You are woken by a scratching sound. Rhythmic. Incessant. Needy. Your head is on a dirty floor, so close to the wall that your nose is almost touching it. The scratching is coming from the other side. You scramble away from the sound on your hands and knees, kicking up a cloud of dust in your wake. You stop in the center of the room and struggle to shake off the overwhelming grogginess. The scratching has stopped and all is still. A high-pitched ringing fills your ears.
Your head is pounding – whether it is from previous injury or the sudden movement, you aren’t sure. You can’t remember how you got here. The room starts to spin very slowly. Drawing a deep breath, you close your eyes and lower your head to the floor. The cool pavement against your scalp is soothing, though it makes you realize you lost your helmet. You open your eyes and scan your body armor: standard-issue Kevlar, black and green and beat to hell. Patches of duct tape hold it together and the front is coated in dried blood and black mucus. Other than the pain in your head, you feel no injury so you guess the blood isn’t yours. Your supply bag is gone, and so is your gun. To add insult to injury, your name tag is coming off. Slowly, so as not to scramble your brain again, you lift your head and scan the room.
It looks like an abandoned maintenance room. Directly in front of you, a long, wooden workbench is set against the wall, cluttered with tools and a thick layer of dust. To the right of the bench, a metal ladder leans against the wall next to a mop and bucket and a push broom. To the left, a flimsy interior door is covered with dark red splatters. You decide not to think about the splatters and keep your eyes moving. The walls on either side of you are blank, though scrapes and holes lead you to believe that shelving was once attached. You twist your neck to look over your shoulder and wince from the pain. Behind you is a closed metal door with an emergency push bar. The floor around it is brushed clean, so you guess that’s where you came in. To the left of the door is a window, the only source of light in the room. A massive, hastily painted occult symbol covers the glass. You’ve seen the warped crescent-and-star symbol before and know it will temporarily restrain evil. You don’t know how long it will hold.
You squint through the streaks of black paint, noting the waning light. You have no radio, no weapon, and experience tells you that you will not make it through the night alone with only a hasty ward.
The sound of wings beating draws your attention back to the spot where you woke up. The scratching resumes.
You stagger to your feet and the room spins. So does your stomach. As your body expels breakfast and blood onto the floor, you know something is very wrong. You crouch over your own vomit, hands on your knees, sweating and breathing heavily. You focus on the pink splatters of protein shake swirling around your boots. Even though you inhaled it this morning in the mess hall, you knew it tasted funny. Now you know you were drugged.
You wipe your mouth with the back of your hand and stand up straight. Your eyes lock on the workbench and you cross the room in three steps.
The bench has been repeatedly ransacked and the tools left behind are subpar for a maintenance shed, much less an armory. In a dirty pile you see a rusted hammer and various screwdrivers and wrenches, all heavy-duty. You grab the hammer and give it a swing. The balance is good and the claw is at least menacing. It will have to do.
You use the hammer to sift through the dirt. In the back right corner, the claw catches on something large under a tarp. You reach for it and pull it out. It’s a flak jacket just like yours. Blood is caked everywhere and obscures half of the name tag. You scratch off some of the blood. Zuniga. You don’t know a Zuniga. You pull off the name tag and slip it into your pocket. If you find your way back to base, you can report the missing soldier.
By moving the jacket you uncovered a few other items: a quart-sized paint can and brush, a small flat head screwdriver, and a full 9mm clip. No gun. Nearby is a thin chain. Instead of dog tags, it bears a crude symbol made of twisted paper clips. You lean closer for a better look. Three, possibly four religious symbols have been combined into one. You work on tangling the chain around the head of the hammer.
As you finish, a deafening boom fills your ears. The walls shake. Dirt showers from the ceiling. Terrified, you grab the hammer and whirl around. Another slam erupts from the right side of the room. A light fixture smashes to the floor just a foot away. Another slam now, from the left side. In the pause between, you hear wings.
You’re being flushed out.
Doesn’t matter. You’re done here anyway. You pocket the clip, the small screwdriver, and the paint brush, and scoop the paint can into your arm. You run to the blood-splattered interior door. Raising the hammer, you open the door and rush outside. The door closes softly behind you, barely dampening the noise.
You’re in a narrow hallway with thick gray carpet. To your right, the hallway is long and you see a light at the end. Blood covers the wall and cakes the carpet all the way down. To your left, the hallway is dark but may be just as long. It appears thoroughly clean. Directly across from you, on the wall, someone has left a message in blood.
“And when the thousand years are expired, the Beast shall be loosed from his prison.”
You turn right and start down the hall. The air is rancid. Patches of dried blood crunch beneath your feet and each step makes your skin crawl. More doors line the right side, marked with bloody handprints and black occult symbols identical to the one on the window. You put your ear against a door and hear wind and the frenetic sound of wings passing back and forth.
