As dawn broke over the outpost, behind the hazy air, stars twinkled in the pale blue sky like a cloak of muslin. Shafts of sunlight fought through airborne sand and painted the landscape red like it was drenched in blood.
Hunters from the Greenland Outpost searched all night for the prey, to no avail. The light of day played over the outraged faces of the mutant lieutenants – could demonhunters sprout wings and fly away?
Stranger Black and Longhorn watched the sun rise in contemplative silence, both acutely aware that something didn’t seem right.
“First Brother, Second Bother, look here. What is this?”
Vulture landed nearby, kicking up a cloud of sand and leaving long troughs where his feet met the ground. In his hands he held the broken remains of a rapier, thin and exceedingly sharp.
Longhorn took it from him and scrutinized the broken weapon for a moment. “Is this Hydra’s sword? A clean break… no one in the outpost has the ability to do this. Where did you find it?”
“In the dungeons!” Vulture replied.
“The dungeons?” Stranger Black was silent for a time, then his cold and raspy laughter emerged. “Hydra… oh Hydra. When this was over we’d planned to remove you. It seems you were one step ahead of us.”
Longhorn flicked his wrist with enough force to warp the fracture blade. “The Bloodsoaked Queen had to have fought Hydra. He returns unscathed and she vanishes into the night. This explains it.”
Vulture’s face bore a savage, hateful sneer. “I knew there was something off about that little shit, we should have killed him yesterday! We’ve searched everywhere except the fort, Hydra must be hiding the demonhunters there. We’ll kill our way in and cut off that snake’s heads like we were planning to anyway.”
Hydra’s wild ambitions were not a secret to any of them. How would their master be blind to his betrayal?
Hydra had always been a puppet through which their master rules Greenland Outpost. Now, this marionette wanted to take advantage of the chaos and become a real boy? It wouldn’t be as easy as he thought… but he’d been lucky. The appearance of the demonhunter in the Wastelands and her continuous assault on the master’s power forced their benefactor to be vigilant, careful in case the holy city had its eyes set on him. Were it not for this troublesome woman the master would have come himself long ago to deal with Hydra’s betrayal.
Now was as good a time as any! He dared collude with these fugitives and betray them?
“Calm yourself, Third Brother. Hydra is no threat, but he has ruled here for eight years. Greenland Outpost has near ten thousand soldiers who follow his commands and we aren’t ready for a war with this place. It would be unwise to rashly foment conflict.” Stranger Black stared at the towering building through his gas mask. “Now that we know who the hunter’s friends are, we’ll report to the master. He will devise a plan to remove these thorns from our side.”
“First Brother is right,” Longhorn said with a nod. “We make our move when the time is right. You should amend your impatient nature, Third Brother. We do important work for the master. Even the slightest carelessness could spell doom.”
Vulture answered with a chuckle. “Not an issue with the help of you two. I am the master’s knife. Anyone who dares oppose my brothers or the grand plan will find my talons buried in their heart, even if the fight grinds me to dust.”
Stranger Black and Longhorn silently shook their heads. No one questioned Vulture’s loyalty, but his bloodthirsty and impulsive nature was more suited to a soldier, not a leader. Sadly Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Brother were no longer with them. Three of them had been discovered and slain by the demonhunter early on, while Fourth Brother died during the assault on Blackflag Outpost.
Ah, if all seven brothers were still here, what would they have to fear from Hydra – even with ten thousand fighters behind him?
Their greatest enemy was the Bloodsoaked Queen. They had underestimated this demonhunter, assumed her foolish and self-righteous solo crusade would be easy to put down. Because of her involvement they had suffered, and much of the master’s plan had been thrown into chaos. They could add Hydra’s early retirement to the list of things she’d spoiled as well.
But now maybe they could fix everything all at once!
More than comfortable, Cloudhawk had never had a deeper night’s sleep. On the one hand he’d been so exhausted that when he closed his eyes he was like the dead, and on the other he was secure in the knowledge that this was Hydra’s territory. As ruler of the outpost no one would dare sneak in and try to kill him in his sleep!
Simply put, when sleep overtook him he forgot the evils of the world, the chaos and turmoil. He forgot everything, forgot himself.
He didn’t awaken until noon the next day. Cloudhawk fought off a strange sensation as he shook the grogginess from his head.
He best described it as though he’d taken off armor he’d been wearing for years. He felt light and relaxed beyond words, but also like someone had dunked his head in ice water. All of the confusion and uncertainties were gone, and his mind was clearer than ever before.
His hearing was more acute, his vision was sharper.
From inside out he felt remolded. His wounds itched as they healed at an accelerated rate. Scabs covering scrapes and cuts from days ago were already falling off. His deeper wounds had already knit themselves back together.
Cloudhawk knew he had excellent regenerative abilities, but nothing to this extent. Maybe these struggles had awakened his potential, spurred his abilities? What else could explain what in the world was happening to him?
Cloudhawk clambered out of bed and practiced the thirty-six postures taught to him by the Bloodsoaked Queen. They felt more fluid this time, less intense. Though he started to tire at the eighth movement he could still fight through it. Eleven, twelve, thirteen… fourteen… fifteen!
