The wastelands airships were crude, savage looking things. They were visually repulsive, constructed of disparate materials, with a menagerie of flashing lights and contrived technology. Bristling with cannons, it looked like a cancerous and aggressive tumor cell hanging in the air. Its shadow brought with it a distinct and ominous sense.
Back in the Blisterpeaks, the Dark Atom was careful not to tip its whole hand. More than likely, many of its weapons were still a secret to the world at large. Cloudhawk had never seen anything like this from the terrorist organization before.
The airships steamed toward the settlement ruins with surprising speed. Before long they descended on the outskirts and released their crew, two hundred Dark Atom soldiers or more.
All of them wore the same unique outfit. Some manner of composite material tightly wrapped around their torsos like a second skin. The leather substance was tough and elastic to allow for movement while being defensive. Clearly it was some new kind of armor the Dark Atom had concocted.
A few lucky survivors were scrambling from the wreckage of their supply ship nearby. They recognized who their attackers were the moment they saw the enemy ships. Dripping blood and covered in wounds, their faces nonetheless turned to challenging scowls as they drew their weapons. What remained of the ships crew formed up to mount an attack.
Though these were but logistic soldiers, all Elysian regulars were all well trained in the ways of combat. Even wounded they were a threat.
One of the soldiers hacked his sword at a foe and caught him in the shoulder. He was sure there was enough strength in the attack to cleave the bastard rebel clean in half. However, to his surprise and dismay, the soldier’s sword buried mere centimeters into the armor and became stuck. IT wasn’t just the armor, either. The enemy he’d attack had a body like iron.
The expeditionary soldier’s wide eyes slowly trailed up the Dark Atom agent’s body. Suddenly it appeared his target had grown at least twice his size. His face sprouted coarse black hair, and a row of razor-sharp teeth extended from his gums. Human eyes turned feral now, red as blood, as his target became more monster than man.
A long, ear-piercing howl answered.
The soldier’s neck was snapped like a twig.
His body was thrown aside by the shapeshifting Dark Atom soldier like a sack of garbage. The monster then reached up and plucked the sword still lodged in his shoulder, haphazardly flinging it into the dirt as well. The remaining survivors from the ship were quickly dispatched in a brief scuffle that followed.
Dawn watched it all happen from a short distance away. She could taste the harsh metallic flavor or her anger as it stewed inside her. These despicable fiends were killing her countrymen right in front of her!
“Calm down lady,” Cloudhawk muttered at her. “Running at them half-cocked is just going to get us killed.”
She was strong and impulsive, Cloudhawk wasn’t sure a few words were going to keep her from rushing into a fight.
But surprisingly it worked. There had to be fifty or sixty airships still overhead, and a group of two hundred monstrous soldiers right in front of them. They were going to cut a path to freedom out in the open, it didn’t matter how much damage they could do. Dawn might not have cared about her own safety, but she didn’t want to see any harm come to Cloudhawk.
Barb crouched in the ruins, silent as a shadow but no less enraged. No Elysian could watch their countrymen be cut down and not feel it in their gut.
The old drunk was openly surprised at the scene. “How can they change into monsters like that?”
“They’re genetically modified warriors,” Cloudhawk explained. “The Dark Atom has a genius scientist on their side who must have figure out how to do it. Honestly though, I’m surprised they managed to make so many so fast.”
A scornful expression flit across the drunk’s lined features. He’d heard a little about ancient technology from the old world. He turned his nose up at what he considered shortcuts to strength. It didn’t matter if they went rooting around in a human’s genes, nothing they science could produce was superior to old fashioned physical training.
Barb’s voice was hoarse and low. “Look. Those three must be the leaders.”
Cloudhawk followed her gaze and was surprised to see three familiar faces. Oddball fluttered closer for a better look.
One was a middle aged man with a hooked nose and bald head. The second was also bald but much larger of frame, with a ferocious expression. The first was Buzzard, a capable warrior and part of the Dark Atom’s leadership. His companion was Greenscale, the mercenary who’d chased Cloudhawk to the gates of Blackwater Base years ago. Unfortunately for him, the mad scientist Roste captured the large man and turned him into one of his monsters. In the years that followed his mutations were perfected, and he rose through the ranks of this organization he was sold to.
Both men were clad in the same composite armor of their compatriots, only of somewhat higher quality.
Between the two men was another figure, one which took Cloudhawk by surprise.
He was easily twice as tall as a normal man, and as wide as three burly fighters put together. His skin had a thick and rocky texture from head to toe, and scar marks from where he’d been hacked at by weapons lined his torso. He was a walking tank, powerful enough to punch through solid rock with his mace-like fists.
It was Coal!
Cloudhawk gaped at the sight, taken aback that he should find this super mutant all the way in the Northern Barrens.
Coal lumbered forward a few steps and fished something out of his clothing. Once activated, a translucent and fuzzy image flickered to life in the space before him. There was enough detail to make out the voluptuous figure of a woman who held herself with an intellectual and commanding bearing.
