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Book 3, Chapter 72 - City Within the Volcano

 Cloudhawk's arrow had blasted its head apart, but still Magmesa quickly climbed back onto his feet. The red light of its body had dimmed significantly, and it trembled from end to end like it was struck by lightning. An oozing mass dribbled from the hole where its throat had been. Fluid and meat rained on the tribesmen below, as well as a powerful stench.

Cloudhawk had seen all sorts of incredible things as he traveled the wasteland, but never anything like this. A creature this large, headless, jerking like some demon puppet.

This creature had been feared and deified by the indigenous people of the Blisterpeaks for who knows how many generations. Passing years didn't make it old, but just the opposite. Magmesa had only become larger and stronger as its food was provided by the tribesmen. Could it be that this thing, after possibly thousands of years of worship, had somehow left mortality behind? Could it really keep on living without a head?

A torrent of ruined organs and fetid discharge continued to ooze out of it. The bits of meat that tumbled out were unrecognizable, bits of shredded organs and intestine probably. But no - as they continued to watch the bits of meat writhed and twisted. Cloudhawk's hair stood on end as he watched them change, spotted the outline of a limb here or there.

More insects. About the size of a fingertip, hundreds of them.

The continuous sludge expelled by Magmesa's corpse were its babies, and the monster's killers watched in horror as ever more poured free. Hundreds, possibly thousands, writhing around and over one another with the same savagery as their mother. Their hunger was directed toward Cloudhawk and the others.

Meanwhile Magmesa's body continued to decompose into more offspring. Somehow, it seemed the titanic beast was made up of these smaller bugs.

Cloudhawk figured this was a reproduction system of last resort. A monster like this wasn't male or female, or maybe both, so it produced the next generation on its own. When its bodies were destroyed it set off a chain reaction to release its brood. Given several centuries or a millenium, the critters would grow into a creature just as terrible as the one they crawled out from.

When the humongous monster eventually was split apart, the ground was covered in its progeny. It was a dire fate for the mountains, which in the future would be covered in these awful things. Even newly hatched, they were vicious and aggressive, and many were skittering toward the crowd of people hungry for a meal.

But they were living things, and all livings things died eventually. Magmesa lost its head but somehow kept moving, however that was just as a host for its children. The enormous beast could no longer fight. The swarm of insects was dangerous, but they were nothing like the threat its mother posed.

"Deal with them!" Cloudhawk's eyes flashed toward the bubbling like a lava and called out to Coal. "Knock them into the lake!"

The creatures of the Blisterpeaks had evolved to deal with intense heat, but it didn't matter the methods or mutations - underneath the protective measures, all things were made of meat and blood. Coal could wade through lava, but even he couldn't stay immersed for more than a short time.

The newborn insects were no exception. No natural thing was going to survive after being thrown in a lake of lava. It was important to kill them now, before they grew big and became a pestilence on an already inhospitable environment.

Several of the tribesmen hurried over to what remains of Magmesa and started pushing it into the lake as well. The insects that had already burst free bit at them with toxin-covered mandibles, however, which were strong enough to pierce their stone-like skin. Those that were injected by the toxins fell to the ground and began to twitch uncontrollably.

Magmesa's upper half swelled grotesquely as another burst of insects prepared to emerge. If the tribesmen were left where they were, they would be picked apart by the swarm in seconds. Cloudhawk flicked Heavenly Gale back open and waved it towards them just as the insects burst free. A formless gust of air knocked them away.

With an angry roar, Coal ran up to where his brothers had fallen and started to shove Magmesa's corpse toward the edge. Sensing something, the mindless yet still mobile remains swayed and bucked to deny him.

The rest of his fellow tribesmen gathered round to help, but as they came close cracks in the chitinous armor of the creature became clear. More insects poured out of the fissures, proving once more that the whole thing was filled with offspring. Sacks where the young were kept bubbled under the armor like boiling water, ready to burst and release their horrific payload.

Once that happened millions of mutated centipedes would rain across the area. They all would be eaten alive.

Cloudhawk knew the danger, but there wasn't much he could do to stop it.

He rushed forward, joining Coal and the others as they heaved against the enormous monster. Even dead the animal was so much stronger than all of them. Cloudhakw's addition to their efforts was insignificant. But he gritted his teeth and called on the mad rage that always boiled deep inside him. Vessels in his eyes engorged and turned his vision red while the blood in his veins started to boil. Steam rose up from his skin and seeped from the pores.

In an instant Cloudhawk became five or six times stronger than normal.


Magmesa's body caved in at the point where he shoved.

