When Cloudhawk opened his mouth, the others went silent. Who would expect him to spout these unkind words? Only Claudia knew that her captain’s words were dripping with sarcasm.
Has she not always believed that elysians were better than wastelanders? So long as the holy domain benefited, then wastelanders were nothing more than insects, to be indiscriminately crushed beneath her boot. Why, then, could the same logic not be applied from Cloudhawk’s point of view?
Were the lives of these innocents worth nothing to Hell’s Army? In the cold light of logic, it just made sense to sacrifice one for the many. But it was anything but righteous, nothing any self-respecting elysian would accept . Wiping out these villagers might save others, but have they given any thought to what they lost?
The two assistants regarded Cloudhawk with some surprise. Did this young man really get it so quickly? He was definitely more than met the eye.
“You might look at us as monsters, but that’s not how we see it,” one of the assistants explained. “What we do a demon might do as well, but the difference is that demons will do anything to achieve their evil goals. We will do anything to protect what can be protected. We give our honor, our dignity, even our lives for that purpose!”
“This world is a place of darkness and light, of good and evil. Sometimes sins are necessary, and Master Arcturus created Hell’s Army so that people like us could get our hands dirty when the need arose. In exchange, the countless people who live in Skycloud domain remain safe and happy. Now all of you have come to us, and so long as you’re part of Hell’s Army you have to accept reality. Evil will always be around. Sometimes it has to be.”
“It’s the most important lesson you can learn in Hell’s Valley.”
Drake felt like everything he valued and all he knew of the world had been turned upside down. He thought back to when they first enrolled in this damn training program. One of the assistants had said; If Skycloud domain is a tree, then we are the roots. We never see the sun, our lives are spent in the damp and dark. Down here you can’t avoid the filth, but without us what do you think would happen to those like you – that luxurious foliage, out in the sun? All the fragrance of the flowers and the rich, ripe fruit… but people only saw the beauty above. They did not know the cruelty that let such things grow. Was this truly how it was?
A rumbling sound came from the East. Explosions!
Hell’s Army was being attacked. Cloudhawk could hear the tell-tale pop of gunfire. Here in the elysian lands, guns were forbidden, so those using them had to be none other than the Dark Atom.
Sure enough, as the assistant instructors swung their eyes toward the sound, they saw their fellow soldiers shift from killing civilians to fleeing themselves. At least two hundred gun-toting terrorists were coming their way with advanced weaponry spraying the area with bullets.
A bearded man, his body draped in a bandolier of grenades, rushed at them. “Get outta here!”
This man was a common soldier of the Church of Divine Brilliance, and a member of the Dark Atom. They’d escaped through the secret tunnels, but when they learned that soldiers were slaughtering innocents they turned back. Most of them had built lives in Teal Ridge, abandoning their roots was easier said than done.
They couldn’t simply stand by and watch the villagers be mowed down! They couldn’t turn a blind eye to the fear and despair painted on so many familiar faces.
“I’ll hold them off!” The bearded man ripped one of the grenades free, leaving the pin behind. Like a mad bull he rushed at the veterans of Hell’s Army. Half a dozen bolts jutted from various parts of his body, but they didn’t slow him down. “Run… run!”
The terrorist charged into the line of soldiers and detonated. He was immediately swallowed up in a terrifying inferno, and the force blasted many of the soldiers away. He sacrificed his life to give the surviving villagers some breathing room, a chance to escape. After a moment of frozen fear they began to scatter, while more members of the Dark Atom poured in to block the Hell’s Army soldiers.
The assistants blanched as the scene revealed itself. “Son of a bitch!”
Claudia, Drake, Caspian, Veronika, Felina… all of these noble-born trainees looked around at the carnage in horrified shock. Despite being greatly outmatched, the Dark Atom fighters were sacrificing their lives for the villagers. Terrorists were standing between innocent elysians and the crack troops of Hell’s Valley, who were trying to murder them all.
Who were the bad guys? Who was right?
The whole world seemed backwards, or maybe the world had always been like this. As the truth of it hit him, the trainees felt utterly lost.
Although the terrorists were no match for the elysian soldiers, they still fought on. Casualties were much higher on their side, but the valley’s troops were still suffering injuries. The assistants looked back at the green Tartarus trainees with hesitation in their eyes.
“Support is needed everywhere.” Cloudhawk saw the shift in their faces. He stepped up. “I can handle this section. Go.”
The two men who were there to look after the trainees shared a wordless glance. Everything that needed to be said was already put out there. Now it was time to fight.
The assistants gathered a group of soldiers and charged into the fray.
As they raced off, the trainees saw a young girl appear through the smoke. She had to be only about ten years old, but she cradled a gun as big as she was. Her face was a tear-streaked mess of dirt. A tiny yell rang from her throat as she fired at the soldiers.
Claudia shouted at her. “No!”
