The wastelands were vast beyond end. It was nearly impossible to travel through them on foot, making reliable forms of transportation incredibly important. The quality of the transportation network in the wastelands was uniformly poor. Although large excavator outposts often had tamed beasts that could be used for transport or shoddily-assembled vehicles, there was a limit to how many vehicles or beasts they could acquire. In the end, only a tiny fraction of the people ever had a chance to use them.
Given how innately ferocious most mutabeasts were, there were very few which could be tamed and trained to serve as mounts. It also took an extremely long period of time to find and capture young beasts, then raise them into full adulthood. This entire process was very expensive and had a high chance of failure, making every single mutabeasts mount an incredibly valuable possession.
As for the wastelander vehicles, they were assembled from a wide variety of random parts, most of which had been dug up from below the ground. Other parts were taken from captured vehicles that had been won on the field battles. Some of the crudest parts needed could even be self-manufactured! In general, it was quite a feat to be able to get these things to even move. However, you could forget about producing a vehicle that could truly conquer the rugged terrain and inhospitable environs of the wastelands.
Mutabeast mounts needed food and water, while wastelander vehicles needed gasoline.
Due to these various constraints, most wastelanders were confined to a very small area around the outposts. Only blood-drinking madmen like the mercenaries of the Tartarus company would dare venture farther afield and into more dangerous areas. The Tartarus mercenaries were amongst the oldest organizations of Blackflag Outpost, and they had built up a collection of transports over the years.
This time, Slyfox mobilized five wastelands vehicles. Four were off-road vehicles while the fifth was a freight truck. It had been quite some time since Blackflag Outpost had seen a caravan like this set out!
The bumpers on the Tartarus vehicles had all been torn off and replaced by sharp spikes, while the car doors, roofs, and tires were all studded with spikes as well. These four ridiculously barbaric-looking vehicles looked like enormous steel hedgehogs as their gear-like tires tore through the ground, which was why the mercenaries often referred to them as their ‘iron hedgehogs’.
As for their freight trucks, they were enormous in size. Each freight truck had eight tires, and they had two enormous slabs of steel fastened to the front of the car, with each slab of steel angled at 30 degrees. Behind the truck was an ugly cage-like carriage. On the whole, it looked like some sort of skeletal creepy-crawly creature. And so, the Tartarus mercenaries had given it a friendly nickname – the ‘iron lizard’.
The Tartarus mercenaries often used these vehicles. In order to avoid mishaps and vehicular damage, they spent quite some time adjusting them and reinforcing them as necessary. Although the vehicles remained exceptionally ugly and had no aesthetics to them at all, from a functional standpoint they were more or less decently equipped to deal with the harshness of the wastelands.
In addition to the vehicles, there were eight bigfoot birds that were letting out strange cries as eight fully equipped mercenaries rode atop them.
Cooke was going to be the leader for the mounted mercenaries on this mission. Cooke was fairly strong even amongst the mercenaries, and he was more than qualified to be the captain of the mounted division. His weapon of choice was a long billhook that was seven feet long! This weapon had the best attributes of both scythes and spears, and it could be used in a mounted charge and also be used to slash and hack. It was the perfect weapon for a cavalryman.
They had a main force, auxiliary forces, scouts, rearguards, training, and tactics. This mercenary company would be considered an elite outfit anywhere in the entire wastelands… and every single member of the company was exceptionally talented and very experienced. They were extremely powerful in combat and more than able to deal with the vast majority of dangers.
However… what was the most dangerous thing in the wastelands?
The schemes of other men!
Terrifying natural disasters, brutal beast waves… in the end, nothing held a candle compared to the dark hearts of other men. Humans are by nature communal animals who need to live amongst others of their race, and so it is necessary to always be wary of the danger which other people could pose. Countless real life examples had proven that sometimes, humans could be even more savage than any beast and even more dreadful than any natural disaster.
This was an era of chaos. It was almost impossible to find a group of brothers and friends that you could truly rely on.
The mercenaries might be crude, rough, lawless, and brutal, but at least they were very unified and loyal to each other. This was something which Cloudhawk had slowly come to realize during the past month he had been with them. The reason why the Tartarus mercenaries had been able to survive for so long was most likely due to their unity, something which was incredibly rare in a place like the wastelands.
“Come back soon!” The other warriors of the outpost all waved farewell to the mercenaries. Even Grizzly and the members of the elite squad were there to send them off. Every so often, their gazes would flicker as they glanced at Cloudhawk, strange looks in their eyes.
