The Queen was not coming. She was too busy trying to save her own life.
She was being pursued by two of the demon's lieutenants, three outpost assassins, most of their sweeper army and their deadly airship. There could be two of her and she'd still be too weak to face them all. Her situation was no better than Cloudhawk's, and each passing second was a march toward death. She just had to slow down for one moment, her luck had to give just once, and she'd be struck down.
Cloudhawk's only option was to shut his eyes and wait for death.
But then the unthinkable happened.
The moment before Artemis' hammer reached Cloudhawk's face her hand jerked, stretching out just a little farther. He felt it graze his cheek before sweeping by. Then, with a sound like a blast of thunder, her hammer bashed Stranger Black in the center of his chest.
Cloudhawk could hear his bones break and his organs tear. The mutant's back bulged outward as everything was pushed out of place. He flailed through the air over thirty feet, whipping around like a broken kite before ultimately smashing through the side of a building.
It had all happened so suddenly. Artemis attacks were meant to kill him, without question. She'd held nothing back. Who'd have thought that she'd spare him in the last instant? How could anyone suspect she'd turn her hammer against the demon's henchman?
What the hell was going through this woman's head?
As though she read his mind she gave him a flippant answer. "I changed my mind!"
What kind of fuckin' reason was this?! This woman was unstable!
But it was her fickle choice that took the mutant by surprise and left him no chance to dodge. It was the only way she would have gotten close enough to hit him, much less lay him out with a hit that good. Artemis had seemed careless, until the very moment when an once-in-lifetime opportunity revealed itself.
"This ugly rodent nutsack aint worth shit!" Artemis was well pleased with herself. "I can't fuckin' stand people who think they're so clever - tryin' to screw with my head."
Hmph, you're so full of shit. If your hammer had turned me to pulp you'd be singin' a different tune. Cloudhawk had no illusions, this woman's loyalties changed with the wind. She wasn't someone he could trust.
His head was a mess, he tried to put his thoughts together. Now that Artemis had sent the man in black flying she'd burned whatever bridge he'd been pretending to offer. Although Cloudhawk couldn't figure out what was going through her mind, right now she was the only one he could rely on.
She slung her mallet back onto her shoulder and blinked at him. "Well, what the fuck are you gapin' at? Let's go!"
"Go?" Cloudhawk heaved a small sigh, if only their enemy was so easy to defeat. "You don't know shit about these guys!"
She tilted her head and looked questioningly at him. "What do you mean?"
Before he could answer the sound of clattering rubble reached their ears.
Realization dawned on her face as she stiffly turned her head around toward the source of the noise. At first she saw the rubble stirring, then slowly a figure rose from within. His chest was concave, internal organs were completely ruined, but somehow it did not stop Stranger Black from rising back to his feet.
The freak had lost his mask, and his unsettling tentacled face was revealed to the light. A pair of sinister eyes, burning with hatred, was fixed on the two of them. If looks could kill they would be dead several times over.
Artemis was at a complete loss. She couldn't believe what she was seeing, for no one had ever survived a direct blow from her hammer. She hadn't even thought it possible.
What the hell was this guy? He had to be immortal!
Cloudhawk was also in awe of the mutant's abilities, but he had come to expect it. He'd lived after having his whole fuckin' head cut off, so a few broken ribs and a torn up organ or two wasn't going to kill him. Unfortunately the asshole would recover.
He could hardly be called human anymore!
Stranger Black did not fear blade nor bullet. As destructive as Artemis' hammer was it was effectively useless against the black-clad man, unless she turned his brain to mush. It was part of what made him so terrifying.
Stranger Black fixed his eyes on her. "You disappoint me."
Artemis didn't know what to do.
Cloudhawk's shout woke her from her daze. "Stop wasting time! The longer you wait the more time he has to heal. We've gotta kill him as fast as possible!"
Artemis hammer had shattered bone and pulverized flesh, forcing Stranger Black to rely on his supernatural healing abilities to keep him mobile. Although he wasn't dead her blow did affect his agility and combat. They had to take this opportunity to put him down for good, because if he was allowed to recover they were both doomed!
Stranger Black rose from the dust, leaping clear of the ruins. He took the initiative and attacked first, his target - Artemis!
When they were ten or fifteen feet apart he swung back his left arm, hacking the sword-like appendage at her. Logically speaking he was too far to hit her, but the freak's limb actually shot out, extending toward her like a whip. Not only did it catch her unprepared, it also made his attack faster.
A deafening screech filled the air! Artemis lifted her shield just in time. Stranger Black's bladed arm left a deep fissure in the metal.
Her shield was made of steel, so one could imagine how deadly Stranger Black's attacks were. She hadn't recovered before the freak reached out with his right hand. This one was humanoid shaped but was powerful and covered in bone-like armor. He couldn't change this one into anything but it was strong enough to crush someone's throat.
Artemis was punched a dozen feet away. She felt like she'd been run over by a rhinoceros, every inch of her hurt. When the warrior looked at her shield her frown deepened. Now, in addition to the gash was a hand-shaped dent.
