<I’m never doing that again.> Gerry groaned and propped himself up on his elbows.
He was lying face-down in the dirt, naked, and his body was careening back and forth from burning up to bone-rattling chills.
“Sh…sh…shit.” His teeth chattered during a cold spell.
“It’s trying to find its equilibrium.” Seere was sitting against the wall slicing an apple with the still blood-covered silver knife. He popped the slice of fruit into his mouth with a smile. “You’ll be fine in a few minutes. Walk it off.”
Gerry tried to do what his Lord commanded, but his legs felt weak and he fell back on his face.
“Sir, what happened?” The last thing he remembered was something about new bodies and then pain.
“Transcendence happened, Gerry.” The Lord of Hell sliced off another piece and offered it.
When he stopped shaking, Gerry popped it in his mouth. Pleasant warmth blossomed through him as the tangy nectar of the apple flooded his taste buds. He immediately felt better.
“Transcendence?” Gerry was going to need more than that to understand.
“Transcendence,” Seere repeated. “On Earth you were a human. You had a soul than anchored you and served as a collection point for æther. When you prayed that æther went to my father, and when you died your soul and æther found my realm. As a member of my infernal legion you were still human in that regard. I allowed your soul to hold more æther so you could fight and win in my name, but you were still nothing more than a flesh container. Now…you are more. You are æther. If you want to be technical you are a blasphemed version of an angel, but it’s the best I can do.”
Gerry flexed his hand as he got to his feet. He didn’t feel any different, and when he looked up he had to look way up to look at his Lord’s scarred face.
“Is your human husk whittled by the Carver herself.” Seere finished for him.
“Then why do I feel so weak?” Gerry felt even more naked and powerless without his armor, which had mysteriously vanished.
“You’re like an aware newborn baby. Don’t trust your new senses until you fully understand them.” He advised. “But if you really want you can transform into your true form.”
“How?” Gerry very much did not want to feel weak while still in Hell.
“Look within yourself.” Seere closed his eyes and breathed deeply, so Gerry copied him. “Find your purpose, feel the heat, embrace it, and be you.”
Gerry frowned as he closed his eyes, but he followed the instructions. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long.
He found it. A small ember the he carefully stoked into a flame. He felt it catch, he felt the heat fill him, and everything seemed to explode.
The feelings of powerless weakness vanished. He felt power coursing through his veins. Power unlike anything he’d ever felt before. Gerry opened his eyes and he was almost at eye-level with the Lord of Hell.
“Yes.” The power was more intoxicating than any drug he’d ever done on Earth or in Hell.
He looked down and turned his midnight black hands over. They felt like normal flesh, but looked like the Infernal Iron of his old armor. The blue light glowed eerily from his body’s fissures, and the infernal writing seemed to waver like a flame. But now he could look directly at it. He couldn’t read it, but he felt he’d be able to understand it in time.
“Now release it. Carefully push the heat down, back into the core of your being, and exhale,” Seere instructed.
Gerry struggled to give up the power. <Who would ever want to be without this?> But he knew he needed to be able to go back to his human form.
A fifteen foot metal man was a little conspicuous, even in Hell.
He felt like a balloon that someone was squeezing the air out of. He felt himself shrink and weaken until he was nothing but a weak mortal again.
“That wasn’t so hard.” Seere smiled. “Give it time and your human form won’t feel so useless.”
“The more æther I gather…”
“The stronger you’ll be.” Seere confirmed.
That made Gerry feel better, and he didn’t hear any lies in any of his Lord’s statements.
“Your infernal form will also change as you will it.” Seere informed. “The Carver just gave you the basic model. The more power you gain and the situation will dictate how you choose to redefine yourself. But a word of warning.” Seere’s voice dropped into a serious tone. “Other creatures of æther will sense you when you reveal your true form. Your human form is hidden from them, even when you wield limited power through it. But your true form will bring Divine retribution down on you if you’re not prepared, and I will not be there to help.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
<Don’t use it unless I have to.> Gerry got the message.
“I’m glad you understand because you need to begin your mission as soon as possible. Your subjects are waiting for you on the other side. So prepare yourself.”
<Prepare myself for what?> Gerry thought as Seere reached down and grabbed him by the shoulder.
Everything changed, and Gerry felt his whole body twist. Whiplash struck his entire body. And then his bare feet were on cold asphalt, and he puked all over the place.
“The first time is the worst.” Seere gave him a few pats on the back, which drove Gerry’s weak human body to its knees.
Then he felt it. It was just a tingle in his head, and he would have missed it if he wasn’t paying attention, but he was intimately aware of everything at that moment.
“You stupid fucking whore!”
They were close. He pinpointed the fight a few floors up in the building next to them. The man slapped the woman across the back of the head, she stumbled, and he slapped her again across the face. The assault continued, but Gerry ignored it. He focused on what he felt.
He felt strength. Every time the man struck the woman, desire pulsed through the human. Gerry fed off the pleasure, he fed off the lust and the anger. And he didn’t have to do anything. He just stood there and soaked up the æther. It was as easy as breathing.
