“Guys, I really need this Burner. My superiors expect some engagement with Hell from the public soon. Engagement with me in particular,” Darkfire, a noble of Hell, said.
The Burner was a serial killer who burned his victims to charred bones. She had killed twenty-four people in three months across six states.
“Why not leave him to the cops and feds? We do political change, not baby kissing and shifts at the soup kitchen,” Zealot, leader of his team, the Infernals, said.
“Her. She’s an Infernal off the reservation. Her diet has expanded. She used to just cook pedophiles and other sex offenders. Now she’s cooking lots of guys, most of whom might be slime bags, but, bottom line, she’s a serial killer now. Not an Infernal.”
“Who says?” said Matriarch. “She’s a sister! We’ve got to help her.”
“Why the fuck didn’t you tell us before now? When did you first know of her?” Zealot asked him.
“I really don’t appreciate your tone, Ella. The coach shouldn’t rebuke a player in front of the team.”
“Answer the question, please, Roth.”
His grin was toothy. “Ah, you called me Roth. That’s very sweet, Ella. I’m touched.
“I’ve known about her for a year. She has power over flame. She was a sweet, angry little punisher, that one. Just what we thought we wanted for a poster girl. But she had no feel for performance or media. She didn’t stage her appearances or kills. And then her expanded mandate was far too individualist for Hell to absorb and brand. Last straw.”
“Why didn’t you stop her long before now if she was out of control?” Tiger, the MMA fighter, said through her beautiful mouth full of wicked sharp teeth.
“Well, you’re all killers—heinous killers. How would you feel if I ‘stopped’ you? She had a deal we had to honour just as we do with each of you,” Darkfire said.
“But she’s evil!” Tiger said. Not the clever type, but honest and loyal.
Darkfire laughed. “Evil, Virginia? Each of us has cracked a thousand murders by now. Bloodbath is probably twice that. Friends, let’s get the E-word out of the conversation. I need the girl—young woman—before PowerTrip finds her and Wrath sees her for an Infernal on sight.”
“Why?” Sarah Scales, the other powerhouse on the team, asked. “Why not leave her to those moralists to kill?”
Darkfire loathed the old crone. Always protesting every plan. Always had to be restrained when she went berserk in the field. He took a deep breath. His eyes flamed without his meaning it. He doused them. “Good question, Sarah. The answer is that PowerTrip will announce her through their first-rate media branch as a neutralized Infernal serial killer. We can’t take a hit like that now. Not when the Infernals are just starting to be identified with fighting the real bad guys.”
“No E-word, but ‘bad guys’? Are you twelve, Darkfire?” Sarah asked.
Darkfire’s smile stopped at his nose and left his eyes two flaming stones. He didn’t reply.
“So, Boss, can we do this quick pickup with full media support? Our other projects are two weeks away.”
“No,” Zealot told him.
“Hmm. No. Okay. That’s decided, I guess.” Christ, he was burning again. Ella grasped her shield with her other hand. It made her invulnerable but she could still burn in Hell’s fire. Watcher, the new recruit, decked out in his elegant dark green and black Kevlar suit with his eerie eyeless mask, laughed. Too fucking loud. Ella had chosen him out of thousands. Why on Earth or Hell, Roth had not a clue.
“We can’t afford the distraction.” Ella said. “We’ve been in touch with the people’s army in the Sudan. They’re timetable is volatile. We have to be ready to lead them when they’re ready to take on Arabi. That’s what the Infernals stand for.”
“Zealot, let me remind you that although you’re leader of this little adorable band of the damned, we’re all replaceable. Look at Rajinder Ramachandran, the Burner. She was going to be our poster girl for Hell’s justice on Earth, for the new Earth. Now, she’s dead and doesn’t know it.” Darkfire said.
“And you, Darkfire. Are you replaceable?” Zealot asked.
“Oh, infinitely more so than any of you, but I follow orders,” Darkfire said.
“Orders? We get orders? We sold our souls for freedom in our mortal lifetimes,” Zealot said.
“That’s right.” Bloodbath, the clever apostate. Ella’s favourite pet. The walking arsenal.
“There’s always going to be some give and take. We’re partners. We help each other, right? There’s a reason we’re a team and not off by ourselves. None of us alone with all of Hell’s power can move a whole species. More often than not, we’re all going to have to push for the group to get a step closer to our personal dreams. Each of our dreams,” Darkfire said.
