Hellfire was exactly what you’d expect from a half-human half-demon vigilante: dark and brooding. I swear he always looked like he was posing for the latest issue of Tiger Beat, as one of those moody metahumans who so often landed on the cover.
A lot of things really added to the picture. For instance, he’d worn the same leather jacket for the past six days. And I’d only known him for six days. For all I knew he could have been born in a ring of fire, wearing that jacket while demons around him sang “The Circle of Life.”
Then there was the fact that he always spoke in a whisper. I swear to God, yesterday when we were both watching TV, he whispered, “Can you pass the remote?”
Who whispers that? What reason could you possibly have for keeping the remote a secret? I thought a lot about it, and I bet he has honestly done the dark vigilante whisper thing so many times that he’s forgotten how to speak like a normal person.
And of course those dark crimson eyes of his sent a strong message: “Look at me, I’m so sad and angry.”
I guess it’d be safe to say he was attractive. But that’s not because it’s true or anything. It’s just that all words are safe to say. You know. Because words aren’t lethal.
Okay, so he was pretty hot.
My thoughts were led elsewhere by Blue, the leader of our merry band of misfits, the one we counted on to keep us organized. Her photographic memory meant that besides being able to copy any fighting move she saw, she also managed to remember all the rules we needed to follow.
I’m not going to lie. I was listening to her, but I was also distracted by her beautiful short blue hair as she spoke: “First thing’s first. Does anyone here want to go to college?”
Cathect broke into a laugh, sliding down our white couch and pushing his bare feet farther across the coffee table.
“What’s so funny?” Blue asked, sitting across from him on a hard-backed chair.
“In this economy?” he said. “I’m a magician. I’m one of those guys who pulls bunnies out of hats, and I still make more than most college grads.”
“A simple ‘No,’ would have worked, but okay,” Blue said. “How about you, Hellfire?”
“No,” he whispered. Short. Staccato. He was like that, saying what he meant and meaning what he said.
Imagine that. I sure couldn’t.
“Nano?” Blue said, looking at me.
“I like learning,” I said. “I probably want to go to college and maybe even get a master’s at some point, but I don’t know. I don’t think I can be a superhero and a college student, you know? That’s a lot of pressure.”
“Yeah,” Blue said. “I get you.”
With those four words, she calmed me down. She’d done that a lot over the past couple days.
“Second order of business–” she began.
“Second order of business is that I want a new name,” Cathect said. “I still don’t get why you guys won’t let me call myself Cannaboy. Honestly, I feel that weed has been a very strong influence in my life, and I want my name to honor that.”
Blue sighed. “Someone else want to take this one?”
“You’re an asshole,” Hellfire said. “Shut up.”
That made Cathect smile, which was kind of frustrating.
“Thank you,” Blue said. “Second order of business: we should figure out what our rogues gallery looks like. Anyone have any nemeses we should know about?”
Cathect and I both started to say something. We looked at each other until I said, “You go.”
“I’ve got, like, twenty demons up my ass,” Cathect said.
“Do you maybe want to rephrase that?” Blue asked.
“No,” Cathect said. “There are just a bunch of demons who are pissed off at me, because I said I’d do things that I didn’t do.”
“Huh,” Hellfire said.
I was really worried, because of his demony-ness and Cathect’s jerky-ness.
But then Hellfire said, “You? Being an asshole? Never would have guessed.”
I laughed way harder than I should’ve.
“Cathect and I have a lot of the same enemies,” Hellfire said. “Most Christian groups don’t like me, for obvious reasons.”
“Is it the fact that you’re always wearing the same leather jacket? Because I’ve really been meaning to ask about that,” Cathect said.
Hellfire continued, “I’ve also tangled with the Cosa Nostra, the Yakuza, The Fourth Reich–”
“I think that’s enough for now, thanks. We’ll talk about where you can go into more detail soon. But first, Nano?” Blue said, looking at me.
“Uh, not too much stuff. There’s this group of businessmen who don’t like me because I may or may not have uploaded a bunch of viruses onto their computer systems.”
