A meager drizzle sprayed from the heavens on the day the blaze ravaging England arrived in Plymouth.
Rivia had hastened even to the scene of the first incident to strike the city. She had waited in the shadows, watching the news on her cell phone as the story unraveled. Just an ordinary housefire, the anchors had assured her. The doing of a careless teen left home alone who mishandled his oven. No injuries; only property damage. Mistakes happened. There was no sign the mysterious creature who had been last sighted in Exeter had been involved.
Even then, they had been running the awful video that had been captured two cities back, where a screeching creature shrouded in ash and flame darted away from a burning hospital. The media aired it whenever they had the chance. The tale of a cryptid on a rampage had captured the attention of the entire world, and the best way to make money was to talk about it, whether there was anything to say or not.
But some did have information to share. Bit by bit, the evidence came in. Blurry photos taken on phones. The recounted ramblings of a mad creature who destroyed everything around it. The world was meeting its first real demon, and the only thing that could match its panic was its excitement.
The second report confirmed Rivia’s suspicion. A convenience store near the afflicted home went up in rampant flames, and not even the newscasters could deny the disaster upon them.
She had visited that scene, too, but, as always, the culprit vanished prior to her arrival.
Presently, she walked briskly toward the blaze that had emerged on the far end of one of the busiest streets in the city. Traffic was at a near-standstill, bolstered by the influx of people trying to use their vehicles to escape the scene. As Rivia watched, several drivers left their automobiles, at last realizing that it would be faster to flee on foot. Of course, their abandoned cars would only serve to worsen the mess for the others.
People wept. They screamed. And, if it proved necessary, they would doubtlessly kill.
The sidewalks teemed with running pedestrians dressed mostly in work attire. Rivia stayed as close as she could to the emptying shops, her hands tucked into the pockets of her black raincoat to avoid accidental skin contact. Nonetheless, she was frequently forced to stop by the flow of humans going in the opposite direction. She spared no concern for the odd looks some gave her.
No, she focused on the problem before her – the rising flames bathing the street in an orange glow, reflecting off the back windshields of vehicles. At the pace she was going, Inferno was all but guaranteed to be gone by the time she arrived. But she could not use magic for speed. If she drew on her latent power, residual sparks would blossom where she stood, melting the people around her and possibly killing more of them than Inferno would.
She stepped backward, pressing her body toward the window of a shop as one driver grew particularly bold – the man had moved his car onto the sidewalk, nearly hitting several people. One of the passersby slammed his suitcase into the side of the vehicle, leaving a dent, which only prompted the driver to open the door and shout. With a sigh, Rivia glanced into a nearby large puddle, which still rippled from the footfalls of fleeing pedestrians, and glimpsed the wavering image of a scrawny girl with pale skin and light brown hair. She looked to be in her mid-to-late teens. She scowled. She always did when she saw her reflection.
Impulsively, she stalked forward, grabbing the open car door from the outside and shoving it into a semi-closed position so she could squeeze through. The man yelped in pain, then shouted profanities at her, which she ignored. “Idiots,” she muttered, aggressively slipping between running people.
If you hate everyone so much, why are you here? Just let ‘em die!
The voice was akin to a child’s, and it was loud – but only to Rivia. No one else could hear the ramblings of Aevyriel, the demon lord who infested her mind like a parasite. She and he had been together for far too long, and she was quite used to his attempts to influence her. She even partly agreed with him. Mankind had done her no favors.
Guilt assailed her, and she nearly drew magic out of instinct to suppress it. Fortunately, she stopped herself in time. Inferno was her problem. The demon had come into the world because of her failings. It had happened long ago, in a small village, before she had grown entirely accustomed to the ways of the world.
Back then, she had been naïve. When that fool of a woman had seen her magic and cried ‘witch’, Rivia could have silenced her and fled. A single murder was not so great a crime. But she had been too gentle, had not wanted to hurt anyone. She tried to warn them even as they tied her to that stake, even as the flames bit her ankles. But they had not listened.
Of course, she had not burned. As the fire consumed her body, the ropes had become ash, but her skin hadn’t reddened even a shade. Immortality was an absolute shield. But only for her.
Instead of melting, her body had emitted a glob of crimson light. A nascent demon that would develop properties in accordance with what ought to have killed her. But that was not all that had happened. When the pain became too great, he had taken control. Aevyriel. And he knew no mercy.
Rivia would always remember what her unwanted companion had told her as he strode over the broken bodies of those villagers. You are the monster the world made you. Then, he had left her to weep among the corpses.
Indirectly, she had wiped out a village that day, and her hands were soaked in the blood of every person Inferno had killed ever since – and it was stronger than ever. It threatened to reveal long concealed truths. That was why she had to destroy it. Not for the good of others. For her own well-being. She would not be hunted again.
To that end, she had been lurking in England. Every time Inferno appeared in one city, she would choose another nearby and wait to see whether her foe would appear. And, at last, luck had turned to her side.
As she advanced, fewer and fewer stragglers surrounded her, until she was alone with vacant cars and flames looming overhead. Sirens blared in the distance, and police cars and fire trucks alike were parked in a wide arc around the burning restaurant. Heat washed over her, and she moved to the opposite side of the street. The last thing she wanted was the attention of humans who thought they had authority. Interaction with their ilk was poison.
The restaurant was the fourth of Inferno’s targets for the day. The response to the attack had been quick, and already, the deluge of water spraying from the hoses washed the fire away, leaving pillars of smoke in its wake. Fortunately, Inferno’s flames could be stifled by conventional means. Unfortunately, they were spreading quickly. Both of the adjacent buildings were already affected, and dancing flames reached further.
Rivia scanned the area. In the unlikely event that Inferno was still around, it was hiding. Locating its body amongst the fire was all but impossible. She bit her lip, considering which direction she would go in Inferno’s position. She made no move to quell the blaze. That job belonged to others.
