Earlier this year, I won Honorable Mention in the Writer's Digest Horror contest, judged by Joe R. Lansdale. It's always nice when someone of note thinks your work is passable. Since the May.June 2012 issue of Writer's Digest, has come out, I can now print the story in question. I hope you enjoy it.
The chilly October air clung to Andrei Radik’s shoulders, his breath creating a small fog bank around him. He pulled his cloak’s hood closer over his face and set out for the next group.
There were about 50 of them, mostly from Western Europe and the United States, with a smattering of folks from South America - true believers all. They huddled around the front steps of the monastery, eagerly looking at Andrei.
“We have a long trek ahead of us, my friends,” Andrei said. “The roads in Turkmenistan aren’t well developed, so we’ll have to walk. I expect the journey to take several hours, and we’ll arrive near sunset.”
They nodded or murmured assent, and Andrei started down the path, a walking stick his only aid. Only years of taking religious tourists to the Darvaza Gas Crater kept him from snickering at them. However, at $200 a head, there was good money to be made.
The journey was mostly silent. Andrei could see several fingering prayer beads or muttering nervously as they got closer. Andrei had trouble understanding the superstitious hubbub since he didn’t believe in any of this himself, but he was an accomplished actor and could play the part of pious monk well.
The crater wasn’t hard to make out as dusk fell. It had been burning for years, ever since a drilling accident in the early 1970s collapsed the ground and the old Soviet Regime tried to burn the gas pocket underneath. Its pale orange glow lit up the ground like a miniature sun trying to break through the Earth.
Andrei stopped at the edge of the pit and turned to face the crowd. “This is the end of our journey – the Darvaza Gas Crater, known the world over as the Gateway to Hell. Hopefully, this is the closest any of you will ever have to get to the place of the damned.”
A few tentatively stepped forward to take pictures, while others recoiled at both the smell and the visage.
“Is it true that you’ve heard the damned screaming from within?” asked a chubby red haired woman.
“Yes,” Andrei said somberly. “Many scientific expeditions have lowered microphones into the hole and heard ghastly sounds. It’s apparent that those are the sounds of souls being tortured by Satan himself. Please listen to a copy of the recording.”
Andrei pulled out an iPod and hit play. This was always one of the parts he liked the best, where the gurgles and noises frightened folks into silence. Andrei thought the tape had been made on the set of a TV show, but they didn’t need to know that.
Once he shut off the iPod, a shivering man in a bulky sweater asked, “What temperatures have been recorded in there?”
“Thermographic imaging has shown temperatures ranging from 1800 to over 2000 degrees,” Andrei replied. “That’s the hottest recorded temperature on the planet and shows the agony that awaits those who stray from the Word.”
Many in the crowd nodded. Others just shook their heads and mumbled in sadness about the lost souls who would never know God. However, a muscular man with dark stubble and wild hair spoke from the crowd.
“Are you sure that’s the temperature of Hell?” he asked.
Andrei’s brow furrowed. He was used to the religious crowd simply gawking in wonder. “I beg your pardon?”
“How would you know the temperature of Hell unless you’d been there?”
“Of course I haven’t been there,” said Andrei. “But this is the gateway. We know that from the screams of those trapped inside.”
“You made that up,” snapped the man. “Those noises were recorded on a sound stage. They have nothing to do with the agony of the damned.”
Please don’t ruin my business, Andrei thought. Aloud, he said, “How would you know? You seem to be a skeptic who doubts our Lord.”
A pause. “Would you like to truly hear their agony?”
Andrei felt his heart flutter. “What?”
Another pause. “Would you like to see their faces as they’re twisted into all sorts of perverted shapes?”
The air ran thick with silence. Andrei figured that maybe he could reason with this skeptic and get him to stay quiet, or at least not cause Andrei to lose face – there was a lot of money at stake.
Andrei walked to the man and leaned in close. “I don’t know what you’re pulling, but these people are trying to have a moving experience, and you’re intruding on that. Please be quiet and we’ll refund half your fee.”
As the man’s voice came, Andrei felt a scorching wind against his cheek.
“You understand nothing of Hell.”
As he turned to look in the man’s eyes, Andrei drew a sharp breath. The man’s(?) teeth were bared, looking sharp and needle-like through the beatific smile. It reared back and tore a chunk from Andrei’s neck.
Andrei gurgled and collapsed. A woman screamed as the crowd began to realize what had happened. The brown sands around the crater ran red, and the demon turned to face them.
“You can stay and die now, or you can run and die later,” it growled. “But know this – we have returned to reclaim our world.” It picked up Andrei by the hair and drug him to the edge of the crater. Its voice hummed on the wind.
“In Inferno eieci te; nobis paritura mauris.”
