Way back, before he found himself in a nearly demolished building, when the armed forces were still US Army special forces, National Guard heavy response, Navy SEALs, Marines, and when he still owned his gun shop, Ridley had fun shooting and blowing away the demons. He had traveled to every part of Kentucky and Tennessee, giving militia groups all the ammo and heavy firepower he could. Light machine guns to heavy turret kits that collected dust in his shop were cleaned up and brought to bear against an enemy more powerful than any air force, and more brutal than any war machine.
Now, just a short time into the war, Ridley found himself in some destroyed, burned-out communication's tower, deep behind enemy lines with nothing for company except dual handguns, an antique, E1M2 pump-action shotgun, and an old Enforcer-88 machine gun. It was all he had from his gun store, which was now a pile of rubble on some street in London, Kentucky. Crawling with ugly monsters, shitting all over its brick and concrete husk. He didn't like to think about it. Yet this was where his mind went as he watched the last crimson glimmer of a woodland sunset. A lifetime of work so quickly lost, a world gone to Hell so expediently.
That was when he saw it. A heavy force moving-in on him. It crushed trees and smashed brush below with a cacophony of splintering wood and breaking bark. It echoed through the woods as the force moved in, leaving a trail of destruction behind it.
Ridley climbed down the tower and ran in the opposite direction. He hadn't even found a good hiding spot with anything to eat or a place to sleep, let alone a place just to disappear. He wanted to disappear; right off the face of the Earth if he could. The fun of combat had long gone. The joy of fighting dissipated along with battle compatriots, eviscerated by the hordes. City after city marked off every map by red ink, then bases and forts disappeared under the weight and savagery of the demonic throngs.
The demons were so numerous and the ARC so useless that walking through the aftermath of one of their battles was like walking through a field of dead cattle. Men and women strewn about like trash along blood soaked streets as far as the eye could see. Accompanied by a stink that clawed at your throat and stayed in your lungs, burning at your soul. Nothing but the sound of thousands, if not millions, of buzzing flies. Buildings filled with the dead and flies, whistling faintly as the wind blew through broken windows. Ridley never wanted to see visceral carnage like that again, but after a short while it became same shit, different day.
The night air was crisp in his burning lungs as he ran. The godawful sound of lumber being destroyed rising up behind him. All he could see were rows of trees yet untouched by the approaching horde. Sure, he thought about standing and fighting, but what could he do? He would be more useless than any ARC soldier. Men and women trained around the world, left in their armored shells to rot, or taken away to add to the gore piles that now infested sixty-percent of the planet's surface. What could he do? He had been in this fight long enough to watch it go from a war to a slaughter.
Breaking through the treeline, Ridley found himself on a deserted road. The moon rising over an adjacent, forlorn gas station. A bright, white orb missing a chunk to first-quarter darkness. Still, the stars shined brightly and lunar light doused the world as the demons behind him approached. Tired and sweating, Ridley headed for the empty, dark station. Finding a door on the side, unlocked, he crashed inside and slid to the ground. Hiding behind a counter, he checked his weapons. The E1M2 shotgun still had shells, but he only had a few clips for his pistols and magazines for his Enforcer-88.
He held the rifle tight, close to his face as the familiar hellish sounds came. The growls of imps and hell knights, the grumbles of cacodemons and mancubi, the hisses of prowlers and revenants, the clicking of arachnatrons and dread knights. Ridley gripped his gun as he whispered, "Jesus Christ! Its a whole legion!"
Carefully hazarding a glace, he peered out over the counter and saw the night fill with the red glow of Hell's thralls. At least a hundred or more demons swarmed over the station. He instantly slid down with a whimper as inside it lit-up neon red. The roof echoed out with the patter of imps and prowlers, sounding like rain. Mechanical sounds came from both sides as he watched those spider bastards and machine-like inhumans pass by. They were on their way to destroy more poor, helpless souls. Ridley remembered a time when he would stand with those souls, ready to defend some random piece of land and all that stood on it. Where was he now? Cowering in some forgotten gas station, reading that chips were on sale $3.25 a bag.
When the luminescence of Hell passed, Ridley stood up and looked around for any stragglers. There were usually the biggest and baddest. He was not wrong.
Suddenly the front of the station crumbled as a giant mechanical hoof stomped through the roof. Ridley ran out of the station, going out the same door he came in, and saw a tyrant. It locked its deadly crimson beams on him and aimed its rocket hand.
"Oh fuc –"
Several rockets came right for him. Ridley ran for cover, nearly being blown to pieces as explosions quaked the ground. Tremendous heat enveloped him as he turned and fired his shotgun at the monstrous creature, shooting through the wall of flames. The shots did little to the monster monolith, if anything. The gas station began to disappear as Ridley outran the beast. A torrent of fire and rockets followed him as he headed back into the woods. The problem was that the giant demon seemed to be herding him right towards its smaller compatriots.
