'Set'

For seven hundred and sixty one days, the world had slumbered in absolute nothingness. It could not be described as darkness but rather the absence of virtue, the absence of holiness. In the warmth of the new birth, we would roll back our individual calendars to reign in the new age. The sun hath risen again, the ice hath melted, the demons have returned to their burrows beneath the earth.
    It should have been clear to all those who’ve studied His text; the darkness was punishment for generations of sinful build-up. As was written in Matthew 22:13, “then the King said to the servants, ‘bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.”
    Our descent into perpetual night was the antithesis of immediate. In awe, we gazed towards the sky as the sun intumesced before our eyes, swelling to the amazement and befuddlement of all. This increase in mass had only a minor effect on our anatomy but all electrical devices faltered, appliances failed, and batteries shorted as the unbearable heat took its toll on the Earth.
    The impetus of the heat lasted less than a week before the Great Star returned to its original scope and continued to contract until nought was left of it. The birds plummeted from the sky as the largest of mammals keeled over beside them. It took mere hours for the bitter chill to take the lives of humanity’s lesser forms; the juvenile, the weak, and the elderly.
    As you stand with me, basking in the First Warmth, you have proven your will to live in the eyes of our Lord. Under his guidance, we may continue our lives in the absence of sin and share in our individual experiences throughout the night. We are one of twelve left standing in the streets of New Orleans who may live and bathe in the light of a fresh star.

Cause to step from the insulated wrap of my came two weeks after the eternal night first fell. I had felt safer within my domain of thick clothing and duvet covers, eating nought but canned food and awaiting the Lord’s request for my eternal soul. In temperatures so low, supplies dwindled in haste and the Lord refused to lend His hand toward my suffering. 
    Was there a task He wanted me to complete before my sins were forgiven? If I was not to be saved alone, I would prove myself. Bundling jacket after jacket upon myself to insulate my body from the darkness, I stepped into the outside world. An inevitable yet unbelievable chill came across my person as though the air itself gnashed at my skin, peeling the individual layers back, and pressing fingers into bare flesh.
    Bearing all, I made an attempt to brave the cold but it was not my impending icicle-ridden corpse which deferred my adventure but the sound of teeth which chattered together in the endless shadow. Rapid fire, joke-shop level noises. I made the move to return towards the home I had fled from but, in the darkness, I could no longer find my way back.
    In my mind, I recounted that ever-relevant passage to myself as a troupe of snarls and stomps and shudders accompanied the chattering. I stopped hunting for the door and held my breath. The first actual warmth I had felt in days belonged to the internal organs of another species which braved the cold better than I. Amidst the darkness, I swore I could almost see its face as it pressed itself closer to me and breathed. Though aided by my mind, I knew the figure was human-shaped albeit in a vague sense. As it continued to just stand still, passing silent judgement and continuing to dispose hot, damp breath upon my face until finally, it made its move.
    Teeth; as it pressed a set of uneven boulders against my left shoulder, I swore that I could feel thousands of molars pressing into my flesh, burning their form into bare skin as though the eight layers of clothing were not present. I had been left weakened, but still living. Once the damp warmth of the demon’s breath left, I returned to my domain and allowed my wounds to heal.

