Roste, both genius and madman. But whichever he was, the Academician was certainly paranoid.
These twelve old men were influential and important. They hated Roste with a passion, were jealous of his resources. It was this shared displeasure that made them create a group determined to see him brought low. Punishments under his rule were harsh and doled out often to the point where most of the Academician’s opponents were executed in the early days after he came to power. These old scientists were wise enough to hide their mutiny behind false smiles, while secretly meeting to plot his ouster.
They existed to this day because they were cautious. However, recent events had made Roste vulnerable. At last they had an opportunity to remove him from power.
Hellflower was not a revolutionary, though she was their chosen agent.
She hadn’t grown up in the base like the rest of them. Rather she was a well-renowned wandering scholar and weapons master of the wastelands. Her intellect was known among the Seekers, as was her strength among the excavator crews. Ultimately it was her wanderlust and thirst for knowledge that these old rebels used to convince her to join their cause.
Hellflower was a superior talent on her own, but with the help of this secret coterie she quickly gained the eye of Academician Roste. Before long she was one of his most treasured assistants, and her help greatly benefited the mad scientist’s research.
With Cloudhawk’s help she’d obtained the most important notes from the Academician’s work. With it in hand there was nothing left in Blackwater Base to hold her interest. Like the young wastelander she was also looking for her chance to get out from under Roste’s thumb. She could do this by helping these subversives in their quest. Once Roste was overthrown new leadership could take root.
Now this white-haired elder… he’d go down in one hit.
Once Academician Roste was out of the way it wouldn’t be difficult to deal with the ancient scholar. It was the most logical way to take control of Blackwater Base. Hellflower had spent years with various Seeker groups, and over the years she’d come to find that it was the best way to gain knowledge. Eventually she struck upon the idea of taking a base for herself, where she could establish her own laboratory.
But overthrowing the Academician wasn’t so easy.
Roste’s rule of Blackwater Base spanned decades. His power was deeply entrenched, and he enjoyed great popularity among most of the base’s populace. Destroying him would require careful planning. And yet these old fogeys were impatient! The big changes they cheered had occurred only yesterday, and already they were eager to act!
They were wrinkled old men. Were they anxious to get underway because they were afraid they would die before seeing Roste overthrown?
That was fine with her!
It would be a simple thing. Let them handle Roste, then with a little help she could guide the rage of his supporters down on their liver-spotted heads. In a single stroke she could deal with the madman and these petty rebels – two birds with one stone.
Cloudhawk, on the other hand, didn’t need to ask to know this woman’s hunger and ambition. She wouldn’t balk at any method in pursuit of her goals.
Good… this was good. The more turmoil the more opportunity!
Another one of the aging scientists rose and added his voice. “This is a chance delivered to us from on high. Most striking is the sudden schism between Roste and Hyena. But why? What could be the reason for his complete shift in loyalty? We must know the details of how it came to pass.”
Hellflower sat among them perfectly calm, revealing nothing on her face. When she spoke she did so in even, almost languid tones. “For that you must thank our young friend Cloudhawk. Without his sudden arrival this break would have taken much longer to develop.”
Most of the intelligent men present had already guessed who the young man was. He had to be the demonhunter Roste so desperately had been searching for. But how did Hyena and Roste’s issues involve the young man?
Hellflower lifted a cup of tea and took a dainty sip. “Cloudhawk, you explain.”
He obliged, giving them an abridged version of events. “It’s like this. I was able to break through his mask and see the real him. I ran before he could see me, but he knew me by scent. Hyena tried to kill me to keep me silent, but luckily mistress Hellflower showed up in the nick of time and saved my life.”
Now they understood. So that’s how it happened…
“Wait a moment!” When she heard his tale Hellflower’s face suddenly changed without warning. She shot to her feet, forgotten tea cup shattering against the floor as she fixed him with hard eyes. “You’re saying you witnessed Hyena in his beast form, before daylight? Are you sure it wasn’t day? Are you sure you aren’t misremembering!?”
How the hell do you not know? Wasn’t I there at your request?
“Impossible! That can’t be!” She stared at Cloudhawk’s face, at his expression of certainty. Standing before the others a dire and serious expression painted her pretty features. “Hyena was an important person here but he was no scientist. He was just a soldier. Even I couldn’t get into the labs without someone opening the door for me first. How could Hyena be in the labs before the doors were open at start of day?”
The old men gathered around also considered this with confused expressions. Indeed it shouldn’t have been possible.
“There is no logical explanation…” Hellflower ruminated to herself, brows knit tight. “Hyena might turn into a creature but he thinks like a man. Why would he eat the creatures here in the base? He had to know their mutations… he had to know the risks!”
