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Book 3, Chapter 73 - The Price of Hubris

 Nucleus, headquarters of the Dark Atom. A city constructed in the belly of a volcano.

There was no place like it within ten thousand kilometers.

Nucleus was tucked away in the deepest parts of the Blisterpeak mountain range. A repurposed ancient fortress, the data wasn't clear on its origins. Information seemed to suggest it was a prehistoric science base. Supposedly it was used as a shelter in the beginning days of the apocalypse.

It extracted energy from the volcano to sustain the populace. That was how it was able to remain active all this time.

It didn't matter what the history of the place was, though. It didn't matter who used to live here. Now, it was the home base for a group of wastelanders. Many were scientists in service to the largest Seeker group in the known world: The Dark Atom.

Skycloud had been searching for this place for more than a decade.

Countless times elysian leadership was forced to guess at where the terrorists were hiding. What was it like? Was it a hell of torture chambers and burnt corpses? A damp, dank place of pestilence and death? No twisted tale came close to the truth of his volcanic hideaway.

Cloudhawk stole through the cavern, toward Nucleus beyond. Although the city was situated beneath countless volcanoes, the smell of sulfur had been left behind. The city was isolated from the scalding heat outside as well. As he moved further along, Cloudhawk came upon an opening that spread into a massive underground space.

Layers of terraced fields.

Large fruit trees stretched out from fertile soil, laden with their bounty. A massive light hung in the upper reaches of the cavern like a miniature sun. It lit up the underground like it was midday. There was even a breeze, and the fresh scent of foliage hung on the wind that kissed Cloudhawk's face.

Further away, rows of factories.

He heard the faint roar as they churned. Smelting, material processing, operations where wasteland ingenuity and ancient technology worked in unison. Huge tubes slithered from the factories and spread out over the fields like a spider's web.

A fleet of airships.

The greatest representation of wasteland science. With no direct line to the secrets of the past, humans in the wastes had to rely on scraps dug out of the ruins of their civilization. Over time, piecing together bits they learned from books and data, mankind was able to recreate these incredible marvels of machinery with a distinct wastelander flair.

IN the bowels of the Blisterpeak mountains were fields of farmland and groves of trees, orderly factories, and mighty airships hanging overhead like hot air balloons. But all of these incredible scenes did not immediately capture Cloudhawk's attention. In the center of all these miracles was an enormous settlement. He could manage only a rough estimate of the number of people who could be living there, but by scale alone it had to at least be comparable to Fishmonger's Borough.

Cloudhawk figured the Dark Atom would be sizable, but not like this. A troubling thought nagged at the back of his mind as he looked over Nucleus: Now that he was here, where was he supposed to start?

"Who are you?"

He'd only been standing there for a few moments, but there were guards coming his way already.

Large as Nucleus was, it was clearly well protected. Passage in and out was strictly policed and few were given permission to leave. It didn't take much to grab attention. Cloudhawk's clothing was also not the standard down here, which helped him stick out like a sore thumb. It wasn't strange that he might draw an eye or several.

The Warden was here for help so he didn't want to piss anyone off. His mind raced for a moment until he fished out a token from his pocket. "Gentlemen. I just arrived, we're on the same team."

In his fingers was the token given to him by Majjhima, handed over after helping them survive in the Skycloud sewers. It was a symbol of loyalty to the Dark Atom.

The two men gave each other a wordless look. For someone to show up like this in the middle of nowhere was highly suspicious. The token he held wasn't enough to ease their minds.

"Move it!"


"We'll see what the captain has to say."

Both men carried something that looked like a gun which they trained on Cloudhawk. He wasn't worried - it wasn't like he couldn't handle a couple guards with a moment's effort - but that wasn't the right play.

They brought him to patrol outpost nearby. He was kept outside while one of the guards walked in to give his report. Cloudhawk turned to the one guard with him. "Don't misunderstand, you guys. I just came here to see your leader Wolfblade. You think you can help me get a meeting?"

The guard didn't respond, because a voice called out from inside. "Who do you think you are? You think you're important enough to demand a meeting with the big boss?!"

A large man covered in knotted muscle lumbered his way. Aside from his size, the most notable feature was his bald head.

He looked at Cloudhawk. Clouhdawk looked back at him. The two men stood in silence.

Something about the guy looked very familiar. IT was like he'd seen him somewhere before, but he couldn't place it. The bald man's face twisted angrily, however, and his eyes burned. "Cloudhawk!"

"You know me?"

That was a surprise. Cloudhawk didn't think he had any sort of reputation here, nor was there any sort of recognizable marks he thought someone might be able to pick out by looking at him. Besides, most of the time he was causing trouble in the wastelands he'd been wearing the mask Selene had given him. It was a little concerning that this guy recognized him so easily.