“Boss Hellflower.” Coal’s English had improved. “We found a supply ship. Shot it down.”
The voice that came through the projected image was tinny and strange. It stopped and started in fits, but Cloudhawk wasn’t sure what that indicated.
Incredible that Coal should be so quickly brainwashed by the Dark Atom. Judging by his presence and importance, they’d already made him a lieutenant and sent him to the battlefield. Cloudhawk couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. He was so young, with more potential than he’d ever seen in any other mutant.
All he needed was time. Eventually Coal would be just as strong as those Barren Kings, Toad and Canker. By then even a veteran demonhunter wouldn’t be a threat to him. A shame… Cloudhawk had once thought of having Coal come with him and help in his efforts. But the foul circumstances that destroyed Coal’s tribe were the same ones that had him refuse Cloudhawk, and come under the wind of that bastard Wolfblade.
Hellflower was also incredibly dangerous. Two hundred shapeshifting soldiers, and some sort of long-distance communication device… all of it likely the work of that woman. She was more precious to the Dark Atom than a hundred lieutenants!
These monsters she’d made were as strong as Cloudhawk’s own Talons, with the additional capability to adapt as needed to the harsh climes of the wastelands. As for whatever device Coal was using, if something like that became popular then the Dark Atom would have a powerful command and information advantage.
Cloudhawk’s mind recalled the insane man they’d called the Academician, Roste, and what he’d said. Before he died, the madman swore that Hellfire was far more dangerous than he. Judging by what Cloudhawk saw now, the old man was right.
Something like jealousy flashed behind Greenscale’s dark eyes when he saw Coal speaking with Hellflower. He made no secret of it, kicking a chunk of twisted metal a hundred meters into the distance to vent his frustration.
This earned a chuckle from Buzzard. “Your genetic modifications are only getting more better and better.”
“All thanks to Boss Hellflower, right?” By the way he said her name, it was obvious the bald man adored her. “You were strong to begin with, Buzzard. I’m sure you are on a whole ‘nuther level now.”
Obviously Hellflower’s addition to the Dark Atom had benefited both men. It was no surprise. She was the synthesis of all the collected scientific knowledge of the wastelands. She was miles beyond the accomplishments of Three-Eyed Spider.
Coal shut off the device, and Hellflower’s figure vanished from view. He turned back to the others. “Boss Hellflower said look around. Find survivors. Can’t let them know we were here.”
“It was just a supply ship,” Greenscale muttered dismissively. “They didn’t have anything but stuff for the Elysian front lines. They weren’t escorting anyone, we’re just wasting time. We should make our way to where the fight is.”
Coal’s rigid features fixed on the shapeshifter. “Boss Hellflower’s orders!”
Greenscale retorted, still full of defiance. “Listen rockhead, who the fuck do you think you are trying to push me around? You’ve been part of this outfit for all of five fuckin’ minutes. Don’t think just because Hellflower vouches for you that you can talk down to me!”
Their interaction was a clue to Coal’s status as an outcast. He was looked down on, not just among these men but the Dark Atom as a whole. It wasn’t helped by the fact that after only a few months he had risen to a similar position as these two.
To make matters worse, Coal had become a man of particular interest to Hellflower. She had eyes to make him her confidante, someone she could mold. Everyone in the Dark Atom knew what sort of clout Hellflower wielded these days, so being her right hand came with real authority. It was more advantageous to curry favor with Hellflower than even Wolfblade.
Coal was already strong. With Hellflower’s help and knowledge, what was stopping him from becoming an integral part of the organization? It was only natural that a new blood rising to such heights after just a short time would earn a lot of angry looks.
Coal was an honest and direct sort. Greenscale was also obvious in his disdain. Buzzard was left with no option but to play mediator. “Greenscale, give it up. Coal has a point, and it’s better to be cautious. Hellflower and the Boss are on the way. Whether or not we get the drop on that old dog Skye and kill him will be determined by us keeping this quiet!”
Greenscale grunted his displeasure, but waved a hand in dismissal. He had to comply.
The shapeshifter soldiers separated into several dozen groups. Each squad was equipped with a device that picked out living creatures in a certain radius which they used to start combing the ruins. Luckily no one seemed to notice that ever word of their conversation was overhead by a tiny yellow bird.
Cloudhawk was still crouched in the ruins, processing this new information. The Dark Atom was going to get involved? They were planning to attack the expeditionary force from the rear.
It seemed foolishly bold. The Dark Atom was strong, but even if Abaddon himself showed up they couldn’t take out the whole Elysian army and General Skye. Where was all their confidence coming from?
Cloudhawk knew Wolfblade and Hellflower weren’t idiots, especially Wolfblade. He was only getting more mysterious and inscrutable as the days went on. If they were choosing to join this fight, they were doing it because they were confident of success. If they weren’t here with the rest of their fleet, then it meant those two had something else planned.
“Those things in their hands will be able to detect us. We can’t hide.” The old man gripped his cane tightly. “What’s the plan?”
“Slow down!” Cloudhawk thought for a moment. “We can’t fight against so many. I have an idea.”