Hundreds of shapeshifter soldiers were spread out among the ruins. The detection equipment they carried was able to point out any living thing within a dozen or so meters. That meant it was only a matter of time before Cloudhawk and the others were discovered. Dawn was getting antsy. If they were going to be found wasn’t it better to strike when they had the element of surprise?
Take the initiative! Attack on their terms! Kill all of these bastards! That was the strategy she preferred.
Her hand was already wrapped around the hilt of Terrangelica. “They’re coming, what are you planning to do about it?”
Barb’s heart was racing. The danger they were in was nothing to take lightly.
There had to be fifty or sixty ships above them, thousands of troops. Among them were a lot of these mutant shape changers. If they were going to fight, it was almost sure the four of them were doomed. Hell, their bombs alone would be enough.
But Cloudhawk was perfectly calm. “Shut up. If I say we can do it, then we can do it.”
Dawn grit her teeth and pursed her lips, but reluctantly removed her hand from the sword. Not even her grandfather would talk to her like this. Anyone else and she would have taught them a lesson before charging into battle, but from Cloudhawk the words didn’t even make her angry. Strange.
At Cloudhawk’s command Oddball shot higher into the sky. The little bird approached one of the ships several hundred meters above and slipped into a ventilation duct. After passing through a twisting maze of piped, it popped out in an empty room.
That’ll do, good a place as any.
“Everyone grab onto me!” Cloudhawk wrapped an arm around Dawn’s waist and grabbed Barb’s arm. Barb quickly reacted by snatching a handful of the drunk’s clothes. The Dark Atom’s search squad was maybe fifty meters away and closing. They could hear the beeping from their machine, picking up speed. They’d found something.
Cloudhawk reached his mind into the phase stone and called for its power.
The detection equipment suddenly went silent.
Soldiers hurriedly scoured the nearby ruins for any traces of survivors, but found nothing. It was clear throughout the settlement. Maybe their instruments were malfunctioning? But that seemed unlikely, they had all been checked and upgraded by Hellflower’s people.
For all their suspicion and confusion, in the end the soldiers had no recourse but to abandon the search. It seemed like nothing had escaped their net, so the troops filed back into their airship and returned to the rest of the fleet.
Meanwhile the four Elysians sputtered into existence within the small room Oddball had found. Cloudhawk looked at the sea of stunned faces surrounding him and grinned. “I’m pretty awesome, right?”
“Hmph, keep your hands to yourself!”
Cloudhawk himself was stunned that he was still holding on to her. He pulled his arm back as though burned and shuffled back a few meters. Dawn was anything but forgiving, so if she got the idea the crazy woman would likely break his arm.
A blush crept into her cheeks, but when she saw Cloudhawk recoil like she was a viper her brows shot up. “Think you could be any more dramatic?! I’m not some fire-breathing monster, what are you so scared of!”
A fire-breathing monster was a hell of a lot less terrifying than she was, Cloudhawk thought to himself.
The old drunk looked at Cloudhawk, then at Dawn. His cracked lips were pulled in a smirk.
“That’s a pretty nasty smirk,” Barb noted. “What awful thing are you thinking?”
“Nothing. Those two remind me of someone?”
“Who? It must be a lady!”
Barb and the old man had grown more familiar over time, so she didn’t waste time with respectful addresses when unnecessary. She didn’t even call him Excellency any more like she used to, now he was just ‘old man’. After all, he was pretty explicit about not accepted her as a disciple.
It was odd. He had given her all he had, was willing to teach her everything he knew, but for some unknown reason he was unwilling to acknowledge their relationship as master and student.
He didn’t care what she called him, and since he wasn’t objecting to the familiarity she decided to press the old drunk on his past.
The old man lazily uncorked a wine bottle and took his time enjoying its contents. In his mind’s eye flashed a purple silhouette , and then all at once it was like he was drawn into the memory. Like a deluge, recollections of the first time they met rushed through his mind.
He’d been thirty years old at the time.
She was in her teens.
He was a martial prodigy, full of ambition and a dream to bring the art to the world. He didn’t have time for the mysteries of relationships, so he swore them off entirely.
She was famous in Skycloud for her beauty, with great talent and high expectations. Countless men vied for her affection, but she had eyes only for him.
He never gave her the time of day. Meanwhile, she never doubted he would achieve his dream. She smiled about it, for she was determined to be there whenever he succeeded, waiting – no matter how long – for him to finally see her.
Twenty years passed in a blink.
He never saw her.
Thus passed her best years, her beauty wasted in waiting.
When his mind turned to this the old man’s heart was filled with regret. Did she ever imagine that mighty War Saint would tumble so far, and become the shit-smeared vagabond he was today?
No, she never would have accepted it. Thank the gods she wasn’t around to see, and yet, such a pity she couldn’t.
He called out to Cloudhawk and Dawn. “You young folk should learn to cherish how blessed you are. The things which seem so easy to get can disappear in an instant, and then are gone forever. Too late for regrets.”
In that moment Dawn knew the old man had seen right through her, into her heart. She felt her cheeks burning and stole a glance at Cloudhawk to make sure he didn’t see.
