Chapter 103 - Dead End

The sun rose over the wasteland, its harsh light dispelling the shadows that clung to the marsh’s valleys. Yet the grey haze never burned away.

The marshlands were deathly still and silent as the grave. From time to time bubbles broke the stagnant surface and belched fetid gas into the air. The colorless landscape was like a black and white photo, a sketch of some dead expanse rife with secrets.

A hundred or so men dressed as soldiers were lit by the pale sun, each equipped with protective masks to protect them from the toxic fumes. They stood around a pit, cautiously looking in. A large beast called the trench its final resting place. 

The wasteland lizard’s corpse had been attacked by something. Its belly was torn open and what innards had not been eaten were strewn around. The acidic waters had already begun to dissolve the beast’s corpse, and in twenty four hours it would be no more than a skeleton.

The formation of this caustic landscape was simple. First, the valley’s natural shape prevented the wasteland’s sandy winds from encroaching. The low-lying terrain made it easier for water to collect. Second, it was being fed by some abundant underground water source, but one that had been contaminated by some ancient pollutant. Whatever it was made the water acidic enough to dissolve flesh. Third, that fetid water was continuously being pumped to the surface where it made the dead earth an uninhabitable marsh. The excess fluid was quickly evaporated by the beating sun, but the pollutants remained until year after year this noxious expanse was created.

It was dangerous, a land of poison and decay.

Although the mercenaries were experienced, that experience was earned in the sandy deserts. None of them had ever experienced a place such as this and didn’t know what to expect. They were taking a risk, venturing into the unknown.

“Judging by the tracks the kid couldn’t have gotten far.”

The mercenaries knew little, but they did know this was not the typical habitat for a wasteland lizard. Someone had to have impelled the creature to enter, and a skilled bounty hunter could read the signs, well enough to know that Cloudhawk had passed by not long ago.

“Seen enough or what?” One of the mercenaries, a man with a shotgun, muttered in irritation. “This kid’s life is worth a fortune, but there’s a buncha critters out here who’d like to take a bite out of him too. If his corpse falls in this water and we’re left with nothin’ but bone, we lose out on our payday.”

Everyone shared his worry. 

There was no time to lose, they had to follow Cloudhawk’s trail. As experienced hunters they could tell where the boy was headed by the direction of his footprints, and could even tell he was injured. He was thirsty, hungry, and wounded. Easy pickings once they found him.

Yet the revelations did not please the bounty hunters.

In his weakened state and wandering these dangerous marches, the kid was in dire straits. He could be snatched up and eaten by some monster, fall into an acid pit or slip into the bottomless marshes. They could lose his corpse for any number of reasons and thus the bounty.

As the mercenaries continued on, growing ever more anxious, suddenly they were surprised by a thin figure in their path. He was clad in a tattered grey cloak that fluttered against his frail frame. A black staff was strapped to his waist, and in his hands he clutched a crude rifle. The kid stood in the middle of the marsh, who knew where he was heading.

“We found him!”

Who thought it’d be so easy? The mercenaries beamed with joy.

Cloudhawk’s face was covered in that white mask, a false face with a strange and ferocious smile. It was especially unsettling in this morbid backdrop. 

The kid was quick. He saw them at the same time they spotted him, and he pointed his rifle their way. The mercenary veterans scattered – seasoned killers like them would not be so easily defeated.

Cloudhawk’s shot hit nothing but air. He gave up the fight and struggled deeper into the bog.

The area was covered in murky green water that bubbled suspiciously, making it look as though it were alive. Any unfortunate creature that wandered into the bog was quickly swallowed up and dragged to the depths. Cloudhawk managed to stay above it by picking his way along driftwood and other detritus, dancing along the surface to increase the distance between him and the mercenaries.

Their meal ticket was escaping!

The mercenaries didn’t have time to examine their surroundings, not with their target fleeing. They ran after him as quickly as they could.

Cloudhawk looked like he was deftly bounding over the bog, but in truth it was not so easy. One of the mercenaries stomped onto a plank of wood which quickly disintegrated beneath his feet. It’d probably been there too long and made fragile by the caustic waters, and thus the mercenary slipped into the muck.

Ah-ah-ah-ahhhh!

His shrill cries were dulled by the heavy air. In a matter of moments his face had started to melt and he no longer looked human. He lifted a hand above the bog and the flesh bubbled sickeningly, sloughing off in sizzling chunks. 

