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Chapter 101 - The Barracks

 Two assistant instructors lead the students and two teams of veterans to the designated area. There, they began to explain the rules of Hell's Valley:

"One. Obey any order given to you by military staff."

"Two. No fraternizing between the sexes, and no fraternizing within the sexes either."

"Three. Do not contradict your superiors, adhere to military law."

"All the rest is written here, I'm not going to go over it. Make sure you familiarize yourselves." One of the assistants impatiently threw a volume toward Cloudhawk. "Remember, you're the captain here. They are following you, and that means they are your responsibility. Any praise or punishment falls on you, too."

That was some bullshit. Cloudhawk could barely handle himself, much less other people. How was he supposed to make sure the rules were followed?

"You all aren't here for a pleasant life experience, remember that." The assistant seemed to think of something then returned his attention to Cloudhawk. "Starting now, until the moment you leave, each of you are part of a special military unit. You will train with other teams and will join them on missions. You should give your team a name."

"Tartarus. How's that?"

Cloudhawk settled on it right away, a tribute to his days in the wastelands.

"Up to you. If you wanna call your team the Dogshits, then that's what we'll call you. Alright, this'll be where you lay your head for the time being."

A series of makeshift camps had been built among the ruins of Hell's Valley outpost. Looking out over, it the place had turned into a tent city. The other military officers had their tents arranged in a circle around Cloudhawk's Tartarus team, who were stationed in their own burlap barracks.

The assistant didn't explain any further. He was impatient to leave.

"Wait!" Someone called out from the crowd. Claudia stepped forward with a dissatisfied expression. "We're sleeping in the same tent as the men?"

About a fourth of their team were young women, she was voicing the concern of all of them. Were they supposed to all cram into the same tent, eating and sleeping together?

"Who told you to speak? Are you the captain? What makes you think you have the right to open your fuckin' mouth?" The assistant glared at her. "Get out here. Two lashes!"

Several soldiers stepped forward to grab her.Cloudhawk was just settling in to gloat when he felt his hands being wrenched behind his back.

The two assistants pulled out their whips and quickly delivered two strikes each. Each one bit hard into their skin, more savage that being hacked at by a sword. Cloudhawk had escaped a beating several times already, only to suffer it now.

"What the fuck are you hitting me for?!"

"You're being punished for failing to keep your team disciplined." The man's cold eyes turned to the others. "Remember, we don't give a shit about what equipment you got between your legs. Bother me with this baby shit again, you'll be begging for only two lashes! Now, let's get the fuck outta here."

The trainees exchanged silent looks. The assistants and the soldiers filed out.

With his hands in his pockets, Gabriel walked up to Cloudhawk and asked how he was. The wastelander hopped back up to his feet. It was only two lashes, after all. However, those two had beat the sense of accomplishment clean out of him. If he'd known what being captain meant he wouldn't have accepted.

Because of Claudia, Cloudhawk had to feel the sting of their whips. She didn't show any sign of regret when she looked his way, or anything resembling an apology. She just stared at him.

Cloudhawk had to laugh.

"What are you laughing at?"

"You need to ask? You, obviously!" Claudia was about to lunge at him, so Cloudhawk lifted his hands to stop her. "Cut it out. You know you can't beat me, and it's against military rules. Next time it won't be two lashes, and you know it. Like it or not, we're roommates for a few years. Can't you show a little respect to your superior?"

Claudia's hands were curled into white-knuckled fists, and her frown was digging deep grooves in her face. But she never said a word as she stormed toward the barracks.

Cloudhawk muttered as she left. "You know, you remind me of a friend. The Bloodsoaked Queen... you don't compare to her on any level, of course. Except you might be even more stubborn. I don't think I've ever met anyone more hard-nosed than you."

"Enough! What's so good about your friend, huh? Don't compare me to her!"

Claudia pulled open the tent door and stomped inside.

Gabriel sauntered over with a grin on his face. "That one sure as hell wants to see you dead. You aren't even a little worried?"

"If she's gonna try and kill me, she'll try it to my face. I'm not scared." Cloudhawk spared a glance for the blonde haired man and his timid smirk. "In fact, it's you I'm worried about. I know what you can do, and what you're hiding."

Gabriel shrugged. "Frost wanted you dead," he said helplessly. "I didn't like him much, but Naberius and I have taken a liking to you. Since I'm not going back to Skycloud anyway, I've chosen to abandon the mission. Truly."

The inside of the barracks was larger than it seemed from the outside. There were enough beds for a standard military platoon. Thirty people didn't fill it, so there was plenty of elbow room. With the extra space they chose to split the tent down the middle; men to the left, and women to the right. The central area where they were expected to wash had to be shared. On the one hand there wasn't much water, and on the other none of the bathrooms were private.

At any rate, this was how Cloudhawk could look after the woman in his team, and they appreciated him for it. A few asked Claudia about how she knew Cloudhawk, and where he'd come from. She kept a blank face and didn't answer.

Everyone else continued to give Cloudhawk the cold shoulder.

There was nothing for it. Most of the trainees came from noble stock or military families. A family as sprawling as the Lunaes had members who were governors, officers, or other high positions. Most here were in their earlier twenties, a few younger. To have so much talent at such young ages, they were definitely the future of Skycloud domain. As such, why would they submit to someone like Cloudhawk?

He was low-born and nameless among the elite. Aside from Claudia, no one had ever heard of Cloudhawk before now. He was the youngest among them as well. For him to be made captain was completely out of the blue. [1] It would be strange if these haughty elysians chose to follow him.

