I hit the ground running like there was hellfire at my heels when in fact it was down the street ahead of me. It boiled up from the sidewalk just passed the bakery; charring an apartment building and making the windows explode. Really stupid people crowded the street, staring fixedly at the column of magically enhanced flame. I say stupid merely because all this attention would probably end up making my job infinitely more complex. It’s surprising how hard it is to fight something that can summon hellfire without causing a ruckus; pedestrians certainly wouldn’t make things cleaner.
I didn’t see the car until I was rolling over its hood, but I scrambled to my feet as I came down to the street. Skidding to a halt I looked the pillar of fire up and down, noticing the slightly purple tint to it. It was definitely demonic fire of some kind but looking around I didn’t see anyone actively chanting to get it constantly flowing like this.
Taking out my cell phone I hit six on the speed dial. It rang once before a recorded voice picked up on the other end.
“Hello, you’ve reached the underworld service center. Hola, usted ha llegando al centro de servicio del infierno. If you know your party’s extension, please press one. Si usted sabe su extensión de partidos, aprieta el uno por favor.”
I hit one with a sigh.
“Please dial your party’s extension, followed by the pound sign. Llame por favor su extension de partidos seguida por el signo del libras.”
Punching in six, five, nine, three and then the pound sign I groaned as some droll elevator music started whining through the receiver. I bounced on my heels as the fire continued to slag the building in front of me; I could hear sirens off in the distance but unless the fire department had become significantly more supernaturally savvy I doubted they would accomplish anything.
Finally a board voice picked up on the other end. “Damage control.”
“Hey! Frank!” I spat, “I got hellfire on third and Lumbard coming from an unknown source.”
“Whaddya need Mr. Mortagole?”
I scratched my head for a second, the sirens were getting closer. “What I really need is a time stop.”
There was the briefest second of stunned silence. “Mike, you know you’re not cleared for that, not after that thing with…”
“I know, I know! The thing with the yak.” I cut in, “But look, just get the big man on the phone. There’s civis up here, I need to contain this before the fire trucks show up and get in the way.”
There was the clattering of a keyboard on the other end and I heard a printer firing up. “Mike, you still there?” asked Frank after a minute.
“Yeah,” I said with no small amount of strain in my voice. Portland’s bravest were at the end of the block and coming in fast.
“You got your time stop, but…”
“Thanks Frank, you’re a lifesaver.”
“But it’s not from us Mike, this just became an Overworld thing.”
Pedestrians froze in mid-step, the fire trucks stopped as they raced toward the roaring flame and even the fire itself stopped though the energy that rippled through it seemed to make it bulge outwards.
As the moment around me froze, I said some choice four letter words. The line on my phone cut out, which is what usually happens during a time stop, but the glorious arc of white light erupting from the overcast skies was something new. The gloriously blinding figure descending from the light was one I’d seen a dozen or so times before though.
Shielding my eyes as the figure came toward me I shouted up, “Hey! Mind turning down the light show? Some of us aren’t avatars of divine other-worldly forces.”
The lights dimmed as the figure approached there was the soft clink of plate mail as her feet touched to the ground with the weight of a feather. I looked up with a smile.
“How’s it going Jessy?”
The majority of her body was covered in form fitting plates of gleaming steel trimmed with gold; even her face was mostly covered by a helm that concealed all but her mouth. To top it all off she was adorned with a pair of gossamer wings that flexed as she landed. She was also equipped with a massive shimmering rune-bladed bastard sword that was slung behind her lower back.
She smiled back at me. “It’s Tau now Mike, you know that. Jessica never suited me anyway.”
I grinned at the young girl all dressed up in armor. It hadn’t been so long ago that the archangel Tau had been Jessy Lassik, an eighteen year old girl from Ohio. She’d been into online gaming, writing poetry and collectable card games; now she guarded the ley line that stood as the border between Earth and the places in the universe where monsters came from. A certain investigator for the Underworld may have been involved with her ascension, but I don’t like to brag.
