A troop of fighters lurked among the wastelands hills. A bony older man wrapped in black cloth led them through the punishing terrain. Behind him was a younger man with a monstrous left arm, a fat man with a huge ax, an old man with three eyes and others.
This was the core of the Hand of Gehenna.
The man in black robes was Inkspecter. Squall was the one with the bulging and frightening left arm. The one with the ax was Ravenous Tiger. Three-Eyed Spider was the elderly scholar with three eyes. In addition to them was Blackfiend who walked beside Squall, and Raven who stayed close to Three-Eyed Spider. Inkspecter and Ravenous Tiger also had their own small contingent of bodyguards.
All told there was about two hundred, but despite their small numbers this was not a group to trifle with.
Inkspecter kept moving forward, his eyes fixed on a point up ahead. Several Elysian warships shuttled back and forth overhead. Lately, the Elysians had been actively setting up forward operations bases through the wastelands which were marked by tall towers. Various weapons and defensive tools were in different stages of preparation.
Ravenous Tiger stared at the scene splayed out before them. “Skycloud’s turning its attention to the south. No wonder things have been so quiet lately.”
“A lot has changed in the Elysian lands over the last year. Powers lurking for years in the darkness are also beginning to stir. There will be a lot of interesting things to see coming in the future.” Three-Eyed Spider had spent many years in the south. He’d heard rumors of those mysterious forces. “But our job is to seek the next Demon King, is it not? Why are we wading into these muddy waters?”
“These questions are unnecessary. You need only know your role.” Inkspecter chastised them in his low voice. “Our future lies in the southern wastes, but we have no roots. This operating base is a fine target. We shall attack while they are still making preparations and steal away their ships and resources.”
“They don’t look like they’ll be pushovers.” There was some discomfort in Ravenous Tiger’s face. “I see marks of the Cloude family, too. We can expect some of their demonhunters to be here. Are you sure you want to offend that family so early?”
“Hmph, you worry too much.” Inkspecter was familiarizing himself with the base’s layout. If the Cloude family’s demonhunters sought to stand in his way they would not find it an easy task. His crew was not the foe that caused Arcturus the most headaches, so hunting them down wouldn’t serve his greater purpose.
Inkspecter waved. Squall nodded in understanding. Their small group began to spread out.
The outpost had only been under construction for a handful of days. There weren’t many troops yet and the defenses weren’t complete, but with Cloude family demonhunters with them there weren’t many in the wastes who would dare cause trouble. No one worried for their safety.
Frost de Winter was their commander. He had turned his attention to the southern wilds, and the expeditionary force established for this mission was very different from the one they’d sent north.
In his campaign against the Conclave of Judgment, Skye Polaris had only prepared for less than a month. His aim was to strike quickly, before the fledgling alliance had a chance to establish itself. It was a plan that relied on Skycloud’s superior soldiers and technology to take advantage of time. It also was intended to minimize the effects of a protracted war on their realm.
The situation was different this time.
They weren’t after the Crimson One and a coalition of upstarts he’d cultivated over a few years. What crept in the shadows of the southern wilds had been there more a long, long time. All the while it’d been gathering strength in the darkness, slowly building itself up without any indication to the outside world. What was destined to emerge was a powerful enemy.
The war to come wasn’t one to be taken lightly. First they had to test the waters, then construct a plan of action. For this to work, the expeditionary force had to prepare for a long fight.
A middle-aged man approached Frost, draped in the simple white robes of the demonhunters. His hair was fastidiously kept and each movement was graceful and purposeful. It was none other than Augustus Cloude, powerful veteran demonhunter and acolyte of Skycloud’s governor.
Not a lot had changed for Augustus recently, but this was not so for Frost. Before he had been as dazzling as a snow-capped mountain peak, but time only made him more magnificent. He had the imposing presence of an important man, and everywhere he went there seemed to follow a frigid air that made him unreadable.
Surely this profundity came from his years of training under Arcturus Cloude. Before, Augustus could approach Frost as an elder, but as the young man’s star rose Augustus took the role of a subordinate. He’d watched him grow. Once, long ago, the gulf between their capabilities had been so vast. It was still, only now it was Augustus who watched Frost continue to stride forward while he remained behind.
So young and already Commander General of Skycloud’s army…
There were only a few in their realm’s history who were so accomplished at such a young age.
Frost looked up as Augustus approached. “What do you need?”
“Hammont Seacrest has dispatched several brigades from the vanguard. They’ve sacked a city in the southern wastes and are in the process of establishing a base down there. Half of our patrol stations and other strongholds are complete and more supplies and logistic forces arrive daily. It can be said that the expeditionary force has firmly established itself in the southern wilds.”
