Desert stretched to the horizon. Yellow sand danced on the breeze. Sandbar Station was gradually swallowed in darkness.
Two large forces met in the air above in a tense standoff. The Northern Barrens and the Southern Wilds faced one another, but really it was a dance between Arcturus Cloude and Cloudhawk. Their first formal, if indirect, conflict. The outcome of this fight would determine whether the Conclave of Judgment would retain a foothold in the south. As such, it was integral to Arcturus’ plans.
The scale of these two armies was nowhere close to even.
The Conclave of Judgment commanded a huge number of troops. Not only did it boast twice the number of vehicles as the south, its ground forces were also vastly superior in number. There were more than five hundred buggies packed with soldiers, in addition to over two thousand lizard and wolf riders.
These forces were bolstered only recently, taken from the territories the Conclave stole from Dawn. While the ground force itself wasn’t the main part of the Conclave’s army, it was a formidable threat. In contrast, the Southern Confederation had no ground force to speak of. It relied on the superior airships provided by Nox.
The best comparison was to judge both by the ranking established by the Conclave; spy ships, expedition ships, battleships, carriers and destroyers. The Conclave had over two thousand ships, five hundred being battleships. The remainder were largely mid-sized expeditionary ships.
In total numbers the southern wilds were in an inferior position, with an armada of only eight hundred vessels. However its aerial forces were uniformed and outfitted for war. Its flagship was a lumbering, ancient war machine bristling with particle cannons. By the Conclave’s evaluation standards it was considered carrier class, with enough firepower alone to match ten battleships. Its presence on the battlefield was a serious threat to the enemy armada.
All told, the capabilities of both armies were about equal.
The Conclave had the advantage in terms of scale, but the south met that deficit with more powerful equipment and better trained soldiers. The coming war promised to be fierce, bloody and unforgiving.
Dawn watched the slowly encroaching enemy force. Terrangelica was already in hand and she thrust it forward to punctuate her orders. “All forces forward! Meet them head-on!”
The two armies rolled toward each other like fatal storms.
Picking up speed, they closed the distance in short order. From a distance it would look like two ominous clouds colliding while sparks danced in their midst. But what from afar looked like sparks were the roars of cannons, rockets and launchers as they spat death toward one another. The two armies immediately broke into fierce conflict.
The clouds split open as a stream of light burst through, like lightning wreaking havoc in a storm. The roar of a cannon sounded like thunder.
Cloudhawk felt the whole ship rattling beneath his feet. Debris filled the air as guard ships on either side detonated in midair. Fragments of ship and crew pelted the deck of his ship like a grisly rain. The exchange of fire claimed lives on both sides. The first volley revealed no clear winner.
The Conclave’s army was too large. Below, its ground forces had spread across the desert and was closing on the city.
Lines of armored vehicles kicked up sand in their wake as they sped toward their objective. Wasteland soldiers tore across the dunes on giant lizards with rocket launchers on their shoulders. They didn’t bother to aim, simply letting their payloads loose toward the ships above with wild abandon. The ground forces were limited in how much damage they could deal to the armada, but they did add pressure and served to harass their foes from below.
Deadly winds churned, thunder roared. Soon, the ground was littered with broken ships and dead bodies.
Dawn watched with a grim expression. “They’re better equipped than I expected.”
While the Conclave’s ships themselves were not powerful, nearly all of them had been outfitted with destructive missile launchers and other ordinance. They could blow one of Dawn’s ships to pieces from ten kilometers away. While her ships were of higher quality overall, they still were having trouble overcoming the sheer number disadvantage. If this continued then winning victory would be costly, if even possible. The death toll would be staggering for both sides whatever the outcome.
It was for precisely such a circumstance that Cloudhawk chose to come.
The Conclave’s efforts to conquer the south came directly from Arcturus, and this battle was key in making it happen. Without question, they would be bringing their best to bear. Even borrowing strength from Nox, the Southern Confederation was never going to win this one easily.
Cloudhawk broke in. “We have fewer people, and the Conclave has enough to come back even if we rout them here. If we lose most of our forces it won’t mean a thing even if we win. We have to change our tactics, we can’t go blow for blow.”
That was where they found themselves. The conclave was too big. Six thousand vessels – even if they lost two ships for each of Dawn’s one they would still win. The salt in that wound was that these warriors came from their own territory, won after the Conclave swept through and gobbled up all the south’s cities.
If they didn’t find a way to reverse this they might force the Conclave to lose interest in the south for a time, but Cloudhawk’s forces would also be decimated. He would be stuck trying to recover instead of bringing the fight to them.
Cloudhawk knew that his true enemy didn’t reside in the wasteland, but was the lofty and unreachable Arcturus Cloude. If he wanted to tear the Master Demonhunter from his ivory tower in the heart of Skycloud, Cloudhawk would need to first unite the wasteland. All obstacles toward that end had to be removed. Right now, that was the Conclave of Judgment.
Not only did it have to dismantled, but he would need to do it quickly.
In the twenty-some days since Cloudhawk’s return he’d been careful to keep it quiet. Skycloud didn’t realize the threat growing to the south, but once they did they would have no choice but to react. If it took Cloudhawk three years to overcome the north, all that time Arcturus would be bolstering his defenses. At that point there would be no way for wastelanders to break through and conquer the Elysian land.
If they failed to take Fallowmoor Cloudhawk would lose the chance to encircle and overcome Skycloud. At that point Arcturus would be practically invincible and Cloudhawk would know nothing but danger.