“You know you’re right,” I said with a smirk, “Tau does suit you. It beats the hell out of that name you used to go by in Counter-Stri…”
Tango coughed and cut me off, using her official voice. “So, what’s going on here Mr. Mortagole?”
“Hellfire shows up in my town, who you think is going to be first on the scene?”
Tau turned to look over at the fire that stood suspended as it coursed into the apartment building. She approached the fire carefully, extending a gauntleted hand outward and lightly brushing her fingers against it. A silver light flowed around her hand for a moment before fading.
“Any ideas?” I asked after a moment, coming up close behind the archangel.
She jumped slightly, a hand going to the hilt of her sword. This made me grin all the harder. The members of an organization called the Ley Line Patrol Division, more commonly known as archangels, weren’t that much different from me in the sense of their job description, there were just more of them. Twenty-four in all and all of them half-mortals, just like me – humans that had died but were brought back to serve a higher (or lower in my case) calling. Jessy, Tau, was by far my favorite of the bunch.
She wasn’t as far removed from her humanity as the rest. Gamma was a bit of a prick and Alpha took his work way too seriously.
“The source is local.” said Tau, taking her hand away from her sword with slow deliberation. “I can’t pin it down, but it has to be close.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I figure some geek warlock got his hands on some mojo and turned it on his landlord or girlfriend.”
“You just assume it’s a man?” she asked cynically.
I glanced at where her eyes would be. “Nine times out of ten.”
It was a sad fact, we dudes tended to turn to dark magic a lot more often than the women folk. Not because of our innate nature or anything, but most of the time men just though it was cool.
“You’re probably right…”
“Not really.” said a new voice coming out of nowhere. It trembled with a barely contained laugh and scrapped across my ears with a high rasp.
The cackling started before the man walked out of the frozen shadows. He was about my height, maybe a bit taller, but built far stockier, with broad shoulders that were barely bound by his flowing black trench coat. He filled out the villain look with a pair of black cargo pants and dark leather combat boots that went up his calf about half way.
His face, from what I could see in the weird light of the time stop, was a network of scars, making his original features all but invisible. One thing I noticed though; was that all the scars seemed to originate at one point on his cheek where a branded mark stood out eerily in the hellfire’s light. The man’s eyes were his starkest feature though - they probably would have stood out if had been a moonless, hellfireless night. They were a sickening yellow and they glowed - which, granted, I’ve seen on so many creatures that it seems like it’s a basic feature for most supernatural predators. On a human though, it was more than a bit perturbing.
“Uh… Hi.” I said lamely as he approached with a manic grin on his face.
Tau had already drawn her sword and was holding it low and back with both hands, ready to cleave upwards at a moment’s notice.
“State your name mortal!” said the archangel harshly, “Are you responsible for this hellfire?”
The man chuckled, low and evil. “Mortal? Heh, sweet-cheeks I haven’t been mortal since before you were even born.” He stopped before us, cocking his head to one side and leering passed us at the column of flame. “As for the hellfire, well…”
Suddenly he dropped into a fighter’s stance, swinging out his right arm and clutched at the fire which moved at his gesture despite time being frozen around us. Laughing as he did it, Chuckles pulled his hand in towards his chest, making the hellfire collapse forward atop Tau and myself.
Tau, with a few pounding wing beats, was off the ground and diving at Chuckles, her sword leaving a trail of light as it whistled through the air.
I wasn’t nearly as nimble.
The last thing I saw before the fire fell down on top of my head was Tau lifting her blade to chop that fucker in half. Then everything was just burning and pain. In those first few moments, as I felt the first layer of my skin crisp away, I could also feel a surge of energy rising up through my feet and infusing my whole body. It was like a kid’s very first taste of a caffeinated beverage, kind of charged with a sweet aftertaste.
