The Cascade Mountains were lit by the dim, orange glare of the setting sun. The tall trees swayed with the strong winds coming from the southeast. Nolan and Fancy chose to cut through the thick forestry to avoid the main road. And now, approaching the clearing at the top of the peak, they turned to stare back at the metropolitan skyline. More streams of black, flowing smoke had started since they made it out of the city. Nolan speculated that some of those Things must’ve broken free of the barricades and made their way into the residential areas.

The end was near. He knew that now.

That’s why he had to get Fancy to safety. With ‘Hell On Earth’ just around the corner, they were going to have to find someplace out the way to hold up.

They were going to need time.

Fancy was going to need time.

As the last remnants of the sun disappeared behind the mountain range, the number of smoke streams doubled, and the glare from the fires turned the smoke to a dark orange-brown. If you listened closely, you could hear cries for help just beneath the wind.

‘Poor bastards.’ He thought.

Turning his attention away from the city below, Nolan scanned his surroundings, until his gazed fixed on the small cabin in the middle of the mountain’s clearing. He remembered the spot, from the years when he and the other neighborhood kids would spend their summers there, during the Church retreats. It was also known for being a haven when there was no other place to go.

He started to walk toward it, Fancy’s sweaty palms gripping his right, middle and fore fingers like she was holding on for dear life. He realized she was bonded to him now. Somehow, over the past couple of weeks, she began to look to him for comfort and protection. As they walked along the dirt road heading for the cabin, he intently watched his Charge, as she scurried to keep up with his long strides.

He’d been fighting his feelings for too long now.

He now had to admit she was possibly the most beautiful thing he’d ever laid his eyes on.

This must be what being a father feels like.‘ He thought to himself, grinning at times.

He knew his mission in life now. This little person relied on him for everything. And he needed to protect her. His entire life had been dedicated to destroying life. But now, his redemption was walking alongside him, in the guise of a 6-year-old girl with the potential to save or destroy the human race.

“Where are we going?” he heard a timid voice, bringing him out of his thoughts.

“What’s that, Sweetie?” he asked.

“Where are we going?” she repeated, her worried smiled staring back at him in the dim light.

“Someplace safe. But we gotta do something first, okay?”

“‘kay.” She replied as she started to skip along.

Nolan told Fancy to hide behind a nearby patch of bushes, while he checked things out. He quietly combed the exterior of the cabin, peering through every window as he went along. Inside, there were flames in the fireplace and a bottle of brandy with a snifter sitting on the kitchen table. He thought he noticed some type of movement in the shadows, but he couldn’t be sure.

He made his way to the front door and upholstered one of his Glock 26’s. Checking the magazine, he slid the clip quietly into place and released the safety. He thought about knocking first but decided the element of surprise would be better.

He looked back at the bushes and saw Fancy’s pink dress through the thick leaves. When she saw him looking back, she gave him the ‘o.k.’ signal with her fingers, a look of concern on her face.

He had to smile.

Taking a deep breath, he slowly turned the doorknob and found it to be unlocked. The door crept opened to reveal a tightly neat living area; the glare from the fireplace flickered along the walls and the ceiling. His outstretched silhouette from the moonlight covered the floor.

Reaffirming his grip on his weapon, he slowly made his way into the room. He scanned it intently, hoping his eyes would adjust to the darkness quickly. That’s when he heard the creaking footsteps coming from the kitchen. He readied himself, raising his weapon toward the kitchen door. It opened slightly; a hand wrapping around the door’s edge.

“Who’s there?” a voice called out. “I don’t want any trouble. Just take whatever you want and leave.”

Nolan tightened his trigger-finger. “Come out! Slowly!” He ordered, his voice cold and harsh.

The door opened wider and a tall trim figure stepped into the fire’s glare. The first thing Nolan noticed was the bright white collar around the man’s neck. That’s when he realized who it was.

“Father Albert,” Nolan said with a sigh of relief. “I almost shot you.”

He re-holstered his weapon.

“Nolan?” the Father said, making his way toward his brandy. “You made it. When I heard about what happened at St. Atherton’s, I thought you were”¦”

“Yeah, join the club. The others weren’t so lucky.” He propped himself up against the couch. “I’d be dead too if it weren’t for a little help.”

