Just as the gun fired, the soft blue light of a digger glinted. It slipped into the base of the sniper's skull, severing his spine from his brain stem. The strike was perfectly clean, and in an instant his body's systems shut down; his heart, breathing, digestion - everything that kept him alive was turned off like flipping a switch. An angel from heaven couldn't save him.
The bullet's trajectory was off as a result of the blow. The bullet cut through her hair before burying itself bloodlessly in the ground. The boiling heat of its passage scorched Artemis' cheek, contrasting with the cold sweat that suddenly covered her. She yelped in surprise.
Cloudhawk watched from the safety of cover, and when he saw the bullet kick up dust an idea hit him. "Sand! Use the sand for cover!"
Right! Why didn't she think of that?
After her brush with death Artemis' mind snapped back to the present. She raised her melon hammer high, and like a furious tempest the sound of her weapon striking the ground rumbled through the air. The ground shook from the tremendous force, causing debris from the ruins around them to collapse and belch plumes of dirt into the air.
Cloudhawk couldn't help but be pleased.
The sweepers brought by Longhorn and Stranger Black caught up to Panther and the three others then made to follow the survivors. A few snipers also rose from nests hidden in the ruins to try and find better vantage points.
Through the clouds of dust the Bloodsoaked Queen could see a few sweepers approaching, leading the pack of hunters. She glared with eyes cold as death. Time and again she - a noble demonhunter - had been foiled by these filthy freaks.
Her pride had been injured. Despite the obvious dangers, a need welled up in her to charge into the fray and deal with the three lieutenants then and there. But Cloudhawk was by her side and shouted through the haze of anger. "Gotta look at the big picture. Let's go!"
Her fist tightened into a white-knuckle grip. She thought about her mission, her final goal, and grit her teeth against the rage inside her.
The three of them ran.
One of the snipers toppled from the ruins, stopped by a bullet to the chest. The shot had come from a few hundred meters away. Clearly Mantis had skill with a gun, too. He was no less accomplished than these outpost snipers.
Each shot punctuated the death of another sniper.
Mantis hadn't come to their aid right away, not before finding where each one of the snipers had been hiding. Now was the time to clear out these dangerous stalkers. If not now Cloudhawk and the others would be unable to escape.
Mantis couldn't avoid detection, not after taking out three of them. The rest of the snipers dropped into cover. One of them was caught in the open in the center of the ruins and flung himself to the ground, half-buried in the sand. He covered the rest of himself in a tan cloak to blend in with the surroundings. He peered through goggles protecting his eyes and searched through his sights for Mantis.
Just as the sniper was ready to pull the trigger a crisp snap rang in his ears. A bullet shattered the glass of his scope, tore through his goggles and left eye, and exploded from the back of his skull leaving a jagged tunnel through his brain. The bullet was flattened by the impact and ripped out chunks of brain matter in its passage.
Just half a second late! That was all, and in the end that half a second had been what killed him. In a battle of snipers time determined the victor.
Mantis had taken out four snipers, but he knew there were at least three more lurking in the ruins. He couldn't stay put. The assassin turned and dropped to the sandy floor below, only to disappear once again into the rubble.
Now that they had seen what became of their comrades the other snipers carefully picked through the area, sticking to cover. A rash decision, a quick movement, could be the only thing between them and doom.
Cloudhawk and the two women slipped into the crevice without further incident, finally escaping the deadly outpost snipers. However that didn't necessarily mean their situation was any better. There were still the demon's lieutenants, three elite outpost assassins and at least a dozen crack sweeper warriors on their tail. These forces far outstripped what the Queen could handle. If they caught up there was no chance she and the others would survive.
Even weighed down by her bulky equipment, Artemis kept up with Cloudhawk just fine. "What in the name of a rotwolf's hairy asshole is going on? Did Hydra sell us out?"
Hydra couldn't have given them up to the demon! Whatever the case they were facing a disastrous situation.
Whatever led to this, Hydra's company was likely mulch after facing the sweeper's chain gun. That could only mean there would be even more sweepers coming any moment, and Hydra's support wasn't something they could count on.
"Watch your heads!"
Vulture had picked them out from the air and was firing at them with a gun in each hand. Artemis lifted her shield for cover, while the Queen and Cloudhawk ducked and weaved. Luckily he was not an expert marksman, otherwise with his speed and high vantage the three of them would be done for.
"This fuckin' bird brain is tryin' to slow us down. We can't let him!" Cloudhawk knew what the mutant was up planning. "Queen, maybe one of the fire birds can deal with him!"
Their only choice was to rely on their relics. The phoenix gourd Cloudhawk had given her had proved to be a powerful tool.
The Bloodsoaked Queen reached out with her psychic power, filling the relic with it. A wave of energy pulsed out around her and a column of fire belched toward the sky. Fire roared and roiled, billowing out until it gathered into the shape of a fiery bird slightly over two meters long. Its crisp cries resonated through the area, calling for blood like it had an intelligence of its own before charging at the winged mutant.
