Cloudhawk wasn’t going to run again. The ‘wastelands’ weren’t just this blasted place. What was Skycloud but another post-apocalyptic wilderness, albeit with more ornamentation?
He was a different man now, with the power and smarts to protect himself. The freedom of the wastelands, where he could do as he pleased, was preferable to the strict boundaries foisted on him by the elysians. Kill whoever looks at you funny, deal with whatever you don’t like the way you want to. Force was all you needed to solve your problems – simple, direct. Do as you like, that was real living! 
Greyfox, Sandwolf and the others were positioning themselves to attack. None of them had noticed Cyclops flee into the desert. Crude guns were leveled at Cloudhawk. Triggers were pulled.
Their weapons were crude arms forged from wasteland scrap. They had a slow rate of fire and had to be manually reloaded. Still, bullets still packed a mean punch. At such close range they were lethal enough to put down a wild boar.
Cloudhawk’s pupils constricted to small black points and a faint scarlet light burned within – a single lick of flame in a sea of black. The trajectory of the bullets were revealed to him clear as though it were drawn. Even the displaced waves of air were visible where the bullets passed. Cloudhawk began to move, erratic jukes first in one direction and then another. His movements were deliberate, unhurried. Not one bullet found its mark.
As Greyfox watched, the look in his eyes hardened. Amazement bloomed in his expression. “Son of a bitch. He isn’t just a marksman. Everyone, together!”
Cloudhawk wrenched a dagger from his hip, slashing it through the air.
He cleaved a bullet in half before it reached him. The thugs stared in open shock. Did he just do that? From this range?
Before they had a chance to recover, Cloudhawk flicked his wrist and the dagger went soaring. A cold metallic light carved a path through the night, penetrating the chest of the first bandit who held a gun to him. The dagger slipped through without stopping, coming to an end in the chest of a second foe. There was enough residual force to knock him flying.
Greyfox hollered at the others in a shrieking voice. At least he realized what sort of man he’d picked a fight with. “Everyone, kill him!”
Those who carved a life for themselves in the wastelands were not timid, or afraid of death. But as Cloudhawk dodged their bullets and cut them from the air, his enemies knew fear. Anyone who could protect themselves from gunfire with nothing but a dagger was first-rate. Even Sandwolf, their strongest, was outmatched.
A handful of crude firearms wasn’t going to kill this guy. Their only hope was to overwhelm him by attacking all at once. It was a fight for their lives, a chaos of flailing limbs and steel!
Although Greyfox wasn’t much of a fighter, it was time to bare his teeth or die a miserable death. He grabbed the hilt of his short sword, hollering orders at the others. However, before his weapon even left its sheath he stared in horror as the two men in front of him were nearly cleaved in half.
A pitch-black sword was reflected in the pupil of his eyes. Silent as death, glinting through the night right for him. It was the last thing his living eyes saw. There wasn’t even time for his life to flash before his eyes, or to think back to evils he’d done.
Quiet carnage split his skull in two. It kept going, all the way down like slicing through a piece of paper. Greyfox slopped into the dirt in two vertical halves.
From crown to crotch Cloudhawk’s sword passed without effort, and without sound.
Mutilated corpses lay strewn around the young stranger as pools of blood formed rivers beneath his feet. However there was none of him. So precise were his movements and control that he avoided the mess spewing from his victims.
The tattered grey cloak flung over his shoulders fluttered. Cloudhawk vanished.
One by one the thugs began exploding into fountains of blood like they were being hunted by an evil ghostly force. Every second saw another bandit reduced to dead meat. This wasn’t a battle. Chopping vegetables wasn’t this easy. Compared to other roving bands in the wastes, this group could handle itself. They might have even stood toe to toe with an elysian army unit. But that didn’t matter.
After all, the fight they picked was with the Warden of the Talon’s of God. A survivor of Hell’s Valley!
The warriors stationed in that cursed place were veterans of countless battles. They had survived some of the worst the wastelands could throw at them. Moreover, Cloudhawk was a demonhunter. The black blade in his hand could cleave iron in half, to say nothing of a man’s vulnerable flesh. Its mirror-like surface cut through his enemies unimpeded.
Sandwolf had yet to join the fight. He realized the horrible situation he was in when Greyfox was cut in half right in front of him. The men they’d painstakingly gathered were being slaughtered. Half were dead already.
They were supposed to be the force that bought him a place in the Highwaymen! They were worth nothing as worm food.
Cyclops, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found.
Sandwolf knew it was all over. Fast as he was, however, he was not fast enough. His thirty men were almost completely wiped out by the time it occurred to him to run. Before he retreat one step he watched as a man was cut in half. The blood hadn’t even hit the ground before Cloudhawk’s sword was in front of him.
He roared a challenge and ducked out of the way. The sword missed, but deftly changed directions mid-swing to come back around. A ninety-degree slash came across toward his head.
Half of Sandwolf’s face was sheared off. With his hand gripping tight to his sword, his eyes narrowed and tried to find his foe. He didn’t understand, the guy was about as old as he was. How could he be so strong and experienced?