As Andrei tumbled into the pit, his body exploded in a shower of black dust that erupted into the sky. Heat from the crater rippled into the air and a loud gong reverberated through the landscape.
Screams ran through the crowd as they broke and tore into the surrounding darkness. The demon raised its clawed hands into the air. “This is our world once again. Your pathetic and alien God has abandoned you. Witness now our wrath.”
The demon shot chains from its hands and impaled a dozen members of the group. As the rest continued to run, the demon welded his victims together into a tight ball and flung them into the smoldering crater.
“At last!” it screamed. “At last we’re free!”
The black dust rising into the sky grew thicker and oily rain began to pelt the desert. Mushrooms sprouted spontaneously across the landscape and the air shimmered with heat. The crowd’s screams continued as the demon followed the rain into the night.
Cardinal Giuseppe Rossi looked out at the Council of Bishops. His lined face had hardened in recent days as reports from Turkmenistan poured in. The head of the Roman Curia, he knew he couldn’t show fear, but it affected him just as much as it apparently did the delegation that had assembled.
“We need to take a recommendation to His Holiness,” Rossi said. “The decay surrounding Darvaza has grown and we have no way of knowing the damage until we send a team ourselves.”
The Archbishop of Paris, Julienne Dubois, said, “Our presence in Turkmenistan is limited, but every report I’ve seen talks of the demon influence spreading. I suggest we coordinate with the Russian Orthodox Church and try to form a coherent response before the situation gets out of hand.”
“It’s already out of hand,” said Salvadore Batista, Archbishop of Rio de Jeneiro. “We’ll have to call the Hunters we’ve trained and give them every tool at our disposal if we are to hold back the threat. We should also consider notifying the various governments around the world – if the situation is as extreme as reports suggest, we’ll need all the help we can get.”
“Notifying the world at this stage is premature and possibly detrimental,” said Rossi. “Knowledge of the demons could lead to societal collapse. As to the Hunters, their expertise exists mostly in the realm of supernatural creatures that have to mask themselves through humanity. With this threat being more open, I don’t know if they’ll be effective.”
“What choice is there?” asked Batista. “They may be able to buy us time to develop a better response.”
“Do the Archives have anything that could explain this?” asked Archbishop Keeler of Baltimore.
“Perhaps,” Rossi replied. “Several of the more ancient tomes speak of demons swept away by God, but they are incoherent. Etchings taken during the Crucifixion make little sense without context of the time.”
“Time isn’t a luxury we appear to possess,” said Dubois. “By some accounts, the plague is spreading 10 to 15 miles a day. The town of Darvaza has already been overrun, and only its location has kept the western media from noticing. That won’t last.”
Rossi exhaled slowly and steepled his fingers. Finally, he said, “Very well. I’ll recommend to the Pontiff that we send in an expedition of Hunters to buy us time while we scour the Archives for better insight. We will also make preparations to notify various governments in the event that becomes necessary, although I pray God we won’t need to do it – the consequences of such could forever alter our society.”
Pete Rosenberg looked through his binoculars at the town of Ghadazakh. Across the top of the buildings, flames lapped the horizon, and the screams were audible even at this distance. The figures scurrying around the town were barely visible, but it looked like someone had kicked over an anthill.
He handed the binoculars to Charles Godwin, one of the other 40 Hunters the Vatican sent. Pete couldn’t recall the last time that so many Hunters had been in one place.
“Think this is the real deal?” Pete asked.
Charles put the binoculars to his face. “I don’t know. They don’t call in such large numbers if it’s not something big.”
“They’ve never called in such large numbers,” Pete snorted.
“True. I hope our weapons will work. I’ve never taken on a demon in the open – they’ve all been in possessed bodies. I’m used to dealing with normal minions like werewolves and the like, so this is a whole new ball game.”
Pete nodded and checked the clip of silver bullets for his M4 assault rifle. It was full. He also ensured the water level in the tank of holy water on his back was full, which it was.
Charles stowed the binoculars and said, “Let’s go.”
Their group made its way down the mountain road and through an ever thickening oily rain. Pete felt like he was being caked in warm mud and kept his mouth shut so he wouldn’t swallow any. As they got closer, the screams got louder. Pete could see people running from whatever was in the town, including a woman who’d been stripped to nothing but torn underwear and was bleeding from her chest.
It didn’t take long for them to find the first demon. It was perched on top of a fountain in the city square and hurling balls of fire at people as they ran. Its needle-like teeth were evident when it smiled, and steam came from pores in its skin.
“Time to find out what effect we can have,” Pete muttered. He carefully shouldered his weapon, aimed for the thing’s chest, and pulled the trigger.
It tumbled backwards over the fountain. Pete ran through the crowd with a tube in his hand, ready to rain God’s sweet nourishment on this hated minion. It was unconscious and lay at a distorted angle as Pete showered it with holy water.
