“Warden, watch out!” Rio shouted as another volley of poisoned arrows came whistling through the fog.
The veterans of Hell’s Army were practiced killers, and they used bows with the range and precision of a sniper. Even at several hundred meters away they were dead on, and their shots were strong. Typical Elysian armor would be punched through like paper.
Most importantly, they were all headed right for Cloudhawk.
His hands shot out from underneath the tattered cloak. Immediately there was a flash of silver as the Silver Serpents slipped into his grip. He moved them with incredible speed, creating a net of steel. Before even the other soldiers around him could react, Cloudhawk reduced the arrows to sawdust. Pieces of them fell around him, leaving behind piles of splinters.
Another flash, and the Silver Serpents disappeared into his sleeves. Like nothing had happened.
Surprise and admiration showed on the faces of the Talons who saw. Weren’t those the blades of their former Warden?
They were a fine pair of relics which, because they were usually hidden in one’s clothes, were sometimes called Sleeve Snakes. They were sharp, and made for brutal unseen attacks. Each one could adjust from short to long as needed and could take a life in the blink of an eye.
But they weren’t easy to control. For most, practice was needed before they could be used effectively. However Cloudhawk was a master right away, wielding them with ease. Judging by how he commanded these tools, his psychic energies had to rival any of the talented stars of his generation.
Judging from the arrows that they’d tried to pepper him with, they weren’t going to be able to talk their way out of this problem. And if Hell’s Army was here, it meant their masters were not far.
By now, Cloudhawk was confident he could take any one of his old instructors in a fight and hold his own. Three together, though – he didn’t like the thought of that. He couldn’t rely on Drake, Claudia, Rio or the others either. None of them were a match for the Giants of Hell’s Valley.
Cloudhawk leveled his next order at Claudia. “Get the scrubs out of here!”
One Hell’s Army soldier was worth at least ten Elysian grunts. These days, they were equipped with technologically advanced gear and had Conclave demonhunters as backup. They’d gotten the drop on his people and had first-strike advantage. Hell’s Army moved in a systematic and brutal way, and so far it was all going according to their plan.
Both Cloudhawk and Claudia knew what to expect from Hell’s Army, the things they were capable of and what they could do. It was too dangerous for a group of kids with no real combat experience, and their enemy wasn’t going to show them any mercy.
Claudia released Tempest Flower, which immediately erupted into a shower of metallic petals. Whipping around into a cutting whirlwind, it went in search of targets. Anyone who was unfortunate enough to get caught inside would be cut to pieces in an instant. She then turned to her team. “Retreat!”
Belinda saw figures just out of view, hidden in the mist. Ignoring her sergeant for the moment, she drew her bow and fired. Her target, being prepared, dodged out of harm’s way and ducked back into the mist. Her energy arrow blasted a chunk out of Condor’s deck.
“Fleeing just as a battle starts is cowardly. We’re demonhunters!”
Soldiers were rushing to their stations, eager to fight. How could noble demonhunters be hidden below decks when the action was outside?
An ear-piercing sound captured their attention. Eyes snapped up as a steel-forged arrow burst through the protective shell Claudia’s Tempest Flower had created. It was strong, and as it passed through a shower of sparks turned the mist orange briefly. One of the novice demonhunters was struck full on and knocked off his feet.
“Crain!” Shouts of surprise and alarm rang out. He’d been shot by one of the former Hell’s Valley teaching assistants.
Claudia felt fury bubble up inside her. She harnessed it, turning it into mental energy and channeled it through her relic. The tempest of petals under her command spun faster, gathered up, then surged toward their energy like a flood. The attacker pulled his bow apart into two swords then spun like a dervish as the petals approached. Steel met steel a hundred times, filling the air with screeching sounds and flashes of light. But Claudia’s attack did not draw blood.
Several figures had landed nearby, while they were distracted.
Boom! Condor’s deck continued to be punished.
This first wave of invaders served as suicide soldiers. They’d come to demolish the flagship and cripple them before they could fight back. If they got their way… Cloudhawk didn’t want to imagine the consequences.
“Sons of bitches! Where are those three assholes?!” Despite his best efforts, Cloudhawk couldn’t pinpoint any of his former instructors. But somehow he could sense they were close, just on the outside of what he could detect, waiting for the right time to strike. “I don’t need protection. Go protect the scrubs.”
How were they supposed to help? Everything was a mess!
Caught in combat with the Hell’s Army pirates, Claudia’s protective wall of steel petals was starting to show holes. Another group slipped in with a few wastelanders among them, worming their way through cracks in the defenses, aiming to put down the demonhunters quickly.
No one knew Elysians better than other Elysians. Hell’s Army knew exactly what kind of destruction demonhunters were capable of in a battle, making them high-value targets.
Crain’s sudden and violent injury had thrown the rest of the squad into disarray. Figures were closing in on all sides, and they didn’t know where to turn. Without any sort of defense, Hell’s Army closed in on them for the kill with grenades and poisoned darts.
“Out of the way!”
The squad’s corporal raced forward, displaying the speed and reaction time of a proper demonhunter. Mason plasted the bottom of his shield into the deck and braced himself behind it. Suddenly it extended several meters in height and width. Tell-tale sounds of metal on metal rang out as the arrows were knocked away. Several dazzling explosions followed, but no one was injured.
Mason was built for this; he was a demonhunter specializing in defense. However, while his guard was strong it did have one major flaw – he could only protect one direction at a time, the area right in front of him. Seeing this, a pair of Hell’s Army veterans changed tactics and swung around. One slipped up from behind and attacked.
