Music that inspired the story
Where does one start. Should I start at the beginning? Or the end? To put any of this into words is a feat so unmistakably difficult, even God had to use a prophet. It was a foretelling that failed to spare you the details. Details I do not wish to relive. But in order for any of what I will write to make sense, I must. So, I suppose that the end is a proper place to begin then. It is what happened first.
One year has passed. Almost. Or maybe more. I have counted two hundred and ninety-three sunsets since the Pale Horse vanished, leaving a trail of death in its wake. Despite the warnings, the prophecies, the cinematic re-makings of the same tale, no one was prepared for this: not a soul. But then again, how do you prepare for the end of the world?
Whenever I had pictured it as a young boy, I saw the sky cast golden lights upon our world. I saw angels with porcelain skin, silk robes, and soft feathered wings floating down to lift us mortals up into the heavens. I’d envisioned that magic spells and the power of good would cast the devil and his minions back into the depths of hell. I’d hoped the earth would be pure again, leaving humanity to live in peace with our heavenly Father for the rest of eternity.
But that isn’t how it went, the Apocalypse. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It was the earth that opened up. Deep bottomless canyons, miles long. Armies of demonic creatures and spirits came pouring out of them into our world. Buildings collapsed, as if caused by a world-wide earthquake. The air became thicker and more difficult to breathe. Storms rampaged for days on end. “Chaos” is too mild a word. The mass public cannot function without order. People do crazy things without a leader, guidance, rules… Instead of banding together to formulate a plan of survival, everyone scattered, fended for themselves; all of them died. If the demons weren’t pursuing you to either possess or slaughter you for their own amusement, a human was willing to kill you for your supplies.
A war was raging. It was unlike anything I had imagined. The angels appeared out of nowhere with some kind of electric force; a fuse sparking them into existence. However, they were outnumbered hundreds to one. They were slaughtered by the fire-breathing forces of the underworld. Those that survived retreated, leaving the world to fall to pieces. A darkness descended upon the earth; Satan had won. His army was left to rejoice on their victory over this territory. God was nowhere to be found. So much for prophecy.
In the beginning, everyone was left behind. At least, almost everyone. The passing spirits were few and far in between, my guess being ten in every million made their way from this world to whatever lies beyond. The lucky souls weren’t carried away in the arms of angels, though. They died. Just dropped dead. I thought I saw a wisp of billowing smoke twirl out from the mouth of my wife when she’d passed. But I can’t be sure. I was unaware of what was happening at the time.
A trauma such as this would be enough to drive a man mad; it probably had. But, I had one more connection to this world that kept me going. My son. He was only fourteen, and I never understood why he was left behind to rot on this ravaged planet with me. I had never had the faith my wife had, I believed in the possibility, but beyond that, I believed in nothing. And now, having seen what I have seen, I believe in Him even less. How could anyone leave their creation to suffer this fate? How could you leave behind a child?
My son and I barricaded ourselves in the crawlspace of our small home amidst what used to be the suburbs of Minnesota. We had food, water, my wife’s Bible and a few of her relics, but I had no idea how long we could survive; half of the previsions were perishable. But my son, he only lasted a week. He got a fever that refused to break; there was nothing I could do for him. There was no hospital I could drive him to, no medic I could call. Our only antibiotics were Tylenol and hydrogen peroxide. I watched him pass in my arms, hoping, praying, that whatever deity was out there would spare his soul.
Now I had nothing to live for. No reason for my mind to stop itself from retreating to the deepest and darkest of places. I contemplated how I would commit suicide, but later decided it was the way out for the weak. At least, that’s what I told myself. Subconsciously I knew it was out of fear. Surely the afterlife was no worse than this. Surely something was waiting for me out there. But I couldn’t be certain. If I was left to die here, perhaps my soul would also die. No passing over to reward or punishment, just die. End. The unknown was much more frightening.
Life is for the living. Or at least it used to be.