The exchange of fire increased in rate and ferocity, as did the damage each side endured. Meanwhile the two armies inched ever closer. The Conclave’s officers ordered their ships to decelerate and dispatched their air force. Three to four thousand soldiers on the backs of giant birds of prey took to the skies. They stretched out to either side then circles around, ready to take the Southern Confederation’s flanks.
Wastelander flying forces were an important power! Although they weren’t very damaging individually, they were highly maneuverable.
They had many uses in battle, such as superior agility, intercepting missiles, or simply harassing the enemy and flooding them at close range with gunfire and light munitions. These units were armed with rapid-fire crossbows, machine guns, hand grenades and the like. If a large enough force managed to swing around and attack from the rear they could cause real chaos.
Dawn didn’t hesitate. “Drunk, lead our own air units out to meet them!”
The cumbersome warships were too large and moved too slowly to deal with a group of riders this size. The best method to countering them was to send out one’s own fliers and tie them up before they could get too close. However the Southern Confederation was heavily outnumbered. If they didn’t come up with a better plan it would end in mutual destruction.
“As far as I can see there’s only one option to finish this quickly.” Cloudhawk shot a glance toward Dawn then out across the battlefield. He pointed at the largest vessels in the enemy fleet. They were floating amid a heavily armored entourage. “We need to take out their central command.”
Dawn understood his aim. Southern Confederation of Conclave of Judgment, armies of this size needed a central point to facilitate commands and give orders. Often there was more than just a single ship, but a cluster of them that ordered different parts of a fleet. If those ships were destroyed or otherwise prevented from being in contact with the rest of the armada, the enemy would fall into disarray. Routing them would become much easier.
Cut off the head and the body withers! The behemoth that was the Conclave’s army would disintegrate from within!
Any army knew this, so the command flotilla was surrounded by a contingent of powerful guard ships. Any force worth its salt would keep their best close by and make sure their forces were more concentrated in the area. If the tactic was to destroy an opposing force’s command center, they would first have to obliterate all the rest of the enemy to do it.
Cloudhawk looked over the target. “Three ships. Khan, you take the left, Abbadon you head right. I will handle the flagship. Have Roc command your forces while you’re gone and the drunk can buy us time with fliers. I’ll teleport us passed their defensive lines.”
Yes! Cloudhawk could slip right through! Typical defenses meant nothing against his phase powers.
Roc was anxious when he heard the plan. “Your teleportation powers are strong but there’s a limit to how many people you can bring with you. Those ships are crawling with their best soldiers, it’s too risky for you to get in close and destroy them.”
“You think this is dangerous?” Cloudhawk had no time to argue. “Prepare to act!”
A minute later space warped in the air near the Conclave’s command flotilla. A handful of silhouettes appeared in the air. Cloudhawk motioned for them to move out.
The Khan of Evernight led a small group to the left side of the flotilla. Abaddon did the same to the right. Neither of Cloudhawk’s lieutenants were pushovers – one was Nox’s Governor and the other was a demon who once lorded over the southern wilds. Either was more than capable of destroying a few ships, so a single command vessel each was well within their abilities.
Cloudhawk brought Dawn and a handful of Polaris fighters toward the enemy’s flagship. It and the other two command ships were in a trident formation with the central vessel being the largest. It was like a floating mountain that was fitting with a staggering number of weapons. Although Cloudhawk and the others had appeared suddenly, the well-trained enemy had already begun to mount a defense.
Countless heavy weapons belched their payloads. Plumes of fire half a meter thick shot their way. The air was suddenly filled with high-velocity bullets. No one could stand for long against such an intense onslaught!
Cloudhawk from half a year ago would have balked at the sight. The Cloudhawk of today, however, felt no trepidation. Even if he allowed these bullets to strike him they would only cause surface level wounds. He held his left arm in front of him, clenched his fist, and a rich white light surrounded him and his allies.
As the bullets collided with this shield they bounced away harmlessly! Several heavy machine guns strafed Cloudhawk’s location but it was ultimately a waste of ammunition.
With a scream of challenge Dawn leaped at the ship when they were close enough. She came down on the gun turret with her slender leg. The force behind it collapsed the turret like it was made of tin foil. She followed by brandishing Terrangelica, urging the weapon to fire a beam of energy through the body of a nearby gunner. It pierced through the thick shield of his machine gun and cleaved the man himself to pieces. The gun exploded, the blasting sending twisted pieces of metal and scorched chunks of flesh across the deck.
Cloudhawk landed near the engine and disabled it with a fierce kick of his own. His body was instantly swallowed up in a deluge of fire and broken metal but he emerged unscathed. He walked away from the explosion, calm and collected, even as the ship began to list. However a ship this size did not just have a single engine. Destroying a handful wasn’t enough to disable it entirely.
By now the ship’s defenses had time to respond. A large number of flying forces were closing in.
“Let’s head inside!”
Cloudhawk punched a thick metal cabin door with his unadorned fist. With a screech of steel on steel and a shower of sparks, the door was knocked clean off its hinges. He wrenched it free from the frame and flung it over his shoulder, where it slammed into a nearby soldier and turned him to paste. Cloudhawk then strode inside without a care, Dawn and the rest of the Polaris warriors in tow.
The other flier watched in shock and horror. What was that guy?! He was some sort of monster in human skin!
Previous Chapter Next Chapter