The press of angry creatures milled before the city, but did not attack. Such a strange and fantastic scene had never been witnessed by Sandspire’s denizens before. Even the old drunk – a man who cared for little anymore – was stunned by what he saw. He wasn’t sure what to expect.
Ten minutes later…
Four burly men ascended the wall bearing an iron cross. The Wendigo King’s hulking form was strapped to it. The wounds he’d suffered were too grave for him to break free, so there he hung limp in his half-human, half-beast form. His matted white fur rustled in the hot breeze. Gasping breaths revealed a maw thick with razor-sharp teeth. Dazzling green eyes were half-hidden beneath drooping lids, but even though he was beaten the air of majesty still clung to him. He looked like a prize lion, captured but not broken.
The angry howls slowly subsided as all eyes turned to their beleaguered king. Some breathed sighs in discovering that he was still alive. There was still a chance to claw him back.
Hellflower glanced briefly at the horde. She then drew her pistol, pulled back the hammer, pressed it to Hyena’s chest and pulled the trigger. A gush of blood sprayed out over her face.
The animal hordes went mad.
Roars thick with fury were so loud they shook Sandspire’s gates. The standoff was on the verge of getting out of hand.
As the sea of swiping claws and gnashing teeth reached a fever pitch, Sand Viper and his men were nearly faint from terror. This crazy woman was consigning them to death! If she wanted to throw her own life away that was fine, but she was dragging them down with her!
Hellflower paid no mind to the frenzied beasts below. With slow, deliberate movements she raised her gun and placed it against the Wendigo King’s temple.
Silence. Utter stillness as the king’s subjects watched with baited breath. Wargs growled their commands, ordering the angry masses to be still.
Her initial shot had not killed Hyena. A marksmen of her rare ability had complete control of where her bullets went, so she made sure the first shot avoided anything important. The damage to the Wendigo King was minimal, but it served to shock the wild hordes below like a bolt of lightning.
Cloudhawk was beginning to see her plan. Wild animals couldn’t be stopped, but these monsters were smart enough to know consequences. They feared their actions would lead to the death of their king. It was an important distinction from the beasts they once were.
“If you really want your king to live, then you’ll leave at once!” Hellflower pressed the barrel roughly against Hyena’s skull. In her other hand was a loudspeaker she used to call out to the creatures. “Death is what you’re here for, but I’m curious what’s more important – the death of your king or killing all of us.”
“Hellflower!” The Wendigo King growled through gritted teeth. “Pull the trigger, if you think you’ve got the balls.”
After four years, the king knew his subjects well.
Even if their minds had been enhanced and their intelligence improved, they were still nothing like that of a human’s. At best it gave them the ability of basic thought and knowing right from wrong. For some they even learned how to use weapons.
But beasts would always be beasts. Wargs didn’t have the same capacity for thought and logic that humans did. They would never have wargs taking on roles of scientists, mathematicians or philosophers. Just the process of creating a written language would be a laborious one. Where humans could built themselves a civilization in a hundred years, it would take wargs a thousand.
In short, wargs were undeveloped and inexperienced. Their intelligence was comparable to a human in their early teens, with the logic and comprehension of a group of honest but immature children. It was a volatile combination when paired with their natural savagery.
The Wendigo King was a major figure in warg society. By visibly putting him in danger, Hellflower stole all the power from the beasts.
A bull-headed wendigo raised his voice. “Release our king!”
“I want you to understand that this is not a negotiation. Don’t waste your breath making demands.” To emphasis her point, Hellflower fired another slug into the Wendigo King’s thigh. She pressed the sizzling muzzle back to his temple. “Anyone else have any thoughts they’d like to share?”
The wargs were frozen in shock, while the wendigos whispered in conference to plan their next move.
Hellflower applied some pressure to the trigger. “You’re really starting to try my patience!”
A palpable anxiety filled the air. The Wendigo King summoned his strength to shout, “Don’t believe her! She won’t pull the trigger. Humans are skilled liars and cheats. Pay her no mind! Attack!”
But a deadly light took root in Hellflower’s eyes. “Take. One. Step.”
“Don’t hurt our king!” The bull-headed wendigo ground his teeth in fury. “We will leave!”
She’d left them no choice. With their king in their vile grasp they could do nothing but comply with her demands. Perhaps their master in the south would provide guidance.
Eventually the horde receded into the ruins like a tide. Defenders along Sandspire’s walls watched in disbelief. Incredible! Thousands of creatures were repelled from their city without a single man killed.
“See? Simple.” Hellflower returned her gun to its holster and smirked at Cloudhawk. “They aren’t animals anymore. They’re people in a beastly skin and even easier to deal with. Animals are animals, so without more intelligent leadership we don’t need a genius like Wolfblade or Arcturus to handle them. Little ol’ me can manage just as well.”
Cloudhawk was speechless. He wasn’t totally onboard with her thought process.
