This old, crippled, horny old asshole was a secret powerhouse?
The world was full of surprises, and anything was possible. Nothing they saw should be taken lightly, either. Cloudhawk had grown strong, but he wasn’t strong enough to travel the wasteland carelessly.
By the time they finished dinner, their room was ready. All three had to share a single room, only twenty square meters. Tight quarters made for embarrassing circumstance. Barb didn’t seem to mind, however, and whether or not Autumn had a problem didn’t matter to Cloudhawk. He was certainly no gentleman, and wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to bunk with two pretty ladies.
“What was going on with that old grandpa? I didn’t know It would be so dangerous just try to and get into Fishmonger’s Borough.” Autumn walked into the room and sat with a heaving sigh. She seemed unwilling to deal with their current problems. That old man’s words weighed on her. Thinking about it still made her shiver. “Hey, Mr. Shameless. Don’t you have anything to say?”
“Are you talking to me?”
“Hmph, of course I’m talking to you!” A mischievous light flickered through her pretty eyes. “You’re a thug. You even cover your face all day from the shame.”
“What the fuck do you know, woman. I cover it to protect you.”
Autumn had just made the comment off the cuff, not knowing she’d strike a nerve. What did the mask and protecting her have to do with one another?
Cloudhawk answered her with grave sincerity. “If you looked on this handsome face every day, you couldn’t help but fall in love with me. What then? I have no interest in an immature and undeveloped girl like you.”
Autumn grabbed the closest thing to her at whipped it at his head. Cloudhawk snatched it out of the air and lazily set it aside. She wanted to scream and pull her hair out. This rogue was impossible! She couldn’t hit him, couldn’t insult him – she was so furious she could just die.
“I’m not a god, how the fuck should I know what’s going on with that old coot?” Cloudhawk dialed it back once he saw that she was really angry. This girl – he was just screwing around, and here she was getting all bent out of shape. “If you really want to know, have Barb stab him with one of her needles. Maybe she’ll learn something.”
“Are you crazy? That old guy seemed strong, but we know what those needles could do. We don’t have anything against him. How could you be so cavalier about using such a method?”
Cloudhawk had obviously been joking. How the hell was she so thick?
This was just the sort of person Autumn was – direct and earnest. She took people’s words at face value. To her, Cloudhawk was clearly overstepping. Barb’s relic was incredible, but hardly reliable. By her own words it only worked a fourth of the time. And those that do have their minds successfully read suffer terrible side-effects. Cyclops was a perfect example.
Who knew what had happened to that crazy bandit since they abandoned him. He’d lost his mind, so if an animal hadn’t gotten him by now than hunger and thirst certainly had.
Autumn closed her mouth and didn’t mention the old man again.
However, the truth was that Cloudhawk had his own suspicions about the old man.
The cripple was a sorry sight, with leathery skin and tattered clothes – the model wastelander. Only, that cane he’d been using was definitely a relic. Cloudhawk was certain the drunkard wasn’t the down-and-out wastelander he pretended to be.
So what, then? Another top-grade elysian fighter cropping up from nowhere? What elysian big-shot would chose to live out here in squalor?
“Senior, I found the washroom.” Barb came trotting back into the room, out of breath. “The hotel has several public washrooms we can use to shower. I checked one out by the way. They’re nice, you should check them out.”
Cloudhawk had been thinking about washing off the dust from the road.
“My sense is things are… delicate here. Dangers hidden around every corner.” Cloudhawk spoke earnestly with Barb. “Collect whatever information you can while you’re wandering around. We especially want to know where that old drunkard came from. If shit goes down we want to be prepared.”
Barb was eager and willing to follow instruction. “Got it! I’ll start poking around immediately.”
Barb slung the exorcist bow over her shoulder, grabbed her staff, then headed out.
Cloudhawk left as well, taking Oddball for backup.
He shut the door of their small room behind him and set off to find the washroom. What he found was a simple and crude room with a number of stalls broken up by rotted wood partitions.
There was a charge to use the bathroom, naturally. Fifty silver, clearly marked and charged to everyone who wanted it.
Out in the wastelands, bathwater and drinking water were two different things. For most places, bathwater was contaminated and not suitable to drink. Letting too much in your gullet would harm the organs. Washing the grime off wasn’t a problem, though.
“Wait a minute!” Autumn came trundling after him, carrying a pair of buckets. “Let me shower first. You can keep an eye out.”
“Why? You need a bodyguard to shower now?”
“Nonsense, of course I do! This place is full of unsavory people. What if one of them gets some ideas?” Autumn wasn’t interested in haggling over this, she was anxious to get clean. “Just keep everyone out – that means you, too. If you try to peek on me while I’m showering, I’ll… I’ll…”
Autumn suddenly realized she couldn’t even come up with a worthy threat.
“You’ll… offer your body to me?” Cloudhawk offered helpfully.
