Among the group of slavers was a man in black, younger than the rest. A long, nasty scar slithered across his face. Sharp, cold eyes were fixed on Cloudhawk as he muttered in the older man’s ear. “He looks like one of Blackfiend’s men.”
He had a keen eye, and the bandit’s exposed flesh bore the markings of the highwaymen: Tattoos of the wasteland, of carnage, and the love of violence. It was proof of where he came from, and his status among the thieves.
The older leader of the group scowled in confusion. The bandit had to be skilled to earn his station, so how did he allow himself to be captured?
The younger man in black, and the older in grey robes were this group’s leaders. The one in black was a wastelander, whose years had been spent honing his close-combat abilities against beasts and mutants. They called him Sandwolf.
The man in grey robes was also a character. He hailed from the elysian lands, but fled when he was deemed a criminal. The borderlands was where he ended up. He hunkered down in a settlement for a time until he gathered a crew. The man wasn’t a strong fighter, but he was smart. Smart enough to get people to follow him. They called him Greyfox.
Sandwolf and Greyfox. The older one had to be twice the age of his younger counterpart, but they came together as men of like tastes. Greyfox studied the wasteland’s situation and decided there was a way for them to make a living, but nothing was possible on a small scale. Their best bet was to attach themselves to a larger outfit. Sandwolf was a man of some combat ability, but was relatively short-sighted compared to his friend. He listened to the old man’s suggestions, and had the strength to make sure they were followed.
The Dark Atom was the big power in the neighborhood, but as they say, ‘the tallest trees catch the wind.’ Elysian soldiers were always out for terrorist blood, and sooner or later that tree would be burned down to its roots. The highwaymen, in contrast, had seen a period of impressive growth over the last few years. Its leader – the one called Blackfiend the Undying – was said to be the next great warlord of the wastelands.
Greyfox and Sandwolf decided the Highwaymen were their best bet.
The older man was getting on in years. He had no great ambitions anymore. There was no going back to Skycloud, so he was just looking for shelter to live out the rest of his days in comfort. Build a crew and survive, that was all he wanted. Desert Fox was a little different. He was strong, a child of the borderlands. He yearned for the allure of the wastelands, and had been wandering its blasted landscape ever since, building the life he wanted.
The story of Blackfiend and his rise was legendary at his point. Since his return, the mysterious leader of the Highwaymen had only become more renowned.
‘Blackfiend the Undying’ – it was a title that evoked powerful feelings, and attracted no small number of men seeking to get close to power. Sandwolf was confident in his abilities, Give him a chance, he thought, and he was sure to impress.
Two men had different aspirations, but were headed the same way. Once Greyfox decided Blackfiend was the one to follow, he gathered together a group of twenty or so strong men and with them captured as many women and children as they could handle. He did not expect that they might find trouble on their way to delivering the gift.
“Did you hear me? I am Cyclops, the leader of the Highwaymen’s second crew!” Cyclops saw this as his opportunity to escape. His group was on the rise and prosperous days lay just beyond the horizon. He couldn’t die now. He’d grasp at any straw, so long as it meant he kept breathing. “This woman, she holds the secret to a treasure hidden in the wilds! The Undying will spare no expense to get his hands on her, and those who deliver will be richly rewarded. Obey! Or the master’s curses will haunt you to the end of your days!”
Cloudhawk openly chuckled. “You’ve got a big fuckin’ mouth.”
Cyclops began to choke as Cloudhawk’s iron grip clamped his throat shut. The one-eyed bandit was lifted off the ground. Burly men shuffled as they watched, for the young stranger handled the highwayman like an ape throwing around a chimpanzee. The more it went on the longer it was clear how large the strength disparity was between them.
Greyfox, Sandwolf and their men looked at each other in uncertainty. If Cloudhawk could capture a Highwayman crew boss he definitely wasn’t some weakling. At the very least he was a master marksman. It was that fact that made them hesitant to come to Cyclops’ aid.
“Blackfiend the Undying only wants her secrets! Do what you want with her body, so long as she is alive enough to tell what she knows! Why are you still standing there?!” Cyclops’ face was beginning to turn a dark red. He voice came in choking gasps. “Prove your loyalty and worth to the future ruler of the wastelands!”
Hungry eyes fell upon Autumn’s supple form. She was a rare beauty, with pale skin smooth as silk. Her long legs looks absolutely delicious. She had an adorable heart-shaped face and a pair of braids perfect for keeping her in hand. Her eyes were big and beauty, and in all there wasn’t a hint of the crude wildness of the wastelands about her. Neither did she have the prudish disdain of an elysian. She was like a fairy, neither common as the dust nor unreachable as the stars.
A rare treasure. Any number of men would give a decade of their lives for a taste of what she had to offer.
What treachery did Greyfox commit for the elysian to cast him out? He’d been a doctor in his old life, providing his services to a small town. He was a master pharmacologist with a talent in alchemy, well respected in his community. Naturally, he was the one they turned to when the mayor’s fifteen year old daughter fell ill. The young woman was beautiful, the most cherished girl in town.
