Hellfighters, p.1Alexander Gordon Smith
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(we know your name now).
Welcome to the family!
Her foster mom had always said that hell was a place you walked to on your own two feet.
It wasn’t a lake of fire; it wasn’t some fairy-tale land where sinners broiled in their own remorse, poked at by devils. No, it was just where you ended up when you went too far in the wrong direction, when you were too stubborn or too stupid to turn back, to admit you were wrong.
Hell was right here, and she was about to walk in through the front door.
Amelia stepped into the road, into the flashing neon lights reflected in the rain-slicked asphalt. The reflections blazed orange and yellow, like flames, but she was shivering as she bolted to the far sidewalk, to the building that sat there. It was a run-down walk-up, hunched against the night like a sleeping beast. The door was red. Bright red. It didn’t belong here, the way that nothing belonged here, the way that she didn’t belong here. She reached out for it and paused, the rain a cold mist that played with her fingers. From somewhere above her came a noise, something that was half shout and half scream. It was cut off with a dull thud, then silence again, like the building was trying to lure her in.
She swallowed and glanced back over her shoulder at the street, at the lights of Astoria behind her. It was nearly eleven. Her mom wouldn’t even know she was missing until the morning. She could sneak back home, curl up under her blankets. Sure, home wasn’t heaven or anything, but at least her mom cared.
But he was here.
Sniffing against the cold, Amelia turned back to that big red door and pushed gently. It swung open like a crocodile’s jaw, too easy, too eager. Inside was a lobby drenched in sulfurous yellow light, mailboxes to one side, a fire extinguisher to the other. A narrow hallway led into darkness, stairs visible at the end of it.
Something detonated with a soft thump, like a distant explosion, and the whole building swayed. Amelia rocked back and forth, and for a moment she understood that she wasn’t really here, that she was somewhere else. The lights flickered, the building settled, and suddenly she wasn’t alone.
“I knew you’d come.”
He stood in the lobby, his eyes gleaming shards of obsidian.
Her stomach lurched like a startled animal, like it meant to bolt right out through her skin. He smoothed his hair back and smiled, holding out his hand. A gold ring glinted in the artificial light, winking at her.
Hell was a place you could get to only on your own two feet, and she used them now, walking toward him as confidently as she could. He opened his arms, slowly, and she thought of a bear trap being set up to spring. The building rocked again, swaying from side to side as if the world was trying to shake her from its back. Then the floor seemed to tilt downward and she slipped, sliding into him. His hands snapped shut around her neck, crushing, choking, and she screamed.
“You’re mine now,” he said, his lips against her ear. And the rush of panic that roared through her was like standing in the path of a subway train. She fought him, slapping her hands against his shoulders, but he was an engine of stone and steel, his arms ratcheting tight around her throat.
You’re not here, she heard herself say, but the fear was as real as it had ever been. He was going to kill her. Why had she listened to him? Why had she agreed to meet him? Nobody even knew where she was. Nobody would know where to look for her.
She opened her mouth, sought the flesh of his chest, clamped her teeth down. This time he was the one who screamed, and he pushed her away, his face warped by fury. She staggered back, spitting out the wet taste of copper. She wasn’t in the lobby anymore, she was inside his apartment. Candles burned, the air was thick with cigarette smoke and something sweeter. Then he was on her, charging like a bull, blood spilling from the open mouth she’d left in his chest.
Hell was a place you walked to on your own two feet. She ducked beneath his sweeping arms, pushed through the ugly smell of him. There was a lamp beside his bed, big and gray. It didn’t have a shade, just a dead bulb. She reached for it without thinking, knowing that there was nothing she could do to stop herself, knowing that this had already happened. She might as well try to stop the sun from rising.
It was all he had time to say before she turned, swinging the lamp like a bat. It was almost too heavy for her to lift, but once it was moving she didn’t have to do anything, she let momentum work for her. He was running too fast to stop, so blinded by rage that he didn’t even see it. They met like colliding trains—
—the base of the lamp a wrecking ball that stopped him in his tracks—
—and dropped him to the floor as if he had never truly been alive—
—as if he were a puppet stuffed with sand and sawdust, strings snapped.
—she watched the lamp hit and she watched him fall, again and again and again—
thunkthud, thunkthud, thunkthud, thunkthud
—she would be watching it forever—
thunkthud, thunkthud, thunkthud, thunkthud.
This was hell, after all. She’d walked here on her own two feet.
Thunkthud, thunkthud, thunkthud, thunkthud.
* * *
The room disintegrated, rocked into rubble and dust. Pan rose from it so fast that she couldn’t even scream, burning into darkness like a rocket ship. She sat up, her heart rattling like a tired old motor, trying to open eyes that felt as if they’d been glued shut. Something impossibly hot but icy cold tingled at the ends of her fingers, the air full of the smell of electrical charge.
