Night crept over Sandbar Station. The borderlands town was a sea of twinkling lamplight.
Ever since elysian soldiers were stationed in the outpost things had become calm and stable. Morale was better, and the markets had become a safe and lively place even after dark.
A withered and unobtrusive figure sat in a corner, cradling a bottle of alcohol with an iron walking stick resting by his side. He took gulps of the foul liquid while keeping himself upright, wisps of dwindling white hair swaying comically as he did so. His bloodshot eyes, dim from drink, stared into the light of a fire in front of him.
Passersby hardly looked at the pathetic beggar as they walked the market.
There was nothing strange about a crippled drunk in the wastelands. You could throw a rock and hit six just like him. The old drunk sloshed the bottle’s contents in frustration, then threw his head back and drank its contents, all while miraculously avoiding falling backwards. When it came to the final drop he smacked the empty bottle against his teeth to draw out its savory contents.
It would be unthinkable if the truth was sitting right there. This sad drunk was the same man who, just six years ago, shook heaven and earth with what he could accomplish. Now he was a casualty of the wastelands, like so many others. He chucked the empty bottle away and had another handed to him before the first hit the ground. He took a couple gulps, smacked his lips in contentment, and only then noticed the figure who had come to block his firelight. She was dressed in a ragged cloak that hid her face, but her ratty clothes couldn’t hide her majestic air. A pair of eyes – bright and clear as the full moon – looked down on him with clashing emotion.
“Thank you.” The old man managed to say. He spared her a brief look. “Do you know what you’re gonna do next?”
“Continue,” Selene replied.
It didn’t really answer his question. How was she supposed to continue? Continue tracking down her father’s murderer? Continue her father’s search for answers?
The old drunk didn’t ask, he already guessed the answer. She was so much like her dad. He opened his mouth and another slurred mess of words spilled forth. “I know a place… might be where Baldur’s remains are buried. You might as well look for your answers there. After all, you’ve gotten strong… but you haven’t inherited his full legacy yet.”
Selene turned the question back on him. “What’s your plan?”
“Me?” The drunk chuckled, revealing his yellow teeth to the firelight. The mirth died away just as fast as it came. “Now I’m out here there’s no plan to go back. Nothin’ back in the elysian lands for me – nothin’ to do with me anymore. Not interested in getting involved in your mess either. That lad Cloudhawk has the right idea. Gotta say I’m interested in his secrets, though.”
Selene looks him over for a minute then continued in her soft voice. “You of all people should know sometimes destiny makes a quiet life impossible. Cloudhawk is one of those people. The more he runs the more tangled up he gets. He tried to escape the wastelands by going to Skycloud, and this is where that brought him. He ran away from the elysian lands for the comfort of the wastelands, but found us instead.”
He filled his mouth with another gulp of booze. “Well I’m eager to see how he fucks both places up, hehehe...”
Selene wasn’t here to convince him of anything. He was in this condition because Baldur dragged him into it. How else could one of the most illustrious characters in Skycloud end up drunk and despondent on a wasteland street corner? This old man wasn’t that grand Warrior Saint anymore. He was half dead, both body and soul, waiting around for time and booze to finish the job. No one was going to help him, except himself.
Selene returned to the shop. When she got back Cloudhawk was already gone.
Gabriel was in a corner, absorbed in his knitting when she walked in. He didn’t even raise his head. “He went to Adder’s bar for a drink.”
Cloudhawk walked through the streets with a belly full of bitter complaints. He was surrounded by freaks and psychos!
An insufferably stubborn woman hellbent on revenge, a down and out drunk, a literal psychopath, and a scramble-brained nitwit. The only one even halfway normal was Barb. Things were unbearable!
Cloudhawk wasn’t sure what life had in store for him in the future, but the prospects were making him anxious. He decided to drink the edge off at Adder’s bar and speak with Luciasha.
She was a good, normal, common woman. She wasn’t involved in any crazy shit so Cloudhawk hoped spending some time with her would make him feel better. No burdens or pressure to deal with.
He was looking forward to a quiet drink when he walked into the bar. The scene he was met with almost made him jump back.
Luciasha was tending bar while a familiar man was speaking merrily with her.
The two seemed close, laughing and talking without a care. The young man she was with had his back to the door, leaning on the bar with his right arm. A bandaged left hand held his glass of alcohol.
“Cloudhawk, you’re back!” Luciasha was excited to see him again. The last few days since he’s been gone she’d missed his presence. She was surprised when Squall arrived too out of the blue, and predicted Cloudhawk would be showing up. Now he was here, just as he said. “What a coincidence you two would show up together. We should all have dinner together!”
Cloudhawk stared at Squall his eyes narrowed. His face betrayed nothing, but he walked in a way to make his weapon more easily accessible. If it was just Squall, Cloudhawk was confident he could handle him, but the Warden had already spotted the masked man nearby. His tar-black skin and burly build gave him away immediately. The pulses of resonance Cloudhawk felt from him just confirmed it. Blackfiend.
Cloudhawk had walked in to a circumstance he was ill prepared for.
Luciasha, happy and oblivious, bounded off to prepare some food. She didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.
The two men, meanwhile, sized each other up for a second. Squall finally smiled. “Think we can talk over a drink?”
Cloudhawk shrugged. “I can’t refuse Asha when she looks so excited.”
Squall nodded. “Take a seat.”
They chose a nearby table and sat across from one another.
Inwardly Cloudhawk was working out Squall’s motive. He had to admit, the guy was getting harder and harder to see through. Was he here to try and abduct Autumn? Was he here to show that he had access to Asha? But he had to know his Highwaymen didn’t have any power in the Sandbar.
A smile still played on Squall’s lips. “How are you feeling?”
