Gerald watched with calculated detachment as the swarm of Beelzebub’s legion rampaged toward the thin line of skirmishers. He heard the precision single-shots of the M4s, and the three-to-five round controlled bursts of the Ma-Deuce, give way to rapid fire panic. The sound of the skirmishers frantically spraying the approaching horde echoed across the pass.
The first company was almost to the second trench and the second company was starting their retreat. He couldn’t see what happened but they quickly turned around and jumped back into the trench.
<That’s a good decision.> Gerald would have done the same.
The two hundred men in the trench knew they were going to die. They weren’t idiots. It was infinitely better for their reputation if they killed as many of Beelzebub’s spawn as possible instead of being cut down from behind as they ran.
When the enemy legion was less than twenty-feet from the trench, the skirmishers opened up with everything they had. Every tenth round was a tracer round, a round infused with a spec of brimstone so it burned brightly when fired. It allowed the skirmishers to see what their bullets were hitting.
The amount of light that erupted between the two formations showed Gerald just how furiously the skirmishers were fighting. It was brave but short-lived. Less than ten seconds later the light was snuffed out as the horde descended into the trench and hacked, chewed, and ate the skirmishers to death.
Even all the way up on the mountainside Gerald heard their dying screams. It wasn’t a death he would want any man to suffer, but it was still a good death. The unit would be praised for their sacrifice, but only if Prince Seere’s forces won the battle.
Gerald turned his attention back to the big picture.
The artillery barrage was beginning to slacken as the under-strength legion swarmed over the first trench and scrambled toward the second. There was a slight pause, like the universe drawing its breath, before the weapons of the remaining skirmisher company opened fire.
The enemy didn’t even stumble as they continued their charge.
The second trench was only two hundred yards from the frontline of Seere’s waiting infantry legions. The remaining skirmishers would only buy the waiting soldiers another few seconds of peace.
A slow clanging started. It was isolated at first, but then it spread like wildfire. Soon thirty thousand men and women were beating their swords and spears against their shields. Each clang was followed by a feral grunt whose intensity grew as the enemy drew closer.
Like the two companies before them, the last of the skirmishers held their ground until they were overrun by the horde. Gerald was not as impressed by their sacrifice as he had been with the other companies. Until…
The ground erupted as the enemy crashed across the second trench. They screamed in agony as fiery explosions consumed them.
<Anti-personnel mines… clever.> This battle was making Gerald think more highly of the newest batch of soldiers to arrive in Hell.
Just by eye-balling the chaos below him, Gerald estimated the skirmishers had taken down, or injured, half of the rampaging legion. Those were damn good exchange rates, and something Seere’s forces needed if they wanted to survive this battle.
The overhead whistle of artillery ceased, and the remaining forces that had been bottlenecked at the mouth of the pass rushed forward. Most of the air support had stayed with the main army.
“Snipers, target the biggest motherfuckers you can find.” The Colonel’s order was carried throughout the regiment.
Only fifty soldiers in the entire airborne regiment were snipers, which wasn’t a lot of firepower when targeting the enemy heavy-hitters. Still, the boost to morale of seeing a single enemy champion shot from the sky would do a lot for the soldiers who were about to fly into the meat grinder.
Gerald looked over at the Colonel. Every vein in the regimental commander’s body was visibly throbbing. His body swelled from the power coursing through him. Gerald knew the euphoric feeling, but he had to wait. He couldn’t run off into battle like fresh meat. He needed to find the enemy leaders and remove their heads from their bodies.
The remaining half-legion was clustered into a wedge and charging the center of General Icilius’ lines. When they were one hundred meters away the thirty thousand defenders responded with a deafening roar. Shields locked into place forming a wall of metal across the pass. Spears were lowered in the front rank. The second rank kept swords ready to reach over the shields and stab the enemy. Behind them more spears would deal with anyone who tried to jump over the wall. The ranks behind that were just waiting their turn to join the slaughter.
“Open!” The command was yelled by dozens of powerful voices below.
The metal wall opened at pre-arranged positions along the defensive line. The approaching horde saw the openings and charged towards them while bellowing their primal challenge.
A single soldier stepped from each opening, hefted a long tube onto their shoulder, and fired.
A hundred rockets blasted toward the charging legion. They detonated against the front rank less than fifty yards from the men launching them. The rocket attack staggered the charge. Hundreds more of the enemy legion were shredded or consumed in the onslaught.
While Beelzebub’s legion rallied, the shield wall closed behind the retreating rocketeers. Then, slowly, the legion marched forward. Sixty-thousand feet stomped as one as they marched into the struggling mass of darkness. The enemy creatures roared in defiance before renewing their charge, but the odds were not in their favor.
The sword and steel of Prince Seere’s legions met the tooth and claw of Beelzebub’s with a heart-stopping CRUNCH, closely followed by the sounds of metal cutting flesh.
It was a sound Gerald was well acquainted with.
Gerald didn’t know how long he’d been out here: weeks, months, or maybe even years. Whatever the case, life along the banks of the Styx wasn’t that bad. For one thing, it was warmer out here than in the perpetually cold city. There was also less mud. Mud was something for your feet to get stuck in. Maneuverability was the life-blood of a skirmisher. If you couldn’t move then you were as good as dead.
