The wasteland has its own beauty for those willing to look. Frankly, most people aren’t – they’re too busy getting the hell out of it before they run into something really nasty.
Ever since the last war, the wasteland has been where the demons held sway. Most of us know from the tales of our grandparents (who heard the same tale from their grandparents who witnessed it firsthand) of the time when the portal to the dimension we call Hell was opened and the demons swarmed through.
There’s nothing supernatural about it, by the way. Take it from me – I know. We ascribe these things to the Devil and to Hell, but these are flesh and blood creatures. Some of them are resistant to flame, others to cold, most of them are abysmally hard to kill but they can be killed, they can bleed and they can kill. The killing part you know about.
Nobody knows precisely how the portal was opened. Some say it was magic, a sorcerer making an incantation from forbidden scrolls. Others say it was science, a government experiment to find proof of other dimensions that got more than the scientists bargained for. That’s the explanation I tend to believe; hubris with a lab coat.
In any case, once the portal was opened, the floodgates turned loose and homicidal creatures of every sort came into our dimension by the thousands, then the millions. Some of them had wings and could fly; some of them had gills and could breathe underwater. Most of them had fangs and talons and venom. All of them had a penchant for killing anything that wasn’t a demon. We began calling them demons because they resembled the Hollywood version of demons in a physical sense but later on, because the more religious of what was left of humanity assigned a spiritual explanation to them. Whatever the case may be, I have yet to see an angel but I’ve seen plenty of demons.
The war took its toll on humanity, a heavy one. In the space of three years our population decreased by 75%; three out of every four humans were killed in the space of three years, either directly at the hands of the demons or through disease and the starvation that followed the war. Still, the war went on for ten bloody years but we managed at last to prevail. We survive, although I wouldn’t call it thriving.
Most of the great cities are deserted, empty husks that were once thriving and full of vitality. They stand quiet, sentinels in the night, lifeless monuments to a civilization that no longer exists. From time to time, my travels take me through one of them; as hardened as I am to the world around me, I find myself in tears sometimes as I think about what once was.
The demons were contained and humans learned to protect themselves better. We designed weapons that were more effective against the demon horde than bullets, rockets and even nuclear devices. We designed warriors to wield them that were more murderous than any that had existed before.
But what we didn’t count on was the adaptability of the demons. Some of them have been able to alter their own appearance by using the DNA of human prisoners to create doppelgangers, demons in human form. Those did tremendous damage in the second Demon War, but soon we figured out a way to sniff them out.
Now humanity exists in small enclaves, fortress-like castle-cities that are almost feudal in nature. These enclaves are protected by the Hunters, those who patrol the land and destroy whatever demons we can find. I am one of these. I had a human name once but now I’m just called Sangre.
The second Demon War ended when a Hunter by the name of Jeremiah found a way to permanently close the open portal. This heroic act cost Jeremiah his life and there is no human more revered than he, and for good reason. We have hope for the first time in decades that we may actually survive as a species. Once upon a time the Hunters had a very different role, protecting the human communities against demon assault. We were called Guardians back then – Jeremiah was actually a Guardian all his life, although we regard him as the first Hunter.
Now we have left the fortresses and go out looking for demons to kill. Most demons are mindless, ravening animals but there are demons that have intelligence and self-awareness. There were once armies of this sort of demon – the doppelgangers were part of this demonic strain. Now, we aim to commit utter genocide against these bastards. It is the mission of the Hunters to eradicate their presence completely from our world and reclaim it not only for the humans, but for the plants and animals that existed before the demon incursion.
We have managed to save many of the plant and animal species – some as embryos and seeds only. When the demons are gone, the wasteland will be reseeded and inhabitable once again. It has been 20 years since Jeremiah made his sacrifice and the end of the mission is in sight.
In fact, some of the demon wastelands in various parts of the world have been rendered completely free of their presence and the reclamation of those areas have already begun. One of these, in what used to be called California, has been successful. These days we call it Eden.
But there is still work to be done, and it is my calling to do it. My brothers Espada and Dolor lead Hunter teams into one of the largest remaining demon wastelands in North America, located in a part of the region that stretched out over New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. They are attacking in an organized fashion, with dozens of men and women at their disposal.