Father Albert was about to take his first sip from the snifter when his eyes widened in surprise.

“You mean the child? You mean she’s..”

As if on cue, Father Albert’s eyes fell on a tiny girl in the pink dress making her way through the opened door. Upon seeing the Father, she quickly ran and jumped into Nolan’s arms and wrapped hers tightly around his neck.

Nolan marveled at the old man’s animated facial expressions.

His lower lip trembled. “The.. child..”

Twenty minutes passed, and the three of them got situated in the cabin. Father Albert explained that he was the only person from the church to make it out of the city before the Military Quarantine was put in place. Fearing that Fancy had perished in the riots, he’d made his way to the cabin, hoping that any and all survivors would find their way to him. Everyone they knew; anyone that mattered, knew of the cabin and knew it would be safe for the time being.

“I watched Father Tim and Father Michael die in the fire,” Albert explained as he poured them both a cup of coffee. “Those Things barricaded the doors and forced most of the priests inside. I managed to slip out my office window before they nailed it shut. I don’t know what happened to the others.”

“Dead,” Nolan replied, his eyes locked on Albert like a hawk. “When we finally put all the pieces together, we realized what needed to be done. We knew most of us weren’t going to make it.” He smiled, almost with sinister intent, yet his eyes showed his sorrow.

Father Albert’s gaze went toward Fancy, who was sitting in the living room”¦

“¦staring nervously back at Nolan.

“I’m sorry,” Nolan said, wiping his eyes. “I’m so tired right now, I must sound like an idiot.”

“Then maybe you should rest,” Albert replied. “I can watch Fancy, while you..”

“No.” Nolan interrupted. “You need to know everything. We need to finish this now.”

“O.K.,” the Father said, taking the seat across the table. “I’m ready.”

Nolan took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes again. He was starting to see double now. It had been three days since he’d slept, and he was in no condition to protect the child. He needed to tell Father Albert everything and let the chips fall where they may.

He leaned forward to whisper, his eyes widening and squinting at the same time.

“I have a theory, Father.” He poured a double brandy. “Let me know what you think.”

“Go head”¦”

“We’re in the last days. It took me a while to accept it, but here it is.” He started to chuckle. “It also took me awhile to realize there is no Antichrist. Just like there is no 2nd coming of the Messiah. They don’t exist.” He smiled. “At least, not separately.”

Nolan turned to the little girl, silhouetted by the burning fireplace. “God’s decided to pass judgment on the Human Race. And the judge is standing in the living room.”

Father Albert’s bewildered gaze was now, more of a surprise; not of wonder, but of ‘How did he figured it out?’

“You still with me?”

“I’m listening.” Father Albert replied, his gaze sliding back and forth between the man and the girl.

“What if God’s Judgment was a test? What if he sent a literal ‘Judge‘, imbued with the same potential for good and evil as the rest of us? But she was given the power to lift the Human Race to Heaven, or damn it to Hell? What if she was to be born and live here with us, and in that time experience all that’s good and evil in us. And after that time, she’d have to make a decision.”

“She’d be the culmination of everything in us.” The Albert chimed in, now just staring at the girl. “She’d literally be Us.”

“That’s right, Father.” Nolan finished off this second brandy. “Who she’d become would the what we are; touched by the goodness in our hearts, or tainted by the darkness we also carry. She’d be Judgment Incarnate.”

Albert chuckled. “That’s a fantastic theory, Nolan.”

“It’s the only one that makes sense.”

“And where do you stand in this… Holy War, Nolan? “

“Hell if I know.” He answered with a slight chuckle. “I’m just as lost as the kid. But what I do know is that no one’s going to get their hands on her. Not with me around.”

This time, Nolan grabbed the brandy bottle and took a swig.

“Well, we can discuss this after you two get some rest.”

Father Albert began to rise from his seat. With a lightning quickness, Nolan reached across the table and grabbed the Father’s wrists; binding them to the table.

“I’m not finished,” he said with a snarl. “I need you to send a message to whoever you’re working for.”

The Father tried to free his hands, but Nolan had a firm grip.

“Tell them I don’t care if it’s Heaven or Hell. I don’t care if they have wings or horns! I won’t let anyone manipulate this kid.”

