The stones upon which Shakoolapicanthus walked were smoothed from the guards' tread over dozens of millennia. He could almost see his reflection in them, he thought, as he continued pacing along the top of the defensive wall.
The wall – it was massive, the work of millennia. It had been built, at first, of mounded earth, but the earthworks had long been replaced with huge blocks of granite. Fifty times the height of the tallest Dukes, the huge loop towered above the surrounding foothills. A human looking down on it from the air would have thought it looked nothing more than a giant tire sticking out of the ground. The outer face sloped gently down toward the plain, crisscrossed with trenches and ringed with smaller fortifications, parallel to the main wall. The inner face sloped sharply down toward the large inner ring. It was faced with granite, polished by the sweat and blood of thousands of lesser demons and enslaved humans to gleam in the dull, striated light.
Faced entirely with polished granite, that is, save for a small staircase almost too narrow for the scrawniest demons to walk down. That staircase was joined to the ramparts at the top of the wall by a small, nondescript crenelation, which Shakoolapicanthus found himself approaching for the twentieth time since his shift had begun. This was the final circuit, and he was ready to be done with his portion of the guard duties. There was just one task that remained.
He passed the standing guard, taken from Satan’s personal legions. They stood fifty feet apart all around the wall for the duration of their shifts, staring impassively down at the large building in center of the wall's inner ring – and stepped backwards down onto the staircase, as though he were climbing a ladder. The steps were also smoothed by continual travel, but far rougher than the smooth stone to either side. For a moment, he contemplated what a rush up that wall would be like, then shuddered at the thought of even trying, let alone in the face of tridents raining down magic on the attackers. This was a unique fortress, designed to keep attackers in, not out.
At the bottom of the wall, he straightened and turned around. The building was before him, towering over him even as it was dwarfed by the ringing wall; a giant demon-made mountain of stone, is what it was. A ring of demons stood guard about it, and twenty were orderly clustered about the only entrance, staring at it as though it were a poisonous snake about to bite them. Shakoolapicanthus stopped before them and said, “I am entering the Gateway.”
The demon in charge of the guard challenged him in the ritual. “Who are you to enter the Gateway?”
“I am Shakoolapicanthus, a captain of the Guard. I see that all is well within.”
“Shakoolapicanthus, a captain of the Guard, I will permit you to enter the Gateway. Bring word of the inner guard.”
Shakoolapicanthus nodded, the demons before him parted, and he stooped as the guard raised the iron portcullis. As he passed beneath it, he shivered; the feel of iron nearby always made his back crawl. It was the only place in all of Hell where iron had a use; it was rumored that the gate's construction had cost the lives of fifty demons, and that a thousand naga had enchanted it with the strongest spells imaginable.
The iron behind him, he made his way forward through the low, twisting passageway on his hands and knees. It was uncomfortable, and certainly made walking impossible for even the lowliest demons or angels. The stone around him seemed to weigh down on him, to close in on him.
Never too soon, the inner sanctum approached and the passage widened. The first thing that tipped him off was the stench of blood. He rolled his eyes – Again. The two sides sometimes made points by bursting into the realm of the other and slaughtering the guards before dropping back to the relative safety of their own homes. Once, the raiding parties had encountered each other; it had taken two centuries to alleviate the tensions from the resulting bloodbath. Another consequence of the raiding was that only the lowliest, unluckiest demons were chosen to be the inner sanctum guards; Shakoolapicanthus speculated that the same was true of the other side.
The passage opened out into the inner sanctum, a rectangular room as small as possible. Dominating the chamber, seeming too large for the room in which it was contained, was the jet-black portal: the last one open between Heaven and Hell. Creation of portals between the realms had been forbidden at the end of the Great Celestial War, and only one had been kept open to permit contact and the occasional diplomatic delegation between Satan and Yahweh. A delegation had come through recently, Shakoolapicanthus reminded himself; according to rumor, human magery had destroyed it in the Pit. The higher-ups vehemently denied the rumors, of course, but that made him all the more certain that something had happened. Certainly, strange things were happening in Hell, human armies were fighting in the Infernal Region itself and all the barrack room rumors were of the humans in the pit rising against their tormenters. It was even whispered, there was now an area in the pit where no demon dared go, where if one tried, the penalty was a horrible death by human magery.
