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Demon Derby

by Dread Pennies

“If we have a few more days like today, that’s it. We won’t make it another hundred

miles. This armor is scrap, Mick,” said the mechanic.


“Well, we only need to go seventy-six miles to Sifter’s Pass,” Mick said.


“Don’t get cute with me, this is the Fallen Basin. Fifty miles here is like two hundred

anywhere else. Ground zero, Mick. Them demons are thicker than a Twitter queen with a heart

problem,” said Davis.


Mick snorted, but didn’t have a comeback for that. In the end Davis was right, and that

scared him. The armor on the retrofitted van was full of rust and dents.


Still. They’d made it this far, and with seventy-six miles to go, Mick would roll the dice

if it meant getting to the Pass. He looked over his shoulder at his family’s makeshift camp. What

once had consisted of good equipment and tents and plenty of food was now a shell of its former

self. Tattered tarps and twine hung from leafless trees, providing meager shelter for his wife and

five kids. They stayed in the shade of the old fifteen-passenger van, its shadow stretching as the

sun disappeared behind the cloud-laden mountains.


The mountains of Ephraim. Not their official name, but the official stuff had gone out the

window with the rest of society. That was at the Cleansing six months ago, when the fire fell

from the sky, burning the wicked off of the Earth. Mick had been a lot more naïve back then,

back in the immediate aftermath. God was supposed to cleanse the Earth by fire the second time,

right? Everything was going according to plan, yeah? The angels would be there any second!


But then divine law kicked in. Science and religion weren’t separate, they were just different apps running on the same OS. Nature abhorred a vacuum, and with all of the evil gone

out of the world, something had to take its place. It was like the fire had sucked the monsters

right up out of Hell, filling the void, and their entry point was known to the survivors as Fallen Basin. They’d spread out far and wide from there, yet it was still their greatest point of concentration.


Even with the loss of the Internet and mass communication, people still spread the word

on how to kill the demons. As it turned out, popular fiction had gotten a lot right: salt helped, as

well as iron, the more pure the better. Sawed-off shotguns and homemade rounds became the

weapon of the realm.


Still. Mick and his caravan of fellow travelers—the Ramirez family in their rig, the

Hiltons in their Suburban, and Davis on his dirtbike—hadn’t made it this far on their

marksmanship alone. They’d been strict about keeping their covenants. Stuff had happened

across the last two thousand miles that he couldn’t explain by any other means; the vehicles ran

even when the fuel tanks were dry, and the demons couldn’t touch them even when the ammo

ran out. Protection came from on high when they needed it.


Strict adherence. It was the only thing that had brought them to the fields east of

Ephraim. With seventy-six miles to go, everything had to be perfectly in line, and everyone in all

three vans had agreed to that.


Which begged the question: why was the armor on the vans failing now?


They stood and stared at the big rig, its suspension sagging with the weight of armor

panels and a roof-mounted shotty turret. The flaming demons roamed the great plains of North

America, usually solo but occasionally in pairs or threes, each of them the size of a large boy or

small man. Whenever they spotted the vans, they came running, their voices booming with

otherworldly language, a painful screeching sound to the ears of the righteous.


The armor protected the vans, and the weapons turned the demons away. That, and the

righteousness of the men and women inside. Every encounter had reaffirmed that.


But the last few days…Mick sighed with exhaustion. The last two hundred miles had

been a grueling meat grinder just to get in sight of the foothills of Ephraim. The demons still

hunted in small numbers, the difference was that now they appeared with greater frequency, and

they liked to block the roads. It had become necessary to ram them.


Entropy was still in effect in the post-burn world, and the metal armor on the vans looked

all the worse for it. Contact with the evil entities had brought corrosion, rust, canker, and general

weakness, all very quickly. Mick bit his lip as he stared west toward the mountains, the peaks of

which stood behind high, dark clouds. Between him and the highest valleys in those mountains,

an army of flaming demons lurked about, waiting for him to draw closer.


“I’m open to suggestions, Davis. We can’t turn back and there’s nowhere else to

resupply. This is the red zone. If we want to score, we’ve got to go for it,” Mick said, keeping his

voice low. Jenna was making dinner, and he didn’t want her to hear.


