Cloudhakw carried Barb back to their room. There, he gave her some medicine and told Autumn to look after her.
It was the way of the world that women sometimes were synonymous with trouble. ‘They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent.’  First Autumn got herself bit by a snake, which resulted in Cloudhawk have a swollen mouth for most of the day. Then Barb got into a fight with a famous bandit which almost turned the whole hotel against them. Luckily it didn’t end up causing too much trouble.
It wasn’t all bad, though. Both of his companions had a new respect for Cloudhawk.
“Where his Excellency go?”
“Off to be sociable, of course.”
“Be sociable? What?!”
Autumn had to wonder if Cloudhawk was insane. A few hours ago the men in this hotel had tried to kill him. Now he was off to try and win them over?
Cloudhawk left the girls and went down to the cantina. At present there were about thirty wastelanders sitting in groups, many of them participants in the fight against him. Those that hadn’t knew all about the scuffle by now. When Cloudhawk walked in there was no lack of animosity in their glares.
But they also saw what the demonhunter could do. It had been enough to convince them that bothering Cloudhawk further wasn’t a good idea.
Bonobo was also there, separate from the others, quietly keeping his own counsel. And the drunkard? He didn’t miss a beat and walked right up to Cloudhawk when he walked inside, expecting wine.
The old fuck sure knew how to play the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Cloudhawk was sure he hadn’t gotten close to using his full strength today, but even the little he revealed was enough. The rest of the hotel guests probably would still be ignorant of the fact if they hadn’t seen it with their own eyes. They’d have died before they knew what hit them on their way to Fishmonger’s Borough.
No one could tell whose side the cripple was on, but it seemed like he was getting closer to the demonhunters. If they joined forces then no one would be stupid enough to try and fight them.
Outside the hotel’s walls, more than a dozen corpses had been buried. Bold men, keeping the devil company in hell, now.
“Hey, barkeep! A bottle of wine for everyone!” Cloudhawk flippantly chucked a cube of eboncrys. “Whatever y’all want to eat. It’s on me.”
Bonobo caught the cube, gave it a cautious look, then tucked it into his clothing. He gave a wave to a dazed subordinate and a few moments later, the wine flowed. Whole barrels were brought up from the cellar and tapped before everyone’s fixed gaze.
What was this all about? One bottle was a hundred silver coins! One gold!
So how much was a barrel? Bonobo was known for his stingy character and he wasn’t about to give Cloudhawk more than he paid for. What did the young demonhunter give him, anyway? Cloudhawk tapped one and the enticing scent of the wine filled the cantina. Regardless of their misgivings, the brigands came over with glasses in hand, and began pouring.
“Good shit! Don’t mind if I help myself…”
All of a sudden hard stares turned to beaming smiles as the men got their drinks. Life in the wastelands was cruel, any opportunity to drink a little and forget was welcome. Before long the cantina was alive with laughter and rough voices sharing stories. It was like nothing happened.
“A toast to you, on behalf of my brother!”
Locust approached wrapped in bandages, blood still seeping from their borders. He hobbled over, glass raised, and gave Cloudhawk a loud toast while his dimwitted brother stool beaming a few steps behind. The wound in his chest had already healed nicely.
“I never met a man who could beat Little Rock, especially not in one hit. You’re tough shit, kid. You got us convinced.”
“You’re quite the pair yourselves. I won by the skin of my teeth.”
“Keep the booze comin’!”
No one would suspect, looking at them now, that most of the people in this room had tried to put Cloudhawk in the ground.
This was the wastelands. It was a dark and twisted place, but it was honest. Happy enmity was a thing out here. Your arch-nemesis in one moment could become your closest drinking buddy in the next. Then, when the hangover’s passed, you went back to trying to murder one another. The wastelands were a place where you lived in the moment. No one cared what tomorrow brought.
“Everyone listen up for a second.” When Cloudhawk figured everyone was good and liquored up, he climbed on top of a table and gathered their attention. “I know everyone wants to get into Fishmonger’s Borough. I know it’s about money. But as important as wealth is, it isn’t worth your lives. I’m willing to give two thousand gold pieces if all of you decide to give up the journey. Payment for your losses.”
Two thousand gold pieces! To any blood-of-the-earth wastelander this was a fortune! And the demonhunter was right, the only reason they were out here was for money.
Costs in the hotel were tantamount to highway robbery, so no one was going to give up the trek easily after spending so much. Now they were being offered the choice of either getting paid a hefty sum for the mere act of going home, or fighting a demonhunter and that crazy old man. Fishmonger’s Borough wasn’t going anywhere, they could always come back for another try. As long as they made money from this trip, it was all worth it.
Cloudhawk was employing the crudest – yet most effective – means of solving problems. Throw money at it.
Two thousand gold was no small number, but luckily Cloudhawk had a sack of eboncrys at his disposal. He would make sure Autumn reimbursed him after the fact.
“Do all elysians demonhunters have pockets deep as yours?” A familiar man with a shaved head but for a pair of braids, a pair of axes on the table before him, shouted a response with genuine surprise in his voice. “Son of a bitch, if I had that much money, what fuckin’ point would there be goin’ to Fishmonger’s Borough? You need people for your crew? I – Black Whirlwind – would be happy to ditch my outfit and roll with you!”
“If I had that much money you better make sure the brothels are well stocked. I’d be there every day! Hahahaha!”
