I burned an old world ruin, some anonymous shack, working my way down the kind of walls that they just don’t make anymore. Hollow, paper and concrete, insulation and wiring. I burned it all, tasted of its past, gathered its power.
I was one fire amidst a sea of them. Ultras ran riot through the streets, blasting and striking at one another with reckless fervor. Nirav’s memories could have told me their allegiances, but I didn’t bother to check. It would suffice for my purposes that they were thoroughly distracted.
I bided a moment, moved to uncharacteristic caution. There were so many Ultras here. If they caught onto my existence before I was large enough I might be defeated. The image of Predictor and his slaves flashed through my mind, grinning and mocking, kicking and taunting. The image of Preventer, holding Nirav’s arms and addressing me without a spec of fear. Never again.
A break came, as I knew it must. The Ultra battle shifted, the less disciplined combatants fleeing back and their organized opponents following. Nirav had left more details about why this distinction might exist, but it was irrelevant. What mattered was that no one was watching my building, nor the ones further away from their battle.
I shrank down upon my fuel for a moment, gathering power, then spread across the street in a sudden surge, joining with the blessed flames that infested the next building. A delicious thrill went through me as my form doubled, then doubled again as I spread still further.
An animal, a cat, was caught in one of these houses. A small thing, claws and teeth useless and decorative against my red hands, half dead from the smoke and dust. I felt an odd urge and spared it, pulling the fire away and leaving it to breathe.
I doubled yet again, four houses becoming, eight, ten, twenty. I spread rapidly, continuously, striding in great red billows from flame to flame, adding every ounce of kindling to my stockpile, bringing every bright fire into my glorious being.
Where were the people? Where were the souls? To Condemn the unliving was a fruitless exercise, giving me strength and nothing more. This was a city. Nirav remembered it bustling just last night. Had they all fled the battle?
I refused to believe it. No battle let EVERYONE slip away. Not one as sudden as this. War was not so kind. I swooped down upon house after house, ruined buildings lighting one after another as my power grew and multiplied, searching for my glorious meals.
Then I reached a building that didn’t go up. A building that was wetted down and defended by streams of water. A Company Facility, with faces peering from every window.
An Ultra stood out front, directing her energy blasts into the encroaching flames, blasting my witless precursors back. She was backed up by Company Men, soulless insects wielding fire hoses, drenching every speck of pavement and making a safe place amid danger.
I manifested, pushing my power and forming a towering figure from the house across the street. I gave it the suggestion of demonic horns, claws and fangs and every scrap of nightmare fuel that I could imagine. A nightmare rendered in flame rose before this pitiful woman and her servants, bellowing my contempt in its birthing instant.
“What?” she shouted, blasting impotently into the house I was biding in. “What’s that?”
The Company men could make no reply, to deviate for an instant would let my flames draw closer. Their pale faces remained intent upon their task. But behind them, in the visage of those who gazed from the windows, there was a gratifying fear.
“What’s that?” I echoed, banging tiles against one another, scraping wires and benches together to form a simulacra of her voice.
“What’s that?” I repeated again, letting the frailty and weakness of her question resound throughout the neighborhood. A quick check through my still spreading mass revealed that the Ultras were still intent upon one another, and far away. No one was coming to interfere with my meal.
She didn’t say another word, continuing to throw energy blasts at the base of my walls, at the street that separated us. Someone had told her how fire normally worked, or she knew from her own lived experience. Perhaps they’d left her to watch the daggers because her power was well suited to fire fighting. In any case she didn’t waste her blasts on the flames, but struck directly at the fuel.
“THAT…IS A DEMON! I AM A DEMON!!” I roared.
This time I used heavier rubble, crunching it and snapping it to make a great booming voice. A deep voice. MY voice. It oppressed her, beat down upon her and daunted her. She flinched back, as did her minions.
“What the fuck?” she screamed, backing away from the fire. She shot her next blasts up and into my projected form, squandering their energy upon the flames.
“ALL WHO DIE WILL DIE IN PAIN! ALL WHO LIVE WILL LIVE IN FEAR!!”
