Even just the minor tower was big enough to give someone pause. Fifteen meters of sturdy white stone, this tower didn’t have any fancy carvings or artsy construction. Compared to the rest of the house it was simplistic, in an austere military style. The front door was a slab of iron flanked by gold-plated statues of wild beasts in action. Each one had to weigh thousands of kilos, intimidating enough to refuse visitors from hundreds of kilometers away.
The thick and heavy door was a significant impediment to Cloudhawk’s phasing abilities. When he tried to push through it was like being knocked away by thick rubber. But where the door was proving intractable, Cloudhawk chose to try the wall of a nearby corner, which proved much more inviting.
Cloudhawk walked up the carpeted stone steps and into a bedroom. The first thing to greet him was a faint fragrance, and the light of several elegant lamps illuminating the room. A jade bed with a pink gauze canopy along with a silver dresser marked this as a woman’s room.
In the center was a large screen that blocked his view of the rest of the chamber.
The folding screen was ingeniously placed to separate the room down the middle. Its panels were painted with vaulted mountains, precipitous seas and a ferocious beast. The scene had a deep romantic charm, but looking at it filled Cloudhawk with an inexplicable sense of oppression.
Cloudhawk looked around the several hundred-meter large room and saw that it was stuffed full of all manner of things. There were complete suits of armor, a model of a delicate and beautiful rare sword, beast heads mounted on the walls, and beautiful tapestries. Power and beauty, carnage and grace, blood and art – both came together expertly here.
One could not help but wonder what sort of person stayed in this room.
His heart thudded audibly in his chest. Everything he looked at seemed incredibly valuable, he was definitely in the right place. However, even though Cloudhawk had no experience with this level of luxury, he did still have his basic faculties. The splendor of it all didn’t steal his focus so he didn’t just grab the first thing he found. Besides, none of it would be easy to carry out.
He pulled open the cabinets and began searching through them one by one until he came upon a small box. Inside was some exquisite jewelry along with a heavy pouch. He pulled it open and dumbed its contents into his hand; a shower of red, blue, green and yellow gemstones tumbled forth. All different colors and sizes, but each one of the highest grade. They glimmered with an entrancing light, any idiot could tell they would fetch a fortune.
Excellent! Whoever lives here has money to burn!
Cloudhawk, with his heart racing, made to leave. He had to admit, thievery felt pretty good.
Cloudhawk let the gems topple back into their bag. There had to be almost twenty of them! Not bad! That should be more than enough. He tucked the bag away and got ready to make his exit.
But just then a wave of danger tickled at the back of his mind.
A cold wind brushed the back of his neck and the temperature in the room plummeted. The warm and humid room became bone dry and cold as the grave. Threatening growls tickled his ears as his sense of peril grew.
When he realized something was gone Cloudhawk whipped his head around, just as the door burst open as though from a gust of wind. A young woman who looked fresh from practice, clad in warriors gear, stalked inside. Her figure was tall and well proportioned, with hair like spun gold and eyes of the same color. A rare sight, certainly, like captured fire. Her skin was uniquely pale, like she was carved from alabaster and yet smooth as silk.
She was a beautiful contradiction, equal parts stunning and confusing. Graceful, powerful, noble, wild, aggressive. She obviously saw him and every step made the whole room seem to tremble. She wasn’t a young woman, she was a beast!
“Alright!” Her sweet-founding voice was at the same time sharp and ferocious. “So a petty thief thought they could steal into my bedroom, hm?”
The terrifying woman seemed to hardly move when suddenly she was standing right in front of Cloudhawk. Her golden hair flit on the breeze as though agitated by its owner’s dour mood.
Bean-sized beads of sweat rolled down Cloudhawk’s face. His mind was blank. There had only ever been a few people who froze him solid just with their presence; Mantis had been one, while Frost de Winter was the other. This woman was more imposing than either one of them!
She gripped the hilt of a sword sheathed at her waist and pulled it out an inch.
What sort of weapon was this? It looked like a sword, but it filled the room with the force of a crushing waterfall. Cloudhawk knew that whatever it was, this was no ordinary weapon. But it didn’t really matter what was in that scabbard; what really mattered was the person. Cloudhawk was convinced that even if she just wielded a sword of charcoal, she’d still be able to use it to cut a thief in half.
Time to go!
Her brows furrowed tight, her sword was halfway out of its scabbard when suddenly the thief vanished into thin air. Did this scoundrel somehow have demonhunter abilities? Her reaction was to immediately shut her eyes and reach out with her other senses, but there wasn’t a single sound. It seemed he got away.
