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Nicholas Veresk’s running gait had turned into a slow-trudging stomp, matching how his mood had gone from exhilarated and frightened to pissed-off and self-pitying.

“Fuck my life…”

Running away from home had seemed like the best possible option given his circumstances, but he’d been out wandering blindly in the dense forest for hours until he realized his parents probably wouldn’t ever care enough to look for him. Why would they decide to care now of all times? They’d been threatening to kick him out for Christ’s sake, and all he’d really done was save them the trouble.

Just as Nick was thinking of giving up and heading back to his miserable, apathetic excuse for a home, he noticed something that made him do a double-take. There were tracks left by a 4X4 vehicle of some sort in the mud in front of him, fresh ones too. This part of the woods had no good hunting seasons and was quite far from the nearest town of Alpenview. Nick figured he might as well find out where the tracks led. He had nothing else he could really do to occupy himself out here, and if he found someone with a truck maybe they’d give him a ride back and save him the long walk.

Along the way he noticed several tattered pieces of paper nailed to trees with a tall, shadowy figure scrawled on each one. He didn’t quite know what to make of that.

And then it was time for surprise number three: the tracks led to a well-worn road, albeit a dirt one. This was getting weird, no one was supposed to be out here and there was nothing of interest he was aware of in this area to attract visitors. Just as Nick realized this road must have been used very recently if the earlier tracks were any indication, he heard a muffled but harsh voice bark a single command.

“Hands in the air, bitch!”

Turning around he couldn’t help but let out an undignified little shriek. A man (to judge by the voice), was wearing a gas mask, trench coat, work boots, and for some reason rubber gloves. And he had a polymer assault rifle leveled straight at Nick.

“I said put your hands above your head or I’ll blow it off your shoulders!”

Not wishing for that to happen anytime soon, Nicholas complied without hesitation.

“Alright. Now walk in front of me and do what I say” the man mumbled through his gas mask.

After a forced march for the longest ten or so minutes of Nick’s life they arrived at the source of the earlier tracks: a black pickup truck with a machine gun of some sort mounted on a tripod in the bed. And there were more of them. Another figure dressed identically to the one from earlier was manning the weapon fitted to the vehicle, and another two were sitting in the front of the cab. Nick realized just then that they all had the same symbol present on at least one article of their clothing, and painted on the truck’s driver door as well. It was a cross with a line vertical to each point and a large “X” shape in the center.

“Everyone, this is Emmanuel reporting in.”

Nick looked over and saw the man who had taken him in was speaking into a walkie-talkie.

“Yeah, I’ve got him…yeah, come right back. Over.”

“Okay, now answer this very, very carefully” the man apparently named Emmanuel said as he turned to Nicholas.

“Y-yeah?” Nick responded with obvious trepidation.

“Are you lost or were you specifically looking for this place?”

“I ran away from home, so I’d say lost. Why? What place is this? Are you guys survivalists or something?”

“Not like I should tell you, but since you’re apparently just in way over your head I guess I can let you know. No. We’re not survivalists. We’re a cult.”

“….oh shit…” Nick had meant to say that in his head but couldn’t refrain from speaking it aloud.

Over the next few minutes the remaining two members of the search party reported back one at a time. The two others escorted Nick into the back of the truck and sat there with him, fingers on their weapons’ trigger guards as the driver gunned the engine. As they began the drive to God knew where Nick asked a question that had been bothering him.

“How did you guys find me so quick?”

“Talkative, aren’t you? Well I’ll field that one” the driver said. “We’ve got closed circuit cameras and a lot of manned sentry posts all over this place. They’re well-hidden so I’m not surprised that a random kid wasn’t able to notice them.”

The drive ended at what looked like a hunting lodge or a rich person’s secluded second house, although Nick knew it probably wasn’t either of those things.

“A’ight, here we are. Come with us inside the compound and do as you’re told. Don’t try any sudden moves unless you want to die” the figure riding shotgun said as she stepped out. Nick had always wondered why crazy pseudo-militant groups seemed to attract only a few women compared to men.

