The setting sun was the color of blood as it shone down upon the wasteland. The scavenging hour had arrived.
Cloudhawk woke up to throbbing spasms of pain in his stomach. This familiar sensation had accompanied him his entire life and filled many of his memories. The scavengers referred to it as ‘hunger’, and it supposedly was a perpetual curse which the Creator had pronounced upon all living beings.
If he once again failed to find any sustenance, he wouldn’t survive the night.
As for what he would do tomorrow? This was a question which Cloudhawk had never even considered. Tomorrow… for scavengers, ‘tomorrow’ was an extravagant word they couldn’t afford to worry about.
Cloudhawk laboriously crawled out of the burrow he had hidden himself within. When his feet once more stood atop the scorching ground of the ruins, he was suddenly struck by a strong dizzying spell. The ancient ruins around him were filled with crumbling fences and dilapidated walls, as well as scraps of corpses that had fallen down from the other worlds. The once-dazzling buildings that had been erected here had been reduced to worthless piles of rubble, buried and forgotten by both the sands of the wasteland and the sands of time.
The gaunt youth was such a tiny figure, dwarfed by the howling sandstorms that ruled this place. The wind blew through his tousled black hair, covering up his slender, youthful features. His withered frame was covered with a few scraps of dirty cloth, and his rough, callused skin was filled with wounds both new and old. His eyes, however, were clear and alert. This was the only thing which separated him from the other, ordinary scavengers.
Cloudhawk was only fourteen or fifteen years old.
Scavenger life was very simple. Spend roughly twenty hours each day hidden within a hole or a burrow, avoiding the sweltering heat and the blistering cold. Only during the scant hours of dawn and dusk would you be able to climb out of your hole and search for food within the ruins. Day after day, year after year, this cycle repeated itself. This type of life seemed rather dull, but the scavengers viewed the dullness as an incredible blessing… because any disruption of this boring cycle almost always portended impending death.
Cloudhawk couldn’t help but think about the old-timer.
The old-timer was an unconventional scavenger who had withstood the vicissitudes of time. Not only did he know how to read the language of the Old Times, he also knew many things which scavengers weren’t supposed to know. He loved to tell stories and delighted in collecting useless things, especially tools, paintings, and books from the Old Times. The only one who he could share these things with was Cloudhawk, and so the two of them became each other’s only companion and friend.
This morning, the sun had risen as it always did… but this time, the old-timer didn’t crawl out of his hole.
Still, the old-timer was a lucky man. At least he had Cloudhawk around to bury him.
Cloudhawk didn’t want to think about what would happen to him if he himself fell over. He didn’t have much meat left on his bones, but starving scavengers generally weren’t picky about their food. The crazy meat merchants would probably chop his body apart into eight pieces, smoke his flesh to cure it, then hang it up on their rusting steel hooks. They’d save part of the meat for themselves, trading off the rest for some mildly contaminated drinking water.
These were the wastelands. For the sake of survival, many would be willing to eat anything, do anything.
Sometimes, Cloudhawk envied the others. However, the old-timer had told him long ago that if mankind discarded its final scraps of decency and morality, the entire human race would truly be doomed.
He was so hungry he could barely walk.
Cloudhawk dragged his skinny frame through the ruins, looking like a strand of straw that was being tossed about by the wind. He felt as though he could collapse at any moment. The scavengers had long ago scoured the ruins clean. To find food was no easy task.
Would he fail in this task yet again?
Would this be his last time seeing the setting sun as well?
Cloudhawk sat down lifelessly. The setting sun was making its way down past the horizon, painting the ruins with its blood-red glow. He saw a goshawk soaring through the skies, weaving its way through the clouds, and he couldn’t help but reveal a hint of jealousy in his gaze. When he had given himself the name ‘Cloudhawk’, it was because he wanted to be like one of the hawks that flew through the clouds, free and unfettered… but in the end, it was all nothing more than a crazy dream. Right?
