Command Building, Camo Hell-Alpha. Martial Plain of Dysprosium
“When can I take my command to battle?”
“Say what?” General David Petraeus stopped admiring his fifth star and gazed at the massive baldrick in his office.
“I have over 300 tridents. Where would you like us to fight? Now that we have joined you.”
Petraeus looked slightly bewildered. “You and your men are prisoners of war. We don’t expect you to fight.”
Now is was Abigor’s turn to be bewildered. “But we surrendered to you. So we should fight for you now.”
“Not according to our rules you don’t. When an enemy surrenders, they get put in a prisoner of war camp. We look after them and feed them until the war is over, then we send them back home.”
Abigor’s jaw dropped open. If Hellish Armies fought that way, both side’s foot soldiers would surrender as soon as possible. In hell, surrendering meant changing sides, not a way out of the fighting. “You humans are impossible.”
Petraeus thought quickly. He guessed he would need a convincing story to make sure Abigor forgot any idea of joining the fighting. Anyway, his baldricks would be a liability on a battlefield dominated by artillery and armor. “Look, the Free Hell Army is much too valuable to us to throw away on a battlefield. We know nothing about Hell, what its like and how its run. You can do far more for us by telling us everything you know than by fighting.”
Meaning we are useless to the humans Abigor thought grimly, but if that were the case, why was he being kept alive? Still, to be a source of information was better than nothing.
“Excuse me Sir. General Ivan Semenovich Dorokhov to see you.”
“Thank you Private. Send him in.” There was a brief pause while the Russian entered the room, his jaw dropping at the sight of Abigor’s huge form sitting sprawled in one corner. “Ivan Semenovich, it is good to have you with us. May I introduce Grand Duke Abigor, formerly in the service of Satan and now commander of our allies in the Free Hell Army.”
Dorokhov looked slightly flustered, starting to salute, changing his mind, and wondering what to do next. In the end he settled for a curt nod of the head. Abigor was equally flustered, normally he’d have hit the ground and groveled, throwing in a good foot-licking as well but he’d quickly learned humans had nothing but contempt for such displays. In the end, he returned the nod.
“Are your troops in position, Ivan Semenovich?”
“First Shock Army is setting up along the banks of the Phlegethon. We have four armored divisions, two artillery divisions in position with the Army artillery setting up. Do you know how many enemy there are?”
“Abigor tells us 243 legions, that’s over 1.6 million Baldricks. Don’t know how they divide up yet.”
“That depends on who is their commander.” Abigor’s voice was thoughtful. “Asmodeus, Beelzebub and Dagon were the three appointments I heard but that was for the invasion of Earth. Do you know which?”
“Its not Asmodeus. He’s dead.”
“What?” Abigor was stunned. “Asmodeus dead? For all his mania, Satan has never dared kill a Grand Duke before. He wouldn’t even kill me, he preferred to send me where you could do this.”
“Satan didn’t kill him, we did. Or rather, the people we have fighting in the hell-pit did. Apparently he led some of his army against our guerillas, walked into a trap and they got him. Asmodeus is dead all right. Thoroughly blown up”
Abigor was awed. “You have done the unthinkable. Even in the Celestial War, no Grand Duke was ever killed. Not even Yahweh achieved such a thing.”
“So its Dagon or Beelzebub then.” Petraeus wanted to get the conversation back on track. “What does that mean for General Dorokhov?”
“It will not be Dagon. Many of his legions are Krakens, sea creatures. It will be Beelzebub. They do not call him Lord of the Flies for nothing. His army has 27 legions of Harpies. The rest will just be infantry.”
“180,000 harpies. I hope you have plenty of triple-A Grazhdanin Ivan.”
“One Tungaska or Shilka for every three vehicles. And many brigades of surface to air missiles. Some old but they still work. All radar-guided. And all the BMPs have shoulder-fired missiles on board. Sometimes it is good to have great warehouses. We are dug in and waiting. Abigor, this Great Celestial War, what happened?”
Abigor shrugged. “It was a long time ago. Two or three million of your years. We had found this planet and on opening a gate back to our home a mistake was made and we opened a gate to here. A place like Heaven but unoccupied except for unimportant creatures. We took it for our own. Then, Satan wanted it for his kingdom, separate from Yahweh’s Heaven. Yahweh wanted both. Satan rebelled and about a third of us joined him. The war went on for a long time but Satan won, Hell became his kingdom and Yahweh kept Heaven.”
“That’s not the way our stories told it.” Petraeus was grimly amused.
