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Chapter 106 - The Academician

 Chapter 106 - The Academician

In all his life Cloudhawk had had two women he counted as friends.

The Bloodsoaked Queen was the first. She was about his age, strong, tenacious, persistent and devout. Physically she could be called a peerless beauty, and even out in the elysian lands she was special. It was hard to speak of her without sounding overly keen. Still she had been hard to get along with. They were closer by the end, but there was always a distance between them.

Artemis was the second, a model wastelander in her twenties with all the bad habits that came with her upbringing. She was as loose as she was zealous, straight talking and stubborn. In a lot of ways she was inferior to the Queen, but she had been closest to Cloudhawk.

Hellflower did not possess the feral flavor of the wastelands, nor the delicate and flawless mark of the elysian lands. Hers was a unique style, like someone from those bygone days.

That was a little abstract. To be more specific she reminded Cloudhawk of the pictures he'd seen when he was a scavenger. He and the old man would gather them and pore over the images from that long-past era. Hellflower looked like she'd strode right out of one and into this lab. Her bearing, from the way she stood to her mannerisms and gestures, all spoke of poise and intellect. She was altogether different from both the wastes and the elysian lands.

Like looking out over a winding river, Hellflower's beauty was inexplicable - unattainable. She looked back at Cloudhawk and sized him up while he looked at her, and in her eyes he could see doubt. She said nothing, but the slight contempt in her eyes made her opinions clear.

Consider the reputation of the Caliph of the Sands, what that beast had been. Asking her to believe this scrawny wastelander had killed a demon was like telling her an ant could eat five elephants in a single bite.

Hyena respectfully conveyed Cloudhawk into the room.

"We're running low on samples for the Promethean Project. I'd like you to set aside some time to collect more." She picked off her gloves while she conveyed her orders to Hyena. She made her way over to Cloudhawk and stood before him. Her lithe figure was roughly 1.75 meters tall, half a head taller than Cloudhawk. She looked down her nose at him. "You're a demonhunter?"

Cloudhawk looked at her carefully. She had a mature and attractive face framed by that peculiar silver hair that was fastidiously kept. Cloudhawk didn't suspect she was strong physically, however her presence was nonetheless heavy-handed.

Cloudhawk answered her in his typical straightforward fashion. "Nope."

This took Hyena by surprise. "How could that be?!"

The shapeshifter fixed Cloudhawk with a searching look. He saw a young man around fifteen or sixteen, scrawny from years of malnutrition. His rough wastelander features were revealed since his mask was removed, and a mop of long and messy hair sat atop his head. His face was crusted with either mud or dried blood, but in contrast his eyes were sharp and clear.

The dark grey cloak he wore was so dirty it might as well have been a blanket of filth. The trousers he wore were so tattered they could barely count as clothing. Almost every inch of skin that was exposed was wounded. The belt that held his pants up housed a handful of throwing daggers and a revolver, and strapped on his back was a crudely made wastelander's rifle.

Demonhunters didn't use firearms. Everyone knew that.

The mystical tools they used were often far superior, and besides the guns and bullets of the wastelander were recovered from the ruins of ancient days. People of the elysian lands felt such things were evil and viewed as taboo. Demonhunters as well as typical folk were forbidden from touching them. Any member of the holy order seen traipsing about with one was in danger of being severely punished.

Hyena had never seen a demonhunter, but if they were all like this hobbling mess of a kid the elysian lands was no place to fear.

"So we've made an error?"

"Yup. I'm not a demonhunter, and I have something important I need to do. So if that's it I'd appreciate it if you let me go."

Hyena's melted features twisted into an awkward and irritated glower. "Ms Hellflower, this - "

The Academician's assistant glanced at the exorcist staff strapped to the young man's waist. Her lips slowly curled into a grin. With a quiet glance to Hyena the Seeker seemed to understand and dropped into a combat posture. He fixed the kid with hard, merciless eyes.

As the sense of danger washed over him Cloudhawk balked in surprise. "What the hell is this?"

"The Academician was expecting a demonhunter as his distinguished guest. If that's not you..." Her lilting voice was easy as though she were speaking with a friend over a cup of tea. She made her way over toward a sink and dipped in her slender fingers as she continued. "I do happen to be short a test subject for this compound."

This hateful woman!

As Hyena came swooping down on him his body rapidly changed. Once again that coarse black hair slithered from his pores and he became half man, half dog amidst the sound of popping joints. He groped for the boy with claws several inches long at incredible speed.

How fast was this mutt!

Cloudhawk didn't have time to grab his staff or draw a gun. He only had time to dodge to the side, whereupon he vanished from view. Hellflower, though her back was turned as she washed her hands, seemed to know something happened. Her lips spread in a small smile.

