It was a tree.
An absolutely enormous tree practically the size of a small mountain. It would take several dozen people to wrap their arms all around it.
It’d been dead for many years already, but it’s dried out husk of a trunk towered overhead. The wind and elements had turned it to stone and all that was left were spindly finger-like branches without a single leaf on them, reaching into the sky. It looked like the withered hair of a demon and it made the surroundings all the more sinister.
But it wasn’t the tree’s peculiar size or dramatic state that grabbed his attention. What gave Cloudhawk pause was what hung from it, things that did not naturally appear there. A dozen desiccated corpses swayed in the breeze like fruit that rotted on the vine, impaled by the thorn-like barren branches. It was a strange and gruesome scene.  Some were skeletons already, dead for more than three years.  Others were weathered mummies with dried and twisted expressions. Those hadn’t been dead long.
The dead weren’t strange, but seeing them here – like this – that was alarming.
Cloudhawk cautiously picked his way closer. The tattered robes on the corpses were the same sort he wore. Were these trainees like him, whose luck had run out? What killed them? It wouldn’t make sense to be some animal, for there weren’t any signs they were eaten and no animal he knew hung their dinner up like this. The tree itself just looked weird, but in fact was itself dead. He didn’t think there was any way it could do this to the trainees itself.
He was suddenly struck by the impression that this was not someplace he should linger. As he was turning to leave his keen senses perked up, but too late. His left leg broke an imperceptible thin silk threat that traversed the path.
A palpable sense of danger enveloped him as suddenly spines shot out from crevices in the tree’s trunk.
They shot out almost faster than he could follow, and were certainly coated in poison. Cloudhawk was fairly sure he could survive most poisons, but whatever this was certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable if he got a dose.
Unarmed, Cloudhawk had no way to protect himself, and it was all too fast for him to react. He tried to dodge but the thorns came raining down like hail. Thankfully he was able to avoid most, but a handful still managed to find their mark.
However the Cloudhawk of today was far different from the Cloudhawk of old. When the spines struck he immediately tightened the muscles in the area, stopping them from penetrating any farther than skin level. The toxins in the barbs diffused through the skin almost immediately, but it also awakened the trespasser virus. The two microscopic substances started to do battle.
Skin around the point of contact turned black.
At first it looked like a reaction from the poison, but in fact it was the opposite. The discoloration came from trespasser, which forced the toxins to the surface and away from Cloudhawk’s veins. He knew this was a sign that his organs and brain were protected.
He was still getting his bearings when several small human-shaped figures poured out from the trees.
The first thing he heard were strange, bestial hisses coming from their throats. Then he saw that their bodies were caked in some grey substance. It outlined their ribcages and made them look like shambling skeletons. Each one hefted wooden spears with chipped bone heads as they battled for who would be the first to skewer Cloudhawk.
Wastelanders? There were actually wastelanders living here!
He had to give it to that scar-faced fuck. He thought when they said go quick they were just talking about some mutated animals, maybe a dangerous plant or two. But this? An intelligent race of people laying traps through the forest? And the instructor hadn’t even hinted at it.
Sending a group of people without knowledge, without experience, into unknown territory where an enemy lay in wait… well, one could imagine what the results would be.
The pygmies weren’t typical wastelanders – they were more like sweepers, mutated humans from the wastelands. However this race seemed to have developed a stable mutation for their bodies, making them all look similar as opposed to the wide array of mutations he was used to seeing. Out in the wastes the mutations were as varied as the people who had them, making his old haunt a constant freak show.
Deadwood pygmies were about a meter and a half tall for adult males. Small, certainly, but they made up for it in agility. They moved through the gnarled forests quick as the wind. They were also smart, that was obvious from their trap. But in this case their trap made them overconfident.
They assumed that their poison-tipped barbs had robbed their prey of the strength to fight back. Like madmen they fell on Cloudhawk one after the other, eager to be the first to injure the elysian. Little did they know that their poisons had no effect on this human. He was hardly affected at all.
Cloudhawk shrugged his shoulder and Oddball took off. It rose overhead to survey the landscape and see how bad the situation was. If he found there were a lot of these mutants, or his competitors were closing in, he would have a chance to prepare.
One of the deadwood natives brandished his spear and charged at Cloudhawk. Were his opponent human perhaps Cloudhawk would have shown mercy. Unfortunately for the pygmy, however, he had a deep distaste for their kind.
The sweeper stabbed, but his spear hit nothing. He stared, stunned, when suddenly the weapon was yanked out of his hand. He didn’t even see how Cloudhawk did it.
“Here, take it back!”
Cloudhawk returned the pygmy’s spear, right through his chest. It slid through him, out from his back and into the second pygmy coming up behind. The second unfortunate mutant was pinned to one of the petrified trees.
