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Chapter 12 - Meeting the Highwaymen Again

 A solitary wisp of smoke rose up from the desert, a stream reaching up to meet the setting sun.

The crimson light of the dying sun kissed the distant horizon, melting into a hazy red line. The boundless expanse of desert was pregnant with a sense of desolation. Dusk in the wastelands was as majestic as it was wild, and the solemn whistle of the wind was one's only companion. It was the perfect representation of life and death in this desolate, post-war world.

The sound of an engine broke the lonely silence.

A vehicle was flung from the top of a dune, kicking up a lengthy plume in its wake. The sound of a woman's terrified screams followed. It struck the ground with a thud. The machine's four massive wheels churned the sand like gnashing teeth, and paired with the guttural roar of the engine it was like some ancient metallic beast. In a blink it shot forward ten meters.

The vehicle leapt from dune to dune like a rampaging beast. It bounced and pitched over the bumpy wasteland terrain, until with a pathetic whine it came to a halt on the upslope of the next rise.

The dune buggy's door was flung open. A pair of lily-white legs poked out searchingly.

A beautiful girl, her hair a tousled mess atop her head, flopped out. Her face was pale as a sheet, and her legs trembled. Unable to stomach the rumbling in her guts, she keeled over and violently empties their contents into the sand. When she recovered, her face was a mask of bitter anger.

The buggy only had two seats. The driver was a short-haired young man with a pair of goggles fit snuggly over his face to protect against the sun and sand. A thick cigar of wild tobacco hung from the corner of his mouth. His look and actions could be described as ostentatious, but his features were that of a delicate youth.

"You bastard! You did that on purpose!" Autumn managed to rise on shaky legs and threw a handful of sand at the driver. "I'll kill you, you thug!"

The handful of grit looked as though it would strike the man unawares, but strangely it all stopped in midair as though caught in jelly. Autumn stared in surprise. As she gaped, the sand was flung back her way and splattered against her face and clothes. Some managed to find its way into her mouth and nose. Her hair became a sandy mess. Already unstable, the shock of it sent her reeling backwards and she plopped down into the sand. She had never been more confused or more furious in all her life.

The young man lifted his goggles up so they sat on his head and stood on the buggy's frame. The setting sun cast his face in stark light and dramatic shadow. A strange expression crossed his eyes as he looked out over the wastes. He felt the hot, dry air whip by as it danced along the rugged terrain. He felt like he was in a dream. It'd been years since he'd looked out over a scene like this. Like a memory from another life.

He was different. His mood, his thinking. The setting sun and the desolation it enveloped looked beautiful to him now.

"I blame you. You! It's all your fault!" Autumn angrily picked herself up from the sandy pit. "Why must we use this damn contraption? Why didn't you listen to me and just buy a camel?!"

Cloudhawk plucked the cigar from his mouth. He looked at her like she was an idiot. "Those things are slow as shit, and not any nearly as satisfying to drive. This is how we get around out here."

"And did you not know that cars need gas? Gas which we don't have? It's still a long way, what are we supposed to do now!"

"Honestly, even when I was young and dumb I still had more sense than you. At least I was smart enough not to throw sand at my betters and constantly get in their face." Cloudhawk stepped down from the buggy. He flicked the final inch of his cigar into the sand and extinguished it with a boot. Autumn couldn't believe that the repugnant man was as well-behaved as he claimed to have once been. "Let's make a bet," he said.

"A bet?"

"I bet that I can keep this thing running."

Autumn gave the vehicle a careful look. The dune buggy was small, just large enough for two people, with nowhere to hide an extra can of gas. Fuel was rare, where was he supposed to find more?

"A hundred eboncrys. If I win, that's my prize. If I lose then I'll chop that off what you already owe me."

Autumn knew this scoundrel had some trick up his sleeve. However, she was curious to see how he'd do it. Happily she answered. "Fine! A hundred eboncrys? It's a deal."

"Deep pockets!" Cloudhawk gave her an approving thumbs-up.

He placed his hand against his chest for a moment, and Autumn watched curiously to see what he'd do. After a few moments a light peaked between his fingers. It glimmered from his palm, and as he stretched out his arm the light began to ripple like the surface of a pond. Cloudhawk reached in. When he pulled back, a heavy can of gas appeared from the rippling space, clutched in his hand.

He opened it up and started refilling the buggy's tank. "One hundred eboncrys. Don't forget."

"Ho-.... How did you do that?" She couldn't believe her eyes. "You can just pulled things out of thin air?"

"I'm awesome, right? Believe me, lady, you ain't seen nothin' yet."

Beasts didn't need gas, this was true. But they did get thirsty, hungry, and tired. Those were limitations that didn't apply to a machine. So long as he had gas, they were set. Cloudhawk made sure to pack enough for their trip to Fishmonger's Borough.

Autumn was taken aback by his strange methods. She'd heard of people with strange abilities like this, the ones they called demonhunters. Was this despicable man one of them? Her elders always said she should keep far away from demonhunters, for they could never live together in peace.

