Autumn tossed and turned, unable to sleep. Her long lily-white legs kicked at the sheets.
She couldn’t remember the last time she had trouble sleeping. Autumn sat up, brows knit. Her people were in danger and all their hopes had been placed on her frail shoulders. How could she sleep, now that her vital mission had failed?
The girl’s inexperience dealing with people had come back to bite her. The eboncrys was gone, stolen, but that didn’t make her angry. She wasn’t a resentful sort by nature, and her people had no shortage of the energy crystals. No, what made her furious was that bastard’s smug face.
What could she do? Her tribe was living under threat of destruction, she had to save them!
Someone was standing just outside the door.
Was it him? Could he have suddenly found a conscience? Did he decide to help?
Clinging to the naïve hope she slipped off the bed and padded to the door in bare feet. But the man on the other side wasn’t the shop owner. This was the other one – tall and lithe, with blonde hair and blue eyes. He was the owner’s accomplice, though had a much warmer expression than that hateful thug.
The faint smell of gore hung over him.
As the scent crawled up her nostrils anxiety welled up inside Autumn. She saw that he’d changed clothes. His golden hair was still wet from a shower. Whatever he’d done, a single wash hadn’t washed away the stench.
“Don’t worry, you’re safe here. I’ve already dealt with a group of them who were planning to make trouble. It’s probably best if you stay here, at least for tonight. By tomorrow things will start to cool down.” He’d brought some food with him, and offered it to her with a gentle smile. “Here, some snacks. Cloudhawk heard that you weren’t sleeping and thought you might be hungry. He asked me to prepare something for you.”
Autumn’s eyes sparkled. This golden-haired man was like a refreshing breeze next to that brute. He was polite, gentle, and thoughtful. She didn’t believe for a moment that the store owner cared about her well-being.
“Thank you.” He was the owner’s servant, but he couldn’t be much weaker. There was a flicker of hope in Autumn’s expression. “You’re a good man.”
He answered with a bashful smile. “I’m not, actually. And Cloudhawk isn’t as bad as he seems.”
“No, you’re definitely a hundred times the man he is. Can I… ask a favor?” Her eyes glistened with desperation. “Can you help take me away from this place? Escort me back home and you can have as much eboncrys as you want! I can’t be stranded here, my people are dying. I’m begging you!”
The last work broke as emotion caught her throat. She searched his eyes pleadingly, her own heavy with sadness.
Even the coldest heart would be moved by her appeal. She tugged at Gabriel’s sense of compassion. He hadn’t agreed with how harshly Cloudhawk had treated her. It was nothing short of robbery, and then refusing to help her only made it worse. What sort of man did that!
“I want to help you, but Cloudhawk wouldn’t agree. I can’t.” He bowed slightly. “I’m very sorry. I hope you get some sleep.”
He sighed and left her alone.
It was true, he did wish to help. If it were something small, he’d be happy to perform a service for the pretty girl. But even an idiot could tell whatever burden she was carrying wasn’t light. That was probably why Cloudhawk refused her in the first place. Besides, they had their own mission here in the Sandbar.
Autumn wasn’t yet ready to give up.
Fine! If they aren’t willing to help, then I’ll flee and make do!
It didn’t matter what dangers were stacked against her. She had to find Fishmonger’s Borough. She had to get the treasure her people had lost!
Images of accusatory faces glared at her through her memory. Children and elderly consumed by fire. Her eyes reddened. She remembered that ferocious beast and its devilish powers. Just the memory made her shiver, made her restless. If what the golden-haired man said was true, and the danger was passed, then she couldn’t hesitate any longer. Under the cover of darkness she quietly pulled open the door and tip-toed toward the exit.
Run! I have to run! She was determined to escape.
She had only shuffled a few steps forward before colliding with something damp. She stumbled, falling onto her backside with an oof! Something wet covered her face and a cloying scent filled her nose. She looked up at the figure looming above.
“I’m sorry!” She was started and offered the apology instinctively, but no sooner were the words free from her lips than Autumn sensed something was wrong. Her eyes slowly widened until they were large panicked orbs. Terror bubbled up from inside and escaped as a piercing scream.
This wasn’t a person! It was a monster, tied to a stake, without a single stitch of flesh on it!
The unfortunate soul had been flayed to the bone, but no major arteries had been severed. Dripping red vessels twined around the exposed bones of the victim’s face, arms and torso. Yet most terrifying was that whatever man this used to be was still alive! Its jaw opened and shut but the sound of its teeth were the only sound.
Clack! Clack! Clack!
