The troublemakers were taken away. The nobody who put them out of commission wasn’t paid any more mind. Cloudhawk took up post across the iron bar from Luciasha, and the two talked about what has happened over the last few years.
The two had traveled with each other for a month after he saved her from Lighthouse Pointe. By the time they reached the Sandbar the two were like brother and sister. For Luciasha, Cloudhawk had come to her aid when things were darkest and without hope. She would always be grateful for what he did. As for Cloudhawk, he’d never had a family. He didn’t even know what that would feel like. The girl he’d known as Asha was a rare spot of joy and purity in the wasteland. She made up for a little bit of the things he was forced to do to survive out here. He wasn’t going to allow anyone to tarnish her light.
Asha felt like it was all a dream.
Three years. In all that time she hadn’t heard a single word about the boy who’d saved her. Now, suddenly, here he was. For years the stubborn, good-hearted teenager had been in her heart. But the man who spoke with her now had none of the trappings of youth anymore. That innocent rakishness was gone. He looked like a traveler, with years of miles passed beneath his boots and beaten by the elements. Easy-going, compassionate, and a little strange. What had he gone through in the three years since she last saw him?
“It’s a long story.”
Cloudhawk didn’t know where to start. He sipped at a cocktail of booze then went over everything that had happened.
Asha interrupted in a low voice. “Squall told me a little about what happened in Skycloud.”
This news surprised Cloudhawk, and he looked at her with brows raised. “You’ve seen Squall?”
She nodded. “He’s come to see me a few times over the years. He’s always passing through, busy I think. I don’t know what he does.”
A young and easy-going face swam up from Cloudhawk’s memory. If Asha hadn’t mentioned him, Cloudhawk might have forgotten the Bloomnettle heir.
So he survived the tunnels under Skycloud city? So much had happened to him, but he defied fate and survived. Only, how was he able to life in the elysian lands after losing his identity? What Asha was telling him was that Squall had come in and out of Skycloud domain more than once. Slipping passed elysian guards at their border walls wasn’t like hopping a fence.
Asha went on in a soft voice. “Squall’s changed a lot, too.”
“That’s normal.” Cloudhawk shook his mug, swirling the liquid within. His expression was a little dulled from the alcohol, but it added to his charm. “You think you know what the future holds in store, you think you have your feet firmly on the path. Then life throws you curves, and suddenly you’re walking down a road you never thought you would be. That’s the way it is, always what we never expected.”
Luciasha gazed at Cloudhawk with tender eyes. She was just a normal girl, but a very lucky one.
She didn’t have any great powers or special skills. She wasn’t any more intelligent than anyone else, and life hadn’t promised her anything but pain. But she got lucky – lucky enough to run into a string of good people in a place where good people were rare. Coppertooth was the first, a thirty-year elysian veteran who was expelled for his ideals. Then Cloudhawk delivered her from the harsh wastelands to the safety of the Sandbar. Finally, Adder agreed to take her in and treat her like a daughter. Without these guardian angels, she would never have made it here.
Luciasha wasn’t ambitious, nor did she have any lofty desires. After what the world had done to her she resigned herself to the whims of fate. All she hoped was for peace and safety granted to the ones who cared for her.
It was just like Cloudhawk said. Life and fate took you off guard.
She wasn’t strong like he was. She couldn’t fight off attackers or anything. All she could do was cherish what she had and try to be content.
“I heard someone stood up for Luciasha when some thug got handsy. I wasn’t expecting you.”
Cloudhawk was chatting with Asha when a deep, magnetic voice arose from behind. A towering man approached, with buzz-cut hair and an average face. His hulking frame was hidden beneath a large, black cloak.
Adder. He hadn’t changed one bit in three years. He even had the same haircut.
Cloudhawk lifted his mug toward the enigmatic barkeep. “Thank you for looking after her.”
“Asha’s a good girl. I’ve got a lot of love for her.” The hard lines of his sculpted face melted as he gave her a warm smile. He drew his eyes up and down over Cloudhawk a few times and smirked. “Do you have time for a word or two?”
“As mysterious as ever.”
Cloudhawk gave Asha a little wave, then followed Adder into his secret room.
It was the same room Adder had taken him to three years prior. There were even more goodies in it now, as Cloudhawk felt no fewer than eight specific vibrations from relics. He could dispel the thought that if he were to, maybe, repurpose the contents of this treasure trove it would earn him a pretty penny. Nothing short of a princely sum, he wagered.
He put the idea away for the time being.
“Since I haven’t seen you in three years, I assume you managed to get a foothold in the elysian lands. Why are you suddenly back in the Sandbar?” Adder pulled out a bottle of liquor and poured Cloudhawk a glass. “On some sort of mission, I imagine?”
“What’s it to you?”
“I know my way around the wastelands. I have my contacts. I’m sure there are things I can learn that will help you. Seeing as you’re a friend of Lucia’s, I’ll even give you a discount.”
This gave the Warden pause. Adder was a mystery, but he certainly had influence. His help would go even farther than Hammont’s. It wasn’t unthinkable that the barkeep could help get him juicy information about the one they called the Crimson One.