He waited for the creature to dissolve, melt away, or otherwise disappear as others he’d used this on had done. However, it simply lay motionless and dripping wet. Pete started to bend down and find out if it was dead when he felt a sharp pain in his ankles. He looked at his legs to see the demon’s claws piercing his skin. When he peered into its face, he saw something that made his heart jump even further.
It had opened its eyes and was now smiling at him.
“Surprise!” it screamed.
Pete could feel blood flowing into his shoes as the demon withdrew its claws, stood up, and picked him up by the ears. The last thing he remembered before passing out was the ashy color of its eyes.
Pete shook his head and tried to clear the fog in his brain. The room was dark except for a single candle in the far corner. There was a musty smell, and Pete felt a draft from a nearby broken window. Ropes dug into his arms and legs from the chair he was tied to. In the candlelight flickered a face from his nightmares.
The demon had needle-like teeth and stringy hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a month. It popped its knuckles and smiled, ashy coal stare forcing Pete’s eyes to try and retreat further into his head.
“Where are my friends?” Pete demanded.
“Oh, those losers you brought? Most are dead or running like scared rats. Did you really think that your little toys stood any kind of chance against us?” It chuckled. “Maybe you were able to banish us or something when we couldn’t fully present, but the landscape has changed my friend, and your superstitious nonsense no longer has an effect.”
“Others will come for me,” Pete said, a little more bravely than he felt. “Even if it’s too late for me, they’ll come for you.”
The demon’s voice was soft. “I really hope so. We need more blood to advance towards the next gate at Karymshina. Let’s be honest – Turkmenistan ain’t the best place to find sacrifice, but we didn’t get to choose the location of the first gateway, so we’ll just keep drawing you in and use your blood to fuel our assault.”
Pete shivered in a way that had nothing to do with the draft. He haltingly said, “God will stop you.”
Now the demon laughed hard and long. “God?” he spat. “You really don’t know what’s happened, do you?”
When Pete cocked his head at the demon and furrowed his brow, it continued, “You should learn what lies in the Archives of your Vatican. Our history is etched in the Grimoire of Honorius Thebes, although probably of little contextual value to you.
“This was our world long ago. We ruled the darkness, and creatures here bowed their will to us. We’d even begun evolving our own native master race until your usurper of a God threw a rock at us and killed what we’d created. Then he put you talking apes on top, and when we started showing you the way to greatness, he sent a carpenter to block our access and sealed us in the pits. But you guys proved too much for even Him.”
“What are you talking about?” Pete asked.
The demon smiled again. “He abandoned you. He finally saw that you were a useless failure and not worth His time. He wasn’t native to this world anyway, taking only what others had built. However, He’s moved on to other pursuits, cracking the door for our return, which, of course, means the end of you.”
“I don’t believe you,” Pete stammered.
“That doesn’t matter,” snickered the demon. “All that matters is the current state of affairs. We still have a vision for this world, and it only involves humanity at the edges.” It paused, firelight dancing in its eyes. “Your souls will be the fuel used in our engines to re-master Creation. Even at the maximum rate of 50,000 per day, it’ll still take us several centuries to undo the damage you’ve done to our planet. A fortunate few will be consumed quickly and their suffering will be short, but those who aren’t yet ready to burn will wait in Hell, marinating so to speak.”
It pulled out a blade from its pocket and reared back. “At least with God gone, you’ll know where your immortal soul is headed.”
Before the demon could strike, the roof exploded and a brilliant white beam of light focused on the creature. It screamed, and the demon eventually crumbled like a pile of burnt leaves. In its wake, a gentle looking man with a large forehead and shimmering white robe appeared.
The new arrival looked at Pete and smiled. “I’m Stenorius, and I’m an angel.”
Pete stared at the angel, his faith returning. “Thank God,” he breathed. “I was beginning to worry. Can you please cut me loose?”
Stenorius waved his hands and Pete was free. He wanted to rush over and hug his savior, but Stenorius held up his hand.
"Don’t thank me yet. The infestation has spread further than we thought, and there is hard work ahead.”
“What took so long?” Pete asked.
“Once God left, it took us a bit to figure out that the gateway at Darvaza had been opened, and even longer to determine the level of the demon advance.”
Pete felt his heart skip a beat. “What do you mean God left.”
Stenorius looked ashamed but finally spoke. “The demon wasn’t lying – God has become disillusioned. He’s not so cruel as to exterminate you, but he’s apathetic and no longer wants to be involved.”
“So He’s just going to let the demons take us? I thought He loved His children!”
“He does, but He doesn’t think He’s having an effect any longer, that His experiment in creating intelligent life has failed. Humanity’s actions have given Him doubts, and He thinks that by continuing His association, your spirit will infect Him further.”
"If God left us, why are you here?” Pete asked.
