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Book 5, Chapter 22 - More Schemes?

 Cloudhawk was a little taken aback. What was this guy so scared of? As far as he knew, there was no wasteland power more frightening than the Elysians. If there was, how was it Skycloud didn't know they existed? If Cloudhawk was willing to spit in the eye of Skycloud's best, what did he have to fear from nobody wastelanders?

"I have lived in these wastes for sixty years. In that time I ran with a number of leaders and met many people. Several had ambitious to explore those southern highlands. Only a few ever returned and never with anything good to say. Greenland City is like thunder in a dry desert, but if we try to fight the south as we are now, all that will come is death."

"It sounds like you underestimate Greenland City," Cloudhawk replied.

"Underestimate? I don't think so!" Sand Viper leaned in earnestly. "Have you heard of the great figure that roamed these wastes four or five years ago? Caliph of the Sands, he was called."

Cloudhawk's face showed that he did. "The Caliph? That demon? What does any of this have to do with him?"

"If legends are to be believed, then it came from somewhere down south. Half a decade ago he controlled a vast swathe of this place. Greenland Outpost - as it was called - was also under his control. Word was a demonhunter from Skycloud defeated it, forcing the demon to flee. Were it not for that effort then the South would long ago have been unified under the Caliph's banner."

Cloudhawk stared back at him with a solemn facade. Abaddon, the Caliph of the Sands. What did he have to do with the savage south? He was here at Wolfblade's request, to bring that untamed expanse under heel. But never once was Abaddon's involvement revealed.

What was this asshole scheming? The anger swirled within him to learn that Wolfblade was hiding more things from him. The terrorist leader was no simple sort - Cloudhawk knew that well. He was in a similar class to Arcturus, so he knew there was no getting away from Wolfblade if he didn't will it.

So what was the man plotting? Cloudhawk couldn't figure it out.

Seeing the Greenlander's furrowed brow, Sand Viper knew his words had left an impression. Sandspire's Governor could not know that Abaddon was working with the Dark Atom, of course. However, he did know the Dark Atom was a northern outfit that had sent some of its best down here to establish a base of power. No clan, outpost or city had the resources to rival the north, so it was no surprise that their denizens would be stronger and better equipped.

The new territory known as Greenland was an extension of its strength. It was enough to dominate this small area, but not enough for what they aimed for. If Greenland started kicking up trouble in the south, Sandspire would be caught between them.

Cloudhawk's mind was racing. He should have known the south wastes were a more muddled quagmire than it appeared. Why else would Wolfblade have sent him here to build up their fledgling territory? Suddenly it made more sense as to why he'd have Autumn - a god - tag along for what Cloudhawk thought would be a relatively simple mission.

But that wasn't all. Autumn and the old drunk were extraordinary powerhouses and were more than enough to bring the surrounding settlements into line. He also had the Polaris family at his beck and call, with Dawn and at least a couple dozen demonhunters and martial artists. With a roster like that they could stand on their own in the Conclave-infested north, much less down here. He hadn't thought of it before, but if they were truly so well defended, then why would Autumn go through all the effort of building her protective enchantments?

He should have seen it. Someone as prideful and ornery as Autumn wouldn't have wasted her power for something trivial. What's more, with her job done she could simply have gone back to the Vale - yet in Greenland she remained. Not just remained; she seemed to have put down roots. If that wasn't at Wolfblade's direct order, than Cloudhawk didn't know why else she would be here. If that snake had ordered such an enchantment to be built around Greenland, if was for one reason only. It would be needed.

Greenland City wasn't as safe as he thought.

But it was too late to back away now. He had a responsibility not just to himself, but to Gabby, Barb, the drunk, Claudia, hundreds of Polaris soldiers, and every citizen in their young domain. He couldn't abandon them, even if he suddenly found himself up against a problem he knew nothing about.

This mysterious problem had also sent someone to feel out their defenses. Whatever they were up against wasn't going to stop - there was bound to be a lot more to come.

It was foolish for Cloudhawk to come here and expect Sandspire and Greenland to stand alone.

Sand Viper was preparing his arguments, eager to make this Greenlander abandon the idea entirely. However, they were interrupted when a messenger delivered news. "Boss, Red Scorpion has sent an invitation for you to meet him in the ruins."

"Red Scorpion? Wasn't he cast out a decade ago? What is he doing back here?"

When Sand Viper had first heard of Red Scorpion, he'd been one of Sandspire's earliest leaders. For a variety of reasons a power struggle transpired and he was overthrown. Red Scorpion was allowed to leave with his life and fled into the wastes.

Now he was back, after so many years...

Sandspire had seen so many leaders come and go in that time.

