CHAPTER 4: IN THE ETERNAL HURRICANE
He wondered where she was now.
Often he would hear the men talking, telling that they had seen her, a red-haired girl far in the distance struggling against the raging wind.
Last night as he had lain in his tent he had heard a lone voice singing in the darkness, low and clear through the never-ending wolf howl of the storm.
“Marie most innocent”
“Hear my song.”
“Watch over me.”
“And lead me through the night.”
Already they were singing hymns to her. And often when watches were changed in the night the standard salute of “Ave Mabus” was answered with “Et Ave Marie.”
Cole wondered if Mabus knew that he was now sharing his divinity with her in the minds of his soldiers. He wondered what it was about her that appealed to them.
He supposed that it was the idea of a girl descending into Hell out of love for her father, someone who didn’t have to be here but chose to be. But he knew his men, and he would not have thought them prone to sentiment. Devotion to her had sprung up almost overnight and had taken him completely by surprise.
Where would it end? Two days before a Hussar had been knifed in the mess for telling a rather gruesome joke about her death.
Maybe it was because they needed more than Mabus could give them. Mabus could inspire them, rally them, threaten them, terrify them. But he could not love them. Mabus could send them out into the desert. But only Marie could care whether they lived or died. At least, so it was in their heads.
Cole opened his eyes and watched the darkness. For tradition’s sake he pulled at the chains but they held as firm as ever. He remembered the first thing he always told a squad before he took them out on a sortie. “Die before you let them take you prisoner. Always. Do not let these things take you alive.”
Great advice Cole, he thought to himself. If only you weren’t the only one in the squad who hadn’t followed it.
“Do I even have a chance of beating you?”
“Way I was trained. I have to be able to predict any possible outcome. So if I’m in a fight and there’s more than one guy, I have to be able to out-think any plan they might come up with and I have to do it quickly. War is like chess, that’s why it was invented, to train princes and generals to think tactically. So just like I can see any outcome of a fight, I can see any outcome of a chess game.”
“So I can’t beat you?”
“No. Your move.”
Isabella blew a clump of black hair out of her eyes with a grumpy huff and moved a bishop three squares diagonally.
“Check.” she said, without much enthusiasm.
“Good move.” he said kindly and moved a pawn forward, trapping her bishop. Isabella swore under her breath.
“Where did you learn to play?” he asked, lining up the pieces he had conquered in neat little formations.
“Mariana.” she muttered, her hand covering her mouth as she tried desperately to rescue the board.
Cole didn’t say anything. Mariana was a taboo subject.
She had been foster mother to Marie and Isabella and had perished along with all the other Temporal Adepts when Mabus had bombed their council. Marie and Isabella had been spirited away by Mabus, and had ended up in the Scorpion’s unlikely care. Now Marie was gone, traded by Mabus to the demon Rashgiel, and Isabella was left alone, with only Cole for company. Their relationship was complex. On the one hand, Isabella was very grateful to have Cole. On the other, she could never forget that he worked for the man who had taken everything away from her.
“Cole, what did you do?” Isabella asked him.
“Well, you were going to Hell, weren’t you? That’s why you joined with Mabus.”
Her dark eyes seemed to be probing him. He wondered how someone so young could look so sick of life.
“What did you do?” she asked him.
“I killed a lot of people.” he said simply “That’s the long and short of it.”
“You want reasons?”
“Because if I go through the individual reason for every single one we’ll be here all night.”
“Why’d you do it?”
“Why’d you do it, Cole?”
“Your. Move.” and his voice said it all.
She moved a piece.
“So did you mean what you said?” she asked.
Cole said nothing, studying the board.
“You know. About going back to Gomorrah. Finding Joriel. Getting out…”
Without taking his eyes of the board he raised a finger to his lips. She fell silent.
“Yeah.” he said “Yeah, I meant it.”
“Have you found him?”
“I’ve got a few of the Black Scorpions combing the city for him while we’re out here.”
“But they don’t know where he is?”
“I hope not.”
“Because I haven’t heard anything from them. Which means they either weren’t able to find him or they were and he ate them.”
Isabella burst out giggling.
