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Chapter 100 - The Brutal Wastelands

 Chapter 100 - The Brutal Wastelands

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.

"All good!"

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!

"Grab 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' 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.

Chapter 100: The Brutal Wastelands

The blood-red light of the setting sun painted the roiling sea of sand. Out in the wastelands even dusk was swelteringly hot.

The sound of old engines rumbling was an analog of the anxiety and restlessness within the hearts of modern man. It was a world of blood and fire, cruelty and madness around every corner. In this moment that madness was a group of more than ten vehicles tearing across the sands, in a deadly game of chase.

Wasteland vehicles were cobbled together from whatever excavators could find. It didn't matter whether it was the right part, whether it was attractive, or whether it was convenient. All that mattered was that the machine ran.

The truck Cloudhawk pilfered had a chassis of crude metal, and its body was composed of light but sturdy bones from unidentified wastelands behemoths welded together with slabs of steel. It looked like some nightmare creature made of bones slithering over the dunes. Its cab was a mess of circuitry and pipes and there was no windshield to speak of. Stinging sand was constantly pelting Cloudhawk's face.

He didn't know what any of the instruments meant on the dashboard in front of him. All he knew - all he needed to know - was how to turn the damn thing on and keep it moving!

One of the soldiers with him shouted over the din of the engine. "They're catching up!"

The truck didn't have a rear view mirror so Cloudhawk didn't know what was going on behind them. But he did have ears, and the sound of screaming engines were getting closer. Frantically he began to pull on levers and twist knobs interspersed through the mess of wires, hoping something would help.

Bang-bang-bang!

The truck shook violently and smoke began to belch out of the exhaust pipes. The wheels kicked into high gear, kicking up a winding cloud of yellow sand behind them.

The whooping yells of the sweepers chased them from behind.

Regardless of their boost in speed the other cars were closing the distance. Figures popped out of the cars bearing spears and hooks, every one of them glaring at the truck with demented and twisted features. They looked like madmen, ready to give their lives for glory.

But they weren't insane. It was the wastelands that were insane. It was a whole crazy world they lived in!

One of the buggies, refitted to be spiked like a hedgehog, pulled up behind them. The driver flipped a lever and bolts fired out of his car that buried themselves in Cloudhawk's bone truck like nails. Chains attached to the bolts tightened and the metal of both vehicles groaned in protest.

Suddenly the truck jerked and its speed cut. The inertia almost sent Cloudhawk hurdling through the missing windshield but he grabbed whatever he could, managing to steady himself before being flung from the vehicle. The barbed bolts from the spiked buggy were deeply imbedded in Cloudhawk's truck and were slowing them down.

"Kill! KILL!"

A sweeper popped out from within the hedgehog's cab with a large javelin in hand. He heaved it at the bone truck. Instead of a metal head the javelin was affixed with a wrapped bottle, filled with rat's blood, oil and other combustible materials.

Boom!

A ball of fire swallowed the rear of the truck. Cloudhawk could feel it shake and start to break apart. At least one of their tires were blown!

The sweepers pulled out a second javelin and reeled back for another toss. Cloudhawk grit his teeth and yanked the wheel, sending them peeling off in another direction. The sudden force flipped the hedgehog off balance and flung it to the side still connected by chains. It shattered like a house of building blocks, sending debris in all directions. The sweeper who had a javelin leveled at them had half of his body decimated, crushed by the impact. A series of beautiful, eye-stabbing explosions followed as his and all the rest of theri javelins detonated.

Cloudhawk fought to get the truck back under control. The remains of the hedgehog buggy rolled along behind him, on fire and flinging burning slag every which way. Cloudhawk didn't have time to catch his breath, for just then two agile lizards and their riders pulled up on either side.

One of them chucked a bottle into the cab.

Roooar! Everything was engulfed in fire!

Luckily the invisibility cloak Cloudhawk wore wasn't flammable, otherwise the fires would have turned him medium-rare. Unfortunately the Greenland survivors weren't as lucky. One of them found himself in the middle of a lake of fire and, screaming, flung himself out of the truck to escape the flames. He tumbled through the air like a burning moth, hit the sand and began to roll. The sweeper vehicles coming up from behind ruthlessly ran him over half a dozen times.

The lizards themselves were equipped with small flamethrowers that constantly emitted fire, which their rider used to light the bombs. Their riders pulled out a second set of fire grenades from their pockets and prepared to light them.

Roaring in anger Cloudhawk gripped the steering wheel with his burned hands and pull it to the side. His hefty truck slammed into the lizard on his left, knocking both beast and rider over and crushing them beneath the truck's wheels. It was difficult to tell from the smear of red behind them which parts were human and which were beast.

Boom!