Different species saw things differently. It was true they gave up some things in gaining intelligence, but if there was one thing Cloudhawk was sure of it was this; never underestimate the potential of life. If these creatures were permitted to spread at the rate they were going, who knew what sort of impact it would have on the world?
The Wendigo King glared daggers at Hellflower. “You better pray I don’t get my hands on you, woman. I’ll make sure you know what brutality really means.”
Hellflower answered with a flippant shrug. “If I were you, I’d be focusing my thoughts on getting out of here alive.”
Something about her words calmed him. A strange fire danced behind his green eyes and when he spoke again it was in a frigid tone. “And if I were you, I’d kill me now. You’ll just be releasing me in a few days.”
“You’re dreaming.” Cloudhawk scowled at Hyena like he was some kind of idiot. “Release you? Might as well just sit back and wait for you to come back with your fuzzy friends if we did that. As far as I can see, you should be settling in to spend the rest of your life here.”
Cloudhawk couldn’t afford to let the Wendigo King go. But he couldn’t kill him, either.
He’d underestimated these beasts. What’s more, it looked like Hyena and his crew merely served as the front lines. The real power behind them was still a mystery Cloudhawk didn’t know anything about. He had to be careful.
If things got too out of hand he could always bring Hyena back to Greenland City. They had enchantments there to protect them. Invaders would have a hard time breaking through.
But having a backup plan didn’t give them the right to be careless. Cloudhawk ordered Hellflower to make sure Sandspire’s defenses were bolstered. Those beasts had all sorts and they could attack from the air, from underground, or find other ways to infiltrate the city. If they wanted to, they would find a way in and once they did no human would survive.
So be it. Cloudhawk would stay here with Hyena for a few more days and help Sandspire fend off any more creature attacks.
Although the plan seemed passive on Cloudhawk’s part, it was the beast army that grew more anxious every day. They had to suffer an inferior position as they waited for word of their king. Certainly they were strong enough to tear the human city apart, but to do so would undoubtedly bring ruin down on Hyena.
Every day that passed the problem only grew. Among the beasts there were only a handful of really intelligent leaders – maybe one in ten. Most of the horde consisted wild beasts under control from the others with some level of wisdom. But wild beasts weren’t known for discipline. After a few days going hungry, would they so easily follow commands? It was only a matter of time before the horde tore itself apart.
But just as Cloudhawk’s delaying tactics were about to succeed, the situation changed.
Night fell on another day of anxious waiting. A dark, sleek, egg-shaped ship slowly settled in the sky above Sandspire. Its ominous appearance was quickly noticed and the city’s denizens trembled in fear.
Many scientists called Sandspire home. Their work here often involved mechanical engineering, so it was a subject they knew well. It was obvious to them right away that this ship was like nothing they’d seen in the wastelands before.
It spoke volumes about wherever place it’d come from.
Ten figures encased in dark armor exited the ship. Each one radiated with power and regareded the denizens of Sandspire with callous expressions.
Cloudhawk sensed the relics among them right away. This was a group of godslayers. Based on how they held themselves and the aura they produced he figured they were as capable as Templars.
Templars were the result of hundreds of years of cultural development in Skycloud. They were the ultimate defensive force of the realm. Judging by the look of these newcomers, they were just as deadly. While they were few in number, Cloudhawk was convinced they could do just as much damage. A unit like this wasn’t put together over night. The Conclave of Judgment had nothing to rival this.
When they approached, Cloudhawk felt fear take root in his heart. Had the dark hand behind the southern power finally showed itself?
The group of godslayers split, making a path for one figure wholly different from the rest. He was exceptionally tall, muscled, and enveloped in pitch black full-plate armor. His head was hidden beneath a helmet that fused completely with the rest of the suit. Whatever material his armor was made from was a mystery. It was smooth and glossy, as though he were wearing a black mirror.
His footfalls were heavy, proving the weight of his equipment. The sound of his breathing rasping through the mask was audible even from a distance . All that was visible of the man within was a pair of glowing red eyes that filled everyone they fell on with a sense of dread.
A coal-black cloak was draped over his shoulders and flowed behind him like a living shadow.
Cloudhawk felt his heart begin to race. Every hair on his body was standing on end as an internal voice screamed through his mind: Danger! Danger! This one is major trouble!
But who the hell was he? Cloudhawk was at a loss, he wasn’t even sure whatever hid behind that armor was even human.
At Cloudhawk’s currently level of power there were a scant handful who made him feel this unsafe.
Was this one the big fish?
Cloudhawk tried his best to hold the mysterious and dangerous stranger’s gaze. “Who are you?”
The armored man stared back at Cloudhawk through the helmet. A mask within changed his voice, spitting out an uncomfortable and digitized facsimile. There was exactly nothing human about it.
“They call me the Khan of Evernight. That is how you may address me.”
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