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Chapter 14 - Blackfiend

 "Hey little guy. Do me a favor and keep an eye out, let me know what's coming."

Oddball beat its tiny wings and took flight. Its pudgy little body soared overhead and circled, keeping vigil.

Autumn was always curious when she saw the bird. What sort of creature was it? Was it psychic? She thought about the creatures that menaced her own people. They also ate eboncrys - in fact, in many ways they were similar to Oddball. However they were far more terrifying than the docile little thing.

She was out here looking for a way to defeat these monsters. All the dangers she suffered was toward that end.

As night overtook the wastelands, Oddball remained their sole sentry. Once the sun was gone a human's eyes were blinded, but the bird could still see tens of kilometers in all directions. If the Highwaymen got close, Cloudhawk would know right away.

Regrettably, there was no shelter anywhere nearby.

Cloudhawk found a relatively safe spot. There, he raised his hand and the sand danced to his will just as before. Golden granules gathered together, solidifying into a makeshift igloo that was big enough for the three of them. Once they were snug inside, Cloudhawk sealed the entrance. The only indication they were there was a small hole so they could breathe. From the outside it was just a pile of sand, not dissimilar to any other in the wasteland.

Out in the wastelands, temperatures varied wildly from day to night. Autumn was having trouble coping.

Cloudhawk put together a small fire. It wasn't large enough to dispel much of the cold, but it eased Autumn's troubled heart. The Warden didn't seem bothered by the chill. His body was too tough for something so mundane. She was surprised he considered her at all.

Her pale cheeks turned pink from the cold. She looked so young and cute with her dual braids and thin frame. Huddled near the tiny campfire, Autumn rubbed her hands and blew warm air into them. It didn't stop them from shaking.

The day had been a stressful one. Even now her heart still raced.

Her pointed ears perked up as she eavesdropped on Cloudhawk, questioning their hostage. Though the man with the eye-patch was tenacious, Cloudhawk's methods earned them some information.

One name he kept repeating was of special concern - Blackfiend.

He was the founder of the Highwaymen, as well as their spiritual leader. It'd only taken this mysterious bandit leader a few years to gather a sizable mob. They began gobbling up territory and feeding off merchants to make their living.

Why merchants?

The Highwaymen didn't have the strength to take on more dangerous and bloodthirsty prey like sweeper gangs. Small-scale merchants were much easier to pick off and had a much better payoff.

Elysians didn't care very much about the bandit crew. Like the name implied they weren't a particularly large or dangerous outfit. They were like weeds - cut them down and they'll just spring up somewhere else. Destroying the Highwaymen would only make space for two more to arise in its place. The elysians could kill bandits all day and never get rid of them entirely.

The many years the highwaymen kept a low profile, picking off careless merchants. Since merchants weren't respected in Skycloud, there wasn't much they could do. This went double for merchants from the borderlands. Every now and again guards from the border wall would be dispatched, but Blackfiend would just recall his people. They hid in whatever hole they called a headquarters and waited for the storm to pass, then they went right back to business.

Everything changed three years ago.

Autumn listened carefully as the story was recounted.

Three years ago the Highwaymen's cherished leader disappeared. When he resurfaced, Blackfiend was completely different. He'd been strong enough before to keep the thugs in line, but when he returned he was even more powerful. All of a sudden, the force he wielded was terrifying to them.

He started calling himself a blessing to the wasteland. From then on he adopted the title 'Undying'.

Under his leadership, bandits started going after notable crews. As success piled upon success it seemed Blackfiend's assumed moniker was true, he might as well have been immortal. Like wind sweeping away autumn leaves, the highwaymen absorbed the bandit gangs they came across. Numbers and influence swelled, and with each passing day they became more radical.

That's why they called him Blackfiend the Undying.

Blackfiend was more than a robber baron. As their spiritual leader it was not only chiefs who heeded his orders. Every member, big and small, bowed to the man's will. When he became Blackfiend the Undying, his status elevated even higher. He was almost worshipped.

The Highwaymen had total faith in their leader. He was the chosen of the wastelands, destined to rule this untamed place. A simple gang of thieves suddenly became a cult of personality. Blackfiend the Undying was a god among men, immortal as the elysian gods. Sooner or later the wastelands would bend to him whim and he lord over it all.

Autumn shivered, though it was not just the cold that made her tremble now.

The one-eyed bandit hooted like a night owl. "Holding me won't help you. Only delivering the girl to the Undying will do that. Maybe he'll spare your life. You are in his territory now, and out here there is no hope!"

Cloudhawk stuffed a piece of cloth in the zealot's mouth to keep him quiet. He then turned toward the fire and lit a cigarette. Tobacco crackled as it burned.

Tendrils of smoke curled around Autumn and made her cough. Irritated, she opened her mouth to share a few choice words but then saw his expression. The young Warden's black eyes peered searchingly into the flames. Her curses turned to curiosity. "What are you thinking about?"

"Whether or not I should give you to Blackfiend, obviously." He seemed genuinely torn by the idea. "He sounds like a dangerous guy."

Her face drained of color and fear made her heart race. "How could you even think that!"

"Relax with the drama, lady. I'm just joking, alright. Shit, you're almost in tears." He chuckled at her terrified expression. "Why would I do that? Do you know how valuable you are? Relax. Until I get my eboncrys, I'm not letting you out of my sight."

His words hardly filled her with confidence.

