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Chapter 96 - More Progress

 Everyone looked at Cloudhawk like they were staring at a ghost.

Meanwhile, the wastelander stood before everyone with a shit-eating grin, like he'd just succeeded in some grand mischief. He'd only survived the massive explosion because he wasn't in this world. Once the danger had passed, he clawed his way back to this reality. When he came back, the commanders quickly took him away to recover, hence why no one knew what had become of him.

What a joke! You think it's that easy to kill me? Truth was, Cloudhawk was well pleased with the situation.

Claudia, Drake and Gabriel stared in absolute amazement. The other students were just as surprised. They'd watched the compound get blown to smithereens. Cloudhawk looked at them and had to acknowledge the satisfaction that tickled his bones. These arrogant jack-asses, from the instructors to the assistants and the students themselves - they all looked at him like a scrub, cannon fodder at beast. And then came the reckoning, their nest was completely destroyed!

However, these fellows seemed to be absolutely shameless. Even Cloudhawk was embarrassed by what had happened, but they all had blank faces, like nothing had happened.

Claudia clenched her fists at her side. Of course. Of course he didn't die!

She finally had come to accept that she had rid herself of this stain, but here he was. Far from dead, he seemed completely unscathed. Now he was their team captain. Did that mean they would be forced to listen to his orders? This bastard really was like a ghost who refused to leave her alone!

Eckard Cutter had a good view of everyone's faces. "This is a military training facility," he said in his characteristically cold voice. "And a military training facility follows military rules. Your captain is your superior officer, anyone who dares disobey his orders violates our rules. I'm sure I don't need to explain what happens then.

It never occurred to Cloudhawk that he might be foisted into the role of captain.

There were some benefits that came with being part of a special elysian military unit. They had access to the best medicines, weapons, missions, and funds. Out here the opportunity to distinguish yourself was high, and that translated into better positions and material rewards back in Skycloud. Of course, captains received some of the best benefits.

For instance, killing the native clan leader and 'fearlessly' attacking Dark Atom invaders added to the prestige of the Polaris family. Individually it didn't mean much, but it was certainly useful for the family he represented. Reputedly, all of these achievements were recorded and traded back in the city. Families could approach the Temple with their list of deeds and request things they might need. These could be relics, special medicines and so forth. As such, achievements were valued currency for elysian families.

That old greybeard Skye probably already heard the news.

Instructor Cutter looked back toward Cloudhawk. "Say a word or two."

The three instructors knew Cloudhawk was unpopular. They could see some naysayers, and a few who really didn't like the idea of having him follow this guy around. This had to make Cloudhawk anxious. After all, the screening process had shown that he wasn't the strongest of this lot, even if he did have a special role.

The instructors didn't seem to have any interest in helping solve Cloudhawk's image problem. If he couldn't solve a small issue like this, then he didn't deserve the position.

Cloudhawk pulled the mask back over his face. He stepped out in front of the others, and spoke. "Truth is, I don't want to be captain. Any of you who want the job, you're free to take it."

The instructors paused. What was he up to?

Cloudhawk slowly pulled the black sword from the holster on his back. "You get one chance. Beat me, and you're captain! Who's first?"

Cloudhawk was using this opportunity to cement his authority. The quickest and most effective way to do that was prove one's strength, but it was risky. Not everyone could pull it off. If he wasn't careful, he could be shooting himself in the foot. Cloudhawk happened to be one of the youngest of the group, nor did he look particularly strong. His decision did not seem very well thought out.


Three voices answered his challenge, the second it was issued. They were - of course - Drake, Claudia, and Gabriel.

Claudia wasn't the least interested in being captain, she knew she couldn't hold on to it. Her motivation was strictly to stomp Cloudhawk's face in. She was desperate for any chance to do just that.

Drake stuck the tip of his enormous sword in the dirt and stared at his new captain threateningly. His loss in Deadwood Forest hadn't convinced him of Cloudhawk's superiority. Now that he had his weapons and Cloudhawk had his relics, the truth would be known. He wanted to find out just how strong this no-name from Skycloud city really was. Whether he was worthy of calling himself a captain.

As for Gabriel, it was neither personal nor did he want the captain's badge. He just wanted the challenge, a test of how deep Cloudhawk's talents ran.

"Alright!" Cloudhawk answered without hesitation. "You three then. Step up!"

Claudia, Drake and Gabriel stepped forward. The rest of the trainees moved back to give them space.

Cloudhawk knew more or less the basics of Claudia's fighting style. Drake was a soldier, he didn't pose much of a threat. The only one he didn't have a bead on was Gabriel, so Cloudhawk decided on a course of action that brought a gasp from the others. "I don't want to waste any time. Three on one."

