A violent crack rolled like thunder through the deserted streets of downtown New Haven. A few demons occupying the stoop of a building roused from their sleep at the sound, their pointed ears piqued in interest. Humans went into hiding shortly after their city was swallowed by the Abyss, and yet that sound was unmistakably from a human weapon. Had one ventured outside?
They rose, their yellow, reptilian eyes keen with hunger as they stretched their wings and limbs, preparing for a chase. But they didn’t need to locate the source of the sound, as he had just skid around the corner at the end of the block and was heading their way.
He was a skinny youth, an easy target. Half of his face was obscured by a white cloth, likely a protection from the sand and dust blown around by the hot wind. He also wore a white shirt, probably an attempt to reflect some of the sun’s heat, though it couldn’t have made much of a difference. The closer he got, the more they could see that he was exhausted and dripping in sweat. His pursuer―a large, wingless demon with a wounded shoulder―was quickly gaining on him.
One of the demons caught a flash of bright turquoise when the human looked their way. Something in him hesitated, but only for a moment. His lust for blood was too great. He spread his wings and boosted himself behind the other two.
When he saw the other three demons eying him from the shade, Ray swore into his bandana. It was becoming painfully clear to him that he was in way over his head. If it wasn’t for their glowing eyes, he wouldn’t have even noticed them. He swung his arm over as fast as he could and fired three shots, slowing his pace enough to turn to see if he had time to aim another back at the big one. Just halfway through his turn, he had to dive to avoid the swing of its sword.
He landed heavily on his side on the pavement, hearing a sickening snap just before an agonizing pain surged through his arm. With his other arm he desperately felt around for the gun he dropped, but he knew he was done for. His mind was screaming, no longer capable of focusing enough to aim, much less taking out the other three demons he probably missed. Moaning a few more choice curse words, he rolled onto his back to face his end with defiance.
But the demons, all four of them, were shrinking away. Perplexity outweighing his pain, Ray sat up, watching them with an open mouth until they were out of sight. Then he noticed a shadow to his left, coming from behind him. His heart stopped.
Startled and relieved by the voice, Ray twisted around to see his older half-brother standing behind him. “Ace!” He pulled down his bandana and winced, clutching at his arm that hung limply at his side. “Oh man, I think I broke it. I can’t play guitar like this.”
Ace gave a low rumble of laughter. “Priorities, little brother.” He stooped down beside him and took Ray’s arm in his cold fingers. Ray flinched, looking warily into his pale, colorless eyes, not encouraged by the sly smile on his deathly white face. “It’s not broken,” he said, tightening the grip as he squeezed Ray’s elbow firmly.
“Ace,” Ray warned, noticing how long and pointed Ace’s fingernails were. “What are you doing?”
Ray’s low voice rose to a shriek when Ace wrenched up his arm, making him experience the pain all over again with another loud pop. Then the man stood and took a step back as Ray screamed every vulgar word he knew at him, struggling to his feet and slowly realizing that the pain was reduced to a mild soreness.
“Your elbow was dislocated, that’s all. Good as new.”
Giving him his trademark glare, Ray bent down to snatch up his gun―borrowed from Officer Mitchell, without permission―and shoved it into the back pocket of his jeans.
“Are you sure you want to keep that there?”
“Shut up.” He scratched at his hair, frustrated that he couldn’t think of what to say. The whole reason he dared to go out into demon territory was to find his brother and talk to him.
“What were you thinking, coming out here alone?”
Ray’s jaw clenched. “What were you thinking, pulling us down into hell?”
Ace frowned. “I had no choice.”
“Yeah? Well, I had to come alone. I didn’t want to risk my friends’ lives, and I didn’t trust anyone else to meet you.”
“So you came out looking for me.”
“We’ve been here for days, and no one has any idea what’s going on. You’re the only one I can think of who would know.
Sighing quietly, Ace led him over to the shade of a building. Ray noticed a bead of sweat on his brow. The man did look out of place in the bright sunlight. “This isn’t hell,” he explained. “It’s the Abyss.”
Ray recalled with a vague annoyance that Seth had said that before. “Yeah, whatever. Same thing.”
“Fortunately for you, they’re very different places. Hell is another realm of eternal fire and torment. The Abyss is the barren realm the fallen angels were banished into, until it’s time for them to be sent to hell.”
“So… you’re basically admitting you’re on the losing side.”
Ace gave a grim smile. “The consequence of a terrible choice, I’m afraid. Now―”
“It’s never too late, though, right?”
He shook his head. “I sold my soul. I can’t just change my mind.”
“I don’t know, man. I don’t think a contract with some demon holds any weight against the God who created the entire freakin’ universe. I’m sure if―”
“It’s too late for me,” Ace said firmly.
Ray shut his mouth. He didn’t expect to feel so challenged by his brother’s stubbornness. Not that he expected to start preaching at him right off the bat, either. Was he turning into Seth? He cringed at the thought.
“Listen, you and your friends need to focus on surviving. There’s no plan for sending you back. This was a one-way trip.”
“Are you serious?”
“The church you’re staying at will be safe, I’ll make sure of that. But it’s on you guys to stock up on food and water, and to protect yourselves while you’re outside. Aim between the eyes. Pain barely slows them down, but if you kill their body, they can’t hurt you in spirit-form. It takes them time to regain their bodies.”
“I don’t want to live here!”
“Well, unless you know how to open the Abyss from the inside, which the most powerful of demons haven’t been able to do since they first got here, you don’t have much of a choice.”
