Sandbar’s local drinking hole was much like any other. Primped and pretty barmaids fluttered through the crowd, draped in alluring clothing that put full chests and long legs on display. They moved among the drinkers, delivering copper trays and taking away empty mugs. From time to time an inebriated patron might try to cop a feel and the girls danced away with polite titters. A few even gave flirtatious – if admonishing – glances. The hostesses are offered other services. So long as the patrons spent the coin, they could hire girls to do most anything.
Ever since monitors from Skycloud took over the city, electric lights were banned. The bar replaced them with the mystical sand lanterns popular among elysians and a giant candelabra. Together they were enough to give the bar proper mood lighting.
Aside from tables for eating and drinking, the center of the bar had a clear space intended as a dance floor. A group of girls occupied it now, slowly stripping off bits of clothing as they gyrated around one another. Rings on either side were where burly men beat each other up and bet on the outcomes.
The bar was a cesspool of tobacco, liquor and testosterone.
A pair of visitors very different from the usual guests sauntered in. They were young and good looking, a far sight better than the typical rabble. One of the barmaids greeted them as they walked by, eyes all a-sparkle and a genuine smile on her face. Strangers like them were a rare sight, and worth a fun night or two even if they didn’t have the money.
Gabriel was set. The gods made him with all the right parts to grab a girl’s attention. Blonde hair, blue eyes, white skin, refined features… he was the essence of dignity and cultivation, like a well-educated schoolboy or a warm-hearted boy next door. Of course, none of them knew about his darker side.
Cloudhawk wasn’t hard on the eyes, either.
He had a body to rival Frost de Winter’s. While it couldn’t be said he had the handsome features of Gabriel, he was like a totally different person from the kid that clawed his way out of the wastelands. Gone was the skin-and-bones waif, replaced with a man of good build who was quite a bit taller. So he wasn’t a one-in-ten thousand, but he was perhaps one-in-a thousand. At the very least he was a one-in-one hundred sort of looker.
The girl sashayed over to the pair, making sure her hefty assets were easily noticed. “Maybe I can help you handsome fellas find something you like? Cigarettes, booze, girls. We’ve got it all.”
Gabriel had grown up in Skycloud where scenes like this were unthinkable. He was overwhelmed by the woman’s heaving cleavage and pretty smell, and shuffled awkwardly before her. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. Fuckin’ Cloudhawk, he thought to himself. The rotten bastard. Couldn’t he have found us a normal place to get a drink?
He definitely wasn’t in Skycloud domain anymore, and the fact was that out in the wastelands this was a normal place for a drink. He’d just never seen a place like this where a man’s more basic proclivities could be satisfied.
“Go on now, put those knockers away before you hurt someone.” Cloudhawk was far more natural. He gave the girl a playful slap on the ass. “You’re scaring my virgin friend here. You got anywhere quiet?”
Gabriel’s pale face went red as a tomato. Girls like her made him very uncomfortable.
Cloudhawk was holding back, but gave her a smack with perhaps a little too much force. She yelped and giggled, causing her cleavage to jiggle enticingly. These girls may have been low-class but they were definitely cunning. Everyone could tell at a glance that these two men were different. This had to be the blonde one’s first visit to a place like this, judging by the way he looked at the girls. It was somewhere between resisting his urges and hiding disgust. The other one seemed like he was perfectly comfortable in this environment.
In the end, elysians had more hang-ups than your typical wastelander.
They continued to gather a bunch of curious looks.
Cloudhawk was inferior to Gabriel in looks, but his delicate features and coquettish air made him a lot more approachable. A year of struggle, followed by three years of doing whatever came up had made him irreverent and cynical. But as his strength and experiences grew he became more self-confident, less of a downer. Now it wasn’t unexpected for him to crack a joke or screw around when things weren’t serious.
Banter was something he’d learned from the wasteland mercenaries.
Cloudhawk wasn’t under any illusions that his life would be like Frost’s or Arcturus’. He wasn’t going to be some kind of hero, and he didn’t fit in with the elysians. It was just the way things were and he wasn’t going to try and force it. Do what you have to do, that was his motto. Go with the flow. That was the best policy.
Gabriel’s frown said he was not going with the flow on any level. “Women like these are cheap and dirty.”
“Oh for the love of... wake up, will you? You think we’re still in the elysian lands?” Cloudhawk wasn’t ashamed about their environment. “People out here, we’re castaways. We’re the abandoned population. If you can get a full belly and wear a warm set of clothes your life is set. You think anyone is eager to make a living selling their body? But that’s life, at least in the wastelands, and everyone’s just trying to make it the best way they know how. I don’t think they’re dirty. Hell, compared to a lot of the girls where you’re from, they’re more real. Spend more time out here and you’ll see. No one has the right to sneer at someone else just trying to get by.”
Gabriel continued to shuffle like a fish out of water. “Is it just me or is everyone looking at us?”
“Are they?” Cloudhawk looked around. Indeed they’d caught more than a few eyes when they walked in, all sorts in fact. There were hungry looks from the women and envious look from the men. Some were uncomfortably penetrating. “Oh,” he said, “I forgot to mention. You’re gonna find no small number of guys out here who like to have a little fun with other men, if you know what I’m sayin’. A fella like you with your blonde hair, blue eyes and noble look – you’re just the sort they like. Making friends won’t be a problem for you.”
A frown instantly marred Gabriel’s face. “Any of ‘em try pulling a Caspian on me and I’m not holding back.”