Things weren’t over yet.
He couldn’t give up. He wouldn’t give up!
Right at this moment, he suddenly picked up the sound of hurried footsteps ringing off in the distance. Cloudhawk leapt to his feet like a startled animal, unsheathing a shard of metal that he had ground sharp long ago as he vigilantly stared off into the distance. This was a chaotic, crazed era. Every single day, there would be starving scavengers who attempted to murder their own kind, and their victims were often skinny children like Cloudhawk.
And indeed, the sounds of the footsteps grew nearer and nearer until finally, three raggedly dressed scavengers suddenly appeared within his line of vision, charging towards him at high speed.
Cloudhawk’s face turned pale as he took two steps back. He was now so weak that a strong wind could knock him down. Three scavengers were attacking him at the same time? There was no way he was going to be able to get out of this alive!
Something was wrong!
Although the three had savage-looking faces, they didn’t have the murderous look of predators nearing their targets. Instead, they looked like terrified prey that were filled with horror and despair.
They weren’t attacking. They were fleeing for their lives!
Just as Cloudhawk began to have a bad feeling about this, a large group of black creatures suddenly appeared directly behind the fleeing scavengers, charging straight towards them. There had to be at least ten of the things. They were roughly the sizes of wild dogs, and their eyes were a terrifying, rabid red color.
Cloudhawk stood there for a stunned instant, his mind overwhelmed by all of this. Only a single thought was able to make its way past the cacophonous din in his mind, an instinct that came from his very soul…
The threat of death was something which brought everyone’s full potential.
Somehow, his utterly emaciated body managed to squeeze out another burst of energy. Cloudhawk didn’t waste any time trying to figure out exactly what was behind him, nor did he want to. He already knew the only thing that mattered – those mutabeasts, those savage mutabeasts, were utterly terrifying predators.
Within the ruins, and in fact within the entirety of the wastelands, the scavengers were at the very bottom of the food chain. How could they possibly fight back against such terrifying mutabeasts?
The first to fall was a woman. She had been the slowest of the three.
One of the creatures sank its sharp fangs into her neck, then gave it a vicious tug. Blood spewed out like a geyser, blanketing the area with a crimson hue.
A second monster. A third. The black shapes competed to get at her, and bloody chunks of meat were ripped off of every part of the woman’s body. In the blink of an eye, her stomach was torn open and her intestines and internal organs were all dragged out of her.
It was bloody, cruel, and terrifying!
For a brief moment, screams of utter terror and agony could be heard, reaching out like specters of death towards the other three. Some of the mutabeasts were too slow to get a share of the meat, and so they continued to pursue the remaining scavengers. They were simply too fast. Just three seconds later, yet another scavenger was caught by them.
The sounds of bones splintering and flesh being torn apart… these sounds caused Cloudhawk’s entire body to turn cold!
As the terrified Cloudhawk rounded a corner, a scene that brought him utter despair greeted him. Rubble had completely sealed off the path in front of him. This was a dead end that he could not go past!
What should he do? What should he do?
The third agonized scream rang out as the final scavenger was brought down.
Three of the mutabeasts leapt straight past the final scavenger’s corpse, moving like streaks of black lightning as they sprinted towards the helpless, emaciated youth.
Danger! Danger! Danger! Cloudhawk could sense that death was approaching. If he hesitated for even a moment, he would never be able to recover from it.
Turning back meant death. His only choice was to give this last attempt his all!
Ignoring what was coming for him, he charged straight towards the rubble and dove into a deep but incredibly narrow opening.
There was no way an adult would’ve been able to make it into this opening. Even Cloudhawk’s emaciated form was just barely able to squeeze in… and moments later, he heard a rustling sound as one of the mutabeasts tried to burrow in after him, unwilling to give up the chase!
The mutabeast was so close that Cloudhawk could already smell its foul stench.