Even though Ace’s words came off a bit sarcastic, there was no mistaking the sorrow in his eyes. Ray was taken aback. Besides occasional amusement, emotion wasn’t something that was usually present on his face.
“I’m not capable of it myself,” he continued. “So, you’d better prepare to just live the best you can here. The Abyss won’t be opened until the last days of earth, and there’s no way I can know when that will be. That’s why I required Roukaza’s immortality.”
Ray was silent for a while, thinking it all over. Ace made no attempt to rush him. Then finally, he pointed out the obvious. “We’re going to run out of food eventually, you know. It doesn’t look like anything grows here.”
“You’ll figure something out. Water will be the bigger problem. It never rains here. The realm is cursed.”
“Great. Awesome. So, why did you want to come here?”
“It’s none of your concern.”
“Uh, it kinda is, considering it kinda affects my life.”
Ray caught another flash of pain in his eyes. “I’m sorry, I really am. But I can’t share the reason with you. You’ll just have to believe that there was nothing I could do to prevent you and your friends from getting caught in the middle of this.”
“Fine. Don’t tell me. I’ll get it out of you eventually, when you least expect it.”
Ace smiled. “Good luck with that. So, that’s about all I can tell you―”
“―But you didn’t tell me anything!”
“―so let’s get you back to safety.”
Ignoring the look of refusal on Ray’s face, Ace gave a lazy wave of his hand toward the ground where Ray was standing. When he felt a lurch in his stomach and saw that Ace seemed to grow a few inches taller, he looked down. His shadow had turned black as ink and spread out into a circle. As he sank into it, an icy cold seeped through his sneakers as they disappeared from sight. His feet instantly felt nonexistent.
“Ace!” Ray hissed, grabbing at the smirking man in a panic, but it was no use. He was falling faster now. Just before the hole closed up over his head, he wailed, “Screw you!”
Seth was playing a quiet game of Go Fish with Katrina and Kaito when he heard Brian yelling from one of the rooms down the hall. He couldn’t make it out, but he was pretty sure it sounded like Ray had done something to anger the red-headed police officer. As the sound of slamming doors and stomping―uneven from Brian’s limp―neared them, Seth exchanged a nervous glance with the other two.
“Actually, have you guys seen Ray?” Kaito asked. Katrina shook her head.
Seth shrugged. “If you don’t know where he is, probably nobody does.”
The door then burst open and Brian stood in the frame, shoulders rigid as he looked wildly around. “Where is he?” he demanded.
“What’s wrong?” asked Seth.
“My gun’s gone.”
Kaito looked indignant, laying his cards face-down in front of him. “So you immediately blame Ray?”
“My gun was secure before I went to sleep. I wake up, and it’s gone. Ray’s the only one I can think of who’d do something as stupid and bold as taking a cop’s gun. So, where is he?”
“I don’t know.”
“When did you last see him?”
Impulsively brushing aside the fringe of his purple-streaked black hair, Kaito quietly thought it over. Then, slowly, his expression fell as he came to a realization. “He wanted to be alone. I think he was checking out the attic, but he kinda mumbled and I didn’t want to ask him to repeat himself. I figured maybe he wanted to write or something. If he’s not up there, then maybe he went out there.” He gestured toward the window. The blinds were down since the colorless sky made them uneasy.
At first, they were going to board up the windows to prevent demons from breaking in, but the small church seemed to be supernaturally protected. Demons wouldn’t get within thirty feet of the place, and even though they looked from afar like they longed to attack, they’d always turn away and leave.
“If he’s not up there,” Brian said flatly, “then he’d better be back soon. With my gun. I’m not going out there to look for him.”
Before any of them could say anything, the cop slammed the door and stomped off down the hall towards the stairs. After a few awkward moments, Seth broke the silence.
“Have any threes?”
After falling through a swirling vortex of dark energy that his brother dropped him into, Ray was relieved when his feet found solid ground―but only for a second, because one foot landed in an open cardboard box full of papers. His balance slipped out from under him and as he tried to right himself, his foot caught, and he tripped. He fell flat on his back, jarring his sore elbow and reintroducing him to the bump on the back of his head from when his best friend, Kaito, “accidentally” flipped him with a Judo move just a few days ago. Overcome by pain, he just laid there, moaning pitifully as the swirling clouds of dust settled over him.
At the muffled sound of Brian’s voice, he sat up fast and swore under his breath. He grabbed the gun out of his pocket and shoved it into the box his foot was stuck in, and at the same time, yanked his foot out. After pulling back a handful of papers, he dug the weapon further out of view and scooted away from the box, trying to look casual. Then he heard a door creak open.
“Ray, you in here?”
Fortunately, a stack of boxes stood between him and the door. He stood up. “Yeah, what’s up?”
“Looking for my gun,” the cop answered, staring at him with narrowed eyes.
“Oh. Well, I haven’t seen anything other than junk up here. And dust.”
“Come here, Ray.”
Something in the man’s voice made him not want to try his patience. He obediently approached the officer, and as he expected, he was grabbed by his sore arm and roughly swung into the nearest wall. There he was pinned by the man’s weight as he was subjected to a pat-down. He took it like it was nothing.
“You’ve been searched before, haven’t you?”
“You cops always seem to think I look suspicious.”
“I wonder why.” Brian released him and stepped back, not letting up on his scrutinizing gaze. “Where’d you hide it?”
“I didn’t take your stupid gun! Why would I even need it up here? You think I’m gonna waste bullets on some church mice?”
