With a few flaps of his powerful wings Gerald was back on the mountainside among the airborne soldiers. But things had changed. The winged men and women were no longer sitting around fiddling with weapons or engaging in their pre-battle rituals. Everyone was on their feet. Wings were being shaken out, armor was on, weapons were at the ready, and they were organized into their individual companies.
Ten blocks of one hundred soldiers dotted the mountain like angry pimples ready to burst on the approaching enemy horde.
Even in formation, they parted for Gerald. As an Infernal Knight he had an imposing form that parted people as easily as his blade parted flesh. He walked unimpeded to the front where the Colonel was standing with his swords drawn.
“Colonel.” Gerald walked up beside him. “Our mission is the enemy air support.”
The enemy was close enough now that everyone could make out individuals in the black mass moving toward them. It was easy to see the nearly five-thousand screaming, winged predators flying over the legions of ground troops.
“That’s insane,” the Colonel growled. “We’ll be outnumbered five to one.”
Gerald understood that the leader was worried about his regiment, his life, and his reputation; not necessarily in that order. Gerald also knew it wasn’t the Colonel’s place to question his orders.
The Colonel realized his mistake too late. Gerald slowly rotated his head in the smaller man’s direction. The world around Gerald vibrated with agitation. Darkness gathered around him, making him seem taller and broader than he actually was. Spikes grew from his armor and dripped a black poison that would painfully torture its victims until they suffocated on their own tongues and their hearts swelled and burst within their chests.
The Colonel took a step back, failing to hide the fear on his face. “My apologies, Sir Gerald. We will attack and destroy the enemy. Their strength is irrelevant. Prince Seere always prevails.”
The world stilled, the darkness vanished, and the spikes retracted back into Gerald’s armor. “Fear is the tool of the weak, Colonel. I advise that you don’t allow your fear to get the best of you.”
The threat was there. The Colonel would need to fight like a madman if he wanted to retain Gerald’s favor, which was the General’s favor, and ultimately Prince Seere’s favor.
The Colonel nodded, and they both turned their attention back to the coming battle. Gerald kept an eye on the Colonel in case the man decided to stab him in the back. It wouldn’t be the first time someone tried it.
General Icilius’ infantry legions were organized across the pass. The lines were thinner than Gerald liked; ten deep at the center and six at the flanks.
<Artillery will be able to funnel the enemy into the more heavily defended sections of the formation,> he reminded himself. But at first glance he didn’t like what he was seeing. <I need to find their leaders fast.>
Gerald’s eyes traced the formation and moved toward the enemy. A few stragglers from the three companies of skirmishers were running for the newly dug trenches. The two defensive lines in front of the main army looked finished.
Those three hundred skirmishers, all of which would certainly die, were made up of modern soldiers. They were armed with modern weapons and trained with modern tactics. Hopefully, they’d be able to take down ten times their number before they were overrun.
<Hope.> He chided himself for such a childish thought. <Hope has no place in Hell.>
The first rank of Beelzebub’s legions crested the last hill leading up to the mountain pass. There was only a slight incline and a mile between them and Gaius’ waiting infantry. From his concealed position on the mountainside, Gerald could hear their hungry cries and roars of rage.
The enemy surged forward like a tidal wave, but the pass was smaller than the hills they’d been crossing to get here. They were forced to bottleneck as the terrain shifted.
Gerald saw the advantage. “Sniper.” He crossed to the scout sniper he’d spoken with before reporting to the General. “Do you have coordinates?”
The sniper already understood what Gerald was getting at. The younger soldier had already seen that the mouth of the pass was a potential choke -point and had detailed the artillery coordinates in his terrain sketches. Gerald made a mental note to get the forward-thinking soldier’s name after the battle.
“Runner!” Gerald called.
There was a flutter of wings and a young boy appeared wearing a unarmored tunic.
“Take these to the artillery commander. I want a barrage of fire on those coordinates. Tell him it’s an order under my authority.” The back of the paper burned while not actually consuming the paper. Gerald pulled his hand away to reveal a dark seal. “After you have seen the commander report to the General’s staff and explain the small change in the battle plan.”
Technically, Gerald shouldn’t be giving orders like he was. He was outside the regular chain of command. But he knew Gaius, he knew what was at stake, and he knew the General wanted his top commanders to show initiative ─ as long as it fell within his overall intent. Lastly, he was an Infernal Knight. People did what he ordered, especially lowly artillery regimental commanders.