“They were written by Yahweh’s people weren’t they?” Abigor grinned. He’d been watching The History Channel on television.
Outer Ring, Seventh Circle of Hell
What amazed Aeanas the most about his time in Hell was the fact that he remained sane. He knew his name. Remembered his family. His wife, his two sons. Remembered dying. Knew that he had been in Hell for a long time(though the exact length of time remained elusive). And his torment never drove him insane.
Perhaps that was the most insidious aspect of Hell: they protected your mind from shattering. From becoming a shell with no feeling, no thought, no mind. After all, what use was there to torturing the mindless husk? The joy in the demon's faces came when they saw his terror, his fear, Aeanas could see this. If he had no mind, he might scream, but would he really feel the pain?
So, Aeanas feared them every time they came exactly as much as he had when they first set themselves upon him. Throughout the ages of screaming agony in the river there had been no emotion associated with his sufferings. How did it feel to have his skin seared from his body, his eyes boiled in their sockets, his genitals burned away? He could never grasp these; such memories danced just out of reach.
That was the rub. If he could remember what it felt, perhaps he wouldn't fear the demons so much. But in the heat of the moment, any kind of mental preparation he had made vanished into a cloud of palpating terror and pain. He always begged not to be thrown back into the river, a simpering weakling, utterly without shame or pity. He screamed the same pathetic, high-pitched scream that he let out every time his body hit the flaming lava, the kind of blameless, ringing screech that only mortal injury and mortal fear can evoke.
Except it wasn't mortal in this place; each time he escaped from the river, Aeanas was made whole again. Somehow. He really didn't have time to think about it, because the respites between tortures seemed fleeting and ephemeral at best. Sometimes he saw others tormented as he, but that really didn't matter.
He was dead.
This was Hell.
And this was how he was going to spend eternity. Each soul-rending abuse seared him but did not destroy him. The memories were not his to cherish. He would never know the wondrous oblivion of insanity. He was instead doomed to repeat every torment as though it was his first, though he knew this wasn't the case.
So, as Aeanas sprawled on the bank, writhing from his burns but never dying, he was in the full grip of panic. His eyesight was only coming back and he would have screamed if he could, if his lungs had not been seared to uselessness. Breathed if he could. Instead, the hard earth of Hell smashed into Aeanas' flailing form. He nevertheless attempted to scramble away. From what, he couldn't say, because he couldn't see more than a few feet. And he couldn't get very far, because he still couldn't breathe. Then, at once, the choking fume and heat were gone. Reflexively, he gulped in air. The sulfur-laden fumes did nothing good for his lungs, but breath was breath. Based on his fuzzy past, he expected perhaps a barrel of molten rock to be poured over him it didn’t happen. He opened his eyes, and he saw a hand. But this hand wasn't scaled. It had no claws. It was a human hand, as his own. Following it up, he saw its owner: a man, naked, stood before him. In his far hand was a spear--no, a trident, but beyond that, the visage of Hell faded to a blurry, ruddy nihility.
Aeanas reeled and tried to scrabble away. What new torment was this? But the figure snatched Aeanas and hauled him to his feet.
"It's alright!" he said in a language that wasn't Aeanas'. But yet, he understood it. How could that be? "What's your name, soldier?"
Aeanas gulped. His throat, long charred by the heat and flames, was already feeling better. "Aeanas," he replied finally.
"Anus?!" another voice shouted. A similarly-naked figure, also carrying a trident, stepped under the tree, into the range where Aeanas could see clearly. "Your name is Anus?!" The man roared with laughter.
"Cool it, DeVanzo," the first man snapped. Again, Aeanas was forced to marvel at the fact that the two were speaking an entirely different language than his own. The first man continued: "He said, 'Aeanas.' That's Greek, right?"
Aeanas nodded, then asked with some timidity: "Who are you?"
The first man started. "Oh, right! Name's Tucker McElroy, from Tennessee originally, though most recently I found myself in the molten river a ways that way. This uncouth gentleman's name is Artie DeVanzo, from New Jersey."
Aeanas nodded blankly. New Jersey? What was that? Where was Old Jersey?
McElroy regarded Aeanas for a moment, then said, "Say, you ain't a new arrival, are you? How long you been here, son?"
Aeanas shrugged. "I...could not tell you. A long time, I am sure."
"Well," DeVanzo said, stepping in, "how did you die?"
"I was struck in the heart with an arrow," Aeanas said. "Then, I believe my throat was cut."
