The sandsharks had taken an unfamiliar route from Fishmonger’s Borough, so the three fugitives couldn’t return to Bonobo’s hotel. They hadn’t the slightest idea where they were. All they could do was blindly walk forward, out into the vast wilderness, and hope to stumble on a settlement.
Several days passed. They never met a soul.
Desolation stretched as far as the eye could see, with no signs of life or a drop of water for kilometers all around. Cloudhawk had enough food and water available through the phase stone that they wouldn’t starve, but it was only prolonging what seemed to be an inevitable slow roasting out here in the sands. Hard as it was for Autumn and the old man, Cloudhawk found it difficult to put one foot in front of the other. He’d hardly slept a wink.
It was the fourth day.
Cloudhawk had managed to get a few good hours of slept, and woke up feeling better. The pain was still there, but it’d eased enough that he could handle it. Of course, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. It probably meant Trespasser had completed the first stages of mutation, so his symptoms were less noticeable.
Cloudhawk’s night vision was fairly keen, he could peer out into the surrounding darkness without a problem. It was almost pitch black. No stars or moon overhead, no light. But he could still see the wastelands clear as day. He could even see a few glittering snowflakes as they tumbled through the sky.
No wonder it was so cold, he thought. It was snowing.
It only rained a handful of times out in the wastelands, and snow was even more uncommon. Cloudhawk could count the times he’d seen it on one hand. Laying out here in the dark he could see every flake. It wasn’t something he could do before. It seemed the mutations were starting to manifest.
He couldn’t drag this out for much longer. He needed to find the Dark Atom.
They were the largest Seeker organization out there, with the most remarkable scientists in all the wasteland. Cloudhawk’s illness was genetic in nature, so he knew there wasn’t anything in the elysian lands that could help him. The Dark Atom was the only group that had an answer, he was sure of it. But their headquarters was one of the greatest kept secrets in the world. If he even wanted a chance at finding it, the Sandbar was where to start. Adder claimed to know.
But how far away were they from the border town? How far away was Sandbar Outpost from the Dark Atom headquarters?
If it took him too long to find them, he was afraid it might be too late to reverse the process even if he got there. The Trespasser virus in Roste’s body had been relatively weak, but it’d turned the old man into a monster. What would the more potent strain in Cloudhawk do to him?
Autumn saw that he was awake. “Don’t lay there like you’re dead. You don’t look so bad. We should keep moving.”
Cloudhawk chuckled darkly. He reached his hands back behind his head to form a pillow. “You in a hurry? Are you worried about me?”
“Like hell. I’m eager for you to die, actually. I’m worried we’re being followed.”
Autumn’s teeth audibly ground in anger. He wasn’t taking their situation at all seriously.
She saw that he was struggling, and while she would never let it show she was concerned for him. Autumn didn’t understand why she cared at all for this bastard, but it was true that he was an important part of her success so far. She didn’t want to watch him suffer and die if she could help it.
They had to get back as soon as possible.
Cloudhawk was preparing a few teasing words when from the darkness came the twitter of a bird. Oddball came back to their small crew with its wings beating furiously. Cloudhawk’s coy phrases were replaced with surprise. “The little guy found a settlement! Cut the shit, let’s get moving!”
By dawn they could see the outpost dim on the horizon.
“Finally, alcohol!” After four days without a drink the old man was starting to lose his mind. “I hope whatever they got tastes halfway decent.”
Cloudhawk, walking at his side, rolling his eyes so hard they threatened to pop out of his skull. They could make their wine out of horse piss and he’d still drink it.
When they arrived, the old fiend heartlessly abandoned them for the nearest watering hole. Autumn hastened to ask the first person they saw for directions, and discovered that they were a four or five day walk from the border of Skycloud domain. They’d completely missed the Dust Bowl Hotel, but were still in the northern barrens.
“Now that we know the way we shouldn’t waste any time.” Autumn still held onto the flute with her frail hands. She never let it out of her sight. There was no question that the girl was exhausted, but she had no intention of staying in this settlement. “We should get a couple vehicles and head back to Sandbar Outpost.”
She looked at Cloudhawk and quickly made her case. “We’re still pretty close to Fishmonger’s Borough. After barely managing to escape we don’t want to be caught again. The Sandbar is out in the borderlands, and I doubt Ravenous Tiger and his people who dare cause trouble so close to the elysian border.”
Cloudhawk took a rare break from ridiculing her and sighed instead. “I think we’re in trouble.”
She paused, unsure what he meant. “What’s the matter?”
A snowflake about the size of a fingernail floated in the air between them. Cloudhawk reached out and grabbed it, and the snowflake quickly melted in his grip. “A rare snow day. Perfect weather for killing,” Cloudhawk muttered to himself.
Autumn saw what he meant.
There was something odd about the atmosphere in town. It was unsettlingly quiet. Although there were a number of people out and about, no one spoke to each other. In fact, it seemed everyone’s attention was on them. Hard eyes followed them, filled with dark intentions and a covetous shine.
Whack! The bar’s door was flung open. A group of four or five men tumbled out and smacked into the adjoining house.
The old cripple stumbled out after them, followed by a small avalanche of empty wine bottle. He polished off the one in his hand and punctuated it with a burp of satisfaction. He chuckled. “You sorry sacks o’ shit think you can grab us?”
Seeing their plan betrayed, someone among the crowds shouted. “Now! Surround them!”
