The barren, arid wastes were home to any number of shocking things. The sudden rise of the highwaymen was an example. For twenty years Cyclops had gone through hell and high water with Blackfiend, and trusted his leader implicitly. Cyclops believed it in the core of his being, one day Blackfiend would turn them into an organization even greater than the Dark Atom. They would all become stronger, and be granted the blessing of the wastes just like their Undying leader.”
Outsiders only saw the Highwaymen as a band of cruel brigands. They thought of themselves as a family. Innumerable murders were attributed to them, but together they feasted, shared of their food and wine and women. This life of crime, lost to a haze of gluttony and sin, might have been deplorable to the self-righteous elysians. But it was exactly the life the Highwaymen wanted.
This was the life they chose, the story they wrote for themselves. This was their wasteland. Only theirs.
Even the likes of Cyclops, an unknown and insignificant worm of the deserts, had his dreams and ideals. He chose to pluck out his own eye as punishment. He wanted to become like Blackfiend the Undying, his illustrious living god. Cyclops was determined to stand above the rabble and cast his sight wide.
People didn’t fear death. They feared what they would lose when they died. So long as desires remained, and so long as there were goals to accomplish, one would not slip easily into the darkness.
As Cyclops fled further into the desert, silence seemed to close in around him. Fear and unease whispered ominously in his mind. Had that piece of shit killed all those idiots so quickly? Useless! And they thought they were worthy of being Highwaymen?
He cursed inwardly at them and quickened his pace.
He saw the sort of speed and power the guy was capable of. So long as he kept his distance he was safe, but the bastard was more than capable of catching up if he slackened. Cyclops had no choice but to push himself as hard as he could and keep running. But even in that moment the one-eyed Highwaymen felt a creeping sense of danger wash over him.
A dark iron staff roared from the darkness, bringing with it a tempestuous wind.
This was no normal staff. Judging by the way the moonlight played off the surface it was made of metal, and one end had been shaped into a three-edged spike. The razor-sharp end was spinning furiously as it bore down on him.
An exorcist rod. Demonhunter!
Cyclops flung his hand ax at it with a roar. The moment they collided the exorcist rod exploded with power. The force of it shattered the axe’s blade and broke his wrist. Shards of metal and the axe handle went flying every which way.
How powerful could a demonhunter’s strike be!
Cyclops was nothing more than a stronger-than-average thug. He couldn’t even compare to a novice martial artist. How was he supposed to compete? However, he was about to give up. Cyclops’ reaction was quick, and though he couldn’t see who was attacking him he flailed at them with his left fist. His attacker answered with a strike in kind, and they met in midair.
His punch was doughty enough to crack stone. However, not only was it ineffectual, he was also knocked back. Struggling to get his feet back under him, Cyclops couldn’t protect himself from the follow-up. A dark figure rose into the air, a dark shadow against the night sky, kicking up a cloud of dirt. A leg whipped at him, fast as a bullet.
It caught him in the chest and Cyclopse was knocked back, head over heels. He hit the ground and had the wind knocked out of him. Eyes wide, he struggled to keep a grip on what was happening. His attacker was not just a demonhunter, but a melee fighter as wel – and stronger than him!
Who? Where did they come from?
An agile figure crept from the darkness like a leopard. Cyclops was halfway to his feet when another kick came rocketing at his face. He managed to throw his hand up for protection but was still kicked nearly a meter off the floor. He fell again with a thud.
Injuries piled on injuries. He coughed up a mouthful of bright red blood.
He still didn’t know who his attacker was, but the two strikes alone proved he was outmatched. There was nowhere to run, no chance to flee. Demonhunters were not normal foes, and even the most inexperienced among them were hard to kill.
Death at the hands of a demonhunter… Cyclops could only accept his fate.
A burning pain shot up his leg as the exorcist rod pinned him to the ground. He screamed into the sand. Blood oozed freely from his mouth and nostrils as he lifted his head. A young woman with short hair came into view.
She wore simple, almost tattered equipment. Tousled hair sat above a face where dirt had gathered around the edges of hideous scars. It looked like she’d been burned. She was ugly, but was likely chosen with the other women and children for her charming figure.
Good-looking women were few and far between in the wastes. So long as a woman had a pert ass, big tits and a small waist they were worth something. Nothing else mattered when the lights were off.
