Supposedly, the ARCS Ararat would sail come Hell or high water. The problem was, both had come at the same time.
As he lay on his bunk, eyes shut but still awake, Noah reflected how the last few months had been like some kind of bad dream. Not a nightmare, he reminded himself. Nightmares, you knew were nightmares. You closed your eyes, you let slumber take you for even a moment, the nightmares would come, and you would wake in a cold sweat, terror in your breast and sin in your bones, before daring to risk sleep again and restarting the cycle. Dreams, however…dreams were worse. These days, every waking moment was like a dream, shuffling ever onward through limbo. The veil of reality torn, with whispers of insanity coming from beyond it. A dream that even now, he hoped he could awake from. That one day, he'd close his eyes, not have any nightmares, and when he awoke, Earth would be the way it was. An overpopulated, environmentally ravaged shithole that was still a hell of a lot better than what Hell itself had provided.
And, in fairness, Hell had solved the overpopulation problem. Shame about the environmental side of things. Maybe there was a future in giant chasms of fire cutting through entire continents, ravaging Earth's biosphere and sending most of its species into extinction, but so far, he hadn't seen any upsides.
Still in his bunk, he pulled the blankets over him, struggling to find some warmth in the over air-conditioned floating coffin that was this ship. Squinting, he saw his bunk's chrono read 0559. Which meant that in sixty seconds or less, he-
He groaned, and put his pillow over his face. If someone had asked whether it was to cover his ears or smother himself, the answer would have been yes.
"Breakfast time, breakfast time!" the cheery voice declared. "All personnel report to breakfast time!"
Months ago, in his assigned bunk, there'd have been a chorus of groans at the carrier's AI (or rather, a subroutine, as the AI could address numerous sections simultaneously) directing them like this. Everything from moaning about not wanting breakfast, to wanting a very special kind of breakfast from the computer, if she knew what they meant. Of course, that had been months ago. Now, assigned to Bunk B, Deck 9, Section 27, there wasn't any of that, because he was the only one here. Gehenna Platoon, Juno Company, of the First Seaborne Division, had been whittled down to only him.
"Remember, a full stomach will help keep demons hungry."
Noah groaned – the smothering option was looking particularly appealing right now.
"Now now," the AI declared. "Lieutenant Crowe, this is no time for sleepy-time! It's a big bright world out there, and you can't save it on an empty stomach!"
What the fuck? He took the pillow off his eyes and looked at the centre of the bunkroom. There, in holographic form, was some overly-cheerful bitch looking directly at him. A holographic woman wearing a holographic ARC uniform, with holographic skin, hair, and eyes, and uttering platitudes as flimsy as the holographic light shining before him.
"Hello," the AI said. "I am the shipboard AI of the Armoured Response Coalition mobile command carrier Ararat. It is my duty to ensure that you are able to respond to the best of your abilities, lest what remains of mankind be torn apart in a most horrible manner."
Noah grunted. "How's that going so far?"
"At current estimates, the human population has been reduced by ninety-one point two percent, leaving the current population of Earth at roughly one billion, two-hundred and twenty-seven million, one-thousand and-"
"If I get up, will you stop talking?" Noah asked.
For a moment, he could swear that the AI looked taken aback. But that was ridiculous. AIs didn't have feelings…right?
"If you do not wish to be informed of the current death toll, there are other things I can tell you about."
Like how to shut you off maybe? Noah rolled off the bunk and started changing.
"Be reminded that current water rations prohibit the use of your bunk's shower."
Noah grit his teeth. "I know."
"Also be advised that today's menu has been expanded to three types of synthetic bacon."
"How about ham?"
"Be advised that ham is the same as bacon, and if you want ham rather than bacon, you can set the replicator to-"
Noah drowned the voice out. Waking dreams, he reflected. When he died (which he would) and went to Hell (which he almost certainly would), he figured that his version of Hell would be this AI yammering on his ear. While he was on fire and while demons picked away at his skin of course, but he'd already experienced those things in some form or another. Both of which were preferable to this piece of code trying to act like everything was normal.
"…and finally, you will be only entitled to one hash brown under current rationing. By current projections, replication of potatoes and associated foodstuffs will be required eleven days from now."
Noah, by this time in his uniform, looked around the bunk (an old habit, back when he had men and women to lead), before looking back at the AI. She looked back at him like a mother seeing her son in school uniform for the first time.
