Chapter 2 – The Tartarus Mercenaries
The calm silence of dawn was suddenly disrupted by the sound of an engine as a vehicle kicked up storms of sand as it travelled through the wastelands. Someone hit the brakes as soon as the vehicle entered the ruins, causing it to come to a screeching halt. The vehicle’s rust-covered metal components creaked and moaned ominously, almost as though the entire thing was at the verge of falling apart. It almost sounded like the labored panting of a crouched beast, and the visible tubing of the vehicle shuddered before a plume of black smoke finally belched out of the tailpipe of the vehicle.
The scavengers had never before seen something like this, a metal monstrosity that could move. Looks of amazement and astonishment were plainly visible on their faces.
This car was built in an almost ridiculously crude manner. Its rusty frame had been cobbled together from seven or eight different types of vehicles, and the damn thing was brimming with spikes, making it look like an ornery metal porcupine. It had four ostentatiously large wheels that ground away at the earth like giant gear wheels, and the car bumpers had been replaced with savagely sharp blades. Clearly, they were not meant for ‘protecting’ the car, they were meant for ramming opponents. The entire thing looked both deadly and savage, and it seemed just as ferocious and unforgiving as the wastelands themselves.
Six large monstrosities were chasing behind the thing at high speed, galloping forwards on their giant feet. They were split up into two groups of three that had been following the vehicle from both sides.
These creatures looked similar to the ostriches of the Old Times, but their feet were wider and thicker, while their bodies were much firmer and more muscular. Not only could they move across the desert at breakneck speeds, they were able to carry extremely heavy loads of weight. In the wastelands, they were considered one of the most ideal types of mounts.
The six monstrosities had six riders atop them, all dressed in strange outfits. Their haphazardly pieced-together outfits were composed of various bits of metal, wood, leather, bone, rocks, and other unknown materials. Most likely, they had collected as many things as they could, then fashioned a crude suit of ‘armor’ from them. As a result, every person had a different ‘uniform’, and one of them who had only one arm had actually grafted a metal gear onto himself as a prosthetic limb. Another person had grafted a jagged sawtooth blade onto himself. In short, all of them were brimming with the aura of the wastelands.
One of the bigfoot bird riders vaulted off his mount, then respectfully opened the car door and greeted the fat man within.
The fat man was dressed in a sleeveless leather jacket that was dripping with machine oil, and he was protected by a coarse, exoskeleton-like armor that looked like a giant spider which had crawled over him. His hands were covered with leather gloves and were pressed around the wide belt around his waist, close to a pair of black modified pistols. Even these ancient, improvised firearms emanated the coarse savagery of the wastelands. However, they were a direct testament to his strength and his power.
Outlandish outfits, ostentatious appearances, bigfoot birds as mounts, and a savage-looking vehicle.
All of these things loudly proclaimed the status of these men – they were excavators!
“Fuck me, we finally found some scavs.” The fat man lit a coarse cigar. Two plumes of smoke came out of his nostrils, then he reached up and flipped open the protective lenses of his sunglasses, revealing a pair of beady eyes that were scanning the raggedly dressed and emaciated scavengers. “Arrrright. Let ole Slyfox have a look at how many of you poor bastards are still alive.”
In this chaotic era, fat men were as rare as unicorns! This man in particular was so fat that he had to be nearly 150 kilograms. He looked almost like an exalted king, and in fact he was as proud as any king ever was. When he looked at the scavengers, he didn’t seem to be looking at other fellow human beings at all; rather, he was looking at cheap beasts of burden that were waiting to be slaughtered.
The excavators, colloquially known as ‘diggers’, were considered one of the more important groups within the wastelands. They mainly spent their time burrowing through ancient rubble and retrieving tools and materials from the Old Times. They’d conduct some basic repairs on what they found, then connect them together to form usable weapons and outfits. Eventually, they set up their own organization.
