Scalding winds burned the brush along the wastelands borderlands a withered yellow. During the dry season there wasn’t a drop of water to be found for tens of kilometers around.
A caravan of vehicles were passing through, most of them animal-driven carts. They were all roughly the same size, pulled not by ugly wasteland beasts but single-horned snow white horses.
Banners flapped in the harsh winds, sporting thorny blooms on a field of green with a crimson bottom. Thirty caravan guards followed, clad in armor that bore the same thorny insignia and adjustable weapons from the elysian lands. Standard equipment around the holy city.
An old man with a head full of white hair reaching to his shoulders led the procession. The years had carved deep trenches on his face, but despite his age he was full of strength and vitality. A silken, well-tailored robe hung on his body and was embroidered with the same bethorned image. In his right hand he had a string of precious stones like a bracelet that he absently rolled between his fingers. The gems were worn but still glimmered in the light.
It was all the same: The family emblem, the carts, and the weapons. Their haul consisted of various ores, leathers, and medicines that spoke to who these strangers were. Bloomnettle Company, an unassuming trade collective from Skycloud. Old Thistle was its founder.
Citizens of Skycloud were naturally prideful, especially when compared with the poisoned wastelands. That blasted landscape was a place of carnage, rife with the derelict and the filthy. Skycloud’s ban on traveling through the evil place only compounded their innate distaste.
Old Thistle was a citizen of the holy city, one with a head for business. He knew that the wastelands was rife with ores and leathers no man laid claim to. Gathering them up and bringing them back to the elysian lands was surely a profitable venture, he thought. Out here in the margins people didn’t have the same distaste for the wastelands, regulations weren’t so strict.
Old Thistle established the Bloomnettle Company out here on the border, where they could exist in the space between wasteland and elysian territory. Out here they could perform their due diligence in regards to the holy city without violating their stringent laws while also avoiding having to deal with the more savage elements of the wastelands. However, it also had an effect on their status among the people. Old Thistle was in his seventies and knew the time for his retirement was fast approaching. He needed to become a legitimate business man.
“Eh?” He stopped fiddling with the bracelet suddenly. He looked all around and when he failed to find the face he was looking for, he called out to the guard captain. “Where’d Squall go?”
The guard captain called back. “I think he said he was gonna scout ahead.”
“This kid’s always screwin’ around!” The old man’s face bore an annoyed yet affectionate expression. He’d never had a child of his own but Squall was one of the orphans that had come under his care. Adopted or no he was a very talented young man. Old Thistle himself had spent half his life as a merchant, despised by the Skycloud’s. The task of bringing honor to his family name fell on this kid. “It’s different out here, not like the holy city… The situation has been getting more dangerous. One person running around on their own is liable to get into trouble, take a few people and go find him.”
The guard captain responded with a wry smirk. “You still don’t get it, Chief. Young master Squall went through the demonhunter selection process already. He isn’t one of them yet, but he’s already got more skill than all the rest of us. You still think he needs us to protect him?”
This made the old man’s wrinkled face stretch into a prideful smile.
Demonhunter, what an honorable title. A man like him, who’d lived out here in the space between poverty and affluence, looked up to their kind with great respect. Now one of his own was found to have their talents and may one day call himself one of them. He could die in peace with that knowledge.
“Squall might be skilled, but he isn’t experienced. Go take a look.”
Suddenly a voice called out from ahead.
“Father! Come quickly!”
A young man around seventeen or eighteen was toward the group. He looked both clever and capable, with average features. His unnaturally gray hair was on the long side so he had it tied back behind his head in a ponytail. His bronzed skin had the marks of long years out in the open air, lending to his hale demeanor.
He was pointing at a boulder not far away. There were two people huddled behind it, one male and one female.
The girl was about thirteen and wore very simple clothing. Her hair was tousled, her face was dirty; altogether she looked in a bad way but her eyes were bright and watchful. Timid, frightened, she watched the strangers approach.
Her companion wore a mask that hid his face and made it hard to tell his age, but his body was thin and small. Based just on that he gave the impression of also being young. He was laid out on the rock like he was unconscious.
She held a knife out in front of her and waved it with jerky, panicked motions. “Don’t come any closer!”
The young boy who found them gave her a searching look. He could tell that underneath the grit she was quite pretty. He was unavoidably curious. “Don’t be afraid little miss, we aren’t bad people. That soldier you’re with looks hurt.”
Soldier was a fair assumption, since the unconscious man was clad in Skycloud armor. It was standard equipment for those in service to the holy city, but its materials and craftsmanship was too complex for any outside armorer to copy. Trying to copy or steal a suit of Skycloud armor was a dire violation of their laws and would at the very least lead to banishment.
Squall, Old Thorn and the guards all assumed he had to be a soldier, but what was he doing all the way out here? His masterful protection was caked in dirt and smeared with filth, enough for at least twenty-something days out in the wilds. He had to have come from the wastelands.
The girl didn’t look or dress like she was from the elysian lands, either.
Old Thistle and the guard captain carefully looked over the one dressed as a soldier. Even unconscious he was holding tight to one of the unique elysian weapons issued by their military. It had seen some heavy use, judging by the nicks and dents. Had he been out here on a mission and gotten hurt? He’d gotten this far, almost back home before passing out.
