It was hot.
The light and heat from the scorching sun above us was intense, it was taking a toll on all of us.
Whoever said that hunting was easy was a world-class moron that never went out of the city.
You might ask: “Hunting? Why would you need to go hunting?” And I would answer that with a blank expression because I couldn’t believe your stupidity. There wouldn’t have been any need to hunt for food 60 years ago perhaps, but today it was pretty much a profession. Supposedly, the world from the past was very different in comparison with the one today; I’m only 15 years old, so the only thing I’ve known throughout my life is the wasteland…and the heat, and the monsters.
Yeah, can’t forget the monsters.
According to the probably-not-so-reliable records of history, of which a lot of was passed around by word of mouth, the world went to shit.
It’s not like people are going to be too worried over Sunday’s newspaper when they are running from behemoths, giant insects and the occasional human infected by the so-dubbed “vampire monsters”, which had really nothing to do with the old legends of the blood-sucking undead, someone just tried to be clever and failed. They are basically monsters that infect people and turn them into violent, human-shaped, baby monsters.
It sounds more like a zombie to be honest.
“Hey kid” A voice snapped me out of my thoughts and I turned to look back at the owner of the voice. He was a mountain of a man, light complexion, thick skinned, muscled enough to make Heracles, the Greek hero of myths, look like a prepubescent boy, but still somehow had a belly big enough to put a wrecking ball to shame. He had dark brown eyes and a receding hairline, what was left of his hair was as dark as his eyes, some facial hair adorned his face in the form of a scruffy beard. He was wearing a dark gray overall that had some old stains from what seemed to oil and maybe coal.
“You ready to head back?” He asked in his deep and gruff voice, despite how he sounded his tone was not unkind. I nodded silently and stood up from the rock I was using as a resting spot. We had stopped for a breather after successfully killing a pack of coyotes that were fighting a lone salamander.
Monster class 101
Now, when you hear salamander you probably think of a little lizard, probably not even as big as a wiener dog. If that was the case then the coyotes would have had a really nice appetizer. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case
Sucks for them.
The salamander had the same shape one would expect from the previously mentioned reptile that lived more than half a century ago, but it was enormous. About 2 and a half meters tall while standing on all fours, and over three times as long. It had red-hot scales with black patterns spreading through its body. It’s eyes were weird, they glowed different shades of red, yellow, and orange, but they kept the same coal colored pupil at the center. It’s tongue was forked and it’s claws were a dark obsidian color that looked like it could rip right through metal, same as his teeth.
Oh! And it breathed fire. Wasn’t that fun?
Getting close to them was a no-no. So I let the rest of the group I came here with (aka the guys with the guns) take care of it.
Trying to stab a giant, fire-breathing, man-eating lizard wasn’t on my top things to do for the day.
Or rather, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of getting eaten and roasted, or roasted and eaten, whichever the stupid lizard preferred (Salamander’s innards work in a weird way).
Anyway, after the guys gunned the beasts down, we put their bodies in bags (in the case of the salamander four bags so we wouldn’t burn our hands by touching it with something that wasn’t our leather gloves), and then in the chariot we attached to an ugly, rusted red car. It was poetic, in a dumb way, a piece of trash dragging an obsolete method of transportation which held our food, which happened to be some rabid dogs and the world’s most overgrown garden snake with a bad case of pyromania. I wanted to make a joke about human progress, but it would be too easy.
I stretched my limbs and back and heard some satisfying “pops!” coming from my back. I sighed contentedly and once again looked at the boulder with arms that spoke to me. “Right, we should head back. We got plenty of meat for this week, so those old farts shouldn’t pester us to get more food for at least a few days.” I said as I walked up to him, my eyes and head going up as I approached. He really was that tall.
He snorted in laughter when he heard my reply. “And people wonder why I spend time with you.” His laughter died down after a few moments, but he was still grinning, amused at my antics I’m sure.
This was Robert, the local mechanic and blacksmith of the city I lived in, Rosa. Some people thought that because the town was somewhere in the border of what used to be the United States and Mexico we should have a name in Spanish, that it would be poetic somehow. It was kind of lame in my opinion, but hey whatever tickles their fancy. Robert thought so too, but he didn’t exactly care either. He was more interested in his machines and in forging blades and other such old style weaponry, he loved to forge swords and Warhammers for some reason. I attributed it to him being a big fan of Greek mythology; he was probably interested in weapon making because of it.
