Barb suddenly shot up from the ground, exorcist staff whipping toward the Red-Faced Ghost. The bandit easily side-stepped her attack. A pair of trenches were left in the sand from where he slid backward. He was just too quick, too skilled. Barb hadn’t managed to even snag his clothing through the whole ordeal.
Barb was in a bad way. A trickle of blood dropped from her tousled hair and down across her forehead. She looked like a wild woman, covered in dirt and wounds. It was during this moment of conflict that a strange thought crept into her mind.
Where the elysian lands the utopia she really thought they were?
Wastelanders thought so. Most elysians did, too. Barb, though… she wasn’t convinced.
Elysians were people, same as anyone, and people were flawed. They were capable of terrible, unconscionable things in the name of greed and selfishness. That was just the way man’s heart was made. Wastelanders wore this dark part of themselves in the open, but elysians had it suppressed in the name of piety.
Suppressed. Not erased.
There could be no light without shadow.
It’d been a cold winter that year in the border town. A young girl with her face and hands red from the chill wandered the streets. Her thin body was covered in threadbare rags, the only thing protecting her from the weather while she begged. Her very ill mother was inside their modest home, hacking from the sickness that consumed her lungs. Her father was a well-known rogue in town. He’d been a carpenter once, a good one too. But gambling consumed him, and alcohol. Eventually those two vices stole what little they had to feed and clothe their small family.
The girl’s earliest memories of her father were him, stumbling drunkenly through their home, beating her and her mother.
She never understood it. Her mother was famously pretty. Why did she marry a drunk and abusive piece of trash like him? She didn’t understand why her father couldn’t treat them better, like all the other families.
As it turned out… she wasn’t her father’s daughter at all.
Her birth father was a demonhunter who’d left their town some time ago – the greatest member of their community in a decade. Like all the other girls in town, her mother had been infatuated with him.
The demonhunter eventually ran off to Skycloud in pursuit of his future. There he married a noblewoman from a respected family. With such illustrious prospects, there was no gain for keeping a humble village woman. So, like in any cliché romance story, the good-hearted village woman was cast aside. To protect himself, the demonhunter used his prestigious standing to spread rumors and drag the woman’s name through the mud.
When he was done with her the town shunned the woman. She was a stain on their honor, a tarnished thing no one dared associate with. The church wouldn’t even permit her to pray inside its walls.
Eventually she married the gambler as a last resort. He was a despicable drunk, but at least he brought food home from time to time.
Worry and fatigue hounded the woman, becoming illness. Day after day it consumed her from the inside. The town doctor was indifferent, and wouldn’t even see the little girl when she once cracked her head.
Sad news came to her again when the man she called her father was found dead in a garbage heap. He’d drunken himself into a stupor, and was found three days later. She remembered the smell when they brought him home.
She couldn’t bear it anymore.
Her mother held on for a few more months. When the disease had nearly claimed her, she pulled opened up a trunk tucked away in a corner of their hovel. In the bottom was a nice white dress – the only set of decent clothing she owned. For the first time in years she dressed herself up, put on her make-up, and did her hair.
She sat before her mirror, remembering days from long ago as tears streamed down her face. Those memories carried her into darkness as she drank down a vial of poison she kept at her bedside.
To this day the girl remembered holding her mother, awash in blood and tears. With her last breaths she apologized for her life. Every day she carried on was another day she held her daughter down. She said she had rely on herself from then on. Don’t let anyone or anything hold her back. Let them spread their rumors. Dry her tears. The gods knew the truth. Don’t hold on to any hatred, because in the end hatred never brought any good.
Her mother didn’t want a funeral. The girl wrapped her in a straw mat and brought her body to the church for help. Although Skycloud had many a good soul, none were interested in helping a pitiful, hopeless girl and her dead mother.
Below the winter sun, the beggar girl disappeared. There was just a child who desperate to bury her own mother.
Her mother had been a devout believer, even though it seemed as though the gods had abandoned her. The girl couldn’t bear to bury her out in the wilderness, so she tried to arrange a humble funeral despite her mother’s wishes.
But who would stoop to help this dirty, tragic girl? Who would suffer the ire of others, wasting time, effort and money on these pariahs? The town’s clergymen were friends of the demonhunter who so maligned her mother, and would deny her a funeral even if they had the money.
The girl was lost. With nowhere to go, nowhere to turn, she knelt at the bend of a busy intersection in town with her pleas etched on a charcoal board stained with tears.
A group of boys about her age spotted her. The cursed her, laughed at her, and called her mother a whore. Asking to have a sinner like that buried in a church was beyond shameless.
The girl fought back. Her mother was not a whore, she screamed. It was all that man’s fault. They spit on her and laughed in her face. One took her board and smashed it to pieces. It was more than she could take. When she lost her temper, she pounced on the bows like a hurricane of nails and teeth. Still there were more of them than there was of her. Six boys pushed her to the ground and beat her with their hands and feet.
She curled into a ball, head covered. But she didn’t cry anymore.
The sound crashed down on them, sharp as their blows. It was loud, full of power and command.
