Cloudhawk was brooding over the recent ambush. Those ambushers had been amongst the most skilled warriors the outpost had to offer, and enemies in the shadows were always harder to deal with than enemies you could see. If he was constantly harassed and stalked by these powerful assassins, he’d never be able to rest easily.
And so, the very next morning he immediately reported this matter to the other mercenaries.
Mad Dog was slightly intrigued. “Who the fuck would want to ambush you?”
Cloudhawk had no idea either. “All I know is that those three were really skilled. There has to be something strange going on.”
“Oho, is that so?” Mad Dog scratched his ears, then said in an intentionally puzzled voice, “All three of them were really powerful ‘experts’, but they still couldn’t kill you, eh? Poor bastards… I wonder how the hell those fuckers even managed to stay alive for so long.”
All the mercenaries roared with laughter when they heard this. Cloudhawk hurriedly revealed the slash-wound on his shoulder. “I’m not kidding, you guys! Look, I got stabbed here! I almost died!”
Even if the kid really had been attacked by someone, the mercenaries refused to believe that those people were ‘experts’; if three of them couldn’t even kill a single rookie like Cloudhawk, how skilled could the possibly be?
“Arrright already. It was just an ambush. No big deal. Shit, who hasn’t been ambushed? And why the hell were you running around outside anyhow? I told you not to! It’s your own damn fault.” Mad Dog waved his hand impatiently, interrupting Cloudhawk. He then said in a loud voice, “Listen up, everyone. All of you need to stay here and not go running around. Something big is about to go down.”
Right at this moment, the sound of Woola’s barks could suddenly be heard as Slyfox pulled Woola into the courtyard with a large steel chain around his neck. “Gather around, everyone!”
Woola walked towards Cloudhawk, letting out a few wild barks as a savage, threatening look appeared on his face. Most likely, he was quite irritated by Cloudhawk not having gone over to clean his kennel out over the past few days. After having lived here for so long, Cloudhawk no longer feared this strange freak as much as he had when he had first arrived, and so he pretended not to see anything.
“I’ve got good news, everyone.” The fat man’s voice boomed out, his face ruddy with excitement. “The big guy just sent us a new mission, and the rewards will be enough to keep us fed for three years. Make your preparations, because we’re headin’ out immediately.”
The ‘big guy’? Was this the figure Cloudhawk had seen last time, the black-clothed man who wore that strange breathing mask?
Cloudhawk had a very uncomfortable feeling about this. That fellow had offered a bountiful reward for the stone Cloudhawk had found; was it possible that he knew some of the stone’s secrets? If he managed to discover that Cloudhawk was the one holding the stone, Cloudhawk would probably end up dead.
Slyfox began to issue orders to the various mercenaries. Mantis and two of the mercs would stay behind to stand guard over their home while all the rest would take part in this mission… including their newest rookie, Cloudhawk. In other words, a total of twenty-seven figures would mobilize for this assignment. This was essentially all the power they had to spare.
Slyfox was both a cautious yet cunning fellow. For him to go out on such a limb and devote so many resources to this mission was most likely due to the fact that the offer really was too good to refuse… but that also meant that the danger they would face was similarly enormous.
The mercenaries quickly began to make their preparations. As for Slyfox, he beamed merrily as he walked straight towards Cloudhawk. “You are pretty lucky, kid; your first mission will be an incredibly profitable one. I’ll tell you straight up – once we finish this mission, we’ll have all the wine and meat we want to eat, and all the big-breasted, big-butted women we want to enjoy. You’ll be thanking me for days on end!”
Like hell. Cloudhawk had learned from his previous mistakes; he’d rather be locked up with a starving wolf for 48 hours than to believe a word this fat man said. Hell, he’d rather believe the wolf wouldn’t eat him! The more the fatty swore he was telling the truth, the more nervous Cloudhawk felt.
“…Can I stay back here with Mantis and guard our home instead?”
“No way!” Slyfox knew exactly what Cloudhawk was worried about, an extremely unhappy look appeared on his chubby face. “Kid, this aint gonna be like last time, alright? Ask anyone, I never fuck over my own people. You don’t got shit to worry about, unnerstand? Fuckin’ hell, yer young and useless. Listen up – you don’t have any say in the matter. You are going!”
Slyfox forced a ragged cloth into Cloudhawk’s hands. “Read this intelligence report carefully and stop wasting time. Forty minutes from now, we’re heading out. If anyone wastes so much as a single minute, I’m breakin’ their fuckin’ legs!”
Cloudhawk stared at the tattered piece of cloth in his hands, reading the contents within it twice.
Mission: To hunt down and kill a mutated rat king.
Mission description: The employer has located a lair of mutated rats located not too far from the western sides of Blackflag Outpost. These mutated dire rats are roughly the size of wolf-dogs but are incredibly fast and possess powerful offensive attacks. We conservatively estimate that the entire lair has between one to two hundred rats, but our estimates may be in error.
These particular dire rats have undergone all sorts of strange mutations, and they possess certain powers which other dire rats do not have. The dire rat king in particular is an extremely valuable and unique specimen. Your mission is to find the dire rat king. Conditions permitting, capture it alive – your payment shall be increased by an additional 50% if you can do so. If you cannot capture it alive, do your best to preserve the body as much as possible and keep it undamaged.
Rats were always tenacious creatures; no matter what types of natural disasters occurred, they would still be able to quickly adapt, survive, and flourish. As a result, there were now many different types of rats in the world. However, based on the mutated rats which Cloudhawk had seen in the past, they weren’t exactly very powerful.
As for the mission report, it similarly didn’t seem to suggest that this would be a particularly difficult mission. And yet, Cloudhawk knew that there was no way things could be as simple as this. Their employer hadn’t described the various abilities these mutated rats possessed, but the promised rewards testified as to how deadly this mission would be. And in truth, Cloudhawk was completely stunned by the value of this contract.
