Academician Roste watched Cloudhawk as he left. His turbid but astute gaze was infected with a fanatic light, like a fire was lit in their depths. It lasted only a moment, however, and then it was gone like nothing had happened.
He coughed and leaned on his cane for support. His bodyguards escorted him into the laboratory.
The old man's lab looked like a devious slaughterhouse. It was covered in blood and bits of flesh, which a small coterie of workers were busily trying to scrub clean. The air was thick with the cloying scent of gore, and tied to a table was a beefy bald man.
A man approached, full of deference. "Shall I start?"
Roste coughed at him then answered. "Begin."
The man was the same bald-headed mercenary leader that had chased Cloudhawk through the bog. After the beating from Hyena he had not died, and instead was brought into the base's laboratory. By now he was awake and stared at the nightmarish surroundings with wide eyes. He looked half mad with fear, unsure what fate awaited him.
A pipe had been inserted through his abdomen and into his stomach. Some inexplicable substance was being pumped through it and it made the bald man feel like his insides were on fire. He didn't know what these assholes were filling him with, but he knew it couldn't be anything good.
Several more Seekers surrounded him and jabbed more transfusion tubes into various parts of his body. Liters of unknown substances were pumped into him that made the unfortunate mercenary twitch and jerk. To him it was like they were pumping him full of fire, or acid, or a hundred cutting knives. A pain he could not put into words wracked every inch of his body. The cruelest punishment he could imagine paled in comparison to this torture.
He wanted to scream but no sound would come out. He wanted to struggle but he couldn't move a muscle.
Every pore was tearing, every muscle ripped apart, every bone breaking. His eyes were flooded with blood as the capillaries couldn't take the pressure and burst. Blood leaked from his pores and in a matter of seconds he was covered in it. As the inhumane torment continued his bones popped audibly, again and again, as though he were being remolded from the inside out.
If he was given a choice, he would have gladly asked for death!
"This process may cause you some pain." Roste watched the poor man suffer, his face an expressionless mask. "Don't be afraid, take it easy. We are building you a new life, and when you are borne again with the power I bestow upon you it will all be worth it."
The Academician and his fellow surgeons ignored the plight of the subject and focused solely on the data. The evidence suggested their chance of success was roughly thirty percent. This bald headed mercenary was a doughty patient.
He was a good test subject for their important work.
Roste absent-mindedly fiddled with a string of bones around his neck. The ornament was a string of finger bones fashioned into a necklace. Gruesome though it was, the bones didn't appear special in any way.
Hellflower walked ahead. She moved with graceful poise and her white lab coat outlined her ripe figure, especially her backside. Each swing of her hips was like a metronome, and the men watched her sway with apt attention. She was a contradiction; both modern and classical, modest and enchanting. She was as dizzying as she was a fascinating distraction.
Cloudhawk was no longer the young and naïve child he had been. The allure of the opposite sex had dimly begun to intrude on his thinking, so he couldn't keep his eyes from stealing peeks. However, as appealing as she was to look at he was more curious in the Seekers and their influence throughout the wastelands. "What makes you all different from other wastelanders? Why are you called Seekers?"
A distasteful expression crossed Hellflower's face. "We are the ones who carry the flame of the old days. Every true Seeker is loyal to our mission, to scour the ruins for the truths and secrets left behind by the ancient civilizations. Most wastelanders are savages, subsisting on whatever they can get their hands on. Meanwhile we have spent years researching medicines, weapons and tools that were once thought to be lost forever, all in order to change the dire fate of the wastelands. If not for us the world outside would be ten times more barbaric than it is."
Carry the flame of the old days. Scour the ruins for truths and secrets. This was the purpose of the Seekers? This is what made them different?
Cloudhawk couldn't understand. "But the world is already like this. What's the point of digging up some long-dead society's garbage?"
"Every day the world is more deformed, more twisted. The wastelands are becoming more deadly, not less. The elysian lands, meanwhile, are a place of deceit and hypocrisy. Our goal is to learn everything we can about how this all came to be. What was the world like before everything collapsed? Where did the gods and demons come from? Clearly humanity became lost down the wrong path. That is why Seekers are needed, to guide humanity back down the road we were meant to travel. Isn't that what we're meant to do?"
Hellflower's ideal was a simple one. She wanted to see the world as it had been.
Cloudhawk was intrigued. "Interesting. I knew an old man once. He liked to collect things from the old world. He even taught me how to read their language."
He mentioned it offhand, thinking little of it. But Hellflower stopped dead in her tracks. Cloudhawk nearly collided with her shapely rump.