It must have been a month that passed by, while I hibernated beneath my home during the apocalypse. I wondered why no one or no thing had found me yet. I had often heard earsplitting screams, gunshots, and whatever other supernatural noises I couldn’t place, in the distance. But they were always in the distance. Why? Why hasn’t anything come scavenging the remains of my home? Surely they would smell my blood pumping through my veins beneath the surface with their heightened senses. But no one came.
An endless wave of thoughts crashed into my mind in the hours, days, weeks I’d spent rocking back and forth into the cold wall of my haven. I was starving. I was also living in complete darkness. I didn’t want to go this way. If I was going to die, I would do it trying. Trying to be productive, whatever that meant. I had nothing to live for, so I would live for death. Maybe if I atoned, I would be absolved and reunited with my family. Maybe there was something after this for me, maybe there wasn’t, but for God’s sake I would die trying. It was time to go outside.
The sunlight scorched my skin like a thousand pricking needles. For several minutes I couldn’t see anything. My retinas burned so badly from the massive flood of light, I fell to my knees. My head throbbed, sending its protests into the sides of my skull. It was several minutes later before I finally managed to open my eyes and see what had happened to the world. My world.
What hadn’t happened. There was nothing left for anything to happen to.
This street, which had once been lined with trees and paved with crisp concrete was now nothing more than a pile of dust and debris. The sky was brown, thick with the dirt and pollution haze of the area. It was an old western film minus the civilization, minus the people. There was no one here. No sound, apart from an occasional gust of wind flicking the dust up from the ground and into my eyes.
The heat was intense. It felt like the hottest day of summer and I was lying naked in the middle of an asphalt driveway, letting the sun have its way with my skin cells. I raised a hand to my brow, in attempt to provide a miniscule bit of shade so I could see farther up the road. Or at least, what used to be the road.
Nothing. Just pile after pile of bricks and chunks of metal. How was my home still in tact? What was so special about it that it was left alone? Well, as left alone as a home could get after the Apocalypse. It was still utterly destroyed: the roof caved in, windows shattered, the walls were torn and falling off. But it was still there. The rest of the street, though, I could see no structures or signs of life for as far as I could see; and when you have nothing blocking your vision, you can see pretty far.
I concluded that I’d be making a journey. I couldn’t be the only one left, there were surely others held up in a fort somewhere. A city. Anything. Maybe there were more hiding in storm shelters like ours. Like mine… I’d make it a point to check anything I would find. If I survived long enough, at least. I’d seen the creatures that crawled out of the belly of the earth, they were bound to be out there somewhere… waiting for fleshy humans like me to walk by obliviously. But what did I have to lose?
I turned back to the rubble remains of my home, then walked to the place where the crawlspace entrance sat on the ground beside it. I’d need supplies. Heaving open the iron doors, I made way into the darkness. There was illumination now at least, now that the barricaded doors were open. I rummaged through the clutter to find a backpack, some canned and packaged foods, a hunting knife, and my son’s slingshot. It may seem a useless way to defend oneself in the eyes of a person from a pre-apocalyptic world, but the way I saw it, it was a weapon that would never run out of ammo so long as there were stones on the earth. I had already used up the entire clip of pistol bullets before we’d ever locked ourselves down here.
It was a measly way to begin my certain doom, but it was the best I had, and I didn’t want to be carrying a fifty pound load on my back while I trekked across the remains of the country.
There was a sound outside as I was finding and putting last bits of content into my bag. It was a soft whistling that grew louder and louder until it seemed to be right outside the walls. Then suddenly, it stopped with a thud, and I heard heavy sniffing that had caught my scent.
I had maybe a second and a half to flinch and let my heart skip a beat before the demon lurched into the doorway. Its body was jet black and arched to resemble the stance of an amphibian. It crawled along the walls like one too, just exceedingly faster. If only I had the reflexes of a cat, I may have been able to dodge its smoking hide. It pummeled into me with the force of a cannonball, shattering my ribs in the process. I felt its talon-like claws ripping into my shoulders as it pierced me into the ground.