Here Augustus hesitated briefly. “In addition, our Governor has delivered his next decree. He has sent a number of the older generation’s best to aid us. They’ve already arrived at the headquarters. As our operations continue to grow we can be certain the southern powers will start to react. As the commander of our forces we must make sure you also return to headquarters as soon as possible, to ensure your safety.”
Frost nodded. This staging area acted as an outpost so it could not support an overly large garrison. If the enemy learned that the expeditionary force’s commander general were her, it exposed him to great danger. Surely they would send their best to cripple the Elysian leadership.
It was time to go.
When they stepped outside they were greeted by an ominous sight. A dark mist had started to gather all around the base. It was a foul, unnatural haze that defied the winds to hang over their newly established outpost.
“Raiders approach!” Frost de Winter scowled at the scene. “Sound the alert, gather our forces!”
Augustus did not waste time worrying. He quickly passed the order and summoned their demonhunters. It took only a few moments for more than twenty of them to assemble around Frost. The remainder readied themselves for battle. But as they scanned the area for foes, the base shook from a series of explosions on all sides.
The wall before the two men was blasted apart by rebel mortar fire.
As the dust settled, Raven’s stalwart figure appeared. He towered over the demonhunters in his metallic raven-feather cloak, and stared at them through unfeeling sunglasses. Expressionless he stepped closer, tightening his grip around the heavy minigun in his hand. In Raven’s hands the recoil on even a gun as large as this didn’t detract from his efficacy. Without a word he unleashed a torrent of searing lead in their direction.
Even Elysian armor couldn’t protect the soldiers from Raven’s augmented minigun. His hail of gunfire ripped through them, and all of a sudden the base was awash in pained screams.
Raven was joined by ten more soldiers encased in plate armor bearing heavy armaments. They splayed out, firing their guns in various directions and toward anything that moved. With every step they mowed down the unsuspecting soldiers. Their gunfire was concentrated on clusters and more populated areas of camp.
Raven and his mechanized warriors seemed unstoppable. But they weren’t alone. Attacks were coming from several directions. So sudden was the attack that Augustus couldn’t tell how strong or numerous their attackers were. He waved at the demonhunters nearby. “You lot, stop them. Commander, we must go!”
The demonhunters positioned themselves to bar their foes. Augustus took two of their number as escort and fled toward the airships with Frost. Although Frost was a formidable force on the battlefield, his main role was command. He was too important to risk being injured here. What commander would throw caution to the wind and fling himself headlong into a skirmish? If he died, it left the expeditionary force bereft of leadership and defeated before the war had even begun.
“They aren’t from the south. It’s a big party, aren’t they supposed to be hiding in the north?” Augustus stood on the deck of the slowly rising airship, looking out over the fight. His face darkened into a glower. “What are they doing all the way out here?”
An unexpected response came from behind him. “Doing? We came to kill you, of course!”
A sour but handsome young man emerged from the shadows where he was hiding. Squall Rover. He’d been waiting here all along.
Augustus’ heart was filled with a cruel sort of mirth. What a fool. Infiltrating an Elysian warship on his own? What did he think he could do by himself? So naive to think he was any match for Frost de Winter.
Augustus was about to share his thoughts when his voice was stolen by a cold light. A flash of steel, and several inches of metal protruded from his back. Augustus, mouth agape, looked down at the sword piercing through his chest, at the snaking fingers of frost that spread from the wound. It cut him off from his mental powers, denying him the use of any relic.
Augustus looked at the weapon in astonishment. His expression was mirrored by the two demonhunters by his side.
Frost de Winter’s expression was as frigid as it ever was. Without a word he wrenched his sword free then swung it once to the left and right. Before the other demonhunters even knew what happened, their heads were separated from their bodies.
Their final thoughts were shock and disbelief. Why would Frost – a hero to these men – betray them like this?
Frost kicked Augustus, forcing him to his knees before Squall. The wound to his chest was gruesome but not fatal. Obviously his intention was to deliver Augustus to Squall.
“Thank you kindly, brother.”
Squall looked down at Augustus, lying prostrate on the deck. His handsome features were twisted in mad, savage hunger. He grabbed the man’s head with his thick, muscled black arm.
“You must have known this day would come.” Squall lifting him up off the ground by his head. Filthy power oozed from the limb and poured into Augustus. It filled his body with loathsome energy. Squall’s voice was hoarse, ragged with emotion. “You will pay for your crimes!”
Augustus’ elegant features were twitching in agony. Before he died, he managed to choke out his final words. “Killing your heathen father was no crime! Not if he housed a demonspawn like you!”
Augustus’ whole body seized up then went limb. Even in his final moments, he didn’t understand why Frost did what he did. Why was he working together with this traitor? Why did Squall call him brother?
One man was lofty as the mountains, the most illustrious member of Skycloud’s young generation. The other was a traitor who turned his back on his home, who sold his soul to demons for power and freedom.
Augustus Cloude would never learn the answer.
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