The chief was dead!
Coal felt like his head would explode. Rage, hopelessness, hatred, sorrow. Each one was like a cold knife to his heart, a searing fire in his mind.
The mutant screamed, a sound more terrible than any wasteland monster. He heaved against his bindings, snapping enough to free one of his arms. Coal whipped it around like a mace, and nearly ten soldiers died from the bludgeoning before they knew what happened.
A sword swept by to catch his arm as it passed for another swing. Drake was so fast that he appeared in front of Coal from nowhere, like he just blinked into existence. He positioned his sword in the crux of the beast’s arm to stop him from causing any more casualties.
He offered a vicious hack toward Coal. “If you want it to end then tell us what you know!”
Soldiers swarmed in and tied the mutant back up without needing to be directed.
“Ahh! Rrraagggh! Nnnrrrgghh!”
All Coal could do was yell at his powerlessness. Even with the power of fear feeding his muscles, all he could do was stare daggers at these hateful, evil men.
With a cold laugh, Brontes raised his hand. Soldiers forced a group of ten more tribesmen to their knees before him.
The vanguard leader faced Coal. “I’ll ask again. Where is the city hidden?”
Coal only screamed back at him. Brontes did not waste his breath. The giant was forced to watch as ten more of his brothers and sisters were cut down in cold blood.
Ten more were brought forward.
“Where is the city?”
Hate and resentment bubbled up inside Coal, forming into words. “Don’t kill!”
A blade flashed. Heads toppled.
This time it was children. They shivered and cried as they were forced to their knees.
Brontes raised his voice for the third time, calm and dispassionate as though he was weeding a garden. “Where is the city?”
Coal’s will crumbled. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t stand to watch them murder his tribesmen. In a voice thick with humiliation and disgrace, he said, “Don’t kill… I say.”
Brontes swung his arm. Ten smaller heads went rolling through the chasm. 
Coal’s pained well rang off the stone. He didn’t understand. He agreed! He said he would answer! Why would this demon continue to slaughter innocent people?
Brontes answered as though reading his mind. “To remind you not to make me ask three times. Now you’ve got one chance. If you try anything, everyone here will die – because of you. And they will die painfully.”
Drake just chuckled wryly at the scene. “You certainly have a way about you, Brontes.”
Hammont also admired the steadfast officer.
Coal could only remember their faces. He took in every single detail, burned them into his memory.
He made himself a promise that if he survived, he would break every bone in their body with his own hands, inch by inch. He would use his own fists to punch them flat. He would make them pay for the murder of the chief. He wouldn’t die until he made every one of them regret the evil they committed!
But even though his heart was an inferno of hatred, there was nothing Coal could do. He would be their puppet, forced to lead the way. The two hundred remaining natives were tied up and kept under guard, while Coal – bound hand and foot – was surrounded in what seemed like a sea of elysian warriors. He was given only enough slack to walk, not enough to run if a chance to flee presented itself.
The chief’s words rang in his ears. He’d heard them, he understood, but he had no choice. He couldn’t stand to watch his family be murdered.
If he didn’t promise to bring these monsters to the city, he would have had to watch as they were cut down batch after batch. It was beyond torture. There was no question in his mind that these men had nothing but evil intentions, but it was too much. There was hope, at least he thought. He didn’t know how strong the elysian force was, but secretly he thought those who lived in the city under the mountain could destroy these devils.
A mysterious group was lurking in the nearby crags. Not a large force – several hundred only – and they wore uniforms of absolute black. Only the two men in front were different.
One was a masked man hidden beneath the Wraithrobe, with a sword on his back and a strip of cloth covering his face. The other wore a long trench coat and his close-cropped hair was uncovered. He was an unassuming man, but for the scars that ran down his eyes.
“It seems they found a guide to the Dark Atom headquarters. It looks like those Seekers are finally going to meet their doom.”
“The Dark Atom has deep roots. Skycloud can’t destroy them so easily. But for the time being they will keep the elysians’ attention. That will make what we have to do easier.”
Adder’s eyes glimmered in the harsh light. Whatever he was thinking, the depths of those snake-like eyes were impossible to read.
A short time later the several hundred shadows were on the move. They came down from the mountains silent as the night. Obviously, though small in number, they were not to be underestimated.
Cloudhawk was lying on the examination table and medical instruments and strange devices whirred around him. A dozen or so scientists busily poured over the results and manipulated the machines.
He’d been their guinea pig for most of the day already. Hellflower had only visited long enough to take a vial of blood, and then she was gone. The next time she appeared she carried a syringe filled with some mysterious liquid.
She jabbed the needle into Cloudhawk’s neck. The contents of the syringe were pumped into his veins.
The first thing Cloudhawk experienced was the pain ebbing away. It washed down like a tide, starting from his head and moving down. Good… good stuff. He was surprised and delighted that a single shot would have immediate effect. The woman really knew her stuff!
