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Book 4, Chapter 50 - Hard-Fought Leisure Time

 The old man was grungy and disrespectful, but not one to be underestimated. Dawn had heard that the old man had done incredible things in the mausoleum beneath Woodland Vale's Godtree. Word was he was recapturing some of his old abilities.

In asking for more detail, Cloudhawk learned that his breakthrough was a spiritual one.

The old codger wasn't just a mighty fighter, he also possessed formidable mental prowess, at least comparable to a veteran demonhunter. He always did, but the old man had given up on mental cultivation early in life. It'd been a decade or more since he'd put any effort into strengthening his psyche.

The last six years had been especially hard on him. But at the same time, unconsciously, he'd been accumulating what he needed for a breakthrough. The battle beneath the Godtree was the proverbial straw to break the camel's back.

However, the strength of Skycloud's War Saint would always lie in his martial abilities. If he hadn't received an infusion of vigor when he did, the old man would never have regained a ghost of his former life. Old soldiers like him died hard, but it would have been a creeping life of walking death. Now though, Cloudhawk figured he couldn't take the old man if he had his arms tied behind his back.

Someone like him as a bodyguard would be a great help. He didn't even have to worry about a salary so long as the old wino had his fill of wine. Pretty damn good deal, all told. Where else would Cloudhawk find a deal like that?

Dawn took a moment to look over the motley group. She had a reputation for crassness but there were times when she could be refined when needed. Among the others in the room she recognized Gabriel and Claudia, two who were woefully inadequate when compared to her but at least had some skill to speak of.

Barb and the novices were unfamiliar, but Dawn could tell at a glance that they were also demonhunters.

Demonhunters were a respected group! But Dawn could see that all of them had a healthy fear and veneration of the old drunk. He didn't even pretend to show respect for Cloudhawk or Dawn. Instead he treated them like an elder demanding esteem from the younger generation.

He was definitely more than he seemed! As far as Dawn was concerned, now that her future marriage with Cloudhawk was certain it was high time she got on well with his friends.

Cloudhawk stepped forward. "Are you all alright?"

"Thank you for your concern, Excellency. We're alright." Barb was as respectful as always. "The newer recruits were wounded badly though, it might take some doing for them to heal completely."

Badly was a fair description. Rei's neck and face were still badly dissolved from the toxic spores.

Because of how serious the situation had been, no one was able to help her quick enough. The spores ate right through her skin to the bone, and while none of the injuries were life-threatening they would definitely leave permanent scarring. It was a shame she had been so badly marred so soon after graduating.

She'd been such a pretty girl. Demonhunter or not, women cared about how they looked. By comparison Crain and Tigron Sutherland were better off. Of all the novices they had received the greatest benefit from participating in this mission. The hardships they faced taught them how to use their family relic and join together, which greatly improved their combat effectiveness when needed.

Claudia's heart was heavy. Of the six members of her squad, two had died. One was badly wounded, and the other two escaped unscathed through sheer luck. But what guarantee did they have they would be so lucky next time?

War and its consequences were always cruel. The tragedy that befell Belinda would only repeat itself down the line.

Rei's tiny voice intruded. "Warden, is that you?" She lay upon a cot, heavily bandaged. The only part of her that wasn't covered in medicated wrappings was her face, which was pale as the sheets which covered her. Her big, bright eyes - so endearing. They revealed a pain and confusion that didn't reflect on her face.

Seeing her this way filled Cloudhawk with a sense of guilt. Although the squad had been thrust upon him by his commanders, the failure to protect them was his fault. He reached over and gently patted her hand. "Those scratches you got aren't anything to worry about. We'll have you right as rain in no time."

He didn't know if the words sounded as hollow as he felt. They were meant to be comforting, but he didn't know if Rei would ever be made whole again.

Dawn looked over them once more. "You're the group that helped Cloudhawk in Woodland Vale? Well done, and rest assured I'll make sure General Skye hears all about it. I'll also write a letter to the Knight-Commander of the Demonhunters detailing your exploits, to make sure you get the honor that's due."

Since when did Skycloud's most infamously cruel woman become so kind?

When Rei heard the promises her eyes lit up. To a demonhunter, nothing was more important than honor. Their expedition to Woodland Vale had been fraught with danger, and had exacted a heavy toll. However, the silver lining was that their success was a career-defining achievement. Yet it wasn't an honor they could enjoy.

Tigron and Crain were touched by her praise. "Thank you, Ms. Polaris."

"Why are you thanking me? You should thank Cloudhawk!" With a practiced air of nobility, Dawn turned the appreciation toward their Warden. "After all, he is your commanding officer. As for what I can do, if anyone ever gives you any trouble, tell me immediately. I'd happily stand up for you!"