“Zealot, if we stay big picture and ignore a horrible monster killing in our own city, we’ll lose ourselves,” Matriarch said. “But she could be taking out the exact same scum we would if we were neighbourhood superheroes. She might be just working a different level of the food chain. She should live if she’s part of the cause.”
Kim Verger had been a professor of environmental studies just as Ella had been. Kim sold her soul for the power to control and partially become animals. Ella and she respected each other as scholars. He liked his mortal charges, Darkfire was surprised to find. They were evolved, not created perfect as Angels were. But such fierce spirits in mortals. Was that what made their souls so … delicious?
“She’s now deriving sexual pleasure from killing,” Darkfire played like a trump card.
“Killing is my favourite sexual pleasure,” Watcher said.
Watcher flew the Swan from their underwater base a few miles out from New York City and put the small, powerful vessel down in a park nestled in low-built Tribeka. There were thousands of people gathered in groups in the hundreds on the streets everywhere. Darkfire had never seen mortals gather in quite this way. There was a quiet and excitement in the streets that felt like a child’s wonder leavened with fear. Thrill seekers.
Darkfire exited the plane first and shot up into the air like a winged meteorite. A sound like the gasp of a city rose. Darkfire heard it like a lover’s sigh and sighed himself. He hovered and opened his wings fully, shedding flame in every direction and sent a column of Hell’s fire to the ground near the Swan to show the city where to assemble. He stayed aloft and burning for a minute. Long enough to be seen by many, short enough to be poetic. Darkfire dove and in a single flap reached ground and landed with an impact that shook the ground. His Infernals startled despite watching his descent. He was blushing. Fuck. He prided himself on never showing more than a fraction of his power. Modesty, he guessed it was. A mortal virtue?
“Nice, Darkfire. I think I know what happens next,” Zealot said.
“March of glory?” he asked.
Zealot smiled at him. “Let’s go. This will be different, everyone. Be ready for PowerTrip.” Seven costumed warriors walked across the park at 7pm on a Friday night in November’s chill. Nearby crowds moved with a bizarre walk-run to follow the Infernals as they walked to their destination.
PowerTrip was four costumed warriors, one of whom had no superpowers. Nevertheless, they had proven dangerous. What would their leader, Gladiator, do? She was an alien. Fascinating even to him. From where? Hell had put a good Angel on the task of finding out. No success. Gladiator had a soul; that was delightfully evident. She blossomed everywhere. Made others blossom. A threat all by herself.
Darkfire walked next to Zealot. Felt her excitement infecting him. He liked the mortal, but his relationship with her needed work. After the mission, he’d speak with her in private to agree their positions about the importance of the Infernals PR mandate to each of their visions coming to pass.
“I don’t want you and the Angel to cancel each other out again. Avoid Wrath and take Gladiator. Leave Wrath to Reptile, Tiger and me.”
He hated that. Taren—Called Wrath on PowerTrip—was the Angel, not Roth. Darkfire was a Devil: a newer, shittier brand. Angels were loyal. Old school. Waiting for Christ and serving the Holy Spirit as they felt it in mortals daily lives. They continued to inspire mortal genius in their sciences and arts. Hell had struggled to overcome that Angelic brand strength for so many centuries. Angels were still Coke, and Hell’s fallen Angels still Pepsi.
“He’ll kill one or more of you before I can finish Gladiator. A certainty.”
“Trust me. We’ll keep giving ground until you kill Gladiator.”
“You’re the boss,” Darkfire said. “Behind us.” Darkfire smiled at Zealot.
“Wow. They’re all for us?” Many groups of people maintaining a vigil for a sighting of the world’s first superheroes in ten years had converged into a mass of thousands walking several hundred yards behind them and catching up fast.
“The cause is catching fire, so to speak. Enjoy it. This is the Midway ride you paid for,” Darkfire said. His eye’s met Zealot’s. Who had looked at the other first? He couldn’t tell. They both smiled and she turned away sharply.
“You seem so nice most of the time, but this sarcastic side of you keeps shining through your feathers. I wonder when you’ll show us the real Darkfire, if ever,” Zealot said.
“I think I’m letting you get to know me pretty well. I’ve probably saved your life once more than I was inclined to do at the time. We’re golden!” Darkfire said.
Media trucks were showing up.
“Everyone, full costumes, please,” Zealot said.
