The dune buggy roared across the sands, leaving Boondock behind.
“Hey! Who the hell is that?! Who the fuck told you to take a car?! What’s going on!”
Shouts started to come from the watchtowers around Boondock as lookouts took notice. They saw the flames and heard the screams, then noticed the buggy trying to slip away. By instinct they tried to bar the way.
“Motherfucking… close the gates! Don’t let them through!”
Autumn, pressed deep into the passenger’s seat, held on for dear life. Her head spun as they dashed through the ruins. She heard the curses buffeting them, and saw the giant plate-metal gates start to swing shut. Half a dozen bandits marched into their path.
She covered her face. “Gods! We’re going to hit them!”
Cloudhawk flung his arm up, throwing the exorcist bow into the air. With a deep shout he cried to the other passenger. “Barb!”
She was ready. Barb almost launched from the back seat, the cloak she used as a disguise blown away by the lashing winds. The demonhunter armor she wore beneath was revealed, outlining her figure. After a full year it was still sturdy, but scarred from hard use.
She plucked the exorcist staff from the air.
Barb hooked her feet through the hodge-podge of bars that constituted the buggy. It swung left and right, but she stood firmly on the roof while she drew the bow. Her psychic power coalesced down the sights and was released as a shaft of energy.
The makeshift gate they’d used to seal the ruins whined like it’d been struck by a battering ram. It blasted open, flinging the two bandits forcing it shut into the air. Half a breath later the buggy raced through, grinding another unfortunate thug into the gravel beneath its wheels. Free from the city, now a narrow stretch of road snaked through the ruins before them.
Barb leaned her elastic body back as far as she could as they surged below an obstacle. Rotted bits of jutting metal passed inches from her chest and lower jaw. She sprang right back into place after they slipped through.
“Three o’clock, about six meters out. Guard tower!”
Cloudhawk tore through the maze-like ruins with his foot burying the gas pedal to the chassis. At the same time he watched their route through Oddball’s keen eyes.
He was drained, there was hardly any energy left in him to communicate with Oddball. Fighting was off the table. But Barb was strong, and fresh. She pulled her bow ready and aimed it toward the guard post. A gun barrel sprouted from the lookout by the time they pulled around, but before they could fire she let loose. A streak of energy pierced the walls and silenced the guard
“Ten o’clock, about eight meters up!”
Barb whipped around and fired in one fluid motion.
Debris rained down around them as the towers crumbled. The road was already rugged and blocked by junk and potholes. Their buggy charged ahead like the devil himself was after them, jolting again and again as they narrowly avoided obstacles. Autumn could hardly breathe.
Eventually, with Cloudhawk’s driving and Barb’s cover fire, they escaped the thunderheaps.
Coarse, gulping breaths made Autumn lightheaded, but despite the rough ride she handled it better than before. Her dainty hands held tight to whatever they could grab to stop her from flying off. They shook from the effort. How Cloudhawk and Barb were able to do anything as they escaped, she couldn’t fathom.
Sharing an adventure with these beasts with human faces was torture!
The naïve girl was as resentful as she was depressed. Had she known one day this would be her fate, she would have taken training back with the tribe more seriously. As it was, she wasn’t the least bit helpful – she couldn’t even defend herself.
This trip to Boondock hadn’t succeeded, by measure of their aims. They neither learned about Blackfiend’s history, nor dealt with the threat. The Highwaymen were still on their tail. However, it couldn’t be called a failure either. At least Cloudhawk had learned an important secret about the bandit organization.
They were definitely being helped along by a secret benefactor. Some unseen force had selected Squall to be their representative out here. That made things complicated. Cloudhawk wasn’t sure if he could consider Squall a friend anymore, and he didn’t know what was going on. The next time they met, who knew whether it would be on the same side.
But Cloudhawk had faith. Even though Squall’s history was tearful, even though he still held that hatred deep in his heart, even though he almost threw Cloudhawk to the wolves tonight… he wasn’t a bad person. Time was a carving knife no one could escape. But however much time passed, wood was still wood, metal was still metal. However the knife shaped the outside, the quality of the material remained. Cloudhawk didn’t have many friends, he wasn’t ready to throw away such a rare commodity easily.
He didn’t want to be Squall’s enemy unless he had to.
The buggy bounced over dunes through the night, and when the sun dawned over the horizon there were no signs of pursuit. Finally it was safe for a break, a chance to catch their breath.
Autumn clambered out of the vehicle but had to hold herself. Her legs felt like noodles. As she took a few exploratory steps, she rubbed her red and swollen eyes. The wind and sand were terrible without any means of protection. Her hair was a shocking rat’s nest of golden strands jutting out at odd angles. When had she ever had to go so fast? She was a sorry sight, stumbling around trying to get her bearings, a young thing anyone would feel obliged to protect.
Cloudhawk nimbly dropped from the driver’s seat, picking the demon mask off his face. He pulled up the hood to cool the engine, and right away a plume of smoke hissed forth. He refilled the gas tank in the meantime. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the girl stumbling around, teetering unsteadily. “Hey, get your shit together. If you can’t handle this then you might as well turn around and go home.”