After being escorted inside, as they made their way through the halls and rooms Nick was equal parts impressed and terrified. The cult motif was definitely there, with occult symbols on tapestries and Renaissance paintings of Hell mixed in with the wine racks full of expensive red wine and a state of the art PA system blasting Hollywood Undead. There were a few other people here, mostly Caucasian and Latino men in their early twenties. That symbol on their clothes was present too, emblazoned over practically every surface, person and object.

“We’re here” the girl said as she knocked on an imposing ebony wood door at the bottom of an unnecessarily long staircase.

“Come in, my children” a voice called from inside.

The woman held the door open while Nick was escorted inside. Inside the room was exquisitely furnished; no expense or expression of impeccable taste for the finer things had been spared. And seated on a leather couch directly in front of Nicholas was the one who must have been the leader. While he would otherwise be a rather unremarkable, possibly Hispanic male in his late twenties, his smile and superior glare exuded ultimate authority. And stitched onto the left breast of his suit was the same symbol Nick had noticed so many times.

“Where are the Praetorians, Jake?” one of the characters that had been silent up to this point asked.

“They’re out securing a territory dispute. A real shame, there’s a gang war about to happen on the east side and I would have needed them there” the leader whose name was evidently Jake responded. “But we can talk about business later. You there. What’s your name?”

Realizing he had been the one addressed, Nick responded, “My name is Nicholas Veresk. I was just wandering at random around here after running away from my horrible excuses for parents. I guess I took a few wrong turns. Who are you?”

“You’re not afraid of me?” Jake was still smiling so it didn’t seem he’d been offended. More likely he was just amused.

“Not really. Even if you kill me or sacrifice me or whatever you’re just a human like me at the end of the day.”

Jake’s eyes widened with delight and one of the cultists snickered. The leader reached under his suit, producing a silver-plated Colt .45 with “King of Worms” engraved on the side in cursive. Maybe he had been offended, Nick realized. Or so he thought until Jake put the barrel to his own head and fired.

Instead of slumping dead on the sofa, two things happened that really shouldn’t have. First, Jake kept staring at Nick with that amused grin, curving his lips into an even tighter smile after apparently committing suicide. His eyes still looked alive, and he even blinked purposely. Second, instead of fragments of bone and brain matter exploding out of wound, various vermin such as maggots, tics, and locusts had emerged from the hole in his head which closed before two seconds had even passed.

“What…what-“ Nicholas stuttered.

“I am the King of Worms. I am the daemon in charge of this little extracurricular club known as the Charnel Worms, and I’m doing a fairly good job at it if you ask me. Now then, what did you have to say about me being human?”

“That was awesome.”

“Hmmm?” Nick had seemed to legitimately catch this King of Worms off-guard. His cultists seemed stunned beyond speech.

“That was fucking awesome! Can all your followers do that?!”

“No…no, they can’t. But I like your attitude. I was expecting you to turn into a gibbering wreck like, well, everyone else I’ve ever done that too.”

“Hell no, can I join you guys?” a sparkly-eyed Nick asked.

“Is this kid alright?” the one who had driven them there asked nobody in particular. Of course, the question was entirely rhetorical.

“Well I admit I wasn’t prepared to hear that” Jake asked.

“But can I? Join the Charnel Worms, I mean.”

“Tell you what, you say you ran away from home? I have a test for you to prove your loyalty” Jake said before leaning in low and whispering something in Nick’s ear.

“I’ll do it.”

“Without even a moment’s hesitation or deliberation! Incredible, I like this kid. Now listen, I’m willing to induct you as a temporary member until then and I’ll explain why. In addition to acting as a cult we also function as a street gang. I guess you could say I had some experience doing that stuff before daemonhood, and they say you should stick with what you know. A gang war is brewing and we’re staging a pre-emptive strike on a hide-out of theirs. We need every extra gun we can get. Which reminds me, weapons aren’t free. Do you have money?”