The two guards were lying contorted on the ground, charred in places and dismembered in others. Blood was spattered all throughout the chamber. But something was different; standing in front of the portal was a towering white figure. It was staring at him with its pale, white eyes, and Shakoolapicanthus felt himself shudder far more than he had passing under the iron portcullis. This was no mere angel; this was a high-ranking one, one who could probably crush him as easily as it had these two unfortunates.
Slowly, like a cornered Beast, Shakoolapicanthus started to back away toward the tunnel. The angel did nothing for a moment, then flared its wings – they stretched nearly across the chamber – and said, “Stop.” Shakoolapicanthus stopped. He was shivering uncontrollably.
Slowly, the angel raised his sword. It glimmered in the torchlight, bronze lined with pale gold. The angel was gathering fearsome magic; it was already making Shakoolapicanthus' hair stand on end. Then it spoke. “Do you know who I am, fallen scum?”
“N-n-n-no, sir. I do not.”
“I am Michael-lan, commander of the forces of the Most High One. I have a message for the Fallen One from my master. You will bear it to him. Tell him that these words have come from the Throne of the Nameless One. ‘Satan Mekatrig, despite previous warnings you have failed to oppress and dominate the humans. They have forced their way into your realm and still you cannot defeat them. Your failures in this matter have ensured that the humans are developing into a threat to the chorus. The gates of Heaven may be closed to any who may wish to enter but our hosts may leave to engage our enemies at our pleasure. As a last warning to the humans we have gathered Uriel and the Bowls of Wrath. Your failures are causing us to intervene against our wishes but the chorus must not cease. On your head lies what may result.’ Tell him that, and only that.”
The archangel stepped forward, over the twisted bodies, and touched Shakoolapicanthus on the forehead. As he did, he released a surge of magic; the demon howled in pain and surprise as the archangel seared a mark onto his face. Then, without a backward glance, the archangel disappeared back into the portal.
Shakoolapicanthus emerged from the gateway so disturbed he didn't even notice when he bumped his head on the iron portcullis. He said nothing to the guards, but ran as fast as he could to the stairs, and took them up as fast as he could. Five minutes after a brief meeting with his garrison commander, he was on the back of a surging Beast, heading from the Heavengate into the Elysian Fields, toward the city of Dis.
Camp Hell-Alpha, Hellmouth, Martial Field of Dysprosium, North of the Phlegethon, Hell
Abigor's room was pretty spartan, but someone had apparently taken the notion that he might like some plants for decoration. Ordinarily, he'd be offended at the notion that he enjoyed decorations – everyone knew that he used wealth only as a display of status and not because he was soft and decadent – but these plants were green, and had flowers on the end, rarities in Hell. They let off a sickly sweet smell, which Abigor actually liked.
He sniffed them once more, and then sat back, taking a few minutes to try to digest everything he'd learned since his surrender. On his left was a towering pile of DVDs and books on the history of human militaries. It was rich and fascinating, full of change – nothing like the static, unchanging nature of the civilized warfare he was used to in Hell.
For centuries – he was becoming used to the human way of telling time – for centuries, humans had fought in mostly the same way. Infantry would line up and charge each other – sometimes with spears, sometimes with swords. Auxiliaries would harass the enemy lines with projectiles; arrows, stones. Cavalry would protect the flanks, swoop in and charge the enemies. There were similarities to what Abigor knew, of course; infantry and auxiliaries would be combined in Hell, since all infantry could fire projectiles. Cavalry were more important; in Hell, they made or broke battles. And in Hell, flies were an integral part of the battlefield; perhaps they were analogous to auxiliaries? Something to ponder. Humans had not taken to the air before a hundred years ago. The short human timescale still surprised Abigor; a century ago was yesterday.
