Bryan went to the entrance, one of four. Two others joined him there and they entered and spread out to search, but haphazardly. They weren’t trained to search; they had Spotters to tell them where the threat was, they had their own demons to pinpoint danger. Here neither worked. It was like they were all groping around in the dark. But they could see the desiccated bodies crumpled at the bottoms of the stairs and gathered in the corners of classrooms. A professor’s office revealed a teacher slumped over his keyboard as if asleep. But the halls kept the most corpses, everyone having run from the classrooms and labs and offices in the panic, some halls so full they had to tiptoe around the bodies. The only sound was the crackle of the radio as people announced first floor south clear, second floor east clear. Their voices shook from the exertion of carrying their demons.
Or from fear. This is suicide.
Bryan wiped the sweat from his face with a hand. The containment fires followed him up another floor. How many more floors? Two? He wasn’t sure.
Where would it hide?
Top floor. In the lab.
He stopped. He had suddenly been so certain. His gaze fell on his bag again.
If it speaks, don’t listen to it.
Had it been a supposition from his own mind, or…
I should go look. I can handle it. It would kill Connors. I just need to use…
He glanced up the stairwell, up to the topmost floor. He couldn’t go, not yet, not on a hunch. He looked back to the level of the current floor and saw red shapes moving behind the doors and walls – demons inhabiting their current hosts. If he climbed the stairs everyone would see and demand what the hell was he doing going ahead.
But if he was a demon, wouldn’t he hide on the top floor?
But if he was a demon, why would he hide? He’d be more likely to roam the halls wherever he found himself, searching for food. Was this one really hiding? Hiding was a human concept, not a demon one. Demons didn’t consider danger, threat, the possibility of capture.
But it’s on the top floor, in the lab.
He entered the doors marked with a 4, trying to ignore the idea, but it nagged at him. He went through the rooms of the fourth floor, and then the fifth floor, automatically, his mind elsewhere. If the demon had been on either of those floors, he would have been screwed from being so distracted. But both floors were cleared and they all continued to the top floor.
They could all feel the energy of the containment fires now, focused on a smaller area, one floor. It made the demons in them restless and itchy, made them want to get the hell out of there on some instinctual level, while also being comforted by the energy. Another one of those things that only made sense when a demon was inside you.
Bryan made a beeline for the lab, knowing it was in the center and to the right, to the east. He thought briefly that he should tell the others that that’s where it is, but then thought that he might be wrong after all, what was he going on (what was he going on?), and the other rooms needed to be checked as well.
He entered the lab, the door swinging shut behind him with a click. There was destruction here, tables and stools flipped and shoved against walls, water spraying from torn basins and pooled on the floor, glass cases shattered. And blood, from bodies torn and ripped to pieces.
He reached for his radio, held it to his lips.
They’ll die too.
He heard a clatter from the far side of the room, and though the space was perhaps fifty feet between it and him it felt like miles.
They’ll die and you’ll have called them here.
He took a step forward, and then another step.
You can take it. You just need to –
If it speaks…
An animalistic growl sounded from behind a row of cases filled partially with microscopes, the majority of them broken on the floor.
His radio slipped from his hand and thumped to the floor as he reached into his bag.
You just need to use…
It slumped from around the corner, shuffling, dragging its legs. It had no color either demon or human, but its eyes burned.
…just need to use…
Bryan looked down, realizing too late what he was doing, too late to tell his hands to stop, because they were tearing the card.
The beta leapt into him, and immediately started a war with the other demon that was already in him. He screamed and fell to the ground, his mind shredding away in ribbons, his veins bursting, his heart thundering in his ears. He forgot the gamma. He had to do something with what was in him or he would be lost.
There was a deck lying on the floor, in the middle of a scattering of things that had spilled from his bag at some point. He reached out for it as if grasping for a rope to pull him out of darkness, sitting just out of reach. It was too far away. It was miles away, states, countries away. Then it was in his hand. He’d find out later that the rest of the Possesseds were called there by his scream, that someone had handed it to him. He shook the cards out of it and grasped one, crumpling it, and the lesser demon was practically thrown into it by the beta.
He grabbed more cards – a handful – but the beta would have none of it. It tore into his brain like a rat tunneling through meat, and he screamed again, had never stopped screaming, but he could hear something else over his own screams and the sick sliminess of the demon rooting in his head.
They were fighting it.
He willed himself to stop screaming, to look up. The fire was around the gamma – around Keeler, he could see now it was Keeler – but it was pushing back against it, was refusing to be captured. Connors was shouting at it, book held up like a Bible in front of a poltergeist, trying to will it into a page. But the fire was dissipating, people were taking steps back. It was winning. Soon the place would be drenched in blood.
He could end it.
Bryan embraced the demon in him, and felt part of himself slip away. He wasn’t sure what it was or whether he would ever get it back, but it didn’t matter. He stood, his legs like unruly stilts, his hands still clutching playing cards, and he looked at Keeler, at the gamma in her.
He threw fire around it, the demon he was pulling it from protesting, ripping at him again, but he felt it only from a long ways away, like sound through cotton.
He pulled it out of Keeler, and it came kicking and screaming and refused the card, entering Bryan instead.
Detached, beaten, Bryan saw the two fighting. Like they were fighting inside of someone else, he only a spectator. They clawed and bit at each other as he looked on with a trace of sadness and defeat.
He had one last ounce of strength, the strength of a child sufficient to topple building blocks. Still he used it, and pushed them. He put to his lips two playing cards, and when that didn’t work he bit them hard enough to leave indentations in the corners, in the 6 and K. Then he passed out.