The wastelands' sands swirled on hot winds. Heat caused the air to warp, twisting the line of wasteland riders that appeared on the horizon. A young boy of about fifteen years led them, looking especially small and frail atop his lizard mount. A black and grey cloak protecting him from the sun, and a large rifle was slung over one shoulder. A gun of that caliber was a symbol of status out here in the wastelands.
The unobtrusive youth was followed by ten burly men, each one of them clearly a practiced warrior. Their leader was a strange looking man with an apish jutting lower jaw and a pair of arms twice the size of any normal man. His hands were thicker than kneecaps. For a weapon he had a metal bow slung over his shoulder with an earth wyrm bowstring. It was clearly one powerful tool.
They garnered attention everywhere they went.
Cloudhawk could hardly believe that only three months ago he was a worm, crawling over the ruins of the wastelands for scraps. Now he rode at the head of a small band of capable fighters and went where he pleased. All he had to worry about was the occasional beast. Your typical bandits or sweeper party were nothing for him to fear anymore.
There hadn't been many setbacks to bar their path over the last couple hundred miles.
Cloudhawk's confidence soared. If they kept up this pace he'd reach the elysian lands in about ten days. The others who rode the lizards beside him were elites from the outposts. The strange-looking one was named Depp, a brawny man in his thirties. Though his mutation made him appear ferocious he was actually pragmatic and composed - a fighter no less capable than the likes of Panther or Salamander.
One of the outpost warriors spoke up. "Up ahead is rotwolf territory."
A small group of ruins appeared on the horizon, partially buried by the desert and peppered with weeds. It was home to a pack of twenty or thirty rotwolves. Their alpha leapt onto a crumbling wall and challenged them by bearing its salivdripping fangs. The coarse hair on its body was raised in warning - typical posture for defending one's territory. If the riders wanted to keep going they would have to fight their way through.
Cloudhawk unraveled his map and looked it over. "The map says there's an outpost nearby. If we deal with the wolves we'll be doing them a favor. We can skin 'em and sell their hides for food while we're at it."
The soldiers were here to follow his lead, so they did what he commanded. They obeyed because their friends and relatives were back home. Even if that weren't the case, though, they were promised a rich reward for getting the kid to the specific spot. After delivering him and getting back they were even told they'd have a place in the Fort. It was a temping offer they couldn't refuse.
Depp's meaty arm pulled back his massive bowstring, knocking an arrow the size of a man without much effort, and let fly. The arrow whizzed though the air and buried itself in the alpha wolf's brain. The beast hit the ground with a thud and twitched for a little while, struggling against the inevitable. The rest of the pack let loose a series of howls then twenty to thirty of them came charging their way.
Depp fired two more arrows in quick succession. Two more rotwolves died.
The guy was able to hit a target from over three hundred feet away as well as any sniper, all thanks to his earth wyrm tendon longbow. The materials it used were similar to the outpost's ballista which gave it incredible stopping power. Between the impressive weapon and Depp's incredible strength, the rotwolves didn't even have a chance to dodge before getting pinned to the ground.
Cloudhawk hefted his rifle and aimed down the old-style sights at one of the beasts. As he pulled the trigger he could feel every component of the gun move until at last the bullet was spat out in a crack of gas and fire. He hit his target flawlessly from several hundred feet away.
The rest of the pack came running their way.
The outpost warriors fished out their weapons and began to fight back. The wolf pack wasn't a particularly large one and they were all experienced wastelanders, so the creatures were killed before they could even reach melee range.
Cloudhawk urged his lizard mount forward and entered the ruins, followed by Depp and a few others. They drew their daggers and set about relieving the corpses of their valuable hide. Humans had no use for the poison glands on rotwolf corpses, but wasteland lizards found them appetizing so the eleven mounts they'd brought with them happily ate their fill.
"We got two rotwolf cubs!"
One of the soldiers lifted his arms with a rotwolf in each hand. They curled like kittens as they hung from the scruff of their necks. Their fur was pitch black and they were still too young to even open their eyes - young enough that there was a chance they could be domesticated. They could fetch a good price in the outpost.
Once the lizards were sated Cloudhawk led Depp and the others to the nearest outpost. Outpost was hardly the right word for it, since it couldn't even begin to compare with Greenland Outpost. It didn't even match up to Blackflag, no more than a third the size of the first encampment Cloudhawk experienced. It was obviously weaker as a result.
It was the first settlement Cloudhawk approached since leaving the oasis, where he'd hoped to replenish some of their dwindling water supplies. However as they approached the entrance of the outpost the young man was unpleasantly surprised by the scene.
