Hellflower sat in the small, Sandspire-made biplane idly kicking her legs and fiddling with her pistols. Her eyes snapped toward Cloudhawk and the old man as they approached. The drunk was carrying a humanoid shape flung over one shoulder.
Cloudhawk waved his hand at her. “Let’s go!”
Hellflower saw what it was they were carrying when they got close enough and it froze her in place. Cloudhawk, however, was in a hurry. “What the fuck are you gaping at? We’ve got enemies on our ass!”
Hellflower recognized the Wendigo King – how could she not? It was one of the genetically modified mutants she’d helped create.
It’d been the program she pioneered at Blackwater Base, which she reproduced for the Dark Atom when she moved house. There was no mistaking her own work, and what’s more this one in particular was a specimen she knew well.
“Is that Hyena? Heh, it’s been a while!” 
Indeed, this half-man half-wolf creature had been known by a different name years ago. While he had changed significantly since that time, Hellflower still recognized him. They’d spent years together in Blackwater Base and helped Roste create this monster.
“I thought you looked familiar. This fuckin’ guy.”
“You are… Cloudhawk?”
Only after their pitched battle did the two finally realize who they were fighting. Now that he knew what was up, Wolf’s Den and that whole deal made more sense to Cloudhawk. Only Hyena was a hell of a lot bigger and stronger than he used to be. Not only was his covered in muscle, but now when in wolf form his coat was snow-white.
But most importantly, he was using a relic. Those scarlet claws were a godslayer weapon and a pretty worthy one at that, no question. Were it not for the blessings granted to him by Castigation Fire, Cloudhawk would have found it hard to beat the shapeshifter. How did he get so strong after only a few years? It was like he was a completely different person.
Similarly, the Wendigo King had not recognized Cloudhawk at first, either. After all, Cloudhawk was nothing like he used to be and their encounter was brief and rife with adrenaline. While the Wendigo King had recognized Cloudhawk’s smell, he hadn’t placed it until just now.
He’d been carried for what felt like ages. Now he knew by whom.
The old drunk was out of the loop and sought clarification. “He’s a friend of yours? Is this some sort of misunderstanding? You young people – can we know what we’re getting into before we start throwing punches next time? I’m too old to be dealing with this shit.”
“Forget it, we’ll talk when we get back to the city.”
This act was done. Talking about it now was a waste of breath. Sure Cloudhawk knew Hyena, but they weren’t friends. At any rate, a lot of time had passed. Cloudhawk didn’t know anything about ‘the Wendigo King’ and his loyalties or purpose.
The beast struggle against his bonds to no avail. He was badly wounded and the old drunk held him fast. With just the one hand he could hold down the shapeshifter against a thousand pounds of force. To the Wendigo King it felt like being crushed under a mountain.
Obviously this wretched looking geezer was a rare sort of talent. What was a man like him doing with Hellflower and Cloudhawk?
“Sit tight, we’re on the move!” Hellflower started the engine and their small aircraft took to the skies. Plumes of dark smoke were belched from its sides as they dashed into the distance. As she piloted, Hellflower sought more information. “So what happened? We were after Red Scorpion’s boss, right? And we come back with an old pal?”
“I’m just as lost as you are. But it doesn’t matter, this guy is definitely important to the southern group. At least higher up than Red Scorpion. I’m thinking he’s at least important enough to get the attention of his bosses. We’ll figure it out at Sandspire.”
“I advise you to stop this foolishness.” The Wendigo King’s voice was guttural and fierce. “Do you think you can stop who I serve? Just you? It’s suicide to even consider it.”
Cloudhawk wasn’t eager to fight with a power he knew nothing about. But the decision was out of his hands. It was their choice to send spies to Greenland City and to try and establish Red Scorpion as Sandspire’s Governor. The two sides have already reached a point where talk was useless.
If that was the case, better to act first, and act decisively.
By taking the Wendigo King, Cloudhawk figured he might’ve just pissed off the south enough to start a fight, but at least they’d know what they were up against. That was much better than constantly looking over their shoulder, never knowing what to expect.
“Did I ask for your fuckin’ opinion?” Cloudhawk glanced at the old man. He got the hint and gagged the Wendigo King. “We knew each other a long time ago. We’ll have plenty of time to catch up when we get back.”
Hellflower flew them back to Sandspire at top speed. Once back on the ground and safely tucked away, Cloudhawk began his interrogation.
It quickly became clear that while Cloudhawk hoped to learn something from the shapeshifter, the Wendigo King was frustratingly tight-lipped. Nothing they tried motivated him to share what he knew.
A whole lot had happened to the Wendigo King over the years. Strength like he had didn’t appear out of thin air. It seemed obvious that someone powerful and knowledgeable was guiding him. Four years was a long time for stuff to happen.
Cloudhawk saw himself as an example. He got where he was today, half through innate talent and half through demonic intervention. That last part was important. He figured the Wendigo King was benefiting from something similar.
He was at an impasse and wasn’t sure how to break through. He’d come to his wit’s end.
