The Seekers group brought the unconscious mercenary leader with them as they left. As dutifully as he promised, Cloudhawk followed. He had no intention of causing trouble, especially since he was surrounded by several men with lightning-spitting weapons. Any wrong move could result in receiving a few hundred volts, not to mention the unfathomable Hyena was always nearby.
The one Seeker he knew was as strong as Hydra, so far as Cloudhawk could tell, maybe a little weaker. The likes of Snaketooth or Artemis, however, wouldn’t have stood a chance against him.
Before long several peculiar looking vehicles appeared. They were a strange combination of beast and machine, wooden sleds led by a contingent of something like deer? It was well suited for the marshy terrain, certainly. The pack animals were wrapped in copper pipe, some of which dug into their bodies, which made them look like some nightmarish amalgamation of flesh and metal. The wooden sled they dragged had some capability to move on its own as well, making it even faster.
Hyena gave Cloudhawk a light shove. “Get on!”
Cloudhawk dutifully clambered up on the odd vehicle. When everyone was aboard Hyena somehow turned the grotesque contraption on and the machine-creatures started to move. They were sailing along the marsh in short order. Cloudhawk could tell that the sled itself could move, which as well as being pulled made it exceedingly fast.
The valley marsh was much larger than he’d anticipated. The further in they went the denser and quieter it became. It was no wonder no one had found the Seekers, even after so many years. Typical wastelanders didn’t have the means or interest to travel so deeply into this dangerous territory.
As they continued ruined buildings appeared more regularly, peaking up through the bog. It was hard to judge scale or number since most of the wreckage was scattered and half buried. They swept past like towering sentinels, and before them rose a single peak. They were headed toward the grotto at its base.
The grotto was a dark and serene hideaway which narrowed into a hall. Its walls were smooth and the floor was paved with smooth and even stone, clearly not natural features. Despite what had to be years of use there were no cracks or blemishes to catch their toes.
Hyena led Cloudhawk down the passage and deeper into the mountain.
The young wastelander noted that the hall was sloped downward and the deeper they went the further underground they were going. He couldn’t imagine this being possible with current technology, so this place had to be a holdover from the ancient days. The large, metallic polygonal door that arose to block their path confirmed his suspicions.
The door had been cleaned up, but corrosion was still visible along its surface. It spoke to the many years this door must have seen march by. Letters etched on its surface read ‘Blackwater Base.’
Blackwater Base? That’s a strange name…
A cluster of sentries with guns guarded the door. Compared to those at Greenland Outpost they were orders of magnitude better equipped. Cloudhawk lifted his head and above the door he spotted a small alcove. The barrel of a minigun, black as pitch, was pointed their way. Anyone who dared try to fight their way past the door would be shot to ribbons before they could get close.
Several of the sentries approached. “Hyena, boss, back so soon?”
Hyena didn’t pay them any mind. “Open the door!”
The guard captain fished out a complicated-looking seven-section key and inserted it into the door. Once one section was properly inserted and turned the rest of the key could be pushed in like a seven-digit passcode. Cloudhawk heard the squeal and grind of gears before the heavy door parted.
Cloudhawk had never seen mechanisms so exquisite before, and the shock only increased as he walked in to view the scene beyond. It was magnificent. Though they were clearly underground the base was far from gloomy, for it was peppered with strange trees that released light. Several electric lamps supplemented them.
Everywhere he looked machinery whirred. Pipes snaked along the walls and released pure water clear as crystal. This place had to have a state of the art water purification system that allowed them to turn the poison bog water into something drinkable.
If nothing else that made Blackwater Base a unique jewel in the wastelands.
As they made their way through the base Cloudhawk noted that there weren’t many people. Eyeballing it he figured there couldn’t be more than ten thousand residents. The biggest difference he recognized was how they dressed; Seekers wore more refined clothes like people of the ancient days, whereas excavators were clad in simple and primitive clothing.
Hyena was not in the mood to stroll about. He led Cloudhawk quickly through the common area to arrive at a heavily guarded cave entrance.
“This is –“
Cloudhawk gaped at what appeared before him. It wasn’t humans guarding the cave. They were beasts.
Each guard was reptilian in appearance, but very different than one might expect. They stood back on two legs, slightly hunched over, and their beady black eyes carefully scanned their surroundings. From time to time a black forked tongue would slither out of their mouths to taste the air. Their equipment was humanoid; leather armor and bows in their man-like hands. Vigilantly they guarded the cave.
These things weren’t the least bit human. They were creatures, head to toe!
