Banks of the River Styx, Fifth Circle of Hell
“Are you sure this is going to work?” Lieutenant (deceased) Jade Kim was concerned. This was by far the most ambitious scheme she and the Special Forces H Team assigned to her had attempted. It was taking up a frightening amount of resources, all their Semtex, their claymores and their concentrated strength. More than twenty humans, six deceased, fourteen living, and a small group of deceased spectators. Hell was going to hell Kim thought, they’d be having embedded reporters here next.
Beside her, Lieutenant Rollings watched the bottleneck in the road below. The ambush had been very carefully set up and additional troops brought in to bring it off. The problem was, the plan depended upon the baldricks keeping to their usual, predictable, selves. Faced with a problem, they invariably responded the same way, presumably the one that had been tested and proved successful over more years than humans could comfortably contemplate. If they continued to work that way, then this ambush would also work. If they didn’t, then the team here would be seriously weakened. There was a back-up plan for that, if necessary, the whole group would bail out through a portal, the living humans would stay back on Earth while the deceased would quickly re-insert into another region of Hell to join one of the new groups that had started up.
The strategy had been in operation ever since the baldrick forces had started their campaign to suppress the PFLH. They’d begun their encampments around a massive fortification near the now-severed bridge over the Styx. They’d started building them in a checkerboard fashion, each one within sight of the next, moving slowly forward as the lines of outposts were complete. The baldrick commander didn’t seem to be short of troops, that was for certain, and his strategy was quite obvious. To slowly shrink the ground the PFLH had to maneuver in until they were forced to fight in a static battle against overwhelming odds. It was a familiar strategy, one that had been used against guerilla forces since the days of Caesar’s battles in Gaul and probably for a long time before that. Still, Rollings had been taught his trade well and knew how to handle this particular problem. After all, the U.S. Army had been taught that particular lesson in the jungles of Vietnam by some real experts in guerilla warfare. Idly, he wondered just where the dead Vietcong were, they’d make excellent recruits for this particular war.
The dance had started with attacks on the leading edge of the outpost line. When one row was completed, somewhere the next row had to start with a unit being pushed forward. That unit, nine baldricks strong had been ambushed and wiped out. There was no doubt about it, the M-107 rifles were a murderously effective tool when used right and they could cut down the baldricks from ranges that the demons couldn’t easily grasp. After losing the first couple of advance units, they’d tried pushing several forward at once. A rapid-fire series of assaults had done for them as well. As the baldrick casualties had mounted, fighting an enemy they couldn’t see or touch, their morale must have started to plummet because they were showing less and less desire to be moving forward.
Well, that had led to the next stage, the baldrick commander had started to push bigger units forward, a full 81-baldrick company rather than the nine-baldrick squad. Interesting that, Rollings thought, they’d jumped the 27-baldrick platoon completely. That might be a measure of the morale problem down there or perhaps a shortage of junior leaders. Armies that had problems with their NCO numbers frequently dropped the platoon as an effective combat element and treated it as a training ground for company-level NCOs. Whatever. The baldricks had pushed a full company out to secure the basis for their next row of outposts. They’d expected that unit to be attacked and the PFLH had obliged them. They’d taken out the two outposts behind it, isolating it from aid and then laid siege. Of course, the baldricks had done what every army did in such circumstances and sent in a relief force, in this case, two more full companies.
They’d learned the lesson the U.S. Army had learned about that very quickly. The relief force had itself been ambushed, it had been swamped by a hail of rifle and rocket fire that had driven it back in disarray. That battle had cost the Special Forces the life of one of its troopers, fried by a lightning bolt. He’d been too keen, he’d kept firing from the same position rather than changing after every shot. He was doubtless somewhere out here, trying to escape and rejoin the fight as a trooper (deceased). If he could be located, they’d rescue him, DIMO(N) were working on that. By the time the battle was over a couple more of the Special Forces people had been wounded and the team had to be replaced, that was where Rollings and his group had come in.
With their first rescue column mauled and repulsed, the baldricks had thrown in a bigger one, probably the rest of the battalion, almost 500 strong. It had been lead by a major demon, a huge creature who had been carefully photographed and the images sent back to DIMO(N). They’d identified him as Asmodeus, one of the Great Dukes down here. They’d added that it was the custom for senior leaders to lead in person at a critical point in a battle and that had been interesting from several points of view. Not least of which was the fact that the baldricks obviously considered this engagement a critical one. He’d lead the relief force, the PFLH had refrained from engaging it and the outpost garrison had then been relieved.