“Yeah. Before I left I stole my dad’s $1000 pay from his under-the-table job.”

“Holy fuck you’re twisted. I think you might just be my new favourite. Anyway, go see Andre upstairs, he’ll hook you up. Emmanuel, take him up there, we can give him the tour when he gets back. Assuming he’s still in one piece. The rest of you stay with me, I need some company. Redsy’s gone and wandered off again. You can wait for those two at your vehicle after we’re done chatting.”

On their way back upstairs Emmanuel spoke once they were out of earshot.

“I’m impressed, dude. I thought we’d end up burying you out back but I was dead wrong.”

“Yeah, I surprise people a lot” Nick replied noncommittally. “By the way, what were those pieces of paper in the forest I saw? A warning?”

“I guess you could say that. Not ours though. Those belong to Slender and his proxies.”

“What’s a Slender?”

“It’s just a nickname for Slenderman, an old spirit that occupies forests. The woods around Alpenview are one of them; that’s why so many kids go missing here.”

“You said Slenderman was old. How old?”

“It’s existed before the current universe was born, but that’s all I can tell you. Mainly because that’s actually all I know. Weird stuff if you ask me.”

Once they had arrived at the armory there was another character waiting for them.

“Andre, we’ve got new blood” Nick said to Andre.

“What? Really?” Andre asked.

“It’s uh, a little complicated. But he needs the requisite firearms and he’s got $1000.”

“Okay then. Don’t worry, you get a discount as a member” Andre said, turning to Nicholas. “Every Worm needs a bulletproof vest, a longarm, a sidearm, a melee weapon, an explosive, and a chemical weapon. Something for every situation, ya know. You might notice all our weaponry is Russian military surplus because-”

“Wait, a chemical weapon?”

“Yeah, we use a lot of self-produced mustard and chlorine gas bombs in altercations. That’s what our gas masks and gloves are for, that and it helps with the fumes in the drug labs.”

“I see.”

“You gotta stop being so polite, kid.”

“Sorry.”

“…never mind” Andre mumbled as he facepalmed.

After examining the stock in the armory and nearly cleaning out all of his stolen cash Nick had selected a Type IIIA bulletproof vest, an RMB-93 pump-action shotgun, an AEK-919K machine pistol, a folding combat knife, and two nail bombs and chlorine gas canisters.

As part of this generous limited-time offer he also received his Charnel Worm’s “uniform”, the familiar gas mask/trench coat/heavy boots/rubber gloves combo. He wished he had a mirror to see how cool he looked (like most teenage boys he’d thought trench coats with guns were kind of badass ever since he’d first seen The Matrix).

“Alright then, you ready to go?” Emmanuel asked him.

“Go where?” Nick wheezed as he struggled to get used to his cumbersome facial covering.

“To kill some people.”

“What, we’re doing that now?!”

“Better sooner than later. What, you never fired a gun outside Call of Duty before?” Emmanuel asked incredulously.

“No, my dad used to let me use his Remington down at the range. That’s why I picked a shotgun.”

“Then there’s no problem. Let’s get this ball rolling.”

Nicholas and Emmanuel briskly made their way outside to the same truck and group of cultists from earlier. The irony that he would be fighting next to people who had been willing to put a bullet in his head minutes earlier was not lost on Nick. After climbing into the back of the cab and pulling out along with three other off-road vehicles he thought he should make small talk.

“Is there anything you can tell me about this group? Are there any leaders aside from that Jake guy?”

“No” the woman who seemed to still favour the passenger seat answered back. “But there are two elite sort of sub-groups within the Charnel Worms. The first are the Praetorians. These are The King of Worm’s personal bodyguard although they’re occasionally used for other highly important tasks. Those dudes are the best equipped and trained of the gang. The second are the Red Painters. These are a group of skilled snipers equipped with SVDS marksman rifles; here in the Charnel Worms we don’t do drive-bys. Too much potential for retribution and unwanted collateral damage. Instead we use the Red Painters to kill high-profile targets at a distance.”