"Well aren't you handsome," she said. "Remember, by taking pride in the uniform, you take pride in yourself."
Noah scoffed. Far as he was concerned, pride could chuck itself overboard and never come back. Only sin worth keeping on this damn boat was lust, and even that could take people only so far.
"Well, off you go," the AI said. "And remember, I am here to answer any questions you might have during your stay in the Armoured Response Coalition."
Noah's first instinct was to walk straight out, no questions asked, no answers given. Over the last few weeks, questions directed to ARC Command were usually boiled down to "classified," or "we do not have the requested information at this time." Much as the ARC was meant to be the best of the best, in terms of both manpower and firepower, it was still a human military, which meant that it had the same old bullshit that all militaries did.
But even so, he asked the question. The one he knew that everyone aboard this ship, heck, every man, woman, and child on Earth, was asking.
"Is it over?"
The AI stared at him.
"Did we win? Is Hell defeated?"
The AI stared at him.
"That big demon thing that was killed, is it-"
"…I'm sorry, I do not have the requested information at this time."
Noah sighed, and headed out of the bunk. "Course you fucking don't."
Is it over?
That was the question that everyone had been asking for months, though in the last few days, it had taken on a different tone. Until recently, people had asked that question in the expectation that mankind had lost the fight. Was it over, when demons started pouring out of Mars? Was it over, when Earth's moon was shattered? Was it over, when Earth started to burn, a tide of horrors sweeping over it as the ground itself was split in two? Was it over, when the ARC's line of defence crumbled, and when their last attempt at a counter-attack failed? Was it over, as mankind's domains were reduced to a number of fortress-cities, and when news leaked out that the demons were locking down starports lest their foes even attempt to flee?
He'd answered in the negative at first – partly due to hollow bravado, partly due to naivete. But then, he'd stopped answering. As time passed by, he had fewer and fewer people to lead. He was lucky enough to be stationed on the ARC's mobile headquarters, but as he'd watched the Coalition's remaining divisions be torn apart on every continent, that sense of luck evaporated. He'd got up, done his duty, retired to his bunk, and begin the cycle all over again. Waking dreams, he'd reflected. Least those poor bastards on both sides of the Atlantic were lucky enough to get final sleep.
But over the last few days, the question of "is it over?" had changed. Hell's consumption of Earth had stopped. The demons, once pouring across the world like a swarm of locusts, were reportedly milling about, as if they'd lost any sense of coordination. And a Godzilla-sized demon, found against a skyscraper, supposedly struck down by the Doom Slayer himself. Someone that Noah had thought was a myth at first, but then, drone footage spoke for itself. Only glimpses of the Slayer himself, moving from one battlefield to the next, but more than enough evidence of his deeds. The bodies of demons and mortally challenged littering the landscape. Many of them having been blasted by all manner of weaponry. Many more lying in pieces, ripped and torn to shreds. Blood and gut littering the burning surface, like someone had taken a chainsaw to a pinata.
In the carrier's mess hall, Noah took a bite of synthetic egg. In another world, in another time, the idea of a one-man army laying waste to armies of demons would have sounded insane, but then, this wasn't that time, this was this time, and this time was a world of demons, destruction, and desperation. He wasn't too far gone - not like some of the people on this ship, who'd converted the carrier's chapel into a shrine to the Slayer (supposedly, they even had some of his shell casings there), but hey, madman killing any demon he came across, single-handedly ending the war, saving what was left of Earth and the human race from beasties? He'd take that. Yeah, maybe he'd stolen the ARC's thunder, but as he'd reflected earlier, pride could stuff it.
So could members of the command crew. Including little dweebs who wore glasses and insisted on being so God damn pleasant.
Noah looked out across the mess hall (sailors and troopers sticking to their own), before meeting the gaze of the dweeb who sat down opposite him. "That's me."
The kid, who still had spots, stuck out his hand. "Pleasure to meet you."
Crowe blinked – his eyes still had the sandman's dust in them, and he couldn't make out the kid's name patch. All he knew was that he had arrived about a week ago as an intern. Yes, the world had gone to Hell, and money was no longer worth a damn thing, but apparently, the Armoured Response Coalition was going to fill out vacancies the old fashioned way – recruiting bright eyed, bushy tailed bastards who'd likely end up dead so fast, HR didn't need to worry about paying them in the first place.