But with the humans, the themes of infantry-auxiliary-cavalry interplay were repeated in so many variations. In some parts of their world, huge hordes of men armed with sticks and swords had swarmed each other; in others, disciplined infantry formed the core of armies; while in others, men had shot their arrows from horseback. One book claimed that an army was made up of horsemen who could hit a teacup a hundred yards away from a galloping horse. Abigor hadn't heard of any demon who could match that feat from a galloping Beast.
And then, three centuries ago, the human inquisitiveness, curiosity – the human tendency to treat the world as a problem to be solved, rather than a place to live, their almost desperate need to know why – had apparently begun to reward humans. Three centuries ago seemed like last week, when humans were nothing but cattle, to be tortured for benefit and eaten as delicacies. Yet it seemed that no matter what question they asked, the answers that they found were immediately turned into weapons of destruction.
Abigor considered the benefits they had reaped. The ability to throw projectiles further, faster, more frequently, and more accurately seemed to be the chief benefit; it had reshaped the battlefield. Humans could now throw projectiles over the horizon, on long arching curves that impacted precisely where the humans wanted them. It seemed that their entire ground combat doctrine, Abigor now saw, was shaped around using these 'guns' – what he had called fire-spears – as effectively as possible. The accuracy with which humans could throw projectiles explained why they fought like cowards. Their goal was to win the battles; so instead of presenting themselves entirely and honorably, they presented as small a target as possible while still permitting themselves to throw back.
And then there was the question of flying chariots, which were known to humans as 'aircraft'. They flew higher and faster than flies and their firepower was far beyond the flies. The same magic – Abigor caught himself; there was no magic here. There were only skills he did not understand. The same ability that let humans throw projectiles such long distances and with such accuracy also permitted them to create 'bombs', which could be dropped with great accuracy . The seeker lances – 'missiles' humans called them though why was an odd thing that Abigor had yet to fathom out since they never missed – were another manifestation of the same abilities: projectiles that flew like aircraft and sought out their target.
Before the destruction of his Army, he had seen how the human aircraft had decimated his flies and he had thought that was the end of it. Now, he knew differently, human aircraft could do many things, they could wipe out flies with contemptuous ease but they could also raid death and destruction on the ground forces. He had seen a little of that but only a thin shadow of what human aircraft could do when unleashed to use their full power. He had seen how the humans themselves had been forced to invest huge sums in the development of anti-aircraft weapons to defend themselves against aircraft. That was something Satan didn’t have to worry about deploying, there wasn’t an anti-aircraft gun in all of Hell.
And then there were the human boats. They were larger than any boat he'd ever seen; anywhere you needed to go in Hell, there were roads, or Belial's wyverns if the place was inaccessible. The human boats had guns on them, and could also throw missiles. Some even had aircraft on them, and some could actually swim under the water to throw missiles or hunt other boats. Abigor thought of the seas that surrounded Hell’s one great continent and imagined the human boats loose in them. All of Hell would be at their mercy with only Dagon’s few legions of Kraken to defend it.
So much to absorb. Abigor shook his head. Most bombs, missiles, and artillery shells exploded like injured flies, while other projectiles were solid iron. Some were thrown from guns, and others were dropped or thrown from aircraft. These new things were all so confusing in the details, but in general he was starting to absorb the picture of how humans did things. They fought to win – that much he'd already seen. But they didn't fight to win by outmaneuvering…… Abigor stopped himself, that wasn’t true, human armies could maneuver in ways a demonic army couldn’t even dream of. To humans though, maneuver was a way to bring overwhelming firepower to bear on their enemy with the aim of annihilating either his desire or his ability to fight – or, in some cases, both.
