Academician Roste went from slow to blinding fast in the space of a blink. He planted his staff in the ground beside him, easily sidestepped the hammer blow, then shoved his attacker's wrist away with his twig-like palm. The old man's movements were as easy as though he were brushing away a branch.
Snap! Black Jackal's wrist bent back at an unnatural angle. Sharps of jagged bone split his skin and poked out from within.
The burly warrior screamed in pain and surprise. Reacting instinctively to the pain he attacked with his other hand.
Roste effortlessly caught Black Jackal's fist in his hand and crushed it as easily as though they were a handful of leaves, leaving nothing but a bloody mangled mass.
This eighty year old invalid was handling the seasoned warrior like he was a child! His defenses were almost thoughtless, like swatting a fly.
In the decades he'd spent here as their leader no one accused Roste of being a powerhouse, much less a font of vitality that would shame a man one third his age. He fought as well as though he were at his peak, when all laws of nature dictated that at his age he should hardly be able to walk.
A series of pops and cracks issued from the old man's robes. It was the sound of his bones dislocating and restructuring!
Everyone looked on in utter shock!
As though suddenly filled with air Roste's body started to swell. His eyes adopted a deep black-green hue that shimmered with strange colors. Withered dry skin regained the elasticity and vigor of youth, and all the while he was getting larger. Five feet… five and a half… six feet... At last he completely transformed from a frail emaciated dwarf to a muscled behemoth!
Any trace of the damage eighty years had lain on him was gone!
His skin had taken on a pale blue tint and muscles rippled tight beneath. All his hair fell away leaving him bald but with a skull thick as a helmet. This definitely wasn't any sort of ability metahumans or mutants were capable of. The most telling sign was that this new form was perfectly normal looking; his body was symmetrical, every muscle like it was masterfully carved from stone, aesthetically and mechanically perfect from head to toe. It was like he was designed from a human blueprint.
"You worms… you wish to kill me?"
Roste grabbed Black Jackal in his hands then began to squeeze. Like kneading dough he crushed the poor warrior in his enormous fists until his bones were splintered. Black Jackal's neck was crushed and bent, his hands and feet smooshed together until ultimately he was turned into a butchered orb of leaking meat.
"Did you think that I was only researching how to transform soldiers after all these years?"
His incredible strength, his grotesque and terrifying methods, sent a chill through everyone's spine.
Hellflower immediately threw up her hands and fired off half a dozen shots at the freak, but he didn't even try to dodge. Once the bullets hit, Roste's grey-blue skin instantly hardened until he was practically made of iron. The bullets even made a metallic ringing noise as they ricocheted off of him.
"This body is perfect, allowing me to adapt to any environment or condition. In the cold I will grow a fur coat to protect myself; underwater I will develop gills; when I need to jump my bones and joints will change accordingly; if I need to run, the muscles and structure of my leg will change as needed. And in the event of serious threat I can even grow a protective exoskeleton." In one hand Roste gripped the crushed remains of Black Jackal. Nothing remained of the frail old man they'd known and the sound that came from his throat was like the growl of a hundred angry animals. In fact Roste was now a complicated amalgamation of genetic material - no longer a human in the true sense of the word. "What can any of you do to stand against me?!"
Horrifyingly, although Black Jackal had been broken into the shape of a fleshy ball Roste was careful not to kill him. Piteous whines issued from the orb of mangled flesh.
Roste heaved the meat sphere, the muscles of his arms bulging, flinging it with enough force that it was as destructive as a boulder shot from a trebuchet . Black Jackal's tortured body came at a soldier fast as a runaway car, there was no way for the warrior to avoid him. They collided with such force that every bone and joint in both men shattered, then they smashed into a third. In an instant all three were snuffed out.
The ancient white haired scientist looked on in soundless horror at the three massacred fighters as their remains barreled toward him. He was the fourth victim, and when ultimately they hit the wall it was impossible to tell the parts of one from another.
This mad Academician seemed to be even stronger than the Caliph's dual-horned lieutenant!
As the chaos ensued around him Cloudhawk saw his predicament clearly. It wasn't Hyena he'd seen in the labs…
… it had been Roste!
The Academician had long known of this little pocket of resistance. He also knew that Hellflower was their chosen agent, only she had also proved to be a very effective assistant. For that reason he chose not to reveal that he knew. However, she'd crossed the line when she tried to steal all of his painstaking efforts for her own. It had sent Roste into a rage and convinced him that now was the time to deal with these irritating malcontents.
To that end Roste purposefully arranged it so that Hellflower would inherit Hyena's position as captain of the guard. He knew that he would have to appear completely vulnerable in order to galvanize these old men into meeting. Once they were all together he could catch them all at once.
Working with this mob of degenerates had been Hellflower's first error. Her second had been to underestimate his schemes.
Of course her most fatal miscalculation was that she did not expect the old man to be so strong. This level of tyrannical capability was simply outside the scope of what she thought possible. Roste was a freak, a monster through and through, a humanoid weapon of pure might and power!
Yet she fought on, unwilling to resign herself to death.
However, her piddling handguns were no threat to what Roste had become. He was an abomination that could quickly adapt to any situation, even his skin could harden the instant her bullets hit him and knock them away.
Academician Roste's twisted face bore a mocking sneer. "Mine is a perfect body. Perfect power. I have become the pinnacle of all that lives in the wastelands, and once I consume the essence of the demonhunter I will be the strongest being in the entire world!"
