Your eyes lock on the relic. You wonder if touching it might extend you the same protection and power that was granted to its metal container. On your hands and knees, you clamber over the broken debris toward the small, yellowed bone. As you snatch it, an electrifying jolt runs up your arm. Warmth spreads across your skin and blossoms in your chest. The pain of your wounds is immediately dulled. Clenching the relic tightly in your hand, you stand.
The demon barks a command. Its baneful, foreign speech rolls over you, glancing off your ears and tumbling away, almost unheard. You feel the relic’s power within you. You step forward. Your legs feel stronger, buoyed by the radiating warmth.
Still crouching on all fours, the demon charges forward and crosses the room in three steps. Before you can react, it rises up on its legs and grabs you with both hands.
You hear a sizzle. Smoke billows from both of the demon’s hands. Screaming, the creature releases you and backs off. Its large, lidless eyes narrow in apparent confusion.
You follow the demon as it retreats. Each step you take feels stronger than the last. The relic throbs in your hand as if trying to encourage you. You draw your fist back. Your eyes focus on the pale, narrow bridge between the demon’s eyes as you throw a right cross.
The demon tries to dodge but your fist moves with an unnatural speed. The impact makes a hard pop and a loud sizzle. A cloud of smoke explodes from the demon’s face.
The demon stands upright as if rearing back. You feel a surge of energy from the relic, urging you on. The will of the relic swirls with your own. You are one. You step toward the demon, eyes locked on the gash in its torso.
You swing. This time you don’t hear a loud pop. Your hand passes through the gash and into the demon’s body. Beneath the fleshy shroud, you feel hot air searing your fingers. As your swing follows through, your knuckles knock something hard inside of the demon’s body. Startled, you jerk your hand back, ripping a hole in the demon’s chest. Beneath the flesh, angry orange hellfire dances around a dark, uncut gem.
The relic pulses in your hand, stronger now. You know what you must do. You thrust your free hand through the flames. Pain registers distantly in your head but you don’t pull away. You grab the gem and tear it out. The demon sways slightly on its feet. Its face freezes and its eyes stare blankly.
You look at the gem resting in your palm, steaming and dripping with black ooze. The relic vibrates slightly and seems to cry out as it drains the last of its essence into you. The relic turns cold and still. Your entire body tingles and your temples throb. Whatever power had charged the relic is now in you.
You raise the gem and easily crush it in your hand. Fragments and ooze spray from between your fingers in every direction. At the same time, the demon’s body crushes like a can and collapses in a heap of smoke and black flame.
Carrying the relic, you step around the burning corpse and head for the dark hall in the back of the room. Unseen debris snaps and crunches beneath your boots. You drag your hand along the wall for guidance and feel clumps of something that had splattered, hardened, and dried.
At the end of the hall is a heavy, metal door with a push bar. You open the door. Though the power of the relic courses through you, the enhanced strength you used to crush the gem is strangely absent in the movement. The power of the relic must apply only against demons.
You step outside onto a small porch overlooking a side lawn with dead, brown grass. The air is dry and the sky is thick with clouds that move against the wind. Sand and dust drift on the breeze and scratch your face. The atmosphere feels like desert, but the scene is a devastated rural town in blue-collar middle-class America. Rusted, abandoned cars lie in the middle of the streets, smashed into each other or run into buildings. Half of the houses in your view have been sliced clean through the middle and their roofs caved in. A few more were demolished entirely. Only two remain somewhat intact, though massive holes were punched through their roofs. The occupants were probably dragged out in an air raid.
Just beyond the town, the area is covered in a red-orange haze where the Hell’s Fire had crept across the land. You see that you’re beyond The Wall, inside the Quarantine area. You know you should feel some sense of fear. Mostly, you wonder how the hell you got here.
You walk around to the front of the building. The scene on the front lawn stops you in your tracks. A cavalcade of cars is parked in a semicircle. Metal panels are welded onto them, ad hoc, as extra shielding. They’re all painted in camouflage, with colors of the pavement, sand, and Hell’s Fire. In a glance, you count a dozen heavily-armed soldiers positioned strategically around the cars. All of them are aiming their weapons at you.
The fear you should have felt a minute ago now grips you solidly. Though the relic protected you against demons, it would not protect you against your own kind.
You’re thrown backward as a single shot rings out. The ground rises to meet you. The bullet didn’t pierce your flak jacket but reminds your body of the injuries you sustained earlier. Everything hurts and your breathing is shallow. You make no attempt to get up and no one tries to help you.
A soldier runs toward you. Her handgun is secured in her holster and she’s carrying a small black box that resembles an old radio. She kneels and removes the relic from your hand. The bone is tossed away like garbage and she sweeps the radio over you.
The machine goes wild with excitement.
The soldier stands and turns around. “Class One confirmed, sir!”
Her words cause shouts of excitement and applause. You even hear whistling and a whoop. Two men climb out of a car and walk toward you. One of the men is holding a clipboard. The other bears four stars on his breast.
The men reach you and stop. The general points at you but addresses the man with the clipboard.
The pages on the clipboard are flipped almost by themselves in the breeze. “Um, I don’t have that here, sir. Details are in the file.”
The general looks down at you again. “Saint Doe,” he says, as if amused.
You hear a small snap and see the general’s hand moving at his side. An engraved Colt 45 slides from his holster.
Directly above, the sky darkens and the clouds churn. The Hell’s Fire dances bewitchingly in the night.
“On behalf of the human race, I extend my thanks,” the general tells you. “Because of you, humanity will survive.”
The general turns to the man with the clipboard. “Strip the flesh from the body, clean the bones, and send them to the remaining cities.”
“Yes, sir.” The man with the clipboard turns and walks away.
You try to protest but your words croak out unintelligibly.
The general returns his attention to you. Your eyes lock. His expression sobers and he raises his weapon.
“Don’t worry,” he murmurs, “I promise you’ll receive a hero’s honors.”
As you stare down the barrel of the general’s gun, your final thought occurs:
You have become the relic.