“Someone give me a SITREP!” A short, broad-shouldered man with black wings and twin gladiuses crisscrossed across his back marched among his men.
Half a legion of wounded defiled the former Golden Hall of Prince Seere, but it was no longer great. Ash, dirt, and blood coated the once pristine floor and the Hall made no move to cleanse itself of the filth. It was a constant reminder that their Lord was gone.
“General Icilius!” A scout dropped down through a hole in the roof left by the enemy’s bombardment. His landing kicked up the dust and started a fit of coughing in the nearby walking wounded. “The latest reports from the front,” he bowed low like he would for their former Lord.
For all intents and purposes, Gaius Icilius was the Infernal Lord of what remained of Prince Seere’s lands; although, he was neither Infernal nor a Lord. It didn’t matter right now because what these lands needed was a general, and he was the best left in the Kingdom.
“General Lee is holding at the Styx.” Gaius cracked a rare smile.
“Yes, Sir. Cain continues to throw everything he can spare against us, but the General is holding his ground.” The scout shook out his brown wings, which had a few noticeable holes in them. His flight in had been eventful.
“Get patched up before you leave.” Gaius pointed toward the healers moving among the injured. They had to ration their power, but he couldn’t help but reward the messenger for the good news.
<Cain was never the real problem.> He smothered the embers of hope in his chest and read the rest of the report.
The last of Seere’s towns had surrendered to Beelzebub. The Lord of All That Flies was continuing he annexation-by-force of Seere’s land and all who used to serve him. The Dux of the town had been a fool and hoped that by letting the Infernal Lord’s horde in without fighting he would be merciful. That had ended with the entire town butchered, their heads chopped off, and displayed on pikes that were being marched up and down the siege lines of the Capitol like trophies.
Gaius offered the reward of an extra ration of bread to any sniper who took down the standard bearers who were affecting his army’s morale. His men had jumped at the opportunity. Gaius and never been a fan of snipers. He found their style of warfare dishonorable, but he couldn’t dispute their effectiveness.
The ground rumbled and he braced himself until the shockwave passed. He couldn’t tell if that was his force’s artillery barrage or Beelzebub’s creatures dive-bombing his trenches and dropping thousand-pound hollow balls of explosive acids. Either way, men were dying by the droves on both sides.
Gaius resumed his confident stride as he pushed through the ornate door to the throne room. The delicate carvings were unblemished, but the door itself had been knocked off its top hinge and was hanging precariously. The massive entrance would crush the closest group of wounded if it collapsed, but they didn’t seem to care. Death by falling door was much better than death by the beaks and talons of Beelzebub’s patchwork creatures.
The throne room was bustling with activity, but everyone stepped aside to make a path for their general. In the center of a room was a giant map of the capitol city and the surrounding countryside with the wispy outlines of the two battling armies. The city showed signs of damage just about everywhere. A nonstop stream of air-defense weaponry was keeping Beelzebub’s flying legions at bay, but they were running low on ammunition, and until they could replenish it they were vulnerable to aerial attack, which was the Lord of All That Flies’ specialty. Even worse, the new ammunition wouldn’t be as effective as what they were currently using.
Infernal Iron took an Infernal’s blessing to empower it with æther. Without the influx of the fundamental building block of the universe they would just be firing plain iron. Their effectiveness would be several orders of magnitude lower, and they were barely getting by with what they had now.
A quick look at the quartermaster tallies next to the map showed they had a day – maybe two – if they rationed the Infernal Iron’s use. They couldn’t make more with Seere gone. Gaius pushed down the growing despair and focused on something he could influence: the mass of black rolling across the map and completely encircling the city on three sides.
Beelzebub had felt the death of Seere just like all of his subjects, and promptly pounced on the opportunity. Thirty legions – three hundred thousand monsters –surged across the border in a blitzkrieg that had overwhelmed the boarder fortifications without Seere’s assistance. Four whole legions were lost as they were encircled and destroyed. The eight that survived the initial onslaught were thinned out in the fighting retreat toward the Capitol. Many took refuge in the smaller cities throughout the kingdom, but they were besieged and eliminated. Within a week of Seere’s death twelve of his twenty-six Infernal legions were wiped from existence. The remaining fourteen were split between the frontier with Cain and the Capitol. General Lee commanded the sixty-thousand men at the border and Gaius commanded the eighty-thousand men defending the Capitol.