Obviously Cloudhawk’s plan had merit. Most of the brigands were ready to pack up their things that minute.
There were several who seemed reluctant to accept it, but it was no longer up to them. Cowed by the angry glares of the majority, they had no choice but to obediently bow their heads.
Cloudhawk had made it clear that this deal was contingent on none of them going. If a minority refused to accept the deal and ruined it for everyone else, well... the majority wouldn't mind dealing with them in accordance to wastelander rules!
The crowd had begun to look at Cloudhawk with new eyes. Not because he had money, but because they somehow didn’t feel the slightest bit of estrangement from this ‘elysian’ as they normally did.
He wasn’t the haughty and pious sort they expected. He was just like them; ready with a raunchy joke and just as eager for a drink or a smoke. They knew it by looking at him, this wasn’t an act. He was just like them, and didn’t look down on their lifestyle.
If not for the fact he was a demonhunter, they would have taken him for a wastelander just like them. A few were even willing to get close and work for him, men of quality.
But Cloudhawk didn’t know their motivations. He wasn’t the sort of blindly buy loyalty for loyalty’s sake. Men were complicated and greedy animals, and only a fool thought they were safe if they surrounded themselves with friends because of money. It was just as likely these bastards would stab you in the back and try to take the wealth for themselves.
Anyway, Cloudhawk’s biggest obstacle was solved. The only one he had to worry about was the drunkard, and he wasn’t going to be bought off.
His origins and motivations were a complete mystery. He didn’t want to have to deal with the guy, but maybe he wouldn’t have to. Fishmonger’s Borough could handle more than a few visitors, so the problem wasn’t insurmountable.
The second night passed in drunken celebration. The third day at Dust Bowl Lodge dawned with an ear-piercing whistle.
Cloudhawk promptly awoke and stepped outside the hotel. Out in the sand-choked desert he could see several long shadows. They were big, and coming in fast. The way they moved was strange; not a run, or a walk, or even flying. They seemed to almost… swim.
When they got close enough for people to get a good look, what they saw left them stunned.
The creatures were six or seven meters long and had no legs. Their bodies were covered in scales, much like a snake but far thicker. They had fins down along their backs and a pair on either side, and slithered along the sand. At Bonobo’s command piles of fresh meat were brought out and arranged in neat piles.
These strange, fish-like desert monsters swam through the quicksand and up to the hotel’s walls, where they began to tear at the meat Bonobo laid out.
Cloudhawk couldn’t stop the astonishment from showing in his voice. “What the fuck are those?”
“You’re trying to get to Fishmonger’s Borough and you don’t even know what sandsharks are?” The old drunkard punctuated the sentence with a roll of his eyes. “Fishmonger’s Borough is in the middle of the quicksand sea. There are no routes of travel through it, not even airships since the sea makes for dangerous air currents. These creatures are the only known way in and out of Fishmonger’s Borough.”
So that was the secret.
Bonobo greeted the critters with the meat because he was, for all intents and purposes, a bus stop. In fact, he used to have seven of the beasts shuttling back and forth, but due to some tragedy he lost most. There were only three left.
No wonder the hotels prices were so expensive!
The fish were only big enough to carry one person at a time. The journey was exhausting for them, so they took about half a month to recover before making the trek again. For those who missed their shot, that meant another six months paying through the nose for a second shot. The problem now was that Cloudhawk’s posse was exactly three people. If the old drunkard wasn’t going to give up his spot, there was bound to be conflict.
“Your Excellency, I’m not going.” Barb said it with a heavy heart. “My wounds still aren’t healed. If I go I’ll only slow you down. I won’t be much help.”
She wasn’t wrong.
She couldn’t deny how curious she was about the mysterious wastelander city, but she didn’t want to force Cloudhawk into a fight because of her wanderlust.
Cloudhawk was quiet for a moment, but ultimately nodded his head. “Alright. You’ve just had a breakthrough anyway, you need rest. Wait here. If your wounds have healed and we still haven’t come back, head to the Sandbar and look for a man named Gabriel.”
“Let’s get going.”
Bonobo busily fixed a makeshift saddle to the sandsharks and brought out the travel gear its riders would need. This included gas masks, and two oxygen tanks. Without them they were sure to die out in the quicksand sea. The drunkard made sure to top himself off with another dozen bottles of wine before climbing onto the strange mount. Of course, the bill was put on Cloudhawk’s tab. The Warden made sure to make a mental note so he could charge it to Autumn when the time came.
Before long, the three travelers were ready. Bonobo blew a long, loud note through his whistle. That was the signal for the sandsharks to depart, and so they did. Their snake-like bodies swam through the quicksand deftly.
Cloudhawk had ridden all sorts of things, from wasteland criters like jaguars and lizards, to elysian airships and war vessels. But this was the strangest yet, by far. A fish as a mount… not in his wildest dreams. He hadn’t even realized creatures like this existed in the desert.
The wastelands were full of all sorts of strange and incredible things.
At last, Cloudhawk was on his way to Fishmonger’s Borough.
Was the item Autumn searched for there? Would the Crimson One show up? What was the strange old drunk’s purpose in the city? Soon there would be answers. All the twists and turns Cloudhawk was forced to traverse to get here were coming to an end.
1. Frederick Nietzsche. The phrase in Chinese is ‘the disaster of a beautiful woman.’ I had to search over twenty minutes for a phrase to even get close to ‘women are trouble.’ I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.