Could demons truly roam the streets outside? If my senses were to be believed, I would not survive another encounter. The Lord had shown us his wrath previously, tearing humanity apart in the Australian states. I needed protection but acquiring such a defence required digging up the past in a more literal sense than often incurred. In the past, I had claimed my second-amendment rights but despite situational changes, I could not rid myself of the weapon.
    Instead, I placed it beneath the soil of my garden, hoping to never return to such temptation. Now, I required its services: it lay within a wooden box, below the frozen earth. Alongside it, a container of sixteen rounds and a steel flask. The latter came wrapped in a hand-sewn leather sleeve which had already taken a beating in the cold, splintering off in my hands.
    Recycling the leather for the handle of the all-steel revolver, I lifted the barrel to the sky and fired a single shot; I would traverse the plains of New Orleans and return the demons from whence they came. I believed that reinstating the balance was my mission but the tenebrosity and the hypothermic temperatures made the expedition almost beyond the bounds of possibility. 
    No matter what substance I attempted to burn, a torch could not be lit in such extreme cold. All I could manage to keep alight was a small pocket light which would soon run out of liquid. Not a single spot of flesh remained uncovered as I ventured through the darkness just a few steps at a time, inspecting alleys and houses as I went. 
    I entered the homes of those who left their doors unlocked in search of those in need and, perhaps, help myself to supplies which those who passed would no longer need. People had begun to fall into three categories: those who fell ill during the final wave of heat, those who succumbed to the chill, and those who pressed on if they could. 
    Before an hour passed, death was already a common sight. A horror within a nightmare, discovering the exposed corpses of friends and neighbours added yet another objective to my mission. I could not bury their vessels within the Earth, nor could I cremate their temporal forms in the chill. Their last rites could not be performed in the darkness but their names could be recorded: I borrowed a notebook from a family who would often host community events for our fair area and began scrawling down the names I could remember or find on their person. 
    I had very little relevant reading in my home but I knew that calorie intake was essential. I stuffed as much into my stomach as I could handle at each midway pitstop taken. As I continued to collect supplies, my weakened frame found the stock impossible to carry. I opted to carry only the essentials: water, nuts and dried fruit, my collection of names, and additional lighters.

On the odd occasion, I would sleep in the beds of those who no never again require such warmth. At other times, I spent hours hidden behind locked doors, unable to wield the light in fear of being discovered by the chattering beasts as they roamed the near-empty streets. How could I know whether or not my weapon would even be effective? It was not worth my life to know, was it? My mission laid hidden furthermore in the lives of other humans.
    Yes, even in the eternal night, I came across the hope of other breaths. The occasional flicker of a lighter, the cracking of a tin can lid, or even the answering of a door by those brave enough to face the darkness and what was lurking within it. Our troupe hit 15 people by the tenth week but the numbers were never stationary. 
    We had 13 by week eleven, 9 as week twelve arrived, and returning to 13 on the fifteenth week. New Orleans had once a population of 1,500,000 but not many of those people were suited to this punishment. The lasting spores of humankind surviving in the Sugar State remained a tight-knit group, preserved food was spent well and shared often, passing between our ranks in even rations as we moved further into the city.
    Those unholy chattering teeth followed us, stalking us even as we crept into the concrete jungle. As we trekked deeper, the encounters became more and more frequent but not once could I have opened fire, if only due to limited vision. As the count came to twenty weeks, the demons had not yet graced our source of light. At twenty two, the Central Business District became our home as we continued to jot down the names of those now resting with their Lord. 
    The workload took shifts between an expanded group of 18 survivors while we took refuge in a nearby hotel. Each member stuck together, whether out searching or within the confines of the hotel we called our own. We remained in a single room sharing access to an unlimited supply of towels and duvets, as well as food and an internal supply of running water. But, as welcoming as this room was, at the end of the day our duties were not to be comfortable but punished. 
    For our actions as a species, the Lord removed the sun from the sky and, if we wanted to follow the actions of Noah, we would survive in the absence of God. In order to do so, we would move closer toward Him, relocating our quarters to the St. Louis Cathedral.

Plans were settled on the eve of our thirtieth week when we made our move through the maze of chattering mouths and abandoned cars. In the light of the morning sun, the walk may have taken all of fifteen minutes but, as we traverse through the veiled Earth, it could’ve taken days just to manoeuvre the man-made labyrinth in one piece.
    The demons roamed with wild abandon, forcing the party to stray further from our goal than preferred, scrabbling for cover in the nearest derelict building as it crept up to us. I led our collection in veritable silence, all light subdued until further notice. The Kafkaesque nightmare scuttled and stomped as we attempted every doorknob and handle we passed. 
    We could’ve forced one open if we tried, I know… but we refused to make a sound. Instead, I took a risk and put my friends in the arms of God himself. I told them, “find a car,” in hushed tones, hoping the creature would be unable to access us if we were within the immobile prisons. We scattered, each alight like fireflies as a chorus of chattering was met with the flapping of car door handles. I heard a couple of them open but, along with my own, most cars were locked. 
    The particular demon that began the blight had not yet taken an interest in our party. As far as I could hear, it was lumbering without aim, pressing its head against the brick walls of the CBD. It was, in any case, peaceful until Zacharias panicked. It was an act in the heat of the moment, shattering the thin glass of the car window caused the entire street to reverberate with a fresh sound for the first time in weeks. 
    The chattering ceased. 
    If silence was ever to be infinite, it would have chosen that moment. 
    But it was broken, ruptured by the roar of the stampeding devils from all corners of the city. 18 individual bellows of horror shot out into the shadows as living, breathing air raid sirens struggled to escape the multiplying horde. Soon, there was a demon in the vicinity for each of us and one by one, they picked us off. The embodiment of my own sins approached, bringing its own source of damp warmth with it. In car crash slow-motion, those thousand teeth punctured straight to my skin, ignoring the barriers between them.
    The pressure broke all concentration and each of my senses went wild; the smell and taste of copper rushed from the back of my noses, flooding my mouth, trickling its own brand of warmth down my chin. Deep within my inner right ear, I could hear the rapid vibrations of digging within my carcass. The ache was sharp, but I had been numbed by the persistent cold.     In a final act of kindness, I saw a vision of the First Warmth, floating above me as the demon devoured my form, hoping to transcend my terrestrial guise.