“Why would you do that?” Blue asked.
“They were giving some really messed-up kids superpowers, and I didn’t think it was right.”
“Sum Industries?” Hellfire asked.
“The CFO is a demon. We fight sometimes. They don’t like me, either.”
“Hellfire? Unlikeable?” Cathect said, “But that’s so uncharacteristic of you.”
“Okay,” Blue said. “This is a really good time to bring up why we’re talking about all this now, which is that the team as a whole is going to be open to attacks from each of the individual member’s rogues. So it’s a good idea for us to know about each other’s rogues. Therefore, I’ve asked Nano to come up with a system that’ll allow us to keep track of it all. Nano, can you explain that to us?”
“Yes, I can. It’s a Facebook page.”
Blue looked at me with maybe a hint of disbelief.
“What?” she asked.
“The group is called, ‘Secret Bad Guy Stuff’. As soon as this meeting is done, I’ll FB invite each of you to join it.”
“You’re serious,” Blue said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Why?”
“I thought you could come up with something more…” she stopped for a moment, looking for the word. “High-tech?”
I shrugged. “Didn’t see the need to reinvent the wheel. Anyway, I was busy with my other project, which is our–”
The lights turned red as a siren blew. Cathect jumped a little bit, but the other two remained calm.
“Alert system?” Blue asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“It’s working,” Cathect said.
The alarms stopped blaring as soon as I turned on the TV.
Agent 09 — a Metahuman Activities agent who acted as the team’s government liaison — showed up on the screen. She had soft blue eyes and long purple hair. She wore a stern look, but that wasn’t anything new.
I would know. I’m her daughter.
“Hello, superheroes,” she said, with enough distance in her voice that I knew she wasn’t really paying attention. The camera was positioned so that we saw her from the side, while she typed something on a computer.
“Mom,” I said. “You’ve got some blood on your right cheek.”
She stopped typing for a moment so she could wipe the blood off with the back of her hand. She tasted it, and then went back to typing.
“Nothing to worry about,” she explained. “Dinosaur blood. Some nut with the ability to talk to dinosaurs found his way to the center of the earth and–” she stopped for a moment, waving her hand at us like all of this was just too boring. “You can figure out the rest. Dinosaur Tyranny, blah blah.”
“Agent 09,” Blue said. “If you’re busy–”
“No,” Agent 09 said, “I’m not busy. Just writing a debriefing. I called you because most of the fighting has died down, and now we’re looking for stragglers. Besides, as your government liaison I’m required to check in twice a week. No excuses, except for Temporary Death.”
To tell you the truth, I didn’t talk to Agent 09 anymore, outside of these briefings. That wasn’t my choice, but I wasn’t exactly sad about it, either. If I didn’t talk to her, we wouldn’t have an agency liaison, which would mean that the agency wouldn’t fund us. And it’s not like they handed out supergroup charters to young groups all the time. I mean, how many young adults did they need running around stopping supervillains?
“What’s the assignment?” Hellfire asked.
“Our scouts have determined that a nineteen year old named Tim Marks recently tapped into a superpower: telepathy, to be precise. He’s holding four other men hostage, puppeting them. You’ve been assigned to apprehend him, as per the American Supergroup Charter. Is that understood?”
“Understood,” Blue said. Static showed up on the screen, which meant that Agent 09 had ended the call.
I turned off the television and let out a sigh. It felt nice being here, among all these people. I felt like I didn’t have to hide anything from them. I didn’t feel like they were hiding anything from me.
Well, except Hellfire.
“You alright?” Blue asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Just nervous about fighting, is all.”
“Alright, then. Yippee-ki-yay,” Cathect hollered.
“What?” Hellfire asked.
“Yippee-ki-yay,” Cathect repeated.
“What does that mean?”
“It means we’re bad-asses. Haven’t you seen Die Hard?”
“No,” Hellfire said.
Cathect shook his head, muttering “Philistine.”
“Let’s go,” Blue said, heading for the door.
If I’m being 100% real with you, I don’t have much combat experience. I mean, I have some. Just not a lot.