Davis pursed his lips, wheels turning in his head. “Well, the mounts are still welded

strong, it’s the plates that are chunked. We got plenty salt, plenty rounds to refill, so ammo ain’t

a problem. My best guess right now is to avoid contact with those little buggers. Might be time to

give the kids a chance on the triggers.”


“If I take them off of reload duty, it’ll leave too much time in between volleys when the

demons swarm,” Mick countered. “If anything, I need more people reloading, not shooting.”


“Then maybe the problem ain’t the tech,” Davis said quietly.


“What are you saying?”


“You, me, everyone, we all know it’s the good Lord above who got us this far.

Omnipotent, and all that. He says jump, we jump, we land on the moon. Ain’t nothing He can’t

do, right?”


“Make your point, D.”


“The point’s obvious,” Davis hissed. “Someone in the camp’s fiddlin’ with what they

oughtn’t. Twenty people, you think all twenty of us is sin-free on Sunday?” He almost swore,

then stopped himself. “I’m saying that Armor of God is only as good as the wearer is worthy.

We’ve got a team member who’s hiding something.”


Mick wanted to protest, but in his heart of hearts, he knew Davis was right. The mechanic

didn’t say another word as he gathered his tools and went about his daily errands, checking all

the vital components on the trucks. He’d signed on with the caravan to be their repair guy. Mick

was supposed to fix matters of the spirit.


He hated this part.


The three rigs pulled into a tight triangle for the night, creating a sheltered spot in the

center. Everyone was mostly silent as they ate dinner—canned soups, and the last of their fresh

fruit. Once it was all put away, Mick rang the prayer bell, and the twenty members of the caravan

sat at perfect attention.


“I’ll get right to the point,” he said, feeling their eyes on him. Jenna lent her support just

by being there, quietly paying attention as she bounced their two year-old on her lap. Everyone

else seemed on edge in some way, something Mick attributed to the tense nature of their voyage.

“Doctrine and Covenants, section fifty-eight, verses forty-two and forty-three,” he went

on. “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember

them no more. By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them

and forsake them. The Lord told Joseph Smith to preach nothing but repentance to this

generation. Timo, what’s repentance?”


Timoteo, the middle son of a Honduran family who drove Rig Three, nervously chewed

his lip, refusing to say anything. His mother Ester whispered something to him in Spanish, and

Timoteo perked up.


“Changing from the wrong thing to the right thing,” he said.

Mick nodded. “Kind of been the theme for this trip, right?”


“Trip,” said Jax with a snort. He drove the big Suburban. Good man, but a little too

snarky at times. He didn’t see how his attitude brought the group down. “Five star

accommodations right here, boss.”


“Five star or no star, that’s our list of options out here. I mean this with all sincerity: I am

grateful that every one of you is here. You’ve made it easier for me to have faith because I know

I’m surrounded by good people in a good cause. That’s the only reason we have made it this far.


“I need to emphasize a few things tonight, for all our sakes. This will only take a few

minutes, and then we can get some shuteye. Okay?”


The caravan members seemed curious at his words, and nodded.


“First: I’m not your ecclesiastical leader. You voted me in charge of this operation

democratically, but I was not called to it. I was not set apart by anyone with keys. We’re just a

group of people who happen to all be in the true Church. When we all found each other, you

chose me because I was sort of in a bishopric when the Cleansing hit,” Mick said.

“You weren’t sort of in a bishopric,” said Vince, Mick’s oldest son.


Mick tried not to dismiss Vince out of hand; the boy had a tender constitution. “I was the

secretary. I had none of the same keys or responsibilities of the other brethren. The point is, I

don’t claim any stewardship over you guys beyond what you’ve consented to. So don’t take this

as an unrighteous flex, okay?”


Jax grunted, a sarcastic sound like none other. Again, Mick ignored him.


“The demons have started corroding our armor. Our spiritual protection seems to be

slipping. That means that somebody in the camp has something that they need to repent of.


Something they’re holding on to that’s compromising our covenants as a group. And before

anyone starts pointing fingers or leveling accusations, let me remind you that I don’t care who it

is, or what, or why. It doesn’t matter. The only important thing is that we hold fast to what’s

gotten us this far. Don’t fold now. It’s like…it’s like when Joseph Smith was translating the

Book of Mormon. If things weren’t right at home, he couldn’t do his calling until he fixed it. So

he did, and that was that. That needs to be us, okay?”


