/ Language: English / Genre:thriller, / Series: Rapture

Tribulation

Philip Simpson


Philip W. Simpson

Tribulation

"For there will be Great Tribulation such has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened no flesh would be saved"

(Matthew 24:21–22)

Prologue

Richland, Ohio

Three and a half years into the Tribulation

“ I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth.”

Job 29:17

Sam crouched in the gloom and waited for night to fall. He shifted restlessly, his body keen to be doing something — anything other than wait. Waiting, however, seemed to be his lot during daylight hours. When your days were largely empty of anything other than meditation, eating and training, the excitement and action that came with nightfall were a welcome change.

He was beginning to drift into his calm, inner meditative zone again when the building he was sheltering within started to shake violently. Instantly alert, Sam sighed and stood with one fluid motion, prepared to move if the building collapsed suddenly. He eyed the shaking walls warily, shifting his feet easily to accommodate the bucking floorboards. Most were already cracked and warped — testament to the amount of ground movement they had already been subjected to. Earthquakes were becoming more and more commonplace these days. They had been a fairly regular occurrence since the Rapture but lately, they had increased in frequency and power. Sam was almost blase about them now but still treated them with a certain respect. Although not as susceptible to physical harm as normal humans, he could still become trapped under tons of rubble.

The building continued to shake, the tremor building in intensity. Sam watched curiously as a long crack appeared in the wall opposite, spreading like the tendrils of a questing weed. A crash sounded somewhere from a back room and his hand unconsciously slipped down to grip the haft on his Wakizashi tucked into his belt. When nothing emerged, he relaxed. Probably something shifting — not that there would be anything left on the walls. Any objects or photos that had once adorned the interiors had long since fallen down. If this kept up, though, he might have to move sooner than anticipated… and he was loathe to step out into daylight.

The building had once been a clothing store although there was precious little evidence of stock left now. Most of it would’ve been picked over by survivors. All the racks now lay on their side, strewn around and stacked haphazardly on top of one another. The serving counter was split down the middle. Anything remaining was now covered by a fine layer of ash which also served as an indication of recent intrusion. Sam had cased the place carefully before making it his base. No tracks in the ash, neither human nor demon, meant that no one else had been here for at least a few days.

More cracks burst into existence in the ceiling above his head. White plaster drifted down onto his hood which he brushed off carelessly. Then, without warning, the tremor stopped. The quake was over. An eerie silence filled the room — the calm after the storm. It didn’t last for long though; the building began to creak alarmingly as it settled into its new position. Sam waited it out, ready to dart away if the need arose. Thankfully it didn’t, and he settled back down into a crouch, as still as one of the mannequins that littered the floor.

Night had come now and his enhanced senses detected the inevitable changes that came with it. The moon, now the color of blood, had made an appearance from behind the almost solid barrier of clouds that swirled above the shattered town and a red stain slowly flowed into the room via various cracks and openings, filling Sam with a strange warmth and feeling of power. It was a thrilling sensation but, equally, one that filled him with disquiet: A reminder that the Earth, especially at night, now belonged to his kind. Most especially his father, the devil, the Prince of demons — and all those who served him. His kin, but also his sworn enemy.

The night, however, only belonged to the devil for a finite period. Soon enough, change would come and Satan would once again be banished to whence he had come — Hell. It was small consolation to Sam, but at least it gave him some hope. And some hope, as his master Hikari had always said, was better than none.

Right now, the darkness belonged to them. He reached out with his senses, feeling the demonic presence. He could sense them emerging from the rift between Hell and Earth, centered around the desecrated churches, their auras a hot glow of hatred in his mind. They were around but no-where in the immediate vicinity. He’d chosen this spot with care, well away from any church.

Relieved, he tried something else, something that he had become more adept at in the intervening years since the Rapture and his time spent looking after Grace. He could now sense the distinctive minds of normal humans, their presence softer and less intense than those of demons. They were much closer, in a nearby warehouse he’d identified a few days earlier. They were stirring, becoming more active, a sign in itself that all was not well.

Sam could draw only two conclusions from the activity. Either they were preparing to fight off an imminent demon attack or — much more sinister — they were in league with the demons and were planning their evening abominations.

Unfortunately, the latter explanation was the only conclusion he could draw with some certainty. Experience dictated that he could no longer reveal himself when encountering humans for the first time. The reception he received, almost without exception, was poor to say the least. His disguise — if you could call his hood a disguise — didn’t last for long and the truth soon emerged. What he’d learnt long ago was that people always judged him before they knew him. Always. He just didn’t bother anymore. Instead, he liked to observe without being seen; assessing, planning, debating the best way his unique skills could be used to help those who had been left behind during the Tribulation.

In the case of the people in the warehouse — he’d observed them some days earlier and realized the dreadful truth. They were in league with the demons. There could be no doubt about it. It wasn’t just that though. They had descended into the very depths of human depravity, preying on their fellow humans. Feeding on them. Cannibalism. It had only taken him this long to act because there were too many of them and he needed to plan carefully. Some of them were armed with iron, which was the only weapon that could harm him. He would have to be careful. He had enough self-awareness to realize that while he was somewhat immune to conventional attack, he certainly wasn’t invulnerable.

He rested then, settling into the lotus position, conserving his strength for the fight to come. Entering a meditative zone, time lost all meaning, although he was careful not to let it turn into sleep. Sleep led to dreams and his dreams were all about his mother. He really didn’t want to witness her suffering again or dwell on his failure to find her all those years earlier in Hell.

Hours passed like minutes and then, abruptly, it was time. Quickly, with a seamless transition from meditation to full wakefulness, he stood.

He dropped his pack on the ash-covered floor. He’d have to come back for it later. Adjusting his swords at shoulder and hip, silent as death itself, he moved towards the entrance of the shop. The door was ajar and all the windows were shattered, so he was careful to check his foot placement. The crunch of glass could easily alert someone and he took care as he moved past the doorframe, hugging the outside wall and keeping to the shadows. Outside, he crouched down next to the cracked facade of the building and scanned around.

The street looked like a caricature of a post-apocalyptic landscape. His night vision enabled him to see clearly — almost too clearly, giving him an odd sense of exposure. It looked like any post-Rapture town that he’d had the misfortune to pass through: cars and buildings covered in a fine coating of dust; some buildings lying in piles of rubble, others burnt husks; the street cracked and buckled and on it, cars scattered haphazardly. He knew he was in Ohio, high up on the central plateau, and as far as he knew, in the county of Richland. As for which town — he had no idea. The only indication he’d had was a sign as he entered town, lying half-buried in rubble, unreadable now thanks to bullet holes, caked ash and grime and graffiti. He’d tried to wipe it clean with spit but failed to generate enough saliva. His mouth was often dry these days. He couldn’t actually remember when he’d actually had a drink of water. Days? Weeks? Luckily, his demonic constitution meant that his physical needs weren’t the same as humans but he still missed the little pleasures. What he’d give for a nice, long, refreshing drink of cool water. Bliss. Fresh water was scarce these days. The rise in global temperatures meant that many sources had dried up completely, and those that hadn’t were often contaminated. He’d even heard rumors that the ocean itself had turned to poison, though he was yet to see it for himself.

As for food, well, he just didn’t seem to need much of it, which was just as well since there seemed to be hardly any around. Since the Rapture, the Tribulation Earth had become more hell-like. The more hell-like it became, the stronger Sam began to feel — almost as if the very environment was feeding him and giving him strength. He didn’t quite know what to make of that. A part of him felt grateful for his demonic heritage that enabled him to survive in such harsh conditions, but another part resented it as a reminder of how he was different to every other human he encountered.

Sam missed eating but not as much as he thought he would. It used to be one of those comforting habits, something he did because he had to, not because of any great desire. Saying that, he did miss Aimi’s cooking, the flavors and textures. Her company as they ate.

At the thought of her, he unconsciously reached up and fingered the cross around his neck, his mother’s cross — the one he had given Aimi. She was never far from his thoughts and he often wondered what she would be doing now. Would she be too busy enjoying paradise to remember him? Was she even now looking down upon him, watching over him or had she already forgotten him? He hoped not because he would never forget her. Never.

He let the cross go, not for the first time wondering why it no longer burnt his fingers. Bibles, crosses, hallowed ground — his demonic heritage meant that the touch of anything holy still caused scorching pain to sear through his body. The only exception seemed to be this cross. Why, he didn’t know, but it provided some small comfort. And comfort was a precious commodity these days.

He shook his head to clear it, chastising himself for his self-indulgence, only too conscious of what the consequences could be for his lack of attention. It was only then that he detected the demonic presence. His heart skipped a beat at the shock of its proximity — it was far closer than it had a right to be. Sure, his mind had been elsewhere, but he had never slipped up this badly before. He could feel the growing hatred of it, its mind a hot coal of boiling anger. And something else. Something was different about it, something he had never encountered before.

It was nearby. If his senses could be believed, it was across the street, just around the side of the next building, a shattered and crumbling Seven 11. Angry with himself but also slightly intrigued, he darted across the covered street, keeping low, his feet barely stirring the thick layer of dust and debris as he passed.

He reached the Seven 11 and, making absolutely no sound at all, moved cautiously around the side of the building. He found himself in an alleyway about thirty feet long. The light was poor, shadows clutching eagerly to the walls, just another patch of darkness.

His enhanced vision cut through the shadows easily. Towards the far end of the alleyway, crouched low at the base of a barbed wire topped metal fence, was a creature. From this distance, it looked like a Lemure — the almost mindless demon foot soldier — but its mind tone told a different story. It didn’t appear to have seen him and probably couldn’t sense him — he was becoming rather adept at concealing his mind from his demonic brethren.

He moved, a blur to any normal vision, crossing the distance between him and the demon in less than two heartbeats. As he moved, he drew the shorter of his blades from the sheathe tucked into his belt; the Wakizashi — its shorter length perfect for close quarters fighting. Sam silently glided around behind the Lemure. He grasped its disgusting mangy hair with one hand and drew the head back, sliding his blade against its neck with his other hand, ignoring its surprised struggling and the sound and smell of burning as his iron blade made contact with demonic flesh.

His black demon eyes met those of the Lemure and he saw a flicker of realization dawn. Wait! A flicker of realization? Lemure were essentially mindless, and yet this one displayed a sense of self. That wasn’t all — Sam could sense the disquiet and panic that had set into its mind. Something else too. It seemed like it… it recognized him, knew who and what he was. What was this thing?

He stared at it and it gazed back at him. It had stopped struggling now and had become calm, as if accepting the inevitable.

“What are you?” he demanded, tightening his grip on the greasy, foul smelling hair, ignoring the sharp stab of horns against the palm of his hand. The Lemure — or whatever it was — smiled at him, the lips peeling back to reveal the sharpened points of teeth glinting dully in the shadowy light.

Slowly, apparently to avoid antagonizing Sam, a disproportionately long arm moved up to touch the blade at its neck, its sharp talons clicking against the iron gently and lovingly as it completely ignored the sizzle of burning flesh that the contact caused.

Sam was aware that his mouth was hanging open in surprise like some dullard but he was unable to close it. This whole scene was so strange. This shouldn’t be happening. Why wasn’t he doing something? Saying something? The unusual and uncharacteristic behavior of this thing that clearly wasn’t just a Lemure had deeply unnerved him.

The Lemure’s eyes had not once left his own. It opened its mouth and something that Sam thought would never usher from it, did. Words, hissed out but recognizable.

“Your father sends his greetings.”

Book 1

Hell

6 months into the Tribulation

He will inhabit ruined towns and houses where no one lives, houses crumbling to rubble. He will no longer be rich and his wealth will not endure, nor will his possessions spread over the land. He will not escape the darkness; a flame will wither his shoots, and the breath of God's mouth will carry him away.

Job 15: 28-30

Chapter One

Utah/Colorado border

Night fell over the grim landscape, washing out any tenacious remnants of color lucky enough to remain. There weren’t many; a few stubborn shrubs and weeds, their dull green leaves mostly blanketed in grey ash, clutching on to skeletal branches in a desperate gasp for life. The warm, sulfur- tinged breeze sent drifting flurries of ash swirling and dancing into the night sky. Occasionally the clouds would part, revealing a crimson moon for a moment, bathing the setting in its sickly red glow.

Other than the ash and the clouds, nothing moved. No animals, no humans. No living creature. The landscape was as motionless and barren as a corpse.

A figure stood amongst the ash and dead vegetation. He was shirtless, every muscle on his lean torso defined periodically by the light of the moon. A sword was clutched in either hand, one long, one short. A Katana and a Wakizashi. The long and the short. Daisho.

With startling swiftness, the figure began to move, his swords flashing out in practiced movements more like dance than mindless killing strokes, each strike elegant, fluid and undeniably deadly. The power behind the blows was enough to shatter full grown trees.

Despite the obvious energy expended, the figure seemed unaffected. His breathing was slow and even. Occasionally, he would breathe out forcefully in time with a particularly energetic strike. The only real evidence of his exertion was the sweat slicking his upper body.

Suddenly, he stopped, the action almost shocking in its abruptness. He cocked his head as if listening to something. To a human ear, there was no sound other than that caused by the constant motion of the wind. But the listener wasn’t human — at least not entirely.

His eyes darted towards the sky. Something was coming from that direction but the figure appeared unconcerned, lowering his swords so that the tips touched the ground. For a moment he cloaked his mind using the glamor ability he’d worked so hard to perfect, concealing his presence from any nearby demon but then he appeared to sense the futility in it, and let it drop. Whatever it was in the sky had probably already seen him. He’d learnt that his glamor ability, whilst useful for shrouding his mind and thoughts, did little to mask his actual physical body, especially at close range and especially when he’d — in all likelihood — already been seen.

Lightning flashed, outlining a winged creature for a fraction of a second before it gracefully touched down a few feet from the other figure. The two stared at each other for a moment, unmoving. They could have almost been twins. Both were tall and well-proportioned with dark locks. The only obvious difference was the black wings that the new comer sported.

“Greetings, Samael,” said the winged figure. “I trust you are well.”

The other figure appeared to flinch slightly. “You can call me Sam, you know,” he said. “It is the name I go by, after all.”

“I prefer to use the old names.” The winged inclined his head and smiled mirthlessly. “It doesn’t pay to deny your heritage, Samael.”

Sam glared but said nothing for a moment. “What do you want, Samyaza?”

The Watcher took two light steps closer. Sam watched him warily but didn’t raise his blades. He didn’t exactly trust the Watcher but had no reason to distrust him either. The creature had, after all, helped him out in the past.

“I’m here to help you, Samael. Again.”

“Why?” Sam asked suspiciously. He’d learnt that the Watcher (or Grigori in the old tongue), had his own agenda.

The other grinned. “Do I need a reason?”

Sam considered for a moment. If he was being truthful with himself, it didn’t really matter why the Watcher wanted to help him. If it served Sam, then where was the harm?

The Watcher tossed something through the air. Without conscious thought, Sam transferred one of his swords to his other hand and caught it. It was a small statuette. He turned it over in his hand, examining it curiously. It was a crude, ugly thing, roughly carved out of volcanic rock to resemble a dog.

Sam looked up, meeting the knowing stare of the Watcher. “What is it?” he asked.

“In a moment. First, tell me, Samael, what is your heart’s desire?”

Sam paused, momentarily caught off guard by the question. Images of people flashed through his mind. Aimi, Hikari, Grace. His mother. “You know better than I do,” he replied eventually.

“Tell me,” the Watcher commanded.

Sam sighed resignedly. Clearly, the Watcher wasn’t going to be satisfied until he got an answer. “I want the truth about my mother. To save her if possible — if she can be saved. I want to get Grace out of Hell. I want to be with Aimi. Why ask me this, though? You knew the answers before you asked.”

The Watcher nodded, satisfied. “That object in your hand is filled with possibilities. It can lead to the fulfillment of all your desires. It is up to you what you do with it, though.”

Sam examined the object again. What was so special about it? How could this stupid, ugly piece of rock possibly help him be reunited with those he cared about?

As if reading his mind (which he potentially was), the Watcher spoke. “Tell me one further thing. What do you know of Hellhounds?”

Sam grimaced. He knew all about Hellhounds. Had faced one himself in Hell only a few months earlier, almost losing his life in the process.

“They’re one of the greatest demons in Hell,” he said, remembering the demon lore drummed into him by his master, Hikari. “Almost impossible to kill and feared by all.”

The Watcher nodded again. “Quite right. But did you know that every Hellhound is bonded to a demon of the upper echelons of Hell? To a Prince or Princess. As powerful as they are, they were created to serve. They were bred for bondage. That statuette you hold in your hands has the power to summon one.”

Sam glanced at the object again with renewed interest. How could such a simple object contain such power? “So what am I meant to do with it? What’s it got to do with me?”

“At rare and specific times in Hell, demons of noble lineage — that is, those who are related to the Prince of Lies in some respect — gather in the hottest parts of Hell. These parts are invariably volcanoes. They gather for one purpose and one purpose only: to gain the servitude of a Hellhound.” Samyaza smiled infuriatingly and spoke in a condescending way, as if lecturing a child. Sam let the insult pass, intrigued.

“A Hellhound is a powerful instrument of destruction,” he continued. “It can serve in many other ways — their senses are also extremely sensitive, especially their sense of smell.” The Watcher paused, watching Sam carefully. “I can see from the look on your face that you realize the import of this.”

Indeed Sam could. With such a powerful ally, he could track down Grace. Even his mother. He wasn’t entirely convinced though.

“Why would the Hellhound obey me?” he asked.

“Because you have the blood of the ruler of Hell in your veins. Hellhounds only obey Princes, and what greater Prince could there be than yourself? Besides, the ones that come out of the mountain craters are juveniles. They will bond with the first Prince that they consider acceptable. Not every Prince is chosen. In fact, few are. Be warned though. Hellhound juveniles are rare and only emerge at certain times. You must travel to Hell only at these times. There is also much competition amongst the other demons for their services. Once you have bonded, you must leave immediately before another Prince finds you and kills you for the prize you possess.”

Sam breathed out heavily, slightly overwhelmed. “But how can I guarantee that a Hellhound will come for me?”

“You can’t”, said Samyaza. “It all depends on the strength of the demon Prince doing the summoning. If you are weak, none will appear. If you are strong, the statuette also has a chance of summoning a greater Hellhound juvenile, which is rarer still.”

“Where on Earth did you get this? And why give it to me now?”

The Watcher smiled knowingly. “Good questions, but your wording is wrong. It wasn’t on Earth that I found it. And as for your second question, that doesn’t require an answer. Just be content that you have this. Use this opportunity that I have given you. It is simple. If you want to find someone in Hell, you need to sniff them out. What better tool than a Hellhound? This object I have given you is rife with potential. With it, you can save the one who will in turn save you.”

“Save the one who will save me?” Sam echoed. Did the Watcher mean his mother? Aimi? “Who are you talking about?” he demanded.

The Watcher smirked. “That’s what you need to figure out. I wouldn’t spend too much time thinking about it, though. Your time is almost up.” With that, the Watcher spread his wings and launched himself into the air. Sam watched him go, not for the first time jealously resenting the freedom that wings brought his distant relative.

Suddenly irritated, he tossed the statuette into a nearby pile of ash and thrust his swords back into their respective sheathes. He pulled out his hoodie from his backpack and tugged it on over his head. Only then, did he return to the statuette.

Without touching it, he gazed at it for a long time, unwilling or unable to tear his eyes away. It seemed somehow alive, almost shifting of its own accord in the bed of ash in which it nested. Eventually, he could resist the urge no longer. He picked it up, wrapped it in an old t-shirt and placed it carefully in his pack.

It wasn’t destined to stay there for very long. Willing or not, it seemed he and the statuette had a voyage to undertake.

Hell beckoned, and its pull was not to be denied.

Chapter Two

Colorado

“ For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness.”

Isaiah 38:18

The warm winds of Hell comforted him more than they should. The acrid odor of sulfur threatened to overwhelm his senses as he breathed in deeply, savoring the smell. It felt good to be back, even though by rights he knew he should hate this place because of what it represented; human suffering, pain, torture, torment.

Sam couldn’t remember how he got here which in itself was suspicious. He couldn’t just appear here at will — he’d have to carry out preparations and he certainly couldn’t remember doing any of those things. His gut told him that something wasn’t right — and Hikari had always told him to trust his intuition. If you smelled a rat, then it probably was a rat. Satan, The Morning Star — was bound to be involved somehow. Whenever something odd happened, it was usually due to the machinations of his father.

Sam smiled sourly. He’d find out soon enough. Like an overly keen schoolboy, his father was usually all too keen to reveal his hand and show off his cleverness to his son. He remained where he was, perfectly still on the black rock of Hell, ignoring the periodic blasts of fire that spurted from nearby crevices, content to wait.

Some time elapsed. How much, he didn’t know, but enough to make him restless and irritable with enforced inaction. He was about to concede defeat, reluctantly forced to admit that his father might have won the waiting game this time, when he heard it — a high pitched scream that rapidly descended into pitiful sobs. Sam cocked his ear and reached out with his senses, concentrating hard to pinpoint the source. It came again and this time he got a bead on it.

It was a woman’s voice. A woman in dreadful pain. It was a sound that could only be produced by torture. Something about the cry seemed familiar to him at an almost instinctive level, and a part of him knew the sound or at least the person who was making it — almost as if this whole scenario had played out before.

Sam burst into motion, his hands already flexing with the need to grasp his sword hilts. Almost immediately, he found an opening in the bleak landscape and darted inside. He knew that this was suspiciously convenient but he didn’t care. Urgency filled him and he wasn’t sure why, his actions controlled by a primal need to aid or end the suffering of the woman.

He found himself in a cave, almost pitch black save for a few flickering flames embedded within wall sconces. An emaciated figure in tattered rags crouched in the middle of the rocky floor, chained by ankle and wrist. Her head was down, tucked into her legs, and her body shook with sobs, now muffled.

A need for caution and self-preservation competed with a burning desire to rush over to the woman. His compromise slowed his pace so that he only trotted towards her rather than ran. Standing over her, he could see that her back was a mass of bloody wounds. An unpleasant stench of corruption wafted from her body, and Sam’s eyes widened in horror at the live maggots feeding on the living flesh.

He was about to reach down and gently lift the woman up when she raised her head of her own accord.

The upturned face was streaked with lines of blackened tears, the deep slashes on her face leaking a sickly combination of pus and blood. The long dark hair was matted and woven through with dead snakes. Despite all this, and the long, long moments since they had last seen each other, Sam recognized her immediately and he staggered back in shock.

His mother opened her mouth, her eyes beseeching. “Help me, Sam. Free me from this place. Please Sam. Help me!” She would clearly have said more but lost the power of coherent speech as another wave of pain washed over her. She started screaming again…

Suddenly, he was no longer in Hell.

He was sitting cross-legged on black soot, surrounded by blackened stumps of what had once been a pine forest. The view suggested he was high up in the mountains. And then he remembered.

He’d been dreaming, which was becoming more commonplace than he was prepared to admit. He tried not to allow himself to dream anymore. Dreams for him were dangerous and disturbing, giving his father access to his mind. That was the whole point of meditation — to stop himself falling asleep and thereby dream. He wished he could just sleep without the nightmares, but that was impossible without his protective pentacle.

Lately, whenever he let down his guard or was just plain exhausted, the dreams would come. They were — without exception — about only one thing. Or one person. His mother. And they were getting worse.

Doubts filled him. He knew he was being manipulated but that was beside the point. If there was any chance his mother was indeed suffering like his dreams suggested, he would really have to do something about it.

The statuette waited patiently in his backpack. His thoughts never strayed far from it. It was time, he realized. Some instinct told him that the Hellhounds would be birthing soon and with their birth, the means to his mother’s salvation.

In the decades the church had stood there, it had never looked so decrepit and run down. Sam paused just outside the grounds and stared sadly at it for a while, letting the enormity of it fill him. The once white-washed walls were now an ashen grey color. The crosses above the door and the steeple had fallen or been torn from the building to lie scattered and broken amongst the dirty weeds.

The landscape was even worse. Sam knew he was in Colorado and had long read about the beautiful landscape. He’d hoped it might have been spared the worst that the Tribulation could offer but he had been disappointed. It had suffered like every other place he had been to. Worse, in some cases.

The mountain range towering behind the church would once have had snow at this time of year. Beneath the snow line, fir, spruce and pine trees used to dominate the slopes, their verdant green competing for attention with the dazzling white of the snow. Now all Sam could see was a universal grey. The skeletal remains of the trees were shrouded with ash. It was a depressing vista.

That was why seeing the church, even in its current miserable state, gave Sam a vague sense of hope. It was his path to Hell and with it, a way to rescue those trapped there. Sam lowered his head, closed his eyes and rubbed both hands through his black hair, dislodging the hood of his sweatshirt. His fingers brushed the horns hidden within the unruly mass, but he no longer flinched. They were a part of him — a part that he resented, but was gradually beginning to accept.

He opened his eyes and stood upright. It was time to focus. He had things to do and couldn’t spare the time to dwell on the past. Focusing on the present, he contemplated the church in front of him.

The church grounds had no outer fence. It was hard to tell through the layer of ash and weeds but it either had never had one, or its remains were now buried beneath this foul coating. Sam didn’t really care about the fence — it was more a matter of where the hallowed ground started. Hallowed ground could and still did burn him like phosphorus. Sam had thought that because he was able to wear his mother’s cross — the one he had once given Aimi — that perhaps his sensitivity to holy objects and ground was a thing of the past. It wasn’t. He’d tested this hypothesis in the months since his battle with the Anti-Christ. Sadly, his reaction to other crosses, bibles, holy water and hallowed ground was as powerful and as painful as ever.

It probably wasn’t going to be an issue in this case, however. He strongly suspected that the church had been desecrated. The fact that the crosses adorning the building appeared to have been torn down was a pretty strong indication. Desecration meant that the grounds couldn’t harm him, though he wasn’t going to take any unnecessary risks. Even though it couldn’t kill him, it hurt like nothing else and it wasn’t something he was in a hurry to feel again.

There was a path, half buried, that circled the church. Sam suspected that this path marked the boundary of the church grounds. He took two steps closer and extended one of his legs over the path, allowing the tip of his hiking boot to touch the ground. Nothing. Experimentally, he touched his whole foot down. Still nothing. Confident now, he jumped over the path. A part of him expected that now he would feel the searing pain — a little joke played by his father — and he gritted his teeth as he landed. He crouched, waiting for it. When the pain didn’t come, he let out a little sigh of relief and straightened.

In front of him, the church doors were still intact. Ignoring the flurry of ash it caused, Sam forced his way up the stairs, pushed aside a broken pew and some unhealthy looking weeds, and cautiously pushed the double doors. They opened grudgingly, emitting a grating sound that set Sam’s teeth on edge. If there were any demons around, he had just alerted them. Still, the small town he was in was deserted, and experience had taught him that no humans usually meant no demons.

He forced the door open fully. Inside, the pews were scattered, twisted and broken. As he suspected from the grounds, the place had been desecrated. Crosses were either hung upside down or missing altogether. Blood was smeared on the walls and the altar looked like it had been used for some form of sacrifice. Standard demon practice.

Sam ignored most of it. He’d seen it before and while disturbing, he’d become quite inured to it. After a quick scan around, it was time to get to work. Clearing an area roughly in the center of the nave, he produced some chalk from a pocket and quickly sketched the outline of a pentagram. Working from the inside, he was conscious of the fact that if this didn’t work, he was potentially trapping himself in. A pentagram wouldn’t, but a pentacle would. All it took was for him to connect the points of the pentagram with a circle.

Before he could complete the circle, he fumbled the chalk and dropped it, watching helplessly as it rolled away out of reach. He didn’t dare stand to retrieve it for fear of disturbing his pentagram. He clucked in irritation, wishing that the chalk would somehow just return to his hand.

Something happened. He saw it out of the corner of his eye. At first he thought he was seeing things and then he realized that yes, the chalk had just moved by itself. Nothing had touched it. There was no wind inside the church to stir it. The chalk had moved of its own accord, exactly at the same time he had wished it was in his hand. He decided to experiment. What did he have to lose? There wasn’t exactly anyone around to laugh at him when he failed.

He closed his eyes and concentrated, reaching out. In his mind’s eye, he could see the chalk. He concentrated harder and began to get a sense of the feel of it — could actually feel it like it was physically in his hand. He willed it to come to him, to move, to return to his hand. Gritting his teeth with the effort, he felt the chalk move in his mind and knew that he was succeeding. A light touch on his fingertips confirmed it. He opened his eyes and looked down. The chalk was where he’d known it would be, right next to his fingers. Sam smiled in satisfaction. That was some party trick. There were certainly benefits to being a half-demon — especially a demon Prince. He’d remember this one. It could come in handy some day.

He took a deep breath and used the chalk to draw a circle around his pentagram, instantly transforming it into a pentacle and imbuing the symbol with the power to block mental and demonic physical attacks. In his case, it also served as his own trap. When he was growing up in Jacob’s Ladder, Sam had often slept safe within the chalky outlines of a pentacle. It had been worth it, to finally sleep without dreams, free of his father’s constant mental bombardment.

Of course, his master, Hikari or Aimi had been around then to free him by simply breaking the outline. But now… well, now there was no one. Potentially, he could break free but it would probably take every ounce of strength he possessed, leaving him weak and vulnerable for days if not weeks. And even then, it wasn’t a given.

“This better work,” he said aloud. He’d prepared and thought it through carefully and was confident that he had a good chance, but of course, he’d never done this before either. It wasn’t something that you could practice. He’d traveled the other way before — from Hell to Earth — albeit with help from Joshua. He’d even traveled to Earth to Hell before but that was through a portal created by the Lemure. He’d never actually done this all by himself before.

”Draw the pentacle, visualize the place and will yourself there,” he muttered.

Sam still had some questions. Were there certain designated emergent points in Hell, much like the churches were on Earth? Could he just visualize any place in Hell and will himself there? In all fairness, during his last visit, Sam hadn’t seen much of Hell, intent as he was on hiding or escaping, so his options were fairly limited. Besides, much of Hell looked alike. How did you tell one part of it from another?

Sam sighed and decided to play it safe. He would visualize, or at least try to visualize, the place where he’d emerged last time. Surely that would work? Surely.

He felt a niggling doubt but decided to ignore it. He had to do it. For his mother’s sake. For Grace. In any case, he was committed now, trapped inside the pentacle. As a last exercise in procrastination, he checked that his backpack was secure, that his Katana was strapped to the outside of it and his Wakizashi was securely tucked into the belt at his waist. They were exactly in the same places they had been fifteen minutes earlier. With a shrug, he sat down, crossed his legs and closed his eyes.

For a few minutes, nothing happened. He found it hard to concentrate, his mind slipping away onto other, more pleasant memories. The pentacle blocked all the psychic energy that the demon-infested Earth was now suffused with. It was a pleasant change from the usual constant mental barrage. He’d missed this feeling. Of course, the remembered feeling gave way to other memories: memories of Aimi; of shared pleasures, of caresses and kisses, of her smile and the way her long hair seemed to dance in the breeze. Grudgingly, he tore his mind away from thoughts that served to torture him. What was the point in remembering something that could never be again? Aimi was in Heaven and always would be. A place where he could never go.

The thought made him angrier than he anticipated, wiping out the happy, mellow memories. Without warning, his mind was channeled to a darker place, a place filled with flames and terror, a place he couldn’t deny felt more like home than any other he had known. Hell.

He locked on to the thought, squeezing his eyes tighter in concentration. Something was happening. A movement, a translocation. All at once, he felt different. Stronger. More powerful. He took a deep breath and hot gaseous sulfur filled his lungs. Smiling tightly he opened his eyes, knowing full well what to expect.

Sure enough, he was once again in Hell. But it wasn’t in a place he recognized. Suddenly concerned, Sam stood quickly. The flames of the pentacle were dying already, its power exhausted. He stepped over the outline without restriction and gazed around him. His mouth dropped in awe.

He was standing atop a rocky finger. Hundreds of feet below him was a sea of raging fire. It surrounded the rocky outcrop he was on completely and went on for as far as the eye could see. Hot winds buffeted him, blowing the hood from his head as if to tell him that the need to conceal his heritage was unnecessary here.

He’d done it — he’d transported himself to Hell — just not to the right part. Something had gone wrong. Instead of arriving in a place he vaguely recognized, he was now trapped and isolated with no way of escape.

What the Hell was he meant to do now?

Chapter Three

Hell

“… to the land of deepest night, of deep shadow and disorder, where even the light is like darkness."

Job 14:22

Sam took stock slowly, carefully evaluating the situation like Hikari had taught him. Sure, he was in Hell, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. For one thing, he felt great, and that was certainly a positive. And it wasn’t like he was trapped. He could just craft another pentacle, visualize the church he’d just come from — for that matter, any church he remembered — and will himself back to Earth. Couldn’t he? But then a niggling thought intruded, sowing the seeds of doubt in his mind. What happened if it didn’t work properly, as it clearly hadn’t this time? What happened if he found himself back on Earth surrounded by demons and demon-worshippers? Or worse — what would he do if he found his ability to transport himself no longer worked. He’d be trapped in Hell for ever.

He sighed, silently berating himself for his self-doubt. The last thing he needed to do right now was start speculating on things that hadn’t even happened yet, and may never transpire. What he needed to do was find practical solutions.

He looked up. Miles above was the broken rocky ceiling that served as the upper limit of Hell. Lit by the burning fires below, it was bathed in a warm, flickering glow. Tiny, insect-like shapes fluttered near it but Sam knew that it was deceptive. They must be hulking Astaroth, lesser Princes of Hell, soaring on the hot currents of air. There seemed to be other shapes up there as well. Sam wasn’t so naive as to think he knew every type of demon. The ancient tome of demonology given to him by Hikari long ago contained details of many different types but it was hardly comprehensive. Sam had encountered the more common ones but he was certain that Hell had other surprises in store for him.

Still, the fact that these flying demons soaring above him appeared to be several miles away was another positive. It would be an absolute disaster if he had to fight wave after wave of Astaroth, trapped on this island of rock. Even he couldn’t fight them off forever; eventually they would wear him down. But so far, his appearance had gone unnoticed. Sam wanted to make sure he kept it that way, so couldn’t stay here. It was only a matter of time before a passing demon spotted him and raised the alarm.

In recent years, he’d learnt to shroud his mind and presence from other demons using a kind of glamor ability. It had come in handy on Earth of course but now it was about to get a proper workout. He wasn’t sure whether it would actually work in Hell, but he was about to find out. He concentrated, putting the glamor in place, leaving it to operate on automatic without conscious thought. If it worked, great. If not, then he’d deal with the consequences when they occurred.

That done, he checked out his immediate surroundings. The rocky finger was only about ten feet in diameter — not much larger than the now invisible pentacle that had brought him here. He took a few careful steps over to the edge. His first impression had been largely correct. The outcrop was at least two hundred feet tall, surrounded by a sea of fire. What he thought of as the nearest rocky shoreline was, if he had to guess, probably five miles distant. It wasn’t really a shoreline though — more like a towering wall of rock. And that was the nearest one. When he looked around, the other shorelines seemed to be ten or even twenty miles away.

He focused on the wall closest to him. Even with his enhanced vision, it was hard to make out any detail. He thought he could see ant-like figures moving up and down the wall, but he couldn’t be sure. Last time he’d been in Hell, the scenery had been similar but different in one crucial way: the precipice he’d looked over last time had had islands of rock floating amidst the fires of Hell. On these islands, the cursed human inhabitants of Hell had been subjected to continuous torture. Where he was now, apart from the one piece of rock he’d been lucky enough to emerge upon, was absolutely free of rocky islands. And he was starting to consider himself lucky. Imagine if he’d actually emerged in the sea of flames? Although immune to some forms of fire and resistant to others, Sam doubted even he’d be able to survive in that sea for very long. He scanned the sea with renewed interest. The fires were almost solid, but like a sea, had peaks and troughs. It undulated like something alive, hurling hot gusts of sulfur-redolent air straight into Sam’s face.

He was about to give up when he saw movement, movement that wasn’t part of the sea. He watched again, more carefully this time, focusing on the area where he’d seen the earlier movement. There! A tail, reminiscent of a serpent, broke the surface for a moment. It was almost the same color as the fires that surrounded it but more vivid, a brighter hue of orange and red. If Sam’s sense of scale was correct, just the tip of tail that he’d glimpsed must have been at least twenty feet long. That meant… Sam gulped. No wonder there were no fire demons resident in this sea. Sam didn’t blame them. If there were fire serpents over a hundred feet in length living in this sea, then he wouldn’t want to be in there either. The residents of Hell weren’t exactly inclined towards friendship with one another.

Sam shook his head despairingly. Even if he could survive in these fires, he didn’t fancy his chances against massive fire serpents. Crossing the sea was clearly out of the question.

He examined the rocky precipice again. Nothing. The landscape of Hell seemed to be a uniform black volcanic rock. The rock he stood upon looked exactly the same as any other piece of Hell. No help there. A thought occurred to him. Lying flat on the rock, he dragged himself to the edge and looked over and directly down the face of the rock. The rock was broken and cragged — perfect handholds. He could easily descend — but to what? A smile slowly appeared on Sam’s face. Down at the very base of the rocky finger, down where fiery waves lapped at the edges, there appeared to be a platform. Sam didn’t know what the purpose of it was but it was definitely better than sitting here.

He stood up, adjusted and tightened his backpack and swords, and began the long climb down.

Some indeterminate time later, Sam reached the bottom. He was sweating and his fingers were torn and bleeding, but he’d made it. It hadn’t been the easiest of climbs — the rock was treacherous and kept crumbling away even after he’d tested it, but here he was. He had also discovered something interesting during the descent. The sharp, volcanic rock here in Hell had the ability to pierce his skin — something that would have been impossible on Earth. At first, he’d thought that the rock must have contained a high content of iron but that made no sense. He certainly couldn’t sense or smell iron, which he often could. Also, all demons were extremely sensitive to iron. Why would Satan create a place that was filled with it? It might have been a cruel little joke, something that his father would find amusing but it would also serve to continuously antagonize his followers. Not to mention that it would probably inconvenience Satan himself.

That wasn’t it. Sam knew there was no iron here. It was something else. And then he realized. Humans needed the sun to live but it also had the potential to kill them, just like the water in seas, oceans and lakes. The natural environment on Earth could be deadly to its indigenous inhabitants. For demons, their environment in Hell had the same effect. Sure, some of them had more immunity to fire than others, but the actual landscape seemed to be a different story entirely. It had the potential to kill him. Good to know. Sam was suddenly glad that he hadn’t followed his impulse to jump straight into the sea of fire. If the rock could harm him, then being immersed in that sea probably wouldn’t be good for his health.

What made it interesting, however, was the speed at which he was healing. He’d felt it before, of course, but never seen the process repeated again and again. During the climb down, he’d cut himself on rock numerous times. Each time, he’d bleed for a bit and then the wounds would rapidly seal over, and now the wounds were almost gone. He rubbed his hands together briskly in an effort to remove the last traces of blood. The healing process much faster than last time he was here, almost as if his body was becoming even more accustomed to his natural habitat. He wondered what other surprises his body had in store for him, here in this place.

His hands finally clean of blood, he looked around carefully. Like everything else in this place, the platform was made of rock. It was also rather narrow — about five feet wider than the actual column, creating a walkway around the base. Flames lapped continuously at the edges, threatening to spill over and engulf the platform completely. Sam stretched out one arm experimentally and immersed his hand in the flames, ready to pull back quickly if needed. He didn’t. Surprisingly, the flames tingled rather than burnt. He left his arm in there and started to count. After about two minutes, he felt an itch. After three, a vaguely painful sensation started to intrude. After four minutes, it became almost too painful to bear and he hastily withdrew his arm. Interesting. It seemed he could survive for a few minutes in the fiery sea if required. Of course, that was if he could survive the attentions of the fire serpents…

Almost as if the thought of them had served as a summons, a massive head slowly emerged from the sea of fire about fifty feet from the base of the rocky column. Waves of flame surged about it, disturbed by the passage of something as utterly massive as this creature. Sam froze as the head rose higher and higher into the air, revealing a huge snake-like body beneath. The head itself looked more humanoid than serpent, with pointed ears and even a hint of a chin. Instead of a nose, it possessed vertical slits. White fangs, larger than Sam’s entire body, protruded over the edges of its gaping, lip-less mouth. When it was about fifty feet in the air, the fire serpent stopped rising.

Sam realized he’d stopped breathing as the things huge yellow eyes slid this way and that, as if searching for something. Ponderously, it swung its head towards the rocky platform that Sam huddled on and stared directly at him. Sam took a breath and sprang into action, turning to face the rock. He was pretty confident about its intention and he didn’t want to be around to be on the receiving end. He looked around desperately. His first option was to climb up again. No chance. Too slow. Far too slow. He’d only get a few feet before the creature would be upon him.

At that very moment, Sam sensed movement behind him. Without conscious thought, he was suddenly moving, leaping behind the relative protection of the rock. He rolled, his body brushing against the boiling flames of the ocean just as a massive tail hurtled down from above, smashing into the rocky platform with bone-jarring force. The entire rock column shuddered under the impact. Fragments of rock rained down upon Sam and if he hadn’t already been on his knees, the force of the blow would’ve knocked him down anyway. Fire washed over him, burning smoking holes in his jeans and hiking boots. Quickly, he peered around the rock. The fire serpent was only about twenty feet away now, towering above him — its size almost a twin to the rock column itself, its sheer physical presence so intimidating it almost made Sam vomit. As it gathered itself for another strike with its tail, Sam knew he only had moments to make a decision. The rock — and himself for that matter — probably wouldn’t survive another direct hit like that. He was beginning to panic, but he couldn’t control himself. It was either into the sea where death was almost inevitable, or stay on the rock and die right now. He stared at the rock in front of him, wracked by indecision.

It was then that he saw it. A vertical line in the rock. He hadn’t seen it before because he hadn’t had time to venture around to this side. He traced the line and then he knew what it was.

A door.

Of course there was a door here. What other reason would you have for carving out a platform in the middle of nowhere? Like everything else, the door was made of rock but didn’t have an obvious handle. Sam hurled himself against it. It didn’t give an inch. Didn’t even budge. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the tail of the serpent rising into the air, dripping fire. Seconds of life remained to him; unbidden, the warning of the Watcher, Samyaza, came to him. If he died here, he would be trapped in Hell forever.

Desperation opened a window in his mind — a window which he hadn’t been able to pass through before, a power that hadn’t been accessible to him before he had moved the chalk. Suddenly he sensed what was on the other side. The door mechanism. He could picture it, he knew how it worked, how all it would take would be for a latch to be lifted. He imagined this happening and suddenly he knew for real that it was. His mind, tapping into the potential only revealed to him hours earlier, moved the latch telekinetically. The door flew open as if on a loaded spring and Sam darted into the welcoming darkness within, heedless of what could be waiting for him, desperate to escape the fire serpent.

As soon as he was through, the door slammed shut of its own accord as if programmed to remain open for only seconds in such a harsh location. A split second later, the tail of the serpent struck the rock once again. It was as if an earthquake had hit. Sam was thrown about like a rag doll. He tumbled through the darkness, aware that he was falling, conscious of a hideous roaring sound that could only have been the serpent screaming its frustration.

He must have blacked out. When he regained his senses, he was lying on cool rock. He sat up warily. Directly before him was a darkened stairwell, its steps carved from stone. Massive chunks of granite almost completely covered the upper steps. That must have been where he’d come from. The rage of the fire serpent had finally been too much for the tower. It must have collapsed, filling and blocking the stairs forever. No-one was going through there anytime soon. In fact, there was now no way back, which probably wasn’t a bad thing. He didn’t exactly relish the thought of another encounter with such a fearsome beast.

The shadows flickered. In the back of his mind, Sam had been aware of some light source. It was just that he had been slightly disorientated after his fall. Now, the thought that he was not alone suddenly washed over him, a bucket of cold water over his dulled senses. He sprang to his feet, his heart pounding, hands already reaching for his weapons.

His reaction was an over exaggeration. Thankfully, there was nothing behind him.

He was in a smallish chamber. Other than the staircase — which was now out of service — there was only one other exit: an opening in the rock indicated a passage. That was the source of the light. The flickering would indicate movement. A living creature was possibly moving within the passage, or maybe it was just a hellish breeze. Sam wasn’t prepared to take any chances.

Cautiously, he crept towards the opening, making absolutely no sound whatsoever, and glanced around the corner. The corridor was empty and lit by fire burning in evenly-spaced sconces along the walls, each made out of a human skull.

He passed a number of turns and openings. Where it was possible, he tried to keep going straight. Not that he knew where he was going. He had no idea and only the vaguest of notions about what he was going to do. It was just good to keep moving, just in case his mental and physical blocking techniques failed him. For all he knew, every demon in Hell might already be alerted to his presence, thanks to the attentions of the fire serpent.

He trudged on. The tunnels he was in seemed to be deserted. He senses told him he was alone but he wasn’t about to take that for granted. For all he knew, the rock underground could easily disguise the presence of demons.

He soon learnt that his demonic senses were working — just not all that well.

He must have been walking for an hour when he heard it. The sound of misery. Human misery. The tunnel he was in stretched on for another forty odd feet in front of him before reaching a t-section. The noise was coming from that end and getting closer. It was only then that he detected their presence: humans, of course, and many of them — but not just humans. There were several demons with them, including at least a dozen Lemure and probably two or three horned demons. Thankfully no Astaroth or Hellhounds, but there were others he could sense — extremely powerful, and clearly quite different from the others.

Just ahead on Sam’s left was an opening. He’d encountered a few of these alcoves during his walk, all as deserted as this one. He’d investigated them as he’d moved along. Some contained various grisly items that Sam could only surmise was torture equipment. Others contained skeletons and various other human remains. With each new discovery, Sam’s demeanor grew even more grim.

He darted into the alcove — just in time. The column of humans and demons rounded the corner, shuffling, limping and stomping down the tunnel towards Sam. This alcove, thankfully, was completely empty. It was unlit — the only light coming from the diffuse illumination of one of the corridors wall sconces. Sam crouched near the entrance in almost complete darkness. He slowed his breathing like Hikari had shown him, feeling his heart rate slow as well. The figures passed by his hiding place, giving no indication that they had seen or sensed him. The humans went by first. Collectively, they were a miserable and wretched group, chained together by their necks, eyes downcast. They didn’t look undernourished, however. Either they had just arrived in Hell or they were being sustained in some fashion. Their clothes were in tatters, though, and the scorch marks and tears in their clothing were abundant. Many had scarlet smears all over their body, and Sam could see bloody claw marks on almost all of them. A few were sobbing uncontrollably but most were completely silent as if resigned to their fate. Clearly, they had suffered from their time in Hell.

The last of the humans passed him. Then came the Lemure, jerking and gibbering as they lurched down the corridor, gleefully prodding the humans in front of them with their clawed hands. The horned demons came next, lumbering along on their massive limbs, almost rubbing the sides of the corridor with their sheer size. Their black, goat-like faces were impassive as they moved past Sam, clutching their huge stone mallets. But it was the last two figures that most interested Sam.

At first glance, Sam thought they were human. They were, however, slightly larger than regular people, dressed in tight fitting black armor, with swords buckled on at the waist. One appeared to be male while the other was female. Their faces were blacker than the deepest night — a black that clearly was not earthly in nature. Sam couldn’t see their eyes, but something told him that those would be black, too. As they passed by Sam — almost close enough to reach out and touch — he realized that they weren’t human at all. Small, black, bat-like wings adorned their backs, and horns twice as large as his own jutted from their foreheads. They weren’t even half-breeds or Cambions like himself. To him, they smelt like fully fledged demons — just a type he hadn’t encountered before.

His ancient tome of demonology mentioned creatures like this — much like Succubi, they were demons that could almost pass as humans, demons Satan often sent to Earth to complete his bidding. They must be high-ranking, Sam figured. There was definitely a pecking order in Hell. Surely Satan couldn’t control his legions all by himself. He must have an officer class that Satan could use to dominate the others. Even Samyaza had mentioned that there were other Princes or Princesses of Hell.

Sam watched them, intrigued. Other than his brother and father, these creatures were the closest thing to kin he’d ever seen. It almost made him want to jump out and introduce himself. This fleeting thought lasted only long enough for Sam to feel a little disgusted with himself. He remembered then the humans they were herding and the looks of dismay on their faces.

He couldn’t do anything here. He was outnumbered and he’d been in this position before. He simply couldn’t save every human he met in Hell. It was impossible. He just had to remember that he was here for a reason: to find Grace and possibly his mother. Even though it pained him, that was all he could possibly do. To try and do more would be disastrous.

Sam was about to breathe a sigh of relief as the two royal demons passed but then, abruptly, the male one stopped. The female followed suit. They were less than ten feet from Sam’s position. They started talking, low-pitched noises that Sam strained to hear. At first, he couldn’t understand them but then the words gradually unraveled themselves.

They were conversing in Hellspeak, the language of Hell that Sam understood instinctively. It was, after all, hard-wired into his DNA. As befitted its origin, the language was harsh sounding, guttural and clipped, but Sam found himself warming to it as he listened, almost as if he’d been reunited with an old friend.

“… I too, have better things to do than go chasing after rumors,” the male demon was saying.

“My sources tell me that this isn’t just a rumor,” replied the female.

The male demon laughed; the sound made Sam wince. “Your sources? You mean that mentally- challenged serpent of yours? How can you possibly trust anything that says?”

“Because I do,” she snapped. “Besides, it emerged on a disused portal. Last time that was used was eight hundred Earth years ago. Coincidence, I don’t think.”

The male demon snorted derisively. “Even if you’re right, whatever it is will be long gone. I fail to see the point of this trip. I haven’t got time to spare for this. I’ve got to get these humans down to the pits.”

“You’ll do what you’re commanded to do,” said the female demon. Her voice was flat.

Moving ever so slightly so that he could peer out of the alcove with one eye, Sam simply had to watch what happened next. The male demon’s hand was edging slightly towards his sword hilt.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” said the female calmly. The male demon’s hand froze. “The Lightbringer himself ordered me to investigate this personally,” she continued. “And to recruit whoever I saw fit to help. That means you. Consider this also; whatever or whoever this intruder is, our senses will reveal its true nature before long. It cannot hide from us. Now, I suggest that if you want to keep breathing that you do exactly what I ask.”

The male demon did not respond. He didn’t move either. Instead, he stood facing the other demon. Sam could sense his hatred and rage.

“The longer we delay here, the further away our quarry will get,” said the female. “I suggest we make haste.” She extended an open hand along the corridor. “After you.”

With every indication of poor grace, the other demon moved off, muttering darkly under his breath.

Relieved, Sam finally exhaled but remained motionless, synthesizing what he’d just heard. They knew of his presence. The fire serpent, though not very intelligent if the demons were to be believed, had alerted one of its masters that the strange, disused portal had disgorged an unusual visitor to Hell. It also appeared that his father was taking a personal interest. That could potentially complicate matters. Sam would have to be doubly on his guard now.

He waited a bit longer, just to be sure. Only when both his demonic and normal senses told him he was alone did he leave the small alcove, setting off once more along the tunnel. The tunnel was starting to angle upwards which gave Sam a little hope. He needed to get out of these tunnels and back in Hell proper. It was there he would find what he needed. Hopefully. The fact that he was now moving upwards meant that the exit couldn’t be too far away. He must’ve traveled miles by now. Surely he was no longer underneath the sea of fire?

Sam’s guess wasn’t far wrong. The tunnel continued to angle upwards. It widened and then suddenly he was at an exit. He approached it cautiously, unsure what he would find.

He emerged on a rocky plateau of a scale almost too big to grasp. Were there any limits to this place? In this distance, perhaps five miles away, was a range of mountains. The summits soared into the empty air, almost scraping the ceiling of Hell. Molten lava spewed from the tops, dribbling fiery death down their slopes. Sam nodded in satisfaction. He’d got lucky. These hellish mountains were exactly the sort of habitat he sought.

