Book 2, Chapter 12 - A Soldier's Duty

Barb was no weakling, but she was new to her role as a demonhunter. A newly minted grunt. However, this second one who could appear and disappear at a whim, as well as force the sand to do his bidding. At the very least it meant he had a couple relics to draw on.

For a novice demonhunter, an exorcist rod was considered a treasure. The masked man had several, so conventional thinking suggested he was no typical demonhunter.

Thinking back on his encounters with the order, Buzzard noted that often a novice demonhunter accompanied a more senior member. After a few missions where the novice could gain the training and experience necessary, they then could strike out on their own. It was in essence a student-teacher relationship. Was this masked man the senior demonhunter?

Buzzard could feel the power of his opponent. He was weaker than he might have thought, but clearly had a wider breadth of experience. A novice used their power wildly without thought for conservation, whereas someone with more experience knew to use their limited strength at the best possible moment. The masked man had that knowledge.

News had passed through the base that an influential demonhunter had recently arrived. His first order of business had reputedly been to harass a contingent of soldiers. Was this the same man?

That wasn’t important right now. Buzzard was injured and he needed to get away.

Cloudhawk was close enough to get a good look at the hook-nosed man’s appearance. Sure enough it was Buzzard, the man from the Dark Atom. He had no choice, a moment’s hesitation could spell disaster in a fight like this. Although he had no desire to fight with the rebel organization, he couldn’t hold back or show mercy. He pulled the trigger and allowed the crossbow to spit an unending stream of deadly bolts. One after the other the compact arrows were set and fired.

Buzzard dodged as best he could but took two more in the thigh.

Seven bolts bristled from his body. They were powerful enough that at this range they could punch right through a person, but Buzzard had sturdy leather beneath his outer clothes. Add to that his sturdy physique from years of physical training and the arrows stopped when they got caught in his tough muscle. None penetrated deep enough to injure his organs.

They weren’t fatal but that didn’t mean the bolts were ineffective. The paralytic toxins they used were already working through his system, he could feel a creeping numbness take hold. From nearby a scream caught his ear. It was the man with the large sword he’d come to save.

He had been hit, too, and the poison had taken its toll. His mind moved slowly and his reaction time dulled, like he was trying to move through a thick sludge. How could he protect himself from the captain and Squall if he could barely move?

Thud!

He fell to the ground. Squall buried his two short swords in the man’s chest. The captain followed up by beheading him with his glaive. His head rolled away, staring into the void with glassy eyes. Buzzard saw this and backed away, looking for a means of escape while Squall and the captain turned toward him. Barb had also risen back to her feet, exorcist rod in hand. With Cloudhawk, that made four to one, he was surrounded on all sides.

Cloudhawk didn’t hurry to continue the fight. His voice was cold as he spoke through the mask. “Buzzard. Surrender, it’s pointless to keep fighting.”

Cloudhawk held no ill will toward the Dark Atom, he didn’t want to offend potential allies if he didn’t have to. If Buzzard surrendered perhaps he could find a way to let him go without anyone knowing. It was better than burning the bridge entirely.

“Boss Buzzard! Run!”

A figure sporting numerous wounds broke through a circle of soldiers. His abdomen was torn open and his guts had begun to spill out, but he fought on with a furious madness. He threw open his cloak to reveal a vest that was covered in sections of pipe.

Such were the men recommended by the old man. They were wounded, dying, and surrounded by the enemy. But the cruelty of fire knew no morals, and they would die together with their enemies if it came to that.

The guard captain and Squall stared in shock. It gave Buzzard just enough leeway to leap up and over the weakest one of his opponents, Squall.

Skycloud dogs! Tonight we die together!”

The man covered in explosives grinned in satisfaction once Buzzard got free. At least his death would mean a brother of the Dark Atom would live on. It was a worthy death. He gripped the detonator in his hand, thumb hovering over the button as a fervent madness took over his face. He ran at Cloudhawk.

Fifteen meters! Ten!

The fat captain didn’t know how to stop him.

A standard explosive with a fuse was easy enough – just extinguish it. But the suicide vest this one wore just needed a half second for him to push the button. All he needed was to get close enough.

A black staff whistled through the air. With a sickening thud and a pathetic gurgle, the tri-edged point of the staff slipped through the man’s throat.

Barb roared at him. “You piece of shit, you think you can take out the senior? You’re dying all by yourself, douchebag!”

Cloudhawk grabbed her and yanked her backward. “Move!”

As his consciousness began to slip away the suicide bomber used the last of his strength to press the button. The resulting explosion was deafening. The Sandbar shook and fragile mud houses blocks away shook apart. The center of the detonation was absolute catastrophe.

The bomber was more than just a mindless criminal!

Many were blown back or knocked to the ground, even Cloudhawk toppled over in a blind daze. He had been closest to the blast radius so the impact had rattled his brain and he was slow to recover.

The bomber’s suicide run nearly knocked their leader out. The guard captain gathered some men and raced to where Cloudhawk lay. No one gave consideration that there may be someone else in the warehouse – the man with the goatee.

His eyes were red. Tears were streaming down his cheeks.

