The call wasn’t loud, but deep and commanding. Like a lion’s roar it was stately and powerful, and promised that those who dared disobey would feel teeth on their throat. Everyone lowered their weapons, forced to capitulate.
The burly, ugly man’s expression revealed his displeasure. He glared at the tall bearded man who stopped them. “Goddamnit, Leonine, what are you doin’?”
Apparently the lion-esque leader of this tribe had a name to match his appearance – Leonine. He grinned and it called to mind the image of a lion baring its fangs.
Earning a nickname like that in the wastelands was no easy feat. Although they listened to the older man this team seemed loosely organized, probably several groups patched together. If despite that they jumped when Leonine spoke, it said a lot about this complicated person.
Leonine pierced Cloudhawk and the Bloodsoaked Queen with his eyes. They were small, seemingly weak, but the grizzled warrior could see the signs of battle writ in wounds all over Cloudhawk’s body. It told him that these children had seen vicious fighting. For someone to suffer that many wounds and still make it out alive meant they were real wastelanders.
“Who are you? What are you doing wandering around out here?”
“We’re from Blackflag Outpost.” Cloudhawk didn’t know if these men were friends or foes, but he gave them a straight answer anyway. “We were attacked by sweepers and managed to get away. We got separated from the others and now we’re here.”
“Blackflag Outpost? I’ve heard of it, they say it was a big settlement. I’m surprised to hear a group of sweepers could break through.” Curiosity was thick in Leonine’s rumbling voice. The others tightened their grips on their weapons for they knew his next command was probably going to decide whether these kids lived or died. After a few moments of thought Leonine continued. “We’re headed toward the Greenland Outpost. The road’s dangerous, and we can always use another arm to swing a weapon. If you’ve got nowhere else to go you can follow us – but just follow, you stay behind the group.”
Leonine’s decision was unexpected. Cloudhawk was desperate to live, and death seemed inevitable unless they followed these people. What choice did he have?
Whatever kind of place this Greenland Outpost was wasn’t important. All he heard was ‘outpost,’ and the two of them needed a safe haven where they could nurse their wounds.
Leonine nodded. “Then you’re coming with us.”
The bearded warrior turned and made to leave. His companions relaxed their weapons. No one gave the two any more trouble, because going against Leonine’s decision would make him seem weak – and that would have consequences.
Cloudhawk blurted out. “Can you give us water?”
“Are you fuckin’ deaf? He said you can follow, that’s it!” The brutish man barked. “You think we’re a goddamn charity?!”
A dagger made a raspy thud as it buried itself in the sand. The weapon was from the Elysium fields, brought here by the Bloodsoaked Queen. It wasn’t a relic, but one could tell at a glance it was made from a special metal. It was keen and straight, and even decent wasteland weapons couldn’t compare with it. When the Queen opened her mouth she spoke with a quiet tenacity, concealing her weakness. “Take this dagger in trade!”
The brute snatched the dagger from the ground and turned it over in his hands in appreciation. Water was precious out here in the wastelands, but her dagger was more than a worthy exchange.
Cloudhawk added his own impatient voice. “Well? Are you gonna take it or not?!”
“A shitty broken dagger isn’t enough.” The brute drew his eyes over the Queen’s body. Her face was covered by the hideous demon mask but it couldn’t hide her full chest, round backside and long slender legs. She was still getting a lot of unsavory attention, and the evil look in the brute’s eyes left no question as to his intent. “It’s your lucky day, woman. My boys and I have suffered a bit of a dry spell ourselves. You show us a good time, and we’ll give you water!”
How could the Bloodsoaked Queen ignore such an insult? If she’d even been able to walk unaided this reckless idiot would be a carcass left to rot in the desert sun.
Everyone’s eyes were on the Queen now, hungry and violent. None of them made an effort to hide their wild, lascivious desires. Out in these wicked badlands a woman of her caliber was like a sheep among wolves. It didn’t require much imagination to know what would happen to her.
Cloudhawk moved forward to block them, but two burly men grabbed him tight.
The brute and a dozen other men surrounded the Queen and she stumbled backward to try and avoid them. Reached out with her will to summon her relic’s power only earned her a tearing pain in her skull. She couldn’t pair with its resonance, she was too weak.
One of the men lunged at her ravenously.
She managed to sidestep his assault. Her right leg whipped out and caught the man between his. He let out a piteous whine and collapsed to the ground, rolling in agony. When the other men saw their friend’s plight they broke out in raucous laughter. A few of them saw it as their chance to cause trouble.
A beastial yell erupted from behind the Queen and suddenly her hands were caught in a vice-like grip. Struggled as she might she couldn’t get free, her only response was to yell. “If you dare try anything I’ll make you regret being born!”
“It’s a wild place, girlie!”
“What the fuck are you wearin’ woman?”
“This bitch is feisty! I’m gonna like this one!”
“What the fuck are you in such a hurry for, huh? I haven’t had my turn yet!” He kicked the man who was still curled up on the ground and prepared to take off his pants. “Get in line boys, I’m first.”
The brute thought of something then and turned his head to the two men holding Cloudhawk back. “Bring that punk over here. I’m gonna make him watch me take his woman!”