The woman was about a hundred and sixty-five centimeters tall, give or take. Her body wasn’t anything spectacular, but she was well-proportioned, curvy in all the right places. . She had a feral way about her when she moved, like a sexy bobcat. No wonder they were bringing her to the highwaymen.
Cyclops had grabbed one of the captives when he was fleeing to use as a human shield. Was this her? He’d thrown her aside once he escaped and hadn’t given her a second thought. A demonhunter… hiding among the captives this whole time.
“You’ve got guts stirring up trouble before your betters, woman.”
She reached up to her cheek and pulled at the skin. It tore apart in chunks, and as she threw them aside it was revealed that the scars were a disguise. Below was a face of healthy and unblemished skin. Pretty. Her bright eyes glimmered, framed by short hair that fell to her shoulders.
“Come along!” She yanked her exorcist rod out of his thigh, then leaned over and snatched him up like a cat with a prize mouse. She dragged the several-hundred kilograms of beaten bandit behind her like a sack of garbage and flung him at Cloudhawk’s feet. Returning the staff to her waist, the woman snapped to attention. “It’s good to see you again, your Excellency!”
Autumn was seeing to the women and children, trying to calm them. When she saw this heroic demonhunter appear, she was stunned. She was pretty, and seemed both generous and straightforward. How did she know Cloudhawk? Judging by her looks she should have been older than him as well, yet called him ‘your Excellency’.
Cloudhawk offered a nod. “Barb. I’d hoped you would recognize me.”
“She’s a demonhunter as well?” Autumn was utterly puzzled by the turn of events. “What was she doing with these people?”
Three years ago Barb had been a penniless novice who nearly had her exorcist rod robbed from her. Then Cloudhawk showed up and chose her for a mission. To him it had been a small act of generosity, but to Barb it was life-changing. The accolades she earned when that Dark Atom plot was foiled were enough to help her complete her training.
Three years later, Barb was still traipsing through the borderlands and the wastes. On average she completed one or two missions a month as a monster hunter for the League. Be it strength, experience, or wisdom, she’d come a long way. Barb was no longer the green demonhunter struggling to make a few silver.
“I remembered you the moment I saw you.” Their encounter was purely coincidental. “What a fluke, huh? The last time I went back to the elysian lands I stopped in a small village for a few days. Small place – ten or twenty thousand people. I noticed they didn’t have a demonhunter presence, and since I had earned some renown with the league they welcome me with open arms. The village mayor hoped I could help them with a mission.”
She pointed to the two halves of Greyfox. “This piece of shit imprisoned the mayor’s daughter and did all sorts of terrible things to her. After a week they found out what he was up to, and he fled to the wastelands. Till today, he’d gotten away with murder. Others have been after him, but he proved too cunning for most. If I’d been able to bring him back alive the mayor agreed to give me all his fortune. Half for a corpse, which seems like what I’ll have to settle for.”
That explained her presence and makeup. She’d been trying to work out a way to get Greyfox back to the elysian lands alive.
Of course, never in a million years would she expect they’d run into Cloudhawk out here. It turned out pretty bad for these idiots. Barb looked at ‘his Excellency’ with a face filled with admiration, for not only had Cloudhawk shown incredible strength, he’d also done a righteous thing.
Barb’s disguise had been flawless. For all their smarts and cunning, neither Greyfox nor Sandwolf had suspected a thing. However, Cloudhawk had picked her out in an instant. He was really something. No wonder he was her superior .
“Well, shit. I’m sorry I cut your mission objective in half.”
“Ah, think nothing of it. The mayor’s an honest man and his family’s been in dire straits for many years. He doesn’t have very much, and I’m doing just fine for myself. I’ve been wanting to end this creep myself for the longest time. He deserved everything he got.” She wasn’t troubled by the turn of circumstance. “So, your Excellency. What are you doing all the way out here?”
“We got involved with some gang trouble while executing a mission. And stop calling me your Excellency! Hell, I’m younger than you are.”
“Of course, your Excellency!” Barb chuckled and clicked her tongue playfully. She ignored him and went on. “You are both younger and more awesome than I thought. I thought after a few years of hard training I might close the gap between us, but it looks like I’ve still got a long way to go.”
Her playful remark bore a note of frustration.
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Another meeting between old friends. Best groupie has returned.