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Entrusted with an impossible mission, Cloudhawk was nonetheless forced to accept.

What choice did he have? Whatever the intrigue, whatever the anger, first they had to survive. Nothing was more dangerous than the position they’d been thrust in.

The old drunk and Barb brought Dawn below decks. Her fragile state of mind made her unstable. No one was sure how she would react. Selene, Phain and the Templars stood by Cloudhawk’s side awaiting orders. They represented the power of the Temple to give Cloudhawk’s new command legitimacy.

The pain and misgivings had to be put aside until this dark hour passed. What happened could not be undone, but they could work to make sure this tragedy didn’t worsen. They had their work cut out for them – the Elysian fleet was in no shape to take a three-pronged attack.

“Ten divisions were gathered for this excursion, totaling roughly sixty thousand men. The fleet currently stands at three hundred and five warships. Twenty of them are heavily damaged, fifty five have suffered moderate damage, and eighty nine are managing with minor issues. In addition, there are two hundred logistics and supple ships. Now the divisions, they are as follows; the Vanguard, Flank, Airborne...”

Roc rattled off the current state of their armed forces. All of the divisions he named were populated with experienced soldiers. While the attack on Fallowmoor had failed and left them with many damaged ships, total losses were still minimal – perhaps ten percent, twenty at most. It wasn’t enough to threaten the core abilities of the expeditionary force. While Skye Polaris had been a brash and angry man, years of combat had forged him into a capable strategist. He wasn’t foolish enough to break himself and his whole family on a single assault. This fighting force was the last vestige of the Polaris family’s strength, and his most important heritage.

He knew that, whatever the cost, they had to get home safely.

Phain’s suspicions about Cloudhawk’s command had merit. He had no experience leading a force of this size. However, during his years in Hell’s Valley he was taught the basics of tactics and leadership. He also had the guidance of others with more practical knowledge. Cloudhawk was fairly confident he could manage.

This was a time and environment where confidence and bravery were important. Wisdom and tactics, there was none to speak of in this clash. Whenever your opponent had such an overwhelming advantage in power, so-called ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’ were nothing more than minor parlor tricks that could only be used to stall for a time.

Cloudhawk looked to Roc. “How many do we have in our demonhunter battalion?”

“Three hundred demonhunters have been dispatched with our forces,” he answered. “Two hundred or so are still in fair enough condition to fight.”

The Polaris family wasn’t like the Cloudes, who were rich in demonhunter talent. Finding a hundred demonhunters in a group of ten thousand soldiers was considered a good haul for them. But even this small battalion would play an important role.

Out here, a demonhunter’s combat proficiency was secondary. 

In a fleet of several hundred ships, only so much information could be passed through shouts and flag signals. This was especially true in this dust storm, which hid anything more than a few meters out from view.

To counter this, each battle group’s command ship was fitted with a psy-tower. Psy-towers worked differently from the three other towers typically found on Elysian warships, but were just as important in function.

Demonhunters, in their ability to manipulate and summon mental power, were able to tap into a neural network created by these psy-towers. Through it information could be passed almost instantaneously, delivering critical battle conditions and orders in a fraction of the time.

Where was the enemy attacking from, what flank required more support, damage reports, combat orders – the psy-towers made sure the information was quickly delivered to every part of the fleet. This neural network is what made the entire fleet work as a cohesive fighting force, and prevented the chaos of battle from tearing their formations apart.

Now, Skye was not a demonhunter. As such he was forced to rely on reports from demonhunters passed to him, and then again when any orders needed to be relayed. From receiving information, to processing it, to formulating a command and then spreading it to the fleet, the procedure was a lengthy one with a lot of middle-men in between. It created significant delay and an increased chance that something was missed or relayed incorrectly. In a fleet this size the negative results were greatly compounded.

A main factor in the expeditionary force’s sluggishness in responding to the Dark Atom sneak attack was because of this chain of information.

Luckily, Cloudhawk could prevent this from happening by receiving information directly. He plugged his own mind directly into the neural network.

After plans were discussed, the Elysian ships began to reform. They’d lost half a day after their general was slain in trying to reestablish command. Now they were forced to escape this perilous setting as fast as possible.

Cloudhawk relayed his orders. Although it was a critical time for the beleaguered fleet, he took a moment to go below and find Dawn.

Everything that had transpired was a particular cruel blow to the girl. She looked like an entirely different person, drained of all that vivacious energy that usually surrounded her. Like she was dead.

It was all so… sudden. She wasn’t ready. A loved one, gone in a blink.

What tormented her worst of all was knowing his killers were just a few feet away, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. This sort of rage and helplessness changed a person. Cloudhawk knew that it had struck to the very core of her, otherwise the Dawn he’d known would have let anger devour her. He also knew that this sudden change in disposition didn’t come without deep scars, whose dangers would only be revealed in the future.

It was the last thing he wanted to see a friend go through.

“The General was good to me. I’ll always appreciate his respect, and the chance at a new life he’d given me.” Cloudhawk walked to Dawn and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I hope you can understand that you aren’t the only one going through this. I’m with you, so don’t carry it all yourself. No matter what happens or what needs to be done, I’ll be right by your side.”

Dawn’s eyes were red and swollen. She didn’t react, like she hadn’t heard. She just sat there, unmoving, like she was made of wood.

With a scowl he put both hands on her shoulders and roughly pulled Dawn to her feet. His dark eyes looked deeply into her own. “Hey. Where the fuck did that girl who wasn’t scared of nothin’ go? Hell, far as I remember the only thing you were scared of was losing face. Where the fuck did this weak kid come from?!”