"How's the egg?"
"Soggy," he grunted.
"I'm sorry to hear that. I'll make a request with-"
"Kid, if soggy egg is the worst thing that happens to me today, that'll be a miracle."
"Oh. That's good to hear. But I can-"
"Kid, you seem nice and all, but how about you tell me what you came to say, and I get back to breakfast?"
"Oh, yes, of course." He cleared his throat. He got out a PDA, typed on it, and began to speak as if reading from a script (which given the text on its screen, he probably was).
"Lieutenant Noah Crowe, as of this morning, you are assigned command of Hades Squad. The Armoured-"
"Alright, hold up," Noah said, and to his relief, the kid stopped talking. "First of all, Hades Squad? I've heard of a platoon, but not a squad."
"And second of all, I thought Lieutenant Granger was in command of it?"
"And third of all…" He took another bite of his egg, wondering what he could use as a third question. Finishing the egg, and realizing that he had nothing, he let the intern talk.
"Well, Hades Platoon has been re-designated Hades Squad, because there's only about nine troopers left, so it's no longer platoon sized," said the intern. "And second of all, Lieutenant Granger committed suicide yesterday. So since Hades doesn't have a CO, and you don't have a platoon…"
Noah let him trail off, and took a bite of bacon, hoping it would hide the despair in his eyes. Suicides weren't new to him – he'd worked security on Luna years ago, and every so often, the cramped, sterile conditions would get to people. When he'd been drafted into the ARC, alongside thousands of others who had anything approaching combat experience, suicides had become a dime a dozen, ranging from good ol' fashioned trauma to yelling things like "I won't let them take me," before painting the walls a shade of red. It had started bad, and over a decade since the demons had invaded Earth, it had become worse. Even so, the demons were defeated…right? The war was won? Yet Granger had taken her own life regardless.
Then again, you could win and lose a war at the same time. Any view of Earth from orbit was testament to that.
"Anyway," the intern said. He pressed some more buttons on his PDA, and Noah felt the PDA slotted in his belt buzz. "You'll be bunking with Hades, training with them, and leading them from now on."
Noah tried not to groan, but failed. He'd lost his bunk. Wonderful.
"Hey, cheer up," the kid said. "We're getting a special visitor today."
Noah looked at him. "Visitor?"
"I, er…" The kid adjusted his glasses. "I shouldn't have said that." He got to his feet. "Well, I'll leave you to it. If you have any more questions, please don't hesitate to-"
"Is it over?"
The kid stopped adjusting his glasses and looked down at the trooper.
"Did we win?" Noah whispered.
"I…well…I mean, there's still demons on Earth, and-"
"Did we win, kiddo? Yes or no?" Noah began rubbing his eyes, wishing he could head back to his bunk, or better yet, find a coffin he could snuggle into. "Just tell me that kiddo, or I'll-"
He never finished that sentence as an alarm began to blare.
"Oh. Oh dear," said the intern."
Noah didn't say anything. He was too busy praying that the words he knew were coming weren't actually coming.
"Action stations, action stations, all personnel report to assigned posts."
He put his face in his hands. His prayers hadn't been answered. Again.
"Condition black is set throughout the ship. All crew report to action stations. This is not a drill."
The kid laughed nervously. "Well, er, looks like you get to lead Hades Squad today, right? Bit of breaking in?"
"Action stations, action stations…"
"Bit of target practice? Bit of-"
Noah glared at him.
"Right, so, er, I'll report to my, um…"
"Action stations, action stations, all crew report to action stations."
"…yeah, what the intercom said."
Noah grunted. "You do that."
The kid nodded, took a few steps back, and then ran. Looking around the cafeteria, Noah noticed how many of the personnel, troopers and sailors alike, were still seated. At best, some were slowly getting to their feet. At worst, he could see a trooper sobbing.
"Action stations, action stations, condition black is set throughout the ship."
Heard you the first time. He got to his feet and looked at what was left of his breakfast. At the pieces of bacon still left over. At what was, effectively, dead meat.
"Action stations, action stations…"
Kind of like he was right now.
