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Book 4, Chapter 52 - To The Battle Lines

 Gabriel, Claudia and the novices were left back at base. Dawn, the drunk and Barb followed Cloudhawk to the battle lines.

Dawn lay on the large bed in her cabin, arms up and fingers netted behind her head. Her eyes glimmered, and her features would from time to time shift from a knowing grin to a resentful scowl. She was immersed in a world of her own thoughts form which she couldn't extricate herself.

What did that idiot Cloudhawk think of her? What was she to him?

From the moment she was born, Dawn was a woman who followed her own rules and lived unapologetically. Her emotional intelligence was thus not very developed. After all, she hardly cared what anyone thought. Most of the time it was the rest of the world trying to figure herout, for there was no one worth her notice.

Lately Dawn had felt less and less like her old self, a fact she found distressing. And yet, the changes were also exhilarating! There was a sense of expectation. Where before her feelings toward Cloudhawk had been muddled and unclear, after her chat with grandfather it all came into focus.

A she-devil was still a woman.

Moment by moment she wrestled with how she felt about him, and what she could do about it. She needed to know how he felt. Yet she also dreaded the answer. Days passed as Dawn mulled over the pros and cons, which in itself was an experience she'd never had before. It was infuriating! Maddening! But also fulfilling in a way she didn't expect.

Was this love?

The word just appeared in her mind, and all at once her heart felt like it was shudder out of her chest. Her half-lidded eyes were evidence that she was relishing the sensation... what was she afraid of? She was pretty, talented, and had been a friend to him for years. Cloudhawk would have to be blind not to recognize there was no one better!

Gods damn it!

If Dawn had deigned to handle this in her own way, she would have dragged Cloudhawk into her room and asked him bluntly. If he refused her, she would have just beaten him until he agreed to marry . Dawn was a firm believer in the power of violence - there was no problem a few smacks with her fist couldn't fix. And if that didn't work, punch harder.

Yet this problem seemed to confound her iron-clad logic. Cloudhawk was the kind to be persuaded by logic, not by force.

In killing Adder he proved he was strong. Dawn was strong, too, but not strong enough to overpower him. If she decided to try and physically coerce him, she wasn't sure it would succeed. The take-away she grasped from that was just regret she didn't train harder in former years. With her potential, she would have been so much stronger today!

Luckily she still had he grandpa. He would know how to deal with this. But when would this damnable war end?! She was flustered, distracted, annoyed! Dawn had to fight the urge to draw her blade and hack the cabin to pieces.

A sound broke the train of thought as her fingers twitched toward the weapon. "Hey, her excellency Miss Polaris!"

She shot up from the bed like something bit her. Dawn hurriedly fixed her hair and clothes, and took a few deep breaths to make sure no sign of her distress was showing. Then she walked to the cabin door and pulled it open. "What. You interrupted me in the middle of a fine dream. The sun isn't even out ye,t why are you knocking on my door."

Cloudhawk shook his head. "We've found traces of a battle. I wanted to go down and get a better look."

"What a waste of energy, what's the point in crawling over a pile of garbage!" There was the barest hint of disappointment in her eyes . "No matter, I can't sleep anyway. I'll go and have a look with you."

Neither Dawn nor Cloudhawk had the authority to command any forces back at base, so they'd had to disguise themselves and climb aboard a supply ship. Over the last several days in the air they'd passed a number of battlefields, and since Cloudhawk was getting stircrazy he'd stopped at each one to see what he could find out.

What they discovered was something amiss.

Cloudhawk took the drunk, Barb and Dawn from the ship to the battlefield below. It was the ruins of a wasteland settlement that had been leveled in the conflict. It had been roughly the size of Fishmonger's Borough before being caught up in this war. Judging by the foundations, it had been well fortified from attack. Unfortunately for them, nothing was impregnable to an armada of a hundred Elysian warships. The settlement was practically reduced to rubble.

Barb's curiosity got the better of her. "Excellency, what did you find?"

Cloudhawk was picking over the debris while Oddball patrolled nearby. It didn't take very long for their combined efforts to produce results.

"This city was in the process of being evacuated by the time the expeditionary force got here. Any goods or materials of value have been taken away, and nothing of worth was left behind for our forces to capture." Cloudhawk paused for a moment before continuing. "No, the army wouldn't want anything they had. Our soldiers are after Conclave soldiers, and their mission was to harry them in their retreat. They didn't have time to stop and comb through the ruins of a city."

Dawn wasn't following. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Two possibilities." Cloudhawk raised his head and looked at the others with a dire expression. "One; the Crimson One began his retreat into the Northern Barrens even before Adder went to Woodland Vale. Our forces have picked off what they could, but haven't caught the Conclave's main strength."

"And the second?" Dawn pressed.

