Gerald shook his head and pushed the memory of his second death to the back of his mind. This briefing was neither the time nor the place to reminisce. Plus, things had gotten better after that.
“General Icilius.” Gerald gave a small bow to the man commanding Prince Seere’s forces on this battlefield. But he never took his eyes off his surroundings. “I have the latest reports from the scout snipers.”
The General’s face twisted into a scowl. He was not the biggest fan of the legion’s newly adopted tactics. Gerald had no idea how long Gaius Icilius had been fighting for their Lord, but it was long enough that he was set in his ways.
But old dogs could always learn new tricks, and they learned them when they were ordered to by a Lord of Hell.
“What do the snipers have to say?” The old dog had learned those new tricks but still didn’t like them.
“Enemy strength has been revised to eight full ground legions and half a legion of air support,” Gerald relayed calmly.
The General’s scowl deepened.
“Thank you, Sir Gerald, please stay. We need to alter our battle plan.”
Gerald nodded and stood off to the side, close enough that he could see the map stretched across the table, but far enough on the periphery that the other commanders could easily lose sight of him. The map was not any type of map he had seen when he was alive. It was made of tightly stretched vellum, but was etched in intricate detail. At the will of the viewer the map could expand and contract to any section of their Lord’s domain, or any ground his legions were occupying. Right now it was showing the mountain pass that was their battlefield and the area around it stretching for miles.
On the far side of the map a mass of black, misty figures was slowly marching forward. The mist congealed and took the shape of the approaching army. It showed vaguely man-shaped creatures. All had been mutilated at some point. Parts of their body had been removed and replaced.
Gerald saw many with bird-like heads and beaks. Some had wings but were flightless and nearly all of them had talons or other cutting extremities. These soldiers didn’t need weapons. They were weapons. The same was true for the half-legion of air support, except they had working wings.
It was typical to see this type of mutilation and madness from the legions of Beelzebub. The Lord of All that Flies’ larger kingdom bordered Prince Seere’s on one side. Unlike Gerald’s relatively merciful ruler, Beelzebub took pleasure in the suffering of his damned souls, and his Infernal legions didn’t receive any special treatment.
<Which is why he is a constant threat to Prince Seere’s kingdom.> Gerald glared at the map.
The approaching army, although eighty-five thousand strong, was nothing more than an angry mob being prodded along by a few only half-crazed commanders.
“We can expect simple, brute tactics from the enemy. That has not changed.” The General addressed his own gathered commanders. “They will advance in force and try to crush and overwhelm us.” Gaius gazed harshly at the commanders, his eyes literally smoldering with Infernal power. “We will hold.”
The only other option was a slow and painful death. That was Gaius Icilius’ punishment for those who fled.
“I want two shallow trenches dug immediately, each five feet deep and across the front of our entire lines.” He drew his finger across the positions on the map. Red lines appeared where he touched vellum. “Place the first here.” He indicated a location about a thousand yards from the front of his lines. “And a second here.” The second line was maybe two hundred yards from the mass of red mist that indicated his own forces. Unlike the black wave of screaming avian creatures approaching, the red mist showed orderly men waiting in organized formations.
Digging defenses that quickly would have been impossible for a mortal human army, but an Infernal legion would have no problem accomplishing the task.
“I want three companies of skirmishers in the front trench. Once the enemy gets into range they will open fire. When the enemy begins to draw closer they will bound back to the second trench under cover fire one company at a time. If any remain they will retreat behind our front lines after their positions are overwhelmed.”
The old dog didn’t like the new tricks but he sure knew how to use them.
“Our three legions of infantry will form up here.” The General pointed to the narrowest section of space between the two mountains.
It was the only entrance to Prince Seere’s lands in the area, and was the obvious target of the enemy. Thirty thousand men plugging a gap a quarter of a mile wide was still going to be challenging, but Gerald knew the General had it covered.
“We have two regiments of infantry in reserve. They will reinforce the line if it begins to weaken or breaks. But I say again,” the General’s smoldering glare burned into the other men, “we will hold.”
“Sir, we…” Another commander started to speak up.
“Artillery,” the General spoke over the foolish commander, “will reinforce our flanks if need be, but I want it to concentrate its fire across the space one hundred yards from our front line.” Gaius indicated the positions on the map. “I want Infernal Iron to rain on these creatures. I want the iron rain to build me a wall of their dead. With that wall built the enemy will struggle to advance over their own losses. When that happens we will push forward. The enemy will be caught between its own dead and our blades. And we will slaughter them.”
Gaius might not be a fan of the newfound tactics, but he loved modern artillery.
Gerald nodded at the plan. Gaius knew more about tactics then he did. It was Gerald’s job to jump into that mob of mutilated demons and enact his own one-man slaughter. That was the purpose of an Infernal Knight: to kill, conquer, and unleash his intimidating presence on the battlefield.
