Gerald remembered his time in the Golden Hall like it was yesterday.
The winged woman, whose smile never reached her eyes, left him in the middle of the hall surrounded by other men and women who looked just as confused as him. His eyes scanned the growing crowd as more winged women dumped their charges unceremoniously on the ground. As his eyes swept from side to side he noticed guards placed throughout the assembly area. They were standing silently around the edges and were so still he thought they were statues.
But then one shifted slightly from one foot to the other.
He cautiously approached the nearest one and realized how huge they were.
Gerald always considered himself a tall man, and his friends reinforced that perception, but today he found himself looking up at the nearest guard. Each guard was outfitted from head to toe in gleaming black armor and carried weapons larger than anything he’d ever seen. Carefully, Gerald regarded the one nearest him.
The man was a head and a half taller than Gerald and half again as wide. The black armor, like a medieval knight’s, fully enclosed the guard’s entire body. But the armor was unlike anything Gerald had seen in his European History books. From strategic areas in the armor: like the gauntlet’s knuckles, knees, elbows, and shoulders wicked looking barbs stabbed outward. From those spikes dripped what appeared to be black ooze.
If that wasn’t intimidating enough the armor itself seemed to instill in Gerald a sense of foreboding. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it but the armor seemed to eat away at the warmth permeating from the hall.
Gerald stopped several feet from the armored man and watched the ooze drip onto the floor and evaporate with a sizzle.
After a few moments of gazing in silence the armored head turned to regard Gerald, sending a fresh wave of terror down his spine.
“Join the other recruits, meat.”
Gerald gulped, shocked and confused. Not only was the remark from the heavily armored suit an insult, but the voice coming from inside it was clearly feminine.
<How?> Gerald didn’t have time to ask the question before a loud THUD echoed through the hall.
“Attention!” A powerful, male voice called from what appeared to be the front of the room. “Assemble!”
Gerald knew that command and without a thought hurried to obey. He gave one last glance over his shoulder at the deadly looking woman as ran toward the consolidating crowd.
“Form up!” The voice commanded.
There was a lot of jostling as they started to form three equally long lines. Once they were formed up they were directed to reform by height. Gerald moved forward in his rank until the man in front of him was taller, which put him second in line.
“Listen closely.” The man giving commands finally stepped into sight.
He was shorter than Gerald but bulkier, with a black breastplate similar to the armored guards standing around the hall. On his hip was a short sword that Gerald recognized as a Roman Gladius, and on his back, over a blood-red cape fastened at his shoulders, was a circular metal shield.
“Do not speak unless spoken to. As you approach our Lord you will kneel and kiss his feet. Do not stare. When our Lord dismisses you with a wave, rise and move off to the side and reform. Do nothing else and you will eat tonight. Disobey me and you will suffer.” The man’s last word sucked the remaining warmth from Gerald’s chest.
A chest, he failed to notice until now, that still had a steadily thumping heartbeat.
“March!” The command cut through Gerald’s surprise like a whip, and his feet automatically started to move forward.
Marching was something a trained soldier could do without thinking, so Gerald used that time to focus on his surroundings. They were marching down the golden halls, which were guarded every twenty feet by an armored man, or woman, in that frightening black armor. In the distance, farther than seemed possible, was a set of doors.
The doors grew taller and taller as they marched closer. Soon the doors towered over them, dozens of feet tall. The hall grew wider near the doors as well. So wide, Gerald was sure the hundreds of people marching toward it could fit through it standing shoulder to shoulder.
Decorating the door was an exquisitely carved tree. Gerald was not a patron of the arts, but he recognized master craftsmanship when he saw it. The carving seemed so life-like, to the point the leaves actually seemed to wave in an unseen breeze. Strangely, part of the tree seemed to be in full bloom, and ripe with fruit, while another section seemed to be withered and dying.
But not as odd as the serpent encircling the tree. Its fanged maw was open wide and eating its own tail. Like the tree’s leaves, Gerald could have sworn the scales on the masochistic beast were moving as if the serpent was slithering across the ground.
He could have spent hours studying the workmanship, but without a sound the giant doors opened into what could only be described as a throne room.
And on that throne sat a man.
Or at least that was what Gerald thought.
As the formation drew closer and finally halted, Gerald had trouble of thinking of the creature as a man.
First, he was a giant, a literal giant. The guards standing at attention throughout the golden hall were huge, but they paled in comparison to this man. He stood almost three times as tall, approaching twenty feet, and twice as thick. He was clad from head to foot in gleaming silver armor, which unlike the black armor of the guards, seemed to radiate power not drain it away. In his right hand, blade down, was a broadsword taller and thicker than Gerald. In his left hand, tucked into the crook of his elbow, was a helmet of the same gleaming silver metal inlaid with a golden crown.
Despite his impossible height, everything from the shoulders down on this man was normal.
Then Gerald made the mistake of looking at his face.
Gerald had seen the Frenchmen with their wigs, powder, and perfume arriving from Paris to engage in trade. The women swooned over them. They called them handsome, beautiful, and magnificent. Gerald had never liked those men, he’d always thought of them as weak.
This man’s face put those Frenchmen to shame. He made them look like dirt. Gerald had no qualms thinking this man could take any woman, despite her virtue, into his bed. The giant’s jaw was broad, his cheekbones as high as any English aristocrat’s, and his eye was the piercing gray of a stormy sea.
<Eye?> Gerald did a double-take at the man’s face.
