Hundreds of tiny red scales covered the hands of the creature before me. More were visible on its face. Everything else was covered in a form-fitting and all black outfit, complete with a hood and numerous military pockets.
I studied the hand that the creature extended to me. It was a human hand, attached to a human body, just covered in tiny red… “Scales,” I said out loud, the words practically falling out of my mouth.
The creature dropped his hand. Then he fell back into his three similarly dressed companions. “I swore that was how Earthlings greeted one another!” he chuckled smoothly, “Wasn’t it in the handbook?” The creatures giggled in return. It was a sound guaranteed to haunt me for the rest of my life.
“You have scales?” someone repeated. By the time I realized it was me it was too late to take the question back.
“Yea,” the creature said, red chin held high. “They allow me to take a vacation to Mars once a year. What do your scales do?”
“Nothing, I guess… Are you my Squad of Demon Guards?” I asked, my chest fully puffed.
“Yea…” the demon puffed up his chest as well. Then he stepped forward and away from his friends “That’s us. We’re definitely demons.”
Lorelai raised an eyebrow, but I knew better than to assume a demon was up to no good. That would be racial profiling.
“Great. My name is Milton, and this is Lorelai, it’s nice to meet you.” I held out a hand. He gave a cautionary glance to the others then took it.
“Cool…” he started, “nice to meet you too. This is…” he pointed to the leftmost demon. “Demon. And this is Demon. And this is also Demon. I,” he curled a crimson finger to his chest, “am Lead Demon.”
I looked at his friends, unsure of how to proceed. Do you shake the hands of people who don’t have unique names? Is it a military thing? “There’s only four of you. Didn’t the rainbow letters say that there would be five?”
Lead Demon tisked sadly, “No, unfortunately, we just lost a…”
Another portal, just the like one from moments before, ripped open the night sky. It ejected one last demon before closing with a terrifying snap. The new Demon landed right in front of me with a thud and a cloud of dust mixed with plastic bags.
Holy shit, I thought, looking at the new demon’s boots. They were black and made from a plastic composite you could tell wouldn’t deteriorate, even if you left it in the elements for a million years. A pool of blood coalesced under them. It seemed to push and tug at the boots as if they were the sole reason that it couldn’t flow away.
A giant hand interrupted my gaze. “Hello Human, I am Leader Demon.”
I looked up to the beast that stood on the body of the previous Leader Demon. It wore the same black urban-ops outfit as the rest, except parts of his uniform were ripped. I could see it was mostly due to his massive muscles that undulated underneath, but it was clear the demon also saw some action recently. The new Leader Demon breathed heavily, the fabric of his chest making a slight zipper noise as it continued to tear with every inhale. Now knowing that it was considered rude not to shake a demon's hand when given a chance, I immediately grabbed his. His scales were hard, making his grip feel like metal that encased my entire hand.
“I am, uh. This is Lorelai, and I’m Milton,” I looked around, “Where did the other, um…”
Leader Demon saluted, then yelled, “Leader Demon ready to receive orders, sir!” The other demons snapped upright as he spoke.
I fucking saluted him back... It felt great. “Your mission is to keep Lorelai and I alive. Please patrol the area immediately and alert me of the best locations to place lethal traps.” We saluted again, and then the demon version of my old buddy Franco visibly relaxed. He reached out to shake my hand once again. Man, these guys are great.
Leader Demon about faced and the other demons saluted him. I joined Lorelai a few paces back and watched the real-life demons in awe. Leader Demon didn’t return his subordinates salutes. Instead, he stared daggers into each of them in turn. Eventually, he crouched down and grasped at the pool of blood below him. The blood raised like mercury as he stood, one end dripping from his hand and the other trickling upward, against gravity.
“ABOUT,” Leader Demon began, “FACE!”
The three minor demons turned around; then the bodybuilding demon twirled the blood in his hand. It whipped to the side, a trail of the red liquid following it. As the trail impacted the nearest abandoned car - which resulted in a loud bang and a dent - it erupted in flame. Then Leader Demon began to deal out reprimands to the back of his subordinates.
“Let’s go wait inside,” Lorelai prompted.
“Yea,” I agreed, knowing full well I didn’t have a high enough constitution to watch near-humans be tortured. The doorbell jingled behind us, and I was assaulted with the feeling that I had misplaced something. My chest tightened. “Pommy!” I yelled as I did an about-face of my own and ripped open the door before its final bell. I could see Goldrin’s back just ahead. He was sitting between the spread legs of leader demon as he worked his flaming blood whip. “Goldrin,” I whispered, not wanting to interrupt a culturally significant demon ritual. My companion couldn’t hear me. “Goldriiin,” I said a bit louder. His ears twitch and faced my direction.