Following his PDA, Noah had reported to his assigned armoury, finding the rest of Hades Squad there. They'd helped themselves to combat armour, a variety of weapons, and silently entered the elevator that would take them to the Ararat's deck. No pleasantries had been exchanged, or even complaints about the change in CO. His HUD listed their names, and he had no doubt that by the end of this, some of them would be flashing red.
He gripped the plasma rifle he was carrying. Once the cutting edge of UAC technology, now it felt like a super-soaker. He'd seen demons shrug off firepower that would cripple tanks, and he'd seen those same demons slice open armoured troopers with their bare claws. Back when this had started, he'd even seen mechanized walkers be cast aside like children's toys. So, yes, they might be at sea, and yes, the wider war might be over, but demons were demons. Demons killed. Demons tore you apart. Demons killed, and killed, and killed, and kept killing until they were killed in turn, if at all.
So far, the strategy had worked for them.
"Fucked up, totally fucked up," one of the troopers murmured. "Meant to be over, ainit? The Doom Slayer, took out the big demon didne?"
Noah remained silent. Normally, he'd have stepped in, but the trooper was just saying what they were all thinking.
"Maybe they're desperate?" another trooper asked. "How often do demons come to sea?"
Not often, Noah reflected. Demons could jump, demons could fly, but so far, they hadn't paid much attention to Earth's oceans. Lack of prey, he wondered? Lack of means? Or, most likely, they didn't need to worry about places like the Ararat in the first place.
And yet, here they were.
The troopers continued to whisper, bicker, and pray. A variety of accents in a variety of languages, uttering prayers from a variety of religions that Noah was astounded they could even find solace in. Mankind had dreamt up gods since the moment they'd crawled down from the trees, and if those gods existed, the only two things they'd done for their children were jack and shit. Though…he glanced at one of the troopers, holding a pair of shotgun casings like one might hold a cross.
"…and they fear the mark of the Beast, for it is he who drives forward against the armies of Doom…"
There was a wisecrack on the tip of his tongue, but none came out. He had a feeling that the Doom Slayer didn't particularly care if he was worshipped or not, but at least he'd done something worthy of worship in the first place.
"…and it is we who are unworthy, who quake at his rage, like children, cowering against the wolf, for it is in our id that we-"
"Alright, chit-chat's over." The elevator clunked to a halt, and its doors opened to the deck. "Stop the praying, time for slaying."
No-one laughed, and he didn't blame them. There'd been a time, months ago, where he could lead troopers into battle and inspire a degree of confidence, but that was then. This was now. And "now," in the twilight of this world, was a situation where people didn't want to 'slay,' they just wanted to stay alive.
"Hades, on me."
Nevertheless, he led them onto the deck to their assigned defence point. Multiple other squads (not platoons, squads he noticed) were coming out onto the deck, and speak of the Devil (or not – not really a good idea these days), a pair of mechs had come up from the carrier's launch bay.
"Fucking A man," murmured a trooper. "Mother fucking A."
"I'll fuck your mother if you don't shut up."
"No, you go fuck yourself."
"Shut the fuck up," Noah said. He looked at the squad. "All of you."
The squad obliged. He'd like to think it was due to respect, but more likely, it was because of apathy. Either way, it allowed him to lead his squad to the defence point, marked on his HUD with a green diamond, made visible despite the rain.
A storm was raging. The sea was churning. The Ararat was so big, the latter didn't matter, and jogging over the deck, he didn't have to worry about losing his footing, or a wave trying to send him into the sea. The mechs didn't have to worry about it either, thanks to their magnetized feet – more than wider enough to squash him thrice over. Ten metres tall, they towered over the Ararat's deck, and every meatbag upon it. The pinnacle of military technology, developed just in time to counter Hell's invasion of Earth. A symbol of human military might and ingenuity…and meaning nothing at the end of the day.
"Don't get it," one of the troopers murmured. "Where's our aircraft?"
"In this weather? Forget it."
"Right," the trooper grunted. "Fly to the moon, fly to Mars, can't fly in a fucking storm."
Noah looked at the trooper – according to his HUD, the man's name was Kamal. "You want to take a flight? Be my guest," he said. "Just keep in mind, don't think they'd be letting you land, and there's nowhere on either side of this ocean where you can land either."
He couldn't see the man's face behind his visor, but he liked to think he was biting his tongue. Either way, a face of a different kind appeared on his HUD – the Ararat's XO, Commander William Keen.
