The Blight had come and passed, a time when humanity faced the undead in a headlong battle to see who would come out on top. At the time some ten years ago, we’d laughed from the safety of the Pit, torturing the souls of the damned that came rolling in from the pestilence. We heard of the Blight, and the resulting Risen that had been born again into the world as an unintelligent, ravenous monstrosity with the nose of a bloodhound, sharp hearing, and blind eyes. The virus was lethal to any human bitten, and the Blight rippled through the modern world like tidal waves over islands.
Soon America was gone, with the Confederate States of America, the Kingdoms of America, and the Norturlends taking over. The Confederates had the largest infestation with the Risen, as the creatures were capable swimmers and got smarter when in a group. Somehow, they seemed to have a pack mentality when they came together, fighting for all of them to get an even portion of meat. This led to packs of Risen moving around, searching for anything they could sink their rotting teeth into.
How does this affect me, you might ask? I’m a creature born in darkness and raised in the boiling lake of fire you humans refer to as Hell. Pulled from the Pit by a teenager in the Kingdoms of America, in what used to be Connecticut.
Not my proudest moment.
The idiot boy hadn’t even laid down protective wards and I, in a foolish maneuver, killed him before he could give me a command. With no command, I’m stuck on this rock where I must feast on the souls of the living just to maintain my solid form. Wouldn’t be a problem if for the fact most of the continent was covered in Risen corpses trying to eat my snacks!
Whipping my tail errantly about me, the cudgel-ended bone cracked a headstone in half. I was resting atop an angel statue, my wings spread out and my black skin exposed to the sunlight. Unlike common belief’s, not all demons have hooved feet.
Mine are hooked, two claws in the back and two in the front. My arms, longer and more flexible than a human, end in six-fingered hands. At my hip I’d sat a creation of mine I’d made after realizing the world was going to Hell in a handbasket. I’d broken into a closed auto shop, peeled a metal bumper from a truck, before hammering it into a passable sword. Nearly seven feet long, it dragged along the ground when I walked, but that was only because my knees are inverted.
“Hungry!” I shouted, waving my arms dramatically.
Beneath me are a dozen Risen, reaching up at me to try to get at my not-so-tender flesh. One has grabbed onto the bony end of my tail and is breaking her teeth on the knobby end. I look the angel in the face and sigh.
“What should I do Ingrid?” I asked the statue, already knowing what I would have to do. Just as I did every day, I had to scavenge, just like the surviving humans did when not inside their fortresses.
Yeah, the Kingdoms all had fortresses and fortified motorways that kept Risen off the road. They were the wealthiest of the three nations on the American continent, to my knowledge. Mexico had declared itself the New Aztec Empire and taken the Blight with stride. Arming their children, drug cartels fight off the Risen and secured their borders within a few weeks, before toppling their own government.
What had been an unstable country was quickly becoming a large one, as it was spreading south, taking more and more territory abandoned to the Risen? Last bit of news I heard they’d taken a place called Panama, while Cuba and Jamaica joined their growing empire.
“I should move down there, because they at least have their shit together!” I growled at the Risen, whipping my tail up before swinging it into the teen girl in her torn leather jacket, taking off her head with wet splortch!
The other’s heard that, two breaking away from the base of the statue to investigate what had just happened. I lean out, dangling an arm over the blind dead, looking at my claws. I snap my fingers once and, in a half, second the Risen are growling, arms high in the air, lashing about in search of food.
As much as I love basking in the sun, I really need to find someone worth eating. The last soul I had was about a week ago, and my frame was already starting to show it. I looked emaciated, weak and bony. I was still strong enough to handle any human, but I was withering on the vine so to speak. Stay out of Hell too long without souls to sustain you and you go out like a light.
God’s way of keeping us from just busting out in force and causing sheer chaos, I suppose.
“Well folks,” I grunted, getting to my feet, planting them on the angel’s chest. “I’ve got to be going. Good luck hunting now!”
The crowd howls, their cries and moans dying as I flap higher into the sky, my eagle eyes looking over the small town I’d flown into two days ago. I can smell souls… I know I smell them. There’s over a dozen all together.
I circle around the courthouse where several Risen are ambling aimlessly. I’m looking for one of two things: signs of fortification, or a gathering of Risen trying to get at something. Both are sure signs I’ll find a human, or hopefully, human!
A quick flash of movement catches my attention and I glide over a few deserted shops, landing on an unpowered neon sign spelling “Liquor”. Ducking low, I sniff the air and smile.