Above him, winged demons circled on the warm updrafts. In the distance he could see other demons on the ground — some herding groups of despondent humans, others engaged in tasks unclear to Sam. Getting across the plateau would not be easy. He just hoped his glamor would stay in place long enough to get him through. If he was discovered in the open like this, it would be curtains for him. There was nowhere to run.

Keeping away from any demons as much as possible, he made his way towards the nearest mountain. He kept moving, eating up the ground with long, swift strides. The shadow of the nearest mountain fell over him and hope surged. Running now, he reached the base without further incident. It was dotted with entrances. He considered his options — not that he really had any — and picked one at random. The tunnel, much like the one underground, was deserted. It angled sharply upwards in only one direction. Perfect.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been climbing but it must have been several hours since he’d emerged from the tunnel onto the actual flank of the mountain itself. Coarse steps had been cut into the rock face, much too large for him, but he persevered, avoiding any trails of lava as he climbed. Now he was nearing the summit, a wall of rock rising in front of him. A path had been cut through it which he followed, leading him to a stunning vista. The main mountain crater was below him, spewing lava in fiery gouts. Several smaller craters were clustered nearby, and it was in their direction that he headed.

The path down was hectic and jumbled, with solidified lava forms obscuring the path almost at every turn. Eventually, he reached the bottom and scanned the area carefully. A few humanoid demons were clustered around the main crater, seemingly heedless of the lava, and a few of the remote craters were attended by smaller groups of demons. One crater caught his eye. It was isolated and unattended — clearly not a popular choice for other demons. He walked towards it, trying to look natural, and reached the side of it without incident.

From the pocket of his jeans, he pulled out the statuette Samyaza had given him.

Now, about to throw the statuette into the crater, he hesitated. Was this truly his only option — to employ the services of a demon in order to find Grace and hopefully his mother? Was this the only way? The statuette trembled slightly in his hand as if replying. Sam sighed. Once again, he really had no option. It was this or consign Grace to Hell for ever.

He threw the statuette as hard as he could into the center of the crater. With the tiniest of splashes, it disappeared into the depths of the lava.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then the lava began to boil like it was alive. Sam glanced around nervously. As luck would have it, several of the other craters had started to boil at the same time so the activity at his one was not attracting any unwarranted attention.

The lava boiled for several minutes. Then, without warning, it stopped. That was it. It didn’t gradually subside, it just stopped. Sam waited. And waited. Nothing happened. He looked over at the other craters. He could just make out a few juvenile Hellhounds emerging. Fights amongst the demon Princes and Princesses had already begun, each seeking to present before the Hellhound, hoping to win their service.

Despair filled him. Clearly he was not worthy — not powerful enough to attract a Hellhound. Because of his weakness, he would fail. Without a Hellhound to assist him, Sam had no chance to find anyone — no chance at all.

He was about to turn around and give up when the lava around the edge of his crater stirred. Sam held his breath. Bringing back thoughts of the fire serpent, a massive head emerged, followed by the rest of the dog-like body. Sam had seen Hellhounds before. He’d even fought and defeated one — but this one was different. For one thing, it was smaller. It stalked up to where Sam stood motionless, its eyes level with his. The other Hellhounds he’d seen were eight foot or more at the shoulder. This was a juvenile. It was different in other ways, too. Its jaws were heavier, more massive and the claws on its feet looked like shards of obsidian. Its coat suddenly ignited into flame, shooting molten sparks over and around Sam. Despite the fact that his clothes were beginning to smolder, he didn’t move. From experience, he knew that he was essentially impervious to the fire generated by this creature. More to the point, he knew that this was some form of test. If he displayed weakness here, the Hellhound would overlook him for a more powerful master.

Sam stood his ground and met the eye of the creature. For what must have been minutes but felt much longer, the Hellhound’s fiery gaze burned into his dark irises. Instinctively, Sam knew what to do. He opened his mind to the creature, giving it access to his memories. He had no idea how the Hellhound would react, but he had to try. Perhaps the demon would find some worthy deed in Sam’s past, but he doubted it. What would some evil creature like a demon find worthy in Sam? But then again, this demon had only just been born. Were demons born evil or were they a product of their upbringing and environment? He’d soon find out.

He felt the Hellhound sift through his memories, concentrating — oddly — on random memories that Sam felt would have little significance to a demon. His moments with Aimi. Lessons learnt from Hikari. Meals shared. Then the demon’s attention shifted to more martial memories. Of him fighting other demons. Protecting humans. Making sacrifices. Finally Sam felt something pass between them.

Yeth.

What? He hadn’t spoken, and he was pretty sure the Hellhound hadn’t either.

Yeth.

The word came again, a deep sibilant voice in his head. A moment of realization struck. The Hellhound was telling him his name — and names meant power amongst demons. The Hellhound’s name was Yeth.

He stared at Yeth for a moment longer. For a fraction of a second, the Hellhound’s gaze wavered. It looked away for a moment and in that moment, lowered its head ever so slightly. It was hardly noticeable but Sam knew it for what it was. Obeisance. The Hellhound was giving him its servitude, had considered him worthy after all.

He rocked back on his heels, for some reason more pleased with this outcome than he’d thought he would be. Samael, he said, using his mind and not his words. He wasn’t sure whether this would work or not, but he’d have to learn to communicate with his Hellhound at some point. Why not now?

He watched Yeth carefully. A tiny flick of its head seemed to indicate Sam that he’d been heard but he couldn’t really be sure. Conscious that the longer he stayed here, the more likely they would receive some unwanted attention, Sam produced a small piece of material from his back pocket. It was a strip of cloth that he’d torn from his jacket months earlier — a piece of cloth that he’d used to bind one of Grace’s wounds last time they were in Hell. He’d found it back in the Cash and Carry after the battle in L.A. after Grace had disappeared. Some instinct had forced him to grab it and stuff it into his pocket, even though at the time hadn’t made sense. It did now though.

He held it out to Yeth and pictured Grace in his mind. It wasn’t hard; he remembered her clearly and wasn’t likely to forget. It wasn’t like he had a lot of friends.

Sparks from the Hellhound’s snout caused the rag to smolder. Sam pulled it away hastily, but not before the great beast had had a chance to sniff it. It looked at Sam, eyes blazing. Without pausing to see if Sam followed or not, it raced off, trailing molten fire, heading for a nearby cave entrance. Sam took off after it, hope filling his heart with more elation than he’d felt for months, if not years. The first part of his task was complete. And that was the easy part. Now for the second.

Chapter Four

Hellhound

“ This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.”

Ecclesiastes 9:3

Yeth moved at breakneck speed. Sam, no slouch in the speed department himself, had trouble keeping up. The Hellhound didn’t seem to concern himself with petty matters like his master being able to follow him. In fact, it seemed like Sam was being completely ignored.

They raced through underground tunnels so steep that sometimes Sam found himself sliding. Ahead of him, he could hear Yeth’s claws clicking on the rocky surface. Most of the tunnels were quite narrow, the Hellhound’s bulk almost filling it completely. Side chambers contained pools of molten lava but Yeth never ventured into any of them. In fact, the Hellhound did not falter at all, seeming completely sure of his path.

All at once, the tunnel began to level off. They were no longer in the volcanic mountain. This, Sam reflected, seemed to be a better way to travel than across the plain where he was continuously exposed. Once again, Sam had no idea how long they were traveling for but all at once, Yeth came to an abrupt halt. Sam almost slammed into his rear.

Sam sensed other evil presences in front of his Hellhound, and sure enough, a demon Prince and a horned demon were blocking the way. Sam’s glamor was still in place, so the Prince had no idea he was behind the demon dog.

The Prince was addressing Yeth. “Make way. I have important business to conduct. Move aside.”

Curiously, the humanoid demon did not try to win the Hellhound’s service. Perhaps they knew when one of the great dogs already had a master. Or perhaps they just assumed that any Hellhound away from the lava pools in the volcano was already spoken for. Sam didn’t know or care, but he was interested to know how some of these things worked. He had a lot to learn about Hell. Knowledge, after all, was power.

Sam could sense the indecision in Yeth’s mind. This was a Prince, a superior that lesser demons obeyed. However, Yeth’s master was also a Prince and his needs came first. Sam knew that Yeth was wrestling with conflicting desires. Finally, one won over. Decision made, the Hellhound did not move.

“Move! I command it!” yelled the demon Prince, his voice rising in a combination of anger and consternation. A disobedient Hellhound was obviously not a creature to be taken lightly. In fact, it appeared to be a subject of some concern.

Sam risked a peek around the flank of his Hellhound. Just in front of Yeth, the tunnel opened up into a much larger chamber, the space filled with the Prince and the other huge Horned demon. On the far side of the chamber were two other exits.

Sam saw the Prince’s eyes widen suddenly when he registered his presence. Clearly his glamor didn’t work at such close proximity. Sam saw recognition there. Someone or something had already raised the alarm, spreading the word and Sam’s description.

The Prince stepped aside, allowing the Horned Demon more space in the chamber. “Seize him!” he screamed, pointing in Sam’s direction.

Sam was about to move and intercept the massive demon’s charge but Yeth moved quicker than Sam thought possible for such a great creature. It flashed in front of the Horned demon, which brought its mighty stone mallet down just in time, smashing directly onto the flank of the Hellhound. It may as well have hit a wall made of solid iron. The mallet bounced off; Yeth simply ignored the attack and went for the throat under the goat-like head. The huge jaws locked around the neck of the other demon, puncturing straight through the thick, corded muscle around the throat. The momentum carried both creatures to the ground where the Hellhound managed to pin its foe to the ground, intent on crushing the life out of it. The ground shook under the bone-crushing impact.

Yeth’s body ignited into flame and the Horned Demon bellowed in pain. It may have been a demon, accustomed to the burning pits of Hell but Hellhound flame was an altogether different heat. Sam could withstand it but it seemed not many other demons could.

Sam stood frozen to the spot, in awe of the conflict playing out in front of him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his fellow prince doing the same. A battle between a Hellhound and a Horned demon couldn’t be something that happened every day and both were mesmerized. Sam would’ve moved into action if that had been required, but Yeth seemed to be on top of things and this Prince seemed no threat as yet.

The Horned demon wasn’t out of it yet. It had bulk and strength on its side. It probably weighed twice as much as Yeth. Not only that, but it had four arms. Ignoring the flames, it managed to get two of its hands up, locking them around Yeth’s jaws. It started to lever them open even as its other two hands encircled the Hellhound’s throat.

Sam didn’t have any doubts that Yeth would win. Not many demons could defeat a Hellhound — especially a Greater one. Yeth was a juvenile, and would fight for longer, but Sam just didn’t have time for this.

The other Prince still hadn’t moved. Sam darted over to the two massive struggling demons and drew his sword. Taking careful aim, he plunged his sword straight through the eye of the Horned demon. It had time to emit a single roar before it disappeared in a cloud of ash. Sam looked over at the Prince. Their eyes locked for a moment and then the Prince just disappeared. One second he was right in front of Sam, the next he was gone.

Sam cast his eyes around the chamber, desperately trying to figure out where the creature had gone. He couldn’t sense him with his mind either. Two options presented themselves. Either the prince was invisible, still in the chamber and able to shroud his mind and presence so effectively that even Sam couldn’t sense him, or — he was gone. That implied some form of teleport ability. It seemed there was a great deal he didn’t know about other demons.

If the demon was still around, there was nothing he could do about it. He shrugged, and then became aware that the Hellhound was on his feet, staring directly at him. If Sam didn’t know better, the look might have been interpreted as reproachful. Sam attempted a smile.

“Sorry,” he said aloud. “We were running out of time. It’s not that I doubted your abilities or anything.”

Yeth growled low in his throat. He darted one more accusing look in Sam’s direction and then set off again, taking the left hand exit without hesitation. Sam hastened after him at a fast jog. Yeth certainly didn’t like to drag his heels.

If the alarm had been raised, it certainly wasn’t apparent as they sped through the tunnels. They started to angle downwards again — not at an extreme angle like before — but they were certainly descending. Yeth had extinguished the flames from his body and there were no sconces filled with magical fire along these corridors, so the two of them ran on in darkness. Yeth, it seemed, was just as comfortable in the dark as Sam was and was apparently intelligent enough to douse his fire, knowing that a flaming Hellhound moving along these darkened tunnels would announce their presence in a loud and dramatic fashion.

Some side chambers were filled with the sounds of human suffering and Sam deliberately avoided looking in those directions. Many chambers were almost swamped in lava. Sam had to pick his way through them, leaping from one rocky island to the next. In some of these lava filled chambers, Sam saw other curious demons. They seemed to be comprised entirely of living lava, size and form that of a normal man. They ignored Sam and he did likewise for fear of drawing too much attention to himself. Yeth simply waded through the lava like a normal dog through a shallow pond. He seemed completely immune to the heat, but that came as no surprise to Sam.

These large open chambers began to get bigger and bigger until the largest could have easily contained the biggest cathedrals in the world. Yeth led Sam straight through one of these. In huge lava pond directly in the middle of the room stood an imposing figure.

As they got closer, Sam blinked in awe. It was a massive demon that he’d seen pictures of before. It had no name as far as Sam knew, only that it met the stereotypical description of demons depicted though history: a giant humanoid, maybe twenty feet high, with flaming red skin, large curving black horns and black wings that would’ve put an average sailing ship to shame. And, luckily for himself and Yeth, it did not seem aware of them at all. In fact, it appeared to be frozen.

They ran directly past it, underneath its very nose and still it didn’t move. Yeth sensed the question and consternation in Sam’s mind and it did the equivalent of a mental reassuring pat. Not to worry. Will not move, was the general gist of what Yeth was saying.

An archway at the very end of the chamber loomed ahead of them. Yeth led him directly into and then abruptly stopped with a sigh of satisfaction. It seemed that Yeth had brought him where he wanted to be.

As soon as he entered the chamber, Sam’s mind and ears were bombarded with sound. Screams. The sound of human torment.

This chamber, whilst relatively large, was still dwarfed by the bigger chamber inhabited by the great frozen demon. Like that chamber, it had a circular pond of lava in the direct center. The difference though, was that this pond was not inhabited by a great demon. A heaped pile of bones sat in the middle of the lava, somehow impervious to the intense heat. Disturbingly, the jaws in the skulls were open, and Sam could have sworn that the screaming was coming from their long dead mouths.

What really drew his eyes was what rested on top of the pile of skeletons. It was a rack made entirely of bone. Strapped to the rack with what could only be human sinews, was a figure Sam barely recognized. Her eyes were closed and her face was twisted in some unimaginable pain, her mouth open and slack, drooling saliva which never hit the mound of bones, instead sizzling into gas from the intense heat. Her clothes hung in smoldering tatters about her, sliced like her face and body which were covered in bloody welts and deep cuts, mostly still weeping blood.

“Grace,” whispered Sam.

He wasn’t sure if she was still alive and that thought brought a surge of emotions — mostly anger and remorse. He prayed that she was but how could any human possibly still live in such conditions? Another thought then intruded. This was Hell after all — death did not end human suffering here. He prayed once again that she hadn’t already died. If she died in Hell, she would remain here for eternity.

He moved past Yeth on shaky legs until he reached the end of the lava pond. So intent had he been on Grace, it was only then that he noticed the demon. It had been partially concealed by the mound of bones, difficult to detect because of simple camouflage ability. In the form of a giant skeleton, it blended in completely with the other bones around it. As it moved from crouching to standing, Sam suddenly comprehended its scale. It was at least ten feet tall. Its skull was massive, at least three times that of a normal human and out of proportion with the rest of its body. The long, bony fingers of one skeletal hand clutched a whip formed from a material that glinted in the warm lava glow. Even from several feet away, Sam could see what appeared to be dry blood on the weapon.

Rage filled him; rage such as he’d rarely felt before. It was uncontrollable. One second his eyes were black, the next filled with crimson anger. He leapt, drawing his Katana as he flew through the air, channeling every ounce of his power into one blow just as the skeleton demon stepped forward, barring Grace from his sight.

The timing couldn’t have been better. His sword — forged from the densest, purest iron that had fallen from the sky, then blessed and quenched in holy water — was a weapon unlike any seen in Hell before. It was more than a match for this demon. His blade struck the precise point between the skull and the second vertebrate, separating them as neatly as any surgical saw. The demon’s head flew into the lava and sank immediately; the body, still holding its cursed whip, stayed upright for one moment before toppling sideways, clattering down in a jumble of bones, supplementing the pile that it had once guarded.

Sam moved immediately to the rack where Grace was being restrained. Cutting with savage energy, he severed the bonds that held her and she slumped into his arms, unconscious… or dead.

With no conscious thought and with strength he didn’t know he possessed, Sam leapt back to the solid rock where Yeth waited patiently. The leap, from a standing start and carrying an extra body, had been eight foot. Rage, it seemed, had lent him more strength than he knew he possessed.

He could feel the rage subsiding now, his eyes returning to their normal color. He laid Grace gently at the feet of Yeth and felt for a pulse. Yes, there was one; he could feel it — just, fluttering like the wings of a tiny nervous bird. Relief washed over him. She was alive — but that was here in Hell. The question was, had she already died? The only way to find out would be to get her out of here, back to the relative safety of Earth.

Go now, said the voice of Yeth. To Sam’s mind, it sounded nervous. Scared even. He hadn’t heard Yeth sound like that before.

My mother, responded Sam. And others too. I have to search for others.

No time, was the response. Go now. The voice was insistent and urgent.

We can’t go, said Sam impatiently. I have to find my mother.

Another time, said the Hellhound. We go now.

Sam was about to ask what the rush was all about but then he knew. Something was stirring in the massive adjacent chamber to this one. The giant demon in the pool was awakening.

He resigned himself to leaving but not before making Yeth promise one thing. We’ll return for my mother… yes?

Yeth’s head swayed ominously, then, Yes, came the answer.

It would have to do for now. It was terribly disappointing but at least he’d accomplished one goal. At least he had Grace.

Time to go. In order to create a portal back to Earth, he’d need to make another pentacle. Sam searched frantically for chalk in one of his many pockets as he visualized the church from whence he had come — but then he stopped when he realized what Yeth was doing. Of course, demons like Yeth had no need for pentacles. Full-blooded, powerful demons like Hellhounds could open a portal just by willing it.

At once Sam could sense the gate opening, the connection being made to Earth. Yeth snatched the image of the church from his mind, and the connection was becoming stronger when a sharp jolt like an earthquake momentarily distracted the Hellhound. Cracks appeared in the wall next to Sam; before the archway into the giant chamber, Sam could see the massive legs and knees of the demon. There was another massive impact, this one shaking the rock beneath them. Larger, jagged cracks appeared, and rock fragments rained down from the roof.

“I’d hurry up, if I were you,” said Sam. He sensed Yeth concentrating but then there was another titanic shudder as the giant demon tried to force its way through the wall. Yeth’s concentration broke once again.

Sam left Grace’s side and moved to the archway, resigned to one course of action. He’d have to buy Yeth some time.

No, said the Hellhound in his mind, but it was too late, he was already outside, face to face — actually knee to face — with the huge demon.

Action was required here, and action was something Sam excelled at. He darted in, both swords out and swinging. The demon above him, intent on the rock that blocked it from its prey, didn’t notice the insect below it. Sam went for the weak spot — or what he hoped was a weak spot — behind the knee, intending to hamstring the beast. He rolled, coming up behind it and struck out with both blades, slicing with all his might at the vulnerable joint. The blades bit home. Satisfied, Sam felt the creature flinch but then he looked at his own handiwork a bit more closely. Both blades had inflicted wounds alright but they were just scratches. He had a moment to feel slightly dismayed and then something struck him with all the force of a freight train. He was suddenly in flight. In his dazed and stunned mind, it was kind of relaxing as he flew through the air and then it was over. He struck the ground with incredible force, knocking the wind out of him and leaving him stunned and prone.

He managed to raise his head slightly, groaning. With great strides, the demon was approaching. Sam tried to rise but it was clear that his leg was broken. This would need time to heal. And time was a luxury he didn’t possess. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he rolled and stumbled to his feet, limping away from the deadly creature as fast as he was able.

The demon took one mighty step and then it was upon him, poised above, a massive fist raised, ready to pound him into the rock. Sam turned to face his doom. His leg gave out and he toppled to the ground. He knew he wouldn’t survive such a blow but at least he could face it like a man, as best as he was able. The fist descended.

Sam raised one arm in a feeble attempt to ward off the blow and lost sight of the fist for a moment, expecting nothing but death. For a second, nothing happened. Then another second. Still nothing. Sam peered over his raised up. Above him, the demon stood frozen, much as it had been when Sam had first seen it.

Cautiously, he staggered to his feet again. He could feel his bones knitting but he would still need a few minutes. With any luck, the demon would remain like this for some time. He didn’t know why it was frozen but at times like this, you didn’t question your luck.

“Hello, Sam.”

He flinched at the unexpected voice, his eyes darting towards the sound. A few feet away stood a figure in a dark, hooded robe. The hood obscured the features but Sam knew who it was anyway. The last time he’d seen this person, had been here, in Hell.

“Hello, Joshua,” he said.

Joshua. His one-time friend. His betrayer who had sold him out to his brother and father. The last image of Joshua had been him falling into an ocean of fire during the battle with his brother.

“I suppose you’re surprised to see me,” said Joshua, moving a cautious few steps towards him.

“I suppose I am,” admitted Sam. “I thought you were dead.”

Joshua smiled. “Clearly not. It seems that Hell had a few surprises for me.”

Sam nodded. This didn’t surprise him one iota. “I’d like to say this is a nice surprise, but it’s not really. I kind of hoped you were dead for real given what you did to me. And Aimi.” Under his jeans, Sam could feel his leg knitting. In a few more minutes it would be fully healed. His fingers twitched towards his swords. If Josh was still alive — and it seemed as though he was — then they had unfinished business. He sheathed both swords in an attempt to give Joshua a false sense of security. They would come out again soon enough.

“You’re probably wondering why I’m here now, right at this very moment,” said Josh, sounding more confident and assured than Sam had ever heard. “Before you ask, yes it was me that froze the Immolator here,” he said, gesturing upwards to the massive demon. “In a sense, I saved your life. You owe me one already.”

Sam gritted his teeth but let Josh talk, knowing that the longer he rambled on, the longer he’d have to heal his leg.

“I want you to do me a favor, Sam, buddy,” he said, smiling faintly. “I’m not going to tell you what that favor is right now, except to say that you will know when the time comes. In return, I’ll give you back something of great value to you.”

Despite his growing anger, Sam was intrigued. What favor? And what did he lose of great value that needed to be returned to him?

“What are you talking about, Joshua?” he demanded. His leg was almost fully healed now. Only a few more moments.

“I know where your mother is, or rather, where she was taken. I now have the power to find her and return her to you — to end her suffering. I will do this in exchange for the small favor I ask of you. Have we got a deal?”

Sam’s mind was all awhirl. His mother? Alive? Joshua could reunite them? Sam nodded mutely.

“Not good enough, Sam. Repeat after me: “I, Samael, Prince of Hell, do hereby swear to fulfill the obligation I am now under.”

Eagerly, Sam repeated the words, heedless of the implications. All that mattered right now was his mother.

Joshua’s smile broadened. “Excellent. Thank you, Sam. We’ll see each other again, of course. Very soon.” He waved an imperious hand at the massive demon above him.

Vaguely, Sam was aware of something descending down upon him again. He felt a hammer blow and shocking pain, followed very soon after by oblivion.

Philip W Simpson

Tribulation

Chapter Five

Colorado

“ He springs up like a flower and withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure.”

Job 14:2

Sam had been set up. He knew this, even as he regained his senses. Joshua had set him up and he had fallen for it like some boy eager for his first dance at the prom.

He sat up. Too quickly it seemed, because a wave of nausea passed over him, forcing him to lie down again as he opened his eyes. He was back in the church where he’d started out. This was good and bad at the same time: good that he was no longer in Hell, bad that he was in a desecrated church, at the mercy of any demon who decided to come through the portal.

He took a breath, waited for the dizziness to pass and then sat up again. This time it wasn’t so bad. Belatedly he realized two things. The first was Grace lying next to him. The second was Yeth. The great Hellhound appeared to be standing guard nearby. It must have been Yeth that had brought Sam and Grace back to Earth. There was no other explanation.

The Hellhound was immediately aware that Sam was awake.

Healed now, yes? asked Yeth.

Sam nodded, not even considering for a second that the demon might not be able to interpret the gesture. Apparently it could because Sam’s response seemed to satisfy it. Go now.

Sam nodded again. Yeth began to open a portal to Hell. Before it could disappear completely, Sam called its name.

“Yeth?”Almost translucent, the beast turned towards him. “Thank you,” he said.

He wasn’t sure, but he thought Yeth had nodded towards him, mirroring his earlier gestures. Moments later, the Hellhound was gone.

Sam turned his attention to Grace. The wounds on her face and body were still dribbling blood — ugly, red and inflamed. Thankfully, she was still breathing. Satisfied for the moment, he stood shakily and began his usual physical inventory. His body seemed ok. Weak but ok. Bones and any other injuries had healed. He didn’t know how long Yeth had watched over them, but it must have been some time.

He found an old priest’s robe that seemed to be relatively clean and not abused or desecrated and wrapped her in it. Lifting her up in his arms, he carried her outside. It was daytime and he squinted against the slightly painful light. After being in Hell, light like this always came as a shock.

He found an abandoned house nearby. It was too close to the church but he didn’t have any other choice. This town had long been deserted. Hopefully, whatever demons had visited in the past, had long since given up on finding any victims here. Hopefully.

Inside, he located a bedroom and deposited her gently on the floor. The bed was covered in a filthy, ashen bedspread. He stripped it off; underneath, the sheets looked passable. He picked Grace up again and laid her on the bed. Her clothes were nothing but burnt strips of cloth, barely concealing her modesty. He removed them, embarrassed, knowing that both Grace and Aimi would understand in the circumstances. Preserving her modesty was the least of Grace’s problems. Her wounds needed to be checked and dressed.

Swiftly he did just this. He tore strips of clean sheet off the bed, then using some of the precious water from his drink bottle in his pack, he soaked the strips and cleaned the wounds as best he could. The small but effective medical kit came out next. Some of her wounds were deep. With quick, precise movements, he sewed them up, thankful for the times when Hikari had made him practice on pig-skin. Next, he sterilized the wounds with alcohol and dressed them with an antiseptic ointment, before finally wrapping the worst of them in makeshift sheet bandages.

Only then did he cover her with the top sheet, making sure she looked comfortable. If and when she woke — he hoped it would be the latter — she would be hungry. Even if she wasn’t, he’d have to force her. The beef jerky and other small supplies wouldn’t do. She’d need something a little more substantial.

He realized with a start that he’d have to go hunting, and it wasn’t just for himself. His food needs were rather basic. He only needed to hunt occasionally and usually it was more for something to do than from any pressing hunger. Unfortunately, there was only one thing on the menu.

With one last look to ensure she was resting comfortably, he moved out into the sitting room, closed his eyes and concentrated. He could sense them. They were around. They were always around. He focused on their tiny little minds, stroking their desires and their needs. He pictured a piece of cooked flesh in this very room, imagined what it smelt like, what it tasted like. In their minds, it suddenly existed.

There was a flurry of movement and his eyes flew open. Several furry little bodies were scurrying around his, desperately seeking what his mind had told them existed. He had no idea where they’d come from, but then, rats had an ability to sneak through the tiniest of holes. Both swords came out and moved with precise strokes. Five movements of his wrists and arms. Five bodies dead and dying at his feet. Kicking away the others that still swirled around him, he picked up the small bodies and took them outside. They’d have to be thoroughly cleaned, gutted and roasted before they were even close to being edible, and there was still the constant threat of disease but he’d just have to risk it. He may be immune to human diseases, but Grace certainly wasn’t.

And he hoped she liked rat, because that’s all there was.

It was still daylight outside and he felt his eyes watering as he worked. Sunlight, while not actually dangerous too him, was more of a nuisance. As a boy, he’d spent much more time in the daylight and it hadn’t done him any harm. It was just that he had become a creature of the night during the last few years. He liked the night and the moon and the strength it brought him. During the day, he just felt exposed.

He’d been meaning to get sunglasses for some time, just for this sort of eventuality — when circumstances dictated that he must be out in daylight. It would have made preparing the rat meat easier. He supposed he could have waited until night fall, but it was important to get some food into Grace. Her body, whilst not emaciated, was certainly thin. Some food may help her get her strength back more quickly.

He reflected that Hell probably sustained her like it did him, without the need for food or water. Actually, there was no probably about it. He couldn’t imagine that Bone demon hand-feeding her like some infant. Regardless, she’d been there for months. Months without food or water. Months of continual torture, both mental and physical. So it wasn’t just Grace’s physical needs he was worried about. Meeting those may help in the long run but it was her mental state he was more concerned about. Prolonged exposure to the conditions in Hell was enough to snap even the strongest mind.

The rats were plump and well fed, having gorged themselves on the multitude of huge locusts that infested the area. He used a small stainless steel knife he’d picked up from a camping store to gut and skin them. He wasn’t about to use either of his precious weapons on such a mundane task.

Sam hunted around and finally found two fairly straight dead branches. He spitted four of the five rats and then cleaned them as best as he could with his limited water consignment. Next, to conserve his dwindling gas supply on his camping stove, he lit a fire, finding a position that was reasonably sheltered from the wind behind the house, gathering arm loads of dead wood and ringing it with large stones. Being bone dry, the wood took only the slightest effort to light, and he took special care to ensure it would not spread. Given that it hadn’t rained for months, it would be foolhardy to allow even one spark or burning ember to escape. Any survivors in the area had enough to deal with without running for their lives from a raging forest fire.

He let the flames burn down until only glowing coals remained, then put some more rocks into it and let them heat up. He’d used this method before. During some overnight training expeditions in Utah as a youth, he and Hikari had sometimes cooked just like this. Just the act of preparation brought back fond recollections of him and the times they spent together. He wondered for a moment whether his old master was happy. He assumed so. Who wouldn’t be up there in Heaven? he thought sourly. Probably drinking ambrosia and nibbling the most delicate and delicious foods. While he sat on a rock and cooked rat. That was fair. The contrast made him smile for a moment.

He quickly went back inside to check on Grace. She hadn’t moved and seemed alright. Her bandages displayed some blood soaking, but not as bad as he had expected. In the kitchen he found some plates and a small pot that were clean but for a layer of dust. He wiped them as best he could with a rag and then returned to his fire. The stones were scalding hot by now. Turning them over, he placed the spitted rat’s skewers on them. They sizzled immediately, sending the delicious aroma of frying meat into the air. It may have been rat, but it still smelt good to him. Hopefully the smell alone would be enough to rose Grace out of her stupor and tempt her to eat.

Cooking the skewers more thoroughly than usual in case of disease, he set them on the plates to cool. He took the last rat, sliced the meat off it and put it in the small pot with some more of his dwindling supply of water, using it to make a broth. Finally, everything was ready and he returned to Grace’s bedroom. He propped her up on some pillows and fed her some of the soup. Her eyes still didn’t open but she seemed to open her mouth and swallow by reflex. Sam took this as a positive sign — at least she was eating.

While he fed her, he ate two of the skewers of rat meat. As he suspected, they were delicious; although he didn’t eat very often these days, he still got some basic enjoyment out of it. He chewed slowly, savoring the experience and taste as he spoon-fed Grace the last of the broth When they had both finished, he slid the meat off the remaining two skewers and hand-fed them to Grace. Somehow, she was still able to chew and he got the meat of at least one of the skewers into her before she pinched her mouth shut, refusing to eat anymore.

Gradually, over the next few days, Grace appeared to improve. Her skin color changed from the unhealthy pallor to a warmer glow. Her wounds were beginning to heal as well. Sometimes, when she slept, she’d scream. During those times, Sam would sit with her, Grace squeezing his hand so tightly that even he would grimace in pain, mopping the sweat off her brow as she thrashed about. She still hadn’t opened her eyes or uttered one coherent word…

Thankfully, no demons made an appearance which would have made their position untenable. It occurred to Sam to burn down the church. At first he thought it was pointless given that he’d have to thoroughly bless and wet the area with Holy water. How was he meant to do that with his pathetic amount of water? Then he got lucky. Exploring one of the other houses in the small town, he found an old well, deep in the cellar. The water was stagnant, but it was still water. A few drops of iodine or boiling it would make it safe for Grace to drink. He could also use it to make Holy water. He wasn’t a priest but he was sure that, under the circumstances, God would make an exception.

At first, he dismissed the idea. It was too risky burning down the church. The fire had the potential to spread and he wasn’t in a position to move fast enough with Grace in tow. Also, if the entire town burnt down, where was he meant to nurse her? Not only that, but he was extremely wary of Holy water. He wasn’t even sure if he could make it or not but he certainly knew the effect it had on him. It was like acid. If he was using buckets of it, he was bound to splash some of it on himself at some point. While not fatal in small quantities, it was certainly extremely painful.

But then the demons came. It was only a pack of Lemure but Sam didn’t take the threat lightly. He dispatched them with ruthless efficiency. Their appearance served as a catalyst for action. The demons knew that they were there now and the following night would bring them in greater numbers.

The next day, at dusk, he prepared carefully. He found a hardware store and emptied its shelves completely of buckets. He took several down to the well in the cellar, filling them with the stagnant water. He dampened down the house where Grace rested, dousing the walls with as much water as he could. Next, he set up a series of buckets near the church — to put out any fires that sprung up accidentally. He carried more buckets over to the church and set them down in front of it, gazing at them thoughtfully. His plan was to fill them with holy water but he’d have to bless them first, obviously.

If he was being honest, Sam wasn’t even sure that his plan would succeed. Wasn’t the water meant to come from a spring or at least a more pure source than a stagnant well? But then again, he remembered Big Tom saying that a wandering priest had done the same thing in his town and surely the water he used can’t have been much different?

He didn’t really know the proper words either, words that would bless or sanctify the water. He’d witnessed Father Rainey doing it back in Jacob’s Ladder, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember. He’d have to improvise.

“Gracious Lord, bless this water. Not for my sake — for Grace’s. She may not be your most loyal servant but she has made sacrifices for your cause. It was Grace who gave me the chance to confront my brother — the Antichrist. And isn’t that my mission, given to me by your Archangel Gabriel herself? To defeat my brother. To save the innocent. Grace may not be completely innocent, but she’s all I’ve got at the moment. Besides, I could do with a little help here. I don’t ask you for help very often, but I’m asking now. Just a bit.”

Sam knew it wasn’t much of a prayer but it was all he was up to at the moment. At first, he sensed and felt nothing and then slowly, he detected a change. He raised his head. Yes, something was different. Something in the air. He knew the water had altered then, could feel the goodness — the holiness radiating out from it. He’d turned plain old well water into a weapon for good. Something about it made him uneasy though. Perhaps it was his demonic side, instinctively willing him to stay away from it, knowing that it had the power to harm and potentially destroy him, especially in such quantities.

Gritting his teeth, resigned to check it, he gingerly dipped just the tiniest tip of one finger into the bucket. Immediately, he felt a searing pain and snatched his finger back even as the water in the bucket began to boil angrily. Right then. It was definitely blessed. He examined his finger. It was badly blistered; he sucked it, hoping to ease the pain.

Satisfied that everything was going to plan so far, he carried several armloads of branches and set a bonfire in the middle of the church. A part of him felt ill at ease. He was about to burn down a church, which didn’t seem right. There was nothing for it though. It had been desecrated and was now used for evil purposes. He was sure God would understand. Hadn’t he allowed Sam to create Holy water? Wasn’t that a sign that he had His unspoken approval to do what he was about to? He shrugged helplessly. It was what it was. If lightning struck him, or if he fell out of favor with the Lord, his life would hardly change on a purely physical level. It couldn’t get much worse.

He lit the fire. It went up surprisingly quickly, the flames licking eagerly at the wood on the fire and spreading rapidly onto the floor and then the walls. Sam was forced to retreat outside much sooner than he’d supposed.

Soon enough, the whole building was ablaze. Sam waited anxiously while it continued to burn, racing after any flying embers with a bucket of water, drowning it before it could set fire to something else. Smaller fires inevitably started and by nightfall, Sam was exhausted, covered in soot, his clothes singed. Fortunately he was all but immune to fire. The church collapsed but still continued to burn.

Despite the fact that the fire hadn’t completely burnt out, Sam knew he couldn’t delay any further. He could sense the demons about to come through the gate. Removing his swords, his clothes and his boots and carrying a bucket in each hand, he swiftly moved into the burning wreck, conscious that he must look ridiculous. A naked fireman.

Muttering blessings, he scattered the water over every part of the burning building he could get to. Most of it evaporated with an angry hiss but he hoped it would still work. It seemed to. The feeling that demons were about to break through lost its immediacy as their presence began to fade again. Inevitably, he spilled the water on his naked flesh; wherever the droplets touched him, they raised ugly blisters. Soon, almost his whole body was covered. He ignored it stoically, knowing he had to do this for Grace. He owed her.

He worked for hours, ignoring his exhaustion, keeping going until no water remained. By that time, the fire was out, the church had been reduced to charred remains.

Staggering slightly, he remembered to pick up his swords before wobbling back towards the house he shared with Grace. When he got there, he collapsed on the floor next to her bed and remembered no more.

He awoke from a thankfully dreamless sleep to find that Grace had opened her eyes. It was morning. He stood next to her bed, fussing over her injuries. She was looking at him strangely and for a moment he wondered why and then, with a start, remembered. He was naked and covered with still-healing blisters. Embarrassed, he streaked out, found his singed clothing and dressed painfully and as swiftly as he could, wincing whenever the cloth touched a particularly sore spot. When he returned, Grace was sitting up all by herself.

“Do you often nurse people in the nude?” she asked in a weak whisper.

Sam looked down, trying to conceal the blush that was spreading over his face. “Only on Tuesdays,” he muttered, clutching desperately for something funny to say.

“Is it Tuesday?” she asked, the vaguest hint of a smile on her face.

“Beats me,” he said, still not looking at her.

He fed her again, his spirits soaring. Not only had he cleansed the church, but Grace was getting better. This was a sign that he was doing the right thing. It had to be.

The next few days passed uneventfully. Grace’s health gradually improved although she rarely spoke and never, ever smiled. Conversation and humor especially wasn’t exactly his strong point, either, but he made an effort, trying to make light of the situation and smile at her as often as he could muster up the energy. It wasn’t natural for him, either. She didn’t offer to talk about Hell and what she’d been through over the last few months. He took the hint — this was a sign that she wasn’t ready to discuss it. She would when she was ready. Perhaps, she would never be ready but that suited Sam as well.

One morning he discovered her trying to get out of bed.

“What are you doing?” he exclaimed, terrified that he might reopen some of her wounds. He quickly knelt down by her side and helped her sit up, conscious of how thin and frail she felt beneath the t-shirt he’d found for her.

“What does it look like?” she replied irritably. “I can’t say here forever.”

Reluctantly, he agreed. The fact that she was trying to get up meant that she was probably ready to travel.

“I want to leave,” she said. “Can we go? Please.”

He couldn’t and wouldn’t deny her. “Where?”

“Anywhere but here.”

Chapter Six

Colorado

“But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

Luke 12:5

He found a pack at the same hardware store where he’d liberated the buckets and filled it with as much sterilized water and roasted, dried rat meat that he could carry. Inside another abandoned house, he discovered clothes and boots that almost fitted her.

He carried both packs, one at the front, one at back. Even though Grace was getting better, she still wasn’t completely healed and Sam didn’t want her to relapse while they were traveling.

She watched him impassively while he made his preparations.

“Are you alright?” he asked. “Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

“Yes,” she snapped but then appeared to regret her tone. Her voice softened. “I just want to get out of here, Sam. I don’t want to be lying helpless when demons come for me again. I’d much rather be doing something — anything.”

Sam nodded. He was beginning to understand. She didn’t want to be a victim any longer — wanted to appear to be in control of her own destiny. If the demons took her again, at least it would be on her terms.

They made slow but steady progress, heading east, traveling during the day and resting at night. It was easier this way for Sam, even though it was an unusual change that made him feel distinctly uncomfortable. Grace struggled to see during the night and even though his glamor ability was possibly able to conceal both of them, it would count for nothing if they were seen at close range. If demons found them on open ground, it made it all but impossible for Sam to protect her. It was better to be holed up for the night in an abandoned building — well away from any churches. Even if demons found them, at least he was better able to protect her.

Several more days and nights passed. Finally, inevitably, the demons found them again.

He’d known there was a church nearby, but there was nothing for it. Grace couldn’t have gone anymore. He’d had to carry her for the last hour as it was.

The place he’d chosen for the night didn’t often much in terms of respite and protection. He could hardly call it a cave — it was more a concave depression in a cliff face. Sam made Grace as comfortable as he could within while he took himself outside.

It was already dark. The wind had picked up blowing eddies of ash into his face which he brushed off without conscious thought. He sat down on a shattered piece of rock, took out his whetstone from his pocket and began methodically sharpening his blades. The activity always managed to soothe him with its mindless repetition.

He felt the demons intruding on his thoughts as a gradual pressure, slowly increasing as they got nearer. He knew they couldn’t sense him — his glamor was still in place — but they had detected Grace.

With a resigned sigh, he stood, placing his whetstone back in his pocket. He picked up both swords and shrank back into the protective overhang of the cliff face, gathering the shadows about him. It wasn’t actually concealment but it might give him the slight advantage of surprise. They wouldn’t be expecting him.

He knew there were many but he hadn’t anticipated just how many. They arrived in a great howling, screaming horde. Just Lemure, thankfully, but scores of them. They headed directly for the cave where Grace was beginning to stir, completely ignoring or unaware of him. He leapt out before they reached the entrance and cut down several before they even knew he was amongst them.

Even though they were just Lemure, there were just too many of them. In desperation, he called upon Yeth. His Hellhound arrived, inflicting fiery destruction on any Lemure he touched, shredding others in his powerful jaws. The Lemure were routed, unable to cope with such power. They fled into the night, shrieking.

Breathing heavily with exertion, Sam met the glowing red eyes of his Hellhound and an understanding passed between them. Sam nodded once, acknowledging the debt he owed. Yeth loped off in the direction of the nearest church, returning to Hell, his task complete.

Sam sat down wearily, his thoughts blank. He was about to settle into a meditative stance when the shock of demonic presence intruded once again. He was tired and realized how foolish he’d been to dismiss Yeth so quickly. He still needed the Hellhound’s assistance. He called to him again.

The Lemure arrived in great numbers. Sam’s fought hard, his blades dancing. He lacked the strength and speed he’d had earlier though. Even his endurance had limits. He twirled and struck, waiting desperately for Yeth to make an appearance. He waited and waited but the Hellhound failed to materialize.

At first he was confused. Then he felt betrayed. The sense of outrage lent him strength and somehow he was able to fight off the horde, using every power in his arsenal. His whirlwind attack exhausted him but he had no other recourse. As he dispatched the last of the Lemure, he slumped to the ground, his swords tumbling from numb fingers, completely spent. If the Lemure came again this night, all would be lost. He simply didn’t have the strength to repel another wave.

He lay still for a long time, gradually recovering his strength. By morning, he was almost recovered. He and Grace set off again, Sam for once content to move as slowly as his companion, turning over the events of the previous night in his mind. What had happened to Yeth?

Nightfall found them in the middle of nowhere with no shelter or protection of any kind. The barren landscape offered no salvation — not even a clump of shriveled vegetation. They were completely exposed.

The demons found them again. With mixed emotions, Sam called upon Yeth again, unsure whether the great demon would answer his call. A part of his soul shrank at the thought that maybe Yeth had found him unworthy — no longer deserving of his service.

The demons attacked. Sam fought as hard as ever but the terrain was against him. The Lemure kept trying to flank him to get to Grace. Retreating, covered in a multitude of injuries, Sam sensed the sudden new presence with an overwhelming sense of relief. Finally, Yeth had come.

His Hellhound made short work of the Lemure. When the battle was over, Sam regarded Yeth cautiously.

“Why didn’t you come last night? I called and you didn’t answer.”

The great demon seemed to shake its head.

Could not. Only one call per day. Cannot spend too much time here.

Understanding blossomed within Sam’s mind. Yeth needed to return to Hell — to his home plane — basically to recharge. He could only be called upon once per day. It was good to know. A part of Sam felt hugely relieved knowing that Yeth had not betrayed or disobeyed him.

They journeyed on.

It was inevitable that they passed through deserted towns with still intact churches. Sam tried to avoid them when he could but often circumstances dictated otherwise. Grace was often too weak to find other more suitable places to rest.

After a while, Sam tried to look on these churches as opportunities as well as potential threats. Some — water permitting — he tried to purify and destroy. On other occasions, he used them to test his summoning abilities, calling Yeth to him while Grace slept. His Hellhound never failed to appear. As long as the twenty four hour restriction period was not breached, Yeth was free to answer his summons.

Sam found himself waiting more and more impatiently every time he called to the Hellhound, eager to be reunited, starting to resent the times they spent apart. He was beginning to view Yeth not only as a tool to be used in his battle against the demons, but as a friend and companion. He thought he detected contented happiness radiating from the great beast as well. Over the course of several weeks, their bond continued to grow. Sam found himself consciously seeking out churches deliberately in order to summon his friend, and he stopped destroying them altogether.

Often, they would train together in the light of the blood red moon, learning each other’s strategies, anticipating each other’s moves. They began to work as a unit. When attacked by other demons, Sam would wait for Yeth to breathe on them before he commenced his own attack. He learnt that Yeth’s eyes were vulnerable to attack and took pains to defend this sensitive area.

Yeth certainly evened the odds — even against Astaroth and Horned demons. Sam would often let the Hellhound battle these larger demons while he kept the Lemure and their taloned hands away from his friend.

One night, standing before a church, awaiting Yeth’s arrival, Sam realized something amazing. He was happy — well, at least as happy as he’d been since the Rapture. He no longer felt so isolated, so alone. Yeth filled the bitter void that had been a part of him since Aimi and Hikari had gone up in the Rapture.

When his Hellhound appeared that night, Sam had embraced the creature, saying nothing. Yeth had let him do it, too, knowing instinctively that this was what Sam needed. This had raised some questions in Sam’s mind. Were all demons like this? Did they all have to be evil or with the right influence, could they be a power for good? For the first time, Sam felt the slightest of doubts about his campaign to rid the world of all demons. If Yeth could be like this, couldn’t others? Perhaps all they needed was a chance. Yeth was unusual though, having had guidance and friendship from Sam since his ‘birth’.

Grace still spoke very little, and their relationship felt strained. One night, sheltered under the lee of a cliff face, tending a small, pathetic fire, he allowed his frustration to boil over. He’d finally got Grace back, taken extraordinary risks to rescue her from Hell — all he asked for was perhaps a little gratitude. It was more than that though. He wasn’t the best conversationalist. He knew that — had always known that. Aimi had sometimes berated him for not being terribly verbose but he had been alone for so long. Even though he was more than happy with silence usually, now that he had Grace, all he wanted was a little companionship, a little conversation. While so many things had changed, a simple thing like genuine human interaction and consideration was enough to remind him of the reasons why he fought and struggled.

“Is my company really that bad?” he said eventually, watching Grace stare into the fire without blinking for long minutes.

“What?” she said, appearing to raise herself from some intense memory. She looked up.

“Why won’t you talk to me? What’s wrong?”

She looked at him for a long moment before answering. “What’s wrong?” she echoed, whispering the words. At first Sam thought she hadn’t understood the question. “What do you think is wrong? Have you got any idea what I’ve been through?”

“Some,” said Sam, feeling a little defensive. He had, after all, been to Hell a couple of times. He knew what it was like.

She smiled without humor and shook her head. “No, I don’t think you do. Why did you leave me for so long, Sam? Why did you leave me there in that dreadful place to suffer?”

“I didn’t…I couldn’t,” he stammered. He took a breath, collecting his thoughts. “I didn’t want to leave you there but I had no choice. Even if I’d gone back, how could I have found you?”

“Did you even try?” she asked and Sam flinched under the accusation.

He shook his head. “I couldn’t. Do you know how many souls are in Hell? Millions, possibly billions. How was I meant to find you amongst all those other people? Hell is essentially limitless as well. I didn’t even know where to start looking. It was only when I had Yeth that I could.”

“But you could’ve started looking, couldn’t you? That’s what friends do. I was a friend to you. Kept those succubi off your back so you were free to take on the Antichrist. I sacrificed myself for you and in return, you let me burn in Hell.” Her voice was level but tears were started to streak down her face. “Every second I spent there was torture. They never let up. Sometimes they would leave me for what seemed like hours but that was almost worse. I knew they were coming back and that waiting was the worst part. The only thing that kept me going was thinking you would come for me. Rescue me. I clung to that but as the weeks past, I gave up hope. I realized that you weren’t coming, didn’t care about me and eventually I resigned myself to that. When you did show, I thought it was another trick. A part of me still does. I keep expecting some of your demon pals to show up and drag me back down there.”

“I won’t let them, Grace. You’re safe with me.”

“Just like I was before?” she sneered. “Spare me your promises.”

“I’m…sorry,” he managed, knowing that his words, as usual, were inadequate.

She tilted her head. “Are you Sam? Are you really?”

He didn’t know what to say. They lapsed into another uncomfortable silence. Eventually, without a backward glance, Sam stalked out into the night.

They hardly exchanged words after that. Then, one morning, she awoke with a fever. Intuitively, Sam knew that it was bad.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

Grace shook her head weakly. “I don’t know,” she confessed. “Nothing good.” She lifted her t-shirt to show him. Dark swollen lumps were clearly visible in her armpits. Not only that, but similar signs were apparent on her neck. Red, inflamed flea bites covered her torso.

Grace watched his face. Sam had never had much of a poker face. Clearly, she could see his concern.

“They’re on my groin, too,” she said. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

“You’ll be fine,” he said, trying to conceal the dread he felt in his heart, knowing that she wasn’t going to be fine at all. If Grace didn’t get help, she was going to die.

“I think I know what this is,” she said. “I saw a documentary once where people died with the same symptoms. You see, I know how you get this disease. You get it from fleas — fleas that live on rats. The same rats we’ve been eating.”

Sam waited, completely mute, dreading what she would say next.

“It’s a disease we haven’t really seen since the Middle Ages,” she continued. “They called it the bubonic plague. It’s commonly called the black plague.”

Sam was lost for words. Of course he’d heard of the black plague and knew it was deadly. But didn’t modern medicine eradicate it?

“Is there a cure?” he managed to ask.

Grace smiled, her mouth quivering. “Sure is. An antibiotic will sort it out in no time at all. We’ll just roll up to our local drug store and buy some over the counter.” She tried to laugh but suddenly spluttered and coughed. She covered her mouth with her hand. When she moved it away, it was speckled with blood.

“We’ll find one,” said Sam, trying to sound confident. All he had to do was find a drug store then. Easier said than done.

A day later and she was worse. She complained of chills and started bleeding out of her ears. She suffered from terrible muscle cramps. He did what he could for her but knew she was dying. After all she’d been through, after what he’d been through to save her, it seemed it wouldn’t be enough. He cursed the unfairness of it all.

Another day passed. Her fever worsened. Her lips, nose, fingers and toes started to turn black. Even Sam knew what this was — the onset of gangrene. She didn’t have long. She couldn’t travel any longer and he made her as comfortable as he could on a makeshift mattress in the backroom of a service station. He thought about calling Yeth, knowing that the Hellhound could quench his own fires if the need arose — but he was unsure how Grace would take riding on the back of a demon, even in her barely conscious, feverish state.

Just when he thought it was all over for her, a miracle happened. He heard voices outside and cautiously moved to investigate, ensuring that his hood was up, concealing his telltale horns.