The gates to the outpost swung open. The mercenaries were officially heading out!
Cloudhawk, Woola, and the eight bigfoot bird riders were all arranged to ride aboard the iron lizard. Bigfoot birds were excellent mounts, but they only had so many of them. If they were forced to run a hundred kilometers alongside the vehicles, they’d probably be exhausted by the time they were actually needed in battle.
The five vehicles rumbled out in a straight line. Two iron hedgehogs led the way while two brought up the rear, with the iron lizard being at the very middle as this squad of elite mercenaries drove deeper into the rolling yellow sands of the desert wastelands.
The wastelands were so vast as to engender despair upon those who tried to traverse it, and countless ruins and skeletons were hidden beneath its sands. It had been roughly a month and a half since the last time Cloudhawk had traversed these sands, but this time his emotions were completely different.
The Tartarus mercenaries looked like a long, sinuous yellow dragon that slowly wound its way out of Blackflag Outpost’s territory and made its way deeper into the seared desert wastelands.
None of them noticed that right at this moment, a group of men outfitted in strange equipment were hidden furtively nearby the outpost. It seemed as though they were keeping a close watch on what was happening inside the outpost.
The leader of this group was a muscular man whose seemed to brim with strength and vitality. His skin was raven-black and gleamed with a slick oil that made him look almost metallic. He was completely bald, but two crude-looking bull horns could be seen atop his head. As for his weapon, it was an enormous greatsword that was the height of a normal human being.
This weapon had to weigh at least a hundred pounds. Only a man of enormous strength would be capable of wielding such a thing… and clearly, this man was one. Just as clearly, he was a mutant. But despite his crude appearance and his brutal demeanor, he had a pair of cold, viper-like eyes that were filled with deathly calm as he stared unblinkingly at that settlement in the sands - Blackflag Outpost.
Right at this moment, a comparatively slimmer mutant came running towards him. This person’s entire body was covered with grayish-white feathers. He had a sharp mouth and bird-like feet, and wings were growing out of his back that suggested he was perhaps capable of flight. This second person let out a soft growl: “Number two, things are gonna work out better this time, right? This demonhunter is pretty tough. Number four died in her hands.”
“Don’t worry, number three. I’ve already looked carefully into this matter. She came to the wastelands by herself, and there is no chance that any other demonhunters will appear here. Do you really think this woman is strong enough to fight against our master, all by herself?” The horned man’s eyes flickered with murderous hatred. “This woman killed a number of our friends. Let’s make her death a slow one.”
The winged mutant let out an owl-like hoot of laughter.
She had dared to journey deep into the wastelands by herself? She dared to try and hunt down their master by herself? What a foolish woman!
The endless sands of the wasteland danced in the air, rising upwards towards the skies and the setting sun as a wild wind blew through the wastelands. It was dusk now. The wastelands were at sea level, and the blazing red sun was slowly sinking downwards past the horizon. A squad of vehicles suddenly emerged from the horizon in front of the sun, looking almost like a mirage generated by the foul, twisted air.
The land in front of the convoy was already looking quite different from the lands they had left. All sorts of completely random buildings and ruins were intermingled together in layered rings, and all sorts of ancient refuse and garbage could be seen everywhere. A number of enormous, ancient metal buildings looked as though they had been planted into the sea of sand. They looked almost like giant shipwrecked ships that had sunken halfway into the sea.
Slyfox was in the leading, fastest vehicle. He turned his head and hollered backwards, “Everyone, slow down a bit. We’ve entered the mission area. The geography here is pretty weird, and there’re a lot of ruins here. Be careful, all of you!”
“Got it!” the mercenaries all simultaneously barked out energetically.
Woola noticed that Cloudhawk had actually started to doze off a bit. He opened his massive maw, then gave Cloudhawk a hard bite on the thigh. Cloudhawk was like a cat whose tail had been stepped on, and he very nearly fell off the ugly iron lizard.
“Woola, what the hell!” But Woola only barked right into his face.
Mad Dog was using a tattered piece of cloth to polish his snow-bright machetes, a crude cigarette was hanging from his lips. He mumbled indistinctly, “Ruins like this are the perfect place for mutabeasts to hide… and there might be sweeper units hiding here as well. Starting now, you need to keep your eyes peeled.”
Cooke offered a lit cigarette to Cloudhawk. “Want a smoke?”
Cloudhawk shook his head. “I don’t smoke.”
