Chapter 80 - Salamander

Greenland Outpost always had unstable elements within its walls. Hydra wanted to stand on his own, but certainly there were those who had different ideas.

Independence meant conflict, and conflict meant combat. Combat lead to death. Unless one had a vested interest one wouldn’t be eager to fight and possibly lose one’s life. And so, even if Hydra were still alive it was unlikely it would have maintained the same level of stability it had before. Unrest flourished without the former leader’s iron-fisted hold and the threat of a cruel end.

Artemis was powerful, at least more powerful than most. But since she was a woman it was hard for others to recognize her authority. The demon would strike back soon. He had to, after what happened to his lieutenants. Stabilizing the situation and preparing for his arrival was a priority.

In the last several days the Bloodsoaked Queen had only come to visit Cloudhawk once. The rest of her time was spent purging the outpost of dissidents. She ruthlessly eliminated opposition to Artemis’ reign while generously showering followers with food and water. She tempered brutality with mercy to pacify the masses and bring the situation under control step by step.

The Queen was young, and she still found herself vulnerable to rash and reckless decisions. She proved it by running into the wastelands to hunt a demon on her own, as well as killing Hydra. However, one could not deny her effectiveness. Blackflag Outpost had been in turmoil when she arrived, but through her bloody methods it was reorganized. She brought rules, built a foundation, and in less than a year the chaos had largely subsided.

Greenland Outpost was ten times more complicated than Blackflag Outpost had been. Nonetheless, the Queen’s oppressive strength was an important deterrent.  As they shared Hydra’s stores of personal wealth the condition of the general populace improved. Gradually, most of the outpost’s denizens came to accept the new status quo.

Her specific methods were unclear to Cloudhawk. As he recovered he spent most of his time with the outpost’s new leader. Although Artemis was subject to changing moods, she was a denizen of the wastelands and knew their plight. Speaking with her felt more relatable, less stuffy than when the young man tried to talk to the Queen.

Artemis, on the other hand, felt Cloudhawk was unique.

At first she’d thought he was a demonhunter, or perhaps an apprentice. She’d wanted to bed him and add another special notch to her proverbial belt. But over time she found that he was just a special sort of wastelander. There were things about him that were completely unlike any other wastelander she’d ever met. He was pure and naïve.

Those were not words one usually used to describe the wretches of the wilds.

Cloudhawk was a miracle in a place where evil reigned. For him to live so long in the face of cruelty and indifference, and especially for him to keep the views he held, surpassed whatever thrills of the flesh she’d entertained.

Today, Artemis picked up her fifty-pound hammer and called a dozen soldiers together. “Y’all are coming with me. I’m gonna lead you into the fight.”

Her proclamation took Cloudhawk by surprise. It was quite sudden. “The fight? Who are we fighting?”

“I just got some news,” Artemis said, a cloud of anger crossing her face. “There’s someone in the outpost called Salamander – the asshole always hated me and now he’s gathered a few people he’s planning to take out of here. We’ve gotta deal with ‘em, otherwise others will think it’s ok to just up and leave.”

“A handful of people isn’t going to make a difference. Plus, you aren’t healed yet, and the Queen said you shouldn’t leave the fort.” Cloudhawk eyed the men she’d gathered suspiciously. Clearly this hadn’t been the Queen’s idea, it was Artemis playing out a personal grudge. “Anyway, do you think we have enough soldiers? How strong is Salamander?”

Anyone in the wastelands with a title had earned it somehow.

“Salamander didn’t follow the rules even when Hydra was alive, so Hydra didn’t pay him much mind. He isn’t weak, but not strong enough to be any sort of threat. He’s only got a handful of people who listen to him.” Artemis rested her hammer on the floor. It struck hard enough to crack stone. “I’m no cripple. I’m more than healed enough to deal with this irritating shit.”

This woman was as rash as she was unreliable.

He couldn’t help but continue to challenge her. “We should at least tell the Queen. Or if not have Mantis come with us.”

“They’re busy, when will they have time? I’ve always had enemies, and this guy’s pissed me off before. I won’t sit by and watch him swagger out with my people.” Anger had crept into her voice. “So are you fuckin’ comin’ or not?!”

The decision was already made, Cloudhawk could only agree. Anyway, he wanted to try out his new powers and see what he could do.

“I knew I wasn’t wrong about you. Wait till we deal with this asshole and big sister will treat you right!” She beamed at him. “Come on, let’s get our stuff.”

Salamander had taken his people out into the oasis and was camped in the ruins. Although he was considered an elite member of the outpost Artemis never saw him as anything but an asshole. Now she was the leader and had access to the best equipment in camp. What did she have to fear?

Cloudhawk picked out a revolver from the armory, one with a nasty punch just in case. A few minutes later he was following Artemis and her group into the oasis. He was wary, for although Salamander wasn’t as capable as Artemis he’d gotten the better of her before. They couldn’t be careless.

Artemis didn’t rush in recklessly. She sent scouts ahead to see what they were walking in to.