Timoteo raised his hand.


“Yes, Timo?”


“Is this trip like Nephi, or like Jonah?”


The question caught Mick off-guard. “What do you mean?”


Timoteo fidgeted again. “Well, we’re kind of like on a ship, crossing the water, and we’re

in danger like they were. When it was Nephi’s ship, his brothers had to untie him. But when it

was Jonah’s ship, they had to throw him overboard.”


Unexpectedly, the question broke the subtle tension in the camp. Everyone laughed.


“Nobody’s getting thrown out, Timo. Like I said, whatever the problem is, I don’t care.


I’m not here to call anyone out. In fact, we could probably all repent of something, if we thought

about it long enough. The point is that if we don’t, then one person could make the whole ship

sink. Let’s just…keep our heads and our hearts in the right places, okay? We’ve made it to here.

There’s only a little bit to go, and then we’re free of the demons. Don’t let fear or pride or

anything else shoot you in the foot. It’s not just you who will suffer for it.”


He hadn’t meant for that last part to sound menacing, but he could tell from the looks on

their faces that it came off that way. Still, he’d said his piece, and as everyone filed into their

vans for the night, Mick could only hope that he’d said it well enough to get the point across.

They would never make it through Fallen Basin if they weren’t completely on their

guard.


“One mile down, seventy-five to go,” Jenna said into the microphone. The van jostled

hard as the suspension fought a losing battle with the rough road. Just about everything on this

trip had been miserable—finding food, finding gas, fighting demons—but the twenty of them

had found ways to push through. Sometimes jokes were the best medicine. Other times it was

about counting the small victories, like reading the odometer to measure even the smallest

progress.


Cheers came back over the radio, and out of the corner of her eye Jenna saw her husband

Mick crack a smile. He didn’t take his eyes off the road though, as the deep ruts in the dirt path

demanded all of his attention.


They had broken camp half an hour before the sun came up, said prayers as a group and

as families, then got rolling the moment they could see without the headlights. Something about

artificial light attracted the demons more quickly than not.


“How long since Davis went ahead?” Mick asked.


Jenna checked the clock. “Six minutes.”


Mick frowned. Davis wasn’t supposed to be out of sight for more than five minutes, but

they often had to break that rule if the terrain was bad. He knew the area better than anyone, in

addition to being the only mechanic. If something were to happen to him, the camp would be scre…No, Jenna thought…hindered on two fronts.


Up ahead on the road, Davis appeared on his big red dual-sport bike, expertly navigating

the bad road at what had to be fifty miles per hour. As he came into focus, Jenna noticed he kept

looking over his shoulder, frantic, as if waiting for…


A band of demons appeared from the bend in the road, their faces aflame, plowing down

the road at high speed in something that was entirely new to Jenna and the other travelers:

A car. Or rather, six of them.


“They can drive?” Mick snarled as he stomped on the brake pedal with both boots.

Jenna brought the mic back to her mouth. “Fall back, fall back! Demons incoming!

Weapons, everyone!”


Davis blasted past them and skidded to a stop, kicking up a huge cloud of dirt. He emerged a second later, his bike parked, and Jenna saw him rummaging through the saddlebags on the back. He kept his shotgun strapped to his back, coming up instead with a handful of small water balloons and a plastic stick for throwing tennis balls to dogs.


Brilliant, Jenna thought.


“What’s going on up there?” Jax demanded


“Grenades! Use the grenades!” Jenna said. Mick was already in the back of the van.


Vince had thrown open the roof hatch, but instead of elevating the shotgun turret, he affixed the

water balloon slingshot into place and gestured for Mick to hand him a balloon.


“Move, son,” Mick said angrily as he shoved Vince aside.


“Mick, let him—”


“Not now, dear!” Mick stood on a stepladder, his upper body disappearing through the

hole in the roof.


“Vince, keep an eye on your sisters,” Jenna said.


Vince turned, pouting, as he sat in the back between the baby’s car seat and his sister’s booster seat. He was only fourteen, but he had been forced to grow up fast after the Cleansing.


Mick sometimes forgot what their son could do. Maybe too often he refused to let him step up.

Jenna hoped Mick wasn’t harboring anger at the moment—it wasn’t what the situation called for.

