Cloudhawk had changed. Selene had changed. Squall, Asha… no one was the same person they used to be.
Hellflower was the exception. Cloudhawk knew she was in her thirties, but on the surface her tender skin and fine figure still bore the mature, feminine charm of a woman in her mid twenties.
Of course, Cloudhawk was familiar with what was below the surface as well.
He’d run into a number of attractive women over the course of his adventures. Selene was an unsurpassed beauty, practically inhuman. But there was also Autumn, a rare flower from a hidden garden; Natessa, wild and unpredictable as the wind. Claudia, Barb… the list went on.
Where Hellflower differed from these other women was that she was a wastelander, through and through. She had spent her life in the same twisted, blasted landscape that spawned Cloudhawk. A beauty like hers was rarer and more precious than eboncrys out here. Her beautiful, alluring presence was more shocking than a sudden rainstorm.
What had she been doing all this time? Had she joined up with the Dark Atom?
“You little scamp. Who’d have thought we’d meet again here.” Hellflower glanced back at him with a charming smile. She was as inscrutable as ever, impossible to read. She saw Cloudhawk open his mouth and cut off his questions before he could give them voice. “After all this time I know there’s a lot you want to know. I’m anxious, too. But I need you to hold on to those thoughts for a little while. You need to see the man in charge, first. Maybe afterwards we can rekindle old flames, hm?”
What did she mean by that? He wanted to ask her a few questions, but the way she spoke to him it sounded like she had other ideas.
They made their way through an old-style building, where oddly not a single guard could be spotted. Crossing a large antechamber Cloudhawk looked up to see the ceiling open to the elements. Under the mountain they didn’t need to be concerned with sudden rainstorms or other natural troubles. An open architectural style gave the place a grander sense of scale and ample light.
Lining the walls were stacks and stacks of books, several stories of them carefully arranged on bookcases. There were large leather volumes, rolled up scrolls and more. Some of it was bits and pieces of ancient knowledge, pieced together into volumes of data and old pictures. Most of them were treatises and works of current Seeker researchers.
There was a lone occupant, climbing down one of the towering ladders that gave access to the upper shelves.
He was thin and unimpressive in demeanor. He was covered in a set of clean robes and was descended the stairs with a tome in hand. Once his feet were back on solid ground he threw the cover open and began to recite from a paragraph. His hands traced dramatic patterns through the air as he spoke aloud.
It sounded like poetry, smacking of literary self-importance.
He had a very scholarly appearance, a rare thing in the wastelands. However, it was undermined by the nondescript eyepatch that partially obscured his vision. ‘Scholar’ was the correct term, but perhaps with ‘Wasteland’ added as a prefix.
Hellflower strode forward. “I’ve brought him.”
Cloudhawk looked at the one-eyed scholar with uncertainty. “You’re Wolfblade?”
“Yes, yes. That’s me. I am Wolfblade!” He fired back a rapid response to Cloudhawk, as though afraid someone else might claim the title. With an expression of irritation at unfinished business he slapped the book closed. He looked the warden over with his one exposed eye. “Ah, this young man… You look very familiar. Have we met before?”
Wolfblade had led the charge against Hell’s Valley three years ago when they went after the demon skull. His power and leadership had left Cloudhawk with a deep impression. Could that be what he was referring to?
That would be… strange. It had been a chaotic scene when the Dark Atom razed the valley.
Cloudhawk wasn’t the least bit familiar with this man. It could have been because of the circumstances, or because the Wolfblade he thought he saw was masked and covered in bandages when he almost single-handedly took on the giants of the valley. He remembered the seething murderous presence that he had, and to look at the middle-aged scholar now it was like they were completely different people.
“You must be wondering why I haven’t just thrown you in a cage.”
“Yes, actually. I’m from Skycloud. You are the leader of the Dark Atom.”
“Skycloud, wastelands… what’s the difference? If you spent some time here studying history you might find that the dirt we all stand on was a unified whole a thousand years ago, a place we called Earth. It was a place brimming with glorious accomplishments, culture and knowledge. At one point the human population was in billions.”
That was a surprising claim. So the Dark Atom had found out what happened to the world all those years ago?
“In other words, there are no ‘elysian lands’, no ‘wastelands.’ All of it is a ploy by false gods to force division.” Wolfblade flung his hand and released the book he held. It spiraled through the air and landed in its prescribed spot on the shelves with a thunk. “Hellflower told me your story. The powers of a demonhunter, but a child of the wastelands. Interesting. What is it that brings you here?”
There was no sense of hostility from the terrorist leader. However, Cloudhawk still decided it was best to tread with caution. The simpler this man seemed, the more dangerous the Warden believed him to be.
If he were some average schmuck that would be one thing, but Wolfblade commanded the biggest Seeker organization in the wastes. If he commanded an organization this big and this secretive, he was anything but a common man. So what was he getting at?
“Back in Sandbar Station there’s a man named Adder. He managed to get his hands on a map to your headquarters.”
Cloudhawk had no qualms throwing Adder to the literal Wolf.
It wasn’t like the guy was a friend anyway, and Cloudhawk needed a way to get out from the predicament he was in. Of course he was stupid enough to say that it was an agreement between him and Adder that lead to the map coming into his possession. He figured they would find out the truth eventually, but hopefully by then Cloudhawk would be long gone.
“So in the end we were discovered?” There was brief indignation in Wolfblade’s demeanor, but it quickly melted away. “Well, in a hundred secrets there is bound to be a few that leak. It was only a matter of time before Nucleus was discovered. But that doesn’t explain why you were so eager to come here, alone.”
