Okay, there’s only so much mileage I can get from Hell puns. I’ll leave you with an unedited excerpt from The Children of Gehenna. Lionel is the protagonist, a former knight of Burgundy. Etienne is a mysterious Frenchman. Brandon Harper is a U.S. Marine. Thermodosa is a Sarmatian from the time of Augustus. And, yeah, they’re all dead. And naked, for the moment. They are trying to escape from Hell, starting with Korbos, the place that’s served as Lionel’s prison for hundreds of years.
We reach the crest of the new ridge and turn to look down upon the entire valley. Black shapes move swiftly through the purple darkness far below us. Like dark clouds tumbling across the landscape, except these clouds contain tiny specks of molten orange. Eyes of liquid fire.
“If we die away from Korbos…” Thermodosa’s gaze is on the billowing advance of the exiguus.
“If we die anywhere in the hells, we return to Korbos, like hawks to the mews,” Etienne replies. “Except hawks don’t return to the mews when they die. They simply plummet to the earth. Unless something eats them, in which case, they still plummet to the earth but the process takes a bit longer.” He climbs to the other side of the ridge and begins a belly-up crawl downward. “Yes, we belong to Korbos. If we die, we return there, and the memory of this escape will be scoured from us.
“How do you know this?” Thermodosa asks. “How do you know so much about Hell?”
“Self-preservation,” he replies. “If night is your future, you study the stars.” He pauses and stares up at us. “There is an expression I know from a very old story: ‘flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.”
I work at the Latin in my head, piecing it together like broken pottery. “‘If I cannot bend the will of Heaven, I shall move Hell.’”
“Accurate enough, Sir Lionel.” Etienne resumes his climb. “I knew from an early age what fate awaited me. And so I learned how to move Hell.”
“The fuck’s that mean, anyway?” Harper replies. “You’ll move Hell?”
“It means,” Etienne replies. “That you do what you must to get what you need. For example, at this very moment, fleeing is vital to our escape. Not sure If I have made that perfectly clear yet.”
New screams rise in the distance— soul-burning cries from the children of God. Not the tormented chorus we heard from the settlement, but singular cries. The exiguus are in the hills, finding the scattered flock, returning escaped souls to Korbos.
We pause to stare in the direction of a shriek. A woman dies slowly, her cries high-pitched and desperate. The shrieks continue for a half dozen heartbeats, then grow muffled, before ceasing altogether.
“Perhaps that clarifies things a little?” Etienne says, scrabbling down the hill. “The river is a mile from here. There is no time left to us. Alez!”
“A mile?” Brandon Harper looks from the surging cloud of the exiguus back toward the crawling Frenchman. “We can’t outrun those fuckers for a mile!”
“Then you must outrun each other.” Etienne rises to his feet and bounds down the slope, skidding and pulling tiny rockslides with him.
Harper drives his shoulder into me, knocking me onto my arse. He scurries down the slope as I sputter. I roll to my feet, but not before Thermodosa bounds past me. She puts her back to the slope and skids down on hands and feet.
I follow, brushing pebbles from my buttocks and cursing Brandon Harper, but I cannot blame him. If I had been quicker, I would have done the same.
Etienne reaches the base of the slope and sprints along a narrow track between two hills. Harper scrambles to his feet and follows, with Thermodosa close behind. I am halfway down the slope when the cry of the exiguus erupts behind me. The power of that cry impales me like a thicket of spears. I glance back and see the rolling silhouette of the exiguus cresting the slope. They are small, scorched creatures, with molten eyes, and taloned hands far too big for their bodies. But it is not their appearance that sends the spike of fear into my heart—it is their number. They are like a plague of locusts. Like a cloud of despair. Some crawl with terrifying speed. Others sprint on wobbly legs.
I stand and leap down the last ten feet of the slope. My foot hits the path hard and I tumble, rolling on my shoulder and rising quickly. Thermodosa and Harper are ten paces away, in a full sprint. Etienne is a dozen paces ahead of them, but we are closing swiftly. Thermodosa glances back at me, but does not slow.
