Within the next month I'll be releasing my young adult post-apocalypse novel Shattered World. It'll be the first of five books in the series, with the sequels being released every four to six weeks after. [NOTE: For those who used to follow my young adult persona Josh Matthews, this is the Hell Gate saga published under my real name.] The final touches are being made to the manuscript and cover, but in the meantime I wanted to entice you with the first chapter.
The stillness belied the danger that lurked in the shadows of every alley and doorway of St. Mere Eglise. Jason McCreary found it unsettling. Most of the towns along the Normandy coast had been abandoned long ago. Animals now flourished amongst the desolation, with livestock and wildlife replacing humans. That wasn’t the case today. Even the birds had fled, plunging the town into an eerie silence that forewarned of an approaching evil.
Experience had taught Jason that when the animals fled it was to escape from Demon Spawn. He made his way along the center of Rue Eisenhower, clutching his crossbow, ready to shoot if necessary. Despite walking lightly, his footsteps echoed through town, sounding like a dinner bell for the dead. His eyes scanned the buildings. Nothing moved except overgrown grass and weeds that swayed in the wind. The same wind tousled several blond strands across his face. Jason used his free hand to push them back behind his ears.
Jason took a deep breath to calm his nerves, holding it for several seconds before exhaling. It did little good. His heart still raced and his hands trembled, knowing that at any moment something demonic could lunge out of the shadows at him. He glanced down to the werehounds that stayed close by his side. Lilith brought up Jason’s right flank. She looked like a large wolf with shiny black fur. Her head darted from side to side, seeking out anything that could be a threat. Occasionally, she glanced behind them to make certain nothing approached from their rear. Lucifer walked along on his left. He resembled a Boxer. His ears stood straight up, listening for any noise that signified danger. When Lucifer saw his master staring at him, his stubby tail wagged. After the brief display of affection, he went back to prowling for Demon Spawn.
Jason sniffed the air to see if he could smell the demons. A tickle formed in the back of his throat, causing him to hack against the rear of his hand. Ever since the opening of the interdimensional portals, the air had taken on an unpleasant odor. Father Chirac referred to it as the brimstone stench of Hell. Jason had no idea what the priest meant. To him, the air smelled like the living room of his old house after his mother would build a fire in the fireplace, only mixed with the stench of rot and shit.
As he glanced from building to building, Jason chastised himself. He didn’t like being separated from the group, yet he only had himself to blame for being the point man into a potential battle royale. Yesterday, a scouting party on horseback had reported Demon Spawn moving across the countryside toward St. Mere Eglise; they had been unable to conduct a proper reconnaissance because of the approaching dusk. A search and destroy team had been sent out that morning to assess the threat and deal with it. Jason was part of that team. A mile outside of town, the team had dismounted and left their horses with a rear-guard unit so they could proceed on foot. Andre had ordered Jason to go ahead and scout the area. When Sasha had protested sending him in alone, Jason had interrupted and said he wanted to take point. He didn’t know if he had been trying to impress Andre or had been embarrassed by having Sasha fight his battles for him, not that it mattered. His stupid sixteen-year-old vanity had gotten the better of him. Now he was heading into a town probably overrun by Demon Spawn.
“And I wonder why they keep calling me Bait.”
Lucifer looked up with his soulful brown eyes and whined, sensing his discomfort. “I’m fine, boy. I need a bit more common sense than pride.” He reached down and scratched Lucifer behind the ears. His stubby tail wagged.
Jason closed his eyes and concentrated. He could sense the others following half a mile to the rear. Most of the team registered as one signature, giving off an aura of concern over not knowing what to expect. Three auras stood out. Andre and Slava, both of whom who were excited about the possibility of combat, and Sasha who was afraid. Not for herself, though. She feared for Jason’s safety. He grinned at the distant display of affection.