Cole laughed quietly and took Isabelle’s trapped bishop.
“Okay, since we’re probing our dark histories, how did you and Marie meet?”
“I was working in a castle…” said Isabella moving her rook forward and taking Cole’s knight.
“A castle?” asked Cole, taking Isabella’s rook and holding it up to show her.
“What, like…King Arthur?”
“Not that one, but same basic…yes.” she said, not wishing to get bogged down “Working for Mariana. And then she sent me to bring Marie there when her father…when he died.”
She moved her Knight.
“And do you wish she hadn’t?”
Isabella swallowed. Her first instinct was to say no, but the more she thought about it…
“Well I’ll tell you.” she said, and her shoulders slumped and to Cole she suddenly looked four times her twelve years “Sitting here, in this little room, in Hell? With Mariana dead? With Marie gone? Where every time I poke my head out the door I see something that scares me half to death because I’m just some stupid hick from the Middle Ages? With you being the only person left who I even know in the entire world? Yes. I wish she hadn’t.”
Cole didn’t say anything for a while. He stared at the board and put his hand on a piece.
“Do you think she’s alright?” Isabella asked her.
“She has a sword. She’s fast . If she can hold out from whatever’s out there by the time we catch up to here, wherever she is, she’ll be fine.”
“What about food? Water?”
“She doesn’t need it. None of us do anymore.” He paused and took his hand away and moved his rook so that it was threating a Knight. “We don’t have to worry about ageing or disease either. I mean, where are we gonna go if we die?”
Isabella moved a piece.
“Checkmate.” she said with a small smile.
He studied the board in shocked silence.
“How did you do that?” he asked after a while.
“It’s chess.” she said “You can’t plan for every outcome, because there’s an infinite number of ways any chess game can end. I just had to keep you distracted by asking you about Marie and hope you wouldn’t notice the one outcome I didn’t want you to see.”
Cole was stunned.
“Mariana teach you that?” he asked.
“Nope.” she said “Made it up myself.”
They cleared the table and Cole announced that he had to go on another flight mission.
“I’ll be back soon.” he promised gently.
Isabella grunted softly in answer.
He knew that she was beginning to despair. She was becoming more and more listless, and was going hours at a time without even speaking. And he knew that he had to make good on his promise to get them out of Mabus’ army, and out there looking for Marie before it was too late. He wouldn’t allow himself to fail her, he couldn’t.
With a weary sigh, the Scorpion closed the door behind him and was gone.
Isabella lay on her bed, looking at the roof of the tent and kicking her heels.
She was beginning to wonder if it was actually possible to die of boredom.
And if it was, where did you go if you were already in Hell?
An interesting question.
Actually no, a very boring one, just like everything else.
Everything was boring.
Boring, boring, boring.
Long sleepless hours passed.
She would give a limb for something to happen.
And it was at that moment that one of the guards Cole always kept posted outside to protect her on pain of death came into the tent to tell her that his plane had crashed.
The plane had been ten miles out of Camp D when it went down.
Since making Hellfall the Gomorrans had encountered almost no resistance. Cole had expected an endless army of devils facing them as soon as they arrived but instead there had been nothing but empty desert and total, perpetual storm. There was talk amongst the soldiers that the shock of their defeat at the End of Days had sent the devils into total panic, and that rather than having to fight their way inch by inch Mabus’ army would simply be chasing them all the way to the Ninth Ring.
Cole had no illusions that it would be that easy, but was glad for the respite nonetheless.
Mabus’ plan of attack had always been to take Hell one ring at a time, freeing the damned souls they encountered and so swelling their army with each victory.
“Get me closer!” Cole roared over the wail of the storm and the clatter of a billion grains of sand hammering the hull of the plane.
The plane’s engine shrieked and sputtered as it choked in sand.
Through the open hatch Cole could see rivers of naked bodies caught in the storm, twisting and turning gracefully, seemingly at peace. It was only when you got close enough that you could see their faces as they screamed.
So many of them…
God, there’s millions.
Cole stretched his arm out, and even through the armour he could feel the force of the sand battering skin and tissue. He could only imagine what it felt like on bare skin.
