Sandbar Station was rocked with news of the grotesque ‘Angel of Bone.’ In a single night Gabriel went from being a nobody to a terrifying figure, and no one dared cause any more trouble for the emporium. However, this turned out to be troublesome for Cloudhawk.
There was nothing worth sympathizing about how those men died. They deserved that and worse. But why did he have to suffer for it? Clattering skeletons posted in front of your door didn’t exactly do wonders for one’s business. Most were too frightened to walk in. Had he known this was going to happen, Cloudhawk would’ve rather handled the situation himself.
The Warden wasn’t the only one irritated by this.
A gloom had come over the Sandbar’s magistrate as well. Hammont’s job was to keep vigil over the station and report what happened. Murder wasn’t expressly against the law here, but the emporium itself was. Its existence undermined the power of the elysian authority which had taken over the settlement. Now there were ghastly living skeletons and parts of what had to be a dozen corpses spread around the damn place. Apparently, Gabriel only had time to fully complete five works. The remaining ‘materials’ were disposed of and discarded haphazardly through the streets. His methods for culling them were almost as brutal as what happened to the ones he kept alive.
What could he do? Turn a blind eye? But arresting Gabriel was also out of the question.
Gabriel hadn’t broken any laws. What’s more, going after him wasn’t going to put him in Cloudhawk’s good graces. The Angel of Bone had come to the Sandbar with Cloudhawk, and judging by what he’d done he was just as capable a demonhunter as his employer. Hammont certainly wasn’t going to face a pair of demonhunters with nothing but a troop of borderland soldiers. Yet, if they pretended like nothing happened, what would the rest of the town think? He had to consider the reputation of the inspection officers.
This thing could go either way. Hammont mulled over how to gloss it over.
At the same time, his own investigations had seen a breakthrough. When he poured over the report handed to him by a subordinate, the lumpy skin of his flesh quivered. “By the gods… someone get in here!”
“Your orders, sir?”
“Assemble a hundred guards and order them to surround the emporium. Put them under house arrest on the grounds of investigating this Angel of Bone matter.”
His assistants shared a nervous glance. Just days before under penalty of death, the magistrate told them never to trouble the shop or its owner. Now, all of a sudden, they were supposed to surround the place? Anyway, none of the soldiers even knew what Cloudhawk was like. All they knew was no one seemed very pleased with the arrogant newcomer. Their boss’ total change of heart was perplexing.
Before long, a hundred elysian guards were surrounding Cloudhawk’s variety store. All citizens were cleared from the area.
Hammont ordered most of the soldiers to wait outside while he and a handful of trusted officers crossed the threshold. Once they were out of the public eye and Hammont once more faced Cloudhawk, the ingratiating smile returned to his face. “Your humble servant is sorry to offend. I beg you to understand, I come here with information about the Sanctum of Judgement.”
All the fuss and commotion he came with was a cover for the benefit of the people. Nothing but an excuse for him to meet Cloudhawk without arousing suspicion. In this way he didn’t lose any face and he could deliver the information without fear of exposure. Two birds with one stone.
Cloudhawk was taken aback. “So fast? I knew I could rely on you.”
“Sure enough, through our investigations we found that the Sanctum of Judgement doesn’t have many members. They have missionaries everyone but don’t accept many true believers. We suspect about two hundred members in total.”
A frown tugged at the Warden. Anyone could have found that out. What did he need this lard-ass for?
But what he said next proved his worth. “I recently learned that the Sanctum of Judgement is preparing for some sort of ceremony in a place called Fishmonger’s Borough. I’m not sure whether the Crimson One himself will be there. If you’d like, we can send someone to see what they learn.”
The lines on Cloudhawk’s face deepened. “Fishmonger’s Borough? Tell me about the place.”
He remembered Autumn had said some name like that, when she was begging him for help. Was it the same place? What a staggering coincidence!
“We aren’t sure of this outpost’s precise location. Your humble servant only knows its somewhere in the northern barrens.”
The northern barrens wasn’t a place. Like Skycloud, it was the name of the wasteland’s northern sector.
As the name implied, what they called the northern barrens were the wastelands north of Skycloud domain. Cloudhawk’s former haunts were the southern barrens. While both were considered the wastelands, word was there were several more outposts in the north than in the south. Reputedly, several of them were even the size of cities – several times bigger than Sandbar Station.
With a name like ‘borough’ this Fishmonger’s place must be one of the larger ones. Although there were more and larger city-sized settlements in the north, it was still a barbaric place. Tribes and warlords carved out their own territories and killed one another over it. People were raised like livestock, and there were stories of cannibals who feasted on the bodies of their fellows. They were just a bunch of monsters draped in human skin.
There were just as many mutated beasts up there as they were in the south. But no beast could match the savagery of a man’s heart. The general consensus was things were far more dangerous up there.
Cloudhawk was dissatisfied, as it seemed the fatty had only done half the work. “What the fuck do you mean, you don’t know where it is? And you still have the gall to come swaggering in here? Do you think this is all a fuckin’ game!”