The sweeper's bomb lit all the explosive material he'd kept in his pockets, turning his corpse into a pillar of flame. Sand kicked up from the explosion rattled against the left side of the bone truck and the blast set almost half of it on fire. Another firebomb struck them from the right side, causing even more damage.

Depp knocked his bow and fired out an arrow that pierced the fire-thrower in the chest. Like a puppet with its strings cut the lifeless body of the sweeper was knocked off the lizard. It hit the ground some distance away with a sickening crunch.

"Kill them! For the master!"

The sweepers were incensed, caught in an insane bloodthirst that was hard to imagine. They continued to chase after the flaming bone truck, getting close enough to fire off more chain bolts. Like a brutal version of tug-of-war the two sides heaved against one another.

Depp kicked open the truck's ruined door and leaned out, firing his bow toward the cars behind. His arrow hit a tire and the car careened out of control. It flipped on its side and rolled into another car. The chains that affixed them to the truck dragged the cars along behind, but while it destroyed those vehicles its drag allowed the rest to get closer.

The flail-wielding sweeper chief came bounding up beside them on his lizard. When Depp spotted him he let loose with another arrow, but it was not aimed at the portly killer. Instead the arrow ripped through his lizard mount's head.

The chief was skilled, and as his steed was cut down from beneath him he lunged forward. He grabbed the truck and scrambled on top in a fluid motion. In less than a second, flail waving, he charged at the driver's seat with a deafening roar.

Thud!

The chief's spiked ball and chain whistled over Cloudhawk's head, barely scraping his scalp before getting buried in the mismatched instrument panel in front of him. Immediately sparks filled the cab.

"You drive!"

Cloudhawk dragged the remaining Greenland warrior into the driver's seat. He grabbed the flail's chain and as the chief yanked it back he pulled Cloudhawk onto the truck's top with it. The young warrior released the chain in midair, pulled his revolver from his waist and fired.

The sweeper wasn't slow, but at close range the shots still struck his chest. But his armor was hefty, and the small caliber bullets didn't pack enough punch to cause damage.

Grinning hideously the sweeper brought his flail back around. Cloudhawk met it with his exorcist staff.

The two of them fought as the truck rumbled along below them. Though the sweeper chief's flail was a nasty weapon, he couldn't get good momentum with the ground below him in constant motion. Cloudhawk juked and dodged, finally getting a clear shot off into the sweeper's helmet. The impact forced the chief backward, and that's when Cloudhawk's exorcist staff jabbed forward.

Armor and flesh split as the staff's sharp end found its target!

A power like being struck with a sledgehammer flung the chief from the top of the truck. Not a moment later bullets and arrows started whizzing by Cloudhawk's head. He couldn't linger out here in the open, but as he was preparing to swing back into the car two explosive javelin's struck. One of them hit the fuel tank.

B-O-O-M!

Cloudhawk felt weightless. The javelin had pierced the truck's fuel tank and ignited the gas inside. A massive blast rose from below them and the back half of the truck was pitched up several feet, sending debris everywhere.

The sudden force of the explosion kicked the truck up as well as all the cars connected to it, flipping them all. They tumbled over the dunes like so many discarded toys, leaving explosions and twisted metal in their wake. Sand and smoke filled the air like a rain from hell.

Peace settled after the chaotic scene.

Survivors were unlikely in a catastrophic suicide attack like this, but Cloudhawk had been thrown from the wreckage. He immediately poured his energy into his cloak to try and break his fall, but even striking soft sand at this speed would be deadly.

It all happened fast as a thunderclap.

It felt like Cloudhawk was struck in the head. The whole world spun out of control as he was flung through the air. He was rotating so fast the centrifugal force felt like it was scrambling his innards.

Then, just as he was about to hit the ground -

-Everything went black. It was like he cut through reality to enter a dream.

Cloudhawk felt himself floated in the air, flying though he had no wings. Space around him felt thick like mud and lifted him up. As he floated along he could feel himself striking countless small things, things he could neither see nor touch.

Eventually a burning sensation crept up all throughout his body, painful enough that it brought Cloudhawk back from the brief coma he'd been in. With great effort he struggled onto his feet and surveyed the scene. Wreckage, stretching every which way; bits of lizard, car, human... sand and blood, fire and iron, complete devastation!

To Cloudhawk it felt like every bone in his body had shattered, however luckily the fact was he hadn't been badly wounded. That certainly wasn't the case for the bone and metal truck he'd tried to steal, which could hardly be called slag at this point. He didn't know whether Depp or the other Greenland soldier were still alive.

But the fight wasn't over! Sweepers kept coming.

The one leading them was blurry through the sand and smoke, but his weapon was unmistakable. The scythe's blade glimmered from the fires of the wreckage, like the eyes of death peering through the darkness. It marched his way promising a bloody end.