A hundred people appeared suddenly, closing in from every direction. They held knives, guns, bows, and whatever other item they could use as a weapon. The murderous intent pouring off of them had reached a fever pitch.
While Cloudhawk and the others had fled Fishmonger’s Borough, Ravenous Tiger had done what he was instructed and sent out their bounty. Dozens of letters were sent all throughout the wastelands, stating that the Sanctum of Judgment and Fishmonger’s Borough had issued a joint bounty of ten thousand gold coins to anyone who could bring the three fugitives in alive.
One was a young woman in a green dress carrying a flute.
Another was a dark, thin drunkard with a lame leg.
The third was a black-haired young man in leather armor, a grey cloak, and a mask.
They stuck out like sore thumbs. When word of the bounty spread it sent the wastelands into a tizzy. Hundreds of trackers and hunters gathered in the area for their shot, looking for any sign of their quarry. They could hardly believe their luck when the three escapees waltzed right into town like they didn’t have a care in the world.
Sheep sauntering right into the tiger’s den.
Out here, a single elysian gold coin could buy a man’s life or a beautiful female slave. Ten gold could buy you a crew willing to do all manner of evils. A hundred gold was enough to establish a crew, and a thousand was more wealth than most knew what to do with. These strangers’ lives were worth a hundred times that!
Fishmonger’s Borough was wiling to give up a fortune for these criminals to make sure they didn’t get away.
“I don’t know why, but you lot are worth a whole lot of money. There’s no way you’re walkin’ out of here.” A man with a deep voice separated from the crowd. He was a middle-aged fellow with a long leather coat and a cold, craggy face. He moved in a purposeful, yet restrained way – the sort of way an experienced hunter might. “I see a few familiar faces as well. Come on out.”
“Heheheh! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find you here, Owl.”
A smaller group pushed their way to the fore from different angles. One was a fierce looking man with a pair of swords on his back. There was also a dwarf with what could only be described as a hand connon. Then there was a woman, who absent stroked a python that wound its way around her body. These three appeared to be unique among the other bounty hunters.
In fact, all four were famous out here in the barrens. The mob of hungry thugs that surrounded Cloudhawk were a combination of their crews. Eighty-something in total.
The middle-aged man went on. “The take is more than any one of us can handle solo. I say we tackle this together, split the reward. What do you think?”
“Fine by me!”
The other wastelander leaders agreed with the plan.
With an offer this big for their capture, it was obvious the three fugitives weren’t your typical criminals. All four crews knew it was a risk, but the rewards were too attractive to pass up. Even if they were risking their lives, a hundred thousand gold was worth it.
It would be stupid to fight each other when their prey was enough of a threat. A hundred thousand gold! Even if everyone here got a share it was enough to set them all up for life.
The dwarf with the hand cannon grinned darkly as he looked over the three targets. He fidgeted, anxious to act. “For years we’ve wandered the wastelands making a living. There isn’t a ruthless psychopath I haven’t encountered. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll surrender and come quietly. Fishmonger’s Borough might want you alive but they didn’t say anything about being in one piece.”
As the crowds closed in, sinister promise gleamed in their eyes.
But before anyone could make a move, the air was pierced by an elegant and frigid voice. “These three are mine. You all can fuck off.”
What? Who would be so bold! The voice had come from a woman.
Dozens of angry glares turned toward the speaker. A woman wrapped in a tattered cloak stood at the gate of the settlement. Her tale, attractive body was covered from head to toe in dust from the road. Her face was hidden beneath a frayed hood, revealing only threads of raven black hair.
She didn’t wait for their irritated responses.
A sharp hum buzzed in their ears.
Bright light glimmered from the woman’s hand, where a sword composed entirely of light rested. The hunters shuffled backward a step. Demonhunter! But so what if she was? If this were a common bounty they might back down, but for a hundred thousand gold they weren’t going to go home – even for a demonhunter.
She didn’t give them much time to consider.
The girl brandished her weapon, the saber of light glowing bright as a star. A column of light pierced the sky until she brought it crashing down. It cleaved the outpost gates in half, and split the earth from one end of the settlement to the other. A number of stone building collapsed, the light incinerating everything it touched.
The camp was cut almost in half with one swing of her sword! What terrible power was this?! Even the four notorious hunters stared wide-eyed at the scene.
The dwarf had spoke true; they had traversed the wastelands for years facing some of the most dangerous targets. Yet before the woman’s opening display even they felt powerless. All notions of defying her were burned away by the light of her sword.
The woman cherished words like gold. Her point made, she offered a final suggestion.
Yeah, a fortune was grand – but you had to be alive to spend it.
From what they witnessed this woman could level the entire settlement all by herself, so when she told them to fuck off it was a good idea to listen. The four hunters looked at one another, saw the hopelessness reflected in each other’s eyes, and ultimately chose to withdraw.
With the others gone, the woman slowly approached the escapees. The harsh wasteland winds plucked at her coat, from time to time revealing lily-white flesh beneath, delicate as jade. Her hood remained in place but threads of hair danced in the breeze. Every step seemed to bring with it a stifling pressure, forcing many spectators to take shaky steps backward.
Snow drifted down from above, swirling on the dancing winds. She stopped a few feet away.
Cloudhawk looked at her hands, at the gloves that covered them. He saw the cross-shaped necklace and felt that familiar hum. For the first time in a long time, a genuine smile crossed his tired face.
OH SHIIIIT! Reunion time!