Everyone’s eyes fixed on Cloudhawk.
It didn’t make sense. There were only two possibilities; one, Cloudhawk was lying, or two – that wasn’t Hyena he saw in the labs.
When she spoke again Hellflower’s voice was pointed and earnest. “Are you absolutely sure it was Hyena you saw, not someone else?”
“Well… now that you say it…” Suddenly Cloudhawk looked troubled. “It was dark, I sort of guessed based on his size and shape. I can’t tell you for certain if it was Hyena.”
Hellflower shut her eyes for a moment and sucked in a sharp breath. When they opened again there was something in them Cloudhawk hadn’t seen before. Panic. She ripped the guns from their holsters and hurriedly shouted to the others.
“It’s a trap! Run!”
All three doorways burst open at once.
Followed by a gentle cough.
A withered and emaciated figure hobbled into the center of the gathering with the help of his cane. It was the Academician.
Everyone’s face turned deathly pale.
He was as fragile a sight as ever. Spindly white hair peppered his balding head, sprouting out from skin that seemed completely devoid of moisture. His wet and cloudy eyes peered through thick glasses perched on his oversized nose, through a pale and solemn face. Although it seemed a stiff breeze would knock him over, the old scholar nonetheless filled the room with a dangerous aura.
A dozen or so soldiers stood beside him like statues.
These warriors were very different from typical bodyguards. None of them wore armor and their chests were left bare, revealing layers of corded muscle that looked like they were sculpted from iron. They saw all, and yet their eyes were unsettlingly empty – like the eyes of ghosts peering emotionlessly from the abyss.
Academician Roste kept himself on his feet with his right hand holding tight to his staff. His left pressed against his mouth as he shook with coughs. His rheumy eyes didn’t pay any of the elder scientists any mind. They swept over Cloudhawk for a moment before finally stopping on Hellflower. The old sage shook his head. “Did you think you could help this rabble remove me? Hellflower… here I thought you were an intelligent woman!”
Hellflower’s guns were held tight in her hands. “I thought the only thing in your mind was the research. You’re craftier than I expected. I underestimated you.”
Ten mutated soldiers were a terrifying force to reckon with! However the old man had made a fatal mistake, and that was coming here himself. Strong as his body guards were, there were but ten of them. The other creaky scientists had twenty fighters between them. If they rushed at him, even if they couldn’t defeat all of his guards the old man was certainly dead.
“Grab the Academician!”
The eldest was first to react and shouted the order. Twenty protectors surged forward. They were the handpicked chosen of the revolutionaries, uncommonly strong – especially Iron Bear and Black Jackal. Both of them were first class warriors, and even fighting alone they would make the transformed body guards pay.
The crowded meeting room rang with the sound of gunfire.
Academician Roste’s contingent also made their move. Their skin suddenly became thick with scales or fur and then they turned on their prey like hungry phantoms. All of a sudden a violent skirmish broke out. The sound of bones breaking, pained screams and angry roars reverberated off the walls. Together the mutants charged and in a blink killed one third of the revolutionaries. Meanwhile they only lost two of theirs.
These beasts… they were killing machines! A combination of human intellect and unbreakable animal ferocity.
If their arms were cut off they attacked with their feet. If their legs were broken they gnawed with fangs. Bullets seemed useless against their tough hide. So long as they drew breath Roste’s monsters kept fighting.
With ice-cold indifference they killed anything in their path, so ruthlessly efficient that it was hard to believe. The best way to put them down was to sever their spines or pierce their brains, otherwise they would never stop.
There was no winning a fight like this! They had to capture Roste alive.
Iron Bear and Black Jackal worked together. The former snatched up his smaller companion and flung him through the air. Black Jackal traced a perfect arc over their attackers’ heads and outside their encirclement. He planted his knees on the ceiling and thrust off to add momentum. Like a comet he was crashing down right toward Roste.
One of the body guards tried to bar his path, but Black Jackal knocked him away with the hammer in his left hand. With an open path, he brought his other hammer around for a killing blow, one that would shatter the old man’s skull. All the while Academician Roste stood perfectly still, as though he did not even have the strength to defend himself.
Was this the final moment! Were they going to succeed?
Everyone was sure of it.
Academician Roste’s eyes flashed with a cold light, and suddenly his frail and sickly exterior melted away. That keen, wise light shone in his hard gaze and his eyes turned bloody red. A stifling murderous aura surged forth from his wrinkled body.
Cloudhawk knew it right away. He foresaw the conclusion, his heart sank – they were done for!Previous Chapter Next Chapter