The base of the Tartarus mercenaries was a stand-alone compound protected by stone walls and iron barbed wire. The grounds were littered with boulders, pillars, sandbags, wooden rakes, and other training equipment. Many different pieces of metallic parts and other miscellaneous items were also spread throughout the area.
The compound had several large, ragged-looking buildings that were all connected to each other. There was a dormitory, a repair shop, and even a storage vault. Although they all looked quite ugly, nobody in the wastelands gave a damn about appearances. Just having these things was already incredibly impressive!
Judging from their base, these mercenaries truly did have some standing here. That meant this should be a fairly safe place, right?
Just as this thought entered Cloudhawk’s mind, a savage and ferocious black figure suddenly roared and charged straight towards him. It moved with incredible speed! It was so fast that Cloudhawk wasn’t even able to see the creature clearly. All Cloudhawk could tell was that it looked like an enormous beast. The creature knocked Cloudhawk to the ground, towering over him. The creature emanated a horrifying, nauseating stench, and it began to bite downwards towards Cloudhawk’s neck with its long, savage teeth.
“WOOLA!” Mad Dog immediately let out an explosive shout. “STOP THAT!”
The crazy beast halted its assault, baring its teeth and growling before it took a few steps back. Its dark-red eyes, however, continued to stare at Cloudhawk unblinkingly. The creature remained in a crouched attacking position, as though it was unwilling to just let go of this delectable prey.
“Fuck me. Which sonufabitch let Woola out? Get the rope!” Mad Dog let out a loud shout, while Cloudhawk managed to calm down slightly as he clambered to his feet.
This was a strange creature which looked like a big ape. It had to weigh at least sixty or seventy kilograms, and its head was three times larger than that of a normal human being’s. It had a big nose and a big mouth that stretched all the way back to its ears, seeming to split its head in half when it snarled. Its mouth was filled with sharp, shark-like teeth; there had to be at least three or four rows of teeth! It could probably bite through metal armor without any problems at all. Flesh and bone was even less of an issue!
The creature had a total of six thick and powerful arms. As for its speed? Cloudhawk had just borne witness to it personally; it most likely moved faster than the majority of creatures in the wastelands.
Why would the mercenaries have such a strange beast in their headquarters?
“Don’t worry. We’ve been raising Woola here in the compound. It has a very sharp nose, and whenever someone it doesn’t recognize tries to barge in, it’ll deal with the trespasser the same way it just dealt with you. It’s been fed on man-meat ever since it was young. It’d gnaw all the flesh off your bones in just a few minutes.” Mad Dog personally held the creature back and started to tie him up again. The creature shook its large head repeatedly in an unhappy manner, but even it was unable to resist Mad Dog’s strange, frightening strength. “Be a good boy, Woola. Later, I’ll go to the black market and get you your favorite snack; a human leg!”
The creature had eyes, a mouth, a nose, and even fingers. Although it was incredibly twisted-looking and ugly, Cloudhawk had the strange feeling that this creature… was actually some sort of highly mutated human being!
A strange look on his face, Cloudhawk asked, “What the hell is it?”
“You’ve probably guessed already. This here is a mutant. Its parents might’ve been normal humans like us, but it underwent heavy mutations in its mother’s womb. From what I heard, it chewed its way through its mother’s guts and belly, then clawed its way out,” Mad Dog began to explain. “It was captured shortly after it was born, and we’ve raised it and trained it like a dog ever since. Critter’s actually a perfect watchdog for our base!”
Cloudhawk could hardly believe it. He didn’t want to believe it. You could actually train a mutant the way you would a dog?! But it was true that this ‘Woola’ creature really could no longer be considered a human being either.
Still, because it was once a human being, Woola was still more clever than ordinary animals. At the very least, it could understand the human language and human speech. And yet, it was even more savage and bloodthirsty than most animals. In short, it was an absolutely terrifying freak of nature!
This entire time, Woola’s gaze never left Cloudhawk's face. Drops of saliva continuously dripped out of its mouth, causing Cloudhawk to shiver with fear. He could sense the animosity and hostility radiating from the freak’s eyes.
“Hey, boss-men Mad Dog and Slyfox! Y’all came back already?” The entire mercenary group had roughly twenty or thirty people, and most of them had arrived by now. The mercenary group was divided into a total of three squads, and two of the squad captains were Slyfox and Mad Dog.
The third captain was a tall and skinny Asian. He had a pallid complexion, dark baggy eyes, and wore a pair of spectacles. On the surface, he looked quite calm and weak, and he was dressed in very proper-looking clothes that didn’t seem all that remarkable. And yet… in this day and age, to seemed completely ordinary and normal was, in and of itself, extremely abnormal. In fact, it could be said that he had a scholarly aura which was completely different from that of this era.
“Hey, Mantis!” Slyfox chortled as he walked over to the man. “Man, I’m happy to make it back in one piece and see you again.”
Mantis adjusted his glasses, a frigid metallic light gleaming from them. His eyes weren’t that large, but they were as cold as steel and seemed to contain no human emotions whatsoever. When Mantis turned to stare at Cloudhawk, the latter instantly felt a chill enter his heart and spread out through his limbs. He felt as though he could barely move or breathe.
The gaze was like a sharp scalpel that had been placed against his throat. The slightest motion would result in his throat being cut.
In this place, everyone who had a nickname was a figure of no small ability. Mantis might not necessarily be as powerful as Slyfox or Mad Dog, but Cloudhawk had the feeling that he was even more dangerous. It was like the difference between a cobra and a lion; the cobra might not be as strong as the lion, but a cobra hidden in the darkness could be even more dangerous than the lion.