Cooke smirked. “You don’t smoke? You flippin’ pansy.”
Cloudhawk was too proud to take an insult like that lying down. He angrily grabbed the cigarette, then took a very deep puff. The crude ingredients Blackflag Outpost used to produce cigarettes instantly assaulted his lungs, making him feel like a ball of fire had just flown into his throat and was burning him from inside. Cloudhawk coughed so loud, he nearly passed out for lack of air.
“Rookie’s completely useless.”
“Drink some water and calm down.” One of the kinder mercenaries tossed a canteen of water to Cloudhawk, who lifted it to his mouth and gulped it down without even thinking. Alas, it seemed as though the canteen was filled with acid, not water. Cloudhawk’s face instantly turned beet-red and he immediately spewed all of the liquid out.
Motherfucker. That was moonshine!
The mercenaries slapped their legs as they roared with laughter. Ever since this kid had joined their ranks, he had provided them with endless amusement. During this past month, they had teased him rather unmercifully whenever they had nothing better to do.
Right at this moment, a voice rang out from the leading vehicle. It was one of the mercenaries calling out: “Careful, careful! There’s something up ahead!”
The mercenaries instantly went on full alert, and Cloudhawk hurriedly pulled out his staff. A group of animals had suddenly appeared to the front and left of their convoy. There were roughly twenty of the creatures, and they were roughly the size of wolf-dogs. They had red eyes, their fur looked as tough as steel, and they were running at incredible speed as they moved straight towards the convoy.
“Dire rats!” The words came unbidden from Cloudhawk’s lips. These creatures were, without a question, the dire rats that had been described in the mission description. These things really were astonishingly large. Although they still looked like rats, they were nearly as large as ordinary rotwolves. Cloudhawk had never seen such enormous rats before.
So they had finally found their targets! Two of the mercenaries drew their shortbows, then let fly two arrows. Two of the dire rats let out miserable screeches as they collapsed to the floor. When the other dire rats saw this, they seemed to understand that they were in danger and all of them turned to flee towards another direction.
“You aren’t running anywhere!”
Two of the vehicles accelerated after them. One of the enormous mutant rats was struck head-on and crushed beneath an enormous tire, its innards bursting out of its body. The mercenaries continued to accelerate, managing to crush a few more of the dire rats. The feeling of flesh being crushed beneath their vehicles was absolutely intoxicating to them.
Two of the iron hedgehogs were already far ahead of the rest of the convoy, and they managed to crush and kill seven or eight of the dire rats. No matter how fierce and savage the dire rats were, they were still made of flesh and blood; how could they possibly resist being crushed by these metal monsters? Maybe this mission wouldn’t be as tough as they thought!
But just as Cloudhawk was thinking this, he suddenly heard a startled cry from up ahead.
“Watch out!” One of the iron hedgehogs suddenly lost its balance, kicking up an enormous storm of sand as it flew into the air, flipped over, then came crashing to the ground. Fortunately, the mercenaries seated atop the iron hedgehog were all very nimble. As soon as the vehicle had lost its balance, they immediately fled and so avoided being crushed underneath.
What the hell had happened? Why had a perfectly fine vehicle suddenly flipped over?
The other four vehicles came to a halt. Cloudhawk pulled out a cloth and used it to cover his face, protecting it from the blowing sands. Black tri-bladed staff in hand, he disembarked and followed the other mercenaries over to find out what was going on.
“Slyfox, Mad Dog, look here. This…”
Cloudhawk squeezed in to take a closer look. The overturned iron hedgehog was planted firmly into the ground, its two front tires apparently smeared with some sort of green liquid that was incredibly corrosive. The tires had been almost completely melted, and even the metal parts had suffered severe damage. This vehicle had more or less been completely wrecked.
“Acid! One of those mutant rats probably had acid blood inside it. The mission report didn’t say anything about acid rats!” Slyfox began to frown as he scanned the surroundings. “Screw it. The geography here is very complicated, and we won’t be able to use this car any further. Let’s find a safe place to spend the night. We’ll finish mapping this place out tomorrow.”
The mercenaries couldn’t help but all mutter at the bad luck of it all. As for Cloudhawk, he was simply amazed. These mutant rats were incredible; their blood was apparently so acidic that it could corrode even metal. If any of it fell on him, his flesh and bones would probably all rot away. Hell, even a single drop of that acid would be enough to ruin him!
Cooke walked past Cloudhawk and patted him on the shoulders. “All sorts of weird critters in the world these days. Let’s go!”