Chapter 83 - Relief

Night fell, revealing the twinkling stars strewn across the dark sky. They shone from positions they’d held from time immemorial, like the eyes of the gods silently serving vigil over the toils of mortality.

A petite figure sat atop Greenland Fort, the wind tossing her short hair. Though she’d lived all her life in the wastelands her skin was smooth and free from blemishes. She suffered no tumors, and her features were normal and healthy. There was only the impetuous expression spread across her face to detract from her beauty.

She was like a lioness of the wilds; untamed, beautiful and ferocious. A fifteen year old boy was with her and the two drank beneath the starlight. The young man was thin as a rake, with a head of tousled black hair, but lithe and shrewd. His eyes were especially unique – clear and bright.

“I know that demonhunter doesn’t think I’m shit.” Artemis threw back her bottle and fiercely gulped down its contents. “What about you, huh? You think I’m some filthy peasant?”

“The fuck are you blabbering? If you’re filthy, what the hell am I?” Cloudhawk shook his head. “Two months ago I was a worthless scav. I’ve never viewed anyone as being ‘lowly’, and I’ve never thought of her kind as ‘noble’. We’re all just people. How does where we’re born make us better or worse than anyone else?”

Artemis couldn’t help but chuckle. “You’re so stupid it’s cute.”

“I admit the Queen’s got a shit temper, but overall she’s not too bad. She’s not completely unreasonable.” Cloudhawk had come to see the wasteland woman beside him as a friend. He wasn’t sure what the Queen thought of him, but he saw her as a friend too. He hoped the two of them could get over their differences. “Anyway, you did kick up the shit. Recklessly chasing after Salamander nearly got our asses killed. So what if the Queen chewed you out a little? Why get all pissy about it?”

She scowled and persisted. “So you also think it’s my fault!”

Cloudhawk gently tried to persuade her. “The outpost is about to find itself in a nasty fight, and the Queen is the strongest fighter we got. You’re the leader of this place. Now’s not the time to pick fights with allies.”

“That goddamn woman’s always throwing her weight around. It pisses me off, but that’s not what really makes me angry.” Artemis paused to take a few swigs from her bottle, then wiped her mouth with her forearm. She swung her eyes toward the young man, her vision already blurry from drink. “Salamander was a lousy dog fucker, but he had a point. Demonhunters aren’t worth shit!”

She pushed herself up onto unsteady legs and looked out over the outpost.

“She just wants to use this place as a weapon against the sweepers, yeah? Willing to sacrifice all of us on the altar of her ‘mission.’ In that way Hydra was fuckin’ right, at least he an’ his brother cared about this place, because they needed it for their power. But the demonhunter? Nah. She doesn’t give a shit if these people live or die. The future of this place doesn’t even cross her mind. To her were just pawns – useful only to get what she wants!”

Cloudhawk couldn’t help but break into her diatribe. “I think you’ve got her wrong.”

“Whaddid I saw that wasn’t true, hm?” She turned around and looked at him. “You tell me then. What happens after she spanks the shit outta the demon. What then? What’s the outpost gonna do? Has she thought about our fate? Aren’t we wastelanders worthy of determinin’ our own destinies?!”

Cloudhawk opened his mouth but no words came out. He still saw the loathing in Salamander’s eyes, heard his curses ringing in his ears. They still nagged at him.

When he spoke again his voice was low. “There’s a lot in life we have no control over. The Queen, the sweepers, Salamander, you, me… there’s no difference. It’s all a matter of perspective. If the Queen is trying to use the outpost to kill the demon, why can’t the outpost use her to fight for its freedom? No more brutal rule from Hydra, no more life under sweeper control. From now on all your food and water belongs to you – isn’t that a good thing?”

Artemis was rendered speechless. She hadn’t thought about it that way.

“You’re the leader now, so you have to take on a leader’s responsibilities. You gotta take a longer view. You work for no one, fight for no one. Greenland Outpost only belongs to the wasteland. War might be cruel, but it might also be a rebirth for this place.

Hydra was a puppet of the demon. If that monster could create one Hydra, what was to stop him from creating a second? A third? Why did the Greenland Outpost have to be somebody’s tool? Why couldn’t it own its own fate?

Cloudhawk grabbed the bottle from Artemis and took a hefty gulp. The burning warmth slipped down his gullet and into his belly, making his eyes water. When he looked back up at the stars his own eyes were a little hazy. “Down here under the stars it doesn’t matter whether we agree with our lives or not. It doesn’t matter if we’re obedient or stubborn – we’re all just dust. It doesn’t matter who you are, how strong you are… no one can take control of the future. We only got the present, and the only thing we can control is ourselves.”

A laugh bubbled up in Artemis’ throat. “Now you’re speakin’ in fuckin’ riddles.”

Cloudhawk scratched his head. “It’s something an old man told me once.”

“Where’s that old man now?”

“Dead. I buried him.”

She shrugged at the revelation.

Cloudhawk went on. “I think the Queen has her own reasons, her own troubles. You shouldn’t make ‘em worse. If Greenland Outpost survives this fight it’ll be better off than ever.”