Cloudhawk continued to climb through the opening, only to find that he had already reached the end. There was nowhere else to go at all, and the beast behind him was already growling as it prepared to launch its attack.
Everything hung on a thread. This was the critical moment, the moment when life or death would be decided.
Although he was filled with despair, Cloudhawk didn’t hesitate as he turned, metal shard in hand. The dark form was pouncing straight towards him, its blood-red eyes gleaming brutally in the darkness. Its fangs were as sharp as knives, and it was about to plunge them into the morsel of a prey that stood before it, then tear that morsel to shreds.
Cloudhawk let out a low, bestial roar as he stabbed wildly… and his metal shard just so happened to plunge directly into the creature’s eyes.
The creature let out an agonized howl as it slammed straight into Cloudhawk. Its sharp claws left several bloody gouges across Cloudhawk’s body, but Cloudhawk managed to press its head down. The opening within the rubble really was quite narrow, giving the creature no way to extricate itself from Cloudhawk’s grip.
“DIE! DIE!” Cloudhawk had become even more savage than the beast as he used his metal shard to furiously stab more than ten times at the creature’s head. An enormous amount of foul-smelling blood filled the surrounding area, coating his face, his hands, and his clothes.
Two of the other beasts were circling the opening, but they weren’t able to squeeze in. Upon hearing the miserable howls of the one which had gone in, they immediately turned and left this place. As for Cloudhawk, he was all but immobilized. He panted furiously, his oxygen-deprived brain turning dizzy for a time. Right now, he truly didn’t even have enough energy to move so much as a pinky.
After that final frenzied spurt of energy, his body was once more swept up by waves of exhaustion and weakness. He had ignored his body’s exhaustion, and it was now demanding that he repay tenfold what he had just squeezed out of it.
For the first time, he was able to get a close look at the creature in front of him.
This was a creature with sleek, oily black fur, long and sharp claws, and terrifyingly red eyes. It almost looked like an enormous mutant rat. Still, that didn’t matter. What mattered was that there had to be over five kilograms of meat on the thing.
This was food!
Cloudhawk grew excited once more. He used his metal shard to tear open the creature’s tough skin, then carved out a few gibbets of wonderfully fatty meat which he shoved into his mouth. It was sour, pungent, and crude… but to humans who lived here in the wastelands, it was the most delicious of all delicacies.
Cloudhawk normally survived on ants, beetles, and grass. It had been a long, long time since he had eaten meat. As the food slowly made its way down into his stomach, a warm feeling quickly spread throughout his entire body. The aches and pains in his body seemed to lessen, replaced by a sense of satisfaction that was too wonderful to be described in words.
He ate until his wizened stomach was once more burgeoning. Only then did he finally come to a halt, a blissful look on his face.
The mutabeasts outside had long since departed. Cloudhawk dragged the prey he had personally killed with him as he began to return to his burrow. He would be able feast on the five kilograms of meat for many days to come.
But just as Cloudhawk pulled the corpse out of the opening, a voice that was as rough as a wild beast’s suddenly rang out. “Put the meat down!”
Four or five adult scavengers were blocking his path. The leader looked quite sturdily built, and his face was filled with savage-looking scars, giving him a baleful, ominous look.
These scavengers had noticed the commotion in this region quite some time ago, and so they had hidden themselves in the surrounding area, hoping to be able to scavenge a few bones from the dead. In the end, they ran into a child carrying the prey he had killed.
The luxurious, fatty meat made their mouths water.
The scar-faced man growled, “Put. The meat. DOWN!”
Cloudhawk looked at them silently, the look on his face akin to that of a lone wolf’s, a look filled with danger. The two sides stared at each other across the ruins, like a pair of beasts weighing each other up. In truth, in this era the line between man and beast was a blurry one at best.
Put it down?
I nearly traded my life away to get this meat. You want me to put it down!?
Cloudhawk didn’t waste any time on words. Like an enraged young beast, he threw himself straight forwards and landed a punch directly on the scarred man’s face.