The DVDs he'd seen had been particularly illuminating. He'd had no idea how ferocious humans were to each other, and the scale of the battles that had raged across the human world even in the last century – the last few days, to him – stunned him. How had they come so far in so little time? He'd seen lines of chariots – trucks – stretching for miles, throwing their projectiles into the air all at once. The sound was familiar to him, the thumping of artillery and the scream of inbound shells and rockets. They still took him back to the battlefield in the human world, where he'd watched his army disintegrate around him; he still had nightmares about that.
He'd seen lines of trenches, with humans running about in them – and in between them, a charred, muddy, churned-up wasteland that was as bad as anything in the Pit. Coils of razor wire criss-crossed that little hell, and guns crashed and chattered across while artillery lobbed back and forth. Once, he saw a flood of humans boil up out of one trench and charge into the hell, only to be scythed down. One had made it back to the trench.
He'd seen a coastline lined by razor wire and huge guns, and the dawn bring with it a sea of iron – boats as far as the eye could see, all firing at once, as people once more charged bravely into the crossfire from small boats that scuttled like beetles up to the beach.
He'd seen the view from above of a jungle wasteland with craters evenly spaced as far as the eye could see, as a line of explosions marched up the screen. The trees looked like grass, and the people running about looked like ants.
Abigor shook his head again. The myriad, creative ways humans had found to destroy their enemies were mind-boggling. Then a strange thought came to his mind, based around the way the humans had suddenly changed from a primitive mob that was just walking meat to a demonic army to the pitiless killers against whom no demonic army could stand. Oh, Abigor had heard the guns thundering, tens of leagues away as a human army stood against the sledgehammer blows of the combined armies of Asmodeus and Beelzebub, and in his mind’s eye he could see what was already happening, the demonic horde screaming and dying under the pounding of the human guns. One of his books had expressed it so well, ‘Artillery is the King of War, Infantry is the Queen of the Battlefield. And it is well known what the King does to the Queen.’
Abigor shook his head, it had all happened so suddenly. Three centuries from helpless victims to the Lords of War. Unnaturally quickly. Had there been another hand here? The way the humans had fought each other, each set of wars driving their weapons technology further forward and setting the conditions for the next set. As if humans were being trained to fight, bred to destroy both Satan and Yahweh. Abigor could see now why Yahweh had washed his hands of them, the human’s driving need to know had caused them to reject his teachings and ready-made answers in favor of finding their own. They had even laughed at Yahweh’s pronouncements, and dared his prophets to “prove” their doctrine. When the prophets and true believers had repeated Yahweh’s rulings, they’d been faced with the human battle-cry ‘prove it’ and ridiculed the prophets with evidence of the truth. There was even a slogan they used for such contests, one Abigor had spotted somewhere. “Science, and mockery of stupid people.” It was quite clear who they meant by the stupid people bit, Yahweh himself. No wonder he had been annoyed with them
Humans couldn’t have done it by themselves could they? Surely they must have had help. Were there others whose hands were involved here, perhaps the others who had once held sway on Earth but had been driven out by Yahweh and Satan? Their hand was still present, Abigor knew that, there were a small number of humans who were protected by them, who lived in Hell but were free of its torments. Had they trained humanity to become the Lords of War who would drive both Satan and Yahweh away from Earth?
This was worth further thought, but one thing was bothering him. This artistic destruction, he had all experienced. All save the use of aircraft, but that did not create much more destruction than the pounding artillery had. What had the Colonel meant when he'd said that Abigor had not even begun to see what humans could do when they put their minds to it? On his right lay a single DVD case. He picked it up, delicately opening it with his claws, and popped the DVD into the player. The large screen in front of him went from off to blue to black with white letters: THE MANHATTEN PROJECT.
The first part of the video, Abigor didn't understand. It was about things called “Adams” – wasn't Adam the first human to come to hell? He was still in Satan's palace in a little cage, if Abigor remembered correctly.