These people often used food and water as a cheap way to convince the lowly scavengers to work for them. The scavengers would scour the ruins for usable materials on their behalf, and so the scavengers were quite familiar with the excavators.
“I’m willing to work!”
“I only need half a strip of carrion each day!”
“I’m stronger than them! Pick me!”
The shabbily-dressed scavengers all clustered around them, fighting for the chance to be seen and chosen by the lord excavator. They pushed and jostled against one another, eventually beginning to fight amongst themselves.
“Silence. SILENCE, you dirty fucking scavs! I’m not here to employ your sorry asses. All of you, shut the fuck up right now!”
The fat man unholstered his pistol, aimed at the skies, then pulled the trigger.
This coarse, heavily modified pistol let out a thunderous bang, stunning and deafening the scavengers. They immediately slunk backwards and shut their mouths, their gazes turned dull and despondent with a hint of fear and cowardice mixed within.
The fat man, ‘Slyfox’, continued to shout at them. “I have credible information that a group of sweepers are active nearby. It is very likely that they might hit this place at any moment. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Looks of utter terror instantly appeared in the numbed eyes of the scavengers.
The sweepers. They were synonymous with terror. The sweepers were a group of mutant bandits who were incredibly bloodthirsty and who delighted in cannibalism. To the sweepers, the scavengers were like sheep for the slaughter. Whenever the sweepers swept through a place, they brought utter, calamitous annihilation to the local scavengers!
“If you end up being captured by the sweepers, you’ll be captured and corralled like pigs. They’ll rip the meat off your bones, then smoke it and store it away for later. They’ll break your bones and make decorations out of them, and the pitiful amount of fat you have will be squeezed out of you and used as fuel for their oil lamps.”
These cruel words were like a cold wind that blew past the scavengers, causing all of them to shudder. This was just how the sweepers were. They swept through everything in their path, sparing nothing and no one.
Slyfox finally announced the reason he had come here today. “Today, I’m going to choose a few dozen strong scavengers to form a squad with us. We’ll be responsible for providing you with weapons to help you fight back against the sweepers!”
The scavengers all retreated by a few steps. Nobody dared to make a sound. The sweepers were legendary for their cruelty and savagery. How would mere scavengers dare to challenge them?
“Useless pieces of crap. You’d rather wait for death than try and make a fight out of it?” When the fat man saw how the scavengers were completely unresponsive, he said in a loud voice, “Who will be the first volunteer? After we beat the sweepers, I’ll take him with me when we leave this place!”
“I’ll go!” A skinny youth with a bloody nose and a bruised face came running over, his face red as he panted from exertion.
It was Cloudhawk!
The wastelands riders who were mounted on the bigfoot birds all began to roar with laughter. A teenage child was clamoring to go and fight the sweepers? When Slyfox saw the child emerge, he glared at him and bellowed, “Can you even lift up our fucking weapons? Just fuck off!”
“I want to go fight the sweepers!” A steely look was in Cloudhawk’s eyes as he said, “If I can survive the fight, you need to fulfill your promise and take me away from this place!”
The fat man had a strange look on his face. “Do you really want to leave that much? Staying alive matters more than anything else!”
Cloudhawk said, “I want to be a digger. I don’t want to be hungry anymore, and I don’t want to be taken advantage of by anyone any longer.”
The wastelands riders all roared with laughter once more. Such juvenile words could only come from the mouths of ignorant children! “Staying alive in a crazy era like this one aint easy. Living with honor and dignity is even harder. D’ya think you’ll never go hungry again or never be taken advantage of again once you become a digger? What a joke!”
The fat man had been planning on kicking the kid away, but when he saw that look in the kid’s pitch-black eyes… for some reason even he couldn’t explain, he slapped himself on his own head and said, “Fuck me. Fine. I’ll give you one chance. If we wipe out the sweepers and you make it out alive, I’ll give you a chance to join us, the Tartarus mercenaries.”
“You seriously letting him in?”
“He’s just a fucking scav!”
