The valley was dotted with scars from its recent bombardment. Wisps of smoke rose from jagged craters, marks of those ancient weapons. The compound itself had been completely destroyed, and its docks had crashed onto the ground below. Ten elysian warships lay reduced to smoldering wrecks. Two to three hundred veterans of Hell’s Army had been slain. Hell’s Army had been devastated, but much to everyone’s surprise the trainees had fared rather well. Ten had lost their lives, twenty were eliminated through testing, and the rest were officially trainees of Hell’s Valley. Thankfully, the training camp itself was still operational.
As the students looked out over the ravaged terrain, they could hardly believe all of this had been done in one attack. The Dark Atom came in, obliterated everything in their path, then left with fewer casualties than their enemies. Meanwhile, the soldiers of Hell’s Valley were forced to watch helplessly as they swaggered off. They were left with nothing but their responsibility to this new crop of young folk.
Weren’t the elysian lands supposed to be undefeatable? Weren’t they known for sweeping ruthlessly through the wastelands? Hadn’t Hell’s Valley been a base where the most accomplished veterans had been stationed?
“This has been a mark of shame for our domain. For all of us fighting men!” Drake clenched his fists tightly at his side. A furnace burned behind his hard eyes. “The day will come when I will personally lead our armies to raze whatever slum the Dark Atom calls home! Only blood will pay for blood. An eye for an eye!”
He was a young commander, green. While Drake might have had the fervor and the skill, he was still untested. All the missions he’d been on before were against small groups of blasphemers and mutant beasts. For the first time, he looked out over a disastrous loss. He couldn’t accept the dignity of his people to be so thoroughly trampled by wasteland scum.
Claudia understood the rage this large man felt. Six months ago she felt much the same. This time? There was anger, surely, but there was no shame. Her mind was on the loss she suffered while on mission in the wastelands.
Her loss had also been disastrous.
So much blood staining the soul. The bones of so many loyal soldiers baking in the wasteland sun. So many souls of those poor, confused martyrs lost to the endless wastes.
And what was Skycloud’s response? Nothing. It was all swept under the rug, no vengeance was sought on behalf of the dead. What did Skycloud fear? They were supposed to be practically invincible. The people were supposed to be unrivaled in their faith.
The name wormed its way through her injured heart. The only wastelander name she knew.
The effect he’d had on Claudia was all-encompassing. He was the one who took the life of her companion, Raithe, and the brave soldiers that had come with them. That wastelander had delivered a shattering blow to her faith, and then waltzed through Skycloud committing treason and acts of terrorism.
And how did it end?
With Cloudhawk safely stowed away in the Grand General’s mansion. Somehow he became a charge of the Polaris family. The filthy wastelander had even become close friends with Dawn, a young woman of noble blood… No, the greatest shame was to their pride. Their superiority complex was cut at the knees and dragged through the mud. Their anger was the anger you felt when you couldn’t admit defeat.
Claudia had once looked upon the boundless wastes with contempt, filled with the lofty pride of the demonhunters. Now she had seen the truth of what lurked out there. She saw the viciousness, the cunning, the power. Her former self had been like a frog at the bottom of a well, looking up at the brilliant light of Skycloud domain. 
She was still a faithful servant of the gods, but she had learned not to underestimate the wastelands. So as she surveyed the tragedy its dark agents had wrought, she was not overwhelmed with anger or indignation. She’d learned to face failure without letting it consume her. Anger alone would serve nothing. Only when you accept defeat could you reflect and study on what you learned could you grow beyond it.
In this aspect, Claudia had far surpassed most of her peers. Why would a woman like her from such a wealthy family be here otherwise?
The twenty or thirty-some remaining students gathered in a line and recovered their belongings. Gabriel, scratching his head through a mop of weed-like golden hair, looked around with a bashful expression. He couldn’t help but mutter his thinking. “I haven’t seen him this whole time. Did he die out there?”
Drake frowned and looked around as well. It’s true, where had Cloudhawk gone?
He couldn’t say he was terribly disappointed, but through their conflict he’d developed a begrudging respect for Cloudhawk. He’d nearly killed Drake in Deadwood Forest, but despite the grievous wound it had taught him a valuable lesson. Besides, penetrating a wall of over a thousand soldiers to kill a tribal leader was a feat even Drake had to admire.
The natives had been wiped out. Did Cloudhawk succeed in his assassination? If he lived, had he chosen to try and run?
Drake didn’t know anything about Cloudhawk, but as a soldier he was a worthy opponent.
“If the invaders killed him, I’m fine with that.” Claudia punctuated her words with a sniff and made no effort to conceal her hatred. “Better I don’t have to soil my hands with his unclean blood.”
“How could you say something so vile?” Drake’s temper flared. “You continue to show our soldiers disrespect!”
“A scoundrel like him is only ever thinking about himself, no matter what he does. He isn’t worthy of being called a soldier.” Claudia’s azure blue eyes were sharp as daggers. She used them to pin Drake in place. “And a man like you, willing to turn your hand on people when they’re weak – don’t talk to me about respect!”
Women were unreasonable creatures, as obstinate as rocks . In war, the best tactics were those that won the battle. If the army’s leaders acted like she claimed to, all honest and forthright, then the light of the gods would have long been snuffed out. The two of them glared at each other on the verge of trading blows. Meanwhile, Gabriel kept out of it.
A wounded provisions officer came by, nursing his arm and hobbling on a wounded leg. He was covered in blood from head to toe but paid no mind to his injuries. “Hey, that one you’re talking about. Black hair and eyes, right? Skinny but looks like he can take care of himself?”
