A near imperceptible anger broiled behind Natessa’s shining eyes. This child’s tricks had gotten under the famously stoic woman’s skin.
The Giants of Hell’s Army each had their own responsibilities. They needed Eckard to train their soldiers. Without him, their strength as a fighting force would suffer greatly. He was comparable to the greatest generals of Skycloud, too important to be cut down by Cloudhawk here.
“Heh, you know...” Eckard’s face was sour, but there was more behind his hard eyes. “...I would be careful how you look at her. More’n a few circles call her the Madwoman . Piss her off and you’re looking at some serious consequences.”
“Fuck you and fuck her nicknames. You’re my prisoner, so how about you shut your goddamn mouth and play nice.” Cloudhawk gave his former instructor a vicious kick to the back of his legs. Eckard hit the ground face first. Cloudhawk then wound his Silver Serpents around his captive’s throat like a snake. The slightest twitch, and their trainer would be dead. “I never liked you and your ugly fucking face. I knew that the second I saw you three years ago. Now that I got you here I just might make you pay for all the shit you put us through.”
Natessa’s voice was still calm as a Spring breeze as she spoke. “Do it, if you have the balls to.”
Dumont was of course silent. Energy had gathered throughout his armor, and he was ready to fly into action at a moment’s notice.
Fighting had stopped across the deck. Talon soldiers and rebels from Hell’s Army gathered round to watch the confrontation. Weapons were gripped in sweaty hands and nerves were high, caught in a standoff.
Cloudhawk answered with a peel of loud, savage laughter. He pulled on his weapons just a little, cutting into Eckard’s throat. “You think I’m scared? Correct me if I’m wrong, but you assholes still haven’t got your feet under you out here in the wastelands, am I right? First you were thinking about the Dark Atom, but when you saw what the Sanctum of Judgment could do, you went squealing to them to protect you. You want to hide under the skirts of your betters until you have the fuckin’ stones to stand on your own two feet. But without Eckard, I wonder how worthwhile your new masters will think you are?”
The Giants of Hell’s Army were strong. Truly strong. But the wastelands had all sorts of strong people as well. What made these three different was the trained army they brought with them. Hell’s Army was tactical, surgical, and well trained – that was the sort of thing that had real value out in the wastelands.
Sure, the Conclave of Judgment was making a lot of noise, but at the end of the day they were a mob of ruffians with a strong core. How could they stand against a focused, experienced fighting force like General Skye’s army?
The Crimson One used to be Knight-Commander – leader of a few thousand demonhunters. He didn’t know how to lead a full-fledged army. Meanwhile, General Skye had only grown even more brilliant as he aged. In a proper fight, the Conclave was at a serious disadvantage.
The Giants were only as good as their skills in tactics and training – scarce talents out here. But since their skills were in high demand, they could leverage them for a seat at the Conclave’s high table. If Eckard died, though, they were much less attractive allies.
Cloudhawk had a surge of confidence. He was spot on about the situation Hell’s Army found itself in, so he knew he had the upper hand. “I’ll be honest, if I want to leave there is no one – not you, not even the Crimson One – who can stop me. You might keep me from helping Woodland Vale now, but the price will be a nasty blow to the Conclave’s command structure. I can live with that trade.”
“If you escape, I will use every method at the Army’s disposal to torture every single person here to death.” A psychological offense was the best play. Cloudhawk’s upper hand had its limits, and Natessa knew this boy. He’d grown up alone and lonely in the wilds, and that experienced had left him with an ingrained weakness. He was more emotional than most, so he was unlikely to throw away his allies to save his own skin. He was just blustering.
Natessa went on. “Let him go, and we will allow you and your people to leave.”
“You still don’t get it? I’m not fucking negotiating with you.” He was unswayed by Natessa’s threats. “I’ll say it slow so you can understand: Fuck. Off. Otherwise, Scarry McScarface here will start grinning from the neck.”
Her eyes grew sharper with every word. It was easy to miss in the midst of all the drama, but the wind had started to pick up and whipped around them. Natessa was at the limits of her patience. Her energies were gathering ominously around her.
Cloudhawk was ready to do what he had to do. Only an idiot would believe the Giants’ false promises. At any rate, he had to get to Woodland Vale and no one was going to stop him.
If they couldn’t agree, then there was no more room for talk. If he killed one of them, the other two Giants could be handled. Cloudhawk himself would deal with one while Rio and Claudia could kill the other. Even if they didn’t survive, at least they’d take these shitheads down with them.
We’re all ready to die. You assholes don’t scare me!
Cloudhawk could see in Natessa’s eyes that there would be no compromise. He had to kill his captive first to make sure there weren’t more problems later, then he would deal with her. Cloudhawk could be as heartless and cruel as anyone when he needed to be, so without a second thought he pulled his arm back.
His Silver Serpents gleamed. But suddenly -
A scream drew his ear from off to the right.
It was the sound of a transport ship’s overloaded energy pylon as it bore down on them. It was going faster than he’d ever seen a ship its size move, aimed right at the enemy like a divine lance. No one had time to react before it smashed into the side of the Hell’s Army flagship.