A lavish carriage was passing by, the source of the voice. When the boys heard it they scattered. A middle-aged man stepped from the carriage, dressed in a white coat. The girl thought it looked pure as fresh snow. He was elegant, noble, almost inhuman, and where he passed the world seemed just a little brighter.
His eyes were deep, filled with insight and wisdom. There was no sense of tyranny about him, but eyes were inexorably drawn his way.
The young girl had never seen anyone so incredible.
He said nothing at first. He looked at her chalkboard, then back to her. Eventually he asked her to share her story.
Later that day, the girl’s mother was brought into the church and absolved of her sins. She was given a solemn and respectful funeral that nearly everyone in the town attended. All of this was so completely different from the day before.
And the boys who beat her? One by one they were publicly spanked, and their parents came with gifts of food and money to beg her forgiveness. The most extravagant shows of remorse, however, came from the town’s highest levels. The chaplain, garrison commander, and the mayor – men the young girl didn’t even dare look at directly – spent most of the night kneeling before her door. They would not leave until she offered them her forgiveness. The next day they were all removed from office for their despicable mishandling.
When the man in white reappeared before her, he asked a simple question: “I can make any wish of yours come true. Just speak your heart’s desire.”
The girl didn’t know who he was, but she knew he had to be someone special. Those words stayed with her for the rest of her life. Though she wasn’t sure why, one desire crystalized in her mind.
“I want to be a demonhunter.”
The man looked down at her. His clothes were still that spotless white. They reflected the light, encasing him in brilliance. It wasn’t uncomfortable, on the contrary being in his presence brought a sense of comfort. “Alright. You seem to have the aptitude. I will teach you.”
Years passed. The girl became a woman. With the help of the town she was admitted into training as a demonhunter.
After years of inquiry the girl learned who it was that came to her all those years ago. His name was Baldur Cloude , one of the three master demonhunters of Skycloud, and Demonhunter Knight-Commander of the League of Demonhunters. A true and legendary paladin of the gods.
More sad news came to the girl on the eve of her graduation. Baldur was dead! But how? What could have killed such an incredible man?
After graduating there were rich families like the Lunaes who were interested in taking her in. There were also military families keen to have her join, but she declined them all. She chose to enter the League of Demonhunters to honor the memory of the man who saved her life.
When Barb opened her eyes again, the fear and uncertainty was gone. What was left was a perfect calm, her heart smooth as a lake surface. In smooth, slow motions she leveled her exorcist staff toward her foe. In that moment, the vigor of a thousand warriors filled her.
Red-Face saw it, and was afraid.
She was wounded, he knew that much. But she still had the power to stand and fight. Standing was one thing, of course, but this aura… even the infamous desert bandit suppressed a tremble.
Hmph! She’s a spent bullet, just trying to puff herself up. One more hit and this fight’s over.
Red-Face swung his hammers, kicking up another tempest of sand and wind. They never seemed to stop as he rushed at the demonhunter.
Barb stood fast before the savage onslaught, and from her blood-tinged lips arose a battle cry that shook the earthen walls of the hotel. Without even seeing her target, she released a blast of energy easily twice as strong as she was typically capable of.
She rose up as though she weighed nothing, just the tips of her feet still on the ground. She took seven steps forward, and with each step she left behind a pool of energy. Her footfalls twinkled like stars as the power blossomed like lotus flowers. With her final step the ground gave way, leaving a crater in her wake.
Power he could hardly believe was pouring from this mere girl, true power dredged from every cell of her being. With every step she was gathering it from deep inside, and by the seventh footfall she was a font of terrifying strength. Together with the focused might of her demonhunter powers, she was an unstoppable force.
But with age came wisdom. Red-Face had survived countless fights with all manner of opponents. His response was quick and effective. He spun to the side just in time to avoid being impaled through the heart by Barb’s staff and knocked it away with his hammer. The maul in his offhand crashed into her flank.
Both of them went flying away from one another.
Red-Face hit the ground and rolled a few meters, then sprang back onto his feet. His brush with death left him shaken and drenched in a cold sweat, on the edge of collapse. When Barb hit the floor she was spent. There was nothing left to get her back on her feet.
“Tut, tut, tut… I thought you were a kitten! Turns out you’re a tigress.” Red-Faced brandished his hammers as he stalked toward Barb. “I’ll start by crippling your hands. Let’s see if you ever pick up a weapon again.”
The sound of metal on metal pierced the air. Red-Face’s hammer was held fast by a black blade.
A figure gradually emerged before him, a dim shadow eventually revealing itself as a man in a silver ghost mask. His unkempt black hair and tattered grey cloak rustled from the impact of their weapons.
Cloudhawk glared into the eyes of the bandit with terrifying hostility. His voice came through the mask like a specter’s hiss. “Not much point in kicking a girl around. It’s my turn to play.”
1. This is not an uncommon sight in China. Beggars will often find a corner and write out their story in chalk on the sidewalk or a board. as an example. The commentary also points out the truth that government safety nets – especially for the elderly – are practically nonexistent.
2. Oh shit! Selene’s dad!