I rolled my eyes at him and started walking back to the crappy vehicle we came her in, while Robert yelled at the rest of the group to come over so we could head home. Everyone got inside the car, but I had to get in the chariot, right beside the carcasses of our soon-to-be food supply, the adults didn’t like a “snot-nosed brat” taking up their space. Robert came to my defense but I just climbed in the back, ignoring the laughter of some of the members of the group.
“Annoying bastards” I thought to myself. There wasn’t much else I could do. There were five of them, and if one felt particularly trigger-happy…well, one more orphan wouldn’t be missed. Though they might get scolded for wasting bullets when not killing monsters.
I sat down in the wooden floor of the chariot, which was a bit warm from the sun. I looked at our “trophies” and saw that the bag where we stuffed the salamander had a bit of steam coming off from it, the heat of the salamander’s body eliminating what little moisture existed in the dry desert air. Even after they die salamanders are hot enough for someone to cook some meat and eggs on their scales. The thought made me snicker a bit.
I just waited while the car started and we made our way back, enjoying the wind that hit the back of my head.
We finally got back, I noted as we got to the giant wall made of scraps of metal that went in between small buildings, big enough that no humans would be able to go through without us opening the door, and lined with sound traps to activate the alarm in case of a monster trying and/or succeeding in climbing over it. Not a fool-proof mechanism, but certainly better than nothing.
It must have taken an hour to finally reach the gates. The sun was at its highest point, there were no shadows. So we arrived at midday. It was a bit earlier than we usually got back, but hey, more time to sleep, I figured.
We (as in the whole of the hunter group) navigated through the town until we got to a white building, decorated with crosses and some other religious imagery. This was the food and supplies building, otherwise known as the church. Nowadays there usually wasn’t much religious practice, so the higher ups decided to use the building for something useful.
Good call, I say.
The rest of the group separated and went their own ways, including Robert, they were probably going to sleep, like I would do after getting some lunch, or to reunite with their families, if they had any.
And so, with a plan in mind, I headed to the center of town.
The center was pretty much the only hotspot in this hole of a town. Only place with a restaurant, a bar that also passed off as a restaurant, and a strip club with a bar that also passed off as a restaurant for a few hundred miles. Surrounding the town there was desert, monsters, regular rabid animals, “bandit groups”, and some more desert.
Not exactly pristine living conditions out of this town.
Not that the inside of town was perfect by any means. We had a bit of a violence problem, but if the people responsible went overboard they would be thrown outside and become some creature’s happy meal. Plenty of buildings were just rubble or ruins, no one having taken the job to restore them. In general it was filthy, not just the town, but the people as well. Most people don’t usually have the chance to take a shower or a bath. The smell clinging to some of the streets, the ones where the people who didn’t work and haven’t gotten kicked out occupied.
Not that it was their fault that they couldn’t work, some of them were old or sick, and others were missing limbs from the time they could work. It was simply shitty luck.
All in all, it made a pretty pitiful image. It wasn’t good for first impressions.
I started walking towards the only restaurant that didn’t serve alcohol and didn’t have women who would try to seduce me for a bit of cash. I didn’t break my stride when a couple of homeless guys started giving me dangerous looks. Not the you-look-like-a-nasty-delinquent kind of look I was used to receiving from other adults, but more like a you-look-like-you-would-be-fun-to-rob kind of look.
I just unsheathed a few inches of the hunting knife that was always by my waist kept in a leather harness, concealed by my hooded cloak. With the weapon now in sight they backed off. They probably figured it would be more trouble than it was worth.
I kept walking until I got to a familiar building. Fairly big, with quite a few windows, not very fancy, but at least it was clean. I walked up to the double-doors of the building and opened them.