It is looking for you.
Fifty paces from where you started, the signs of violence increase. Blood is thicker, smears on the wall are darker, and lying against the wall is a dismembered arm. You force yourself to ignore it and glance back over your shoulder. From here, all the doors look alike and disappear into darkness.
Ahead, the hallway breaks off to the left. You press yourself against the wall and inch toward the passage. The blood no longer crunches beneath your boots. It is so thick that it supports your weight. You raise your hammer, hug the paint can tightly to your body, and slowly lean your head out.
Ten feet in, a mishmash of wood and steel has been carefully piled to the ceiling. A large piece of particle board bearing the protective symbol leans against the front.
The look of the barrier bothers you. For one thing, some of the metal looks welded together. For another, someone planted a stop sign in the middle. The longer you look, the more you feel you’re being manipulated in a certain direction.
You walk up to the barrier and tug on a few pieces. You are certain it will hold your weight. You set the paint can on the floor and secure the hammer in your belt. You climb.
The top of the pile is mostly loose. You carefully move pieces around to get a better view and pull yourself up to look.
The other side is dark and you can just make out the form of something huge. It makes a sliding, scraping sound. You start to back away, quickly and quietly. As you descend, a cat-like eye as big as your head moves into the light and fixes you with a piercing stare.
Terrified, you let out a shout. Your feet slip. You grab for anything that would slow your fall. You land on the particle board, cracking it through the center and splitting the symbol in two. Your hip hurts like hell from the impact.
The barrier lurches and a deafening slam erupts around you. A few of the boards snap and the entire structure groans. Another slam, stronger now. The barrier starts to give way.
You grab the paint can, jump to your feet, and run. The bloody doors and the remains on the floor are a blur. You dash through a doorway. Your feet skid over a pentagram and you come to a dead halt. Your blood runs cold. Crossing a pentagram will beckon the demons to you.
You’re in a rectangular room with vaulted ceilings. The violence in the hallway reached its pinnacle in here. Blood is splattered everywhere and bullet holes dot every surface. To the left, a set of shelves and boards are haphazardly nailed into the wall. They seem a little out of place. To the right, small enclaves are set into the wall. You guess they once displayed art and sculpture. Fore and aft are matching single doors. The door across from you is closed. Pentagrams have been painted on the floor in front of both single doors.
You hear a low hum and the sound of rushing wings overhead. The demon outside heard your movements. You hear a violent series of tearing and slamming sounds up ahead, just beyond the closed single door. It is inside the building.
From behind you hear one final slam and you know the demon you just saw is finally through the barrier.
They’re coming at you from opposite ends. To protect yourself, you know you must obscure the pentagrams and place protective wards on the doors.
You grab the screwdriver from your pocket and open the paint can. Your heart skips a beat. There is very little paint left. You only have enough for one.
You decide you’re better off against the flying demon. You turn around for one last peek down the hall and see a large black hand with elongated fingers snake out from the corner. Its nails are bone-white razors. They dig into the wall, drawing deep crevices into the plaster. A deep voice rumbles over you, a mixture of a growl and a low hum. The ancient words cause the hair on the back of your neck to stand on end.
You slam the door shut. Using the paintbrush in your pocket, you sketch the protection symbol on the door. Then you drop to your knees and mash your paintbrush into the carpet, trying to obscure the pentagram. You target the points of the star but can only blot out half before running out of paint.
The sounds of movement are getting louder and the floor vibrates. The primeval voices now come from both directions. You think they’re calling to each other.
You grab the hammer from your belt and shove the paint can off to the side. As you turn to stand, a glimmer of gold catches your eye. You stop and look. Nailed to the wall is a massive, sturdy metal frame with plywood for shelves and backing. The metallic glimmer you saw was a metal fragment jammed behind the plywood. You slip the claw of your hammer under the side of the frame. The nails struggle a little, but you’re able to separate the frame from the wall.
The small metal chunk was probably part of a decorative sculpture. It’s ornately painted in gold and blue. One end is jagged as if it were snapped off. As you reach for it, you catch a glimpse of something large on the wall. It looks like a wood panel. You pull harder on the shelving.
It’s a door.
The footsteps are right outside the room now. The floor shakes and you hear a low, raspy sound, something you can only guess is a victory cry.
You hustle to your feet. You don’t have a spare second to stash the metal fragment in a pocket. You hold it in your free hand as you rip into the shelves with the claw. Fueled by adrenaline, you pull one side of the shelving loose, just enough for you to squeeze behind.
Out of the corner of your eye, you see the far door open. A dark figure towers in the doorway. It stoops to get through.
You slide behind the shelves. Your clothes catch on the nails and you scrape your hand as you smack the metal fragment down on the lever-style door handle. The door swings open freely and you slide through to freedom.
