The only one who knew about Grizzly’s suicide vest was Grizzly himself. No one expected him to blow himself up to stop their pursuers.
Cloudhawk, Mantis, and the Bloodsoaked Queen were far enough away to escape the blast radius. The horned mutant and many of his sweepers were not so lucky. The explosion caused the whole area to collapse in on itself. Detritus poured into the ruined tunnels like a deluge. Those who were too slow were buried alive.
The horned man was caught in the collapsed ruin and couldn’t wriggle himself free. Buried beneath tons of garbage the mutant was stuck, despite his supernatural strength. The more he struggled the smaller his coffin became. His physique kept him from being crushed, but it did not free him from the ticking clock of depleting oxygen. Strong as the mutant was he still relied on air like any living creature, and it was becoming thinner by the moment.
Minutes marched by. Breathing became more difficult. The horned man struggled against the dimness that had begun to creep into his vision, all the while incredulous that he should be caught this way. He was getting weaker. Was this how he would die?
His oxygen-deprived mind summoned memories from the past. He was a child, an orphan who knew nothing about who his parents were much less what they were like. Ever since he could remember the horned man was a large and imposing mutant, different even among others of his kind. He’d held on to his intellect and humanity in addition to his superhuman physique.
The horned youth’s intelligence didn’t change how normal humans treated him. Given the derogatory name Longhorn, , he was hunted wherever he went and the specter of being caught and killed always hung over him. More times than he could count he had to humiliate himself to survive. He’d lost track of the times he was nearly killed, and each time he made himself harder.
The mutant child grew up, grew strong. Eventually he was able to stand on his own, and even attracted a small group of dimwitted stragglers. It was his first sweeper colony, and he turned against any scavengers or excavators they came across.
Yet no matter how strong he became or how many sweepers he gathered around him, Longhorn was not content. The imbeciles he commanded couldn’t hold a conversation, much less provide companionship. For a long time he was convinced he would live out his days as a pariah, a lone wolf licking his wounds day in and day out.
This world, this time, this place – it was full of hostilities, enemies at every turn. Even the wasteland rejected him, for he was a mutant!
Until one day.
A man clad in mystical armor appeared before him. Right away he recognized the stranger as one of them – the root of all evil here in the world. It was their race that destroyed the planet, who men far and wide feared with every fiber of their being. But Longhorn had been alone all this time, adrift in a sea of self-pity and hopelessness… and suddenly, safe harbor seemed to appear before him.
“I can see the confusion and defiance in your eyes. You are one of only a few I’ve come across with the talent I need, with the ability to do great things. Come with me and your days of wretchedness will be behind you.”
“I will rule these wastelands. Together we will create a kingdom, a place for people like you and I. We will be a haven for those that fate was conspired against – succor for those who have known cruelty and despair. This will be my dynasty.”
The mutant gladly accepted this charge. Ever since that day Longhorn was the most eager to give himself in service to his king. In his name he fought, spreading his influence far and wide. Whatever his master’s bidding, he obeyed. Over time their coterie expanded and more like him joined their cause. Though they came from different walks of life they all shared something.
A dream. They were chasing the most precious thing left in the wasteland, a dream of something better.
It was what separated man from beast. An animal was content so long as it had food enough to fill its belly, a safe place to sleep and a pack of its own. Animals didn’t worry about what the future held, ignorant of the impulses that kept them going. Longhorn had lived like an animal for years, and his master had given him the choice to regain his dignity.
Master was sure to succeed. He was different than all the others, destined for greatness.
Longhorn had dedicated himself to his savior’s lofty ambitions, giving his strength and his life to see it become a reality. He’d helped to create a Promised Land where people like him could thrive, under a leader who valued them. If this was his time to die, he had no regrets.
But he was not yet resigned! Still, his iron will would not protect him from suffocation. He was getting dizzy, his mind muddled. He only held on because he could not accept death. Then, suddenly, a flicker of light shone throne the darkness.
Scrrratch, clack! The rubble was moved aside. A hand extended down toward him.
“Second brother, you still breathing? Hurry up and get out of there!”
Longhorn raised his head to see his winged brother, Vulture  peering back. The young mutant helped pull him from the ruins. When he was finally extricated Longhorn still couldn’t tell how long he’d been buried. The battle for Blackflag Outpost was over, and the sprawling human encampment was now nothing more than a crumbling mausoleum. Most of its citizens lay dead or dying, and the rest had fled into the unforgiving wastes.
Their afflicted brother, Stranger Black , sat nearby. His neck was a mess of tendrils slithering over one another as flesh knit itself back in place. His vocal cords had not regenerated yet, so he sat in silence. He didn’t need to speak. All three of them shared the same disbelief that the Bloodsoaked Queen had eluded them.
“How could the outpost have another demonhunter…” Vulture was clearly puzzled by Cloudhawk’s sudden appearance. “He isn’t strong yet. I wonder why they would dispatch him here? It doesn’t make sense!”
Longhorn and Stranger Black were just as mystified.
Exorcist staffs were standard equipment in the blessed lands for novice demonhunters. Cloudhawk’s skills were lacking, but his explosive power had taken them by surprise. Stranger Black had suffered terribly because it was so unexpected.
No matter what, the Bloodsoaked Queen had to be slaughtered!
She’d already managed to uncover their master’s identity and his whereabouts. If she survived the wastelands and was allowed to get word back to the elysian lands they could expect an influx of demonhunters. For now, the situation was too uncertain for their king to show himself. Chasing down these despicable humans and tearing out their hearts was left to these three mutants.