Fear. Someone is close enough for me to smell their fear. I hear a few moaning Risen walking around in the parking lot, their foggy eyes rolled up into their heads as they stared up at the sky. I know humans think they just do that because they can’t think. I know different.
They’re lifting their noses to try to pick up scents on the wind. They’re drawn to fire, and the smell of blood. Never measured how far they can detect it from, but it’s at least three hundred feet. I’d cut my foot open when I landed on a highway overhang, and within minutes had a crowd of Risen below me reaching up, all shouting out their cries of hunger. I’d flown away, leading a good number to jumping off the edge of the highway and to their ultimate death forty feet below.
That’d been great.
Shifting slightly, I sniff the air a few more times. A decent amount of fear rolling off a human, female… probably on the young side, perhaps ten years old? Maybe eleven? That’s all I could tell from just sniffing out her fear, my hunger ebbing away as I feast on the general fear she’s pumping out. I shift on the roof of the liquor store and listen to the metal beams beneath me strain.
The fear ratchets up considerably, as does the attention of the fifteen Risen scattered about around the drugstore.
“Shit,” I muttered, standing up and leaping down to the pavement, sword bearing down on a chubby Risen missing a hand.
The blade slices clean through his skull and down into his chest. A quick kick to the body sends it tumbling back and off my sword. “Alright! You want the girl, you gotta go through me!”
The gathered Risen all moan in one collective moment that seems like an agreement, before bursting into full sprints at me. I whip my tail back and forth behind me and fold my wings around my flanks, protecting me from any pesky bites. I reach out to what must have been an awkward redheaded teen and crush his head; the gore falling from my hand in a sticky mess. Three sets of arms grab mine, teeth coming down to bite into my hide. I grab one by the front of its shirt and whip to the side, throwing it headlong into the stone wall of the adjoined veterinarian's office. I knock the other two back by the sudden move and have others trampling them to get in at me.
A wide swing of my sword severs five upper shoulders and heads from a small clutch of rasping ghouls, the bodies falling slack as their fluids spilled out of them in a gory, blackened mess. I stomp on the head of one of the Risen I’d knocked down, crushing its head like a ripened cantaloupe. Wincing, I look at my left arm again and find a bleeding wound, a hunk of my forearm missing.
Enraged, I swing recklessly, flapping my wings to knock the Risen about haphazardly. Using my clawed feet to stomp the undead into oblivion, I slowly clear the parking lot of the foul creatures.
Breathing heavily, I hang the bloodied blade from my hip and look at my injury. Teeth mark a hole in my leathery hide, where fresh blood bubbles up, dribbling down to the pavement.
“Fuck!” I bellowed, turning and punching the wall where I’d thrown one of the Risen who’d been chewing on my arm. The stone cracks, chips falling away, and my fist aches; I rub it and look over at the shattered glass of the liquor store, the iron bars still holding up despite the time spent with no care.
I’m surprised to see a small girl staring at me, her eyes wide with confusion. I sniff the air once, to test the waters; I smell the gore of battle, my own demonic blood… and happiness? The last vestiges of the fear were dissipating on the wind, the girl in the store choosing to wave at me with her tiny hand while pumping out happiness and gratitude; emotions that can’t sustain me at all.
I stomp up to the door and try the handle. It’s locked, but I rend the pathetic scrap metal off the door before pushing it open. I stoop to enter the building, my horns grazing the ceiling while my wings must fold around me like a cloak. My tail curls up and under me, looping from my groin and up around my waist. My black skin is shiny from my “workout”, and my innards rumble loudly. The girl walks up from behind the counter, eyes wide with wonder.
“Hello,” she said, greeting me. She has black hair, curly and pulled into two pigtails. She’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt that’s been torn in many places and has a bandage over right wrist. Her faded jeans seem to be barely holding up and it wears her sneakers through. She’s thinner than most children her age normally are, and her dark skin is even darker because of time spent in the sun.
“Hello there,” I replied, my teeth clattering together as my bare skull bends down so my eyes, luminescent blue flames, can shine down on her.
No fear comes from her, only curiosity. “What are you? I’ve seen nothing like you before…”
I chuckled. “I’m an Ifrit, a creature of smoke and fire. How old are you, child?”
“Nine!” She said with enthusiasm, walking up to me with a hand extended. She pets my snout, her warm hand pressing down over my cold bone. “Wow, you’re cold.”
“I know,” I said, not knowing how to respond. “Where are your parents?”