Tigron gaped, dumbfounded by the ferocity. “How are these soldiers so lethal?!”
As the top members of their class in the Academy, it was unavoidable for them to not have an overly-high opinion of themselves. Normal soldiers were hardly worth a second glance to them, after all… but these warriors were different. Each one was more terrible than the last! They were confronted with the reality that one-on-one, they would probably end up dead against any one of them.
Their enemy was superior, both in combat skills and destructive abilities. While the young demonhunters might have had a leg up in sheer power, that wasn’t enough. Will, experience, morale… these were important qualities they lacked.
Colonel Rio threw himself at the attacker with a well-placed Spearhead, leaping through the mist like a tiger toward its prey. The attackers quickly dodged, revealing the extent of their training. Rio landed hard, generating cracks in the beleaguered wood of the deck. Light gleamed off the thin Talon rapier he held in his right hand, and then that light washed over one of his foes like a cold waterfall. The man fell apart onto the deck in a hundred mangled pieces.
Suddenly faced with this brutal and valiant challenger, the other warriors tried to flee. Rio drew out a small spear, flicked his wrist, and let fly. It stretched it midair from a third of a meter to nearly three full meters before embedding itself in the man’s throat. The spiked point jutted from the back of his neck, dripping with fresh blood.
The demonhunters were shaken back to reality. A fireball sparked to life in Belinda’s hand. She flung it at a wastelander who’d been closing in, turning him to ash in a matter of seconds.
Rei knelt beside Crain’s injured form with her hands outstretched. A gentle light spread from her palms, and suddenly her friend’s mortal wound began to stitch itself shut.
“I’ll cover you!” Mason had planted himself in front of a host of wastelanders and Hell’s Army soldiers. “Get out of here!”
The fight raged all around them, suddenly at a fever pitch. The deck of Condor had become a war zone.
Cloudhawk had escaped to the ship’s command room with Azura in tow, where he instructed her to stay put. He ordered a group of Talon soldiers to protect her with their lives.
Elysian control rooms were interesting. They consisted of several ivory orbs, each of which allowed the user to control as aspect of the ship. The ship’s keepers stood by the orbs with their hands resting on them, controlling the various systems with their mental power.
Outside, one of the Hell’s Army ships released a beam of energy it had been gathering for a long time.
The resulting explosion was deafening.
Cloudhawk watched from a nearby porthole as the beam streaked past Condor and struck one of Drake’s vessels straight on. Its shields were immediately overcome, and caused its beautifully carved hull to crack and break apart. A number of soldiers fell through the cracks, screaming as they disappeared into the fog.
The whole ship listed to one side, in danger of capsizing.
Cloudhawk spat out a curse. “What’s our status!?”
The ship’s captain, drenched in sweat, was busily maneuvering Condor. “Warden, things aren’t looking good. We’ve already lost our protection detail and all our warships – including the Condor – have been boarded. If just one of the primary warships are shot down, we could be wiped out.”
“Our pylons are at full charge.” The ship’s energy officer broke in. “We can fire at your command.”
The officer standing by the weapons system looked searchingly at Cloudhawk. “Shall I fire?”
Oddball was still darting through the air, giving him a constant birds-eye view of the situation. He learned that there were enemy ships in total, all with standard three-pylon construction. A wasteland vessel, outfitted with heavy artillery, was playing the role of their fleet’s frigate.
At present the frigate was blasting their shields with rockets, mostly for suppression and to weaken their defenses. It was actually the Hell’s Army ships which were doing most of the damage.
“Well if you fucks aren’t going to go easy on me on account of the old days, then don’t blame me for not holding back.” Cloudhawk had no experience commanding a force like the Talons, but three years spent studying tactics in Hell’s Valley wasn’t a waste. He also summoned snippets of lost knowledge from that old inheritance, so he knew just how to react. “By the time we blast one of them with our pylons, they’ll have plenty of time to take out at least one of ours and damage the others. We can’t beat ‘em that way.”
The captain nodded. He saw the truth in that.
“But, Condor has six pylons. Their biggest ones only have three each, and the smaller vessels might as well be made out of paper. Condors aren’t afraid of goddamn pigeons. Open her up and aim this baby their way.” Cloudhawk stared at them with a ferocious glare. “They want to give us a love tap? We’ll ram this ship right down their fuckin’ throats!”
The captain and his man stared wide-eyed. He was telling them to ignore all their mighty weapons… and ram their enemies instead!
But when the shock abated and they thought about it, what seemed like insanity on the surface was their best course of action. Hell’s Army ships surrounded them, and retreat wasn’t an option. Because they were caught unprepared, Condor was getting the full force of their arsenal. They were starting to recover from the shock, but by now it was too late for standard weapons.
After being surrounded it was Condor that had taken the brunt of their anger. Even if they fought back while caught within this trap, the best they could hope for was mutual destruction. How was he supposed to come to Woodland Vale’s aid then?
The only option was to first break through the blockade! To burst out of their crossfire.
Now whether or not they would make it, he left up to fate. At least it gave them a shot… Either you die or I die. Worst case, I take you assholes with me!
Cloudhawk’s first dispatch with his first command, and this is what they ran into. He knew how dangerous the Giants of Hell’s Valley were, and so knew he had to put it all on the line.
“Energy pylons at one hundred percent. Warden, we’re ready.”
“Alright. Put ten percent into the shields, and the rest into propulsion. Smash them to pieces!”
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