As the small group walked into the hotel, they discovered its interior was very different from the patchwork mess of its façade.
Inside they were completely safe from the wind and sand. The walkway was lined with tidy stalls, wrapped in the scent of grilling meat. There were bottles of fruit wine with unique flavors, and even potted plants.
The hotel’s workers were equipped strangely. They had guns about the size of a grown man’s arm, but they weren’t guns that fired bullets. For the next several minutes they used the equipment to coat the visitors in a potent yellowish-white powder. When it was done they were clean, and permitted to enter.
There were a lot more people here than the outside would lead one to believe. The cafeteria alone had about forty people of all sorts, picking at plates of food.
Autumn was secretly pleased as they made their way inside. Cloudhawk was constantly bullying her, and it was a nice change of pace to see someone putting the screws to him for a change. It wasn’t much, but it sure felt good.
However, Cloudhawk didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, he was even level-headed enough to calm Barb down. A pity he wasn’t more irritated.
“Senior, this place isn’t bad.” Barb took a seat and gave the menu a cursory glance, immediately bristling up again like a cat after someone stomped on its tail. “Is this what prices are like out here? High-class hotels in the elysian lands aren’t even this expensive!”
Ten silver for a drink, another ten for a piece of break. Thirty silver for bottle of fruit wine. And one hundred silver for a special bottle from one of the stalls.
The hotel’s interior might have been barely satisfactory, but compared to anywhere in the elysian lands it might as well have been a hovel. With a handful of silver you could eat your fill in any average town back home! For the prices they were charging here, you could buy a full course meal at the best restaurants.
“Senior, we are demonhunters.” Barb rapped her knuckles against the table for emphasis. “Why should we have to put up with that ugly barbarian’s attitude? You know, if you hadn’t stopped me I would have caved that bastard Bonobo’s face in with my staff!”
“You underestimate him.” Cloudhawk responded. She wasn’t convinced, when she pressed for clarification he laughed and pulled his mask to the side. “Take things as they come. Eat what you like, drink your fill, make yourself comfortable. Our wealthy patron will make sure the tab is covered.”
Autumn’s eyes went wide. “How’s that?!”
“We’re merely demonhunters. It’s standard practice to accommodate food, lodgings and pay for deeds rendered when you hire a demonhunter for a mission. It’s Skycloud law. You don’t expect the workers to cover the cost of a mission, do you?”
Autumn grit her teeth so hard she was afraid they might crack. Accommodations! She wasn’t an elysian, how was she supposed to know anything about their rules?
Of course, the inordinate cost was a drop in the bucket for her. What she couldn’t stand was Cloudhawk’s determination to harass her.
“Right, we’re all tired from the road. Time to take it easy.” Cloudhawk completely ignored Autumn’s indignation. He picked up the menu and perused its contents. “Let’s see what this place has to offer.”
“Heheh, good luck little brother.”
A hoarse, elderly voice intruded on their conversation. His derisive laughter didn’t match the maturity of his body, though. It was crude and mocking.
Cloudhawk lifted his head.
An old man limped toward with, with a lopsided grin on his face and a cane in hand. He was covered in what could graciously be called clothes, though they looked more like dishrags. They were more patches than anything else. Sparse wisps of white hair dotted a pock-marked head, and smiling revealed a row of yellow teeth. Cloodhawk doubted the old man had ever once brushed his teeth, and the smell that came out would slay a rotwolf. Barb and Autumn both scrunched their faces in distaste.
The old man dragged his eyes over the women with a lascivious gaze.
The short haired one had a healthy glow, with tanned skin and a supple body that just had to be all sorts of bendy. He’d seen her fiery temperament, the sort of woman who was well suited for life in the wastelands. But she wasn’t a wastelander. It was easy enough to tell by her clothes and bearing that she was a demonhunter. But not the other one. The young girl with the pigtails and ivory skin was pretty as a picture. She was quiet, frail, even prettier than the short-haired one.
Who wouldn’t be envious of the man who gets to travel with a pair of women this attractive?
“Hey, old man. Watch where you point those creepy eyes. Keep it up and you can bet I’ll pluck ‘em right out of your head.” Barb could feel his greasy look as the old man in rags gave her the once over. She didn’t appreciate the covetous look. “Who are you?”
“I’m exactly what I look like; a crippled old drunkard.” The sleazy, yellow-toothed smirk never left his face. “But the look of you lot caught my eye, no ordinary folk. I know this place pretty well, so I thought I’d introduce myself, answer any questions you might have.”
The drunkard didn’t catch the eye except to earn disdain, but when Cloudhawk dropped his eyes to the old man’s cane they widened a little with surprise. There was something, a resonance. The drunkard was…
The old man seemed to notice Cloudhawk change in demeanor. He gave the young man another searching glance.
Autumn blabbed on unthinkingly. “What can you tell us, grandfather? Do you know where Fishmonger’ Borough is located?”
The old cripple answered with a raspy chuckle. “You know, my throat’s rather parched. The wine here is good, but sadly my coin purse is on the light side. I don’t have a penny to my name. If you could help an old man with a few bottles to wet my whistle, I’d be happy to sit and talk a while.”
