Groans of pain were mirrored throughout the make-shift barracks. The kiss of a Hell’s Valley whip was not pleasant. The trainees wore their leather armors as the instructor assistants delivered punishment, but it did them no good. Through some strange power, the whips left nasty wounds even through protection. For a number of unlucky souls, it’d been their second beating of the day.
Fortunately, the trainees had come to the valley well prepared, stocked with curatives to help with the lash wounds. So far, they’d used them after each beating and it helped. But they couldn’t keep up if they were going to get whipped two or three times a day.
Like their last barracks, the trainees were separated by gender; boys on the left, and girls on the right. It was divided down the middle and curtains hit the beds, giving them some measure of privacy.
One dignified and attractive figure grit her teeth and she slipped out of her leather armor. She then removed the clothing beneath to reveal her upper body. She had a slender waist, full breaths, and tight ivory colored skin. But the flesh of her back was horribly marred, whip wounds split fair skin and showed the red meat beneath. She wasn’t special, everyone was nursing similar injuries.
Claudia spoke softly. “Bend over, I’ll put on a liniment for you.”
“Thanks a lot.” The half-naked girl blushed and bent over the bed. Her round bosom was pressed against the coarse bedsheets. She was drenched in sweat from the pain. “Ouch! Softer, please. Is this really appropriate? The guys can’t see anything can they?”
The young woman was in her early twenties, but had already grown into her mature charms. She had a gentle and quiet nature, but it concealed a complicated background. She had come to accept living here with the men, but this was different. She took pride in having never revealed her body to anyone else, but here she was forced to risk it. She struggle to accept the uncomfortable circumstance.
Unfortunately, her innate healing was not very vigorous. If she only relied on medicine she drank, she wouldn’t be in ideal shape for whatever was in store tomorrow. If it was anything like yesterday, she was afraid she might be eliminated.
“Don’t worry, Veronika.” Felina had taken up position on the other side of the curtain and stood vigil. She heard them talking behind her. “If anyone tries to take a peek, I’ll tear their eyes right out of their head.”
Felina was an especially petite young woman who stood about a hundred and sixty centimeters tall, but was in fine physical shape. Her hair was black as pitch and pulled in a pair of ponytails. Her eyes were similarly dark, big and beautiful behind long lashes.
Felina lifted a hand, delicate and fine. Then – much like a cat – her nails sprang out from her fingers to a ringing sound. A dangerous, confrontational air hung over her. The others around her shied away. Who would expect such a tiny thing to seem so malevolent?
Felina’s bodily control was impeccable. In addition, her family was known for their unique ability to precisely control bone and muscle. Her control was so absolute, in fact, that she could completely change her appearance as needed. She was a born shapeshifter, and these claws were her weapon of choice and changed at her command.
No one was certain of the young woman’s true strength, but what she could do with her nails proved she was no weakling. Hand to hand, she was probably a match for any high ranking military official. Beyond that, she was also a demonhunter. Really, no one here was easy to deal with, and she had to know what she was about – otherwise, she wouldn’t be provoking people and asking for a challenge.
Claudia opened a vial of medicine radiating a fluorescent light, then poured it over Veronika’s back. The mysterious stuff was quickly absorbed through her skin, and lash wounds started to heal before their eyes. A short while later, it was as satin-smooth as the rest of her. As the acute pain ebbed, Veronika heaved a sigh. “This medicine has to be expensive,” she said appreciatively.
“It’s fine. The Claudia family has a little money to spare.”
She carefully replaced her clothes, making sure nothing was revealed. Finally she could put this day behind her.
Claudia, however, was still in low spirits.
Veronika Bright was much like her namesake . She was a smart girl, wise to the hearts of her peers, so she knew what was troubling Claudia. She was still ruminating over the test results. Veronika gently patted her shoulder. “Captain Cloudhawk doesn’t seem that bad. Why do you hate him so much?”
Claudia was about to answer, but held herself back. Cloudhawk’s real identity was… sensitive information.
Everyone was trying to find ways to curry favor with Cloudhawk, even the sissy that had tried to start a fight. If the truth of where he came from got out it would certainly turn the crowd against him. He would be made a pariah, and the others might even turn to her instead.
But after a moment’s thought, she kept her mouth closed. It wasn’t how she wanted to beat him. Claudia wanted to show Cloudhawk that she was superior, fair and square, not undermine him with dirty tactics. Those were exactly the kinds of schemes she hated, the kind he would use. She wouldn’t tarnish herself that way.
No wonder Cloudhawk thought she and the Bloodsoaked Queen were so similar.
Of course, Selene’s lofty pride was as much a part of her as her own skin. It seeped deep into her bones. She was almost otherworldly, bravely moving forward no matter the circumstance. Claudia, on the other hand, was lacking in self-confidence – maybe even a little self-abasing. She cared a lot about what others thought of her, which gave others a lot of power over her.
Claudia was more ‘real’ in comparison, though. After all, how many Selene’s could there be in the world? She ignored all the traditions of her order and abandoned a brilliant future to scour the wastelands on her own for answers.
Where was she now? Was she alright? Would she come back?
When Felina heard them stirring on the other side of the curtain and slipped in to join them. She looked at Veronika happily. “Are you already feeling better?”
She smiled and said nothing.
