Cloudhawk’s dramatic entrance had stunned everyone. This heedless, crazy action in a critical moment dealt with two of the enemy leaders. This kid was as crazy as he was lucky.
The man in black was pinned and couldn’t move. The mask that concealed his face had broken away, revealing a hideously ugly visage beneath. He had all the humanoid features; eyes, a nose, a mouth. But all along his jaw and the ridge of his cheekbone there grew spindly threads of flesh. They were like miniature tentacles that spread from his face. They slithered across his countenance like they had a mind of their own.
The last leader standing, the winged youth, screamed and launched into the air. He dove for them, sword first.
Cloudhawk felt the danger, but he knew his foe was too fast for him to defend against. With singular focus he poured his will into the exorcist staff. Its tri-bladed head began to spin, gaining momentum with each step until it was kicking up sand!
Everyone – the man in black, the winged man, and the Bloodsoaked Queen – they all stared in wonderment.
“He’s a demonhunter?!”
The two mutants were stunned. He was a kid, but he was a kid with an exorcist staff and that made everything different. Could Blackflag Outpost have another demonhunter?
The winged mutant’s blade hung in the air for half a breath as he hesitated. In that moment a dark figure leapt from the ruins nearby, and almost unseen threw something toward him. Two scalpels, dripping with poison, whistled through the air. One was angled toward the jugular notch, and the other for his chest.
The assassin was a master at taking advantage of opportunities. The winged attacker was forced to break off his assault on Cloudhawk and turn his sword toward protecting himself. He succeeded in knocking the deadly scalpels away.
The power of the exorcist staff continued to gather to its peak. Tempestuous winds were kicked up all around Cloudhawk and his demon slaying weapon!
A ferocious and hateful look was smeared across the tentacle horror’s face. He whipped his left hand and cast his bone-tipped feelers toward Cloudhawk. However, he’d been gravely injured, causing both his power and speed to suffer. Mantis reacted with another pair of flying knives that connected with two of the tentacles, knocking them away and helping Cloudhawk evade the danger.
Cloudhawk lifted his staff high. With eyes red as the pits of hell he brought the spinning blades down as hard as he could upon the man in black.
The mutant tried to protect himself with his right arm but the spinning blade would not be deterred. It ground against the limb, tearing through flesh and bone with the sound of half a dozen saws. The freak’s arm was making a serviceable yet painful stand, stopping the exorcist staff from hitting anything vital.
“Are you angry?” The monster hissed in his gravelly tone. “Do you feel the hatred?” By now the man in black’s other wounds had healed. Two slithering bone-tipped tentacles reeled back and struck at Cloudhawk like a pair of cobras. “You don’t have what it takes to kill me! Die!”
Scenes flashed through Cloudhawk’s mind.
The satisfied look in Woola’s dull, dead eyes. Cooke’s unreconciled sadness and anger. Mad Dog’s silhouette as he welcomed death, and Slyfox’s earnest look moments before his demise. Those eyes, that hatred, that figure, all of these things crystalized in a single moment in his mind.
Cloudhawk felt something surge within him, like a dam had burst. The sound of his exorcist staff drilling through his foe’s arm increased, and the black man watched in agonizing terror as it tore his limb to ground flesh.
“Let’s see who dies first!”
His exorcist staff became an all-conquering Excalibur. He thrust his staff through the arm, into the freak’s throat and deeper still into the earth beneath. The whirling blade made quick work of the mutant’s neck and its hideous head rolled into the distance. A rapidly expanding pool of black blood soaked the ground.
Suddenly Cloudhawk was stabbed by a pain that radiated from his back. Two of the man in black’s bone spurs dug themselves in. Thankfully they were weak, and the quality of his wolf pelt was good. The wounds were not too bad.
The winged man’s eyes went wide with rage. “Big brother!”
Sweepers who’d witnessed the scene were struck dumb with amazement. In fact, so was the Bloodsoaked Queen! She felt like the notions she’d built herself on for the last decade were wrong. How could a heretic from the wastes be capable of wielding a demonhunter’s weapon, and so capably at that?