A few hours later they were in Alpenview, having split up from the other vehicles and now driving down a street that looked completely abandoned. Boarded-up windows, graffiti tags and smashed signs were in abundance in this part of the dying mining town. At last they pulled around an empty lot and the driver shut the engine off.

“A little bit of trivia for ya” one of the passengers said as they began disembarking. “We’re not all that far from the alley where Jake the human corpse turned into Jake the daemon.”

“Dare I ask?” Nick wondered. He then noticed the one who had been manning the machine gun in the bed was detaching it from the mount and fitting a bipod to it.

“You’re taking that thing with us?”

“Yep. The basic design of the PKM machine gun is over sixty years old but it’s still one of the lightest weapons in its class, you can take it anywhere. Just so you know I’ll be outside the building, so if anyone on their side exposes their face I’ll tear it straight apart.”

“Sounds, uh, sounds like a plan” Nick said clumsily. Was this whole thing really going to happen?

“Yeah, you might notice we use more tactics than holding down the trigger until the problem goes away” Emmanuel added. “If you just run around shooting in the open during a firefight, nine time out of ten you’ll die in seconds.”

“Alright guys” he said as he turned to the whole group. “Julia, me and Lyle will take the front. Nick and Parker will take the back. Matt, like you said, you’ll wait outside and provide fire support. Let’s move.”

The six cultists, Nick included, hustled through an open chain-link fence to the exposed door to the rear of the building. Matt then ran to a nearby warehouse, disappearing inside. He reappeared a minute later with his weapon deployed on an upper windowsill, giving a thumbs-up to the rest of his group.

“Alright, let’s go!” Emmanuel shouted as he and his two squadmates of sorts raced to the front of the building, and Nick followed Parker into the back entrance.

Inside the dingy former apartment complex there were only a few subtle hints that somebody was still using this structure for anything other than shelter. Candy bar wrappers and empty needles littered the floor, but more importantly shouting and the echoing stomps of feet could be heard reverberating from throughout the building. Nick tried not to think about how many of them could be in there.

After only a few seconds inside he and Parker encountered their first problem. There was a branching hallway which seemed to extend for quite some length in either direction.

“I’ll take right, you take left?” Parker asked.

“Sounds good” Nick said as he walked off, the two falling out of each other’s sight quickly.

Wandering his hallway for a short time, Nick heard whispering on the other side of an apartment door. After a moment of brainstorming he realized he had the perfect answer. He reached into the pouch on his tactical vest which was full of shells and after briefly fumbling with it, produced a mustard gas penetrator slug. He quickly racked the slide back, loaded the round, and fired it directly into the door.

The steel nose of the slug splintered through the door, choking the inside of the room with the mustard gas payload. A tank-top clad man covered in thug tattoos shouldered the door open while coughing and sneezing. Unfortunately for him, Nicholas had already racked the slide again and he fired a 3” shell of tactical buckshot at his gut. The man crumpled like a paper doll in a trash compactor as those still inside the room blindly began returning fire. What with the blood seeping from their eyes and their lungs filling with fluid from the gas, their shots were scattered and random.

Nick strode into the barebones room which seemed to be a freebasing lab. He took careful aim, racking up kill after kill until the six-shell magazine of the shotgun had run dry. One of his opponents dove behind a table full of glass beaker while firing his AKS carbine. A burst of rifle shots connected with Nick’s chest. His vest took the brunt of the impact but Nick still reeled backwards from the shock and impact of the heavy .30 caliber rounds, and he fell in a heap onto the floor. He was pretty sure at least two of his ribs had been fractured and he figured since the bullets had broken through the vest he was probably bleeding internally too.