Cloudhawk rolled his eyes. “Cut the shit. I’m fine. What I want to know if why you didn’t follow us the day before yesterday. I’m telling you, I’ll rip pieces off you and make sure you suffer before you die if you brought your people here.”
But Squall shook his head. “If that was my intention would we be sitting here chatting?”
“Food’s here!” Luciasha’s sing-song voice interrupted them as she approached. She placed a carefully prepared series of food and drink on the table, all full of smiles and excitement while wringing her hands in her apron. “Tuck in!”
Squall made a show of taking a deep breath to take in the pleasant scents. With a sigh of appreciation, and a grateful expression he said, “Smells amazing. You made this yourself? You’ve got a talent for it! The man that eventually wears you down will be a lucky one.”
A blush crept across her cheeks.
Cloudhawk didn’t say anything, but he did snatch up a fork and started to eat.
What a change from the day they met three years ago…
Their meal was interjected by a deep and magnetic voice from behind. “Luciasha. Your friends are back?”
The thirty-something year old man with a buzz cut and a scar over his eye was unmistakable. The large black cloak hung over him like a shadow. His presence was definitely striking. The man took in the two youths with an expression of interest. “You two. No wonder our girl is so excited.”
Cloudhawk responded through a smirk. “Ey, its you? Better late than never, right? Come! Sit! We’d love for the bar’s owner to join us for a glass or two.” 
The rickety table was laden with fragrant food and refreshing drink. Four people from four different backgrounds sat around it, harboring their own secret thoughts. They talked and laughed over drinks, and anyone who walked by might think they were just old friends catching up.
Three rounds later…
Squall rose to his feet, patting his head. “Well this was a blast. It’s been years since I’ve had so much fun over a pint. Thank you very much, Asha, for the hospitality. Cloudhawk, Adder. It was fun, we should do it again some time.”
In such a hurry to leave? Luciasha begrudgingly stood up to send him off. Squall graciously accepted with a smile, but stopped for a moment to spare a glance for Cloudhawk.
“Things have been crazy out there lately. Take care of yourself.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I know what you mean. I’m gonna make damn sure things stay straight on my end. But you, hard to keep your face clean when you’re out on the road all the time. Make sure you keep an eye out.”
“Heh… I’ll keep that in mind. I’m sure we’ll run into each other again soon.”
Squall threw his hood over his head and stepped out into the night. Blackfiend followed after like a loyal puppy. Cloudhawk watched him go, this simultaneously familiar and completely foreign character, and sighed to himself. What would he be when they met again? Friend or foe?
“Hey Asha, there’s something Adder and I need to talk about.”
Luciasha understood and busied herself with clearing away the empty plates and glasses.
Adder had spotted the subtle tenseness between Cloudhawk and Squall, but he was smart enough not to bring it up. After all, things were less interesting when you stripped them of their mystery. Once they were alone Adder looked over this young man with his black eyes and raven hair. He didn’t speak, he was waiting for his guest to make the first move.
Cloudhawk didn’t beat around the bush. “I accept your mission to infiltrate the Dark Atom.”
A flash of surprise crossed Adder’s normally inscrutable eyes. “Why the sudden change of heart?”
“I thought about it for a while after you made the offer,” he said, acting dumb. “It sounded like a good opportunity for me. If I tell the people back in Skycloud where their base is hidden you can bet your ass I’ll be rewarded. Tithes and titles, am I right? What am I doing kickin’ around here if that’s what’s on offer. Must say, I’m interested in that weapon you were talking about as well.”
Adder narrowed his eyes slightly. “Are you sure?”
Cloudhawk knew he couldn’t trick Adder so he obfuscated, offering half-truths and partial explanations. “I have my own reasons, too. Got my own business to handle with those folks, so two birds with one stone – you know what I’m saying? Mutually beneficial, as it were. I help you out, I get paid.”
Adder fiddled with a ring, turning it around his finger as he pondered for a minute. Eventually he answered. “This is a serious matter. I spent a lot of time and resources getting this information. If you don’t get what I’m after, it’d be a serious loss of my investment, you understand? I’d be thrilled if you take the mission, but I’m going to need something suitably expensive to hold as collateral.”
Fuck. Slippery as ever. How did he know what I was thinking?
Cloudhawk didn’t gave a shit about Adder’s mission. He was just accepting to get his hands on the group’s headquarters. Once got there, his only interest was to somehow convince them to deal with his condition. Whatever primeval weapon Adder wanted was just background noise. But the old snake seemed to have taken that into consideration and wanted to make sure Cloudhawk would hold up his end of the bargain.
“I don’t really have anything valuable.” Cloudhawk paused as a thought crossed his mind, then pulled a metal-bound book from his clothes. “I’ve got this, the Gospel of Sand. I can leave this famous relic with you to ease your mind if you like.”
The Gospel was indeed a precious, even priceless artifact. Cloudhawk still could only command a tenth of its power.
But you had to be alive to use a relic, and the only way to gain sometimes was to pay the appropriate cost. Cloudhawk was out of options. He handed the book to Adder, who looked it over. The barman was knowledgeable, and knew the artifact was a worthy trade. Probably the most expensive thing Cloudhawk had on him.
“Come with me.” Adder brought Cloudhawk back to his secret room and retrieved a map from a hidden compartment. He placed the map in Cloudhawk’s hands and with a grave expression said, “Everything we know about the Dark Atom is right here. Remember, your first priority has to be stealing that ancient weapon and leaving as fast as you can. The Dark Atom is a more dangerous foe than you can possibly imagine.”
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Awwwwkward dinner conversation...
Meanwhile, it's CNY madness! I've been forced to drink half a kilo of liquor (that's an actual number) twice in two days... things are weird right now.