Did he really? Impossible! She was blocking the exit and she would have known if he slipped past her. Although she found it hard to believe she had to accept the scum had escaped her grasp. For all her knowledge and experience she’d never heard of anything like this.
She would have to tell her father. Maybe he knew something.
Cloudhawk stumbled away from the building and didn’t stop for a second as he made his escape. Although they didn’t actually clash, Clouidhawk could tell the twenty-something-year-old woman was a talent of the same caliber as Selene or Frost de Winter.
Yet another tough character. He seemed to have a knack for finding them.
Cloudhawk had a nagging premonition that things were only going to get more complicated but there was nothing for it. What was he going to do, return the goods and prostrate himself, beg for forgiveness?
Not fucking likely!
He could tell just by the way she walked in the room that an apology wasn’t going to pacify her ferocious heart. He couldn’t stay here, what did it matter if he pissed off one more person before he left? His only concern had to be getting out of here as quickly as possible.
Cloudhawk made his way to an unassuming pub where he dropped Majjhima’s code name. At the mention of it the tavern owner’s face changed suddenly and he brought Cloudhawk to the largest of their private rooms. In less than an hour it filled up with twenty other people.
“You’re Majjhima’s man? He’s been missing for a long time, how is he?!”
“The Wasteland Club has been a total mess without a leader.”
Cloudhawk was surprised by the old man’s clout. After years in prison his name still drew a crowd. However something bothered him about what they said. What was a ‘Wasteland Club’?
From the outside this bar looked ordinary, but in fact it was home to a wasteland appreciation club. In effect the members of the club hated life in Skycloud City. The freedom of the wastelands – a place without constraints – was something they found enticing.
“There are actually people who like the wastelands?” Cloudhawk thought he must have heard wrong. He had to speak up. “Do you even understand what it’s like out there?!”
Generally, members of the club were natives to Skycloud, people whose family history in the city stretched back generations. They were spoiled layabouts with nothing better to do than rebel, so they decried Skycloud’s strict rules. They longed for the vast expanse of the wastelands where they could do what they pleased, kill who they liked, and curse the name of the gods all day long.
“Who are you that you think you can belittle our beliefs?”
“Even at its worst, the wasteland is ten times better than this place!”
“That’s right. If you weren’t one of Majjhima’s people we’d break your damn legs!”
“Yeah! The wastelands are a place of freedom. Dangerous, sure, and evil, but at least we’d have true liberty! Dying for a goal like that is a worthy way to go.”
Everyone glared at him. When they spoke about the wastelands their eyes burned with passion and enchantment. Cloudhawk almost wanted to slap the stupid out of every one of them – did they think the wastelands were really free? No water, no food, mutants, sweepers… despair every place you looked! But he swallowed his words because he knew in the end he wasn’t any different from them.
He’d come all the way here because of a fantasy. And what was there to greet him? Cloudhawk wasn’t going to waste his time disabusing them of theirs.
“I don’t care about what you believe. Majjhima said if I gave you money you could help me.” He pulled out one of the gemstones and put it on the table before them. Every eye lit up when they saw it. All this adoration about the wastelands was bullshit – just poor men dissatisfied with real life. No one could ignore the allure of money. “I don’t need to tell you what you can buy with a gem like this. You in?”
“Since you came with Majjhima’s blessing, we trust you. What do you need us to do?” The one who seemed to be the leader spoke first, but he added more. “But let me tell you now, we aren’t killing anyone!”
“I need you to use your back channels to buy some things for me. Then I need you to spread out around the temple square and feed me news about what’s happening – especially anything concerning the governor’s mansion. In addition, there are some special instructions…” He pulled out another gem and put it between them before going on. The rest of the precious stones in their tiny bag clattered audibly and shimmered in the light. “For the next few days I need you to be ready to do whatever I ask. If you do this whole bag belongs to you. You have my word.”
“Yes, absolutely, no problems!”
“You’re the boss, we go where you tell us!”
Cloudhawk was convinced that there was no risk in revealing his plans to these men. A single gem could set someone up comfortably for a decade, it was a hard offer to pass up. With the promise of wealth they agreed to help without qualms. After taking the two gems as pre-payment they left the bar walking on air.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Taking bets on what Cloudhawk has cooking. Also, I like the juxtaposition of how the Wasteland Club romanticizes and fantasizes about the wastelands, much like how wastelanders often view the elysian lands. Just goes to show that the grass really is always greener on the other side.