Hell’s Army was an organization with rich experience and a high rate of success in their missions. They blocked the streets of Teal Ridge in short order, followed by the walls and docks. Before long this village of fewer than ten thousand was completely under their control. It was an instantaneous shock to the sleepy village, followed by an explosion from the Church of Divine Brilliance that rattled every building. Fear gripped the hearts of the innocent citizens as they watched grizzled soldiers efficiently invade their home.
Soldiers flooded the streets, spreading out through the allies and shouting in unison.
“Everyone has ten minutes to come out of their homes! Teal Ridge has come under emergency military control!”
The invading force was fewer than a thousand men, but they were hardened warriors who had done this sort of thing many times before. Soon every street was in their control. All the village’s denizens – men, women, the old and young – stumbled out of their homes and were instantly gathered.
Of course, none of them understood what was happening. Faced with the fierce soldiers and the suddenness of it all, they put forth no effort to struggle or disobey their orders. Meekly they were penned together to await their fate.
The ruins of their church smoldered on the horizon.
Cloudhawk shut his eyes and felt a wave of murderous intent wash over him. The premonition only grew. Meanwhile the rest of Tartarus Squad combed through the debris.
“We haven’t found any remains.” Felina picked her way out of the ruins and toward Cloudhawk. She hadn’t picked up on the same thing he had and so was calmly delivering her report. “It looks like the terrorists have escaped, this snake’s nest is empty.”
“Hmph. That was an awfully quick reaction they had. They all got away in a hurry.” Drake’s face was sullen and angry, clearly upset that they failed in their mission. “Boss, we can’t just let them escape.”
Cloudhawk was only half listening. His looked down the myriad of streets and shrugged helplessly. “Do you have any suggestions?”
“You need to ask? Hunt them down and get rid of them!”
The members of Tartarus Squad were all in agreement. Just the opportunity to join this mission was a rare opportunity, and their small troop was rife with talented people eager to show off their skills. More than a few of them had fought for the chance to join Hell’s Valley. Some of the demonhunters were skilled trackers, meaning Tartarus Squad had the tools necessary to find those that had slipped from their grasp.
“Alright, well let’s…“
Cloudhawk went through a list of orders, but before they could be enacted the two assistant instructors sent to watch over them shut him down. “The instructors made their commands clear. Your job is done, from now on you sit back and watch. Anyone who performs outside of these parameters will be dealt with by military tribunal.”
Well, that was that. Only, it certainly seemed like an odd order, didn’t it?
The average member of Tartarus Squad was more worthy in a fight than your typical Hell’s Army soldier. Most were demonhunters, meaning they had access to special abilities normal soldiers did not. Ignoring all of that made little sense from a tactical point of view.
“Do not question your superior officers.” One of the assistants reminded Cloudhawk of the rules in a low and dangerous voice. “For you lot this mission is a field exercise, nothing more. So keep your eyes open and learn what you can, there are some things you can only pick up on the front lines.”
The thirty-some trainees looked at one another speechlessly.
For Cloudhawk’s part, he didn’t have the faintest idea what their officers’ intentions were , but he felt that uncomfortable feeling grow. He was still pondering the logic when an enormous, black silhouette lumbered into view in the skies above.
The warship blotted out the sun as it closed in on Teal Ridge. Slowly it descended, while the energy pylons sparked with power. Crackling bolts of energy slithered up the pylons like serpents, ultimately gathering into a blinding ball of light.
All the pylons released their payload at once.
The orbs were shot into the air were they erupted into blooms of light. Columns of energy lanced out from them, giant blades of energy that carved brutal swaths through the village below. Spire-shaped homes crumbled into dust, starting from their pointed roofs and falling in on themselves. They were erased in a moment, as though they were made of paper.
And this was just the beginning.
The warship had half a dozen pylons and each attack was as destructive as the last. One after the other these energy weapons obliterated the city, with beams of energy striking the ground with the force of a meteor shower. How could this unassuming hamlet endure an attack like this? Most of the village was obliterated in one volley. Fires burned through every district where moments ago people had been happily going about their day.
Acrid smoke mingled with frightening explosions turns Teal Ridge into a hellscape.
“How were we supposed to evacuate so soon? Using a warship of this village is overkill!” Claudia’s angry eyes snapped toward the closes assistant instructor. “Who knows how many innocent people will be killed. You people are insane!”
“No, this is the signal to show us that the mission is in full swing.” The assistant fixed her with a cold, grim stare. “Now your education really begins.”
Education? What did he mean?
As the choking smoke enveloped the streets, it brought the piercing screams of fear and pain. Unarmed villagers fled their way, but where was the enemy? Tartarus Squad members dropped into combat readiness, weapons raised and relics ready.
Hell’s Army soldiers burst through the smoke with crossbows raised, marching down the street in a tight line. They steadily followed in the haphazard footsteps of the villagers as they fled. The glinting bolts of their weapons were aimed steadily ahead, at the backs of the defenseless men and women they were meant to protect.
The soldiers were stoic as boulders, and followed the order without a moment’s hesitation. Crossbow bolts were released in a torrent.
