The stairs led to what was once an underground train station. Now it was a transition zone for people wishing to enter and exit Metro City. People packed the train platform, anxious and crying and commiserating. When the Metro City troopers descended, the people loosed a hearty cheer.
Bates, Knight and Freeman didn’t join in. They carefully carried Sharpe’s body to a corner and laid him down with the rest of the human dead.
“And now we are three,” Freeman said.
“We should police the body before looters get at it,” Knight said.
Wordlessly the men went through Sharpe’s pockets, taking everything useful.
“Who’s going to take his five-two-five?” Knight asked.
Sharpe’s M525 grenade launcher was still attached to the rifle. It was a critical weapon, one that shouldn’t be sold so long as they still had ammo for it.
“I will,” Freeman said.
Freeman slung Sharpe’s rifle around his shoulder, then methodically unfastened Sharpe’s grenade pouches and laced them on his armour carrier. He retrieved Sharpe’s bandoleer and wrapped it around his body too.
Behind them, a heated argument broke out, and the three men walked over. Johnson was arguing with a Metro City trooper.
“No! No drugs!” the soldier yelled.
“Your friend is dying!” Johnson insisted. “I can help!”
On the floor, a wounded man groaned as a medic wrapped his right leg with bandages. A large shard jutted from the wound, slowly dissolving into his flesh.
“What’s going on?” Freeman asked.
Johnson gestured at the wounded trooper. “He’s been shot. There’s Bloom in his bloodstream. He needs treatment now.”
“And as I was saying,” the other trooper said, stepping forward, “we’re not cleared to use non-issue drugs.”
“What kind of drugs?”
Johnson held up a syrette to the light. “This.”
The markings on the tube read ‘Gardia Biotech’. Its logo, the company’s initials stylised to resemble a caduceus, was on the reverse. Freeman had seen many just like it. Hell, he carried a bunch of similar syrettes himself. It was the real deal. Probably.
“It’s a stimshot,” Johnson continued. “It’ll break down the Bloom and promote healing. If you take him to your hospital, the doctors are goin’ to give it him anyway.”
The wounded man moaned. Black fibres crawled out from under the bandage, spiralling up his leg. The medic backed away, unwilling to touch the alien matter.
“The Bloom is spreading,” Knight said. “He needs it.”
The trooper hesitated.
“When we served in the Church, we used stimshots just like this one,” Freeman said. “If you don’t use it now, he’ll die before he gets to a doctor. Or worse.”
The soldier swore. “Do what you want.”
Johnson uncapped the syrette and punched it into the wounded man’s thigh. The soldier groaned. The Bloom shrank away, drying up and flaking off.
“That’ll hold him until you get him to hospital,” Johnson said.
“He’d better,” the soldier said. “If he doesn’t, it’s on you.”
The rest of Johnson’s crew treated the remaining wounded with stimshots before handing them off to stretcher parties. Johnson supervised them.
“These stimshots... they’re your trade goods, right?” Freeman asked.
“You’re giving them out for free?”
“Times like this, money don’t mean nothin’.” Johnson grinned. “‘sides, it’s free advertising.”
When the chaos subsided, more people arrived to take charge of the situation and assist. The priests refused to say prayers for Sharpe. The soldiers accepted the body anyway, allowing him to be buried alongside their own dead. As they wrapped him in a simple white shroud, Freeman and his team stood over the body and recited their prayer.
“Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison,” Freeman said.
“Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.”
The far side of the train station led to down to Metro City itself. Everywhere Freeman looked there were people walking, haggling, eating, working. There was barely room to breathe. The background roar of a thousand voices tripped his earpro, dialling down the sound. Despite that, the moment people saw the weapons they gave Freeman and his team a wide berth.
After Johnson and his crew checked in at an inn, Freeman and his team were dismissed from their duties. Freeman moved the M525 grenade launcher to his rifle, then helped his team split up Sharpe’s belongings. They spent the rest of the day selling off non-essential gear or exchanging them for essentials: ammo, food, clean water, other supplies. They refilled their empty pouches and magazines, and retired to the inn in time for dinner.