Cloudhawk chortled. He was reminded of the growing love Caspian had shown for Gabriel as their three-year stint in the valley went on. Eventually Caspian had decided he’d give it a shot, and that night he climbed into Gabriel’s bed for a little slap and tickle.
Things did not go well for him. It was the first time in three years Naberius took control and… needless to say, there was a lot more slap than tickle.
Caspian was bed-ridden for half a month after that. From then on, people were very careful not to get on Gabriel’s bad side. Every time Caspian and him were in the same room, the poor guy cowered like he was avoiding the devil.
“Give us the best booze, the best meat, and the best girls you got.”
Cloudhawk threw himself into a booth and snapped his fingers. Two gold pieces glinted as they traveled three meters up into the air, and landed snuggly in the groove between the barmaid’s breasts.
“Keep the extra for yourself, darlin’.”
The girl was wild with joy. Two whole gold coins! The change was what she made from five years of running tables. The guy didn’t look like he had that kind of money to throw around, but he proved her wrong.
Cloudhawk’s ostentatious display made eyes pop all over the bar. Beyond that they saw how he did it – perfect shot, right in her dress with his back turned! The clean-cut young man was more than a simple traveler, that was certain. If he could put a coin between her bosoms he sure as hell could throw a knife through someone’s heart. All of a sudden the more covetous eyes looked away.
The booze and food started to arrive. A group of drinking companions came with it and positions themselves on either side of the pair.
Cloudhakw picked a cigarette off a platter and leaned toward one of the women to give him a light. He took a drag and felt the low-grade tobacco fill his lungs with acrid smoke. It was like sucking down a tube of pepper spray – a sensation that instantly took him back a handful of years to the first time he had a stick. If he wasn’t mistaken, the first time he had a cigarette was after his first mission with the Tartarus missionaries.
Life flowed by like a dream. You never knew what was around the next corner, whether there would be a tomorrow. It took Cloudhawk a long time and a lot of kilometers to realize wasteland freedom agreed with him just fine.
Gabriel piped up with a curious tone. “So what’s your plan, in the future? I can’t imagine you’re going to be working for Polaris forever.”
Cloudhawk let out the cigarette smoke in a long, slow exhale. His dark eyes were searching for a minute, but quickly returned to normal. “The old man helped me a lot. It’s only right I return the favor. Once that’s done maybe I’ll settle down here. Skycloud has all the riches, but the people that live there have all got a screw loose, if you ask me. You know the sort of guy I am. I don’t belong there.”
Gabriel slowly nodded his head.
After passing out of Hell’s Valley, Cloudhawk returned to the Grand General. Skye appointed him Warden of the Talons and gave him his first secret mission: Investigate the Sanctum of Judgement, and the guy they called the Crimson One.
Grand General Polaris had told him it was an important mission, one that Governor Arcturus was following closely. If Cloudhawk performed well there was a promotion waiting for him back in Skycloud city. He didn’t care much about status or position, though. After Hell’s Valley he could carve out a comfortable life for himself anywhere in the wastelands. He didn’t need the domain’s protection or its approval.
He’d learned a lot during his time in training.
Sweepers didn’t trouble him anymore, no matter how cruel. Fierce and brutal mutants weren’t much of a challenge, either. What he never became confident in was his ability to deal with the scheming and back-biting that was so common in the elysian lands, or the mysterious Temple of God looming over everything. In Skycloud, the higher you climbed the more likely it was you would fall. Nah. Political power, influence, honor – none of that meant anything to him.
Even if he didn’t find himself back in the wastelands someday in the future, he wasn’t going to settle down in Skycloud. The borderlands were an enticing place, or maybe a small secluded town somewhere on the edges of the domain. But it was true, the General had treated him well and Cloudhawk felt obliged to pay him back. Once his debt was paid, he could strike out on his own.
For now, that was as far as he needed to plan. At least when it came time to set off, he knew he could. If he wanted to disappear he could, and no one would be able to find him.
The mission out here in the borderlands was just the sort of thing Cloudhawk wanted. The stern eye of the gods felt far away, and here he could do as he liked. Grand General Skye had authorized him to take as many of the crack Talons as he pleased, but Cloudhawk didn’t see a need for them. He just wanted one person, the same guy who stood by his side all through his time at Hell’s Valley. A felon and an outcast like him.
Gabriel had killed an oracle once, so there wasn’t a welcoming corner for him anywhere Skycloud domain. This was just an opportunity to get him out. They’d grown close after three years. Aside from occasionally losing control to a murderous alter ego, he was a reliable and trustworthy guy to watch his back.
His other fellow trainees had moved on to other things. Drake Thane had gained esteem and notoriety among his family, so he was appointed to a position as lieutenant colonel of a border battalion. Felina was snatched up by the Court of Shadows and was made an important member of this mysterious group. Claudia Claudia returned and took a position in the League of Demonhunters, and last he heard was commanding her own unit. Her success catapulted the prestige of her family to new heights, exactly as her lard-ass of a father had hoped. Cloudhawk figured he had the last laugh after all.
The others went back to their families and were given high positions or important posts. Some were held as ‘secret weapons’ and were secreted away to continue training. In every case, those three years in the valley hadn’t been a waste. Every single one of them walked out of that place a finely honed tool of war.
It was impossible to go three years without making connections with people, but in the end they all came from different worlds. It was impossible to say whether they’d ever meet again, or under what circumstances.
Gabriel was the only one Cloudhawk thought would share his road.
Shit, reality really was disappointing.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
So it looks like (the buffed out) Cloudhawk and Gabriel at going to be besties for a while now. Wonder if he's cool with Naberius these days.