One gray eye was scanning the men and women assembled before him, while the other socket was empty and the space around it charred black.
Gerald quickly averted his gaze as the giant’s attention swept over his section of the formation. Once Gerald was sure the giant’s attention had passed he looked again.
Despite the burned out eye socket the man’s face was flawless. On top of his head was a small patch of raven black hair. It was not long, as was the current style. It looked like it was kept intentionally short.
Gerald would have spent more time wondering why a Lord was so out of touch with modern trends, but then his eyes caught what rose up behind the giant’s back. Rising above the smooth armor of the giant’s shoulders were tarnished, white wings.
Just as Gerald laid eyes on them the giant spread them out to their full length and smiled at them. The whole mass of men and women recoiled, not because the tarnished part of the giant’s wings was clearly dried, rust-colored blood, but because of the man’s smile.
Rows of sharp, jagged teeth grinned out at Gerald and the people around him. It was eerily similar to the teeth of a shark Gerald had seen hanging at the port of Boston.
“Behold, Prince Seere, Master of Thieves, The Great Dissenter. Kneel before your master!” The man who’d led them to meet this monster yelled as he prostrated himself on the ground.
Gerald quickly followed their leader’s example, and soon the rest of the formation did as well.
Prince Seere didn’t speak he just gazed out at them with his predatory smile.
“On your feet!” Their leader yelled.
Gerald hurried to obey. The giant was now seated on a throne of gold, and he was still taller than everyone in the room.
“Approach and enter our Lord’s service.”
Gerald did not envy the first man to approach the giant. The man was the biggest of the first line, half a head taller than Gerald, and he was shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. Slowly, and awkwardly, the man got on his knees before the Lord’s feet and gave one giant toe a quick kiss.
The tall man’s lips had barely left the Lord’s feet when the giant waved his hand in dismissal. The tall man stumbled getting to his feet. The Lord waved his hand again and the tall man went flying across the room. He hit the wall with a hard THUMP and did not get up.
Gerald gasped. Nothing had touched the man. He’d been picked up and thrown by the Lord’s gesture.
<Witchcraft!> It was a silly thought to have while standing in Hell, but old habits die hard, and the Preacher’s Sunday sermons still echoed in his mind.
The Lord didn’t even glance in the broken man’s direction as an armored guard effortlessly scooped him up and carried him away.
“Next!” Screamed their leader, pointing toward the Lord’s feet with urgency in his tone and eyes. “Or starve.”
Men and women scrambled up to kiss the feet of Prince Seere. It seemed like hours passed as hundreds debased themselves before him. Occasionally, the Lord would stop a person and look them over for a moment before waving them away.
Finally, it was Gerald’s turn. He hurried up the stairs, careful not to trip. Still, he practically fell down to both knees and kissed the giant’s big toe.
Gerald had not heard of electricity yet, so he had no accurate way of describing the feeling the surged through every nerve in his body. If he had known, he would have been able to accurately describe electrocution.
He remained kneeling, breathing heavily, and waiting for the wave of dismissal. The Lord’s one good eye seemed to cut through Gerald’s body and into his soul, or whatever else was left inside of him.
A few seconds of coiled tension passed before the Lord waved him away. With a sigh of relief Gerald scrambled to his feet and ran to reform with the other recruits. He got back into line and found himself face to face with their leader.
The man had to look up to meet Gerald’s eyes, but that didn’t make the man’s sword-point any less frightening as he jabbed it into Gerald’s sternum. “Don’t think you’ll get any special treatment because our Lord likes you.”
Gerald didn’t have any idea what the leader was talking about. So he wisely kept his mouth shut. He didn’t feel like being impaled today.
“I’ll be watching you closely, meat.” The leader sneered before walking off to make sure the rest of the formation showed proper respect to Prince Seere.
<What have I gotten myself into?> Gerald gulped when the last of the formation had knelt before their new Lord and master.
“Sir.” A familiar voice snapped Gerald out of his memory.
“Yes.” Gerald flexed his jaw and worked the rest of the kinks out of his body.
Now was not a good time to be stiff.
“The General requires your presence in the command tent.” Most people would give this information with a slight bow, but Gerald’s aide had been with him a long time. As long as they were in private they could drop the formalities.
And the rock outcropping that concealed his sleeping place was about a private as you could get out here.
“Tell him I’m on my way.” Gerald leaned his weapon up against the rocks and adjusted his armor.
The thick, black Infernal Iron would have crushed a normal man, but Gerald wore it with ease. In fact, he hardly ever took the breastplate off. Doing so was an invitation for anyone to stick a dagger into his heart.
He thought back to his first encounter with a member of Prince Seere’s Royal Guard and couldn’t help but smirk. The woman had been so intimidating in her full armor he had nearly wet himself. Now, the armor was something he lovingly embraced. Without it, and the Infernal power it stored and channeling into him, he wouldn’t have been able to achieve his current station.
“Have them prepare a SITREP on enemy movements before my departure,” he called after his aide.
The acronym was relatively new to Gerald’s vocabulary, but he found it appropriate. War was a constantly evolving organism, just as complicated as any woman. New meat brought new ideas into the legions. While some of those ideas were idiotic, some were invaluable and led to new tactics and doctrines that allowed Seere’s legions to conquer and maintain power.
In Hell, power was everything, which was the entire reason Gerald found himself sleeping on the side of a mountain watching the enemy’s forces draw near.