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Cloudhawk had seen everything.

Claudia Lunae’s inspiration for joining Hell Valley’s grueling training was Cloudhawk, but was it not her family’s idea? Her father looked like the sort to suck up to whoever held the reigns, but it should have been obvious that the patriarch of Skycloud’s richest merchant family wasn’t what he seemed.

Garuda’s feigned stupidity was about self-preservation. He knew that the wealthier his family became the more danger they were in. It was imperative that they raised strong members to keep their empire safe.

Hell Valley was a frightening place, but it was the only way to get strong quickly.

Through Skycloud in general Claudia Lunae’s skills were hardly worth mentioning. Among the family, however, she was exceptional. Garuda was willing to bet that if his daughter survived she could earn a spot in the Court of Shadows, or some other lauded organization. The more they spread their influence the stronger the Lunaes would be.

As Oddball flew around gathering intel, Cloudhawk noticed that the little bird’s abilities had greatly improved. IF not for the little critter he wouldn’t have learned about Mr. Ink’s strange powers or the Claudia’s secrets.

As he laid there in his room, Cloudhawk used Oddball’s abilities to know what was happening all across the ship. He could rest while Oddball got some exercise, the best of both worlds. 

Right now Claudia Lunae was sulking in her cabin. Her father sipped tea and did not move from his chair. Without much to see Cloudhawk quickly grew bored and had Oddball go out to the ship’s deck. Its tiny bird legs latched onto the railing and it looked out over the beautiful horizon, relaying everything back to its master. It was beautiful, after all the little guy’s vision was much sharper than any human’s.

Even a thousand meters in the sky Oddball could see rabbits running through the grass below.  It was able to keenly discern colors where a human would only see an expanse of green. To Oddball that green had a dozen shades and it could spot every change. If it focused, the bird could even see changes in heat.

And that was still not the limit of what it could do!

Oddball could see through camouflage, too. Atlas was one of the greatest members of the Court of Shadows, and even with an invisibility relic he couldn’t stay hidden from Oddball’s sight. Was there anyone in Skycloud who could hide?

When Oddball hatched Cloudhawk got a natural sentry and scout. Getting information would be much easier from now on. He didn’t have to worry about someone like Atlas sneaking up on him, either.

“The ship is docking. Will all passengers please come up to the deck and prepare to disembark.”

Cloudhawk eager grabbed his satchel when the call came from the other side of his door. After two days he figured they’d be at his destination, however he discovered that was not the case. Following the Polaris escort out to the deck it was not Hell Valley that stretched out before him. They had reached the platform of the domain’s eastern mountain pass.

This was as far as normal airships could take them.

While within the domain these ships could continue back and forth without limit, needing no energy or fuel. But if they crossed the border by even so much as a few centimeters they lost all power and would crash into the walls.

Cloudhawk’s escort gathered their exit permits. He looked around with surprise. “The training camp is out in the wastelands?”

Mr. Ink answered with a gentle chuckle. “Not the wastelands, but not much different. It’s in the borderlands.”

When he heard borderlands Cloudhawk couldn’t help but think of the Sandbar. His thoughts turned to Asha, the fat guard captain Hammont Seacrest, the mysterious bar owner Adder, and the young and inexperienced demonhunter Barb. He wondered how they were.

“Why the borderlands? The training is run by elysians, isn’t it?”

“Normally. Different training camps have their own training programs, some of which are contrary to the morals of the elysian lands. Naturally those training camps can’t be permitted within the domain. I’m not familiar with anything more specific than that, but you’ll learn all about it once you get there.”

Cloudhawk found it laughable. “I really was deceiving myself.”

Mr. Ink heard Cloudhawk’s wry sentiment and smirked, but said nothing.

The Lunae family’s entourage was ready in short order with several dozen milling about the deck. Very much as one would expect new money to act they went everywhere with pomp and circumstance, trailing crowds of people as though they feared not everyone would know they are Skycloud’s richest family.

When Garuda reappeared he’d once more donned that charmingly naïve façade. He fawned and flattered excessively. “Master Ink, young master Cloudhawk. We’ve brought quite a large entourage and it would cause us no trouble, perhaps you’d like to travel together?”

Mr. Ink gave the fat merchant a passing glance. “This is fine.”

This delighted Garuda. His expansive rump rolled from side to side as he waddled away, only to return a few minutes later with a carriage for them to use. Together the families and their escorts departed.