I stepped inside the restaurant and looked around. It wasn’t very impressive, just like its exterior. There were some other people sitting at the various tables in old-looking wooden chairs. It wasn’t a particularly enthusiastic atmosphere, but it was what we got. Most of the people inside were adults, usually in groups of three and four, and the youngest people must have been five years older than me, they were in bigger groups, around five or six people. In total there must have been about 16 or so people. I recognized some faces, but gave them no mind.
I went to sit by the counter, my usual spot, and waited for the owner to come. She was probably in the back, chewing out the cook for taking too long or something. They really needed some employees; maybe a cute waitress would lighten the mood (Or probably not).
Then from behind the door came a woman. She must have been around her forties, with long black hair she kept on a bun on the top of her head (why did she insist on an old Japanese hairstyle, I would never know). Her face was starting to show the signs of aging, nothing too big, a couple of wrinkles here and there and some accumulated fat. Her mouth twitched with a smile when she saw me and her light brown eyes widened a bit. She was wearing a simple white shirt and a long brown skirt, both faded with age.
“How did the hunting go, squirt?” She asked teasingly, with a half-smile half-smirk.
This was Nancy, the owner of this restaurant (as I said before), one of the adults I got along with. I guess you could say we were friends. She knew that I hated being talked down like I was brat, so she did her best to get under my skin whenever I came to grab a bite.
Thankfully, I knew how to get under hers.
“Not too bad, old hag.” I responded back almost monotonously. But if you looked into my eyes I’m sure you would see them twinkling with amusement.
She huffed and crossed her arms over her chest as a sign of annoyance, obviously not pleased at my jab at her age., which I pointedly ignored.
“I’ll have something to eat, anything will do. I’m starving over here.” I said with a smile that I knew just annoyed her even further.
She just shrugged after a few moments of glaring at me, and went to the back of the building, no doubt to start barking orders at the cook. Hopefully she wouldn’t spit in my food, or tell the cook to do so, just to get back at me.
I sat and waited util I heard the sound of the double-doors swinging opening and looked over my shoulder too see if some acquaintance of mine just came into the restaurant, or to check if I at least knew this person.
As a matter of fact, I did not.
He was young, and exuded an air of confidence; he was a full head taller than me so he must be around 190 cm or something like that. His hair was extremely short, as if he shaved all of it off just a few days ago and a dark blond color, almost the same color as faded gold. He didn’t have any facial hair. I didn’t see his eyes very well, but they reminded me of something I couldn’t put my finger on. He was wearing a dark set of clothes, which was odd considering how hot it was. He wore a dark blue, almost black, aviator jacket with an upturned collar, a black shirt with no other feature and a dark set of jeans that were surprisingly clean. Most people didn’t have the luxury of having clean clothes.
He started walking up to the counter just as Nancy was coming back with my food. That didn’t take long, so they must be scraps from some other costumer. I and my big mouth kept me from a fresh meal. “Idiot” I muttered to myself softly.
Oh well, one had to do with what they got.
“Hello” She greeted the newcomer politely and he smiled back at her. “What will you be having?” she asked, ready to take orders. He took a brief look at me and then at the plate that was in front of me, some meat and baked potatoes, (I didn’t even notice Nancy put it there) before pointing at it. “I’ll have the same as him.” He said, sitting down to my right, one chair of space between us. Nancy nodded before going to the back once again.
We just sat there silently, me eating and him waiting. Nothing was said and it made me nervous. I wish I had a glass of water, the tension and the sudden heat wave didn’t make me feel very comfortable. IT felt like it was hotter inside the building than outside in the direct presence of the scorching sun, which was nonsense.
Nancy came back with the food for the stranger and then went to the back again, muttering something about taking a break.
The guy didn’t touch his food, he just sat there as if contemplating something. Then he stood up and started inspecting the place, as if admiring it for the first time…or the last time.
He directed his gaze towards me “What’s your name, kiddo?” he asked nonchalantly. This guy was seriously freaking me out for some reason, but I didn’t show it, at least I hope it didn’t show. I replied “Well, what’s yours?” Trying to sound calm was at least one of the things I succeed at when I’m scared.
The man chuckled, as if he found my evasion of his question and my mild act of defiance cute.
