The shrieks had stopped, but the smell of burnt flesh and hair still hung heavy in the air. A stripped, whimpering figure hung nailed to a cross. Smoke smelling of brimstone rose off of it and clung close to the ceiling of the dank, dark room, filling the space with its cloying stench.
A tall, broad shouldered man stepped away from the cross and stomped his way back across the room to a small wooden chair. A large, blood spattered framing hammer was gripped in his right hand and his left was covered in blood that soaked into the sleeve of his black shirt. His shoulder-length hair was black as night and hung over his face in greasy tendrils. At his throat was a clerical collar.
He sat in the chair, placing the hammer down beside it and picking up a blue sports bottle.
“The choice,” said the man in a gravelly voice, “is simple. You tell me what I wish to know or I hammer a third nail through your feet.”
The creature nailed to the cross whimpered for a few more seconds before breaking into strained speech. Its words were guttural, clipped, and of a language spoken by no man.
The preacher loosened the bottle’s cap as he rose from the chair and crossed the room once again. When he closed with the cross, he squeezed the bottle and the liquid within splashed over the demon’s head. Its scalp, covered sparsely with stringy hair, washed away, leaving bare skull gleaming slightly in the dim light. The creature began shrieking anew as the holy water poured down its face. It thrashed about on the cross, hurling its liquefying eyes and flesh about the room.
More of that foul smoke rose off of the demon’s mostly bare skull as it continued to howl and struggle. The man’s face twisted horribly with rage and disgust. With his left hand he effortlessly slammed the demon’s head back against the cross and forced its mouth open. He put the tip of the bottle into the demon’s mouth and squeezed it again. The shrieks quickly became wheezing as the demon’s vocal cords liquefied, and as the holy water passed down through its body and destroyed its lungs the wheezing stopped as well.
With a snarl, the preacher spun away from the cross. He hurled the sports bottle across the room, water spurting from its tip as it twisted away, and stomped over to a bag he had next to the chair. From within the bag he pulled a small cigar box. He unlatched the box and plucked from it what was clearly a very old and weathered spike. When he returned to the cross, the demon hung limply from it. A pool of mostly liquefied flesh lay at the creature’s feet. Lesser demon’s too had to eat in this plane to maintain their stolen, twisted forms, and the stench of bowels filled the air, all but blocking out the scent of the sulfuric smoke.
The preacher took the nail and effortlessly slid it into the center of the demon’s chest, giving the creature its true death. All that was left was a corpse that at some point had been a human’s body before the demon had possessed it however long ago.
He stood looking at the corpse and tried to regulate his breathing. Though he had killed the demon in one of the fits of rage that were growing more and more common, he did not regret it. In the next room was a spare.
The nail slid silently into one of his pockets and he walked through a door on the side of the room. He slammed the door behind him. This room had no windows and would’ve been even darker than the other were it not for the chain laid across another demon, this one clearly female in form. Unlike the other, this demon was a true demon and able to create its own vessel when it crossed over. The chain draped over it had Holy Scripture engraved on each link, and it glowed with a soft yet luminous light. Smoke smelling of brimstone rose from where the chain touched the demon. Though silent, the demon glared hatefully at the preacher.
As he grabbed one edge of the chain the preacher began to speak in low tones, reciting Psalms. When the chain had left its upper body, the demon lunged for the preacher. With his free hand, he grabbed one of the demon’s wrists and placed a large black boot on its other shoulder, smoke curling up from both spots they came into contact. Never pausing in the reciting of the words, he almost casually pulled the demon’s arm out of it socket. The demon screamed shrilly as he tossed the arm aside.
It was only when he had fully removed the chain that he took his foot off of the demon’s chest. When the demon tried to rise he grabbed it by it throat and began to throttle it, still reciting Psalms. He tore off its other arm, crushed joints, and snapped bones. Once the will to resist had been lost, he dragged the demon into the other room.
When the demon spotted the other corpse nailed to the cross, and the pool of flesh at its feet, the eye that the preacher hadn’t gouged out with a thumb bulged.
He stopped his recitations tell the demon, “I have a means of inflicting true death on your kind, succubus.” He pulled the old nail out of his pocket and presented it to the demon.
The creature screamed and flinched away from it, which only prompted the preacher to push it closer and closer to the demon until the tip touched its throat. The nail’s touch caused the flesh to instantly wither and blacken, pulling away from the nail.
“You will answer all my questions, succubus. I will know if you lie. If you refuse to answer, or answer dishonestly, I will destroy you. If you speak the truth, I will merely twist your head off and sent to from whence you came.”
“I will answer,” whispered the demon.
* * *
When the preacher laid down for sleep after sunrise, the dreams came to him again. What once caused him to awake screaming in terror now merely served at as reminder. Not only did the memories come rushing back to him, but so too did the suppressed thoughts and doubt. His subconscious screamed questions into the void. It begged for answers that would not come.
