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Book 3, Chapter 99 - Great Progression

 Cloudhawk thought he was going to bear witness to an incredible historic event. In the end, the negotiations failed.

He didn't know whether to feel disappointed or relieved.

On the one hand, if the powers of the wasteland did gather into a loose association of groups, even as just a prototype, it would be a great improvement to the stability and society of the area. However, it would also mean death and turmoil; the birth of a Wasteland Alliance would mean war.

A thousand years in the past, after the great war and before the gods left for their heavenly palaces, they created lands of plenty where their loyal servants would live. These utopian lands were rich with resources, power, and tools to make life better. From the moment of their construction, the elysian lands and the wastelands were at odds. Elysians were pious and loathed the godless heathens of the wastes. Meanwhile, wastelanders despised the cruel methods of these zealots and were jealous of all they had been given.

For a thousand years these differences have only become more irreconcilable, nor has the battle they raged ever been on equal footing. Elysian forces had always crushed wastelanders under their thumb by virtue of their godly inheritance.

Yet Wolfblade was right, wastelanders were like weeds. Whether cut down by fire or by blade, it didn't matter. They rose again, stronger and more resilient than ever, from the cracks and the dirt and stones, emerging from places no one in their right mind would live. Tenacity was in their blood, and they survived no matter how many times the elysians came to destroy them.

Today, organizations like the Dark Atom had been born from the blasted sands. Perhaps in the future, more groups like it would emerge and cooperate. Then, even though they would still be at a disadvantage compared to the elysians, they at least would be able to stand their ground.

A war like that would not be short lived.

The world would be plunged into a sea of blood. Cloudhawk didn't know who would win. For every brilliant point of light on Sumeru, the mountain of the gods, there was a shadow in the demonic abyss of Gehenna lying in wait. Who could say if the turmoil wouldn't draw these beings back into the world of men? And if they did, it wouldn't matter how many were gathered under any single banner. By then, it didn't matter what side you were on, for destruction was promised any way you looked at it.

Fuck it.

Cloudhawk was a small lizard in a big, wide desert. Problems like this were way beyond him.

The physical condition that had given him so much trouble had been greatly eased after just one injection from Hellflower.

"The Trespasser virus has been stabilized and continues to be assimilated by your body. It's still multiplying, but at this point the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages. You don't need to worry about it having an effect on your brain."

Cloudhawk answered her with a skeptical stare. "That easy, eh?"

Hellflower was equally puzzled. Although she hadn't had time to do more in-depth tests, it was obvious that Wolfblade's medicine had had the intended effect. Trespasser now lay mostly dormant in Cloudhawk's body like orderly soldiers. It still reproduced, but the virus no longer attacked his organs or mutated tissue.

She really didn't have an answer for him.

Prior to injecting Cloudhawk with it, Hellflower had given into her curiosity and did some tests on the substance. What she found was that it contained a fair amount of blood. But that didn't make it sense, how could blood have such magical properties? It went far beyond Hellflower's capabilities as a scientist.

Her hope was to be a comprehensive scientific mind, but was it even possible to know everything about such a vast and inscrutable subject? The search for truth was always limited by the span of one's lifetime. The only way to explore the infinite mysteries of the universe was to walk its twisting paths for all eternity.

This wasn't the first time she encountered something that stumped her. What sort of scientist would she be if she wasn't often confronted with the unknown? It was the fact that she didn't know everything that made life worth living.

"Test it and see for yourself." She shoved him into a training hall and faced him off against her metallic protector. "My guardian isn't just a top-grade robot, it's also a priceless utility. Go on and test your strength against it. Don't be afraid, do your worst. You can't break him."

The silver guardian stood there like a statue.

Inwardly Cloudhawk noted that he hadn't had an opportunity to test himself since his latest breakthrough. If she was offering, he wasn't going to refuse.

Cloudhawk gripped the exorcist rod and poured his energy into it. A tempestuous roar sprang up around him! The long stick burst into fire, consumed by angry red light. The intense heat caused unsettling warps in the air around him.

He attacked.

The golem stood steadfast in the center of the attack while winds whipped all around. It struck with so much force that it was launched backward like a bullet and slammed into the distant wall. The alloy metal construction caved from the impact, leaving a man-shaped imprint.

Hellflower gaped at him with her big beautiful eyes. "How...?"

She didn't know anything of what had happened to Cloudhawk over the last several years, but she had watched him fight Raven. He was strong, but not like this. If he were then Raven wouldn't have nearly killed him. And yet, inexplicably, in a matter of days Cloudhawk seemed to have reached a whole new level of ability.

If Raven and Cloudhawk were to have a rematch today, she wouldn't be able to predict who would win.

Cloudhawk stared at the golem, but instead of surprise he looked disappointed. "Tell him to get back here, I want to try again."

The metal warrior was a sturdy construct. Although electric attacks could temporarily disable it, normal blows had little to no effect. Even veteran demonhunters would be hard pressed to leave a scratch. While Cloudhawk's strike looked vicious, to the golem it was nothing.

Hellflower fixed her young friend with a curious gaze. "What other tricks do you have up your sleeve?"

"Heh, watch closely lady. I'll show you something I just recently learned myself. I haven't had a chance to put it to good use yet."

Cloudhawk turned back to the golem. He started to breath; deep, long breaths. Again... again... again... By the third breath Hellflower's goggled began to tremble. Like all Dark Atom equipment they weren't merely goggles, of course. They were constructed with sensitive detection equipment that was capable of reading Cloudhawk's quickly rising body temperature.