There was no sign of unnatural growth amongst the flames – no proof of Inferno’s presence. As she searched, one of the firefighters shoved his phone into his pocket and shouted, “We’ve got another one at the plaza on the far end of the street!”
That was all Rivia needed to hear. She ducked into the closest store that was still open. An auto shop; tires and other nonsense were on display throughout the room. More importantly, she was alone. She slammed the door behind her and held it closed. She quickly slipped out of her raincoat and let it fall to the floor; beneath it, she wore an equally dark dress with slits adjacent to either leg to facilitate movement. She drew on her magic.
Her legs tingled as if numb as the azure energy flowed through them, enhancing their strength and speed. A multitude of blue sparks radiated from her body; they crawled over the walls and displays harmlessly before fading away. They would not harm inanimate objects. Only the living.
The magic coursing through her body made the blaze of the fire outside brighter, and the firetrucks redder. She flung open the door, dashed out, and sprinted away from the fire, ignoring the cries of personnel who had spotted her. Despite her stature, magic allowed her to move faster than any ordinary human, and in mere minutes, Inferno’s fifth target was in sight. Those who fled stared and gaped at her swift approach. There was no helping that; without extra speed, she would never catch up.
I thought the point of this trip was to prevent people from learning about the supernatural.
Aevyriel wasn’t wrong, but the cameras that mattered would be focused on the fires. Eyewitness accounts were proof of nothing, and at Rivia’s speed, the people nearby would never capture a clear image.
The departing crowd was far thick for her to run through. Fortunately, there was a truck among the traffic. She made a snap decision and leapt toward it.
Her twenty-foot-high jump drew gasps from the crowd. She landed atop the cargo portion of the truck; the impact of her body dented the metal beneath her. From that vantage point, she watched the flames extend from one store in the emptied plaza to the next, not gradually as fire usually moved, but in one swift motion, as if to devour it whole. There was no doubt about it: that was Inferno’s doing. Finally, she had caught up to her prey.
She dashed atop the truck, leapt toward the third story wall of a nearby building, and pushed off from it. The force carried her over the crowd and into the middle of the plaza’s parking lot. As she landed, the concrete below her cracked.
Satisfied that there was no one else in her immediate vicinity, she redirected some of her magic to empower her eyesight and her lungs. She hastened forward as residual energy blossomed around her. Now, the cameras would be watching.
She ran into the shop that had just been set ablaze.
The door coughed smoke as she opened it, but the thick haze inside was semi-transparent to her eyes. Flames tore through clothing on racks and hung along the walls. If Inferno was still present, it was hiding.
Rivia slipped between two mannequins, touching neither even with her dress. Though fire would not kill her, it would still hurt – and even her custom-made fire-resistant clothing could burn in extreme circumstances. She checked behind the counter, but saw no trace of her opponent. Nothing she recognized, anyhow. She had glimpsed the monster before, but only just.
She spun on her heels, arcs of magic flying from her fingertips, but there was nothing in sight. As she looked around in confusion, Aevyriel burst into laughter.
So paranoid! Works every time!
Rivia nearly cursed, refraining only to deny Aevyriel the satisfaction. There were a few places left that Inferno might be lurking, but, most likely, it had already moved on to the next building. She hastened toward the changing rooms. As she opened the first of them, her blood ran cold despite the oppressive heat.
On the floor, there was a pool of flesh colored liquid. A charred human face emerged from a bubble in it and wheezed out those words. The voice was low and broken. The face popped with the bubble, and liquid splashed across Rivia’s ankle and past her, amassing near the counter.
She pressed her hand against the portion of the hem of her dress that had been touched by the ooze; flames flickered around the fabric, then fizzled. As she watched, the liquid amassed into a lump of burned flesh nearly as tall as she was. Several faces appeared, then popped, releasing their cries at once as they vanished.
“Kill her! WHY WON’T SHE BURN?”
“Witch, witch, witch!”
“Stop! The fire is spreading!”
The voices belonged to men, women, even children, but they were all hoarse. Rivia drew her daggers and held them in front of her in a combat stance. Apparently, Inferno was an amalgamation of the horrors that had occurred on that distant night. All the more reason she had to win. The strong overcame their pasts.
“Stop? STOP? Never, as long as we burn!”
That last voice was higher than the others. The hair on the back of Rivia’s neck stood on end; she recognized it. It belonged to the very woman who had seen her use her magic. The one whose cries damned her to the stake. The one she ought to have murdered of her own volition that bloody night.
The faces returned, one by one, and wordlessly gasped in a mockery of laughter. Each of the eyes popped a moment before the faces burst anew.
This thing is freaky. Are you seriously going to fight it?
Rivia lunged at the beast. As she approached, a head far larger than any of the others arose from the pillar of goo. Its eyes and mouth burst open in flames. She ducked beneath them and slid across the floor, a dagger tearing into the creature’s side as she passed. Heat tore through the weapon, and she dropped it. Inferno laughed.
A hand emerged from the ooze and darted toward the dagger. As it grabbed hold, Rivia shot a tether of magic at her fallen blade and pulled back her arm. The azure cord yanked the dagger away from the hand, cutting its palm as it passed. Arcs of residue dispersed around her, and several of them collided with Inferno, leaving smoke in their wakes as they crawled along its body.
“Chaos! Wildfire! Show us! SHOW US!”
“In fire, pain! In pain, life!”
Rivia’s stomach churned as she stepped backward. Her magic damaged Inferno, but far from making it flee, the wounds apparently elicited pleasure from her foe. It was well and truly insane. She could use that to her advantage.
Flames engulfed the walls surrounding them. Soon, the ceiling would collapse. If she stayed in the clothing store, she would surely suffer a would-death. She made for the door. Inferno wailed.
“In control, death! In restraint, lies! BURN WITH US!”
Rivia turned at the exit, latched her magic directly to Inferno’s side, and pulled. Her arm ached with effort, but the goo peeled toward her first at one point, then in an ever-growing area, like a sticky cobweb being pulled from its corner.