During his time in exile Red Scorpion had managed to scrounge together a group of sweepers Bandits who lived off small communities and quickly earned a name for themselves. It seemed word had spread that Sandspire's leader was gone, defeated along with a few thousand fighters. The city was in a delicate and turbulent time.

Red Scorprion's return could only mean trouble. After so many years Red Scorpion likely had built a good number of supporters. Perhaps he thought now was the time to drive out the pretender who sat in his chair, the same way they'd driven him out a decade ago.

Sand Viper was a scientist and not a warrior, but he was smart enough to sniff out a trap. This invitation was meant to draw him out so Red Scorpion could deal with him.

The new Governor's hold on the city was still tentative. He didn't have many capable people and definitely not enough to accept such an invitation. But if he didn't, he lost the initiative and gave it to his enemy. It was a blow against the reputation of the city's new and untested leader.

"Accept. So long as I'm here, you've got nothing to worry about."

Cloudhawk could see the uncertainty on Sand Viper's face. The situation down south could be put aside for now. Whatever came from that mess, he'd deal with as it came. Right now, Sandspire had to be protected. Its relationship with Greenland City was too important to be thrown away from some petty power struggle.

Sand Viper still hesitated. He didn't know anything about Cloudhawk or how strong he really was. He wouldn't have had so many misgivings if it was the old man from before who was here to assure him. But this man? He couldn't tell how old he was, but if he had to hazard a guess the stranger was young.

As for news he killed three orebiters on his own? While it was a feat only the strong could manage, it wasn't a truly awe-inspiring feat by itself. This invitation meant Red Scorpion was prepared, with home-field advantage. It would be a mistake to underestimate him, or to pin all their hopes on this outsider.

"Very well, thank you Master Cloudhawk. I should like to see what this dog is up to." Sand Viper then turned to his son. "Call Rhino."

As the name suggested, Rhino was not just another wastelander. He was easily three meters tall and was built like his namesake with thick skin and bulging muscles.

He reminded Cloudhawk of a mutant he met in the southern wastes many years ago. One of Abaddon's lieutenants - Longhorn was his name, second after the freak in black but easily the strongest. He remembered how the mutant had managed to seriously wound the Bloodsoaked Queen with one of his punches.

Rhino here seemed at least as strong, probably stronger. He was most likely among the best Sandspire could muster in a fight.

He was a violent man who was willing to do whatever was needed to get ahead. It was that explosive violence that gave him the edge against even established warriors, making him savage and unpredictable.

In order to ensure his own safety, Sand Viper had promised Rhino a lot to win his loyalty. This fact did not exactly show a great deal of confidence in Cloudhawk. However, he didn't give it too much thought for the time being.

***

The day of the meeting arrived. Sand Viper and several hundred men filed out of Sandspire and into the ruins.

Red Scorpion was waiting. He was a short but fierce looking older fellow who was flanked by a hundred or so hideous looking mutants. These were the best fighters Red Scorpion had gathered through his years of exile. The hands of all of them were stained in the blood of countless victims, and their presence immediately made the atmosphere heavy and foreboding.

Sand Viper was the first to speak. "Red Scorpion, you came a long way to Sandspire and called me out for no reason."

"Heh heh." The man shook when he laughed as though he had some sort of tick, but there was nothing weak about him. Rather he was like a bowstring, taught and twitching, ready to fire. "Heard Sandspire's suffered a few setbacks. Heavy losses. Whatever happened, the place is still home to me. Can't forget where we come from, aye? So when I heard Sandspire's hurtin', I brought my men to offer our services."

Sand Viper was careful to keep his voice level. "That's kind of you, Boss. But the city is safe and calm. Your generosity isn't needed."

"You think you can protect Sandspire with this group of shitfucks?" Red Scorpion glared at the men Sand Viper had brought with him. "I hear you already sold us out to Greenland."

A dark expression came over the Governor's face. "I am the leader of Sandspire City. What does it matter to you what decisions I make?"

"Leader of Sandspire City?" The older man's face twisted into something more savage. "If it wasn't for my brother, the Three-Eyed Spider, do you think Sandspire would be in the hands of trash like you?"

Cloudhawk sucked in a breath. Red Scorpion was the brother of Dark Atom's former scientific leader?

No wonder... if there was one thing Three-Eyed Spider excelled at, it was engineering. That's how a monstrosity like Raven came into being as well as those mech soldiers. Three years ago he was a big part of the Dark Atom, but before that he must have learned his trade here. It would make sense to reach out to the Dark Atom for more knowledge when you exhausted what you could find in Sandspire. Meanwhile Red Scorpion stayed behind with aspirations of leading the place. He succeeded, only to be cast out later when a more powerful force came to wrest the city from him.

"I'm not here to play games! In the wastelands, strength decides all things!" Red Scorpion's face was dark as a thunderhead. "So. You got the balls to pit your guys against mine?"

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