Cloudhawk juked away from another attack, this time punching his attacker square in the face. The crisp sound of shattered bone answered as the mutant’s cheekbone broke into half a dozen pieces. Cloudhawk didn’t even pause, whipping around to plant a kick on another pygmy’s chest. He struck with such force that it turned shattered bone to shrapnel, churning organs into minced meat. The sweeper was flung away in a shower of vomit and blood like a gruesome firecracker.
How could this guy keep fighting after being poisoned?!
They weren’t alone. Cloudhawk shared their surprise. Ever since coming to the elysian lands he’d been getting stronger by the day. He’d practiced the demonhunter body forging exercises up to thirty postures but had yet to really fight and see his progress.
Of course his time in Skycloud was spent with anomalies like Dawn and Frost de Winter. He could get through all thirty six postures and still not stand a chance against them. But now that Cloudhawk was letting loose with his full strength he was shocked to find that he had to be at least as strong as Mad Dog used to be – maybe even stronger!
Cloudhawk was different from Mad Dog, though. The Tartarus Mercenary’s captain was all about force, while Cloudhawk had that in addition to speed, quick reaction time, regeneration, and control. All balanced. Half a year had passed since he was that worthless scav, and if he went back as he was now he would have been a match for any Tartarus elite.
But the disadvantage of speed was that he didn’t have the experience to be proficient in his new body. He might be as strong as Mad Dog, but the warrior had twenty-some years of life in the harsh wilderness that tempered his abilities. He’d known exactly how to use his strength to produce more than a hundred percent. Meanwhile Cloudhawk was lucky to effectively use eighty percent of his potential.
Be that as it may, everyday sweepers were no match for Cloudhawk anymore.
If these mutants were here it had to mean they had a camp nearby. He couldn’t afford to let any of them escape and alert the others. He’d soon find this place crawling with enemies, and that would cause all sorts of trouble.
He snapped up a discarded spear and went on the attack. In a flash several pygmy sweepers were knocked flying. They screamed and hollered in fear but it was too late to flee. They all perished under the bite of their own weapon.
Cloudhawk whipped around, looking or his next target like a wild animal. One of the indigenous warriors unlike the others stepped out from the trees. He wore thin leather armor, and held a gun in each hand. As he leapt out, still in midair, he started to fire.
Cloudhawk’s eyes contracted to black pinpricks, the bullets’ trajectory reflected within.
He could see a tail where the bullets split the air, from the instant they left the gun to where they passed now. Incredible… Cloudhawk never dreamed he’d be able to see so precisely!
He’d never experienced anything like this before. Beyond being able to see where the bullets had come from, if he were a little faster and a little more precise he would block them with just his weapon.
He didn’t dare try it now. Instead he dodged them by moving erratically, but the pygmy proved to be a crack shot. He was able to calculate where Cloudhawk would be even when he dodged, closing off any route he could take. He couldn’t get away.
Yet Cloudhawk’s mind worked faster. He guessed where his opponent would fire to counter him and knew that he would be peppered if he did what was expected. So he did the opposite.
Cloudhawk leaned all the way back as far as he could go. He could feel the friction of the bullets as they passed just over his chest and upper body. His hands planted on the ground and gave him the thrust he needed to flip over. In a blink he was five or six meters away by another tree.
His feet hit the trunk and he immediately hunched. Using the leverage from the tree he pushed off with his knees then fired off like an arrow toward the marksman.
His dodge-turned-counterattack was seamless and displayed a level of skill the pygmy hadn’t thought the elysian possessed. But the pygmy was no pushover either, and immediately responded with another volley of gunfire. Cloudhawk wrenched himself to the side, avoiding all but one. Yet just as with the spines Cloudhawk toughened up the point of impact, stopping the bullet skin deep.
Finally, the pygmy felt fear.
He realized that this one wasn’t just strong, but rather possessed the full gamut of abilities. But it was too late.
The bladed spear swiped at the native vertically, cleaving him clean in two.
Cloudhawk stood over the littered corpses with no expression, still as a statue. He then gritted his teeth against the pain and dug the bloodstained bullet from his chest, throwing it aside. The surface wound wasn’t anything he had to worry about, it wasn’t going to slow him down.
He looked over the dead pygmies and noted that their mutation was unique. There were poison glands in their mouths and along their arms. That meant that their bite and scratch was toxic. Natural toxins… no wonder it was part of their traps.
Cloudhawk looked around to make sure nothing else lived. He saw none, but his eyes did fix on a location. He became even more tightly wound, like the fight had only just started.
“Stop hiding!” Cloudhawk’s voice was harsh and cold. “I know you’re there. Come out!”
1. For extra haunting effect, listen to this song while you read.
2. Here’s a cool article that describes how long skeletonization takes if you die in Arizona!
Looks like he's found the two people Frost sent after him...