Most of the people I had to fight were dumb high school kids, wearing costumes but not really doing anything evil. They were less stabby killy villains and more the annoying prankster type. There was a school gang, though, and two of the kids had knives. So that was intense.
Once I had to break into a high security building, but I got in with hacking and luck, not brute force. (In my opinion, it’s a very, very good idea to stay away from big guys with guns. Or girls, for that matter. People, really. People with guns aren’t the sort of people I want to be around. Because they can kill you. With guns).
Anyway, my point is that I was pretty nervous, even though I was surrounded by some great fighters. I’d made myself an armored suit, so I should’ve felt safer, but I totally didn’t, because we were trying to sneak up on him, which meant that I had to leave my suit at home, because a loud clanky metal suit isn’t exactly anybody’s idea of subtle.
Blue must have noticed how worried I looked, because as we walked towards the art gallery, she grabbed my arm, whispering into my ear, “It’s going to be alright. This is just ordinary superhero business.”
That made me feel a little better. Ordinary superhero business. This was what people like us did, what our talents made us good at doing. This was what you did when you hung out with superheroes.
Okay. So it was just like ordering a pizza, or something.
But actually I’m terrified of ordering pizzas.
As we approached the art gallery, two guys stood in front of the gallery window, looking at one of the pictures.
“I dated an artist, once,” the first guy said.
“Really? What was that like?” the second guy asked.
“Interesting. Kind of weird, though. She painted a naked portrait of me, once.”
“That must’ve been hot.”
“At first, yeah. But it got weird. She spent hours on it. You know. A little paint here, a little paint there. Finally she finished it, and I asked her to show it to me.”
“Was it good?”
“It felt weird. Didn’t look right. So I asked her if I really looked like that. And she said she was inspired by Cubist painters. And I was like, ‘Yeah, but do I really look like that?’ She laughed. Broke up with me the next day.”
The four of us passed by the guys and entered the art gallery. Hellfire scanned the room, taking everything in as quickly as possible, probably assessing for any signs of trouble. He looked kind of like a military guy. I guess he’d lived a hard life, what with fighting demons all the time and everything. There was passion in his eyes, but also a lot of distance. I liked that he was distant.
It made him seem quiet. Thoughtful.
The first thing I noticed in the gallery was a cloak. I guessed someone wore it, but it was facing away from me and the hood was up, so I couldn’t actually see anyone. The cloak seemed to just hang there, filling the space. I thought that if I tried to touch it, I’d fall in. Like an abyss.
The cloak stood at the center of the canvas, which was mostly black but with a couple of white paint splatters. I thought the splatters looked like lightning, or maybe hope. I don’t know. Art is hard sometimes.
I looked back at my teammates. Cathect stood next to a brass statue of a naked lady. Her arms were outstretched, like she belonged at the front of a boat.
“Haha, guys. Look at this. Boobs.”
Sure enough, Cathect pointed at the lady’s boobs. I blushed, covering my face with my hand. Then I realized we must have really looked like a couple of dumb kids entering an art gallery. Which wasn’t so bad, as far as covers go.
“Funny,” Hellfire replied.
“And mature,” Blue said.
“What can I say? All comedy starts with observation,” Cathect said.
I was very busy not laughing at Cathect, when suddenly I saw Tim. He was a little overweight and had an awful neckbeard. He wore a fedora and one of those ironically ‘funny’ t-shirts that looked like it came from a comic book. What I’m trying to tell you is that he looked gross.
Almost worse, though not quite, were the four men who surrounded Tim. They formed a protective square around him. And they had on these douchebag-y sunglasses, either to make them look tough, or so you couldn’t tell that they were being mind controlled.
Tim caught me looking at him.
I looked away, then looked back. He was still looking at me.
That made me really uncomfortable, so I turned my focus over to the statue of the naked lady. Heart in throat, I said, “Actually, I like this statue. It’s, uh, you know. Realistic.”
