Barb pulled herself up off the floor. Wrong place, wrong time. She’d nearly had her ass handed to her as collateral damage.
Anyone put in this situation would have found it simply irritating, but Barb especially wasn’t known for her even temper. The whole thing made her hopping mad.
The Red-Faced Ghost had attacked her for no reason at all, holding no punches and ready to kill her without a second thought. If she’d been half a second slower the asshole’s hammer would have crippled or killed her.
“Cocksucker! Go to hell, you fucking nutbag!”
Barb rushed at her attacker with psychic energy pulsing through the exorcist staff. Just as she was preparing to release a blast of power something stopped her. It was like she smacked headfirst into a mountain, forcing her to stagger back a few steps. Her angry eyes shot up at the figure who’d suddenly blocked her path, ready to skewer them, but stopped when she met Bonobo’s deep and inscrutable gaze. She had to settle for shooting both men a menacing gaze.
“I’ll repeat myself. Again.” Bonobo said in a threatening growl to everyone. “No fighting in my fuckin’ hotel.”
“Are you blind?!” Barb knew Bonobo was a lot stronger than he looked, so she had no recourse. “He started it! He attacked me for so reason. Now get out of my way, this dickhead needs to have his attitude adjusted. Let him learn what happens when you piss off a demonhunter!”
Demonhunter? Red-Face paused. However, when the surprise passed, Barb did not receive the respect of worship she anticipated. While the men looked nervously at her exorcist weaponry, they seemed neither afraid nor apologetic.
Bonobo didn’t give a shit about right and wrong. There were only rules. “If you want to kill him then go outside.”
“The virtuous lady wishes to challenge the Red-Faced Ghost?” The bandit’s hideous red face split into a malicious grin. His unbridled, hungry gaze slithered over her body. “Your only advantage is a nice pair of tits. You should join us, let the boys take turns grabbin’ handfuls. We’ll make sure to keep our pretty girl protected in those cold wasteland nights.”
His henchmen smirked at the dark prospect.
Red-Face went on. “What? You don’t think it’s a good deal?”
Barb grew up a commoner in Skycloud. She got to where she was today through nothing but her own grit and determination. She had more pride and self-respect than any noble.
How could she show herself in a sea of people if she wasn’t relentless and stubborn? Now this shit-stain was insulting her, and she was just supposed to turn a blind eye?
Of course, pissing her off was exactly what Red-Face was aiming to do.
He could tell from her gear that Barb was a genuine demonhunter from the elysian lands. But this wasn’t the borderlands. They were in the northern barrens. People here knew Skycloud existed but its influence didn’t extend this far. There wasn’t much fear or respect for elysians in these parts.
What gave elysians the right to hoard all that food, water, and fertile soil for themselves? Why did wastelanders have to live and die in the dirt, just because they were unfortunate enough to be born on the other side of some fucking wall?
There was a deep and lasting enmity here for elysians. Every city, every tribe cursed the name Skycloud. But they knew they were outmatched. They didn’t have the gall of a group like the Dark Atom to fight back.
But this girl was alone, with nothing but a low-level relic to protect her. She definitely wasn’t someone important back where she came from.
Demonhunters from important families almost always had fancy relics given to them, even as novices. This one was in her twenties – tough and experienced, but still using exorcist gear. That could only mean she was scrub, and not much of a threat.
Red-Face’s plan had been just to provoke a guest, get rid of them, then take the vacant room. Now that he knew who Barb was, though, plans changed.
There weren’t a ton of demonhunters, and they were especially few and far between in these parts. Coming across one all the way out here was a rare opportunity. Besting one would definitely solidify his reputation, but more than that she was a prize herself. Young, reasonably attractive. A rare fruit to be tasted.
“So what do you think,” he pressed. “You think you can take me in a fight?”
“If we’re gonna fight then let’s get on with it! You think I’m scared?”
Red-Face knew demonhunters didn’t usually travel the wastelands on their own. If she had an entourage that was no problem, but if there were other demonhunters with her things could get dicey. “So,” he went on calmly, “call out your friends then. Let’s have at it.”
She hesitated. “This doesn’t concern anyone else, just you and me.”
“You got guts!”
If the girl was going to throw herself to the fire it would be rude to deny her.
What was Red-Face going to Fishmonger’s Borough for except to make some cash? If he could capture a demonhunter bitch he wouldn’t even need to bother with the city. With those delicate elysian features she was prime goods out here, and she'd be worth twice as much since she was a demonhunter.
For wastelanders, after a certain point it didn’t matter what women looked like. A hole was a hole. What really shot costs up were quality, and status. Like a demonhunter. She would fetch a pretty penny at any slave auction in the northern barrens.
Demonhunters were worshipped back in the elysian lands. Turning her into a slave would slate any man’s lust for conquest. After all, the pleasure of the spirit was much greater than pleasures of the flesh.
Oddball was still nearby, fluttering around Barb. It saw everything that was happening and knew Barb was in danger. It tried to stop her, doing whatever it could to stall for time until Cloudhawk could show up. It was true that Oddball shared a connection with its master, but it was one limited by distance at the Warden was too far. Oddball could do nothing but wait until Cloudhawk came within range.
Asking for Cloudhawk’s help had crossed her mind, but she abandoned the thought. This was her problem, she couldn’t stomach troubling his Excellency with it.
She couldn’t run to him any time someone bullied her. That was no different than a young girl being teased and running for her daddy. To Barb, if she couldn’t handle something as simple as a personal insult then she deserved his Excellency’s scorn.