His face twisted a bit as he gave me a smile I found more menacing than friendly. “You can call me Val, kid.” I didn’t respond for a second, but then answered “I’m Jake”
He looked pleased at the apparent accomplishment of making me say my name, way too pleased. “Hmmm, so Jake. Nice name.” Then he looked disappointed for a second, as if he had to do something that would take up his time, before going back to his unnerving joyful expression once more. “You’re an interesting one, kid. You have potential.”
I was completely confused, and it showed on my face. He smirked at the look on my face, enjoying my ignorance, before holding up his hand in front of him, as if he was looking at something. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to happen, but it definitely wasn’t what happened next.
Above his palm, orange and red flames hovered, dancing to some invisible wind I couldn’t feel. Then the flames turned into a sphere that started to flicker, as if it was indecisive on being transparent or visible.
Next, with both hands surrounding the sphere, he made a motion, as if ripping apart the flames.
He did just that.
The last thing I saw before I blacked out was an orange-red wall of energy.
——————————————————————- (30 minutes later) —————————————————————————
When I woke up all I could hear were screams, gunshots and explosions. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I decided to let the drowsiness I felt wear off. I looked at myself and saw that part of my cloak was blackened and burnt, but still wearable, my pants less so but still offered better protection from the elements than my bare skin. I had a few burns in my arms, but nothing I couldn’t stand. Then I looked at the building itself, though it looked more like one of the many ruins that filled the city now. There was a giant hole in the wall, where the doors used to be; big enough to let a train through, the counter and the tables and chairs were burnt to a crisp. What’s more the people were sprawled on the floor, some of them seemed to be knocked out, and others were unlucky enough that they got crushed by parts of the ceiling that fell off. I was lucky to be in the side of the store with the least structural damage. I heard more explosions and gunshots, so I decided to head out.
I saw an incredible scene.
A few blocks from where I was standing, I saw that the men from the city who could fight were facing off against the strange fire-man. There must have been at least a hundred spread throughout the whole avenue, some of them were on the rooftops, using sniper rifles to attack the unnatural threat, others were behind barricades, very close to him and wielding shotguns and handguns. Others were more desperate, hiding behind cars and throwing anything in sight at him.
But the incredible thing was the fire guy –Val, I corrected myself-, he was simply standing there. Bullets went through him, as if they were being shot at the same flames he wielded. As I got closer I noticed that all of the metal projectiles were glowing a vivid shade of orange, signifying how hot they were after going through this flame-creature’s body.
Then he finally decided to retaliate.
On his hands flames came to life, but instead of shaping them into a sphere like he had done at the restaurant he just threw them at everyone in sight. Content to see the result of his handiwork in the way of burning corpses. One fireball was so big and strong that it blew up the whole roof of one of the few skyscrapers, where the biggest group of snipers was stationed at.
He kept going at it, killing left and right, while I just watched. Terrified, but also mystified by the power this man controlled. With power like that it wouldn’t be difficult to survive in this world; you wouldn’t have to stick to the rules just because someone else was older and stronger than you.
Eventually he seemed bored when a big group of fighters decided to flee in horror of this apparently invincible enemy. He started walking in my direction, which was also the direction most of the fleeing men were going. I turned to run along with them, but one of them crashed into me, making my face meet the pavement in the way no self-respecting man wanted to be.
I shook the cobwebs and pain off before getting up once again, with the intent to run in mind.
That was until a line of flaming cars fell from the sky in front of me, completely blocking off the only exit from this hellhole.
I just stood there looking in disbelief once the realization hit me. I was going to die at the hands of this pyro-freak. There was nothing -literally nothing!- that could stop him. There was no getting out of this one, no asking for help. Just letting it happen.
I fell down and just stared at the flaming wreckage in front of me.
Behind me, the men were advancing on Val, 20 of them still fought, the flame man just kept walking in my direction until he was a few meters behind me. He said nothing as bullets kept going through him, and miraculously none of them hit me. I turned to look at him.
He just stood in front of me, I was frozen in place. He was staring at me, as if I was a very interesting pet project. Then he turned back, now looking at the group of fighters that stayed. If there was something I could say about them is that they were brave to the point of stupidity, or maybe it was stubbornness, but in the end it wouldn’t matter.
