Once her transfer was approved, Claudia and her small team boarded an airship bound for the front lines. Four members of her squad were green, freshly graduated from the academy. The fifth was the only one that could call herself a real demonhunter. For all intents and purposes she was a babysitter, lording over a bunch of rookies with no combat experience.
But rookies or no, a demonhunter was a demonhunter! Pick any one of them at random and Claudia was confident they could take on ten Elysian grunts!
They were a small unit of six, but with the proper tactics they could handily defeat a whole company of foes. Fervent, excited light burned in the eyes of these young boys and girls. They knew nothing of the world and saw this only as a chance for them to prove their worth.
Years of grueling training had prepared them for this, right?
“Hey, big news! Did you hear? The sergeant’s family generously gave a small fortune to the expeditionary forces. This is something that almost never happens. Even the most saintly of persons still has at least some selfish impulses, after all. I’ve never seen someone sacrifice so selflessly for the Elysian lands.”
The young man with an exorcist bow strung over his shoulder was bored with the stagnant atmosphere and was trying to kick up a conversation. Another stood next him, and the two looked fairly similar. In fact it was just the equipment that marked them as different, as the second guy was laden down with thick armor and an exorcist rod. The two were obviously brothers.
The one with the bow was Crain Sutherland. Much like he name, he found it hard to keep his mouth shut.  His older brother with the exorcist rod was Tigron Sutherland , much larger in build and trained for close combat.
Both Crain and Tigron were promising young demonhunters, having graduated from the academy last year. Passable on their own, when working together they were a force to be reckoned with.
Tigron nodded. “The sergeant is an amazing lady.”
Anyone who heard about the Lunae’s act of generosity had respect for the merchant family.
Seated a little away from the two brothers was a young girl in a yellow cloak. She had to be no more than sixteen or seventeen years old and seemed rather shy. When she spoke it was in a timid voice and she tended to stutter, but underestimating her was a mistake.
Her name was Rei Belle and graduated second in her class at the Demonhunter Academy. Definitely not a book one could judge by its cover, for her tender and shy exterior hid explosive ability. Those who tried to bully and take advantage of her in school had learned that the hard way.
Her meek voice interjected. “What do you think of this?”
“It’s never that simple. The wastelands are immense, so the battle lines are stretched far and wide. Without support, the expeditionary force will quickly be stretched thin and weakened. General Skye can’t raise enough materials to support everyone in such short notice all on his own.” Claudia paused to let her lips stretch into a mocking grin. “So it was never a question of will he come asking for help, but when. In this case it’s better to offer up the contribution before he even asks, winning better standing and reputation. It puts you in a better bargaining position.”
The others looked quietly at one another. Hearing this from their sergeant’s mouth sounded strange.
“Let’s not talk about it.” This one was a thin girl with long red hair. She had graduated top of their class, the strongest of the crew. Her name was Belinda Pyrrus, born to the noble Pyrrus family and with all the arrogant bearing that entailed. She found nearly everyone she met lowly and distasteful, with the notable exception of Claudia Lunae. “Sister Claudia’s training methods have a distinct military feel, I can tell you’ve been in active service. Definitely not the ordinary forces, though. I suspect… Court of Shadows?”
“How can you just ask that sort of question, Belinda?”
She was cut off before Claudia could answer by a man who looked to be around twenty five – around the same age as Claudia herself. Mason Swain was corporal of the squad, second in command. He was stout of build and carried a heavy shield – obviously a demonhunter specialized in defense. Mason had the experience of ten missions under his belt, and while not exactly a fully-fledged demonhunter he could definitely hold his own. Besides Claudia he was the only one of the squad who wasn’t a novice.
“And even if she was part of the Court, it’s not like she could go around talking about such a secret organization.”
Belinda answered with a derisive sniff. Some people were well behaved because they didn’t have any skill to speak of. Mason was just that sort of nice guy. Belinda showed respect because of his age and rank, but it remained to be seen whether the corporal would keep his job for very long.
Claudia didn’t answer the curious student’s question. “We’ve left Skycloud now. Remember what I told you; things are going to get dangerous, so keep your eyes peeled.”
Crain chortled arrogantly. “With a woman as experienced and skilled as you leading the way, sergeant, what do we have to be scared of? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m thrilled to have this chance! I’m looking forward to kicking the hell out of all the wastelanders we find alongside our glorious army!”
Tigron silently nodded his head, and the others all voiced their agreement.
“That’s risky thinking.” Claudia planted herself squarely in front of the young crew. “I had a similar mindset when I went on my first mission. Because of it, almost two thousand men lost their lives in the wastelands, including a good friend of mine. I was wounded, but lived. It changed me. Remember that it doesn’t matter what you come across out there, never take your task lightly.”
