Cloudhawk was now the official leader of Greenland City.
The typical wasteland community was loosely associated and largely backwards, with its denizens generally primitive and only having simple wants. For these reasons, transforming Greenland City into a regional powerhouse would not be easy. Luckily for Cloudhawk, he had a lot of capable help and a core of strong fighters to back him up. It meant his orders were followed without much conflict. The unexpected arrival of Dawn and her people in particular impacted Greenland City on all fronts.
In a corner of the city, nestled in a shack, were three mutants. They lived antisocial lives and kept to themselves, but that wasn’t because they had acerbic personalities. Not all mutants were stupid and violent.
The Copperhide family was an example of high-functioning, intelligent mutants. Copperhide himself was over thirty years old and two meters tall. He probably weighed seven hundred pounds, sturdy as a boulder. Every inch of his tough skin was covered in a thick, hard cuticle-like layer as thick as a rhino’s. Most bullets left little more than a scar, and it protected him from the harsh sunlight of the wastes.
Stonepetal was Copperhide’s wife. She was smaller than her husband, but small was a relative term. Stonepetal was nearly two meters herself and five hundred pounds of muscle. It would take two grown men together to match her size, and she could probably hammer the guts out of an ordinary man with one punch.
They had one child, Ironspike. While mutant households were a rare sight in wasteland cities, they did exist. Ironspike was nine years old and was already over a hundred pounds. He was capable of lifting things three times his own weight and had inherited his father’s tough skin. Even at his tender age the young mutant could hold his own against many wild animals.
Both Copperhide and Stonepetal were enormously strong. Ordinary wasteland beasts were no threat to them and most people steered clear. By all rights it should have been an easy life, but things were not so simple.
Every since coming to Greenland City, they’d been struggling to make ends meet. More than once they nearly starved, and for a very simple reason.
The family was a capable one – even at nine years old, Ironspike was strong and helpful. But their incredible size and strength came with an equivalent appetite. Such hunger in a place with limited food was more lethal than any physical weakness.
Their family of three ate as much as ten strong men, and even that was barely enough to survive. Food enough to feed fifteen men might be enough to meet their needs, but if really they wanted full bellies twenty servings would do the trick. It was a massive amount of food!
Copperhide worked hard ever since they settled here. Every day he went out with the hunting parties, tracking down dangerous prey. Stonepetal found work in town doing grueling jobs others couldn’t handle. Even Ironspike spent his days working, taking hide and fur to market.
They worked from morning to night, laboring to exhaustion just for enough food. When would their struggle end, just for a full belly? Such was the life they led.
“I’m back.” Copperhide dragged half a deer carcass into the shack. Ironspike and Stonepetal had been resting inside. Ironspike’s belly rumbled when he smelled the fresh meat.
“That’s it?” Stonepetal scowled. “That’s not nearly enough. You’re getting more and more useless! You probably ate half of it on the way home!”
“We ran into a group of nasty beasts. This was all I could snatch from their mouths. Look, I’ve got the wounds on my back to prove it.” Copperhide frowned, upset at the accusations. He turned to show her his injuries. He worked hard to put food on their table, and didn’t deserve his wife’s suspicion. In fact the more he thought about it, the angrier he became. “Hell, you haven’t left the house to do anything in days. All you do is sit here and complain about what I bring home. How am I supposed to get enough for us all on my own?”
Stonepetal flew into a fury. While they were intelligent mutants, they were still more irascible than average humans. “Don’t you know anything?! The new leader is snatching up children. If I didn’t stay home to protect him, then you wouldn’t be able to go hunt!”
Copperhide was about to respond but stopped. He’d heard Greenland’s new leader had some sort of demon power. Word was he had to devour a child every night to keep himself strong. That’s why he ordered every child in the city gathered together. They were raised like cattle so that he could consume their life force.
It wasn’t clear where this rumor started, but it scared Copperhide and his family deeply. They’d seen what the new leader could do. That sort of power didn’t come from the wastelands. It could only come from demons. After hearing those dark rumors, both Copperhide and Stonepetal decided to keep Ironspike hidden away.
But this was unsustainable! They couldn’t live like this! They had to eat! Copperhide was stuck.
“That’s not what I heard!” The young mutant piped up. “I heard the new leader is a good man. He had the children living in a special place now where they’re trained and don’t have to work. They’re given plenty of food and water.”
“I’m so hungry here! I want to go!”
“Who told you that?” Copperhide glared at him. “You think such a good thing really exists? I’ve met the new leader, and he’s a demon. If not, then how does he have a demon’s powers? If you go you’ll just be waiting for him to eat your heart!”
