Something stirred in the dark.
Dropping to a knee, William Freeman powered up his helmet-mounted fusion vision goggles. The machine combined night vision and thermal imaging into a single image, delivering it to the heads-up display over his left eye.
He saw it. The Bloom.
It was a thing that defied classification. It was a living crystal, a voracious weed, a semi-sentient animal. Before him a dense mat of warm viscous matter covered the Earth. Here and there, hard nodules of crystallised Bloom poked above the mass. It had swamped what was once a field of maize, absorbing and transforming the crops into more of itself. As he watched, a fresh tendril burst through the ground and waggled in the air, discharging clouds of tiny spores.
The demons were here.
Touching the push-to-talk switch mounted on his chest, he whispered to his men, “Bloom sighted. Stay sharp.”
Oliver Knowles replied, “No point looking for survivors. We should burn everything down.”
Past the blighted fields, at the edge of his vision, was a three-storey house. Heat spilled out of the windows. It was the Anderson family abode. Where the Bloom appeared, demons followed. Everybody knew what they did to humans.
But they still had a job to do.
“We have to get eyes on survivors or remains first,” Freeman said. “Form a wedge.”
The five men arranged themselves in the dark. Freeman was at the tip of the spear, two men on either side. He wished for more men: a full squad, a platoon, everyone from the Order. But things were different now. They had to make do.
He dropped to his belly and crawled across the dry earth. His men followed. He led them around the house, keeping his bearings with the virtual compass projected at the top of his display. If there were demons about, going through the front door was suicide. He hunted for a side or back entrance.
It was slow, tedious work. Between his weapons, armour and gear stuffed into his assault pack and plate carrier, he was hauling one-third his body weight. Thank God the team’s exosuits were still operational.
He crawled on and on and on, brushing aside the odd fern, twig and stone. Now and then he looked up, orienting himself. They were getting closer, about six hundred meters out. He kept going, one inch at a—
Gunfire ripped through the air.
“Who fired?” Freeman demanded. “What’s the situation?”
High-pitched roars answered, like angry giants tearing massive strips of canvas. Freeman’s earpieces dialled down the noise, saving his hearing.
“Contact!” Peter Knight called. “Demons at the rear door!”
Freeman zoomed in. Hot orange blobs flashed past the windows, brighter than the background heat. Incoming rounds screeched above his head. There were no muzzle flashes, no target indications he could call out.
Two could play this game.
“Flush fire!” Freeman ordered.
Taking up his M891 rifle, he set its optics to infrared and fired at the nearest window. Fired to its left, fired to its right. Picked another window, fired again. The shot pattern would keep heads down, maybe scare some demons out of cover. Or negate cover altogether; there were few things on Earth that could stop a ten-grain two-millimetre flechette screaming in at one and a half klicks per second.
The rest of his men followed, hammering out one round a second. Knight laid down the hate, his light machine gun ripping off three round bursts in rapid succession. Every weapon wore a suppressor, even the LMG. All the enemy would know was that someone was firing at them from somewhere; there was no muzzle flash, no cone of sound to pin down his team.
The incoming fire died down.
“Grenadier up!” Freeman called. “HEDP! Breach the wall!”
“Roger!” Neil Sharpe answered.
The 40mm High Explosive Dual Purpose grenade struck. Fire and thunder followed. His goggles cut out for a moment. When they were back online, Freeman saw a smoking hole carved into the wall.
“Push forward!” he ordered.
The team advanced, one man moving, four men firing. When it was his turn, Freeman got up and shrugged off his pack and sprinted. Counting to three, he hit the dirt and continued firing and firing—
“RED!” he yelled.
All around him, the men laid down a storm of covering fire. He ejected the magazine. Dropped it into his dump pouch. Slapped in a fresh hundred-round box. Hit the bolt catch.
The incoming fire died down. As they neared, they reduced the rate of fire. No sense wasting ammo on an enemy who wasn’t there anymore.
Twenty meters out, Knowles radioed. “We’ve got incendiaries. We should burn the place down. Only way to be sure.”
Close quarters battle with demons was for fools and the desperate, and the Order suffered no fools. But they weren’t here to slay demons. They were here to save lives. As he framed that thought, a long wail cut through the night.
A human wail.
“We might still have innocents inside,” Freeman said. “Enter and clear.”
“Boss, it’s a trap,” Knight said.
“Of course it is. But we are not going to risk burning down a human.”
“Just sayin’.” Knight sighed. “We’ve got your back.”
They stacked on the breach. Joshua Bates up front, Freeman right behind him. When he felt Sharpe pat his shoulder from behind, Freeman squeezed Bates’ own.
“Let’s go,” Freeman whispered.
“I see Bloom. PPE up,” Bates replied.
“PPE up,” Freeman echoed.
