"Ms Rachael, we're here." A voice whispered. Rachael woke with a start, not realizing she'd fallen asleep. She gave the man who had awoken her a nod of thanks before running her hands through her short, ragged brown hair; she used to wear it long in a ponytail, but long hair was one more thing for a demon to grab ahold of, and short was easy to care for and maintain. Looking back, it felt like years since she had last seen poor Alan, the last of her old friends; he had been killed not a week later by a crab-like monstrosity. She had used her new found ability to hurl a pile of rebar at it, penetrating its black carapace and skewering it to a wall. As useful as her ability was, it scared her too; despite her concerns, she had practiced with it to learn its limitations. She wondered what evil thing lurked within her, and why it seemed to be helping her survive rather than fully possess her. She had seen many half demons killed by other survivors just for minor mutations, and she had progressed much farther down the road of change than most that were killed. She looked out the boarded window at their surroundings. Judging from the torched trees and smashed benches, they were in what used to be a park. She idly scratched at her now completely scale covered belly, and looked over the scavenging team. They were a rough grimy bunch, but over the course of two months they had formed into a pretty close group. The rest would stay on the bus, along with a few guards to help protect them. She followed the scavengers out of the bus, cradling the bolt-action hunting rifle in her arms and double checking to make sure her father's 1911 pistol was securely in its holster around her waist. Once they had determined the area was clear, the scavengers gathered around for the briefing.
"Alright everybody, here's the plan. There's a shopping center about two blocks from here; we would have pulled up right to the place if the road hadn't been blocked by cars.
So, we will have to hoof it, and bring back only what we can carry. Priorities are water and canned food, but keep your eyes out for medical supplies, clothing, survival gear and ammunition. Keep it quiet, and click your radios twice at the first sign of demons. Remember, save your ammo if you see half-bloods; they are usually not aggressive and there are bigger threats." She said, feeling very much like briefing a surgery team back when she was in the army. The group quickly checked their gear once last time before setting off down the sidewalk towards the shopping center. The destruction in cities was often worse than the outskirts, and cities were also more dangerous. Places where lots of people lived meant a potential for more demons, and for some reason, worse demons. The trip to the shopping center was quiet and uneventful, which obviously set Rachael on edge; normally there would at least be sounds of demons, their foul language causing chills to run down her spine. But they only saw the aftermath of their rampage and the marks of their new rule; skewered bodies of survivors and half bloods, skeletons and dark symbols painted in blood that hurt to look at. Rachael felt the group let out a collective sigh of relief when the shopping center came into view, with little apparent damage or desecration. They quickly entered through a side door and closed it behind them. Without any prompts the crew split into groups of two, before heading off in different directions. Rachael's partner was a younger girl, just barely in her 20's; she was a tough one, confidently clutching an AR style rifle and carrying a large rucksack on her back. The two found themselves in an electronics store, which they quickly emptied of batteries, radios, and several CD players and some music; even in these bleak times, they had to have some way to relieve stress. They quickly moved on to an outdoor outfitters and were loading up on ammo, cold weather clothing and granola bars when Rachael's radio squelched twice. Rachael and her partner quickly finished packing what they had and left the store, heading for the gathering point in the food court. They were soon joined by the other teams, and they cautiously retraced their tracks to the exit.
They might have been able to continue gathering more supplies, hopping that the demon’s didn't find them, but Rachael would rather be alive with fewer supplies than dead with a surplus. They were halfway back to the bus when the Other inside her suddenly stirred; Rachael gestured for the scavengers to take cover, which the swiftly did. Once again Rachael wondered about the Other, the being that was slowly transforming her. Whenever it stirred from it's normally unobtrusive state, something bad was nearby. Why would a demon be helping her and her crew to survive, what devious plan did it have for her? The survivors she led believed that it was just a combination of skill and luck, but she had occasionally overheard whispers of other theories, and some weren't that far off. Rachael cautiously peeked around the edge of the toppled hotdog cart she was using as cover, but couldn't see what had caused the other to stir. She motioned for one of the scavengers to follow her, and told the others to stay put, before cautiously stepping out into the open. The Other was still moving, and the farther she moved the more agitated it got. She turned to head back, not liking the situation in the least, when she heard a grinding noise from an alley off to the side. Rachael and the man with her readied their weapons and turned toward the sound. The Other was practically beating at her insides, so Rachael whispered for her partner to quickly head back for the others. Before they could turn back, the source of the grinding emerged from the shadowy alley. It stood easily 7 feet tall and had a wiry yet muscular build. Each clawed hand clutched a crude ax that it dragged on the ground, creating dual fountains of sparks and the grinding noise. Two scorpion like tails curled behind its back, ending in wicked looking stingers. It's black, craggy skin had a hellish red glow seeped out, and a pair of flaming yellow eyes blazed out of a leering skull face. Both Rachael and her partner turned and ran back towards the group, fear lending speed to their legs. The demon lashed out with one of its tails and knocked them onto the ground, and quickly advanced on them, bringing up its axes and twirling them in deadly circles. Rachael grabbed her rifle and fired, but the hasty shot went wide; her partner fired his shotgun, but the damage done was minimal. Before either of them could chamber another round, the demon stood over them; it raised its axes high and brought them down in a blur of rusty steel. Rachael raised her hands in what probably looked like a futile attempt to protect them, but the axes suddenly froze in midair, as if they had hit an invisible wall. Rachael grunted as she focused on preventing the axes from moving, but the demon's incredible strength was proving difficult to hold back. She glanced over and saw her partner staring at her with wide eyes.