He was only slightly conflicted about the whole thing. Old Gerald wouldn’t have given a shit about the woman being beaten. Gerry didn’t feel some moral pull to help her. His truth-sense told him she was telling the truth about not liking being hit. He’d met plenty of women in the brothel that did like it, but he wasn’t going to come to her rescue. Hell was a cruel place, and he’d learned long ago to deal with his own shit. It seemed that Earth wasn’t so different.
“Do you smell that?” Seere took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
Gerry smelled rotting garbage, piss, and the faint hint of marijuana. “What?”
“That’s the smell of potential.” The Lord of Hell’s smile split his face.
“Where are we?” Gerry looked around, but he didn’t notice any of the skyscrapers.
<Duh, you’ve never seen a building bigger than a few stories.> He shook his head. He hadn’t been on Earth in a long time and things had clearly changed a lot.
“This is Eden!” Seere laughed. “But more specifically, Charlotte, North Carolina, and it’s currently ripe with strife and tension.” Seere looked hungrily at the city. “You will build your powerbase here. Eliminate the competition, and then expand my empire.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Gerry felt the mission solidify in his gut about the same time the man knocked the woman unconscious.
<No…wait.> It was the other way around. The woman had gotten to the kitchen, retrieved a knife, and killed the man.
That led to a rush double anything the man had given him. <Murder feels good.> A shiver worked through him as the flow of æther came to an abrupt end.
“Ahhh, you’re escorts are here.” Seere nodded toward a limo that had pulled into the mouth of the alley. “Do not fail me, Dux Gerry.”
There was a muffled flutter of wings and Seere was gone, which left Gerry standing naked and alone in the middle of an alley in downtown Charlotte.
The limo’s headlights fell on him and the car came to a sudden stop. The back doors opened and two figures stepped out. Even with the lights trained on him he could easily make them out. One was a tall, lean, older man. He wore a three-piece black suit and a top hat popular on a certain president long after Gerry died. He walked with a cane, but it was an accessory not necessary. The most striking thing about him was his skin. It was so pale, and contrasted so sharply with his black suit that it was off-putting.
The second figure was skipping instead of walking, and was dressed in a pleated schoolgirl uniform. She couldn’t have been older than a high school senior. Her white blouse looked dirty against her impossibly pale skin. Her bleach blonde shoulder length ringlets bobbed up and down as she skipped toward him. Her lips were painted a deep crimson which made her fanged smile that much more predictable.
< Soulless.> Gerry knew all about the creatures.
The creatures were once humans that were tainted by a curse set upon the land by another Lord of Hell, Satan. The plan was to have them feed off God’s precious humans to remove one of the sources of his power, but it backfired. Only ten percent survived the process of having the souls ripped out and plunged into Hell. Of that remaining ten percent only one percent had the control necessary to survive more than a year without killing themselves or their fellow Soulless. So they never became the scourge that Infernal Lord wished. They still did his bidding, or the bidding of other Lord’s they’d sworn their allegiance to. Their loyalty was to whoever could feed them.
With their supernatural strength and speed they made good soldiers, but only during the night. They were utterly powerless during the day, and although sunlight wouldn’t kill them, it rendered them just as easy to kill as a normal human. And with their iconic physical characteristics they were easy to spot, and certain groups of humans had made a habit of hunting them for centuries.
The two Soulless stopped a few feet from Gerry and studied him while he studied them. Gerry turned to the old, regal-looking man. But the little schoolgirl beat him to it.
“Bring the car around, Alfred.”
The man gave the petite girl a short bow and walked back to get the car.
“So you’re the new Dux.” Her eyes traced his naked form. “You’re better looking than the last one.” She even winked at him.
<First leadership test.> He glared at her and hoped she got the message.
“Don’t ‘little girl’ me you giant meatbag. I’m a hundred and seven. I run this shit here. I might look like teen Barbie but if you mess with my shit I’ll fuck you up.”
<Plan B then.> Gerry smiled at her and then moved.
The Soulless might be much stronger and faster than humans, but even in his human form Gerry was better. The schoolgirl had skill through. She was able to sidestep his grab, but that brought her right into the path of his fist. It pummeled her into the ground hard enough the crack the concrete. She recovered by rolling away, but not quick enough to avoid his second grab.
She clawed at him, but it didn’t do anything. He lifted her up by her throat. She tried to kick him but her pumps missed him by a foot.
“Let me be clear,” Gerry’s voice bordered on a growl. “I run this shit. You were just renting it until I got here.”
The little schoolgirl glared daggers at him and snapped her teeth like a wild animal. And then she giggled. It was short, bubbly, and totally the opposite of the short burst of violence they’d just engaged in.
“Good.” She stopped struggling and Gerry let her down. “I’m looking for someone to lead us. The old Dux was more interested in sticking it in me than putting me to work. I just want the opportunity to serve.”
Gerry heard the truth in her words, and he liked the fire in her; even if it had been aimed at him a second ago.
“I’m here to get shit done. As long as you do that we won’t have any problems.”
“Yes, Dux.” She bowed submissively low. “I’m Victoria, leader of my coven. I am yours to command.”
“I accept you and your coven, Victoria.” Gerry walked past her toward the limo. “I need clothing and a ride to our base of operations. We have work to do.”
“Yes, Sir.” She skipped back to the opposite side of the limo. “Welcome back to Earth.”