I prefer to work alone. Not quite alone; I have a dog, a Doberman mix who is my only companion. He doesn’t require a lot of attention which is why I don’t mind him, but he is also invaluable and sniffing out demons which is why I keep him. I used to just call him Dog, but my brother Dolor pointed out that all creatures need a name; it’s what separates us from the demons, so I named him Escatar, after my other brother who was killed by demons as a boy.
The reason I like Escatar so much is because he doesn’t talk much. I’m really not one for conversation; most of my thinking is about demons, how to kill them and how to survive killing them. Like most Hunters, I’m not what you’d call a good looking man. I’m gaunt from years of foraging in the wasteland, with long stringy black hair and an unkempt beard that is beginning to turn grey. Half of my left ear is missing and there’s a long scar on that side of my face from when a Green Hornback made a snack of the lower part of my ear over in Mesquite territory.
There are all sorts of smaller scars, scratches, dents and bruises from other battles. My nose has been broken so many times I’ve lost count; it’s left my nose looking more or less like a mashed potato on the center of my face. I broke my hip fighting a Ruiner in the ruins that used to be Phoenix and it never set right so I walk with a decided limp. My skin is like leather from living out in the sun. I don’t even notice sunburns anymore and I have all sorts of moles and cysts on my skin from exposure to the sun. Like I said, a real looker.
While my brothers are marching through the wasteland from the East, I’m headed for the center of it. There are still lots of demons there, too many. Demons can reproduce, but not quickly except for the little Squidgens but they are more pests then demon. However, with the portal closed, the population of demons should be decreasing rapidly and everywhere else, they have. Only here there hasn’t been a decrease, there’s an increase. Nobody talks about it, nobody wants to admit it, but I will voice what nobody wants to say. There’s another portal, and it’s open. Here.
So I go into Hell, into the center of the wasteland to find it. Me, my dog, my sword and my balls. That’s all I need. So I’m walking through the wasteland and it’s not like a walk through anywhere else you’ve ever been. Most of the plant and animal life that lived here before has withered or been killed. New species have established themselves here, most of them deadly in one way or another, like the Scorpion Ghost which is actually a plant. It’s tendrils hide beneath the surface and are alerted by the vibrations of footfalls, which cause the plant to suddenly erupt through the surface to wrap themselves around the foot of whatever it is that’s walking. Tiny little injectors pump venom into the body of the victim, rendering him paralyzed. The vines then drag the living carcass to the maw of the plant, where the victim is slowly digested for several days.
Then there are the Leviathans, monsters that are ten stories tall and nearly a mile long, looking not unlike a horseshoe crab only with a slimy, rubbery skin that is covered with a toxin that attacks anything fleshy, dissolving it in a matter of minutes. It’s large and ungainly but it can be avoided and can be killed by pouring ordinary rock salt on it. The real danger is the carrion eater that follows behind it, the Yellowclaw. These are nightmarish crosses between spiders, crabs and crocodiles, with eight sets of claws and pincers, retracting eyestalks and a long, deadly tail with a club-like appendage that if it hits you can knock you woozy, at which point it attacks with a surprisingly fast ferocity, tearing you to pieces and eating your remains.
There are Whistlers and Gigglers and Dirtclouds; Gatorbirds and Stretchers and Incubi. Chokers and Spearwings and Spiketails, Chargers and Wink Devils and Ironjaws. I’ve run into all of them and dozens more over the past few weeks, and killed every one of them. I haven’t seen any Dops or Deathknights so far, but I’ve seen Hellhounds and when you see one of them, the others can’t be far away.
I’ve been living in the wasteland for almost fifteen years now, either here or in the northwest and I’ve seen acid storms and razorwind but never before have I had this gut feeling that something very, very bad was going on the way I do now and so I trudge forward, one foot in front of the other, killing anything that gets in my way.
This morning, I was in the middle of dispatching a Bramble Lion, a large cat-like creature that instead of fur has spiky, sticky thistle-like growths that stick to your skin and are melted by body heat. Once the outer shell melts, a particularly virulent acid is released that acts a lot like napalm except it only burns flesh. I had just finished cutting off its head when I saw her, a beautiful woman with long, black hair and cobalt blue skin. A Deathknight, the most intelligent and cunning of the demons and the masterminds of the demon civilization, assuming they have one.