Screaming with pain, I waded out of the fire. All my cloths had been turned to ash, leaving me naked, but as the pain began to subside I could feel my epidermis peeling itself back over exposed muscle.
I flinched and blinked several times, my brain still a little fried from the painful overdose of fire. Maybe it was my cerebral cortex still misfiring signals, but the first thing I thought I saw as my vision cleared was Chuckles still standing where he had been, but with one hand holding Tau’s sword at bay.
I blinked a couple more times and shook my head.
Tau roared, rearing up and back with one flap, before surging back down with a horizontal slice that would have cut a tractor in half, but it was stopped suddenly as Chuckles caught the blade with a hand and laughed maniacally.
I clenched my fists and felt my knuckles crack as I ran forward to help the archangel. She was just rearing back for another swing as I came in, wearing nothing but my anger, and slugged Chuckles in the face with a good solid right hook.
Now, normally I don’t hit humans that can use magic, my little boost in strength that the Underworld affords me when I’m fighting things from beyond the ley line tends to leave more than just bruises on run of the mill mortals. So color me surprised when my punch connected and didn’t send the guys head flying off his bulky shoulders. Instead it felt as though I’d just punched a particularly evil brick wall. His head snapped to the side, but his feet didn’t budge.
Swiveling his weird eyes back at me, he just smiled before delivering a viscous uppercut that caught me right on the jaw. I went sailing back into a parked car which thudded up on two wheels as I hit it and made a me-sized impression in the driver’s side door. I dropped to the pavement, spitting up blood and a few teeth that I could already feel regrowing in my mouth – the car behind me was kept suspended in the air as the time stop enveloped it again.
I shook my head and stared up incredulously at the dark-clad psycho. He just grinned and clenched his fist, sending the torrent of hellfire at Tau who was trying to get the drop on him.
“Jessica!” I cried, scrambling to my bare feet as she became awash in hellfire.
Gritting my teeth, I sprinted at Chuckles, lowering my shoulder in a rugby-style tackle. I could feel more power from the Underworld surge up through me as I made contact. I caught him in the stomach, which admittedly still felt like a brick wall, but this time I popped him up off his feet and drove him back several feet before going down with him to the hard edge of the sidewalk.
Struggling up, I got up to the right level and did the only thing I could think of in the brief moment I spent thinking. I drove my forehead right into the bridge of his nose. There was a sickening crack and the man’s head was sent backwards as his neck bent at an unnatural angle. A moment passed and slowly I stumbled up to my feet and tottered backwards onto the frozen street. Glancing around wildly, I looked for where Tau had fallen.
The archangel lay about a dozen yards away, laying face up in the ruins of a few newspaper boxes. Hobbling over I let out a long sigh of relief when I got close enough to hear her breathing; they were short ragged gasps, but it meant she was still alive – though I’m not sure if alive is the correct technical term for what we were.
I knelt down beside her, trying to assess the damage when I heard a series of cracking sounds behind me.
Narrowing my eyes, I turned slowly as I quietly muttered, “No fucking way…”
Chuckles was already standing, his hands on either side of his head as he jerked it back into place. I glanced back at Tau quickly, the armor she wore had absorbed most of the damage and I could already see the little exposed skin she had healing the burns as florescent waves of white light ran under her skin.
The man in black started laughing again, cricking his head left and right, popping the joints in his neck. “I like you kid,” he said with mirth, “that was quite the stunt you just pulled. What’s your name?”
Standing slowly, I turned back to Chuckles and took several steps forward, my nakedness very apparent. “Mike Mortagole,” I said simply, “The Underworlder.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “The Underworlder?”
“Yeah.” I shot back, “And what about you? Got a name or do I just have to call you ‘laughing psychopath’ in my report?”
His smile turned modest and he placed a splayed hand on his chest. “Me? Oh, I’m no one of consequence.” The grin turned wicked again. “My mama named me Cain though, Jericho Cain.”
“Right,” I drawled, “So, what is it you want here Chuckles? Revenge? Or maybe you’re just the type for wonton destruction?”
