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It was like a moment, like a millennia.

Cloudhawk managed to drag himself out of the miasma of unconsciousness, but it took some time for all of his senses to return. Pain followed, washing over him like a tide. In an attempt to make up for lost time it felt twice as intense as before he fell into a coma. It was so intense, in fact, that even his hearty constitution was overwhelmed. He would rather fall back into darkness.

Where was he?

Will considerable effort Cloudhawk opened his eyes. At first, everything was blurry. He could only make out shapes. He was lying flat – he could tell that much. When he tried to move Cloudhawk found his body covered in strange instruments. Turning his attention around, he noticed bottles of different sizes with various sorts of fluids hanging all around. Brown, green, clear, each dripping into long tubes that were inserted into him. 

A few shadows shuffled nearby.

“There’s terrible damage both inside and out. Far as I can tell, there isn’t a single piece of him that escaped damage. If he makes it, it would be nothing short of a miracle.

“Hush, keep your voice down. If Hellflower hears you talking like that she’ll throw you in the biochemical furnace as her next experiment. Don’t you know her relationship with this guy?”

“Weird. What’s a woman like her doing with a guy like this?”

“Hey, look. He’s coming around.

“Quick, let the others know.”

Cloudhawk recognized the buzz in his ears as voices, but he couldn’t figure out the meaning. Four or five minutes later, another familiar image filled his hazy vision. She had a devilishly curvaceous figure, barely hidden beneath a white lab coat. Her mature and charming face came into full view as she leaned in for a closer look.

She looked surprised, then breathed a sigh of relief.

“He is awake.”

Hellflower? The name fought through the mist choking his brain. Only he couldn’t move or react. It was like his body didn’t belong to him. He couldn’t lift his head, much less get up to greet her.

She said a few things to him, but it was like his head was stuffed with cotton. Everything seemed surreal and far away. Hellflower seemed to recognize the pain he was in, and her face softened like a mother looking over her child. “Rest, you’ll feel better soon.”

He vaguely felt a needle punch through his skin. Some unknown medicine was released into his veins.

After a moment the burning pain eased. Sleep came for him once again, longer this time. He was lost in a world of dreams, waking up from time to time only to slip back into unconsciousness after a few moments.

Eventually he came to feeling much better. He was at least able to move a little.

He was tired of laying still, so Cloudhawk pulled the many tubes from his arms and legs, and rolled onto the ground. Staggering back to his feet, he tried to walk.

Strange… when did his balance get so bad? There was no strength in his legs, either. He struggled to put one foot in front of the other, like he was an infant.

He glanced up, noting a mirror in front of him. The reflection that greeted him was nothing short of grotesque.

He was wrapped in bandages from head to toe. The only thing he could recognize was his eyes. In sick fascination he unraveled the bandages and inhaled sharply at what he found.

Every inch of his skin was bright scarlet, full of pits and bumps. Ugly was certainly the proper phrase, like the skin of a toad. When it touched the air he felt a combination of tingling and burning pain. Cloudhawk didn’t need to remove all of his bandages to know the rest of his body was in similar condition. He’d been turned into some kind of hideous freak.

But… why?

The last thing he remembered was the fight with Arcturus. To protect the drunk, he flung himself in front of the Governor’s attack. It was a gamble that paid off, for Arcturus broke off his attack – but the damage he did in just an instant was severe. At the time he’d been burned so badly he didn’t even tell how serious the damage was. Now it was clear he probably would have preferred to just die.

Motherfucker! As the anger swelled inside of him, another wave of pain made him dizzy. The injuries to his mind still weren’t healed.

It never rains but it pours, the old books said. The slightest emotional aggravation and it felt like a hundred knives carving into his brain. The pain made him see double.

“I did what I could.”

The charming and magnetic voice drew his attention. He spied the beautiful woman leaning against the door frame. Hellflower, of course.

Cloudhawk looked at his hands, wrapped up in bandages like a mummy. “What’s going on?”

“You should be happy. The fact that you’re alive after the injuries you sustained is incredible. Unfortunately I was only able to heal your body. As for your mind… that’s the science of the gods, and I’m only a novice. I can’t help you with that, I’m sorry.”

Cloudhawk took a deep breath to calm himself down.

“How long was I out? Where am I, anyway?”

“You haven’t been asleep too long, about a month. This is my laboratory in Woodland Vale.”

A month? The words were like a basin of ice water poured over his head. Up to now he’d been able to recover from almost any injury within a matter of hours, days at the worst. If after a month he was still this rotten, then he really had to be at death’s door.

She was right, it was amazing he was still breathing. But was the damage permanent? 

Fuck… no way I’m gonna turn into the next drunk asshole.

Cloudhawk didn’t know Vulkan before his encounter with Arcturus, but whatever happened turned the War Saint into a lame hobo wallowing forever in self pity. Visions of the old man stinking drunk, stuffing a bottle between yellow teeth danced in his mind.

“Don’t worry.” Hellflower extended tow pale fingers and strokes Cloudhawk’s arm assuringly. She smiled, trying to give him comfort. “Even if you are disfigured, I won’t abandon you, my young friend.”