Dead. All dead. They had been his faithful men, loyal and full of potential. Not a one of them had been spared by these murderous scum. It was like a knife to his heart.

The soldiers were still recovering from the sudden and violent actions of the suicide bomber. Buzzard managed to knock two aside, slipping passed them and back inside for the old rebel.

He’d grown weak. The poison was in full effect. “It’s no good. We’ve got to go!”

“We can’t both escape. I’ll stay behind and fend them off, you need to escape!”

“No, you get out of here and I’ll keep them off your back!”

“There’s no time for this!” The old man glared at Buzzard through red, puffy eyes. “Do not forget your mission. You need to bring that intelligence back to our leader. Go quickly! Otherwise the boys’ deaths were for nothing!”

Buzzard stared back for a few moments, fighting with the decision. He grit his teeth against the bitter knowledge that nothing he said was going to change what happened here. He did the only thing expected from a man and made him a promise. “We will win. So long as I breathe and there’s blood in my veins I will kill every last one of these bastards. I promise you’ll get vengeance.”

The old man answered with a sad smile. “It’s a shame I won’t see your grand work for myself. Take care of yourself.”

Buzzard’s powerful legs were back in motion, sending him into the protective embrace of the night.

“Goddamnit! That bastard got away!”

“There’s still one in here! Get him, see what he knows!”

The man with the goatee stood calmly in the face of the encroaching soldiers. Determination burned in his eyes as he pulled out a weapon from his belt with his right hand. It was a gun, something like a handgun but its barrel about the width of a child’s arm.

BANG!

The head of one of the soldiers exploded like an overripe watermelon. The old man’s gun had blown it to splinters.

The unfortunate soldiers’ companions stopped and stared in shocked horror. They thought he was an old weak man, not some deadly marksman. They wouldn’t have run at him directly if they’d known. As they reassessed the situation the old man was on the move, for he knew his death was at hand. It gave him the courage to do what he had to.

The old man stepped over the corpse of his first victim, lifting his gun again. This time it was pointed at Cloudhawk who had just staggered back onto his feet. He still hadn’t recovered from the shock of the blast much less gotten his bearing in the haze the explosion left behind. Cloudhawk couldn’t see him, but the moment the barrel was leveled his way the familiar itch of danger filled his mind.

Not good! Too late to get out of the way!

The old man was an accomplished marksman. He took all his rage, sadness and regret and focused it through the barrel of his gun as he pulled the trigger. The bullet tore out of the barrel, right for Cloudhawk. Time seemed to hang on this instant when suddenly a portly but agile figure flung itself in front of the young wastelander.

Bang!

The guard captain’s glaive shattered, followed by the chest piece of his armor. Blood erupted from his wound and filled his mouth as he hit the ground.

Why did he do it? The captain couldn’t say. He just… reacted.

Even as the bullet ripped his insides apart there was no fear. In fact he felt pride, this was a death fit for a soldier.

He gave his life fighting the hated Dark Atom. What’s more, he traded his own humble existence so that an honorable demonhunter could continue the good work. It was the greatest moment in all his years on this world. 

Death wasn’t anything to be afraid of. To die for faith was to die with no regrets.

His men raced over to where he lay, trying to put pressure on the gaping wound in his chest to stem the flow of flood. Nothing they did could stop the red tide as it bubbled from him, sprinkling their faces. Hot tears mingled with the blood of their leader. “Captain!”

Cloudhawk simply stood there in shocked dismay.

The guard captain took a bullet for him.

The old man’s hand cannon could only fire two rounds before needing to reload. Both were spent, so he could not defend himself when a soldier came and smashed his weapon against his skull. The old man was knocked senseless.

Cloudhawk kneeled down by the captain who was fighting for his final breaths. “Why did you do that?”

The fat man struggled to keep his eyes open, gasping as his lungs filled with blood. But his pudgy face split in a smile. “I’m a soldier.”

That’s what a soldier was, a defender. Protecting whatever he could was his duty.

“A group like the Dark Atom will never give up. They’re always planning some way to destroy the holy city, to kill as many people as they can.” The captain grabbed Cloudhawk’s arm with his blood-soaked hand. “I’m done, but sir… your shoulders carry the heavy burden. You have to stop them. Protect our people. Protect our land…”

As Cloudhawk stared at the soldier, tenacious even in his final moments, his heart was heavy. These soldiers didn’t know they were just tools. From the start they were so grateful to him, he couldn’t take their faith or trust.

“Knives, do me a favor,” the captain said to the soldier with the broken nose. He took his hand and fixed him with a solemn stare, like it was the most important thing in the world. “When I die, send my body back home… bring me back to my mother. Remember to tell her I died bravely. I wasn’t an embarrassment…”

Knives rubbed the tears from his eyes. “Captain… I’ll remember.”

“I think she’ll be proud of me.” He smiled, a smile full of self-satisfaction. “Thank you, sir… for giving me the chance… to go home with honor. If there’s a next life… I’ll make sure to pay… you back.”

The guard captain’s eyes slipped shut.

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RWX's Thoughts

Damn, another body count?  We didn't even get to know the guy's name!