Her face changed little, but the light in her eyes glimmered with doubt. "You can read?"
Was that somehow special?
Wastelander writing and the language of the old days were two different things. Over the several hundred years since civilization's collapse wastelanders created their own scripts, which differed through all the various regions. Usually it was close enough that one could get their point across. Cloudhawk had been born with an innate curiosity and thirst of knowledge, though, and since the life of a scavenger was often spent bored in dark holes he learned the ancient words.
"Come with me."
Hellflower turned and lead him down another hallway.
A few moments later she pulled open a door to a large apartment; it had a living room, a bedroom, bathroom, and several supplementary rooms like studies. All in all it was a very all-encompassing setup. The living room alone was quite large and many tables had been pushed together within it. They were covered with medicine vials, specimen jars, test tubes and so forth.
Cloudhawk's keen senses picked out the odd scents wafting through the air, among them strange pharmaceuticals and unidentified materials. One thing he could pick out was the musty scent of books intermingled with a delicate fragrance that matched the one coming from Hellflower.
This was her room?
Hellflower didn't say anything at first. She brought Cloudhawk through the apartment and into her study where she picked a decrepit tome from a bookshelf. Only when she opened it Cloudhawk saw that it wasn't a book, but rather a collection of papers glued together into a large volume.
"Do you understand what's written here?"
"There are a lot I haven't seen, but I think I can understand the general meaning."
He began to translate a paragraph. Jerky, difficult and sometimes inconsistent, he was still able to get the gist. Hellflower was truly taken aback by the finding.
Yet she was still suspicious. "And you're telling me that the man who taught you this was an old scavenger?"
Cloudhawk never had any reason to suspect the old man was anything other than he appeared. "How could he be anything else? We lived together for seven or eight years."
Her face tightened as though she were carefully considering something. "No, that can't be right. That means the old man… is he still where you came from?"
"He died a long time ago."
"Dead? What a pity!" Her face fell with regret.
As Cloudhawk watched her his own suspicions began to emerge. Were there really so few people who could understand ancient writing? If these Seekers, who knew so much, didn't understand it than how could the old man read the words?
Hellflower continued to press him before Cloudhawk could ask his own questions. "Tell me about yourself. Your history."
There wasn't a lot Cloudhawk thought to hide, so he gave her a brief explanation of what had happened to him. The first fifteen years of his life were uneventful, and he spent most of his time picking through the ruins and hiding in holes. They were long years marked with thirst and hunger, struggling on the border of life and death.
The last few months were more eventful than all those previous years combined.
Hellflower was stunned that this unimpressive child could have experienced so much. She was also interested to discover that he had been traveling for the elysian lands when they picked him up. When his tale ended her erudite eyes flickered. "Let's make a deal."
"A deal?" He replied inquisitively.
"You are not prepared to make your way to the elysian lands." She spoke to him slowly to make sure he understood. "On the one hand you're too weak, and on the other you don't understand the language they speak. What sort of life do you think you could lead under these conditions, if you even make it there?"
Cloudhawk furrowed his brows. "So what are you saying?"
"It's simple. I'll teach you the language of the elysian lands and you teach me the ancient scripts. I'll also use the resources we have here to make you stronger, improving both your abilities and body, so long as you agree to work with me and follow my every command. Whatever I tell you to do you will perform unconditionally without complaint."
Cloudhawk was unprepared for her offer. She understood what they spoke in the elysian lands? And she was promising to make him stronger?
Ignoring the former, the resources commanded by the Seekers could certainly benefit him greatly. After all, whatever medicines and materials were found in the wastelands were produced by them. With their support Cloudhawk could reap considerable benefits.
And yet there was something about this woman Cloudhawk didn't trust. In fact he trusted few people anymore, especially someone as intelligent and puzzling as her. "How do I know you aren't trying to trick me?"
Hellflower's plump lips spread into a smile. "The Academician is very interested in the abilities of the demonhunters. He will certainly want to experiment on you. During this process no one would dare harm you, myself included. You don't need to worry about your health." She left out the fact that during this process he wouldn't be permitted to leave, either.
Cloudhawk had no reason to trust her.
However, it was also true that right now there were no better options. Cloudhawk was also interested to learn what he could from the Seekers. If he spent some time here and learned their knowledge perhaps it could serve him well in the future.
She didn't wait for his reply. Her keen and insightful mind could see his decision on his face. She spoke softly to him. "I'll set up a cot here in the study. For now you'll live with me, and your primary job will be translating data."