One by one, the men paused to don their gas masks. When he felt a pat on his shoulder, Freeman doffed his helmet, dug out his gas mask and fitted it to his face, taking extra care to check the seal and filter. The mask would simply keep the Bloom spores out of his lungs; when this mission was over they’d have to wash themselves down and replace the filter.
He snapped his helmet back on and patted Bates’ shoulder. Ten seconds later, Bates had his mask on. Bates stepped through the breach. Freeman turned on his weapon light and followed.
Bloom coated the floor and far wall. Parts of it had been charred by the blast. The men edged their way around the biomass, careful not to step on it. They flicked their tactical lights on, examining the room.
“Blood on the floor,” Sharpe whispered.
The blood trail led to a staircase feeding up. Knight and Knowles stayed put to guard the stairs. Freeman followed Bates and Sharpe down a narrow corridor.
They found a closet. Empty.
They found a kitchen. Filled with Bloom.
They found a pantry. Flooded with Bloom.
Just past the back door, they saw a humanoid body, motionless in the dark. It was the demon Knight had seen. Maybe dead, maybe living. The men blasted its head apart. Now it was dead.
The girl shrieked again.
Back to the stairs. Freeman pointed up. The men formed up, Knowles in the lead, Freeman behind, and headed up.
At the top of the stairs, a girl stood.
“Contact,” Knowles reported.
Knowles trained his light on her. She was short, about chest height, dressed in a simple white nightgown. Long dark hair obscured her eyes.
“Hey there,” Knowles said. “What’s your name?”
She didn’t respond.
Knowles stepped up.
“Can you hear me?”
She tilted her head, tracking him.
Another step. “Are you okay? Where’s your family?”
Her hair retreated. Her skin turned black. Her fingers and toes transformed into short stubby tubes. She opened her eyes and howled.
It extended its hands at the men. Freeman raised his weapon—
A volley of blasts split the air. Shards slammed into Freeman’s chest plate and shattered into dust. Blood splashed across his face. A body fell against him. Freeman shoved it aside, wiped himself down. His men fired. He looked up, saw a shredded mess where the demon once was.
He glanced down.
Knowles was gone, his head obliterated.
Unearthly voices filled the air.
“DEUS VULT!” Freeman yelled.
He grabbed a stun grenade from his belt, pulled the pin and tossed it upstairs. Blinding light and thunderous sound followed. Freeman charged up, wafting through the smoke.
Another demon. It covered its blinded eyes with one arm, the other morphing into a gun barrel. Freeman doubled-tapped it in the chest and it went down. Another shot to the face and he moved on.
There were four rooms here, two on either side. Freeman found the nearest. The door was open. Knight was right behind him. Together, they entered. Nothing but Bloom here, creeping across the floor and eating the furniture.
“Clear!” Freeman called.
“Clear!” Knight replied.
“Coming out!” Freeman shouted.
“Come out!” Bates acknowledged.
Next room. Bloom, but otherwise empty.
Heavy footsteps sounded from above.
At the end of the room, a trapdoor burst open. A ladder dropped. A black ball followed.
Freeman dropped. Closed his eyes. Opened his mouth. A flash, a thunderous boom. His hearing cut out. Unbearable light flashed through his eyelids.
Something heavy thudded on the floor.
Freeman pointed his weapon, flicked to full-auto and held down the trigger and swept from left to right. Pause. Right to left.
Sanity returned. A pair of demons lay broken and bleeding. Freeman rose to a knee, shot them again, then reloaded.
“Pete! Flush ‘em! Neil! Bang and clear!”
Knight reloaded with a fresh three-hundred round drum. Aiming at the ceiling, he placed bursts through the thick wood. As sawdust rained down, Sharpe dashed to the trapdoor and tossed a stun grenade through.
“Pete, lift fire!”
The grenade went off, Sharpe climbed, Knight ceased firing, and Freeman followed.
A dead demon lay just past the entrance. Bloom matted the walls and floor. A half-dozen bodies lay covered in the stuff, dissolving into their constituent elements. In the middle of the room an arch of metallic Bloom rose from the floor.
Deep red light leaked through it.
It was a gateway.
Past the opening, he saw barren rock, clouds of yellow dust, Bloom as far as the eye could see.
A massive eye appeared in the opening.
It stared at him.
It was a field of fire with a central slit of infinite darkness. Incomprehensibly complex diagrams danced at the edge of his view. Freeman tried to move. He could not.
A voice, deep and terrible, filled his mind.
I SEE YOU.
He tried to speak. His brain shut down.
Unbidden, he stepped toward the gate.
Under his shirt, his crucifix warmed against his skin.
He drew a breath and the spell broke.
“DEUS VULT!” he yelled.
“DEUS VULT!” the men echoed.
They fired at the eye.
A sound, so massive and terrible the earpieces shut off, shook the house. A flood of black blood gushed forth. The eye retreated, leaving behind the wastelands of Hell.
“We’re done,” Freeman said. “Burn the place down.”
For more works by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.