Like a roaring yellow earth dragon the cloud came roiling over them. Dense and thick, the choking sands spread over a vast area. Like ten thousand trampling elephants the thunderous sound swallowed up the wasteland, as spectacular as it was formidable.
Gusts of wind were like knives and each grain of sand stabbed like a blade. Day became night, and for two hours the wrath of nature held sway.
The sandstorm had passed relatively quickly but sunlight couldn’t permeate the dust-muddled air. So shrouded and chaotic was the scene that one couldn’t see ten meters in front of their nose.
Stranger Black, Vulture and Longhorn had just arrived at the scene of the chase. Their sweepers had scattered to avoid the sandstorm and were busily trying to gather back together and resume their search.
“Did they really slip away again?” Vulture beat his large wings, enough to keep him suspended in the air. “They’re badly injured, have no water or food and they ran headfirst into a goddamn sandstorm. Barring some miracle they have to be dead.”
“If they’re alive, we hunt them down. If they’re dead, we get their corpses.” Stranger Black was able to speak again, though clearly his newly formed nerves were still adapting. He spoke and moved sluggishly. “The sandstorm probably erased any trail so we’ll have to expand the search area. Letting them get away again is not an option.”
Cloudhawk clawed his way out from the sand-filled rubble, gasping for breath. He hacked violently to try and expel the sand from his lungs while pulling the Queen out of hiding.
“Wake up – let’s go, wake up!”
He pulled off her mask and gave her back a few sharp slaps, to which the Queen answered by coughing up a mouthful of half-congealed blood. Her pretty face was caked in grime and streaked with blood, framed by hair that had lost its glossy shine to a film of dirt. Her wretched state inspired pity.
The Queen’s eyelashes quavered for a moment as she struggled to open her eyes. Grave as her injuries were, the demonhunter’s eyes were as bright as starlight glinting off a lake surface. Like invaluable gemstones they had an enigmatic, almost mystical attraction.
She looked all around them curiously. “I’m still alive?”
“Fuck, of course you’re still alive!” Cloudhawk beamed happily. “All throughout my shit life I’ve been able to scrape my way out of hopeless situations like this!”
She pursed her parched lips and said lifelessly, “I guess I should thank you.”
Cloudhawk didn’t let it get to his head. He may have saved their lives for the time being, but they weren’t out of the woods yet. He had been under assault from the wilds to the outpost to now. Wounds peppered him from head to toe. His healing prowess stitched the wounds but did not eliminate the risk of infection. He just hoped his body would be able to hold out.
Cloudhawk hadn’t had an opportunity to close his eyes for two whole days and nights. Even his natural affinity for healing required energy and he hadn’t had so much as a scrap of food or a drop of water. He was exhausted, drained, hungry and thirsty – and the Queen was worse off. How could they get to safety under these conditions?
Cloudhawk croaked through his dry throat at the Queen. “Can you move?”
The Bloodsoaked Queen stretched and twisted, trying her beleaguered muscles, but couldn’t get herself to stand. Her outward wounds weren’t terrible – relatively shallow punctures in her chest, shoulder and thigh. She was certainly strong enough to handle those. What threatened her life were the internal injuries, damage to her organs from the blow Longhorn had given her. If she’d been almost anyone else the punch would have powdered her bones. The fact she was still breathing was nothing short of extraordinary.
“Nothing we can do about it, then. Rest, try and feel better.” He scanned the horizon. “After the sandstorm I figure it’ll be a little while before they find us again. I’ll look around nearby and see if I can find us some water.”
Both of them were on the cusp of dehydration. With no water or liquid alternative, Cloudhawk couldn’t go far even if he were twice as strong. Finding something to drink in the wastelands was difficult on the best of days, and especially difficult after a sandstorm.
Cloudhawk knew their chances were slim to none, but he had to try. What option did he have? If he didn’t find some water they would die!
Feebly he stumbled into the wastes. Now that the sandstorm had passed the temperature was steadily rising, and the wasteland became a sauna. It was quickly sapping what little fluid Cloudhawk had left in him. His vision had begun to grow dim, and the dunes beneath his feet seemed to undulate. Legs shook like blades of grass in the breeze, threatening to give out at any moment.