The sensual distortion perpetuated my terrine existence as the ambience rose from the chilling vibrations to the spitting of nearby embers. Perhaps, I believed, I had been rescued from my mortal coil by a soul with similar intentions, ferrying the dead to where the dead belong. For their sakes, I hoped they would discover our notebooks amongst the bodies, our collections of lighters, blankets, and food. 
    The crackling continued. It made a nice change from the chattering albeit taking a similar shape. The benevolent orange glow of the First Warmth in my vision clouded more of the darkness as my transition progressed. Comfort. That’s how I could describe it, I was at peace. A gentle mellowness spread across my body as though carried by each new layer of exposed blood. 
    The waves of a new realm began to heave, drawing me towards this amber sunset. It warped and stretched until such rolling colours encompassed my entire scope. Although I followed its dance, a coolness burned into my cheek and my vision expanded. 
    Fire.
    A bonfire had been lit beside my aching form. It didn’t make sense, the hallucination was not a vision but an awakening. I had not been defeated, I had not passed on, the Lord had not yet come to collect me. 
    The mission was not complete.
    I was alone, did nobody else survive? Reality was difficult to grasp, too many factors refused to make clear sense. How could the flames persist whilst the darkness lingered? The tiled floor on which I lay bore the light of the bonfire but not the heat. The same could be said for the white stone wall on which my body had been propped against by whomever brought my to this blessed place. 
    An attempt to stand was made but not yet had my body recovered. An uneven mass was discovered as I tumbled back to the ground; a significant portion of flesh was missing from my right arm. New skin had begun to grow around the scarred tissue where the demon had fed but whatever gristle was left of the limb served no function. It had been lost to the legion of demons. 
    I basked for a moment in the impossible flames. I was blind to the world but knew that nothing had changed, the sun was yet to reappear in the sky. The chill continued to creep up from either side of the unending corridors. There was no way to know how long I had slumbered, our timekeeping efforts were for nought.
    I had been rescued from the rubble but without supplies, I would soon perish. My broken body and I, we stood with what little strength was left and roared. The bellow spread through the enduring darkness, causing an unusual shadow to move further away. Human in nature, alien in semblance; the creature seemed to stare for a moment, before escaping deeper into the labyrinth.

