Chapter 102 - The Marshes

How could a place like the wastelands – a poisoned cesspool of villainy – produce a sincerely honest man? 

The answer was it couldn’t.

Growing up among the scavengers Cloudhawk saw the savagery and violence of humanity. He knew that humans were no different from beasts when conditions were right. Humans were capable of anything if it meant saving their own lives. But truth be told, he was inexperienced in how cunning and malevolent a man’s heart could be.

After the Queen’s painstakingly thorough selection process he thought he could trust Depp – that the taciturn, somewhat slow man wouldn’t scheme against him.

He thought that Depp would keep to his promises until his mission was done.

Cloudhawk really didn’t understand the world yet. The wastelands were still a mystery, as were the people he surrounded himself with. Depp was right, that’s how he got the drop on him.

The Greenland traitor slung his bow back over his shoulder and pulled out a short hunting knife. Meanwhile Cloudhawk lay upon the ground, writhing in pain.

Depp’s iron arrow was powerful enough to shoot right through a boulder, but it didn’t do that to Cloudhawk. It did managed to bury itself in his chest, however, likely only thanks to his spectacular cloak. The typical blades and bullets of the wasteland couldn’t penetrate it, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t cause damage. The arrow likely pushed the cloak into his skin, through flesh to shatter bones and ultimately implant itself and the cloak in his organs.

Depp moved in toward Cloudhawk, confident his prey was finished. He paused to pick up his exorcist rod which had been discarded to one side.

It was Cloudhawk’s main weapon, now out of reach. He had no way to fight back.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why?” Though Depp felt Cloudhawk was finished he still walked warily around the young man. He would wait until the kid died or lost consciousness, talking while the seconds ticked by. “Actually at first I did plan to complete the mission, bring you safely to the destination. The commission was sizeable, the task attractive. But the more we traveled the more I came to realize your head was more valuable detached from your body than on it. Tens… hundreds of times more valuable. If that’s the case, I asked myself, why should I give my life for Greenland Outpost? Really it’s all thanks to your skill and your luck that we escaped the sweepers. But now we don’t need to worry about that.”

It’s always been this way! Always about self-interest!

With the mask concealing his face Depp couldn’t see Cloudhawk’s expression, but he could see the weakness creeping into his eyes. Eventually he continued with a bitter laugh. “All of your flashy toys belong to me now. I’ll cut off your head and trade it for a fortune, then I’ll be sittin’ pretty. Enough to set me up for a good long time. What would be the use of going back to Greenland then?”

Inconceivable. After the sweepers, after that bloody battle, in the end Cloudhawk was felled by his own people. He couldn’t move, curled like a steamed shrimp as blood leaked from the bottom of his mask. Slowly his chest stopped moving altogether.

Depp’s face twisted into a cold, callous grin. It was time, even if the kid wasn’t dead he couldn’t fight back.

He flipped the hunting dagger around in his grip and held it reversed. Step by step he closed in on Cloudhawk’s inert body and the boy didn’t react at all. Still, despite the arrow and despite his stillness, Depp was cautious. He’d been with Cloudhawk long enough that he understood the boy’s strength.

That strength came from his tools. Alone the kid wasn’t much, only once he awakened his relics did he become a threat. At best he was comparable to some of Greenland Outpost’s elite soldiers. With his relics, though, he was on the same level as someone like Snaketooth or Artemis.

In his fight with the sweepers Cloudhawk had used up everything in him. He hadn’t the strength to summon his relics anymore. Without them what did Depp have to fear from the runt? Besides, he was injured. Even if he suddenly sprang back to his feet and tried to fight he couldn’t stand up to the hunter.

“Time to die…”

Depp leaned over and pulled Cloudhawk around, bringing his knife down toward the kid’s throat.

But at that moment something felt off. He couldn’t see clearly through the dark holes of the mask’s eyes, but he could feel the sharp eyes, like the glare of a hawk. Suddenly his whole body shook and a single thought gripped him.

This is wrong! He’s pretending… he isn’t dead!

He reacted quickly he jerking his hand back and stumbling away. Cloudhawk sprang up fast as a bowstring and pulled Depp’s iron arrow from his chest. With the last of his strength he tried to plant it in the man’s eye socket.

Depp wasn’t some extraordinary creature, no special man. He reacted on instinct when Cloudhawk lunged at him and swiped his dagger toward the boy’s chest. He wasn’t a skilled hand-to-hand fighter, but being strong enough to pull back an earth wyrm tendon he could do some significant damage. His dagger reached its target before Cloudhawk’s arrow did.

Chink!

Depp felt it clear, the dagger tearing through the bear hide armor and catching on the cloak. But instead of being buried in flesh it struck something hard – it wasn’t armor, it was something much harder than any iron protection.