“Who says I can’t handle it?!” Autumn wore a petulant scowl. “I’m getting to Fishmonger’s Borough no matter what.”
Cloudhawk busies himself fishing a cigarette out from his clothes and lighting it up. He leaned against the car door and looked ahead toward the horizon. This part of the wastelands near the elysian border was still barren, but there were at least tufts of dead grass and a few husks of trees to break up the scenery. There were even signs of life, solitary groups of hardy weeds that had someone managed to survive the drought. By the look of it, they were getting close to the northern barrens.
By all accounts the northern barrens were in poorer shape than the south. Cloudhawk spent years surviving off plentiful ruins and mutated creatures. Far as he could tell from here, the only thing in front of them was desert. Boundless, hopeless desert. He took a long drag of his cigarette and felt it fill his lungs. It was rejuvenating, enough to get him thinking.
How big was the wastelands?
The areas north, east, south and west of Skycloud were nothing but endless blasted landscape as far as they could travel, but it was only a small part of the world. No one knew what it was like ten thousand kilometers, a hundred thousand kilometers out there beyond their field of view. The world was big – real big, and full of the unknown. The wanderlust and need to know what was out there was unavoidable. 
Autumn took a few minutes to get her bearings. After a while she was mostly recovered. Once the butterflies in her stomach quieted down, she noticed Cloudhawk staring quietly into the distance. She looked over the man, with the demon mask perched on his mop of unkempt black hair. The orange light from the rising sun painted his delicate features. In his quiet and contemplative state, it gave him a mysterious sort of charm.
Autumn couldn’t help but let her mind wander a little. She thought there must be a lot the demonhunter was keeping quiet.
Her first impression of him had been a sour one. He was deceitful, impudent and crass. But over the last few days, as she got to know him, she saw more than just physical strength. He had an extraordinary mind, rare especially for his age. The talented youth of her own clan couldn’t reach his level, she was sure.
What had happened to him, to make Cloudhawk this way?
He was a rogue, and had many shortcomings, but he was a good man compared to others in this cursed place. She really was lucky to have run into him.
As the thought crossed her mind it startled her, and she stopped herself. Lucky? What a joke! He was only out to get his hands on more eboncrys and that was the end of it. The tribe elder always said never to trust outsiders, and never count them as friends. Autumn paused to once again commit the elder’s words to heart.
“Ugh, I’m exhausted!” Barb loudly whined as she made her way over to them. She’d managed to get a lizard from somewhere and had already skinned it. She trudged their way, dragging the corpse behind. “Gods, this damned place is the worst. This was the only thing for kilometers, but at least we’ll have some meat.”
Autumn’s voice rose an octave as she glowered. “I’m not going to eat that nasty thing!”
Barb lifted the skinned, dripping lizard corpse. “You’re pickier than I am, and I’m an elysian. What’s nasty about it? Having any sort of meat out in the wastelands is a blessing. All we need is a fire, and once the fats get cooking it’ll smell delicious. You’ll see, it tastes fine.”
Autumn’s face took on a green tinge, especially when she looked at the corpse. It was leaking some unidentified green ichor and smelled like battery acid. She would rather die. Autumn vehemently shook her head in denial.
Barb shrugged. “Suit yourself!”
As resolute as Autumn was, her stomach disagreed. Its disgruntled gurgling was clear enough for everyone to hear. She pitifully looked toward Cloudhawk.
H paid the spoiled girl no mind, but had to silently praise Barb. There weren’t many elysians who would stoop to eating mutant lizard, but she didn’t bat an eye. She was a demonhunter of solid character.
“Barb, don’t bother with that. I’ve got something here.” He channeled his psychic energy through the phase stone and picked something from his stash. They were some sort of biscuits, and water. “Ten minutes. Eat quick, then we get back on the road.”
“Yeah!” Autumn immediately perked up. She snatched a biscuit and stuffed it in her mouth, immediately chasing it with a gulp of water. Her pretty face beamed with pleasure. “Good work!”
“I forget to mention, one biscuit will cost you one eboncrys each.”
Hack! Cough! Ack! “I take it back!” Autumn almost choked in the face of Cloudhawk’s blackmail. She glared incredulously at Barb. “Why doesn’t she have to pay anything?! It’s unfair!”
Cloudhawk just rolled his eyes. “Barb is smart, she’s capable, and she’s helpful. She earns her keep. You? Yeah, not so much.”
She threw the rest of her biscuit in the dirt. “How dare you look down on people!”
Cloudhawk met her rage with flatness. “Ten minutes. Nine, now. Don’t eat if it bothers you so much.”
Autumn’s mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water, but she was forced to swallow her fury when she saw Cloudhawk’s dispassionate face. She bowed her head, defeated, but inwardly screamed every single curse she knew a hundred times. She picked up the biscuit, wiped it off, then tore into it. She bit it much harder than necessary, perhaps imagining it was someone’s head.
It’s eboncrys you want? Fine! I have eboncrys! I don’t want to be a burden. One day, I’ll surprise you!
Bahahahaha. This just made me laugh.