Chapter 74 - Rock and a Hard Place

Cloudhawk was surrounded by seasoned sweepers, elite denizens of the wilds. They were burly, strong, and adroit with their weapons – Cloudhawk couldn’t break through. He juked in one direction to try and get by but one of the sweepers swung his ax at him.

Cloudhawk sidestepped the swipe and leapt up, bringing his exorcist staff down in a vicious chop.

Bang!

The metal staff cracked the sweepers on top of its head. A trickle of blood marked a path down the mutant’s hideous face, but his armor was too thick to kill him outright. Try as he might, Cloudhawk wasn’t strong enough to get past his foe’s protection. The best he managed was to make the sweeper dizzy.

Cloudhawk attacked again, at another sweeper charging his way. His staff struck the attacker in the chest but was stopped by an iron chest plate. The staff’s sharp point only managed to leave a gash along the armor, causing no real damage.

Goddamnit! What am I supposed to do?

Vital areas were protected from his blows, and neither Cloudhawk’s strength nor his weapons were good enough to get past their defenses.

Grinning hideously, a sweeper heaved his enormous ax. With nowhere to hide Cloudhawk was forced to meet the attack head on, and the powerful strike crashed into his staff like a thunderbolt. The sweeper’s twisted companions seized the opportunity and rushed in all at once. Cloudhawk could only barely stave off one or two of them, what was to do against four or five?

Would he be forced to use the exorcist staff? But using the relic on these minions was draining, he’d have nothing left for the black-clad freak!

As Cloudhawk hesitated another figure joined them from a nearby corner. Nimble as a bird she leapt six feet into the air, despite her cumbersome equipment, and brought her melon hammer down on one of the sweepers’ faces. The faceplate and half his head caved in, reduced to a mess of mangled flesh and broken bone.

Artemis!

Cloudhawk heaved a sigh of relief.

Artemis’ weapons and abilities were especially good against these heavily fortified enemies. She knocked their counterattacks away with her shield while her hammer destroyed another sweeper’s kneecap. She hit it with such force that bone practically disintegrated, forcing the sweepers to collapse onto its one good leg. Her melon hammer never stopped, rebounding off his knee and around in a deadly circle before landing right on its head. The helmet protecting his skull crumpled like a piece of paper, the bone below shattered like glass.

Another sweeper tried their luck.

Artemis swung around and bashed the mutant with her shield, knocking him back. She wobbled for a moment but her right leg planted and kept her stable. Pivoting her hips she whipped her hammer back around and rammed it into the sweeper’s chest. A dent too deep to be healthy was left behind. In fact, the mutant’s lungs and heart were completely destroyed. Blood leaked from every orifice, but he died too fast to notice.

Cloudhawk scrambled over to the corpse and picked up the crossbow by its side.

Whoosh! Thud!

One of the sweepers nearby had their crossbow ready for a flank attack when an arrow lodged itself in his eye socket. He screamed and collapsed to the floor before he could fire his weapon. Meanwhile Artemis was fighting off the last of them. The first swing of her hammer broke the sweeper’s weapon to splinters, and the second lifted him into the air. The third strike knocked him down and buried him in the dirt, virtually every bone in his body shattered. It was a miserable way to go.

No wonder she was one of the outpost’s best fighters! In all of Greenland maybe only Hydra could stand against her. Panther and the others were strong, but they still didn’t quite match up to Artemis’ abilities.

Broken corpses littered the ground. When they were breathing they were the elite, sweepers who were among the strongest, fastest and most skilled of their number.  But faced with Artemis’ hail of blows, they were as defenseless as children.

She rested her gore-caked melon hammer on her shoulder and sashayed toward Cloudhawk. “Looks like I just saved your ass. How do you plan to pay me back, hm?”

Cloudhawk was in no mood for banter. “It’s too early to say you’ve saved shit.”

Artemis followed the young man’s gaze to a ruined building thirty feet high. There at the top was a dark silhouette – a man wrapped in a black robe and a beak-like breathing apparatus. He was as mysterious as he was unsettling.

It was him! Artemis’ face hardened.

The freak in black was the leader of the sweeper forces, she knew. Though he wasn’t the strongest of the demon’s lieutenants, he was the first to answer the monster’s call. Not only was he cruel, but smart – he wasn’t one to underestimate.

Cloudhawk looked at him to, quivering with hatred. This was the man who destroyed the whole Tartarus Mercenary Company!

How many lives did this creature have? Back at the Blackflag Outpost Cloudhawk had personally cut his head from his body, yet there he stood like a living nightmare.

Stranger Black wordlessly picked off a glove and his five bone-speckled tentacles writhed free. They twisted together until his left arm resembled a disgusting saw-tooth blade. It was nauseating and frightening to behold.

What aberrant construction put this freak together? Beyond his unimaginable regenerative abilities he could also change the shape of his body.

“Show me what you can do.”

It was Artemis who spoke, and as she did her leg whipped out at a nearby rock. It went rocketing toward Stranger Black like a soccer ball.