They descended on the crowd like deadly locusts, a killing wind. Screams answered. Elysian crossbows were as deadly as any wastelander rifle, especially in the hands of these soldiers. It would give even an experienced demonhunter pause, lest they were studded with a hundred bolts. How much truer was it for an unarmed farmer?
With unmitigated power the bolts punched through skin and sinew and bone, tearing apart organs in their passage. In a breath one third of the crowd was slain. The ground was covered in writhing bodies and corpses slowly sinking into pools of blood.
The trainees couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Hell’s Army was cutting down innocent villagers!
Several of the members of Tartarus Squad couldn’t hold themselves back, and jumped into the crowd of villagers. This forced the soldiers to hold their fire, and they shouted angrily at the greenhorns. “What are you doing?! Don’t get in our way, move!”
“You do this and call yourselves soldiers?! Isn’t the point of a soldier to be to protect the people?” Drake had his sword clenched in a shaking fist. “This is blasphemy, a sin! It’s a massacre!”
Claudia had her exorcist rod in hand, ready to charge at any moment.
One of the assistants moved, quick as a whip, and slapped Claudia across her face. The force sent her toppling into a pile of rubble.
“The enemy has operated in this village for too long. The existence of this place is no longer worth the risk. We do this because we have to, for the security of the whole domain.”
“Military orders are incontestable. A soldier obeys and does not question. Hell’s Army is here to complete a mission, and anyone who stands in our way with face the consequences!”
Chaos ensued. How could they say that! Their existence didn’t outweigh the risk?
Where was the uncompromising glory of the elysian people? Where was their unbreakable honor? Their faith? The trainees looked around as though they were caught in a nightmare; furious, lost, and confused. Their minds were a sea of intense and conflicting emotions.
Gabriel shrugged, as though he’d known this was coming, but it was Cloudhawk was remained calmest in the sea of turmoil. He calmly raised his voice to make an observation. “Wiping out this village is not going to end well.”
“That’s why Hell’s Army does not exist. Frost’s soldiers are fifty kilometers away. When we’re finished it will look like the Dark Atom knew they were exposed and went on a rampage, killing everyone in the village. Our heroic young commander will then ride in with the cavalry once he gets the news. He will arrive with his righteous cavalry, and although too late to save the town, he will have erased the blasphemers. He’ll then return triumphant to Skycloud City where they’ll sing his praises and mourn their lost brethren. And their hatred for the Dark Atom will seep even deeper.”
“This is the reason for Hell’s Army?” Cloudhawk finally understood what Skye Polaris had meant when he said ‘a necessary evil.’ “This whole world is nothing but hypocrisy and lies.”
The assistant was surprised at Cloudhawk’s outward calm. All the others were stunned by the truth when they first learned it, but not him. He wasn’t shocked or angry, he just saw it for what it was.
But it was good news. If Cloudhawk wasn’t going to make trouble, it would inspire the rest of his team to keep their cool. After all, he’d earned himself considerable prestige among his peers over the last couple months. These greenhorns still followed his lead.
Veronika helped pull Claudia up from the ruins she’d fallen into.
She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Elysian soldiers were supposed to be the most devout of believers. Wasn’t their responsibility to protect these people? How could they massacre the innocent like this, here within the walls of their own domain? She couldn’t… she couldn’t accept it. This couldn’t be real. Skycloud City couldn’t have ordered something like this.
“How is this any different than what demons do?!”
“Claudia, I’ve tolerated your naive horseshit for too long. Enough is enough!” Cloudhawk drew himself up, calling on all the authority he’d learned as their captain. “Sometimes sacrifices are necessary for the long-term security of the domain. These sacrifices aren’t just wastelander lives, but also elysians. Not just commoners, but every nameless soldier that renounces fame for duty. If you can’t understand that, then you have no business being a soldier.”
3. This plays to an interested fact I witnessed while living in China. In short, the country and its people believe very deeply in the idea that ‘the ends justify the means.’ It’s taught to them through stories of the communist revolution, xinhai revolution, and the warring states period. If your cause is just, then all manner of evils are permissible. Perhaps this lays in the Confuciusian tenet of ‘sacrifice for the good of community.’ One story that highlights this perfectly concerns the general Cao Cao. On the eve of a battle with a rival general he orders his granary officer to distribute half rations to his soldiers against the granary officer’s wishes. His men were already hungry and on the verge of revolt. Meanwhile, Cao Cao has purchased a large store of grain, but has told no one. The next day, he orders his granary officer before everyone, accuses him of keeping grain for himself, then has him executed before the soldiers. Rations are restored and then some, morale soars, and they go on to win the fight. Now, Cao Cao is widely considered a pretty cruel guy, but is highly respected for his actions – all done in service of his people. He was just one man, of course, but there are examples were twenty thousand were sacrificed toward some end, without their knowledge. How do you, as a Western reader, feel about this? How do you feel about Cloudhawk taking a similar view?
Somehow, I don't think Cloudhawk is speaking from the heart here. I, too, am interested in hearing your views wrt the question Xiao Lai posed.