Right now, the mercenaries had almost no chance of surviving this. The sole, slim chance they had lay in killing the rat king… but Cooke faced suicidal levels of danger in choosing to confront it. Even if he really did kill the rat king, the rat swarm would launch an immediate attack. They wouldn’t have any chance to save him.
But… there were no other choices to be made. This was the only shot they had.
Cooke strode forwards, an axe in each hand. These battleaxes were custom-made mercenary weapons. Each axe was roughly two feet long and extremely heavy. Each axe-blade was shaped like a half-moon, and both axes were stained with black blood that continued to slowly drip down towards the ground.
Just as Cooke reached the center, the rat king issued an order to the dire rats, having them surround Cooke while giving him enough free space. In this way, they would be able to prevent the other mercenaries from launching sneak attacks or ambushes mid-battle.
The damn creature did at least honor its word. It had offered a duel, and a duel this would be. It didn’t simply wish to trick the mercenaries into coming out, then murdering them. What was truly amazing, however, was the fact that the dire rats were nothing more than ordinary mutated rats. Somehow, the rat king had managed to train these dumb creatures into an army that it could command at will. This was no easy or ordinary feat!
The rat king landed on the ground on all fours, adopting a vigilant battle-posture. Its sleek, silver-white fur served as a form of natural leather armor. Its four paws were unable to hold weapons or manipulate firearms, but the four claws on each paw served as exceptional weapons. It rubbed eight of those claws together as it let out an ear-piercing screech.
Cooke stared at the rat king. The rat king stared right back at Cooke.
The rat king’s black eyes were unfathomably deep, but a look of hatred could be seen to slowly appear within it. The rat king had been born in a wastelands laboratory. That bloody, cruel place had been filled with hundreds of mutabeasts, and the rat king had been the cleverest specimen there. Thus, at a very young age it had learned quite a few things from the humans who had operated that laboratory. Although it was unable to actually produce human sounds, it was able to partially understand human speech.
It understood humans, and it hated humans. Every single human was worthy of death! Waves of a murderous aura began to spread out from the rat king.
Cooke was the first to move. He instantly let out a lion-like roar, causing the surrounding dire rats to twitch in surprise, then shot out with incomprehensible speed like a battering ram towards the rat king. His aura and his power was such that a person standing in front of him would feel as though a mountain was smashing towards him!
He was one of the oldest members of the Tartarus mercenaries. There was a significant difference in power between Cooke and the company captains, but he was definitely an elite amongst elites when compared to the ordinary mercenaries. He was a classic example of a strength metahuman, but the tremendous amount of power his muscles could release allowed him to move and fight in close combat with nearly as much speed as an agility metahuman.
His two axes were filled with explosive power as they furiously chopped out in two beautiful arcs towards the rat king! If this blow landed against the rat king, it wouldn’t matter how tough the rat king’s fur was; not even iron armor could withstand such a strike. The rat king would definitely be cleaved in twain.
Unfortunately, he was too slow! The rat king’s hind legs flexed, sending it dodging three feet back and perfectly avoiding the axe-chops.
Cooke, however, seemed to have anticipated this. Just as the axe in his left hand descended and missed the rat king, he suddenly leapt three meters into the air off his right leg, then hacked down with his other axe with the speed of a thunderbolt!
The first chop was vertical while the second was horizontal. The two strikes were perfectly linked together and part of one smooth motion. In both speed and power, this double-strike was simply supreme.
Boom! The ground itself seemed to shake! The thick and heavy axes carved out deep gouges into the earth, while the rat king retreated by another few feet. It was simply far too fast, and Cooke’s furious strikes all completely missed it.
Before the rat king had a chance to find its footing, Cooke once more hurtled towards him while kicking up a storm of sand. Cooke’s twin axes danced in the air like a pair of vipers, spinning like a pair of deadly windmills as he repeatedly struck out against the rat king.