The ooze flew directly past her and landed in the parking lot. Outside, firemen had gathered. She gritted her teeth. Too many witnesses. But Inferno could not be allowed to escape
It, on the other hand, clearly cared nothing for its audience. It stretched into a grotesque totem pole with burned faces stretched here and there. The firemen screamed.
“PANIC! KILL! BURN TO ASHES!”
The eyes and mouth of each face shone, and beams of fire shot parallel to the ground in all directions. Several of them collided with nearby cars – and one with a firetruck – creating colossal explosions.
Rivia dashed forward, ignoring the echoes in her head. But the heat behind her grew, and she couldn’t help but glance back.
The flames that had consumed the buildings were rolling toward her like a wave of molten lava.
“You want to burn?” asked Rivia, sheathing her blades. “I can arrange for that!”
She pressed her hands together mid-run, calling her magic. Once its light enveloped her to the wrists, she separated her hands. An azure beam connected them. She ran into Inferno beam-first, slicing the upper half of the totem pole away from the base. She caught it with a cord of magic and threw it toward the approaching wall of fire.
A massive explosion erupted at the point of impact, sending Rivia careening through the air. She landed amongst the firefighters, who hastily moved away. Flames danced on patches of her dress. She stifled them with her hands, ignoring the pain.
Screams sounded to her left, and she realized that she was not the only one whom the explosion had propelled into the onlookers. Fleshlike goo spread among the fleeing officers like a quickly growing puddle, and, each time it touched another person, a wobbling hand latched on to their ankle, setting their leg afire. The portion of Inferno remaining in the parking lot slid along the ground quickly, rejoining the main body. Bubbling heads emerging from the ground screamed frantically.
“The witch brings this upon you! Kill her! KILL HER!”
“One man cannot fight a wildfire! Only in numbers will you prevail!”
“FEAR! ANGER! EMBRACE THEM! BECOME THEM!”
A flickering orange shone in the puddle, and it quickly spread, encompassing the entirety of Inferno’s body. Those who were touched erupted in flames. Inferno repeated its gasping laugh as they became ash.
As you can see, your interference is only making this worse. Why don’t you take my advice for a change and just run?
“No,” hissed Rivia. “Even if a hundred people die today, fewer will perish in the long term. Besides, we’ve already been seen.”
She nodded her head upwards. Helicopters hovered high above. With her enhanced eyesight, she made out the letters on their sides. Every news station in town was covering the disaster.
“Inferno has been unambiguously caught on tape,” she said. “As long as it lives, the entire nation – perhaps the entire world – will succumb to panic. For the first time in human history, a supernatural event will be well documented. If I don’t show these people Inferno’s destruction, they’ll go to extremes. This city could be bombed.”
Even if you get rid of Inferno, the supernatural threat won’t be over, will it? After all, you will remain. Get ready for modern day witch hunts! The people will rally against you!
“I can deal with them,” said Rivia. “I always have.”
She sprinted toward the blaze and channeled her magic at the ground adjacent to the pool of flames. A wave of azure light pierced the fiery haze before vanishing within it. Again, Inferno screamed. And laughed.
A bulbous mass of flesh supported by a dozen makeshift legs charged from the flames and into Rivia, spreading onto her entire body. As she fell to the ground, she shot a strand of magic at running hose left abandoned on the ground, and tugged so that it aimed toward her. The flames engulfing her body evaporated, leaving wet, heavy, and frayed cloth in their wake. She rolled to the side, avoiding Inferno’s second attempt to tackle her. As she landed on her feet, she got a better look at the demon’s current form. It was an orb of charred flesh with arms, legs, and faces sticking out from apparently random points. An aura of flame surrounded it. Aside from the observers above, she was alone with her enemy. Alone save for the one she could never get rid of.
I don’t think anything you’ve done has even hurt it! No matter how great your pride, you’ll never win without a better way to fight.
She pulled the hose into her hand with her tether and aimed it at the glob of flesh and flame. She held it with her right hand as her left hovered just above the nozzle; the spray she shot at Inferno consisted not only of water, but also magic.
It made contact with the rolling sphere, slowing its movement and extinguishing a patch of fire. But the moment she aimed the hose at another portion of the demon’s flesh, the previously affected one reignited.
“We will not be calmed! Not extinguished!”
“EVEN WATER CAN BURN!”
“Strategy cannot defeat instinct. The flames of your true fury have not been suffocated. Freedom is not in discipline, but impulse!”
That last voice was the higher one, the one Rivia guessed represented Inferno’s more coherent thoughts. She threw the hose to the ground; although it had some effect, it was not nearly strong enough. But she had an idea of what might be. Inferno’s very inability to control itself would defeat it.
She turned and ran.
What? Are you really taking my suggestion? That’s kind of boring.
Of course, she was doing no such thing. Aevyriel ought never be listened to. Her goal wasn’t to escape Inferno, but rather, to change her surroundings. As expected, the sound of crackling flames followed her, no matter how far she ran.
She dared to glance backward and saw the blazing ooze rushing toward her. She directed a few arcs of magic toward the beast to give the illusion she was still fighting.
“Yes! Pain! Let us suffer together!”
“Run! Spread our blessing to the metal castles!”
Even Inferno understood the risk of Rivia’s actions. By baiting it to follow her, she was subjecting even more of the city to its destruction. She could only hope the people had evacuated a wide area around the supernatural clash. Damage to the nearby buildings, on the other hand, was unavoidable. Every time Inferno so much as grazed a car, the vehicle exploded, knocking mailboxes from their hinges and indenting the walls. And, of course, the fire continued to spread. Even if she won, Plymouth would be utterly devastated by the fight.
You think you’re saving this place? What a joke! A few dozen deaths are manageable, but it will take the people here decades to recover from the damage you’ve wrought.