"Hmph. Oh I know you. You could burn me up and my ashes would remember your face!" Hostility poured off the man, which only confused Cloudhawk further. He leaned back as the big man yelled in his face. "This one's a traitor, not one of ours! Grab him!"

The surrounding guards all hesitated, surprised by the exchange. He wasn't part of the Dark Atom? How did he even get inside?

Cloudhawk wasn't stupid enough to let himself be a sitting duck, so to that end he made the first move. He didn't remember who the baldie was, but he sure as shit called the shots with this lot. Taking him hostage might deter the guards from rushing him.

He moved in a flash. There was a lot he learned after three years in Hell's Valley.

In any number of ways he was better than normal people. In a blink he appeared in front of the bald man and grabbed his throat in a vice-like grip with his left hand. As his fingers dung into the skin Cloudhawk noticed it felt off. Smooth and taught, not like human skin at all. It felt more like snake scales.

The bald man's body began to shift, starting with his eyes. They elongated and folded together like a reptiles, while fine green scales sprouted all over his body. From behind a long tail stretched from his lower back.

The guy was a damn lizard.

Wait! A lizard! That's it!

At last Cloudhawk remembered who this baldie was. He met him the first time in the marshes outside of Blackwater - a mercenary sent to kill him. Seekers brought him to the base half dead and turned him into one of Roste's monsters. The Academician's techniques made him half human, half lizard, and a great soldier they eventually sold to the Dark Atom.

No wonder he remembered!

Baldie wasn't prepared for a burst of strength like this from Cloudhawk, but the Warden was distracted by the revelation and his hold was broken. In his reptile form, the baldie was also much faster than normal. He slithered backward out of Cloudhawk's reach then drew his hatchet and whipped it at his face.

"It's you. So you're still alive."

Cloudhawk said the words while halfheartedly slapping the hatchet to the side. The metal rang as it was deflected. Cloudhawk whipped his leg around, catching the baldie in the chest and sending him tumbling backward. He collapsed on the floor of the room he'd come out of and the whole patrol office shook.

Laying on his back, the baldie had time to take in the amazement he felt.

When did a runt he was once hired to cut down get so mean? After what they did to the mercenary at Blackwater he was stronger than he'd ever been, and thankfully his improved physique protected him from harm. But the brief exchange was clear indication that he was no match for Cloudhawk. He scrambled back onto his feet and looked around for a way to escape.

By then the rest of the guards gathered enough of their wits to respond. Their guns raored as triggers were pulled.

Cloudhawk jumped into the air above their line of fire and toward the baldie. He reached out to grab the lizardman again when a figure flashed into view from the side. Both men exchanged a furious series of blows before landing a short distance from one another.


The newcomer, with his aquiline nose, was immediately familiar to Cloudhawk. There was a history between them as well, that also started all the way back at Blackwater Base.

"What's the problem, Greenscale?"

Vulture wasn't likely to beat Cloudhawk in a straight fight. He packed just as much of a punch and had demonhunter powers to back him up. However, this wasn't the best spot for a full-on scrap, so Cloudhawk summoned the power of cloak and vanished as Greenscale explained.

Vulture's face darkened. "It's him!"

He remembered what happened in Sandbar Outpost the last time they crossed paths. He was the reason their cell in the borderlands was destroyed. He'd sworn to get revenge for the death of his old friend, but lost track of Cloudhawk afterwards. Now, beyond all expectations and in lieu of all his wasted effort, he appeared right in his backyard.

"He's an Skycloud demonhunter! Don't let him escape!"

"Quick, raise the alarm! An enemy has infiltrated the base!"

A series of deafening peals hung over Nucleus and echoed off the interior walls of the volcano. A demonhunter in their headquarters was a potentially disastrous crisis for the Dark Atom. It meant the hideout they'd worked from for years was no longer safe. They were exposed to their enemies.

Down in the town women and children who had lived their whole lives in this mountain cried in fear. Thousands of soldiers were mobilized to hunt down Cloudhawk.

Having it all fall immediately to shit wasn't how Cloudhawk wanted this to go. But he couldn't just allow himself to be captured. Since he couldn't rely on these guys to put a good word in for him, he decided to just find the leadership on his own. While everyone was scrambling to find him, Cloudhawk used his phase stone to penetrate ever deeper into the heart of Nucleus. He was getting closer to where the seat of power had to be....

When suddenly he was stopped by a flash of lightning!

The attack came faster than he could prepare for, so without the help of the phase stone the blast hit him straight on. It wrapped all around him like a chain, holding him tight and leaving no room to struggle. He fought as hard as he could against the bounds, but they weren't budging.

"Well fuck."

Cloudhawk had overestimated his abilities. Most attempts to track and discover him were useless with his combination of skills, so he'd gotten complacent. He thought a place without relics and demonhunters couldn't stop him. He was wrong.

The world went black.