"All units be advised, a gargoyle swarm is en route to the Ararat, bearing fifty-seven degrees east. ETA, two minutes, twenty-one seconds."
A chill went down Noah's spine, and not from the storm raging around him. Gargoyles. Not the most dangerous of demons, but among the most numerous. "Imps of the air," some called them, and they were just as annoying as those little fuckers. When the ARC had launched its attack on the super gore nest in Germany, the gargoyles by themselves had taken thousands of lives. And now? Now they were en route.
"Thought it was over," one of the troopers murmured. "Ain't it over?"
"…and there was given to him no tongue, but his weapon is his word…"
"Oh shut up Chu, the Slayer ain't here."
"Alright, zip it." Noah unlocked the safety on his plasma rifle. "Storm's coming."
The troopers fell silent. Looking around the deck, Noah saw the mechs train their weapons up to the sky. Auto-turrets and missile launchers rose across the deck's perimeter. A sight that might have once filled him with confidence, but now, a sight that kept fear at bay as much as a wall of sand did a tsunami. And not helped by the cloud that was moving towards them. A giant, grey-black cloud, below all the others…moving towards them, against the wind…
"…and it is by his anger that we are saved, for his rage is eternal, his path unending, every stone upon which a foundation is made…"
"Squad…" Noah swallowed. "Fire on command."
He'd joke about waiting until seeing the reds of his eyes, but he'd seen demonic eyes up close, and it…well, it wasn't a joke anymore. Red eyes, white eyes, grey eyes…if eyes were the window to the soul, it was clear that demons had none. Most of the time, you got that close to a demon, you weren't getting any distance until your body parts were tossed aside. So far, he'd been lucky. Hundreds hadn't.
"ETA, thirty seconds," came Keen's voice.
It was meant to be over, he told himself. The demons had no coordination.
There was a Godzilla-sized demon that was dead, damn it!
"Ten. Nine. Eight."
"…oh brave new world, now gone to Hell…"
"Seven. Six. Five."
He could see their eyes. Even hundreds of metres away, in the dark of the storm, he could see their eyes.
"Four. Three. Two."
See the swarm head downwards.
Suddenly, prayer didn't sound so bad."
The mechs opened fire. The auto-turrets and missile launchers opened fire. Hundreds of gargoyles dropped into the Atlantic. Hundreds more bore down on the Ararat. Towards the mechs. Towards the guns. Towards the troopers.
Birds of prey, looking at clutches of frightened rabbits…
Hades Squad obliged. Across the kilometre-long deck, numerous ARC troopers did likewise. Bullets, plasma, rockets, the bodies of gargoyles fell upon the deck. The rain washing away their blood as soon as it was spilt. He couldn't see how the other squads were faring, but so far, Hades was holding its own. The gargoyles might have strength and speed on their side, but against such sheer firepower, there was precious little they could do.
We could win this, Noah thought, watching a gargoyle before him split into microwaved pieces. We could actually win this.
Hades Squad was similarly upbeat, going by their whoops and whistles.
"For once this world was Eden, and by blood it is sanctified, for the blood of the Slayer is our blood, and by mankind's fury…"
Even Chu's prayers were getting in it. For the first time in a long time – longer than he could remember - Noah allowed himself to smile. Watched a bullet tear through a gargoyle's wing, bringing it down. Bringing his foot upon the demon's head, crushing it. Just this once, he reflected. Just this once, let it be our turn to put the fear of God in them.
He didn't think demons could be afraid – if the gargoyles had fear for instance, they'd almost certainly have flown off by now. But-
"Be advised, swarm breaking off."
"Solid copy, second swarm."
He could see it through the storm. One swarm of gargoyles beating against the carrier. But from it, he could see gargoyles breaking away. The overall size of the swarm was reduced, yes, but-
"Mechs, target breakaway swarms."
But even here, he could see these swarms were different. Gargoyles among them, carrying what looked like glowing red orbs.
"Mechs, take them!"
Keen sounded desperate. The mechs pivoted. More gargoyles fell. More kept flying.
"But in the end, our souls are but vessels clad in dust, and to dust, dust must return…"
Not a good time Chu.
"…and in turn, ashes…"
"Command, be advised, the gargoyles are carrying…"
The red orbs dropped. And Noah could see what they were.