I felt the killing passion rise within me, the ruins smoldering around the area feeding me their might. I shouted my threats with all of my soul, screaming my being into the night, challenging my surroundings without fear. This was how it felt to rule, to destroy, to condemn. This was my birthright.
Far away, I noticed the battle pausing. My ranting had reached them. It changed nothing. Once I had the souls of these humans there would be nothing that they could do to thwart me. Less than nothing.
I wasted no more time in words, swelling and rising all along the street. I pushed my heat, racing forward blue-white with fury. The water from their hoses evaporated as I drew nearer. The blasts that raced from the Ultra’s palm did less than nothing, the pain they caused a spice to the ensuing meal.
The Facility was packed wall to wall with the human citizens, and it went up like a torch. Fire suppressors activated, but they had no power over the blaze that I had brought. People struggled and fought, kicked and shoved…and burned. Burned most of all.
The Ultra had Ultra Toughness. It didn’t help her. She burned. The Company Men had fire fighting suits. It didn’t help them. They burned. The refugees had nothing. They burned. The whole was over in seconds.
I became instantly conscious of a vast absence. I gained power, yes. The Company Facility was a splendid meal. The Ultra’s power was a delicious appetizer. But the feast was missing.
I gazed out through my flames, gazed upon the daggers’ ashes. They had definitely been people. They had definitely been alive. But I gained only the strength that I would have gotten if they were all Company Men, or some kind of animal. Meat and bone fed my flames, but the rush of power that killing gave me, the flashes of knowledge from my victim’s lives…it was absent.
Impossible. I peered through the ruins, seeking someone who I wasn’t finished with yet. There!
A man had hid behind the others, burst out onto the road behind the building and started away. I reached forth a backdraft and spread to him, evaporated his fat and charred his bones.
Fat and bones fell to the ground. Flesh blackened and sizzled. But that was all. HE was not mine. HE had not been Condemned.
I burned for a moment in sullen, cheated silence. Throughout the deserted city I’d spread, but now my spreading stopped. At the edge nearest the Ultras something clawed at my attention, but I ignored it. Let them strike the portions of me that they could reach. This was more important. Something was fundamentally wrong.
Once again I reached out to my gift, taking the speed that was my heritage and churning my thoughts. I had the time. I needed to understand this. Every second felt like ten as my mind swirled with the enigma.
I had burned their bodies. I had scorched them to the quick. I had gained SOME vitality, most obviously from the Ultra. But not from the overwhelming majority. Their bodies had given me no spark, no essence.
They’d been moving though. They had screamed and shouted. The last guy had run. They had had souls, right up till I killed them. But somehow it wasn’t… Wait.
Bodies, without souls. Turn that around. That meant that there had to be the opposite, since I hadn’t eaten them. Souls without bodies. I’d just seen…Benjamin…HAUNTER.
She’d known the night before that this fight was going down. I pushed through Nirav’s memories. Sifted them with a care and patience that nothing but rage could bring forth from me.
There it was. An overheard snippet that he’d pushed down. A bit of information that he’d concealed behind the smoke screen about Indulger.
Haunter had been out, each and every night since we’d reached Redo. She’d known that a huge battle would be fought. She’d wandered the streets, partnering with every dagger she could get her grubby grandma grips on. Taking my food for her own. Setting in her hook such that she would grow stronger, instead of me, when I struck down my foes.
I would SCORCH her. She would take DAYS to be condemned.
I was pulled from thoughts of vengeance by a sudden diminishing. A portion of me had ceased, a portion that I’d been willfully ignoring. In an eyeblink I sent my awareness surging across the flamescape, populating once again the flames nearest to the massed Ultras.
Here was the source of the pain, unsurprisingly. A mammoth impact had flattened a structure with such force that I had been extinguished from the area, pressed back to adjacent buildings. The ruin itself was a flattened crater, occupied only by a hammer.
Opposite it, the remnant of one of the battling forces had assembled to confront me. A few dozen Ultras, perhaps. A tall figure standing before them, holding a wounded giant aloft.
“Fire guy!” he yelled. His tone was insolent, and he seemed unaffected by the drifting clouds of ash and soot. The others looked to him as their leader. Thor.