With the Bramble Lion’s ichor dripping from my sword, I sauntered towards her. She regarded me with some amusement; clearly she had no fear of me, despite the fact my brotherhood had been dispatching her brethren with ruthless efficiency. She gave me an ironic bow and applauded. “Oh well done, Hunter, dispatching a Bramble Lion so bravely. You are indeed worthy of your calling. Tell me, which of the brothers do I have the pleasure of addressing? Dolor? Sangre? Espada? Escatar?”
I straightened up and looked at her dead in the eyes, saying nothing. She was obviously trying to get a rise out of me by mentioning my dead brother. My brothers and I are certainly well-known among Deathknights. We have been responsible for sending a lot of them on to the next life after all. I wouldn’t speak directly, just staring at her patiently. I reached out my senses and after a moment ascertained that there were dozens of demons within striking distance. Next to me Escatar was growling.
The Deathknight laughed. “Ah, you must be Sangre the Silent. I should have known from the scar on the side of your face, given you by a mere Green Hornback. That must have been embarrassing.” I grunted and begin to advance on her, warily, knowing that the attack from her attendants would be from the back, but I couldn’t allow the Deathknight to report my position back to her friends. If the demons knew I was this close to the center of the wasteland they might send a whole army after me, which might disrupt my plans a little bit.
Suddenly behind the Deathknight stood a line of Kruegers, vaguely human-shaped demons with long sharp blades where their fingers should be. They also spit venom and are surprisingly fast and agile. I could take on one or two of them at once, but there had to be twenty of them there, far more than I could handle alone, or even with Escatar. Still, better to go down fighting if I must die. I raised my sword and prepared to do battle.
The Deathknight laughed. “Stay your sword, Hunter, sheathe your weapon. I mean you no harm, at least not now. If I wanted you dead, I have many minions at my disposal; I could have had you killed while you were busy fighting the Bramble Lion. Even if you could kill all my Kruegers, I have a Master Maggot not a hundred feet away.” I felt the presence of the maggot, one of the largest and most feared demons there were; one Master Maggot could easily take on an army of Hunters without much trouble.
At last I spoke to her. “What would you have of me?” I asked. The sound of my voice seemed to startle her, which brought me some satisfaction. “So it’s true, Sangre the Silent carries the Spectral Voice. How very interesting.”
She was sitting in a chair that one of her minions had brought out. There was an empty chair beside her and she motioned at me to sit. I saw no other alternative but to oblige her, which I did. She smiled again. “I am Venema of the Legion, and I speak for my people. We wish to parlay with your kind.” I had been trained by the Elderhunters not to betray any emotions, but I very nearly did. Since they had arrived, we had always believed the Deathknights and those they command take no prisoners, show no mercy, never compromise. The only thing they wanted was to exterminate all existing life on our world so they could make it their own. They had very nearly succeeded. So now that they were on the verge of being wiped out themselves, they wanted to talk?
“There is nothing to discuss,” I said. “You came to destroy us. Instead, it is you who will be destroyed. We have wiped out your kind all over the world, and here is where the last of you will die. What more is there to talk about?” For a moment, the mask of arrogance vanished and she frowned. She said “I admit, we did mean to annihilate your race, but we needed your world. Our own world was no longer able to support our numbers. When you opened the portal to your dimension, we discovered a means to our salvation. Your world is an ugly and inhospitable place, but it had potential. We came through the portal by the millions until the Unspeakable shut that door for eternity.” I assume by “the Unspeakable” she meant Jeremiah.
“Now we are stuck here and cannot get back. Enough of us came through that those who remained in our dimension can survive, at least for several centuries but all the Deathknights are here, in this world. As you can see, we are intelligent and self-aware as you are; you mean to commit genocide against us, yet you accuse us of being monsters.”
I looked at her, glowering. “I do not recall you being particularly concerned about the ramifications of wiping out the human race. We have a saying among my people; That which you do as you live, thus will you die. You have brought this end on yourselves. We had the right to defend ourselves and we won. Even if you kill me, inevitably you will all die. You cannot reproduce fast enough and we will kill every last one of you and restore this planet the way it was.”