He was right. Cloudhawk didn’t have a good explanation. So with Hellflower there to corroborate, he gave Wolfblade a brief rundown of why he needed the Dark Atom’s help.
The scholar nodded his head through the tale. Then, wringing his hands, he said, “Roste was a singular mind when it came to biological science. He was even more brilliant than Three-Eyed Spider. A shame… a shame. However, thanks to our beautiful Hellflower we were able to salvage much. It wasn’t a total loss.”
Cloudhawk spared a glance toward the gunslinger. She looked back with a brow raised in a wordless tease.
In contemplative silence, Wolfblade turned and approached the bookshelves. By the time he reached them he’d made a decision. “I leave your circumstances to Hellflower to manage. She represents a new school of wasteland scientific thought. She’s still young, but as a scientist she is no less capable than Three-Eyed Spider.”
Surprise took Cloudhawk’s words. Was it really this easy? A brief investigation, and the matter was settled?
Cloudhawk was the first outsider to enter Nucleus ever, in all of the organization’s history. Didn’t he want to know anything else about how he did it? He’d gone from nearly losing his life due to his own overestimation, to… no troubles at all? He seemed to always run into unexpected developments.
Fuck it! He could trust Hellflower, insofar as he could trust anyone. Back in the day it was with his help that she finally managed to crack Roste’s legacy. Now, after three years of research, even if she wasn’t as brilliant as the Academician was she had to be closer than anyone else. With the resources provided by the Dark Atom, Cloudhawk was sure she could help him solve his problem.
Hellflower interjected suddenly. “Three-Eyed Spider also captured the members of the Volcano Tribe you brought with you. What are we supposed to do with them?”
This was not a pleasant revelation for Cloudhawk. This wasn’t his territory, though. How did he have the authority to decide their fate?
She was waiting for an answer, so after a few moments Cloudhawk offered his thought to Wolfblade. “The tribesmen are young mutants from the surrounding mountains. One of them, Coal, is exceptionally mutated. They’re introverted and solitary folk who have been living in the Blisterpeaks for generations. If Dark Atom decided to serve as their benefactors I’m sure the tribe would respond by offering their loyalty.”
“Ah, yes. That makes sense! A fine thought!” Wolfblade had already plucked a collection of poems from the shelf and was preparing to go back to his recitations. At Cloudhawk’s suggestions he muttered affirmations, like he either didn’t care or was incapable of forming his own opinion. He waved a hand without giving it any further thought. “Hellflower, go with Cloudhawk and release the tribesmen at once.”
Cloudhawk wasn’t wrong, either. The Volcano Tribe was a group of capable mutants.
He’d met all sorts of sweepers, mutants and twisted locals in his travels, but never any like the Volcano Tribe. Their most valuable aspect lay in the fact that they were still intelligent. Most of the time, the process of mutation brought out the most violent and aggressive aspects of a person, which eventually led to them losing their minds. Nothing more than crazed animals.
The Volcano Tribe weren’t just strong, but they were also a rarely encountered group of honest folk.
Cloudhawk didn’t want to see a people like that destroyed, nor did he want them crushed by the harsh environment of the Blisterpeak mountains. If he could convince the Dark Atom to take them in then it was a win-win. The tribesmen would definitely appreciate Cloudhawk’s help in improving their lives. Really the others didn’t matter, but Coal was strong and capable. He packed a punch as nasty as the old drunk. If he had a chance, maybe he could convince the mutant to come with him as a powerful ally.
Coal and the remaining tribesmen were kept in a nearby prison. It was clear special considerations had been taken for Coal himself, because he was bound from head to toe. A dozen soldiers were nearby in a tight cluster to make sure they didn’t try to escape.
“Release them immediately,” she commanded.
“These are the mutants Three-Eyed Spider captured outside. He demanded we keep them under strict supervision, under any circumstances...”
Just the mention of the old scientist’s name irritated Hellflower. He was without question a more practiced scientist than she, but an obnoxious old mutt all the same. A wrinkled old prune that just kept on living and annoying her with his snobbish moods.
“This is a direct order from Wolfblade! Do you men intend to disobey?”
Throwing the boss’ name around was the best way to get anything done in the Dark Atom.
Cloudhawk entered and removed their bindings. The tribesmen were frightened, but after some explanation from Cloudhawk and the woman they understood it was a mistake and breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Cloudhawk turned to Coal. “I already spoke with their leader, Wolfblade. He’s agreed to let your people into the city to live, and you’ve seen what this place is like. I’m sure your tribe will grow here.”
Coal translated what he said to the others. His fellow tribesmen looked around with glittering eues.
Coal turned back to Cloudhawk. “Chief.”
“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. We’ve arranged a place for everyone. Go back to the tribe yourself and explain the situation to them.”
Coal’s rock-like face was plastered with a goofy smile. He thanked Cloudhawk from the bottom of his heart. If not for him, Coal’s people would still be terrorized by Magmesa. It was because of him that they were allowed into this paradise. His people were simple and honest, and would not be suspicious of the offering.
Coal left on his own, back the way they came, to deliver the good news to his chief.
The chief had lived a rough life, full of hardships. Since becoming leader of his people, every day was a struggle to keep the tribe alive. From finding sustenance and maintaining shelter, to growing the tribe and making sure of their continued existence – every day was a trial. He was old now. It was time his people got to enjoy the fruits of this wonderful land of legend.
The joy Coal felt filled him up. He was delighted at his people’s good fortune.
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Good fortune is a fleeting thing in this world... and we know that Skycloud is on the way.