It felt like Hell on the outskirts of Aleppo. The air was hot and dry and it scorched the inside of Samuel’s throat as if he’d been guzzling lava. A missile had just hit one of the Kurdish rebel camps on the southern border, less than twenty minutes earlier – an outpost guarding a path deep into the city through a series of narrow alleys, treasured by insurgents.
War had torn this once thriving and beautiful city apart. Samuel had visited in the early 1900’s, and had enjoyed one of the best lamb dishes on Earth in a small restaurant in Souq – a tiny eatery that had fancied itself a “café bistro”. It had been there until the mid-1950’s, when it was bought over and turned into a bakery. To see Aleppo in that state was deeply saddening – particularly to a creature like Samuel. It reminded him too much of the real Hell.
The camp itself was no more. A thick layer of black rubble, ash, burnt wood and scattered chunks of human flesh replaced it. Thick pillars of smoke rose up and spread out, muddying the otherwise perfect blue sky. There were no survivors, just melted pots and machine guns, shrapnel and pebbles, spread out around Samuel like a pastiche of death and doom.
He could still hear shots in the distance, getting closer. If he looked closer, he could even see the trucks, with Syrian flags fluttering. They’d caught the boys by surprise. He had to go deeper into the district now – the army and the IS were exchanging rounds upon rounds of bullets less than a mile away. One of the two would reach the camp in the next half hour, and he didn’t have time to spend reasoning with the war dogs of either side.
He stepped over the charred remains – most of them men in their early twenties, freshly ripped off the school benches and given guns to stand up to a bloodthirsty government and a growing cluster of religious fanatics. He walked away and headed straight for the one clear alley way he could see leading into Sheikh Saeed.
More rubble and dust awaited as he entered the district. Dried blood on the broken walls. Dried blood on the powdered ground. Most of the buildings torn apart by previous hits, and wore their iron entrails on the outside. The gunshots clapped in the background, while a peculiar silence laid ahead.
Samuel advanced through the neighbourhood – what was left of it anyway; derelict blocks and improvised shelters beneath torn roof sheets. A single household had survived on that stretch of road, and the mother of four quickly pulled the worn-out clothes from where they’d been hung out to dry, away from the dust and smoke that spread out from the levelled Kurdish outpost. She looked at Samuel with wide brown eyes as her trembling hands pulled shirts from the string in such a hurry, that she didn’t even bother to remove the clothespins first. A little girl cried inside, behind her mother’s skirt – she knew what was coming.
A severely malnourished boy in his early teens scuttled from one side of the street to another. Samuel watched him as he hid behind a pile of rubble and cement bricks. He could smell the fear in the air. And he could smell the sulphur – albeit faint, like a top note.
Samuel stood out in that part of the world – his tanned skin contrasted with his cobalt blue eyes and short, snow-white hair. He looked young, in his early thirties, and strong and ready to kill anyone who stood in his way. He didn’t fit the pattern of torn down homes and terrified women and children who’d survived the relentless airstrikes.
The skinny young man with deep black veins and black eyes who walked into the frame didn’t match that landscape either. Samuel spotted him as soon as he reached the street, less than fifty yards from his position. The foul smell got stronger.
‘Shaytan!’ the woman said, her voice trembling and hands clutching a few children’s shirts and jeans. Fear carved deep into her features as she said it. She disappeared behind the ragged curtain serving as a door.
But Samuel knew what she meant. He could smell the demon from there. As he got closer, the demon sensed him as well – wearing the body of a twenty-something electrician from Salheen, a neighbouring district of Aleppo. The demon stopped in the middle of the road, straightened its back and turned its head – black eyes met Samuel’s, and instant recognition spread on its face with a strong undertone of dread.
They both stood and looked at each other for a handful of long seconds.
Then the demon darted up the road, running at an unnatural speed in a desperate attempt to get as far away from the demon hunter as possible.
Samuel wasn’t impressed. He ran after him, and he ran fast. With each second that passed, the distance between them shortened, while the demon tried hard to stay ahead. Its feet brushed over the dusted road.
It took a sharp turn, suddenly headed west.
Samuel cut that corner and knocked out a few chunks of concrete with his shoulder, from what had once been a private residence. He continued his pursuit, as fine particles of dirt and ash and broken dreams rolled up behind him, shaken up by physics. His body moved abnormally fast through the city.