The boy bowed deeply, nearly scraping his nose in the dirt, and flew off toward the rear.
The enemy legions were still surging forward, funneling through the gap toward the waiting skirmishers. Even if the artillery hit now there would still be thousands of beasts charging Gaius’ lines. But a few thousand was better than tens of thousands.
Gerald’s change was a longer-ranged version of Gaius’ own plan. Creating a wall of corpses would slow down the enemy. If they could dam the mouth of the pass then the enemy couldn’t flood the area with troops. They’d only be able to trickle in. With smaller, more manageable opposition Gaius’ strategy would be even more effective. They would lose less men and the victory would be even greater.
<As will the spoils.> Gerald felt his blood heat as the impending violence drew closer.
He twirled his spear in anticipation. The longer-than-normal blade of Infernal Iron cut through the mountain rock effortlessly. With his power, Gerald had honed the blade’s edge to a molecular level. It would cut nearly anything in existence with little resistance.
Whistles filled the air signifying the runner’s message was received. One moment Beelzebub’s mutilated creations were rampaging through the pass, and the next they were engulfed in flames. Those who weren’t swallowed by the inferno of fire were cut down by the shrapnel. Cries of pain joined the calls for blood, but the enemy still pushed forward. Thousands came into range of the skirmishers while thousands more died as the artillery bombardment continued.
Cracks started to fill the air as the three hundred skirmishers opened fire. Sharp singular cracks echoed off the pass’ walls from an infernal variation of what the younger soldiers called an M4. Louder steady booms of what they called a “Ma-Deuce” nearly drowned out the more numerous M4s.
Now Beelzebub’s minions in the pass started to die. Whole companies were mowed down by the skirmishers. Creatures with avian features wailed, died, or continued to screech as they bled out.
Unlike Gaius’ own legions, Beelzebub’s forces would not immediately turn to ash and return to his kingdom. It could be hours or days before the corpses of the dead would vanish and return to the rival lord’s realm. Seere’s legions had the power of hellish resurrection on their side. Managing your resurrected was a crucial tactic in the eternal wars of Hell.
Despite the artillery salvos, an entire legion had filtered into the pass. Even with overwhelming firepower three hundred was no match for ten thousand. The weight of fire slackened as the first of the three companies jumped out of the trench and ran for the second line of defense.
Gerald saw the tactical error immediately. <The trenches are too far apart.>
The first company would only reach the second trench seconds before the enemy reached the first. The second company would be caught in the open between the re-entrenched first company and the rampaging enemy legion, and the third company would still be in the first trench being slaughtered.
Gerald felt a twinge of sympathy for the skirmishers but quickly banished the thought. He’d been a skirmisher once. He knew a skirmishers job. It was their job to harass the enemy or die trying.
The jungle was hotter than hell, which Gerald found ironic at first. The unit veterans told him to dress in light layers. He didn’t believe them. He was wearing a hardy leather vest over a heavy tunic. He’d still been shivering when they left the city and marched for what seemed like three days and nights to the borders of Prince Seere’s lands.
Now, in the lands of his Lord’s enemy, Gerald was regretting his decision.
He moved forward slowly, spear out in front of him, while watching where he stepped. Apparently, he wasn’t watchful enough. His foot came down on a dry branch and there was a loud SNAP. The sound seemed to echo through the tropical nightmare the skirmishers had been living in for the last few days. Although, it was hard to tell in this place. The land was in a state of eternal twilight. There was no moving sun to mark the passage of time.
Gerald was part of a five man team, now down to three. Their mission was to harass the boarder of their Lord’s greatest enemy.
His name was Cain.
There couldn’t have been two more different kingdoms. Cain’s land was humid, tropical, and untamed where Seere’s land was cold at its heart, temperate at best, and rigorously organized. The endless fields of wheat the skirmishers had crossed to reach the border were pleasant enough. But aside from the slight rise in temperature, Gerald didn’t find the fields any better than the city. And the people working those fields didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves.
Gerald would gladly go back there now.