I ransacked Nirav’s remnants for information on this enemy. A strong Ultra, with a high Tally. What was that to me? The leader of half of the city’s forces? More like a battered husk, drained by conflict. The chosen of the Pantheon? I was the chosen of destiny. Nothing to fear here.
“You won’t take us by surprise!” he yelled again, hefting the musclebound body like a talisman before us. “We’ve seen your creations take Redo. We are taking it back!”
It seemed inconsiderate to just smolder before him. I formed a shape from the flames, not so huge or imposing as I had made before the Company Facility. With Ultras as enemies I might need the power.
“Burner! Scorcher! Whatever you want to call yourself. You are a jackal, but now the lions are aware. Krishna is in full retreat, her troops are pulling away across the sands. You stand alone against us, and your comrade is already in my grasp.”
Thor certainly liked to talk. I waved the burning shape’s hand dismissively.
“I HAVE NO COMRADES. NO PEERS. NO RETREAT. YOU WILL BURN IN MY GRASP.”
I gave voice to my feelings as I sized up their ranks.
None of these Ultras had…presence, save for their leader. None seemed to be of my caliber. None seemed like I should fear them. They were battered and bloody, panting and shaken, a collection of hard women chipped around the edges but more than capable of further violence.
“You aren’t listening! Give up, or I’ll kill your big friend here!”
“I HAVE NO FRIEND!”, but even as I said this I was racking my brain. Why would he think that I would care about some meat sack?
Indulger. Nirav’s last desperate message came back to me. This muscle bound oaf was a fourth of my ticket to immortality at Her hands.
Hadn’t I just decided that I didn’t want that? And yet the treacherous hope wormed its way into my thoughts. Rescue him, kill this Thor, and Prevailer would make our Fist eternal.
What was eternity? I lived every second twice, saw from a thousand burning windows. Even as Thor pontificated I lived more deeply than his ilk could ever understand. I was the world’s culmination, the bonfire that it all led to.
“Vengeance…” whispered some fading echo of Nirav. That was strange.
I’d thought that I’d torn him apart too thoroughly to communicate. I hadn’t even decided whether I was going to reconstitute him the next time I needed a flesh form. And what did he mean by…
Another part of me, one that had not stopped raging ever since Haunter denied my feast, suddenly grasped it. Eternity. Haunter alive, every day, no matter what I’d done to her the previous day. That arrogant hag burning in my clutches, keeping me burning long after the sun turned cold.
The Christian Hell, made deliciously real. I would burn her forever.
I could do it. So long as I saved this Indulger, killed this Thor. I was strong in ways that Nirav and his ilk could never understand. I could suppress my hungers for a time, pass over a snack in favor of a banquet.
“Not so talkative now, are you?!” Thor yelled, shaking Indulger again. “You can’t bring yourself to risk your poor widdle friend?!”
That did it. Even if I didn’t have a reason to save Indulger I wouldn’t have given this pompous fool the satisfaction of anything he wanted. He’d burn before the hour was out.
I started to gather my essence. I pulled the flames that I’d spread into, dragged them to this point of confrontation. I dragged each and every fraction of my form to the boundary line. To the street where this gang of Ultras stared at my avatar, trying to pretend that they weren’t terrified. To the street where they stood, trying to seem brave in the face of the hellfire that I would rain down upon them.
As I did so, I noticed a sudden disruption, back where I’d burst on the scene. A familiar head and shoulders breaking from the ground. Preventer, standing untouched within my racing flames, paying no heed to my form.
I quelled my desire for revenge. For now, at least, Preventer was beyond my grasp. Instead I pulled back the flames, formed them into an arrow on a wall nearby, directing Preventer and the rest of these useless cronies to the confrontation.
I didn’t need help, but I had never tried having an audience before. It might be fun. It would certainly curb Preventer’s irritating tendency to balk me.
Another thought struck me then, and I had to laugh. It boomed out from the flaming figure that I’d manifested before Thor, cutting through his bluster and making him clutch his precious hostage.
This would be a front row seat for Haunter and the rest. They would witness the fate that they would one day share. They couldn’t say I didn’t warn them.