Book 3, Chapter 20 - Rise of the Highwaymen

Blackfiend claimed to be a defector from the elysian army, a general. He committed some crime that deeply offended his betters and caused him to become a pariah. However, it was clear just by his presence that there was more to him than that.

The elysians would not sit idly by as a high-ranking member of their army became a wasteland warlord. Elysians were a harsh and paranoid people, full of pride. Allowing a general to openly defy them, then letting him go free, just didn’t add up.

However, these discrepancies didn’t affect Blackfiend’s rise to power. Everyone had their own history and experiences, and were often loathe to share all the details. Cyclops and the others accepted him as their master. At first they made their living through murder and banditry, but before long they began to grow dispirited. The goal they all strove for seemed further than ever from their reach.

They realized they could only succeed with more strength. More likeminded men were gathered to their cause and the highwaymen were born. 

Cyclops never liked the name. He would have preferred if they called themselves Blackfiends. It sounded far more… imposing.

But his master disagreed. He saw no fault in a highwaymen. Living a simple and straightforward life like their lowly namesake seemed appealing.

Blackfiend felt that a dramatic name would only bring more attention, and with it more trouble. ‘Highwaymen’ didn’t sound like the sort with lofty ambitions, certainly not worth the sweat of elysian soldiers. Out in the wastelands pride meant nothing. It was always survival first.

Over time, twenty bandits became a hundred, then several hundred. At present the Highwaymen boasted a thousand strong, becoming one of the borderlands’ fiercest group of bandits. Cyclops, because of his years of service and experience in war, was given a position of leadership. Blackfiend put him in charge of one or two hundred men.

He thought back to one night in particular.

They’d just finished a big job, one that netted them seven or eight thousand gold easy. Their score also came with a group of about a hundred slaves and a dozen pretty young girls. As the crew celebrated, Blackfiend summoned all the leaders before him.

After twenty years Blackfiend hadn’t changed much physically. His shining ebon skin and burly frame looked just the same as he did all those years ago, when he came to Cyclops in the street. The only indication of his age was the grey that’d crept into his beard by the corners of his mouth. That, and his slowly growing collection of scars, were the only indication of the passage of time.

At fifty or so Blackfiend was growing older, but no one dared challenge his leadership. The highwaymen owed their existence and growth solely to this man’s leadership. Cyclops and the other leaders had fought shoulder to shoulder with him for years, one desperate struggle after another. During that time the general Blackfiend once was became clear. He knew how to train soldiers, and command them in a fight. They were bandits, yes, but under Blackfiend’s command they were a tremendous force. Years of harsh existence in the wasteland tempered them. Though they could not stand toe to toe with an elysian bastion, out here in the wilds they were nigh unbeatable.

Blackfiend ordered wine bowls for each of his commanders. “I must go away for a while.” [1]

The others exchanged curious, uneasy glances. But not asking questions had been beaten into them after years of servitude. If Blackfiend wanted something said, he said it. If he didn’t, then they didn’t need to know.

He raised his bowl, and said to them something the original Highwaymen couldn’t quite understand. “In thirty days, if I return, things will change for the Highwaymen. Anyone who wishes to leave can, without ill-will. If I don’t come back, then the Highwaymen will scatter.”

Thirty days later, no sign of Blackfiend could be found. 

But the highwaymen did not disband. Cyclops and the others refused to believe that Blackfiend would discard those who had been his brothers for twenty years.

It took fifty days, but eventually Blackfiend did return. Only, he wasn’t the same man who left. He called himself the chosen of the wasteland and took on a number of shocking habits. For instance, upon his return Blackfiend developed a preference for the blood of the young. There were also powers, mysterious abilities that made no sense. After a time he came before them again with an announcement.

It was a challenge to another mighty borderlands outfit, who called themselves the Ligers.

Although both groups made their living in the borderlands, both were comparable in strength and tended to keep to themselves. So long as one didn’t encroach on the other’s territory, there wasn’t a problem. Blackfiend decided that needed to change. Strange and sudden though it were, bandits were a savage people. Without even stopping to question the state of things, the Highwaymen chose to attack.

When the war began, Cyclops and the others didn’t even need to raise their weapons.

Blackfiend stole into the Ligers’ den alone, and by himself tore the life out of forty men. That number rose to a hundred before he was done. The enemy bandits shot him with guns and arrows, stabbed him with knives and swords, but he would not die. Blackfiend trudged through their hail of steel without pause. The Liger’s bandit king even chopped Blackfiend’s head off. But he simply picked it up, and put it back on the jagged wound of his neck. It healed instantly.

Any damage they did to heal vanished as soon as they dealt it. He was immortal!

It didn’t matter how dire the wound or how often he was hit, Blackfiend recovered in seconds. Alone he obliterated the opposing bandit clan. With a single punch he reduced half their leader’s body to gruesome paste.

Whatever happened to Blackfiend in his nearly two months away was a mystery. The devastation he caused was a shock to any who witnessed it.

The Highwaymen absorbed what remained of the broken bandit clan. Overnight their numbers went from a thousand to a fifteen  hundred. Their march of destruction continued, consuming several more bandit crews. Recruiting, expanding, becoming more powerful with every victory. Gradually, Blackfiend brought an end to the pillaging of borderland caravans so that they could continue to gather strength without attracting elysian notice.

