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Book 4, Chapter 79 - The Ancient Vessel

 When Cloudhawk walked back onto the bridge, he was met with a host of strange stares. Most viewed him with doubt and wonder. After all, he was but a young man. The Warden had no experience but for a few years of training, and that didn't amount to anything considering the challenge they faced. There was no lack of veteran commanders in the fleet, so why had command fallen to him?

Murmurs began to circulate among the officers.

Templars had taken to standing by Cloudhawk's side, so there was no immediate mutiny. However, the feeling in the air was that one misstep by this unproven upstart and things would go downhill quickly. The look on Phain's face painted him as someone with a similar view. After all, many of his soldiers were putting their lives on the line and that was nothing to play with.

Cloudhawk exchanged a quiet look with Selene. Their eyes met from across the bridge, and in it they saw one another's intentions.

Cloudhawk had one shot at summoning a military miracle out of thin air. The steps he made from this moment forward would leave a permanent impression on the gathered officers. It would inform their reactions going forward, for in any future conflict they would not be so willing to go along with such a mad appointment.

"What's the situation?"

"Fallowmoor's forces have caught up. Their fleet is large. It looks like they've come in full force."

Natessa had cobbled together a massive fleet in the span of a single day. Efficient didn't begin to describe it. She probably used the Crimson One's death to light a fire under the soldiers and instigate the Wastelands Alliance. That's how she convinced them to gather up and set out so quickly.

Tens of thousands of troops, organized in a day's time. It would be at least three days before they could withdraw back to Fallowmoor and reinstate defenses.

In other words, if Cloudhawk could route their forces it would leave their precious city vulnerable. The Wastelands Alliance wasn't strong enough to defeat the Elysian flotilla by themselves, so if they crushed them here Cloudhawk could take Fallowmoor for Skycloud.

Natessa was a bold one. She must already know Skye was dead, and thus assumed the expeditionary force would be demoralized. She wasn't afraid because she was sure the Elysians would choose retreat over confrontation without their general.

That lithe woman with a calm exterior had the mad soul of a gambler. It was no wonder Eckard always called her the crazy one.

"I say this is a grand opportunity!" One of the officers loudly offered his opinion. "If we return home with our tails tucked between our legs we won't be able to show our faces to our families or the people of Skycloud. We should take this chance to blast right through them! The wastelanders can't stand up to the might of our fleet. It's a sign from the gods to keep up the fight!"

"That's right!" Another officer called out in agreement. The death of their great General had filled them with a lust for vengeance. Though everyone knew his murderer had only a passing connection to the wastelands, they were eager for some outlet to vent their anger and frustration. "We must seek vengeance for the General!"

"For the General!"

"Relay the order! Our soldiers will take the field again!"

"We would rather die than go home a pack of rotten, beaten mongrels!"

As Fallowmoor's forces drew near the officers all puffed out their chests and clenched their fists. They were ready to give their all.

Yet Cloudhawk did not give the order, as demanded. They would not be caught off guard by a sneak attack because the order to prepare for one had been given. However, something didn't play right in Cloudhawk's head. Now that Natessa was on the field she could only enact the part she'd been given. But attacking the Elysian fleet with her army was suicide, and she was smarter than that. Cloudhawk was sure she had something up her sleeve.

A sneak attack wouldn't work, but their forces were still without an accepted leader. If they were attacked all at once from all sides as he feared, the destruction to their forces would be catastrophic!

Cloudhawk connection to the psy-tower and gathered what information was available from his scout ships. What he saw was a peculiar scene that gave him pause. The wasteland armies were about half an hour out from the fleet, on the edges of the dust storm. Patchwork ships hovered in the darkness of night. There was no question that they could see the lights of the fleet in the distance.

They were stopped. Scout ships could tell that they were in a loose formation. What this meant to Cloudhawk was that the moment they attacked, the wasteland ships would separate into different battle groups and attack from every angle.

Logically, the expeditionary force would separate into battlegroups to meet this threat, getting mired in a one-on-one conflict. If they chose rather to attack single targets at a time, they would still be too cumbersome to maneuver properly. Inevitably they would be surrounded and caught by an ambush from the other encroaching armies.

It was a standard diversion tactic. Cloudhawk was sure Natessa wasn't so foolish as to believe she could take on the Elysian fleet on her own.

He delivered his orders. "All ships stop here. Take defensive formation."

The other officers looked at him incredulously. Defensive formation? If that was his plan why not just retreat? Their ships were must faster than the wastelanders, easily capable of throwing off most pursuers. If they attacked instead, as the officers preferred, they could crush the heathens like dry weeds before the scythe. What was the point in just... sitting around?

The expeditionary force slowly came to a halt. They formed into a circular defensive pattern.

Undamaged ships constituted the outside of the formation, while those that had suffered from the previous assault were protected within. This was to prevent them from further harm while till utilizing their fighting capabilities. Still, the officers were not pleased with the decision.

"You're being too passive!"

"Why are we afraid of such a small enemy force?!"

They started to clamor and gripe, their incredulous voices filling the bridge. A move like this only proved that Cloudhawk was a man without courage. Sitting back like this just made them a target for the wasteland ships and their superior range!

Upon seeing that the Elysian fleet was not approaching, the wasteland forces formed up and started to slowly approach. However, it was another forward force that appeared, suddenly and in close proximity.

"Careful ahead!"

"Mutant birds approaching!"

Dark clouds hung over the gathered warships, except they were not clouds at all. Swaths of shadowy figures fell onto the vessels. Those clouds of dark shapes disintegrated into individual mutant birds, thousands of them with tearing claws and stabbing beaks.

The soldiers were taken aback in shock and fear. What the hell was this? Hadn't they eradicated these wretched birds already?