Transport ships didn’t have shields. A battering ram maneuver like this was suicide!
What happened next caused everyone’s jaws to drop.
As the Elysian vessel struck the shields of the enemy warship, it immediately began to break apart. Yet, as cracks tore through its hull, a bright and violent light poured out. The resulting explosion ripped through the area with bone-jarring intensity.
The enemy’s shields disintegrated, and the ship that had Condor pinned was blown half to pieces in the space of a breath.
Cloudhawk was perfectly positioned to see the whole thing. When the ship detonated it temporarily blinded him.
In that instant, the Hell’s Army warship was destroyed.
Condor lurched as it was suddenly freed from bondage. As the ship pitched forward Cloudhawk lost his balance, thus exposing a flaw for his enemies to exploit.
Natessa was an experienced and brilliant warrior. She was always ready for situations like this, because the conditions of a battle could always change in an instant. Years of battle have taught her to grab at any opportunity the moment it arose, so her whip shot out at just the right moment and wrapped around Cloudhawk.
Terror gripped him. He tried to call his phasing power.
Just at that moment Eckard summoned the strength to stand and grabbed the Silver Serpents with his bare hands. The old warriors skin was tough as iron, and Cloudhawk didn’t have the time to heave back. He slipped from Cloudhawk’s grip.
Had Eckard recovered from having his tendons severed this quickly?!
He reached out to the stone and used its power to slip free from Natessa’s whip. Only, just then another blast of unexpected power assailed him. It struck him like a hurricane, storng enough that it overcame his phase field and shattered it.
Furious and flustered, Cloudhawk brandished the Silver Serpents and flung himself at his enemy. Ten quick blows followed in succession, each one scraping harmlessly across the glowing Dawnbreaker Armor. A metal hand shot out and clamped around his throat, then pinned him to the deck.
He was crushed against the sturdy stone-like material of Condor’s deck, which snapped beneath the pressure. He was practically shoved into a hole.
Cloudhawk found himself embedded in the ground. Condor’s deck was constructed using Skycloud’s unique methods, which imbued it with a sort of memory. Over time the material – strong as steel – would repair itself.
Everything happened in the blink of an eye. Rio’s face paled. “Warden!”
Dumont wrenched Cloudhawk up from the deck, still in his grip. Dangling there, Cloudhawk spit a mouthful of blood onto the glorious armor before swinging wildly with his weapons once again. But no matter how hard he swung, he couldn’t cut through the relic armor.
The enemy command vessel was destroyed, Condor was free from encirclement. It alone was strong enough to fight off the wasteland airships that remained. The Elysian transport ship had robbed Hell’s Army of their victory.
But it didn’t matter. They might have lost the battle, but there was still a long way to go before the war was decided.
Natessa wasn’t here to win in a single stroke, either. Their purpose was to stop Cloudhawk from getting to Woodland Vale. The hidden settlement was too important. Their leader was captive, and for now she believed that to be a victory.
Natessa lifted her hand, signaling the retreat.
A pair of red-robed missionaries descended from overhead. They wrapped Cloudhawk in a set of thick chains.
They were the same chains that were used in Skyden, used specifically to rob demonhunters of their power. He couldn’t communicate with his phase stone, thus was unable to escape.
At her command, Hell’s Army soldiers leaped from Condor’s deck onto the remaining warships. They turned their cannons toward the Elysian flagship and pummeled it with attacks, buying time for their heavily damaged vessels to escape.
“The Warden’s been captured by those bastard turncoats!” Crain had recovered enough to cry out. “What are we supposed to do?”
The novice demonhunters had been completely stunned by this savage string of attacks. From ambush to battle, encirclement to interception, and finally captors to captive.
It’d all happened so fast, and from Cloudhawk to the Giants of Hell’s Army it was a fight of skilled combatants. Their reaction times, tactics and smarts had left these newbies with their heads spinning.
Demonhunters were noble. They had poise and self-confidence. This was the first battle they’d ever really experienced, but they’d been utterly useless. All of them had stood around like idiots and just watched as the battle unfolded. Where was their poise and self-confidence now?
This was battle! This was war!
“Our commander is temporarily unable to order the troops.” Rio quickly made his way to the bridge. “According to rules of engagement, I am taking command of our forces.”
“Aye!” The captain’s face was solemn. “We’re awaiting your orders!”
Rio searched the bridge. “Where is the Warden’s disciple?”
“The blast from the transport ship was fierce,” the captain explained. “She may be the Warden’s disciple, but she’s still just a child. The blow knocked her out, but she’s fine otherwise.”
Rio sighed in relief then continued to issue orders. “As acting Warden of the Talons, I am ordering that we give chase to the enemy. Hound them, spare nothing!”
1. In Chinese medicine, often when someone has mental disorders we say it is a consequences of ‘evil wind’ stirring. This is the second or third time we’ve seen someone with a wind-type name being called crazy. This is reflected in the characters, too. Wind is 风, while crazy is 疯 - a combination of 疒, sick, and 风, wind.