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The final test measured Cloudhawk's endurance and willpower. The methodology was simple, such as having him lift something that was just heavy enough that it nearly exceeded his abilities and see how long he could hold it, or enduring increasing amounts of painful stimulation.

Once again the results surprised the researchers.

If normal subjects were given a measure of one for their stamina and willpower, Cloudhawk was a three or more.

The young man was a model wastelander, at least in terms of mannerisms. He was fanatical, tenacious down to his bones, and even when brought to the brink of death his will was unbending.

Cloudhawk, meanwhile, was becoming more and more infuriated by the process. These tests were going on for fuckin' forever! What the hell were they doing?!

Roste, leaning heavily on his cane, led his three subordinates into the testing chamber. By now he regarded Cloudhawk with entirely different eyes, like the treasure hunter who'd found his buried riches. He drew on his several decades of preparation, careful not to reveal his deep excitement at their findings. He carefully sized Cloudhawk up as they entered. "Tell me, are you interested in becoming the strongest organism in the wastelands?"

Cloudhawk found the old scholar's question baffling. "Who wouldn't be?" He flippantly replied.

Academician Roste idly fingered his bone necklace and sighed emotively. "Indeed, who doesn't want to be stronger? Our biology is so fragile - we humans are so easily broken. The smallest injury or illness could take away the ones we love. Only the strong can protect that which means the most to them."

Why did everything this old man said sound so mysterious?

Hellflower suddenly chimed in. "As I recall, the Conclave of the Dark Atom should be smuggling in a shipment of materials from the elysian lands this afternoon. None of our other subjects would be able to handle the steroids, we can use them on Cloudhawk."

"Alright." Roste answered without hesitation. He winced as another set of hacking coughs overcame him. When he caught his breath he opened his eyes once again, turning them toward Hyena. "Gather some people and head out to meet the Dark Atom party. Offer double the price they ask, and have Wolfblade bring more materials from the elysian lands."

"What the fuck are y'all planning?" Cloudhawk was becoming less comfortable with his situation by the minute. "I'm getting pretty damn tired of being kept in the dark!"

Cloudhawk was not one to believe that gifts were magically showered on people from on high. The Academician had taken him in, given him fine food and drink, and now was preparing to use precious materials smuggled from the elysian lands to make him stronger. None of this was cheap.

This sent the old man into another fit of hacking coughs. His chest heaved and he fought for breath. This time it was so bad he was having difficulty staying on his feet.

"Don't be so ungrateful!" Chimp's creepy face was twisted in a look of indignation as he glared at Cloudhawk, supporting Roste at the same time. "The Academician thinks highly of you, he wants to help! To have this sort of patronage would be a dream come true for many in the wastelands!"

Roste eventually caught his breath and waved his hand, entreating Chimp to silence. He regarded Cloudhawk with that calm, erudite expression and those rheumy wise eyes. "Young man, you can see what condition I'm in."

Indeed the old man could hardly stand and swayed like a blade of grass in the wind. He constantly seemed on the verge of toppling over. His hair was a thin mop of spindly white and his face carved deep with crisscrossing wrinkles. His skin was dry and stretched over his emaciated frame. All in all he looked more corpse than man.

He went on. "I am over eighty years old, closer to dying than anything else. At this age riches, honor, titles, influence… none of that matters. But I am left with regrets, and a desire to leave this world with something I've created - a powerful being as my final mark."

Cloudhawk half-believed the old man's diatribe.

"You have the power of a demonhunter, and tremendous potential as well. Better still you are young and thus my greatest seedling. It serves nothing to hold back." He spoke to the young wastelander, full of earnestness. He fought through another series of coughs. "I give you power so that you can make this land better. You are the final extension of my dream, the last goal to reach so I can die in peace. A success for the good of us all."

Cloudhawk couldn't help but feel moved. Staying alive this long in the wastelands was no easy feat. After that speech he chose to wait and see what would occur.

He gave voice to another small doubt. "What is the Dark Atom Conclave you were talking about?"