Those were all things that Gerald had become a master at.
“Our own airborne regiment will reduce the enemy’s air support.” The General continued. “Those snipers can make themselves useful and remove the threat to my infantry. Sir Gerald.” Gaius looked up from the map. “You will stay with the airborne and move when the time is right.”
“Yes, General.” Gerald bowed his head slightly.
That was Gerald’s real purpose here. When the time was right it was the Infernal Knight’s job to shift the course of the battle, either by killing other knights or destroying the enemies leadership structure. Gerald would need to find the half-mad commanders of the rampaging horde and end them.
“Questions?” The question was not a question. Gaius’ plans were never questioned. “Good. Return to your troops and prepare for battle.”
The commanders bowed respectfully to their leader and left one by one. Only Gerald remained. When it was just the two of them Gaius’ expression relaxed to something approaching hardened granite, which Gerald took as affection.
“It’s a good plan, Sir.”
“It is, but our own scouts royally fucked us.” The General’s eyes burned with anger as he studied the map. “Eighty-five thousand against our thirty-five thousand.”
“It will be a great victory.” Gerald replied confidently.
“That will depend on you.” Gaius turned toward the knight. “Once you have the commanders’ heads their mob will break, and our artillery will pound them all the way back over the horizon. But all of this is simply a stalling tactic until you can strike. So strike quickly, Gerald. Or your favor falls with mine.”
It was an implied threat. Gerald knew that. He had hitched his wagon to Gaius Icilius since his first day in Hell, even if he didn’t know it at the time. Gaius’ success was Gerald’s success and vice versa. If they failed here they would both fall from their Lord’s favor. And that was unacceptable.
“I will kill them, Gaius. Just hold the line.” Gerald’s face hardened with resolve. He gave one final bow and exited the tent.
He unfurled his wings and with three mighty beats he was soaring through the air toward the backside of the mountain. He looked down as he passed the legions of Prince Seere and noticed how small they were compared to the horde in the distance. An even smaller force was frantically digging the trenches while the three companies of skirmishers moved into position and set up their weapons.
<This battle might be interesting after all.> Gerald smiled as he rejoined the regiment on the mountainside. <And if we die there is always next time.>
Gerald had no intention of dying today, but no one ever did.
Gerald coughed, his lungs spasmed, and fluid flowed from his mouth. His chest heaved again and again as an endless amount of gook seemed to empty out of him.
<Wha…what happened?> Gerald’s mind thought in a panic.
The last thing he remembered was the cold, wet mud on his back and Captain Icilius standing over him.
“This must be your first time.” A voice cut through the memory and brought him back to the present.
Gerald looked around and almost vomited again. He was standing chest deep in green-yellow sludge. The sludge stewed and churned grotesquely. Giant bubbles formed as far as the eye could see. They grew taller and larger before silently bursting. They might have been silent but the smell was deadly. Gerald gagged again as a nearby burst wafted in his direction.
“Where am I?” Gerald slogged out of the gunk struggling against it.
It almost felt like the liquid pulled against him, trying to drag him back into its foul depths.
“The Resurrection Pool.” The voice stated calmly.
“Resurrection?” Gerald pulled his feet from the pool and onto hard ground.
Unlike where he had died, the Resurrection Pool was warm. Even if it smelled foul, Gerald wanted a few more moments to savor it. If he’d learned nothing else it was that Hell never stayed bearable for long.
“Did you think dying in Hell gets you out of your eternal debt?” The voice cackled in laughter.
Gerald followed the sound to a dark hole in the wall. Next to the hole, and a steady trickle of people exiting through it, was a tiny man sitting on top of a pile of stones. Gerald approached him slowly.
“Watch the scroll!” The man screeched as Gerald drew near and almost stepped on parchment that was camouflaged by the dimly lit Pool.
Gerald quickly jumped away. “How, Sir?”
“You will always resurrect here, Gerald Fuller, recently appointed skirmisher under Captain Gaius Icilius. There is no end to your servitude to our great Lord.”
“And you?” Gerald asked, feeling anger build in his chest. He didn’t like being lectured by a guy who sat in this warm place for eternity. “What do you do?”
“I am the Record Keeper.” The tiny man replied like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “So do not distract me. Be gone.” With a wave of his hand Gerald felt his body accelerate even though his feet didn’t move.
In the blink of an eye he was standing at the end of the tunnel with dull sunlight only a few feet away. He looked back and saw nothing but the blackness of the hole. The Record Keeper had vanished.
<Creepy.> Gerald suppressed the involuntary shiver as he started to walk toward the light.
The experience made one thing abundantly clear. He didn’t want to die again. He resolved to do just that as he stepped into the dull light, the cold sank back into his bones, and his eyes focused on the city of soldiers spread out before him.
<Now how do I get back to that Captain?> He asked himself as he took his step into the frigid air wearing nothing but tattered gray garments. <I want a rematch.>