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Book 4, Chapter 4 - High Altitude Interception

 On dawn of the second day, Drake and his regiment arrived at Sandbar Station. He joined with Cloudhawk's Talons of God and they boarded their flagship, Condor. They wasted no time in departing for Woodland Vale.

Condor was twice the size of a normal warship. In total, there were three energy pylons that powered it, which allowed it to move much faster. Any one of the three pylons was enough to keep the ship afloat, so it was in no danger of falling during the expedition.

In addition, the ship's offensive and defensive capabilities were quite unique. It had installed within it one long-range beam pylon, another mid-range flame pylon, and a shield reinforcement pylon.

Condor was a gift from the Polaris family to the Warden of the Talons, their greatest airship. Drake's corps had two warships of their own, as well as an entourage of smaller guard ships and long range supply vessels. The warships were standard issue, with one pylon each for energy, attack and defense. In addition they were equipped with detachable heavy ballistae and other weapons. Their support vessels were not so heavily equipped.

Cloudhawk's Talons numbered four hundred strong. Drake had brought with him three thousand soldiers. Not an overwhelming force by any means, but enough to consider themselves a small army. Cloudhawk was confident it was suitable to deal with any problem they might come across.

"What are you doing, bringing a child?!"

Claudia was shocked when she saw the little girl following him around like a puppy. Anger immediately reddened her cheeks.

She and the others had been briefed on their mission. She knew how important it was. It was bad enough that their commanding officer flouted military discipline, but now he was bringing defenseless kids with them?

Who was she, anyway? His bastard daughter? Was he too stupid to know how dangerous the wastelands were?

Cloudhawk was in the flagship's war room with his legs on the desk and a big cigarette hanging from his lips. He slurred his response around it. "Sergeant Claudia Lunae! Don't forget your place. What authority do you have to question your commanding officer's decisions?"

Hateful! Monstrous! Someone needs to smash this idiot's smug face in!

The members of Claudia's squad were already opposed to associating with this ex-convict. Facing his bad attitude - especially when directed to their sergeant - caused the younger members to nearly spit in rage.

Demonhunters were a welcomed, respected group! Any troop should be thrilled to have them as part of their number!

The Talons were not a demonhunter force per se. They should feel proud to have a squad attached as support! Instead, this bastard Cloudhawk seemed to take every opportunity to malign them.

Belinda wasn't afraid to be loud and confrontational. "What you're doing is in violation of military doctrine, article three section four. I'll report you to be court-martialed! I'd love to see if you'd be this pompous during the hearing!"

Well said! The Sutherland brothers had choice words of their own on the tips of their tongue. Meanwhile, Mason and Rei looked on helplessly.

"Since you know my name, I'm sure you have some idea of my history. If you feel like tattling on me would do a damn thing, then please, be my guest." Cloudhawk stamped his cigarette out on the conference desk then rose to his feet, facing the impertinent young girl with an air of indifference. "Hey newbie, let me tell you something. Twice I've been brought before the Temple for judgment, and twice I got out. You think a shitty court martial will do me in?"

Belinda was so furious her face was beet red. He was a scoundrel, through and through. How could a despicable thing like him exist in the Elysian lands? Not just exist, how could he be their commander? Were they dredging the bottom of the barrel?

It was especially cloying to note that Cloudhawk was only a couple years older than them, but held such a high post. He had to be very skilled. He had to know something the sergeant didn't, otherwise she definitely was strong enough to stomp him into the dirt.

"Introductions, then. This is my little disciple, Azura. I call her Blue."

She was a quick kid and recognized the tense air. Afraid to say something wrong in front of these haughty strangers, she instead kept her mouth shut.

"I guess I should remind you all that I'm the highest ranking commander here. Obviously, I'm a busy man and don't have a lot of time to train her. So, I need someone to give her a little tutoring when I can't." He said it almost like he was muttering to himself. Suddenly, he slapped a hand to his forehead as though he'd had an epiphany. "I can just have you teach her some basic demonhunter moves!"

He jabbed a finger toward Claudia.

The demonhunter squad was ready to erupt into protest. They were here to fight, not babysit! But they were stopped before they could openly rebel.


"Colonel Rio present, sir!"

"You're now Blue's martial arts teacher."

"Yes, sir!" He gave a salute of acknowledgment and showed no objection.

Cloudhawk glanced at the others as if to say, See? This is how a soldier behaves.

I am leader of the Talons, and you lot are demonhunters dispatched as my support. For all intents and purposes, a part of the Talons - and under my command!

Claudia waved her hand to silence her squad. After three years, she knew exactly the kind of person Cloudhawk was.

He was a rogue. The more rankled you were, the more joy he got out of it. As their direct superior, picking a fight with him was only going to get them into trouble. She didn't like it, but she would accept it.

Cloudhawk, on the other hand, was disappointed he could no longer get under her skin. This Claudia wasn't the same one he knew from before.

If she were, her temper wouldn't have allowed her to suffer such a perceived insult. Back in the day she was just as aggressive and irritable as the one called Belinda. Time really was a knife that cut everything, wasn't it? It sure made things boring.

"Warden." Colonel Rio interrupted to give a report. "We have a situation."

"What is it?"

"We've come across a heavy fog."

Fog? Unexpected. Something didn't seem right.