If there was one thing Nick had learned from Hollywood though, it was that the chemicals used to freebase cocaine were highly explosive. With that in mind he drew his Kashtan and fired a clean blast at the equipment on the table in front of the wannabe gangster. The rate at which entire room went up in flames was nothing short of breathtaking, and the acrid fumes made Nick very glad he was wearing a gas mask. He crawled out of the room, hearing the agonized screams of the blazing man behind him grow less and less distinct against the growing roar of the fire.

Once back in the hall outside Nick laid down on the ground and began weighing his options. He knew had to get out, he was injured and because of years of neglect the building would probably be a flaming inferno within the hour. But before he could think of anything he was interrupted when the now barely-sane man he had set afire staggered out of the open doorway. Nick stuck his ankle out and tripped him, bringing the man’s peeling face crashing down next to his own.

Something broke in Nick when what he had done finally settled in. Confronted with this tortured, grotesque visage in front of him that was like this entirely due to his own actions, Nick realized the obvious. Instead of feeling guilty about having murdered five people and maimed another, he leaned in close to the man, pulling the hair that had melted into his scalp upwards so that he couldn’t look away.

Nick stared into the man’s terrified eyes for a good minute against the roaring backdrop of the fire. As the heat grew closer and closer to them second by second he tightened his grip, beginning to rip the hair clean out of the man’s jellied skin. Then Nick spoke at last.

“Do I scare you?”

“Well? Do I?” Nick asked again as he brought his face point-blank with the man’s terror-struck eyes.

The man just hissed and wheezed in agony as he struggled to breathe through his corroded lungs.

“Not a satisfactory answer” Nick replied as he hit the spring-release on the grip of his knife and unfolded the seven-inch blade.

Further around the bend at the end of the hallway, six other lowlifes huddled with their rifles and pistols. Smoke began trickling through the open door. Not to mention the heat from the apartment’s collapsed and smoldering facing wall was more than a little uncomfortable.

“Fuck it, we can’t stay in here forever!” one of them suddenly ranted as the smoke began to make it difficult to see.

“Wait, you here that?” another interrupted.

THUD-STOMP-THUD-STOMP-THUD-STOMP

“Hear wha-…you mean those bootsteps?” the first one asked.

“Yeah. He’s coming. It sounds like he’s dragging something.”

“Do you think we should close the door? He might-“ a third one began. He was cut off himself when the charred and severed head of their forward sentry came rolling in through the open doorframe. A dull metallic tube was lodged in its mouth.

“-what the fuck.”

Everyone was paralyzed with bewilderment for the three or so seconds it took for the nail bomb shoved into the head’s jaw to detonate. The entire room was showered with red-hot fragments of the heavy industrial nails wrapped around an explosive payload, spraying everything and everyone down with hails of lethal shrapnel. Nick momentarily strolled into the room full of shredded corpses, noting the gory mayhem he had inflicted with an appreciative nod.

On the downside, at this point Nick was incredibly lost and just hoped he could manage to make it out in time. He slammed open a weakened door to his immediate left and stepped into the new chamber. It was a relatively well-kept area that seemed to be a living space. Before Nick could ponder where the occupants were, a figure leapt out of his ambush spot in a nearby closet and tackled him to the ground. They couldn’t so much as deliver a follow-up blow before eight sharp cracks rang out and the attacker’s upper torso exploded with crimson. Shoving the fragments of the body off of him, Nick stood up and raced over to the room’s open window, waving to his savior Matt at the warehouse across the street. Matt’s machine gun had through pure luck been trained on this room from his position at a very lucky moment.

Continuing further into the deeper recesses of the apartment complex, Nick was searching furiously for a safe enough place where he could take a rest. The dull aching in his gut where he had been shot was getting much worse. While taking a nap was out of the question, if he pushed himself too hard he might black out. After a frantic search during which he began to feel like his guts would just spill out of his wound, he at last found a storage area that seemed safe.

No sooner had he sat down and propped his back to the wall Nicholas heard the distinctive ‘clack’ of an AK bolt being racked.