A round of beers. A toast, a prayer and a simple meal. They said grace and tucked in, dining on stewed vegetables and meat best left unidentified.
As they ate, Johnson approached their table. “Am I disturbin’ you?”
“Got any work for us?” Freeman asked.
“Just checkin’ in. Must be tough, losing a man. My condolences.”
“We’re good,” Knight said icily. “I thought you were with your drivers.”
“They’re busy runnin’ errands.” Johnson glanced about the room. “Listen, I haven’t had anythin’ since breakfast today and I’m starved. Mind if I sit with ya?”
Freeman had half a mind to turn Johnson away. The other half insisted that he should be gracious to his employer.
The former Crusaders made room. Johnson pulled up a chair and ordered another bowl of stew.
“You guys doin’ okay?” Johnson asked.
“We’ll be fine,” Knight said testily.
“Just askin’ is all. I know you guys were tight.”
Freeman grunted. How could he begin to explain what it to kill and bleed and die side by side with a brother in arms? There was no need to explain to a fellow warrior, and no use describing it to a civilian.
“He is with God now,” Bates said. “He’s earned his reward.”
“That’s something, at least.” Johnson shifted uneasily. “Y’know, somethin’s been buggin’ me.”
“Yeah?” Knight prodded.
“Y’all told me you were pilgrims. But I heard the troopers callin’ you Crusaders.”
Freeman mulled that answer for a moment. “Before our pilgrimage, we served as Crusaders. That’s how we met.”
“Ah. But I also saw the priests denyin’ Neil a Christian burial. Why’s that?”
Bates frowned. Knight glared. Freeman had to remind himself to breathe.
“Did I do somethin’ wrong?” Johnson asked.
“It’s between us and the Church,” Freeman said. “Nothing you need to worry about.”
“I’m plannin’ to stop over at some religious communities. If it could cause a problem, I need to know.”
“It won’t be a problem.”
“Really? I heard you were excommunicated. That could cause issues.”
“How did you find out?” Knight demanded.
“Heard the priests talkin’. Now, I understand it’s unpleasant business, but I need to know if it could affect our business.”
“It won’t,” Freeman said.
Johnson met Freeman’s gaze. “I’ll be the judge of that.”
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Bates said. “It was just…politics.”
“Politics? That really could cause problems. Now I have to hear about it.”
Knight shot Bates a dirty look. Freeman just sighed. The cat was out of the bag. Might as well get it over and done with.
“Heard of a city called Arkham?” Freeman asked.
“Can’t rightly say I have.”
Freeman sighed again. “Three years ago, we received reports of demons emerging in Arkham. The Order of Saint George was dispatched to investigate. By the time we got there…”
Freeman stared into his beer. Knight took over.
“The city was crawling with demons. Every time we burned out a nest, they popped up somewhere else. It was brutal. Street to street, house to house, hand to hand. They destroyed half the city before we realized they had set up a network of Hellgates in the sewers. By the time we were done…there was nothing left of Arkham.”
Johnson nodded sadly. “It sounds terrible.”
Fury crept across Bates’ face. “It got worse. We took seventy percent casualties. Seventy percent. The ones still alive were court-martialled. They charged us with negligence of duty, mass murder, wilful destruction of civilian and Church property… The head of our Order defended us against most of those charges. But there was one thing he couldn’t help us with.”
“We were excommunicated,” Freeman said.
“That doesn’t sound fair,” Johnson remarked.
“It’s not,” Bates said. “It’s politics. The Church needed a scapegoat. Better to disband an order than for the masses to lose their faith. And the other Crusader Orders had their eyes on our gear for the longest time. The moment we were excommunicated they divided everything we had amongst themselves.” Bates sighed. “Politics.”
“Bad business all around,” Johnson said. “How are you handling it?”
The men exchanged glances. Freeman raised an eyebrow. Knight nodded. So did Bates.