That had set the style for the next period of fighting. The PFLH would besiege an outpost, inflicting casualties on it but not taking it. If a smaller relief column set out, it would be ambushed and its mauled remains sent scurrying back with its tail between its legs. But if Asmodeus himself led the force, it would be left unattacked. For the last couple of sieges, the baldrick commander had dispensed with the small relief column and led a full battalion himself, obviously convinced that his presence deterred any further attack.
So, the battlefield had been shaped and the blow set up. The baldricks were indeed predictable, it was easy to determine where their future outposts would, if they had such things as checklists, Rollings could have written one for them and they wouldn’t have known the difference between his and their own. He’d been able to choose his ground carefully, the place where he would attack his outpost and the place where he would ambush the relief column. This time, the presence of Asmodeus would be the reason for the attack, not one to pull back.
“There they are Broomstick.” The column was approaching, a way off yet, but still visible, a shining black mass against the gray-green slime of the Fifth Circle. “And the Tall Fellow is leading them again.”
“What’s that above them.” Kim spoke urgently, her binoculars traversing the scene.
“Damn. Harpies. That’s a new wrinkle. They smarten up faster than we thought. They’re staying close in though, they still don’t understand how far away we can reach. Nine of them?”
“Nine, Chris. Confirm they’re close in.” Her radio blipped and she listened briefly. “Three of my people back at Outpost 11-1 have taken a few more shots but the baldricks there have learned as well, they’re keeping their heads down. Those that still have a head that is.” Over the last few weeks, Kim and her team had pulled a dozen or so people out of the mud. Nine had been more or less useless, civilians, ancient, modern and in between, without any useful skills and she had sent those to Rahab. Three had been soldiers, two modern U.S. Army people. One of them had been killed in Vietnam, another in Operation Desert Storm. They’d taken little in the way of instruction and had checked out on the M107 and M114 fast. The third had been a French Poilu who’d died at Verdun. He’d taken a bit more training but his attitude to the battle had been an inspiration. His constant muttering of “they shall not pass” and his assertion that Hell was an improvement on the mud and slime of Verdun had become unit legends.
Rollings watched the column enter the killing ground he had chosen. The Tall Fellow was leading on a Giant Rhinolobster, by far the biggest that had ever been seen, right at the head of his troops where good demonic practice said he should be. Rollings judged his moment carefully and twisted the first of his detonators. The explosive pattern was the same one that Kim had used weeks earlier to kill her first baldrick rider, an X-shape of Claymores but this time, the X had six of the directional mines in each of its arms, saturating the entire head of the column with the clouds of pre-shaped metal fragments. Rollings didn’t stop to admire his handiwork, there was too much to be done. He twisted the second detonator, setting off the huge semtex charge that was directly underneath Asmodeus. Over a thousand pounds of the Czech high explosive was buried there, covered with rocks for fragmentation, but it was the sheer blast that Rollings was relying on. The explosion had the striking power of an 8,000 pound aerial bomb and the explosive blocks had been laid in a dish-shape to focus that blast upwards. Asmodeus disappeared in the rolling orange ball of fire and smoke, even as his troops were scythed down by the claymores.
Above the column, the harpies were flung around by the huge blast, tumbled in mid-air, left stunned and disorientated. Several had been hit by flying rocks and dropped to the ground, others on the rim of the blast pattern started scanning the ground trying to pick up the authors of the devastating blow. Even as they did so, one burst into flame as a .50 SLAP round from an M-107 ruptured his body and his acid blood set his tissues on fire.