The demon growled and took another turn, this time to its left. It slammed its shoulder into a wall in the process but the concrete didn’t give in. He kept running. Dislocated bones could wait. Samuel shot hot on the demon’s trail, and got closer with every turn.
They entered a more populated area, a Kurdish-held part of the neighbourhood. But they were both too fast for anyone to really notice them. No one had time for them. They could hear the shots in the distance.
They knew that if their southern stronghold caved in, they’d be looking at a week or so of bloody fighting just to maintain control of the block until they could muster up more forces from the city centre.
The demon ran past a group of young militants and pushed them aside, just enough to stir them and distract the incoming Samuel. But the demon hunter had no time for that. He swatted the boys away as they tried to stop him. The swift set of moves threw them against a wall before they could even draw their weapons.
He turned another corner and followed the demon into an old abattoir. It had once supplied some of the finest meats in the district. Now it laid barren and dark and, according to the smells coming out of it, riddled with demons.
As soon as the stench hit his nose, he immediately came to a halt, surrounded by cement walls and moving shadows.
The darkness enveloped him as he walked carefully towards the middle of the hall. Something crawled around his feet. The sound of his obsidian blades coming out of their sheaths scared it away.
Samuel’s short swords were lethal to demons with or without a human host. He’d carved them out of Hell's mountains at the age of six, in order to survive the nights spent out in the open, beneath the eternally black sky. His fingers gripped the handles tight, his skin turned white as it stretched over the knuckles.
He advanced through the hall, following the sound of footsteps deeper into the darkness. Fiery red eyes flickered around him – they all waited, frustrated and eager to pounce. Attacking him without wearing bodies would’ve been suicide, so all they could do was watch and hiss and hope to catch him with his guard down, at some point.
The twenty-something electrician’s voice rattled from the second hall ahead. It sounded like iron nails scratching a cement floor.
What’s the matter, you white-haired bastard? Looking for your mommy?
Samuel smirked as he walked towards the voice. He couldn’t see it, but he could smell it.
‘Trying to taunt me, asshole? Are you really really brave or really really stupid?’
The demon laughed, an irritating cackle that made his insides twist and turn.
Why don’t you come closer and find out?
Samuel stopped in the middle of that second hall. A few solitary beams of light shot from broken windows to an opposite wall. Some revealed large hooks hung from heavy chains that poured down from the ceiling.
One of them moved, ever so slightly.
He darted in that direction, but missed the demon by a split second. The fiend attacked from the side, retaliating with claws and teeth like a wild animal. Samuel didn’t want to kill it yet, he needed information first. He used the butt of the sword handles to kick the creature.
A swift left hook shattered the creature’s nose – the sound of crushed bones mingled with that of iron chains being rattled. A few more kicks and the demon was thrown backwards through a set of stainless steel doors.
Samuel made it into another hall – this one bathed in natural light pouring in from enormous dirt-glazed windows. Hundreds of hooks had once held the slaughter lines in there – before the war had thrown everything into darkness, decay and fire. The demon was sprawled on its back, in full view. The clothes were a dirty grey and riddled with holes, and thick black veins were drawn across its pale skin. The body had once been healthy and of a more tanned complexion, at least before the possession.
Before it regained its senses, Samuel crossed his blades on both sides of its throat. The demon opened its eyes, wide and black and filled with fear. Its breaths were frantic and its jaw trembled. It moved slightly, just an inch or so, and its skin sizzled as it touched the obsidian blade. It burned severely, and it winced.
‘You move, you die. You talk nonsense, you die. You annoy me, you die. You lie to me, you die. Are we clear on the rules?’ Samuel’s voice echoed through the abattoir. Behind him, hidden in the darkness, dozens of homeless demons roared and hissed and scratched at the walls.
The creature beneath his swords nodded slowly, careful not to feel the blades again.
What do you want?
‘You know exactly what I want.’
The demon shook its head, its lips pursed.
‘Oh, come on… You all laugh about it. That is, until I start slicing you, one by one.’
A grin drew itself across its face, ear-to-ear. Its decayed teeth on display, like broken pieces of charcoal faience.
Oh, your mommy, the creature snickered. Samuel moved the swords closer for a moment, just enough to burn its throat. Threads of smoke rose from the demon.
‘Where is she?’
I don’t know! Some of my horde were tracking her but I haven’t heard from them since we parted ways on our way up here! Come to think of it, they might have found her… Or she found them…
‘You’re lying,’ Samuel replied and proceeded to cut deeper. The demon wailed and screamed, begging for mercy.
No, no, please, stop!