Longhorn took deep, panting gasps. “Send people out in all directions. No matter where they run or what hole they hide in, we will hunt them down, even if we have to dig through every inch of the wilderness! Elder brother can put out a bounty calling every hunter, mercenary and assassin in the area. We’ll turn the whole damn wastelands against them!”
His orders were quickly spread among the sweepers. They quickly skittered out of the Outpost and out into the deadly wastes.
Night finally arrived. Mantis, Cloudhawk and the Bloodsoaked Queen scrambled out of a hole they’d dug for themselves. They were only a few kilometers away from the ruins of Blackflag Outpost, still within dangerous territory. They couldn’t stay long. They had to keep pressing into the endless wasteland.
Cloudhawk was on the verge of collapse, and the Bloodsoaked Queen’s name was more literal than figurative as she struggled with the wound in her leg. Travel was slow going, and so they’d found temporary shelter in a valley.
No food, no water, and no medicine. The survivors had nothing with which to face the harsh wilds. Cloudhawk and the Queen were gravely wounded, and death was just as likely to claim them before their pursuers caught up.
Mantis left to find supplies. Cloudhawk and the Queen remained behind to rest.
The wasteland became frigid at night, a cold that sunk deep into one’s bones. Of course a fire was out of the question. The beasts of the wilds didn’t fear fire, on the contrary it gave away their position.
The mutants were surely keeping their eyes trained for a campfire, too. By now there had to be sweepers everywhere looking for them. Anything that pointed to their location was asking for death.
Cloudhawk looked over his wounds. While they weren’t to be ignored, at least they weren’t deathly serious. With his healing capabilities he figured he’d be fine in a few days. His eyes wandered over to the Queen, and for some reason he couldn’t help but voice criticism. “This all happened because you completely overestimated yourself! Why the hell did you run out here by yourself to try and kill a demon! We haven’t even seen the damn thing’s shadow, but a few of its lackies almost beat the shit out of you!”
He’d struck a nerve. She stared back at him in anger, and with a small measure of shame. “I’ve spent the last year searching. I only just recently discovered where he’s hiding. He reacted too fast, I didn’t have time to call for help from my people.”
“Slyfox, Mad Dog, Grizzly and a whole lot of other people are dead because of you!” His anger boiled over as he asked, “You really don’t feel guilty for any of that? Why are our lives any less important than yours, huh? What makes you think you’re any better than us! What?!”
Cloudhawk was furious. Thousands of innocent citizens had been massacred. Mad Dog, Slyfox, Woola and countless others hadn’t been able to get away, but they were. The demon might have wielded the sickle, but the Queen’s pride was what brought him here in the first place!
She opened her mouth as though to respond, but instead a mouthful of blood sputtered forth. Her internal injuries were bad.
“Whatever, we’ll clear this up later. Our goal is the same, no point in helping the enemy by fighting each other.” When he saw how sorry of a state she was in, Cloudhawk’s anger dissipated. “You’ve been shot, if we don’t get the pellet out it could be dangerous. Let me help you.”
The Bloodsoaked Queen had suffered from this disaster, too. She was no longer able to maintain her aura of indifferent arrogance. In fact, she didn’t even have the strength to rebut Cloudhawk’s arguments. She nodded.
He helped her remove her outer garments. The shot to her shoulder had been blocked by her sturdy armor. Thanks to its protection and her sturdy constitution the bullet only lodged in her skin and hadn’t done any damage to the bones beneath. It didn’t look like it would limit the use of her arm.
As for her leg, the bullet had missed anything vital. The wound was a nasty one, but the Queen used her impressive body control to constrict blood vessels to the area. She wasn’t in any danger of bleeding out.
Cloudhawk used a dagger to dig the bullet from her shoulder, then sutured the wound with a needle he carried with him. Not once did the Queen register any pain on her face. It was like she didn’t feel anything at all.
Neither bullet wound was as bad as it looked. The real worry was her internal injuries, but Cloudhawk didn’t have an answer for those.
For a few moments there was silence, and then the Queen spoke up. “How were you able to use the power of the staff?”
“Hell if I know,” he muttered dismissively. “What? Is it supposed to be hard? Just you fancy-ass Elysians can use relics, not us wastelanders, is that it?” Clearly, Cloudhawk was currently feeling quite a bit of resentment towards the gods and their followers.
The Bloodsoaked Queen didn’t argue. Instead, she took a few calming breaths. “If you’re able to use the exorcist rod, it means you have the potential to become a demonhunter. It means you’ve been blessed by the gods, and that makes you different from other people in the wastelands. If we live, there’s a chance you could be allowed into the elysian lands…”
Really? The realm of the gods would take him in? Fleeing this wretched place had always been Cloudhawk’s dream. Memories of his fallen comrades filled him with a sense of duty, though – the first thing he had to do was kill the one responsible!
Suddenly he heard footsteps approaching. They were coming from all around.
A host of silhouettes separated from the inky darkness. Weapons glinted in their hands.
Cloudhawk’s face hardened. “Fuck! Someone’s here, we gotta hide!”
1. The author doesn’t specify this is his name. Up to this point he is only referred to as ‘brother’ in conversation, and described as ‘Bull-Horned Brute’. I’ve chosen to give him the name Longhorn to facilitate the translation. Aside from being close enough in approximation to his name in the translation, it is also a common type of cow in the United States where this story purportedly takes place. Texas longhorn cattle are a common site in their namesake, and longhorn bison used to roam the wilds before going extinct. It seemed a fitting moniker.
2. Again, not his given name. ‘Two-Winged Youth’ doesn’t play. Cherub is closest but he’s hardly angelic, and Icarus is too loaded with history. Vulture seemed most appropriate considering his negative appeal.