He missed the subtle shift in her expression, for he was too busy teasing the drunk. “Hearing you pine over bygone days is something I didn’t think I’d hear, old man.”
“There’s a lot that would surprise you.” He rolled his eyes at the mouthy youth. “Don’t let my looks now fool you. In my day there was a line that circled the temple of young beauties after my attention.”
Cloudhawk didn’t have time to bullshit with the old fool. “What we need to be doing is finding a way to sneak among the Dark Atom forces. I can have Oddball scout out the ship and keep an eye out for patrols. If we can get our hands on a few key personnel, we can use Barb’s Heart-scry Thorn to read their thoughts. Then we use that information to help us take over the ship. You guys have any more input??”
“No,” Barb answered immediately.
The room they’d teleported into was a storage closet, stacked high with supplies and armaments. Since nothing in here was of any particular importance, they didn’t leave anyone to guard its contents. At least for the time being, their small crew was safe here.
And so Cloudhawk, using his phase abilities and Oddball, began to scout out the situation aboard the ship. At this point even the old man had to acknowledge how helpful Cloudhawk’s skills were.
With his talents it didn’t matter how rigorous the defenses were. Any secret place, any no-man’s land, any impenetrable fortress was child’s play. In a way he could teleport a group of soldiers behind enemy lines and strike at unexpected places.
Cloudhawk continued to pick his way through the ship hallway by hallway. Every handful of minutes he returned to tell the others what he learned.
Dawn and Barb were both enamored with his incredible abilities. He was practically unstoppable!
It took less than two hours for Cloudhawk to scout the entire two-hundred meter long ship from top to bottom. He knew what rooms were empty, where the bridge was, where most of the crew hung out, and more.
Dimensional and spatial abilities were very rare. It’d been more than two hundred years since Skycloud had a demonhunter with the skills needed to use those sorts of relics. Beyond having the ability to use them, Cloudhawk also had an incredibly powerful dimensional relic his own. It was through it that he was able to perform these incredible deeds.
However, he didn’t let it get to his head. The task was both very dangerous, and very tiring.
The stone’s abilities were as draining as they were incredible. While Cloudhawk was much stronger than his former self, scouting a ship this size in such a short period of time was hard enough. Teleporting three other people up here was already an impressive feat for him. Transferring a whole contingent of soldiers? Laughable.
It was time for them to make their move.
It didn’t take long for them they to subdue the ship’s officers on the bridge by stealthy means. Then, using Barb’s special relic, they learned how to control the ship and use it to their advantage.
Done! They had occupied the ship without anyone knowing better.
Cloudhawk settled himself smugly in the captain’s chair.
One man had been kept conscious to control the ship’s complicated machinery. Barb and Dawn stood on either side to make sure it all went smoothly.
The control systems were capped by a screen. Words flashed across the surface. They were all commands to the ship, determining its speed, altitude, heading and so forth. Nothing too complicated.
But Dawn stared at it all with barely hidden shock. Never… never would she have believed they’d simply waltz onto a Dark Atom ship and just take it for themselves!
This behemoth of a machine and all its weapons were theirs to command. At any moment they could launch a surprise attack on the other airships and cause devastation before anyone knew what hit them. She figured easily a fifth of their fleet would be destroyed by the time they were done.
Heh, the Dark Atom wouldn’t suspect a thing. Not in their wildest dreams! Right under their noses!
They sailed among the rest of the fleet for a full day. Eventually, orders came across the screen to decelerate.
“We’re there.” Cloudhawk pulled back on the lever that controlled their speed. The sound of gears churning and hiss steaming shuddered throughout the ship. Everyone lurched forward a little as they slowed. Another order flashed across the speed, and everyone’s face stiffened. “We’re going to be meeting up with the rest of the Dark Atom’s forces soon.”
“Yeah I see ‘em,” the old man said, uncorking another bottle and gesturing with it out a nearby window. “Heh, the General’s got his hands full this time.”
When the others looked out to see what he was talking about their eyes went wide.
Dozens of long, green, serpentine bodies slithered in the air nearby. Large wings beat to keep their muscles bodies airborne.
Weren’t these dragons? The same creatures from Woodland Vale? But that was a passing shock, for what really made their jaws drop was the thousands of birds of prey which coasted behind them!
There were dozens of different types, with the largest being over a dozen meters long. The scene was incredible, like a wave of deadly monsters waiting to crest.
She was the only person who could control so many wasteland monsters.
Now the body that once belonged to the young Tribal leader was under Shepherd’s control, and was brimming with a god’s will. The scope of control was far greater than before, incomparably so. Thousands of creatures swayed in the wake of the ships at her beck and call, ready to kill on command.
Thousands of mutant birds, plus fifty or sixty airships decked with heavy artillery. If they attacked all at once with the advantage of surprise, it very well could spell disaster for Skye’s forces.
Cloudhawk looked further into the distance and saw a sandstorm rolling in. Abaddon was coming, too.
All of a sudden the situation had just gotten very, very bad.
The Crimson One in front, gods and demons behind. General Skye and his mighty Elysian Army were faced with a deadly situation, and they didn’t even know it was coming.