What the goggles were telling her couldn't be right. The speed at which his temperature was rising was totally unnatural. By the time it started to slow it should have been unbearable for a normal human.

His skin slowly grew red and steam wafted off of him. His eyes were bulging and bloodshot, and every muscle in his body became taught at once. His heart rate increased, blood surged through his veins. His metabolism burned through any energy it could find within him. Seeing this, Hellflower knew that it was a tactic of Cloudhawk's own creation - an ability that let him rapidly increase his strength. All at once the energy in his cells revved up like a motor, turning him into a powerful force.

This sort of power was the subject of much of Hellflower's recent research. For ordinary people, the power in their bodies came from the contraction of muscle and tendon. It was the simplest form of force.

Martial artists, after reaching a certain level of training, learned to master a special sort of strength.

It was deeper than just the muscles, reaching into one's total potential and drawing on the power residing in every cell. That was what they called true power, what martial artists drew on to perform super-human feats of strength and protect themselves from harm.

At present Cloudhawk's body was filled to the brim with this power. Skycloud had many martial warriors, and they cultivated this inner strength after long years of imbibing special medicines and tinctures. These medicines changed them physically, strengthening their muscles, and training them from the inside. As for the base nature of this true power, Hellflower still hadn't figured it out. She was lacking in data and test subjects. In a way, the war for the Blisterpeaks had provided her with a unique opportunity, for now the lands around Nucleus were littered with corpse for her to dissect and study. Hellflower was convinced they were the secret to her next breakthrough.

During his time in Hell's Valley, Cloudhawk had learned how to harness this inner strength. However, he wasn't satisfied, not yet. Drawing on this extreme method he summoned more and more of that potential. Were a normal man to attempt this, they would quickly consume their own life force and cripple themselves.

But Cloudhawk's condition was different. He didn't seem to be affected at all.

He'd always had a berserker strain, which revealed itself as early as his days in Blackflag Outpost. It was different from the insanity of Mad Dog, because this transformation markedly increased Cloudhawk's strength and speed. Especially after fighting his way from Squall after the battle with the Crimson One, this latent wildness had grown to these new and frightening levels.

The exorcist rod burst into flame once more, and Cloudhawk belted out a guttural roar!

The ground seemed to shake from it. Cracks appeared in the glass of nearby windows.

He started to move, taking only a few steps before a burst of wind revealed he'd broken the sound barrier. Releases every bit of explosive power inside he heaved the rod, smashing it into the golem's body. This time Hellflower didn't see what happened to her protector.

This time a hole was blasted into the metal wall!

Cloudhawk's exorcist rod was broken, and because he still couldn't fully control his own speed, he also went careening into the wall. The collision nearly smashed him to pieces. He reeled back, clutching his broken nose and resetting it with a crunch. A small injury like this was nothing to his regenerative abilities. "Whadda ya think?"

The golem twitched and jerked. When it rose back onto its feet, the once smooth chest plating had a clear dent. Luckily for the robot, some sort of living metal had been used in its construction. It would repair itself over time, so long as it wasn't totally destroyed. Even as Cloudhawk watched, the guardian's concave chest popped back into shape.

Hellflower stared at him as though he were some sort of monster.

There was a price to pay for Cloudhawk, of course. His whole body hurt after that collision, and once the rage passed he felt totally drained. The blow from the rod was easily three or four times stronger than normal, but at least ten times more exhausting. He happily noted, however, that he had broken the sound barrier. That was even faster than Drake.

The lieutenant general of the border army was a tried and true martial artist. He'd been training since he was a child. Cloudhawk was a demonhunter who only started picking up martial techniques a few years ago.

Like Selene who started training at eight and was a high-status demonhunter by the age of ten, some people were just built for certain things. That was the nature of talent.

"Only a freak like you could do a freakish thing like that. The side effects aren't likely to shorten your life expectancy, but using it will definitely tire you out. If you allow it to go on for too long you could do serious damage to yourself. You might be able to wreak havoc, but it will come at the cost of your own health as well. This is why, even against strong enemies, you should only call on your potential as a last resort." Hellflower gave him a cursory once-over before sighing helplessly. "You are as hard to read as ever."

Cloudhawk chortled. In reality, he had more yet to reveal.

With the power locked inside the phase stone, he could increase his abilities even further. If he combined his own strength with the power of the stone, he might even be able to stand toe to toe with someone like Frost!

Cloudhawk was pleased with himself and where he was at. Now that the problem with Trespasser was handled, he decided to head back to Skycloud as soon as possible. Every day he stayed away, the easier it was to invite trouble. Augustus Cloude had his eye on him, now. But before he left, there were still some things he needed to figure out.

"So it looks like the Wasteland Alliance isn't going to be a thing, huh."

"The Sanctum of Judgment and the Dark Atom are at odds. It doesn't appear that Wolfblade has a way to change their opinion for the time being."

Cloudhawk felt a tightness in his chest. "That only raises more questions. If the Sanctum dislikes the Dark Atom so much, then why did they come to help against the elysians?"

"There are many implications there. For one, the two organizations have an agreement. I recall that Nucleus used to have an old atomic bomb buried somewhere, but after the battle it seems to have gone missing. That weapon was the treasure of this city, so I suspect it was used as a bargaining chip. Maybe that was the reason the Crimson Church got involved."

"What did you say? An atomic bomb!"

Cloudhawk's face darkened. He'd almost forgotten all about Adder's 'prime evil' weapon.

Shit, Adder really got away with it? If that's the case what is he preparing? Where will he use it? What's his plan? Cloudhawk felt himself break out in a clammy sweat. He couldn't let this drag on anymore, he had to get back as fast as possible!