Hellflower answered in place of the Academician. "They are a group of Seekers established on the fringes of the elysian lands, hiding from the ire of its denizens. Their current leader is Wolfblade, a wild and ambitious man. They smuggle things from within their territory to us, and we trade for things of our own. They earn a lot from us to use in their fight against the holy cities, and so make several trips to Blackwater Base to trade."

Seekers lurked in the elysian lands as well?

That was unexpected! Of all the denizens of the wastelands it was the Seekers the people of the elysian lands hated most bitterly. Not only were they godless heathens, but they toyed with the unholy relics of the past while denying the supremacy of godly men. They even refused to accept the divine histories as truth, making Seekers enemies that were to be killed on sight.

Was it even possible that this group, as incompatible to the elysian lands as fire and water, could survive in such hostile territory? How did they do it?

Cloudhawk was always a victim to his curiosity. He directed his words towards Hyena, the one who would encounter the Dark Atom. "Can I go with you?"

Hyena had been lost in absent thought when the young boy's question piqued his attention. His eyebrows shot up, and he looked at Roste for the old scientist's determination. The Academician nodded consent. The location for their meeting was only at the gate of Blackwater Base and there was nowhere for Cloudhawk to flee. They still needed the young man's cooperation, his request was not unreasonable. The Academician saw no harm in allowing him to satisfy his curiosity.

"I'm a little tired. We'll finish here for now."

Roste was old and as such his vigor was waning. They'd spent quite a long while in the process of these tests and though he was eager to continue his body would not capitulate. They were forced to postpone their efforts.

Cloudhawk followed Hyena out of the testing chamber. Chimp was the last to exit. He shut the door, extracted a set of keys from his coat, and locked it behind them.

Chimp was the laboratory's director and also the Academician's student. He wasn't as capable a fighter as Hyena, nor as astute as Hellflower, but he was unfailingly loyal to the Academician. He was rewarded by being responsible for all the confidential and important matters of the lab. He held all the keys.

A sweet breeze flit past. Hellflower appeared by their side.

Chimp brazenly salivated over her proud chest and firm buttocks. He hardly even blinked.

Hellflower suddenly stopped and, intentionally or unintentionally, stretched her back forcing her rump higher. "Enjoying the view?"

This woman was always so calm and dignified, so her sudden teasing words immediately dug into Chimp's lewd mind. His blood pumped faster, his body unconsciously reacting to her implications. He answered her with an obscene grin. "A fine view is one thing, but I wonder if you know how to use your gifts."

"Is your whole head clogged up with sperm? I really don't understand why the Academician would pick a man like you to run his laboratory." Her blunt abuse was not tainted with anger. In fact it was almost teasing. She continued with a sigh. "But I have nothing to do and boredom is a terrible affliction. I want a drink."

Chimp's eyes lit up like a cat who'd caught the scent of fish. "What would you like? I'll treat you."

Hellflower cast a fleeting glance toward the director's keyring. "Oh, I couldn't ask you to spend any money on me."

"It's nothing, not an issue!"

"Alright… tonight then."

It was unlikely that this woman would suddenly be interested in satiating her loneliness. Yet Chimp couldn't help but be excited by the scenarios playing through his mind, making his body's physical reactions more acute. That woman was far more dangerous than she looked, otherwise he'd have taught her a lesson a long time ago.

The unique sounds of the base's hydraulic systems - the winches and gears - whined as they worked to pull open its massive front door. Near a hundred people stepped through the portal, all clad in protective biohazard gear. They bore all manner of weapons, brandished for anyone to see.

As Cloudhawk stepped through the door with Hyena and out into the swamp he saw something emerge from the fog. It looked like an airship, and it crept through the marsh toward them. It looked a full one third larger than the one commanded by the Caliph's lieutenants. Six or seven motley looking flying machines followed as an entourage. 

Were these the Seekers from the elysian lands? They even had an airship - they had to be a force to be reckoned with!

Hyena kept his eyes on Cloudhawk's back. His fists slowly raised, fingernails growing longer centimeter by centimeter. However when even the slightest rotten thought intruded his mind Cloudhawk seemed to sense it. His head swung around, eyes sharp, and fixed his vision on Hyena.