“You’re lucky. A few days later and I wouldn’t have been able to help you.” Hellflower was not as excited about his change in circumstance as Cloudhawk was. Her eyebrows were wrinkled tight as she thought. “Don’t celebrate yet. Reversing this problem won’t be so easy.”
Cloudhawk rolled his head from side to side. “I feel pretty good. Everything seems normal to me now.”
“The injection I gave you temporary paralyses the trespasser virus. They are only a tenth as active as normal for the time being, almost dormant.”
“In other words you weren’t able to kill it.”
“You can’t kill it.”
“How long will it be dormant like this?”
Hellflower shook her head and said, “Trespasser’s adaptability is unprecedented. Sooner rather than later it will find a way to neutralize the medication. I imagine it won’t be long. More importantly, the injection won’t work a second time.”
His affliction wasn’t so easily solved. What were they supposed to do, then?
Her response was frank. “I’ve been carefully studying Roste’s Trespasser virus over the last several years. I have even been able to replicate a portion of it, but so far I haven’t been able to crack its secret. Do you know why?”
“Because of the complexity of the virus itself. It is constantly mutating. Roste spent most of his life researching this biological creation, and used himself as the experiment subject. At least thirty years he spent cultivating Trespasser. Extrapolating the changes is very difficult given the data we have.”
Complicated was putting it mildly.
“What is important in your case is that Trespasser has begun to spread at an increased rate. It integrates with the host’s genetic material and so won’t be transferred through blood or fluids. In other words, if I injected myself with your blood Trespasser still wouldn’t take hold and spread. After using himself as a petri dish, Roste transplanted the virus he incubated into you. Since then it’s changed considerably, almost an entirely different strain at this point. After three years it’s had time to insert itself into much of your DNA, making it even more unique from when Roste infected you.”
Cloudhawk shook his head. “I don’t understand a goddamn thing you’re saying.”
Hellflower rolled her eyes at the Warden’s ignorance. She tried to explain as simply as she could. “In short, Trespasser is unstable. It will change with its host, so Trespasser is different inside you than it was inside the Academician. What I was able to extract in your blood is completely different from Roste’s information. Two completely different things.”
Hellflower motioned toward a microscope. “See for yourself.”
The equipment in Nucleus was far superior than what they had access to in Blackwater Base. For instance, the microscope was much clearer. After setting up a sample and arranging the lenses Cloudhawk could see what was going on. He remembered the first time he had a look at Trespasser. It was a sample from Roste, and aside from mutating his blood and cells he’d seen countless green structures swimming through the plasma. That was Trespasser.
He didn’t see any little green things this time.
In his body Trespasser had become more golden in color, and the virus didn’t flow freely like in Roste’s sample. Flecks of gold were inserted in his cells like tiny jewels and visibly changed their construction.
Cloudhawk sucked in a breath. “How did this happen?!”
“That’s a question only you can answer.” Hellflower regarded him with a look of slight suspicion. “I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something more fundamentally wrong with your body. Frankly, whether you’re even human.”
He didn’t know how to respond. That was a bullshit statement, wasn’t it? Was he human? Of course he was!
Cloudhawk thought about the various ways he was different from other people and had to admit to feeling bewildered. If he was normal than what would explain his strange talents? He didn’t have an answer.
Cloudhawk shook his head. “Whether I’m normal or not, I don’t want this nasty shit in my brain. You need to help me find a way to get rid of it.”
“There is a way, but we need time.”
It didn’t matter, so long as it stopped him from becoming a monster! Cloudhawk found himself unconsciously breathing a sigh of relief.
For the time being, his illness was under control. Whatever else needed to be done to cure himself, Cloudhawk was willing to do. Living was more important than anything else.
Cloudhawk was going to ask her more questions to see what the next steps were, when he was interrupted by an explosion. The doors were blown off their hinges!
Guards that had been posted outside flew through the door frame in pieces. Blackened chunks of flesh were a precursor to a crowd of people rushing in. The one who led them was tall, really tall, and dressed all in black. He wore a cloak that looked like metal feathers, and when he entered the room it was immediately filled with a cruel aura.
“It’s Raven!” The surprised shouts came from Hellflower’s assistants. One of the braver ones had the gall to stand in his path. “What do you think you’re doing? What gives you the right to come charging in here!”
He answered with the barrel of a gun. The scientist’s head opened like a grotesque flower and splattered brains everywhere.
Cloudhawk had no idea what was going on, but he didn’t need to be a genius to figure it out. These people were here to kill Hellflower. She was the only person here who could help him, so he didn’t want to see her life cut short before she did. He shouted her way. “Go! Hurry!”
Raven’s grim voice slithered from his throat. “No one’s going anywhere.”
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