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Book 3, Chapter 83 - A Snake in the Garden

 Cloudhawk's first thought: Run. Escape. Screw everybody.

If he only worried about himself and Hellflower then he was certain they could escape with their lives.

What did it matter if the Dark Atom was wiped off the map? Hellflower was the only one who could save him anyway, so why should he risk his life by sticking around here? These rebels were a bunch of psychopaths anyway, zealots willing to throw themselves on elysian swords. They had no one to blame but themselves for the tragedy they were about to suffer.

But Hellflower refused. She wouldn't flee with Cloudhawk. That's when he remembered.

Hellflower was just as crazy as the rest of them, maybe crazier. She'd wandered the wastelands for twenty years, traveling from one Seeker base to another. Nucleus was the culmination of all her searching. The Dark Atom's technology and collected knowledge were like a furnace where she could temper everything she learned. It turned her into the incredible scientist that she was.

She was a simple woman, in a way. She didn't really care about the goals of the Dark Atom. Nor was she determined to make elysians her enemy. Her one goal was knowledge, the pursuit of that which is hidden. It was an insatiable need, and the Dark Atom was the only group for thousands of kilometers with the tools she craved. So she wouldn't leave. Hellflower would remain with the Dark Atom till the end.

And what did Cloudhawk understand, anyway?

Hellflower may have managed to get her hands on Roste's legacy, but without the proper equipment or resources it was just data on a page. She couldn't help him without the Dark Atom's help, so if he wanted any chance at getting better he had to fight with the rebels.

"The Dark Atom isn't as weak as you seem to think. The elysians won't destroy us so easily - stop worrying."

Her false sense of confidence floored him. How could such a smart woman be so blind?! Wastelanders were wastelanders, how did she know what Skycloud was capable of if she's never even been there?

Who knew what monsters they'd sent to take out these terrorists? Skye Polaris? Maybe even Arcturus Cloude himself? If just one of them were here then they were doomed, without question. But even if they didn't, who knew how many officers had been dispatched for a mission this important.

Skycloud had more skilled fighters than the desert had rocks, and their scope of training was vast. Not to mention, Skycloud's border forces had to be close to a hundred thousand men. If you added all of the Dark Atom's rebels together it wouldn't even number half of that.

Hellflower wasted no time on Cloudhawk and started to act, leaving him scratching his head. There was no choice, it wasn't like Cloudhawk could knock her out and drag her away.

"Don't stand there like an idiot. Help me evacuate people!"

Wolfblade was already gone. He had gathered the fighters and was mounting a defense. However, there were many who were caught in the chaos and couldn't escape. The greatest resources of Nucleus wasn't the city or any thing in it, it was the Seekers themselves. The scientist who were often looked at as though they were useless, they were the ones diligently researching the secrets of the old world and bringing its boon into the present.

To the Dark Atom, these people were priceless. Now that war had come to their home, they had to be protected.

Cloudhawk's injuries had improved greatly, enough that he could be of use. Yet as he was moving to help Hellflower he heard the sounds of combat draw near. Presumably, a small group of invaders had slipped in while the two main forces were busy fighting each other.

"Fuck, fine. It looks like I'm not going back to the elysian lands." There was no question that Nucleus had been consumed by the turmoil of war. Cloudhawk pulled out his mask and slipped it onto his face, then looked toward Hellflower as she was helping a group of women and children find shelter. "I'll help where I can. Get those people out of here!"

An ambiguous smile teased the corner of Hellflower's lips when she saw he was preparing to offer support. "I knew you wouldn't abandon me. Protecting yourself and staying alive is the most important thing."

Do you really care?

The Dark Atom, or Cloudhawk. There was a chance it would come down to one or the other, and if Hellflower had to choose... well, he didn't like his chances.

Soldiers had begun to pour into Nucleus from several breaches. So far it wasn't many, several hundred perhaps. Buzzard, Greenscale and other Dark Atom agents had mounted a small resistance force.

However, despite their small numbers the rebels quickly discovered that these black-clad invaders were more of a threat than they appeared. This was especially true for its two leaders, who by themselves cut down many of the rebels who rose to oppose them.

Buzzard recognized quickly that they were outmatched. "Greenscale, go get help!"

The former mercenary was completely in lizard form. He barely managed to slip beneath an attacker's blade, but before he could respond to his commander an arrow pinned him to the wall.

Two invaders hacked their weapons toward him, aiming to finish him off.

Buzzard responded by flinging a steel pole their way. His aim was true, and the two men in black were both pierced through like a gruesome kebab.

There were only a dozen or so soldiers left, and the invaders were close to two hundred. Underestimating the invading force had put Buzzard in a bad position.

A particularly large man appeared in his field of view. He was hidden beneath a large leather cloak and scars were etched around his eyes. His lips were pulled into a derisive sneer. Fondling jade ring on his thumb, the man idly raised his arm toward Buzzard.

A scorching wave of energy came tearing across the distance between them. Buzzard, having thrown his weapon to protect Greenscale, was left defenseless.

