There would always be differences between ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’. Many people would often pursue their dreams with the utmost of vigor, only to find when they actually realized those dreams that they weren’t everything they had been cracked up to be. This was because the best parts of those dreams all stemmed from the human imagination itself.
Cloudhawk now truly understood the meaning behind that saying. Diggers were able to eat well, dress warmly, had places to stay, and didn’t have to live in fear, right? That was what Cloudhawk once believed, but upon actually entering the outpost he realized that excavators didn’t live easier lives than scavengers at all!
Each day, when they opened their eyes, they would celebrate the fact that they had survived yet another night. No one had slit their throats while they were dreaming! They would then begin to carry out their weary tasks, with some of them being assigned to act as ‘sparring partners’, also known as human punching bags. They also had an endless supply of miscellaneous tasks to carry out. Cloudhawk had to serve as Mantis’ helper, feed Woola, repair their tools, and engage in other types of hard labor as well.
One could imagine how miserable life like this was!
The mercenaries were all highly experienced experts, and under their tender ministrations Cloudhawk’s face became perpetually bruised and swollen. Thankfully, his fairly strong recovery abilities meant that so long as the injuries weren’t too serious, he’d be able to recover from most of the wounds after a good night’s rest. Alas, the next day the beatings would continue.
As time went on, Cloudhawk discovered a secret about himself. His speed, agility, and control seemed to be improving every single day. Although the rate at which they were improving wasn’t that fast, he really was growing stronger by the day. This fact alone was enough to surprise and delight Cloudhawk. This meant that the power he had absorbed wasn’t just a recovery power. It meant that the abilities ignited within him had vastly exceeded his expectations… and that he wouldn’t just be a useless punching bag for the rest of his life!
This transformation was most likely the result of that mysterious stone. Alas, no matter what Cloudhawk tried, the rock remained a completely inert rock that didn’t respond to anything at all. Cloudhawk had no choice but to once more wear it around his neck, keeping it with him at all times in the hopes that he would find a way to actively use the stone in the future.
Day by day, night by night, Cloudhawk gradually grew accustomed to this tough, toilsome life in Blackflag Outpost. And to be honest, being treated as a punching bag every day wasn’t completely without benefits. Just as the fat Slyfox had said, as he repeatedly recovered from his injuries his recovery abilities began to improve dramatically as well. The more beatings his body took, the tougher it actually became.
In addition, Cloudhawk became more and more familiar with the techniques and tricks the mercenaries used when attacking, and he could also sense that his own speed and reaction times were improving. During the last few sessions, he had been itching to give the mercenaries a good tussle. In the end, he had still chosen to hold back, unwilling to reveal his current abilities without a good reason.
For now, he didn’t want anyone to know about his secret. Neither Slyfox nor Mad Dog were reliable, after all!
Being a sparring partner was just part of his life. The mercenaries were determined to squeeze every last drop of value out of him, and as the lowest ranking member of Tartarus it was his job to fetch water, carry dishes, sweep the ground, wash their clothes, empty the chamber pots, sharpen their weapons, carry heavy loads, perform maintenance on their vehicle… he did everything.
Mantis often had Cloudhawk come to him and be his assistant. At first, Cloudhawk found this job to be extremely uncomfortable. By now, he understood the human body like the back of his head, and was able to dissect a body and draw out its internal organs with his eyes closed. As for his relationship with Woola? At first, Woola would chase him around and attempt to bite him every time Woola saw him. Now, after feeding Woola for so long, the relationship between Cloudhawk and Woola slowly became more peaceful.
Over the course of this month, Cloudhawk slowly became a real member of this organization. The other mercenaries were starting to actually like the kid. He was stubborn and pugnacious, and every day he did his job in a very sulky manner… but he still did what he was supposed to do, and did it well. With him around, everyone in the mercenary company was able to relax much more than before. Where would they ever find another ‘slave laborer’ like this?
Although Cloudhawk still didn’t have much status in Tartarus and wasn’t allowed to eat with the others, and although he still had to live outside in that small room, everyone’s attitude towards him had noticeably improved. They no longer treated him with the same contempt as they had in the past.
Every day, Cloudhawk endured beatings from the mercenaries, endured Woola chasing him around the yard and biting him, and endured all the dirty jobs which had been foisted upon him. He was someone who had grown up in the ruins. Life there had given him a tenacious, unyielding spirit. He was being treated in a way which no normal person could possibly endure, and he would bitch and moan about it every day… but he was also able to grit his teeth and bear it.
There was just one thing he couldn’t endure any longer. Hunger! He was starving! Cloudhawk was beginning to realize that as his body was slowly getting stronger, his need for food was beginning to increase as well.
As for that damnable, stingy Slyfox, he hadn’t improved Cloudhawk’s living conditions at all. Those two or three pieces of bread Cloudhawk was given each day was simply not enough to fill his stomach; all Cloudhawk could do was occasionally scarf down some of the scraps left behind by the other mercenaries. However, that was quite rare. What was much more common was Cloudhawk being ordered around by the three captains while on an empty stomach.
This sort of life went on for a full month. One could imagine how sour Cloudhawk felt about it all! If it hadn’t been for the ten-plus years of life in the ruins teaching him tenacity and patience, Cloudhawk would’ve blown a gasket and left long ago!
Cloudhawk knew that he couldn’t leave yet. Although life in Blackflag Outpost was tough, at least it was comparatively regimented and secure!
For once, he was fairly free this afternoon. Cloudhawk’s only assignment was to clean Woola’s kennel; in other words, to sweep away Woola’s dung. While working, he pinched his nose in disgust as he said, “Can you stop shitting in the kennel? That’s so disgusting!”