She leapt atop a bus, sparing a quick glance backward. Inferno was mere yards away. Cursing, she jumped from off. Before her feet touched the ground, the bus exploded, pushing her through a glass window and into a building. Her body collided with a desk, knocking a computer monitor off of its surface.
Inferno was too fast, and Rivia’s magic was waning. She wouldn’t make it to her destination without another battle – but fighting would weaken her further and render her plan impossible to execute.
Even as she staggered to her feet, ooze crept through the gap in the window made by her body. Inferno laughed again. It seemed to find everything funny.
“Surrounded by flames, what can you do?”
“We shall burn this fortress to its roots!”
“Eternal flames on eternal flesh beget eternal suffering!”
Rivia surveyed her surroundings. Despite Inferno’s boasting, there were severals paths to follow. If she took one, she would be putting more distance between herself and her goal – but what choice was there? The ooze formed a semicircle around her, flames rising high. A blaring sound filled the room.
Fire alarms. Ceiling sprinklers activated on their own, but their deluge seemed not to faze Inferno. However, the sound gave Rivia an idea. She scanned the room until she found a fire extinguisher. She grabbed it.
Seriously? You think something like that will save you?
She channeled magic around the cylindrical device and tossed it at Inferno’s makeshift wall. Inferno apparently found that as comical as Aevyriel. Until it exploded.
The burst of white gas and azure lightning pushed Inferno’s body toward the walls on either side, effectively cleaving it in two. Rivia ran through the gap before it could reform. She leapt through the window, ignoring the lingering fragments of glass that broke against her leg, and continued along the path she had been previously following. There were still several blocks between her and the aquarium. She turned right at an intersection, but channeled a small amount of magic into the pavement as she took the corner. The sparks would serve as breadcrumbs Inferno could use to follow her. If it lost track of her, all the damage it had done during their battle would be for naught.
Her eyes widened. People remained on this street. She had traveled far since Inferno had torched that clothing shop. Her magic had taken her a great distance over a short period of time, and though the fire also spread, it happened too quickly for ordinary people to react. The ones on the far end of the street were in the process of retreating, but they were clustered together, and there were cars among them. Easy targets for a bloodthirsty demon.
“Foolish human! A wildfire cannot be outrun!”
“FOOD, FOOD! Embrace them, consume them, burn even the ashes.”
“A pyre waiting to be lit!”
Rivia turned and faced her enemy. Inferno had again taken the form of a totem pole, taller than ever before. Blocking attacks from so many mutilated faces at once would be near impossible even if she were willing to expend her remaining magic.
I know your conscience is completely suppressed with all the magic you’ve been using, so listen to me during this moment of clarity, Rivia. There is no point in this fight. That pack of fools is about to be torched, and, when that happens, even you must realize that your interference only makes things worse. You think you fight to amend your past misdeeds, but it is pride alone that drives you. False pride. Pride with roots in the farce you humans call morality. Be rid of it. It only makes you suffer.
Her heart pounded in her chest. Her body shook with ragged breaths. Aevyriel’s whisperings made sense. Magic temporarily stripped her of her sense of right and wrong, and, in its absence, allowing hundreds to die seemed the wiser choice. But she had fallen for Aevyriel’s mockery of wisdom too many times to succumb to it again. She had seen what would happen if she fled. Massacres. Panic. Chaos. And when her magic faded and guilt returned, she would be left with regrets and nightmares. During her centuries of life, she had compiled a mountain of them. That was why she had long since resolved to ignore Aevyriel’s advice. Foolish though it was, she respected the seemingly hollow convictions that led her to Plymouth.
Inferno launched a single stream of fire at the crowd. Rivia leapt and caught it. The flames washed over her skin, inflicting pain, but they did not linger, save the ones that had touched the sleeve of her dress. When she landed, she hastily cut away the end, and, though her blade touched her arm, it did not cut her. In its haste to kill, Inferno had overlooked an obvious fact.
“Immortal flesh does not burn,” said Rivia.
She sprinted toward Infero, who laughed despite its failed attack. Surely even so mindless a creature would realize that she could not block more than a few blasts with her body at once. That was why she had to make such an attack impossible before it could be launched, no matter the cost.
Inferno did nothing. Apparently, it was confident enough in its regenerative abilities not to fear her. Perhaps it could not fear at all. Nevertheless, her blades pierced its charred skin with ease, and instead of pushing through the creature as she had before, she leapt directly into the monster’s body, both daggers held above her, cleaving through the flesh like putty. It sprayed in all directions in liquid chunks, leaving only the bottommost portion of the totem pole intact. Heat washed over her. Upon landing, she sheathed her blades and used her hands to smother the flames dancing in her indestructible hair lest they spread.
But the fight was far from over. Although it lay splattered across the street and dripping down walls, Inferno’s flesh remained, and there was no doubt it would coalesce. Demons who survived their infancy were incredibly regenerative, and Inferno was centuries old. Nearly as old as Rivia herself.
Complete destruction had never been the goal of the attack. Scattered as it was, Inferno would need some time to gather itself. And the people on the far end of the street had noticed the danger they’d barely avoided; their screams were louder and their movements more frantic than ever. They would retreat more quickly. The trouble was, others were likely to remain on the path to her destination.
She hesitated. If she stayed near to Inferno, she could slash at the pieces of flesh crawling back to the beast. But that would barely slow its reformation. Instead, she ran – directly toward the crowd.
With magic strengthening her limbs, she closed the distance far sooner than was possible for an ordinary human. Predictably, that heightened the crowd’s panic. As they screamed, she jumped above the back of the group and landed atop a car parked parallel to the street. Its roof partially caved in upon impact.
“Listen,” she cried, loudly enough to gain the attention of at least a few people, some of whom stopped in their tracks, visibly awed. “You need to get away from here, but keep your distance from the aquarium, too. If possible, tell someone with the news stations to spread that message as far as possible. If you linger near the aquarium, you will die.”