Ever since Cooke had entered this ‘arena’, he had discarded all hope of surviving. He was determined to die, and so he completely focused on attacking while holding nothing back. This sort of suicidal, kamikaze attack would cause even fighters who were significantly stronger than him to be discomfited. Duels between experts could be decided in a single instant. If one side was nervous and afraid of dying while the other had already accepted death, there would obviously be a significant difference in morale which would have an impact on how well each performed!
The rat king’s pitch-black eyes suddenly gleamed with savage light as it came to a sudden halt, lifting up its paws to block.
Clang! Clang! The windmill attacks suddenly came to an end as the two axes came crashing down against the eight sharp claws of the rat king. The terrifying power of the blows kicked up a cloud of dust. The man and the rat stood there, the rat king having elected to use this type of strike to defend against the enemy’s attacks. Both sides began to exert as much strength as they could, and for a time they were evenly matched.
The mercenaries were all shocked to see this. They could tell from this brief moment of combat that the rat king was vastly faster than Cooke, and a close match for him in raw strength as well. The difference in ability between the two was quite apparent. The rat king wasn’t just the ‘political’ leader of these giant rats, it was also the most powerful member of the race!
Cooke roared angrily as he once again chopped out with his axe against the rat king’s head, but he hit nothing but shadows. The rat king, after dodging his attack, struck out with a set of claws and tore a bone-deep wound into Cooke’s chest. Cooke endured the pain, turning to deliver a counter-attack when the rat king once more shot straight past him. The creature was simply too fast!
Cooke fell down to one knee, an enormous wound having been torn into his upper thighs. He continued to howl angrily as he brandished his hatchet, while the rat king landed on the ground and then immediately leaping towards Cooke once more.
This time, Cooke let out a blood-curdling scream. Three of his fingers had been cut off, and they went flying away along with the axe they had been gripping. The axe flew more than ten meters away before it crashed to the ground.
Not good! Cloudhawk’s heart clenched.
Cooke continued to press the attack with his right hand, while the rat king didn’t let up in the slightest. With the next strike, it tore open Cooke’s chest. Cooke no longer had the strength to lift up the axe, and it slipped out of his grasp and thudded down to the ground.
He had lost. He had completely lost. He had never imagined that the difference in power between them would be as great as this!
The rat king still didn’t pause in the slightest, continuously dashing past him and raking bloody wounds in Cooke with its claws each time. In just ten or so seconds, Cooke’s entire body was covered with bloody wounds. The rat king did not, however, aim any attacks at Cooke’s vital points.
It wasn’t intending to kill Cooke. It was torturing him instead, causing Cooke to let out one agonized and enraged howl after another.
This sight thoroughly enraged all of the mercenaries, and their eyes spat hatred towards the rat king. In a duel, it was normal for the victor to live and the loser to die; this was true in both the wastelands and in the outposts. But… the rat king’s true purpose clearly wasn’t to challenge the humans. The real reason it had chosen to fight a duel against a human was to instigate and enrage the other humans and thus cause them to voluntarily charge out of the cave and be entrapped by the endless waves of rats.
Damn this creature. It actually understood psychology and manipulation!
“Graaaah! Damn you!” Cooke was covered in dozens of giant, bloody wounds. His body had been converted into a mishmash of blood and gore, almost as though a butcher had gone to work on him with a cleaver. He could also tell what the rat king’s intentions were, and he howled in rage and grief, “Go ahead and kill me, you sackless sonufabitch! Kill me if you have any balls!”
How could Cloudhawk accept this? How could he possibly withstand this type of torment? How could he ever be able to endure this type of humiliation?
A wild animal was tormenting and torturing one of his brothers, right in front of him. Was he supposed to just sit there and watch without actually doing anything, to just stick his head in the sand and pretend that nothing was wrong? And in truth, Cloudhawk wasn’t the only one enraged. Mad Dog had an even worse temper, and it exploded when Mad Dog saw what was going on.
“Attack them! Wipe these motherfuckers out!”