Val suddenly dashed towards one of the men, flames were dancing in the spot he was in just a second ago, bullets flied and he was in arm-reach of one of the fighters.
The fighter tried to slash at him but Val simply grabbed his forearm before grabbing his face. Everyone froze at the sound of the man’s earth shaking scream. Then Val just threw the man at a group of his comrades, who struggled to catch him, but managed to do so.
They were asking him if he was okay, but he didn’t respond. His eyes were wide open and he was breathing, so we didn’t really knew what was happening. Then all of a sudden his eyes widened to impossible proportions and his mouth opened so wide it should have dislocated his jaw, letting out a silent scream. His eyes and mouth filled with a blinding orange light before he –and the other 5 fighters- were engulfed in an explosion that shook the ground.
When the dust settled down all I could see was a crater, there weren’t any blood stains, and no remains either.
“This guy just turned him into a bomb” I thought to myself. Despite my resignation to death, cold sweat started to go down my neck and temple.
Val looked at this handiwork, once again, pleased with himself. Then he turned to the men who were left. He said only three words, but they were enough to convey the message. “Feed my flames!” I couldn’t see his face, but I was sure it was twisted into a savage grin. He held out his right arm vertically, palm facing the sky, and flexed his fingers, almost like he was preparing to hold something.
A flame covered his hand and started morphing, changing, shaping itself until it looked like a perfect cylinder. It was a hilt, a hilt of fire. The flames didn’t waver, nor danced, as if they were actually solid.
Then, from the top of the hilt even more fire sprouted in a long trail of flames that were so hot that they almost looked white.
It was a whip of flame.
Even with all the terror I was feeling I couldn’t help but think to myself “What an odd weapon.” Whips were usually just torture devices…or sexual toys, but that’s two different kinds of people for you. At any rate, it wasn’t a conventional weapon. “I guess fire is going to mark the difference here.” I thought as I observed the instrument of death.
Unconventional as it might be, it was undeniably dangerous. The flames were created so much heat that the pavement beneath Val’s feet melted and started bubbling from the insane temperature; strangely enough, Val didn’t fall into the pool of construction material.
Then he swung his weapon.
The force was such that sections of the street and buildings were sent flying, and the heat was so great that it left trails of molten rock and metal all around, as he cackled insanely. Val wasn’t even aiming to hit the remaining fighters; he was just destroying everything around him. Cars were flipped and melted through in a matter of milliseconds, the metal dripping and falling to the ground almost as smoothly as water.
An unlucky man that couldn’t dodge was the victim of the fiery whip. He was bifurcated, no other way to say it. From his right shoulder to his hip. There was absolutely no blood, the flames cauterized the wound immediately. His weapon, an assault rifle, as maimed as him, lay on the ground. Even though I expected organs to gush out, but nothing of the sort happened. I thought that perhaps they were burned out of existence by the unholy weapon wielded by this madman.
The few men that remained went into another panic, shooting anything and everything In Val’s general direction, as if they could simply shoot him out of existence.
Then, from behind one of the cars that were flipped during Val’s wave of whip swings, one of the men came running towards the flame wielding nutcase. Val noticed him and swung down his whip, the arc of fire burning through oxygen and making it hard to breath. The man rolled to the right and hid behind a piece of rubble that fell from one of the buildings.
Val swung horizontally this time, with the purpose of burning this man in half. The whip cut through the rubble, and the top of it went flying in the air, but no body.
Then the man vaulted over his previous cover, ignoring the pain in his left hand from touching the superheated rock. Running with all his might, he pulled his weapon of choice from his holster. A modified shotgun, one customized to reduce recoil and use with just one hand if necessary, at the cost of losing power. It was ingenious, given how he burned himself to gain time; going around the rubble would have wasted precious milliseconds.
He was in front of Val, the barrel of the shotgun right in his face. Val’s previous swing carried too much momentum for him to do anything but take a shot to the face.
“BANG!” I heard the unmistakable sound of the shotgun being fired. Not that I needed it as confirmation I just saw it happen right before my eyes after all.
Val’s head turned into a shower of ambers, flying in the wind. No blood, no brain matter, nothing but orange wisps of flame.
Both I and the brave fighter held our breaths, unsure of what would happen next.
