His rapid breaths in the cold morning air betrayed his fear. Despite the emotion he stood tall with his eyes forward. The confidence might be a veneer, but it was better than nothing at all. His fellow soldiers deserved that at least.
The thin blue line stood alone against the rolling sea of red. It was clear who would win this fight, but the line of blue held fast. To do anything else invited disaster.
“Steady men, steady.” The Colonel on horseback rode back and forth behind the three ranks of infantrymen. “Steady.”
The words seemed more for the senior officer’s sake, but it still projected confidence for the common men. Confidence was something they desperately needed. Anything less would send the new regiment of the Continental Army running for the hills. If they ran, the Redcoats would have a short march to the Army’s supply line. If that was cut then General Washington’s troops would starve and the war for independence would be over before it even began.
Gerald knew a sacrificial move when he saw one. He’d been playing chess with his father since he was a young boy, and the signs were the same. Their little regiment was no match for the main force of the British Army. They were here to buy time and were expected to die doing it.
At twenty-four Gerald had lived a good life compared to most. His father was a well-to-do merchant from Boston who defied the British during the occupation by smuggling goods to the militias in the countryside. He was captured, tried, and hung for his crimes.
Gerald was here today to fulfill his father’s dream of freedom. He helped dump the tea into the harbor in defiance of the Crown’s unfair tax. He’d also stood with his fellow patriots at Bunker Hill when the Redcoats charged their lines repeatedly to take the hill. But he’d never stood on an open field waiting for an army of British regulars to open fire at him. If he died today, he would die as a man of honor fighting for the righteous cause of independence. That was worth fighting and dying for.
He took a few deep breaths to try and get his anxiety under control, but it didn’t do any good. He would be a target for the men marching toward him. He doubted he’d survive the first volley.
Gerald was taller than the average man, standing an inch over six feet. People compared his stature to General Washington’s. Gerald was broad of chest and shoulder, with thick legs, a handsome face, and a powerful chin. His long blonde hair was tied behind his neck with a strip of leather, and his sharp green eyes watched the approaching force with resolve.
The sea of red’s march brought them nearer and nearer to Gerald’s position. The ground trembled from their stomping feet. Finally, when they were close enough for him to see the whites of their eyes, and smell the stench of their sweat, did the mass of enemies halt.
Gerald could throw a rock and hit the British Captain standing at the end of the rank of soldiers.
The two armies stood facing each other, hundreds of eyes darting back and forth. The British clearly outnumber the Colonists. They knew it, Gerald knew it, and the colonial regiment’s Colonel knew it. As far as Gerald could tell the British officer was being a gentleman about it. He was giving them the opportunity to step aside. The war was still young enough that the British wanted to give their rebelling colonies the chance to surrender.
Gerald saw the enemy’s demeanor change when nothing happened.
“Poise Firelock!” Gerald’s officer yelled the first command.
Gerald had been training for this day since he joined the Continental Army, and his instincts took over. With his left hand he turned the firelock brusquely bringing the lock to the front. Then he brought the firelock from his shoulder directly in front of his face.
Gerald cocked the firelock by dropping down his elbow. He immediately placed his thumb on the breech-pin, and his finger on the guard.
Gerald took a small step back with his right foot while bringing the butt of the musket against his right shoulder. He moved his left hand forward to the swell of the stock. He moved his right index finger from the guard to the trigger and looked down the barrel with his right eye.
Now that he was looking directly at the enemy he could see they weren’t so different from him. Cold puffs of air from their heavy breathing created a steam of fear that rose from their ranks. A few had their eyes screwed shut and were moving their mouths in prayer. Unlike Gerald’s regiment, they just stood there waiting, daring the colonists to fire.
Gerald focused his attention on the man directly opposite him and pulled the trigger.
The big musket bucked as fire and metal screamed from the end. Powder-smoke was thrown into the air, and breathed in by everyone along the thin blue line. Gerald choked on the smoke and lost sight of his target. He had no idea if the man was alive or dead on the other side of the haze of gray.
“Half Cock Firelock!”
Gerald didn’t even register the command, but muscle-memory drove his actions. He was too busy listening to the screams of the injured and the commands being yelled on the opposite side of the battlefield.
“Take Aim!” The voice was not Gerald’s commander’s. Gerald felt his balder empty down his leg in fear.
“Handle Cartridge!” That command was meant for him.
Gerald reached into his pouch, seized a cartridge, brought it to his mouth and ripped the top off. The taste of the powder was repulsive, so he turned his head to spit as he brought his thumb up and covered the opening.
Gerald reached down to shake the powder into the pan.
The world erupted into madness as the longer, thicker line of red fired into them.
Men screamed and fell all around Gerald. Some were dead, some were injured, and some cried for the end to come faster. Gerald screamed to. It was the natural thing to do.
“Shut Pan!” His Colonel’s voice roared above the screams.