Who was this mysterious man?

Cloudhawk refilled the buggy with gas, enough to keep it running for another four or five hours. He was about to put the can away when Cloudhawk felt a slight tremor through the sand beneath his feet. A scowl tainted his face.

"What is it?" Autumn couldn't help but ask when she saw his expression.

Cloudhawk put the canister on the ground. "Something's coming."

Autumn looked out over the horizon, toward an encroaching sandstorm. There she saw a host of blood red banners with the image of an ox skull emblazoned on them. Ferocious and scary, it made her shudder. Beneath them were nearly a hundred large men astride all manner of beasts. They were covered in thick armor protecting their most vital areas, leaving muscled arms exposed. Odd tattoos were inked along every inch of skin to serve as representations for their love of violence. All of them bristled with weapons.

It was a group Cloudhawk seemed to have encountered before. After a moment the memories returned, of his time first crossing into the borderlands. These were the Highwaymen, the largest bandit clan in the area. Three years and they were still going strong, proof of their tenacity. They weren't as thick as their name implied.

"Hand over the girl and we'll let you die quick!"

The threatening order rang out from the distance.

Cloudhawk frowned at the descending horde, puzzled. "So they are here for you. How did they know where we are?"

Autumn had never seen a larger group of terrifying men. Timid by nature, just the scene almost sent her into a panic. "What should we do?"

Cloudhawk shoved her into the buggy and pulled out a crossbow that'd been stored by their feet. The mob was getting closer by the moment, so he stomped on the accelerator. Their buggy leapt into motion. It went from inert to break-neck speed in no time.

The mob tried to surround them.

Cloudhawk was headed right for them, aiming to drive right through the mob. As the distance between them shrank Autumn's terror grew. She was drenched in cold sweat but her screams had stopped. There was no shortage of bull-like men on the other side. A direct collision seemed destined to result in Autumn and Cloudhawk being torn to pieces.

Cloudhawk didn't slow down. He sped up.

Just in the instant they were about to run headlong into the horde...

The head of the gang shouted over the din. "The boss said we need her alive! Outta the way, don't let 'em kill themselves!"

The bandits flung themselves to either side. Cloudhawk slipped through clean as a hot butter knife. As the snarling men brushed passed, the Warden lifted his crossbow and fired into the crowd.

A dozen rugged men hit the equally rugged ground.

As Cloudhawk tore through them - driving the buggy with one hand and firing the crossbow with the other - both maintained perfect accuracy. But the bandits were violent and unafraid of death, so his brazen attacks only served to make them angry. They began to fight back. Arrows and throwing axes clanged as they peppered the buggy.

With a frown, Cloudhawk shoved the crossbow down by his feet, pinning the gas pedal to the floor. He pulled himself up, leapt into the air, and drew his sword all in one fluid motion. Wind whipped passed him as they tore across the wastes, easily two-hundred kilometers an hour. With his sword the Warden knocked axes and arrows aside, crashing into one of the bandits.

The thug didn't even know what hit him. His head was nearly cut clean up as Cloudhawk's sword swept by.

Autumn's eyes went wide as she watched Cloudhawk jump from the moving vehicle. She was by herself now as the buggy careened toward the horizon, picking up speed. She almost burst into tears. "Aaaahh! What do I do? I can't drive!"

Cloudhawk paid her no mind. Straddled the ox-like mount, won from the bandit he killed, and dug his heels into its flanks.

The force broke several of the creature's ribs, and it immediately fell to the ground. Its sturdy legs kicked and tread air as it screamed in pain. Cloudhawk leapt to the next one. He kept pace with the buggy as he dashed from one enemy to another, bounding onto their mounts and moving on just as quick, agile as a bird. His stomped on several of the members so hard that bones shattered, meanwhile Cloudhawk never lost momentum. Those who passed - if they weren't dead the instant his feet touched them - hit the ground and were left behind.

All the while, Cloudhawk's sword was moving too fast for the human eye to follow. Those unfortunate enough to meet his sword were cleaved apart, as easily as dicing carrots.

The Warden realized it was unrealistic to believe he could kill near a hundred bandits on his own. Instead he fixed his attention on their leader. He leapt into the air, soaring over the others like a bird of prey, then knocked the bandit leader from his mount. The impact of his head meeting the stony ground knocked him dizzy, but he still managed to climb back onto his feet. By then the inky-black blade had already reached his neck.

"Don't move an inch." Cloudhawk grabbed his captive, pressing the keen steel to exposed skin, and dragged him up onto his mount. He then jumped off the creature, pressing it at least a meter into the ground, as he and the bandit leader landed back onto the speeding buggy. Cloudhawk held the man fast by his clothes and delivered a teeth-jarring punch with his free hand. "Listen up! Tell these assholes to back off, or I'll cut off your fuckin nuts and shove 'em in your mouth! I'll make you eat 'em in front of me."