The oasis ruins weren’t far from the outpost. All along the path it was bestrewn with grotesque statues in various states of disrepair and the twisted remains of structures. The style of these ruins was different from other sectors, like they were deposited from somewhere else. They seemed much older, plucked from several thousand years ago by some mysterious power and dropped into the middle of a jungle.

These sorts of bizarre scenes weren’t a rare sight in the wastelands. No one knew where they’d come from, but they weren’t anything special to those who lived in these blasted lands.

“Boss, I found ‘em!” One of the outpost scouts came trotting over to her. “They’re in the center of the statue garden, getting ready. I counted ten or twelve, with three or four outfitted for long-range combat.”

“As expected.” A grin spread across Artemis’ face. Her soldiers were skilled and well equipped, and with the advantage of a sneak attack their chances were better than good. She waved to the left and right. “With me!”

Statues and pillars spread across the area, which in turn were blanketed in moss and crawling vines. There had to be hundreds of them, set up in a strange sort of formation. It was a good spot to avoid the oasis monsters and fight back if they chose to attack, making it an ideal place for those trying to leave.

Only Cloudhawk felt something was off. It was already afternoon. Anyone who’d want to defect would have to take time into consideration. Why would they have stopped here? But Artemis was thirsty for revenge and there was no dragging her back. Instead he stayed back toward the rear of their group, so that if things went sour he could run.

Kill ‘em!” Impatience got the better of her and Artemis screamed the order. “Salamander, you’re a dead man!”

The sound of twanging bow strings and igniting gunpowder echoed through the area. Several of the men in the center of the statues fell. Artemis led their charge, swinging her mighty hammer. She caught one of Salamander’s men and sent him flying. The momentum swung her around then flung her into the air. She completed a full circle before heaving her hammer down toward one man in the center of the crowd.

“Artemis, you actually came!”

Salamander was a towering white man wearing a helmet, goggles and a breathing mask. He was covered in armor, with gloved hands and leather boots rising to calf height. There wasn’t an inch of him revealed to the sun which lent him a mysterious air. When he saw Artemis he was not surprised, and in fact met her with a taunting sneer. Like an eel he slithered out of harm’s way and Artemis’ hammer buried itself bloodlessly into the ground.

She didn’t lift her hammer back up and instead used it to support herself as she flung her right leg at him. It streaked down from overhead like a battleax, but Salamander capably dodged again. But no sooner did her two legs hit the ground than she sprang up and kicked again. One of the statues in her way exploded into fragments.

The flurry of attacks was making it difficult for Salamander to keep out of reach.

Although the two of them were considered peers, Salamander’s abilities were primarily regenerative in nature. He was comparatively weaker in attack and speed and no matter how good a healer he was it wouldn’t help him against her. He couldn’t recover if he turned into a fleshy puddle.

As he watched the scene Cloudhawk recognized how far apart in skill they were. He didn’t have to be involved, Artemis had the fight well in hand.

Artemis flipped her head back, flinging her hair from a wild and feral expression. She looked like a vengeful panther. “You’ve almost killed me a couple of times, you think I’m just gonna let your worthless ass go?”

“As always, you’re all muscle and no brains. That’s why I’ve been able to teach you lesson after lesson.” From outside it looked like Salamander was in a difficult spot, but he was perfectly calm. He seemed unaware, or perhaps unconcerned, with his hopeless situation. “If I wanted to leave without you knowing you’d have never heard a thing. You only knew because I wanted you to.”

Artemis’ thin brows scrunched together. What was this guy saying?

Cloudhawk had already been fighting the nagging feeling that something was wrong, when suddenly an acute sense of danger washed over him. From behind he heard the sound of heavy footsteps followed by a gust of air and pressure. Cloudhawk reflexively threw himself to the side just fast enough to avoid the spiked iron cudgel that whipped by and smashed into the ground. The stone floor he’d been standing on was turned to powder.

Shards of rock like bullets scattered in every direction. Cloudhawk’s cheek burned.  Some of the shrapnel must have hit him. He turned to see the one who’d attacked.

The man was a giant standing at nearly ten feet tall and covered in plate armor. All of it had to weigh a hundred pounds, not including the vicious fifty pound cudgel he wielded like a meat grinder.

“Sweepers!”

One, two, three… monstrous maneaters appeared from behind the statues where they’d been hiding. The demon’s slain henchmen hadn’t brought this many with them to the outpost, and these sweepers were better outfitted than any Cloudhawk had seen before.

Where the hell did they come from?!

Could it mean…

Salamander fired a few darts at Artemis, forcing her to knock them away. Unfortunately, she didn’t notice the bulb-like protrusions covering them.  When she smacked them with her hammer they exploded into clouds of multicolored smoke. She sucked in a noxious breath and immediately her head felt muddled, while her limbs lost all strength.

“That’s why you’ll never beat me!”

Artemis fumbled with her hammer like a drunk woman. She stumbled several paces before she lost control and toppled to the floor.

Mother fucker! Trapped again. And she’d gotten Cloudhawk tied up in this. Artemis was humiliated and enraged.

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