"What are you looking at?" Hyena was surprised at the kid's keen situational awareness. By now the dark thoughts had passed. "Out of my way!"

Cloudhawk frowned suspiciously. He had definitely felt something… or was it an illusion?

He trusted his intuition without a shadow of a doubt. It wasn't a mistake, he'd felt the danger, so his eyes followed the scarred man. Still he didn't spot anything untoward.

They'd left the base with twenty or so items in tow, odd things that were a little like crates and a little like cages. The outsides were tightly wrapped in cloth but the sounds of creatures could clearly be heard from within.

The Dark Atom' airship slowly touched down and a tall man with a sharp, hawk-like nose stepped out. His sharp and beady eyes swept over the Blackwater contingent before eventually settling on Hyena. He smiled. "It's been a long time, Hyena my friend. I'm glad to see you're still breathing."

"Cut the shit, Buzzard!" Hyena clearly wasn't interested in playing nice with this fellow. Among these illustrious Dark Atom Seekers this one wasn't anyone to bother with. "The Academician said to give you twenty this time. Next time it's double."

Buzzard glanced at the crates, pleasantly surprised by the news. "The Academician is as generous as he is prosperous, I see! I offer thanks on behalf of Wolfblade."

Their exchange was cut short when one of the crates tipped over. An angry snarl issued from inside followed by the sounds of struggle. Whatever beast was within was fighting to get free.

Several Blackwater soldiers rushed over with their weapons belching lightning. It resulting in one side of the crate bursting open, and a scaled monstrosity leaping out from within. As bolts of electricity struck it sparks went flying, completely ineffective.


The green-scaled beast grabbed one of the soldiers and unceremoniously ripped him in half. He then lunged at another and crushed his head with a single punch.

Hyena reacted immediately. Black hair sprouted over his body and his two powerful legs sent him charging toward the beast. The scaled monster sensed Hyena coming and it only seemed to enrage it further. There was a deep, seething hatred in its feral eyes.

The two humanoid beasts clashed, punch for punch. Hyena was clearly stronger.

The green-scaled monster was knocked backward a few steps but was unharmed from Hyena's blow. Its strength and endurance were impressive, to say the least.

Even before the creature could regain its balance Buzzard swept in like a ghost. In terms of speed he was at least thirty percent faster than Hyena. Already at a disadvantage against Hyena, the green-scaled monster was suddenly faced with another just as strong. The surprise attack forced it to the ground.

Hyena and Buzzard pinned the creature down, one on its left and the other on its right. Eventually the scales receded back into the creature's skin, revealing a bull-like bald man beneath.

As he watched the scene Cloudhawk's eyes widened in shock. "It's him!"

Wasn't this the mercenary captain, the one who'd tried to kill him in the marshes? He remembered that Hyena had knocked his out and dragged him back to camp, that was about ten days ago. What had happened to him since then? How did he get so strong? Why was he suddenly part of the base's trade goods?

The bald-headed man never lost consciousness. He screamed and roared in impotent hatred until one of Blackwater's soldiers gave him an injection. He almost immediately sunk into a coma. Thus neutralized he was returned to the crate.

"This new one isn't stable yet. His memories haven't been completely erased," Hyena explained to Buzzard. "I'll go back to the base and change it out for another one."

"No need." Buzzard eyed the bald man's crate. He chuckled through a dark grin. "We've been getting into more scraps than ever. Fighters with his kind of gusto are few and far between, I think Wolfblade will like this one. We'll teach it how to behave. Send the Academician our thanks."

The members of Dark Atom quickly gathered the crates and brought them onto their airship. Meanwhile Blackwater soldiers collected the rare elysian materials traded in exchange.

With their transaction completed, the Dark Atom packed up and prepared to leave. They didn't leave any trace of their presence behind. Buzzard bade Hyena farewell and then their airship lifted off. Cloudhawk followed Hyena and the others as they returned to base, only this time his curiosity was replaced with something more like concern.

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