“You really like it?” Blue asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
I glanced at Tim again. He smiled at me, leered at me. I felt like I was going to throw up. Blue put her hand on my back, whispering in my ear, “Hey, what’s wrong?”
My whole body went numb.
I don’t really know how to describe it, but I just lost all feeling. Everywhere. It felt like having a sleepy leg, but with my whole body. And I was still standing.
Blue wrapped her arms around me, but didn’t look very happy.
“What are you guys–” Cathect began to say.
It didn’t really matter. I wasn’t paying attention. I focused on Blue’s turquoise eyes. She closed them and leaned in, kissing me. She let out a comforting warmth. I almost felt safe. But I didn’t, because my body felt so weird.
That’s when I realized we were being mind controlled.
There was a great big roar, the sound of men fighting. Gunfire, and the sound of a man falling to the ground. A second. A third. A fourth.
Finally, Blue and I broke contact. I looked up at Tim, who was distracted by Hellfire charging at him. Hellfire was about twice his normal size, with flame and smoke flying off his fists. Tim’s four bodyguards all lay on the ground.
Tim threw his hand out, curling it into a fist as he stared Hellfire down. Hellfire stopped mid-charge and turned around. He looked at us.
Was Tim mind-controlling Hellfire?
“I’ve got this,” Blue said. “You guys take down Tim.”
Blue turned to face Hellfire. Looking afraid, she balled up her fists, ready for him to come at her. He threw a punch at her. She ducked, trying to kick his legs out from under him. It didn’t work.
“Shit,” Cathect said, taking out his Tarot deck. By his own admission, he’d stolen it from a small book shop only a few weeks ago. Still, it was pretty useful, with each of the cards possessing a different sort of power.
“The power of the Hermit Card should give you a forcefield,” Cathect said. He chucked the card at Blue and it sliced through the air. When it hit her, she became surrounded by a bright gold dome.
Blue punched at it but couldn’t get through. She yelled something, but I couldn’t hear it.
“Well, that was probably a mistake,” Cathect mumbled to himself. Hellfire struck the gold shield a couple times. Realizing he couldn’t break through it, he turned towards us.
“Yep, definitely a mistake,” Cathect said.
“Summon a demon to help us,” I told Cathect.
“They don’t talk to me anymore. You know, because I always lied to them.”
He threw a card at the ground, which caused a brick wall formed in front of Hellfire. The demon took it down with one punch.
I was about to try and help everyone when a shadow came and wrapped itself around Hellfire’s neck. The darkness seemed to affect Hellfire, who tugged at it. The shadow came from the cloak, which was worn by a girl.
She had a pale face and bright red hair. Her eyes were surrounded by a darkness that danced as she used her powers. They looked like living tattoos.
Hellfire ripped at the shadows. It looked like the shadow girl was struggling.
My heart raced. I started panicking. I imagined my friends dead. I imagined Tim killing me. I imagined Hellfire killing me. I imagined Blue never speaking to me again.
I picked up the statue of the naked lady.
I felt like I was going to throw up. I was shaking. Was everyone looking at me? No. No one was looking at me.
I threw the statue.
Oh god oh god oh god.
Tim turned just as the statue nailed him in the chest. He looked half-scared, half-hurt as he flew backwards. He hit the floor pretty hard.
I ran up to him. He looked unconscious.
I kind of kicked him one more time and said, “Fedoras are stupid. Who hasn’t figured that out by now?”
By the time I turned around to look and see how everyone else was doing, Hellfire lay on the floor, back in his human form.
Cathect took care of Hellfire, while Blue was over by me.
“You did it,” she said, “We’re okay.”
That didn’t make me feel any better. Actually, I felt worse. Even though we’d taken down the bad guy, my heart was still racing. It felt like everyone was looking at me. A small crowd had formed outside the art gallery. They were looking through the window. My vision was blurry, and I had a headache.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“Where’s who?” Blue replied.
“The girl with the cloak. The black cloak. She helped us. Is she dead?”
“No,” Blue said, “I think she’s fine. Probably left so she could avoid all the attention.”
I wish I’d joined her. I’d rather die than be here one more minute.