“Your friend thinks you might have gone outside.”
“But I’m not, am I? Just lay off. I came up here to be alone. So, leave me alone.”
Brian hesitated, his expression softening just a little. After giving one more glance around from where he was standing, he grumbled something and made for the door, visibly trying to mask his limp. The door shut behind him. Ray waited until the stairs were quiet before exhaling.
Every time Ace was around his little brother, it put him in a pondering mood. He wasn’t sure he liked it. Legion’s doubts of his loyalty grew the more he explored the questions Ray raised. But he couldn’t help it. His thoughts wandered against his will after the many years of not having any reason to think at all. He knew he had allowed himself to be a puppet. At the time, he didn’t care. But Ray shook him from his apathy. He still didn’t understand why, but he did.
There was a rap on the door, followed by a thin voice. “My liege?”
A familiar green, reptilian face appeared through the narrow opening. Ace smirked as he watched him come all the way inside and turn back to close the door. The ugly demon was half the size he was when he last saw him, and a great deal more slithery without his armor. “You requested me?” the demon asked, shifting his red eyes as he tried not to hiss.
“Yes. Odium, was it?”
The demon nodded, avoiding his gaze.
“What is it they’re saying about me now?”
Odium looked up at him quickly, feigning confusion.
“Of the small posse Xain gathered, you’re the only one I let escape. The others, I absorbed. Have you wondered why?” He let the question hang in the air as he observed the demon considering what answer would be least offensive. Then he looked down and noticed that his fingernail had dug deep into the surface of the desk. He pulled it out and inspected it with a raised brow. His nails were getting curiously sharp. And black. “It wasn’t error,” he continued softly. “I needed Lucas to believe I was weak―that I didn’t have the situation under control. And you played your part beautifully. Just as Lucas was becoming concerned about my growing power, rumors of my failures and of my weakness for the human boy spread through his ranks and reached his ears. And so, he underestimated me just long enough for me to find an opening in his supposed invincibility, and I brought him down.”
“So, what are the rumors now?”
There was no hiding the glint of resentment in the demon’s eyes. Not long ago, he exceeded Ace in stature and had him begging for mercy with his oversized ax at his neck. Even so, he bowed low and said, “Only that Roukaza was a fool, and you have far exceeded him in power, my lord.”
Ace leaned back lazily and stretched his arm out to the side. “Come over here and do me a favor.”
Though Odium looked reluctant to obey, his fear of the unpredictable man was greater than his damaged pride. He walked around the desk, stopping at least a foot beyond Ace’s reach. “Yes?”
“I know you were disappointed that you couldn’t chop my head off. So, go ahead and chop off my hand instead.”
The demon nearly choked on his own tongue. “S-s-sir?”
“Do it.” Ace’s pale eyes burned bright.
“I’ll give you ’til the count of three. If you don’t, I’ll just kill you and find someone willing to obey. One. Two.”
“Ah, that wasn’t so difficult, was it?”
Odium stared in horror at the stump where Ace’s hand had previously been, appearing to forget that the small ax he grasped so tightly, formed by his own dark energy, was sapping his limited strength. Blood dripped quietly from its curved edge onto the rug―drowned out by the steady stream from Ace’s wound that splattered into a growing puddle.
“You may want to release your weapon. I want you conscious to watch this.”
The weapon dissipated like smoke the moment the demon relaxed his clawed grip, and his strength returned to him. Odium blinked a couple times, but didn’t take his eyes off of Ace’s wrist.
The flow of blood had slowed to a stop. Beyond that, nothing exciting happened. Ace wondered with mild concern if he should have done this experiment earlier, alone, with a less-important limb. A pinky, perhaps. Would this display of power amount to nothing more than the closing of a wound? Where was the freshly formed hand? Had Roukaza’s ability been exaggerated?
The pain then faded to a tingling sensation, and a black substance oozed out from the exposed flesh. Odium peered at it with curiosity, and Ace watched with suppressed excitement. It formed a blob that separated into five segments, which Ace flexed, then as the shape became more distinct, the substance hardened and developed a leathery hide. The jet-black color didn’t match his pale skin, but it was otherwise identical to his other hand.
“Hmm. I thought the result would be more humanlike… but I suppose it could be because we’re in the demonic realm.”
Odium looked up at him questioningly.
“The point is, Roukaza and his ability are a part of me now. I haven’t just surpassed his power; I’ve added it to my own. Do you understand now?”
“Yes, sire,” he replied in a small voice.
“Good. Now, take my hand and spread the word. I am Legion. Roukaza, Furor, Mortis, Despero, and every other demon I’ve acquired over the years. We are many. And we will not tolerate insubordination. I will not just kill those who defy me, I will consume them.”
Odium became flat on the rug. “Yes, my lord! I am completely at your service!”
“Then get moving. You’re no use to me down there.”
The demon bolted from the room faster than Ace could blink, leaving behind the severed hand. Ace massaged his temples, glaring at the open door. “As useless as his redundant ability to spread hatred.”
Ray stayed in the attic another hour before coming down, managing to get half of a song written so no one would doubt his reason for being up there. Since he had gone so far to convince Brian that he didn’t have his gun, there was no way he could admit to anyone where he had really been. That included keeping the information Ace shared with him to himself. Not that it was worth telling anyway.
What a waste of time.
He headed down to the first floor to the youth group room where his friends had taken to hanging out in, pausing for a moment before he touched the doorknob. He heard low voices, and surprising to him, Kaito’s voice had raised to a volume above what was probably Seth’s. He didn’t feel right about eavesdropping on his friend, so he gave the knob a sharp turn and pushed his way in.