Blackfiend’s reputation grew with every clash, transcending into the realm of godhood. He was worshipped as such by his men. With more fame, Blackfiend became ever more mysterious as well. Fear gripped the hearts of those who heard his name. The highwaymen were no longer a mere bandit clan. They were a cult, in service to their undying god.

Cyclops didn’t understand any of it, but he watched with one fervent eye as the Highwaymen grew day by day. Equal parts shock and excitement filled him, for he knew that if they continued at this pace the Highwaymen would soon surpass even the infamous Dark Atom. Sooner or later his people would come to inherit all the wasteland and call it their kingdom. Blackfiend the Undying would become its master!

***

Barb slowly extracted the golden needle from his head. Cyclops’ eye rolled back into his head and lay in the dirt, twitching.

The process of dredging up these memories was barbaric and harmful. He’d made it worse by resisting, and as a result he’d caused great damage to himself. After the reading, what was in his mind became a shattered mess. If he lived, he would be only a shadow of a man.

Cyclops lay in the sand, jerking every now and again, lost between reality and his memories.

Cloudhawk and the others had watched Cyclops’ life unfold like a book. It was a normal wastelander life – full of pain, loss, and hope. Full of blood, murder and evil. 

“That’s a damn fine relic.” Cloudhawk didn’t even spare a glance to what was left of Cyclops. There wasn’t anything left there but a mindless sack of flesh anymore. He wasn’t worth another thought. “It’s just a shame about the side-effects.”

“That’s not important. The problem now is this dark power growing in the wastelands. And we had no idea. Incredible. I’m willing to bet this Blackfiend will become another Wolfblade if given the chance, and will be just as much of a threat to Skycloud.” Barb’s face was stern. She had to get back and report what she learned to her superiors soon. It would definitely be worth something to the right pair of ears. “Have you come here to investigate Blackfiend, senior? I’m sure figuring out where they’re holed up will be very useful for the leadership back home. We should make a report right away!”

Cloudhawk shook his head noncommittally. This left Barb puzzled. Something this important didn’t even get a glimmer from his eye?

“You think Skycloud domain doesn’t already know about the Highwaymen?” Cloudhawk looked at her. “You underestimate the big wigs back across the border. I’m willing to bet they don’t just know, they probably have some ins we don’t know about. If you go rushing back with this news before you know the real deal, six to one odds you die before you get there.”

Barb’s eyes nearly popped out of her skull. What he was implying seemed nothing short of ludicrous. “How could Skycloud allow an evil like this to continue?!”

Barb was young, and idealistic. Cloudhawk had been like her, once.

“My mission has nothing to do with this, but we should take a look since it’s on the way.”

His decision took both ladies by surprise. Autumn even blurted out, “Are you crazy?”

It was clear from Cyclops’ memories how terrifying Blackfiend was. He was a monster the likes of which the wastelands had never seen! Obviously it would be better to enlist a group of demonhunters to come and deal with the problem, if not a full army corps. Although Barb did not question her senior’s abilities, it seemed reckless to go after whatever this Blackfiend was on his own.

“Relax. I’m only going for a look, not to pick a fight. It’ll be fine.” Cloudhawk looked from one pensive face to the other. “I’ll take care of it myself. The two of you should stay here.”

“No way! I’m coming too.” Barb didn’t leave any room for argument. “I want to see this nest of evil myself. If I’m going to become a master demonhunter then I can’t be afraid of a bunch of garbage bandits! What sort of shit demonhunter would I be then?”

Autumn wasn’t eager to go running headfirst into new conflicts, especially ones that involved immortal former elysian generals.

However, the problem she faced now was clear. Either go with them, or split up. Even if it was only temporary, she had come to understand how dangerous it was out here. Following Cloudhawk into the heart of a bandit camp, or cowering alone in the wilderness. She preferred the former.

Anyway, Cloudhawk had said they were only going to take a quick look.

Cloudhawk looked at Autumn. He knew from Cyclops’ words and memories that Blackfiend was interested in her ancient heritage. Whatever place she came from was hiding an unfathomable treasure. Whoever controlled it was sitting on inexhaustible energy and wealth.

Why was it the wastelands never openly fought with the elysian lands? In a word: poverty. Elysian divine energy was infinite, so wastelanders weren’t going to fight their way through their holy lands. Not unless they found an infinite power source of their own. Anyone with even the faintest hint of ambition would see Autumn as the key to limitless power.

And that was a problem.

Cloudhawk found himself conflicted, but often the most dangerous place was also the safest. Maybe bringing her into the belly of the beast was a good plan.

It was decided. The three gathered up their provisions and prepared to set off. Autumn took one last look back.

Cyclops lay in the sand, twitching, blood trickling from his mouth and nose. His one good eyes stared blankly toward the sky and his hands groped at air. He was reaching for something, but it was something only he could see. His lips worked but nothing comprehensible came out. He had completely lost his mind.

Autumn felt a sense of sadness come over her.

No one was born evil. That eighteen year old boy named Sprout was a good man. If he’d stayed back in his home with his lover, lived peacefully in the borderlands, what sort of man would he have been then? How would things have been different? She didn’t know. This was the wastelands. No one knew what the next sunrise would bring.


1.  Here is an example of a wine bowl from Iran. This is more of an Asian tradition, but for brigands I imagine they would drink out of whatever they had at hand instead of bothering with fine glassware.

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RWX's Thoughts

I wonder what happened to Blackfiend.  Just a reminder that some seriously powerful voodoo is going on in this world...