The city was peaceful though. The Styx was not. The days were spent watching the opposite side of the river and trying to gather intelligence on Cain’s forces. The nights were spent on watch, trying to sleep, or fending off the endless raids of Cain’s skeletal warriors.
Right now, Gerald wished it was just another raid.
The entire Third Legion, ten thousand strong, spread out in a bowed line a few hundred feet from the river bank. They’d all been rudely awakened by their commanders, hustled out of their protective Keep before dawn, and told to kill the enemy. They’d been rushed out so fast Gerald had barely been able to grab his spear.
<Someone must have fallen asleep on watch.> Gerald wanted to beat the man or woman responsible to death.
Sometime during the night, a rickety bridge had been constructed and Cain’s forces had crossed into Seere’s lands. Now, it looked like the Third Legion was facing a full enemy legion with more reinforcements crossing the bridge every second.
Someone grabbed Gerald roughly by the shoulder. “You’ve used one of these haven’t you?”
It was Captain Icilius, and he had a musket in his hand.
Gerald smiled. “Yes, Sir.” He took the weapon he’d originally died with.
“Good. Be ready to go at my command.” The Captain stalked away ordering more muskets be distributed to his skirmishers.
<How are we not prepared for this?> Gerald was no expert, but captains running around and handing muskets to people was never a good sign.
He felt a twinge of fear at the thought of dying again, but quickly banished it.
If he died, he died on Seere’s lands, which meant he’d be resurrected quickly back in the safety of the city. It was the best motivation he could come up with at the moment.
<I just need to kill as many of these bastards as I can.> Gerald made sure the musket was loaded and waited for the command.
“Open!” He recognized the Captain’s voice over the tense breathing of the gathered legion.
The legion’s shield wall parted, which Gerald took as his cue to step forward.
Gerald put the musket into the groove of his right shoulder and aimed down the length of the barrel. He couldn’t put into words how good it felt to not see other people with rifles on the opposite side of the battlefield. Just corpses of bone and muscle with wicked looking blades.
Cain’s forces let out a savage cry and charged.
Gerald pulled the trigger. The musket bucked and smoke filled the air around him.
Gerald scrambled back, barely making it through the shields before they snapped shut with a clang. He looked back to see dozens of Cain’s soldiers fall and get trampled by the charging mass of their own legion.
Third Legion roared their defiance and braced for impact. Cain’s soldiers smashed into the first rank, driving the legionnaires back several yards before they could dig their feet in. Then they started to push back. Shields were thrust out, spears jabbed forward, and swords slashed at anything they could find. Cain’s forces screamed and died as they tried and failed to breach the wall of metal.
But something didn’t feel right to Gerald. <We’re moving forward to quickly, winning too easily. Their soldiers aren’t as strong or organized as us, but it shouldn’t be this simple. It’s a legion against a legion, they should be putting up more of a fight.>
“The flanks!” Someone yelled.
<Bastards!> Gerald snarled as the legion responded by folding their flanks in, but not before dozens of Cain’s soldiers made it into the rear areas.
The same area that his company of skirmishers had retreated to after firing their opening salvo.
Thankfully, muscle memory wasn’t lost as Gerald descended into Hell. His weapon was reloaded and ready to go. He aimed and fired point-blank into the face of a charging she-demon.
The woman’s head exploded, and threw her naked body back, which slowed down the next few warriors who wanted to rip out Gerald’s guts. Gerald took those few seconds to flip the musket around and swing it at the enemy. The swinging stock of the musket caught two charging half-skeletons in the face. Both went down and twitched painfully.
He didn’t have time to think. He dropped the now useless musket and grabbed the short-spear from his back. He ducked under a sword aimed for his head and thrust upward, ramming another naked, breast-less woman through the chest. She snarled and chomped at him like she wanted to eat him alive, but with a twist and pull she died and Gerald had his spear back.
By now the legion had reorganized from the surprise flanking maneuver. The Legion collapsed from a single, curved line into a box. It trapped Cain’s warriors inside so the skirmishers and legionnaires could kill them quickly. Half of Gerald’s company died in the process, but they got the job done.
The legion was completely surrounded now, but Cain’s forces made the mistake of trying to attack the legion on all sides and assault the Keep. Wooden palisades circled the stone Keep, and their sharp points impaled dozens of enemies who tried to scale them. Archer and musket fire cut down more before they even reached the wooden gate.
The Keep took the rickety bridge under cannon-fire once they were able to. Hundreds of warriors died from the exploding cannonballs and were swept away by the Styx. With reinforcements cut off and overextended, Third Legion methodically began to eliminate the enemy. Soon they’d thinned the lines enough to open the square, squeeze Cain’s dying legion, and push it back toward the river.
Gerald had to give them credit though. They fought back like cornered animals, which was exactly what they were. Finally, the enemy general was killed, and the last of Cain’s forces either threw themselves into the river of plunged their swords into their own hearts.
There weren’t many worse things than being a prisoner of war in Hell.
Gerald didn’t think about it until it was over. But he’d lived through his first legion-level action and lived. A third of the legion wasn’t as lucky.
Gerald’s reputation grew as a result.