Then came the first pictures of what humans did with these Adams, and Abigor became very interested. He became very interested indeed.
An hour later, Abigor was sitting on his couch, mouth agape, staring at the screen as the credits rolled by. What sort of gods were the humans, to be able to destroy a city with a single bomb? He closed his mouth, then shook his head. A single bomb, capable of annihilating an entire city. An entire army would be nothing. They had played with him, when they could have destroyed him and everyone with him with ease.
Suddenly, the part of his mind that had been bothering him since his defection, the part that continually accused him of treason, became quieter and smaller. A lot quieter, and a lot smaller. There was no doubt that the humans were going to win this, no doubt at all. He saw it now: the humans were deploying just enough firepower to utterly destroy whatever was sent at them, waiting, keeping their cards in reserve, watching their enemies to see how they reacted. So simple, so logical, so utterly unconventional.
There was a knock at the door, and Abigor looked up. It opened, and a languid man walked in, flanked by two soldiers carrying nasty-looking guns – shotguns, Abigor recognized now. The lights in the ceiling seemed to flicker a little bit, casting a slightly dimmer glow. The man looked familiar, then Abigor placed him: he'd come a few days earlier to interrogate Abigor about the city of Dis and possible military targets.
“General Abigor, I'm pleased to see you again.” The voice was flat, uninflected, almost disinterested.
The visitor took a thick piece of rolled parchment from under his arm and spread it out on the table. “General, would you mind coming here to look at this?” Phrased as a request, there was no doubt it was a command.
Abigor rose and stepped over to the table, looked down. It was a copy of the map of Dis he'd looked at earlier, but now there was a set of red concentric shapes drawn on it, basically circles but strangely distorted. The shapes were colored successively darker toward the center but the relationship was strange, distorted, darkening quickly where they overlapped, sometimes dramatically so. Some of the shapes were arranged in neat triangles. And in the center of those formations, the area of darkest red was horribly large and terrifyingly dark.
His hair was standing on end as he looked down at the map. The shapes and patterns went on and on, so that the city was completely covered by the circles. Satan's palace, on the fortified spur that stuck out into the Pit, was invisible under the triangles of overlapping circles. What could the circles mean? There was only one explanation – and it came from the DVD he had just watched and Abigor suddenly knew why it had been given to him. It made all the pieces began to fall into place. The humans could destroy whole cities with single bombs, and they had shown they could do so without any compunction. Dis wasn’t the only city in Hell, but it was the largest and it was the administrative center for the whole of Hell. Why would a city be a target? Hadn’t Belial just destroyed a human city with his party tricks? Was this to be the human revenge? With a rising wave of bile in his throat, Abigor began to suspect what the shapes and colors meant.
“General Abigor, what do you make of this map?” asked the Targeteer.
“It seems that ... that this is a map of the destruction caused by the explosion of atomic bombs to the city of Dis.”
The visitor raised one eyebrow. “Very good, General, though we call them 'devices', not 'bombs' and they ‘initiate’ not ‘explode’. Technically, a nuclear initiation isn’t an explosion. These circles represent the overpressure radii of each individual initiation, they’ll all be taking place at once by the way. As I'm sure you learned, one way our devices bring about the destruction of their targets is shockwave caused by the initiation; the shockwave is measured by over-pressure. Where patterns overlap, the over-pressure increases dramatically. Terrain is critically important as well, the shockwave will be channeled by some features, reflected by others. Where it is channeled, it will extend further in one direction at the expense of others. Where it is reflected, it will cause no damage beyond the point of reflection but destruction before that point will be multiplied many times over.
“As is our way, we targeted only military installations – the barracks, production centers, command and control points, administrative buildings and so on – but you can see that the installations are so densely concentrated in the city, the city would be destroyed by such an attack. No part of the city is subject to a shockwave of less than 5 psi overpressure; such strength guarantees the destruction of all but the most hardened targets. Most of the city, more than 90 percent of that will suffer from overpressures an order of magnitude greater.