"Feign defeat to lure the enemy in." Cloudhawk pulled out his exorcist rod and started drawing in the dirt. "If we look at the route the expeditionary force took, we can see they two at least two major detours. These were likely efforts by the Conclave to lure our men into less favorable territory."

The others looked at one another. It was a sensational claim. That would mean the Conclave's successive defeats were a ruse, and they hadn't yet attacked with their full army. After a moment it seemed to make sense - the Conclave was led by one of Skycloud's Master Demonhunters, after all. The Crimson One was not a man so easily beaten.

Dawn hardly cared. "What are you afraid of? Our men are far superior to the Conclave's ragtag bunch. It doesn't matter what tactics they use, none of it means anything in the face of overwhelming force."

In his standard display of disinterest the old man took another swig of alcohol. "Really, what are you worrying about kid. You think if you can see the clues General Skye will miss them?"

That was true. While it was easy for people in the thick of it to miss things, standard tactics like this weren't beyond the General's ability to see through. He might have been considered the dullest of Skycloud's three great leaders, but no one would dare assume he was easy to fool. He was shrewder than most.

Cloudhawk shook his head. "It doesn't matter. Let's go, we still need to find Drake."

Dawn stole a glance toward the old drunk. She still wasn't sure about who he really was. Could he actually be the old War Saint? What would turn such a noble man into... this? If he wasn't the War Saint, then how was he so good at Templar martial techniques?

Each of them had practiced his no-name strengthening techniques as they traveled toward the front lines. By now the benefits were starting to show. They felt more agile, especially when it came to body control even on micro levels. All of them had noticed the improvement, giving credence to the old man's skill.

And whoever the old drunk was, he was willing to follow Cloudhawk around for the time being.

Cloudhawk was destined to be a big name for the Polaris family. At least for now, it looked like his presence would also include this strange but capable old man. If he chose to remain with the family under Cloudhawk's command, it would be an incredible boon for the Polaris clan.

"We're close to the front."

Cloudhawk stared toward the horizon, calculating the distance yet to travel. He figured they were still about a day out.

It was probably the last time they were going to stop and search for clues. The front was bound to be mired in chaos, with hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of soldiers fighting for their lives. It was likely the Crimson One and his closest lieutenants would be there as well. Trying to move through a battlefield was dangerous, they had to be careful.

"Move out."

The others nodded and started heading back to the ship. And then, suddenly, everyone looked up toward a streak blazing stars trailing into the distance.

"What's that?"

Everyone fixed their eyes on the scene, and by then the twinkling lights had filled nearly the entire pre-dawn sky. They couldn't be stars, besides they were moving - fast.

Cloudhawk reached through his connection with Oddball and borrowed the critter's sharp eyesight. When he saw what it was, his face blanched. "Abandon ship! Everyone needs to abandon ship!"

Too late!

Dozens of... something, dragging tails of fire in their wake, carved a path through the black sky. They split the darkness like a hot knife before smashing into the airship overhead. The projectiles were small but shook the whole vessel from the impact.

Supply ships didn't have armor. The resulting explosion boomed across the barren landscape as their means of escape was blown to pieces like it was made from paper.

Flaming debris began to tumble from on high. Shock waves from the blast rattled through the ruins and caused the debris to shift. Half-toppled buildings fell from the additional strees, and as screaming balls of flaming metal fell from the sky the land all around Cloudhawk suddenly became a deadly field of nightmare.

The world turned red.

"They blew up our ship!" Dawn was more furious than surprised. Pale fingers wrapped around the hilt of her weapon and ripped it from its sheath. Wild eyes glared in the direction the attack had come from. "Who's the bastard that dared destroy my ship?! I'll cut them to pieces!"

Cloudhawk tried to talk the rash woman down. "Don't go rushing off!"

Barb and the old man stood to one side, faces stern. The ships burned and crashed to ground over the next several minutes.

Shortly after the air was filled with raucous sound. Fifty or sixty wastelands ships appeared on the horizon, heavily outfitted for combat. It was obvious that this fleet was put together specifically to deal with the expeditionary force's armada.

The harsh light of the fires danced in the drunk's craggy face. He stared at the ships as they traversed the early morning sky. "These don't look like the Crimson One's men..."

"No. This is the Dark Atom."

"The Dark Atom!?"

What Elysian didn't know of that old terrorist organization?

The battle of the Blisterpeaks was Skycloud's most costly defeat in hundreds of years. Everyone had been distracted by the Conclave's meteoric rise over the last several months, which had stolen the spotlight from this old nemesis. However, as the greatest Seeker cell in the wastelands no one dared doubt the destructive capabilities of the Dark Atom.

But, weren't they at odds with the Conclave of Judgment?

It was the reason they didn't join when the Church established its wasteland alliance. But from the lumbering dark figures passing overhead, it was clear Skycloud's perennial foes had returned.

1. ROFL!

2. She wanted him crawling over something else,

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