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Chapter 109 - Sweep and Clear

 The elysian flying ship set sail.

Tartarus Squad was being briefed on what to expect.

"This is your first time setting out with Hell's Army on a mission. Because it was such short notice, details on the mission are still unclear. So, instead we're just going to go over what's expected of you as a military unit."

"Number one, we don't exist. We don't have a designation and we don't have commissioned officers. We are unknown. No matter the circumstances you will not tell anyone about the existence of Hell's Army, not civilians and not military personnel."

"Two. The mission is your reality, obeying orders is your duty. You will not question your commands or delay in carrying them out. Anyone who disobeys an ordered will be executed on the spot by their squad leader. If the captain gives instructors that violate mission orders, it is the squad's duty to deal with them."

"Back in Hell's Valley you are trainees, and violating the rules means expulsion. But out here, you're soldiers on a special mission. Disobeying orders not only means you die, but you'll bring shame on your family that they'll never be able to live down. Remember your mission, and have faith that everything you do it for the glory and prosperity of the domain!"

The harsh words from Instructor Cutter were not striking anymore, the students were used to the vicious man's ways. But they were a little puzzled. This was a simple mission, by all accounts, so why go through so much trouble? How dangerous could even the strongest enemies in Skycloud be? The airship was approaching the enormous wall that marked the border of the elysian lands.

Hell's Army stood on the deck in two rows, with their three instructors in the up front. They noticed as the ship came into port that the docks were completely empty. There were no civilians, dockworkers, or commercial vessels in sight. Only warships.

"Hail, commander!"

A robust figure joined them on the ship's deck.

He was wrapped in a white and gold cloak, and in his hand was a spear that looked to be carved from crystal. As he stood before the others, he removed his hood to reveal the chiseled, handsome features beneath. A pair of eyes, as deep and as cold as pools of ice water, looked over the troops. Those harsh orbs shone like twin stars in a frigid winter sky and gave no hint that he wished to be approached.

Caspian Black's eyes sparkled when he saw. He was ensorcelled by the look of the man. "Oh... are you seeing this? Frost de Winter... so handsome and manly. My heart's racing!"

The others members of Tartarus Squad unconsciously shuffled a few inches away from him. Everyone wanted to keep their distance.

The three giants of Hell's Valley greeted Frost with a salute, followed closely by their soldiers. Armor rattled as they placed fists against their chests.

Frost de Winter, demonhunter general and commander of the Knights of Splendor. He was the most outstanding leader of his generation, with more accolades than commanders twice his age. His prestige had only grown these last two months as he lead men from one victory to another over the Dark Atom. He smashed half the terrorist organization's forces with one blow, thereby retaliating for the near destruction of Hell's Valley. The people of the elysian lands sang his praises while its leadership showered him with honors. He was undeniably a rising star who'd light had only just begun to gleam.

Frost's face was twisted in dissatisfaction. "What took so long?"

Natessa responded in low and even tones. "The orders did not specify a time."

Frost sniffed derisively. He was displeased but there was nothing to say. It was his first time coming face to face with this special task force, and as he looked out over their faces he noted their iron discipline. They were all around thirty or forty years of age, warriors who had clearly seen their fair share of fighting. At a glance Frost could tell their reputation was deserved.

His eyes became ice-cold spears as they penetrated into the crowd, at the group of young trainees near the back.

Their equipment was different from the veterans. Most wore demonhunter armor. The one who stood in front, the position held by a squad leader, had a dark grey cloak and a black sword on his back. A mask with a hideous demon's face obscured his face, but the sparkling eyes did not flinch when they met his. Their stares met like a pair of daggers, spitting sparks into the air.

"The mission location is a village called Teal Ridge. It's a remote hamlet at the base of the mountains, surrounded by difficult terrain. It has little contact with the rest of the domain and largely governs itself. As such their connection to the Divine is weak. According to our information there are fewer than a thousand residents here, and it has become a den for Dark Atom spies. From this town they organize and orchestrate attacks on our home. What makes this mission tricky is the location. If we let them know we're coming, the enemy agents will flee into the mountains. Caves are spread all throughout the region, so if our targets get away it'll be tens if not a hundred times more difficult to wipe them out."

Military forces inside the domain were closely monitored. If they mobilized a large force, it was very likely they would alert the enemy. What better way to gather up soldiers without notice than calling on a troop that did not exist?

"Dark Atom's stronghold in Teal Ridge is the result of a decade's hard work. We expect they've completely integrated with the local population. Spies and traitors have spread all through village society and live like normal citizens. That is, until marching orders from from the wastelands. Meanwhile the rot continued to grow, and they poison the minds of our pure and innocent believers to bring more to their side. This cancer is a threat to the safety and security of our glorious domain. But if we are to eradicate every part of the weed that is the Dark Atom, it needs to be scorched down to the root. We must stop at no expense to complete our mission."

Of course, he need not say that if this mission was a success, Frost's status in the capital would skyrocket.

"This is a letter of authorization from the Governor, signed by the Grand General and approved by the Temple, appointing me commander of this special operation." Frost paused for a moment to show the paper to the three instructors. When he spoke again his voice was like ice, frigid and emotionless. "I will be taking direct control of your special task unit designated Tartarus."