McElroy whistled. "Ain't that a way to go. What was you doin'? Hunting? I didn't know they did that over in Greece."
Aeanas shook his head, his puzzlement now building into a frustration. "Of course not. I was in battle!"
McElroy did a double take. "Battle? Just how old are you, anyway? Shit, no one's used bows and arrows in battle for five or six hundred years!"
DeVanzo then interjected. "What battle were you in? Where was it?"
"It was in Greece, at Thermopylae," Aeanas said warily. Were these demons, trying to trick him into revealing something? What could they be after?
McElroy's eyes went wide, as did DeVanzo's. "Holeeeeee shit," McElroy said. "You died at Thermopylae? The Thermopylae? King Leonidas? Xerxes? The Persians? The Spartans?"
Aeanas nodded. "Yes. Do you know of it?"
McElroy snorted. "It's only one of the most famous battles in history!"
Aeanas shifted his weight. He fear was actually abating. Were they trying to lull him into sedation? "Why?" he asked McElroy in typical laconic bluntness. "It was a simple delaying action. What makes that so famous?"
DeVanzo sputtered, "You faced a million Persians! And there were only three hundred of you!"
"Wrong," Aeanas corrected immediately. "Thespians more than double our number stayed, and we had the Thebans."
McElroy shook his head. "That don't matter none! We got ourselves a genuine Spartiate!" McElroy was now speaking to the other man, DeVanzo. "Man, I can't wait to bring him back to base! A Spartan hoplite from Thermopylae! One of the three hundred!"
"Yeah, and the oldest member of the resistance!" DeVanzo chimed in. "I bet that'll give Ori a thing or two to chew on!"
"Ori's another old revival," McElroy said to Aeanas by way of explanation. "He's a warrior called a Samurai, from a place called Japan, that...well, shoot, it'd be outside what you'd know as the world!" The two men laughed easily together.
"Stop!" Aeanas roared. They would get no more from him; they would confuse him no longer. From this moment forward, they paid for information in blood.
He surged at McElroy and wrapped his arms around him. With fluidity that came with years of practice, he wrenched the man bodily into the air and slammed him to the ground. Most importantly, as he rose, he snatched up the trident and advanced on DeVanzo.
DeVanzo was obviously some kind of fool; he wasn't even holding his weapon properly. With three swift motions, Aeanas swatted the trident aside, forced it from his grasp, and had a point at DeVanzo's throat.
The man instantly raised his hands, and Aeanas jammed it in hard enough to draw blood. He then rotated around DeVanzo so that he was standing side by side with still-dazed McElroy. Through clenched teeth, he hissed: "Explain yourselves, else I will destroy you both!"
And much to his surprise, both men smiled broadly.
"You know, we could actually use you!" McElroy shouted, brushing the reddish dust from his body. A cut on his knee bled feebly. "Alright, here are your answers: as you've probably figured out, you're in Hell. You've been dead for over 25 centuries. That's 2,500 years. The world as you knew it does not exist anymore! You understand? Everyone you ever knew is dead, and probably here, being tortured. You have a wife? Kids? They're somewhere out here!" McElroy gestured wildly at the Hellscape surrounding them. "And they've suffered exactly as you have for that last 2,500 years! Do you hear me?"
Aeanas lowered the trident. McElroy went on, "But things have changed. The situation has changed. We're fighting back, both here in Hell, and on Earth. We're gonna free as many soldiers as we can, and we'll all fight against Hell. Most times, it's modern soldiers, but hey, I can't wait for the guys back on Earth to hear that we got Spartan warrior and a Samurai fightin' with us. Won't that be a trip?
"Anyway, Aeanas, we are the Hell's People's Liberation Front, and we want you to join us." McElroy held his hand out.
Aeanas paused, but just for a moment, then passed the trident back to him. "Good," McElroy continued. "We could probably use some more people proficient in your type of fighting. Word is that our cell won't be getting supplied with modern weapons for a while, so for the time being, we're stuck with more... primitive means of defending ourselves and killing ba--demons. Plus a trick or two we've learned over the centuries."
Aeanas then did something hadn't done since the day before he died, over 2,500 years ago: he smiled. "So they can be killed."
"Betcher ass they can," DeVanzo crooned. "How do you think we got these tridents?"
"So," McElroy continued. "Will you join us? Maybe teach us how to throw a demon like you just did to me? Or maybe how to correctly hold a spear? In return, I'll show you some things that you'd call magic."
Aeanas laughed. "Has anyone said no?"
Nations do not survive by setting examples for others
Nations survive by making examples of others