Father Albert tugged again, but Nolan pulled the Holy damn near across the table toward him.

“This girl is under my protection. And I’ll put a bullet through the head of any Deity or Demon that tries to take her away from me.” He smiled at the Father, who’s face was just inches from his own. “Where do I stand, Father? Nowhere. But I guess that’s why God chose me, right?”

“Who said He chose you?” A gargled voice came from Father Albert.

Nolan looked down at his hands just in time to see them start to singe on-top of the Father’s wrists. Flames sprang up his forearms. He jumped away from the table, fanning the 3rd-degree burns on his palms. His massive legs pushed his chair away with such force, two of the legs shattered into splinters.

It was only a fraction of a second, but Nolan saw Father Albert’s form change as he slithered away from the table and into the shadows, just beyond the reach of the fireplace’s glare. He was no longer an aging Priest. The silhouette of his posture was now upright. He could see Father Albert stood about 6 inches taller and his arms almost touched the floor.

He wasn’t a Priest.

Upon seeing the faint red glow of Albert’s eyes in his shadowed outline, Nolan knew he had to say something to break the silence, if not just stop his heart from bursting out of his chest.

“My, my, my father. What big.. red.. glowing eyes you have.”

The Albert-thing moved across the room, yet kept to the shadows. He seemed to move in blurs, almost instantaneously from side to side.

Nolan didn’t fear for himself. After all the evil he’d done in the world, he knew he’d be coming face to face with the devil sooner or later. He feared for Fancy, who stood behind him, her arms wrapped around his left thigh like a tree trunk. He looked down to calm her, expecting to see the look of fear on her face. But what he found was more of a scowl; a look of detest and anger.

“Pretty girl, pretty girl..” The Albert-thing spoke. “Pretty, pretty. Powerful pretty..”

He felt Fancy tug on his shirt.

“The bad man.” She whispered to him.

“Yeah, I figured that out.”

“Let’s hear more of your theory, Boy..”

Nolan pulled both Glocks from their shoulder holsters. “O.K.”

He gently squeezed the trigger and both semiautomatic pistols emptied into the shadowy figure standing a few yards away. He saw Father Albert’s body twitch with the impact of all twenty Teflon bullets. When the guns were empty, Nolan pressed the magazine releases and let them drop to the floor. As he took a few steps back, inserting new magazines into his guns, Father Albert slowly walked forward to match his steps.

The Demon-Thing emerged from the shadows; his form reverting back to his Priestly stature. His arms stretched out like a crucifix; Nolan saw that all twenty bullets had hit him. Bloody gaping holes were ripped through his suit.

The Thing spouted. “Did you think you would kill me.”

“Nope.” Nolan replied, as each gun’s new magazine locked into place. “I just thought it would hurt really, really bad.”

With fantastic speed, Father Albert suddenly appeared directly in front of him. The matrix suddenly popped into Nolan’s head.

He flinched.

Fancy screamed.

“You know what?” The Thing said, bringing it’s powerful arms up and out, swatting the two guns from Nolan’s grip. One went flying under the couch, the other into a dark corner.

“It did hurt, you little fuck!!!”

Nolan tried to back away, but the Father-Thing was too fast. It buried it’s talon-like claws into his should-blades, gripping them like handlebars.

It picked him up and tossed him across the room like clothes on a hanger. Nolan hit the end table, and then into the liquor cabinet. He landed head first as shards of glass rained down on him. Dazed, he opened is blurry eyes to see Fancy huddled under the dining room table. She was shaking, staring at him; willing him to stand and protect her.

He did just that.

Propping himself up on what was left of the liquor cabinet, Nolan steadied himself. He tried to wipe the blood out of his face, but realize he was just painting his self with the blood from his gaping shoulder wounds.

“You really are a silly fuck. You know that, right?” He heard Father Albert to his left. The Demon thing was pouring himself another brandy.

The snifter was stained with his blood. “We had such high hopes for you, Allen Nolan. Such high hopes..”

Nolan tried to stand on his own power, but his knees buckled. He stumbled forward and fell on the coffee table next to the couch.

“Careful.” The Thing chuckled. “We don’t want you to hurt yourself, before we kill you.”

“That’s some funny shit.” Nolan replied with a smile.