As I lied there, flailing pathetically and groping the darkness for anything that might get this thing off me, all I could think was, It is over already? My fate was to either wither to nothing in this cave or be mutilated on the surface? It was a rotten choice. If I hadn’t been half insane at the time, or if I had actually been afraid of death, my mind might not have registered the iron rod my hand grasped in the darkness. The demon was staring at me, its white eyes glowing with glee. It was enjoying itself. Such fun it had cutting off chunks of my flesh as I screamed with more rage than agony. As it breathed a last rancid breath of rotting corpses into my face, I clutched the piece of metal firmly in my hand, and shoved it through the bottom of the Frogdemon’s jaw and up into its skull.
At first, nothing happened. Its bright eyes only widened with shock and annoyance. Then, its head began smoking heavier than it was before; a vapory smoke that emitted a sizzling noise, as if someone was frying eggs inside its brain. Its body collapsed in on itself, and dispersed into nothing more than harmless wisps of darkness.
I didn’t realize I’d actually killed the demon when its remains fell onto my legs, because the iron tool I held in my grasp began glowing hot. The heat poured into my skin, flooding over me in a soothing bath of warmth and peace. I felt my wounds healing. Not completely, but they were getting better, and faster than humanly possible. It was then when I realized what I was holding in the palm of my hand.
The metal curved up into a T-shape. I could see it now, in the light. It was coated in a silvery paint and embedded with looping calligraphy. The bottom came to a point that was dull enough to not prick your finger at its touch, but apparently sharp enough pierce demon skin. And it was a cross. Another of my wife’s few trinkets I’d brought here with us, to comfort my son. I never believed any of this had any true power over the beasts.
When the moment passed, and my mind came back to a short glimpse of reality, I shoved the iron cross into my thin green bag and weakly slung it over my shoulder. The gouges in my shoulders and the bones in my chest were healing, but they still hurt like hell. I turned on my heel, planning to leave this place forever in the dust of my memories, but I hesitated. Her bible was strewn on the far countertop. For only a heartbeat, I wanted to grab it and hold it dear, then hope for it to guide me through this next leap of my “life”. But I left it there in the end. The words were clearly not so binding after all.
I discovered that killing demons gave me strength. Every chest I forced the cross into, every monster I destroyed, they each left me feeling a little bit better than before. It was as though the iron rod absorbed their essence and cast it into me. Their life-force fueled mine. Their desires became mine. Their lives were mine.
It was barely noticeable at first. Just an odd tingling in the back of my mind, a whisper of what could be. Their energy flowed through my veins, giving me peace, happiness and motivation. I had thought that it was actually me initially. Killing these monstrous creatures was half of what I had set out to do in the first place. My life had purpose again. I was doing something good.
But then one evening, perhaps another month after I’d started my travels, I noticed the change. It was just another of the scavenging demon-swine. They were like the pesky rats of the species. Useless, mindless, yet could pierce you through your heart with their single-bladed claw before you could mutter the insult.
I was camping in the middle of nowhere. Despite nowhere being everywhere, this nowhere had an unobstructed view. No piles of corpses, nor mountains of brick and linoleum foundations nearby. It would be an odd location typically, but it was the safest these days. Demons tended to flock to the areas with the most cover. The places hidden and full of mass. Perhaps it was the millennia they’d spent in the underworld that gave them the instinct to flee to cramped spaces. But my guess, was they simply didn’t like the open spaces as they were weakest there. No walls for them to bound across, no height advantage, no shadows to lurk in. Just them and you, like a hunter and a rabid animal.
Still, the occasional fleabag still managed to find me. It wasn’t their preferred hunting grounds, but nearby demons couldn’t resist the scent of my mortal blood. They were moths to a flame.
So as I was saying, the roach crept up on me, clicking and obvious, but I was always ready. Who in their half-right mind would let their guard down in the middle of a barren wasteland overrun with carnivores? I swung my arm around to the cat-sized, black presence and thrust the dagger point of the cross deep in between its shoulder blades. And instantaneously, like the rest of them, followed sizzling, smoking, and then the cross sucked its energy from it and pushed it into me.