Kaito whirled around at the sound of his voice. “Ray!”
“Yup. What’s going on?”
“We thought maybe you went outside. Brian was looking for you.”
Before responding, Ray claimed the neon green couch and sank into it, glad for some relief for his aching, tired body. “I told you,” he sighed. “I was upstairs. He came and found me a while ago, freaking out about his gun. It’s not my fault he lost it.”
Kaito’s expression relaxed a bit. “Oh. Well, I’m glad you’re alright. Brian never told us he found you, so we assumed you weren’t up there.”
“Yeah,” Seth added, “Kaito wanted to go out there to look for you.”
Ray raised an eyebrow at Kaito, who then shot an exasperated look at Seth. “Well,” Ray said carefully, not wanting to come across as scolding his sensitive friend, “I’m glad you didn’t.” Hoping to signal an end to the conversation, he reached back into his pocket for his memo pad, holding it out in Kaito’s direction. “I’m stuck on this. See if you have any ideas.”
Looking put at ease that he wasn’t going to be questioned further, Kaito stepped over and took the notepad. Seth’s eyes narrowed as he gave Ray a final glance-over, but he turned back without a word to sit with his girlfriend, Katrina, on the floor where a mess of playing cards was scattered about. He picked up his hand and they continued their game.
“How about you switch up the meter here?” Kaito finally suggested, snapping Ray from his wondering why Seth looked at him like that.
“The number of syllables in a line.”
He shrugged, nuzzling further into the flat throw pillow. “I wasn’t paying attention to that. I have writer’s block. Any ideas?”
Kaito stared at the little pad of paper for a long time, his dark eyes moving back and forth at times, but they mostly got stuck at what must have been the blank space at the bottom. “I don’t know,” he said at last.
Ray nodded, expecting that. Kaito didn’t think well under pressure. But at least the topic of his disappearance was forgotten. “Think it over. No rush.” He stretched his sore arm and yawned. “I’m just so bored. Can’t stand being cooped up in here.”
“Yeah. You wanna play a card game with us?”
“Nah, my brain is tired from writing. I need a nap.”
“Okay. We’ll keep it down.”
Ray wanted to say not to worry about it, but he was already too far gone. His eyes slid shut.
The first thing Ray became aware of was the twisted feeling in his chest. He felt a heaviness―a dread that something wasn’t right. He felt guilty. But why?
He sat up, remembering Brian’s gun he left hidden in the attic. He had to figure out how to return it without him knowing, preferably to a place that Brian could have missed searching. Returning it to its lock box would be too obvious. It had to look like he misplaced it himself.
The uneasy feeling grew the more he schemed. Slowly he began to realize―it was the dishonesty that was bothering him. Not only did he steal; he lied to Brian to make himself look innocent, and he even lied to his friends. Kaito almost put himself in danger because of his reckless adventure. If anything happened to him, he’d never be able to forgive himself.
He stood up and stretched his back, staring at the door across the room as he popped the stiffness out of his neck. Some kind of motivational poster was taped up on it, but the text wasn’t large enough to read at that distance. He was sure whatever it said would convict him to do something he really didn’t want to do, but he wasn’t really loving the internal conflict, either. Sighing heavily, he crossed the room and read it.
‘Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”’
One word pierced through to his heart. Truth. He groaned. Then he shoved down the feelings that urged him to do the right thing.
“Just because it says ‘truth,’” he told himself, “that doesn’t mean it’s telling me to tell the truth. It’s talking about knowing the truth of God. I think.”
He read it again, trying to find a loophole. But he only found that his argument was falling apart. “Faithful to his teachings… I’m sure he must have said something about telling the truth,” he admitted. “And not stealing.”
Sighing again, he turned the knob and opened the door, putting the sign out of his sight. He couldn’t come to a decision yet. He wasn’t ready. Besides, the gun’s absence wasn’t hurting anyone. Demons couldn’t attack the church. It wouldn’t matter if he took a few days to work himself up to returning it. Nobody became a perfect disciple overnight, right? At least he was on the right track. He was a believer. If he wanted to move up to disciple status, he should probably find out exactly what Jesus’ teachings were, first.
“I understand you’re worried about her,” Brian said, “but it’s too dangerous. Besides, she’s right where she wants to be―helping people. She’s safe there. You saw how much police presence they have.”
Seth shook his head, arms crossed as he looked out the window. They had been down to the hospital twice since all the chaos began, to check on his mom who was a nurse there. The first time, she was dead set on staying there to ‘do her job,’ as she put it, even though everyone was in a panic and the hospital staff could hardly maintain order. The second time, just yesterday, things had calmed down a bit with the increased security. But he could see an unrest in the people from how packed the building was. There were rumors about having to turn people away if their injuries weren’t severe enough, and he could only imagine how quickly a riot would erupt if it came to that. They were understaffed and had to ration their resources, so it was only a matter of time.
“She’d be safer with us,” Seth finally said. “Ray’s mom, too. And I don’t expect you to come, since you’re injured. I just want to ask Tanya if she’ll come take me there one more time. The last time, to bring them here.”
“What makes you think your mom would want to abandon her post?”
“Because her son really doesn’t want to be an orphan, and Ray’s mom needs constant care anyway, so she’ll still be helping someone.”
Brian sighed, reaching over for his walkie talkie on the desk next to his makeshift mattress. “You’re starting to sound like Ray.”