She smiled again and I got that peculiar feeling that something wasn’t right. “I cannot fault you for defending yourself, Hunter. It is part of the Ka of every living thing to desire its own survival. You merely follow your instinct that was bred within you. We have the same Ka; in this regard we are the same, loathe as I am to admit there is anything about us that is the same.” At last, something we both could agree on.
“So what are we talking about, Deathknight? You wish me to go to my brothers and beg them to take their armies back home and let you survive long enough to build your numbers back up again so that you might swarm and finish the job your kind started? It is you or us; both cannot survive here. There is nothing more to say.”
I stood up to end the conversation but she grabbed my arm. “If I take you to the center of our land to our city and show you a reason to allow us to survive, what then?” I shook her arm off with a vigorous motion. The touch of her was strangely unsettling. “And what if I do not think your reason worthy? I will be as good as dead. Better to die here in that case.”
She stood too and did something that amazed me. She unsheathed her own sword, knelt at my feet and offered it up to me. “I am told you know the nature of my kind better than any living Pinkbelly. Our sword is our soul; in it is our honor, our being, all that we are. I give you my sword for you to safeguard. If what I reveal to you in our city does not convince you, you will be escorted back here to this spot without harm and given three days where none will harm you. Leave my sword where it can be found and you will get another three days. That is my oath to you; on my sword I swear it.”
She was right about me knowing the Deathknights. Deathknights whose swords were broken would take their own lives. If I felt threatened at any time, I could break her sword and she knew it. Deathknights were not fond of self-sacrifice; I didn’t think she would give her life away so freely when she could have taken mine without endangering her own. However, I needed a little more assurance.
“Send away the maggot, and let me communicate with my brothers. Let no harm come to them as well while I am in your city and I will see what you have to show me.” She smiled and stood up. She bowed her head for a moment and then looked up. “I have sent away the maggot. Sense for yourself.” I reached out with my senses and felt the maggot’s presence moving off. I also noticed it was moving away from where my brothers were supposed to be. I nodded in satisfaction. “You may communicate with your brothers now.”
I reached out with my mind. Part of the training of the Hunters involves our psi-senses, giving us the ability to speak over great distances with our minds. That bond is stronger within blood relatives. I often spoke to my brothers this way; we rarely meet in person because of our mission. I felt the familiar and reassuring presence of their minds in my own. “Brothers, I am in the presence of Venema, a Deathknight who wishes to show me a reason for us to spare their kind. I am going to their city to see this. I have been given assurances for safe conduct that I do not trust. Keep in contact with my mind; it will lead you to their city if I am betrayed and will at last give you the means of wiping them out for good.”
As Hunters must be, they were unsentimental. I was saying goodbye to them; I did not expect to survive this journey, but the information I gathered might well be important and useful in our mission to exterminate the demons. I deemed it a sacrifice well worth making. I felt their acknowledgement but no regret. They knew what I did, and expected no less as I would with them. I looked up. “We go, then.” She smiled. “We go” was all she said.
It was somewhat surreal. I had been living in this wasteland or others like it my entire adult life and every step of the journey was always filled with danger; a Hunter must be alert every second of every day or that Hunter would die, and nothing was of less use than a dead Hunter. However, I felt strangely calm. Venema steered us around every place dangerous to humans and often sent her minions out to clear the way of dangerous plants and animals in our path. I knew she wanted me in the city for a reason, so I would be safe enough until then.
Escatar followed along, somewhat uncertainly. Occasionally he would let loose a whimper or a growl, and clearly he didn’t like having so many enemies so close at hand but he was a loyal and noble creature and stayed right by my side where he might defend me if the need arose. I had never been touched by any living thing before, but I was touched by his loyalty.
It took us more than a week to arrive there, but we reached the demon city and I had to admit I was a bit surprised at its strange beauty. It was built of materials both familiar and strange to me and rose almost like a fairy tale in the wasteland. Elegant cone-like spires, tapered at the bottom, reached hundreds of meters into the sky. There was a gracefulness to the city I hadn’t expected; I didn’t expect there to be art or beauty among the demons. Venema seemed amused at my reaction. “You Pinkbellies believe the worst of us, do you not? We have no art, no culture, nothing of value, and nothing of beauty…and yet you see differently.”