In the forecourt of the service station were a group of men in fatigues. Army fatigues. Soldiers.

“Hi there,” he said quietly, moving slowly so as to not startle them.

There was hurried movement as several automatic weapons were suddenly leveled in his direction. These soldiers were obviously not taking any chances.

“Who are you?” demanded one of them — an officer by the looks.

“Just a survivor. My name’s Sam. I need your help. My friend is sick.”

The officer looked Sam up and down, appraising, taking in the swords at his hip and back.

“Lots of people are sick,” he said curtly. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Her,” Sam corrected. “I think she has the plague.”

The officer didn’t display any surprise. He nodded once. “Wayne — get the medical kit and go see to her.”

One of the soldiers grabbed his backpack and entered the station. Sam and the officer followed.

“What’s he going to do?” Sam asked.

“We’ve seen this a lot. Easily treatable. We’ve got antibiotics.”

Inside, Wayne knelt down next to Grace. He dispensed some pills while Sam helped her sit up. Using his canteen, Wayne gave her a few sips of precious water.

Sam breathed out heavily, the worry of the last few days suddenly lessened ever so slightly. “So what happens now?” he asked eventually.

The officer shrugged. “It should work. It’ll take a couple of days before the antibiotics kick in. In the meantime, you guys can come with us. We’ve got a truck.”

“To where?” Sam hadn’t really thought about it. Of course, these soldiers must have come from some military base.

“We’re a long range squad from Kansas. The CO sent us out looking for people like you.”

“Had much luck?” Sam asked.

The officer looked sour. “None. You’re the first people we’ve seen since we came out on this patrol. Alive, that is. Let’s hope the other squads have more success. You’re lucky we came with antibiotics though. The plague has been breaking out all over the place and our supplies are getting a bit low.”

“Thank you,” said Sam, feeling suddenly moved.

The officer shrugged. “Hey, just doing my job. Glad we could help.”

They loaded Grace into the back of the truck, Sam making her as comfortable as he could. Two days travel saw a huge improvement in Grace’s condition. It also saw them back at the base. Thankfully, Grace made a full recovery — physically at least.

From there, the two of them traveled from base to base, state to state until arriving in Ohio, making a semi-permanent home at the army base they found there. Grace had fully recovered her strength but had lost something in the process. Things between them were never the same again. Every time he saw her after some mission, the gap between them continued to widen, almost to the point where they could no longer talk. It pained him but there was little he could do about it. Grace had suffered terrible mental and physical torture in Hell. It had changed her forever.

He deliberately stayed away from the base for longer and longer periods, just to avoid coming back and seeing what she had become. She never spoke of her experience and he never asked. Some things were best forgotten. But other things could never be.

Book 2

Heaven and Earth

Three and a half years into the Tribulation

“ Man's days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed.”

Job 14:5

Chapter Seven

Greetings from Hell

“ For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.”

Romans: 18

Had the thing just spoken? It couldn’t be… but Sam was sure it had just told him that it brought greetings from his father.

So stunned was Sam that he relaxed his grip on the Lemure’s hair. Immediately, with one swift, savage movement, the Lemure yanked its head forward. The razor sharp blade lying against its neck easily sliced through demon flesh, almost severing the head completely.

Sam held the body until he was sure it was quite dead, still in a state of shook. Finally, he let the body topple to the ground, still struggling to absorb the words he had just heard uttered.

“Your father sends his greetings.”

What the Hell was that supposed to mean?

The last time he’d seen his father had been three years ago, in Hell. Sure, he got that feeling that someone was watching him from time to time and he mostly assumed it was his father because, let’s face it, who else was it likely to be? And then there were the dreams of his mother. He wasn’t so naive to think that the dreams were only a product of his overactive subconscious. His father was playing his usual games. Occasionally, he thought he caught glimpses of the sharply dressed, debonair demon who was Satan, ruler of Hell, his father, the father of lies. But when he looked again or tried to move closer, whatever it was had disappeared. So why now? Why would his father send his greetings now? Sam knew with absolute certainty that Satan was up to something. He never did anything without it serving some purpose, or having some intrinsic value or calculated risk. But what was it?

It was only then that Sam realized that the Lemure was still lying at his feet. It hadn’t disintegrated into a pile of ash like all Lemure did. Some greater demons, Sam knew, had more resistance to iron than others but when struck a killing blow, all dissolved into dust eventually. Lemure weren’t greater demons though. In fact, they were the least of their kind, were highly susceptible to iron and always, always became powder upon death.

Not this Lemure, apparently.

Sam crouched down next to the body. A dark fluid was leaking out of the horrendous neck wound. That wasn’t right — Lemure didn’t bleed. Then he noticed the other differences — minor ones that weren’t immediately apparent. The arms weren’t as long as normal Lemure; the horns at elbow and knees were absent. The skin of the creature was, for lack of a better word, more human looking. It was still yellow with an unhealthy pallor, but still, much healthier and anthropomorphic than regular Lemure.

So — it wasn’t a Lemure then. At least not a pure Lemure. It was part Lemure and part something else. And then it struck Sam — struck him so hard that he staggered backwards.

This Lemure was like him — it was part demon and part human. This creature at his feet, this demonic thing, was more kin to him than any other living creature other than his father, his presumably-dead twin brother and possibly other demon Princes and Princesses in Hell. The thought made him feel vaguely nauseous.

His father was sending him a message — not just with words. This creature was a message in itself. What was his father trying to tell him? That the world was destined to be inherited by half human, half-demon hybrids? Cambions. That was the name for his kind. Not a word used lightly. In fact, the word was often associated with the worst forms of evil and whispered hurriedly amongst those who knew of their existence.

Sam’s brother had proven to Sam that he was not the only Cambion, but now it seemed that there were more. He shuddered to think what the consequences would be of breeding an Astaroth or a Horned demon with a human. What about Succubi? Surely these would be deadly foes. Game changers, in fact. Did his father really think he could change the outcome of the final battle? Was this what he was trying to tell Sam: that his half-breed kind was the future? Sam didn’t know and a part of him no longer cared. At the end of the Tribulation, in just over three years’ time, Christ would return at the head of an army and throw the anti-Christ and Satan into a bottomless pit for a thousand years. Sam’s brother and father. Essentially, his only blood relatives.

Where would Sam fit into all this? He didn’t know. No-one had told him. Would he be banished to the deepest parts of Hell along with his blood family or would he get to be reunited with Aimi and his foster-father, Hikari? He wished he knew. In the meantime, however, he still had a job to do — one that he was unlikely to stop doing, despite that fact that no one, on either Earth or in Heaven, seemed to appreciate it.

He sucked in a deep, sulfur-tinged breath and let it out with a huge sigh. This half-breed creature in front of him was a problem for another day. He’d think about it later. Right now, he still had some humans to deal with. Whether they would be saved or punished, he would soon find out.

There were still about two hours ‘til dawn when Sam finally made his move. He’d watched the humans from a nearby rooftop for a few hours, noting their numbers, their weapons and when they changed the guard. He’d observed them before, of course, but Hikari had told him never to assume. Things might have changed since the previous evening. Depressingly, they hadn’t. Demons, mostly Lemure but also the hulking Horned Demon, prowled the streets in numbers. Above him, Sam had noted the huge flying presence of at least five Astaroth. Tellingly, the demons completely ignored the humans on guard outside the two-storied warehouse. Without a doubt, those humans were in league with the demons. If that hadn’t been proof enough, then what he had observed an hour ago certainly was.

Three other humans had appeared on the street below Sam dragging two others between them. The contrast between the captors and their captives was stark. The three captors were grown men, well fed, glossy and bloated, dressed in expensive if dirty hunting gear. All three carried weapons: two had hunting rifles while the third was armed with a sawn-off shotgun.

Their two captives were an altogether different story. One male and one female. Probably both in their teens. They were skinny and undernourished, clad in scraps of clothing and smeared head to toe in dirty ash. They were also patently terrified, the whites of their eyes clearly visible to Sam from his vantage point above. Still struggling, the two teenagers had been dragged into the warehouse. The three men emerged some minutes later to smoke with the two guards, their crass laughter drifting up to Sam’s ears. If what he hadn’t seen earlier wasn’t enough to confirm his suspicions, then what he saw next erased any doubts he might have had. As one of the men raised a cigarette to his lips, the sleeve of his jacket slid up to reveal his wrist. Even from that distance, Sam knew what it was: a tattoo of a stylized outline of a horned face. He couldn’t see the details but he knew what was tattooed inside the face. The name Abaddon and the number 666. The name of his father. The mark of the beast. There could be no doubt. They were in league with Satan.

The three men had gone back inside at least half an hour earlier, leaving only the two guards outside. Sam hadn’t seen anymore movement either inside or out. The amount of demons around was also decreasing as dawn approached. It was a sleepy time of night, when human and demon consciousness was at a low ebb. Sam could sense it, and knew that the time had come.

With cat-like stealth, he moved to the edge of the building he was perched upon. The gap between his building and the warehouse of the humans yawned in front of him. The distance was at least fifteen feet — too far for a normal human. In fact, almost too far for Sam. It was at the very limit of his leaping abilities but he thought he could probably do it. He’d have to do it; it was either this or go in the front entrance, waking every single human in the building and bringing every demon in the vicinity running, flying and stomping down upon him.

Problem was, there wasn’t much room for a run-up. Probably five feet. Edging backwards, Sam sighed and adjusted his swords slightly. It would have to do. With a last glance upwards to ensure his movement wasn’t observed by an Astaroth, he sprinted towards the edge and leapt, eerily silent, just another flying shadow moving through the night sky. He made it — but only just. If the distance had been a single foot more, he would’ve eaten the side of the building and tumbled to the ground. The very tip of his leading foot scraped the parapet that marked the boundary of the warehouse roof and then he was over it, desperately rolling to avoid any sound of impact.

At the end of his roll, he froze, listening to see if his intrusion had been noted, nervously watching the ash he had disturbed slowly fluttering about him. When there was no sound or movement forthcoming, he relaxed, exhaling with a long tiny hiss.

He stood up and moved towards the skylight that he had scouted out two nights previously. It was as he’d left it — still slightly ajar, unnoticeable from casual inspection. He eased it open, wincing at the slight noise, his heart fluttering nervously as some ash from the rooftop drifted through the gap.

Unstrapping both swords from back and hip, he placed them on the rooftop before sliding through the gap. About seven feet directly below was an old wooden walkway, probably only used to gain access to these windows and provide some ventilation in the warehouse. He let himself hang by the window ledge before dropping. Bracing his legs, he landed catlike, crouched with arms outstretched. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have made the slightest noise but the walkway was old and it was inevitable that his 6’3’’, 220lb frame would have some effect.

It creaked — a very slight noise, but alarmingly loud in Sam’s ears. He froze again, listening to see if his presence had been noticed this time. Beneath him, he could sense humans moving about. There was certainly no outcry and he could detect no alarm in their minds. He registered curiosity in one person’s mind, but they were looking in the direction of the walkway.

Overly cautious, he remained completely still as the minutes ticked by slowly. The mind below soon lost interest and moved on to other things. He breathed out slowly, silently, in relief and stood upright. Raising himself onto his toes, he reached up and retrieved his swords from the window ledge. With quick, deft movements, he strapped them back on, only then feeling whole. Without his swords, he felt like a part of him was missing and it was only rare moments like this one when he was actually parted from them. Truth to tell, he sometimes felt like they were his only friends.

At a snail’s pace so as to not make any more unnecessary noise, he edged his way towards the walkway railing and peered over. Forty feet below, it was as he remembered. The uncertain, flickering light of a handful of storm lanterns gave the vista more of a welcoming appeal than he would have thought possible, like the light shed by a roaring fireplace in a cabin in the woods. The image was reinforced by the sleeping forms of several humans directly below him, comfortable, warm and relaxed on their filthy mattresses. The main floor of the warehouse was divided up by makeshift barriers, mostly comprised of dirty sheets and blankets. The sleeping area was but one. Other areas were clearly designated as food preparation and storage. From his vantage point, he could see two rumpled and disheveled cooks in dirty aprons sweating over a very large steaming cauldron. Sam could smell the contents but he was careful not to inhale too deeply. One section was obviously an armory; an improvised table had been made and on it rested several weapons, more than one in its component pieces, with at least three men working on them.

But the most interesting and disturbing section from his perspective was the massive cage hulking in one corner of the warehouse. Steel girders, mostly held together and tied by steel cable, rope and in some cases, wields, formed the basic structure. A solid-looking metal door, cannibalized from what had probably been a bank, enabled entry and egress from the structure. Trapped inside the improvised prison were about twenty miserable, emaciated humans. At least half of them lay on the bare floor while the other half stood listlessly at the bars, staring with blank eyes, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. Two armed men stood guard outside.

Sam tore his eyes away from them, aware that he was breathing more heavily. He felt the onset of what he now considered his ‘blood fury’ mode; a time when his irises went from black to red and his anger took complete control of his body. His suppressed it with an effort. The time would come when he would welcome the anger with open arms, but not quite yet.

A part of his mind detached itself from his emotions as he scanned the rest of the area with a practiced warrior’s eye. Not counting the prisoners but including the two guards outside, there were about ten humans currently up and about within the walls of the warehouse. All up, there were probably thirty people he would have to contend with if or when it came to a fight. Too many, even for him.

In order to get to the cage, he’d have to descend through the sleeping area of the warehouse. The walkway ran along the entire inner wall but unfortunately had only one access point. That point was a metal ladder fixed to the side of the wall which just happened to be right next to a mattress that was currently covered by a human occupant. Sneaking through those sleeping forms without being noticed — that was doable. He was rather adept by now at clinging to the shadows, and the uncertain light in the warehouse was an incredible bonus. This, combined with his exceptional senses, meant he had an advantage. Was it enough, though, to balance their strength of numbers? Perhaps. Providing of course that he didn’t wake anyone up. If he could take out the ten humans currently awake without any of the others noticing, he had a chance. If he slipped up, his chances of survival were remote. And that was just against the humans. If some demons decided to join the fray, he truly was doomed.

Inwardly sighing, he crept along the walkway, his footsteps incredibly light, ensuring that he shifted his weight subtly to compensate for the movement of the wood beneath his feet. He made absolutely no sound. When he reached the ladder, Sam paused momentarily to reassess. He looked beneath him. Still no one had noticed him; the sleepers slept on and the others carried on completely oblivious to the danger that floated above them.

He took the ladder two steps at a time, his long legs easily able to stretch the distance. Within moments, Sam was down, hugging the wall and the shadows. The nearest cot was so close he could have stretched out and touched the human occupant. It was a man, lying on his side with his back to him, covered in a grimy blanket.

Sam was about to move again when the man coughed and rolled over. For whatever reason — maybe his sixth sense alerted him, maybe it was a completely random reflex; it hardly mattered — the man opened his eyes, his stare finding Sam as if deliberate. Time seemed to stretch. It was possibly no more than a couple of seconds, but in that time, Sam saw a number of emotions in those eyes: denial, realization and stunned shock. The man’s eyes widened, his mouth began to open. Without realizing that he had moved, Sam was next to him, one of his hands clamped over the stranger’s mouth. His Wakizashi was already out. In a controlled, thrifty movement, the blade moved out and then quickly in, straight through the man’s throat.

Sam held him down until his death throes were finished. It was only then that he looked up — straight into the pupils of the person in the next cot along. He was sitting up, staring with horror at the scene unfolding next to him.

Before Sam had time to react, the man screamed out an alarm.

Chapter Eight

The Hound of Hell

“ They sacrificed to demons, which are not God- gods they had not known, gods that recently appeared, gods your fathers did not fear.”

Deuteronomy 32:17

C ursing under his breath, Sam darted through the dirty sheet that marked off the sleeping area from the rest of the warehouse. It fluttered about him like washing in a fierce wind, and he used the momentary distraction to draw his other sword — the long to the Wakizashi’s short. His Katana. His most treasured possession and an object that was closer to him than any brother. Sam’s instincts told him that another man, fully awake with adrenaline coursing through his body, was just past the sheet.

Sam knew exactly where the man was; knew with absolute certainty that the man had a shotgun that was even now being swiveled in his direction. He could even smell the iron pellets that the shotgun was loaded with. Sam could take no risks. A shotgun with iron shells at close range could seriously incapacitate even him.

Both swords emerged out of the sheet even before Sam had, looking like a silvery extension of the material. The man armed with the shotgun probably wasn’t even aware that death was upon him, only that something vaguely man-shaped was moving through the sheet. His finger was on the trigger and he’d almost rotated the barrel of his gun in Sam’s direction, ready to fire, when the blades punctured him. The man up at the figure that suddenly hulked over him, flinching from the fiery eyes; glancing down at the two blades protruding from his chest, he coughed once and then promptly died.

Sam didn’t give the man a second look. Kicking the body off his swords, he sprinted in the direction of the cage. He gave into his anger, unleashing it, using it to make him faster, stronger. He would need it now. His senses told him that every human within the warehouse was now awake and alert to the danger. Even now, he could hear others raising the alarm. Despite the confusion and uncertainty, they’d pick up weapons with every intention of using them, and shotguns and rifles, all loaded with the dreaded iron, were being cocked right now.

He had the upper hand, because while he knew where they were, the humans were completely unaware as to his whereabouts. Sam used the advantage, doing the unexpected. He darted over to the main wall again and followed it, knowing that at least this way he wouldn’t advertise his presence every time he went through one of the makeshift barriers. That had always been his plan, sadly interrupted.

If he followed the wall around, he would eventually get to the cage which was his ultimate goal. But he had one detour to make first. It wasn’t part of his mission but he felt strangely compelled. His nose told him when he was close and he left the relative safety of the wall and moved into what was the food preparation area. The two chefs were still in attendance around the huge pot, but instead of being armed with ladles and spoons, they now had weapons in their hands. One — a young, nervous looking man with greasy looking hair — had a rifle. The other, — huge, pot-bellied, with a scruffy beard — clutched a huge meat cleaver in one meaty fist. Both had blood-stained aprons wrapped around their waists.

Both sets of eyes bulged hugely when they caught sight of Sam moving swiftly in their direction. The big man only had time to let out a cry of warning before Sam was upon him. The man swung his meat cleaver but Sam ducked under it as easily as if it was wielded by a child, plunging his Wakizashi into the man’s chest. Without even looking, Sam thrust out with his Katana, slicing the blade straight through the neck of the other man, even as he brought his rifle up to fire.

He could hear the younger man gurgling on his blade, struggling to free himself. He managed to fire his rifle but it was not even pointed in Sam’s direction and passed harmlessly off to one side. The bigger man was face-to-face with him. Sam could see the disbelief and horror on his face and was glad. He had a special bone to pick with these two, having watched them for the last few nights.

What they had done was unspeakable. Evil. If Sam had given them the opportunity, they would’ve probably tried to justify it by saying that their hunger drove them to it. That only the strongest survived and it was their right as the dominant ones to determine the fate of those beneath them. Regardless of their argument, they were wrong. So very wrong. To prey upon other humans and not just prey upon them. To feed upon them. It was abhorrent. Just the thought of it made Sam want to be sick and he was so very happy to put an end to them.

He smiled into the fat man’s face even as the glow of life faded from his eyes, then shoved the disgusting copse off his blade. At the same time, he withdrew his shorter blade from the younger man’s neck with a quick jerk of his hand. The man toppled to the ground clutching his neck, choking on his own life blood as it spurted out between his fingers.

Every single human who was part of this group deserved to die for what they had done. They may not have been directly responsible for the killing, butchering and cooking like these two, but they were certainly guilty of partaking in the product of these labors. They would pay for their sins. Sam would make them pay. After all, wasn’t this the task that Gabriel had entrusted to him? To protect and save the innocents.

A part of him wanted to watch the younger man die, but that was his anger talking. He couldn’t afford to get distracted now. He had a job to do. Focused now, he became aware of the confused shouts all around him. He sensed that the cannibalistic humans were all around him. They weren’t sure where he was exactly but they were narrowing it down. He didn’t have long.

The camping stove upon which the two chefs had been cooking was still alight. Sam kicked the cauldron with its horrifying contents off the stove, careful to avoid being splashed. Moving quickly, he sheathed both swords, turned off the stove and disconnected it from the large gas cylinder standing nearby. He toppled the cylinder onto its side, closed his eyes for a moment to determine the proximity of most of the humans and then kicked the cylinder towards them. Just before the rolling cylinder disappeared from his sight beneath one of the makeshift sheets that was used as a room dividers, he grabbed the rifle lying on the ground, sighted it quickly and pulled the trigger.

The outcome was predictable and impressive. A fireball erupted outwards as the tank exploded, immediately setting fire to the nearby sheet. Sam didn’t have to use his enhanced senses to know the consternation this caused. He could hear someone screaming and knew that every armed human was now making for the cause of the disruption. As distractions went, it was a simple but highly effective one.

Confident that it would keep them busy for a few moments, he dropped the rifle and sprinted for the wall again, drawing his swords as he moved. Sam found the wall without trouble and moved along it rapidly. He hit the corner, emerged from behind another sheet and suddenly found himself face to face with the cage. The occupants failed to note his appearance, along with the two guards, as every single face was looking in the direction of the explosion.

It was almost too easy. Sam concentrated and hurtled towards the guards, a deathly blur. Within moments, they were both lying at his feet, blood pooling underneath them, dead before they even knew something was upon them. He darted towards the door, careful not to touch it directly, sensing the iron of which it was composed. A thick steel chain secured the door to one of the ribs of the cage. Sheathing the Wakizashi at his hip, he thrust his Katana through the loop, using it as a lever in an attempt to break the chain. He’d rehearsed this previously knowing what the cage was secured with, but had misjudged the thickness of the chain. This one was much thicker than the one he’d practiced with. A normal Katana would have snapped under the strain — but his was not a normal Katana. It was made of a dense iron from a meteorite and forged specifically for him, much stronger and heavier than a regular steel Katana. He used it as a pry bar.

Almost unnoticed, the prisoners were edging backwards, away from the bars and Sam, unsure exactly what liberty their erstwhile rescuer was offering. Sam paid them no heed as he strained against the chain. He had other things to worry about. Behind him, he could tell that the fire caused by the exploding gas cylinder was spreading. That in itself was gratifying but now, he sensed a more determined mind, clearer than the others, less dominated by fear. Someone was taking command of the situation and without a doubt about to send some more guards to check on the prisoners. Sam had no more than a couple of minutes before he was discovered. At most.

The chain creaked ominously but would not give. Sam leant on the Katana, using his considerable power and weight. Desperation lent him even more strength. Sweat poured from his brow as he became oblivious to everything else but the chain. Doubts surged through his mind. He hadn’t counted on the chain being this thick. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to break it. What then? He could hardly leave these poor souls to the terrible fate that awaited them. He felt his fears leak out, breaking the tight control of his mind, but for once he didn’t care. All he cared about was freeing these people.

The chain creaked again and then without warning, broke apart. Links flew in every direction and Sam cried out in fierce pleasure. He yanked open the door with his free hand, heedless of the burning sensation as his hand made contact with the cold iron. Inside, the prisoners stood motionless. Every one of them had got to their feet. At first, Sam thought they were staring at him in dumbfounded shock but then he saw that the angle of their gazes was over his shoulder, behind him. It was only then that he realized his mistake. He’d been too busy concentrating on removing the chain, oblivious to the danger.

Slowly he turned. Standing several feet away, safely out of sword reach, were about ten men, all armed with either rifles or shotguns. Currently, all ten weapons were leveled at Sam.

Sam calculated the odds. He already had one sword out. In the time it would take him to cross the distance between them, he would have his other one ready. He calculated that he might be able to take out five or six of them before their overwhelming numbers made the end result inevitable. They would get him with their iron shells and even he wouldn’t be able to survive.

Sam smiled grimly and prepared to do just that. He’d go down fighting and take as many of these bastards with him. As if sensing his resolve, the ten men in front of him tightened the fingers around the triggers of their guns. Sam sensed the movement and edged his hand ever so slightly towards his Wakizashi.

And then everything changed.

The wall directly over his left shoulder exploded in flames and rubble. Like everyone else in the room, Sam flinched. When he looked up, he found himself staring at something they wouldn’t have expected. Not here. Not now. Not ever.

The eight foot dog, its impenetrable coat ablaze, its eyes molten fire — towered just a few feet from Sam.

‘It’s a Hellhound!’ hissed one of the prisoners, horrified. Some of the others started to mewl in terror.

As if on cue, the great demon threw back its massive head and howled — a sound so dreadful that it chilled the blood and even sent an involuntary shiver of terror racing down Sam’s back. It shut its jaws with an audible click, the terrible sound thankfully fading. The Hellhound lowered its head once again and cast around as if looking for something. Or someone.

Finally, it found who it was looking for.

The black eyes of Sam and the red eyes of Yeth locked for a moment. For a moment, just a moment, Sam could’ve sworn that his Hellhound winked at him.

Chapter Nine

Respite

“… and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.”

2 Thessalonians 2:12

One of the men facing Sam stood slightly in front of the others; very tall, probably at least as tall as Sam but lean, almost emaciated. He had thick grey hair and a matching beard. Through it, Sam could see a crooked smile forming as the implications of the demons arrival sank in. Sam assumed he was the leader.

“Lay down your weapons and we won’t give you to the beast,” said the leader in an authoritative voice that carried easily through the large space. It was the voice of a man accustomed to others doing as they were told. “Clearly, you are outmatched.” He gestured towards his followers and then to the flaming Hellhound.

Sam cleared his throat. “I’d say you were outmatched. I suggest you lay down your weapons and I’ll kill you quickly. If you don’t…” Sam sighed theatrically, “… then things will go very badly for you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Who are you to warn us?” sneered the man.

Sam met the man’s eye. “Yeah, you’re pretty tough when you have your guns and your demons to support you. Tough enough to capture starving teenagers and use them for your own ends. You will pay for what you’ve done here.”

The leader’s eyes were bugging out, in complete disbelief that someone in Sam’s position would have the audacity to speak to him in this manner. With an effort, he composed himself and turned to the Hellhound.

“Destroy him, mighty demon. Take him to Hell where he shall suffer for eternity for his crimes against our Master.” The man’s expression was that of someone in the midst of religious fervor, and the last few words came out in an excited falsetto.

Yeth had not moved since his explosive entrance. He did so now, turning in Sam’s direction and taking a leisurely stride towards him. The captives hurriedly shrank back within their cage to avoid the intense heat and spits of fire that leapt from its coat. Sam turned to meet its advance. When the Hellhound was so close Sam could’ve reached out and stroked its fiery nose, it stopped. Again, they locked gazes for a moment, Sam having to stretch his neck upwards. It was a frozen tableau for the barest of moments. Neither Sam nor the great beast moved. The demon worshippers were collectively holding their breath, their pent up excitement about to explode. Those in the cage huddled in terror.

The Hellhound turned towards those that followed and worshipped its kind. Then Yeth opened his mouth. A torrent of fire, hotter than a furnace, surged out, enough to instantly ignite and kill the three demon worshippers closest to it — including the leader. The others screamed in terror and pain; fire poured down upon them as the great head left and right. Some on the fringes managed to partly avoid the deathly fire, trying to run even as they battled their flaming clothes. By that point, it was too late. Sam was already amongst them, his swords darting in and out as he dispatched the remainder with ruthless efficiency.

When it was over, the pitted and smoking concrete floor was covered with burning copses. Sam strode out of the flames, idly patting out his own burning clothes. He walked up to where the Hellhound waited and a rare genuine smile crossed his lips. “Thank you,” he said.

Yeth merely dipped his mighty head slightly in acknowledgement.

“I don’t know how you knew I was in trouble, but I think you just saved me.”

It marked a new chapter in their relationship. He patted the side of the great demon, ignoring the flames. He was still surprised at how much Yeth had grown in the time they had known each other. He had been there at Yeth’s ‘birth’ after all — back when the Hellhound was still — for lack of a better word — a puppy. It had been three years since then, and in those three years, Yeth had never, never, arrived unannounced or uncalled for. “How did you know I was in trouble?”

The rough, sibilant voice sounded in his head. Sensed it. Felt your need.

Unconsciously, Sam had reached out to his familiar. A familiar was what magicians of old had once referred to the animals that served them. He didn’t know how else to categorize their relationship, but Sam knew one thing for sure. Since Yeth had come along, he certainly felt less lonely.

Go now.

“Sure. You go now. Again — thank you.” Sam stretched up and patted Yeth on the head, the great demon lowering his mighty skull obligingly so Sam could reach. Sam’s hand was completely unharmed by the demon’s flaming aura. Funny how he still spoke aloud to the demon, even when it was unnecessary. He could easily communicate the same way that Yeth communicated with him, but it somehow just felt better this way. More normal. Like he was speaking to another person.

Sam was about to say more, when the sound of gunfire intruded. Sam hadn’t noticed before, but now that the warehouse was all but silent, the gunfire was horrendously loud. Sparks flew off Yeth’s hide, barely troubling the demon. Instinctively, he knew that the rounds being fired were iron. Experience had taught him that Hellhounds were almost immune to physical damage — even from iron. Sam would not be so lucky.

Swiftly, he took shelter behind Yeth and peered cautiously around one of the Hellhound’s great forelegs. Above the level of his eyes, on the catwalk that Sam had used to gain entry to this place, stood a man. In his hands was a machinegun, spitting out round after round in the direction ogrin f Sam and the Hellhound. Clearly, they hadn’t accounted for all the demon worshippers.

Sam was still formulating a plan when return fire echoed from nearby. The man on the catwalk undulated under a barrage of bullets, screaming. He slumped against the railing and plunged to the floor, landing with an ominous thud.

Somewhat mystified, Sam glanced in the direction of the return fire. A young African-American woman — if Sam had to guess, he would’ve said she was in her teens but it was hard to tell under all the accumulated grime — was holding another machine gun in her hand. She looked shocked but determined, staring with grim intent at the place where the man on the catwalk had just been. Sam could see that her finger was still pressed against the trigger but no more bullets emerged. The magazine was empty.

Slowly so as to not startle her, Sam moved towards her. With gentle hands, he put weight on the barrel of the gun, lowering it so it pointed at the floor. Suddenly, she became aware of him.

“I killed him,” she stammered. “I had to kill him. He was like all the rest. He deserved to die.”

Sam nodded, trying to kill her calm. “Yes,” he said. “They all deserved to die for what they did.”

She nodded back vigorously and then looked down at what she was holding in her hands. Her expression changed to one of confusion as if unsure how she came to be holding the gun. It seemed she had just reacted when the opportunity to avenge herself against her captives had arisen. The cage was already open. All she’d had to do was pick up a discarded weapon near a burning corpse, point and shoot. It was almost instinctive.

Sam knew the effects of shock when he saw it. It was important to distract her, keep her busy and not dwell on the horrible reality of what had gone on here. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Olivia,” came the weak response.

“Well, Olivia. I want you to help me here. In fact, I need your help. I want you to help me organize the others. We have to put these fires out, and then I want you to take a couple of the more able and find all the weapons, food and water you can get your hands on. Do you think you can do that?”

Olivia nodded ever so slightly.

“Good,” said Sam. “Come with me.”

Concerned about the impression and effect Yeth would have on these already traumatized survivors, Sam turned back to Yeth, but the demon was one step ahead of him. Conscious of his master’s will, Yeth was already on the way out. Trailing sparks and fire, Yeth departed, heading through the still burning remains of the wall it had smashed through. Soon enough, he would find a desecrated church he could use to return to Hell. Given what he knew about the growing nature of their relationship, Sam felt sorry for any demon that got in Yeth’s way.

Sam guided Olivia towards the cage. Not nearly so brave as the girl, the other survivors were only now moving hesitantly towards the bars. Sam was suddenly aware that his hood was down; anyone perceptive could easily see the horns jutting out of the messy black locks. Thankfully, Olivia wasn’t really that aware of what was going on and hadn’t noticed. He put his hood back up quickly, breathing a prayer of thanks that no one in the cage had spotted them. It would make his job of rescuing these people basically impossible if they knew he was a demon, even partly.

There were a good dozen people inside the cage, mostly young. That kind of made sense to Sam. Most survivors he found these days were young, possibly because they were fitter and stronger than older people. And possibly because they only had themselves to worry about. Sam very rarely saw parents with youngish children. Family groups like that were mostly long gone now, either taken to Hell, converted to worship of Satan or preyed upon by their fellow humans. The youngest children — those completely innocent — had been taken with the Rapture. Children over a certain age, usually around five, were often left behind if they were non-believers. Escaping pursuit whilst caring for young children was basically impossible. And as for feeding them, well, a young person alone only had one mouth to feed.

A little over half were female and there seemed to be a variety of ethnicities, although it was hard to be exact given they all seemed to be covered in filth. Without exception, despair filled their eyes. Even now, with salvation at hand, they seemed listless and defeated as if the will to live had deserted them. Sam couldn’t blame them. He had some idea of what they’d been through and they didn’t have his resources to draw upon. Some of them displayed tell-tale signs of disease — especially the bubonic plague which seemed to be the most prevalent out of all the diseases at the moment. A few had more advanced signs of it: their hands, especially fingers, were turning black. Sam would have to get them urgent treatment when he got them to safety. Left untreated, the disease was almost always fatal within three to five days.

He took a breath and began to speak, conscious that time was once again against him. It was only a matter of time before other demons came to investigate what was going on here. Sam was also under no illusions that one or more of the demon worshippers had escaped and raised the alarm.

“I want you all to listen to me. Your lives depend on doing exactly what I say. At present, you are free and alive. Try to stay that way. I want you and you and you,” he said, stabbing fingers randomly at some of the less feeble looking survivors, “to go with Olivia and find whatever food and water you can find. Get some bags or backpacks to store it in.” Sam had given up the thought of putting out the fires. They were spreading and would soon be uncontrollable. They simply did not have time. He had to prioritize. He was also having second thoughts about putting Olivia in charge. The look in her eye told him everything he needed to know. At present, she wasn’t capable of anything much.

“You three,” he said, pointing at two sturdier men and a woman, “come with me. We’re going to find as many weapons as we can carry. The rest of you, get yourselves ready to travel. We’ll be leaving in five minutes.” That was all the remainder was capable of from the look of them. Some of them were so weak and malnourished, they were struggling to stand.

Sam was suddenly conscious of the fact that it was the longest speech he’d ever made. It was good to be speaking to people again, even under such dire circumstances.

To her credit, Olivia took her crew and immediately had them spread out to check every area in the warehouse. Sam knew that while the demon worshippers survived mostly by eating other humans, they must have a backup supply of tinned or powdered food hidden somewhere.

Gathering his three recruits, he instructed them as to his requirements. They were to look for any weapons that appeared functional. Some of the rifles and shotguns caught in the direct blast of Yeth’s breath were partially melted and useless. The others might lack ammunition. Ammunition was key. Without it, the guns were just so much dead weight, and dead weight was the last thing Sam needed when some of these people were struggling to hold up their own bodies. And they’d have to move fast. If Sam was going to get them where he intended, he couldn’t delay.

To Sam’s concern it was more like ten minutes before Olivia and the others returned. The fires were spreading, filling the building with harsh smoke. Some of the weaker prisoners were already on their knees, coughing. But it was worth the wait. Between them, they carried several backpacks, stuffed with supplies. Sam shared the packs out amongst the more robust members of the group. For his part, Sam and the others had found four useable rifles, three shotguns and one pistol. All the guns had ammunition, just not a great deal of it. He distributed the guns according to who was willing and capable. Those who hadn’t been given a task had more of less got themselves ready and assembled outside the dreaded cage. Finally, he addressed them once more.

“Good work. But that was the easy part. When, we leave, expect demons. They will be attracted by the fire and the misery and death they can sense inside. Those with weapons, choose your targets carefully — ammo is limited.” He surveyed the group one last time. They didn’t look like much but they were in far better shape now than they had been a few minutes earlier. At least now, they were free.

“Right, let’s go.”

Going out the same way as Yeth was impossible. Almost that entire wall was now on fire. Sam had no choice but to lead them out the main doors. He knew it was risky but he really didn’t have much of a choice. He gathered them together as a tightly knit pack, stressing the importance of staying together. As they moved, Sam positioned those with the weapons on the outside of the pack. Those who were weaker and unarmed were clustered in the middle.

They exited the main doors without incident. There were many mounds of ash nearby and Sam silently thanked Yeth. His Hellhound must have taken care of these demons waiting in ambush.

Sam moved as swiftly as he could, assisting where he could to hurry the weakest along. Behind them, the warehouse, what had once been a place devoted to the worship of his father, blazed like a beacon in the night sky. Yeth might have taken care of a few demons but others would come.

He followed a trail that he’d plotted out earlier, one that involved the least amount of exposure. He looked up, always conscious of the threat of flying demons. The sky was lightening in the east, filling Sam with relief. Dawn was on its way.

He’d timed this carefully, making some rather rough assumptions about how long he’d need in the warehouse. He’d got it almost right. Disappearing through the desecrated churches that acted as their gateways, Demons went back to Hell during the day. Just in time for Sam and the other survivors to make their escape. It would’ve been easier in the day for him to attack the warehouse, but Sam himself was weaker during the day, and if he’d been a bit slower, a bit weaker… he hated to think.

He led them down an alleyway. A few more turns and they’d be back at the clothing store where his own pack awaited him. It was a good place to rest too. Safe. Or as safe as safe could be these days. Even though he could sense that some demons were already returning to Hell, others were still lurking. Hunting them. He just had to hold out for a few more minutes.

Sam got to the end of the alley and turned to make sure the others were behind him. It almost got him killed. Distracted, Sam had failed to properly notice the dark shadow above him. As he exited the alley and turned, the shadow plummeted directly for him, four darker lines of black extended in front of it. At the last second, Sam sensed its approach and knew he’d made a mistake. This one was finally going to kill him. He brought his swords out in a blur but knew it was probably pointless. A two thousand pound Astaroth descending like this with all its weapons beaded on Sam was way too much inertia to cope with. He couldn’t block that. There was no way Sam could retreat either, not with the other survivors blocking his way. He set his teeth and locked his swords out in front of him. For the second time that night, he resigned himself to go down fighting.

Once again, he was destined to be disappointed. The Astaroth was almost upon him when the roar of nearby guns almost deafened him. Four rifles, three shotguns and a pistol opened up, more or less at the same time. Directly at the Astaroth. It didn’t even have time to vent its rage. One second it was a massive shadow hurtling down at Sam, the next, he was being showered by the creature’s remains as they fluttered down upon him.

He turned and made eye contact with the survivors, especially the eight holding smoking weapons. He nodded his thanks. Words were unnecessary. They were even now. Perhaps he’d misjudged these people’s will to live after all.

He looked up in the sky again. Dawn had come and with it the dull gray light which was what approximated daylight these days. The sun hadn’t been seen on Earth for three and a half years now, hidden as it was behind the thick angry blanket of cloud that was a constant during daylight hours.

More importantly, it marked an important change. The demons were gone. They’d made it.

He led the survivors back to the clothing store. They were safe. For one more day at any rate.

Chapter Ten

State Highway 71

“ If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!”

Ecclesiastes: 10

He let the survivors sleep for a few hours. They obviously needed it and most, including Olivia, appeared to be suffering physically and mentally from their ordeal. Understandably. Sam himself didn’t rest. He didn’t feel the need and besides, he was too worked up after their successful escape to rest. Instead, he paced around for a bit, restless, unable to stand still for a second. Like a cat on a hot tin roof. Sam smiled to himself. That had been one of Hikari’s expressions. For a moment, the thought of the diminutive Japanese man uttering those words made Sam feel inexplicably happy.

The moment passed. Sam’s mind returned to more pressing matters. Like getting these survivors to safety. And safety, unfortunately, was over fifty miles away In Columbus. The Ohio Army National guard station there was the only military base that Sam had found still operational. How they had survived, Sam didn’t know, but the fact that they had gave him hope. Where one could survive, others could too.

Sam wasn’t completely unprepared. He’d planned for this eventuality, hoping that his goal to free these survivors would be successful. It was a rough plan though and not something that would withstand a great deal of unanticipated problems. If something went wrong, he really didn’t have a backup. Much like his assault on the demon worshippers. But this time, he wouldn’t have Yeth to help him.

Eager to do something other than pace, Sam started to prepare food. It was almost midday. He’d have to wake the others shortly and no doubt they would be hungry.

He swept the ash off the main counter and set up his camping stove. The gas canister was, thankfully, full. Sam had found a ransacked camping store a few days earlier. While mostly cleaned out of useful items, it was well stocked with portable cookers and gas.

The can opener on his Swiss Army knife came in useful as always. Sam enjoyed using it, not having to concern himself with touching the metal. Unlike iron, the steel knife had no harmful effect on him. He selected a few tins from the bags and poured them into a large pot he’d found at a hardware store. It had been filthy, covered in ash but Sam had done his best to clean it. A difficult task without water but he really didn’t think the others would care.

The tins contained a mixture of beans and spaghetti. There was even a tin of meatballs which was a rare treat. The demon worshippers had been well stocked — unsurprisingly, given that they would’ve taken the food of all those they preyed upon.

The delicious smell of hot food wafted throughout the store, almost overpowering the lingering stench of sulfur. One by one, the survivors, roused by the smell of probably the first hot meal they’d had in ages, shuffled over to the counter. Sam handed each one a disposable plastic plate and a spoon and ladled out a generous helping to each one.

Sam watched each one with interest, though careful not to make eye contact. Even in the dim light, his distinctive black irises could possibly give the game away. In order to get these people to safety, he needed them to trust him. If they got one whiff of his true nature, then that trust could disintegrate more quickly than a demon turning to ash.

His earlier assessment had been roughly accurate. There were twelve of them all told, ranging in age from probably sixteen up to mid-twenties. Eight of them were female. One of the men and three women were African-American. Two women were of Asian descent and one of the men looked Hispanic although Sam couldn’t be sure. His experience in these matters was fairly limited. All were thin, emaciated; a pretty sorry looking bunch.

As they collected their food, each found a spot and sat down to eat. None of them made an effort to communicate or interact with the others. Sam couldn’t blame them. Chances were they’d been cooped up the others for days, if not weeks. They were probably heartily sick of the sight of one another. Some of them did thank him for the food, however, their faces struggling to make smiles, long unaccustomed to such expressions.

Olivia was last. Sam thought this was deliberate. She was somewhat stronger looking than the others and allowed them to go before her. She paused and looked at Sam after he’d filled her plate.

“Why?” she asked quietly.

“Why what?” he replied, not meeting her eye.

“Why did you save us?” Her gaze took in the others. “What’s in it for you? What could you possibly want with us?”

“Nothing,” said Sam. “I want nothing.”

The expression on Olivia’s face displayed various emotions: disbelief, scorn, anger. Sam watched carefully from out of the corner of his eye and could see her struggling with this concept.

“Garbage,” she spluttered. “No one does things like that unless they want something. What do you want?”

Sam felt suddenly quite tired. Humanity never ceased to amaze him. He’d just risked his life for this woman and did he get thanks? No. Just suspicion. Though at least that was better than downright hatred which is what he’d probably get if his true nature were revealed.

“Believe what you will, but I want to help you. I’ll get you to safety and then leave you alone. Is that ok with you?” He could hear sarcasm creeping into his voice but he couldn’t help it. This woman was pushing his buttons.

Olivia ran one grubby hand through her cropped hair, displacing the ash that had taken up residence. Some of it fluttered down into her plate of steaming food, not that she seemed to notice or care. It looked like she’d or someone else had hacked at her hair with a knife. Her eyes darted left and right as she tried to assimilate this notion. Finally, she attempted to make eye contact with Sam again. He looked down, seemingly intent on stirring the food.

He could tell she wanted to say something else but clearly thought better of it. Muttering something under her breath, she went and slumped down in a corner, eating hurriedly but keeping a cautious eye on Sam. Sam decided to ignore her. He didn’t care. As soon as he’d delivered them to the Ohio Army National guard base, he’d wash his hands of them. Not for the first time, he was getting sick of being treated like this — and this was before they discovered he was half demon.

The other survivors were eating ravenously, heedless of manners or any other social convention, stuffing the food into their mouths as quickly as possible. The food was gone within minutes, washed down with precious swigs of water from bottles scavenged from the demon worshippers. While they finished up, Sam disconnected up the camping stove and stored it in his pack.

Making sure he had everything, he wiggled his way into his pack, strapping his Katana on over the top. The Wakizashi was settled in at his waist. Thus prepared, he addressed the others.

“Right. It’s just after midday. We’ve got to get going. We’ve got to cover about fifty miles all told. I’m hoping to cover about ten before nightfall.”

One of the men spoke up. “Where are we going? Surely we’re not going to spend the night in the open? We’ll be easy prey for demons.” Some of the others started to mutter too. Sam let them vent for a moment and then held a hand up for silence. Grudgingly, they quieted down.

“I’m taking you to the only functional army base in the state. It’s in Columbus but it’s too far to travel in one or even two or three days. Don’t worry — I took that into account when I rescued you. There’s a couple of what I suppose you’d call ‘safe houses’ along the route. The first of them is where we’re going to spend tonight.”

This seemed to satisfy most of them, though Olivia was still watching him warily. Sam took no notice, directing the others to load up their packs with food. Careful not to touch the iron shells, Sam helped those with weapons ensure they were loaded and functional. Although rarely using such weapons himself, Sam had become a bit of an expert over the last few years. It gave himself something to do during the lonely days and nights.

When everything was prepared, Sam led them out of the store, carefully checking the street first. Not that he was worried about demons. He still strongly suspected that some of the demon worshippers had escaped. If there were any more followers in the town, then Sam would be ready for them.

He took the lead, careful not to set too demanding a pace. Flurries of ash followed in his wake as the others fell in line. Soon, they’d reached the main highway. Heading south west, Sam knew that state highway 71 would take them directly to Columbus.

They trudged on. Sam had to let them rest frequently and monitor how much water they drank. He had underestimated the condition these survivors would be in. The ones with the plague were struggling the most. He had hoped that they would be much fitter to travel than they were. As it was, they would struggle to make ten miles before nightfall. If the demons found them out in the open after dark, they wouldn’t stand a chance. He increased the pace slightly, and was encouraged to see them keeping up. One of the weaker women fell back and Sam had to assist her. By mid-afternoon, Sam reckoned they’d covered maybe half the distance he wanted to. Approximately five miles to go. Olivia, hanging back at the rear of the group for the entire trip, moved up to walk next to Sam. She didn’t speak but Sam could sense her looking at him from time to time, building up the courage to say something.

Eventually, she cleared her throat. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Sam nodded but kept his eyes on the ash covered road in front of him. “Thanks.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her watching him. “It’s just that no one has helped me before. Ever since the Rapture, I’ve been by myself. Had to watch out for myself. Anytime anyone tried to do something for me, they always wanted something. It’s hard to break the habit of mistrust.”

Sam nodded once more. “I know and I understand. Forget about it. I’m used to it.”

They walked in companionable silence for a while. Sam was glad that they’d cleared the air a little bit. Glad that she’d actually thanked him. It put a little spring into his step.

“Something’s been bothering me,” she said finally. “It’s about that demon. You know, that giant burning dog. I know some of the others have been talking about it.”

“What about it?” Sam knew he was on shaky ground here. He’d have to play this carefully.

“Why didn’t it attack you? Why did it attack those who are meant to be on its side?”

Sam shrugged, hoping it looked convincing. “Beats me,” he said, trying hard not to look at her and gauge her reaction. His words didn’t really ring true in his ears, so he doubted whether he was fooling her for a second either. “I’ve always had a thing for dogs. I was never allowed one when I was growing up so maybe this demon dog sensed that.”

“Yeah… maybe,” she said slowly, letting the words hang. Suddenly, she changed tack. “So, why did you do it? Rescue us, I mean?”

Sam smiled crookedly. “Would you believe an angel asked me to do it?”

Olivia stopped dead in her tracks, looking at Sam in disbelief. He kept walking, struggling not to let his grin get wider.

A couple of hours later and Sam knew they weren’t going to make it. At least half of the survivors were in no condition to go much further. They were almost dead on their feet as it was. Sam called a halt several hundred feet from a large fenced structure.

“What’s wrong with spending the night there?” asked one of the men, a white male with rotten teeth who had introduced himself earlier as Mike.

Sam shook his head. “Too close to the church. There’s one not far from here off the state highway. The demons will be able to sense us.”

“We haven’t really got much of a choice, have we?” said another woman. Sam thought her name might be Sue but he couldn’t be sure. Her hair, clearly once a vibrant red, was now dull and gray as the ash that surrounded them.

Sam sighed but he knew that they were both right. There was no way they were going to make it to the safe house he’d picked out. Better to be in this structure — whatever it was — than face the demons in the open. Sam was confident he’d be able to look after himself and escape but these others would be doomed. He wasn’t about to leave them to their fate, especially after expending so much effort to rescue them in the first place.

It wasn’t long now until darkness fell. They’d have to move pretty quickly. Sam made a decision. “Ok. We’ll spend the night in this place up here. I don’t know what it is but it’s better than nothing. Let’s pick up the pace and see if we can secure it properly.”

The others agreed, moving as swiftly as their exhaustion allowed. Shortly, but not nearly as quickly as Sam would’ve liked, they found themselves outside the two-storied structure.

“What is this place?” asked Olivia. Sam shook his head. He had no idea.

“It looks like one of the county storage depots,” said Mike. Everyone turned to stare at him.

“How do you know that?” asked Sue.

“I used to work for the county,” said Mike. “Sanitation.”

“Sanitation?” asked Sam.

Mike smiled slightly and shrugged. “Yeah. I was a garbage collector.”

“So, Mr. Garbage Collector, how do you propose we get in?” asked Olivia.

Sam had to concede she had a point. It was like Fort Knox. The front of the building was solid brick with only one heavy looking door. A wire fence with rolls of barbed razor wire atop it, ran from the sides, enclosing a large area around the back.

Mike eyed the building warily. “To be honest, I don’t know. These depots are designed to withstand vandalism and theft because they’re often unattended in the weekends. From memory though, some of them have skylights to let a little natural light in. Someone will have to get up there though. Good luck with that.”

“I’ll try,” said Sam, without hesitation. He liked to climb. He’d spent much of his youth climbing the rocks around Devil’s garden. He liked to think he’d been pretty good at it too.

No one argued or volunteered, but then, Sam didn’t see how they could. No one else was in any kind of condition to attempt something like this. He shrugged off his pack and Katana, re-strapping the sword to his back. Thus prepared, Sam assessed the structure. It was fairly impenetrable but he supposed that was the whole point. He could cut his way through the wire fence — he knew without doubt that his swords would make short work of it but then they’d be in the same predicament, without any way to get into the building itself.

Frustration set in. It wasn’t long until it got dark, and he really didn’t have time to waste. On the far corner of the building, he finally spotted something useful. It was a downpipe where rain run-off was siphoned from the roof. It also made the perfect climbing assistant.

He darted over to it. Testing it once for stability, he began to climb. It didn’t feel particularly strong but he didn’t really have an option. He moved rapidly, conscious that two of the securing brackets had already come loose but managed to make it to the roof without incident and sighed with relief.

It was essentially featureless. A flat, empty roof. Sam was about to climb down again in disgust when he found what he was looking for. On the far side of the roof, he could just make out a skylight. With no time to lose, he scuttled over to it. It had a metal grate over it, of course. And of course, the grate was made of iron. In order to get in, Sam would essentially have to destroy it. That would make the structure vulnerable to attack, especially from the skies — from Astaroth in particular. But there was no helping it.

He drew his Katana. Narrowing his eyes in concentration and focusing his energy for precision and power, he struck down. Once, twice. His blade cut through the solid metal bars almost without resistance. He removed the cut segments, ignoring the hiss of burning flesh and sharp pain as his naked flesh made contact with the iron. The skylight was operated by a simple latch. Using his telekinetic power, he willed it to move, smiling in grim satisfaction as he heard it snick open. He lifted it up and stuck his head in. It was dark, other than the weak glow provided by the skylight. No sound. Nothing moving. His senses detected neither human nor demon presence. The place was clear.