Seventy-year-old Sarah Scales fell away like a discarded shirt from a black-scaled, almost human-looking female with a serpent growing from her neck some seven feet long—Reptile. Matriarch transformed from a tall swimsuit model to a large, feral, stooped creature dotted with fur and bearing wicked claws. Zealot wore her bright red, blue, and white colours with her red “Devil” horns. Bloodbath bristled with weapons sprouting from every part of his red-clad body. The new recruit in his dark green and black Kevlar and eyeless mask—the badass, Watcher—always seemed to be slightly out of his view. He had a limpid walk that seemed to make him motionless as he travelled.
The team walked down Gamble Street, passing a small community centre for the arts on the way to a residential street: Clyde Street. Zealot called a halt outside of number 23, the home of Rajinder Ramachandran, a secretary with a dream and a philosophy degree.
She’d been so sloppy. Let no pattern showing a laudable cause emerge in her killing. An Infernal he’d recruited gone worse than rogue—gone free. Following her own conscience as it spoke to her instead of an outrage Hell could absorb and focus into a brand. He’d not trained her properly. Now, he needed this event to be big as the moon. The Infernals here to stop a local monster. No job too small or too dirty.
It would be a global shift for this project, his skunkwork. He had to show his superiors that the Infernals could capture a mass audience. Steal it back from PowerTrip. He was on edge. PowerTrip might, however unlikely, snatch the prize and turn it on them in the brand war. Or they might just try to kill them all. He’d expected to see PowerTrip’s plane, the Arrow, fly over and put down in the district any second.
Then, in the crowd. PowerTrip, covered in hats and trenchcoats. Five of them. A new member, male. What could he do? Darkfire didn’t like unknown quantities. This mission was too important for unknown quantities. He worried.
Zealot turned to face the people following. The streets were packed behind them and all the adjacent streets. In the neighbourhood, residents and renters were beginning to appear on their lawns and balconies to see the spectacle.
Darkfire spread his wings wide and sent sheets of Hell’s fire out in all directions. The crowd gasped and clapped. You could hear it from a long way away. More people were arriving at the periphery of the growing throng.
Zealot spoke: “Evil. The great, and the small. The corporate predator and the community predator. The same to the Infernals. Because we care about ordinary people. The Burner, who has killed six people in this city, lives right here. She’s right inside. Keep your distance. We are here to ensure she receives that which she sought to give.” Zealot turned to Darkfire.
Darkfire nodded and flew into the three-storey townhouse window. He seized his former apprentice from the couch she sat on and flicked her chin hard enough to knock her out. Darkfire came out the front door holding her by the neck.
The crowd cheered as the young woman hung in his grasp a foot off the ground. Zealot had a beautiful power for compelling other mortals. She had New Yorkers cheering a lynching.
“Wait,” said Matriarch.
“Fuck. Now what, Kim? What? Now she’s here, tattooed, cute and young—its just too real because you identify with her as sister? Christ!” Darkfire said.
Matriarch’s eyes widened and she stepped back. Tiger put her hooked hand on Matriarch’s shoulder. He’d let his eyes burn again. Christ, when was his anger going to calm a little?
“I’m sorry, Kim. I’m not angry with you. But we need to act now, not discuss.”
“No bullying on my team, Darkfire. Not any of us,” Tiger said.
“Fuck you, Darkfire,” the new boy said. The Watcher.
Darkfire turned on him. Pointed a finger at him. Darkfire was starting to burn everywhere, not just his eyes. His friends recoiled from him as if he were going to eat them. Everyone except Watcher, who drew a stupid gun on him. Rajinder began to scream in his grip. He was burning her. Hell’s fire, so she wasn’t being consumed, only tortured.
The queerest sound came from the people watching in their thousands. Awe? Approval? Horror.
“Ella, what the fuck is happening? What are the mortals doing?” Alive and a spectator of humanity for millenia and this from mortals was new. He wasn’t conducting this choir anymore.
PowerTrip emerged from the crowd. The new member wore a red and black costume and a disk of blue light glowed on his forehead and chest. He pointed at Darkfire. Agony splashed Darkfire and penetrated him. He hit the ground, clawing it for some relief. This mortal had attacked him at the molecular level.
One of his friends must have done something because the pain stopped.
Where was the Angel? Darkfire stood in time to watch the whole picture change. PowerTrip attacked at once, like a team; the Infernals were stunned, except for Watcher, who fired his rifle at the mystery hero in red and black. The Angel was on the badass in an instant. Zealot crashed into Wrath with her shield, driving him back a foot. He was off balance for an instant.
