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Chapter 104 - Pledging Loyalty

 Chapter 104 - Pledging Loyalty

The twenty-some trainees exchanged quiet looks.

It wasn't clear who was first, but one by one they all rose from their beds and walked over to respectfully address Cloudhawk as 'boss.'

Drake and Gabriel looked at each other in silence. This was an unexpected boon. Cloudhawk didn't care about being captain, but he'd somehow inadvertently rallied the whole squad behind him. It seemed increasingly more unlikely that his position would ever be challenged again.

"You there, pansy. Yeah, you." Cloudhawk waggled a finger at Caspian. "I couldn't hear you. Speak up, yeah? Let me hear it again."

Caspian's face sunk but he had no choice. He chuckled awkwardly. "Heh, you're such a rascal, boss. Yesterday was just a misunderstanding, allow me to apologize." He fluttered his lashes at the squad captain.

Cloudhawk almost lost his dinner.

This guy was more feminine than the women in the team. He had to wonder how the world could produce someone so... exotic. What Cloudhawk didn't know was that Caspian was Skycloud city's most famed purveyor of 'male comrades' [1]. He was a capable demonhunter, but his proclivities brought shame to his family. As punishment, perhaps to force a change, they sent him to Hell's Valley.

"Forget about it, water under the bridge."

"Thank you, boss."

"Now, young miss Claudia..." Cloudhawk searched the crowd until he found her. "Seems everyone's in agreement, but I didn't hear anything from you."

Claudia stared at her, her face red with anger and words choked in her throat. Everyone's attention was on her, she was the last one to swear fealty. Claudia clenched her fists at her side. Offer an inch and he takes a mile! Veronika saw her expression and gave her a stern look. In the end she was forced to face reality. Claudia hung her head and muttered, defeated: "...boss."

This was the difference between her and Selene.

If it'd been the Bloodsoaked Queen in her shoes, she never would have conceded, not unless she was wholly convinced she was wrong. She would have rather died.

However, those who knew how to suffer temporary setbacks were assured a successful future.

There were only a handful of people in the world like Selene, with brilliant futures that defied any obstacles. If one without adequate talent was only concerned with face, they would never come close to Cloudhawk's abilities, much less surpass them. Claudia was not useless, she had redeeming features. But, her voice was so soft. Her words were so insincere. She was only pretending to capitulate.

Captain Cloudhawk was not pleased with her response. He was about to express his displeasure, when a sweet voice called for his attention. The charming sound was almost too much.

"Captain, sir. Teach us please!"

Felina's sweet voice cooed in his ear. She slapped her hands onto his shoulders and began to knead his tired muscles. Such an adorable display would melt a heart made of iron.

But that's not how Cloudhawk saw it. If she could get close like that without him noticing, the next time she might be sneaking up with a knife to his throat. Cute as she looked from the outside, there was something secret and powerful inside her.

The members of Tartarus squad had fully accepted Cloudhawk as their leader. Without his order to keep prepared last night, this morning they probably would have been skewered by arrows. He was also the only one who passed Natessa's impossible test. As for his strength, he had to be near the top of their crew. Taking all of this information together, there was no one more qualified to lead their squad than Cloudhawk.

"Since y'all are begging so nicely, I'll go ahead and explain everything from start to finish. But only once! So listen close."

Everyone beamed with excitement and gathered round Cloudhawk's bed. Notebooks and pencils appeared in their hands, ready to scribble down every word that came out of his mouth like dutiful students.

Felina knelt behind him on the bed, massaging his shoulders. She leaned forward as she asked, "There were so many questions on that test, Captain! How can you only explain it once! You must have an amazing memory..."

"That's about right!"

"Ah, so talented!"

The young woman's eyes were wide with adulation.

Cloudhawk was not stingy with what he knew. He carefully explained every question from the test, mostly because a lot of it he didn't really understand himself. The memories of the stone's former master were not perfect, if he didn't quickly shared this shard of knowledge as it came then he would lose it again in a few days. Explaining everything to the others was a way to make sure he remembered it.

Natessa's exam was comprehensive, including topics such as psychic energy, relics, martial arts, military tactics and beasts commonly found throughout the wastelands. It even covered things like wastelander guns and artillery. When it came to the weapons of the wastes, Cloudhawk didn't need the stranger's inheritance to know the answers. He'd lived it, he knew all about the different ways to die out there. He was even able to draw a few diagrams to show the others in more detail.

Such knowledge was taboo for elysians. If anyone back in the domain every learned they were studying such things, the consequences would be serious.

Out here in Hell's Valley, though, they didn't seem to be under the same restrictions. Know yourself, know your enemy, and you'll emerge victorious even after a hundred battles [2]. They had to understand the tools of their enemy, otherwise how were they supposed to fight back? Rules were dead things, but people were alive. It could happen that one day they were out in the wastelands, exhausted, injured, weaponless. A common soldier might shun picking up one of the wastelanders' weapons, but that wasn't the style of a member of Hell's Army. They did whatever was necessary.