Crossing the treeline, Ridley rushed through the greenery, trying to find his way to anywhere he could hide. What he came upon was more than he wanted. A demon infested town. Stopping just shy of a ravine, he looked down at the town engulfed by the hellion hordes. There were some people, but a scant few being slaughtered. He saw a woman with her baby in hand thrown to the ground and torn to pieces. Three men were backed up against a house, overwhelmed by imps. A truck raced through the streets with a posse of gun-totting, howling men, but was flipped over by an arachnatron that melted the vehicle with a single, blue plasma blast. Cacodemons flew above the town supported by several dread knight battalions below that patrolled the roads, searching for stragglers.
"God!" Ridley said.
Several loud snaps came from behind him as the tyrant was still hunting him down. He had no choice but to slip into the town. He skated down the side of the ravine onto a road on the outskirts of the besieged hamlet. A white sign stood next to him with a quaint house on it, reading:
Welcome To Gatlin.
Come for the food, stay for the people.
"Gatlin?" Ridley said, wondering where he had heard the name before.
No time to think about that as the tyrant had made it to the cliff side. It was looking for him.
Ridley ran into the first house he could and took cover behind a couch in the living room. The front door hung open and the house had already been filled with Hell creep. The red, living gore was all over the floor, clawed up the walls, and clung to the ceiling. At least two, man-sized bulbs dangled down near Ridley as it pulsed at his presence. Ridley swallowed hard in disgust and tried to stay down. It was hard though with that red muck all around him. A few hell knights tromped past a bay window in front of the couch, followed by a pain elemental and lost souls. Again, Ridley tried to stay down and was looking for an opening to head outside. He wondered if he should though with the streets so heavily guarded.
Screams echoed in the dark. A shrill of bloodcurdling terror ripped through his ears as he damned himself for being a coward. Clutching his shotgun gave him little comfort. That was when the front door to the house burst open and a small asian girl holding a doll cried out, "Help!"
Ridley stayed hidden.
"Please, is there anybody left alive?!" she called.
Several lost souls followed her, charging in. She screamed as Ridley stood up with a loud, "God damn it!" He blew them away and cocked the E1M2 shotgun with anger. This was it. He was exposed now. He couldn't hide anymore. It was a matter of time before he was dead.
The girl looked at him and smiled. She went to run for him, but he pointed the shotgun at her. "Don't," he told her.
She stopped and cocked her head with tears. "Why not?" She held her doll close.
Loading the magazine tube with shells, Ridley told her, "Because I said so, that's why."
Another patrol went by as Ridley grabbed the kid and hauled her down behind the couch. Face-to-face with her, Ridley sneered, asking quietly, "What's your name?"
"Nikko," she said.
"Where's your parents?"
Ridley should have figured that out. "Anyone left to take care of you?"
Nikko looked at him angrily. "You think I would be running around, calling for somebody if I had anybody to do that?"
Again, Ridley should have figured that. "Well, Nikko, do you know a way out of town?"
A thunderous quake shook the house. It rocked the foundation of the house and made the two fall to the ground. Outside, one of the dread knights stopped and turned.
"Shit," Ridley said.
"What?" Nikko asked.
"That fu… that tyrant is still after me."
"A tyrant? What's that?"
Taking up his E-88 assault rifle, Ridley said, "You really don't want to know."
Nikko looked around and then said, "This is Parsin's house."
"Mr. Parsin. He was one of my teachers in fourth grade. Learned about history from him."
"Is he still alive?"
"I don't know. They just came in and killed everyone."
Looking around, Ridley said, "Yeah, that's how it always goes."
"Don't suppose you came here to save us?"
Ridley looked at her with a sideways glare. "Do I look like the cavalry?"
"Sort of," Nikko said.
"Well," Ridley said with a sardonic laugh, "I'm not."
"You have guns," Nikko said.
"So… that means you have a fighting chance. Most don't have that."
"ARC soldiers had guns, too."
"They had all kinds of weapons. None of it seemed to work."
"That's what I'm telling you. Nothing special about me, squirt."
Nikko sneered. "Yes there is."
More quakes came. The whole city shook as the tyrant searched for Ridley. Thud after thud rumbled through the dissected city. Titanic footfalls that jolted furniture and cracked walls.
"We have to go!" Nikko hissed.
Ridley couldn't agree more. The couch wasn't good cover anyway. Shifting sideways, Ridley scanned the front door with his rifle and said, "Alright, coast is clear. I'd say we've got about another… ten minutes before another patrol."
"I think I know where we can go,' Nikko asked.
Ridley nodded his head. "Alright, lead on."
"Well, come on!" Nikko blurted as she rushed out the front door.
Ridley called after her, but it was too late by then. She was out in the street, looking around for another safe spot. She ran across a lawn and into a backyard. She slipped under some swings and snuck past a tree. Ridley groaned and ran out into the street as well. He followed the kid, telling her as quietly as he could, "Nikko slow down, will ya!"
