Cloudhawk and his companions slipped away from a gang of mercenaries. It was the fifth time since leaving Greenland Outpost that they’d gotten in a skirmish. The ten soldiers he’d brought with him were now down to three – seven had died, and the supplies they carried with them were gone as well. By now Cloudhawk completely believed the sweeper chief’s parting words. Dark days were ahead, as he was now the most wanted man all throughout the wastelands.
The Caliph of the Sands was dead, but his influence still made Cloudhawk’s life hell.
The demon’s carefully organized army fell apart because the sweepers were incapable of choosing a new leader for themselves. Lesser chieftains refused to obey just anyone and none were strong enough to lead the sweepers as a whole. Collapse of the structure was inevitable. However their loyalty to their demon master never faded, and once word spread that Cloudhawk had been responsible for his death he was immediately labeled as enemy number one.
And that wasn’t the worst of it.
The most terrible result of his actions was the effects it caused throughout the wastelands, the chaos. Harrowed denizens of every small and medium-sized outpost hated Cloudhawk down to their bones. All manner of rewards were offered to the person who could kill the young demonhunter.
It didn’t matter whether he was crossing the wilds or passing a settlement. Bounty hunters, mercenaries, sweepers, bandit crews – everyone was looking for him. They also knew his location, everywhere within a hundred miles was crawling with enemies. Cloudhawk’s troubles were many.
He just didn’t get it. What the hell was wrong with this world!?
Hadn’t the Bloodsoaked Queen taught him that demons were the most vile, cruel, sinister creatures in the wastelands? Weren’t they the root of all the wars and disasters humanity had faced? Didn’t she tell him it was the demons that had brought about the end of days?
How could killing one suddenly turn him into the villain?!
Dusk settled over the area as the beating wasteland sun descended. Cloudhawk, Depp and the other two remaining Greenland warriors found a place to hide out in the wilds. All four of them were as filthy and beaten as vagabonds. It’d been days already without any opportunity to rest, awaiting death around every corner.
“We’re out of water.” One of the soldiers tipped over a canteen and shook it. Not a single drop came out. “At this rate even if the hunters don’t get us dehydration will. We need to find a settlement and get supplies.”
“Where, though?” One of the other soldiers shot back. “Fuckin moron. Every outpost, mercenary company and outlaw group for miles knows who we are. They know what we look like and what we’re carrying, anywhere we go we’ll be walking into their net.”
His companion shot back in irritation. “It’s better than dying from thirst!”
Meanwhile Depp was quietly maintaining his bow.
“We’re surrounded on all sides by a hostile wasteland. The pressure’s only gonna get worse.” Cloudhawk saw how their situation had destroyed the morale of his compatriots and he felt sorry for them. “Staying with me is too dangerous, you should leave. It’s the only way to keep you from getting wrapped up in this.”
The two soldiers were moved and surprised by his words.
They had been tasked with escorting Cloudhawk five hundred miles or so. By now they were about that far, so they could technically call their mission over and head home. If they dumped the kid now their chances of survival went way up.
“No.” Depp, who had been silent until now, spoke up. The way he said it left no room for doubt. “We aren’t done with our mission.”
Not done? Was this guy a moron?! Who would even know? They were within a few dozen miles of where they were supposed to go anyway, what difference did it make?
Depp held his bow in his hands and fixed the others with a steely gaze. “Our mission is not over. And if anyone decides they want to disagree with that my bow will have something to say.”
Depp was the best bowman in Greenland Outpost. Not a man among them would survive if he turned his bow on them.
The two standing soldiers slowly sat back down.
Cloudhawk looked over the odd mutant. He couldn’t help but feel appreciation. Depp was no weakling, and given a few years he would be a force to be reckoned with. Now after all they suffered, to stick to such an arduous task was not an easy thing.
Cloudhawk couldn’t stop himself from asking, “It’s just a mission. Is it really that important to you?”
Depp placed the arrows he’d been sharpening back in his quiver. When he answered he did so in a soft voice. “Don’t worry about it.”
Cloudhawk was going to push him further, but it was then he noticed a sizeable group on the horizon. They were combing the wastelands and heading their way in a group of five or six vehicles. A host of ugly sweepers were among them.
It was that bastard’s crew again!