As you pull your hammer through the doorway into the next room, a hot, steel grip clamps down on your wrist and jerks you backward. You scream as you’re slammed against the door frame. A deep voice rumbles above you, close to your ear.
You whirl around. Looming over you is a tall humanoid creature, bent at the knees so it can fit in the room. Pale. Featureless. Its eyes are large, lidless black spheres. Streaks of pink and green swirl around in its eyes like pools of dirty oil. The demon’s wings fill the room behind it, black like the emptiness of space.
You thrash and jerk back as hard as you can, but you can’t get loose. The creature is making sure to stay clear of the hammer and its swinging symbol. Panicked, you slam the metal fragment down on the demon’s wrist. Smoke wafts from its skin on contact and you hear a sizzling sound like an acid burn. The creature screams. Its wings ripple. You scream, too, and slam the fragment down again. And again. The demon releases your wrist. You fling yourself backward and stumble over broken pieces of wooden furniture and bunched carpet. You get up and run.
You’re in the expansive, desolated sanctuary of a church. Stained glass murals stretch high above. The faces of the Saints, the Virgin, and the Christ Child are shattered and gone. Religious symbols are missing, probably taken when the remnants of the human race went underground.
You realize the room you just escaped from had once displayed the church’s holy emblems and its reliquary. The fragment must have been part of the reliquary. It’s still drawing holy energy from the relic it once contained, so the relic must be near. If you’re going to survive, you must find it.
You burst through the doors on the opposite side of the side of the sanctuary. Ahead, the hallway splits into a T. A sign indicates left for the priest’s quarters and right for the church library.
You hear a slam behind you. The demon has torn down the shelving. A low growl echoes off the walls. You tighten your grip on the hammer and run.
You tear into the hall too fast to take the left corner cleanly. You slam into the wall, roll off, and keep running. Blood splotches, brown from age, cover every surface. A rancid odor lingers in the stagnant air and it only gets worse the farther you go.
You pass several doors on both sides, smashed and splintered and dangling from rusted hinges. Debris is strewn into the hall from every room and you have to jump over the piles. Out of the corner of your eye, you see that the rooms comprise small offices, a laundry room, and a kitchenette, all ransacked.
There are two doors at the end of the hall. To the right are the destroyed remnants of a modest bathroom. To the left is a dimly lit apartment.
You take a hard left into the apartment, slamming your shoulder against the door frame. As you race into the room, you hear stomping and a loud crash. The demon has entered the hallway.
You slam the door shut and stand behind it. You raise the hammer. The paper clip swings noiselessly from the rusty hammer head. Amongst the religious emblems, you identify the symbol of a faith you abandoned after the invasion, after you lost friends and family. As the heavy footsteps in the hallway near, you find yourself doing something you have not done since humanity retreated underground: you pray.
The floor creaks and trembles beneath the demon’s weight. As it nears the door, its footsteps slow. You wonder if it’s listening for you. The crack under the door darkens. You lift the hammer above your head. Your eyes focus on the doorknob, straining to see if it’s twisting in the dark. Your pounding heart is barely being contained inside your ribcage. Your raised arm begins to ache.
You hear a creak. The doorknob twists and the door slowly opens. Pale, elongated fingers slip through the crack. Your heart skips a beat. You reinforce your grip on the hammer, glancing up to make sure the claw is facing outward.
The slender wrist passes through the doorway. You throw your weight into the door, slamming the wood on the demon’s arm. You swing the claw at its hand but it doesn’t even break the skin. As you pull the hammer back, you drag the dangling emblem across the demon’s skin, leaving gray, flaky ash in its wake. Smoke wafts from the dead gray patch. The demon howls and tries to jerk its hand back. You put even more weight on the door, trapping the demon’s hand. This time, you aim for the gray spot and the claw pierces it easily. Black liquid sprays from the wound, coating your hand and the hammer. The demon screams and yanks out its crippled limb. You kick the door shut.
You act on instinct. You draw the protection symbol on the door with the demon’s own blood. You step back.
Everything goes silent. You count the seconds in heartbeats. They’re the longest ten seconds of your life.
The silence is broken by an abrupt shuffle of wings and fast, heavy footsteps that shake the floor, heading away from you. The light returns beneath the door.
The demon will not give up. You’re sure it’s looking for another way in.
You step away from the door and whirl around. Once upon a time, these priest’s quarters were simple and pleasant. Now it’s a disaster. You aren’t the only person who came through here looking for a relic. Tables are smashed and couches are torn apart with their stuffing ripped out. Drawers are upended and lying on the floor with their contents sifted through and scattered. The debris continues down a dark hall. You wonder if there’s another door to the outside.
You take a step toward the hall but indecision brings you to a stop. The demon is fast and it knows its way around. There’s a chance you will not have the time or enough blood to seal the apartment with wards. On the other hand, you’re certain the relic is in this apartment, though you may not find it before the demon returns.
