Book 2, Chapter 2 - Bold Bandits

The borderlands were not as cruel or unforgiving as the deserts, but nor was it the verdant lands of the holy people. The land was still desolate, the mountains arid and the water unclean. The lawless expanse still saw its fair share of bandits and outlaws from the elysian lands, who gathered together to create raider crews. A merchant company like Bloomnettle was not big enough to be a threat and not small enough to be wasted effort – just the sort of target these raiders liked.

The Highwaymen were the latest raider clan to appear on the scene. Composed mostly of criminals fleeing from Skycloud persecution, in the last year they’d accumulated a wealth of thieves, robbers and other wanted men. There were even a few wastelanders who joined their crew. Today they numbered almost a thousand, using the borderlands as their hunting ground.

They even established their own headquarters the size of a small settlement called Wayside. It was a way for them to show off how successful they’d been.

Old Thistle and his mercenary caravan could deal with a small group of thieves. With thirty or so guards they could even defend themselves against a small raiding party. But against the Highwaymen? They didn’t stand a chance.

“Guards! Guards!

Bloomnettles protectors brandished their weapons and formed a protective ring around the carts. Large silver crossbows were pointed toward the sound of hooves.

Their weapons were the product of Skycloud ingenuity. In accordance with the style of the holy city, the silver body was beautifully crafted. Perhaps its largest difference from conventional crossbows was the drum affixed to the back portion. Like the rest of it, the cylinder was also etched with eye-catching patterns. It was a quill, a high-pressure repository for arrows affixed to the weapon itself. It was attached to a lever so that pulling it rapidly expelled air through vents and reset the bowstring, making it capable of firing very quickly.

One high-pressure quiver could house fifty crossbow bolts. The bolts themselves were about as thick as a finger and could travel more than a hundred and fifty meters. Commonplace though they were in the elysian lands, they were much more powerful than the ancient weapons dredged up in the wastelands. Only god-given technology could make something like this a reality.

The guard captain pulled a palm-sized cylinder from his waist. He pressed a button and schtick! A long blade shot out. It was another oft-seen tool of the elysians, a retractable sword. Its blade was so well polished it might as well have been a mirror, tough as steel, and sharp as a razor. Godly technology infused its make and material. The secrets of its construction were closely guarded, so the blades were mostly carried by high-ranking individuals.

Bloomnettle Company was fairly well equipped, but how could thirty guards protect them from such a large crew of bold bandits?

Crimson red banners flapped in the cloud of dust bearing down on them. The flagpoles themselves had the stripped skulls of horned beasts affixed to them, adding to the air of savagery.

At last two hundred burly men appeared. They wore heavy plate armor that protected the most crucial areas, and muscular arms waved their weapons threateningly overhead. Tattoos and red totems were common, showing their allegiance to a religion of carnage.

 These were the Highwaymen, plague of the borderlands!

The captain of their small defense thrust his sword high. “Fire,” he shouted. 

“Fire!”

The other guards began to unload their crossbows. Sturdy bolts whistled through the air, finger-thick projectiles that shot out of the crossbows faster than a machine gun. However, the bandits were not foolish enough to attack directly. They spread to either flank, surrounding the caravan. Most of the bolts hit nothing but empty space.

“Damnit!”

The guard captain’s face went ashen. Old Thistle remained dignified, if solemn.

It looked like today they were going to get robbed.

The band’s leader was an ugly behemoth with red-tinted goggles. He rode on a massive ox-like creature who was so dark it looked like it was made from black iron. In his hand he held an enormous broadsword falchion. In a booming, growling voice he yelled.

“Money! Goods! Women! Weapons! Give ‘em up, and we won’t have to kill you!”

Woo! Woo! Woo!”

“Goods. Women. Weapons!”

Cries went up from the other bandits.

These men were ferocious outlaws, a typical merchant caravan couldn’t stand a chance. Old Thistle knew that with the guards he had there was no way a fight would go their way. He stepped forward and in a voice of appeasement replied. “Everyone, I’m just a creaky old man trying to make a living. If you would let us pass I’d happily leave you half of our goods.”

“Phah!” The man shouted back. “You sorry old shit, don’t you know who we are? You want to try and fucking HAGGLE with us? Men! Kill ‘em all!”

The towering bull he rode started pawing the ground, all of his men prepared to charge.

They came down on the caravaners like a hurricane, as fierce and reckless as their name implied and without fear of consequences. Old Thistle and his people had become their target and they weren’t getting away. 

Just as the horde of bandits was about to reach them, the captain of the guards stepped out and yelled through gritted teeth. “Are the Highwaymen nothing more than cowardly bullies? Fight me one on one, if you got the stones!”

Suddenly everything stopped.

One by one the outlaws began to laugh.

“You want a duel? Cute!” The band leader sneered hideously. “Hatchet! You’re up!”

“You got it, vice-chief!” a large black man yelled. He lunged forward bearing a hefty battleax in each hand, bearing down on the guard captain who watched him come in calm defiance. Hatchet struck the flat heads of his weapon together, producing a shower of sparks. “Bring it, you piece of shit! Three swipes, that’s all I’ll need. Bring it!”