Old Thistle cast a sidelong glance at the guard captain. “Have the doctor come take a look.”
Squall tried to approach the girl but, startled, she started waving her dagger at him. When it got close enough he reached out and plucked the weapon out of her hands between his fingers. He followed with a series of showy flourishes and said, “Don’t be scared. We won’t hurt you.”
She was drawn away from her unconscious friend. She looked back at them pale as a sheet and trembling, so pure and innocent.
The Bloomnettle Company’s physician showed up a few moments later, a tall and slender woman who held herself with a rigid posture. She started by removing the mysterious soldier’s mask. Everyone was surprised to discover that the face beneath it was even younger than Squall’s. He had to be around fifteen or sixteen years old.
So young. How on earth was he a soldier?
The doctor looked him over for a little while and eventually turned back to the others. “I can’t see any serious issues, just long term dehydration. He passed out because of it. That said I find him to be very suspicious, I don’t think we should get involved in whatever’s going on here.”
“Well now that we’ve stepped in it we might as well make certain. Maybe it’ll earn us some good karma.” The bracelet clattered as he rolled the beads between his fingers one by one. He indicated to the others around him with a wave of his hand. “Put him on one of the carts.”
As for the girl, her terrified eyes watched as the strangers lifted her friend and took him away. She was certainly frightened, but she followed all the same. It seemed that the old man among them seemed friendly.
It was a common sight. The wastelands and elysian territories were different worlds. To the people of the holy land, wastelanders were synonymous with filth and sin. Even the merchants weren’t happy to have to deal with them.
Well, but for one exception.
Young Squall didn’t seem to have any qualms. He didn’t waste much time trying to get close to the strange young girl. “What’s your name?”
She was exceptionally guarded. She stared at him with her wide eyes, too frightened to speak.
“You don’t need to be nervous.” Squall was close enough that he could see her cracked and blistered lips – the signs of severe dehydration. He pulled his canteen off his waist and offered it to her. “Are you thirsty? Have some water.”
Her fear toward people of the holy city ran deep, but she was after all just a young girl. The burning thirst in her throat was almost more than she could take. She couldn’t withstand the temptation of the water he offered, so she snatched the canteen and drank deeply of its contents.
His lips turned in a friendly smile. “Now can you tell me your name?”
The girl didn’t dare drink more than she already had before responding. She paused for a few moments, weighing the options. “Asha.”
Squall nodded. “Good name. Who gave it to you?”
His question opened an old wound. A carefree, kind, devout face swam in her memories – her foster father. It was quickly followed by the mass of bruises and the melted flesh that he became at the hands of a crazed mob.
Squall recognized the pain that flit across her face. He quickly changed the subject. “Is that soldier your friend? What’s his name?”
Asha was young, but she wasn’t stupid. When she heard him misidentify her friend as a soldier she was careful not to break the illusion. Her answer was clipped and simple. “His name is Cloudhawk. He’s a good man!”
Several members of the caravan heard her impassioned answer. Cloudhawk? That was a strange name… a wastelander’s name.
“Squall! Come here!”
Old Thistle wasn’t pleased with how close his young charge was getting to the wastelander girl. After all, he was destined to be a demonhunter. No honorable member of their order could be allowed to carry on with the likes of her.
Squall shrugged helplessly, but dutifully trotted over to his father.
Old Thistle, Squall, the guard captain and the doctor huddled together and spoke in hushed tones.
The doctor clearly didn’t like the idea of keeping them around. “We gave them water and the boy isn’t hurt. We have no idea who he is, but if he isn’t who he appears to be he’s going to cause us trouble.”
Old Thistle nodded in agreement. “What do the two of you think?”
The guard captain was next to air his opinion. “Far as I see it the fewer things we need to deal with, the better. Besides our food and water is limited. More people means less for us, and if for some reason our schedule gets delayed that deficit is gonna cost us.”
“Be that as it may we’ve already picked them up. We can’t just throw ‘em back out in the desert.” Squall chimed in. “We’re two days’ journey from the Sandbar. I think we should bring them along, wait for the guy to wake up so we can figure out who he is. If he’s a soldier we’ve done a good deed for the holy city, and if he’s a deserter or traitor then we’ve bagged a criminal. Even if we saved someone who didn’t deserve it, worst case scenario we lose ‘em at the Sandbar.”
The small council exchanged thoughtful glances. He had a point. They might as well stick to the plan!
The caravan continued along their way. However, only a few minutes had passed when the rolling sound of thunder reached their ears.
No, not thunder. It was the sound of several hundred hooves beating the ground. It was loud as a hurricane and the caravaners craned their necks toward the noise with wide eyes. They knew what that sound meant.
One of them shouted.
“Shit. The Highwaymen!”Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Two announcements to make! One, to celebrate the start of book 2 speeding up the regular rate from 'one a day' to 'one a day, two on Saturday and Sunday'. So we're going from 7 a week to 9 a week! Second, this weekend we'll be opening up advance chapters to those who appreciate this (very hard to translate) book and are willing to support it for a slightly earlier look. Cheers!