Greyfox gave in to his darkest temptations. Under the guise of treatment he locked her away, force-fed her drugs. What he did to her over the next seven days was unspeakable. Eventually the mayor realized something was wrong, and when they found Greyfox’s secret chamber the girl they found was hardly human anymore. With a weak constitution to begin with, the doctor’s torment was too much for her. She died shortly after rescue.
She was fifteen years old.
Rage had swept through the city. The mayor even went so far as to offer his family’s fortune as bounty for this sick monster who killed his baby. He had to have justice.
As Greyfox’s eyes slid over Autumn, he couldn’t help but compare her to the mayor’s daughter. She wasn’t a tenth of what stood before him now. How could he resist? Girls like her – young and fresh – were exactly how he liked them.
As for the man in black, he was young and full of all the urges one would expect. He was just as eager to partake in carnal pursuits. Having grown up in the borderlands, he was no virtuous soul. Sandwolf’s desire was to conquer a corner of the wasteland for himself, and part of that was any woman in that territory.
He committed his first rape when he was twelve.
By fifteen he’d graduated to murder. For a long time he found his amusement by torturing and murdering one woman a week. It was intoxicating, wantonly using these frail creatures to feed his desires. He enjoyed their bodies and their torment to the fullest.
Such a sensation was more addictive than any drug.
Autumn felt their slimy gazes violate her, making her angry and confused. It was her who demanded Cloudhawk save them from the wolf pack. This was their thanks? She regretted not listening to his warning. If she’d listened they wouldn’t be in this predicament.
The hearts of every person in this vile wasteland was as sick as the land they came from. Greyfox and Sandwolf were prime examples, and the men with them were just the same. How could an elfin, innocent girl even begin to wrap her head around it?
These pieces of human garbage didn’t need to do a thing, Cloudhawk knew what he was dealing with by the looks in their eyes. He was a man of the wilds, too, but not like them.
“Put down your weapon, young man. Let the Highwayman go!” At Greyfox’s signal, one of his muscled followers stepped forward. But his gun wasn’t aimed at Cloudhawk, it was pointed at Autumn. “If you don’t, I’ll blow the girl’s head off. Then no one will want her.”
Autumn went white as a sheet. They were using her to threaten him? Even with twenty or thirty of them, the prospective bandits couldn’t beat Cloudhawk. But with more than a few guns aimed her way, that severely limited his options. These scoundrels were cunning.
A dark grin split Cloudhawk’s face. He replied in a flippant tone. “Gentlemen, we don’t have to do this. Put your guns down before you hurt yourselves. If you wanna talk, then let’s talk.”
Crack! A gunshot rang out and the bullet kicked up a plume of sand by Cloudhawk’s foot.
Autumn nearly jumped out of her skin.
The big man pointed his gun at her head. “Cut the bullshit! I’m losing my fuckin’ patience!”
There was no reward without risk. These men had struggled for years in the wasteland, and were desperate for someone to take them in. Blackfiend was a rising star, sure to be the next great leader of the wastelands. The sooner they earned his favor, the easier it would be to rise in the ranks. The women and children they brought were their own wives, their own sons and daughters. Wives agreed to sell their bodies for safety, daughters too. What else could they do? They had to take any opportunity to win a future.
They left Cloudhawk with no choice, either.
He loosened his grip. The crossbow fell into the dirt.
Cyclops gasped as he was released and stumbled into the crowd. Sandwolf cut his restraints and Greyfox, being a doctor, quickly reset his dislocated arms. Cyclops snatched a battleax from one of his saviors. Honestly, he was surprised at the fortunate turn, as were the others.
Sandwolf liked his lips. “So he’s a coward after all. Shit, I thought he was worth somethin’. Didn’t even break a sweat.” His eyes turned back toward Autumn. He’d never seen a girl as pretty as her. He was going to enjoy himself.
So she was the key to some secret treasure, eh? He’d only just started his future out in the wastes, and the wastes brought him this gift. He saw it as an omen, a sign of the wasteland’s favor. He would leave his mark out here, not become lost in the endless deserts like so many others.
“Kill the man! Whoever brings me his head will earn the Undying’s favor. They may even become a crew boss and get first dibs at the girl! Quick!” Cyclops screeched at them, causing the goons’ blood to boil. Women, riches, food. What else did they need?
The Highwayman’s aggressive cries urged them on, while he fell back into the crowd to hide among the women and children. His ferocity made the women shrink away and the children burst into tears. He grabbed a girl too slow to move out of the way and pulled her before him like a shield. While the others closed in Cloudhawk, Cyclops retreated to try and make his escape.
Cloudhawk looked at the sea of twisted faces coming his way. It felt like he’d been in this situation before, and he stood staring back at them as though in a trance. “I really am back in the wastelands,” he muttered to himself.
Indeed, this was the wastelands.
He could read the story in each burning, crazy glare. Filth like them were the same all throughout this barren place.
The darkest parts of human nature thrived here. Nurtured, even encouraged. People wore their ugliness plain on their faces, open to the world. It was just the sort of situation old Cloudhawk had been so desperate to escape.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Yup, we're back in the wastelands again. This aint Kansas...err, Skycloud... anymore.
RWX: Sorry guys for the late chapters, was out sick with a bad cold and spent most of the last two days sleeping rather than editing. We'll make it up with two more double releases in the next few days. Meanwhile, early happy new year!