The other mercenaries could only put a bullet in their comrade and end his suffering.

Cloudhawk had already bound across the bog, headed for a cluster of grey reeds to hide in. When he slipped from view the company’s marksmen began to fire wildly at his position.

Cloudhawk could hear the bullets coming. The tell-tale danger sense flooded him with adrenaline. But even knowing the danger the shooters were too skilled, the time it took to draw their guns and fire was less than two seconds. The hail of bullets blocked anywhere Cloudhawk could run.

All he could do was try to keep the bullets from hitting key areas. In the end he was struck twice. One slipped past his cloak, through his bearskin armor and left a bloody hole in his back. Thankfully the sturdy leather armor took most of the punch out of it, so the wound wasn’t too serious.

The second one hit him in the thigh and forced Cloudhawk off balance. He immediately crawled into the relative safety of the reeds.

The kid’s got nowhere to run!

The mercenaries closed in, but an ominous sense filled them.

Moments later the marsh erupted, countless bubbles frothed up to the bog’s surface and popped, releasing a cloud of toxic gas into the air. Whether it was the sound of gunfire or something else, the mercenaries had captured the attention of the marsh’s denizens.

Bang!

The marsh began to pitch and roil.

An enormous tentacle slithered out of the waters, covered in slimy purplish-black flesh. It was over thirty feet long, covered in barbs, and interspersed with something that looked like mouths. The flat area split open to reveal rows of hideous teeth that gnashed hungrily.

What the fuck is THAT?!”

Nightmare beasts were not something they were prepared for!

Taking advantage of their sudden misfortune, Cloudhawk managed to completely hide himself in the reeds. He pulled out a piece of cloth and bound his leg to stop the bleeding, then lifted his rifle. Ever so slowly he aimed through the reeds, getting a bead on his target.

Crack!

One shot tore through two of the mercenaries. It finished its trek in the chest of a third. The bog monster was dragging them into the murky depths moments after they hit the floor.

Now suddenly the mercenaries knew what Cloudhawk was up to. The kid wasn’t running, he’d been waiting here for them. It was an ambush. He knew he couldn’t run so he picked a place to make a stand – a place where he could use the bog monsters and terrain to fight back!

Those tentacle creatures were exceedingly dangerous – the whole marsh was deadly!

But although this place was a threat, how could Cloudhawk hope to take on a hundred mercenaries with only his gun? These bounty hunters earned their living wandering the wastelands, they’d encountered all manner of beasts. The monstrous tentacles were fierce, but not so much that they deterred these veterans.

They lifted their guns and fired, reducing one of the tentacles to ground meat. Chunks flew off in all directions. Another one of the mercenaries rushed forward with a machete and hacked at another one, a tentacle about as thick as a man’s waist, chopping it in half.

“Move up! Don’t bother with these damn things!”

The mercenary leaders kept their eyes on the prize. The tentacles killed several of their men, but killing them didn’t earn anything. Cloudhawk was still sniping at them from the reeds, and he was more dangerous.

A handful of more capable mercenaries were the first to act. They dashed in erratic patterns to confound Cloudhawk’s aim, hopping along planks and stones to get closer. Before long they were on the other side.

“Die!”

The one with the shotgun blasted a round of pellets into the bush Cloudhawk had slipped into. Bits of plant matter were blasted in all directions. Another one swiped at the reeds like he was harvesting them, cutting the foliage away.

Cloudhawk was gone. The hunters’ eyes went first to the pool of blood where Cloudhawk had bound his wounds. They knew right away he’d fled, and the blood from his leg hadn’t completely stopped. He’d have a hard time moving, there was no way he was going to give them the slip.

Mercenaries continued to pick their way across the acidic bog. They’d suffered significant losses, but most of their crew was still breathing. Besides it didn’t matter, it wasn’t like Cloudhawk had the strength to fight back. Even if he were at full strength they were more than he could handle.

“Get after him!”

The hunters continued to follow the trail.

Things were not going well for Cloudhawk, but he kept moving forward. His superhuman will and tenacious desire to live was astonishing to his pursuers. Not shocked enough to give up the chase, though. 

How long would his perseverance sustain him when he was losing so much blood? How long would his desire to live keep him from the inevitable? This kid was only marching toward a dead end!

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