Any other day and Dawn would have put her fist through his face. That’s what he wanted, what he was hoping for. It at least would prove that she hadn’t been completely broken. She still had some fight left in her, some courage, that she hadn’t given up.

But she didn’t. There were only the tears that welled up in her eyes, and silence.

Dawn had lived every day of her life telling anyone within earshot how great she was. Then, life dropped the hammer. She realized none of it was true – she was weak, she was small. For the first time she really saw how inferior she was to Selene.

Both women had loved people close to them. Selene’s loss had made her brave, given her the strength and courage to strike out into the wastelands on her own to seek justice for her father. Dawn didn’t feel brave at all. All she felt was the desperate, foolish hope that this was all somehow a bad dream. Just a nightmare she would soon wake up from. The Polaris family couldn’t go on without its patriarch! Dawn couldn’t live without her grandfather!

As for Cloudhawk, he was angry. Real angry! He glared at her with eyes that burned into her skull.

“I will help you. I will make sure Arcturus pays for his crimes.” Cloudhawk’s words bore the weight of grave, honest commitment. “You and I, we’re going to kill him or die trying. Whether we get our revenge or get killed in the process, I’m with you.”

I’m with you! There was a real power in those words. They struck Dawn in the heart like a kick to the chest.

Her wooden expression trembled and some spirit returned to her tear-streaked face. It was like a light being switched on in an impenetrable darkness, like a drowning man whose fingers wrap around a lifesaving vine.

Yes, she had suffered a great loss. But she had Cloudhawk. Dawn hung her head, and when she spoke the bitterness in her voice was cloying. “We can’t win.”

“Fuck that! I can’t believe I’m hearing this shit out of your mouth! The Dawn I know would throw herself sword first at her enemies, whether it was Arcturus or the fuckin’ King of the Gods himself.” Cloudhawk never took his eyes away from her. “All my life I’ve spat on the idea of fate. If I would have let destiny decide for me, I would have died a long time ago, another corpse in the wasteland!”

Yeah… how would they know if they would lose if they never tried?

“Listen, we’re not helpless either. We’ve got Selene and all the rest of them. We might not be ready yet but one day we will be, and we’ll tear that son of a bitch limb from limb!” Cloudhawk extended a hand to wipe the tears from Dawn’s face. “Trust me.”

His words and conviction were infectious. She felt it fill her up.

Arcturus… he was the greatest demonhunter the world had seen in several centuries. He had more power and influence in the Elysian lands than anyone else.

Yes, Cloudhawk had been given help, guidance and resources from the Polaris family. But he’d paid all that back in spades. He had no reason to do anything out of a sense of repayment. He didn’t offer to go up against the most powerful man in the world because he felt he had to, but because he wanted to. For her. For himself.

Cloudhawk was willing to risk his life to try. Why couldn’t Dawn show the same courage?

Dawn thought about all the years that had passed. Languishing, content with the bare minimum, making trouble instead of applying herself. If she’d instead been mature enough to share the burdens of her grandfather’s struggle, would she be here today? Would he?

Now her shoulders bore the inescapable burden of avenging her grandfather’s murder. If she shirked it because she was too scared, all the world would laugh. She would be a crushing disappointment to everyone that mattered.

She was bolstered by a deep, real fortitude. She had to keep getting better. It was the only way to honor her grandfather, who gave everything in service to his family. Getting stronger was the only way to earn Cloudhawk’s friendship. She would grow so strong Selene couldn’t sneer down her nose, but would be forced to look up instead.

Arcturus Cloude! No matter how long it takes, no matter what it demands, I will kill you with my own hands!

“Thank you.” A spark of fire had returned to Dawn’s eyes. She looked at the man who had given her strength and courage when she was at her weakest. In that instant she knew without a shadow of a doubt that nothing would separate them. 

Loss was a double-edged sword. It brought crushing pain, but in the right hands it brought growth.

Cloudhawk hoped the pain of this moment would help Dawn see herself clearly. He hoped it would awaken the potential he knew she had. She wasn’t inferior to Selene in any way, she just needed to discover that power in her. She had the mental prowess of a great demonhunter, and the martial ability of a Templar.

Selene had ambitions to be the next Master Demonhunter as well.

Cloudhawk? A lot had changed for him. There was no way to know what the future would hold. He didn’t know if he would be strong enough, but he knew that deep in the bowels of Woodland Vale there was another part of his inheritence, silently waiting for him to come and claim it…

Dawn looked over Cloudhawk’s maturing features. Her eyes danced over it as though she were in a dream. That reckless, ignorant boy she met years ago can grown into a man she could rely on.

“Commander!” Roc hurried below decks to find him. “We’ve received urgent reports that an enemy force approaches. We need you on the bridge immediately.”

“Motherf-…. This fast?” Cloudhawk followed Roc back to the command center.

Barn and the drunk stood in the doorway after watching the whole exchange. Both weren’t sure how to react.

Vulkan rubbed his temples. “Arcturus isn’t pulling any punches. If these three kids are really dead set on standing against him it will be one hell of an effort.”

Barb wasn’t sure how to react. She felt like everything she knew about the world had turned upside down. Arcturus Cloude was the leader of Skycloud, and of every demonhunter. He was the man everyone looked up to. A living legend, a hero. But after seeing everything he’d done with her own eyes, a grave chill had sprung up in her heart.

If a man like him were allowed to take control of the whole world… the thought made her shudder. He was already the singular political power in Skycloud, with command of countless demonhunters. In standing against him, Cloudhawk and the others were risking the menace of every major power in the Elysian lands.

What was she supposed to do? Barb stole a glance toward the old man at her shoulder. He still looked like he wanted no part of it. She didn’t get it… how could he remain so indifferent?

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