"What are you waiting for?! Get the others back to the bus and get out of town! Go!" She said through gritted teeth. He nodded numbly and scrambled to his feet; she watched the others pop out of hiding and like their comrade stood and gawked at the sight of their unarmed leader holding back a demon with nothing but her hands. They quickly regained their composure and began firing at the demon rather than running; bullets peppered the demon, showering Rachael with black blood that smelled like rancid tar. It laughed as the volley did little but scratch it; while continuing to bring its axes down, it unfurled its two scorpion tail and lashed out with lightning speed. Rachael barely had time to bring her second set of arms out from under her coat to block these two extra attacks. She panted as the task of holding back both the axes and the stingers began to take a toll on her. The demon saw this and once more laughed harshly before bellowing something over its shoulder; Rachael's heart stopped when a pair of decaying dog-like things leapt out of a storefront window in a shower of broken glass and charged the scavengers; she watched helplessly as the demons tore into the humans, the streets echoing with their pained screams and panicked gunfire. It was soon over, and the now blood covered dogs padded over and sat on their haunches, watching her hungrily.
"It is over, half blood." The demon snarled. "The souls of your pitiful companions have already been claimed by Hell, there is nothing more you can accomplish by resisting." It gave a nasty sounding laugh that spewed out a cloud of burning ash. "You are a strange half blood. Such a powerful entity within you, and yet it hasn't already claimed your soul. How is this, I wonder? Perhaps I can advance the transformation, to bring about your full potential." With an inarticulate scream of rage, Rachael threw everything she had into her power, feeling the Other adding to her strength. The demons face was overtaken by surprise as it was sent stumbling backwards, crashing heavily into a derelict taxi. The two hounds hesitated for a second before pouncing, but that was all she needed. Rachael imagined their evil, diseased hearts, pumping foul blood through their bodies, then clenched two of her hands into fists. The two hounds spasmed as their hearts imploded, their bodies landing on top of Rachael in a stinky heap, instantly dead. The demon was already advancing on her, flames blazing from its body and eyes.
"Impossible! No mere human can contain and control such a powerful Underworlder like that! They would not allow themselves to be used so!" The demon spat out. Rachael was now too exhausted to move the heavy corpses with her power, so she struggled vainly to wriggle free. The demon raised one of its axes over its head, flames growing more intense. "Your time in this realm is over, half blood; Hell will consume your soul to be added to our horde!" A thundering, concussive drumbeat ripped through the air, and large chunks of the demon began blasting away, once more knocking it aside. The staccato beat continued, and Rachael recognized the sound as a .50 caliber machinegun.
The holes that had been blown out of the demon smoldered, and it fell to its knees, leaking burning blood into a glowing puddle. Rachael heard large, heavy footsteps and the humming of machinery, but couldn't see over the dead hounds. The demon, now barely smoking, coughed up a large glob of flaming blood onto the ground, it's breath ragged. There was a grey blur, and the demon was split cleanly down the middle, each half flopping to the side with a wet plop. The heavy footsteps approached her, stopping on the other side of the hounds. The weight on top of her lightened as one of the corpses was lifted off and tossed aside. Rachael had enough wiggle room to quickly hide her extra arms and make sure her tail was stowed, The last corpse was heaved off her, and Rachael got her first look at her savior. It was like something out of a sci-fi movie, or a video game; a large, mechanical suit of armor, painted blue with white stripes. In one hand it held what looked like a giant machete, while the other casually tossed the demon-dog corpse away like a piece of trash. It had a helmet with a gold face shield that was polished to a mirror sheen, showing Rachael covered in blood and ash in its reflection. The warrior offered her his free hand, which she cautiously took, her whole hand enveloped by the massive gauntlet.
"My most sincere apologies for arriving too late to save your friends. I hope their souls managed to find a way to heaven." He said, his voice sounding mechanical as it came through a speaker. The warrior used its huge blade to scratch a small upside-down star onto his chest plate, adding to a large number of stars already there; apparently noticing Rachael's curious gaze, he gestured towards the bisected demon.