Two of the harpies were luckier, they had been on a far swing, away from the sight of the devastating concussion, and they spotted two humans on the ground, firing at the baldricks around the blast sight and so absorbed with that they simply didn’t notice the threat looming above them. The harpies dived on them, grabbing them with their claws, rending their flesh from their bodies, their calls of triumph blending with the screams of the dying humans. One of the Special Forces heavy weapons team saw the attack and swung his .50 caliber Browning machine gun onto the scene, chopping both harpies out of the sky, too late to save their victims. The machine gunner noted that grimly and made it his duty to get the rest of the harpies before they could do any more harm
On the ground, the smoke was clearing, revealing the huge crater where the head of the relief column had been. The mud had been blasted away down to bedrock, figures of baldricks were scattered around but of the Great Rhinolobster there was no sign. It must have been part of the horrible tangle of eviscerated body parts that strewed the area. Rollings surveyed the area intently but it was Kim who spotted Asmodeus first. He’d been shielded, partially, by the rhinolobster he had been riding but he had been thrown hundreds of feet and the lower part of his body was hideously mangled. She shouldered her M-107 and took careful aim through the telescopic sight, putting round after round into the Great Duke’s head. Asmodeus was still moving, trying to drag himself along by his hands, trying to get away from the blows that were destroying him. He felt his strength fading, then there was another blast and his struggle ended.
Kim saw the great body cease moving and watched as two rockets plowed into it, ending the work of destruction. She saw the rest of the column looking at the scene in appalled silence as the stunning realization that a Great Duke of Hell had just died sank in. For a moment everything on the battlefield was still, an eerie silence with neither humans nor baldricks firing. Then it was broken by the hammer of the .50 machine gun as it started to rake the survivors. That did it, the baldricks broke and ran.
“Sorry about your men Chris. We’ll watch out for them. If kitten can find them, we’ll get them out for you.”
“Thanks Broomstick. We’d better get out of here, those harpies were a nasty surprise. We want to be a long way away before the baldricks get their act together and come hunting.”
Throne Room of the Adamant Fastness, Tartaruan Range, Outer Rim of Hell
“There had better be good news.” Belial had had his days on wyvern-back to absorb the news of the death of Asmodeus and there was no upside to that story. One of the greatest Dukes of Hell was dead, killed by humans. If they could kill him, they could kill anybody. They could even kill……. Belial stopped himself, if Satan detected that thought, Belial’s end would be horrible beyond contemplation. “We must avenge Asmodeus.”
“Please tell the court what you told me, about the forges of Sheffield.” Lakheenahuknaasi asked, as sweetly as she could manage following the stunning news of the death of the Great Duke. Her mind was also calculating, if the humans could kill the Great Dukes, then they had to be stopped before they won this war. And if they couldn’t be stopped, wasn’t it time she……?
Captain Shanklin was shaking with fear at the sight of the vast ornate room filled with huge armored demons. Their stares seemed to bore straight into his mind, rendering any notion of backing out now ludicrous.
“Well, m'lords and ladies, you see, all our guns, all our shells are made of steel. You call it 'enchanted iron', not that that's a bad thing to call it of course, since it just be iron with some special additives.”
This caused a minor stir in the court. One of the great armored demons spoke; “Human, do you know the secret of this alchemy? Could you transform plain molten iron into the enchanted iron?”
James gulped. “Perhaps, m'lord, it being the case that I was a foreman at the Bessemer works before the Great War... I would have to see your furnaces...”
As his words trailed off the great antlered demon on the throne spoke in a thundering voice. “I am sure that Baron Trajakrithoth's question was purely hypothetical. Our lord Satan has decreed that hell does not need iron and that no demon shall attempt to make weapons from it. Our furnaces smelt bronze, brass, copper, silver and gold, no iron.” Those words did not seem to be directed at the human, but the next ones were. “Now, what of this 'Sheffield'? It has many furnaces, many forges?”
”Aye, the city of Sheffield makes more steel than anywhere else in the Empire. The best steel too, and many things from that steel, cast and machined.” Despite all that he'd been through, there was still a hint of pride in Shanklin's voice.
The demon lord was clearly pleased and James sagged with relief. “Excellent. Where can I find this city of steel?”
“Why, in Yorkshire, centre of the British Isles, m'lord. Look sixty miles north from Birmingham, or thirty miles west from Manchester, or even twenty miles south from Leeds.”
Belial's expression did not show any hint of recognition at the names of the various British cities, but the rough triangulation seemed to satisfy him for now. “Very good... Jaameshankel.” The count waved his hand dismissively, which Lakheenahuknaasi took as a command to lead the human away.
“You said you had another trai... ah, informant, Euryale? One who knows of the iron chariots?”