I lower my shoulders and put every ounce of strength I have into my sprint. The exiguus tumble down the hill with surprising speed. They trample each other, more and more of them bounding over the slope like a mudslide.
Brandon Harper is strong, but not as fast as I am. I make up a few precious paces. When I am nearly at arm’s length I dive, grabbing at his feet. He is quick, and kicks his legs high at the last moment. But I get just enough to send him staggering, then tumbling onto his knees and rolling across the stones. Fire courses through my elbows as they scrape the path, but I am on my feet instantly, leaping over Harper’s grabbing hands and chasing Thermodosa.
The exiguus are on the path now, crashing side to side like floodwaters through a valley. Their screams sounds like something familiar, something that I cannot place. I do not understand how things that look so unstable can move with such speed.
Harper lurches to his feet, but limps on one leg. Blood courses down from his knees, painting his shins black in the faint light. His pace quickens, but not enough. I remember his words: He does not have a hope in Hell. Brandon Harper is my offering to the exiguus, and I pray he slows them enough.
“Motherfucker!” Harper roars. “French fucking motherfucker!”
I have never heard such efficiency of language.
Thermodosa overtakes Etienne, her red hair whipping behind. She sends another glance back at me, then toward Harper. Her eyes grow wide in the purple light, so I glance back, too.
The wave of demons is nearly upon him. One of the creatures leaps onto Harper’s back and wraps its arms around him. He straightens and slaps at the tiny demon. Another bounds forward, latching onto his leg. Harper spins, shaking his leg and wrenching at the monster on his back. “French fucking faggot!” He howls.
I look away and run. My lungs ache. Each breath is a fiery rasp. Etienne’s face is cragged with agony as I pass him. He sends a sharp look my way, picks up his pace, and we both peer back.
More than a dozen creatures embrace Harper. Their long, taloned hands scrape at his skin, not with violence, but like pups stroking a teat, like the desperate hands of a drunk working at a cork.
“Come on, then!” Harper roars. “Come on!” He tears the abominations off, one at a time, and hurls them into the ground, but the wave is upon him. They crash into him like a windblown thunderstorm, knocking him to the ground. “Motherfu…” He disappears among their grasping, flailing arms.
Thermodosa is fast. I will not catch her, but perhaps I do not have to, because Etienne stops running, one hand on his side, his head thrown upward.
The exiguus make a growing mound around Harper. His arm emerges and he pounds at the tiny demons, but they are too many. They embrace him like reunited lovers.
I turn away and run, ignoring the new tributary that has formed in that icy river of my soul.
Thermodosa slows at a rising slope in front of her. She looks back, then hurls herself at the incline and claws upward. I reach the hill a few heartbeats later and begin to climb. But she leaps back to the path. Her chest rises and falls with each breath. I follow her gaze to the hilltop. A swarm of black shapes tumbles down at us. I spin toward the slope behind us, but there is no escape from the exiguus. Our narrow valley is an island amid a black sea of death.
Thermodosa groans, and there are hundreds of years of agony in that sound. We turn and run back the way we came with no thought of strategy, seeking only to stay free, one heartbeat at a time. We reach Etienne, who stares grimly at the new wave of exiguus.
Thermodosa and I instinctively put our backs against one another. Her skin is warm and slick with sweat and the feel of it quickens my breath.
She has a warrior’s instinct. I had thought her carved body was forged by her time here in Gehenna, but I think now that perhaps she is a soldier, too. She is the second warrior woman I have known in my life. And she is a marked improvement from the first.
“We lived.” I glance back at her. “For an hour, we lived free of Moloch and Korbos.”
She clenches her fists and hisses out a sharp breath. “But we won’t remember it.”
The small creatures run and tumble and roll down the slope toward us, molten eyes leaving trails of light.