"Each star marks a demon or half blood I've killed. It is part of our creed as
Hollow Men; 'If hell has no room for us, we'll make room.' Each unholy demon and damned half blood we kill leaves the world a slightly better place, and will perhaps let us pass on." Rachael felt her stomach drop at these words; if her 'savior' knew what she was, he would kill her in a heartbeat. She secretly double checked to make sure all her non-human parts were hidden. The warrior wiped his sword clean on the matted coat of one of the hounds before sheathing it and unslinging what appeared to be a modified .50 cal machine gun; in his massive hands, it looked like a normal sized rifle. "If you wish to pay last respects to your friends, do so quickly; more demons are assuredly on their way." He said gravely. She nodded and silently approached the bloody scene. Not much remained of the scavengers that was recognizable, it was just a pile of parts, destroyed supplies, and lots of blood. She reached into the grisly mess and pulled out a blood soaked Miami Dolphins hat that had all the starting players signatures on it. It had belonged to a man named Jared, and his wife was still waiting on the bus. "The bus!" With a start she realized that the bus might be under attack right now, and she turned to start running. The warrior stepped into her path, and shook his helmeted head.
"It is too late for those on the bus as well. The bus is destroyed, no one survived. I am sorry." He said sadly. Rachael stared off in the direction of the bus, a lump growing in her throat; she fell to her knees, her body beginning to be wracked by sobs as tears started trailing through the drying blood on her face. This was the third group of people she'd failed to save, and it was just too much to bear. First the Middle Eastern family she'd let die, then her patients and staff back at the clinic, and now the survivors. With a shaking hand, she drew the 1911 from its holster, flicked off the safety, and slowly brought it to the side of her head. The Other started stirring frantically, but she wasn't about to let it dictate her anymore. She didn't deserve to live after all that had happened; she couldn't help anyone, protect anyone, and soon she would be one of the things hunting and killing people. She closed her eyes and started to squeeze the trigger. A blow from the warrior's open hand knocked her over and sent the pistol flying from her grip. Rachael clutched the rapidly numbing side of her face, gawking at the warrior like a startled child.
"Coward! Do you really think suicide is an easy way out? You open your soul up to damnation and demonization, a fate far worse than the death you give yourself." He said sternly. Rachael felt all her bottled up rage bubble up and spill over; she picked up a nearby brick and heaved it at the warrior, where it clattered uselessly of his chest piece, not even scratching the paint.
"You son of a bitch! I have nothing now, nothing! I've lost two homes, my family and two sets of people who looked to me for leadership in the last 6 months! I have no home, no family, no friends, nothing but what I'm wearing! I don't care anymore, I have nothing to care for! Who are you to preach to me? You in your fancy armor, while I've had to scrap together barely enough to survive. What have you lost?" She yelled, still sobbing. The warrior froze, golden visor staring at her. He slowly knelt before her and set his machine gun on the ground, before reaching up and removing his helmet with a hiss of compressed air. Rachael's eyes widened as she saw that there was nothing inside the suit, it was entirely hollow.
"I do understand, more than you may realize. I apologize again for all that you have lost, but you are not alone in this." He said, the voice now free of the mechanical quality, yet still coming from inside the suit. "We are referred to as 'The Hollow Men' for a reason. When the world turned to madness, myself and the others in my group became prisoners in our armor. We lost all memory of who we were before, we lost the ability to sleep, eat or drink, many things most take for granted. If our armor takes too much damage, our souls are vulnerable to possession by the demons." He said, sadness creeping into his voice. He replaced his helmet, retrieved his weapon and stood up.
"Pitying ourselves helps no one. We have since dedicated our time on this world to protecting those who remain, in the hope that we help the human race survive, and prove ourselves worthy to be accepted into heaven." He once again offered her his hand.
"Come, I will take you to where it is safer. There are several towns in the badlands of North Dakota where survivors have managed to thrive, safe from the demons. They also do an excellent job of finding and eliminating half bloods. It is a long trip from here, but I swear to you I will do all in my power to protect you." Rachael accepted the offered hand and was pulled to her feet. She collected her pistol and rifle, though the stock was broken and the scope was now shattered and useless, and she had only the ammo that she carried in her satchel. Her mind returned to what the warrior had said, about the towns; if he took her there, they would assuredly find out what she was and kill her. Add in this hollow guy, who kept a tally of demons and half bloods he'd killed, and this wasn't looking good. Between the lengthening tail, spreading blue scales, and second pair of arms, it was getting harder to conceal whatever it was she was becoming.
She had to quickly think of a way out of the trip, or very likely end up dead.