The girl pulled her hand away as if I’d bit it, her eyes welling up with tears. “They were with me when we came to gather supplies, but now they’re gone, and I have no way of getting back to camp!”
That perked my interest. “What if I take you back to camp?”
“Can you do that? I mean, can you really fly?” She asked, her tone hopeful.
“Yes!” I said with a hint of pride. “But… there’s a problem.”
“What problem?” The girl asked.
I show her my forearm, where I’d been bitten. She recoils in horror, taking several steps back. “Are you going to turn?”
“I don’t know, but I’d rather not find out. The problem is, I’m sick.” I said, waving my clawed hand over my skeletal frame. “I haven’t eaten in days, and I need sustenance before I can guarantee to take you back.”
“Well, what do you need? I have some beef jerky, and some crackers…” The girl said, looking back to her hiding spot behind the counter.
“Where I’m from, my kind make deals to come to this world. I sensed you were down here, and I jumped down to protect you, hoping you and I could make a deal.” I said, blue flames dancing merrily in my sockets. I can sense she’s curious, and more than a little intrigued. She must really want to get back to camp.
“What kind of deal?” She asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
I crouch down low and begin carving in the linoleum, a crude pentagram with a circle around it. “A promise to be friends forever, and for me to protect you. In exchange for that, I gain sustenance from you. I’ll always know where you are, and I’ll help you against the Risen while we try to find somewhere, we can be safe.”
The girl stood there, thinking for a few minutes. She walks back behind the counter and emerges with a bottle of bourbon. I control my face, as that this girl is drinking at her age is shocking even to me.
“Let me help you with your arm,” she whispered, walking up too close to me. She has a rag in one hand and the bottle in the other. Using the rag to pop the cap off the bottle, she pours a liberal amount into the rag, soaking it thoroughly before pressing it to my wound. The pain is there, but I’ve felt worse. For her sake, I flinch and act as if it hurts. She makes soothing noises and rubs the bridge of my long muzzle. It is an oddly calming effect.
She leaves the rag on the wound and puts the cap back on the bottle before darting back to her hiding space, emerging with silver duct tape. I almost laugh as she tapes the rag over my wound, wrapping it tight so I don’t bleed anymore; the floor has puddles of my blood from where I’d stood, dripping a steady stream as we spoke.
“So would you like to accept the deal? Don’t you want to be my friend?” I do my best to sound depressed at the thought, but it comes out as a low, hound-like whine.
“Um, yeah. I guess we can be friends…” The girl said before reaching out to scratch under my chin. “I’m Suzy, what’s your name?”
“Skull,” I replied instantly, thinking of what she’s touching. I can smell her soul, which is making my body ache in hunger, but I know I can get myself a whole slew of souls that can last me longer if I just… seal the deal!
“All right! To be friends forever, we need to be blood brothers,” I said, pointing at the thick puddle of blood at her feet. “We can use my blood there and we just need a few drops from you.”
“I don’t want to do that!” Suzy said, cringing back. I step forward, hand outstretched to her.
“Now calm down, I will not make it hurt. I know how we can get this done with relative ease. Open your mouth!” I ordered, tapping a claw under her chin.
As soon as she opens her mouth, I dart a claw in and poke her tongue near the tip, causing blood to well up. She squirms and tears form in her eyes, but she doesn’t make a sound. I feel slightly proud of her.
“There! Now just dab some blood on your finger and put it in my wound underneath the bandages… yeah, just wriggle your hand under there.” I guide her to my wound and flinch when she shoves two fingers into the bloody bite mark. I can feel a flicker of light come in within my chest.
I almost cackle.
“Now here,” I reach down and scoop a puddle of my gelling blood. The green slime quivering in my hand. “Just… just think of it as some kind of dessert, all right?”
Suzy looks at my coagulated blood in my claw and reaches forward to scoop some into her tiny hands. Filling up her connected palms, she eats the gelatin like it was candy, making me a little nervous. What if I’m delicious and she tries to kill me after this?
“There… all good, right Suzy?” I asked, slithering my tail a little tighter around my waist. “Now let’s just have you stand,” I grab her by the arms and gently walk her into the pentagram, “right here! You stay there and I’ll do the rest!”
She nods, still chewing on my blood with a thoughtful look on her smudged face. I wave my claws over her and pull on my inner energies, drawing out enough to connect with her. Our blood has mingled, however minute an amount I got, so now we are kin according to the Occult. She gets access to becoming a tried-and-true witch while I get the ability to draw on her life force to sustain myself when not feasting on souls.