“Yes, my lord.” The gorgon queen turned to address another of her retinue. “Present your new friend, Megaaeraholrakni.”
The second handmaiden stepped forward, her clawed hand keeping a tight grip on the shoulder of a short, bald human. The man swayed unsteadily; Megaaeraholrakni had dosed him heavily with her poison, not wanting to risk him having a last-minute change of heart. She whispered into his ear, “these... men... are very interessted in your 'tankss', please tell them what Dee'Troyt can offer them.”
Bob Reed recited his pitch by rote. “Well sirs, if it's quality you're looking for, dee-troyt has the finest workforce and the most modern production lines in the world. No need to worry about capacity either, we built twenty thousand tanks for uncle sam in double-u double-u two. Don't let the guys from cry-slur fool you, with our boys fighting the gooks in core-rea, their lines are tied up turning out em forty sevens for the feds. It stands to reason, if you've got a big order, gee em are the logical choice. We can get a plant switched over for you in...”
The demons were throwing baffled glances at each other. Could this 'uncle sam' really afford three legions worth of chariots for his troops? More likely the human was inflating the figure to impress. 'Tank' seemed to mean 'iron chariot' but what was an 'em forty seven'? Their lord seemed annoyed and that never bode well for the source of the annoyance.
“Enough. Human, you were asked a simple question. Is this 'Dee’Troyt' a major source of weapons for the human resistance?” Belial's tone oozed with the promise of horrible consequences should this question not be answered promptly.
Now it was Bob's chance to be confused. His eyes remained unfocused as he continued; “Why haven't you heard? Detroit is the arsenal of democracy. Eff Dee Arr said so himself.”
Belial couldn't resist taking over. “So Detroit makes all the chariots for the state of Democracy? Which is ruled by Uncle Sam and populated by Feds? And your great general Eff'dee'ar is leading your armies against us, the ones you call the gooks?”
Bob was saved solely by his loyalty to Selfridge's mantra; 'the customer is always right'. “Well, yeah, I suppose you could put it like that...”
The tension was over now that Belial had made sense of it for them. The barons abandoned the hard task of trying to comprehend the insane humans and slipped back into familiar territory; a flattery competition.
“Excellent deduction my lord!”
“Masterful interrogation, Count Belial!”
Belial allowed this to continue for a few more seconds before silencing the court with a chopping gesture.
“You have pleased me...” there was a slight pause as the count pulled the name from the man's mind... “Bobbreed.” He turned to one of his ubiquitous minor demon servants. “Take them both to the guest rooms. See to their needs until I require them again.” The two humans were led away.
“Excellent. Euryale, you have surpassed my expectations. We now have the location of the two most critical arsenals supporting the human resistance. Once they are destroyed, the human armies will find their reinforcements either severely diminished in number or lacking the enchanted weapons that allow them to challenge us.”
Belial had been concerned that the intelligence would be dangerously out of date. The constant stream of unpleasant surprises since the heralds had first arrived on earth had driven home how much the humans had changed since the demons last visited earth in strength. But the first informant had been dead less than two human lifetimes, the second barely one. Save total destruction by war, great cities could not change significantly in a mere handful of decades.
Euryale half-spread her wings, holding the leathery membranes low in folds that touched the ground, and lowered her head. It was a gesture that implied respect and submission without the admission of inferiority that the more usual forms of groveling involved. “I am most glad that my humble efforts please my lord.” she said, with only the slightest hint of sarcasm.
'I shouldn't let her get away with that' Belial thought, 'but I suppose this once she's earned it.'
The gorgon continued, “There were a few other traitors who I thought might be of use to you. They did not seem to know where the enchanted weapons were produced, like these two. But they did claim to know how to make them.”
Belial looked thoughtful for a moment before shaking his head. “Move them to the palace. Keep them isolated and under guard. Perhaps they can be of use to Trajakrithoth, perhaps they are best used as wyvern feed, but that can wait. We have only three days left to meet Satan's deadline.” Actually it was five, but he had already decided to keep the two extra days in hand as his last reserve.
His gaze shifted to the serpentine form of the leader of the Tartaruan naga. She looked distinctly uncomfortable, her tentacles twitching and her coils shifting irritably on the flagstones. “Baroness Yulupki, your naga are ready of course?”
“My lord, the chorusss will have no difffficulty with the firssst portal...”