Wow. Standing toe to toe with an Angel. It impressed him every time he saw a mortal do it.
Reptile snapped her jaws at Wrath, but Wrath caught her neck in his fist. She snapped her head back hard, throwing the Angel into the air. Ha. The Alien came at Darkfire like a racing car. He extruded a claw and swiped at her throat. She ducked, struck him hard enough to sting. He went through a fourth house and thankfully stopped against the fifth. No sooner had he risen from the dust and bricks and drywall than he heard cheers from the crowd. This event was not controlled anymore. He had to take control or get his friends out. The new superhero was going to kill one of them. Or the Angel would.
Gladiator came at him bullet fast with another punch. He caught it in his fist with a little strain. Then the pain returned. The molecule man again. Could Darkfire die? He was beginning to think it might be possible. Desirable?
He awoke in a bed. Someone had put him to bed. Ella. She was sitting in a wicker chair beside his bed which he never used but was thankful for suddenly. She wore a black tank and cutoff jean shorts. She looked strained. She smiled at him and some stress seemed to fall away from her brow.
“Ella, what’s wrong?” Darkfire asked. He had been unconscious. That had never happened. Mortals and other animals slept. He trembled.
“Roth? Are you alright?”
He was not. He guessed he must be feeling mortal fear. A soul always lifted him. It could extinguish any pain or fear. He could take Ella’s rich, raw soul right now. His trembling became a shaking. Then she embraced him, like a … friend?
“Can you even feel me?” she asked him.
“No, but I’m very aware of you.”
Then he felt her. Quite snuggly. She was very strong for a mortal. A blossom of Hell and of Earth. So beautiful. She smelled of jasmine. Her face passed across his, left a wetness he could scarcely feel. Tears?
“That was a kiss, Roth. If I kiss you as hard as I hugged you, it just won’t be a kiss. It was on the cheek. We do it to show affection and support.”
“I think I’m afraid.” It wouldn’t go away. It was a little like the Terror. Not so sharp and painful and panicky but deeper.
He felt the woman tighten around him. Gender to Angels was like hair colour. Meaningless. But Roth responded to something in this female. It felt, cooling somehow, her pressure.
“Don’t be. We got you out. We’ll always get you out. Even out of the scrapes back home you haven’t told me about.”
“How do you know about home?” Roth asked.
“Devils are driven, Reed says. Driven by another Devil. We lost Reed. War God shot him in the mouth. Vanisher got Sarah. We’re hurting.”
“We’ll do something…” Roth couldn’t think of another word.
“Roth?” She doubled her pressure somehow. He felt … extinguished. Snuffed out. Free. How he longed to part ways with life among the Fallen. Let the mortal, the molecule scrambler who could hurt him. Kill him?
Roth noticed the handsome young mortal lad leaning against the doorframe to his quarters.
“Is he up?” Hesker asked. Roger Hesker. The Watcher. New boy badass.
“He’s up. Yep.” Zealot said.
“You two having a moment?” Watcher said. He could pluck this young male soul so full of swagger. He’d be a very spikey high that would last and last.
“Not one you can’t be part of, tough guy,” Ella said. She was still holding Darkfire so tightly. It was sort of ridiculous. He thought she would let him go. She didn’t.
“No. You guys enjoy the moment. I’m having a puff. Join me if you want, Angel. Might be a good call right about now.” He was gone.
“I hate him,” Darkfire said.
“I won’t tell you that he dropped Gladiator, stunned the Vanisher—yes, the man who took you down. Then he carried you to the Swan. He also aced Burner for you. I won’t say he didn’t surprise us all. I didn’t even know he liked you.”
“I don’t think ‘like’ is the right word.”
“I’m going to let you go, okay? I’ll close the door until your body calms down. This must be different? Scary?” He felt her let go. His body was calming. Finally.
“Yes, very. Both. I hate different.” Her soul would get him so very delightfully … transported. He could feel it.
“Nothing. Ella. It’s just nice to have good friends.”
Any Devil he knew of under the nail the way he was would have taken the nearest soul. Ella smiled. So did he. The morning was chilly but the clouds parted and the sun filled the room. Darkfire had almost taken her in a passing instant. He coped without. With Ella’s help. For the first time in he could not remember how long, he had changed his nature.