She jerks as I pull on her soul, connecting us with a strand of energy. Strange… her souls seems to be darker, like the kind you would see from a serial killer. She must have seen some twisted things to become so dark. I take a step forward and bring a claw up to catch her as she falls back, the pressure of the new abilities flooding her mind.
I wince as I feel my palm slice into something sticking out of her belt, but I let it pass as I lay her on the ground.
“Suzy? How do you feel Suzy?” I asked, whispering to her in case she had a headache.
She sits up a little, rubbing her right temple. “Like I got hit by a fucking bus, what do you think Skull?”
If I could blink, I would have at seeing the timid girl swear in front of me, but I just act natural.
“Worried is all, you did just take on a good deal of information, and it’s my job to help you sort through it all.”
“Most of these memories… they’re all old, and choppy. They show me doing things I’ve never done… is this how I learn?” She asked, standing up and walking back behind the counter. I pad a little closer, looking down the thin aisle at her.
She stands over a dead man, one that’s been horribly burned. She’s using a knife, long and serrated, to carve off a slice of the man’s chest. She dangles the strip of meat and raises it high, before lowering it into her gullet.
“So… you’re a cannibal. That’s neat,” I said, not knowing how to react. “Was that someone from the group that abandoned you?”
“Yeah, this son of a bitch is Dickless, came out here with my parents and threw me out of the van with a bag and a knife. They explained I couldn’t stay at the compound because I was too messed up. So I started bawling, asking them to take me home, that I’m too young to be out here.
So Dickless turd here gets out and tries to scare me with his gun, and I stab him in the gut. The ‘rents drove off then, leaving me with him and the fucking zombies. I drug him in here and cleared out the dead heads before starting a fire. Dickless woke up just in time for me to saw off his sausage. I cooked it in front of him, nice and slow. Then I ate it. I kept that fire going for three days, taking pieces off him one at a time to cook and eat before the motherfucker died on me.”
I’m floored. This little girl is a true sociopath, a ruthless killer that shows no remorse for those she kills.
“Well, one lesson you should know is how to draw life energy from anything with a spark of energy in it,” I explained, reaching out to cut a long groove in Dickless’s chest, pulling out a section of lung that seems exceptionally tender. “Try this, use a white wine with it. I was a friend with someone a few centuries ago that ate people, would often cut up lungs and use light wines to sauté the meat. Said it really brought out the flavor.”
“So you don’t eat people?” She asked, cutting away the section of lung with her knife, walking under me towards the back of the store. I follow, shaking my head.
“I feed off you or, if you want me to get my own food, I have to find humans whose souls are uninfected with this disease. Then I can pull it from their bodies and grow healthier.”
“So are you always a skull with horns, giant back wings and arms long enough to grab me halfway across the store?” She asked with a chuckle, pushing a door open that reads “employees only”, “Grab a bottle of that wine you were talking about, if you please.”
I stop and turn, regarding an end cap bearing a selection of wines. I pick up one filled with near clear fluid, reading the label. “Boone’s Farm? Never heard of such a locale… I hope it’ll serve well for cooking.”
I push open the door and investigate the darkened hall. No windows with three ways, one to what looks like a freezer that hasn’t been cold in years, a closed door to the right, and a door bearing an unlit “Exit” sign above it. I smell the faintest hint of fire, a lingering thought of home flitting through my mind, coming from the freezer.
Walking in, I see her back with a budding fire composed of wooden racks and cardboard, a spit sitting over it with a cast iron pan holding the pale meat of the lung in it. To her side is a bag full of small orange bottles and boxes of ammunition.
“You seem to do well, Child of the Apocalypse,” I remark, walking up behind her. She doesn’t say anything, merely tending to the fire as best she can.
“Did you mean it?” She says after a minute of silence.
“Mean what?” I asked, staring into the flame, savoring the warmth.
“When you jumped down, you bellowed that none of them would get to me,” she said. I look down and see tears welling at the corners of her eyes. “You’re the first person not to be revolted by me, to fight for me. My father would lock me in my room while my mother and sisters ignored me. The other kids never wanted to play with me because they complained I’d hurt them.”
“Would you?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
She shrugged. “I played with one boy that had to be taken to the medical tent for nearly three days after I caught him picking on my little sister. That’s when they searched my room and took all the knives, I’d gathered over the years for themselves. They missed a third of my stash, but it was clear they didn’t consider me family.”