“What happened?” The thing swirled the blood-brandy in the snifter, leaning against the wall, legs crossed and arms folded. “You were on the fast track, man. We had our eyes on you.”

Nolan pulled himself up on the couch and laid on his back. He had to gain his senses if he was going to get Fancy out alive.

He glanced around the room, looking for his Glocks.

The Albert-Thing kept taunting him. “All those people you killed. Women.. Children.. You were one sick bitch. Now, you want to play this ‘Joe Hero’ bullshit? Sorry, boy… that’s not the way it works.” He slowly walked over and leaned on the couch. “You think helping keep the kid away from me is going to redeem yourself in His eyes? Sorry Partner. That ain’t the way it works.”

Nolan stared at Albert’s bloodshot eyes as he took another gulp of brandy. The left hand fidgeted along the cold wood floor, until his fingers brushed along the semiautomatic’s Black Polymer grip.

“Here’s the deal. You’re done. There’s no amount of shit you can do to change your fate. You’re ours. Whether it’s tonight, tomorrow, or ten years from now, you’re gonna be with us in the pit.”

He tossed the snifter over his shoulder, shattering it on the wall.

Nolan felt the even weight of the full-clipped Glock in his singed palm.

“But, we’re some nice motherfuckers. Tell you what.. We’re willing to spare you for tonight. I’ll dress your wounds, stock you with food and water, and you can just leave; live long enough to hide.” The Albert-Thing drew in close to him. “It doesn’t mean shit to us, of course. We’ll have you sooner or later. But you can have a few more quality years out there.”

Nolan’s finger slowly draped the safe action trigger.

“Just like that?” He answered.

“Just like that.” The Thing replied. “All you have to do..”,

Albert glared at girl under the table. “ leave us the kid.”

He heard Fancy gasp.

“Just leave her. That’s all.”

“You know I can’t do that.” His trigger hand shook.

“Are you listening?! We’re trying to help your stupid ass!” The Thing stood up again, crossing his arms with authority. “She’s not leaving this place either way. That little tasty morsel is ours to have. We can do whatever we want to her, and you can’t do a fucking thing about it. The only thing to decide is whether you die here on this couch, or out there.. some other day.”

“You sure ’bout that?” Nolan grinned.

“Positive!” The Thing replied. He wasn’t very happy with this humans defiance. “Time’s expired, boy! We want your decision now!”

Father Albert leaned into Nolan’s face.

“What’s your answer?”

Nolan swung the barrel of the Glock six inches from the Thing’s face.

“What the fuck do you think?”

He squeeze the trigger and held tight. Three Teflon’s struck Father Albert in the left eye socket and his mouth. He stumbled back with a harsh, gurgling grunt. Nolan was unfazed. He popped off two more shots that connected with Its nose and forehead.

‘Aim for the head.’ He thought to himself. ‘Stay on the head!’

Three more shots went off. The first strayed and hit the wall, while the other two caught Father Albert in the neck and chin. The Demon’s face was being mangled, but still he stood in defiance.

With his last two shots, Nolan tried to take out the other eye, in hopes of blinding the creature, but both shots were too high, and disappeared into the kitchen.

The sound of the empty clip sprang from the Glock, yet Nolan kept pulling the trigger. He watched as Father Albert gained his composure.

He stepped out of the shadows, his face a mangled mesh of flesh, bone and blood. He couldn’t tell if the Demon was smiling or not, because he didn’t have a mouth anymore.

“Wow..” The Thing gurgled. “That was some heroic shit!!!. Very ‘John Wayne‘ of you. And I like John Wayne. I have brunch with him on Tuesdays and Thursdays.. down there…”

Nolan didn’t know what to do next.

“Again, that’s some funny..”

Before he finished the sentence, Albert was on Nolan with amazing swiftness. He actually felt the backhand slap before he saw Father Albert. And by the time we realized what happened, he was flying into the dinning room wall. Disoriented, he toppled end-over-end until the wall stopped his momentum. Once again, his head slammed onto the hardwood floor.

“Daddy..” He heard a whimper from across the room.

Daddy..‘ He thought to himself. ‘She called me Daddy..