As the two ran across the suburban sprawl, Ridley noticed more Hell creep. He knew they were heading deeper into enemy territory, not away. He would have told Nikko this, but she was too far ahead and didn't seem to want to listen. The only thing Ridley could do was keep running.
It wasn't until they arrived at a large building surrounded by creep that Nikko stopped. Ridley was bit out of breath, but manged to hiss out, "What?! What is this?!"
Nikko stood in still silence. She cocked her head and her mouth stretched into a frown. She whimpered out, "My school."
"School?" Ridley asked.
Behind them came a patrol. Hell knights and dread knights. They stomped in almost unison as the headed right for the school.
Ridley bemoaned, "Crap. Come on, if we're going in, we have to right now!"
She whimpered, "We can't. It's got that stuff all over it."
Two of the hell knights caught sight of them, roaring with a visceral call out. The sound was horrifying to both Nikko and Ridley.
"Why did you bring us here, stupid girl, if we can't get in?! There has to be a way in!"
Nikko was quiet for a second. She seemed like the insult had really hurt her.
Ridley watched the hell knights head right for them, firing his rifle at the brutish demons. "Come on, kid, I'm sorry. Just get us the hell out of here!"
She sadly said, "Okay, follow me."
"Well, come on!" Ridley said.
The two scrambled to the back of the building and the demon patrol was on them. Nikko slipped down, past some yellow lines in the parking lot, and ran into a tunnel-like area that led to a glass door. On the glass door where several, different colored papers telling of school programs that never happened. What wasn't on the door was creep. A back door that Nikko had an ID card to open. "Come on!" she ordered Ridley.
Entering reluctantly, the both of them watched the hell knights go past the door and out of sight along with their dread knight counterparts.
Inside the school, Nikko tugged on Ridley's arm, telling him, "I left them in the cafeteria."
"What? Who?" Ridley asked.
"I hope they're in the cafeteria, like I told them to be. They don't listen sometimes."
What is she going on about? Ridley thought. His first thought was that maybe she had saved some people from town and they were in the cafeteria. Not by the way she had first spoke about "them" though. "Leaving them in the cafeteria" sounded more like its – not thems.
Going up several small stairs, they round two corners and entered a large cafeteria. Larger than what a simple town school should have. The first thing that hit Ridley was the smell. It was a strong aroma he had hardly smelled before. However, he did recognize it from somewhere. The other was a sound – a crying sound. Ridley's jaw dropped. At least twenty or more small, clear beds were scattered about with babies in them. Pink blankets, blue blankets, and some that didn't have beds, but were sleeping in milk crates that were stuffed with blankets and coats.
Nikko told him, "I had to use what I could. The hospital didn't have enough beds for all of them. The hospital was the first thing hit by the demons and the looters that came next. I had to save them. I think the demons came for them, trying to kill them. Not sure why."
Ridley circled the beds as the girl spoke, touching each small human as he went by. Only some of them were crying. Most were silently sleeping with their tiny hands and eyes clenched. The crate babies seemed the most relaxed and undisturbed. He could confirm that when the hordes first attacked that they did go after hospitals first. They ate babies, slaughtered the infirm, and eviscerated the sickly. He had seen their carnage nearly first-hand, killing a few demons in the NICU in a few towns.
"How did you save all these little guys?" Ridley asked.
Nikko shrugged as she held one of the infant's hands. "One at a time. The demons have been here for a long time. They killed all the kids in these beds before. All the babies that were in these beds before. These guys came from the adults who were still fighting. I saved them when the demons killed their parents."
"So," Ridley began, "there's not a single adult left?"
Nikko's eyes became glossy. Hurt and pain filled them as she looked at Ridley, shaking her head. "I haven't seen any in a month."
Now thinking about how she had stayed alive, Ridley asked, "Nikko, how have you survived, and kept them alive, too?"
Tapping on the slim edge of the cradle, Nikko walked away from Ridley and into the kitchen, telling him, "It wasn't easy." Again, another familiar aroma hit Ridley's nose as he followed her. The smell of rotten food. All around him were pots and pans loaded with curdled milk and white scum. In a corner was a large pile of dirty diapers and Ridley gagged. Nikko told him, "You get used to it after awhile."
Suddenly, there was a loud crash. All of the babies cried out in unison.
Nikko rushed towards the cafeteria, but she was grabbed by Ridley and held down behind the serving station by his strong hands. She tried to fight, but he was too strong and had his hand firmly around her mouth.
Meanwhile, Ridley looked up over the serving station and saw several beds knocked over with three whiplashes coming into the cafeteria. They had their whips at their sides and seemed to be looking for something – or someone.
Another crash and the cries became deafening. Ridley could hear those whips slashing and zipping about. He heard wet splashes of blood as the cafeteria was being turned into a slaughterhouse. Finally letting go of Nikko, Ridley armed himself with his E-88 assault rifle. Nikko tried to run for the children, but she felt a hard hit to her head and fell down, unconscious.