At the corner, the street opened. To the right sat a parking lot empty except for a few dust-covered vehicles. In the far corner of the lot sat St. Mere Eglise church, the one made famous when an American paratrooper got stuck on the belfry during the D-Day landings. He remembered seeing that in an old black-and-white war movie he watched with his dad. Red Skelton, or Buttons, or someone with a weird name like that had played the paratrooper. To the left was the Airborne Museum that commemorated the Normandy invasion. Jason veered off the street and into the outer edge of the parking lot. The werehounds stayed close.
He had approached to within twenty feet of the intersection of Rue Eisenhower and Rue de Gaulle when a single figure shambled out into the middle of the street. A flesh eater that fed off humans. These demons were slow and uncoordinated, so dealing with one or two was easy. However, a horde of flesh eaters could strip a man to the bones in minutes. Jason had seen hundreds like it during the past few months. Naked, emaciated, and with grey leathery skin dried out from the fires of the other dimension. It stumbled along, its gaze fixed on the road. The demon hadn’t noticed him yet. Jason raised the crossbow and aimed at the skull above the right ear. Lucifer growled. The noise caught the flesh eater’s attention. Its head shot up and its lifeless, cloudy eyes fixed on Jason. When its mouth dropped open, a mournful wail emanated from cracked, desiccated lips. Jason readjusted his aim and pulled the trigger. The arrow sliced through its left eye. It dropped to the ground, a final moan escaping from its lungs as its lifeforce drained from its body, creating a small eddy of blue light that twisted in the air for a moment before dissipating.
Jason reached around to pull another arrow from its quiver when the stench of decayed flesh filtered into his nose, a smell so overpowering his stomach heaved. As he swallowed back his vomit, a chorus of wails shattered the calm. A swarm of flesh eaters flowed out of Rue de Gaulle and filled the square. A fat female noticed Jason and screeched. The others turned and, spotting food, shambled towards him. At least a hundred flesh eaters emerged from the side street, all of them bearing down on Jason. Even worse, he saw four dark grey shapes darting amongst the horde. Though he couldn’t get a good view because of the other demons, he recognized the bat-like bodies and bulbous, eyeless heads with gaping mouths.
Shit! Soul vampires!
“Come on, guys!” Jason said to Lilith and Lucifer. He ran for the church. Lilith stayed close to protect her master. Lucifer defiantly barked at the approaching horde before spinning around and sprinting away.
Reaching the door to St. Mere Eglise church, Jason tried the knob. It was locked. He rammed his shoulder against the door several times. It wouldn’t budge. Placing his back against the wall, Jason scanned the area and weighed his options. Flesh eaters stretched out across the parking lot. They were still over fifty feet away and he could easily outrun them. Three of the soul vampires spread out behind the first line of flesh eaters, preparing to attack, and they would cut him down if he moved out in the open. If he stayed with his back against the church so he couldn’t be surrounded, he might have a chance. With luck, the rest of the team would reach him before the flesh eaters did.
One of the soul vampires broke through the horde in front of Jason and charged. The other two emerged thirty feet to either side. Lucifer growled at the one approaching from the left. Facing the demon, he began his metamorphosis. The fur on his back and legs receded, allowing the skin to harden into scales. Three-inch spikes tore through the muscles around his shoulders, and horns extended from behind his ears, giving his head the appearance of a bull. Lucifer’s paws lengthened several inches and his nails became talons. To Jason’s right, Lilith howled as she morphed into her demonic form. The shiny black fur stiffened like the spikes of a porcupine. The tail elongated into a five-foot appendage with a stinger on the end, much like a scorpion.
Jason heard the snapping of bone as her jaw distended and her fangs lengthened. She crouched, ready to attack.