“Hey,” I said, leaning forward, “I know you heard me. Let’s go.” My companion whimpered but reluctantly joined me inside. As the door closed behind us, I got an excellent idea to remove the annoying bell attached to it. As I did so, a folded piece of parchment paper fluttered inside. It gleamed a soft blue, so I picked it up and read it.
Hey dude. Hope this Demon Squad helps you get to me faster.
Peace & Love,
“Ragnaros,” I seethed.
“What?” Lorelai asked, a bit concerned. I handed her the note.
“Why did he say dude?” she asked. I shrugged. “No. Like why didn’t he say dudette? He was talking to you, specifically.”
“Oh… I don’t know.”
“And why does he want us to find him?”
“Maybe he is bored?” I offered.
She rejected, “Not likely. He is busy orchestrating the Apocalypse and the rainbow letters, remember?”
Suddenly, Leader Demon twisted and ducked through the door. Without a word, he tossed his once flaming, blood-whip to my feet. It pooled onto the floor and began to boil, eventually bubbling up to my height. The snarky demon from earlier solidified into existence before me, absent of clothing.
A red scaled hand was offered. I took it, then returned the salute that followed. “You have my deepest apologies for upsetting your chain of command,“ the demon reported, “It will never happen again, sir!”
“Good,” I said with a final nod, “I hope you learned your lesson.”
The demon turned on one heel and caught a pile of black clothes tossed by his commander. I turned around and grabbed some food. The door slammed behind the two demons a few moments later.
“Did you see it?” Lorelai asked, getting up real close to my side. My head immediately turned. Her eyes were wild.
“See what?” I asked, regretting the words even before they left my mouth. Then I did my best to block out everything she said for the next few minutes.
A few hours later, a nightmare involving Leader Demon acquiring a new companion that looked suspiciously like Goldrin caused me to wake. I sat up from the floor. Lorelai was still on Nikko’s old bed, snoring away. We decided it was best to sleep in the same room because of the strange creatures patrolling our turf. I suggested that it was probably smart to do so all the time, then she punched me and said, “No. Just until we are certain we can trust them.” I wasn’t sure why she thought sleeping in separate rooms was safer, but I didn’t push it. I saw Goldrin by my feet, so I pet him. Whispers drifted under the door with the ghetto, ‘Employees Only’ sign on it.
“C’mon man,” the snarky demon said, “If we all team up together we can take him out.”
“I don’t know,” a new voice replied. It was deep, yet unsure of itself.
“We can do fine out there on our own. We don’t even need a leader. Especially one as dumb as a spike sponge. We can try that democracy thing we read about in the Handbook for Humans.”
“Hey, hey, you need to quiet down.”
The voices died, and I eventually fell back asleep, one hand draped over Goldrin. When I woke up next - a breath of relief escaped me as I realized me companion was still by my side. I crept out of Nikko’s abandoned room and into the main Parlor.
“What the…” I whispered as my eyes fell upon something I had never seen before. Black tree bark jutted from the ground, forming a thick pillar that came up to my waist. The top of it was caved in, forming a bowl of sorts. Blood filled it. As I peeked my head over to get a better look, a white eyeball rolled to the surface. “Ah!” I screamed, stumbling back and into a chair. The blood began to boil and form the shape of a human.
“It’s rude to stare at people when they sleep ya know!” Snarky Demon complained, his upper body solidifying just enough to rise from the bowl.
“Uh, I know. I didn’t mean to stare,” I replied in wonder, “I just never seen a demon sleep before.”
“Well, now you have,” Snarky Demon said. Before I could ask how he was able to transform like that, his body melted away and dripped back into the bowl.
Life is getting real weird lately. I pulled out my exercise equipment and began to clear my mind and wake up my body. I noticed another Demon sleeping pillar at the far end of the room by the door. It was much larger than the other, so I assumed it belonged to Leader Demon. He must have set up a guard rotation. Smart. He even put himself on the same shift as Snarky Demon.
Thirty minutes into my workout, I was hyped enough to try my hands at the most challenging exercise known to man. I got down on all fours, then straightened my legs. My arms jiggled under pressure, but for once I could feel the power hidden deep inside them. I bent my elbows and descended as slowly as I could. Two quick breathes, then I pushed.