She was a big girl, she didn’t need someone to wipe her ass for her. She wasn’t an idiot, either. She knew Red-Face was strong. She knew it was probably a trap. But that wasn’t enough to back down. This was life out here in this rough place, some things had to be done even if you knew it was trouble.
Barb waved Oddball out of her face. She jumped up onto the earthen wall surrounding the hotel, then down onto the sandy ground outside. Brandishing her exorcist staff, she called a challenge. “Bring it on!”
Suddenly, a dull pain bloomed in her chest. The injury from his earlier attack was worse than she thought.
Red-Face appeared atop the wall. At her challenge he roared back, leapt into the air, and came crashing down toward her with both hammers poised. He knew how to fight, and he opened their contest charging toward her like an avalanche. How many skilled fighters died because they talked too much shit? Take whatever opportunities present themselves, attack at the right time. This was the most important rule of combat. Life before banter.
Barb wasn’t expecting it, but this time she was ready. Her exorcist staff immediately began to spin, kicking up a howling wind. She lunged forward, swung her arms up, and caught the hammers with her staff.
Barb was flung five meters away. She caught herself, gasping, with pain shooting up her arms from the impact. This asshole was strong!
Red-Face hit the ground and pushed off the soft earth with his powerful legs. Great plumes of it were kicked up as he charged ahead. With a sinister smirk on his face he closed in, windmilling his arms with a hammer in each hand. The force behind them kicked up a hurricane of wind and dust. At first glance, he could have been mistaken for a sand wyrm, tearing her way.
Bearing was important in a one-on-one contest. Intimidating the enemy often meant the upper hand. In his opening assault, Red-Face had forced Barb into a passive position, forcing her to react to his pace.
Barb planted her feet, looking for a chance to counter-attack when suddenly Red-Face stopped in his tracks. The plume of sand and wind in his wake rushed forward. Seeing this, Barb pushed off her supple legs and sprang backwards to avoid being blinded. Red-Face juked around to the side to try and flank her while their battlefield was choked with sand. He vanished from view.
Barb shut her eyes against the sand, leaving her in darkness. She focused everything on her hearing, felt the vibrations, listening for a sign. When Red-Face came at her from behind, she flung her staff around without even turning her head.
Bang! Crack! Their weapons met in a tempest of blows. The sound of their conflict reverberated like thunder.
The wall surrounding the hotel was thick with spectators now. Some were Red-Face’s henchmen, others merely passers-by who heard the commotion. It was meant to be a good show, but they were denied the spectacle when the cloud of sand hid them from view.
Red-Face was a fighter who relied on pure force. Years of harsh struggle were his teacher, and now he had crossed the threshold of mere fighter into the realm of martial arts. Every blow hummed with true power, force enough to obliterate all foes to this point. For the time being, Barb was protecting herself with her relic, but so it had not given her any sort of advantage.
From the start of their battle she’d successfully blocked four or five deadly blows. However, she saw no opportunity yet to answer with strikes of her own.
“Heh heh heh. Is this supposed to be what a demonhunter can do? Honestly, it’s a bit pathetic. Kneel. Beg for forgiveness. Swear to be my slave and maybe I’ll consider keeping you alive. Wildcats are less vicious once you pull their teeth out.”
Barb could tell that her situation was getting worse by the minute. She was already pulling out all the stops to keep herself from being smashed apart. By comparison, Red-Face still looked like he could go on.
A war hammer came right at her!
Cold iron struck Barb square in the abdomen, bringing her to her knees. Red-Face was easily strong enough to shatter bone, but he’d obviously been holding back. It wasn’t out of mercy, but because a full-armed strike would have outright killed or maimed her. Red-Face needed her whole, it was the only way she’d fetch a good price. No one wanted broken goods.
Barb swung her staff and rose back onto her feet, to which Red-Face replied with another swing of his hammer. As she flipped out of reach his hammer hit the ground, leaving a telling crater where her feet had been. Barb had taken serious damage, but she could still stand.
The bandit’s faintly visible silhouette dashed through the sand. He caught Barb with a kick, knocking her back again. A savage grin split his ugly face as he slowly closed the distance once more. He stepped on her prostrate form, pinning her to the ground. “Come on, bitch. Call me master – lemme hear how it sounds.”
Barb’s blood mixed with the sand beneath her. Her fists were curled tight. How did this happen? She’d worked hard her whole life, only to lose to a wastelander.
Was this her fate? Humble was her destiny. With no noble blood and no great talent, it didn’t matter how much blood, sweat and tears she put into getting better. For all her diligence, drive and faith, she was a girl caught beneath the boot of a wasteland bandit.
Atop the wall a pretty young girl watched with wide eyes. With a mix of fear and confusion she begged the person next to her. “Why don’t you do something?! He’s going to kill her!”
“What a pain in the ass… send her off for a simple task and she starts picking fights.”
The young man beside her stood atop the wall staring down, with the wind tousling his tattered grey cloak and black hair. Whatever expression was on his face was hidden behind the silver ghost-faced mask he wore. The hilt of a sword jutted above his right shoulder, still in its sheath, and a fist-side bird perched on his left. His arms crossed before his chest, the young man did not seem in any hurry to intervene.
It wasn’t the right time.
He recognized the bottleneck holding her back. The only way to get through it was if she broke passed it on her own.
Cloudhawk could jump in and save her from the wastelander, but he wasn’t going to be around forever. He wanted to see just how much potential she could tap when she really needed to.