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Barb was thrilled with the change in circumstance.

She didn’t know anything about Autumn or where she came from, but it was painfully obvious how pretty the girl was. Barb was embarrassed to compare herself. How could a wastelander be that pretty? What’s more, every other word out of her mouth was about eboncrys. Where did she get so much? She threw them around like they were worth less than dirt. Barb could work herself like a pack mule all the rest of her days and never have that much money.

She could see how dismissive Cloudhawk was of the girl. At the same time, he sang Barb’s praises. This made her happy.

She slung the exorcist bow off her shoulder and gripped it in one hand. A fair amount of trouble had been avoided thanks to this weapon. Without it their escape would have gone a lot less smoothly. She tentatively plucked the bowstring, testing it, then reluctantly gave it back. “Your bow is a fine one, your Excellency. Exquisite workmanship, I can tell. Worth a hundred gold at least. Here ya go.”

Such was life. Autumn had the means to throw around something worth more than a hundred gold for a single biscuit, while Barb worked herself to the bone and couldn’t afford a decent bow.

Cloudhawk saw the interest and disappointment in Barb’s eyes. With a wave he said, “I have a few. If you like it, I can lend it to you for a while. Something tells me you’re gonna need it on the road.”

Barb called herself a monster hunter, but a hunter with no bow wouldn’t survive for long. Most novice demonhunters specialized in either melee or long-range combat. The distinction was clear, especially since a young demonhunter’s choice of weaponry determined their role in combat. An exorcist staff, obviously, was suited for close encounters. They didn’t consume much energy and were quick. The drawback was they were relatively weak. Exorcist bows, in contrast, were much the opposite. They were used at range, and although they were slower and required considerable psychic energy to use, they could pack quite a punch.

Staff and bow were fundamental equipment for budding demonhunters. Those who chose the staff were typically stronger physically, and those with bows had a talent for precision and control. As one would expect, a ranged specialist would not have much of an advantage using a staff. A melee-focused demonhunter likely wouldn’t hit much if they used a bow, and may quickly run out of mental energy. They might manage to get a couple shots off, but if a target got in close it was too late to resort to a staff.

Barb had considerable potential, with talent in both areas. She was stronger than any novice, that was certain. While she might have been better suited for a bow, Barb had never had much luck with money. Since exorcist bows were several times more expensive than their close-range counterparts, she settled for a staff from the outset.

Cloudhawk, taking the girl’s self-esteem into account, decided to give it to her under the guise of ‘lending.’ 

On the surface Barb seemed a little off-the-cuff, but sometimes she proved to be quite sharp. She knew Cloudhawk’s intention in lending the bow to her and appreciated it deeply. There weren’t very many people who treated her well. Refusing the gift and making a show was low-class, so she accepted without argument. “Thank you, your Excellency!”

“Alright, hope you’re rested.” Cloudhawk slipped the mask back onto his face and pulled himself back into the driver’s seat. “We’ll be at Fishmonger’s Borough soon. The Highwaymen won’t be on our tail for a while yet. And the next time they do I’m sure they’ll think twice. Off we go.”

The buggy’s engine sputtered back to life.

Autumn kept gnawing at her biscuit as she produced a map and compass from a pocket. She confirmed Fishmonger’s Borough lay straight ahead, then off they went. After four or five hours, buildings started to sprout from the horizon.

Was this Fishmonger’s Borough? Barb and Cloudhawk looked relived, safe harbor meant they could put their troubles behind them. At least for a little while.

“Eh, that’s not right!” Autumn pointed at the map and exclaimed. “We’re on the right path, but Fishmonger’s Borough should still be farther ahead. Judging by our speed, getting there by tomorrow morning would be a stretch. It’s only afternoon. Are you sure you went the right way?”

Cloudhawk shot her a hard look. “Horseshit. I’ve survived near my whole life out here, and you have just wandered through. Of the two of us which one do you think is more likely to get lost?”

“Wastelander cities are always moving, there’s nothing strange about that. Maybe your map is just old.” Barb put her hands on the seatback in front of her and stood. She craned her long neck and squinted into the distance. “I can see it – definitely a town. It seems unlikely there would be two outposts so close to each other, so I’m thinking we’re here!”

Oddball darted off ahead to scout the area.

“We’re definitely going the right direction.” Cloudhawk frowned and shook his head. “But this settlement is too small. Hardly more than a campsite, much less a major borough.”

“So what is this place?”

“Doesn’t matter. We’ll skirt around. Better safe than sorry.”

Barb nodded. If Cloudhawk said it, then it must be the right call. Without another word she slung the bow over her shoulder and wrapped her hands instead around the exorcist staff.

Barb was ready to do anything Cloudhawk asked of her, a fact that earned considerable disdain from Autumn. Barb was supposed to be a demonhunter too, right? What was she doing groveling before this man so pathetically? She had no self-respect.