His tone left no room for dissension.

"We regretfully report that we cannot conform to your orders." Instructor Windham faced Frost's threatening demeanor with poise and calm. She did not back down in the least. "Hell's Army is an independent organization," she reminded him. "We follow mission instructions and perform them as we see fit. We will not assent to having our leadership supplanted on the field. Tartarus Squad, as a part of Hell's Army, will only respond to orders from its commanding officers. We cannot acquiesce to demands to split our forces. We march together."

Frost's face turned dark as a winter storm.

"Fuckin' A! I know you're hot shit these days, Frost, but there are rules. You called us to execute this mission, then presume to take control and waltz off with one of our squads? Not gonna happen." It was clear from Eckard's tone what he thought of this young upstart. "If you insist on trying, we'll call the mission off."

The commanders of Hell's Army were resolute. They were independent, autonomous. What did it matter what the governor appointed Frost to? He had no authority over these soldiers, no elysian officer did, not even Grand General Polaris himself. So long as the giants of Hell's Valley held fast, no one was taking their warriors from them.

Frost flashed his eyes toward Cloudhawk, then he understood. Hell's Valley was declaring that he was under their protection.

How did that little mongrel manage that? None of the three instructors enjoyed much celebrity in the elysian lands, and after dealing with the Dark Atom he knew what sort of situation Hell's Valley was in. The instructors were lauded demonhunters, however. Sometimes, even someone like the Grand General couldn't expect respect from them. What's more, you didn't always win arguments with a clenched fist.

The mission was at hand. Now wasn't the time for squabbles.

"Very well, if you three are that confident I'll keep my hands to myself. Here are the instructions for the mission, I insist that you read them carefully. Any deviation and I'm afraid I will have to hold you three personally responsible."

Natessa took the others from him and opened it to take a look. Her brows immediately furrowed, but she kept her thoughts to herself and put the orders away. "We appreciate your reminder, Commander Frost, but this is not the first time we've performed a mission like this. Please make yourself comfortable, keep the mission secret, and wait for word of our success. We'll be finished in twenty four hours."

"I know what I'm meant to do." Thinly veiled contempt flashed behind his eyes. "I know all about your troops' style and reputation. I eagerly await the good news."

With his orders delivered, Frost left Hell's Army to its own devices.

"Our objectives have been set! Armor off, prepare to fight!"

Cloudhawk didn't understand what was happening. He looked around and saw all the soldiers removing their armor and keeping only their crossbows. They draped themselves with drums of compressed bolts, each one with a capacity of about eighty arrows. There were about six or seven drums per soldier, so roughly five hundred bolts altogether. If that was standard for the several hundred soldiers that came on the mission, that was a huge amount of firepower.

These were experienced warriors, too. They were solid marksmen who knew how to use their crossbows.

Unless they were facing elite opponents, their miss rate was very low. The village they were hitting had a thousand people, and they had enough arrows to skewer every person several times. In addition, the soldiers each had those versatile elysian weapons that could shift quickly between bow and blade. They were prepared to fight under any circumstance.

The airship descended onto Teal Ridge village.

Hell's Army's airship didn't have any flags or markings, and all the soldiers on board had removed their armor. Nothing proclaimed them as soldiers, a force that appeared from nowhere.

Natessa stood at the fore, looking over the horizon toward the village that was pulling into view. Her long hair blew in the breeze, but her face was as smooth and unreadable as a lake surface.

Dumont stood nearby, tall and silent as a statue. All the soldiers of Hell's Army splayed out behind them in total silence.

Cloudhawk and the others found the whole thing strange. A creeping suspicion whispered in the back of their mind, that this mission wasn't as simple as they expected.

"Ten minutes to drop zone!" Eckard began shouting orders. "Squads one and two, lock down the exits. Three and four, you got the streets. Five, six, seven - spread through the city and take the districts, as well as the docks. Make sure no one gets away."

Cloudhawk called out, unable to hold back his curiosity. "What's our mission?"

"Tartarus Squad has its own task. Take this intelligence briefing and go to area indicated. That's the Dark Atom stronghold, which you will attack directly. If you encounter any terrorists, do what you can to capture them alive. If you can't, make sure they're dead. Understood?"

Cloudhawk nodded his head. "Got it."

Natessa added her voice. "This is your first mission. Once you've finished the assault on where your targets are holed up, you wait for further orders. Do not participate in the rest of the battle, no matter what you see."

Cloudhawk wanted to ask why, but the question never got passed his lips. Eckard's warning not to question orders echoed in his ears. This was a mission, and it had to be executed exactly as instructed. A soldier didn't need to know why.

"Get ready!"

Tartarus Squad was given their orders and the intelligence report. Thirty trainees got ready for their first mission.

Eckard moved on to gather a group of a dozen or so officers. They also served as assistant instructors during training, strong and capable men. He gave them their own set of orders.

"You two go with Tartarus Squad and keep an eye on their situation. Make sure they don't fuck around or mess it up."

The two men snapped to attention. One of them asked what their orders were exactly. Eckard lit a cigarette and took a drag before answering, but when he spoke he said what they already knew.

"Sweep and clear."