The people that he had seen as his flock weren’t saints, but none of them were evil. None of them deserved what had happened to them. It was on a Monday morning near the end of winter when it happened not far from the church. The gate opened and the horrors came pouring out. Many were killed or eaten outright. Scores of women were raped to death. Even more were dragged body and soul back across the gate to spend an eternity in the fires of Hell.
One of the first places people went for refuge was the church, trusting in the protection of God. But that protection never came. A demon better than twenty feet tall, genderless, and the color of blood tore away the front of the church, lesser demons swarming past his feet to drag people out of the church and back towards the gate to Hell. They dragged the preacher with them too. The closer he got to the gate, the less fear he felt and the more anger consumed him. Good people, people who had lived their lives faithfully and earned their place in Heaven, children who’d never known anything but innocence, were being dragged into the pits of Hell. Then that anger exploded, and since that time the preacher had traveled west, following the destruction that the red demon had left in its wake.
* * *
He woke as the sun was starting its downward descent. It wasn’t as much sleep as he would’ve liked, but it would do. He’d slept on a bench in what had once been a park. The grass had long died. Much had changed since the End Times had begun with the ride of the Horsemen. Plants had withered and died. The oceans had boiled and twisted horrors often emerged from their depths. The park was a few hundred yards from the beach. As a child, he had once visited the Pacific Coast, but now it looked so wrong. The waters bubbled and were colored strangely. The air smelled of salt, but just underneath lingered the sulfuric smell of demon-taint. It was best to keep distance from the ocean. Some of the creatures now living in it didn’t shun the sun as other demons did.
The preacher traveled north along the coast. Two times he skirted viciously protected communities that scavenged from the corpse of San Francisco and retreated behind their too thin walls at night to prepare for an onslaught of demons. He avoided such communities when he could. Many people reacted negatively to his attire. He pretended his hardest that he didn’t understand why.
Demons would often leave heavily guarded settlements alone until they had gathered enough to attack en masse. By coming into this plane, they bound themselves to its rules. Though many did have some form of magics with them and they were far tougher than humans, bullets did them harm.
Before night had fallen, the preacher could see the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge was no longer its iconic color. He traveled through the night. It was safer this way. If he was awake and alert, he could react better to the presence of demons. The demons often retreated when the sun came up. Sunlight made them somewhat lethargic, and humans incapable of defending themselves had died quickly.
* * *
After he had awoken the next day, he set out for the bridge. The bridge was littered with cars that the salt air had not treated kindly over the years. Once on the other side of the bridge he weighed the risk of sleeping for the night as he planned for the battle ahead of him, eventually deciding that the risk was worth it. He took refuge in a small, ruined grocery store for the night.
The night passed uneventfully, and in the morning, the preacher readied himself. He took a gun case and a box of ammo out of his pack. After removing the revolver from its case, he inspected the weapon closely to make sure it was cleaned and well oiled. He removed fifteen rounds of .45-70 from the box. Each bullet had been previously blessed and engraved with a cross. The preacher then dabbed some holy water on the tip of each bullet before opening the loading gate and filling the cylinder with five rounds. He distributed the remaining rounds to his pockets along with the old nail from the cigar box.
Once the sun was well and truly up, he made his way to the entrance of the civic center. He walked in through the front. As he passed through the threshold, he felt as if he were pushing through a film for just a moment. There was a distant sense of something turning its attention towards him as he walked through. The preacher readied his heavy revolver and thumbed back the hammer.
Without electricity the building was dark. The ceiling three floors above him was a slightly domed skylight, but the light did not filter down adequately. Glass from the ceiling crunched beneath his feet. He paused for a moment when he heard something scraping against the tile floor not far up ahead. More alert than before, he continued onward. A small hunched creature the size of a child came skittering out of a room and ran from the preacher. His revolver roared. The large, blessed bullet, with the added redundancy of the engraved cross and holy water, passed through demon as if it were paper. It erupted like a pouch filled with blood and organs, spraying the walls and floor. The bullet hit the tile floor and sent pieces of it blasting about the hallway.
He encountered three similar incidents. Each time the demon would run, exposing itself, and be shot dead. The preacher could feel it. He was being lead somewhere. These demons he had been killing were merely bait, and it was bait that he was perfectly happy to take. Stepping past a pool of gore, he made his way towards open double doors that seemed to lead into an auditorium. He paused a small distance away and replaced the four rounds he’d used with new ones, letting the spent cartridges fall noisily to the floor.
The auditorium ahead was almost pitch black, inky darkness only kept at bay by the meager light ghosting in from the parted doors. He kept his revolver ready and scanned carefully with his eyes as he passed through them. Almost before he was through the threshold a sound came from above. He spun, but something heavy slammed into him bowling him over. The gun roared and blasted a hole through the wall above the doors, casting a faint, new beam of light into the auditorium.
