by Josh Curtiss
In a post-apocalyptic world run by demons, the remaining humans prepare themselves.
| Malachi crouched low in the undergrowth, hidden from view, watching and waiting for his chance to strike. His slight frame allowed him to be easily concealed in the bushes. The pack of demons in front of him were feeding hungrily on the carcass of what was possibly once a human; it was difficult to tell given that the body was mutilated beyond recognition. He felt the archaic energy emanating from his gauntlet, the perfect blend of technology and magic, pulsing up and down the length of his left arm, the arcane runes glowing a faint bluish color.
In addition to his gauntlet, Malachi donned the traditional attire for a Shadow-Shield, a warrior for the Scarred Fraternity. His armor was constructed of Demonmail; a light, flexible material created from the scales and hide of a greater demon. As these commodities were extremely rare, only a select few bore the honor of wearing Demonmail, Malachi among them. Demonmail was impervious to most every human weapon, and provided great protection from the deadly claws and teeth of lesser demons. Like his gauntlet, Malachi's Demonmail armor was inscribed with arcane runes.
Over the course of the six long years since the Arrival, when the demons had first emerged from the Hellgate, the Scarred Fraternity had accumulated a great amount of knowledge regarding magic. Through intensive observation, they had deduced that demons used runes as a conduit to harness and channel their various forms of black magic, and through careful experimentation, the members of the Scarred Fraternity had learned to wield these arcane runes against the demons, blending them with their own technological prowess to create formidable weapons and defenses.
Suddenly, a low growl sounded directly behind Malachi. As he turned around, he pushed one of the many buttons on his gauntlet, causing a blade of dark energy to surge forth, but it was too late. He was pummeled violently to the ground in a flurry of movement. Malachi struggled desperately to rise to his feet, but the source of the sound had him pinned to the ground. Malachi took in the grotesque appearance of the demon. Its face was covered with at least a dozen eyes, each one glowing a pure molten red. The creature’s mouth was full of jagged, razor sharp teeth, and as it snapped at Malachi, he could smell the stench of raw meat in its breath. An additional limb sprouted from the center of the demon’s chest, accompanying the other two in savagely slashing at Malachi with long, needle-like claws. As Malachi gazed hopelessly at the creature mauling him, he noticed something particularly odd. Etched in the center of the lesser demon's chest, just above its third appendage, was a crude rune. Though this was worth noting, Malachi currently had other things on his mind.
The appearance of this demon was completely unexpected. Malachi knew that this was explicitly Hellhound hunting territory. In the demon hierarchy, lesser demons all had their own hunting grounds, and for another species to hunt there was strictly against lesser demons' nature. With his gauntlet arm pinned and useless for the time being, Malachi was helpless against the demon’s onslaught. This one was cunning for a lesser demon. Finding chinks in Malachi's Demonmail armor he clawed at his torso, tearing flesh. The demon uttered something in a guttural demonic language that Malachi couldn’t understand, then one of its claws raked across Malachi's unprotected cheek, and the metallic taste of his own blood filled his mouth as it ran down his face from the open wound. Enraged, he spat the mouthful of blood back in the demon’s face and muttered an incantation. A scrawling rune on his gauntlet surged to life, bestowing him superhuman strength, and he seized the opportunity to his advantage.
With his newly found might he shoved aside the demon’s appendage and swung his fist. He felt the creature’s skull shatter as his knuckles collided directly with its face, and barely had a moment to roll over and take a gasp of air before he glimpsed the pack of demons in the near distance abandon their meal and charge at him.
The demons currently charging at Malachi ran on all four legs. Their faces were blank, aside from a large mouth where their eyes should have been that drooled toxic venom. Their bodies had a slimy appearance to them, and each creature had nine separate tails, each with a razor sharp spike at the end. Knowing that he stood no chance against an entire pack of savage demons, Malachi drew a small spherical device from inside his overcoat. He hastily muttered the activation spell as the pack of slobbering demons grew nearer and nearer. One of the creatures in the pack opened its gaping mouth wide and spat a glob of acid toward Malachi, who narrowly avoided it by sidestepping to the right. He finished by turning the dial on the bottom of the orb and cast it aside, where it exploded into a rippling portal. As Malachi retreated toward the portal, one of the creatures let loose another glob of acid, which caught Malachi in the arm, spattering all over his gauntlet and searing the exposed flesh. Malachi dove into the portal, narrowly avoiding a final spray of venom.
Malachi tumbled into the middle of the common area of The Compound, the Scarred Fraternity’s underground facility, much to the astonishment of the people currently there. The rift closed behind him as he lay on the cold, concrete floor, gasping for breath. After about a minute of everyone staring awkwardly at Malachi as he lay on the floor, he finally rose to his feet and, slightly breathless, inquired,
“Where is Bartholomew?”
“In the armory,” A man from the group of people replied.
Without a word Malachi turned and set off down a long corridor to his right. As he strode down the corridor, he gingerly looked at his injured arm. The area that his gauntlet didn’t cover was bright red, the skin peeling and blisters covering the surface. He also reached up and lightly touched the side of his face, where the demon had slashed him, which was crusted with dried blood. The gash didn’t seem to be too deep, so that could be repaired by a simple healing rune; his burnt arm, on the other hand, would require more assistance. He finally reached the armory, and pushed the steel door open.