What the hell was it?

Cloudhawk pressed the arrow through the soft flesh of Depp’s eye and deep into his ocular cavity. As the arrow head carved a path through bone blood spurt out like a gruesome fountain. He followed up with a kick in the center of Depp’s chest that sent the mutant reeling a dozen feet. Five or six rolls later Depp was prone on the ground.

Cloudhawk finally paused for a moment, clutching his chest and wheezing. When he pulled his hand away a metal-bound book was in his hands. It was the Gospel of Sand that had saved him from Depp’s arrow, and the swipe from his dagger. Cloudhawk kept the demon’s relic hidden inside his armor and luckily for him that was the precise spot Depp’s traitorous arrow had landed.

It was a mighty treasure, taken from the corpse of a demon! There was no way a shit like Depp was going to pierce it!

The book spread the impact of Depp’s arrow over a wider area, diffusing its power and rendering it useless. Indeed Cloudhawk’s armor had been split like butter, but there wasn’t a mark on his skin. The kid’s body might have been exhausted but his mind was still sharp, so he grabbed the shaft of the arrow once it hit him and held it fast. He stumbled around like the shot had done him in, but it was all a ruse. It’d been necessary, since even unarmed Depp was still a threat.

Depp pitched and writhed in pain, but he wasn’t in danger of dying.

But under present circumstances he was in no condition to complete his gambit. His body twitched and jerked, as his powerful arms groped blindly out around him. Gibberish poured from his mouth as he tried to form words, but nothing intelligible would come. The arrow had damaged his brain [1]. His flailing was just a reflex response.

Cloudhawk looked at the man who’d ridden with him for so many days, the one who’d protected him on the road. He couldn’t help but sigh in regret. He picked up Depp’s knife and slipped it into the man’s heart, putting him out of his misery.

Exhausted, Cloudhawk’s chest heaved as he fought for breath. When he pulled off his mask his face was covered in sweat and blood flowed from his nose.

The arrow hadn’t ended his life, but it sure as fuck almost did.

He figured his ribs were broken, judging by the sting. He could move but the pain brought tears to his eyes. He was spent, both mentally and physically, so much he couldn’t even keep walking… but he had no choice!

He was surrounded by enemies.

Even Depp eventually gave in to temptation, so there was no question bandits and mercenaries would continue to pursue him with even more fervor. If he stayed here, Cloudhawk didn’t dare imagine what evils would catch up.

Struggling against the pain Cloudhawk managed to pull himself back up on the wasteland lizard. Every step the beast took sent an electric pain through his torso, but he managed to stay on as they rode away. He continued for most of the night, eventually coming up on a valley by the time morning started peeking over the horizon. So far none of his hunters had closed the distance.

The valley was complex, with peeks and dips that stretched out before him at random. The ground was muddy especially near the center. It was a marsh that was covered in a low-lying fog that smelled of rot. Murky water sat in stagnant puddles as far as he could see, some of them gathering into sizeable lakes.

Cloudhawk pulled out his map but was only able to discover that this place was unknown to the people of Greenland Outpost. He seemed to have stumbled on an altogether unfamiliar place, one undoubtedly filled with hidden dangers. But it was also a place where he could hide.

It quickly became apparent that his lizard mount was only going to slow him down here. They were accustomed to dry places with a lot of sand, and the muck that swallowed its feet halfway up made the beast cumbersome and uncomfortable. It anxiously and awkwardly picked its way along, getting slower the deeper into the marshes they traveled.

Graaawwgh!”

The lizard belched a growl in protest and stopped moving.

There was nothing for it, Cloudhawk was forced to abandon his mount and proceed on foot. He trundled off into the bogs, toward a foggy horizon that stretched beyond where he could see. It was a curse, for he was thirsty and surrounded by water but none he could drink. Even his lizard didn’t dare drink the water, and it was as thirsty as he was. 

It had to be toxic. He didn’t dare risk it!

He had to find a settlement, or at least somewhere with drinkable water. If he didn’t he wasn’t going to last the night. The fact that he was persona non grata everywhere he went made things a lot more difficult.

As though summoned by his hopes he heard a sound coming up from behind him. It was a large group bearing torches, not normal sweepers by the look of them but mercenaries judging by their formation. Not only sweepers were out to kill him.

He couldn’t catch a fuckin’ break!

They had to have caught his trail already. Running wasn’t an option, he had to think of something else.

1. Speech is located in the frontal lobe of the brain, but that sits slightly above the eye socket. If he jabbed the arrow straight back he’d hit the midbrain and medulla, which would instantly stop all vital functions. He’d have to angle the arrow slightly upwards and wait a minute you crazy assholes better now use this information to murder anyone!

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