“Hm?” Gabriel looked his way, puzzled. “You’ve seen him?”
“He’s pretty good, held his own. Killing the sweeper leader made the whole clan go crazy. If not for him, clearing out the natives would have cost us a lot more time and soldiers. We would have missed everything that happened here. Things would have been much worse, they might have even destroyed the whole valley. Hundreds of our bothers would be dead. He’s responsible for the fact they’re still breathing.”
The veteran put a bloodstained cigarette between his lips and took a long drag. He was obviously quite appreciative of what Cloudhawk did. Claudia, Drake and Gabriel were all silent. It seemed like the native leader really had killed him. But if that were true they just couldn’t understand why Cloudhawk would ignore his own safety for the three of them. Escaping on his own would have been the wiser choice.
“I was with the three instructors, we saw the whole thing. Man, quite the guy. He held out until we came, several hundred soldiers all on his own. Frankly speaking, it’s been a real long time since I’ve seen a fighter like that. It’s a shame he’s probably dead.”
Dead? The news struck them different. Drake seemed sorry. Claudia, conflicted.
Although Claudia was quick to spew vitriol toward Cloudhawk, she didn’t’ believe he was dead. Someone capable of doing the things he did wasn’t going down so easily. Cloudhawk was her nemesis, yes – but he was also the benchmark she measured herself against. If he died before she had a chance to become his superior, that would rankle her terribly.
Gabriel asked, “How did he die?”
“It isn’t completely clear. He was badly injured but joined us here at base. He and a group of others fought through the blasphemers and into the main compound. They fought, and then… well, you saw what’s left.” With a heavy sigh, the soldier pointed toward the remains of their base. Fires were still burning, great columns of flame that just wouldn’t go out. Anyone caught inside had to be dead. “We didn’t see him or anyone else come back out.”
The three trainees stared at the ruin, entranced by the fires. It was unthinkable. Wounded, exhausted, Cloudhawk still ignored clear and present danger to go running into the fight.
The veteran cast Claudia a meaningful glance. “Whether it’s Hell’s Army or Skycloud’s own forces, people like us see noble pride as a cancer. If the Skycloud domain is a tree, then we are the roots. We never see the sun, and 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? You can look down on our bloodstained hands and call us dirty, but you damn sure don’t have the right to question our qualifications. As far as I’m concerned, whoever that guy was, he was more of a soldier than all the rest of you put together.”
He plucked the butt from his mouth and flicked it into the bloodstained dirt, then hobbled away.
His words were about as wrong as anyone has ever been, in all the history of humanity. How could Claudia not know exactly what kind of person Cloudhawk was?
Her face burned and a blush marked her pale cheeks. Even the deaf would have heard that soldier’s hard words. He didn’t leave anything unsaid, it was like smacking her on the nose and calling her a bad girl. But she knew Cloudhawk wasn’t anything like these men. He was a wasteland scoundrel who’d managed to sneak his way into the elysian lands. The blood of soldiers and demonhunters alike stained his hands. She had to fight the urge to scream this at the soldier and beat him to a pulp.
She swallowed it back.
No matter. He was dead, and if that was how their enmity would end then so be it. As much as Claudia would like to deny it, he’d saved her life. Would she still be able to run a sword through his filthy heart? But… if she didn’t kill him, what about the companion he’d killed? Dead was good… dead was good.
They all recovered their equipment.
Drake’s things were a set of tungsten steel armor and a large sword. Tungsten steel was the sturdiest material in the elysian lands. With Drake’s natural defenses as strong as it was, the armor was a mighty addition. A demonhunter would have to fight hard just to get through them.
Claudia took back her exorcist staff, the seeker’s torque, and Tempest. Gabriel’s relic, on the other hand, were rather unique. It was a black cord he kept wrapped around his hand. A relic of this sort was not common in the elysian lands – it had to be something without much of a history or a story behind it. It was hard to guess what it might be used for.
The trainees were brought to the base’s clinic and made to soak in a medicinal bath. The near mystical concoctions of the elysians were very effective. In one day and one night their bodies would be entirely healed, and no trace of injury would remain.
An ear-splitting ring of a bell arose from outside. Twenty eight young people clambered to their feet and arranged themselves into four rows.
All three instructors were present. Cutter stepped forward, while Natessa and Dumont stood silently in place. The hideously scarred man swept his terrifying gaze over the trainees. And when he spoke his voice was contemptuous. “Well. I’ve gotta say, your performance during this test was a real fuckin’ disappointment. Only one was barely satisfactory. Get out here!”
Everyone’s eyes turned toward the one he commanded.
He was neither tall nor short, nor was he particularly strong. He wore a new robe, but his short raven black hair was still a knotted mess. Simple demonhunter armor protected him, and a tattered grey cloak was draped over his shoulders. A black-steel sword was sheathed at his back. His face was hidden behind a grimacing demon mask.
The students shared puzzled glances.
Wasn’t this the same guy who was the first to take off all his clothes? The shameless one. Instructor Cutter’s next sentence that really put their teeth on edge.
“Starting today, the lot of you are a team. Meet your new team captain – Cloudhawk!”
The young man lifted the mask up onto the top of his head to reveal his coarse, wheat-colored features. He wasn’t the most handsome guy, but his face was well put together and his features were delicate. His black eyes in particular were sharp and intelligent. He grinned cheekily at the others, his gaze stopping at the three familiar faces near the back. He gave them a wink, as though to say; Oh, so you all are still alive.
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Captain Cloudhawk? I dig it.