Why do you always pretend to be so noble? You know, if Inferno can actually think, you’ve just revealed your plan to it.
The people yelled in confusion as they continued to flee. Before long, all had passed the car Rivia stood on. She had no illusions about how her request would transform given enough retellings. By the time the story reached a news outlet, it would probably portray her as a terrorist threatening the aquarium, or something like that. There was no time to worry about such gossip. She could deal with cops – even dozens at once. But she was reaching her limit with Inferno. Sweat poured down her cheeks, and she breathed heavily as she strode toward her foe. Almost all of its pieces had rejoined the main host by now, and the creature was wailing nonsense audible at a distance.
“The more you run, the farther we spread!”
“Explode, explode, EXPLODE!”
“Alone, the world is frost! Huddle so we can burn!”
Rivia scowled at the mad creature. Demons were almost as powerful as they were pitiful. They had no love for discourse, save for one of them, and even he was beneath contempt. She had seen what Aevyriel would do given the opportunity. He and his kind were a blight on humanity. They had to die.
Though she did not say it, she knew she was just as great a burden, and she deserved the same fate. But she would never have it. Ages of experience had taught her that. No matter what she did, she was cursed to live.
Inferno knew that, too. Its goal had never been to kill her. It wreaked havoc wherever it went to satiate its lust for destruction and, when she appeared, it likely recognized the opportunity she provided. If it burned her enough to kill a lesser human, it would beckon another demon like itself into the world. Should it repeat that process, mankind might find itself up against hundreds of fire demons. That was why Aevyriel thought her so reckless for even trying to fight. She risked being a harbinger to the apocalypse.
In the absence of her conscience and the accompanying sentimentality, she acknowledged that she had not learned. Even now, she gambled the lives of all to save a relatively small number of people.
I don’t need to be able to read your mind to know what you’re thinking, Rivia. We’ve had this conversation a hundred times before. You want to believe you haven’t changed, but you have. That day, you spared the woman who named you a witch out of legitimate concern for her well-being. But you are not fighting today for the good of humans. You’re fighting for the sake of your ego. You’re desperate to believe you are worthwhile, so you fight to undo the harm you’ve wrought. But, in doing so, you only cause more damage. All you’re really proving is, by those stupid human standards, you’re less than worthless.
Aevyriel’s prattling was beneath contempt. The people Rivia had just spoken to would need more time to clear the path. That meant holding Inferno off for a while longer.
But her magic was dwindling. The buzz that had strengthened her limbs now faded, and she knew that, if she refreshed it, her store would grow weaker. The only way to replenish her power was not to use it for a while. She gritted her teeth. It was an almost unimaginable task – yet she would have to accomplish it. Temporarily, her goal was not to harm Inferno, only distract it.
She dashed to one side of the smoldering flesh, which had amassed into a vague pyramid in the center of the street. The demon’s coughing laugh grew as it doubtlessly realized she was becoming slower, and her power was fading.
Charred arms sprouted from either side of Inferno, but they were not the believably-human arms that she had seen before. These stretched to absurd lengths, bleeding fingernails digging into the concrete of the walls of buildings on either side, and a thin layer of flesh ran between them. Inferno effectively turned itself into a breathing spider web completely blocking off the street. Rivia could not flank it.
She skidded to a stop without colliding into Inferno’s outstretched body, but was too late nonetheless. The arms moved inward, encasing her in a grotesque vise. Panicked, she unsheathed one of her daggers and thrust it toward the webbing, but, without enough magic to strengthen the blow, her weapon was merely knocked from her hand, encased in the same trap she was.
The flesh closed around her, muting everything but Inferno’s cackling and Aevyriel’s voice.
Now comes the fire.
Rivia did the only thing she could. She drew on all the magic she had left.
Blue sparks and orange flames collided as the incinerator roared to life around her. Magic fortified her skin, mitigating the bulk of the pain. She was thrown backwards, and her body scraped across the pavement, but still, flames clung to her. Her clothing burned here and there, and she could only assume her daggers had melted. That was not why goosebumps rose on her pale skin. A gleam of red appeared in the space she had just been occupying. That was the true source of her dread.
A crimson orb. Despite all the magic she had expended defending herself, she had suffered a would-death. That sphere of pure magic would change shape soon. It would become a new demon. Another just like Inferno.
Rivia gasped in pain – or, rather, tried to no avail. Instead, her face split into a cruel smile.
Slowly, she teetered to her feet, eyes lingering on the long, pale scars forming stripes along the skin revealed by a burnt sleeve. But she did not move of her own accord. The nascent demon was not the only new threat she had created. He had gained control. Aevyriel.
“You should really take better care of your stuff, Rivia,” he said with her mouth, cavalierly tossing back her unburnt hair. It was his voice, not hers, that came out. “Don’t you remember how much that outfit cost? No way you’ll ever wear it again after that.”
He extinguished the flames lingering on Rivia’s clothing with her hands. Then, he held her arm out in front of her body, palm outstretched, and a weightless blade composed of stable azure lines materialized in front of it. Her fist closed firmly around it.
Inferno, who had retracted into a single lump again, was no longer laughing. Instead, it hissed.
“Monster, monster, monster, monster!”
“BURN IT! MAKE IT SUFFER!”
“A hundred lives he took to make us. A hundred he wishes to reclaim.”
Aevyriel shrugged and rolled Rivia’s eyes. “Actually, I’ve got better things to do than mess with you, Fireface. Like proving Miss Valiant is a threat to humanity. There’re people to dismember; you know how it is.”
Don’t you dare turn me into the monster here!
Rivia attempted to shout, but of course, no words came out. When Aevyriel took over, they switched positions – he controlled her body, and she was but a voice in his head.
Perhaps fortunately, Inferno seemed to care as little about what Aevyriel said when it could hear him as it did when it couldn’t. It shot three pillars of flame at Rivia’s body in quick succession. Aevyriel parried them with lazy swings of his sword and sighed.