Ironspike hesitated. “If that’s true-”
“Enough!” She slapped Ironspike across his head. “From now on you’re staying here in this house, and if I catch you trying to leave I’ll break your legs! Now eat!”
The humble household settled down for a meal. Mutants often didn’t care if their meals were cooked or not. Stonepetal tore off a fatty deer leg and handed it to her son, still dripping with blood. Ironspike was so hungry he was at the verge of passing out, so when it was shoved his way he tore into it with relish. Before long it was gnawed down to the bone.
Half a deer was enough for a week for a family of average folk. For the three mutants, it was hardly enough for a meal. For a growing boy like Ironspike, a deer leg simply wasn’t enough.
Copperhide or Stonepetal had no solution to their predicament. They’d tried everything, but food was scarce. This was the wastelands, after all, so sustenance was hard for everyone. Another day alive was good enough. But it didn’t escape them that the amount of food they were bringing back was decreasing by the day, and with it their strength. It was a vicious cycle. Eventually, Copperhide wouldn’t have the strength to hunt and they would die.
No one knew what would happen from one day to the next, even in a community like this. You had to have the strength to protect yourself. Copperhide was urged on by a strong will to survive, something every wasteland felt through their whole lives.
The next day, before dawn.
Copperhide heard steps outside their shack, drawing closer. He instantly went on alert and all grogginess fled his mind. It was a skill anyone who lived in the wastelands learned. He went to the door and pulled it open, only to find a dozen armored soldiers waiting outside.
These were the demon leader’s own men. They were terrifying killers in their own right.
“We’re the Governor’s men,” one of the soldiers said, identifying himself. “We heard you were hiding a child here and didn’t want him to undergo training.”
Copperhide was nervous. “No! You heard wrong!”
But they had already looked into the shack and saw the child huddling inside. “Under the Governor’s new rules, every child under fourteen must submit themselves for training. We’re here to enforce his orders, so please give us your child.”
Copperhead angrily reached for his cudgel. “That demon wants to eat my boy!”
“What are you talking about?” The soldiers looked at one another, puzzled. “That’s a ridiculous rumor. The Governor’s gathered these children so we can train them. We see to their growth and make sure they’re fed. This is a good thing we’re doing. You need to trust us.”
But Copperhide was no fool. No one got anything for free!
The Talon soldiers had begun to run out of patience. This wasn’t the first place where they’d encountered trouble like this. Better to just force the mutant’s submission. “Our patience is limited. Bring the child out now, or we’ll go in and take him.”
Copperhead looked them over. These weren’t typical wastelander thugs, they were soldiers from Skycloud. Average Skycloud warriors were bad enough, much less this lot which trained under General Skye. Any one of them were the cream of the crop. If they really wanted to cause harm, Copperhide couldn’t stop them.
“I’ll go!” Ironspike strode forward.
Copperhide looked at him in fury and surprise. “What the hell are you doing?! Get back here!”
“Maybe they’re telling the truth. I saw Blackswine the other day and he said the exact same thing.”
Copperhide and his wife weren’t sure what to do. Blackswine was another child who lived nearby and had a friendly relationship with their boy. He was an orphan who survived by collecting scraps. They knew he’d been snatched up early when they were first starting to take children. Were the ones that demon captured really still alive?
Were the rumors he was eating their hearts untrue?
Ironspike had chosen to ignore his parents. He made a decision to follow these soldiers. If he stayed in that shack eventually he would die of hunger. Better he saw the truth of these rumors himself.
So terrifying were these rumors that Copperhide never made an effort to see if the story was real. When they went with the soldiers to deliver Ironspike and saw the place for themselves, their faces were stiff from disbelief.
The doors were etched in simple wasteland script: Greenland Institute.
It was the name for an entire campus where hundreds of children were housed. There weren’t any walls, nor guards, nor anything to make it seem like they were being forced to stay here at all. They arrived around morning and saw soldiers cooking up gruel from enormous pots.
Lines of children were waiting obediently for their portions. The inviting scent of food made Copperhide and Stonepetal dizzy.
All of this… put together after just a few days? Copperhide stared wide-eyed at this paradise. All at once, the nasty rumors about their new leader were put to rest. Stonepetal was sold when she was assured that her son would be given all the food he needed for free every day. And what’s more, he would then be trained and made strong by these mighty soldiers.
With the truth in plain view, Stonepetal immediately started shouting abuse at her husband. If that idiot hadn’t paid attention to those outlandish rumors they’d have found this out much earlier! All these days of hunger and fear for nothing!
Copperhide didn’t lose his temper this time. He also regretted listening to the stories. All of this only made him more curious about their new leader. What sort of person was he really? How was he so different from the ones who came before?
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