Outside, Jax and his family rallied to Davis, all of them wielding various tools for hurling

water balloons. The six demon cars, all rusted and damaged and on fire like their drivers, were

only about a hundred yards off. Jenna reached for the familiar grip of her sawed-off shotgun next

to her chair, her eyes laser-focused as the wall of cars came closer, closer, and she could

practically see the flaming, sneering grins on the demons’ faces.


“FIRE!” Mick roared.


The men let loose a volley of balloons filled with saltwater. More than half of them missed, splatting into the road or the weeds on either side. The few that hit the cars appeared to do no damage. A single pink balloon hit the shattered windshield of one car on the edge of the line, a windshield that had long since been shattered out, and even at fifty yards Jenna could hear the foul creature shrieking as the liquid shredded through its body. The car veered harmlessly off the road, hit a dip, and soared through the air where it landed on its roof.


“Keep it going!”


It was never going to be enough.\


When the cars were a mere twenty-five yards away, the men had only gotten a second

volley off, taking two more cars out of the lineup. Jax had abandoned the grenades in favor of his

shotgun, ignoring the fact that even if the weapon had been armed with traditional rounds it

would do nothing at all to a car.


Heart hammering in her chest, Jenna unbuckled her harness and threw herself into the

driver’s seat, everything in her screaming to get the family van out of the way. She scarcely had time to get it into gear before a small miracle happened, something they hadn’t seen yet:


The demons’ cars all stopped dead in their tracks, straight-up stopped, and the three

drivers were hurled bodily through the windshields, flying like missiles at the caravan. Their

momentum didn’t last, and they plowed facefirst into the soil, their flames dying out instantly.

All of the men held their positions, stunned, not sure if they could believe what they were seeing.


“Sorry,” Davis said, panting. “Didn’t realize I was so far ahead.”


“What on earth was that?” Jenna asked.


“Gonna credit that one to the Upstairs Team,” Jax said, jerking a thumb skyward.


Mick ignored him. “Davis, since when do these things drive cars?”


“Dunno. Maybe they picked up some Mad Max DVDs in Fallen Basin. Trust me, I’m

more surprised than you are,” Davis said.


“We might need to revise the five-minute lead rule.”


“Yeah I’m okay with that. They came out of nowhere, Mick. Literally nowhere. Like they

shot straight outta the ground. I count three GM products, a Ford, and two Hondas. Last I

checked, none-a them’s equipped to go subterranean.”


Jenna bit her lip. “So now they could come at us without any warning beforehand.”

“Maybe that was always the case,” Mick said. “Maybe they just have greater numbers

here, and that gave some of them time to experiment with driving.”


“I’m not talking about the driving, dear. I’m talking about that whole trapdoor-spider

thing.”


Mick sighed, not taking his eyes off the inert cars. “Right. That. Well, we have three

choices: we turn back, we stay put, or we keep rolling. Only one of those gets us through Sifter’s

Pass. Anyone opposed to continuing on?”


“Long as we can put the hammer down,” Jax muttered.


“Fast as possible, slow as necessary,” Davis said. “We gotta have a balance between

getting’ there and keepin’ the rigs in one piece. This road’ll beat the axles to pieces if we’re not

careful.”


“Right, you’ve reminded us a hundred times,” Jax said.


“Mind the chatter,” Mick barked. “And remember that we’ve been protected once again.

Repentance, people. Let’s have a quick prayer and then we’ll get these cars out of the way.”


They made it another forty minutes before their second encounter. The men aimed better

with the water balloons, but again the demons drew closer—this time on a small fleet of

dirtbikes, belching fire from their exhaust pipes—only to be stopped at the last possible second

by an unseen hand. Mick once again led the caravan in prayer, helped to drag the fallen vehicles

out of the road, and had every rig check their supply of water balloons. Jax’s old Suburban still

had plenty, but the Ramirez family van was running low.


“Gotta conserve,” Jax said with a nervous grunt as he handed some of his stores over to

Carlos Ramirez, the father. “I mean, if this all pans out, we won’t need it where we’re going.

Still gotta have enough to get there.”


“Thank you for sharing, Yax,” Carlos said. “How far did Yenna say we go?” His English

wasn’t as good as his wife’s.