“Shut your fucking mouth. You aren’t exactly a fucking noble either! I’m the fucking boss here. What I say goes!” The fat man fired yet another round into the air. “Even a brat like him has the balls to fight. What are the rest of you are afraid of? If you go fight the sweepers, I’ll give you each two pieces of bread and a bottle of water. If you don’t go, I’ll let you have a taste of gunpowder!”
For scavengers, the most irresistible type of temptation was food. In turn, the most terrifying fear was that of death.
This new ‘proposal’ was far more effective than the previous one. The scavengers began to step forwards, and soon Slyfox was able to fully assemble his suicide squ-… ahem, his lionheart squad!
The fat man called out loudly, “Send this batch over right away. The others can wait here. You there. Kid. Get in the car with me!”
Cloudhawk was dragged into the front passenger seat. The engine revved to life with a bestial howl before he even had a chance to find his footing, and the momentum caused him to be pressed firmly against the seat.
This ramshackle vehicle was cobbled together from seven or eight different vehicles and seemed ready to fall apart at a moment’s notice, but once it started to move it moved at incredible speeds, instantly zipping off into the distance.
The real problem was that the damn thing didn’t have any seatbelts. The scavengers had no choice but to desperately cling on for dear life in order to not be sent flying.
The six wastelands riders each brought a scavenger along with them. The bigfoot birds twisted their necks, then immediately began to gallop across the sands with their giant feet. As for the porcupine-like vehicle, it was now packed to the brim with scavengers. It clambered up and down the sand dunes, dangerously veering right and left as it just barely avoided the obstacles in its path. It was an exciting but incredibly bumpy ride, and it felt as though they were a small boat being tossed about in a storm at sea.
Cloudhawk felt both nervous and excited. His entire body was trembling, whether it be due to the terrifying prospect of facing the savage sweepers or the chance of seeing the vast world outside the scavenger camp. Every single cell in his body was screaming in excitement.
One thought in particular dominated his mind.
Old-timer, are you seeing this? I just made it out of the camp!
Shortly after the car charged out of the ruins, a group of wanderers could be seen moving through the sands up ahead. Not only did the fat man not move to avoid them, he actually accelerated straight towards them.
“Careful!” Cloudhawk cried out in shock, “There are people there!”
The monstrous vehicle barreled straight through, sending the first person flying while slicing his chest open. A large amount of blood splattered inside the vehicle like a crimson rain, sprinkling across Slyfox’s clothes as well as Cloudhawk’s face. A few pieces of mangled human flesh and gore covered the vehicle.
The fat man let out a few crazed laughs, then turned on the automatic windshield wiper, letting the wiper sweep away the chunks of flesh and blood on the glass windshield. He then turned the vehicle, using it to crush yet another one of the nomads. Cloudhawk could hear, sense, and even feel the wheels of the car crush the man’s body apart and splinter his very bones.
A look of savage, wild glee was on the fat man’s face. He took another puff of his cigar, then chased down yet third person. This one was knocked flying and smashed to death!
“Awesome. Absolutely fucking awesome.” The mounted wastelands riders used their bigfoot birds to chase after the survivors, cutting down the defenseless wanderers like wheat. One of the riders sank his hook into the jaw of one of the wastelands nomads, then dragged the barbarian behind him like a piece of garbage, leaving behind a smear of blood and gore on the ground.
Cloudhawk’s entire body was as cold as ice, and he couldn’t stop the shivering. A look of confusion and rage was on his young face as he glared at the fat man. “W-why… why are you doing this?!”
Scavengers also killed others, but that was only when they were starving. It was an act of madness that they only carried out for the sake of survival! These excavators didn’t lack for food. They were doing this for nothing more than pure amusement. Cloudhawk simply couldn’t understand why they were acting like this!
“Hah! None of your fucking business.” The fat man spat loudly. “And you don’t know shit. These are roamers! Killing them is doing a service to the wastelands.”