“We picked up a scav on our way back.” Slyfox beamed at Mantis, his chubby face an amusing, complete contrast to Mantis’ emotionless expression. Slyfox then added, “He’s a recovery-oriented meta. Not really worth a damn, but we’re lacking in the logistics department so I let’m in.”
A recovery meta? Those were almost useless! The mercenaries turned their scornful gazes upon Cloudhawk, making him feel extremely uncomfortable and also irritated. What gave them the right to look down on him like that? Were recovery metas really as useless as they were claiming? Ever since he was born, Cloudhawk had always been a stubborn person who never liked to admit inferiority to others. He simply couldn’t stand being looked down upon by these people.
“Enough, kid. You should be leaping for joy at having been recruited into Tartarus. We have a sterling reputation in this outpost… but lemme make it clear to you right now, you aren’t here to just loaf around and enjoy life! Starting today, you’ll only be given two pieces of bread and one bottle of water each day. In exchange, you do whatever the hell we tell you to do. No whining and no foot-dragging. Can’t handle it? Then fuck off. Tartarus ain't charity! Got it?”
Cloudhawk relaxed his clenched fists. “Got it.”
Slyfox had an excited look on his face as he said, “We made out like bandits on this mission. We need to hold a celebration!”
“Long live the boss!”
These men were like beasts; they lived off of their weapons and the blood of others. No one ever knew what the morrow might bring, and so they had long since grown accustomed to enjoying today.
Cloudhawk had no idea as to how mercenaries celebrated, but he was both hungry and thirsty. All he hoped for was some food to eat.
The skies slowly began to darken. By now, the mercenaries had produced a large amount of food and cheap wine. The quality of life in the outpost really was thousands of times better than life in the ruins, at least in terms of food. The mercenaries had access to both meat and vegetables! The meat came from all kinds of mutabeasts, was served on platters, and had actually been cooked properly. Cloudhawk was able to smell their enticing aroma from far away.
By now, Woola had been tied up. One of the mercenaries came over with a giant bowl filled with chopped up bits of raw, bloody meat. Woola immediately dug into the meat, devouring it with abandon. The mutant even chewed up and crunched the bones, swallowing everything. As for what type of creature the meat came from and what body parts were involved? Cloudhawk simply couldn’t even begin to imagine the answer. Unfortunately, Woola continued to stare intently at Cloudhawk even as it continued to devour its food. Cloudhawk was terrified of moving closer to Woola, for fear of being pounced on and killed on the spot.
Damn that beast!
Woola sniffed the air a few times with its large black nose, then suddenly stopped eating as it raised its head and began to roar gutterally. Right at this moment, nearly twenty or so scantily-clad women came in from outside. Although all of them had coarse skin and sickly faces, they were indeed far better than the streetwalkers Cloudhawk had seen earlier.
“Boys!” Mad Dog lifted his glass up high. “Have fun tonight!”
The mercenaries let out lusty cries that almost sounded like the howling of wolves, then began to drag the women over in a rather brutish manner. To these women, being able to eat and drink was like manna falling from the heavens! As for Woola, the creature seemed to be very uncomfortable with so many strangers being present, and so it continued to roar and bark nonstop. This did not, however, put a damper in the moods of the mercenaries, and they quickly began to act with fearless licentiousness.
Seeing that Woola was no longer staring at him, Cloudhawk immediately circled around the creature and went to grab some food for himself.
“Hey newbie! None of this is for you!”
The Tartarus mercenaries didn’t operate a charity; everyone was rewarded or punished in accordance with their deeds. Cloudhawk was not only a newbie, he was a newbie no one gave a shit about. This naturally meant he had no right to enjoy the food alongside them.
“Two pieces of bread and one bottle of water. That’s all you get!” Slyfox gestured towards someone. “Hey, you! What’s your face? Yeah, get over here. Find a place for the newbie to stay. The base is full.”
He wasn’t even going to be allowed to live with the other mercenaries?
Cloudhawk was issued a shortsword and a few candles, then led to a tattered room nearby and told to stay there. This small room was filled with dust and mold. Those tiny candles flickered and sputtered in the dark night wind, a clear reflection of the kid’s own mood. He sat there in the ugly room, rather confused and rather uncomfortable.
It was now rather frighteningly quiet outside. This room was roughly two hundred meters away from the mercenary base. If anything was to happen, would the mercenaries be able to make it in time? Would they even care to? Who knew! The only thing Cloudhawk knew for certain was that these mercenaries viewed him as an expendable newbie.
Cloudhawk finished the remainder of his rock-hard bread, then drank all of his water. He checked to make sure the beam across his door was set, then picked up the shortsword the mercenaries had given him and placed it by the side of his bed. He then gently blew out the candles, plunging the entire room into darkness.
Cloudhawk lay down upon his straw bed. The straw poked at his skin and was rather uncomfortable, but at least it was fairly warm.
Was this how life would be for him in the future? Cloudhawk felt both nervous and lost. He had no plans, no goals anymore. He had no idea what he was going to do tomorrow, nor did he know what the future would be like.
Cloudhawk shook his head furiously as he mentally consoled himself, “What else do you want? You not only have bread and water every day, you even have a place to stay. What do you have to complain about?”
Although things here weren’t exactly as he had envisioned them to be, it was still much better than life as a scavenger… right? No point in over-thinking things. Staying alive and living a good life was what mattered!