“Please allow your humble servant to make amends. This isn’t because of incompetence. The people of the north are cunning and active. To avoid elysian soldiers, they are often forced to move about. The place called Fishmonger’s Borough has likely been moved a dozen times just in the last year. There’s no way of knowing its exact location today.” Hammont stopped there. Making any more excuses would be counterproductive. He went on determinedly. “You don’t need to worry, sir. I swear to spare no effort in finding out everything I can, or demand answers from the intelligence service of Skycloud. Give me a few days and I’ll have your answers.”
Cloudhawk thought for a moment before responding. “Never mind. It’ll attract too much attention if you start asking questions about something so far outside of your authority. I’ll figure out where this Fishmonger’s Borough is myself, you leave it alone. Follow any other leads you find, and remember to keep the whole thing quiet.”
“Of course, sir!”
Hammont’s body might have been thick, but his mind wasn’t. He knew better than to ask too many questions. His superior was a talented demonhunter with the Polaris family at his back, finding out where a settlement was should be easy.
Sandbar Station’s magistrate hung around the store for a little longer to sell their ruse. He ordered the guards to clean up the bodies, then put up a notice to announce their findings. After a little while, Magistrate Seacrest and his lackeys dispersed.
Gabriel was seated nearby, idly working his needlepoint and paying little attention to the matter. He continued to work on his piece as he muttered, “Are you going or am I?”
“You’re tough, but you don’t know the wastelands like I do. We also don’t know the whole story. Stay here and work on your embroidery, you don’t have the survival experience I do. Let me see what sort of freak this Crimson One is. Maybe old man Polaris was right to suspect him.
“So be it.”
Gabriel didn’t offer up any argument. He didn’t have much interest in the matter from the start. Who knew what sort of dark powers this Archbishop of the Sanctum commanded? Gabriel was good at making traps. Straight fights and skulking around were Cloudhawk’s specialty. Several Gabriels together couldn’t do what he did.
Cloudhawk walked upstairs. He pushed open a door to reveal a room, empty but for the young woman curled in a corner. Her frail arms were wrapped around her legs, hugging them tight as she whimpered and shivered. When she heard the door open her whole body went rigid and red eyes snapped toward him. They were wide with fear and surprise.
Cloudhawk stayed by the open doorway. “Miss Autumn. Don’t even think about it. Someone like you has no chances of survival in the wastelands. Let me make it clear, what you saw here was nothing compared to normal life out here. The evil that exists in the wastelands is far worse than anything you could imagine.”
Autumn wiped the fluid from her eyes and nose. “You are all bad men. You’re evil. I want to go home. I just want to go home…”
This pure and innocent girl had suffered a blow that struck her to the core. She tucked her head into her legs and began to weep. She had been told by her elders that the outside world was a cruel place, but now she found it was more than she could bear.
Cloudhawk spoke over her cries. “Where do you live? I’ll take you back.”
Autumn grabbed the first thing her hand could reach and flung it at him. “You’re a beast! You can’t fool me, so give up! I’ll never tell you.”
Cloudhawk easily snatched the plate she’d thrown from the air, then strode into the room with long steps. Fear welled up in the girl as he neared her and she pressed herself to the wall, trying to disappear into the wood. There was nowhere to hide, and when the terrifying pressure settled on her she found it hard to move.
“You smell nice.” 
As Cloudhawk stepped close to her, Autumn’s natural scent filled his nose. She was fragrant as a flower, a smell that was entirely different from anyone he’d encountered before. The slight point to her ears was already proof of mutation, so it had to run deeper than just cosmetic. Had her people evolved a natural scent? Autumn looked back at him, her face ashen with fright.
“You don’t need to be scared. I’m not as bad as you think.” Cloudhawk dropped the plate on a nearby table. “I’ve thought about it and I’m willing to help with your task. We’re going to Fishmonger’s Borough.”
Autumn had lost all hope, so when she heard him it was like a gust of cool air through the pits of hell. She wasn’t even sure she’d heard correctly.
“I imagine you know how to get there.”
Autumn was silent for a long time. She’d given up, only for a spark of hope to be rekindled. Innocence certainly had its advantages, though she it meant she didn’t suspect Cloudhawk might have ulterior motives. As for the location of Fishmonger’s Borough, of course she knew. Her plan had been to avoid the Sandbar, but she was forced into the outpost when she lost her people. Her goal had always been the northern barrens.
“What is it? Have you lost the courage already?”
“You’re the one with no courage! Who says I’m scared!”
Autumn didn’t know the man’s motives, but now that he’d agreed to see her to her destination, how could she refuse?
1. I think this may be a play on words. On the one hand, as the following paragraph shows, he is referring to her actual smell. However, I believe the term he uses here – 真香– is also used colloquially as a phrase to describe doing something you were determined not to do, but were forced to.
And so they are on the move... Meanwhile, Hammy really is a clever fellow, don't you think?