"What is this?!"
Vulture gawked, dropping his guns and pulling his swords free of their sheaths. He flung his dual machetes, cutting a fine arc through the sky like a pair of cyclones aiming for the phoenix. When they struck the bird it was cut clean in half.
Vulture's machetes came back at him like boomerangs and he snatched them out of the air. They were so hot he almost had to let them go, giving credence to the amount of energy that had been contained in the phoenix. But what shocked him most was that the two halves of the bird melded seamlessly back together and kept coming, like nothing had happened!
What normal soldier could destroy an immortal bird summoned by a demonhunter? Vulture was forced to break off his attack. The phoenix circled the area, chasing off Vulture before dissolving into a cylinder of fire and crashing back to earth.
Stranger Black sprang out of the way but two of the sweepers were too slow. The phoenix struck the ground between them, releasing a blast of fire and energy so intense it swallowed up everything in a three meter radius. The sweepers were enveloped in flame and rolled on the ground, screaming in agony. A short time later they were blackened husks.
Stranger Black's voice betrayed his fright. "So she's recovered to this point?"
Longhorn shouted. "Third brother - don't risk it!"
Although Vulture was livid with anger, he didn't dare rush in again after seeing what the demonhunter was capable of. But it didn't matter, they had nowhere to run!
Cloudhawk knew it too.
The Bloodsoaked Queen was strong, but even she had her limits. The enemy was too numerous and had many capable fighters. The Queen couldn't take them alone, and though she also had Cloudhawk and Artemis at her side they weren't enough to make up the difference.
"Wait!" Artemis suddenly shouted at them. "We can't go on, the area ahead is uncharted territory. Any further and we're asking to die!"
The Greenland Outpost continuously sent out scouts into the surrounding areas to map their surroundings, but there were some places no one ventured. These sections of the ruins were home to terrible mutant beasts which made them too dangerous to chart.
Artemis was a longtime citizen of the outpost and knew the ruins well. What lay ahead of them was one of those dangerous sectors and if they went rushing in they were sure to meet trouble.
The Queen's coarse voice rasped at them. "There's no other way."
Artemis looked left and right, they were blocked in on all sides by rubble. Towering piles of rusted metal like mountains stretched overhead, at least a hundred to a hundred fifty feet tall. All other routes of escape were sealed off.
They didn't have any choice - the only way was forward!
Artemis was no coward. They were out of options, it was time to bite the bullet.
The three of them fled into the unknown territory. It was a maze of ruins constructed out of rock and metal, random piles strewn haphazardly every which way. All they could do was push on, practically blind, with no idea of what lay ahead.
They hadn't taken but a few steps into the ruins when Cloudhawk felt a wave of apprehension wash over him. "Wait a second!"
Both women stopped at looked at him questioningly.
He pointed in front of them, at a pile of stones riddled with stalagmites. At first glance it didn't look out of the ordinary, but after close inspection they were surprised to find that it was a cluster of large monsters. Half of their bodies were buried with only their backs showing above ground. They seemed as yet unaware of their presence.
Well shit. Mutant monsters barred the way in front of them and sweepers were coming to kill them from behind. No detours to the left or right. What were they going to do?
"I have an idea! You two hide."
Cloudhawk instructed the Queen and Artemis to find a place and stay low while he rushed toward the monsters. By the time he came within thirty feet, four or five of them began to stir.
The monsters looked like enormous iguanas but were eight to ten meters long. Each of them had eight thick and stubby legs and a sizeable head, split by a crocodile-like maw full of razor sharp teeth. Their whole bodies were the color of sand and stone and natural spikes grew from their backs like armor.
And there were a bunch of them!
Cloudhawk skidded to a halt and didn't even think about it before turning tail and running in the opposite direction. Three or four of them immediately gave chase. Before two minutes had passed he ran headlong into the army of sweepers and their lieutenants, who reared back in surprise at what was coming their way. Cloudhawk, proud of his timing, immediately wrapped himself in his relic cloak and disappearing from view.
His plan was simple; lead the monsters to the sweepers and have them fight it out. He figured the creatures would do a lot of their work for them. However things did not end up so simple.
Moments after the two sides met a truly enormous lizard titan appeared from the wilds. This one was a full 80 feet long and each step caused the earth to tremble. As a result the crumbling buildings around them gave way, and toppled in to one another like dominos.
Hidden by his cloak Cloudhawk could avoid the lizards and sweepers. But now he was caught in an earthquake where buildings dozens of feet high were crashing down all around him. Like ancient warriors felled in battle they came rumbling to the earth spewing crushing rubble everywhere.
The way back was suddenly blocked by debris. In this crucial moment the Queen's absence was distinct and possibly fatal. Luckily, the sweepers and lizards had begun to fight each other. For now, they didn't know he was there.