Every muscle in his body twisted in pain. He couldn’t take it anymore and was forced to stop, but without question he had developed somehow after a good night’s sleep. The speed with which he was maturing was nothing short of astonishing.
The Bloodsoaked Queen had once said that if Cloudhawk could get through all thirty postures even the likes of Mad Dog and Grizzly couldn’t stand against him. So far he’d only managed fifteen, but he figured he was already a match for one of the elite soldiers or the best mercenary troops.
If anyone knew this, it would blow their minds. Wastelanders were constantly battling hardships, urging their potential to reveal itself. Even the likes of Hydra rose through the ranks this way. However, this was usually a slow and painstaking process. Without some special technique it would be impossible to make such dramatic improvements.
Cloudhawk didn’t have the time to carefully examine every change he felt, for a stabbing pang in his stomach reminded him of how hungry he was. He reckoned he could eat a whole cow.
A few minutes later…
Cloudhawk was seated before a dining room table, stuffing fruit and barbecued meat into his mouth.
The fort’s servant women kept bringing in plates, whispering to each other and eyeing the young man in shock. Watching him eat was like witnessing a wild beast gorging itself on a kill. This skinny guy had one hell of an appetite!
Up to this point he’d eaten two bowls of meat and vegetable stew, three rolls of bread, six portions of barbecued meat and eight bunches of berries. It was enough to satisfy three grown and burly men, and if he kept eating the women suspected the boy’s stomach would explode.
Yet Hydra had let everyone know that he and the others with him were honored guests of the fort. Anything they wanted – including the women themselves – was to be offered until they were satisfied. Still, they suspected the kid might eat every scrap of food in the place.
“This is goddamn delicious! These guys sure know how to live.”
Cloudhawk took another gulp of soup but still felt like there was room to spare. Greenland Fort was lacking in spices but they had more than enough food and water from the surrounding oasis. Because of this they had a veritable smorgasbord of food on offer; from mutant bird meat to lizard skillets; from common scourge hare jerky to wild boar. Then there were the plethora of fruits and vegetables seen nowhere else in the Wastelands.
“You got anything else?”
Cloudhawk was like the ghost of a starved traveler reincarnated.
Even Cloudhawk could tell he was digesting this stuff at ten times what was normal. Whatever he put in his mouth hardly had time to pass through his stomach before it was absorbed and turned to energy. The sustenance of it spread through every cell in his body.
“Yes, right away…”
The housemaids brought in a dish of fruit, and a large copper basin. When the basin’s lid was removed it filled the room with a mouth-watering aroma. As the steam cleared Cloudhawk was met with a sight he’d never before experienced.
It had a large head, a long scale-encased body and its open mouth was full of razor-sharp teeth.
Cloudhawk gaped at it. “What in holy hell is this? Where are its legs… it’s a python!”
One of the maidservant’s answered in demure inflection. “Sir, this isn’t a snake. It’s a fish, fish don’t have legs.”
What the fuck was a fish?
Water was a rarity in the Wastelands, much less any sort of creature living in it. So when something this big that supposedly lived in water appeared before him, Cloudhawk had a hard time wrapping his head around it.
This was a carnivorous species caught from the lakes peppered throughout the oasis. Ferocious as it looked, its meat was absolutely delicious. Even without condiments and boiled in clear soup it was nothing short of divine.
Cloudhawk had never seen anything like it, but he was a child of the Wastelands. His only concern was whether or not his food was poisonous. He’d slurp down ants, beetles, and worms with relish, so who was he to turn down cooked delicacies?
He dipped a wooden spoon in the soup and took a sip of that first. His eyes lit up. “Goddamn, this is incredible! I’ve never eaten something this good before.”
The maids secretly chuckled among themselves. “We’re just pleased you like it.”
He sighed emotively. “You got fruit, meat, this weird snake… I want to stay here forever.”
“Sir, this is called a fish.”
“Tch, leave him be!”
“These aren’t the only riches in Greenland Outpost.” One of the maids sashayed suggestively closer to him. She leaned down enough for the young lad to get a good eyeful of her chest. “If sir has had his fill we’d be happy to… look after you. I think I know something you’ll like even better.”
These maids had been hand-picked and trained by Hydra. They were some of the most attractive women the wastelands had to offer. The scrawny kid wasn’t much to look at, but for him to be treated so well by the barbarous Hydra meant that there had to be more to him than met the eye. They saw him as an opportunity – if he liked them, maybe they’d get lucky and Hydra would present them as a gift.
But Cloudhawk was transfixed by the delicious fish-thing they’d given him and hardly noticed her. “Yeah, right, fine,” he muttered absently.
Their faces lit up.
Hydra had several hundred women he called his own. He was the kind of man who took pleasure in hurting others, and all of the girls were frightened of what he was capable of. This could be their chance of being liberated from that brute!
The shout was cold, full of rage and indignation. The women turned their heads and gasped when they saw the ferocious demon mask stomping their way. They shuffled backward and dropped their eyes.
Cloudhawk blinked, stunned. Damn, the Queen recovered fast! But why was she so mad…