By the time Cloudhawk was done explaining, he understood the information better himself. He benefitted a lot from it himself. This was especially true for the bits about using relics, and mental training. It inspired him to come up with a few ideas of his own.

There was nothing Claudia could say about it. If he could sit here and explain everything to them question after question, he couldn't have cheated. Only, how was there so much knowledge locked up in that scoundrel's head?

"Time for bed." Cloudhawk yawned illustratively. "We'll continue tomorrow."

"Yeah!" The others bound back to their beds. "Captain!"

Up to now, Cloudhawk's indolent and blasé attitude hadn't won him any followers, but that had changed. He absently scratched Oddball's head and thought on it. He felt strange.

Cloudhawk was a different person now. He'd once had an unflinching drive, a goal that was constantly driving him forward. That was gone now... perhaps not gone, but dim. He felt like a boat that had come untied, floating aimlessly. He went wherever the current took him. He was changing, in all aspects.

Only, the core of a person was difficult to really change.

He thought back on the things he'd been through, on the ideas he once held, and laughed at their foolishness. Anywhere that humans lived there was war. There was no denying that the wastelands were a cruel place, bathed in blood, but weren't the elysian lands also built on the skeletons of thousands? He finally understood that freedom, peace, calm... these didn't come from whatever environment you found yourself in. A new reality was beginning to appear before him, a new path.

Power. It all came down to power.

Cloudhawk was beginning to realize that the only way to find a solid footing in this world was to have the sort of power men feared. The strength to stand up against one's fate. Then he could break the chains, shed the curse. He could throw aside all the arbitrary rules and conspiracies. It was the only real way to win freedom.

He didn't think too long on it. He fished out a vial of the mind-enhancing medicine and swallowed it down, then shut his eyes for a few moments of quiet.

His mind turned to something the phase stone's former master said; real strength came when he no longer had to rely on relics.

Discussing martial arts with the others had deepened his understanding of military training. But relying on physical strength alone wasn't enough. He had to strive to turn his body into a relic. Then he wouldn't need some external tool in order to call on his power!

Cloudhawk saw psychic energy as a wave, and all thing were strings. The wave could adjust these strings' vibration, and the strings came together to form the world. This way, the wave was able to change reality. A string's frequency changed how it manifested, and psychic energy changed the frequency. The man who could see the patterns and pluck its strings could call fire and lightning from his fingertips.

Cloudhawk's mysterious predecessor believed psychic energy was the root of true power. Relics were molds or amplifiers. They were tools that resonated with psychic energy to change a string's frequency. If someone was capable of really understanding how a relic works, maybe they could surpass the need to use them altogether. They could perform miracles out of thin air.

That sounded pretty fuckin' awesome to Cloudhawk. And it seemed possible, too.

During his fight with Gabriel, he'd used his predecessor's power to attack his foe's mind directly. The effects were limited and short-lived, but it's what won him victory.

Becoming a living relic... that was the path to everything he wanted.

The stone's owner hadn't even succeeded in that goal, but Cloudhawk had the talent to make it a reality. He'd been born with the ability to hear the resonance, the key to ultimately crossing that threshold. Of course, it wasn't going to be easy.

Cloudhawk tried, but so far there was only failure.

He couldn't conjure flame out of thin air, or summon sand without the help of the Gospel of Sand. He didn't know what he was doing wrong, only that this ultimate power was not going to come easy. But he was determined to spend whatever time and effort it took to learn the secret.


The next day.

In the morning they continued their training. In the afternoon were more combat drills. At night, another exam.

The schedule was the same, though the content was slightly different. For instance, instead of long-distance marching they were sent up a sheer cliff face. One-on-one spars were swapped for group fights against the veterans; the thirty Tartarus trainees against thirty hardened soldiers. Only the exam with Natessa stayed the same.

A unique part of Tartarus squad's program was a medicated bath every third day, for one hour. It was miraculous stuff. No matter how bruised and beaten they were, no matter how many marks from the whip marked their backs, after an hour the injuries were gone by morning.

Now that they were all formally part of the training camp, their instructors weren't so ready to weed out stragglers. That didn't mean their training was any less harsh, and in fact things only got harder with time. Everything they did had to be accurate to the second, which kept them moving like clockwork. It was nothing short of debilitating.

Under Cloudhawk's leadership his whole team quickly matured. Cloudhawk himself displayed considerable skill in leading his people. Time after time they beat back hordes of wasteland beasts. Again and again they beat the Hell's Army veterans in their war games. Theory classes were a breeze.

Two months passed quickly.

One evening, a soldier rushed into their barracks. "Tartarus squad, you've got an urgent mission. Get ready to move out. Cloudhawk, follow me to the command center!"

Everyone was excited by the news. Felina practically leapt out of bed.

Two months of tedious and exhaustive training had nearly broken them. Sixty-some days and nights of it, now they actually had a real mission. They'd been waiting for this moment!

1. A Chinese euphemism for homosexuality, but the meaning is pretty obvious so we'll leave it in.

2. A quote from Sun Zi's the Art of War.