Lucifer pounced on the soul vampire moving in on the left flank, lowering his head and ramming the demon in its abdomen. His horns tore through its leathery skin and gouged open its stomach. It screamed and fell to the ground, its skeleton-thin hands clasping the wound to hold its intestines in place. Scrambling to its feet, the soul vampire tried to get away, moving slowly because of its wound. Lucifer jumped onto its back, pinning it to the ground with his hind legs. The werehound’s front paws slashed away at its neck and head, tearing away chunks of skin and fracturing the skull. The soul vampire howled and flailed its arm to drive away the werehound, yet Lucifer kept up the assault. With one final blow, his paw crushed the skull. A pathetic mewl escaped the demon’s lips as its body went limp.
Lilith timed her attack precisely before lunging. She landed on the soul vampire’s chest and toppled it over backwards. As the two hit the ground, her jaws locked around its neck, biting through skin and muscle. The soul vampire attempted to cry out, emitting a pitiful groan through its crushed larynx. It clawed at Lilith, shredding its hands on the porcupine-like spikes. Lilith’s tail wrapped around her back and shoulder, and she plunged the stinger into the demon’s forehead, injecting it with paralyzing venom. Within seconds, every muscle in its body went numb. With a violent twist of her jaws, Lilith severed the soul vampire’s head and flung it aside. The head skipped across the parking lot.
Jason focused on the danger charging straight toward him. He aimed the crossbow at the center of its bulbous forehead and fired. Without eyes, the soul vampire’s auditory senses were highly attuned. Hearing the projectile sailing through the air, it shifted to the right. The arrow missed and landed amongst the approaching flesh eater. Jason removed another from his quiver and reloaded. The soul vampire was ten feet away. Jason didn’t have time to line up his shot. He raised the crossbow and quick fired. The arrow entered the demon’s throat and punched its way out the back of its neck, lodging in its windpipe. It stopped and gasped for air. It reached up and tried to pull out the bolt; however, the protruding tip lodged it in place. Jason loaded another arrow into the crossbow and fired point blank. The arrow sliced into the center of its eyeless skull, scrambling its brain. The soul vampire collapsed to the ground.
Jason realized how precarious his position had become. The horde of flesh eaters was closing in, with the nearest one only twenty feet away. Lucifer and Lilith fell back so as not to be eaten, the latter whining to her master to warn him about their impending doom. And where the hell is the last soul—
Jason sensed its presence closing in on his right along the front of the church. It must have circled around the parking lot while the other three distracted him. He ducked as the soul vampire lunged. It missed him. However, its hand clawed across Jason’s shoulder, causing him to drop the crossbow. The soul vampire landed five feet from Jason and spun around, reacquiring its target. Jason had only a moment to react. Reaching down, he removed the machete from the sheath strapped to his leg. The movement caught the soul vampire’s attention and it leapt. Jason rushed forward and plunged the machete into the demon’s shoulder, pushing with all his might and impaling it on the church door. He pushed the weapon deeper, lodging the blade in the wood. The soul vampire’s mouth opened, and Jason got a whiff of the acid vomit rising in its throat. He ducked a moment before it spewed the corrosive liquid. The bile splattered across the church steps, sizzling against the stone.
Jason’s crossbow sat on the ground out of reach, with the closest flesh eater ten feet beyond it. He had to take the chance. He shoved the machete into the soul vampire’s shoulder until it wouldn’t go any farther, then rushed out into the parking lot. Snatching up the crossbow, he spun around and reached for an arrow. Shit, the quiver was empty. Several arrows lay scattered around his feet. He bent over to pick one up, stood, and reloaded.
A soul curdling cry sent a chill down Jason’s spine. With an incredible effort, the soul vampire yanked itself off the door. The machete remained imbedded in the wood, carving out chunks of flesh and muscle as the demon pulled itself along the blade. Once free from the weapon, it acquired Jason’s presence and snarled. Jason fired. The arrow struck the soul vampire in its open mouth, propelling it backward until the arrowhead lodged in the door. With a final spasm, the soul vampire died, its carcass hanging limply off the bolt.
A pair of dead hands grabbed Jason from behind. Before he could react, a flesh eater bit into his shoulder. He felt its teeth grind against the bone. Jason dropped the crossbow and grabbed its head with his right hand, holding it in place to prevent the flesh eater from tearing off a piece of his shoulder.