The other patrons heard the exchange and looked at the old man with hard, contemptuous eyes. The old man had been making the rounds for days, begging for wine form anyone within earshot. But no one complied, and he was shooed away with mouthfuls of spit and curses. It was a wonder why he even still tried.
Now there were newcomers, someone else he could try his luck on. Shameless, he decided to give it a shot.
Barb gaped at him. Did he know how much a single bottle of wine cost? He had the gall to ask for several. Why not just go to the owner and ask for a whole damn cask, then?
“Alright, I’m thirsty myself. Let’s order a few bottles.”
When the old drunkard saw the bottles arrive, his greedy eyes burned with desire. He’d wandered the sands for seven days and seven nights without a drop, so when he saw the life-giving nectar make its way toward him he couldn’t help himself. Before the bottles were even placed on the table, he snatched one up, uncorked it, and guzzled it down.
“Ahh… hot, spicy, but without losing its mellow undertone. If you ask me, fruit wine is the best in all the wastelands.” The drunkard placed the bottle back on the table with a hollow thud. With a look of pure bliss he let loose a blech and reached for a second bottle. “You’re good folk,” he said.
Cloudhawk reached out and slapped away the old man’s spindly hand. “Hey old man, you aren’t here to just drink. We asked you a question.”
The cripple offered a sheepish chuckle, revealing his broken row of nasty teeth again. “Everyone in this place is trying to get in to Fishmonger’s Borough. From what I hear it’s a fine place, ‘bout fifty or sixty thousand people behind its walls. It’s hidden, safe. They aren’t afraid of you elysians, either. Got their own way to make it. Getting there’s dangerous. But no risk, no reward eh?”
There were as many as sixty-thousand people in Fishmonger’s Borough? That was a huge number for the wastelands!
Out here the struggle was always about having enough, especially in large settlements. Most of the time the lack of resources were a hard bottleneck, keeping the population in check. The only places that could support so many people were places like Greenland Outpost with its fertile forests.
Of course, compared to the elysian lands it was the size of an average town. Skycloud City had a population close to twenty million, two million of those being soldiers. If you added into that anyone of fighting age that increased the number by several times. From all the way at the top with the likes of Arcturus Cloude, to the very bottom newly minted soldier, it was like comparing apples to oranges.
So what made Fishmonger’s Borough special?
The old man had got his paws on a second bottle and pulled out its cork. He snatched a handful of dates with his free hand. “The reason is simple, and it’s not. Complicated and straightforward. Two main reasons; on the surface, the part everyone can see, they picked a fine location. The city is safe, and even the elysians would have a hard time finding it. Now if you dig deeper, well then things get more complicated. Young folk like you don’t need to bother with it, though.
The old man said nothing further, but Cloudhawk could guess a thing or two.
A place like Boondock had backing, a benefactor that stretched all the way back to Skycloud. Fishmonger’s Borough had to be similar. Some relationship made sure that they weren’t attacked.
Autumn wasn’t at all interested in any of that. “Grandpa, how can we get into the city?”
“Don’t worry, little miss. Wait, be patient. When the time comes you will find a way.”
By the second question he’d already downed the second bottle.
“You haven’t told us anything useful at all!”
Barb was fairly sure the old man was just flapping his gums to weasel some wine out of them.
“Geh,” he hiccupped. “You lot don’t know nothin’. Since you were kind enough to share some wine, I’ll fill you in before you get yourself dead.” Pop! The third bottle was open, and the cripple was tittering happily as he continued. “There are people here who’ve come from thousands of kilometers away to get into the city. Either to get rich, get their hands treasure or some other reason. Something happened and the road was closed off. They only open it once a month now, for just a few lucky folk. You know what that means?”
The three travelers were silent,
Autumn looked around the cafeteria, suddenly aware that something was wrong. The hostile looks from the other people were made her heart race. She saw it now – tight-knit groups, carefully separate from everyone else. They held their weapons in plain few and looked around with hard, vigilant eyes. Only Cloudhawk’s table seemed relaxed.
“Tut tut, take a look around. Everyone here is a wastelander that can hold their own. Practiced killers, all gathered together in a single place.” The old man’s face was already red from the drink. He continued expectantly. “In a few days we’re going to have a good show, a rare sight. If I could offer some advice, I’d tell you young ladies not to risk it. You only live once, better to spend it here on the sidelines watching the spectacle.”
The old man punctuated his warning by snatching up another bottle and unsteadily rising to his feet. He plucked another handful of dates and threw a few into his mouth. He left them with another grin. “Thanks for the wine.”
Cloudhawk poured himself a glass. “Are you on your way to Fishmonger’s Borough as well, old man?”
The cripple nodded. “I am. I’ve got important business to take care of.”
Raising the cup to his lips, Cloudhawk tossed back its contents. “So us and the others will have to fight you for the opportunity.”
“Heh, don’t worry.” The drunkard stood there with easy bearing and patted his sloppy clothes, as though trying to shoo away a fly. “I’ll kill you quick,” he said, as though describing the weather.
As he said this, tone indifferent, Barb and Autumn felt the blood freeze in their veins.
Cloudhawk narrowed his eyes. Deep inside it was almost like there was a fire burning. He raised his glass. “Thanks for the tip, elder. So before you kill me – cheers.”
“You, kid.” The old man clinked his bottle against Cloudhawk’s glass. “I like you.”