Bleakfire Outpost looked like it'd barely survived some recent disaster. Its walls served that function in little more than name only, and the defenders who peered from their craggy tops were armed with only bows and arrows. A few residents were busy trying to scrub bloodstains off the stones. Though it was clear the battle had past some time ago, the smell of carnage still hung in the air.
Things only got worse when Cloudhawk and the rest of his group rode in to Bleakfire Outpost. There were at least a thousand corpses that had yet to be disposed of piled up in a mountain of broken bones and rotten flesh. The unfortunate souls had become a feast for an uncountable number of insects that buzzed around. The whole display was sickening.
Most of them were human. A few were mutants.
So many corpses rotting in the wasteland sun would quickly produce an ungodly stench. There was the danger they could spread disease, and if they weren't dealt with the threat could destroy the whole outpost population.
"I'm the leader of Bleakfire Outpost." An old man with a staff looked at him warily through a leathery face. "You are…"
Cloudhawk answered. "I come from Greenland Outpost. We came hoping to spend the night, but… strange, were you attacked by sweepers?"
"Greenland Outpost?" Something that might have been recognition flashed through the old man's eyes. The soldiers around them also reacted, and they fixed the newcomers with wide-eyed stares. Bleakfire Outpost's leader passed his staff from one hand to the other and reengaged them with a low, strange voice. "We hear the Caliph of the Sands was killed in Greenland Outpost."
Caliph of the Sands? Ah, he'd almost forgotten - that had been the demon's name.
After being attacked by sweepers the denizens of this outpost had to hate them with every fiber of their beings. The demon was the sweeper's greatest leader, so hearing word of his death likely came as great news to them!
Cloudhawk replied without giving it much thought. "That's right, the demon was dealt with just outside Greenland Outpost."
"Fuckin' bastards!" One of Bleakfire Outpost's soldiers shouted at them, his eyes red with anger. "Why the hell did they kill the Caliph? Did they have any idea how important he was to the wastelands? Now that he's dead everything's gone to shit!"
"I hope Greenland Outpost fuckin' burns!"
"Nah, they all deserve to be hacked to pieces!"
The destitute people of the outpost began to gather around. Cloudhawk and his companions watched the crowd gather with concern on their faces. The hostility of these strangers definitely took them off guard - completely the opposite of what was expected!
The Bleakfire Outpost leader heaved a defeated sigh. "If the Caliph was murdered it could only have been at the hands of a demonhunter. Everyone put your weapons away!"
Cloudhawk didn't let their unwelcoming attitude trouble him. "The demon was brutal and wicked. He was the leader of tens of thousands of sweepers - how is his death a bad thing?"
"Young man, you see things too simply." The old man gave another lengthy sigh. "Whether or not the Caliph is alive or dead, the sweepers remain. If he were still alive, the sweepers would get what they needed from places like Greenland. They would have no need to turn on a smaller outpost like ours. With the Caliph dead these fiends have no leader, and the tributes once offered to appease the sweepers go unpaid. They are an army without a territory, and there are tens of thousands of them that are out of control. In the ends the ones who suffer are smaller tribes like ours!"
His words made Cloudhawk think. Could it be that the demon's existence was a benefit to the wastelands instead of a bane? Did that creature somehow keep things stable?
Sweepers were a reality of the wastelands, one they could never completely erase. Under the demon's influence they were organized, restrained. They used the threat of their ferocity to coerce places like Greenland into paying tribute, ultimately removing the need to attack easier targets like Bleakfire.
With the sudden removal of their leader the sweepers were dealt a serious blow, and the once mighty army splintered and spread out into the wastelands again. Over the last few days many outposts had suffered just like this one.
"My son died at the hands of the sweepers! If the Caliph were alive he'd have kept these damn monsters in check, and my son would still be alive!" The larger man with puffy red eyes shouted at them, full of enmity. "If I ever see that goddamn demonhunter I'll fuckin' kill him, even if he tears my body into pieces!"
"They killed my brother, too!"
"And my friend!"
"Fuckin' demonhunters, they're all goddamn lowlifes!"
Cloudhawk looked over the angry, twisted faces and a shudder went through him. It all seemed so absurd!
Demons were a curse, the root of all conflict in this world. But there was order in chaos! The demon had been an important element in the wasteland that kept the outposts safe. Without him the might of the sweepers was unchecked, and for places like this that fact was a catastrophe. Thousands, even tens of thousands of wastelanders would suffer!
And the one who created all of this suffering was none other than Cloudhawk. But he didn't know it would happen, of course he hadn't hoped for it. As he looked on that mountain of corpses, their faces twisted in pain and despair, he imagined they were looking at him in hatred. A cold sweat trickle down his back.
They couldn't stay here. Cloudhawk had to leave as fast as possible!