so pissed at this demon? Why would you give up the safety and comfort of the elysian lands to go on a suicide mission you refuse to let go of. What did he do to you?”
The Bloodsoaked Queen was young, intelligent, beautiful and skilled. She was perfect and filled with such potential. He just didn’t get why she’d give all that up, a bright future, for a weird obsession with this monster of the wasteland? Cloudhawk couldn’t help but voice his confusion.
Typically the Queen’s haughty nature would prevent her from explaining anything to this faithless, dishonorable heathen. But Cloudhawk was surprised to hear her voice, heavy with sorrow and pain.
“He killed my father.”
She was weak, her body shook. In this moment the iron-like façade of the female warrior cracked. Her eyes were red, and in their depths he could see a seething hatred.
The one who took her father had to pay!
She bore the disgrace of her father’s death. It had to be her who exacted revenge. This was the thought that consumed her when she, only sixteen, had secretly left the elysian lands. For an entire year she had hunted for closure.
The Queen was an exceptionally talented demonhunter, but young. She was too self-confident and arrogant, and her hatred of the demon had blinded her. She never even stopped to consider what sort of foe she faced.
Cloudhawk really didn’t understand her but he couldn’t be blamed, for he had no concept of what a father was. He heaved a sigh – everyone lived their own stories, their own views, their own motives. Who was he to tell someone that their path was wrong?
Neither of them spoke for a long time.
For two days and two nights Cloudhawk hadn’t so much as closed his eyes. His nerves were frayed, leaving him anxious. He’d cut his way out from the wastelands and into the outpost, only to slaughter his way out of the outpost and back into the wastelands. At no time did he have a chance to rest. Even the most steadfast will had its limits and Cloudhawk was reaching his. Fighting his exhaustion was like trying to run against floodwaters.
His eyelids felt like they weighed a thousand kilograms. Eventually they won and his eyes slipped closed.
When he woke back up he couldn’t tell how much time had passed. Burning thirst had been what stirred him. His eyes popped open and his first instinct was to grip his exorcist staff and glare all around. The sky had dimmed toward evening – he hadn’t thought he’d slept that long.
Cloudhawk’s mind was clear but his throat was dry as a bone. He was dehydrated, he knew, and that was dangerous.
The Bloodsoaked Queen huddled nearby with her long raven hair flowing free. Her eyes were closed, also asleep, but her face was painted with an unnatural blush. It sounded like every breath was a struggle. When he saw how she looked Cloudhawk scrambled forward and pressed his hand to her forehead. Her burning skin radiated heat right through his palm.
This was bad!
Cloudhawk hadn’t thought the dozen or so wounds he suffered would end up so trivial, while the Queen’s few external injuries would become infected. He figured one of the arrows that hit her had to have been poisoned.
“Hey, hey! Wake up!”
“You can’t die!”
Cloudhawk felt his frayed nerves tremble. The two of them were a team, and by now the sweepers saw him as a demonhunter as well. If she died they wouldn’t show him any mercy. With the mighty Queen at his side he had a chance. If she didn’t make it, a novice like Cloudhawk had no hope of escape.
The Queen’s cracked lips worked, unconsciously muttering a single word. “Water…”
Water? I’m dying of thirst too! Where am I supposed to find water?
Cloudhawk ran his hand through sand-streaked hair anxiously. They’d run out of rabbit blood a long time ago, so what was he supposed to do?
Suddenly a calm came over him. He pulled out the knife the Bloodsoaked Queen kept in her boot and pressed the tip against his wrist. He dragged it down his skin, opening up a hole. Blood began to spill forth.
This was the only way!
The Queen was unconscious. Like an infant she gulped at whatever her mouth clung to. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth and it was enough to bring her back from her stupor. Her eyes snapped open and she stared at what was happening.
Cloudhawk tried to reassure her with a less than comforting grin. “You’re finally up.”
She was still weak but her eyes trembled with feeling. This wastelander was using his own life blood to save her? If he’d tried it at any time before this would have thrown her into a rage. She was a noble demonhunter! How dare his ignoble blood be used to continue her life!
The rage did not come. Perhaps it was because she was weak, but perhaps it was because of other, deeper reasons.
“We have to go. We have to find water tonight or we’ll die.”
Cloudhawk had fashioned the rabbit skin into a crude backpack and put their surplus meat inside. Next he dug a hole and buried any trace that they’d used this place for shelter.
They had to keep hidden. The Queen’s fever was scorching, so much that it had started to affect her consciousness. She couldn’t fight, much less summon power from relics. She could hardly walk. It was the weakest she’d ever been.
“You’re too slow in your condition,” Cloudhawk muttered. He removed the rabbit skin bag and wrapped it around the Queen’s shoulders. “Hold this, I’ll carry you on my back!”
Odious as the choice was the Queen was no fool. There was no other option.
Cloudhawk pulled her onto his bony back and the two of them set off into the dusky desert. Their dim footprints stretched out behind them.
Light from the setting sun painted the dunes in color. The Queen’s long hair took on a burnished bronze hue. Even in her half-conscious state she could sense that her time was fleeting, but her heart was calm.
She never thought… never imagined… the one helping her through the end would be this wastelander youth she had always looked down upon.
Eventually the sun dipped below the horizon and stars emerged. The broiling desert quickly dipped in temperature. Cloudhawk panted like an old ox and yet he tenaciously pushed on, one foot in front of the other, by will alone. He was dizzy, his eyes refused to focus, but he kept on beyond the point any reasonable person could hold on. And never once did they come across a single living thing, much less water.
The sound pierced his ears. Cloudhawk saw the shaft of an arrow race past his face, hissing through the air in its passage. It buried itself in the sand before his feet and quivered. Cloudhawk blanched as he swung his head toward the arrow’s origin, where he found five figures picking their way through the dim light toward them. Two lizard riders were at the front and the three others were archers, all in pursuit. The arrow had come from one of them.
Cloudhawk felt his heart sink.
These five were a vanguard. Scores more dotted the desert on the other side of a nearby dune. All of them wore armor and hefted dangerous looking weapons. Cloudhawk was sure the sandstorm would have wiped away their scent and any trace of their movement, they couldn’t have caught up with them so fast. Now it looked like he’d been too optimistic.
The three archers had arrows knocked and bows draw, but did not yet fire. A handful of wasteland riders trampled by and cut them off with a semi-circular formation.
Cloudhawk carefully leaned down and let the Queen off of his back and hefted the exorcist staff. They weren’t getting away this time, but now that they were caught he was going to make sure someone paid for it. Yet though he’d been surrounded Cloudhawk’s enemies didn’t rush in and attack.
Two figures separated from the pack.
One of them was a big man, thick and muscular. His face was covered in bushy, ashen whiskers. He looked like an old, grizzled veteran dressed in typical wastelander attire. Of note was his steel armor which looked like it was well made. Although he looked like an old, arthritic lion, he seethed with the aura of someone who wasn’t to be fucked with.
The second fellow was brawny, and not too old. Half of his face had been burned by acid or fire leaving hideous scars behind. His hair was sparse and patchy, and grape-like tumors grew in patches from his throat down his chest. They had to be some kind of mild mutation.
Aside from a few deformed soldiers, Cloudhawk noted that most of this group looked like normal humans. They weren’t sweepers, but then who were they?
Cloudhawk barked a challenge. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Who we are isn’t important!” The brawny man answered with a hideous, savage grin. He lifted his hand and waved it at the two of them. “Go, take ‘em down!”