One of the soldiers shot back at her with a crossbow. Her pretty white clothing immediately became a stark crimson as blood soaked through it. She stumbled to the ground like a butterfly with a broken wing. One of the arrows had struck her right between her delicate eyebrows. She stared straight ahead, eyes wide and glistening.
Claudia couldn’t bear it and crumpled to the floor. “Why!”
“You think this is terrible? Things like this happen every day in the wastelands. Everywhere your people go, this is what they leave behind.” Cloudhawk’s face was hard and cold. Only when the assistants had left did his hands curl into angry fists. He lifted his right hand and wrapped it around his sword’s handle. “Now do you understand where I come from?”
“Ca… captain!” Felina stared at everything happening around them, her face ashen. All of a sudden the demon kitten was as helpless as a housecat. Her eyes anxiously watched the valley’s soldiers getting farther away. “What do we do?”
Everyone was more lost and confused than ever before in their sheltered lives. What they witnessed completely shattered everything they knew of the world.
“What I propose is in your best interest. Stay here.” Cloudhawk watched the soldiers disappear into the smoke. “There’s something I gotta do.”
A boy who couldn’t have been older than ten crawled out from the rubble. His face was covered in blood and he sobbed hysterically. He tugged at the corpse splayed out in front of him, begging her to wake up. It was an image from the most sickening of nightmares. A group of soldiers saw him and leveled their crossbows at the boy.
Cloudhawk pulled Quiet Carnage from its sheath. His grey cloak fluttered as suddenly he raced forward. The soldiers were close, but Cloudhawk was his own man – no one was going to stand in his way. Cloudhawk got close, then –
He brought his hand down in a chop again the closest soldiers’ throat. The veteran instantly hit the ground. With his right hand, he shoved the hilt of his sword into the next warrior’s neck. The second soldier joined the first in a pile.
The third soldier had enough time to spin around before Cloudhawk’s blow found him, knocking him out cold.
Cloudhawk leaned over and helped the little boy up. He was as frail as a baby bird. He then went over to help an old man who’d taken a crossbow bolt in the leg. He looked over the survivors. “Run!”
“Thank you. Thank you!”
Their eyes burned from grateful tears. Members of Tartarus Squad watched idly as he knocked the soldiers out, saving the lives of those they were meant to kill. There were several in his team that could stop Cloudhawk, but at the moment they were incapable. What was this about? Hadn’t their captain, just seconds ago, agreed with what the assistants were doing? So why was he saving the villagers all of a sudden?
Was everything he said before just an act?
Disobeying orders was a sin.
Attacking soldiers was a sin.
Rescuing heretics. A sin!
Had Cloudhawk given any thought to the consequences? Of course he had! But he decided to do this anyway. As for all the rest of it, he didn’t care.
As Cloudhawk disappeared from view, leading the survivors to safety, Claudia stared blankly. Something came over her, an epiphany. Wasn’t this exactly what he’d done out in the wastelands, at Lighthouse Pointe? Just like he’d shown no fear of her, Cloudhawk did not hesitate to fly in the face of military law. This was who he was, he hadn’t changed at all.
Some truths could be acknowledged, but never accepted.
That was what made Cloudhawk who he was. He refused his destiny as a scavenger, and it gave him the courage to fight his way out of the wastelands. He repeatedly did what others couldn’t fathom or understand, because defiance was built into his bones.
Cloudhawk had a crowd of seventeen or eighteen survivors. A group this big trying to escape notice wasn’t going to happen. Four valley soldiers ran at them from a nearby corner. When they saw who was helping the survivors they paused in surprised then raised their crossbows.
“Captain of Tartarus Squad, do you know what you’re doing?! Put down those traitors immediately!”
“I’ll put you down!”
Cloudhawk flung his hand and a wall of sand rose from the ground, just in time to protect his group from a volley of bolts. However, the soldiers would not be so easily foiled. A few of their attacks managed to slip passed his wall, and were headed right for Cloudhakw. He pressed his left hand forward and forced the wall of sand forward, while knocking away the bolts that got close with the sword in his right. He rushed at his attackers head-on.
One of them screamed back. “Are you crazy?! This is rebellion!”
Cloudhawk replied with a bleak grin. “I guess so.”
The soldiers gaped at him. By then the wall of sand had descended upon them. If it surrounded them, they would be crushed to pulp as though caught in the grip of a giant. There was no going back – if Cloudhawk did this, no excuse would save him from the consequences.
The soldiers were skilled men, and as the torrent of sand came crashing down they all leapt into the air. They scattered through the ruins or shells of buildings, dropping their crossbows in favor of the elysian weapons strapped to their backs.
Well shit, Cloudhawk thought.
This isn’t going to end well for me.
Once again, I'm reminded of Naruto and especially the relationship between the Third Hokage and the Danzo; the relationship between the leaf and the root.
Meanwhile, Cloudhawk has remained the same man he ever was. I'm reminded of another Chinese saying; '江山易改本性难移'; 'it is easier to change the mountains than it is to change a man's true nature'. I respect that.