"Hey Cloudhawk, aren't you going to do something?" Drake pulled off his heavy armor and shared a word with him. His voice was still hoarse, it appeared the wound Cloudhawk had dealt wasn't entirely healed yet. But Cloudhawk had to admit he didn't really understand. Do what?

Drake leaned in and whispered. "The people here are all nobles, or people with talent. Make them comrades in arms, brothers and sisters of the battlefield. Be their leader. If you do it well, it'll help you in the long run! After all, everyone here is going on to do great things when we leave this place. Don't waste the opportunity to create a network!"

Drake was pretty straightforward, and his logic was solid.

But Cloudhawk yawned and maintained his disinterested manner. He was unambitious, the sort to go with the flow. Maybe even write off as a hopeless cause. Cloudhawk didn't have any interest in writing a legend for himself, perform any great deeds. He certainly wasn't interested in being some sort of hero. A network didn't mean anything to him, that's why he didn't worry over offending anyone.

But... if Drake wanted him to say a few things, then he might as well.

"Alright, everyone listen up."

"Since none of you could do better, they made me the captain of our team. You all can keep plotting ways to take me down. Anyone who wants to take a shot then you can. Hell, I encourage it. But if I give an order and you decide not to follow it, or if you try and fuck with me, I'm not gonna let it slide. You hear what I'm saying?"

Drake was mortified. This was not what he had in mind.

He was practically begging for people to challenge him, even threatening them. He had to think about what sort of people these trainees were. His threats were only going to piss them off.

"Enough bullshit. As your captain I'm gonna deliver my first order, so listen up." Cloudhawk pulled off his boots and leaned on his bed. He still wore his armor, and his sword rested loosely in his hand. "From now on you keep your clothes on when you sleep. Your weapons never leave your side."

"That's so uncomfortable!" A baby-faced woman with a ponytail whined at him. "Who are you to tell us how to sleep?"

"Yeah!" An effeminate, scrawny man joined in the complaints. He squawked in a painfully duck-like voice. "You're micromanaging."

Everyone seemed puzzled by his decision.

"You want me to tell you why?" Cloudhawk huffed at them. "Because I - your captain - hate sleeping. I especially hate sleeping in beds. And if I don't like it, then none of you get to. It's that simple. Anyone who disagrees is violating military law. Gabby here will be taking names so the assistants know who to whip in the morning. You there, the pansy. You saw what I can do. You want to try your luck?"

"Who are you calling a pansy!?" the pansy shrieked.

Cloudhawk heard the hum of a relic before he saw drops of water begin to gather around the frail man. Each one was about the size of a fingernail, but there were twenty or thirty of them in all. Each one was infused with power and were sure to hit with the force of a bullet.

Gabriel rolled his eyes. He didn't know what he was going to do about Cloudhawk and his attitude.

"Everyone listen up!" Drake couldn't listen to any more of this. He shot to his feet. "Cloudhawk's point is we need to be ready, for anything, at any time. We have to be able to respond to any threat. I'm a soldier, I used to be in charge of eight hundred men and I know how new recruits are treated. We'll be rounded up at a moment's notice, and by now you know how they treat stragglers here. Better safe than sorry."

The effeminate man was quiet, but the droplets of water continued to rotate around his body.

"Caspian Black. Show me a little respect."

"Hmph." The androgynous one called Caspian rolled his eyes. "For you, no. But I'll show my respect for the Thane family."

He dismissively waved his hand. The water droplets splattered against the floor.

Except they didn't. To everyone's surprise, the droplets bounced like rubber balls, half a meter off the ground. They hopped around for a little while before melting into a pool.

The other trainees gave the pansy odd looks. What a strange power. He was obviously a water-type demonhunter.

Cloudhawk barely spared him a glance, but inside his mind whirred. Shit... fuckin' creepy sissy.

Gabriel yawned theatrically. "That's enough of that. Sleep, let's go."

Claudia had no respect for Cloudhawk or his orders, but followed them all the same. She obediently laid on the bed fully clothed and with her weapon nearby. She leaned back on the hard cot and stretched her legs out.

Just as she was about to shut her eyes, a sweet voice whispered in her ear. "Claudia... who is this guy? You two seem to have a history."

The girl looked to be about sixteen years old, one of the youngest. She was the baby-faced one, thin, with a pair of pony tails on either side of her head. Her big eyes and innocent features made her look entirely harmless. Back in Skycloud, though, she went by the nickname 'Demon Kitten.' Beneath her adorable exterior was someone who would murder without blinking those big beautiful eyes. Claudia had no interest in getting any closer to her. She was already too close for comfort.

"He's no good. Best to leave him alone."


Felina slowly blinked her big eyes as she stared curiously at Cloudhawk.

Cloudhawk didn't pay any mind to her or anyone else. He lay on his cot with his hands folded behind his head, one leg crossed over the other.

Now he had Drake and Gabriel in his corner. Together, they would be able to handle anything short of a master demonhunter. As such no one was going to thoughtlessly make a move, they weren't going to win a fight. Stay out of trouble and leave it at that, this was the predominate thinking.

Felina's lips pulled back into a sweet smile. "He sure is an interesting guy."

Given his appearance, she assumed he was perhaps a few years older. In truth the two were about the same age. [2]

1. The Chinese is 'as though he had popped out of the rocks'. I may be way off base, but I think this is in reference to a quasi-trope in China about supernatural beings emerging from innocuous objects. The Monkey King, for example, pops out of a 'stone egg.' A famous cartoon called gourd boy was born from - you guessed it - a gourd.

2. In Chinese, she referred to him as a 'little big brother', a term of quasi-endearment for men who are slightly older than you. Since it doesn't translate well into English, we just went with 'guy'.