“Shit…” he groaned.

“Well, didn’t think you’d just give up before I even showed my face” the female gang boss with the AKM rifle laughed as she stepped out of the shadows behind a shelving unit. Just as Nick was wondering what his last words should be he noticed that one of the ratty dolls in a bin behind her seemed to be moving. The teddy bear tilted its head up coyly at last and winked at him.

“What the shit.“

“Hmm?” she asked.

“There’s something there.”

“Uh-huh.”

“No, really, there’s a living teddy bear or something behind you.”

“Do you think I’m re-“

Before she could finish the slur the bear did a little dance and Nick’s wounds closed. At the same time the exact same wounds in the exact same pattern opened up on the woman.

“WHHHHAAAA-“she choked in shock and dropped her assault weapon. Seizing the opportunity, Nick sprang up and grabbed the weapon before leveling it.

“Do I scare you?” he asked and let off a three-shot burst into her stomach at point-blank range. She fell down faster than Nick thought was possible for a human being.

“Not even a thank-you, mister?” the teddy bear asked in a peeved voice as it hopped off the shelf and sauntered over to him.

“Uh, yeah. Thanks, so what are you?”

“My name is Redsy! What’s yours, stranger?”

“Redsy, that sounds familiar…” Nick pondered.

“Speaking of familiars, did you meet Jakey, my master?”

“Wait, you’re that Redsy? You’re the familiar to the King of Worms?”

“Seems so. Look, I need to get back before this place blows and you should too. I’ll talk to later. Hope you’re still alive for it. Hey look, a distraction!” Redsy said as it pointed over Nick’s shoulder.

Falling for the old trick like he always had in school, Nick turned behind him. When he looked back the teddy bear was gone.

“Damn, this day keeps getting weirder.”

Freshly mended, Nick next came to a gate that seemed to lead to a sort of courtyard. Once he was inside the weed-ridden area though, Nick immediately realized that he was in unusual company.

Standing perfectly motionless in the exact center of the courtyard was a fair-skinned child in a dark-blue suit. A strange tattoo covered the area around his right eye and forehead, and his jet black hair was streaked with an unnatural shade of red. Even at this distance it was obvious that one of his eyes glowed white and the other one was entirely black without even a pupil. He couldn’t have been older than eleven, head cocked up precociously as if examining the sky for something expectantly.

Flanking him were two disturbingly long-limbed but muscular figures wearing prison outfits and butcher’s aprons, with some sort of metal restraint on their heads fastened on with bolts that seemed to directly impale through the skull. Each of them clutched a battered metal bar about the size and shape of a quarterstaff, and Nick assumed it was probably meant to be used as such.

“Hello, Nick.” The child didn’t even turn to face him when he spoke.

“How do you my name? What are you? And who are they?”

Now the child turned to face him, an outrageous leer painted on his face.

“Shut up. Did I give you permission to speak? No. I didn’t. You are in the presence of the Father of All Lies, you should show more respect.”

Nick vaguely recognized that title from Sunday school.

“Satan, right?”

“None other.”

One of the figures clutched its metal bar in anticipation.

“Easy there” the boy who was presumably Satan said to the figure before turning back to Nick. “Let’s size it up first and see how it reacts when I answer some of its questions. And then I’ll ask it a question of my own.”

“Sounds fair” Nick said after realizing he was “it”.

“I SAID SHUT UP! Now then, as for what you asked earlier, I’m Satan, so of course I know what your name is. It’s not hard to scan through someone’s surface thoughts and find out their name, any cut-rate telepath can do it. I’ve already told you what I am. But as for the unspoken question of why I look like a human child, the Old Ones such as myself, Slenderman, or even Yahweh tend to bear a resemblance in one way or another to the human species. I’m not quite sure why, it’s just one of those things.”

Nick had a few more questions to ask but decided against opening his mouth again.