Along with the energy though, images came flooding into me as well. Images I didn’t understand. But they were telling me to go. To find. To kill. To eat. It was a language I didn’t understand, but I could feel the intent. They were orders. This cockroach was sent here to kill me. That’s all I could gather from the flashes before they left, leaving me be with my slightly more healthy self. Everything brushed back to normal then. What I’d seen was only a vague reflection of the vivid detail I witnessed at first. But ever since that night, every demon I killed brought with it some memories that weren’t mine. Memories that lingered longer and longer each time.
Demons weren’t the only creatures the scoured the earth for lives they could destroy. There were several other species, none of which I could relate to: Helldogs that traveled in packs like desert dingoes or piles of living molten lava-like hellish slugs… These creatures were slightly more tolerable. At least, I didn’t despise them with the fiery passion I did the demons. They kept to themselves, for the most part. It was easy to piss one of them off enough to come charging at you with blind fury, but it was just as easy to take them down. A swift kick to head, a knife to the chest. Their skin wasn’t nearly as non-permeable as those of their demonic counterparts.
The lava slugs, however, I never learned how to destroy. One managed to find its way up my leg while I rested midday. It gurgled loudly, singeing my already ruined jeans and burning away at my skin with its mucus trail. The thing puffed out like a giant boiling blister, and as soon as I managed to fling it off my leg it simply slugged away with the speed of a turtle. My knife would only stretch its skin like silly putty; it had no organs to pierce.
My annoyed views on these more animalistic creatures changed soon after I was trudging through another endless wasteland, somewhere in what I had assumed was Colorado. I found myself wondering why I felt to go there, Southwest; I gave myself the answer that I was following the sun. But I was certain it was something else, something pulling me back to a place I‘d never gone. A normal person would probably be worried or pleased, thinking it was some kind of sign. But I was too focused on other things. Like living. And killing as many of these damned bastards as I could. I still hoped somewhere deep in the back of my mind that I would find someone else out here. Anyone to tell me what I wanted to hear. But I couldn’t dwell on that. I found that having hope was only a set-up for disappointment.
It was midday again. Scorching. The days seemed to never end as time passed; they simply blended into each other and I would often forget long segments of memory in between. But I was simply walking then; this I did remember. Black, stubby buzzard- things were circling high overhead, descending upon some kind of brawl. I only saw a mass of fur to begin with; two huge pelts coarse with blood and sweat. It looked like they were digging into the crust of the earth. Once I got closer though, I saw a third mass, this one much softer and smoother than the two atop it. As smooth as white could be while it was being ripped and torn to shreds.
I hated bullies.
I took out the slingshot, and loaded a bullet-shaped stone I’d carved into it, then fired it at the brain of one of the Helldogs slashing at the helpless creature below. It hit. With a satisfying thwak, the stone found its way through one side of the hound’s head and out the other. The other hound jerked up in time to watch its companion topple over dead before it ever hit the ground. I reloaded, aimed at the second, but it was already fleeing into the barren space beyond. I fired again at the vague outline of its behind, but the second launch found no mark.
I made way towards the scattered remains of the fight. But when I approached the victim, I was too late. It lie there lifeless, battered and bloody in its thick snowy coat. How these things could thrive in the heat was beyond my understanding. A jagged crimson stripe trailed across its chest and all the way up to its left pointed ear; the effect resembled a precise lightning bolt. Such a beautiful creature, not one for this world where beautiful things were left to die.
I left it there, the giant weasel-like casualty, disappointed that it would be feeding the buzzards above that refused to leave.
I journeyed on in the weeks to come through Utah and Arizona, on my way to what seemed to now be Mexico. I was starting to understand the land. An occasional landmark would jog my memory, resetting the path - but God, I missed the trees. My skin was thickening and hardening from the overexposure to the sunlight. It was a relief, after the weeks of burns, blisters, and rashes. But still there was no grass to lie in, no shade to sit in. Just mile after mile of dirt, rock, and the memory of vegetation.