Everywhere he looked he saw rocks and sand. Not even a single sad weed could be found. Things were bad. Things were really bad.
Just as Cloudhawk was beginning to give in to his despair, he caught a glimpse of something. His eyes went wide as he realized what was right in front of him. It was the body of the mutant centipede, the one the Bloodsoaked Queen had burned to death.
The meat of the creature was toxic, and poison flowed through its meat like blood. It was inedible to humans, but that didn’t mean it was inedible to everything. A group of strange creatures had appeared around the body, each one roughly fifteen to twenty kilograms. The fur that covered it was the same as its surroundings making them hard to spot from a distance. Sharp claws and teeth glinted in the harsh light of day, and they used them to carve out scraps that weren’t dipped in poison.
Meat eating scourge hares! Mutant rabbits!
These creatures ate meat, but they preferred insects. They were timid by nature and didn’t often go after things bigger than themselves. Scourge hares were fast, faster even than rotwolves, so chasing them down was no easy task.
Cloudhawk was in no condition to be chasing rabbits around the desert. He doubted he could even run if he had to. What to do!
Perhaps he could throw a rock and kill one?
It was the best plan he could come up with, but the rabbits were vigilant. There wasn’t any cover to hide himself while he snuck up to them so Cloudhawk likely couldn’t get closer than thirty or forty meters. Too far to be confident of hitting one of the rabbits, much less killing one before they got away.
But it was his only shot! For him and the Queen, the difference between living and dying could be his success right now.
Cloudhawk only had his exorcist staff as a weapon. He’d used his revolver on the rat king, but in the ensuing struggle had lost it somewhere.
But wait! He had another relic!
When he passed through that mysterious, unknown realm Cloudhawk had pilfered two artifacts from the remains he found. Up till now he hadn’t tried to use them and didn’t know what they did.
Only, whatever these relics were they were of a much higher caliber than his exorcist staff. He had enough willpower left to try one, he figured. But which?
His cloak hadn’t shown any special qualities so far, though it was tough and protective. Neither arrow nor sword had been able to pierce it, yet. In fact it’d already saved his life. He decided to give it a shot and pour what power he had remaining into the cloak.
He shut his eyes and opened his mind, seeking resonance with the relic.
Immediately he sensed that the cloak was of much higher quality than the exorcist staff. Using the novice weapon once or twice was doable, but this time communicating with the relic took several times the effort. Eventually he achieved that resonance, and it began to quiver and vibrate.
Much to Cloudhawk’s surprise he suddenly felt much lighter, like resistance from air and gravity were gone. All of a sudden he felt like he could bound ten meters in a single stride. As the seconds ticked by the inky black cloak dulled. Rather, it was more accurate to say it vanished.
He wrapped the cloak around himself and peered down at his body, only to find he could look right through where his ass should be to the sand below. This relic made him lighter, removed obstructions, bent light around him and made him faster.
Cloudhawk wanted to smack himself in his own stupid face! If only he’d known he wouldn’t be so far up shit creek!
He experimented for a few moments, unhurried, before discovering the vibration of the cloak wither and die. It appeared the effects lasted only for a dozen seconds or so, meaning he had to pay close attention to timing. He flung the hood over his head and wrapped himself in his cloak, and all of a sudden he was gone.
Cloudhawk moved quickly but made no sound. He was hardly adept at sneaking, so from time to time a length of his leg or a portion of face was revealed. It was more than strange to have disembodied limbs and features appear out of nowhere only to vanish again a second later. He inched toward the scourge hares as quickly as he could.
Several minutes later.
The scent of blood slithered into the Queen’s nostrils. Her eyes fluttered open, and she saw Cloudhawk holding up two fat rabbits in his hands. The hares had large puncture marks in their throats, continuously leaking blood.
“We’re shit outta luck for water, but the blood will keep us from being thirsty. At least it might help us recover some strength.” 
The Queen’s brow wrinkled, apparently displeased with the prospect. This fur-eating, blood-drinking diet was no different from the fiends of the wasteland. She was a noble demonhunter! But there was hardly a smorgasbord to choose from so she was left with the pungent, salty rabbit blood to sate her thirst. He was right, at least it’d help her regain her strength.
Cloudhawk took up the knife and began to flay their meal.