Another pair of hands grabbed Jason. He curled his left hand into a fist and started to take a swing, pausing when he stared into Andre’s face. The Russian moved up behind them and pushed them away from the horde. When they reached the wall of the church, Andre removed a Glock 23 from his holster, placed the barrel against the flesh eater’s temple, and fired. The demon’s skull exploded. Jason felt the death grip on his shoulder loosen, and a second later the flesh eater dropped to the pavement, its lifeforce swirling into the air.
Andre shoved the teenager to the ground as gunfire erupted around him. Jason glanced up to see Gun Team 2 at the corner of the church firing their automatic weapons into the horde.
Sasha stood in front, her red hair blowing across her face. She aimed her hand-held six-barreled GAU-17A minigun at the horde of flesh eaters and squeezed the trigger. A momentary whir cut through the moaning, followed a second later by the roar of the weapon as it engaged. Sasha swept the barrel back and forth. Fifty rounds a second tore into the front line of flesh eaters, ripping them apart. Her team advanced, stepping over body parts as they waded into the swarm.
More gunfire erupted to Jason’s right. At the other corner of the church, Gun Team 3 fired into the horde, supporting Haneef as he used his own GAU-17A to decimate the flesh eater ranks. The two teams moved with precision, picking off the flanks and herding the remainder into a smaller grouping that could not withstand the massed firepower. It took only a minute for them to eliminate the horde, leaving shattered corpses and a mesmerizing blue eddy of lifeforces that shimmied over the parking lot. Silence descended across the area. Haneef stepped away from the carnage. Facing Mecca, he fell to his knees and bowed his forehead against the ground, repeating the prayer several times.
Andre grabbed Jason by the collar and yanked the teenager onto his feet. “Smart move, Bait. You put all of us in danger.”
“I had no choice,” Jason protested as he shrugged off Andre’s grip. “You couldn’t outrun them?”
Jason pointed to the carcass impaled to the church door. “There were four soul vampires amongst the flesh eaters. I wouldn’t have made it far if I had tried to run.”
Andre studied the soul vampire hanging from the arrow and moved away without responding. “Okay, people. Stay alert in case there are any more of these things in the area.”
Everyone followed the order. Andre noticed Haneef praying. “Haneef, what the hell are you doing?”
“Thanking Allah for our victory.” Haneef lifted himself off the pavement and brushed the dirt from his knees.
Andre shook his head in disgust. “We move out in three minutes.”
Sasha came over to Jason. “Don’t listen to him,” she whispered. “You did great.”
His heart skipped a beat. He wanted to say something cool, something that would impress her. He could only come up with, “Thanks.”
Lucifer and Lilith plodded up to Jason. Both animals had changed back into their animal forms. Jason crouched down to pet them. Lucifer licked his face, happy that his master was safe. Lilith sniffed Jason’s wound and whimpered.
Sasha noticed the blood on Jason’s shoulder. “Oh my God! You’re hurt!”
Jason twisted his head and saw the bite for the first time. The teeth marks were deep, and he could see bone through the gash. Thankfully, it was a clean wound, and the bleeding had slowed. Now he noticed the pain.
“It’s not that bad,” he lied. “I’ll have Doc fix me up when we get back.” Sasha spun around toward Andre. “Did you know Jason was hurt?” “Yeah. So?”
“We need to get him medical care.”
“He’ll be fine. Maybe next time the idiot will be more careful.”
Sasha started to respond. Jason placed a hand on her arm and stopped her. “It’s okay. I’ll be all right.”
“Well, you won’t be if you keep letting Andre push you around.” Sasha stormed off. For a moment, the blow to Jason’s pride hurt worse than the pain in his shoulder.
Andre shook his head, a sour expression on his face. “Let’s move out, people. I want to be well clear of this area before nightfall.”