His attack had been vicious and destructive. Not only did he summon the power of the relic, but his will surpassed any novice demonhunter she’d ever known. He was almost as good as a full-fledged member of the order.
Training a demonhunter in the elysian lands required significant time, resources and energy. No one had ever heard of a recruit mastering the craft in a matter of days – much less someone with his power and psychic strength. This was absolutely impossible!
The winged man’s roars brought her and the sweepers back to the present. “Kill them!”
Mantis swept in and grabbed Cloudhawk, who was almost too weak to walk. Like a specter, he glided to her side. “I know a way. Follow or die.”
There was no time to be stunned. Several elite soldiers, the badly wounded Grizzly, and the Queen where all who remained. They stumbled after Mantis, looking for escape.
The winged mutant gave up the chase. His first concern was his mangled brother. As he knelt down beside him, the winged man could see the tentacles on his neck and face twitching erratically. His mangled collarbones had sprouted many new tentacles as well.
The winged mutant let out a sigh of relief. The black-robed freak had almost perfect healing powers and was a metahuman with an extremely complex internal structure. As a result, even though he had suffered a mortal wound that he wouldn't be able to recover from quickly, his cells and his organs would still remain active and lively for a period of time.
The winged man scooped up his head and brought it to its body. He held it close to the hacked remnants of his neck. The tentacles reaching from it were like worms with a scent for a feast. They slithered over each other and tugged the head tight while sickly flesh began to re-stitch itself. Tendons, vessels, and muscle regenerated before their very eyes.
Cloudhawk had almost killed him. Almost.
The crumbling protests of rock thundered around them as a boulder was thrust aside. The horned brother came stomping out from the ruins, looking worse than his wounds truly felt. His fuming gaze swept the area. “Where’d they go?”
“This is unbelievable!” The winged man had to keep helping his elder brother recover. He shouted over his shoulder at the horned man. “They couldn’t have fled far, get after them!”
The bull-like mutant gathered a group of thirty of forty sweepers and gave chase.
Blackflag Outpost was lost to the enemy. Everywhere one turned there were citizens fighting for their lives. There were more defenders than sweepers, but one on one they were no match. This was before considering the sweeper’s airship and its heavy guns. No one knew how many were mowed down, but the trickles of blood had become rivers.
“Enemies are everywhere, inside the walls and all around them,” said the crestfallen Grizzly. “How do we get out?”
Mantis acted like he heard nothing and continued to pick his way ahead without hesitation. As they continued suddenly they found the sand beneath them get kicked up by a buffeting wind. The sweeper airship was above them.
Grizzly looked up with dispirited surprise. “Not good!”
A spitfire crackle filled the air as its minigun burst to life. The area around them exploded into debris as bullets went flying. A few of the slower fighters fell to the ground screaming, shooting geysers of blood from their wounds.
The airship had them pinned down!
Cloudhawk was so drained he was having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. Grizzly and the Bloodsoaked Queen were seriously injured. It made them slow and vulnerable. The enemy vessel descended to ten meters overhead and continued to spray the area with bullet fire. Escape was impossible.
Mantis continued at a full run, suddenly changing directions toward an excavation pit. These pits were where diggers did their name sake, searching for relics and other treasures. Most of the outpost’s goods – be they vehicles, weapons or tools – came from pits like this. Many of them were dotted around the territory. This was shut down years ago when nothing of value was discovered.
That’s where Mantis was going.
Some of these dig sites were honeycombs of secret passages that ran deep and far underground. They seemed to stretch on everywhere and pop up at various places through the outpost. Even Grizzly, after years of leading the elite squad, had no idea these were here.
The dwindling group filed into the tunnels, Sweepers nipping at their heels. Outside the horned mutant ripped off a corroded iron plate from some junk nearby and hurled it like a frisbee into the tunnel after them.