When everyone was gathered in the kitchen-equipped basement for dinner, Ray slipped away, returning to the small classroom upstairs that he, Kaito, Seth, and the other guys from the youth group were sharing as a bedroom. Satisfied that it was empty, he closed the door and headed over to his little section of the room and sat down on his sleeping bag, leaning back against the wall. Then he took out the bulky, hard-cover book from the crook of his arm and read the front. “Holy Bible,” he muttered. Unsure of where to begin, he opened to the table of contents and stared at it.
Footsteps rushed up the stairs and quickly approached from down the hall, and Ray snapped the cover shut, shoving the book under his pillow. Then in jogged Seth, who went straight for his duffel bag, grabbed his sunglasses from an outside pocket, and made it halfway back to the door again before he even noticed Ray sitting there.
“Oh! Hey there, Ray. What’cha doing?”
“Is that an encyclopedia under your pillow?”
Ray jumped and looked down at it, seeing that the book made the pillow sit a few obvious inches above the floor. Shooting Seth a glare, he pulled out the book and showed it to him. “I’m borrowing it, alright? There’s a bunch in the big church room on the backs of the benches.”
“The long benches are called pews. And the big room is the sanctuary.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean to sound like a know-it-all. I was just trying to help.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he sighed. “I know.”
“So,” Seth began, pausing to take a seat on the floor across from Ray. “Need any help? There’s a lot of books in there, and it can be hard to know where to begin.”
“Yeah, I see that.” He opened it up again. “You know that poster on the back of the door in that room with the couches? I kinda wanted to read more about that saying that was on it.”
Seth stared off to the side for a moment. “I don’t really remember what it said. Did you copy the verse reference?”
Ray raised his pierced eyebrow.
“Never mind,” Seth said with a nervous laugh. “What was it about?”
“If you’re a disciple, you’ll do what Jesus teaches, or something like that.”
“Oh. Well, I can run down and check it.” He stood up. “You’ve probably done enough running today.”
The Bible almost fell out of Ray’s hands. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he demanded.
Seth froze. “Uh, nothing. I’ll be right back.” And with that, he ran off, leaving Ray to suspect that Seth wasn’t as oblivious as he seemed.
When he returned a minute or so later, out of breath, he laid the small poster in front of Ray. Then he showed him how to find the right book, chapter, and verse. Ray, too distracted to take it in, decided to wait until later to find out why Seth was acting like he knew about his secret adventure. He had another question he preferred to ask first.
“Just wondering, is there any reason why you’re in a rush?”
“You ran in here to grab your sunglasses, and now you’re giving me a two second crash course in Bible navigation. Going somewhere?”
“Well,” Seth stammered, “uh, it’s dinner time.”
“And the sunglasses are for what?”
He hesitated, and Ray could see a story cooking up behind his enthusiastic green eyes. “To protect my eyes,” he finally said.
“From the sun?”
“From hotdog juice.”
“Yeah.” Seth nodded, as if he was starting to convince himself. “Once, I bit into a hotdog and I got squirted in the eye with really hot juice. I was almost blinded. So now, whenever I eat hotdogs, I protect my eyes with sunglasses.”
It took all Ray had not to burst into laughter at the stupidity of that, let alone keep a straight face. “Didn’t we have hotdogs yesterday?”
Seth’s serious expression was dampened. “Yeah.”
“I didn’t notice you wearing sunglasses.”
“Maybe you were too busy eating.”
“You sat right across from me. And I’m pretty sure I told you several times to close your mouth when you chew.”
Seth nodded again, but he added, “You kinda yelled, actually.”
“And I’m pretty sure that if you were wearing sunglasses indoors, I’d make fun of you.”
“Alright, alright,” Seth sighed defeatedly. “The truth is, Officer Miller is on her way to pick me up. She’s going to drive me to the hospital to pick up my mom, and your mom, to bring them here where it’s safe.”
Ray blinked slowly. “You’re bringing my mother here, and you weren’t gonna tell me?”
“I’m sorry. I know things aren’t good between you two, but I have to get my mom out of there, and I know she won’t leave your mom behind.”
“Hold up,” he interrupted, his eyebrows scrunching together as his patience wore thin. “You think I’d want to leave my mom in that ticking time-bomb just because I don’t like her?”
Seth frowned. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Well, after hearing what you had to say about the hospital situation yesterday, I don’t really want her there either. But doesn’t she need to stay hooked up to a machine or something? Would she be any better off here?”
“My mom will know what to do. The ride back might be rough, but it’s better to get her out while it’s still kinda calm. Do you want to come to help?”
“Yeah. But we should tell Kai what’s going on. I don’t want him coming, but he should know so he doesn’t wonder where we went and go out looking for us.”
“Okay. I don’t think there’d be room for him once we pick them up, anyway.”
“Good excuse, I’ll use that. Let’s have him and a few of the guys clear out one of the smaller rooms on the ground floor and get it set up for them.”
As they stood up and made their way out, Ray’s mind wandered back to the box in the attic where he hid the gun. If he had come clean about it in the beginning, he might have been able to convince Brian to let him use it on this dangerous venture. Now it was too late to get drama going with the hot-tempered cop. Tanya would no doubt side with Brian and probably not even let him go along at all. No, he could only hope that she had a spare weapon for him to use, in the inevitable scenario that a pack of demons would chase them.
Since New Haven had become somewhat of a ghost town, Seth and Ray heard their ride long before they saw it. There had been a few gunshots as well. But when the large cherry-red Jeep tore around the corner into the back parking lot of the church, their demonic pursuers veered off and hung back in the street, watching the vehicle to see if they planned on staying in the safe zone.
