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Cloudhawk was practicing the demonhunter training exercises. He found his body had improved again by no small measure. Now he was able to perform twenty movements easily. Though it was a far cry from what the Bloodsoaked Queen could do, his improvement was still impressive.

He still remained in Blackwater Base, studying with Hellflower. There was much to learn, otherwise he would have already left to continue his journey.

Cloudhawk hated the struggle and intrigue of the wastelands. He despised fleeing from place to place, fighting for his life. Getting out of this hell hole was his greatest wish. His friendship with Hellflower was more about mutual benefit than anything else and there was nothing she could offer that would keep him here.

Sooner or later, Cloudhawk would leave. Without a doubt!

A guard approached and made his report. "Master Cloudhawk. Our leader wishes to speak with you."

Cloudhawk made his way to Hellflower's laboratory. She was crouched over a series of strange instruments, too absorbed to notice him enter. She was beautiful as ever; her firm breasts and pert backside outlined in her lab gear, and her silvery hair hung loose at her shoulders. The others in the room stole furtive glances as often as they could.

These days no one challenged her authority. She was more intelligent and a physically capable person in the base, without question.

She never raised her head, keeping her eyes fixed on the equipment before her. However, words slipped from her attractive mouth when she heard Cloudhawk's footsteps. "I heard you're getting ready to leave?"

Cloudhawk was direct in his response. "My time here was an accident, I've already stayed too long. I'm planning to leave in a couple days."

He already had the Caliph's book as proof, and the Bloodsoaked Queen's token for passage. A life of ease and plenty awaited him in the elysian lands. There Cloudhawk would live as a hero, a life which he imagined to be far better than anything out here in the wastelands. The young wastelander was not an ambitious sort, all his life his only desire was to find somewhere peaceful where he could live out his days in comfort and quiet.

"It's your decision where you'd like to go, I respect your choice. But you should see this first." At last Hellflower straightened and approached Cloudhawk. She handed him a piece of paper. "The analysis of your blood."

"This doesn't make any sense to me, just tell me what you found."

Roste's final bite had nagged at Cloudhawk ever since it happened. Only, everything had seemed normal, and over time his worries eased. In the off chance that something was wrong he'd entrusted Hellflower with checking his blood. Once he left, he figured it would be difficult to find someone who could help examine him even in the elysian lands.

Hellflower paused in thought. This bumpkin could read but that was about all, she couldn't expect him to understand the results. She pushed her glasses higher along the bridge of her nose with slender fingers. "Long story short there's an unknown microorganism we discovered in your blood. We've come to call it Trespasser."

The news and ominous name gave him gooseflesh. "It's in my blood? That can't be right!"

"If you think I'm just trying to scare you come and have a look for yourself." She led him to the lab table and situated Cloudhawk before the strange instruments she had been staring through. "This device was created out of materials we found in the wasteland, crude but capable of magnifying the contents of blood."

"Why do you have three samples?" He asked.

"Stupid, for contrast of course!" She pointed to the various slides as she explained. "On the left is normal blood. In the center is a specimen from Roste. The one to the right is yours. We are able to find the differences by analyzing the three samples against each other."

Cloudhawk leaned over the left device and peered through its lens. Inside he saw a field of red, thickly dotted with round specs that were difficult to differentiate. Those had to be what made up human blood?

The sample in the center device was completely different. There were red dots, only these weren't smooth plates like the last sample. Roste's blood contained red spikey material of various shapes with tendrils of dark green reaching out from them. The space between the mutated blood cells were thick with strange green organisms - so many in fact that the blood was tinged green.

Roste's blood was absolutely monstrous!

The last sample he looked at was his own, and when he looked through the lens his face fell. In all it looked much more like the normal blood, but for the bright green dots around the edges. There weren't many and they wandered freely through the serum. A small number had attached to the red blood cells.

The green microorganisms were few but lively. Even as he watched they were reproducing, slowly permeating through his blood serum.

"Yeah, I see it. The green things are Trespasser?" Cloudhawk lifted his head to look at Hellflower, worry on his face. "But what the fuck is it?"

