Chapter 71 - Crisis

The sun burned high in the sky, hot enough to roast a man. At the hottest point of the day nine people were picking their way through the ruins, like a line of ants scrambling over the piles of stone and twisted metal.

Cloudhawk still felt like something wasn’t right. It was strange, he felt uncomfortable from the very start like something bad was just around the corner.

Originally their group had sported eleven people. They were Cloudhawk, the Queen, and Mantis of course. In addition there were those from the Outpost; Snaketooth, Artemis and the teams they commanded. At this moment Mantis had vanished somewhere in the wilds as was his fashion and Snaketooth had yet to return after leaving to guide Hydra.

“They’re so goddamn slow! Can they just fuckin' take the bait already?” Artemis impatiently swung her right arm, smashing the melon hammer she bore against a wall and breaking it into rubble.

Cloudhawk couldn’t help but shoot her a glance. Typically women were lower on the social ladder in the Wastelands, they had naturally weaker constitutions and were less inclined to bravery. But nothing was absolute, and there were exceptions in all cases – Artemis was that outlier. All of Hydra’s elite soldiers were special, but this woman was unique above them all.

She was attractive in face and figure, but more than that her equipment made her all the more striking. Attached to the bracer of her left arm was a three pointed shield, and in her right a metallic melon hammer she wielded with ease.

The shield was large and thick and peppered with metal spikes. Its pointed base was as sharp as any blade. The hammer’s business end was round and larger than Cloudhawk’s head. It was streaked with red and didn’t seem to have ever been washed. He wondered how many bones it’d broken, how many skulls it’d crushed.

For all their weight and dramatic appearance they hung off Artemis’ petite form. They looked particularly out of place.

She felt Cloudhawk’s eyes on her and knocked her iron mallet against the shield, eliciting a clang like dull thunder. “Hey little brother – my toys ain’t bad, right? Wanna play with ‘em?”

Her bright eyes sized him up, like a hungry wolf eyeing a delicious little rabbit.

Cloudhawk felt a trickle of sweat drip down his spine. “Nah!”

That hammer had to be a hundred pounds or more, too much for your typical person to handle. Heavy was an understatement, and her shield probably wasn’t much lighter. There was no way he’d been able to use them effectively in a fight. Meanwhile Artemis wielded the hammer like a bamboo stick. Despite the weight of it and her shield, after walking fifty kilometers she didn’t seem at all winded. 

This woman was a monster, but when he thought about it she was typical at the same time. Among the Bloodsoaked Queen and the seven other elite fighters she was one of their leaders. That meant she was at least twice as strong as any of her subordinates.

As for her, the kid was only proving more and more amusing.

She was about to continue their banter when suddenly the sound of a heavy gun firing in the distance interrupted her. Everyone’s face stiffened – had the fight already started?

But there were no sweepers to be seen!

The Outpost didn’t have a chain gun, the only group they knew who did were the sweepers. The deadly weapon was affixed to their airship. But why would the airship be using it? Had their plans already been ruined?

Snaketooth was still nowhere to be found.

“God fuckin’ damnit, why is there fighting?!” Artemis seemed to have trouble deciding what to do next. She turned to the others. “Should we go see?”

No one gave an opinion.

Cloudhawk suddenly felt an unsettling sensation, like needles digging into his flesh. Overcome with a sense of danger he ducked and instinctively looked toward the ruins. A flash of light – like sunlight on glass or a mirror – glinted back at him.

Down!”

Snipers were hiding in the ruins with their sights set on Cloudhawk and the Bloodsoaked Queen. Half a second later they were firing. Only one of the snipers was on Cloudhawk, the others were focused on the demonhunter. It was clear who their main target was.

Whoosh! Crack!

The Queen had been warned, she could hear the bullets tearing through the air. Although she couldn’t see them she was skilled enough to track them by sound. She instinctively dodged out of danger.

Bullets sped past the spot she’d just occupied, missing her and instead burrowing into one of the fighters’ heads. It struck with so much force it blew the top of his skull off. Bits of bone and brain burst in all directions like gruesome fireworks.

Hot blood splattered over Artemis’ face. She gaped at the body of her comrade as they slumped to the ground. What the fuck was going on?!

The snipers were Outpost soldiers, there to assist the operation. So why were they turning their guns on them? Now wasn’t the time to wonder, though. Who knew how many more snipers were hiding nearby!

The crack of gunfire rang out again.

Artemis instinctively lifted her shield to cover her head. She shuffled backward to try and find cover in the ruins as a bullet smashed into her shield. It hit with such force she felt her arm vibrate and go numb.

“What the actual fuck!” Artemis’ screeching voice called to the others. “Take cover!”

Outpost sniper rifles were specialized weapons of death, manufactured to fire a bullet at near supersonic speed. The soldiers who traveled with them were her outstanding fighters, but were no match for the likes of the Bloodsoaked Queen. They couldn’t track the bullets, much less dodge them. If these snipers had them in their sights, the threat to their life was critical.

Everyone scattered, all but Panther whose face adopted a stony expression. He pulled out his daggers and lunged at one of his companions, stabbing him twice in the chest then opening his throat.

“You…”

The one Panther attacked was not inferior to the small man, but he hadn’t expected the treachery. He’d been too busy trying to avoid the snipers to keep an eye on his back leaving Panther an opening.