Old Thistle eyed the large, over-confident man. He then shot a nervous glance at his guard captain. “You don’t need to fight him. We can’t believe anything these outlaws say. Even if you win it isn’t going to stop them.”

But the guard shook his head. “This is just to give me a shot. While we’re fighting I’ll find some way to get close to the guy with shitty eyewear. If I can grab him, hold him hostage, we might have a chance of getting out of here.”

The two men met in the middle of the field.

In his left hand the captain of the guard had a silver shield. In his right he held the Skycloud-made retractable sword. He crouched forward and held his shield before him, while his right hand brought the sword on top. The length of the blade peaked over his defenses. Step by step he carefully shifted closer to Hatchet. A standard fighter’s posture, both defensive and prepared to strike.

Hatchet was also clumsy by contrast, but he chuckled mirthfully at the display. Suddenly he snapped his axes up and sprinted forward. He was fast – they were separated by at least twenty meters but Hatchet covered that distance in a blink. 

Clang!

His first axe struck the guard’s shield. It was also Skycloud-made, constructed to absorb sharp impact blows like this. However, the staggering strength behind it knocked him back. He promptly counterattacked, stabbing at the brute with his longsword. It was met by Hatchet’s second axe.

The sword flew out of his grip.

Staggering back again this time the guard was finding it hard to regain balance. His foe saw his opening and charged in. The guard blanched, ducking instinctively behind his shield, but instead of hacking down at him the large man threw his axe from his grip.

“No!”

Squall stared in shock and horror as he watched. The thrown axe arced high, artfully slipped passed the guard captain’s shield then buried itself in his neck. Half the axe head disappeared in the gallant man’s throat and he hit the ground without a sound.

“Woo-woo-woo-woo!” The surroundings bandits cried out with excited and bloodthirsty roars.

Hatchet swaggered over to the corpse and wrenched his bloodstained axe free. Then, he hacked again to sever the guard’s head from his body. With his left foot he steadied the skull, then used his right foot to boot it away. The guard captain’s head fell with a thud into the middle of the caravaners. Immediately morale drained from the remaining guards.

Just one of these bandits was this skilled?

However, if they thought about it this made sense. The Highwaymen had been around a while, they had to be strong if they were to continue living in the borderlands. They were hard men from the wastelands trying to infiltrate the borderlands, or hardened criminals from the holy lands. None of them were your typical scoundrels.

“Fuck, that was the best you got and you actually had the balls to call for a duel?” The goggled man guffawed through a vile grin. “Anyone else wanna give it a shot? We got some time to kill!”

The guard captain had been a part of Bloomnettle Company for a long time. He’d watched Squall grow up, and now Squall had watched him die before his eyes. The future demonhunter felt a rage well up inside him, so he wrenched a weapon from one of the soldiers’ grip and – his face twisted in anger – tried to walk forward. But Old Thistle held him back.

Squall cried out in fury. “I’m gonna kill him! I have to avenge him!”

To this the old man sighed. “You’re no match for him. Stay put!”

The young man really was talented. Even the guard captain couldn’t beat him in a fight, but they’d just watched one of their best warriors die in three attacks. He’d been an experienced and shrewd person, so what could a greenhorn like Squall accomplish?

“Let me.”

The voice came from behind the guards, deep and hoarse. The sound of it was both strange and discomforting.

A man covered in the resplendent armor of the Skycloud army stepped down from one of the carts. The mask was back over his face and he held the dual-bladed staff at the ready. Under the curious and uncertain gaze of the guards he stepped forward.

Asha had been hiding in one of the pack horses. When she saw Cloudhawk, her face immediately lit up. He wasn’t tall or strong, but to her he was the symbol of reliability. Now that he was awake, Cloudhawk would surely have a way to deal with these raiders!

The Highwaymen were equally surprised to see an Skycloud soldier step out from the crowd. However, the more he staggered their way the less imposing he seemed, like he was still young and weak. The bandits were not impressed. A single soldier? What was there to be afraid of?

Hatchet smirked and swung his axes. “Do you know why I came all the way out here? I was chased from my home for my crimes, they hunted me. I killed five of them then, I’m gonna add one more soldier to the list today.” 

Cloudhawk lifted his head. His calm eyes sparkled behind the mask.

When their eyes met Hatchet inexplicably felt a shudder thrill through him. Something didn’t feel right, the gaze made him uncomfortable. His eyes were calm, like the surface of a perfectly still lake. But beneath the surface was a dark and dangerous undercurrent.

There was murder in there, through and through. That wasn’t the look of a normal man, but the eyes of someone who’d tread the line between life and death many times. Even the guard captain hadn’t given him pause. But this one… this one scared him.

He wasn’t going to be such a pushover.

“How is he gonna beat this guy?” Squall said anxiously. “Even a proper soldier would have trouble, and he’s weak. What makes him think he has a chance?”

The brutish bandit sneered at the detestable merchants, who he saw as hardly worth the air they breathed. The guard captain had been about as capable as a soldier and he’d lasted three moves. Unless he was much stronger than the captain had been this guy didn’t stand a chance. The real question; was he as strong as he seemed, or was he just another scrub?

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RWX's Thoughts

How badly is the bandit going to get owned?

1) Badly, or

2) BADLY.