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Chapter 69 - The Entrance Exam

 Chapter 69 - The Entrance Exam

The instructor's assistant's looked at each other uncomfortably.

It wasn't that they sympathized with the students. Asking them to remove their clothes was a simple thing. If they wrung their hands over such a trivial thing, that was their own problem - all over their so-called dignity? Out in the field, when real battle called, it wasn't just skin that would be revealed. Bone, muscle, organs and all might be revealed. Compared to that, what's a little nudity?

The reason they hesitated was because the scarred instructor wasn't the only instructor in the valley. If this madman eliminated every trainee, what would they say to the instructors waiting within?

"Instructor Cutter [1], that's enough for today." One of the assistance stepped forward and offered protest. They were all grizzled veterans, they didn't need to keep their reservations a secret. He cut right to the chase. "If you eliminate everyone, the instructors down in the valley won't be pleased. There's no rush, we can take our time."

Instructor Cutter frowned. "You make a good point. So what's your suggested punishment?"

The assistant was ready with an answer. "If their modesty is so important, let them have it. They keep their skivvies for the price of five lashes. If they refuse to remove anything they get the full twenty, no quarter given."

"Very well!" The scarred man clapped his hands for punctuation. "You hear that? Today's your lucky day! If I had my way you all would be out on your bleeding asses! Now, let's get going!"

"Instructor, I have a question!"

Claudia heard a familiar voice rise from the crowd and it filled her with a sense of foreboding. The instructor, his face full of irritation, searched the crowd until he found the frail frame the voice had come from.

Cloudhawk felt like a mountain had descended upon him, so intense he had to keep his knees from shaking. But he was different from the others, he'd seen the terrible things the world was capable of and stood firm.

The young guy's steadfast demeanor surprised Cutter. It was a surprise to find someone with some stones among this pile of garbage. "You've got a mouth, shithead. Use it!" [2]

"So if we take everything off we don't get beat, right?"

"Obviously, you dimwit!"

Skiiner watched in surprise as this young man, in full view of his companions, stepped forward without reservation. Steady hands stripped off one piece of clothing after another until he stood there naked as the day he was born.

Cloudhawk! Such a bastard... This shameless pig deserves to be hacked into a thousand pieces!

Confronted with this scene the others squirmed with discomfort and disgust - especially the women, Claudia among them. It was like hot needles in their eyes. How could they be someone so bold and immodest?!

Cutter looked him over. The guy looked like a twig with his clothes on, but once they were removed he saw the corded muscles beneath. He was chiseled and compact like a panther ready to pounce. From the look of him it was clear this greenhorn had some strength and speed.

But Cutter wasn't impressed with his build. Instead, he respected the kid's indifference to everyone's stares. His face wasn't even red. A great man didn't sweat the little things and had thick skin. Not bad, not bad at all.

The first among the trainees to strip did so with perfect calm.

As he stood there naked before the elysians, they couldn't understand his behavior. But, he in turn didn't understand their reticence. After all, everyone came into the world without a stitch. Clothes were like the swords they carried, picked up later in life. Did 'dignity' mean being shackled to these things you hung on your body?

Out in the wastelands, wandering around naked didn't even earn a second glance.

It wasn't that Cloudhawk didn't have any pride. On the contrary, he probably had more than most. What he'd learned was that dignity and honor didn't come from anything out there - it came from inside. It was the constraints we set for ourselves, the lines in the sand we refused to cross. That line was different for everyone; the beggar gave no thought to saving face while anything less than a luxurious meal for a millionaire was seen as an affront.

If you thought about it that way, human beings really were rather peculiar creatures who obsessed over the most pointless of things.

Taking his clothes off was about ideology. If he were allowed to run around naked all the time he might be called a philosopher.

"You sure move fast, kid." Cutter gave Cloudhawk another weighing glance. "I'll remember you, I hope you make it through. Pick up your shit and stand to one side."

The others looked at each other in speechless despair. But in the end they had no choice. Clothes started coming off.

Sixty of the trainees, Claudia included, chose to leave their undergarments on to preserve their modesty. The men wore underwear whereas the women also had a strip of cloth across their breasts to keep them hidden. The instructor was true to his word and ordered the assistants to deliver five lashes. A few of the weaker ones couldn't handle it and were taken away, unconscious. Needless to say, they would not be joining them in Hell's Valley.

Surprisingly, another trainee took the immodest path as the process continued.

"Wait, wait! I'll take 'em off."