“Among our Order, we have a tradition,” Freeman said. “Whenever one of us commits a mortal sin, we travel to New Rome on foot. Along the way, we help everybody we can and slay whatever demons we find. It’s our way of doing penance. And when we arrive at New Rome, we ask for forgiveness. We call it walking the redemption road.”
“Will the Church let you back in?”
“Excommunication is a medicinal penalty, not a punishment,” Bates said. “After completing penance, the Church will absolve us. It’s part of the sacraments. They have to take us back.”
“They must,” Freeman whispered.
After the evening meal they retired to their rooms. Freeman spent the rest of the night attending to his kit and praying. When he was done, he lay on the hard bed and stared at the ceiling until his eyelids drooped.
He leapt out of bed.
Long hammers of autofire, mixed with howls and screams. He peered out the window. By the dim light he saw people fleeing down the street, lit by the underground streetlamps.
The door burst open.
“Boss!” Knight yelled.
“Yeah,” Freeman said. “Kit up. We’re headed out.”
Freeman’s hands flew. He slipped on his boots over bare feet, snapped on his armour carrier over his thin sleepwear, slung his rifle and fastened his helmet into place. In the hallway outside his room, he ran into his men.
“What’s the call?” Bates asked.
“We help, however we can,” Freeman said.
Outside, they encountered a demon. A roiling jumble of flesh and limbs and organs dragging itself down a tiny street with its oversized paws. A hump extruded from its back, mounting an extended barrel. The demon stomped on a body, fired up a shop, and turned towards Freeman.
The men opened fire. Freeman pressed the trigger as fast as he could, his vision narrowing into a black-and-white tube as it came closer, closer—
“Cease fire!” Knight yelled. “It’s dead already!”
“What fresh horror is this?” Bates whispered.
Freeman hadn’t seen anything like it before. The fleshy thing was immobile, bleeding from dozens of yawning wounds, its turret frozen. It wasn’t a threat for now, but he didn’t want to come close to it. Not until it was burnt to ash.
Sirens wailed, reverberating in the close confines of the underground city. Gunshots followed. The men ran, chasing the sound of gunfire.
A squad of Metro City troopers charged past them. Freeman sprinted alongside the squad leader.
“Hey!” Freeman called. “Can we help?”
The soldier glanced at him. “You the guys who defended the gate, right?”
“We could use more guns in the fight. Follow me!”
When they arrived at the hospital, Freeman saw writhing tentacles oozing wetly out of broken windows. Broken bodies littered the ground. Monstrosities rolled out of the entrance, one after another, each bearing different configurations of claws, guns, arms and legs.
No cover. Nowhere to run.
But Crusaders never ran from the fight.
“Light ‘em up!” Freeman ordered.
He flicked to full auto and hosed down the nearest monster. The flechettes cut through their carapaces as though they were paper. Something whined past Freeman’s ear. A heartbeat later, he released the trigger and scan.
The monsters on the loose were all down. But more emerged from the entrance of the hospital.
“Pete,” Freeman said calmly. “Lock it down.”
Knight poured streams of full auto fire through the door as a fresh wave of monsters burst through. Kneeling, Bates and Freeman fired short bursts at the ones that tried to escape. The Metro City troops joined in, throwing a wall of steel downrange. Bodies stacked up outside and around the door—but they were still coming.
“Make a hole!” a man cried.
A squad of Metro City troopers came charging down a crammed street. Dressed in heavy yellow chemsuits, they carried a mix of M891s and bulky flamethrowers. The Crusaders stepped aside.
“Hot shot!” the leader called.
As the men laid down suppressive fire, a pair of flamethrower operators stepped up. Scarlet tongues of burning fuel leapt from their weapons’ throats, engulfing the hospital, the demons and the Bloom in cleansing flame.
It was over.
Freeman gagged at the sickeningly sweet stench of roast pork. Leaning against a wall, he paused to catch his breath. Down the street, he saw a man standing at the entrance to an alley, smirking at the sight.
And Johnson was gone.
For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.