Yet, as Cloudhawk was considering the offer, there was the slightest inkling in the back of his mind that stopped him. There was something about Adder he couldn’t read. The strange man was inscrutable, and although Cloudhawk wasn’t the smartest guy he was wise enough to be cautious. It didn’t make much sense to be so liberal with his secret mission, especially since he knew almost nothing about the guy offering to help.
“Come on. Secret mission… pfft. I just couldn’t fit in with those stuffy zealots is all. I came back here to see if there was a way to make a few coins. You know people, maybe there are some folks willing to spread a little wealth, eh?” Cloudhawk pointedly drew his eyes around the room. “I mean, you definitely know how to make a profit.”
“You need cash?”
“Well, it just so happens I know a way you could make a bundle. So long as you got the interest and the stones to pull it off.”
“You wouldn’t be thinking of pulling one over on me again, would you?” Cloudhawk lifted the glass and swirled its contents, though he didn’t drink. “Last time, things nearly didn’t work out very well for me.”
Adder shook his head. “This is different. Do this job, they’ll be singing your praises back in Skycloud. I don’t know why you’re here, but I’m willing to bet whatever it is won’t pay as well as I’m offering.”
“Oh yeah? What job is so lucrative, then?”
“Destroying the Dark Atom.”
“Heh. You’re a funny guy.”
“You remember that map you got me three years ago?” Adder’s face was sincere. “I cracked it. It outlines every inch, nook and cranny of the Dark Atom’s headquarters. Not much good to me though – they’re careful, and everyone I send ends up missing or dead. But maybe you have what it takes.”
“Well, that just makes it more confusing.” Cloudhawk wasn’t about to believe anything that came out of this guy’s mouth, at least not at face value. He thought Adder was a snake three years ago, and despite all that’s changed since then that feeling stayed the same. Playing with him was like smacking a viper on the head. If you stopped paying attention for one second, you got bit. “If you know where the Dark Atom headquarters is you should give the information to Skycloud authorities. That by itself will earn you huge respect. Why waste time and resources, only to share the glory anyway with me?”
“I’m not interested in what they think about me in the elysian lands. But there are things in the Dark Atom stronghold that I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on.” Adder paused for a moment. “If you were to get what I’m after and bring it to me, I’d be willing to give you everything in this room.”
This took Cloudhawk by surprise. “What is it?”
“A primeval weapon,” Adder replied. “I saw references to it in ancient books. A weapon that could level an entire city in an instant. Even gods and demons kept their distance. But it’s one-time use only. I need to know if it’s real, and if it is then I want it.”
Cloudhawk was not impressed. How could there be a weapon like that lying around somewhere, much less surviving intact after the destruction of the world? If the Dark Atom had such a weapon why would they be on the back foot? There would be no reason to suffer like they did if they could flatten Skycloud city with a snap of their fingers.
“I don’t care about any ‘prime evil’ weapon and I don’t give a shit about the Dark Atom. Not my bag, convince someone else to do your dirty work.” Cloudhawk tossed back his glass and finished its contents with an air of finality. “Thanks, barkeep. I got shit to do, so I’ll be going.”
Adder regretfully shook his head. “I hope you reconsider.”
But Cloudhawk was uninterested. He didn’t even wait for Adder to open the door, instead slipping through the treasure room’s wall like it wasn’t even there.
Adder watched the showy display with sparkling eyes.
In the end, Cloudhawk, Asha and Adder shared a meal at the bar before he left. As Asha watched him go, eyes bright, she pressed her hands together. “It looks like Cloudhawk is going to be living here. That’s wonderful!”
“Luciasha, do you trust me?”
“Why do you ask? Of course I do.”
“Who do you trust more, me or Cloudhawk?”
Asha was taken aback by the question. Both men were indispensable in her life. Admittedly she’d spent a lot less time with Cloudhawk, but she felt she knew him despite his mysteriousness. There was just something about him that made the wastelander trustworthy.
But if Cloudhawk was a clear pond, than her adoptive father was a river. Asha sensed that there was more to Adder than what she saw on the surface. No one knew where he came from or what he’d done in the past. Had he come from the wastelands, or Skycloud? He was as dangerous as he was obscure, too. But over the last three years she knew Adder saw her like his own daughter.
They were both important to her. She had faith in each of them.
“It’s alright, you don’t need to answer.” Adder affectionately ran a hand through her curly hair. His stony face broke into a smile. “After all this time, you should know you’re my girl. Sometimes I may say things you don’t like, but I have to say them as a father.”
“What is it?”
“Asha. I have a bad feeling about that man. You should stay away from him, otherwise you might be wrapped up in something uncomfortable.”
Uncomfortable? What was he talking about?
“For instance, what if you were forced to choose between him and I one day? Who would you pick?” Adder looked into his young charge’s big, pretty eyes and shook his head. “It’s the same question, asked another way. And you don’t have to answer. Just so long as you know in your heart. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do or how to think, but you need to be strong. You live in a cruel world.”
Asha stared up into the sky.
Cloudhawk… Adder… if she was forced to choose, who would she pick? She didn’t have an answer. How could she?Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Old tech, a 'prime evil' weapon, that can flatten a city but is one-use... anyone else getting certain vibes from this? And the name of the organization is the 'Dark Atom'...
Adder foreshadowing also makin' me nervous.