A lot had changed after the wall fell, including drastic changes to wasteland climate. That said heavy fog only appeared in places of very high humidity. Definitely not a common sight in a place as dry and arrid as the wastes.

"Alright, let's go take a look!"

All together they raced to the deck and were met by a milky blanket of fog. It hid the horizon all around, and in fact the naked eye could only cut through it to about ten meters.

They could no longer see Drake's vessels were hidden somewhere in the blanket of gray.

Elysian ships had several methods they used to communicate. For the simplest orders horns were preferred, while more complicated instructions were shared with flags signals. Of course, if they couldn't see each other, then their communications were effectively cut.

"No... this isn't some ordinary fog. A relic is doing this!"

Faint, but still obvious to Cloudhawk. He could hear the resonance of a relic in that fog, leaving no doubt in his mind. They were caught in a trap.

"The only wasteland group with demonhunters is the Conclave of Judgment. Sound the horns, gather the ships, and prepare to fight!"

Rio immediately passed down the orders without a moment's hesitation.

Cloudhawk cast out a hand, and Oddball darted into the air on command, off to see what it could gather.

Meanwhile the demonhunters with Claudia looked scornfully at their new commander. He was making a big deal out of nonsense. There wasn't anything to see out in that fog, what made him think a demonhunter was doing it?

But Claudia's face was stern. She believed every word. "You lot go below deck. Don't come back out until I give the word."

Crain protested. "Sarge, don't tell me you believe this gibberish?"

"Shut your mouth." Mason was Claudia's most loyal soldier, her equivalent to Cloudhawk's Rio. "She has her reasons, don't question them. Now go below!"

They begrudgingly started to go.

Oddball relayed a surprising scene to its master. A strange expression dawned on Cloudhawk's face, one of disbelief. Suddenly his voice rang out, muffled by the thick air. "Evade! Evade!"

Before the sound of his voice faded he spun around and grabbed Azura.

She didn't know what was happening. All of a sudden she was flung up over Cloudhawk's shoulder. She looked up, and that's when she saw the dark outline appearing through the mist.

One... two... three of them. Like nightmares given form.

They'd managed to slip very close to Condor, hidden by the fog. By the time they came into view it was too late to change course.

Not good! Incoming!

"They're going to ram us!" Rio's voice cried. "Engage shields!"

A cadre of modified Elysian ships were finally revealed. They'd been reinforced with an ugly layer of twisted black metal, and their decks were lined with cannons. The ships were no smaller or less numerous than their own armada, and they also had several wasteland airships on the flanks as support.

BOOM! The impact caused the air to shudder!

The black-clad warship smashed into its target. The leading support vessel guiding their fleet was too small. Its defenses weren't strong enough, so at the moment of impact it was nearly broken in two. Its energy pylon was destroyed and they watched as it fell through the air, vanishing into the fog.

They were caught in an air battle! Ship against ship! Shields against shields!

After the opening strike, the ships that had been lying in wait unleashed their attacks. Dozens of cannons, poised and primed, spat hot iron toward them. This opening salvo struck their shields while their own attack pylons fired beams of light. Already their defenses were strained.

Condor had suffered the brunt of their sneak attack. Cloudhawk, Claudia... everyone looked around and tried to get their bearings after the ambush. No one had expected to face such fierce air combat this deep in the wastelands.

What were Elysian ships doing out here?

Cloudhawk eventually got his feet back under him. He shouted for attention. "Status report!"

"Cracks are appearing in the shields. The enemy is among the fleet, they're all around us!" Rio had his sword in hand, and a dozen more Talons were rushing forward. "Protect the Warden!"

Mason was also shouting to the squad of novices. "We're in combat! Form up, don't get separated!"

Crain, Tigron, Rei, and Belinda nervously tried to look everywhere at once. No one knew where the enemy had come from, or where they would strike next. They had no clue as to who their attackers even were.

All of a sudden, a shower of arrows plummeted toward them! Everyone scrambled to avoid, with Cloudhawk's forces still trying to get a handle on the situation.

Cloudhawk shouted over to Claudia. "Where are they?"

She'd already grabbed her Seeker's Torque and reached out with her mind. She gave her answer through a grim scowl. "Everywhere. We're surrounded, they're coming."

Sure enough, a host of soldiers dressed in Elysian military attire appeared from the mist. They were fast and organized, attacking different ships from different directions to keep their prey guessing.

Mason cried out. "The enemy is here!"

Just as Claudia reached for her relic, Tempest Flower, she suddenly recognized their foes. Her expression changed all at once. "Hell's Army!"

Indeed, they were the veterans of Skycloud's former secret legion! Warriors from Hell's Army were trying to destroy them!

It was only a few months ago that Claudia trained with these people. It was incredible to think in such a short time they would be facing one another on opposite sides of a battle.

Cloudhawk realized their target had somehow been exposed. The Conclave of Judgment was definitely laying siege to Woodland Vale. They'd sent Hell's Army out to intercept Cloudhawk's forces before they could interfere.

"What a pain in the ass!" Cloudhawk handed Azura off to the Talons. He knew how Hell's Army did things. Once she was safe with his men, he turned back to the fog and shouted as loud as he could. "Hello, Instructors! Is fighting our only choice here? Maybe you can let us go, what do you say?"

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