There was no question as to who would win this battle. In the end, Cloudhawk was nothing more than a half-grown child. How was he supposed to defeat multiple fully-grown adults? In a best-case scenario, the end result would be him suffering multiple beatings, then watch as the meat he had nearly died for be taken away from him.
Night finally descended.
Covered in wounds, the youth slunk back to his burrow like a beaten dog. He didn’t feel any hatred or resentment towards the scavengers who had stolen his prey. As a child who had grown up in the scavenger camps, he had long ago grown accustomed to the rules of the wastelands.
In the wastelands, there were no such things as ‘principles’. The only law was the law of the strong!
The strong would have food, slaves, and women. The weak would be enslaved, abused, and robbed. This was how the wastelands were. In this world, in this age, in this place… morality didn’t matter. To be weak was a type of sin, in and of itself!
The light of the moon flowed into his burrow, carrying with it a bone-chilling cold that mere blankets couldn’t ward off. He was so cold that he curled up into a ball, but the wounds covering his body made it impossible for him to fall asleep.
Instead, Cloudhawk chose to sit up. He picked up a metal box, blew off the layer of dust covering it, then lifted it up and stared at it as though he was staring at the most valuable of treasures. Slowly, gingerly, he withdrew the brightly-colored objects from within the box.
He stared raptly at these pictures, his gaze distant and dreamy. These were pictures which the old-timer had laboriously collected over the course of many years. They were a testament to the fact that the Old Times truly had existed, but the passage of countless years had begun to cause the pictures to fade and become unrecognizable.
Every time he stared at them, his young heart couldn’t help but quicken its beat.
Every time he stared at them, the pain, the hunger, and the injuries he had suffered would all recede slightly.
Every time he stared at them… no matter how much despair he felt or how dark the world seemed, he would feel as though he could still see a few flickers of light.
The ancient, bygone era of the Old Times! What type of a magical, dream-like world had it been?
Back then, people had been clean and handsome. The cities had been prosperous and flourishing. There was no danger, no terrifying mutabeasts, no brutally savage mutant humans, and no scavengers who struggled to stay alive in the desolate wastelands.
Had that era truly come to an end?
Did it perhaps still survive and persist in some unknown corner of this world?
Cloudhawk’s pitch-black eyes were blazing with eagerness. He truly wanted to wander the camps and wander the wastelands!
It was as though a metal seal had long ago been fastened deep within his soul. This was a desire that had sprung up long ago, when he was very young. Back then, the old-timer had asked him: Why? The camps were dangerous, the ruins were dangerous, and the wastelands were even more dangerous. This path was a path of certain death!
“It is because I was born into this world! Since this world chose for me to come into it, I have the right to get a good look at it!
“Sooner or later, I will go out searching. I’ll find that utopia, that heaven-like place. If I can so much as catch a glimpse of it, if I can so much as have the chance to press my lips against the ground beneath it… even if I die the very next instant, I will regret nothing!”
The old-timer had fallen silent.
From that day forth, he had kept the child by his side, sharing his food with him and teaching him how to read. The child had spent many years straddling the line between life and death… but not only had that desire not gone away, it had only grown increasingly intense!
The old-timer had once said that some people were born to be free, much like the hawks. They might grow up in a chicken coop, but sooner or later they would spread their wings and soar into the skies.
Would he truly have that chance?
He wasn’t even able to escape the ruins, much less wander into the endless, unfathomably more dangerous wastelands.
The old-timer had often spoken of destiny. Everyone, he claimed, had their own destiny. No one would be able to escape that destiny, no matter how hard they tried.
Is this my destiny? I won’t believe it!
The youth had eaten his fill of the torments of the wastelands, but he was still filled with an untamed spirit, and his eyes still shone with an indescribable, irrepressible flame. He slowly placed the metal box underneath his head, using it as his pillow. Only then did his exhausted body finally fall into a deep slumber.