Normally, losses wouldn’t be an issue, but with Seere gone they were as mortal as humans again. The latest figures showed one in twenty men were returning from the Resurrection Pool. The Pool was cannibalizing those individual soldiers’ æther as part of the process since it had been robbed of its original power source. Only those with a significant amount of power at death were returning, and they came out weak and nearly useless from the process.
<A warm body is a warm body.> Gaius reminded himself that he could always find a use for a man who could hold a weapon. Even the whores were being pressed into service in the forges and on the front lines. Morale had taken a considerable hit because of it.
Gaius watched the map with concentration born from a millennia of experience. It was real-time information, and he watched the ebb and flow of battle like a master painter critiquing brushstrokes.
<There!> He saw the surge building before the enemy could lash out against his lines and break through.
“All guns, fire for effect on my command at this location.” The activity in the throne room grew even more frenzied as the order was relayed to the batteries throughout the city.
The gun crews were well-trained and waited for the order. They waited for several minutes until Gaius finally saw a thick knot of black surge toward a perceived weakness in his lines.
“FIRE!” Hell screamed and seemed to tear itself in two as hundreds of guns fired from all across the city at one location.
The explosive Infernal Iron shells stopped the charge dead in its tracks and rolled like a wave back into the heart of Beelzebub’s formation. The blackness around the city visibly staggered as something vital was wiped from the playing field.
<Excellent.> A section of the black was going mad. The barrage had killed an enemy leader of some kind and his troops had lost all cohesion and sanity. <They’ll spend hours trying to bring thousands of troops back into the fray.> It gave Gaius some breathing room.
He turned away from the map and looked for a young captain. “Status?”
The Captain’s brow was covered in sweat as he stepped away from the throne room’s central feature. Nearly an entire company of men were rotating through the massive task of securing Seere’s throne.
“We’ve nearly got it secure, Sir. Removing it from the land has taken nearly all of our remaining power, but once we pry it free it’ll move like any old big-ass chair.” The Captain smiled.
“Can we tap it?” That was what Gaius really wanted to know. He had no idea how much power the Divine Instrument held, but he was sure it was enough to do serious damage to the invading army.
The Captain just shrugged in reply. He was a soldier not an ætherial scholar. There were no scholars in the Kingdom because no one ever thought they’d be in the situation they were currently in.
No one thought Seere would ever fall.
“Find me when you’ve secured it and assembled the guard.” Gaius dropped his voice low enough so no one but the two of them could hear.
Gaius Icilius might be many things but he was not the type of man to go down with his sinking ship; especially when it wasn’t his ship to begin with. He was the type of man to build his own lifeboat with whatever he had available, kill anyone who got in his way, and made sure he made it out alive. It was a good thing he’d never even heard of the Titanic, or the movie would have had a very different ending.
“General!” A voice called out in panic. It was a voice Gaius knew well, and the man it belonged to was not prone to fear.
He sprinted back toward the map and immediately saw the problem. The city had been completely encircled on three sides for days, but the fourth side was dominated by the sea and a wall of gloomy fog. In all the time he’d lived in the Capitol, no one was allowed to fly over the sea. It was rumored only Seere could survive whatever was out there on the fringe of Hell. Now, a mass of black was soaring over the water like an approaching storm, and he had no one there to oppose them.
“Retarget all air-defense guns to the sea. All available airborne units are to assemble at the beach. Artillery needs to keep the enemies’ heads down along the siege lines. Reserves to the Hall!”
<Stupid!> Gaius kept his face composed as he chewed himself out. The last attack had been a feint to draw attention from the sea. It had come at the cost of over ten thousand lives, but if they were able to break the city’s back then it wouldn’t matter. <And if everything goes to hell I need to be able to get the hell out of here.>
The Captain now had a time limit.