He wiggled through, feet first, dropping the last five feet to the floor where he considered the now gaping hole in the roof. It was far, far too small to allow an Astaroth access but it was a pretty obvious advertisement that someone had been here. He’d have to close it but he’d need help to do that. Later.

He was on a mezzanine floor. It had clearly been an office of some sort once, with windows opening on to the warehouse floor. It was now all but empty, with only a few boxes of files covered with a thin film of cinder and dust. It was very dark but Sam’s eyes easily made out the shapes of various machines and vehicles. Finding the stairs, he sped down them, taking them several at a time. On the ground floor, he found the main door. It was secured by a solid built-in lock. He was about to attack it with his sword when another thought offered itself. He simply turned the handle; to his surprise, the door opened. Even if it had been locked, he probably could’ve used his telekinesis to open it. He cursed himself for his foolishness. He’d basically destroyed the skylight above when he could’ve almost just walked in.

Outside, in the growing gloom, the others were waiting for him, huddling together in a pathetic cluster. They looked relieved when he opened the door wide and stepped aside to allow them inside. He secured the heavy door behind them, confident that it would withstand a few blows from even an Astaroth or Horned Demon.

“Everyone go around and make sure this area is secure,” he said. “Olivia, come with me.” He led her upstairs and showed her the skylight.

“What do you want me to do?” she asked.

“Stand on my shoulders,” he ordered. “Reach up and close the skylight. We don’t want to advertise our presence.”

He bent down as she clambered aboard his shoulders. He stood up straight and Olivia, using his head to steady herself, stood upright. As her hand rested on his head, he was conscious of her touching the horns on his head through the hood. He stiffened in alarm but quickly recovered, trying to appear completely normal. Olivia gave no indication she’d noticed, reaching up to quickly pull the skylight closed. She locked it with the latch but Sam knew that wouldn’t stop a determined demon from gaining access.

He helped her down. As her feet touched the floor, they made eye contact for the briefest of moments. Despite the gloom, Sam felt panic rise within his breast. It was just a matter of putting the facts together. If she considered the shapes she’d felt on his head along with a glimpse of his black irises — well, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to put it all together. She looked at him strangely for a moment and then just as quickly, looked away. Tension filled the room. Sam could feel it, dreading what this was building up to. Waiting for her to cry out in alarm. The others would come running and then, well then, things would go as they usually did.

She looked at him again and the ghost of a smile crossed her lips. And then, just as suddenly as it had manifested itself, the tension was gone. Sam smiled back, trying to calm the rapid thumping of his heart.

Without a word, Olivia turned and led him down the steps. Downstairs, the others had gathered together, dumping their packs on the floor. It was almost completely dark now. The depot let very little light in even during the day. At night, which it now was, darkness was almost total.

Sam wasn’t concerned. He loved the night and could see almost perfectly. The others, he knew, would require the light far more than he, if for no other reason than a morale boost. He found his pack amongst the pile of packs and rummaged around, pulling out half-used candles, setting them down on their tiny spiked stands and lighting them with his kerosene lighter from his pocket.

As he worked, he reached out with both his human and demonic senses, searching for any indication of demons. They were out there alright. So far, all their activity was centered around the church, having just arrived from Hell. Soon though, he knew they would spread out, searching for any humans they could drag back with them.

He did his usual trick of disguising his mind, using his glamor to try and extend the mental camouflage so it covered an area rather than just himself. It usually only worked for himself but it was worth a try. That way, anyone nearby him should also be concealed. Hopefully. He couldn’t be sure if it worked but no doubt they would soon find out.

A small part of his mind was also focused on the conversation happening around him. Suddenly, he became aware of what they were talking about, snapping his entire attention back to them.

“Yeah, it’s a snow plough. Looks ok, too. Haven’t checked it out properly or anything yet though…”

“What did you say?” said Sam, more sharply than he’d intended.

In the flickering light of the candles, Mike indicated a dark patch of shadow on the depot floor. “There’s a snow plough over there,” repeated Mike. “Stored here during summer and brought out to clear the highway in winter. Doesn’t look like it’s been touched, either.”

Now that Sam’s mind was more focused, he could see that yes indeed, it was a snow plough. He hadn’t had time to register what was in the depot before. This could just be the stroke of luck he needed.

“Do you think you can get it going?” he asked.

Mike shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Shouldn’t be any different than driving the sanitation truck. Just need fuel but usually they have a supply at the depot. I couldn’t find it in here so it’s probably in the compound outside. The gate was intact so it probably hasn’t been looted.”

Sam nodded. He tried not to get his hopes up but this really could be the answer to their salvation here. They’d got really lucky finding this place. Even if they survived the night, he knew that probably half of these people wouldn’t be able to get to Columbus on foot. What he needed was transportation. A snow plough was perfect, no — more than perfect. With its massive plough at the front, they’d easily be able to deal with any cars blocking the highway. That was one of the reasons why he always travelled on foot: the roads were often blocked by vehicles which had lost their occupants during the Rapture. That… and Sam didn’t know how to drive. He certainly wouldn’t have been able to drive a truck. Once again, having Mike with them was a stroke of luck. Sam thought — hoped — that someone was watching over them.

Examining the bright yellow vehicle, Sam considered options. Behind him, he heard Mike curse as he tripped over in the darkness, moving towards him. Eventually, Sam felt him fumbling at his sleeve.

“Jeez, how do you see like that?” he asked.

“Practice,” said Sam. “I move around a lot at night. My night vision seems to have adapted.”

Unaware that Sam could see his expression clearly in the darkness, Mike looked skeptical but obviously decided to drop it. Olivia, apparently curious, brought one of the candles over. They stood around the truck in contemplative silence.

“How many can you fit in the cab?” Sam asked.

“No more than four. But see the open tray at the back? That’s where snow that needs to be moved gets stored. We’ll be able to fit the others in there easily.”

Sam considered. The tray had solid metal sides, rising up to chest height on an average human. It would provide some protection from demons. Of course, it was completely open to attack from above, but you couldn’t have everything. Hopefully, by giving all the weapons to those in the back, it should enable them to fend off an Astaroth.

“We’ll have to wait until morning,” said Olivia. “The others are too tired. Myself included.”

“Yeah, and I’ll need to sort out the fuel situation,” said Mike. “Best done in the light of day.” Cautiously, conscious of tripping again, Mike moved to the side of the truck and opened the cab door, grimacing as it creaked alarmingly. The door had not been opened for some time. “Keys in the ignition,” he said.

Sam was relieved. The last thing he wanted to do is search the entire depot for keys. He also agreed with the others about waiting for morning, although a part of him felt slightly uneasy. He wasn’t sure if his glamor would keep the demons away, especially for the whole night. They had an opportunity here, one that Sam was keen to exploit as soon as possible. But there was nothing for it. The others did need to rest. That couldn’t be helped.

In the uncertain light of the candles, the twelve survivors settled down for the night, trying to make themselves as comfortable as possible on the hard concrete floor. A few had asked about food but Sam wasn’t going to risk cooking at night, especially here when he knew that demons were nearby. Although starving, they’d have to wait for morning. Sam also ensured that those with guns kept them nearby. He, himself would stay on guard but he wanted the others ready to fight if it came to it. Which it inevitably would.

Chapter Eleven

Columbus

"But the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved.”

Matthew 24:10, 13

It must’ve been after midnight when he heard it. A scream. A woman’s scream. He was on his feet in a second, shocked out of his meditative trance, already berating himself for his lack of attention. He’d been elsewhere, his senses concentrating on the movements of demons outside. They were close — some Lemures had even shuffled up to the main doors and sniffed around for a while. He’d observed them closely, prepared to take them out before they could spread the alarm.

That was why he hadn’t noticed what was going on within the depot. Unsurprisingly. One of the woman — Sam hadn’t learnt her name yet; he wasn’t very good with names — had taken herself off to the toilet, using a dark recess on the depot floor. It was pointless using the tiny bathroom they’d discovered. It was blocked and in any case, hadn’t been working for years.

Sam’s senses found her immediately. He raced in that direction, conscious that the others were rousing themselves frantically. Outside, he knew the Lemure had heard the noise. Even now, they were scratching at the door.

“Everyone in the truck,” he shouted behind him. “Mike, you drive.”

He found her cowering, unable to see Sam clearly as he approached, just a large ominous patch of darkness.

“It’s ok,” he said. “I’m here. What happened?” He helped her to her feet.

“I… I saw something move. Over there,” she pointed in a corner. “I don’t know what it was.”

Sam reached out with his senses. He couldn’t sense anything, but then, yes, he could. Something tiny, almost mindless. And then he knew what it was. A rat. Their cover had been blown for a rat. The chicken of the apocalypse, probably the most common food source for survivors just because they were everywhere. A part of him wanted to be angry with this woman but he knew he was being unfair. It wasn’t her fault. She was just scared.

“It’s just a rat,” he said flatly.

“I’m… I ’m sorry,” she said.

Sam nodded even though he knew she probably couldn’t see the gesture. “I know,” he said. “Come on, we’ve got to go.”

Almost dragging her behind him, he put her in the arms of Olivia who was helping load the others into the back of the truck. He noticed with relief that the packs were going in too. Someone was thinking clearly. The packs included his, thankfully. There were personal items in there that he would hate to lose, not to mention all of the food and water in the other packs. If they survived, they would need it. And that was a big ‘if’. The Lemure by themselves weren’t a problem. It was unlikely they would be able to get into the depot but their scratching had already attracted the interest of more powerful demons. Sam sensed at least one Astaroth circling. A group of Horned demons were also lumbering in this direction to investigate.

He caught Olivia’s eye. “What is it?” he asked.

She shook her head. “It’s nothing. Just one of the others. Dead,” she said.

“How?” asked Sam but he already knew.

“Plague. She must have died during the night.”

Sam said nothing. What did you say at times like this? For all he knew, Olivia and this nameless victim of the bubonic plague had been friends or family. But he didn’t have time for that now. “Sorry, you’ll have to leave her. The guards won’t allow the body onto the base in any case.”

The words sounded harsh even as he said them. He caught Olivia frowning at him but he didn’t have time for that.

He darted over to the main depot doors at the rear of the building. The massive roller door looked like it was usually controlled electronically. No good. This building hadn’t had power in years. He inspected the area around the door with as much haste as he dared. Then he saw it. There was a chain dangling in the corner, used to manually open the door. Unlocking the door at its base, he yanked on the chain. Painfully slowly, the door edged upward. He pulled on the chain harder, again and again. When it reached the point where Sam thought the truck would clear the opening, he stopped. Outside, beyond the wire fence, he could see Lemure gathering. But he also saw something else. A fuel pump.

Mike and Olivia were already in the cab. Sam could see Mike struggling with something. He raced over.

“What’s wrong?” he demanded.

“I think I’ve flooded it,” said Mike, his voice strained.

“Has it got gas?”

Mike nodded. “A bit.” Sam watched him turn the ignition. The truck gave a sick cough but the engine didn’t turn over.

“Try it again,” said Olivia.

She sounded as tense as Mike and Sam knew why. Heard clearly throughout the depot were sounds of frantic scrabbling against the main doors. These were interspersed with louder, heavier thuds. One of the Horned demons had reached the building. The door wouldn’t hold out for much longer. In the compound, the Lemure were stacking up, piling on top of one another. Soon, they’d be level with the top of the fence and be able to trickle over. That trickle would quickly turn into a flood.

Mike closed his eyes, took a deep breath and waited for a moment. Time seemed to drag; everyone in the depot seemed to hold their breath. Then Mike turned the key. The engine coughed again, louder this time, and roared into life. Sam heard several people cheer.

“Over here,” he yelled over the engine. “The pump’s over here.” Sam guided Mike over. The pump was locked of course, but Sam made short work of that with his Wakizashi. He thrust the nozzle into the truck and squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened.

Mike poked his head out the window. “It needs electricity to run but there should be a hand pump.”

Quickly, Sam checked the other side. There was a rotary handle, also locked, which Sam cut through. He wound the handle and was rewarded with a splutter as diesel began to dribble out. He could feel it through the pipe. He wound harder and now the diesel began to flow. Mike kept the engine going. Inside, he heard a crash and a tearing sound. If Sam didn’t know better, it sounded like the door had just been torn off its hinges.

A terrible cry sounded from above. Sam looked up to see an Astaroth was descending. The nine people in the back were heedless of this. Sam shouted a warning but it was too late; the Astaroth tore out of the sky and hurtled down to the rear of the truck. It grasped one of the women in its leg talons and shot back into the sky again. She screamed in shock and terror. Sam could see her face clearly but knew there was nothing he could do for her. Several people raised their guns but there was no way they could fire for fear of hitting her. It would’ve been a mercy though. A fate worse than death awaited her.

As the Astaroth and the woman disappeared into the night’s sky, her screams drifted back to them on the warm breeze. The action seemed to act as a catalyst for the others. They began to scan the skies, moving their weapons around nervously.

Several things then happened at once. Sam heard the thud of enormous footsteps, and he looked up to see a massive Horned Demon at the door of the depot. It saw them, raised its huge stone mallet and charged. At the same time, the wire fence, incapable of maintaining its integrity any longer, collapsed under the weight of the mass of Lemure pressing up against it. They also surged towards the truck. Sam yanked the nozzle out and dropped it on the ground. Without him turning the pump, the flow of diesel dried up. He jumped into the passenger side of the cab next to Olivia.

“Go, go, go!” he yelled. “Drive.”

Mike didn’t need to be told twice. He revved the engine, and the truck sprang forwards, charging straight towards the horde of Lemure descending upon them. Mike didn’t bother to swerve. The truck itself weighed several tons. Combined with the plough at the front, it was almost an unstoppable force. The Lemure didn’t stand a chance. They scattered in front of him; any caught head-on were scooped up by the plough, most falling under the wheels of the truck where they were flattened. Many would have suffered injuries but most wouldn’t have been fatal. Only cold iron had the power to do that.

Behind them, the Horned demon bellowed in frustration, built for power, not speed and unable to keep up with the truck. Sam turned and saw several of the survivors firing at the demons, keeping them off the truck.

Mike sped on through the flattened remains of the gate. He swerved wildly, guiding the truck onto the main highway, smashing his way through two abandoned vehicles. At last Sam turned around to face the front, satisfied that they would make it out safely. He could see Olivia’s expression and Mike’s face. Both were flushed with victory — but at what cost? Sam had already lost one of the people he had rescued, and another had died. How many would be left by the time they got to Columbus?

Sam needn’t have worried. The rest of the trip passed rather uneventfully. The snow plough was easily capable of smashing aside any obstacle. The Lemure struggled to get a grip on the on the solid metal sides, especially when they had to deal with a lethal barrage of fire from the gun-wielding occupants in the back. The only obvious weakness was from above but Sam kept a close eye on the sky and warned everyone when an Astaroth was near. A few of the great demons tried an aerial assault but had been driven off by the iron rounds. One Astaroth had even been destroyed.

Mike had been reasonably confident that they’d have enough fuel to reach Columbus. Even though Sam hadn’t had much time to fuel up the truck, it seemed that it already had some to begin with. Luckily. Mike was right, but he’d slowed down to conserve fuel as they neared the outskirts, just to be on the safe side.

In the back, the others had satisfied their hunger, using Sam’s pocket knife to open cans of beans and other assorted fast food, eating it cold. Despite the fact that they had lost two of their number, there had been almost a party atmosphere in the truck, a feeling that Sam hadn’t shared. He’d become somewhat pessimistic over the years with the belief that things seemed to go wrong, in spite of his best intentions and planning. Experience had taught him never to assume and he didn’t feel any sense of relief until they had actually reached the outskirts of Columbus.

It was almost dawn when the gates of the National Guard base reared up in front of them. The streets of Columbus were completely deserted. Apart from a few determined survivors, the only living humans in the city were in the base. A few demons, clearly wary of the Army base, made a half-hearted attack on the truck as it passed but Sam could see that they were too occupied with the coming dawn to pose any great threat. As soon as the truck was in range of the bases’ defenses, the demons drew back.

Sam got Mike to stop a hundred feet from the main gates. Spotlights played upon the truck from towers dotted around the perimeter. Sam walked towards the gate, hands above his head, passing a sign with ‘Beightler Armory’ written on it. Even though it had a fine layer of dust covering it, Sam could see that someone had made a recent effort to clean it.

The gate, like the one at the depot was made of heavy wire. It had been strengthened and reinforced by layer upon layer of razor wire that had been made especially for the base. Sam could smell the iron from where he was.

Sam had been here before and knew some of the men and their commanders, but he wasn’t about to take any risks. Some of the soldiers based here had very nervous trigger fingers. The first whiff of a demon and they wouldn’t take any chances. As Sam approached the gate, a bright light blazed down upon him, forcing him to squint.

“Stop right there,” said a voice. Sam did as he was told, keeping his hands where the soldiers could see them.

“Remove your hood so we can see your face.”

Sam hesitated. If he removed his hood, everyone would see what he was and that was a closely guarded secret at the base. He didn’t really fancy getting shot after all that he’d been through to get this far.

“I can’t,” he said.

Sam heard the tell-tale noise of weapons being cocked and readied. “Remove your hood or we will fire upon you.”

Sam sighed. He really didn’t have a choice as usual. His hand reached up towards his hood, slowly, ever so slowly, not willing to give the soldiers an excuse to squeeze off a few rounds at him. He knew all their weapons were loaded with iron.

“That won’t be necessary,” said a commanding voice that Sam recognized. “Soldier, shut off that light.”

The light immediately disappeared and Sam could see clearly all at once. The gates were open in front of him. An extremely solidly built man of average height and dressed in fatigues walked through the gates and towards Sam. It wasn’t until he got closer that Sam recognized him. Someone he thought dead years ago. Someone he had long thought he would never see again.

Adam.

Chapter Twelve

Beightler Armory

“ For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect-if that were possible.”

Matthew: 24

For a moment, neither man moved or spoke. For Sam, a variety of emotions were competing for attention — elation and confusion being the primary ones. While he didn’t know for sure, Sam had long suspected that Adam had been taken to Hell, especially after what he’d discovered at Black Ridge almost three years earlier. And three years was such a long time. What on Earth had happened to him?

“Good to see you, Sam,” said Adam, smiling lopsidedly.

Sam couldn’t help it — he smiled back. “You too,” was all he could manage by way of response.

Adam moved in closer, his hand extended. Sam was about to take it when Adam suddenly lowered his hand and went for the hug instead. Sam didn’t know what to do or how to react as the extremely powerfully built man squeezed him in a massive, bear-like grip. It was all so foreign to him. It wasn’t often he was touched. In fact, the only times he’d actually had any affectionate human contact was from Hikari and Aimi. And Grace… but that was years ago. This was outside his realm of experience and if he was going to be honest with himself, slightly uncomfortable feeling. Although, saying that, a tiny bit of him was actually enjoying it. Not that he was about to show it.

Adam finally released him and stepped back and looked Sam up and down. “You look well.” Suddenly, he laughed — a loud happy bark that Sam remembered from Black Ridge. “Actually, no, you don’t. I’m just being polite. You look like your normal moody self but you’re still a sight for sore eyes.” He gestured at the gates and the armed guard that was even now marching through. “Sorry about this, though. I’d heard you were around and so I kept an eye out. Lucky for you. These guys probably would’ve shot you otherwise.” He winked and Sam and smiled again.

Suddenly, he became aware of who and what was behind Sam. All at once, his demeanor became all business. “I see your mission was a success. Don’t worry about them, my men will see to their needs and get the truck squared away. That snow plough will probably come in useful. It certainly did for you.” Adam paused, noting the expression on Sam’s face. He relented, appearing to read his mind. “All right, go and say your farewells. You might not get a chance later, especially after you hear what I’ve got to say.”

Sam walked back to the truck, his mind already whirling. Not only had Adam reappeared, but it seemed he also had some momentous news. He would have to be patient though — Adam did things in his own time.

Over at the truck, some of the uniforms were swarming all over it, presumably making sure no demons or demon worshippers were concealed inside. He found Mike and Olivia in the back of the truck with the others where they had been relegated to by the soldiers.

He stood looking up at them for a moment, at a loss for the right words as usual. Olivia came to his rescue.

“Thank you, Sam,” she said. Something about the way she was looking at him told him she knew more than she was saying. “I know you risked your life to save us, and I owe you for that. I’m sure the others do too.” Mike and a few other faces he could see in the early morning light were smiling.

“Yep, thanks, buddy,” chirped Mike.

Sam nodded. Even if he had the words, he probably wouldn’t have replied. There was nothing to be said really. He saved them because it was his duty. His promise. For once, the people he rescued were thankful and that was a gratifying change. He didn’t want to dwell on the reception he would receive if they knew of his true nature. Even the fleeting thought soured the otherwise positive encounter. Mike threw him his pack and he turned away without another word. From what Adam was saying, it was doubtful whether he’d actually see these people again and he felt slightly sad at the thought. Even though he hadn’t got to know most of them very well, he would’ve liked to. Especially Mike and Olivia. For him, friends were in short supply.

“There’s disease treatment here as well,” he finally said awkwardly, just for something to say. He knew that all of them would be checked out as a matter of course but the words just blurted out. Some of them would probably not last much longer if not treated with antibiotics. Even in the last day or so, he’d noticed the disease taking a turn for the worst with a few of them — their fingers and noses starting to blacken. He was surprised that all of them didn’t have it. Clearly, some were more resistant than others. Either that, or immune like himself.

Adam was still waiting for him at the gates, jigging impatiently. He hustled Sam through and along a road broken up by a series of armed checkpoints. Sam knew from experience that most people coming through here would be checked for disease, too. This was one army base that was taking its security and the spread of contagion very seriously. There was no way he would’ve got through this checkpoint without Adam — especially armed as he was. The soldiers all looked at him curiously as he walked past and it was no wonder. He was, after all, a bit of an oddity. A tall, athletically-built youth, still with his hood on and armed to the teeth with swords.

Some of the soldiers saluted as they went past. At first, Sam failed to recognize the importance of this and then it occurred to him to ask.

“Are you an officer?” he said to Adam, turning slightly towards the older man as they walked.

Adam nodded. He pointed to his collar. “See this?” Sam could see a golden oak leaf on each collar. “I’m a Major now. When you first met me, I was only a Captain. I got promoted on account of everyone else being dead or elsewhere. Hence the saluting.”

“I didn’t know,” confessed Sam.

“That’s because you never asked.” The expression on Sam’s face must have become even blanker than usual because Adam slapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I don’t exactly volunteer information. I think the only thing I told you was that I was in the special forces. That bit was true. I didn’t mention that I was retired though.”

Sam nodded. All true of course. Adam wasn’t the sort of person who would ever lie to him. He was just a bit like him — not very communicative. That was probably why Sam liked him so much.

“So what happened?” asked Sam. “You know, at Black Ridge?”

Adam grimaced. “Long story. I’ll tell you later. Right now, I think someone wants to see you. Then rest, shower. I’ve got a meeting scheduled with you and my C. O at 0800 hours.” Judging from the light, Sam guessed it to be between five and six am, the dull light causing him to squint as his eyes were quite sensitive to light.

They were walking past a long barracks hall when Adam stopped abruptly. “I’ll leave you here. Go right on inside, and meet me later at the command center.”

Before Sam could ask any more questions, Adam turned his back on him and strolled off. Sam watched him retreat for a while and then shrugged. He was pretty sure why Adam had left him here.

The barrack was one of many identical structures that were ubiquitous on any Army base — long and low, its construction simple enough that a platoon of soldiers could probably set one up within hours. Sam could see several just in this general vicinity although this one was more familiar than the others.

Entering through the main door, he found himself inside the sleeping area. Cot after cot was laid out, all neatly made with a blanket at the end of each bed. Every single one of them was empty except for one. Sam almost didn’t notice at first and then a familiar mind tone intruded. He yanked his neck in that direction.

Sitting on the bed at the far end of the barracks was a figure that Sam knew at a glance was female. The curve of the hip and shoulder simply couldn’t belong to a man. The long dark hair he recognized, tied back behind her neck but still achingly familiar to Aimi’s. He knew without doubt that it wasn’t hers. It was Grace’s hair.

On suddenly slightly awkward legs, he made his way towards her. He’d not made the slightest noise so Sam was taken off guard when she suddenly turned towards him when he was only a bed’s length away from her.

“Hello, Sam. Welcome back,” Grace said, not quite managing to look him in the eye. Sam took her appearance in with a glance. She couldn’t be older than eighteen or nineteen, but she looked older than that — more weary and lined, with deep scars on her face. More ugly scars were evident on her exposed arms. But that was understandable. She’d been through far more than any other teenage girl could ever be expected to go through, emerging somewhat altered from what Sam remembered. She’d always been a little bitter and angry but this was something else. Something that Sam almost felt a kinship with.

“Hi, Grace.” Neither of them made a move, even though they hadn’t seen each other for months. Grace had once been slightly tactile towards him but those days were long gone. Sam didn’t mind too much. His personal space had already been violated once today.

There was a long, slightly uncomfortable pause. “So. How did it go? Did your rescue work out or did they get dragged off to Hell?”

Sam remained calm, not willing for this scene to get ugly. He wouldn’t allow her to bait him. “I got them,” he said. “Or most of them.”

“Oh,” she said, raising one arched eyebrow and smirking. “Lose a few in the process, did you? That must be hard. Like you’re not in enough trouble in Heaven. I don’t think they’ll ever let you in if you keep allowing people to be taken. It’s not much fun in Hell.” Her expression turned bitter. “I should know.”

Even though he’d saved her, she’d never let him forget that he’d not only allowed her to be taken in the first place, but he’d left her to rot in Hell for months after. It was not like he blamed her either. He did feel like he’d failed her somehow. He knew he’d done his best for her, but his best had not been good enough. That was why he didn’t allow her barbs to anger him. If he was going to get angry at someone, it should be himself.

“One of them died from the plague. Then I found us a truck. An Astaroth came out of the sky and grabbed one from the back.”

Grace nodded as if expecting nothing less. “Have you seen Adam yet?” she asked. Sam was surprised. He was sure that she’d milk his failure for a bit longer yet. It was positively diplomatic of her to change tact so quickly. Maybe she was having one of her rare good days.

“Yep. He met me at the gate. Probably saved my life. The guards are even more trigger happy than usual these days.”

“Do you know where he’s been all this time?”

Sam shook his head. “No. He’s going to tell me later. I have to go to a briefing in the command center later.”

She shrugged. “Fine. Some of your stuff is still in the locker down the back there. I suppose you want to wash some of the ash off you. After that, we can go and get some food and talk about old times.” Sam could hardly bear to see what approximated a smile on Grace’s face these days. At least she was trying though. There was no doubt, however, that their once strong relationship was now strained. They hadn’t seen each other for months, almost like they had been avoiding contact. Often when Sam returned from a mission, she’d be gone, conveniently out on patrol. Her time in Hell had taken its toll. She would never really forgive him for taking so long to rescue her and he’d never really be able to forgive himself either.

Sam took her advice. He found his old towel and some soap in the locker. The shower cubicle was big enough to hold ten soldiers, making Sam experience an odd feeling of exposure as he soaped himself down. It was very pleasant to have a shower though. He hadn’t had one in weeks and it was good to wash away the accumulated grime, dirt and ash and blood. If only it could do the same for his guilt.

These days, this place was the closest he had to home. A base of operations, though he hadn’t been here since he deposited Grace there years before. Like Grace, the commander, Colonel Wheat, knew of his half-demonic nature. Now that Adam had arrived, they were the only three on the base that did. Both Sam and Colonel Wheat wanted to keep it that way, too. It worked to the benefit of both of them. Sam often had some survivors in tow, like now, or good intel that the Colonel could use in future operations. Sam liked to work alone in any case. He didn’t plan to give the Colonel too many details in case the man insisted that they mount a proper operation. The Colonel would’ve argued (Sam had to admit — probably rightly), that this nest of demon worshippers was too big and too well established for just one man — or half man — to take out by himself. In this case, he’d almost been right, too.

Sam stayed under the warm deluge for several minutes, luxuriating in so much water. He didn’t have to worry about using too much. The base was sitting on top of a massive underground spring of unpolluted water. That was one of the reasons why this place had been a prize worth keeping when so many other bases had been lost or abandoned almost without a fight. The top brass realized that the survival of those who had been left behind depended on a secure base with access to plentiful resources. Beightler Armory provided that. Not only that, but it was well stocked with weapons. The only thing it really lacked was more soldiers but new recruits, just like the ones that Sam had rescued, were coming in every other day.

Regretfully, he dragged himself from out of the shower and toweled himself off. As he was finishing off, Grace came in and leaned causally against the door frame. He was slightly shocked by such behavior but then, Grace had seen him naked before. That had been accidental. This was deliberate. He tried to cover himself up but thought he detected admiration in her gaze as it wandered over his sleek hard body, lingering on the various scars that he’d accumulated over the years. There was not an ounce of fat on him. Periodic access to food, relentless training and activity had ensured that his body was comprised only of lean muscle.

“So how many?” she asked, dragging her eyes back to his face.

“About a dozen,” he managed to reply, instinctively knowing what she was talking about.

“Where were they?”

“Caged like animals. Some demon worshippers had them. Using them like cattle.”

Grace nodded grimly. Sam saw her fist clench. They shared a common hatred against demon worshippers. He’d taken her out on a mission once where they’d uncovered a similar but smaller nest. Sam hadn’t much enjoyed her expression as she’d killed every one of them she could. She’d smiled when she did it too.

He turned his back on her and finished drying himself off, then dressed quickly. Lastly, he toweled his hair dry, enjoying the pleasant sensation of having his hair exposed and clean. He put his hood back up and then strapped on his swords.

Grace watched him the whole time, but stayed silent, probably thinking about demon worshippers and what she’d like to do to them.

“Ready?” she asked eventually. Sam nodded and followed her out of the barracks and over to the mess hall, a good five minute walk away. They walked in silence which was absolutely fine with Sam. He really didn’t feel like talking.

The mess hall was not too dissimilar to a barracks building, but about twice the size. Inside, about thirty or so people sat at tables scattered about the large open space. Sam heard his stomach growl when he caught a whiff of the food bubbling in the large pots at the serving counter. Although he didn’t need much food, eating — like having a hot shower — was one of those rare pleasures that he looked forward to.

Currently, there were only a couple of people queuing up to be served. The cook, dressed in what had once been a white apron but now looked as grey as the ash outside, was stirring a pot without enthusiasm. Ignoring the stares from the other diners, he and Grace marched up to the counter, grabbed a tray and a plate each and received two boiled potatoes and a ladle of stew. It didn’t look like much, but as they took their places at an unoccupied table, Sam felt his mouth watering.

Without preamble, he tucked into his food. The potatoes were overcooked and dry and the stew lacked flavor. To Sam, it was delicious. Sometimes, he found himself craving rice but he knew that it was a crop that was just too thirsty, needing a great deal of water to grow — probably more than the base command could justify. The meat was unrecognizable but Sam suspected it was goat, given that most of the meat on the base was. Grace only picked at hers but then again, she’d probably eaten it every day since he’d been gone.

He finished and wiped his mouth carefully with a napkin, thinking about seconds. Grace’s was almost untouched and he eyed it greedily. When she saw what he was looking at, she pushed her plate at him with a tiny grimace that could’ve been the hint of a smile.

She waited patiently while he shoveled it into his face. “So. What do you think Adam and the Commander want to see you about?” she asked when he had finished for the second time.

Sam shrugged. “No idea. Adam seems to think it’s important. Why don’t you come and find out for yourself?”

She sneered at him. “Me? I’m not important around here. What makes you think I’d be allowed in some important meeting. Most of the time, people forget that I actually exist.”

“I don’t,” said Sam quietly, unable to meet her eye, looking down at his almost empty plate.

She muttered something under her breath that even Sam, with his exceptional hearing, couldn’t quite make out, but he got the impression that this appeased her slightly.

“So, have you heard about the church services?” she asked finally.

Sam shook his head, the last mouthful of food crammed into his mouth making it impossible to speak.

“You knew there was a chapel on the base, didn’t you?”

Sam nodded. Of course he knew. The church hadn’t been desecrated, so it was useless to the demons. Presumably, either demon worshippers or other agents had missed the one on this base — probably because the base had never been taken. He’d been there a few times but hadn’t dared enter the place or even the grounds for that matter. He wouldn’t take the risk. It was the first church he’d come across which still had the power to hurt him. And that was the sort of pain you didn’t forget in a hurry.

“Well,” she said, smiling contemptuously, “it seems there’s been a great rush of religious fervor going around here recently.”

Sam finished his mouthful and wiped his lips with a napkin. “What do you mean?”

“A few grunts have been going around spreading certain rumors.”

“About what?” Sam demanded.

“That if you repent now and welcome Jesus into your heart, you’ll still be saved and not spend eternity in Hell. Those that ask for forgiveness during the Tribulation will be spared when Jesus returns. That’s all the people around here care about now.”

“I think there’s more to it than that,” said Sam. “Before the Rapture, none of these people believed in God or Jesus. But how can they not now? They’ve seen it with their own eyes. They witnessed the Rapture. Have been preyed upon and stalked by demons. Some might have even seen angels. Everything predicted by the Bible is now coming true. How can you still be in denial in the face of that proof?”

Grace snorted dismissively. “They may have said the words, but it’s only for their own self-preservation. Would you want to spend the rest of eternity in Hell?” She paused and looked at Sam slightly askance. “Well, maybe you’re not exactly a great example.” Sam smiled wryly at that.

“So anyway,” she continued, “the word is that if you say the right things or perhaps make yourself a martyr, He’ll forgive you when you die or get taken to Hell and eventually you’ll be allowed back into his kingdom — whether it be in Heaven or on Earth after Jesus returns.”

“So you aren’t going to welcome him into your heart?” he asked.

Grace looked at him for a moment before answering. “If Jesus is so good, why did he take my parents and leave me all alone in the world? Why did he allow everyone else I’ve ever known, including my aunty and uncle, to be taken to Hell to suffer endless torment? Is that the sign of a good and caring being? I don’t think so. You probably should reconsider as well. It’s alright for everyone else to redeem themselves and be forgiven but not you. It doesn’t matter what you do, you won’t be welcome in Heaven or in his Kingdom on Earth.”

Sam shrugged, not willing to get into this debate, primarily because a part of him agreed with her and it touched a raw nerve. Despite everything he’d done, everything he’d suffered and given up, he would never be allowed into Heaven. And he was one of the believers. He’d saved many innocents, just like he’d been instructed to do by the Archangel Gabriel. And his reward? Probably eternal suffering in Hell. Sam knew this was unfair but had resigned himself to it years ago. It didn’t mean it still didn’t hurt though. It was an open wound, which had a tendency to fester more and more these days.

“You should see them,” smiled Grace. “Piling up in the church. Standing room only. Most of them spill out into the grounds. I don’t know how they can hear the soldier-turned-preacher up in the pulpit. The hospital is almost as bad. You’d think God saved them and not the antibiotics.” She shook her head sadly.

“Wouldn’t it be easier for you just to accept Him rather than go through all this resistance?” he asked.

“Who?” she asked innocently.

“You know who,” he said. “Don’t be difficult. Do you really want to spend the rest of eternity in Hell when you can avoid it? You, more than anyone else around here, know what it’s like.”

Grace suddenly lent forward, her face intent, lips pursed. “You think you know me, don’t you, Sam?” she hissed. “But you really don’t. You’ve never bothered to ask. If you had, you’d know that my parents were do-gooders, true believers. Went to church every Sunday. They tried to make me read the Bible but I wouldn’t. Didn’t want to. It seemed pointless to me. And you know what? After a while they gave up — gave up on me. Left me to my own devices. Why didn’t they try a little harder? If they had, I wouldn’t have been left here all by myself. They must have known what could happen. Did I really mean that little to them?”

“I’m sure you meant everything to them,” said Sam, meaning every word. “It sounds like they tried but you were…stubborn.”

Grace sat back. “You’re not making me feel any better.”

“I know and I’m sorry. But are you really going to be so stubborn that you’ll allow yourself to be taken to Hell again when all this is over? I know you’re angry, but there are limits.”

She shook her head. “Not for me, there aren’t.”

“Don’t you want to see your parents again?”

“Of course I do! How can you ask me that?” Her voice was rising again. Curious glances were cast in their direction. She lowered her voice. “But I don’t want them to say I told you so. I don’t think I could take that.”

“So what are you going to do then?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know but there has to be another way.”

They sat in silence for long moments. Sam didn’t know what to say in the face of her stubbornness. He really didn’t know what else to say to convince her. It was her decision to make, no-one else’s.”What have you been up to anyway?” he asked, keen to change the conversation. He also finally remembered to take a more personal interest in her. Years earlier, Aimi had told him that it was important to ask women questions about themselves. He hadn’t quite worked out why yet.

Grace shrugged. Lately, she seemed to do that even more than Sam. “Nothing much. I went out on a couple of supply missions with the grunts but it was hardly anything to write home about. Found some food and guns at an old abandoned homestead. Even brought in a few stragglers that the demons had missed. Other than that, pretty boring.”

“You should come out with me next time,” he said, trying his best to connect with her, trying desperately to repair the rift between them. She never gave him the chance.

“With the great and mighty, Sam? Little old me?” She rolled her eyes. “Surely, I’d just slow you down. Heaven forbid that I might get captured again.”

Sam picked up his tray and stood. There was no point in talking to her when she was in this mood. “I’ll see you later,” he said.

On his way out, she called his name and he turned.

“Do you ever think about him?” she asked.

Sam stared at her for a moment, at a complete loss as to what to say. Like they shared a limited form of telepathy, he knew exactly who she was talking about.

Joshua.

Without another word, he turned and strode out of the mess hall, trying to outdistance the dark memories of the past.

Chapter Thirteen

Beightler Armory

“ The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders…”

2 Thessalonians 2:9

Sam sat in a chair in the waiting room outside Colonel Wheat’s office. Adam sat in the chair next to him, taking up both his armrest and Sam’s with his bulk and shifting restlessly. Chairs weren’t designed for someone like Adam.

A desk sat in one corner. Behind it, sat a young man in the uniform of a lieutenant. The Colonel’s aide. Other than show a little deference to Adam, he’d basically ignored them since they had arrived. The intercom buzzed.

“The Colonel will see you now,” he said.

Both he and Adam stood. The lieutenant opened the door for them into the Colonel’s office. Inside, framed by a large window overlooking the base, was the Colonel desk, dominating the room with its size. A large leather chair, tattered but still useable, was filled with a man built almost as solidly as Adam. He stood as they entered, revealing a frame that was almost as tall as Sam’s. A very imposing figure, this Colonel Wheat, and Sam had found him to be fairly straight forward and honest too. He hadn’t warmed to him like he did Adam, but their relationship was still solid.

Two chairs were set in front of the desk. Colonel Wheat bade them sit and only then did he resume his seat.

“Welcome back, Sam,” he said, his solid, clean-shaven face breaking into a glimmer of a smile. “Those people with you were in pretty bad shape but we’ll have them sorted out in no time. Some of them look like they could make decent soldiers, too. I need some good bods on the towers.”

He paused and looked between Sam and Adam. “I see you’ve renewed your acquaintance with Adam here. Funny story that.” He opened his desk drawer and rummaged around inside for a moment, finally pulling out a thick cigar and a gas lighter. Sam often thought that Colonel Wheat smoking a cigar was almost a caricature — he just looked so much of what he’d come to expect of a Colonel, more even than Colonel Sumner back in L.A. Colonel Wheat lit up and exhaled, sighing with obvious pleasure.

“These are in short supply these days. Next time you’re out, Sam, I’ll have to get you to find some more for me.”

“Sure,” said Sam, noncommittally.

“What was I saying?” he asked.

“Funny story,” said Adam. Sam could hear the impatience in his voice. The Colonel had a tendency to get distracted sometimes.

Colonel Wheat snapped his fingers. “Right! The Major turns up about a week ago. We get to talking. He mentions something about a half-demon boy he ran into a few years back at Black Ridge. I tell him we’ve got our own demon boy right here. Anyway, turns out you’re the same person. Small world, eh?” The Colonel took another long puff of his cigar and looked at Sam to see if he’d managed to get a reaction. The Colonel knew full well that Sam didn’t like to be called demon boy, so Sam suspected he was being tested.

When Sam said nothing, the Colonel continued. “So, have you two had a chance to swap stories? No? Well, I guess before we get started on today’s business, you had better fill Sam in. Especially considering the two things are connected. Major?”

Adam took the hint. “Well, I gather from the Colonel that you know about Black Ridge?” he said, addressing Sam.

“I passed by that way,” said Sam. “Colonel Sumner said he’d lost contact with you. I assumed the worst but wanted to check it out for myself. When I got there, it looked like demons had worked the place over.”

Adam nodded. His eyes took on a faraway look as he relived the events that took place three years earlier. “You’re not far wrong there. After you left, the demons came in force for a week. Horned demons, Astaroth — you name it. We resisted for the first few days but they wore us down. They’d knock down the walls as soon as we could repair them. Eventually, we just ran out of ammo. Even then, we held them off with spiked clubs and slingshots loaded with raw iron nuggets we found in the caves. But, on the last night, they came at us with more force than ever. Over a dozen Horned demons. You couldn’t see the sky through the wings of the Astaroth and the Lemure covered the killing ground in their thousands. Some of us got taken. A few tried to hold them off while the others made their escape. We unblocked one of the tunnels around the back of the mountain. The demons weren’t smart enough to think of that. Most got out that way.”

“What about you?” asked Sam.

“I stayed behind with the handful of volunteers. We had to buy the others some time.”

Sam guessed as much. Adam wasn’t one to abandon a sinking ship at the first sign of water. He would’ve stayed until the bitter end. “So what happened?”

Adam sighed and rubbed his huge hand through his cropped grey hair. It was a gesture Sam remembered. Reliving the past was clearly painful for Adam. “We were almost completely overrun. There were only three of us left by that stage, the others having managed to get out. Well, I hope they got out at any rate. The walls had fallen and demons were everywhere. I think I was fighting with my hands at that point.” He smiled to himself with the thought. “I’d made some gloves studded with iron spikes. Very effective. I told the other two to run, get away through the tunnels and they did. But it was too late. As they were running, Astaroth swooped out of the sky and snatched them up. Just like that, they were gone and I was alone. I retreated to the mouth of the caves and that’s when another Horned demon charged me. Luckily, its aim was off. Instead of hitting me, it hit the side of the cave entrance. The impact caused the entrance to collapse. The last thing I remember is rocks raining down on me.”

Adam paused again, lost in the moment. Sam shook his head in amazement. Adam was incredible.

“When I regained consciousness,” he continued, “I was alone. The rock fall had completely blocked the entrance so at least I was safe for the moment. Of course, I was pinned under a massive boulder. It took me two days to free myself and open up a hole wide enough for me to squeeze through. I didn’t rest that entire time, scared that the demons would find their way through the back entrance. Obviously, they didn’t bother or I wouldn’t be here now. When I emerged outside, thankfully it was daylight and I was able to get my bearings. I went back inside the cave complex through the back, collected a few supplies and left. The cave was compromised. There was nothing left for me there.”

“What happened to the others?” asked Sam. “Did they get away?”

Adam shook his head. “I don’t know for sure. Some I found later on, but others — many others — must have been taken.”

“And what did you do then?”

“I walked. Sometimes I got lucky and found a vehicle. Once, I even flew but the engine choked after a few miles and almost killed me. Went through Arizona and then into California. Found Colonel Sumner and spent a few months working with him. That’s when I got promoted. It was good there for a while, but then I just had to leave.”

“Why?” asked Sam.

Adam shrugged his massive shoulders. “I felt restless. I knew that Colonel Sumner was doing a heap to help the people of California and especially Los Angeles, but it wasn’t enough for me. I had to do more. The Colonel had got in touch with some other survivors — especially military — in the southern states and so that’s where I headed. Took me the best part of a year but I found myself in Florida.”

Sam was astounded. “But that’s several thousand miles!” he exclaimed.

Adam smiled ruefully. “Don’t my feet know it. Anyway, I heard that one Eglin Air Force Base was still operational and I headed for it. When I got there, I was impressed. They had a full scale operation going on there and were well supplied. They put me to work and I was busy for well over a year, searching for survivors, hunting demons and the like. Then the submarine arrived.”

Sam sat more upright. Had he heard correctly? “What submarine?”

Adam laughed. “I thought that would get your attention. Yeah, it was a submarine alright. Part of the British navy. Unlike most of our navy, it had survived the tsunamis largely because it was in deep water when the Rapture came. Anyway, after the Rapture was over and things seemed to be settling down, the sub returned to England. It seemed things were a little better there than they were here but communications were still a problem. The sub and crew helped out where they could and things even improved for a while, thanks to some inspired leadership from someone in Europe.”

Warning bells were going off in Sam’s head now. Inspired leadership? To him that meant only one thing: The Antichrist had returned. His brother.

Both Colonel Wheat and Adam had been watching Sam carefully for his reaction. He didn’t disappoint them. The shock must have been evident on his face.

“So the Brits filled us in on this inspiring leader,” interrupted Colonel Wheat. “Seems he came out of nowhere about two years ago. Very charismatic and charming. That kind of thing. Wrapped whatever leadership was left in Europe around his little finger. Formed a new Pan-European government and got himself elected as its president. Things were going well. Even the demons didn’t appear as often, almost like this leader somehow had the power to keep them away.”

“What name did he give?” asked Sam.

“Mr. Sazaimes was the only name he went by,” said Adam

Sam almost laughed out loud which would have been highly uncharacteristic of him. He restrained the impulse with an effort. Mr. Sazaimes? So his brother was alive after all? He should’ve known. During their last battle, he had run him through with his sword, a blow that would’ve killed anyone else outright. It appeared, however, that his family was rather difficult to kill. His twin had some cheek though. Hadn’t even bothered to disguise his name very much.

The Colonel was eyeing him sharply. “What’s so funny?”

Sam sobered quickly. “It’s not that funny. It’s just that my brother — the Antichrist — his name is Semiazas. Mr. Sazaimes is simply Semiazas spelled backwards.”

Adam looked grim. “That’s what the people of Europe eventually figured out but by then it was too late.”

“So what happened next?” asked Sam, although he already knew. So far, all of this was part of scripture in the Bible. These events had been mapped out for thousands of years.

“Jerusalem was declared an international city,” continued Adam. “Within it, all religions had equal rights which was hailed as a progressive move. Given that the world was in turmoil, it was a popular decision.”

“Makes sense,” agreed Sam. “It’s all part of my father’s and brother’s plan to bring people gradually onto the side of Satan. Ease them into it, if you like.”

“Do we have any idea of the sort of numbers we are talking about here?” asked Colonel Wheat.

“If you mean how many demon worshippers we are potentially looking at, then according to what my master Hikari taught me, probably a billion people got taken up in the Rapture. That means that there were roughly six billion people left on the planet. That was three and a half years ago though. Judging from what I’ve seen here in the States, lots more have died or been taken since. There’s no way there’ll be anything like those numbers left now. Not only that, but the outbreak of disease seems to be taking its toll.”

According to scripture, in the last half of the Tribulation, disease would become more rife. Sam could attest to that, having seen it first-hand. He’d also seen the base’s hospital. It was almost full, mostly with cases of the bubonic plague which had run riot especially during the last few months. It didn’t surprise Sam given the amount of rats he’d seen. Rats that were often the only source of food the survivors had. Any bodies that Sam had encountered outside the base usually had signs of the disease — swelling, gangrene in the extremities and bleeding from the ears.

When the disease had first emerged in the fourteen century, it had killed an estimated twenty five million people — almost fifty per cent of the European population at the time. They had no cure. Even now, in the modern age, without access to antibiotics, humans were just as susceptible as they had been back then. Probably more so given the weakened state of most survivors. Outside the bastions of survival that were mostly military bases, things were grim for what remained of the human race.

Luckily, the base was well stocked with antibiotics which easily countered the disease. Those supplies were not limitless, but so far the base was managing with the influx of survivors. Probably about half of the survivors he’d just brought in had signs of the disease. Every single new arrival was checked for the disease, which thankfully, seemed to be keeping it in check.

Adam was nodding. “My intel is about two months old now but I heard the same report from Europe. Roughly ten percent of the population was taken in the Rapture. Then, lots more either died from disease or starvation or got taken by demons. Then things seemed to get better with this Mr. Sazaimes. He even let the Jews demolish a mosque and rebuild their temple on the same spot at Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. That’s when it all gets a bit odd. It seems the Jews then revived their ancient practice of animal sacrifice.”

“This is all in the Bible,” said Sam. “I may not be able to touch one, but I’ve still read it many times. It’s all part of the final terms of the Covenant.”

“News to me,” said the Colonel. “Probably why I didn’t get taken in the Rapture. Never read it.”

“Maybe you should,” said Adam. “I have. Look on it as forward planning.”

“Perhaps,” said Colonel Wheat, plainly not convinced. “But old habits die hard. Tell Sam what happened next.”

“Then,” continued Adam, “just when everyone thought that he was the best thing since sliced bread, he goes and invades Israel from the north. Of course, Israel wasn’t expecting this and his forces completely overran them. He had help from demons though, revealing his hand for the first time.”

Sam winced. He knew what was coming next: what the Antichrist had tried to do years ago in LA/Vegas but failed. His timing, predicted by the Bible, had been all wrong in that instance.

“He then made Jerusalem his world capital and outlawed all religions other than those worshipping himself or his image,” Adam was saying. “He moved the seat of his power into the Jewish Temple, called himself God and killed or sacrificed anyone who said otherwise.”

“The Abomination of Desolation,” interrupted Sam. That was all in the scriptures too.

“Indeed,” said Adam. “That was when all his followers began to emerge, recognized by the mark of the beast tattooed on their wrists. You both know what I’m talking about.”

“Yeah,” said Sam. “I saw them in L. A and they’re starting to crop up in other places too. The nest I found up north all had the mark.”

“It seems,” mused the Colonel, “that all those who bear the mark are able to carry on their lives unmolested by demons. In fact, we’ve heard rumors that the mark allows them to trade amongst themselves.”

“You heard right,” said Sam. “They had the full system operating in L.A.”

“Bear with me, gentlemen. Almost finished,” said Adam. “After the

… Abomination and the mark of the beast revelation, the Jews fled Jerusalem. Israel as a force to be reckoned with or an ally is no more. If we had hoped for some help from that quarter, we’re sorely mistaken.”

“And how long ago did this happen again?” asked Sam. If this event followed what was foretold in the Bible, it was meant to have been half-way through the Tribulation. Exactly three and a half years.

“The sub appeared roughly two months ago. I left Florida about a month ago to spread the warning.”

“Sam, you know more about this biblical stuff than any of us,” said Colonel Wheat. “What are your thoughts? What can we expect now?”

Sam collected his thoughts that were currently racing with the implications of all that he had heard. Even though he expected this news, it still came as a shock. “The Abomination marks the beginning of the end. The beginning of God’s final judgments. We are in the end times now. The end of this world. You thought things were bad now. They’re going to get a whole lot worse. More natural disasters, more disease, more famine — you name it.”

“How long have we got?” asked Colonel Wheat.

“We’ve got just under three and a half years until the final judgment. In that time, probably eighty per cent of what’s left of the world’s population will perish. The rest will have to fend off demons.”

“Actually,” said Adam, “we’ve got less time than that.”

In a synchronized move, both the Colonel and Sam snapped their heads Adam’s direction.

“What do you mean?” demanded the Colonel.