"Gore nests," the pilot of Mech 1 concluded.
Noah didn't say anything. The squad didn't say anything. Not even Chu. For a second, the whole world seemed silent as he watched the sacks of flesh descend.
Saw them land.
Saw swirling red portals open up beside them.
Please, God, no…
And out of them pour the forces of Hell.
"…and from the nest comes an egg, and from the egg comes beak and talon, hungry for the flesh of its prey…"
Someone yelled at Chu to shut up. A yell that Noah only heard because of his SQUADCOM. Because carried along the wind, like the song of sirens to a ship, were roars. Dozens. Hundreds of them. Roars from the creatures emerging from the portals. Creatures great and small, and all horrific. Creatures of fire, creatures of steel, creatures of mankind's nightmares. Some, scuttling across the dec. Others, standing as tall as the mechs themselves – a melding of flesh and steel. Most of the gargoyles had been downed, Noah reflected. But now…
"All squads, engage. Engage!"
Now the real battle was beginning.
They opened fire, yells, screams, and curses accompanying their bullets. Roaring, screeching, the demons added their voices to the discordant symphony. Some of them lumbering towards the troopers, letting out lobs of flame. Others, bounding across the deck, unable to contain their frenzy. The larger ones, Noah noticed, trained their weapons upon the mechs. Others rushed towards the troopers. And some lobbed their projectiles from afar, or drifted lazily through the air, spitting fire.
There were designations for them, he knew. He'd been trained to recognize them, and respond appropriately. But here, now, it didn't matter. The world was broken. Mankind at breaking point. And be it through seeds of their triumph, or some last desperate act, Hell had come to drown the ARC. Above rising waters, bringing fire down along with the rain.
One by one, the names on his HUD turned a shade of red. Names he knew he'd never remember. Names that would be forgotten – names among countless billions whose lives and souls had been taken by the invaders. He saw some writhe in agony, as flame took them. Others were ripped apart before his very eyes. Somehow, be it chance, or by divine edict, he stayed alive. As did half of his squad. Long enough for him to see what was happening.
The ARC forces could keep the demons at bay. They couldn't do that and take out the gore nests at the same time. One of their mechs was slumped over, the other missing its right arm. Demonic bodies littered the upper deck. But until something happened, they-
Portal signature detected.
A red portal on the centre of the deck – far removed from any gore nest, and one that disappeared as soon as the…thing, emerged from it. A demon, clearly. But one that Noah had never seen before.
"The fuck is that?" Kamal whispered.
He activated his HUD's magnification function, but even with that, it didn't do him much good. The creature was humanoid, yes, but so were any number of demons. Least if you defined humanoid has being two legs, two arms, one head.
"It is he," Chu whispered. "Betrayer, who betrayed those forever damned. With axe and shield, they roam, serving fallen masters. Woe is their name, and lamentation their legacy…"
Maybe Chu knew what it was. Or maybe he was talking out of his arse. But-
The thing was moving towards them. Very fast.
Extremely fast. So fast that when the word "hostile" escaped Noah's lips, the thing had closed the distance by half.
Hades Squad obliged. Bullets, plasma, rockets, they unleashed their fury upon the attacker. Behind his helmet, Noah's eyes widened as he saw it either dodge their projectiles, or reflect them with some giant red shield.
"Take it down, take it down!"
He could see it clearer now. It reminded him of a knight, or at least, how a lunatic might imagine such a warrior. Green armour covering most of its body. Withered white skin exposed elsewhere. Two horns above two red eyes, glowing the colour of blood. In one hand, a shield, in the other, an axe.
Noah saw another thing appear beside it as it continued to sprint across the deck. A spectral wolf, of some kind – least something that resembled a canine. But he barely noticed it. Because the demon had reached Hades. And it was here to do more than retrieve Persephone.
Lights blinked out on his HUD, one after another. Kamal's head was separated from his shoulders with a sweep of the creature's axe. Suradja fired a rocket at point blank range, but it impacted against the creature's shield, and her body was reduced to mush. As he continued to fire his plasma rifle, he saw the spectral creature spring upon Mugabe, hearing the man's gurgling screens as the wolf tore out his throat, silencing him forever. And Chu?
Chu's death was quick. Chu had fallen to his knees, his rifle cast aside, clutching the shells and praying. Prayer that fell silent as the creature brought his axe down.