He had as much force in one punch as the horned guy! He was a walking horror!
Stranger Black advanced on her, ready to finish her off when suddenly he froze. Likely some of the damage he'd suffered was slowing him down.
Cloudhawk didn't waste a moment, and launched a sneak attack the freak's back. His exorcist staff vibrated as power surged through it, and knocked the mutant off balance. Cloudhawk struck with such ferocity he ruined another area of bone and muscle, adding to the monster's wounds.
Seeing his attack land filled Artemis with hope. "He's pretty hurt! Let's kill this piece of shit together!"
Artemis unceremoniously threw her shield away and grabbed her hammer with both hands. She brought it down toward his head with every ounce of strength in her while Cloudhawk plunged his staff toward the mutant's gut.
Stranger Black tried to defend himself. His bone sword cut at the exorcist staff and knocked it away with a loud clang. Surprisingly, whatever the staff was made of somehow stopped the sword from cleaving it in half.
He blocked Artemis' hammer with the bare hand of his bone arm. The impact shattered the outer carapace, and cracked traveled through his appendage to the bones in his body.
He hacked and coughed, fresh blood pouring from his mouth. They could see bits of bone and organ mixed in it.
Strong as he was Artemis' sudden betrayal had wounded him severely. He needed time to recover, but he found himself surrounded with attacks from all sides. He started to recognize the serious danger he was in.
Cloudhawk noticed him slowing down. Now was their chance to kill him for good!
Stranger Black let loose with a bestial roar, filled with fury and hatred like a cornered animal. "You think you two can kill me?!"
Cloudhawk felt the resistance against his staff disappear as the freak's sword-arm suddenly changed. It unraveled, separating again into five bony tentacles and lashing out at each of them at the same time.
Not good! This trick again!
The mutant's arm was versatile. In addition to becoming an impossibly sharp blade it could also change into five barbed tentacles. The former was deadly in close combat, but the latter adaptable. Mad Dog hadn't been able to protect himself from them.
Artemis was much stronger than Mad Dog had been, but she wasn't as agile. These tentacles were a dire threat.
"Get back!" Cloudhawk shouted.
Artemis recognized the danger too. She reeled backwards and lifted her hammer to protect her vital parts. She managed to block one, but the two others caught her; one in the right shoulder, and the other in her left leg deep enough to reveal bone.
She screamed in agony.
Her right hand couldn't hold the hammer anymore and let go, sending her weapon tumbling away. Without the support of her left leg she lost balance, and Artemis hit the ground.
It was all over! She was too wounded to keep fighting.
"Now it's your turn!"
Stranger Black's voice was as shrill and angry as an evil spirit, and his two remaining tentacles lashed out at Cloudhawk. The young fugitive's mind was blank, stuck on the knowledge that if he dodged or blocked these attacks any chance of defeating the man in black was gone.
His eyes were invaded by a blood-red hue, turning everything into a sanguine hell-scape. Every ounce of his body was saturated with power and focused into the exorcist staff. His simple demonhunter weapon vibrated as unparalleled levels of energy permeated it.
Here's your revenge - vindication or death!
For any other creature trading one lethal blow for another might give them pause, but this was not so for Stranger Black. Even the most well-placed blow was no threat, and so he reached for Cloudhawk with the tendrils of his left arm and brought his mangled right around to block the staff.
Thud! Squelch! It was the sound of rending flesh.
Artemis watched with wide-eyed horror as the mutant's barbed limbs buried themselves deep in Cloudhawk's body. She could foresee the young man's death. Yet in the same instant, spurred by mortal peril, Cloudhawk felt the stone around his neck pulse with an intense psychic energy. It rose from somewhere deep within him and poured into the exorcist staff.
Here it comes again!
Stranger Black sensed the spike in power. He'd experienced this once before, but this time the torrents of energy ran even deeper.
"Then we die together!"
In the midst of his heedless lunge Cloudhawk's staff began to whir like a controlled tempest. The mutant's doughty right arm was there to meet it, but didn't impede its power in the least. It ripped through the limb and right for Stranger Black's face.
His eyes widened.
"Master, I -"
He never had a chance to finish the thought before his head was obliterated. The power that surged through Cloudhawk pushed his staff straight through the mutant's arm, and reduced his brain to pulp. Like a cyclone the energy churned all his blood and brain and bone into an undiscernible mass and spat it fifty feet into the ruins. Unidentified bits of what remained were spread all over like a gruesome abstract painting.
This went on for a full five seconds. Walls in the distant ruins collapsed under the strain.
Cloudhawk felt drained, of energy as well as life. The world began to darken as his head fell backward. The wounds in his chest and abdomen were frightful, so bad that his guts were exposed to the air. Cloudhawk had impressive regenerative abilities but these were wounds the man in black would need time to recover from.
These injuries could kill him!
Artemis sat there, stunned at their mutual destruction. How could there be so much strength and willpower in his adolescent form? In the face of overwhelming odds and certain death he threw himself at his foe and took the freak down with him!