“Bad news!” Sand Viper burst in with a report. “There’s a beast wave approaching!”
Raids like this were a common thing in the southern wilds. Cloudhawk was annoyed by the interruption. “What the hell are you so nervous about? Sandspire can’t handle a few mutant animals?”
Sand Viper glowered at the dismissive response. “This isn’t a typical beast wave. It’s best if you see for yourself.”
Cloudhawk conceded to check on the situation personally.
When they got to the walls Cloudhawk was greeted with a sea of milling creatures, stretching toward the horizon. There had to be ten thousand or more, all pressing against Sandspire’s gates. It was a nightmarish thing to behold, even in the southern wastelands.
But what was strangest of all was how they were organized.
Several lumbering dunewyrms undulated sickeningly along the front lines. They were flanked on either size by what must have been over a hundred maneaters. Behind that formidable vanguard was a massive pack of wolves, giant lizards, snakes, lions and so forth stretching into the ruins. Overhead were clouds of predatory birds.
It was so orderly. Like an army.
At the front of each pack was one or several pack leaders. They growled and snarled and roared orders at their fellows, keeping them in line.
Fuuuuuuck. This is not a beast wave. This is a goddamn invasion. Cloudhawk had never seen anything like it in his life.
As he looked out over the masses several of the creatures separated from the horde. They called out to him in human words. “Bring the King forth, or your city will run red with blood!”
Defenders along Sandspire’s walls were on the verge of pissing themselves. It was already horrific to see so many savage creatures on their doorstep. Now, among them were half-human hybrids that could even speak. Even for veteran wastelanders who were accustomed to strange creatures, this was unheard of.
Academician Roste had developed two types of genetically modified creatures in Blackwater Base.
The first were powerful wasteland predators who were given intellect. He selected those animals with the most favorable genetic material and hastened the development of their brains. Afterwards they displayed an incredible increase in intelligence and a capacity for learning. Though still animals in shape, they were far smarter than their feral counterparts. These were called wargs.
The second were originally human who were enhanced with animal genetic material. By restructuring their fundamental genetic code they became something between human and beast. It provided them with the ability to shift between one form and the other, granted them the strength and ferocity of their animal base, while retaining most of their human intellect. These were called wendigos.
Both types were on display in the milling horde outside of Sandspire.
Their leaders stood at the front. Visually they didn’t look any different from the wild creatures that were common in the wastes, but their intelligence and ability to communicate with their own kind made them capable leaders.
They reminded him of the Rat King Cloudhawk encountered with the Tartarus Mercenaries. Now the other sort who could speak with them, those were wendigos. They were fundamentally different species, but had enough in common that they made for good allies.
Blackwater Base, the place they came from, was destroyed.
Cloudhawk remembered when Hyena led the animals Roste had experimented on out into the wild. There were only a few hundred of them then. Only five years later and now there was ten thousand. He counted at least five hundred wendigo as well. They multiplied like a plague, and Cloudhawk worried that what he saw now was just a fraction of their numbers.
Roste’s fears back then were well-founded.
Wargs or wendigo, they were uniquely adapted to life in the wastelands. Half a decade and the scale of their expansion was nothing short of incredible. What about in a hundred years? What about a thousand? What would that mean for humanity?
Letting Hyena go was like opening pandora’s box. Cloudhawk was never more aware of that fact than right now.
With their intelligence and ability to communicate with their own kind, they were able to lead packs of even normal mutant animals. They melded seamlessly into the wastes and could call together an army in short order.
Cloudhawk would never have believed it until he saw it with his own eyes. Suddenly he regretted not listening to the Academician. He simply never understood how fast these monsters would reproduce.
But what to do now? No use crying over spilt milk, the old books said.
“Release our King, or you will all die!”
The wendigo were becoming impatient. Behind them the myriad creatures shuffled in angry anticipation. However, they made no move to attack and constrained themselves to levying threats. After all, somewhere inside was their King. If these vile humans killed him, it would be a tremendous loss for their kind.
Hellflower peered into the distance at the shocking scene. Her eyes were wide, and she even wiped her goggles to make sure it wasn’t a trick. “Woah. That sure is something. Life… uh... finds a way.” 
“The fuck are you talking about? We’re the ones who created this mess!” Cloudhawk glared at her, his tone displeased. “This is a disaster of our own making.”
Hellflower remained unmoved. “I wouldn’t say so. Look at it another way: We are responsible for the beginning of a new era. How can we be sure that these intelligent creatures will cause harm rather than good?”
Cloudhawk didn’t know how to respond. Was this horde of snarling monsters not proof enough that her words were bullshit?
“When these beasts were given intelligence they lost their feral nature by definition. Over time they will come to rely more on their wits – and that comes with both benefits and weaknesses.” Hellflower waved her hand toward Sand Viper. “Bring the Wendigo King here.”
Sand Viper shot Cloudhawk a glance. He nodded his consent. Cloudhawk was curious where Hellflower was going with this.
2. I had to.