There were few in the Wastelands who could kill this way – ruthlessly efficient and completely silent. Mantis was one of them. Only, Mantis had disappeared after they escaped from Blackflag Outpost. After days of being hunted by sweepers and deadly sandstorms, how could he show up here?
Mantis had tailed the sweepers, even managed to infiltrate their airship. It brought him to Greenland Outpost.
This revelation confounded Cloudhawk. Mantis followed the sweepers and snuck on their ship without being detected at all? The size of the brass balls on this guy was unthinkable. How stealthy was he? Cloudhawk didn’t dare think about what else he was capable of.
“Come with me.”
Sweepers were everywhere and oasis guards were in the hundreds as they combed the area. Hydra had let Cloudhawk and the Queen go, but his subordinates didn’t know that. If they were caught the consequences would be bad.
Luckily Mantis was a master assassin. Assassins weren’t just adept at killing, they had to be experts of stealth as well, and the night was Mantis’ playground. As they crept through the darkness Mantis picked off the weaker hunters, ending their lives and leaving no trace. One by one he ambushed their pursuers and ushered their spirits to the afterlife.
The small crew escaped through the opening provided.
Greenland Outpost was large and boasted over fifty thousand souls. Finding three people in that press of humanity was like trying to find a needle in an ocean. Mantis led them to a basement below one of the common residences in the outpost, without the owner knowing a thing. Cloudhawk helped the Queen to a corner and settled her against the wall. She wasn’t doing well, her condition was less than optimistic.
Cloudhawk turned to Mantis. “Help take a look at her.”
Mantis obliged, stretching out his hand but the Queen glared back at him. Her right hand shot out with lethal intent and pale fire undulated around the burning angels.
Cloudhawk hurriedly made to put her at ease. “Hold on, Mantis is a doctor. He can check your injuries!”
Mantis paid her no mind. He grabbed her wrist and after a moment spoke in his typical detached tone. “She has less than a day.”
Cloudhawk gaped at him. “Mantis, c’mon stop screwin’ around. You just touched her wrist, how do you even know where she’s hurt?”
Mantis had diagnosed the condition of her internal organs by feeling her pulse . His knowledge came from an ancient and exquisite source, far superior to what anyone found in the ruins these days. How could a yokel like Cloudhawk possibly understand? The Bloodsoaked Queen had more than a few external wounds, but they were not of much concern and would heal on their own in a few days.
Her internal injuries were far more serious. After days of running and fighting, the strain of the demands she’d put on herself had deteriorated her condition. It was miraculous she still lived. Switch her with any normal person – even someone like Grizzly – and she’d have been dead already.
Despite his impatience Cloudhawk knew Mantis wasn’t one to play around. “Why aren’t you saying anything? Aren’t you a doctor?! Think of something!”
“I am a doctor,” Mantis affirmed patiently, “I am not a god.”
Without tools or medicine there was nothing he could do. Was he supposed to use magic?
Cloudhawk fidgeted restlessly, wracking his brain. “Can’t we think of anything?”
“Enough, begging won’t serve anything.” The Queen’s time was short, but she was calm – the demonhunter did not fear death. She closed her eyes as she spoke. “You have the potential to be a demonhunter, you aren’t like this wastelander.”
Mantis pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose. “Everyone has their own path. Hunting demons doesn’t suit him.”
The Bloodsoaked Queen opened her eyes again and looked at Mantis with a glint of curiosity and surprise in her eyes. “Who are you?”
He didn’t answer.
Cloudhawk had always been interested in Mantis’ story. He had been a part of the Tartarus mercenaries, and yet different. He was a mercenary leader like Mad Dog and Slyfox but no one dared give him orders. There’d been some sort of unspoken understanding he wasn’t aware of.
Mantis also never directly participated in missions. He always remained behind and did logistics work.
Cloudhawk was a hundred percent sure Mantis had always known the Queen’s identity. This fact alone meant Mantis wasn’t your typical wastelander.
Yet Cloudhawk didn’t care about any of that, the Queen’s critical condition was most important. Despite her shitty temperament, she was the strongest fighter Cloudhawk knew. At peak condition the demon’s three lieutenants together couldn’t stand against her. What was he going to do if she died? Those fucking freaks would hunt him to the ends of the earth!
Mantis asked, “How did you escape the dungeons?”
He answered honestly. “We ran into someone named Hydra. He helped us escape.”
“You know him?”
Mantis didn’t answer. He turned and made as though to leave.
Cloudhawk shot to his feet. “Where are you going?”
Mantis didn’t stop. His soft voice hung in the air as he vanished out into the streets. “Stay here.”
By now the hundreds or sweepers and outpost guards had put down the dungeon rebellion. Yet even with all of these soldiers, no matter how rigorously they searched, the two escapees had vanished like smoke on the breeze.
The demon’s servants were understandably furious.
Were these two able to hide in the sky? Disappear into the ground? They slipped through their clutches every time!
Greenland Outpost was sealed off, and the surround forests were deadly to put it mildly. Beyond that the wastelands stretched far into the horizon. Escape would not be easy for this pair of troublemakers, and slipping out of the dungeon didn’t mean fleeing the outpost.