“You’re right, the demonhunter isn’t our enemy. We gotta fight for ourselves – fight for our freedom!” She sounded like she’d made up her mind.

“When it’s all over, how ‘bout you stay here with me? Whadda ya say?”

Cloudhawk was stunned by the sudden offer. “Huh?”

“You got a good head, better than mine, and got the power of a demonhunter. In time you’re gonna be even stronger than Hydra.” Her eyes brightened with every word. “Didn’t you tell me you were looking for a peaceful place? You an’ me, together we can make one!”

Her words stirred him.

Nestled in the midst of the oasis, plenty of food and water… sure, the oasis was dangerous, but it was nothing they couldn’t overcome. Cloudhawk was only around fifteen and Artemis was in her early twenties. Both of them were young. In twenty or thirty years, maybe they could build their own paradise.

Artemis looked at Cloudhawk as he considered the matter. “Whadda ya think? We can switch places – you lead and I can be your right hand, how’s that?”

“I’m thinking!”

He hardly finished the sentence before he was suddenly being dragged through the air. With one hand Artemis lifted him up and pressed her soft lips to his. With a wild and heated passion she tasted him. Cloudhawk was too stunned to react, not that he could have pushed her off anyway.

He’d never felt a sensation like this before. He heard the sound of blood rushing in his ears and the thud of his heart against his chest. His muddled brain was alive with sounds. There was a certain stirring…

Then all of a sudden Artemis let him go, licking her lips and grinning at him from ear to ear. She waggled her fist at him in a sign of dominance. “That’s my mark, you belong to me now. That damn Queen can go to hell. Hahahaha!”

She stumbled backwards and forth in a fit of mad laughter.

Cloudhawk could feel the idea worming its way into his heart. Maybe staying here wasn’t so bad. After their exchange Artemis was in much higher spirits, even going so far as to start humming some unknown tune. Swaying her alluring hips, she left.

However, neither of them noticed the solitary figure nearby. The crisp, cold moonlight made her appear all the more lonesome. The Bloodsoaked Queen removed her mask and let the light of the moon play over her beautiful features – outlining her conflicted expression. A shadow of pain flit across her eyes. She didn’t know how to shed the tightness she felt in her chest.

It was a difficult feeling to bear.

She didn’t know when it’d begun, but the Queen had started to view the wastelands differently. She’d begun to question the values she’d held for years. She didn’t know when, but at some point she’d come to care about that young wastelander.

These thoughts were a mistake. A lot of what she’d done lately was a mistake. She’d violated so many tenets of her order, but she couldn’t rebel against her own heart and will. Ever since coming to the wastelands, something had been eating at her pious heart.

The Bloodsoaked Queen had never had friends. Even though she and Cloudhawk had staved off death together several times, there was an invisible barrier separating them. She wanted to lead Cloudhawk down the road of the demonhunters, partially because she wanted to bring them closer. But now he was growing closer to that repugnant wastelander every day – and further from her. For reasons she couldn’t understand, the thought filled her with anger and jealousy.

Almighty gods! Your loyal follower is lost. Every passing moment I’m filled with guilt. If you can hear me, please rinse me of my sins, lead me down the righteous path. Help me finish this…

The Queen sat in prayer, trying to clear her mind of confusion and doubt. She held the metallic demon mask in her hands – an inheritance from her father.

She’d already given so much to hunt this demon, to avenge her father’s death! There was no going back. For retribution, for atonement, for shame, for glory – she was prepared to exact vengeance at any price, even her life.

Help me finish this!

She replaced her mask, and in that moment any sign of confusion or fragility was gone. It was replaced with determination to face whatever hell stood before her!

Greenland Outpost went on like nothing happened. No one seemed to pay any more mind to the skirmish between Artemis and the Queen. The outpost’s new leader seemed to accept her new post and took over the business of leading. She started by calling on all the remaining troops of the outpost and set patrols. They were ordered to sleep in their armor with weapons at the ready, for battle could break out at any moment.

The outpost’s walls were reinforced with four times the normal garrison. Hydra’s personal warehouse was opened and all weapons dispersed to equip everyone, even the common man. When the time came, every able person would fight.

Meanwhile the Queen mopped up the last of the resistance. Soon, it was made crystal clear that there was only one ruler of Greenland Outpost.

Artemis, the Bloodsoaked Queen, Cloudhawk and Mantis sat with severe countenance within the fort.

Artemis slapped her hand against the table and shouted angrily. “Not one of our scouting parties have returned!”

The scouts they’d chosen for the mission were the best of what remained to the outpost. They knew the oasis inside and out.  It was impossible for whole teams to completely succumb to the wilds. Given the experience Artemis and Cloudhawk had with the sweepers and the unsettling silence, they could be almost certain the outpost was surrounded by enemy forces.

Sacrificing scouts wasn’t necessary. The gates were closed, and no one was allowed to enter!

Greenland Outpost had come upon a moment that would decide its fate. They would live or they would die. From this moment on, they were prepared for the worst!

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