It drove up and came to a stop near the door where Seth and Ray were waiting in the shade, since the sun was always directly overhead, beating down mercilessly on the residents of the Abyss. Battery-operated clocks were their only hope of keeping track of how many days had gone by.
The tinted window rolled down, revealing someone they didn’t recognize. A tall, lean man with dark skin, a goatee, and bright red shades. “Hop in!”
“Who are you?” Seth blurted.
A woman leaned forward from the passenger side so they could see her better. It was Tanya Miller, Brian’s partner on the police force. She was holding a short-barreled shot gun. “This is my brother, Micah,” she explained with either an impatient or worn-out edge to her voice.
Ray claimed the nearest door, so Seth went around to Tanya’s side.
“Sorry it’s hot in here,” Micah said, “We’ll get the air going once we pick up our patient. Don’t want to waste gas.”
“It’s okay,” said Seth as he pulled his seatbelt over.
“Hey Tanya,” Ray cut in, “You have an extra gun? I can cover this side.”
“But I can help! I’m a good shot.”
“You’re just a kid. Micah, drive.”
“Not ’til everyone’s buckled up,” the man sang, drumming his thumbs on the steering wheel.
“I will when she gives me a better reason than my age. I’m eighteen, by the way. I could join the army if I wanted to. Let me help! This whole side is vulnerable.”
Tanya sighed and turned around in her seat to give him a sharper glare. “Listen, kid. I don’t care if you’re a good shot or not. I’m trying to conserve ammo, and I only take a shot when necessary. We got here without your help, and we don’t need it now. Are we clear?”
Ray really wanted to say something sarcastic, but didn’t want to give her a reason to change her mind about letting him come along. Instead, he took a deep breath, averted his gaze, willed his twitching jaw to relax, and pulled the seatbelt over, clicking it into place.
Tanya gave a satisfied nod and turned back to the front, readied her gun, and said, “Let’s go.”
“Is there another way out of here?” Micah asked, lifting his sunglasses to peer into the rear-view mirror at the mob behind them.
“They’ll expect us to take the back way. It’s too narrow, so I won’t be able to take a shot. Go back the way we came.”
“You serious?” he complained, even while shifting out of park and turning the Jeep around. “I told you I don’t want no scratches on my baby.”
“Gun it and take the opening when you see it.”
The vehicle lurched forward when Micah stepped on the gas, driving them all back into their seats. Tanya effortlessly pulled herself up and stuck her upper half out the window, aimed, and waited. Micah belted a war cry as they sped towards the wall of clawed creatures, his voice rising in pitch the closer they got. Then a deafening blast from Tanya’s gun sent a spray of lead tearing into the right edge of the pack, and they fell back to take cover behind their comrades to the left of them. Micah, having mere seconds to react, swerved into the gap and almost made it through without a scrape. One demon didn’t move quick enough, and its muscular, spiny tail thumped the side and screeched the whole way across the flawless paint job. Micah was squealing unintelligibly, his knuckles pale around the steering wheel and his teeth bared in a grimace.
Tanya dropped back in and patted her brother on the shoulder. “Your first battle wound. If we ever get back to our world, I’ll pay to get it fixed.”
Micah hummed his approval, but the deep lines in his face suggested it didn’t make him feel much better.
“Guys,” Seth warned, twisting around to look out the back window, “they’re catching up fast.”
They were easy to spot against the pale backdrop of sandblasted buildings, their long limbs dangling down as they rode the wind, carried by their wings of leather and bone. With only moments until they caught up, Ray glanced at Tanya to see what she’d do, since they were coming up on the left and keeping low, out of her range. All she had to do was hand him the gun and let him take a shot.
“Hold on, kids!” Micah shouted over the noise of the wind as he pushed the oversized Jeep Commander past seventy.
The vehicle was starting to lose traction in the thin film of sand that had been blowing in from the surrounding desert wasteland. Ray looked over at Seth, seeing that his eyes were as wide as Ray’s felt, and they both grabbed the handles above their doors, not sure what Micah was planning to do. Going this fast through the city, whether people were hiding indoors or not, couldn’t have been safe. There was no knowing if someone else could be speeding through the streets, about to blow through an intersection at the same time as them from another direction.
Even though they had sped up by twenty or thirty miles per hour, the demons matched their speed, seemingly without difficulty. Once again, they were about to catch up. Since it was too noisy to hear each other clearly, Tanya signaled something to her brother and carefully positioned her gun out the window with her arm resting firmly against the base. At the same time, Micah steered the car to hug the right side of the road, then took his foot off the gas. This would have been a relief to Ray, but he wasn’t able to feel the emotion before Micah gave a sharp turn of the wheel, pumped the brakes, and swerved a hard left.
Ray’s favorite word was lost in the wind as his life flashed before his eyes.
The Jeep fishtailed on a course that would end with a fiery crash into a brick building, with nothing but a narrow sidewalk as a buffer. But Micah spun the wheel back just in time, redirecting their spin-out to the right, bringing Tanya face to face with the surprised flight of demons.
The blast from her shotgun tore holes in their wings and ruined their eyes, at the very least of what Ray could see in the split second before Micah righted the Jeep and continued on, now driving at a more practical speed. Tanya pulled her gun in and shared a celebratory fist-bump with her brother.
“Please don’t do that with my mom in the car!” Seth cried.
“How did you do that?” Ray exclaimed at the same time, bursting with adrenaline.
