Chapter 52 - The Edge of Life and Death

The sands shook, the world pitched. In the dim light of dawn the monstrous thing was revealed. More than a hundred scythe-like legs wriggled, the ones sprouting from its upper half scarlet red and keen as daggers. They were so tightly packed they chattered against each other like a host of blades. It was a show of dominance.

The monster also let off a fetid stench of putrescence. It was an agent of death, so terrifying as to petrify even the most elite soldiers.

Cloudhawk was a model of his upbringing, a denizen of the wastes. Aggression steamed from his bones, and he was by no means a coward… but before this hellspawn he stood absolutely stupefied. Those sweepers who were giving chase witnessed it too, watching as the creature burst from its secret nest like a majestic emperor of its territory. It reared up the first third of its body and released from its gaping maw a screech rife with pure fury.

The sound was more terrible than any thunder. Worse than the sound of an erupting volcano, more deafening than a flood! It rolled across the vast wasteland and into the heavens, telling all who dared enter its territory that here, it was master!

Cloudhawk jolted back to his senses. “Run!”

The sweepers’ mounts panicked when they came face to face with the monster. Their riders fought to keep them under control while the one in the lead thrust his crude axe in the air. “Don’t let them get away! Kill these two rats!”

The other sweepers growled like a pack of cornered wolves. Although this monster’s appearance had startled them, they were not going to give up the chase – an act that seemed crazy.

But one mustn’t forget… this was the wastelands!

As the sands blew in on gusting winds it brought with it the sounds of bowstrings twanging. Dart after poisonous dart was fired, filling the air with terrifying whistles. The fugitives urged their mounts forward and raced headlong into the sand pit.

Cloudhawk was struck by two of the arrows. They didn’t completely pierce his mystical cloak but they bit into him anyway. Two cuts like knife stabs ached and though he didn’t stop to look, he knew there would be blood.

The desert monster made its move. It sped across the sand as smooth as any vessel, propelled across the granular sea by its constantly wriggling host of legs. Plumes of sand were kicked up behind it as it made a mad dash forward.

The reeking smell of rot mingled with rolling clouds of sand. Cloudhawk’s eyes, mouth and nose were choked shut. He couldn’t see or hear anything – helpless as a drowning man, struggling aimlessly.

The monster slithered up behind him. A hundred blood red, knife-like appendages reached out to impale Cloudhawk.

Shafts of light were reaching them from the eastern horizon. As the beast opened its maw to devour its prey the light disappeared into its cavernous mouth. Countless needle-like teeth lined the cavity, like a living meat grinder. Hell, with skin of copper and bones of iron you’d still be ripped apart, and Cloudhawk had none of those things.

He teetered on the razor edge of destruction.

The Bloodsoaked Queen appeared, cloak flapping, kicking up sand in her wake. She snatched Cloudhawk, leapt off of the ground and landed right on the monster’s head. It replied by swinging itself back and forth and raising itself higher. But no matter what the monster did the Queen was fixed to it like a magnet to the carapace that formed its skullcap. Agile as a sparrow she slid down its back to the midpoint of its body.

Cloudhawk was in shock. He felt like he’d been snatched from the jaws of death, literally. He’d been so close to dying it felt like his soul had fled his body! He’d never experienced such a terrifying sensation before.

It was only thanks to the Queen’s fantastic skills that he survived. If he’d have had ten lives the beast would have devoured them all. When he looked at her, though, she was not reveling in their escape. Blood dripped continuously from the bottom of her mask. All of this motion and strain was only making her worse.

“Are you alright?”

With her mask on he couldn’t tell by her face. Her response was a cold and dismissive grunt, but it couldn’t hide her weakness. “Worry about yourself. Don’t count on me to save your ass every time.”

Cloudhawk felt extremely unhappy when his well-intentioned question was repaid with contempt.

There was nothing he could do about it. Ten of him couldn’t equal one wounded Bloodsoaked Queen. It would be hard enough for her to break encirclement alone, twice as hard if she had to drag Cloudhawk with her.

Cloudhawk hung to the borders where the monster’s chitinous armor connected. There he was flung from one side to another like some nightmarish rollercoaster. He managed to shout, “If you see a chance to make it, you forget about me!”

“I wasn’t waiting for your permission,” she snapped back.

He knew she’d say something like that, he understood her personality by now. But it was still a blow to his ego. This apathetic, grumpy woman, he lamented to himself. She still thinks I’m a piece of shit!

Cloudhawk opened his mouth to say something, but his words were cut off when a bolt from a sniper’s bow buried itself in the Queen’s chest. She gasped as it pierced her and she threatened to collapse.

Queen!

Cloudhawk grabbed her, and covered her in his cloak. Arrows fell like a lethal hail while the monster - enraged - flung itself at the sweepers. It reeled left and right at the same time, trying to rid itself of the pests latched to its back.

Its multitude of razor sharp arms chewed the earth in front of it. Any sweeper or mount unlucky enough to be caught in its path was cut down like weeds! They were chopped up, disemboweled.

It only served to enrage the sweepers. Two maneaters laden with heavy armor flung themselves forward like crazed bulls, enormous war hammers crashing down on the beast’s head. The blow was powerful enough to send the mutant creature staggering. Meanwhile other sweepers surrounded it, and started to stab at it with spears and swords.

Squelch! Squirt!