“Speaking of my appearance, just for the record the mark on my face is in fact the exact same brand that was placed on Cain’s head. And as for them,” Satan said, gesturing to the gangly figures next to him, “they’re essentially my temporary bodyguards while I’m here. Sometimes I come to this place, this Earth, to witness certain atrocities such as this slaughter. But few see me, and none recognize me for who I am. Now, my question for you. I know you want to serve me. You joined a daemonic cult for the love of Hell. But how do you think I am best served?”

“Evil is the absence of good. Therefore I can serve you best by failing to do good” Nick responded without hesitation.

“A wonderful answer indeed” Satan the child said as he grinned viciously. “I would have settled for anything other than the pop-culture ‘lots of murder and fire and pentagrams and goats blahblah who gives a shit’. Seriously, why pentagrams? They’re don’t even have any Satanic significance, they’re actually an alchemical symbol.”

“I’ll admit, I can’t say I knew that.”

“One time I spoke with a teenager who called himself a Satanist and he was just lost. He thought I represented freedom! Fucking freedom! He thought I wanted man to be free from religion! No, I want religious men to suffer, but I also want my own followers to suffer, and mostly I want God to die. But he was just fanboying over me and told me he played all his albums backwards to listen for subliminal messages. That’s something Christians made up! No one ever did that!”

Nick noticed that Satan seemed to be getting a little off-topic.

“And I know I’m ranting now, but he tried to impress me by saying he owned the uncensored versions of Marilyn Manson CDs. Not Rob Zombie, not KoRn, but that hack Manson who got rich off MY NAME AND-sorry, sorry, I just get a little…ugh.”

“Uh, yeah, I never really got into Manson. I stuck with Megadeth.” Satan seemed to have a serious issue with wannabes.

“I’ll let that slide even though Dave Mustaine is technically a Christian. My point is that you are essentially correct. And in addition to not consuming your essence, I think I’ll give you this, should you accept it” Satan said as he reached into his left suit pocket and produced a miniscule but impeccably shiny reddish-black sphere.

“This is the inert form of a Blood Pearl” the not-so-innocent child continued. “They were a race of daemons which occupied northern Europe. That is, until they were driven to the brink of extinction and wiped from history by the early Christian missionaries who were there to convert the natives. Welcome it’s lifeblood into your own dying heart and you will become a Hybrid, a willingly possessed half-human half-daemon creature.”

“Will I get to keep my free will and personality?”

“In all honesty, not quite as you were before. But I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the changes, even the ones to your mindset. Hybrids are something much more than human. They’re eh, they’re really something else. The Charnel Worms have more than a number of them” Satan replied. He seemed anxious, obviously eager to see Nick accept or reject his offer.

After a nanosecond’s worth of hesitation Nick pressed the sphere to the center of his chest. It phased right through the fabric of his trench coat and through the damaged Kevlar vest beneath, sinking into his beating heart. There was no explosion of energy, no chorus of unearthly voices.

“So Nick, would you care to explore your newfound ability?”

Nick merely extended his palm outwards. Blood oozed from the pores of the exposed skin along his wrists and the base of his neck before dancing through the air in gravity-defying streams, up to his outstretch hand. The crimson liquid reshaped into a pentagram, which Nick clutched loosely in his grip as though it was diamond-hard.

“Impressive” Satan said in a distinctly non-impressed voice. “But like I said, pentagrams actually have nothing to do with Satanism.”

“Oh. Sorry” Nick the Hybrid said as his hand dropped and the blood reliquified, splashing upon the ground and all over his boots.

“No matter. The symbiosis was a success. No, go kill something” Satan sneered, more of a command than a request.

“Gladly” Nicholas replied as he ambled out of the courtyard and the Devil went back to staring up into the sky.

It didn’t take long before the newborn hybrid indeed found something to kill, not to mention his squadmates, all inside the complex’s basement recreational area. They were fighting several times their number in opponents and making no significant progress. Julia wasn’t quit dead but was certainly out of commission, having taken the partial payload from a Mossberg shotgun to her legs. Nick joined them in their position hunkered down behind some furniture which provided barely anything in the way of useful cover.