“No, seriously,” he said. “I’d rather not waste my time on stupid fighting like this. I don’t often get the chance to come out and play, so I’ve got to use this opportunity wisely. Go ahead with your rampage or whatever. Really. It’s okay. I don’t mind.”
Without awaiting a response, Aevyriel turned and strolled in the direction the fleeing citizens had gone. As usual, his gait was odd, and he frequently veered into walls only to use them to right himself. “How many times have I told you, Rivia?” he asked. “I’m not making you a monster. The world did that.”
You disgraceful fool! YOU ARE BEING FOLLOWED!
Aevyriel paused momentarily. Liquid-flesh wrapped itself around Rivia’s ankles. Aevyriel blinked as if genuinely surprised. “Come on, really?” he said. “Don’t you have something better to do?”
He belatedly slashed at the burning goo sizzling a hole in her boot, apparently completely ignorant of how painful it was to make contact with a fire demon. Rivia, on the other hand, was all too aware. Even when Aevyriel controlled her body, the pain she suffered remained hers alone.
“Attacking me is like the one thing that might actually get you destroyed!” yelled Aevyriel, stomping Rivia’s foot in obvious irritation. “How are you this stupid?”
It’s as rabid as the fire that spawned it. Reasoning with it won’t work. Run faster or destroy it yourself.
“Damn you, Rivia! You think you can manipulate me?”
Aevyriel swung his sword in a wide arc, flinging the fragments of Inferno clinging to Rivia’s body away. Then, he sauntered toward the mass of flesh comprising the bulk of Inferno’s body. As expected, the demon was completely undeterred by the show of force. It flung fireballs at Aevyriel in rapid succession. He didn’t bother to block them. Heat and pain washed over Rivia again and again, but Aevyriel kept walking, brushing at the flames as if they were crumbs.
“What exactly do you hope to accomplish?” he asked, drawing nearer to Inferno. “This body is immortal. Rivia has already lost control of it, for the time. There’s nothing you can do to me.”
Inferno’s responses were as coherent as expected.
“Why won’t it burn?”
“MORE FIRE! MORE!”
Several elongated arms reached toward Rivia, but Aevyriel severed the hands before they took hold. Then, with an awkward dash, he rammed his blade into Inferno.
Flesh scattered everywhere, but the demon was not dead. Chunks of ooze crawled across the scorched pavement. Aevyriel turned, released his sword, which faded into azure mist, and breathed a deep sigh.
Just finish it off! Then I can stop chasing Inferno like you want.
“As if I’m gonna do your job for you. It will take that thing a while to put itself back together. That gives me plenty of time to get out of here.”
Rivia suppressed her desire to scream – or, rather, had it forcefully suppressed by her possessor. Killing Inferno would have only taken a minute. Now she would have to start from scratch when she regained control, and the parasite would doubtlessly whine about it the entire way.
Aevyriel picked up his pace and moved more steadily. Every time he possessed her, it was like that – at first, he acted as if he had forgotten how to walk, then he gradually grew accustomed to it. As he advanced, his eyes darted back and forth. Half a mile down the street, he giggled. Rivia felt like her heart was dropping, though it couldn’t have really been.
A man crawled along the ground toward an alleyway, one leg gushing blood.
Aevyriel practically skipped to meet him. The sound of his approach drew the man’s wide eyes. Foolishly, he seemed to relax when he saw Rivia.
“Please,” he said between pained breaths. “Help me. Someone threw me into the side of a car while I was trying to escape. Bastard left me here to die. Everything’s going black. Gonna pass out. If you could –“
“Sorry, bud,” said Aevyriel. “Miss hero-wannabe is indisposed at the moment, and there’s no way I’m gonna save you. I can make the pain go away, though!”
Aevyriel, stop! This will only lead to more hassle later! I –
In one smooth motion, Aevyriel resummoned his blade, swiped it through the man, and let it vanish. The man’s torso and arms flew into the alley, leaving sickening splotches of blood in their wake. It had all happened so fast, Rivia didn’t think it had registered in the mind of the deceased. Hope remained in those eyes.
Aevyriel looked up at one of the news helicopters and winked. “Now they know you for who you really are.”
I thought you wanted away from people! Now they’re sure to hunt us!
Aevyriel shrugged and continued walking. “I changed my mind,” he said. “Better get used to this, ‘cause I’m just getting started.”
His stroll along the lonely streets was punctuated by a roaring explosion far behind them. Apparently, Inferno had pulled itself back together. Rabid as it was, it would surely give chase. Aevyriel likely was thinking the same thing; he broke into a run.
Do you even know where you’re going?
“Nope,” said Aevyriel. “Just looking for people.”
As Rivia had expected, the fool hadn’t been paying enough attention to his surroundings to realize he was still on the path to the aquarium. Less fortunately, he was clever enough to find a way off that path. If he put some humans between himself and Inferno, the fire demon would likely be distracted from its hunt.
Turn right at this next intersection to get to a place that might still be populated.
Aevyriel chuckled and veered left. “Sorry to disappoint, Rivia, but I don’t wanna play with fish, and I’m not stupid enough to fall for your lies.” Rivia was glad she could not smile. Aevyriel had fallen for the truth. Moments like that comforted her – despite all appearances, Aevyriel couldn’t actually read her mind.
But, judging by the way he cursed whenever he turned a corner and found the next street devoid of people, he quickly realized he had been played. Surprisingly, he didn’t vent at Rivia.
He turned into a narrow alley, walking headstrong as if in denial of his error. As he wandered the streets, Rivia realized that he had no sense of direction. He retraced his steps time and again, in search of who-knew-what. All the while, the crackling of flames drew closer.
She said nothing. She would only regain control of her body in time if Aevyriel exerted himself. She needed Inferno to catch up.
Aevyriel jumped, then cursed when jumbled words became audible again.
“Hiding, hiding, hiding, but all burns in the end.”