Hard currency was rarely used in the wastelands, with barter in gunpowder, firearms, weapons, medicines, and food being the most common forms of trade. Aside from these common items, there was something else that was quite expensive and beloved by many. Certain special materials could be extracted from mutated animals and plants, then mixed together according to an extremely complicated alchemical formula to form a type of medicine that was known as an ‘enhancement mutagen’.
Enhancement mutagens had an extremely simple effect – they stimulated and accelerated the body into developing metapowers or strengthening existing ones, allowing the user to become even more powerful… and that was exactly what would be awarded to them if they completed this mission. Enhancement mutagens, as well as many other valuable items.
This was a staggeringly valuable fortune! Missions like this truly were rare. Not only would it bring them enormous wealth, it could also allow the company as a whole to grow much stronger. Cloudhawk was a newbie; if he didn’t take part in this mission, he wouldn’t be given any part of the spoils or receive any of the rewards. Maybe Slyfox told the truth for once. Maybe he really is doing this out of the kindness of his heart.
There would be a certain degree of danger, of course. The wastelands had been forsaken by the gods, and so manna would never descend from the heavens. The organization which had issued this mission was one of the major powers of the wastelands, and every single mission they issued had most certainly been judged carefully before the relevant rewards were assigned. The promised payout really was directly correlated to the danger of the mission.
Cloudhawk’s dream was to leave the wastelands, but actually delving through the wastes was no easy feat! More than anything else, he needed to grow more powerful and acquire more armor and armaments. How could he possibly ignore such a tempting, lucrative opportunity? Cloudhawk immediately felt much more relaxed about this mission.
Mad Dog began to issue equipment to the rest of the Tartarus mercenaries. Nothing in the wastelands was ever handed out for free; if you wanted equipment, you had to pay a fee for it. The equipment pool for the mercenary company was considered shared property, and so each person had to earn ‘credit’ in order to take equipment out of the pool. Credit was earned in a very simple way; you donated equipment or items you didn’t need to the pool, and you would earn credit for it. You would also earn credit for going out on missions alongside the rest of the company.
Cloudhawk had two guns but no bullets. Three points of credit were needed for a single shotgun shell, while just one point of credit was needed for an ordinary 9 mm bullet. Generally speaking, a single strip of rat jerky also cost a single point of credit. Cloudhawk was brand new to Tartarus, and hadn’t been out on any missions during the past month; how could he possibly afford any of this expensive equipment?
Mad Dog waved his hand impatiently. “Fuck it, I’ll give it to you on loan. You can pay me back after this mission is done. I’ll just charge you a tiny bit of interest, just 50%!”
50% was ‘just a tiny bit’ of interest?! “You are a freaking robber!”
“The fuck you talking about, kid?” Mad Dog cursed loudly, “I don’t even know if you’ll survive this mission. This isn’t robbery, this is a high-risk loan, got it? I’m taking on the risk of getting nothing back at all. If you don’t want to take my offer, you can go fuck yourself.”
There was nothing he could do. Cloudhawk had to just hold his nose and accept the offer. A short while later, ten pistol bullets and four shotgun shells fell into his pouch.
Blackflag Outpost’s gunpowder was all hand-crafted, and as a result the quality wasn’t all that high, and the quantity was fairly low as well. Still, at least it was safe to use… usually.
“Right. Your leather armor is already finished.” Mad Dog tossed a suit of wolf-skin leather armor to Cloudhawk. This suit of armor had been crafted from the alpha rotwolf Cloudhawk had slain, and it was fairly sturdy and had good defensive properties. “The cost of producing this armor was around twenty points of credit. Need any close combat weapons?”
“I already have what I need.”
A poor broke bastard like Cloudhawk would avoid using firearms whenever possible; as a result, cold weapons would always be what he primarily relied upon. The mercenaries held quite a few cold weapons in their armory, including sabers, sword, hammers, and axes. Cloudhawk already had his exorcist staff, and so he needed no other types of equipment.
“Where the hell did you even find that thing, kid?” Mad Dog glanced sideways at the staff on Cloudhawk’s back. His experienced eye revealed to him that this tri-edged screw-bladed staff was an extremely sharp weapon that could be used to stab or to slash. If it pierced into an opponent’s body, even if the opponent didn’t die right away he would still find it difficult to stem the bloodloss from such a jagged wound. It truly was a fine close combat weapon.
“Here’s a skinning knife. Take it.” Mad Dog tossed Cloudhawk a short dagger then instructed, “We’re about to head out. You’ll be responsible for keeping Woola on his leash. For this mission, you are in charge of Woola.”
The Tartarus company had always used Woola as their guard dog, but this mission was rather special; given how alert Woola’s nose was, his tracking abilities would most likely come in handy. Thus, they brought him along as well.
The reason they assigned a rookie like Cloudhawk to be in charge of Woola was partially because the two of them had become fairly close over the past month. It was also because they knew that Cloudhawk had very little actual combat experience and was fairly weak. Woola was a bloodthirsty savage, but at least he was also a powerful combatant. Assigning Woola to Cloudhawk was a way for them to help the newbie out.
Woola let out a few barking growls as he ran over on all six legs. He seemed to be quite displeased by the fact that he would be under Cloudhawk’s control. Woola’s strength was simply incredible; even though Cloudhawk was now much stronger than when he had first arrived, he was still essentially being pulled forwards by Woola rather than vice versa.
“Prepare to head out!”
The mercenaries were all fully outfitted with armor, masks, cloaks, and other strange weapons and types of equipment. This squad truly did represent the uniqueness of the wastelands and its character.