“I’m sorry, Colonel,” said Adam, sounding like he genuinely was. “But I wanted to wait until Sam was here so I could tell you both at the same time. Foolish, I know, but I figured another few days wouldn’t matter. I had to deliver the message in person, too — communications being as bad as they are these days.” He paused and took a long breath. “The British submarine crew gave us other news too. They only just escaped with their lives but before they did, they witnessed a massive ship-building effort along the west coast of Europe. The Antichrist is also collecting whatever armed vessels he can find. It’s an invasion fleet.”

Sam cursed himself under his breath. He should have known this would happen. The last time the Antichrist had invaded the U. S, he had been unprepared, ignoring biblical prophecy in his arrogance and youth. This time, he would get it right. Do it by the book.

Adam met both men’s gazes. “It seems the Antichrist is planning on invading the U. S again, this time with more conventional armed forces as well as his demonic army. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’ve tried to visit every active base or settlement left on the East coast. I’ve come to warn you.”

“How long?” asked Colonel Wheat, his voice flat and emotionless.

“We can’t be exactly sure. The ships needed to be finished, armed and crewed. Fueled. Travel time. Take away the time I spent getting here…”

“How long!” demanded the Colonel.

“Six weeks. No more.”

The Colonel looked down at his desk for a moment and then began rapidly scribbling. From where Sam was sitting, they looked like numbers. He was calculating. “Do you know where they’re going to hit us? Don’t you dare say the Eastern seaboard either,” he growled.

“Once again, our British Intelligence couldn’t be one hundred percent sure, but it looks like they’ll be heading for New York. That’s their most likely landing.”

The Colonel screwed up the piece of paper he was writing on and started again on another piece. Sam ignored him, lost in his own thoughts. His mind was reeling. Six weeks. New York. An invasion fleet. His brother. So much to think about. He wondered how Grace would take the news given her fragile state.

He tried not to think about her. And yet, even though the present demanded his attention, the past intruded once again.

Chapter Fourteen

The Road

“ And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

1 Corinthians 13:13

I t was at times like this, thought Sam, that he could’ve used a vehicle. Or the knowledge of how to drive one for that matter. Despite his best intentions and a surfeit of opportunities, he’d never taught himself.

It was getting dark and he was in the middle of nowhere. To be precise, he was somewhere in Ohio, heading East between Columbus and Zanesville. Probably not far from Wheeling but he couldn’t be sure. According to his map, he’d know it because he’d have to cross the West Virginia River and that river, pre-Rapture, was hard to miss. On his map it certainly looked big enough.

He needed somewhere to hole up for the night. Not that he was terribly concerned about demons — his glamor ability cloaked him fairly effectively. It was just that he wanted to avoid trouble in general and not draw attention to himself. If an invasion fleet was on its way, it would be best if they didn’t know he was travelling in the same direction. Besides, if he planned to keep this pace up, even he’d have to rest. That called for meditation and when meditating, he sometimes got distracted, letting his glamor slip. It would be best if he had somewhere safer than just open interstate.

He’d set out in the early hours of the previous day. By his calculations, it was just over a hundred miles to Wheeling so he’d made good progress. He always did when he travelled by himself, jogging along at a steady pace, pretending like it was the old days. Before the Rapture. Before everything changed.

It was strangely liberating to be alone again. Lately, he’d had his fill of human contact. He’d go for weeks without any and get a craving for companionship but as soon as he’d had some, he needed to get away. He knew this was anti-social but didn’t really care. It was not like he meant anything to anyone… but then he berated himself for being too dramatic. Adam cared about him. And Hikari and Aimi of course. Grace, on the other hand, he was no longer sure of. He wondered if she’d come around eventually.

He was glad he’d insisted on heading off as soon as possible. Adam had wanted him to wait while the rest of the force he was assembling prepared itself but the Colonel had agreed with Sam. Thankfully. If they had both been against him, he would’ve struggled to get out of the camp without permission. As it was, it had still taken him three days to prep and finally get out of the base.

The Colonel, more than Adam, accepted how effective Sam could be by himself. That was why he was being sent into New York before the defensive force. Sure, Colonel Wheat had also sent demolition squads ahead too but theirs was an altogether different mission. The demo squads were to take out, destroy and ruin whatever church they could find in the New York area, especially in and around Manhattan given that was where the forces of the Antichrist were most likely to invade and establish a foothold on American soil. Without churches, the demonic forces couldn’t transport themselves instantaneously to the area. Instead, they’d have to travel in a somewhat normal sense. This, presumably, included Sam’s brother himself.

Adam had asked him about this earlier. They were making an awful assumption that Semiazas possessed very similar powers to Sam. But what if his powers were different or greater than Sam’s? What if he was able to transfer to Earth without using a church? Sam had to admit they were good, relevant questions but the bottom line was that he didn’t know the answers. They would, however, find out in short order.

Still, by destroying the churches, it would hopefully even up the odds. Then the Antichrist would have to rely on his conventional forces who fought in a way that any man could cope with. That was the demo squads’ job.

Sam’s was altogether different. He would use his ability in sensing minds to gather a resistance force in New York. He would find any human survivors and direct them to where they could gather supplies and weapons. Of course, if they were demon worshippers…

Also, Colonel Wheat wanted some forewarning about demon strength in the area. What about demons already in New York? Most, Sam knew, travelled back to Hell during the day, but some who had darkened places of refuge didn’t bother. What about if the church demo squads failed or missed some? Sam would be able to warn the Colonel in time.

Hopefully.

So, here he was. Alone again. He’d contemplated asking Grace to join him but she was just too unpleasant as company these days. Just thinking that made him smile. The thought that she was more unpleasant than him was almost funny. But it was true. Even though she’d come a long way from the teary girl he once knew, she would still have slowed him down.

Besides which, he hadn’t been able to find her. He’d gone to the barracks that they shared but she wasn’t around and he didn’t have time to look for her. It was a shame. He’d wanted to say goodbye. This mission was described by Colonel Wheat as ‘high risk.’ Sam didn’t know whether he’d be coming back or not. They might not see each other again, and it saddened Sam to think that their last words had not been pleasant ones.

He jogged on, increasing his pace along the interstate, enjoying the challenge of weaving in and out amongst the empty cars. So preoccupied was he with his game that he almost missed it in the gloom — a motel, just off the road. He swerved without breaking stride, examining it with his senses as he got closer. He slowed to a walk, just in case he missed something with his hearing. Nothing. The place was completely empty. If someone or thing had been here, it was long ago.

He tried some doors. Several of the rooms were locked and he didn’t want to advertise his presence by smashing them open. Perhaps he was being overly cautious, but he didn’t want to use his telekinesis either. It was a power to be used as a last resort, not like a pocket knife, to be pulled out at every convenient opportunity. He thought like a normal person. Where would the keys be? He’d only been in one other motel in his life and that one had been unlocked. And then he had it. The office. He looked around. Several doors down, a filthy sign was swinging back and forth in the warm breeze. He wasn’t sure but he thought some of the letters potentially spelt ‘office’.

He jogged towards the sign, conscious that he didn’t have very long. There was a church nearby — he could sense it — which meant that demons wouldn’t be far away. His guess had been a good one. It was the office. Behind the counter he found a row of hooks. Three of them still had keys on them. He grabbed all of them and walked back along the line of doors, trying any that were locked with all three keys. Finally, one of them worked.

Not willing to throw caution to the wind just yet, he checked out the room carefully, including the bathroom. Caution was one of the reasons he was still alive. The one time he forgot it, it would kill him. The room was empty and surprisingly, rather clean. Sam suspected that it hadn’t been opened since the Rapture. There was a light film of ash and dust on the bedspread but he shook that outside first, making it relatively dust-free.

He stood outside the door for a few moments, relishing the gathering darkness. The dark was still his time. It still filled him with a sense of power. Under other circumstances, he’d be out in it, but he had priorities. A job to do. He couldn’t shirk his responsibilities. In the distance, he heard a howl. Lemures. They were out, and not too far away either.

With a sigh, he returned to the room and locked the door, ensuring the curtains were pulled so that no prying eyes could see inside. It was almost pitch black. Perfect. He sat on the bed and settled himself into lotus position, mentally preparing himself for a good three hours of intense meditation.

A noise roused him out of his trance some time later. He checked his internal clock. It had only been just over an hour. He scanned around with his senses. Nothing… but something felt amiss. Something was different and he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. And then he noticed it — a slight glow from behind him.

He rolled and drew both swords in one graceful movement, landing in a crouched position facing the shimmer of light. What he saw made his heart lurch and then almost burst. Unnoticed, his swords clattered onto the carpet, swords that usually no man could knock from his grasp. But this was no man and this certainly was no combat situation. It was something he wasn’t and couldn’t prepare himself for. Something that he’d prayed for during the last three and a half long, long years.

“Hello, Sunshine.”

Sam didn’t know what to say. His tongue felt thick and swollen in his dry mouth. He felt dizzy. He didn’t know what to do, how to act. It had been so long. And then, his body started moving of its own accord as if it, and not his brain, knew what to do. He walked towards her and into her welcoming arms. Into the arms of the only woman he’d ever loved. The woman he’d grown up with, spent his childhood with, and whom he’d thought lost to him forever when she ascended to heaven.

Aimi.

Chapter Fifteen

Aimi

“ I call'd the devil, and he came, And with wonder his form did I closely scan; He is not ugly, and is not lame, But really a handsome and charming man. A man in the prime of life is the devil, Obliging, a man of the world, and civil; A diplomatist too, well skill'd in debate, He talks quite glibly of church and state.”

Heinrich Heine, Pictures of Travels — The Return Home (no. 37)

“ Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" Genesis 3:1

H e lost himself in the embrace for what seemed like hours, hoping and praying that she wasn’t just a figment of his imagination. He had to stop himself from actually pinching his arm to confirm that she was real.

Aimi. Here. With him.

She squeezed him back just as tightly, her tiny frame stronger than he remembered. She pulled her head back slightly and their lips found each other. Their first kiss in years. At first he felt clumsy and awkward. Sam had only ever kissed one girl — the very same girl who was locked against him now. He wasn’t exactly well-versed in the passionate arts. He began to panic, worrying that he was doing something wrong, that she would leave him again because of his inadequacy.

He sensed humor emanating from her mind and tried to pull back, suddenly angry and embarrassed. She was laughing at him — at his kissing technique. After all this time, he’d ruined everything. But she didn’t release him and his resistance and anger was only half-hearted. He really did want to kiss her and he realized that she was only laughing because he was so anxious.

Just relax, Sunshine. Everything is fine. I’ve missed you so much.

Sam pulled back, this time too strong for her, and looked at her in amazement. Her beautiful, gentle brown eyes stared back at him, eyes that he remembered and yet were somehow different. He hadn’t been wrong. He’d definitely heard her voice inside his mind.

Yes, you did.

He heard her again and checked her face. She was smiling at him. He had so many questions that his mind was almost overwhelmed. But they could wait. All he wanted to do right now was kiss her. Kiss her and never stop.

He fell back into her embrace and hugged her fiercely to him as their lips met again, this time with more passion. He let go of his inner turmoil, self-doubts and just went with the feel of Aimi’s mouth on his. Maybe his kisses were clumsy but he no longer cared. He just wanted to be with her again. He sensed her becoming lost in the passionate moment too, and he moved his arms from her waist, further up her back. And then his roving hand found something unexpected. He stopped suddenly, frozen in shock for the second time in minutes.

He couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed earlier but his attention had been captivated by her face and all the features he knew and remembered. His conscious mind had simply ignored the fact that she was slightly illuminated in the darkness. He’d failed to notice the silver armor and the sword belted at her waist. And, of course, he hadn’t been able to see the wings arching over her back — feathery wings, whiter than anything he’d ever seen before.

He staggered back from her, uncertain and confused, and crouched on the carpet, panting like he’d just run several miles. “What…” he managed to croak.

She stood before him, radiant and beautiful, so beautiful it made his heart ache. He’d never seen her look so stunning before. She’d been sixteen when the Rapture had taken her and didn’t look like she’d aged a day. He guessed people didn’t really age in Heaven. And not only that. She was happy. Content. Just looking at her made him want to cry with happiness. Not that he could, but he needed to vent his feelings and confusion somehow.

Aimi smiled at him reassuringly. She hadn’t moved from where she stood beside the bed. This time, when she spoke, the words came from her mouth.

“I know this is hard to understand, Sam, but I’ll explain everything. It’s going to be ok.” She beamed at him again, erasing some of his doubts, easing the swirling sense of panic fluttering in his breast. As she sat down on the side of the bed she turned her sideways to him, revealing the true extent of her wings. She patted the place next to her. “Come and sit with me.”

Without knowing that he was moving, he was suddenly next to her. Her hand was in his and the feeling brought back a rush of warm memories. She used to do this when they were younger. Almost without him being aware, her hand would find its way into his. The feeling was almost as satisfying as the kiss they’d just shared.

They faced each other in silence, faces only inches apart, the only light coming from the faint glow of her body.

“I… I thought I’d never see you again…” he began.

Aimi put one delicate finger on his lips to silence him. “Hush. There are things that need to be said and little time to say them. As usual.” She paused for breath, her eyes locked to his. He finally realized what was different with her eyes. They had silver flecks in them, flecks that he’d never noticed before.

She smiled in a disarming fashion. “This should be fairly obvious to you — well, to anyone really — but I’m no longer what you might call human. Sam. My Sunshine. I’m an angel.”

Sam knew it. Of course she was. How could she not be? The questions swirling around his head were not what but how.

She nodded as if hearing his thoughts, which apparently she could. “I was chosen,” she said. “Few are. In fact, none have been for thousands of years. Gabriel said that the war on Hell has taken its toll on the Angelic ranks though. They needed more.”

“Why you?” Sam managed to ask.

“Because, apparently, I’m pure.” She rolled her eyes theatrically. “A pure soul. Uncontaminated by greed, hatred and other undesirable human traits. I tried to argue but they said that’s what someone who was pure would do. There was no reasoning with them. They were adamant, and what am I in the face of angelic determination? I relented, of course — with one condition.”

“What was that?” Sam asked, knowing in his heart what the answer would be.

She smiled at him, the movement sending streaking arcs of lightning through his cerebral cortex, directly wired to the pleasure centers in his brain. “That I’d get to visit you from time to time, of course. Silly.”

Sam didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. From time to time? What on Heaven and Earth did that mean? Would he only get to see her occasionally, when the hierarchy that existed in Heaven determined her every movement? He suppressed his frustration, feeling suddenly ungrateful and unworthy. What was he complaining about? He had her here and now, with him. How shallow and selfish must he appear? As Aimi seemed to have the same basic mind reading skill that he had, he tried desperately to shield his mind, like he would from another demon.

And at that moment, he determined that he would change, make Aimi proud of him. No longer would he be subject to his baser temperament. He could control it. He would control it. He shouldn’t have to shield his mind from her. She was part of who he was. She had made him the man he was today.

He let go of the shield around his mind and relaxed, letting Aimi see the confusion and frustration ebb away. He could see that she sensed it, too, smiling at him again.

“How often?” he asked, seeking to keep the desperation out of his voice.

She tilted her head, a delicate gesture he remembered fondly. “When my duties allow.”

“What duties?” He was intrigued.

“All angels have duties. Some are assigned to watch over certain individuals. Guardian angels, if you will.”

“Are you one of those?” he asked eagerly. “If you are, you could get assigned to me. Then…”

Aimi held up a hand to stop the torrent of excited words pouring from his mouth. “No, Sam. I know. It’s what I wanted too. What I asked for, in fact. I was refused. Guardian angels are often much more senior than I. I’m far too junior and inexperienced for such a responsibility. Besides, you already have a Guardian Angel. Of sorts.”

Sam breathed out heavily, determined to keep his promise and control his frustration. “You’re talking about Gabriel.”

“Yes. I’ve been told that Gabriel is much too busy to act as a Guardian angel for anyone, but she made an exception for you. She likes to keep an eye on you.” She paused again and met his eye once more. Sam could detect no emotion from her at all. Was she jealous? Of him and Gabriel? Impossible! Not Aimi. Not his Aimi who was the nicest person he’d ever met in his life. No wonder she’d been chosen as an angel. If she wasn’t worthy, then no human was!

“It’s not like I see her very often. In fact, I haven’t seen her for years.”

It was true. The last time they’d had any contact with her was just before he ventured into Hell to rescue Grace. She wasn’t envious, though. As she listened, Aimi’s mind opened to him like a flower in the sun. The only emotion Sam could perceive was love. Love for him.

“So what is your role, then?” he asked.

“I act as a messenger. Sometimes, I have to pass on messages between the Grigori and Heaven; occasionally between Heaven and Hell but that doesn’t happen very often. I’m also assigned to report on certain events. There’s more — lots more — going on than you can possibly imagine.”

Sam smiled crookedly at her, feeling a little smug. “Oh, I don’t know. I think I’m fairly well informed at the moment. I know for instance that the Antichrist and his forces are planning an invasion of the U.S.”

“Yes.” Aimi nodded slowly. “We were hoping that this information had filtered through. But there’s more that I can’t tell you.”

“Rules?” asked Sam.

“Rules,” she agreed, smiling wryly at him.

They sat in comfortable silence for a moment. “So, when did you actually become all angelic and everything?” he said, trying to keep the conversation light. He really wanted to kiss her again.

“I don’t really know. Time doesn’t really seem to well, pass in Heaven. There just doesn’t seem to be any concept of it.”

“Then how do you keep track of what’s going on in the real world?”

“I must admit, it’s difficult. Heaven is such a blissful place that you really don’t want to be reminded on what your life was back on Earth.” She stopped when she saw his face fall, and squeezed his hand tightly in reassurance. “No, I don’t mean that I don’t miss you. It’s just that it’s hard to look at all the pain and suffering going on in the world right now when you’re surrounded by perfection. Besides, even if I wanted to see what was going on, it’s really difficult.”

This was what Sam really wanted to know. In the time since he’d been left alone, had she been watching him? With him in some way? He’d always had this thought in the back of his mind as his comfort blanket. No matter how hard things got, it always made him feel slightly better knowing that Aimi might be watching him.

“Difficult?” he asked. “Difficult how?”

She frowned. “It’s hard to explain. It’s like there is a heavy mist between Heaven and Earth. And it’s not just with your eyes. It’s in your head, too. It’s hard to focus on the Earth. You only catch glimpses from time to time, and that’s only when you really focus.”

“Have you seen me?” he asked.

“Of course,” she said, smiling. “Only you. There’s no one else that I wanted to see. But it was hard. I tried to find you sometimes but I couldn’t. It was as if you’d disappeared or something.”

Sam had wondered whether his glamor concealed him from angels as well as demons. Although Aimi hadn’t been an angel at the time, it was clear that spirits in Heaven had limits.

“I can conceal myself from demons,” he said. “That might explain it.”

Aimi said, “I saw Gabriel on a few occasions. Once she even asked if I could find you, almost as if she couldn’t. Or maybe it was a test to see if I was fit to be an angel. Who knows?”

“And what about Hikari?” he asked. He felt guilty not asking about his Sensei and father figure sooner, but there were just so many questions he needed answered.

“He’s so happy.” Aimi smiled brightly. “At peace, like everyone in Heaven. I see him but not as often as I’d like now that I have duties. He watches over you, too, when he can. I know he misses you.”

Sam’s heart surged with pleasure. He felt like crying again. This moment would be even more perfect if Hikari had been there to share it with them. “And what did you see, when you did find me?” he said eventually.

Aimi’s face twisted in consternation. It hurt him to see such an expression on her beautiful face. “Pain, mostly. I hated to see you like that. I wanted to see you but every time I did, I’d only find you suffering. My heart ached for you at times like that and I would have given anything to be with you, but as soon as the mist gathered again, I’d forget. Heaven has that effect. Almost as if they don’t want you to remember how painful your physical existence was. I’d see you sometimes when you fought; the conflict that your heart and mind was going through, the loneliness and anger you felt…”

Tears were rolling down her cheeks. He wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her even closer. He couldn’t bear the thought of her being in anguish.

“I didn’t think angels could cry,” he said playfully, trying to change the mood.

She laughed and wiped away the tears.

“So, you’re allowed to be here. Now?”

“Yes, of course.” Her eyes darted to the right. He knew her so well he didn’t have to read her mind. She wasn’t being honest.

“Aren’t angels meant to always tell the truth?” he asked.

She slapped him lightly on the arm. “It’s only a tiny white lie. I had to deliver a message and you were nearby so I thought, why not?” She laughed happily. “Besides, I’m not all angel. My human side is still here.”

“Whereabouts?”

“Here,” she said, pointing at her head and then her heart.

“And where else?”

Slowly, she raised her fingers to her lips, never once losing eye contact with him. She smiled slyly. Sam had never experienced such a delightful rush of emotion.

They kissed again and he savored the salty taste of her tears in his mouth. They were his. The tears were for him. The kiss went on and on and gradually but inevitably turned into something else. Something wonderful.

He knew he was dreaming. He had to be although he hadn’t dreamt in years. You had to be asleep to dream and he really couldn’t risk it. Meditation had served him in its stead.

Anyway, dreams were the lovely happy visions that Aimi talked about. Since he was a small boy, all he’d ever had was nightmares. There was nothing lovely or happy about what he saw when he was asleep: flames, pain, suffering; dark voices whispering to him, urging him to release the beast within him. He’d always wake from them in a terrified sweat, screaming, his heart racing, the fear only lessened with the passage of time, and comfort from Aimi and Hikari.

This time was different though. There were no flames or pain — only an empty, featureless plain that stretched on forever. Above him, dark angry clouds surged. The ground beneath him was cracked and warped, without color.

He quelled the slight note of panic he felt. Dreams for him could be dangerous. His father lurked in his dreams and as he well knew, his father could be persuasive. He wasn’t known as the Father of Lies or nothing. That was why, when with trusted companions, he slept in a pentacle. Only then, safe in the magical symbol, warded against demons, would he have dreamless, peaceful sleep.

But he wasn’t in a pentacle, of course. A part of his mind knew that his body was in a bed in a deserted motel somewhere in Ohio. With Aimi asleep by his side.

He cursed his foolishness. He shouldn’t have been so stupid but he hadn’t been thinking. His mind was filled with thoughts of Aimi and what they’d shared together. Knowing that she was sleeping next to him. He felt so at peace, so happy. It just felt natural and right — so natural and right that he’d just fallen asleep. It was the first time he’d done that in years. It was only now he realized his error.

He tried to force himself out of the dream, back into reality but it felt like someone or something was blocking him. He willed with every ounce of his energy to wake up. To no avail. The dream landscape remained all too real. He wondered what was happening back at the motel — whether Aimi was alright. He knew she was an angel now and could probably defend herself more than adequately against demons, but it didn’t stop him fretting. The thought that she’d been highly trained with a sword by the same master that had trained him gave him some comfort. Besides, she had wings, didn’t she? As a last resort, she could always fly away.

Doubts still niggled away, though. Demons lurked around that motel too, in some numbers. He wondered what would happen to his body if demons discovered it unguarded. Finally, he let it go. It wasn’t like he could do anything about it.

Resigned, he tried to make the best of a bad situation. He never knew — he might gain something out of this. Perhaps gain some knowledge he could use against his brother. Or father. He tried not to think about either of them. Thoughts were powerful amongst demons. Just thinking about his father sometimes had the power to summon him.

He did a quick inventory. In the dreams he had experienced before, he’d always been equipped like he was normally in real life. As a boy, he’d been armed with Sinai — his bamboo practice swords. He’d learnt with some pain and terror that bamboo had no effect on the demons sent to torment him in his dreams.

This time was different. He was armed with his real swords. He was wearing his normal items of clothing and boots. Even his pack was strapped on in its accustomed position. It was vaguely reassuring.

In the distance, something appeared. Sam focused his vision, squinting, but whatever it was seemed to resist scrutiny. With a shrug, he decided to walk towards it. It was not like he had anything better to do.

He walked swiftly. When whatever it was in the distance didn’t appear to be getting any closer, he broke into a trot. The object stayed the same distance away. Frustrated, he ran faster and faster until he was sprinting. The object stubbornly resisted his attempts at a meeting.

He stopped suddenly and thought it through. This was a dream. It wasn’t reality. Physics operated differently in dreams. He focused his mind, willing himself to get nearer to this… thing. To his surprise, it worked. He wasn’t moving, but the distance between them seemed to shrink. It got closer and closer and then, finally, he could make out what it was.

A chair. In that chair sat a man. It wasn’t until he was six feet away that he knew without doubt who that man was. His father. Satan himself.

His father was dressed as he often was when they saw each other — calmly crossed-legged in a debonair pin-striped suit. His dark hair was slicked back over his extremely handsome pale features. In fact, if Sam hadn’t known better, he wouldn’t have guessed the figure was a demon at all. He supposed that was the whole point. How else was he meant to worm his way into the hearts and minds of men when he looked like a devil?

“Ah. My little horn. So good of you to join me. I wondered how long it would take you.”

Sam hated the way his father was so smug, so knowing. In fact, he hated everything about him.

“What do you want, Abaddon?” he asked, not bothering to mask his feelings. His father knew what was in his heart in any case.

His father adopted a mock affronted expression. “Is that any way to talk to your father? And I would prefer it if you did call me ‘Father’, you know. Although the old names have a certain ring to them, I don’t think there’s any call for formalities between us. You are still my son, after all. ” He smiled at Sam, all charm and suaveness. Even Sam, who knew his tricks only too well, had to remind himself who this creature was. It was all for show. He knew what dwelt under the mask of sophistication that his father liked to wear. Everything about him was a lie. So pretentious.

“Spare me,” said Sam, gritting his teeth. “Let me out of here. I need to return.”

His father raised his eyebrows. “Return, do you? Who to, I wonder? Have some pressing business to attend to, do you? A hot date is it, Samael?” He smirked and it took every ounce of willpower that Sam possessed not to react with violence.

“I have things to do, as you well know,” he said, keeping a reign on his emotions. “Haven’t you got better things to do than talk to me? Why not talk to my brother? Surely he’s better company. He may not be a better swordsman than me, but you two have more in common.”

Satan’s face lost some of its calm. Sam could’ve sworn he saw the corner of his mouth twitch. It was a bit of a sore point, that. The last time Sam and his twin brother had met, Sam had defeated him in single combat. Not only that, but he had then refused his father’s offer to take his place at his side, much to the anguish of his mortally wounded brother. Well, he thought his brother had been mortally wounded. He had run him through after all. Seemed he’d got that wrong.

“Your brother is somewhat busy at present,” was Satan’s tart response.

It was Sam’s turn to smirk. “Yes, I know. Preparing the invasion fleet in Europe.”

Satan looked at him sharply for a moment, silently evaluating his wayward son. “You seem remarkably well informed.” Then he shrugged, seemingly dismissing the matter as unimportant. “No matter. You would have found out eventually anyway.”

“I’ll ask you again, Father. Why am I here?”

“Oh, I like that,” said Satan with a sardonic smile. He clapped a couple of times, the noise refusing to echo around the odd landscape. “Cutting to the chase, are we? Refusing to get sidetracked. Very good. Hikari did train you well, didn’t he?” Suddenly, his father’s face lost all traces of humor. “They’re playing with you, you know.”

“Who are?” asked Sam tiredly.

Satan raised his eyes upward. “You know. The high and mighties, sitting on their golden thrones. They’re playing games with you — with your little girlfriend. Do you think it was just a random request they granted her? To see you again? Or course not. They orchestrated the whole thing. The only reason they made her an angel was so that she could have access to you.”

“And why would they play games with me?” Sam asked suspiciously. “That’s more your style.”

Satan nodded. “Yes, of course it is, but the stakes are so very, very high at the moment. I think Gabriel and her friends are getting a little desperate.”

“So what’s Aimi got to do with all this?”

“They’re keeping you on-side,” Satan said, steepling his fingers thoughtfully. “Dangling an incentive, if you like. For you to remain on their side. They know how much Aimi means to you. If it means you will remain their tool on the Earth, they will happily hand her over to you. They just didn’t want to make it too obvious, that’s all.”

“You’re speaking in riddles, Father, as usual.” Sam, despite his promise to remain calm, was starting to lose it. He knew he couldn’t do that though. He was certainly no match for his father.

Satan looked his son in the eye, his expression blank. “They know your loyalties are wavering. They know that deep down, you want to be with your family. With me.”

“You’re delusional. I’ll never join you!” Sam spat. “You know that. Especially after what you did to my mother. I will never, never join you. This was decided when my brother and I fought.”

“Ah,” said Satan, “but I told you it wasn’t over. And it never will be. You will always be my son, regardless of what you think or feel. And don’t for a second think that the future is written in stone. That litany of lies — I think you call it the Bible — is believed to contain only the truth. And the future. It contains neither. Who do you think wrote it? It certainly wasn’t me. Would they really say there was any doubt in there? History, as they say, is written by the victors and for such a long time, those do-gooders had their way. But now it’s my time, time for me to write the future. Do you really think everything is going to play out just the way it says it will in the good book? That your Lord, the son of God, is going to come back at the head of an army in a few years and banish me to a bottomless pit for a thousand years? Given that I know that’s supposed to happen, don’t you think I would’ve made plans to counter this?”

Sam frowned, doubts starting to intrude despite knowing that this was his father’s intention. Could the Bible be interpreted as fiction, written by the victors? Never for one moment had he ever thought it was anything but the truth. But something Satan had said was niggling at him. Satan knew what was predicted. Why would he ever allow himself to be subjected to that? Why would any sane person allow themselves to be chained at the bottomless pit for a thousand years?

Sam had his answer. Sort of. Satan was neither a person nor sane. But still… the thought wouldn’t go away and Sam hated himself for allowing his father to sow the seeds of doubts within his mind. That was exactly the way his father liked to operate and Sam had fallen into his trap like a naive boy.

“You’re lying. You always lie.” Sam was almost shouting now but he could hear the questions behind the anger in his voice. His father, no doubt, could hear the same thing.

Infuriatingly, Satan simply cocked an eyebrow. “Believe what you will, my boy. All will be revealed soon enough. I like surprises. Don’t you?”

Sam said nothing, not trusting himself to speak. He glared at his father, both hands twitching to touch his swords. Satan gave no indication he noticed.

“Speaking of surprises,” he went on conversationally, “I’ve got one planned for you. When you get back, I mean. Not that you may notice straight away but it will become apparent eventually. Oh. I forgot to mention that your girlfriend won’t be there when you get back either.”

Sam was suddenly moving, both swords in his hands without thought, charging towards the hated figure in the chair, intent on ending him. His last image was his father’s face, a snide look on his face. Just before his swords could reach him, Satan disappeared, Sam’s blades passing harmlessly through empty air a fraction of a second too late.

Chapter Sixteen

The Devil’s Hand

“ You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons.”

1 Corinthians 10:21

Sam had one moment of confusion in which to realize that he’d missed killing his father when he was suddenly back in the motel, his eyes wide, sprawled on his back. He sat up quickly. His father hadn’t been bluffing: Aimi was gone. He could still see the imprint her body had made in the bed. He touched the spot. It was still warm. Aimi had only just left, either of her own accord, or taken by force. He didn’t imagine it would be the latter, as Aimi had been a force to contend with even before she was an angel. Now… well, he pitied the demon that crossed her path. He got up off the bed and it was only then that he noticed it, sitting on the bedside table.

A strawberry.

It was a message. A message left just for him. There were probably no strawberries left growing on Earth now. Only an angel could presumably conjure a strawberry out of thin air. Aimi was telling him she was alright. Strawberries had been what she used to eat when they trained together in Hikari’s garden. Good times. Safe times.

He breathed a sigh of relief. He’d only just exhaled when the door to the motel was hit by something exceedingly heavy and powerful, and it exploded in a hail of wooden splinters. Sam ducked instinctively, even though he knew the shards couldn’t harm him, and grabbed his swords from where they rested next to the bed.

Silhouetted against the dark sky was an even darker figure, man-sized or perhaps slightly larger — in Sam’s confusion, it was hard to tell. It seemed to be gathering the darkness around it. Sam’s night vision was usually exceptional but for some reason, he couldn’t get a clear look at what this was. Perhaps his encounter with his father had fogged his mind, or maybe it was something else. Regardless, he hadn’t sensed this creature in front of him until now. It was almost as if it were employing a similar technique to his glamor.

His mind started to clear, focusing into battle readiness. The thing — for that’s what it was; it certainly wasn’t human — took a step into the room. As he focused, details emerged, like his mind had parted a curtain previously closed to him.

He recognized it then. Well, maybe not exactly what it was but he had a fairly good idea. It was a Cambion, like the half-human, half-Lemure he’d encountered earlier. But different. This creature was half-human alright, but it certainly wasn’t half-Lemure.

Much like Sam, it looked almost completely human. He. It was definitely male, albeit slightly larger than normal. He appeared slightly bigger than Sam — maybe just a few inches, but Sam knew that that extra reach would count when they crossed blades. Long limbs were connected to a powerful torso that tapered into a narrow waist, all completely encased in black armor. In fact, if it wasn’t for the small black wings (which appeared far too small to be functional) and the horns jutting from its head, it would have passed for human — once again, much like Sam. He knew which demon had mated with a human then. It had to be the spawn of some Prince or Princess. Definitely some form of demon royalty at any rate and, by definition, something to be wary of. This creature would not be as easily overcome as some half-Lemure hybrid.

And overcome it must be. Sam had no option. The only door out of the place was the one the Cambion had come through, and the only window was next to the creature. Basically, the only way out was through it. Fight it was. There was no mistaking the intent of the creature as it stalked towards him on long legs, flicking a long dark strand of hair out of it face and drawing a slim black blade as it moved.

Sam didn’t have time for this. He wanted to end this quickly before more demons were alerted by the noise. He strongly suspected his father had sent this demon after him. After all, his glamor was still in place. How else would it have found him?

He drew both swords and struck out using the momentum from the draw, so fluid and blindingly fast it appeared to be only one motion. As he attacked, the words of Miyamoto Musashi came to him: when the enemy attacks and you also decide to attack, hit with your body, and hit with your spirit, and hit from the Void with your hands, accelerating strongly.

In his arrogance, he assumed that would be the end of it. He could imagine the creature may be able to parry one sword, but two? To his surprise, he found himself fighting for his life. The Cambion parried both blades with casual ease. The riposte almost took out Sam’s eye, the tip of the creature’s sword missing by the barest measure. He smelled iron.

The Cambion came for him again. Sam darted to the side, desperately bringing his Katana down and across to block the vicious swing. Amazingly, he was too slow, unprepared and sluggish. Not by much but it was enough. His opponent’s blade snuck through his defense and tagged him neatly on the chest, slicing straight through his sweatshirt and into the fragile flesh beneath. The blade bit. It was shallow but stung more than it should have. Instinctively, Sam knew that this blade was much like the one possessed by his brother, probably not as powerful but still able to draw the life-force out of whomever it cut.

Sam jumped back, reassessing the situation. The Cambion paused for a moment and smiled knowingly. Sam didn’t bother returning the gesture. It was a waste of time posturing. The Cambion probably expected him to fight conventionally, content to let his sword do the work, watching his opponent become steadily weakened. Instead, Sam did the unexpected and feinted then reversed his blades, striking out simultaneously with both at completely different angles. No doubt his foe would be aware of Sam’s abilities but perhaps not his unpredictability.

As he suspected, the Cambion was caught unawares. It did remarkably well under the circumstances however, even managing to block one of Sam’s blades with a speed that Sam suspected wasn’t far from his own. As quick as it was though, it wasn’t quick enough. Sam’s smaller blade — the Wakizashi — took the creature just under the ribcage. Sam angled it up sharply though, plunging it directly into the Cambion’s heart.

They were face to face, so close Sam could smell its sulfurous breath. For a moment, nothing happened. Sam didn’t expect it to disintegrate into a plume of ash like a normal Lemure. Higher ranked demons seemed to have a tendency to remain on Earth upon their death. What happened next though was completely unprecedented in Sam’s experience. First, the Cambion smiled at him, then without preamble, it simply disappeared. No ash. No nothing. One second the Cambion was right next to him with his sword buried in its chest, the next, gone.

Sam blinked in surprise. “Well, that was different,” he muttered.

He took a moment to reflect and to assess, breathing more heavily than normal. His injury wasn’t bad but was still leaking blood. Usually an injury like this would have healed by now, but the Cambion’s blade wasn’t normal. Experience had taught him that the injury would heal eventually — probably. He hoped. The last injury he’d had like this had taken Satan himself to heal. He felt a little weak and light-headed but he reckoned he’d be alright.

Then he cast around with his mind. Now that he knew what to look for, he could sense them. Just. They were obviously trying to conceal themselves with a similar glamor to his own, but they weren’t quite strong enough to resist his scrying. They probably couldn’t detect him because their mind states showed no alarm. Four more of them. They were just now arriving outside the motel. Maybe the one he’d just killed had got here before the others, sent like the others by his father. That one had probably just been a little quicker or a little keener than the others. Sam smiled. Served him right.

Yet he’d managed to dispatch one of them with some difficulty. Sam suspected a further four of them would be more than his match. Discretion became the better part of valor.

Heedless of the noise it caused, Sam made his own exit, kicking through the thin walls and into the room next door. Not slowing, he charged through the next wall and the one after that. The repeated impact hurt — how could it not? He was certainly no Horned Demon accustomed to smashing through stud partitions like they were paper. His leading shoulder ached. It felt like he’d dislocated it. No matter, it would heal. More disturbing was the blood he could feel dribbling down his torso. The wound from the Cambion’s sword still hadn’t closed up, and he probably wasn’t doing it any favors mowing down buildings.

At the limits of his endurance now, he ploughed through two more walls. He could discern that the other Cambions still out there, still waiting. They probably thought their comrade was still in furious combat with him and so far, they seemed content to wait for their victor to emerge. It was a lucky break for Sam, and one that he wasn’t about to squander.

He thought for a moment about calling for Yeth but dismissed the idea almost immediately, crushing it quickly so that Yeth would not read his unconscious desire and come for him in any case. His Hellhound would not help him here. In fact, the presence of such a mighty creature would act as a beacon for every other demon in the vicinity, so Yeth would have to emerge from the nearby church and battle every other demon that crossed his path between there and Sam’s current position. It would take too long. Not only that, but Sam wasn’t convinced about how effective the great demon would be against these Cambions. They probably possessed his innate flame resistance and seemed unnervingly handy with their blades. Hell hounds didn’t have many weaknesses but as Sam had discovered long ago, a blade punched through their eye would kill them just as effectively as any other creature.

He couldn’t bring himself to put Yeth at risk. He’d get out of this mess by himself.

Staggering, bloodied and covered with plaster and ash, he kicked through the wall in front of him. Or tried to. Big mistake. It was the outer wall, solidly constructed from concrete blocks. He almost cried out in pain as he felt something break in his foot, even as it ruptured the wall. He kicked again and again, ignoring the pain from his tortured foot.

Finally, he made a hole big enough for him to fit and squeezed himself through it, gritting his teeth against the pain as his injured foot became twisted. He freed it with an effort and examined what he’d done. The bone was broken alright, part of it sticking out of his broken flesh. Even now, it was starting to heal but slowly, so slowly. Much more slowly than normal. That Cambion’s cursed blade was really messing up his healing ability. Even his shoulder was taking its time realigning itself.

He paused to catch his breath. The Cambions were moving. He divined that they had entered the original motel room where he and Aimi had spent the night. They would soon spot his trail. It wasn’t exactly hard to work out where he’d gone. He may as well have set up a giant neon sign saying ‘this way.’

He gambled that they wouldn’t be able to find him if he got clear of the motel, though his father had obviously told them exactly where he was. If his glamor held out, he should be able to get clear — unless he was in their line of sight, of course. Besides, it was almost dawn. They couldn’t keep hunting him for much longer. Could they?

He was wrong.

He limped on, the wounds definitely healing but not rapidly enough to give him an advantage. Behind him, the Cambions closed the gap. They may not have been able to sense him but they could certainly track him. He was leaving a bloody trail and dragging his foot. The worst ever Boy Scout could’ve followed such a trail.

Panting and exhausted, he finally hid in a thick brush thicket that had still managed to retain some of its leaves, even buried in ash, just as the sky brightened. Dawn. The blood-red moon disappeared behind the thick cloud cover, leaving him with an odd sense of abandonment. It also left him weakened. The red moon leant him strength where the day leached it.

He prayed that, like most demons, they would retreat to Hell during the day time. But they weren’t normal demons. They were Cambions like him. He didn’t have to go to Hell during the day, so why would they? But then again, he’d become accustomed to living on the Earth for the last twenty odd years. The sun still made him feel slightly uneasy and he was used to it. For them, this must be a relatively new and unusual experience. Hopefully, the sun terrified them. Maybe they would return to where they felt most comfortable. If they didn’t, it was all over for him.

They appeared from around an abandoned gas station about fifty feet away. He thought about using it as a refuge or even a last stand, but it was just too obvious. It was what they’d expect him to do. It was what he’d expect of himself. As usual, when he had such doubts, he went ahead and did the unexpected. This time, he wasn’t sure whether it would pay off or not.

He watched as they briefly checked out the building, satisfying themselves that he wasn’t inside. Outside, he couldn’t help but notice the nervous looks they were giving the sky. One of the four — a male — was looking in his direction, pointing for the benefit of the others, following the obvious trail he’d left. Two females were shaking their heads. A whispered conversation followed — an argument. Even in hot debate, they kept their voices low so that Sam could only hear the occasional snippet of Hellspeak. There was lots of angry gesturing going on, mostly in his direction. The first male was clearly adamant that they continue but the others appeared too scared of the sky. Eventually, the majority won and all four disappeared behind the gas station once again.

Sam had never felt so relieved before. Another fifty feet and they would have had him. It was only now that he could feel his strength starting to return, the blood clotting on the wound in his chest. His broken ankle was starting to knit while his shoulder had already realigned itself. A few minutes earlier, and there would have been no way he could’ve fought them all off, especially in his weakened state.

He’d garnered some good pieces of information from the encounter, however. First, that his father was now employing his royal Cambions on Earth and they were talented fighters with powers of concealment. Secondly, they feared the sky. Thirdly, their blades were deadly and it took around fifteen minutes for any wounds to start clotting. Being injured by one also slowed down his normal healing processes. Even at his peak, Sam doubted his ability to fight off five of them at once.

There was something else about them though. Something that was troubling him. He remembered the way the demon had smiled as it died as if it knew something he didn’t. It was slightly unnerving. His father had told him that he had a surprise for him. Was it the existence of the Cambions themselves? It was too obvious. His father would not reveal his hand that easily. Satan normally played a slightly more subtle game than that.

The sky brightened further, not that it made much of a difference. The thick, dark clouds took care of that, not giving the sun a chance for even a glimmer of light to break through the solid barrier. It was still lighter than it had been though.

Sam decided to stay where he was for now. He doubted whether the Cambions would come back for him, even if they knew exactly where he was. The light would keep them at bay. He was relatively safe — or as safe as he could be — for the moment. The thicket offered him concealment and kept the worst of the light away from him while he healed.

More for comfort than any great need, he reached for his pack, hoping to get a snack and a swig of water before remembering that it was still in the motel room. He’d have to go back for it. It contained other things that he needed, sentimental and otherwise. He couldn’t leave it.

Sighing heavily, he stood, still somewhat shaky, and disentangled himself from the thicket. Wearily, he limped back in the direction of the motel. As he walked, he kept his senses attuned to what was going on around him. He was fairly certain the Cambions were gone but he wasn’t about to take any chances.

Despite his caution, his mind kept returning to one thought as he retraced his path. Aimi. Not just Aimi. Spending the night with her. It seemed like more time had passed than it had since the previous night. Lots had happened in the last few hours. His encounter with his father in the dream world. His battle and pursuit by the Cambions. But his thoughts were still dominated by her face. The feel of her. How she smelt.

He wondered where she was right now and when he’d see her next. Unbidden, he thought about what his father had said about her. How those in Heaven were using her to manipulate him. He didn’t believe it for a second but then again, Gabriel had always been a bit loose with the truth. Perhaps there was something the Archangel wasn’t telling him?

The words of his father came back to him: he’d find out soon enough.

Chapter Seventeen

Pennsylvania

“ Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.”

Romans 5:7

Sometime during the next night, he passed into Pennsylvania. He’d spent most of the time on the Interstate which seemed to be the easiest way to get around these days. In the first year after the Rapture, it had almost been a death trap. Bandits had preyed upon anyone travelling down them and Sam avoided them at all costs. Now, most survivors had either retreated to the mountains or the wilderness. The lucky ones were at the few operational armed forces bases. The interstates also seemed to resist the worst that the nature could throw at them. The increase in the amount of earthquakes and firestorms had done little to affect their structural integrity. Other, smaller roads hadn’t fared as well. Sam had entered small towns in the recent past that were impassable — almost completely destroyed.

As for the Cambions — well, he’d got lucky there. He hadn’t seen one sign of them which was just as well given that he’d only just started to feel his normal self after the injuries he’d sustained in the last encounter. The moon was helping though. As soon as it had emerged, he’d immediately started feeling better. It also gave him something to look at as he walked. Something about the crimson sphere drew his attention and gave him comfort like nothing else. And there wasn’t much else to see. The sky was otherwise featureless. No stars, just a few dark ominous looking clouds that hinted of rain but never delivered.

He thought about Aimi almost continuously, wondering how long it would be until he saw her again. He also considered the problem of Gabriel. He desperately wanted to talk to her, to get reassurance, to have some of his questions answered. At one point, he was even so brazen as to call her name out loud, but wasn’t terribly surprised when she didn’t immediately materialize.

He’d kept his glamor and his concealment ability wrapped closely about him like a cloak. It was clear that the Cambions could track him physically, even if they couldn’t sense him, so he took care to conceal his tracks. He passed various other demons as he jogged along — some no more than twenty feet away — but they failed to notice his presence. An hour earlier, an Astaroth had even flown over his head, so close he could’ve stabbed it with his sword but it hadn’t even looked down, oblivious to the dangerous temptation below. Sometimes, to amuse himself, he thought of himself in those terms — a dangerous temptation. Like chocolate to an obese person. They wanted him but were likely to get killed in the process.

Fifteen minutes earlier, he’d moved through Wheeling and across the West Virginia River — not that there was much left to see of the once mighty flow of water. It had all but dried up; the remnants an ugly, sluggish, ash-filled goop. No living thing could possibly survive drinking that.

Shortly thereafter, he was in Pennsylvania. Jogging down the car-strewn interstate about twenty miles later, he found himself passing through another town. He located a road sign and cleaned it off enough to read what it said. Washington. He was in Washington, Pennsylvania. First town he’d been through in Pennsylvania. First time in Pennsylvania, actually. During his travels, Sam had visited roughly half the states but none now were terribly different from each other. All mostly deserted, covered in ash, vegetation dead or dying, ravished by earthquake and fire. It became depressingly monotonous after a while. What he’d give for a bit of color for a change.

Now, Sam guessed it must be around 5am. Just outside Washington, still on the interstate. Sam liked this time of the morning. It was often a lull time when everything was quiet. There were fewer demons on the streets and in the air, and even the light swirl of ash ceased for a while.

Into this quiet, something intruded — a light in the sky. Sam’s heart began to beat faster in his chest with the thought that it could be Aimi but as it got closer, Sam felt his excitement ebb away. It was an angel alright, but it wasn’t her. Couldn’t be her. Far too big.

The angel hurtled down towards him. At almost the last moment, it unfurled its folded wings like a sail and landed with graceful precision just in front of Sam. He recognized her immediately.

“Hello, Gabriel.” Perhaps she’d heard him call her name after all but had deliberately waited. It would be a bad look if an Archangel dropped everything to answer a summons from a demon. Probably frowned upon in her angelic circles.

She nodded ever so slightly at him, smiled and folded her wings neatly behind her back. Her glow began to fade almost as soon as she landed. Sam figured it was probably done in a conscious effort not to draw any more attention to herself. Not that it mattered. Demons for miles around would’ve seen it, but given it was almost dawn, they might not investigate. Besides, demons were probably pretty wary of glowing lights in the sky by now. They could only mean one thing.

“Good morning, Samael.”

“You’re being very formal with me, aren’t you?” he asked, keeping his tone light. “Normally you call me Sam. Something to do with my popularity at the moment?”

“Popularity?” she asked, sounding puzzled.

“I had a few visitors yesterday. First Aimi, which was a welcome surprise. Then my father. Finally a group of Cambions out on a hunting expedition. It would’ve been fun except for the fact that they were hunting me. Know anything about all this?”

The only indication Gabriel gave of being surprised was raising her eyebrows slightly. “First, Aimi. Yes, of course I knew about her. We gave her permission to visit you. Secondly, no. It concerns me that the Great Betrayer would contact you now, of all times. He’s up to something as usual. And thirdly, that’s just the subject I came to warn you about.”

It was Sam’s turn to be surprised. “What? The Cambions?”

Gabriel nodded. “How did you fare against them?” she asked.

“Ok, I guess,” he replied. There were times to talk things up — not that it was in Sam’s nature to do so. This, however, wasn’t one of them. “I got one of them but not before he wounded me. He had one of those cursed blades. Like my brothers.”

“Like your brother’s, but not as powerful. Like his, they have the ability to drain energy though. They also slow your healing powers.”

“I know all this,” said Sam impatiently. “I found out the hard way. I had to smash my way out of the motel I was in. Broke my foot and dislocated my shoulder in the process. They almost had me, then dawn came and they disappeared. Just as well. There’s no way I could’ve beaten them all.”

“They are known as the Devil’s Hand, in case you didn’t know.”

This was news to him. “Devil’s what?”

“Hand. Lucifer has used them for thousands of years to conduct special missions — missions of grave importance to him. He does not employ them lightly. That’s what I came to warn you about, not just to have a casual conversation. These are not just normal Cambions you are dealing with.”

“I know,” he said. “They’re of royal blood, like mine but weaker.”

“No,” said Gabriel. She looked grim. “That’s not it at all. Yes, they are of royal blood, but the Devil’s Hand is special.”

“Special, how?” he asked. “They still died like every other demon, didn’t they?” And then the memory struck him again. The knowing smile of the demon as he killed it and the odd way it just disappeared. He clicked his fingers. “It’s not dead, is it?”

She smiled at him without humor. “Very perceptive, Samael. The Devil’s Hand is the most deadly foe you are ever likely to face because they cannot be killed here on Earth. In fact, every time you kill them here, they will return stronger.”

“Let me get this straight,” said Sam, something like panic awakening in his chest. “Each time I kill one, it comes back stronger than it was before? You mean the one I destroyed yesterday will come back and be faster and more deadly?”

“Exactly.”

Sam threw his arms up into the air in exasperation. “Great. Wonderful. How am I supposed to compete with that? I barely managed to defeat one of them yesterday. Why has my father sent them against me? And why now?”

“I don’t know,” confessed Gabriel. “This is a crucial time for him. For all of us. Your brother will be sailing for these shores at the head of an invasion fleet very shortly. Perhaps your father wants you out of the way, to ensure that your brother succeeds where he failed last time. And of course, you must know where you will end up if you do die…”

Sam froze. Despite everything, he hadn’t really thought of this. Hadn’t thought it through. Maybe he was avoiding it as something too terrible to contemplate. But as soon as Gabriel said it, he knew. When he died he would go to Hell. Not Heaven. Hell. It was where he belonged.

Gabriel saw the realization dawn in his face. She reached out and touched his arm in what he knew was intended as a sympathetic gesture. Angrily, he shook it off.

“Yes, Hell. Then you will be at his mercy and his command. That must be his intention. Where he failed to convince you with coercion and lies, he will succeed with brute force.”

Sam knew that was exactly his father’s intention. He wouldn’t waste such a valuable resource as the Devil’s Hand on him otherwise. But he wouldn’t go down without a fight. Surely, there must be a way to defeat them?

“How can I win?” he asked, pleased that his voice did not betray him.

Gabriel looked away. If Sam knew her at all, she appeared conflicted. “I shouldn’t be telling you this. There will be a price to pay for this knowledge but I think you deserve to know. To end them, to end the Devil’s Hand once and for all, you must face them and destroy each one in Hell.”

Sam was surprised. “Is that all? Doesn’t sound too difficult.”

“Your arrogance is unbecoming,” she said, scowling at him. Sam didn’t care. Gabriel’s approval was the last thing on his mind. “The Devil’s Hand is notoriously difficult to find, their location a closely guarded secret. And even if you did find them, you will be fighting them on their own turf. As a unit. In Hell, they never fight alone.”

Sam nodded but said nothing. A thought had just occurred to him but he wasn’t about to share it with Gabriel.

“And what of your father?” she asked. “What did he tell you?”

Something told Sam it was best not to mention Aimi in the conversation. He had a feeling that in the manipulation stakes, both Heaven and Hell were guilty. “Nothing really. Just his usual mocking. Told me to expect a surprise.” The Devil’s Hand and their unusual powers presumably. Well, Sam hoped so in any case. He didn’t need any more surprises at this stage.

Gabriel appeared satisfied with this response. “I see.”

“What am I supposed to do now? Any particular instructions or advice?”

“Just keep doing what you are doing. In New York, you will find many desperate souls. Help them when you can. Destroy those who deserve it. Prepare the way for Him, for your Savior.”

“And what about Aimi?”

Gabriel smiled her knowing smile. “You will see her again.”

“When?” he demanded.

Gabriel’s smile evaporated. “Do not demand things of me, demon spawn. You will see her in good time. Now, I must be off. I will see you again soon, Samael.”

Once again, Sam said nothing, just watched her as she took off, disappearing through the cloud cover that was even now brightening with the advance of daylight. He hadn’t appreciated her tone. Demon spawn indeed. Something had nettled her. And he suspected that he knew what. Gabriel was unaccustomed to demands being made from her. Especially from a half-human, half-demon hybrid. Aimi seemed to be a sore point as well. He wondered what was really going on behind the scenes. It certainly appeared that he was being toyed with a little. Heaven was using Aimi to keep him on side, while his father was trying to kill him to ensure that he was trapped in Hell at his side.

Life used to be quite simple, really, but had gotten rather complex of late. All he used to have to think about was survival but now, now things were altogether different. What’s more, he was sick of being manipulated.

He jogged on. Dawn was coming and he needed some place to rest. At least that was straightforward.

It turned out that finding a place to rest for the day wasn’t all that simple after all. At the next town — the map told him he was probably in Bedford — he picked the first reasonably intact house he came to, figuring one house was no different than any other to rest for the day. He was wrong. He should have grasped the waves from their minds, but their thoughts were so weak they hardly registered.

Kicking open the door, he was standing amongst them before he even knew they were there, cowering amongst the shadows. Humans. Just starting to stir having survived the night. Probably about to go out scavenging for the day.

He heard some stifled screams and his hands went to his swords without thinking. In a backroom somewhere, someone was sobbing. He was in a darkened room. Windows bordered up and covered with curtains. Huddled in corners on filthy mattresses were several Humans. Sam could smell rotting flesh and he knew without a doubt, that some, if not all of them had the plague.

It was a surprise they were still alive. Not only had they survived the plague and starvation, but the demons had not taken them. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously but nothing immediately pointed to demon worship. Striding over to one of the cowering figures, he pulled her to her feet. It was a young woman, no more than fifteen but so skinny and malnourished that she weighed probably half what Aimi did — and she was tiny.

The girl tried to push his hands away from her but she was as weak as a baby. He turned her wrist over. Nothing. No mark. No tattoo. She wasn’t a demon worshipper. More roughly than he intended, he checked two more. No mark. They were clean.

“What… what do you want?” asked a man, standing shakily. He was probably Sam’s age but looked ten years older.

Sam held his hands up, palms facing outwards. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I was just looking for a place to rest.”

“Perhaps, you would like to look elsewhere,” said the man. He flinched every time Sam looked at him. “I’m not being rude but we don’t have enough for ourselves, let alone someone else. Besides, many of us are sick.”

Sam smiled, trying to reassure the obviously terrified youth. “It’s ok. I don’t want any of your food but I do have a question for you.”

“What is it?” asked the man, sinking to the floor. Even standing seemed to be too much of an effort for him.

“How have you survived? Why haven’t the demons taken you?”

The man on the floor signed wearily. He looked at the others before replying. Sam could see that he was considering lying but then decided against it. “We have a generator. Underneath the house. There’s a deep well under there as well. We grow a bit of food using hydroponics. Some food. It’s never enough.”

“And what about the demons?” asked Sam.

The man shrugged. “They don’t bother us. We haven’t seen one in months.”

Sam thought this was strange and yet he wanted to trust these people. They didn’t seem to have done anything wrong, their only crime being left behind to endure the Tribulation. And he liked the fact that they were survivors. That they had managed to start the process of civilization again in this small town. It gave him hope — hope for the rest of humanity that remained.

On a whim, he unstrapped his backpack and began to rummage around, aware that the people in the room were cringing back in terror, expecting the worse. He pulled out two small vials and some disposable needles. He tossed them to the man who caught them with a nervous flutter.

“What’s this?” the youth stammered.

“Antibiotics,” said Sam. “It’ll get rid of the plague. Should be enough to treat everyone if you use it sparingly. Try not to eat too many rats.” Before he’d left, the Colonel had made him stock up on as much antibiotics as he could carry. If rumors were to be believed, New York was rife with the disease.

The man stood again, tears streaming out of his eyes. “I don’t know who you are, stranger, or why you are helping us, but I thank you,” he said. “I thank you on behalf of all of us here. What can we do for you in return?”

“Survive,” said Sam. “That will be thanks enough for me.”

Around him, the other plague victims were standing up. Sam wasn’t sure of their intentions. He was ready for anything though but surely they wouldn’t attack him? They simply weren’t strong enough. Were they that desperate to get at his supplies? He shifted his feet, readying his hands to draw both swords. The circle of shuffling figures got closer and closer. Soon they were close enough to halt but they didn’t stop there.

Sam didn’t like his personal space being invaded. He wasn’t used to being touched but he made an exception in this case as fifteen half dead, plague ridden survivors enfolded Sam in their arms and hugged him like they’re never hugged anyone before. Feelings stirred. Ones that at first he couldn’t identify because he hadn’t felt them before. Then he knew.

This was what it felt like to feel good about yourself.

Chapter Eighteen

Betrayals

“ Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction.”

2 Thessalonians 2:3

He spent much of the day in their safe house, meditating, cleaning his weapons but mostly just watching. He had to hand it to them — they were certainly industrious. Even without much energy, on the verge of starvation, disease ridden, they moved with a purpose. Everybody in the small community seemed to have a job which they approached with as much enthusiasm as Sam had seen anywhere.

All told, there were just over twenty people living in the building, mostly teenagers or in their early twenties. One girl looked around twelve and there was a man who was probably in his thirties or forties. It was so hard to tell though. The layer of grime and ash on their skin was so ingrained it looked painted on.

The antibiotics had done their job. The few that had seemed to be on death’s brink had now been brought back from the edge and had improved considerably. Most even joined the others at their assigned tasks.

Sam ventured downstairs and viewed their hydroponic operation. He understood why the generators only operated during the day. They created quite a bit of noise — noise that could be heard from almost a block away. Even if demons didn’t seem to be a problem, if stumbled upon by demon worshippers or those that just preyed on the weak, the results could potentially be devastating. Demon worshippers, especially, seemed to be more active at night so he understood their caution.

Not only that, they also went through a fair amount of gasoline. While gasoline didn’t appear to be in drastically short supply, one of the men told him that they’d almost exhausted local supplies and now had to search further afield. This took time, effort and man-power — all things which the small community lacked.

Of course this created its own problems. The plants they were growing — lettuce and tomatoes mostly — were suffering from lack of sunlight, and most looked sickly and limp. Sam even saw signs of disease on the plants. Even here, away from the surface and the deadly, Hell-like environment, they still suffered, a reflection of the conditions above.

This food couldn’t possibly feed everyone here. Sure, it was probably enough to ward off complete starvation, but only just. Thankfully, the water supplied by the well was relatively fresh so at least that wasn’t a problem. For meat, like most other survivor living outside army bases, they caught and ate rats. Sam didn’t blame them. He saw the amount of traps set and was surprised they weren’t catching more than they were. One of the survivors told him that rats were in short supply lately. It seemed that even rats were beginning to starve but that wasn’t surprising. What on Earth were the rats eating in the first place? Most plants were dead, pretty much every animal. Sam hadn’t thought about it before and asked some of the workers around the hydroponic plant.

Insects, they replied. Accustomed to gutting these animals, they’d seen exactly what was in their stomachs. Ah, yes. Of course. The rats were eating insects, and why not? Since the Rapture, insects like cockroaches and locusts had thrived in the hot conditions. And plagues came in other forms, too.

Their openness surprised him. He knew that they now trusted him because he’d given them antibiotics but that usually wasn’t enough these days. How did they not know he wasn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing, here to gain their trust before betraying them? The answer was, they didn’t. They couldn’t. They were just good, trusting people despite what they’d been though. They seemed to accept him at face value. Not one of them questioned the hood that was constantly on his head. They even offered him what small amounts of food they had. It was a humbling gesture and one that brought a surge of protective anger. Even though he had to move on, he would keep an eye on these people, making sure they came to no harm.

The house itself, surprisingly, was in fairly good condition. It had escaped unscathed from the earthquakes and other natural disasters — just better than most structures. The fairly common subsidence cracks were evident and some scorch and burn marks here and there, but other than that, it was mostly intact. It hadn’t been just pure luck him picking that house out of every one in Bedford. It was also one of the few that were even in slightly habitable condition. The rest of the houses in the town had suffered the worst that the Tribulation could throw at them: many had been completely destroyed by earthquakes; others had been gutted by fire, victims of the increasingly regular fire-storms.

These poor examples of humanity had survived more by good luck than anything else. And Sam discovered that this luck ran deeper than he expected.

According to the survivors, Bedford and the surrounding area of Bedford County had several churches representing various denominations. Not that it mattered. Demons didn’t differentiate between Christian biblical interpretation. One church was as good as any other to them.

He couldn’t really spare the time, but he needed to find out for himself. Even though his gut told him they were good people, he needed to make sure. As dusk fell and the others starting settling down for the night, he got the directions to a few neighboring churches and set off in search of them. What he found surprised him.

Every single one had been completely destroyed. Not only that, but Sam suspected that the ground had been blessed and purified with Holy water. As far as he knew, it was the only sure fire way of ensuring that demons couldn’t use it as a portal. He’d encountered a few like these in his travels but not several altogether. Whoever had done this had been thorough and discreet. The survivors weren’t even aware of their good fortune. No wonder there were no demons around. There were simply no portals for them to use.

Something Grace had said back at the base came back to him. She’d said that many were just paying lip service in order to avoid going to Hell. But it didn’t work like that. People needed to believe, to have faith and to welcome Jesus into their hearts. It was the only way they were going to avoid the pit for eternity.

Sam understood that — probably better than most, not that it was going to do him any good. But fear, hope and belief all had parts to play in this drama. People could change. Sometimes all they needed was a catalyst. And what better catalyst than the Tribulation and possibly eternal damnation? If that wasn’t a reason to change your opinions, Sam didn’t know what was. Of course, it would be better if people altered because of love and a willingness to be better, but those were emotions and thoughts in short supply at present.

What the purified church grounds taught him was that at least one person wandering around in this post-apocalyptic landscape had belief and faith. True belief, strong enough to work miracles. Clearly, this person had lacked this faith prior to the Rapture, otherwise they would’ve been taken. They didn’t now though. It must have been strong to undertake such works.

The thought that someone was out there performing good works for the benefit of others made Sam feel good. In fact, he felt the best he’d felt for a long time. First the hug, now this. His faith in humanity, for the moment, was restored. He didn’t expect it to last for very long though. Humanity had a way of disappointing him.

Reassured, he continued on, finding the interstate easily enough. A battered sign told him that he was on the Pennsylvania turnpike. He knew from his map that he was about eighty miles from Harrisburg, the next major population center. Or former population center. To find a group of survivors like this in Bedford was unusual. Most had retreated to the mountains where caves could provide them with reasonably secure shelter, far from churches. Also the mountains were still a more likely source of food and water. He’d be very lucky indeed to encounter a similar group in Harrisburg. More likely, he’d find the place deserted, a veritable ghost town like most he traveled through these days, with the only inhabitants being demons from Hell.

He traveled through the night, jogging at a constant pace that literally ate up the miles. He didn’t stop, didn’t need to. Several times though, he sensed a niggling presence and turned even as he moved. Nothing. He knew they were out there though. The Devil’s Hand. Tracking him. They were out of his mind-reach but some other instinct told him they weren’t that far away, following his tracks that were impossible to disguise in the ash.

He would have to face them eventually and even had a plan. Of sorts. It wasn’t much but it was all he had at this point. He’d deal with it when the time came. And the time would come — his father would make sure of that. It was inevitable.

Rather than obsess over something he had no control over, he concentrated on his progress. He knew from experience that he averaged about five miles per hour. It didn’t seem like much and it certainly wasn’t a strenuous pace but it added up. He could jog for ten hours per night without resting. That was fifty miles if everything went to plan and he wasn’t waylaid by demons or forced to detour because of some road blockage or destruction. At this rate and with a bit of luck, he’d be in New York within days.

Some hours into his journey, he ran through a woodland, or what had once been a woodland. A sign told him it had been known as Buchanan State Forest. Now it was just a graveyard of skeletal trunks and spiked branches, standing in rows of silent vigil. Nothing moved within it. All the animals that had once used it as their habitat and source of food and shelter had disappeared.

It was eerily quiet as he ran. Even the breeze had disappeared, the dead trees sheltering him from the constant warm flow of air. He picked up the pace. A feeling of disquiet filled him and he knew that he wanted to be gone from this place as soon as possible. He thought — not for the first time — that he certainly hadn’t encountered everything that Hell had to offer. There were other surprises in store for him, some that he would not be able to prepare for, including demons he had never seen before. A sense of certainty came over him that here, within this dead forest, lurked one of those demons. Something he hadn’t seen before. Something terrifying, even to him.

He was almost sprinting by the time he reached the outskirts of it and relief filled him, glad to be leaving the dreaded place behind. Sam reduced his speed and jogged on. The interstate wound through the featureless dead terrain. He couldn’t help thinking about how this had once looked. He’d seen pictures of states beyond Utah before — before the Rapture — and nothing would have given him greater pleasure than to have seen them for himself. To see lush, green fields and verdant forests overflowing with animals and birds. To wander through them at his leisure. That wouldn’t happen now. Couldn’t. Even when Jesus returned, he wouldn’t be around to see his new Earthly paradise. Wouldn’t get to see these lands and forests returned to their former glory and then some. That pleasure would be forever denied him. Instead, he’d spend the rest of eternity staring at rocks and fire and probably fighting for his life and soul. Not a pleasant thought.

He stopped when he reached the outskirts of another forest. He didn’t fancy spending his resting hours inside it and besides, it was almost dawn anyway. Finding a thick clump of bushes that were still partially alive but comprised mostly of ash, he slipped under them. After getting himself comfortable, he ate a tiny piece of beef jerky from his pack and had a sip of water to moisten his mouth. It was all he needed. Then, he settled himself into his meditation position. He stayed like that for the next three hours or so.

Finally, he stood and stretched, poking his head above the top of the bush. It was probably around midday. Nothing stirred. It was eerily quiet. Unnaturally so. Even the semi-constant sulfur-tainted breeze was stilled.

Pulling out worn leather gloves from one pocket, he sat down again and carefully put them on. Only then did he dig into his pack. His rummaging produced a clothed wrapped bundle. Gently, he unwrapped it. It was an old, leather bound bible. The bible had once belonged to his master, Hikari, and other than his swords and the silver cross he wore around his neck, it was his most treasured possession. The gloves made reading it difficult and clumsy but he really didn’t have an option. It was either that or be subjected to constant burning pain. His naked flesh against a bible always had that effect.

He started reading, picking a page at random, lost in the words and comforted by messages contained within. So absorbed he was, that he failed to notice that he was no longer alone. Abruptly, he became aware of the presence. He was about to react with his normal physical intensity when he realized who it was. With trembling hands, trying not to rush and ruin the moment, he gently closed his bible and re-wrapped it, placing it carefully back in his pack.

Standing, he moved out of the bushes and scanned around eagerly. She was standing about ten feet away. He rushed towards her and she opened her arms to him. They embraced and despite his enthusiasm, he was careful not to crush her to him too tightly, mostly for fear of damaging her wings. They kissed quickly, passionately, but all at once she was pushing him away.

“Don’t,” she said, moving a step backwards and looking at her feet.

He closed the gap between them and attempted to draw her to him again. She pushed his hands away. Frustration and panic filled him in equal measure.

“What’s wrong?” he pleaded. “What is it?”

“I had to see you one more time,” she was whispering now. “I couldn’t stay away, even though I know I should.”

“What do you mean?” he was almost shouting, his mind whirling in confusion.

Her eyes met his. “I’m not allowed to see you anymore,” she said, so quietly he wasn’t sure that he’d heard correctly. Tears were streaming out of the corners of her eyes, running down her perfect cheeks.

“What?” he roared, much more loudly than he’d intended. Aimi took a step backwards, her eyes suddenly wide with fear. With a physical effort, he restrained himself. “I don’t understand,” he said, sounding calmer than he felt.

“It’s because of what we did,” she said, mournfully. The look of sadness on her face was killing him. He wanted to make it go away. He would do anything to make her smile again.

“You mean, because of our night together?” he asked.

“Exactly,” she said. “Demons and angels were never meant to… mate. It’s forbidden. When they sent me to you, I don’t think they imagined for one second we’d do what we did.”

“But… but it was so right,” he spluttered. “How can something like our love be forbidden? How can it be wrong?”

“It doesn’t get any worse than this. It’s probably the worst crime there is. It was bad enough when the Grigori started having physical relationships with mortal women, let alone this.”

“But I’m not even a full demon,” Sam protested. He didn’t get it. He really didn’t get it. Why would they do this to him? It wasn’t fair. It was never fair.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “They’ve made their decision. I can’t see you ever again. They consider this a huge favor just allowing me to say my goodbyes in person. In fact, I’m lucky apparently that I’m still an angel, lucky that I wasn’t cast down into the pit.”

“I wish you would’ve been,” said Sam hotly. “At least that way, I could see you when I liked.”

“Don’t say that, Sam. I know you’re angry but we have to face up to what we’ve done. I hate it just as much as you but I can’t do anything else.” She began to sob in misery.

He couldn’t resist. He pulled her to him. They stayed like that for a long time, until she stopped crying.

“We’ll find a way out of this,” he said. “I’ll talk to Gabriel. She’ll understand. She’ll help.”

Aimi broke his embrace immediately. “Who do you think told me I couldn’t see you anymore? It was Gabriel and the other archangels who made this decision.”

Sam was so shocked, his legs suddenly felt weak, almost giving way on him. He stumbled, the betrayal falling heavily upon him. Gabriel. She was meant to be his ally. Why had she done this to him? Suddenly, everything his father said was starting to make sense. Could he really trust those in Heaven?

Aimi put her tiny arms around him again. “Goodbye, my love. I’ll watch over you. I’ll never stop watching you or loving you. We’ll always be together that way.”

“No!” he said, pleading with her, desperate. He put his arms around her and squeezed, imagining in his desperation that if he hugged her tightly, she would never be able to leave him — never be able to escape. Somehow, she still slipped out of his grasp. Even when she was human, she’d been hard to hold on to. Before he could move, she was airborne, her beautiful wings outstretched.

“I love you, Sam. I will always love you.”

“No!” he screamed at her. “Don’t leave me. I’ve only just got you back. You can’t leave. It’s not fair!” But it was too late. She was gone, lost in the clouds.

For a moment, he stood completely still, frozen in grief and despair. Then with anger so intense it made him feel cold, he drew his swords. He attacked the bush with more fury than he thought he was capable of, reducing it to scattered twigs. As he hacked at it, a low keening sound emerged from his throat. There were dead trees in the distance, the beginnings of the forest he had avoided. He sprinted towards them, chopping at the first one he reached with strokes so powerful they almost severed the thick trunks with one blow. The tree toppled. He ignored it and moved onto the next one and the next and the next, more effective than the most efficient lumberjack. As he hewed, he began to sob, the first time he had truly cried. He’d only cried once before, when Aimi had first been taken by the Rapture, but this was worse, much worse. Hikari had told him that demons didn’t possess tear ducts and it was true. As then, he cried tears of blood, the scarlet liquid once again streaming down his face.

They ran down his sweatshirt and jeans, staining them. He didn’t care. He kept hacking away at the trees. Blisters formed on his hands. The blisters tore and bled. The blood ran down his hands and on to his blades so that every time he struck a tree, crimson would splatter over the dead wood.

His rage was undiminished, his swords unblunted. It would take more punishment than this to wreck the edge of his blades. He chopped on, tireless, fueled by his anger. Hours passed… not that Sam was aware of the passage of time. Later, much later, he realized that he must have temporarily lost his mind.

As night fell, the sound of chopping could still be heard reverberating amongst the dead trees of the forest.

When he came to his senses, he was standing in a wasteland of dead wood. It was dawn. At first, he couldn’t remember what had happened. He blinked a couple of times against the morning light. His swords were still in his hands but his hands hurt. He didn’t know why.

Hundreds of trees lay shattered about him as if a team of lumberjacks had worked furiously for a week. Sam looked down at his swords. With trembling hands, he raised them to eye level. Both were blunted and notched. How did that happen? Swords like his were not damaged easily. And then it came rushing back to him. Aimi. She was gone and he had been betrayed. He staggered and fell to one knee.

He didn’t cry this time. Gradually, as he assimilated the memory, a cold anger grew in his heart, replacing whatever grief he had felt. He stood slowly, nodded once to himself and cast around for his backpack. Eventually he found it, buried under the remains of a thicket he’d sheltered under the previous day.

He stalked back to the beginning of the forest and seated himself on one of the stumps he had created. Dipping into the side pocket of his backpack, he pulled out his whetstone and began sharpening his Katana with smooth, rhythmic strokes, his blank gaze staring at nothing in the middle distance. Sharpening his swords always calmed him, clearing his mind and giving him space for ordered thought.

He started to feel better straight away. The dried blood on his hands flaked off as he worked, revealing fresh scars. He must’ve really given his hands a work out to inflict damage like this. The injuries were an anomaly though — one that he couldn’t really explain. The hilts of his swords were made from steel, not iron. In theory, the steel couldn’t harm him so why the damage? It had happened before and usually he set the problem aside as something to think about when he had less pressing matters to attend to. For some reason, this train of thought suddenly appealed to him. He knew it was a distraction, something to occupy his mind so he didn’t dwell on current events but he didn’t care.

Hikari had helped train not only his body but his mind. To attack problems with the same vigor as he would in one of his martial training regimes. Hikari had often advocated the theory of Occam’s razor — the simplest and most likely explanation was usually the correct one.

There were two most likely explanations. The first was the proximity of the iron. His hands were only separated from it by a fraction of an inch. The other explanation was that repeated impacts — and he was talking about hundreds or even thousands — could still damage him over time, even if it wasn’t iron. It was something to think about.

These thoughts and the monotonous, repetitive task were soothing. He started to feel back in control, more rational. Reluctantly, he considered his current problem. It was monumental — a real doozy. What was he going to do? He’d only just got Aimi back and suddenly, she was taken from him again. What were Gabriel and Heaven playing at? Weren’t they his ally? Didn’t they give Aimi back to him to keep his favor? Perhaps they had and perhaps and then again perhaps not. He couldn’t let his father’s insidious words influence him though. Satan was known as the father of lies for a reason.

He thought about what had happened to the Grigori. God had punished them, banishing them from Heaven because of their conduct with human women. And they had been angels like Aimi. What the two of them had done was worse, in theory. Aimi hadn’t just loved a mortal human, she had loved a demon. Or half of one. In Heaven’s eyes, it probably made no difference. Sam knew that Heaven could not overlook such a trespass. It had to be punished even if it was just for form’s sake.

Just like Hikari had taught him, he examined the issue from every angle. What should’ve happened is that Aimi should have been banished, just like the Grigori — perhaps even stripped of her Angelic status. Either way, Sam would’ve been happy. He would have got his Aimi back. But clearly, this was not in the best interests of Heaven. They wanted to keep Aimi close, but why? There had to be a rational explanation. Surely the reason couldn’t be to antagonize him? That just didn’t make any sense. Or did they think they could hold Aimi hostage in exchange for his obedience? What obedience? He was already doing what his heart and soul compelled him to do — help the innocents. What else did they want from him? Sam didn’t understand. Try as he might, he couldn’t get to the truth.

He drew in a great breath of air and let it out slowly, releasing some of the pain and frustration he felt. Whatever the reason, Heaven had antagonized them at a time when he suspected they needed him the most. Wasn’t he about to go into battle with the Antichrist and his forces again?

There was something he could do, something he always did when the burden and weight of who he was became too much: the mindlessness of pure physical exertion.

Both swords were sharpened now, their edges now restored through sheer determination and hard work. He hadn’t even noticed moving on to the Wakizashi. He felt suddenly ashamed. He loved his swords more than most anything else and he felt horrified that he had dishonored them in such a way. To be used like a common axe was unforgiveable. He swore to himself that no matter what happened, he would never treat his blades in such a way again.

Replacing the whetstone, he put his backpack back on and sheathed both swords. The interstate was only a few hundred feet away. He set off, quickly accelerating to a fast jog. He’d exorcise his inner demons with flat-out exhaustion. The thought amused him slightly, quirking one of his lips up for a moment. Then he ran and ran, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy. His endurance had always been much greater than any normal human and he was going to test its limits. It was daylight but he didn’t care. He needed this.

A battered sign told him Harrisburg was thirty five miles distance. It took him just over two hours; if anything, he was probably increasing his pace. Despite the light, he felt strong, his anger fueling him. He didn’t actually go through the city itself. It was probably a bit risky to enter it even though in his state of mind, he felt like a fight. A city this large would probably have its share of demon worshippers. He just didn’t want to slow down, wanting to keep going, to temper his body against this anvil that was the road.

Something else compelled him. A sense of urgency. He wanted to reach New York. Knew he had to reach it as soon as possible. Something was happening there and it was where he needed to be too.

The interstate took him through the outlying towns around Harrisburg without incident. He could see the city in the distance. Black smoke rose from some of the taller buildings, a firestorm probably igniting whatever was left to burn. Some miles behind him, he sensed something, now recognizing them immediately — the Devil’s Hand. They were definitely on his trail. He smiled grimly. Let them come. They would have to catch him first and fight him on his terms.

He crossed another riverbed. From the looks of it, the river — whatever its name, Sam could find no helpful signage — had once been mighty. The dried riverbed was a few hundred feet wide, once home to what must have been a great torrent of water. Whatever was left was diseased and dirty. A fetid odor rose from it, so bad that Sam increased his pace even more to outrun the stench.

By nightfall, he had reached the outskirts of Allentown. The interstate would take him directly through the city but at the last instant, some instinct warned him against it. The city screamed trap. He sensed many demons within.

He veered off, following highway 78, heading south east. He’d been running for several hours now, without rest or drink or food. Still he persevered and would have done so for many more hours if it hadn’t been for what happened next.

Out of the dark sky came another winged figure. Sam knew immediately who it — or he — was, and finally stopped just out of curiosity, a strange feeling after running for so long. The exercise hadn’t taxed him. He was hardly out of breath.

The figure was winging its way closer. The last time Sam had seen him was just before he’d departed for Hell to rescue Grace. Another unexpected visitor. Strange how the mere mention of the Grigori earlier had seemed to summon him. Sam was indeed quite popular lately. If that didn’t tell him that events were moving apace, then nothing did.

Samyaza dropped to the ground several feet from Sam, impossibly elegant. Sam hadn’t seen angels make such a gracious entrance. The Grigori folded his glossy black wings onto his back and crossed the distance between them on long, slim legs. The black leather pants reflected what little light there was, shimmering as he moved. Naked from the waist upwards, his lean, muscled and hairless torso gleamed like polished ivory.

He stopped within arm’s reach of Sam and smiled, his perfect teeth flashing, his handsome face the epitome of allurement. Unconsciously, Sam returned the smile, not as immune to Samyaza’s charms as he would have expected or hoped. “Samyaza. What brings you here?”

“You, as it happens,” said the Watcher, smiling easily. His head suddenly darted in a direction just over Sam’s shoulder. For a moment, he looked slightly shocked. This was swiftly replaced by an expression that Sam could only describe as calculating. The Watcher looked at him sharply. “You do know what follows you?”

Sam shrugged nonchalantly, trying to out-cool this impossibly suave creature. “The Devil’s Hand, if I’m not much mistaken.”

The Watcher nodded. “They are still some distance away but I will keep this short. The longer you delay here, the closer they become. I’ll cut to the chase — I know what the Powers That Be have done with Aimi — with the two of you. And with what was between you.”

Sam gritted his teeth and said nothing.

“I, of all… people, feel your pain,” he continued. “I know what it is like to love and then have it taken from you.”

“Get to the point,” said Sam, tight-lipped. He really didn’t want to discuss the matter with a Grigori.

“Very well. This may be hard to hear but it is what it is.” The Watcher took a breath as if gathering his thoughts. Sam hadn’t seen him do that before. It would seem that Samyaza had something of importance to impart. “Gabriel has made a pact with Satan.”

The Grigori watched Sam carefully for a reaction. He was destined to be disappointed, however. Sam now had a tight rein on his emotions. Outwardly at least. Inwardly, his thoughts were awhirl. He should’ve expected this. How could he have trusted Gabriel? Irritatingly, his father had been right after all. Even though his heart was thudding rapidly in his chest, no expression betrayed him. He wouldn’t give Samyaza the satisfaction though. Like his angelic and demonic relatives, Samyaza could be infuriatingly smug. Perhaps that was how all these creatures treated mortals, even mortals like Sam…

“The pact involved the Anti-Christ and the false prophet. The deal is that when Christ returns at the end of the Tribulation in three and a half years’ time, both these creatures will be sent to the deepest pit in Hell, to the eternal lake of fire, there to remain for all eternity, with no hope of escape. You are familiar with this?”

He was indeed. It was in the Bible although interestingly, it was the first time he’d heard talk about the false prophet. Sam knew that the prophet was meant to rise with the Anti-Christ but if he was around, he was keeping a low profile so far.

“But the real key point of the pact involves the identity of the Anti-Christ. As you know, both you and your brother had the potential to take the place at your father’s side. You were the rightful heir, having defeated your brother so therefore, you are, for all intents and purposes, the Anti-Christ.”

Sam opened his mouth to protest but the Grigori held up one hand. “Yes. I am well aware you declined, thereby infuriating your father for all time but that is as may be. Heaven and Hell are all about the wording, especially when it comes to contracts or pacts. Often they adhere to the letter rather than the spirit of the law. And the wording here is clear. The Antichrist. That could be interpreted as your brother… or you.”

Sam digested this, feeling the cold anger grow again inside him. Gabriel was playing a dangerous game. This was the second time she had betrayed him. Once, he could forgive, but twice? He said nothing though, for fear that his anger would betray him, much like her.

“So the Antichrist will be sent to the eternal lake of fire when Christ returns,” continued Samyaza. “That’s plural. Antichrists.”

Sam marveled at Gabriel’s double-dealing, but he had to admire the plan. Like most great plans, it was simplicity itself. Sam was always going to be a thorn in Heaven’s side after the return of Christ. What were they meant to do with him? He wasn’t welcome in Heaven and he simply could not be allowed to remain on the Earth when Jesus created his thousand year kingdom of paradise. It would just be embarrassing having a half-demon around. And they couldn’t just send him to Hell. He’d shown he was easily capable of transporting himself out of there. So there was only one place left: the eternal lake of fire at the bottom of the deepest pit in Hell. Only one place was worse — the bottomless pit where his father would be confined for a thousand years, and they couldn’t send him there. That was reserved for Daddy only.

Sam was at a loss. The betrayal was complete. What had he done to deserve this treatment? He’d lost everyone he cared for in the Rapture. Not only that, but he’d done everything Gabriel had asked of him, battling the Antichrist and demons, thwarting his father and rescuing what innocents he could. Why wasn’t that enough? Why would she punish him after that?

“So, what does my father get out of this? Why would he want both sons in the lake?”

“I believe Gabriel offered him certain… concessions, in exchange for his agreement. I don’t know what they were, but the inducement must have been considerable.”

“This doesn’t change anything,” said Sam, the words sounding more noble than they had to right to do. “It doesn’t change who I am. I’m not suddenly going to stop doing what I’m doing. Just because Heaven doesn’t keep its word, doesn’t mean I don’t have to.” He spat the words out like ashes. He meant it, too. Damn Hell and his father and damn Gabriel and Heaven too. He’d do what he did best, what he always did — take care of himself.

“It doesn’t have to be like this though,” said Samyaza.

Something in the Watcher’s tone brought Sam up sharply. “Go on,” he said. “I’m listening.”

“You are the son of Satan. As such, you have great power — power that largely remains untapped at present. With my help, that can change.”

“So I can do what exactly?” asked Sam.

“With the help of my brethren, you and I can make our own plane of existence, a plane that is neither Heaven nor Hell nor Earth; a place in between, where we will be safe, always welcome. A place to call home. Think about it. I am like you. When Christ returns, there will be no place for me. I am not welcome in Heaven or Hell although I am able to travel to both parts freely. I make my home here, on Earth but shortly that will no longer be an option. Join with me. Together we can make this a reality.”

Sam thought about it. He had to admit it was tempting. Finally he had an alternative to spending eternity in Hell. But surely there would be repercussions? Would Heaven and Hell just allow this to happen? There had to be a catch — there always was with Samyaza. The Watcher had his own agenda. “What about Aimi?’ he asked.

Samyaza smiled again. “I knew you would ask and I have an offer to sweeten the deal. I have just explained that I can travel to Heaven. What do you think should happen?”

Sam had known the Watcher could travel where he liked, it was just that the mere thought of it was too ridiculous to contemplate. Him travel to Heaven? Impossible!

“You can transport us both?” he said, hoping his voice didn’t sound too eager. So far, he’d been rather proud of how he’d controlled his emotions.

“Most certainly.”

“And get Aimi out too?”

Samyaza nodded mutely. “We will discuss the details later. Right now, you have other pressing matters to attend to. Time is up once again, I’m afraid.” The Watcher was looking over his shoulder again. Sam guessed that the Devil’s Hand were closing in. Even engrossed in the conversation, Sam was ever conscious of their movements, knowing that ever minute he delayed, they got that much closer.

The Watcher took flight. He hovered above Sam for a moment as if he’d forgotten something.

“You know, you never told me how you got out of Hell,” said Sam, yelling in order to be heard above the flapping of Samyaza’s great wings. Years earlier, during the battle between Sam and in brother in Hell, Satan had banished Samyaza to a deep pit in his Kingdom for interfering. The Watcher had never mentioned it and Sam had never thought to ask. He did now though.

“Perhaps another time.” The Grigori winked at him. “Now is the time to run.”

Sam turned. Approaching down the highway in the darkness were five figures. They were spread out, equidistant from each other in a rough line, still several hundred feet away but closing rapidly thanks to their long, loping gait.

Sam would face them. Eventually. But now was not that time. He had things to do, plans to make.

He turned east and sprinted off. The true test of his endurance was about to begin.

Chapter Nineteen

New Jersey

“ The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood-idols that cannot see or hear or walk.”

Revelation 9:20

H e ran through the night, his heart feeling lighter than it had for a long time — perhaps ever — despite being hotly pursued by the Devil’s Hand. Samyaza’s offer was indeed intriguing. The thought of having a safe place to spend eternity, perhaps where Aimi and he could spend it together, was almost impossible to resist. It was certainly an appealing proposition, especially in light of Gabriel’s betrayal.

But the Watcher was cunning. He had given him the news of Gabriel’s and Satan’s pact at that exact moment for a reason: to confuse Sam, make him more susceptible to other offers. Despite knowing this, it didn’t affect the allure. Sam wanted to believe, wanted to believe that what Samyaza offered was honest and true. Time would tell.

Right now, he had to focus his mind. The Devil’s Hand, while not exactly closing on him, were certainly not falling back, keeping pace even as he accelerated. Unlike him though, they had probably not already been running for many hours, arriving refreshed a few hours ago from Hell. Idly, he wondered if they trained like him. Had they spent their youth running for mile after mile like he had? Probably not. Hell no doubt had its own less subtle ways of training its warriors.

He probably would have out-distanced them more easily but he ran into a few problems. First, an earthquake had caused part of the road to collapse completely, leaving a gaping hole in the earth that appeared to go on forever — so deep, in fact, that Sam kept expecting to see Hell somewhere in its depths. It was also rather wide. He was forced to make a wide detour around it. Behind him, the Devil’s Hand closed the distance between them.

Then, near the town of Bethlehem, he was hit by a fire-storm. It wasn’t a huge problem. He was, after all, almost completely immune to fire as he’d imagine the Devil’s Hand were. But that wasn’t the issue. They were a relatively new phenomenon, becoming increasingly frequent. Fire-storms took the form of balls of lava falling from the sky, deadly to normal humans and highly destructive, largely responsible for most of the burnt towns and cities he had encountered. They struck the road in front of him. So intense was the heat that they melted the tar, creating a sticky mess that spelt ‘death trap’. If he ran through that, the tar would stick to his boots, further impeding his progress.

He detoured again, off the road, thrusting himself through smoldering plants, long since dead but still able to burn. The detour cost him time but he knew it was worth it. Experience had taught him well. The Devil’s Hand might not be as wise.

Sure enough, when he’d completed his detour and returned to the Highway, Sam cast a look over his shoulder. The Devil’s Hand had not bothered to avoid the burning road. They lacked Sam’s experience on Earth, running straight through the viscous black tar. Four immediately ran into trouble, their black boots becoming encased in the sticky sludge, slowing their progress considerably. If Sam got lucky, they might even have to retreat back to Hell to get new boots.

Unfortunately, the fifth member, ever so slightly behind the others, saw the difficulty they were having and followed Sam’s detour around. On closer inspection, Sam realized this member of the group was one of the two females.

He slowed slightly — not obviously — but enough to allow the isolated female to close the distance. This was almost too lucky. It was exactly what he’d been waiting for: an opportunity to isolate one of them. If he faced them as a group, he knew that his chances were slim. But one on one? That was a different story. Silently, he called to Yeth, willing his great Hellhound to appear. The timing couldn’t have been better. Sam could sense a church nearby, a portal that Yeth could use to his advantage.

Still cloaked in his glamor, Sam sprinted ahead. There was a mass of cars piled ahead of him on the highway, scattered like so many child’s toys. Enough to obscure his movements. He somersaulted over the first one he came to. Ahead of him was a jumbled maze of other cars. He darted in amongst them and then skidded to a halt and crouched down. He didn’t have to wait long.

He sensed her mind state first, of course. As she got closer, her thoughts became clearer to him. She didn’t expect an ambush, confident that Sam was like a deer being pursued by a pack of wolves, certain that his fear would drive him on.

Her footsteps and the sound of her breathing became apparent before she did and for once, everything went exactly to plan. He waited until she just gone past the car he huddled behind and then leapt after her, as silent as death. Some sixth sense or desperate self-preservation must have warned her at the very last moment, but it was too late. To her credit, she swiveled with surprising speed, brought her sword up and almost managed to block his blades despite not knowing exactly where the attack was coming from. It was impressive and something Sam would have struggled to do himself. He was careful not to kill her straight away though, which would have been pointless. He needed the scent trail.

His Wakizashi knocked her block sideways, even while his Katana was already curving upwards, biting underneath her arm and slicing through it almost without resistance. Blood spurted. She screamed once and tried to drive her remaining blade-like hand straight into his eyes. He blocked it again, removing the other hand just as easily. Unarmed and completely defenseless, Sam thought she might have surrendered or perhaps even pleaded then. But this was the Devil’s Hand he was dealing with here. A Cambion like him, unafraid of death and confident that if she died here, she’d just come back to face him stronger next time.

She screamed defiantly and threw herself at him. He plunged both swords though her, one through the neck and one in her chest, killing her instantly. She disappeared. Yeth appeared at his side as if her death had summoned him, his body flaming, sensing his master’s mood and prepared for battle. His Hellhound was to be disappointed this night. There would be no more fighting.

Sam pointed and understanding blossomed in the great demon’s mind. A fight might not be on the cards now but it was coming and soon. Sam assured him of that, patting Yeth’s great flanks reassuringly. The Devil’s Hand thought they had the upper hand, but things were about to change.

He thanked Yeth and cautioned him to escape. Four more Devil’s Hand were rapidly approaching, intent on avenging their fallen comrade. Sam could sense their mood and it was dire. Even he and Yeth might not be a match for them.

As Yeth faded back to Hell, taking refuge in his own plane, Sam took to his heels and fled.

He managed to stay ahead of them through the rest of that long night. It was taxing — he’d rarely felt this exhausted having run almost non-stop for twenty four hours. And that was after spending a whole night in a rage-fueled binge of destruction.

The Devil’s Hand were relentless. The four that remained pursued him doggedly, intent on revenge. A part of him even admired their persistence. The pursuit also taught him something valuable — how long it took for one to be ‘re-spawned’.

He sensed her reappearance immediately, joining the others as they ran along, presumably emerging from a nearby church. Swiftly, he did the calculations. He’d killed her just after midnight. Now it was almost dawn — probably five am if he was any judge. So basically, it took them about five hours to, well, reconstitute themselves again. Re-born. Sam envied them this ability. To be released from the fear of death… and not only that. To be re-born stronger each time. How exhilarating! He caught his envy before it got out of control. To be jealous of a demon. Ridiculous!

By dawn, he found himself in Springfield, New Jersey. Thankfully, the Devil’s Hand once again returned to Hell to avoid the hated daylight. Sam didn’t think it would last. One day soon, they would adapt like he had, able to continue the pursuit no matter what time of day it was. Sam hoped that that day was still a long way off.

He could probably have pushed on through to New York — through Jersey and into Manhattan, his ultimate destination — but he wanted to scout out the lie of the land first. Things didn’t look promising. To the east, in the general vicinity of where Sam thought Manhattan was, black smoke was drifting up in the warm morning breeze. Not a great sign.

It wasn’t much better in Springfield. The fire-storms and other natural disasters had wreaked havoc. Most of the town was destroyed, only the brick buildings having survived the fire-storms. Signage on the interstate informed him that there was a golf course nearby and he could just make it out in the distance. Or what had once been a golf course. It was now nothing more than a large open area, covered in blackened grass. People lived in the town though — he could perceive their presence, although whether they were demon worshippers or not, he couldn’t determine. He kept well away from them. Even if they weren’t in league with his Father, there wasn’t much he could do for them at the moment. Besides, Colonel Wheat and his troops would be along in another few weeks. Small comfort for those dying of the plague but Sam just couldn’t help everyone — even if he’d had enough antibiotics which he didn’t.

He got off the interstate near the business district. In order to confound the Devil’s Hand and their persistent tracking, he climbed up onto the roof tops. Some were still mostly intact, while others were just exposed and blackened ceiling beams. Silently leaping from one to the next, he knew he was taking a chance but it had to be done. He just couldn’t risk drawing attention to himself. If the Devil’s Hand found him, they would be able to summon both their human followers and their demonic kin to aid them. This way, they might not be able to track him.

He found an abandoned building, far away from any church and other people. The closest person he could sense was so distant, their mind was but the dimmest spark. As for the church — he certainly couldn’t tell if it had been desecrated from this distance and there was no way of telling if it had been destroyed or not. It was better to be safe than sorry. He wondered whether the advance demolition squads that Colonel Wheat had sent ahead had done their job yet. If they had, they would be doing well to have beaten him here, despite having set off three days before him and traveling on motorbikes. He’d made much better time than he’d thought — largely thanks to being harried by the Devil’s Hand.

He did some rough calculations in his head. It had taken him the best part of a week to get to New Jersey and Adam had told him they had six weeks. He still had four weeks — five at the outset — before the arrival of the Antichrist’s invasion fleet. Plenty of time. He’d be busy though: checking over the churches to ensure the demo squads had been successful, assessing demon worshipper numbers, determining how many survivors existed, working out possible defensive positions.

According to the latest Intel possessed by Adam, the invasion fleet would probably take the standard route into New York Harbor, past Ellis Island and then onto Manhattan. Sam still didn’t understand why they were going for Manhattan. What was the point? Any port along the Eastern seaboard would’ve done. Sam had to admit the strategy wasn’t bad though. Manhattan was an island after all. Once taken, it would be fairly easy to defend. Perhaps, as the city with the greatest population, the Antichrist thought it would have the greatest number of demon worshippers. Or maybe it was symbolic. Who knew?

The one thing he did know, however, was that coordinating the defense would be a challenging task. Communications had been poor since the Rapture, with short wave radio being the most common way for isolated bands of survivors to keep in touch. Even that form had become unreliable, which was one reason why Adam had been passing on his warning in person. Worsening atmospheric conditions in the last few months had been blamed.

The only reliable method seemed to be walkie-talkies but their range was incredibly limited. Sam had one himself and had specific instructions in relation to it. The plan was for him to rendezvous with Adam and the Colonel a week before the Antichrist was due to arrive. This gave the Colonel — who was coordinating the land based assault — time to gather troops and move them into New Jersey. If everything went to plan, he and his troops would then enter Manhattan as discretely as possible through the Holland tunnel under the Hudson River and take up defensive positions in the city. Meanwhile, Adam traveling with the British submarine, was to muster up whatever sea and air support he could along the coast. His objective was to ambush the enemy fleet by hiding behind Staten Island, allowing them to pass and then attacking them from the rear. Hopefully, the Antichrist’s forces would then be caught in a pincer maneuver, bombarded by Colonel Wheat artillery from the front and Adam’s ship to ship missiles and torpedoes from behind. It was a simple plan and one that could easily go horribly wrong but it was the only one they had.

Sam was to turn his walkie-talkie on in roughly three to four weeks’ time for an hour a day and attempt to make contact with the defense forces. By then, hopefully, he’d have all the information they would require.

He’d think about that later. Right now, all he wanted to do was rest. It was the first time in years that he actually felt the need to sleep. He was bone weary but couldn’t risk it without using a protective pentacle; he could make one but that would mean he was potentially trapped. His usual meditation regime would have to suffice for now.

The building he was in was part of a two-storied brick office block, partially gutted by fire. It had survived primarily because it was made of brick. He found an isolated office cubicle and made himself comfortable, pulling the long disused and ash coated blinds shut, darkening the room sufficiently so at least he felt a little more relaxed. He settled into his meditative position. Tomorrow, he would investigate Manhattan. A little thrill went through him. He’d never been to New York, never seen the ocean. Despite the circumstances, it was still a tiny bit exciting. The prospect of destroying some demon worshippers appealed also, as did thoughts of what he might find. Perhaps Manhattan was a bastion of humanity? If they had destroyed all the churches and entrance points to the island, there was no reason they couldn’t survive. They would still be exposed from the air but a determined resistance could ward off Astaroth attack. The thought filled him with a little hope. A tiny bit… but some hope was better than none.

Ten hours. That was all he’d have to wait. And then he’d find out for himself.

Chapter Twenty

Manhattan, New York

“ The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood. A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.”

Revelation 8:8-9

When darkness finally fell, Sam was already prepared. Had been for some time. In fact, he’d struggled to fill the last few hours, his mind going over and over recent events until his brain was swimming. Aimi was a painful recurring subject. He’d sharpened his swords. Twice. Emptied out his backpack, cleaned and checked everything inside and replaced it neatly. Planned his route into New York. Even trimmed his fingernails. Eventually, he shut the thoughts down by finding an old packet of cards, playing patience until it was dark enough to move. Somewhere in the distance, he heard screams and felt the telltale presence of demons. Clearly, at least one church had not been decommissioned.

Suddenly, he felt torn. He knew he should investigate. Despite what Gabriel had done to him, it was still his duty to protect the innocent. He had given his word, and that was not lightly given.

Empathy messed with his resolve. He could imagine what some poor person felt right at this very moment, being stalked, trapped, captured and dragged to Hell. Their terror. Their pain. Reluctantly, he shook himself free from its grasp. He had to think about the bigger picture. He had a duty and obligation to Adam and Colonel Wheat. He had a job to do. That was what he had to focus on regardless. It was ruthless and made him feel nauseous but it was about the greater good.

Eventually, he just took off, putting as much distance between himself and the source of the screams as possible, heading east towards Manhattan. Behind him, in the same general direction as the screams, he felt the Devil’s Hand make an appearance. Very persistent. They were also getting lucky or just guessed correctly that he was heading for Manhattan. He had no doubt they’d soon pick up his trail again. Their presence made him think of Yeth. He wondered how his Hellhound was getting on with his assigned task.

Slipping back onto the interstate, he increased his pace, keen to increase his lead over his pursuers. The last thing he needed whilst reconnoitering was to have them nipping at his heels. He’d planned his route out carefully, using his map to trace the interstate from Springfield, through Jersey City and under the Holland tunnel into Manhattan. Originally, he’d planned to take one of the bridges in order to get a closer view of the city but he’d reflected that it was pretty important for him to check out the state of the tunnel. It was, after all, the route Colonel Wheat planned to take when he arrived with his forces.

Fortunately, the interstate became increasingly blocked with cars as he got closer to Manhattan. This suited Sam perfectly. He’d never been trained in Parkour — the French style of urban movement — but he’d read about it when he was younger. The definition of it kind of summed up how he liked to move, aided by his natural athleticism and otherworldly strength and dexterity. It was something he’d had a great deal of experience with over the years. Urban landscapes scattered with the remnants of human debris weren’t exactly hard to come by these days.

The piles of cars posed an irresistible challenge to Sam, an obstacle almost purposely designed for him. It was the closest thing to what Sam defined as fun. He doubted whether the Devil’s Hand would view it like that. Hell probably never ran courses on navigating urban settings.

He raced through the cars with a will, somersaulting, rolling and leaping with a grace and power no human could match. He made good time, sensing the Devil’s Hand falling behind even though they’d discovered his trail.

As he neared New York, the smoke became more apparent. Several buildings at least must have been on fire. But that paled into insignificance when he began crossing a bridge, thankfully largely intact other than some twisted girders, interspersed with a few cracks big enough to fall through. A sign told him that he was still on interstate 78. If memory served, the bridge was the New Jersey Turnpike extension. The vaguely familiar stench should have warned him, but he didn’t really think about it, largely immune to the smells this post-apocalyptic world could throw at him.

He was about ten feet onto the bridge when he suddenly became aware of what was under him. The source of the odor was the water — the salt water that was Newark Bay, the body of water between him and Jersey City. It was water no longer. It was the color of blood — and not just that either. The smell finally registered. Corruption. It didn’t just look like blood — it was blood, blood that was in the process of putrefaction.

Sam stopped running. Stopped moving completely. Probably stopped breathing for all he knew, and just stared in stunned silence. It was one of the worst things he had seen since the Rapture. What’s more, it was a terribly depressing and disappointing sight. He’d read about the ocean as a boy and had always looked forward to the experience, given that he’d been brought up in Utah. Even when he was in California, the opportunity to see the sea had never presented itself. Something had always come up. He’d built it up in his mind though as an experience to look forward to, something to savor. Those things were very rare for him these days.

The disappointment was almost crushing. He should’ve expected it though. The book of Revelations had predicted that the sea, or at least a third of it, would turn to blood. Poison. He had dared to hope that the Bible might be wrong in this regard, but like everything else so far, it was like reading from a script. Everything the Bible said would happen, was happening. Why should this be any different?

It completely ruined his entrance into New York. The earlier excitement he’d felt was gone. Despondent, he began to jog again. The road took him past Liberty State Park and it was here that he got his first good look at Manhattan. As he’d suspected, it was on fire, the flames clearly visible in the darkness — but only in very specific areas. To his eye, they almost looked deliberate. It didn’t make much sense either. Anything flammable should by rights have burnt by now. There couldn’t be much left other than brick, concrete and stone — luckily the exact same materials many buildings in New York were comprised of. Some buildings lights were on, too which could be construed in any number of ways. Sam didn’t like to hazard a guess as to what was going on in the city at this early stage.

It didn’t help his mood much that the view was also marred by the outlook onto the Hudson River. It too, was blood red. The Statue of Liberty — another sight he’d been looking forward to — fared no better. Lit by the crimson moon which was only now making an appearance from behind a cloud, Sam could clearly see from his vantage point that it was scarred with scorch marks, filthy and battered. The uplifted arm carrying the torch had either broken off or been deliberately destroyed. Either way, the once proud lady painted a rather bleak picture.

Sam tore his gaze away from the horrible view, desperately trying to find something positive to look upon. Across the Hudson River, he could just make out Brooklyn. No lights were visible but Sam could make out a large number of shapes clustered at the docks. Ships. Sam would have expected many of the residents of New York to have used the ships to escape the city after the Rapture. Clearly not. Maybe things in the city weren’t that bad? Maybe many of the residents had decided to stay?

Overall, his first impression was that New York was depressingly similar to most other cities he’d encountered. Even Liberty Park was a burnt and blackened ruin. Hardly the welcome to New York he was hoping for.

He trotted on, leaping cars and other wreckage, but the fun had gone out of it. He navigated the street by instinct, his mind on other things. The interstate took him through downtown Jersey City. His eyes and other senses told him that few if any humans were resident. Even demons were conspicuous by their absence. But they were out there alright — not just the Devil’s Hand either. Plenty of demons in fact. Just because he couldn’t see them didn’t mean they weren’t there.

It wasn’t until he was at the entrance to the Holland tunnel that he realized where they were. Concealed in the darkness, hidden under tons of rock and bloody water. Lemure. In their thousands.

Sam paused and considered. It wasn’t the only way into New York but it was probably the one where he would be less exposed. He also needed to investigate the tunnel thoroughly for Colonel Wheat’s benefit. They were only Lemure after all. Stupid creatures. The lowest, weakest demon of all. But in great numbers, they still posed a threat to him — if he was cornered, for instance. And what better way to corner him than in a tunnel?

He sighed, resigned to a course of action. If it didn’t work out, he could always backtrack. Cautiously, wrapping his concealment glamor around himself more tightly than he’d ever done before, he entered the tunnel. He could sense that the Lemure weren’t at the entrance — they were further in, concealed within the darkened recesses of the tunnel, interspersed amongst the jumble of cars.

He stuck to the sides, moving without sound, edging his way deeper into the tunnel. He was about a hundred feet in when he saw his first Lemure. He froze, watching the creature carefully, waiting for any indication that he’d been spotted. He saw no such indication. In fact, the Lemure didn’t move at all, appearing as frozen as he was, its blood red eyes staring at nothing. In the darkness, he gradually became aware of how many there were, increasing in numbers further in. He’d been right. There were potentially thousands of them in the tunnel. They all looked like they were in the same state as the first one, locked in some sort of upright coma.

This just might be easier than he first suspected. He moved on, hugging the tunnel wall, keeping his distance from the creatures. Even though they appeared to be in some sort of stasis, it probably wouldn’t do to disturb them. If he disturbed one, he disturbed them all. Then it would get hairy.

He knew from studying his map that the tunnel was over two and a half miles long — perhaps the longest two and a half miles he would ever have to walk. He’d got lucky though. The fact that the creatures were in this state was definitely a bonus. If they had been fully awake, he wasn’t sure if he would have been able to get past all of them. He crept on and had traveled maybe a third of that distance when his luck began to change for the worse.

The Lemures were clustered thickly now, taking up almost every free space that wasn’t already occupied by a wrecked car, making it almost impossible for him to slip through without touching one. Somehow, he still managed it, using his agility to move up the walls for a few seconds at a time when he had to. It got him through some tricky patches.

And then he slipped up. It was something he didn’t do very often. His body was so well honed, so well trained and disciplined that it rarely let him down, always obeying and carrying out every command with precision. Not this time, however.

He’d had to glide up the wall to avoid a tightly packed bunch of Lemure blocking the way. When he came down, the handle of his sword brushed against one. Nothing happened for a moment and then the creature’s fixed stare suddenly focused on him. Sam could sense awareness erupting in what it considered a brain. His Wakizashi through its eye soon stopped all that, and it disappeared in a cloud of ash. Yet even though these events had only taken the blinking of an eye, literally, and he’d made absolutely no sound, other Lemure in the vicinity seemed to stir. Sam froze again, not daring to breathe. Perhaps he’d get away with it?

Several Lemure nearby displayed signs of rousing themselves. Forcing himself not to voice his despair, Sam decided on a course of action. He’d go back the way he’d come. If he went any further, he ran the risk of awakening every single one of the Lemure in the tunnel. He didn’t fancy those odds.

He turned back the way he’d come and then froze once more when he saw what was emerging out of the darkness. The Devil’s Hand. Moving with ethereal grace, they approached in a line, avoiding the cars almost as easily as he did. As for the Lemure — the Devil’s Hand didn’t seem to care about their presence, shoving them out of the way, barging past them. The Lemure gave no indication that they were concerned with this treatment, simply waking for a moment, identifying that these other demons posed no threat and then retreating back into their self-imposed coma.

The nearby Lemure were becoming aware of him now. They turned towards him, snarling. Sam felt the gazes of the Devil’s Hand snap in his direction. The jig was up. They knew he was in here. Tossing caution out the window in favor of speed, he took off, both swords out now, prepared to cut down anything that got in his way.

That turned out to be quite a lot of demons.

He raced through them, somersaulting and avoiding them where possible, slashing through them and dissolving them into dust when necessary. And it was becoming increasingly necessary.

The Devil’s Hand must have raised the warning. Every single Lemure were now awake and aware, luckily moving with some lethargy. With such great numbers, it hardly mattered. Sam was boxed in, forced onto the roofs and hoods of cars — places that he’d avoided earlier in an attempt to avoid any noise. Noise was the least of his problems now.

The screams of the Lemure were deafening inside the confines of the tunnel, amplified, reverberating and echoing around Sam, adding to the general confusion. Lemure leapt at him, scrabbling at his legs, tearing at his jeans and leaving bloody scratches where they connected with bare flesh. He ignored them and raced on. Ahead of him, some of the Lemure wised up, jumping on top of the cars in an effort to intercept him, forming an impenetrable mass.

He dived into them, both swords extended, plunging through and leaving a jet-stream of ash in his wake. Somehow, he landed on his feet. Claws struck him, this time all over his body, the sheer volume of the attacks beyond even his capabilities to deflect. He slowed time but it didn’t seem to help much. The Lemure were just too tightly packed. Behind him, the Devil’s Hand, moving in slow motion, were unimpeded, closing the distance regardless.

Despite Sam’s training and self-control, he began to panic. There just didn’t seem to be any way out of this. Everywhere he looked there were Lemure, blocking his movements at every turn. For every one he destroyed, five moved to replace it.

His ability to focus as Hikari had trained him ran out. Time resumed its normal pace, and the Lemure and Devil’s Hand appearing to speed up before his eyes. Wounds appeared on his body faster than he could heal. A clawed hand almost took off his head, leaving bloody claw tracks across his face. Blood dripped into his eyes, partially obscuring his vision. He was beginning to lose hope. And then he saw something through his blood blurred vision. Far down the end of the tunnel. A burnished glow.

At first, Sam thought the tunnel was on fire but then he realized it was moving. He blocked a dozen demon arms, severing them and reducing their owners to embers before wiping the blood out of his eyes. A fire that moved? That didn’t sound right. And then he sensed what it was and relief washed over him.

Yeth. Unbidden, his Hellhound was riding to his rescue.

Sam renewed his efforts, trying to force his way through the mass of demon bodies. Yeth got closer, the carnage he was inflicting forcing the Lemure to turn towards the new threat. Sam sensed their panic and confusion. Another demon attacking them? Not only that, a greater Hellhound — a demon feared by almost all others.

The distraction suddenly gave him openings. He struck out with both swords, using his whirlwind attack, opening up a clear space on top of the car. Yeth ploughed on and even Sam paused to witness the sheer majesty of a Hellhound in full attack mode.

Yeth probably weighed as much as a rhinoceros; perhaps as much as four thousand pounds. Not only that, but his armored scales deflected even the most determined attack. Yeth’s flaming hide ignited any part of a Lemure foolish enough to get in his way. Those that didn’t were simply trampled. As he charged, Yeth discharged an almost continuous stream of fire, withering many more Lemure that were now fleeing before him. Even cars were not immune to the power of a Hellhound, burnt and blasted out of his path. It was a full rout; the Lemure streamed past Sam, now oblivious to him in their haste. He almost felt sorry for them.

Sam turned but the Devil’s Hand were nowhere to be seen. He couldn’t even sense them amongst all the confusion. They must have retreated in order to avoid the panicked stampede.

The distance between them now clear of obstacles, Yeth hurtled towards him. The great demon skidded to a halt a few feet from Sam, shaking the ground, his obsidian claws generating sparks where they dug into the road.

Sam smiled. It was quite an entrance. Not for the first time did he thank his good fortune for Yeth. Reluctantly, he also silently thanked Samyaza. If it hadn’t been for the Watcher — without his knowledge and the statuette — he and Yeth would never have met. He did owe the Watcher. The great demon was a gift. His Hellhound always had his back, and without him, all would have been lost long ago.

At Sam’s unspoken command, Yeth extinguished his fire. Sam was immune to the Hellhound’s fire, but his clothes and backpack certainly weren’t, and there were precious items in his backpack that he couldn’t afford to lose. He also didn’t want to arrive in New York naked.

The injuries and the sudden darkness caused his head to spin, momentarily disorientating him. Shakily, painfully, leaking blood, Sam dragged himself onto Yeth’s back, only now becoming aware of the extent of his injuries. There were many, some of them quite deep. He would need several hours — if not days — to recover.

He’d just settled himself onto Yeth when the Devil’s Hand suddenly reemerged, impinging on his awareness. In the confusion, Sam had missed one of them. Even Yeth had overlooked it. Concealed by the fleeing Lemure, the Cambion had snuck up on Sam from behind. As Yeth turned towards the city, intent on carrying his master out of the tunnel, the Cambion darted out from behind the concealment of a car and leapt, his blade before him like a spear.

At the very last moment, Sam reacted. But he was still a fraction too late.

It was one of the male demons. One of the ones he hadn’t killed before. Thankfully. If it had been one of the demons he’d already killed, he wouldn’t have survived. As it was, the Cambion’s Hell-wrought blade pierced his side even as Sam’s sword darted out like a snake and plunged through the demon’s chest, killing it. It disappeared, but the damage had already been done. Sam clutched his side with one hand and it came away smeared in thick arterial blood. This wasn’t good.

Grunting, he managed to sheathe his sword, using this free hand to hold on to Yeth’s neck. Without it, he would’ve fallen. The rest of the Devil’s Hand materialized out of the darkness. Yeth didn’t need to be told, leaping away and soon out-distancing the remaining four members of the Devil’s Hand. Sam clung on for dear life. If he fell, the Cambions would have him.

As Yeth loped away from danger, Sam could feel his life leaking out of him. The Cambion’s cursed sword wound would not heal easily, perhaps not in time to save him. Already his other cuts were reopening, the Hell sword having reduced his body’s abilities to heal itself. He felt weak. Dizzy. The ceiling and sides of the tunnel spun sickeningly. Several times he almost toppled from Yeth’s back. Somehow, he managed to stay upright, clinging onto Yeth’s neck with both arms, heedless of the blood pouring from his wounded side.

In the distance, an oval patch of lighter grey gradually revealed itself. They were nearing the tunnel exit. Thankfully, Yeth had destroyed or scared off any remaining Lemure. They were alone in the tunnel.

As they emerged from the tunnel, that all changed. Several armed figures stepped out of the shadows. One of them stepped forward, wearing both a helmet and a mask to ward off ash. Sam, defenseless as a newborn baby, made no move to resist as the figure helped him off Yeth’s back, easing him onto the ground. He took it as a positive sign that this person must not be in league with demons. They would’ve killed him outright by now if they were.

In some confusion, barely able to focus, Sam noticed that Yeth had turned and was reentering the tunnel. He turned his head on its side to track his Hellhound’s progress.

“Yeth. Stop. Don’t go. I need you.” He forced the words out, gritting his teeth against the pain, desperately trying to remain conscious. “Take me to Hell. I’ll heal quicker there.” There was something n his mouth, making speech difficult. It was only then that he realized it was blood.

Yeth turned his great head, his eyes glowing in the darkness. No good. Devil’s Hand will follow. I will stop. Give you time.

Sam tried to sit upright. “No!” he managed to blurt. “They’ll kill you.”

Yeth ignored him, loping off into the inky darkness of the tunnel.

“Come back,” he yelled. “I command you!”

His weak voice was suddenly drowned out by automatic gunfire. All around him, the other figures returned fire, the noise deafening around the tunnel entrance. Shell impacts sparked and ricocheted all around him but Sam was beyond caring.

The effort was too much. He sank back down to the ground. By the time his head had hit the ground, he was already unconscious.

Chapter Twenty-one

Lower East Side

“… and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.”

2 Thessalonians 2:10

Sam woke with a start in an unfamiliar setting. He was lying on a dirty mattress in a darkened room, empty save for himself and some storage shelves filled with unrecognizable objects. He was naked from the waist up. His swords and pack were nowhere to be seen — in itself a disturbing sign. Outside, it was daylight. The single window in the room, covered by an old sheet, allowed only the most diffuse light through. A solid wooden door marked the only other exit from the room.

He didn’t bother to try and sit up. Experience had taught him that that was a bad idea after a bad injury. But then he remembered what had happened and sat up anyway.

Yeth. Where was his Hellhound?

The motion caused a wave of nausea to crash over him. He sank back down, both hands covering his eyes. Without doubt, the wounds he had sustained were bad. He must have lost a lot of blood too. He could feel the injuries knitting together though. Ever so slowly. His side where the Cambion had stabbed him was heavily bandaged. Even so, there was a dark stain of blood on it. It must be bad if he was still bleeding. Some of his other injuries were bandaged up as well. Basically, he was a mess, but he didn’t have time to feel sorry for himself. He desperately wanted to see Yeth or at the very least, find out if he was ok.

Sam’s head was pounding, making it all but impossible to use his demonic senses. He had no idea where he was or who was around. For all he knew, there were a few thousand demons directly outside the door.

He was about to force himself to his feet when the door opened. A fatigue-clad figure entered. Vaguely, Sam realized this figure was female. He didn’t bother moving. It she wanted him dead, he would’ve been by now. So exhausted and befuddled he was that it wasn’t until she sank down on the mattress did he realize who it was. He tried to sit up but gave up in exhaustion.

A genuine smile flickered across Grace’s face. It lasted for a moment and then it was gone. “How do you feel, Sam?” she asked. The dimness in the room somehow contrived to highlight the scars on her face, a constant reminder of his failure.

“Weak,” he said, the words barely audible.

“Not surprising. It was touch and go there for a moment. Thought you weren’t going to make it.”

Sam thought he could detect some feeling there but it was hard to tell with Grace these days. It was just nice to have a polite conversation with her for a change.

“Where’s Yeth? Where’s my Hellhound?” he managed to croak.

Grace shook her head. “I don’t know,” she confessed. “All I know is that it went back in the tunnel. I think I heard sounds of fighting but it was hard to tell over the gunfire.”

So Grace referred to his Hellhound as an it, refusing to acknowledge him with a personal pronoun, refusing to recognize his relationship with Sam and how much the creature meant to him. Despite having been around Yeth quite a few times, she’d never even spoken to his Hellhound. Understandably, she had a great deal of mistrust and hatred centered around demons. Just because Yeth was his indentured servant didn’t make him any more trustworthy in her eyes.

“What happened?” he asked in a whisper. Speaking any louder just seemed to aggravate the wound in his side.

“You want me to go back to the beginning?” she asked. He nodded. “Not much to tell, really,” she said, shrugging. “I volunteered to go with one of the demo squads. Got here yesterday. Not what we expected.” She saw the question in his face and obviously chose to misinterpret it.

“This looks like an old Police Museum, somewhere in the lower East side, although I’m not sure whether I’m meant to know that or not. It’s hard not to know, what with all the display cases and signage everywhere. We’re not far from the tunnel where we dragged you. It’s basically the headquarters of the resistance. Luckily, we found them — or they found us — first. It’s a decent base of operations. Solid. Made of stone. There’s access to the sewers underneath here. That’s how we got you in. They’ve managed to keep their location a secret so far.”

“So, how did you…’

“Find you?” she finished for him. “Your creature summoned me. Let me know through some creepy mind pictures where you were and that you were in trouble. It wasn’t hard — we just followed the sound of screaming. Of course, that drew attention to us. Our new allies weren’t very happy about that for several reasons. The only reason they’re still alive for the most part is because they’ve been keeping under the radar. What you did last night wasn’t very discreet. Not only that, but let’s just say there’s a bit of suspicion centered on you. They might not know what you are, but they certainly knew what your pet was. You might want to keep your hood on when they come to question you.”

“My swords. My pack?”

“Are safe,” she said. “Don’t worry. You’ve got bigger fish to fry.” She cut to the chase. “I’d ask you if you wanted the good news but there isn’t any. Only bad. Nothing unusual there. The thing is, we were too late. A few days too late. We missed our chance, Sam.”

She paused, for the first time in a long time conscious of what shock could do to Sam in his weakened condition. “The Antichrist is already here. The invasion fleet too. It’s all over, Sam. New York is already lost.”

Sam didn’t move or say anything for a moment. How was this possible? There was no way the Anti-Christ could already be here. Unless… unless their Intel had been compromised. Or someone had been compromised. That person had to be Adam but Sam didn’t believe it for a moment. There was no way Adam would betray them. Or would he? Sam doubted it but he’d been wrong before. That, however, wasn’t the issue now. The issue now was making sure land and sea based defense forces didn’t run straight into a trap. They’d have to be warned.

“We need to get word to them, to the others,” he said, trying to sit up.

Grace held up a hand to silence him. “I know. I know. Not that we could spare them, but we’ve sent two of our team to do just that. Got them out through the sewers. No easy task.”

Sam nodded, subsiding down onto the mattress. He still had a lot of questions but didn’t have the strength. It was taxing just talking.

As if realizing this, Grace stood. “I’ve got to go. I’ll be back in a few hours. Make sure you get some rest. You’ll need it for the interrogation.”

True to her word, Grace was back in a few hours. She wasn’t alone. She was accompanied by a small man who immediately reminded Sam of his master, Hikari. Not that the newcomer was Japanese, it was just that he seemed to radiate the same reassuring aura of calm. Sam tried to sit up again and even though his strength was gradually returning, he was still too weak. Since Grace had left, he’d had no other visitor and was eager for answers. Apparently, so was the Resistance.

The man carried two chairs. He set them down next to Sam’s mattress as Grace introduced her companion. His name was Tony. He was the leader of the Resistance in New York and Sam could see immediately why. It wasn’t just the calmness. He had a certain quality about him that spoke of leadership, that commanded instant obedience. Oddly, he was still dressed in a suit that looked like it was very expensive. Once. The quality material and exquisite cut was now marred by rips, tears and burn marks. Tony himself didn’t look exceptional in any way. His dark hair was trimmed short and his features were unremarkably if a trifle overweight but Sam sensed the determination and cold calculation in his mind. Tony was not to be messed with.

He bent down and pulled Sam’s hood down off his head before he had a chance to react, revealing the dark horns.

“You are a demon,” said Tony, without preamble in a strong New York accent. Clearly Tony was a local. His voice and face were expressionless.

Sam was momentarily lost for words. It wasn’t what he’d been expecting. “Only half,” he managed. “How did you know?”

“I told him,” said Grace.

Sam felt her deceit like a hammer blow to the stomach. Yet another one. Was he so damned that he deserved to be treated like this? He glared at her and she dropped her gaze, refusing to meet the accusation in his eyes, for once embarrassed by her actions.

“Don’t blame her,” said Tony, straightening up. There was steel in his voice. He wasn’t asking. “I guessed. Her reaction and those horns just confirmed my suspicions. I saw them when they first brought you in, unconscious. She didn’t really have any choice but to tell me.” He paused, considering his words carefully. “Tell me everything you know. Leave nothing out and don’t lie. That is your one and only warning.”

Sam also had no choice. Squashing the anger he felt towards Grace, he began telling Tony about his origins and a brief summary of the events that had led him to New York. Tony interrupted frequently, checking to see if he’d heard correctly, asking for more details when the story became too unbelievable or confusing.

When Sam had finished, Tony sat back in his chair and breathed out slowly. “Just so I’ve got this straight. Your mother was human but your father is Satan. You’ve been charged by Gabriel to save as many innocent humans as you can. You were meant to be the Antichrist but refused the offer. You’re here now as an advance scout for the US forces that are on their way here. Sound about right?”

Sam nodded mutely.

“And that giant Hell beast is your pet, right?”

Sam nodded again.

“Thing is, how do I trust you? Half my family went up in the Rapture. I saw the other half get dragged down into Hell by creatures like your little doggy. Creatures that you seem related to. How do you expect me to react here? My men tell me you were fighting demons but how do I know? No-one saw it for themselves. Grace here vouches for you but what does that mean to me? I’ve only just met her too.”

Tony ran the fingers of one hand over his smoothly shaved jaw, considering. “I admit that this isn’t an easy decision. You’ve got to realize that I have the lives of hundreds of others to consider here. Their safety. Under the circumstances, I can’t allow you to leave. You could potentially compromise everything we have worked hard to achieve. I also can’t allow you your freedom.”

Sam listened, aghast. He could understand that Tony might have reservations about him, but this could ruin everything. “You don’t understand,” pleaded Sam. “The Antichrist is here. I’m the only one who can defeat him.”

Tony smiled without humor. “We’ll see about that, boy. In the meantime, you are confined here, under guard. I don’t want you leaving this room. Things may change — may — if and when your allies get here, but until that time, I’ll not revisit my decision.” He nodded once at Sam who was spluttering on the mattress, trying to rise, and stood.

“There is a guard outside this door,” he said. “Don’t try to leave. They have orders to shoot and trust me when I say that their guns are loaded with iron.” He gestured at Grace. She stood too, gave Sam a look that he couldn’t decipher and allowed herself to be led out of the room.

The door shut behind them with the sound of finality. Sam heard a bolt sliding across. He was effectively a prisoner. A prisoner of the Resistance. The very people he was trying to save.

Chapter Twenty-two

Confinement

“ He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God.”

2 Thessalonians 2:4

It took Sam almost three days to completely regain his strength. This in itself was extraordinary, testimony to how close to death he had been. The scars, especially the raised one from the Cambion’s Hell blade, were a constant reminder of how many injuries he’d suffered. He had quite a collection now. He had one on his chest and a very impressive one on his left leg where his brother had cut him. That had been a bad injury — almost taking off the leg completely. He’d only lived because his father had saved him. Ironic that. Had saved him only to try and kill him again with the Devil’s Hand. His father continued to move in mysterious ways.

When he started feeling better, he investigated the room. The covered window was tiny. All he could see was the building across the street. He left it covered during the day but removed the sheet at night. In addition, iron bars secured it from demon attack from outside, keeping him in just as effectively. The door was as solid as he’d assumed. He tried to use his telekinesis to open it but it was padlocked securely.

He sensed a great many human minds in the building, most of them coming and going beneath him. They seemed to be active during the day and the night. Sam assumed they had shifts.

Small portions of food and drink had been brought for him by a young scrawny male, probably around fifteen years of age. Every time was the same. Sam would hear the padlock opened, bolts being drawn on the outside. The door would open just enough to allow the boy to enter and deposit the tray on the ground. Outside the door, Sam caught of the armed guard that he sensed standing there. The guard was taking his job seriously, his mind radiating alertness and caution.

Sam tried to engage the boy in conversation but he was completely ignored. The boy didn’t dally in any case. As soon as the tray was on the ground, he was back out the door, seemingly reluctant to spend any more time than he had to in the room. Sam sensed fear in his mind. His demonic nature was probably common knowledge by now. Certainly the boy knew what he was.

They were the only two people Sam saw. Tony didn’t return. Even Grace didn’t bother to visit him. He told himself he didn’t care, especially after she’d revealed his true nature to Tony.

The food itself was, understandably, extremely simple. There wasn’t much of it either but it did include a little fresh fruit and vegetables. There was even fresh-tasting water. Like the survivors Sam had encountered on his way to New York, it looked like this lot were using hydroponics and had access to a fresh water supply. The food actually cheered Sam up a little, knowing that people were somehow eking out a living even in this huge city. He ate it all too, even though he wasn’t hungry or thirsty, believing that the sustenance may help his body heal. This in itself was an erroneous belief and he knew it. The only sustenance he really needed was the light of the blood moon that seeped in through the window at night.

He began to train again, running through his unarmed forms, doing press-ups and other calisthenics. Sometimes, he’d imagine he still had his swords. He cut down imaginary enemies by the thousands. Their absence pained him. It was like losing parts of his body.

On the third night since he’d been incarcerated, everything changed. Sam sensed something happening outside the door — a mind he’d not encountered before. There was a brief struggle and a muffled but tell-tale sound of a body being gently lowered to the floor. The padlock rattled slightly and then the bolt was drawn quietly across.

Sam moved behind the door as it silently slid open. A figure entered. Without waiting to see what they would do, Sam grabbed whoever it was and thrust them up against the wall. He held the person there by the neck, their legs dangling in the air. It turned out it was a he.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Sam hissed.

The man’s eyes bugged out. He pointed at his throat and made choking noises. Sam got the hint, letting the man down but keeping one hand around his collar.

The man took a breath and tried to rub his throat. He looked up at Sam nervously. Sam had never seen him before in his life. He looked to be in his mid-twenties. Scruffy blond hair and a tattered jacket that had once been brightly colored gave Sam the impression that this guy had once belonged on the Californian surf beaches and not in New York.

“I’m here to get you out,” he finally blurted out, breathing heavily. “My name’s Travis.”

“Who sent you?”

“Someone who wants to help you. What’s with all the questions, dude? Do you want to get out or don’t you?”

Sam grudgingly took his hand off Travis’s collar. “I want to get out.”

“Right then,” said Travis, starting to sound more confident. He adjusted his collar. “Follow me. Keep quiet.”

“I need my swords and my pack.”

Travis shook his head. “No, you don’t. Not where you’re going. Besides, I wouldn’t have a clue where they are.”

Sam gritted his teeth in frustration. He’d have to get them later, even though he felt uneasy without them. The last few days had been horrible but he comforted himself with the knowledge that they were somewhere nearby. Now he was actually leaving them behind but he couldn’t exactly search this whole building for them. Right now, the important thing was to get out — to make sure that Adam and Colonel Wheat had received the warning. Other considerations — even his swords — were secondary.

Travis led him out of the room, past the guard slumped on the ground. The guard was still breathing, for which Sam was thankful. As a member of the resistance, the man obviously wasn’t in league with the demons and didn’t deserve to die for Sam’s freedom.

He followed Travis on silent feet. He had to hand it to the man — he moved surprisingly well, making almost as little sound as Sam himself. Cautiously they moved through two large rooms. Both of these rooms were filled with glass display cases containing police memorabilia, weapons and evidence from old and probably famous cases. Sam didn’t pay them much attention. Outside the second room, they discovered an emergency exit.

“No-one really uses this,” whispered Travis. “They lead almost straight to an access hatch which will take us to the sewers. They’re not guarded either because they lock from the outside. Once in, you can’t get out. The doors are fire proof — very thick.”

Sam nodded. He still didn’t know why Travis was helping him but he seemed well informed. Travis didn’t seem much of a threat either. Once out of here, Sam could easily overwhelm him.

They entered the emergency exit, closing the door silently behind them. Inside, it was pitch black. Sam was fine — he could still see well enough to negotiate the stairs — but Travis was a different story. Only human, Travis needed artificial illumination.

“Shield your eyes,” said Travis. There was a spark and then a flame as Travis used a lighter to ignite a candle he had produced from his pocket. Holding the candle before him, Travis led the way down the stairs. They descended maybe four flights. Either the building wasn’t very tall or Sam had been held on a lower floor.

They found themselves in a small sub-basement. Two exits led out of the room. One was marked ‘Maintenance’. It was this door that Travis opened with a key. Inside, the room was filled with shelves, all stacked high with what appeared to be cleaning supplies, mops, and plastic containers filled with chemicals. Without a word, Travis led Sam over to a corner, partially blocked and concealed by another shelving rack. Set into the floor of this unobtrusive corner was a large circular metal plate — easily big enough for a man to squeeze through. Sam knew immediately that it was made of iron. Grunting, Travis tried to lift it.

“Give us a hand, would you?”

Sam shook his head and made no move to help. “I’d rather I didn’t.” Travis had planned his route out carefully. He must have calculated on lifting the plate himself in the event that Sam was not able to help. He was probably just being lazy. Perhaps it was some kind of test? Regardless, Sam wasn’t going to play games.

Muttering to himself and shooting Sam a scathing look, Travis finally managed to wrangle the plate out of the way. Underneath was a grill, also made of iron. This one was locked with another padlock. Travis produced another key and swiftly unlocked it and moved this grill aside. Sam was impressed. No wonder no demons had gotten in this way. He understood now why no guard needed to be posted at this access point. Even in desperation, Sam couldn’t have gotten through such a secure grill.

On his knees, Travis poked his head through the hole, waving his candle away. Satisfied, he nodded to Sam and disappeared. Sam moved over and peered down it. The hole was a perfectly formed concrete tunnel leading down — presumably and judging from the smell — to the sewers about twenty feet below. Metal rungs were set in the concrete walls at regular intervals. Already, the candle light revealed Travis was almost half way down. Sam was about to follow when he sensed it. The rungs were made of iron. Typical. He could do this the hard way or the easy way.

He decided that his body had suffered enough lately. He’d do it the easy way.

Waiting for Travis to descend seemed to take an eternity. When he got to the bottom, Travis looked up expectantly at Sam. Sam waved him aside. “Get out of the way,” he hissed.

Travis appeared momentarily confused and then, when he realized Sam’s intent, hurriedly moved aside. Sam put his hands straight down his sides. He gave a tiny sideways leap and then plummeted down the hole, missing the rungs by the narrowest of margins. He splashed down in a foot of water, legs spread and bent to dissipate the impact.

Travis looked at him for a moment and shook his head. Sam heard him say ‘Show off’ under his breath before the other man turned, leading Sam down the sewerage tunnel. Travis was clearly making an effort to be silent even though it was difficult in the water. Even if he had been dispossessed of his demonic senses, this would’ve told Sam one important piece of information. There were other people around. He could sense them and Travis knew they were there too. This, then, was obviously not the only access point from the Police museum to the sewers.

There was no-one else in close proximity but Sam had no idea how Travis knew this. He was being quiet as a precaution but he made no move to extinguish his candle. Sam followed, a soundless, hulking shadow at the other man’s back.

As he moved, he noticed the water. It wasn’t red which meant it was fresh and not salt water. And it was still here, proving that New York somehow had a fresh water supply. No wonder so many people were able to survive here.

Ahead of him, Travis took several turns. Some of the tunnels were so low that Sam had to stoop. They saw no-one else. No humans. No demons. Sometimes Sam could sense both. The demons from above and humans both above and on the same level as he and Travis. The only other creatures they saw were rats and cockroaches — thousands of them.

Sam estimated they’d been moving for about forty minutes when Travis brought them to a stop. On the wall next to him were more rungs leading up to an iron manhole cover about ten feet above their heads. Travis swiftly moved up the rungs. At the top, he edged the cover across and peeked out warily. Satisfied by what he saw, he moved the cover all the way across and hauled himself out, motioning Sam to follow.

Sam sighed. More iron. Always iron.

He tore some strips off his jeans. They were already in tatters anyway from their mistreatment at the hands of the Lemure so he figured it hardly mattered. He ripped more material away until they were basically long shorts, and used it to wrap his hands, careful to ensure that not one scrap of his skin was exposed.

That done, he ascended, slowly at first, wincing in advance at the expected pain. When none came, he grew more confident and raced up the rungs. He literally flew up out of the manhole, his attitude being that if he was going to make contact with the cover, it would be best to get it over and done with quickly. Fortunately he avoided it, landing next to Travis.

He looked around and found himself in what had once, by the looks of it, been a park. Now it was littered by blackened tree stumps, a desolate and barren wasteland, almost identical to Liberty state park that he’d seen earlier, now just over the water.

“Battery Park,” said Travis, appearing to read his mind. “Would’ve taken you through the Brooklyn battery tunnel but its blocked now. The Resistance thought it was a good idea. Thought they might stop the flow of demons. They were wrong, dude, so wrong.” Travis inclined his head. “This way. Got a surprise for you.”

Warily, Sam following as Travis led him along one of the paths that weaved through the once park. Something about this situation didn’t seem right. It was somehow a bit off. Then he saw it. On a clear space that had once been trees and grass, a helicopter rested, its rotors already spinning. As they got nearer, Sam could hear the wine of its motor increasing in pitch. It was readying itself to take off.

“You’d better hurry,” said Travis. “He doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

“Who?” asked Sam, mystified.

Travis smiled and shrugged helplessly. “You’ll just have to find out for yourself, dude,” he said. “I’ll leave you here. Go on, get in the helicopter.”

“Why are you doing this?” Sam asked. “What has this got to do with you?”

“You’re gonna find out soon enough,” he said. And then he shrugged. “What does it matter?” He turned around and lifted up the long blond hair on the back of his neck. There was a tattoo there. The Mark of the Beast. Travis was in league with the Satan worshippers in the city.

He turned back to Sam and winked. “Handy little mark,” he said. “Gets you all sorts of things in this city.”

Sam turned away from him, disgusted. Suddenly, a man dressed in fatigues with insignia that Sam could only interpret as belonging to some European nation got out of the back of the helicopter and opened the rear door, clearly waiting for Sam to get in. Reluctantly, Sam did so. As soon as he was in, the door slammed shut and the chopper lifted off. Despite the situation, Sam was thrilled. He’d never been in any sort of flying craft before. The closest he’d got to flying was when an Astaroth had picked him up once. That wasn’t fun. This was.

He’d never had an opportunity to fly before the Rapture, his life being one long training session. After — well — after the Rapture, flying became a risky business. Clearly, volcanoes continued to erupt all over the world, pumping tons of ash into the atmosphere — ash that wasn’t about to go away anytime soon. Any flying craft with an air intake ran the risk of choking and becoming blocked by ash. Once that happened, the plane or helicopter would fall out of the sky. Not only that, but the constant fire storms were an occupational hazard for any would-be pilot. Sam couldn’t actually remember the last time he’d seen anything fly — including birds. They’d been some jets and helicopters at the Beightler Armory but every time he’d seen them, they were always being swarmed over by engineers and technicians, trying to sort out glitches and problems. He’d spoken to one of the engineers and been told that navigation was a huge problem too. The same atmospheric interference that was interrupting communications also played havoc with radar. Nowadays, the skies belonged to the demons.

Not today, though, it seemed. Sam felt a trifle giddy as the helicopter lifted several hundred feet in the air, giving Sam his first real look at New York. There still wasn’t much to see: a few buildings with lights and some fires that had all but burnt out. It wasn’t clear who was responsible for what. Presumably the invasion forces had powered up the buildings — Sam couldn’t imagine for a second that the Resistance would advertise their presence like that. As for the fires — that could be the work of either side, trying to burn the other out.

The helicopter suddenly banked sharply to the south, heading towards Brooklyn. It was a quick flight. The helicopter flew over Governor’s Island which was as barren and desolate as every other park he’d seen. It dipped slightly again and suddenly they were flying over docks covered with gantry cranes. The docks weren’t empty though. Almost everyone seemed to contain a ship. Not just any ship though — warships. Here was the invasion fleet.

The helicopter came into land, touching down on the helicopter platform of the largest ship. Sam was no expert but his education had touched on all military aspects. He was pretty sure this behemoth was at least a Cruiser, possibly a Battlecruiser. The ships flanking it were probably Destroyers. Whoever Sam was been taken to see, ranked highly in the invasion fleet’s hierarchy. Sam suspected he knew who.

As soon as the helicopter was down properly, the door was yanked over. Four armed soldiers dressed in uniforms identical to soldier earlier waited for him. The one in front gestured for Sam to exit the helicopter and follow him. Sam obeyed, curious as to where this was leading. The three other soldiers fell in behind him.

The soldier in front led him through the ship, twisting and turning through a maze of grey corridors. They encountered several other soldiers during the journey, all eyeing Sam with interest as he passed. Sam tried to ignore their stares.

They came to a bulkhead door and he was led through. Inside was a spacious office. Judging from cabinets filled with models and memorabilia, it had once belonged to the Captain or Admiral. No longer. Behind a desk, sat someone Sam had not expected. He had been almost certain that he was being taken to see his brother. He was wrong. It was Sam’s former friend.

Joshua.

Chapter Twenty-three

Joshua

“ You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

John 8:44

Thank you, Captain,” said Joshua, nodding at the soldier in front of Sam. “That will be all. I’ll call if I need you.”

The Captain appeared uncertain for a moment but eventually saluted and led his men out of the room, closing the door behind them.

Joshua indicated the chair in front of his desk. “Take a seat, Sam. We have much to discuss.”

Warily, Sam did as he was bid, somewhat confused by all this. Where was his brother, the Antichrist?

“You probably have a few questions,” said Joshua. Sam said nothing at first, content to use the time to examine his former buddy. Joshua had changed greatly since they’d first met and had aged considerably even since their relatively recent encounter in Hell. Joshua now looked at least thirty although they were the same age. He’d always been a big man but now he appeared to be a little overfed — a bad sign when most people on Earth were starving. His curly blond locks were now streaked with grey.

“Why am I here?” Sam asked. “Why go to the trouble?”

Joshua smiled easily. Gone was the tense and insecure teenager. Here was a man grown confident in his abilities. “Because I need you. Just like you need me. We can help each other, you and I.”

“Help each other, how?” asked Sam.

“You made a promise to me once, I recall. A promise to do my bidding when I asked in exchange for a certain reunion.”

Sam’s breath caught in his throat. He remembered. His mother. Joshua had promised to reunite him with his mother. “What do you want me to do?” Sam said. He had no intention to do whatever his former friend wanted but he’d play along until he learnt more about his mother. This was potentially his chance to find her.

“All in good time.” Joshua stood and moved over to the drinks cabinet. He poured himself some amber fluid from a crystal decanter. “Would you like one?” he asked, gesturing at his glass. Sam shook his head. “Back in Utah, I didn’t drink, obviously,” he continued, walking back behind his desk and settling himself back in his leather chair. “Things have changed. For the better, wouldn’t you agree?”

Sam gave Joshua a ghost of a smile, humoring him. “Why did you do it, Josh? Why did you betray me?”

There — he finally said it. The question had been plaguing him for years. He’d never had the opportunity to ask before but it had been something he’d gone over in his head countless times.

“Why I sided with your brother and your father, you mean?”

Sam nodded. He’d thought the question was obvious.

“I knew you’d ask this eventually. I imagined this conversation in my head, wondering what I might say. I confess that I’m tempted not to tell you, but it’s kinda pointless now. What do you remember about me, back in Jacob’s Ladder?”

“I remember that you played quarterback on the High school football team. You were the nephew of Father Rainey. You were also my friend — were being the key word here.”

Joshua grinned, his fleshy checks glistening unhealthily. “Quite right. What do you remember about my uncle?”

Sam shook his head. “Not much. He was the local priest. Can’t say I liked him that much. He was the one that made me walk through hallowed ground for the first time. I don’t think he approved of what I was. Let’s just say there wasn’t much love lost between us.”

“Sounds familiar,” said Josh.

“What do you mean?” asked Sam, intrigued despite himself.

Josh stood and began pacing behind his desk. “Father Rainey wasn’t a particularly forgiving man. Or a very nice one for that matter. After my parents died, he took me in but I think he resented having to look after me. Made me read the bible every night and beat me when I didn’t. No-one ever knew that. Called me a godless fool because my parents hadn’t believed. Used to tease me and say that my parents were in Hell. Hardly spoke to me other than that. One of the reasons I joined the football team was to get out of the house.”

“Why are you telling me this?” asked Sam.

“I want you to understand,” said Joshua, “understand that you and I are alike.”

“We are nothing alike,” sneered Sam.

“I beg to differ. We both lost our parents. We both were tormented by others because of who we were. I think you and I are kindred spirits.”

“So why betray me?”

“Your brother came to me and explained everything. Suddenly, I knew who I was and knew what I had to do. He said that you belonged in Hell with your family. It made sense to me. You are part demon after all. He said that my parents were there too and if I helped him, I could see them again. In hindsight, he oversold Hell a little but that doesn’t matter now. He was very…persuasive.”

“But you sold out the rest of humanity, too.”

“I would argue that. I think humanity is weak. If the rest of the population had been through what I’ve been through, it would’ve straightened them out. You can get used to Hell after a while. I did and it taught me a great deal. Powers I thought I would never possess. Never again will I have to do the bidding of another human. What’s more, my parents were granted certain concessions. They may still be in Hell, but they certainly aren’t suffering. I made sure of that. “Do you know who I am now?” he asked.

“Joshua,” replied Sam.

Joshua laughed. “Certainly. That was the boy I was. Not the man I am today. I am something altogether different today. Thanks to my time in Hell. Tell me, what do you know about the False Prophet?”

“Of course,” said Sam, understanding starting to dawn on him.

“Well, it’s a bit of a misnomer really. I don’t think ‘false’ is the right word, really. Just ‘Prophet’ sounds about right. That’s what everyone around here calls me, anyway.”

“So, you’re the False Prophet then?” asked Sam.

It wasn’t really a question. He’d kind of suspected that Joshua still had a part to play in all this when they’d encountered each other in Hell. Joshua clearly had not been idle during the years he was trapped there — amassing power, preparing for his return to Earth. The Prophet was a logical choice, a spiritual leader recruited by the Antichrist as his partner in crime. Supposedly able to perform miracles. Well, Sam reflected — it seemed like he’d performed a few already. Being able to spirit Sam away from the Resistance was nothing short of miraculous.

Joshua’s face tightened at the word false. Sam stored this information away for future use. It would not be hard to antagonize his old friend.

“I am the Prophet, yes. Appointed by your own brother as reward for my earlier service. My powers too, have grown with my new status. Enough to fool those idiots in Europe in any case. The rumors are that I can perform miracles — some might call it magic. Watch this!” He gestured with one hand, a circular motion. Suddenly, his drinks glass — half empty — was suddenly full again. Joshua laughed gleefully. “Believe me, that’s the least of what I can do.”

“Very impressive,” sneered Sam. “Still doesn’t tell me why you brought me here.”

Joshua inclined his head. “I want you to do something for me. Something you probably wouldn’t have done in any case. I’m just giving you a little more incentive.”

“What?” demanded Sam impatiently. Joshua seemed to have developed some dramatic notions. Would he ever just get to the point?

“Kill your brother, of course. Properly this time. And then disappear and stay out of my way. That’s the crucial bit — I don’t want you hanging around, interfering and basically making a nuisance of yourself. You’ll find him in the Chrysler building, around the 32nd floor. There’s a platform with eagles instead of gargoyles — I’m surprised he hasn’t changed them. The room he uses as an office is adjacent to that and an airborne assault is the only one that will work. The base of the building is surrounded by hundreds of Horned demons. In exchange, I’ll free your mother from Hell.”

It made sense. With the Antichrist out of the way, Joshua would be free to rule unchallenged. Satan might even give his blessing, probably relishing every moment when his minions turned on each other.

“You realize this won’t change anything though?” said Sam. “Even if I kill my brother and you take his place as the Antichrist, your fate has already been sealed. It has for millenniums. As soon as Christ returns, you and my brother will be banished to the eternal lake of fire. Forever.”

“As will you,” Joshua retorted.

Sam rocked back on his heels. “Where did you hear that?”

“It doesn’t matter. Fates can be changed. We don’t have to resign ourselves to whatever is written in that book. We — you included — can write our own fates. Decide our own futures. Do you really think I’m going to allow anyone to put me in an eternal lake of fire forever? Are you really that stupid?”

Sam was starting to feel distinctly uneasy. What Joshua was saying seemed to echo the sentiments of his father. What were they up to? Sam realized that once again, he was being manipulated. If Joshua and his father wanted him to kill the Antichrist that meant he should do the opposite. To foil their plans, he needed to ensure that his brother lived. It was a quandary. His heart told him his brother had to die but his head was saying otherwise. He was starting to get confused, to lose the purity of his purpose. So many factors were at work here. Who was he meant to believe? Not only that, why was he bothering at all? The future was already written. In the Bible. Why not leave all these plotters and schemers to their fates while he concentrated on protecting the innocent?

But something was troubling him deeply. A niggling thought was asking him whether the future was indeed already written. Could it be changed? Was the Bible right in all respects? If you knew your scripture then why would you calmly accept your fate when you could put measures in place to potentially circumvent it? Joshua knew the Bible very well indeed — how could he not? He had, after all, been brought up by a priest. Perhaps they knew something he didn’t. If so, that meant that Sam’s own fate was not written in stone either. The flip side of that was that he wasn’t necessarily destined to join the others in the eternal lake of fire, so Samyaza’s plan to create an alternate world — a safe haven — could work. Just thinking that made Sam feel more positive than he felt in a long time.

These invasion forces had two leaders: the Antichrist, his brother; and Joshua, the False Prophet. Even if the future couldn’t be changed — and that was a big if for Sam now — if Sam killed both of them, then this invasion fleet wouldn’t have any leadership. Without it, the army would probably fall apart. Surely, that would make life easier for any surviving humans in the U. S? And wasn’t that the most important reason? To protect the innocent regardless of whether their fates were written or not…

Suddenly, Sam was resolved. He’d kill both of them — his former best friend and his brother. Not the cheeriest thought in the world, but there it was. For the greater good to prevail, he would have to do it.

“You’ve got yourself a deal,” said Sam, meaning every word. What did he have to lose? He came here to confront his brother again in any case. Joshua was just adding some icing onto the cake. “Now where’s my mother?”

Joshua wore an expression that Sam struggled to interpret. He clicked his fingers and a woman materialized next to him — a woman that Sam couldn’t help but recognize.

He’d never known her himself, of course, but he’d seen her in his dreams. He’d also seen pictures of her, pictures from her time in Japan with Hikari. Hikari had told him she had been killed by demon worshippers. Perhaps she had or perhaps Hikari had been misinformed. It didn’t matter — he knew that Hikari would never have lied to him. Other scenarios had occurred to him over the years. If she had been killed and gone to Hell, she could never return. If, however, she had been taken to Hell alive, there was still a chance. The fact that she was standing in front of him swept away all other considerations. She must be still alive. Her presence belied all other explanations. That was all that mattered.

He drank in the sight of her, no longer the terrible emaciated creature he’d seen in his dreams. She didn’t appear to have changed since those photos he’d seen. Long dark hair, achingly similar to Aimi’s, skin the color of marble, matching his own complexion. Her face was unlined but her eyes were sad. She smiled at him and he thought his heart would explode with happiness.

“My son,” she said, holding out her arms to him.

Sam was about to leap the desk in front of him, gather his mother to him and crush her in an embrace so tight that she’d never be able to leave him again. Joshua forestalled him, blocking his mother with one arm across her chest whilst simultaneously holding up one warning finger to Sam.

“Not yet,” he said. “Not until you’ve completed your side of the bargain.”

“At least let me talk to her,” pleaded Sam.

Joshua shrugged. “So talk.”

Taking her cue, his mother spoke first. “I’ve missed you so much, Sam,” she said. “There isn’t a day that I don’t think about you.”

“Are you okay… Mom?” he asked. It sounded stupid in his own ears, but what were you meant to say to a mother you’d never seen before? He’d played this reunion over and over in his head but it wasn’t actually going to plan. Somehow the words he really wanted to say just wouldn’t emerge from his lips. Words like ‘I love you’.

His mother smiled again but this time Sam could see that it was forced for his benefit. How could she possibly be okay in Hell? “As well as can be expected. I can’t lie to you, my son — it’s been difficult.”

Sam nodded. Of course it had been. “I’m sorry, Mom. Sorry that you were taken there. Sorry for everything that happened to you. You don’t deserve this.”

“I know,” his mother agreed. “But that doesn’t matter now. You have to focus. You need to kill your brother, son. Kill him and then I will be freed and we can be together once again.”

“Right, enough of that,” said Joshua. He snapped his fingers again and Sam’s mother disappeared. Her absence immediately left a void in Sam’s heart.

“No!” he cried. To have his mother back for a moment only to have her snatched away just as quickly. It was unbearable. He was sorely tempted to leap the desk and put his naked blade to Joshua’s neck, making him bring her back.

Clearly, Joshua saw Sam’s intent and forestalled an attack. “Don’t look so sad, Sam. You’ll have her back soon enough. Get the job done and you and your mom will have the rest of your lives to exchange pleasantries.”

Sam seethed with repressed anger and frustration but as Joshua talked, something his mother had said was starting to percolate through his conscious mind. Something that didn’t ring true. Words that had sounded off. His mother had encouraged him to kill his brother. But that was her other son she was talking about. What mother would possibly encourage that sort of thing? In a strange coincidence, it also echoed what Joshua wanted. His thoughts started to go down a path he really didn’t want to take…Also, the words of Samyaza came back to him. ‘Save the one who will save you.’ Doubts filled him. Had Samyaza even been talking about his mother? How could he save his mother when he wasn’t even sure that it had been her in the first place?

Before he could come to a decision, an alarm started braying loudly, demanding instant attention.

Joshua looked startled. Before he could react, the Captain and his soldiers burst back into the room without knocking. “What is it?” demanded Joshua.

“We’re under attack, Prophet,” declared the Captain. As he said this, Sam heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire from outside.

“From whom?”

“I don’t know, Prophet,” the Captain conceded. “We’ve been boarded by an armed force. In addition, an unknown ship is proceeding along the Hudson on an intercept course with the ships docked here.”

Joshua looked somewhat surprised by this news. By the looks of things, he’d certainly not been expecting an attack. If Sam hoped that Joshua would crumble under the pressure though, he was mistaken. His once friend was firmly in command. “Tell the Commander to start the engines and get us out of here. Alert the rest of the fleet.”

The Captain saluted smartly. “Yes, Prophet.”

He and his men turned to leave. At that exact instance, the ship rocked under a massive impact. It must have been a substantial strike to shake a ship of this size. Sam didn’t want to wait around to find out what was attacking them. That was Joshua’s problem. If he went down, Sam didn’t want to be around to suffer the same fate. And as for his mother — Sam wasn’t hopeful. Joshua had all but said that his powers were all about appearances. He strongly suspected that the image was just that — an image of his mother and not the real thing. He doubted whether Joshua would have the power to get his mother out of Hell. Besides, he didn’t trust Joshua for a second. He’d betrayed him before. Sam knew exactly what would happen to him if he got rid of his brother. Or refused or otherwise failed to do so. Joshua would contrive for Sam to have an ‘accident’, from which there would be return — from Hell or otherwise.

This ship was no longer a safe place to be. He needed to become the master of his own destiny again. To confront his brother on his terms. He needed to get out of here. Right now.

The ship shuddered again under another hammer blow. The Captain staggered. Two of his three men fell to the ground. Sam saw an opportunity. He darted towards the entrance. The last remaining soldier tried to stop him, bringing an arm up to block him. Sam may not have had his swords, but he certainly wasn’t defenseless. Hikari had ensured that Sam was well versed in both armed and unarmed combat — not that he’d had to resort to unarmed combat much these days. His martial skills were easily equivalent to a black belt in both Karate and Aikido with some Judo mixed in for good measure.

He blocked the soldier’s arm with the outside of his own, bringing them shoulder to shoulder. Using his own momentum, his arm simply came down around the neck of the other man. He swung his other arm around, pivoting as easily as a dancer, forcing the soldier’s head down and placing his hand around his opponent’s throat. Predictably, the man tried to rise. Sam let him, allowing his own over-compensation to force him backwards. Sam tripped him, ensuring that one of his legs were right behind him as he toppled. As he fell to the ground, Sam struck him a blow with the knife edge of his hand, straight in the throat. The man hit the ground and didn’t move again.

The whole combat had lasted approximately two seconds.

Sam darted a glance around the room as he made for the door. The other soldiers were still getting to their feet, pulling handguns from their holsters. Joshua had disappeared.

Sam paid them no heed, reaching the door and darting out into the corridor just as shots starting ringing out from behind him. He raced along the corridor, retracing the path the soldiers had used bringing him here. Other soldiers tried to stop him. He disarmed and disabled them as easily as the first, hardly slowing.

He sensed the group of humans before he saw them, not bothering to examine them too closely. They were just obstacles to overcome, seemingly lying in wait for him at the exit leading to the deck and the helicopter platform. It was the only exit that he knew of. He certainly wasn’t prepared to try and find another one when the ship was under attack. Just then, the ship rocked under another impact. This time, Sam thought he heard what appeared to be engine noises. What was that? Fighter jets?

He steeled himself as he rounded the corner, catching sight of the squad of soldiers blocking his way for the first time. Two were crouching in the corridor, their automatics leveled at him. Three others stood behind, also armed. Something seemed different about their uniforms but he didn’t give it a second thought. He had to get off this ship and they were in his way. He prepared himself to slow time just as the soldiers began shooting in his direction, already knowing that he was too late. The corridor was narrow and his only recourse was to get as low as possible, expecting to be hit by bullets at any time. This could be bad, he thought, sensing that these soldiers were also armed with iron.

He heard a cry from behind and turned. Some other soldiers were lying in pools of spreading blood. It was only then that he realized that the soldiers in front of him were wearing different outfits. That they hadn’t been shooting at him. Only then did he finally recognize one of the minds amongst them.

As he closed the gap between himself and this new group of soldiers, the smallest one amongst them threw a long cloth-wrapped package at him. He caught it smoothly and unwrapped it. His swords. Finally, he was reunited with his beloved swords. Suddenly, he felt whole again.

He nodded at the figure. “Thanks, Grace.”

“Figured I owed you after what went down with the Resistance.” She indicated the exit. “Let’s get out of here before it really hits the fan.”

She led the way out onto the platform. The helicopter was now just burning wreckage. There was a deafening roar above them and Sam glanced upwards. A jet tore past, just over the conning tower of the ship. The ship shuddered again.

“Whose is that?” he shouted.

“Ours, I think,” Grace responded, jogging beside him. “Not entirely sure but I’m taking it as a good sign that it’s attacking this ship.”

The ship jolted again repeatedly. In the sky above, the jet suddenly spewed smoke and swerved out of sight, hit by return fire from the Battlecruiser.

The action brought the ship to life. Suddenly, enemy soldiers started to swarm onto the deck. Grace and the rest of her squad mowed them down with machine-gun fire. Any who got too close, Sam chopped down with his blades.

Dodging fire, Sam and the other U. S soldiers followed Grace as she led them to the rear of the heli-pad. There was a ladder leading down to the stern of the huge ship. Sam could just see the wake starting to boil as the ship’s engines came to life. Crewmen were casting off. They had only moments to get off the ship.

The squad slid down the ladder just as the ship started to pull away from the dock, forcing them to jump. The two soldiers at the rear never made it, caught by enemy fire as they leapt. They plunged into the swirling water and disappeared. Grace, already crouching on the dock, returned fire, giving Sam and the remaining two members of her squad breathing room.

The dock was a whirl of activity with trucks, loaders and scores of soldiers going about their tasks. Lights illuminated some areas but many, including the part of the dock where they had landed, were thankfully in darkness. Most of the enemy troops appeared to be busy scanning the skies or watching the river and the departing fleet to notice the arrival of Sam and his group of relatively insignificant figures. Their presence was, however, noted. An Astaroth streaked down from the night sky, claws and swords extended.

Grace and the other soldiers, suddenly aware they were in danger, began firing on the massive demon as it descended, thus drawing the attention of every enemy soldier on the dock. In the uncertain light, few bullets found their mark on the Astaroth. Sam readied his swords, knowing he would need them in a few moments.

The roar of heavy machine gun fire rang out. The Astaroth, about to flatten the four of them, was suddenly hit by multiple shots. It disappeared, raining ash down on Sam and the others. Unnoticed earlier, a black helicopter swung into view. A spotlight first played upon Sam and his small group, suddenly switching towards the enemy soldiers on the dock, responding to small arms fire. The door mounted M134 mini-gun opened up again, mowing down any soldiers who didn’t take cover.

The helicopter came into land. As it did, Sam saw it more clearly, recognizing it for what it was: a Blackhawk — one of several that Sam had seen at the Beightler Armory. It looked like the cavalry had arrived.

The rotor continued to spin rapidly, not slowing even as the Blackhawk touched down. Grace, Sam and the two remaining members of her squad crouched uncertainly in the shadows, unsure what their course of action should be. The Blackhawk looked to be on their side, but first impressions could be deceptive. Suddenly, next to a soldier manning the mini-gun in the door of the chopper, another figure appeared. Sam breathed a silent prayer. It was Adam. He gestured towards them — unmistakably signaling to them to hurry up and get in the chopper.

They didn’t have to be told twice.

Chapter Twenty-four

Airborne

“ Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.”

John 12:31

Crouching low, the four of them made a run for it. The door gunner provided covering fire as they tumbled into the opening. The chopper pilot didn’t waste any time. As soon as they were on board, he lifted off again.

Sam, Grace and the two remaining members of her squad strapped themselves in. Adam handed Grace and himself a headset as the Blackhawk banked sharply to the south.

“Thanks,” said Sam. “Lucky you were here when you were.”

“Luck had nothing to do with it. Grace told me where you’d be,” said Adam.

Grace said, “Went to check on you and found the guard unconscious and your cell empty. Figured the only way to get out undetected was through the sewers so I gathered up my squad and we set off after you. Ran into this surfer dude trying to get back in. He’d been asking about you earlier and seemed unnaturally interested in your whereabouts. When we found him in the sewers, he seemed pretty agitated. We managed to persuade him to tell us where you were.”

“But how did you get here?” asked Sam

“Took the Brooklyn battery tunnel,” she said, looking pleased with herself.

“But that’s blocked,” said Sam.

“That’s what the Resistance wants everyone to think. There’s ways through if you know how. I explored it a couple of days ago.”

Sam made eye contact with her for a moment and then dropped his gaze. He didn’t know what to say. ‘Thanks’ seemed a little clumsy. He glanced out the window, lost in thought. Maybe it had been Grace that the Watcher had referred to all that time ago? Had Samyaza been talking about Grace and not his mother as he’d previously suspected? He wanted — no — needed his mother back and a part of him believed that she was the key to his salvation — hence the reason he was so desperate to find her. But it was Grace who had saved him. Had come through for him when he needed her the most. It was a sobering thought.

Even though it was still hours before dawn, a bright glow was coming from the river below them. It was vaguely ship-sized.

“Our fire ship,” said Adam, noticing the direction of Sam’s gaze.

“What?” said Sam and Grace together.

“Fire ship,” repeated Adam. “Old tactic. Back when ships were made of wood, admirals would load one with combustibles, set fire to it and point it in the direction of an enemy fleet. We’re doing the same thing here.”

Suddenly, Joshua’s disappearance and the rapid departure of his fleet were explained. They were trying to get out of harm’s way.

“What is it?” asked Sam. “It looks huge.” Indeed it did. It filled half of the Hudson River.

“It’s an old oil tanker. We found it abandoned on the coast and relatively sea worthy. Even had a fair bit of oil left if you knew how to get at it. We siphoned off what we needed and kept the rest on board for this.”

Sam watched as the helicopter banked over the massive ship. It was only a few hundred feet away from the dock containing the invasion fleet now, heading directly for them. Even as Sam watched, the Battlecruiser and its two escorting Destroyers were frantically powering out of harm’s way. They’d left their run a little late though. Almost in slow motion, the sheer scale of the impact creating awe in anyone watching, the oil tanker ploughed into the Destroyer on the Battlecruiser’s flank. The bow of the tanker broke the Destroyer in half but diverted the impact away from the Battlecruiser which was probably the Captain’s intention. Both ships erupted in flames. Oil from the breached tanker sprayed over a wide area, encompassing the Battlecruiser and igniting flames along its hull.

Sam lost sight of the unfolding drama as the helicopter banked again, heading towards another large ship coming into view at the river mouth.

“Sorry,” said Adam. “Can’t hang around. Both our choppers and jets have limited flight time. The ash plays havoc with their air filters. Even getting them airborne for this long was a mission.” He pointed in the direction of the new arrival. “Our flag ship,” he explained. “It’s the last aircraft carrier remaining to the U. S fleet. Nimitz class. The George Washington. We got lucky with this as every other carrier got wiped out by tsunamis.”

“What’s happening with Colonel Wheat?” asked Grace.

Adam frowned. “I don’t know. We lost contact with them.”

“What!” exclaimed Sam. “Didn’t anyone warm him about the Holland Tunnel? It’s teeming with Lemure!”

“No,” said Adam. “Grace told me but the warning came too late. We’d already lost contact with him by then.”

“Turn us around,” said Sam.

This changed things. If Colonel Wheat was lost then the U. S forces wouldn’t stand a chance against the invasion fleet. Unless he took out the leadership. That meant his brother. The Antichrist. And the sooner the better. They really couldn’t delay. He could’ve kicked himself for not killing Joshua when he’d had the chance. With any luck though, the fire ship might get him yet. “I have to get to the Chrysler building.”

He explained swiftly. As he did so, he could see Adam calculating. “We might be able to make it. Just,” said Adam. He issued several instructions into his mike and the Blackhawk suddenly turned back the way it had come.

“What’s our plan then?” said Grace.

“There’s no ‘our’ plan here,” replied Sam. “I’ll go in alone. You stay here.”

Grace started to splutter, but Adam interrupted her before she could protest. “Too risky,” said Adam. “I’ll call in one of the jets to do an airstrike. Take out the whole building.”

Sam shook his head. “Can’t chance it. I don’t know if there’s a chapel in the building. If there is, he could escape. I need to make sure. I failed last time — I won’t fail again.”

“And how do you propose to get yourself out before the airstrike?” asked Grace, clearly peeved.

“I’ll jump out the window,” said Sam, trying to sound nonchalant.

Grace’s look was incredulous. “But you just told us he was on the 32nd floor. How are you going to survive that?”

“Don’t forget what I am,” said Sam. The words sounded bitter even to him. “I can easily survive a fall that would kill a human.”

Adam was looking at him with a faint smile on his face. “There’s bravery and then there’s bravery. The jets are armed with iron warheads. They’ll take out several floors at least. You’d better make sure you’re no-where near that floor when the attack comes.” He unstrapped the watch from his wrist and threw it to Sam. “Here, take this. I’ll give you exactly ten minutes from when we drop you on the building. Then I’ll call in the airstrike.”

Sam nodded his understanding, strapping the watch to his own wrist.

“I’m coming with you,” said Grace.

Sam knew she’d do this. Be difficult. It was typical Grace behavior lately. He was about to argue with her when Adam forestalled him.

“No, Grace. I need you to liaise with the Resistance. If we’ve lost Colonel Wheat, we’re going to need them. You know their numbers and capabilities and they know you. Stay with me. Besides, you won’t be able to survive the fall or get out in time.”

Grace said nothing. She darted one angry look in Sam’s direction and then looked down at her feet, conceding defeat. She knew Adam was right, and Sam knew that the knowledge annoyed her. She hated being told what to do.

“Take this,” said Adam, suddenly changing the subject. He pressed a hand sized package into Sam’s palm. “I don’t know how you’re going to make it work, though — you may have to use gloves.”

The object was wrapped in cloth. Sam unwrapped it carefully. Inside were two roughly spherical shapes, both equipped with handles. Sam knew what they were — grenades. He’d seen soldiers with them many times before but they weren’t commonly used against demons, being made of steel. Technically they were fragmentation grenades, commonly known as frags. Once the pin was pulled, the device was on a timer and would explode, killing everything within a five meter radius. Sam didn’t have to ask why Adam warned him against it. They were both made of iron.

Adam was smiling. “Had a team working on them down south for the last few months. Made especially for this attack. Not only is it made of iron but it’s got iron ball bearings inside. Guaranteed to kill absolutely every demon in a room so make sure you’re not one of them when it goes off.”

Sam nodded his thanks and tucked the package into the pocket of his hoodie. Outside the window, he could see they were above Manhattan now, heading for midtown. They were joined by two more Blackhawks, flying on either side of them in a defensive formation. Adam must have called in extra support. Sam even saw a few jets flying overhead, providing some additional cover for them.

Adam nodded towards the open door. “There’s the Empire State. Or what’s left of it at any rate.”

Sam cast around for the iconic building. Finally he located it, looking anything but iconic. It was now about half the size of what he’d seen in pictures in magazines and on TV, a blackened and broken stump of a building. Sam couldn’t help but feel disappointed again. “What happened to it?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“Hard to be sure,” said Adam, “but if I had to guess, I’d say it was hit by a firestorm. Funny how those things can be so isolated.”

A firestorm had been Sam’s guess, too. It was a shame. The Empire State building had been around for so long and for it to now be destroyed when some other buildings remained virtually unscathed. Didn’t seem fair somehow.

The Blackhawk and their escort approached midtown. Suddenly, the door gunner with the M134 minigun opened up again. Sam craned his head out the door to see what he was firing at. Astaroth.

The great flying demons were circling around the helicopters. At least a dozen of them. The other Blackhawks were doing the same, firing almost continuously, fending off the Astaroth, trying to keep them from the doors.

There seemed to be more activity around midtown — especially fires. A few buildings smoldered, leaking lazy trails of smoke, but others were well lit. Either firestorms had done their worst or they had been deliberately lit by either side. On the ground below, Sam could see tiny figures running around. It was hard to tell who was who but he sensed both demon and human minds. He saw the telltale spark of gunfire a few times as they flew along overhead. A running battle seemed to be taking place, probably between the Resistance and the forces of the Antichrist. He doubted whether Adam’s had landed a ground based force yet and as for Colonel Wheat — well, he was potentially out of the picture altogether.

On his left, Sam saw an Astaroth get too close to the blades of the helicopter. As soon as it came in contact, it disappeared into a shroud of dust. Sam caught Adam’s eye and raised his eyebrows at the other man.

“Iron-tipped rotors,” Adam said, smiling humorously. “Retro-fitted. Thought that would surprise them.”

Sam felt suddenly elated, like the scene almost warranted laughter. It was pretty surreal. He reflected that was probably another reason why the helicopters couldn’t stay in the air for too long. The iron added just a bit too much extra weight.

The other Astaroth learnt the lesson their dead fellow provided rather quickly and altogether too well, keeping their distance from the blades. Sam saw two of them try another tactic, once again on the unlucky Blackhawk to his left. Working as a team, they divided the fire of the door gunner. While he was occupied shooting at one Astaroth trying to attack him from below, the other grabbed hold of the landing strut with two of its four arms. Sam estimated the creature weighed close to a ton — the Blackhawk could not just ignore such a sudden weight shift. It tipped over to its side. Sam watched helplessly as the gunner fell sideways out the other door, screaming. Both Astaroth forced themselves through the doors and into the interior. Within seconds, the helicopter was spinning out of control. It crashed into the streets below, the wreckage blossoming into flame.

Sam gritted his teeth impotently. His time would come soon though. Very soon. No sooner had the thought entered his head, than the Chrysler building hove into view. Joshua had been telling the truth. It was certainly a headquarters of some description. On the ground, Horned demons and Lemure were hundreds thick, completely surrounding the base of the building. They were under attack though. There seemed to be some sort of melee taking place as, presumably, the Resistance laid siege to it.

In the skies above the once gleaming metal crown of the building, many more Astaroth circled. A fighter jet shot past overhead, strafing the flying demons as it passed. Sam saw at least five disappear under the lethal barrage, punching a hole for the remaining two Blackhawks.

They shot through the gap, the door gunners pounding any Astaroth with hundreds of rounds from their miniguns. The Blackhawk containing Sam circled over the balcony on the 32nd floor with the other Blackhawk taking a supporting position nearby.

Sam couldn’t help but think back to just over three years earlier and his last encounter with his brother. That time, like this one, he had to storm a well-defended position to even get close to him. Sam sighed. It was never going to be easy, he reflected, reminding himself why he was doing this. Not for those in Heaven. Not for Him. This was for the innocents. Those who didn’t deserve to be the targets and subjects of the Antichrist’s rage. If Sam killed the Antichrist, surely he would save many innocents.

They were about twenty feet above the balcony. One of Grace’s squad began to prepare the descending ladder. Sam waved him away and tugged off his mike. He secured his swords, suddenly aware that his backpack was missing, feeling a little odd that the familiar weight was lacking. Grace saw his frown.

“What is it?” she mouthed.

“My backpack,” he replied, yelling over the noise of the rotor.

She gave him the briefest of smiles. “I know where it is,” she yelled back. “Don’t worry. You’ll see it again. And me too. Come back alive, Sam.”

He nodded.

“Good luck,” Adam shouted in his ear. “Remember, ten minutes. Don’t forget.”

“I won’t,” shouted Sam, quickly setting the stopwatch function on his newly acquired watch.

Grabbing hold of the safety handle, he leaned out. On the balcony below, several Horned demons stood motionless, staring menacingly up at the helicopters. Dozens of Lemure ran around frantically, desperate to attack the helicopters above but with no means to do so. Adam gestured and the gunner opened up on them, the large rounds punching holes in even the Horned demons’ armor, sentencing them back to Hell. The gunner cleared an area that was demon-free enough to satisfy Sam.

Suddenly, thoughts of Yeth intruded into his battle calmness. This was exactly the sort of situation where he would’ve liked Yeth to be with him. He wondered where his Hellhound was right now. Whether he was all right and had survived his encounter with the Devil’s Hand. He couldn’t risk summoning his demon. If there wasn’t a chapel inside the building, then Yeth would have to battle through several thousand demons to join his side. If there was, he was dooming his demon to death when the airstrike came. A part of him didn’t even want to try for fear that Yeth may not be able to answer the call because he was dead. The thought made Sam feel more upset than he’d believed possible, the Hellhound being his only real friend and companion these last three years. ‘Stop it,’ he told himself. The train of thought was beginning to ruin his battle mood.

Angrily, he cast the thoughts aside carefully and resolutely. He’d have to determine Yeth’s fate later and didn’t have time for distractions right now. Without another thought or backward glance, Sam jumped.

Chapter Twenty-five

Brotherly love

“… and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.”

2 Thessalonians 2:10

He landed heavily, bending both knees to absorb the impact. Even so, he still managed to crack the thick stone tiles that covered the balcony. Although completely unharmed, the impact still hurt. He didn’t even want to start thinking about how much agony falling 32 floors would involve.

The remaining demons immediately fell upon him. With an expression that any witnesses would have interpreted as pleasurable, Sam drew both swords. The weapons almost leapt into his hand, eager to be about their business.

Above, the lethal barrage of iron fire ceased raining down and the demons advanced more confidently. At first, Sam dare not look above, guessing that the gunner would not risk inflicting friendly fire, but then the noise of the rotors changed. He glanced upwards. Both Blackhawks were besieged by Astaroth, clearly preoccupied with the new threat. The pair veered off and disappeared from view, relentlessly pursued by the flying demons. Sam was alone.

The first demons to reach him were Lemure. He destroyed them with quick, efficient strikes of his swords, so quickly that they had no time to react. The four remaining Horned demons were a completely different kettle of fish, not to be dismissed as easily. Horned demons were never killed easily. Sam didn’t exactly fear them, but he was certainly wary. Their giant limbs — bigger and more powerful even than an Astaroth’s — deserved respect. They lumbered towards Sam, their stupid goat-like faces frozen in snarling rage, lowering their ram horns as they charged.

The first one reached him a fraction of a second before the others, raising its weapon in one of its huge arms. Sam ducked under the enormous stone mallet that swept down upon him and then leapt straight upwards. His Katana speared out, taking the Horned demon in the side of its throat, a place where Sam knew its armor did not reach.

It disappeared while Sam was still in midair. He landed and rolled, scything out with both blades in a wide arc before him. The blades bit into the lower legs of the next charging Horned demon. Roaring, it toppled to the ground, shaking and splitting the tiles with the impact of its fall. Sam only just got out of the way in time, lunging sideways, forgetting that it would only be a death blow that would banish these demons back to Hell. The demon was out of the fight but it wasn’t dead. Yet.

The momentary distraction cost him dearly. The stone mallet of the third Horned demon smashed into his side. It was only a glancing blow, some instinct shifting his body slightly just before impact, but it was enough to crack what felt like every rib in his body. The impact blasted him sideways into the low stone balustrade of the balcony, almost toppling him over. He righted himself desperately, clutching his injured side with the fist holding his smaller blade, breathing heavily. He could already feel his ribs knitting together, but he needed more time.

The two demons still in the fight advanced upon him, only a few feet away. Still injured and backed up against the wall, Sam had nowhere to retreat to. But desperate times called for desperate measures. He sheathed both swords and yanked out one of the grenades, ignoring the burning sensation as his naked flesh made contact with the iron casing. He pulled the pin and dropped it at his feet and then vaulted the wall. As he floated over it, he grasped the lip with one hand, praying for the best.

The grenade detonated at the exact same time as he slammed into the side of the building, both impacts very nearly forcing him to lose his grip which would have hurled him from the face of the wall. He sensed the deaths of the Horned demons and breathed a silent prayer of thanks. It seemed someone — other than Gabriel — still cared about him up there. If the Horned demons hadn’t have succumbed, he really would’ve been in trouble.

He took a couple of moments to consider his position. Thirty two floors up. Dangling one-handed off the side of a building. It was just as well he wasn’t scared of heights. Below him, the battle between the Resistance and those who followed the Antichrist continued, screams and roars of rage echoed up to wear he hung. He could clearly see an adjacent building that had just started to burn, fires licking out of the windows. The Blackhawk helicopters had disappeared. He couldn’t even hear them and he silently wished them well. If anyone could survive, it would be Adam and Grace. They were the true survivors in this world.

Grunting with the pain, he hauled himself back up and over the balcony wall, scuttling as quickly as he could towards the only door leading into the building. It was locked but he managed to manipulate it with his telekinesis, sliding the bolt back from the other side.

Inside, he found himself alone with two options: take the door to the right or use the stairs and head upwards. His demonic intuition told him that there were several demons above him, including a mind familiar to him. Using his glamor to disguise his presence, he crept up the stairs. Thankfully, his side no longer ached, his ribs almost completely healed even in the short amount of time that had elapsed since he’d been wounded. He checked the countdown on his watch.

8 minutes.

The stairs doubled back on him twice. Eventually, he reached another landing. He listened at the fire door. Nothing. Cautiously, he opened it. The space was clearly some form of anteroom — narrow and featureless with a few scattered chairs and high, full-length windows that allowed the light of the blood red moon full access. Save for himself, there were no other living creatures present.

Large, double doors made of heavily embossed bronze stood closed at the far end of the room. He crept in that direction, his senses guiding him. So far, this had been too easy. Highly suspicious in itself.

7 minutes.

He listened at the door and heard muffled voices. Taking a deep breath and bowing to the inevitable, he tugged on the bronze handles. Both doors slid open on oiled hinges. Sam stepped through and found himself in a large, richly appointed chamber, with large windows overlooking the nearby buildings.

He was not alone.

In a huge leather chair behind a heavy mahogany desk sat a figure that Sam hoped never to see again — his brother, Semiazias. The Antichrist. Flanking him were the two most beautiful women Sam had ever seen. His heart skipped a beat before accelerating like a race horse out of the traps. Immediately, he knew what they were and with strength he didn’t know he possessed, he tore his eyes from them. Succubi. Other than their tiny horns, they resembled human females. And not just any human females; impossibly beautiful ones that had the power to seduce with just their looks. He’d encountered them before and knew he was almost powerless to resist them.

He continued to look around carefully, much to his brother’s apparent amusement, reaching out with his senses. Wall sconces, once containing lights powered by conventional means, now contained flickering flames, casting uncertain light about the room. In the shadows, there seemed to be something else. For some reason, Sam couldn’t see or sense whatever it was properly. He dismissed it as unimportant for now. He was more interested in whether his brother had an escape route. If this room or any nearby was a desecrated church, then Semiazias had an out. So far, he was unable to detect any trace of such a place.

Sam, though, had been expected.

“Hello, brother,” sneered Semiazias. “What kept you?”

Sam made a show of looking at his watch. 6 minutes until the airstrike. “Been busy. Had an appointment with an old friend. You might know him. Joshua — or as everyone else around here calls him — the Prophet.”

Semiazias leant back in his chair, smiling broadly, displaying dazzlingly bright teeth. It was funny seeing that expression on such a familiar face. Semiazias was his identical twin after all. The Succubi mirrored the expression of their master, one caressing his shoulders, the other his hair.

“And what did the Prophet want with you, then?”

It was Sam’s turn to smile. “He wanted me to kill you.”

Sam had expected his brother’s smile to at least falter, if not vanish entirely, but he was disappointed on both counts. If anything, his leer broadened.

“Well, good for him. He really had come a long way from that sniveling little boy a few short years ago. I think spending time in Hell really nurtured him. Was good for him, even. Look at him now — prepared to throw me under the bus to achieve his own ends. You’ve got to admire that, really.”

This was an unexpected response from his brother. He didn’t seem concerned or surprised.

“So you don’t care that your supposed ally has turned against you?” he asked, slightly bewildered.

“Of course not,” replied Semiazias affably. “I knew what he was planning and I’ve taken steps to avoid it. Besides, our father and I have got plans for him. And you, by the way.” He suddenly clicked his fingers. “How rude of me. I haven’t done the introductions. These two ladies here — and I’m taking liberties with the definition of lady here, of course — are my personal assistants, Lilith and Naamah. Say hello, ladies.”

Both Succubi smiled at Sam. He ignored them, knowing from personal experience what their smiles could do to him. His brother watched him carefully, smirking all the while.

“You really should get a couple of your own, Samael. I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

“No thanks,” said Sam, gritting his teeth.

“Do you like my choice of art, by the way?” continued Semiazias easily, pointing behind him with one languid hand. “Liberated it from the Met. It’s The Sacrifice, from The Satanic Ones by Felicien Rops. It’s a pretty invigorating feeling when you know everything in a city belongs to you. That the city is yours. I can take what I want. In fact, my followers enjoy the same good fortune. It’s a pity that that small band — they call themselves the Resistance, don’t they? Haven’t seen the light, so to speak. Making trouble, setting fires. Although I have to admit, we’ve set a few of our own too. I believe they’re out there right now, stirring up mischief. If it wasn’t for them, this city would be a fabulous place to live.”

On the wall behind his brother was a smallish black and white etching. It featured a demonic presence floating over a partially nude woman. She was lying on some sort of sacrificial altar. Other, smaller flying demons floated nearby, appearing to gloat.

“Good, isn’t it? Kind of reminds me of our mother.”

Sam felt his anger building but controlled it, knowing full-well that this whole exchange had been engineered for precisely this purpose. His brother was trying to goad him. But to what end? So that Sam would attack him? Something started to niggle in the back of his mind. What was in the shadows?

He breathed out slowly and surreptitiously checked his watch. 4 minutes. “So, let’s get on with it, shall we, brother? You know why I’m here. To finish what we started three years ago.”

Semiazias nodded slowly as if acknowledging the truth of what Sam was saying. “Of course. I knew you were coming. I’ve also got no inclination to have a repeat performance of our last encounter.”

Semiazias suddenly gestured around the room. What had been obscured was suddenly made clear. “You know everyone else, I think. The Devil’s Hand have already made your acquaintance and are very keen to get to know you better.”

The five Cambions emerged from the shadows, their presence now clear in Sam’s mind. In a move that appeared almost rehearsed, they lowered their heads towards Sam, seemingly in a gesture of respect.

Sam should have known. Should have at least guessed that the Devil’s Hand still had a part to play in this. They had, after all, been charged by his father to kill him. He felt an urge to check his watch again, knowing that at least another minute had elapsed. It was too obvious to check the time though. His brother would suspect something. Instead, Sam began counting down in his head.

“I think they have something of a grudge against you now,” continued Semiazias conversationally. “Especially after you killed two of them. Oh — and your pet Hellhound didn’t help either. Seems he was a bit of an inconvenience. Caused them to lose your trail for a bit there. Not that it wasn’t sorted out in the end. I don’t think your Hellhound will be around anymore to help you out. They made sure of that.”

Sam felt his rage building at that. If the jibe about their mother hadn’t hit home, this certainly had. Yeth had been his only friend and these creatures, had killed him. They would pay. Oh yes. They would pay alright. He let his rage take over, enjoying the sensation as his eyes turned red. He had something like less than three minutes until the airstrike. Three minutes to hurt these demons as much as he could. In three minutes, the smirk on his brother’s face would be wiped off forever.

“Come on then,” he snarled, drawing his swords.

The Devil’s Hand didn’t need a second invitation. They advanced, their faces grim, both male and female with swords already in their hands. His brother and the two Succubi looked on, appearing to enjoy the spectacle, much like sports fans at a game. Sam thought he recognized two of the Cambions, marking them for the ones he had already killed. They would be the stronger ones — the two he would have to watch.

Their tactics were simple but also incredibly effective. The moved to surround him, to attack him from all angles, making it all but impossible for him to defend. They hadn’t counted on his whirlwind attack though — an attack specifically designed for this scenario. They weren’t aware of it — how could they be having never encountered it before? And they were supremely confident in their abilities. Why wouldn’t they be? Even if they failed this time, they could come back at him again and again. Death was no hindrance for them. It would, on the other hand, be a severe setback for Sam.

Unbidden, the words of Miyamoto Musashi came to him, words that applied to situations just like this: There are many enemies applies when you are fighting one against many. Draw both sword and companion sword and assume a wide-stretched left and right attitude. The spirit is to chase the enemies around from side to side, even though they come from all four directions.

He moved faster than he ever had in his life. Desperation lent him more strength and speed than he’d thought possible. And what had the Watcher told him? That he had more power than he knew. Perhaps it was time to show it — to truly embrace his heritage and the power that it entailed. It was time to even the odds.

The move was devastating. To the human eye, Sam was a whirling dervish, both swords almost invisible, seemingly everywhere at once. Sam felt both blades bite deep — his Katana straight through the torso of one of the Cambions, while his Wakizashi almost decapitated a second. Both demons disappeared. Neither one of them were the ones he’d killed before. Worse luck.

He straightened, feeling drained and sluggish. The great exertion had cost him. Sensing his weakness, the three remaining Cambions attacked together — two from either side and one from the rear. The one to his left — a female — seemed just that much slower than the others. He blocked her attack with one of his shorter blade, sweeping it to the side and plunged his Katana through her eye. She had time to emit one shriek before she disappeared.

The move didn’t come without a price. He danced away, spinning, sensing the attacks, but his arms felt heavy. A blade slashed through his upper arm, all the way through to the bone. Immediately, he felt the deadly draining effect from the hell-blade. That was from the male Cambion. The sword carried on down on an angle, leaving a bloody trail across his body, ripping open his hoodie all the way to his waist. He felt and then heard something drop from his pocket and onto the floor. His last remaining frag. Sam’s attention was distracted for the briefest of moments. It was all the time the other Cambion needed. The female suddenly spun on her heel. As she did so, she crouched down. In Sam’s weakened state, it was an attack that was impossible to resist.

Her blade bit through both of his shins. He cried out in pain and staggered, barely deflecting another blow that would’ve taken off his head otherwise, casting around desperately for his lost grenade. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw it, rolling towards his brother’s desk, just as one of the Succubi (was it Lilith? — he couldn’t be sure) bent down to pick it up.

Sam knew he only had seconds remaining. Seconds before the airstrike. Seconds before the last two remaining members of the Devil’s Hand finished him off. Either way, he’d be dead. Sam leapt backwards, mustering as much energy as he could, giving himself as much space as he could between them.

Over the shoulders of the two advancing Cambions, he saw the Succubi lift up his grenade and smile at him, gloating. She mouthed the words ‘Looking for this?’ at him.

He could hardly lift his swords now; his life blood was leaving him, draining onto the expensive rug. He felt nauseous. The two Cambions were raising their swords, smiling in anticipation of the kill. Somewhere outside, he heard a roar and he knew what it was — knew that it spelled death.

Despite his weakness, he reached out with his mind, feeling for the object, willing it to move with all his might. At the last second, his brother realized what he was doing. His eyes went wide with terror.

“No!” Semiazias bellowed, lunging for the Succubi and the object she held in her hand. The she-demon turned towards the noise of her master, missing the fact that the pin on the grenade she was holding had somehow… fallen out.

Both Cambions also turned at the noise. Sam realized an opportunity when he saw one. Lunging as fast as he was able, he hurled himself through the wall-length window, just as the frag detonated. As he flew out the window, surrounded by a rapidly expanding cloud of glass shards, a much larger detonation suddenly erupted, the shockwave kicking with the force of what felt like an elephant landing on him.

The ground was lurching up towards him at terrifying velocity. Even in his losing battle with consciousness, he knew there was iron beneath him. The impact would kill him. There was no doubt in his mind. As he tumbled and fell, Sam started to smile. It had been worth it though. Some good had come of this. At least he’d killed his brother.

The thought comforted him as he plummeted to his death. Other faces appeared in his head: Aimi, his mother, Hikari, Yeth, Grace, his father and brother. All the people he’d saved. Those he considered friends. Where he was going, he wasn’t going to see any of them ever again. He doubted whether the eternal sea of fire encouraged visitors.

As he lost consciousness, he realized his mind must have been playing tricks on him because he felt hands on him. Hands that were soft but incredibly strong. Hands that lifted him up, carrying him gently towards the clouds that raged and boiled above.

Epilogue

Heaven

“ To open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” Acts 26:18

A ttack.”

Aimi did just that, her movements lithe, balanced, light as a dancer’s, doing as Hikari bid.

Sam waited calmly, trying not to grin, knowing that Aimi had really taken the previous night’s lesson to heart. Hikari had read from his favorite textbook on swordplay — Miyamoto Musashi’s, Book of Five Rings. The passage had been about the environment and how to use it to your advantage. Aimi, with her usual academic brilliance, had memorized every last word.

She stood with the descending sun behind her, knowing full well the effect it had on Sam. A normal opponent would’ve been at a disadvantage, their vision impaired by the light in their eyes. With Sam, it was compounded, his eyes much more sensitive to daylight. He squinted, keeping his eyes downcast, using his peripherals to track her movements.

Behind and to Sam’s right was the training rack. Aimi came in from his left, trying to force him that way. Sam almost laughed. It was a textbook maneuver, straight out of Musashi. When the fight comes, always endeavor to chase the enemy around to your left side. Chase him towards awkward places, and try to keep him with his back to awkward places.

She knew that Sam would have to watch his footing as he backed away, conscious of the obstacle behind him. He thought of a few tactics to counter her. Musashi’s tactics. Foremost amongst them was to dash in quickly, attacking before she could, taking her by surprise. Ken no Sen. But he knew she would anticipate this, having committed every scrap of Musashi wisdom to memory.

Instead, he did what Hikari had been drilling into him recently. To think laterally. To do the unexpected.

He took this to heart, doing a backwards somersault over the rack, landing lightly, poised for her attack. She didn’t disappoint, jumping over the rack, her spear stretched outwards to stab at his heart, committed to Ken no Sen herself.

It was a rash move and, in Sam’s mind, the wrong one. Aimi took all the wisdom from her books too literally. For all her intelligence, she sometimes lacked flexibility and the ability to think outside the box, obeying the lessons to the letter like it was carved in stone. He supposed that Hikari hadn’t worked with her like he had with him, knowing that she wouldn’t need to adapt as much as he.

With a lesser opponent, her attack probably would have succeeded. With Sam, despite her obvious skill and speed, it was almost too easy. Moving so swiftly he doubted she saw the danger, he brought his left shinai across the shaft of her spear, sliding the weapon down to his right side. His right shinai came in over the top, lightly tapping her on the top of the head.

The fight, in his opinion was over. Aimi had lost. He stepped backwards and lowered his weapons. Unfortunately for him, Aimi had other ideas. Unexpectedly, she darted forwards, straight into his arms. Before he could react with anything other than astonishment, she planted a long, wet kiss on his lips.

He didn’t know what to do. All thoughts of tactics or strategy went out of his head along with any other coherent thought. The kiss was, after all, pretty good. He suspected that both he and Aimi were both getting better. At kissing that is. They’d certainly been practicing a lot lately.

It wasn’t until he started returning the kiss that he felt it pressing up against his ribs. Reluctantly, with something that felt like despair, he broke off the kiss and looked down. Clutched in Aimi’s tiny hand was a knife.

He raised his chin, catching Aimi’s stare. She looked serious for a moment, intense, and then she suddenly broke into a huge grin and started laughing, hugging him and giving him another kiss.

“I hope you’ve learnt something from this, Sam,” said Hikari. Sam glanced over at his master. He could tell that Hikari was using every ounce of his self-control to remain outwardly calm and not break into laughter.

“And what’s that?” he demanded, failing in his efforts to control his blush.

“Never underestimate your opponent,” replied Hikari.

“And never trust a woman,” grinned Aimi.

This time Sam couldn’t resist her, his heart brimming with happiness. He gathered Aimi into his arms and pressed his lips against hers, forestalling the smile that was in danger of breaking out on his face.

“Stop it, Samael.” The familiar voice suddenly intruded into his thoughts. He broke off his kiss, snapping his neck around, trying to identify the source. When it wasn’t immediately repeated, he shrugged, trying to connect with Aimi’s mouth again. But this time, something was wrong. He felt it. The edges around Aimi were becoming blurred, but he wouldn’t allow this to stop him kissing his beloved.

Just as their lips met again, the voice came back. Annoyingly persistent.

“This isn’t helping, Samael. We need to get out of here. Now. Snap out of it.”

Sam broke off his kiss again. He shook his head, trying to shake the irritating voice out. It didn’t work.

“This isn’t real, Samael. This is your projection of a happier time. Long ago. You need to come back to the present.”

He looked at Aimi again. Now, she appeared far less substantial, almost ghost-like. He tried to touch her but his hand passed through her harmlessly. Around him, the rocky terrain and the red brush-smattered soil of Utah was fading out fast. Hikari had disappeared, as had the weapons rack. Desperately, he tried to cling to it, cling to the happy memory — because that’s what it was. A memory. He knew it wasn’t real, wasn’t happening now, but a part of him didn’t care. He wanted it to continue, didn’t want it to end ever. It was a beautiful memory, one of the happiest of his life.

And then he knew where he was.

Heaven.

The Utah landscape disappeared altogether, replaced by a white, translucent mist. Out of it, a winged figure appeared. White feathery wings, burnished silver armor, long sword. It was, of course an angel. How could it not be, here in Heaven?

Sam didn’t panic as realization crashed in upon him. He was in Heaven. Samyaza must have brought him here, must have rescued him as he plummeted from the Chrysler building, lifted him up. Saved him. But where was the Watcher now? And what was this angel doing?

As the angel approached, Sam’s hands, without conscious thought, crept towards the hilts of his swords. The being stopped a sword’s span away from him. It was a male, and something about it looked familiar.

“Hi,” said Sam, completely at a loss for anything better to say.

The angel spoke. “It’s me, you idiot,” said the voice Sam had heard earlier. “Samyaza.”

“But, you’re…”

“Yes,” said Samyaza impatiently. “It’s called a disguise. You’ve got one too, by the way.”

Sam looked down at his body. It had occurred to him that something was different. It’s just that he hadn’t managed to put his finger on exactly what it was. Sure enough, he too was decked out like Samyaza in silver armor. He craned his neck and caught a glimpse of wings. Despite everything, a part of him thought that was pretty cool. He reached over his back, intent on playing with them but was stopped short by the edge in Samyaza’s voice.

“My injuries?” he asked. They were gone. Healed, like they’d never been.

“I took care of them,” replied Samyaza curtly. “We’ve no time for this. This disguise won’t fool other angels for very long. And, if I was you, I’d pray that we don’t encounter any archangels. They’d see through it straight away.” The irony of what he’d just said suddenly appeared to occur to Samyaza. He smiled crookedly. Even in his disguise, it was a smile that would have melted any human woman’s heart.

Sam returned it, feeling almost upbeat. Not only was he alive and whole, but he was in Heaven. A place that he’d thought he never be able to see. “How did I get here?” he asked.

“I brought you, of course. I told you I could travel just as easily to Heaven as I can to Hell. I’ve been watching you, waiting for an opportune time. When you fell out of the building, I interpreted that as a fairly opportune time.”

Sam smiled ruefully. “Thanks. So, what do we do now?”

“Visualize Aimi. You should see a glowing trail that will lead you to her. Only you can see it, though.”

Sam did as he was bid, picturing Aimi in front of him. Her long, dark hair, shimmering in the sunlight of Hikari’s garden. Her perfect skin. Her smile that lit up his heart. As he imagined her, a line appeared before him, arrowing off into the mist.

“Got it,” he said.

Samyaza — or the angel that was Samyaza — nodded. “Lead on.”

Sam started walking, Samyaza at his side, the mist parting compliantly as they drifted along.

As they moved, Sam looked around curiously. This was — and equally wasn’t — what he’d expected in Heaven.

“Where is everyone?” he asked.

“What did you expect? Roads lined with mansions? People going about their daily business? No. Heaven is much more than that. It’s a place where you can re-shape your reality into whatever you like. It’s a place where you can live out eternity in complete contentment and happiness, simply by imagining whatever you like. Everyone else — like you were you — is caught up in their own private interpretation of what they consider Heaven. The mist around you is like an operating system on a computer. It’s the foundation upon which everything else is built upon.”

Sam thought about asking the Watcher how he knew about computers and then dismissed it as unimportant. “So where is Aimi now? Hikari? Is my mother here?”

Samyaza shook his head. “Aimi and Hikari are here. But understand — Heaven is vast — essentially limitless. Think about how many countless billions reside here. While space isn’t an issue, you cannot have private Heavens stacked up upon each other. They still inhabit a certain amount of room.”

“And my mother?” Suddenly, he felt a little breathless.

Samyaza said nothing for a moment as if pondering or even searching. Finally, he shook his head again. “If she is here, I cannot detect her.”

Sam nodded sadly, somehow suspecting no less. He hadn’t really expected to find her here. Despite her goodness, he doubted whether her truck with demons would be forgiven that easily. It was a crushing blow but one that he’d almost come to terms with. He resolved to find her though, no matter what — even if it involved another trip to the deepest pits of Hell, even if he had to defeat all the demons of Hell.“How long will it take to find Aimi?”

“I do not know,” confessed Samyaza. “You may as well ask me how many demons are in Hell. Time will tell but we must make haste. As I mentioned earlier, this disguise will not last.”

They travelled in silence for a while. After a time, Sam began to feel distinctly unwell. Pain started gnawing first at his outer limbs and then slowly progressing into the rest of his body. It was a heavy, aching pain, almost like tooth ache but in his whole body. He almost recognized it. It was like a sluggish version of the searing pain he got from touching a bible or entering hallowed ground.

Samyaza must have seen the pain on his face. “What is wrong?”

When Sam told him, Samyaza pursed his lips thoughtfully. “I was afraid of this but thought that because you were only half demon — a Cambion — Heaven would not affect you so. This changes things. We have even less time than I thought. The pain will only get worse. Soon, it will become too difficult to bear. We must hurry.”

They picked up the pace. Pain continued to build in Sam’s body but stoically, he tried to ignore it. It felt like his arms and legs were being dipped in acid.

They must have walked for what seemed like hours, the mist all about them, following the trail that only Sam could see. Suddenly, it was gone — not only the trail but the mist too. It was replaced by a scene that Sam immediately recognized. Hikari’s garden.

It was summer. The strawberry and tomato plants were ripe with fruit. A dazzling variety of plants created an explosion of color all around — color that he hadn’t seen in his ash-covered grey world for years. Just the sight of it brought a surge of hope and fond memories to Sam. This was where he’d spent some of the happiest moments of his youth. Then the smell of the garden hit him, the rich bouquet almost overwhelming to his dulled senses.

In a sheltered area off one of the paths that weaved through the garden stood Hikari. Sam’s first impulse was to run over and hug the man but he didn’t want to interrupt his master. Hikari was clearly busy, practicing his craft of bonseki, sprinkling colored sand and pebbles onto the surface of black lacquered trays.

Before he could move, he heard his name shouted and then suddenly Aimi was there, hugging him, kissing him, crying.

“Sam! What are you doing here? I can’t believe you’re here! Did the angels let you in? Of course they did! No-one deserves to be here as much as you do.”

Reluctantly, Sam pushed her away. “Aimi, listen to me. I wasn’t allowed in here. Samyaza brought me. Brought me so I could rescue you. Take you away from here. So we can be together.”

Aimi looked confused for a moment, her eyes darting from Sam to the Watcher. “You came to rescue me? Oh, Sam. From what? Do I look like I need rescuing? It’s beautiful here — exactly what I’d always imagined. Why don’t you stay?”

“Because he can’t, daughter. You of all people should understand that.” Unnoticed, Hikari was somehow standing next to Aimi. Sam hadn’t seen him move.

“Sensei,” said Sam, hugging the small man that had made such a huge impact in his life. Hikari returned the hug, squeezing Sam harder than such a diminutive figure should.

“You should go, Sam. Take Aimi with you. Keep her safe but go now. You shouldn’t be here.”

Sam nodded grimly. “I know, Sensei. But I had to come for her. And for you, if you’d like.”

Hikari shook his head sadly. “I belong here, Sam. As does Aimi, though her soul is conflicted by her desire to be with you. Until her soul is at peace, I believe the right thing would be for her to go with you.”

“If you can’t stay, then of course I will come with you,” said Aimi. “It’s not right for the angels to keep us apart like they have. You of all people don’t deserve it.”

“You know what it’s like down there, though?” said Sam. “Are you prepared for that?”

Aimi smiled at him. “Not really, but if we’re together, I’m sure we can manage. Right, Samyaza?”

Sam looked over at the Watcher. He was frowning. “What do we look like to you, Aimi?” he asked.

Aimi looked confused. “Like Sam and Samyaza, of course.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” said Samyaza. “My glamor has worn off. Anyone can see us for what we really are now. We need to leave, right now!” Sam heard the urgency behind the words. And the fear. Samyaza was afraid.

Almost on cue, Hikari’s garden disappeared like a curtain had been parted. Sam was alone in the mist save for a solitary Angelic figure.

“What are you doing here?” demanded the figure in a voice ringing with power.

“Who?” said Sam, feigning ignorance, trying to buy some thinking time, conscious that his escape route in the form of Samyaza was no-where to be seen.

The figure stepped forward, revealing a handsome male angel. Every part of him seemed to ooze authority. Sam had no illusions that he was now in the presence of an archangel.

“Do not play games with me, demon spawn. You do not belong here and you know it. The Grigori you were with has already been banished but you have piqued my curiosity. Gabriel has told me much about you.”

“I’m sorry,” said Sam, “but who are you?”

“I am the Archangel, Michael.”

“I don’t wish to appear rude, but can I speak to Gabriel? I need to see her.”

Michael shook his head. “We are not at your beck and call. Regardless, Gabriel is not available.”

Sam inclined his head respectfully, aware that he was now in Michael’s domain and as such, had to play by his rules. It was a pity he couldn’t see Gabriel but surely one Archangel was the same as any other?

He winced as the pain suddenly returned. Or maybe he’d just been distracted by his reunion with Aimi and Hikari? It washed over him much more strongly than before. It seemed that Heaven was still punishing him. “I will be happy to leave. Just allow me what I came for. Aimi.”

Michael’s expression didn’t change but the mist, as if sensing the tension, began to whirl more excitedly about the two of them. “You do not make demands here, Demon. This is our realm. Not yours. Aimi belongs here with us.”

Sam shook his head, trying not to reveal the pain and discomfort he was in. “I regretfully disagree, Michael. Aimi and I belong together. Surely it’s in your power to grant me this one wish after all I’ve given up for you?”

Michael laughed. “After all you’ve given up?” he echoed scornfully. “What? You expect a reward? Where is your sense of self-sacrifice? Only the worthy receive such rewards. Do you really count yourself amongst them?”

Sam couldn’t believe this. How could an angel — no, not just an angel, an archangel — be so unreasonable? He wasn’t asking for much. Hadn’t he suffered enough already? Didn’t he deserve just a little bit of comfort; to have the woman he loved by his side?

“I’ve helped where I could. Done what I was able to do. I hoped it would be enough,” said Sam, humbly, desperate to control his temper.

“The Demon in you is coming to the fore,” said Michael. “Who else would demand that the person they loved be subjected to the Hell that awaits them on Earth? To tear them from this place of peace and love?”

“Aimi wants to come with me,” said Sam through gritted teeth. “It’s her choice.”

“No,” said Michael, shaking his head. “It’s not her choice. It’s mine.”

“What about free will?” demanded Sam. “What about people being able to make their own choices?”

Michael stamped his foot. The seemingly insubstantial footing shook with the blow. “Do not presume to lecture me, Demon. Not here, in this place. You have no right.”

“I have every right. For the woman I love. I would do anything for her. Look into my heart and mind. You know this is the truth,” said Sam, angrily. He was shouting now but he didn’t care.

“Control yourself, son of Satan,” warned Michael. “What you say and do now will be tallied up at the end of days.”

“I don’t care,” said Sam carelessly. He took an angry step towards the archangel. “Give me my Aimi back.”

“I will say this for the last time, Samael. No. You may not have her.”

Sam threw back his head and roared. It was an animal bellow of rage and desperation. He felt sick. Sick from the continual pain that his presence here brought. But sick also with the knowledge that Aimi was lost to him. Without thinking, his hands plucked forth his swords, a move fraught with anguish and despair. He felt compelled to do it, almost like he had no choice.

As his swords cleared their scabbards an impact slammed into him, so powerful that it struck him completely senseless, knocking his cherished blades from his grasp. A force washed over him cracking his bones.

“YOU DO NOT DRAW BLADES ON ME HERE, DEMON. FOR THAT YOU WILL PAY THE PRICE.”

He felt himself tumbling for the second time in as many hours. Tumbling, but nothing made sense. He didn’t know what was up and what was down. He was dazed, losing a battle with consciousness.

He hurtled towards the ground, limp, frail and senseless. He struck the road with enough force to create a sizable crater and lay completely motionless, his body curled into a fetal position, broken and shattered. Next to him were his swords. Both were broken, in much the same state as he was.

He lay there for some time. Hours later, his body was discovered by the ragged survivors of New York. They gathered in numbers, creeping out from their places of concealment, clustering around his still form.

A whispered conversation took place in the gathering darkness and eventually, a wretched group of men descended into the crater. One gathered up the shattered pieces of his swords while the others lifted Sam up onto their shoulders.

Slowly, gently — almost reverently — they carried him off into the gloom.