The woman he was trying to reach had been so close, almost within grabbing distance. He could see her eyes screaming silently at him, reaching out to him
Help me. Please.
“I said get me in closer!” Cole roared.
“Sir, that’s ten minutes we have to get out of this soup!”
Cole swore and punched the hull.
Ten minutes to fly through the storm hoping to catch one of these poor trapped wretches.
Ten minutes before the engines clogged with sand and they had to go back.
Ten minutes when they needed to save a thousand people and were lucky if they could get one.
He looked up at her. She was still reaching out for him, she was so close just a few more feet…
He couldn’t bring himself to look at her face as he slid the hatch closed.
“Take us home.” He croaked hoarsely.
We’re not going to get them all, Cole thought glumly to himself. Even if we weren’t in the middle of a war, even if we had ten times as many people, even if we had ten times as many planes it would take years. And when we do rescue them. Miserable pathetic creatures. Unable even to walk. Useless as soldiers. Useless as anything.
Cole and his men had quickly come to hate them. In the sky, trying to save them, he loved them. He pitied them. He wanted nothing more than to bring them out of the wind. But once they stood before him on solid ground, trembling, blinking and mute he hated them. And he hated himself for doing so.
“What’s wrong with them?” an exasperated pilot had remarked to Cole “Can’t they even say “thank you” or something? What’s their problem? Is getting blown around forever really so bad?”
“I don’t think it’s the getting blown around.” Said Cole “I think it’s the forever.”
He didn’t remember the crash. He remembered coming out of the worst of the storm “The Nest” as the pilots called it, that hard swirling maelstrom where the wind was actually strong enough to carry a man. He remembered the sudden stillness and quiet as the engine finally gave up the ghost. He remembered a jolt of weightlessness like a kick to his stomach.
But not the actual moment of impact.
He pulled, he tugged, he thrashed.
The chains held firm.
He screamed in frustration.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the chains still held firm.
“Please don’t struggle.” a voice sang in the pitch darkness “You’ll hurt yourself.”
Cole went totally lax, as if the link between his body and mind had been cut with a scissors. Every word the voice spoke was like a blow from a golden hammer. It was rich, beautiful, and totally overpowering. It was impossible to resist.
“I was hoping we could talk. No. Incorrect. I was hoping I could talk, and you could listen. I have found myself with a pressing desire to talk to someone ever since your army arrived here. You may find this strange, seeing as I am a devil, but I feel that I must lecture you on the nature of sin. It is a subject on which I can be considered something of an expert.”
A light sprang into existence, a red sputtering flame that put up a paltry resistance to the solid black. And in that weak half-light he saw her, and was terrorised by beauty.
Her skin was copper, and her hair long curls of midnight. She might have been naked, but he couldn’t look away from her face to see. She was the most real thing he had ever seen. She looked eternal, utterly permanent. As he looked at her he felt as though he was transient, that he was simply a thought in her head, and that once she closed her eyes he would vanish. He felt that he only existed because she allowed him to.
She held out an arm to him.
“Come to me.” she said.
Cole suddenly felt every muscle in his body lurch towards her, his legs and arms pitting themselves against the chains, even his eyes bulging out their sockets in a total and utter attempt at obedience.
But the chains held.
“Stop.” she said.
And with that he collapsed like a cut puppet.
“Love me.” she said.
And his heart split open and he felt white light inside him.
“Do not love me.” she said.
And the flame was doused and he felt sick and blackened inside.
“You think that you are strong.” she told him “I know you do. You think that you are a mighty thing. Do you know that there are people, ordinary people like you, who can resist me? They are not angels or devils. They have no wings or swords of light, they cannot blow the mountains to dust with their breath and yet they can resist me.”
Impossible, Cole thought. No one could. No human could fight this.
“Can you imagine the strength that takes? That is the kind strength that is worthy of heaven. That is why they are there, and you are here.”
She was close to him now. Very close. Her mouth was a few inches from his chin, and he felt that at any moment she might simply breathe him in like a cloud of dust and he would be gone.