“Chuckles! Ha! I like that. No, nothing so simple as revenge or mayhem, not that I don’t enjoy this kind of thing.” He started walking toward me, closing his fist and making the hellfire rumble up into a curtain behind him. “No - mother’s coming back. I’ve got to make space.”
Cryptic. But I was used to cryptic in my line of work.
I was just deciding whether or not to try and keep questioning him or pop him another one in the face when the clarion call of a war horn sounded out behind me. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that Tau had gotten onto one knee and was clutching a small gold trimmed horn to her lips. It exploded with sound that a girl her size, archangel or not, should be able to produce. It rang through the air and made the windows of the cars still on the street explode outward – the glass settling in the air once the time stop had sapped their momentum.
Finally showing some other emotion beside manic glee, Cain’s eyes widened with anger. “A damn Overworlder as well?!” he shouted. The hellfire behind him roiled and began to lose some of its integrity.
Around us the sky began to erupt with beams of shining light, each one carrying its own archangel. I counted eleven in all.
I grinned wickedly at Cain as I saw what little color his face possessed drain away. “That’s the problem with being the Underworlder,” I said aloud, “No backup. But I do tend to make some friends in the right places.”
Cain’s gaze shifted around at the descending ring of armored archangels, each carrying their own variation of Tau’s rune-weapon.
Looking back at me with a hard dark look, he spoke softly so only I could hear him. “Looks like now aint the time for this Underworlder, but I’ll be back. And next time, I’ll bring some friends.”
Then he did the villainy thing and stepped quickly back into the warped shadows behind him, his body losing definition as he was consumed by the darkness.
“Yeah, you better run!” I shouted after him, shaking a fist for added effect.
When I’d completely lost sight of Cain, I sagged and let out a long sigh. Collapsing onto the sidewalk, it became painfully obviously that I was still naked. I say painfully, because bits of asphalt and gravel were now digging into my ass. There wasn’t really anything I could do about it at the moment and at least the time stop was still holding.
“Mortagole.” said a stern voice above me.
I looked up with a mild bit of disgust at the archangel coming down to alight near me. “Michael.”
Overworlder Prime, designation Alpha, archangel Michael was the chief field officer of the LLPD and a bit of a prick. He made me hate to share a first name with him.
Michael landed with a light clanking of plate mail. His armor was far more bulky than Tango’s, his shoulder plates swept back and flexed gently with the curve of his wings. His weapon of choice was a huge runic mace. His mouth became a creased line.
“I suppose you’re the one responsible for this Mortagole?” said Michael in a fatherly tone that really grated on my nerves.
I watched blandly as the other archangels hovered around the damage done by the hellfire; silvery light emanating from their outstretched hands. The rubble and property damage began to undo itself; bricks slid back into place and glass that had remained suspended by the time stop sliced back inwards, creating whole panes with a weird slink sound.
Finally, I looked back up at the lead archangel and smiled demurely. “Oh, you know me Michael, always summoning up hellfire in the middle of my own town.”
Snarling, Michael shot, “Listed Underworlder, I don’t know how things are done down in that festering pitch hole you call an office, but those of us who actually serve a higher calling don’t cop an attitude towards our superiors.”
I rolled my eyes and slowly stood up, rising up to about even height with the archangel. Despite his armor and my complete lack thereof, I wasn’t intimidated by Michael. “Listen Skippy, you know damn well that I didn’t start that fire. Just ask Jessy…”
As I spoke, the female archangel came up behind Michael, using her bastard sword as a kind of staff to help her limp along. Overworlders didn’t heal nearly as quickly as I did; breaks and burns that would take minutes for me to recover from might take her the better part of a day for her.
“He’s not lying Alpha.” said Tau, her breath coming in harsh ragged gasps, “There was another. A man I think, his face scarred beyond recognition. He was the one controlling the hellfire.”