Micah settled back into his seat, looking pleased with himself in the rear-view mirror. “I have experience in racing.”
“Illegal street racing,” Tanya added sternly.
Micah waved it off. “At least my skills are coming in handy, now.”
Tanya appeared to concede with a barely noticeable nod.
The mob at the hospital doors was a strange image to Ray, even though Seth had told him about it. Angry people were pressing in around a barrier the police had set up, yelling and throwing rocks as the officers ducked behind their riot shields. Ray had seen footage of protests and riots on the news before, but he had never seen anything like this in person. People were desperate for food and protection, and the hospital had large stores of food and the biggest concentration of police in the city, since it also had the most to protect.
“Around back, right?” Micah asked quietly, now that the windows were up so the air conditioning could cool the inside―and block any rocks thrown at them.
“Follow the emergency entrance signs,” Tanya replied.
The way snaked through the parking lot until they reached a makeshift blockade that protected the entrance. People were gathered around that as well, but they hung back a lot more, warded off by a few armed guards who were more serious about keeping the way clear for actual emergencies.
Micah approached slowly and rolled his window down, then stopped when one of the guards signaled. Another guard walked up to the driver’s side.
“No sir, picking up.”
Tanya leaned over and flashed her badge. “We’re here to transfer a patient to a smaller facility before things get worse here,” she explained in a low tone.
The guard nodded. “Proceed slowly when you’re given the okay up front. I’ll follow your vehicle through to make sure no one hitches a ride. The guards at the door will send an escort with you so we can make sure everyone who enters leaves. Just protocol.”
The man gave another nod and walked back behind the Jeep, keeping an eye on the crowd. Ray unbuckled and turned around to watch. Most of them were just pleading to be let in, but one woman looked ready to rush at them. A nearby guard noticed her too, because he readied a large canister that resembled a fire extinguisher. The crowd backed off at the sight of it, apparently having experienced it before, or witnessing someone else attempting to brave it. The woman lost her nerve as well, but kept a smoldering glare fixed on the guard.
The inside of the hospital was quite a change of pace from the outside. Instead of simmering tension on the verge of its boiling point, this place was already overflowing with crises with not enough staff to even hope to address them all. And yet, the tension was of a different nature than the angry, desperate mass outside. It was a controlled chaos, with a sort of acceptance that all they could do was their best. They couldn’t possibly keep up with everything, so there was no use crying about it.
Ray was taken back to the last couple of times he was in this hospital, visiting his sickly mother, Rachel. Years of alcoholism had nearly destroyed her liver, bringing her to the very edge of death. But under the care of Seth’s mother, Lauren, who was committed to stay on her case, the expertise of Doctor Matthew Campbell, and the hospital’s medical resources, Rachel had been making a comeback.
Not much time had passed since all this had happened, but it was a different world, so it seemed like an age to Ray. He didn’t know what to expect about her condition. What he did expect, however, and was dreading, was the usual edginess between them. He still had a lifetime worth of baggage from her neglect and abuse, and forgiveness wasn’t coming easy for him. While it wasn’t so bad being around her when she couldn’t move from her bed or talk much because of her exhaustion, he couldn’t help but think that when she recovered more, she’d return to her old ways.
“Room 242,” announced their armed escort.
Tanya stepped forward and knocked on the door. “Rachel? This is Tanya Miller. May I come in?”
There was a muffled response that apparently Tanya could decipher, because she looked at the others and told them to wait outside. Then she opened the door enough to slip inside, closing the door quietly behind her.
“Hello Ms. Weiss, Ms. Williams.”
“Officer Miller,” replied Lauren with a tired smile. “I’m glad you made it safely.”
“I’m glad you agreed to come with us. I know it’s not an easy decision for you.”
“Well, the hospital is running out of people willing to stay and help, so they’re about to split everything up, anyway. With smaller teams of staff stationed in smaller facilities around the city, the police force will be able to be more spread out to protect more people, not just patients. And it was an easy decision to be with my son and focus more on Rachel, and I can keep an eye on Brian’s recovery as well.”
Tanya smiled. “Brian is taking credit for convincing you.”
Lauren laughed, zipping her duffel bag of medical tools and supplies that she had finished packing. “He’s probably right. I was torn at first. It’s a good thing he’s so stubborn. My sense of duty to my work can sometimes blind me. I’ve been in it alone for so long, I’ve forgotten what it was like to have a voice of reason.” Her eyebrows furrowed as she paused, caught up in memory.
Tanya laid a hand on the woman’s shoulder and looked over at Rachel, still resting in her bed. She was awake and seemed alert, but she still looked weak and not up for the adventure. “Are you ready for a change of scenery?”
A bit of Ray’s fighting spirit was revealed in Rachel’s halfhearted attempt at a smirk. “Might as well get it over with.” She pulled the thin blanket aside, showing that she was already dressed for the journey―a pair of gray drawstring sweatpants and a pink tee, both of which were loose on her thin frame. She struggled to push herself to a sitting position. Lauren rushed to her side to assist her the rest of the way, and Tanya spotted the wheelchair in the corner and rolled it over to them. After she locked the wheels, she helped Lauren lower Rachel into the seat.
“Did you clear your leaving with the hospital? Or should we plan to sneak you out of here?”
“It’s all set,” Lauren answered, taking the handles of the wheelchair and kicking up the locking mechanisms. “There won’t be any problems.”
“Good.” Tanya opened the door and propped it open. “Seth, get your mom’s bag. We’re ready to go.”