“Boss! Boss! Don’t go!” Five mercenaries had to work together to hold Mad Dog back. Tears shone in their eyes as they called out, “It’s a trick! Don’t fall for the bastard’s trick!”
Mad Dog bellowed, “I don’t give a flying fuck if it’s a trick or not! Let go of me!”
Cloudhawk shared the same rage and grief the other mercenaries felt! This was a grim, callous, and preposterous era they were living in. In times like this, trust and faith were more valuable than anything else. To the mercenaries, the Tartarus company was their home, and every single brother was a treasured family member!
A rat actually dared to torture one of their family members to death? Nobody would be able to endure such a sight… but right now, Cooke was in more agony than anyone else.
“Don’t come out! Don’t come out!” Cooke had been tormented to the point where he looked inhuman. He knelt there on the ground, looking like a butchered corpse, and blood mixed with tears on his face as he called out with agony, “Let me die! Let me die! LET ME DIE!”
Cooke wasn’t just suffering mere physical agony; the humiliation and mental agony he was suffering was far greater than the fleshly pain. He wasn’t afraid of death; if he was afraid of death, he never would’ve walked out to accept the duel. But he never imagined that his resolve would be used as a tool to manipulate his brothers.
At a time like this, to a valiant, tough-as-nails man like him, death was a form of release! He was a proud, intrepid wastelands warrior… but at the end of his life, he was now kneeling on the ground, screaming for death. His overconfidence, his resolve, his wish to protect his fellows… they had all transformed into endless torment and humiliation.
The utterly heartbroken Slyfox fired a shot, but the rat king seemed to have seen this coming. It immediately dragged Cooke into the rat swarm, and the countless rats immediately covered Cooke, making it impossible for the mercenaries to see him. The only thing left was Cooke’s unending, miserable screams.
The screams were filled with resentment, shame, rage, and grief. Every single scream stabbed into Cloudhawk’s heart like a dagger.
Cloudhawk’s hands slowly curled into fists as he stared at the brutal scene before him. He could no longer hold back the furious rage that was building inside his breast. As the mercenaries were all focused on holding Mad Dog back, Cloudhawk immediately rose up and charged outside.
“HEY! What are you doing?!” Slyfox was stunned. “Stop him, quick!”
Cloudhawk had never been as furious as he was right now. He leapt forward with the speed and grace of a panther, giving the two nearby mercenaries no chance to catch up at all as he charged out of the cave. As soon as he did so, the rat swarm surged forwards to welcome him.
“FUCK OFF!” Cloudhawk let out an enraged bellow. The murderous aura emanating from him caused even the dire rats to pause momentarily. In this moment, they felt as though it wasn’t a human in front of them; rather, it was an utterly enraged wastelands beast!
“I’ll fight you! I want to fight you!” Cloudhawk lifted his tri-bladed staff up high, then pointed it directly at the rat king. “I know you can understand me. Come and fight me, if you dare!”
Rage, grief, shame, hate! Although the rat king didn’t have the vocabulary necessary to express these things, he could keenly sense the presence of these emotions. It had spent more than ten years being tormented and experimented on by humans, and it had seen its parents and siblings die in front of it. It understood these feelings quite well.
It let out a shrill screech, and the rat swarm slowly began to retreat.
In truth, it could tell at a glance how strong or how weak the humans were. It could tell that Mad Dog was just as strong as it. Even though Mad Dog had already suffered heavy injuries, the cautious rat king wouldn’t dare to challenge him to a battle. Cloudhawk, however, was clearly an underage and undersized youth; there was no need for the rat king to worry about him.
Cloudhawk held his black tri-bladed staff up high as he charged forwards, moving faster and faster as he sprinted towards the rat king so quickly he looked as though he was flying.
Right now, Cloudhawk only had a single thought in his mind:
Whether for Woola’s sake or for Cooke’s sake, or for the sake of the others… Cloudhawk had to kill it!