The maneater swung its spiked weapon, smashing the nearby statues apart as though they were made of tofu. They exploded into shrapnel. Cloudhawk had dodged the attack but the resulting force of the blow struck him like a blast of thunder and knocked him to the ground.
It didn't give Cloudhawk a chance to run. The beast roared and lifted its cudgel for another strike.
Lying helpless on the floor the boy whipped his revolver from his waist and let off a shot. What happened next shocked him - as big as the maneater was he moved with supernatural agility. He pulled the cudgel down in front of his face, deflecting the bullet aimed for his eye. The sparks that leapt off his iron cudgel seemed to mock Cloudhawk.
Son of a bitch! This goddamn freak is too good!
Cloudhawk didn't bother with his exorcist staff. Even if he landed a blow he doubted it'd be more than a tickle against this thing. But if he stayed within range of its cudgel he was sure to be smashed to bits. His enemy was way more than he could handle.
The maneater lifted its cudgel again. Cloudhawk tried to slither to the right like a desperate snake.
Everywhere he scrambled the thunderous sounds of impact followed half a step behind. He was showered by rubble as stones were blasted apart.
Each time his monkey-like prey skittered out of reach the maneater only became more enraged. His twisted maw emanated roars that would make mountains tremble. He swung his cudgel ever faster as he chased down Cloudhawk. The cudgel was headed right for the boy's skull and there was no way he could dodge.
The spiked club struck ground, forcing the stone statues nearby to tremble and crack. But when the maneater lifted his weapon he found nothing in the pit he'd made. The mushy heap of blood and flesh he expected wasn't there. A perplexed growl rumbled from his throat.
His pitifully limited brain couldn't comprehend what happened to the human!
By now the other maneaters had appeared from their hiding places and were attacking the outpost soldiers. One of them charged into the group club first like a rhinoceros, which the humans responded to by blindly firing their weapons at him. But neither bow nor gun could pierce the monstrous mutant's armor. More than a couple of the outpost soldiers were crack shots - able to place a bullet right in their eyes - but their targets were just as capable. In the midst of their charge they used their weapons to protect their vital parts.
The maneater barreled through the hail of gunfire and into the group of hapless humans. The enormous iron club and the behemoth who wielded it bore down on them.
A mangled body hurdled through the air and smacked into one of the half-collapsed statues. The corpse fell to the ground like a broken doll, leaving a crater where the statue used to be.
The soldier hardly had time to scream the word before a cudgel came crashing down on the back of his skull. Bits of bone went flying in all directions like broken glass but the cudgel kept going. The soldier was smashed flat. Armor, weapons, clothes and flesh were crushed into an indiscernible mess.
Every one of these creatures were terrifyingly strong! There was nothing these outpost soldiers could do against them!
After falling prey to her foe's poison Artemis lay in a heap on the ground, numb. Though she couldn't move her body her mind was sharp. She could see and understand everything that was happening around her. Her pretty face was twisted with anger and regret - she had underestimated Salamander, and now it meant her death and the deaths of all those she brought with her.
"Salamander, you soft-dick shit sock! Now you're the sweepers' bitch, eh? You fuckin' traitor!"
"Me? A traitor? You don't see the irony in that, coming from you?" Salamander's hoarse voice was heavy with disdain. "It was fine that you were one of Hydra's flunkies, but to throw in with a demonhunter? You've brought the outpost to the edge of war - you're the damn traitor! The hunter sees us wastelanders as pawns, tools she can use up and throw away. Do you actually think she gives a shit about any of us?"
There wasn't anything she could say to that.
Salamander was one of the oldest veterans of the outpost. He'd lived there for a decade before Hydra came and took power, but the former leader had never elevated him to a position of power. Hydra simply didn't trust the man.
Salamander, face full of rage, hissed at her. "I lived half my life in the outpost. I watched as it was built, as it grew prosperous and populated. I love this place more than anyone, and I would never betray my home! On the contrary, everything I do is to save the outpost from disaster. You and your people come along and want to use it as a tool. Your greed and ambition have tainted this jewel of the wastelands!"
Artemis gritted her teeth. "What are you gonna do?"
"The outpost needs a real leader. Someone from the wastelands who can bring real peace." His voice grew cold. "As for the demonhunter? That self-righteous bitch? I'm going to kill her!"
Artemis erupted in derisive laughter. "You think the demon gives a fuck about you? That asshole is gonna turn the outpost into nothing more than his personal farm. Why do you think Hydra was fighting for independence? You're such a dumb-ass. Hahahaha!"
Salamander's eyes grew dark and spiteful, and he drew himself up like a man slighted. He kicked her brutally, so hard she spat blood. "Shut your fucking mouth, you stupid bitch! Better a farm than in the hands of some demonhunter!"
In less than five minutes the field of statues was caked in gore. Not a single warrior from the outpost survived.