The teen beamed when he saw his mom and hurried in, giving her a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek before proceeding to the large black bag. But he only got it a few inches off the ground before he lost his balance and had to let go. “Man, what’s in here? This is heavier than your purse!”
Lauren stifled a laugh. “It’s a lot bigger than my purse, too.”
“Ray,” Seth called, “a little help, please?”
Ray heaved a sigh and entered the room, giving his mother an uncomfortable glance as he passed her. Then he gave the bag a try himself. “Geez, Seth. You need to practice what you preach.”
“Push-ups,” he said flatly, giving a strained smirk as he shuffled out of the room, leaning from the weight of the bag.
“Oh, come on. You’re about to fall over, too!” He jogged to catch up and wrestled one of the handles from Ray’s grip so he could help.
They were escorted back the way they came, through the maze of halls, seemingly the entire length of the hospital before they reached the elevator. Ray hoped the generators didn’t die or hiccup on the way down. It was sluggish enough on the way up, as if they were running on just half of the amount of power they needed. He wondered if he should pray. He still wasn’t sure how.
When they were all crowded in and the door slid shut, his throat seemed to close as well. And the flickering of the light wasn’t helping his state of mind.
“Isn’t this exciting?” Seth asked.
“No-” Ray’s immediate, short answer quickly morphed into one of his habit phrases when the floor dropped out from under them, earning him a jab from Seth’s elbow. When he understood a moment later that they weren’t in a free fall, but were just descending at a faster rate than expected, he relaxed his grip on the bar and straightened himself, trying to look more casual. “Sorry.”
“It happens,” Seth said, giving Ray a friendly pat on the shoulder.
As much as Seth’s naturally loud voice irked him in the quiet, crowded room, and he felt his personal space invaded, Ray bit back his jerk-reflex, not wanting to say something he’d regret if he was going to die in a couple of seconds. He braced for impact, and was met with a gentle bounce under his feet and a cheerful ding that announced their arrival. The door slowly slid open again.
Ray released the breath he was holding and waited for his turn to exit. Then, suddenly, nobody was blocking his view of his mother, and he caught her staring at him. But she didn’t act caught. Her gaze was like a trance, her round eyes filled with wonder and agony. Ray had a strange thought that she was seeing him for the first time. But he dismissed it, supposing she was heavily medicated.
When he noticed Seth’s mom was also looking at him, offering for him to step off next, he froze and waved for them to go first. So, she gave him a smile and pushed his mother forward, being careful not to go over the bump too quickly. He followed close behind, eager to get out of that big metal box on a rope.
The guard then released the door and made his way to the front of the group again. Ray, feeling uneasy under his mother’s silent gaze, hurried up to where Tanya was by their escort.
“Hey Tanya, are you sure you don’t want me to cover the left side? I don’t think we should do any fancy stunts with my sick mother in the car.”
She sighed, giving him a quick glance. “We’ll see.”
As they neared the exit, their guard’s walkie chirped and a voice said, “We’ve got hostiles circling overhead. Repeat, hostiles circling overhead.”
“Copy. If they come any lower, it’s duck season.”
The guard stopped and turned to Tanya. “It sounds like those monsters are waiting for you guys to leave. It’s unlikely they’ll dive on us; our snipers on the roof made enough examples of them. We’ll cover you as you leave, but as soon as you’re out of range, you’re on your own.”
Tanya nodded. “I expected it. I was trying to avoid it, but we made a bunch of them mad on the way here. They probably recruited some friends.”
The man shook his head. “It’s a crazy world we’re in here. Worse than any nightmare I’ve ever had.”
They continued on and were momentarily blinded when they stepped out into the relentless sun. Then Ray saw them―circling like a flock of vultures. Probably about one hundred of them, by his rough estimate.
“Well, I guess we could wait and head back another day,” said Micah.
Ray looked over at his mother. She was staring up at the sky in horror, her eyes wide and lips pale. He wondered with alarm if someone as sick as her could die of fright.
“Let’s at least go back inside while we figure out what we’re going to do,” said Lauren.
“There’s so many,” Tanya said, barely above a whisper. Ray almost couldn’t hear her above the wind. “It’s as if they’re planning to attack the whole hospital.”
The guard appeared to have the same thought. “Everyone, back inside.” He unclipped his walkie and spoke into it. “How many guns up there? Over.”
“Five. Back-up on the way.”
As the group was retreating back inside, Seth hung back, peering at the sky. Ray grabbed his shoulder to snap him out of it, but he didn’t budge.
“Dude, come on.”
“Something doesn’t feel right.”
“Yeah, a fight’s about to go down.”
“Not that.” Seth looked at him with a serious, yet puzzled look on his face, then noticed something on Ray’s arm and pointed. “You feel it too, right?”
Upon inspection, Ray saw that he had goosebumps despite the heat, and his hairs were standing up. “Okay, that’s weird, I guess. Can we go in now?”
A thunderous noise in the distance made them both jump and spin around to look, but instead of storm clouds, there was a beam of violet light shooting up into the sky from the top of Schwartz Tower. In no time, the swirling cloud of demons over them diminished to nothing as they changed course, flying towards the beacon. And not only them, but demons from all over the city took to the skies to respond to the apparent summons.
“My brother must be up to something,” Ray said.
Thanks for reading! Through the Abyss is almost done, so follow us on Facebook or Instagram for updates! Coming soon to Amazon Kindle and paperback!
And don’t forget to finish reading book one of the series, Called from the Darkness! Get it here!