Chapter Twenty Four
Word Count: 1,599
The hotel was battered; it barely stood on the beams and supports that had been built into it. The walls crumbled, the doors swung open, closed, open, closed, in the breeze. It was just passed noon and the sun hung back behind the tops of the trees, peering through the breaks in leaves and branches, littering the road with intricate patterns of light and dark.
He could smell daemons on the air, but they weren’t close. Not yet, anyway.
Judah looked around him, memorizing the lay of the land easily; the temperature had gone up and he wore nothing more than his t-shirt and jeans – the jacket rested safely in the cab of a pick-up truck he’d managed to start back in the city. He’d gathered too many followers in too short a time – he’d left the grocery store after Alice left, seeking his next task, and had found a plethora to choose from. The downtrodden seemed to be growing in numbers; the sheep were missing their shepherd and for lack of anyone better, they were following him wherever he went.
Two women, a man, and a child; complete with two cats they carried around in carriers and an absolute lack of any skill resembling survival. The man had found one of the women with the child, the other he’d rescued from a band of looters with nothing except for a shotgun and a voice that was larger than his body. The women were dirty and broken; they cried more often than they did anything else, and Judah almost preferred the whining. He certainly preferred Alice’s ability to simply continue on. These women were weak and tired, and while a part of his angelic heart held pity for them, most of him contained nothing except bitterness.
This was the humanity that his father sought to save. These were the people that had doomed themselves and now screamed for a savior. It was that scream that he’d been attempting to answer when he returned to Earth, but now he was not so certain he wanted to answer it. Humanity had disintegrated into something sick and malicious; a tumor on the land that refused to die, that refused to back down, that simply grew and bred and burgeoned until it covered every inch of terra and gobbled up the resources and sinned as if it would never have to repent.
Well the time for wild abandon had passed, and now they stared at him with wide-doe eyes and nothing to offer except a few calloused encouragements about their certainty of his virtuousness.
It was not his virtue that was in question, he wanted to say, but he shut his mouth. Better not to speak, he reminded himself, when those listening could not understand.
From an open doorway, the man yelled for him. Judah looked over, tearing his eyes from the far-off horizon over the highway, and realized he’d forgotten the man’s name, again. He must have found something.
In the hotel room, Jenson, as Judah had re-learned was his name, led him to a small, disconcerting pile of bloody skulls in the corner of the bathroom. A black candle sat beside them, the flame still flickering. “We need to get out of here,” Judah said, sliding his machine gun from his shoulder to feel the weight of it in his palm; there was something terrible nearby, and it was almost frightening to know he couldn’t place its location.
“I ‘new that’d be bad,” Jenson said, a lump of chew tucked between his teeth and bottom lip. He spit on the way out. From somewhere to the east, Judah could hear the first rumbles of an engine. “Get the girls and the kid,” Judah snapped, and made his way into the next hotel room.
At the end of the strip was a small garage, clearly where the owner kept his vehicle. Judah broke into the main office and kicked open the side entrance to the garage. Parked inside, safely away from looters and daemons, sat a pristine thundercloud grey Jeep Wrangler.
The garage was quiet; a dense kind of silence that he found reassuring. Even silence beyond these walls wasn’t really silence – Judah could always hear nearby creatures, could always make out the roll of water or the rattle of the breeze. There was nothing alive in the garage; save him, and he felt strangely compelled to never leave.
Instead, he got into the truck and found the keys in the visor. He set his gun on the seat next to him and scanned the vehicle’s contents. He wondered who had owned the hotel; whoever it was had been pretty well prepared for the oncoming apocalypse. The back was loaded with boxes of guns and ammo on the left and canned goods on the right. Down the middle, separating the two, were stacks of water bottles. Judah smiled to himself.
He ran from the office, able to smell the daemon’s scent as soon as he left the garage, and found the group huddled in the pick up truck. Judah pulled the keys from his pocket and threw them to Jenson. He said, “Go; head south, find the nearest city and stay as out of sight as possible. I’ll find you.”
For once, Jenson didn’t argue. Perhaps it was Judah’s tone, or the unflinching way he stared at Jenson as he spoke. “Ye’sir,” he said, and nodded. He spared a glance back to the young boy in the too-big flannel shirt tucked in the middle of the cab between Jenson and the boy’s mother. Judah’s leather jacket was passed through the window.
He started the engine and threw the truck into reverse. The young girl, the one that had been a victim of the looters, smiled at Judah as the truck drove into the vanishing horizon. He returned to the office and crouched low beneath the window. He had a clear view of the highway in both directions and the woodland that stretched outward from the opposite side of the pavement. The second engine was closer and he could tell it was making its way to him from the north. Then he heard it – echo motors trailing close behind the first. It was a full gang of vehicles coming for him; six cars, at least.
The wind changed and he caught a stronger whiff of the daemon scent that he’d been monitoring – stronger now, he could narrow down to at least eight individual daemons, each tainted with the smell of human flesh. They were possessors, then; not even full-fledged daemons.
This would be easier than he thought.
Most possessors used the human body they inhabited to their full advantage against the angels they hunted. It was reasonable, even, since most angels had a soft spot for humans – even ones that currently held a daemon inside of them. Judah was not that kind of angel, which put the advantage in his favor.
He traded his jacket for his automatic riffle in the Jeep. His hunting knife was still in its sheath along his spine, his handheld pistols in their respective holsters on each side of his ribs, but he preferred the brute force of the automatic knowing there were at least eight bodies he had to plow through before he could leave. He waited, standing at his full height in the window, his arms crossed over his chest, one hand grasping the automatic gun.
Within moments, the cars came screeching to a halt in the parking lot. Most were old model-Fords; glossy and pastel with chrome accents anywhere that would fit. Bodies crawled from the opening doors, limbs and features contorted to fit a daemon inside. Arms and legs bent in awkward angles, making simple actions difficult and cumbersome. The eyes were a luminous red that seemed to be lit from the depths of hell itself. The stink of sulfur was everywhere. Manic laughter broke the silence as one daemon stretched its long legs out of the door. She wore heels and a plain dress suit, splattered in blood and dirt. Her hair was burgundy and blew in the breeze – she was the only pure daemon, given her own body to inhabit, untainted by the ritual of possession. Her eyes were a dark, shimmering gray that held him in place as they stared openly at each other in the window.
He could feel her consciousness like nails being dragged up his spinal column. Something within him stirred; some shadow of his duty that lurked beneath the guilt and the self-hatred, some small beast that responded to her presence. He shook it off and ducked just in time for her legion of possessors to open fire on the office and garage. He kept low to the ground, peeking out of the corner of the shattered window, holding his riffle up and pulling the trigger. He had been firing guns for so long the recoil didn’t even shake his arm anymore, and he blew the possessors into chunks in a matter of seconds. All that remained was the woman daemon.
She said, “Judah, Judah, Judah,” and her voice was oddly musical. “Why won’t you come out to play with me?”
He crawled to the open door into the garage, digging through the weaponry in the back of the Jeep in search of the sniper rifle that had caught his eye. He loaded one slug into it and returned to the office, sniper rifle leveled, his eye peering through the sight. As soon as he could see her eyes, he pulled the trigger and she went down.