Cloudhawk pulled aside the curtain and looked around. Ah, are they really sending us to a training camp? All these troops and flags it looks like we’re going to war. The Lunae family’s troops were all self-trained and recruited. To typical organizations they looked marginally better than a mob. IF they ever were forced to face a standard Skycloud contingent they would collapse at the first blow.

The magnificent gates that barred passage through the mountains opened before them. The carriages and soldiers made their way through.

They left the domain’s picturesque scenery behind for the vast desolation of the borderlands. Cloudhawk felt the transition deep inside him. Out here it was barren, but to him it really wasn’t all that bad.

Cloudhawk was like a lone wolf, and the Skycloud domain was like a beautiful gilded cage. It was orderly but constraining – food was plentiful but everywhere you turned were barriers. Outside the massive walls was a world of freedom and cruelty, where the weak were consumed by the strong. But there was nothing to stop you, no one to tell you no. Anything you wanted to do you could do, so long as you had the strength to pull it off.

So which was better? A beautiful prison with food aplenty? Or a blood soaked land of freedom? The answer wasn’t readily available to Cloudhawk. He liked safety and comfort, but he also liked being able to do what he pleased.

He was no philosopher or poet, so Cloudhawk was about to explore the metaphysical dilemmas this posed. He tended to judge things by simple criteria; his heart knew the way. The days when he felt the elysian lands were good there he would stay. When he grew tired of its rigidity he might hang out in the borderlands. Of course, it would be best if there were some place where he could be free and satiated. Maybe one day.

Weeds were churned to mulch beneath the wagons’ rolling wheels.

About half a day later the elysian caravan arrived. A vast and wilted forest stretched out before them over uneven terrain. Even specially trained mounts wouldn’t make it through, so they had no choice but to continue on foot.

Cloudhawk looked out over the forest. A mist hung over the rugged land that made it hard to see much of anything. He shut his eyes, and the napping bird on his shoulder popped its beady eyes open.  As their vision combined Oddball’s eyes pierced the mists to reveal the rolling forests ahead.

The borderlands forest was mostly dead. For every dozen rotten husks was a half dead tree barely hanging on. Somehow they’d managed to live for who knows how long, resisting rot and insects. The rest had petrified, like pillars of stone jutting from the earth at odd angles.

Looking further one saw a fog-shrouded valley, faintly visible in the distance. That had to be their destination, Hell Valley.

“We’re here.”

Cloudhawk opened his eyes and brought his vision back to his immediate surroundings. Ahead he saw a single path leading into the forest. A campsite had been set up with a stone stele marking their location: “Hell Valley Training Camp.” Even the carved letters seemed to stink with carnage like death oozed from the rock itself.

Here at last. This has to be our destination.

The deadwood forest was densely packed with its eponymous petrified trees and cloaked in mist. Without a guide they would easily get lost trying to navigate through it.

A few burly men were waiting for them when they arrived and Garuda hastily greeted them when they were within earshot. He immediately produced a few sacks of coins and offered them to the smirking men, in the hopes of buying protection for their young trainees.

Garuda had never been in contact with the trainers, but he knew what sort of people they were. They looked like simple folk, but pull one out and bring them to the elysian lands and they would soon be begging for favors.

“Keep your money, big fella.” The leader’s voice was cold and contemptuous. “Try to bribe anyone here again and your trainees will be knocked out.”

Garuda’s face froze. He retracted the money with an apologetic smile.

Cloudhawk and Claudia started the check-in process.

“This is the one the Polaris family recommended? He looks like a useless runt!”

“Alright, leave ‘em here. No one else is allowed any further, they belong to us now. Come with me!”

One of the big men pointed a club at Cloudhawk.

“I appreciate you taking the trouble.” Mr. Ink offered the men a curt nod then turned his eyes to Cloudhawk. His voice was soft. “From here on out you do whatever they tell you, do you understand? If you’re lucky you’ll be back in three years.”

“What?! Three years!”

“The fuck are you standing around for? Move!”

One of the men roughly shoved Cloudhawk. He had nowhere to go but forward.

Cloudhawk stole a glance at the big guy. He was a hundred and eighty meters tall, give or take, and looked dangerous. His club in particular caught his eye. It looked like wood but he suspected it wasn’t. It was some sort of composite – but not from the elysian lands. Were they wasteland weapons?

He didn’t spend too long thinking about it. Before long they were at the outpost in the center of Deadwood Forest. 

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