“Do you miss them?” I place a heavy clawed hand onto her, careful not to do any damage.
“I hate them! I’d kill them all without a second thought if I could.” She growled, grabbing the skillet and the wine. In an angry voice, she thrusts the bottle up to me. “Open!”
I casually slice through the glass off the top, leaving it free to pour the drink as she desired.
“How much should I use? I don’t want to get sick…” She grumbled.
“Benefit of being friends with me,” I said, walking over her and squatting opposite the fire.
“You’re resistant to disease and most poisons. You could drink battery acid and live through it.”
“Really?” She sounds intrigued.
“You also can drain the energy from people, making them weak. Weak enough for the Risen to overtake them.” I smiled.
“Why would I want to feed some group of Risen?” She said flipping the lung while dousing it liberally with the wine.
“Because that’s what most human’s fear, becoming a Risen.” I quipped. “I suggest a plan of revenge; I can fly us back to your former home, and you can take out a few sentries at night by draining them until they fall asleep. I’ll swoop in and open whatever blocks off the camp, and allow the Risen in. While the rest of your former friends are fighting the Risen off, you and I can exact revenge.”
“You’d do that for me?” She asked, sounding hopeful.
“I’ll eat the souls of your family,” I said as if I were assuring her.
She stares at me and a smiled. “I think I will enjoy having you as a friend.”
Standing on the hill overlooking the remnants of the small military outpost/camp now in the utter throes of chaos, I can’t help but feel a certain sense of warmth radiate through my being. Suzy was sitting on my left shoulder, braced against my wing, shooting at her former friends and loved ones with a rifle. She wasn’t aiming for heads, instead she was shooting out knees, dropping people to the ground so the horde of Risen could overtake them.
When we’d left the liquor store, I’d allowed Suzy to climb on my back and shout out her frustrations while we flew around the city, gathering the blind undead and pulling them into a voracious mob, an undulating mass of bodies full of vitriol and hunger that could not be slated. After we had a few hundred following me around, I started flying in the directions she gave me, leading me to this outpost that was tucked out in the woods some ten miles outside of town. In it I sensed over two-hundred souls, all ripe for the taking. I dropped Suzy off in a tree and flew into the camp under cover of darkness, taking each guard on post and ripping the soul out of their bodies through sheer force of will.
Eight guard’s dead, and my body was full. I’d then vaulted down to the ground below at the main gate and, as silently as I could, unlocked it and rolled it open until there was a twelve-foot opening to the sleeping town.
By dawn the dead had arrived, and with the Risen moaning and hunting in vicious packs, they had begun quickly tearing through the pitiful ranks of “soldiers” left standing. I’d liberated a few rifles for Suzy to play with (something told me she knew how to use them) and now she was singing songs merrily between cracks of her rifle, eye pressed to the scope.
I winced as she blew a hunk of gut from an older man with dusky brown skin, entrails spilling to the ground as the Risen pounced on him, his screams drawing their attention. A woman, probably Suzy’s mother from the way she looked, was up on a platform with three children.
“Do you see them Suzy?” I asked.
“Yup!” She chirped, popping an empty shell from the bolt-action rifle.
I watched impassively as the wooden support to the platform exploded in a shower of splinters, causing the once haven left in a sea of hungering dead to tilt and sink, the monstrous creatures attracted by her crying children. I could see the woman trying to shush them, tears streaming down her face, but it was too late. Three Risen, then five, climbed onto the weakened platform, causing the entire thing to collapse, dropping Suzy’s family into the churning waters of dead hands and rotting teeth, their bodies never hitting the ground as they were grappled mid-air, and torn asunder.
“Are you finished?” I asked as she slides off my shoulder, skipping to the next rifle. “They could hear us you know.”
“Please… this place echoes something awful,” Suzy said. “They have screaming people and their own moaning drowning out any gunshots. Besides, I’m done.”
“Good,” I smiled at her as best a skull can. “Then we should hit the proverbial road. There’s another infested town about fifty miles south of here. I imagine if we fly at a steady pace we can be there by noon and loot you some grub.”
“Are you full?” She asked, head cocked to the side.
I pat my now solid abdomen; my muscles having inflated back to their size thanks to my meals. “I’m good for about two weeks, but we should find some survivors in the city.”
“How do you know?” Suzy asked, walking over and climbing up my back until she has a firm hold of my horns.
“I found you, didn’t I?” I laughed, launching into the air, a chorus of groans seeing us off into the distance.