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Book 5, Chapter 1 - Cleaning House

 Greenland Outpost had turned into Greenland City

It was a thriving settlement in the middle of a green and red wasteland, one of the richest in the south.

Over the last four years the Dark Atom had been secretly funneling wealth into the outpost, expanding both its riches and its population. There were now eighty thousand people nestled in this deadly oasis working in warehouses, manufacturing plants, fields, pastures and science labs.

Whether it was in population, production capacity or regional influence, Greenland City was top of its class.

Cloudhawk didn't pay much attention to the tall buildings creeping up from the canopy as they approached. Rather, he took a small detour to an area overgrown with long grass. A mound of dirt without a headstone marked the grave he'd left.

He plucked a bottle of alcohol from his dimensional pocket, uncorked it, and poured its contents over the grave of his old friend. A fondness crept into his eyes. "Artemis. What a fuckin' riot, eh? Even I never would have thought I'd come back here. It's been a hell of a ride. I'm a lot stronger than I used to be."

A flood of emotions was running through him. The past felt like a lifetime ago, and yet it could have been yesterday. It all felt like a dream sometimes. The truth was quite different.

Here he was, back in the place he never thought he'd return to. Those he never thought he'd meet he ran in to in the least expected ways. Yet the place he'd always been searching for was never found, and the people he thought he'd travel with forever were gone or far away.

What he lost was still lost. What he wanted he still didn't have. The only thing that'd changed in all this time were the tired lines times had etched in his face.

Cloudhawk ran his fingers over the tall grass embracing the grave. They crept out from cracks in the stones he'd used to mark the place. He imagined they took root in his friend's body, like a part of her given new life. "I don't plan to leave again anytime soon. This place is as good as any. I'll make sure to stop by often and share a bottle with you."

Four years ago, frail but determined, he'd set out to pursue his dreams in the Elysian lands. Four years later he returned, strong but fragile, he was back for an extended rest.

"What are you doing here by yourself?" Hellflower's annoyed voice came from behind. She walked to his side and took his arm. "Come on, the city's Governor has prepared everything. We have a fine dinner planned for this evening."

He sighed. Cloudhawk wasn't here to live in quiet seclusion. He was here to take over a city. And since that was his aim he couldn't avoid a chat with its current leader.

Greenland Fort was a lot better furnished than he remembered it.

When they arrived, a towering man with dark skin and red tattoos exited to greet them. He was flanked by a dozen of his best men, who spread out in an orderly line when Cloudhawk approached. The city's leader bowed his head respectfully.

"I am called Cerberus, Governor of Greenland City. Once we heard you three bosses were coming we prepared a feast for you. Please, come in."

Something seemed to occur to him then, because he raised his head and looked at them in curiosity. "I was told there would be three, but I only see two."

Hellflower smirked, drawing the eyes of the wastelanders. "She isn't fond of social engagements. Our third has decided to rest instead of join us. I'm sure she'll present herself when the time is right."

"Very well, then please follow me."

Cerberus was a well-known figure in this part of the wastes. He'd managed Greenland City for the past several years without incident, which spoke volumes to his leadership skills.

He led Cloudhawk and Hellflower into a dining chamber. Cerberus ordered his guards outside, where they took up position by the door. Only his most trusted people were permitted to join them inside.

Once they were settled a small army of attractive server women entered, each bearing trays of food. The fragrant scents of wasteland fish, fried greens and barbecued meats filled the hall. Some of the finest wine produced in the wasteland was poured into crystal glasses, underlining the fact that this reception was meant to be as luxurious as possible.

"The situation in the southern wastes is complicated. I am not a man of much skill, but I took this posting at the respected Master's request. The past few years have been taxing." Despite his words, Cerberus' face was relaxed. "But now that you've come to take over, the insignificant rascals of the wilds are nothing to be feared. I, Cerberus, am the first to drink to your rule! From now on the torch is passed, but I will aid where I can, come swords or hellfire."

If Cerberus was so eager to bend the knee, his subordinates wouldn't dare offend. The atmosphere was cordial and calm, with all manner of boot-licking freely given. Whether or not they continued to prosper and take over the southern wilds was up to their new bosses, now.

"So," Cloudhawk was finishing his second glass of wine. "Is there any known opposition to Greenland City nearby?"

Cerberus nodded his head and scowled. "It's different here from the North. The landscape is complicated and strong mutants run their own crews. The further south you go, the worse it gets. Any groups we send out get caught, so we rarely bother with their territory. A few outposts and larger settlements are less than friendly with us. Their forces are tricky to deal with, but not any significant threat."

"Really? I grew up here, I don't remember hearing about any dangerous groups like you describe."

"Word is that in the southern highlands there's a sort of nation they built up. Everyone they send out is a dangerous character. Since the area isn't even known to the Elysians, it's largely considered a legend outside of this area." Cerberus voice dropped a little in volume. "But we've done some digging, and it seems the legends are true. They've been more active lately and are sending more of their people into our territory."

Cloudhawk frowned.