Claudia’s eyes were a strange mix of hatred, helpless sadness, and the scars of an old fear. She looked at each of her charges in turn, lingering especially on the unruly noble Belinda. Something about her reminded Claudia of herself three years ago.
A typical borderland settlement was pulling into view.
Sprawling buildings sprouting from one another in a mess of ramshackle structures met their eyes. Roads snaking through the settlement were uneven and littered with potholes. Glimmers shone off the metallic armor of expedition soldiers who wandered the lanes. There were scores of them, turning the settlement into a bustling center of activity.
It was the first time these young ones had ever left Skycloud, so they watched the scene with eyes full of wonder. A voice from behind called their attention.
“Welcome to Sandbar Station.”
Somehow the man had gotten right up behind them without anyone noticing. They didn’t need to look to know he was a man of skill.
When Claudia heard the voice her face darkened. “Why aren’t you dead yet?”
Her squad members put their hands on their weapons and looked over, looking as though they were ready to act at a moment’s notice. What they saw was a man dressed strangely. He wore demonhunter armor with a tattered gray cloak overlying. His face was covered by an odd mask and perched there on his left shoulder was the most adorable little ball of fluff – a veritable orb of golden feathers.
“Don’t be so rude.” Envoy Roc quietly chastised her. “This is your new commander, Warden Cloudhawk.”
Cloudhawk? Why did that name sound so familiar…
It came to them after a moment. A while ago when the wall collapsed, the Temple purported to have the mastermind in custody. Wasn’t that sinner called Cloudhawk? It was an infamous name back home, so the first question in their minds was the same as their sergeant’s. Why wasn’t he dead?
Hell, nevermind why he isn’t dead. How was someone like him our new commander?!
Cloudhawk pulled the mask off his face, revealing handsome features and a coquettish smile. “Unfortunately, I’m still kicking. They even gave me a promotion, if you can believe it. Now it’s my turn for questions. Why did you bring them here, milord emissary?”
Roc didn’t know Cloudhawk and Claudia knew each other, but now it was obvious there was some history there. Roc paid it no mind, though, and explained the situation. “Many Talons died on the Blisterpeaks and I don’t have many men to hand over. It just so happens that Claudia Lunae volunteered to join, right when we are in dire need of manpower.”
Cloudhawk nodded. “Fine. They aren’t much to look at, but beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Who isn’t much to look at?!” Belinder’s temper flared, and Cloudhawk earned angry stares from the Sutherland brothers. Once they heard his name, no one in the squad was willing to show this fiend an ounce of respect. “You think our sergeant would debase herself working for you?!”
Roc’s face grew stern. “Impudence! Do you know who you’re talking to?!”
“It’s fine, relax. They’re kids, don’t let them bring you down to their level. I’ll handle it.” Cloudhawk waggled his hand as though shooing the matter away. “You’ve done much already. I have a fine bottle of alcohol I’d like to share with you.”
“I can’t. I’m here to transfer command of the Talons to you. Henceforth you will be known as Warden of the Talons of God.” Roc fished out his official orders and handed them to Cloudhawk. From this point forward, he was a man of status. “You have higher jurisdiction among the expeditionary force than an ordinary lieutenant general. You report directly to General Skye, and have the authority to conscript other units to your aid in the course of a special mission.”
“Thank you kindly.”
“In addition, I have a gift for you. Just a little something from me.” Roc produced a pair of silver short swords. They were oddly forged so that the blades seemed to writhe like metallic snakes. Cloudhawk heard the significant resonance of a relic come from them. “The Silver Serpents, weapons I kept in my sleeves for when they were needed. I held them for twenty years, but since I can’t make much use of them anymore and you’re the new Warden, it’s only fitting that they should pass to you. Consider them a token of my esteem.”
The Silver Serpents were a special pair of relics, cunning and unassuming. But while they didn’t look like much, they were certainly deadly. Since Cloudhawk was currently lacking a suitable weapon, be accepted without much fuss.
After twenty years of service, it would be a lie to say Roc didn’t miss his command. There was no way he could completely ignore the pang of jealousy he felt at having been replaced by this young man.
But he trusted General Skye and his eye for talent. He bowed to the old warrior’s wisdom. So it was that with the transfer of command concluded, Roc left to report for his next assignment.
Cloudhawk stood there staring at Claudia, and she stared right back. For a long time the two brooded over the old days, making the atmosphere awkward. Even though three whole years had passed, there was still no love lost between these two.
Just then someone rushed up to interrupt them. “There’s a letter addressed to you, Warden!”
Cloudhawk accepted the paper and glanced it over. The corners of his eyes winced ever so slightly, then he folded the sheet and put it away. Suddenly he was full of authority. “Excellent, we’ve already got a mission. You all get ready, we’re heading out right away.”
1. ‘South Crane’ is the kid’s name. This is what cranes sound like!