Hyena was stunned at the suddenness of his disappearance, but only for a moment before finding his target again. He dropped on all fours then launched into the air like a spring. His right hand reached out and snatched something from seemingly empty air.

"Let go!"

Cloudhawk involuntarily shimmered back into view. His throat was caught in Hyena's iron grip and he knew the shapeshifter could crush his larynx with the slightest effort.

How did the guy do it? Until now no one had been able to pick him out of invisibility so easily.

Hellflower turned back around to regard Cloudhawk. "Hyena's nose is keener than a bloodhound. He could find you from the scent of your wounds."

Cloudhawk scowled. Smell, then? The invisibility cloak could mask sight and sound, but moving caused blood to drip from his wounds. For a creature like Hyena that was easy to track.

"Then I'll make you let go!"

It was getting harder to breathe, his vision was becoming hazy. In his anger the exorcist staff still kept on his waist awakened. It released a blast of energy toward Hyena's head. It struck him and the Pathfander shoved the young wastelander away. Cloudhawk stumbled backward a few steps then caught his feet but not before aggravating his injured leg. He collapsed onto his backside, pale faced and gulping air.

"If you aren't a demonhunter, why do you have a demonhunter's relics?" Hellflower looked at him with eyes that seemed to know all. "Your weapon is an exorcist staff, standard armaments for the elysian lands. If you didn't have the talents of a demonhunter you wouldn't be able to use it - how do you explain that?"

Cloudhawk just scowled at her. He actually didn't know how to explain it.

"He has to be a demonhunter, without a doubt." Hyena slowly returned to human form. "Only he is pitifully weak. I've never fought the Caliph of the Sands, but I suspect he was much stronger than me. If he really did fight the demon there was no way he would survive."

"That's one explanation. There are other demonhunters out in the wastelands. In fact half a year ago I learned there was a particularly talented one who came from the elysian lands who was searching for the Caliph. If he is truly dead, my suspicion is that demonhunter was the one who did it." Her voice was gentle and calm. It was as though the violent encounter hadn't happened at all. "This boy, however..."

"The both of you are woefully disrespectful." Suddenly a quavering and hoarse voice interjected. Its owner was an elderly man in white who hobbled along with the help of a cane. He approached, flanked by two robust lizard guardians. "He is our guest. Why are you making things difficult for our young friend?"

Immediately Hyena's face dropped its fierce expression and he bowed low at the waist.

Hellflower, in contrast, never changed the indifferent look on her face. However with the appearance of this old man she promptly shut her mouth, visibly restraining herself.

The wrinkled and unassuming old man was perhaps only about 1.5 meters tall, even Cloudhawk was a head taller.

The geezer could have easily been a hundred as seventy or eighty. He was so emaciated he looked like skin stretched over bone, and he tottered along as though he might topple over any moment. He kept his balance with the help of his cane. Sparse white hair sprouted around his head but a bald spot had claimed most of the territory. Rheumy eyes peered at them from behind thick glasses. His already frail form stopped visibly, like he had one foot in the grave. Was this half-dead geezer the Academician? The leader of the Seekers?

In all his experiences through the wastelands Cloudhawk knew that a leader had to be strong. This old man looked like he'd be bested by a strong breeze, yet the likes of Hyena and Hellflower worked diligently for him. It was certainly unexpected.

"You're the Academician?"

"Actually, I have a name." The skinny fossil chortled at him and pushed his glasses up on his nose with knotted fingers. "You can call me Roste."

Cloudhawk got the sense that though this Academician Roste was the leader of the Seekers, he was exceedingly gentle. He had the bearing of someone who had experienced much in his life.

"And the reason you brought me here..."

"Young man, don't be in such a rush." Roste stopped to relieve himself of a few feeble coughs. He didn't appear to be in the best of health. "I know you're in a hurry to get something done, but as far as I can tell the whole wasteland is out to kill you. If you leave here now you'll only be trudging toward your death. Don't you agree?"

Cloudhawk couldn't say he was wrong.

"Blackwater Base is very safe, you can hide here for a while. Now that the Caliph is dead no one would dare to trouble us here." The Academician looked Cloudhawk over. "You may discover that you'll learn a lot if you stay among us. Of course there are also some things we will need your help with. I hope we can assist one another."

Cloudhawk thought for a moment.

The old man Roste made a good point. Continuing his journey now with no friends and potentially thousands of enemies would be difficult, to say the least. What would be the harm in staying here for a little while, out of sight? At the very least these Seekers were very interested in him, though Cloudhawk wasn't sure if that was a good thing. At any rate if they really wanted to keep him here it was too late for Cloudhawk to resist. It made more sense to keep calm and capitulate.

"Hyena is my most loyal agent, and Hellflower is my most competent assistant. If you should need anything you can bring it to them." His words were interrupted by another series of coughs. The effort made him weak. The old man waved to those around him. "You lot tend to his wounds."