Gaius watched the map as eleven thousand airborne soldiers barreled toward over forty thousand of Beelzebub’s horde. The air-defense guns roared to life and put a wall of iron between the two forces until right before they clashed. It thinned the herd and Beelzebub’s minions fell from the sky like dark rain, but it was still over two to one odds when it became hand-to-hand combat.
“Deploy the reserves. I want a final defensive line here.” He pointed toward the brownstones near the Hall. “Snipers target the leaders. Get the men on the roofs with whatever we have left.” They’d dug heavy machine guns into positions around the Hall and held in reserve a number of rocket launchers.
<I need more time.> He kept that thought to himself, but nervously glanced over his shoulder at the Captain and his team trying to pry the throne from the floor.
Gaius saw it just as a Colonel let out the curse. A detachment of aerial fighters broke off from the main fight and dive-bombed a section of Gaius’ line that anchored the flank at the beach. He didn’t know what they dropped, but the resulting explosion nearly threw him off his feet. He recovered quickly, but with the reserves committed to defending the Hall there was nothing to stop Beelzebub’s troops from surging into the city, wreaking havoc, and rolling up the thin line of soldiers standing between the populace and certain death.
The situation had gone from precarious to hopeless in less than half an hour.
“Fire everything we’ve got! Turn them to ash!” It wouldn’t plug the hole, but it might slow them down.
Gaius heard the grunt and felt the shift as the Captain moved the throne. The Golden Hall gave a shudder and the ever-present luminous quality faded away. What once felt like a welcome home with a hearth full of men ready to drink and fight was now just a big building with a target drawn on it.
“Anyone with wings on me!” Gaius showed off his impressive wingspan and troops flocked to him.
“Yes, sir.” The young officer easily carried over the golden throne.
Gaius body swelled to three times its normal size so the Captain could latch it to his back between his wings.
“Protect the Throne of Seere!” He had both gladiuses in his hands now and he pumped them up and down as he changed.
“Protect the Throne of Seere!”
“Protect the Throne of Seere!”
“Protect the Throne of Seere!”
He worked the small contingent of soldiers into a frenzy, and with a final pump pointed to the hole in the roof. A thousand soldiers streamed through it with bloodlust clouding the minds.
Four times as many soldiers were waiting for them. They cut each other to pieces.
“Air defense cover me!” Gaius stepped under the hole with the assembled guard.
Unlike the rag tag group who’d just flown to their death, the guard was five hundred well-armed, trained, and powerful soldiers. Gaius waited until the heavy boom of nearby guns and contrails of rockets whizzed by the opening before shooting off into the sky.
It was madness.
Gaius could feel the air everywhere shuddering with violence as high-velocity rounds cut through it toward their targets. He had to deftly dodge a few outbound artillery shells as they screamed toward targets threatening the siege lines. To his left, the city burned from a combination of plunder and the artillery’s failing attempt to beat back the horde. It was a different sight than what he’d seen on the map – more brutal – but one he was still accustomed to, and the conclusion was clear.
The city would fall within the next few hours. Gaius needed to retreat, but there would be no retreat for the trapped legions. They would attempt a break out, but they had to be down to fewer than fifty thousand men now, and they were up against at least five times their numbers. It wouldn’t succeed.
“Sir, we need to move.” They’d lingered just a few seconds too long and had caught the attention of an aerial patrol. At least a thousand of Beelzebub’s soldiers altered course and shot straight at them.
The boom of air-defense guns drowned out the guards’ roar as they headed straight for the patrol with Gaius at the head of the formation. By the time they reached them the guns had evened their numbers. Gaius and most of the guard flew threw them. Several limbs fell to the earth while ear-splitting shrieks of limbless foes squawked in their guttural tone for their bastard Lord to save them.
“Cover our retreat, Captain.”
The young officer nodded and peeled away with a hundred men. They looped around and reengaged the enemy while Gauis poured on the speed and shot toward General Lee’s army to the north.
He would regroup there and figure out his next move. He did even see the Captain and his men fall to their deaths covering him as he left his home of over a thousand years to burn.