“We’re here because we believe that humanity still has potential, and because we believe that a full display of that potential, as evidenced in this crisis, can draw God back to you. He defeated the demons once, and He can do so again.”
“The demons mentioned something about that. What did they mean?”
Stenorius looked back at the door. “We need to go. The battle will soon be joined.”
Pete pressed. “Please. I need to know.”
Stenorius exhaled and finally said, “He’s not from your world. Your world was abandoned long ago by an unknown creator and the demons moved in. But God saw what was happening and decided to create a better place. He swept away the demons and placed Man at the top. However, despite repeated chances, you’ve strayed from what He wanted and He has decided to move on. If we can defeat the demons here, He may reconsider.”
Pete’s mind was swimming. He paused to catch his breath, but Stenorius pulled him to the door.
“We need to go. My brothers will be stronger than the enemy, but they have a great advantage of numbers. We have to seal the first gateway and prevent others from being opened. There are six remaining doors to Hell located around the world, from Toba to Yellowstone to Karymshina. If the demons reach those portals and bring in more, the game is over.”
As they got outside, Stenorius picked Pete up and they began to fly over the towns burning below and towards a set of mountains in the distance.
“Where are we going?” Pete yelled, wind rushing through his hair.
“To make our stand,” Stenorius shouted back. “We’ve picked up as many of your church’s Hunters as we could, but the towns here are lost. Once we slow them down, we can come back and re-focus on Darvaza.”
Pete waited in a rock crevasse and watched clouds roll in on the horizon. He could already see the oily rain in the valley below and the mushrooms springing up in its wake. What looked like a dust storm followed, but as it got closer, Pete saw it was thousands of demons charging.
The angels concealed themselves in rocks, clouds, even inside the Karymshina Volcano itself. As the enemy moved up the mountain pass towards their objective, the angels struck.
A sheet of lightning came down at the back of the demon’s formation. Bodies flew into the air as the enemy fell. Next, angels hidden in the clouds hurled spears, impaling hundreds. But they kept coming.
Pete stared at the demon approach, his heart plummeting at the sight of their numbers. The other Hunters had been armed with technology beyond their understanding, and Pete knew they were mostly a symbolic presence. Still, he’d take out as many as he could.
With as much strength as he could muster, Pete stood and hurled a golden spear at the approaching horde. It flew further than Pete knew he had strength for and impaled a demon through the chest. He pulled another golden pebble from the pouch Stenorius had handed him, watched it transform into another spear. Once again he hurled it again at the enemy.
However, the demon numbers were simply too great and they scampered up the sides of the mountain. Stenorius grabbed Pete by the scruff of his neck and threw him into the air where he was caught by another angel headed away from the battle.
In his head, Pete heard Stenorius say, “We’re going to collapse the volcano and try to kill as many as we can, but it’s going to take angelic sacrifice to create the necessary power. Rally your nations and prepare them to fight.”
The last thing Pete saw before Karymshina faded into the distance was a bright burst of light as the side of the mountain caved in. A moment later the sky lit up in bright orange.
The battles had been long and fierce, from Taupo in New Zealand, to Kagoshima in Japan, and across the Baekdu Mountain in China. They were always preceded by the strange oily rains and the mildew and fungus it created. Mankind rallied desperately to fight off the advance but seemed like it couldn’t even slow down the demonic horde. However, in the waning days of the campaigns, the demons just seemed to stop and melt into the Earth. Thunderous earthquakes shook the locations around the remaining gates, but the supervolcanos nearby didn’t erupt. It appeared humanity had risen to the challenge, and many dared hope that God Himself had finally interceded.
As the battles died down and the demons appeared to be gone, the Pope announced he would hold mass in St. Peter’s Square with an important message God signaled He would be sending.
The Pontiff laid the Papal Tiara on the stand in his room. He waited patiently for God to appear. A nearby stand of candles was the only light.
The Pope kneeled at his alter and prayed, and he began to hear a triumphal chorus. Soon, bright light from a source he couldn’t identify lit the Pope’s face. The light coalesced into a shimmering ball of energy, and the energy took on the shape of a kindly old man’s face.
“Souls of Man,” the light intoned. “You have fought bravely. Your reward is at hand.”
The Pope gazed into the light. “Is this the voice of God?”
“I am your Lord,” the voice said simply.
“What would you have me do Lord?”
“Draw closer,” it beckoned. “I have instructions for you. It is time we finished our work.”
The Pope gingerly approached the light and reached out his hand. He felt a gentle tug as the light leaned in close. Its breath touched the Pope’s cheek but suddenly felt like a scorching wind. When the Pope drew back, the new face he gazed into wasn’t what he expected.
“Surprise!” said the demon through needle-like teeth.
The Vatican exploded in a shower of oily black smoke, and darkness fell across the planet as the remaining gateways opened.