Gabriel’s assurances rushed back into her mind. Tomorrow, things will start to cool down. She remembered the smell…
Hot tears burned trails down her face as she shrieked. “Demons! You’re all demons!”
The next day, Sandbar Station was in turmoil.
Naberius’ masterwork creation was on display for the world to see. The Angel of Bone. Nothing so appalling had ever been seen in the borderlands before.
Word quickly spread that something had happened by the new emporium. Frantic crowds went to see for themselves, finding five perfectly flayed ‘angels’ staked around the store’s entrance. The scene was macabre, bloodcurdling. Onlookers weren’t sure whether to scream or vomit.
Out here, corpses were a daily sight. Murder was also common – who hadn’t taken a life or two?
But this… brutality. Such a malicious and frightening display was unheard of. Whoever they were these skeletons still lived. Exposed lungs filled with air, and they even seemed to know what was happening. The last few hours of their lives were lived in simply indescribable, excruciating pain before death finally claimed them. What sort of monster would do such a thing?
Eventually, the whole story came out. This repulsive masterwork was the effort of someone from the emporium.
Gabriel – bashful and polite, handsome to look upon – became famous after that day. He became known as the sculptor, but the name that resounded furthest through the wasteland was the Angel of Bone. Citizens of the Sandbar came to realize that the emporium's enigmatic owner was not the only strange thing about the place. Even his assistant was a man of terrifying power!
That day, in the bar.
The Angel of Bone was the phrase on everyone’s lips. News of Autumn and part in it also got around. Covetous words were passed about the treasures she hid, but no one wished to be next to meet the sculptor’s knife. All they could do was shake their heads and sigh.
Adder was manning the bar at the time, his motions smooth and practiced. For five years he’d lived in this town under the guise of a simple bar owner. He kept a low profile, but everyone knew the man was much more than he appeared.
So long as you could afford it, there was no shred of information Adder couldn’t deliver. Selling to him was lucrative, if the information was true and current. He always paid a good price, and was fair with anyone who came to him with business. His bar was the premier entertainment location in the Sandbar, and the first place to go if you were looking for answers.
Adder’s bar was notorious, even among elysians passing through on missions. They came by, surreptitiously trading in information. Mystery shrouded Adder better than his trademark dark cloak, but no one could do anything about the man. That fact alone was enough to prove his abilities.
A man appeared from a dim corner of the bar, wrapped in black cloth and carrying a large sword on his back. Where he’d come from was a mystery. There were only walls in that dark corner. Had he been born from the shadows? Perhaps he walked through them, for he was as silent as a ghost.
Adder’s hands never stopped moving. He cleaned glasses and filled them for patrons, stony faced and calm of voice. “So was Cloudhawk sent by that old mule, Arcturus?”
The man slowly fell to on knee. “There aren’t many who have information about him in Skycloud, but he has plucked a few strings on our web. He first appeared in Skycloud city several years ago. There was some conflict between him and the governor, but he came under the Grand General’s protection. After a short period he disappeared, and for three years no one knows where he went or what he did.”
“Skye Polaris. What is that old has-been up to?” A cold light flashed through Adder’s eyes. “It doesn’t matter, the senile roughneck is nothing to concern ourselves with. Just so long as Arcturus doesn’t get involved.”
“I’ve managed to learn a little about the mysterious girl he met with. She’s no wastelander, nor does she come from the elysian lands. That would mean…”
Adder’s intelligence concerned all manner of things, all across the borderlands. He even knew much of what happened in Skycloud. However, he had nothing on this girl, including where she’d come from. But an inkling whispered into the back of his mind. That couldn’t be it, could it?
“I suspect you’re right, Revenant. That’s likely where she came from.” Adder nodded sagely. “The place is more like a legend, no one knows where it is. Now it seems we have a lead.”
“Should I put out feelers personally?” Revenant asked. “I’m confident I could get her.”
“Cloudhawk is stronger than he seems. His senses are unnaturally keen. We also have to consider whoever is pulling his strings. Until we know more we should tread carefully.” Adder stared into his own mug and the liquor sloshing inside. He tossed it back and drank the mug dry. “The ones who died today were Highwaymen. Make sure word gets out, see if they’re interested in paying Cloudhawk back for his attention. We’re not ready to get involved, but maybe we can stir the pot a little.”
“Your servant understands.”
Revenant rose to his feet and stepped back. He vanished into the shadows like he was never there.
Adder placed his mug on the bar top. “Angel of Bone, eh? Interesting.”
He wasn’t sure why Cloudhawk was here yet, but the wastelander was a man Adder could appreciate. They might even have been friends, under different circumstances.Previous Chapter Next Chapter