The young member of the Cole family was a lively one, and seemed very pleasant. It’d only been one day, but the girls of Tartarus squad had already formed their own unit. Claudia, Veronika and Felina were closest. In terms of combat strength, Felina was probably the strongest. She might even be good enough to challenge Cloudhawk.
“Absolutely miserable.” Felina’s pretty face adopted a petulant frown. “Those whips hurt! It looks like they plan to use them every day, too.”
“Nothing we can do about that. It seems like the valley’s brutal reputation wasn’t an exaggeration, and we’re just getting started. But now that we’re here, we have to take whatever they throw at us. I know the gods are with us.” Veronika paused for a moment, staring ahead at the young man playing with his goofy little bird. “We might not be able to stop the beatings, but we can try to avoid as many as possible.”
Cloudhawk whistled at Oddball as they played, from time to time rewarding him with a pellet of feed. Oddball nibbled away, and Cloudhawk was too absorbed in their idle play to worry about any encroaching danger.
When he saw the curtains hiding one of the beds, it piqued his curiosity.
A series of filthy thoughts crossed his mind unbidden. He and Oddball could share sight, no? Maybe he should sent his little friend over there, take a gander at the scenery. But when the tiny bird sensed its master’s lewd intent it shuddered in disdain. It didn’t want to have anything to do with Cloudhawk’s conniving.
Ach, this little guy’s become more human every day. I can almost see the scorn in its eyes.
Cloudhawk shook the ideas free. It was rather strange, just a year ago ideas like these wouldn’t even have crossed his mind. On the one hand women hadn’t interested him in the least, and on the other he didn’t even know the joys a woman could provide. Now suddenly he was conspiring to sneak a peek. People really are changed by their experiences.
Finally, one of his teammates couldn’t wait any longer.
“That test this evening was hard as nails. How did you get full marks?” Drake’s burly form lumbered into view. He was never one to beat about the bush, and went straight to the point. “How’d you do it? Some trick? You can’t just sit back and watch us get beat.”
Cloudhawk leaned back, using his hands as a pillow. “What do you mean, trick? You think too much!”
“One of the questions on the test was about a martial arts move called ‘Spearhead.’ We were supposed to analyze it, and discuss how it was applied. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one here that can do that technique. But even I didn’t get those answers correct. How is it a demonhunter like you was able to?”
“See, there’s your problem,” Cloudhawk said. Hidden chambers in his mind had awakened, and memories poured to the forefront of his consciousness like a flood. Fragments of a former life swam up at him. “’Spearhead’ is one of the most effective techniques for a martial artist – especially a soldier. It’s especially useful when two armies meet head to head, for breaking through front lines. But, it does have its limitations. There are some things to modify.”
Drake’s eyes got a little bigger. “Can you elaborate?”
“You get the gist of it already, you just aren’t using it right. That’s why you didn’t get full points on the question.”Cloudhawk sat up. “At its most basic level, Spearhead is about gathering energy and letting it burst out. It’s a direct attack, and you can’t redirect it once you do it. That inability to redirect is the problem. You could throw yourself right into a shitty situation. But, with enough skill and control, Spearhead could be made more agile.”
Drake was enthralled, but he wasn’t the only one. Other trainees had started to gather around to learn.
‘Spearhead’ was a famous move in military circles, they’d all seen it used. They all knew of it, but wasn’t the point that it was explosive and immovable? It wasn’t particularly nimble, but was still an apex skill for a soldier.
Cloudhawk went on. “All you do is spare some energy for a second or third burst, then your spearhead is broken into stages. You lose a little power, but you exchange it for flexibility and longer duration.”
Drake was floored. “How? I’ve never heard anything like this before!”
Pulling off something like that was no easy feat, but in his fragmented memories Cloudhawk knew there were soldiers in the ancient wars who could. Cloudhawk went on to explain the basic premise behind making a multi-stage spearhead technique a reality.
Drake’s admiration for the guy skyrocketed.
There were very few people with the depth of martial knowledge he had. The power of martial arts originated from one’s own body, drawing on their innate potential. Performing special techniques required almost superhuman physical fitness, and profound knowledge.
Cloudhawk spoke with the experience of a grizzled old commander. The knowledge he offered was valuable beyond measure, but Cloudhawk held nothing back. How could the others not be shocked by what they were hearing? How could they not admire him for it? Making Cloudhawk captain was no mistake; he was more than strong, he was smart as hell too.
Gabriel was next. He approached Cloudhawk and asked for some pointers on other techniques.
The majority of what Cloudhawk inherited from the skull was knowledge about psychic energies and relics. Spearhead wasn’t much of a mysterious secret, so it wasn’t strange that he might have some knowledge. But when it came to relics and how they’re used, he was a font of information. He went on and on, going into detail on the subject.
The others were completely convinced, and set aside their prejudices.
In a military setting like this, those with ability were respected. It didn’t matter how noble their birth or whatever their previous station. How could they look down on him after they saw what he could do?
As the lines of people looking for guidance continued to grow, Cloudhawk began to lose patience. They didn’t have much time to rest, and if the others kept this up he wasn’t going to get any sleep. He stood up and raised his hands. “Look, if you want my help that’s fine, but you have to promise you’ll stop questioning me. Stop causing shit.”
“You got it, Captain.”
“We didn’t see it before, but we’re convinced now.”
“Good!” Cloudhawk nodded in satisfaction. “Call me boss. Lemme see how it sounds.”
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Oddball for peeping? Cloudhawk, you are a dirty dirty boy. I blame Hellflower.