Each wound the monster suffered opened poison glands, and they spurted with corrosive toxins. The splashing filth blinded many sweepers, and yet the mob did not retreat. Dozens more of them charged forward, some of the sweepers even trying to climb onto the creature’s back.

Cloudhawk held tightly to the Queen while waving his staff with lethal intent. He put it through the neck of one sweeper that got too close, leaving behind a gaping fountain of blood. It was dead before it hit the ground. He swung around and bludgeoned another sweeper, striking it so hard on the helmet that sparks flew and it was knocked away.

The mutant centipede heaved its girth in any direction it could, trying to break free from the trap it found itself in. But the sweepers were like maggots, and clung to it no matter where the monster tried to run. It lashed out at everything that came close, but it couldn’t hold out forever.

Cloudhawk had lost count of his injuries. He was too weak to use his exorcist rod. All he could do was cling desperately to the monster’s carapace and be flung around. If he lost his grip and hit the sand, the sweepers would be on him in a minute. He was promised a brutal death, a seemingly inevitable reward for his frantic attempts to live. In its mad haze the monster didn’t realize the number of sweepers was only increasing. If this continued, no matter how strong it was it would soon also be slain!

The Bloodsoaked Queen feebly extended a hand, letting it fall upon the monster’s body.

From her fingers a scorching flame sprang out. The outer part of the creature resisted the lapping fires, but the heat was boiling it alive on the inside. It screeched in pain and raced forward with wild abandon. The maneaters were knocked aside and the monster plunged into the sea of waiting sweepers.

The Queen never ceased infusing the monster with her burning power. Like a beast gone mad with pain, the mutant insect rampaged through the press of enemies.

Thanks to the overwhelming power of this monster Cloudhawk and the Queen were freed from the encirclement. It was ignorant of how far it had run, focused only on the pain the burning angels had caused charring its innards. As its life force quickly began to drain away, it heaved a forlorn cry and fell limp on the sand.

At last neither Cloudhawk nor the Queen could stem off the wave of exhaustion that consumed them. Due to her armor the arrow lodged in the Queen’s chest was blessedly shallow [1]. They figured the arrow tips were poisoned, but they weren’t sure which toxins they’d used. Cloudhawk could only resort to emergency measures, so he pulled the Queen’s armor to the side and helped her pull out the arrow. Her wound began to bleed freely.

The Queen never resisted. She likely didn’t have the strength to. Dawn had arrived but the sun had yet to bath the wasteland in its callous light. Cloudhawk made his way to the peak of a dune and looked out to where the yellow-brown horizon met the equally repellent sky.

The cloud of opaque brown grew thicker, faster. The closer it got the darker things became until they were nearly plunged into night once again. Cloudhawk had grown up in the wastelands, so of course he knew what this was.

He threw one of the Queen’s arms over his shoulder. “Mother fucker, we got a beast of a sandstorm headed our way. We have to find a place to hide otherwise we’re gonna get blown away!”

This was a real sandstorm, one birthed by nature. The area these storms covered was massive, and they were powerful. Gusts so intense they’d throw whole cars into the air were not uncommon. It was one of the most devastating natural disasters they could face!

The Queen’s mouth lolled open. “Leave me.”

He gaped at her. “What did you say?”

For the first time this mighty woman looked like she was ready to succumb to defeat. “I won’t survive the sandstorm. You have to go alone.”

She wasn’t being dramatic. Be it physically or mentally, she had long ago passed her limits. Her wounds, the pain – none of that hurt her as badly as knowing she’d failed her mission. She’d ignored all the opposition and violated demonhunter rules to come out here herself and hunt her prey. In the end she’d never even glimpsed the demon’s face. Now she faced a miserable, choking death.

It was hopeless! All was lost!

Even at her best the Queen was no match for the demon, much less his control over the wastelands. Now, with her task doomed to failure, it looked like her sins would be carried with her to the grave.

“What sort of bullshit are you spouting?”

Cloudhawk refused to acknowledge her pleas and lifted the Queen onto his shoulder. She wasn’t heavy, but he had the wind and sand to fight against as he stumbled onward, and he was drained. Ten minutes later the full brunt of the sandstorm swallowed them up. Stone-laden winds buffeted him like a storm of blades.

Beyond the danger of being cut apart or crushed by a rock, the winds could also send them flying into the wastes.

Cloudhawk found a mound somewhat sheltered by a boulder. He huddled close and use his cloak to cover the Queen from the elements. It didn’t stop airborne stones from pelting them constantly.

The storm was here, and they had no choice but to wait it out!

In the back of her mind the Queen rued the idea that she and some young wastelander would die side by side. With effort she opened her eyes and dragged them along his dirty face. Suddenly she didn’t find him so repugnant. She saw the anxiety on his face, the fear, but what was important was in his eyes – a calm that said he would accept death, because he did all he could.

This tenacity in the face of hard times, this unyielding persistence in the face of suffering, this defiance when the whole world seemed to be against you – all of this was only something the wastelands could teach!

If we survive this tribulation and he becomes a demonhunter, he’ll definitely surpass me!

But almighty gods, why would you cause such a man to be born into a life within these blighted lands?

1. I believe in typical people the thickness between the dermis and the lungs is an inch and a half on average. Not a lot of room to play with.

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RWX's Thoughts

Sorry, there are supposed to be four more but I got interrupted while editing them.  I'll make them my highest priority tomorrow, promise!