For a moment, Chu knelt there. For a moment, he seemed fine. The moment after that, however…the two halves of Corporal Chu fell down upon the deck.
Noah kept firing. Yelling. Screaming. Weeping. Keen's voice echoed in his ears, gunfire rattled his bones, wails carried upon the wind. The creature looked at him, and brought down its axe. Be it chance, be it luck, be it fate, the axe clove his rifle in two, and cut through his chest. Noah screamed, falling down upon the deck. Wounded, yes, and he didn't need his HUD to alert him of that. But he was alive, somehow. For however long.
Portal signature detected.
He almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. But any laughter died in his throat as he saw the demon walk towards him. As its wolf came bounding up, growling, only to stop at a wave of his master's hand. Hades had been destroyed, and Cerberus was the new master…only second, apparently, to the Devil himself. Looking down on the frail creature, its red eyes sparkling with…what, he wondered? Amusement? Or, unfathomable as it was, sympathy?
"THERE WILL BE NO SALVATION FOR YOUR PEOPLE," the creature whispered, its voice tinged with sorrow as much as spite. "AS THERE WAS NONE FOR MINE."
Noah winced – the demon's voice was painful to hear. It was as if every bone in his body was home to worms, chewing through to find the marrow. Inside his helmet, he could feel his right ear bleeding. In his left…
It didn't matter. The demon brought its axe down. He closed his eyes and-
…opened them, as a single shot ran through the morning air. His eyes open, he saw the demon keel over. Its hound was gone, wisps of orange smoke drifting away in the wind. Its eyes, still red, not on him, but on something else.
Someone else. He looked behind him, following the demon's eyes…and all went silent in the world.
He had come. He was here. A man, clad in armour, walking across the deck. In his hands, a standard-issue ARC rifle. On his back, so many weapons that Noah had no idea how he could store them all. With every step, the deck vibrated. The air itself shimmered around him, as if his mere presence was bending the fabric of reality. A wave of warmth washed over Noah…not the warmth of hellfire, but something else. Something…deeper. The feeling of being at a fire…a candle against the night…a primal memory, when Man had come down from the trees, and kindled a spark, as they looked up at the night sky…
He rolled away. He doubted that either combatant cared what he thought. The way the Doom Slayer looked at the demon, the way the demon looked at him…there was something here, he realized. Something beyond any primal memory he may or may not possess.
"YOU SEEK THE FATHER," the demon whispered, and Noah winced, as with every word, his mind was assaulted by its tenor. "YOU WOULD TREAD THROUGH THE BLOOD SWAMPS AND WALK THE PATH OF THOSE BEFORE YOU."
The Slayer remained silent. Noah watched as he casually holstered his rifle, and just as casually, took out a double-barrelled shotgun. One with what looked like a hookshot, and carvings that he couldn't make out scratched along his barrel.
"BE IT MY HAND, BE IT THEIRS, YOU WILL FIND NO PEACE."
The Slayer stood there. Through the rain, Noah looked at his helmet. Unlike ARC troopers,' it wasn't polarized, and there, however faintly, he could see them. Two eyes. Human eyes.
"COME, SLAYER. LET US SEE WHOSE BLOOD IS SHED FIRST."
Eyes in which fire danced. Eyes, in which there was something Noah had never seen. Something pure…something ancient…something that in one word, he could describe as hatred.
In another, fury.
The creature lunged and its eyes flashed green, however briefly. Eyes that closed as with a single motion, the Slayer raised his shotgun, reducing the creature's head to mush. It was almost anti-climactic. But seeing the Slayer walk over, look down at the demon, its body twitching…it wasn't that, he realized. More the sense that the Slayer had done this so many times, that if the demon had ever presented a threat, that was long past. That now, it was a matter of formality.
Either way, the Slayer crushed the demon's skull with his boot. Its body stopped twitching.
"Um…" Noah put a hand to his chest – the blade had drawn only some blood, but he was finding it hard to breathe. "You-"
The Slayer sprinted off. Running across the deck like an Olympic athlete, yet at a pace that was beyond anything a mere human could accomplish. Noah watched as he ran, taking one of the many, many weapons on his back. One that glowed green, and fired a green ball down towards the demon.
Holy shit, is that a-
The green ball outpaced the Slayer, and streams of bio-energy obliterated everything they touched.