Just as soon as I felt whole enough to leave the confines of the bonfire, the location of my resting place became clear. I had been rescued and placed within the halls of St. Louis Cathedral. Asking ‘how’ or ‘why’ were not the correct questions, instead I had ‘what?’ on my mind. What is next? What do I do?
    I took to the streets of the CBD once again, perhaps hoping to find some remnant of survival after that villainous attack. If the Lord would forgive me, I managed to take apart one of the less stable wooden  pews, wrapping it in a small article of clothing and dousing it in lighter fluid found in a utility cupboard. Wielding the torch made the journey around the empty cathedral much easier, it was well insulated but not perfect and walking in the tail of the flames kept morale high.
    This new disability required additional thought, making each new venture a challenge and, if I were to overexert, the wound could burst open. Propping the torch upon the wall, I attempted to pull the doors agape but, as soon as the frozen air was given an opening, the torch fell silent and failed to burn. The Eternal Night would not accept the ignited material, no matter what I tried. The journey would have to be made by the embers of a discarded cigarette lighter. 
    The chattering was nowhere to be heard along these streets, everything was still. The demons had moved along, perhaps deeper into the United States. In their wake, many of the cars had been trashed without mercy. Their strength appeared limitless as doors had been strewn about, frames had been crushed beyond recognition, and the bodies of those who followed me into the darkness were impossible to recognise. For each of them, I swore their names to the sky and promised them a true remembrance but until then…
    Somebody stumbled from the buildings behind me, accompanied not by the chattering of teeth but the cocking of a revolver, followed almost immediately by the shushing of another human being. We approached each other, lighters in hand, to discover familiar faces in the darkness. Withered, weakened, fading fast from the world, two members of our original party had survived, but only just.
    These survivors, Sid and Emma, recalled that two weeks had passed since the disaster occurred but it was a certainty that I could not put my absolute trust in. One day without food or water in this world and one might find themselves passing away, let alone two whole weeks of slumber. Both Sid and Emma survived the ordeal by fleeing for their lives when the opportune moment struck: once the demons had fallen into their aggressive state, the utter destruction of the roadside was enough to hold their attention for hours. 
    I passed along my own story but neither could add validity. Fear had taken its toll on them, forcing them into a catatonic existence in which they dared not to even search for additional food supplies and instead, rationing what they had left for as long as they could. After our initial meeting, we collected what we could carry and returned to the cathedral with yet another notch to our objective.

Across the weeks that followed, we built that cathedral out to become our basecamp. As the only building in which fire could burn true, we were able to live half-comfortable lives whilst carrying out our duties. As we ventured forth on Sid and Emma’s calendar, we reached the eightieth week in what seemed like days. 
    Our ranks grew at a constant pace and - with the warmth under control and the additional hands at work - death was kept well beyond the walls of St. Louis Cathedral. The last remaining bastion of New Orleans came to a total of twelve survivors including myself. A functioning mass, we tended to each other and kept our party safe from the waves of demons that moved in and out of the Sugar State as an ever-morphing tide of supernatural pecking order. 
    It was not until the fated one hundred and eighth week of eternal darkness that the demons attempted to penetrate the cathedral’s defences. As though the creatures had been birthed with the fear of God himself imprinted within their core, they could not even look upon the building without shrieking. In our comfort, we became lax and unaware.
    The revolver was our only weapon, owing its strength to a limited supply of ammunition. It was not to be touched barring dire circumstances but, as I retired to our chambers, seven shots rang out through the halls of our domain. I chased after the noise, knowing not what use I could be, to discover Sid alone. 
    His feet had been dug in, planted upon the ashes of the original bonfire where I first discovered myself. The empty casings surrounded them, lost within the cinders and soon to be mixed with the deep red blood of our deceased demon. Unsure of its violent trickster nature, I approached with great caution to inspect the alien corpse. 
    It had all the callings of the signature devil and held a form unrecognisable to any known creature in all but its posture. As the light flushed upon its scaled body, a tumorous mass revealed itself in a hue more moss than mammal. From head to toes, mutations were clear: additional fingers, resilient growths, black claws striking out much further than desirable. 
    In a sense, I felt the creature rang familiar but couldn’t put a finger on its existence. Had this monster lived among our shadows for all this time? When the being first came to Sid’s attention, the faint echo of chattering had stuck the man on edge. Soon, he caught the creature staring at him. That’s what he told us, it was sizing him up “with those big eyes and chattering teeth.”
    It did not have the time to attack before Sid struck it down, but had his courage rescued us from a disastrous fate? Perhaps, but I began to wonder: were these creature the essence of sin reincarnate? Their origins grew from a subject of horror to one of absolute intrigue. As I studied the creature in further detail, its general structure became clear: complex but reminiscent of our own. 
Bewildered and, above all, warped by my own sense of discovery, I fled into the darkness past the walls of our cathedral to encounter something which I could not have predicted. 
    Light.
    Nought but a minuscule dot upon the stygian canvas but still, shadows had been cast upon the Earth for the first time in seven hundred days. At once, I fell to my knees and basked in what would soon come to be know as ‘The First Warmth’.


Thank you for taking the time to read this chapter.
If you enjoy our work, why not consider sponsoring The Chestnut Cottage on Patreon?