Deserts were the most prevalent terrain in the wastelands, but nothing like the expanse that spread before them now. Those deadly pits stretched out as far as Oddball could see, thousands upon thousands of ugly pockmarks on the planet’s weathered face. It looked like the whole area had been pummeled by comets. The only way to get around were the thin ridges between the pits.
The surface of the pits seemed calm and unassuming, though the sands inside swirled. Its dangerous dragging tide was only felt by the unfortunate souls that fell in. Carelessness was a death sentence out here, for once you were caught it dragged you to the center. There, the monster’s hungry belly waited.
Whether someone weak like Autumn, or strong like Barb, it didn’t matter once the sand had you. Struggling only made you sink in deeper, robbing you of any chance of escape.
“I can’t breathe!”
By the time Cloudhawk saved them, both women were red in the face and fighting for air. The quicksand was fine as dust, and deadly. A single breath was enough to fill up one’s lungs, making Barb’s situation of being buried head first especially dangerous. Every lungful now burned and felt like sandpaper. She could hardly get any air.
Cloudhawk took out a bottle of water and used it to rinse out Barb’s mouth. She hacked and coughed, vomiting up mouthfuls of sand and water. After a few moments she could breathe a little easier.
Both Autumn and Barb were still recovering when Oddball cried out in alarm. Cloudhawk shot his eyes skyward. “Sandstorm!”
Wind whipped across the barren landscape all the time, that was nothing special. This was different. The wind wasn’t dangerous, but the clouds of thick yellow sand it kicked up were. They could see it blotting out the horizon like a tidal wave. It was coming at them with frightening speed.
Cloudhawk didn’t hesitate. “Cover your nose and mouth. Quick!”
The powder sand was incredibly lethal. Once it was over you, breathing became a challenge. For most it ultimately ended in painful suffocation. The three of them somehow had to make their way through a sandstorm now, toward a settlement on the other side of a field of monsters. Their only recourse was to try and keep to the ridges, blind and unable to breathe, until they got to safety.
“Quick, get moving!”
Autumn stumbled ahead, staggering though the sand with great effort. Cloudhawk knew she wouldn’t be able to keep up, so he picked her up and slung her over his shoulders. He then waved for Barb to follow and led them toward the distant camp.
It was only a few moments more before the sandstorm reached them. All of a sudden the world was lost in a mist of yellow and brown, making it almost impossible to tell where one was headed.
Cloudhawk’s demon mask served him well in this environment, keeping out much of the sand. Barb and Autumn had to resort to covering their faces with strips of cloth. Far ahead was the settlement, the only place where they could find succor.
Chirp chirp! Chirp chirp!
The shrill call of a bird could barely be heard over the tempest. The noise got louder until it was a blaring cacophony, as a mass of creatures charged at them. They were without measure, featherless hawk-like creatures with earthy yellow bodies. Amidst the sandstorm they were hard to spot, but they were closing in on Cloudhawk and the others.
Mutant animals. This sandstorm was getting more irritating by the second, one disaster after another!
These meat-eating creatures preferred to travel with sandstorms. All manner of living things got lost in the tempest – humans and larger beasts alike. When they eventually suffocated these vultures swooped in for a free meal.
It went without saying that these blood-thirsty critters also didn’t have the best temperament.
If their dinners didn’t die fast enough for their liking, the birds didn’t mind helping things along. Hundreds of the flesh-eating scavengers would dive at the target, using their sharp beaks and talons to wear them down. They were ravenous, too, and a group of humans was only going to be an appetizer.
However, as the birds would soon find, these appetizers would be hard to swallow.
As they closed in, Cloudhawk pulled out a book that shimmered gold in the uneven light. He threw it high, where it dissolved into sand. As the cloud of golden particles wafted toward the ground, the sand encircled Cloudhawk like a curtain.
The choking cloud of dust was locked out.
The sandstorm vultures started to pummel the curtain, leaving smears of blood. The ravenous things didn’t pause for even a second, throwing themselves toward Cloudhawk with wild abandon dozens of times. Eventually the curtain of sand was coated with a layer of blood flesh.
Luckily he’d recovered some psychic energy in their ride over, otherwise this might have been the end of them.
As Cloudhawk continued to channel his relic, the sandstorm roared by all around them. Step by step they moved ahead, until eventually they made it safely to the settlement. They were surprised to find that it was even smaller than they thought.
Just a camp.
The buildings were set on a relatively even spot of land, the ruins covered in years of grit and sand to create a sort of earthen wall. Only a few structures were still standing, and most of those had obviously been repeatedly fixed up. From the outside they looked like sorry shelters. Only the one in the very center of camp looked in good shape. There were lamps on inside.