The four main ‘organizations’ in the wastelands were the scavengers (scavs), the excavators (diggers), the nomads (roamers), and the sweepers.
Scavengers were at the bottom of the totem pole. Once a group of scavengers learned how to operate excavating machinery to search for weapons in the ruins or learned how to master other tools or trades, they would have a chance to set up their own society and become excavators themselves.
Scavengers often drank highly contaminated water and ate mutated food. This sort of inhospitable environment caused many of them to slowly mutate, and the mutation was in both body and mind. The vast majority of these mutants would become as savage and cruel as animals, and they would leave the society of scavengers and become nomad wanderers who would roam the lands and prey upon whoever they found.
Once enough nomads gathered together in one place, they would eventually become groups of sweepers who swept through entire regions of the wastelands. Whenever they passed through a region, the local scavengers and excavators alike would be risk of utter annihilation.
How many scavenger, excavator, nomad, and sweeper organizations existed in the wastelands?
Far too many.
This ancient city alone was filled with many different scavenger camps, as well as countless excavators and sweepers.
In the end, the twenty-plus scavengers were sent to the temporary excavator base.
This was a strangely shaped building that was planted into the ground like an inverted pyramid. This building was quite enormous, and although it had clearly seen far better times, it was still quite obvious that in both pattern and style it was something the likes of which had never before appeared in any period of human history. This was something that had suddenly appeared upon this vast earth.
A jerry-rigged truck was parked in the shadow of the inverted pyramid. It had a total of five wheels, with the sole frontal wheel being the smallest wheel. The two wheels in the middle were larger, while the two wheels in the back were almost half the size of a man. The truck itself was large and highly functional, with its sides covered by random steel chains and wire circles. It looked like a giant ugly lizard, but it seemed capable of bearing many things.
The fat man leapt out of his vehicle and hollered, “Mad Dog, hurry up and come say hello to the fresh meat!”
The man nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ was the fellow standing next to the truck. He was an awesomely muscled black man who was 1.9 meters tall, and his bald head and face were both covered with all sorts of scars, large and small. One of the scars looked as though it had been left by someone who had chopped his head in half, only for another person to somehow use a large number of needles and thread to stitch the pieces back together.
Savage, ferocious, hideous. These three words were invented to describe him!
Mad Dog was a man of some status, but his equipment looked quite simple and crude. He didn’t have any firearms of his own. All he had was a pair of daggers that were tucked into sheaths around his waist. He was dressed in a set of leather armor that bristled with spikes which mostly served to protect his chest and abdomen. His muscular arms and his shoulders were completely bare, and they looked as chiseled as slabs of black marble.
The black man coldly swept the scavengers with his gaze. Not saying a word, he turned and pulled open the chains to the truck, revealing the many items it held within it. “Choose for yourselves!”
The scavengers stared at the large pile of miscellaneous weapons in front of them. There were spears, machetes, hammers, axes… although these were all rather clumsily-made ‘cold weapons’, for scavengers they were still incredibly rare and valuable.
“Pick a weapon that suits your hand. Whether or not you’ll be able to survive will be up to them.” The fat man said to Mad Dog, “Let them enjoy a last supper. They probably aren’t gonna have another chance like this again!”
The fat man clearly didn’t give a shit about the feelings of his recruited scavengers, and so he said these words openly and loudly.
Looks of terror appeared in the eyes of the scavengers. They had no idea what sort of cruelty and savagery they were in for.
They had no choice but to begin to choose their own weapons. Machetes and axes carried a lot of power, but Cloudhawk wasn’t strong enough to use them. In the end, he chose a shortsword that was less than three feet long. When Cloudhawk felt the cold metal of the sword cool his hands, he couldn’t help but feel slightly more at ease.
No matter what happened, he would accept it. Even if his chances of surviving were slim, he would still try his best to stay alive. Cloudhawk refused to be a lowly scavenger for the rest of his life. He didn’t want to die alone and forgotten like the old-timer had.