As the rowdy group prepared for their fun, Leonine watched with an indifferent expression.
Out here in the wastes women were tools, a way for men to vent. Now that the girl was here she had to understand that. If she wasn’t strong enough to protect herself then she would be used as they liked. It was true for the men, too. If they weren’t strong enough to protect their women then they had to deal with losing them.
These were the rules out here in this wretched place. Without power you had to resign yourself to your fate!
A bloody red hue crept into Cloudhawk’s eyes. Suddenly he felt a deluge of energy burst through his exhausted body, like an erupting volcano. He wrenched himself free from his captors. “You’re fuckin DEAD!”
His voice was wild, ferocious, murderous. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at him. Cloudhawk snatched up his inconspicuous staff and charged through a group of men like a rabid rhinoceros. The brute, who was fumbling with his pants, felt a crazed and lethal sensation wash over him. His face curled into a savage scowl.
“Don’t blame me for this shit, Leonine. This fuck brought it on himself!”
The brute hefted a long heavy knife. If Leonine was their leader than this man was certainly their number two. Any man who could order a dozen degenerates like these around wasn’t your typical wastelander. He wasn’t as strong as Mad Dog, say, but he would definitely have been comparable to the strongest fighters of the Tartarus mercenaries!
The brute’s short sword was thick and sturdy but he wielded it like it weighed nothing, bringing it down in a chopping motion toward Cloudhawk with pinpoint accuracy. He wielded it masterfully.
Cloudhawk’s will suddenly burst out! The exorcist staff started to spin rapidly.
Before the other men could react Cloudhawk brought the staff down on up in a crushing strike. Like glass the brute’s sword shattered into a million pieces while Cloudhawk’s staff didn’t seem to slow at all. It collided with the brute’s chest, hitting him so hard that blood and flesh exploded everywhere like he’d pummeled a rotten tomato.
The brute never made a sound. He was flung back three or four meters then bent backward, nearly broken in half. He fell to the ground at a grotesque angle, and only the bones of his spine and a few strips of flesh kept the two halves of his body connected.
His eyes were wide as saucers and blood sputtered from his mouth in a torrent. Any air that had been in his lungs was replaced with thick, fresh blood. For a few seconds his arms twitched before he stopped moving entirely.
Cloudhawk was caked in gore. He didn’t even look at what was left of the brute as, like a crazed demon, he howled at the others. “Get your hands off her!”
“Monster! He’s a fuckin’ monster!”
The brawny man holding the Queen was scared stiff. Half a moment later his wits returned enough for him to let her go and go tearing off into the distance.
Cloudhawk pulled the weakened Queen behind him. He pointed his exorcist staff at the slack-jawed miscreants, his face a deranged mask. “Any else want to try their fuckin luck?!”
It was a bluff, he’d only had enough energy to use the staff once. There was no way he’d be able to protect himself or the Queen from the rest of these outlaws. But his terrifying display had scared them completely. They’d seen him break the brute nearly in half with a stick, and they were absolutely terrified they might be next.
The brute’s subordinates kept about ten meters between them and the demon kid. No one dared step forward to challenge him.
Cloudhawk’s lithe frame was reflected in the Queen’s shimmering eyes. Like a feral beast he’d put himself, small as he was, between her and a group of vile and vicious men.
He was young, and weak, but he threw himself at the others and risked his life to protect me. Again… I owe him again.
Leonine appeared once more with several men in tow. Cloudhawk watched him come nervously. He hadn’t fought the old man but he knew he was on par with the likes of Mad Dog. If it came to a battle he was sure to lose.
“Alright, put away your weapons.” An eerie calm was in Leonine’s voice. He spoke unhurriedly. “Number two wasn’t worth shit. He started a fight he couldn’t finish, even death won’t clear his shame. From today onward you’re gonna take his place as my number two.”
That was all the attention Leonine was going to pay toward the brute’s death. Now Cloudhawk was his victim’s replacement?
“You got fifteen minutes to prep.” Leonine plucked a canteen from his person and threw it toward Cloudhawk. “After fifteen minutes we’re movin’.”
Cloudhawk caught the canteen and shook it. Inside water sloshed around enticingly. It was full, much to his delight. Full of life-saving nectar!
He pulled open the bung and handed it to the Queen. He didn’t do it out of some altruistic moral sense. Cloudhawk knew he wasn’t strong enough, he needed the Queen at her best to keep him safe.
These wasteland savages were vicious and cruel, but they were good at adapting to circumstances. Cloudhawk’s bloody showing had made a deep impression, to say the least. They were like different people now, and respectfully addressed Cloudhawk as ‘Second Brother.’
The Bloodsoaked Queen gulped down half the canteen’s contents. She felt like a sunbaked desert after a blessed rain. From head to toe, from inside out, it was like she could feel every cell of her body being nourished. Like being reborn.
Cloudhawk drank what was left. He really was parched and didn’t leave a single drop of water left. As he drank it down he felt the water infusing him with vigor. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt this good.
Fifteen minutes later…
Cloudhawk and the Bloodsoaked Queen found themselves part of this band of wasteland outlaws, headed for a place called the Greenland Outpost.