The three mutants ordered the gates closed and simultaneously dispatched scores of guards to canvas the area. Every house was searched, every ruin picked through, every stone overturned as they hunted for leads.
With every passing minute the search team was getting closer to where they hid.
Cloudhawk felt anxiety welling up within him. It was only a matter of time before they came to this basement. How were they going to escape?
Suddenly the door to the basement was pulled open. An outpost guard pushed his way in bearing a rifle.
Cloudhawk sprang to his feet like a leopard and threw up his fists, ready for a fight.
“Mantis? What are you doing dressed like that?”
“Shut up and change. We have to go.”
Mantis had brought two more disguises for them, also outpost guard attire. They included two sets of worn-out armor, veils and rifles. Once they changed clothes they were practically indistinguishable from real personnel.
Mantis led the other two from the basement. They swaggered through the outpost trying to blend in among the sweepers and guards that were searching for them. Hundreds of sweepers went from house to house searching for them while they pushed past headed the other direction.
Cloudhawk felt like his heart was going to burst through his chest.
Mantis, by contrast, walked around as though he’d done this a hundred times. Be it posture or attitude he was the spitting image of any outpost guard. The three demon lieutenants were leading their teams from the inside of the city to its far reaches, for they didn’t think their targets would be heading deeper into the outpost.
What they saw when they entered the Greenland Fort was nothing short of stunning.
It looked like the outpost was preparing for war. Everyone was affected, however they were used to the turmoil and seemed numb to it. The first floor of the fort was a market where they sold alcohol, tobacco, various materials and components, weapons, food, and medicine. You could find almost anything here, including whatever they might need to help the Queen.
But that’s not where they went – where in the world was Mantis taking them?
The small group picked their way through the fort until they reached the top level. The entire floor was rife with guards. It was obvious by the way they held themselves that these fighters were the elite, far superior to the rabble they encountered outside. If Cloudhawk didn’t know Mantis better, he might be afraid the assassin was getting ready to sell them out.
Mantis fed a pair of bodyguards a line about his identity and purpose. They seemed content with this information and led them through the hallways.
Eventually they stopped in front of an office.
Cloudhawk had never seen a room this large before in his life. It was even larger than the Queen’s former chambers and decorated with tidy furnishings. There was a lengthy couch where a middle-aged woman sat with her small son. On a nearby table there was a collection of four or five brightly colored fruits – a luxury among luxuries in the wasteland.
There were also two people dressed in doctor’s attire working busily.
Then as they looked on, a burly figure appeared amongst the small crowd. Cloudhawk and the Queen exchanged a frightened glance.
Cloudhawk gripped his staff tightly and grit his teeth. “Leonine? Fuckin’ you again!”
Leonine didn’t respond right away. He looked at the woman on the couch and spoke to her first. “Go and take a look.”
She knew how to act in delicate company and left the small gathering.
Once she’d gone the slaver returned his attention to Cloudhawk and the Bloodsoaked Queen. “Starting now, we’re a team. I’m here to help you do whatever needs to be done.”
Cloudhawk snorted like he’d heard a funny joke. “You? Help us? What a goddamn joke!”
“He is serious.” Hydra appeared from outside. “Leonine is under my command. He works for me. From now on he’ll be part of your group.”
Cloudhawk stared at Hydra incredulously.
Hydra went on unperturbed. “Listen, those bastard mutants are scouring the outpost looking for you. They’re ordering my people around as they please and fuckin’ up my territory – exploiting me and my resources like they own the goddamn place. I am the leader of this outpost, and I’m not going to put up with this bullshit. We may not have the same goals, but we have the same enemy. I need you, and you need me. Am I wrong?”
Cloudhawk was forced to agree. Without question, Leonine’s addition to their team added real combat power.
Hydra had taken charge of Leonine’s wife and children. They lived in the fort, but more like hostages than guests. Leonine wouldn’t dare betray Hydra, for it would mean putting his family in danger.
No one could have anticipated the twists and turns that brought them to this place. A new team had been assembled.
For days Cloudhawk had fled from one place to another with the Bloodsoaked Queen, and goddamn was he tired of it! Now he had Hydra’s help, along with Leonine and Mantis by his side. He finally felt like he could take a breath!
1. This is a standard method of pattern differentiation and diagnosis in Chinese medicine. There are six pulse locations that tell the practitioner the condition of a patient’s organs. Here is a nice chart that explains the basics. When checking pulse we make a determination based on; location (cun, guan, chi), strength (strong, normal, weak), depth (superficial, normal, deep), speed (fast, slow, normal), rhythm (regular, irregular, regularly irregular, irregularly irregular), length (long, short, stunted), and several miscellaneous manifestations like sluggishness, scattered sensation, etc. Someone who is on the cusp of death for a condition like the Queen’s would likely have a very weak or almost impalpable pulse that feels ‘empty’ like there’s no blood, deep, slow, and likely irregular as the heart fails. In the final moments before death the pulse will suddenly become superficial and rapid, which in TCM we call the last light of the setting sun – the body gives a final burst of energy and then gives in.