Belial frowned. “And the second?”
“It isss not my fault, my lord, the additional naaaga I was promisssed, only a quarter of them have arrived. From the rate that they are arriving, three daysss hence we ssshall ssstill have barely a third.”
Belial slammed his fist down on the arm of his throne hard enough to crack the stone. Nearly every demon in the hall startled at the noise, excepting the court mason who merely sighed at the thought of having to carve yet another throne. “Naturally, the dukes seek to sabotage me, claiming honestly that they sent naga while knowing all the time they will not arrive quickly enough to do any good. But I shall not be denied.” he thundered.
The count pointed at Hipparferstiphasus, the leader of his meager flock of harpies. “You will take every demon that can fly and you will search out the witches we were promised. Then you will take every wyvern we have, snatch up the naga and fly them directly to Okthuura Yal-Gjaknaath.”
“Of course my lord.” The harpy bowed low, wings spreading on the floor, then ran from the throne room.
Yulupki writhed. “My lord, without time to harmonissse the chorusss, we risssk...”
Belial smashed his fist down again, this time hard enough to spall splinters of adamantine from the side of the throne. “No excuses. Why are you still here? Take your naga up to the first portal site immediately and make ready to open it up.”
Yulupki bowed, whirled around and slithered away through the great bronze doors. Euryale didn't even bother to hide her smirk.
“And you, Trajakrithoth?” Belial continued ”Tell me you have the shrines ready.”
The baron charged with running the main forges and workshops was a huge demon with streaky brown fur, little of which was visible under his massive bronze armor, and a voice like a stone grinder. “Almost, my lord. The shrines on Okthuura Jorkastrequar are complete. I am allowing my demons no breaks, no respite. The shrines on Okthuura Yal-Gjaknaath will be completed within two days.”
Belial sat back contentedly, but the forge-master had not finished. “I must warn you though, between making the shrine rods and the rebelliousness of the humans, trident production has been completely disrupted.”
Baron Guruktarqor cut in. “Stocks of refined copper and tin are running low sire, half of our smelting furnaces are out of operation. Plenty of ore in the silos sire but output from the mines is also down to less than half.” The baron was small and runtish for a demon of his station, speaking in a voice reminiscent of a squealing boar; most of the court found him intolerable, but Belial found his talent for keeping track of the minutiae of Tartaruan industry useful. “Euryale's manipulations have stopped the rioting but we need more workers sire, demon and human.”
“You shall get them. Already messengers have arrived from Beelzebub, Merihem and Gressil, demanding our best tridents to equip the legions they are mobilizing. I expect there will be more shortly. I have demanded twelve humans and one lesser demon per crate. They will have no choice but to pay the tribute, unless they would rather leave their legions helpless against the human pellet-throwers.”
“If I could make a request, my lord?”
The count tilted his head, inviting Euryale to continue.
“I have some ideas on how to improve the humans' enthusiasm for their work. But I will require some females. A few dozen should do to start with.”
Belial snorted, a reaction shared by most of the demons present. Tartarus had always levied male humans in return for its wares, as both sexes were equally useful to the torturers but males were obviously far superior manual laborers. There was only one thing Euryale could want the females for and Belial didn't like that notion at all.
“Have you forgotten that we still need the psychic energy of the humans? It hardly matters if we produce a few more tridents, if my serfs are rebelling because your pampered humans no longer give up enough energy.”
“My lord, I am confident that will not be the case. You see, recent events have shown how acclimatized to their condition the humans had become. When a human has nothing left to lose, the quality of anguish we can inflict is limited. For a few decades they rage and hate, but then their minds decay into apathy. By mixing in a little pleasure with their pain, by giving them something to lose again, I will heighten their suffering and inject fresh desperation even as they toil ever harder in your service.”
Again Euryale had caught the attention of the whole court and they were nodding in appreciation of her logic. 'She does have a talent for speeches', thought Belial, 'I will have to find a way to make use of that.'
“Very well. I shall permit you to continue your games... as soon as Sheffield and Detroit have been reduced to glowing slag.” Belial settled back in his damaged throne with a question left unanswered. Why did the humans refer to demons as gooks?
There are 550 million firearms in the world, enough for one person in twelve of the world's population. The moral dilemma that faces us is how to arm the other eleven.