Book 3, Chapter 4 - The Reunion

“Come, another round!”

The two met clinked their glasses together loudly.

Cloudhawk down the contents of his mug with a series of chugs. He wiped droplets of foamy beer from his face with a dirty forearm and put the mug back down on the table. The girls cooed and lauded his drinking ability while refilling their glasses.

After the first glass Cloudhawk became more boisterous, his eyes watery. Anyone who spent any time drinking with Cloudhawk would be impressed, because it was obvious he was just playing around. It was easier to move mountains than to get this wastelander drunk. It was a ruse to trick others into thinking he’d let his guard down.

“We’ve got six months to finish the mission. Now that we’re here, we have time before results are due.” Cloudhawk lifted his glass again. “There’s no rush. We open that store as soon as possible though. Saving up some funds has to be our first priority.”

Gabriel’s face was tinged red after polishing off his first mug. The alcohol was already working to chisel at his guarded exterior. The scent of the barmaid’s perfume permeated his nostrils and he let go of some of his disgust. It just went to show that anyone got used to the wasteland given enough time, whether it was Gabriel or someone as intractable as Selene Cloude.

“What do you need so much money for?”

“To repay my debt, obviously. Some of which you’re responsible for, too, I’ll remind you. There’s no escaping it!”

Of course there was a reason for Cloudhawk’s decision to open a store here in the Sandbar. Aside from a possible future living here, he also had a mountain of gold he owed to Skye Polaris’ illustrious granddaughter. Thirty or forty thousand, at last tally.

But what was the plan?

At the House of Demonhunters auction, a single high-quality relic in working order could fetch a thousand gold coins only. Cloudhawk’s debt was enough to make a small noble family collapse under its weight. Even the likes of the Cloude family would struggle to pay it off. 

And every day it was collecting interest, like a snowball made of shit that was only getting bigger as it rolled downhill. Hell, at this rate he expected it to hit a million before too long.

Thankfully, Dawn was sent off to distant lands after her time in the sanctuary. Cloudhawk hadn’t seen her once since getting out of Hell’s Valley, and he considered that lucky – chances were he’d meet Terrangelica before he could get a word in edgewise. Dawn dogged him to repay the loan like her life depended on it. However, not all of it was Cloudhawk’s alone to bear. Gabriel was responsible for some, and a good chunk at that.

Three years in Hell’s Valley was no picnic, but Cloudhawk wasn’t beat nearly as often as the others. Besides, with his natural fortitude and healing ability, when he did face the whip his recovery was quick. Most of the healing salves Dawn brought for him he ended up giving to Gabriel. Others had the support of their families to lean on. Not the fugitive, especially once he turned his back on Frost de Winter. Who else could he turn to? For three years he received Cloudhawk’s help, so now he was obligated to stay and pay his part.

Gabriel glowered into the contents of his mug. “Hell, you should have enough skill to wiggle your way out of a little debt. Steal a few pretty trinkets and this business is done, no?”

Their store was, in fact, already open. Only, they didn’t have much variety. Aside from the odd wasteland trinket, most of its contents were brought from the elysian lands. The newest elysian weaponry, superior demonhunter armor, exorcist bows and staves, even quality medicines. He’d managed to bring a fair amount of inventory with him, even if it wasn’t very diversified.

Cloudhawk was a uniquely talented thief.

“Sure, I had that idea, but the question is where can I find a good score? Even if I score something, how do I fence it? I can’t say I’m very eager to be hunted by the whole domain.” Cloudhawk rolled his eyes. “Screw around enough in one place and you’re bound to get caught. Best plan is to make some money as honest as we can. But I’m done talking about this depressing shit for today. C’mon, drink!”

Cloudhawk’s eyes scanned the bar, even as he spoke. Like he was looking for something. One of the more attentive barmaids noticed. “Is milord looking for someone?”

He was, and at the moment the Warden wondered why he hadn’t seen her yet. Struck by inspiration, Cloudhawk fished a few gold coins from his pocket and slapped them onto the tabletop. The girls stared, transfixed. None of them had ever seen someone so liberal with his money. Did he just not have any silvers or coppers? Every time he opened his hand it was filled with gold. A single coin would buy a dozen men willing to work themselves to the bone, a dozen beautiful women willing to do whatever he asked.

“Let’s play a game.” A grin spread across Cloudhawk’s face. “I ask a question, you ladies answer. Fastest wins, and the reward is one gold coin. Who wants to play?”

“Oh, me! Me!”

The girls practically wriggled in delight. Gabriel remained quietly watching, wondering what his boss was up to.

Cloudhawk nodded. “Alright. First question – what color underwear are you wearing?”

Pffft! Gabriel spat out a mouthful of beer. This guy had no shame!

Of course, out here in the wasteland it was practically an innocent question. To Gabriel it was almost incomprehensibly lewd.

The girls practically yelled over each other to answer. One even removed her panties to prove she was telling the truth. Cloudhawk was satisfied with her zeal and awarded her the first gold coin.

“Not bad, not bad.” Cloudhawk continued. “Is there a girl working here, ‘sha’ something?”

“Yes, yes!” A slender barmaid blurted out. “Her name is Luciasha, but she’s not like us. She’s the boss’ special girl, he takes care of her. She doesn’t run beer or take care of the guests, she just works as a bartender.