People were beginning to realize the cost of pride. Obviously the entrance requirements were high and the chances of elimination were great. They would need to be strong, and five lashes would sap them of that essential energy. A strip of clothing might cost them their spot, and that would bring them even greater shame. They would be throwing away their chance to let their talent stand out.

All their clothes came off. Someone else followed the example.

Five or six more chose to remove all their clothing including two young women. Embarrassment was a small sacrifice it they could avoid elimination. The remaining fifty-some stuck to their ideals, refusing to cross their line in the sand. Weakly, dripping blood, they shuffled over to the other after paying for it.

"There are a couple of you that get what we do here, but not enough. Now you gotta hand over everything you own." Cutter pointed to the clothes and bags the trainees desperately clung to. "I mean everything. Clothes, relics, medicine - hand it all over. None of those are allowed where you're going. They'll be returned to you when the test is done. If we find out you've hidden anything from us we'll have you flogged and thrown out!"

No one was happy with this order either. The demands were becoming harsher and more unreasonable as time went on.

A demonhunter's relics were a large part of their fighting prowess, not to mention signs of status and honor. Under no circumstances would they ever give up their relics, so the instructor's demands were the equivalent of stripping them of any sense of security.

But there were no exceptions. Everything had to be given up!

"The test is simple." The scarred madman pointed through the mist-cloaked forest, to the barely visible valley beyond. "You have to get to Hell's Valley as fast as possible. First half to get there stays, everyone else is eliminated. I suggest you give up your shit quick, an early start makes passing more likely. Offer still stands though - you can beat me in a fight and pass, or follow my orders. My patience is limited so don't fuck around."

After seeing what Cutter was capable - and happy - to do, who would be stupid enough to challenge him? Assistants passed among the crowd with boxes, gathering up the trainees' personal items. Although they were clearly reluctant everyone complied, they had to. Who knew what the punishment for refusing was.

Cloudhawk piled everything he owned into the box and locked it shut. An assistant then looked him over to make sure he wasn't carrying anything else. Everyone was then given coarse linen robes, the sort prisoners might wear, as protection from the elements.

These affluent and respected demonhunters had never experienced treatment like this before, but they kept their ashen faces even. None of them were interested in catching Cutter's attention. All they could do was exactly what they were told.

"Open the Valley! Welcome to Hell, ladies and gentlemen!"

The gate leading to the valley slowly opened and a vast dead forest greeted them. The assistance pushed the trainees onward like a herd of geese.

Cloudhawk felt dozens of angry eyes following him as they stepped out into the forest. He must have offended these uptight nobles, so sticking around wasn't in his best interest. He picked up the pace and quickly headed off toward the distant valley.

He raced into the forest and leapt high off the ground. The branch he landed on bowed under his weight a full five meters and in the same motion he bent his knees to gather momentum. When the built up pressure snapped back and the branch whipped back into place, it sent him soaring through the air like a bullet.

He started by putting some distance between himself and the others.

Those who had not been punished ran after him in fine condition. The others, nursing wounds and dripping blood, were already struggling and couldn't keep up.

Their pride and honor was going to cost them.

Once Cloudhawk was satisfied with his lead he began to slow down. After a moment a pudgy yellow bird joined him, promptly spatting a stone from its mouth. Cloudhawk slipped it over his neck.

Through their connection Cloudhawk conspired with Oddball while turning over his things. He palmed the phase stone and gave it to the bird, who took it and flew off ahead.

Both the bird and stone were still safe and in hand.

Something like this rock wasn't going to gain any attention. As for the Gospel of the Sands, the Mask of a Thousand Faces, his invisibility cloak and so forth, they were great treasures but they weren't priceless. The phasing stone couldn't be allowed out of his sight.

Now that it was back around his neck he felt far less troubled.

No matter what was in store, with the stone and its phasing abilities Cloudhawk had a serious advantage. He knew one way or another this advantage was gonna be especially important, at least in making sure no one could threaten him.

Cloudhawk was sure no one was catching up, but he didn't want to waste any time.

As he made his way through the forest the mist began to clear. A scene he wasn't prepared for revealed itself, one that filled Cloudhawk with dread. This test wasn't anywhere near as easy as the instructor let them believe.

1. Up to now he has been referred to as 'knife-scarred instructor'. The soldier now calls him 'Blade Instructor' - Cutter seemed apt.

2. In probably my most favorite line ever the instructor says 'you have an ass, so fart!'