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Chapter 102 - Talent

 The next day, before the morning sun crept into the barracks tent...

A loud alarm bell sounded. Its harsh sound shattered the trainees' sleep.

Years in the wastelands had taught Cloudhawk to be a light sleeper. Even the slightest change in light, temperature or sound was enough to wake him up. He was the first one of his team to climb out of bed.

Oddball came to as well. It turned its puffy little head to the left and right a few times, keen eyes on a spot outside of the barracks tent. Cloudhawk's companion seemed to see something out of the ordinary, because it began tweeting furiously.

What's up?

A creeping sense of disquiet came over him. "Get down!"

The others were nursing aches and pains, earned from days of hard work and uncomfortable cots. The disorienting haze of sleep quickly fled at Cloudhawk's scream. Although they didn't kno what was going on, the sharp noise of something whistling through the air was obvious. Instincts kicked in and they hit the dirt.

An arrow ripped through the burlap tent and into one of the beds. It drilled right through leaving a sizable hole behind.

That was just the beginning. Moments later hundreds more arrows followed, fast as bullets and far more deadly. Beds were shot to splinters from arrows that lanced through their tent like lasers. Shards of wood exploded everywhere.

"Everyone out!"

Cloudhawk led the others toward the exit, scrambling along the floor on all fours. Outside, their sleeping quarters were surrounded by several hundred soldiers with bows. No wonder they'd been attacked by so many at once. It was a whole archer corps out here!

If they hadn't been sleeping in their armor, they wouldn't have been able to respond as quickly. Without Cloudhawk's warning, many of his team would have awakened to arrows in their guts. Groggy and wounded, they wouldn't have stood a chance.

It would have been flat-out murder!

Cloudhawk shot to his feet and called to his team. "Form up!"

The others arranged themselves into four lines. In a few short seconds Tartarus squad was at attention.

The sun had yet to rise over the horizon, it had to be about four in the morning. The veteran soldiers were already standing in orderly rows with team captains at the fore. Tartarus squad's own assistant instructors were also standing nearby. In the middle of them all was a man-shaped fortress clad from head to toe in armor. One of the giants of Hell's Valley, Dumont.

Dumont stared at the trainees, already in their lines. Narrows eyes peered doubtfully through the slit in his helmet, but he had to admit this new batch was especially vigilant.

One of the assistants marched off at a brisk pace. His sonorous voice blasted through the camp. "Hell's Army is assembled. Marching orders are fifty kilometers of cross-country training. Move out!"

Fifty kilometers? Even through the rough terrain of the valley, it didn't sound so bad. A little challenging maybe, that's all. At the assistant's command the veteran teams fell into position, one after the other.

Cloudhawk allowed himself to take a breath. "You heard him. Fifty kilometers long-distance training, let's go!"

"Stop! Not yet."

The assistants walked over. They forced the members of Tartarus squad to shoulder weighty packs. Fifty kilometers stretched before them, just like the veterans, only their training would be different. "Your job is to haul this weight across the valley, fifty kilometers. You got five hours - miss the deadline and it's five lashes. The slowest half of your team to get there will get three lashes. Now move!"

Everyone's faces fell. They weren't at all prepared for this.

The sack on Cloudhawk's shoulders was at least several hundred kilograms. Strong as he was, it was still not going to be easy to cross mountainous terrain with so much weight.

One of the assistants unfurled his whip, ready to use it.

There was nothing for it. Cloudhawk called to the others. "Let's go! Get moving!"

The trainees of Tartarus squad grit their teeth and started off.

Cloudhawk soon discovered that everyone's load was different. Drake, for example, had a pack at least twice as heavy as his. Gabriel's was slightly lighter. Somehow, although Cloudhawk couldn't guess how, the assistants knew what each trainee could handle and weighed them down with their upper limit. It made for more effective training, to be sure.

Exhausting! And the paths through the valley did not make for an easy stroll.

If it were only a short time, the excess weight they carried wouldn't have been an issue. However, fifty kilometers was anything but a short time. They couldn't lose half a step in their stride or they would feel it. Who could stand such an overwhelming test of their endurance?!

But the fact that the trainees had made it this far proved their perseverance.

The trek was grueling, but they all made it. The ones who fell behind got their three lashes, and without a moment's rest they were on to the next set of exercise. They were gathered up in the training yard and participated in an arduous regimen of physical and mental military training drills.

Lunch was fifteen minutes long.

Food was marginally better than what they had in the hole they were thrown in back in Deadwood Forest, but only slightly. It was still mainly herbs, roots and mutant insects - hardly the normal fare for Skycloud's haughty elite. Yet, they had learned to accept it during their time in isolation. After such strenuous exercise they were desperate, for anything that'd give them energy. They'd almost eat bowls of shit at this point.

The afternoon was taken up with combat training.

It was led by Eckard and his assistants. Duels were arranged at random, or set between trainees and a veteran soldier or assistant. Losers got two lashes instead of dinner.

They were only given ten minutes to shove a supper of sticks and bugs into their mouths. Most didn't get to finish.

By the time night rolled around the trainees weren't just tired, they were dead on their feet, beaten black and blue. Some of them were also half-starved. The veteran squads they'd trained with callously ate their meals and disbanded to recover from the day.

Had their first day finally come to an end?

Cloudhawk was preparing to bring the others to their newly constructed barracks tent when he was given news. Tartarus squad still had theory courses scheduled at night.