Woola had been relaxing off to one side, soaking in some sun. Upon hearing Cloudhawk dare to lecture him, Woola sat up and flexed all six limbs, then stared at Cloudhawk’s behind with his red, ape-like eyes. Woola bared his teeth and let out a growl, as though he was about to charge forwards and give Cloudhawk a bite.
“Alright, alright! Just pretend I didn’t say anything.” Cloudhawk’s butt clenched involuntarily. He really was afraid of this irascible creature, who had caused him no small amount of pain in recent days. Woola was actually a bit more powerful in combat than most of the mercenaries, and was probably second to only the three captains themselves. Although he wasn’t that intelligent, he was easily enraged. He wasn’t someone you wanted to piss off.
“You can shit where you like, m’lord.”
Woola let out a burp, then once more lay down to enjoy the sun.
Just as Cloudhawk dumped the disgusting sack of dung into their garbage pile, he suddenly felt his head grow dizzy as his stomach clenched hard. That omnipresent sense of hunger suddenly began to make itself known once more, and Cloudhawk felt as though every single cell in his body was crying out for sustenance and drawing as much energy as it could from him.
This was a simply indescribable form of torment. Although scavengers were very good at enduring hunger, Cloudhawk’s body had slowly improved to the point where the hunger pains were now ten times worse than they had been before.
Cloudhawk licked his parched lips, then raised his head to stare at the clouds in the skies. His mood became complicated once more. He had risked everything to escape being a scavenger. Was it all for the sake of carrying water for others and cleaning up their dung? Did these guys want for him to be their errand boy for the rest of his life? Was his only purpose in Tartarus to be a human punching bag?
These were questions which Cloudhawk had asked himself repeatedly during this past month in Blackflag Outpost. He wanted to go out on missions like the other mercenaries, because those who went out on missions would be able to earn more food. However, all he could do was fantasize about it. In the eyes of Slyfox and the other mercenaries, he was nothing more than a useless recovery meta, right?
Cloudhawk touched his dry, parched skin. Instead of just thinking about it, he should go ahead and do something about it. He decided it was time for him to go look for some food. There was no way he’d find anything in the mercenary base, and so his only choice was to go try his luck elsewhere. For example, maybe he would be able to dig up a few tubers or find some bugs to eat. Although he wouldn’t be able to fill himself up, he’d at least be able to relieve the hunger. If he could catch a few rats, that’d be even better. It had been quite some time since he had eaten any meat.
Cloudhawk’s idea wasn’t a bad one. Unfortunately, it was almost guaranteed that he’d fail. Blackflag Outpost had a total of twenty thousand people, and the vast majority of them were in a state that was as bad or worse than that of the scavengers. As a result, virtually everything that was edible in the outposts had long ago been devoured by others. The most likely end result was that he’d exhaust himself looking for food, with the only reward being disappointment and even more hunger.
Cloudhawk was wandering around in a rather confused fashion, so hungry that he very nearly passed out. Right at this moment, a notice board in front of an inn suddenly attracted his attention. It read: “Recruiting temporary workers. For two hours of work, you can earn five strings of rat jerky!”
Cloudhawk’s heart clenched hard as he stared at those crooked words. He could hardly believe what he was saying. Five strings of rat meat for just two hours of work? By comparison, the Tartarus mercenaries were giving him scraps fit for beggars!
Cloudhawk was rather intrigued, but he was also nervous. His past experience was warning him that nothing in the world ever came cheap. Whenever you wanted something, you would need to pay a corresponding price.
“Hey kid! You over there! Yeah, you!” Right at this moment, a man with a splotchy red nose noticed Cloudhawk’s interest in the sign. The man’s eyes lit up and he rose to his feet and called out, “C’mere!” Cloudhawk hesitated for a moment, then walked over.
“My name is Rednose. Heard of me?”
Cloudhawk shook his head.
“No? Wonderful!” The chubby red-nosed man let out a happy laugh that sounded warm and friendly. “You hungry, kid?”
“Need a job?”
Cloudhawk nodded again.
“Ahaha, then you came at just the right moment. The terms of the deal are pretty clear. You know how to read, right? Then I won’t waste any time repeating the terms.” As Rednose spoke, he pulled out a sheaf of wrinkly paper and put it on the table. “Just do a fingerprint here.”
Cloudhawk was so hungry that his vision was going blurry. He couldn’t clearly make out all the content on that paper, and before he had a chance to react the red-nosed man grabbed his hand and pressed it down upon the paper, leaving a fingerprint behind on it!
“You are now in my employ, starting now!” Rednose gestured to a black man standing nearby. “Take’m in!”
Cloudhawk was completely confused. He had no idea as to what was going on, but the red-nosed proprietor seemed like a fairly nice guy. It was just two hours of work, right? How bad could it possibly be? Any job was worth five strips of rat meat!
When he entered the innhouse, it was like entering a completely different world. All types of colored light were flashing before him, and hard rock music was blasting everywhere along with the screams of the crowd. Everywhere here was dancing wildly, and the air around them was filled with the scent of cheap cigarettes and even cheaper liquor.
What attracted Cloudhawk’s attention the most was the simple, ugly-looking platform located in the very center of the room.
This was a raised platform that was made out of wood and surrounded by hemp rope. It looked like a dueling ring, and the wooden floorboards of the ring were stained in blood. Right at this moment, several half-naked women were furiously scrubbing away at that blood.
Moments later, a seductive woman slowly began to walk towards the platform. Catcalls and whistles rang out from around her, and the entire area began to grow even more chaotic.
The hard rock music, alcohol, smokes, women… all of these things stimulated male hormones. Cloudhawk had never been to a place like this before. Everything around him seemed fresh and exciting.
He had no idea what he was going to be facing next.