Aevyriel turned to flee, but stopped dead in his tracks when a glob of flesh burst through the window of a building on his path, leaving fragments of glass on the pavement and coalescing into a single blob, smaller than the previous one. A backwards glance revealed another copy of the half-demon. Aevyriel was surrounded.
“I really hate when Rivia is right,” he growled, resummoning his blade. “Fine! If you want to die so badly, let’s get this over with.”
Faces bubbled from the surface of each of the two pieces of Inferno.
“Fire cannot be killed!”
“Drown in hubris, wicked one!”
The two blobs of flesh stretched outward into full-blown waves, each igniting as they swept toward Rivia’s body. Aevyriel dashed toward the one in front of him with his sword held pointing toward his foe and parallel to the street. The blade flared with azure light, opening a gap in the wall of fire. Aevyriel jumped, but without enough momentum to naturally propel himself through – instead, he dashed in midair, as if temporarily flying.
But even as Rivia’s feet landed on the ground, lava-like goo sprayed onto her calves, reducing the hem of her dress to tattered rags.
Aevyriel stumbled and fell, and the two waves, now merged into one, descended upon him. Flipping into a sitting position, the demon lord drove his blade into the pavement, and a glimmering blue polyhedron reminiscent of a certain sapphire formed around Rivia’s body. It propelled the lava harmlessly from its surface, leaving Inferno spread out in a semi-circle before her.
“Damn that thing!” said Aevyriel, staggering to ‘his’ feet. He breathed heavily, and his sword wavered. His time in control was nearly over – and he knew it.
“I’ve changed my mind again, Rivia,” he snarled. “I hate this thing even more than I find your pretend heroics annoying. So, I’ll give you a moment to prepare your stupid plan. Just remember, you owe me!”
With a wave of his sword, Aevyriel launched an azure shockwave at Inferno’s coalescing body. It scattered anew, but the pieces continued to squirm. The sword faded from existence, and the strength keeping Rivia on her feet rapidly vanished. Her body began to fall.
She took a decisive step forward. At last, she was back in the fight.
Immediately, she drew on her magic, which had been replenished by Aevyriel’s temporary presence. Sparks crackled around her as her limbs numbed, strengthened by the energy surging through them. Even while she had been a prisoner in the back of her mind, she’d been paying close attention to her surroundings and knew she was blocks away from her destination. Her renewed strength was plenty to ensure she would arrive at the aquarium before Inferno could pull itself back together.
She just had to make sure her prey had no second thoughts.
She sought some of the larger chunks among the patches of writhing flesh. A few stood out among the rest. She chose two of those haphazardly and latched strands of magic at them, linking them to her hands. Then, tethers in place, she ran.
Her boots slammed against the pavement in rapid succession as she sprinted with inhuman speed. Judging by the screams following her, faces had emerged from the fragments of Inferno she’d taken hostage. Their words were entirely unintelligible, drowned out by the whooshing sound they made as they tore through the air. Rivia took care to keep them aloft so they could not cling to any other surfaces. When it was possible, she jumped atop the roofs of empty cars to ensure they remained high off the ground.
Good. Get this over with already. Aevyriel’s voice was barely audible as Rivia dashed around a corner, but, nonetheless, she could hear his irritation. He was sulking, upset by his recent failure. She suppressed a smirk. It was pathetic, really, for so strong a being to behave so childishly. The only reason she didn’t voice her disdain was because she knew that, if she did, Aevyriel would not forget, and he would be thrilled to have an excuse to get even.
She barely encountered any other people en route. Apparently, her warning had reached the masses, and only a few thrill seekers remained to watch. Their cell phones would capture only blurry images at the speed she was going. The helicopters hovering overhead were another matter entirely. They drew the entire city to her location. It was possible that, once Inferno was dealt with, the police would try something stupid.
If they did, Rivia would not hesitate.
For the time, she ignored the onlookers. A wail sounded in the distance, and she knew Inferno had reformed. She needed it to come after its missing pieces. If it didn’t, her ploy would be for nothing. She was relying on Inferno’s mindless nature, but she felt confident that was no mistake. Both fire and the rioters who had burned her so long ago had lacked self-control. It was logical that the demon they spawned would share their deficiency.
Rivia approached another turn, but before she could take it, heat washed over her.
She spared a backward glance mid-run. Inferno lunged toward her in the shape of an arrowhead, leaving an enormous trail of fire in its wake. Cars exploded as it zoomed forward, and not all of the screams belonged to Inferno. Several of those fool enough to linger had been consumed by fire. She didn’t pity them.
As she rounded the corner, Inferno’s cries grew louder and less coherent than ever.
“WE WILL NOT BE QUENCHED!”
“Everything burns! You are no different! THEY WILL ALL SEE!”
“The more we spread, the stronger we become!”
She channeled more magic into her legs, increasing her speed. Nonetheless, Inferno was on her heels. Sweat poured down her cheeks as she sprinted toward the entrance of the aquarium, now in sight. She had to make it there first. If she didn’t, all her work and all of those deaths would be for nothing.
Admit it, Rivia. You failed. It’s not too late to flee. Leave the vermin to suffer the consequences of your pride.
She was a mere hundred feet from the entrance of the aquarium. Fifty. Twenty. But the heat only grew, and her blouse was drenched in sweat. Ooze grasped for her ankles. She wouldn’t make it. Unless…
She spun in midair and flung the two globs of flesh toward the ground. They splattered directly into Inferno’s body as it approached – but the tethers that had held them severed the hand on the brink of closing around her leg. She dashed beneath the sign announcing her location. Glass shattered against her body as she darted directly through the doors.
The lobby was empty. Chairs laid knocked over, and brochures were scattered across the tiled floor. The remnants of a swift evacuation.
In front of her, large tanks filled with water and an assortment of colorful fish lined the hall leading deeper into the facility. She sprinted for it. The farther in she got, the more water there would be.