The bandit had only just started his bid to tame the wasteland. How could fate let him die out here like a dog?
Cloudhawk slowly rematerialized. He looked at the young fighter before him and saw something familiar in his eyes. Conviction, perseverance, something wicked. There was a lot about this young man that reminded Cloudhawk of himself.
Sandwolf reacted when Cloudhawk reappeared before him. A dozen blows rained down like a steel tempest. Avoiding the Warden’s double attacks proved he had some ability, a fact that was highlighted by his flurry. It bordered on martial art.
Autumn gasped and flung her hands over her mouth.
She watched as every one of Sandwolf’s blows entered Cloudhawk’s body. They pierced him through, again and again. Yet, her protector’s reaction was entirely unexpected.
Cloudhawk lazily reached out with his left hand.
The young warrior froze, stiff as a board. He twitched and jerked, his arms twisting unnaturally. Crack! Pop! Bone and tendon gave way. Sandwolf’s hand was rotated in a full circle, forcing him to drop his weapon.
Death had come, he knew that. In his final moments, though, the young brigand did not cry out in pain. His screams were filled with anger and defiance.
Cloudhawk slapped him on the head with an open palm, and the force buried Sandwolf’s legs into the sand. Fragments of spine jutted from the skin as his skull was forced down into his chest. Sandwolf died, pegged into the sand like a grotesque totem.
This was life in the wastelands.
This was death in the wastelands.
Both came and went like the breeze.
The young man Sandwolf had set out on what he thought would be an epic adventure through the wastelands. In the end, his first step put him in his grave, and he was destined for nothing but to become another nameless pile of bones.
Cloudhawk made his way unhurriedly back toward Autunm. Quiet Carnage dripped blood into the sand, marking his passage. None of the bodies were intact, rather reduced to large chunks of blood-soaked meat. A few who he’d severed at the waist were still in the process of slowly dying. They twitched and whined in pain as blood and organs seeped out in a grotesque display.
As the smell of carnage and the mangled bodies, Autumn couldn’t stem the inevitable surge of nausea that filled her. She hated to see people hurt, and scenes like these haunted her nightmares. However, in the deepest part of her heart, she appreciated Cloudhawk’s work.
The women and children were huddled together, terrified. The weak had no recourse but to cower before the terrors of the wasteland.
Autumn hurried to Cloudhawk’s side. “Are you hurt?”
Replacing his sword to its sheath, Cloudhawk answered with a malicious grin. “Now you’re concerned for my health? You didn’t fall in love with me after seeing how handsome I was kickin’ ass, did you?”
“Ugh! Only a devil would find you attractive.” She was thin-skinned and easily rankled at his teasing. She gave him a quick look but saw no indication he’d been wounded. The dozen puncture wounds she was expecting weren’t there. She whined at him like an angry child. “You’re still just standing here, talking nonsense? That Highwayman has escaped. Aren’t you going to bring him back?”
Cyclops was only barely visible as a black dot on the horizon. He was fast. Cloudhawk watched the dot shrink for a time, then shook his head. “Nope.”
Autumn blinked at him. “Why not? It shouldn’t be a problem for you. If he goes back to his people he’ll tell them where we are. We’ll be surrounded by hundreds in no time, I’m sure of it! What would you do then?”
Cyclops was no pushover. He could hold his own. At a bare minimum, Cloudhawk figured he was at least as capable as Mad Dog, his old companion from the Tartarus mercenaries, had been. The Cloudhawk now was not the Cloudhawk from four years ago. Mad Dog had a true powerhouse back then. Now, he didn’t seem like much at all. Any Hell’s Valley veteran could match him.
By the time Cloudhawk completed training, he could take on ten of those veterans at once. That was just for training. He was sure in a life-or-death situation he could take even more, so Cyclops wasn’t any sort of challenge.
“I’m not worried, so what are you worried about?” He gave her a devilish smirk. “Relax. Someone will help me take care of him.”
What did he mean, someone would help him?
Autumn’s first thought was the kind, blonde-haired man from the shop. She immediately broke into a cold sweat. He might have seemed kind on the outside, but he was a monster through and through. By contrast, this scoundrel Cloudhawk seemed more trustworthy.
Had that blonde-haired devil been following them this whole time.
No, that was impossible, they’d been driving the whole time. No human could keep up. So it wasn’t Gabriel. But if not him, then who was Cloudhawk talking about?
1. Readers may have noticed a change in Cloudhawk since the beginning of this volume. He is harsher, more selfish and self-centered, less forgiving. I think this paragraph encapsulates just why that is. Cloudhawk is not a teenager anymore. He’s jaded, his dreams have changed from idealistic to realistic. Like many in their early twenties he thinks he knows everything and is out to get his, screw everyone else. So far he’s made a difficult turn from reluctant protagonist to anti-hero, definitely not what you would expect from the ‘good guy’ – but it is what you might expect from a young man with considerable power and prestige, in a world that doesn’t give a shit about him.
Nah, not Gabby. Of course not Gabby. But maybe the Angel of Bone, mmm...