The Queen began to take tentative sips of blood. She already was beginning to feel better. “These wounds on the rabbits look like they were from an exorcist staff. How were you fast enough to get in close enough for a strike?”
“You shouldn’t underestimate me,” Cloudhawk said haughtily. He paused as though thinking of something, then wiped his bloody hands on his clothes and dug something out from within his cloak. It was a gourd; an exquisite specimen about the size of his palm. He handed it to her. “Right, take a look and see if you can tell me how to use this.”
“This is…” She knew it the moment she saw it, its shape and texture was nothing like what they’d find in the wastelands. When she saw a familiar rune etched on the bottom of the gourd she audibly gasped. “How do you have this relic?”
“I found it,” he said, honestly.
“Impossible!” She didn’t believe him for a moment. “This isn’t some low-level trinket, these sorts of relics have to be registered in the holy city. Anywhere, in any city or territory, if a demonhunter’s relic goes missing it’s a big deal. The city would certainly dispatch a team to investigate where it went and recover it. And you just find it lying around?!”
“Yup.” His response was flippant and irritated. “So how the fuck do I use it?”
The Bloodsoaked Queen took a moment to get her emotions under control. Clearly Cloudhawk wasn’t interested in sharing more details. She turned the relic over in her hands a few times, examining every inch closely. Her attention fell on an inscription, god script carved into its surface. “This relic is called the ‘Phoenix Furnace.’ From the inscription we can assume it has to do with fire.” 
Cloudhawk was overtly curious. It was one of the relics he’d come across in the other world, but did that mean these two worlds shared a similar system of writing? It wasn’t a coincidence, it couldn’t be that simple.
He didn’t worry about it now. “Can you use it?”
The Queen’s will was particularly attuned to fire relics. When she cradled the small gourd in her hand Cloudhawk could feel ripples of power radiating from them. He knew it to be a sign that the relic was awakening.
An inferno sputtered to life from within.
The fire itself was strange, rising maybe three or four meters. The fires didn’t melt the gourd, and instead coalesced together into the image of a large-winged phoenix. The mystical bird of fire circled around her.
The Bloodsoaked Queen waved her hand, and at her command the phoenix lunged as though it understood. With breakneck speed it raced toward a boulder and smashed into it. Flames devoured both rock and bird.
“By the almighty gods above…”
“This is an absolutely perfect relic!”
The Queen was so excited that she nearly prostrated herself in worship before the relic. An artifact like this was as excellent as any godly heirloom, and it had somehow fallen into Cloudhawk’s dirty clutches!
That same scummy wastelander stared at the molten boulder in awe. He could sense that the Queen had summoned only a small portion of what the gourd could do, and even that was highly destructive. If she poured all her will into it she would be unthinkably strong.
“Well shit, you seem able to use it. Keep it.”
“You… what did you…” She stared at him with eyes like he was some freak. “Do you have any idea how much this relic is worth?”
“Doesn’t matter how much it’s worth, if I can’t use it then it’s garbage.” He waggled the exorcist staff and went on. “Tit for tat, you gave me something and I’m returning the kindness. I’ll get more use out of the staff than this gourd.”
The Queen was speechless. She could get a hundred exorcist staffs for this relic and it still wouldn’t be enough.
He didn’t care what it was worth. On the one hand he had no concept of what a relic went for in some market, and he couldn’t use it even if he did. Right now the two of them were sailors in the same proverbial busted rowboat. The stronger the Queen was the safer he would be.
Besides, there was another important reason.
Cloudhawk had the nagging feeling that once he could control the mysterious stone in his possession, he’d be able to strafe between worlds at will. He could use that power to search for these discarded artifacts by the resonance they produced. Obviously he couldn’t do that if he was dead, so the first order of business was to make sure he kept breathing. Anything else was not important and could be given up.
1. Gross as this is for many westerners, in the East it isn’t uncommon to eat congealed blood. Human placenta, for example, is used in Chinese medicine. For hot pot they love congealed (duck?) blood the size of sticks of butter. Purportedly it’s very good for your health, but every time I ate it I felt distinctly un-good.
2. Gourds feature heavily in Chinese mythos, representing longevity, prosperity and luck. Here is Gourd Boy, and the song which my students used to irritate me to no end.