The makeshift wall had kilns dug out inside of them, and were burning something that let off a caustic stench. Black smoke rose into the air. It seemed the sandstorm vultures hated the smell, too, and avoided the settlement when they got close.
After several minutes, the cloud of hungry vultures were forced to give up among a chorus of angry cries. The unfortunate souls who lived here seemed like they had a lot to deal with.
Cloudhawk stumbled into the campsite, covered from head to toe in fine sand. His first priority was to find shelter, then maybe a shower. “Anyone home?” He hollered.
A series of fissures appeared, barely visible through the sandy haze. A large and burly man approached with a few others, all holding guns. They wore protective clothing and covered their faces with strange masks. Their guns were unique as well. When they approached and saw the travelers unharmed, they were clearly surprised.
The big man failed to conceal the taunting tone in his voice. “You lot got balls tryin’ make it across the quicksand sea in a buggy. At least there’s a silver lining in the pile of shit you stepped in - you made it here in one piece.”
The large man was plain featured, swarthy, with big lips and even bigger arms . Hair sprouted all over his body, thick as a coat, and he was the only one of the crew who wasn’t wearing protective gear.
Cloudhawk gave him the once over. “You are…?”
“Bonobo, at least that’s what everyone calls me.”  The distinctly simian fellow had a fitting name. “And this is my lodge. I’m not running a charity, so expect to pay if you want anything. I won’t tolerate anyone without coin, so pay up or move the fuck on.”
This place was a hotel?
These dilapidated structures were barely standing, what sort of person would come out here for a night? The proprietor wasn’t exactly friendly, either. They hadn’t even started to talk business and he was already sneering down his nose at them. What sort of businessman was this?
Barb sucked in a breath but ultimately couldn’t bite her words back. She answered instead of Cloudhawk. “We’re looking for Fishmonger’s Borough. Where is it? Our maps say it’s supposed to be around here, but this place is all we found.”
“Hah! You think I like having my hotel in this shithole? This is one of the only routes into Fishmonger’s Borough.” Bonobo noticed the fine leather armor these newcomers wore. Even covered in dust he knew what it meant. The exorcist staff on her shoulder was another clue. Bonobo’s face scrunched for just a minute, then returned to normal. He went on in even tones. “Everyone who comes here is on their way to Fishmonger’s Borough, but there’s only a limited number of people allowed inside. Whether or not you get in is up to you.”
“How about you cut the shit and speak clearly?”
“I’ve said enough already. Are you staying or not? Pay or fuck off, stop wasting my time.”
Barb’s eyes were smoldering with anger. “What’s with your attitude? Do you know who we are?”
Bonobo looked back at her with an icy cold glare. “Yeah, I do, demonhunter. You’re far from anywhere your title means jack shit.”
Barb’s short temper threatened to get the better of her. Cloudhawk caught her eye and waved a hand, warning her to cool off.
She obediently shut her mouth with an audible clack of teeth.
Cloudhawk cut right to it. “Three rooms.”
“No,” Bonobo responded. “We’ve got a lot of people already. Don’t have three rooms.”
“Two then.” Cloudhawk could have his own room and the girls could share one.
“No. One room’s all we got.” Bonobo continued to stare at them with a firm and hostile glare. “And we charge by the head. Two elysian gold a night, per person. Food and water not included.”
Barb’s anger flared up once more. “This is robbery!”
Ignoring the terrible state of the place, two gold a head without food or drink was completely unreasonable. What did one gold mean? Barb was an established hunter, and a mission only earned her four to six gold. After the guild’s cut, she only walked away with two or three. That was considered a good few days’ work.
Bonobo didn’t back down, regardless of the fact he was talking to demonhunters. He spat his response. “Pay. Or. Fuck. Off.”
Demonhunters were used to being treated with respect wherever they went, even in the wastelands. In the face of this despicable and insolent ruffian Barb didn’t know how to react.
“Don’t cause any trouble, Barb. We have a job to do.” Cloudhawk put a hand on her arm before she could use her exorcist staff. He fished out a handful of gold and gave them to the owner. “Alright, one room it is. We’ll stay. When will the room be ready?”
Bonobo didn’t answer right away. He took a good long look at the gold coins, and replied only once he was satisfied they were real. “It’s dinner time. Go get some grub, we’ll let you know when the room’s ready.”
With that said, he turned around and left.
“Don’t let nonsense like this make you mad.” Cloudhawk patted Barb’s shoulder. “I’m not interested in spending another second outside, I don’t know about you. Let’s head in.”
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