He was right, there were real differences between the northern and southern wastelands. For one, the south was rife with mutant creatures and twisted freaks. While cities like Greenland existed, they were the exception rather than the rule. An organization like the Dark Atom had never taken root here, and there was no word of mutant leaders like the Four Kings this far south.

Since it was so wild and unorganized, the south didn't get a lot of attention from Skycloud.

What he was hearing was that there was an area even further south that was such a mystery even the Elysians didn't know about it. A secret power has been brewing that way this whole time. Cloudhawk had never heard a thing about it until now. Maybe he was too weak and too insignificant at the time to be part of those conversations, or maybe the mysterious group had only begun to reveal itself.

In either case, it hardly mattered. Cloudhawk could hold his own against a Skycloud contingent, some wastelander organization couldn't threaten him. He decided to pay it no mind for the time being. First, he had to establish himself here.

"The wine is poisoned!"

The cry came from Hellflower, sputtered through a mouthful of blood before she collapsed on top of the table.

Her sudden affliction took Cloudhawk off-guard. Half a moment later, his head hit the table as well.

Cerberus let his glass drop the ground and shatter.

It was a signal to the men outside. They rushed in, weapons drawn. The friendly expressions were gone and the typical savage, deceitful wastelander snarls were painted on their faces. They lurched forward, ready to carve these Dark Atom usurpers into pieces.

"Fuckin' morons," Cerberus growled. "Did you really thing I'd just hand Greenland City over?"

A sea of sinister grins was closing in.

"Strangers from some far off place, waltzing in here to take what's mine. Obvious you were tired of living. I built this place, and you thought you could just give the command and take it for yourself? Cut these idiots to ribbons!"

"Wait!" A particularly wretched looking man called out, his greedy eyes slithering over Hellflower's curvaceous firm. "Boss, a woman like her is a rare treat out here. It would be a waste to just cut her up without having a little fun first."

"Shit, you'd even fuck a corpse."

"She's still fresh, aint she? What's wrong with a turn or two? If you don't want to, then more for me!"

"Never said I didn't want to. 'Fact I'm going first!"

The foul nature of wastelanders was clear in their exchange. They fell over each other at a chance to feed their sick desires. After all, if they were sent here to hold a city this far south they weren't your typical brigands. Besides, even dead Hellflower was a hell of a lot more attractive than most ladies.

This position of power was too enticing, too much for their simple willpower to ignore.

"That's enough! You'll do what I say or I'll chop your cocks off myself and stuff in your fucking mouths!" Cerberus' anger flared. "There's still one of them out there. Find where they went, we can't let word get back."

The men reluctantly dialed back their hunger. Cerberus was the authority here. No one was going to ignore his orders.

However, no sooner had he finished giving the word then the two corpses sat back up in their seats like nothing happened.

"Cerberus, Cerberus... so easy to lose your head." Hellflower had a self-satisfied smirk on her face, even as she picked up her poisoned wine with slender fingers and took another sip. "Who did you think you'd fool with this infantile ploy? Perhaps I forgot to mention that part of Wolfblade's intent in sending me was to deal with you. You've given me an excuse to do it now with a clear conscience."

Cloudhawk, of course, was never going to die from poison. Hellflower was clever enough to have any number of means to protect herself from such a simplistic effort.

Cerberus' face sank. He stared in utter shock as his victory was snatched away. How? No, it didn't matter. There was no turning back, he would never give up his control over Greenland City.

"Do you have any idea how much I've bled for this place?! Do you know how many people I've had to sacrifice? I've watched this backwoods ruin grow and prosper like it was my own child. What made any of you think I'd give it up simply because you told me to?"

Cerberus' voice was a throaty growl, like a wild animal guarding a kill.

"You want an answer?" Cloudhawk calmly picked up a knife and carved out a piece of meat. Fires from the candelabras danced in his eyes. "It's because you're too weak."

The Governor's eyes narrowed. "You..."

Cloudhawk continued in a rugged voice. "Greenland Outpost used to be run by a guy a lot like you. Don't know if you've heard of him, but you're about to follow in his footsteps."

Cerberus' face was a mix of sickly pale and angry red.

Cloudhawk's words were like poison, but he was both speechless and helpless.

He'd heard of Hydra, the one who had controlled Greenland Outpost before. He'd tried to betray the Caliph of the Sands, even kill him. It turned out to be a stupid decision that killed him. How was Cerberus' attempts any different?

But he refused to accept this! How could they expect him to swallow such a disgraceful order?!

Cerberus' eyes had gone bloodshot. "Alright... alright... I sure as hell can't beat Abaddon. But at least I can kill you three sacks of shit before he gets me!"

The Caliph of the Sands was an unbeatable demon, ordinary mortals couldn't hope to defeat a creature like him. If Abaddon were here none of them could oppose him, but these three weren't demons. They were human, and no matter how strong humans were they had limits. There were a thousand soldiers here loyal to him, so even if one of these assholes was a legendary Master Demonhunter they couldn't take this place.

"Kill them!" Cerberus roared.

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