Autumn tried to keep he voice from trembling, but failed. "Is there really someone like that? Blackfiend the Undying?"

"Don't listen to his bullshit. Undying?" Cloudhawk shook his head, he didn't believe the tale. "I've seen a lot of shit in my life, but nothing that claimed itself immortal. The bandit king probably has some skill, but if I come at him with my sword his head will come off same as anyone else. I'm pretty sure that'd kill him."

His confidence helped ease Autumn's fear, but she glanced at the other member of their small party.

The one-eyed bandit lay on the ground, his face twisted in a mad grin. In the faint light of the fire his hideous expression looked particularly unsettling. Autumn shifted uncomfortable at the sight of him.

Blackfiend the Undying, chosen of the wasteland and its ordained future ruler. How could these insects understand?

This self-important young fool only dares speak his blasphemies because he has not seen it for himself. If he only knew, he wouldn't be so dismissive. What does this young demonhunter think he knows about the world? Just wait. Insult the Undying. Your death is coming.

Cloudhawk didn't know anything about where their leader came from, but he saw the sort of zeal he inspired in his people. They were devoted, and unafraid to die. This didn't come from some special power, though. When he lived with the Seekers he learned of their drugs, and how it could turn people into rabid followers. Their actions and thoughts changed after even one injection. It turned them berserk, mindless, fanatical, and aggressive. At the same time it completely removed fear and a sense of self-preservation.

If Cloudhawk's guess was right, the Highwaymen's leader was using these drugs to control his people. Little by little it ate away at their will until they were brainwashed into worshiping him. Cloudhawk saw it in the crew leader, his judgement was starting to be effected. He would probably eat shit if his master told him to do it.

So did that mean Blackfiend had the support of the Seekers?

And speaking of the Seekers, ultimately that meant the Dark Atom. When did they start to have this ability?

Cloudhawk was still mulling over the connection when something came through his connection with Oddball. He shot to his feet. "A group of bandits is getting close."

"What? Bandits?!" Autumn's eyes went wide and she started to shake. "Have the Highwaymen found us? We have to run!"

"No, it doesn't seem like them." Cloudhawk stamped out their little fire. "Let's take a look."

Silvery moonlight blanketed the wasteland, giving it a spectral glow. A long caravan was fighting something and seemed to have run into some trouble. Targeted by a pack of wild wolves, it sounded like. However the group was an odd one. There were about fifty or sixty people all told, but only half of them were able-bodied. They had longbows and guns, and at the moment they were surrounded. Women and children were being shoved in the center for protection.

The wasteland was a dangerous place, especially at night. Most people tried to avoid traveling in darkness as much as they could. This went double if they had women and children to consider.

"They have women and children. They can't be bandits." Hope sprang in Autumn's eyes. She looked pleadingly at Cloudhawk. "They're being attacked by beasts. Quickly, go help them!"

Cloudhawk scowled. "They aren't helpless. I'm sure they can handle a few wolves. But something doesn't feel right, let's keep watching."

"What are you doing?! There are women and babies over there! What if they get hurt?"

Irritation was clear in his voice. "Whatever I decide to do, you can be damn sure it has nothing to do with your bullshit opinion. If you're so eager to be a hero why don't you help them yourself?"

Autumn shrunk under his reprimands. Her bottom lip began to quiver.

"Alright, alright! Fuck, you're a pain in my ass. I've never met someone so annoying." He shot her a helpless look, and her eyes twinkled. Just as she was beginning to think Cloudhawk wasn't a total scoundrel, his eyes narrowed. Suddenly he whispered, "But if you want me to help I'm sure as hell not doing it for free. I see sixty people over there, so let's add sixty eboncrys to what you owe. Call it labor costs."

"You..." Autumn's pretty eyes went wide. She angrily stomped her foot but it didn't make her feel any better. With no other option, she grit her teeth and spat her answer at him. "Fine! You'll have your money! I hope you choke on it!"

Cloudhawk guffawed and moved in to help.

Roughly half of the group were women and children. Cloudhawk figured even if something was off about them, they weren't a threat. And a dozen or so wolves? Hardly worth a thought.

With a crossbow in hand he leapt into the air. From above, a hail of bolts peppered the wolves and killed half their number in a blink. What remained fled, yelping in fear.

The caravan he saved looked around in panic. Out here, in this place, it didn't matter who popped out from the shadows. Fear was the standard reaction.

Autumn dragged the one-eyed bandit with her over to the group. When she got there, she saw that although there were women and children, it wasn't what she expected. Obviously they were not there of their own free will. The twenty-some men with them, bearing weapons, were driving them along.

"Slave traders?"

There was nothing and no one Cloudhawk hated more than slave traders.

"Thanks for the help." One of the older men stepped forward. He took a careful look at Cloudhawk and saw the murderous intent in his eyes. It immediately put him on guard. "We're on our way to the Highwaymen. These people are our gift to Blackfiend the Undying, so we can buy a spot on his crew. If you're thinking of making a move, I'd advise against it. These women and children belong to Blackfiend now, and we fight in his name. Piss off the Undying and you can bet your corpses will be left out for the sun to rot."

An offering? Women and children? Autumn was mortified, and the news took Cloudhawk by surprise as well.

The bandit leader they'd captured began to struggle. He spat the cloth from his mouth and screamed at the top of his lungs. "I'm a Highwayman! All glory to the Undying! Save me!"