She kicked it so hard the rock screamed through the air like a shooting star, right for Stranger Black. He waved his left arm, casual as swatting a fly, and the rock was cleaved clean in two. The break was so perfect not a single flake of stone was missing.

His bone blade cut through rock like a hot knife through butter! No flesh or bone could stop its keen edge.

“You are reasonably strong.” Stranger Black did not rush to attack. He stared at her from behind the darkness of his hood, like a viper sizing up its prey. “I should tell you that Hydra is finished. You are only fighting to follow in his footsteps.”

Artemis’ gaped at him. “What did you say?! Hydra is dead?”

Stranger Black did not respond, but the fact that he was here and Hydra was nowhere to be found lent credence to his claim. The mutant went on. “You are a decent warrior. Our conflict is not with you – I am giving you a chance to live.”

Cloudhawk searched desperately for a way to escape. All the while Stranger Black’s hissing voice slithered like cobras through the air.

“Kill the child. Join us, and you will live a better life than that traitor gave you.”

Uncertainty was writ plain on Artemis’ face. She hesitated.

Cloudhawk had no chance against the man in black. If he had to face Artemis as well, what else could he expect but a gruesome death? He called out to her. “Don’t believe him. He is no good man, he’ll throw you away the moment he doesn’t need you anymore!”

Stranger Black’s icy cold voice replied. “The choice is yours. Live, or die.”

Cloudhawk watched her with wide eyes. After a moment of quiet thinking she turned. As she did – her eyes filled with murderous intent – she lifted her hammer high. Fast, deadly, without mercy. Even before the hammer reached him, Cloudhawk could feel its crushing momentum like a bolt of lightning.

Son of a bitch! She changed sides faster than she changes clothes!

Cloudhawk flung himself to the side, narrowly escaping her hammer. A hole was left where he’d been standing, and he’d be a puddle in it if he’d been half a second later.

She didn’t stop when her hammer missed. Her next move was to thrust at him with her shield, whose triangular base had been grinding down sharp as a blade. Although she wasn’t very fast, Artemis wasn’t slow either. Her attack was aimed to be swift and malicious and gave Cloudhawk no chance to dodge. He could only throw all his strength behind smashing his staff against the shield and redirecting it. It still caught him, though, and left an ugly wound.

Cloudhawk staggered backward several feet. Artemis wasn’t giving him any leniency, it was clear from her ferocious attacks that she’d decided killing him was the right decision. “You disloyal piece of shit!”

“I’m not too thrilled to be killing you, either.” Artemis planted the base of her shield in the dirt then used her foot to help kick the melon hammer out of the pit it’d dug. She heaved it back up onto her shoulder. She looked Cloudhawk over one more time and sighed. “But the two of us can’t take him. One death is better than two, right? You know you’ve gotta go, so be a good boy and lemme land a hit. Don’t be scared, it’ll be quick – no pain.”

Cloudhawk answered with a string of curses. This bold bitch!

He thought about the Queen, thought about her raging temper and – for better or worse – her unyielding stubbornness. If she was here instead of Artemis, she never would have betrayed him like this.

“Cussin’ me out isn’t gonna do you any good. If you want something to blame, blame the wastelands.”

It was the last breath she was going to waste on him. Her powerful legs launched her forward, leading with her shield. If he was hit full on the spikes all along its surface would turn Cloudhawk into a sieve. Meanwhile Artemis’ hammer was waiting for an opening. If he tried to block her shield that hammer would come crashing down and he’d be a pile of shattered bones before he knew it.

He was out of choices, he had to use his cloak. Cloudhawk disappeared.

Artemis scowled, scanning all around. She cried out to him. “Come on little brother, don’t hide. There’s nowhere to run!”

Stranger Black looked on from his vantage. When he saw Cloudhawk vanish he suddenly understood how they’d fled the dungeon under everyone’s noses. But invisible didn’t mean disappeared. A skilled killer knew to watch the ground for signs, or listen to the changes in the wind to find them out.

And Artemis had seen this before.

When Cloudhawk went invisible he was almost as fast as Panther. He was an agility metahuman and Artemis couldn’t match the small man for speed or reaction time, so to evade Cloudhawk’s sneak attacks she swung her hammer indiscriminately all around.

“Hmph!”

Stranger Black spotted Cloudhawk’s footsteps some distance away. The boy was trying to run? He sprang from the top of the building, bounding across the ruins and blocking Cloudhawk’s path. He hacked toward the boy with his sword-like left arm.

His bone blade could cut through steal, the child didn’t stand a chance.

Faced with the freak’s tyrannical assault Cloudhawk was locked down. He couldn’t dodge and nothing he put between him and that sword would stop it from carving him up.

Clang!

His bone blade and the exorcist staff collided!

Cloudhawk felt the tremendous flood of power through the impact and his staff was knocked away. His whole body lifted into the air. The freak in black kept coming, swinging his bone sword to cut Cloudhawk in half.

From the other side Artemis’ hammer was coming down toward him. He could hear it whistling through the air.

Cloudhawk’s pupils contracted to tiny black points as the realization of his doom dawned on him. He was caught on two sides – it was over! His death was certain! Where was the Queen to save him? 

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