Gerald moved his hand to shut the pan he’d just poured the powder into, but nothing happened. His fingers refused to move to that portion of his weapon. Instead they released the musket, allowing it to fall to the ground, and both of his hands flew to his gut.
“Charge with cartridge!” The Colonel was moving on without him.
<No! Keep fighting!> Gerald screamed to himself, but his body refused to cooperate.
His knees buckled and he collapsed to the ground. The ground was cold and hard, but slick with the blood of the men on either side of him. Both had been killed by the first volley, their bodies lay lifelessly in the dirt. Gerald looked from them, to the growing red stain on his white undercoat, to the opposite side of the battlefield. Down here below the haze of powder smoke he could see to the other side.
Men in red were screaming, twitching on the ground, or lying in the stillness of death. Gerald scanned them, even as his vision began to waver, and found one familiar face. He was lying face down, with his chin partially buried in the dirt, and looking straight ahead at Gerald. It was the man Gerald had aimed at.
He’d killed him.
The musket-ball fired by Gerald had blown apart the top portion of the man’s head. The face was still recognizable, but its similarity to a human being ended there.
Gerald missed the rest of the commands leading up to the second volley. The whole world seemed to be shrinking around him as the stain in his gut grew. He remained on his knees though, and despite the pain and approach of death he reached for his musket. His fingers touched the cold metal of the butt and he tried to pull it toward him.
It was too heavy, and the weakness spreading through him wouldn’t even allow him to pull it across the frosted grass.
He looked up just in time to see the Redcoats raising their rifles to their shoulders and taking aim for their second volley. His attention was drawn to a man, who couldn’t have been much older than a boy. The boy was shivering in fear, and his rifle was angled away from the man directly across the battlefield from him, and pointed directly at Gerald.
His barely functioning mind screamed at him to do anything to get out of the way. But his fight or flight instincts were locked away beyond his reach. His body no longer responded to its commands.
He couldn’t feel much of anything anymore. The total helplessness was overwhelming.
Gerald didn’t even see the second volley fired. He just felt the punch of a second musket-ball going through his chest. He didn’t even know it had hit his heart until he fell over backward, looked up for the last time into the pale blue morning sky, and died.
Gerald jerked awake. One hand reaching reflexively for the weapon that never left his side.
<It’s here. I’m safe. Or as safe as anyone could be in Hell.> He used the hand not gripping his weapon to rub the sleep from his eyes.
The ground was hard where he’d slept. Rocks jutted out at angles and were sharp enough to cut if you weren’t careful. It was a stark contrast to the open field he’d died on all those years ago.
Of course, he couldn’t be sure how long ago that actually was. Time worked different down here in the lower-realm.
He rolled his neck back and forth feeling the vertebrae pop and the pressure being released. It felt good, and it helped wipe away the memory of his death. It was the only dream he was allowed to have in this place.
Part of his punishment for his actions that day; actions with consequences he didn’t expect or understand.
No one had been more surprised than Gerald Fuller to wake up in Hell, and he couldn’t have been more surprised by how different Hell was from the description given during Sunday sermons.
The Priest decreed from his pulpit that Hell was a place of fire and brimstone, a place where the sinful were banished for all eternity. There they were punished for their crimes against Almighty God. That was what Gerald had been taught, and that had influenced his decisions throughout his entire life. It determined how he interacted in society, how he handled his relationships with women, and ultimately, why he decided to take up arms against unjust oppression.
So when he awoke in the arms of a beautiful woman descending into a golden hall he’d been more than a little confused. The woman had smiled at him with fanged teeth as her metallic wings beat against the air to slow their descent.
Everything in the hall had a subtle glow to it. A glow that filled him with warmth he’d never known had been missing. The glow infused him with pride, courage, and hope.
He wasn’t alone.
The seemingly endless hall was filled with hundreds of men and women of all ages and colors.
Gerald considered himself an educated man, he’d gone to a university at his father’s request and learned about the world. But there were people here in garments and fashions unlike anything he’d ever seen. Even the traders from Europe hadn’t been dressed so strangely. Some might be from the Orient, and some he just couldn’t tell what they were.
The beautiful winged woman gently deposited him among the crowd of people and jumped back into the air. She didn’t even spare him a backward glance.
While in the crowd Gerald learned the truth.
He was dead. He’d sinned grievously. And he was in Hell. A Hell very different from the Preacher’s version.
The lower-realm was made of many kingdoms, ruled by different Lords of Hell, who divided the souls of the damned and brought them into an afterlife that Lord controlled and influenced.
Due to the life Gerald lived, and the manner of his death, his soul belonged to the realm of Seere. Seere ruled over a kingdom of fallen warriors; men who had fought nobly, but because they had sinfully taken life, were cast into Hell.
It was under the command of Prince Seere, and within his twenty-six demonic legions, that Gerald started his new life.
His eternal life.