Michael turned. “Tau? You can corroborate the Underworlder’s story?”
“Yes sir.” replied Tau sharply, her voice still sounding strained.
The lead archangel game me a bitter look, like a bad taste had just hit his tongue. “That doesn’t stop the fact that trouble seems to follow you like a hungry cat Mortagole. There is barely one recorded earth-bound incident in the last ten years where you haven’t been involved.”
Now, I wasn’t about to tell this world class prick that by the same means that he’d acquired wings and his fancy armor I just happened to be around when the supernatural shit hit the fan; it was just another aspect of the job. So instead, I said something witty and profound. “Fuck off Michael; I don’t have to take shit from you. I answer to Lou and Lou alone.”
He snarled and for a second I thought he was going to try and crack in my skull with his mace, but after a long moment, he turned and walked away, growling to himself.
Tau, struggled towards me as I collapsed back down onto the curb. I let out a long, shaky sigh and put my head in both hands. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as macho as the next guy, but even in a fair fight I wasn’t sure I could have actually taken on an archangel and won; the fact that I was naked certainly didn’t help either.
I heard a faint tinkling and clanking of plate-mail and looked up as Tau removed her helmet, revealing the face of Jessy Lassik. She was cute for a teenager. All the angst and sleep deprived nights had been erased from her face when she’d answered the call to become one of the archangels, it made her look younger though at the same time there was a sense of responsibility about her now that was definitely a new trait since her death.
“Makes you wish it was still just vampires and zombies, eh?” she said wearily as she sat beside me.
I shuddered and laughed slightly as I said, “No, no more zombies. A demon or two, sure, I enjoy a good demon, but no more zombies; never again.”
She smiled and looked at me with tired eyes. “Yeah, I heard about Wisconsin.” There was an awkward silence between us and I looked over at her carefully. She’d gotten older in the year since her death. Not physically, that wasn’t possible anymore, we servants of the powers didn’t age properly anymore, but I could see the stain of the job was getting to her. I knew I probably looked the same, despite covering it up with all my sass, this kind of job was tiring as hell. And yes I did intend that pun.
Finally she said, “You know you’re naked right?”
I smiled. “It had occurred to me, yes.”
Looking upwards, Jessy said, “Well, I’d fix that if I were you. I’ve got a feeling that Alpha’s going to...”
Before she could finish I felt time start to flow again. Looking around I saw that all the other archangels had finished their maintenance jobs and left already, leaving the street looking like it had as if there hadn’t been a giant column of magically induced hellfire leaping about only minutes before.
People in the street were suddenly caught off guard as they were suddenly confronted with a very normal looking sidewalk and an apartment building totally devoid of flaming wreckage. Everyone on the street started milling about in confusion as the fire trucks that had been skidding down the street found that they were no longer needed and Portland’s bravest started casting pissed off looks around for prank callers.
Nobody noticed the naked man and the armored angel sitting on the sidewalk despite the late afternoon sun.
“Hey,” I said, turning to archangel, “Wanna get a bite to eat? I’m starving.”
Glancing up again for a moment, Tango said, “Well, I’ve got some paperwork to finish…” Looking back at me, she smiled. “But I suppose leaving it for an hour or two wouldn’t hurt.”
Standing up, Jessy’s armor shimmered and faded, leaving her wearing a bright yellow sun dress. Her wings were still present but folded neatly around her back.
Standing up with a wheeze I said, “Nice trick.”
She grinned at me and I could tell she was purposefully not looking down. “Well we don’t all get super strength and a wolverine-like healing factor.”
I shrugged modestly as we started down the street, making for my apartment a couple blocks over. “Yeah well, right now I’d take the magical wardrobe over nigh immortality. It’s harder to convey a sense of badassery in your birthday suit than you may think.”
She laughed. “So, where did you have in mind?”Cocking my head up in thought I said, “Well, first I need to swing by my place, but really…” I paused and stuck my tongue out slightly. “I was thinking pizza.”