The three skirmishers froze as the snap echoed through the jungle. Gerald held his breath. A man armed with a sword, whose name Gerald still hadn’t learned, glared at him. A woman with a bow kept frantically looking behind them. They’d had another spearman and swordsman at the beginning of their mission. The swordsman had drowned crossing the river that marked the border between the two kingdoms, and the other spearman had been killed by the defenders.
Gerald strained his hearing while holding his breath. His pounding heart and rushing blood drowned out anything he might have noticed. They stayed silent for a long time. They’d fallen for this trick before. It was how they lost the other spearman.
The lone swordsman was the team leader. He would figure out when things were safe to go. It was just Gerald’s job to look, listen, and feel for danger.
He didn’t sense a thing.
Slowly, the swordsman rose from his kneeling position. He turned in a circle for one last look before he motioned for Gerald and the archer to keep moving. Gerald exhaled a sigh of relief and took one step.
A javelin shot from the overgrowth straight toward his chest. Quick reflexes saved his life. He threw himself to the side and onto the wet soil. The soil moved beneath him. Living things crawled just beneath the surface. Worms poked their heads above the fertile dirt, tiny mouths with razor sharp teeth grinning and snapping at him.
Gerald jumped to his feet and turned to run. The swordsman had his back to a tree and his eyes desperately searching for the unseen enemy. The archer was more permanently attached to the same tree. The javelin had pinned her to it. She was already dead. A surprised look mixed with a hint of pain frozen on her face. The enemy liked to dip their weapons liberally in the poisons native to the realm.
A shriek came from directly above him. Gerald threw himself back onto the dirt, braving the disgusting worms as they tried to slither into his mouth, nose, and ears. He rolled, slapping the disgusting creatures off his face, and got to his feet with the spear at the ready.
The swordsman was dancing around, using the tree and impaled archer as cover. Hounding him like an animal was one enemy soldier.
She wore a green loincloth than blended into the foliage around them. The rest of her was bare and nothing but muscle and bones. She looked like a decomposed corpse. She cried with rage and frustration as she swung a serrated club at the swordsman’s head. She missed and the swordsman planted a boot in her gut, kicking her back. She rolled with the blow and came up facing Gerald with two short daggers made of bones in either hand.
Gerald was horrified but couldn’t look away. One side of her face was nothing but bone while the other had scraps of flesh still hanging from it. Despite that, normal brown eyes with huge, dilated pupils stared at him. Her body wasn’t in much better shape. One of her breast was completely gone. Underneath was a little skin, but beneath that the white of her ribs showed through. The skin of her other breast was scrapped off, her nipple was gone, and all that was left was a lump of red muscle. No blood flowed from any of the openings.
“Kill the bitch!” The swordsman ordered just as the feral woman screamed and charged.
Instinct took over and Gerald thrust with his spear. The small daggers didn’t have the ability to parry the blow and his spear point drove through her still intact breast. She cried and fell backwards. Gerald jumped to avoid the slashing bone-blade, and brought more weight down onto the spear, pinning her to the ground.
<Just like the Captain did to me.> Gerald vividly remembered his second death, and he hoped that one of these wild creatures had done that to his cruel commander.
The swordsman quickly stepped forward and took the woman’s head off with a clean chop. Despite that, the body still continued to slash for several seconds before going still and then evaporating into ash.
“Good job, meat.” The swordsman breathed heavily.
Gerald nodded, but kept his eyes scanning for more threats. This was his first mission. He wouldn’t be “meat” anymore if he lived through it.
<Whatever motivates me to stay alive> He thought.
The now-dead archer had contemplated out loud taking her own life more than once in this hellish jungle.
“Let’s move back to the Styx.” The swordsman pointed back toward the river. “I’m sure they’ll counter attack. We’ll hide in the trees and jump on them when they do.”
Gerald nodded. It seemed like a good enough plan. He grabbed the dead archer’s bow and quiver of arrows. She wasn’t turning to ash like the already departed feral woman.
“She’ll be back a few days after we get out of this shitty place.” The swordsman took point and started the walk back to the border.
He’d never make it.
Halfway back they were ambushed again and the swordsman took an arrow to the throat. Gerald killed the two skeletal warriors, made it to the river, and successfully waited for the rest of the skirmishing forces to withdraw.
He’d been credited with three kills on the campaign, was no longer referred to as meat, and finally got himself a proper weapon: a spear with an actual blade. Not a wooden stick with a jagged piece of metal strapped to it.