"I don't know. About all we can guess is that it's some sort of peculiar form of life." She looked at Cloudhawk with an earnest expression. "When we examined Roste's body we found that it was completely infested with Trespasser, present in every cell. We suspect this was what gave the Academician his high-grade adaptability."

Cloudhawk pressed her further. "The ones in Roste's blood were different. They were darker."

"Trespasser reproduces quickly, and once it reaches a certain concentration we can be sure it will begin to infiltrate the rest of your body. What we learned from Academician Roste's body was that this organism will fundamentally alter your biology eventually, but how it will manifest we have no idea."

A chill shuddered through Cloudhawk. "How long do I have?!"

"Around ten, twenty years. You might start seeing changes in a year and a half - we really can't say for certain."

"Son of a bitch, what the hell?" Cloudhawk angrily grabbed fistfuls of his ratty hair. He knew the Academician was up to no good. "Is there a cure?"

"Roste didn't leave any notes about it, I can't think of any way to reverse the infection." She spoke to the young man with a teasing smile. "But look at it this way, I think you really got a bargain. Ten to one you become a super shapeshifter, inheriting a lifetime of the Academician's work. How can this be a bad thing? You'll have abilities wastelanders could only dream of!"

Even though his transformation hadn't been complete, Roste already could fight about as well as the Bloodsoaked Queen. Given another twenty years to perfect his body Roste would have broken the expected lifespan of a human - he would have become a super-lifeform. 

None of that interested Cloudhawk. He wanted to train and become stronger like the demonhunters, not deliberately turn himself into a monster! What would power mean if he wasn't even human anymore?

Cloudhawk was at a loss.

Hellflower was one of the best minds around, and even she didn't know what to do. Did that mean there was no hope to reverse the process? Although there wasn't any evidence, was there a chance this could affect his memory, will or personality?

Cloudhawk was somber and uncertain but Hellflower found his trepidation amusing. Cloudhawk had been willing to stand up to Roste, but this situation frightened him. To many including Hellflower, his situation was not pitiable. The Academician's abilities had been clear to everyone.

Who wasn't twisted by the wastelands? Capability was the way to power!

Hellflower considered the situation for a moment. "There's nothing we can do here, but I know of someplace that might be able to help. If you go there maybe they have a way to help you."

"Tell me, where?"

"The Dark Atom, out in the elysian lands!" It was a name he'd heard several times already. Hellflower explained further. "The Dark Atom is the most complete and influential Seeker organization in the entire wasteland. They're as full of talented people as the sky is full of clouds. If you can get to them, I think they'll be able to help you."

"So where can I find the Dark Atom?"

"I have no idea." She chuckled at her own disappointing response. "Skycloud's been trying to wipe them out for over a decade with no success [1]. They're crafty. Wherever their base is, it's almost impossible to find and no one knows for sure. I think your only bet is to search for them yourself when you get there."

"Thank you!" Cloudhawk's mind was made up. "I'll set out as soon as possible!"

"Come with me first." She pulled him into an adjacent room. "Since we aren't sure of your body's condition, I want to give you a thorough examination."

The room she'd brought him to was not large. Uniforms hung from pegs on the walls, revealing it as a locker room for lab workers. Hellflower slipped her lab coat off her shoulder and hung it on a hanger, revealing her form-fitting, short-cut clothing beneath. With a snap she pulled her gloves off and threw them aside then interlaced her fingers. A series of cracks and pops issued from her knuckles.

"Take off your clothes.

"I need to take off my clothes for the examination?"

"Stupid question. How can we do a full body check if you have your clothes on?"

Hellflower's deft fingers quickly had him out of his clothes. His rough, dark skin was revealed to her, but different than before. His complexion had become a healthy bronze, and he'd gone from emaciated to pleasantly muscular. Often the fact was hidden beneath his clothes, which made him look thin and unassuming. Without them he looked like a cheetah, corded muscles taught and ready to pounce.

"These, too."

Hellflower pointed a dainty finger at his underwear.

1. Skycloud is the city led by the Bloodsoaked Queen's uncle, as explained in Chapter 93

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