The armory was dimly lit by florescent light bulbs. Tables ran along each wall, with various technological parts as well as multiple open spell books and grimoires scattered among them; weapons of every kind hung from the walls above the tables. Bartholomew, a burly African-American man, stood at the large worktable that dominated the center of the room, tinkering with an object, his back turned to Malachi.
“Hello Bartholomew.” Malachi greeted.
“Malachi. I wasn’t expecting you to be back so early. Good to see you.” Bartholomew replied in a deep, baritone voice.
He turned around, and the smile he wore disappeared the instant he took in Malachi's disheveled condition. Malachi's long, grizzled auburn hair was plastered to his face with sweat, and his unshaven face was crusted with dried blood, which Bartholomew presumed had come from the large gash on Malachi's right cheek. There was also a tear in Malachi's Demonmail, revealing torn flesh underneath it. His green eyes shone with a light that only came from a close encounter with danger.
“My God, what happened to you?”
“There were… complications.” Malachi replied. “A drifter. Well outside of his territory. It surprised me while I was hunting, and drew the attention of the pack of Hellhounds I was observing. This is getting out of hand, Bartholomew. It’s the fifth time this month that a lesser demon has been found outside of its territory.”
“Yes, I’m aware.” Bartholomew sighed.
“And there’s something else too.” Malachi continued. “The drifter, when it was attacking me, it said something. I’m not well versed in demonic languages, but I understood the word 'Master' amongst others. And there was also a strange rune carved into its body. I believe it might have been sent by a greater demon.”
Bartholomew was silent for a short moment, deliberating about something in his mind, and then continued reluctantly.
“I think it’s time we pay a visit to Baal.”
Malachi’s eyes widened. “Are you sure? He’ll do anything to be released. We can’t trust him.”
“It’s worth a shot.” Bartholomew rebutted. “I can’t think of any better options. This isn’t normal behavior for lesser demons. And that rune you mention worries me. If there’s something going on, Baal will know about it.”
“By the way, you can remove that thing now. It’s completely mangled. And you need to go to the Healing Ward before you do anything.” Bartholomew added, his gaze locked on the destroyed gauntlet Malachi still wore.
Malachi had completely forgotten about his injuries, he had been too engaged in the conversation, but at Bartholomew’s mention of them, and twinge of pain jolted through his arm.
“Alright,” Malachi agreed. “But tomorrow we speak with Baal.”
Bartholomew led Malachi down a narrow corridor, ending in a spiraling staircase leading down to the Confinement Quarters. Malachi limped slightly, his body sore from the exertions of the previous day. A healing rune was etched on his cheek, the gash he had suffered earlier nothing but a faint scar now. His arm was wrapped in gauze that was imprinted with various runes to heal as much of the injury as possible and prevent any pain while it finished healing on its own, and it was hoisted up in a sling.
After reaching the bottom of the stairs, Bartholomew stopped in front of a large, steel door, procured a key from his pocket, and inserted it into the keyhole. After a slight pause, there was a sharp beep and the door slid open. Bartholomew and Malachi entered the Confinement Quarters. Along each side were numerous cells, imprisonment runes circling around them in addition to the heavily fortified cages. Each cell contained some sort of demonic being. The vast majority of the cells held only lesser demons, which were studied to gain knowledge of the arcane magic that every demon naturally possesses, but in the deepest parts of the Confinement Quarters there were larger, more heavily fortified and warded cells in which the few greater demons that the Scarred Fraternity had managed to successfully capture were kept. That particular area is where Bartholomew and Malachi were currently heading.
After winding their way through the labyrinth of halls, they finally halted in front of the cell that held the greater demon, Baal. Malachi couldn’t help the feeling of terror that rose up inside him as he glanced at the formidable sight of the greater demon before him.
Baal stood nine feet tall, body rippled with muscle and his wrinkled skin a dark shade of red. His feet were cloven with hoofs and his long tail ended in a deadly sharp blade. Gnarled horns curved off his forehead and from his back a pair of enormous, bat-like wings emerged. His shoulders and down along his spine were studded with large, protruding spikes.
Baal had been one of the very first demons to emerge through the Hellgate, a portal between the Netherworld, the dark realm of the demons, and our world during the Arrival, and had been a key figure in the destruction of humanity. As far as they knew, the two-hundred and fifty members of the Scarred Fraternity were all that remained of the human race. It had taken a hundred Shadow-shields to finally bring down and capture Baal, and out of those hundred, only ten had lived, Malachi being one of them. The events of that night still haunted him in his sleep.
As if Baal sensed their presence, the demon turned around and gazed at the two men, his sunken eyes as black as darkness itself. Bartholomew produced an intricately wrought key from his pocket, and chanting under his breath, inserted it into the key hole, the door sliding open. Even with the twenty enchanted protective barriers between them, Malachi still felt afraid. Clearing his voice, Bartholomew started,
“Greetings, Baal. We’ve come to inquire a few questions of you.”
“What is it you want, human?” Baal replied, his booming voice causing the ground to tremble. Though Baal spoke in his native demon tongue, the language decoders set up in the cell provided a translation.
Bartholomew continued, “First, do you know anything regarding the lesser demons repeatedly wandering outside their territory? And just yesterday, we believe one was sent by another greater demon to kill Malachi.”
An echoing laugh erupted from Baal.
“Puny mortal. Are you truly too vain to realize that my capture would infuriate my ilk?”
“We realize that, but are you sure that there is nothing more at work here?” Bartholomew interrogated?
All of a sudden Baal slammed against the barriers, a booming roar erupting from him.
“The Reaping is coming, human! And you best be prepared!”