Cloudhawk had long assumed Autumn was waiting in the wings, searching for a chance to play her tricks. After Shepherd took control of her body, the girl that once was Autumn had her mental prowess improved by several orders of magnitude. Her fighting capabilities had become comparable to a Master Demonhunter in the space of an instant. But Shepherd's greatest danger wasn't her individually.

It was her ability to bend plants and animals to her whim. All manner of weak-willed beings fell under her control, quickly changing the very environment against her foes.

After having the first wave of beasts destroyed, it took Autumn only a few days to gather another flock. An offensive like that would hamstring even the mighty Elysian force, but she had not anticipated they would have adopted a defensive posture so early. Each ship was perfectly position to assist one another, wholly preventing the beasts from breaking through the protective line.

Countless blasts of energy streaks from the expeditionary force. Unfathomable numbers of flying beasts exploded into chunks of quivering meat.

"The Dark Atom and Woodland Vale have joined the fight." Cloudhawk's brows knit tight. "Soon Abaddon and Autumn will show their faces. Grand Prior Phain, I need you to lead the Templars to battle against them."

"As you command!"

Phain did as he was ordered without a second thought. His mission was to prevent Abaddon and Autumn from wreaking havoc in the fleet to the best of his ability.

The Dark Atom warships and their Wastelands Alliance counterparts had picked up speed and were closing in. Once within range, their long-range bombardment commenced. In its circular formation, the Elysian fleet became the center of this furious salvo, turning it into a ball of fire. From time to time a shot would find its way passed the shields and strike a ship, but to only very limited effect.

Cloudhawk waited. Wasteland weapons had a glaring limitation, and that was the need for ammo.

Once they survived the opening attack, the expeditionary force could mount a counter offensive while their enemies reloaded. It wasn't like a bunch of birds and rickety airships could withstand Elysian might when it was turned on them.

Yet even while Cloudhawk waited to attack, he wasn't idle. As they suffered the seething anger of their enemies, he was constantly adjusting the formations. Those ships whose shields were running low retreated and were replaced with those that could suffer more punishment. It made their defensive more fluid and dynamic, greatly reducing the potential danger of wasteland missiles.

All of the officers who had vociferously been decrying Cloudhawk's lead were suddenly silent. His actions spoke for themselves; decisive, systematic, precise - nothing like the greenhorn they expected. Was he some sort of tactical genius?

In the midst of Cloudhawk's methodical defense, he was sudden struck by an intense sense of foreboding.

He'd had a talent all his life for sensing danger when it was near. It always came over him when a deadly attack was imminent. Years of experience have taught him that feeling was always right.

But this time it was different. Before, the danger he felt was always directed at himself. However the moment he reached with his mind into the neural network, he could feel the whole fleet - and the danger presented to any part of it. He could accurately determine where that danger would strike.

"Deliver my orders! 1600, Third Division - engage your shields at full strength!"

The others on the bridge were again at a loss. However, Elysian training drilled into them the need to obey, and do it quickly. Without a moment's hesitation they delivered his commands and the shields were engaged toward where he indicated. Surrounding ships immediately injected their surplus energy into the main ships' shields as support, forming an enormous wall of crackling power.

In less than half a minute after the barrier was raised, a beam of incomparable strength streaked toward them from ten thousand meters away. It struck the barrier so hard that even at full strength the Elysian shield nearly buckled.

Gaping, pale faces stared in the direction the beam had come from.

What sort of ghastly attack was this! The power behind it was nothing short of incredible!

If not for Cloudhawk's quick reaction, the beam would have ripped a hole clear through the Elysian formation.

How did he know? Could he somehow see the future?

Cloudhawk paid no mind to the stares. He felt another wave of strange power wash through him and immediately ordered the shield moved. As he expected, another dense rain of blows came from the new direction. All of it was deflected.

"1500! Second Division, shields!"

Aegis' dominating protections were on full display. Another blast struck its formidable shields head on. One shot might have been coincidence, but two proved it - Cloudhawk really could tell where the attacks were coming from, and when. That prescience was saving lives.

He could sense that whatever enemy was behind the trigger for this gun wasn't part of the Wastelands Alliance. They also weren't Dark Atom. The source of the attacks was located ten kilometers away or more. This was the longest ranged weapon he'd ever seen. How could the wastelands have this sort of ordinance?

If any Elysian had encountered something like this before, they would remember. There was only one explanation - this was some new enemy they'd never faced before!

That meant the Wastelands Alliance, the Dark Atom, Woodland Vale, and... whatever this was, were all attacking at the same moment. Not only did they time and execute this attack with incredible precision, that deadly beam would have ripped their ships apart. If Cloudhawk had listened to the bloodthirsty officers, the fleet might have already been lost.

"God's Spear!"

Cloudhawk knew where the mysterious enemy was firing from. Now it was time to hit back with the best Skycloud had.

A thick golden beam seared the darkness, shooting into the distance. Out in the darkness of night a plume of angry fire erupted. They hit something. Whatever it was couldn't hide.

It gradually pushed through the dark clouds, revealing a hulking behemoth that startled everyone who looked upon it. It was entirely unlike anything they'd ever seen.

It was at least four time larger than any ship in the Elysian fleet. It was of strange construction, like an enormous black umbrella, open and tipped on its side. The underside of its domed surface was bristling with weapons and docks for a flotilla of smaller aircraft.

A mothership! Hideous ugly and absolutely terrifying! The most intact weapon of the ancients that had ever been unearthed to date!

It also had its own defensive measures, which reduced the blast from God's Spear to nothing but a small burned hole. Nothing created by the wastelands could withstand one of Skycloud's deadliest weapons. This was something of a completely different grade.

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