Gerald stepped around the protective rock and emerged into the middle of an assembly area. Around him dozens of other soldiers occupied their time with assigned tasks or pre-battle rituals. A select few wore meager versions of Gerald’s breastplate. Others wore smaller bits of protection: gauntlets, chainmail made of dull metal, or just a simple wooden shield. Each man was armed and protected with what they’d earned in battle; which meant the thousand men on the mountainside, a full regiment, were a unit that hadn’t seen much action.
<This time is as good as any.> Gerald smiled and approached the sheer cliff at the edge of the mountain.
He eye-balled the drop to the ground at a thousand feet. Not that it mattered if anyone fell from the mountaintop. Every single soldier in this regiment had wings.
This was a regiment of what the younger soldiers called the “Airborne”.
Gerald didn’t love the term but it hit the unit description right on the nose.
“Sir Gerald.” Several soldiers stopped what they were doing, stood, and bowed as he passed.
Gerald waved them back to their tasks. He knew the value of the preparations, both physical and psychological, that the soldiers were engaged in. He didn’t want to disturb them.
But such a disturbance was virtually guaranteed. It wasn’t every day that regular soldiers saw an Infernal Knight walking among them.
Gerald stretched out his own charcoal gray wings to their full width which dissuaded anyone else from approaching. He had better things to do than speak with these soldiers. The general was waiting for him.
The soldiers around him took the hint. They returned to preparing for battle. Most were armed with crude spears or swords. Gerald spotted a small group gathered together who had pikes, battle axes, and broadswords. They were the veterans. Only time in battle could explain the armament.
Gerald watched them a moment longer before continuing to the very edge. There a winged man in a breastplate of Infernal Iron and armed with two short swords that formed an X on his back was gazing out over the desolate plains below them.
“Colonel,” Gerald greeted the regiment’s commander. “I’m on my way to see the General. Any final reports you want me to pass along.”
The Colonel, although technically outranking Gerald, bowed at the Infernal Knight’s approach.
It took something special to be a knight. In fact, there were exactly one hundred within the twenty-six, ten-thousand-man legions of Prince Seere. Gerald was no mathematician but one hundred out of two hundred and sixty thousand made him much more valuable than a single regimental commander.
“Sir Gerald,” the Colonel straightened from his bow. “I believe we have revised enemy strength estimates you can pass along.” He gave the man lying on the ground next to him a kick in the gut.
The low ranking soldier, whose wings were a dusty brown to match the mountainside, didn’t even grunt. He kept his focus on the sights of the long rifle he had nestled into his right shoulder. On the ground next to him were sketches of the battlefield. The paper contained everything from sectors of fire to range markers. The concepts were new to Gerald, but he understood their purpose and their tactical value to Prince Seere’s forces.
“Sir Gerald.” The soldier didn’t look up, but he addressed Gerald with respect. “I’ve revised the estimation of the enemy’s strength, with the input of my fellow snipers, to eight full legions of ground troops. And approximately half a legion of air support.”
Gerald took his eyes off the soldier, who identified as a scout sniper, and looked at the plains below. He drew a sliver of power from within himself and sharpened his vision. In the distance, less than an hour’s march from the mountain pass, was the black, undulating mass of the enemy army.
<An army eighty-five thousand strong.> He was good enough at math to know that was almost a third of his Lord’s total forces.
To the untrained eye that could cause fear or even panic, but Gerald was a veteran. He took it all in with cold calculating eyes and the certainty of victory. He would not fail.
“Thank you, Colonel. Prepare your men. I’m sure they will be needed soon.”
A cruel, savage grin split the officer’s face as Gerald turned and walked away.
Gerald gave the gathered airborne regiment another glance, but this time he looked past the physical plane. He looked at the infernal power each of them held and what they were doing with it. Most betrayed their battle-naivety by pouring their allotted power into their weapons or defenses. Pumping power into your blade, shield, or body was a necessity for foot soldiers, but it was a death-wish for the Airborne. Gerald looked down at himself and watched as the pulse of his considerably greater reservoir of power was pumped into his wings.
Wings gave a soldier tactical mobility and the high ground, but they were weak, fragile things if not properly reinforced. Since Gerald received his orders to report to the front he’d been pumping power into his wings. By the time he joined the battle they’d be stronger than armor and able to cut and stab better than most swords.
Gerald looked over his shoulder with his extra-sensory vision and gazed into the shimmering veil that was blanketed across the mountainside. His Lord might not be physically present, but he’d lent his power to the battle. The veil warped the world around them and concealed their presence while being undetectable to the enemy. The regiment would have the element of surprise when it sprang to sink its teeth into the enemy.
With a smile similar to the Colonel’s, Gerald looked away, returned his vision too normal, and walked off the opposite side of the mountain. He savored the sensation of falling, of the wind whipping around him and through his short-cropped blond hair. At the last moment he unfurled his wings to catch the updraft. If any of the novices had tried that move their wings would have snapped and they would have plunged to their death. But not Gerald. He easily pulled out of the fall and effortlessly soared over his own army’s encampment toward a large camouflaged tent in the rear.
He pulled up near the entrance and allowed himself to drop the last few feet to the ground. He landed with enough force to shake the earth. In the service of his Lord, Gerald had grown larger, broader, and stronger than humanly possible. With the addition of his full suit of armor, the Infernal Knight looked particularly terrifying to any who opposed him.
That was a gift he savored.
The guards at the tent flap were properly intimidated. They both gulped and stumbled out of his way. Gerald used his wing to push back the tent flap. It was the smart way to go in because he’d rather take a surprise attack to the wing than his unarmored head.