It was the same group they’d faced at Bleakfire Outpost, only larger. Their chief must have taken or recruited more sweepers and vehicles from the surrounding areas. They even had a pack of tamed wolves – eight or nine of them. That’s how Cloudhawk was being tracked.
“This motherfucker doesn’t know when to quit!” Cloudhawk was sick and fuckin’ tired of these sweeper assholes!
One of the Greenland soldiers had to make himself heard. “They must have already caught our scent. It’s not safe here, I need to go!”
“We can’t get away, not on two legs.” Cloudhawk’s eyes were fixed on the cars among the group of sweepers. There was a glint in his eye, and then he said something that surprised the others. “Wait here. I’m gonna go steal a car.”
Steal a car? Was he fuckin’ joking?
He planned to get away with one of their vehicles, right under the noses of a few hundred sweepers. How was his plan any different from suicide? But in reality they were in a nasty spot, and a sufficiently fast car was the only way they were going to escape these sweepers and everyone else out for blood.
“Relax, I got it under control.” Cloudhawk affixed the Bloodsoaked Queen’s mask to his face and pulled up his hood. He croaked at them through the mask as he slid down from the high ground. “Please wait for me here.”
This stretch of wasteland was peppered with boulders. Cloudhawk used them as cover, slowly inching closer to the sweeper group. He didn’t have his staff or his gun, this time forsaking both of them for a simple dagger. It was the knife the Queen had given him, the one she said was made back where she’d come from. It was fine craftsmanship, better than any of the crude weapons found in the wastelands.
Cloudhawk first determined the direction of the wind so he could find which side was leeward. Pressing himself against the northern side of a boulder he tried to get a better look at his target.
He could tell right away that the several-hundred strong sweeper contingent was overconfident. They certainly weren’t expecting a sneak attack, and due to their speed moving forward their formation was weak and haphazard. What caught Cloudhawk’s attention was the large vehicle situated in the rear of the group, a wasteland cargo truck covered in reinforced steel. Despite the fact that it was somewhat separated from the rest of their crew, there were still four or five sweepers hanging around.
They were getting closer.
Cloudhawk was hidden from their wolves’ keen noses so long as the wind kept steady in the opposite direction. Once they were close enough he lifted his hand and a small sandstorm arose.
Between the darkening sky and Cloudhawk’s sandstorm the sweepers were finding it difficult to see. They were none the wiser as the wastelander slipped from cover, turned invisible and began to creep through their ranks. Like an angel of death he slowly snuck up on the very last sweeper in the crew. His target had no time to react. In a flash his neck opened and Cloudhawk dragged his writhing body behind a nearby rock to die.
The Cloudhawk who stalked the sands now was completely different from the scavenger that crawled over it before. His time under Mantis’ tutelage was short, but he put the foundational skills he’d learned to good use. Taking advantage of the choking sands Cloudhawk quickly dispatched five of his enemies – foes that would have taken a few chunks out of him had this been a fair fight.
There was no time to disguise himself as one of them, so instead he pulled open the truck door and jumped in directly. Before the driver knew what was happening Cloudhawk silenced him with a thrown dagger that landed right in his voice box.
As he took up position in the driver’s seat Cloudhawk was surprised at how smoothly it’d gone. His foot hit the pedal and suddenly the trundling vehicle shot off like a bat out of hell. Several sweepers were caught under its wheels and crushed to death.
“What’s going on?!”
“Where’s this car going?”
The sweeper chief was hollering abuses when suddenly the truck turned. He saw the driver, a young boy – it was him!
The scythe-bearer and his men were stunned by the sight, for none of them could believe someone could sneak in right under their noses and steal a car. As Cloudhawk whipped through the host of sweepers he swung the wheel back and forth, slithering through them like a serpent. Sweepers and boulders alike were crushed by the truck’s reinforced body, nothing could stop it from tearing off into the distance.
“With me, follow him!”
When the sweepers snapped back to their senses they gave chase, almost on instinct. By then the truck was already several hundred feet away, though, and in a car whereas most of the sweepers were on foot. By the time the chief’s orders were relayed and people started to react, Cloudhawk was already too far.
The cheeky wastelander pushed the gas pedal all the way to the floor, kicking up a plume of sand as he broke free from the sweepers. The distance between them was already stretching by the time they started to chase him. He picked up the remaining three Greenland warriors and headed west toward the setting sun like the rippling orange orb of fire was their destination.