“Gggggghhhhaaaaa YESSS!” I screamed triumphantly. My body was alive and strong. My mind my was as high as the clouds above the Parlor. Nothing could stop me, not even my newfound peers of the pushup: Bruce Lee, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, and the others. The sky was-
“Hey asshole!” Lorelai shouted, “What in the world are you doing?”
“I just did a pushup!” I grinned.
“What do you mean, so?”
“I mean, everyone can do a pushup.”
Snarky Demon woke up just long enough to say, “It’s true.”
“What,” I deflected, “No they can’t. Only the most physically gifted such as myself can do it. It’s reserved for the greats so ya'll normies don't hurt yourselves.”
“How's this for a 'normie,'” she said plainly, before dropping to the floor and blowing my mind. My jaw hung slack as I counted more than thirty push ups. When Lorelai was finished, she dusted her hands off and went back to bed. What a legend. My insanely strong damage dealer came out of the back room about an hour later, holding a map in her hands.
“Look at this,” she said. It was a map of the neighborhood. A couple blocks over from our location, she circled an area in red ink. I had trouble imagining how someone so strong was able to wield a pen with such accuracy.
“A river?” I asked.
“Yea,” she sniffed me, “You need to take a bath. I could smell you from the other room.”
I pinched my graphic tee and billowed air inside, “Yea, a bath would be nice. But is it worth it risking our lives?”
“Can you smell yourself?” she asked. I gave her the same look she usually gave me. “Okay. It’s probably not worth it, but I can’t stay cooped up in here anymore. I was always kept inside when I was a kid and in college, I was too busy to travel, not that my parents would have let me, anyway” she looked me in the eyes, “I can’t just sit in here and play house with you all day. It'll kill me.”
“Yea, okay, I get it. We need to find more drinking water and see what these demons can do anyway.”
“Here,” she said, removing her necklace. “If I get into trouble, I can jump away. It's smarter for you, or even Goldrin, to have this.” I took the necklace from her hand and clasped it around my companion's neck.
"Love you," I whispered to Goldrin as he waddled off.
We walked out of the Parlor’s blue shield and down the road, surrounded by our Demon Guards. I found myself staring at them as we walked and had to force myself to pay attention to my surroundings more than once.
“How do you kill things?” Lorelai asked Lead Demon, a greasy paper bag crunching under her feet as she walked. Eventually, it dislodged itself. I picked it up and dropped it in the next wastebin.
“We shoot things,” Lead Demon replied.
“Do guns work in this world?” I followed up. Snarky demon chuckled, but a quick look from Lead Demon shut him up.
“Lead Demon does not know,” he answered after glaring at his subordinate, “We use spikes. I think they are different than your guns, but I can't be certain.” Then he stopped the formation and barked an order in a gutteral language to Demon Two. The crimson creature spread his stance wide, then patted his hands on each of his legs. His arms raised and something black slowly protruded from his palms. “Demon Two, fire at will.”
The black substance exploded from his hands with a hollow thunk. It was long and sharp and made from the same bark as the Demon sleeping pillars. It was clearly a material indigenous only to their people, and I had no desire to find out what it felt like. The two spikes closed the distance between the formation and the nearest Scrounger in an instant. A senior woman, who had been pulling weeds in the small patch of woods off to our right, yelped as the two spikes entered her eye sockets. Then she fell backward. I got a notification that an ally of mine defeated a Scrounger and I was awarded a small number of experience points.
"Are you're guns that like?" Leader Demon followed up. I shook my head.
“Do you ever run out of ammo?” asked Lorelai.
“No,” Lead Demon answered after starting the formation again, “not here at least.”
“So,” I started, “what’s it like where you come from?”
A scream pierced the night air before I could get my answer. It was following by another splattering of rainbow letters. This time they alerted us that the Crypts have declared war on another gang. Our demon guards stopped and formed a solid line between us and the noise. Up ahead was a four-way intersection. An empty river canal replaced the small forest to our right, and if we turned that direction at the intersection, we would have to cross over a bridge to investigate the source of the scream. I looked up and to the left.
“Let’s get on top of one of these buildings,” I commanded, “quickly.” As I started in the direction of the safer position, I felt my feet lift off the ground. “Why?” I asked, indignant.
“You said quickly, and you are slow,” Lead Demon said as he carried me into the building.