“You are damned. You are damned because you are weak. You come into our land with guns and swords and the snaking fire that lights up the sky and you think that makes you strong. You think we are weak. The other devils abandon us to our fate and leave us to defend this ring alone because they think we are weak. Everyone thinks that because ours is a beautiful strength, a gentle strength, that it is no strength at all. When I am done with you I am going to leave your carcass out in the desert for your men to find. And they will look on it. And in that instance they will know that we too are of Hell. But before that happens I wanted you to know why you were always destined for this place. You were not damned to Hell because the Devil is cruel. You were damned to Hell because you were weak, and because you deserve it. Know that.” her face started to melt into nightmare shapes and colours “And die.”
Her body lengthened and her arms and her legs split in two, twisted and bent and her hands seemed to explode into dragon mouths, green and razor sharp. Her mouth was a nest of twitching mandibles and her eyes were great round, terrible, yellow…
Cole screamed like a madman as he witnessed the true form of the succubus.
He closed his eyes and hoped against hope that it would be quick at least.
He heard a terrible shriek, and waited for the first razor-thin bite.
The few seconds between when Cole decided to open his eyes, and when he actually did so were the longest of his entire life.
The succubus was dead, curled at his feet. A single claw was frozen, reaching to the back of it’s head where a small black throwing knife had embedded itself in the base of the creature’s neck. He could see more clearly now what it was, a giant praying mantis. As they always did, the thing looked so much less impressive dead. He looked up to see a young girl with an unruly forest of unkempt black hair standing at the entrance to the cave, holding a brace of throwing knives in one hand, and giving him a friendly wave with the other.
“Hiya.” said Isabella brightly.
The Gomorrans had descended on the succubus hive like a storm and as Cole limped up to the surface with Isabella as his crutch he smelt the bonfire of bodies. The great insect carcasses piled one on top of the other like logs and here and there, stark against them, he could see the corpses of incubi and succubi in human form. Some had obviously thought their chances better if they relied on their beauty and not their strength.
All burned together.
“Ave Mabus.” said Mpande, the Zulu who had led the assault. He stood a good head and shoulders taller than Cole, and Cole was not a short man. Rather than standing to attention, Mpande sat casually on a rock, wiping blood from the tip of his spear with gentle, methodical motion. His attitude was less that of a soldier in the presence of a superior officer, and more that of a loan shark appraising a creditor. Considering how much Cole owed him, the comparison was quite apt.
“Ave Mabus.” Cole croaked. His throat felt like leather.
“Good to see you whole sir.” said Mpande quietly “When we found the plane we feared the worst.”
His face was fascinating, as crevassed and impassive as a cliff face. The eyes were stones, utterly pitiless.
“How did you find me?”
“The girl, sir. She found the tracks leading from the crash. She was most insistent that we follow them, sir.”
“Why did you bring her?” Cole asked angrily.
“Excuse me?” Isabella flared.
“She was most insistent on that point also, sir.”
“Maybe they thought I’d be able to save your useless ungrateful hide from being eaten by a giant cockroach?” Isabella suggested.
“That’s not the point.” said Cole.
“She saved your life, sir?” Mpande asked.
“Yes.” said Isabella.
“Yes.” said Cole.
“And he hasn’t even said thank you.” said Isabella.
“Thank you.” said Cole, through gritted teeth.
“Your welcome.” she gritted right back at him.
“You should have said no.” said Cole to Mpande.
“I did sir. But she was most insistent.”
“He’d be dead if it wasn’t for me.” said Isabella.
“Indeed. That would have been most unfortunate.” said Mpande.
“She could have been killed.” said Cole.
“Indeed. That would have been most unfortunate.” said Mpande, and the ring of sincerity was lacking this time around.
A thought hit Cole.
“The plane? Did any…”
“There were no survivors. Two died in the crash. The succubi killed the rest. They took only you.”
“Yeah. They wanted to use me to send a message.”
“What message?” said Isabella.
Cole turned and watched the smoke from the smouldering pile of bodies rise like a giant’s shadow. Below, the bodies were ceasing to be bodies, and were becoming ash.
“We’re not weak.” said Cole.