“We’re twelve miles in. Too slow, too slow,” Jax said, casting a glance over his shoulder at Davis, who was pumping up a tire on his bike. “Ain’t nothin’ for it though. The mechanic says

brake, we gotta brake.”


“Yes. I have a question, maybe you know the answer,” Carlos said, lowering his voice a

little.


“Shoot.”


“These, eh, mountains of Efrain, they are safe?”


“That’s what Davis says.”


“Safer than any other place?”


“Far as we know.”


“Then why are all the demons here?” Carlos asked.


Jax didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to admit aloud that he had wondered the same

thing more than once. He thought it over, considering his words carefully.


“My cousin lives out this way. He’s a miner. I think there are salt mines in those

mountains. The Cleansing hit this spot and sucked all the demons up to the surface, right? Maybe

God was trying to draw them out next to a place that would kill them off anyway.” At least, that

was what he told himself. He put his faith in that idea.


The thing about faith, though, was that it had to be based on something true.


Sixty-five minutes and twenty-two miles later, they hit another pack. Two packs, to be

precise. And they’d been waiting for the caravan.


This time it was a mix of off-road trucks and four-wheelers, and the demons showed

serious organization. One pack up ahead split into two, flanking either side of the road, forcing

the caravan to divide its firepower. Just as the men started to lay in with the salt, the other pack came up from the rear, exploding out of the ground in a vicious cloud of dust that swept straight

into the caravans, pushed by the wind. Mick dropped down from the shotty turret and into the

van, coughing and waving the dusty air away from his face. Jenna pulled a bandana up over her

mouth and nose, calling for Vince to do the same with the other kids. Everything devolved from

there as the demons slammed into the rigs, sparking and howling with carnal rage.


The panel on the driver’s side tore completely away, flooding the cab with sunlight. Mick

had replaced the windows with steel grates weeks ago, but they were nowhere near as strong as

the steel plating that now lay crumpled on the ground. A hellish demon stabbed its fingers

through the holes in the grate and smashed its face into the steel over and over again, warping the

grate inward and turning it red with heat.


The children screamed. Mick, still coughing, grabbed a long screwdriver from a toolbox

on the floor and stabbed it through the grate, but the demon evaded quickly, spitting acidic saliva

at him in protest. Mick shrieked and shook his hands out of their gloves, the smoking leather

falling to the floor of the rig.


This is it, Jenna thought. This is as far as we get to come. Thirty miles to Sifter’s Pass,

and they would fail to survive an ambush…


As the demon threw its head back, winding up for another hit to the grate, another

miracle happened: an invisible force tore it off the side of the van and slammed it into the

ground, extinguishing its flames immediately.


The awful racket outside stopped even more suddenly than it had begun. Demons were

hurled from the rigs and into the ground, their flames extinguished, bodies smoldering, and in

their midst was a single teenage girl that Jenna recognized right away: Jax’s daughter, Claire.

Claire was Vince’s age, and quietly a handful. She had a knack for arguing over anything and everything, just to take a contrarian position to whatever the others were doing. Or at least, she had; for the last two weeks or so, Jenna had almost completely forgotten about Claire. She’d become uncharacteristically quiet, and rather than worry over it, Jenna had been grateful for one

less problem on the voyage.


“What in the world?” Mick asked, coughing as he waved the dust away. “Claire! What

are you doing?”


Jenna squinted to get a better look. It appeared that Claire had something in her hand, a

stick or tool, and was pointing it at the demons, muttering in a language nobody could

understand. A few of the fiery monsters turned tail and ran, while those that had fallen turned to

ash where they lay. Then the road was quiet.


“What is that?” Mick asked, staring at the tool in Claire’s hand.


She had that cocky smirk on her face that she always got when talking back to an adult.


“It’s mine.”


“What is it,” Mick repeated, trying not to get angry.


“Spit it out, Claire,” Jax said, not exactly siding with Mick, but not thrilled about the

mystery either.


“I found it on the ground a few weeks ago. We got ambushed by that pair of demons near

Laramie. Dad let me use his gun, I killed one of them, and it left this behind,” Claire said with a

shrug. “Now it’s mine and I know how to use it.”


“A demon dropped something and you didn’t tell anyone?” Mick hissed.


“Well, I knew you’d freak out about it, like you are now,” Claire said.


“You don’t know what it is! Other than it came from a demon!”