Cloudhawk angrily slapped her hand away. But before he could give her a piece of his mind, the pain returned. 

“Heh… what you see scares you. You didn’t think about the consequences when you brazenly looked for death at the hands of Arcturus, did you? Now you’re filled with regret!”

Cloudhawk refused to accept that this was who he was now. There was still so much to do, not least of which was making that bastard Arcturus pay for what he’d done. How was he supposed to accomplish that now, when he was a shadow of his former self?

Hellflower chuckled in the face of his terror. Her curves juggled pleasingly, But Cloudhawk was in no mood to appreciate what he saw. He asked the burning question. “Will I recover?”

“Anyone else and I would say you were dreaming. But Trespasser still flows in your veins, so with patience you will get better. The question is, how long before you’re back to where you were?”

Her words put him at ease, at least a little. He asked another question. “How long, just a guess?”

She shook her head. “A year or two for the body on the quick end of the scale. Three to five at the most. As for the mental damage, that depends on how far I’ve come...”

His heart sank. “Too long. Is there no way to speed this up?”

“You shouldn’t complain. Do you have any idea what state you were in when they brought you? If they hadn’t brought you to me right away, here in the Vale with its rich resources, you probably never would have woken up again.”

Shit! A few years is unacceptable! Cloudhawk couldn’t waste that much time. He had to find some way to speed up his physical and mental recovery.

“In honor of you coming back to us, I’ve prepared a gift for you. Wait a moment.”

Hellflower left the room. She returned a minute later with a wheelchair. But instead of taking offense at Cloudhawk’s dour expression she gave him a smug, self-satisfied smile. “What do you think? Aren’t I considerate? I had my people make this for you.”

Cloudhawk ignored her and the fucking chair. He staggered a few steps forward under his own power before falling back onto his knees.

“Now don’t go thinking you’re superhuman!” Hellflower pushed the chair over to him. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. From this moment forward, until you’re better you cannot be injured again. If you do the consequences will be bad – find you a coffin sort of bad.”

A few minutes later Cloudhawk was seated begrudgingly in the chair. Hellflower was pushing him around.

The Vale’s environment was as fresh and clean as he remembered. The afternoon sun was warm, and everywhere he looked was a refreshing shade of green. He looked out over a city of unique buildings suspended by vines and connected with bridges. Their entire lives were lived among the canopies.

Valites wore strange clothing. A few were picking the black crystal fruits from the boughs of the god tree as they rolled by. Others were tending to crops nestled in between the boughs. The war outside hadn’t touched this place, or these people.

Cloudhawk was reminded of a question. “What happened to the old drunk? He better not have died...”

“Relax. In fact he stumbled upon quite the blessing,” she replied. “In fighting with Arcturus he had a breakthrough. He was in bad shape – a month, perhaps a year, and he would be an invalid. When we brought him back here, though, I convinced the Shepherd God to give me some materials that helped. We think he’ll get to live a little longer.”

“You saved him?”

Cloudhawk’s eyes lit up. The prospect of the old man making a full recovery was a pleasant one. Hell, maybe he’d even surpass his former self.

At full tilt the old drunk was probably similar to Skye in sheer strength. In all of Skycloud there were shockingly few who could even tear Governor Arcturus’ sleeve. More importantly, Cloudhawk had gotten himself in this position by trying to save that asshole’s life.

He had to be held accountable for what Cloudhawk had become!

When the old man was on the cusp of death it didn’t matter, but now he was better. Sooner or later, for better or for worse, he would come under Cloudhawk’s banner. That meant there were few people in the world who could threaten Cloudhawk. While he was in a bad way right now, at least he wasn’t in danger of getting his ass chopped off constantly like he used to.

Cloudhawk decided it was time to build his own group. The drunk, Gabby, all of them. When the time was right, he’d bring them all to Skycloud and help Selene deal with Arcturus. IF they had someone like Vulkan at their back, their chances improved significantly.

Most importantly, while the drunk looked old he was probably only in his fifties.

A full thirty years younger than Skye Polaris. Who could say if the future hold greater achievements for him. If something in this Vale could heal him, it was something to be celebrated.

At last Cloudhawk’s mood starting taking a turn for the better. At least this entire mess hadn’t been all bullshit.

“This place is alright, isn’t it?” Hellflower bent over and cooed into his ear. “People are kind, they live in harmony with their environment. Never wanting for food or clothing. If you’ve got nowhere else to go, you can do worse than this place.”

The wasteland alliance was the wastelands most powerful group at present.

Cloudhawk learned that the Conclave’s leader, Natessa, had ordered a sweep of the entirety of the wastes. No matter where he went, if Cloudhawk let his identity slip he would find trouble. He wasn’t in any condition to fight for the time being, making this place a safe harbor in the growing storm.

“You know that Arcturus is strong. All of this is only temporary.” Hellflower went on. “Dark Atom has brought a lot of its influence to the Vale. Even someone like the Governor will have a hard time fighting his way in here. You should seriously consider joining us. At least that way we can protect you while you heal.”

The hint was clear in her voice. It was obvious what Hellflower wanted.

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