The sheet of metal buried itself into one of the soldiers. It’d cut halfway through his waist before getting lodged.
“Shit! They’re still after us!”
The survivors scowled. None of them wanted to accept that their enemies had caught up to them so fast. They fired a salvo of gunfire through the tunnel and several more defenders were killed. Mantis and the Queen immediately took over.
Grizzly was a fraction too slow and a bullet tore through his ankle. His towering body crashed into the ground with a thud.
“Grizzly!” Cloudhawk cried.
The Bloodsoaked Queen grabbed the big man and dragged him into cover.
Grizzly, soaked with sweat, gaped at her in astonishment. He was here, right next to her. In the year he’d served with her he’d never been this close.
The sweepers were closing in.
“I can walk on my own!” Cloudhawk pushed at Mantis as he felt his strength returning. “Go help Grizzly!”
“No, it’s not needed.” Grizzly swung his eyes to Cloudhawk and fixed him with a solemn gaze. “I’ll keep ‘em off you. Protect the Queen, and get the fuck outta here.”
Grizzly’s right arm was in splinters, as was his ankle. He knew that he’d only slow them down.
Mantis knew it too. He didn’t hesitate. The last Tartarus captain pulled Cloudhawk up and they fled down the tunnel. And although the Queen felt her chest tighten, she knew the truth when she saw it.
What she never knew was how he felt.
For a year Grizzly served as her loyal attendant. He was giving his life so they could run – trading it for the briefest chance she and the others could live. It weighed heavy on her.
The Queen couldn’t remember when she started pitying these barbarians. She’d grown up in the blessed country where they warned her constantly that the wastelands were full of evil. The people of god and the wretches of the wastelands were split by an impassable line. She was taught never to show the faithless mercy or sympathy.
Her experience in these blighted lands taught her that these unfortunate souls weren’t much different from the people where she came from.
Everyone was made from the same flesh and blood. Everyone loved, everyone loathed.
The cold fingers of dread closed around her heart: Was she questioning her faith? No… no the word of the gods surpassed all else!
She looked back over her shoulder.
Grizzly had himself half-propped up, leaning on his good leg and looking back at her. For the briefest instant their eyes met and he felt like he was bathed in holy light. The look in her eyes set his soul ablaze.
This is enough, he thought. He was content to die for what he believed in. Could many in these cursed lands say the same?
A spout of fire danced from his lighter as Grizzly lit a cigarette. He seemed unperturbed as the shadow of an enormous horned monstrosity crept over him.
Grizzly sucked in a breath, making the tobacco crackle. He looked at the mutant with a calm and determined gaze, like a man standing vigil before the dawn. “I’m not lettin’ you through.”
The horned man curled his fist making his knuckles pop ominously. His dark eyes were thick with disdain. “Just you?”
“Yeah. Just me.” He plucked the cigarette from his lips and flicked it away. Keeping his eyes locked on the mutant he tore open his shirt to reveal a vest of homemade explosives. Half an inch of fuse sizzled as he grinned victoriously at his killer. “You’re goin’ down with me!”
The horned man’s pupils contracted to tiny dots. He screamed at those behind him.
The sweepers scrambled over one another to try and flee.
Grizzly erupted into peels of crazy laughter, full of pride and rage and madness. Tears had gathered at the corner of his eyes. He’d always been a man who kept his emotions tightly bound. He never wished for much, and kept his head out of fantasies. The Queen never knew because he didn’t want his filth to tarnish such a heavenly beauty.
I wish I could stay with you, doing your bidding. I wish I could protect you and be your servant. An unworthy man was able to find salvation by dying for his faith. What is there to regret? Thank you, my Queen!
“Wulf, I’ll see ya in a minute!” Grizzly let loose with his final roar of defiance before the vest detonated. The explosion tore through the tunnel’s supports and collapsed a huge section. Sweepers that were too slow to escape were crushed beneath a mountain of rubble.Previous Chapter Next Chapter