“Ugh! In your dreams!” She squared her shoulders and glared up at him. “If you walk in on me I’ll crack my own head open!”
“Well that’s… a unique threat.”
“And you won’t get a single eboncrys!”
“Fuck. Fine, you ruthless nutcase. I’ll keep watch.”
It was a rare thing for Cloudhawk to be so compliant, a welcome and happy incident for Autumn. She threatened Cloudhawk a few more times before she was satisfied, then heaved her buckets of water into the bathroom and shut the door. She carefully plucked off her clothes and hung them to the side, then scooped the water over herself with a wooden ladle. The cool and refreshing sensation sank into her bones.
As she scrubbed her pale and tender skin, for some reason her mind went back to what Cloudhawk had said back in the room: An immature and undeveloped girl like you. What the hell did he mean by that? He was always looking down on her. Autumn didn’t put much thought into her body, but she wasn’t unhappy with how she’d filled out. As far as she was concerned she had just as fine a figure as Barb.
Anyway, she was seventeen years old. What a double standard!
She inwardly groused over the insult. Back in her tribe she was called the star-wreathed princess! Everyone – from the most ancient elders, to the contemporaries, to the youngest children just learning to walk – they all knew who she was. They looked upon her with respect! But ever since leaving her home, she hadn’t come across a single decent person.
What Autumn learned was that she wasn’t really a princess at all. She was just a lucky girl, living in the shadow of her parents. Her father was a hero of the Woodland Vale, and her mother had made equally important contributions to their home. Both had sadly passed from the world some time ago, but had left a very deep impression on every member of her tribe.
Autumn was faced with the frightening and hurtful realization that out here she was nothing. No one knew her name, and she was constantly at the mercy of people like Cloudhawk. It was said that in the elysian lands there were men tens or hundreds of times more powerful than him, as well. Before she was a girl who knew nothing of the world beyond the end of her nose. Now, all of a sudden, she had been thrust into reality. Finally she had come to realize how big the world was, and how small she was as a part of it.
But things would change. Just so long as her quest in Fishmonger’s Borough went smoothly!
Autumn had finished with two buckets and lifted the third to pour over head, when she noticed something yellow through the turbid water. It was about a meter long, and covered in delicate scales. Two triangular antennae jutted from one end.
A desert viper!
Autumn had been afraid of snakes ever since she was little. With an ear-piercing shriek she threw the wooden pale across the washroom, which frightened the snake as well. It coiled up and shot out from its watery respite, sinking its teeth into Autumn’s thigh. She grabbed the thrashing reptile, pulled it off of her then flung it aside. Her leg burned like it was on fire. In moments her pale flesh was red, like blood was pooling just below the surface.
“Help! Help me!”
Autumn hurriedly grabbed her clothes and pulled them on. Meanwhile the snake was slithering closer for a second bite.
Her eyes were wide, she couldn’t get away from it. As the snake reared back Cloudhawk kicked open the door and rushed in.
“What’s going on?”
Autumn jumped as though she’d been struck by lightning, clutching her clothes to her chest. She would have jumped back, except the deadly viper was right behind her. With nowhere to go, she awkwardly stood there as all sorts of emotions raced through her. She felt like she wanted to feint.
The snake recovered from the shock of Cloudhawk’s sudden entry and started to move closer. Its supple body darted up from the ground like an arrow, aimed for Autumn’s backside. She instinctively lurched forward into the man standing before her. Cloudhawk wrapped it right arm around her, and with his left hurled a metal spike at the viper.
The snake vanished
Half a breath later the viper reappeared on the wall. A thick metal spike pinned it there.
Autumn tried to shove Cloudhawk away, but a creeping darkness entreated on her vision – the poison working its way through her veins. Her whole body felt burning hot and her heart beat furiously. She felt like it would burst out of her chest any moment.
“Did it bite you?”
Cloudhawk dropped his eyes to Autumn’s right thigh. Wasteland animals were all deadly, especially poisonous vipers. Normal folk were paralyzed ten seconds after a bite, and dead after just a couple minutes.
Mere moments had passed since she was bitten, but already her frail thigh was purple as the poison spread.
Fear and anxiety filled her. This was the first time anything like this had happened to her, she didn’t know what to do. Was the poison going to kill her? She didn’t want to die! What a shame, to die while showering. Her parents would roll over in their graves.
“Am I going to die?”
“Shut up and swallow this.”
As she opened her mouth Cloudhawk shoved a pellet of something inside. He pulled her jaw closed, forcing her to let the pill down her gullet. Next he pulled out a small knife and cut two cross-shaped wounds in her thigh. He then placed his mouth over the wounds, drawing out mouthfuls of poison and blood.
It hurt more than anything she’d ever felt.
Covering what she could with her clothes, Autumn sat on the ground. Sitting here like this, in this condition, it was unthinkable. But as she sat with Cloudhawk drawing the poison from her system, she just leaned back with her eyes closed and endured. For some reason, she didn’t feel afraid anymore.