Cloudhawk pushed one of the gold coins toward her. “Does your boss treat her well?”

Another girl hurried to answer. “More than well. He treats her like a daughter. The boss keeps a low profile in the Sandbar, but everyone respects him. The Magistrate from the elysian lands – that fatty they call ‘Uncle Seacrest’ – even he doesn’t give any trouble.”

That was exactly what Cloudhawk wanted to hear. Adder had kept his word.

He was fully prepared to show Adder the error of his ways if he’d learned Asha wasn’t being treated well. He didn’t know a lot about the strange bar owner, but Cloudhawk was no pushover. At the very least the man would wake one day to find his secret treasure trove empty. But, since he did what he promised Cloudhawk wasn’t going to start trouble.

“Alright, y’all enjoy yourselves. I need to take a piss.” He was hardly refined with his declaration, and climbed to his feet bearing a dark grin. “Make sure you treat Gabby here really well. He’s a virgin, and whichever of you ladies manages to pop his cherry will earn ten gold.”

You…

Gabriel choked on his own fury and he cowed beneath the lusty fire in the girls’ eyes. He felt like a slab of juicy meat that caught the attention of hungry lionesses.

Cloudhawk laughed, well pleased with himself and his trouble-making. He cast his friend an encouraging look, then walked away with a self-satisfied hum in his throat. He wasn’t off to the bathroom, of course. He wanted to see the bartender. He spared a few inconspicuous glances toward the iron bar spanning one wall of the establishment. Three years ago he’d expect to see that large man in the black cloak tending bar. This time he was replaced with a slim girl with a pretty face.

She was wrapped in a white dress and a mass of naturally curly hair tumbled down to her shoulders. She wasn’t wearing any market or perfume, in stark contrast to the heavily painted barmaids who shuffled back and forth carrying drinks. She was very pretty, though not stunning. A lingering charm and a frail nature that made her seem like a precious, delicate flower. Everyone who looked at her had a natural urge to keep her safe.

A rare smile, warm instead of sardonic, turned his lips.

Ten years spent in the wasteland, and people had marched in and out of his life. The old man who taught him to read. Slyfox and Maddog. Artemis. Friends who were dead and gone. Then there was the mysterious Mantis and dignified Selene. Their complicated histories and strange futures were destined to leave Cloudhawk estranged from them. He had no idea where they’d gone, or what they were doing.

He turned his head and the wasteland took them, like dunes changing in the gusting winds. The only one left was this pretty girl.

At the moment Luciasha was deftly pouring beers, and set a pair on the bar counter. She was pulling back, when suddenly a rough hand held her fast. A group of rugged and unfamiliar men stood before her.

The men bore fierce and salacious grins as they tugged at her, loudly arguing. It was clear at a glance that these men were new here. They were used to more rugged fair and were eager to try a tastier fruit. Alcohol had made them bold and impaired their thinking, otherwise they would have noticed the telling stares from the other bar patrons.

Whatever, if they got a bite out of this juicy peach what could be the worst that happened?

Over the last three years, the bartendress had lost count of the number of idiot men who’d tried to take advantage of her. The end result was often a miserable end for the fools, and so people learned that she was off limits. Knowing what was to come, the other patrons eager awaited the show.

One of the men reached out to grab a handful of her breast.

Another hand shot out from one side and snapped the man’s wrist. The pop that rang out was audible from across the bar. To say the bones broke like rotten wood would be an understatement. While the owner was still staring wide-eyed at the unnatural angle his hand was making, the mysterious fist returned to shatter his cheekbone. The thug was unconscious before he could even register the pain.

His companions suddenly weren’t in such a bawdy mood.

They didn’t know where this guy had come from, but the way he clobbered their friend like he was a toy said enough. Whoever he was, he was out of their league. The men stumbled back to get away before they were next, but as they scrambled for the door the man flung out his hand. Both were brutally pinned to columns by something punching through their backs.

Throwing spikes!

Cloudhawk handled the thugs like swatting a group of irritating flies.

Bouncers suddenly came charging over. They saw the three men and assumed there’d been a fight. Brawls and murder were not allowed in this establishment. They surrounded Cloudhawk, ready to deal with the troublemaker.

Suddenly – “Stop!” Luciasha stared at Cloudhawk’s face in shock. Silence stretched for three or four seconds before she found her voice. “Cloud… Cloudhawk?”

A smile curled the edges of his mouth. “You still remember me?”

Tears welled up in her eyes. “You’ve changed a lot.”

Cloudhawk nodded. He stretched out a hand and gently patted her hair, like a brother. His face was full of warmth and affection, no hint of dark intent. The same tenderness entered his voice. “We all change. You have too. You’re more beautiful than ever. Life must be treating you well!”

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RWX's Thoughts

Prior to this chapter, Asha was referred to simply as 阿莎; the 阿 here is a diminutive in Chinese, for example Xiao Lai might simply be referred to as A'Lai.  Her full name is now revealed as something which transliterates more closely to Lucia, so we decided to merge them into a name Luciasha and have her be referred to as a mix of her full name Luciasha and her nickname Asha.

Meanwhile, LOL at how he's messing with Gabriel.  Hope those girls won't cause Naberius to pop out...