Despite his status, one was never safe in Hell.
“Sir Gerald.” An annoyed voice called out from a mass of armored bodies surrounding a large horizontal map at the center of the room.
Most of the commanders parted before him, like the guards at the entrance, but once he passed through them Gerald came face to face with one of the only people who scared him. The General was bigger and broader than he had been on the first day Gerald met him, but still a foot shorter than the Infernal Knight.
Gerald would never forget his first day in Hell or the Now-General’s unkind words to him. But even more important, he would always remember how his first day of training ended.
After they’d knelt before their new Lord and Master they marched back through the beautifully carved door and along the entire length of the golden hall. Gerald had eyes for nothing but the man’s head in front of him. He didn’t dare step out of line after the smaller man’s threat. A threat he felt the man would have no problem following through with.
<Something is different.> He thought as the steady thumping cadence of hundreds of feet echoed through the hall.
He’d felt it the moment his lips touched the giant’s feet. <Something has changed.>
Gerald felt more grounded now; heavier and with more substance.
Halfway down the hall the column of recruits was met by two other men. They barked loud, angry orders and the large formation split into three smaller ones. Unfortunately, Gerald’s section still marched under the watchful eye of the small man.
On the far side of the hall stood another set of doors. These doors were unadorned utilitarian looking contraptions. Two large blocks of metal lay across the door, each supported by three giant wheels. It took twenty of the largest men Gerald had ever seen, not including their Lord, to turn the cranks that moved those slabs of metal.
Unlike the rest of the golden hall these doors were midnight black.
The three formations continued their march out of the hall and into the dull light beyond it. Gerald took his first step onto the packed earth and felt all the warmth sucked from his bones. He immediately began to shiver at the sudden emptiness. He looked longingly over his shoulder at the discernable glow of the great hall.
“Eyes front, meat!” The small man snapped at them. Gerald wasn’t the only recruit missing the hall’s heat.
They continued their march through a city of rough huts made of wood and straw. There weren’t many brick and mortar buildings, and they were concentrated solely around the hall itself; which dwarfed everything else in sight.
Gerald looked up into a perpetually gray sky and felt his breath catch in fearful wonder. A tapestry of moving shadows danced across the gray. It was like Gerald was looking through a thin sheet of paper at something above him, but it was so far and so high he’d never be able to reach it. And he wasn’t sure he wanted to.
If the sky was bad, the sea the city sat next to was worse. The water was dark and thick with foam that hissed unnaturally as it crashed against the frozen shore. A never ending cloud of steam rose from where the sea met the land, casting a barrier of fog that restricted visibility.
It felt like they were on the edge of the world. Only a few steps away from oblivion.
“Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” The small man brought them to a halt in an open circular space in the middle of the city.
He smiled and Gerald felt more aching cold seep into his chest.
“My name is Captain Gaius Icilius. I am your new commander.”
Everyone was too busy shivering to question why this man was their leader.
“You have all been chosen for service in our Lord’s legions. This is a great honor and a privilege. Better the legion than the forges, the farms, or the brothels.” His sneer lingered on a few of the women in the company.
“I will teach you all how to fight. I will teach you how to bring honor to yourself and your unit. I will teach you how to control your power. And I will teach you how to stay alive.” His eyes swept over them cold and dispassionate. “I only ask for your loyalty.”
Gerald couldn’t stop his face from contorting in anger.
<This man wants us to pledge our loyalty to him?>
Gerald was loyal to no man he didn’t trust, much less know, and definitely not to a man who seemed to lead through intimidation.
The Captain’s eyes focused on Gerald, picking him out easily from the crowd.
“You, step forward.” He gestured for Gerald to come into the open space between the rest of the recruits and him. “That’s an order.” He added when Gerald hesitated.
Grudgingly, Gerald stepped into the open area. Everyone’s eyes were on him, judging him.
“Here.” The Captain tossed a wooden spear with a crudely attached blade of metal tied to the tip with chord. “Training begins now.”
The Captain grabbed a spear of his own and advanced on Gerald.
“Parry, parry, thrust, thrust!” The Captain roared, driving his spear forward.
Gerald knew the technique and batted the spear aside and then thrust his own forward. The Captain executed the same parrying. They danced back and forth for a few rounds before the smaller man held up his hand.
“It is simple. React and counter. Understand?”
Heads nodded around them.
“I said do you understand?!” The Captain bellowed.
“Good.” He smiled and turned his unkind eyes on Gerald. “Now we fight for real.”
<Parry.> Gerald thought, moving his spear to deflect the Captain’s thrust.
He blocked like he had every other time, but the spear didn’t budge. Instead it shot forward, brushing aside Gerald’s defense, and buried itself deep into his gut.
Gerald screamed in agony as he toppled over, the spear still imbedded in his stomach.
“We fight to win!” The Captain yelled as he removed the spear from Gerald by placing his foot on his heaving chest and pulling.
“Wh. . .?” Gerald tried to question why the man was killing him, but a lungful of blood fountained out of his mouth and cut off his breathing.
He looked down at his wound and wanted to scream. Not only was his blood soaking the ground around him, but his body seemed to be turning to ash. It started to flake away, starting at his wound, and working its way quickly outward.
“Train like your life depends on it and I promise to bring you the honor and respect of the legions. Fail,” the Captain looked down at Gerald with disgust, “and you will suffer.”
With a swift and powerful thrust the Captain drove the spear into Gerald’s heart.
That was the second time Gerald died.