Dumont was responsible for them during basic training. Eckard took charge during combat training. Theory courses were organized by Natessa.

Before the trainees even knew what they were doing, a test paper was shoved into their hands. Eyes popped as they looked over the contents; relic maintenance, weapon theory, mutant beast identification, survival techniques, assassination, tactical simulations, troop management and so on. Dozens of questions they couldn't begin to answer, leaving them stricken.

"Shit, I'm not a demonhunter. How am I supposed to understand anything about relics?"

"I've never seen more than a couple mutant creatures in my whole life. What do I know about any of this?"

"I've lived my whole live in the domains. There's no way I know about the weapons which blasphemers use. They're forbidden! It's a violation of the law even trying to answer these questions!"

Natessa sat calm and silent before them with her eyes closed. She was like a sculpture of some holy goddess. Two and a half hours later her eyes opened and said what they'd all been waiting for. "Hand in your papers!"

The examinations were gathered, and her assistants got to work.

The test was a total of a hundred points. Anyone who scored below ninety would be beaten. Sad news for the members of Tartarus squad, for although they could answer a few, no one was able to pass that margin.

Ninety fuckin' points! What the hell were they thinking?

A third of them were full-answer questions with no hints to the answers. Relying on multiple-choice wasn't an option, so getting a passing score was practically impossible.

But everyone got what Instructor Windham was up to. Normal soldiers didn't get demonhunter techniques, but the demonhunters did. Demonhunters didn't know a lot about weapons training, but the soldiers did.

Survival skills, tactics, formations... there were probably a handful in the group who knew a thing or two. To pass the test they would need to get together and share their knowledge. The point of the test was for them to find out what they were missing and look to the others for answers. Together they would study, and together they might pass.

The scores were quickly tallied. It really did feel like being judged before the gates of hell.

"Gabriel. Forty-three percent!"

"Caspian Black, forty-five percent!"

"Drake Battelle, fifty-one percent!"

"Felina Cole, fifty-four percent!"

The class listened as names and scored were read out, hoping for someone with a high score for them to rely on. Perhaps the next test they might pass with some help. However, most of the trainees hovered somewhere in the forties. Hopes began to fade. If no one was coming out on top then where were they supposed to get help?

"Claudia Lunae, seventy-eight percent!"

The students' eyes lit up.

Seventy-eight percent wasn't nothing short of amazing. Not a passing score of course, but much better than everyone else. There was hope!

The corners of Claudia's mouth curved up ever so slightly. She was a cherished daughter of the Lunae family, and she'd had a thirst for knowledge ever since she was small. Luckily her father was a merchant with a far reach and deep pockets, so she was never lacking in reading material. If she hadn't spent her earlier years mulling over all sorts of unimportant factoids, she probably would have been a much better demonhunter.

Cloudhawk's score hadn't been read out yet. Claudia could hardly wait to find out. After all, he'd been born out in the wastelands. He hardly knew the alphabet, much less more complicated theoretical questions.

It didn't matter how many fights he'd won, book-learning definitely wasn't his strong suit. But how many points would he get? Ten? Maybe twenty? Hell, maybe just a fat zero! The thought of Cloudhawk having to come to her, tail tucked between his legs, begging for help, filled her heart with sadistic joy. That would be sweet revenge.

She quietly promised herself that she wouldn't help me, no matter how he begged.


Her heart began to race. It was time.


Up to this point the assistant reading scores had been smooth and dispassionate. Now he seemed to be stuck on the guy's name. He squinted at the sheet a few times to make sure it was correct. Claudia had to chuckle to herself. His score had to be so terrible the assistant couldn't believe it.

She wasn't alone. All the rest of Tartarus squad held their breath, waiting for the chance to turn their nose up at him.

"Cloudhawk..." He said the name a third time, then... "One hundred percent!"

It struck them like an earthquake. And earthquake wrapped in an explosion. And not just the students, either. Natessa was floored by the revelation. How could someone - anyone - get full marks? With a gesture she called the assistant over and took the exam from his hands. She looked it over, top to bottom. Her face gradually changed from irritation, to disbelieve, and finally to amazement.

He'd actually written the answers. They were right!

Solid tactical analyses, clear understanding of relic function... some of his battle concepts were even quite novel. Natesssa had to admit, what he wrote was top quality. There was no way the assistants would conspire to give him the answers, especially not right in front of her face, but it was obvious even when she looked at the paper. It was all there, in his head.

Natessa folded the paper and kept it with her. She would sit and examine it more closely when she had the chance. There were some ideas she wanted to explore in more detail. She continued. "Not bad. The rest of you, take up position for your lashes."

The shock was nothing short of overwhelming for Claudia.

No one knew Cloudhawk like she did. This wastelander... how was it possible? Weren't his kind illiterate? She refused to accept that he was capable of testing better than her!

As for the others, they started looking at Cloudhawk with new eyes. No more disdain or discomfort. Now they looked at him like more than human. He was a savior!

Cloudhawk lazily stretched his back like it was nothing out of the ordinary. He then sat back and enjoyed watching the others receive their lashes.

Really, Cloudhawk didn't know how he did it. It just flowed out of him, things he didn't even fully understand. The only explanation he could think of was the skull, and the knowledge he'd inherited from it. The former master of the phase stone had been ancient, answering these elementary questions would have been the simplest thing in the world.