The three of them, together? The trainees weren't the only ones surprised.

Dumont's expression was hidden beneath his layers of armor, but he did raise his head rom staring idly at the ground. Natessa looked over the young captain more carefully. Eckard smiled at the prospect. The kid had some goddamn balls. He respected that.

Drake took the challenge as a slap to the face. What gave him the right to be so arrogant? It was an insult!

Cloudhawk wasn't going to give them any more of an advantage. "Ten seconds. Make your move or accept me as captain."

Drake and Gabrial were still weighing the situation. After all, winning three against one was hardly something to brag about. All the trainees were young men and women of potential. Who among them didn't have some measure of pride, whatever their background? Claudia had no qualms, however. As energy rushed through the exorcist staff, she raised a crystalline flower-shaped relic in her left hand.

Natessa watched her, narrowing her eyes. "Tempest flower."

The flower-shaped relic rose from her palm to hover over Claudia's head, then began to bloom. Its complicated construction broke apart into a rain of petals, only each petal was a metallic dart that was thin as a cicada's wing. The scene was beautiful, but the magnificent display turned their contest into a dance of death.

The metal petals thrummed with energy. Each one whipped toward Cloudhawk, fast as a bullet. A hundred shots, fired all at once!

Even the likes of Drake was surprised by what he saw. Claudia's display went beyond his expectations. They were so close, and her attack was so sudden. Cloudhawk wouldn't have a chance to use his phasing powers before they reached him. Even if he did, how long could his powers be sustained against the constant rain of attacks like that?

The tempest flower was not your typical concealed weapon.

Its danger lay in executing an immediately and powerful onslaught. A ferocious tide of blows, delivered in an instant. One of the demonhunters who possessed this relic before was capable of summoning so many petals that it blocked out the sun over an entire battlefield. With this relic alone he killed hundreds, maybe even a thousand enemies.

Claudia was not that strong, but she could summon several hundred petals from the relic. And so long as she had the mental fortitude, the flower would continue its assault endlessly, until its target was nothing but chunks of meat.

The Lunae family had famously deep pockets, but it must have cost a princely sum - and many favors - for Garuda to win this relic for his daughter. After all, relics like these weren't merely bought with coin.

As Claudia released her psychic energy into the relic, she also rushed in with a burst of speed. The head of her exoricist staff was spinning madly. It roared like the heart of a tornado.

She soared to the air while glimmering petal swirled around her. For an instant she looked like a goddess, descending from heaven to smite her foes. She towered over the ground in a cloud of menace, putting all her force behind the opening thrust of her staff.

Fast enough. Fierce enough! Claudia drew on her every advantage. Few relics could match the sheer explosive power of the tempest flower, and few fighters could fend off Claudia's close-quarters blitz.

Claudia's shredding tempest was far-reaching. The nearby spectators scrambled backwards, for her wild attack would likely injure three out of every four trainees standing nearby.

Cloudhawk faced Claudia and her vicious first strike. He quickly pulled out a metal-bound tome and threw it at her. As his psychic energy reached out, the book exploded into countless grains of yellow sand. They gathered together, forming into dozens and dozens of slithering dragons. In the same moment, he was encased in a shell of grit.

Petals like rain - a deadly hurricane!

And there it was! Claudia's heart skipped a beat.

This was Cloudhawk's exceptional relic, potent and dangerous. It was this relic that had subdued her so easily back in Skycloud city. Faced with Claudia's own relic, Cloudhawk had to find a way to protect himself. Phasing wasn't going to help, so he had to fall back on the Gospel of Sand.

But Claudia knew the strength of his relic, and knew that using it required tremendous mental strength. Cloudhawk shouldn't be strong enough to call on its powers in an instant like that. So how did he?

Too late for second guesses! She would have to break through.

Claudia's eyes burned with unyielding determination!

Then the spectators were treated to an incredible scene.

Claudia came down toward Cloudhawk, trailed by hundreds upon hundreds of glittering metal petals. Cloudhawk stood his ground, immovable as a mountain and surrounded in a gritty battle suit of sand. Flying petals met whipping sand, crashing into one another like warring storms and knocking each other in all directions. Over two hundred tiny battles took place all around him, but Cloudhawk didn't move an inch. Claudia kept coming.

Just as the two were about to collide, she stabbed her staff at Cloudhawk with a scream. He responded with a sweeping cut from Quiet Carnage.

In the instant spear and sword met, all that which floated in the air around them was blasted away. Cloudhawk skid backwards a few paces, but Claudia was flung into the distance. She spat out a mouthful of blood, her staff clattered as it rolled away. The bones of her right hand were broken.

As the hard ground met her, Claudia's heart sank like the last light of dying embers. More progress! He's much stronger than he was back in Skycloud city.