Panther wasn’t alone, either.

Two more from Snaketooth’s team lashed out at their brethren. The last member of Artemis’ team was killed before they could fight back.

Even stunned the wasteland woman knew what had befallen them. “Snaketooth betrayed us, that rancid piece of dog shit!”

It all happened so fast they barely had time to think. But the proof was there; all three of Snaketooth’s team were attacking them, and the snipers had been arranged by Hydra’s brother. No question, Snaketooth sold them out.

The only ones left were Artemis, Cloudhawk, the Queen and Mantis – wherever he was. Panther and the other three were enemies. The Bloodsoaked Queen was still recovering from the surprise attack, but she was still more than a match for them.

There were at least ten deadly snipers in the ruins nearby, however. Even the Queen had to take care, for if she got tangled up that would be all the chance they needed to riddle her with bullets. 

Cloudhawk had managed to avoid a shot and rolled behind a dilapidated wall for cover. But no sooner had he ducked behind it did he feel a gust of wind on his head. One of the traitors was standing over him with a battleax aimed right for his scalp.

He was done for!

Cloudhawk lifted his exorcist rod to block the strike but he could tell immediately that this fighter was a strength metahuman, and a dominant one at that. He couldn’t defend himself with his strength alone.

The grating sound of metal on metal rang out.

Just as Cloudhawk was to be chopped in half a petite and agile figure dashed in front of him like a leopardess. Her shadow fell over him, shield held high, and as the ax struck her with thunderous force Cloudhawk could see the stone path beneath her feet shatter.

One could imagine how much force was behind the strike.

“Burn in hell!”

Thick veins bulged as Artemis thrust back, her pretty face twisting into a fierce sneer as she jumped straight at her attacker. She used her shield to knock his ax away and brought her melon hammer around in a sweeping arc. The ax-wielding betrayer, eyes wide, leapt out of the way and her hammer struck ground instead of bone. It crashed into rock with an explosive sound and turned stone to dust. The impact shook Cloudhawk and muddled his head.

Holy shit! Was she even human?! Her strength was nothing short of spectacular!

Cloudhawk had run into many impressive people lately, and of all of them the only one who surpassed her pure power was the two-horned mutant. Even the Bloodsoaked Queen couldn’t meet her blow for blow.

Artemis’ weapon was cumbersome and unwieldy, making her attacks slow. Strong as each attack was, that was also her weakness.

The Bloodsoaked Queen was still the snipers’ main target, and their guns were trained on her. Yet she raced across the ruins like a phantom, dodging each shot as they came, switching directions on a dime. Using sound alone she avoided them and remained unscathed.

Panther, his daggers bared, suddenly leapt at her.

She knocked his weapons away easily then whipped her powerful leg, once then twice. Each kick struck Panther’s wrists and sent his daggers flying. A third kick caught him right in the center of his chest and the small man was hammered into the air. She snatched one of Panther’s daggers before it reached the ground and reeled back to bury it in him.

Another soldier made his move. He pulled out a handgun, swung his arm toward her and fired. Judging by his finesse and precision he was as skilled a shot as Slyfox! A marksman like him was lethal.

Until now the Queen had been too fast for him to take his shot, but he saw his opportunity. It was now or never. If she killed Panther he was next.

The Bloodsoaked Queen was forced to change targets. She rotated the dagger and blocked two bullets aimed at her. She was so fast it seemed nothing could touch her, her skills were simply fantastical.

“What?!”

Just like Slyfox had once done to a sweeper’s bullet, the Queen knocked away a shot she couldn’t avoid with nothing but a dagger. Her lightning speed was complimented by exact precision. The shooter could hardly believe his eyes.

However, there was more than one enemy the Queen had to worry about.

A host of guns were leveled at her. While she was defending herself from the close-range gunfire the snipers nearby were taking aim. Even the Bloodsoaked Queen couldn’t protect herself from all directions.

Then the unexpected happened.

Sweepers began to appear all around them. There weren’t many – maybe a couple dozen – but they were skilled and savage. A winged mutant led the charge.

Things had gone from bad to worse!

The Bloodsoaked Queen’s heart sank. Suddenly she was caught between the frying pan and the fire. Now it seemed in addition to the snipers they had to survive the mutant lieutenants and their army!

A short distance away Cloudhawk spotted a narrow slit among the ruins. It was somewhere the snipers couldn’t get them. He turned and shouted toward the Queen. “Don’t fight them! Let’s get out of here!”

The Queen dashed toward him in retreat. Artemis followed using her shield for cover. Their group fled toward the fissure. 

Hidden in the ruins a sniper’s muzzle moved. He peered through his sights, following Artemis as she desperately ran for safety. He had a good angle on her, from the side where her shield didn’t reach. The woman’s head was right in his line of sight.

Cloudhawk was clearly the weakest of them, but he had a keen sense. He seemed to intrinsically know when a muzzle was pointed at him. Hitting him was harder than the sharpshooters would have thought. The Queen’s capabilities were too high for them to overcome, and since she could hear the bullets coming it was too difficult to hit her so long as she was alert.

That just left Artemis. There was no way she could escape this shot.

The sniper waited until he lined the shot just right, and pulled the trigger. The muzzle of his rifle belched fire and a bullet whistled through the air.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter