“What do you mean, he’s gone?”
The innkeeper flipped his record book around, showing it to Freeman. “Mr Johnson and his party checked out late last night. Right after the incident at the hospital. See?”
Freeman checked the log. Jude Johnson and his drivers had checked out at 0345, about an hour after Freeman and his team returned to bed.
“Did he say why he left?” Knight asked.
“He said it was too dangerous to stay here. Something about too many demons.”
“Yet he left his guards without telling them anything,” Bates said.
“When I asked, he said you’d completed your contract with him, and he and his crew can look after themselves.”
“That makes no sense,” Freeman said.
The innkeeper shrugged. “Did he pay you?”
“Just our signing fee,” Freeman said.
“Oh boy. Looks like you need to file a case against him.”
“Did he say where he went?” Knight asked.
“Nah. He didn’t tell me nothing. He screwed you good, huh?”
“Yeah,” Freeman said. “Got a job board around here?”
There were no motors in the caravan. Just wagons pulled by teams of oxen. No suspensions, no frills. Everybody left their belongings inside their assigned wagons and walked the broken road.
On the morning of the third day of the journey they arrived at Bernalow. It was a bustling town, but not so rich they could afford dedicated DNA testers and high walls. Once released from their caravan, Freeman, Knight and Bates dumped their rucks in their rooms and scoured the city in their assault packs and exos.
They visited the market and asked the merchants about Jude Johnson. They queried innkeepers about the man, and they asked the sheriff too. The response was always the same.
“You just missed him,” the sheriff said. “He was right here, talking business, looking to see where he could sell his stuff. I’ll get my boys to keep an eye out for him.”
Johnson was everywhere and nowhere in the town. Sometimes he sold goods, sometimes he just spoke to the people he met. But he was always one step ahead.
As dusk fell, the three men headed to the town square. Centred on a water fountain, there was Town Hall, people dining in the open air, merchants yelling out closing-time discounts, and most importantly, a church.
“Think they’ll let us in this time?” Bates asked.
“We have to try,” Freeman replied.
Inside, candles filled the stone building with light. The priest walked along the walls, extinguishing the candles one by one.
“Good evening, Father,” Freeman called.
The priest turned to them. “Good evening. What brings you here?”
“We’re travellers. New to town. Is it a good time for confession?”
The priest smiled. “There’s always time for confession. Who’s first?”
Freeman glanced at his companions. Bates raised his hand. “I’ll go.”
“Excellent. Come, right this way.”
The priest led Bates around the back where the confessional booth stood. Knight and Freeman planted themselves in the pews.
“How long has it been since confession?” Knight asked.
“Two years, eight months and twelve days.”
“You keep track?”
Knight snorted. “After everything we’ve done along the way, it’s hard to remember everything we’ve got to confess.”
“We do our best to remember. God will take care of the rest.”
“Like with all things, huh?”
Gunshots ripped through the air.
Freeman’s rifle flew to his shoulder.
Another burst of fire.
Bates staggered out of the confessional, smoking pistol in hand.
“The priest! He’s a demon!”
A creature burst out of the booth. It had the face of the priest, but it had a thin proboscis for a mouth. Black blood dripped down its chest.
“Down down DOWN!” Freeman yelled.
Bates threw himself to the floor. Knight and Freeman cut loose. The demon sprawled face-first in a welter of gore, twitching.
The ground shook.
Tendrils sprouted from between the cracks in the floorboards. The wood blackened and softened, transforming into Bloom. Grey crystals condensed on the ceiling, long spidery lines cracking through the rock.
“We need to get out of here.”
Bates stood, swaying.
“Josh, what’s wrong?” Freeman asked.
Blood gushed from his mouth and nose and ears. There was a thin ragged hole in his throat, surrounded with purplish flesh. A murky black substance plastered over the wound. Bates scratched frantically at his neck, drawing blood.
“Josh,” Freeman said calmly. “You’ve been infested.”
Bates opened his mouth, gasped. Black pustules burst from under his skin, hardening into carapace.
Freeman’s breath caught in his throat. It was Arkham all over again. It was a boy clawing his eyes out as the Bloom took him, a woman screaming as an infester mounted her, Father Abrams administering the last rites with Bible in one hand and pistol in the other.
“Do it,” Bates said. “You have to do it.”
Freeman aimed. The weapon remained silent.
“I can’t kill myself! DO IT!”
The trigger was stiff under Freeman’s finger. Nothing happened.
Bates’ voice dissolved into a growl. His flesh blackened. Bloom punched into his feet, engorging his torso, growing a hump on his back.
The trigger broke. Freeman howled, firing as fast as he could pull the trigger. The newborn demon dissolved under a hail of flechettes.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” Freeman whispered.
“You can apologise later.” Knight fished an incendiary grenade from a pouch, pulled the pin, and tossed the bomb on the body. “We gotta go.”
Freeman ran. Behind him, something, someone, screamed.
Bloom erupted all around the town square. People fled. Tentacles smashed through buildings, reaching for the sky. Roots erupted from the Earth and shattered the fountain. Water gushed forth for a moment, then a thick black patch smothered the spring. An arch, thick and sturdy, grew from it.
Jude Johnson and his four drivers strode from a side street and stood before the newly constructed Hellgate.
Freeman loaded his grenade launcher. Along the surface of every patch of Bloom, eyes and mouths opened. Dripping fangs and tentacles protruded from the openings. The eyes—dozens, hundreds of them, big and small—pinned the Crusaders with their wide, unblinking gazes.
“Freeman! Knight! So good that you came!”
Johnson’s voice echoed in the square, his back still turned to Freeman. But Johnson had lost the accent, and now he knew where he had heard his voice from.
The creature from beyond the Hellgate.
A deafening cackle spread throughout the square.
“Turn and face me!”
Johnson laughed again. Flesh and clothes melted and regrew. He was turning himself around, rearranging his body so he now faced Freeman. The drivers mimicked Johnson, turning themselves inside-out, becoming perfect copies of the former human.
“Here we are, men of the cross,” the five Johnsons said.
“You used us,” Knight said.
It was obvious in hindsight. During the attack on Metro City, no one had screened the refugees streaming into the city. No one had stopped Johnson dispensing his medicines to the wounded. No one had stopped them from being evacuated to the hospital.
The demon laughed. “Of course I did! You were so—“
Stepping up, Knight cut down the Johnsons with a long burst. The bodies went down, and the Bloom absorbed them all.
Johnson’s voice issued from every mouth in the Bloom.
“How the hell?” Freeman muttered.
“We are one. We are all. We are coming. Behold, our true form!”
An unearthly sound issued from the arch. It was a thunderclap, a howl, a tear, and a rip all rolled into one. A force of nature that forced the men down. Red light blasted from the opening, and for a moment Freeman saw the benighted lands of Hell.
A black mountain of carapace-covered flesh crawled through the opening, blocking out the light. Eyestalks and tentacles sprouted from its body, dancing in the air. It had no legs, oozing across the ground like a slug, sucking up the Bloom as it rolled over the substance. The ground shuddered and cracked.
And it was still coming.
Footsteps echoed behind Freeman. Turning, he saw the sheriff and his men. They were outfitted in a variety of antique firearms. Against a monster like that, he didn’t think there was anything they could do.
“Crusaders! I heard about the…” The sheriff’s face paled. “What in the name of God…?”
“Boss, if you have any ideas, now’s a good time,” Knight said.
Freeman checked his grenade launcher. A fresh HEDP shell waited within.
“Pete, on me. Sheriff, take your men, get the civilians out, and distract the demon. I’m gonna blow down the Hellgate.”
The sheriff nodded. “Godspeed.”
Donning their masks, Freeman and Knight ran clockwise around the creature. The sheriff and his men went in the opposite direction. Rifles popped and shotguns boomed, but the Elder Demon didn’t seem to notice. It squirmed and writhed, forcing its bulk through the Hellgate.
Limbs whipped through the air. Looking up, Freeman saw a massive appendage falling towards him.
“Get clear!” Knight yelled.
The men jumped aside as the tentacle slammed into the ground. The shockwave threw them off their feet. Groaning, Freeman picked himself back up.
The tentacle was gigantic. Clad in thick armor and twice as tall as he was, it lay across the plaza, resting in the ruins of a three-storey building. Bloom sprouted from its tip. There was no way around it. Freeman scanned its surface, looking for handholds, but it was completely smooth.
It rose, twisting towards him, and fell again.
Cursing, Freeman leapt.
He landed on his belly, his mask pressed against a pile of rubble. Getting up, he looked around.
Knight wasn’t with him.
“Pete! You okay?!”
A voice called out from the other side of the appendage.
“I’m good!” Knight shouted. “Finish the job!”
A desperate cacophony of gunshots filled the world. Explosions and tremors answered them. Freeman ran, placing himself directly behind the Hellgate. From this angle, the Hellgate’s mouth opened into an infinity of darkness.
He lased the arch of the Hellgate. His HUD told him how high to elevate his weapon. Taking careful aim, he fired.
The grenade smashed into the edifice. The Hellgate shuddered and crumbled. The portal winked out, leaving behind the monster’s remaining mass in Hell.
And opening an enormous wound.
The demon cried. Again the earpro saved Freeman’s hearing, but he felt its voice shaking his bones. A flood of black blood gushed from the wound, covering the square and filling the drains and gutters.
The demon was still in the fight. Fresh tentacles sprouted from its body and sucked up the Bloom. The gaping wound began to close. As Freeman reached for a fresh grenade, motion caught his eye.
A fresh tentacle, small but lithe, reached for the ground, winding around and snapping up a man. Peter Knight.
“Boss! Need some help here!” Knight called.
The tentacle was wrapped around Knight’s lower body, leaving his arms free. Knight pointed his weapon and ripped off a long burst. Freeman aimed carefully and fired too. Their flechettes simply bounced off its armour.
Swearing, Freeman advanced on it, trying to get a better angle. Another enormous tentacle came crashing down. He dodged it, but now he was cut off.
Knight’s weapon ran dry. He drew a knife and stabbed at the tentacle, but the blade did not penetrate. The monster’s body reformed. A pair of jaws opened in its flesh. Knight screamed, freeing one hand, then the other. He dug into a pocket, producing a small round object.
The tentacle flung him into its mouth.
“DEUS VULT!” Knight screamed.
The monster swallowed him.
A moment later, an explosion rippled through its flesh, blowing out a large chunk of alien matter. The monster screamed, its voice filling the world.
ENOUGH. THIS ENDS NOW.
Eyes emerged all over its flesh. Its wound had become a massive mouth, lined with strange suckers and razor teeth. Crimson eyes turned on Freeman. Strange geometries danced at the edge of his vision.
He couldn’t look away. He couldn’t move.
COME TO ME.
Unbidden, he walked to the mouth. He willed his muscles to stop. They didn’t obey. Unearthly laughter filled his ears. One step, another, a third.
The maw yawned wide.
Under his shirt, Freeman’s crucifix crackled against his skin.
Breath filled his lungs. His lips and tongue moved.
Freeman’s vision cleared. The voices fled his mind. He was himself again. He snapped up his M891 and fired.
The 40mm grenade hurtled into the darkness. A muffled blast followed. The monster roared in pain, its appendages flailing and trashing. Switching to full-auto, Freeman fired long streams of ultra-high-velocity metal into the mouth, tearing up its insides.
The creature squirmed, its eyes blinking shut. When his weapon went dry he primed an incendiary grenade and flung it into the hole. A glimmer of white flame shone in the dark. It grew larger and larger, consuming the Eater from the inside out.
The monster screamed, thrashing and wailing and gnashing and crying. One last spasm, and it went limp.
The demon was dead.
Clearing out the remaining Bloom took another day. The caravan he had joined left without him. Freeman stayed for another week, helping to rebuild. When it was over the townsfolk buried the dead in their cemetery. The priests offered prayers for everyone ‒ believers and seculars, excommunicated and faithful, they didn’t discriminate.
Freeman stood in front of the graves of Knight and Bates. Their headstones were marked with their names and simple stone crosses.
“And now it’s just me,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
The dead offered no solace or remonstration.
“I’m going to finish what we started. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.”
Crossing himself, he walked away.
Freeman signed on with another caravan to New Rome. During the Fall, a regiment of Old World soldiers had retreated here and set up shop. They worked with the Church to restore order and preserve knowledge. Between the two, in the centuries since the demons came, New Rome had never fallen. If anything, it had grown.
They still had his biometrics on file. After a cursory inspection the gate guards let him through. Inside the city, after collecting his pay, he took a long, luxurious shower and fell into bed. When he woke, he discovered he had slept for nearly a full day.
He spent three days asking around, looking for directions, restocking his supplies. In the morning of the fourth day, the Sabbath day, he dressed himself in his freshest clothes and walked.
The church was tiny but well-kept. The kind of church given to new priests to gain experience, old priests as a final post, or priests who had fallen out of favour but could not be expelled.
In the courtyard, a balding man in a black cassock, his back straight, his eyes clear, swept the lawn. He looked up as Freeman approached.
“Good morning, Father Kelly,” Freeman said.
“Morning. Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“You look like a man looking for something.”
“Yes, Father. I am William Freeman, formerly of the Order of Saint George. I am here with my brothers in spirit. We have walked the redemption road, and have come for confession.”
Kelly smiled. Stepping back, he opened the door to the church.
“Come in. We’ve been expecting you.”
Thanks for seeing this story to the end. If you’d like to support my other fiction, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.