Many kinds of metahumans roamed the wastes. From enhanced power to blinding agility, fortitude to intelligence - all sorts were a common sight. However, there was one sort of wasteland denizen that was rare to encounter, those that were actually able to reconstruct their bodies. The freak in black Cloudhawk had once contended against had abilities somewhat like that. It had been a surprise when he learned the freak could turn his left arm into barbed tentacles or a bone sword.
Roste was naturally gifted with considerable reconstruction abilities. All these years experimenting on soldiers was so that he could forge his body's own talents. Through his natural gifts and rare intellect it was his goal to turn his own body into the perfect being; one that combined all the best traits of the wasteland's myriad beasts, who could survive in all the world's harshest environments. Be it sweltering heat, bitter cold, intense pressures, or forceful blows, nothing was beyond his ability to adapt to and overcome!
And the shapeshifting soldiers? They were just experimental byproducts! Roste needed materials for his research and the best place to get them was the Dark Atom. Their trade arrangement was where he got what he needed, for the process of research was costly.
For decades Academician Roste's body was a perfect specimen. He was sure he was the greatest force in the wastelands and so didn't bother with the creatures therein. He'd turned his sights to the elysian lands and the demonhunters who resided there.
Just one final step!
If he could transplant the abilities of a demonhunter into himself he would succeed in combining the best of the wastelands and the elysian lands. The ultimate, elusive marriage of science and magic! If he could do this Roste would become the most powerful creature in all the world! This was why his desire to capture a demonhunter had been all-consuming.
Before Cloudhawk's arrival his plan had been to work with Dark Atom, and through them capture a demonhunter alive from the elysian lands. However, such a brazen ask was risky, likely turning the ire of the elysians on Blackwater Base. Then, like a gift from heaven a demonhunter wandered into his territory from the wastelands. His greatest desire was delivered right to his doorstep.
This had to be fate! How could Roste not be ecstatic with this turn of events?
"Are you out of ideas?" Roste pulled out a sword four feet long. "Then I suppose it's my turn!"
Hellflower's clips were empty and Roste was completely unscathed.
Cloudhawk pulled the rifle off his back and threw it at her. "Use this!"
Roste's legs suddenly began to change. His knees popped and twisted, bending backward like a kangaroo's to help him jump farther. He began to bound forward at incredible speed, easily cutting apart anyone who came too close.
The heavily armored Iron Bear leapt into his path, shield raised. Of all the base's fighters he had the sturdiest defense, especially with his shield. It was a thick slab, plain and flat, but made from a strong metal alloy. Few things in the wasteland could even scratch it.
Roste's sword came hacking down.
As easily as a hot knife through butter, Roste's sword cleaved Iron Bear's shield in half. It didn't stop, cutting the mighty warrior down the center of his body from his head down to his legs. As he began to split apart Roste swiped his weapon crosswise at the waist, removing his legs. The mountain of a man, who moments before had seemed like a moving fortress, tumbled to the ground with his shield in six pieces.
But his sword! There was something going on there! Hellflower could see it.
Roste was enormously powerful, but certainly not strong enough to cleave someone like Iron Bear so cleanly in half. His weapon was particularly narrow, and its edge was outlined in a faint black line. It was that strip of black that was responsible for the sword's unparalleled keenness. This was no ordinary sword - it was a high-frequency particle blade!
Hellflower had only ever heard of them. Supposedly somewhere else in the wastelands someone had dug one up. It was a masterpiece of the old days that vibrated on a molecular level and could cut almost anything. A weapon like this was sharper than anything they could imagine, and could even cut iron apart as easily as paper.
Roste was a terror, and with this weapon in his hands who could stand against him? Even before Hellflower could fire her gun he was bearing down on her - too fast to defend herself!
Just as the Academician was preparing to cut her in two, Cloudhawk - invisible and sped up through the power of his cloak - swept in between them. He held his exorcist staff up in the path of the particle blade. Surprisingly, even the ancient technological wonder couldn't split this minor relic from the elysian lands. However the screech that issued from their clash was deafening and cracks appeared along the exorcist staff's surface.
"Now! Do it now!"
Hellflower fired the rifle right into Roste's chest. The impact shoved him back several feet, but his adaptive body curled back on his legs like coiled springs. In the midst of being knocked back he was preparing to launch back at them!
"Get out of the way!"
Cloudhawk, benefiting from the speed granted by his cloak, grabbed Hellflower and yanked her out of Roste's path. Moments later Roste's powerful legs shot him forward like a rocket and he slammed into the wall at full force. Half of it collapsed, leaving an enormous hole.
Roste clambered out of the dusty hole with his sword in hand, grinning darkly. "You are no match. Submit, make this easier on yourself. Do not fret giving your power to me, you will not be entirely destroyed. Your will and tenacity will live on within me. Stand with me, stand at the peak of biological perfection!"
Cloudhawk could not deny that in terms of skill Roste was no less capable than the Bloodsoaked Queen.
The Queen, aside from her extraordinary skill, derived her powers from the might of relics. In contrast Roste's abilities came from him alone. His body was an unnatural freakish thing that could adapt to anything. He feared neither fire, ice, water, knife or bullet. Perfection was not an exaggeration.
"You think you're the most perfect thing in the wastelands, eh? Stop your bullshit!" Cloudhawk spied the spot in Roste's chest where Hellflower had shot him. Although it hadn't injured him or left a hole, he could tell the muscle tissue was damaged. "You aint shit compared to someone else I've come across!"
1. The superior siege engine.