Ten maneates trundled by, their footsteps making the ground quiver. Salamander didn't trust them - maneater was just what they called these fifteen-foot tall mutants who were the elite of the sweeper forces. These ten in particular were the cream of the crop. If they turned on him Salamander would only be able to tangle with one of them.
One of them made for Artemis, who still lay prostrate on the ground.
"No, this one might still be useful." Salamander's voice was strange and monstrous as it scratched through his mask. "It isn't safe here, let's go."
The maneater snorted at him in irritation.
Cloudhawk hid behind one of the statues, watching everything unfold. If Salamander wanted to kill Artemis right now there wasn't anything Cloudhawk could do. He couldn't save her, not with these monsters at his beck and call. He's only succeed in getting himself killed.
Salamander took Artemis and left. Cloudhawk heaved a sigh.
Should he return and tell the Bloodsoaked Queen? He was afraid there wasn't enough time, and who knew if he'd be able to find them again if he left. The worst of it was that sweepers had reappeared in the oasis. This was a bad omen.
Artemis was a jackass, but she was the leader of Greenland Outpost! This was the worst time for her to get kidnapped, he had to get her back!
Cloudhawk mulled over the choices in his mind. A direct attack was out of the question; that would be simple suicide, as the chances of success were practically zero. But he had to make a decision, and so he did and began to follow Salamander.
The masked man was none the wiser, continuing to lead the maneaters through the oasis for two hours. The sky had begun to darken, and after a little while longer night fell.
Salamander figured that soldiers from the outpost wouldn't follow even once they found out. The oasis at night was too dangerous. Even the maneaters didn't want to risk it.
"Take a break, fifteen minutes!"
Salamander dropped Artemis against a nearby tree and ordered a few of the maneaters to keep an eye on her. She was still incapable of moving her body. Meanwhile Salamander was pondering how to get close enough to a nearby brook for some water without getting snatched up by man-eating trees.
A growl arose from within the underbrush, followed quickly by several bear-like figures closing in from all sides. Salamander had been a denizen of the outpost for over twenty years so he knew the best routes through the oasis. This sector should not be hunting grounds for dire bears. Why had they appeared outside of their normal territory?
Altogether, there were four or five dire bears. They were very different from the species they'd evolved from in the old days. They still had the recognizable characteristics of bears but were twice as big, had hide thick as armor and were strong enough to tear a man in two.
Several of the maneaters answered the dire bears with challenging growls of their own.
Oasis creatures were known for their foul temperament. Even though they knew their enemy was dangerous, they would never show any weakness… and so the dire bears roared back, with a few charging straight at the maneaters. Suddenly, the two groups of enormous beasts were locked in combat.
This was, of course, Cloudhawk's handiwork.
He'd led the bears here, then hid with the help of his relic cloak, leaving the bears with no other target than his foes. Now that the maneaters were completely focused on the dire bears, he stealthily crept up behind where Artemis lay. He gently nudge her shoulder and whispered in her ear. "Hey. You alright?"
"The fuck? You aren't dead?!"
Cloudhawk flung her over his shoulder. Invisibility was pointless now so he stopped channeling the relic's power and ran for the outpost.
Salamander hadn't been caught up in the battle with the dire bears and so he immediately saw that Artemis had been taken away. His face became a scowl. "Son of a bitch! Someone's taken her. We have to go after them!"
Cloudhawk hadn't been running for more than five minutes before he heard footsteps fast approaching. Artemis glowered over his shoulder. "You can't outrun Salamander. Forget about me and get out of here!"
Salamander threw out his hand and four or five darts were whipped toward them. They were envenomed and accurate, Cloudhawk knew, and if any of them hit they'd be finished. He used his senses to dodge as many as he could, but one of them was aimed straight at Artemis. Cloudhawk gritted his teeth and spun around, using himself as a shield. Artemis gaped at him. "You're crazy!"
He wasn't, of course. The dart found its target but couldn't pierce his masterwork relic cloak! It struck hard enough to leave a wound, but couldn't deliver its venom.
Cloudhawk and Salamander were faster than the lumbering maneaters. Some of them were still fighting the dire bears, and those that had come with their human leader fell behind after a few minutes.
As he'd demonstrated, Salamander was not only fast but also adept at throwing darts. So long as he was alive they weren't getting away. With no other options, Cloudhawk skidded to a halt and put Artemis down. He turned, brandished his exorcist staff, and glared threateningly at Salamander.
"Heh. Take a good look at yourself, kid. You haven't even grown any facial hair and you want to fight me?"
Cloudhawk's response was to propel himself forwards on his two legs… and then, all of a sudden, he disappeared.
Salamander stared at the empty air in disbelief. A moment later an evil wind gusted his way, but by the time he reacted to protect himself it was too late. The tri-bladed end of a metal staff was buried in his chest.
Evidently, Cloudhawk's skills and speed were far greater than he had imagined.