When he hit the ground, his gun bounced off the floor and out of his grip. In the low light, all he could make out was a large squat figure sitting on him. Its outline was vaguely bat-like, with grotesque leathery wings and a bulbous head. The higher demon let out a low, raspy hiss. The preacher reached for his gun, but the demon pinned his arm down with a slimy hand. Claws dug viciously into his flesh. He started reciting Holy Scripture. The demon flinched with a shriek and wrapped its other claw around his throat, cutting him off with a gurgle. It leaned forward with another hiss, and the preacher could feel its hot, rancid breath on his face.
He reached into a pocket wit his left hand and wrapped his fingers around some .45-70 cartridges like improvised knuckles. He pulled his free and drove his fist into the side of the demon’s head. The demon shrieked in horrendous agony and recoiled away from the blow. He used the motion the roll the demon over with him on top of it. The preacher brought his fist down onto the demon’s face twice before it could react to the changing situation, its skull rapidly softening under the bullet reinforced blows.
The demon flailed its claws in panic, tearing gashes in the preacher’s arms, shredding his clothes, and finally ruining an eye. Despite this, the preacher did not stop driving his fist into the demon’s face. He picked up reciting from the Holy Scripture, hoping it would minimize any further damage the demon could inflict. Foul-smelling smoke wafted up from where he and the demon met.
Soon the demon’s head was little more than a bread pudding-like goop. It was still alive and regenerating quickly, but it wasn’t quick enough to save the creature. The preacher stood up and tossed the gore covered cartridges aside. He walked over to his firearm and retrieved it before unceremoniously turning and blasting the recuperating demon’s upper body to a paste with a single round, frustrated that he could not risk taking the time to give it a true death with the nail.
He stood, breathing heavily for a good minute. Pain came lacing in as the adrenaline wore itself down. He was losing blood and only had one good eye. He scanned the auditorium again, still seeing nothing.
“Mammon!” he tried to shout, but it came out as little above a croak. He took a couple of steps back and leaned against the doorframe.
An impossibly deep chuckle reverberated around the auditorium. Bravo, bravo, Preacher,
it said. I’m not quiet sure you understand how powerful a demon that really was. That a human could banish it on quick thinking and faith alone despite everything is rather amazing, wouldn’t you say?
“Stop running, demon! Stop this hiding, you coward! Face me!” Red began to bleed in from the corners of the preacher’s vision. Terrible, terrible rage welled up from within.
You’d do well not to insult me, mortal. I never ran from you; you simply were not fast enough to keep up with me as I cut a swath of violence across the continent. I was rather disappointed when I hit the coast, really, so I decided to let you provide some much needed entertainment, Preacher.
A nude, genderless, red-skinned creature materialized out of the darkness. It was now only ten feet tall, rather than twenty, but the preacher was sure that one of the Princes of Hell could change such a thing easily. The preacher leveled his revolver, but with a small gesture from Mammon, the gun was suddenly excruciatingly hot. He hissed through his teeth and the gun dropped to the floor heavily.
Now, now, Preacher, we can’t have you shooting me with that. It’s dangerous to even one such as I. What do you say we have a little chat? …Although, you really don’t have much of a choice.
The preacher’s hate flared up. He wasn’t sure if he was lightheaded from that or the blood loss.
So much hate, Preacher. Are you sure it’s being pointed in the right direction? Where was your God when His faithful, loving servants were being raped, and killed, and dragged off into Hell? This is clearly the End of Days, where is your Rapture? Why didn’t God take you and the other good little boys and girl up to play with Him in Heaven?
I know you hate Him. You have denied yourself and redirected that hatred onto something else.
Mammon tapped itself on the chest. I wasn’t the only one to do such things. It has been happening the world over for years now, and God hasn’t intervened for a single soul.
It had been coming for a long time. The demon was heavy handed and not nearly as clever as it thought, but it didn’t have to be. The preacher had refused to confront these same thoughts, and now that they had finally been rubbed in his face, his faith in God— a faith that’d been fueled only by hatred for years now— died.
The demon smiled.
The man who had been a preacher surprised himself with a chuckle. “And I suppose this is where you offer me the proverbial deal with the devil.”
Mammon frowned for a moment. Of course. You’ve proven yourself to be smart and resourceful. I am a Prince of Hell. I can easily offer you enough power to strike at God in much the way you have done to us.
“Go fuck yourself,” said the man as he stuffed his hands into his pockets.
A pity. I suppose I’ll have to amuse myself by slowly pulling your limbs off.
The former man of god wrapped his hand tightly around the weathered nail in his pocket and waited for the demon to try.