“Stop treating it like it’s a bad thing.” Claire rolled her eyes. “You’re always saying that

guns don’t kill people. Well, this is just the tool the demons use to light stuff on fire. I messed

around with it and now I know how to turn their fire off. You could always say thanks.”

“Watch your tone,” Jax said. “Mick’s got a point, nobody should be messing around with

demon stuff. Hand it over.”


“No,” Claire said flatly.


“Hand it over before I take it from you,” Jax said, raising his voice.


Claire’s expression turned dark. “You have your guns. I want this instead.”


“Laramie,” Mick said to himself, chasing a thought he couldn’t quite grasp.


“Laramie…why is that…” He snapped his fingers suddenly and looked up. “Laramie! That day

was the last day that we went without any problems on our armor.”


Again Claire rolled her eyes. “And let me guess: you think me lugging a demon stick is

why the armor started falling off. Nevermind that you’ve been running your dumb van into

demons for two weeks now.”


“We ram them because we are strategizing,” Jax said.


“They’re strategizing because you’re closer to Fallen Basin, where most of them are,”

Claire said.


“They’re strategizing because you’re using something they dropped for you,” Mick said,

trying not to lose his cool. “Why do you think we never saw one of these items before or after

you did?”


“Because I’m a way better shot than you are?” Claire snorted.


“That’s your pride talkin’, Claire. Don’t be doing that,” Jax said.


“It’s not my pride, it’s your jealousy,” Claire shot back. “I’ve saved us three times today by shutting off their fire. All your balloons and guns can’t do that. We’ll make it to Sifter’s Pass because of me! And when we get there, and we see that Ephraim is full of demons, you’ll be glad I have this!”


Mick suddenly saw the brilliance of it. The demons were indeed cunning.


“If a demon made that, then it’s made of pure sin, and we can’t—” Jax was saying.


Claire cut him off. “Why would the demons make something that could kill them?”


“Same reason we make guns, Claire! To kill other stuff first!” Jax shouted.


“We have to get rid of it,” Mick said with urgency. “It’s a virus.”


“What?” said Jax and Claire at the same time.


“That thing is like a phage. The demons know where we’re headed and they know who is

protecting us. They know they can’t get inside, but they want a mole to sneak this one for them.

If we get their device into Ephraim, they can corrupt everyone and get them to turn on each

other,” Mick said.


“That’s the stupidest thing you’ve said,” Claire said.


“Really? Then what are we doing right now?” Mick said, gesturing broadly to prove his

point.


“Wasting my time. I have a weapon that can kill demons and get us up the path. I can

walk there alone or ride with you guys, but I’m not sitting here waiting to get overwhelmed. You

do your vague churchy stuff and I’ll stick with I can prove works.” Claire turned her back on

them and walked away.


“I don’t like it,” Mick muttered for about the hundredth time.


“Neither do I, but what can we do? Kick Claire out? Kick out Jax and Kalee? Run with just two rigs?”


“I hate that we have to keep moving before we decide,” Mick said, the van shaking from side to side as he went up the road again.


“I know, babe. But in the end, it’s important that we keep moving.”


They were attacked again and again on the way up the road. Each time the demons came,

Mick took the turret and Jax, Carlos, and Davis all provided support. And each time they fought

back, the demons overwhelmed them, only to be knocked out by Claire and her demon rod. After

the third time, Mick didn’t even bother bringing it up with Jax—the eventuality that they would

have to force Claire to abandon the stick, or else leave her outside of Ephraim—because it was

an impossible choice. Were their situations reversed, Mick wouldn’t have entertained the idea of

ditching Vince, not for two seconds.


They absolutely could not take a demon weapon into Ephraim, though.


Unfortunately, the problem’s solution presented itself unbidden. With ten miles to go

until the end of the pass, the caravan was blitzed by a dozen demons in a flaming semi-truck

from hell. Claire stood up in the Suburban’s shotgun turret and pointed her demon rod at it,

uttered something in an unintelligible language, and knocked the entire truck off of the road. But

then Claire herself burst into flames for a moment, just long enough to make her clothes smell

like sulfur before she got herself under control.


Mick grabbed the CB radio. “Jax! What’s going on over there?”


“She…must have gotten some embers on her or something—”


“No, Jax! You saw it and I saw it! For a split second, she looked just like one of them!”