But just as he felt the hair begin to singe on his head someone kicked his leg out from under him. The sweep was hard enough to very nearly snap bone, but it sent him sliding several meters away instead. The invader's ray of light screamed by overhead but caused no harm. It arced through the city until a wall stopped it. The sheer energy contained in the ray melted the wall into a bubbling liquid within seconds.

Buzzard was drenched in a cold sweat. If he hadn't been knocked away he would have been instantly incinerated. He turned his head to look for his savior but saw no one.

Adder, however, frowned at the scene, but the knowing light in his eyes was obvious. He turned that piercing gaze toward a corner. "Cloudhawk? It's you!"

Cloudhawk? Buzzard looked doubtful. Why would that guy help him?

"Heh, Boss Adder's got a keen eye." Cloudhawk spoke easily, even after being discovered. He dropped the power of the invisibility cloak and appeared before the crowd, and although his stance was casual his eyes were iron as they fixed on Adder. His voice was thick with mocking humor. "I know you're not the reason the Elysians got here so quick, right?"

"I am," he replied frankly.

"So you sent me to blaze the trail and had the Elysian army follow. Is it wrong to suspect you're an agent of Skycloud that was sent to the wasteland? It's the only thing that makes any sense to me."

"You don't need to know." Adder shook his head. He didn't have much time, and we wasn't going to waste it here. So he was blunt: "I'm just here to make sure I get what I want. For Luciasha's sake I don't want to have to kill you, so move aside and mind your own business."

Cloudhawk didn't give two shits about Adder and his mission, but throwing him into the fire like this was fucked up. He wassn't a forgiving sort, so he couldn't just let Adder get away with being a dick.

"You know, the more you say shit like that the more curious it makes me. I'm the sort of guy who can't help myself when I'm curious."

"Then I suppose I'll just have to kill you."

"Alright, tryin' to intimidate me eh? I have decided to get involved in everyone's business today." Cloudhawk rolled his eyes. He didn't know a damn thing about Adder - whose side he was on or who he really was - but he sure as shit wasn't going to just let him walk into Nucleus and get his hands on that weapon he wanted. If it really existed, things would be really bad if Adder came to possess something that could level a whole city. "Let's see what Boss Adder's really got. I've always wanted to know, and this seems like the perfect opportunity to see for myself. Hell, if we walk away without a little scuffle I wouldn't be able to forgive myself."

Adder wasted no time. "Revenant!"

With no prelude to his arrival, Revenant appeared at Cloudhawk's side. His keen blade was already poised to strike.

But Cloudhawk knew he was there. People can be concealed but the sound of relics always rang in his ears. He was prepared, so that when Revenant's sword came slashing toward Cloudhawk it passed harmlessly through. The demonhunter responded with a vicious swing of his exorcist rod, with the black-clad killer deflected it with his sword. The impact still knocked him backward.

Adder raised his hand and fired another searing beam. It possessed too much power, impossible to avoid.

Nothing was faster than light, so by virtue of this terrible beam Adder had slain many of his enemies. Only, it didn't have the expected effect on Cloudhawk. The wastelander's six sense was preternatural, sharp enough that he knew where the beam would pass even before it arose. He moved a fraction of an inch, just enough that the attack missed him completely.

Adder replied with a sinister chuckle. "Insignificant skill."

No sooner were his words conveyed than a mirror surface appeared before Cloudhawk. An inexplicable power encased him. The strange sensation make him pause.

He narrowed his eyes, staring at the mirror. His reflection stared back.

Cloudhawk didn't know how or why, but his reflection started to move on its own.

It stepped forward.

Cloudhawk's mirror image, locked safely in a world of reflection, stepped brazenly into reality. A carbon copy, it was nonetheless easy to see which Cloudhawk was the real one. The mirror image bore a sinister, bloodthirsty expression and brought with it a deadly air. A ghost, plucked from the pits of the abyss.

This was a unique experience for Cloudhawk. "What the hell? What, did you think I needed a twin brother?"

Adder offered a twisted grin. "Ignorant hooligans rarely know how irritating they really are. I thought I might help you see yourself as you really are."

Cloudhawk snorted a laugh. "Oh bossman, so naïve. You think a copy can beat me?"

He might look and move just like Cloudhawk, but could his copy really have his same abilities?

A sneer from the mirror image seemed to be his answer. It flicked the tattered cloak around its shoulders, and vanished.

His face stiffened. Like meeting a fuckin' ghost! It could even use relics! The thrum of an exorcist rod appeared out of nowhere, which he just managed to deflect before it could cave his head in. As the two weapons met the air was filled with a concussive blast of energy that cracked the ground beneath their feet.

The surprise attack staggered him.

"I don't have time to bother with you now, child. Play with yourself for a while. Men, move out!"

Adder didn't even spare Cloudhawk a second glance. With a curt thrust of his hand, he and Revenant led the other men in black toward their objective.

"Over my dead body!"

But Cloudhawk's threats were useless. His mirror image raced forward to block his path. He was unpleasantly aware of the fact that this copy was just as strong as he was. An easy resolution to his problem wasn't forthcoming. Buzzard also tried to move toward Adder, but the invaders in black stopped his advance. For the time being, all they could do was watch impotently as Adder raced away to perform whatever black act they had planned.

But what was it?