Cloudhawk grinned. What was she up to?

Dawn caught the smile from the corner of her eye and felt her heart flutter. She doubled down on her heroic bearing. "In fact, as talented as you all are I would be proud to accept any of you into the Polaris family. Consider yourselves my people, don't be shy."

All of the novices listened to her offer with excitement. Barb was openly stunned.

All the while the old drunk was rubbing his feet. His rheumy eyes looked first to Dawn, then to Cloudhawk, then back to Dawn again with a knowing smirk. Gabriel was still by the window working away at his knitting. Nothing seemed to faze this bashful, lonely guy.

"I think these new bloods have had enough for a while. Let them recover, no new missions for a while." Cloudhawk offered the suggestion to Claudia. "I have something else for you anyway."

Claudia frowned at his cryptic words. Was this guy addicted to ordering her around? She never had any pleasant feelings towards this bastard, not even from the beginning. She wasn't willing to do anything he asked unless she was ordered to.

Cloudhawk went on unwittingly. "From today forward I want Blue to be part of your squad. Your task for the time being is to train her up. No cutting corners, you hear me?"

Claudia thought for a moment, then agreed. Azura was a tiny thing, but already her physicality could compare to an adult's.

Her training was quick, and in six month's time she could probably scrap with a soldier and hold her own. If she put a focus on cultivating her mental powers, her progress would be even faster. Very good material to work from, Claudia thought.

Cloudhawk had high hopes for the little one. He wished one day for her to be even better than him. Better than Dawn, better than Selene - better than everyone.

Any other mission and Claudia would have refused out of hand. Not this one. Wasn't her dream to be an instructor? Azura was an once-in-a-lifetime sort of student, a fact Claudia had no problem recognizing. No teacher worth their salt would turn down a good student, just as no sculptor would refuse a fine block of marble.

With their new mission delivered, Claudia and her team stayed while Cloudhawk took the others and left.

Dawn could see that this group of demonhunters weren't the typical sort. Even the newbies had real potential. The others were unique in skill and personality, and all seemed happy with leaving Cloudhawk in charge.

It was a surprising revelation. After all, Cloudhawk came from lowly origins, and among the people of Skycloud his name was sad through scowls and curses.

Most frightening was a fact even Cloudhawk didn't recognize, that all of this was changing him. He'd gone from a crude bumbling nobody to a man with real leadership potential. His newfound skillset was still in the beginning stages, but it was clear to those who paid attention.

One day Cloudhawk would grow into his role as a leader. Dawn's grandfather might have been a hot-head, but he had a good eye for this sort of thing.

She couldn't stop the corners of her lips from curling upward. Cloudhawk was still young, and already he was displaying real potential. With so much raw ability to tap into, his future was a bright one.

Good! Good for the future of the family, and good for her. She would just need to work on some of her... features.

As the idea of marrying Cloudhawk once more intruded on her thinking, Dawn's heart was filled with conflicting emotion. It felt at once so sudden and not quick enough. She felt the expectation, even urgency, and the more she thought about it the more her heart raced. In all her years she'd never felt like this.

Dawn represented the essence of the Polaris clan; direct, confrontational, stubborn, and volatile. However, she was also fearful of the potential consequences. She knew the sort of person Cloudhawk was, and if he decided he'd rather die than go along with their plan - then what? Not only would it be incredibly embarrassing, she would also lose her only friend.

No good! That wouldn't do at all! She couldn't allow that to happen.

If Cloudhawk learned that this famously frank woman was being so cautious it would surely make his head explode. He spent the next several days enjoying himself. When he wasn't drinking with Dawn he was drinking with the old hobo, and sometimes they went drinking all together. While the front line blazed with the fury of war, they hung out in the base and boozed it up.

Word of what was happening starting trickling back to them. The expeditionary force, led by General Skye had already engaged the Conclave's forces. Twice already they'd traded blows, with hundreds of airships involved in far-reaching battles. Both encounters, General Skye pushed forward victorious.

It was a dark scene, laden with death and mired in carnage. Word was six wasteland settlements had been razed so far. The battles had to be spectacular to behold - spectacular, and horrifying.

The wasteland alliance was trying to regain its footing by mounting a frenzied offense. But their wild tactics failed them, and defeat after defeat was pushing them further back. Of course, it was to be expected. The wastelanders couldn't hope to match the overwhelming force of Skycloud's expeditionary force.

The Skycloud assault was too much for them. It would be a miracle if the Wastelands Alliance lasted more than six months. When it came into existence it was momentous, and turbulent. No one thought it would move ahead so quickly. Yet the expeditionary forces had them on the ropes, and that was just a piece of the terror that was the Elysian lands.

It was one of the reasons why Cloudhawk never gave their lofty 'alliance' a second thought.

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