The world tumbled back into place and she blinked at it, her mouth gaping. Truck was right in front of her, the big guy’s bald head gleaming in the light from the train car. He was holding her shoulders with the strength of a bear. She tried to speak, found that she couldn’t, like that part of her brain had been left behind in the dream. Instead she lifted a hand, seeing brilliant blue sparks run back and forth between her blackened fingers like snakes of light, slithering into nothing.
“It’s okay, kiddo,” Truck said, holding on to her for a moment more before letting go. “Just a nightmare.” The whole train seemed to rock as he sat back against the seat. He uttered a soft, almost subsonic laugh. “For a second there I thought you were gonna fry us all.”
Pan flexed her fingers, shaking loose another handful of sparks. They drifted away, sputtering out on the floor. Truck was right to be afraid. If she’d lost control in her dream then she might have taken out the entire railcar.
It was the risk you took when you had the power of the devil inside you.
Just like that it came rushing back—everything, every scrap of her life, every single footstep on th
“Come fight for us,” he’d said. “You’re tough, you’ve got a good heart, you’re a soldier, and right now we need people who can fight. Ostheim has given me permission to recruit, and I want you. Because there is a war raging as we speak. A war you’ll never hear about on the news, you’ll never read about in the papers. But this war, it will change the world. Change the world, or destroy it. Door number one, I leave you here and you take your chances in lockup on Rikers Island while you await your trial, and then a prison upstate once you’re convicted. Door number two, come with me and save the world.”
Door number two had led straight to the Engine.
She saw it now, that madness of moving parts buried deep beneath the streets of Europe. A machine that could not have been built by human hands, a machine that could rewrite the code of the universe and give you anything you asked for. Literally anything. She saw herself make her first deal—incredible strength and impossible speed—and felt the joy of it, the knowledge that she was more than human. And the terror that after 666 hours the deal would come to an end, and the Engine would send its demons to collect her soul.
Only the Lawyers kept her safe, the quantum mathematicians who broke into the Engine and cracked the code of the contract. Not that their success was guaranteed, of course. When you used the Engine, there was always a chance you would end up being dragged kicking and screaming into the flames.
Because that’s where her foster mom had been wrong. Hell was real. Hell was a world of fire. And once they took you there, you’d be screaming for the rest of time.
“Pan?” Truck said, pulling her back. She glanced at him, tried to find a smile. When she couldn’t, she turned her attention to the window. It was pitch black outside and her reflection stared back at her like a ghost. The train thumped forward on the tracks—thunkthud, thunkthud, thunkthud—carving through the night. The big guy sniffed, cleared his throat. “You sure you’re okay?”
She snorted at the absurdity of the question. She had never been so far from okay. Her group, the Fist, had been all but wiped out. Their Engine—the only thing that gave them power—had been taken. Their Lawyers had been butchered, their other Engineers assassinated. Now the dark side in this war—a bunch of world-murdering bastards known as the Circulus Inferni—possessed not one but two Engines. Their leader, Mammon, was practically unstoppable. His goal wasn’t just to win the war. He wanted to use the Engines to open up the gates to whoever created them. He wanted to bring the Devil back to Earth. It was only a matter of time before he worked out how to do it.
And now that the Circulus Inferni had both Engines they would be gunning for the Fist’s last four Engineers—her, Marlow, Truck, and Night. And when they found them, there would be hell to pay.
“Where are we?” she said. Truck shrugged, staring at the black canvas of the window.
“No idea. Germany maybe. Europe is bigger than I thought it was.”
He stretched, then turned to the shape curled up beside him. Night was fast asleep, almost lost in the folds of Truck’s jacket. There was no sign of Marlow.
“I sent him to the café car,” Truck said, patting his enormous stomach. “Haven’t eaten in like forever.”
“You ate five baguettes and all that disgusting liver spread back in Paris,” Pan said. “That was a few hours ago. I don’t think you’re going to starve.”
Truck grumbled something back but she ignored it, checking her watch. There was no time there, just a countdown. The sight of it made her blood swim cold, as if the night had leaked into her veins. 586:12:13:58. Twenty-four days and change until her contract ran out and the demons came for her. Usually she wouldn’t be concerned. Twenty-four days was enough time to crack half a dozen contracts. But with no Lawyers, and no Engine, she was powerless to escape. These could be her last twenty-four days on Earth, and what would come after was so, so much worse than death.
“How much longer till we hit Prague?” she asked.
“Few hours yet,” Truck replied. “You might wanna grab some more shuteye.”
Drop down into the past again, into that apartment, into the blood. Thunkthud. Yeah, no thanks.
“Nothing from Herc?”