Then the dreaded moment came. More fire came out of Val’s neck, slowly taking shape. First it took the shape of a head, then it looked like a featureless doll’s face, like one of those you would find in a mannequin for clothes, and it finally took the shape of his face, slowly but surely gaining color.
This man…no, this thing –because it couldn’t be human- it wasn’t mortal. It couldn’t be defeated.
Val took a look at the dismayed fighter, took his whip and pointed the side of the hilt that didn’t have the whip coming out of it at his face.
He said a single phrase, the only way to show that he acknowledged the effort of this brave warrior “Nice try” It wasn’t said in a taunting manner, like he grudgingly respected this man’s effort to kill him.
Then he ended it.
Out of the hilt of fire came a blast of flames so powerful that it looked like a laser beam from one of those old comic books from over a century ago. It was as tall as Val, and twice as wide. It devoured everything it touched, buildings, cars, corpses, nothing was safe from it. The Warrior certainly wasn’t.
It finally stopped when it hit one of the city’s protective walls, producing a small earthquake and a massive explosion I could see from where I was in the ground.
The wall was three miles away.
I just looked at the spectacle still unbelieving. The rest of the men –the few that remained- were just as broken as me, resigned to the end of their existence.
Val then walked away from me until he was in the middle of the street. “Well, I think it’s about time we wrap this up.” He said in a carefree manner, as if everything that had just happened -everything he had just done- was just a Sunday stroll in the park. It infuriated me, it made my blood boil. Despite the terror I felt, I was angry enough to give it my all in a suicide attack.
He just kept inspecting the wreckage in front of him, as if he was looking at an ancient piece of art. I grabbed my trusty knife from its usual place and advanced slowly, once I got close enough I yelled with anger “AHHHHHHHH!!!!” and stabbed him right through where his heart should have been. He really wasn’t expecting me to attack him when his back was turned -or attack him at all for that matter-, if his surprised face was anything to go by. To my surprise, when my knife introduced itself to his body I saw him wince. I had actually hurt him.
But well, when you’re stabbed in the heart you don’t “just wince”. I failed to notice my mistake until Val’s fist met my face. I saw stars -whole planets- from the impact, and crashed on a sidewalk. I could feel my face burning; there must have been an imprint of Val’s fist in my burned skin or something.
I shook my head after a few moments and tried to focus, but my vision was still blurry. The stinging pain in my face didn’t make things any better.
Once my head stopped swimming I looked at where Val was standing. He was looking at me with a frown, but then it slowly turned into a smirk. I saw that by his feet was my knife, glowing from the man’s deadly flames and starting to lose its shape. There goes my favorite weapon.
My eyes went up to his face as he had his arms by his sides, palms facing outwards. “Well, this has been fun, Jake. But I have to end this. You know, people to meet and places to be, you know the drill.” His stupid monologue had an effective way of making me unleash my anger, but I really wasn’t in any condition to do so.
Then, the one event in my life I will never be able to forget happened.
In both of his palms flames manifested, both monticules of fire kept waving and compressing and shaping themselves. By the time they stopped actively moving it looked like Val had two miniature suns in his hands.
He looked at me in the eye and started speaking, his arms going up in an arch slowly until they were perfectly parallel to each other “I am fire…”
Then his arms came down and both mini-suns met. His eyes, glowing with power, looking into my own.
“I am death!”
At that moment I recalled what his eyes reminded me of:
The resulting explosion caused a dome of fire to consume the entirety of the city, miles upon miles of concrete metal and wood hit by the unholy power of the sun-explosion. And as the dome of fire went higher and higher, if one looked at its center they would see the culprit behind the destruction fly away, using his explosion as a way to get himself off the ground and using his flames as thrusters in each of his limbs, a rocket of fire in both palms and soles.
He went up until he reached the height of the clouds, then cut off his flames. Falling with his arms extended to go down with some semblance of balance, and admiring his own “show of power” even from as high as he was. He kept falling for at least twenty seconds then once again expelled flames from his limbs to keep afloat and started heading north. “Let’s see what you’ve got, kid. Things are gonna get more interesting from here on out!”
And he flew away in a cloak of flame.