No argument there, I thought, secretly relishing the feeling of being carried like a child for the first time. Lorelai wasn’t as polite though. She squirmed and punched at Demon Three until he released her. Then her shoes sparked with color, and she rocketed into the air. My noble stead carried me up the building's stairs, quite impressively, and set me down on the roof of the brick building. I saw a wild look in Lorelai’s eyes; then her shoes lit up again. She disappeared into the night air. I yelled after her, figuring she was under the effects of some curse. She didn’t reply.
“Go after her,” I commanded as the lights of her shoes hopped from building to building on the skyline behind me. Lead Demon saluted, then pointed to Demon Two. Before he could open the metal door to the bulkhead, Lorelai came back. She landed on the edge of the building, water streaming from her eyes and her hair just as tousled as the deranged expression on her face.
“Yahoooooooooo!” She howled into the night. I tackled her.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I asked on top of her. The smile on her face died as she struggled to breath. I shifted some of my weight but kept enough to leave her pinned.
She smiled, “Milton. I am finally free.”
“You can’t be free if you're dead,” I chastised.
She shook her head, “You’re like me, Milton. Trapped.” She did her best to push me off. I let her sit up. “It took the Apocalypse for me to realize that I could just up and follow my dreams. The only things that held me back are the things that I let hold me back,” she looked at me, then to her shoes, “I admit I shouldn’t have-”
“You’re damn you shouldn’t have. You could have gotten us killed. After everything we've been through you can't lose your shit on me now.” I said, staring a hole into Lorelai’s face. A shadow passed over it. I looked up just in time to see a volley of dark spikes shoot into the sky. “Fuck, Lor. Something followed you.”
“Get back inside, now!” Lead Demon bellowed. I swung open the metal door and tossed Lorelai inside by the wrist. Above us, giant eagles soared. They left a trail of deep purple as they cut circles into the sky. Then one of them spotted me and dove. I managed to look it in the eye before turning, but something stopped me before I could get to safety. Memories flooded my mind and somewhere behind them, the noise of a shovel digging into the Earth.
“Gram,” I whispered. She was cooking me breakfast before I went off to school. I was eleven, utterly obsessed with the smell of bacon that filled the air and terrified of changing in the locker room at the gymnasium. Grandma taught me how to drape a towel over my body as I changed so no one could see it. I appreciated her advice, mostly because it was practical. Anyone else would have told me not to worry about what I looked like, and I would have ignorantly skipped off to school, only to change my clothes and get assaulted with the vilest of insults.
“Holy shit, is that an overweight whale?” someone always said.
“Milton, what is that crusty looking stuff between your fat rolls?”
“Milton, if you're going to fat you could at least be smart!”
“Milton, you're a fucking waste of space.”
Young children were the evilest of villains. But I had a savior, my Grandma. She always made things right when I came home crying, clothes torn from either the other kids or from when I rushed to fit the t-shirt over my head as they made gagging noises. She was my savior, and I killed her. Buried her in the backyard without a second thought, just because I wanted to be a hero.
“I’m not a hero,” I muttered. In fact, I was the complete opposite. I wasn’t even a good person. Sure, I didn’t like to litter, but even that was a shallow ploy to make people think I was worth a breath or two.
Negative Peer Pressure Check - Failed.
Pfft. Failure. What else is new? I thought. My body came alive with pain, but it did nothing to fill the emptiness inside me. Darkness grew over me like a weighted blanket. I grabbed at the edge of it and pulled it over the rest of my body. I can’t say exactly how long I was there for, but I was sure it wasn’t long enough. I would have stayed there, stuck in limbo, until I died, if Pommy didn’t whimper somewhere out of reach.
“Goldrin,” I said, clawing my way out of the depression. Memories of my childhood Dungeon and Dragons party, the Battle Furious Fiends, came back to me. My BFFs were the only people that ever gave me hope I could be loved by someone other than my Gram. Did she even love me? More like she was stuck with me when Mom died. A brief warmth filled my stomach as I was allowed to look on their innocent faces once again. I wanted nothing more than to roll a set of new characters and begin an adventure with them, but as I reached for the 20-sided die, it was replaced with my Grandmother’s hand. She held it there, outside her house, as I watched our warrior drive away in a moving truck. That was the last time I played a campaign with the BFFs, and it was the last time I was foolish enough to believe in the notion of being accepted.
“Pom,” I whispered, probing the air for anything physical. I couldn’t deal with the memories anymore. “I’m coming Pommy.” I stood up, my vision blurry. My companion barked from behind something, but I couldn’t find what it was. My vision flickered, and the sound of burying my Grandma threatened to flatten me again, but I resisted. Pommy was always there for me, just like Gram was. Now it was time for me to be there for him.