Herc had been inside the Engine when the Circle had breached the door. He’d been the only one to make it out, but they hadn’t heard from him since. Please be alive. She willed the thought out into the dark, hoping it would find him. Please be okay. Truck shook his head, a glimmer of worry passing across his poker face.
“Man, I wish Marlow would get a move on,” he said. “I’m gonna waste away over here. You’ll have to stop calling me Truck and start calling me, I don’t know, Smart car. Or Scooter.”
Despite everything, Pan almost smiled.
“Shut up, Scooter,” she said.
She stood, stretching, hearing her joints pop like Bubble Wrap. The car was pretty empty, a handful of men and women in suits and a bunch of guys at the far end who’d been drunk and merry when they’d joined the train but who were now all fast asleep and snoring. A young guy two booths over looked up at her, smiling, and she threw a scowl back at him until he turned away.
“I’m gonna go stretch my legs,” she said. “Going mad sitting here.”
“Well, if you reach the food car grab me a Coke and a Snickers, yeah?” said Truck, shifting his weight. “Big one. Keep me going until Marlow gets back.”
She threw him a tired smile. Her entire body ached—partly from the battle in New York, partly because it’s what the Engine did, drained you of everything other than what you had dealt for.
“You ever think maybe it’s not the Engine you need to worry about, it’s the cholesterol that will kill you?”
“We all got our demons,” he said.
“Amen to that,” she said, holding on to the back of her seat as the train rocked.
“Hey, kid,” Truck called out. “You be careful out there. Don’t go far. Never know what you might find.”
Only she did know.
“Hell,” she said.
“Huh?” said Truck.
“Nothing.” She pushed away from the chair, set off for the car door.
Hell was out there.
And once again she was walking into it on her own two feet.
DEAD MAN WALKING
Marlow wasn’t sure how it was possible to get lost on a train, but somehow he’d managed it.
He reached the end of yet another car, the door sliding open automatically. The train felt like it was going at three hundred miles an hour, bucking so hard that twice now he’d almost spilled into the laps of other passengers. He pushed through into the next car, scanning the handful of people there. Nobody looked familiar.
He was positive he’d set off against the direction of travel. But he’d reached the end of the train with no sign of a café car, and now that he’d doubled back it felt like he’d come too far. But he would have noticed if he’d passed the others, wouldn’t he?
Bracing himself against the restroom cubicle, he scrunched his eyes closed and rubbed them with his fingers. Christ, he was tired. Everything still ached from the battle in New York. His body felt like it had gone through a meat grinder then been fed to a pack of dogs. Not to mention the fact that the Engine was still sapping every ounce of energy that wasn’t being used to fuel his powers.
He opened the restroom door and stepped inside, the overzealous air freshener punching him in the nostrils. The face that stared back at him from the graffiti-etched mirror was a corpse’s—too gaunt, too bruised. It was like he’d been buried for a month before clawing up from his grave.
Dead man walking.
He didn’t even know how he’d ended up here, a soldier in a secret war. It didn’t make any sense. His brother had been the hero—blown up while serving his country in the Marines. Danny had always been the brave one, the one who walked fearlessly toward chaos. Their mom had always made it clear that Marlow was nothing like his brother, that he didn’t deserve to live under the same roof. And that was true, wasn’t it? After all, here he was, hiding in the restroom and wishing he never had to leave.
He perched on the toilet, reaching for the metal sink and grasping it. He took a breath and then squeezed. The metal buckled like it was tinfoil, and when he pulled his hand away the imprint of his fingers was left, a sculpture in steel. He still had the powers the Engine had given him—the strength of ten men, the ability to run faster than sound—but for how much longer? The Circle would break his contract as soon as they could, then he’d have nothing. Mammon and his soldiers could crush him and the other Engineers as easily as a kid stamping on ants.
Not Pan, though. Pan had been promised a different fate. Her contract would be left to expire, and once that happened the demons would come for her.
That’s the price you paid when you pissed off the bad guys.
The train lurched from side to side hard enough to crack his head off the wall. He grunted, bracing himself until the rocking calmed. A storm was brewing in his gut, but it wasn’t as if there was anything left in there. He’d emptied himself out on the plane journey over. Plane journeys. They’d chartered a ride out of Pennsylvania, a tiny propeller plane that kicked like a rodeo bull and didn’t have a restroom. They’d had to fork out another hundred bucks when they landed in Kentucky just for the cleanup. From there they’d taken another jet-prop to Chicago, then bought their way onto a cargo plane heading to Paris. Somewhere in those fourteen hours in the air Marlow was pretty sure he’d chucked up every major organ in his body.
The train wasn’t much better, but at least they were on solid ground.
Hellfighters by Alexander Gordon Smith / Horror / Fantasy / Young Adult / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes