For six months, the members of Tartarus Squad were so badly beaten they could hardly lay down at night. Cloudhawk got the worst of it, but he was also the quickest to recover after each beating. Perhaps contrary to its intent, months of torment actually served to bring these conspirators closer together. Shared experiences deepened their respect for Cloudhawk, and they saw him as more than just a man of skill. He had the courage to stand up for what was right.
What stuck out most in their mind was how he stood before Frost de Winter. Cloudhawk blocked the governor’s own protégé, risking his life for mere villagers. In this world, the powerful were given respect. Squaring his shoulders against impossible odds and coming out on top earned him more esteem than anything he’d done before, and now his people revered him, even though this was never Cloudhawk’s intention.
On this day, an assistant instructor came calling. He walked into Tartarus Squad’s barracks and hollered. “Cloudhawk! Someone’s looking for you.”
He only pondered the question for a moment before two soldiers led him away, laid out on a stretcher. They brought him from the valley and out into a camp, nestled among the petrified trees of deadwood forest. There, a beautiful and regal young woman was waiting with eager expression. She’d been waiting for quite a while. Before Cloudhawk even got close enough to see who she was, he recognized the resonance of her relics.
“So it’s you.”
“Heh, of course it’s me. Who else were you expecting?” Dawn Polaris only seemed to notice his state when the soldiers put the stretcher down. Cloudhawk was so badly beaten he was hard to look at. Her joy and seeing him after so long was replaced with consternation and concern. “They wouldn’t let me into the valley, I could only meet you out here. I heard about what happened. You definitely made some people very worried, I hope you haven’t forgotten you’re agreement to help me. Who am I going to get to replace you if you die out here?”
Cloudhawk laid on the stretcher, too weak to move. He could only manage a slight shift one way or the other and each time he did his wounds reopened. He grumbled in irritation. “Yeah, whatever. What did you come here for?”
One of the assistants interrupted. “You’ve got five minutes. Four now.”
Hell’s Valley didn’t allow family or other representatives into the valley, or to make any kinds of deliveries. Once trainees were enrolled in the system that was it. They typically weren’t allowed to interact with the outside world until their time was up. Of course, the influence of the Polaris family was far-reaching and hard to ignore. Even so, the best she got was five minutes out here in the woods.
“You’ve always got such an attitude. An important woman like me comes all the way out here to see you, the least you could do is show a little gratitude. It wasn’t easy, you know. Don’t think I won’t make you acquainted with my sword.”
Dawn was no less of a menace than Frost, but Cloudhawk didn’t fear her any more than he did the knight-commander.
“Of course, killing you doesn’t help me any. You still owe me, remember!” She knew time was limited, so Dawn cut the banter and heaved a sack off her shoulder. “Special delivery. You’ve got food for Oddball and enough medicine to last you the rest of your time in Hell’s Valley.”
Her surprise provisions were unexpected.
“Isn’t this too much?”
“I won’t lie, it cost me a lot. I can’t put it off anymore, two years of sequestered training in the Temple waits for me when I go back. By my calculations you owe me ten thousand gold by now. Including labor and interest, I’m guessing it’ll be triple that by the time you get back to Skycloud.” Dawn grinned wolfishly as she leaned down and patted Cloudhawk, an action that caused him to ooze more blood. She hissed threateningly at him through gritted teeth. “So you better make sure you’re still breathing, at least until you pay me back. Understood?”
As unreasonable and domineering as she was, Dawn was the closest thing Cloudhawk had to a friend in all of Skycloud domain. He didn’t like being in someone’s debt, but he had to accept it. He could do without the medicine but at least it will help him improve faster. Oddball’s food was different, necessary. Otherwise what would the poor thing eat?
“Don’t worry, I’m pretty tough to kill.”
“Alright, then it’s settled!”
Time was up. Five minutes didn’t amount to much, they hardly had a chance to talk.
After bidding farewell to Cloudhawk, Dawn set off back to Skycloud city. She’d put off her mother as long as she could, now it was time to fulfill her end of the bargain. Two years locked away in the sanctuary. She would rather have been in prison, but there was a silver lining. There was a lot of talent coming up with the new generation, and they were growing quickly. How could someone as competitive as Dawn let the likes of Frost de Winter outshine her? When her isolation was over she’d have to make a point of beating them all up, just to make sure they all knew who was boss. Especially Selene – she still deserved a thrashing after what she did.
“General.” Mr. Ink made his way across the audience hall in the Polaris mansion. “The young mistress has left for the Temple.”
Skye ran a hand along his beard and grinned happily at the news. The girl was one of the most talented people of her generation, gifted in all areas. After briefly studying painting she produced beautiful works, with some guidance in music she composed masterful melodies. Nearly all the teachers who sought to instruct her were driven away in shame, and the reason was simple – she surpassed all that they could teach, in almost no time.
Dawn’s talent, bloodline, and resources were so grand that her character was never imbued with a sense of determination. She had no ambition, no discipline, no perseverance. Her decision to serve penance in the sanctuary and finally commit to learning was something to celebrate.
“She went to Hell’s Valley.”
“I know. It’s fine. Without Cloudhawk, she would never have agreed to training in the Temple.”
The family knew right away that she’d gone to visit the wastelander in Hell’s Valley, and they turned a blind eye. Skye had quickly learned that the poison they hoped could control Cloudhawk was useless. If his relationship to Dawn – whether friendship or debt – kept him tied to the Polaris family, then it worked just as well.
What Skye did not know was Cloudhawk’s recent run-in with Frost. However, he was able to use his connections to learn about what was happening with Cloudhawk while in the valley. He heard about how he’d overcome the other students to come out ahead, and even the recalcitrant giants of Hell’s Valley had to show him some consideration. All told, it looked like the young man was even more capable than Skye had originally given him credit for.
It appeared the Polaris family had managed to snap up a real treasure.
Skye was impressed, but he wanted an outside opinion. “What do you think about Cloudhawk, Mr. Ink?”
The mysterious man thought for a moment. “His talent is comparable to the young mistress or Selene Cloude. It’s a shame he has no sense of duty to the domain, nor any ties to speak of. Neither does he appear to have any ambition for power. It is likely he would flee to the wastelands if things became difficult for him here. This makes delegating any important matters to him inadvisable.”
“Fair and true points as always, Mr. Ink. It’s the reason I sent him to Hell’s Valley in the first place. There is no one immune to change, and it would be a pity if a fine piece of steel wasn’t turned into a masterful blade.” Skye looked up, peering at nothing in particular. “Everything’s been prepared. When he graduates from training I will have a suitable mission for him, then name him Warden when the task is done. Talent like his needs a wider theater in order to make the best of them.”
Warden was a title, the leader of a group under the Grand General’s command called the Talons of God. It was an elite and secret group of rangers, as mysterious as the Court of Shadows and Hell’s Army. ‘Warden’ was what they called their leader, and whoever held the post commanded meaningful influence.
Mr. Ink paused when Skye revealed his intentions. “If he should refuse?”
“A piece of steel that can’t be made into a sword is no better than slag, and can be discarded.” Skye’s words bore the weight of authority and finality. However, he quickly waved away the possibility. “Don’t worry. If I understand the boy he’ll behave himself, at least for a while. Then when he’s in it with both feet, he’ll find out it’s quite hard to get back out. Besides, I’ll treat him well. Good talent must be put to good use.”
Skye Polaris was a clever man. Cloudhawk might not like what was to come, but the furnaces burned no matter how the steel doth protested.
Cloudhawk went back to training once he’d recovered from the punishment.
Teal Ridge was not the first such mission Hell’s Army was called to perform, nor would it be the last. Although their execution caused somewhat of a stir, ultimately there wasn’t much of a fuss from Skycloud. Cloudhawk never learned the fate of those villagers he saved, and he didn’t much care. He just did what he felt was right, for him. What happened after that was out of his control, and none of his business.
Training for Tartarus Squad was more severe and cruel than ever before.
Cloudhawk had become a thorn in the valley’s side and thus was carefully watched by the instructors. That being said, they were also careful not to push Cloudhawk too far. Irritating as he was, the young man had skill. When they reached a plateau during their own training, the trainers had no choice but to turn to him for guidance.
In addition, stripping Cloudhawk of the title of captain hadn’t accomplished much. There wasn’t anyone in Tartarus Squad who came close to the reputation he enjoyed. He worked to make sure none of them got washed out of training, no matter how harsh or cruel the exercise became. He even gave them training tips on his spare time, which benefited them greatly.
Thus the days dragged on. Because of how they conducted themselves the last time, Tartarus Squad never even had a hope of joining another mission. Missions like the one at Teal Ridge were rare anyway, and small missions didn’t need any help from insubordinate trainees.
After a time, Dawn eventually finished her own training regimen in the Temple. She came to visit him at Hell’s Valley a few times afterward, as a representative of the Polaris family. She never learned about what happened in Teal Ridge. Aside from the most senior members of Skycloud’s government, news of what really happened there was kept in strict confidence.
Dawn’s trips were ostensibly to bring Cloudhawk the medicine and feed he needed while in Hell’s Valley, but of course they were never free. Dawn kept a detailed reporting of every copper Cloudhawk owed her. He racked up thousands of gold in debt in addition to three years of interest. By the time he got out he wasn’t sure he’d ever got out from under these arrears.
Three years passed, day after day, and all the while he never gave thought to the fact that these were the safest years of his life. It was not easy, but he was fed and had a secure place to lay his head. Everything in the world is relative. To most, a place like Hell’s Valley lived up to its name. But to Cloudhawk, it was more like heaven.
What would later be writ in the annals of history was this; in the years following, whether he liked it or not, Cloudhawk’s life would be a string of plots, conspiracies, and momentous events.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
This is the final chapter in book 2, with an epilogue coming. It's also our first real time-skip. Looking forward to see what has happened in three years of time. Meanwhile, the epilogue title gives me goosebumps...