What Autumn didn’t understand was that Barb had come from a poor family. She wasn’t like Selene Cloud or Dawn Polaris, born with a sterling future and a silver spoon in their mouths. Neither was she like Frost de Winter, who was taken in by an illustrious teacher. Barb didn’t even have the good fortune of someone like Cloudhawk or Squall. For someone like her, even moving in the same circles as these people was incredibly hard.

Barb’s dream was to travel with an experienced senior, someone rich in knowledge and experience who could teach her. Three years ago Cloudhawk didn’t even know what was in store for him, so he refused Barb’s offer to travel together. The situation was different this time. Cloudhawk was better than before; weaker than some, but stronger than most. While not a dominant force, he was more than capable of handling himself. Little by little, Barb was proving herself to be a woman of talent – talent worth cultivating.

The outpost drew closer. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. They’d figure it out when they got there.

All of a sudden they were struck by a strange sensation. The buggy’s engine roared and its wheels fired up to dangerous rpms. The instrument panel said they were going eighty kilometers an hour. But they weren’t moving. They were stuck in place.

Autumn immediately took the opportunity to mock her tormentor. “Is this how you drive? Now we’re stuck in a ditch!”

Cloudhawk wrinkled his brow but paid her no mind. Dune buggies were designed to handle rough terrain, but it wasn’t unheard of for one to break down in particularly fine sand. But that didn’t seem to be the case here.

Cloudhawk gripped the roll cage and was about to jump out so he could take a look, when unexpectedly something jerked the whole vehicle. It slid more than ten meters down a slope to their right.

“Ahhh!” Autumn held tight so she wouldn’t be thrown, her face instantly going pale. “What’s going on?!”

Barb’s voice was stern. “Senior. Something’s got us from under the sand.”

Her words were punctuated by another violent tug. They’d lost control, and were being dragged to the center of a sandy pit as though on rails. It was like being on a boat stuck in a whirlpool, slowly being dragged to its doom.

“Son of a bitch. We’re in trouble!”

Overhead, Oddball looked down at the expanse of desert as it passed below. It spotted the problem right away: The whole area for a hundred kilometers all around was thickly dotted with pits. The smallest ones were several meters across, while the largest were a couple hundred. At ground level it was easy to dismiss the features as nothing more than odd.

But they were more than odd, and more than mere divots. It was quicksand!

From above Oddball could see that the pits were flowing. It was hard to see without a keen eye, but close inspection showed that everything was being inexorably drawn to the center of these pits. Something was in there, waiting for whatever was caught to reach it.

It was too late!

The dune buggy was dragged further into the pit, nearly rolling as it did. As it moved closer to the center, Cloudhawk grabbed both women in turn and heaved them from the car. Once clear, he jumped out after them. His feet hit the ground, but then instantly sunk into the roiling sand. He was stuck up to his waist.

“Save me!”

Autumn’s head was the only thing above ground. She nearly choked on sand just trying to scream. She tried to struggle, thrashing her arms and kicking her legs, but to no avail. There was no resistance, but she just kept sinking. Things were worse for Barb, who had been flung into the sand head first. Her upper half was buried in the quicksand, and her legs kicked wildly in the air.

The sand was fluid was water but grasping as mud. Once you slipped it, getting out took ten times the effort.

Someone who didn’t know how to swim was fated to drown, however they treaded water. It was about how you used your energy, not how much. About the only person who could find the leverage to get free of their own accord were martial artists, capable of using the total power of every cell. 

Cloudhawk quickly engaged his phase stone and fumbled out from the quicksand.

The bugger was heavier than them, so it sank much faster. In the few seconds since they ejected it had already reached the center of the pit. What followed was equal parts terrifying and unexpected, as from the depths rose a monster five meters thick and thirty meters tall. The beast had no eyes or nose, but it did have a mouth filled with rings of dagger-like teeth. Its nightmarish maw clamped around the buggy and immediately reduced half of it to ruin. Metal screeched and cracked as the monster gnashed its teeth. The slag was gulped down and disappeared.

Holy shit, this thing was fucking crazy!

Cloudhawk didn’t waste any time. His feet touched the ground and in that moment granules of golden sand behind to emerge. Like a cold snap it froze the swirling quicksand in place and stopped the women from sinking further. Threads of power rippled through the pit, forming into arms that held Barb and Autumn fast. Meanwhile, Cloudhawk fished them out and the three scrambled out of the pit before they became the monster’s next meal.

Barb and Autumn fought against racing hearts, trying to catch their breath. Especially after seeing the thing that lived down there, their body were drenched in cold sweat that made the sand stick to them. It was like a pit that led right to hell.

They were everywhere around here, pits just like this one. And horrible creatures like that lived at the center of each of them. Anything careless enough to get caught in quicksand quickly became lunch.

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