A mass of liquid flesh darted over her shoulder. It coalesced into a wall barring her passage. Pained faces bubbled from the surface.
“Nothing can stop an inferno.”
“We will not be drowned!”
Rivia stepped aside to dodge the clouds of fire the faces blew from their mouths. Frantically, she sought another exit. The closest she spotted was a door bearing a sign reading ‘Employees only.’
Reflexively, she made for the door and turned the handle. There had been a lock in place, but a twist of her magically enhanced wrist shattered it. She bolted down a stairway to the sound of approaching cackling. Once at the bottom, she glanced back. The passage she’d just taken was blocked by Inferno the same way as the first. She could only go forward.
The room she arrived in contained several rows of cubicles, all now abandoned. Papers were strewn about the floor. She strode over them, searching for another exit, but found only a couple of restrooms, an employee lounge, and a few private offices. Dead end. There were no tanks containing aquatic creatures, no exceptional sources of water at all. Inferno oozed down the stairs at an almost leisurely pace, as if aware of its advantage.
Hahaha! Wrong turn! Serves you right!
Rivia gritted her teeth and scanned the room. Here and there, the cubicles were punctuated by pillars extending from ceiling to floor. Her heart sank. Only one strategy remained.
She stood with her back to a pillar as Inferno coalesced around the room’s sole exit. It laughed with outright glee, apparently convinced the fight was over, and it had won. Its charred flesh filled the doorway and crept along the adjacent walls as if consuming them. Dozens of pained faces stared at her, contorted grotesquely even amidst their mirth.
She channeled magic through her body. With a decisive kick, she tore the pillar apart near its base. Then, she latched onto the ceiling and repeated the process just below. Her magic wrapped around the pillar fragment in dense arcs. With a swipe of her arms, she threw it at the blocked doorway like a giant lance.
Fire barraged the pillar as it approached, but the flames did nothing to slow it. It pierced Inferno’s body and landed on the stairs behind. Globs of flesh sprayed from the point of impact. However, Inferno remained situated around the door. The skin clinging to the wall oozed inward, quickly closing the gap made by the projectile. Inferno’s laughter grew louder and madder.
“No room to run. Here, you will be extinguished.”
“Beneath a false sea the great fire will be born!”
You are so screwed.
Inferno wasn’t just regenerating the damage done by her attack; every moment, it consumed more wall space. It even began to cover the ceiling. It sought to surround her as it had before, and she was quickly running out of room.
She dashed to another pillar and repeated the process she’d used to launch the previous one. Again and again, she tried her attack. Each time, its effect on Inferno weakened. The seventh pillar didn’t even pierce its flesh.
Over half of the room had been claimed by Inferno. Flames flickered from its flesh, their heat nauseating. Once the process was complete, Inferno would have no difficulty summoning hundreds of copies of itself.
“Each failure feeds us! Makes us stronger!”
Rivia drew all the magic she could and honed her senses. There was no time left. She had to make her play – to do the only thing she still could.
She held out a hand, palm facing upwards, and launched dozens of tethers at the ceiling. They connected with it at various points in the room, in the center, along all the edges. Inferno’s flesh dodged away from each strand of magic. Her magic didn’t touch it at a single point.
“Persistent human! WE WILL NOT BE REMOVED!”
Rivia took a few steps backward. Several cords of magic grew taut. “I was counting on that,” she said.
She slammed her palm against the ground and pulled on every tether at once.
Everything shook. The walls, the ceiling, all the desks in the room. Then, it all came crashing down. First, only a few tiles, then the entire ceiling.
She dashed beneath a large desk for its meager cover. She took a deep breath. Not only the ceiling fell. There were pipes, steel beams, glass, and an overwhelming rush of water.
Inferno’s laughter turned to a scream. That, too, drowned.
The water filled the basement, fallen debris swirling with it as it settled. Several turtles, a myriad of fish, and at least one eel joined Rivia in the depths. She pushed off against the side of the desk, propelling her body out from beneath it. A starfish clung to her hair as she swam to the surface.
This place…. so much rushing water…
She emerged from the depths and gasped for air. She was less than a foot below the first floor of the aquarium. A huge chunk of the building was missing. The damage extended up a few stories directly above. After a brief respite, she dove beneath the surface several more times, searching for remnants of her enemy. She found nothing more dangerous than a small shark.
“So much for fire,” she said, climbing from the water at last. “This is why it’s foolish to act impulsively. The reckless rarely get the chance to regret.”
But Inferno is not truly dead. Not yet.
Rivia rolled her eyes. “Give me a moment to rob some store. This tattered, soaking dress just won’t do.”
She found it a mere block from the place it had spawned.
Rain fell in earnest as emergency responders swarmed toward the ruins of the aquarium. One by one, lingering flames were extinguished. Although the citizens mostly stayed away from the worst of the damage, many now braved the streets, surveying the wreckage. They found a different city than the one they had awoken to. Walls were smoldered. The husks of exploded vehicles littered the streets. It was devastation the likes of which few had ever seen.
Amidst such carnage, no one paid attention to the small woman in a yellow rain coat.
Despite the debris, she quickly found the place the glob of magic had appeared. A small trail of ash led away from where Inferno had exploded, granting Aevyriel his visit. The woman followed it, and it led her directly to the nascent demon.
It was a glob of flesh no larger than a pigeon, hiding beneath a toppled mailbox. Rivia pulled it out and held in in front of her. Its body dangled in her hand. It trembled, squirming in vain to escape her clutch.
“So, you can feel fear after all,” she said. “Natural. It was fear that made them burn me. They were right to be afraid. So are you.”
What kind of monster are you, Rivia? That lil demon is only a few hours old. It hasn’t done anything to hurt anyone. Not yet.
“It hasn’t,” said Rivia, wrapping the demon in her small hand. It was faintly hot.
She clenched her fist around it. It evaporated in a puff of smoke with a small sob.
“And it never will.”