Demon-encounters were becoming far too frequent, but I still couldn’t help following this path, this pull. All the while, I was constantly feeling like I was being watched, followed. I felt like there was another shadow beside me as I walked, but the second shadow wasn’t mine.
Days were long. Glacial long. In the few hours that the moon shone down, I would stop to rest. Hell-beasts hated the darkness, ironically. They craved heat, light, and fire. So it was only common sense to sleep when the threat was weakest.
During my final night in Arizona, I found myself lying down to rest mid-barren lands. For some illogical reason, I never felt tired anymore. Somewhere between killing demons, my body stopped telling me to sleep. I didn’t want to risk trusting my sanity, though. I was worried what my mind was telling me over my body.
I slept soundly, only to awaken to a large head and crimson eyes staring at me with pure intrigue. I lunged for the slingshot, the cross, any threatening object, but then paused. It was just…staring at me. Content. Like a curios dog. I had a moment to stare back at it, a beautiful snow white coat with red lightning. I recognized the long scar across its muzzle. It was the unlucky brute from Colorado.
“Are you what’s been following me? You’re lucky I didn’t stab you in your sleep,” I said to it, voice dry. And stared at it with an arched eyebrow.
I was probably delusional, but it tilted its head into some form of glare, as if to say, “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you in yours.” Its disproportionately large claws rested docile at its sides, and its muscled torso sat erect on a pair of sturdy hind legs. A fluffy tail twitched behind of it, much too elegant to look proper on such a thing. I wondered where this beast had come from, it was so different from what I was used to encountering, yet so similar at the same time.
I brushed it off, and reached for my sack to head out again. Dawn was breaking. I needed to go, though I didn’t know why. I also didn’t know how the thing was alive all of a sudden, but if it wasn’t going to try and eat me, I didn’t really care about it. I wasn’t sure anything could surprise me any more.
The whole day passed without the creature leaving my shadow. It didn’t walk beside me, it didn’t make any contact, it just followed. It followed me all of that day and the next day and the next. The only time it ever left my presence was to scamper off into the wilderness only to return carrying some dead hell-mole in its mouth. I got used to seeing it in my shadow. I got used to calling it Shadow.
More time passed, I was in Mexico, and I found out Shadow was male. We somehow ended up urinating on the same tree stump. It was awkward. Shadow would lie beside me at night now, thinking he was protecting me. An idea that I found slightly humorous, considering that fact that he hadn’t even been able to protect himself when I’d first found him. I wasn’t sure if there was some hellhound code for a debt of life being repaid with life, but it made sense. I wasn’t sure why else this thing was so keen on remaining by my side. Not that I minded it. Not any more. At least, not with this one in particular.
We traveled farther, just a little, we were almost there. Where there was exactly, I had no clue. At least, not until we were walking up the streets of the demon-city, unopposed, and heading into some kind of lumpy building that seemed to be formed by molten rock. Leathery black demons with opaque eyes, stared longingly at us from the city rooftops as we passed. As if they were waiting for the signal to swoop down and quarrel over our bodies.
This was the first civilization-like location I had been to. I had just hoped I would find one with other humans, not one crawling with the masses of the underworld. They had no taste for fashion; little was done to this area. They had just taken the broken remnants of some pre-apocalyptic city and piled the debris on top of each other in a way that formed cage-like crevices in the walls of it. Walls and windows were out of place, nothing was crafted or carved. Just mounds of random junk torn from what used to be what I assumed was a ravaged building. It somehow looked like a prison, yet they’d call it their home.
A road led into an enclosure of this debris. I was still following it for whatever reason, even when the light dimmed and the outside turned in without my realizing it. I looked down to Shadow as I strode obediently through a hallway, but I saw he wasn’t there. He wasn’t anywhere around me. I panicked. I would have noticed him leaving… Had I imagined him all along? Was this journey only a giant demon hallucinogen that lead me walking straight into the lair of my enemy?
A door shut behind me. When had I left the path? There was nothing inside of here, it was a big hollow room of stone with a bonfire burning in the center.