Yep, it's a BFG.
The UAC these days was less the Union Aerospace Corporation, and more the United Asshole Cult, but even then, they'd developed some pretty gear. Getting to his feet, Noah squinted through the rain. Not every demon had been obliterated by the weapon, but it didn't matter. The Slayer had closed the distance. And through the gloom, through the rain, Noah could make out his deeds.
Demons cleaved in two by a blade on his wrist. The eyes of floating demons ripped out, their blind bodies falling onto the cold steel. Giant demons that fired rockets that the Slayer grabbed in mid-air and threw back into them. A chainsaw, cleaving one demon in two, then a second, then a third, before a grapple extended from his shotgun, drawing him in close to a fourth demon that he grabbed, and ripped in two with his bear hands.
He noticed that no-one was firing. Not the troopers, not the mechs, not the auto-turrets, nothing. Even Keen wasn't giving any orders. A fear of hitting the Slayer, perhaps? Or a silent acknowledgement that he didn't need their help, or even want it? Tempting as it was to say that the Slayer was on humanity's side, Noah couldn't be sure. He'd never been seen fighting alongside ARC forces, but rather, going from battlefield to battlefield, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake before moving on.
He looked at Chu's body. Wondering what the poor bastard would have said if he'd lived long enough to see this. And what the Doom Slayer might have thought if he knew there was a chapel dedicated to him.
Hey, cheer up. We're getting a special visitor today.
Wondered if the Slayer and the dweeb's "special visitor" were one and the same. A possibility that didn't seem too unlikely right now. Was that why the demons had come, he wondered? Or was the timing coincidence?
He couldn't say. He doubted anyone could. Certainly not the demons, of which, in the span of a few minutes, were almost completely depleted. So much so that the Slayer was now casually dismantling the gore nests, and just as casually swatting demons away. Maybe it was his imagination, but the demons didn't seem to be coordinating at all. Was it because their knight in not-so-shiny armour was dead? Or something else? Terror, robbing them of their ability to fight back? More questions that he couldn't answer. That would never be answered. And as the final gore nest was torn to pieces, as Commander Keen's voice came over the radio, telling all ARC forces to stand down…
He told himself he was alright with that.
He was alive, after all.
What had followed was like a waking dream. One of many that he'd lived over the last few months.
The Slayer casually walking across the flight deck. Uncaring of those who milled around him. Continuing his path even as soldiers fell to their knees in prayer. Noah, for his part, had stayed exactly where he was – close enough to see the Slayer, far enough away that there was no chance of being noticed. To see the Slayer walk to the base of the ship's control tower, meet with members of the command crew, and enter the structure to do God knew what…if God knew at all. And frankly, he wasn't counting on it.
A medic had checked him over, eventually – so many others had got it worse than he had. A bit of bio-foam, an order to take it easy, and he was off to his new bunk. Alone. Likely unremembered, which was fine by him.
He sat on the edge of the bunk, the only source of light a single flickering bulb. The smell of sweat and tears lingered in the air – men and women had lived here. Men and women who were never coming back. Nine out of untold billions whose bodies and souls were taken by the fire. Sitting on the edge of the bunk, he looked at the two things in his hands. One, a PDA, containing the faces of those he knew he'd never see again. Faces of people under a blue sky, when the air was clear, and life was not at the mercy of those beyond. Faces that he glimpsed at every so often, but less with each passing day, for he saw them often enough in his nightmares.
In the other, a pistol. Useless against any demonic foe bar the mortally challenged. But good enough to do the job it was meant for, if it came down to it. The pistol was a potential solution to the problem the PDA represented…heck, the solution to so many problems…to the whispers in his skull, to the lack of paint on the walls. A solution that, one day, he might employ…
He put both the pistol and PDA aside and lay on the bunk.
Not today, he told himself.
Perhaps things were ending, for good or ill. Perhaps the Slayer would end the war once and for all, perhaps not. Perhaps he was a long-term visitor, or a short-term one. Either way, he, Noah Crowe, was still alive. He was alive, where if not for the Slayer, he would have long since departed this world.
He doubted the Slayer cared, but that?
That was a deed that he best not waste.
He closed his eyes, waiting for the storm to pass.
Update (7/3/21): Corrected "closed" typo.