Now Claire came on the radio. “I controlled it, I know what I’m doing! Who cares if I use

this rod? We’re getting there, aren’t we? We’re all getting to the same place—”


“Claire, you have to listen to me: the demons have an objective. It isn’t to tear our rigs

apart and make the road rough. Their goal is to destroy everyone. You’re clever enough to see

that. You have to be. They left that weapon for you so that they could ruin you—”

“I SAVED US, MICK!” Claire roared.


“AND WHO SAVED US BEFORE YOU FOUND THAT ROD?” Mick shouted back.

The Ramirez family blew past the other two rigs, blowing their horn frantically. Mick

checked the rear-view mirror and saw a wall of flashing orange flames rushing up the road from

the rear, brighter than ever, even with the afternoon sun beating down on them. This was it: the

home stretch.


He was out of time. No arguing with Claire, they all had to run for it or they were

doomed. Sifter’s Pass was mere minutes away, a place where no demon could set foot.


“Kalee, close your eyes, love,” Jax said. His wife was having a panic attack. It was the

only thing he could think to tell her as the Suburban barreled up the road, chasing the taillights

on Mick’s van. Claire was saying something but Jax didn’t hear her, he could only focus on the

opening to Sifter’s Pass up ahead, where Davis had parked his bike and loaded his water balloon

launcher, hurling salt into the army of demons behind Jax.


The Ramirez’s rig crossed into the Pass first. A moment later, Mick and Jenna made it.

Jax expected to sigh in relief as he crossed too, but instead…


…the Suburban’s engine instantly died, and came to a cold, dead halt in the middle of the

road. At the same time, Claire’s hand burst into flames and she screamed as she was dragged to the back of the Suburban as though an invisible chain were shackled to her hand. The hand that held the demon rod.


“What is it? What’s happening?” Kalee shrieked.


“The rod,” Jax murmured. He jumped out of the driver’s seat and crawled over the seats

to the rear of the rig, already pleading with God to spare his daughter. Four simple words came

in reply.


She is being sifted.


Sifter’s Pass. Not just some random moniker.


The wall of demons halted just a few feet behind the Suburban. They seemed unable to

come any closer, but they sure were trying.


Claire’s hand was fully engulfed in flame, the heat of it searing Jax’s face but it didn’t

seem to ignite anything else in the back of the rig. This wasn’t natural fire.


“Claire, baby, you’ve got to let go of that thing,” Jax said.


“I! Can’t!” she howled.


“Please, do it for your mom and me! We can’t go until you do!”


“It was…so…easy…” Claire said, each breath coming short and ragged now.


“Why…won’t…it work…”


“It was never supposed to work like you wanted,” Jax said, tears cutting through the dirt

on his cheeks. “It was supposed to tear us apart. Claire, open your hand!”


Claire squeezed her eyes tightly shut and screamed loud enough to hurt Jax’s ears. With

no other recourse, he reached into the flames and grabbed the rod.


“What are you doing!” Claire howled.


“I’m not letting them take you!” Jax howled back. “There’s still time to let go! You can turn away from this path Claire, please! Mom and I don’t want to get to Ephraim without you.”


Her eyes opened at the severity of his words, of knowing it was true, hearing the tone in

his voice that admitted how little he said that to her.


“It’s so…hard…” Claire managed.


Shotguns boomed as Mick and Carlos held the line with Davis, keeping the demons at

bay. They wouldn’t last forever. Jax winced at the searing pain in his hand. 


“I’m sorry I don’t say it more. I’m sorry I took it for granted. You need to know that we don’t want to go on without you. If…if you can’t drop this, I…I’ll stay here with you, Claire Bear.”


Claire went still, the flames moving up her arm. 


“Dad. You can’t. Mom needs you.”


“And we need you,” Jax whispered. “All of us. Together. Please, just give this thing up,

it’s holding you back. It’s holding us all back. It’s not too late…”


With superhuman effort and no shortage of tears, Claire screamed once more, at last

unfurling her fingers from around the demon rod. One by one they peeled away, the flames

lessening with each free digit, until finally the thing sat in her seared red palm, and Jax was able

to pry it all the way loose. With a mighty heave he pitched it out the shattered back window.


The Suburban lurched over an unseen obstacle, carrying the family into Ephraim.


All of them, together.