“Nick! Where the FUCK you been?!” Lyle bellowed as he provided suppression fire with his SMG. It seemed to Nick that the flashlight and laser sight under the barrel of Lyle’s gun had the unfortunate side effect of giving away his position through the smoke and fumes as well.

“Oh, you know…around. Don’t worry, I got this” Nick said, making every one of his comrade’s jaws collectively drop when he left cover and strode determinedly forward.

It took two seconds before he was completely riddled with gunfire. Instead of falling even a pace backwards, the spray of blood from his wounds coalesced into dozens on dozens of crimson serpents. The partially corporeal daemons whipped forwards, backwards, to the sides, outwards in every direction. They lashed at and bit into every opponent within range as Nick picked off the odd straggler with his shotgun during the chaos. All the while he repeated, “Do I scare you?” like the world’s most confusing mantra.

At last Nick released the spells and the serpents turned back to mundane blood. Nick was now standing in the centre of a blood-smeared room with his four comrades behind him and almost thirty corpses thrown about everywhere.

“Let’s head back now, shall we?” Nick spoke at last in an absurdly cheerful tone to his dumbstruck friends.

After getting out of the inferno of a building and grouping up with Matt (who kept asking why everyone was so quiet) they completed the short ride back to the compound. They were now seated in the same room Nick had been brought to initially, in front of the King of Worms. His comrades were noticeably dazed, and Nicholas was noticeably composed.

“Nick, I have a confession to make” Jake began, although it was clear he felt no remorse for whatever he was about to confess. “Redsy wasn’t missing at all, I sent him to serve as my eyes and ears. To spy on you to see if you could be trusted in other words. Considering your merciless combat tactics and the fact my master himself seems to have been impressed I see no reason not to induct you into the Praetorians. Except I would like to do even more with you. How would you like to be a proxy?”

“What’s that?”

“An executor. An enforcer, if you will. You will carry out my will and in return you will gain a portion of my power. How’s it sound?”

“Wonderful” Nicholas smiled.

“Well, then…” Jake said as he flexed his fingers in a strange pattern four times and tapped Nick thrice on each shoulder and the heart. “There. That should do it. You are no longer Nicholas Veresk, from now on your only title is A Careless Soul for your complete apathy towards your own sins. But you’re still not an official member of my gang, of course. You were only a temporary member. Will you complete the initiation we agreed on when I first met you?”

Nick’s smile turned sinister and he nodded.

Back at Nick’s house several hours later, his father was sleeping when he felt something crawling over his skin. He awoke with a jolt to see his body and sheets were covered in worms. A figure in a gas mask and trench coat was standing over his bed with a bloody knife in one hand and a gun in the other.

“MARY! THERE’S SOMEONE-“

“Mom can’t answer. Don’t worry Dad, I’ll make yours quicker” Nick said as he leveled his Kashtan machine pistol to his father’s head.

His father screamed and bolted out of bed, stumbling downstairs with impressively lightning speed. Before he could think of where his feet were taking him he raced downstairs and hid in the pantry. He realized too late that he had cornered himself.

And then he realized something else. He could hear something. Straining to see in the darkness, he could now tell that the pantry was overrun with vermin. Worms, maggots, rats, and flies crawled and slithered over every surface. He was too puzzled and horrified to even scream.

“Hello dad” Nick said as he approached the open pantry door.

“Nick? Nick, what’s the meaning of this?! NICK?!”

“You got into one of your rages and killed my brother, your own son, one day ago. That’s the meaning. That’s why I ran. And I ran all the way to Hell. Do you remember what you said to me when I came downstairs after I heard that gunshot?”

Nick locked the door to the pantry with the heavy deadbolt on the outside, and as he heard his father pound on the heavy oaken door, he whispered mockingly: “’Do I scare you?’”

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