I looked at her coolly. “Is this what I was meant to see? That you have an aesthetic sense? Anthills have that as well, and I have no issues stepping on one.” She laughed, a strange sound indeed. “Sangre the Silent, I would have never thought you to be one to jest. No, there is much more for you to see before we come to what I came to show you.”
As we walked through the city, I felt ill at ease. I was surrounded by the enemy and I could feel their stares. Some made no secret of their hatred and their desire to kill me, but everywhere we went Venema had an escort for us who made sure that no trouble would arise and none did.
In many respects it was similar to a human city; there were clearly divides of class and status, with some living in what appeared to be poorer quarters, while others seemed to have more living space. There were sword makers and markets that sold what appeared to be food, although none looked edible to me. There were plants and animals that humans could consume, and Venema had provided them throughout our journey. We passed what appeared to be auditoriums of some kind; places where hundreds of Deathknights gathered. I asked Venema if these were places of worship and she looked at me strangely and thoughtfully then said that they were.
I had been right about one thing; there were many, many more Deathknights than we thought there were. I sent that information to my brothers. They had literally thousands of Hunters between them, but they would need double what they had to take this city. Dolor assured me he was communicating that information to the Hunterelders who would send reinforcements.
We came to a large building near the center of the city. While many of the buildings we had passed were adorned with symbols and decoration, this one was not. There was a sinister feel to it, like some great evil existed within it. We stopped at the doors to the building. The entire building was a very dark grey, nearly black. The double doors were tall, about twenty meters, and unadorned. Venema turned to me. “This is what I brought you to see.” For a moment, I almost felt sympathy for her. She had been pleasant company this past week, and had lived up to her word but I knew before I would die I would see her dead first.
I looked at her and decided to go for broke. “Is this where the portal is that you have re-established to your world?” Her eyes widened and at first I thought I had the right of it, but then she smiled and there was wistfulness to her expression. “Would that it was, Hunter, would that it was.” She went to the door handles which were iron, then twisted them clockwise and pulled. Slowly, ponderously the door opened.
It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the darkness – I hadn’t been inside a building in years. Then I saw. It was not what I expected. I took several steps back, my mouth open in shock. I had been trained not to reveal what I felt, but all my training could not have prepared me for what I saw. I quickly established contact with my brothers. Espada, my elder brother, picked up on my emotions and asked me what was wrong. “Turn your men around Espada. You too, Dolor. Send the reinforcements back where they came. We have no need to come here. We have no need at all.” I sensed their confusion. Dolor spoke. “What do you see, brother? Tell us.” I felt myself weeping. I could sense Venema’s presence next to me. “Now you understand,” she said and I nodded. Oh heaven above, at last I did.
There were thousands of demons in the room of all shapes and sizes, plants, animals and Deathknights alike and every one of them was changing, becoming something different. Strangletrees were turning into Eucalyptus trees. Leaping mold was becoming lichen.
Animals were no different. Chargers were turning into terriers, Hellhounds into stallions, and Deathknights…they were becoming humans. “Your world is changing us. We are adapting to it, unexpectedly so. In a generation we will have changed completely. Your world will be yours. It will be ours as it turns out…unless you wipe us out, but you would be killing your own kind.”
She was right. There was no need to kill the demons; our own world was doing that for us, and in a gentle, natural way. All we had to do was let nature take its course and our world would heal itself and as long as we did no further harm, it would remain that way. The wonder of our planet, our home was there before my very eyes. I hadn’t realized just how wonderful it all was. The world inside this grey building was the world as it once was…and would be again. We had been given a second chance by the demons, although that was never their intention.
Some time later, as I walked with Venema out towards where my brother Espada’s army was camped, I asked her what she thought of all this. She looked at me thoughtfully, and then said “Our world was dying, and we had done that to ourselves with overpopulation, pollution and neglect. The millions who came here gave our old world a chance to regenerate itself. I never imagined that once the portal closed we’d be able to survive here. Now, there’s hope for us, a second chance.”
I nodded. “For us as well,” I said. We walked on in silence and I ruminated on the irony that mankind’s best hope had come when we exorcised our own inner demons, and the demons accessed their inner human. Hope is a strange creature, is it not?