Hyena saw Cloudhawk’s stunned expression and offered a languid explanation. “Don’t worry, the lizard guards are loyal. They’ll only attack if you give them a reason to.”
Cloudhawk had completely forgotten about his pain. He stared at one of the creatures in curiosity for a long time. “Why does it look kind of human? I’ve never seen a lizard that can use bows!”
“It’s been mutated.” Hyena’s face never changed as he patiently explained. “And that’s all you need to know. They were created by the Academician.”
Cloudhawk fought with the word. “Aca... de... mician?”
“A title taken from the ancient books. It means someone who is wise, learned.” Hyena punctuated the explanation with a note of assurance. “The Academician is the wisest person in Blackwater Base. We’re headed for the laboratory, you’ll meet soon.”
Cloudhawk hobbled after Hyena as they made their way into the heavily guarded area. As he looked around the young man noted that he’d never seen a cleaner or more organized place in all his life. The floors and walls looked painstakingly cared for, even polished. They were so spotless he could almost see his reflection.
Cloudhawk had lived his life in the presence of filth; filthy places and filthy people. Here, amongst this immaculate environment he was clearly uncomfortable. The next thing he noticed were several dozen steel cages housing various creatures.
Wolves, panthers, lizards, giant rats, and some creatures Cloudhawk couldn’t identify. These ferocious beasts hunched in their cages listlessly, hardly even opening their eyes as they passed.
Hyena explained that they were experimental subjects.
Cloudhawk was puzzled. How was this Academician guy able to capture and experiment on these creatures for so many years? They passed through an iron door and were met with the squeals of pained animals.
He saw a giant rat, its body painted with blood, strapped to a platform. Infusion tubes impaled it; all sorts of medicinal fluids – green, blue, red – were being pumped into its body. It was apparently a painful process, for the rat screeched and writhed. The pores along its body tore and blood leaked freely from them like it’d been flayed.
Cloudhawk couldn’t keep his curiosity inside. “Why are they tormenting this mutated rat?”
To Hyena this was clearly a standard scene. “These subjects hold a very high value. Through special procedures the Academician has a high probability of instigating mutations. We then harvest valuable medicinal materials from them. Some even develop intelligence.”
In all the wastelands only the Academician was able to perform such shocking and incredible feats.
As Hyena explained he did not notice the strange look that came over Cloudhawk’s face. The young man suddenly remembered something he’d encountered before – the rat king. He remembered it clearly, for it was one of those rare mutations that turned a beast intelligent. Or was it? Could the rat king have escaped from here? Released from here?
Cloudhawk watched the rat scream and struggle upon the operating table in quiet thought. This whole laboratory was unimaginably strange. There were perhaps a hundred Seekers performing experiments on these monsters. He spied a specimen containment room were thousands of wasteland beasts were held. Another room was where they left the failed experiments. Perhaps a hundred corpses were piled up awaiting disposal.
Cloudhawk was completely taken aback. This was like nothing he could have imagined.
Hyena led them to a room framed in glass, wherein a tall and thin person was standing. When they were perhaps a dozen feet away he was able to see that the person was a youngish woman. She was clad in clean white clothes – a rarity in the wastelands, for sure – as well as gloves and a mask. Her attention was concentrated on one of her experiment subjects.
Although he couldn’t see her face, her figure was alluring and her bearing refined. Her backside was especially pleasing to the eye, round and plump, and leading into a pair of shapely long legs. She was built to catch a man’s attention.
Was this the Academician?
Definitely not what Cloudhawk had imagined. Was the most prestigious person in Blackwater Base her? A woman? He didn’t know how capable this place was compared to Greenland Outpost, but if he was going by Hyena no typical person could demand obedience from a creature like him. How could a woman like her who was still young in years command them?
The only thing he could think of was that she had to have skills comparable to the Bloodsoaked Queen.
Sensing their arrival the woman stopped her work and slowly raised her head. She fixed them with two shimmering eyes that were like deep twin pools. In addition to her round backside and long legs, she also had a plump chest. She looked at them through a pair of safety goggles framed by silvery hair rarely seen in the wastelands. It only increased her mature and dignified appearance.
“This is the Academician’s assistant, Manjusaka . Most just call her Hellflower.” Hyena quietly introduced her before respectfully stepping forward. “The demonhunter our Academician wished to meet has arrived.”
Manjusaka is an AWESOME name, but I don't think it's ever used again in the novel - Hellflower is what we'll see many, many times in the future...