“We did need to use very high-yield devices in ground bursts to destroy the most hardened targets. These are the earthworks and the walls which surround the city. We suspect that the construction of the buildings is so poor that the ground wave caused by the destruction of the walls would destroy the city anyway. Of course, blast is just one way a nuclear device destroys its target. There is also light flash which will blind every unprepared person for tens of miles, and fire. Another map for you, this one shows the anticipated firestorms. You’ve seen those films of what a firestorm in a city can be like? You can expect winds approaching 200 miles per hour, heat levels so high that it will melt steel let alone bronze, the fires will suck all the oxygen out of the air and the people trapped in the wreckage of Dis will asphyxiate. Finally, there’s direct radiation as well, but that isn’t a factor, after somebody has been reduced to the size, shape and appearance of a McDonald’s hamburger by blast, fire and debris, irradiating them as well is a mere technicality. Of course, that doesn’t cover fallout. The ground bursts will create horrible levels of contamination. Normally we wouldn’t worry too much about fallout from air bursts but the atmosphere here is so dusty, even air bursts are going to generate a lot of fallout as well.”
“So,” said Abigor flatly, “you will destroy Dis.”
“No, we needed to create a plan to destroy Dis, but it is just a contingency plan.”
“Then why are you showing this to me?”
“Because, General, you need to know what we can do – what we are willing to do. The destruction of Dis would take the lives of nearly every demon living there. It would leave no building standing, and in its wake there would be giant radioactive firestorms. After the fires died, there would be nothing of Dis left save craters; what was once a city would become a charred, radioactive wasteland. Nobody, human or demon, would live there for ten thousand years.
“We can do that, General. And we would be right to do that, after how your people have treated us in the past. Demons have enslaved humans, treated them as cattle, eaten them, and tortured them for thousands of years. As a professional, its not my job to make moral judgments on the people whose destruction I plan. But, just for once, I’m going to indulge myself. A quick death in nuclear fire is the least that your race deserves.
“But we are magnanimous in victory, General, as you know. We fight to win, but once we have won we strive for peace. If there are other options that make this plan as superfluous as all the others I have drawn up over the years, then we will prefer to use them. But I warn you, we can be pushed too far for that. This map.” He tapped it with a finger. “Is still not the worst we can do. General, if you really anger us, we will try and bring democracy to your country.”
“I see.” Abigor frowned down at the map, trying to picture the bustling city he'd known for dozens of thousands of years as a charred, smoking wasteland, trying to picture the city vanishing in a series of impossibly bright flashes. And if that was so, what was this other hideous threat? Yet he had a strange feeling there was something he didn’t quite understand because the last remark had made the two soldiers in the room grin broadly. “Who are you. What are you.”
“People call us many things. Targeteers, Contractors, The Business, The Wizards of Armageddon. The last was intended as an insult but we rather like it. And, of course, it has turned out to be a much more accurate description than its author realized.”
Abigor sighed. “You must be a great General then.”
“Actually, I’m not in the armed forces at all, in fact I never have been. I’m a civilian who is employed by a consultancy company, something we call a think-tank, to do analytical work. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for more than 25 years.”
“To do this for years. Then I can assume your plans are ….. complete.”
“Then you understand.” A statement, not a question. The Targeteer began to roll up the map. “Thank you for your time, General Abigor. I am sure we will meet again.” The two soldiers escorted him from the room, and Abigor's hair began to lay down. Outside the room, the thunder of artillery had never ceased but now Abigor put it into its true perspective. It was indeed just a pale shadow of what humans could do when they wanted to. He glanced at the door after the man, then looked again. He could have sworn those plants were green and flowering before the man had come in.
Thank's to Surlethe for these two sections. Now, back to the battles......
Nations do not survive by setting examples for others
Nations survive by making examples of others