“Well, well, well,” a coy voice came clearly from…somewhere. “If it isn’t the human who’s been causing me all these annoyances.” A minotaur sized and shaped creature seemed to emerge from the darkness itself. Thick curling horns sprouted from its skull. Its face however, was that of a man. That is, if the man were made of wax and slowly melting in the heat. The demon’s face sagged into an expression that would be forever-angry. Its beastly arms bulged with knots of muscle that trailed down to enormous gnarled hands. "Glad you could make it, I've been waiting for you." A cruel smile stretched all the way up to its ears.
I reached for the cross.
“Ha ha ha,” the thing chuckled in pure amusement. “That won’t do anything to me. Do you know who I am?” He didn’t wait for me to respond.
The beast charged at me like a rhinoceros as I raised my cross-dagger to puncture it upon impact. My body slammed against the wall with enough force to crack it. I was getting used to the sound of my bones breaking, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. And sure enough, the cross made nothing but a mere paper cut into its thick-as-armor skin. I had no other weapons or plans. The demon magic that I stole from my murders was as much help against this creature as a butter knife. This was it then, I’d done all I could. I was proud that I could at least bring dozens of vermin down with me.
“I am Wrath. And I am pleased none of my servants managed to bring your head back to me on a stick. It will be a pleasure to behead you myself.” If demons could have a lisp, this one did. Every ‘s’ emerged with a sloshing sound.
As it grasped its glove-sized hand around my throat and lifted me up the wall, something happened. Shadow emerged suddenly from…my shadow. He just burst from the darkness of it like a dolphin breaching the surface of the sea.
Wrath staggered, dropped me, and stepped back. “Y-you,” he rasped in a breathless voice, eyeing the white monster with some mix of shock and disgust. “How… you, you died. I SAW you. It was War.” Terror flushed the sin’s face. He made for the door, but Shadow darted in his path, simultaneously emitting a humming noise and a pulse of velvety-purple darkness. It engulfed the room, seemingly swallowing the demon whole.
The cross I’d dropped earlier was vibrating heavily on floor. I picked it up reflexively, and knowing it would happen too late, the energy was sent blazing into my body. Memories so vivid and disturbing flashed behind my eyes, strength pounded into my muscles, purpose wove its way once again into my soul. I had a Seventh Deadly Sin pulsing in my veins. This could do me some serious damage.
Shadow was staring at me… again. And proudly. As if he were expecting a pat on the head or a bone. His narrowed eyes relaxed; those pointed fox ears drooped. I had so many questions for him. But they left me immediately, as I fainted from the stress of the endeavor that finally came weighing down on me in that very moment.
Something cold was splashing over me, I thought it was blood. Blood was the most common liquid in this world. But in my unconsciousness, I realized blood was never cold - it was either warm or it was dry. My eyes opened.
It was water.
Not only did the sight of it shock me, a realization did too. I had not drank an ounce of it since I left my home. I could feel the moisture in my skin, fueling me somehow and still producing sweat when heat or exhaustion got the best of me. But where was I getting it from? What was hydrating me?
More water splashed over my face, snapping me out of this thought and bringing my focus to the culprit. Shadow was standing in a shallow pond beside my body, scooping up some of the murky fluid and again sending it raining over me. I couldn't help but smile. The feeling was strange and foreign, I couldn't remember the last time this expression had found its way onto my face. But there it was. I wasn't sure where my life was headed, but in that moment, all I wanted to do was lie beside this pool of water. The first I had seen since the end of the world.
I'm not sure how long I slept for, or how I had even gotten here. But questions were better asked when you could afford to ask them. I had survived longer than I'd anticipated, and life was more important to me than the future. The sun was about to rise, and with it came the dangers of my present. Something was leading me in another direction, and this time, I had a feeling I knew what it was.
That is how my tale ended and began. A story's end and another's beginning, like the death and birth of a new sun. There was much more to come after that. I had six more sins to deal with, and I had a companion with more secrets than I could imagine. My body was changing into an existence I could not recognize, but at least I had goals. It wasn’t much, but it was something, and something was better than nothing.
I have much more to tell you, but for now, I am out of pages.