You waste no time looking for the relic. You slip the hammer into your belt and place the reliquary fragment in the pocket with the 9mm clip, freeing your hands to search.
By now your eyes have adjusted to the dimness of the room but you still need more light to look around. You climb over a toppled dresser to get to the old, stained curtains hanging over the window. As you jerk down on the fabric, the screws grate against the drywall. The curtain rod clangs loudly as it hits the floor. The curtains fall in a heap and light floods the room.
You decide to skip the couch and the smaller debris because they’ve obviously been picked through. In the center of the room a torn mattress is resting at an angle against the couch. You flip the mattress over but see nothing resembling the reliquary fragment. You head to the wall where most of the furniture has been shoved. You perform a cursory, panicked inspection of a long bureau, four bookshelves, and a battered entertainment center. Nothing.
Opposite the window, an elaborate wooden credenza has been pushed against the wall. The doors are broken off and its shelves are empty. As you pull the unit away from the wall, one of the feet snaps off and the corner crashes to the floor. Amidst the noise, you hear a faint, metallic clink. You walk around the credenza again, inspecting it carefully, but see no metal parts. You drop to your hands and knees to look underneath the raised corner.
Your eye catches a metallic flash of gold and blue.
You lay flat on your stomach and stretch your arm toward it. Your fingers brush something cold and hard affixed to the wood. Two of your fingers catch a rough edge. You have the reliquary.
As you struggle to pull it loose, you notice the room is growing darker. A shadow slides over you and stretches until it covers the wall.
A hand clamps down on your ankle and jerks you back. You scream. Your fingers dig into the reliquary, straining to retain your grip. You feel the metal of the reliquary bend and the edge digs into your fingers, slicing your skin open. Your free hand flails for a better hold. A deep, inhuman scream fills the room. Your stomach wrenches.
A second jerk, harder. Every muscle in your body tenses, as if afraid your leg will be torn from its socket. The reliquary bends and you feel it come free. You scream as you slide backward.
You are brought to a stop and you twist around awkwardly, trying to see. You’re now holding the reliquary, a small blue and gold box with a jeweled cross set in the lid. There’s a hole in one side that resembles the fragment. The demon towers above you. Its extended wings fill up the room, blocking out the light. A long black robe drapes from its neck to the floor, the hem obscured by otherworldly mist. In the dark, the demon reaches for you.
You swing the reliquary. The metal slams against the demon’s arm and you hear a loud sizzle. The reliquary glows faintly upon contact. The demon screams and releases your leg. You try to scramble away backwards but slam your head on the credenza. You see stars. Panicked, you swing the reliquary blindly. Something rattles around inside the box.
The demon grabs the front of your jacket and hauls you to your feet in a single heave. You swing the reliquary and drag the metal across its chest. The robe burns and peels back, the edges of the leathery cloth sticking to gray, blistered skin. Heavy smoke wafts from the wound.
The demon lifts you off your feet, dangling you in the air, and violently shakes you. Your head bobs erratically on your shoulders. The demon’s hand swipes at you again. You feel razors slice into your side, shredding your armor and skin. You thrash and kick and shout incoherently. A fist slams into the side of your head, snapping it back. The scent of burnt flesh fills your nostrils and the smoke is now so thick that your eyes water. You can no longer see the demon’s face.
The demon starts to chant.
A pinpoint of yellowy-white light in the smoke catches your eye. The light trails in a circular pattern, drawing a symbol. The light comes a little closer to you and its canvas becomes clear. The symbol is on the demon’s palm. You don’t recognize it but it makes your skin crawl.
You don’t know what the demon is trying to do and you don’t care. You kick it in the gut. You grab the hammer with your free hand and swing both arms erratically. The claw of your hammer snags one of the grayed patches, ripping a deep gash in the demon’s torso.
It screams and drops you. You land hard on your back, nearly knocking the breath from your lungs. You swing the reliquary at the demon’s legs and smash the metal against a shin. It growls and takes a step to the side, but it doesn’t retreat. Its good leg swings hard at your chest. Its bare leathery foot smashes into your armor and sends you flying. You slam into the far wall, knocking the reliquary and the hammer from your hands. You watch the reliquary clatter away into the right corner. A small, yellowed bone slips from a hole in the metal.
A Class One relic. The physical remains of a martyred saint.
You attempt to get up but the room spins and you collapse back to the floor. Your nose is gushing blood. You feel broken ribs and your head is light. You know you’re not okay.
You roll onto your stomach and carefully climb to your hands and knees. As you do, a familiar object in the left corner of the room grabs your attention.
It’s a 9mm Beretta. The clip in your pocket would give you 15 shots.
The demon gets down on all fours as if attempting to protect its damaged, vulnerable areas. Smoke pours from its body and you can see black fluid dripping from its chest to the floor. If you don’t finish the demon off, it will finish you.
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.