It was just enough, the final straw to break the centipede's back. It collapsed into the lake with the upper fourth of its body first, immediately trapped by the ropy threads of molten rock that splattered over it.

First its body became searing red and a series of pops and tiny pained screams arose. A few seconds later the heat cracked its chitin armor. Hundreds, thousands of tiny insects spilled into the deadly lake and burned up.

Cloudhawk angrily snatched one that landed on his neck and flung it to the ground. Another in perhaps a dozen bites he'd received while trying to get Magmesa into the lake. But potent as the toxins were, their effect on him was small. Instead it was the act of calling on the rage in his blood that harmed him. A deep, tearing pain wracked his body.

It didn't matter. At last, they got rid of that damn monster.

Cloudhawk stood at the edge of the lack, panting as he watched Magmesa slowly sink into oblivion. He then turned his eyes on the insects skittering all around. With their mother destroyed they seemed to abandon any aggressive posture, and all ran for dark crevices in which to hide.

If they were lucky, any one of those bugs could turn out just as terrifying as the monster that spawned it. But that wasn't Cloudhawk's problem. People a hundred or a thousand years from now would need to find their own way to deal with it.

But the experience had definitely opened his eyes. Live continued to surprise him with its talent for survival.

Coal walked back over to him after dragging Magmesa into the lava. Half his body was covered in molten rock that slowly cooled to black against his skin, making him look like a moving statue. He shook and kicked, causing the cooling stone to crack and fall away. No damage had been done. Cloudhawk inwardly shook his head and once again balked at how monstrous he was. If he were to leave these mountains and join the rest of wastelander society, he'd be a formidable presence.

Coal was elated. His tribesmen were glowing in the aftermath of their victory.

At last, the monster which had held their people hostage for generations was destroyed. The Volcano Tribe's doughty warriors were appreciative of this outsider, for they knew victory would have been impossible without his help. Price for failure would have been too much to bear, but Cloudhawk kept it from coming to that.

Cloudhawk looked above them, at the waterfall of lava. There in the cave was a secret entrance, he knew. An entrance to the city in the volcano.

They still needed to find a way through the cascading lava - an obstruction even Coal would find difficult to traverse. But not Cloudhawk. He slipped into a parallel dimension by activating the phase stone, then blinking back once he walked far enough to cross the waterfall.

His feet landed back on solid ground, safely behind the cascade. Sweat drenched Cloudhawks body from the heat and the mental fatigue.

Looking around, the cave was a very wide expanse that stank of sulfur. Small rivulets of lava inched along the floor all over, and in fact the relatively solid ground he stood on was just old cooled lava flows. If he shifted wrong the brittle shell cracked, and an angry red glow appeared underneath. A dangerous place to talk a stroll, to be sure.

Cloudhawk walked deeper into the darkness of the cave. Further back he discovered a lever, which he pulled without hesitation. As it clicked into the down position the sound of gears and grinding stone met him, like the cave itself was one giant device. The waterfall of lava outside slowed to a trickle. It allowed Coal and the others to join Cloudhawk in the cave.

It turned out this cave was not the access tunnel he suspected. It was an escape tunnel. If something happened and the Dark Atom needed to beat a quick escape, they could flee out here through the waterfall. That was why the controls for the waterfall were in here, not outside. Also, because it was a secret escape route, he could assume there weren't manner inside who knew about it. It left it unmanned and vulnerable to invasion.

That was good. It definitely made it easier for Cloudhawk to get in.

Coal lead his men across the scorched cavern, all of them looking around in wonderment. Who would have thought there was something else in the lair of their volcanic god?

"It's dangerous from here on in." Cloudhawk turned to the others. "The rest of you wait here. If I'm not back in a day, then leave me. I probably won't be coming back out."

Coal understood.

The legends of a city within the volcano were enticing, but they weren't stupid. Anyone who could build a home in this terrible place, and command a beast like Magmesa to protect their escape route, was beyond them. The men of the Volcano Tribe were content to wait.

Moving further into the cave he came upon a large iron door, sealed shut.

Judging by the texture of it, the door was constructed using wastelander methods. More likely it was the remains of a base from before the great war that the Dark Atom took up residence in. It was definitely the standard for Seeker groups, like he saw in Blackwater Base. Looking the door over he saw a number pad where a password would grant entrance. Cloudhawk didn't need to bother with such things. He engaged the phase stone. Not even flawless iron doors could keep him out.

This was it! The city in the heart of the volcano!

On the other side of these doors was the secret hideout of the Dark Atom.