And as the Priest-Thing slowly came in his direction, all Nolan could do was stare at the beautiful little girl hunch under the table. He didn’t even notice that he was smiling at her.

“Nice grin, Bitch!” The Thing brought him back to the situation. “You’re smiling like a retard. You must’ve hit the floor real hard.”

Nolan directed his attention back to the monster.

“You wouldn’t understand if I told you.. Father.” That’s when he noticed the other Glock a few yards away from him.

And so did Father Albert.

“You won’t make it.” It said. “We’re tired of these fucking games. We gave you a chance to walk way, but you were too stupid to see a good thing.”

It grabbed a nearby chair, picked Nolan up and slammed him into it.

“No matter. We like it better this way. We were gonna kill you quick and be done with it..”

That’s when Nolan saw Fancy pulling herself from under the table; a look a pure hate in her eyes. She was fixated on Father Albert.

“But now..” The Thing turned to see what Nolan was smiling at.

He turned to see the little girl in the pink dress, standing a few yards away from him; her sweaty palms balled into fists.

“, We have a better idea.” He released Nolan and stood opposite the girl. “We think We’ll make you watch, while We kill this little bitch slowly.”

Nolan smiled. “Be my guest. I’ve been waiting for this all night.”

Albert looked back at him in curiosity.

“You’re a bad man,” Fancy said, her bottom lip trembling.

The Albert-Thing laughed. “Is that right, little God Bitch?”

Fancy nodded and huffed. “Daddy said when bad men threaten me, it’s OK to stop them.”

That’s when he saw her little deep blue eyes start to glow with a white hotness. But it wasn’t the glow that scared Albert. It was the wave of nausea that washes over him.

“You see, she doesn’t know her power, yet.” Nolan spoke with a chuckle. “She needed something really traumatic to trigger the angelic power. She needed something like someone, or something trying to hurt her best-est friend in the whole world.”

That’s when The Albert-Thing realized Its situation. The entire moments of the past hour played back in its head as it put all the pieces together.

The whole talk at the table…

The little girl constantly in eyesight ever everything…

It’s transformation and attack on Nolan…

All contrived.

All orchestrated by this.. human.

Nolan started to chuckle but had to cough from the blood in his punctured lung. “Oh.. I’m sorry. Did you actually think we came here to fight you.. one of the High Order of Demons with a couple guns and some witty banter?”

Fancy started to growl.

“You silly fuck.” Nolan smiled in the face of the demon; his teeth stained with blood.

Albert turned back toward the girl.

Nolan called to her. “Sweetie, show Father Albert what Daddy taught you.”

She nodded and then looked at the Demon. “Bye bye.”

The house shook. Not like an earthquake. The vibrations were too fast.

The Albert-Thing looked down and saw the radiant white light, similar the color of Fancy’s eyes, bleeding up through the cracks and crevasses on the wooden floor.

The demon’s black visage shattered like s glass figure. The tiny shards of darkness exploded outward in slow-motion, one by one the being’s shards were consumed by the light from below. Within moments, The Albert Thing was no more. Now the house stood quietly; only the sound of the crackling fire from the fireplace was present.

Fancy dropped to her bare knees. Her little face was drenched in sweat.

“That hurt,” she spoke, rapidly huffing and puffing.

“It’ll get better,” Nolan answered trying to pull himself off of the chair. He tried to stand but his legs didn’t obey. He dropped to the floor and rolled on his back.

Fancy crawled to his side and laid her sweaty little head on his shoulder. Her little hand pressed gently to his chest. He laid his massive hand on top of hers.

“I’m okay, Sweety.” he comforted her. “We’re okay.”

He heard her sob. “What do we do now?”

Nolan sighed. He could feel the child’s touch mending his cracked ribs within. It was getting easier to breathe now.

“First, we’ll clean this place up. It was always a comfort to be here. So we’ll stay here, at least for a little while.

When I was strong enough, Nolan sat up and Fancy sat next to him.

“Next, I guess I’ll have to teach you a few things.”

“Like what?”

“How to fight. How to shoot. How do you use your power without hurting yourself.” He smiled down at her. “You’re a special girl, Fancy. There’s a lot of stuff you need to do when you grow up. But for now, we’ll get you ready.”

“For what?”

He smiled. “For Judgement.”